Act I: i have seen this fall before
There is an old, old tale, in an old land: it goes as all tales go. There are kings and men and monsters; witches and prophecies and magic.
There is love, twisted and gnarled as the olive tree of Athens. There is power, deadly as the armies of Sparta. And there is betrayal, like the poison-sting of Rhea’s deception to her brother-husband, Kronos.
Here is the first lesson every child of Greece learns: the gods are not human.
They are not bound by the old prophecies, or the old vows. The ones who must face their inconsistencies are humans; there is no way to win this game.
The gods are more powerful than the richest king, if you seek to oust them that way. The gods are wiser than the oldest sage, if you think to best them in a game of wits. And the gods are, if nothing else, immortal: you may be able to go after them, but there is no way for any human to sit on the throne of Olympus as long as the gods live, and the gods are immortal.
Here is the second lesson every child learns: mercy is a human thing.
A human creation, and a human fallacy. The gods do not know it, and do not understand it. They are bright and beautiful and so very powerful- but selfish, as well. They do not understand sacrifice. They cannot comprehend altruism.
And here, in this tale, is what comes of this distance. The gods are not human, and they are not merciful. And out of that inhuman, endless wrath, there springs a man who is made to serve the gods’ own vengeance; there springs a hero who is unable to conceive of victory; there springs a boy who does not belong to himself from the moment he dreams of his father.
(This is the last lesson taught to the children of mountain-cliffs and blue oceans: never become a hero.
Everyone knows this, including the Olympians.
But if there is one thing the gods know of humanity, it is this: there are some foolish enough to ignore it.)
Act II: let fly your arrows of blood-
There is a king named Creseus. He loves a princess named Tyro, niece of Sisyphus-
(child of man, crafty as Zeus himself, conqueror of death)
-and he begs, for years, for decades, to have her. Creseus supplicates himself before Salmoneus and swears to give up everything he has for her.
“I ask for your gold,” says Salmoneus.
“I will give it,” says Creseus.
“I ask for your life,” says Salmoneus.
“I will give it,” says Creseus.
Salmoneus leans forward. “I ask for your kingdom,” he says.
Creseus spreads his arms- he is kneeling on the cold tiles of Salmoneus’ home. “I will give it,” he says, without a single pause.
There is a whisper beside him, of cloth against stone. Creseus feels his hands freeze against the rough shale, heart in his throat-
“Well, daughter,” says Salmoneus. “You’ve a man, here, who offers you his gold, his life, and his kingdom. I’ve told him your faults, and I’ve told you his. And now, I ask you- will you accept his hand?”
Slowly, Creseus looks up. Tyro stands there, and she is dressed in a pale blue chiton. Her hair is a dark brown, eyes silvered grey; she is what he has loved and wanted for decades- and he feels his chest swell at the sight of her.
“My father asks for riches and life and power, son of Aeolus,” she says, and does not smile. “But I ask for more. Twenty years have you sought my hand. Answer me this, Heir of Iolcus, for I ask not for riches, or power, or anything so simple. I ask for your heart.”
“Always,” whispers Creseus. “Forever and more.”
And then, Tyro steps forward, and she places a hand in his and bids him rise. When they leave, she is his wife.
Creseus offers Tyro everything he has.
Tyro- Tyro gives nothing back to him.
Tyro is broken.
When she was yet a child-turning-woman, a man came to her and drove her mad with love. He knelt on bended knee and swore to her the sun, the stars, the moon. He swore to give her the gods’ own ambrosia and pledged her Artemis’ own bow, Demeter’s own grain. Tyro accepted his suit without her father’s knowledge.
And then, she bore him a child. She was on the birth-bed, panting, heaving; her babe nestled in her arms, against her chest.
The door opens. In her dreams, this is what she sees: the lamp in the hallway, the breathless hope of seeing, at last, her lover.
But her dreams are not reality. The door opened, but it was her father who entered, face twisted in disgust. He held a sword in his hand, naked steel, and told her the inevitable truth:
You lay with my brother, with blood of blood. This child is forbidden by the laws of gods. Tyro- fix this shame to our family, or I shall.
Tyro did not cry. Her father walked out, and he left his sword behind. Tyro waited, pressed a finger to the babe’s tiny, perfectly formed fingers, and then reached for the steel.
So, yes, she has loved another man, and he has broken her heart. She has loved her father’s brother, borne him a child- and then murdered the fruit of that unholy union. She has spent two decades since denying it, moving past it.
Creseus, she had once hoped, would allow her to do so fully.
But when she lies with him, he is the same as Sisyphus. She cannot bear pleasure along with the pain, and so she does not; she accepts him only when she is drunk on Cretan wine and she can blur the lines between Sisyphus and Creseus and not weep.
It is why she screams, when she bears Creseus’ children.
She sees a dead child when she sees them. When they stand, take their first steps, she sees only her father’s sword, and she cannot help but turn away. Cretheus loves Aeson, Pheres, Amythaon, but she- she is terrified by them. She loves them, she thinks, but there are things more powerful than love in her; there is fear and anger and grief rolled up inside, and she cannot even mourn the dead child-
Tyro is broken. That is the point.
She is numb and angry, and the only reason she has not leapt of Iolcus’ highest tower is that she knows what awaits her in Hades, and she is more frightened of that than any despair here.
And, perhaps, this is where the story begins: a young, broken woman, who is so buried in pain she cannot accept kindness now. Because broken people can still fall in love, and they fall in love with those who dare to fix them.
(In the shade of a river, Tyro scrubs and scrubs her hands. She does not scream, does not weep, but the only thing she can see is red, red, red-
She scrubs so hard the skin across her knuckles peels away. Tyro watches the blood run into the river, continues wringing her hands, and then-
The river glows blue.
When she lifts her hands, they are healed.
A sign from the gods, thinks Tyro. She has spent two weeks the butt of cruel jokes, of sneers, of her stepmother refusing to let her inside the house for her uncleanliness. She is tired, and hurting.
This healing is, indeed, a gift from the gods.)
So she gives Creseus sons, and her body- but never, not for even a day, does she offer him her heart.
Poseidon lusts for Tyro.
He lies with her in the guise of the river that healed her, and she bears him two sons: Pelias and Neleus. Poseidon never appears to her again, and though Tyro searches and begs, Enipeas, the river-god, never answers her.
It is a blessing, and it is one that Poseidon never truly meant; but the gods can be kind, even if by mistake. Tyro bears the indignity of infidelity with far greater ease than she ever did the other shame.
“Tyro,” breathes Creseus, when he hears the news.
She has locked herself inside her rooms, but she lets him in. She does not tell him what she has done- what has been done to her- but she accepts what she has done. And then, she offers him the sharpest dagger she has.
His hand closes around the hilt. “Why?” He whispers.
“Because,” says Tyro, gentle as she knows how, “I could not say no.” Slowly, aching, she kneels; fear of the underworld has fled now, and she’s no idea why, only that she can stand even an eternity of hearing her barely-born babe’s screams. “If you wish to kill me, Creseus, then do it now.”
Her head is bowed. The dagger clatters to the ground, and by the time she looks up he has left.
Creseus once knelt in a summer mansion and offered up everything he could call his own for Tyro. Less than a decade later, his love stretches far enough to offer her mercy, but not to meet her eye.
Tyro births two sons, and she turns her head from these, as well. Ghosts dog her footsteps all her life. She cannot stay, cannot run, is captured and set free. Her heart thunders. On the worst mornings, she can only see her babe’s blue eyes, laughing and wild and alive-
But on the best, she sees nothing but emptiness.
