I hestitated before posting my novel, Vestal Virgin--Suspense in Ancient Rome, in Amazon's new Kindle Select. The program allows subscribers to Amazon Prime to borrow one book per month, and writers involved in the program spit a pot of $500,000.00
The hitch was I had to remove the book from all Amazon competitors: Smashwords, Barnes&Noble, iTunes--and leave it off those sites for three months. It meant I was completey dependent on Amazon for sales.
I hesitated, but I jumped--partly because being part of Kindle Select would allow me to promote my book for free for five days of my choice. I used three of those days this past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In those three days the book was downloaded about 5,000 times. This gained Vestal Virgin the rank of #117 in Free in ebooks on Amazon US, #38 Free in ebooks on Amazon UK. This gained the book tremendous visibility, but it also wiped out all the also-boughts that the book has garnered in the past year. Now my also-boughts are unrelated books and freebies.
When the book went back to $3.99 yesterday the rank was not too fab: about 19,000 in Kindle in the US. I wasn't particularly pleased. What had I gained? To that date I'd only had 9 people borrow the book.
But a few hours later, things began to change. Readers were borrowing the book--a day later my "borrows" have jumped from 9 to 33. And the sales rank for the book has been hovering at just over 1,000. The book is showing up on a number of bestseller lists--for example: #2 in historical suspense.
Consequently, I'm really pleased with my experiment. We'll see if sales sustain! Here are the stats from about an hour ago (9pm Rocky Mt Time, December 20):
Meet Indie Chick, Katherine Owen. Read her story about hard work and perseverance, One Fictionista's Literary Bliss. All proceeds from the Indie Chicks Anthology benefit breast cancer research.
One Fictionista’s Literary Bliss
I was anointed a female fictionista by an overzealous Georgia Bulldog fan on Twitter. I immediately took it for my job description. So, here’s what you should know.I write. I write a lot. And, when I'm not writing, I think about writing a lot. You may think we're having a conversation, but invariably I'm stealing your name, asking how to spell it, and secretly describing the look on your face in five words or less in my mind. My writing tends to be dark, moody, and sometimes funny. Sometimes, it can be a bit lyrical or even literary. It’s often edgy, so be forewarned. My readers complain they can't put my books down. Or, just when they think they've figured the story out, it changes and becomes something else. My stories tend to be dark and comprised of broken heroines; even the heroes in my books have a few flaws that cause trouble. It’s true; my characters may disappoint you or surprise you or piss you off, but I think you’ll understand why they do what they do because of the way I write them. I strive to reveal the deepest underpinnings about life, about love, and about human nature, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ll take you through a proverbial emotional ringer before reaching resolution and it’s never as predictable as you might think. Do I sound like your kind of fictionista? Come along, darling. This way.
Something else you should know about me is that I’m a huge George Clooney fan. Maybe, Up In The Air wasn’t one of his usual gigs, but I loved that movie. And, let’s be frank, I watched ER without him for years, but it was never the same. Never. Anyway, I digress. There’s a scene in Up In The Air where he’s telling this guy to follow his dream after George has told him he’s been laid off.When I saw that scene, it was as if George was practically speaking to me because I was there, two years ago, when I was laid off from a high tech sales job, had always harbored a dream to write full-time, and went for it after that. Is it a coincidence that Up In The Air came out about the same time? I think not.
So now, this is what I do. Write. Write all the time. I’ll admit it was hard at first. It still is—hard, harrowing, humbling. Believe me, it would be easier to go out and get another high paying sales job than write for a living because writing causes me to question my mental toughness so much of the time. Can I do this? Am I good enough?
Yet, here’s what I’ve learned: you just have to turn off that voice in your head off or ignore what is being said.Sometimes, all you need to do is stand up for yourself, stop depending upon the opinions of others, and just go after what you really want.
For me, that’s writing. For you, it might be anything else, but just pursue your passion whatever it is.
With this anthology, my debut novel, Seeing Julia is featured. Seeing Julia is a labor of love and represents a lot of hard work. Truly, this book has caused me as much grief as it has joy. After I first wrote this novel, I entered it into a literary contest and promptly forgot about it. I was busy. I was taking classes at The Writer’s Studio, becoming literary savvy, and writing another novel called Not To Us.
I remember it was a Monday morning in early June of 2010 when I received a call from the president of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association telling me I was a finalist in the romance category with my entry of Seeing Julia. “What?”She asked meif I planned on attending the conference. “Well, I guess so.” Lucky for me, I attended the summer conference, bought a new outfit, and won the Zola Award and first place with Seeing Julia the night of the awards dinner. It was a surreal moment, when I had to go up to the front of the room with those seven hundred people watching and accept my award. But, truly? I was more concerned about navigating all those tables and chairs on my way up to the podium than actually seizing the moment. As word spread about my writing award win, self-doubt had already set in. It was a fluke. It was dumb luck. As high as my emotions soared about winning; they fell just as fast when literary agents still rejected my work. Yes, the win opened a number of literary agent doors for me, but I wrote several different versions of that novel when a number of them took greater interest, but then wanted to change everything about the story. One agent called me up and lectured me for forty-five minutes about the book and then promised to take a look if I made more changes. I sent her the revised manuscript, but she never called again.
This was a year ago. I was at a crossroads with my writing and myself. I kept thinking if I did what they said and changed it, yet again, I would get to the next step—literary bliss. But I wasn’t getting anywhere.
Discouraged, but still determined, I reviewed what the critiques and feedback about Seeing Julia had been. Based on those, I sifted through what I thought would need to be changed and began rewriting the story,working day and night through most of November. With just getting a few hours of sleep each night, I kept up the intense pace and by the time the novel was finished; I knew it was. I’m extremely proud of Seeing Julia. During the process of rewriting it for the last time, I reached an important pinnacle with my writing: I trusted myself. Confidence entered into the realm. And, along with it, swift understanding: I had to make my own literary bliss.
