by Mari Ness
In the center of the labyrinth, I wait.
He may not come. Not all do. Some, deciding that a refusal to participate was a form of protest, merely sit near the entrance, waiting, assuming that the doors will open eventually, release them. It is a true enough guess—but the doors open only after they have been marked with the fingernails and teeth of those desperate enough for water to try to claw through bronze and gold before their deaths. Some attempt to outwit us by waiting at the beginning of the maze or some other place for a time, hoping we will let down our guard, or that we, too, will grow weary with hunger and thirst. A slight trick, there: we dancers are supplied with water and honey and dried meat. If we fail, we fail by skills alone.
Others simply lack the skill to find the center and begin the dance. It is not difficult, but even I, who have explored these mazes before dancing in them, find them bewildering. And although the combatants are always fully fed and watered before they are taken to the labyrinth, and given at least a full week of rest and exercise, most arrive exhausted in any case, unable to sleep the night before they arrive. It is why some of us have argued that the combatants should not be told precisely when they will be brought. But we have been outvoted. It is tradition, and the will of the gods, that so many are wasted, lost in the winding paths of the labyrinth, with no chance to dance.
The only true way to food, to water, to life, is the path through the maze, to the dancers. To, in this dance and time, me.
I hear the approaching breaths, the panting. Two more false pathways, and the true one, and the combatant will be here. I take a sip of the honey and water we dancers are given, and settle into the nyaki pose. And he comes.
Magnificent, this one; I spare a moment for pity. No wonder I was selected. He knows how to handle a weapon, and the one in his hand bears signs of personal use. He is comfortable with it, as if it is part of his skin.
But I am part of my knives, and so we begin.
It is eternity, and it is over too quickly. He managed to nick my arm—I shall have to practice that move, to avoid it happening again—before one of my knives was at his belly and another at his throat. He stumbles. I stand over him, and whisper the ritual words. He gasps for air. I lean forward, to listen for any final words—we are not unkind, we dancers, and we will send these messages to the gods, or to loved ones, if any remain. But he has nothing to say, and so I slice his throat.
And then I dance again, until the floors open, and the body is pulled away.
Afterwards, I am tired, more tired than I have felt before.
I have led the dancers for only five years, but in that time, the number of combatants has nearly doubled, meaning that I must enter the dance nearly every day, and sometimes twice a day. Gone are the days when I could spend my time between dances wandering court and town, honored and feared as all dancers are. Now, I remain in my room, and hoard my strength, emerging only to watch the trainees and encourage them in their path, and, of course, to dance. To tell the truth, I almost welcome the combatants who refuse to walk the maze, since this gives me a chance to rest, even though this means more work for all, later, when the priests must clear the lists by allowing several combatants through at once.
Perhaps it is time for me to retire, as leader, at least, if not from the dance. I have no worries about my replacement: I can think of at least four strong dancers who might lead well for a time, and then I have my children: seven sons and daughters, all strong, all fierce, six in training and one already a dancer of skill. I could not be prouder of them: I am the only dancer in memory to give all of her children to the labyrinth.
And they came so gladly. For, oh, yes, whatever the rumor in the town streets (a most terrible place to find the truth), no one is commanded to join the dancers, and every year, we are given the chance to leave, to find a place of honor elsewhere. I have known dancers to become the mistresses of nobles, the leaders of weavers, great singers, honored warlords. I have known dancers to dance until their deaths, or for only a year or two.
I have danced for twenty, and might dance for twenty more. And one of my children will take my place, not merely as a dancer, but as the leader. Of this, I am certain.
I read the messages left for me during the dance. A friend, wishing to join me at court one evening. A message from my youngest son, still learning his letters. A message from the court: a minor noble begging to watch the dance, claiming that questions have been raised. I send a curt denial, knowing I will be joined by the priests in this. Whatever they may say outside the palace, no one watches, aside from those in training, and those who would wish to begin training, and a few, a very few, officials and nobles and priests of the court. This is not, as some would have you think, spectacle. We dance at court for that, showing off our skill, and for those who cannot join the labyrinth, we have other dances, where those trained for the labyrinth may dance one another, or even animals for the entertainment of others. Those are popular events; I have participated in them myself, as my children watched, their eyes shining.
But that is not the labyrinth. The labyrinth is sacred, and it is unwatched. It is execution.
I whisper a silent prayer to the God of Silver, and slip into a dream about the dance.
In the next dance, I am joined by my second daughter.
It is her first time, and I am pleased; not always do children get to dance with their mothers at this moment. More often, they dance alone, or with someone they have trained with. It is a singular honor, and I nod my head toward the narrow window where the priests watch, to show I am aware of this.
But this also means we will be facing someone with exceptional skills, or perhaps a group. The labyrinth is meant to be fair, after all; anyone who reaches the center must have a chance, however small. So I cannot help the faint fear that enters my heart. I work to repress it. Fear is a killer, here on the floor; I still have a scar from it.
I wonder if my other children are watching. I do not allow myself to think of this for long, either. I must focus on the dance.
These combatants are clever; we can tell. They find their way through the maze swifter than most, by calling out to each other. It means we are well warned of their arrival, but it also means they arrive comparatively freshened and alert. I bow in respect to them as they arrive, and then I have no time to congratulate them; we are dancing. All five of us.
That is unusual; the priests are generally careful to match numbers to numbers, if not always skill to skill. But one of the three combatants, I soon realize, has no skill for this sort of thing. I slice his legs, then his belly, and leave him gasping on the floor; I will finish that with proper honor just as soon as I deal with the second combatant. She is more skilled than her comrade, in that she has at least handled a blade before, and knows how to defend herself. But against my dancing, this is nothing, and she is rapidly down. I look about. My daughter is dancing against the third, and I can hear no other combatants.
