Northern Brown Argus
"I came for you just to feel you
Finally break in two"

— Mew, "Like Paper Cuts"

He awoke softly on a bed of warm grass that smelt of smoke when he turned over and pressed his nose into it. A warm breeze rhythmically caressed his cheek in time to the beat and crackle of something that could have been sea. As he reached consciousness, his mind noted that he was dressed for battle, although it could not recall which battle. Confused half-memories of lying in a bed and sinking under a press of grief - of battle with his brother - of palaces and temples - of grass and cows and insect eyes. There was a rivet pressing into his stomach. He rolled back over and opened his eyes.

The sky was dark, clear and washed in faint orange, and the stars' waverings were reflected in his brown eyes. His hair was spread out like serpents around his head and his nose and lips stood out in classical relief against the orange of the —

The wrongness of the scene seemed to strike him for the first time and he turned his head to look over the edge of the cliff on which he found himself.

The sea was on fire. Breakers of flame snickered and crashed on an invisible beach which threw the light back to the sky. As his eyes adjusted to the light he saw that there was no water there, only flames on flames on flames.

He frowned absently to himself, stood up, and began climbing down the cliff face. The rock was textured like clay but was warm like skin under his touch, and when his hands broke scree from the slope it felt to him like he had wounded the shore and he found himself tensed for the inevitable bleeding. He arrived at the bottom holding a piece of clay the size of his palm and walked off along the beach, his sandals flapping and slapping the hard ground beneath his feet.

When he looked down for the first time he involuntarily knelt at the sensation of depth. The light from the blazing ocean shone deeply onto bedrock, seemingly miles below him. Countours of ancient geological events were thrown into dull relief when he was no longer being blinded by directly looking at the sea.

He slowly stood up - of all the things the King of Persia was, he was not a coward - and walked in wonder further along the glass beach. Sometimes he thought he saw the cliffs breathing, but he wasn't sure if this was just a trick of the flickering light or his flickering imagination. Somewhere over the sea was an hint of blue indicating an approaching dawn. He carried on walking.

Some time later he came to a headland which jutted out biologically onto the beach. He walked around it slowly and stopped again. Ahead of him was a scraggle of scrawny trees all brown and yellow and sad. When he reached the edge of the copse he looked down and saw their roots cutting cleanly through the glass to about half way to the rock, searching, but not finding.

While looking at the trees he became aware that there were small noises coming from behind them, breaths and sounds of slight movement. He pushed through. There was a man sitting in an etched circle in the beach, staring at a knife that he had in his hands. The knife was like a dagger; it had a miniature sword-hilt and had a groove down the middle that was stained with a dark rusty colour. He had carved the name "ORPHEUS" into the beach in front of him and this was also stained in dark rust.

The King paused and Orpheus, sensing his sudden presence perhaps by the shadow of his body cast by the waves, turned a tear-stained face to look at him and reached protectively for his harp which had been lying under one of the trees. He started to speak but long heat had made it difficult. The King waited while the poet licked his lips and tried again.

"Blood is the same here. It is, after all, fire and water in equal amounts."

Sudden realisation on the stranger's part that the rust was dried blood.

"You're Orpheus?" he inquired of the poet.

An indication of assent, but with no words.

"Where am I?" the King asked.

There was another silence, then Orpheus spoke.

"Somewhere," he made a vague gesture inland with his forearm, "there is a God, a huge stone God. He leans forward slightly in an attitude of imperiousness, and is quite, quite dead." A small smile playing across the poet's lips.

He looked at the King's confusion and sighed.

"This is where the legends go," he clarified. "Inland, Narcissus lies looking at his pool, forever trying to die, burning because he's forgotten how to drown; Teiresias wanders blindly through his darkness, feeling his way with prophecy; Oddyseus is a permanent resident here after his visit." A sigh. "Euridice is lost somewhere between here and Hell. These trees were women once. This is the holding ground for dead legends." Another faint smile. "Some, of course, are deader than others."

A sudden vivid image of the timeless stone corpse waiting forever for nothing struck the stranger, and he gritted his teeth. Could feel the rough stone under his hands, the coldness between his teeth as he touched the statue then - back into - the King's dream?

"You're here now," the poet told him. His hand thrust out suddenly and grabbed the King's arm. He took his knife and held it to the King's wrist.

