I hope you enjoy meeting Althaia, Nikos, and Theron from the first two chapters of ORACLES OF DELPHI. If you do enjoy it, I hope you’ll consider ordering the book and helping to spread the word. The Pythias of Gaia and Apollon will appreciate it.
Delphi in the Region of Phokis
in the Month of Mounichion in the First Year
of the 110th Olympiad (340 BCE)
Nikos’s heart pounded against his rib cage like a siege engine. He pressed his back into the stone wall, closed his eyes and tried to calm his breathing. He couldn’t believe he’d been such a fool. “Next time I’ll surrender the prize,” Charis had always promised. Next time he would claim it, he always hoped. But instead….
He pulled himself to the top of the wall and lay flat. The moment of escape calmed him. The gates of the Sacred Precinct were locked, and he’d had to climb out the same way he’d climbed in. On the way out, though, he wasn’t carrying a body.
He glanced to his side, toward the theater, and then down to the Temple of Apollon where he’d left Charis’s body for the priests to find. Stars winked in and out as clouds drifted across the black dome blanketing the night sky. He crouched, reached for a nearby branch, and swung down to land on the ground with a soft thud.
It wasn’t the first time he’d taken a life. But he’d never killed a woman, never killed anyone unarmed. Not that he’d killed Charis. Not exactly, anyway. His shoulders, red with teeth and claw marks, throbbed. And his face. He ran his tongue across his lip. At least the bleeding had stopped.
He could still smell her. Still see how she licked her lips as she loosened her braids, taste the sweetness of her breast, and feel her hot breath as she put his fingers, one by one, in her mouth, wetting them, running her tongue over them, sucking gently until his whole body trembled. When she pulled him down into the soft pile of hay and wrapped her legs around his waist, he had been ready to give her anything—even the gold tiara. His partners would never know. There were other treasures from the Sacred Precinct to sell.
Of course, none of that mattered now. None of that mattered the moment he felt her brother’s blade against his throat and the trickle of blood drip across his collar bone. The moment Charis scrambled up from beneath him and laughed in his face. Brother and sister. What a pair. Charis’s brother had picked up the tiara and threatened to go to Nikos’s partners with proof he was double-dealing—unless he split his take fifty-fifty. And not just on the tiara. On everything. He’d still be a rich man, Charis promised, laughing.
Her brother was still laughing when Nikos’ dagger pierced his heart. Didn’t they know nobody bested him with a blade?
Before he could grab the tiara, Charis snatched it from her brother’s grasp and backed away. “You’ll pay for this,” she’d hissed, tears in her eyes, her voice sharp as serpent’s fangs. She held the tiara above her head, waving it like booty from a hard-fought battle. “I’ll tell Heraklios. I’ll tell everyone you killed him. I’ll tell your mother.”
She was cornered, wild-eyed, desperate. Nikos yanked his blade from her brother’s chest and circled her. “It’s your word against mine, and your brother’s reputation as a thief and a brigand will not help your cause.” She’d always been an untamed thing. That had been one of the reasons he’d wanted her, and he was used to getting what he wanted.
“Ha!” He laughed. “My mother may not love me, but she will not believe you. No one will.”
“She’ll believe me if I have proof. Proof you killed him, that you’re the one selling the stolen goods from the temple.”
“What proof will you have, Charis?” He spoke softly, trying to calm her. “Stop this nonsense. Your brother was foolish enough to hold a knife to my throat, and he paid the price. But we can come to terms.” He took a step forward, his hand held out to her. “Come. We can still do business, you and I.” He let a small smile flit across his lips, but kept his eyes on hers. He knew she was not to be trusted. He’d always known that, but still … he watched her, trying to anticipate her next move. He could wait all night, but she’d be expected at the naming ceremony. She’d be missed. “Phoibe is waiting. It’s time for us to come to an understanding. I’ll give you—”
She jumped at him and in an instant, fingernails scraping against skin, stole his most prized possession. She yanked the silver chain from around his neck and clasped the polished orb tight in her fist. He watched, too startled to stop her, too afraid of hurting her.
