She hands the thread over to him with her heart in her throat. "Be careful," she whispers.
The son of Poseidon, the maids in the corridors whisper. Claiming his fate; oh, princess, beware. A hero like him shall take your heart and add it to his glories.
She presses the thread into his hands, and watches the realization dawn in his eyes. When she had been a girl, the great inventor Daedalus had told her, winking, that he knew of a way to escape these high walls. Years later, she is still waiting.
If I cannot escape by air, she thinks. I shall escape by sea.
The Athenians land in pomp and grandeur, and on her other side, her sister is giddy with excitement.
It is easy to forget, under the bright grin of the sun, refracting into the depths of the azure sea, that these bejewelled young women and handsome young men are sacrifices for her father's bloody altar; for her brother's monstrosity. Phaedra claps her hands and jumps up and down on the balls of her feet.
"They say," Phaedra grins, and she thinks that she must instruct the maids to pass on no more street gossip. "That there is one among them who is the son of Poseidon."
"Then we should be doubly careful," Ariadne replies dryly. "For lest you forget, my love, it was a slight to Poseidon that caused this mess in the first place."
Phaedra's smile drops, and she turns away, quiet. "Perhaps Poseidon has sent us his son as a gift of forgiveness."
Oh, my love, she thinks.
It is not hard to pick out the gods-son. Legend has it that Bellerophon, the last celebrated son of the sea god had been red-haired and beautiful, and when he fell from the skies, struck by Almighty Zeus's wrath, men had mistaken him for a burning, falling star. She spots the man from her dais, and she raises a thin hand to shield the sun from her eyes. His shoulders are firm, a smile on his lips; a boy crafted for the myths, for bards to sing of around noble hearths. But he is afraid; they are all afraid, until they aren't, until the blood on their swords have wiped out the memory of mortality—this is the lesson her mother's goddess had taught her, the lesson that her mother had relayed to her, in brief moments of respite from her madness.
She knows these types. All heroes, in the end, are in love with glory. They are all in love with death.
"He is so handsome," Phaedra breathes.
She turns a quizzical smile on her sister. Her father is descending the dais, to greet his sacrificial lambs personally. Something clenches around her core, and when she stands, she sweeps her hand absentmindedly across Phaedra's head, and beckons to her ladies.
"See that he does not break your heart," she murmurs.
She feels his gaze on her, watching the eldest daughter of blessed Crete sweep from the dais, never looking back. She wonders if they have come to an understanding.
She does not venture inside the labyrinth, but on most days she does not need to.
"I think, mother," she says, and her voice is trembling. "That I may have found a way to escape."
Queen Pasiphae has red, bleeding hands. Ariadne has long learned to keep quiet about these things. Her mother looks at her, but does not see her. The queen smiles. "Have you?"
Her mother had been a sacrifice too; handed up to the altar for her father's pride. The women of the House of Minos, in the end, are all slaves; are all meat. There is a labyrinth constructed around us all.
Her mother caresses her cheek. Her fingers leave behind sticky red stains, and Ariadne's breath hitches. "I shall have to leave you." She whispers. "I shall have to leave Phaedra. I shall have to be selfish."
The queen smiles, her eyes glassy. "Then you must steel yourself, child. You must forget to feel."
That night, she puts on her most elaborate dress, weaves sea pearls into her long, dark hair.
When the hero Theseus bows low over her hand, her father laughs, and gestures. "This is my eldest daughter, Athenian. A fair, bright girl; she has been acting queen for years—be sure that you go to your death thinking of her, lad."
Theseus grins, and the court titters. "I would spill my blood upon your hearth this instant, my Lord, if it pleased her."
She leans forward on her throne as the court laughs, and places a finger very neatly beneath his chin, tilting his head up. Her father, on her right, stiffens, and her sister crosses her arms. Theseus is suddenly serious. "My lady?"
She looks at him carefully, the way a jeweller inspects a diamond for flaws. His eyes are Aegean blue, his features elegant and well-crafted; he shall break many hearts. This is what she will remember later, sitting alone upon an island rock—he is young. He is so very young, though he is perhaps her age. He has waltzed into a prison for a tasselled gift of glory; betting on the love of a princess to win him this victory. His large hand around hers is beginning to sweat.
"When you fall in the labyrinth," she says, for all the court to hear. His mouth tightens. "I shall weep for you."
He starts when she leans even closer, and presses her mouth to his cheek. "I need you," she says, so softly that later he will think it a dream. "Save me."
She leans back, and gestures for the next tribute. He stumbles to his feet.
Her father's glories are told of far and wide in the known world.
