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[personal profile] betony posting in [community profile] gen_battle
Title: the pillar of their house
Fandom: Greek Mythology
Characters: Andromeda, Cassiopeia
Rating/Content Warning: No additional warnings beside the subject matter of the myth.
Word Count: 1530
Summary: The boast is all they remember of her mother these days. Not the clear-eyed, careful debates; not the joy that lingered in Joppa throughout Queen Cassiopeia’s reign; certainly not the fact that she had a daughter who she loved for more than her beauty.
A/N: This plot bunny has refused to let go. I'm so sorry! Title from Ovid's retelling of the Perseus/Andromeda myth.

Andromeda’s mother insists on being the one to prepare her for the sacrifice. “Not necessary,” Cepheus argues, “we have handmaidens for that”—and Andromeda understands that the only way he can bear exchanging his only daughter’s life for the well-being of Aethiopia is to behave as though she never meant anything to him at all.

But Cassiopeia insists, and in this, as all things, she has her way.

Her mother neither apologizes nor offers words of comfort. She finds both signs of weakness. Instead she brushes Andromeda’s dark hair into an inky aureole and paints her cheeks with alkanet juice; rims Andromeda’s eyes with kohl to protect from the sun and cinches her sacrificial robe tight with the finest belt in their treasury.

She stands back then to admire her work. Perversely, Andromeda wants all the more to live up to her expectations, to prove her mother’s boast true by being more beautiful than all the Nereids. Even did she manage such a marvel, though, it would change nothing. The gods punish human pride even when it is well-deserved; that much she has learned from the fate of the Princess of Sicily.

Cassiopeia nods. “You’ll do,” she pronounces, and from her skirts she takes a short sword, really not much more than a dagger, and fastens it onto Andromeda’s belt.

When she sees it, Andromeda makes a sound that could be either a snort of laughter or a sob. “Mother!” she chokes. “Mother, it’s only as long as the monster’s teeth!”

“I want you to have a chance,” is Cassiopeia’s mild response. “I have always wanted you to have a chance.”

Andromeda does not know a great deal about her mother. She knows Cassiopeia was a minor princess, who could do no better than the youngest son of the King of Egypt; and that she persuaded her husband to leave his father’s house and rule over Aethiopia with her. Cassiopeia has always been very clear what she wants—it is one of the things Andromeda admires most about her— and being the youngest of a string of meek daughters-in-law was not it. Small wonder that Cepheus had agreed.

Andromeda knows this, too; that Cassiopeia used her pleasing words to win her country prosperity through trade rather than war, and that was why they had renamed the capital Iopeia in her honor. Common parlance soon shortened it to Joppa, of course, but the fact remained: when they spoke of the wonders of Aethiopia’s port, they spoke of her mother, and Andromeda had always been proud of that.

Cassiopeia had failed her country in only one thing: not bringing forth a son.

All Aethiopia had mourned with the King and Queen when no heir was born. But then the Queen’s firstborn girl-child drew breath, and Cassiopeia hid a promise in her name: Andromeda, ruler of men.

Andromeda received an education worthy of the highest of princes; she could read and write, do the most difficult of sums, and negotiate peace treaties and business contracts and squabbles between her servants with equal ease. Cassiopeia sat her daughter beside her as the Royal Couple received petitioners by day; by night, she recited tales of great kings and queens until Andromeda fell asleep, her mother’s voice all but gone by the time she stopped.

By the time Fineus’s proposal came, Cassiopeia had raised a daughter who would urge that it be accepted, less for any particular love for the aging King of Tyre himself than for the alliances he would bring. The Queen’s face glowed with pride as Andromeda explained her reasoning, and that, if nothing else, made it worthwhile.

Years later, living in Argos with the fisherman’s adopted son she loves, Andromeda will wonder if Lord Poseidon’s final revenge upon her mother was this: one way or another, her daughter had not ascended her throne after all.

The boast is all they remember of her mother these days. Not the clear-eyed, careful debates; not the joy that lingered in Joppa throughout Queen Cassiopeia’s reign; certainly not the fact that she had a daughter who she loved for more than her beauty.

