Be Careful What You Ask For, by Joseph Giordano
“Petition him. Look at his eyes. There’ll never be a better time” Anouke hissed her command. Her golden garments sagged like her jowls. She pushed her husband, Pythius, and the fat on her arms rippled. Grizzled and stooped, Pythius resisted her shove and remained in the flickering shadows.
The young woman glided and turned to the music. Long black hair framed milk-white skin and green eyes. Her translucent chiton billowed while she kicked and twirled to the accompaniment of a long-necked lute and drum. King Xerxes’s eyes followed the dancer around the room, and he stroked his braided beard. He wore a crenellated, golden crown inlaid with gems and a white silk robe. Gold and jewels adorned his neck, arms and fingers. The king absently toyed with his food, and three barrel-necked mastiffs jumped forward. He tossed his silver plate at the dogs. They snapped, snarled and devoured the bits. Xerxes’s eyes went back to the girl. He leaned on violet pillows, and the high-backed, wooden throne creaked.
The palace great-room’s flat ceiling had a fresco of golden stars on a lapis-blue background. Brown slaves with sweat-glistened backs scurried among the entourage of guests who sat on floor cushions and drank blood-red wine and ate roasted goat off spits. The room was filled with the smells of burning oil and sizzling meat.
The music stopped, and the girl hurried through a curtained exit. Xerxes watched her as she left. Then he looked at his general, “Otanes, make your report.”
Otanes was mid-fifties, muscled, scarred and bearded. He stood and bowed. “Lord, on your orders, we have assembled the largest sea and land invasion force the world has ever witnessed. Fifty-seven tribes of the Persian Empire – Asia’s sons have been assembled, ready to fight for the glory of Xerxes You will crush the Greeks as you did the Egyptians. With the conquest of Europe, the sun will never set upon the Persian Empire.”
Xerxes said, “Our soldiers are so many, they will drink rivers dry.”
Laughter rippled through the room. “Glory to Xerxes, great king of Persia.”
Xerxes held up his hand. “A king has a duty to pass more to his sons than he has received.”
Otanes said, “Sire, the Greek city-states in the north and on the islands of the Aegean have sent tribute. But Athens and Sparta are defiant. As you instructed, the Athenians caught spying were not harmed. We showed them the army. A Greek saw your chariot and shouted, ‘Zeus.’ He asked why the god had assembled a horde, when he could destroy the Greeks with a thunderbolt?”
Another burst of laughter echoed in the room. Otanes sat.
Xerxes smiled and drained his goblet. He called Pythius out of the shadows. “Pythius, come forward. You have provided us with a fine feast and excellent entertainment.”
Pythius dropped to his knees, and touched the floor with his forehead. He sat up and said, “My Lord, all that I own or will ever own is yours. Sire, I pledge my gold to your expedition to conquer Europe. I live to serve your pleasure.”
Xerxes stood. “Pythius you are a loyal subject, and you shall be rewarded for your words. I will instruct my treasurer to compensate you for the cost of providing for our troops and for the royal needs. Now,” Xerxes fondled his beard. “I will retire.”
All eyes lowered for the king’s exit except Pythius. He extended his palms to the king.
Xerxes put his hands on his hips. “Pythius, there is something else?”
“Sire, I have five sons. All are part of your army, ready to march tomorrow at your command. But, I am an old man. I don’t have the strength to tend to my estate alone. And I fear the loss of my family’s line if all my sons fall in the war with the Greeks. I beg of you a favor. I most humbly ask that you to allow my youngest son to remain behind, and help me in the days ahead.”
The flickering of oil lamps could be heard in the pause before Xerxes responded.
Xerxes’s face darkened. His voice was the hot blast of a bonfire. “Damn you, Pythius. How dare you mention a son of yours, when you are no more than my slave and should follow in my train with your whole household, wife and all? Yes, I grant that your youngest son may stay behind.” Xerxes turned to Otanes. “Find this son. Chop him in two. Hoist the halves on pikes and straddle the road that leads out of the city so that my army will pass and learn from this example. All must be completely committed to my victory.”
Xerxes strode out of the room. Anouke wailed in the shadows, and Pythius covered his face with his hands.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, lived in Greece, Brazil, Belgium and Netherlands. They now live in Texas with their little Shih Tzu, Sophia.
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