With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Universal Studios, MCA, or Pacific Renaissance Productions. Yes, I'm using them without permission, but I'm writing this for love, not for money, so I trust no one will get uptight about it.
This story was inspired by one of Bwell's clever photo manipulations. If you'd like to see it, go to Bwell's Page
This is a sequel to Family, Closest to Your Heart, The Next Monster, and As Much a Part, Dead Bugs in Amber, Harder Every Time, and is the seventh part of the The Euphonius Scrolls series.
You can check out more work by Euphonius at Kerry's Korner
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyone for a Swim?
I walked along the dock at Piraeus, still limping slightly from the wound in my leg that I'd received several weeks ago. As I studied the names on the bows of the various ships in port, I was searching for one called the Princess, hoping it would be a decent-looking vessel. The cries of the seabirds and the fresh smell of salty air brought back fond memories of the long ago time when I had been an aspiring sailor myself.
I smiled as I recalled my lost youth. Ah, to have those days back once again!
My thoughts were jerked abruptly into the present as I caught sight of the ship I sought. My first impression was along the lines of "If that's a princess, then I'm a queen." It wasn't the most shipshape or seaworthy vessel I had ever laid eyes upon, but it was the only one bound for Mythemna on the Isle of Lesbos, so I had little choice. I had gotten a tip that a poetess by the name of Sappho was looking for designs for some very special jewelry she wanted to have made, and I had to get there before the news reached any of my competitors. I had with me a special collection of custom-made items for her consideration. If she liked any of the designs I had chosen, I stood to make a sizable profit.
I walked up the gangplank and glanced around the deck, hoping to catch sight of the captain. Two surly-looking men sat huddled together at the stern, but they seemed entirely caught up in some sort of gambling game that they were playing. Not the most attentive crew I had ever seen. Then a third man appeared from the aft cabin. I suspected he might be the captain, as he appeared somewhat less disreputable than the others.
"You be wanting something?" he asked, striding towards me. He was a huge, hairy bear of a man. Not exactly my type, but I was going to sail with him, not screw around with him.
"I'd like to book passage to Mythemna, if you have the space."
"Don't carry passengers," was the gruff reply.
"I'll pay well." Taking two gold coins from my pouch, I held them up so they sparkled in the sunlight.
He raised his thick eyebrows, then stared sharply at the coins. "Might make an exception for that kind of money," he allowed, looking me over with more interest. "Ain't no fancy ship I got. Not the kind of thing the likes of you would be wanting to travel on."
"I'll manage. I'm in a hurry to get to Lesbos."
He studied me for a few more minutes, a frown on his face. I just stood there, trying to look like the sort of man that might impress him. That was pretty difficult, considering my less than average height and too-nice tunic. I had hoped for passage on a more luxurious vessel, and had dressed with that in mind.
I remembered another captain once, long ago, who had scrutinized me in much the same fashion, with just such a doubtful expression on his face. My lips curved up into a slight smile at the long-unvisited memory of Zaytoun, captain and owner of the Sea Jewel.
Still waiting patiently for an answer, I glanced around the deck. The Princess was pretty much your basic merchant ship, but it wasn't in very good condition. The entire vessel was badly in need of paint, and I could see several patches on the linen sail, even furled as it was on the single mast. Still, it looked as if it could make a fair speed. Under good conditions, the trip should take about ten days. I figured I could put up with the rather rough conditions for that length of time.
I looked back at the captain, raising one eyebrow and smiling as if I were confident of his acceptance. He nodded fractionally, and took the coins from my hand. "Name's Ursus," he said tersely. "Who might you be?"
"Euphonius. I'm a jewelry merchant."
"All right, Euonymous --"
"Uh that's Euphonius. Euonymous is a kind of bush."
Ursus frowned at the interruption. I got the definite impression he didn't much care about my name, as long as he had my money. "We sail with the tide," he said before he turned away. "Make sure you're on board."
I was. But I had spent the intervening time shopping for some less expensive clothing, and getting myself a small supply of decent food items to supplement what I expected to be a pretty poor diet aboard the ship. I also invested in a cloak for warmth. It was early spring and although the air was warm, I knew the ocean water was still rather cold, so it was likely to be a chilly voyage.
For the first few days, all went well. Oh, the crew groused a lot, talking about the unusual number of storms lately, and the ships that had been lost. I ignored all that. Sailors are a suspicious and superstitious bunch, always on the lookout for trouble. If it's not there, they'll invent it. Still, I didn't like the way they'd glance out over the sea so often, nor did I care for the worried expression on the captain's face each time a few clouds gathered in the distance.
The two young men who made up the crew earned my dislike almost immediately. They laughed far more than was necessary every time I lost my footing on the rolling deck, and made it very clear that they considered me an over-aged, over-privileged nuisance, and had only refrained from tossing me overboard because the captain forbade it. I quickly learned to avoid them as much as was possible in the cramped confines of a small vessel.
We were six days out from port and roughly in the middle of the Aegean Sea when disaster struck. Until then, we had made fairly good time, but this morning the wind just didn't want to cooperate. I stood aft, not far from the steering oar, looking over the rail. The sea spread out around us, reflecting the dull blue-gray of the angry clouds overhead. The waves flowed in disordered ranks, confused by the fickle wind, which couldn't seem to decide on a direction from which to blow.
Ursus eyed the water with a distrustful eye and I heard him mutter to himself, "Don't like this much at all, I don't."
I pulled my cloak closer around me as I heard the smart slap of a wave against the prow. Spray flew white, splattering us with cold and salty water as a fitful gust of wind carried it over the entire length of the boat. I shivered and thought about going below, but wasn't too sure I wanted to risk being trapped belowdecks if something awful happened.
The storm came up literally out of nowhere. One minute the weather was nasty but not dangerous, and the next a howling gale swept down on us from the north. We were caught entirely unawares, our sail set and vulnerable to the full force of the wind, which caught the sail and rolled the vessel over on its beam ends.
I had the misfortune to be standing at what was now the unexpected leeward rail. Before I knew what was happening, I was covered with water, my grip on the rail torn loose as I was swept overboard.
I'm not a strong swimmer, but I can keep from drowning if I have to. I struggled to the surface, desperately trying to catch my breath amidst the roiling waves. The water was cold: not that deadly cold that takes your breath away when you hit it, but cold enough to be distinctly uncomfortable.
My frantic calls for help went unheeded in the face of the gale. No one on the Princess could have rescued me anyway, as the little vessel was now fighting for its own life, riding low in the water, its sail in tatters. Through the blowing spume, I could just see the crew rushing frantically around the deck.
I was barely able to keep afloat. My injured leg hurt from my frantic kicking. Buffeted by whitecaps, I could just about keep my head above the water long enough to breathe. In the confusion of wind, rain, and spray, I thought I heard a deep peal of laughter rumble like distant thunder above the chaos of the storm.
I kept my eyes on the ship as well as I could, still hoping for rescue. Then the sea rose in a bulge of frothing white water. As it grew higher, it took on the form of a huge, bearded man, rising up until only the lower part of his body remained submerged. He held a trident in his left hand and appeared to have a dark crown on his head. His eyes glowed with lambent white fire as he scanned the ocean surrounding him.
Other than his great size, the astounding thing about him was that he seemed to be made up of shining, blue-gray water. Lightning flashed around him, and his cruel laughter echoed above the storm along with the thunder.
My shock-numbed brain could come up with only one name for that terrifying apparition: Poseidon, God of the Seas.
Drawing back his huge hand in a fist, he threatened to hit the ship with a blow that would surely drive it beneath the surface. A small voice came to my ears, barely audible amidst the chaos of sound and storm. "No! Don't!" was what I thought I heard it say.
