Minotaur

Minotaur, by J.A. Rock
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eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-312-4
eBook release: 
Oct 19, 2015
eBook Formats: 
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Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-313-1
Print release: 
Oct 19, 2015
Word count: 
72,200
Page count: 
277
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Aug 10, 2017
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Know this: I am not a warrior. I am a disease.

When I was six, my parents died.

When I was sixteen, I was locked away in Rock Point Girls’ Home. Nobody wants to deal with a liar. An addict. A thief.

Nobody except Alle. She is pure, and she’s my friend in spite of all the rotten things I am. 

There was once another girl like me—long ago. A cast-off daughter. A lying little beast who left a red stain across the land with her terrible magic. She’s imprisoned now in a maze high up on the cliffs. They say she’s half woman, half bull. They say she dines on human tributes and guards a vast treasure. They say she was born wicked.

But I know her better than the history books or stories do. She and I dream together. Our destinies are twisted up like vines.

Except I’m not going to turn out wicked like she is. I can save myself by destroying her. I’m going to break out of this place, and I’m going to enter the labyrinth and take her heart.

And once I’m redeemed, maybe Alle will love me.

2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Awards   

Finalist: 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Awards!
Finalist: Best LGBT SF/F/Horror in the 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards!

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Prologue

Know this: I am not a warrior.

I am a disease.

If I go down in history a hero, it will be someone scraping half-truths off the floor and the undersides of desks, sculpting something ugly and defiantly off-center. It will be a careful rearrangement of facts, and it will involve so many lies of omission that the truth will end up amputated from me like a limb. I’ll stagger around, a lopsided idea of who I was, everyone too polite to discuss what I’m missing.

I don’t trust heroes; I don’t think I should. At Rock Point, many of the girls liked stories that ended happily, or at least offered a sense of closure. But I liked tales with abstruse people screwing and killing their way toward ambiguous outcomes. I liked shadows. And I liked gore.

And secretly, I liked redemption. I liked monsters who regretted and heroes who mustered a revolted sort of compassion for their enemies. Even better were the heroes who saw villains as a mirror—not one that reflected the world precisely as it was, but one that showed the hero what she might become. Like when you and someone else are staring through the same window, and you shift to make your reflection line up with hers. You become an awkward mutt—eyes in the wrong places, too many mouths, but you can almost fit yourself to her outline.

We are all a step away from goodness cracking under our feet and collapsing us into villainy. There are few unbreakable things in the world, and I have cataloged people’s stress points with the same earnest vigor with which little Rina once cataloged Rock Point’s fauna. Loss, violence, bullying, starvation, boredom, the promise of beauty or fame or sex—chances are there is something somewhere you’d turn wicked for. Innocence starts to look haggard with age, same as skin. I once knew a man who murdered his wife because he couldn’t stand that one of her eyebrows was higher than the other. Some people will turn wicked for nothing.

Me, I was born ready to break. I had so many soft places. My tantrums, my rotten words, the joy my fists took in meeting flesh—those were to distract others from seeing all the spots the spear could go.

Until one woman stripped me truly bare, and together we built an armor that rendered me both powerful and humble. It looked so right on me that seeing myself in it for the first time was, I imagine, much like those women who search for the perfect wedding dress and finally find it—they look in the mirror and see that their breasts are high, their stomach cinched, their hips arched like the sides of tombstones.

My sister felt that way about the dress she got married in. In fact, I thought at first the best place to start this story would be at her wedding, at the ceremony I ruined. But I have since discarded that possibility. I then thought of beginning the moment I entered the labyrinth. But there are things you need to understand first. I don’t care so much whether the story is appealing, whether my actions make sense to you—my reasons why are thin and pale and will flee at the sound of footsteps. But I want you to meet the beast I went up against, in a place that, long ago, people called both palace and dungeon, fortress and ruin. Because I so prefer antagonists to heroes, and because the story you will hear from others likely casts me as the latter, I want to do something kind but ultimately self-serving. I want to make you see her.

You may not believe me when I say I owe her a debt. You’ll claim I was deluded by a powerful witch whose spells were haphazard and crude. And you’re half right. Her magic was often as ugly as its consequences. When she attempted to control the weather, for example, she grew to an ashy and shapeless enormity, swollen with her own storm. The rain she conjured came in burbling sheets, as if the clouds had been sword-swiped across their bellies and were bleeding out. Her thunder was clumsy and overdone, knocking you down and then kicking like a bully.

But sometimes, she was precise. And when she thought—truly thought—about what she wanted and how to get it, her magic retreated and her power became real. She seduced me, but she did not delude me. She manipulated, but I could have followed the thread back to the truth anytime. I wanted to be under her spell. And for making room for me under that vast overhang of power and agony, secret torment and bold skill, love and whatever preys on love—reason, perhaps—for that, I am grateful to her.

But I am already making a hash of this. I should have started with the wedding. Instead I’ll start with the day I arrived at Rock Point Girls’ Home. You will think I have gone back on my word, that I am telling you all about me and nothing of her. But to understand her, you must look at my incomplete idea of myself. Because I have very much fitted my reflection to her outline.

Enough.

I do, indeed, have too many mouths.

 

BOOK ONE

Rock Point

 

Chapter One

ROCK POINT GIRLS’ HOME

Logbook

New Intake Form

Name: Thera Ballard

FID #: 11305094

Age: 16

Height: 5’8”

Weight: 145

Hair: Dark

Eyes: Brown

Distinguishing features: 1-inch scar behind right shoulder blade.

Intake Processed By: Darla Ling

T was admitted last night around 11 p.m. She was uncooperative and could not be trusted to shower on her own, so she was cold hosed and then strapped down for a medical check. She kept yelling things like “I’m a queen where I come from,” and just generally deriding the staff’s appearance but also not making a lot of sense, so I do think this kid was snowed. As we are not permitted to discipline new intakes (ahem, Rollins—ha-ha!), the whole process was quite frustrating. A good slap would have settled her right down. I told her Rock Point provides tributes to the Beasty. That got her quiet. We finished examining her, gave her the grays, and put her in a solitary room for the night. I heard her stomping around in there till morning.

Morning Report: Bessie Holmes

T didn’t have woke up when i entered her room. Lissen, if you give a kid a tranqilizer, you have to document it. No mention of T been doped & yet it was clear she was. i’ll also say, whatever she was gave, it worked, because she didn’t fight like she supposably did last night. She was very compliant & leaned against me while i led her from the room. She got more lively when we reached the bathroom & she didn’t want me to stay in there with her. i explained it was necessary for me to make sure she has regular bowel movements. She screamed that i was a bowel movement. Urinated but did not defacate. I was took her to the breakfast hall.