Two additional things became clear. First, it was essential for me to have complete control over the publishing of my work; and second, the publishing industry was in the midst of a perfect storm because of e-books and I needed to take full advantage. And, so I did.
In late April and early May of this year, I released two novels: Seeing Julia and Not To Us. These books are available as e-books as well as print trade paperbacks.
Many wonderful readers have responded to my work. They often reach out to me and let me know how they love my novels. I love and cherish their enthusiasm for my work.
This is literary bliss.
Of course, my family’s number one complaint is that I write too much and all the time. Now, add to that the twittering and the facebooking and the wordpressing and now google plus-ing, and checking Amazon, and taking writing classes; it's a full-time gig. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The good news is that with the encouragement of my readers and confidence in my writing, I’m working on my third novel, When I See You, and hope to release this book before the end of this year.And, I already have drafts for two other novels, Saving Valentines and Finding Amy.
Oh yes, there are occasions, rare ones, when I'm not writing. That’s when I like to drink a fine wine, check in with my family, and look at my awesome view which I can see when I look up long enough from my computer screen in my writing refuge.
And so, welcome. Welcome to my little piece of the universe.
I’ll leave you with this—a philosophy I now live by, borrowed from one of the greatest women tennis players of all time: “You’ve got to take the initiative and play your game. In a decisive set, confidence is the difference.”Chris Evert
Oh, Chrissy, you are so right!
This is one story from Indie Chicks: 25 Women 25 Personal Stories available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To read all of the stories, buy your copy today. All proceeds go to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer.
Also included are sneak peeks into 25 novels! My novel, Seeing Julia, is one of the novel excerpts featured. It is available at most online retailers in trade paperback as well as e-book formats.
Hetaera is Book One of the Agathon's Daughter trilogy. I began the book about eight years ago. Research includes an incredible trip to Greece. My friend and mentor, Elizabeth Engstrom traveled to Athens, explored the city, then hopped on a bus to Delphi where we met the self-proclaimed oracle. What a blast!
Temple of Athena, Delphi
I've always been interested in the role of women throughout history--especially in ancient times. My major in college was Classic Theater (with a focus on ancient Greece) and ancient religion. So this story began to develop long ago. I workshopped it in a class at the Maui Writers Retreat where I studied with Tess Gerritsen--a wonderful writer, teacher, and human being. That year the book went on to win third place in the Maui Writers Rupert Brooke Award.
Tess Gerritsen was kind enough to write a forword for the book.
This summer, after I suffered an accident at work, I finally had time to complete the book. In fact, the story grew into a trilogy. Book Two will be Priestess, Book Three, Oracle.
Truly, giving birth to this project has been an act of love. And it would not have been possible without the support of wonderful people like Liz, Tess, my friend Blake Crouch, and many other good friends.
Please check out The Indie Chicks Anthology -- 25 personal stories from 25 indie writers. All proceeds benefit Breast Cancer Research. This week, please welcome Indie Chick Donna Fasano to my blog. Stepping into the Light is an inspirational story about how she reinvented herself.
Donna wrote for Harlequin Books for 20 years before becoming a proud Independent Author. She's the written over 30 romance and women's fiction novels that have sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide. Her books have won awards and made best-seller lists. Below is the story she contributed to the anthology Indie Chicks: 25 Independent Women, 25 Inspiring Stories.
Stepping Into The Light
I sit in the back row, shoulders rounded, knees jumping, my left thumb rubbing a raw spot in the center of my right palm. The sad and lonely sufferings being expressed in the dank, dimly-lit basement are all too real and much too close for comfort. I glance at the door and contemplate escape, but it's too late. All eyes are upon me. I hesitate only a moment before standing on quaking legs, clearing my throat softly and confessing, "My name is Donna. I'm a writer. And I need to come out of the closet because it's dark in here."
Twenty years ago, had there been a group called Writers Anonymous, I would have attended faithfully, pouring out my heart at the weekly meetings. You see, for the couple of years that I spent writing my first novel, I told almost no one what I was doing. My husband knew; in fact, he's the reason I even attempted what felt like the insurmountable task of plotting out and finishing that first book. He's also the reason I ended up in this glorious, chaotic, roller-coaster life I've lived as an author; however, that's a story for another day. But when I first started scratching words on a yellow legal pad with a no. 2 pencil (there's nothing else that stirs my creativity more than the feel of graphite gliding against paper), I didn't tell a single family member or friend.
Why would I keep my dreams and aspirations such a tightly guarded secret?
I would hazard to guess the answer is the same reason anyone else hides things that could have life-altering potential: fear.
What if I failed? What if I had no talent? What if I didn't possess the perseverance to finish that first manuscript?
The mere thought of the snide remarks, tittering laughter and looks of skepticism and ridicule I might receive were enough to keep me silent. My imagination has always been strong, and I easily saw the scenes play out in my head.
So you think you're going to write a book, huh?
But you didn't go to college.
A romance novel? Really?
If you're going to try to write, why not write a real book? You know, like a mystery or a thriller; something someone is going to want to read.
My ability to conjure fantasy has always been a blessing and a bane. When reading a book or listening to someone tell a story or imagining repercussions of actions, visions will take shape in my head. Situations feel real, characters become corporal, while my stirred emotions brim and often overflow. Needless to say, Hallmark commercials make me cry. While powerful creativity is a great and necessary trait for a writer who is intent on concocting a compelling tale, it can become crippling if that writer is too focused on the opinions of others.
However, I also have to confess that keeping that first novel-writing dream all to myself charged me with a vibrant energy. I was excited to get my story down on paper. Seeing my plot unfold was absolutely thrilling! Creating my characters was fun. And the fact that no one knew about my clandestine efforts gave me a huge amount of freedom. No one told me I was doing it all wrong; no one suggested I could never reach my goal.
