Authors: Caitlin Sweet
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Greek & Roman
I said “Princess?” again, though I didn’t expect her to say anything I’d understand. She didn’t speak. I leaned over her and made sure her eyes were closed. Then I squatted at the foot of her bed and thought that I would write to you. And look! Now I can’t stop.
I need a plan. I’ve known this for a while, but it’s even more urgent now: I need to get to you and bring you out. Knossos is sunk in the madness of your father and your sister and everyone else, more unbearable than it ever was before. I’ll get you out of your mountain box and we’ll both get away. I’ll read this to you, when that happens. Until then, though, I’ll hide the scrolls with all this writing on them behind our favourite row of jars—the ones that look like stooping giants in the lamplight.
Asterion. Please wait for me.
“I miss you,” clicked the crab
And the fishing crane clacked, “Me?”
“Why yes,” crab said,
“You’ve shown me
That there’s sky as well as sea.”
To Theseus, Son of Aegeus, King of Athens,
Perhaps you will think that I am overly forward, writing to you this way. Perhaps Athenian women (even the princesses) are not so forward.
I am Ariadne, Princess of Crete, and I am supposed to hate you and your city, but I do not. In fact, I have nothing but admiration for you. Even here at Knossos, where Athenians are so reviled, I have heard of your exploits. The Great Sow who tore men’s throats out, and the Spider Thief who clung to his cliffside and pushed men to their deaths, and the Wrestler, and the Stretcher who had cut off so many other men’s feet—you killed all of these monsters, each at a door to the Underworld itself! Also the murderer who would tear people apart by tying them to two pine trees. And you wrested the club from the Epidaurus Bandit’s hand and beat him to death with it! You did all this on your way to Athens, where you were determined you would claim your rightful place as the son of the King. (And that was not without its perils either, I hear, for your stepmother tried to poison you.)
These tales prove your manhood, your intelligence. The ferocity of your people’s love for you proves your godmark. Apollo’s, yes? You speak directly into their minds with your own. Surely this is a sort of poetry, a casting of light into dark places. Or perhaps your mark is Athene’s? For you impart wisdom to those whose thoughts you touch with yours.
It does not matter who gave you your gift, my Prince: I simply need it. I need your strength of body and of mind. That is why I am writing now, sparing barely a thought for the punishment that would be inflicted on me if I were found out.
You know all too well the price my father the King exacted from Athens after my brother Androgeus was murdered there. I am sure it is a price that is always in the minds and hearts of Athenians, weighing them down like iron shackles. Seven youths and seven maidens, to be sent every two years over the sea to Crete and set loose in the labyrinth where a monster awaits them. Twenty-eight have already perished. Fourteen more will soon be chosen. This sacrifice must rankle.
Your pain is matched by my shame. Has my country fallen so low that the mad rage of its ruler must bring another great realm to its knees? Shame, yes—I am ashamed to be a Cretan. I no longer take any joy from the accomplishments and beauty of my home. I see only further weakening if we continue on this path, and I fear that we will soon be mocked more than we are feared. There is only one way ahead. You are this way.
You are already a hero to your people, and yet still you struggle to maintain your dominance (and your life!) in a palace crowded with other claimants to your father’s throne. Imagine if you could do something even more spectacular than what you have already done. The Great Sow, my lord, would be as nothing beside the Great Bull.
You could kill the beast that lives within the maze. You could disguise yourself and sail with thirteen other youths; you could rid the world of the creature that brings grief to your country and shame to mine. You could do all this because I will help you. I will tell you about the beast, and give you the means to kill it.
In return for this knowledge, and the fame that will surely come to you, I ask only one thing: that you take me with you when you sail, triumphant, from Crete. I cannot bear my life here any longer. I would go wherever you deigned to take me—though I admit that the prospect of seeing Athens fills me with excitement. (Daedalus, our royal craftsman, used to tell me of your city—his words were all rich and honeyed, and they made my father’s seem like weak, poisoned wine. I miss Daedalus terribly.)
I appeal to you—I beg and implore you: help me.
(I have enclosed a sketch of myself, done by Daedalus’s apprentice, Karpos, at my command. I hope that my need will be as stark upon my face as it is within my breast.)
Humbly and hopefully yours,
Ariadne, Daughter of Minos, King of Crete
“Girl,” Ariadne snapped, “why are you writing so slowly?” She frowned, and cocked her head to one side. Her bandaged hands twitched and she pressed them lightly together in front of her. “Do my words upset you? I ask you to write of Asterion’s demise—does it make you miss him?”
Chara raised her head. Her charcoal was still poised above the tray balanced on her lap. “No,” she said, and paused. “It makes me think of a time when I was foolish. It makes me ashamed.”
The princess smiled a full, satisfied smile. “Good,” she said. “Because if you were sad—if you did miss him and thought to tell someone of what you know—I would kill you.”
Forgive me for lying, Asterion
, Chara thought.
But the lies will help me find you.
And she smiled, too, after she bent to stroke Ariadne’s name-lines onto the paper.
Oh, Asterion. It’s nearly time.