I narrowed my salt-stung eyes against the wind and made out a human-sized figure in the sea, waving its arms at the Sea God. Undeterred by the wrathful deity, it appeared to be remonstrating with him, gesturing wildly as it struggled to be heard.
Poseidon turned toward his tiny opponent, the scowl deepening on his fluid face, and his eyes glowing brighter.
"Out of my way, puny mortal!" he roared.
But the puny mortal in question refused to move, redoubling its efforts to get between the god and the sinking ship.
Poseidon's watery body turned darker, the blue-gray deepening into the iron gray of the storm clouds above his head. He made a pushing gesture with his free hand, and a huge wave arose from the sea, heading directly at the small creature confronting him, and also, incidentally, heading in my general direction. The unnatural wave towered high over the man in the water, ready to break on top of him. Just before the crest of the wave tumbled forward, I saw him dive.
"I'll deal with you later, insolent little creature!" Poseidon roared as his opponent evaded destruction.
With another sweep of his arm, the vengeful god called up a virtual wall of water, sending it smashing down on top of the Princess. That was the last I was to see of that ill-fated vessel.
Unfortunately, the other wave kept coming at me, its strength unabated by the distance. Just like its original target, I took a deep breath and attempted to avoid the churning mass of white water by diving below it, but it didn't work. I was caught in the undertow, dragged down and flipped head over heels until I was no longer sure which way was up. I tried to fight that deadly current, but I was far too exhausted and weak. My cloak tangled around me and I couldn't even get my feet free to kick. As my lungs begged desperately for air, I had time enough to think it was all over.
Then something grabbed me from behind and jerked me hard backwards. Oh, just great; it wasn't bad enough that I was drowning, but now I was going to be eaten by a shark or some other sea monster. I struggled weakly against the creature, but to no avail. Then I realized that it seemed to be towing me upwards. If I could just hold my breath for a little longer, I might at least get some air before I died. That sounded good, under the circumstances. I stopped fighting.
My head broke the surface, and I gasped for air, at the same time trying to twist around to confront whatever monster it was that had me in its clutches.
I came face to face with Iolaus. No, that wasn't possible. How could he be here? This had to be an hallucination. Then I caught a quick glimpse of the rest of his body as we were tumbled by another wave, and I knew exactly why he could be here.
I tried to call his name but my voice failed me. I was overtaken by a fit of coughing as I inhaled foam from the crest of another breaking wave.
"It's all right," he assured me. "You'll make it."
Buffeted by waves, choking on water, I yet tried to speak to him. "Is it really you?"
"Who else?" came the jaunty reply, as he grabbed hold of my sodden clothing and pulled me up against him, just before we were knocked down by another breaking wave. While we were underwater, I thought I heard him make some rather strange clicking sounds, but it was hard to be sure, considering the circumstances.
Once we came up, he shifted around so he was behind me, one arm across my chest. "Just relax. I've got you," he said into my ear as he began towing me through the water, heading away from the center of the still-raging storm.
I'm afraid I wasn't much help. My cloak was tangled around me, and my fingers had grown numb and awkward. Slowly, we made it into calmer water.
I had just about decided I might not die after all when an upright fin cut through the water, heading right at us.
"Shark!!" I screamed, twisting around and grabbing frantically at Iolaus, just about ready to try to climb out of the water by climbing on top of him.
"I know," he replied calmly, evading my grip. "He's just checking us out, not attacking. Don't kick or thrash around." Wrapping his arms around me, he drew me close against the front of his body once again, keeping us both afloat with the slow and gentle motion of his tail.
I tried my best to overcome my panic, going as limp as I could manage and relaxing the deathgrip I had around his neck.
"That's it. Stay calm. There's an excellent chance we'll be okay," he said.
"An excellent chance?" I quavered. That didn't sound very encouraging.
"Yeah." His eyes never left the fin, which was still approaching.
The shark must not have found us particularly toothsome, as it just circled around a bit. I shivered as I saw the creature's black eyes below the surface, but its mouth seemed to be solidly closed.
Then I saw more fins coming at us. I almost lost it entirely, until I realized from the shape of those fins and the way they moved that they were only dolphins.
As the newcomers drew nearer, the shark decided not to hang around, much to my relief. One of the dolphins surfaced almost underneath me, pushing me up. Iolaus guided my hands to the dorsal fin, trying to fold my numb fingers around it.
"Hang on," his voice said in my ear. "They'll tow us."
The dolphin moved forward slowly. Even though I tried to hold on as tightly as I could, my hands began to slip as I was overcome by an encroaching darkness that I couldn't fight off.
I felt arms come around me, and strong fingers covered my own, locking them in place, just before I passed out.
I moaned softly and opened my eyes, only to be treated to a most wondrous sight: a beautiful yellow-haired young woman nursing a small baby. Not all that unusual, granted, except that both mother and child seemed to be half fish, from the waist down. As for myself, I was lying in a warm pool of water, so shallow that my bare back rested comfortably on the sandy bottom even as my head was propped up on something hard, perhaps a stone. The warm water, combined with the warmth of the sun on the unsubmerged parts of my body, felt absolutely marvellous.
For those first couple of seconds, the lovely mermaid seemed unaware that I was conscious, so I had a chance to study her without being noticed. She too was reclining in the pool, her babe at her breast. Yes, my first incredible impression had been correct; from just below her navel, she was a fish. No, on second thought, not quite a fish. Her lower half actually looked more like dolphin skin, rather than fish scales. It tapered down to a broad tail, just beyond where her feet should have been, and that tail ran from side to side, not up and down like a fish's would. It seemed to end in two layers of fringy-looking stuff, with the longer fringe in back. It was even bent slightly, at about the point where her knees would be.
Utterly fascinated, I just stared at her. When a hand touched my bare shoulder, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
"Hey, take it easy. You're okay."
I turned to the side, and found Iolaus sitting on the rocks next to my head with only the end of his tail trailing into the water. By now I was at least beginning to get used to the idea of mermaids uh mermen? uh merfolk? -- or was it merpeople? so I could manage to be less astonished at his appearance.
"It is you!" I exclaimed stupidly. "It really is you!"
"Uh-huh," he agreed.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to see you again. And I certainly never expected to see your wife and baby!" I looked at the mermaid again, suddenly wondering if I had made an unjustified assumption. "Uh this is Nautica, isn't it?"
I knew full well how he and Nautica had fallen in love, and gone to live together in the sea, with Aphrodite's help. Hercules had told me about it shortly after it had happened. But life goes on and things change. It was within the realm of possibility that he had taken up with some other mermaid by now.
"Oh, yes," Iolaus replied, rescuing me from the possible faux pas. "This is Nautica."
"I never thought I'd meet you either, Euphonius," the lovely mermaid said with a bright smile. "Iolaus has told me all about how the two of you were friends, when he was back on the land."
All about us? Somehow, I doubted that. Or, then again, maybe he had.
"Sometimes it seems that the world is awfully small," I said, making my face into a gracious smile, "and the circles come around far more tightly than you ever expected. I guess the Fates must get a kick out of doing these things to us poor mortals." I shook my head. "I still can't quite believe it."
I tried to sit up, but it seemed my entire body ached with cold and sluggishness. It was about that time that I looked down at myself and realized that my clothing was gone. Except for my loin cloth and the amethyst pendant around my neck, I was essentially naked. However, since neither Iolaus nor his mermaid was wearing even that much, I decided that embarrassment was quite unnecessary.
"Where am I?" I finally got around to asking.
"In our nursery pool," Iolaus replied, gesturing around with one hand. "I figured it would be warm enough to revive you."
