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Authors: Caitlin Sweet

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Greek & Roman

The Door in the Mountain (5 page)

BOOK: The Door in the Mountain
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“I look on you now, and I rejoice in your godhead, and yet,” she went on, each word harsher than the one before it, “I hate your pain. I hate it, and I wonder what caused it. Who caused it.”

The slave gasped, “My Queen, it—” and Ariadne leapt to her feet.

“It was her!” she cried, pointing at the slave. “I came because I heard him shouting and she was already here with the lamp!”

The queen’s green eyes shifted. The brows above them arched.

“No!” The slave’s hands were still over her mouth. “No, that’s not true! Why would I bring a lamp on such a hot day? My Queen,
I
came when I heard the prince shouting, and it was
she
 . . .”

The slave was fat. She was fat and her hair was lank and her eyes were small and darting, like a sow’s—and yet Pasiphae was gazing at Ariadne now, looking her up and down as if she might actually believe the woman.

“Daughter,” she said. “Tell me once more what happened.”

Ariadne swallowed. She drew herself up tall. One of her hairpins was slipping out; she felt its metal tines and a wayward curl tickling her neck but she didn’t fidget at all.

“I heard Asterion. I was too hot to sleep; I heard him and got here very quickly. He was on the floor and
she
was kneeling by him. The sheet was still on fire so I put it out with my skirt—look!—there are holes in it, and my hands are all pink and burned! I screamed so that someone else would come.”

Asterion coughed, and froth came out of his mouth. He was staring at her.
He
can hardly speak
, she thought.
He’s only two. So there’s no way he can understand me, either
. And yet he stared at her. Chara was staring, too—how long had she been awake? She was crouched with her arms wrapped around her knees, a thumb in her mouth. Her sea-mist eyes were almost as round as his had been.

Before Ariadne could say anything else, hands came down on her shoulders. They were large and blunt-nailed and covered with black hair. She knew they were her father’s even before she craned up at him.

“I have only just come, and yet I think I understand this much: a slave is telling the royal family that the Princess Ariadne lies.”

The slave bent her head. Her hair fell in sweat-clumped strands around her face. “I am,” she whispered.

Fool!
thought Ariadne, but as she did, a sick shudder rose from her belly to her throat. (Had she really been dancing in front of everyone, just this morning? Had everyone really just been cheering for her?)

“Leave this room,” Minos said to the slave. His voice rumbled through Ariadne and she felt heat—flame stirring beneath the skin of his fingertips. The sickness had already gone. “Leave this city. And tell everyone who asks that Minos King was merciful enough to let you live.”

The woman shuffled toward the doorway. She paused and moved her hair aside with one fat-fingered hand when she reached Ariadne. Her beady brown eyes found the princess’s and held them.


Now
,” said the king. The slave shuffled on, and out.

Pasiphae was looking down at Asterion, drawing her weeping palms gently along his burns. Deucalion was standing with his head against the painted bull-god’s flank, facing his mother. The only eyes Ariadne could see were Androgeus’s and Asterion’s, and they were on her, steady and knowing.
Androgeus can talk to animals
, she thought, and the sickness was in her throat again.

“He is monstrous,” Minos said.

Pasiphae smiled and smoothed a lock of hair behind Asterion’s ear. “He is my god’s, and he frightens you. Shames you, too—for your own family came to kingship with marks far weaker than his. Conjurors of light and thunder; the gods were hardly even trying when they marked
your
line.”

Minos gripped Ariadne’s shoulders even more tightly. The heat in his fingers made her want to wriggle, but she didn’t. She waited for him to growl a curse or shoot bolts of fire at her mother, but he only stood and stood, breathing heavily—and then his hands were gone and he was walking swiftly down the hall, in and out of the light that fell between the pillars. “No!” Ariadne wanted to cry after him. “Come back;
do
something!”

“My son,” Pasiphae crooned. “My little lord.”

Ariadne felt blood surging up into her head again. There were voices, too, her own and ones she didn’t know:
You should’ve been the only one to know about him no one’s looking at you no one’s paying you any attention at all not the gods and not men even though you danced for them only this morning run away run away and they may notice. . . .

She ran, but no one called after her and no one followed. All of her hairpins fell out; by the time she came to a panting halt in Naucrate’s outer chamber, her curls were hanging against her neck and back in a tangled mess.

“Princess! What is it now? Come here and sit by me. . . .”

