Chloe slipped off the bed. Her feet were silent against the stone floor. She stood there, watching the slow rise and fall of Ada’s chest. She put everyone else first, every time. Her mind was iron. Somehow, Ada had mastered the ability to focus, just by shooting her bow. How was that even possible? No one else was like her. She deserved to be happy. She really did.
There was no telling how long Ada would stay meditating, but hopefully it would be a while. Maybe when she came out of it, she’d love herself a little. After all, she was easy to love. Chloe couldn’t help but soak in her smooth skin, the strong lines of muscle across her arms and neck, but she’d like her no matter how she looked. It’d been a long-time since she’d had anyone in her bed.
A long time since Galene was here.
Chloe turned her back and walked to the mirror. Ada probably didn’t even like girls, and Chloe was already hiding enough from her father. She traced a circumscribed triangle on the glass with her finger. “Change.” The mirror vanished. In its place, a shelf with dozens of cubbyholes, most of which held scrolls or notes written by sages from all over the world.
She opened the scroll one last time and admired the beauty of the simple calligraphy. The Oracle had written it himself. It meant a lot to her that he took the time. She placed it in an empty slot and allowed the mirror to reappear.
Chloe walked to the doors of her room, grabbed the handle, and tugged. The door cracked open, just a little. Her favorite guard stood outside. “Linos,” she whispered. “Hail.”
Linos jolted to attention. Short beard. Young. Always apologetic. “Princess.”
“I have to disappear for a little while. If my guest comes to the door, tell her I’ll be back soon. Don’t let anyone in or tell anyone I’m leaving, please?”
“Of course, Princess.”
She smiled at him. Linos was loyal beyond measure.
“Princess,” Linos stopped the door before it closed fully. “The King came to me and asked about you. He says he is frustrated that he hasn’t been able to figure out who has been educating you. He’s furious and says he has been betrayed.”
“Do you think he will do something?” asked Chloe.
“I don’t know.”
She pushed the door until it nearly latched. “Thank you for all you have done for me. If I couldn’t learn, I think I would die.”
“When I am queen, I’ll make it up to you,” said Chloe.
Linos stood at attention, facing down the hallway. “No reward is needed. I will always serve you.”
Chloe shut the door and walked back to her washroom, turned on the water, and scrubbed the makeup from her face. She took off her rings, circlet, and the bracelets her father gave her, and changed into an undyed chiton and a yellow himation. Her wide hood shadowed her face.
She stepped out on the balcony. The setting sun cast orange light across wispy clouds. Bells chimed, closing the markets below. She took a deep breath to focus, looked to the sky, and wondered at the emptiness. Without fear, she jumped. “Change!”
Her body became a golden eagle.
She landed in a grove of cypress trees beyond the city walls and transformed back. Her heart still pounded; there was nothing like flying. Chloe dusted off her himation and fixed her hood. The building beyond the trees was massive—a two story stone wall surrounded a hundred-square foot courtyard where men trained in the seven sports and debated philosophy. Women weren’t welcome, but she was here to see someone. She wouldn’t be denied.
Chloe walked towards the open doors. A group of men sat on the benches outside.
“Virtue can’t be taught to the simple. Only cause and effect. That’s why the whip is so important,” said the old man. Scattered laughter came to a stop as Chloe walked through their group and into the gymnasium. They stood, exchanging curious looks, and followed her inside.
Young men in loincloths raced around the edge of the field lighting torches under a darkening sky. Only a few athletes were still unclothed. Two men practiced with the javelin. Others wrestled in the grass. The twinge of jealousy was fleeting. Chloe shook her head. Fairness had nothing to do with it.
More athletes and old men followed her. She led them to the far corner where senators, artists and philosophers sat on stone benches and enjoyed wine by the braziers. From the far side of the crowd, Sophos waved to her. His concave chest was bare under his sagging himation. He smiled knowingly to the young men on either side.
