“Mistra Eryn says you've been especially diligent lately, Stray.”
“I guess so. I think the exercises are good for me.”
“I'm sure you're right. I've noticed the same thing... you've been at three classes every week, even beyond our private sessions. Do you think they're working?”
“I guess... I mean, yes, I definitely think so. I've been practicing the tones a lot, though, and also the breathing and stretches, when I have time to myself. I don't think Elkansa appreciates it... understands it, I mean... but she just ignores me when I'm doing it around her.”
“And when is that? Don't you have a private space to practice?”
“Sure, my room is usually fine. But late at night, I like to do it in the gathering room, before the fire burns out completely.”
“And how is that different from doing it in your own room?”
“Well, first, there's a lot more space, so the sound is richer, riding the air currents around the room... and the warmth of the fire adds an extra frequency, too. Plus, it feels different. There's more harmony, and dissonance, so when I find my tone, there's more roundness to it... it's got more shape. Does that make sense?”
“Absolutely. In the gathering room, you should be able to feel the resonance of the other people who have been spending time there. Elkansa, first and foremost... at this point, you'd probably recognize her frequency without even having to tune against it.” Mistra Septa hesitated, measuring her tone. “Actually, I'm quite impressed at how you describe the resonance in your gathering room. Those are the kinds of nuances that some of our Prospects don't recognize until their second or third year.”
“You must be an excellent teacher.” Stray's smile was sly and charming.
“Thank you, Stray, that's very kind. So have your family and friends noticed that you spend more time with us these days? Are you still getting along with them?”
“Yes. They've probably noticed... Elkansa definitely has... but they haven't really said much about it. I don't see them every day any more... Boyle spends a lot of time with Varda, and Edzie has spent a lot of evenings lately at Ghada and Bellaryn's house. She says I shouldn't come unless we all make plans together ahead of time.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“I mean, I'm not stupid... I know why they suddenly need all that privacy. I wouldn't want to be there anyway, obviously.”
“Well, of course, but that's not what I was asking. I was asking how you felt about them spending more time together. Is there anything unexpected? Is your body reacting? Do you feel any new tensions or sensitivities when you introspect?”
“I... I've thought about it a little, but not much. Something is different, but I can't tell what. It's a tightness, an abrasive sort of... hostility, I guess.”
“Stray, as much as you don't want to admit it, I think that's what we call jealousy.”
Stray tried to object... defensive words seemed to emerge spontaneously, reflexively, with a sort of submerged violence... and he adhered to his training and silenced them, forcing the part of his brain that was forming the words to go slack. He searched his mind, looking for a sign of himself, some authentic image beneath his self-defense mechanisms, and gradually managed to detach himself from his jealousy. He focused on this detachment, and allowed new words to rise from it.
“I think that helps me understand jealousy better, knowing that's how it feels. I mean, I always felt like there was a balance, between me and Edzie and Ghada... like a web strung loose between tree branches. But I'm realizing that some parts of it are tightening, now, and other parts are coming completely unstrung. I figured, if anything, Ghada might pull Edzie away and I would feel abandoned by her... but...”
“But it's the reverse.”
“Yes. Edzie still feels as close as ever, like our relationship can stretch and shrink and never really change. But I think Ghada was growing fond of me, and now he looks at me like something a little bit dangerous, or beyond his reach. Now that the situation is changing, I feel like the whole past year... or since summer, at least... is coming into focus differently. It's hard, seeing something you missed that you can't go back to.”
“I'm glad you can see that so clearly, Stray. I'd say you're ahead of many people – adults, even – in facing your emotions and integrating them into your life.”
Stray scowled at this. “Funny you say that. The more I pay attention... the more mindful I am, the more I try to be sensitive to my emotions... the more I feel like I'm just getting lost in the woods. The more sensitive I am to those emotions, the more wild and mysterious they seem.”
“That's common. The first lesson in any great endeavor is to recognize your own inadequacy. All humans are treacherously, devastatingly limited creatures.” Mistra Septa indicated that she needed a moment's pause – how she made this so glaringly clear without any explicit indication, Stray had no idea – and tightened her topknot. When she was satisfied, she arched her back, restoring her posture to ensiform perfection, and finally continued, her voice keen and methodical. “So let's keep working on it. Where has your mind been going, at the depth of your meditation, when you finally let go? What have you been thinking about?”
Stray reflected on this question for a moment, and then said, “Well, there are three places so far.”
... ... ... ...
Edzie and Ghada's intermittent romance began in 3339, and by 3340, most of their friends and acquaintances were aware of it, though they were politely circumspect about it. It was the same way with Boyle and Varda, except that Varda wasn't close friends with Edzie or Stray or Ghada, and Boyle spent the better part of that year trying to keep it that way. Edzie and Stray only felt that relationship as a sort of undercurrent running beneath Boyle's various moods. When he and Varda were feeling productive and compatible, he was less available, but much more animated and cheerful. When there was distance or tension between them, his cynicism became almost unbearable, and he became (somehow) both clingy and unreliable.
Eventually, in the months leading up to the Festival of Emergence, Boyle realized he needed to merge his social circles. Between Varda, Stray and Edzie, and his crucial time alone with his canvases, he had too many parts to play, too many public faces to keep track of. Slowly, he started creating opportunities for Stray and Edzie to spend time with Varda, so that they could bond over their few common experiences: the trials of Denorian adolescence, the stresses of having parents and teachers, and the noteworthy privilege of having Boyle as a close friend.