In defense of all the people I kept in the dark all those years ago, I have to admit that most of them were delighted and supportive when I finally divulged that my first manuscript had been purchased by a bona fide publisher. Oh, there was a scoffer or two, and I continue to meet them; you know the type, people who can't be happy for others or who feel another's success somehow diminishes his or her own self-worth, but I've learned to deal with those people (working with New York City editors forces a writer to grow a thick skin pretty quickly). I merely smile and think about the slew of books I've sold and the fan mail I've received from all over the world.
Those scoffers seem to have come out of the woodwork now that I've reinvented myself as an Indie Author. But venturing into this new arena couldn't have happened at a better point in my life. I'm confident in my ability to tell a good story. I'm more than satisfied with the career I've had, and have no trouble imagining even more success in the future. I saw tangible proof when two of my books made it onto Kindle's Top 100 List. I'm happy with who I've become as a writer and as a person. If my work receives less-than-flattering feedback from a reader, I might not like it, but I also realize it's not the end of the world; I've learned that I can't please all readers all the time. I love the creative freedom I have as an independent author. I can allow my muse to take me wherever it will. I'm terrifically grateful that there are readers out there who are willing to buy my novels. Every time I read a good review of one of my books I want to (and do!) kiss my husband for suggesting I take a stab at this profession (it's a habit that's been very good for my marriage).
So… what's my point? Well, don't let the negative opinions of others keep you from dreaming, for one thing. Most of the scary thoughts that run through your head will never happen, and the few that do materialize can be dealt with. You're stronger than you think. Don't allow fear to paralyze you. Aspire to be and do whatever it is you want to be and do. Be kind to yourself; you deserve the same compassion and concern that you offer others. And most importantly, know that your dreams matter. Indulge them. Reach for the stars! I did, and I'm still astounded that I snagged a few.
Donna loves to hear from readers! Ways to connect with Donna:
Hetaera, part one of the Agathon's Daughter Trilogy will be published next week. Here's a sneak preview:
Wind swept down from the acropolis, driving dust along the narrow lanes past sleeping houses, slipping through bolted doors into the Master’s bedchamber. On this dismal night, even the House of Agathon offered no barrier against the winged god of death.
Hestia drew her shawl close around her shoulders, gazed across the chamber.The oil lamp sputtered, casting shadows on the ceiling, and darkness crept across the old man’s face.
“Come closer,” he called out, clutching at the bedcovers, struggling to lift his head. A rasping cough strangled his voice. He stared at her as if witnessing an apparition.
“Rest,” she said.
“I have wronged you.”
Hestia dipped a cloth into a bowl of water infused with thyme to stem the fever and mopped her Master’s brow. Since the onset of his illness, the furrows in Agathon’s forehead had grown more pronounced, and lines wrought by years of laughter sagged into a frown. The battle-worn face she loved so well, craggy as the hills of Athens, seemed possessed by a secret grief.
He regarded her with stark intensity. “If I should die this night—”
“Don’t speak of death.”
Groaning, he rolled onto his side. “Do you hear them howling?”
“The hounds of Hades. I hear the splash of Charon’s oars; the icy waters of the Styx lap at my feet.”
Despite the late hour, despite the impending rain, Hestia considered sending for the physician; the remedy Doctor Baraz had prescribed didn’t seem to be working. She moved quickly to the doorway, waking the injury she’d received as an infant. Pain shot through her ankle.
“Where are you going?”
“To get the Despoina.”
“Don’t wake my wife. Melaina needs her beauty sleep.” Agathon struggled to sit, his breath shallow and rapid.
In truth, Hestia felt relief. The prospect of waking the Despoina held all the charm of opening Pandora’s box—except no hope lay hidden at the bottom. Only wrath. Yet, the feverish glitter of Agathon’s eyes made her uneasy. She walked back to the bed and touched his forehead. Heat rushed through her fingers, the pulse of life escaping him.
“You’re burning up.”
“If only I could sleep.” Agathon closed his eyes, but he looked far from peaceful.
Hestia wiped her eyes, warding off her tears.
Melaina claimed it was disrespectful for a slave to show emotion. Slaves, Melaina said, were meant to blend into the furnishings, stay hidden in corners, like a chamber pot. Despite her effort to stop them, tears escaped her eyes. How could she prevent herself from crying for the one person in this world who had shown her kindness? The person who had saved her life.
Agathon’s eyelids fluttered open, and the soul she loved peered out. “Get some sleep,” he said.
“If I sleep who will care for you?”
“You’re a good girl, Hestia. A bit strong-willed, but intelligent.”
His words brought more tears.
“When the rains are over,” she said, attempting to compose herself. “And as soon as you regain your strength, we’ll visit the acropolis; make an offering at the Pantheon.”
“Pour me some wine.”
“Perhaps you need another dose of the physician’s medicine.”
“No more. It tastes bitter.”
“The Despoina opened an amphora of your favorite wine. I’ll add some honey to the wine and you won’t notice the medicine.”
“Don’t treat me like a woman—”
Hestia knew better than to argue.
Pain bit her ankle; it always did at this late hour. Favoring her left foot, she reached the sideboard. She poured wine from an earthen pitcher into a drinking cup then added water and a dollop of honey—the last of the supply she had gathered in the autumn. Soon it would be time to reopen the hives and discover if the bees had survived the winter—but now that Diodorus had returned from military service the bees would be his chore. Hestia admired Agathon’s son; Diodorus care about important things like the natural world, philosophy and mathematics. She glanced at Agathon to make certain he wasn’t watching before reaching for the vial of tincture. She dosed the wine liberally. Limping toward the bed, she offered him the cup.
“Your ankle pains you,” he said. She busied herself straightening the bedcovers. “Hestia, look at me.”
