Seasonal Salon

When Destiny Walked the Labyrinth

Prologue

“I am the son of water and air!” proclaimed the slight, dark-haired boy. His patched tunic was overly long, hanging below his bony knees. He waved his wooden herding staff menacingly, and it being heavy, somewhat uncontrollably, over his head. Around him, several tan and black goats looked up and bleated appreciatively, or perhaps indifferently -- it was rather hard to tell. A number stared at him warily the horizontal pupils of their eyes dull, before they finally resumed gnawing at the sparse hill vegetation. A couple even scurried further away, their hooves scattering small stones behind them. Theseus sat down hard on an exposed rock and, chin in hands, resumed his daydreaming. Told he was approximately ten summers old, Theseus looked even younger. He was skinny with delicate, almost feminine, features. His sleepy dark eyes looked huge in his finely boned face and were framed with impossibly long black lashes. His black hair was only slightly wavy, not tangley-curly like most of the other children who lived on the small fishing island of Paros.

For all that Theseus knew, he really was a child of water and air. As a very young boy he was found living marginally all by himself in the dank, treacherous alleyways of the mainland port city, Eluseis. The Kretin trader who took pity on the filthy and starving youngster tried to find his family, but no one seemed to know where he had come from or whom his meter or uncles might be. None of the dockhands, fisherfolk, and assorted transients seemed all that interested in finding out, either; “times are hard”, they muttered, turning away . All Theseus himself remembered clearly was his name - Minos Theseus. About 4 or 5 years old when rescued, he said he’d been surviving mostly by handouts or the occasional theft of a coin purse if he chanced upon an unwary sailor. He’d been too ashamed to admit to anything else. The trader, who had a toddler of her own and did not wish to bring another young child along the trading routes with her, took the boy to her sisters and meter who lived in the rural hills of Troezen, upon lonely Paros.

Though life was undeniably easier with his adoptive family - he knew he’d be fed regularly anyway - young Theseus grew restless and bored with the placid life of a herder. There was a saying in the islands that once one got the sea in their blood they’d never be content in one harbor and Theseus supposed that since he had been found by the docks, it was likely that he’d somehow gotten sea water in his blood. He imagined the salty water coursing through his body and it sent chills of excitement down his back. He even slashed open his forearm with a borrowed bronze dagger once, hoping to prove he indeed had sea water rather than blood in his veins, but to his disappointment, the fluid was just as red as anyone else’s. When he tasted it though, he knew by the saltiness that he had been right all along – seawater!

“Some day”, Theseus said aloud, “I will leave this island and travel. I will go to Sparta and Eluseis and even Athena! I will be a hero just like Heracles - no, even more famous than Heracles!” Excitedly he jumped to his feet and began waving the stout wooden staff about again. Several goats started and ran off. “I am a hero, goats! I am all-powerful, more than even Heracles! Do you hear me? You must bow to a Hero!”

And when the closest goat stupidly refused to fall to its knees in reverence to all-powerful Theseus, the boy clubbed it hard on the head until it did.

Chapter 1: A Witness to Destiny

Ten turns later…

Somewhere off the Northern coast of Kriti, deep beneath the surface of the wine dark sea, the Great Bull stamped His mighty hoof. In response, She-who-birthed-us-all, shuddered violently. A new wave was born from the womb of the ocean.

Her breath ragged, Ansel slogged up the last few stone steps. At the top, she bent over, hands on knees and panted aloud, glad to leave the steep the rocky cliffs behind her. Straightening, she whirled around quickly shielding her eyes from a brilliant mid-morning sun and gazed down upon her uncle’s village by the shore, Amnisos. A smile touched her face and she inhaled deeply; this was her very favorite view. The ocean is the exact shade of serpentine this morning, she thought. Serpentine was her favorite type of stone, soft green with shiny white chips embedded in it sometimes. From this height, Amnisos looked like a child’s play village tucked snug and secure against the cliff face. The beach was golden and the people bustling about on the sand below looked almost like the tiny images carved into the seal-stones her GranMeter pressed into warm, soft beeswax to mark important scrolls.

The sea gently lapped at the sides of the cypress wood pier; jumbles of colorfully painted boats bobbed like spindles, moored at the dockside. The long dock jutted out into the bay and visually pointed to even more tiny vessels dotting the peaceful water. Most were small rowboats of the fisherfolk from Amnisos, though one larger one, a merchant ship, unfurled its sail, setting out for the open sea. Ansel squinted into the sun, trying to pick out the little red boat that held Uncle Psidoras and her cousins. They’d gone out fishing early this morning.

The whipping winds were warm, but not yet the stifling winds of Metertide they would soon become. Ansel tossed her head allowing her long dark curls to blow into tangles, enjoying the air as it bathed her face, drying beads of sweat. Just then, a tiny snake slithered over her open sandal. She jerked her foot back, nearly losing her balance. The snake disappeared into the greening meadow brush so swiftly Ansel briefly wondered if it had been truly there. She looked around by her feet. A slithery sound next to a stone, a jewel green head, an impulsive red tongue confirmed her reflexes. Snake omen, she thought, a warning to the wise. Meter will want to know. I better get home.

She turned to head away from the ocean view, then quickly turned back again, her attention suddenly riveted. Something was wrong with the boats. The water appeared to have lost all sense of rhythm; the docked boats swayed in choppy syncopation, now slamming against the pier, now straining at their end of their tethers.

Next, the earth began to bellow and shake like some great enraged animal. Ansel’s legs wobbled then lost control as the earth bucked and snorted and rumbled. Thrown hard to the rocky ground, she twisted her ankle sharply and her breath expelled from her lungs in an “oof”. Around her, soil and stones were shaken with such fury she threw her arms to her face in defense. The Bull stamps again, she thought. Goddess, Meter, please make Him stop! Ansel heard, then felt, the ground near her rip open with a hollow roar. Another shower of stones flung themselves at her prostrate body. She heard rocks, large ones, crash and thud down the cliff face. Fearful the entire cliff side would collapse, she crawled further from the edge on bleeding knees. When she could not crawl any further, she wrapped her arms around her legs in a fetal position and rocked on the naked ground, humming a prayer through clenched teeth. Though it seemed an eternity passed, gradually, the tremors eased to shudders, then ceased.

After a few moments of blissful quiet, Ansel released her knees from her cramped position and sat up slowly, murmuring a prayer of thanks. Blood ran from her scraped palm where she had crawled over jagged rock. Dazedly, she sucked at the wound, a sharp metallic taste filling her mouth. Shaking the dirt from her hair and skirts and with a rueful brush at her scraped knees, Ansel pushed herself up and stood tentatively, testing her ankle. It held, but felt oddly loose.

It is sprained, she thought. Perhaps even broken. Should I try to make it all the way home or should I go back down to Uncle Psidoras’s house to have my ankle tended?

She limped back to the cliff edge. A portion of it had indeed given way and the steps closest to the top were shattered or even missing; they must have shaken loose and gotten thrown down the side. In the water below, Ansel watched as overturned boats, still anchored at the pier, began to sink. People gathered on the beach. It was best to be outside in a shake. But something was still very wrong with the people. Even at this distance, Ansel felt their fear; their jerky motions, the abruptness of the gestures bespoke of panic. A woman cupped her hands and called out loudly over the ocean, apparently to the folks in the fishing boats, though Ansel couldn’t distinguish her words.

They are well in the boats. A shake is worse for those on land. Why are they so concerned?

A clump of men suddenly broke for the cliff path. Ansel watched from above as they shouted something back to the people on the beach, then ran for the steps as if the Bull himself were after them.

Perhaps someone has been injured.

Thinking to meet them halfway, she hobbled to the cliff edge and put a foot over, then stopped, wincing. Without the top steps, the climb down would be treacherous. Many of the rocks would be loose and the earth was already uneven. Besides, her ankle was already growing stiff. She flexed it tentatively then rubbed as a jolt of pain made her catch her breath. Ei, I’m going to have to let them come to me. I hope they will help me walk home.

A rolling sound – soft -- then increasingly loud filled her ears. She looked up again. A wave moved into the bay with tremendous speed. As she watched, it swelled to enormous heights as it got closer and closer to the shore. Horrified, Ansel could do no more than scream an incoherent warning, but even this was drowned by the roar of the approaching wave wall.

The people on the beach turned as one to face the onslaught of water. At the shoreline, water rushed out to greet the wave, rapidly exposing a long stretch of naked bay bottom as the wall of ocean drew itself to its full height, many times that of the tallest man. At the pier, the moored boats were lifted straight up. Their tether ropes snapped like dry twigs in a gale as the water engulfed them.

Then Ansel witnessed a nightmare almost beyond her comprehension; the fishing boats with fisherfolk still clinging to the hulls, lined across the wave’s crest as if gathered together by an unseen hand. Perilously they balanced in readiness to crash upon the beach with the breaking of the wave.

The wave broke just as it reached the beach. Some people, as if waking from a long sleep, began to run before the wave; others stood as if they’d grown roots into the beach sand itself. It mattered not. Together they bore the full wrath of the sea. Slapping the ground as a hand might smack an offending insect, the roiling sandy water hurled towards the little houses of the village, smashing them to splinters.

The swell continued to rise. The people climbing up the cliff were about one fourth of the way up. They had stopped to watch the wave and seemed affixed to the steps, dazed. “Climb! Climb!” Ansel shrieked. By some miracle, they heard her and looked up. “Climb! The wave!”

The lead man bounded up the steps two and three at a time; the others followed. In moments, the wave crashed against the rock face, shooting spray so high it soaked Ansel’s skin. When it receded, the steps were empty.

My lungs don’t seem to be working right, she thought dully. Each tattered breath came and left in little sharp painful gasps. Paralyzed, she stood far above the destruction, clinging to the wild hope that Amnisos really had been a toy village; that she did not see real people swept away in a violence of water.

But her keen mind would not allow that phantasm to grow wings. Her legs jerkily gave way beneath her and she sat down hard, the still bleeding hand held over her mouth for a long moment. She felt afraid to make an utterance, dared not draw attention to herself. The wind died and finally in the stillness, Ansel heard a moan and knew it to be her own. From her throat ripped a keen akin to that a small animal makes when caught by the predator, a shrill of living anguish.

She expected to see bodies and litter thrown upon the beach when she forced herself to look down again, but eerily, the sand was wiped clean as if the people and the boats had never existed there at all. Numb, she looked outward to the sea, then passed her hand in front of her eyes in disbelief. An unbelievably huge woman, naked, her pendulous breasts swaying almost rhythmically as she waded knee-deep through the waters of the harbor, cast out a luminescent net. In the glowing net, Ansel thought she could see people, the fisherfolk. But the bodies were odd. They floated shimmering out of the water and into her great net. There was no struggle, no commotion, no sense of distress. Peace prevailed at the hands of the woman. She paused and looked up the hill towards Ansel. Terrified, Ansel threw her arm up across her face, but the woman only smiled.

“You see me, little one, but I cast not my net for your spirit. Instead I cast to you my thoughts.”

The woman’s lips never moved, yet Ansel understood her perfectly, as if she had whispered an intimacy into Ansel’s ear. Ansel found she could not move nor break her gaze with the giantess. She swallowed her wet tears in her parched throat.

“Kriti is challenged, child, and the Meter weeps. The bull, Her son, grows in strength and less so in wisdom. In these times of fate, the future is in the hands of the unexpected and the unexplainable. Tell the Sisters to scrutinize the signs as if the destiny of all Kriti depended upon them. For indeed, it does.”

The woman drew up her net of souls and disappeared as suddenly as a snake in the meadow grass. Ansel found herself released. Like a frightened hare, she jumped to her feet and, heedless of the distress of her ankle, ran the many lengths back to her home at Knossos.

Chapter 2: Geneera shares a secret

Maidentide :final triad

“The moon has cycled through full Meter into darkest Hag and round again to the Virgin’s bow six times since last the great Bull roared. I could not stand to write of it before this. I do not even remember many of the days directly after. Meter says I am storm shocked. I told her there was no storm, only the great shake, then, …then, ...no; I cannot write of it even yet.

I still cannot believe Uncle Psidoras and his little boys and all the fisherfolk who were my friends are gone. We held a memorial rite on the beach for them cycles ago. Meter wasn’t sure I should go, what with my ankle still barely holding my weight again. I insisted I needed to go; how could I not? Xeronos carried me all the way down those awful steps. I hobbled back up with just a little help though.

They never found most of the bodies. I wonder if it is possible Uncle and the boys escaped somehow. Perhaps they rowed really hard and fast and made it to Dia or even Heria. Meter pats my cheek and tells me with sad eyes my hope is unlikely. . I know that, but maybe it is so anyway. She and GranMeter cry when they think I’m not paying attention. I dream of Uncle and little Seus. He was only 3 turns old, still sometimes nursing at his Meter’s breast. They wave to me from the shore of Dia, and I am so glad to discover they are all still alive. But I always awaken.

Snakes haunt my dreams, too, green ones with jewel-bright eyes and wiggly tails. I look through gray pebbles under the brush and I know there is a snake there. I smell it or feel it somehow under a thorny bush with tiny leathery leaves. It will not move while I am watching. It waits for me to look away, and when I do, it slithers across my foot, quick as a just-caught scent, fleeting and elusive. I respond with terror, though I have never been afraid of snakes before. I have heard that some snakes in distant lands render illness to one if bit, but that is not true here on Kriti, or at least I have never known anyone to become ill from a bite. But I become ill from their presence in my mind.

I visited the beach with just Geneera yesterday. It was the first time I have visited Amnisos, other than the memorial when lots of people were around. The pier is splintered. The homes are all shattered and ruined. I cried and cried. Geneera held me as I sputtered and sobbed until her shoulder was full of snot. She laughed and told me we were snot sisters. She dubbed me Priesera of snot, and she, my loyal cloth. I love her. She is my only, truest, best friend.

I finally told Meter about She-Who-Casts-the-Net. I feared telling her; I thought she might think the sea took my mind or tell me the shock made me imagine things, but she didn’t. She said the trauma gave me “sight”. She even asked me to repeat the message to the Priesera when they come for Festival. I asked her if she ever “saw” the Caster of Nets. She said no, but she sees some of the others. She said she’d tell me about it sometime, when I’m fully recovered.

But I fear I will never fully recover.”

Ansel paused, absently chewing the end of her reed pen. She reached down to scratch her ankle. The shade of a large yellow-green bruise still traveled up the outside of her calf. She picked up her pen again. but then heard footfalls.

“Ansel are you in here? Oh, there you are.”

Ansel glanced over her shoulder; Geneera leaned against the cypress wood door frame of their adjoining rooms. The curly black ringlets of hair that normally framed the girl’s angular face were plastered against her damp olive skin.

“Writing again?” Geneera wiped her face with the back of her hand and shook her hair which was knotted carelessly atop her head.

Ansel shrugged, then, turning back to the scroll, carefully blew on the drying ink and placed her pen into its clay ink pot.

“It helps,” she said quietly. Swinging her legs fully round to her friend, she forced a smile, taking in Geneera’s sweaty appearance “Training again?”

“But of course.”

