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First Few Pages: Elektra by Jennifer Saint

First Few Pages: Elektra by Jennifer Saint

A spellbinding reimagining of the story of Elektra, one of Greek mythology’s most infamous heroines, from Jennifer Saint, the author of the beloved international bestseller, Ariadne.

Three women, tangled in an ancient curse.

When Clytemnestra marries Agamemnon, she ignores the insidious whispers about his family line, the House of Atreus. But when, on the eve of the Trojan War, Agamemnon betrays Clytemnestra in the most unimaginable way, she must confront the curse that has long ravaged their family.

In Troy, Princess Cassandra has the gift of prophecy, but carries a curse of her own: no one will ever believe what she sees. When she is shown what will happen to her beloved city when Agamemnon and his army arrives, she is powerless to stop the tragedy from unfolding.

Elektra, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s youngest daughter, wants only for her beloved father to return home from war. But can she escape her family’s bloody history, or is her destiny bound by violence, too?




CHAPTER ONE


Clytemnestra


The House of Atreus carried a curse. A particularly gruesome one, even by the standards of divine torment. The history of the family was full of brutal murder, adultery, monstrous ambition, and rather more cannibalism than one would expect. Everyone knew of it, but when the Atreidae, Agamemnon and Menelaus, stood before me and my twin sister in Sparta a lifetime ago, well, the silly stories of infants cooked and served up to their parents seemed to shimmer and crumble like dust motes in sunlight.

The two brothers were full of vitality and vigor—not handsome, exactly, but compelling, nonetheless. Menelaus’ beard glinted with a reddish tint, while Agamemnon’s was dark, like the curls that clustered tightly around his head. Far more handsome suitors stood before my sister—indeed, the great hall in which they gathered seemed to swell and groan with the sheer volume of sculpted cheekbones and fine shoulders, jutting jawbones and flashing eyes. She had her pick of the finest men in Greece, but Helen had eyes only for the awkward Menelaus, who shifted his powerful bulk uncomfortably and stared mutely back at her.

Daughter of Zeus, that’s what the stories said of Helen. While I was born red-faced and squalling from the commonplace indignity of childbirth, my sister supposedly tapped her way delicately through a pure white eggshell and hatched whole and beautiful. The legend was adorned with fanciful details—it was well known that Zeus could adopt many forms, and on this particular occasion he had appeared to our mother feathered and snowy white, gliding down the river toward her with unmistakable purpose.

To be blessed by Zeus in such a way was a thing of glory. That’s what everyone said. If Leda, our mother, had been deemed lovely enough by the ruler of the gods himself, it was a great honor to our family. It was not a disgrace to our father to raise the product of such a union himself.

And Helen’s beauty was legendary indeed.

They had gathered at our home in their dozens, these suitors of Helen. How they jostled one another, surging forward, peering at her fluttering veil, eager for a glimpse of the woman named the most beautiful in the world. As the mood shifted, became restive, I noticed how their hands hovered closer to the swords at their hips. Helen noticed it too and turned to me briefly, just long enough for our eyes to meet and a moment of concern to dart between us.

At the edges of the hall, our guards stood straighter and gripped their spears a little tighter. I wondered, though, how quickly the boiling heart of the crowd might spill toward us, and how long it would take the guards to fight their way through the tumult.

Our father, Tyndareus, wrung his hands. The day had started out so promisingly for him; our storerooms overflowed with the rich gifts each young man had brought to support his own cause. I had seen him gloat over the loot and the status this glorious day had brought him. Blithely, he had placed all of his confidence in the ability of our brawny brothers to protect us as they had always done, but I had to doubt even their proficiency against the number of men who had come here to win my sister today.

I looked at Penelope. Our quiet, gray-eyed cousin could always be relied upon to keep a cool head. But Penelope did not return my frantic stare, for she was intent upon Odysseus. The two of them gazed into each other’s eyes as though they wandered alone across a fragrant meadow, rather than being trapped in a hall with a hundred fraying tempers and the spark about to be struck to light them all into flame.

I rolled my eyes. Odysseus was here as one of Helen’s suitors just like the rest of them, but of course nothing that man did was as it seemed. We could rather do with his famous wits in this situation, I thought, frustrated that he instead preferred to lose himself in some romantic daydream.

But what I had mistaken for a dreamy exchange of glances between my cousin and her lover was actually the silent formation of a plan, for Odysseus bounded up onto the platform where we sat and shouted for order. Although he was short and bandy-legged, his was a commanding presence, and the hall fell silent at once.

“Before the lady Helen makes her choice,” he boomed, “we will all swear an oath.”

