I wanted to ask for clarification, but the tower’s spirit was fading.
“Thank you.” I pressed a hand to the stone, clutching the box to my chest and leaning my forehead against the cool wall. “Thank you, Tower.” The floor gave a tremor and tufts of hair lifted on my head as if the tower had sighed. I rushed from the room with renewed hope, all but flying down the stairs, quickly finding the path to the city of Lacedaemon. All of my pain and ailments were forgotten as I ran, expending what little energy I had left.
When I reached the outskirts of the city, my body ached anew. As the first person laid eyes on me, a man, I became acutely aware of my appearance, for no man had ever looked upon me with such disgust. His nose scrunched, repulsed, and he hurried off. I nearly laughed, which turned into a desire to cry, because the monumental task ahead of me was made all the harder by how I now looked. I would have to beg, and for once in my life, people would not be so willing to give me what I wanted.
It was a shameful feeling to realize what an easy life I’d had in comparison to others—humbling beyond measure. As I walked further into the city’s dirt streets, even beggars looked upon me with morbid curiosity, trying to see past the chopped hair, swollen eye, and bruised body.
I stood against the outer wall of a thatched building selling wares. First thing I needed to do was secure the box. People would think I’d stolen it. I’d seen some of the other beggars pull up the top layer of their dressing gowns to make pouches for their few belongings. I pulled my raggedy gown up on the side, revealing my calves, and tied the fabric around the box. It was unwieldy and uncomfortable, but it would do the job for now. A middle-aged gentleman, soft of belly and friendly-faced, began to pass. I reached out and gently touched his arm, saying, “Please, kind sir—”
He let out a yelp and pulled his arm away, as if I were a contagious leper. His benevolent appearance changed to disgust as he scowled and marched away, brushing off his arm.
How would I ever make enough to buy cakes with two halfpence to spare?
As the day wore on, I tried everything. Conversation. Flattery. Nothing worked. The longer I stood out there, the more exhausted I felt, stooping and shifting my weight. Two streets away, I had passed a woman singing a cheery tune and getting coins, but my singing would surely send people even further away from me.
“I don’t know what happened to you, Miss, but I can see someone has done you wrong. Here.” I faced a woman in a faded, but fine toga, her black hair streaked with strands of white that made her appear noble. She handed me a cream-colored shawl.
“Oh, thank you!” I said. When I smiled, my cheek and eye zinged with pain.
“May the gods have mercy on you,” she said, already walking away.
“May they, indeed,” I whispered. I made quick work of draping the shawl over my head, tying it at the nape of my neck to hide my tattered hair situation. It made me feel ten times better. I stood straighter.
The next people to pass were a mother about Miracle’s age with a young daughter holding a small book of poems. I recognized the author at once.
“Good choice there,” I said, pointing to the book. The mother gave me a worried look, glancing at her daughter and beginning to tug her faster. But before they could get too far, I began to recite.
The mother stopped and turned in surprise, and the daughter beamed up at the woman, then me.
“That one is my favorite!”
“Me too,” I said, leaning my hands on my knees. “I can see you are a very smart young lady.”
The mother blinked at me, her eyes scanning my nightgown and beaten features. “How does such a cultured woman take to the streets?” She quickly closed her eyes and shook her head. “Never mind. I probably do not want to know.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” I tried to smile, though I was certain it warped my face even worse. I could tell her my name, and there was a chance she’d have heard of me, but she would undoubtedly think I was a lying halfwit.
“What happened to your eye?” the little girl asked. Her mother began to shush her, casting me an apologetic look, but I answered.
“I took quite a tumble, but I assure you, I will be fine. With a little luck, fate will help me up and I will make amends.”
The woman studied me. “You do speak beautifully.” In a quieter voice, she asked, “Who did this to you? A lover? A boss? Are you a runaway slave?”
I shook my head, still wearing a small smile. “My mother-in-law.”
Her eyes widened, and she let out a huff. “In that case…” She pulled out two shiny, large coins, and I clutched them to my chest, overwhelmed by her generosity. “Back on your feet, you go.” She lifted her chin and gave me a conspiratorial grin.
