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Authors: Fred Saberhagen

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BOOK: The White Bull
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"—classmates involved will be expelled and sent home in disgrace," the king was saying. There followed the longest pause he had made since his chief engineer's arrival. "To do the same to you would of course be an insult to your father and a danger to our alliance. Daedalus, did I not set you in charge of this young blockhead's schooling?"

Strictly speaking this claim was not accurate; but I merely bowed my head a little lower. Now was not the moment for any philosopher's insistence upon precise Truth; rather, the great fact that Minos was in a rage easily took precedence over Truth in any of its lesser forms.

"His schooling, Daedalus, is not proceeding satisfactorily, "

The king's chief artisan bowed his head somewhat lower yet.

"And as for you,
prince
—now you may speak. What have you to say for yourself?"

Theseus shifted his weight on his big feet, and spoke up calmly enough. "Sire, that school is driving me to drink and madness."

Now Minos, too, was calm. The royal rage had been used up. Or else it could, on the proper occasions, be turned on and off like the flow of water in one of the pipes I had provided for him.

"Prince Theseus, you are under house arrest until further notice, allowed out only to attend school. I intend to station six strong soldiers at your door, and you may assault them, or try to, should you feel the need for further recreation."

"I am sorry for what happened last night, King Minos." And it seemed he was. "But I can take no more of that school."

"You will take more of it. You must." Then the king's eye swung back again to his counselor. "Daedalus, what are we to do? I and the queen leave in three days for this damned round of state visits. We are going as far as Macedonia, and we will probably be gone for months."

"I fear I have been neglectful regarding the prince's problems, sire. Let me now make them my prime concern."

 

A few hours after being excused by King Minos, and shortly after dawn, I once more entered the White Bull's quarters. This time I found the dais unoccupied. Heedless of stepping-stones, I sloshed through the little moat and stood beside the odd-shaped chair. There was never any need to call, and I stood waiting silently.

In a few minutes the half-human figure appeared, more silvery and inhuman than ever in the early morning light. Before it took any notice of its caller it proceeded through a ritual splashing, bathing, in the moat. Then it climbed up on the dais to bid me welcome.

"Learn from me, Dae-dal-us! How are you learning?"

"White Bull, today I come to see you not on my own affairs, but on behalf of Prince Theseus. He is experiencing great difficulty in… no, let me speak more plainly than that. He tells me that his testing in the Labyrinth, in particular, is likely to drive him to violent madness. Knowing him, I believe him when he tells me that. He must not be allowed to fail in such a way."

"The course of stu-dy of Tac-tics, Dae-dal-us, is pre-scribed. In part the course de-scrip-tion is as fol-lows: the tea-cher shall e-lic-it from the stu-dents facts as to their a-bil-i-ty to de-ter-mine spa-tial lo-ca-tions—"

I couldn't stand it. "Oh great teacher! Master of the science and art of Transmission of Learning! I beg you—"

"Not Master, Dae-dal-us. My a-ca-dem-ic rank is that of Doc-tor, which is high-er."

"Master or Doctor or Divinity or what you will. You say that you are going to instruct the prince in the science of tactics. I suppose it means nothing that the fate of Theseus in battle, insofar as it is not determined by all the chance stupidities of war, is not at all likely to depend on his ability to grope his way out of a maze?"

"He has been all-owed to choose his course of stu-dy, Dae-dal-us, Be-yond that, spe-cial treatment can-not be ac-cord-ed any non-dis-ad-van-taged stu-dent."

"Well." There were times when I despaired of ever getting a direct answer to a question. "White Bull,
I
have never fought anyone with a sword. Have you?"

The figure on the high chair was silent. Perhaps it was outraged already that anyone dared to cast doubt upon its competence.

But I pressed on. "
I
have never bullied men and challenged them and cheered them on to get them into combat. But once, shortly before I left the mainland, watching them from the highest and safest place that I could reach, I saw Prince Theseus do these things. He must have been not quite fifteen years old at the time. Some vassal's uprising somehow got started against Athens, and Theseus put it down, almost single-handedly, you might say. I think he would not be likely to learn much from me in the way of military science, were I to lecture on the subject. No doubt you, however, have some great skill and knowledge in the field to impart?"

