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Theseus is a young man sentenced to be sacrificed to the gods, and Ariadne falls deeply in love with him. She conspires to save him from his grisly fate, but doesn't count on Dionysus stepping in to complicate matters. With mythical beasts and whimsical gods confronting them at every turn, Ariadne and Theseus must find their way through a maze of events that are as twisted as they are dangerous.
--From Tor paperback cover blurb.
All through the hours of darkness there had been a howling of the wind, and perhaps of livelier things than wind, in the chimneys and around the parapets of the sprawling palace in the elder city of Kandak. A scud of low clouds kept driving in from the empty reaches of the Great Sea, across the island kingdom of Corycus. Outside the stone walls of the palace, winter's offensive from the northland seemed at last about to conquer the territory that had been occupied for several pleasant months by autumn. Inside the palace walls, a frightened king, driven to desperate steps in his efforts to cling to his throne, had spent the night attending to the efforts of his chief magician, a wrinkled and shriveled man named Creon.
For long hours a young soldier called Alex the Half-Nameless had watched them both, the king and Creon, as they went through the recitation of spells, and the bloody sacrifice of animals, all seemingly without producing the least result. The mess of the sacrifice had been cleared away, and king and magician, conferring together in low voices, had seemed on the point of abandoning the effort, when suddenly the god they had been trying to summon stood towering over them, bleary-eyed and swaying like a drunk.
With the first light of morning, Alex the Half-Nameless was shivering, mostly with excitement, though with the fires ignored and untended a damp cold had begun to dominate the great hall of the palace.
Except for the business going on in front of him, it had been a night of routine guard duty, interrupted by only a couple of short latrine breaks. With his short spear in hand, Alex had spent the hours of the night standing more or less at attention with three of his comrades in arms. All four, like soldiers everywhere, were waiting to be told what to do next. A fair amount of effort had gone into trying not to think. For tonight's duty all had been ordered to wear full battle dress, including light helmet and breastplate. Greaves armored their shins above their sandalled feet, while chain mail reinforced the kilts of their uniforms. They were accustomed to the weight of their formal arms and armor, but it had been a long night, and the hardware was becoming burdensome.
Much earlier in the night, when the king's magician had begun his efforts to evoke the god, a fire had been roaring in each of the huge hearths, one at each end of the hall, flames surging and bending as the wind drove down the chimneys. But by now the light and heat had dimmed to mere ghosts of their full selves. The only visible flame was in the north hearth, small and wispy, in the heart of a section sawn from a great log. Meanwhile, half of the torches burning in sconces on the high walls had guttered and gone out.
Gripping his short spear, tensing and relaxing youthful muscles in an effort to generate some bodily heat, Alex, like most of the handful of other people present, was looking at King Minos on his throne at the moment when the god arrived. Two other men were standing near the throne, and naturally none of the three, not even the seated king, were more than merely human mortals. There came a moment of silence in which Alex happened to blink. At that same instant, a fierce gust of autumn wind rattled the closed shutters defending all the windows, and jostled the doors of the hall's two entrances against the latches that held them shut. And in the next moment, in the time consumed by a mere flicker of a young man's eyelids, there were four figures in his field of vision. So it seemed to the young soldier that the new arrival must have ridden the very wind to appear where he was.
The fourth figure was no mere human being. A god was standing in front of Alex the Half-Nameless now, and a single glance was enough to tell him that this god was Dionysus.
Like the great majority of humans anywhere in the world, Alex had never seen a god. But unlike many of his fellow mortals, he had never doubted the existence of such beings. Tonight he and the handful of others gathered in the great hall had been waiting through the hours of darkness for this amazing thing to happen--and now at last the wonder had occurred, a real deity had manifested himself.
A swirl of mist, and a stale odor as of wet, dark, dead leaves had entered with the visitor. There sounded also, in the four corners of the hall, a murmuring of soft voices, snatches of song from invisible throats, accompanied by the music of invisible flutes. Alex could recognize details from many of the stories. By all these signs it was obvious that the being who stood before them was an avatar of Dionysus, the Twice-Born.
But a silence had fallen over the humans gathered in the great hall. This was not quite the appearance which Alex, at least, had been expecting. The realization forced itself upon them all that the visitor was no greater in stature than humanity--there was of course no reason why he should be--and at the moment he appeared less impressive than many merely mortal men.