“Give it back.” He demanded, taking a step toward her. He held out his hand.
“No.” She scrambled backward. “When your mother sees this, she’ll know I’m telling the truth. She’ll know you murdered my brother. Everyone will have to believe me.”
“No one will believe you, Charis.” He took yet another step toward her. “Do you think I will let you leave with that?” He held out his palm. “Give it to me before we’re both sorry.”
“You’re the one who’ll be sorry.” Cornered, she crouched low like a cat ready to pounce.
Nikos took another step and stopped, waiting. He could easily overpower her and take the necklace back, but he didn’t want to hurt her. Unlike Diokles, he didn’t believe in violence unless his back was against a wall. Charis’s brother had been a different story. He’d held a weapon to Nikos’ throat. But Charis was different. An almost-lover, an almost-friend. But she had to know he wouldn’t let her take the necklace. To her, it was just another bargaining tool, and he’d play along until he got what he wanted.
Then she screwed up her face and spat at him, turned and darted out the open door of the storage shed. He looked down at his chest where the spittle was sprayed dark across the white fabric. She’s mad, he thought. He leapt after her, overtaking her quickly. He grabbed her shoulders and wrenched her around to face him. She fell back and he was on her, trying to pry the necklace from her clenched fist, but she kicked and bucked like an unbroken colt and then, wresting her arm free, she shoved the round silver ball and finely wrought chain into her mouth and clamped her jaw shut.
Stunned, it took him a moment to realize what she’d done. Then he grabbed her face and tried to pry her lips apart. She fought and scratched at his face, clamping her jaw shut even tighter as she struggled against him, clawing and growling like one who’d lost her senses.
She was possessed, and though he had no fear of the gods, there was something about her that scared him. Desperation flowed from her, charging the air like lightning. He could smell her fear; it wrapped around them both like a fetid fume. He sat back on his heels, but she reached for him, gurgling and gagging, eyes wide, arms whirling at him like windmills.
Then he knew. But it was too late. Too late to do anything to keep her from choking. He’d tried to hold her still, to pry open her jaw and grab hold of the chain to pull it free, but in her panic, she bit at him, clawed at him. “By the gods, Charis, stop! Don’t fight me, please,” he begged her. But she bucked beneath him, making it impossible to get a purchase on the chain. Did she think I wanted to kill her? Once she was still, he opened her mouth and probed her throat for the chain or the precious silver ball, but his fingers were too big, too awkward, even without her fighting him. He pulled her jaw wide and stuck his blade in, trying to catch the loop of the chain. But it was no use. Finally, he sat back and stared at her sprawled in the dirt. Hay and dust settled in her hair like a halo. He reached out and pulled her chiton down over her legs, and for the first time in more years than he could remember, he cried.
He could slice open her neck and retrieve his necklace, but he was reluctant to desecrate her body. Having grown up amongst priestesses who honored the dead and conducted burial rites with care and precision, it was a line he feared to cross. Damn her! He picked up his knife and held it poised above her neck, then slowly pressed the tip into the tender hollow at the base of her throat, the soft place his lips had lingered countless times. She’s dead; what does it matter? He steadied his hand and took a deep breath. It would be a clean cut, over in a moment, and he’d have his treasure back. The necklace is mine. She has no right to take it to the grave with her. He closed his eyes and prayed. In the distance an owl hooted and he jerked back his hand. An evil omen. He shuddered, then wiped his eyes and stood. So be it. I am a man now, he told himself. The necklace had been a boy’s trinket. The smooth silver ball and ornately crafted chain represented nothing more than a dream, a memory that wasn’t even his. It was time to let it go.
He’d gone back into the shed and retrieved Charis’s cloak, then picked her up and wrapped it around her. He didn’t care about her brother—the wolves were welcome to feast on his bones—but he wouldn’t leave Charis to be devoured like carrion. They had a history. They’d almost been lovers.
