Authors: Caitlin Sweet
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Greek & Roman
“Brother.” She could barely keep herself from smiling when he started and fell sideways. Chara looked up slowly, her brows raised a little beneath her mess of hair.
-sister,” Asterion said, pulling himself back into a crouch. “What do you want?”
His face was tipped up to her. His eyes and voice were steady.
, she thought,
this isn’t how he should be. This will not do
“I just want to know what you’re doing. Thinking about Androgeus, maybe?”
Asterion’s expression didn’t change. “I think about him all the time.”
“You must miss him terribly. He was your protector, after all.”
Asterion smiled a strange little smile. “Oh? What was he protecting me from?”
No. Not right. You can do better than this, Ari
She shrugged. “You don’t
to miss him at all. Look at you—so calm and cold.”
“I’m not a baby,” Asterion said. “I can hide what I’m feeling.”
Ariadne twitched her skirts and brushed imaginary specks off her bodice sleeves. “I remember when you were born, you know. I remember how you squalled, then—and two years later.” She crouched, suddenly, and leaned forward so that her forehead was nearly brushing his. “I remember how you screamed when the fire touched you for the first time.”
He didn’t move, but Chara did. She scrambled upright, her hands clenched at her sides. Her bare, flat, brown chest heaved.
“Girl?” Ariadne spoke carelessly as she straightened, but she felt her own pulse quickening. “What is it?”
“I remember, too,” Chara said. Her eyes had no grey in them now—only black. “Just now, suddenly, when you said that . . . I was there. I was on the floor—I saw you put the lamp down. . . .”
Ariadne heard Asterion gasp but she didn’t turn to him. “Oh?” She couldn’t say more; she thought her words might tremble the same way her insides did.
“Yes,” Chara went on, even more quickly, “I remember the heat and how everything changed, all the twisting and the fire. I remember you putting the lamp down. You stood there smiling, even though he was screaming.”
He was breathing quickly now, too, and Ariadne thought,
, and a new sort of hunger chased away her fear.
“You were too little to help him then,” she said, “and you’re too powerless now. It’s a shame that he has no one to protect him anymore.”
He rose. He was smiling. “I’m not afraid of you,” he said. “I can’t believe I ever was. And I wish I could tell Androgeus so.”
She laughed. “Not afraid? Really? Prove it, little
He bent his head so that he could see past her.
, she thought,
look for somewhere to run. I’ll only follow.
But he didn’t run. He turned and took a few measured paces to a brazier that burned at the courtyard’s edge. He gazed into it so intently that he didn’t seem to notice the people who passed and made the sign to him. Some of them paused to watch him. Ariadne smiled, in case anyone looked at her, but she also shifted from foot to foot and clicked her tongue against her teeth. Beside her, Chara was motionless.
He stared for so long that Ariadne thought,
, and took a step forward—but just as she did, he plunged his arms into the brazier. Someone screamed. Someone else cried out, “We see your gifts and bear your marks!” They were the first few words of an ancient prayer to the Great Mother. If the prayer continued, Ariadne couldn’t hear it above the hammering of her own heart.
Asterion held his arms still for a moment. When he raised them slowly up, they trailed sparks, as Minos’s often did. The sparks settled, some on the ground and some on his clothing and skin—and they caught there and bloomed into flames. Ariadne blinked against the blur of light. The lines of him ran together until he had no body—he was just fire, which swirled and spiralled—and now there
a body, but it wasn’t a boy’s. The new thing rolled itself on the ground until the fire subsided again to sparks.
A bull heaved itself to its four cloven feet and swung its head toward Ariadne.
Her breathing was louder than her heartbeat.
How is the bull so big when the boy’s so small?
She took two steps back and felt the stones of the dancing ground beneath her. Bull-Asterion pawed at the hard earth of the courtyard and moved forward. No one else backed away from him; if anything there were more people, all of them closing silently in behind him. He snorted. Kept moving, each heavy, graceful step bringing him closer to her. His horns swept back and forth, making arcs so bright that she had to look away. She heard him snuffling and pacing—and then she heard him roar.
