Pegasus banked away from the treacherous mountainside, bundled about in cold cloud. The air turbulence tossed them unexpectedly upwards, and for a moment the riders’ heads, the pointed white ears of the winged horse burst through the cloudbank into brilliant sunshine. A scene of breathtaking colour spilled in at their dazzled eyes: villas woven from the plaited trunks of olive trees, or of transparent ice, or milk-white snow, and around them gardens of lilies floating rootless on pools of silver light; aeolian harps strung from ropes of sunlight; waterfalls pitching down embankments of precious stones… a viaduct of glistening liquor, like a purple vein. Rainbows fluttered, like flags from a stockade, and lanes coiled aimlessly through mazy pastures.
Someone looked up.
But already Pegasus was rolling aside: tilting wings, a dropping of the head. Surely the only thing the figure could have seen was a chevron of white feathers such as nimbus clouds often spread on a windy day.
It had been long enough, though, for Xyno to see what he wanted – to see the viaduct bearing hippocrene from its rocky source to the daybeds of the gods. He told Pegasus to set them down on the first piece of level ground.
A sharp tailbone, a pair of dew-clawed heels, a wheedling smell and a lurking nature. The winged horse ignored Xyno.
Xyno brought out the arrowhead he had found as god litter and carried inside his fur mitten. He laid its point to the horse’s carotid vein. “Set us down, you chickenous nag or I’ll jag you.”
With a bucking, flexing spine and a snort of disgust, Pegasus ‘set them down’ then and there: nothing easier. It tossed them both into the empty air.
Hylas and Xyno fell through cloud without knowing whether it was precipice or rocky ledge below. In striking the ground they started a little avalanche of shale down a gentle slope of scree. It knocked the wind out of Hylas, but while he was still struggling to draw breath, Xyno came bouncing about him on his bowed little legs, sniffing the air and tilting his head this way and that to catch the noise of running water.
No, not water, but hippocrene! It welled out of a rock fractured long before by Pegasus’s hoof clipping one summit of many-peaked Olympus.
No armour-bearer had to find his way to this pool with jugs to fill for his master’s supper. A viaduct had been built long since, to carry the liquor across the mountainside towards the distant gleam of palaces. Purple and a little viscose – like blood – it bubbled up still, smelling of crushed fruit, spilled honey and temptation. Xyno, who never drank from moving water, soaked his filthy mittens in it and sucked his first taste of hippocrene out of dirty fur. It was enough to put him on his back, knees drawn up, rolling with sheer pleasure, like a dog in new-mown grass.
Hylas watched with horrid fascination, for here was the forbidden fruit-juice of the gods. If, for stealing fire, Prometheus had been nailed to a cliff and ripped open by vultures, what might the gods do to a boy they found raiding their wine-cellars?
It looked so good. It smelled so delectable, and yet the stain on Xyno’s dewlap cheeks simply reminded Hylas of the griffin vultures, their head-feathers plastered flat with…. “Come away, Xyno. We shouldn’t be here,” he said. “I ought to be with The Three! The Echidna said…” (The Three did not want him, and Hylas did not want to be there; even so, it felt wrong – it felt too wrong to kneel down and taste deliciousness…) Xyno continued to lap up the purple juice. “Anyway, Xyno… how will you fetch it away from here to sell?”
The taste of hippocrene was too miraculous, too dizzyingly marvellous for Xyno to give the problem his full attention. The liquor had filled him with the illusion of happiness, of genius, of wellness. He was handsome, he was irresistible! The grass was irresistible for rolling in, the clouds were tantalizing clots of cream! His nostrils flared – all the muscles in his face flared, in fact, as he snuffed up the scent. When Hylas tried to stop him drinking, Xyno shoved him roughly away.
Hylas tried to warn him of the approaching figure, but Xyno felt equal to meeting Zeus himself. Hylas, on the other hand, made for the viaduct and hoisting himself up beneath it, hid from sight.
The muzzles of the hounds-of-heaven brought Xyno abruptly to his senses as they washed his sticky face with their saliva. He had been caught trespassing on the holy mountain. He was incapable of running, his legs as bendy as grass, and the horizon would not stay horizontal. The hounds-of-heaven were wraithish thin, with long legs and sharply arching backs. Puzzled, they sniffed Xyno from end to end: Neither fish nor fowl. The man holding their leashes was still more thin, and as palely exquisite as a wavering fountain, in a tunic tasselled with silver. He pursed his lips, wrinkled his nose, shuddered a little at the sight of something so… hairy as Xyno.