Naucrate smelled like lemons, as always, and her hands were as firm and gentle as ever, tracing long lines on Ariadne’s back, but the voices and blood didn’t stop their pounding. Ariadne pulled herself free of Naucrate’s arms and ran to the table. She swept everything off it—all the tiny jars and vials and boxes. Kohl, perfume, figs, and glass rained down onto the stone.

“Ariadne,” Naucrate said, into the silence that followed. “Oh, Minnow, what’s wrong?”

Chara waited for the voices to stop. The screaming and shouting frightened her—and she’d already been afraid because of the fire. She crouched down as close to the floor as she could and put her hands over her ears. But she couldn’t leave because he was in the fire, he was screaming, he was growing fur and horns and falling down, and she just couldn’t get up and run, even though her feet wanted her to.

So she waited on the floor at the end of his bed. The fire went out and the first people left and others came. One of these others spread oil over his body and then wound him in long strips of white, which made him look like the doll her mother had given her to sleep with: a hard, fat thing with arms that always stuck out, and no eyes. She could still see his eyes, though. They shone in the light of the lantern the other people brought—more fire, but this time it stayed where it should, and he didn’t seem afraid. The sky got darker. The room grew shadows—but she knew that he could see her, too, squeezed into the space between a pillar and a wall. He blinked at her, over the shoulders of the people who knelt to help him and talk to him. Talking, talking; Chara wanted it to be quiet.

At last only Chara and one old person were in the room. The old person was always here, and hardly ever spoke, and never tried to make Chara go away like other people sometimes did. So Chara crawled to his bed, around the old person who was slowly washing the floor. She put her hands on the edge of his bed and stood up on her toes. He was crying; she hadn’t seen that from the space between the pillar and the wall. His cheeks were wet and he was making little noises. She patted his arm, which was hard and fat with all the white strips. She wiped at his cheeks with her own sleeve, the way her mother did with her.

He smiled at her.

CHAPTER FIVE

No one in the altar-room was paying any attention to Chara. People hardly ever did, except when they wanted her to fetch something: sealing wax or cleaning sponges, or amphorae of wine that were very heavy, but that she carried without shaking. She was nearly eight, unmarked by the gods, and the daughter of a slave; no one except Asterion really saw her, even when they looked right at her, and she didn’t mind this at all. Being invisible had its uses. She could go almost anywhere she wanted in the palace; she knew all its corridors and corners, and the deepest and highest of its rooms. She could run in the dark without stumbling because her hands recognized each column and wall by its carvings, and even the texture of its paint. (The scarlet parts of the olive storage-room walls were pebbly, and the white parts felt like sand ripples. Daedalus’s bulls were lumpy, and the gold of their tiny horns was cool and smooth.) She could press herself into the shadows and watch things—as she was doing now, in the altar-room of the Great Mother.

Asterion was standing before the double-axe pillar. He was naked and glistening with oil; he looked like a golden creature that had just pulled itself out of the sea. A priestess was kneeling before him, holding up a lamp. He lifted his hands. Chara bit her lower lip; she always did at this point in the rite because the first time she’d seen it she’d gasped, and the queen had glanced over at her. Yet maybe it hadn’t been the first time? Because whenever she watched Asterion change, Chara felt something like a memory, tugging at her—but she couldn’t ever see it clearly enough to understand it.

He passed his hands slowly through the shuddering tip of the flame. He didn’t flinch. Just this one pass was enough: he fell forward onto his hands and knees and changed, swiftly and silently, as the priestesses poured libations on the stone around him. He stamped his hoofs and his heavy head swung back and forth on his neck. The shadow he cast on the walls and floor seemed even bigger than a real bull.

The stamping was the only sound the bull-prince made until a few moments later when Pasiphae called the boy-prince back. She raised her hands above the animal, and water rained down on his woolly back and tossing head, and he snorted and then roared, as if the water hurt him more than the fire had. When he heaved his human body upright, he whimpered; when Pasiphae put her silver, weeping hands on him, he hissed.

The queen cried, “Thank you, Lord Poseidon, for the mark you placed upon this child—and see how we honour you, by calling it forth.”

Chara could see the spaces between Asterion’s ribs hollowing and filling and hollowing again. His eyes swivelled and found her beneath the offering table. She stopped biting her lip and smiled at him. She wasn’t worried when he didn’t smile back; he never did this soon after a change.

Pasiphae kissed his forehead and ran her hands over what remained of his horns. “Anthousa,” she said as she turned away from him, toward the youngest priestess, “
please
remember not to pour the wine too quickly, next time; it’s a most unpleasant sound and it spatters everywhere—now come, all of you; Asterion needs his quiet. . . .”