The Bull showed no emotion, none at least that I could understand. "My qual-i-fi-ca-tions as tea-cher are be-yond your a-bil-i-ty to com-pre-hend, much less to ques-tion. Your own pro-gress in school should be your con-cern."

"White Bull!" I paused, raising both hands to my own grizzled hair; I felt like tearing handfuls of it out. Why, why, was I feted to spend so much of my life in this insane struggle with this inhuman creature? "Try to understand. If Theseus should fail here, fail spectacularly, then I may not be on hand to make any kind of progress through your school. Minos will be angry with me. And not with me alone."

"You are worth too much to Min-os for him to kill you."

"I am not at all sure of that. Am I worth more than an Athenian alliance? I think not. And how much do you think that you are worth to him?"

"
I
?" For once the Bull's voice had real tone in it. Surprise, I thought. "Ed-u-ca-tion is priceless."

 

Argue with the chief educator as I might, I was unable to get my princely ward excused from Tactical training and testing in the Labyrinth. I returned to my own living quarters in a cloud of worry.

Still, for the next couple of days, the situation seemed to ease. The prince
at least was attending school, and I thought he must be applying himself to his studies.

Foolishly I did nothing, and allowed my hopes to rise. Then, as I emerged one afternoon from my own classroom, I saw a page from the Inner House coming to get me, and I knew a sinking feeling. But the message was not quite what I had feared: it was the Princess Ariadne who required my presence in the audience chamber at once.

Going along with the page, now more puzzled than alarmed, I found Ariadne perched regally on the small throne. She greeted me formally, and dismissed the page and her other attendants. As soon as they were out of the room, the princess came down from the chair and spoke to me with her usual lack of ceremony.

"Daedalus, before my father's departure he told me—"

"Departure!—but I beg your pardon for interrupting, princess. Then your mother and father have already departed on their state tour?"

"Of course. Where have you been for the past two days, Daedalus, that you don't know what's going on?"

"In school—but never mind, Your Highness. What were you going to tell me?"

"My father has informed me that Prince Theseus has been having—difficulties—in school, and he impressed upon me the importance of this problem. Also I have—I have talked with the prince myself, and I find that the situation does not seem to be improving." Ariadne sounded nervous, vaguely distracted—as well she might, I supposed, with the cares of a kingdom suddenly left upon her shoulders.

"I fear that you are right, princess, about the situation in the school," I began. Then, before I had time to say anything more, I was interrupted by the entrance of another page, come to announce the arrival of Theseus himself.

No escort of soldiers accompanied the prince when he walked in—evidently the princess had wasted no time in setting aside the house arrest ordered by her father. I thought that the exchange of greetings between the two young people sounded somewhat too stiffly formal, and I noted also that Ariadne scarcely looked at Theseus as she spoke to him. Certainly she had made no such effort to avoid looking at him when he entered the wrestling ring on the day of his arrival, or during the days that had passed since then. But now she did. And now, when the prince looked at her, his face was wooden.

For a few moments I entertained the idea that the two of them were quarreling, but I soon decided that the absolute opposite was much more likely. An affair, then, and they were naturally trying to hide it. What next? As if there were not problems enough already. Silently I breathed unpracticed prayers, addressed to any god who might deign to listen.

Theseus, in response to an awkward-sounding question from Ariadne, was now relating his continued difficulties in school. Their dialogue had a rehearsed quality.

Now she turned back to me, almost pleading, in a voice that sounded much more natural. "Daedalus, he will fail his Labyrinth tests again unless we do something, and perhaps he will be expelled. What are we to do? We must find
some
means of helping him."

And a glance flashed between the two young people. It was a very brief glance, but it was quite enough to make me feel certain of what was going on. My sinking feeling grew worse. Something told me that this affair was neither completely casual nor formalized by an official engagement—that would have been announced with such fanfare that even I, isolated from much of what went on at court, must have heard the news. No, then it must be Love—the cause of no end of trouble, especially among royalty.