And when Pelias and Neleus are old enough to recognize her, old enough to toddle after the woman others call Queen, Tyro wraps her hair in an ivory white scarf, and kisses her five sons twice-
(there should have been six)
-and then she steps away, out, fades into the fabric of the world.
(Somewhere, a woman rolls dough in a small village hut. There is a knife in easy reach, and her dark hair is caught up in a scarf spotted with dust and oil. She has no lovers, no children; she does not smile.
But, then: she does not scream.)
When Tyro leaves, she leaves behind two sons.
(She leaves behind a broken-hearted king, and three princes, and two demigods. She does not know any of this.)
Pelias and Neleus learn to hide behind each other, in the shadows of their nurses. They turn their heads and dim the gleam of intelligence- no threats lie here, screams Pelias’ chubby hands, Neleus’ snub nose. Creseus raises them, though they are given the second-rate education of nobility, and not the private tutors of princes.
Pelias remembers little of his childhood. He does remember Neleus’ warm hands, his nurse’s dark grey chiton, the play of sunlight on a woman’s thin, long fingers- but little else. What he remembers best is Neleus: his laugh, his glass-green eyes. The way Neleus had been happy. The patterns he used to trace in the sky, when he got frightened.
When they are ten, Creseus sends them to Delphi to study. They return six years later, young and handsome and proud. They kneel at their king’s throne, and swear loyalty to him. Aeson, Creseus’ oldest son, watches them quietly.
One day, Pelias and Neleus see a woman who is bent at the waist, hair white as a chalky stone; she brushes past them with a muttered apology, and Pelias feels something old, old, old freeze in his blood.
The voice is accented Elian, and the old lady speaks Greek with vowels sharp as pointed spears- barely understandable.
But her voice is high, and pure, and sweet, as he’s only ever heard one person sing.
And her eyes are a blue the kind that Pelias has only ever seen in a mirror, in his twin’s face, and, through a decade of abandonment and misery, his mother’s.
“Grandmother,” Neleus hisses.
She does not scream when they chase her. The place they find her in is the temple of Hera, all pale white stone and sunlight wrapping around Delphian architecture. Pelias feels something thrum in his blood, and he does not sheath his sword; the naked steel inside the temple of peace is obscene, almost indecent, but there is a wrath like a storm building under his skin, and he remembers his mother’s careful, broken heart, her almost-mad mind- and he does not hesitate at all to kill his mother’s mother.
(Hera never forgives him for the blood he spills on her sacred stones.)
On a quiet night in Iolcus, Pelias wakes. He stumbles to his feet and wipes his brow; Iolcus is muggier than Delphi ever was. He glances backwards. Neleus’ bed is empty.
Worry stirs in Pelias’ stomach. He steps out of the rooms, goes outside. There is a cold sea breeze that cools the sweat damping his face. He smiles, a little, at the play of moonlight on the ocean. And then, he sees the slightest tremble in a mountain side, against the wind. His eyes narrow.
Pelias steps forward, grips the railing, and watches something flinch out of the shadows, and in the soft forgiveness of moonlight he sees a man-
(brother, brother, brother; oh, Pelias knows his brother, front and back and side. And in the shadows of Creseus’ mountains he knows very, very well what he looks like, dead.)
-Pelias sees a man’s back stiffen, the shine of steel piercing through the middle of his back, and then, slowly, fall. His heart is in his throat. For a moment, Pelias thinks something will- happen, as he falls into the silvery waves below. There is a little froth, but no splash that Pelias can hear.
He frowns in confusion, and sees a flash of gold, waving in the wind with the gentle grace of hair- bright enough to glitter even in the darkness of night. Pelias freezes, because the people of Iolcus are born with Cretan dark hair, not Thessalian golden. In all the city that Pelias has seen, there is one man who has hair that shade.
“Aeson,” he whispers.
There is little Pelias remembers of his childhood, and Neleus is in every last one of the memories. He is there through pain and love, and once upon a time they’d clasped hands and sworn, on the shared blood running through their veins, to stand by each other forever-more.
How dare Aeson take that from him?
Pelias breathes deep, and it stutters a little in his chest; but then he is past the obstruction, and there is only silver-bright rage living inside him.
(When Pelias takes the throne of Iolcus, he ensures Aeson never again sees the light of day.)
Act III: i will rain hellfire on the world
In a kingdom far away, not very long ago, a young boy kneels before a king. The blood of kings runs in his veins. The burden of heroes rests on his shoulders. He has one shoe, and a turn of the jaw that sends older courtiers going still in horrified reminiscence of a past king.
Pelias wears a sea-pearl crown. He looks down at the sun-crowned boy, and there is something bitter and dark in his throat when he says, “You wish to be my heir, is it not?”
“My father was Aeson,” the boy announces loudly. “I am the son of princes. I deserve that throne, King Pelias, and I deserve it through the right of linear descent.”
“Then answer this,” says Pelias. “And answer correctly, son of Aeson, lest you speak wrongly: what task ought to be given to a king’s downfall?”
The boy casts his eyes down. When he looks up, sunlight shafts across his eyes for a brief instant; blue eyes shine a pale gold.
“The Golden Fleece,” he says quietly.
Pelias places a hand over his lips to hide the twist of his lips. “Then, rise, Jason,” he says, “and if you ever return to my kingdom without the Fleece of Colchis in hand, I shall have you executed in the streets and your skull taken as a trophy.”
Jason bows his head.
Pelias rises from his throne and descends the steps, seizes his chin, raises his head. “You may be the son of princes,” he says coldly. “But you are first the son of murderers, son of Aeson. Go. And may the burden of your father’s guilt sit on your shoulders!”
That week, Jason sets sail on one of Pelias’ boats. He stands at the prow of the boat, watching the smooth coast of Iolcus fade into the sun. Behind him, a crew of fifty heroes has volunteered for this adventure, and are rowing.
“You are the only man who can find the Fleece,” a woman’s voice says beside him.
Jason does not move. “I have not heard of the Golden Fleece of Colchis,” he says lowly. “I have not, in all my years, come across it. So, tell me, whomever you may be, how could I speak those words in the Iolcan court?”
“Colchis has become prideful,” says the woman. “They do not offer worship to Zeus, or any other god; even their dead are not buried with coins. They only kneel to Hekate, and this worries Olympus. They must be brought low.”
“That is not what I asked.”
“Look at me, Son of Aeson,” says the woman. He feels his hand clench into a tight fist, and then he slowly turns.
Before him, resplendent in Olympian gold, stands Hera.
Jason grits his teeth and scrapes out, “You have still not answered me, my Queen.”
“Arrogant,” says Hera, almost fond. “But then, you are a hero; I suppose it is expected of you. I chose you, you know? You will be my champion. With the help of Olympus itself, you shall bring Colchis to its knees, and Zeus himself will lift you to the stars.” She tips her head to the side, lazily. “What do you say to that?”
“You offer me glory,” he says.
“Are you not grateful?”
Jason closes his eyes. He knows, now, who placed those words on his tongue only a few days back; he knows, very well, the fate of heroes. Everlasting glory that burns for the short period of time it takes the gods to tire of their new toys, and then, if one is lucky, some small measure of freedom. The gods’ attention is never a favored thing.
But he also knows, perhaps even better, the perils of angering them.
He drops to his knees and bows his head. “I have wished to be a hero since the day I was born,” he says quietly. “Since before I knew what I wished, I hoped. To be champion of the Queen of Heaven- I know of no higher compliment.”
