The Monkey and the Amazon
“Why did I name her ‘Penthesileia’? Well, the ruffian I bought her from called himself a veteran of Alexandros’ army. He claimed that he had been with the King when he assaulted the city of the Amazons. One of the women was given to him after the fight, and on her he fathered this child.
“She was a big, healthy, attractive infant; one could almost believe her alleged parentage. Unhappily, as you can see with your own eyes, the early promise of her looks was not kept, but I had already given her a name and saw no point in taking it back,”
As Amyntas the astrologer spoke, the girl who poured wine for his dinner party kept her face - homely in outline and filled in with striations and spots - composed in an expression of stolid docility, reacting to her master’s words no more than did the pet dog curled against Amyntas’ feet.
In the hierarchy of Babylon, she was closer to the dog than to the famous stargazer and sage, whose guests this evening included the Satrap and the Satrap’s son and an ambassador from rich and exotic Indian lands never reached by the great Alexandros.
The girl had waited on the Satrap and his entourage often enough to know their opinions on every topic, their habitual turns of phrase, their perennial jokes. She had heard a hundred times the story of her own purchase and naming; her master thought it infinitely amusing that a frail, ill-favored slave should bear the name of an Amazon warrior queen whose prowess and beauty had matched and captivated Achilles.
The Indian smiled in the manner of one who, realizing that a joke is in the room, has not quite located it. He was short, plump, olive-skinned, his fingers flashing with jewels and his countenance flickering with nervous grimaces alternately caricaturing amusement and solemnity. Adding to his air of nervousness was a habit of glancing every few seconds at the monkey that sat on his shoulder. The animal was rather too large for its perch and seemed in perpetual danger of toppling over, especially when it lurched forward to snatch a delicacy from the ambassador’s trencher or a sip from his wine cup.
“A little gourmet, isn’t he?” the Satrap remarked. “Let us have Amyntas cast his horoscope.” This was what Seleukos said whenever an animal caught his eye in the astrologer’s presence. He also liked to ask what the stars foretold concerning his host’s wine vintages and the destinies of his principal entrées.
As was his custom, Amyntas used this raillery as a pretext for a professional discourse. His voice took on the timbre of the lecture hall, with little concern for whether the students grasped the professor’s meaning. The Indian screwed his face into a mask of respectful attention. The Greeks reacted in accordance with their rank - the Satrap conversed with his son as if the two of them were alone; the lesser men attended to the wine, nodding when Amyntas’ gestures indicated that he had made a significant point.
“So I have collated thousands of years of observations and predictions recorded by the great astronomers of Chaldea,” he was saying, as the preface to a technical description of his researches.
The serving girl had refilled the guests’ cups and now sat in a dark corner, where the torches and candles cast more smoke than light. The monkey on the Indian’s arm hopped down and scurried over to her. It clambered atop her knees and adopted an immobile pose as it contemplated her face. She turned shyly away. A blush brought out the unpleasant color of her blemishes.
“Now, the skeptical sophists point to discrepancies between what the stars foretell and what happens on earth, casting doubt on our ancient science. The great accomplishment of my studies has been to silence such criticism. If one postulates the existence of an eighth planet occupying a sphere beyond that of Saturn, the Chaldean calculations are brought into perfect harmony with recorded events. I have calculated the cycles and epicycles of such a planet. Unfortunately, it is too distant from the fire of the Sun to be visible to us. Still, if one takes its influence into account. . . .”
The monkey had begun waving its hands in parody of Amyntas. The serving girl giggled, then quickly suppressed her mirth when she saw that the Indian ambassador was looking in her direction.
Now that the host had beaten down all competing topics, his monologue threatened to continue until the hour came for the visible planets to join the invisible. The intervals between replenishments of wine shortened, forcing Penthesileia to keep on her feet. The monkey followed her about, begging to be allowed to help with the service. The girl let it carry an occasional cup to an unimportant guest. It did quite well, showing excellent poise and a modicum of dignity, until it became rambunctious in the presence of its owner and splashed his elegant garments with wine.
The accident compelled the ambassador to excuse himself. He led his pet away with him, which seemed to please it well.
“He certainly indulges the little pest,” commented the Satrap’s son.
The Satrap’s face registered disgust. “The Prince of Chandrapuristan - is that how the place is pronounced? - might as well have sent a woman or a slave, for all the service that this fat idiot will give. Still, the prince’s loss is our gain. Perhaps I can bilk the fool out of some elephants.”
He turned abruptly to the astrologer, who was explaining in tedious detail his method of computing the celestial location of an unseeable star. “Shut up, Amyntas. Bring your mind back to earth for a while, will you?”
In an instant, Amyntas was all cringing servility, little distinguishable from his own slave. “Have I wearied you, my lord? Let me assure you that these researches of mine are not mere theory. There are great practical results -”
“Such as how to cope with Antigonos’ army, when he has twice as many soldiers twice as well trained as my own?”
“My lord, the stars assure me that you will prevail in this contest, as indeed you must, given your superiority in every respect over the tyrant Antigonos and his debauched son.”
