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"Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right--in the way that's best for us."
Do you really believe that, Mother?" Peter asked quietly.
Yes," she said, "I do believe it--almost always--except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I don't believe it, I know it's true--and I try to believe it."— E. Nesbit

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hespera-- Part Three

Hello, readers!  For those of you who missed it, this post is the third of four parts that constitute my first submission for Rooglewood Press's 5 Enchanted Roses Writing Contest.  If you haven't read it yet, try the first one here.

As I've mentioned before, Hannah Williams served as my beta reader for Hespera.  Her advice proved invaluable, particularly when she advised me to cut down on the size of the cast.  In the original draft, there were two other scholars in the library: intelligent Cicero and grumpy Tacitus (who both carried on the tradition of being named for real-life scholars).  I had already removed Cicero by the time Hannah read it, and she suggested that, instead of including another character (Tacitus), I expand the role of the library's slave, Prisca.  She was absolutely correct.

Hespera, Part Three

Book V:

The memory of Hespera’s beautiful, sickly sister haunted her daytimes and wracked her nights.  She pointedly thought nothing of the girl, dropping the scroll of her affection onto an inner table marked kappa.
            “You don’t owe her anything,” she told herself firmly, sorting through decadent, rhythmic poems she could now decipher.  And she knew it was true.  But part of her argued that Charis owed her something, and Hespera found herself restless to claim it.
            Her new friends trusted her very much.  Hespera slipped from the library late one night, her distinctive hair veiled with white cloth.  They set no watch: unwise, perhaps, but not surprising.  She felt that nothing could surprise her now, not even if the statues of the old queens leapt down from their plinths and told her to practice archery.  Then she was back on the paths through the hills of rock, feeling as though she’d never left, that they would leave her again on the rock for the dragon.  But there had been no dragon, just as she hadn’t met her death.  There had only been Leonatus….
            The streets of Epiphanes were deathly silent.  The pallor of sleep lay heavily through the streets, and Hespera, her hair veiled, passed through it like a shade.  She implicitly knew the way to the hateful villa in whose kitchens she had labored.  She could find her way to the arena with equal speed, but she was too sick at heart to return and see if Melanthius was still there, or if Themistocles had punished him as well.
            The marble steps to the villa were cold beneath her feet.  She wondered if it was an omen.  In the past, Themistocles and Charis would entertain late into the night.  She did not know why the house was silent now.
            She didn’t dare approach Themistocles’s bedroom, so she followed the dark hallways to Charis’s.  The pale curtain shimmered with moonlight; she brushed it aside.
            A small figure lay on the bed, barely breathing.  Her head fell back uncomfortably far, and pale hair was plastered across her sweaty face.  Gently, Hespera raised her head to adjust the pillow and smooth back the damp hair.
            The gentle touch woke Charis.  “Themistocles?” she whispered in a dry, rasping voice.
            “No.  It’s Hespera.”
            “Who?” Charis said, puzzled.  Then her slow brain remembered, and she trembled.  Hespera?  No.  I’m dreaming again.”
            “Not dreaming, sister,” Hespera said firmly.  “At least, I’m awake.”
            “But you’re dead.”  Charis turned her head away.  “I think you are.  I think I might’ve—I can’t remember!”  She gasped, breathless.  “Go away!”
            “Not while you’re sick,” Hespera said, nauseated by the illness in the room.  “Look at me, Charis.”
            “I won’t,” Charis muttered.  She looked heartbreakingly young, and Hespera felt her eyes fill again.  But she would not let Charis charm her way out of trouble.  That had happened too often in the past.  Instead, Hespera puzzled through the mystery of Charis, and she faced an answer that had frightened her for a long time.
            “You’ve… been using lead paint.”  The small form on the bed took a breath, and Hespera snapped, “Don’t lie to me, Charis.  There has never been a Soloni woman as fair-skinned as you, not even your mother.”
            “All right,” Charis said in a small voice.  “I’ve been using lead paint.  Elpis buys me the pellets, and I mix them myself.  Are you happy now?”
            Happy?” Hespera hissed, shattering the silence.  “You’ve been killing yourself slowly for pretty skin!  Is that supposed to make me happy?”
            But Charis cried silently at the raised voice, and Hespera clamped down on her next words.
            “Charis,” she whispered.  “Why did you betray me?”
            “Because I am afraid,” Charis whispered.  “I’m so, so afraid, Hespera.  Can you understand that?  Do you realize that I would change the past if I could?”
            Her sister closed her eyes again, either unconscious or asleep.  Hespera smoothed back her hair with a shaking hand.  She didn’t know if Charis could hear, but she still bent over her and whispered, “Charis.  He has no right to make you afraid.”

