The girls tumbled down the stairs in their cream and peach dresses, wrapped up in their chatter, all quick smiles and quicker feet. Ribbons trailed from their hair, from their waists and their shoulders. In the narrow hall, they tripped and laughed and caught at their pretty burdens.
Phaidra and Oinone carried blankets soft as down and bright as sunset. They were piled so high, the girls hugged them tight and tucked their chins on top. Phaidra had dropped one. Kleio, carrying two fat jars of sweet wine, ran behind her with the blanket thrown around her shoulders like a scarlet cloak. Driseis came with a heavy plate of lamb, Ianthe with fruit, Larisa with honey and sesame cakes.
Chryseis’ arms were looped with dresses embroidered with glinting thread, and Astraia held tunics stitched with the same gleam. Aigle came with sandals beaded to a jingling weight. Leda, Praxis, and Selena came with garlands thick as their arms. Polyxena, Xanthe, and Melitta held rows of flower crowns from elbow to wrist.
They littered the hall with petals, with runaway olives, with loose threads, their hands full to overflowing. Their voices echoed lightly in the small space. Their slippers whispered against the smooth stones.
At the end of the hall, the guards stopped them with a raised hand.
“We cannot let you pass,” one said. He was broad-shouldered and dressed in thick leathers. Fat, dark lines criss-crossed the chest piece, new oil caught in old cuts. His dark hair curled over his ears.
“What?” Phaidra asked. She gave him a dramatic pout that set the others giggling. “Can’t you?”
He blinked once. One corner of his mouth tugged upward. “No,” he murmured.
“But of course, you can,” the princess said, gently making her way to the front. The girls pressed themselves to the walls as best they could to let her pass. Phaidra winked at the guard, then let the princess step lightly through.
The princess held a heavy purse in front of her on one finger. Offering a smile, she shook it to rattle the silver inside. “No one needs to know,” she murmured.
The girls tittered again. Everyone knew they were there. The cooks had handed them the heavy plates. The stewards had pulled the best wine. Every woman in the palace had put stitches in the tunics and dresses.
The king himself had handed them the silver, a soothing gift for men who guarded a prison for the crimeless.
The princess held the guard’s eye until he took it.
He didn’t weigh the purse, just bowed deep and held it until his fellow bowed as well. Without another word, they lifted the lock on the door behind them and stepped back to let the girls pass. The whole parade tumbled into the wide room on the other side, flashing with color and smiles. Instantly, the girls split, spilling between the couches and columns, running to press their charity into the hands of the fourteen men and women kept inside.
The room rushed with their light voices, the spill of wine, the clap of fabric shown off with a whirl, and the startled response. The guards kept watch. Kleio and Oinone stayed a single step behind the princess while she laid blankets on rough beds. Slowly, unsteadily, the girls’ laughter spread. The air flushed with the smell of sweet meat and blossoms.