The Satrap grunted sourly. These were not, indeed, the best of times for him, and he tended to grow gloomy while sitting among his intimates late in the evening. He beckoned for more wine and left off adding water. Talk turned to politics and strategy, mixed with imprecations against the villainous Antigonos One-Eye and the libertine Demetrios and the treacherous Ptolemaios and all the other satraps and generals who quarreled over the world that Alexandros had left behind.
It was thirteen years since the Conqueror’s premature death here in the city of Babylon, which he had planned to adopt as the capital of his dominions. Rumor said that, minutes before his demise, he had placed his signet ring in the palm of his hand and whispered, “To the strongest.” Perhaps the story was not true, but men had ever since acted as if it were.
Seleukos, one of those at Alexandros’ deathbed, had gained and lost Babylon more than once. Today the market places murmured that he was preparing for another exile, The greatest satraps had met last year and made peace among themselves, without Seleukos. Instead, they had named Antigonos One-Eye “General of All Asia”. Few doubted that Antigonos’ army, reputed to be the best in the world, would soon sweep into Mesopotamia to vindicate that title. The Satrap of Babylon, denuded of allies, wooed the ridiculous envoys of unknown Indian potentates in search of support.
The words that passed between Seleukos and his nearest counselors, flowing as freely and irresponsibly as the wine, were full of confidence. But the tone in which the men spoke and the frequency with which they lapsed into meditation over their flagons, undermined their words.
At some point, the ambassador’s monkey crept back into the hall. Penthesileia gathered it into her lap, where it sat in comical imitation of a human listener, focusing its eyes on the half-intoxicated Satrap and his courtiers.
* * * *
As midsummer approached and stories of Antigonos’ preparations for war seeped through the city, the Indian ambassador carried on a lackadaisical diplomacy, lavishing his own time and his master’s gold but never definitely answering any of Seleukos’ ever more urgent pleas for mercenaries and war elephants. Eventually, the envoy became simply another court fixture, something of a figure of fun as he moved about the city with his monkey on his arm.
The monkey was gaining stature as an independent personality. There were those who suggested that it would make a more deft negotiator than its owner. Certainly, it was more popular, mingling freely with the great men of the realm. The animal’s own favorite, however, was the homely slave Penthesileia. It clung to her skirts, rode on her back, cuddled against her breast, chattered into her ear. The more kind-hearted of the household were pleased that the friendless girl had found a playmate; the less sympathetic suggested that the two were drawn together by the similarity of their looks.
One afternoon, at the hottest hour of the siesta, Penthesileia and the monkey sat on the roof of Amyntas’ house, sharing an inadequate parasol. The girl was looking eastward, across the great river that divided Babylon. The far bank was crowded with palaces and temples, mementos of the city’s years of splendor. Decrepit now, their bricks crumbling, their stones broken into rubble, these ancient buildings, conspicuous among the more recent Persian and Greek constructions, resembled senile hangers-on of a deposed dynasty.
The saddest and most senile of all was an artificial mountain that poked its dreary, dust-brown terraces above the skyline. Local memory recalled that this hill had long ago been lush with trees and flowers and bushes and vines, among which the royal peacocks of King Nebuchadrezzar had strutted and the King’s favorite concubines had sunned themselves to the songs of choruses of songbirds.
Nowadays, the dead garden offered little to draw the eye, so it was incongruous - one of her many peculiarities - that Amyntas’ suppositious Amazon fixed her sight on it with an expression of wistful longing. The monkey had, after a few minutes of copying her, abandoned the view and concentrated on the girl’s own face. Soon it grew bored and began to chatter and pull her hair.
“Ouch! Let go, or I’ll spank you,” she scolded.
The threat had no effect, so she delivered a few playful swats with her open hand, then bundled the creature onto her arm and stood up, keeping the parasol raised against the Sun.
“How would you like to go for a walk? That would be nice, wouldn’t it? I want you to see why I look at that dull old mountain. It's a secret, but you won’t tell your best friend’s secrets, will you?”
The monkey nodded encouragingly, almost as if it understood her. Penthesileia set it on the ground, holding its hand as they descended the narrow steps from Amyntas’ roof to the street level, where alleys twisted among blocky, windowless houses. Near the river, the alleys broadened and straightened. Despite the heat, a mixed concourse of merchants, street vendors, laborers, beggars, sailors, prostitutes, idlers and soldiers jammed the area around the wharves. The girl and the monkey, both small, slipped through with only occasional jostling. At the bridge, Penthesileia gave the guardsman her master’s name as a passport and was allowed to cross.
The opposite bank was unhurried, uncrowded, sleepy in the presence of its sleeping ruins. The noise that drifted from the commercial quarter seemed to belong to another country and eon. A solitary beggar was so surprised to see a potential benefactor that he neglected to send up his cry.
They picked their way through an acre of fallen and shattered stones, a favorite quarry of local builders. Someone had told the girl that the stones were the remains of the chief temple of the king of the Babylonian gods. Alexandros had announced plans to build a new home for the deity but had gotten no further than to knock down the few walls and columns that the Persian conquerors had left standing.
Beyond the rubble ran one of the main thoroughfares of Babylon, dominated by asses and oxen, by slow, creaking carts and the shouts of roadside hawkers. Unlike the wharves, where Greek tunics and Persian trousers were the prevailing fashion, this quarter displayed turbans and long robes, and the language in which men puffed their wares and cursed their beasts of burden was neither Greek nor Persian.