Now he cocked his head and listened. Not even a leaf rustled in an occasional spring breeze. Around him, Delphi slept shrouded in darkness. Under the new moon, dull patches of snow clung to nooks and crannies up and down the mountainside. The oracle wouldn’t start hearing supplicants for another few weeks, and without a swarm of pilgrims, Delphi was just another remote mountain village.
In the morning, Apollon’s priests would find Charis on the temple steps wrapped snug in her winter cloak. Philon and Kleomon would wait for her brother to claim her, and, after a few days, they would stop waiting and give the body to Phoibe for burial. Nikos’s treasured necklace would go to the underworld with her. Maybe it was just as well.
He took a deep breath and checked to make sure the gold tiara was still tied securely to his belt. Then he ran his fingers through his hair, brushed the dust from his clothes, and headed down the path toward the Dolphin’s Cove Inn.
Althaia pulled the covers over her head and ignored the insistent rapping at her door.
“Are you awake?” Theron called, his voice faint through the heavy wood.
The rapping stopped and she heard muffled voices in the hallway.
“Althaia. Aren’t you up yet?”
“I am now,” she groused. She threw the covers back, swung her feet onto the cold, tile floor and stretched. A few wisps of smoke rose from the gray coals in the brazier. Nephthys, the new Egyptian handmaid Praxis had bought for her, was already up and gone.
“Can I come in?”
“No. I’m not dressed.”
“Well, get dressed. Menandros is impatient to give us a tour of the theater.”
She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and opened the door. “It’s too early for a tour of anything.”
Theron, her childhood tutor turned mentor and confidant, scanned the room and then strode in and opened the shutters. She flinched and shaded her face as early spring sunlight assaulted her eyes.
“Nice view,” he said. “Our host obviously gave you the best room in the house. Praxis and I are sharing a broom closet.”
“I’m sure you both deserve it. Punishment for some heinous act you committed in the past. Or at least for waking me up so early.”
Theron laughed. With sharp, gray eyes, a close-cropped head of thick graying hair, and weathered skin creased with laugh—or worry—lines, Theron looked every bit the world-weary traveler he was. He folded his arms across his broad chest and leaned against the window frame. “He’s trying to bribe you. Your father’s wealth—your wealth—and the hope that you’ll support the theater of Delphi is making his brain soft.”
“I may have inherited my father’s wealth, but Menandros should know it’s my dear husband he should be bribing.”
“Lycon is not here.”
“And we’re all thankful for that,” Althaia sighed. Forced to marry her cousin to keep her father’s fortune within the oikos, the family unit, her husband and kyrios, controlled everything in Althaia’s life: her money, her property, her body. Luckily, Lycon was more interested in spending time at the gymnasium and gambling on his lover, an Olympian hopeful pankriatist, than in paying any attention to Althaia. Whenever Althaia had grumbled about the prospect of marrying Lycon, her father teased and threatened her with marriage to one of his own brothers. A young and handsome, if disinterested, groom was definitely preferable to one thirty or forty years older than the bride. Lycon was diligent about doing his once-a-month husbandly duty in the bedroom, but the rest of the time, he behaved as if Althaia was nothing more than a piece of furniture.
“Yes, we are thankful for that.”
“I had another nightmare,” Althaia blurted out. She hadn’t meant to say anything. They’d had so many discussions about her nightmares over the years that they now bored her.
“Ah,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“It was the same sort of dream I always have. Someone is in trouble and I am powerless to help them.” She was quiet for a moment. “And yet, there was something different. Something felt different. And then, just before I woke, there was a man….”
“A man? What about him?”
“Nothing.” She shivered. “It was nothing.”
“It doesn’t sound like nothing.”
“Apparently I woke Nephthys up. She believes the gods are warning me.”
“Warning you about what?”
“Danger. Delphi. I don’t know. She thinks there is something evil here, and that I’m going to be caught up in it. But you know Egyptians—always invoking one god or another against some superstition. Remember my uncle Demetrious’s cook who wouldn’t get out of bed if the roosters didn’t crow exactly at the crack of dawn?”
“I believe the cook ended up in the silver mines.”
