To the Senate of the great Atlantis:
What causes two countries to unite and two others to collide? While our countries have never been at war, I do not believe either party can claim a peaceful history. It is the fault of none. I know you have no reason to finish this letter, yet I write it to you anyway. I write in the hope you will listen to my story and the offer I am prepared to make.
Of all my five wives, only one ever captured my heart. Twenty years ago, I saw her working the fields on our border with Apollo. Her hair was golden like the sun, her green eyes captivating me. In that moment, marriage no longer meant political advantage or stability. She was not just one more sign of my power and influence. I had to have her, even if it meant giving all I had—the wives, the land, the power—just to be with her.
The transition was not easy. She held tight to her faltering belief in Clieto and origins in a mythical realm called Earth, stories you hold as well. Zerro is much different, maybe even simpler. What is this second chance at life? There is only existence. These differences threatened to drive us apart just as effectively as it has divided Artemis and Atlantis for over three hundred years.
But her love, it taught me many things. And, over time, she grew to accept our truth. After five years of marriage, she brought forth to me a son, Daedalus. He brightened her smile until a devastating disease extinguished her grace. I am ashamed to admit I have not been the best father. I let grief drive my decisions. That is why Daedalus ran away. It took these four years without him to truly understand my mistake. He is the son of the only woman I loved. He is of more value to me than life itself. As I approach the dusk of my life, I wish for his safe return.
You, great Senate, can help me fix this mistake. It has come to my attention that my boy resides on your island. I ask you to look past our differences. In return, I will allow your ambassadors to accompany my son back. Our countries have never made a treaty, but this situation can allow a negotiation otherwise neglected. Let us use this to resolve the friction between our countries.
An Artemis native currently resides in the United Tritons. He can lead you safely through our grasslands and straight to the capitol. While the simplest differences can separate countries, I am hoping the simplest of solutions can bring them back together. I leave you with a word of caution. Should you find my son, please be wary. He may express a quiet disposition, but he can turn into a curse on your little island. It is in his nature as a son of Artemis. Grant him only as much trust as you would any other from my nation.
May the waters be kind, and may Zerro find you safe passage into Artemis.
Imperial chief of the tribes of Artemis
2852 After Transfer
Patrol the perimeter. That’s what they always say. And, while Brasidas could definitely do so in his human form, the mastiff form just presented a unique perspective—one his superiors recognized. He put his muzzle to the ground, sniffing: dusty prairie sod that hadn’t seen rain in weeks and a trace of a fox that must have passed through just before Helios rose. Such strong scents were woven in the air. But there was nothing out of the ordinary. The Atlantis prairies were hard against the padding of Brasidas’ paws as he wandered the set definition between prairie grass and dark Atlantis forest.
He was getting used to the pine that sweetened the air. Brasidas paused to shake out the fatigue that wanted to settle on his fur, the loose skin around his mouth slapping the sleep from his brain as well. As much as his mind insisted he lacked rest these past few days, he could not curl up here—and definitely not while in mastiff form. People tended to find his well-toned dog form much too intimidating, especially in the wilderness.
He looked up from the ground. Jagged mountains shot a massive array of sharp cliffs behind him, the island’s teeth daring any to pass by. More of the same blue boundaries ripped against the horizon ahead of him. To Brasidas, the island always looked like the result of three land masses shoved together, sending pieces exploding toward the sky kilometers at a time. Helios’ light just peeked over the horizon of the prairies, the slopes of the grassland shimmering gold in the orange light as they rolled out before him. He had seen more of these prairies than he’d like to admit during wartime. The prairies were easy enough to get to, but the heart of Atlantis rested inside the mountain ranges on either end. Many a general tried and failed to penetrate, remaining trapped in the prairies. He used to be part of those invading forces, watching the generals flounder. Now, after three years of marriage, these mountains looked more like guardians protecting his new home.
He trotted back to the pair of horses standing a few kilometers away. Nicias sat tall on one, eyes scanning the prairie with precision. When he was within only a few meters, Brasidas pushed his front paws off the ground. In a burst of energy that shot through his skin, the black and brown mastiff fur vanished, and he stood back on human feet. Brasidas adjusted his shirt and walked the last few steps to his horse. He mounted the saddle with ease, taking the reins back from his good friend.