The avenue led to a high and beautiful gate that pierced the city’s gigantic, decaying walls. Penthesileia’s chosen destination lay a short distance in front of the gate, to the left of the street. A few courses of bricks marked off the precincts of the dead garden, offering no protection against intruders. No protection was needed.
Beyond the boundary, the air seemed to grow sterile and desolate. A dry breeze lifted dust from the hillside to choke the trespasser’s lungs, as the afternoon blaze grew heavier and deadened the spirit.
The garden was not entirely barren. Fibrous weeds clung to the terraces, with tiny gray lizards slithering among their roots. Black, poison-laden spiders stalked the lizards. In utter silence, untinged by beauty or cheer, the struggle for mastery of the artificial desert continued, unresolved over the decades.
Almost the only visitors were apothecaries collecting spider venom. The only permanent resident was the caretaker, a wasted creature in woman’s dress. As Penthesileia and the Indian’s monkey entered her domain, she was leaning on a rake, her back to the city, her limbs slack, her eyes empty, her lips twitching with a silent soliloquy. Despite the Sun, she wore no head covering. The strands plastered to her skull were not merely white with age; they resembled congealed dust drawn into a cobwebby simulacrum of hair,
Her clothes was so engrimed and faded that their original color could not be discerned, save in a few patches, where the dye seemed once to have been a rich shade of royal purple.
Penthesileia shouted to this unpromising guardian, and the hag responded, jerking her body slowly about,
“We have come to look at your garden, old mother,” the girl said once the woman was facing her.
The other inclined her head slightly. For an instant, her eyes gleamed with what might be recognition; then she resumed her previous posture.
The monkey balked at going any farther. It yanked the girl’s hand, trying to lead her back to the main avenue.
“Oh, don’t be a nuisance. You’ll see in a minute why we came here. Don’t let the old mother frighten you.”
At the insult to its courage, the animal straightened its back and ceased to pull away from the garden. It still looked about warily, however, as Penthesileia started up the staircase, now weathered into more of a ramp, that spiraled from ground level to the top of the terraces.
At the higher levels, the lizards and spiders and even the weeds vanished, leaving the terrain to no life bigger than sand fleas. At the next to the highest terrace, Penthesileia left the ramp. She plodded through the dry soil, scattering fragments of bleached wood and broken pottery under her feet, until she came to the north face of the mountain.
The monkey squealed in surprise. Here the soil sloped downward to form a depression, invisible from the city below, measuring about twenty yards an a side. At its center was a transparent pool, deep blue from the reflection of the sky and bright with darting fishes. Surrounding the pool were rose bushes, low shrubs, fragrant lemon trees and tall, succulent grass. On one side, two peacocks gamboled, attempting to impress one another with their finery.
“See, monkey. The old mother made this. She is a mighty sorceress, you know, even if she is very, very old. She told me that she has lived here since before the Persians came and drove the old kings from Babylon. They carried her husband off to Persepolis and tore down his house and stopped watering his garden. The old mother’s spells have saved just this little corner.”
She let go of the monkey’s hand. It stepped forward cautiously, like an explorer setting foot in a mysterious new land. Penthesileia had no such hesitation. She ran to the brink of the pool and threw herself onto hands and knees, drinking in her own reflection.
In the deepest part of her throat, she muttered words in a language that she did not understand. The sounds came forth but did not dissipate into the air like ordinary noises. Instead, they gathered about her, forming a whispering halo. As the whisper grew louder, the image in the pool changed. Blemishes disappeared or shrank into beauty spats. Gleams of gold appeared among the drab ringlets of her hair, which grew thick and silky as its color changed. The dumpy adolescent figure rearranged itself into the slender, rounded shape of a perfectly formed woman.
When the metamorphosis was complete, an enchanting maiden, one for whom hot-blooded men would have gone to war, stretched her limbs languidly and admired her own countenance in the glassy surface of the water.
“Ah, I was hoping to see you like this.”
The Amazon leapt erect at the sound of a deep, masculine voice, spinning to face the direction from which it came. The Indian’s monkey was gone. Where it had last been, a few feet from her, there stood a tall, well-muscled man. A reassuring smile spread over his handsome face, a boyish, romantic smile that seemed younger than his body.
Penthesileia stepped backward, letting her feet sink into the wet sand at the margin of the pool. Apprehension froze some of the loveliness from her face. Her arms rose protectively, displaying muscles that, while exquisitely formed, were obviously powerful.
The man laughed with casual gaiety. “Such a reception, my little dove, after you have fondled me so often at your breast.”
“Stay where you are. The old mother will guard me.”
“I'm sure that she will, but there really is no need for guards, sweetling. I apologize for frightening you and promise not to move so much as a toe’s length nearer without your consent.”
The girl warily relaxed. “Who are you?”
“Someone with whom you share a spell. I must say that I am rather shocked. The witch who sold it to me extracted a hundred gold talents and guaranteed its rarity. Now I learn that a slave in the household of a silly old astrologer owns it, too. Tell me, did he give it you for some purpose? Are you his mistress, perhaps? Or did you filch it through some womanly trickery?”