Geneera stepped lightly into the room, graceful as a young gazelle. A single bead of sweat slid from forehead to cheek, leaving a shimmering track as evidence of its passing. “The gymnasia was nearly empty. Everyone is preparing for Festival, I suppose.”

She glanced at Ansel’s scroll, then grinned and shook her head slightly. “Ai. Better you than me. Writing makes my head pound.”

Warmth radiated from Geneera’s body and Ansel thought her friend smelled faintly of the sea. Geneera snapped the sweat-soaked waistband of her brief white skirt. Bending over slightly, the lithe girl casually began to knead her long, upper thigh with tapered fingers.

“How was your match this morning?”

“I beat Caeria in wrestling.”

“The Bulldancer? Good for you. I wager she was roiled.”

Geneera glanced up, grinning cockily. “Not at all, actually. She doesn’t respect anyone who can’t give her a tumble. She wants to be friendly now.”

“No!” Ansel’s eyes widened. She smiled.

“Yes. She even invited me to meet some of the other dancers.”

“Well, by the Goddess’s teats, she’s showing the other blade of the labrys.” Ansel laughed clapping her hands together.

Though her eyes sparkled, Geneera bit her lips and her focus slid down to her own feet. Ansel peered at her friend more closely, then said, “There is more?”

Geneera merely shrugged; Ansel continued to probe. “Oh, give forth, Gen. You cannot keep a secret from your best friend. We have known each other too long.”

Geneera remained silent, staring at her sandal, then abruptly threw herself onto a cushioned bench across from Ansel and began tapping her foot furiously. “First, promise you won’t tell my Meter. Or yours either.”

“I promise, I promise. Tell, for Rhea’s sake.” Ansel’s voice rose.

Geneera took a deep breath, then said falteringly, “It is possible, uh, I might possibly be asked to join the Bulldancer troupe.” She stopped tapping her feet and silence fell.

Ansel’s smile froze upon her lips. The air between them suddenly turned thick. Geneera lifted her eyes and met Ansel’s gaze. The tall girl’s mouth was turned downward, drawn tight into a straight line. Ansel could see the muscles of her friend’s square jaw flex as she clenched her teeth.

“Ah. Wahall, that would really be an honor,” Ansel said carefully. “You might possibly be asked? When will you know?”

Still holding Ansel’s gaze, Geneera replied, “The truth is . . . I already know. I was already asked.”

“And I assume you said Yes.” It was not a question.

“I have not yet answered, but I want to join, yes.”

Ansel’s heart thudded, but she said in a steady voice, “Congratulations, then.” She did not allow herself to break gaze with her friend.

Geneera’s eyes grew wary. “You mean that?” Her feet resumed tapping.

“Of course. You are my friend. I know you have always dreamed of this. Just like Jerid, no? When will you move to the athlete’s wing?” Ansel forced her voice to sound cheerful.

Geneera’s shoulders visibly relaxed. She closed her eyes and blew out a puff of air. When she looked at Ansel, her eyes again held a twinkle. She lunged from the chair and gave Ansel an enthusiastic and sweaty hug.

“I don’t know yet. Soon, but not right away. Certainly not before Festival’s end.”

Ansel grabbed Geneera’s hand and would not let go. “It will be lonely sleeping in these rooms without you. And to be alone in classes with your Meter.”

“It is hard to be in class with Meter whether or not I am there.” Geneera pulled her hand away gently, then bent to kiss Ansel lightly on the cheek.

Ansel snorted overloud. “Well, true enough.” Rising to her feet, Ansel turned her back to Geneera briefly both to roll up the scroll she’d been writing on and to hide the tears that had sprung into her eyes unbidden. When she turned toward Geneera again, she gave her friend a crooked half grin and said, “Your Meter will fly with the Furies themselves when she finds out.”

“Don’t I know, don’t I know,” Geneera said.

But her dark eyes danced with an inner light.

Chapter 3: In the Classroom

“To our North, beyond steep Heria, lies the islands of the Cycliades in the center of which resides most sacred Delos. Even farther northward, we find the lands of Athena and Eleusis.” said Priesera Vasilea, sweeping her arm outward dramatically and gazing into the empty space before her as if addressing the heads of admiring multitudes instead of two rather inattentive girls, “Since the Achaean conquest, however, the world is less beautiful, less peaceful. Mycenae is a city seized in the bloody barters of war. The peoples of the Aegean, over-eager to mimic the rest of the world, are in turmoil. Everywhere is conquest. Great Meter is displeased.”

Ansel stifled a yawn, making her ears pop, and wiggled her foot in her sandal. Furtively, she glanced around. The white marble theater seats formed a semicircle around the sunken central stage upon which Vasilea pontificated. Though pretty, the gray-veined steps were remarkably uncomfortable on one’s backside, and Vasilea didn’t allow her students to bring cushions; she claimed such indulgences merely encouraged inattention and sloth. A scholar from the holy Priesera school and principle temple teacher, Vasilea rehearsed her oration for the festival debate, making it today’s class for her two most advanced students, Ansel, and Vasilea’s own daughter, Geneera. Her resonant voice boomed up from the center stage area.

Geneera, sitting well behind Ansel at the top of the theater steps, made not even the pretense of paying attention to Vasilea. She sat with her long muscular back to both Ansel and the center stage, resting her chin on her crossed arms. She looked down over the edge of the west wall, scuffing her leather sandal as she kicked. Ansel couldn’t see what her friend looked at, but the lanky girl was clearly absorbed in something she considered more interesting than her Meter.

Vasilea, considered a first-class orator in Knossos, would be droning on for a while yet. Sighing softly, Ansel resumed wiggling her toes as she lightly bounced her leg on her knee. She propped her chin on her hand and cast her thoughts adrift. Soon, the voice of her teacher merged with background sounds, of no more import than the buzz of a nearby fly. It is hot sitting here on these wretched stone seats. And it is only early just past mid-day, Ansel thought grumpily. There is not even a little maiden breeze blowing today. The sun is absolutely white.

Across the theater to the east, Ansel’s ears picked up a dusty whirl of voices rising from the courtyard below. Classes were usually held in that courtyard, in the shade of an elderly myrtle tree, but today they were moved to the theater area so the servants could set up for the opening feast tonight. Xeronos will have to wear those bull horns he hates so. Ansel stifled a giggle. He says “They look ridiculous and make my neck stiff for the entire Festival!” And me and Gen will see him having to eat with those stupid horns on, too, since we get to go the court feast for the first time. Ansel stuck her finger in her mouth and began chewing a fingernail. And the Kore ritual. We do the Kore ritual this time. I hope I don’t trip or say something really stupid. The Priesera are so solemn and scary. It’s not until the end of the Festival though…

“Ansel.”

Jolted from her private musings, Ansel started and found herself looking directly into the stern face of Priesera Vasilea, who was not only done speaking but was now standing over and scowling darkly at her student.

“Ansel, you have become senseless as a donkey with its head caught in a retsina jug. Did you even hear what I asked you?”

Lowering her eyes, Ansel whispered, “No, Priesera. My apologies.” Her throat closed on her.

Vasilea grunted with a sound like “harmph.”

Louder, she continued, “Perhaps, then, my daughter can answer the simple question I posed.” Priesera Vasilea pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows as if to imply she doubted her daughter capable of dressing herself. But no response came from Geneera. A stolen glimpse over her shoulder told Ansel her friend was still peering over the side of the wall, quite oblivious to her Meter. Ansel winced and tried to silently warn Geneera via thought transmission.

Priesera Vasilea quietly climbed the steps to Geneera. When she neared her daughter, she said simply, but with painstaking enunciation, “Geneera.”

The girl visibly stiffened. With a deliberation matching her Meter’s, she turned to face Priesera Vasilea. Ansel found herself holding her breath. I hate it when they fight. What is Gen thinking? She is not usually this disrespectful during class.

“How do you expect to become a teacher when you pay so little attention in class? Answer this question for me. Did you even hear one word I said throughout my speech?” Vasilea’s voice intimated a careful and infinite patience, yet Ansel knew her glittering dark eyes could cut sharper than knapped flint.

Geneera’s face was as if carved of stone. She murmured something Ansel couldn’t hear, but whatever it was enraged Vasilea. The woman whirled abruptly from her daughter, her face scary as a gorgon and said tightly, “I will not permit your insolence to upset me before the contest tomorrow. Class is over until the end of Festival.” Drawing her light garment carefully about her shoulders, Vasilea marched down the steps and exited through the back of the theatre.

Not sure whether to be relieved or frightened by Vasilea’s abrupt exit, Ansel rose tentatively to her feet. Gen had resumed gazing over the side of the wall. Only the staccato scuffing of her sandal revealed any tension. Silent and catlike, Ansel approached her friend from behind, cautious of Gen’s strange, fey mood.

Her back still to Ansel, Geneera motioned with her chin to what held her interest on the other side of the wall, inviting Ansel to peer with her. On the field below, young women and men dressed in short tunics stretched, ran or waited in line to vault over a stuffed bag of some kind. In another moment, Ansel realized these were the Bulldancers, practicing for their Festival exhibition. No wonder Gen was fascinated.

The voices of the athletes drifted to her ears. They called out good naturedly to each other, encouraging and cheering as each in turn performed hand springs over the “bull” bag with calls of, “Good ... Mellissa,” and, “You almost made it... twist, Dion, don’t ... discouraged!”

Ansel stayed silent, waiting, not quite knowing what to say, while Geneera occasionally grunted and generally acted oblivious to Ansel’s presence. Finally, Gen said, “They will take a break any moment while the handlers ready the bull. I wish I could speak to the trainer. I have decided I am ready to join the team.”

“We could go down there if you like. Class is over anyway.”

Geneera turned to Ansel with something like surprise, or perhaps cautious gratitude in her eyes. “Thanks, I would like that. We better hurry, though. The break will be a short one.”

Gen’s calculations proved correct. Shortly after the girls arrived, the trainer called for the athletes to take a brief break. Two of them, a compactly built girl and a tall, slender young man, waved and jogged over to Ansel and Geneera. With his twinkling dark eyes and square jaw, the boy was beautiful. His short curly black hair had coalesced into sweaty ringlets at his brow, and his sleek, muscular torso gleamed with perspiration. But something about the girl made Ansel take a mental step backward. Short, yet powerfully muscled, she stood with her legs and feet seemingly planted into the very soil. Her glassy eyes did not reflect the smile on her lips.

“Carea,” Gen smiled at the young woman, “and Garin, greetings.”

“Greetings Gen; no class today?” Garin offered a brief hug that Geneera returned.

Pulling back, Geneera’s face puckered as if she’d been offered citrus. “We were given reprieve.” She replied crisply. “Here, this is my friend, Ansel. And Ansel, here is Carea, the girl whom I told you about from the gymnasia, and Garin who is also a fine dancer.”

“For a boy, anyway,” Carea said with a tight grin.

Odd, her eyes do not smile though her lips do. Ansel thought.

“Greetings,” Ansel said. “We saw you practicing from the theater. The exhibition comes soon, no?” Not wishing to invite a hug from either dancer, Ansel crossed her arms in front of her chest.

Garin smiled broadly, flashing strong teeth. “Ansel, grandaughter of Council Elder Thesmas. I, of course, know who you are. He bowed to her with a graceful flourish.

Ansel nodded politely, but felt even more shy than usual. Carea said nothing, just stood staring, wearing an unreadable expression. Ansel looked at her own feet then kicked a tuft of grass with her sandal.

“We were here practicing nearly every morn for the last several moons,” Garin continued. “And now for the last third, we practice both morn and noon.”

Looking up, Ansel found Garin was staring at her unabashedly and smiling. His attentive gaze made her feel very self-conscious; her skin grew warm. Of course you know my Gran. You likely know my Meter, too. The way you are staring, you probably wonder how I could even be related to someone as beautiful as Meta. I wonder if I combed my hair this morning. And wasn’t I getting a blemish on my chin? Oh, Goddess, his lips are still moving and I haven’t been listening. Did he just ask me something? she thought suddenly.

“I’m, uh, sorry, what did you say?” she asked, trying to shake the fog from her brain.

What ever is wrong with me? She glanced toward Geneera, but she and Carea were walking away toward the practice field, arms entwined as if they were the oldest of friends. Ansel gulped as some unidentifiable, painful feeling jabbed in her gut. She stared at their receding backs.

“I said, ‘will you be at the feast tonight?’” Garin repeated, reaching out to touch Ansel’s arm.

He stood closer than she realized, and she had to check herself when she almost leaped backward. She felt confused; his touch did not feel entirely unpleasant, but she did not trust him.

“Uh, yes, yes, I will. You?” Geneera just disappeared, leaving me alone with this boy. Why did she do that? I only came out here to support her. She knows I’m not good with strangers. Ansel swallowed the near panic that was threatening to overcome her. Her armpits felt damp.

“Yes. Perhaps I will see you there.” Noise erupted behind them. They turned to see the rest of the troupe waving and hooting. “Time is up. I must return to practice. I’ll see you tonight then.”

Turning, he ran back to the field while Ansel exhaled in relief. Once he looked back and waved, grinning broadly when he saw she still watched him. Reflexively, she raised her hand in a feeble wave.

Chapter 4: Phoebe and Rheana

The Festival of Grapes arrives after harvest. It is a particularly sweet time to live on the blessed isle of Kriti. The rains of Cronetide are but a thought drifted to the future, the nights are cool and soft and the sun shines not so intently, even in the hours immediately after midday. This turn’s Festival of Grapes is even more special because it is the seven-turns fest. Every seven turns, the Festival in Knossos becomes the premiere gathering site across the entire island. Boats large and small crowd the small harbor, not at ruined Amnisos this time but to the west, at another close bay. It is not as convenient, but it is not wise to spit in the face of fate.

Relatives not kissed for many turns are embraced, news is announced in full-bodied voices accompanied by excited arm gestures. Babes are fussed over, children soon tire of the exclaimed, “How tall!” “How beautiful!” Of course, as is true in the lives of humans, the specter of grief is also present. “La, la,” is clicked on the tongue. “He was too young, she was so beloved; I am sorrowed.” Yet, all know that Great Meter holds cuddles them to Her generous breast.

At the seven-turns Fest, the Priesera gather from all across the island, too. They travel from the University plain in the Psilitis Mountains of the South, from far Phaistos on the coast of the Libyan sea, fair Zakros of the east. From the caves come even the seers, the strange ones with their wild eyes and loud exclamations. Always they seem old, but perhaps this is illusion only, for the seers are touched at an early age, it is told, and are marked for hearing especial Her voice from the Under and the In.

The traders, too, come from places far away to sell at the grand marketplace at Knossos center, also called the Agronos. They sail from noble Libya and from Egypt, land of the cat peoples, hard Asia Minor, beautiful Athena, sometimes even from farther, as the threads of fate guide. They offer for trade polished gems and rich gold, exotic cloth of silk in rainbow colors, dainty sweets, fragrant perfumes – all manner of luxuries not often encountered in daily Kritin life.