He was charging. A few more seconds and he would reach her; she whirled and ran out onto the dancing ground. She had no thoughts—where to go or how to get there—but her feet carried her forward and forward and then nowhere because there were people in her way: people in a ring, their numbers increasing as she stood gasping in the centre. She turned to look behind. Bull-Asterion was nearly upon her. Her body led her, once more. Her hands gripped her skirts into two bunches which they tied beneath her, so that her legs would be free. All her muscles bunched and tightened and her knees flexed and she waited for him, as she’d waited for other bulls, in this very place. She launched herself into the air when he was an arm’s length away. She felt the metal-smoothness of his horns in her palms, but they weren’t cool, as the other bulls’ had been: they were scalding, and she cried out as she gripped them. She didn’t need to grip them for long, though: she thrust herself upside down and backwards, and finally into a twist that carried her over his flanks and down onto the ground.
She heard cheering, through the pounding in her head. The sound was so familiar that she smiled—but then she heard stamping, too. So many people, all of them stamping and calling out their praise to the Bull.
He swung around and pawed at the ground—at the stones that Daedalus had ordered laid for
. He charged again. This time he held his horns lower and her grasp wasn’t as firm; she crumpled before she could get into her upside-down position, and slid down off his side. She whimpered as she straightened, but when she turned to watch his retreat she spat his name, over and over, as if it were the vilest curse she knew. He retreated, looped in a thudding arc, came back toward her. Once, twice, a third time—and each time he seemed stronger and swifter, and she a little less graceful.
The fourth time was the last. He tossed his head just before she could touch him and she pitched forward. Any other bull would have gored her then, and thrown her limp body aside. Bull-Asterion swerved, so that she fell on the ground, not on his horns. She lay curled up like a nautilus shell as his hoofbeats receded and stopped. She heard the roar of the crowd. Their stamping shuddered all the way to her bones.
Don’t do this
, she thought dimly.
Get up, Princess.
She rose and stood very tall. As she did, the crowd quieted. Her mother’s voice rang out into the new silence.
“Let us offer thanks to the Great God for the spectacle we have just witnessed!” Another cheer. Ariadne stared up at the queen, who was standing on the steps that led to the entrance pillars. The light of the braziers ringed around the courtyard behind her played over her hair and outstretched arms. The strands of golden rings that hung from her ears winked and shimmered.
“Let us offer thanks to my children, who are themselves so blessed!”
Bull-Asterion was standing below Pasiphae. The glow seemed to touch him, too, and to smudge the brown coat, the furred legs, the hoofs and lowered head. All of these things melted and warped until a smaller, brighter form knelt upon the dancing ground.
“All praise to Poseidon’s son!” someone cried.
“And all praise to the Princess of Knossos!” cried someone else. One last, scattered cheer went up.
“Now come here to me, children,” the queen called.
Ariadne walked slowly to stand beside Asterion. She heard people dispersing around her, murmuring and laughing; she saw them streaming between the pillars, back into the courtyard. (She couldn’t see Chara among them.)
Her mother smiled down at them. Her eyes were so dark that Ariadne could only imagine their green. “You have never played together,” the queen said in a low voice that did not match her smile. “So I can only assume that what just happened here was no game. Ariadne,”—the word was as hard as a slap—“I do not know what you did to provoke Asterion. I do not truly need to know. But whatever it was, you will not do it again.”
“Why do you accuse only me?” Ariadne swallowed to clear the tears from her throat. “How can you be sure he didn’t change for his own reasons?”
Pasiphae shook her head. The earrings swung against the long line of her neck. “He promised Poseidon and his priestesses that he would change only in the service of the true gods. He would not break this promise without good cause.”
“No, Mother.” Asterion’s words came out thickly; perhaps his tongue and teeth were still reshaping themselves. “It
just a game. I’m sorry. I won’t belittle my father’s gift again.”
Pasiphae looked from him to Ariadne and back. “I am unhappy with you both,” she said at last. “Leave me.”
They walked together into the courtyard. Ariadne glanced over her shoulder; Pasiphae was still standing facing the dancing ground.