She shook her head, pouting, but would not reply.
“Come, my little flower, it is silly to be afraid of me. I am in much more danger than you. Still, I believe that the risk was worthwhile. When you have the spell, you know, you can sometimes, when you concentrate closely and catch them at the proper angle, see the true forms of others. I first noticed you at one of Amyntas’ drinking parties, when you were serving the wine. A ray of candlelight glinted from your hair and pierced the camouflage for an instant. Since then, I have waited for you to reveal yourself. Now that you have, I thought it was only fair for me to do the same.”
Something that he said touched a chord of amusement in the girl. She let a little laugh of her own escape. “I know that you can sometimes see forms. Did you ever look at my master’s dog, the one that always trails him around?”
He shook his head.
“Do. It’s really an Ethiopian boy. I think that my master had to sell many horoscopes to many rich men to pay for him.
“So I was wrong to think that you might be his lover? He is sadly lacking in taste.”
She did not take this remark as a light piece of banter. A scowl drove away her moment of good humor.
“I have never slept with Amyntas, and I will not sleep with you.”
“You have the pride of an Amazon, at least, whatever race your mother really was.”
“I know who my mother is. She visits me. Only in dreams, but I know that the dreams are true.”
“Hmm. Did the ‘old mother’, as you call her, give you your spell?”
For the first time, the transformed girl looked directly into the stranger’s eyes, trying to decide whether to trust him or sullenly protect her privacy.
“This is not a place for suspicion and gloom,” he said, prompting her.
“No, it is not.” She moved slightly forward and reclined on the ground, propped on one elbow and fiddling with the petals of a flower with her free hand. “Do you have a name, little monkey?”
“Why not call me ‘Achilles’? He too was captivated by an Amazon.”
“As I remember the story, Achilles slew her,”
“True, he fell in love a little tardily. I have been luckier.”
“I wish that you wouldn’t speak like that. You are welcome to stay here and talk to me as long as you want, but please don’t be one of those men who flatter every woman they meet.”
“Very well, there will be nothing of love in our conversation. I do know a trifle about other topics, even if they are not quite so fascinating. If you like, I can provide a learned analysis of your master’s new system of astrology.”
That was not, of course, what she wished to talk about. With the gentlest coaxing, he started to recount tales of travel and adventure, his own and others’. He had never, he confessed, journeyed to truly remote and picturesque regions; Babylon was the farthest east that he had gone. To his listener, however, Babylon was a prosaic homeland, while Hellas and Asia Minor and Phoenicia and Egypt bore the patina of mystery. Yet more fascinating to one who claimed to be descended from warriors were tales of battles, of which the speaker had seen many, against foes both civilized and barbarian.
These reminiscences filled the afternoon. The girl listened avidly, leaning close to catch every phrase and interrupting with requests for explanations and details. By the time the cool of twilight came to scatter the long day’s sweltering heat, the stranger was no more frightening than his monkey persona. She allowed him, at last, to fold her fingers within his as he talked.
The rays of the setting Sun, filtered through a low bank of distant clouds, painted Penthesileia's hair orange and red. The man paused to brush his hand over the curls. “Why do you hide yourself?” he asked.
“If all men were like you. . . .” She did not complete the thought.
"I begin to understand, I think. A pretty slave may be worse off than an ugly one. Is that the reason for this disguise?”
Without warning, she began to weep. The loss of control was merely momentary, but, when she had regained her composure, she disengaged her hand and stood up.
“We had best return to my master’s house. I will be missed.”
He shrugged and agreed. Incantations again floated on the air. Then a small monkey stood next to a plain-faced slave woman. It leaped into her arms and held itself firmly against her body. She in turn cuddled the creature as she began the trek down from the enchanted pool.
* * * *
Every day after that, Penthesileia and the monkey found time and seclusion to be together in their undisguised forms. They did not have to return to the garden. It was not difficult, in Amyntas’ elaborate, over-built mansion, to find vacant rooms out of the stream of household traffic.
Their most frequent meeting place was a long-disused store room that now held only a few fraying couches and moldering tapestries. It was superficially a drab place, left in semi-darkness by its high, narrow windows and blanketed with a decade’s accumulation of dust, but the two friends looked on it with a vision that penetrated shadows and dirt.
The man learned eventually why a ten-year-old girl, just beginning to develop the features of a woman, had run tearfully from her master’s house, stumbling wildly and hopelessly through the streets of the great city beyond, until chance brought her to the domain of an aged and potent sorceress. Having heard part of the story and deduced the rest, “Achilles” took pleasure, in his monkey form, in tormenting the one who was at fault, screeching in the middle of his conversations, pulling his nose and ears, tripping under his feet, soiling his newest and most expensive garments. The victim’s fellow servants, few of whom could be called his friends, found the little animal’s antics amusing. Also amusing, though less vicious, was his teasing of Amyntas’ pet dog, whose tail he would grab and yank fiercely whenever he found the beast in the vicinity of its master’s bedroom.
In their hiding place, the slave/Amazon and the monkey/man spent more and more time in long, deep silences. He scrupulously kept the promises, implicit and explicit, made at their first meeting; it was she who took the initiative to exchange kisses.