I’ve written many things to you, these past two years, just as I did in the two years before those, but I’ve saved almost none of them. If someone found my other writings behind our jars I’d be laughed at and probably banished for denigrating the royal family. But if someone found a record of my plan . . .
Well, that thought frightened me so badly that I burned all the words I ever wrote about it. Now, though, I must write again. Nothing that will give me away. Just words to bring you closer, once more, before everything changes.
Prince Theseus arrived yesterday.
No one knew it was Theseus, of course. No one other than Ariadne and me. She’d cornered me earlier in the day, before we all went out to meet the ship. She pressed me against a pillar and said, “Remember: I’ll kill you if you speak of what you know.” I said, “I would not, Princess.” She scowled at me. (She’s lucky there weren’t any burns on her face. She hides the ones on her arms with long, filmy sleeves that some other women in the palace are now wearing too, and she wears a closed bodice to hide the ones on her breasts, and her hands she shoves inside the folds of her skirts as much as she can.) After a moment she blew out her breath (and so did I, silently) and stepped back and we went with the others to the cliff.
Fourteen more Athenians for the mountain, and we Cretans were just as hungry to watch them arrive as we had been the other twenty-eight. Even the king made an appearance. He’d been gone for months this time, leaving your mother to rule. Your mother and Karpos, who’s now far more likely to be found in the receiving chambers and money rooms of the palace than he is in his workshops. Your mother lets him hang about. He’s very polite to her. She probably finds this a strange new thing.
Oh: Ariadne tried to get Karpos to marry her. She had me summon him, and I was in the corridor afterward and heard everything. She proposed that he make her his queen. He said no. She asked him why, because wouldn’t they make the loveliest royal couple in the history of everything? He said he’d never love her. She said most royal couples didn’t love each other, but that he could want her, and that that would be enough. No, he said, he’d never want her either, for he loved and wanted a young soldier in her father’s army, and before that he’d loved and wanted a kitchen boy. Ariadne cried out that this was wonderful—she’d simply rule by his side and they could each take lovers. Karpos said he would have to like her for this to happen. “No, Princess,” he said as she sobbed. “I’ll take no queen.” Right after that she had me write the message to Theseus. (I’ve wondered, since: why didn’t she have Karpos killed? She probably would have got away with it, as she has so many other things. Maybe this island really has become intolerable to her. Maybe that part, at least, is true.)
Anyway: the king came back from wherever he was to receive the Athenians, and Karpos stood beside him. Karpos was clean and handsome and stood up very tall. The king was stooped. His loin cloth was soot-black and full of holes and his beard was long and matted. In several places on his cheeks it had burned away and you could see the skin beneath, all pink and puckered. His godmark’s so strong that his body isn’t able to contain it anymore. He’s withering under the flame that’s always dancing on his flesh. (The priestesses have been demanding that Pasiphae lock him up, but she keeps refusing—and not because she’s afraid of what the priests would do. I think she enjoys watching her husband frighten his own people.)
His voice cracked as he called out. As usual, everyone looked afraid. Pasiphae didn’t look anything. She lifted her hands and dribbled water over his arms and he smiled at her as the fire sputtered a bit.
I knew which one was Theseus as soon as the ship was in the harbour. My eyes skimmed over others—all the girls, obviously, and a skinny boy, and one so beautiful that the air around him shimmered with silver, and a dark-haired one who was on his knees, wailing—and found him. He’s not all that tall, but he stood at the ship’s side like a man who’s accustomed to being seen. He has golden hair, wavy, not curled as Cretan men’s is. Muscular arms and thighs. A face that’s handsome but not unusual.
Ariadne gaped at him. No one would find this strange; she’d gaped at the handsome youths in the other two groups, too. She watched him as the priestesses’ breathing, bucking craft brought him across the water. She watched him as he climbed the stairs. At this point I stopped paying attention to either of them—because I have a plan too. And I was looking for the girl I need just as much as Ariadne needs Theseus. I found her. She’s not as tall as I am, but I can make myself shorter. I can make myself invisible. She’s even got curly hair, though that won’t be important, in the end.
Her name’s Sotiria. She told me this as I knelt in front of her that night—last night—and held a cup of wine to her lips. Her eyes darted about when I asked her, but I murmured, “I’m just a slave. No one notices me, so no one will notice you. Tell me your name.”
“Why?” she murmured back. I repeated what I said to Polymnia four years ago, though this time it was a lie. “I don’t know, but it seems important. Please tell me.” And she did, staring into my eyes across the cup.
Theseus and Sotiria. Ariadne and me. You. I can’t let myself think of any other people from now on.
This morning I went with Ariadne to the cells where the Athenians are being kept. I thought I might have to follow her secretly when she went to Theseus, but she told me I should come. She wanted me to carry a pitcher of water. “I wish to serve them myself,” she said to the priestesses who guard the corridor where the cells (little storerooms, really) are. “I wish to do them honour before they die for Crete.”