The rays of dawn caused Nicias’ emerald eyes to glow like gems. The slight breeze blew a few brown strands of his ear-length hair across his face. Nicias still looked like a young man, even though he was well into his second century.
Brasidas’ horse shifted under his weight before they both settled. He leaned forward, patting its blond shoulder, stiff hairs of the mane brushing the back of his hand. Sitting up straight, he rested his hands on the saddle horn, reins held loose.
“I know,” Nicias said with a grin. “You just looked bored.”
“Bored? No. I enjoy sitting in one place for hours waiting for a caravan.” Brasidas took a deep breath, tasting the salt of the nearby sea. “If we hadn’t ridden the entire night, I would enjoy this morning more.”
“Don’t tell me three years of marriage has softened the elite Zeus soldier.”
Brasidas pulled a corner of his lips up into his best smirk. “As far as legacies go, I can soften a lot more and still end stronger than the great Nicias of Gaea.”
Nicias laughed. His horse shook its black mane with a snort, metal on the bridle clanking together as it did. “Good thing legacies are all full of Cerberus waste, then.”
“Besides,” Brasidas continued, “If my wife can weaken me in three years, imagine what she can do to the man who raised her.”
Nicias tilted his head, conceding the point. Placing a hand on his chin, mocking deep thought, he said, “Yes, but I suspect a wife has more influence over a man than a child.”
In the distance, a blue jay began to sing.
“True,” Nicias admitted. “Although I do notice that neither of us is without a headstrong wife.”
The smile that flickered across Nicias’ face warned Brasidas that his in-law had just won this battle. “Since my marriage, I have risen from captain to superior in the Atlantis Fighting Forces. But, you…”
Brasidas frowned, sitting straighter in his saddle. He rocked slightly as his horse struck the ground with a back hoof.
“You went from second in command of an elite force within Zeus to a glorified bodyguard of an ambassador in Atlantis.” Nicias sat back, his smug expression daring Brasidas to find a way out of this corner.
The breeze whistled through the pines for only a moment before Brasidas found his out. He smiled broadly, causing Nicias to shift in his saddle. “I concede it has taken you two hundred years to achieve your station in Atlantis. I, however, conquered one country in under a hundred and have now moved on to another.”
Nicias blinked at him. “Well,” he said, “my horse is still bigger than yours.”
At that point, both men bent over in laughter. Brasidas adjusted his seat, letting the laughter subside. “Seriously. What are we doing here? I could be wrapped in the arms of said ambassador.”
“What have we discussed about the boundaries of our friendship?” Nicias asked, his gaze narrowing. “She may not be my blood, but I will still pound you.”
“I didn’t say her legs,” he said with a shrug.
Nicias rubbed his eyes. “You will regret that, my friend.” Nicias let his body slouch in the saddle for a moment. “As to your question, I don’t know our mission exactly. The senate just ordered me to escort some wagon train. Apparently, an Artemis boy was found hiding in the forests between Atlas and Poseidon. We are to ensure his safe passage to the capitol.”
“That area seems to be a popular haven for the unwanted,” Brasidas said. The face of a blue-eyed, blond woman immediately came to mind. Oh, he wanted to be back in bed next to her. And sleep. He wanted sleep.
Nicias’ face darkened as he nodded once. “Makes you wonder how many other demons are there.”
“So the boy is a demon?”
The combined sound of horse hooves, harnesses, and wheels grinding the earth emerged from the west. Nicias guided his horse around to face the quickly approaching wagon. “They never send me on the easy missions.” Nicias paused before adding, “No matter how innocent the assignment sounds.”
The wagon jerked and rocked against the prairie. The five men riding alongside shouted, pointing to them. With a slight adjustment, the two horses drawing the wagon shifted to head straight for them. Watching them approach, Brasidas said, “Only fitting we meet them in Hades Fury then.”
Helios peeked above blue mountains, illuminating the horizon to the west. Hades Fury owed its name to the blood that saturated the ground from many an invasion. As a Zeus soldier, Brasidas had participated in such miscalculated plots. They could never make it through the cliffs. Atlantis didn’t have to have the greatest army with these mountains. They just needed the greatest navy. Even after living in Atlantis for all these years, he wasn’t sure how an army could penetrate to the capitol.