“Then, rise,” says Hera, “Jason, Champion of Hera. And may you be worthy of this title.”
Jason rises, and he feels the sting of magic across his shoulders- Hera’s geas, placed to monitor him and enthrall him. He stares at the undersides of his veins for a long moment, wondering if he’ll bleed ichor now, and barely sees her vanish. His nails cut into his palm suddenly, and red blossoms in the middle like water bubbling from a well; Jason shakes off the slight pain and draws his sword. He knows what he looks like: leonine, muscled, heroic.
“Argonauts!” He cries to the crew. “For your courage, for your strength, the gods themselves have blessed our voyage!”
A great cheer rises over their heads. Jason throws his head back and closes his eyes; it is easy enough to imagine the gold shimmer of a goddess’ blessing is the brilliant sunlight.
They land in Colchis months later.
Jason is ushered into a hallway immediately. It is filled with heavy velvet curtains, silver ornaments; there is an austere, imperious edge to it that Iolcus never manages. The castle of Iolcus is built of shale and glass, not the marble of Colchis.
“Well met, Jason,” says a woman, standing in the hallway entrance. She wears little ornamentation but her dark hair is bound up solemnly, and the contrast against her olive skin is pleasing.
“Who are you?” He asks.
The woman steps forward, gracefully, until she is close enough that he can smell her perfume. Her eyes are a light green, the color of moss through fog.
“Medea,” she says. “Daughter of Aeetes.”
He swallows. He knows who she is- Medea is the last daughter of the King of Colchis, and she is the most powerful despite it. Priestess of Hekate, she is the first woman of the land, before even her mother and elder sisters.
“It is an honor,” he says.
She sweeps a look over him, head to toe. He thinks he can see the magic ringing her shoulders- dark purple, just the shade of the velvet curtains, like a second cloak. Her green eyes are very sharp on his.
“All of Greece knows your desire for the Iolcan throne,” says Medea finally. “The conditions for gaining the throne are perhaps less well known, but you have taken your time getting here; my father has known of your desire for the Fleece for some time now.” She looks steadily at him. “Do you take us for fools, Son of Aeson?”
Jason swallows. “Fools? Certainly not. But everything has its price, does it not? I would ask for the price of the Fleece.”
“The Fleece,” says Medea. “It is priceless. It is what Hekate herself has blessed. Tell me this: what price do you offer for the object beloved by an entire nation?”
Jason has a flash of remembrance: kneeling in Iolcus, feeling Hera’s magic on his tongue, the flash of pain that mutates into confusion. No right answers, he thinks. Only the least wrong.
His hands clench into fists. And then: the doors fling open, on the far side of the hallway. A retinue enters. At the head is a man who is best described as a corpuscule; he is flushed red and fat, and draped in kingly robes. Jason swallows again and then sinks into a bow to the king.
“King Aeetes,” he says. “It is an honor.”
“Jason,” Aeetes replies. “I remember your father. Before Medea here was born, in fact- he came with a steel-shod fist and threatened me and my wife.”
Jason breathes in shallowly, sharply; he wonders if this was a mistake, and then remembers a pale gold goddess standing at the stern of his boat.
This is definitely a mistake.
Jason lifts his chin, and calls to mind his mother’s gentle hands; his father’s beard-rough laughter; the desperate, furious desire to never again feel the powerlessness under another-
He says, “King Aeetes, I come for the Golden Fleece. What must I give you for it?”
Medea remembers little of her mother that does not have to do with illness and cold grief. She was ten when they threw her mother’s bones off the sea-cliffs: old enough to know she ought to feel pain; young enough to be excused for not feeling any.
Chalciope and Absyrtus were older than her by almost a decade- eleven years, Chalciope, and nine, Absyrtus. They remembered a mother young and vibrant and beautiful; they remembered a woman who charmed a foreign court with her exotic oddities. But those oddities had become eccentricities by the time Medea was born, and then transformed into harsh rumors- it was one thing for a fresh bride to spend her days with courtesans and jesters and ladies of the night, and another altogether for the mother of three to attempt the same.
Then her mother was struck with pain-bones, and she could scarcely stand, and then she died and Medea can remember the way her lips pinched tight, but never the exact shade of her eyes-
She breathes deep.
There is power slumbering in her bones, in her light frame. Medea might not remember her mother’s eyes, but she has her mother’s inheritance running through her veins. Her hands, dripping power and magic, have rebuilt Colchis ten times over; her words, sharp as Spartan steel, have silenced queens; her mind has birthed a golden age for her people that others have only dreamt possible.
Olympus has no rule over Colchis. The gods do not have sway in these courts of marble and pearl- Medea has carefully, steadily burned them out of the palaces, the temples, the homes.
(She still remembers the gold-cloaked arrogance of Hermes, messenger of the gods. The way he burned, and threatened, and brought her father, king of kings, to heel as a recalcitrant dog.
Never again, Medea swears, cold and frozen and dark as tarnished silver. There is no place for the gods in these isles.)
“The Fleece is priceless,” Aeetes says, eyes sharp in his plump-jowled face. “Priceless to my people, priceless to our gods, and priceless to my family. But I am not unreasonable, to say I will not give you an offer.”
Medea makes a low, aborted sound. “Father,” she says sharply. “Bargaining with barbarians is an insult to ourselves. But bargaining over the Fleece? That is an insult to our gods. They will not take this lightly.”
“Your gods are the same as mine,” Jason murmurs. “The gods of Olympus have blessed my voyage.”
Something flares in Medea’s expression, and for a moment she looks wild as a tempest. But she is caught; she cannot claim unfaithfulness to the Olympians, for all that she has attempted to drive them out of Colchis.
“And for their blessing, we must give our dearest symbol?” She demands, after faltering for a moment. “We have our own minds, son of Aeson, and are not spineless sheep to bend to their will. And what proof have you of their blessing? The people of Colchis have their pride!”
Daring response, for someone who’d been put on the defense.
“Yes,” replies Jason, quiet as a falling leaf. “And I’ve no proof. But this is- important. I would give you anything, Lady Medea, if only I can have the Fleece. I will-”
“The Fleece is priceless thrice over,” Aeetes interrupts him. “And if you wish it, then I shall parley- silence, Medea, I shall speak to you later-” Medea subsides with a wrathful look, “-I shall parley, Jason: but I set the terms.”
Jason is young, and impossibly bright; terribly hopeful. “Tell me them,” he says.
Aeetes smiles like a vulture, all hooked beak and flabby cheeks and dark, beady eyes. Jason is caught, speared between his own ambition and Hera’s favor and Pelias’ rage and Aeetes’ cunning.
But yet the prey might survive, he thinks, and meets Aeetes with a clenched jaw, as noble and glorious as any godly champion.
In the midnight safety of the Argo, Jason leans forward.
“She must love me,” he says.
Hera’s eyes glow gold. “So have you asked,” she says. “So will it be.”
The next day, Medea approaches him from her father’s castle.
There is a pale shadow clinging to her shoulders, pink as watered-down blood. There is something achingly lovely in the planes of her face, this woman with power bred down into her very bones.
“Son of Aeson,” she calls, and Jason leaps down from the stern to meet her.
“Lady Medea,” he says.
She swirls a hand through the air in a careful arch- some Colchean greeting, he surmises. “My father intends for you to fail,” she tells him curtly. “Failure will be measured in your death, and the deaths of your men.”
“They can try!” Jason exclaims.