At first, the three only talked in short bursts after their sessions with the Mistra, or when Boyle and Varda happened past Edzie and Stray's dromo. Even in these brief encounters, Stray and Edzie could tell that Varda was genuinely shy, taciturn about her own family, suspicious of in-depth questions, and reserved about participating in idle chatter and roughhousing. If you could get her to open up and look at you, she was quite handsome: her eyes were a brown so rich it was almost burgundy, her arms and shoulders were broad and shapely, and she kept her thick black hair folded up on the crown of her head. She tended to wear her brivsa hood up, but left the scarf loose over her upper body, which might have been taken as a sign of disrespect on a more precocious child.
Finally, a few weeks after Emergence, as the first floral weeds were springing up in the spongy earth around the settlement, Boyle arranged an extended rendezvous with Edzie, Stray, and Varda. He couldn't maintain his exclusion – his downright possessive segregation of his social groups – any longer, and so he gave Edzie and Stray a warning and an appeal: he wanted them all to go visit the merchants along Handworkers Row together, and then spend some idle time at the Chronoboros, so would Edzie and Stray please try to behave, and make a decent impression? He knew they had his best interests at heart, but mischief seemed to follow them like a calf after its mother.
The three of them – Boyle, Edzie, and Stray – attended Mistra Septa's session that afternoon. Her lessons were less useful than they once had been... all three of them had attended so many, they had flat-out memorized most of the material. Still, they made frequent obligatory appearances... Stray to help out the younger children, and Edzie and Boyle because they found the cadence of the lectures refreshing. After the lesson concluded, they gathered at the edge of the pavilion and headed northeast, toward Handworkers Row.
As they passed the rows of vendors, the three of them noted the changing atmosphere... the morning's dry breeze had passed entirely, and a heavier, more ominous stillness had replaced it, a humid chill in the shadow of thick clouds. The traders in the Denorian market were looking nervously skyward, ready for the onset of precipitation. Edzie pulled her brivsa's hood tight over her hair as she followed the boys.
Halfway along the market row, they reached Varda's parents' table. Varda's older mother was a stonecarver, and Varda helped her engrave tiles and bricks. She was presently smoothing the sides of a rectangular block, cut from some sort of sandstone; when she saw Boyle, she looked up just long enough to smile and wave, and then turned and said something quietly to the young woman behind her. The woman nodded, and then inspected the brick Varda had been attending.
“Who's that?” Edzie asked Boyle quietly.
“That's her younger mother,” Boyle said. “They sell the stone in the mornings, and then her older mother comes in the evenings to take special orders and finish up the day's business.”
The block apparently met with the inspector's approval, because Varda received an affectionate squeeze on the shoulder, which served as a dismissal. Varda hurried down and embraced Boyle, and then gave a polite nod to Stray and Edzie, who returned her greeting awkwardly. After a moment's discussion, the three of them turned back east, with Boyle and Varda leading the way and Stray and Edzie remaining a few steps behind.
The trip back along Handworkers' Row was a slow one... each of the four children were accosted by at least two or three adults, supplying idle compliments and demanding their regards be sent to the teenagers' parents. Varda knew almost all of the merchants, having spent by far the most time in the market, but they knew she was timid, so they were usually satisfied with a quick, silent nod from the girl. Edzie and Stray had fewer acquaintances here, but they proved annoyingly talkative – every woman who knew Elkansa made a show of admiring her children and asking how she was doing. All four, but Edzie especially, were relieved when the gallery of vendors finally tapered off.
Now that there was more space around them, Stray took the opportunity to catch up to Boyle and Varda, whose conversation seemed to be at a lull. When he reached Varda – a fast, focused walker – he spoke cheerfully and listened patiently, painfully earnest in engaging with her.
“Varda! So Boyle says that was your mother, back at your table?”
“Yes,” Varda said. “That was mother Obrii.”
“Is she the one who does all those intricate carvings on the stones? They look like the swirls on the Caesurites' robes!”
“No,” Varda replied, “That's mother Matrista. She won't be here for another few hours.”
Sensing Varda's shyness, Stray gave her a moment, and then tried to be as gentle as possible in making his inquiry. “So, can I ask about your mothers? Just tell me if you don't want to talk... about them, or anything.”
Varda glanced at Boyle, apparently looking for some kind of confidence from him.
“It's okay either way,” Boyle reassured her. “No need to go into it.” He turned to Stray, his tone conciliatory. “She'll tell you about them later, maybe.”
Varda seemed to perk up a bit with Boyle's encouragement, so she lifted her head and spoke a bit louder. “No, actually, it's okay. I'm just a little tired from the work.” She looked at Stray, forcing a smile. “Mother Obrii is the younger, and she's my birth mother, if that's what you wanted to know.”
“Sure,” Stray said, happy to have cracked the girl's defenses. “How did they meet? Did you know your father?”
“Stray, don't be pushy,” Edzie warned, still a few paces behind.
“No, it's fine,” Varda said, continuing to brighten as she acclimated to the company. “I never knew my birth father. He was an outsider, traveling with mother Obrii, but when they came to live with the tribe, he left mother Obrii for mother Matrista. She says he was a rake, though, so she drove him away, and ended up taking care of mother Obrii, who was pregnant with me. They both say it's complicated, but it sounds pretty simple to me.”
Stray nodded. “Yeah, it does. When they say 'complicated,' they probably just mean they don't want to think too much about it.”
Varda smiled and shrugged. “Fine with me.” They all hesitated a moment, and then Varda chuckled. Her mirth punctured the tension in the air, and finally all four of them laughed together, celebrating the strangeness of the adults who were raising them.