The shocking and ugly fact was that Dionysus was fat. Not only fat, bloated, his once-fair skin blotched red and gray. At a closer look, Alex could see that there was gray in the god's hair and beard, and patches of both had fallen out. There were still remnants of a once-considerable beauty in that face, a comeliness now all but erased by the all-too-human ravages of age and dissipation. The cloak of the Twice-Born, which he kept tightly wrapped around his massive body, was stained and frayed.
Judging by the strange newcomer's appearance alone, Alex might have dared to suspect that he was an impostor. But no impostor, unless he were a god himself, could have contrived such an entrance.
As a child and youth, Alex the Half-Nameless had been fascinated by stories of the gods, and had eagerly gathered every scrap of knowledge that he could regarding them. Now it crossed his mind to wonder that the Twice-Born had not arrived in a chariot drawn by panthers, bedecked with vine-branches and ivy.
But what had actually occurred so far was quite marvelous enough, to keep the young soldier staring, open-mouthed.
Now and then, mingled with the continued wind, there was a rapid, light clopping sound, suggesting to Alex's active imagination the hooves of invisible satyrs on the paved floor.
Greener leaves, conveying no hint of wet or darkness, were garlanded around the brow of the newcomer, entangled with the flow of his brown hair, and his right hand clutched a golden wine cup. His laughter boomed. But the longer Alex watched, the more he was convinced that there was something wrong with this divine visitor. Besides the look of bloated shabbiness, there seemed an attitude of desperation.
King Minos was an unimpressive monarch, well into middle age. He still sat staring silently at the new arrival, and the expression on the king's face was one that Alex had seen there before, that of a man accustomed to dealing with disappointment. Tonight Minos wore a gloriously brocaded robe, of scarlet interwoven with the blue of the sea, and a light gold circlet of a crown. He carried no arms, nor did anyone in the great hall, except for the small detail of soldiers.
"Welcome, my Lord Dionysus." It was Creon, the cadaverous magician-priest, who broke the silence at last. In his sepulchral voice there was more wonder than heartiness, as he extended his hand in a ritual movement toward the god. "In the king's name, welcome."
Dionysus did not move forward the two or three steps that would have allowed him to touch the magician's outstretched hand. The Twice-Born gave no sign that he was impressed by his welcome, or by the king's magician who claimed to be his priest, or, for that matter, by the king himself. Silently the visitor directed his world-weary gaze, in turn, at each of the humans who had been anticipating his arrival. To judge by his reaction, what he saw was no better or worse than he had expected. When the god's gray-eyed gaze fell on Alex, the main impression the young soldier received was one of exhaustion.
"What do you know of the gods?" The voice of Dionysus was a kind of parody of a conspiratorial whisper, but still it had a resonance, and was so far the most impressive thing about his person. Again the god glanced from one human to another, as if he hoped for answers to his question not only from the king and his magician, but from their soldiers too, and even from their menial servants.
But it was only the king who answered. After exchanging looks with his priest-adviser, Minos evidently decided that this was a time when protocol and ceremony should be minimized.
In a tone and manner that seemed to claim equality with the one he addressed, Minos said: "I know what it is necessary to know, Twice-Born Lord. That all of you who are now gods began your lives as mortal men and women."
Perhaps the royal manner and tone sounded simply impertinent to Dionysus. The pudgy chin lifted. "Oh?"
"Yes." Minos persisted bravely. "That each god or goddess whom we see on earth has attained divinity by somehow coming into possession of a Face. Yours is of course the Face of Dionysus--or do you prefer to be called Twice-Born, or by the name of Bacchus?"
"It does not matter."
The king nodded. Now his hands, bejeweled and soft with years of luxury, sketched a flat, small object in the air. "Each Face is a thing as clear as fine glass, they say, but with a suggestion of flow, of movement, visible inside it--is that not correct?"
But the visitor seemed tired of the subject. He made an impatient gesture. "Why me, Minos? Of all the deities you might have tried to summon, why did you choose me?"
The king paused, as if to consider. Then he said: "We have long worshipped you, great Dionysus. From one end of my kingdom to the other, my people have long sought your favor, with prayer, and sacrifice, and--"
"Yes, yes. And the real reason?"