And of course, with them they bring, (and often for free), tales of the wider world. There are new rulers in Egypt; coarse shepard kings. “Not good, not good”, murmurs the Egyptian papyrus trader. Though his words are familiar, his emphasis is odd to the Kritin ear. He waves his hands in a gesture of rejection, palms out, and will not say more of the Southern nation from which he hails. There is talk of larger and larger gatherings of women warriors from the east. Fair of face they are, yet fierce in demeanor. They are friendly with the traders, but keep their distance. They keep their thoughts to themselves. Some come to the festival trading in hides, cloth and pretty stones. They smell strongly of horse – animals rare but not unheard of upon the Kritin homeland. Whispers come too from Athena, neighbor and sometimes friend of the Kritin people. The Queen, called a Helen, rarely appears to the public, takes only her own counsel and meditates deeply – now the gossiper invariably lowers his or her voice even further – perhaps too deeply, with the Goddess of Poppies. The Poppy Goddess is a dangerous one to claim as a personal deity. The soul can be lost within Her sweet embrace. Yet the faces of the traders break into unbidden smiles at the mention of the new consort to Helen Demetria, young Theseus. “Brave he is,” they say, “a defender of Athena, one of Her own, truly.” Against what he defends, no one elaborates.

It is not necessary to speak it aloud. Everyone knows of the danger, the shadow lurking on the outskirts of the land of the People; wandering bands of marauders. Some bands are just a few large strangers. Others are a force, nearly an army. They are rich with horses and wear strange skins as clothes and hard helmets upon their pale heads. Their weapons shatter bronze. It is a matter of grave concern. The GranMeters shake their heads sadly. The safety of the land is threatened.


“Close your eyes and lean forward.”

Phoebe compliantly offered her face as the gooey whitish cream was slathered over it in brisk circular motions. It smelled fresh and felt cool against her warm skin.

“What is in this concoction, anyway?” Rheana asked as she dunked her hands in the warm bath water to wash the cream off. Fluffy white island dollops floated off her immersed fingers. They lazily drifted away from the women who were seated facing each other in a large sunken bath. The bath took up the entire marble paneled room. It took most of a morning to fill even with Kriti’s famed indoor plumbing. It was a testament to Phoebe’s status that she and her apprentice, Rheana, could have the bath to themselves.

Phoebe leaned back carefully against the side of the pool where she was submerged shoulder deep. The white marble lined tub wall felt cool and slick against her skin, and when she moved, the fragrance of jasmine wafted to her nostrils from the scented water. She inhaled deeply before answering.

“Oh, I don’t know really, some medicinals, cream, honey, perhaps something to soften skin, I suppose.

“And here I thought my esteemed teacher knew everything.” Water splashed hollowly as Rheana began to wring the creamy stuff from her hands.

Phoebe shrugged slightly. “Sorry. An herbalist I never was.” A blob of the sticky mixture slid to her upper lip, and she licked at it tentatively. “At least this one tastes good. How long do I have to keep it on?”

“The herbalist said one-third hour.”

“Ugh. Ah well, it is worth it. The sun does terrible things to your skin as you age. But, of course, you need not worry about this yet, Rheana. You are not much older than my Ansel.

“I am five turns past Kore, Mistress.”

“Young, indeed. Tell me, Rheana, did you always know you wished to be an Escort?”

“Yes, from the time I was a little maid.”

“I did not. When I was young like you and Ansel, I wanted to be noticed by the boys and have pretty clothes and be well liked. I couldn’t wait to be declared Kore and wear fancy dresses and be admired. I did not hear the call of Her until later.”

“And now, Mistress, you are the Elder of Escorts in all of Knossos Center.”

“Yes. Ironic, is it not? Although in my work I use many of the talents I developed before ever entering the, uh, the Escort school. Only now I use them with knowledge and intention.”

Phoebe sighed, then wrinkled her nose, staunchly resisting the urge to rub where the cream was drying.

“Do you know what my daughter Ansel calls my bath preparations? ‘Fish entrails; a waste of time and complete nonsense’. She is so very serious all the time, especially for a young girl. We are like mountains verses the sea: far, far apart.”

“Ah, but Mistress, I hear that in the East, the mountains meet the sea. Someday she will understand.”

“Perhaps. I am concerned for her, Rheana. Since the wave destroyed Amnisos, she does little but write in her apartment. She grieves as much for my brother as I. She is one to keep her pain to herself. I tried to speak with her about it once or twice, but she is not being open with me. She is of that age, you see, where I am regarded more with suspicion than with trust.” Phoebe gave in and lightly scratched her nose with a long fingernail. She inspected the finger for a moment then plunged her hand under water. “To be honest, I have worried about Ansel since before all this happened. She is alone too much. She had many friends around the Center when she was a little girl, but not in the last several turns. Do you know, sometimes she sneaks out of the Center late at night, all alone, and just walks around? I thought perhaps she was taken with a young man or girl, but no, she stays all alone.”

“You follow her?”

“Ah, Rheana, very little goes on here that I am not made aware of sooner or later, especially as concerns my daughter. I let her go and keep her secrets. Goddess will watch over her.”

Rheana nodded. “Does she have any friends at all?”

“Only little Geneera. You know, Priesera Vasilea’s youngest?”

“The athletic one, yes, I have seen her at Gymnasia.”

Phoebe leaned forward stretching the back of her legs momentarily then opened her eyes. The steam from the pool caused the plaster walls of the bathing chamber to drip with sweat. She stared thoughtfully at a painting on the far wall; carefree dolphins leapt through azure water, sea birds graced the air above them.

“Now that I think of it, Ansel reminds me of Xeronos.

“The Consort.”

“Yes. He is a pondering soul, a man of solitude.”

“Then she will turn out well, no? Consort Xeronos is both wise and honorable.”

“Yes, I suppose I should not worry so.” The mural was so incredibly blue; blue of sky, blue of water, and searing blue-white where the sun reflected. Her nose itched again. “Isn’t it time for me to wash this gadesh off my face?”

“A thousand pardons, Priesera.” Rheana waved her hand from forehead to heart in a circular motion, then pantomimed a genuflection, flicking water at Phoebe with her splayed fingers. “Yes, you can wash it off now.”

Phoebe stuck out her tongue at her giggling student. “If you decide you don’t want to be an Escort, Rheana, consider an occupation in driving goats.” She dunked her face in the clear water then scrubbed at the congealed stuff with a square of linen. When finished, she said more seriously, “I do thank you for listening to my concerns, Rheana. But I must admonish you; even in private, even in jest, we must never call each other ‘Priesera’ here in the Center. It is too easy for it to slip out in public. People do not like to be reminded of who the Escorts really are. Besides, it serves our purposes.”

Rheana nodded, suddenly serious. “Yes, Mistress, I understand. My apologies.”

Rheana climbed out of the bathing pool. While dripping, she half walked and half slid on the marble tiles made slick with moisture, to a pedestal in the corner of the room. She wrapped herself in a thick woven towel she grabbed from a stack, then offered some to Phoebe who also pulled herself from the water. Cotton was an expensive import from the south, but it was well worth it! Shaking a towel loose from its folds, Phoebe rubbed her wet hair to dampness. She twisted a second towel around her waist and padded carefully out of the humid bath chamber into the adjacent dressing room. She heard Rheana’s footsteps echoing behind.

The small room felt pleasantly cool after the steamy bath. The walls of leaping dolphins were replaced with numerous sketches of the holy double-bladed ax, the labrys. Phoebe picked up an ornately carved ivory comb from the dressing table and handed it to Rheana with an audible sigh as she sat on a cushioned stool.

Rheana began to pick through Phoebe’s hair with the comb. Phoebe winced as she struck upon a tangle. “Ai. Why does my hair turn into mattes of kri kri fur whenever I bathe?”

“Truly, Madam, you have the hair of the ocean people -- locks of seaweed.”

“But luckily I have you to work your magic with it.”

Rheana circled in front of Phoebe and dropped in an overly elaborate curtsy. “At your service, Mistress.”

“Seriously, though, I’m scheduled to meet the retinue from Athena directly after eresti. Their boat has already docked and they are being escorted here late this morn. As it cycles, I am to have an assignment for the Festival after all.”

“Oh, I am sorry. I know you hoped to be free this Festival. Will you still be able to attend Ansel’s Kore ritual?”

“Yes. I hope to slip away for that, though if absolutely necessary, I will ask Xeronos to go in my stead. This assignment came up rather suddenly, and the Council specifically requested I attend to it.”

“It must be something important, then.”

“Yes, very possibly. We thought Helen Demetria of Athena was coming alone, but fate wove otherwise, and her Consort is accompanying her. I am to be his Escort.”

“He will not spend his time with the Helen?”

“Not hardly. It seems Helen Demetria and her new Consort do not care for one another’s company. In fact, they are rumored to loathe one another.”

“How interesting. I thought as Helen, she could pick and choose as she liked. Can she not rid herself of him?”

“Apparently she would find herself facing turbulent winds with her people. The Consort, Theseus, is reputedly well-loved by the people of Athena. Demetria, alas, is not.”

“So I have heard. At school, I once heard her called the sea prickle of Athena; ugly, slow and dangerous to come upon unguarded.”

Phoebe felt her intended grin turn to a grimace. “Yes, I have heard that one, too. She is a worshipper of the Goddess of Poppies. The Houri of the Temple at Athena say she becomes ever more devoted to the mekoi, the essence of poppy, and ever less to her people.”

“And there is nothing the Athenians can do since she is a hereditary monarch. How sad for them. Kriti is twice blessed for the Council.” Rheana shook her head and clicked her tongue. “But what is so important about this Consort that the Council assigns you to escort him instead of an apprentice?”

“There are some on the Council who wonder if mayhap this Consort is a threat to us. I am to determine if there is any truth to this.”

“A threat to us? How so?”

“He is a Warrior Consort and an unknown entity. It has happened before in lands not far from here where a warrior fights his way into power, then finds the life of a Consort exceedingly dull. Bored war-mongers are dangerous folk.”

“I can well imagine.”

“As head of the Athenian army, Consort Theseus has already forcibly annexed all of the small towns and villages around Athena. The people of Athena love him for it, and why not? They get more resources. He brings glory to Athena. Bah!”

Rheana, finished with combing out Phoebe’s heavy locks, opened a carved wooden box began sorting through the hair baubles and ornate pins it contained. “Hmmm. He is undoubtedly a change for the better as far as the Athenians are concerned.”

“He likely has some personal charm as well. They call him a hero. Demetria was never a strong Helen and her power wanes the more she gives herself to her obsession. She is not being watchful of the actions of this Consort. Perhaps she underestimates him. If he grows more restless and more bold, who knows where his roaming eye will turn next?”

“And now they both come to Kriti for the Festival. Do we know why?”

“Demetria, yes. Her favorite trader is a renowned supplier of mekoi products. He is from Egypt and visits our area infrequently, but he will be present at the marketplace. She matronizes him whenever she can. As for why Theseus has chosen to accompany her, we do not know. Perhaps he just wishes for relief from his boredom. But it is a five-day sail from Athena to Kriti. Is his boredom so great that he would choose to sail with Demetria for so long? I should think even the largest craft would force them to be closer than either desires.”

“If anyone can uncover the truth it is you, Mistress.”

Phoebe half smiled as Rheana finished elaborately adorning her still-damp hair with strings of tiny white beads and spiral shells. “So the Council thinks.” Phoebe scrutinized her reflection in a mirror of highly polished silver. “You have done a lovely job, Rheana. I thank you also for your ear and your confidence. I may need your assistance again this evening after the feast.”

“Of course, Mistress Phoebe.” The young woman bowed her head respectfully and left the bathing room while Phoebe picked up a charcoal pencil and began outlining her eyes.

Chapter 5: Phoebe meets Theseus

Phoebe slipped stealthily into the waiting chamber via a little-used side entrance and slid into the long shadow of a huge cypress pillar, her radiant essence wrapped tightly about her like a dark cloak; she didn’t want to be noticed just yet. On the other side of the room, his back to the pillar, stood a young man Phoebe assumed must be Theseus, seemingly absorbed by a gaily painted fresco featuring a line of ritually bare-breasted Priesera carrying amphorae of sweet oil to the bath.

Opening her saria vision, Phoebe observed Theseus. With enhanced awareness, she watched his radiance grow bright and balloon outward from his back. He is wary, this one. She thought. I will have to make my observations quickly. Already he intuits he is being watched.

Theseus whirled around sharply on the balls of his feet, soundlessly, cat-like. Even from across the room Phoebe could see his muscles tense, ready to face the danger his senses told him lurked somewhere in the room. She held her breath. He can not possibly see me, she reassured herself. Truly, what instincts this man has! Or boy, really. He is very young.

Theseus jutted his head forward, straining to pierce the darkness of the room opposite himself where Phoebe was secreted. A comely lad too, she thought, mindfully relaxing her muscles into a posture in which she could crouch absolutely immobile for hours if needs be. I should have expected that, I suppose. It explains in part why he is so embraced by the people of Athena.

Voices; a throaty chuckle, followed by a rumbling baritone. Arm in arm, First Elder Thesmas and Helen Demetria, hereditary monarch of the city of Athena, walked in the main entrance, followed closely by the owner of the baritone voice, the Consort Xeronos. Theseus turned to them and Phoebe began breathing normally. That was too close! she thought, relieved. The boy has powerful latent talents. Even this much information is interesting and perhaps important.

“Consort Theseus of Athena, greetings to you,” Xeronos said, inclining his head in the customary gesture of welcome. “I am the Consort of Kriti, Xeronos, and here is the First Elder, head of our Council of Elders, Thesmas.”

“Greetings, First Elder Thesmas, Helen Demetria, Consort Xeronos,” the lad replied in heavily stilted Kritin. “I was admiring the beautiful paintings in this room. The colors are quite remarkable.”

Phoebe was less interested in the conversation than the dynamics between the speakers. Her expertise was to gather information not spoken aloud; the secret motivations, alliances, dalliances, internal conflicts and hostilities that sit in the shadows of the consciousness, just as she sat in the shadows of the room. At this type of work, she was the best on Kriti.

Her special vision wide open, Phoebe watched as delicate clouds of yellow and pink arose from Xeronos’ head. He must have steered the conversation to the architecture of the Agronos again; it is his favorite topic. Something about Theseus’s radiance disturbed Phoebe. It appeared to her strangely restricted and the colors were muted, even murky. When she reduced her vision to the normal range, it seemed Theseus was perfectly attentive and genuinely absorbed by the conversation he was engaged in with Xeronos. The saria told her somewhat differently, but she found herself hesitant to interpret what she was seeing.

One thing was certain; Demetria and Theseus genuinely hated each other. Even while pointedly ignoring his presence in the room, Demetria’s radiance prickled and turned a deep angry red/orange when Theseus stood in her vicinity, and the feeling was clearly mutual. Demetria’s radiance looked muddy. Looking more deeply, Phoebe perceived a tear in her essence about her middle torso. The Helen is not well, she thought. She also desires the poppy, she added when she saw the weak pulse of the Queen’s radiance. She undoubtedly will excuse herself soon. I must make my entrance immediately.

