It was late and Cassandra was feeling irritable. It had been one of the rare days when all of the petitioners she’d seen had been farmers, traders and minor functionaries. Not one of them had a petition that had really required a ruling from the great Oracle of Delphi and most of them, she felt, could have worked out the answers to their own questions. But… She sighed. She was not willing to allow the temple authorities to gatekeep for her. Her duty was to hear the petitions as they came, not have some uncious priest decide who was worthy.
And the new head priest of the temple, Lykergos, was particularly determined on that front.
He had been very careful in how he phrased his suggestions, a clear sign he was trying to dodge her gift and which, naturally, made Cassandra even more suspicious of him than she’d been when she’d first learned of his elevation. True, the previous incumbent in the role had been well into his dotage and due to retire, but it had all happened so fast. Almost, too fast. Unfortunately, though she was the current oracle, she had no influence over the temple’s affairs and so had no means to complain.
Even if she probably had cause.
The door of her sanctuary opened and she carefully pasted on an appropriate smile. Her final petitioner of the day. Her first look at him told her two things. The first was that he was tall. The second was that though he was dressed like any other local, he wasn’t a local. He was trying hard, she gave him that, but he was no Greek. That immediately put Cassandra on her guard and then things got worse.
As he approached, instead of stopping at the appropriate distance, he continued on. Came in close. Reached out towards her. Cassandra reacted, swinging her arm to swat him away.and as she connected,she recognised he’d been speaking.
“Would you come with me?”
She never felt her blow land. Instead she was carried away by a welter of images. Past. Present. Future. So much information and so much of it very strange. She saw the petitioner in places she couldn’t recognise, with people dressed in fashions she barely comprehended as clothing, living so many lives and yet not changing. Always acting as a protector. As a mentor and a mediator. Soothing quarrels when he could; helping those in need at all times. A healer. She saw others with him. A woman, pale of skin and hair, weighed down by grief and guilt. A man, tall and dark skinned and so much more than he pretended. A child, red-haired and rambunctious. A Persian whose sharp edges defended a broken heart. A tiny Indoi woman with a wicked sense of humour and an equally wicked skill with a sword. The assassin who talked with ghosts. The damaged man who became a ghost. Still others she couldn’t even grasp.
The torrent slowed and finally came to an end and Cassandra found herself back in her own body and back in her chamber. No time had passed – her petitioner was reeling backwards from her blow, a hand rising to touch his cheek where her fingernails had scored it, although even as she watched she saw those tiny scratches heal, leaving his skin unblemished.
“Who are you?” Cassandra demanded.
“My name is Nicodemes and–“
“Do not lie to me,” Cassandra retorted. “You are no Greek. I knew it when you entered and after what I have just witnessed, you are no man.”
Her petitioner froze for a moment. Almost cringed, then sighed. “It would be better if we discussed this somewhere other than the temple precincts,” he said.
Cassandra wanted to argue. Wanted to be contrary. She disliked being ordered around, but given her own mistrust of Lykergos she did take this man’s point. She scowled, and stood. “This way.”
She led the way around, behind her seat and through the door hidden there. The passage beyond was short and dim, but it led out into the open space behind the temple. At this time of day, with the dusk coming down, the space was empty of people, something that Cassandra normally liked. This evening, it made her itchy. Her gift didn’t allow for her to read such an open situation, but she could tell someone was watching her movements and those of the petitioner.
Very softly, he said, “If I tell you to run, I want you to do just that.”
“What is going on?” Cassandra asked.
“I do not think our friends watching from the shadows are going to allow me to explain.”
The sound of a sling being whirred underscored that point and the petitioner’s next word was, simply, “Run!”
And for once in her life, Cassandra didn’t argue. Instead, she picked up her skirts and ran, instinct making her head not for her home above the temple, but for the wooded slopes that led up towards the sacred pools and the waterfalls. As she ran, she was aware that at least one man was following her, though thanks to her saviour, she had something of a head start. As the slope grew steeper, the bushes tangled closer together, hampering her progress, but hampering her pursuer’s more and that gave her an idea. As soon as she found a particularly deep thicket to put between herself and her pursuer, she made a leap and scrambled up into one of the trees.
Not a moment too soon as the man passed below her. She watched his progress through the thin foliage and, as soon as she judged him out of earshot, she scrambled higher. It was a precarious hiding spot and the white of her robe would surely mark her out were he to return and simply look up, but she had no other option.
And then he did return, cursing her name and stabbing at thickets with his xiphos to see if she was hiding within. Cassandra bit her lip and gripped the branch tight, hoping, praying, that he wouldn’t think to look up.
But he did.
There was a protracted moment, when their eyes met.
He opened his mouth to say something, and then fell backwards, clutching at his throat. A moment later and the petitioner who’d called himself Nicodemes appeared, an empty sling in one hand and a xiphos in the other. He’d had neither weapon when he’d entered her sanctuary. He held the point of the short sword to the man’s throat and said something too soft for Cassandra to hear. The man nodded vigorously, his eyes wide with fear, and Nicodemes let him up. A moment later and the attacker had scampered back down the slope and disappeared into the growing gloom. Only then did Nicodemes look up.
