Junil 24, 1519
Twenty-four years before the Dawngate opened
It was the best ever. They’d be so surprised.
“Mother!” he shouted, pelting along the dirt path. Clouds of fine, pale dust slapped into the still air at the passing of his feet. The distant edges of the world rippled in hard, flat afternoon light.
His mother was part of the crowd around the well, taking turns hauling buckets of brown and gritty water up from the darkness. She straightened, wiping the sweat from her brow, wincing as she pressed one hand to the small of her back. “There’s a lot of work to do. Is this important?”
Of course it was. “I can do magic!” He beamed at her, hands on hips, puffing out his chest.
She frowned. “I don’t have time for your games. You’re not a Shaper.”
Ha! He knew she’d say just that. Or something like that, maybe. She said “you’re not” all the time. It was probably her favorite thing to say. Not a member of the guard. Not an oasis bandit. Not a giant elly-pant. Not a varunis lizard-man with long sharp claws and one giant red bloodshot eye that shoots fire. She said it to father all the time too, before he left and came back, but he was always not-something super boring. Not a woodcarver, a farmer, the father. Not a good – a good… had she said provender? Provarder? (Was that a word?) Oh well. It didn’t matter.
“Watch,” he said proudly, and stuck out one hand, fingers spread. “I will make this stick-” he held it aloft, like he imagined a hero would hold up a sword – “stick to my hand. I mean, this branch stick to my hand.”
“Where did you find a stick?” Her frown deepened, the dust in the lines of her face scrunching up. “Did you steal that from the wood pile? We need that for cooking.”
“It’s fine!” he grinned. “I’ll put it back in a minute.”
“You don’t see any more trees out here, do you?” she added, querulously.
He curled the stick into a fist, and gripped the wrist with the opposing hand. Keeping the back of his hand facing the crowd, he opened his fingers. The stick stayed in place. “Ha ha!” he cried. “Magic.”
“You’re holding it there with the fingers of the other hand,” his mother said, impatiently. “I don’t have time for this.”
Just as planned. He grinned triumphantly. “Oh?” he said aloud. “You mean… this hand?” Carefully, he released his wrist and waved the other hand in the air with a flourish. The stick remained in place, attached to the palm. “Magic,” he repeated, with a gap-toothed grin. He could feel the others in the crowd glancing at him now.
“You have something sticky on your hand,” his mother said, flatly.
He stared, jaw working soundlessly.
“I hope that’s not – did you break leaves off the zanniya by the door?” she said, her normal hunched-over profile straightening. Her frown deepened. Fists clenched.
His limbs locked in place, heart clawing its way under his stomach to hide. “I…” he swallowed. “It was only… Just one.”
She sagged again. “You stupid, thoughtless …” She turned away, shaking her head. “Just go away. Bring one of the buckets back to your father.”
“I-it was just one,” he stammered. “One leaf. I didn’t think it would hurt it.”
“Go,” she said, getting back into the line for the well. The dust kicked up by her feet stung his eyes. He grabbed a bucket half-full of turgid water, and pelted away.
“Don’t run!” she called after him. “You’ll spill it!”
He didn’t slow until he’d reached their hut, panting, the bucket somewhat less full. The zanniya plant clinging to the thin dirt beside the door looked no different than it had in the morning. He bang-sloshed through the thin wooden door.
“Too loud,” a hoarse voice rasped. It was close, dark, and still. A ripped and ragged scrap of cloth was nailed across the only window, tinting the hot white light crimson.
“Mother sent water,” he said, passing a dirty sleeve across his eyes.
His father sat in the corner, legs sprawled across a threadbare blanket, back propped against the crumbling mud wall. A pile of rags sat beside him, dark and smelling of pitch. Father wheezed softly in the darkness, wordlessly gesturing for him to approach. He set the bucket down a slight distance away, and pushed it closer with the tips of toes. This close, he could hear the faint bubbling as the dark-haired man’s chest rose and fell.