The wailing boy was first (though he wasn’t wailing this time). Ariadne gestured, already glancing back into the corridor, and I filled a cup for him and held it to his lips. His wrists were bloody where they were rubbing against his bonds. His eyes were huge and pleading. I don’t think anyone has ever seen me as clearly as he and Sotiria have. Anyone except you, that is.
Theseus was in the third cell down, in the middle of the room, as if he’d been waiting for Ariadne. Piles of clay tablets stood along the wall behind him.
“Princess,” he said with a smile that lit his lips and eyes and the air around all of us, “you are lovelier than I expected.”
Ariadne froze, halfway into a curtsey. “But surely Master Karpos’s likeness prepared—” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder at the empty hallway, and Theseus’s bound hands came up and waved her to silence.
“You are lovelier than any likeness, even a godmarked one.”
This begins well
, and wasn’t sure whether to be frightened or excited.
“Forgive my haste,” Ariadne said, stepping closer to him, “but someone could come at any time, and we mustn’t be found out. Your godmark—the way you open your mind to others. Try it with me now. I must know that I will be able to hear you, while you are under the mountain.”
“Will you also wish to see me kill something, so that you will be certain I can slay the beast?”
She gave a low laugh. “I have no need to see that. But I
give you something with which to do this slaying.”
Theseus took another step. He was nearly touching her. “These youths were chosen for their godmarks; there may be no need of anything else. But show me how you would have me kill. Show me this before I use my own godmark, here.”
I was the one who peeked out into the corridor, this time. I saw the priestesses at the entrance, standing still, facing away.
, I thought at them.
Because I need to know this, too.
Ariadne lifted the flap of her girdle. Beneath it, tied around her waist, were two things: Icarus’s ball of string, and a dagger haft.
“Where did you get that?” I didn’t mean to speak; the words just spilled out. Theseus and Ariadne turned to me. He looked mildly surprised, as if he were noticing me for the first time. She looked furious. I kept talking, though. “It’s . . . it was Icarus’s. Did he give it to you before he left?” This idea hurt me.
“Be silent!” she hissed. “There’s no time!” She probably would have said more, or struck me, but she wanted to impress Theseus. So she looked back at him, smiling, a little embarrassed. “You’ll let this out as you walk, in the maze. It’s magical—never runs out, is as strong as iron and as supple as thread. When you’ve killed the bull, you’ll follow the string back to the door. You’ll let me know when you’re there, with your mind-voice. And I’ll open it for you.”
, I thought. Because I hadn’t been able to come up with that part of my plan, and she’d just given it to me.
“And the killing of the bull,” he said, one golden brow raised. “What of that? Surely you will not tell me that a dagger haft will be enough.”
She held the haft in her palm. “Look,” she said, and pressed down, and the haft grew a stubby portion of blade. She pressed again and another portion snapped out, then another and another, until she was holding a sword. “Daedalus was indeed a master, but even before that, he was an Athenian. He would be honoured to have his creations used by you.”
A footstep sounded in the corridor. Ariadne pressed the sword back into a haft and put it and the ball of string back under her girdle. She leaned until her lips were against his ear and whispered, “They’ll bathe you tonight, and shave your head, and dress you in a white robe. Tomorrow morning I’ll come to you here and give the thread and dagger to you. They will be easy to conceal. No one will touch you again until they push you toward the maze’s door.”
More steps. “Princess?” called a voice, and I stepped nearly to the doorway and said, maybe a bit too loudly, “My Lady, this prisoner has drunk more than his share. We must go to the others now.”
I know it’s difficult to believe, but the glance your sister gave me was almost grateful. She said, “You are right. My tendency toward mercy makes me forget my task.” We stepped out of the cell just as the priestess was reaching it.
“He was greedy,” Ariadne said to her, “and he begged for his freedom with sweet, clever words, but I do not wish him punished for this. The Goddess will mete out her own punishment, or blessing, very soon.”
The priestess peered past her at Theseus, whose head was bowed, but who still managed to look like a prince. “Very well, Lady,” the priestess said, and we moved to the next cell. Sotiria’s—the girl I’d chosen for my part of the plan.
I’ve barely noticed anything since. I’ve walked and talked, served, cleaned and done everything else I usually do, but my mind’s been on my plan. My bigger, better plan. I did pay attention when Ariadne said, in her chamber tonight, “I only wish there had been time for him to test his godmark on me.” I didn’t respond, because she hardly ever expects me to. “Imagine: they’re probably shaving all that glorious golden hair off him right now . . .”
I just kept pinning her own black hair into coils and hoped she’d fall asleep quickly so that I could slip back to Sotiria’s cell and tell her what I had to tell her. And Ariadne did—thank all the octopus’s arms (as you’d say). More than that I cannot write of here. (Except to tell you that Sotiria’s godmark is being able to take other people’s pain from them and suffer it herself. Not just being able to:
to. She has nearly as many scars as you do.)
“Nearly time” the small fish cried
And tickled bigger fish insides. . . .
I’m giddy. Sick. I should try to sleep; I need to sleep.
“Be brave,” the starfish said, “and bold
I’ll give you all my hands to hold. . . .”