The story begins here.
Chloe walked through the open archway into the throne room. Senators and merchants sipped wine, admiring the tapestries and mosaics, flowers and frescos. Their footfalls echoed under the vaulted ceilings. Being here always made her feel small. Maybe that was the point. Maybe everyone felt it. But the King was her father, and he made her feel small anywhere. She took a deep breath and held her head high, unwilling to shrink before him. The dignitaries cleared away from the foot of the dais, making room for her.
“Father.” Chloe curtsied.
The King hunched forward, pulling his purple himation tight across his round stomach. His face reddened behind his beard. “Out! Everyone, out.” All the senators, diplomats, and merchants filed through the doors, behind an exchanging of nervous glances. Only a few soldiers remained.
The double doors clicked shut. He rested back in his throne, chest rising and falling with shallow breath. It was startling to see him so angry.
“What’s wrong?” Her voice was too faint to echo.
“What’s wrong?” He stood and stepped off the dais. “People saw you in the gymnasium. You.”
Chloe swallowed dry air and forced herself not to look away. “How could they? It’s forbidden.”
“It’s forbidden for a reason, but you don’t care, do you?”
She stepped closer and turned her palms to face him. “Father, please. I am not flinching from my duties. I’m trying to do them better.”
“So, you admit it then.”
She was silent.
“I don’t know how you got out of the palace, but it is going to stop.” He clapped his hands. The doors opened, and two old soldiers with grey hair carried Linos between them, naked and delirious, feet dragging. Long marks from a whip ran across his legs. His face bruised so badly, one of his eyes had swollen shut.
Chloe gasped and covered her mouth. “No.”
“What was this bastard doing to help you?” asked her father.
“He is not helping me.” She bit the inside of her lip hard enough to draw blood, determined not to cry. “I don’t need any help.”
“Get him out of my sight.” Her father returned to his seat. The guards dragged Linos from the throne room. Drops of blood stained the marble floor.
Panic gripped her. Tears threatened to break through. “I swear, I come and go on my own.”
The King regarded her coldly. “Did Linos sneak scrolls to you from the cultists?”
“Then who? The helot girl?”
She shook her head. Her toes curled as she said a silent prayer to Athena, thankful Ada wasn’t here.
“The way you sneak around wouldn’t be so bad if you learned something about duty and respect from Princess Galene, but all you care about is yourself.”
“That’s not true. Everything I do, I do for Histria.”
“Fine then. I thought banishing the philosophers from the castle would be enough, but I suppose it wasn’t.” He took a long golden scepter in his left hand and thumped it on the ground. “Take her to her room.”
Chloe was a statue. She thought about showing him. Turning into a bird. Let him see what a fool he’d been. Her hands were shaking. Linos was going to die, and it made her sick.
“Princess.” Two of the soldiers pulled open the double doors and led her out of the throne room. Tears fell as she turned her back on her father and walked into the empty hall. A little green bird fluttered through an open window on fresh evening air.
What good was all this magic, this knowledge, if she stayed caged in her room? She walked with her eyes closed and sucked in a long breath through her nose. It wouldn’t be dignified to scream.
They walked through the palace, up the narrow spiral stairs, and into the hallway leading to her room. A single torch lit the dark hallway, deserted besides the three of them. “Princess Chloe?”
She wiped her eyes and turned to them. They were two of her father’s oldest guards. They had served since before she was born. “Yes?”
“Linos is safe. Don’t worry about him,” he said. “We’ll take care of him.” The two men exchanged a look of encouragement.
“He’s one of us,” said the other.
She took a deep breath, afraid to hope. “Thank you, but why?”
“We’re not all fools. I was there when the Oracle gave your father the prophecy. Some of us think you should be what you’re meant to be, queen or philosopher.” he said. “No matter what the King thinks.”
“Thank you so much for protecting Linos. I couldn’t bear him dying because of me.” She wiped her face. “I don’t want you to think I’m special though. Not because of the crown, and not because of what the Oracle said. We’re the same in every important way—in suffering and the hope to be free from suffering. Our hearts are the same.”
“You really believe that?” he asked.
“Maybe one day, I will too.” He opened the door to her room. “We’ll be outside if you need us.”
“Thank you so much. And no offense to the Oracle,” said Chloe, “but I’ll be both.”
“Princess.” They nodded in unison.
Chloe walked inside and pushed the door closed behind her. She thanked the gods Linos’ friends would protect him. Her room had been cleaned, but a few things were out of place. A wrinkle in the rug where it had been lifted. The bottom drawer of her dresser slightly ajar. Dirt from a potted plant sprinkled on the ground. Someone else had been here.
And they could still be watching. Chloe walked to the balcony doors and pulled them open. The sounds and smells of the crowded market rose to meet her. Excited chattering and grilled meat.
