Monday, January 25, 2016

A New Story for No One

Dear No One,
I have another story I want to do aside from Lady in the Labyrinth. I'm sending you the first few chapters to decide whether I should keep going with one or the other. Let me know what you think.


Chapter One

Everything is elemental; this is the first thing we learn before being tested. Lines of young people are led into the huge, creased dome they call the hive. Nervous or fearful or resigned, I fall into the final category. This is my seventh testing, and by now it is a given that all this is just formality. The solemn looks, and sober music, none of it matters. No one Senses on their seventh try. If it was going to happen i done so years ago.
Walking beside me is a kid around eleven years old. This would be his first trip unless his parents had had enough influence with the regulators to get him an early trial. Some of us show signs of a Sense at a very young age, the powerful ones usually do. This boy didn't have the look. He was too anxious, his eyes roving everywhere.
Hey, I whisper, and he practically hops in surprise. We aren't supposed to speak in the halls of the hive, like it's going to disturb the psychic resonance or something. The newbies take the warnings particularly seriously. "You're going to be fine." I tell him. "Don't worry."
His eyes went huge as he shook his head, probably trying to tell me to shut up, poor thing.
There is plenty of air between us and the ceiling, but the passage is so wide it feels like the stone is coming down on us. There is a slight breeze moving inward, dry and cool, moving so as to suggest that it is also going to be tested. It will also lose its value if it fails. Lanterns that never run out of fuel, werelights, lead us down the curve to the waiting area.
There are rows of benches that fill up quickly; the rest of us stand in the corners and spare spaces in involuntary clumps, many waiting out in the halls. There are several arches leading to this chamber, and a single door to the testing ground. Proctors in white were calling names from vellum scrolls, and the youngest were hurrying to have themselves checked off and go through the door. The children are the most likely to succeed. The older boys and girls were all proven failures.
I waited two hours for a seat. The room had been downgraded from packed to crowded. I would be among the last called, and I had nothing to do but wait. I put my head in my hands.
"Hellebore?" I flinched a little at my own name. It wasn't a proctor calling me, it was a girl a year behind me. She had failed five times instead of six. She was brown haired and wide mouthed, so that her smile seemed to eat her face in a not unpretty way, and this was the only day of the year I would see her.
"Solace." I greeted her, pretending to be happy, and stood up for her to give me a quick hug. We lived in different provinces, and would have never met if not for this room, if not for having to come back. It should have been a good thing to see a familiar face in a place like this, it would have been, except that it reminded me I would never have another chance. What were you supposed to talk about with someone who was seeing you for the last time.
"How do you feel? She asked me.
"Not good." I stayed standing, letting someone else have the bench so we could move away from the crowd to talk.
"Nothing's going to happen." She said.
I grimaced, "That's the problem. I'm going to be sent home again."
By the wall we could pretend we were alone, our voices concealed beneath the general din of nervous adolescents. Solace twisted at the waist, uncomfortable and fidgeting. "Would that be so bad? I'm going home too, and I don't think I'll come back. There wouldn't be any point."
"Then why bother coming this year?" I was sharper than I had intended. Forgoing a test was something I couldn't imagine, however small the chance that I would discover a Sense. The barest hope was worth travelling across the country, saving all year to come to the hive again. My dad had stopped paying for these excursions when I was thirteen, and it was clear I didn't have any talents hidden in me. But I couldn't let go of my hope, of my daydreams of splendor and power. My family wasn't totally without gifts, I had a grandparent with Earthsense and a distant cousin who could bend steel. I didn't know them personally, but if I passed the test I would go to stay with one of them.
Solace looked away from me, still shifting. I had hurt her. "Nothing changes," she said, "We'll go on living like our parents do. You don't need a Sense to be a glassblower, my dad does well enough, and he's letting me practice too."
I nodded, a Senser with a hint of either glass or flame affinities could do ten times the work her father did, that was if they bothered. Most crafts were beneath a Senser. The primary exception being Steelsensers who forged the best armor and weapons in the realm, and Earthsensers who raised the fortifications that kept our cities safe from the wilds.
"I don't want to be a merchant." I sounded petulant even to myself.
"Better than a porter," she shot back, "or a servant or a serf. We can live in the cities and have most of the privileges Sensers do. It isn't something to mope over."