The black wagon bounced wildly as the horses ran across the uneven surface. There was a road that stretched from one side of the prairie to the other, but for some reason the party didn’t want to use it.
The four wheels of the wagon must be made of iron, Brasidas mused. Once the wagon closed within a kilometer, he began to notice the shimmering metal against the wood. The chipped black paint almost masked the iron bars striping the window and the locks binding the doors.
“Did the senate say this boy was a prisoner?” Brasidas asked, raising a brow.
Nicias flashed a smile, but his eyes were dark. “I told you…never easy.”
“No. You said…” he began to mock Nicias’ voice, “‘the senate asked me to go to Hades Fury. You want to accompany me?’”
Without taking his gaze from the wagon, Nicias said, “Seriously. If you need me to find a good battle to overcome your marriage stupor, I am willing.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Brasidas said. “I hear Ganymede is always a nice place for stirring up trouble. Maybe we should vacation there. You’re familiar with the jail’s hospitalities, right?”
Nicias flashed white teeth, glancing sideways.
The driver pulled hard on the reins, his horses sounding their displeasure as the wagon rolled to a stop. Four of the guards couldn’t sit straighter on their horses if they had a rod shoved up their backsides. By the emptiness in their eyes, Brasidas believed they could slaughter a village if ordered and not think twice. He had only seen such a look from one group here on Atlantis, and that belonged to the guards of Prison Island. Their solid black uniforms and buzzed hair supported his assessment. But what were they doing here?
The fifth guard, a man whose rounded belly reminded him more of a well-fed senator, guided his spotted horse until it rubbed shoulders with Nicias’. He extended a pudgy hand across his body. As they shook hands, Brasidas noticed the man jerk at the encounter. Between the electricity that always tingled on the surface of Nicias’ fingertips and the ironclad grip, most outside of the military avoided such a civil gesture. Brasidas learned that after only a day of marriage.
“Good day,” the man said in a voice as dusty as the trail. The breeze brought with it a sweet stench of dirt mixed with sweat. But there was another scent that lingered on the man. Like rotten apples.
“I wasn’t expecting the governor of Atlas to help with the escort,” Nicias said. His steady gaze examined every inch of Governor Callicrates. Brasidas had no doubt Nicias could peer through someone’s eyes and into the depths of their mind with that stare.
The governor shifted in his saddle, avoiding direct eye contact. “Yes, well. My city has had its share of darkness.” This time he met Nicias’ gaze. “As you are well aware. We can recognize a challenging situation when we see it.”
Again, the blue-eyed, blond woman’s face came to mind. Brasidas fought the overwhelming desire to pull the man off his horse and challenge him to a duel right there. He’d lose no sleep over beating some manners into such an ungrateful simpleton. It was probably why his wife had never taken him back to her home city. Knowing how they treated her…the results would be catastrophic.
“Yes,” Nicias said in a strained voice. “Your city has had a full history of torment against its former residents determined challenging—bordering on hysteria, really.” Nicias’ face remained cool as he paused, allowing the governor to slink back into his saddle. “That doesn’t explain why you would risk the dangerous venture to the prairie.”
Callicrates’ gaze darted between the two of them. His horse backed a few steps away—a subtle gesture neither man missed. “The boy is the son of some country’s leader. I thought it imperative I guarantee his proper treatment.”
“Hence the cage?” Nicias asked.
Movement within the wagon caught Brasidas’ eyes. Dirt-crusted fingers wrapped around the iron, and a dirty face peered through. Before their gazes met, the boy dashed back into the shadows. He hadn’t gotten a good look, but Brasidas would bet a year serving as capitol-lookout the boy inside was only a teenager, even better justification for grinding the governor into the prairie dirt.
“He’s what,” Brasidas asked, “thirteen?”
“Fifteen,” the governor corrected. He immediately shrunk under the two men’s glares. Nicias’ hand rested on the sheath of his sword. “You don’t understand,” the governor said, his voice cracking. He backed up his horse a few more steps, like it would make a difference. “That boy is cursed.”