“So I proved it,” Asterion said. He sounded like a normal boy now. “I’m not afraid of you.”
Ariadne stopped walking and so did he. She touched a finger to one of his horns and drew it down through his hair and along the line of his jaw. She felt him shiver. She gouged a swift, thin line into his cheek and smiled as he sucked in his breath. “You should be,” she said.
A storm blew in from the west, the day Ariadne turned sixteen. That morning, Chara and Asterion sat with their backs against two grain jars—the largest of all the storage jars, which trembled every time the thunder cracked. They laughed when this happened but didn’t speak.
“Rats,” said a voice from the dimness. “Hiding in the cellar.”
“Mother!” Asterion scrabbled to sit up straight. He was tired today, Chara knew; there had been another rite the night before because the fishing in the waters below the summer palace had been sparse so far this season, which meant that Lord Poseidon had to be appeased. (When the rite was done, she’d given him an amber bead she’d found at the foot of the cliff stairs, almost entirely buried in sand. “It’s cooler than water,” he’d said as he held it to his wrist, where his newest burn was.)
Pasiphae frowned. Chara thought,
She should look funny, so far above us with the lamplight making her nostrils huge and her eyes beady, but she doesn’t. She looks beautiful and frightening
“Go, Asterion.” The queen spoke coldly and clearly, in the spaces between the thunder. “Wait for me in the throne room. Ariadne’s well-wishers are gathering there now.”
“In that case,
shouldn’t be there.” Asterion smiled and Chara snuffled (which was the sound she made when she was trying not to laugh).
Pasiphae snapped, “
He rose. His eyes glinted as he glanced at Chara; then he walked out of the lamplight and into the darkness.
Chara rose too; she expected that the queen would tell her to, if she didn’t.
“Come with me,” Pasiphae said, and turned. She strode among the jars so quickly that Chara had to hurry to catch up. She remained a few paces behind, as they went up stairs and along corridors, past altar pools that the rain was turning into tiny stormy oceans.
“In here,” the queen said when she finally halted. They were standing before the princess’s doorway. Chara had never been inside Ariadne’s rooms—not at Knossos and not here at the summer palace either, even when Glaucus tried to persuade her to come with him to rearrange the princess’s perfume vials or put fish skeletons in her bed. Now Chara crossed the threshold after Pasiphae, her heart jumping a little in her chest. The room was long and thin and had higher walls than she had ever seen. They were painted bright blue and ochre: the sky and earth of island summer.
The cloth on the bed was yellow and brown.
“A new skirt and bodice,” the queen said, gesturing to the cloth.
Chara gazed from it to the woman beside her. “Yes,” she said. “They’re very nice.”
Even Pasiphae’s frown was beautiful. “They are for you. Put them on.”
“For . . .” Chara knew her own frown wasn’t nearly as lovely as the queen’s, but she couldn’t smooth it away. “I don’t understand. My Queen.”
Pasiphae bent to brush at something invisible on her skirt pleat. Her gold pendant winked in the pale hollow of her throat. “You are too old to be wrestling with boys, and the way you trail around after Asterion is unseemly. Your mother apparently had no desire or will to tell you otherwise, when she was alive, and I did not much care when you were small—but now I do. It is time you dressed like a woman of Crete. It is time you acted like one.”
“But my Queen—” Chara began.
“Part of being a woman of Crete is knowing when to speak and how. Perhaps you will learn these things when you serve the Lady Ariadne.”
Chara couldn’t help it: her mouth fell open. “Serve . . . the princess.”
“Yes. I am giving you to her—today, for her birthday. She needs a slave and you need a useful position within the household. The arrangement will suit you both. Now dress, girl, before the celebration is over.”
Ariadne had been angry in the morning as she gazed out at the lightning-split black of the sky. In the afternoon, when everyone gathered in the Lily Chamber to celebrate, she was happier. The lightning (which flickered in sheets now, not Zeus’s bolts) played over Galenos’s face as he recited the poem he had written for her. Rainbows streamed from the gnarled fingertips of Phaidra’s old nurse and wavered on the floor by the hearth, which shone with its own, real flame. The room smelled of rain and earth, heated oil and poured wine, and the fig pies Naucrate had made. And it seemed as if all the summer palace’s inhabitants were there, from youngest to oldest, lowliest to highest, even Minos’s priests, who lurked like a line of ravens just inside the outer pillars, where the rain blew in on gusts of wind.