Breakfast Monitor’s Report: Darla Ling

I was alerted to a disturbance in the breakfast hall around 7:15 at the older kids’ table. I went to investigate. P Farmer had a bloody nose. T Ballard, the new intake, was sitting beside her. T asked me if she could leave the grounds this afternoon, “just for a little bit,” to meet a friend. I ignored her, and that was when she spit at me. I was furious and may have socked her; I don’t remember. This possible socking may account for the bruise I’m told she has now under her eye. Anyway, security staff took her out of the hall. She ate nothing but her eggs.

Security Staff Report: Officer Molly Grenwat

Rose Van Narr and me shut the new girl up in her room because CLEARLY she is not fit yet for decent company. Now I’m sure Dr. DuMorg will talk to her and go on about her FEELINGS and other New Theory puppyshit. But if you ask me, this is simply a waste of time because this kid needs a tanning to kingdom come. You should hear what she said about Van Narr’s upper LIP HAIR, and now Van Narr is hurt, and I hate working with Van Narr when she’s in a pissy mood because she takes it out on me. One more thing: I’ve been saying for a long time we shouldn’t take JUNKIES. I’m telling you, this facility is not equipped for that. Of course we have Riley Denson, and now Riley’s taken a special interest in this hophead.

Rollins’s Note: Please remember this log is not a place for your personal opinions. Stick to factual information about the new intake, please. Rock Point has dealt with many problem children in the past, and we will deal with T Ballard with patience and compassion. End of discussion.

Darla Ling’s Note: Ha-ha, actually, it’s good if Riley’s interested, because she’s got a way with the girls. P.S. Learn to spell, Holmes. It’s “defecate.”

Officer Grenwat’s Note: Also, it’s “supposedly.”

***

Think of that place: not a prison, yet still a trap, with its narrow halls and its water-stained plaster ceilings. The rooms were small. You were a ballerina in a music box, waiting for a lid to open, waiting for the chance to do one fixed performance and be shut away again. You could be drugged to the gills—past the gills; drugs were leaking out your fucking gills—when you arrived, and still realize that this place housed a trophy room of sorrows. That girls suffered here, not in the routinely beaten, chimney-sweeping way I’d always imagined orphans suffered, but deeply. Rivulets of grief sliding down their bones, blushes of it in their cheeks. They suffered because they were lonely in a way people seldom talk about, a way that affects grace and movement and dreams and memory.

If you have seen a dog in a cage—and you know that dogs are all love, that they were born to scavenge and to love and to quarrel over bones and to keep loving even in sleep and in sickness—then you have seen this loneliness. It is frightening because it is not hopeless. Just as a caged dog will wake at every sound, wag its tail, and wait—the girls at Rock Point Girls’ Home hoped. They tempered that hope with jokes and anger and their fists, and while I was treated like an especially wretched specimen, in a sense I fit right in.

***

I met Riley Denson my first morning at Rock Point. She entered the solitary room with caution, though she didn’t seem afraid of me. I wanted to make her afraid. I was lolling, my mind cotton, my eyes burning, and my mouth dry. I wanted something to swallow. Something to inject or lick or chew or anything. Anything that would make me feel different.

I sat on the bed, staring out the small window, and watched her approach out of the corner of my eye.

“Hi, Thera.” Her voice was sweet. I remember even now, she always sounded like she was inviting you on a fucking picnic.

I wanted something that would thump my heart like a fist, something that would leave ruts in my brain. I glanced at her and tried to imagine she was lickable, drinkable. Her skin was pale—a rarity in the town of Rock Hill and its outlying lands. Mine was brown with washed-out spots, like a fucked-up watercolor. She wore glasses and had hair colored like the crud you’d scrape off the bottom of a pan after dinner. Her eyes were too small, her glasses too thick, her hair pushed flat on the sides so it looked like the cap of a mushroom. I was thrilled by her plainness. Pretty girls never did much for me. Goddamn, but I’d rather look like a killer than a princess.

The only lovely thing about her was that, from the side, her features slid neatly into one another. Her profile looked drawn by a skilled master, while mine, I knew, looked scrawled by a child—bulgy forehead, upturned nose, wide lips with clumsy edges, chin round and sagging slightly.

“Riley Denson. Afternoon staff. I brought lunch.” She set the plastic container on a small night table that was bolted to the floor. All the furniture was bolted—the cot and the narrow dresser. I supposed if it hadn’t been, I’d have loaded it all into my damn hot air balloon and sailed off toward whatever clouds the sky was farting out that morning.

My arms itched. I sat on my hands and waited. She’d introduced herself by her full name, not “Miss Denson.” Maybe that was why I didn’t mind her so much. I’d arrived here blown out of my fucking mind by various shit I’d found in Auntie Bletch’s bathroom cabinet, but the hosing last night had sobered me, as had my terror at the way people here were so quick to grab at my body, pull me where they wanted me to go. I needed to believe in Denson’s calm.

I went back to looking out the window. After a moment, she crouched near me. She wore a dress, but she crouched anyway. She had long stockings on, so I didn’t get a glimpse of leg or anything. She gazed at me. “That’s quite a shiner you’ve got.”

She was ready in case I lashed out; I could see it in her shoulders and in her gaze. My cot was low enough that even crouching, she was almost at eye level. I tried to hurl all my hate into her eyes—stuff it down those black centers. Behind those unfashionable slabs of glass, her pupils contracted slightly, fans of gold and green around them.

There was something odd in her expression, the look you might get if you’d spent a particularly pleasant day at the seaside and were now driving away, toward nightfall and work the next day, peering back at the vanishing ocean and the setting sun. I stared at her hand. Small and pale with cracked nails. “I gotta leave here,” I told her conspiratorially, as though she might be grateful to know this secret of mine. I didn’t really know where I’d go, but I figured anywhere but here would do.

She stood slowly. “Rec’s in half an hour. Soccer today. Think you can play nice with the other girls?”

“I can go outside?” I was genuinely surprised. Despite Auntie Bletch’s assurance that this was a place where I’d be “cared for,” I’d been convinced it was one of those asylums I’d heard tales about—ghost children leaving bloody footprints in the bathroom; lobotomized women lurching through corridors, oblivious to the screams echoing behind steel doors. Rock Point didn’t have steel doors, from what I’d seen. It wasn’t a homey place, but it wasn’t a white-walled institution either. It was more like a very large house with long halls and high ceilings and dirty corners. But I hadn’t forgotten the wretched feeling I’d had last night as I was dragged through those halls and up the wooden staircases. The wide eyes watching me as I’d screamed and struggled. Those suffering girls with their waiting hearts.

