Excerpt of The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
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"I'll manage," she says, not loudly.
I sidle my horse up to hers, lean over to take her reins to keep her near me while I talk. It's good for her to have to listen, to think. Callisthenes walks beside us.
"The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren't. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?"
"Did we bring olives?" Pythias asks.
"I assume you know your wars, my love?"
She picks at the reins, plucks at them like lyre strings, but I don't let go. "I know them," she says finally.
Utterly ignorant, of course. If I had to weave all day, I'd at least weave myself a battle scene or two. I remind her of the Athenian conquest of Persia under the great general Pericles, Athens at her seafaring mightiest, in my great-grandfather's time. Then the decades of conflict in the Peloponnese, Athens bled and finally brought low by Sparta, with some extra Persian muscle, in my father's youth; and Sparta itself defeated by Thebes, by then the ascendant power, in my own childhood. "I will set you a task. You'll embroider Thermopylae for me. We'll hang it over the bed."
Still not looking at me.
"Thermopylae," I say. "Gods, woman. The pass. The pass where the Spartans held off the Persians for three days, a force ten times their own. Greatest stand in the history of warfare."
"Lots of pink and red," Callisthenes suggests.
She looks straight at me for a moment. I read, Don't patronize me. And, Continue.
Now, I tell her, young Macedon is in the ascendant, under five-wived Philip. A marriage to cement every settlement and seal every victory: Phila from Elimea, in the North; Audata the Illyrian princess; Olympias of Epirus, first among wives, the only one called queen; Philinna from Thessaly; and Nikesipolis of Pherae, a beauty who died in childbirth. Philip invaded Thrace, too, after Thessaly, but hasn't yet taken a Thracian wife. I rifle the library in my skull for an interesting factling. "They like to tattoo their women, the Thracians."
"Mmm." Callisthenes closes his eyes like he's just bitten into something tasty.
We're descending the hillside now, our horses scuffling in the rocky scree as we make our way down to the muddy plain. Pythias is shifting in the saddle, straightening her clothes, smoothing her eyebrows, touching a fingertip to each corner of her mouth, preparing for the city.
"Love." I put my hand on hers to still her grooming and claim back her attention. My nephew I ignore. A Thracian woman would eat him alive, tender morsel that he is, and spit out the little bones. "You should know a little more. They don't keep slaves like we do, even in the palace. Everyone works. And they don't have priests. The king performs that function for his people. He begins every day with sacrifices, and if anyone needs to speak to a god, it's done through him." Sacrilege: she doesn't like this. I read her body. "Pella will not be like Hermias's court. Women are not a part of public life here."
"What does that mean?"
I shrug. "Men and women don't attend entertainments together, or even eat together. Women of your rank aren't seen. They don't go out."
"It's too cold to go out," Pythias says. "What does it matter, anyway? This time next week we'll be in Athens."
"That's right." I've explained to her that this detour is just a favour to Hermias. I'm needed in Pella for just a day or two, a week at most. Clean up, dry out, rest the animals, deliver Hermias's mail, move on. "There isn't much you'd want to do in public anyway." The arts are imported sparingly. Pig-hunting is big; drinking is big. "You've never tasted beer, have you? You'll have to try some before we leave."
Excerpted from The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon Copyright © 2010 by Annabel Lyon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.