Mother is whispering in my ear and shaking me. “The arcanist is here!”
I fling off the thin blankets. My bare feet hit the ground; hard-packed earth worn smooth by my feet stamping on it for thirteen years. Mother hands me my best dress; it is pink silk from when grandmother claimed the mulberry trees grew leaves and there was water enough for silkworms to work their magic.
As my head emerges from the top of the dress and mother straightens the white lace collar, I stare into her green eyes; eyes I wish the color of the land would become, and my heart empties.
Related: Under a Copper Sky (sequel)
“I do not want to go,” I whisper.
Mother pats my cheek. Her palms are rough from the dry air. “You have dreamed of this your whole life, darling. I lost you multiple times when you were little only to find you watching the arcanist’s tent.”
I swallow as mother leads me out of our tiny bedroom into a kitchen not much larger. The mud walls serve to keep the heat out, but an angry slice of sunshine comes through the rough cloth hanging over our door.
“I did not realize this would mean I have to leave you,” I say. “What if you come down sick and I am not here?”
Mother shakes her black head. “Darling, I call you darling so as not to be ashamed of your whining. I have lived this life for years.”
I choke on the bowl of slippery gruel mother shoves into my hand. After the last bite is gone, I lift the door cloth and stand in the dawning heat.
The ground is golden and dusty. There is no difference in the mud houses that form our village. Only the mud in the fields is slightly wetter. Only close to the brook is the air cool before the trickle of water winds away over the baked hills and evaporates.
A line is forming. It starts, I know, at the arcanist’s table and ends within my sight around the corner of the last house on our block.
Mother puts her hands on my shoulders and tries to encourage me. “You are helping me by leaving, darling. Perhaps it is you who will finally unravel the universe’s mysteries where past generations have failed and bring us green again.”
Green. I do not know what it truly looks like. The tiny seedlings in the fields are barely distinguishable from the mud.
My silence makes mother take her hands off my shoulders. She shoves me into the street. “I toil in the fields without complaining and you will not even stand in a line for me! Shameful child.”
Mother pushes me into the line. When I look back, she is gone and already more people have joined me, pushing me in their impatience to move forward. The sun rises as I stand. Sweat pops out on my shoulders before I see the arcanist’s table.
He stands at the mouth of the road leaving our village behind a small table, a shade of red cloth erected above him. Even though I have seen the red twelve times before, it still makes me blink for it does not remind me of the harsh sun, but of moist blood.
There are two people ahead of me. As one steps forward, I look around, hoping to see mother. I may not be accepted into the arcanist’s tower, but I still wish to say a proper goodbye.
I do not move until I am pushed, and I realize it is my turn to step up to the table. I shudder as I feel the arcanist’s gaze pass through me.
Arcana is not the escape from the heat and work it provides to those standing behind me, but something I feel in the roots of my hair when I walk to the brook to wash it. Arcana is what I feel when I watch the stars and forsake my sleep to size the moon between my palms.
The arcanist must feel this within me for he sighs, “Accepted,” and his voice is like a toad croaking after being crushed under a rock.
I know what it is coming yet my heart still stops when the arcanist flings up a weathered hand and cosmic blue and purple pulses over me. It is cool, like the silk against my skin.
I tingle all over and then the dusty road of my village and the torn face of my mother watching from behind the patched curtains of our house is gone and I am standing at the base of a hill so green, I have never seen its vibrancy.
A red box with a door is standing on a little wooden station built into the earth. The rusty red latticing that forms the roof seems to create eyes that stare at me. I step into the box and close the door. As it clicks shut, the box grinds and take to the air, following an invisible line up the hill.
I hang out of the little window above the waist-high door and watch the sloping hill pass by beneath me. I wonder if I could jump down and run and roll in the grass and never be caught but then I see the tower.
It is stalwart shadow at the top of the hill, built of stone against the blue sky. I imagine the libraries of books and try to feel the wooden desks under my hand, but the metal of the door is cold, and my heart is thumping.
I will enter the tower. I will not feel the dust under my feet, nor carry bucket after bucket of water from the brook to try and bring life to the dying plants whose seeds sprouted to give us false hope. I will never wonder with mother beside me in the kitchen if stones add taste to soup.
I will enter the tower. I will never come out.
Art by Barrett Biggers
A sampling of the short stories written exclusively for patrons via my Patreon page.