"Of all the absolutely ridiculous expeditions you've ever undertaken, Nathan Ford, I believe this is the worst!"
Nate blinked at Sophie far too casually. "What makes you say that?"
Sophie was dearly tempted to throw something at him. Preferably something large and heavy that would leave a dent in that overly-active brain. "Because it doesn't exist!"
Now he was mocking her, his face barely betraying the grin, but she could read it. Sophie could always read him.
"When you asked me to help you find a lost Donatello sculpture, yes, I was skeptical. But we found it. Tracking down Llywelyn's coronet? Ridiculous, but possible. Fabergé eggs missing for a little over a decade? A perfect chase. But what do these things have in common?"
Nate tipped his head. "We found them?"
"They exist, you idiot!" Sophie only barely kept from stamping her foot. "Whereas the Apple of Discord does not!"
"Of course it does."
Sophie folded her arms. "The golden Apple of Discord, inscribed with Kallistēi, 'to the fairest,' tossed amongst the gods celebrating a wedding and fought over by Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena? The apple whose ownership ultimately caused the Trojan War when Paris chose Aphrodite and was given Helen as a prize? That Apple of Discord?"
"That's the one."
"Nate. It does not exist."
"That's where you're wrong." And Nate, in the infuriating manner that meant he was cackling inside like a child, swept out of the records room in a flurry of dust.
Someday, Sophie thought, someday she would not trot after him like some kind of puppy or well-trained pony. Someday she would leave him to his dramatic exits and mysterious clues and leaps in logic and beautifully broken heart, and would go her own way. Someday she would abandon him hip-deep in a pit of snakes, or maybe dangling over a spike-filled ground trap, and let him figure his own way out.
But, apparently, that was not to be today.
Sophie let out an aggrieved sigh and followed the idiot.
She found him leaning against the sun-warmed bricks just outside the library's main door, peering out over the bustling street. There was something in his slouch that told her he was thinking rapidly, faster than any automobile could go, but it was his shifting foot that told her he hadn't been entirely confident she would follow this time.
That insecurity mollified her a bit.
"Just tell me why exactly you have any reason to believe that the Apple exists," she said, stepping close to him. "It hasn't been seen since before the Iliad was composed. Troy hasn't even been proved to exist. What makes you think the Apple ever did?"
"Forget about all that stuff about the gods and goddesses." Nate said. "Troy is real, and we'll find it someday. But before all that, think about golden apples in general. They show up in more myths than just the judgement of Paris. Atalanta was foiled by one, or three, depending on which version you believe, and Heracles was asked to retrieve some as well."
"So." Nate's keen eyes went sharp. "Why wouldn't somebody make one?"
Sophie shook her head. "I don't know what you mean."
"People are the same no matter how far back in time we go. If you were a tourist in Paris today for the very first time, what do you think you would want to see?"
"The Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe, I suppose." Sophie shrugged, deliberately leaving out the eyesore that the Eiffel Tower had become with its advertising and radio wires. She had, in fact, seen all those things as a tourist, but not on her first trip to the famed city. She had her pride, after all.
"Right. And you would find people willing to sell you little paintings of them, or clay versions, or even perfect miniature recreations."
Sophie frowned. "You're suggesting some sort of ancient street vendor made golden apples to sell to gullible tourists?"
"I think it's almost inevitable that there have been many golden apples, all claimed to be the real thing, made just to ensure that the maker could earn the prestige and fortune of being the owner of the Apple of Discord. It would have been centuries after the Fall of Troy, enough time for the event to have become legend."
"Fine. But what's the use in hunting down a knock-off golden apple that may or may not even exist?"
Nate smiled. "First of all, if we do find it, and it does have the inscription, then it may well prove that Troy truly exists."
"No, it won't. Not any more than the tales from the Iliad and the Odyssey do."
Nate ignored her perfectly sound logic. "Second, any museum or private collector would pay a fortune themselves for the legendary Apple of Discord, even a 'knock-off' as you put it."
Sophie couldn't argue that point, so she didn't bother.
"You've rarely hared off after something purely for the sake of profit," Sophie said instead.
"Well, but this one will be easy." Nate pushed off the wall. "I even know where to look. We just have to go dig it up and sell it."
"And then what? Why do you need to do this now?"
Nate was still smiling, but Sophie could read the slight shade in his eyes. The doubt, the worry. "Let's just say...something's come up."
"Something that's worth tracking down an item that doesn't exist?"
"Something worth tracking down every single ancient artifact that ever existed."
Sophie was surprised. Very surprised. She tried to hide it behind an arch expression.
