You wake to hunger.
A full-body clench—crimson cramp of stomach, jagged throat, every fiber of your body wrenched and keening. A cloth dabs slick afterbirth from your up-flicked ears, and perhaps you sense the hand that holds it is like your own, cream-soft palms and nails like pink moons—perhaps the throb in those blue-green veins smells like remembering—but when the fabric teases open your lips your gut convulses agony and you bite down crunch slick sweetness a spurted offering and you chew and chew and chew, your breath huffing pleasure, your gut’s sick twist eased for the moment to a low, waiting hum.
Later, you will learn revulsion. Later, you will learn shame. For now, you burble contentment, and someone above you begins to scream.
Here are your first bodies:
Your mother’s fingers tracing the curve of your horns, as if she cannot decide to caress them or tear them from your skull.
Your sister’s hand cupping your soft fist, her eyes wide and solemn and grave.
A man who is not your father, who slaps you upside the head so hard you choke on your tongue.
A cage, he mutters, a cage, and the men who would have taught you to hunt build a box of iron bars instead.
They bring you dungeon rats and cave bats, indecipherable flesh-slabs the color of bruises. You eat and eat, your gut lanced bright and insatiable, and the floor flays your knees as you scrabble for scraps.
His little tongue, says your sister, look at it, but your mother fixes her eyes on the drapes and tells her not to be perverse.
| | |
You eat, and you grow.
Too fast for your liking—a constant strung-out ache of muscle and bone, your arms and legs gangling till your collisions against the cage are as much momentum as desire. And the hunger, it grows with you. You dream of hot living flesh, blood-pulse sweet against your teeth; wake, mouth-watering, your stomach an acid heave.
More, you cry, and your voice breaks like the sea. More. More. More.
Your not-father sends you his prisoners.
Slam of cage door, frantic scramble, sweat-musk and trembling lips and eyes rolled to white. Men and women dragged out from the shelter of other bars, their only freedom the breath between their cage and yours, and you pin down weak wrists, tear tender thighs, something waking between your knees at the peek of white bone.
You raven, ravish. Lose yourself in bliss. Hunger banished, for a while, to a dark corner of your periphery.
After, the king stands before your cage, torchlight glinting off his rotted teeth.
Monster, he hisses. Abomination.
You will serve me nevertheless.
| | |
Your sister comes under shroud of night.
A lamp rising out of the dark, flash of cheek and pale wrist. You do not scream—her scent is not that of oiled whips or sharpened blades, and you still remember the way she stroked your nose when you were little: the only person in the world not afraid you’d snap off her fingers.
You sit up, silent, wary.
Asterion, she says, and slides a ceramic plate through the bars. Heaped on top: meat roasted brown, pungent herbs wafted down from halls you will never walk. I brought you something.
You touch a finger to the cooked flesh. Think of the prisoners’ cowering, the servants’ curled lips. The king’s greedy stare, as if he is the one who might devour you.
Can you try it? your sister asks, nudging her dish forward. Can you try it for me?
Your stomach is bruise-tender, empty. You lower your head to the chunk of meat, slurp it down in a single mouthful.
Yesyes, you say, straightening, though your knees have gone weak with want for more. You pull back your thick, unyielding lips, will yourself to articulation. I try.
Her eyes go round. You speak.
Yesyes. An ache flares through your cheeks: the muscles accustomed to only one motion. But her eyes are mirrors, shining tears, and suddenly you understand: this is your way back to her.
I try, you say, swallowing hard. Herbs ghost the back of your tongue; you breathe in, and taste what you imagine to be sunlight. For you.
| | |
| | |
The next time your not-father’s soldiers shove the prisoners in, you clench your jaw shut. Pace to the other side of the cage, though it is not such a great distance at which to stand.
You are strong, you tell yourself, as trapped men hurl themselves at your bars. You are your sister’s brother, your mother’s son. The blood in your veins is the blood of gods.
But you can only last so long against the heady scent of fear-sweat, the siren song of jagged breath. Eventually, your need twists you inside out. Eventually, you give in.
And you eat and eat and eat, till your moans of bitter pleasure shake the ground at the king’s feet.
| | | |
| | |
It’s hard, you try to explain, when your sister visits again a few nights later. There isn’t much else to do. And with every sound out of your mouth, they hear another word for hunger.
It’s all right, she says, and touches your blood-crusted knuckles through the bars. You will make your way slowly. You have time. So much time, and—oh!
Yes? you say—warily, because you are terrified she will leave.
She draws a round shape from her pocket. Not the roast pork she offered you again upon her arrival, but blood-red: yarn wound together like hair.
Not for eating, she says, and tosses it in a neat arc toward your open hands. Gestures at you to throw it back. Play.
Play, you repeat, pushing the ball again through the bars. The consonants are strange on your tongue. Asterion play.
Yes, she says, and her eyes are like stars.
