Watch. You have to watch the sky, day and night, because you’ll
never know when they have been, when they’ll be, or when they are.
The cabin stood at the edge of the sea. Wind and water had evaporated the tannins from its planks, and it and the sky and the water were all expressions of the same hue. Grey mixed with blue.
We followed, one after the other, to the cabin’s porch. Leonhart turned; his magenta robes dusted over the grey ground. “Come.” He swept his arm out and across, the gesture gathering us in a semi-circle around him.
“I need not remind you of the oath you took,” he said while gazing into each of us. “This place, these lessons.” He inhaled deeply. A shimmer of electricity seemed to dance over the exposed flesh at his hands, face and neck, and blurred beneath his clothes. “What you are committed to do is sacred. Honorable, though it is not honored.”
We bowed our heads under the weight of what he said, under the weight of what was to come next. We have no choice, my lips formed the words. I closed my eyes for a moment, and relished the shelter of darkness the action brought. The silence of sight, and the subsequent expansion of the self beyond the shell of the body.
The sea air touched me. In it, I tasted eons. Bones, scales, ships and wrecks, tears and fire. Calcium, sodium, potassium, and hundreds more minerals.
In the distance, wolf pups called out, tuning to one another. The wind rushed over the glaciers. At the edges of things, I could hear plates clanking against tabletops, and the hollow sound of a lid scraping over a cast iron pot.
A hand, hot, wrapped over the bony protrusion of my shoulder.
“Maxentius,” Leonhart said.
My eye lids drifted open. “Aye.”
“You will be the first.” He pulled me forward, and bade me stand at his side, right in the middle of hardened mound of silver and cobalt. It felt like layers of dried paint, but looked like thick slabs of skin. “Your robe,” he said in a stern tone, which invited no argument.
I pulled the drab burlap over my head, and placed it in his outstretched hand. How many others had worn it? How many others would come to dwell under its meager shelter?
He folded the shift into a perfect square and set it down on the ground. Then he gripped a rusty ring of metal, which was recessed into the wood floor of the porch, and yanked the covering free of its seat.
The hole hid a 5 gallon bucket, and a carefully wrapped brush. Grunting, Leonhart pried the lid of the bucket free. He handed me the brush. “Here. You must do it yourself. There is no magic in it if I do it. And cover everything, except your face.”
The brush trembled in my hand for just a moment. For just a moment, the faces of my peers bobbed before me like pale lights.
Maxentius the First, I thought as I dipped the brush into the metallic syrup. I stroked the loaded bristles across my collarbone, and down my arm. I painted the liquid between my fingers, forced it under my fingernails, and dragged it all along the line of my jaw. I even coated the very bottom of my feet before it was done.
The liquid felt like armor, and it squeezed the breath from me.
Leonhart looked me over and nodded. “Good. It is good. You must all do as Maxentius has done.” He opened the door to the cabin, which was less like a door, and more like straps of steel woven together. Something you couldn’t get into. Or out of.
“Go,” he said. That was all. There were no formal proclamations, or renunciations. There was no glory stomping. Just one simple, single syllable word.
I looked up at Leonhart and with a smile, I said, “Gone.”
That rebelliousness faded as soon as I stepped inside the cabin. The door shrieked shut behind me, and with its closing it banished the sound of the outside world. Inside, all I could hear was the electric ticking of the sea.
I walked toward the trickle of pale light. The entire wall was gone where the cabin faced the roiling water. Waves crashed against the opening, but some invisible barrier kept them from rushing in.
“Step forward, Maxentius,” a deep voice uttered the command.
I stopped just before the opening, and stared out into the violence.
“For your crimes against The Common, you are hereby sentenced to 100 years of star gazing, in service of The Common.”
“But I’m just a boy,” I said, as if it would make a difference.
“Step forward, Maxentius.”
Lips sealed, I tried to close my eyes as I stepped through the invisible wall, but they would not shut. The sea closed around me. My body did not bob or float. It sank to the bottom in mere seconds.
Faces stippled the sea floor all around me and into the distance. Wide-open eyes gazed up through the water. Into the heavens. I tiptoed through the vast field of them, and searched for an empty spot.
After what seemed like a lunar cycle, I finally found my place just before the edge where the shelf dropped off into an abyss. I nestled under the sand and silt, and stared up.