The big harbour on the north coast of Crete was still noisy with gossip, but none of it mentioned Heracles arriving in search of his armour-bearer. In the seaside inn, where Polyxo bought breakfast, the locals were still raking over the month-old rumour that Jason and the Argonauts had come ashore somewhere along the coast. None of them had seen it, of course, but each was convinced some momentous adventure had taken place: they had seen seagulls in the mountain passes that day, or heard strange noises on the wind. The gossips were sure it had something to do with the disappearance of the Brass Man.
Hylas knew it had.
He said nothing.
Suddenly, a stocky brute of a man sprouting dark hair from arms, legs and the gape of his collar, shouldered his way into the tavern and headed straight for Polyxo. He wore a leather neck-band, fur mittens, and had a drink-blackened nose that dripped despite his energetic sniffing. “Gotta thing for yuh,” he panted, pushing his face towards Polyxo’s.
Polyxo’s irritation was plain. “I have managed very nicely without you, Xyno. You may go back to scavenging rubbish heaps.” It seemed Xyno was the Collector’s spy in Crete, kept his nose to the ground, sniffed out items of interest to a collector like Polyxo. “My bloodhound,” said Polyxo, introducing him distastefully to the children. Meantime, Xyno ate the breakfast off Polyxo’s plate.
Gravy still in his whiskers, he swung his big face in the children’s direction. “When this man itches for somethink, I do the scratching,” he said, laughing breathily and peppering the table with dandruff as he raked at his chest-hair. There was something houndish altogether about Xyno, with his round black nose, sagging jowls and bloodshot eyes. He even rested his chin on Polyxo’s shoulder at one point and licked the stubble of his jaw line. Polyxo shoved him away.
“Could you maybe find my master, then?” Hylas ventured tentatively, but Polyxo had just pulled out from his purse the scalp of the Siren and slapped it down on the table.
“Sliced that off the last of the Sirens,” he told Xyno jeeringly. “With my own hand. I don’t need to pay the likes of you.”
Xyno leaned closer. His jowls were so slack that the canine teeth showed in his lower jaw. “You do, Polyxo, if you want what I got. What’ve I got? I’ll tell you what I got. A bit of the Brass Man, that’s what I got.”
Hylas slopped his milk, felt his lungs close up and then his fists. He knew he should not have come back to Crete.
Xyno lowered his voice to a panting whisper meant only for Polyxo. “Boat come ashore down the coast a month back: them ‘ooligan Argonauts. They knocked him over. Done for him. What couldn’t I get for the scrap! But I kept quiet till you come. Always give you first refusal, dun I? Knowing how you like your oddnesses. Ain’t no one else knows where it happened, ‘cept me.”
“Dead?” Polyxo’s voice was casual, but his interest was plain. “The Brass Man’s dead?”
“As a rock. For a thousand you can have first turn at jointing the carcase. The head, maybe.”
Hylas squeezed his eyelids shut. Had it lain there, then, all these weeks? How could anything so dazzling bright escape notice for a month?
Polyxo stroked the filthy hank of hair on the tavern table. He was a mean man and begrudged every coin he had paid Xyno over the years. Besides, he detested the man’s perpetual sniffing and doggy-breath. Even so. If Xyno really did know where the Brass Man’s carcase could be found… Into the silence of his indecision jumped the annoying perkiness of the girl’s voice.
“Why don’t you ask Hylas where it is?” said Thoősa helpfully. “He was there. Hylas must know.”
The breath wedged in his Hylas’ throat as she said it. Why had he ever told her?
Thoősa gestured for Hylas to back her up. “Tell him, Hylas. You’re an Argonaut. Tell him how you came here with Heracles.”
Polyxo looked at Hylas, twinkling with sardonic amusement. “Oh yes,” he said flatly. “I forgot. What we have here is Heracles’ armour-bearer, isn’t it.”
Hylas wilted inwardly. Was this how it would be from now on? Telling people he was page to Heracles only to have them think him a fibber, making it up? “I do know where it is,” he said on a boaastful impulse he instantly regretted.
“Where what is?” said Polyxo.
“The Brass Man. …But you don’t want to see.”
Polyxo’s bloodhound knocked over several chairs in getting up. “Find it yourself, then, freak-keeper,” he barked at Polyxo, and blundered his way out into the sunshine, only pausing to relieve himself against the doorpost.
Polyxo and the children returned to the harbour. By the time they got there, Xyno was waiting, fawning as ever, desperate for a coin or two, offering to make himself useful, offering to hire them his own small boat. “Man’s gotta eat,” he said, pocketing the single coin Polyxo paid him. “Row you there, shall I, sirs?”
They sailed along the coast, Polyxo at the tiller, Xyno rowing, Hylas watching out for the exact spot where the Argonauts had dropped anchor a month before and made their way ashore. Astonishing! That something so big, so sun-glaring, so badly camouflaged should lie undiscovered for a month. Yet Crete is so big, the lanes so many that wind through blue sea asters to whiskery dunes or rocky coves.
As they reached the bay with the cliff and the pebble beach, the memories all came back to Hylas in a rush. He didn’t want them, but they came anyway.