Labyrinth by Alex Beecroft
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Kikeru, the child of a priestess at the sacred temple of Knossos in ancient Crete, believes that the goddesses are laughing at him. They expect him to choose whether he is a man or a woman, when he’s both. They expect him to choose whether to be a husband to a wife, or a celibate priestess in the temple, when all he wants to do is invent things and be with the person he loves.

Unfortunately, that person is Rusa, the handsome ship owner who is most decidedly a man and therefore off-limits no matter what he chooses. And did he mention that the goddesses also expect him to avert war with the Greeks?

The Greeks have an army. Kikeru has his mother, Maja, who is pressuring him to give her grandchildren; Jadikira, Rusa’s pregnant daughter; and superstitious Rusa, who is terrified of what the goddesses will think of him being in love with one of their chosen ones.

It’s a tall order to save Crete from conquest, win his love, and keep both halves of himself. Luckily, at least the daemons are on his side.

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

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Kikeru was examining a moray eel skeleton when the hiss of urgent whispers sidled into his ear. He shook his head, hoping it would dislodge the sound, and turned the monstrous skull on his palm.

Two sets of jaws! If he insinuated his little finger into the mess of drying tendon and bone, he could push up a second set of teeth inside its mouth. So the first set sheared and the second seized the morsel and drew it further in? Was there an application for this mechanism in other areas? On a loom, perhaps, to secure the cloth while it was being rolled onto the overhead beam. Or on a ship to seize and tear the enemy’s sails?

“Once you get past the navy, there are no warriors worth the name. Just a bunch of whores and eunuchs.”

They were speaking in Achaean Greek. That was what made Kikeru attend at last—the difficulty and the challenge of working out what these two men were being so contemptuous about. He raised his head, closing his left hand over the skull with his finger still inside it. The inner teeth rewarded his prying by sinking deep into his hand and jarring against the knuckle. Pain rushed prickly up his spine.

Kikeru breathed silently, in, out, out again, forcing himself to relax. He was forever hurting himself on things. The surprise and sense of betrayal had worn off a long time ago. The discomfort was always reduced the less he allowed himself to be shocked.

“Getting past the navy is the difficult part,” the second speaker remarked.

The scent of dried kelp and drying tendon tasted salty on Kikeru’s tongue, and his stomach roiled, unsettled. What were the foreigners implying?

“But we,” the first voice insisted, “are already here. We are already past their ships.”

Kikeru had found the skeleton on the land side of a sand dune a short walk from Amphisos, the harbour of the great temple of Knossos. It had been lying there as though dropped from above by an unlucky eagle. Mostly fleshless, gleaming white as a belt of pearls. He’d been fascinated by the articulation of it, the ingenuity. The presence or absence of other people had not been on his mind. Most folk either knew him enough to disregard his foibles, or discerned something of the goddess’s gift about him and had the sense to leave him in peace.

None had so far found him entirely invisible, though. With a creeping sense that all was not right with this bright sparkling spring day he pulled himself out of his own head and looked for the Achaeans.

Nothing but the back of the dune, a sinuous humped shape of yellow sand, misted over with thin grasses and the spiky white flowers of sea daffodil. To his right, the grass faded out into dry, soft beach, where a distant fisherman stood up to his knees in the lapis lazuli waves. To his left, a stand of tamarisk foaming with pink flowers cut off the view of the harbour and its nodding ships.

“What are you suggesting?”

This second voice sounded sceptical but intrigued. That was apparent even to Kikeru, who found some of the nuances of the words puzzling. Apparently tone translated better than sense. An interesting observation.

By themselves, his hands put down the fish skeleton. He sucked the gash in his finger, absently tasting the coil of copper in his blood, and considered whether some universal language could be reconstructed out of the phonemes of tone. Something all humans would recognise without having to be taught . . .

“There are Achaean traders settled in every Cretan town.”

Apparently Kikeru’s mind had decided the first voice was important. It stopped him thinking, made him listen.

“We could send out an invitation to the other Achaean settlements. Call it a feast—a sacrifice to Poseidon—and when they arrived, we could arm ourselves, walk into defenceless Knossos and take it. Their king is a perfumed catamite. The few guards are ornamental. These people spend all their time playing like little children. They have no sense of what it is to be men. They would crumble like chalk before us.”

Oh, so this humpbacked boil of something in his stomach was anger. It was anger he’d been feeling all along. Now—like milk reaching its boiling point—it foamed up and overspilled, filling his chest with scalding heat.

He’d risen to his feet and run forward before his agile brain could catch up. A few moments struggling to the top of the dune and then he was looking down on them. Grown men, of course. One with a white beard almost as bushy as the tamarisk, the other with a head of short hair so curly it could have come off a sheep. Their expressions matched—guilty, caught out, not yet sure what to do.