I slice the throats of the two I have faced, swiftly, whispering the proper words, and dance above their bodies in respect. When I am done, I turn to my daughter and the third combatant.
The third combatant is good. Damn. I should have taken a better look, should have taken this one myself, and allowed my daughter, who has never done this before, to take on either one of my opponents. That is doubtless what the priests expected, and what the three combatants planned against—and with a little luck, it could have worked. This woman is almost good enough to beat my daughter; may even be good enough to beat my daughter, with luck, and although I had taken down the other two without difficulty, this woman and just one of the others—even that unskilled male, who may never have held a blade before this—could have given me difficulties. I swallow, and hope the priests do not notice, do not see my concern.
I cannot interfere while my daughter still dances. Not only is it against ritual, but it is also dangerous. I force myself to stand in the nyaki pose, that I first learned to hold when I was four, and watch my daughter fight for her life. She is good; her combatant is better. But then my daughter leads the dance over the floor, over to the combatants I have already killed. Good; very good. Her combatant sees the bodies, hesitates, slips. My daughter is over her in a second, slicing her belly—too lightly, but I will discuss that with her later—a knife at her throat.
I try not to burst with pride. My second daughter, successful in her very first dance. And against an opponent with skill, as well! I must not show this. I must not. But I do step forward.
“Well done,” I say. I do not add “my daughter.” That is something I will say later, when we are away from the floor, and can rejoice as a family. “And now, finish it with honor. As you have been taught. A swift blade against the throat.”
Sometimes we dancers need that encouragement, the first time. My daughter certainly does. Her knife hesitates, trembles above her combatant’s throat.
“Kill her,” I say, but gently.
The knife still trembles, but does not sink down.
I see a flicker of cloth on the side of the floor. A priest, watching.
We will all be dead if she continues to dishonor the dance. My daughter knows this. And yet she still hesitates, knife above the woman’s throat. The combatant does not deserve this; she fought with honor, and deserves the mercy of a quick death, not this torture of knowing that death will come soon, so soon, knowing that she cannot stop the knife—
“Kill her,” I repeat.
And still my daughter does not move.
Incomprehensible. Has she watched this long, trained this long, and still failed to understand? Another flicker of cloth, then a third. The priests are coming. We will all be killed if she does not do something. If I do not do something. “Sarren—” I say. A slight breaking of ritual, this, but perhaps if I name her, remind her of who she is—
“I know her,” whispers my daughter.
She has been warned of this, too. For the most part, those we meet on the floor are strangers. Are chosen, as much as the priests can help, to be strangers. But sometimes, for one reason or another, we know the combatants we face.
“She is a friend.”
“She is a combatant,” I say. “And she has earned her death.” Neither statement seems to convince her. I swallow, try to think of something else. Anything else. Even the obvious, what I know Sarren already knows. “If she was innocent, she would have defeated you.”
Sarren bends to put her lips on the woman’s forehead.
That is most definitely a breaking of ritual. But breaking ritual is the least of our problems now. A fourth priest has reached the floor, and I can see a fifth. All armed with daggers; all masked. Sarren’s father might be one of them; behind the masks and the robes I have no way of knowing.
I move swiftly, pushing Sarren out of the way, slicing her combatant’s throat.
And I dance.
Sarren is weeping—weeping! A trained dancer, weeping!—on the floor, daggers by her side. I do not know what I have done wrong. But I will have time to think of that, later.
For now, I have only ritual, and honor, and need. “Sarren,” I say, and I try to put everything into that word, every moment I have shared with her, my pride in seeing her take this path, my pride in her skills and training. She was so good, my daughter.
Seven priests now, all lined up around the dancing floor, blocking any escape into the maze.
It takes me only a moment to slice Sarren’s belly and throat. My dance for her—that takes longer.
Sarren is only a word, and only so much can be contained in a word.
The priests do not allow me out on the dancing floor for some weeks. My feet itch, but I do not say anything; I know all too well what happens to those who protest. I spend my time at court, watching the interactions of priest and official, my tongue burning to speak. I accept the false solicitations of courtiers who never trained for the dance, accept the more meaningful words from my fellow dancers. They know; they understand; and they do not commiserate. I meet with Sarren’s father. I do not ask him if he stood on that floor, behind a mask. Some things it is better not to know.
I could have another child, of course. But I have already had seven, and I am too old to believe that one child can replace another. No. I must take comfort in the six who live, when I can bear to speak with them. When I can look at them without seeing my daughter.
When the priests hand me the white cloth that will bind my eyes as I walk onto the floor, I nearly weep in relief. Nearly. This is no time for tears. This is time for the dance.
This time, I am alone. So this will be an ordinary criminal, or person sent in tribute. Another relief. The priests are kind to us, indeed. I wait in the pose I have held since I was only four years of age, the pose drilled into all dancers. I hear the doors clang. I pray this one will make it to the floor, will not merely sit by the door to die, forcing me to stand in this pose for hours without relief.
I sip water and honey as I wait, use the small jar by the side of the floor. Between these times, I slip back into nyagi pose. No real need, until the combatant arrives, but I find the ritual comforting.
At long last, I hear the footsteps approach. I turn to face the maze and the combatant that emerges.
My first daughter, with twin daggers in her hands and ice in her eyes.
For the first time, I feel my hands grow slick with sweat.
And we begin to dance.
More from Mari Ness:
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, near labyrinths of waterways, heavy trees, and shadows and light. Her work has previously appeared in numerous publications, including Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Fantasy Magazine. Her experimental novella-in-poetry, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, is forthcoming from Papaveria Press. For a fuller list of her work, you can check out her blog at marikness.wordpress.com, and for the latest, follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.