Two Stones | One Black, One White
Murin’s body revolted as if the Augur had just placed poison into her open and waiting mouth. Her gaze snapped to her siblings. Zaz, her only brother, stared at her. Shock turned his skin as pale as she had ever seen it. Even her little sisters, Ratri and Vana, were alarmed. Ratri’s mouth trembled, and Vana clenched her fists as the muscles of her slender jaw twitched.
Murin turned back to the Augur, and looked at his feet. Heat flushed through her. The rest of the children were watching them, peering at her and the Augur with their bright gazes. This was a mistake. The Augur didn’t mean what he was saying. He couldn’t.
Murin said, “I’m sorry, what—”
“My… child, if you were to no longer attend, we could hardly blame you.”
She peered around the Augur, through the darkened doorway of the House of the Initiates. Even out here, she could smell the fresh cut timber of its beams, and feel the bare warm glow of the sun floating in through the agate windows. She stepped around him, and again the Augur blocked her with his body.
“Please,” she said.
“I respect your choice to renounce the Initiation.”
“But I’m not. I am here.”
He hesitated before he said, “You are. But you don’t have to be.”
An older boy pushed past her, hissed “Parakya” in her ear and spat as he went by. Little flecks of white flew down and dotted the dirt at her feet. One landed on her dress and stayed there, a tiny white orb, before it disappeared into the fabric and left a wet shadow. The Augur turned to let the boy enter the House, and said nothing.
She forced the tremor out of her hand as she tested the edges of the cloth wrapped around her head. Not one strand of blond hair had escaped. “I don’t understand. I have at least another year of lessons. I’m already—” The word ‘different’ caught in her throat. “I need to be here.”
“Yes, Murin. But we cannot force you to be where you do not want to be.”
“You aren’t listening.” Murin’s voice was tight, came out soft. “My father. He wants me to be here.”
The Augur sighed. “Very well. Come with me. The rest of you, inside and wait there.” His robes flashed as he went by her.
Murin glanced at Zaz, but fat tears were hanging from his eyelids. No. She needed to be strong. Whatever this moment was about was not good. She rushed after the Augur and followed behind him, staring at the ground as all women were supposed to do. Never look into a man’s eyes. Do not speak out of turn. Honor the ways of woman. Those were the essential parts of the Praxis. They didn’t make any sense to her. Murin could do man-things ten times better than most full grown men, but those were the codes of Tarska, her homeland.
The Augur stopped in front of the Regent’s house.
Murin checked the stonework again. Yes, it was his house. A decorative piece of hard granite interrupted a wall otherwise comprised of soft sandstone, which looked like it was melting in the sun. The Regent’s symbol, a scepter and scythe, had been carved into the granite decades ago, if not longer.
Sweat oozed from her skin. For a moment, she swayed. The alley darkened at the edges, and the tips of her fingers grew numb. She focused on the ground, on the texture of the fine silt beneath her feet. Somewhere someone was singing. She hummed along, let the music soothe her.
“Don’t linger in doorways, child. It’s poor manners.” The Augur had crossed over the threshold, and had been waiting for her to follow.
“I’m sorry.” One foot and then the next, she drifted up the stairs. She sifted through every single encounter she’d had with anyone in the last week. Nothing. She had honored the Praxis to the letter.
The two men stood in the narrow hallway. There was a small room just to the right. She knew of it because she had gone there with her father once, when the Regent had asked for his advice. Of course neither the leader of the region nor her father acknowledged that was what was happening. There was the Praxis to follow. Nonetheless, that was exactly what had happened. Father had the answer, and the Regent didn’t.
That door was closed. So was the one revealing a set of stairs going up. The only door remaining open was the one she had just come through.
“Mur—in.” The Regent said her name as if he was stumbling over a new word. He did the same thing each time he said it.
She bowed. “Regent. It is a great privilege to be in your presence.” Suddenly, she was grateful for all the times the twins had roped her into their games of pretend.
“We cannot force an Initiate to be an Initiate.”