“They will.” Medea blinks, slowly, glass-green eyes seeing something farther than just him. “And they will fail. Or they will not, and the entirety of Greece will fall upon us for killing their heroes.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Better we sacrifice our pride than our lives,” she says coolly. “Your first task is to yoke the fire-oxen and plow a field with it. And if you are to succeed, you will not be able to do this without assistance.”
Jason asks, incredulously, “Are you offering your assistance, Lady Medea?”
For a moment, amusement seems to flash across her face. “When one commits treason, it is wise not to trust anyone,” she says, and leans forward; presses a clear bottle into his hands, filled with a glutinous red-orange liquid. “An ointment, to prevent burning. Slather it on every part of your body, son of Aeson- every last part. Take the assistance of your crewmates if needed. Or else the khalkatauroi will burn you to ash, and there will be none who can help you.”
He stares at it, and frowns in befuddlement. When he looks up, Medea is gone.
Taming the khalkatauroi, Jason becomes the hero his blood has prophesied. The oxen bellow, but he has strength on his side; and surprise, for the oxen are not used to anything being immune to their fire.
The ointment Medea gave him serves him well. Under the immense heat, the outermost coating evaporates off into a red-gold cloak- and, for a moment, he fancies himself draped in Olympian power.
“I have succeeded in the first task,” Jason announces to Aeetes, who looks simultaneously entertained and dismayed. “What is the second?”
“You shall find out on the morrow,” Aeetes replies. “Take rest now, son of Aeson.”
That night, Medea steals into his rooms like a dark shadow.
“You will sow a dragon’s teeth into your plowed field,” she says. “And from the teeth shall spring an undead army, each as courageous as the dragon they come from.”
“Here is how you will beat them,” she says, hectic spots of color on her cheeks.
At the join of wrist to hand, in the hollow at the inside of the wrist, there is a burn that never quite heals- Jason does not know why or how it came to be, only that ever after taming the khalkatauroi, there is a part of him scarred.
The spartoi spring up from the dragon’s teeth, and Jason remembers Medea’s whisper in the back of his mind.
He does not hesitate, simply hefts a rock thrice the size of his head and flings it into their midst, just as they are getting their bearings. And then, he hides.
The army destroys itself.
Jason smears mud and blood across his torso, across his sword, and strides to meet Aeetes.
Medea stands beside her father, face impassive. He wonders what she feels- abandoning her father, abandoning her king, abandoning her people. But she does not say, and he will not look too closely at the one offering him support.
“I have succeeded in the second task,” he announces, and this time the dismay on Aeetes’ face outweighs the amusement almost entirely. “Lord-King, what is the third?”
War brews on Aeetes’ face, but slowly resolves into a careful neutrality.
“You wished for the Golden Fleece,” he says. “And you have tamed the fire-oxen that guard the pathway; you have slain the warriors that stem from the dragon-guardian’s teeth. But there is yet the sleepless dragon that ever-watches the Fleece. If you wish this so greatly, son of Aeson, slay this dragon, and I shall gift you this Fleece myself.”
Jason inhales, exhales, and tastes despair and hope on the tip of his tongue.
“I look forward to it,” he says, and strides away.
Medea’s dark eyes seemed to weight his shoulders, even when he is too far for her to see.
I will survive, he thinks, and closes his eyes; for a moment, Hera’s golden geas envelopes him- a cold, cold protection.
I will survive this.
Medea comes to him that night, as predicted. In her hands is a fluted glass goblet, shining the blue-green of a summer sky. The wind has chapped her cheeks, leaving her face raw and eyes over-bright.
“Give this to the dragon, and he will never wake,” she says.
In the curve of her cheekbone, Jason sees a softness that has never before existed. His heart beats faster; his hands tremble as they take the glass.
“Thank you,” he says.
In the pale light of false dawn, Jason and the Argonauts steal the Golden Fleece of Colchis.
(Silhouetted by pink-gold and red-orange, it looks even more gilded than imagined. Jason brushes a hand across the smooth fur, and it is softer than a thousand feathers.)
The dragon drains the liquid that Medea gave him, and does not wake; but Jason does not allow himself to relax until he and his men are safely ensconced on the other side of the island. An hour later- Medea emerges from the mist, hands stained red as dawn. Her hair is down. She looks wild, ferocious, an untamed beast with no mercy living inside of her.
Years later, this is the image that Jason remembers, and allows disgust to curdle his chest.
(He never remembers the split-second of fear that rested in his bones, watching bloody hands step out of the mist.
Or: he never allows himself to remember.)
But right then, all he feels is love and pride, and a triumph that swells from his heart to his throat to his mouth until he wonders if he can ignite from the sheer emotion.
“They will not come,” Medea says, green eyes hazed a pale, pale pink-
(Fear, fear, fear- Jason feels the first stirrings of horror, but they are distant and easily banished.)
“Why?” Hercules snaps.
It is an honest question: daughter of a king, infidel with conviction, magic wielding sorceress- why would you help us? Why would you, with power and love and kindness at your fingertips give it up?
“Because I love him,” Medea says. “And there is nothing I would not do for love.”
A spark flares inside him, and Jason breathes through his mouth, shallow and even.
“What have you done?” He asks, slow horror building through him.
Medea turns, eyes almost wholly shrouded in pale, pale pink-
“Absyrtus wanted to kill you,” she says. “I could not let him.”
Jason does not- quite- flinch, but then there is no room for it; Medea steps forwards, and she kisses him, nails digging into his biceps, smearing red, red, red blood onto his skin, smearing her brother’s blood onto his arms.
She must love me, Jason had asked.
He had shown her mercy in his ship, because it was not Medea’s fault that she had power to rival Eros’ arrows. Now, with a blooded sorceress in his arms, he feels bile rise in his throat.
Absyrtus’ life is on his hands.
(Decades later, he decides that the Olympians must have played with him, must have silenced his tongue, because surely he must feel revulsion at seeing a kinslayer, surely he must feel something more than desire-
But he doesn’t.)
She is a summer storm, she is a dragonslaying sorceress, she is a god’s bane.
Medea burns, and burns, and burns, and there is no one in all the realms to match her brightness.
Act IV: there is no shelter from this wrath
They land in Iolcus, and Medea sees Jason’s homeland for the first time.
Iolcus is not storm-drenched as Colchis; it is built not on ragged sea cliffs but rounded beaches; it is warm and kind in a manner that her own home could never be. She wraps her body and Jason’s, beside her, in a cloak that is as bright as the khalkatauroi’s flame, in Aeson’s colors.
Pelias watches them enter, and there is fear written over his narrow face.
“Welcome!” He cries, for he has no other choice, for Medea has given him none other.
You hurt Jason, she thinks.
Her eyes drift to four shadows flittering against the pillars, giggling and draped in silk as blue as the spring sea.
Medea’s lips curl upwards, a perfect curve, edged as a Spartan sword.
(When they set sail, arrows fly as heavy and black as rain.
Atalanta, virgin huntress and sole female Argonaut, is struck. Her blood runs thick and red on the ship deck, and the man beside her looks simultaneously panicked and sickened.
Medea does not pause- she steps forwards, and presses her hands to Atalanta’s lean, brown body, and she calls up the healing that she knows. For a moment, her hands glow a bright blue. When she pulls them away, there is only a thin white scar along her collarbone.
Her hands grip Medea’s tightly, all warrior-strength and leonine grace.
Medea knows what the healing feels like: someone pulling at something deeper than your heart, something like a violation. She knows what the warrior fears, what she loves, and she sees the fear-fury in Atalanta’s eyes, and so she says:
“They will never tame you,” and it is a promise, it is a promise, it is a promise- but, oh, how it sounds like a prophecy.