She stepped out into the cool evening air and closed the door. Pulled the hood of her himation deeper and sighed. She needed to warn Ada not to come again. Her father wouldn’t flinch at killing her. First, he banished Galene. Now this. The thought of whips against Ada’s back, brands at her feet… Chloe closed her eyes. It wasn’t fair.
And he could still end up sending the army north after the creature. Ada was still in danger, even if she stayed away.
She looked over the city below and wondered what her father was planning—who he would take his anger out on next. The philosophers? The Cult of Dionysus? Anything to keep her ignorant. Anything to punish her for following her heart.
The sun was still on the horizon, but she didn’t care who saw. Didn’t care if her father heard. Gods, she wanted him to hear. It was time to set things right. Chloe climbed on the railing and held out her arms. The wind blew through her hair and helped her find the calm she needed to concentrate. People screamed below her. “She’s going to fall!”
Chloe smiled, leaned forward, and jumped. “Change.” Before she dropped below the balcony, she was an eagle, gliding towards the sun. The wind raced past her. She felt so free.
The farmland swept by. Rugged mountains were black against the night sky. Wispy clouds parted around her wings as she fled the gilded castle. Despite the sharp eyes her form gave her, she was forced to fly by memory. Chloe had met the Oracle once, and his temple had called to her ever since.
Flying was a dream. There was nothing like it. Sometimes, she thought she might stay this way forever.
Black trees stood out against the rocks in shadows cast by moonlight. Little farms dotted the rugged hillsides in the few places where crops could grow. Broken people in a broken world. These helots had next to nothing. Her life of luxury was built on their backs.
A point of light flared in the distance. The signal fire on the Oracle’s tower burned with a blue-green flame. Chloe folded her wings and dove towards the mountain. Her instincts were sharp. She rode the currents over the tops of the trees and glided into the light of the tower. As she touched the ground, she was human again.
The stone temple was a simple rectangle without windows. A narrow oaken door rested at the top of the stairs. Above the entry, a sign read, “Through here, darkness becomes light.” She walked silently to the doors and pushed them open. A short hallway led to an open courtyard, lit by many candles.
An old man meditated before an altar. He was thin and clean shaven, with dark brown skin. Under his open himation, scars decorated his chest. Chloe walked into the courtyard and admired the altar. Rather than a shrine to Zeus, it was carved with patterns that represented the many synchronicities in man and nature. She knelt on the grass before him and waited.
A young boy sat in the corner of the courtyard against a pillar. He held a pitcher of water. Chloe waved to him. He smiled, then jumped to his feet and ran into the back of the temple, lost in the shadows.
The old man was a stone. How long had he been meditating? She should take advantage of the peace and practice with him, happy to be in a truly sacred place. She should have come a long time ago.
So many ties pulled her attention back to the castle. If she climbed on a rock, she could probably still see the twinkling firelights of the city. She wished she could think of Histria without thinking of her mother, but she couldn’t let go.
Maybe here, she could.
Chloe sat in lotus, closed her eyes, and visualized Jovian, the slave from Celleno that killed her mother.
She could still see him standing there, holding the blade. Dark blood running from the tip. Her mother bleeding on the floor. He picked up her crown, wiped the blood from its edge, and turned to Chloe with fierce eyes. The sound of her own scream still haunted her.
Her chest rose as she breathed through her nose. She wouldn’t look away.
Jovian had been taken from his homeland and watched his own family slaughtered. Beaten at the hands of her father’s servants and brought into their home a broken child. He wanted what everyone wanted—to be free from suffering. He could have lived a normal life if he wasn’t taken, and maybe he wouldn’t have hurt anyone. What they did to him was terrible.
He didn’t deserve the fate the gods put on him. He deserved a chance to be free.
Despite Jovian’s crimes and caste, even though he killed her mother, Chloe looked inside and for a moment, saw him as the same as herself. She looked at the feeling, tried to hold onto it, tried to stay calm in this sacred place.
A jarring anger swept through her. She kicked a foot out and gasped, eyes wide open. Panting, she met the Oracle’s gaze.
His eyelids hung heavy as if he were waking up from a dream. He smiled at her.
“Princess Chloe, I am honored you have come to visit me.”
She blinked away the frustration. “I’m the one who’s honored.” She folded forward with her elbows on her legs, feet on the ground. Something about seeing the Oracle relaxed her, as if his warm eyes could make her believe everything would be okay.
“Did your father have a change of heart?” he asked.
Chloe shook her head.
“I can’t do it anymore.” Chloe’s voice trembled. “I thought that I could wait to be queen and set things right, but my father will be King for decades and everything is falling apart. I don’t know what to do.”
The Oracle’s soft eyes encouraged her to keep talking.
“He’s angry that I went to visit the philosophers at the gymnasium. I think he’s going to banish them. You might be in danger too. He’s always hated you.”