On an especially searing day, when the whole city lay inert, the dark, dusty storeroom was one of the few comfortable refuges. Penthesileia went there earlier than usual. She reclined on a couch, her hands behind her neck, waiting for her friend and dreaming.
Today she did not wear the simple dress of a low ranking slave. Her master’s house had once been the possession of a luxury loving Persian grandee, whose harem, hastily fleeing Alexandros, had left behind sufficient gowns, jewels and perfume to ornament the entire female populace of a modest city. In Amyntas’ bachelor establishment, such treasures lay unused, serving only as a stock of ready made gifts for presentation, when occasion demanded, to the wives and concubines of high officials.
That morning, when the heat had already disrupted the routine of the household, Penthesileia had slipped into the harem’s old closets and emerged in silks and rubies. Her limbs glittered now, reflecting the candles that supplemented the natural light of her hideaway, while a sweet, heavy scent overlay the mustiness of the place.
A scuffling behind her, at the smaller of the room’s two doors, announced the monkey’s arrival. Penthesileia did not turn her head. Her ears drank in the faint sound of the metamorphosis. He came and sat beside her, running his hands along the curves of her body and whispering praises of her charms.
She whispered back her affection, and the shadows hid from her would-be lover the small, nervous tremors that accompanied her words.
As he began to lift one of the gauzy veils that covered her breasts, footsteps rattled in the corridor. The man snapped to alertness. The girl tried to pull him back.
“It’s just someone wandering past. Please. . . . Don’t get up.”
Signaling that she should be silent, he tiptoed toward the larger door. For the space of two long breaths, the corridor was quiet. Then came the noise of half a dozen hurrying men. Metal smashed against the thin door frame.
Achilles pressed himself against the wall and began to murmur the incantation that would bring back his monkey disguise. Before he could finish, the door fell open. The girl jumped up and ran. Candlelight flashed on spear points, as soldiers entered the room.
Two spears stopped the chant and pinned the man against the wall beside the door. He raised his arms in a gesture of surrender.
Amyntas the astrologer strolled in behind the soldiers. He carried a lamp in one hand and a sword in the other. The ever-present dog followed at his heel.
He held the lamp close to the prisoner’s face. “Well, well, it has been a long time since we last met, hasn’t it, Demetrios?”
There was no reply. One of the soldiers spoke. “There was someone with him - a woman.”
“Did you recognize her?”
“No one that I’ve ever seen around here. Lots of jewels and fancy clothes.”
“Some whore he brought in from the streets, I suppose. That’s in character - no control over his lusts, not even when he’s in the middle of the enemy camp.
“Well, Demetrios, aren’t you going to say anything? You can’t bluff your way through this, you know. Your phony ambassador has revealed everything.”
“Then you need no information from me.”
“Such a surly boy. Just like old One-Eye. Be sure to watch him closely. He may try to use his bit of magic to turn into a monkey again. Such a suitable appearance for him, too.”
The little dog emerged from beneath Amyntas’ robes to bark fiercely at Demetrios. The astrologer hushed it. “Be quiet, dearest. That bad monkey won’t be coming back. Oh, no. . . . We’ll be taking him to Uncle Seleukos tomorrow.” He gave lamp and sword to an attendant and picked up the dog.
“I must say, Demetrios, that I was suspicious of your man from the beginning. You should have chosen a puppet who knew the basic facts about India. This so-called ambassador had never heard of the one-legged men or the gryphons or the ants that mine gold. I will admit, though, that I didn’t guess the truth. After all, I am a scientist and don’t traffic in sorcery.
“Fortunately, your slave was capable of recognizing learning when he saw it. He came to me the other day and begged to have his horoscope read by the methods that I have discovered. In return for the horoscope - well, you can infer the payment that he offered.”
The prior owner of Amyntas’ house had possessed, besides his harem, a small dungeon suitable for unruly slaves. Thither was led Demetrios son of Antigonos the “General of All Asia”. As befitted his rank, he was given the largest cell, with a bed of clean rushes to lie on and a freshly scrubbed chamber pot for bodily needs. Two soldiers stayed with him continuously.
In a remote, dismal corner, Penthesileia reassumed her everyday appearance and attire, In the middle of the change, sobbing overcame her. Her hands shook; her eyes blurred. Unable to arrange the folds of her tunic, she fell to her knees and let her head sink into the heap of discarded clothes. Their fragrance stifled her breathing, but she did not try to change to a more comfortable position.
She cried until she was weak and dizzy and only partly conscious. Her thoughts dangled on the brink of nonsense, as voices formed behind her ears. After a while, the voices became insistent, One, strangely familiar, reached above the discordances. The girl rolled her head to face it. Although her eyes remained closed, their lids grew translucent, letting in light and shapes.
She recognized the profile of a woman. “Mother,” she moaned and gave way to a new fit of sobbing.
The voice of her mother - the mother she knew only from dreams - had a stern edge. At first, Penthesileia heard nothing but disconnected syllables. The meaning gathered slowly and took some time to penetrate the fog of fear and weeping and self-pity.
“Are you truly my daughter, whining in the dirt for the sake of a man? Has the southern Sun made your blood thin? Or have you been trained too long as a slave?”