Atalanta’s face softens as much as it can, and though she does not smile, there is relief written across it.
Medea feels warmth along her spine, and she names it guilt.)
They release Aeson from his prison. Jason trembles, running a finger over his father’s wrinkled, spotted skin, and he bows his head; tears rise in his eyes, but they do not fall.
In her chest, a muscle seizes, and Medea’s breath falters. She steps forwards and guides Jason away so that he can mourn his loss in private without losing face in front of his men. After, she cloaks herself in darkness and leaves the castle.
At the graves of Jason’s ancestors, she plucks asphodelos. At the soft, rolling hills that gave way to oceans, she plucks amarantos. At the base of the old marble temples, she plucks leirion.
Asphodelos, asphodel, to pay homage to Hades and soothe his temper against stealing more years for a soul. Amarantos, amaranthus, the unfading, the eternal- to offer such a possibility to a man. Leirion, lily, to match poison for poison and drag vitality out of him.
Medea returns to the palace and crushes the herbs in water purified by her grandfather, Helios.
When she offers the mixture to Aeson, she does not say what she gives up.
Jason’s face makes it worth it.
“My lady,” comes a whisper.
Medea turns, and sees a dark-haired girls come up to her. Behind her range three other girls, each lovely and sun-bathed as the next.
You watched, Medea thinks. You watched as Jason was mocked, and degraded, and banished. I will see you suffer.
“Yes?” She asks, hands folded neatly together.
“You saved your-” the girl hesitates, here, unsure of what to name Jason- he has not married Medea, as they’ve made clear to the people, but she stays in his chambers and is as close to queen as Iolcus has seen in many years. “Lord Jason’s father,” she amends, and forges on with remarkable composure.
“Can you- I am-” the girl’s hands clench, and slowly relax. Her eyes, meeting Medea’s, are a clear, dark blue. “I am old, Lady Medea. Father did not wish me to leave Iolcus, and by the time I’d managed to convince him- there are few enough suitors for a girl of that age, no matter her dowry. And my sisters cannot marry as long as I remain unmarried.”
“A terribly Iolcan trait,” Medea says dryly.
The girl lifts her chin. “You have given the gift of another lifetime to Lord Aeson. I beg of you, will you help me in the same venture?”
“Tell me,” Medea leans forward, heart fluttering as a predator’s: slow, and steady, and unfaltering as the tides, “what do I get in return?”
Helios’ tears, the water is called. A pitcher of water that tastes of sunlight and flame, of cloudless skies and skiened clouds.
The gift of her grandfather to her father when her mother died: the mourning of a god.
Medea took four golden drops of water with her from Colchis. One she pressed to Atalanta’s lips on the Argo, and the other she now has gifted to Aeson.
(The price of something is never equal, and it is always weighted in the gods’ favor.)
The first lie Medea ever tells Jason is this: a smile, on the morning she gives new life to his father.
The price Medea pays is this: life for a life, death for a death.
And who better to pay than another father?
Aleeste is the name of the eldest daughter. She looks at Medea, torchlight flickering in her eyes, hope written across it starkly, and Medea thinks, do you know how easy it is to extinguish your fire?
In the end, it is easy enough.
The Peliades- the daughter of Pelias- have never seen betrayal, and they are dutiful, and they love their father, for all his faults. Medea generously offers to gift him youth before she gives it to the daughters, and they accept with such rapture that she almost feels a twinge of guilt for tricking them.
They have never experienced the glutinous rage, the acrid helplessness; they bring their father from his rooms to the dungeon-chamber that Medea prepares, and never suspect a thing.
The youngest, Hippothea, appears vaguely hesitant over the whole affair.
Medea does not allow her pause to think.
“Drink this,” she orders, handing a poppy-juice extract laced with aconite. Aleeste takes the cup when Pelias refuses, and it is another of his daughters that pinches his nose, Hippothea that massages his throat until he swallows.
When Pelias’ eyes droop shut and his muscles relax, she pulls out a bone-knife and hands it to Aleeste.
“Cut him into pieces,” she says. “And toss all of them, to the last, into the cauldron.”
Hippothea’s hand freezes above her father’s throat. Medea holds her gaze, cold, promising; do you question me?
Aleeste takes the knife. There is bloodthirst shadowing the nape of her neck, the arch of her wrist. She holds the knife carelessly, ignorantly; but when she presses it to her father’s shoulder, it does not even tremble.
I do not even have to raise a finger, thinks Medea. Bloodthirsty little wolves, all of you, to the last. Only awaken the monster within, and it will never sleep.
Never sleep, indeed.
Pelias’ only son chokes on his saliva when he sees his sisters, dripping blood and gore, stirring the gruesome cauldron with their father’s thigh-bone. He does not believe it, for an instant; but then he cannot deny it, and he drags the girls away himself.
The monster is awake, and now the entire kingdom fears them. And thus they do what every kingdom does to that which it fears: it destroys it. The Peliades’ throats are slit one morning, and no one, not even their brother, looks too deep into who did it.
Medea laughs when she hears it. Jason does not look her in the eye for a week, and she wants to sneer at him, wants to press her sharp nails to his throat and ask, what did you think you’d get when you asked for a throne?
She doesn’t; instead she wraps a cloak red as her brother’s blood, red as the unfading flower, red as Aeson’s banners- around her shoulders and around Jason’s, and they flee into the night as swift as wind-chased sparrows.
They flee, and this is their life for another decade.
Jason learns the edges of Medea’s harshness; Medea learns the temper boiling under Jason’s skin. They rage and scream and weep, and together they build a life out of nothing. It feels like so little some mornings, when Jason’s sword is weighted with the burden of heroism, when Medea’s hands are stained scarlet- but somehow they make it enough.
They have children: five sons and a daughter.
The first two are twins. Alcimedes and Thessalus, dark-skinned as Medea and light-eyed as Jason.
Alcimedes, for all that he is Jason’s heir, is nothing like his father; he prefers to spend his days on the ocean and when he returns home he sings tales that change from city to city, kingdom to kingdom- he sings of the grain-fields of Messenia, and then the marble temples of Elia, and then the seaside cliffs of Corinth.
Thessalus is colder, hardier; built to survive. He will either break the world or break himself in the attempt, and that both terrifies Medea and makes her proud. She sees a dark-haired ghost in him, for all that his features are all Jason.
If both Alcimedes and Thessalus are independent and distant, Tysander is the boy who belongs to everyone. Sweet, uncomplicated, kind; he dances in the summer air and laughs in the winter. Medea finds him strange, but not unwanted. Jason lights up every time he sees Tysander’s fey green eyes.
And then there is Eriopis.
Her daughter, and even as she births her Medea knows her to be the only daughter she will ever have. She has Jason’s look about her, from her sun-bright hair to her blue eyes, but she’s quieter than the rest of the children by far. Even Thessalus is charming, despite his quick temper and unconventional looks; but Eriopis is only quiet, unassuming, retiring.
Medea soon tires of her. She scolds her, hoping to get a sharp retort- but Eriopis only flinches and murmurs her apologies. Jason snaps at her when she drops a jug of wine, and she bursts into tears. Thessalus and Tysander tease her, and she doesn’t speak for a week.
It is Alcimedes who is the only one to understand her. He takes her on long boat rides, and sometimes Medea thinks she can hear their laughter over the wind- heads bent together, unable to tell which gold belonged to whom. They do not tell of what they speak when they return home.
