Having no more to do and nothing to affect, Surek Taban, Minister of Port Frailty and hero of the Sixteen Generations War gave a final look of warning and signaled the warriors at his side to move out before himself disappearing southwest into the fog-blanketed alleys of Neodan, presumably back to his stronghold at the center of the city.
Xala watched him leave. As his form faded, she felt her sense of safety wane as well. A squeeze on her shoulder from the hand of her Grandmother Zuzi reminded her that the Choosing was about to start. She turned to face front and noticed that the judges were moving and closing the distance. She had almost forgotten that she was cupping her hands, concealing her presentation within, as meager as it was. It was something.
“Mother!” wailed the young Toryn Fane, a selectee and known brat of a child, who was pressed against the Maerg gate beside Xala. “Look! My judge is Kamdyn Ors! It really is!” He could barely contain his glee.
“Oh,” began Toryn’s mother, Ruby Fane. “That is wonderful! It is exactly as you had wanted.”
Kamdyn Ors was a bit of a legend in Neodan, called Undertown. His life had started there, in the squalor and among the poorest of its residents. He had been without parents and without a place to call home save for the darkest corners of Undertown’s dirty porches and alleys. The story held that he was born in one of those alleys and left to be picked off by any number of predators both beast and human. But instead, he was found by a group of young waifs who took him on as one of their own.
In time, he learned the streets of Undertown and also the people; especially the food purveyors. He began to make deliveries of vegetables and goods between establishments for a bit of dinner and sometimes a place to sleep. This gave him cause to enjoy the preparation of food which he eventually became very good at.
Kamdyn Ors was twelve cycles old when he was selected and seventeen when he became one of the three at the Choosing. With no parents, he had showed up on his own. His presentation was spiced meat with river bulbs. His judge recognized the meat as common alley rat but after tasting it, realized that Kamdyn was special. These were not ingredients easy to work with. It was a story every selectee knew. One of their own had made it through the ranks and had eventually become a judge.
Judge Ors was difficult to take in, Xala thought. His dress consisted of only a black robe of fine cloth with no hood about which was a cord of blackened silk, tied and ending in tassels. His hair was jet and shoulder length with bangs cut straight, just above his eyes of deepened black. His skin was ivory in color, as were his teeth which were revealed through a wide smile. Around his neck hung a silver chain that ended in an upside down knife scabbard. The large obsidian handle and square shaped pommel emerged from it, almost to where his navel would be. Xala surmised that this setup would make it easy for him to draw his knife quickly. As he got closer, Xala could see some sort of very large black signet ring on the index finger of his left hand.
Behind him were two people dressed and coiffed the same; one male and one female. They even had similar knives around their necks, rings on the same finger of the same type and their eyes were likewise black, but neither of them were smiling. They carried pillows of black satin upon which sat a sphere the size of a child’s head; The male carried one that was black and the female one that was white. Xala guessed them to be made of obsidian and some type of crystal; quartz perhaps. His gait was ethereal and his presence potent.
Somewhat relieved that Judge Ors was not her judge, she looked to see her own judge. At this point it was clear. Approaching her was a short and portly man of middle-age. He wore green silk pants with a red silk sash about them. He was bare chested having only red bracers around his wrists.Aside from his large, brown mustache and eyes to match, he had no hair on his body elsewhere. He carried a broad cleaving knife in his hand and walked on red silk moccasins, the toes bent slightly upward. His face was the unfortunate subject of a scowl and a furrowed brow, though that was hairless as well. Advancing behind him was a single, similarly attired attendant carrying a small wooden chest under his left arm and a cleaving knife in the other hand. The main difference being that this attendant was a great deal younger a man, well muscled and with a considerably larger amount of thick, black hair down to the small of his back. But like his patron, the attendant had a mustache but no eyebrows.
Xala was not sure who this particular judge was by name, but the oddly large, rounded shape of the cleaving knives signified that this was a judge specializing the discipline of butchery. There were worse disciplines to be inducted into, Xala thought.
Once all of the judges had reached the Wearg gate and were face to face with the one hundred selectees, the great bell once again sounded. The Schoolmistress Zofia Meadowbrook was still on the gallows.
“You may begin!” she yelled.
One by one, starting down the line to Xala’s left. The selectees raised their gearwood plates through the bars of the Maerg gate in offering to their judge and one by one, each judge looked at the preparation on the plate, sometimes tasted it, sometimes not before rejecting it. It was not in a judge’s best interest to accept the offering of a selectee. Having one of the chosen was a great deal of work for judges since they, themselves, were responsible for their education within the Cohort of the Knife. They were the ones who taught them the rudiments of preparing food and whatever hidden aspects of their particular style there were to teach. Additionally, they passed on the art of knife-making in the vein of that particular discipline’s methodology. On top of the work involved, judges typically did not want to associate with the people of Neodan to begin with.
Xala knew of one year in particular when no selectees were chosen at all. But because of the agreement between the neighborhoods, three selectees had to be accepted into the school. This is partly why the condemned were executed first. That way, it seemed as though Aefenrest owed Neodan the opportunity to send three people as replacements. There was no turning back. That year, the chosen were selected by lottery. The fact was, a selectee had to really stand out in order to be worth a judge’s time.