The walk back to the library felt significantly longer than the journey had been.  Her feet slid on loose stones that moonlight failed to illuminate, and the faint, penetrating scent of rot hung over everything, like some creature had wandered into the hills and died there.  Almost too tired to think, Hespera wondered if it was the dragon she smelled before she remembered there was no dragon, that it had only been a reason to execute her and explain the missing gladiators.
The first rays of pale light filled the library when she returned, wearily slipping the veil from her head so it fell with a muffled swish to the floor.  Even in the dimness, the nearly empty shelves had a renewed vigor, a grace they hadn’t possessed in hundreds of years.  The library no longer felt ancient and dead.  With surprise, Hespera realized it felt like a home.  Her home.
Wrapping her hands in fine cloth, she opened a scroll and read about the flowers native to Paramos, including the delicate-looking but hardy roses that bloomed in the courtyard.  The power of knowledge surged through her veins, and she picked up another—this one explaining how to cook coastal crabs so they were edible.  Her laugh echoed in the library as the words flowed from the page to her mind, and she read them.
Years later, after the cascade of events had transpired, Hespera wondered how she picked the third scroll.  Perhaps some part of her recognized the familiar label on the shelf.  Perhaps the starkly new parchment, bright against its dull fellows, pleased her.  And perhaps, as she believed, the gods guided her hand.
            Whatever the reason, she picked up the scroll that had revolutionized slavery in the Soloni Empire.  She read it, and a number of things became clear.  Such as why the empress would trust a mere physician with the treasure of the ages.
            She stood there numbly, reading the name over and over, willing it to be false.  But the letters did not soften the truth, nor did they lie.
            The light brightened to a fiery pink sunrise, and quiet footsteps shuffled into the library.  They stopped.
            “You’re the prince of Solon,” Hespera whispered.  It wasn’t an accusation because he couldn’t defend himself.  It was fact.  She knew.
            “The second son,” Leonatus said slowly, like the words pained him.  He didn’t dare to look at Hespera.  “How did you know?”
            “I read.”  She felt compelled to add, “I’ve been practicing.”
            “You’ve been practicing,” Leonatus said weakly.
            She might have shouted, or struck him, or silently left both the library and his life at once.  She might’ve, but she didn’t.  What she did was worse.
            She started to cry.

Book VI:

