The prince of Athens stood at the back of the room. The girls spotted them in an instant, and avoided him carelessly. Phaidra flashed him a grin, flipped her hair over her shoulder and turned to another man to give him a blanket purple as an ocean. Larisa risked offering him a cake, and ducked away. The others worked their way around the room, stepping closer and closer, and ignoring him.
He felt it.
When a girl finally slipped up to him with a row of flower crowns on her wrist, she looked at him long enough to ask a quick, silent question. Then she looked down, untangling one crown from another. The leaves and petals caught on each other. Her hair lay in loose curls, ribbons looped simply around her head. Her dress was beautifully dyed, but plain from shoulder to feet. Her face was clean, but bare. But he bent to look at her more closely.
“What is your name?” he asked gently.
Patiently, she worked her fingers between them.
“Princess?” he whispered. “Ariadne?”
She smiled without looking at him. “Prince Theseus.” The crown came free, and she stood on her toes to settle it in his hair.
He held her eye as she sank back onto her heels. “Why are you hiding?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “It is better not to be watched.” She turned, pointedly toward the other girl across the room, parading under a crown in all her finery. Her hair was piled in curls beneath the gold circlet. Her face was painted masterfully in kohl and rouge. The guards didn’t take their eyes off her for more than a moment.
Theseus looked across at the pretender as well, then stared at the princess in front of him.
Ariadne smiled at his confusion. “Why are you here?” she asked.
Theseus composed his expression, just a little. “Your father makes his demands. Athens answers them. I’m here to feed his monster.”
“Doesn’t your father love you?” She tilted her head.
Theseus stared again. Then he coughed out a laugh. “Very much,” he said.
She tilted her head. “But you’re somewhere near the top of his list of young men the city can spare?”
“No.” He held his smile easily.
“You’re a poor prince?” Ariadne asked. “You’ve failed your lessons? Botched your languages so badly you’ve insulted every visiting lord? Lost all your fortune because you can’t put numbers together? Injured more friends than enemies swinging your sword around?”
He was shaking his head before she even finished her first question. “I am a perfectly adequate prince in every way.”
Ariadne leaned in closer. “Then why are you here?”
They both felt the sudden weight in her tone. A stone-heavy silence held between them for a full breath as he held her gaze.
“You needed a prince,” he murmured.
She nodded slowly. “My father’s monster does have exquisite taste.”
“He’ll choke on me.”
Ariadne shut her mouth. He watched her, reading her expression as it shifted. Her smile slipped. She didn’t bother to fix it, and simply put it away with a steadying breath. She fit words together, and didn’t speak them. She dropped her gaze to his chest, then to her own hands, and she waited for her thoughts to return to clarity. For her tongue to feel less thick between her teeth. For her chest to stop hiding air.
“You’re angry,” Theseus murmured.
She shook her head, slow. “You mean to aim for the monster.”
It wasn’t a question, but he answered anyway. “Yes.”
“You’re not the first,” she told him.
“I’m sure,” he said. “But I’m more concerned with being the last.”
“It’s a fight you’ll lose,” she said.
He squared his shoulders, idly, and she suspected he didn’t even realize how his tone sharpened. “I didn’t come to lose.”
“There’s no need for you to die,” Ariadne said. “Ask me, and I’ll go straight to my father. There are a thousand reasons not to send princes into the pit. I can send you home.”
He leaned toward her, sharper still, eyes hard. She held her breath.
“Some things need to end,” he said.
Ariadne clenched her jaw, clenched her hands. Firmly, she nodded. “I know,” she said.
She glanced sideways at Selena as the other girl passed her. It was a heavy look that made the other girl stutter in her steps. Selena took a breath, then turned to watch the entire room. One moment passed, then two, her eyes flicking between the guards and the girls, the captives sitting and standing and laughing unevenly. They were all turned away, focused on the rich things in front of them. She nodded to Ariadne.
Her back to the rest of the room, Ariadne slid a hand into the folds of her dress. Theseus looked away as he realized she was reaching through a broken seam, under her gauzy skirts. He didn’t look surprised when she pressed cold bronze into his hand.
The knife was wicked, as long as her forearm. The yellow blade caught the light softly.
“Hide it,” she whispered.
Immediately, Theseus took it from her. He tucked it inside his tunic, where his belt would hold it tight to his ribs, while she pulled something else from the tear in her skirt.
She showed him a spool of thread glinted in her hand. It was as fine as anything she might use to embroider her own gowns, glaringly gold like the last line of sundown. Theseus blinked down at it.
“Do you mean me to mend something?” he asked.
“I mean you to tie the end by the first door, and never let it go,” she said. “My father’s maze was built by the most conniving minds he could conjure. You’ll need something to lead you back out.”
He stared at it longer, then, carefully, at her. “And you wanted something with a bit of flash?”
Ariadne paused too, then gave a very short, very quiet laugh. “I’m a princess,” she said, and gave him half a shrug. “It was close to hand.”
He laughed as well, just as hushed. “All right.”
“And,” she said, her voice steadying slowly. She focused on the thread between them, built her reasons by degrees. “I think… Whatever light there is, that will catch it. Just in case you drop it.”
He tightened his fingers around the bundle, weighed it, and tucked it away as well.
The guards were growing restless by the door. One by the one, the girls felt the shift in their stance and the tension that slowly pulled the men’s shoulders up, pulled their hands toward hilts. They tapped each other on the shoulder, whispered, gathering themselves back up. Burdens abandoned, they slipped steadily back toward the door.
Hovering by the column behind Ariadne, Melitta waited. Aigle lingered just beyond her. Ariadne glanced at both of them and squeezed Theseus’ arm.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
She gave him a thin smile, half an apology. Melitta came forward half a step, reaching for her hand to draw her away. The others were already crowding the door.
“This was all I needed,” Theseus assured her. “I will end this.”
Ariadne’s smile twisted tighter. She thought for a moment, then leaned toward him again as if she had something more to whisper. She kissed him on the cheek.
“Gods guard you,” she murmured, close to his ear. “And may they forgive me.”
Melitta looked warily over her shoulder and took Ariadne’s hand firmly, rushing them both to the door with Aigle close behind.
The door echoed when it shut, almost hiding the sound of the lock sliding home.