I looked around at what he had called their nursery pool. It was a small rocky islet that had what appeared to be a partly artificial pool in the center. The pool was hidden from view by the surrounding rocks, and a partial roof made of carefully arranged driftwood formed a shady section at the other end. The entire islet was far too small to attract the attention of passing ships, if any should pass by.
"Very nice set up," I commented.
"We like it."
Things got quiet for a moment, as none of us seemed to know what to say next.
A thousand things ran through my mind as I looked at him, but most of them couldn't be said in front of his wife. I knew full well that anything that had once been between us was long over and done. Even back then, we had basically been friends, not truly lovers in anything beyond a physical sense. I also knew that I had cared a whole lot more for him than he had for me. I had always known that. But still, it was good to see him, and to know he was not only alive and well, but also very happy is his new life.
Iolaus, meanwhile, just sat there, looking at his wife and child with adoring eyes.
Nautica must have picked up on some of my feelings, because when the infant burped and stopped nursing, she glanced over to her husband. "Would you take care of the baby while I go for a swim? I'll see if I can find some food for our guest, now that he's awake." She pulled a large net bag from a niche in the rocks and slung it over one shoulder, blunting the possible discourtesy of leaving so abruptly by adding, "I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about, and I won't be long."
Iolaus took the infant, settling it comfortably against his chest and sliding into the pool, where he submerged far enough so that the baby's lower half was in the water.
So what does one say to someone who just happens to have turned into a merman since the last time you saw him? Well, no matter what else he was, he was obviously a proud parent, judging by the way he was beaming down at the baby in his lap.
"What a beautiful child!" I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. I'm not much for children, especially small ones. They're all right, as long as they're someone else's.
I was rewarded with one of Iolaus' smiles, so I figured I must have said the right thing. Following up on my success, I asked, "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Oh, a girl, of course. She was born almost three weeks ago. Boys are extremely rare." The smile turned into a frown. "And getting even rarer, in recent generations. Or, at least, that's what Nautica tells me."
I drew the obvious conclusion from what he'd said. "Then there aren't all that many mermen?"
"Nope. Not compared to the mermaids, that is."
"Does that mean you get more than your fair share of the ladies?" I asked, half-playfully.
"Well, yeah," he admitted, perfectly serious. "When they can find me, that is. We're pretty spread out these days."
I digested that for a moment. "Nautica doesn't mind?"
"Not really. She's lived with this situation all her life and knows it's our only chance to keep from dying out. Besides, she knows I love her and belong to her, in the final analysis. The rest of it doesn't matter."
I looked down at the child again. As I mentioned, I'm not one to go ga-ga over babies, but I did have to admit that this was one very cute kid. A pale blond fuzz was all she had in the way of hair, but her eyes were sky-blue and her baby smile lit up the world the same way her father's did. It was clear that she'd be a real heart breaker when she grew up.
Well, if there were any mermen around by then with hearts waiting to be broken, that is. According to what Iolaus had just told me, perhaps her prospects weren't all too good in the romance department.
And speaking of romance --
My eyes once again traveled over Iolaus' body. Even with a tail, he was still all too attractive to me. Then I caught sight of Nautica's bright blond head, bobbing up and down with the waves as she swam nearby. The mother of his baby. His wife.
I sighed and pushed aside all thought of the things Iolaus and I had done together in the past. Fish or man, he was off limits now.
Yeah, you heard me right: Euphonius, who chases just about anything in pants, or sometimes robes, would draw the line at a married man. I don't do lies and deceit very well, at least not since I ran afoul of Dahak, and felt in my own heart the damage they can do. No matter that I loved Iolaus and wanted him still. He belonged to Nautica now, and I would do nothing to cause them trouble. She might not mind him mating with other mermaids out of necessity, but I doubted she'd take kindly to unnecessary screwing around.
And besides how in the name of Eros himself does one make love to someone who's half fish?
I managed to get my mouth in gear once again. "So what's the little one's name?"
"Pearl," he replied, still glowing with pride at my attention to his daughter.
Pearl. The image of a long string of pearls flashed through my mind, wrapped around Iolaus' erect penis, while Ares looked on.
No, no, no! I reminded myself firmly. Forget that! Talk about something else.
"I guess things are going pretty good for you, huh? You've adapted to your new life?"
"Yeah. It gets easier, when you've done it before." He looked down at his lower body with a wry smile. "It was a little strange at first, though."
All right, my curiosity got the better of me by then.
"I can't help but wonder I mean " I spread my hands in a helpless gesture, not sure what words I could use. "Well, just how do you and Nautica uh -- ?"
He laughed. "Don't ask. You really don't want to know, trust me."
I did want to know, but I also didn't want to pry. As I saw Nautica turn back towards the islet, I dutifully changed the subject yet again. "That was Poseidon we saw back there in the water, wasn't it?" Iolaus nodded, no longer looking so happy. "So what's his problem anyway? Why did he sink the ship?"
"Seems there's been a drastic drop in attendance at his temples lately. No sacrifices, no offerings, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, business has picked up for most of the other gods, and a few of them have even been teasing him about it."
"I gather he's pretty pissed off, in that case?"
Iolaus nodded, rocking the baby gently in his arms. Pearl's eyes were beginning to drift closed. "Even under the best of circumstances, Poseidon is an edgy and untrustworthy god, as gods go," he explained softly. "Like the ocean he rules, he's extremely volatile, and can change in an instant from benign to malevolent. He's been on a rampage lately, causing storms and sinking ships. I wouldn't put it past him to send a tidal wave against some of the seaport towns pretty soon now."
"I don't get it," I said, also quietly, careful not to disturb the drowsing infant. "I mean, I can see why he might be angry, but why isn't he getting the worship that he used to?"
"I'm not sure, but my theory is that so much more is happening on land these days that the importance of the ocean is being overlooked." He had lowered his voice still further, and his baby-rocking became slower. "You know, cities getting bigger, more land under cultivation, better roads. People are turning to Demeter, Artemis, Aphrodite, even Hera, rather than Poseidon."
"Not a real good idea," I said, "considering that Greece is pretty well surrounded by water. Besides, what about all the sea-going folks? I don't think your average sailor is lacking in respect."
"Maybe not, but most sailors aren't exactly rolling in dinars either. They don't earn enough to make the big offerings and hold fancy ceremonies, the way the landsmen can."
"Has anyone tried to explain this to Poseidon?"
Iolaus laughed softly and waved his hand. "Try reasoning with the wind and the waves. You'd probably have more success. He doesn't want to hear it. He's always been jealous of the other gods anyway, ever since things were divided up between them. Zeus got the earth and Hades got the underworld, but Poseidon was never content with having the ocean as his portion. He's tried to take over parts of the land before, without success."
By now, Nautica had reached the islet and was pulling herself up over the rocks. With a brief glance at the baby sleeping peacefully in her husband's arms, she made herself comfortable next to us, then dug through her carrying bag and held out a large handful of bright green, slippery-looking seaweed in our direction. She unloaded several good-sized fish from the bag also, plus a number of oysters and more seaweed of a different kind.
"Hungry?" Iolaus asked, taking the vegetation and pulling off a chunk.
"Sea lettuce?" I asked warily, digging through my memory for the name of the stuff he was so happily munching on.
"Yeah. It's pretty good. Try it."
Gingerly, I took a small piece in my hand and nibbled on an edge. It wasn't too bad, but it was rather salty.
Salty. That reminded me of just how thirsty I was. "Anything to drink?" I inquired hopefully.
"Oh, sure. We catch rainwater in the pools up on the higher rocks. It's a little awkward for us to reach, but we don't require very much fresh water ourselves. Nautica, would you hold Pearl while I --"
"Stay there," I said quickly. "I can get it myself."
