The Journey of Life

by K. S. Dearsley


Champion Kord hesitated. “Your father never told you
anything about his turn in the Journey of Life?”

“No,” Prince Onrai said. “And if he told you
anything, I don’t wish to hear it. I’ll gain the
throne by fair means or not at all.” He smiled to
soften the words; Kord was not merely the champion of
his house, but a friend since childhood.

“You’ll commit suicide then.” Princess Leyli’s eyes
shone out from the shadows.

“Not if anything his friends can do can prevent it,
Princess.” 

Onrai almost expected the champion to go down on one
knee and swear it. Kord was rewarded with a small
upwards curve at the corner of Leyli’s mouth.

“Being able to reason could stand me in better stead
than skill with a sword.” All he had to do, on the
thirtieth day after his father’s funeral, was find his
way through the maze first to be proclaimed king.

Leyli clicked her tongue.

“You will at least let me set a guard to protect you.
There’s no rule against defending yourself,” Kord
said.

“And have people think me a coward?”

Leyli cut short his protest. “Would you rather they
thought you a fool?

Onrai gave her a bow. “What need have I of a
bodyguard when I have you two?” He had thirty days to
find a solution. Perhaps it was only the ‘otherness’
he had experienced since his father’s funeral, but a
screw of pain had begun to turn beneath his ribs.

#

Onrai pushed the book away. His candle had burned
down low and the long flame danced with every movement or breath stirring the air. Even without it, he would have known that Leyli had entered. He braced himself against the first prickings of pain.

“Still reading?”

“Swordplay’s not the only way to win a fight.” He
half-turned, but Leyli came up behind him and looked
over his shoulder.

“Deyri-dienne’s Poetry of Dancing Metal. Poetry?”

“Deyri-dienne was a great warrior in his day - claimed
to have killed two hundred adversaries in single
combat - that should be great enough even for you.” Onrai closed the cover.

“And has he helped you?”

Onrai slumped back in his chair. “I was looking for
some significance of ‘thirty’.  Why thirty days?”

“To give your opponents time to prepare against you.”

“But why thirty? Why not four weeks or a month? Why
thirty?”

Leyli shrugged.

“Don’t you see? There has to be a reason. The
lawgivers who built the Journey of Life did everything
with a purpose. The number must mean something!”

“Thirty different ways you can die, perhaps.” Leyli
trimmed the wick on the candle as she spoke. The
scissors made the flame quiver.

“What would you have me do, then?”

“I would have had you fight, but it’s too late for
that now. Almost too late for everything.” She set
down the scissors and moved to Onrai’s bed. The warm
covers and soft pillows were unrumpled. Leyli trailed
her fingers over the smooth quilt. “Almost, but not
quite.”

The pain under Onrai’s ribs stopped his breath. He
pulled another book towards him, whose cover was
grimed and dull with long neglect. “Not quite, as you
say, there’s still the Rules of Artful Leadership. I
may find what I seek there.”

“You’ll not come to bed, then?”

He gestured helplessly at the burdened table.

Leyli stood abruptly. “Very well, you’ve made your
choice.”

“Have you made yours?” Onrai’s words stopped her. “I know I haven’t been the husband you wanted.”

“But you are the husband I have.” Her chin came up. 

“Until tomorrow at least.” 

Her eyes widened and she took a step towards him as if she would slap him. “Tomorrow you’ll find out just
how loyal to you I am.”

The slam of the door felt like the corkscrew of pain
that threatened to double Onrai over. He tried to
concentrate on the ‘Rules’, but he kept seeing Leyli’s
expression and his notes turned to mindless scribble.
He looked at the random groupings of slashes and
squares. He sat up straighter and began flicking over
the pages of the book, searching...

#

The sun bounced heat off the stone walls of the maze
and glared up from the steps around it. Onrai stood
with sweat sticking his shirt to his back. His boots
felt uncomfortably tight in the heat and he tried to
ease his toes without showing discomfort. The silent
crowd would be no less his judges than the Journey of
Life. He would not even allow himself to glance up at
the massive walls in case it was taken as a sign of
fear.

“The day is come. Thirty days since the king-that-was
passed. Now is the time for the king-who-will-be to
undertake the Journey of Life. Let all those who
would challenge Prince Onrai stand forward!” The
Pater-Major of the temple bellowed the words, more
like an officer on a parade ground than a man of the
spirit.

The people in the crowd were a blur to Onrai. He
focussed on Leyli, pale with mouth set, and Kord,
planted beside her as if he would hew the legs of all
who came near. People stirred as three fish-scale
armored warriors pushed their way through, like
trickles down a windowpane, converging on the steps. 

“Champion Vhun,” the first announced. Onrai saw Kord
nod. It was as they expected; all the major houses
were represented. Then another trickle of silver sent
a murmur through the crowd.

“Champion Kord.” He took up a place beside Onrai. 
The prince stared ahead. Leyli’s eyes calmly met his.

The champions handed over their swords and stripped
off their armor to stand as simply clad as Onrai. All
would be equal on entering the Journey of Life. The
Pater-Major raised both arms.

“A king-to-be will enter. By the setting of the sun,
a king-who-is shall be born. Let the journey
commence.” He dropped his arms.

There was a sound of bolts being drawn back and the
doors swung open on five faces of the maze, revealing
nothing but black wounds. One of the challengers
stepped straight over the nearest threshold and the
door swung closed behind him. The others strode from
one door to another, choosing the likeliest. Their
fingers twitched over missing sword-pommels. Onrai
felt the probe beneath his ribs ease. Combat ready
they might be, but they were used to having weapons,
whereas he was used to using his brain. If he could
avoid them as they blundered around seeking each other
rather than the exit, he had a chance. He caught
Kord’s eye. His childhood friend winked and stepped
inside. Onrai took a deep breath, looked up at the
patterned frame of the opening above him and followed
suit. 