“What are you talking about?” Kikeru’s outrage blurted. “By what right do you come to this country and plot to take away what the goddess holds for us all? Don’t you live here yourself? This is your community too—if you strike at the heart of it, you’ll only end up hurting yourself.”

Silence. He hoped he had shamed them. Even little children knew you contributed what you could to the goddess, and she shared it out fairly so no one was in want. The idea that you might take things just because you could was . . . well, it was uncivilised in the extreme.

It was so uncivilised, it ought to be unthinkable.

Beard’s expression of astonishment transmuted into a mocking belly laugh. He jerked his head at Fleecy, and they both raced towards him, leaping up the dune’s outer side like bounding goats, faster than Kikeru thought possible. It was at this point his critical thought process finally caught up with him again and told him he was a fool who was about to get his head kicked in.

He turned to run for the tamarisk stand, barked a toe on a piece of flint in the sand, stumbled, and they were on him. Hard hands closed around his arms—Beard’s hands, pushing Kikeru’s elbows into his ribs and lifting him off his feet.

“How dare you!” he shouted. “I am a child of Poteidon, a miracle birth. How dare you be so impious as to lay hands on me!”

Kicking out backwards, he managed to ram his heel into the skirt of Beard’s gauzy chiton, squashing his balls like plums. He expected to be dropped, was braced to gather his limbs under him and sprint away, but Beard just grunted deep in his chest like a pawing bull and tightened his grip until Kikeru’s lower arms went numb.

A hand seized and twisted one of the ringlets that lay over Kikeru’s forehead, wrenching his head up until he could no longer avoid Fleecy’s eyes. The roots of his hair shrieked in protest; pain made his eyes water and overspill, until he could feel the tears dripping from his chin.

“The son of Poseidon?” Fleecy’s jaw had at one time almost been pierced by a blade of some kind—a javelin, Kikeru thought, judging by the scar. It made a whirl of bald patch and pink skin at the corner of his black beard like a worm’s mouthparts. The grotesquery of it affected Kikeru almost more than the fear, making him kick out again, trying to stamp down on Fleecy’s bent knee. He managed it, but it sent a jarring, damaging pain up the arch of his foot and into his spine, and Fleecy too shrugged it off as if he’d barely felt it. “I don’t think the gods produce filthy little urchins like you. Now what are we going to do to you to keep your mouth shut?”

“Wait,” Beard cautioned, gruff and breathing hard. “If he’s someone important, it might be worse to—”

“He’s not important. Look at him.” Fleecy twisted Kikeru’s head by that red grip on his hair, almost breaking his neck as he bent Kikeru’s face back over his shoulder. “Sackcloth kilt and straw in his hair. He’s lying his pretty head off. I should wring his neck for that if nothing else.”

“Well, in that case.” Beard’s clutching right hand loosened and slid down over Kikeru’s belt. Then lower, through the gap where the ends of his kilt did not quite meet, and his leg went bare up to the buttock. “If we’re getting rid of him anyway, no sense in wasting an opportunity.”

“You just want to test whether your scorpion can still sting,” Fleecy chuckled, while Kikeru squirmed away from the touch on his thigh and tried to tell himself past the nausea that this was not happening. He was reading the omens all wrong.

Once more, his body acted earlier than his mind, coming to its own conclusions. Both legs flailed out in a flurry of kicks, and he took one huge, deep breath and screamed it out like a seagull, piercing and inhuman, in his own language. “Help! Help me! H—”

Beard clapped a hand over his mouth and silenced him. He thought he’d been panicking before, but now something slipped inside him and raw terror and denial flooded his body like the breath of a god. He bit the palm as it pressed down, heard Beard give a shout of shock and fury.

Beard took his hand away and belted Kikeru with it—a whistling sound against his ear and then a shock as though many stones had fallen on him, and a fountain of grey sparks behind his eyes. But his mouth was unstopped again, and he shrieked blind and shrill for the goddess, for his mother, for someone to come and save him.

Beard’s left arm hooked around his throat, pulling him backwards, off-balance. Fleecy captured his ankles one by one and they lifted him off the ground, holding him twisting and thrashing between them.

“Put the boy down.”

Oh! A third voice, deep and gravelly and authoritative. A man of Crete, from the natural, blessed accent. Kikeru unstuck his screwed eyes and saw a tower of a man, burly, thick-waisted and wide-shouldered, naked but for a loincloth, and wet, with a fishing spear in his hand. Yes!

“Oh please,” he panted, “oh please get them off me. Please make them put me down. Please.”