I rose to my feet. My bad leg was stiff, and I felt just a little shaky at first, but as soon as that passed, I stepped up onto the rocks beside the pool and went over to look on top of the higher ones at the far end. Sure enough, there were several small pools of sparkling water easily within my reach.
"Here, use this," Nautica said, holding up a large flat shell. "I'd like a little also, if you don't mind."
I filled the shell and handed it down to her. When she had had enough, I quenched my own thirst, then filled my makeshift cup and brought it back with me to the pool. The rainwater was slightly salty, but not enough to make it dangerous to drink.
By now, Iolaus had given the baby to her mother and was working on the fish Nautica had caught, carefully filleting them with a bone knife. As I sat down on the rocks at the edge of the pool, most of my body out of the water, the breeze was chilly on my skin. The sun had begun its trek down the western sky. It would be cold once night fell, which made me wonder about my clothes. Belatedly, I recalled the jewelry I had been carrying to Lesbos.
"What happened to the clothing I was wearing?" I asked Iolaus.
"It's spread out on the rocks around the other side of the islet, drying out."
That was good. Hopefully, my cache of jewelry was also safe.
"I'll go see how it's doing. Not that I don't like your pool, of course, but I'm starting to look like a prune and it's chilly out of the water."
"Okay. Just be careful. Some of those rocks are covered with barnacles."
He wasn't kidding. Careful as I was, I still managed to slice the edge of my foot on one of them. When I reached my clothes, I found they were still too wet to be worth putting on. Much to my relief, the faded neckerchief was laid out in the sun along with everything else. Picking up the knotted and well-worn cloth, I made my way carefully back to the poolside and sat down in a patch of warm sunlight that was pretty well sheltered from the breeze. Until my clothes dried out, that was the best I'd be able to do.
"So why were you at sea in the first place?" Iolaus asked me, still working on the fish.
"The usual," I said with a shrug. "Trying to make a sale."
I told them about the tip I had gotten, and the jewelry Sappho wanted.
"Would you show it to us?" Nautica requested.
"Sure. I'd be glad of some feedback, actually. But bear in mind that these are only cheap models made of pewter. Once the ladies choose the designs they want, I can have them made up with whatever precious metals and gems they prefer."
Carefully untying the knots in the neckerchief, I dumped the small models out onto a conveniently flat rock, then picked them up one at a time, describing each one in turn, then handing it to Nautica, who passed it over to Iolaus.
"This is a symbol often used to represent women," I explained as I held up the first one. "It's supposed to look rather like a hand mirror and is associated with Aphrodite."
As Nautica took it from me, she looked a bit puzzled.
"You've got it upside-down, my dear. Turn it the other way. That's it. See the circle on top, with the cross underneath to act as a handle?"
She nodded, studying it without any great show of enthusiasm. I moved on to the next one.
"Here's a labyrus, a double-sided axe. I know a lot of amazons who favor these as weapons, so I thought it might appeal to some of the more aggressive of Sappho's students."
The mermaid took it also, but hardly spared a glance at this one before giving it to her husband.
Moving on, I held up the most simple of the designs. "This, of course, is the crescent moon." I smiled. "Women are always associated with the moon, for obvious reasons."
"Really?" Nautica said, looking totally puzzled.
Oops! Maybe such considerations didn't apply to mermaids.
"I'll explain it to you later, dear," Iolaus put in.
"All right," she replied equably. Then, to me, pointing to one of the models still lying on the rock, "What's this fat little figure here?"
"It's supposed to represent the power and mystery of women's fertility, and their role as the bearers of life." I shrugged. "Personally, I think it's fat and ill-proportioned to the point of caricature, with those exaggerated breasts and hips, but there are folks who like it."
Nautica took it, but made a face. All right, this was also a loser, for mermaids anyway.
"Now, this is the one that appeals to me the most. It's a stylized orchid, deliberately made to emphasize its resemblance to a woman's uh lower regions." I glanced at Nautica, then added, "Well, a human woman, anyway. No, I'm sorry, that didn't come out right either. But I'm sure you know what I mean." I turned it around, admiring the detailed workmanship. "Clever, huh? I'm not so sure the ladies of Lesbos will appreciate it, but I think it's both graceful and artistic, even if I'm not a man who greatly admires those ah nether regions."
I placed the little flower into her hand, then waited until it had reached Iolaus and been returned to me. Spreading them all out on the rock again, I asked, "So what do you think, my dear? Which one is your favorite?"
She didn't hesitate at all before pointing to the crescent moon. "This one. Even if I don't know it's meaning for humans, I love to watch the moon, and the way it changes all the time."
"Interesting. I wonder if the Lesbian ladies will agree with you, or choose something different." I held it up, turning it this way and that. "If they choose this one, I can see lots of possibilities for making it much fancier. A little engraving, some gems set in various places." My eyes still on the crescent, I looked sideways to judge Nautica's reaction.
"Oh yes, that would look lovely." She held out her hand to show the ring she wore. "Maybe some gems like this one? It has the look of moonlight in it."
"Of course it does, my dear. It's a moonstone. But that's an excellent suggestion. I'll definitely keep it in mind." I tried very hard to keep the pang of regret I felt in my heart from showing in my voice. I recognized that ring all too well. I had given it to Iolaus some time ago, after our misadventure with Ares, telling him to save it for the one he would truly love.
Briefly, the image of the man who had once been the Sovereign's court jester flashed through my mind as I had known him back then, without the tail.
I looked down at my hands, making a show of gathering up the little pewter figures. I tied them into the faded linen square, then deftly fastened it around my neck so that the knot which held the jewelry was hidden by the larger and looser knot that secured the kerchief in place.
Iolaus watched me closely, then grinned as he inspected the finished effect. "Pretty good hiding place."
"It's an old sailor's trick," I replied with a smile.
He got the joke. I could tell from the smile and the giggle. Hercules must have told him about the old hunter's tricks.
"I didn't know you were a sailor," he said, as he handed me a neatly filleted strip of raw fish wrapped in some kind of seaweed.
I regarded the fish rather dubiously, but took an experimental nibble. Not much chance of starting a fire out here, so I figured I'd best get used to eating whatever merfolks ate, at least for the time being.
"Yeah, I was a sailor. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I tried to be. Back in the days of my misspent youth, I wanted to go to sea in the worst way." I shrugged, then made a half-hearted attempt to flex my biceps. "Can you imagine me doing something like that? I was fourteen years oId and was the same height then as I am now, and a whole lot scrawnier. But both my parents were tall and I figured I'd grow in the next couple of years."
"Why did you want to do that anyway? Doesn't seem your style somehow." Iolaus was now working on cracking some oysters with a rock, while Nautica attacked the seaweed-wrapped fish with enthusiasm. Before continuing with my tale, I took another piece and tried to match her enthusiasm, but raw fish isn't a favorite of mine.
"Mostly because I wanted to get out of the small town where I was raised. You know, travel, excitement, that sort of thing. Anyway, no captain in his right mind would hire me, so I did something really stupid. I stowed away on the biggest, fanciest merchant ship I could find. She was called the Sea Jewel, and she was bound for Egypt, so I figured the captain would have no choice about taking me on once we were far from land. Real bright, huh? What actually happened when my presence was discovered was that I ended up being turned over to the crew for fun and games, if you get my meaning."
Nautica nodded sagely. Maybe she wasn't as naïve as she seemed.
I shrugged. "Well, anyway, it wasn't a whole lot of fun for a boy that young whose experience with men had been rather limited up until then. Nevertheless, I used the situation to my advantage when the captain, an Arab by the name of Zaytoun, took a fancy to me as a bed partner. By the time we reached Egypt, I had learned quite a bit about sailing and navigation, along with a whole lot of other things. Much to my dismay, I discovered that I truly couldn't handle the heavy work, but the navigation part of it made sense to me. I had sharp eyes in those days and was pretty good at climbing, so I made an exceptional lookout. As a result, the captain kept me on for the next couple of years."