Of course she would cry now.  She could handle a treacherous sister and a dragon.  A secret library couldn’t throw her, but as soon as she broke the rule and trusted someone, it hurt her.  Again.
            “You’re the prince of Solon,” she said miserably.  Her tears flecked the stone table where they sat, overgrown with lichen.  The roses swayed in sympathy.  “The second son, I know!  That doesn’t make a difference!”
            “I’m sorry,” Leonatus said helplessly.  His hands fluttered like he might touch her but didn’t dare to.  “I should’ve told you—this is all a mess.”
            Hespera wished she were brave enough to hit him.  A stinging slap to the jaw—he deserved that, and more.  She went so far as to clench her fist.  But she couldn’t hit him, because she didn’t want to hit anyone anymore.
            “I wrote that a long time ago, Hespera,” Leonatus said.  “I was young.  I hadn’t witnessed slavery firsthand.  All I knew were the figures, and they made sense.”  He bowed his head.  “But I didn’t know what it could do.  Not then.”
            “Is that why you conquered Paramos?” she whispered.
            “No,” Leonatus said.  “We conquered Paramos for this library.  I am sorry,” he said simply.  “I know that one man’s regret is nothing compared to the lives and the culture I helped to ruin, but it is all I can offer.  That and a promise that I will try to never harm someone that way again.”
            “You can’t take back what you’ve written,” Hespera said.
            “I know,” he said heavily.  “Believe me, I have tried, and I will try again.  But, Hespera….”  His voice broke.  “I am so sorry about your family.”
            She wished that she could forgive him.  She wished that her voice would ring with truth when she said so.  But instead they sat, exhausted, side by side.
            “Why did you come back?” he whispered.
            She glanced up.
            “I know you left last night,” he said unhappily.  “Why didn’t you run?”  He wasn’t angry, or at least she didn’t think so, but puzzled—she couldn’t tell if it was because she’d left, or because she’d come back.
            “We haven’t sorted all the scrolls yet,” she said, confused.  “I want to finish the job properly.  I only left to check on my sister.”
            He dropped his head into his hands and laughed.  She patted his shoulder awkwardly.
            “I am surrounded by madmen,” he said when he stopped shaking.  “If you’re that devoted to scrolls you’ve just learned to read, I suppose you could love a wrathful sister as well.”  His smile fell away.  “How is she?”
            “Oh.  She’s… you know.”  Hespera blinked sharply.  “I think she’s dying.”
            “The same symptoms?” he asked, concerned.  “Irritability, loss of appetite, general weakness?”
            “Yes, but I know what…”  She cradled her head in her hands.  “She wore lead paint for a long time.  I didn’t realize…”
            His hand fell gently on her shoulder.  “If she’s as sick as you say, then there’s nothing you can do.  Not with lead, not if she’s young and small.”  He let her sit quietly before he asked, “Will you go back?”
            She hadn’t thought about that.
            “Yes,” she said.  “If—I mean, I don’t want—but—well, she’s my sister, and I have to be there.”  She swallowed.  “At the end.”
            “Then at least leave while it’s light out,” Leonatus said gently.  “So you don’t turn an ankle.”
            “I will,” she said, but their talk of the hills of rock prompted a thought.  “You never told me about Apollonius.”
            “Hmm?”  He was lost in past thoughts.
            “You never told me about Apollonius,” she repeated.  “I know about the rest of you, but not him.”
            His shoulders slumped.  “Is this important?”
            “Yes.”  She hesitated.  “Maybe.  I don’t know.  But I want to know everything I can.”
            “An argument against which I can say nothing, since it is essentially my mantra in life,” he acknowledged.  “Ask away.”
            “How did you know him?”
            “He was my father’s friend.  And he was my tutor, and Hesiod’s.”
            “Why did you ask him to help?”       
            “Because the man’s a genius,” Leonatus said.  “Also, he practically lived in a library for most of his life.  He’s the one who came up with the table method for sorting and showed us how to pack the scrolls for transport.”
            “What was he like?”
            He opened his mouth, then stopped and reconsidered.
            “He was… the closest person I had to a father,” he said, disturbed.  “The emperor never had time for me, but Apollonius was always full of laughter and stories.  He bought me my first pony, then laughed when I fell off.”  He smiled fondly.
            “That’s terrible!” Hespera said, aghast.
            “Oh?”  He raised an eyebrow.  “Were your parents any better?”
            “Well… no,” she was forced to admit.  “But that was different.”
            “We were Paramon,” she said simply.
            He laughed soundlessly.  “I’ve heard that argument before.”
            The first sign of gold gleamed above the horizon, unfolding and blooming through the open doors to bathe Hespera and Leonatus in warmth.  It crept across the floor on silent paws.  The suggestion of voices rose from the kitchen, and shadows dragged across the sunlit floor, marring its beauty.  It was eerie, Hespera thought, almost oracular.  She knew the truth now.  Their beautiful, golden days were fading to twilight.