Immediately, the door shut, plunging him into what
seemed like total darkness until his eyes adjusted. He waited, listening. The passage was broad enough
for two people to walk abreast. It was lit by a
shaded lantern hanging beside the opening. Onrai
unhooked it and opened the shade. For an instant he
could pick out passages gaping on either side, and a
blank wall at the end. Geometric patterns punctuated
each choice of path. Onrai snapped the lantern shut
and walked softly, but without hesitation, to the end
of the passage. As he passed openings he could feel
changes in the air like breath on his cheek. From one
came the sound of footsteps, almost an echo of his
own. A prickle ran over his scalp. When he touched
the far wall, he risked opening the lantern again. 
The passage was not blank, but turned at a right-angle
impossible to see at the far end. Onrai shone the
lantern down the new passage, then set off again.

If it had not been for Leyli’s interruption the night
before, he might never have found the clue. The only
significance of ‘thirty’ was that it had none, other
than as part of the test. Wherever he found the
number, he would follow it, whether it was represented
in repeated shapes, combinations of lines or
mathematical symbols. ‘Thirty’ was his compass.

A crash and a cry vibrating through the stone, halted
him. Onrai could feel the hot pain of steel sliding
into his chest. Careful, careful. It sounded as if
at least one of his adversaries had been taken out of
the game. Had he heard metal being drawn, or only
felt it? Onrai reached the next point of choice. He
waited for any noise other than the roar of his breath
in his ears, and stared into the darkness for a
glimmer of lantern-light from the side passages.
None. He checked his way once more, then turned off
into a side passage narrow enough to brush his
shoulders. His skin crawled at the base of his neck
where the blow of an assassin might fall. When the
passage suddenly gaped onto a hexagonal space, Onrai
almost fell over. At its centre was a pillar
inscribed with abstract designs and stylized
depictions of old battles. Opening onto the space, or
leading off it, were a series of startled mouths. Onrai snatched a look around him, then stepped up to
the pillar. He opened the lantern and set it on the
floor, inspecting the inscriptions with sight and
touch. They were beautiful, worthy of proper study.
The section he was looking at disappeared in shadow.

Onrai swung round. He caught the swish of metal
cutting through the air and the sweat-sheened face of
one of the champions trapped in a momentary tableau
before slowly crumpling. The metalic odor of blood
filled Onrai’s mouth as much as his nostrils. The
champion sank to his knees as if he had decided to
offer fealty after all. Behind him stood Kord, his
grin gleaming in the lantern-light. He discarded the
battered remains of his lantern, dropped on the fallen
champion’s back, grasped his head at crown and chin
and gave a swift twist. The crack of bones made Onrai
swallow carefully. He took a step back as Kord rose,
wiping his hands on his trousers.

“Never could trust that one,” Kord said. “What? You
don’t think...? Onrai, I’m your friend! How could
you even think it?”

“I...” Onrai looked from Kord to the man he had just
killed.

“Leyli and I knew you’d never have the stomach for
this. That’s why we hit on me taking the challenge.”

“Leyli?”

“Yes.”

“So that was what she meant...” Onrai stopped. 

Kord watched him eagerly. “When?”

Onrai shook his head. “Never mind.”

“You lead. I’ll watch your back.”

Onrai turned again to the pillar, but he looked beyond
it to the frames around the openings. One had a
pattern of three ‘x’s’ interspersed with crosses--ten
plus ten plus ten.

“This way.”

Kord followed him into the passage. Onrai stopped
before the next opening, checking for signs of the
third champion.

“What’s the matter? Keep going.”

Onrai hid his surprise. “This boot’s rubbing.” He
bent to adjust it.

“I knew you’d work out the route,” Kord said. “All
those years studying had to come in useful for
something.”

The path jack-knifed and branched. Onrai slowed at
each approaching junction, trying to work out the
signs before they reached them. They arrived at a
choice unlike any of the others. There were three
doors: two on either side and one facing them. Kord
held up the lantern.

“Aren’t you worried we’ll be seen?”

Kord hesitated. “Found me out. There’s no one to
see. I killed him.”

“Like you’re going to kill me?”

“No!” Kord’s face flushed. “No. But admit it,
Onrai, you can’t rule. You don’t understand how to
handle people. All I want is to leave this place
first.”

Onrai stared at the doors; this was no time to falter. “This damn boot!” Onrai started counting the
patterns as he fidgeted to relieve the sore spot. 
“It’s that one.”  He nodded at the right-hand door.

“Open it.”

Onrai looked up. There was a dagger in Kord’s hand. “Sorry, old friend, but I can’t take a chance on you
making a run for it.”

Onrai began to straighten. “Do you know what poets
write about?” he asked.

“Who cares?” Kord threw back his head in a bark of
laughter.

As Onrai rose he slid out the knife that had been
rubbing inside his boot, completing the movement with
a thrust of the blade beneath Kord’s ribs, at about
the place where he had experienced the phantom stab of
pain himself.

Kord’s eyes opened wide. He held out fingers stained
with his blood.  “You guessed?”

“I knew.” Onrai watched as Kord slumped to the floor,
then opened the door. Sunshine lit up the handsome
face, giving it a glow it no longer possessed. 
“Poetry, dear friend.” Onrai squatted beside the
body. “Poetry tells you what’s in men’s hearts.”

The journey was finished. Onrai stepped out to be
reborn.

###