There was a pause, in which Minos exchanged looks with his magician before answering. "The truth is, Lord Dionysus, that we chose to summon you because, of all the mighty powers who could be helpful, we thought you most likely to respond."
"Because you thought that I was weakened, I suppose."
There was a rustling sound, sharp but not loud, almost at the king's elbow, running up along the massive column that stood there. supporting stone arches that curved above. The young soldier Alex, gaping like everyone else, began to notice a process that was already well under way, the greening of the great hall, the writhing of vines up through the stone-and-timber floor, wrapping the columns that held up the roof.
Alex thought he heard a faint birdsong, and felt a welcome ghost of summerlike warmth. And now there was more evidence that the god had not come unattended, for some of those who had accompanied him were now taking on half-visible form, in the far corners of the great chamber, where the light was faintest. The little that Alex could see and hear of them suggested they were less human than the one who'd brought them. The soldier glimpsed what had to be a kind of satyr darting by, the upper body small, like that of a naked child, but that appearance belied by the beard that curled around the chin, and by the hairy nether parts. The creature, whatever it was, moved with great nimbleness upon two shaggy goat-legs. Now the faint voices from invisible throats, some of them sounding too high-pitched to be human, were crooning a drinking song, to the music of accompanying unseen flutes. Any suspicion that the visitor could be an impostor had long since vanished into the realm of fairy-tales.
For a moment Alex had been distracted from what Dionysus was saying. But he caught the end of it: "--right enough. Right enough, so far, as far as you go."
And then without warning the god fell into a paroxysm of coughing that almost bent him double, a racking noise that sounded as if it might be damaging his lungs.
The king politely ignored his guest's spasm. But, magical vines and satyrs notwithstanding, Minos gave the impression of being less and less impressed by his visitor as the interview went on., The king's own voice was gradually reverting more and more to its accustomed royal tone.
"One day," said the king, now almost lecturing, "when you were still only a mortal man, you somehow found, or were given--or perhaps seized by force--the Face of Dionysus. That might have happened a year ago, perhaps a hundred years--"
"Sometimes it feels a thousand," the other wheezed, when he had done with coughing.
The monarch pressed bravely on. "--and at that time you were brave enough, or perhaps frightened enough, to put it on. The Face melted into your head, as Faces always do when people wear them. And there yours still rests at this moment, somewhere behind your eyes, as invisible as your soul. And like your soul, your spirit, it will remain with you until you . . . for the rest of your life. And as long as it is with you, you enjoy all the powers of a god."
The Twice-Born did not seem to have been bothered by the casual suggestion that he might once have been frightened. Indeed, it did not seem impossible that he could even now be well acquainted with fear. He only nodded his head gently.
"'Enjoy.' Oh, I enjoy them, yes." Cough again, and cough. "You have said nothing," he observed hoarsely, "about all the pain."
Then the visitor gestured negligently toward Creon. "Tell me, King Minos--did this adviser of yours, this self-anointed priest of mine who stands beside you--did any of your wise informants, your magicians, or perhaps they call themselves odylic experts--did even one of them tell you anything about the pain?"
The gaunt magician frowned, but held his peace. The king said: "I am sorry if you are currently experiencing any kind of discomfort, Lord Dionysus, but I suppose it will get better. All authorities agree that gods are very hard to kill."
"And so we are." In the left hand of Dionysus there suddenly appeared, clean out of nowhere, a sturdy wooden staff, perhaps seven feet long and thick as a man's wrist. ("That is the thyrsus," Alex told himself, in silent awe, recognizing an element from the stories. The shaft was ivy-covered, and tipped with a pine cone, just as in the legends and the tales.)
Dionysus was now leaning part of his considerable weight upon his staff, as if he really needed its support.
"You should remember that," the god continued. Once more he turned his head to look around the hall. "So, this is the welcome you've arranged. Lucky for you that I place little value upon ceremony. But you're right, for now my wants are simple, I desire only a few months of peace. I must rest until the spring. As you say, things'll be better then."
"Would you care to sit down, Lord Dionysus?" The monarch gestured courteously toward one of the empty chairs, of which there were a few nearby.
"I'll sit when I'm ready."