A few years later, Alcimedes tells them he’ll be going to Athens to trade some grain for a number of farmers. Eriopis begs to go with him, but Jason forbids it- it is, perhaps, the only time Eriopis has ever asked for anything from them.
The morning after, her bedroll is empty.
Jason rages, but there is nothing to be done. Medea reaches with her magic, wanting to yank her daughter back, but she has gone too far and Medea is not powerful enough. She lands, heavily, on her knees, and the bruises feel like a failure.
(“If I stay here, they will break me,” Eriopis whispers to Alcimedes.
Moonlight drenches them. The sea looks peaceful, almost velvet, in the summer heat. Eriopis stands half in shadow and half in light and looks so afraid-
Alcimedes sees farther and better than anyone in his family. It is something in his blood, Medea’s gift passed down to him. His eyes are old eyes, the people say; his words are kind, but his eyes are wise. The lines of Eriopis’ face hold the promise of beauty. Through the mists of time, all he sees of her is soft sand beaches and laughter- none of Medea’s fire, none of Jason’s tears, none of Tysander’s screams.
“I cannot,” he says, heart aching. “The promises I’ve made-”
“Please,” she says, and reaches out, holding to his hands with desperate strength. “Alcimedes, I beg of you, I have seen it.”
“Seen?” He asks, pausing.
“I cannot remain here. Either you will take me, brother, or I will go myself. And that,” she bites out, head held high, eyes open wide and pale as the moon, “is a promise.”
They go to Athens. Alcimedes doesn’t know when she leaves him, only that she’s there one morning and gone when he returns. She takes with her a Spartan-steel knife and the only basket they have without holes in it. She leaves behind their mother’s slowly, lovingly whittled hair beads.
Without them, she’ll look like any Athenian urchin. Her gold hair and blue eyes might save her from a slow death by starvation, and if she’s smart she can work her way past her murky childhood. Not the life anyone would want for their sister; but a life away from their parents nonetheless.
Alcimedes can offer her nothing more save for goodwill and love, and so he does: in the Parthenon, he kneels and begs Athena to look after his beautiful, intelligent, sly sister; the only one of them to leave while she still could.
When he returns to Corinth, his parents scream; neither speaks to him for the rest of his life. Alcimedes wraps cold wool around his arms and wraps his arms around the damp wood of his boat and sets sail, and he does not look back.)
Out of rage and grief, Medea bears Mermeros. She names him for the hero of the Trojan War who was killed by the faithless wretch Antilochus; he has dark hair that shines in the moonlight, and it is nothing at all like her daughter’s- for that, she is grateful.
Jason is distant, now, in a way that he has never been before. He spends long nights at court. When he returns, his eyes are distant. She loses herself in raising Mermeros- braids her hair in the Corinthian fashion and offers fruits to Hera; one summer she burns her old priestess-linens in favor of the cotton that’s fashionable now.
Tysander joins his father at court. Thessalus goes to Epirus and builds a life for himself. Eriopis is gone from them, hidden in a city too large to search; Alcimedes refuses to find her, and so he is fled as well. Mermeros, the youngest of them all, stays beside her and offers her love the kind of which she’s wanted all her life.
It is not enough, in any kind of world; but Medea adjusts, as she’s done all her life.
Act V: i am your vengeance come undone--
“Mother,” says Tysander.
Medea pauses in the act of gathering kelp. Her chiton is tugged up around her thighs, the sun is sticky-hot, and tonight she will make roasted bullkelp with chestnuts for her and Mermeros. After a critical look at the basket, she decides it’ll need a little more kelp if Tysander decides to stay the night.
“Tysander,” she greets, stepping out of the tidepool and offering him a kiss. “How’s court?”
“Busy.” He pauses, and his long, dark hair brushes over his prominent nose. “Is Mermeros walking yet?”
“He walks everywhere!” Medea exclaims. “I can scarce contain him. Two weeks ago, he fell into a burlap sack and was almost taken by a fisherman.” She rolls her eyes and starts walking back home. “Thessalus was a handful, yes, but your father was actually at home then. And you were an easy child to raise entirely.”
Tysander flushes under the sun awkwardly. He pushes back his hair and steps forwards; takes the bullkelp from her and sets out home.
That night, after Mermeros is asleep and they’ve all eaten, Medea settles against her bed and watches her son closely. He’d played with Mermeros for hours and didn’t look in a hurry, either; but he kept sending her looks that were both wary and piercing in turns.
“You wished to talk?” She asks.
Candlelight plays across his face. In the shadows, he looks like a ghost that Medea long thought buried: her brother, whose blood still stains her hands on the worst nights, the nights she wakes up screaming.
“I love you,” he begins, eyes warm and weighted with a thousand ghosts, a thousand regrets. “But Mother, can you not see? Can you not-” he pauses, and she sees the pulse flutter in his throat, fast and delicate as a bird’s. “Father does not come home. At court, he- he acts different. I do not know what has happened between you two, but I know that you love each other, and you’re letting this die between you because neither of you can care and that’s okay- but. But it’s only okay when you’re aware of it.
“You love each other,” Tysander repeats, and Medea lets his conviction become her own, takes on his belief like it is a burden and a gift, and she feels like a mother for perhaps the first time in her life.
“I will talk to him,” she says. Her rings glitter in the candlelight, the only things she has left of Colchis, and she thinks that were Jason to ask she’d cast them away as well.
Everything she is, she is for him.
They talk within a week, for a long, long night.
A part of Medea notes the waste of candlewax, and another worries over Mermeros, but the rest of her is too childishly giddy over spending time with Jason once more.
They are different, the two of them; older, wearier, harder. But for all that has passed between them, there has never been hatred- and everything else they can rebuild. Slowly, painstakingly, they let each other into the shields that they’ve built. Medea kisses him and names the flutters in her belly love.
In less than a year’s time, Pheres is born.
For a time, they are happy. Medea builds castles with Mermeros and Jason tosses Pheres into the air, golden sun shining too bright to see the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes; the silver spotting his temples. Tysander visits when he can and always brings honey-cakes from the market. Thessalus returns for a summer from Epirus with braided hair and a beard, and Medea’s heart catches in her throat for sheer love.
(For the rest of her life, this is what she remembers of her little family. In time it becomes tinged with grief; but then, what of her past has not been thus marred?)
It is not enough in the end.
Not for Jason, who reaches too far; not for Tysander, who never learned to temper his tongue; not for Medea, who always answers betrayal with blood.
Medea’s love of Jason has shattered kingdoms and kings. There is a reason the people of Iolcus call her kingkiller. There is a reason the people of Colchis call her godkiller. She is no tamed beast, even if she has played it for decades.
No; Medea’s love of Jason has conquered so much- but it is not enough.
Very well, she thinks, something dark and ugly and deep growing in her chest like the black death of a star, if my love is not enough, darling, I know full well what is.
Her love has killed kings and broken gods.
Oh, her fury will do so much more.
“My love for you was greater than my wisdom,” Jason says, and she can scarce hear him over the roar of her heart, over the soundless twisting break of it in half.
“Was it?” She asks, she demands. “Because I have seen your wisdom, and I have seen your love, and both I have found wanting. I gave up a kingdom for you, Jason. I gave up another crown for love of you.”
“Oh, can you not call it what it is?” He retorts scornfully. “You killed Pelias because you hated him, no other reason.”
“I hated him because of what he made you do,” she says sharply. “You do not get to pretend that your hands are bloodless. I was responsible for his death, perhaps, but you were the one to look the other direction. And when I killed my brother, what did you say then? You kissed me!”