The four of them reached the Chronoboros shortly thereafter, making their way among a peppering of bystanders. It was late afternoon, so the court was dominated by the youth of the tribe, many of them free of their chores and sessions with the Mistras, and not yet engaged in their evening rituals. At the outskirts of the court, there was a great deal of playful prepubescent ruckus, but the Chronoboros itself called for some respect, so it became quieter as the four Denorians approached it.
They only paused once to consider the available space, and then they decided, seemingly in unison, to settle right beneath the tree itself, crouching over its roots. They were old enough that they could keep still and restrain their voices, so they didn't expect to attract any disapproval. Once they were comfortable, Stray renewed his efforts to charm Varda out of her defenses.
The conversation turned almost immediately to the pinti – the bone flute that Varda was learning to play – and Varda's interest in music and crafts. Varda said that her mother Obrii had come from a musical community before she had joined the Denorians, and that she had taken an interest in the pinti as soon as she had learned of its place in Denorian tradition. She had made friends with a craftswoman – Nordimae – who furnished Denorian artifacts and sold them to voraish travelers and merchants at exorbitant prices. Nordimae had taught Obrii to carve the flutes, and though Obrii didn't show an aptitude for hand-carving, she was able to pass the interest on to her daughter.
What she lacked in practical coordination, Obrii made up for in musical talent. Once Varda was carving flutes, drawing on Nordimae's occasional tutelage, mother Obrii was quick to teach her how to play. Varda was learning more slowly than her mother would have liked, but she was improving at a steady pace, and now she was initiating Boyle into the practice. Luckily, Varda had the patient disposition required of a teacher.
Stray asked Varda if she had one of her pinti with her. She didn't, but Boyle had one wrapped up in his portable canvas, along with his charcoals. It was rough, lacking the porcelain smoothness of the instruments that Nordimae made, but it was vastly improved by the etchings on its surface: overlapping curls, framed in rectangles and often spilling out of their borders, adorning the cylindar from tip to tip. There was a single opening to draw the breath, and then eight finger holes, as per traditional pinti construction... one for each of the formal harmonics. Delighted, Stray asked Varda if she would play something for them (he would have requested a duet, but only one instrument was available).
Varda nodded, and she and Boyle briefly discussed her song choice. Varda wanted to play one of the traditional Denorian hymns, whose steady, interwoven tones would unfold slowly and deliberately. It would be familiar to Edzie and Stray, who had heard many such songs from the gathered crowds at the seasonal festivals. Boyle considered this song choice, and finally opposed it, suggesting that she play “one of Obrii's songs” instead. Varda looked hesitant, but she agreed, and put her lips to the pinti.
The song she played used all the familiar notes, those eight formal harmonics from the tribeswomen's ritual chants, but they were employed in such a strange way, it left Stray and Edzie visibly baffled. The notes were so distinct, and came so quickly... they would seem to proceed like a birdsong, or a familiar phrase, and then suddenly they would turn aside like a tree-limb wrenched by a gust of wind. When Varda finished, no more than a minute later, they all felt like they had taken a long journey, and that hours must have passed since she blew the first note.
“Wow!” Stray was the first to speak. “It was... beautiful! So many notes!”
“Yeah, weird, isn't it?” Boyle said, a note of awe in his voice.
“I was looking for the tonic... or some kind of dominant tone, or resonant attitude... but it moved so fast, I couldn't track it!” Stray glanced at Edzie, and then back at Varda. “Where does that kind of music come from?”
“That one is from somewhere down south,” Varda said. “Obrii learned it when she was a child.”
Edzie nodded, recognition showing on her face. “Right. I've read about those songs, from the new kingdoms... lots of notes, with different emotional effects, like stories.”
Varda handed the pinti back to Boyle, who placed it neatly inside his canvas and rolled it back up. Edzie looked at Stray, and found him deep in thought, reflecting on the strangeness of this foreign song that had materialized before him. Finally, having made as much sense of it as he could, he started talking to Boyle about tones and frequencies, repeating the lessons he was learning from Mistra Septa about sound and stability. This conversation led to a discussion of balance and meditation, and before any of them knew what was happening, Stray and Boyle were standing up and trying to balance on one foot.
Boyle was perfectly oblivious, but Stray noticed when they started getting disapproving looks from bystanders. They were very close to the Chronoboros itself, and it was no place for foolishness. Highly conscious of these gazes, Stray suggested they move elsewhere, and Boyle, caught up in the discussion, was quick to agree. They ran off to the west side of the court to compete and make fools of themselves.
“Nice to see you and Boyle getting along so well,” Edzie said. “Me and Stray used to be the only people he seemed to like being around.”
“Yeah, I like him a lot,” Varda said, smiling modestly. She paused, watching them with a sort of paternalistic interest. “Stray seems great. I can see he really cares about Boyle.” She paused. “I'm sorry about Boyle's mother, and how hard she is toward you two.”
Edzie smiled. “Well, maybe with you on our side, she'll start being nice to us again. If enough people tell her that Stray is a good friend, she has to start believing it eventually.”
Varda scowled a bit, looking away from Edzie, and then her expression softened again. “No, it won't help. Alynn isn't changing her mind... if I were you, I'd stop worrying about it.”
Now it was Edzie's turn to scowl, registering her dismay as frustrated defensiveness. “But why? What's the problem?”
Varda checked to make sure the boys were out of earshot, and then leaned in closer to Edzie. “She doesn't see any point in encouraging the friendship. I've heard her argue with Dredda about it... they're not very quiet... She thinks of Stray as a typical boy, and an outsider, at that. It won't do Boyle any good to keep endearing himself to outcasts.” Varda paused and watched Edzie for some reaction, but Edzie's expression was stone, so Varda continued. “She knows Stray is a good friend, but... I think, for Alynn, the friendship is what she's protecting Boyle from.”