“If you can behave.” Denson coughed suddenly, and pulled out a handkerchief to dab at her mouth.

I nodded.

“No leaving the playing field.”

“Okay.” My voice sounded gruff and strained, like an old woman’s.

She sat on the end of the bed, far enough away that I relaxed a little. I’d had fun last night making furious mockery of every face I saw. But I couldn’t think of a nasty thing to say to or about Denson. Even her glasses had, over the past few minutes, become admirable.

“Can I ever leave?” I asked.

“When you find a home or you turn eighteen.”

I showed her my teeth—not a smile, and I hoped she knew it. “I don’t like this place.”

“You’ve only been here a few hours.”

“Well, it’s been a lousy few hours.”

“Try to eat some lunch.”

“I don’t want to.”

Denson got up. “Half. Just half of it by rec time. I’ll come get you in twenty minutes.”

“Fuck,” I muttered. Back at Auntie’s, I’d have been slapped for that. Denson only smiled.

***

Rec Time

Report By: Glenna Formas

Today is soccer. Girls line up to receive jerseys. One girl missing: #76510228. New intake, #11305094, demands to play barefoot. I permit this. Things going well, red team winning despite being a bunch of scrimshankers, and suddenly new intake bolts toward the west gate. I leave #44990033 in charge of game and pursue. I am not the fastest runner, but new intake seems not very strong, exhausted, etc. But adrenaline must be working overtime for her, because as soon as I get close, she finds another gear and tries to scale the gate. I catch her and pull her down. She fights better than I’m expecting, but she gets tired pretty quick. Then she acts like she can’t hear anything I say. I drag her to admin. When I get back to the field, I discover #38812096 has sprained her ankle, which I regret from a liability standpoint but personally I find her to be kind of a wiener and anyway it seemed more important to catch new intake than to babysit wieners.

And I mean serious wieners.

Admin Log

Date: 12 March

Event: Disciplinary Hearing

Report By: Christine Rollins

Present: Kennedy DuMorg, psychologist. Christine Rollins, co-owner/overseer.

Child: 11305094

T Ballard was brought before me following an escape attempt at rec time. I discussed the nature of her transgression with her, but she appeared uninterested. Her breathing was labored—I assumed from her flight attempt—and she had difficulty focusing. I asked if she understood that she is in Rock Point’s custody now and must follow our rules until she is placed in care, adopted out, or comes of age.

T said she needed to meet a friend off RP grounds. I told her this was the sort of privilege afforded to well-behaved children, and I pointed out she had caused nothing but trouble since arriving here. I placed a hand on her shoulder to indicate I understood how hard this adjustment period must be, and she grabbed my arm and twisted it. I required considerable assistance to fight her off. She did not respond to any of my statements or questions thereafter. I informed her she was banned from rec for the next three days.

Rollins’s Note: Darla Ling is no longer with Rock Point. The new weekday breakfast monitor will be Bessie Holmes. Please note it is never acceptable to strike a child in anger.

Psychological Evaluation: T Ballard

Report By: Dr. Kennedy DuMorg

T claims a history of physical and verbal abuse. However, she refuses to elaborate just yet. I thought it best not to push her at our first meeting. She also claims her mother murdered her father with an ax. Can anyone confirm this?

Rollins’s Note: Untrue. Her parents died in a car accident. T claims no memory of the tragedy, though she was present.

Medical Report: Dr. Brenda LiPordo

T Ballard is being treated for opioid withdrawal. Staff, please expect early symptoms—anxiety, muscle aches, sweating, runny nose, etc. Clonidine administered for treatment of symptoms. T is to report to the health room each day at 2 p.m. She has not eaten a full meal since arriving here three days ago.

Morning Staff Report: Bessie Holmes

So aparenntly i get the duty of now giving this fucked-up new kid her meds every morning. Yippee. Tried this morning & she has slapped the pill cup out of my hands. i picked up the pills & pinched her nose shut, & she hit me in the throat. Dr. LiPordo says it will be a while before my voice fulheartedly returns, which is terrible news. As many of you know i sing in a divorced women’s choir & we are having our anual autumn concert in just 3 weeks. See me for tickets.

i couldn’t get ahold of T after that because I was been in to much pain, so i called Riley Denson in. T fought Riley too, & T was screaming so loud we couldn’t talk sense to her, so i drew my arm back, preparing to give her a good slap. Denson asked me to refrain from hitting.

i composed myself & left her to Denson.

Rollins’s Note: This log is not the place for solicitations, unless those solicitations are relevant to a child’s accomplishment. i.e. When little Rosie, #3592801, played the wise man in the town Christmas pageant.

***

I’ve chosen to tell this part of the story through what I’ve reassembled from Rock Point’s logbooks because, to be honest, I do not remember this period well enough to recount it properly. I was a wreck, sweaty day and night and behaving like a true beast. Paranoid, angry, and deeply, wildly alone.

I have a vague sense of Riley Denson as my savior. Growing up, I never had a high opinion of women who devoted their lives to caring for others. I considered them dull and feeble. To have any real fun in the world, you needed power. And to gain power, you had to wound others—not coo over the wounded. But Denson never cooed. Her scuffed, simple wisdom was comforting. “This is how things are, Thera. If you try to change them you may fail. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

Rock Point’s logbooks came into my possession when Rock Point was dismantled years ago. I like “was dismantled” better than “closed.” Forces acted upon it. Construction workers stripped the building for parts and then blasted its skeleton to dust. The town wants to build something new there, and I approve. I’m not one of those people who’s in love with what was.

 

Chapter Two

I was vastly unpopular at Rock Point. The staff, the other girls, the teachers all loathed me. I preferred it that way. To draw lines and dare others to cross them was an enjoyable game, a villain-lounging-on-a-tower-of-cakes sort of feeling. I taunted my enemies, and when they charged, I whisked my cape away and stuck spears into their shoulders. There was one little girl who cried at the sight of me. She was my medal of honor.

The girls’ home was fairly large. There were four wards of eight rooms each—two wards upstairs for girls ages five and above, one downstairs for infants and staff, and another downstairs which consisted of a large parlor, two classrooms, a small library known as the reading room, a dining area, and a cramped kitchen. The décor was simple: wood paneling, faded pink and beige wallpaper, and framed paintings of flowers. The home sat on a cliffside acre; it was bordered on the front by a browning lawn, and on the back side by a scraggly wood.