"And you're going, no matter what I say?"
"If I have to."
Well, that was admission enough. She never had been able – or willing – to resist that self-effacing charm and slightly manic determination. And she had certainly followed him on worse ventures.
"Then where are we headed?"
Nate's face shifted only slightly, but Sophie saw the light that bloomed in his eyes, the gratitude, the excitement, the affection. He spoke so little to her sometimes, but there was hardly a need when his eyes spoke so well on his behalf.
Nate started down the library steps. "Bodrum. Come on."
Sophie spent the entire journey aboard the ship from Crete to the port of Bodrum reading every book Nate thrust into her hands, from excerpts from Herodotus who had been born there and Pliny who had wandered everywhere in the known world, it seemed, to the published works by Charles Thomas Newton who had excavated most of the famed Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Bodrum's ancient name. In the years since Newton's death, the remains of the Mausoleum had been preserved by the British Museum who had laid claim to the ruins; Newton had purchased the land upon which they sat and he had willed it to the museum for preservation.
But as their ship finally approached what appeared to be a modest fishing village, Sophie sighed.
"Bodrum? More like boredom."
The sight from the sea was not particularly spectacular, not like other places they had journeyed together. The Bodrum Castle sitting on its peninsula was the only thing of interest amidst the sloping shore that rose to a high, rocky ridge in every direction, but even it was run down and clearly abandoned. And in the heat of high summer, any greenery that might have made the surrounding hills embracing the inlet like arms soft and lush was dull at best – for the most part, the hills were dotted with scrubby, brownish things and stubby grasses.
But Nate practically leaped off the ship, his traveling bag bouncing as he charged down the pier. Sophie came behind him, well-used to that sort of behavior by now. She muttered apologies to offended Turks along the way.
"Someday," she said as she caught up to where Nate was trying to push through a crowd of fishermen, "you're going to cause trouble before I catch up to you, and then what will you do?"
He smirked. "Wave my hands and say 'I'm an idiot American and I don't speak your language, please forgive me,' and hope for the best?"
Sophie sighed. For all Nate's skills, languages were his Achilles heel, as it were. The man could find a needle in a field of haystacks, but he could not even read the simplest Latin phrase on his Doctorate award. How he could have gotten himself through that much schooling and never learned a single word of any language but English from anyone, she had no idea.
But she suspected he had fooled everyone as he usually did.
Everyone but herself, of course.
"Are we going to stop at a hotel, or do we continue on tonight?" she asked, hoping for the former and almost certain of the latter. When Nathan Ford had caught a scent, he tracked it unceasingly, even at the expense of things normal people considered such as food and sleep.
"A bit of both," he said, meeting her eyes. "If...ah! There he is!" He waved.
A man with the same swarthy complexion and dressed as the other Turks bustling around them waved back. Nate pushed through the crowd to him, Sophie at his side.
"Thank you for meeting us on such short notice," Nate said.
"It is my pleasure." The man gave a nod to Sophie. "I have what you requested."
Nate grinned. "Sophie, meet the keeper of Bodrun Castle, and the only person with a key to its gate."
She tried not to sigh again. "So we are spending the night in that castle?" She gestured across the harbor.
Sophie wondered why she was even surprised anymore.
It was the work of no time at all for them to make their way along the waterfront to the chained gates that kept the castle apart from the rest of the small city. Nate's ally let them in, then locked the gates once more behind them and passed the key to Nate through the bars.
"I shall return in the morning," he said.
"Hey." Nate pulled a handful of money from a pocket and held it between the bars. "Bring breakfast, please."
"As you wish."
"Thank you," Sophie added pointedly. But Nate was already gone, wandering into the abandoned castle. She rolled her eyes and followed.
The castle itself was massive, its outer walls lined with towers and rooms and a maze of defensive positions. Within the walls were several other buildings, obviously abandoned and unused for years. Trees and bushes had grown wild, and there were many birds safe from the humans and other hunters outside. It was quiet and surprisingly lovely.
Nate pulled out one of his books and walked a good portion of the castle, marking off the chapel, now a mosque, the hamam, and the fallen towers destroyed in the Great War. He also noted where marble had been incorporated into the building, taken from the Mausoleum above, along with some reliefs, statues, and even bits of iron.
The castle had also been used as a garrison and a prison, and the leavings of both were evident too, spoiling the place rather thoroughly in Sophie's opinion.
Before sunset , Nate pulled out his lantern in one of the few small interior rooms Sophie could stand because it did not smell like urine.