Still, now that I had grasped the situation, I could almost begin to relax. I suppose I gazed at the two young people with something like a smile. I could only hope that the Princess Ariadne would not allow infatuation to lead her into any real craziness, such as trying to arrange a secret marriage. Meanwhile, it occurred to me, Theseus's problems might actually be easier to solve while Minos, with his secret fear of the Bull, was not around.

Was it even possible that Minos had planned his diplomatic trip, and taken his queen with him, in the hopes that someone would take care of the embarrassment for him while he was gone?

Conferring with the prince—while Ariadne hovered near and listened to our talk—I made sure that the key to the young man's worst difficulties was the maze itself. In his courses other than Tactics, all of them taught in ordinary classrooms, the prince might, probably could, do well enough to scrape by.

Having heard Theseus out, I took a charred stick from a sacrificial brazier nearby, and began to draw on the smooth stone floor beside the narrow rug. From memory I sketched there a crude plan of a key portion of the Labyrinth, the very area in which Tactical Training began each day. The painted griffins on the walls glared down balefully at the three people who squatted near the foot of the throne, like three children at some game.

Theseus, saying little, stared gloomily at the patterns as I drew them, and appeared to listen while I talked. Once the slender brown hand of Ariadne came over, forgetfully, to touch her lover's hand. Then her hand flew back, while her eyes jumped up to search my face. I affirmed that I had noticed nothing, by holding my own scowling concentration on the floor.

"Now, prince," I said, "I am going to reveal a secret that you must tell no one." I raised my gaze deliberately to meet the eyes of Theseus. "I hope you understand."

"Of course. I can keep a secret. What kind of secret is it that'll help me, though?"

"If you felt confident of being able to find your way completely out of that portion of the Labyrinth, anytime you wanted,
that
would help you, would it not?"

Theseus started to answer, then settled for drawing a deep breath. "Yes," he said at last.

I frowned at him. "One way is to take advantage of a gentle, very subtle slope of the floor, away from the center—but that may be hard to detect. The foolproof way is this: If you were in the center of the maze, trying to find your way out, the idea would be to let your right hand touch the wall at the start—hey? Follow me?"

"I think so. I can always tell my right hand from my left." The reassurance was offered to me quite seriously. "At least when I'm outside the Labyrinth. My right hand's the one in which I always—almost always—hold a sword. I just imagine myself picking one up." The Prince of Athens nodded grimly.

"Ah—yes. So, as I say, if you are trying to find your way outward from the center, or from any point inside, you must just let your right hand glide continuously along the wall as you move. You may not reach the exit by the shortest path, but you'll certainly get there."

The handsome, scarred face frowned. "If I'm carrying something in my right hand, though…"

"Well then,
imagine
your right hand gliding along the wall. Or use your right shoulder. Now, there is one important exception to this rule. If, in that section of the maze, you should find yourself climbing a stair, you must remember
to
switch at the top of the stair. Then you glide your left hand along the wall. Keep doing that
until
you have descended at least one step again, then switch back to using the right hand. Now, of course, if you should be trying to find your way
inward
from the entrance to the center, simply reverse—"

"Daedalus." The prince's voice was not very loud, but still it stopped me in mid-sentence. "Thanks for what you are trying to do. But I tell you, when I am put in there, I cannot help myself."

Theseus got to his feet, moving as if he were unconscious of the movement. His eyes were fixed on something in the distance, beyond the audience chamber's confining walls. "Once I get
in there
I forget all about left and right, except I know that the walls are crushing in on me, the doors are all sealing themselves off—" Ariadne, who now was standing too, put out a hand again, then drew it back. "—so there is nothing left but stone walls, all coming closer. I wish you had never told me that some of them are four men's bodies thick."

Theseus was shivering now, as if with cold, although the afternoon was warm. There was a look in the prince's eyes that I had seen there on only one occasion in the past, and now I too got to my feet, moving with deliberate care.

BOOK: The White Bull
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