A speaker in rich linen captivated the men. He stood between the open fires and held his palms out for inspection. His strong arms were scarred from battle. “I defy anyone who tells me that I must sacrifice to the gods to use the lightning almighty Zeus gave me. Magic is only dangerous to the weak willed, and I will use mine however I see fit.” His hands came together. As they separated, a sword appeared between them. “Now who dares argue with that?”
Impressive. Conjuring was difficult, and magic without sacrifice to the gods dangerous.
“What’s more difficult,” Chloe asked. “To forge a sword by hand or draw one from the mind?”
There was scattered laughter.
“Who let this girl in? It’s obscene,” said the speaker.
“Pelagius is afraid she’ll see his tiny dog,” shouted an old man.
Senator Pelagius, of course. He built the public baths with his own wealth. He could probably stab a man in the market and people would carry him on their shoulders. Even her father would flinch at the thought of challenging him. Chloe stepped forward into the brazier’s light. Dark shadows blotted out her face. “I don’t know if your view is right. We should discuss it and see.”
He turned the point of the sword to her and lifted the tip of her hood. His narrow eyes reflected the flames, or maybe held their own. “Then talk. I’d like to see you dig your own grave.”
Silence filled the gymnasium. Chloe turned to Sophos, who only shrugged and smiled. Another old man sat next to him, hunched forward with his elbows on his knees. A young athlete rubbed the old man’s shoulders to calm his ragged breath. It was a sorry sight.
Chloe looked Pelagius in the eye. “Can a man be strong if he doesn’t know himself?”
“Not entirely,” said Pelagius.
“Can a man know himself if he doesn’t know where he came from?” she asked.
Chloe turned to face the philosophers. The shadows of the stoas danced in the firelight. “Can a man know where he came from if he doesn’t even know what he is?”
Pelagius folded his arms, the sword pointing behind him. “We are Histrian. What else is there to know?”
Chloe sat in the sand and drew a circle with her finger. “You think that we’re separate, but we’re really not. Would you be angry if I didn’t barge in? Would I be here if they didn’t let me stay? You and I create each other every moment, so in a way we aren’t separate.”
“You aren’t grasping the point.”
Chloe shook her head, traced a triangle within the circle. “On the contrary, I have an unusual amount of insight into the nature of these things.” Silvery threads tangled in the air around the sword—threads other people didn’t seem to see.
Sparks crackled across the length of his blade. He dropped it and backed away, his face flushing. “What is this?”
Philosophers and athletes crowded closer.
Chloe sighed. “You created a sword, but you didn’t desire a sword. You desired respect. The sword was the tool you used to gather it. But standing here, arguing with me has cost you face the weapon can’t earn back.” She looked down at the magic circle. “All things change.”
She gathered the dirt into a small pile, cupped her hands around it, and breathed deeply into them. The sword faded, replaced by a dancing spark of lightning.
“Shush, it’s okay,” Chloe spoke to the spell’s energy. “You’re worthy, I promise.” The spark jumped into the pile of dirt. She closed her eyes and moved her fingers through the threads, pulling and tugging them whichever way they wanted to go. A tiny plant grew from the dirt and sprouted leaves.
The crowd was on their feet, arguing over what they had seen. Pelagius staggered back, eyes wide with shock. “Who are you?”
“Athena?” shouted a wrestler.
“She’s made a plant grow. This is Demeter,” said an old man.
“No, she’s too short. Eris.”
Chloe pulled the little plant out of the ground and wiped the dirt from the bulb. “I’m not a goddess, and it wasn’t my power that made the plant. It wasn’t even my spell.” She nodded to Pelagius. “You’re the best I’ve ever seen. I only showed the living thing you made another way of reaching its potential. If the gods don’t guide your magic, your heart will.”
She walked over to the old man beside Sophos. His blue skin was cool to the touch. The sound of his wet lungs competed with the crackling of the fires. Chloe crushed the bulb in her fingers and wiped it under his nose. The effect was immediate. He sat up straighter. The wet sound vanished.
“Thank you.” He stood and took a deep breath. Color returned to his pale, olive skin. He gave a hardy laugh, his smile brightening. “Thank you, Goddess! Athena! Aphrodite! Whoever you are!” He jumped to his feet and stripped naked as he ran onto the track. Triumphant cheers followed him.
Chloe turned back to Pelagius, smiling wide. “Thank you for letting me help you.”
He nodded to her and paused with his head down. The way he shuffled his feet made Chloe think he was going to prostrate as if she were a goddess. She shook her head so slightly, no one else would notice. “It is you, is it not? You are too kind,” he said. He walked away with his students behind him.
Sophos stood and walked into the middle of the crowd, waving his arms, shooing everyone away from her. “Come on now. Back up. Back up. I think the mystic wants a word with me.”
Chloe stepped close enough for him to hear her whisper. “Can I talk to you alone? Things are getting bad.”
Sophos folded his arms and walked along the trees that lined the inside of the gymnasium. Two young men, bare chested and sweating, tried to follow, but he waved them back. Chloe followed behind Sophos until they were far from the excitement of the crowd.
“They don’t know me at all,” she said.
“You’ve done a good job hiding.”
Chloe stood tall, stretching her arms over her head, smiling. Her chest swelled. “So, how did I do?”
“You were perfect.” Sophos stopped in the shadows and waited silently for the cured man to run by, shouting his thanks the gods. “Tell me what’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “Orcus interrupted my archery lesson. He wanted to see my teacher.”
“She’s from Nysa.”
Sophos smacked his lips. “Orcus has good reason to fear them. I fear them. Their bows are impossible for ordinary men to draw.”
“You don’t have to fear them. They’re loyal to my father and I think they’ll be loyal to me.” Chloe exhaled, long and slow. Her shoulders slumped. “That’s why I need to take care of a problem before it gets any worse.”
Sophos sat on a bench. Chloe joined him.
“The Oracle sent me a warning. There’s a demon in the north killing people and dragging their bodies away. It isn’t from Nysa, but it is close enough. When word gets to the senate, they’ll use it to turn my father against them. His soldiers will slaughter everyone they cross hunting the creature—whole villages even,” said Chloe. “I can’t have that.”
Sophos’ stared into light of a torch on the nearby wall.
“I want to stop the demon before this gets out of control.” She put her hand on his and squeezed his fingers. “I need the stone.” Her eyes met his. “Please.”
He opened a pouch on his belt, reached in, and pulled out a gem. It shifted in the torchlight, becoming a sapphire one moment, a ruby the next. He placed it in her palm and closed her fingers over it, nestled in his. “It looked so much bigger in your hands the day you were born.”
“Thank you for keeping it safe.” She opened her hands and stared into the twinkling light. Was she really born holding the wish-fulfilling gemstone? “I’m glad we still have it.”
Sophos stood and regarded her seriously. “You’ve become the person I always knew you’d be. I trust you to do the right thing.”
She watched him return to his students by the fires. Alone in the darkness, she stared into the gemstone. Purple light flickered deep inside.
The time had come to decide. Wisdom? No, that would be like death. Life without mystery or growth would be pointless. Enlightenment for everyone? Impossible, even for the stone. She thought of the crown, of her father, and her rule to come.
Chloe squeezed her hand shut and jumped to her feet with a start. Would she really wish for her father’s death?
Magical power? Wealth? It would be so much easier if the stone could change the hearts of people.
Maybe it could bring her mother back to life.
No. That was always impossible, so the Oracle said. Chloe’s shoulders tensed, and her scalp prickled. A slave swept the sand from the walkway beyond the stoas. She took a sharp breath and stuffed down the impulse to throw the stone or kick the bench or wish for the slave’s freedom to prove there wasn’t any hate in her heart.
She opened her palms. The purple light danced with restless energy.
“I don’t know what to do.” Chloe spoke to the stone. “You were made for a reason, but I don’t know what it is, so I wish for what’s best, what we need, and what you want to fulfill your potential.”
The gem vanished.
An unstrung bow appeared in its place—four feet of dark, smooth wood, notched for a string at each end. It reminded her of the bow Ada had lost.
Chloe squeezed her eyes and thought of Ada. She had suffered so much, but if this weapon was meant for her, the worst was yet to come.
New chapter coming next week!