He draws away, and she feels like flaying every last bit of his skin away, like ripping the muscle from the bone with her bare teeth, like engraving her name into the insides of his bones so that everyone, a hundred, a thousand years hence will know that he is hers, her husband and her lover and her king. Jason sneers, and she feels something inhuman rise up in her throat.
“Do not do this.”
“Glauce has never killed anyone,” Jason says, and it is an accusation that twists in her chest like the bite of a sword.
She surges to her feet and watches him flinch, slightly. You are frightened, thinks Medea. Good, she thinks, cold and bitter.
“You are a hero,” she tells Jason calmly. “What do you know of peace? It is war, and blood, and cruelty that is carved into your blood, into your heart. That child may never have killed anyone. But she will never know you as I do. I am the sword twinned to your own, Jason. And I have caused others to bleed, I have caused you to bleed; but that is your own fault. I am your heart and your soul, and if you try for another thousand years you will never find one to suit your needs as me. Go, if that is your dearest wish; go- and know that you are going to unhappiness and a quiet, slow, suffocating death.”
Jason leaves, face pale and still like a statue. Medea watches him flee and does not feel the tears that trace down her cheeks. By the time her heart has stopped roaring and her rage has subsided- she knows that the fallout will be immense. It will fell whole continents, this pure, true wrath that he has built up under her skin.
She turns away, sharply, and for just a heartbeat the cold sea air feels like a knife across the flats of her cheeks.
(Tysander runs up to her, sand clinging to his knees and looking wild.
“Father is courting the princess,” Tysander says, and everything crashes away.
When it comes back, the sky is storm-ridden and lightning has turned the sand at her feet to a dull, black glass that shines like obsidian. She does not remember screaming, but her throat is sore; there are long furrows down her arms where she scratched, and then there is blood where the nails are ripped away.
Tysander must have taken Mermeros to the home. She does not care, presently: Medea is furious and aching and she is as likely to rip out Jason’s heart the next time she sees him as she is to do anything else.
She remembers her family’s love and happiness, but she never denies that the end of that part of their lives is not, at least partially, her fault.)
Tysander tells her that Jason no longer loves her. Furious, angry, she sends him back to court.
She never sees his eyes again.
Medea says, “Do not do this.”
He feels a cold prickle across the inside of his wrist, where the skin is slightly puckered and dark. Jason cannot help his flinch but he can help his rage; he steps away from Medea and leaves behind his love for her, his love for their sons, his love for the life they’ve built.
Jason is a man. He believes this to be the end to it, and he is blindsided when it turns out he is wrong.
Medea sends a golden cup to Glauce. Later, Jason thinks he should have known it was a trick; Medea has always eschewed gold in favor of silver. She’s always named it an Olympian fashion, and though her voice doesn’t hold anything of contempt, her eyes are dark. Even now, despite dressing entirely as a Corinthian, she does not wear any gold.
But Glauce does not know this, and Jason does not remember.
And so, he watches the princess of Corinth burn alive, and then her father do the same. The stink of burned flesh fills the room. Jason swallows hard, and he remembers the instinctive disgust when Medea killed her brother, and his burn-scar from the khalkatauroi aches and aches and aches.
Hippotes accuses Medea of murder. Jason does not defend her. Tysander is there in court when this happens, and his eyes flare wildly, furiously, waiting for Jason to speak; when he does not, Tysander stands up and says, “She would never do this.”
He is straight-backed and beautiful and young. He is strong, good with a sword; but no man alone can best an army. Hippotes has his men cut him down, and Jason watches with cold, empty eyes and a cold, empty heart. Tysander screams only once, at the very end, when there is more blood on the floor than in his veins. It reverberates through Jason’s chest.
And then Hippotes calls, “She’s another son in the docks,” and Jason finds his hands trembling: he dares not speak, for fear that they’ll do this to him as well, but he also does not know to live with himself if he does not.
You are a hero. There is no room for fear in you.
Jason swallows around dry lips and stands. In the corner, however, no one sees him, and there is suddenly no air in his lungs for him to use. He licks his lips and tries again; but no one looks at him, and he bows his head, and by the time he’s worked up the courage to speak once more, fifty men have been sent to bring Alcimedes’ head to Hippotes.
In the decades to come, in all the times he feels lost and alone, in all the years that he screams at the gods for their cruelty- he knows that it is for this one moment of cowardice.
(Jason needs no god to hold him guilty. When he goes to Hades, he goes knowing his sins and weighted with them.)
This is not what breaks him. What breaks Jason Goldenship is this: a dark-skinned head presented as a trophy, a light-eyed skull still dripping blood, a man whom Jason loved and loves and raised, who once upon a time thought the sun set on Jason’s shoulders and laughed with all the wild abandon of youth.
The son that he has killed.
Jason leaves; he turns his head and walks away. That night, Medea sends a letter that drips ink like blood, begging him for assistance, begging him to save their other two sons.
Hippotes hands him the paper himself.
Jason closes his hands into fists, hardens his heart, remembers his words to Hera all those years ago: she must love me. He thinks that Hera has cheated him; for surely he was the one enchanted; for he would not still love a woman who is murderer ten times over if not for Olympian meddling.
I cast off your chains, he thinks fiercely, cold and sharp as the iron at the heart of a star.
He turns to the candle burning at the table and sets fire to the paper. He stares at it for long enough to see all of it turn to ash- the entire evidence of Medea’s desperation and love turned to pale white flakes that powder Hippotes’ desk.
“I have no loyalty for murderers,” he tells Hippotes.
There is wariness in Hippotes’ gaze, but a cold sort of satisfaction as well. He nods, once, sharply. “You’ll lead the army tomorrow.”
Jason bows his head. “Yes,” he says, and walks away.
Medea is given the headless corpses of her sons, and she screams and screams and screams until her voice can scream no more. Beautiful Tysander, headstrong Alcimedes, both dead and gone and desecrated-
Grieving and furious-
(for Medea knows no way to mourn without rage, knows no sadness untainted by wrath)
-she plucks a vial that hangs from her neck, a locket filled with a precious liquid that holds her only hope.
She presses cold hands to Tysander’s dark hair and, hands shaking, arranges it so that his severed head is attached to the tanned column of his neck. Carefully, carefully, she drips a golden drop, the third of four, onto the skin that puckers, that is slit open.
Medea waits, but there is no change in Tysander’s lifeless body.
Screaming, she throws him off and then regrets it when his body thumps to the ground gracelessly; Tysander was never anything but dignified in life, and it is sacrilege, it is blasphemy to see it so in death.
It takes her hours to calm enough to actually think.
Finally, she gathers up Tysander, and then Alcimedes, caressing them with all the love and care that she has ever felt for them. This is not right, she would say, if anyone were there to hear, this is not right. Mothers do not bury their sons save for in war. And this is no war-
This is the war you’ve declared with your love for a son of a deposed king, she hears her grandfather murmur, golden hands tracing her face with a warmth so distant as to be a dream. And you know that there is nothing I can do for the dead. They are Hades’ concern, now.
Yes, thinks Medea. That they are.
She bows her head, and closes her eyes, and then lifts her chin with cold, cold pride.
She gives them a burial the best way she knows, not the quiet silence of the Olympian fashion but the ones that she scarce remembers from Colchis: rubbing oils into her sons’ bodies and then taking their shrivelled, dried bones up to the highest cliffs that she can; throwing her head back and screaming her grief into the sky, feeling the wind join with it until she is not sure which wail is louder; throwing her sons off the cliffs and watching the sea and storm swallow them with gaping, hungry mouths.
