"THEREíS SOMETHING VERY WRONG HERE"
The minos was dead. The news leapt out of the palace of Knossos on horseback and in chariots. It swept through the spring-tinted farmlands, shocking villages and saddening towns and, where it touched, grief welled up from house, courtyard, and street.
Knossos sank into the desolation of bereavement as the household women washed the body, emaciated and horribly blotched but with a curiously swollen belly. They fitted the grave clothes to the accompaniment of wailing from the crowds flocking to the great palace courtyard. By the time the body was properly laid out in the bedchamber the entire court was waiting respectfully in the great anteroom, all dressed in mourning. The ladies, although in full court dress, had covered their bare breasts with scarves or bibs.
At the far end of the chamber a rippling heave among the mourners parted the ranks to enable a woman to pass through the double doors. She was wearing full court dress with mourning. Tall and slim, she was about thirty-five and had obviously been a beauty in her earlier years. She was still a handsome woman, but her youthful loveliness had grown hard-lined. She was followed by a man with a narrow face whose grieving countenance was belied by the avaricious gleam in his eyes. As he and the woman went to the head of the queue and into the death chamber, his head was slightly lowered and his eyes flickered from side to side, never meeting those of others. The quiet murmuring that pervaded the crowd ceased as the couple made their way through and into the room. Many apprehensive glances were exchanged as the doors closed in the faces of the courtiers.
"I donít like this," muttered a kilted courtier to the short plump woman beside him. "If theyíre alone with the minos, what are they getting up to?"
"Theyíre not alone," came the reply. "The household women are in there."
As she spoke the doors opened again, but only so that the women who had laid out the corpse could leave. They went in silence through the antechamber, heads down, while renewed murmuring broke out in the assembly.
"Theyíre alone now," said the courtier with an air of gloomy satisfaction. "I knew it. Once the minos went, Daiquota and Kosouto were bound to see what they could get out of it."
"But, Akoto, what can they be doing?" asked the plump woman.
"Looking through the minosís records?" hazarded Akoto. "But, no, they canít read, can they? Iíll tell you what theyíre doing, Quo-uquota! Trying to find some way of getting their rations increased."
Plump little Quo-uquota rubbed her stomach reflectively.
"We could all do with that," she said. "Iíve lost quite a bit of weight in the last few months. But at least rationing keeps us alive. If people like Daiquota had their way sheíd be living in the lap of luxury and weíd be starving."
"As long as we get regular convoys off to--whatís it called? Where the Amazons live?"
"Pontos, you mean? Where we got the grain from?"
"Thatís it. If Aito can start the food convoys to Pontos again, weíll make it through the year. But this cold wet weather is delaying the sailing season. Iíve never known a spring as cold as this."
"Ssh!" hissed Quo-uquota. "Hereís the priestess."
A young priestess entered the room accompanied by two even younger acolytes with smoking censers. The crowd fell completely silent, passed the backs of their hands over their eyes in a respectful gesture to the invisible great goddess, and parted to let the priestess into the death chamber. One of the acolytes tried the handle but the door was bolted from the inside. She knocked, but no one answered. The priestess turned to the crowd, her face darkening.
"Whoís in there?" she asked.
"Daiquota Potinia and the Lord Kosouto, your Reverence," said a tall, stately woman standing nearby.
A fine-looking person of mature years, she was resplendent even in mourning. Her court dress was of the highest quality and tailored to perfection, the rich gold and silver needlework glittering even in the subdued light of the chamber. She was a little taller than most of the people around her, and her high hat added to her imposing appearance.
"Peace be with you, Ariadne Potinia," said the priestess in greeting.
"Your Reverence Zakisenuti," she replied formally, "peace be with you. Allow me."
She knocked gently at the panelling painted with deer and swallows. Nothing happened. She knocked again, a little louder.
"Her reverence is here," she called softly, but there was no reply.
All the while, the crowd waited in awed silence and Zakisenutiís face flushed a deeper red. Ariadne turned to Akoto.
"Try another door," she whispered, but as the courtier began to make his way through the crowd, Zakisenuti turned angrily on her heel and departed, the acolytes following. The door closed behind them, leaving the rich blue haze of incense in the air. The tension broke in the crowd and people turned to one another in amazement. For a moment no one dared speak, for Ariadneís anger was only too plain. She said nothing, but stood a little apart looking at the door through which Zakisenuti had left. Akoto apprehensively watched her.
"That priestess must be going back to the temple," whispered Quo-uquota as he joined her. "She canít possibly go through the rites now. Locked out! The goddess insulted! Iíve never known anything like this. She must have gone to complain to the high priestess."
