The story begins here.
Ada didn’t stop running until the sacred oaks were out of sight. The thought of Pallas’ burning eyes kept her feet moving, though after a mile she slowed to a jog. She cursed herself for not leaving her things at camp. Her bow, clothes, and traveling supplies still sat back in the grove. There wasn’t time to go home before going to the palace. She stopped and looked back. Maybe the Oracle was wrong about him; maybe he would hurt her. Better to take her chances at the castle and tell people she was robbed than risk being killed by an immortal swordsman in the middle of nowhere.
She walked through the day and well into the night, ravenously hungry, and glad for it. Her stomach helped keep her mind off the demon. She kept her eye out for food but found little edible on the trail. A doe crossed her path, not fifty feet ahead. She scoffed and kept walking. No time for a deer, even if she had her bow. Her hunger pains died with her hope for a meal.
The chiton she wore to travel was tattered and dirty. She had owned one extra set of clothes, gifts from Princess Chloe, and lost them all. Ada sighed, feeling sick to her stomach. Everyone would see her as she was—a poor helot. Chloe had been so kind to her. The clothes were the nicest gift she’d ever received. Maybe Chloe would understand.
The first stars shone against a deep blue sky. If Pallas wouldn’t help her, she’d have no choice but to ask Chloe. Starving. Dirty. Empty-handed. Nothing. She let her fingertips brush a tree as she walked and said a prayer to Artemis.
Don’t let Chloe see me helpless.
One day Ada could have been a citizen. Maybe even actual friends with Princess Chloe and not just a servant. Gods. All that was gone. She turned and looked back toward the grove, wondering how dangerous Pallas really was. She could jog, make up lost time. A day of running on an empty stomach wasn’t fun, but she’d done it before.
What if he didn’t give her back her things? Another day on the road without food or clothes would be a disaster.
Better to just show up with some dignity and hope for the best. Accept whatever they say about her losing her gifts and looking like—this.
Under the trees, the trail became too dark to follow. The warm air and lack of food convinced her not to bother with a fire. Ada rested her head on a rock and watched the stars.
“Princess,” Ada whispered to herself, “sorry about how I look. Someone robbed me.” No, that’s stupid. What if Chloe tried to do something about it? “Princess, my tent caught fire when the wind changed. I lost everything.” I’m a terrible liar.
Finally, Ada relaxed a little. The night was cooling off. It reminded her of being in Chloe’s room, the cool air blowing in through the balcony doors. She thought of her. Slender arms, flowers in her hair, wrapped in silks and adorned with jewelry. Last time, Chloe had hugged her. Would she still want to?
Her mind drifted to the edge of sleep, but the painful cry of an animal ripped her awake. She sat up. Something thrashed in the bushes beyond the game trail. Silently, she came up on a knee, holding her knife. Ada crouch-walked barefoot on the soft ground. A rabbit was on its side, panting and twitching. Blood caked its neck and face from a savage bite. She smiled at the sky.
“Thank you, Artemis.” With one swift drag of her knife, she ended the rabbit’s suffering.
She skinned and gutted it on the spot before rinsing it in the nearby creek. There was dry brush and leaves everywhere. Ada built a small fire and held the rabbit over it on a wooden skewer. The smell of the meat cooking made her mouth water. After walking all day, finding the animal was a blessing. Before she ate, she cut a small piece and left it with the guts beside a tree—a sacrifice for Artemis. She hoped whatever wounded the rabbit would take it to her.
The second day of hiking was mostly downhill and easy. Cool breeze and lots of shade. She walked at a quick pace, keeping her eye out for food. A vine of wild grapes stretched toward the trail. Ada’s hunger came back twice over at the sight. She grabbed two full bunches and ate them with glee. The goddess must have been watching over her. It had been a long time since she had the luxury of safety, but safe she was.
The demon was still on the loose. Without Pallas, she had no choice—she would have to ask Chloe for help. “Hail Princess. I am sorry I forgot my bow; can you send soldiers that won’t kill us all?” Stupid. She groaned and kept walking.
Ada emerged from the forested hill and stood on the edge of Histria’s hinterland. Vineyards and orchards filled the valley. The city beyond gleamed. She walked along the dirt road; the brutal sun beat down on hard ground. Citizen-farmers traveled beside her. Some rode in the back of oxcarts while others simply carried their wares on their shoulders or balanced on their heads. Ada lowered her eyes and kept walking.