This is how it happened: in Queen Cassiopeia’s private chambers, but on a balcony facing the waves, rather than beside the Queen’s bronze mirror. The maidservants had come to light the lamps, and air out the blankets, but had scattered at the approach of the Queen and her daughter, having served the two long enough to recognize the signs of impending trouble.

Cassiopeia had been in a ferocious mood all afternoon. Andromeda knew that, having been at her side when the news came that five ships of the Queen’s fleet had sunk in a storm, taking all their merchandise and their captains, good men all, down to the bottom of the sea. The Queen was sipping wine, to calm both the headache she’d developed and her own guilt and grief, and Andromeda trailed behind her, making soothing noises.

Cassiopeia drained her cup, looked unhappily at the dregs at the bottom, and, with unexpected violence, threw the cup over the railing and into the sea.

“What gives them the right,” she hissed, “to decide the fate of good men? Of my men!”

Andromeda shrugged. “They are the daughters of the sea. They are born to it.”

“Are they wiser than we? Nobler than we? More hospitable? Better in any way than that they have the power to destroy my fleet on a whim and I can do nothing in return?”

Andromeda shook her head. There was a question that had no good answer. Instead, she laughed and said, hoping to bring forth a smile, “Well, in the absence of anything more useful, at least they are more beautiful!”

Cassiopeia did not smile. Instead she turned her dark eyes to her daughter and said, deliberately, “Are they? Are they indeed?”

And only then did they notice the sea churning with rage beneath them. Andromeda’s guiltiest secret is that to this day, she isn’t sure which statement incited the god’s wrath: Cassiopeia’s taunt or her own foolish jibe.

That day is long past. Now Andromeda is standing on a ledge above the harbor, salt already stinging her skin as the priests of the royal houses wrap her wrists with chains. She does not beg them for help; it is not so much a matter of pride as it is practicality. If they had another way, if they were at all inclined to spare her, they would have mentioned it before.

Her father approaches her, tears pooling in his eyes, and bends to kiss her farewell. Andromeda coolly instructs his men to lead him away, to keep him far from a view of the harbor at all costs. He is her father, and she loves him and he her. Some things he should not have to see.

Her handmaids cluster around her, weeping. Andromeda weeps, as well, and reminds them all of the jewels and clothes she’s bequeathed them. A fine dowry, for any of them, and a good investment in a business, for any who choose otherwise.

Her parents’ vassals come next, talking in oily tones of the princess’s courage and her dignity and how generations upon generations will remember her. That, they assure her, is immortality in its own way. Andromeda wants to snarl back that she’d take that glory and exchange it in the blink of an eye for living to see another day, but it’s no use. They don’t want to understand, after all; to accept her fear is to acknowledge the horror of her fate.

Then the people of the city; they are the ones whose visit Andromeda has been dreading the most. They kiss her feet, and thank her, again and again, for choosing to end their suffering, and Andromeda bites her lip and does not point out that if it hadn’t been for her and her mother, none of that suffering would have come to pass in the first place. She wouldn’t say she deserves this—no one does—but she does not deserve the reverence she sees in their eyes. She cannot meet their gaze.

One by one, they all bid her goodbye and climb the winding path away from the cliffs. In the end, only the Queen is left. Andromeda puts on the regal smile Cassiopeia taught her as a child, and pulls out her dagger to show that she still has it.

Cassiopeia approaches, says, “I have always been proud of you, my Andromeda.”

“And I of you,” replies Andromeda. It is all they need to say to each other; but Cassiopeia, instead of following the rest away, presses herself against the rock wall beside Andromeda.

Andromeda wriggles in her chains. “What are you doing? The creature will devour us both!” This is an end, she thinks wildly; but if it must be, let it only be mine, not the Queen’s, not Joppa’s, not all Aethiopia’s!

Cassiopeia’s face is serene, and there Andromeda sees her mistake. She is not the Queen of Aethiopia any more, nor even brave, determined Princess Cassiopeia. In this moment, she is Andromeda’s mother alone.

“Then let him,” she says; and with only a very little trepidation, she moves closer to squeeze her daughter’s shackled hand.

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