OF COURSE, I WAS down in the cellar when the Greeks arrived. Not that I wanted to see them anyway, the stinking barbarians. It was a wonder that I couldn’t smell them all the way from the top floor of the palace, where they were being held. But even a lowly hand-maiden like myself hadn’t been able to avoid the hype that preceded their arrival- the preparation of wreaths and garlands of fruit for the honoured guests, the scolding of the dancing girls during rehearsals, and the endless sacrificing of bulls. The ceremony was only held once every nine years, of course. And the last time it happened, I had been but a child, too young to appreciate it, and not the ungainly almost-woman I was now.
I was filling up caskets of wine from the great earthenware jars, and cursing the other servants who were getting in my way, when Ariadne came skittering down the steps. Her face was flush (or was she wearing rouge, the harlot?) and her fine bosom heaved against her tight robe. Not like my underdeveloped cones, Hera damn her. It positively killed me to think that we were the same age- not only was she Minoan royalty, but she was developing faster than Zeus did when he sprang from the Titan’s forehead.
‘Jennifeus! Oh, this place. It’s so dark. Not at all like my quarters. Why ever do you spend so much time down here? Anyway, you have been missing the most divine party. I simply must speak to you.’
‘Ah- well, Ariadne, I’ve been somewhat busy. You see, it’s on account of the party that I’ve got all this to do.’ I gestured to the single filled casket and the ten more than remained to be filled; two parts water to one part wine, and no exceptions.
‘Oh, you stupid girl. That doesn’t matter. You really are my favourite of all my hand-maidens, and I’ve got something I must tell you. Please come upstairs, it’s a rather private matter. I trust no-one else.’ She gave me her most winning smile, and I relented. It really was nothing more than jealousy that caused me to be stroppy with her; she hadn’t a bad bone in her beautiful body, to tell the truth.
She took my hand in hers, and we left the mustiness of the cellar below, our sandaled feet causing thuds that echoed in the cool stone stairwell. Above, the corridors of the palace were warm and sweet-scented. The heat hit me like a solid wall. Everywhere mounted flames danced, turning men and women into orange profiles that moved against a black background, like figures on an urn. It was rumoured that the palace of Knossos had over a thousand rooms, and that night it felt as though each one of them thronged with these strange figures- drunken guests staggering in fine robes, harried servants running to and fro carrying baskets of fruit and wine, pleasure girls dressed in tight satin giggling conspiratorially. From a distant chamber came the dull thump of the dancers’ music. All of these things made me uneasy; I felt like a child being thrust into the world of adults. I saw how the men looked at Ariadne as we passed; how they ignored me with my simple clothes and unpainted face. Her proximity had always made me acutely aware of my own plainness. In my more cynical moods, I chose to believe that she kept my company because I compared so unfavourably to her. Stupid cow.
Still further through the complex did we move, past banquet halls and corridors of shining white and giant statues of bulls’ heads, till at last we emerged atop the highest floor, into the open air. A gentle breeze moved lazily across the alabaster platform, bringing with it the faint smell of heather. For once the splendour of the heavens was eclipsed by the activities of man- below, the courtyards of the palace and the city of Knossos beyond were lit up with a thousand fires (Prometheus himself would have been proud!), so that the stars were almost impossible to see. Beyond the parapet rimmed with imitation bulls’-horns, the roar of ten thousand Cretans rolled like a mighty wave. It was an impressive scene- I allowed myself a brief moment of pride in my people.
Against this backdrop, Ariadne turned her face to me and spoke her terrible secret.
‘There’s a boy, Jennifeus. I think he likes me- I know he likes me. He kept looking at me during the party.’ Her eyes danced in the inky blackness. Something in my chest lurched. I had always known, academically, that she would grow up faster than I, but having this occur right in front of me was a different matter altogether. Suddenly, I felt as though I was ten years old, and she already a woman.
‘Fair enough,’ I said sullenly. I pulled a small flask of wine I had acquired from the cellar and took a sip.
‘Jennifeus, are you sulking? Please don’t sulk! I’m excited. And I’m scared. I need you with me on this; you’re my best friend.
Well, it would have happened sooner or later. If she thought of me as her best friend (the cow!), then I might as well suck in my pride and play the role of the best friend. I sighed inwardly.
‘Okay, Ariadne. Don’t be scared. I mean, you’re gorgeous. Really- you’ve got a very striking profile.’ She did have a very striking profile. ‘Whoever this boy is, he’s just… a boy. Don’t be afraid of him. This is all, ah, perfectly natural.’ As if I knew anything.
‘Jennifeus- his name is Theseus.’ Her eyes lowered. ‘He’s one of the Greeks.’
I choked, and spewed some wine out over the parapet.