Memories flooded back to me from that long-ago time spent at sea.
"Those were some of the best years of my life. Zaytoun did a good business and was quite rich," I went on, remembering. "He had a fondness for fancy jewelry and baubles of all kinds." I stopped myself abruptly, not sure if I should be mentioning this. Oh, why not? It had happened, hadn't it? I caught Iolaus' eye. "He liked to dress me up in some of his goodies when he made love to me."
I saw his reaction when his eyes widened a fraction, but it was surprise, not fear. Then he smiled a tiny bit and nodded fractionally. He remembered that time with Ares also, and now he knew where I had gotten the idea for what I had done to him.
Nautica, meanwhile, was totally engrossed in the oyster she was eating, so it all went right over her head, as I had hoped it would. She looked up, and prompted "So what happened next?"
"I learned a lot about gemstones and precious metals from Zay, and came to share his interest in them. At any rate, when the ship ran aground one night on an uncharted shoal far from land and sank, I happened to be wearing some of his finery. I also happened to be the only survivor, as far as I know. When I was picked up by a passing ship, I still had on one dangly earring containing several diamonds, and a necklace made of solid gold beads."
I remembered that earring so well. The captain had pierced my left ear himself, so I could wear the more usual gold ring preferred by sailors, but those dangly diamonds had figured in some of our happier nights, as had the gold beads. I sighed. Those were the days, all right.
The sound of Iolaus hammering on a very stubborn oyster brought me back to the present.
"So anyway, I made myself as useful to the crew of the ship that rescued me as I could, but they still decided to put me ashore at their next port of call, which happened to be Kalamai, not far from Sparta."
I tried one of the raw oysters. Not much better than the raw fish, but I was pretty hungry.
"So there I was, a scrawny little lad of seventeen years, far from home and with only two things of value to my name: the necklace of gold beads and the diamond earring. By then I had realized I was never going to get any taller, so I reluctantly gave up my hopes for a life at sea. I don't know what I might have done, because I was feeling pretty discouraged and bitter about the entire world just then. I figured I could sell either my jewelry or my body. Since I was pretty attached to the jewelry, for sentimental reasons as much as any other, I was seriously considering the latter choice."
Pearl chose that moment to wake up and begin to fuss. Before she could even get started, Nautica guided her mouth to one of her swollen breasts and the baby began nursing contentedly. "Go on," the mermaid prompted. "What did you do then?"
"I hadn't decided what my future course of action would be when the gods decided for me. I caught sight of an old lady strolling briskly along the street, wearing a small but expensive-looking blue sapphire pendant on a delicate chain around her neck. She was no taller than I was, only a bit stockier, so I figured her to be an easy mark.
"Cautiously, I followed her down the street, watching for an opportunity. When she turned into a deserted alley, I was right behind her. Catching up quickly, I took hold of her shoulder and swung her around, grabbing the pendant and pushing her backwards, expecting the chain to break as she fell, which would give me enough time to run away.
"Much to my surprise, she grabbed my shirt and took me down with her, planting one foot firmly in my stomach and tossing me head over heels as she rolled onto her back. I landed hard, so by the time I was able to breathe again, she was squatting next to me and had my right arm twisted painfully up behind my back.
"What can I tell you?" I held out my open hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I started to cry. She took me to her home, cleaned me up, fed me a good meal, and put me to bed. It turned out she ran the most prosperous and famous School of Dance in Kalamai. That's how I met the Widow Twanky."
"Twanky?" Iolaus put in, his eyes widening in surprise. "Hercules told me a bit about her." Then he frowned. "I'm afraid the Widow Twanky in my world wasn't quite so much of a lady. The only kind of dancing she did was flat on her back. She ran the biggest and fanciest whorehouse in the city."
"Really? Well, this world's version of the Widow was a fine lady indeed. The next morning, we talked. She was the one who gave me the idea of trading in jewelry, and talked me into giving up one of my pieces. I watched as she sold the diamond earring to one of her well-heeled dance students. Then we took the money and bought something else at a good price. As I mentioned, I knew my gems and jewels by then, so I was a fairly knowledgeable trader.
"I stayed with Twanky for the best part of a year, developing my newfound business interests. She even tried to teach me to dance, but that was a hopeless cause. Not only did I trip over my own feet, but I stomped all over hers as well. She did teach me how to deal with customers though, and how to run a business. She also taught me just about everything there is to know about how to make love to a woman, while she was at it."
"I thought you didn't go in for that kind of thing," Iolaus objected.
"Usually I don't. But it depends on the woman. And the Widow Twanky is quite a woman. She gives new meaning to the word "lady". If I were female, I'd want to be just like her.
"I owe her big-time. The gods alone know what I would have become without her help. Probably some kind of a thief or ne'er-do-well."
By the time I had finished the story, evening had come. We all sat watching the sunset throw fantastic colors across the clouds. Then we settled down to sleep. Iolaus, Nautica, and the baby made themselves comfortable mostly in the water, but I tried to find a soft spot on the rocks. My clothes were still rather damp, but I used them as a cushion below me, and spread my cloak over me to keep off the breeze.
As might be expected, I didn't sleep too well, tossing and turning on the hard and chilly surface. I'm not usually a morning person, but I was very glad to see the sun lift itself above the horizon at long last. I sat up, stretching to work the kinks out of my stiff body. The others were still sound asleep, so I tried to be very quiet as I went to the puddles of rainwater on the high rocks and got myself a drink. Then I climbed up on the rocks, gazing out over the ocean.
The sea was unusually calm, with only small waves lapping against the little islet. There was nothing to disturb them except a gentle breeze, just enough to ripple the smooth surface of the water.
I scanned the horizon in all directions, hoping to catch sight of land, even if it were far away. Nothing, as far as the eye could see. Well, that wasn't surprising. Shortly before the Princess sank, I had estimated our position to be just about halfway between the mainland of Greece and the Isle of Lesbos. Even with a dolphin towing me, Iolaus and I couldn't have traveled too far from that unfortunate spot. Poseidon had picked just about the worst possible place to sink us.
Or then again, maybe not. It had at least been close enough to where Iolaus lived for him to take notice and try to stop it. If not for that, I'd have surely been dead by now.
I wondered briefly whether Ursus or his crew had been lucky enough to survive. After all, how many life-saving merfolks could there possibly have been in the vicinity? In all honesty, I couldn't bring myself to truly regret their absence, but one has to feel a kind of sorrow whenever another person's life comes to an end, whether or not you liked them.
I stared pensively out across the sea, where so many people had ended their mortal existence through untold numbers of years. It was so beautiful, and yet so deadly.
As the sun lifted itself higher into the clear blue sky, the water below became even more beautiful.
A field of diamonds, glittering on blue satin.
A billion stars, sparkling in the night of the sea, their hard-edged glimmers blazing with fragments of captured sunshine.
Silver flames, dancing and cavorting across the waves.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
I glanced over at the merfolk, still peacefully asleep. There were times when I envied Iolaus and Nautica their life in the sea.
And, of course, I envied Nautica her life with Iolaus. I thought back over the all too short time I had been with him, and how he'd changed from a timid little wimp to a brave man. And then to a merman. I sighed. At least I had had him for a little while, and I'd like to think that I may have helped him find his place in this world, even if he'd left it for yet another sort of world, in the end.
I was still up on the rocks, looking down at the pool, when the baby squirmed and made some small noises. Iolaus awoke. Taking Pearl from where she lay in her mother's arms, he brought her to the far side of the pool, trying to keep her amused and quiet so Nautica would have a chance to sleep for a bit longer.