When I wasn’t plotting my escape, I was tossing, sweaty and terrified in my narrow cot—pitched from the cart of my own nightmares into an empty road. Or else snapping pencils in class and spitting on the desk until I had a large clear pool in front of me through which to rub my chewed erasers. In my mind, over and over, I picked the lock on Auntie Bletch’s medicine cabinet. I found the things I needed, swallowed, and went hurtling somewhere no pain could touch me.

I suppose it was Miss Ridges who changed things.

One afternoon, Riley Denson came into my room. She had taken over my medication routines. She always spoke softly and had even, once, made me laugh. I wouldn’t say I trusted her, but that day I did not fight her when she led me, sweating and whimpering, down to the reading room. I’d eaten lunch, which felt like a dangerous accomplishment. I was dressed, not in Rock Point grays, but in a sweater and jeans. The sweater was too big, old and ragged, and had cheap, glittery gold thread woven through it. I kept looking down, following the shining, broken strands with my gaze.

The reading room had a wooden floor covered by a thick oriental rug. There were three small tables along the back wall with a green lamp on each one. A painting on the wall showed a meadow on an overcast day, a single bare tree in its center.

I stopped in the doorway, Denson just behind me. At least ten girls were sitting on the floor. So far, I’d hardly paid attention to the other kids here, except to lash out at them in the cafeteria or during rec time. But now I was expected to sit with them, and they were all staring at me. Their faces were different shapes and ages, but they all held, it seemed, the same expression of sly disgust.

Miss Ridges sat on a stool beside a low table, her gray-streaked hair in a neat little bun, her brown skin soft looking and wrinkled. She smiled at me. “Welcome, Thera.”

Denson nudged me, which made me want to snap at her. “Go on,” she whispered.

I stepped into the room. One foot in front of the other. Took a seat next to a girl who looked about my age, and who wore a black blouse and spangled jeans. I picked at my sweater as I felt her turn to study me.

Miss Ridges picked up a book. I was too far away to see the title. But as soon as she began to read, I stopped caring what the title was or who was around me. The only storytellers I’d known before were grade-school teachers, with their sick-sweet voices and their big faces telling me how I should feel about what I was hearing. Miss Ridges didn’t make faces. Her voice was low, and it slipped even lower when she started to feel the words she was reading. She read like she was singing in a jazz bar, closing her eyes, shaking her head slowly, getting lost in the music. I listened to every word of the trite tale, and when she was finished I hugged my knees, reluctant to move. It had been a foolish story, but Miss Ridges seemed anything but foolish.

The girl next to me shifted. Her knee bumped mine. I saw she had painted nails. “I thought the ending was stupid,” she said aloud. “Just . . . stupid.”

***

The girl’s name was Bitsy, and she had long blond hair tied in a messy ponytail, ragged bumps along her scalp. She talked constantly about other people’s shortcomings in a husky voice that sounded like she was suppressing a laugh—the sort of strained, defensive laugh you’d give someone who has just hurt your feelings, deeply and publicly. A What’s your problem? laugh.

She had little interest in tales of woe. When I explained I’d come to Rock Point addicted to drugs, she only laughed and told a story about the time her cocaine addict mother had tried to strangle the milkman. She recounted to me just about every story Miss Ridges had read aloud over the last year. She had an opinion on why each one was silly, and yet she remembered them in such detail it was hard to believe she felt only disdain for them. Most were fairy tales—secret princesses rescued from slavery by true love, children lost in the woods, a beanstalk leading to a kingdom in the sky.

I told her Bitsy was a dumb name, and she glared at me. “My mother’s idea.”

“Is your name Elizabeth?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“So why not go by that?”

“Because you’re a gummed-up box.”

“Box” was one of Bitsy’s favorite words, and I was embarrassed when I finally had to ask her what she meant by it, since she didn’t seem to be referring to cartons. She rolled her eyes and slapped my shoulder affectionately. “You’ve got one between your legs, waddy brain.”

Bitsy, I decided, was wonderfully disgusting.

The weeks went by, and I sweated less. I stopped waking at night with cravings so deep I had to kick the wall and dig my nails into my hips to find some release. I attended classes, and while I was generally disruptive and a poor student, I learned tricks for controlling myself. If I stared out a window, I felt less combative. Some teachers were okay with this, and I got along well with them. Others said things like, “Eyes up here,” or, “Pay attention, Thera,” and I wanted to spit at them, but I spat on my desk instead.

It also helped to go around the room and imagine how each girl had come to Rock Point. There was a very thin girl with a distant gaze whose parents could only have died tragically in some bloodless accident—like a joint drowning or mutual consumption of sleeping pills. Another girl was the sort who’d been given up, I reckoned. She was a terrier with a pant leg—grabbing an idea and shaking it and not letting go until she was kicked. I didn’t see how the teachers could stand her. She tried to make meat of the history of some long-ago revolution, all because she believed cannons hadn’t been around at the time.

“I assure you”—Miss Tophitt, the history tutor, looked as though important blood vessels might be close to bursting—“that cannons existed and were used.”

“But no,” the terrier insisted. “That’s a tale we’re told. In fact there were only swords and catapults.”

After lessons I often found myself in Bitsy’s room, half listening to her tirades, which generally focused on her roommate Liz, the dining hall food, or Riley Denson, whom Bitsy hated. One day, we were sitting on her floor. I had a pack of cigarettes Bitsy had snagged from Bessie Holmes’s dress pocket. In the absence of a lighter, I was breaking them in half and rolling the tobacco between my fingers. Bitsy was painting her nails with oil paints she’d nicked during craft time.

“So then—” Bitsy held out her hand and carefully painted a green stripe on her middle nail “—Lizzie says, ‘Well, it’d be nice if your side of the room wasn’t always a pigsty.’ And I say, ‘Okay.’ I mean, isn’t it my business what I do with my side of the room? I don’t tell her to trash that awful pink unicorn.”

I glanced over at the stuffed pink unicorn on Liz’s bed. It had purple eyes and a dopey smile and a horn made of yellow pipe cleaners.

I shrugged, a cigarette dangling from my lips. “She’s just being an ass.” I didn’t tell Bitsy that her side of the room really was disgusting. I liked the messiness of it. At Auntie Bletch’s I’d been made to keep my room clean. I’d gotten very used to having almost nothing, and to keeping what I did have out of sight. But Bitsy let everything she’d collected—clothes, toys, books, hairbrushes, stolen markers and paints—mountain up beside her bed.

Bitsy rubbed at some paint she’d gotten on the skin beside her thumbnail. “I end up feeling like I’m the crazy one for expecting people to behave like adults.”