His face was blotchy, ravaged by fever. Though the physician insisted his illness wasn’t plague, the servants whispered otherwise. Day and night they lit fires and made offerings to the household gods, mumbling excuses why they couldn’t sit with him. Laundry needed to be done, bread had to be baked, spring cleaning was past due. Even the Master’s wife kept her distance. Hestia saw no lesions, no swollen glands, no sign of plague—yet Agathon’s condition worsened.
“Drink,” she said, “and you’ll feel better.”
“Stop fussing. Sit.”
She drew a goatskin stool close to the bed and sat, hands folded in her lap.
Agathon sipped the wine, made a sour face, then set the cup on the bedside table. He reached for her hand, small within his sturdy paw, and squeezed her fingers. “Remember the day we climbed the Hill of Nymphs?”
Not long ago, after another stormy night, she and Agathon had ventured out to wander through the sacred olive grove. Sunlight danced through rain-drenched leaves.
“I remember,” she said. “I asked you what Socrates says of love.”
“And I said you’re too young to ponder that subject.”
“Seventeen is hardly young, Master.”
“Time passes swiftly.” A frown tugged at Agathon’s mouth. He reached for the cup of wine, but didn’t drink. “According to Socrates, there are two varieties of love—the higher leads to harmony, the lower to destruction.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“If you can answer that, my darling girl, you’re wiser than Socrates.” His eyes appeared troubled. “Can you find it in your heart to love an old warhorse like me?”
Hestia stared at her lap, unsure of what he wanted. Unsure of how to answer.
“My question upsets you.” He grabbed the cup of wine and drank. His eyes peered at her above the cup’s rim. “Give me your honest opinion—at this late hour of my life, can my soul be purified?”
“Your soul is pure. Your life has been exemplary—”
She interlocked her fingers, observing their redness and how the knuckles blanched. Weighing her words, she said, “I believe all souls to be eternal. Therefore, the hour can never be too late for a soul’s redemption.”
“By the gods,” he said softly, “you’re a match for any man, any philosopher, even Socrates.”
“You flatter me.”
“I speak the truth. You take after your mother, golden curls, and eyes as blue as the Aegean.”
“My mother preferred me dead.”
“Who told you that?”
“Melaina?” Agathon shook his head.
“Your wife says my mother chained me to a hill—left me, as an infant, to die of exposure.”
Agathon took a gulp of wine, his hand shaking. A cough took hold, deep and guttural. He tried to hand the cup to Hestia, but the wine spilled. A crimson stain crept across the bedcover—not only wine, but blood.
Hestia removed the cup from his trembling hand, her own shaking as well. Her eyes met Agathon’s and she gazed into his heart. The cup slipped from her hand, crashed on the tile floor, and shattered.
“You knew my mother, didn’t you?” Her gaze reached deeper, unlocking his secrets. “You loved her.”
“Yes.” He stared at her, stricken.
“Tell me,” she said.
“Tell you what?”
She released him from her gaze.
Bending to collect pieces of the broken cup, she sorted through disparate emotions—sorrow for her Master’s illness, anger at his reticence, loneliness. As she stood, she felt light-headed, as if she were falling into a dark well. Who would find her? Who would notice she had gone?
His voice came from far away, calling her into the present.
“I’ll get another cup,” she said.
She moved toward the sideboard, felt his eyes follow her. The amphora felt slick against her palms. Her back to him, she poured medicine into the wine, added a large spoon of honey. She wanted him to sleep, wanted him to close his eyes—so she couldn’t see into his heart.
She handed him the cup, and Agathon drank deeply, his face flushing as the medicine took its course.
He wiped his mouth, settled into his cushions.
“Her name was Olympia.”
“Olympia,” Hestia said, the name forming on her tongue, swelling like a wave and crashing in her gut.
“Give me that box.” Agathon pointed to the bedside table.
She handed him a bronze box inlaid with colored stones.
Agathon opened the lid, drew out a ring. Gold glittered in the lamplight, sending shivers through Hestia. He pressed the ring into her palm, and a flood of images followed, each vying for her attention: a man crowned by a diadem, a woman dressed in flowing robes. The man slipped the ring on the woman’s finger. The ring was worth more than a slave could hope to earn in a lifetime. Holding it between her thumb and forefinger, Hestia marveled at the workmanship. Twin serpents intertwined to form the symbol of eternity, ruby eyes flashing fire.
“Read the inscription.”
“To Olympia from Agathon,” Hestia read. And then a month, “Boedromion.”
“A golden day in autumn, a day sacred to Dionysius—the day of your conception.”
“How would you know?”
“Have you not guessed?”
She stared into his eyes, afraid to speak the truth she saw.
Agathon reached for her hand, but she recoiled, her thoughts and feelings churning. When she spoke, her voice came out as a whisper. “I am your—”
“And my mother?”
“Died giving birth to you. I was here, in Athens, when I received the news.” Agathon sank back into the cushions.
Hestia turned the ring in her palm, feeling the weight of the gold, the weight of Agathon’s words. Of course, she’d been abandoned, a bastard and a girl. Unwanted children were often left out in the elements to expire.
“Why did you save me?”
“I couldn’t bear to see you die. I sought you out, plucked you from your chains.”
“And kept me as your slave.”
“I couldn’t claim you as my own. Melaina wouldn’t...”
Her eyes met his. His face seemed to be melting, like a wax mask left out in the sun. His mouth moved, but his words were drowned in the roar of questions rushing through her mind. She wasn’t the first bastard to be born to a wealthy Master, not the first child to be unclaimed. It was a common story. But she had trusted Agathon. Gorge rose to her mouth, molten rage that stung her throat. She swallowed, forcing down her anger.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Forgive an old man.”
Blue veins lined his hands, carrying his blood. Her blood. The blood she had been denied.
“Who was she, my mother? A slave?”
“A goddess. She belonged to no man.” Agathon sighed heavily, closed his eyes.
Hestia studied his ravaged face and saw her own. She reached for his shoulder, shook him. “Olympia who? From where?”
