The Labyrinth

Reading Time: 9 minutes

My wound had hardly begun to heal when the king of Tyros commanded me to build him a labyrinth.

I had walked across the desert to this walled mountain city, seeking anonymity. The scabbed flesh on my right cheek still stung – the legacy of my attacker’s remorseless eye and swift hand. These, and his ability to make himself immediately scarce after a crime, were all I knew of him. He left me a strange and permanent pattern on my face – and a small inheritance, sooner than I wanted it.

I came to Tyros because their custom of deliberate facial decoration promised to make my own appearance less conspicuous. And after the misunderstanding about my uncle’s sudden death, it was a good time to travel.

Tyros is a warm place, plump with sunshine and tomatoes. Freshwater streams feed the vines and pear trees which embrace every cliffside house. Winding streets ring with the cries of men selling plums or quince from trays, splitting the fruit with their strange blunt implements. Knives and needles are forbidden here, the preserve of the high-born. Facial marking is only for the upper classes. Clear-faced peasants emulate their superiors with elaborate hats, but keep their skin bare, by law.

I was treated well, my wound mistaken for the seal of high caste, though my drab trousers and tough shoes marked me out as a visitor from the desert. Maidens offered me flowers and pastries. But while it was handy to get free dinners, what I needed was a job.

I sprawled outside a troglodyte taverna on the fifth day, what cash I had echoing in my pocket. My offer to wash dishes for the cook had met with smiling grace and exaggerated laughter at my foreign, high-born humour.

A closed carriage, adorned with razors along its roof, veered close to my table and then ran over my sandal. I yelped, sprang up, and cried outrage as the carriage squealed to a halt. I sensed a change in my fortunes, even as I bent to count my toes.

The carriage curtain slid back and out scrambled a grey bearded man in a ludicrous horned hat. His face was a tangle of blue inked vines.

“Ow,” I said pointedly, massaging my foot.

The tavernista appeared with some crushed plums and a glass of sweet tea on his only good tray. He bowed and proffered them. Not to me. “Majesty.”

Oh. I stoped whining and ducked my head.

The King stood in front of me. He smelled of a bath taken when he was younger than I am now. “You,” he said. “Your face.”

I waited, eyes lowered. Your royalty rarely enjoys eye contact with the paeons.

“This is what I have sought,” said the king in a dramatic tone. He sucked down the glass of tea without glancing at the tavernista. “You hold the answer to my problem. You know of my problem, of course, stranger?”

“Um-“

“Of course!” He chewed a plum with his left back teeth, and spat the stone onto the tray. “All know of the awful burden I bear!”

I said nothing. His main affliction appeared to be terrible rudeness and that’s a thing best left unremarked.

A crowd gathered, as it will when a celebrity appears in an ordinary street. Men and women nudged each other and admired the tattoos of the king and his carriage-drivers. Children tried to touch the razors and were scolded for social impertinence.

“You will help me,” instructed the King. “Your tattoo bears the inspiration I have been praying for! Yes,” he boomed, adopting an arena voice, “you will design me a labyrinth!”
******

Courtiers with green vines tattooed about their eyes set me up in a studio carved from the limestone mountain. Lesser people, bearing only a small sigil on their chins, brought me charcoal for drawing, pigskin, jugs of rosewater and lime nectar, and a ceiling fan operated by a pedal under my desk. The last servant, so lowly his face was bare, brought me a hat almost as silly as the King’s.

“The Gracious Able will manifest whatever you design,” the lead flunkey assured me. “You need only create a maze of fiendish tunnels on this pigskin, so intricate that a cockroach might not escape, and by the great grace of the Able your design will become actuality.” He took off his hat and bowed with a flourish.

“All right,” I said. “Is there any more nectar?”

Although my own facial ornament was by malice rather than design, I worked hard at being a royal labyrinth creator. My face hurt, and I had a crushed toe, but when the charcoal was in my fingers I felt a warmth run through me, the power as well as the desire to do well. I borrowed a mirror and copied my scar’s design, then elaborated. When life hands you a midnight mugging and permanent disfigurement, make the most of sudden royal favour.

Priests came to view my pigskins, and returned to their temples to update the gods. The chief priest invited me to join them, but where I come from we hold a different view of the Able, and so I declined.

One question puzzled me, however and late one night, adding a blind alley to an already torturous side road on my plan, I spoke it aloud. “Who is this labyrinth for?”