Everyone in the world had done Bitsy an injustice, and I was the one she confided in. I never had to say much. I could go on chewing the ends of cigarettes, staring at the scuffs on the wall, as long as I nodded every now and then and said, “Uh-huh,” or “That’s a shame,” or “You should tell her how you feel.”

“And then that lousy bitch, Denson,” Bitsy was saying. “God, I’d like to putt a nut into that box.”

I’d long since grown used to Bitsy saying she wanted to putt a nut into people’s boxes or assholes or mouths or ears. She liked golf and the prospect of damaged orifices. “What’s so bad about Denson?”

“The way she looks at me.”

“Looks at you?”

Bitsy was also more than a bit paranoid. She shook her head. “She hates me. I don’t know what I ever did to her.” She leaned back and studied the sloppily painted nails of her left foot. “She loves you and hates me.”

I had come to be on decent terms with Denson. I couldn’t think of a time in my life where any adult had preferred me to another child, and I felt a small, guilty satisfaction, a hope that Bitsy was right.

Bitsy held out her hand. Her nails were painted alternating red and green. “What do you think?”

I leaned over and put my fingertip on the middle nail of her left hand. The wet paint came off on my skin.

“You ass!” Bitsy jerked away. “It’s not dry.”

“Miss Alpern said during crafts yesterday that oil paint takes years to dry.” Sometimes it was little things like that—stupid facts that drew my attention and fascinated me for unknown reasons—that made life here bearable.

“To be honest . . .” Bitsy blew on her nails and glanced at me. “I think Denson likes you more than is entirely proper.”

I’d been playing with Liz’s unicorn, making it ram its horn into the edge of the bed. I stopped. “What are you talking about?”

“You have to know she’s a BD.”

“What’s that?”

Bitsy rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You’re really hopeless. I can’t say it out loud. She’s just . . . She likes you. You know.”

I thought about how Denson often put a hand on my shoulder, or combed my hair with her fingers. The way she looked at me for long moments before speaking, as though I was something quite fascinating. “You’re mentally ill.”

Bitsy laughed.

“I’m serious. Just quit talking about it, okay?”

Bitsy shrugged and pulled herself to her feet using the edge of the bed. She left oil paint stains all over the gray sheet. “Just watch your box, is all I’m saying.”

***

The town of Rock Hill sits on an isolated stretch of knobby land. I didn’t think the solitude strange growing up, but now that I’ve seen more of the world I wonder how Rock Hill survived, forgotten and miserly as it was. Perhaps it would have been a mercy had the beast, the Minotaur, destroyed it.

The sea surrounds the area on three sides, and the air is always gray. A feeble mist clings to the cliffs, and the clouds are low and swollen, moving gracelessly. In winter, the leafless trees look like black prongs thrust into the sky. The sea collects a layer of frost, and as spring nears the waves seem to hatch as though from an egg, spilling across the shore. In summer, the sun is like a pathetic rag hung out to dry, badly stained and dripping weak light.

To the south of Rock Hill is a headland called Rock Point. For years there was nothing on it but the girls’ home and the prison. On another cliff north of the town—one obscured by fog and simply known as the promontory—was the labyrinth.

When I was a child, my family lived in a landlocked neighborhood full of slung-up houses and street prowlers with their hardened slouches, long strides, and pockets full of knives. I envied those toughs for what I believed at the time was an elegant attempt at anarchy. I too wanted people to fear me, to cross the street when I approached. To hold tighter to the worthless things they valued in case I made a lunge.

My parents never took my sister and me to the ocean. They told few stories, and those they did tell were told blandly. I knew from a young age a bare-bones legend of the Minotaur—a beast who was half woman and half bull, who, forty years before I was born, had terrorized Rock Hill, killing indiscriminately, kidnapping children and whisking them to her lair. She had taken only wicked children, according to my parents.

So be good, Thera.

And pay attention. And don’t hit.

And eat everything on your plate.

But I didn’t know the story. I had seen paintings of the labyrinth, and they looked like fairy-tale illustrations of a castle. Draped red silk below the windows; a vast exterior of stone and wood. A massive clock tower and a ceiling made of glass. And yet it was a prison. It had kept the beast contained for decades. On the only long drive my family ever took, we had a view of the promontory, and I stared up at the black cliff and its mask of fog and imagined I could see that labyrinth through the mist. Tried to visualize what lay inside. Oddly, no matter how generously I offered evil a place in my fantasy, my vision was one of beauty. Fountains and ancient trees and rib-thin cats finding holes in green hedges.

The town still bears scars you might not notice unless you set out to look for them. There are places where grass doesn’t grow, rooms with rusty stains on their walls. Houses where half the bricks are old and half are new. Piles of debris behind crumbling buildings. A mass grave in the town center, simple white stones around two water-filled ditches dug into the earth to form a cross. Every year, on Unity Day, people throw white flowers into the cross, until it looks full of drowned Ophelias.

The children I played with growing up were terrified of the beast. Abby Serona said the creature was sure to escape the labyrinth someday and return to Rock Hill. Sara Reed asked me once what church my family went to, and when I said we didn’t go to church, she told me the beast had my soul. She said I’d be dragged into the labyrinth and would never leave, even in the afterlife. I knocked Sara into a puddle and clobbered her blond head with a handful of mud, but deep down, I was scared she was right.

The beast was shadowy in my mind. I pretended I was living during her reign, and that each day she galloped through the town on cloven hooves. She ate victims slowly. She tore pregnant women open with her claws and whipped men’s faces to pulp with her tail. How she could, in stories, be both hooved and clawed puzzled me—until I heard from other children that she was magic, that she could transform at will.

I imagined we were tangled, the beast and I. She pulled my dreams down like curtains and stuck her laughing head into the empty space. And instead of cowering, I laughed back. I began to have fantasies where I tamed her. Slipped a golden bridle over her horrible head and became her master.

 

Chapter Three

After three weeks, I was moved out of the solitary room and into a small bedroom with sticky floorboards and twin narrow cots. I was assured I would have a cellmate soon, but days went by and the other half of the room remained unoccupied.

Some nights I would jump on one bed for a while before leaping the small chasm to the other bed and curling up there. I could be quite childish, was prone to acting younger than my years. We all were, even the seventeen-year-olds—the girls who would be leaving Rock Point in a few months’ time. It was a place that, despite its sporadic strictness, gave us all the illusion of not being alone, and perhaps we believed that if we never acted like adults, we’d never be forced out into the wider world to confront the magnitude of our desolation.