Book VII:

Three days later in Epiphanes, the gladiators rebelled.
            It was not an impossible eventuality.  Leonatus at least had foreseen it for years, ever since the Soloni utilized the gladiators as a military force.  There was a functional military in place to combat such an uprising, but it had relied too heavily on the auxiliary gladiators through the years and had not anticipated the domestic slaves joining in the battle.  It was only a matter of time before the struggle drew in the rest of the empire as well…
            So Leonatus thought as he raced toward the library of Paramos, trying not to break an ankle on the uneven shale.  Hesiod kept up valiantly, lagging and panting.
            “You’ll have to go without me,” Leonatus said.  “Head away from the capital, toward Timaeus if you can.”
            Hesiod nearly fell over.  He grabbed Leonatus’s hand, hauling him to a stop.  “What?” he cried.  “Where are you going?  What could possibly be more important than saving ourselves now?”
            “Hespera’s visiting her sister again,” Leonatus said anxiously.  “She didn’t know when she’d be back…  I’ll go after you once I find her.”
            “Leonatus,” Hesiod said tiredly.  “Stop.  Just—stop for a minute and think.  This is not a good time to have this conversation, and if it were up to me, we wouldn’t have it at all.  But you’re a prince, and she’s a slave.”
            “I-I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Leonatus said breezily.  “I’ll see you later.  As soon as I find her.”
            “You’re not going back.”
            “Yes, I am.”
            “You cannot become involved with a slave!”
            “I’m the second son!” Leonatus said.  “I can do whatever I want!”
            Then he ran, even while Hesiod turned away.  Thoughts whirled through his head, clicking into place.  He connected them as dispassionately as a physician makes a diagnosis.  And so he was not surprised at all when the faintest whiff of rot drifted to him on the breeze.  Grimacing at the scent, he abandoned the path and picked his way across loose stones that could send him plunging with a misstep.
            He didn’t have to go far before, stashed in the hollow between two grey hills, he found the earthly remains of Apollonius.
            “Old friend,” Leonatus whispered, crouching beside it.  He covered his mouth and nose with his chlamus to ward off the smell, which had the happy consequence of catching the tears that rolled down his face.  He bent his head in grief over all that remained of the only father he’d ever known.
            “I’m sorry,” he said with difficulty, “that I ever suspected you of stealing those scrolls.  Hespera saw someone; I assumed it was you, because you were missing.”
            He paused.  Something lingered patiently on the edge of his mind, waiting for him to notice it.  He sat very still.
            “I never wondered,” he whispered, “who stole the gladiators if it wasn’t a dragon.  And I never wondered who stole the scrolls if it wasn’t you.  Unless… the gladiators did both.  Stole themselves and the maps, which could easily aid a rebellion.”  He rubbed his forehead.  “Which would have been useful knowledge to deduce a few days ago.  But… how did they find the library?  Only the royal family…”  His stomach lurched.
            Apollonius had no answers.  With a heavy heart, Leonatus lay his chlamus across his body.  Then he picked his way back to the path and carried on at a run.  He finally battled his way up the mountain, bursting out onto the plateau.  His breath heaved through his lungs; he could feel his veins throbbing in his temples and wrists.  Really, this whole physical labor concept was overrated.  He couldn’t understand why Hespera—
            The building was eerily silent as he tore through, stopping briefly in the kitchen.  He’d already grabbed a loaf of bread and soft, new cheese before he remembered that Hespera preferred the hard, aged stuff.  He froze in the doorway, agonized for a moment, then concluded that she’d rather a have an ache in her stomach than a gladiator’s sword through it.
            It occurred to him for a freezing instant that she might yet not have returned from visiting her sister, that she might be alone in Epiphanes in the middle of Solon’s first servile rebellion.
            His fears were not justified.  He found her in the courtyard, seated among the roses.  Their warm, velvety petals and curved thorns reached for her peplos, but none could touch her where she sat, a scroll open in her lap, head cocked and a smile lifting one cheek.  The petals were pink like watered wine against her tawny hair.
            “Hespera,” he said in relief.  “Oh, thank goodness—we need to leave.  Now.”