I climbed down from the rocks, bringing a shellful of water with me, and sat alongside Iolaus.
He looked at me strangely, then glanced down at his daughter as he asked softly, "Euphonius, that story you told us yesterday?"
"That's where you got the idea to dress me up in all that jewelry, when Ares held us captive, isn't it?"
"Uh-huh." I couldn't tell if he was just uncomfortable about what had happened, or angry. "Seemed as good a way as any of stalling for time, in the hopes that Hercules would get there."
"Oh, I'm not mad about it. I suppose it really was a good idea, under the circumstances." He still sounded distinctly uncomfortable. Then he looked up at me and met my eyes. "I uh got the impression that you liked a lot of what Ares did."
"No. I didn't. I --" He still looked at me, dead on and very seriously. "Okay, I can't claim I didn't find it exciting. But I didn't want to see you hurt," I protested. "I'd have done anything to save you, I just --"
He held up one hand, stopping my outpouring of words. "Don't worry, I'm not blaming you. It was Ares' doing, and gods are notoriously hard to stop."
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
"You know, just before he left, Ares mentioned coming after you again."
"Yeah. I remember." I shrugged. "Sometimes I'm not sure whether to wish he would, or hope he doesn't."
Iolaus' face creased into a sharp frown. "If I were you, I'd hope he doesn't. I've had about enough dealings with gods to last me the rest of my life."
"Aphrodite helped you out, didn't she?"
"Yeah. Dite's not so bad. Guess I could make an exception for her. But Ares no way!"
I decided that a change of subject would be prudent. Inclining my head and fixing my gaze on Pearl, I shook my head sorrowfully and said, "I can't help but think how much the Iolaus of this world would have liked to be sitting here with his child in his arms."
"I heard a rumor that he was alive again. Is that true?"
"Oh, yeah. In fact, I ran into him myself, not too long ago. He's fine. He and Hercules are back together again."
Iolaus' delighted smile at the news made my day. But little Pearl had finally reached the limit of her patience and began wailing for her next meal. Nautica woke up, taking the baby in her arms and nursing her. Iolaus scrounged some of yesterday's leftover seaweed out of their pool and we had breakfast.
I saw a strange sparkle come into his eyes as he watched me unenthusiastically eating a piece of sea lettuce. I'd seen that same sparkle before, once or twice. Leaning close to his wife, he whispered something in her ear. Nautica nodded. Pearl had finished nursing, so she handed the baby to Iolaus, who swam over and seated himself alongside me. I could tell he had something on his mind.
"Uh Euphonius, may I ask you a favor?"
"Would you mind baby-sitting for a little while? Nautica and I would really appreciate the chance to go for a swim together."
Seeing the expression in his eyes, and the slight blush that spread over Nautica's face, I put two and two together and got three: one very young baby, and two parents who had had no time by themselves since the birth.
"No problem. Give her to me. I'm sure we can't get into too much trouble by ourselves."
"Oh, we won't go far. Don't worry. And I'll try to bring back something better to eat than that seaweed," he promised.
"Thanks. I'd like that."
Somewhat tentatively, I took the infant into my arms, cradling it against my chest. I've held babies before, so I knew better than to let its head bobble around. However, this wasn't quite like holding your usual baby. I rather expected her tail and lower half to be cold and slimy, but it wasn't. Instead, it felt like the skin of the dolphin who had helped save my life: smooth, yet tough, and no colder than the rest of the child's body.
Her parents looked at me apprehensively, as if they weren't too sure this was a good idea. Making a shooing motion with one hand, I said, "Go on. We'll be just fine."
Their eyes met. They smiled at each other, then touched their foreheads together and kissed. As gracefully as they could, they maneuvered themselves over the rocks and into the ocean.
I stood up with Pearl and waved to them. "Have fun!"
While they may have been awkward and clumsy on land, in the water it was an entirely different story. I watched them swim side by side, using the same undulating motion as dolphins do. Then I figured I'd better sit down, or I'd soon become an uninvited voyeur to their lovemaking.
Having noticed the way they usually held Pearl so that she was half in the water, I sat on a stone just below the surface of the pool and lowered her gently to my lap, so her tail would be submerged.
The baby blinked a few times, almost as if she were trying to focus her eyes on me in order to figure out who this stranger was, then she squirmed and screwed up her face, getting ready to cry. I jiggled her around and said silly things in an effort to stop her, and then I dipped one hand into the water and flicked a few droplets at her face. She laughed at that, so I did it again. In a few more minutes, we were getting along famously, with her smiling and grabbing for my fingers.
When I accidentally glanced out to sea, I realized I was sitting high enough that I could catch a glimpse of Pearl's parents, if I lifted my head a bit and looked over the rocks. True to their promise, they hadn't gone far, remaining easily within earshot of the islet.
Well, I didn't exactly watch, but I couldn't help it if my head sometimes raised up a little and my eyes inadvertently strayed out over the ocean, could I? After all, they were far enough away and mostly underwater, so I really couldn't see what they were doing in any detail, even if I'd stood up on the rocks and stared at them the entire time.
About all I could tell is that they did a lot of swimming around, diving and such, and they were always facing towards each other. I concluded that whatever sex organs they had must be on the front of the body. Since I hadn't seen anything even remotely suggesting such a thing when they'd been here and in the pool, I also assumed that any such organs must be pretty much out of sight somewhere, until they were needed. If nothing else, that sort of arrangement would make the merpeople very streamlined in the water.
I was still playing with Pearl when a cold breeze hit my cheek. When I looked up, heavy clouds had covered the sun and were spreading with an unnatural speed from horizon to horizon. The previously gentle waves started to break on the rocks. Lightning split the sky, followed by a loud crack of thunder. The baby began wailing at the top of her lungs, but I could barely hear her in the rising wind.
Before I even had time to worry about them, Nautica and Iolaus appeared in the churning water near the islet.
"What is it? What's going on?" I shouted over the gale.
"I don't know, but I don't like this!"
"Poseidon?" I suggested, recalling that final threat the Sea God had hurled at Iolaus during the shipwreck.
Iolaus pressed his lips together grimly and frowned. The sea boiled violently on the other side of the islet and the Sea God answered my question by appearing in person, a fierce expression on his fluid face.
This was definitely not good. Not good at all.
I hugged the screaming baby close against my chest, trying to shield her from the chaos. Nautica fought her way over the rocks and into the pool, trying desperately to reach her child, while Iolaus swam around to place himself between the angry god and his family.
"Insolent mortal!" Poseidon bellowed, gesturing at the swimming merman. "Now you pay for interfering in my business!"
A large wave hit Iolaus and washed him hard against one of the outlying rocks, then down into the churning white water. When he surfaced, there was blood on his chest and arms.
The god laughed and lifted his trident above his head. Lightning crackled around the gleaming prongs and thunder roared an echo to his laughter.
Nautica had reached me by that time, taking Pearl and gesturing toward the most protected side of the pool. I followed her, but stood up and looked over the rocks, trying to see what was happening to Iolaus.
The clouds overhead boiled with energy. A long finger of darkness reached down to touch the sea, and I recognized the dread shape of a waterspout forming. In case you've been fortunate enough never to have seen one in person, a waterspout is a sea-going tornado, and it's capable of wreaking the same destruction over the ocean as it does on land.
"You and your family shall be no more!" Poseidon roared.
"No!" Iolaus screamed, now swimming toward the god but at an angle away from the islet. "Your anger is at me! Leave them out of it!"
The waterspout moved toward us, still gaining strength. However, as Iolaus swam sideways, Poseidon turned toward him.
"You will all die, torn to shreds and blown over the sea to feed my fish!" The god's laughter boomed above the hideous noise of the violently twisting waterspout.