I was allowed to stop wearing the Rock Point grays and request regular clothes in addition to the gold sweater and jeans I’d worn to story time. Denson searched the secondhand shops in town and found me some black trousers a size too small that squeezed my waist and rode up my ass. She also brought me a few sweaters, a couple of skirts I swore I’d never wear—though after an hour in the trousers I was rethinking that vow. And a variety of hair clips, which I named and set up in various army formations on my tiny desk, and guided them through battles with the Minotaur.

I had to take pills each morning—pills that would apparently help rid my body of its dependence on other pills. I didn’t like how they made me feel—sluggish and sad—and so I took to hiding them under my tongue and spitting them into the back of a dresser drawer once Denson was gone.

Bitsy and I began to request the same chores. We had lessons together, but we wanted more time to talk. Sometimes she fell asleep on the spare bed in my room, but the night monitor always came looking and hauled her back to her own room. One night, Bitsy rolled under my bed when Van Narr came looking. Van Narr seemed surprised not to find Bitsy in my room, and I think we would have gotten away with it if Bitsy hadn’t giggled.

Van Narr damn near pulled Bitsy out by the hair. Bitsy was still giggling. I slapped her side as she was dragged past me—just to let her know she’d ruined things.

I wanted her to be my sister. I had a storybook understanding of sisters. They whispered secrets and held your hand, and you dug in the dirt together and went exploring. They had ribbons in their hair, and they were usually in some way tragic. Too shy and gentle to withstand the brute world’s lashings, they coaxed fawns and sang sweetly and ended up vanishing in the woods or dying of some obscure fever. They were nauseating and lovely, a hindrance and a blessing.

I never wanted to be anyone’s tragic, ribboned sister; I only wanted to have one. Someone I could protect and disdain and kiss goodnight. Bitsy was not tragic or sweet, but she was bitterly fun. Her scorn was almost buoyant, a sort of hobby that brought her a casual, infectious joy. And—I see it now; I didn’t then—it was a veneer. She cared deeply about what others thought of her, and she was frightened of being on her own.

My real sister, Rachel, had been skilled at keeping her distance. She was three years older than I, but the gap seemed more like ten years. She was tall and thin and careful and grave. We engaged in minimal exploring as children, and after our parents died, she was unable to believe I remembered nothing of the accident. I became suspicious and creaturous to her—a dangerous thing that might entrap you in a murky place and toss you riddles until you earned your freedom or died trying.

Rachel and I lived ten years with Auntie Bletch, my mother’s sister. In that time, Rachel grew taller, more elegant, until finally she became a matter of some interest to a diligent farmer’s son named Marc who treated her like a prospective hire: Can you cook? Can you lift? Can you pluck a chicken?

Rachel spent hours at the shops in town, trying on dresses and finding private flaws. I was bored and told her all the dresses were unflattering even when they weren’t. I was cruel, and I knew it, but I wanted her to hurt. She’d hounded me for years after the accident for details I couldn’t give. She’d had her fingers in all my worst wounds. I was only fighting back.

Auntie Bletch was quite ill by that time, and I can only assume Rachel had envisioned a future spent as Auntie’s nursemaid, or as a housekeeper in Rock Hill’s dolorous inn, and had chosen instead a future with Marc—who could provide for both of them, and could contribute some money to Auntie’s care as well.

Rachel went to live with Marc’s parents until the wedding. I would have felt abandoned, had she not already abandoned me years before, and had I not become recently engrossed in two consuming hobbies: raiding Auntie Bletch’s medicine cabinet, and fighting. Twice I was suspended from school for punching other girls. The second time the school included a note saying I was “no lady.” Which felt like a relief, like being assured by a doctor that I did not have some terminal illness.

Auntie Bletch had a pharmaceutical bounty—pills of all colors and sizes in beautiful glass bottles, with lists of side effects and warnings as lovely as parade banners. May cause drying of the throat. Take this medicine WITH or AFTER MEALS.

I was careful at first about not taking what Auntie Bletch truly needed in order to manage her illness. I stole her indulgences—the biweekly painkillers that blunted smaller aches after the narcotics had done the heavy lifting. The muscle relaxants that were to be used only as needed. The sleeping pills that left me half awake, drifting and wetting the world around me into a dream.

But soon I grew careless and took no note of what I was stealing. Opioids, phenacetin, some strange potion Auntie Bletch had bought at a market stand . . . In school I sweated and daydreamed, and on the playground I snarled at anyone who came near. I said things I knew would make them come near—things about their noses, their mothers, their ripped tights and paltry lunches—and when they approached I lashed out, tangling fingers in their hair or punching them soundly on the mouth. I was detained, I was suspended, I was scolded, I was struck with a ruler, and in the end it was suggested to Auntie Bletch that I be homeschooled. But Auntie was barely in a state to walk, and I got the sense that if she had been able to move efficiently her choice would have been to strangle me, not educate me.

She had, for a time, put the disappearance of her medications down to her own delirium—“I must’ve forgotten how many I took”—and then later to the doctors. “They’re not giving me enough. I tell them I need more, and they do nothing, the uncharitable slobs. Nothing.”

But at some point she must have looked at me—foaming at the mouth, dazed into a bizarre ecstasy, squirming in graceless arcs just to feel the damage inside me—and figured it out. That wasn’t the last straw. The last straw was the wedding. But she was furious. “I am frightened of you, Thera. Truly frightened.” She put a padlock on the medicine cabinet, which I learned to pick with bobby pins. I believe she began to think then about sending me away.

***

The girls’ home stood a few hundred feet from the cliff’s edge. Girls in the east ward could see through the smeary windows to the precipice. There was iron fencing around the entire property, but rumor had it that years ago, two girls had escaped and wandered off into a fog. They’d gone over the cliff, their bodies discovered days later, broken on the rocks, the waves slipping salt into their hair.

Another legend had a girl climbing into the next-door prison yard and being torn apart by criminals. The prison was a solid, gloomy building, separated from the girls’ home by both our iron fence and by its own chain-link barrier, topped with coils of barbed wire. There was much speculation among the girls that one day a killer would escape the prison and come make a mess of the prettiest girls here. I was, in odd moments, disappointed that I was not considered pretty enough to be the imagined killer’s victim. That dubious honor went to Wendy Mabler, or little Rina Graham, or Samantha Bonner. These moments of envy came suddenly, and I loathed them. I didn’t give a shit about being pretty. Yet it’s hard sometimes, in a world that promises you the most basic treasures in exchange for being a looked-upon thing, not to wish your face had been a better construct.