Now Alex was having a hard time taking his eyes off the thyrsus, as if with some part of his mind he could sense that power was centered there. All the mortals in the room, except for the king and his chief magician, had been impressed by the sudden appearance of the ornate staff. Alex thought there was something written on it, thin lines of small, graven characters going up and down the wooden shaft as thick as his wrist. The writing was too small for him to read, even supposing that it had all been in the only language that he knew. Certainly no more than one of the sets of characters was in that tongue.
Minos was speaking again. "There is nothing in this world that I want more than to provide my Lord Dionysus with a secure place to rest during the tiresome winter that is only now beginning. All the comforts, magical and, um, otherwise." The king paused for a deep breath. He seemed to have finally found the tone, the manner, that he wanted to use; one that might have been appropriate speaking to an important ambassador, a human from one of the kingdoms ringing the shore of the Great Sea.
"But," the king continued, "there is a certain problem that must first be solved, before any of us will be able to rest in safety."
"Ah, hum. Yes, I supposed there would be. Everyone has problems. What is yours?"
"My brother," said Minos simply. "He wishes to take the throne away from me."
"Oh he does, hey?" Dionysus drew himself up a little taller, straightening his shoulders. "Seems a damned unbrotherly thing to do."
In the privacy of his own mind, where as a private soldier he entertained nearly all of his important thoughts, Alex was coming to the conclusion that what his early quest for knowledge had taught him about the nature of the gods, and what the king's brief speech had just confirmed, was very probably the truth. The one who stood before them, staff in hand, gave the impression of possessing a dual nature. The man, who was one component of that nature, was terrified, feeling that death was near, even if the god was not.
Alex stared, with a mixture of fear and fascination, at what a great god had become--at the evidence that those who were called immortal were not, after all, immune to damage and to failure. Only the Faces were immortal, indestructible, while their wearers came and went. He remembered all the stories that were told, of all the marvels wrought by the one some called the God of Many Names. Dionysus, Bacchus, Twice-Born . . . there were indeed a host of other titles, most of which the young soldier could not now recall.
Three or four of the ordinary household servants of the palace had also spent the night in the great hall, standing by to serve the king and his magician, though so far the servants had had little to do. Now, somewhere in the background, at least two of these people were being drawn into interaction with some of the entourage of inhuman attendants who had come with the great visitor. Alex could hear a man and a woman in low-voiced talk, but he did not want to spare a moment to see what they were up to.
Almost since the moment of his entry, Dionysus had been standing in one place, swaying a little on his feet. But now he suddenly went lurching forward, so that the king on his throne involuntarily recoiled. But the tottering god had suddenly decided that he did, after all, need a place to sit down. He threw himself not into the chair Minos had indicated, but another, taller, not quite a throne, that had once been occupied by the queen on state occasions, and had now been practically unused for almost two decades. There seemed no special significance in this choice of a resting place. Rather it was as if the distinguished visitor had simply made the handiest selection, to keep himself from falling.
As soon as the god's substantial bottom was firmly supported by the chair, he rapped the floor sharply with his ornate staff. His resonant voice boomed out, more loudly than before: "Let's settle your little problem now. Where is this treasonous brother? Let him be brought here, so I can warn him--do you think, Minos, that a warning will be sufficient?"
"Regrettably," said King Minos, clasping his soft hands together, "I have grave doubts about that. And at this moment I am not even sure exactly where my brother is."
Suddenly he looked sharply at the soldier standing nearest to Alex, who happened to be the corporal in command of the small contingent. "And the commander of the guard still has not appeared. Where is he?"
The corporal saluted awkwardly. "I don't know where either of them are, majesty."
At that point, everyone was distracted by Dionysus sliding out of the seat he had just taken, a movement quite obviously involuntary, that left his divine form sprawled on the rush-strewn floor, his thyrsus clattering down beside him. In the next moment he was grabbing at the breasts of a kitchen wench, a poor and simple girl, but not unattractive, who for the last minute had been approaching him slowly from across the room, as if drawn by some invisible thread of fascination. Only a moment ago this girl had been engaged in murmured conversation with the sprites and satyrs, halfway across the room, and now she was lying with their god on the floor. Dionysus pawed at her bosom without even turning his head to look at her. It seemed a purely reflex action, as joyless and even hopeless as his booming laughter.
And over in a far corner of the great room, one of the household's male servants, who had also somehow become involved with the inhuman Dionysian entourage, had evidently just taken something to drink that did not agree with him. The servant was suddenly vomiting, abandoned to helpless, hopeless retching.