“Me,” said a woman’s voice, and I spilled my nectar.

*******

I did not need her to tell me she was a princess. Her chin angled upwards, and her hands hung poised at her sides, ready to command lesser beings with the merest flick of her fingers. Her forehead was high and clear, her cheeks delicately freckled. Her golden slippers winked at me and her crimson robe draped arrogantly over a form made luscious by a life of lifting ripe grapes from silver platters. And, of course, when she removed her veil, she was beautiful.

“What’s your name?” she demanded, the first person to ask this since my arrival. She stepped forward to peer at my designs. The dress swirled around her ankles, creating its own mistral of the dust on my floor.

“Jack,” I said, sticking to my story. “Of Insett.”

“Huh,” she said. With an upwards nod she dismissed the noble city of my youth. “You know me,” she added.

I could guess, but I dislike handing over the goods to ill-mannered types – which is how I got the scar, of course.

“Anemone,” she said then, as if to someone of small understanding. “The only daughter of the King.”

Something about pretty girls makes me reckless. “Huh,” I said in turn, and poured her some plum juice.

“I can’t drink from the cup you have used,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Obviously.”

I looked at the perfectly clean cup, brimming with the finest red stain in the land. “Oh. Of course. My desert bred hand has touched this and yours must not be sullied.”

It’s amazing I have only the one scar, when I think about it.

The princess hesitated. She seemed to draw from her depths some scarcely-used powers. “Thank you anyway,” she said.

She was extremely beautiful. And had not learned courtesy from her father. “No problem,” I said. “How can I help?”

“I am disgraced,” she said. “My father the King will trap me in this maze of yours forever.”

“Why? Have you organised a military coup? Sold the crown jewels to a passing desert trader? Engaged in a passionate affair with a low-class stranger known only for his skill with a stick of charcoal?” One could hope.

“You’re not low born,” she corrected me.

“Look again,” I said. “I never chose this mark.”

Her eyes widened. “Then you will understand,” she said, and despite herself, clasped my low-bred hands. “For I have refused the sign of royal blood, the tattoo which marks my progress into womanhood.”

“What?” Her hands were warm, and soft, the hands of a woman who has never cooked a dinner in her life. “Oh. Tattoos.”

“It is barbaric!” she cried. “Why must royalty alone suppress the natural beauty which is the gift of the gracious Able? I will not submit to it like a, like a branded pig! It is cruel, and old-fashioned – and my cousin told me it really hurts.”

“Then run away,” I suggested. “Live a life of romantic freedom.” I smiled, with the half of my face which still could.

“Stop your peasantish lewd suggestions,” she snapped. “I should call for my father’s guards this instant.”

“By all means,” I said. “Call a bunch of armed toadies to collect you from the room of a low-born man at midnight. As a convicted criminal I’m sure your word will be taken over that of the eminent Labyrinth Maker.”

“But you are not high born at all!”

“And I’m sure your excellent father will enjoy learning of his mistake. He’s bound not to take it out on the nearest person, that is, you.”

We stared at each other. She cracked first. “Help me,” she said. “My father will really do this. He will force the tattoo upon me and then bury me in your labyrinth to prove that he is right. Make me a secret exit. Help me escape. Save me!” She pleaded with her eyes.

“All right,” I said. “If you pay me.”

“Yes yes.” She thrust her hand into the bosom of her dress and withdrew it holding a string of silver coins. “There. Now, you are clearly cunning as well as ugly – think of something!”

“You have your father’s easy charm,” I said.

“Or I’ll tell on you,” she said.

“I’ve already agreed! Just give me a moment.” I frowned at my plans. And then, as my aching cheek began to throb in earnest, I had an idea.

*******

“Your majesty, I have given my labyrinth design to the priests. They are begging the Able to manifest it now.” I bowed low and the throne room hummed with interest.

The King grunted. I was already talking to the back of his hat so it was not really a step down.

“Also, your majesty, I have taken the liberty of adding to the labyrinth… a horned beast.” I made sure the whole room heard this.

“Huh,” said the King. He turned and scowled at me. “A beast.”

“Yes indeed. What maze does not have a terrifying monster at its heart, to punish the prisoners and keep out the tourists?”

“Huh,” he said again. This family could really work on its vocabulary. “Then it’s finished. Now get out.”