The stone walls were speckled in red and black. Twenty-feet thick at the base, they must have moved mountains to build the city. A palace cut from marble lit the city-center like a torch. She walked through the eastern gate, staring at her feet, thankful the guards didn’t stop her.
Her head lolled at the smell of the open-air market. Animal feces dotted the street. The stink of the leather workers boiling their hides was intense. Having so little to eat was a blessing. At least she wouldn’t vomit.
She hurried, knowing the city-center wouldn’t be so terrible.
The road Ada walked ran from the eastern gate to the palace. The inner walls were as formidable as the outer. High towers flanked the open gate. A pair of soldiers in bronze armor kept the peace. Dark blue cloaks hung off their left shoulders, hiding their swords. She looked down and walked past them. One of them stared at her. Ada hoped he couldn’t tell she noticed.
The open-air market around the palace wasn’t like the one near the outer wall. Merchants traveled thousands of miles, bringing luxuries from all over the world. A brightly painted statue of the goddess Athena welcomed them. She stood twenty feet tall and held her shield toward the gate. Across from her, a smaller statue of Aporia, goddess of struggle. Athena turned Aporia toward the enemies of Histria and away from the market.
Ada knelt before the statue of Athena and raised her hands to the sky. A slotted stone box sat at the statue’s feet, where payment could be given to take spiritual part in the next sacrifice. I have no gift, and for that I am sorry, but thank you for welcoming me here. If we meet, I will show you great hospitality.
She stood as five old men approached. It seemed they had been waiting for her. They wore blue and white himations stitched with intricate geometric patterns.
“Allow me on your behalf.” One of the men placed a coin in the box. He spoke with the hint of an Akhentaten accent, same as the Oracle. His deep brown face and head were clean shaven, typical of their style.
Ada bit her cheek hard to still herself. Nothing was given for free. “How can I refuse. You are too kind.” She kept her eyes on the ground.
“Young lady, we recognize you from before. You are Princess Chloe’s tutor, are you not?”
He held a scroll out in both hands. Small, it was wrapped in blue ribbons and stamped with a wax seal. “Our latest findings in the art of sacred geometry. She will find this very interesting.”
“Forgive me, but I can’t take this to her. It’s forbidden.” She looked back and forth, hoping no one was watching.
“Certainly, you have brought her things before.”
“They will search me on my way into the palace,” said Ada.
A group of four citizen-soldiers walked toward them.
“What if I could help you conceal—”
“I’m sorry, I already carry a burden from the Oracle, and it’s all I can do.” Ada walked past them, staying ahead of the soldiers. “Another time. Thank you for including me in your sacrifice.”
She walked past the temples and royal stables to stand before the palace. The marble pillars of the castle were awe-inspiring. Ada climbed the stone steps to the first landing where two more guards watched people come and go. Thank the gods, she thought. She knew them both. They took her knife and placed it on a table with many other weapons and shields. One of them smiled but looked her up and down. “No bow? What happened to you?”
“I ran into some trouble on the road. It’s nothing.”
He frowned. “Did you report what happened?”
“To everyone who can help.”
The guards exchanged dissatisfied glances and shrugged. “At least you still came. You’re one of the good ones.”
“Thank you,” said Ada with as much sincerity as possible. Having someone on her side made a world of difference, especially a guard, even if he was an asshole. “May Athena watch over you.”
She walked through the open doors of the palace, surrounded by citizens, foreign residents, helots, and slaves. The men of Histria were fit and armed. They wore their swords, even in the castle, and carried scars to match. Most ignored her, but some watched with hungry eyes. Ada kept her head down and walked through the castle to the doors of the inner courtyard. A few fellow helots greeted her. She wished they wouldn’t.
Ada pushed open the double oak doors and stepped into the sunlight. Fig trees and grape vines lined the four walls. Colorful glass mosaics were cradled in ornate frescos depicting Histria’s victories in battle. She stopped and stared at the most famous—Ares standing on a mountain looking over her homeland, a tribute to the subjugation of her people.