Rock Point offered a dubious shelter to girls up to age eighteen. At eighteen, you were turned out, or you took a job at the home—cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the infants. About half the girls left, and half of those returned. Most who left got married, and group outings to town were considered by many girls to be opportunities for husband searching. Bessie Holmes, when she chaperoned, made sure each girl was as well-groomed as possible, and pointed out young men in the sort of clothes that suggested they wouldn’t be above marrying an orphan.

To me, the most fascinating of Rock Point’s dregs was the cook, Tamna Fen. She had been at Rock Point since the age of nine, and by the time I arrived she had stayed on for three years after her eighteenth birthday. She was a skinny white girl whose silver-blond hair looked like a bleached tree branch—so filthy that it had formed matted, crisscrossing rolls. Her eyes were too large and rimmed in purple. She moaned and hummed, like she was starting a song she couldn’t quite remember. Her fingers were always moving, twisting her frayed hair or scratching at a raised mole on her neck.

She cooked so much corn. Corn casseroles and stews, over-roasted ears, and stir-fries that were primarily yellow kernels. Most girls barely noticed her, but I volunteered to work in the kitchen. Not cooking—I was hopeless there—but stocking shelves and carrying large pots to the sink to drain the water from them. I wanted to listen to Tamna moan and sing. What came out of her was mostly nonsense, and it did not occur to me for several months that she was perhaps genuinely crazy.

Couples would come to Rock Point sometimes for what Bitsy called “baby shopping.” They all wanted babies. They’d take the leanest, squalliest infants—the ones whose wrists you could pinch and dent like a wet bar of soap—over the healthiest, sweetest girls. I grew to hate them, the couples who held hands and commented to each other in voices that sounded like roadside splats.

“These are sweet girls, Mary. Aren’t they sweet-looking girls?”

“Oh, yes, very sweet.”

But they kept their eyes down and looked at our holey shoes and dirty feet, and they waited to be led to the infants’ ward.

“Aw, Jonathan, doesn’t she look like the Bakers’ girl? We’ll have to tell them their long-lost love child is here. You know, don’t you, that before they were married . . .”

I told myself I didn’t care that no one glanced twice at me. I told myself I didn’t want to be adopted. I’d had parents, and I wasn’t looking for more.

One day, a man stumbled into the kitchen while I was working with Tamna. He had booze on his breath and flecks of food in his beard. He glanced around as though confused. I was startled to see a man—apparently unaccompanied by a wife—and didn’t move or speak at first. His gaze fell on me.

“Well, well.” He leaned back sloppily and stuck his hands in the pockets of his trousers. “How much is the doggie in the window?” He looked me up and down. Then glanced at Tamna, who was staring at him and moaning softly under her breath. “Is this one for sale?”

You’d think, given all the people I’d socked and shouted at over the course of my life, that I’d have been prepared to deal with someone like him. But I could only gaze at him, stunned. My shock increased when Tamna stepped forward. Tiny, ghostlike, she walked right up to him and jabbed him in the chest. “Girls are not for sale, sir, no, no.”

His mouth opened in a small O, and then he grinned. “My mistake.” He turned and walked back out the door, singing to himself, “‘How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the bea-u-ti-ful tail?’”

I said nothing, just went back to scrubbing pans. For several minutes after he left, Tamna repeatedly reached between her legs and grabbed fistfuls of her skirt and what lay beneath it. She tipped her head back and gasped over and over, a moan as quick and hot as a spark behind each breath.

I didn’t eat the corn casserole that night.

 

Chapter Four

One day, Bitsy and I stood in the yard and watched the unloading of prisoners. Through the iron and the chain-link fences, we saw three men, two tall and one short, chained together at the ankles. They shuffled across the ridge toward the prison entrance, ushered by a guard with a club. The truck that had delivered them had a slatted trailer, as though for transporting animals. The back was open now, and I saw straw bales, jumpsuits, canvas bags, nets, and chains.

I nudged Bitsy. “Look at all the stuff in the prison truck. What’s it for?”

She turned from the prisoners to look at the truck. “Well, the chains, it’s obvious. The bags must be for carrying out dead bodies.”

I felt sick and fascinated.

“A shame.” Bitsy was back to watching the new prisoners. “They’ll stay there until they start to rot, and then they’ll be taken to the labyrinth.”

“How do you know?”

“Most prisoners end up there if they’ve done something unforgivable.”

“Well how do you know those men have?”

“You can tell just by looking at them.”

“Have you ever seen the labyrinth?”

She shook her head. “My mother has been to the spot where the beast was found as a baby.”

“What do you mean?”

Bitsy studied me with a chilly sort of pity I wished I could learn to imitate. “You don’t really know the story, do you?”

I hated to let on when I didn’t know things, especially to Bitsy. “No,” I admitted finally. “Just that there’s a beast who lives in a labyrinth. She’s got the head of a bull. And the labyrinth is like a palace.”

Scorn in Bitsy’s gaze. “That’s not even half of it.” And so she sat with me on the grass and told me the story of the Minotaur. She told it well, as though she had rehearsed it many times. I tore blades in half, looked for clovers to mangle, and listened.

“Long ago,” Bitsy began, “a master wood-carver had three daughters. The wood-carver was very ill—about to die—and she didn’t know which daughter to leave the shop to. So she asked them each to make her something to demonstrate their prowess.” Bitsy glanced at me, as though to make sure I was properly enraptured. “The eldest daughter carved a boat. Lavishly structured and grandly painted. Yet as soon as she set out to sea in it, a storm tipped it, and she drowned.

“The youngest daughter constructed a bracelet of the finest wooden beads. Each bead was intricately carved with the topography of a continent, so that the whole thing looked like the world pulled apart. It was a beautiful piece, but looking upon it caused an instant sadness, a sense of unfixable chaos.”

She paused to glance at me again. I whipped her elbow with a clover. “Well, go on.”

She cleared her throat and removed her arm from my reach. “And the middle daughter built a white wooden bull, set to lead the parade of animals her dying mother had been carving for a carousel. The bull was handsome and alarming, its shoulders broad, its head small, its eyes blank, and its horns curving like scythes. The middle daughter decorated it with scars and rips in its hide. It looked as if you might push aside its tattered flesh like curtains and find something beyond imagination inside.”

I wished I could see the white bull.

“When the middle daughter finished, she loved her creation too much to give it to her mother. And so she crafted another beast for the carousel—this one made of cheap wood, painted dully—and presented it to her mother. But her mother had spies everywhere, and she’d heard about the beautiful white bull her daughter was hiding from her. She demanded the bull, and when her daughter refused to give it, she cursed her daughter to have eyes only for the bull.”

“Have eyes?”