"So, here's what I'm thinking. Mausolus married his sister and they ruled Halicarnassus together before his death. That's when she built his tomb, which became the Mausoleum, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world."
"The two of them were very invested in art, and in legend. They filled Halicarnassus with statues and temples, and from what's here, it's clear they had visual representations of practically every significant story from mythology."
Sophie nodded. "Yes. And?" she said again.
Nate blew out a breath. "What collection would be complete without a golden apple? Especially between such a devoted husband and wife."
"Brother-and-sister husband and wife," Sophie clarified.
"Whatever." Nate turned back to his pages. "The Mausoleum was to be Artemisia's eternal statement of love for Mausolus, like the Taj Mahal for Shah Jahan. And it stood largely unbothered for centuries. It wasn't even looted until Catholic knights started digging around to steal stones to build this castle."
"But it was looted," Sophie said. "There's no way of knowing what was taken, or where it ended up."
"Listen." Nate was frowning, and he looked up at her. "Artemisia was a tough woman. She commanded a fleet of her own and led a defeat of Rhodes. And it's said that she mixed the ashes of her late husband into her daily drink to ensure he would stay close to her."
"That is particularly disturbing, thank you."
"I found a legend about their father, Hecatomnus," he continued, ignoring her, "and about how he chose to marry his daughters to his sons. He had three sons, but only two daughters, so he gave his daughters the choice of which of their brothers to marry. Artemisia was beautiful, clever, loyal, and strong. In order for Mausolus to win her from Idrieus and Pixodarus, he would have needed an edge."
"So you think he reenacted Paris's choice, offering her a golden apple and asking her to return it to him and be his wife."
"The similarities are pretty strong. Three brothers vying for one sister's affection, like three goddesses tempting a fair man with their beauty."
"I thought you said Hecatomnus had two daughters."
"Yes. Ada. She was canny, but not loyal. She allied herself with Alexander in order to save her life and her city, betraying her husband's memory after Idrieus died. No, Artemisia was the one they wanted."
Sophie thought perhaps this time Nate had gone too far. Perhaps this time his wild speculation and his over-certainty in his ability to read the motivations and intentions of people centuries dead had led them to nowhere. This was more than a leap of faith – this was pure fancy.
But she was here for the night, and he was clearly invested in seeing this through to the end.
"So what does that have to do with this castle?"
"If we assume that Artemisia did have a golden apple and did give it to Mausolus one way or another, then we can assume she buried it with him, or kept it with her as a secret. But I think she would have given it back to him in some way, the promise of her choice to be loyal to him beyond death."
"Then it could easily have been looted."
"Yes, but...Artemisia was smart. I think she would have hidden it somewhere so that, no matter what desecration came to their tomb, their promise would remain."
"You are impossible."
"Probably." And Nate gave her an honest smile. "But if I'm wrong, then we spend the evening together in a private castle. And if I'm right, we emerge in the morning with a priceless treasure."
"You're doing something else," Sophie said, leaning on the table and peering into his eyes. "This is all true, more or less, but there's something you're not telling me. Something important."
Nate's whole expression warmed. "There's no one on earth like you, Sophie."
"Yes, I'm aware. What are you up to?"
Nate laughed. "Help me find the apple and I'll tell you."
Sophie gave in. Again. As she always seemed to around this ridiculous, intriguing man.
"Where do we start?"
"Well, this castle stands on the same place as the original palace Mausolus and Artemisia lived in. The people who built the castle in the Middle Ages weren't too careful about exploring the site – they just built on top of it. After the walls, the next thing they did was the chapel."
Sophie frowned. "Are you thinking there's something of the original palace left?"
"Maybe. Artemisia proved to be skilled and smart, and she knew how to build something grand enough to be a wonder. Why wouldn't she employ the same skill in her own home? And there's something else."
Nate flipped a few pages in his book.
"Even then, Artemisia would have known that their spectacular tomb would be robbed someday. Or destroyed when another empire came to claim their land. But palaces, now, they last forever. They may be rebuilt, but they are always in use. Because whoever claims a new territory needs the symbolic power of that ruling seat to affirm their control. The Mausoleum was destined for desecration and destruction, but her palace, in one form or another, would be safe for eternity."
"You really are the most brilliant man I've ever known, even if your wild leaps would carry you to the moon if you aimed them correctly."
"And I still think you're making this up as you go."
He smiled even more deeply.
Sophie pulled back her hair and checked her boots to be sure they were tightly laced. "All right. Let's go investigate your entirely impossible theory, if only so we can finish whatever you really intend to do before neither of us gets any rest tonight."
