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Scott Oden - Memnon

Author: Scott Oden, Somerville, Alabama, USA
Title: Memnon
Release: still in draft stages
Publisher: unknown
Summary: follows the life of Memnon of Rhodes, the Greek mercenary general who opposed Alexander the Great during the early years of his reign. The story is told by Memnon's widow, Barsine, who is on her death-bed. In the decades since his death, Memnon's name has been tarnished by vindictive Macedonians, the successors of divine Alexander. In the time she has left, Barsine wishes to have the truth about her husband recorded for all time.

Excerpt: a young scholar of Rhodes, Ariston, has been summoned to a dilapidated home in the hills overlooking Ephesus. An old Egyptian servant meets him at the door and escorts him to the rooms of his mistress

Unlike the rest of the villa, this suite of rooms had an aura of cleanliness, of elaborate maintenance. An artist’s brush had touched up the wall mural, this one an Arcadian glen where the Muses performed for their father, Zeus; thick rugs strewed the floor, and colorful carpets from the heart of what was once Persia. A fire crackled in the hearth. The smell of wood smoke mingled with that of incense. A breeze from the open window ruffled the sheer linen panels circling the bed. The old Egyptian clucked as he shuffled over and drew the shutter closed.

"Mistress, you’ll catch a chill."

"I wanted to smell the ocean, Harmouthes." The woman in bed coughed, struggling for breath. "One last time."

"You will have many more opportunities for such pleasures, mistress. For now, though, I’ve brought you a guest. The young scholar I told you about."

She craned her neck, peering at Ariston with eyes darker than a moonless night. "Bring him closer."

Before the old man, Harmouthes, could say anything, Ariston stepped to the edge of the bed and bowed. The gesture brought a wan smile to the woman’s lips. Ariston reckoned that she had been sick for some time, long enough that he could not fathom her age, though in the flush of health she must have been an incomparable beauty: olive-skinned with lustrous black hair and the delicate features of Persian nobility. Still, her illness-ravaged body bore a measure of its old fire, though muted, as if seen through Death’s gossamer veil.

"Your eyes speak too clearly," she said, her Greek tinged with a light Persian accent.

"Pardon?" Ariston blinked, taken aback.

"You’re thinking how cruel are the Fates for making the only offer of patronage you’ve had this winter come from the shriveled breast of a dying woman. You’re thinking of how best to preserve your reputation." She glanced at Harmouthes. "Leave us, my old friend."

Harmouthes bowed and left the room.

"Harmouthes swears by your skill," she said, after the door snicked shut. "He attended the City Festival, and he claims he has not seen your equal in many years, not since leaving Alexandria. Unstinting praise from one such as he, a pedagogue of the old ways."

Ariston inclined his head. "I am flattered, truly. You seem well-informed about my current plight, yet I know nothing of you, or of why I am here. The note your man sent was cryptic, and I had half a mind to dismiss it as a jest."

"But you didn’t," she said.

Ariston gave a thin smile. "No, lady. I didn’t. Poverty has a way of making even the noblest man desperate. And, to be honest, the mystery of it appealed to me. Though even mystery wears thin when taken to extremes," he said.

"Fair enough. As for my name, you may call me . . ." she paused, lost in thought, "Melpomene."

Ariston’s eyebrows inched upwards. "You are bold, lady, to call yourself by the name of a Greek goddess when you are obviously Persian. Very well, then. What would you have of me? I have brought my latest work, should you desire to hear it for yourself."

"Yes, the life of Antigonos. I know it well, though not from you. No, master Ariston, that is not why I have summoned you. I wish to commission a piece from you."

Ariston said nothing for a long moment, his lips pursed and brows furrowed. "Forgive me, lady, but my art is not like that of the painter or the sculptor. When I write the subject must move me in some way. It must inspire me to seek the favor of the Muses. I wrote of Antigonos because his genius, his passion, stirred the feeling in my breast. I sought only to understand him, not to immortalize him. It will be the same for the next man whose life I chronicle."

Melpomene nodded. "Will you listen, then, as I tell you of a man I once knew? Then perhaps the Muses will exert their influence over you and compel you to record the story of his life for generations to come. If it’s a question of payment, do not fret. Money is something for which I do not want."

"And if I should deem your subject unworthy of my skill?" Seeing he had touched a raw nerve, Ariston held up his hand to stave off her outburst. "Do not take offense, lady. I have studied the character and deeds of some of the finest men of our time. Men who stood shoulder to shoulder with divine Alexander. Perhaps this knowledge has jaded me in some way, blinded me to the plight of lesser men."

The woman’s eyes narrowed. "You are a fool, Ariston of Lindos, if you think the men who squabble over Alexander’s leavings are great," she said, her voice hard. "The Lion has died, and his followers fight over the corpse of his empire with all the verve and aplomb of jackals! Antigonos? Bah! That kyklopes thinks more with his groin than with his head! His bastard, Demetrius, is worse. And Cassander! Were I a man I would flay the skin from his body and bathe him in the Asphalt Sea!" She spoke of these men with a familiarity and a rage that gave Ariston pause. "The man I would speak of to you possessed more grace and nobility in his tiniest finger than all of Alexander’s companions combined! Even more than Alexander . . . than . . .!" Melpomene coughed, her face purpling as she strangled on the very air that kept her alive. She sank back on her pillow.

"Peace, lady. Peace. Should I fetch your man?" Ariston glanced at the door, concern etched on his brow.

The woman calling herself Melpomene shook her head. She gestured to a sideboard, to a small chest of silver inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Ariston frowned as he picked up the chest and brought it to her side.

"Open it," she said, her voice a croaking whisper.

Ariston did as she asked. Inside, nestled in a niche of wine-colored silk, lay a bracelet of polished silver. Simple in its beauty, Ariston had seen its like displayed in bazaars from Byzantium to Miletus, though few were of such remarkable austerity. He peered closer. The bracelet’s inner surface bore an inscription, in Greek:

For the Love of Memnon of Rhodes

Ariston felt a thrill tickle his spine. "I've heard of him. Antigonos called him a traitor, a Persian lap-dog."

Melpomene’s hands trembled as she took the bracelet from Ariston, tracing its curves, caressing its surface with her fingertips. Its proximity acted as a balm; the touch of metal on flesh soothed her breathing. Melpomene closed her eyes and sighed. "Too often do the victors sully their opponent's names with lies. You can’t remember the Social War, can you, Ariston?" she said, motioning for him to bring a stool close. "No, of course you can’t. You’re too young. Doubtless your father or grandfathers were among those who voted for Rhodes to leave the shelter of Athenian hegemony, along with Cos and Chios, all three islands praying that the gods would grant them an empire of their own. Yet, as with all things, Time has given the years of the Social War a gloss, a gleam of patriotism you Rhodians find more palatable than the truth. Your peers have forgotten the infighting between factions that nearly tore their island apart. They’ve forgotten the famine arising from Athenian piracy that drove their uncles and brothers to forsake their homes and seek their fortunes among the city-states of Ionia. They’ve forgotten the diaspora of your people so they could tell themselves they stood up to tyranny. Memnon did not forget. He came of age in this world . . ."

Excerpt submitted to by Scott Oden. © Scott Oden.

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