“My elder daughter may be unmarked,” the queen said, when the tributes had been made, “but she is still blessed. Anyone with eyes to see knows this.”
Ariadne turned slightly in her own chair and smiled at her mother.
Why only “elder daughter,”
she thought as Pasiphae smiled back at her,
when your younger is also unmarked? But no—you never let
You never let anyone forget. I hate you for it, but even you won’t ruin this day for me.
“I, also, have a gift for her,” the queen continued. “Step forward, Chara, daughter of Pherenike.”
A girl slipped between two of the priests.
That’s not her
, thought Ariadne—but then she saw that it was: Chara the scrawny, sun-baked slave girl, draped in clean, dyed cloth, some of her hair wrapped into neat knots at the top of her head and the rest falling reasonably straight behind. She walked closer and Ariadne saw that her wide grey eyes, at least, hadn’t changed.
“Well,” Ariadne said when Chara stopped before her. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible.” The princess’s gaze flickered to Asterion. He was craning forward from his place in the front row, gaping like a fish on land. His cheek scars writhed into entirely new patterns. Ariadne smiled. “I am pleased to have the most richly attired slave on the whole of Crete. Thank you, Mother. I am sure she will be very useful.”
When Chara did nothing but stand, looking at her unblinkingly, Ariadne hissed, “Bow. Immediately.”
Chara did, slowly. After she straightened, she plucked at her bodice hem and shuffled her feet, which were smudged with dirt. An awkward little thing—and yet her steady regard made Ariadne want to fidget.
“Now that all the gifts have been given,” the queen said, “it is time to—”
“Wait!” Skirts rustled on stone as people drew apart. “Apologies, Princess Minnow, for I am late—but here is something for you. . . .”
Daedalus and Icarus stopped before the throne. Daedalus was panting a bit; Ariadne imagined him running in his ungainly way up all the stairs from his workroom (he had only one, here, and it was much smaller than any he had at Knossos). Icarus’s breath whistled a bit, too, but it always did. He was cupping something in his crooked, bony fingers.
“Ooooh!” said Phaidra. She leaned so far forward from her place by Pasiphae’s knees that she had to put her little hands on Icarus’s arm to steady herself. He flinched, but she didn’t. She beamed up at him and his own twisted lips twisted a little more, in what Ariadne imagined might be a smile.
“Phaidra,” she said, laying her palm heavily on the girl’s back, “let me see; it’s
present, after all.”
Phaidra drew back quickly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It just looks so pretty . . .”
Not pretty, exactly
, thought Ariadne as she held out her hands to Icarus. He placed the thing carefully upon them. His dry fingers brushed hers and she flicked at them as if they were small, irritating things: insects perhaps, or specks of dirt. He flinched again and didn’t look at her.
It was a large wooden box with eight sides. The top was covered with a web of carvings: lines that angled inward and inward until they met in a tiny spiral that looked like the whorl of a seashell or the mark left by a finger dipped in ink.
“Press the centre to begin,” Daedalus said. “After that I’ll say no more.”
Ariadne pressed the spiral. Nothing happened.
“A little harder, Princess,” murmured Karpos over Icarus’s shoulder. She scowled at both of them, but she also pressed harder, and this time the box changed. The wood along its edges rose up and outward with a sound of whirring metal. Phaidra gasped and Pasiphae said, “Oh!” but Ariadne stayed silent. She bent closer to the box. In the space beneath where the outer edge had been were tiny tin figures, brightly painted in reds and blues and whites. A boy, a girl, a bird, a dolphin, a boat, a griffin, a snake, and a boar: one for each side. She touched the griffin’s crest, which was sharp. It wiggled back and forth but her finger was too big to move it on the track she could see, deep within the box. She tipped it a little and saw eight metal levers where there hadn’t been any before; they must have popped out when the box opened. She pushed one and the boy slid to the end of his track. She pushed each of the levers, one by one, until she got to the boar’s. When it reached the end of its groove, a second strip of box opened up and out. This one covered the tin figures, but there were others in the new space: the very same figures, except for the dolphin. (A wall of minuscule tin stones had sprung up in its place.) Ariadne used the levers again, in the opposite direction, and a third layer opened, and soon a fourth and a fifth, each of them containing one less figure and one more wall.