They started with the deep cisterns.
"They were dug by a family who was so highly regarded that they became legendary," Nate said, studying the first one. "If there was ever anything beneath the original palace, we may find it in one of these."
Sophie took one look at the black-green water, its darkness having nothing to do with the soon-to-be setting sun, and shook her head.
"I am not going in there."
"That's all right. I'll go."
Nate stripped to the waist and removed his boots and socks. Before Sophie could decide if she should actually prevent him, Nate jumped into the first cistern.
"Damn!" he came up shouting, surging out of what looked like an entire forest of slimy, moldy growth.
"Cold?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Very." Nate paddled in circles, adjusting to the temperature. Then he put his hands on the stone wall, feeling the rocks. "Some light, please?"
"Is there any reasonable purpose to doing this so close to sunset and not tomorrow morning when you would actually have sunlight?" Sophie asked, holding the lantern over the cistern.
"Are you going to tell me what it is?"
For several minutes, Nate investigated the walls that were slick with the same slime that now coated his skin. He also dove deep, feeling around the bottom. Given the look on his face and the soft, black mush that came up in his hands, Sophie decided she didn't want anything to do with whatever was down there. Not for all the lost treasures of the world.
And it served Nate right for being so stubborn.
Of course, then Sophie was obliged to help him haul himself out of the cistern, which was made far more difficult with his slick grip. And once he was again on solid ground, just as the last edge of the sun touched the horizon, she had to place herself upwind of him – the rotting vegetation and fetid water scent was potent.
"How many cisterns are we going to swim in tonight?" she asked pointedly.
"The castle has fourteen, but only two more are in strategically likely places to look. If we don't find anything tonight, I can always dive in the other eleven tomorrow."
Sophie grimaced all through repeating the same process twice more.
By the time Nate climbed out of the third 'strategically significant' cistern, Sophie was almost used to the smell, but no less sympathetic. Nate was brilliant, but he had little prudence when the mood took him, charging into situations and theories as if there was no tomorrow, no possibility of failure, and no ill consequences.
As now, when she realized he had a streak of red running down one arm.
Nate looked at a gash on his shoulder and shrugged. "It's not too bad."
Sophie was thoroughly tempted to leave him then and there. She'd already taken the gate key from his bag while he was communing with slime molds, and it would be amusing to leave him here alone for the night, dripping and miserable, locked in a castle of his own folly.
Instead, she lifted the lantern and his dry clothing. "Come on, then."
Back in the little room where they had put their supplies, Sophie offered him a towel from her own luggage and pulled out a few of her emergency supplies. Besides bandages, she had come prepared with at least a little food – even at her best, she couldn't talk her way out of hunger.
Sophie set two pomegranates on the table and waited for Nate to finish drying off and changing.
He smiled when he saw her offering.
"I've got something, too." And produced from somewhere – she didn't know where – an entire basket of fruits and breads and dates and sweets.
"I should have known you wouldn't want to go without supper," she teased to cover her surprise.
"You should have known," Nate returned, "that I would never let you go hungry."
They ate quietly, sharing silent glances and tiny touches, and Sophie wondered as she always did what he was really thinking. Nate was a whirlwind of energy, darting about the world, chasing stories and artifacts and mysteries, and nothing and no one seemed to hold him beyond the hunt and the adventure. And yet, in these quiet, golden hours by lamplight, he seemed at peace in a way she never saw otherwise. They had crossed paths several times over the years before Nate asked Sophie to join him on a permanent basis, and there had been heat in those quick moments when Sophie beat him to a prize and Nate tried to take it away.
But for the last few years, Nate had flown about the world with her at her side and had said nothing in particular.
And now, he caressed her hand as he passed her a fig, and his eyes were deep and warm, and his smile was a little broken, and Sophie still did not know what he meant by any of it, or what he wanted.
What she wanted, what she had always wanted, should have been obvious from the start.
"Well." Nate, of course, broke the moment and set the half-full basket to one side. "There's one other place I would like to look tonight."
But he gave her a look she didn't dare misinterpret, and scooped a few pomegranate seeds from her before he rose.
Sophie tipped her head. "Be careful, Nate. Those have power in this part of the world."
"Six pomegranate seeds bound Persephone to Hades for half the year," Nate said. He looked into his hand. "So this should do." And before Sophie could guess at how many he held, he ate them all.
The man was a complete mystery, and Sophie still couldn't decide if she adored him or wanted to strangle him. Maybe both, in turns and all at once.
The chapel-turned-mosque had high, vaulted ceilings, but was bare of anything else. Nate's lantern illuminated the same large stones they had seen on their first tour through it earlier in the evening.