Noiselessly, she slipped from her shadowed perch and glided to the nearest entranceway. After first checking that her robes fell gracefully, she let loose her radiance with a characteristic flourish, causing all heads to turn in her direction. It was gratifying to see their responses to her hours of beautification. Xeronos smiled slightly, catching her eye and winking. Thank Goddess he is not the jealous type, Phoebe thought. Theseus stared unblinkingly, his jaw slack. She didn’t need saria to know he found her stunning.

“Greetings, First Elder Thesmas and Consort Xeronos. I was told you were here entertaining our guests from Athena and I thought to join you.” Daintily she nodded first to Demetria, then to Theseus. “I am Phoebe, daughter of First Elder Thesmas. Welcome to Kriti, Helen Demetria and Royal Consort Theseus.”

Demetria spoke up first. “Oh yes, Phoebe,” she said, “I know exactly who you are.” The older woman cocked her head as if sizing up a worthy opponent and gave just a hint of crooked smile. Sly but approving, Phoebe surmised. She glanced briefly at Thesmas and the First Elder shrugged almost imperceptibly.

Demetria knows who and what I am, but she hates Theseus enough not to warn him. Ah well, the Escorts are an open secret anyway. All the better to have her as an ally. Phoebe met her eyes with a conspiratorial smile and said, “Yes, I expect you would, Helen Demetria.”

Phoebe turned her smile towards young Theseus. She said warmly and with just a hint of tonal in the seductive range, “I have been asked by Council Elder Thesmas to escort the Royal Consort of Athena during the Festival. I am told I am amusing company. Would that please you?”

Theseus bowed a bit stiffly. “It would be an honor, Mistress.”

Expanding her saria slightly, she deliberately met his eyes. It took all of her training to avoid stepping backwards. His eyes are made of stone! She blinked, retracting her expanded awareness, then met his gaze again. No, now they look quite normal, even softer than most.

Her curiosity aroused, Phoebe smiled sweetly at Theseus, flashing her white teeth. He met the smile, and Phoebe skillfully extended an energy tendril toward him. It reached its mark in the middle of his abdomen. She was rewarded when his face turned bright red. Connection! Good.

Offering her arm, she said, “Come, let me show you around our Agronos, Royal Consort Theseus. I am sure Xeronos has been telling you about our water system and light works. Let me show you these wonders, and then it will be time for the opening feast.”

“Yes, go, Theseus,” Demetria encouraged. “I wish to tend to some business before the feast, and the First Elder and her Consort need to prepare also.”

She’s pretending to be sweet, the sly old cow, all the while salivating to get back to her poppy pipe. Phoebe thought. By the time they all left the room, Theseus by her side, everyone was smiling. Their reasons, she supposed, were all of different origins.

Chapter 6: Opening Feast

By late afternoon, Knossos had ignited into frenzied festivity. Cloth banners snapped in the gusty breeze, their brilliant blues, greens, reds and yellows exciting the spirit as much as the eye. Everywhere people blazed about dressed in the brightest of frippery, for the Kritins loved color. Voices crackled in the air, rising and falling as the afternoon turned toward evening. Ansel, poking aside the thin hide window covering and peering down at the meadow adjacent the Center, recognized clan and guild garb from Gournia, Mallia, Zakros and even Phaistos, across the high southern mountains. Boats brought in revelers from prosperous Heria and the other Cycliades islands to the north, and she heard tell there were visitors from as far away as Egypt, Anatolia, Libya and Athena on the mainland, all many days sail away. Felt trading tents spotted the flat, rocky meadow next to the Agronos; within, the traders undoubtedly were setting out all manner of wonderful and rare items to touch and taste, smell or wear. Ansel bounced with anticipation. Meter gave her several silver rings to purchase a special Kore gift for herself. She could hardly wait to trade them for something truly exotic.

A gong clanged; the warning chime for the opening feast! This was an invitation-only event, attended by the elite of Knossos and their families and friends. For the rest of the populace, the Festival would begin in the morn, though of course traders could often be enticed to give a preview of their wares even into the late evening of the night before if one proffered suitable reward. This was the first time Ansel and Geneera were considered old enough to attend the feast, as both girls bled their first bloods this past turn. Ansel wore a new garment for the event; it was the most adult gown she’d ever worn. A shade of blue that rivaled the sea herself, the many skirts over-laid themselves from thigh to ankle. An apron of a lighter blue was knotted smartly around her small waist. It was reminiscent of the style made popular by the Priesera, though of course, her breasts were concealed beneath a vermillion bodice. Only Priesera displayed the power of their breasts.

After the dancers were done with practice, Gen had returned to the apartment they shared. She bathed then donned a muted garment as was her wont; a long, simple linen tunic of white, sleeves drawn up to her elbows, and a knotted blue rope about her waist that matched the deep sea blue of Ansel’s gown. This garment was provided by Phoebe, Ansel’s meter, who understood Gen’s more sedate tastes. In it, she looked slim and tall compared to Ansel’s more curvaceous appearance. Gen was only recently back in the good graces of her friend, for Ansel had felt hurt at being left alone on the practice field.

“You just disappeared with Carea, holding her arm like she was your long-lost sister. Only a few days past, you despised the girl!”

“I am truly sorry, Ansel. I did not think of anything except speaking with the coach. Carea wanted to be there with me when I accepted the position….” Gen’s voice held a trace of bewilderment at Ansel’s distress, and soon Ansel herself wondered why she was so upset. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how to get back to the apartment without Gen.

She shrugged. “Let us forget it then, Gen. I was only…only…uncomfortable and to be honest, I do not truly know why,” Ansel conceded.

Ansel and Geneera entered the central courtyard for the feast with their arms entwined. The courtyard was a rectangle many foot-lengths long, the floor inlaid with slabs of veined marble and other pretty stone outlined with a vermillion grout which gave the overall effect of an intricate mosaic.

Lining the periphery, huge, finely painted ceramic pots of miniature flowering plants and fruiting trees served as decoration; olive, pomegranate, citron, fig and even a date palm imported from Egypt. The largest tree, a myrtle, was in the center of the courtyard and offered cool shade even on the hottest afternoons. Though normally there were marble benches beneath the myrtle for sitting and enjoying the delicious cool of the shade, tonight a huge, long wooden table and many individual chairs replaced the benches. Each chair was ornately carved and held a soft cushion. The fragrances of jasmine and honeysuckle interwove with delicious foods smells. Ansel’s mouth watered.

The gong clanged a second time, signaling the beginning of the feast, and the guests who had been talking in groups began taking their seats. Ansel and Geneera found themselves led to a smaller round table situated next to the rectangular one where, it seemed, the rest of the guests were being escorted. “This is the table reserved for young people. You will have much more fun here, Mistress Ansel,” the servant explained when Ansel began to protest. Geneera nudged her and pointed. “Look! The Bulldancers!”

In the far corner of the courtyard, the entire Bulldancer troupe lined up. They were escorted to the same table as the girls. Satisfied, Ansel and Gen took their seats. A blur out of the corner of her eye informed Ansel that the chair next to her (on the other side from Gen) was abruptly occupied. Ansel turned and saw Garin sitting next to her with a broad grin on his face.

“Greetings, Ansel. What great chance that I am seated next to you.”

“Chance!” laughed a small, swarthy boy seating himself across the table. “You dove for that seat and we all saw you!” Garin’s face turned red and he shrugged his broad shoulders sheepishly. “I knew I had better move quickly. Luckily, I am an athlete.”

“Ho ha, that is a matter of opinion,” retorted the other boy with a grin playing across his face.

Ansel smiled at the banter, then glanced toward the other table to see her Meter being seated just a few chairs away from Vasilea, toward the head of the table. Phoebe looked particularly beautiful tonight with her black hair pinned up into tight curls and her lips rouged the vivid red of pomegranate seeds. Her gown was a vibrant blue and the neckline played her décolletage to lovely advantage.

To Phoebe’s right sat a young man who looked as if he belonged at the round table with her and Gen. He was good looking in a girlish way. His sleepy eyes rested upon Phoebe’s manicured hand as if he might offer to worship it at any moment. Meta has worked her magic on him, she thought, chuckling. Phoebe caught her eye and winked; Ansel couldn’t help but grin. The young man looked at her, too, but didn’t smile. His large, solemn eyes looked like he had a foot in the Underworld; positively haunted. What a strange boy. I wonder who he is.

“Ansel, are you lost at sea?” Garin touched her arm jarring her out of her musings.

“Uh, no, no, just people watching. This is the first opening feast I have been allowed to attend, and I want to see who is here tonight. I recognize the Priesera from their open robes and hats, of course, and I recognize the faces of some of the administrators of Agronos Knossos, but there are so many people here I do not know.”

“Oh, many are administrators from the other Agronos. I hear they came especially for the all-citizenry meeting. I was talking to some folks from Delos earlier who came by to watch us practice after you left. Hoy, is it not wonderful about Geneera joining the troupe?”

“Ai, wonderful,” she said, trying to mask the sour edge that threatened to creep into her voice. She looked tentatively over her shoulder, but Gen’s back was turned to her as Gen talked animatedly with a whole group of dancers. Lowering her voice and leaning in closer to Garin so as not to be overheard, Ansel whispered, “Her Meter will be angrier than a swarm of bees. Priesera Vasilea never forgave the Bulldancer coach after Jerid died a few turns back. Jerid was Gen’s brother, you know.”

“Was he?” Garius matched her whisper. “I did not know. I was not a member of the troupe then, but I heard about it, of course.” He paused, his face growing thoughtful. “They say it was not anyone’s fault. The bull just went mad, and Jerid was gored. That happens sometimes. I mean, we raise them by hand from the time they are little calves, but they are still unpredictable.”

“Neither Gen nor her Meter ever really recovered. Jerid was Gen’s only sibling. She loved him wildly.”

“I can understand why her Meter would not care for Gen joining us, though it is such an honor. I never heard of two members of the same family accepted into the troupe before.”

A large triton was blown, its soft, clear tone echoing through the courtyard, and all of the guests were beckoned to rise. Straining to see through the throng of guests, Ansel caught sight of First Elder Thesmas and her consort, Xeronos, parading into the courtyard from the entrance by the domestic apartments, followed by the seven other members of the Council of Elders.

Geneera, who had stopped talking at the sound of the triton, poked Ansel and nodded toward Xeronos. He was wearing huge, ceremonial bull horns; the symbol of the Consort. Actually, Ansel thought, he looks pretty good in them. “Of the land,” Meter would say. She glanced toward Phoebe, whose eyes followed Xeronos. The strange boy next to Meter watched him too, his jaw moving as if he chewed something over.

With dignity, the council members took their places behind vacant chairs near the head of the long table. Thesmas stood at the head with Xeronos to her right. She nodded, and everyone sat.

Thesmas raised an ornate chalice filled with wine and gestured to the rest of the people seated. “Honored guests,” she began, “the Consort and I welcome you to the opening of this turn’s Festival.” She paused while the guests applauded. The young Bulldancers cheered and whistled.

“Thank you,” she continued. “This being a seven-turn’s Fest, Knossos is honored with the presence of many distinguished guests. I would especially like to introduce our visitors from Athena. Helen Demetria . . .” Thesmas gestured toward a robed and heavily jeweled woman seated in a place of honor next to the Elder Council. The Athenian queen’s face was carefully made-up, but her neck bore a swath of wrinkles bespeaking advanced years. She did not stand, instead bestowing a grimace that she may have meant as a smile and a wave of her hand.

“ . . . and her Royal Consort, Theseus.” Thesmas indicated someone toward the middle of the table. Why, Ansel thought, it is the young man who sits next to Meta. But he seems so young to be Consort. Surely he cannot be a member of the Athenian Council. Oh, but Athena does not have a Council like we do, does it? She struggled to remember the governmental structure of Athena that Vasilea taught several turns back. So, then, he advises Helen Demetria? I wonder. Perhaps he functions only as companion?

All of the young people at Ansel’s table except Gen and herself suddenly stood as a group and waved while the adults applauded loudly. Ansel heard Thesmas say, “Be sure to see the Bulldancer exhibition this Fest. Then, at Festival’s closing, upon the eve of Cronetide, we celebrate the Kore, the ritual of blossoming womanhood, in which, I am proud to say, my very own grandaughter, Ansel, will participate.”

Ansel felt her ears grow hot. Garin urged her to stand. She grabbed Geneera’s hand and pulled her up, too. Thesmas added quickly, “As will her best friend and Priesera Vasilea’s daughter, Geneera.” Ansel tried to squelch her embarrassment at being the enter of attention, squeezed Gen’s hand and plastered a smile on her lips as the adults all applauded. The Bulldancers cheered merrily.

Finally, Thesmas finished talking and the food was served. Servants scurried about the tables offering dishes of grilled fish, squid and shrimp tossed with olives, lamb chunks mixed with milk gravy and rice, and stuffed gamebird, as well as olive oil and aromatic herb-marinated aubergines and other vegetables, mild goat cheeses, grains and a crusty, rusk bread that was an island specialty. The thick Kritin wine flowed freely, but Ansel, having imbibed wine with meals from the time she was a little maid, drank as much spring water as spirits; she did not wish to risk making a fool of herself in front of the Bulldancers. Dried and honey-soaked sweets laden with figs, dates, citron and pistachios completed the meal.

“Ansel,” Garin asked, “are you coming to the dancer exhibition? If you come early, you can sit in front, and I could sit with you between events.”

“To be honest, I have not thought very much about it before now. Gen will certainly want to attend, and I suppose I will come with her.”

“I will perform my best vaults just for you.” He leaned toward her, smelling of amber and sea, placing a large, warm hand on her arm, his eyes promising more than vaulting exhibitions.

His attentions made Ansel feel both nervous and flattered. He perhaps thinks it would be a great tale to bed the First Elder’s granddaughter for her Kore Festival. Perhaps I am some prize to be won and bragged about and he doesn’t even really like me. It wouldn’t be the first time people pretended to like me but really just wanted to be seen with me. It is so hard to tell.

“I will come,” she promised.

We shall see, she added to herself.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The rectangular table was polished to a high gleam and was made of cedar wood imported from far to the east, Phoebe knew. The wood had arrived by boat as planks and still gave off a faintly exotic odor. While she nibbled at some bread and assessed her dining companions, she pondered how people’s lives could be affected by objects and events so far away. For example, the man who traded in the poppy essense, mekoi, was one who affected untold lives indirectly. Alekki was undoubtedly one of the ugliest men she had ever set eyes upon and yet she found him a fascination. His rubbery lips appeared the texture of octopus, and the red of his nose told tale of many nights upon open sea with perhaps only the resin wine, retsina, for company. Just then, Alekki paused in his conversation with Demetria, glanced at Phoebe and winked as if he and she were co-conspirators. Phoebe shuddered internally and redirected her attentions toward her work; Alekki had been invited to this feast for the sole purpose of pleasing Demetria. He, at least, was a known entity.

Not so Nikolas, an official from the Agronos of Phaistos. He sat across the table and two seats to the left of Phoebe. Presently, he was deeply engaged in conversation with Priesera Vasilea who sat next to him. Phoebe looked down at her plate and pretended interest in her grilled squid. She gathered her focus and soon could discern the voices of Nikolas and Vasilea from the general clamor around her.