Chloe waved to Ada from the opposite wall so gracefully her arm seemed to float in the wind. Her lightly tanned skin was golden against the bright purple linen of her chiton. Gold necklaces with blue stones hung low around her neck. She never dressed down to train. The only sign she was here for business was the leather guard on her left forearm and the unstrung bow in her hand. Her soft eyes held concern. “Are you well?”
Ada knelt, felling suddenly weary, but not so nervous as the last time she was here; the scroll she carried inside must be helping. “I haven’t been home for a few days and ran into some trouble on the road. I’m so sorry for how I look. I don’t mean any disrespect.”
Chloe’s warm smile reached her eyes. She raised her palm, signaling Ada to stand. “Think nothing of it. I’m glad you’re here. I want to show you something after we’re finished.”
Ada nodded eagerly. Chloe stepped to the corner of the courtyard with a view of the straw target set against a stone wall. Ada couldn’t help but to mirror the way the princess walked—delicate steps on the balls of her feet, hips swaying like a dancer. She took the bow from Chloe and set one end against her foot. The bow bent easily with one hand. She had to be careful not to let it twist. Even though it was weak, it was finely crafted and very expensive.
Ada aimed at the target, held her form for Chloe’s benefit, and loosed an arrow. She shot a second time, releasing the arrow as soon as it was drawn back. There was no need to explain the form; Chloe’s was excellent. They took turns firing for the better part of an hour. Chloe had a habit of not bringing her hand to her face the same way each time. Ada preferred the corner of the mouth for Chloe’s anchor point, and occasionally touched her own to remind her.
Chloe landed a hit on the bullseye. She yelped with joy and turned to Ada, beaming a smile. “How was that?”
Ada stole a glance at the fresco. “Really good. I’m sure Ares approves.”
Chloe leaned over and whispered in Ada’s ear. “Who cares what Ares thinks.”
“I thought it was great.” Ada took the bow and loosed another arrow. Chloe should care. It was an open secret that the whole point of her learning to shoot was to keep the god of war happy. The first few months they trained, the King had watched with weary concern as if her life depended on what they were doing.
It probably did.
For a little while, Ada forgot the last few days and fully experienced the joy of practice. When Chloe drew back with perfect form, it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
She was beautiful anyway.
Two men pushed their way through the double doors. The older man was balding, in his fifties, and wore a fine blue and white himation that exposed the dark hair on his chest. The younger had the same square jaw and dark, narrow set eyes. He wore bronze cuirass, greaves, and held a shield in his left arm. The older man cleared his throat. “Princess Chloe, if your lesson is wrapping up, may we have a moment of your time?”
“Of course,” the princess curtsied. “Ada, this is Senator Orcus.”
Ada curtsied the same way. “Senator.” She made brief eye contact with the younger man, who seemed straight faced and stiff as if he were embarrassed.
“Ada,” said Orcus, “would you display your technique for my son.”
The senator’s voice carried the tune of a riddle, setting her on edge. She fidgeted, then cursed herself for looking foolish. “Of course.” She took the bow from Chloe and nocked an arrow.
“Wait,” said Orcus. “Use my son’s bow.”
The young man handed her his weapon. It was a short recurve bow made from strips of horn. Stiff, but not as strong as the one she left in the grove. Ada closed her eyes for a moment and readied herself. The world vanished; there was nothing but the bow and the target. She drew back and loosed the arrow in one fluid motion. The arrow struck a little left of center. Not bad for a first shot with someone else’s bow.
“Impressive young lady.” His voice sounded coy. Strange. “Is my son’s bow difficult for you?”
“No,” said Ada. “I had a bow like this for hunting small game when I was younger.”
“This is a war bow,” said the younger man. “It’s not weak.”
Ada took a step back and looked at the ground. “No, I know. I don’t mean to say I’m strong. I only mean that I have some practice with a heavier bow. We’re raised with them.”
Orcus smiled. His puffy cheeks were freshly oiled. “Do you have a brother?”
“Yes,” said Ada.
“How does his bow compare?”
Ada held out her hands wide. “He has an oak self-bow. It’s maybe, twice as heavy. I could barely bend it by hanging off the string.”
Orcus laughed and looked to his son. “Hold your shield up for her.”
The young man stepped in front of Ada and raised his shield.
“Show me your technique for the battlefield.”
Ada shook her head. “Sir?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, girl.” Orcus flushed. His arm hung loose, but his hand tensed as if grabbing a throat.