But both of you know it’s not enough to try. Not enough to torment your tongue into a mockery of language, tease your appetite with scraps of spiced pork. Even now, the dizziness is hollowing you out again, bending you double over the ache, and though you know your sister, though she is dear to you, you are suddenly a hair’s breadth from whirling beyond the edge of control.
No, you burble out, scrambling back into your corner. Sorry, sorry. But she only tucks the yarn ball back into her pocket, wetness trailing down her cheeks, and you are not sure she understands.
| | | |
| | | |
The labyrinth is built beneath the stadium.
Years and years of hammer clang, of men’s coarse shouts and nights of restless turning, and then they wheel you in, whips snapping warning against your dented cage.
Damp rock and shadow, piss and stale sweat. Your whimpers echo off the walls. Even in the prisons where they last kept you, there was at least a narrow window through which you could see the stars. Here, the darkness is thick enough to drown in. You might be the only monster left in the world.
What’s it doing? One of the men jabs you with a spear, and you fling yourself at unyielding iron, knock yourself breathless.
No no. Your throat thick, vowels garbled by your locked jaw. No no sorry sorry
They shove you in further, and the door clangs shut.
You sob, and it comes out a roar. You ram your head against the bars until your eyes leak salt. You remember sister’s small hand in your large one, the soft red thread arcing through the gap in your bone-littered cage. Her voice—bell-chimed, hopeful—speaking your true name.
You are so, so hungry.
Above your head, the drum of athletes’ heels, nearing and then receding. A thousand bellowing spectators, the waft of flesh through the vents in the ceiling strong enough to bring you to your knees.
This new prison is a torture chamber. An insult, even to you.
The bars give way against your shoulders at last and you run, ricocheting off the hard stone walls, your horns catching on clumps of rubble in the dark. You run and crash and hurt and scream, every sound reverberating wrong through the endless maze, and the crowd above falls silent, the scent of their exultation souring to fear, and you are precisely the abomination your not-father called you, you are his spectacle and sword and fool.
You bite down on your voice. Your stomach cramps; your hands tremble; your head is a whirl in the impenetrable black. But you will not be ruled by that unworthy king, will not be a savage puppet kept for his entertainment. Cooked meat might still sate you, if you eat enough; if not, the servants whisper about your own mother’s prowess with potions and herbs, of subtle magics sparked behind closed doors.
Perhaps she can change you. Perhaps she can make you whole.
A groan of hinges at your back, and you smell fourteen fresh bodies, their hearts sweetly beating.
| | |
| | |
| | |
The labyrinth’s designer must know the air ducts are a weak point: the ingenious system of flues that amplifies your roars through the palace complex, a constant reminder to your not-father’s subjects of why they should cower and bow. But you’ve heard the whispers about a wooden cow, the inventor’s regret at his role in your birth. That he knows as much as anyone about trapped creatures wanting to fly.
You dig upward. When you are not roaring to drown out your own rumbling stomach—or lying bloated on hard stone, your gut a bolus of hot red shame—you climb the accumulating pile of bones, grind your horns against dried mud and brittle tile. Rubble rains in your eyes; the void that is your tongue turns you itchy, furious. When runners’ heels beat the ground above you, saliva floods your mouth, and you clamber back to the ground and hold your face in your hands and groan.
Asterion. Your sister’s eyes, round as coins.
I try. The hinge of your jaw is achy, stiff, the sound-shapes mangled by your roughened throat. It has been so long since you’ve spoken aloud, so long since you last saw that face lit by lantern-light.
But you remember. You will always remember this.
Yesyes, you try.
Weeks or months or many years later, the darkness thins: packed earth soft as a baby’s skull, faint crust of light through thin loamy eyelid. Another game in progress: stamping feet, thunderous crowd, the light slap of a ball as it is caught and then thrown. And though there is a clench beneath your ribs, a dullness between your temples—you cannot remember the last time you ate—you heave yourself through, a roar of rubble and light. Bellow your own exhausted victory.
The ball ricochets off your horns, sails across the sun-bright arena—and falls into the hands of a thickly muscled man behind a red line.
Silence, thick as labyrinth night.
Then, of course, someone screams.
You flick your ears, scrub the dirt from your face. There are so many people, shouting and weeping; your head is a dozy sway of need. But you have been practicing, in the dungeon dark, bending the thick cords of your throat to the shapes of your sister’s words. And even as your mouth fills with hot sweet anticipation—even as you are dizzied by the soft churn of limbs, the bowstring quiver of oiled muscle—you fist your hands and twist your stubborn lips and garble out
From the stadium’s front row, your not-father sways and collapses.
It can talk? someone exclaims, and your sister pushes to her feet from her place beside the fallen king and says, he. And yes, clearly.
Then she turns to you, smiling wide and proud despite the dust and old blood that crusts your skin, and asks, Can you make do with eating pigs?
Yesyes, you say, clumsily, I try, I try, and she tosses you an extra ball and you catch it in your hands and it feels as if you’re holding the world.