            “A minute,” she said impatiently, stabbing her fingertip against the letters to keep her place.  “I’m reading Euripides.  He’s so charming!”
            He knocked the scroll from her hands.  She stared at him, aghast, as it rolled across the garden in a white stream.
            “That was an original!” she said.
            “Oh, my goodness.”  His knees went weak.  “Was it really?”  They both scrambled to brush dirt from the parchment and roll it safely.  “Sorry.”
            She sniffed.
            “But really, we need to run,” Leonatus said.  “There’s a—“
            Hespera glanced up curiously as he closed his teeth on the last word, gripping the scroll tightly.
            “A what?” she asked.  She was still smiling.  She looked beautiful with the sunlight in her hair, grazing her cheeks with gold.
            “Um.  We need to head to the country of Timaeus.  Right now.  It’s—kind of important.”
            She raised an eyebrow.  “It’ll take days to finish sorting the scrolls, let alone pack them.”
            I know!”  They had already talked too long.  If they started now, they could make it through the hills of rock by dawn.  Prisca and Hesiod couldn’t be too far ahead.  “So let’s go.  Now.”
            He grabbed her arm and ran.  Or attempted to, rather.  He forgot that she was Paramon, and she stood as firmly as a mountain.
            “What is it?” she asked, and the smile was gone from her face.
            “Hespera, I need you to trust me for—um—for a few weeks, actually.  Just long enough to get away from the rebel—“
            Silence fell between them.  He let go of her hand.
            “The rebel?” she said coolly.  Something flickered in her eyes.  Something he didn’t initially recognize and prayed very strongly wasn’t hope or relief.  “I didn’t catch that.”
            “Melanthius—he began a rebellion, and—Hespera,” he said, because it seemed, in an instant, terribly important to say her name.  “We can go to Timaeus.”
            They stood for a long moment in the quiet courtyard of serene, mossy stones, broken only by the gentle swaying of roses.
            Leonatus often tried to guess how Hespera would react.  Mostly he was incorrect, like when she’d cried upon learning who he was, or when she taught herself to read.  But this time he knew exactly what she would say, because much had become clear when he’d gone to find Apollonius.
            Her eyes were fixed on the long-dead, choked remains of an apricot tree when she said, “Leonatus, I planted these roses.”
            They swayed around them, leaping and dancing and laughing in the breeze, their thorns outstretched to pull them apart.
            Only the royal family….
            “I came her every summer because my parents had nowhere else to send me.  So I planted these roses for company.  I never really knew my family until the last days of the war, when we knew we could never win.  I learned what I had just in time to lose it.  Then I went from a minor princess of the most powerful nation in the world to a slave in the one that replaced it.”
            She looked at him, and her eyes scalded him like the sun.  She stood there, glorious, a queen.  She blazed too fiercely.  She burned him.
            “Do you know what that’s like?” she demanded.  “Can you imagine?”
            “No,” he said weakly.  “Ask me in a few days.  Then I’ll have experienced it, and we can commiserate together.”  He sat down on the stone bench, forlornly examining the roses.  The truth of their origin had not detracted from their beauty, any more than it had detracted from Hespera’s.  “Will you go?” he asked.
            “Yes,” she said.  “If—why are we having this conversation?” she cried.  “Father and I intend to destroy your country.  Do you have anything stronger to say than ‘good luck, hope it works out for you’?”
            “No.”  Leonatus smiled sadly.  “My life has been full of strong, ruthless women.  Prisca, my mother… you...  I’ve never been able to stop any of them.  I don’t know if I can change now.”
            “I will go,” she warned him.  “Back to Themistocles’s manor.  They need me there.”
            But she didn’t move.  She lingered and hesitated like she wanted him to say something, but he had nothing to say.  Then she was gone, and he was alone among the roses.
            It took a moment for her last words to register.
            Themistocles?” he shouted.  Then he was running, too.


Ana @ Butterflies of the Imagination said...

Oh, snap. That twist. What even was that? :) I NEED MORE.

ghost ryter said...

I did not expect this!

Anonymous said...

This is great! You need to publish this!

Sarah said...

I need the last part of this story. Now.

Allison Ruvidich said...

Haha, you guys make me so happy! : D I love all of you so much. Thank you!