Ada backed up another step.
“Senator, please!” said Chloe. “You embarrass us both.”
Ada was quick to stop the conversation. She stepped behind the shield bearer and dropped into a low crouch. Her mind was a razor’s edge. She let her fear and shame fade—only the target remained. As she knelt, she drew back an arrow and loosed from under his shield. The arrow struck the center of the target. Calmly, without a moment of hesitation, she sank another arrow next to it. Perfect. She stood and handed the bow back to him, at least satisfied with herself.
I may not look like much, but I can shoot, she thought.
“What a perversion.” Orcus looked at his son. “Can you imagine what her brother’s bow could do to a man. For a child, she says. Disgraceful.”
“The bow is a coward’s weapon. I don’t need it,” said the son.
“The King seems to find some use for her and her clan. Take note. This girl and her people are dangerous,” said Orcus.
Ada’s fists were clenched. She used all of her will to stay frozen. Her town was favored by the King and enjoyed a peace the other helots didn’t have. That could change. This man’s fear could change it.
“That is enough.” Chloe stepped in front of Ada. “You are starting to offend me. Get out, and I will not tell my father you wasted my lesson with your trite worries.”
Orcus bowed to her. “Princess.” The son copied his father and followed him out of the courtyard.
Ada watched them go, wondering what her father would say if he knew she showed a senator their technique.
Ada was uncomfortable being waited on by servants, but Princess Chloe was generous with their time. She had pressed a coin into each of their palms and whispered her thanks before leaving Ada alone with them. They fetched her a hot bath, brushed her hair, and dressed her in a dark blue peplos. Rose quartz broaches adorned her shoulders. She admired herself in the tall mirror and turned back and forth, practicing Chloe’s walk.
The bedchamber was made of cold, grey stone, but the tapestries and eastern rugs warmed it up. Ada paced the length of the room, taking gentle steps on the balls of her feet, trying to let her hips sway just a little. A black vase with red figures sat innocently on Chloe’s nightstand. Probably expensive. Ada picked it up.
There was no mistaking Chloe’s image, impressionistic as it was. She stood beside another woman, much taller than her, depicted with a sword in her hand as always—Princess Galene of Neapolis. Ada put the vase down too quickly. It wobbled on the table, threatening to fall. Ada grabbed it, held it still. Galene. Were they still close?
The balcony’s doorway hung open. Its railing was covered in vines and hanging baskets of flowers. Ada walked out and stretched her arms. She looked down at the city. From five stories in the air, she could see most of northern Histria.
Stone apartments with clay shingles lined the orderly streets. The citizen-soldiers of Histria stood out against the crowds of foreign residents and slaves, thanks to their traditional blue cloaks. It must be nice to be able to train all day while living off her people.
Two bodies hung from a tree in the middle of town. The sight of it made her sick, but she wasn’t curious who they were—nothing unusual. Ada looked at the sky and thanked Artemis for all she had been given. A charmed life blessed by the gods, a family that loved her, and the friendship of royalty because of her skill with the bow. She held out her arms and took in her new clothing. Clothing, but not equality. Even she could be strung up and no one would lift a finger to help her.
The door to the bedroom opened. Ada turned back as Chloe left her guards in the hallway. She backed into the doors until they clicked shut behind her. Her smile was so bright. It made Ada blush.
“Thank you, for doing all this. It’s not necessary to spoil me,” said Ada.
Chloe walked onto the balcony with her. She looked back and forth, up and down. All the other windows and doors were closed. “I’m the one who’s spoiled. Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry Orcus was such a pig.”
“He is what he is.” said Ada.
“I don’t like him bothering you. I don’t have anyone else I can talk to.” Chloe shook her head and took Ada’s hand. “Only you.”
Ada froze, holding her breath, trying not to squeeze her hand, trying not to be weird.
“So….” Chloe whispered. “Did the Oracle send anything?”
Ada nodded solemnly, not wanting to let it go but suddenly nauseous. “He did.”
Chloe pulled her by the hand into the bedroom. Ada walked over to the standing mirror and looked at herself. The spell was coming loose. It left a hollow inside her chest, a void that went deeper than any other.
Was this all she was? A messenger. Why else would Chloe do all this for a filthy helot?