The girl desperately mopped her tears on a silk kerchief, but her eyes would not remain dry.
“What is it? Do you love this sometime monkey? I saw you lying there, decked out like a courtesan as you awaited him the man you boasted would never bed you. He must have gloated with triumph when he sniffed the scented oil anointing your limbs.” The shadow Amazon had free access to her daughter’s thoughts. There was no need for the girl to answer and no way for her to hide from the stream of accusation.
“Two years I slept with the man who took me captive, holding every muscle rigid and doing nothing to give him pleasure, until you were conceived and I could win release through death in childbirth. Yet you would crawl beneath this Demetrios, who has lain with a thousand women, whose name is a by-word for masculine debauchery? To be truthful, my daughter, I would rather that the soldiers had caught you on their spears and destroyed your life in a semblance of battle than that you had given yourself to a man’s desire.”
The vision faded away, leaving Penthesileia in restless sleep. When she awoke, her throat sour and her head fuzzy, she lay in the gloom. Her first thought was the one that came first to any truant slave: Had she been missed, marked down as a potential runaway who would be whipped when she was found? At once, however, she remembered Demetrios, and concern for his fate drove panic from her mind. After that, her mother’s words came back to her, and she sat in listless confusion, unwilling to think and unable to act.
The blackness began to move, coiling into phantoms. One of these loomed more solidly than the rest, seemingly outlined by a dim golden halo. It spoke, with a gentler voice than Penthesileia had heard before.
“I have been too harsh, my daughter. I forgot that you are a child and that children need kindness and protection as well as warning and rebuke.
“You want two things: to save Demetrios’ life and to love him. I would rather you expel the man from all remembrance, but that counsel is too hard for your tender youth. I cannot, however, even if I would, gratify all of your wishes.
“But I can offer you a choice. On the one hand, you may sleep with the man. Go to Amyntas, and ask that boon. He will grant it, because forcing Demetrios, the famous ladies’ man, to lie with a pimpled, misshapen slave will pique his sense of irony. Tomorrow he will hand his prisoner over to the Satrap, who will doubtless let the farce continue while he uses the son as a pawn against the father. When that tactic fails - as it will, for Antigonos prefers empire to the life of his son - Demetrios will die in agony. But you will have had him as your lover.
“If that future does not appeal to you, go to the old woman of the garden. She will give you what is needful to rescue the man - but you will find, I foresee, that you can save your lover's life only by abandoning love.”
The imperious figure stared down at Penthesileia. The girl sank beneath that gaze, until she lay supine, her eyelids unbearably heavy. Consciousness blinked out. Then she was fully awake, stiff-muscled from sprawling on a hard floor but otherwise alert. A distant window, opening to the west, let in a glint of the late afternoon Sun. In her sleep, she had tossed her harem garments and gems hither and yon. After a single backward glance, she left the treasures where they had fallen.
* * * *
The capture of the spy, the preparations for his confinement and the cautious bargaining with the Satrap concerning the disposition of the prize had left Amyntas satisfied but verging on exhaustion. He retired to his bed chamber at an earlier hour than usual, noting outside his door the presence of an unfamiliar soldier - no doubt sent by the Satrap as “protection”. Slaves undressed and massaged him as he sipped a small beaker of well-watered, aromatic wine.
When the slaves had left, the astrologer stretched full length and closed his eyes. He patted the palm of his hand softly against the purple quilt. “Here, Koros, come to master,” he whistled.
He listened for the little dog’s approaching feet and the indefinable noise that hung for a moment beside the bed. The mattress sank beneath a second body’s weight. Amyntas sighed and extended a hand to stroke the newcomer’s flesh.
His hand passed over flanks and belly, moving contentedly upward, until it encountered an unexpected protuberance. Amyntas started and opened his eyes. He saw an unknown woman, naked, grim-faced and grasping a long dagger in her right hand.
“Keep your voice low, Amyntas, arid you will see the dawn.” The woman curled herself into a sitting position, her blade poised to slide between two of the man's ribs.
The astrologer flinched from the touch of iron. “What do you want of me?” he quavered.
“Take me to Demetrios.”
“Oh, certainly, certainly. What has happened to Koros? What have you done with my boy?”
“That is up to you. Do what I ask - without trickery - and he will suffer no hurt. Otherwise. . . . Now, dress yourself - quickly.”
Amyntas obeyed, redonning the garments that he had thrown off a few minutes before. The woman watched, keeping the dagger delicately balanced on the tips of her fingers.
When he had dressed, she ordered him to lie face down on the bed and count to a hundred. While he could not see her, she performed her incantation. Amyntas completed the count, rose and looked with a feverish, angry face at the dog that lay on his rug. The beast insolently stretched and rubbed against its master’s leg. He shook it off and stomped to the door. The soldier lingering beyond it fell in behind him as he marched through the corridors and stairways that led to the basements of the house. The dog, in a jolly, playful mood, pranced a pace or two behind.
Soldiers crowded the lower levels, both Amyntas’ own bodyguards and men sent by the Satrap. Several attached themselves to the astrologer as an informal escort.
