The Magazine of History & Fiction

Be Careful What You Ask For by Joe Giordano

Originally published in Infective Ink in January 2013.

Bio: Joe Giordano's stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novels, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, (2015), and Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller (2017) were published by Harvard Square Editions. His third novel, Drone Strike, will be published by Rogue Phoenix Press in 2019. He was among one hundred Italian-American authors honored by Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio to march in the 2017 Manhattan Columbus Day Parade.

Anouke hissed her command. "Husband, petition him. There’ll never be a better time." Her golden garments sagged like jowls. As she shoved Pythius, the fat on her upper arms rippled.

Grizzled and stooped, Pythius resisted, remaining in the flickering shadows.

Before King Xerxes, a woman with green eyes glided gracefully to the accompaniment of a long-neck lute and drum. Black hair framed milk-white skin, and her translucent chiton billowed while she kicked and twirled. As his eyes followed her, Xerxes stroked his braided beard. His gold, crenellated-crown was inlaid with gems. On the lap of his white, silk robe, jewel-adorned fingers absently toyed with roasted goat on a silver plate. Three barrel-neck mastiffs jumped forward. He tossed the meat to the dogs, and they snapped and snarled, devouring the bits. Xerxes refocused on the girl. As he leaned on violet pillows, his wooden throne creaked.

The palace great-room’s flat ceiling displayed a fresco of golden stars on a lapis-blue background. Brown slaves, sweat glistening on their backs, scurried among the entourage of guests lounging on floor-cushions, drinking blood-red wine, and peeling roasted goat off spits. The odors of burning oil and sizzling meat filled the room.

When the music stopped, Xerxes leered, and the girl hurried out a curtained exit. He sighed, then summoned his general. "Otanes, make your report."

Scarred, bearded, in his mid-fifties, Otanes kowtowed. "Lord, on your orders, we have assembled the largest sea and land invasion force the world has ever witnessed: fifty-seven tribes of the Persian Empire. Asia’s sons stand ready to fight for the glory of Xerxes. You will crush the Greeks as you did the Egyptians. After you conqueer Europe, the sun will never set upon the Persian Empire."

Xerxes nodded. "Our armies will drink rivers dry."

Laughter rippled through the room. Otanes led the shout. "Glory to Xerxes, great King of Persia."

Xerxes held up his palm. "A king has a duty to pass more to his sons than he’s received."

Otanes said, "Sire, the northern and Aegean Greek city-states have sent tribute. Only Athens and Sparta remain defiant. As you instructed, the captured Athenians spies beheld our army. When a Greek saw your chariot, he shouted, ‘Why does Zeus lead a horde, when he could destroy us with a thunderbolt?"

More laughter. Otanes sat.

Xerxes drained his goblet. He called for Pythius.

Anouke pushed Pythius ahead. "Don't be a coward. Ask."

Pythius emerged from the shadow and dropped to his knees before Xerxes.

The King spread his hands. "Pythius, you’ve provided us with a fine feast and excellent entertainment."

Pythius kowtowed. "My Lord, all that I own or will ever own is yours. I pledge my gold to your conquest of Europe. I live to serve your pleasure."

Xerxes stood. "Pythius, you’re loyal and shall be rewarded for your words. I'll instruct my treasurer to compensate you for the cost of providing for our troops and for the royal needs. Now," Xerxes fondled his beard. "I shall retire."

From the corner, Anouke shout-whispered. "Now."

All eyes lowered for the king’s exit except Pythius. He raised his arms.

Xerxes placed hands on hips. "There's something further?"

Pythius wiped sweat from his brow. "Sire, I have five sons. All march tomorrow at your command. I’m old, without the strength to tend to my estate alone. I fear the loss of my family’s line if all my sons fall in the war with the Greeks. I beg you to allow my youngest son to remain behind to help me in the days ahead."

The flickering of oil lamps could be heard in the room's silence.

Xerxes’s face darkened, and his voice scorched like a heat-blast of a bonfire. "Damn you, Pythius. How dare you mention a son of yours, when you are no more than my slave and should follow in my train with your whole household, wife and all? Yes, I grant that your youngest son may stay behind." Xerxes turned to Otanes. "Find the son. Sever him in two. Hoist the halves on pikes to straddle the road out of the city, so that my army will pass and learn from this example. All must be committed to my victory."

Xerxes strode from the room. Anouke wailed. Pythius covered his face with his hands.