“Of course,” said the man. “I’m sure that’s exactly what they were going to do. Am I not right?”

Fleecy let go of Kikeru’s ankles. Kikeru thudded back to his feet only to find that his knees had turned to oil. As he sagged, he caught the two Achaeans exchanging looks over his head, couldn’t interpret them, couldn’t quite follow. Perhaps they were wondering if the two of them could take on his champion together?

How small they looked next to the man, and how withered, as though all their vital juices had been sucked out. They wouldn’t win—caught without weapons, their vaunted swords lying back in their cedar chests at home.

Two unarmed bullies against a monster of a man with a head-high, three-pronged spear?

In the pause, the fisherman let the shaft of his trident slip down into the crook of his elbow, so he could reach down with huge hands to unclasp the plaited silver bracelet he wore on his left wrist. A sealstone in the centre of it caught the sun and glowed soft amethyst purple. He slipped the bracelet from hand to hand and then fastened it back on. A nervous habit, perhaps, but it drew the Achaeans’ attention. It let them know he was a man who needed his own sealstone to witness important documents. A palace official or a wealthy trader, despite his current nakedness. A man whose absence would be noticed, even if they did manage to subdue him.

Silently, the decision was made.

“The boy was touched by the sun,” Beard began, deceitfully earnest. Kikeru surprised himself with a deep swell of contempt for the man. “Or by some passing spirit. We found him in a fit, shrieking nonsense about the gods. Clearly either a liar or out of his mind entirely. We were going to put him in the shade and find out who he belonged to.”

“Who should I thank for taking such good care of my countryman?” said the giant with a gentle menace.

“Please don’t. It was nothing.” Fleecy gave a grimace that was probably supposed to be a smile. “But since you’re here, we’ll leave him with you.” Tugging at Beard’s elbow, he turned them both away.

Kikeru avidly watched them leave, as if that would make everything right again—as if it would give him back his carefree morning with the wondrous mysteries of creation. But even when they were swallowed up by the tamarisk grove, and everything within sight was beautiful again, he still had to curl himself around his knees and weep for shock and shame and the new understanding that there were some things in the world that were unbearably foul.


Chapter Two

Perhaps it was a measure of how much he trusted the stranger—for he rarely fully relaxed if he was not alone—but as Kikeru wiped kohl-black tears from his face with the back of his hand, he forgot the man was there. The warm hand closing around his shuddering shoulder pulled his mind out of the pit of his own misery, fixed it somewhere between the two layers of skin, in the penumbra of vivid awareness that he was being touched.

In fact, the stranger seemed to have knelt in the sand next to him, the arm belonging to that hand loosely draped around Kikeru’s back with a diffident pressure, willing to be shrugged off. Kikeru’s temple etiquette lessons did not stretch to what to do in a situation like this, but all the many levels of his mind had become single at this moment, and all his complexities had become simple. He went with what felt right and turned himself into the stranger’s shade.

“Were they right about the sunstroke?” his rescuer asked, the growl of his deep voice softened in concern. “Do you need water? Somewhere cool to sit?”

Kikeru leaned back into the encircling arm, and it snugged him a little closer, supportive rather than demanding. He thought it unusual in the circumstances that he should not mind the press of the man’s naked chest against the bare skin of his flank, solid, strong, and comforting, but he didn’t. It was a reminder perhaps that this was what manhood was for. Not to assault but to protect. Whether or not Kikeru was a man, he wasn’t sure, but he certainly didn’t want to be whatever it was the Achaeans meant when they used the word.

He rubbed the tears from his eyes, smearing black kohl over his fists and face. At least the fish gouge had stopped bleeding, though it had filled the palm of his hand with crimson now darkening into tacky brown. He smelled of rank fear-sweat and blood and dead fish. It made him laugh, and laughter helped reknit the sinews in his legs. Looking up, a little afraid of what he might see, he got his first real glimpse of the stranger’s face.

A good one. The man was perhaps on the older side of his prime—laughter lines fanned out from his eyes and marked the corners of his mouth with crescents, but vigour and vitality shone from his face like the kindly spring. His undressed, unbound hair was drying into long black waves, touched with brown umber, and his dark honey eyes were watching Kikeru with a warmth and a gentleness that made Kikeru’s affronted heart untwist inside him like a lily unpacking itself from its bud.

Naturally he had to express this by choking and blushing furiously while he tried to smother the coughing fit that followed. “I’m, ah . . .” He offered his hands in evidence, once he had mastered his breathing enough to laugh again. “I’m hideous. Water would be good.”