"Fat lot of good thatíll do," grunted Akoto. "The high priestess, her holiness Epijata, friend of Daiquota?" He turned to Ariadne. "Potinia, when your sister drowned it was a black day for Crete."
The crowd held their breath as Ariadne turned to him. Although the anger still flared in her eyes, her voice was under control as she replied.
"I agree, Akoto," she said, "though nowadays it wouldnít do to say that too openly."
"Maybe people are right," said Quo-uquota. "The goddess has turned against us since the potiniaís sister died. She was a great high priestess."
"She was," said a tubby man with comparatively short grey hair, "but the goddess helps those who help themselves. Iíve said time and again that we should form a party to ensure that power passes to the right person. I mean Quadaso, if not Ariadne herself."
Although he had spoken quietly, Ariadne swung round on him.
"Be careful, Kupesero," she said, in a voice like an icy wind. "I know your views and I should feel flattered." She smiled through her fading anger and her voice softened to a rich contralto. "But Quadaso has no interest in politics. Heís got his hands full with the estate, especially now. So no more talk like that, if you donít mind."
"I meant no harm!" protested Kupesero. "Quadaso himself says you would make a good minos. If anyone knows, it should be your husband, surely. And why not a woman as minos? Itís no different from having a queen, and your line goes back into the mists of time, farther than most of us can reckon."
"True," said Ariadne. "But Iíve had this discussion myself with Quadaso. Iím not interested. A woman as minos would be too much for most people. These are dangerous times to be expressing ideas like yours."
Her expression softened as Kupesero deflated a little.
"What are you doing here anyway?" she asked. "Youíre a long way from Phaistos."
"The High Priestess of Phaistos has died, you know, and I came to see the minos about her successor. But I was too late, so Iím staying for his funeral."
"What, Eumetaís dead? When?"
"A few days ago. The news was overshadowed by the minosís death. Iím trying to find out whoís to take her place. You see, my daughter is a priestess here, and I want her to transfer to Phaistos. If I can get a word in the right ear Iíll be able to work it."
"Youíll have to wait till after the funeral. I have some say in choosing high priestesses. Iíll put a word in for your daughter, if you like."
"Oh, Potinia, thank you. I want her away from here. Things are too uncertain now."
"Youíre telling me. Food rationingís more or less stopped the panic of last year, but these Mycenaean raids are likely to start it all up again."
"Thatís another reason why I came," said Kupesero. "You know Aito the merchant? Iím meeting him. You do know heís been promoted to admiral for the duration of the war?"
"I know of him, but Iíve never met him. Didnít he take a force of Amazons to Naxos?"
"Thatís right, they wintered there. Only two hundred, but theyíll fight like a thousand of our troops. I saw an Amazon fight once on a voyage to Libya. It was Aitoís wife. We were attacked by pirates and she cleared the main deck practically on her own."
"Thatís Hero," said Ariadne softly.
"Yes. Of course, she was once your handmaiden, wasnít she?"
"She was. I was really pleased when she married Aito of Zakro. She never deserved slavery."
"We call him Aito of Phaistos now, you know, since thereís nothing left at Zakro. He was rawaketa there, but thereís nobody left for him to represent to the palace. Thereís not even a functioning palace. Itís standing empty."
"So they tell me. I hear the magistrates tried to keep it open, but the destruction around them was too much and they had to leave. However, getting back to Hero, sheís done very well. Sheís practically the rawaketa herself, I hear."
"Oh no!" protested Kupesero. "Aitoís very much in command of things at home."
"Well, Iíve heard differently, but you merchants always stick together."
"Heís coming to Knossos, you know, with her. Theyíre completely inseparable. Besotted with each other. Iím surprised theyíre not already here. Sheíll probably drive all the way. She drove me here from Phaistos once and I still havenít gotten over it. Sheís very skilled in a chariot and completely fearless. Unfortunately Iím not, and by the time we got here I wanted to go and lie down in a dark room."
He began to laugh but stopped short as two people entered the antechamber. A tall and muscular young man was followed by a beautiful young woman a fingerís breadth taller. The crowd murmured in admiration at the pair. Under his travelling cloak the young man wore only the customary kilt and cummerbund that men of all classes wore. His physique made him look even taller than he was. His hair was dressed in fashionable long tresses over his brawny shoulders and down to his waist. He was barefoot indoors as everyone was, to preserve the soft gypsum flooring. The women ran their admiring gazes over his well-toned body, tanned brown and bearing the odd battle scar. Although his expression matched the solemnity of the antechamber, his dark eyes twinkled with pleasure as he greeted friends and acquaintances.