In Athens, they tell tales of King Minos' cruelty; but that is the way of all those who have been defeated. Her father had asked from the Athenians nothing but his just due; his cruelty only came in the form of cages, and not death. In Sparta, they tell tales of the noble ally-king, who fought with them against the sly cunning of the Athenians, in Mycenae he is the father of heroes and the sire of queens. In the court of Minos himself, he does not need to boast.
"In death," a priest had prophesized many years ago. "You shall be the judge of the fallen."
Her father shall rule even in death. Is there no refuge to be found?
He is waiting for her in her rooms.
"You are fortunate I was not accompanied." She says.
He laughs. She does not ever remember being as free as him, as the sea. "I should be a poor hero, Princess, if I could not evade chamber maids and kitchen girls."
She watches him through lidded eyes, and unclasps the heavy necklace of precious sea pearls from her throat. In her bronze looking glass, his gaze is caught on the inclining lean of her nape. "I see." She turns, and his eyes jump hastily to her face. So young. "And why are you here?"
He blinks. "Are you jesting?" He asks. "You told me that you needed me. You wanted me to save you."
She tilts her head to one side. That is a song that all men fall for. Her voice is gentle. "No. I do not jest, son of Poseidon."
His shoulders relax, and he steps forward. Her heart jumps; in something almost like desire, but in trepidation most of all. Men had not been kind to her. "Then I shall do my utmost."
"How do you plan on escaping Daedalus' labyrinth?" she asks. "I have been assured, by deaths in the dozens, that the maze—and my brother—are lethal. It is not made of water, hero. Your father has no sway there."
"Then I shall slay the beast," he shrugs. "I shall rid Athens of its bane, and then—" he pauses, breath stopping.
She steps closer. "And then what?"
His breath catches. He is so young.
When she had been a young girl, and the cavern beneath the palace had been full of workmen, Daedalus the great inventor had pulled her aside.
"The labyrinth," he said to her. "Makes beasts of us all."
She had never met her brother. She had never known, fully, the reason why her mother emerges from the darkened room with hands stained red, why her bosom heaves and why her eyes are wild, as if she had stared into Tartarus and Tartarus had stared back. "Is he truly such a monster, as they say?" she whispered.
The great inventor sighed, and placed a heavy hand on her thin shoulder. "The queen would not let anyone attend to him. I'm afraid it is a mystery for the ages, but that is not what I am trying to teach you, Ariadne—" he bends until he is staring her in the eyes. "This is a cage we are building, as much as it is a maze. The tunnels are only wide enough for one to enter and emerge; it is not a creation for solidarity or companionship, Ariadne; and your father builds a maze around us all."
Young, and foolish, and too bright; she had tossed her head. "My father loves me."
"I don't doubt it," Daedalus had murmured. "But the tunnels are closing in, my darling girl. And you must be brave, and selfish, and cruel enough to shoulder your way through them. You must not look back."
The day her father sends armoured men to take Daedalus and his beautiful son away to the tower, the old inventor presses a spool of red thread into her hands, and whispers, "remember me when you are free. We shall come to you."
The morning he is about to go into the labyrinth, she presses the thread into his hands; presses him against a wall, presses her words into his skin. "Be careful."
He wounds a hand into her long, thick hair. "I shall slay the beast. I shall take you away."
She thinks of sailing away on his ship with her father's kingdom burning behind her, and feels nothing. She thinks of sailing away with her mother screaming, beating her chest over the body of a monster-son, and thinks she may hurl.
We are born free, but hereafter we are in chains. She watches him leave with his taste still on the mound of her tongue. How steep a price it is to take back what is rightfully ours.
That night she clenches Phaedra tight in bed, clutches her hands like claws around her sister's delicate wrists. There is saltwater on her tongue.
A fortnight later, Theseus stumbles into her bedchamber, his hands stained red.
His eyes are empty, his voice hollow. He sounds dead.
"They lied to me. You lied to me." He says blankly. "He's just a boy."
She bites a hole in her tongue; biting back the scream. Not here, a voice whispers.
When Theseus reaches behind him, and pulls out a bloodied bundle of cloth, she raises her hands as if it would shield her from the sight. The bundle hits the ground, and inside, it is only the head of a small boy, deformed and misshapen, but his eyes are blue and they stare up at her in wondrous disbelief.
Theseus's hands are shaking. Her fingers press against her stomach, rips through the thin fabric of her gown into skin.
"He's just a boy," the hero repeats. "I killed a boy."
The sun is a brutal hard kiss. Out here, beneath the glory of her grandsire and abandoned by her hero, she thinks; this is it. She thinks that oblivion and freedom bear an odd similarity.
The air on top of the cliff is cold, and fresh, and biting. Salt water sprays up at her and shoot like arrows against her tender skin, burning despite the cold. She had paid her price in blood and innocence for this. Theseus sails away under black sails with a different princess and a different tale, and the seas are vast, and roaring, beneath her.
She throws out her arms, and screams.