The city was flooding again, as it had always done. The waters rose up annually, but then they rose higher from time to time, ever since the cataclysm. Ever since that first flood that pushed the sinners, escaped in their little boat, to this safe harbor. A natural port in a storm, crafted by the gods. The waters were calmer in the little bay. It was a safe place. Until it wasn’t.
The streets were flooded, and monsters were swimming along the streets, between the garbage and the wreckage of market carts and lean-tos and fishermen’s shacks. They were deep things, with dead eyes and bladed teeth, things with too many arms and no hands, things that did not exist in the real world, the dragons of old come to purge the city with cleansing waters.
Their leader, called Defender, descended of Titans, would annually offer herself bodily to the sea, and the waters would recede.
Cassiopeia knew that her role would be to defend her people from the rising tides, and the monsters they carried in them. Each year she would make her offering, dive to the bottom of the bay, return with the Aphrodite shell, the mollusk’s glowing blue eyes peering out, all-knowing, at the awaiting crowd. She would bring it out to much celebration and the feast would begin, and the ritual cleaning of the city would be done, old women dragging out their washing to be purged by the salty brine, and then heated to stiffness in the sun. Children would be baptized in the waters, ritually plunged into the bay to represent the annual flooding of the city, and that they were of, and indeed were the city itself. And the waters would slowly recede. And she would return the shell to it’s home on the sandy sea floor.
But this time, the waters continued to rise. This year the Aphrodite shell was hidden. She dove down again and again, searching for the large bivalve with it’s lip rimmed in vibrant blue, delicate strange strands reaching out for her. But it was not there. It seemed ill-omened to continue the celebration in its absence. The people departed. There was no bathing of linens and bodies. No feast, no sweeping out of the old year’s luck, no room made for the new. The spring came and the waters rose, and they had no place to go. The people were trapped, the water was polluted, and food was running out. What had been done, some asked, or left undone? Not Cassiopeia, who asked instead, what could be done now?
They called her proud. She was proud. She had raised this city from the roiling tides and protected it. She had built it up, made it prosper. She made the ritual each year that kept the tides in check. She was proud of that, proud of her city. Proud, too, of her daughter who would be not only the Defender of this port, but the Ruler of Men.
This was what the jealous gods did not like.
They went to the oracle, the wild eyed girl, her wispy white-blond hair floating around her skull like a corona, driven to madness by the fumes that rolled up from the cracks in the sacred Volcanic caves. Mad, yes, but more than that. Mad, yes, but also wise. The virgins who cared for her stood aside in the temple as she staggered forward, arms twisting and undulating as though she, too, was under water.
“You must not argue,” she murmured, “you must not argue.”
“How do we make the waters recede?” Cepheus demanded boldly, ever bold with his armor and spear.
“The consort must be silent!” the girl yelled in a high, unnatural tone. Then she staggered closer, eyeing the leader. “You have been proud, Defender. Your power offends, daughter of Cronos.”
“I am the daughter of Titans,” she answered, “the daughter, also, of the ocean. My daughter bears the line of the sea and the river here. I have born her. I come here by right.”
“Cassiopeia, to save your city,” the oracle of Amun told her, a god of a strange desert land, far away from the coast. a god of the flooding river though, and so one who might know the tides, “If you would save your city, you will lose all else. Your pride has gone and now you fall.”
But the city was her all. What had she left if Iopeia was lost?
“Poseidon finds you monstrous,” the youth whispered in a crone’s voice. “He would have your daughter, and then you will have the shell.”
“What must I do?” she asked. Andromeda, Ruler of Men so-called, would learn what ruling meant. She must protect her people and lead them. If Poseidon would have her child, Cassiopeia knew Andromeda would best him yet.
“She must be bound and offered to the ocean,” the oracle wheezed.