The group reached the landing at the head of the steps leading to the dungeon. It was a narrow place, where the soldiers perforce stood near at hand. A door blocked the passage. Amyntas fumbled at his belt for the key. Seemingly unable to find it, he screwed his face into an expression of perplexity and turned toward the soldiers. He hand fell casually to his side, the fingers pointing at a spot on the floor, where his pet stood on its short legs, its head cocked upward.
“Kill it,” he said quietly.
Half a dozen spears leaped to attention, paused at the ready, and plunged downward. The little dog yelped furiously. It spun in a half circle, looking for an exit from the trap. The spear points struck it almost simultaneously, ripping through fur, spilling blood on the stone floor.
The look of self-satisfaction that Amyntas had worn half an hour before returned. His lips and eyes danced merrily. “My apologies for troubling all of you. It appears that I left my keys behind. In any case, this visit can wait until morning.”
None of the soldiers answered. Amyntas peered at them. They did not return his glance. Instead, their eyes were fixed on the floor.
Amyntas looked where they were looking and emitted a feeble scream. The spear-riddled shape was changing, from a bloodied dog to a sleek, black-skinned youth mutilated by six long, overflowing gashes.
A soldier stood at Amyntas’ elbow. Words, spoken in a cold contralto, stole into the paralyzed man’s ear. “Do what I ask - without trickery - and your boy will suffer no hurt. That was my promise. I have kept it.”
At a wave of the speaker’s hand, the other soldiers slunk away, averting their faces from the corpse.
“You do have your keys, don’t you, Amyntas?”
Dumbly, without resistance, the astrologer unlocked the door. Twenty steps brought him to Demetrios’ cell, His voice low, gasping for words, he sent away the guards who had been assigned to watch the prisoner.
A quarter of an hour later, Amyntas reappeared in the corridors of his house, accompanied by the son of Antigonos. To questioning faces, he explained that he would interrogate the prisoner privately in his own rooms. New events had occurred that demanded immediate answers. The Satrap, he warned sternly, was not to be told of the change of plans.
The pair entered the astrologer’s chambers. Those outside could hear the bar being dropped across the door, then an almost inaudible conversation that gave eavesdroppers no clue to what was being said. After a few minutes, even that was no longer heard.
Within the hour, spies had carried the strange news to the Satrap. These first messengers were followed by others, whose news was stranger yet. Amyntas had been discovered, shackled and gagged, prostrate in a cell of his own dungeon. He was overwrought and incoherent, but it was evident, from the small sense mixed in with his ravings, that Demetrios had somehow effected an escape.
Seleukos came in person to investigate. He ordered the door to the astrologer’s chambers broken down. The rooms were empty. A trapdoor leading to the roof hung unlatched.
* * * *
Penthesileia and Demetrios reached the almost-dead garden well ahead of the hue and cry that shook the city. From a high terrace near their secret pool, they watched myriads of torches racing through the streets. They heard throngs of soldiers rousing a sullen populace and smiled at the barking and howling of the great city’s million dogs.
Smiles grew to laughter and laughter to embraces and embraces to a warm, lingering kiss. Demetrios led the girl away from the edge of the terrace, into the greenery surrounding the pool. Their bodies sank slowly into the grass.
At the last moment, she pushed him away. He opened his eyes, annoyed at this sudden, unlooked for reluctance. The old mistress of the garden stood at the edge of the oasis, a lantern in her withered hand. Demetrios felt a chill in his heart.
“Children, foolish children,” the hag whistled between crumbling teeth, “is this a fortress where you can sleep safely while the master of the city seeks your lives?”
In the pale lantern beams, Penthesileia’s lovely face glowed a deep red. Her expression might be self-rebuke or embarrassment or shame or all of those emotions.
Demetrios spoke quickly, hoping to distract the girl. “We can sneak out of Babylon in disguise when the gates open at dawn.”
She shook her head. “The old mother has given us a good warning. What would you do if you were the Satrap?”
“Set soldiers at all the gates and let no one pass without being vouched for.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“And suppose that we could get by the gates. Then we must journey for days through territory held by Seleukos, without horses, without money, without even a change of clothes - with nothing but the prices on our heads.”
The old woman beckoned. Penthesileia went to her and lay her head next to the thin, parched lips, straining to catch the sounds that rode on the hag’s thin breath.
The girl’s face had been troubled when the woman started to speak. At the end, it was merely sad. She bowed her head a fraction of a degree, a slight but sufficient acquiescence. Demetrios’ attention had turned back to the sounds rising from the city. As he groped for inspiration, he scarcely realized that the hag’s lantern no longer lighted the space around the pool.
“Stand over here, farther on the grass,” Penthesileia said.
He complied without attending to the request. Some of the trees here bore fruit. Could they live in hiding until the search abated, or would an expedition be mounted even to this outwardly sterile refuge?
A low growl shook the hillside. The ground swelled beneath Demetrios, nearly toppling him. He threw out his arms for balance and tottered at the onset of the earthquake.
He smiled fiercely, waiting for the screams that would pierce the tumult below as the citizens of Babylon became aware of the upheaval shattering their buildings and walls, then envisioning tomorrow’s ruins and the easy departure from the ghost-filled town.
