Authors: Caitlin Sweet
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Greek & Roman
When she turned seven, Ariadne still had no godmark—but Daedalus made her a dancing ground. Minos commanded him to do it one evening after she’d danced for a gathering in the throne room. She’d whirled around the wide round hearth before the throne itself and in the narrow spaces between the hearth and the people watching her. She’d leapt head over heels as she did when she performed the bull-dance in the ring before the palace’s western doors—only now there was no bull to draw the onlookers’ eyes from her grace and daring.
When she was done (collapsed artfully at the hearth’s edge with her hair spilling over her face and arm), Minos leapt from the throne and cried over all the other cheering voices, “The princess is a wonder—she must have a larger space in which to reveal the extent of her skill. Daedalus!”
Daedalus stepped forward from his place by the outer door. He looked as distracted as he always did: gaze unfocused, hands plucking at clothing, feet lifting and falling as if he were about to spring away from where he was. “Minos King?”
distracted. Ariadne thought,
He sounds like he’s going to be angry, in a moment.
“Do this thing for me, Master Craftsman. Build me a dancing ground for my daughter and you will be closer to the freedom you claim to desire.”
A few people murmured to each other, because how could a man—an
exiled from his city—possibly want to leave Crete? Why, when he was given all the marble, metal, wood and paint he wished?
“I will do it,” Daedalus said in his cold, flat voice. “For Princess Ariadne.” He turned to her then, and smiled at her, and she lifted her chin and smiled back at him.
It took him many months. Some days he just stood on the broad steps, overlooking the place he’d decided on: a flat, empty spot that had only been meant to awe visitors to the palace as they approached. He stood and gazed, and paced and gazed. Once Ariadne saw him lie on his belly with his cheek against the dusty ground, as if he was listening to whatever was beneath it. Other days he strode about flailing his arms and shouting orders to the men below him; still others he was on his knees among them, setting small stones in the earth or patting at mortar with a trowel. Sometimes Ariadne herself walked among the workers, who stopped as she passed and made the sign of the horns to her. Sometimes she sat on the highest of the broad steps and watched them with her chin in her hands.
, she thought at all these times.
She first danced there on a morning in midsummer. It was already very hot; in a few more hours everyone would disappear indoors to sleep away the heaviest part of the afternoon.
“Wait,” Naucrate said to Ariadne. “There’s no need to dance now—it may be cooler tomorrow.”
“No,” Ariadne said. There were already people thronging the staircase and the spaces between the second-storey pillars. “Daedalus said I could start today and I will.”
She ran down the steps and stood with her bare toes touching the edge of the dancing ground. It was marked by a ring of stones set into the earth—tiny ones that seemed to flow from the outside into the centre in swirling shapes like octopus arms. She looked up and over her shoulder, saw her parents and brothers standing in a gallery over the entrance columns, and Daedalus pacing behind them. Icarus was above them all, crouched between two massive sets of horns on the palace’s roof. Even from so far beneath, she could make out his thin, twisted smile and the glint of the metal string at his belt.
She lifted her arms and the audience hushed. A flute began to trill but no one looked at its player—they gazed at her instead. She felt their eyes on her. She smiled and closed her own. Her feet were already shifting, but only a little; she wanted to imagine how the flute’s notes would lead her before she danced. So she stood, perhaps a bit longer than she needed to, while the palace waited.
The pebbles were cool. She lingered on them at first, drawing her soles over them as if she were wading through water. Soon she was moving faster, spinning as the music did, tracing patterns over stone and dust. Her dancing master had taught her these steps, and yet she felt others among them that were her own and the earth’s.
Maybe this time
, she thought as she leapt and whirled.
I’ll be surrounded by a silver light and everyone will know that I’ve finally been marked.
But there was no light except the sun’s. She knew this as she folded herself onto the ground in the very centre and the last of the flute’s notes faded. For an instant, her heart broke again—but then the cheering began, and she straightened and smiled at all the people who loved her.
That afternoon, Ariadne couldn’t sleep. She lay as motionless as she could atop her sheet, her arms and legs spread wide, but sweat still seeped from her skin and flattened her hair. She imagined her mother lying in
bed, one corridor away. The same sunlight would be oozing between the round pillars up near the ceiling; the same heat would be pulsing through the walls. But Pasiphae would probably be sleeping, her own skin beaded with water, not sweat.
Ariadne groaned and sat up. The paint on her walls seemed to swim: the green coils of plants and their crimson flowers; the brown of fawns and hares. “Deucalion,” she said, and reached for some hairpins. He would help, she thought as she stuck the pins into her sodden curls—he’d summon a small, fresh wind that would soothe them both. But he was asleep, curled up like a cat in the chamber beside hers. Glaucus was asleep too; even the children’s slave was sleeping, sitting cross-legged with her back against the square pillar that separated the boys’ rooms.
Ariadne almost woke her brothers (with a single, piercing scream, right in Glaucus’s ear), but then she thought,
No—it’s so quiet, and I’m alone—I’m the only one awake, and I could do anything I wanted . . . If only Phaidra didn’t have a nurse, I could creep in and put a lizard in her cradle. But Asterion—
just moved into his own chamber. Yes—Asterion . . .
He wasn’t alone: that girl, Chara, was asleep on the floor at the foot of his bed. She was lying on her back with her limbs splayed, as if she were on the finest of mattresses and not stone. Ariadne ground her teeth in annoyance. The child was always with him when her mother, Pherenike, was attending to the queen—a small, thin, dark-haired little shadow whose grey eyes were strangely solemn, when they were open. Now, though, they were tightly closed.