“They say, Priesera, that Mount Herilia rumbles now day and night, or so I heard last I spoke to my brother on Heria.” Nikolas said. “He tells me She sometimes spits smoke, too. If one looks upon the northern horizon, does not the air look murky, as if cluttered with dust? I see this even as far south as Phaistos. And the colorful dusks make me feel considerable unease, though they be remarkably beautiful.”

“Indeed, Kourete Nikolas. Everyone in Knossos and at the University knows of Herilia’s unrest. Also you must have heard that just a third of a turn ago, our port village Amnisos was devastated with another wave, this one bigger than any before in memory. This is why the ships were rerouted west to dock. We are all uneasy.”

“Then, with all due respect, Priesera, what are the Sisters doing about this?”

“The Sisterhood is doing all we can. We have Priesera praying, dancing, and working spells all night and all day. We sought the seers of our community, but the answers they provide are unclear. It is as if they too must read the signs through murky air. But the problems are also political, I think. Perhaps the answer lies instead with our Council. What are they doing to end the abhorrence happening all over the world?”

“Bah! Praying, dancing, magic and even the seers are not sufficient. No, Priesera, the deities want more, is this not obvious? Our pleas are no longer sufficient.”

“Well, is this not what I am saying? The Council must do something to change the blasphemy occurring in this region. The heretics who offer up the Sun over His Meter must be stopped.”

One sidelong glance told Phoebe that Demetria was far too involved in her flirtation with Alekki to overhear the conversation between Vasilea and Nikolas. Phoebe exhaled quietly in relief. Vasilea had no sense of how offensive she could be to others. After all, one of the “regions” she so despised was Athena. Had they not recently elevated their God, Zeus, to the same status as their namesake Goddess, Athena?

Nor did Theseus appear aware of Vasilea’s indelicacy. Perhaps this was because his grasp of the Kritin language was poor. Since she had strung a thread to him already, he was easy to tune in to. She briefly checked his emotional state, reading boredom mixed with a longing to be elsewhere. When he glanced at her, sexual energy flared. She felt faintly sorry for the boy; though the food itself was somewhat entertaining, he likely would not understand nor even care to understand much of the conversation of strangers taking place about him. He would perhaps have been happier sitting over at the young people’s table with my Ansel. She speaks Greek fluently. But I could not possibly sit there, too. I shall need to direct more attention toward him.

But Nikolas was saying, “Is it not possible, Sister, that what is really needed is a direct appeasement? I hear that in the East, they offer the very best they have to give when the Gods are displeased, even up to and including their own citizens.”

“In the East, they worship bloodthirsty Gods.” Basilea replied dryly.

“And Great Meter is not proving equally bloodthirsty? Does She not take untold lives on Her own when perhaps She could be appeased with only a few?”

“Blasphemy!” Vasilea snorted, her face turning red.

Phoebe knew she couldn’t stay silent any longer lest Vasilea feel it was her solemn duty to share her opinions with the entire rest of the table. She stopped toying with her food and looked directly at Nikolas.

“Sacrifice, Nikolas?” she asked, pitching her voice tone to one of subtle command. “Are you truly proposing that the Great Goddess, She who gives birth, would ask us to kill Her children to appease Her? Why? It makes no sense. Many of us do not wholly approve of even the occasional sacrifice of the bull.”

“Pardon me,” Nikolas said, his face flushing as he struggled against her vocal light control spell, “but I hardly think we should disdain out of hand what works for others. What is one life in return for the lives of all of us here on Kriti, not to mention the rest of the region? After all, these other nations are not without their most learned and holy religious leaders, Mistress Phoebe.”

The way his harsh voice emphasized “Mistress” set Phoebe’s teeth on edge. Is he that much of a fool not to know I am also Priesera? Or does he realize I am in no position to rebuke him here in public? Her hands tightened into fists underneath the table, crinkling her blue linen table napkin into a ball.

“Kourete Nikolas, you are quite mistaken,” broke in a voice from somewhere farther up the table. “Sacrifice is only practiced in nations where their deities demand it as a matter of course. Our Goddess would be offended by a sacrifice of Her children. Mistress Phoebe is quite knowledgeable about the practices in foreign areas. I would listen to her if I were you.”

Phoebe glanced up to see Priesera Allunea staring at Nikolas in a penetrating manner, her black eyes fixing him with their uncomfortably intense gaze. Blessings on Allunea, Phoebe thought.

Nikolas murmured something unintelligible, then said, “Of course Priesera, I would not presume to imply Mistress Phoebe does not know where of she speaks. Nevertheless, many of us at Phaistos are concerned.”

“As are we all, Kourete Nikolas,” Allunea said returning her attention to her plate. Sweets were being served, and the conversation turned to less controversial topics. Phoebe turned to Theseus, engaging him in small talk over honeyed figs and hot beverages.

A crash, then raucous laughter erupted. Demetria stood holding her substantial, double-handled wine cup aloft, her heavy wooden chair having tipped over in her abrupt rising. Like magic, a servant appeared to right it for her. “To Kriti!” she announced. “May the Goddess of all rule here forever!”

What is she doing? She cannot possibly be drunk; she barely touched her retsina. With a fluid motion, Phoebe grasped her cup and held it aloft to acknowledge Demetria’s toast. She glanced toward Trader Alekki who wore a broad grin and was looking up at Demetria, his arms folded across his chest. In the flurry of servants who rushed to refill empty glasses, only Phoebe caught Demetria’s cynical raised eyebrow and her sly nod toward Alekki.

Old sow, she is doing this for effect!

When Thesmas rose, cutting short whatever additional pronouncement Demetria was about to make, Phoebe revised her assessment. Not for fun, but to end the feast and get back to her mekoi. She must have had only a little of the poppy essence to be able to make this appearance or she would not be able to keep her head off the table. Ai, and this selfish ruler is the sovereign ruler of Athena.

“Thank you, everyone, for your attendance,” Thesmas said, “and you, Helen Demetria, for your kind words. There will be entertainment and dancing in the main hall shortly. Please join us if you so desire.” She nodded at Xeronos, who donned his horns with only a little help from a nearby servant. They nodded and waved as they slowly walked together from the table and back into a private chamber of the Agronos. The members of the Elder Council stood next and walked in file from the table.

Phoebe turned to Theseus and said, “Are you interested in the entertainment tonight, Consort Theseus? Helen Demetria, it seems, is likely to retire early and will need you not.” She held his gaze and it promised more entertainment than dancing. Theseus smiled deeply and nodded. Together, they rose from the table.

“A moment please, Mistress Phoebe?” Alekki stood looking at her expectantly. Nodding, Phoebe turned to Theseus and said, “If you will excuse me, Consort Theseus, I will meet you at the east door.” She pointed across the courtyard to the door closest her private apartment.

She turned to Alekki, who smiled crookedly at her. “Helen Demetria knows how to break apart a party, does she not?”

“Indeed, although I suspect it was more calculated than impulsive.”

“Ah, you are as perceptive as your reputation and even more lovely. Would that you would escort me sometime.”

Phoebe curtsied.

Alekki chuckled and continued, “The Trader’s Code states that a trader should give aid to one who has been of assistance to them. I will make a fine profit from Helen Demetria, and I know it was you who decided upon the invitation list. So, you have aided me, albeit inadvertently. In return, I offer information that I believe you will find interesting.”

Phoebe inclined her head. “Information, Trader Alekki?”

“Yes. Kouretes Nikolas, he is well traveled and asks interesting questions. He is deeply involved in a new religion popping up on this island and others, one that involves gaining favor of the Gods through blood. He is a leader in the movement and deserves your special attention. Also, it would be wise to take note of who is interested in buying weapons of iron at the marketplace. Perhaps their motives are good, but, too, it is the symbol of choice for the new religion.”

Phoebe caught his eye and stared at him deeply. “How do you know so much, Alekki?”

Smiling, Alekki broke away from her thrall spell with as much ease as snapping a thread. “Traders learn to keep their ears open. You may wish to feign ignorance, Mistress, but your true vocation is not a mystery to me. I wish you good evening.” With unexpected grace, he turned his back to her and strode away.

Not many can break contact, Phoebe thought. Interesting man. She shrugged, made a mental note to give both the proffered information and the interesting dispenser of it more thought when she had time, then walked across the courtyard to meet the awaiting Theseus.

Chapter 7: In Phoebe's Bedchambers

Phoebe’s private bedchamber was sumptuous; as Elder Escort, she required it. Elegant pottery embellished with painted spirals and olive leaves graced tables of glowing inlaid wood. The flames of marble oil lamps added subtlety and depth to the room. Covering the floor was a thick woven wool rug dyed a deep and rare purple. Some of the marble walls were overlaid with woven wall hangings, warming the room from the chill of evening. She particularly favored sea motifs; an ornately stitched octopus eyed the room in surprise, while sea plants waved green fronds, and woven schools of fish circled the walls.

With a graceful sweep of her arm, Phoebe invited Theseus to sit with her upon a richly cushioned bench. She sat close to him, lightly stroking his arm with her perfectly manicured fingers. He scrutinized the wall hangings, refusing to meet her eyes. She felt his shyness.

“Do you like the tapestries?” she asked. “They come from a weaving village near Gournia, to the east of Knossos. I like them during the evening hours. The marble of the walls is beautiful, but so cool.”

“They are very beautiful.” He paused, and Phoebe inched just a bit closer to him, almost, but not quite, brushing her thinly draped breast against his bare arm. Though he pretended to be unaware, his radiance told her differently. She directed her own radiance towards his, gently, very gently, encouraging him to feel safe and reflective. Finally, he sighed, relaxed a bit, and said, “She is a fickle Goddess, the sea, is She not?”

“Ai, yes. She nourishes with life abundant, yet also can She take.”

“She can rip from you all you hold dear, without hesitation, without mercy. When I was a little boy, I thought Her my special Goddess. But today, I love Her not.”

Phoebe rested a hand upon Theseus’s forearm and softly pulsed his aura with her own, silently beckoning him to dive deeper into his tidal pool of memory.

Slowly, as if in a light trance, he leaned against the wall warmed by deep sea tapestries and continued speaking, his voice barely above a whisper. “Once when I a very young boy, I demanded the Caster of Nets bow down to me. Of course, She did not.”

He paused briefly to run a finger lightly over the veined surface of a marble lamp next to the couch. The flame from the olive oil flickered softly. “I did not know Her vengeful side then; I was punished for my arrogance. The woman who rescued me from the streets, Karolina -- she was of the fisherfolk on the island of Paros and the only Meter I remember…the morning after my foolishness, she and her brother paddled out far into the sea to catch fish before dawn. A tremendous wave, the likes of which was rarely seen before, crashed in. They never returned.

“Had there been a shake?”

“That is what the islanders say must have happened. A shake somewhere way out in the sea that we did not feel on land. But I always knew better. I knew it was because of me. Because I dared challenge the Caster.”

Phoebe placed her soft hand upon his shoulder and enveloped him with a golden-honey comforting, compassionate radiance. “I am sorry you lost your foster meter, but it was likely not due to your impiety.”

He shrugged. “You do not know the rest of the story. When we lost her and her brother, it left my many foster siblings and myself without close family. They went to live with other relatives. None would have me. They said Fate loved me not.”

Again, Phoebe gently pulsed him. Deeper, she thought. Tell me more.

“Karolina owned goats for their milk and cheese since she had so many children to feed. I was youngest and tended the goats. After her passing, they sold the goats and needed me not. They drove me back to the streets from which I came. I was young and defiant and told them all I did not need them, that someday they would hear of Theseus the Hero. But every night I spent on the streets, I dreamt of the home I once had and awoke in the morning with my eyes swollen from weeping.”

Abruptly, Theseus stopped speaking, straightened and dashed the tears from his eyes. “I do not know why I tell you this. You think me weak.”

“No,” Phoebe answered. “I think you young.”

Theseus tossed his head and grunted as if slapped. His voice darkened, sounding insulted. “I hate the sea, yet also I do not leave Her. I am young in body, Mistress Phoebe, but my heart feels old indeed.”

Phoebe caught his dark eyes and held them, risking opening her saria vision fully. The wall of stone was still there, but cracks showed in it. Deeply she searched, holding Theseus in a thrall she knew he would not recall. Carefully, gently, she probed into his spirit. Then, there it was, the thing she sought, the thing he hid; a wound, red and festered, laid upon his soul, penetrating his very spirit. She gasped in surprise. Its shape looked like the sacred knot of the Priesera, the mark of Her chosen ones. Yet within him, it appeared as a thing of violence; inflamed, angry, furious, vengeful.

Unsettled, Phoebe withdrew and with a gentle ease born of long practice, broke the contact. She hid the disquiet she felt. He was right. Here was not the young innocent soul she had expected to find behind the eyes. I should have suspected, she thought, young souls cannot build nor maintain such defenses. His manner bespeaks depths, yet also something is terribly awry. Ah Goddess, this may be a thing more grievous than I had supposed. And yet, perhaps, too, more hopeful.

Aloud she said, “Theseus, there are such wounds as only Goddess herself may heal. Sometime, mayhaps you will seek and accept the grace of such a healing.” She resumed stroking his arm, this time adding a pulse of orange-red sexual passion. She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips.

If Theseus understood her comment, he did not respond. Instead, he surrendered to Phoebe’s touch, returning her kiss with fire of his own.

Chapter 8: Ansel's Epiphany

Late that night, the feast and even the clean-up afterward long since over, Ansel awoke to pale moonlight bathing her face. She had been dreaming vividly, yet the images ebbed before her waking mind, leaving only a shadowy trace of uneasiness in their wake. Shaking her head slightly, she sat up in bed. I am not at all sleepy, she thought.

Drawing back the bed sheet, she lightly swung her feet to the floor and stepped to the window. The scant maiden moon cast wan light upon the glittering whitestone of the courtyard. The feasting tables still stood below, ghostly reminders of the lively meal they’d hosted. Cocking her head, she heard the soft, even breaths of a sleeping Geneera in the next room. Ansel shuddered in lonely delight at her solitude. A longing to see the ocean by moonlight filled her heart. What a lovely night it is, and I’ve not walked the beach at night in so long, not since before Amnisos. She hesitated at that thought, then set her jaw and decided it was long since time to resume her night wanders.

Even in an Artemis bow moon, the sparkly whitestone path leading down and away from the Agronos reflected enough light for Ansel to see without a lamp. She knew it well anyway. Following the narrow trail, she picked carefully over the jumbled stones so as not to turn her weak ankle.

The night air was deliciously cool and soft. Ansel hugged herself and hummed a cheery tune to suppress any feelings of grief as she neared the cliffs. Soon she stood at the edge of the foothill just as she had that morning the wave came. She heard the sea before she saw it; a sigh, then a rush, an inhalation and an exhalation. At night, the beautiful sea was some great breathing creature lying in wait in the darkness. More confidently now, like a wild mountain goat, she descended the shattered steps leading to the beach. In the semi-dark, she could pretend Amnisos was just at rest.