The moon, nearly full, combined with the torches of the Satrap’s soldiery, would make it easy to view the confusion in the city. Demetrios staggered toward the edge of the terrace to catch a glimpse. In the corner of his eye, he saw the Amazon’s unbound hair billowing against the face of the moon. Her pose was strangely contemplative. He waved to her, continuing to move forward.
His right foot came down on air. He gasped, fighting to counteract the momentum that was carrying him into the sudden chasm. Beneath the unsupported leg, he saw nothing. He tried to find the opposite side of the fissure, but it eluded his eyes.
Somehow he remained upright long enough for Penthesileia to run over and seize his hand. She pulled him back to the grass, where he sprawled like an exhausted warrior after too strenuous a battle. He was as frightened as he had ever been in an adventurous life, and the fear sapped his energies. He noticed that the earth was no longer heaving and was content with that knowledge. Penthesileia lay down by his side. He folded an arm around her and fell asleep.
A fresh, clean breeze and the warm fingers of dawn woke him. He heard singing from a cluster of flowering bushes. The sky, intensely blue, seemed near at hand.
The sky puzzled him; on at least one side, it ought to be cut off by the hill. Also puzzling was the silence. Except for the Amazon’s song, he heard nothing, certainly not the tormented aftermath of an earthquake.
He rolled over on his stomach, contemplating the incongruities. A bright red bird skimmed over the surface of the pool, then sped off, dipped its wings downward and vanished, as if it had buried itself in the ground. Demetrios uttered a surprised curse and jumped to his feet.
At once the mystery was clear, though the solution led to a deeper mystery.
The oasis flew in the air. Hundreds of feet below, the carefully tilled fields and jumbled irrigation ditches of Mesopotamia slid away towards the rising Sun. At eye level, clouds drifted inconsequentially, refusing to heed whatever wind impelled the runaway chunk of garden.
“So your old mother is a wonder worker. If you know how to convey my thanks to her, do so.”
“She is far away now, too far to hear us,” Penthesileia shouted from behind the bushes.
“I shall have a tripod dedicated to her at Delphi.” He stood musing, waiting for the Amazon to emerge. When she was slow to appear, he called to her gaily.
“Have you become shy, my beloved? You will shatter my heart if you stay in seclusion all day.”
Her answer was a sardonic chuckle. He saw her shoulders and back rise above the leaves. She turned around.
Either through a trick of the morning light and shadow or because his expectation was so strong, Demetrios for an instant saw the incomparable face of the Amazon. But the illusion melted like a statue carved out of snowflakes. What he actually saw was the plain, blemished slave girl who had served wine to the distinguished guests of Amyntas the astrologer.
“I’m sorry, Demetrios. We are too distant from Babylon. The old mother's spells cannot help me here. I was warned, but I had hoped that, perhaps, she could allow me to remain beautiful and that you would love me.”
He tried to strike a gallant attitude and to command his mouth to speak some friendly, comforting words. At the same time, his flesh stiffened at the memory of last night’s caresses. He mumbled broken sounds that she probably interpreted as anger.
“I did not mean to trick you - or I did, but it seemed that there would be no harm. Please, let me explain. After that. . . . After that, I will leave you alone.
“I did not lie to you about my past. There was - the steward’s son - what happened. And the old mother - she found me when I hid in her desert, loathing my own shame and longing to die. She gave me my new form as a consolation. I would gaze at it in secret and comfort myself by thinking that it was unsullied and pleasing to look upon.
“Then you came, and I wanted you and pretended to myself that the Amazon was real and the slave a disguise. Until we were discovered. Then I knew that I could save you only by leaving the old mother’s world - and losing both my loveliness and my lover.”
“In that case, let us return to Babylon. I will defy Seleukos -”
She shook her head wanly. “You do not mean what you say, Demetrios.”
He did not dispute her.
An hour before the following dawn, the flying garden settled to earth near the camp of Antigonos One-Eye. The old general was already awake, restlessly inspecting the phalanx, listening to the reports of scouts, consulting his commanders. His son’s reappearance stirred only a ripple of interest. News of Seleukos’ dispositions and plans was welcome. The merely
personal details of the intelligence gathering operation were a waste of time. A slave who had chanced to join the mission was even further beneath notice.
Throughout the day, Penthesileia kept to a small tent on the outskirts of the host. At supper time, Demetrios visited her. Already his heart was with the army and the upcoming campaign. Their conversation was laconic. She made no effort to keep him beyond the half hour that he had allotted to the interlude.
“What would you like to do now?” he asked as he was leaving. “After our army conquers Babylon, you can return there. I will give Amyntas and his wealth to you, if you like.”
“No. I do not want that. And though you are kind, Demetrios, I would rather not remain with your father’s army.”
“No one will keep you. Tomorrow, or whenever you wish, you may have money and attendants and passports to travel wherever the writ of the General of All Asia is honored.”
“Thank you, Demetrios. May fortune follow you.” She accompanied him outside the tent, into the moonlight.
A cloud, racing past the moon, caused it to flicker. In that flickering, the illusion of the Amazon returned. Demetrios gaped at the finely formed, crimson lips that bade him good-bye.
The image winked away. The Amazon returned to her tent, and the erstwhile monkey strode away through the ranks of his troops.