The Mad Princess of Thebes
Part three: The Mad Princess of Thebes
The brilliance of the seven-gated city of Thebes was born from the meddling of the Olympians and the ingenuity of King Cadmus. The magic sowed in the soil spawned Hercules and Dionysus, but before those demi-gods strode the earth, there was Semele, Cadmus’ beautiful daughter. She had been the jewel of Thebes until Hera drove her mad and Zeus stole her child.
Vera, Sam, and Evander traveled through the Sacred Passage to Thebes after a brief repose in Hephaestus’ palace. They stopped outside the walls of the city as the sun was peaking over the eastern horizon. Thebes perched above Boeotia, looking out across the plains from its plateau. The ancient city had been untouched by the bloody history that was wrought by humankind in the uninitiated world.
“Are you sure this is how you want to play this?” Evander’s brow was furrowed with concern.
Vera traced a small circle in the dusty earth with the toe of her boot, before she answered, “You heard Hephaestus. Semele has to touch the necklace willingly. I don’t see any other way.”
“I don’t like you going in there without me,” he said. Sam snorted and Evander huffed a sigh in return. “Either of you, and don’t get pissed off, Sam. You’re amazing in a fight, but you’re going in on four legs, not two.”
Sam brushed a thumb across Evander’s bottom lip and leaned in for a kiss. “You’re a mess, but we love you, anyway.”
“I’d prefer a straight-up fight,” Evander groaned.
Vera wrapped her arms around him, “I know you would, but this can’t be done by force. We’re going to be fine, Evy.”
“She’s not going to know it’s us until it’s too late for her to do anything about it,” Sam said.
“I’m still coming in with you,” Evander shushed them both before they could voice their objections, “I’ll hang back, but I’m not going to let you face an immortal with a headful of bees alone.”
“Just don’t come charging in before we get the stupid necklace on her,” Vera said, making the order clear.
The three scoured the ground for dry kindling and prepared a small fire. Vera tossed a handful of henbane and thornapple and the flames began to dance. Hephaestus’ wine flowed through her, staving off the chill of dawn, and the overwhelming rush of lust. As she chanted, the words rumbled in her chest and spilled from her mouth like stones tumbling down a mountainside. Smoke began to billow and swirl around her. Vera’s eyes burned and she felt her body transforming, her straight back curving, and the line of her shoulders sinking into an uncomfortable hunch. Her hands shriveled, the knuckles thickening like gnarled tree roots. The pinching discomfort of transformation was a small price to give for the anonymity the glamour provided. Sam and Evander were slack-jawed when Vera emerged from the smoke, bent with age, her face that of a decrepit crone.
“How do I look?” She croaked, amused by the tremulous shiver of age in her voice.
“Old,” Sam said. “You’re still beautiful, but you’re really freaking old.” He shifted to his hound-form when she swatted at him.
“Don’t move too fast, grandma, you’re going to break a hip,” Evander chuckled and she pinched his shoulder. It made him laugh harder.
“You’re both dead to me,” she growled, but smiled when Evander pressed his lips against the creped skin of her cheek.
The walk into the center of the city was slow-going because Vera was forced to ramble at a fraction of her normal pace. Sam padded at her side, scenting the air. She pulled the black cloak she wore tight around her shoulders. A bag was slung over Sam’s back. He had complained about being cast as pack mule, but it was clear Vera was unable to carry anything heavier than the walking stick that she was leaning upon.
King Cadmus’ famous citadel, once the crown of Thebes, was at the center of the city. Vera and Sam waded through a crowd of people who bustled through a busy, open-air market. There were wagons of fruits and vegetables from the surrounding farmland, and tables laden with trinkets from every corner of ancient Greece. Vera was always astounded by the way time stood still in the Beyond. Those who chose to remain were content to forgo the comforts of the uninitiated world if it meant they could maintain their connection to Gaia and the magic of the ancients.
A young woman surveyed the market from a throne between the citadel’s open gates. Her hair spilled over her shoulders like a cascade of amber honey, and her skin was unblemished by time. The freshness of her beauty was betrayed by the suspicion and pitiless anger in her gaze.