Ankle forgotten, Ansel ran lightly along the beach on the balls of her feet, digging her toes into the yielding sand, still warm from the day’s sun. The muscles in her calves tightened as the sand gave way; it felt almost like running through the water itself. At the firmer water-smoothed shoreline, the tiny sand granules sparkled from the wetness of a receding wave. Here and there, round stones graced the ground like fallen stars. The next wave rushed over her feet, cool and foamy. Despite the memory of Amnisos, Ansel was a child of the sea-blessed island, and the joy of feeling the ocean water again coursed through her body. She jumped back from the next wave, and on impulse began spinning on her toes in the soft sand, arms out from each side.

She began singing aloud an old sea melody her meter taught her when she was little, first softly, then louder as she lost herself in the lovely melody. “Meter Moon, my heart turns to you and to your beloved, the shining sea. Meter Sea, my joy knows no bounds, like a little child who kisses the stars who fell into your cup of plenty. Meter Moon, I kiss my hand to your beauty. Meter Sea, Meter Moon, bless me, for I am your child.”

Dizzy and breathless, she stopped spinning. When she regained her balance, she began to dance, still humming the ages old ode to Moon and Sea. Sway, step, sway, step, then cross one leg behind the other, imitating the ritual dances of the Priesera she had seen. She snaked out a spiral pattern in the sand, then stood still in the center and faced the sea, beginning another verse of the song,

“Meter Moon, my heart turns to you . . ..” Something made her stop and stare. Not twenty-five foot-lengths away, a glowing woman stood before her. Ansel wasn’t sure if the woman was an apparition or flesh. Her skin glistened in the moonlight, but her long hair, hanging in strands like seaweed to below her waist, shadowed her face. Her garment, inexplicitly flowing despite the water, draped over one breast and was pulled snug against the woman’s small waist. In one hand, she held a conch shell. The sea foamed dreamily around her knees. Ansel stood stock still, frightened and mystified at the woman’s silent appearance.

“Ansel, little one,” the woman said, her voice husky and dark, “I claim you now as my own daughter. Come to me when you are ready. Tell the Priesera. The sign is bestowed unto you.” The woman raised a hand, palm out, to Ansel. A bright, golden, thread of light extended from her palm, touched Ansel between her breasts, then receded. Ansel felt her heart surge and gasped loudly.

“What? Who are you?” She gulped in breath for several moments before her heart returned to a normal beat. But Ansel was again alone on the beach, and the breath of the sea was the only sound responding to her voice.

Chapter 9: At the Marketplace

At dawn, Ansel arose restless and by habit, wandered over to her desk to write. She wondered if she dreamed her encounter at the beach or if she had gone to the beach at all, but when she scratched her head with her stubby fingernails, she felt gritty sand on her scalp. Surely, then, at least that part was true. When Geneera awoke soon after sunrise (as she always did for her morning run), she found Ansel still writing at her little, wooden table.

“My, you are up early this morn.”

Ansel shrugged. She felt hesitant about telling Gen of the woman at the beach; Gen might think she was losing her sense to the sea again. Like after Amnisos, when had remained unresponsive for a long time. People worried about her; especially Meter and Gran. It occurred to Ansel suddenly that she might be losing her sense of reality, really losing it – that she would become one of those people who does not know who or where she is at any given time, who talk to phantasms, shout to the sea and slap rocks until their hands are bloody and someone kind comes to walk them home. That thought threatened to throw her into a panic, so she forcibly pushed it back to ponder at a later time.

But other things preoccupied Geneera’s mind. Grinning, she pounced on Ansel’s sweet hay filled bed mattress and crossed her long legs. “Garin really likes you. He says you are prettier even than your meta.”

Ansel looked up from her scroll, swiveled on her stool to face Gen, and forced herself to concentrate on her friend. “Hmm, that one I have never heard before. What does he want, do you think?”

“Silly, he wants to spend time with you.”

“Gen, I do not even know him. Nor him me.”

“So spend time with him and get to know him. He is considered one of the best of the dancers and he is very good looking. Do you not like him?”

“Ai, no, it is not that.”

“Then what is it?”

“Well, boys have never before shown much interest in me and in honesty, I do not trust his motives.” Ansel wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “This is our Kore Festival, no? It is time to become women, to fling off girlhood, or so meta and everyone keeps telling me.” She slapped \her pen down on the table in frustration. Her voice held bitterness. “I have had many experiences with false friends, those who want to be seen with the First Elder’s grandaughter yet care not for me. I do not need pretend interest from a false lover. Can you not hear the stories in the athlete’s dorms? ‘Oh Garin, you certainly did turn the head of the grandaughter. Did you take her in the meadow? Or did she bring you back to her private apartment? How was she, Garin? Was it worth it to have to spend time with her?’”

“Oh Ansel, I think you judge him, and yourself, harshly…”

“Do I? Maybe. But Gen, everything is changing too fast. You are my best friend, my only friend in truth, and you are leaving me to join the Bulldancers. We are about to be declared women in front of all of Knossos, and I do not know who I am nor what I want.” She glanced down at her chewed fingernails, then raised her head and looked Geneera in the eyes. “I envy you. You have always known you wanted to be an athlete regardless of what your meta wants. And now, you are joining the dancer troupe, just as you dreamed. I never had a goal like that. Now I am to become Kore and my future seems less clear to me than ever. I’m plain scared.”

“You could be a teacher, Ansel. You were always better at your studies than me.”

“I could teach, but my heart would not be in it. Would I teach here at the Agronos? Then, for my entire life I could listen to people wonder aloud why I am not pretty like my meta, nor clever like my granmeter. And probably not as good a teacher as your meter as well. I could spend my time apologizing for not being any of them.” Ansel felt her eyes well with tears. She clenched her teeth trying to hold them back. It was no use though and the fat hot tears spilled over her cheeks. After a moment, she continued. “To make it worse, there is nowhere in this land I can escape, Gen. Both Meta and Gran are known anywhere I go.” Ansel paused, ashamed at her tearfulness, angry with herself that she could not control them better. “I don’t know how people know who they are, Gen. I am never sure of anything. I ponder and ponder, but still no answer comes to me. Sometimes I think I am going adrift. I really mean it.”

Abruptly, Ansel stood and turned her back to her friend while rolling up her papyrus. She fumbled for a moment with a length of sinew, then wrapped and tied it around the scroll. Swallowing hard before she turned back to Gen, she said, “But let us talk about something else, yes? I was thinking… I was thinking… perhaps we could skip the opening of Festival and go directly to the marketplace. If we go early, we will have the best selection. Later, it will be very busy.”

Geneera nodded. “Agreed. Most of the Festival crowd will attend the opening. No offense meant to your Granmeter, but she will speak for longer than I can listen.”

A reluctant half-grin crossed Ansel’s tear-streaked face. “Indeed. Gran can talk the length of many courtyards.”

An hour or so later, the girls left the Agronos and began walking down to the large meadow bowl where the marketplace was held, south of the Center. It was a bright morn and a light, soft breeze blew their hair off their faces. Their feet kicked up a fine yellow dust from the dry rocky soil, as the Cronetide rains had not yet begun. Leathery-leaved plants lined the path as they descended in the meadow. As they approached the market, the sound of voices raised in dickering drifted to their ears. Others, too, had apparently decided to skip the opening of festivities in favor of shopping. Soon, their nostrils were assaulted with the odors of dung and unwashed bodies, as well as the more pleasing scents of baking bread, sizzling meats and exotic spices. The off-key clang of copper bells, accompanied by the lows and bleats of the various animals who wore them, could be heard mixed with the general din. Somewhere, someone was playing an eerie tune upon a reed pipe.

Traders intuited that the girls had the means to buy likely based on the girls’ dress and Ansel and Geneera were eagerly courted from the moment they stepped foot in the dusty corridor between the many booths. “Girls! Girls! You must try my perfume!” called one peddler as he waved them towards his booth. Compliantly, the girls sniffed the proffered tiny ceramic pot of oil.

Geneera wrinkled her nose. “Ai, it is too sweet!” She pretended to gag, wrapping her arms around her slim waist and retching clownishly. The trader rolled his eyes, turned his back to Geneera and attempted to woo Ansel.

“It is patchouli, young Miss, and the sweetness, that is what the boys like,” the portly trader wheedled as he mopped his sweaty brow with a square of undyed linen. Ansel rubbed a drop of the oil onto her wrist while Geneera wandered away, her attention drawn to a nearby leather-goods stall.

Ansel’s eyes followed the back of the rapidly disappearing Geneera, “Um, no thanks, I do not want the perfume, not now anyway,” she told the trader hastily, then trotted to catch up with her longer-legged friend. The perfume peddler shrugged good naturedly as he re-corked his pot of oil.

The girls quickly learned not to respond to the traders’ calls. They scooped their hands into baskets full of slick obsidian beads and admired shell-encrusted bangles, looked at themselves in highly polished silver hand mirrors and cooed at brightly dyed skeins of wool. Bronze charcoal braziers belched forth strongly scented powdered incenses. Dried medicinal herbs and ostrich plumes were tucked between stalls of copper pots and ceramic vessels. Geneera bought a seal stone carved from marble. It depicted a cunningly carved miniature Bulldancer springing through the air over a bull’s head. Ansel bought a silver dolphin brooch for her meter. Both girls breakfasted on honeyed, sweet-cheese pastries and pulpy fruit drinks as they meandered through the stalls and booths.

Next to a display of braided bread and harvested vegetables was a booth where a stooped, elderly man was carefully arranging rows of short, broad-bladed bronze knives and swords with ornate sheathes of leather decorated with silver, gold and copper. As the girls approached, the man took out a cloth and began rubbing the blade of a knife. His naked belly jiggled in rhythm with his polishing. Behind the display of weaponry hung upon a pegged wooden board were coats of the sort one would wear for protection in a fight or battle. Some were jerkins of leather, others ringlets of solid bronze. Among them was a cap made of an exotic blackish metal.

“What is that?” Geneera asked the trader, pointing toward the cap. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

The man took down the cap for the girls to look more closely. The metal was heavy as bronze, but looked coarser and knobby.

Ansel asked, “Why would someone want to buy that helmet? Is it because they cannot afford bronze?”

The man laughed aloud revealing several missing teeth. “Little maidens, I would sell you that cap of iron for only about ten times the price of the bronze. For all its unsightliness, it can turn a bronze sword.” He bent close to them in a conspiratorial manner adding, “The making of iron is difficult and its recipe is a secret. Not that anyone here on the island is even trying to discover that secret. Bah! They think they are forever immune to what happens in the outside world. But those nomadic warrior ogres understand the value of iron. It is strong! And it is in the hands of the wrong people!” He shook his head in disgust, then ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. Pointing a gnarled finger at the girls, he said, “One day everyone will have iron weapons. When that happens, heed my words, girls, the world will change, the world will change.”

“Ai, good trader, you speak wise as the serpent. I myself bought an iron dagger just this last maidentide,” said a voice behind the girls. They whirled around to see a stout silver-haired woman, her hands on her hips, nodding her head as she talked to the iron trader. Next to her stood a tall, pale man with extraordinarily fleshy lips. “Times grow dangerous for traders, especially the females. I feel more safe with iron on my side.”

“You are Melodia, from Delos, no?” the trader asked. “And of course, I know you, Trader Alekki. Can I interest you in some iron weaponry also? Surely you need protection with the merchandise you handle. I have testimony to its efficacy, as you heard.”

“No, friend, though I would indeed enjoy hearing more sometime. Melodia and I were just walking by and heard you speaking to the girls. I must be off to my own tent now, for I am on an errand for Helen Demetria of Athena.”

“I would talk more with the iron tradeskourete, Alekki. Perhaps we can meet again to talk before the Citizenry meeting?”

“Of course, Melodia.” Quickly he embraced her, kissing her on the cheek, and then left.

Melodia frowned quizzically at the girls, then pointed her chin at Ansel saying, “Unless I miss my mark, you are Ansel, grandaughter of First Elder Thesmas. Do I win?”

“Yes,” she replied, almost too wearily to be polite. Sometimes she wished mightily to have a less well-known face.

“Know your meta and Xeronos, and have met your Granmeta. Saw you when you were a babe and not since. You look much like your meta though. Name’s Melodia. I trade in Trojan silver mostly, gold, electrum and precious gems when I can.”

Ansel warmed to the no-nonsense woman. “Delighted to have your acquaintance, Tradeskore Melodia. Here is my friend, Geneera, daughter of Priesera Vasilea.”

“Geneera, delighted to meet you. I do not know your meter personally, but have heard her speak. But here, let me ponder for a moment; my youngest daughter, Dia, is a bit older than you, Ansel, so it must be, oh, close to fifteen turns since I saw you last.”

“Indeed, I will have sixteen turns to me this Metertide.”

“Ach, you are nearly Kore. How time flows.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Were you thinking of buying anything from our good tradeskourete? No? Then perhaps I may enjoin him. Please give my heart’s blessings to your meta, Ansel. Tell her I will see her at the Citizenry meeting. Now, good trader, what else have you in ironware?”

Just as she and Gen were retreating from the iron trader’s stall, leaving Melodia deep in conversation with the trader, Ansel noticed two other people approaching – Carea and a man who turned out to be Carea’s Uncle, Nikolas. Gen grinned and skipped over to them, excitedly kissed Carea on the cheeks and hugged “Uncle Niko” as Carea introduced him. Ansel tried not to feel left out when Carea didn’t also introduce her to Uncle Niko.

Nikolas was no taller than Gen and stout, no doubt once powerfully built as Carea was now. His balding head was more than compensated for by the rich black hair he grew everywhere else. His forearms and lower legs where they peered below his white linen tunic, even the knuckles of his square hands and the tops of his sandaled feet bloomed with lush hair.

“Carea tells me you are to join the troupe, Gen. You must be excited. I remember when Carea told my sister and I that she had been accepted. My Carea whooped and danced for all of the weeks before she left for Knossos.”

For all that Ansel didn’t like Carea, she couldn’t help but warm to the idea of her jumping and dancing like a child. She smiled a little at Carea, but the girl was looking down at her own feet.

“Oh yes, I am breathless with excitement!” Gen confirmed. “But please, Uncle Niko, if I may call you that, I have not yet told my meter. If she were to find out from anyone but me…”

“Ah, I can see that would be most uncomfortable. You may count on me not to divulge your secret, Geneera. Some things a Meter must learn first from her daughter.”

Carea looked up sharply and said, “My Uncle wishes to speak at length with the iron trader, Gen. Where are you going? I hope to find some leather for boots. Would you like to come with me?”

Ansel held her breath. Gen turned toward her, caught Ansel’s eye for a moment, then replied, “We, Ansel and I, are looking for a few things, too. Do you wish to join us?”

Carea looked at Ansel, her eyes hardening again, and said, “No, I think I will go quickly find the leather and then join the opening ceremonies. I will take time to peruse the market later this Festival.” Gen shrugged her shoulders and hugged Carea farewell.

The day was growing warm and the two girls walked slowly, pausing often to finger some new rarity. Ansel noticed that nearly every conversation she overheard, from the people milling around the refreshment booths, to some comments made to a traveling muse, to an earnest and somewhat heated discussion between traders, centered on unrest in the area. Some expressed concern about the great mountain Herilia rumbling on the nearby island of Heria. Others whispered about political and religious unrest on neighboring islands, and the northern mainlands. Many planned to attend the upcoming Citizenry meeting. For the first time, Ansel gave some consideration to attending herself, providing, of course, it didn’t conflict with something more interesting.