He mumbled something.
The shutters clattered. The wind had ripped them open. She glanced at the high window. Clouds drifted over the moon, smothering its light.
She turned back to Agathon, knelt beside his bed. Tears streaming down her face, she pressed her cheek against his chest, listened for his heartbeat, and heard only the rattle of the shutters.
Dawn brought the wail of servants, but Melaina shed no tears for her dead husband.
After consuming a substantial meal of goat cheese and barley bread, she rinsed her hands in the washbasin and splashed her face. Leaning over the water, she pulled the corners of her eyes, tightening the fine, webbed lines. Thanks to a paste of lead and limestone, which she applied religiously, her hair remained jet-black. Despite her fading beauty men still found her appealing, and she expected Agathon’s wealth to enhance her attractiveness. According to the law she would inherit nothing. Even her dowry, still held in trust, would be controlled by her son. But Diodorus was an idealist. He had no mind for business, no desire to advance himself. He had proved himself as a soldier, serving as a hoplite in the Spartan uprising; but Agathon had ruined their son’s desire for practical pursuits, encouraging the boy (though he was twenty Melaina refused to call him a man) to follow Socrates—a half-crazed philosopher who wandered barefoot around the agora spouting gibberish. When Diodorus wasn’t spewing nonsense he spent his time studying insects, rocks and other worthless objects.
Melaina counted on her son’s disinterest in financial matters. With any luck, Diodorus would leave management of the property to Lycurgus, Agathon’s business partner who had been appointed Kurios, protector of the family. Diodorus needed guidance.
Melaina gave her face a final splash.
Now that Agathon was on the road to Hades, she vowed to put an end to her son’s foolish pursuits. She planned to push him into politics. But for now, it would be best to entice Diodorus out of Athens. Not forever, just for one year.
One year would give her time.
She clapped her hands, and a slave parted the curtains—a new girl, dark skinned with strange markings on her face, waves of dots across her forehead and cheeks, the result of scarification. No Athenian woman would mark her face in such a barbaric way. Melaina could not recall the girl’s name.
The slave mumbled something in a foreign language.
“What did you say?”
“Don’t stand there, gaping. Fetch my chiton, the black one.”
The girl looked at her blankly, as if she didn’t understand. Melaina pointed to her cedar chest, one of several that stood against the wall. The girl moved lethargically. With maddening sluggishness, she opened the chest’s lid and pulled out one carefully folded tunic after another. Melaina guessed the girl came from some backwater in Africa. One of Agathon’s strays. The house was full of untrained slaves that no one else would put up with.
Melaina sighed. “Do I need to find the chiton myself?”
“Is this what you want, Despoina?” The girl dragged a large rectangle of cloth from the chest and brought it to Melaina.
“Custom demands a widow’s clothes be drab, but black is not my color.” Melaina fingered the finely woven wool. “Makes my complexion appear sallow.”
“You don’t have to agree with me.”
Melaina rolled her eyes. Yes, no. Could the girl say nothing else? “What’s your name?”
“They call me, Calonice.”
“Calonice, a good Greek name.”
“My Igbo name is Adisa. It means one who sees clearly.”
“Fascinating. Be careful how you drape the cloth.” Sucking in her stomach, and holding out her arms, Melaina readied herself to be dressed. Unlike her last maid, who’d had years of practice—and had, inconveniently, died—this girl was obviously a novice. Standing on her toes, the girl attempted to drape the cloth.
“Not like that.” Melaina caught the wool at each shoulder so it could be pinned in place. “Don’t use those brooches. Fetch the others, the gold set with sapphires.”
The girl gazed at her, like a sheep.
“Blue stones.” Melaina nodded toward her jewelry box.
“The brooch the rich man gave to you?”
Melaina’s eyes shot to the slave. “Who told you that?”
“No one, Despoina.” The girl busied herself with the bronze box.
No one. There were no secrets in a house full of servants. “And fetch the matching earrings.”
Mumbling to herself the girl fastened the brooches at Melaina’s shoulders as Melaina slipped the heavy earrings through her earlobes. Intricately wrought and exquisitely designed, the brooch and earrings far exceeded any gift of Agathon’s.
The brooch jabbed her shoulder.
“Forgive me, Despoina.”
Melaina slapped the slave. “Get out!”
The girl rubbed her cheek. If it were possible, her eyes grew darker. Muttering something that sounded like a curse, she left the room.
Relieved to see her go, Melaina rubbed her shoulder. She inspected the deep scratch where the heavy pin had gouged her and wondered if the wound had been intentional.
Feeling the beginning of a headache, she massaged her temples.
Soon Agathon’s sisters would arrive, interfering women twenty years her senior. Sometimes she felt so alone. She had no one to confide in, no one she could trust. Locked away, within her house, like all proper Athenian matrons—forbidden to go out, unless under a man’s protection, not even to the marketplace—she sometimes wondered if a slave’s life might offer more freedom.
There must be some escape.
She thought of Lycurgus. He’d chosen to remain single, not because he didn’t care for women—the gods knew that was not an issue—but for other reasons.
Using a length of silk cord, she girded the long tunic at her waist, allowing the excess fabric to form an overdress, the latest fashion. The chiton fell to the floor in graceful folds, showing her body to its best advantage. Of course, Lycurgus would attend Agathon’s funeral. In many ways he was the opposite of Agathon, brilliant with a dangerous reputation, a statesman with his choice of women. Melaina prayed he would find Agathon’s wealth an aphrodisiac.
Besides her dead husband’s money, what did she have to offer?
She reached for her bronze mirror. The handle had been cast in the form of Aphrodite, goddess of love. Such a fickle deity. Melaina squeezed the handle till it cut into her palm. These days, she preferred Athena, goddess of strategy. Or even better, Hecate, goddess of the moon and magic. She admired Hecate’s elusiveness.