Words backed up in her throat, made her queasy. “May I?”
“I love my family. I love my town. I love being Tarskan. And being an Initiate is part of all that. I am sorry if I did something wrong, and I’ll,” she drew a deep breath, “be better. I just need to know what I did.”
The Regent sighed. Murin could feel it. A heaviness that seemed to be part of everything around her, woven into the mere and unlikely fact she existed. “Look at me,” he said.
She looked at her hand instead. As pale as Zaz had been, no one could ever come close to her. Or her mother. Their skin was cauliflower. The flesh of an average apple. Snow. Although, it was hard to tell what people saw first when they looked at her mother and her. Skin seemed to be the most obvious thing, but the ailment extended to their eyes. And their hair. Yellow. As yellow as corn. Mother disagreed, she said their hair was golden. She even gave it a special color-name. Blond.
The Regent stepped closer to her, put his finger under her chin, and lifted it up. “Look at me.”
She swallowed, her gaze darted around the floor.
She looked up. At his face. Into his eyes. They were cold, his expression stern. His skin was the luxurious color of a fawn, and his eyes held a darker tone, like fertile ground. Night flooded his hair. He looked normal, natural.
He looked like the rest of them.
The image of a rabbit flashed through her mind. Her eyes widened. Had that led to this mess?
Instead of saying anything about hunting, the Regent asked, “Do you clean your house?”
“In the Spring, after being closed up all Winter. Do you clean your house?”
Her brows twitched. They wanted to frown, but she wouldn’t let them. “Of course. There’s a lot of soot built up from the Winter. We clean—I mean Father and Zaz clean out the chimney. They make sure everything is okay so—well you know. So the house doesn’t burn down.”
“That’s very smart. It’s seems there is no famine of wisdom in your family.”
“But many people do that.”
“They didn’t. Before your mother arrived.”
Arrived? “I didn’t know that.”
“Claire, your mother, dabbles in herbs.”
Murin watched the Augur from the edge of her vision, without taking her gaze from the Regent. Zaz might have been able to read the Augur. He was able to read almost everyone. To her, the Augur was blank. Concealed as tracks over stone.
“Your mother pretends to have knowledge.” The Regent shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe she does. But it is not our knowledge. It is not our way.” He studied Murin, then asked, “She comes to town with this knowledge and these herbs of hers, doesn’t she?”
“I don’t understand.”
“She comes here to try to heal people, does she not?”
Her mother came to town almost every week, carrying her cures in those little leather pouches dangling from her waist. She didn’t even bother to hide them anymore. “People have asked for her before.” After the Augur’s remedies failed.
The Regent smiled. “You are not like us. You and your mother.”
“But we’re Tarskans.”
He looked her over, at the rag on her head. “We,” he nodded at the Augur, “have decided to give you a choice. You may choose to no longer attend the Initiation. Or you may choose to force us to bring you before the people at the next ceremony, and call on everyone to vote.”
“A vote?” she asked. Each person had two stones, one black stone and one white. Whenever a baby was born, the town voted to accept it (black), or shun it (white). She had never witnessed a baby being shunned. “What would happen?”
The Regent’s lips flattened into a thin line. “I would not put your hope in any miracles.”
Murin stared into his eyes. She even looked at the Augur. “What does this mean?”
The men looked at each other. The Augur nodded. The Regent sighed. He said, “Your choice is private disgrace or… public dishonor.”
“Oh,” she said. Numbness invaded her legs, up to her thighs. She was wading in it. “Is this? This is real, isn’t it?”
The Regent nodded.
Her throat tightened, like it was being squeezed by an invisible hand. She choked out the words “I understand”, even though she didn’t.
The Regent smiled. “Good.”
Author’s note: I’ve been working on this book project for years. It used to be called “Fire and Blood”, but that seemed a little pretentious and esoteric, so I’ve moved to a new working title of “The Killing Ritual”. I’m not sure how many chapters I’ll be sharing on the blog; in the meantime, here’s at least one more.