I kept myself from getting angry. This was her way of coping with a situation she could not change. She was as talentless as I was, and she pretended it was of no importance. It was important, though, and there was nothing I wouldn't give to go through that door and experience a Sense, any Sense, and all the power and privilege that went with it. It was the most important thing in my life and I had already failed it half a dozen times.
"I guess you're right," I said, not wanting to fight, wanting to focus on something else.
She was wearing her best suit, the woman's style being a veritable labyrinth of folds and layers and overlapping patterns of navy blue and purple edgings. Solace was lean, but the suit padded her sufficiently to give the appearance of curves. She caught me looking at her and I glanced past her face to the benches.
"What is it?" She smiled, transforming her face in an instant with it.
"Nothing, " I said, "I was distracted."
We talked more easily over the next few hours as the benches to clear. Meals were not provided, and veterans like us knew to bring snacks. I had bread sticks baked around small sausages, and she had brought fruit and cheese, so our combined meal was a success.
"We're good planners." She said, poking my shoulder.
"Bad planners who happen to be lucky." I said.
"Solace!" A proctor called her name. She smiled again, and slipped a note in my suit pocket as she went by me, gone before I could say anything. When she went through the door her face was blank. I didn't expect I would see her again. I examined the note, still standing there alone. It was a neat square tied with red twine. It smelled faintly of her, though I had not before noticed that she had a smell. I put it away without reading it; I couldn't think about it with my test looming so close.
The numbers dwindled to under a dozen, my legs were restless. I paced to and fro, sweating profusely. My suit would be sticking to me when I failed again. I was sure Solace was gone, I would not see her in the room. When they did call my name I almost missed it.
I shot to my feet and nodded my way past the proctor. It was a woman I remembered from the previous years, and worse, she remembered me.
"Good luck, Hellebore."
I slammed the door on my way in, and in the silence of the proving grounds it was loud enough to cause every head to turn toward me. The few exceptions were those too enthralled by a Sense to notice a thunderbolt.
I ducked along the side of the chamber, embarrassed and trying to become invisible. I was in the main dome of the hive, the vault so high it felt like we were outside. Elemental displays dotted the open floor. There was a brazier for fire, a bowl full of water, and wind chimes moving without sound. Mounds of earth were on display near the center of the chamber, red clay and tawny sand, rich ,dark loam. A dais displayed six kinds of metal, bright ingots arranged in a semicircle, and other stages held timber or chalices filled with deadly liquids. Towers of glass surmounted stone faces, and gems decked a cage of ice. The paths were many, and each display was given its own space, its own sense of solace.
Power was woven into the dome so that Senses were enhanced. Some children experienced their affinities before their first testing, the rest of us could use the extra help. After you first knew the Sense, it became progressively easier to call it up.
This time, like every other, I was hopeless. The elements on show felt no different than they ever had. A dead weight settled inside me, the knowledge that nothing was going to happen to me. It would be just as Solace had said. I was not a Senser, I was a lumpen, like everyone else. I would never vote, or own land, and the Sensers could do almost anything they liked to me without fear of repercussion . It was how my family lived, the life of the majority, and I hated it all the more for that.
My eyes were drawn to a vase of water near the center of the room. It was a trap. Anyone who had been in the hive half as often as I had knew what it meant. The forbidden Sense, that could manipulate life itself. All the Sensers had one thing in common, no matter how varied the matter they controlled, it was inanimate. The most powerful Steelsenser could not cause the flower to quiver. The Sensers could crush life, tear it and cut it and burn it, but they could not command it.
There were no exceptions. I tore my gaze away from the flower and circled the proving grounds along the outer track. I half closed my eyes, walking slowly and reviewing the mental exercises that were supposed to open my mind to the Sense.
The long path was deserted, they would clear the dome soon and declare the testing finished for the year. There were windows in the high curve of the dome, and the day was clearly dying. Bright now, it would close within a half hour or so, leaving us in darkness.
That would be the end of my long fantasy. I would he forced to accept my life for what it was, Senseless. My head felt fuzzy, it might have been exhaustion or anxiety. There were seven or eight losers like me waiting to be kicked out, and as many proctors watching them. I passed the brazier and inhaled a lungful of smoke. Coughing, I continued walking, not giving any thought to my destination.
