Blackmailed into spying for Lysander, head of the hated Secret Police, High Priestess Iliona discovers that the threat to her country doesn’t come from their archenemy, Athens. It comes from deep within Sparta itself.
But as she investigates, the same thread keeps turning up. Of a one-eyed giant who lives in the hills. The legendary Cyclops. So who is this man who inspires such fear? A freak? A fraud? A felon? And what does his arrival have to do with the disappearance of several young women?
Four hundred miles away, on the other side of the ocean, a very different day was dawning. Thrusting her feet into a pair of pale blue kidskin sandals, the High Priestess of the river god Eurotas marched across the courtyard, oblivious to the fig trees that scrambled against its whitewashed walls and the pomegranates that provided welcome shade.
‘You can put this morning’s ritual log back on the pile,’ she told the Guardian of the Sacred Flame. ‘I’m consigning this instead.’
She tossed a roll of crumpled vellum to the tripod, but not before the Guardian’s eagle eye had glimpsed the royal seal.
‘An offering which not only burns faster than our sacred oak,’ he observed dryly, ‘but one which I suspect will burn rather hot.’
‘Then we must pray that royal wax cools quickly, Perses.’ Iliona gave the scroll a good, hard prod with the fire iron. ‘And if you could collect the ash at your earliest convenience, I’d be grateful. The King specifically requested a prompt reply.’
‘I don’t suppose I could talk you into laying on a ceremonial olive branch instead?
‘No, my dear friend, you cannot.’ It was not for the King to tell the High Priestess how to spend her temple’s income, much less dictate what manner of worshippers Eurotas should be attracting. ‘I won’t have my shrine turned into a political arena,’ she added crisply.
Peace had opened up the world. A thousand city states were forced to put aside their differences to fight the Persian armies, and in doing so discovered strength in unification. As a result, giant strides in science and technology were being made, trade was booming, and a fresh new style of thinking had been inspired.
Only philosophy was proving a double-edged sword…
For those who’d grown fat on this rising tide of progress, worship had become a platform for power, their lavish donations giving them free rein to impose policies that suited their own interests. But for every triumph, there were a thousand losers. Inevitably, they were the poor and the enslaved.
‘The King might not value barley cakes in the same light as silver or gold,’ Iliona said. ‘But it’s not right to oust these people, simply because he fancies a new showcase for his treasures or needs rich men’s backing for his plans. They have nowhere else to turn.’ Someone needed to make them feel there was at least some purpose in their lives.
Perses watched the edges of the scroll blacken and curl. ‘You do realize that the King wants to appoint his sister as High Priestess?’
‘Then he should have given her the job three years ago, instead of offering it to me.’
‘Unfortunately, he has the backing of the Council of Elders, and gestures such as these are being perceived as inflammatory.’ One hand tapped the smoking tripod while the other indicated the pillars, posts and lintels that had been garlanded with gorse.
‘It’s the spring equinox, Perses. A triumph of equality, a celebration of balance. We must honour the gods with our rejoicing.’ Iliona spread her arms in a theatrical gesture. ‘Eurotas is one of the few rivers in Greece to flow all the year round. The people of Sparta are truly blessed.’
One eyebrow lifted mournfully. ‘Save your eulogizing for the crowds tonight. As far as the King’s concerned, your feasting the rabble in a shrine turned yellow with furze is extravagant to the point of recklessness.’
‘Bending to pressure can only weaken Eurotas’s standing,’ she tossed back. ‘The King knows my views about demonstrating strength through belief in my convictions.’
‘If he didn’t before, I’m sure burning royal reprimands and sending back the ashes will make it clear,’ Perses murmured.
Iliona watched basket bearers glide over marble floors on silent feet while handmaidens fluttered back and forth, singing paeans to the dawn. On the far side of the courtyard, the waters in the bowl of divination were being purified by white-robed acolytes. Cats too fat to catch the temple mice suckled kittens in the shade.
‘You just concentrate on keeping the Eternal Flame from going out and consigning Sparta to oblivion,’ Iliona said. ‘Leave me to worry about the King,’
‘With a wife who nags, a mother-in-law who shares my roof, six small children and a dog who shares my bed, oblivion cannot come too quickly, I assure you.’
‘Liar! You love them all. But there’s one more favour, I’m afraid.’ She pulled at her earlobe. ‘The thing is, Perses, I need a scapegoat.’
A worried look crept into his face. ‘For the King?’
Iliona laughed. ‘To dress up in goatskins and have me drive you out of the precinct, you idiot.’