Ariadne looked from Chara to Asterion. At first she thought he was awake because his arms and legs were twitching. He was facing the doorway but his chin was tucked against his chest and she couldn’t see his eyes. He twitched and twitched, and his limbs made hissing sounds on the cloth. She stepped through the doorway and walked slowly toward the bed, her bare feet silent on the stone. When she was close enough to touch him, he sucked in his breath and flung himself onto his back. She froze and held her own breath until she saw that his eyes were closed. They rolled beneath their lids, up and down and around. She remembered this rolling from the cave, nearly two summers ago; the very same movement, though his eyes had been open that time. She also remembered that his horn nubs had glowed like molten bronze, before. Even though his hair was much longer and thicker, she could see that it was the same now: two points of light were throbbing on either side of his head.
It was very hot in the cave
, she thought.
And it’s very hot in here
. She pressed a stray curl flat against her forehead, wound it tighter with her fingertip until it was like a whorl of seashell.
What would happen to him if it got hotter?
Getting the lamp was easy. There were only a few slaves about between the family’s quarters and the underground storerooms, and all they did was raise their hands to her in the sign of the Bull and continue about their business. She paused in the grain room, which was dark except for the flickering of oil lamps. The rows of jars soared above her head. Their shadows were taller yet. She drew in gulps of cool air, but just for a moment—soon people would be stirring.
The lamp’s base was metal and she had to shift it from hand to hand as she walked so that her skin wouldn’t burn. She set it down quickly on the floor beside Asterion’s bed; it clanged against the stone and he grunted and thrashed, but his rolling eyes didn’t open. Chara didn’t move at all.
Ariadne stared at his walls for a bit while she thought. The paint on them was all blues and whites: water, sky, the god-bull forming out of a foaming wave. The god-bull on the wall and the god-boy on the bed—she scowled and turned back to the lamp.
The hem of Asterion’s sheet caught fire almost as soon as she touched it to the lamp. The cloth melted black behind the flame, which widened as it climbed. When it reached the bed frame it was nearly as long as Asterion was, from glowing horns to scuffing feet.
, she thought as she stumbled backward,
I was wrong; I shouldn’t have. . . .
The fire was flowing under the arm and leg closest to the edge; it was around them, over them, in the space of a single heartbeat. He woke with a cry and lurched up on the bed, and the fire was eating at his loincloth. He cried out again; his voice sounded too low, as if he were a man, not a two-year-old boy. He threw himself off the bed, straight at Ariadne. She leapt back and he fell at her feet. Sparks caught in her skirt and she smacked at them with her hands until they died.
He gazed up at her, and in the space of one more heartbeat his eyes widened and rounded until there was no more boy in them. He heaved himself onto his hands and knees. His loincloth fell away in gobbets of black and embers and his spine arched. Blisters unfurled on his skin and turned almost immediately to coarse brown hair that bloomed along his back and sides in patches that joined. His golden head had gone dark and matted too, and his horns were longer, curving out and up above folded-over ears. He scrabbled at the ground with fingers and toes that fused as Ariadne watched, their nails spreading and yellowing into cloven halves.
He turned his head—sideways, because his neck was so thick that he couldn’t lift it up. The fire was only sparks now, spinning and settling on his furred body and on the lashes clustered around his eyes. His eyes were rolling again, white and brown and black. She lowered herself slowly into a crouch, too fascinated to be afraid anymore.
He can’t see me
. “Look at you, Brother,” she said, loudly enough to be heard above the
of his breath. “Look at what you are—and I’m the one who found out. I’m the only one who knows. So if you change back now—if you can just do that, no one else will—”
The beast that had been Asterion bellowed. This wasn’t the low cry of before but a full-throated roar that startled Ariadne back onto her heels. The roar didn’t stop. She heard another sound—a scream, behind her—and began to scream herself because she knew she should, and because she was afraid again. The children’s slave ran past her. She flapped her skirt against the sheet until the flames died and then hovered a few paces away from the bull-thing. She raised her hands to her mouth but they muffled nothing. Her scream trailed into a sort of whine, while Ariadne’s continued. Footsteps pounded along the hallway, closer and closer (Ariadne heard them when she paused to breathe). She squeezed her eyes shut.
, Ari!” Deucalion, shaking her by the shoulders but not looking at her. Glaucus was clinging to the doorframe. He was already crying, Ariadne saw. Androgeus strode past Glaucus. He stood above the bull, who was on his side, kicking as he roared. Androgeus knelt. He placed one hand on the creature’s flank and one on his head, between the horns. He leaned close and spoke his godmarked words again, which Ariadne could never understand. The coarse hair beneath his hands turned to silver.
The bellowing and kicking stopped. The rolling eyes went still and changed shape—everything did, from hoofs to legs to flanks to barrel chest to damp, flaring nostrils. It happened in the time it took Ariadne to blink three times (she tried not to blink at all, but there’d been tears with her screaming), and when it was done, Asterion the boy lay on his belly on the stone. His slender arms and legs trembled. They were covered with blistered welts, but his back was the worst: red and raw like the insides of a flayed animal. Androgeus drew Asterion’s head gently onto his lap. He stroked his damp golden hair and murmured more words as Asterion gasped and sobbed.
He’s in such pain
, Ariadne thought, and felt a rush of horror and pleasure that sent blood dizzily to her head.
Someone was laughing. Ariadne turned and saw Pasiphae standing in the doorway. She was laughing and maybe crying—it was hard to tell whether the moisture on her cheeks was sweat or godmarked water or tears. She walked slowly to her sons and knelt by Asterion. “My little god,” she said. “Poseidon’s little bull—I saw him in you, just now, and I heard him in your voice.” She held her palms above his back. Water dripped from them and fell on his raw skin like a mist. All his muscles bunched when it touched him, but as it seeped and spread he went limp.