“Thank you,” father whispered, and the breath caught in his throat. He shuddered, swallowed, allowed himself one small, brief cough.
It turned into an explosion. He leaned forward, clutching at his middle, consumed by wet hacks. Black fluid streamed from the corner of his mouth. He spat a glob on to the stained blanket, but more bubbled back as he clawed for breath.
He felt the back of his throat surging forward, threatening to leap out. He fled into the street, the door creaking behind him in the white stillness.
Father had gone away with men who had swords, and mother had looked thin and pinched the whole time. When he got back, he coughed black and green slime all over. Walking to the well left him gasping. The neighbors were nice for a while. Then they started to complain about the noise, about the wads of stinking black he would leave glistening by the side of the road.
Mother got angry more. Sometimes when the coughing woke him up, he could hear her breathing funny, shaking, bent with hands over her face. He’d turn away and cover his head with the blanket.
He walked back to the well, scrunching his toes in the hot dust, pinching fine grains and releasing them again. Mother would expect him to come back and say he’d delivered the water. She’d want to know where the bucket was, where he was.
If he went around the edge of the village, it would take longer. He kicked the pale sand, creating fine clouds, rolling and swirling in the light. The sky was cloudless, washed-out blue. The ground shimmered white, stretching off as far as anyone could see. He’d heard that in other places, the ground was green and plants were everywhere, like the roofs in Nishi’an. They just grew there normal.
When by and by he got back to the well, mother was helping haul another bucket up from the darkness. Her hands were red and torn from the frayed old rope. Her eyes stared to the empty horizon.
“Hey.” He looked up. One of the other boys of the village, younger. He lived four huts away. With a glance at his father, he trotted up. “I thought your magic was good,” he leaned in to whisper.
The boy’s father noticed his absence. At his sharp word, the younger boy turned away.
“They’re monsters, you know,” he blurted.
The boy paused and looked back at him, puzzled.
“Grown-ups. They’re different on the inside. They’re – they’re full of slime. Black slime. Monsters,” he repeated, warming to the topic. “Inside they’re all black and gooey green. Like nose goblins. That’s why they turn mean. We’re – we’re like the wild dogs to them. They hollow us out, see?” he insisted, raggedly-bitten nails digging into his palms. “They eat you as you grow. Turn us into them. You see, don’t you?”
The boy looked at him, and took a cautious step back.
“It makes sense,” he insisted.
“Come on,” the other boy’s father said, impatiently. He reached out with a calloused hand grab his thin, dark arm and yanked roughly. The boy cried out softly, and the man muttered to himself.
He gave the other boy a look that he hoped told him, See? “They won’t get me,” he yelled into the dust of their passage. “I know what they’re doing now. I’ll use my magic to keep them away.”
Navamara 19, 1542
Five months before the Dawngate opened
Smoke bombs fell from his sleeves, exploding on the worn planks of the stage. The crowd gasped!
He strode through the plumes of colored mist, chin high. “Good after-noon,” he said grandly, letting his voice peal across the square. His multicolored cloak swept about as he bowed. “I welcome you… to a grand show. Of illu-sions!” He squinted into the evening sun, settling red and hazy over the flower-choked roofs of the vaapi blocks. Among the crowd, he saw several rolling their eyes, and one woman twirling a finger at her temple as her companion snickered.
Wide-eyed children pressed up against the stage. Bare feet. Dirty faces.
He smiled down at them benevolently, bent low to look each one in the eye. “I will show you marvelous things,” he assured them. “The dawn of an age… of miracles!” With a flick of a wrist, a roller fluttered out of his cavernous sleeves, seeking the sky in an indigo flash of wings. A chorus of gasps and laughter. Jumping and clapping.
But he placed a shushing finger across his lips. “But we must keep this a secret!” he stage-whispered. “Your parents won’t understand. They’ll tell you it’s silly. They’ll tell you monstrous lies.”
He beamed around at the eager, nodding faces. “They can’t see the world that you and I see!”