Finally, Ansel spotted a booth selling what she sought. Among trinkets of ivory and gold and boxes of a black wood, were bolts of orange and red cloth with fierce-looking, golden lions woven into the pattern. She had seen cloth of this type before in a market many years ago and had never forgotten it. Her Meter had marveled at the texture of the material; soft, yet tough, while the young Ansel had poked chubby little-gitl fingers at the lions. To the young adult Ansel, the lion pattern of the cloth seemed random, yet still had a sense of rightness that spoke to her deeply. She had no idea how she might use the cloth, but she wanted it anyway.

“How much for the cloth, good TradesKore?” she asked the tall, large-boned woman behind the booth.

“You have silver? It is two standard-weight rings for the bolt,” she replied. When Ansel gasped at the price, the trader said, “Alas, young miss, the trade routes become more and more dangerous, and so I must ask more for my products to make the long journey profitable.”

Geneera, who had been sifting through a display of wooden beads cunningly carved to resemble birds, cocked her head in interest at the trader’s words. “Why are the trade routes becoming more dangerous? I heard this had been a particularly favorable year for weather,”

“Indeed,” the woman replied, gracefully turning toward Gen as she spoke, “the weather has not been the problem. You who reside on Kriti are isolated by the Meter Sea, and she continues to smile on your lovely lands.” She flashed white teeth in a smile, but her eyes did not reflect amusement. “But alas, your neighboring countries do not share in your peaceful existence. Surely you have heard that in many of your neighboring lands there has been unrest - raids from light-skinned nomads who bear terrible weapons and worship a god who speaks in a voice of thunder and blood.”

Ansel’s heart suddenly thumped hard in her chest, then returned to normal. To cover her momentary confusion, she swallowed, then said, “No, we…I hadn’t heard.”

“We think they come from far to the North. On the borders of Libya, my home, there have been battles. Everywhere is the rumor of war. The worst of it is spoken barely above a whisper; this god of battle commands his followers to sacrifice all the men and boys of the conquered lands to him, then to rape and enslave the women. And so my business becomes more and more dangerous as even foreign traders are at some risk. Many women traders have already been forced to find less dangerous work, while others have given their sons or brothers or consorts a more active role so that the monsters and their vile followers will allow them to trade in peace.”

The woman stood to her full height, her eyes full of flame. “My sisters and I also carry weapons now, and we have learned to use them. Never will we submit to the dogs.” She spat on the ground and looked fiercely at the girls.

Abruptly the Libyan trader allowed her shoulders to slump a little and she chuckled. “Luckily for me, most of them are cowards, no more than little boys playing at defying their meters. The fear of Goddess is strong in them, and they know in their hearts they risk Her wrath. But I shudder to think what will happen if ever they lose that fear.”

Ansel liked the trader woman and dickered just enough so not to offend her, then handed over her silver. As the woman wrapped the precious cloth with a length of cheap, clean linen, Ansel mused about the woman’s tale of unrest in her home country. She privately resolved to attend the Citizenry meeting no matter what other interesting events might be happening at the same time.

Chapter 10: Ansel's Meeting

A Grape Harvest Festival lasts for 13 days, the time it takes the moon to traverse through the final Metertide bow into the initial full Cronetide cycle of the turn. By the afternoon of the seventh day, the moon pregnant and ripening, Ansel had already attended the goat judging and the wrestling competitions, saw the running tournaments and an enactment of the newest drama by Psiperia, a playwright and poet reknowned throughout Kriti. She planned to attend a dog-herding event later this afternoon, but first, she had some business to conduct.

As promised, her meta had arranged for her to tell the Priesera about her visions. The meeting was in the guest apartments at the Agronos, on the third floor. She ascended the elegant, central marble stairs with a heavy heart, dreading to speak again of what happened at Amnisos. She had to go alone, too; the Sister had insisted. She had debated whether to mention the second encounter on the beach and decided not to.

She gently tapped on the heavy wooden door to the apartment. It swung inward and a young woman, barely older than Ansel herself, gestured for the girl to enter. Following her lead, Ansel thought, She must be a novice Priesera. She wears the open robes of the Priesera, but she has no knot on her bac, and no hat. Ansel took a deep breath and allowed herself to be guided to the cushioned bench in the apartment vestibule. She looked down at her hands folded carefully in her lap. A huge tapestry of orange lilies and blue swallows hung on the wall opposite her seat. She resisted the urge to chew her already ragged fingernails.

Soon, a tall stern-looking woman dressed in the long, open-breasted purple robe and tall hat of the Priesera stepped gracefully out to greet her. When the Priesera turned her back to lead Ansel into the room serving as her office, Ansel stared at the looped rope knot attached to the robe, just between the Priesera’s shoulder blades. The knot of the Priesera was a symbol of prominence as significant as the double-headed axe itself. Only one who knew the mysteries of the net of life itself could wear it.

Sister Allunea, as the Priesera introduced herself, was not unkind to Ansel, but her demeanor was so severe and her eyes such an impenetrable black that Ansel found looking into them disquieting. The Priesera stared, it seemed, long at Ansel without saying a word. Finally, her features softening somewhat, she said, “Tell me of your vision, child; what did you see at Amnisos?”

“Yes, Priesera,” Ansel said. “I, uh, I was standing at the top of the cliff stairs, the ones carved into the foothill that leads down to Amnisos and the bay. I had just climbed them. I was returning home and turned around to look down upon the sea. Then the shake came and I was thrown to the ground. I hurt my ankle.” Unconsciously, Ansel reached to her ankle and rubbed it, as if the action might help her thoughts flow more easily.

The Priesera said nothing, but nodded gravely, encouraging Ansel to continue.

“Just moments later, the wave came.” The memory of the wave rushed back with astounding clarity. Ansel’s breaths became short, and her heart pounded so fiercely she could hear it in her ears. She found herself unable to speak further. Priesera Allunea reached forward and placed a surprisingly gentle hand on Ansel’s arm. Warmth radiated through the girl, and her heart gradually slowed. She looked into the Priesera’s gaze, surprised to see the solemn Sister’s eyes widened with compassion. Unwittingly, Ansel’s own eyes welled with tears.

Clearing her throat, Ansel continued, tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. “The Caster of Nets appeared after the wave receded. I watched Her gather the souls of the fisherfolk. I thought I lost my mind. Maybe I did. I still do not know sometimes.”

Priesera Allunea said with a wave of her hand, “Child, many people report visions after a shock such as you experienced. It is not a symptom of mind loss. Tell me, what did She look like to you?”

“Huge and naked. Her hair was long and covered Her face until She looked up and spoke to me. But, Priesera…” Ansel reached out in sudden desperation to the Sister. She felt inexplicably that this woman could save or destroy her with mere words. “Priesera, for weeks, nay, even full cycles, after…Amnisos, I heard voices and saw faces. My waking was all bad dreams, and my dreams…they were even worse. I could not talk. I could barely eat. People tell me I muttered and sometimes screamed for hours on end. My meter says I was storm shocked, but, but, I felt inside like a clay pot dropped on a stone floor. I am afraid something within me truly shattered and that I can never again be whole.”

A line appeared between the brows of the Priesera, and she chewed her lips momentarily. It made her seem almost human. “Ansel,” she said finally, “I have no simple reassurances for you; this would be dishonest. It may be true that some part of you broke that day and will never completely mend. But we are usually more flexible than we think. If you choose, you can heal and become even stronger for your experience. Also if you choose, you can let this tragedy claim yet another life – yours. The choice is truly your own, even if it does not seem this way to you now. No person lives a life completely free of pain and misfortune. What you make of that pain, how you use it, how you learn from it, these are tests of your character. You have received a dose earlier than many. No one but you will determine what you do with this pain you carry.”

Ansel dropped her head. She’d heard the words of the Priesera, but like the message from the Caster Herself, the meaning confused her. Still, Sister Allunea had not said she was doomed to be mind-adrift as she’d feared. She wiped her eyes and said, “I thank you for your honesty.”

Priesera Allunea made Ansel repeat the exact message from the Caster several times, asking her to think back carefully, to be as certain as possible she had every word correct. Finally, the Sister sighed and said, “Child, you were given a gift even at the moment of great disaster. Few besides the Seers are ever given a direct message from She who rules the Underworld. And yet so cryptic a message! What else can you remember? Perhaps the words are only a part of the meaning She wished to impart. It is important, please try.”

“The only other thing I remember clearly is the color of Her eyes. They were like the deepest sea, shifting from light blue-green all the way to deep violet. I could not turn away from them. It was as though She held me immobile with them.”

“Ai, child. That is the Caster for certain. No other Goddess has eyes so remarkable.” Allunea tightened her lips into a thin line, looked thoughtfully at Ansel for several moments, then said, “You had another experience? Tell me about that.”

Ansel gasped. “How did you know that? I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Meta….”

The furrow between Allunea’s brows returned. She said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you, child. In my concern for the content of the messages, I neglected to tell you I spun a thread of connection when I touched you before. For some, the thread brings clear knowing of important events of another’s life. Each Priesera who receives Ariadne’s thread is gifted differently. This is my gift. I cannot see exactly what this experience of yours was, only that it was important to you. Please, do not be afraid to tell me of it.”

Ansel nodded, feeling both reassured and nervous. “I woke up very early in the morn. The opening feast was the eve before. I could not sleep and I thought to walk to the beach. I like to go to the beach at night sometimes and just look at the moon and listen to the waves.”

“The same beach near Amnisos?”

“Yes, it is the closest one to Knossos. The rivers surrounding the Agronos empty there.”

Allunea nodded and Ansel continued, “I walked the beach, and then this woman appeared from the sea.”

“She was human?”

“She glimmered like no human. She was draped in a flowing garment. Her hair was like seaweed, thick, and it waved with the rhythm of the sea. She moved silently. I…I am reasonably certain she was not human.”

“And she just appeared? You did nothing but walk? Were you in eukintos, an altered state?”

“Um, I admit I was not just walking.” Ansel felt suddenly foolish. “I was singing and dancing to the moon. I had seen the Priesera dance and was imitating one of the dances.”

Ansel glanced up from her lap to see if her admission to imitating the Priesera was offensive, but the Sister gave no outward indication.

Priesera Allunea said, “The dances of the Priesera give rise to eukintos and in late eve or early morn the net between worlds is tattered. Yes, the woman could have been a Goddess then, though I am not certain who from your description. Many arise from the sea. What did She say?”

“She said my prayers were heard. And then she raised her hand and, well, hit me with something.”

“Hit you with something?”

“I am sorry. That is a poor description, but it is how it felt to me. I saw a thread come from her palm, and when it reached me, it felt like she hit me with it.”

“Where were you hit? Did it hurt?”

“I was hit here.” Ansel pointed to between her breasts, “and no, it didn’t hurt exactly, but it took my breath away.”

“A moment please.” Allunea again stared at Ansel, but this time her eyes were unfocused. After a moment, she raised an eyebrow and looked directly at Ansel again. “And you prayed to be Priesera?”

“What? No.” But she felt a sudden pang. Maybe I did. But a Priesera? Like Meta? Like Gran?

“Yet you wear the mark.”

“What mark?”

“The sacred knot in your radiance. Oh, it is not visible to most people. Only those who also wear the mark can see it and only then when they are trained. Goddess marks those who are her Priesera. It is Her call. You will need to come to the University for teaching. I will speak to your Meta, and we will discuss it further after the Kore ritual.”

Chapter 11: All Citizenry Meeting

Ansel was sorry she came to the Citizenry Meeting; it was even more boring than one of Vasilea’s lectures. First, it was held in the middle of a beautiful morning, the next to last day of the entire Festival, inside the Agronos in the huge hall on the first floor. Phoebe told her it was easier to hear inside, but that did not make it any easier to be missing the warm breezes and singing birds.

Ansel was not sure anything worth hearing was going to be said. During the first half hour, the Council settled only two disputes. First, a very red-faced man sputtered about his goat-grazing rights. Then, the Council solemnly addressed some personal legal matter of a woman who owed this man something but did not think she did and who really gave a toot anyway? Now, the Council had just agreed to accept a new color of dyed cloth from some craftsman. The color was a beautiful red-purple and Ansel had enjoyed seeing the cloth, but really, she could be watching the latest of Arista’s sacred dramas instead of wasting her time here. At least the drama was being performed outside in the theatre. She had just stood up to leave when a short, muscular, gray-haired woman of middle years stood up to address the Elder Council. It was the woman from the marketplace – the one with the iron dagger. Ansel sat back down.

“I am Melodia, originally of Delos, but these last 20 turns I have called Kriti my home.”

Thesmas smiled slightly. “Yes, Melodia. The Council acknowledges you.”

The rest of the Council, many of whom had looked nearly as bored as Ansel felt, suddenly shifted in their chairs, sat up straighter and looked expectantly at the TradesKore.

Melodia continued in her curt manner. “I am a trader by craft. My specialty is Trojan silver, though I also buy obsidian and gems to sell to jewel crafters.”

Thesmas nodded.

“I have been asked by the Trader Guild to approach the Council. I recently traveled north to Troy. I bring back concerns, not just for myself, but for many traders. I was accosted on my last journey.”

“What? Accosted how?” Xeronos leaned forward in his chair and squinted toward the woman. His deep voice boomed through the marble hall. Ansel suspected Xeronos did not see well. He squinted a lot, and she noticed he had to hold scrolls and other written materials very close to his chiseled nose when reading. Still, he was a handsome man and a clever one. Ansel could understand why her meter favored him.

Melodia continued, “I travel with my brother and second eldest daughter, Brita.” She placed a hand upon the shoulder of a younger woman seated next to her. “We trade through a specific route, first sailing north to the main port at Athena, then north and east through the Cycliades islands to my northernmost point at Thassoliona. I then head easterly to Troy and finally down through the coasts of the Emetchi homelands and sail home west to Kriti.

Ansel closed her eyes and tried to visualize the route. She mostly failed. I will have to ask Vasilea. she thought, irritated with herself.

“Just east of Thassoliona, as we camped for the night, a group of young males, perhaps five or six of them, approached us. They were very light-skinned and I thought, hungry looking as young men generally are. I greeted them warmly and offered them food, for I thought them perhaps kin of the sire of my youngest daughter, Dia. But these young men were rogues. They wanted to rob us.” The crowd murmured.

“Now, we have run into robbers before, mind you, and my brother carries a sword with him just for this reason. This was the first time he actually had to brandish it. My brother is a large man, and my daughter and I are both strong. I think the young men did not expect us to fight back. Anyway, they retreated long enough for us to run to our boat and row away. They got our dinner and our fire, but naught more.”

“You say you encountered robbers before, Melodia. Why was this particularly troubling?” asked Xeronos, pausing to rub his eyes.