Holding the polished bronze to her face, she pursed her lips, then parted them. Receding gums, but pumice mixed with vinegar kept her teeth passable. She smiled at her reflection. Agathon had been a popular member of the council, known for his philanthropy. His funeral would bring a throng and, naturally, all eyes would dwell on the bereft widow. But she had no intention of remaining a widow for long. She picked a bit of barley from between her teeth.
She glanced toward the window, a small square in the white plaster. A shade tree blocked the sun, but warm air crept through the open shutters. Already half the morning gone, and so much to do.
She opened another cedar chest and selected an indigo himation. The color negated the drabness of the black chiton and brought out the luster of her hair. She wrapped the shawl over her left shoulder, bringing the end around her back and across the front of her body, before draping the tail over her left arm.
Despite the expectations of society, she would ignore the custom of shearing her hair. The dark tresses, highlighted with henna, remained one of her best features. Solemn faced, as the occasion merited, she left her chamber and sedately descended the steps leading to the women’s courtyard. Agathon would have made do with a ladder, but she had insisted he build a stairway. He’d been tight about important things, while lavishing on foolish projects—housing for paupers, public assistance for invalids and indigents—a waste of money.
Of course, no one in Athens valued the opinion of a woman. Unless she was a courtesan. Melaina couldn’t understand how the opinions of hetaerae were respected while those of obedient wives were not. Sometimes, she wished she were a Spartan, though she’d never give voice to such a blasphemous idea. Spartan women were educated, almost as well as men. More importantly, they were permitted to own property, and, while their husbands were off fighting, the women controlled the purse strings. Here in Athens respectable women were close to prisoners.
Melaina walked through the colonnaded women’s courtyard, past the kitchen where slaves prepared a midday meal. The smell of lentils and onions, mingled with the scent of bread, wafted through the door, then drifted toward the courtyard’s open sky. She glanced at the kitchen’s adjoining bath, empty at this hour, and continued walking past the altar dedicated to Hestia, goddess of the hearth.
Anger caught her step, and she nearly tripped—ridiculous that a slave should share the name of a goddess, a name assigned by Agathon, of course. As soon as possible, Melaina swore she would change Hestia’s name to something more appropriate, Ptolemais, for example, a name which meant warlike and rude. Smirking at her jest, she entered the men’s courtyard.
An offering of myrrh smoldered on the altar of Zeus, the scent smoky and resinous. Melaina peeked into the andron, a room forbidden to proper women such as she, where men gathered for symposiums—discussions of politics and philosophy fueled by large quantities of wine. She thought she might find Diodorus lounging on one of the couches that lined the perimeter, but the room was empty. She wondered where her son might be. Often in the mornings he used the men’s courtyard as a gymnasium, but today there was no sign of him.
Two slaves, on their knees, worked their way along the colonnade, scrubbing the mosaic floor. Melaina approached them, and the men quickly stood, the youngest nearly knocking over a leather bucket of water.
“You missed that corner,” Melaina said.
The young slave, a boy of about fourteen, kept his gaze focused on the floor. The older glanced to where Melaina pointed and started toward it with the bucket.
“Wait,” Melaina said. “Have you seen my son?”
“The Master went out early, Despoina.”
Hearing the slave refer to Diodorus as Master threw Melaina off. “My son,” she said, taking a moment to recover, “the Master went out where?”
“I don’t know.”
“He wore a hat and boots,” the younger slave said.
“Get back to work,” her tone sounded sharper than intended.
So, instead of offering her support, Diodorus had gone out, in boots, of all things—probably traipsing through the countryside, instead of honoring his mother.
Had a son ever been so selfish?
His place was here, with her. The guests would be arriving and she needed him.
Wringing her hands, Melaina wandered the perimeter of the courtyard. Sunlight played across the paving stones, and the walls offered protection from the wind. Now that Agathon was gone, she saw no reason why the courtyard couldn’t be put to better use than as a gymnasium and place for men to congregate. She imagined tearing up the slabs of stone to create a protected garden for her herbs.
But first she had to bury Agathon.
Doctor Baraz had been summoned in the middle of the night, waking Melaina from slumber. No wonder she felt a bit tired this morning; she hated having her sleep interrupted. The doctor had declared the cause of death was hemorrhage. Too late for bloodletting, Melaina thought, unless posthumous leeching might benefit Agathon in the afterlife. Like most Athenians, Melaina didn’t care for Persians on principle—after all, they’d nearly destroyed the city—but she had to admit they excelled as physicians. Doctor Baraz had taught her many things about remedies and herbs. Best of all, he refrained from asking too many questions.
Agathon’s corpse had been removed to a curtained antechamber adjacent to the entrance of the house. He rested on a bier, draped with a checkered cloth, his feet facing the door to allow his soul a swift departure. His head had been encircled with crimson anemones. According to legend, when Adonis—the mortal youth adored by Aphrodite—was slain by a wild boar, the bereft goddess sprinkled nectar on her lover’s lifeless body and windflowers sprang from his blood.
Melaina stared uneasily at the remains of her husband. The dead don’t speak, she assured herself. If Agathon had guessed her secret, it no longer mattered. She slipped a coin into his mouth, payment for Charon, and placed a coin on each eye. Securing a strip of linen under his chin, she tied it tight, so his jaw would remain shut.
The task of preparing the corpse fell to her. Agathon’s sisters would have helped, but Melaina couldn’t tolerate their meddling, their endless chatter. She preferred to work in solitude before they arrived. She washed the corpse with seawater, humming as she worked, her thoughts turned to a brighter future. Now that Agathon was gone she had full reign over the house, the storeroom and the wine cellar. As soon as custom allowed, she would speak to Diodorus, encourage him to hold a lavish symposium. Her heart quickened at the thought of her son entertaining the leading citizens of Athens. A nod from Pericles could ensure his future in politics. The idea of Pericles visiting her house, drinking at her table, set Melaina’s heart racing. She reminded herself that the house belonged to Diodorus, and women weren’t invited to symposiums. Not respectable women.