Nate moved unerringly for a far corner, the one that had clearly been repaired infrequently if ever compared to the rest of the building. While Sophie held the lantern and handed him tools, Nate carefully pried up a flagstone from the ground, then another.
"You're thinking there could be catacombs?" she asked as he started to pull at a particularly large one.
"It's possible. The knights wouldn't have wanted to bury their own people out with the heathens in the hills or the city cemeteries. Aha!" And he shoved the stone aside, revealing a void below.
Nate looked up at Sophie, his expression oddly serious. "Will you follow me?"
Sophie shook her head at him and handed him the lantern.
But before he could become too crestfallen, she grinned. "I'll go first." And she dropped down into the darkness.
Nate came right behind her, chuckling to himself. "I shouldn't be surprised by now."
"No, you shouldn't be." Sophie took the light back from him and set off into the catacombs.
They were small, but that was to be expected given the difficulty of building on such a rocky promontory. Just a single long corridor lined with ossuaries. There were niches in the walls, too, and the light revealed dark, rag-covered bones.
Sophie didn't bother with the tombs themselves, moving to the far end of the corridor.
"Nate." She ran her fingers along the wall. "There is something here."
Nate nodded. He peered at the wall closely. "What language is that?"
Sophie scoffed at him. "As if you could read it anyway." She brushed away dust and cobwebs. "It is basically a prayer, calling upon God to make this sanctuary holy and to keep the ghosts of the past bound in their burial chamber." She blinked. "There is also a plea not to disturb what lies beyond. It's oddly worded, but if I had to guess, I'd say the person who put up this wall deliberately locked away something of significant value."
Nate's eyes lit up. "Well, let's unlock it, then!"
Nate had brought the heaviest of his tools down into the catacombs, and he hefted his mallet. With a few quick swings, he was through the wall.
"Too much blasting, too many wars," he said. "All the stone is weak."
Sophie nodded. She took the lantern back and squeezed through the opening he had made first.
And stopped in utter surprise.
The room was lined with white marble, dusty after so many centuries lost underground, but largely undamaged. To one side there was a beautiful bas-relief showing a man and a woman in an intimate embrace surrounded by images of many gods and goddesses in similar states.
Nate slipped past Sophie and went to the opposite side of the chamber.
Sophie stared at the scene, a lump in her throat. The pair, for they could only be Mausolus and Artemisia, had been sculpted with great skill, and they looked even now as though there was nothing in their world but one another. The love which had lasted beyond death was palpable in their expressions.
She turned to find Nate approaching her with something in his hands.
"You found it?"
He nodded. But when he reached her, he took the lantern from her and set it on the ground. Then he dropped to one knee.
"I told you I needed it. I needed the Apple of Discord because...because it's the ultimate symbol of...of desire. Three goddesses wanted it badly enough to offer one man the world. And that single object launched a decade-long war, all for the sake of one woman."
"You're completely ignoring economic and political motivations, you know." But her voice trembled and she didn't know why.
"I didn't...I didn't really know if we'd find one, but I hoped we would. Because...because…"
Nate swallowed. And held out the apple.
"Because you are the fairest, Sophie. And I would...I would tear down Troy myself to find you. I would...I would give you anything you asked of me. I...I love you. And I will always love you. Long past when people like us are digging up our tombs."
"I can't tell if that's romantic or morbid," Sophie whispered.
"Tonight...it's our anniversary. Five years to the day since we teamed up. That's why it had to be now, tonight."
Sophie's breath caught in her throat.
"I...I ate twelve pomegranate seeds, Sophie. For you. Please...take this apple. Please choose me."
Tears slipped down her cheeks. "Choose you to what?"
"To be beside you, forever. Will you, Sophie Lara Devereaux, marry me?"
Sophie felt herself break into a funny sob. She held out her hands and took the apple, crying and laughing. "Of course I will."
Nate surged up and took her into his arms.
And Sophie wondered if this place was one of those which was secretly holy to those who knew what to look for, for those who truly knew love. Wondered if Bodrum, for all its fishing-village simplicity, wasn't perhaps one of the finest testaments to unending devotion on the planet. The Mausoleum was just the most obvious evidence, but this chamber, untouched by the centuries of rebuilders and invaders and wars and earthquakes and the turn of time, stood as proof that nothing in the world can quite stamp out eternal love.
But right now, only one love mattered, and Sophie gave herself to it completely.
There would be time enough later to tease Nate about proposing marriage in the middle of the find of a lifetime.