Bitsy leaned close and whispered, “Made her want to hmm-hmm the bull.”

I burst out laughing so hard I choked.

Bitsy glared at me. “Listen! The daughter planned everything around the bull. She ate next to it, slept sprawled on top of it. And one day she got jabbed by a good-looking young trader, staring up at the bull’s white underbelly and imagining the bull itself was giving it to her. She got pregnant, and her belly swelled much bigger than a pregnant belly ought. She swore she could feel two sharp points digging into the wall of her womb. Horns, she thought.”

“Why would she think that?”

“I don’t know.” Bitsy sounded irritated. “She’d been dripping for a bull for months—she had bulls on the brain.”

“Fine,” I said. “Go on.”

“At first the daughter was comforted. She believed the bull had indeed been her lover, and that she was going to have a miracle child—half human, half bovine. Several days before the birth, she began to bleed down there. She thought perhaps the baby was hurt, but it came out normal. Black, curly hair. A daughter.”

“That’s disgusting. The blood and everything.”

“Shh. This is the best part. She cared for the child as she knew she ought to. But it kept changing. She’d look, and she’d see a baby. She’d look again, and it was a small black bull with red eyes and hooves and twisted horns as yellow as bone. She asked others to examine it, but nobody else saw anything unusual about the child. Afraid, she sought refuge with her carving. Night after night she lay in the woodshed with the bull, while inside the house, the baby wailed with hunger.”

I began to feel sick, though I wasn’t exactly sure why.

“Eventually, she came to realize this was part of the bull’s curse. And so one day she bound the baby to the white bull’s body, and she left both on the promontory.”

Bitsy nudged my knee with her foot. “A man called Darwull found the baby. He was an architect, well loved in town for the beautiful church he’d built. He untied the child from the bull and raised her as his own. But the girl always had problems. She was forever being sent home from school. Her teachers called her a monster. Other children feared her. Darwull tried to love his adopted daughter, but she frightened even him.”

I felt sicker.

“When she was fifteen, she tried to murder him with a pair of scissors. He managed to fight her off, but she ran away and was not heard from again until she returned to Rock Hill a full-grown woman. Different, though. A sorceress.” Bitsy whispered the last word. “And a wicked one.”

I’d always heard that magic existed in Rock Hill. There were rumors of old witches in bent houses, traveling men with potions under their cloaks. But magic was, for the most part, a stale idea. Rarely could those with power use it for anything of consequence. When the beast’s reign of terror began, the town’s police had apparently begged the help of those with “extraordinary” abilities. But no spell could quiet the beast; no potion could protect the people.

Bitsy reached out and took my hand. I was startled, but said nothing.

“She had transformed herself into a creature part bull and part woman—”

“Wouldn’t she be a cow?” I interrupted. “Not a bull?”

“Thera, I’m going to putt a nut into your box in a minute. She’s a goddamn sorceress; she can be whatever she wants.”

“Okay. Fine.” I still felt sick, and nagging Bitsy made it a little easier not to think about the abandoned baby, crying in the house day after day and then left to die on the cliff. I squeezed Bitsy’s hand.

“She transformed herself and began to ravage the town.”

“Killing indiscriminately,” I supplied.

“Yes,” Bitsy agreed. “And wrecking homes.”

“Tearing children from their mothers’ bellies.”

“Eating the men sent to slay her. Slowly, in front of their wives.”

“And then eating their wives.”

Bitsy looked at me and grinned. “Darwull felt so guilty. If he’d never found the baby, the town would have remained safe. And so he agreed to build a prison for his own daughter. High on the promontory, he built the labyrinth. He constructed it around the white wooden bull, which had remained there all those years, unscathed by weather. There’d been a game in town where children dared each other to go to the promontory to touch it. Many reported they could feel a beating heart beneath the wooden chest. Many died—swept off the cliff by a gust of wind. Or, according to some reports, hooked suddenly on the white bull’s horns and tossed over the ledge.”

“That’s some baloney right there.”

“Hush up. Darwull lured his daughter to the promontory with a promise—she could take his life, as long as she vowed never to harm another townsperson. She met him on the cliff in her human form. He tried to run. She followed. He was faster, and so she transformed herself into a bull and galloped after him. He ran inside the labyrinth, and she followed. The door swung shut behind them.

“Nobody knows what happened in there. We can only assume Darwull was the Minotaur’s first tribute. He left a blueprint in Rock Hill showing the labyrinth he’d built, and he’d told of his plan to trap the Minotaur inside. People came to the labyrinth in hopes of hunting the beast and slaying her once and for all.

“Only one person who ventured into the labyrinth ever returned—a man called Granz. He told of a maze unlike anything from Darwull’s blueprint. A place full of danger, jungles, illusions. A place worse than nightmares. He said he had spoken to the beast herself, who had agreed to release him if he passed along these demands: She was to be provided, regularly, with tributes. At least nine per year, or she would escape her prison and destroy Rock Hill.”

“And nobody thought she was lying? That she couldn’t have gotten out of the labyrinth if she’d tried? Or that Granz was lying?”

“I suppose”—Bitsy let go of my hand—“nobody wanted to find out. Rock Hill has sent tributes ever since. And many people continue to volunteer. The tributes of the past often brought gold and jewels, hoping to soften the beast with bribes. It’s said that there’s now a massive room in the labyrinth full of treasure. And that many who vow to slay the beast are really going treasure hunting.”

I was terribly intrigued by this. “Treasure?”

She stared at me. “Yes. Why? Do you think you’ll be the one to find it?”

“Maybe so. Maybe I’ll become the richest person in all of Rock Hill.”

She snorted. “Good luck with that.”

But I could not stop thinking, that night or in the days to come, about a room full of treasure. About that palace full of secrets. About the abandoned child and the monster everyone feared.

Perhaps a beast was what I was meant to be. A cast-off daughter, a dangerous sorceress. I might have done quite well at indiscriminate devouring, at creating a legend much larger than myself, and much more frightening. I wondered if the beast was lonely. If there were tributes she could not find; if she went to bed hungry.

from QUEERcentric

I had to hold on tight to every word. . . . [Y]ou don’t see this level of craft and wordsmithery very often in e-books.

from Caroline Naught

[A]n outstanding story.

from Just Love

I found the novel captivating and the language gorgeous.

from SciFi and Scary Book Reviews

J.A. Rock writes with style. . . . The pacing is perfect. The setting works well. Its obvious she has talent.

from Book and Coffee Addict

[B]eautiful and yet ugly in a way that captivates. I will absolutely be on the lookout for more books by the author.

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