“I cannot thank you enough, Miss.” I bowed my head. “May the gods bless you and your precious daughter.” I looked at the girl once more. “Keep up the reading.” She nodded, curls bouncing.
As they walked away, I stared down at the coins and closed my fist around them. It was enough to buy the two sticky cakes for Cerberus and have coins left over for the ferryman. Gratitude welled inside me but never turned to joy—not when I knew I was one step closer to the underworld, a place where no mortal had ever gone and returned with their soul intact.
Perhaps Cupid would never have me again after what I had done, but I would prove my worth to him. To Venus. And most importantly, to myself.
A hole in the cliff where none dare to risk. What did that even mean?
I stood at the edge of the cliff in Taenarus near the Tower. It was night now, but the moon was full, and the sky was clear. As I stared out at the dark water and the shadowy, rocky descent, I had never felt hungrier or more spent. My mouth had filled with moisture when I walked into the bakery, but the owner had not been happy to see a threadbare, dirty customer. He attempted to charge me an outrageous sum for the cakes. It was far harder to barter as a beggar than a princess. I finally talked him down just enough to have two coins left over, but there was not enough for me to buy food for myself. Thankfully I had found a fresh stream along the way to fill my belly with water.
As I explored the ledge of the cliff, I spied a narrow, steep pathway hidden by brush. It was enough room for one person to shuffle downward. I slipped the coins into my makeshift pouch with the box and held the cakes gingerly between my fingers as I scooted along the constricted path, nudging overgrown vines out of the way. Not using my hands to steady myself made me feel off-balanced. I concentrated extra hard to keep my footing.
A hole in the cliff. That had to be a cave. I moved slowly along the path but up ahead I could see there was a curve, and something blocking the way. As I approached, I squinted in the darkness and discovered it was a mass of thorny sea brambles.
Of all the horrid luck.
I avoided those at all cost. The stickers were murder on bare feet. How would I get past them?
Where none dare to risk. I repeated that line in my head. Any sane person would turn around at the sight of those briars. Could this possibly be what the tower had meant? The closer I got to the brambles, the stranger I felt. My heart began to skip, then race. A strange sentience overcame me, like a warning, telling me to turn back. I tensed, catching my breath, and forced myself to trudge forward again. Tiny steps. I was almost to the wicked brambles.
You will fall! A voice shouted in my head and I jerked to a stop, leaning against the rock. Go back!
My eyes darted about, and my ears were on alert for the strange source of my panic, but nothing at all was there. Still, I couldn’t quite seem to catch my breath.
“No,” I whispered into the darkness. “I cannot stop.”
I urged myself forward, clamping my jaw shut against the urge to scream in terror as I sidled up to the malevolent, overgrown sticker bushes.
I reached out a trembling arm to push aside the bramble, prepared to tear my hand away, but what I encountered instead of thorns was a soft sheet of leaves that easily parted under my hand. Confusion filled me. I crept forward, pressing into the canopy of tangled branches that felt nothing like it looked. Darkness engulfed me. Still, I pressed on.
My blood pumped wildly as I stepped out of the curtain of darkness. A sharp gasp caught in my throat when I realized I was inside a cave. Dim, thick candles aligned the walls with what appeared to be hundreds of years of wax drippings piled underneath them like the buttressing of massive trees. One more step inside had my vision clearing, causing me to press my back against the wall in surprise.
People! So many people! Where had they come from? It looked as if they were coming in through the same entrance to the cave that I had taken. But there’d been no one outside. Or had there? I brought the back of my hand to my mouth. Peering around now, they were not like me. They appeared solid at first glance, but the longer I stared, the more they seemed to blur along the edges.
I held the wrapped cakes in my hands, trying not to squeeze them, and began to shuffle along with the mass of souls. I kept against the wall. When they brushed up against me, it was the strangest feeling—almost like the soft rub of a cat’s fluffy fur—not quite solid. I shivered and hurried along, feeling the clink of the box and coins in my gown’s pouch. Ahead, my eyes beheld a frightening sight: two sooty stone gargoyles, so large their heads scraped the cave ceiling. Their eyes roved over the souls coming in. As I neared, their staffs sliced downward, halting my entrance and startling me to pieces.