So she found herself out on a jut of rock, binding her daughter while a storm rolled in, the angry waves reaching out, greedy and eager for their prize ahead of their time. Yet Andromeda had grown on these shores, and trained beside her mother, diving into this bay all of her life. She knew these waters, and it was her strength that was her mother’s pride. Andromeda showed no fear, though she knew the water to be treacherous. She was naked, as they always were when diving, save the knife sheathed at her calf, and net tied at her waist. She was bound like an offering, like a sacrifice before the feast, and she knew what she would do. Let him take her, this angry god, and once he had her in the waters, her own waters where she had grown from childhood, she would cut her bonds and find the shell that had eluded her mother. She would prove herself the rightful heir of this land.
Cassiopeia checked the bonds and kissed her daughter, and returned along the rocky spit to the shore, where she would watch. The storm moved in and the waves grew more angry and hungry, lashing Andromeda with icy fingers. She pressed back as far as she could. The rock grew slick. The waves began to stretch higher. Poseidon’s own hand reached out. Still she waited. She drew a breath, and another, and as his grasp stretched forward, she ran and threw herself in to meet it.
The water was cold, but peaceful beneath the surface. She twisted and balled her body to reach her knife as she sank. She pulled it loose, scored a line across her leg as she did, but maneuvered to sever her bonds. The water was murky, and carried her first toward the shore and then away from it. She fought against it, and pushed herself along the bay’s sandy bottom in search of the blue eyed scallop. She was Andromeda the daughter of Cassiopeia, who was herself the daughter of Titans, and in no way lesser than Poseidon. Andromeda would complete this task. She would restore the sea to its rightful bounds. She would save her people, and prove worthy to rule them.
But her leg bled, and in the salty water the wound stung and slowed her, and in the cold and rough waves, she felt her strength wane before she found the shell. She gathered her strength to return to the surface, to take a breath, to return to her quest. She pulled herself up with long strokes and swift kicks. As she reached the surface, just there before her head crested the air, a flash of blue caught her eye.
She gasped for breath, and turned to descend once more, when the sea monster surged from the depths and surfaced after her. Andromeda slashed at it with her knife, but the creature was not dissuaded. She swam, and it followed the trail of her blood in the water. She could see the glint of blue through the angry chop, and knew she had only to be faster than the beast. As the waves closed over her, she launched herself again into them, dropping as fast as she could. Once landed, she dragged the weighty shell from it’s berth, bent her knees, and kicked off again toward the surface, the shadow of the beast looming toward her.
It moved like an arrow, true to its mark, and clamped merciless jaws on her leg, and she cried out and lost her breath. Desperate, she stabbed at it, and she found she was being propelled up to the surface in the creature’s jaws. It breached, triumphant.
And there, Poseidon’s man stood out, victorious, on Andromeda’s rock, thrusting forward in hand the severed head of another woman called monstrous, her gaze wielded by him now as a weapon, while with his eyes he took in her nudity alone. The creature fell back, a statue now, sinking to the bottom of the bay, her leg still caught in its teeth. As she sank, her eyes met those of friend and ally, the gorgon.
In Iopeia the waters receded, and Cassiopeia submitted to her cousin’s rule, and from then on the port city made offerings in tribute to Poseidon’s liege, called Zeus-Amun. But the people were saved, and this is the sacrifice that is sometimes demanded of those who rule, whose call it is to protect and prosper their people.
In time a most remarkable scallop was found near the island of the Cypriots, and inside it is said they found, fully formed, the most beautiful woman in the world. “I am reborn,” she said, “Risen from the sea.”
She left the shell behind. The gods were offended by her strength, her mother’s pride, and would go through such permutations to undermine a woman of power, to reduce her to a monstrous and pretty thing. So be it, she thought, and knew the way pretty baubles could distract and obscure, and what gains might be traded for the favor of beauty. She would make her own mischief of them. All who saw her were struck by devotion to her. With her walked grace and justice, abundance and peace. She was most persuasive in her charms, yet was also lightly armed with a knife at her side. From that day she fought to rule the hearts of mortals, whom she would defend from the manipulations of the fickle and jealous gods.