He could see where the man had got his crescent lines—he was grinning now, but it was a friendly grin, a grin that laughed with Kikeru rather than at him. “Let’s offer your dirt to the sea.”

He rose like a mountain rising. Kikeru tried not to stare, but no, he had not been imagining the size of the man. If anything, in his panic, he had been underestimating it.

“Something wrong?”

Oh, he’d missed the hand being held out to help him up. One of the many daemons in the debating committee of his mind told him he’d been inappropriate again—he’d been off in the spirit world and lost track. He should do something to make it right. “Kikeru,” he said, and grasped the hand.

“No, my name’s Rusa,” the stranger said, droll and amused. Kikeru rolled his eyes and tested his knees beneath him. They held firm, but he leaned into Rusa’s continuing support anyway as they paced through the shifting sands and down into the ocean.

Cold at his toes, it was yielding and moving and fresh on his legs. Waist-deep, he became aware of its strength, pushing and rocking him. He spread out his arms, shut his eyes, and toppled backwards into the life-giving splash of its clean water. It closed over his face like the caul of birth, and he let it lift the dirt from him, from his face and his hands and his heart.

When he came up, the sea was piercingly pure, turquoise blue, clear down to the fish swimming by his feet. The long braids of his hair tugged pleasantly against his scalp, his unclogged nose scented woodsmoke and roasting fish. The sky was bright all around him. He was not, to his mother’s despair, a religious person, but sometimes Poteidon’s hand was easy to discern even for him.

“Better?” Rusa asked, standing close by with the spear, points up, poised in his hand. If Poteidon had chosen a human form he could not have done better. Floating, rocking on the waves, Kikeru smiled back.

“Much. Thank you for intervening. I think you saved my life.”

Rusa twitched a large shoulder like an ox shaking off a hornet. “Why would they kill you? I know the Achaeans are . . .”

The pause was eloquent. Ever since the foreigners had come to Crete, they had brought their notions with them. Profoundly wrong notions that created cruel people. They even twisted the goddesses, and they resisted the untwisting, as though they preferred them that way. “The Greeks are strange, but they usually have some reason for their actions. I mean, you’re beautiful, and they don’t need any more reason than that to . . . But killing? Why?”

Kikeru walked out from the sea, squeezing the water from his plaits, with his smile turned away. Beautiful? He wished he was. He wished his long, lean frame would put on some curves. If he could gain just a little flesh in the chest, he could pinch it in and mould it and look more finished, more complete, instead of the bony boyish thing he was now. But beautiful still brought the petals of his soul out of the unfurling bud.

In squeezing his hair dry, he forgot the ivory stylus he had threaded through one lock, and pushed its blunt point painfully into his palm.

“Ow!” he said, and then his wrist was caught and Rusa was looking at the red indentation and the fish’s bite with a quizzical smile.

“You don’t need Achaeans, do you? Look,” he pointed to a flat stone further up the beach on which a nest of sticks smouldered, the source of the smell. “Come and share my catch. I’ll cook—your hands have suffered enough. And you can tell me everything.”

The flat stone was within sight of the harbour and the tallest of the gleaming houses of the town. Rusa swept away the remaining pebbles around it and offered him the bare space. In the distance, a sleek white ship with a flower-garlanded canopy at its stern had just finished rowing out into the offshore winds and was dropping its sail. Kikeru watched it while he tried to martial his thoughts, distracted by Rusa’s movements. The man had a bag here and a cloak and he was rummaging about in them while the light shone in tantalizing shadows on the muscles of his back and thighs. Kiltless, his loincloth at the back was little more than a white line between his buttocks and—

And Kikeru ought not to be looking. He focused hard on the ship just as Rusa turned around.

“I—” he stammered. “Huh.” Where to start? “I am the child of Maja, priestess of Potnia Theron. We live in the palace, and I . . . I make things. I look at how things work, and I improve them. I study the world around me, and I use what I find to create new things—things that no one has ever thought of before.”

Rusa set a wineskin in front of him, then he raked the smoking ashes of his fire from the top of a leaf-wrapped parcel of fish. He gave Kikeru a darting glimpse of approval from his honey-gold eyes. “I thought so—you have a look about you as though you’re seeing more worlds than the rest of us.”

Kikeru sighed. Was it that obvious? He didn’t really want to be set apart for the goddess. She might have consulted with him before she made him this supple, middling thing with fizz for brains. It was nice to be holy, perhaps, but what he really wanted was to be normal.

He took a pull at the wineskin and accepted a handful of cool seaweed with a chunk of baked fish on top. The scent of olive oil and thyme rose from the food and made his cheeks ache with watering.

“I came down from Knossos this morning to walk and think. I am of an age to be married.”