They listened to him. He had a gift for bending the will of others to his own purpose. Even my clever cousin was enthralled by him, and I had thought no man’s intellect could ever be a match for hers.

“We have all come here today for the same purpose,” he continued. “We all wish to wed the beautiful Helen, and we all have good reason to think that we are a worthy husband to such a woman. She is a prize beyond any that we can imagine, and the man who can call her his own will have to go to great lengths to protect her from those who would seek to seize her away from him.”

I could see that every man in the room was imagining it. They had all envisaged being the one to have her, but Odysseus had soured the dream. They gazed up at him, enrapt, waiting for him to reveal the solution to the conundrum he had presented.

“So, I propose that we all swear that, no matter whom she chooses, we will all join him in protecting her. We will all make a most solemn vow that we shall defend his right to have her—and keep her—with our own lives.”

Our father leaped up, overjoyed that Odysseus had saved his triumphant day from almost certain disaster. “I will sacrifice my finest horse!” he declared. “And you shall all make your promise to the gods upon its blood.”

And so it was done, and all our father lost that day was a horse. Well, a horse and his daughter, I should say, and a niece as well, to make it quite the bargain. All were taken off his hands in one fell swoop, for Helen had only to breathe the name “Menelaus” before he was up, clasping her hand in his and stammering out his gratitude and devotion; Odysseus offered for Penelope in almost the next breath; but my eye was caught by the dark-haired brother, whose surly gaze stayed fixed upon the stone tiles. Agamemnon.

* * *

“Why did you choose Menelaus?” I asked Helen later. A flurry of handmaidens encircled her, draping her dress, braiding her hair into elaborate swirls, and making countless tiny adornments that were entirely unnecessary.

Helen considered my question before she answered. People only ever spoke of her dazzling radiance, sometimes moved to poetry or song in praise of it. No one ever mentioned that she was thoughtful or that she was kind. I could not deny the odd pang of envy that had reared up inside me, cold and poisonous, growing up alongside a twin whose magnificence would always throw me into shadow. But Helen had never been cruel to me or tormented me. She had never boasted about her beauty or mocked her inferior sister. She could not help that heads would swivel to gaze wherever she walked any more than she could turn the tides of the sea. I had made my peace with it, and, to be truthful, I didn’t yearn to bear the weight of her legendary allure.

“Menelaus…” Helen said meditatively, lingering over the syllables of his name. She shrugged, twisting a smooth curl of hair around her fingers, to the visible annoyance of one of the handmaidens, whose fussing ministrations had produced nothing like the bounce and gleam that Helen’s effortless coiffing did. “Perhaps there were others richer or more handsome,” she said. “Bolder, certainly.” She curled her lip slightly, maybe thinking of the undercurrent of violence that had throbbed invisibly around the hall as the suitors eyed one another. “But Menelaus … he seemed different.”

She did not need treasure; Sparta was wealthy enough as it was. She did not need good looks; she could provide all the beauty in any partnership. Any man was eager to be her husband, as we had seen. So, what was it that my sister had been looking for? I wondered how she knew, what magic had sparked between them, what it was that made a woman sure that a particular man was the right one. I sat up straighter, waiting to be enlightened.

“I suppose…” she breathed out as a girl handed her an ivory-handled mirror, the back of which was ornately carved with a tiny figure of Aphrodite emerging from her great shell. She flicked her eyes over her reflection, tossed back her hair, and adjusted the gold circlet that rested atop her curls. I heard a faint sigh go up from the clustered girls who awaited her judgment on their unnecessary efforts. “I suppose,” she continued as she bestowed a smile upon them, “that he was simply so very grateful.”

I paused, the words I had sought evaporating on the air.

Helen noticed my silence, perhaps read some reproval in it, for she straightened her shoulders and fixed me directly in her gaze. “You know that our mother was singled out by Zeus,” she said. “A mortal woman beautiful enough to catch his eye from the peak of Mount Olympus. If our father were not of a quiet and uncomplaining disposition … who knows how he may have felt? If he were more like Agamemnon than Menelaus, for example.”

I stiffened a little. What did that mean?

“A man like that doesn’t look like he would take any affront without protest,” she continued. “Would he see the honor in his wife being chosen, or would he see it differently? I don’t know what my destiny might be, but I know that I was not born to do nothing. I don’t know what the Fates have planned for me, but it seemed”—she searched for the right word—“prudent to make my choice carefully.”

I thought of Menelaus, the adoration in his eyes when he looked at Helen. I wondered if she was right, if he’d be able to see things the way our father had done. If winning the contest in our halls really would be victory enough, whatever might happen later.

Copyright © 2022 by Jennifer Saint


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