Then she returns home and pens a letter to Jason, telling him to take Mermeros and Pheres and leave.
Take my head if that is your wish, she writes, but spare them. They are your sons, blood of your blood- you could not protect our eldest, but there are two more here. I beg of you to save them.
It is the lowest she has abased herself in all her life. Medea has never felt more like a mother, more fiercely proud in her life than when she sends that letter.
Jason never answers.
She holds faith in him for another two days, but then something cracks open in her chest like a yawning chasm, and the rage that swells in her breast is purer and brighter than anything she has ever felt before.
Mermeros and Pheres watch her warily when she enters their house. The rumors of an army are true, she is sure of it, she feels it ring inside of her; but there is nowhere to run. There is an army coming from Colchis to avenge her brother and another army from Iolcus to avenge Pelias and another being formed in Corinth. Medea is many things, is powerful beyond imagination, but defeating three armies simultaneously is quite beyond her.
Her sons are the only reminders that she has of Jason. For the first time in decades, there is no surge of love when she thinks of him- only exhaustion, only rage.
“I am sorry,” she tells Mermeros, who flinches and then straightens his spine proudly. For a heartbeat he looks like Alcimedes, all flashing dignity and forceful conviction; Jason’s son and Medea’s heir. It makes what she is to do easier, after a fashion.
Medea hands him a cup of warm milk and tells him to drink. Then she turns to Pheres and does the same. Their eyes droop in minutes, and Medea watches the ghosts of their brothers flee their bodies as they turn into children once more.
I am sorry, she thinks, but there is no room for the children of men in the chariots of the gods. Helios is my grandfather, but he holds no love for you. And I will not allow you to face the cold, cruel death of your brothers.
There is a song that Medea barely remembers from her mother: a song that is older than even the marble palaces of Colchis, older than the oldest tales of the bards. A ditty that could only survive in a land that does not favor the gods. A whisper that has told her that her hatred of Olympus would be blessed by her mother; a whisper that has driven her to form strength and power in the curves and arches of her palms.
We are the children of power/ these bones will burn like a live flame/ we were never made to cower/ do not bend, let go of your shame/ this is not your moment of death-
“This is your life.”
Medea bows her head and presses the knife to Mermeros’ sweet, pale throat, and whispers, “We were never made to cower. You were made to rise, Mermeros, but you will only ever fall. I am so sorry, darling.”
It is easy enough in the end.
The knife presses in and her hands don’t shake at all. Blood wells up and then she slashes across the part of his throat where the skin is thinnest; when redness spurts out, she does not allow herself to weep.
To Pheres, she only pauses long enough to taste the salt across the flat of her tongue and the bile across the back of it. His hair flops over his eyes, an inch too long to be considered tame but yet too short to cut properly. Jason should have been there for it, his first hair-shedding- but now there will be none of that.
Medea does not know where her love of Jason has gone; only that it is as if a fog has been lifted from her eyes and she can see clearly for the first time in years.
Only a wrath as endless as the oceans fills her veins.
“Sleep well, darling,” she whispers, and presses a kiss to the crown of his head as she’s done a thousand times before; and then her knife is at his throat, and it is over, and she has nothing to hold her tears or regret or fury back.
“I was not made to cower,” she says. “I was not made to kneel. I am sorry, Mermeros, Pheres; but I was not made to be a mother, either. This is the life I chose. This is the life I choose. This is the life I will choose for another hundred, another thousand years. Do not give me forgiveness, but please, please, see that I did not do this for anything other than love of you, and anger at your father.”
Jason enters his old home with a heavy heart and a heavier sword- but neither is heavy enough to stop him from separating Medea’s head from her shoulders, he well knows.
“So, this is what a kinslayer looks like.”
He turns, sword unsheathed, and Medea steps out of the shadows. Hair plaited back into tight, fierce braids, eyes flashing, face flushed; she looks like a warrior. She looks like the woman he fell in love with, all those years back in Colchis.
“Are you telling me?” He asks incredulously.
Medea bares her teeth in a smile that looks like a wolf. “Where were you when Hippotes called for Tysander’s head? When he sent fifty men after Alcimedes, who we haven’t spoken to in near a decade? When I asked to save Mermeros and Pheres? I’m not blameless, perhaps, but there is none more at fault than you!”
“Where are they now? Mermeros and Pheres?”
“So you can kill them, too?” She asks, scathing.
Jason feels anger straighten his spine, and then he reads something like pain flicker across Medea’s face; his heart stops, and he whispers, “Where are they, Medea?”
“They are gone. It was a kinder death than anyone here could have offered.” She rises, sweeps, surges; Jason flinches, and she spins forwards, close enough that he can smell amaranth on her breath.
“Goodbye, Jason,” says Medea.
She lifts her hands and throws back her head, and for a heartbeat he thinks he can stab her through her heart, he thinks he can end this tragedy right here. But she is too fast, too powerful as always.
Sunlight shafts down, wrapping her dark limbs with golden rays. One moment she is human, and the next she is a goddess; Jason remembers that before everything she was an enchantress, she was a granddaughter to a god, and he feels old, cold anguish unfreeze in his heart; he drops to his knees, and Medea rises.
This is the end of the story, then: Medea flees Corinth in the chariot of Helios, and Jason stays back with a sword that feels heavier by the day. In time, he inherits Corinth and then Iolcus when his father dies; after a few more years an emissary from Colchis comes and begs him to become king of the land that he stole from: they are tired of vengeful god-kings and their mad sorceress-daughters. They want peace, and Jason offers it to them along with the Fleece; they take it with glad hands and crown him on a marble throne that is too cold for comfort.
Thessalus, the only one of his sons to survive, comes to him afterwards. Jason gives him Iolcus, content with two kingdoms, and Thessalus takes it gladly. Years later, he attacks and conquers Aeolia.
He renames it Thessaly.
(There are rumors of a woman who has hair fair as spun-gold, eyes luminous as the depths of the seas. There are rumors of a woman who rules Athens with deft hands and measured words. There are always rumors.
Jason dismisses them.)
When Jason dies, he leaves behind a Greece that is almost united. Colchis, Iolcus, Corinth; Epirus, Thessaly, Elia. Other, smaller kingdoms bend the knee to him, the hero-king, and he offers them peace alongside the threat of war. The relief in their kings' eyes when they see him give up certain powers to Thessalus is galling, but Thessalus is a fairer, brighter king than Jason ever was, and Jason knows it well. There is something hungry in him that means he will not be sated with what he has; but there is something tempered in him as well that means he is a just ruler.
Jason has never been prouder of anyone.
Hera curses him for his unfaithfulness, knowing all too well the bitterness of a husband taking another woman to bed. Too little, too late; Jason mourns for his lost wife and lost children, but there is nothing to do for that now.
Jason never again takes a wife.
He lies down, one morning, too exhausted to care for propriety, on the beach. Thessalus has taken up the mantle of leadership more and more in recent years as Jason falters or grows impatient. He is so tired, worn down to the marrow of his bones; he finds a part of the beach that is shaded and closes his eyes.
Jason dreams of gold fire and a queenly retribution. The last thing he sees before everything goes blacker than even the deadest night, is this: a woman, rising, unfettered by the pale red chains of love that he once sought to throw.
He closes his eyes one morning, and he dreams of a wife long-lost, and Jason Goldenship, Jason Cravenkin, Jason Kingborn- he does not open them again.