Ada opened her mouth and felt something become hard beneath her navel. It grew and climbed, becoming longer as it moved up her throat. The scroll had given her peace, but the knowledge slipped from her mind, as she knew it would.
Those poor people hanging in the square. What could they have possibly done? Why didn’t anyone help them? Not as if she was any better. If she had run harder, sooner, Helena’s children would still be alive.
Ada’s chest hurt. She knelt on the floor and stayed very still. Electricity arced over her body as the tip of a scroll took form just past her teeth. It glowed like iron pulled from a forge.
Chloe drew the scroll from Ada’s mouth and held it reverently in both hands, the magic gone, but still somehow sacred.
“I’m going to be sick,” said Ada. The hollow ran deep, a familiar pit only a magic scroll could fill.
Chloe dashed around the room. Came back with a large bowl that might have been solid gold. “It’s okay. Go ahead if you have to.”
Tears dropped from Ada’s eyes. She squeezed them shut, sucked back on her face to keep them dry. The scroll had taken so much energy out of her. Ada remembered what she was. A helot. Too stupid to even read what it said. She gasped and gritted her teeth.
Chloe knelt next to her. “I am so sorry. I had no idea the scroll would be such a burden.”
Get it together. Ada sat up and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Please don’t worry. It just knocked the wind out of me.” Her vision darkened for a moment as she stood. “Is the scroll helpful?”
“So much.” Chloe held the scroll open. “It’s called the Parable of Pandora.”’
Ada backed up and rested against the dresser. “What’s it about?” Just talk, say anything, so I don’t have to.
“It’s all about how Pandora’s Box released disease, old age, and death into the world, but people were already suffering. So were the gods. Everything changes given enough time, but we think we can keep things the way we want them. We can’t. The anxiety that one day what we love will be gone is something even almighty Zeus feels,” said Chloe.
“That’s depressing,” said Ada.
Chloe smiled. “Not to me. If everything changes, and everything exists because of something that came before, then anything can end—there must be a way to stop suffering.”
“Tell that to the people hanging from the tree.” Ada took a sharp breath, instantly regretting what she had said. She looked up to meet Chloe’s eyes, big brown orbs that caught the sun. “Sorry, I’m sorry. I…”
“I understand,” said Chloe. “Sometimes I think it’s stupid too.” She took Ada’s hand, pulled her to the bed, and sat down next to her. “I guess the point is that, it’s normal to feel sad for one another. No matter how it looks on the outside, we’re all suffering.”
“I feel like I knew that, on some level, at least until I coughed up the scroll. Now, I don’t know,” said Ada.
Chloe climbed all the way on the bed and crossed her legs in the lotus position by placing her feet on her thighs. She patted the bed in front of her. “Sit like this.”
“Will you humor me, just for a little bit?”
Anything for you, thought Ada. She nodded, just a little.
“Close your eyes and think about all the good things you’ve done for people this week.”
Ada laughed. She didn’t know why she laughed. Nothing was funny.
“I’m serious, like carrying the scroll, or teaching me archery, or,” she leaned in a little and looked her in the eyes, “traveling all over Histria looking for the Swordbreaker, just to help our people.”
Ada sat up straight. “You knew?”
Chloe smiled. “Yes. Don’t worry about him right now, all right? Just think about all the good things you’ve done, and how you suffer anyway. Don’t you deserve love, as much as I do? As much as anyone?”
Ada closed her eyes and felt her lip tremble. She didn’t want to cry.
Chloe gently brushed Ada’s cheek with the back of her hand and leaned in, touching their foreheads together. Ada shivered.
“Just sit with me, think about it for a little while. If you start to believe me, start to feel a little love for yourself, I want you to hang onto it like it’s the target and your mind is the arrow,” said Chloe.
They sat together for a long time. Chloe took Ada’s hands and gently stroked her thumbs.
They were beautiful thoughts. Everyone being connected. Everyone suffering. Everyone deserving love.
“Just you. Just think about you, right now,” said Chloe.
Ada did. For a moment, she felt it. Maybe she did deserve to be loved. She didn’t have to hate herself. Like an arrow. She focused on the feeling and let the tears fall.
Chloe touched her thumbs to Ada’s temples. A flash of light burst behind her eyes. Her mind stopped fighting itself. She felt love for herself and reveled in it.
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