Vera reached out to stroke Sam’s head. “That’s Semele. She’s as lovely as I’ve heard, but then again, one would hardly expect the mother of Dionysus to be ugly. Are you ready?” she asked, and Sam barked, low and rough.
Vera hobbled to the steps and stood before Semele, staring at her with blatant curiosity. The princess regarded her with disdain.
“Move along, mother. There is nothing in your pack I wish to buy.” Semele’s voice was pure as a silver bell and Vera wondered what type of queen she might have made if Hera’s jealousy and Zeus’ arrogance had not driven out of her mind.
Vera chuckled. “Might a cat not look at a queen, my lady?”
“I am no queen,” The princess scoffed.
“And I am no mother.”
“You look harmless, are you harmless? I thought once that the world was a harmless place,” Semele looked out over the crowd and began to hum.
“I only cause harm to those that mean it to me, my lady. I came from over the sea on a pilgrimage. I wished for one look at the jewel of Thebes, before I made the final crossing.”
“The jewel of Thebes? What would that be? Have you seen it? I once owned rooms of gems that could outshine the sun.”
“Why, you are the jewel of Thebes, my lady,” Vera was astonished by Semele’s manic rambling.
Semele preened. “Of course, I am, and you came from across the sea and around the corner. Did you travel through that accursed Passage? No, you couldn’t have, those wicked harpies who guard it would rather keep it all to themselves, but not much longer. Sit by my feet,” she gestured to the marble steps, “and tell me why you seek an audience with me.”
Vera struggled to sit, moaning as her old bones creaked. “My lady, it has been told that the azure of your eyes glitters like the surface of the Aegean at dawn and your skin is as pale as milk. I have heard that you even rivaled the Olympians before they fell.”
Semele was entranced, wistful. “It is true, I remember Zeus once told me Hera, in all her finery, was withered as a dried apple compared to me.”
“He was right, my lady. I cannot imagine another face as handsome. Why, even Helen would suffer beside the likes of you.”
The princess began to sing, “Apple blossom, apple blossom, he comes in May to steal a kiss, by harvest moon her lover’s missed,” she stopped and shook her head, “Tell me, mother. How is it someone with such a kind tongue has no children to care for her in her final years?”
“I was an artisan lady. I spent my life seeking the most beautiful gems to polish and shine.”
“Were you very successful?”
“Oh yes, lady, even the fiercest women in Sparta wore my jewels. I once fitted the Oracle at Delphi with a golden necklace that flowered in the spring, and grew cool as moonlight in the heat of the day.”
The princess snapped her fingers. “That is a bauble I would buy. I don’t suppose you made two?”
“No, my lady. That was just a coarse piece of pageantry, not nearly fine enough to be worn about your pretty throat.”
“Tell me, then, if you had such a passion to see me, why wait until the end of your life to travel to Thebes? Ought you have come when you were young, so that you would have years to look upon me?”
“My lady, I am but a poor jeweler who peddles her wares along the roadside. When I was a girl of twenty, the Oracle told me that my finest work would be for you. I have toiled across the years to create something worthy of the jewel of Thebes. It is only now, in the twilight of my life, that I have finished my task.”
Semele’s eyes lit with avarice, “You have come all this way to present a gift to me? You honor me, mother.”
“It is you who honor me, my lady. Will you really accept such a humble offering?”
“Of course, but I must see this delight. If you give it to me now, I will make sure you have food and shelter for the night.”
Vera pulled out length of silk. “My lady, I am but a humble subject and you have already shown me such grace, but may I trouble you for one conceit?”
“For such a kindness, there is little I would deny you.”
“I wonder if you might wear this about your eyes. Your first sight of your necklace should be of it draped around your pretty throat.”
Semele clapped and squealed like a child, “Oh, that is a game just for me, is it not, mother? I will play. Here, help me fasten it.” She ripped the cloth from Vera’s hand.
Vera’s gut was tangled with anxiety. The person before her was a vain, petty creature, but had she not been driven mad by her lover, and lost her child in the bargain? The idea that Semele could organize a plot to kill her and steal control of the Sacred Passage seemed absurd when she thought about it. The princess had been badly used and the curse should be brought down on the one who had fanned the flames of jealousy. Vera dismissed the idea immediately, there was no time to look for the hand behind this scheme. Mad or no, the princess was the one who set this curse on her, and so she must bear the consequence. The power of the Olympians may have faded, but the magic of the Beyond still bore the mark of their bloody need for vengeance.