Chara held her breath as they left, but none of them looked back. She waited until their footsteps had faded before she crawled out from her hiding place.

Asterion was sitting with his legs crossed, staring at the floor. His shoulders were slumped; when she touched one of them he started, as if he hadn’t remembered she was there.

“Freckles.” He’d called her this since they were six. His voice leapt from low to high as he spoke, and he cleared his throat roughly.

“Asterion.” She had no nickname for him. Just using his real name would get her flogged, if an important palace adult heard her, even though Asterion himself didn’t care. “How do you feel?”

The same words every time, like a poem or a prayer—except not, because sometimes they were funny.

“It hurts.”

“Baby.”

He pinched her ear and she laughed, and he said, “What’ve you brought me this time?”

She reached into the leather pouch that hung from her belt. (Her mother had tried to make her use an embroidered one, and also to lengthen her loincloth into a skirt, but Chara had refused: things were very comfortable the way they were.) “Something from the sea,” she said. “Well, from the kitchens, really, but before
that
from the sea.”

He turned his hand up and she dropped a crab shell into it. The shell was purply-blue, but it looked black in the flickering lamplight.

“It’s tiny,” he said, poking it with a forefinger. “I wonder why they didn’t throw it back to grow some more.”

“Maybe someone thought it was pretty.” She didn’t really think this was possible—but the shell
was
pretty. “So,” she continued, “now how do you feel?”

“Much better,” Asterion said and smiled at her at last.

“Ariadne, please say I can come with you to the summer palace! Please! Remember how much we enjoyed your thirteenth birthday? Well, imagine how much better this year’s will be!”

“Princess, come watch Draxos and me wrestle—we always salute you before, and the winner does too—we do all this to honour you, Princess.”

“I could carve a better likeness of you now than I did last summer—I’ve learned much from Master Daedalus since then. If you’re going to take Diantha to the summer palace you must take me, too, so that you can sit for the carving.”

“Wrestling? No—Princess, you must come listen to my poem. . . .”

They’re like a flock of geese
, Ariadne thought.
Though of course geese couldn’t give me poems and sculptures; nor would they be able to bend metal with their minds or command new leaves to open or float just above the ground, as these ones do. No,
my
geese are very accomplished.

They followed her—Diantha, Alkaios, Galenos, and Karpos—along the portico that overlooked the main courtyard. Young people always followed her—sometimes these, sometimes others. So many geese, and she a swan.

She was considering which one of them to address first when she glanced down and saw Asterion. He was folded into the shadows where the grand staircase met the courtyard wall. His head was lowered; she could see the shapes of his horns protruding from his riot of golden curls. Chara was beside him, of course, leaning her head close to his. The dark and the gold, together as always.

Ariadne stopped walking and the geese stumbled into each other as they stopped, too. “Alkaios,” she said, smiling into his eyes so that he flushed and floated another foot’s breadth above the ground, “I promise to come watch you wrestle tomorrow—tell Draxos this. Diantha,”—who’d begun wearing her hair in the same ringlets and knots as Ariadne did, though it wasn’t nearly as thick and shiny as Ariadne’s—“I’ll speak to the queen about bringing you this summer, too, though I cannot promise anything. Galenos,”—he didn’t flush when she smiled at him; he went pale and clutched his hands together in front of his belly—“I look forward to hearing your poem, perhaps after dinner tonight? I’ll make sure we have some time alone. And Karpos,”—at last, someone who met her gaze and held his chin high; she deepened her voice to warm honey for him—“Daedalus has already spoken of the most recent likeness you did of me. He says the marble Ariadne breathes just as the real one does. I’ll have you show me later. But now there’s something I must do alone.”

They stared at her. She felt the smile dimming on her lips. “Which means that you should go,” she said. “That way.” They turned and went back along the sunlit walk, following the scarlet pillars this time, not her. (Karpos looked back once; she spun on her heel before he looked ahead again.)

She approached Asterion and Chara so quietly that they didn’t notice her until she was two paces from them. As soon as Asterion saw her, he straightened. Ariadne imagined how his shoulder blades would ache, pressing against the stone. The slave, she noted, didn’t move.

“Leave us.” She looked away from Chara as she spoke, though the words were meant for her.

“But—” Asterion began, and Ariadne said, “Girl. Leave us.”

There was a silence that was slightly too short to indicate insolence, and then Chara said, “As you wish, Princess,” in that ridiculously solemn tone of hers, and walked away from them on her irritatingly sun-browned bare feet.