Varda finished her explanation and looked at Edzie with concern, but she saw no discernible reaction. She shifted back, giving the other girl space; Edzie's eyes were glazed over for a moment, and then they glanced at Varda, and then returned to a state of reflective emptiness. For Edzie, there had been a sudden change in the atmosphere... she still saw the people around her, Denorian children running around the markers, tribeswomen standing in small groups talking quietly, a few lone bystanders doing exercises and practicing advanced forms... but these figures dropped out of the foreground, becoming remote and flat and empty, drained of their personalities and animating principles. Edzie suddenly felt entirely alone in the center of the court, as if a mark of trespass had been placed upon her. The air felt colder, and the ground felt harder beneath her folded legs.
It only took Edzie a moment to shake off her disquietude, but the feeling remained. She tried to conceal it under polite conversation, but some of her sullenness must have been apparent, because Varda became less responsive, as well. By the time Stray and Boyle returned and sat with them, their conversation had tapered off almost to nothing, and there was no hope of rekindling it.
Stray did the best he could with an atmosphere that seemed to have wilted. Varda and Boyle talked with an inspiring intimacy, and Stray engaged in the conversation as much as he could, as Edzie remained quiet and disconnected, withdrawn into her own thoughts. She was profoundly distracted, but she had the presence of mind to realize she wasn't contributing, so she excused herself on some shaky premise and started the plodding walk homeward.
The first place I always go, that seems the most natural, is a warm, dark enclosure, embracing me on all sides. The warmth clings to me... I think it's actually coming from me, and staying on my skin as it seeps out... and there's something peaceful about the whole experience. It's not perfect, though... in fact, I know something is happening outside this warm pocket I'm occupying... but I can't get out to face it. Or I don't want to, maybe... my stillness seems involuntary, but mental and spiritual, not physical.
Something comes in from outside, though. First, I feel like I'm being watched. The eyes on me are sympathetic, maybe even affectionate, but also a little afraid. That feeling passes, and then I feel like I hear a voice. It's quiet and muffled, too soft to penetrate whatever's protecting me, but it's vaguely familiar. I don't know what it says. After that, I hear soft footsteps, and then I'm totally alone.
This place is inside me, and it draws me in when I'm fully meditating. Going there is fully intentional, and even though there's some dissonance, it's also soothing. It's like a womb, I guess. But after the gaze passes, and then the voice stops talking, and the footsteps go away, then I just stay there for a while, completely protected and motionless. Eventually, though, a bright light envelops me, and I move on to the second place.
Edzie arrived home in a sort of troubled fugue state, Varda's words still ringing in her memory: “It won't do Boyle any good to keep endearing himself to outcasts.” Tension rippled through her shoulders and neck, and her senses, normally so attuned to her surroundings, were all turned inward. She barely registered the sounds of her mother doing some sort of work in the gardens behind their dromo.
Edzie entered the gathering room, its fire reduced to embers in the central hearth, and headed straight for her own room. In the interior shadows, she loosened the tails of her brivsa and tugged the hood from her head. She stopped, motionless, in the center of the room, feeling strangely suffocated by the cool inside air.
She remained there for a moment, held in the grip of some emotional paralysis, and then moved toward the darker shadow underneath her bed, drawn by some unexpected compulsion. She had to crawl to get between the wooden legs of her furniture, but it only took a few seconds for her to reach the base of the wall, where she scratched at an irregular patch of earth. Her fingers found purchase, scraping away the dirt, and in a small cavity, she found what she was looking for.
She withdrew her hands, and in the shadow of her bed, she gazed upon the old plastic knife, her clandestine gift from a man named Dormoroy Gesk.
The plastic artifact was crusted with dirt, but Edzie only had to wipe it a little to expose the black shine of its surface. It seemed to pulsate in her hands, drawing the ambient light into itself. It was so absolutely alien, so otherworldly and forbidden, that her tactile response to its surface was a tightening of her chest, a loss of focus and a sudden drawing of her breath.
Good people miss out on a lot of beautiful things, it seemed to say, its voice an echo of a city she would never see. She drew it closer to her face, and caught sight of herself, looking back from its surface.
Footsteps... the sound of activity in the gathering room. A rush of anxiety struck Edzie, and she scrambled back toward the wall and stuck the plastic knife back in its crevice. Her hands moved with a panicked haste, shoving the earth back into the crack, and she extracted herself from the shadow of her bed and turned toward her doorway. A moment passed, and then Elkansa appeared, blocking the glow emanating from the hallway.
“Edzie?” Her mother wore a wrap, pulled tightly around her breasts, and a pair of weathered pants gathered neatly about her knees. “Is everything okay? You're covered in dirt.”
Edzie stood there for a moment, at a loss. She struggled to find some explanation, and then thought back to what she had been doing that afternoon – her time with Stray and Boyle, her conversation with Varda. She knew Stray would be returning home soon, and she was desperate for some kind of closure or reassurance.
“I'm fine, mom. But I was talking to Varda, and she told me about Alynn, and... do you know what she says about Stray?”
Elkansa frowned, stepping just through the doorway. “I don't... well, I have an idea. What did you hear about it?”
“She doesn't want him to be friends with Boyle because she thinks of him as an outsider. Nothing but a voraish.”
Elkansa groaned. “Argh. Ridiculous. She's being a sluicule. Sorry for the language. She never appreciated what Stray does for that boy.”
Edzie felt frustration growing in her voice. “Mom, she can't just treat him like that! You have to go talk to her!”
Elkansa folded her arms. “Excuse me? I don't have to do anything. It's not my business how she treats him... he's her son, after all.”