“I didn’t know they taught oracles to climb trees.”
Cassandra snorted. “I wasn’t always an oracle.” She started to carefully climb back down and was surprised to see Nicodemes merely watch her progress. “You aren’t going to offer to help me?”
“You got up there,” he answered, shrugging. “I won’t insult you by suggesting you need help getting down again.”
“And if I ask for help?”
“I’ll give it.” Nicodemes smiled. “But you don’t need help.”
“Not with climbing trees,” Cassandra answered, dropping to the ground. “But other things, it would appear, I do need help with. And information. Who were those men?”
“Local thugs, I believe, paid to scare you.”
Nicodemes gestured in the general direction of her home. “Fortunately, I’m scarier, so far as they’re concerned. They won’t be back.”
Cassandra considered those words for a moment. “But you think others might.”
“That is why I’m here.”
“Then, I suppose, a better question is: who are you? Really?”
Her companion sighed as they finally reached the path up to the little cottage she called home. “My truename is Nakht-ankh, and no, I’m not Greek.”
Cassandra pursed her lips together in thought as she led the way up the slope. What he hadn’t said, what she hadn’t asked, was when he’d been born. She suspected the answer was not the apparent twenty or thirty years prior.
At the top of the slope, Nicodemes gestured that she should wait and she did, watching as he swiftly moved around the small shelf of flat land and the dark cottage, checking for interlopers.
“I thought you said they wouldn’t be back.”
“As you noted there may be others. Though, it appears, not this evening. All safe.”
And he stood aside and waved her into her cottage.
Cassandra busied herself for a few minutes, lighting lamp and fire and then placing the cauldron of stew on the hook above the hearth to warm.
“You don’t have a servant to see to your needs?” Nicodemes sounded surprised.
“I prefer to do my own housekeeping,” Cassandra answered. “After dealing with petitioners all day it is nice to spend the evening in silent contemplation.”
“My apologies for the break in routine.”
Cassandra shook her head. “Unless you set up that ambush to make yourself look useful, I know this interruption is not your fault.” She glanced up from the stew. “You’re a protector, not a schemer.”
Nicodemes looked amused. “Thank you – I think.”
“You are not surprised I’m a true seer, are you?”
“You are the oracle.”
Cassandra glared. “You know as well as I that not all oracles are true seers.”
“But some are.” Nicodemes inclined his head. “Yes, I know.”
She looked back at the stew. “So who is behind that ambush?”
“A cult of many names and no name at all,” Nicodemes answered. “We believe they seek to isolate you and use you and your talent purely for their own ends.”
“And those ends are?”
“Well, that would be a rather long story.” Nicodemes smiled. “A good thing we have all evening.”
Cassandra snorted. “Make yourself useful – more useful – and pour some wine. Don’t dilute it too much; I’ve a feeling I will need a strong drink or two before this night is done.”
Nicodemes did as he was asked and, when Cassandra offered him a bowl of stew, he handed her a cup of dark, rich wine.
“So,” she said, taking up a seat beside the fire. “This story. It had better be good.”
Nicodemes smiled. “A very long time ago, far longer than I’ve been on this earth, there was a god who wanted to rule…”
Cassandra listened as the story was spun. It all sounded incredible, a tale of warring gods, mortals and those prepared to serve as defenders for the mortals. A battle won at high cost and yet the opposition not vanquished. A continuing struggle, sometimes on the fringes of normal life, sometimes centre stage.
As the story wound down, she shook her head. “You are aware of just how outlandish that all sounds?”
“Painfully,” Nicodemes admitted.
“And yet…” Cassandra sighed. “And yet, I believe it. You said this cult wish to cut me off from their enemies and use me for their own ends. I can clearly see what their ends are, but who are their enemies? I sense you don’t refer to you and your brethren.”
“No.” Nicodemes took a moment to consider his next words. “Ultimately, their enemies here are Kleon and Pericles. The cult wish for there to be no leadership in Athens, so that they may seize power.”
“They take the Spartan side, then?”
“Perhaps, though I’ve little doubt that should Athens fall to them, they will then turn on the two kings of Sparta. It is power they crave and you are the key to seeing how best to proceed, just as surely as you are the key to showing Kleon and Pericles how best to heal their rift and not fall into the cult’s trap.”
“This places me in a difficult position,” Cassandra said, standing to feed the fire a little more wood. “And yet: it makes certain things more clear to me.”
“The head priest, Lykergos. He is new and he wishes to have more influence over who I see.”
“I cannot say for certain if Lykergos is a cult member, but that does sound as if his desires run parallel to theirs if he isn’t.”
“I knew I didn’t like him.” Cassandra sat back down. “The question thus becomes: what do I do?”
“In the short term, I will stay,” said Nicodemes. “Though not perfect, my presence should discourage further ambushes.”
“You will stand out like an ox at a wedding!”
Nicodemes grinned. “You forget: few people are as skilled at reading others as an oracle. Besides, in this case, the desire is for my presence to be marked.”