The flower was right in front of me, a white lily . It was outlined by a faint gray aura, a trick of the light. It was clearer to my eyes than anything else in the room. The softness of the petals was on my fingertips even as my hands remained at my side. I loved the flower, the smell was making me dizzy. A taste surfaced on my tongue, earthy and bitter. One of the petals peeled away from the blossom. It broke free, and floated with a languid patience, rocking slowly down until it touched the packed earth of the floor.
Only then did I realize what had happened, and what I had done. I turned to leave the flower, to leave the proving grounds. No one else could see it, had seen it. This was worse than being a lumpen, it was the worst possible thing. I would leave this place with the knowledge that I was a lifelessness, and that I could never reveal it to another soul.
A proctor was behind me, a man in his forties with a chain around his neck swinging a glass bead filled with sand. Many Sensers wore chains like this, advertising their affinities. Of course, he might have more than what he displayed.
"How are you feeling?" His voice was mild, his gaze was not. Or I could have been paranoid.
"I'm not feeling anything." I said, "I'm going to leave."
"It isn't quite time", the proctor said, "you have until dark."
I nodded and bowed away as quickly as I could without seeming suspicious. Maybe he hadn't seen anything, or hadn't caught on to what he saw. Maybe the whole thing had been a figment of my overactive mind. No one was guarding the exit, so I pushed through into a long, torchlit hall. I had walked this path often enough to know well its slow worn tiles. There was a courtyard beyond the hive, a square over one hundred paces to a side, lined with pylons as tall as two men. It was darker here, in the shadows of the stone, and soon I was all but running to escape them.
The marble of the courtyard was a single sheet, coaxed into perfect smoothness by a powerful Senser. I was across it in a few ragged breaths, past the unguarded gate and onto the road behind the hive. Here I had to slow to a rapid walk to avoid drawing attention to myself. Early night, the roads were not crowded but there were still people about. Many of the shops and apprenticers had already closed, and there were no more than a handful of wagons and carriages about, foot traffic and evening revelers.
The testing day was an unofficial holiday, wheb sons and daughters became heirs, and family fortunes were changed forever. Strains of song and laughter drifted across the air of night. They were echoes of the fates far happier than mine.
This was Halcior, and though it was no equal to the capitol of the realm, it was the second brightest star. Hundreds of thousands lived here, a mass of humanity that defied all understanding. The streets were too numerous for anyone to know them all. I followed the main road, not wanting to be lost on my way out. I had to hurry to reach the gates before they were shut for the night. One could leave the city at any time, but after the city was closed I would need to identify myself to the watch. I didn't want to be remembered.
Every step I expected a proctor to appear, or a Hunter to come around the corner of the next alley. There were sensers whose sole purpose was to end the misuse of the power, and to find people like me.
"Hellebore, is that you?" The voice came from the porch of an inn, the one I had stayed at the night before the test. There was a small group coming out onto the road, shutting a vision of warmth and laughter behind them. Travelling with a group was safer, and I had spent some time with them on the road to Halcior. A decision I regretted now.
"Hello Falm," I said. "How are you?"
The man was a merchant, middle aged and thoughtful. We had many lengthy, meandering conversations while travelling together. "Grand,"he exclaimed, "grand! You remember I told you it would be a week before I sold my silks? I've sold the whole lot already." He still had a mug in his hand, and it was clear that he and his company were prepared for a night of pleasure, but his face turned abruptly serious. "Your test, what happened?"
I shrugged, "The same as the years before." I was already walking away, and his next words were spoken to my back.
"Sorry to hear that, son. You had us all hoping."
I nodded and smiled and kept moving, I couldn't afford to be delayed, even if it meant being rude to a friend."
I was nearing the last block before the gate when I Sensed a man. It was like the flower, though less overwhelming . He was ten or so paces away, tucked in the recess of a tenement. He could have been a vagrant or a footpad, I had no means of telling which, but there was a hint of menace on my tongue. I am at a loss to explain what menace tastes like.
I backpedaled, losing precious minutes. If I had not been certain before, I would have been now, this was the Lifesense. Like anyone whose Sense first manifested in the Hive, I would experience it intermittently until it was a constant fact of my existence.