Nicias tapped his finger ever so slightly. The sword rose and fell with the motion. The sword’s edge rubbed against the sheath, creating a high-pitched scrape that sounded sharp. “You enjoy throwing that word around.”
“We had a curse. The fact we mistook your assignment for her twin sister is not our fault!”
“Call her an assignment one more time,” Nicias dared him, gaze narrowing on his target. The sound stopped, but the silence prickled at Brasidas’ skin.
“What would be the political implications of beheading him?” Brasidas asked Nicias, keeping his voice flat.
The governor gave off a small squeak as he backed his horse up another few steps. The animal swatted his tail in protest. Brasidas checked the guards, who remained at their posts. Interesting.
Nicias thought a moment. “Maybe some time on Prison Island. Hades Fury hasn’t absorbed blood in a while. I think she yearns for it.”
“Look,” Callicrates said, waving his hand. “Let’s forget the past, okay? Since discovering the boy, we have had two people die of a heart attack, two girls lose their babies, and four different supply wagons crash en route to the city. Not to mention the five wagon axles that broke on the trip here and the two guards who fell over a cliff.”
“What are you saying?” Nicias asked, each word articulated. “That a fifteen-year-old boy caused all these things to happen?”
Callicrates shook his head. “I don’t know, but he has a presence surrounding him. It was worse when he wasn’t locked in the wagon. We didn’t do that until we got to Amphitrite. Things have gone…smoother since then.”
“Nothing to do with better roads?” Nicias asked, again his words slow.
Callicrates’ body quivered. “I know what I’ve seen. If you want to chance letting him out, then do so once I’m gone.”
“You know,” Brasidas said over his shoulder. “We could give the boy this horse and allow the governor a nice wagon ride home.”
Callicrates’ eyes widened. “I beg you to listen. Do not let this boy out. At least not until the senate has assessed him. He has plenty of water and food. He is safer in the carriage than on horseback. Besides, he didn’t exactly want to be found.”
Nicias sat back at this. Brasidas knew his reasoning was similar to his own. If the boy didn’t want to be found, then the carriage, no matter how repulsive a sight, was probably the best option. They couldn’t let worry about his escape distract them from trying to manage the trails. If the senate wanted the boy, then they would bring him to the capitol. Even though Brasidas served Atlantis now, his first loyalty was to his friend. He would do whatever Nicias decided. And Nicias served Atlantis above all. He had no reason to doubt the senate’s intentions.
After a long moment, Nicias relented. “Fine. But we do not need your guards. If two men of the Atlantis Fighting Forces cannot handle a young boy, then it is best we retire.”
Callicrates sagged in his seat, audibly letting go of the breath he had been holding.
“But,” Nicias continued, causing the man to freeze, “if I find this boy was harmed in any way because of your superstitions…well, my friend and I will have to pay Atlas a visit.”
Brasidas flashed his best smile and added, “I need a battle to cure my marriage stupor.”
The governor shivered, but nodded. He turned his horse and trotted away. “Let’s go, gentlemen. Your services are no longer required.”
Brasidas watched the five horses charge away, the guards not waiting for the trailing governor. “I really hate that man.”
Nicias patted his shoulder. “Relax. He became governor only four years ago. He did not persecute your wife. I already killed those people.”
Brasidas breathed out the tension that tightened his chest. The shadowed eyes gazed at him once again from the depths of the wagon. And, once again, the moment the boy met his eyes, he fled back into the darkness. No use trying to talk. The last person he saw act that way in a wagon practically scratched his eyes out when he approached. “You owe me for this one.”
Nicias laughed. “Come on. We need to get you back. Your wife will hound me a week for every hour we are late.”
Brasidas smiled, turning his horse to face the east mountainside. “Is the great Nicias afraid of a girl?”
“Yes,” Nicias said without hesitation. “And, if you were smart, you would fear her wrath as well.”
He kicked his horse into a gallop, propelling their small group forward. They left Hades Fury as Helios fully emerged from the mountainside. The path climbed, and Brasidas knew he was on his way back home, back to the arms of a woman whose affections he had somehow captured.