The girl was last. Ariadne pushed at her lever and she swivelled in place (her blue skirts nearly brushing the metal track) but wouldn’t move forward or back.
“Nothing’s happening,” Ariadne said. Daedalus’s face leaned in from the blur of all the others. A lightning flash turned his skin silver.
“Back and forth will not work anymore,” he said.
She frowned. “Lift her!” Phaidra cried.
“Quiet!” snapped Ariadne, but she reached two fingers into the box and plucked the girl out. A compartment whirred open where she’d been. Yet more metal glinted within it: gold, this time.
“A key!” Phaidra said.
,” said Ariadne. She set the key in her lap and turned the box over. Its parts chimed as they fell against each other. She saw no keyhole on the bottom, nor on any of the eight sides. She laid it back down and flipped the key between her fingers. The girl, the walls behind her, the centre spiral rising up above her like a column . . . Ariadne
lowered her head toward the spiral and saw a notched hole at its heart, so small she hadn’t noticed it before. She smiled, but before she could fit the key to it, Phaidra reached out her own fingers. They touched the spiral, and they glowed with silver that wasn’t from lightning. The column clicked open into eight parts like petals, and the silver shone on the tin bull that spun slowly around within it.
“Phaidra!” Pasiphae’s voice sounded very far away, to Ariadne. She watched her sister lift her hand and stare at her fingers; watched her thrust all four into her mouth, as if they were burning. Her thumb shone for a moment longer, and then the light dimmed until it came only from the little oblong of her nail.
“She is godmarked!” Naucrate’s words rang out above the rain and thunder. The people surged forward: the black-robed priests of Zeus and the white-robed priestesses of Poseidon and everyone who stood between. Ariadne saw Diantha’s face and Alkaios’s, both open-mouthed. Icarus’s head bobbed as he gazed down at Phaidra. Every eye was on the princess with the honey-coloured hair, even though the silver glow had gone.
, Ariadne thought.
It’s just I, again, who can never rule. I alone whom the gods despise.
“Naucrate!” the queen cried, and all the other voices quieted. “You have a locked box, and so do I, on the table by my bed.”
“Yes, my Queen,” Naucrate said. “I’ll fetch them.” She smiled at Phaidra before she turned and made her way around the hearth and out into the corridor. Pasiphae was smiling, too, her hand beneath Phaidra’s chin, tilting it into the flickering light.
“Daughter,” she said, and suddenly Asterion was there, hugging Phaidra, and Glaucus, who tickled her, and Deucalion, who drew them both away from her, laughing as all of them were.
Naucrate’s box was round except for one flattened side, where the bronze lock was. Pasiphae’s box was small and square, and its lock was gold. Both locks clicked open the moment Phaidra brushed them with her fingertips, which gleamed again with godlight.
“Praise Zeus!” called one of the priests.
The queen stared out across the gathering. “It was not Zeus who marked this child,” she said. “He has never opened things that were shut, save for mortal women’s legs.”
A murmur rippled.
You stupid woman
, Ariadne thought dully.
How did Lord Poseidon sire the bull-brat with you, except by a priest who parted
“Athene,” Pasiphae said. “She unlocks mysteries with wisdom greater than any her father possesses. My daughter is hers, not his. Now, Amyntor,” she said, more loudly so that the second swelling murmur subsided, “take us to your accounting room—for are there not many coffers there that Phaidra could unlock?”
“Yes, my Queen,” cried a man at the back of the throng. He moved off into the corridor and everyone else followed (though the priests turned a different way, once they were past the inner pillars).