“I beg your majesty’s pardon,” I said, “but I cannot yet leave. I have been retained by our daughter, princess Anemone. She has paid me handsomely to do her a great favour.”

Armed minions stepped forward, ready to be outraged on the King’s behalf. I stood firm. “I am to administer the royal mark, Majesty. As you commanded.”

“Oh…” He peered at me, or rather, at my scar. I refused to flinch as he leaned in, seeming to read my competence in the whorl on my cheek. “All right. I suppose.”

“Majesty, your graciousness rivals that of the Able.” Between the flunkeys and the princess, I’d picked up a few toadying moves of my own.

The King was no more charmed than his offspring. “Fine. Get on with it. We imprison her tonight.”

******

I collected a needle from the Royal Tattooist, an old woman whose skin was purple with the ink of two dozen battling hawthorn. “Don’t lose it,” she said.

Within the hour my work was done. The Princess’s face now bore a delicate pattern of rose and lily blooms. Well, if you’re going to do a thing, do it right. And, like the charcoal drawings of the labyrinth, once my fingers began, they knew what to do. I never knew these skills in the desert. I was just completing my handiwork when the bells rang across the mountain top to announce the manifestation of the Princess’s future home.

I winked at the Princess, and surrounded by her guards, we joined the grand procession down to the labyrinth. Repulsed by the cruelty I found in Tyros, and their scandalous sharps re-use, I threw the needle in a well on the way.

The entire court marched through the city streets behind us, their decorated faces and big hats marking them as high born. The ordinary citizens, bare-cheeked and underappreciated, trailed behind.

The labyrinth began at a low door in the side of a high cliff, just as I had sketched it. Within, I knew, rough-hewn tunnels led ever inwards, lit by perpetually flickering torches. Out of pity, I had included freshwater streams and a colony of edible roaches.

The Princess stood, head bowed, before the assembled court. The citizens formed a backdrop.

“I have imposed my will,” said the King, unnecessarily. “You have the royal mark!”

She lifted her chin and displayed the fresh red lines of rose and lily petals on her cheeks. I’d done a marvellous job, though I said it myself.

“Now you will end your days in the prison of my design!” the King crowed.

His design? The nerve. “Majesty,” I said. “I invite you to inspect the entrance to your wondrous labyrinth, to assure yourself of its absolute heartless cruelty.”

The King gasped. “Alone? Ridiculous.”

“Of course not, your majesty. Please bring your entourage with you. These burly soldiers will surely protect you with their very lives.”

“Who will guard the princess?” asked the King.

“Where could she go?” I said. “Her very face bears your royal will.” I gestured at the unmarked peasantry.

The King clicked his fingers at his bodyguard and, stooping, crept into the maze. There was small rush of courtiers to follow. I chivvied them in, encouraging them not to miss any of the excitement. “Stop at the first fork, majesty!” I called. “And be mindful of your hat!”

The lowly citizens and I were left with the Princess.

“May I have some water?” she asked, very politely indeed, of the nearest person. On being handed a cup of chill stream water, she turned away, and splashed it on her face. The plum juice I had used to stain her skin trickled away into the crimson of her dress. “Thank you,” she said, giving back the cup.

“Now turn,” I said. “And claim your people. – Or run, flee into the crowd, just another unmarked peasant. Your choice.”

“But,” she said, glancing at the labyrinth entrance.

“The horned beast will appear at about the same moment the King knows he has been tricked.” Indeed, there was already a low roaring from within the cliff, as of an arrogant monarch in an awful hat who has realised his mistake. “The monster!” I called out, and the crowd surged backward in fear. “Now go,” I told the princess. “I’m leaving too. I hoped I’d fit in here, but it seems like it’s time for a new regime – with some fresh faces.”

“Take me with you!” she said then.

“No thanks.” I patted my pockets, now loaded with coin from the King as well. “I’ve only just got back on my feet after my … accident. The last thing I need is a rebellious girlfriend. Besides, I think you’d never be able to forget your royal background.”

“How dare you assume-“

“And there’s my point proven. Good bye, Anemone. And good luck.”

I spun her gently to face the crowd. In their collective gasp of wonder at her clean face, I slipped away. My hopes for Tyros had come to nothing. I was leaving – now nobly dressed, and richer than when I arrived, but still carrying, as I would for all time, my scar.