“He never hated me,” the Oracle laughed. “Really, he didn’t. I told him the truth when you were born, and it scared him.”
She stood up. “It wasn’t the truth. I can be both.”
“I know it seems that way to you now.” He pointed to his heart with the tips of his fingers. “But the one thing I’ve seen is you, making that choice.”
“You don’t know me that well.”
“I know you better than you think.” He spoke with a quiet, reverent voice. “Don’t you remember me at all?”
She stared into the old man’s eyes. He was a stranger to her. “No.”
He stood up as well. “That’s too bad.” The torches dimmed—so did the light in his eyes. “My dreams don’t reveal as much as they used to, but last night I saw myself standing on the banks of the great river at the side of the Pharaoh. I’ve learned so much since I came to Pella. It’s time for me to go back and share it.”
Chloe hung her head. “What should I do?”
“Come back tomorrow with the wish-fulfilling gemstone, and we’ll use it to give you my wisdom. Then you will know.”
“I’ve already used it?”
The Oracle sat back down on the stone tiles. His eyes were wide with shock. “No. What did you wish for?”
“The means to set the world right.”
“Oh.” He smiled at her. “What did it give you?”
“It became a bow, and I gave it to Ada. She is the greatest archer I’ve ever seen. The stone must have thought she could handle the demon.” Now Chloe smiled. “I don’t want wished-for wisdom. All things will be revealed when I die. I’m not in a hurry.”
With a long sigh, the Oracle looked to the sky. “It became a weapon. Gods help us.”
Chloe sighed. Even the Oracle didn’t have answers—not good ones. If he didn’t know she used the gem, what else was he wrong about?
Her. He was wrong about her.
Candle flames danced in the wind. The rustling of trees and the scent of mountain stone filled the air. She smiled, feeling more hopeful than she had.
“I hoped to find Ada on my way here. Have you seen her?” asked Chloe.
“I’m afraid not. The last I saw her, she went to find the Swordbreaker, and then to see you,” he said.
“My father might have her killed. I have to warn her to stay away.” Chloe bit her lip, wishing there was some other way. “And I don’t want her to face the demon alone. Maybe I can still find her. I know the road that leads to Nysa.”
“Come back tomorrow so I can give you a scroll with all my knowledge before I leave. I’ll ask the spirits to write it at once.” The Oracle stood with her. “Good luck, Princess.”
“Thank you for everything.” She looked at the stars, bent her knees, and whispered, “Change.” Chloe became an eagle and flew from the courtyard into the night sky.
The moon emerged from dark clouds and let her transformed eyes see every detail of the world below. She flew over the road that led from Histria to Nysa but didn’t find Ada. If she had taken a shortcut, she could be anywhere. Chloe stretched her wings and flew higher. Maybe with a little luck and a little more altitude, she could find her. Artemis loved Ada, and the light of the moon was a good sign. Maybe the goddess would show her the way.
The forest and mountains rolled endlessly. Chloe flew into the night. It seemed hopeless. She chirped in frustration.
A tall hill curled away from her. Light glimmered through the forest. Torches. Chloe circled low, dipped under the trees, and glided silently. The frenzied silhouettes of seven people ran though the darkness. Her feathers twitched along her back. She fanned her wings and turned to rise above the canopy. It was too much of a coincidence. If they were chasing someone, it had to be Ada. Chloe gained a little altitude, pulled her body tight, and dove towards the valley ahead of the torchbearers.
Two more torches lit the darkness. Half a mile through the mountains isn’t far as the eagle flies. She folded her wings and dove ahead of them. Ada’s long limbs were unmistakable. She vaulted over the rocks and slid down a hill with a large man right behind her. Chloe cried out in warning. Ada took his hand and pulled him along.
Thank the gods, it wasn’t an enemy.
But who was it? A friend? A lover? He was tall, with big arms, and eyes wild with fear. She wouldn’t blame Ada for loving him. The tightness in her belly shook her feathers.
Chloe flapped her wings as she landed in front of them and changed back to her true form. They jerked to a stop. Both dropped to their knees and lowered their heads reverently. Their breathing was labored but they didn’t look up. The man gasped for air as he spoke. “Holy Athena.”
“Stand up, quickly. Ada, it’s me,” said Chloe.
“Princess?” Ada stood.
Sinis looked away, as if to hide his disgust. Helots had every right to hate her. “Princess.”
“Who are those people chasing you?” asked Chloe. The torches were getting closer.
“They’re from the village back there,” said Sinis. “We saw them feeding the creature.”
Chloe looked at the torches as they advanced through the trees. “Why would they do that?”
“The demon must still be planning to bring pestilence,” said Ada. “They—”
“Are looking for revenge and don’t care who gets hurt,” said Sinis.
“I’m so sorry,” said Chloe.
Ada turned to face the approaching cultists. They called to Set and howled like dogs. “We’ve been running forever, but this is their land, and they know it well.”
