He shakes the earth from its place
and makes its pillars tremble.
Zakros District, Crete
Circa 1700 BC
The sea was choppy, angry, spitting its salty mist on my lips. My stomach grumbled, anxious to sample whatever delicacies our Minoan sailors brought home from their eight-month trading season.
A group of ships passed at a safe distance from Zakros’s sturdy quay. I could barely make out their flags, but the wind eased, revealing the leaping bull. Knossos flags—the largest of Crete’s districts. My husband’s fleet. The oarsmen’s progress was painfully slow, the wind too strong to hoist a sail. The steersman leaned into the wind, guiding the vessel with one arm on the large oar while holding the raised stern with the other.
Hundreds gathered on the sandy shore beside the quay, but crashing waves drowned conversation. Children clung to their miteras’ skirts as their sand creations succumbed to the frothy sea.
I reached for the ivory figurine tucked inside my belt and rolled the Mother Goddess over and over in my hand, remembering how the earth had trembled the day before. Had we somehow angered our island creator, the giver of all life? Had the sailors given insufficient offerings during their journey? Sacred Mother, my husband is so close to home now. Protect him from the wrath of other gods. Keep him safe until my duties in Zakros are complete and I can go to him.
Mitera pulled me into a sideways hug. “Don’t worry, my girl. Always remember that Minoan sailors are the best in the world. You’ll see Minas as soon as you finish the ledger work for this year’s cargo. Duty before pleasure, my girl.”
I’d heard the same mantra since I was a child. Your sums before painting, Zully. Mopping before pottery. Reading before sculpting. I loved Minas more than my art, but I no longer needed coaxing to protect Zakros District. “Duty is my pleasure, Mitera.”
“Longing for a husband is different than a princess missing her pateras.” She squeezed me tighter. “I know it will be hard to complete your record keeping before leaving for Knossos to see Minas, but your crown prince will have duties to attend to as well. Your pateras will sail with you to Knossos when you finish your tasks. You need not travel overland through the villages.”
I nodded absently, calculating the cargo on each passing ship to estimate the time my record keeping might require. If our Zakros ships returned with the same bounty, it could be a week before I saw Minas. I’d been responsible for our district’s ledgers since I was thirteen. Numbers for necessary supplies and census figures ran through my mind like the blood in my veins, but I’d never before tried to concentrate on them while yearning for a husband. “I don’t know how you’ve endured so many years of Pateras’s seafaring.”
She released me. “There’s no other choice, Zully. How would Zakros survive if Queen Daria or King Rehor decided to skip a year of trading?” She spoke of herself as Queen Daria and Pateras as King Rehor only when teaching me the hard lessons of royalty. “When Rehor steps aside and Minas becomes king, you’ll become the first queen to rule over two Minoan districts. If Minas never went trading, our people would be deprived of their queen’s gracious and efficient rule. And think of what a mess our well-meaning husbands would make of our island.”
We shared a wry grin. My mentor and confidante was right, of course. Though I missed my husband, Crete was as unique as the octopuses in our waters largely because of the vibrant women who ruled most of the year. We lived differently from other lands. Men and women sacrificed and celebrated together in four separate kingdoms on a single island, living in relative peace.
Another boat passed with the Knossos flag. Searching frantically, wind and ocean mist blinding me, I didn’t recognize the oarsmen. “When I finally see my husband,” I shouted over the waves, “he’ll not leave my sight for a week.”
“Why do you think your pateras and I spend so little time at welcome feasts?” Mitera winked.
We giggled like young girls as the last Knossos ship sailed past. It was close enough to make out the steersman.
“Kostas!” I waved at my brother-in-law, the second of King Minos’s sons. “Minas is usually steersman. I wonder why—” Dawning fear stole my breath.
Mitera braced my shoulders. “You can’t imagine the worst first. Rehor would have sent a messenger if anything happened to Minas.”
Unless it happened in these rough seas.
“King Rehor’s standard!” someone shouted.
Everyone turned as the next fleet approached from the east. Pateras flew a flag bearing an octopus—our district’s eight-legged symbol, a fascination that initiated trade conversations in every port.
Anticipation of our reunion, heightened by angst for my husband’s welfare, sent me into the angry sea to wait. I fought to stay upright as the salty force of it battered me toward shore.
Pateras stood like a god at the stern, pushing and pulling the heavy steersman’s oar while riding the bucking ship like a galloping horse. No statue sculpted from the rock-crystal cliffs of Crete could fairly represent King Rehor.
“Pateras!” I shouted over the rough water and wind. “Pateras!” Letting the water buoy me, I leapt and waved both arms.
He raised his hand in reply and steered the ship toward the quay. Six others followed. Thirty oarsmen—fifteen on each side—moved in perfect rhythm to pull the sleek and sturdy cargo ships through the fiercest waves. I was proud to be Princess Zuleika of Zakros, but I’d also married the Knossos crown prince. When I glanced toward the horizon beyond our ships, no more sails approached.
Where is Minas?
I swam toward shore, my strokes cutting through the waves, my legs churning, and arrived before the lead ship docked. I hurried to the quay and noticed a scuffle near Mitera. A palace servant had slapped my childhood friend. “Leave me alone, Gaios!”
“Pffft.” He dismissed her with a flip of his hand. “Don’t be so sensitive, Aronia,” he called as she ran from him.
“Lovers’ spat?” I teased when I reached him.
“Something like that.” Though he was slender and barely taller than me, women seemed to flock to him. His impish grin was likely part of the reason. “Other women on this island are much friendlier.” My street urchin friend had an arrogance born of resolve.
When we reached Mitera, a sea breeze made me shiver. Gaios removed his cloak and placed it around my shoulders. “The dove I sent yesterday returned, Princess. The message read, Zakros hooked giant fish. Knossos eats tuna.”
“It said ‘giant fish,’ ” I clarified, “not ‘whale’?”
I applauded the triumphant report.
Mitera was always frustrated by our code. “Speak plainly, Gaios.”
“Forgive me, my queen.” He bowed. “King Rehor must have signed a trade agreement with Egypt’s giant king!”
“That is good news!” she shouted.
Commotion at the quay stole our attention. Families rushed toward our sailors, and Mitera suddenly lifted her hem and darted in the same direction.
My blood ran cold. I’d never seen Queen Daria run. “Come, Gaios.” I followed Mitera, pulling him with me, too afraid to face my fear about Minas alone.
Gaios steadied me as I stumbled across the sand toward the quay. Stealth and quickness had made him the best street rat in Crete. I hated the term, but my friend bore it with pride. Pateras had given him the moniker when Gaios was only seven yet clever enough to recognize the danger of unrest in Malia District. He’d eluded Zakros Palace guards and gained entrance to Pateras’s private chamber, then informed him of the planned coup and asked only for a sweet cake as payment. That day, Pateras made him my playmate and, later, part of my guard detail.
Thirty oars retracted as the ship nestled against Zakros’s sturdy quay. Sailors leapt from Pateras’s vessel and tied its thick hemp ropes to trees by the shore. A trumpeter blew the announcement: King Rehor has returned to Zakros.
I should have been shouting with joy at the return of our ships and at Gaios’s skilled sleuthing. Instead, I could barely breathe for fear Minas was lost.