I leaned down to Nautica and screamed in her ear, "Get out of here! Quickly!"
"Iolaus --" she objected.
I shook my head violently. "No! You've got to save Pearl! Go!"
She nodded grimly. I helped them both into the water, trying to keep low so as not to distract Poseidon's focus from Iolaus. The waves broke high and hard against the rocks, but once she had reached the water, Nautica moved with incredible swiftness, getting clear of the islet.
She glanced back at me, but I waved her away. Clutching her child tightly against her chest, she dove below the wind-whipped surface and I didn't see them come up anywhere nearby.
The waterspout was still moving towards the islet, but more slowly now. Iolaus and Poseidon shouted at each other, but I could no longer make out the words. I hoped Iolaus had seen his wife and child dive to safety, but I wasn't sure. For a brief moment, I considered following Nautica and trying to swim away, but I knew I wouldn't last very long in the storm-tossed water. I could only cling to the wet and slippery rocks and hope for the best.
Iolaus had lured Poseidon further away, but the god's rage was gathering strength even faster than the waterspout. His blue-gray body had changed to the angry blue-black of a storm cloud, and he shook his trident, sending lightning blazing in all directions across the sky.
Suddenly, the waterspout stopped moving in my direction. Stalling for a moment as if in hesitation, it then turned toward Iolaus, faster and sharper than any natural storm could possibly do.
My heart sank. Iolaus might have been successful in diverting Poseidon's wrath away from his family, but now he himself would die. And I could do nothing but watch helplessly, and hope I wouldn't be next.
There had to be something I could do, someone who could help us. But the only hero I knew with anything like that kind of strength was Hercules, and he was not here. Who else could possibly stop a powerful god like Poseidon?
Then it hit me: only another god or goddess. And hadn't Aphrodite helped Iolaus before? After all, she was rumored to have a soft spot in her heart for Iolaus, in either of his incarnations.
I squeezed my eyes shut and fixed my mind on the image of the Goddess of Love and Beauty, as I had seen her represented in the statue in her temple in Corinth: lovely face, long golden tresses, not much in the way of clothing, but a body that even a man such as myself couldn't help but admire.
"Sweet Aphrodite, hear my prayer! Iolaus needs your help! Please come! Oh, please!"
I went on in this manner for what seemed to me to be forever but was probably just a few moments. Then, in a poof of rose-pink sparkles and hearts, someone who could only be the goddess herself materialized on the rocks beside me.
Taking a quick glance at the storm-tossed chaos surrounding her, she frowned and grabbed for her blowing hair. "Eew! Icky!" she said as she turned to me and looked me up and down. "Who's responsible for this major bad hair day, Cutie? And where's my little Curly and that danger that you were hollering about?"
Cutie? Me? Oh well, I've been called worse.
"Curly uh I mean, Iolaus is over there. And Poseidon's about to splatter him across the sea."
"Oh, he is, is he? I don't think so!"
Next thing I knew, the scantily-clad fluff of a goddess reappeared between Poseidon and Iolaus, towering fully as high as the Sea God himself and glowing with a bright pink aura of energy.
"Stop it, Uncle Posie! Stop it right now!" she scolded, shaking a delicate finger in the surprised god's face. "You leave Curly out of this. He's my friend."
"But, Dite, he --"
"I don't care what he did. I won't let you hurt him." She held out one beautiful hand, ostentatiously inspecting her fingernails. "Unless you want all of your friendly little sea nymphs to forget what love means, that is."
She put her hands on her hips and stared angrily at Poseidon. "You harm one hair on my Curly's head, and I'll show you what I'll do!"
Poseidon harrumphed loudly. The waterspout backed up a bit. I started breathing again.
"But Dite, these mortals need to be taught a lesson. They're not showing me the proper respect anymore. They need to learn to fear my power."
"I know, Uncle," she crooned sympathetically. "Things haven't been going so good for you, have they? But killing the mortals won't help." She shrugged prettily. "I mean, a dead mortal offers no sacrifices, ya know?"
Poseidon shook his fist. "They aren't offering me enough sacrifices now anyway! I'm sinking more ships than ever and calling up more storms, but do they notice? Do they even care?"
By now, Iolaus had swum over into the calmer water surrounding Aphrodite.
"They care!" he called up to the two Olympians. "It's not that the sailors fail to honor you, but there are more land-dwellers nowadays, so they're outnumbered. And those landlubbers have other interests and other gods."
Poseidon glared down at him. "Even the sailors don't honor me. I'm tired of this. I'll teach them a lesson they won't forget!"
"Even if you kill us all?" Iolaus replied. "It isn't really the lack of sacrifices that's infuriating you, is it? It's something more important than that."
Poseidon inclined his head and stared hard at the merman. Undaunted, Iolaus went on, "I think I hear you saying that what you want isn't really the grand offerings of temples, right? You don't need temples. What are they except buildings on the solid ground? Of what use to you is the devotion of a bunch of cowardly landlubbers? No, you need the respect of the gallant men who go down to the sea in ships. You want worship from the ones who deal with you on a daily basis, plying the majestic oceans for a living and risking their lives each time they sail out from port. But isn't the risk of their lives precisely the proper sort of honor to pay to a great god such as yourself?"
Iolaus was pouring it on a little thick here, but it seemed to be working. Poseidon stroked his beard vainly and nodded in agreement. "Go on."
"Your true followers love the sea," Iolaus said, warming to his topic, "just as they love you, despite the dangers. But when do they have time to hang out in temples, when they're always at sea? What greater sacrifice could you ask than the constant risk of their own lives, each time they set sail into unknown dangers? They love the wind in their hair and the stars in the rigging; the play of sunlight on the waves and the smell of the salt water in the early spring; the --"
"Enough!" Poseidon bellowed, gesturing at the whirling funnel of water beside him. "It's clear that you could spout poetry for as long as I could spout water."
Aphrodite gave a little laugh at that, but the most Iolaus dared was a tentative smile.
"Granted that all you've said is true," the Sea God went on, preening a little, "they still aren't showing me any particular honor by sailing around on their puny ships. How do I know they really want to serve me?"
The merman seemed at a loss for words, and Poseidon's brow furrowed into the beginning of a frown.
"What if your followers wore something special," Iolaus began hesitantly, "or just carried it on their person? Something that was sacred to you and was meant to show you honor? It would be a symbol of each man's respect and a token of his devotion."
Poseidon nodded. He seemed to be buying it. "What sort of thing did you have in mind?"
"How about a precious gem of some kind?"
"Yeah," he said thoughtfully. "Something really fancy. Like a diamond, for the sparkle of the sun on my waves. Or a sapphire, for the deep blue of my ocean?"
"Uh trouble is, most seamen can't afford that sort of gem," the merman suggested.
"You mean I'm not worthy of the best?" Thunder rumbled in the distance.
"Of course you are! But your true followers are simple sailors, not rich landowners and merchants. There must be some kind of gem that would be suitable." He glanced over to me. This was obviously my cue.
Poseidon didn't look too pleased. The thunder grew louder as he face darkened.
"I've got an idea!" I shouted, hoping to be heard above the pounding surf and blowing wind. They all turned to me, and I wondered briefly if I should've kept my big mouth shut.
I swallowed hard and cleared my throat, preparing to scream again, but suddenly Poseidon waved his hand and the wind dropped to nothing, while the sea became flat calm around us, even though the waterspout continued to spin like a threatening top not very far away. The sudden silence was almost more ominous than the storm had been.
Poseidon stared hard at me, as if he had just now noticed my presence. Then he reached down with one giant hand, grabbed me around the waist, and lifted me up to his face to study me more closely.