“Get out of here.” Sinis held his bow and drew a handful of arrows. “I’ll slow them down.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Ada drew the sacred bow and dropped her torch. She snuffed out the light with a twisting of her heel. “What would I tell Mom?”
Mom. He’s her brother. Thank the gods.
The cultists were close enough to see their faces lit in the torchlight. “Too late to run anyway,” said Sinis.
“Then let me help you fight,” said Chloe.
He looked back over his shoulder at her. “Oh?” There was something bitter in his voice. His eyes darkened.
Chloe’s stomach dropped, but she didn’t let it show. She stepped closer. “I can help you clear your mind, so you can fight better.”
“Fine.” He turned to Ada. “The princess will help me. Stay back. I don’t think you should use that bow on our people.”
“But,” said Ada.
“Please,” said Sinis. “It wouldn’t be right.”
Ada nodded, and stepped behind them. She kept an arrow nocked, ready.
The cultists were only forty or fifty feet away. Chloe could see the clouds of fear gathering on the edge of her mind. “We can talk later,” she whispered, as if fear itself could hear her. She brought her palms together and chanted with a bright, clear voice, that carried over the shouts and curses. Only Chloe knew the ancient language, but the heart understood its meaning. She pictured a divine being holding a sword that drove the fear from her mind, and she hoped, Sinis’ as well.
His bow was taller than her. Sinis stepped into a wide stance and drew back. There was no hesitation in his movement. He loosed the arrow the moment his finger touched the corner of his mouth. It passed through the nearest cultist’s chest and out the other side. His legs gave as he tumbled down the slope, choking.
Chloe kept chanting and visualized white light turning away the cultists’ weapons. Sinis fired again and again. With each arrow, another cultist dropped. Some screamed. Some didn’t. Their torches fell into the dry brush. Smoke rose from the forest floor.
She felt a thump in her chest with every hit. The writhing men pulled at her eyes, demanding she watch them suffer and die. Helping kill had never been her goal, but she always believed she could. Lines of pain dug into her body. Her toes curled. Her stomach turned. Chloe refocused her mind on the image of the sword. Her voice rose as she forced out the words of the mantra, faltering, but never failing.
Sinis dropped five before they made it to him. The first cultist to close the gap held a long dagger. He ran headlong into Sinis and didn’t flinch. The cultist brought the knife down at Sinis’ neck with a lunge. He dropped his bow and caught the cultist’s wrist in two hands like a club, spun as he dropped to his knees, and sent the cultist flying over his shoulder.
Ada grabbed Chloe’s arm and pulled her out of the way of the tumbling cultist. His cries silenced by the dull thump of his head against a tree. Pine needles fell around them. Chloe’s skin prickled at the sight of the man lying behind her.
“Thanks,” said Chloe.
Ada nodded to her and nocked an arrow, her steely gaze back on her brother.
Sinis’ bow was lost in the brush, his arrows scattered from his quiver. He raised his fists like a boxer and held his ground as the last cultist charged through the trees. He was large, bigger than Sinis, and wielded a bronze sword.
“Look out!” said Ada.
She raised the bow. Light erupted from her heart, forming a halo of burning energy in the form of a woman. The body of light cast strange shadows through the trees. Its hands surrounded Ada’s, and together they drew back on the sacred bow. There were no loose strands of magic—no unfocused desires. The shimmering image of the goddess seemed to emanate from Ada, not the bow. It was all her.
The body of light was the final attainment of the Pharaoh’s high priests, requiring a lifetime of calm abiding meditation, and somehow an untrained helot managed it on her own.
“Impossible.” Chloe’s eyes were wide. Her mouth open. She had never seen anything so terrifyingly beautiful.
Ada released the arrow as soon as her finger touched the corner of her eye. It whistled as it flew and struck the last of the cultists as he lunged for her brother. White light flashed from the hit. The man pitched back with the impact and flew up the hill as if kicked by a bull. He tumbled through the dirt, struck a tree, and fell very still.
Three of the cultists had picked themselves up and were scrambling away. Each had been hit by one of Sinis’ arrows. He climbed the hill, enemy’s sword in hand. Two of the cultists were awake, crying out in pain, but unable to flee. Sinis knelt before the first and dashed his throat, then casually stamped out the torch at his feet before the brush caught fire. Grimly, he approached the other.
Ada stood beside Chloe and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, keeping her turned away. “He won’t let them suffer.”
Chloe bit her cheek and nodded. Tears streamed down her face. She didn’t know if they were for the fallen, or if she was simply happy the three of them survived. Maybe both. Standing next to Ada made Chloe feel like a little girl. Ada, who had been her tutor in archery, had created a body of light as if it were nothing.
In all Chloe’s years of study, she had never even felt close to manifesting her soul.
She slumped forward. Maybe the tears were for herself.
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