Xyno, still on his knees, curled his shoulders forward and raised his hands in supplication. But he did not beg forgiveness or seek to excuse himself. Even a few seconds of pure fright had not stripped all the cunning from his soul. He did not look the dogs in the eye, for that would have invited them to attack. He did, though, muster a brazen smile for their owner, and wide eyes and an urgent: “Where is he? Show me! Where’s Zeus the Almighty? I come a long way to bring him what I brung!”
Fearing he was about to be touched with those sodden mittens, his tunic sullied, the silver tasselled gentleman held Xyno off with a slender wand of white willow wood tipped with silver holly. Xyno crouched back on his haunches: a market square salesman, a bazaar trader. “Like beauty, do yuh, lordship?” (In his experience, this was a question no one answered with ‘no’. Everyone has their own idea of beauty, whether it be a slave girl with red hair, a spotted snake, a view from a window or a new chariot.)
With a limp hand, the immortal swept the question aside like a curtain, but his gimlet-blue eyes darted this way and that, and he could not resist saying, “I, Ephetes, am the very paragon of Taste, the measuring rod of Beauty. Show me Beauty and I will tell you its very degree of Exquisiteness. Beauty is the very wine of my soul, the staple of my diet. I cherish nothing that is not exquisite. Show me a thing flawless and I am clad in rainbows! Show me things flawed and it is as if slugs had crawled over my eyeballs! You, for instance… ” This great outflowing of emotion caused Ephetes’ eyes to flicker upwards beneath his petal soft lids. His free fingers plucked at the side curls of his elaborate hair. The dogs lay down, nose on crossed paws; they had heard it all before. “I, Ephetes, beautify the halls of the gods with sublime soft furnishing. I swag! I ruche! It was I who curtained the bedchamber of Venus – Carrera marble, yes? – with diaphanous pink drapes. It was I who upholstered the couch of Ares with a metallic shot silk. A little African prince with a peacock fan: the perfect finishing touch. The vases in the seventh atrium? All mine. How can you of Earth, born to wallow in filth from birth to death, how can you dare to speak of Beauty? What do you know of it? Where did you ever see it?”
“I manage.” Xyno slipped the words in quick – like a spoke into a wheel. “Saw this, dinn’I? Saw this one thing worth seeing. Thought: there’s a gift fit for the gods. There’s a thing would blend in a treat with pink marble. See for yourself, why don’t you? My gift to Zeus.” With a scurrying quickness that brought the hounds to their feet again, Xyno made a dash for the aqueduct and, grabbing Hylas by the back of his belt, plucked him out of hiding.
Ephetes blinked at Hylas, whose clothes were worn, torn and covered in dust, whose hair had white feathers and cobwebs in it, whose knees needed washing. His mouth set in a thin line; his blue eyes were hard as gemstones. Hylas bowed. From somewhere beyond his fright came the novel thought that, for the first time ever, his looks did not pass muster. “Where did you find him?” said Ephetes and ground his teeth.
“Armour-bearer to … some Hero or else.”
“I did not ask you who he was. I asked where you found him. Do you mean to present him to Zeus?” The voice was sharp as a wasp sting.
For some seconds, Xyno, too, thought he had lost his edge, misread his customer, until he recognised the tell-tale tone of jealousy. Ephetes was decorator to the gods. And was he to be outshone, supplanted by this black-nosed, dewlapped, bow-legged, mortal object from below the cloud line? Xyno bent his flexible spine still farther. “No fee. No reward. Simple gifty time from a thankful no one. Take him. Take him! Keep him. Use him. If he in’t the wrong colour to go with the wash basins. Me, I’m gone, for I know it’s a sin to rise too high in this world and I rizz too high already, climbing up here.”
All the hardness left Ephetes’ features. “You wish me to present him to the sartorial gloriousness that is Zeus? “
“I’d be too feared to do it myself.”
A simper of supreme pleasure took the place of jealousy. Taking hold of Hylas’ chin, lifting his face into full sunlight, he plucked feathers from the boy’s hair as if arranging flowers in a vase. “Sublime,” he said, and his piercing blue eyes filled up with tears of rapture. Xyno was gone.