If anything, the Sea God was even more frightening when seen up close. The glowing eyes were fully as large as my entire head, and the watery surface of his face shifted color alarmingly. Being up so high in the air wasn't a lot of fun either, especially since my legs were left dangling over nothing, while his fingers encircled my torso in a damp embrace. I'd probably have pissed in my pants, had I been wearing any.
"So what do you suggest?" Poseidon asked.
Good question. It was hard to think in this position, but I did my best, sorting through the catalog of precious gems in my head. Then it came to me.
"An amethyst." I groped for the chain around my neck, with the large and nicely cut amethyst in its gold setting. Holding the pendant up in front of me and hoping the god had good enough sight in those awful eyes to see it, I waxed rhapsodic over the virtues of my chosen gem. "Pale purple for the morning mist over the sea, or deeper purple for the soft glow of the water beneath a sunset sky. Well-off captains and shipowners could have fancy, gem-cut stones such as this, while your ordinary sailor could easily afford a simple chunk of the crystal strung on a bit of leather around his neck or carried in his pocket. Let it be known that you're likely to show favor to the seaman who has one, preserving him from danger and guiding him to a safe harbor."
Aphrodite, still in her giant-size form, chose that moment to get into the conversation. Moving over by her Olympian uncle, she inspected the amethyst. "Ohh," she cooed. "I think it's lovely. Such a nice clear color." Fluttering her eyelashes prettily at Poseidon, she exclaimed, "Kewl!"
The Sea God brought me closer to his face, squinting at the pendant. Then I saw the focus of those watery eyes come back to me. "I like the way you think, little man, and I'm going to give your idea a try. But if it doesn't work --" He frowned blackly. Thunder and lightning once again blazed around us.
"It'll work, it'll work!" I hastened to assure him. "Just give your priests a chance to get the word out, and every sailor who's worth his salt will be wearing an amethyst." I looked down, suppressing a qualm of nausea at the expanse of open air between my feet and the sea, as I shouted to the merman below me, "Don't you agree, Iolaus?"
"Oh yeah! Definitely!" he called up to us. I saw Nautica surface next to him, holding Pearl, and breathed a sigh of relief at knowing they were safe.
Poseidon directed an angry glare at the little family, and for a moment I was afraid they weren't so safe after all.
"And as for you," the god began, shaking his trident at the merfolk. I held my breath again. "Next time, think well before interfering in the affairs of the gods. Got that?"
"Yes, sir!" Iolaus replied, as he and Nautica both nodded so hard their bodies rocked back and forth in the water. They were clearly overjoyed at getting off so easily.
Poseidon lowered his hand down next to the islet and let me go. I stepped onto solid ground, somewhat dizzy from the rapid descent. He snapped his fingers and the waterspout evaporated. Then the God of the Sea sank into the water and was gone.
I just stared in dazed astonishment at the suddenly quiet ocean, as Iolaus and Nautica swam over. Iolaus helped his wife out of the water so that she was sitting on one of the rocks, her tail washed by the gentle waves. Pearl cuddled closer in her arms, looking out at the world with wide blue eyes. She seemed uncertain whether to laugh or cry, until Nautica offered her a breast and she began suckling contentedly.
Aphrodite appeared beside me, once more back to her normal size. At least I assumed it to be normal. With a goddess, who can know?
"Way to go, Cutie!" she exclaimed, planting a big kiss on my cheek. "Old Posie doesn't generally pay much attention to mortals' ideas. I thought he was about to squash you flatter than an oyster, there for a minute."
I rubbed my cheek where she had kissed me. "Uh thanks. I think."
"Dite?" Iolaus called up from the water. "Since you're here anyway, maybe you'd do us a small favor?"
"For you, Curly, anything." Then she noticed the lacerations on his chest and arms from being flung against the rocks earlier. "Yuck! You're a mess!" Tossing some sparkling bright pink hearts and flowers his way, she giggled happily. "There. All better."
"Thanks, Dite," he replied. "But that wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Euphonius was on his way to Mythemna when Poseidon sank his ship, so perhaps --"
"Mythemna, on Lesbos?" the goddess interrupted, making a face. "Icky! Why would anyone want to go there? Especially a man?"
"I'm hoping to sell them some jewelry --"
Her face lit up. "Jewelry? Anything real pretty and dainty? Pearls? Diamonds?"
"I'm afraid not. Nothing that would be anywhere near worthy of your beauty, my dear." I was starting to get into the spirit of it now. "However, if you take me to Lesbos, I'll be sure to make you a very special offering once I return to the mainland. Something I know you'll absolutely adore."
"Groovy! Anything in pink?"
She would ask for that. I thought fast. "Let's see now, there aren't a whole lot of pink gemstones. Water opals are nice, but they show a variety of pastel colors, not just pink."
Nope, not a winner, judging by her face. I've had years of experience in figuring out if a woman likes what I'm trying to sell her. You can see it in the eyes, and the way their lips part just a little when something strikes their fancy.
"Then again, there's always tourmaline, which comes in all sorts of colors," I suggested. "It's most often pink and green, and you can even get them both in one jewel. Makes for a stunning effect, if it's done right."
Also not a winner, although this suggestion had more appeal than the last. I scrunched up my face and made a show of trying to come up with something else, before I brought up the one I had had in mind all along.
"Got it!" I exclaimed. "Rubies! Most of them are deep red, but they can also be found in various shades of pink." I glanced her way, looking hopeful. Yep, got her this time. I went on with even more enthusiasm. "I see you in a delicate necklace of pink rubies set in a mesh of fine gold chain so that they form the pattern of a scallop shell that would hang just above the swell of your lovely bosom. This would be set off by a pair of earrings, each made up of a ruby in the center of a small gold shell." I gave the goddess my best smile, the one that was guaranteed to clinch a sale with my female customers. Sure enough, her eyes sparkled with delight. "Well, what do you think? Worth a little trip to Lesbos?"
"Oh," she cooed, moving closer alongside me and playing with my hair. "You really know how to please a girl, don't you?"
"Uh yeah, I guess." This was working just a little too well. Too bad I'm not more of a fan of feminine beauty. This lady was impressive, for sure. "So about that trip to Lesbos?"
"Cutie, you're on your way."
Then I realized how little I was wearing. "Wait a minute! I've got to get my clothes on." I grinned. "Lesbos isn't exactly the place for a man to arrive naked, huh?"
"You got that right." She shook her head in puzzlement. "A whole bunch of women, without any men. I just don't get it."
As I went to gather up my clothes, Iolaus surprised me by saying to her, "Don't knock it if you haven't tried it. Who knows? Might be fun."
Much to my disgust, my clothing had gotten wet all over again during the confrontation with Poseidon. Nevertheless, I tried to struggle into my soaking pants and tunic as best I could, while they continued the conversation.
"You really think so, Sweetcheeks?"
The goddess gave a careless little shrug of her shoulders and her nose crinkled as she frowned slightly. "Not really my thing. But then again, you're right; I've never tried it." Suddenly the rather vapid expression turned thoughtful. "Hey, maybe I will. Been getting a bit stale lately in the variety department."
I was so surprised by her response that I dropped the soggy boot I was trying to pull on.
Then she turned to me and made a face. "Eew! You look like a drowned rat." She gave a dainty wave of her hand. "There. All dry."
I found myself not only dry, but fully dressed in an elegant but tasteful brown velvet robe. "Thank you! I love it!"
Linking her arm through mine, she went on, "Come on, Cutie. Not only will I send you to Lesbos, I'll escort you there myself."
In a shimmer of pink sparkles, we started to disappear. I barely had time to wave good-bye before we were gone completely, but the picture of Iolaus, Nautica, and Pearl, all smiling happily, engraved itself forever on my memory.
Continue on to the sequel Resolutions