A sudden ball of fear in his stomach. No coward, but to die like this?

Orpheus cut.

A moment of blinding pain and fear.

Then sudden shock as he watched the cut mend after the knife as if it had never been hurt.

"Do you understand?" Orpheus asked. "You can't die again. You've had your chance at mortality."

A sigh from the King.

"Who are you?" the poet inquired.

"I don't know, now."

Orpheus rubbed his mouth with his hand and furrowed his brow with thought, then produced a knife identical to his and handed it to the other. "Don't name it," he said.

An inquiring glance shot him by the eyes of the stranger.

"Do this," the poet said, indicating the circle and name in the glass. The King took the knife and found it surprisingly easy to etch the circle. No more fear. He sat cross-legged in the middle of his circle, held the knife out in front of him, and began to etch phonemes. Ar. The knife wanted to write G, so he let it, and -

He remembered dying. Set by Juno to guard a fine heifer with his hundred eyes, sleeping in pairs. Never letting it out of his sight. Herding her over the hills where people petted her and stroked her and bringing her home to the mountains each night. Sitting on top of the mountain looking in all directions at once.

He remembered hearing Mercury's pipes playing in the grass. Remembered hailing him and inviting him to sit and play. He had fought off sleep even while hearing the music and the stories. He remembered the one last story that had made him slumber for a moment, of Pan and his creation of the pipes that bore his name, he remembered the distant touch of the God's sleepy staff, and a moment of pain, then -

Shivered violently and looked down at the glass beach. There was no G. He looked at Orpheus and forced a smile. "Not Argus, then," he said, and brought the knife down to try again. It wanted to write T, so he let it, and -

He remembered dying. Set by necessity to ride to battle with his royal guard, watching in pairs. Never letting his brother out of his sight. Fighting him in the midst of battle where people cut them and screamed and killing him with a javelin at the end. Lying wounded and thirsty looking at the ceiling.

He remembered being old. Rememebered hearing hushed whispers of news that was not to be told to him yet. He had fought off sleep even while hearing the secrets passing outside his chamber walls. He remembered the one last story - of Arsames' death - that had pressed him down with grief, he remembered being too heavy to breathe, and falling through the bed and into the earth, falling forever, then -

A name was scratched in the beach. It was difficult to read, and he saw what the groove on the knife was for. He looked directly into Orpheus' eyes as he took the knife and, holding out his own arm, cut along it so that the blood ran down the groove in the dagger and onto the ground before the wound had a chance to heal behind the moving blade. When he rubbed the blood into the lines, the name ARTAXERXES became visible. He turned to Orpheus and smiled.

"I'm Artaxerxes," he said, trying to shake off the feeling that he had been something else, something hundred-eyed.

He stretched out his hand, and on his finger a butterfly, a Northern Brown Argus, stirred. It was still chrysalis-soft and young, and it spread its wings and dried itself in the glow from the sea. The others were still. Only the butterfly moved. They watched it.

The blue sun chicoried slowly above the horizon. The butterfly stirred again as the first watery rays touched it, and they shone off the glass. Artaxerxes looked down and saw his face reflected in the beach. He then looked at the butterfly, not scientifically, but as one studying the face of a friend. He blinked - the butterfly lept and headed straight for the sun - he blinked again, and turned to face the poet, his eyes suddenly blue.

"I'm Artaxerxes, but I'll keep the hundred eyes," he smiled, "if you don't mind."

Orpheus' eyes glinted concern. The King smiled again with sudden inevitability and turned and walked down the beach.

"What are you going to do now?" the poet asked.

"I'm leaving."


"You can't."

"Why not?"

More silence.

Artaxerxes turned to Orpheus and blinked very deliberately. Then he blinked again, and as his eyes closed, light left the beach completely. Even the sea became just the outlines of flame. As his eyes opened light flooded back over the pair of them.

The poet grimaced. The stranger smiled and began very slowly to blink again.

Darkness fell as he did so, and when his eyes were closed - a few seconds of perfect darkness, of perfect balance - silence...

Light returned like the opening of wings.

No stranger.

Orpheus looked over at the circle where Artaxerxes' name had been written. The circle remained although the name and the blood had gone.

Etched deeply in their stead, in the circle, deep into the glass was the symbol: