“I am aware of your skill,” the king said, “so you and you alone have been tasked for this. It must be exactly to life. Exactly.”
Daedalus bowed low, averting his eyes as was proper. “But your majesty…I don’t quite understand. What does the queen need with an artificial cow?”
“You have heard the rumors?”
Daedalus chanced a look. The king was grand and impassive, more like a statue than the marble bust he had already commissioned. The crown omnipresent in every depiction of the man shone with the sun’s fire.
“I…suppose I have, your highness. Most defamatory and foul, unsuited for your divine spouse.”
“Pasiphaë has a most unusual taste,” the king commented without emotion, “and my love for her leaves her beyond reproach. If she wishes to share congress with a bull, so be it.”
There was no warmth in his words. Finally Daedalus nodded. He had his own child to feed, not much younger than the suckling princess.
“It will be done, your grace.”
The two men walked a great stone wall.
“The walls will be in excess of nine cubits?”
“They will, your grace. And even then, the labyrinth will be enclosed. There will be no hope of escape for anything inside, be it prisoner or…otherwise.”
The king nodded grimly. “The queen passed in birth to that monster. Pierced by its horns.I will not claim it as my own, merely sentence it to the life it has earned.”
“If you’ll forgive my forwardness, why not just kill it, your grace?”
The king grimaced. “Obviously, Zeus has cursed my family. What else would explain it? I cannot risk further fall from favor with the gods.”
Daedalus swallowed. He had been waiting to ask the question for some time.
The king was looking down at the maze with the air of a man hunting fish in a pool.
“The queen has only just given birth?”
The king smiled grimly. “Given life, and then breathed the last of her own.”
Daedalus licked his lips, which were drying too quickly. “Only—you commissioned me for the bull not four months ago.”
The king’s face was unreadable. “Yes, Daedalus?”
The inventor gave up. “A most unfortunate birth.”
The labyrinth’s doorway was the last thing to be finished. Wrought iron gates were lowered into place, amphorae filled with oil stood in place of lamps.
The inventor stood beside the king. His own son climbed the ramparts. The little princess watched from the ground, her skirts tucked around her legs.
“The maze is a thing of beauty, Daedalus.” The king made a gesture of benediction. Daedalus smiled, but looked beyond the king to his son. Icarus balanced along the outer structure. The palace guards watched him closely.
“This lock is most ingenious. Show me how it works?”
Daedalus stooped forward and showed the king the sliding cylindrical puzzle that locked the outer gate. It was as fine as anything he had ever built. For the first time since Daedalus had come to court, the king smiled.
“No beast could work that with their crippled paws?” he asked, and then laughed sharply. Even the guards winced at the sound. Daedalus saw Icarus descending from the roof and rushed to help him, eager for the excuse. In his hurry, his carelessness, he knocked the king. The king stumbled, and the crown that seemed eternally fixed to his head fell.
Daedalus gasped. Minos covered his scalp with his hands, red-faced and trembling with fury.
Daedalus earned a place in the labyrinth. Of course, they did not expect the designer of such an elegant prison to stay for long. Even after he escaped, Daedalus refused to talk about the court of Minos.
“So you see, I have been hungry for company ever since,” Phaedra said.
Theseus sprawled out on plush rugs, eating from a plate of figs. He was shining from the bath she had recently bade her handmaidens to give him.
“So you did not mind, even when you thought me a commoner?”
“Have you lived as a prince your whole life?” Theseus was silent. “Then it does not matter. You are who you are, and you are here to end suffering.”
“Was it not you who told me that?”
“It was.” Theseus swallowed a mouthful of fruit and washed it down with wine. “But I meant my people’s suffering.”
“All suffering is one suffering. We suffer too. Not only is my father hated and feared, but the whole kingdom. Our merchants are charged tariffs too steep to make a living, our sailors are pelted when they sail into port.”
“Yes, but my people’s portion of suffering far outstrips yours. Any relief besides theirs in my quest is incidental.”
Phaedra’s eyes sparkled in the dark. “But even so.”
She gave him thread and a kiss from lips as red as pomegranates. The fresco of the queen in the throne room was almost a mirror of the girl, though she had Minos’s chin and something diabolically clever hiding in her face.
The labyrinth stank. It stank of bones and old meat and fear. When the princess had played in it, it was smooth stone and exquisite carvings. Something had carved out a path of suffering through every hall. Lamps were broken or upset, any ornamentation was brutally scratched from the stone. The place was terrifying even before he got to the bodies.
The youths from the last year’s lottery. Theseus felt the skin on his back tighten. Most sprawled out where they had fallen, hands up to fend off some attacker, nude as Theseus himself. The sword he now carried had been wedged in a ventilation crack by the south wall, the sandals hanging from a torch. He took them, thinking of the youths who could have been spared with their blessing.
Theseus swallowed his fear and studied the bodies.
There were bite-marks, and flesh missing. But the flesh was only gone from a few select places, and not much was taken. Hardly the ravenous cannibal monster, a seabird would have pick the bones cleaner.
Theseus heard a shuffling of steps and stood. It was not weeping or wailing, so it could hardly be another youth.
Then the monster hove into view.
The thing did not look like a bull. The horns growing from its head were strange, stunted things, beyond that the resemblance failed. The face was half-formed and twisted in agony. Its body seemed to have grown at different rates; one leg massive and the other still child-sized gave the creature its shuffling gait. Though the evidence lay before him, the creature did not look like an insatiable scourge. Its body was famine-thin, its cheeks and eyes hollow.
The creature put a hand out. Instead of a bellow, it gave a piteous mewl.
Theseus struck without thinking. Later, he could not tell the princess whether it was from fear or pity.
Phaedra watched him, dark eyes attentive. Her resemblances to her father seemed more pronounced in the half-light of sunset.
“So you have slain it. You know for certain?”
“Yes.” He did not tell her he struck it again and again, stabbing away the parts that looked human.
“Then I suppose I am yours?”
“Are you?” Theseus asked, “with so little courtship? With prince of a small kingdom who grew up as a commoner?”
“What else is there for me?” Phaedra asked lightly, “I am princess of a vainglorious kingdom, daughter of a slain tyrant.”
Theseus could not look at her. “So he really scalded to death in that bath?”
“Well,” Phaedra said, “he won’t be commissioning any more labyrinths.”
Her garnet jewelry sparkled like blood in the light of the sun. When they made love later that night, Theseus had to close his eyes, so unsettling was her appearance.
Something woke him. Something he could not place.
Years of training told him to breath naturally, ear out. No sound out of place, the boat gently creaked back to Athens.
His left hand cupped the princess’s head, his fingers dug into the thick waves of her hair. He flexed them, and felt it again. The thing that woke him.
Hardly daring to breathe, Theseus sat up. He parted the princess’s hair, finding two hard nubs crowning her scalp.
“It was quite obvious really,” Phaedra said.
Theseus started. Her eyes hadn’t opened. Had she been awake this whole time? Had she been expecting him to find them?
Phaedra sat up, sheet clutched to her breast. When he couldn’t see her body, Theseus couldn’t stop himself from imagining it twisted and horrible. In his mind, it looked like the creature’s body.
“I sent you in there to stop suffering,” Phaedra said softly, “do you still insist, even now, that you were the only one suffering?”
Theseus cleared his throat. “I told you. Any other cessation of suffering is incidental.”
Phaedra smiled. “And yet I thank you, prince.”
They did not moor in the island’s cove, but off the shore. Theseus and a few sailors launched a skiff, Phaedra’s couch loaded into the middle. Every swell shook Theseus’s heart, he watched Phaedra’s face, always. Even the shudder of landing was too much. He held his breath. Phaedra stirred, sighing prettily, but did not wake.
The sailors carried the couch to a small knoll, which would afford Phaedra all too clear a view of the departing ship.
Theseus kissed his ring and left it by her feet.
Phaedra opened her eyes just as the ship flew sails again. She smiled up from her pillows as the prince strode about on-deck, never looking back.
“And again,” she said, “I thank you.”