“With Demetrious’s temper, I’m surprised the roosters didn’t end up in the mines, too. But you know what I mean.”
“Yes, we rational Hellenes are immune to superstition.” The touch of sarcasm in his voice made Althaia wonder if he was mocking her. She glared at him.
“So back to the man in the dream.”
“There’s nothing more to tell. I don’t remember anything else.”
Theron turned back toward the window and Althaia pulled the blanket tight around her shoulders and joined him. To the east, over the rooftops, she could just catch the edge of the gymnasium and the gleaming temples and treasuries in the Sacred Precinct of Athena. To the west, the valley unfolded below her, a carpet of green cascading towad the water’s edge. The city of Kirra, Delphi’s port, glowed like a white pearl next to the sapphire inlet off the Gulf of Corinth.
“A charming little town for pirates,” Althaia said.
“Kirra,” she pointed. “Remember all the tales of heroes, monsters, pirates, and stolen treasures that you and Papa used to tell me?”
He smiled. “You would charge around the house with a stick and try to kidnap Praxis as he was doing his chores.”
“I imagined I was an Amazonian warrior, and he was a prince who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. I found out his secret identity and wanted to ransom him for treasure. He always played along until one day I told him that the princess was in love with her captive and that he had to marry me.” She grew quiet.
“I remember.” Theron watched her, tried to read her mood. “It’s been hard on you and Praxis, the waiting, wondering why your father wanted us here in Delphi on the anniversary of his death. But it will soon be over, and everything will make sense.”
In addition to tutoring Althaia, Theron had been a long-time advisor to her father and had promised he would stay with Althaia until Lysandros’ last wishes had been fulfilled.
“It’s hard to believe you’ve been able to keep Papa’s secret a whole year.”
“A year?” Theron shook his head and headed for the door. “That’s nothing, my dear. I’ve got secrets I’ve kept for a lifetime. Now get dressed. Praxis has already left and we’re keeping Menandros waiting.”
“Wait,” she said. “Praxis … I’m around him every day, but I feel I hardly know him anymore. He’s changed since Papa died. He was always quiet, but now….” She trailed off.
“Perhaps Nephthys will cheer him up.” Theron chuckled.
Althaia turned towards the window.
“It’s hard to let go of a dream, isn’t it?” Theron said.
She blushed. “Childhood dreams die hard, but for Aphrodite’s sake, I’m a married woman now. Maybe Nephthys is exactly what Praxis needs.”
Whenever Althaia thought of Nephthys, a vague sense of jealousy washed over her. Many, mostly men who wanted to marry her for her father’s money, had called Althaia beautiful, but she didn’t feel particularly beautiful when Nephthys was near. While Althaia was short, Nephthys was tall. Althaia was strong boned while Nephthys was as slim as a river reed. Althaia’s skin looked as if it had been carved from alabaster while Nephthys’ skin was dusky and rich, as if painted with late autumn twilight. Althaia had always prided herself on her ability to keep up with Praxis, to ride and swim as if she were a boy. She never thought of herself as ungainly or awkward, but ever since Praxis bought Nephthys, she felt like a waddling goose next to a stalking heron.
Not that Nephthys stalked. She didn’t have to. Praxis stalked her—or at least watched her every move whenever he had the chance. Althaia had long ago abandoned the childish dream of marrying Praxis—wealthy Athenian maidens didn’t marry slaves, no matter how much they were treated like part of the family—but that didn’t mean she relished the idea of him being with someone else.
“What do you need, Althaia of Athens?” Theron asked.
Althaia turned to face her old friend. “I need to stop mourning. Start living again.”
Theron turned his eyes back toward the clear blue sky out the window. “It’s a fine day to start.”
Writing as Marie Savage, Kristina Makansi is a historical/mystery (with a heavy dose of romance) writer with a passion for all things Ancient Greece. THE ORACLES OF DELPHI, is set in 340 BCE just after the last Sacred War for control of the Oracle of Delphi and before the rise of Alexander the Great. Find out more about the author here.