The TradesKore grunted. “They were not ordinary robbers; they were less interested in our goods than in threatening us, especially me and my daughter. At first, they assumed my brother was the leader of our group. When they realized I was leading, they became insolent and threatening. Although they did not speak Kritin or Greek, I understood their meaning well enough. They gestured threateningly at Brita and me and spat on the ground. They thought women had no business on the roads, and they would teach us a lesson.” She chuckled. “I think, though, that the lesson went in the other direction. My daughter and I picked up flaming logs and pushed them into their faces. We shocked them.”

“Still, we have heard of men being disrespectful to women traders before, especially in the North. It is unfortunate, but we cannot control the customs of the neighboring lands.” Ansel noted that many of the Council members, particularly the female members, were passing sideways glances at each other and scowling. Their faces told of worry.

“Bah! Customs are one thing. Threatening the lives of honest trader women is another. I have taught many a young man a thing or two about respecting women in my day, but never have they banded together to attack like this before. This is new, I tell you. Allow me to finish my story.”

Xeronos nodded.

“We then continued into the Emetchi lands. The women of that land are as close to warriors for the Great Meter as I have ever encountered. They train with horses and wield swords. There, I learned that new bands of people -- or, I say people, but apparently they are all male -- anyway, they are coming into the lands all around us. The Emetchi say this has happened before, when their nations first formed.”

Turning to the rest of the crowd, Melodia added, “The Emetchi are careful to maintain their history, you know. They teach their storytellers to retell the stories word for word.” Turning back to the Council, she continued, “They tell tales of young men, often riding horses, though sometimes in boats, too, arriving from the North, who join together to invade local villages and even some cities. They are always light-skinned and mostly light-eyed. They worship gods of war and thunder. Their gods order them to kill and rob. They believe their warrior knives to be holy.”

Now the murmurs of the crowd erupted into exclamations of alarm. Thesmas had to stand, her arms out and gesture for them to quiet. Melodia continued, “The Emetchi do not know precisely from where they come. They think these boys have been displaced from their home tribes, perhaps due to hunger in their lands. They think they come from somewhere much colder since they hate the heat of Metertide, and the sun blisters their skin. They keep their bodies covered in skins, too, even when it is very warm. It makes them smell very bad.”

Ansel watched as Phoebe sat forward, pressing her chin into her palm. Her elbow rested on a table in front of her and she looked both intensely interested and apprehensive. She shot a sideward glance at Ansel’s GranMeter, who looked thoughtful and grim.

“The Emetchi say they have fortified their borders, patrolling night and day. There have been skirmishes. The route I take is no longer safe. They say we were blessed by the Goddess to have escaped, that some young Kore have been raped or abducted. Something needs to be done.”

“What is it the Trader’s Guild would have the Council do, Melodia? Thassliona is a long ways away.” Thesmas asked, slapping her palm on the table in frustration.

“We, the traders of Kriti, need to have safety in our journeys or we can no longer ply our business. Kriti is the most powerful trading and sea-faring nation on earth. Surely something can be done. These bands are only boys, but many boys in a group are still a threat. Do you want Kritin citizens to be hurt?”

We are a peaceable people. We do not even have a military. Perhaps we could appeal to the leaders of Thassliona to police these boys. Ansel frowned thoughtfully.

Melodia continued, “If it were for myself only, I would be less concerned. I am close to the end of my career, and the journeys are getting too long for me. But my daughter wishes to continue; it is the only craft she knows, and she loves to travel. The men may not be safe either, though the Emetchi say the Northerners nearly always target women. Perhaps that will change.”

“The Council will discuss this, Melodia,” Thesmas said. “Be assured, we share your concerns. We will find a way to exert influence. We recognize the importance of safety for our TradesKore.” All of the Council Members nodded in agreement, many with their lips tightened into thin lines.

Melodia sat down and the Council called a recess for a third of an hour.

Phoebe watched as her oldest friend, Melodia, sat down and began gesturing emphatically to a younger woman next to her. That must be Brita, Mel’s second daughter. Phoebe thought. How grown up little Brita is! So much time has passed since the days when Mel and I endured classes together. How did we come to lose each other? Ach, how I miss the days when Mel and I were close. Still, she did not go to the university and I did. That changes people.

Phoebe placed both her elbows on the smooth wooden table in front of her and rubbed her eyes. Thank Goddess this Festival is nearing its end. I am getting too old to be up almost all night with a young man and then be attentive at meetings. I have had to use my glamour magic more than ever to not appear haggard. I will need to sleep for many hours once the Fest ends.

Too soon, the short recess was over and the Council resumed. Phoebe noticed Ansel had slipped out. For a rueful moment, she wished she could do the same.

Nikolas of Phaistos stood, drawing himself up self-importantly. “I have a concern, too, Elder Council.”

“The Council recognizes Kourete Nikolas of Phaistos.” Thesmas said.

“Thank you, First Elder. While I am, of course, concerned with the TradesGuild and their woes in distant lands, I wish to know what the Council is doing about the other, much closer threat from the North? Upon the island of Heria, the people tell me that the great mountain, Herilia, spits ash daily. The rumblings increase. Many of us lost loved ones not six cycles ago when Amnisos was swamped by a great wave. Clearly, the Great Meter is displeased with us. What is the Sisterhood doing? What is the Council doing?”

Leave it to Nikolas to bring up the obvious. As if the Council could stop earth shakes! Phoebe absently scratched the back of her neck where her hair was bound up too tightly. Still, this does need to be addressed. It is like a great squid sprawled in the courtyard that everyone tiptoes around and no one dares kick. Better the Council defends the Sisterhood’s actions in public than have the likes of Nikolas spreading rumors at the dinner table.

Thesmas paused, possibly to think of what to say to Nikolas, which was a mistake. Vasilea pounced upon the moment and leapt to her feet to confront the man she had lost the debate to.

“Kourete Nikolas, you know full well that this matter is being addressed by the Sisterhood. However, I am in agreement with you that the Council should also take action.”

Thesmas actually turned all the way around to face Vasilea, who stood behind her. Phoebe would have given anything to witness the look that must be crossing her meter’s face at that moment. Vasilea’s face, which Phoebe could see, was stone-like. Only her glittering black eyes betrayed her knowledge that she was being openly defiant of Council protocol. To keep order, questions were always directed to and answered by the First Elder or the Consort. Other Council members were to join in the discussion either by invitation of the First Elder or by catching the attention of the Consort, who then invited them to speak. I see where Geneera gets her rebellious streak, Phoebe thought, smothering a chuckle. She leaned back in her chair and crossed a leg over her knee. It was always fun to see her normally unflappable meter a bit riled.

Thesmas, however, quickly and efficiently regained control of the meeting by saying, “The Council recognizes Member Vasilea. Please, Priesera, tell us what you know of the situation and what the Sisterhood is doing. Then we can discuss what, if anything, the Council can do about this religious matter.”

Vasilea cleared her throat, obviously satisfied that she had been able to pull rank on Kourete Nikolas and now had the attention of the floor. “As Kourete Nikolas has correctly pointed out, the peak of Herilia is throwing ash. Almost daily, the people of Heria feel small shakes. Sometimes larger shakes occur but these mostly seem to originate from the sea. Our Seers tell us there is danger, a terrible one, but it is still far off. We do not know if they mean far off in time or in distance. Seers have difficulty with dimensionality. The Sisters have performed special rituals to aid the Seers’ gift. Thus far, they have only been marginally successful.”

Now Vasilea spread her arms wide dramatically. “However, it is obvious to me that the cause of Great Meter’s displeasure is the groups who are elevating worship of Her Son over Her. This is what I believe we on the Council should concern ourselves with. We must issue an edict outlawing the worship of Him over Her. It is heresy. She will continue to punish us until we take a stand.”

Nikolas grew red-faced and began to sputter. His Radiance was red and angry looking. I should really find an opportunity to make connection with him, Phoebe thought. I have not taken the time to think about the implications of what that TradesKourete, Aleki, told me about Nikolas. I must do so as soon as this Fest is over. If he is indeed a heretic, there could be trouble. Again Phoebe rubbed her eyes and sore neck. I am so tired, and my head hurts. But I must not be lax in my duties to Kriti.

Thesmas put up a hand and rose to her feet. “Member Vasilea, this is entirely inappropriate for a Citizenry meeting. If what you say is true, it is a matter of the Sisterhood, not the Council.” She turned to Nikolas. “Kourete Nikolas, we on the Council are concerned as well about the unrest of Herilia. We rely on the Sisterhood to communicate directly with Great Meter. Allunea, the Priesera Elder, is attending this Festival. I will ask her to give the Council a formal report of what progress is being made. I will then have the report copied and disbursed to each of the Agronos. I promise you it will be discussed, though what influence you think the Council has over doings of a mountain is obscure to me.”

Nikolas bowed politely and sat down, though Phoebe could see that he would have liked to have said quite a bit more on the subject. She wished her Meter would have allowed him to – it would make Phoebe’s job easier. She found it distasteful to have to send out a connection to people she basically disliked. After all, connections went two waysand making one came with a price. For example, she had become truly fond of young Theseus, compassionate toward him in a motherly fashion. She was finding it more and more difficult to keep her observations of him objective. She was becoming reluctant to press him further about painful issues. She needed to continue though. As always with the Escorts, personal feelings did not matter much when it came to serving Kriti and Goddess. It did not matter if she would have preferred to pat Theseus on the head than be his lover. It did not matter if she would prefer to love just one man rather than many. One could become bitter if one dwelled on this too much.

Chapter 12: Bulldancer Expedition

The Festival reached its climax on the final day. Not only was the Bulldancer event to take place in the late morn, but the Kore ritual was at dusk, and the final feasting and dance immediately after.

The Bulldancer event was very well attended. Crowds of people packed the perimeter of the courtyard both on the ground and on the first and second levels of the Agronos, shouting and cheering and waving colorful banners of their guild, family or village. Thesmas stood on the second floor balcony of her own personal apartment with the silver cone she used to amplify her voice. Even so, not everyone heard her announcement at the beginning of the event.

“The Bulldancers of Kriti are world renown, and the troupe at Knossos especially so,” she began. “Today, they celebrate the vitality of life, passing through the horns of the Sacred Bull. Just as Goddess Herself possesses within Her the MoonBull, and just as She gives birth to Her Son, so the dancers are a living symbol of the fertility, abundance and passion for life that the people of Kriti personify.” Cheers erupted from those who could hear Thesmas, leaving the rest suddenly aware that the event had begun. Thesmas shouted over them, “Heradike, trainer of the dancers of Knossos, will tell you about today’s exhibition.” The crowd stomped and whistled as Thesmas handed her megaphone to the Bulldancer’s sprightly coach.

“Thank you, First Elder,” Heradike began as the crowd quieted. “This exhibition of tumbling and skill is dedicated to the memory of a young man who unfortunately gave his life at the last Seven-Turns Festival. Jerid Ae-vasilea was a dancer of exceptional talent who was gathered from us too soon. We in the troupe honor his memory. We are pleased to announce today that his sister, Geneera, has been accepted into the troupe. May his memory live forever on.”

More cheers and whistles erupted from the crowd. Ansel gasped, turned to Geneera and asked urgently, “Did you know she was going to announce you joined the team?” Geneera’s face had turned white as alabaster, and she just shook her head.

Ansel took Geneera’s cold hand into her own and stroked it. “Your meta is not here though, right?”

Again, Geneera shook her head. “No,” she choked. “She has not attended a dancer exhibition since Jerid died. She is doing some writing in her rooms.”

“That is fortunate. You are going to need to tell her as soon as you can. Don’t allow her to hear it from someone else.”

“I will have to find her. I will run to her apartment as soon as the event is over. Oh Goddess, I can not believe Heradike just announced to the entire crowd that I have joined the team.”

“She undoubtedly assumes your meta would be proud. Anyone would think that.”

“She doesn’t know Meta.”

The troupe entered the courtyard. The dancers wore very short skirts in bright shades of blue, yellow and coral. The bull, a huge brown specimen, wore a garland of flowers around his neck in colors matching the dancers’ costumes. Three dancers led the bull to the center of the courtyard while the others took their places off to the side. A girl yelled “Aiyee!” and threw her arms over her head as she stood in front of the bull. Ansel recognized Carea as the dancer gripped the bull’s horns. The animal tossed his head and Carea was thrust towards its back. She balanced herself upside down, hands still grasping the horns. The bull began loping slowly around the courtyard. Carea arched her back until her outstretched feet touched the bull’s back. She stood balanced on its back, her arms extended from her side as the beast continued to jog around the perimeter of the courtyard. Finally, she did a handspring from the bull’s rump into the waiting arms of another dancer. The crowd cheered wildly. Carea waved and ran to the sidelines to stand with the other dancers.

Next, Garin raised his arm high and shouted “Aiyee!” catching the attention of the audience. He cartwheeled and hand-sprung toward the waiting bull, then grasped the bull’s horns and flipped onto the bull’s back, using momentum generated by the animal’s head toss. Landing feet first on the bull’s rump, he somersaulted first back towards the bull’s head, then forward to the rump, then hoisted himself to his hands and remained balanced there as the bull loped around the courtyard. He leapt off the animal to wild applause.

After Garin finished his performance, he came to sit with Ansel and Geneera in the crowd. He smelled somewhat of sweat and animal, but Ansel found she did not mind. He reached across Ansel’s shoulders to thump Geneera on the back. “Great show, no? Carea’s work has been superb today. Her uncle Nikolas is here all the way from Phaistos to see her. She really wants to impress him.” Geneera just grimaced, her face still unnaturally white. She continued to stare intently at the dancer now on the bull’s back, who was balancing upon one foot while arching her back and raising her arms.

“She has not told her meta yet about joining the troupe,” Ansel whispered to Garin.

The boy winced. “She will need to now. It is going to be difficult when she finds out, yes? That is too bad.” He paused, then said, “Will I see you at the dancing after the Kore ritual tonight, Ansel?”

“I will be there with Geneera.”

“Ai, of course.” He seemed about to say more, then checked himself and watched the event for a few long moments. The tall, slender, dark girl was now dancing comically atop the bull to the amusement and cheers of the crowd.

Finally, Garin turned to Ansel and said, “Geneera is Kore, too. She will understand if we want some time alone.”

“I may not be willing to leave her alone, Garin.”

“But it is the last night of the Kore Festival. Everyone will be partnering. Will not Geneera find someone she wants to be alone with, too?”

Ansel shrugged. “I do not know. We have not spoken of it.” Her insides felt funny again. She recognized a feeling of guilt, but whether it was towards Garin or Geneera, Ansel was not certain. Her heart ached, too. So many changes. So many losses. This might be one of the last nights she had to spend with Geneera before her friend moved to the athletes’ house. It was not that she could not spend time with Geneera there, but it would not be the same as sharing an apartment. But Geneera seemed already so involved with the dancer troupe that maybe she had already moved on. Maybe Ansel was foolish to think Geneera would even miss her.

Just then, Geneera grasped Ansel’s hand and squeezed it. Ansel automatically stroked her friend’s hand.

Garin frowned at the girls, but to Ansel’s relief, said no more about the dance. Soon, he stood. “I must return now to the ring. I hope I will see you tonight,” he added to Ansel.

Category: Winter Solstice 2005