Deception is the way of serpents. In memory, I walk with the old Pythia. She tells me her name is Amantaeia. I give her the name Khalkis gave me: Spazakia. She snorts, finding it funny, but says nothing. We tread the steps of a hidden stair behind the temple. There are two points where the path seems to move on to the left, but she takes me down an animal track to the right, each time, and we find another hidden stair.
Reaching the crest of the ridge, she explains the need for such secrecy.
“Look down there, Spazakia. What do you see?”
I tell her. “The north road. It comes into the vale directly ahead. It would lead up here if it did not bend to the west and lead up to the sanctuary.”
“And down the slope? What do you see?”
“Trees. They are thick. They lean over a gully.”
“And in the gully?”
I squint against the harsh sunlight.
“Nothing. It is bare, like a dry stream.”
“It was never a stream. That way is cleared every winter, while we are in Eleusis, tending to the mystes there. Servants of this sanctuary keep it clear of all obstructions.”
“Look up there,” she says, and points to a crag above. I see that the top is levelled off and great stones, squarish, somewhat rounded, rest there. “If I was to go up there, and lever one of those stones off and into the gully, it would roll all the way to the road and down the road for several stades.”
“But that would kill anyone on the road!”
“Yes!” she says, grinning, and draws herself up with a look of vengeance in her eyes. “And if the road was filled with a thousand hoplites, neither bronze nor bone could stand.” Again I see the dramatic flair in her delivery, and realize that despite my horror at the idea, I can imagine myself breathless, watching the great unstoppable stones crashing out of the forest, bloodthirsty as charging elephants, tearing into serried ranks of men.
“Hundreds would perish,” she continued, “and they would be routed. Furthermore…” she says, pointing at spots below the forest canopy, “Men of brass and great engines would be released, and a vast horn would trumpet. It would seem as if the god himself were at war upon them. They would flee, and never return.”
She lets her poise settle. “Deception, my little Spazakia. Deception has defended this sanctuary against the pillaging horde in the past, and it will again. How do you think we can live here at peace with half the world’s treasure in our vaults? The sanctuary is defended. Perhaps not by the god, but defended it is.”
“But it is a lie.”
“Is it? Is it any more a lie than a bit of doggerel that may kill a man as well as save him? More of a lie than the love of the god himself, who turns his lovers into bushes, or fountains, or mad things that no one will believe?”
I shiver at her words. Again, I see the distorted face, the pale eye of the monster that I fear I am. She speaks of me. Of my kind.
Quietly, almost like a concerned mother, she takes me in her arms. “Please, little Spazakia. Trust me in this. Do not strip us bare of our deceits. It will be the end of the sanctuary.”
I know she speaks for her family, for the priests, for the great wealth of Delphi. I pull myself out of her arms and look out on the plain below. I notice for the first time that the north road continues a ways, and joins an east-west road. The roads follow ridges, and the ridges converge on the sanctuary. She follows my eyes.
“Yes, you can see it only from up here. Those roads meet at the wound the god made in the earth on the fourth day of his life. It was there that the he forced his arrows into the navel of the earth. All the earth cracked around, and the dragon was pierced, and tore the ground around him. Since then, the dragon obeys. He speaks for the god.”
She turns, addresses me with her eyes cast down, her voice gentle, intimate as between two sisters. “Or so I am told. The dragon does not speak to me. I wonder if he speaks to anyone. I wonder if all our deceptions hide only a deeper deception. One that we have made for ourselves and have fallen for.”
I shudder, my arms prickling with gooseflesh. I also turn my face downward, unwilling to give her a glimpse of the dragon that may still linger in my eye. She leans in close, whispering in my ear.
“You know, girl, I have travelled and I have seen this with my own eyes: If you cross the sea towards the rising sun, you will come to another temple, far older, far greater, to the god’s sister. There is a navel there also, and all who dwell there say that is the true centre of the earth. And again, if you go south to the island of Crete, there is another navel to the earth where the god and his sister are holy and all who dwell there say that is the world’s centre. There are others. Many others. The earth must have many mothers to have so many navels!” She smiles at her jest, raises my face to look into hers. “So tell me, Spazakia, who is the real deceiver here? Would you be able to tell?”
I shake my head, as much to free it from her fingertips as to admit my ignorance.
“There is a reason the Oracle doesn’t interpret her own prophecies, girl. I hope you never have to learn that reason.”
But I have learned it all too soon. Sardis is burning.
I rage, shaking the bars of my tripod, trying to break it. I reach for the dragon, a thousand vicious claws at his throat. “You let me send Sheep-beard to Sardis, and now Sardis is burning!”
That was your choice.
“No!” I shout. The dozing mystia, who was waiting for me to speak, jumps up, her tablets and stylus clatter to the floor.
“Sister?” she cries out.
I do not know if I speak to her. Whatever comes from my mouth, she is frightened by it and runs out of the room.
“Do something!” I scream at a god who does not hear me. I beat the cage beneath me with my cracked hands. My hands, my arms are so thin, so wiry. In my imagination, I see Sheep-beard and his Oxana standing in the fire, calmly watching me as they are consumed like figures of melting gold withering into the coals. They dwindle to nothingness in my mind.
I reach out to the dragon again. My heart is full of vengeance. “Show them to me.”
But instead, I see the Mule-king’s bearded son, the new King of Kings, on a disc of gold, like the coins in Sheep-beard’s hand. He fires a great bow into the sky, piercing the sun. His promise of vengeance is terrible to feel. It ripples from horizon to horizon, echoing with the tramp of five million marching feet. Even the dragon is taken aback.
“Daughter?” It is Amantaeia. She is in a rumpled, hastily-donned gown. She approaches me, squats to look at me better. “Daughter, what is it?”
I try to form words, but I cannot get them to fit around the vast misshapen feeling in my chest. My mouth moves like a fish. “I killed him.”
“Killed? Who? How?”
“My step-father. I sent him to his death. With my words.”
Her face grows still, and a great sadness comes over her. With halting movements, she lifts me from the cage and holds me, but without warmth. I look up into the sad steel of her eye and I realize where her sorrow comes from. I return her cold embrace with my own chill. We have both spoken our heart in the name of the god, and felt the cold bite of our own venom.
I resolve then never to listen to my own prophecy. Never to winnow out meaning from the dragon’s words. I am the liar now. A woman deceiving the girl she once was.