The wall was fifty feet high, studded with battlements and towers, the work of a consortium of Earth and Stonesensers. There were no cracks or blocks or seams, and it was inspected regularly for damage. The raw power that this conjuring had required beggared the imagination. The consortium that had made the wall could have summoned an earthquakes easily, or ripped the top off a mountain and dropped it on the capitol leagues and leagues away. The gate was solid steel, Sensed out of unworked tallo they had brought out of the earth. There were three guards standing around the opening into the wild. One door was already closed, the other left open a half hour longer for stragglers.
I cut back to a brisk walk, and straightened my jacket, wiping the sweat from my face with the back of my hand.
The watchmen tracked my approach. They wore the mail and tabards of Halcior soldiers, and I didn't see any beads. Some Sensers fulfilled their military training by working as guards instead of joining sorties into the deep wilds. These men were almost certainly lumpen.
"alone?" The nearest said.
"I have friends on the other side of the wall." I lied. There were hamlets scattered all over the few miles of patrolled safety around Halcior. They sold their excess crops in the markets, and could always seek asylum if there was another war. It wasn't completely implausible.
"Dressed well for a walk in the woods," another commented.
"It was my last testing." I said, "I want to get home."
There was much unsaid but understood in these few words. These men had all been tested at least once when they were young, and they had hoped, and they had all failed. The first man waved me through.
"Safe journey." He said, and I thanked him.
The sight of the open road was beyond welcome; I felt my heart lift, and the tingling in my spine ease. There were no windows or doors here for eyes to lurk behind. I went a few miles, too far to be spotted from the city, and left the road for a copse of trees to spend the night in. I could have begged a bed in one of the hamlets, but I didn't want to explain myself to the people who lived there, or to lie.
It was only once I sat down in the darkness beneath the limbs and leaves that I understood how prepared I was. I had a few coins, enough to get me home, but I had not purchased any provisions in the city, or stopped at the inn to retrieve my normal clothes. I had no water.
My suit jacket had grown uncomfortable, so I removed it to lay across my lap like a blanket . In the process, I remembered the note from Solace. I unfolded it, and struggled to read her handwriting in the starlight that filtered down to me.
I'm going to miss seeing you. Next year, write me a letter.

Below the note was the address of her parents glass shop beside her signature. I refolded it, and tied the string exactly as it had been. What a strange thought. The sensers had their own message services, but lumpen had to entrust their correspondence to travelers or merchants or an expensive courier. The only way to ensure a letter got anywhere was promising payment on delivery, and he wasn't about to ask Solace's parents to pay for a missive between them. Did she want him to come see her himself?
I didn't think of Solace often aside from testing time. There had been more than enough to occupy my days other than mooning over a girl I had met on a handful of occasions, who lived halfway across the realm.
Suddenly, the prospect of never seeing her again was a sad one, but I had other worries.
Uncomfortably at first, then with increasing confidence, I cycled through the exercises that were meant to help open a mind to its Sense. They had never succeeded before, but now I was aware of the trees, the oak at my back, it age and strength. Sap was coursing in it like the blood in my own veins, and yet it was so slow I would be an old man before had
passed a handful of its heartbeats. I breathed in scents that were new to me, of the pollen and the grass. On a whim, I asked it all to move. There were no words, but a communication nonetheless.
The copse wavered in an intangible wind, and leaves fell about me in a shower. My concentration broke, and it stopped. What I was doing was forbidden, and that couldn't quiet the thrill of power. I could never be a Senser, nor tell anyone what I was, and that was not as important to me as it had been earlier in the day. There was magic in me. I was not a lumpen, whatever people would think. That idea was intoxicating.
For a few moments, the likelihood of my eventual capture and execution meant very little. The world was alive around me, truly alive, and I had been blind to it my entire life, and all the others, even other Sensers, were blind to it as well. I knew the oak, the bark and the boughs, the grass and the trail of ants in the roots and dirt. I was expanding beyond my body in a sphere of awareness, and all within the sphere became a part of me. How could a thing so wonderful be forbidden? I had heard stories, legends that spoke of the evils Lifesensers could accomplish. But any Senser could wreak havoc, they proved that to the monsters of the wild at every opportunity. Killing was killing, wasn't it? So why was this not a gift? Why was I different?
I felt it wake up, the six foot monitor that called this copse its home. The lizard's tongue flicked out, tasting me. I tasted it tasting me.
Its mouth splayed in a his, revealing rows of saw-teeth, hissing as it surged out of the wood.

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