Sam whined and nudged at her with his muzzle, shattering the indecision that plagued Vera. It was her own life she was defending and the lives of all those who lived in both worlds. Hephaestus had been certain Semele was behind this plot and swore to her that if this mad child had done nothing to harm Vera, then the necklace would not react to her touch. Vera had to live to uncover the forces working against the Mound of Gaia. The Sacred Passage was to be protected at all costs and if there was dissension in the Temple, it had to be rooted out and crushed. Vera was the High Votaress. The task fell to her, and her alone. Heavy is the head, Vera thought and produced the velvet box from one of the bags slung across Sam’s back.
“Just in front of you, my lady, stretch out your dainty hands and take what I have made for you.”
The princess held her hands out, her fingers opening and closing with impatience. Vera snapped the box open and Semele grasped at her prize. Nothing happened. Vera held her breath as the princess’ fingers trailed over the gems and gold cooing with excitement.
“Please, mother, I am desperate to see it. Help me put it on,” Semele ordered and it was as if the tinkling music of her voice woke the serpents. They came alive, their jeweled eyes trained on the princess, the sound of metal slithering over metal so much like a hiss that it made Vera’s skin crawl. The princess stilled, her head cocked as if she were listening for a whisper in the wind. Her mouth twisted into a hideous sneer and she attempted to pull her hands away, but it was too late — Hephaestus’ little darlings had twined around her arms, their fangs glinting in the afternoon sun.
Darkness lay across the Valley of Gortyna. Vera looked down from the veranda outside her villa at the twinkling torches that surrounded the Temple of Gaia. She shut her eyes and saw Semele retreating into the citadel, screeching and clawing at her neck. It was a travesty and she could not help but feel like a fraud, a trickster who had condemned an already-mad woman to a worse fate rather than bear it herself. It was cold comfort that it was Semele who had tried to assassinate her and Vera was simply returning the curse to the one who had sought to wield its power in the first place.
Vera, Sam, and Evander had revealed themselves when the citadel guards approached them. The bald relief on their faces was further evidence of Semele’s madness. The princess had been nothing but a pitiable sideshow for centuries, proving that the virtual immortality enjoyed by those in the Beyond was both a blessing and a curse.
Semele offered nothing but violent rantings, that grew more and more obscene as the madness of the curse overwhelmed her, but she refused to allow anyone to pry the serpents’ fangs from her throat. She yowled and tore at her hair, all the while rattling about the human filth that the Mound of Gaia had allowed to infect the Beyond. It was heartbreaking to know that the mother of Dionysus, the Daemon of Earth Court, had been abandoned and left to suffer in madness.
Vera stared into the black above her. After they had finished in Thebes, Vera and her lovers had retreated to the Temple of Gaia. That was three days ago. They had sought the safety of their villa knowing that once the magic of Hephaestus’ wine had worn off, they would drop where they stood. Vera scrubbed at her face and tried to untangle the knot of frustration, sadness, and betrayal that had taken residence in her chest. She was faced with an agonizing dilemma; she would now have to discern whether she had been betrayed by the Temple oracles or seek out a being whose power at least rivaled and at worst outstripped, her own.
“Hard to find answers in the stars when they’re hiding,” Evander said, tugging her against his side.
“Now you tell me.”
“Come inside. Sam’s panic-baking. He’s already made spanakopita and seed cake. If we don’t stop him he’s going to decimate the Temple’s apiary making baklava.”
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?”
“Hey,” Evander kissed her forehead, “Semele didn’t do this alone. Someone knew the curse of Harmonia was tied to her bloodline. We’re going to figure this out, just not tonight.”
“Not tonight,” she echoed and they walked inside.
It was obvious that Sam had been cooking, the room smelled of sugar and yeast; it was the scent of home and her eyes pricked with grateful tears. Candles lined almost every surface, giving off the scent of honey and thyme as they burned. Sam was standing in the center of the room by their bed, bare to the waist, his arms outstretched. Vera went to him and pressed her face to his chest, drinking in the warmth of his skin. Evander gathered them together in his arms, offering both comfort and a silent promise to stand with them against the oncoming storm.