“And how will we account for your sudden arrival?”
“Publicly, you can say that I’ve been sent by your family. You need not say more: the fewer lies told the easier they are to keep straight.”
Cassandra considered that and nodded. “That will not work as excuse for long, but it will do as a start.”
“And I hope that it will not be required for long,” Nicodemes replied. “One of my friends is in Athens, dealing with the cult. She will notify me once they have been…” He trailed off for a few moments, then grinned. “Appropriately disposed of.”
“I sense by that wording that I do not wish to know more.”
“It is, perhaps, better that way.”
That night, and for the next three nights, Nicodemes kept guard at her door. Cassandra wasn’t certain if he slept but she did have to admit she felt better for knowing his presence precluded undesired visitors. During the day, he accompanied her down to the temple and though he didn’t lurk within her sanctuary, Cassandra knew he was in and around the temple precincts from the edgy way Lykergos behaved.
On the fourth day, they reached the temple and found Lykergos gone and a new, more congenial head priest, Aegeus, installed.
“Lykergos was called away, most suddenly,” Aegeus said, his expression amused, and for the first time Cassandra realised she hadn’t been alone in her dislike of the short-lived promotion for Lykergos. “I trust that you and I will be able to work as tradition intends?”
The question drew forth a flash of images and outcomes, all of them positive. She smiled at Aegeus. “I do believe we will.”
A further day on and the shrine was visited by no lesser person than Aspasia. Her visit provoked a buzz in and around the shrine and even Cassandra was curious as to why the wife of Pericles would make the journey, but the answer to that became clear the moment Aspasia set foot in Cassandra’s sanctuary.
“You’re Nicodemes’ friend.”
Aspasia smiled. “I am. Nicodemes warned me you were a reader as well as a seer. His work here is concluded. The cult’s influence over Athens has been broken. Now all I need worry about is whether Kleon will attempt to have Pericles assassinated.” She shook her head. “That is an entirely different scale of challenge.”
Despite herself, Cassandra laughed. “And one I do not envy you for.”
Aspasia chuckled in return. “And one that you will, no doubt, hear more about over time. Until now, we Hands have tried to stay away from true seers to avoid the cult being drawn in, but this interlude shows the folly of that. So I will visit, from time to time, and you may send for me, should you need. The cult should be wise enough to not attempt to meddle with your duties again, but there are other threats out there. Threats you may catch hints of before we do.”
“I won’t break the confidence of those who petition me.”
“Nor do I ask you to. My goal is to keep Hellas safe from rogue gods and other such beings, as well as dealing with the pernicious weed that is the cult. All I ask is that should you hear tales of miracles or monstrosities you provide me with the direction I need to travel.”
Cassandra nodded slowly. “That I can do.”
“And that is all I, we, ask.”
That evening, Cassandra was surprised to find Nicodemes waiting to escort her back to her cottage.
“I’ll admit, I thought you would have gone,” she said.
“Eager to be rid of me?”
“Well, your work here is done,” she pointed out. “And I have hardly given you reason to wish to stay.”
Nicodemes chuckled. “Truth told, though I could have departed the moment Aspasia arrived, I decided that one last night in Delphi would not be the worst thing in the world as it would enable me to bid you a proper goodbye – an opportunity I’m rarely afforded.”
“Thank you, then.” Cassandra smiled.
They reached the cottage and Cassandra performed her usual nightly routine. Once they were both served with stew and wine, she said, “So where do you go from here?”
“Phoenicia, to protect a merchant, and probably to deal with the politics of court and commerce.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
“It could be.” Nicodemes smiled. “But challenges aren’t bad things and the outcomes are always interesting.”
They ate in silence for a while, then Cassandra said, “Thank you, for what you’ve done here. I know, now, that it’s your nature to help and step in, but that doesn’t mean I appreciate it any less.”
“It has been my pleasure.”
Nicodemes chuckled. “You are not the unpleasant creature you claim to be.” More gently, he continued, “Were I to hold your talent, I too would wish to ward away the rest of the world.”
Cassandra opened her mouth to object to that statement, then closed it again as she realised that, perhaps, there was some truth to his words.
For his part, Nicodemes smiled. “I will leave early in the morning. I hope that the rest of your time as Oracle will pass in peace.”
As he’d promised, Nicodemes left before the sun had fully risen. Cassandra watched him set off and, for just one brief moment, she considered calling him back and asking him to stay. She had found his company pleasant and undemanding. He had lifted the veil of loneliness she was usually cloaked with and as he disappeared down the road out of Delphi and towards the coast, she was very conscious of that veil rolling back into place, far heavier than it had been.
In the next moment, however, she dismissed that impulse. There were so many reasons why he couldn’t remain in Delphi and asking him to stay would be the act of a selfish child. It was time to allow the world to creep a little closer. She would speak with Aegeus and see about beginning the search for the next oracle. Though she was young yet it never hurt to identify a successor and give her guidance about her new life.
Cassandra cast one final glance at the road out of Delphi then turned to head for the temple. Between teaching a successor and Aspasia’s promised visits, she had a feeling the next few years would be anything but lonely.