“NO! I mean STRAY! You need to go tell her that he's part of the tribe, just like the rest of us, and he deserves to be respected!”
Elkansa looked steadily at her daughter, and then shook her head. “Edzie, you need to calm down. We can't keep every person from getting whatever ideas they get.”
“People?” Edzie wanted to stomp on the floor of her room, but she knew it would make her look like a child, so she remained tense and motionless. “It's not people. It's one person, who happens to be our neighbor, and used to be our friend. And she should be set straight.”
“Edzie, stop yelling.” Elkansa remained stern, serious, and unflappable. “We're a small tribe. People know that Stray isn't originally from here. Some of them may judge him for it. The best we can do is be there for him, and he'll get through it.” She paused to see if she was getting through to her daughter, and then went on. “Everybody I know loves Stray. He's friends with the Mistras, he's patient with the other kids, he's growing into a fetching young man. He'll be fine.”
“UGH.” Edzie marched through her room and pushed past her mother. She was angry almost beyond words, but it didn't manifest as an outburst... instead, Edzie crafted her anger into daggers, furnishing the most hurtful attack on her mother she could muster. “You think he needs someone telling him to make the best of it? I thought you would be strong enough to stand up for him, like the mother you promised to be. Now I have to do that job, too.”
“EDZIE!” Elkansa was yelling now, trying—unsuccessfully—to keep some kind of hold on her daughter. “WE'RE ALL PART OF THIS TRIBE. BE AN ADULT.” She advanced a few steps. “IF YOU EVEN CONSIDER RUINING OUR FAVOR IN THIS COMMUNITY, THEN BY DISSADAE... YOU DO NOT EVEN WANT TO KNOW WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU.”
Edzie strode through the gathering room, past the soft fire, her head spinning with the shock of the argument. She couldn't hear her mother's footsteps, but she was confident that Elkansa was following, intent on averting whatever mayhem Edzie had in store. She reached the front door of the dromo, still imagining herself as a righteous avenger, confronting Alynn on Stray's behalf. In this frame of mind, she stepped out in the daylight.
It was at that moment that her calculating nature caught up with her indignation, and instead of embarking for Boyle's house, she veered to one side and knelt in the shadow of her own dromo, caught in an eddy of uncertainty. Her eyes drifted over the grass and dirt as she assessed the situation... first, she realized how little power she had in the face of Alynn's protectiveness, and the thought was devastating. All she would accomplish would be to anger her own mother, and cement her reputation as a miscreant, and widen the gulf between Stray and Boyle. She wanted, more than anything, to punish Alynn for her mistreatment of Stray, but she had no leverage... her anger was a blade without a handle, its edge pressed to her own palm.
“EDZIE.” Elkansa's voice emerged from the entranceway. At first, Edzie didn't acknowledge it.
“ED. ZIE.” This time, Elkansa's tone brought Edzie to attention. It wasn't her usual voice of reproach... indeed, there was something panicked and hurt in it, and it made Edzie shiver in spite of herself. She half-stood and turned back toward the dromo, suddenly concerned.
Elkansa's hand closed around Edzie's upper arm, so rough that Edzie thought it would dislocate. She didn't resist, but Elkansa was pulling so hard it didn't matter... Edzie found herself unmoored from the ground, practically thrown back through the entranceway. She stumbled, and Elkansa held her up, giving her only a moment to find her footing. When Edzie looked up, she found Elkansa was pointing at something on the ground near the fire pit.
There, lying in the dirt where Elkansa had thrown it, was the black plastic knife.
“Mom...” Despair washed over Edzie, and she stuttered, incoherent, paralyzed.
“I can't... I don't believe...” Elkansa, too, was beyond words. She pulled Edzie in front of her, and they walked toward the contraband together, Edzie fast in her mother's grip, feeling a desperation in her touch. She found herself standing over the knife, looking down at it, crusted with dirt, like a venomous lizard camouflaged as part of the floor.
“You would bring that... thing... into my dromo, poison my walls with its filth... how did you get it, Edzie? Who has these?”
“Mother...” Edzie was momentarily beyond defiance, so she lapsed into apologetic honesty. “Nobody has them. I got it from the bandit, Doromory Gesk, when we captured him in the woods, three winters ago.”
“And you kept it secret from me, all this time? What about Stray?”
Elkansa couldn't take her eyes off the knife, but Edzie could see that tears were beginning to form beneath them. She seemed so numb, so distraught, that Edzie found her own distress waning in the face of her mother's dread. Gradually, as Elkansa seemed to fall apart, Edzie began to regain her composure.
“Stray? Stray wouldn't abide something like this. I don't think he's even capable of lying.” Edzie leaned down to pick up the knife; Elkansa's grip on her shoulder tightened. “Mom, it was something special. A secret I kept for myself. You don't have to put me to trial for it.”
Elkansa's grip loosened, and Edzie knelt to pick up the knife. She did her best to look disgusted at its strangeness, but all she could muster was an expression of indifference. Elkansa remained motionless for a second, and then took the knife from Edzie's hand... decisively, but without violence. She looked Edzie in the eye as she spoke.
“Edzie,” she said, apparently calmed by her daughter's composure, “this is not just some trinket. It was a great crime to create this, and it is a great crime to have it in your possession... the kind of crime that can change the whole shape and culture of a society. These kinds of fetishes... the synthetic, molded and mass-produced infatuations of sick minds... these have destroyed too many lives to count.” She paused, making sure Edzie was paying attention to her. “Like Stray's father, who let himself be carried away by his damned fascination.”
“Tamlis...?” Edzie was struck by this sudden admission, though she had heard a few such rumors already.
“Yes,” Elkansa said. “I'll say no more about it, except that it is fortunate... perhaps a blessing from Dissadae himself... that he never made a co-conspirator of Stray.”
The word crime struck Edzie with significant force, and she redirected the conversation. “So what will happen to me?” she asked. “Can they exile me for having this?”
Elkansa scowled at her daughter. “Doubtful, but it's possible. At any rate, they would place a great curse upon you, and you would carry the ill will of the tribe for many years... perhaps your whole life, as long as the incident was remembered.”
Edzie felt a trace of desperation in her breast, but she remained steadfast, looking into her mother's eyes without flinching. Elkansa seemed to consider the topic for a moment, and then she made a decision. “That is if I were to let it happen. But you are my daughter, and I won't let you ruin your own life, no matter how hard you try. I'm taking that travesty and keeping it safe until early morning, when I will dispose of it well outside the settlement.”
Edzie almost raised her voice to object, but presently thought better of it. She had set these events in motion by revealing the knife's location, and now it was best that she let it go. Elkansa was probably right, now that both of them knew about it... it needed to be purged from their lives. Still, she was disheartened at the loss of her treasure, and her resentment for her mother burned in her throat, already inflamed by the earlier fight.
Elkansa was already heading to her room, knife in hand, when Edzie called to her. “So, mom, I just wondered... what would happen to you if the tribe learned I had this?”
Elkansa only hesitated a moment. “That's of no concern to you,” she said sternly. “You're the one whose future needs saving here.”
Now, instead of being impenetrably dark, it's as bright as a clear winter day, and I'm flying through the air. I'm very high... above the tops of the Witherleafs... and I'm passing over the settlement, going west. I feel the Crag Mountains at my back, but I never turn around to see them. I only see the landscape passing beneath me like clouds moving by before a storm.
I'm following some sort of bird. I think he's a banklite, or some other kind of raptor, traveling over the Pastures like a voice on the wind. I recognize all the places we fly over: the fields to the north of the settlement, then the Tenebre River, then Homestead Sur, out at the edge of our territory. From there, we cross the Range River, and the Stumbling River, and then we're above the Weary Road, and I can see all the travelers with their pack-horses and caravans moving east and west.
In this vision, it's not me that's the bird. I'm... nothing, I guess. I'm just a ghost flying along, following this banklite's tail feathers. I can't look away, though, and even if I try to turn north or south, I'm caught up, like I'm stuck in his slipstream. I start to feel a panic after a while, and it's hard to keep my focus. It's almost the same feeling as I used to have when I would get mad. I can almost feel that hostile energy rise up, just like back when I would get in those fights.
This all takes a long time, mind you, and I usually break the flow between the Range and the Stumbling River. I almost never make it to the Weary Road, and I've only gone past there once, in a moment of complete abandonment. That's how I got to the third place, where the sunlight disappeared again.
The year 3340 was Edzie's last year of childhood, and Ghada's first year of full membership in the tribe. Ghada had turned fifteen at the end of that summer, and when the Festival of Release approached, he glowed with desire and anticipation, ready to follow his sister and his older peers into full recognition. He allowed his wide and varied social life to slip a bit... instead, he focused fresh attention on Mistra Eryn's training sessions, and then on Edzie, who gladly accepted the benefits of his burgeoning enthusiasm.
Edzie had spent the days before the festival running errands for her mother and a small cadre of her close friends. All throughout the settlement, merchants needed to pass messages, request advances, and exchange materials, and Elkansa's gathering room seemed to be a busy hub for all this kind of activity. Whenever she had a moment, Edzie thought back to her previous years, when the festival was an occasion for novelty and fascination. Now, she was relegated to being an assistant to one of its de facto administrators, and she resented the change.
Her primary consolation was her excitement for Ghada. This was his initiation year... he was fifteen, and the hunters had captured a grasscat for his blade... and Edzie already felt a vicarious thrill, knowing she, his friend and paramour, would share in some of his glory. For several months, he had spoken of little else, even in their private moments, and she had occasionally gotten so tired of it that she had taken special measures to silence him. Even so, his enthusiasm was contagious, and she was waiting hopefully, watching the hours pass, eager for the ritual to begin.
On the day of the festival, Edzie found herself swamped with minor tasks. Elkansa didn't seem willing to let her pause, even for a moment, so when the time for the trial finally came, she was nearly caught up in some errand for Gransa the materials-trader. She noticed the time, and had the presence of mind to intercept Stray and demand he finish the courier run on her behalf. From there, she sprinted toward the Chronoboros court, where she knew Ghada was getting ready.
Their meeting was brief, furtive, almost desperate... the trial was surrounded with the kind of unsustainable, ominous energy that seems to suck all extraneous emotion into its vortex. Ghada was meditating, trying to steady his nerves, when Edzie settled into place behind him, wrapped her arms around his chest, and kissed him behind his ear. He smiled, clutching at her forearm, speaking to her without moving or looking back.
“Thanks for coming by, Edzie.”
“No problem. I'll be watching. Are you scared?”
“I was scared, but now everything is just smeared together: fear, joy, frayed nerves. You know.”
“Well, you'll be fine. If your mind gives you trouble, just let go. Let your body do what it needs to do.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Edzie.”
They lingered there for a few minutes, and then Ghada's entourage led him away: his parents, Bellaryn, Mistra Eryn, and several younger students to whom he had given private tutelage. Edzie followed, far enough behind that she wouldn't attract attention. The companions led Ghada to a wooden platform, the ritual circle, which was entirely enclosed by wooden planks barely a hand-span apart. He stood outside the east gate, brandishing a katsun provided by Mistra Eryn. Edzie watched, nurturing an echo of pride and jealousy, and took her place in the open lot to the south of the enclosure.
At last, Ghada stepped into the guarded circle, taking his place at the east end and closing the gate behind him. He tested the tribe's katsun, slashing and thrusting with a flourish, and then stood at attention as Elder Amiaverta's assistants hitched the grasscat's cage to the arena's holding area. Ghada nodded to the elder, and she nodded, in turn, to her assistants. One of them dutifully pulled aside the barrier between the holding area and the arena floor, freeing the grasscat.
The grasscat leapt out of its enclosure, feigning a full-on charge, but she hesitated after a few steps, drawing back into a prone position, eager to pounce. She was a respectable specimen, two or three times a woman's weight, her fur matted from her struggle with handlers and cage bars. Her mane was little more than a puff of fur around her ears and neck, and there were bare patches on her back and underbelly. Her eyes were narrow, a piercing black, and already fixed on Ghada from across the arena.
Ghada advanced, as he was expected to do, executing attack form three with a fluid dip and a flourish. Absent a violently aggressive opponent, he was obliged to press the cornered beast and prompt it into a reaction. She didn't disappoint him... when he was within several steps, she sprang at him, rearing up on her hind legs and engaging with both paws and muzzle. Ghada switched into withdraw form two, taking generous strides back and to the grasscat's right, avoiding the bulk of her considerable weight, but she was faster than he had accounted for... her right paw clipped his shoulder, and he grunted audibly, feeling the claws rake through muscle. A sympathetic gasp issued from the audience.
The grasscat landed on all four paws, already turning in Ghada's direction. She didn't continue the attack, electing to revert to her stalking behavior. Her entire attention, the full focus of her black eyes, was trained on Ghada now, and she seemed to be moving to flank him. Ghada turned slowly, keeping his foe in front of him, holding the katsun at the ready in case the animal made another lunge. A bloody patch was spreading across his left shoulder, just outside his collar bone.
When the grasscat realized she couldn't outposition her prey, she made another attack, more hesitant this time: she tried to strike low, clawing at Ghada's calf. Ghada was quicker now, fueled and lubricated by adrenaline, so he avoided her claws cleanly, opening another few steps between himself and the animal. Having won some space, the grasscat backed up, cautious, hissing as she moved and doing her best to regroup.
Ghada wasn't used to fighting with a wide, swollen gash opened up on his shoulder, and as the pain mounted, flooding his synapses, he found his focus beginning to flag. This wouldn't do in an actual duel, he thought to himself... pain could very well be an ongoing distraction in an extended exchange of blows. If he was fighting a fully effective, capable human opponent, he thought, what would he do now to ensure his victory?
I would stop playing and finish her, Ghada finally realized. This was bloodsport, not a sparring match; the longer it went on, the more chances his opponent would have to land a single mortal blow. Ghada's frame of mind shifted dramatically: he realized he wouldn't have time to learn about the cat's rhythms, or to find an elegant way to slip under her guard. He should focus on killing her, immediately, in a way that was as crudely effective as necessary.
I can still have my dignity, though, he thought. His intended killing blow would still work, even if he had to expedite it.
The grasscat had receded back into a crouch, perfectly still, her fat tail flicking above her haunches. Her back legs quivered, ready to spring, and her ears twitched, but her spine and head and forelegs were absolutely motionless.
In that moment, Ghada's mind, spurred on by the natural stimulant of battle, managed to process a great many thoughts. He looked into the big cat's eyes, and thought: we're doing the same thing, the grasscat and I. There's a broad, sensitive surface spread out between us, and we've both got all our senses and instincts in contact with it, waiting for some vibration, some break in the other's rhythm. And from the beginning of this confrontation, she was already at the point that I've just finally arrived at: the point where she's desperate to kill me at the first opportunity, in defense of her own life.
Ghada made his next movement with all of these revelations in mind. At the height of a breath, he tensed up, and then he launched into a conspicuous charge at the beast, telegraphing his intention as clearly as he could. It wasn't subtle, but the feint worked: the grasscat was provoked into charging, and she came at him like a charging bull, barrelling across the arena.
The grasscat covered the whole space in a bounding leap, and Ghada had less than a second to react. He halted his own charge, catching himself on his toes and changing direction, and drew up his katsun. The grasscat rose to her hind legs, lunging at him, but because of Ghada's footwork, she was a stride too early. She came to her full height before her claws or teeth could reach him, and she teetered there for a moment, her forward momentum suddenly spent.
Ghada executed attack form four, flicking his katsun horizontally between himself and the grasscat, and the tip of the blade – its top four centimeters – slipped into the grasscat's hide, just above her breastbone, at the bottom of her neck. Her bite was arrested as she choked on her breath, and her claws didn't stay extended long enough to catch onto Ghada's neck or shoulders... instead of tearing into him, as she had intended, the grasscat fell into a convulsion and rolled to one side, caught in the throes of sudden suffocation and blood loss.
Ghada straightened his back, flicked the blood off his katsun, and watched the grasscat as she died on the orebark planks of the arena platform. He bowed his head with respect, trying not to smile as applause rose in a wave from the crowd.
Edzie was forced to wait until a whole menagerie of friends and family members congratulated Ghada on his courage and grace under pressure. He received their adulation with an almost childlike humility, his voice affected with a shyness that Edzie rarely heard in it. He knew how to manage this kind of attention... you were gentle with it, receptive without being needy or desperate, and it would continue following you. Some of the older Denorians, Ghada's friends who had been initiated in recent years, tried to pull him directly to the tables in the central court, hoping to get him started early with eating and drinking. Ghada promised he would join them shortly, and begged for a few minutes to himself, to let his nerves settle.
Edzie waited for him along the path behind his dromo, just out of the way of the spirited festival traffic. She embraced him and told him she was impressed and intimidated, and she thought he would make a fighter as capable as any woman, now that he was officially a citizen. They stole another half hour, pawing and caressing beyond the eyes of visitors, before Ghada remembered his obligations. He took leave of Edzie, asking her to come by his table later that evening, and headed back to the central court.
Three more hours passed, as meetings and trials and rites were held at various sites around the settlement, before the Denorians settled in for the feast of passing, the great meal that served as the centerpiece for the festival. The feast was preceded by an hour of casual drinking, leading to several drunken young tribesfolk, a great deal of noise, and a jubilant population, excited to hear from the elders.
Edzie did her duty, making an appearance at Ghada's table, but his older friends were the socialite warrior-women who jostled for parents' and elders' favor. Bellaryn was there, which was reassuring, but in general, it wasn't a crowd that made Edzie comfortable, and she was further bothered by Ghada's obvious disadvantage among them. To Edzie, Ghada seemed to be treated more as a mascot than as an equal or a competitor. She preferred him in his pure, beautiful glory, alone in the sunlight or reclining by a fire in a private gathering-room. She hoped he understood when she left his raucous table to return to her own family.
After the third course, the Gathered Feast of fermented fruit and root vegetables and wine, the elders appeared and called forth the initiates, reciting their names and sending out couriers to fetch them. Ghada was twenty-sixth out of ninety-four, and Edzie scrambled between tables to get a view of the ritual. At first, she could only see Treya and Kosef's heads, emerging from the crowd around the bonfire.
At last, pushing past a bulky voraish in decorative blue chains, Edzie found a gap with full visibility. She looked up to see Ghada, his shirt already removed, his chest showing the slightest dusting of blond fuzz... a nubile feature with which she was already scandalously familiar. Ghada's parents stood on either side of him, holding his hands. Elder Amiaverta had already pulled a katsun – an unusual type, made entirely from metal – from the bonfire, where its blade had been heated to a dull red glow, with yellow sparks along the sharpened edge.
The elder and Ghada's parents exchanged a litany of pledges and promises, with Ghada acknowledging each in turn. Edzie couldn't hear them herself, but she could have repeated them by rote, she had heard them so many times before. Finally, there was a lull in the incantations, and Edzie saw Ghada nod.
Elder Amiaverta moved slowly, but not so slow as to be cruel – like an experienced butcher making a particularly sensitive cut. With the tip of the katsun, she traced a shallow V, from just below Ghada's left shoulder, to a point just above his solar plexus, to an endpoint just below his right shoulder. The design was precise, perfectly symmetrical, and absolutely fitting for a boy who had learned to fight with a katsun so technically, so aesthetically and immaculately, that he looked less like a human teenager and more like an illustration in a storybook.
Edzie could see the veins flare on Ghada's neck, and his jaw contort as his teeth clenched, and she saw his knuckles turn white as they gripped his parents' hands. She couldn't hear him groan with the pain of the wound, but she could confirm that he didn't cry out or try to turn away, and so his scar was as perfect and precise as any that had ever been inflicted.
Edzie watched him slump backwards into his mother's arms; when he opened his eyes, they were wet and red, but no tear escaped them. Finally, summoning the last of his dignity, Ghada stood up and left the altar, returning to his friends in the center of the feast. They would spend the night pouring wine on his chest and down his throat until he couldn't feel the searing pain of that scar. Edzie, who had spent so long reveling in his attention, found herself hoping that proud sleep would finally, mercifully, come to claim him.
I've only been to this third place one time, when I let myself follow the banklite as far as my consciousness would allow. As we flew past the part of the world that I really knew about, into the parts I don't even remember from looking at Mistra Septa's maps, the sun seemed to sink into a bank of fog, and everything was consumed in total, palpable darkness. I felt like I was falling for a moment, and then dizzy and reeling, and then I got hold of myself.
It felt like I had traveled a great distance, and ended up in this sealed chamber that I’ve never seen, but I was sure it was real. That fast, hazy feeling of flight was gone... now the surroundings were perfectly still and clear in my head, like an imprinted memory. It felt like I was taken there by force, and when it ended, it was just as strange and abrupt, like I was lifted out of it by some invisible hand.
It was a vertical shaft of black rock… obsidian, or something… it must have been carved out of the inside of a mountain. It was maybe a kilometer deep, and two hundred meters across, with a staircase spiraling down the interior wall. There must have been a door, up at the top of the cavern, but I couldn’t see it. I think it was closed, maybe for a long time.
There was no sunlight, but I could still see. In the center of the chamber, there was a single column, no more than a half-meter wide, that stretched, vertically, into the center of the chamber. And at the top of the pillar, there was something that gave off some kind of cold, dull light. In fact, the object itself was barely illuminated, which is why I don’t remember its shape. But it made all the cavern walls visible, and cast no shadows.
I was alone, and there was nothing except me and the chamber, but it was… terrifying. In that moment, I felt like the whole universe was there before me, and when I looked into it, I saw that it was… nothing. It was an empty surface, and at any moment… at the merest touch… it could collapse and we would all come to nothing. And then I looked back on myself, and it seemed like I was nothing, too. And I felt a wave of numbness wash over me, and the anxiety came with it. And for a moment, I was caught in the meditation. I had to turn my mind away from that feeling… that abyss… and tear myself back awake by force.
I know meditations aren't supposed to be dangerous, but this one felt like it was. I don't think I'll be letting it go that far again.