Ariadne drew a deep breath. “Brother.” This was her voice of silk (which was quite different from her voice of honey).

“Ariadne.” The word was like a question, though not a nervous one. She took another step. In all the years since his first change, they’d almost never been alone together; perhaps he didn’t remember it at all, and that was why he wasn’t nervous. He blinked at her as she drew closer.

“Where’s Androgeus?” she said.

“At the training ground. I’m supposed to meet him there—he promised to teach me to throw a discus. I told him I probably wouldn’t be able to throw far. In fact, I’ll probably fall over.” He smiled a little. He didn’t look nervous but he did look tired—she could see this, now that she was an arm’s length away. There were bruised circles around his eyes and the streaky scars on his right cheek were a darker purple than usual. She shifted her gaze from these scars to the ones on his arms, which were like purple-brown snakes. They seemed the same—but fresh pink blisters stretched in rows across the backs of his hands, on top of all the old white ones.

“Was there another rite last night?” She tried to make her tone curious but not sharp.

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yes.” She must have frowned; he said quickly, “But don’t worry—it was just Mother and the two youngest priestesses, and they only let me be the Bull for a few minutes.”

“Ah,” Ariadne said, as if this information didn’t interest her. (Though it did, of course—she’d only seen one such rite; why did their mother not include her?) She stepped closer to him. “Well, if you’re supposed to be meeting Androgeus, why are you here?”

Asterion lifted one shoulder and held it like that; a shrug, but not really. He closed his eyes and opened them again, so wide that they almost looked like his bull-eyes. Somehow he didn’t seem silly, even doing these things. Ariadne clenched her hands into fists.

“I was . . . tired of everyone,” he said. “The people who follow me everywhere.”

“Like the slave’s child? Chara?” Who was even now walking around a pillar at the far end of the courtyard, drawing her hands up and down as if she were tracing the shapes of waves onto the stone. A strange, dim girl; thank the gods she was unmarked.

He shook his head quickly. “Oh, no—she’s my friend. It’s the others: the ones who make the sign of the Bull and ask me to bend my head so that they can see my horns. I wish they’d go away. I know I’m like a god to them, and I know it’s unkind, but I sometimes wish they’d all just go away.” He raised both his brows and gave a real shrug. “That’s why we were here.”

Ariadne unclenched her hands. She took another step.

“Don’t,” said Asterion. Suddenly he
was
afraid: she saw it in those gold-flecked eyes and in the way his tightening lips made the sides of his neck stand out.

“Don’t what?” she whispered.

“Don’t get any closer,” said Androgeus from behind her.

She shivered with surprise inside but only cocked her head at him and smiled. “I was worried about him. I wanted to see his hands—I think Naucrate has some ointment that—”

“Don’t expect to lie to me and be believed.” Androgeus was so tall that she had to squint into sunlight to look at him.

“It’s all right,” Asterion said. “She wasn’t—”

“Little brother. Go now—run ahead to the training ground. I’ll catch up with you in a little while.”

Asterion stared from Androgeus to Ariadne. He opened his mouth as if he’d say something else but instead he bobbed his head and leapt past them. Ariadne watched him go, loping clumsily across the courtyard as if he wasn’t sure how to use his legs. Chara sped after him, a blur of limbs and hair. When they’d disappeared between two pillars (leaving a trail of wide eyes and horn signs in their wake), Ariadne swallowed and glanced under her lashes at her brother. His teeth shone from his dark, close-cropped beard. It took her a few moments to realize that he was smiling their father’s smile.

“I have news that will make you happy, Sister.”

She waited. When he said nothing more, she sighed, said lazily, “Oh? And what is this news?”

“I’m going away. Father’s sending me to the Games in Athens.”

She couldn’t help it; her head snapped around and up.

“Yes—I thought you’d like that. I thought you’d welcome the opportunity to be alone with our little brother, after all these years.”

He moved so that the light was beside him, not behind, and she could see his face clearly. Minos’s bared teeth glinted at her.

“I’ll be far away, but I’ll hear news from home.” A lizard was walking headfirst down the wall behind him. It was red and black with tiny, clear claws and yellow eyes that rolled just as Asterion’s did when he was about to change. Ariadne thought that Androgeus wouldn’t notice it, since it was well above his left shoulder—but he put up a hand to it without turning away from her, and it froze, splayed on the warm stone. He tilted his head and murmured. Silver light flowed from his fingertips to the lizard’s head, and it skittered down onto his shoulder and lay there, its scaled sides heaving. Androgeus stroked it under its chin.

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