She gave Agathon’s leg a final swipe with a damp cloth. Servants would dress him in funeral robes and crown him with a gold diadem. But first she must anoint his body to ensure that his soul departed.
Collecting her basket, she walked through the recessed entryway where slaves were sweeping the mosaic floor and hanging wreaths of myrtle over the lintels. Athena peered down from the frescoed ceiling: independent, strong, sprung full-grown from the head of Zeus, a battle-cry upon her lips. Melaina reminded herself to offer a substantial sacrifice to Athena—a goddess worthy of devotion—in honor of her husband’s death, and as insurance for her own future.
“Good morning, Despoina.”
She nodded at Therapon, an old fool of a slave.
He lifted the front door’s iron bolt, his arms quivering, as if the bolt’s weight were too much for him. Melaina breathed in the crisp air of early spring. She descended the steps that led to the narrow street, busy at this hour with workmen pushing carts and pedestrians on their way to the agora. Turning away from the street, she walked to the back of the house.
Agathon’s dogs, whining for their Master, waited by the stables. Not sleek hounds a person might take pride in, but strays and mongrels like the rest of Agathon’s household. Beyond the stable the terrain became arid hills and scrub. Kicking away the dogs, Melaina entered her garden. Not a patch of kitchen herbs like the one maintained in the courtyard, not a plot of vegetables useful for cooking, but a deciare measuring ten by ten meters, and brimming with medicinal herbs and flowers. The sun peeked over the terracotta rooftop, warming her back, burning off the morning dew, and releasing the pungent scent of rosemary. With satisfaction, Melaina regarded the array of plants she’d coaxed from the rocky soil. Although her garden wouldn’t reach its full glory for a month or two, last night’s downpour had done her plants a lot of good. She checked the rain barrels, glad to note the replenished supply of water.
Using a finely honed knife, she cut fragrant sprigs of thyme for purification, lavender for protection. Herbs used in ritual had to be treated with deference. She knelt beside a bushy row of yellow flowers and set her basket on the paving stones. Artemisia, named for the goddess of the moon, would allow Agathon’s soul safe passage to the underworld. She cut handfuls of the yellow blooms and set them in her basket.
Groaning as she stood, these days her bones ached in the mornings.
Ignoring the keening dogs, she re-entered the house.
Her son’s house, not Agathon’s.
She removed her muddy sandals, handed them to Therapon, and padded across the entryway’s mosaic—an intricate design of red, yellow, blue, and white stones, depicting an array of sea creatures—one of the finest in Athens. Her heart swelled with pride. Diodorus was now Master of the House of Agathon. His fortune, and hers, shone brighter than a comet.
Spots danced before Melaina’s eyes as she slipped through the curtains and stepped into the annex. Compared to the courtyard, the workroom seemed dark. She considered calling a slave to bring an oil lamp, but decided against it. She preferred no interference. No well-meant mumblings of condolence, no reflections on the swiftness of her husband’s death.
No unwanted observations.
Setting her basket on a table, she glanced at her husband’s corpse. His eyes flashed and her heart jumped. Pressing a hand against her chest, she told herself it was nothing, just the play of light on the coins.
Again, she wondered if he’d guessed her secret.
Using a pestle, she mashed the greenish-yellow artemisia flowers against the mortar’s rough stone, releasing their unpleasant odor. But the smell didn’t bother her.
Herbs were reliable, unlike people. People could be unpredictable.
She thought of Hestia. Thanks to Agathon, the girl didn’t know her place.
Melaina dipped her finger into the flower paste and brought it to her lips. She recoiled at its bitterness, recoiled at the memory of her marriage. She had come to Agathon at age fourteen—the usual age. He was twenty years her senior, a hero returned from the wars. She’d known nothing of the world and even less of men. She had tried to be a good wife, tried to please him. She ran an efficient household, kept the larders well stocked. But they’d had little in common. More often than not, he found reason to travel far from home. Like Jason had done to Medea, Agathon had strayed, leaving Melaina for another woman. But what recourse did she have? A woman’s word held little weight against a man’s.
Small wonder she had come to rely on another. At first, Lycurgus had sent messengers, offering in Agathon’s absence to be of service regarding financial matters. Initially, Melaina refused his help. But Agathon’s departures grew more frequent, and the bills kept mounting. Weeks turned into months. Meanwhile, Lycurgus remained persistent—and delightfully charming. Though a woman of her stature was forbidden male visitors, it was deemed acceptable for her to meet with her Kurios. A woman could engage in no transactions involving property valued over a week’s supply of barley. Someone had to pay the bills, see to business in her husband’s absence.
Naturally, she’d come to rely on Lycurgus. And, like a Spartan wife, unable to conceive with her own husband, she’d bedded her husband’s closest friend.
Having been away for six months, Agathon returned to find Melaina four months gone with child. Of course, she’d claimed the child was his, padding her belly to appear further along and avoiding his caresses. Agathon never questioned his paternity. Diodorus arrived two months later than expected, and Melaina paid the midwife well to claim his birth an anomaly.
She might have spared herself the trouble, spared herself the expense of bribery, because Agathon hardly noticed her. He spent his time lost in ideas, constantly scribbling and reading or giving money to the poor. Yet, sometimes she sensed he’d guessed the truth. Sometimes she caught him staring at the boy—wondering, perhaps, at his sculpted nose and high forehead, so different than his own. But if Agathon suspected the child wasn’t his, he remained silent. After all, Melaina had produced the mandatory heir, leaving her husband free to roam. And roam he did. After the boy’s birth, claiming to have business in the north, Agathon embarked on yet another extended journey.
Melaina crushed more artemisia with her pestle, pounding the fern-like leaves into a pulp, mashing the yellow flowers, as she thought about her marriage.