Sam turned to Evander and took his lips in a gentle kiss, opening to him when Evander licked at the seam of his mouth. Vera laid a trail of kisses from Sam’s shoulder to his neck. Evander and Vera guided Sam backward and he laughed when the back of his knees hit the bed. Sam sat and Evander crawled into his lap and resumed exploring his mouth while Vera crowded behind him, reaching around to pluck at his nipples. He leaned his head back against Vera’s shoulder to catch his breath. She watched Evander as he nipped and licked his way from Sam’s neck to the waist of the loose linen pajamas he wore. His cock was hard, jutting against the fabric, and Evander slid the pants off. He licked around the head of Sam’s prick, before taking him in his mouth and sucking Sam deeper each time his lips traveled down Sam’s length.
Sam gasped, his hands carding through Evander’s hair. “I thought this was supposed to be about making Vera feel better?”
Evander let Sam’s cock fall from his mouth. His lips were swollen and red. “I got distracted.”
Sam turned his head and kissed Vera, guiding her to stand before him so that he and Evander could undress her. Their hands were hungry to feel the velvet skin between her thighs and the weight of her breasts. They explored the topography of her body, her arousal growing in strength, but not in the desperate needy way that had possessed her while she was cursed. This was more like the warmth of the sun on her face in the spring, after a long, miserable winter. Sam and Evander maneuvered her onto the bed. She lay on her side with Sam in front of her and Evander behind, their bodies locked together, hands gliding overheated skin. Sam hitched her leg over his hip and Evander began to massage the delicate pearl of her clit.
She cried out and Sam swallowed the sound, his hands caressing her breasts and stroking her nipples to hardness. Evander kissed her neck and her shoulders, his broad chest firm against her back. She knew she was secure with her lovers around her, and yet she still felt as if there had been an irrevocable shift on the path they walked.
“Come back to us,” Sam whispered when her kisses slackened. Her mind kept returning to the danger that was lurking in the shadows. She shook the intrusive thoughts from her head. Sam’s fingers traced the plain of her cheeks and Evander leaned over her shoulder to look in her eyes. She saw love and fierce loyalty reflected in their eyes. She surrendered to the moment and allowed the tension in her body to melt away.
Sam resumed kissing her and Evander breached her body with his fingers. He spread her slickness around the delicate folds of her sex and then slid his cock into her. Vera sighed into Sam’s mouth and he smiled against her lips. She reached down and swept her hand up and down his manhood while Evander moved inside her. He panted against her shoulder and Vera tilted her head back to steal a kiss from Evander’s lips. Sam sucked at her breasts and rocked into her fist. The heat between them rose with each breath, until they were writhing together, and the room was alive with their cries of pleasure. Evander began to tease Vera’s clit, his thrusts growing more urgent.
“I’m close,” she whispered, one hand still on Sam’s cock, the other reaching behind her to grasp Evander’s hip. Vera tightened the heart of her womanhood around Evander and the rhythm of his hips faltered. He shouted, grinding against her and quaking with the power of his release. When Evander’s shaking subsided, he slipped from her body, and guided Sam’s cock into her sacred channel. Evander’s fingers found her clit again and he swirled the tender skin, stirring her passion while Sam clung to her.
The power of her orgasm shot out from her center like light exploding from the center of a star. She sobbed, riding Sam’s cock through each spasm, chasing the delicious sweetness, not wanting it to end. The fluttering walls at Vera’s center tipped Sam over the edge and he cried out, shuddering through his completion.
After, they lay curled together, panting and spent, while the flickering candles painted their bodies with dancing shadows. Sam was the one who rose and returned with a lavabo filled with rose water, cleansing their bodies, and murmuring words of love while he tended to them with gentle hands. They climbed beneath the crisp cotton sheets, fitting arms and legs together before they drifted to sleep. Outside, the clouds that had obscured the sky were shredded by a rising wind, and the moon showed her face, bathing the Valley of Gortyna in silver light.
Anne Stagg's 'Mound of Gaia' series is a Bellesa exclusive.