And now the god himself, forcing himself to sit up straight on the floor, appeared to be struggling to regain some shreds of dignity. Absently he let go of the girl, and tried to straighten the garland of vines that now perched crookedly on his own head.
It was growing more and more obvious to the onlookers that this specimen of divinity was hopelessly drunk.
But again his impressive voice filled the hall. "Must reassure the rightful heir--who's that, by the way? Your son, I s'pose? Is it any one of these wretches here?" And Dionysus squinted at the handful of people present, again taking them one at a time, as if he suspected them of trying to hide their true identities.
Minos, who had been rubbing his forehead wearily, raised his head. "I have no son, Lord Dionysus. In fact there is no undisputed heir; a matter that I have not yet had the time to rectify."
You have had almost eighteen years, thought Alex, in silent accusation. Everyone knew it was that long since the true, respected queen had died; since then there had been only royal concubines, and no offspring worth mentioning. You have delayed shamefully, oh king, and in doing so you were unfair to your two marvelous and deserving daughters. His grip tightened on his spear. And some would even say that it is not true that you have no son.
To judge from the expression on the king's face, it seemed that the royal thoughts might possibly be running along similar lines. Minos did not seem drunk, despite the formidable amount of wine he had consumed during the night, at little at a time. But he did seem very bitter.
"My late wife . . . " the king began to say, then let his words rest there, as if he could see no point in going on with them. He looked around him, at the small gathering of his fellow humans in the great hall, and their disgraceful visitor, and it was as if he were asking himself: how have I come to this?
Abruptly the god rolled over on his side, turning his back on all three of the people who had so far been most affected by his presence--the lamenting monarch, the feebly vomiting varlet in the far corner, and the dazed serving wench. As Dionysus rolled, the folds of his cloak came open. Scanty and wretched undergarments hung loose, revealing gross nakedness, including a flabby paunch that the deity swung around only with some difficulty.
The move had brought the Twice-Born into a position directly facing Alex. Now, thrusting with one elbow on the floor to raise himself a little, squinting at the lithe form of the young soldier, who was standing only about ten feet away, Dionysus addressed him in a low voice: "Once I . . . I was . . . like you."
Being spoken to directly by a god, any god, was something of a shock for Alex--though not quite the shock it would have been an hour ago. Still, he was flustered and did not know what to think, let alone what he ought to say if he should be required to answer. The note of envy in the god's voice was staggering.
Alex had never had cause to consider himself particularly handsome. He was of average size, generally healthy, and perhaps physically a little stronger than most young men, at least when his anger was aroused. His brown beard was at last starting to grow in with a reasonable thickness. But no one had ever found any god-like qualities in either his mind or body. Vaguely he could foresee humorous taunting in the barracks when it became known there what the god had said.
To Alex's relief, he was not required to respond. Already Dionysus had turned his back on him, and was groping for a wineskin, obviously looking for a drink. When he found what he sought and held it up, the skin hung flat and empty on his hand. Whatever magical sources of wine he might possess, they seemed to be running dry.
Alex could only stare at the divine visitor sitting helplessly on the floor. In the young man's mind, fear, disillusion verging on embarrassment, and a great curiosity, were struggling for dominance.
The king had fallen silent after his own small outburst, and was evidently making an effort to collect himself. As an awkward silence grew in the great hall, Alex noticed that the general transformation which had been wrought by the entrance of Dionysus was already fading, as if the power that had brought it into being were waning fast. The vines that had begun to climb the pillars in the hall were dying, the luxuriant growth of leaves turned dry and dead and falling. The drafty air was distributing them in little swirls around the floor. The thicker stems were turning to stone, so that they now seemed to have been carved as part of the pillars by some master artisan. The lesser sprites and powers, all-but-invisible presences that had accompanied the entrance of the god, were dying too, or perhaps only silently taking their departure, one by one. Fading with the flute music into nothingness.
Minos started to speak again, then stopped. He cocked his head, turning it slightly as if trying to listen to some faint, unwelcome noise.
Now Alex could hear it too. Someone, there were at least two men, it seemed, making no particular effort to be quiet, for he could hear their voices, now stood just outside the closed door of the main entrance to the hall.