After a year of absence Agathon returned—not alone, but bearing an infant in swaddling. His whore’s. He’d pleaded with Melaina, begged her to raise the baby as her own, but she’d refused. A mistake, in retrospect. Agathon hired a wet nurse who stood guard over the infant day and night, leaving no opportunity to send the evil Ker to her death.
Melaina pushed away the memories, focused on her work. With quiet concentration, she added the flower paste to an earthen pot of wine that simmered on the brazier. Taken as a tonic, artemisia acted as a narcotic, inducing sleep. Used to anoint a corpse, the elixir ensured the slumber of the deceased would be eternal; it had the same effect on those still living. As she stirred the brew with a wooden spoon, the vision of her son’s future grew vivid—a golden path leading to the acropolis. She would walk beside him.
With help, all her dreams were possible. And that help would come from Lycurgus.
For twenty years, she had held their secret. For twenty years, she’d played the martyr, putting up with the bastard daughter—a constant reminder of Agathon’s infidelity; and her own.
But that would change.
She bent over the brazier and blew on the embers, inhaling the artemisia’s intoxicating fumes. Sweat beaded on her forehead, ran into her eyes, and stung. Feeling faint, she removed the concoction from the brazier. Steadying her knees, she searched through her basket and found a stick of rosemary. She held it to the glowing coals. The smoke would dispel evil spirits—dispel Hestia, the Pandora who wreaked havoc on the house.
Mumbling a prayer to Hecate, Melaina ran the smoldering rosemary over her husband’s corpse. She studied the nose broken in battle, the rough-hewn mouth that seldom spoke to her.
From a funerary flask, she poured olive oil into an alabaster bowl, then added the artemisia. She dipped a scrap of linen into the oil and ran the cloth over the soles of Agathon’s feet, circling to the left to release him from this world.
“Go quickly,” she said.
The doorway’s curtain swayed.
“Who’s there?” Cloth in hand, Melaina ripped open the curtain.
Hestia hobbled away, as fast as her lame foot allowed.
Melaina hurried after her. “I told you to scrub the kitchen hearth. If you’ve finished, the chamber pots need emptying. Remember, I’m your Master now.”
Hestia turned to face Melaina, her expression defiant.
“Your son is Master of this house.”
Melaina’s hand came down on Hestia’s face, leaving a red mark. She hadn’t meant to strike, hadn’t meant to lose herself. She’d meant to exhibit self-control, but the girl was impertinent. Hestia should be falling to her knees, begging forgiveness. Instead, she stood her ground, her eyes—bluer than a bruise—penetrating, invasive.
Melaina stepped back from the girl, aware of servants watching, listening. Summoning her most commanding voice, she said, “I’m sorry I slapped you, but you drove me to it.”
The girl rubbed her swelling cheek. “I drove you to hit me? I didn’t know I had such power.”
Melaina raised her hand again. “I’m warning you. Today I have no patience.”
“When do you ever have patience?”
Melaina’s hand shook as she lowered it. Her eyes remained fixed on Hestia. She found it impossible to look away. The girl was a sorceress, just like her whorish mother. “Now that Agathon is dead, you answer to me,” she said. “Blood follows blood, and you take after your mother. But you must change.”
“According to the Master, my mother was a goddess.”
Melaina’s throat tightened, her breath catching in her chest. She grabbed Hestia’s wrists, locking her fingers around the delicate bones. She dragged the girl into the curtained annex, pointed at the corpse. “He won’t protect you now.”
Melaina stood, triumphant, watching with satisfaction as Hestia’s stance grew limp.
Reaching out her hand, the girl stroked the dead man’s face.
“Don’t touch him,” Melaina said.
Hestia bent her head in supplication, tears gleaming in her eyes.
The display of grief annoyed Melaina. “You will leave this house after my husband’s funeral.”
“My father’s funeral.”
“What did you say?”
The girl’s probing eyes met Melaina’s.
Heat drained from Melaina’s body, replaced by icy clarity. Hestia knew. Agathon had told her. “You have no proof.”
Hestia turned to leave.
Melaina followed her. “What proof do you have?”
Before the girl reached the doorway’s curtain Melaina caught her by the arm. Tripping over her weak foot, Hestia stumbled. A small object fell from the folds of her chiton, rolled across the tile, circled once, and came to rest with a clinking sound.
Melaina tried to snatch the gleam of gold, but Hestia reached it first.
A ring of intertwining snakes glinted on her finger.
Sickness gurgled in Melaina’s stomach. “Where did you get that ring?”
“It belonged to my mother.”
“Give it to me.”
“This ring is proof of my bloodline. My father gave it to me.” Hestia’s eyes, disturbingly placid, like the sea before a storm, gazed into Melaina’s.
Melaina licked her lips, noticing that they felt parched. Confronted with the girl’s vibrant youth, she felt her body shriveling. With annoyance, she noticed Hestia’s slender form beneath the folds of her robe. Despite her defect, men would find her attractive. She’d bring a good price at market.
“Give it to me.” Melaina reached for Hestia’s hand. Her fingers brushed the ring, and sparks flew from the gold. A jolt of heat rushed through her body, and she cried out, “It burns!”
Hestia watched, calmly. “The ring belongs to me,” she said.
“That ring proves nothing except that you’re a thief.” Melaina sucked her scorched fingers. “If I claim you stole it, you will be stoned to death. But that would be a waste. Rather than see you dead, I prefer to sell you to the highest bidder.”
Hestia’s eyes darkened to a blue as deep as lapis. Like whirlpools, they sucked Melaina in.
She grabbed Hestia’s hair—annoyingly yellow—and yanked the girl against her chest. Hestia tried to scream, but Melaina clapped the cloth soaked in artemisia over the girl’s nose and mouth. With patience born of suffering, she waited for Hestia’s knees to buckle, for her body to grow limp, for the accusing eyes to close.