Xala prepared herself for the worst and finally the time arrived and there were still none who had been chosen. She pushed her cupped hands through the slats of the Waerg gate and refused to look up.
“What is this supposed to be?” the judge bellowed. “Speak girl!”
Xala looked up and realized she was still covering her offering. She lifted the top hand off of the other and revealed what was in her hand. She pushed it a little further toward the judge in offering.
“Well?” said the judge, who put his face close to her cupped hand.
Inside her hand was a measure of liquid with a slick on top of some oil and there were grains of something not quite dissolved in it.
“It is all I have,” began Xala. “It is Mala nut oil with rice vinegar and rock salt.”
“Vinegar, oil and salt,” said the judge with venom. “And where is your plate, child?”
Xala choked back tears. “It was stolen and thrown away, and my original project was also stolen and eaten. I needed to offer something, so I ran home and prepared this.”
“Well surely you are not worthy of being chosen, but you’ve escaped a beating anyway.” The judge looked around for Zofia Meadowbrook. “I decline. This one is not worthy.”
“I disagree,” came a high-pitched voice from nearby. It was Kamdyn Ors. “She is perfectly worthy.” his smile did not change.
“You can not be serious,” said the portly judge.
“Oh, but I am,” said Kamdyn. “And if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to trade you selectees. That is allowed, if you are willing. What say you my dear Borjak?”
The judge Borjak looked at Kamdyn blankly. Xala looked back and forth between the two judges, not completely grasping what was happening. She finally forgot completely her discipline and inadvertently allowed herself to set her eyes on Toryn Fane. It was a mistake of deep importance.
Staring back at her was something she would never again forget for the rest of her days. It was Toryn, but it was also something else. From some unknowable place behind his eyes came a look of unmatched malice coupled with the deepest envy imaginable. The look was a promise of despair and destruction; the gleeful wasting of innocent potential. She had just been cursed and she knew it. She could feel it in her inmost parts. Her Egg of Lanminh and her gearwood plate were not the only things that Toryn Fane had stolen that day; not remotely. As she stared, his eyes slowly began to sink in, being replaced by slowly swirling holes that twisted into oblivion. Red vapor began to seep out of him. She realized she was in the grip of some dark imagining. She had to break free.
Suddenly she was snapped from her mental prison by the sensation of something touching her hand. It was Kamdyn Ors cupping her outstretched hand in his. He had switched with Judge Borjak who now stood in front of Toryn Fane, who showed no signs of what Xala had just seen. Judge borjak was enjoying Toryn’s chocolate cake immensely.
Judge Ors brought her cupped hand to his lips and he sipped delicately. He threw his head back and closed his black eyes.
“What is your name?” Judge Ors asked, lowering his head with his eyes still closed.
“Xala,” she returned.
“Yes, and you are Kamdyn Ors.”
“Yes, Xala. I am he.”
“I just want my Grandmother Zuzi to be safe,” said Xala. “That is all I ask. I know I am not worthy to be chosen, but I am offering you something. It is not much. Let me leave with my honor intact..”
“Xala,” said Kamdyn.
“Yes,” returned Xala, wishing this conversation a quick end.
“How would you like to come with me?” He pleaded softly, his black eyes now open. “How would you like to learn of the magic of the world and beyond?”
“Me?” Xala looked around clumsily.
“You. There are things I can teach you so you will never have to be frightened again.” His voice was tender and it spoke to a part of Xala that had not been touched since her own father was still living.
“But my offering is not good enough,” Xala argued.
“Have you tasted it?” Protested Kamdyn.
“No, I have not. But what will that accomplish?”
“Taste it, Xala.”
Awkwardly, Xala leveled her eyes on Kamdyn’s and did not look away as she sipped at the mixture in her hand. The scintillating waves of shimmer and warmth coursed through her being, supplying her soul with a deeply fragrant respite. It was a salve for the ages, banishing whatever curse Toryn had levied against her eternal purpose. As the salt dissolved in her mouth, she became aware of a pulsing traveling up her other arm into her body. It was vital; regenerating even. She could feel the air around her quicken as though lightning were coming to claim her. It was the most pleasant thing she had ever tasted.
Suddenly aware of her surroundings again, Xala realised that she had placed her hand on the white sphere that the female attendant was carrying. At some point, she had reached through the gate and touched it without realizing it. Xala looked at judge Ors then at Toryn, who would not look back at her. Ruby Fane was visibly shaken but looked desperate to be chosen by the judge Borjak. This proved to be the case as Borjak was quite pleased with Toryn’s offering, if not a little too pleased. Either way, for the first time in memory, two people had been chosen who were right next to eachother.
“Kamdyn,” said the female attendant. “She picked the white one.”
“She did at that,” Kamdyn replied. “So, are you ready, Xala?”
Xala turned and searched her Grandmother Zuzi’s eyes for any bit of protest that might be hidden there but there was none, only a warm smile and sparkling eyes. “Go, Xala. I will be fine. It is what you have worked for.”
Xala hugged Zuzi tightly for quite awhile, then they walked together toward the door in the gate as the third person was being selected somewhere down the line. Kamdyn and his two attendants were waiting on the other side, but this time, all of them were smiling. The scene made Xala feel a welcome energy she had never experienced before. She gave Zuzi one last glance before crossing the threshold into Aefenrest and into the friendly midst of her new companions.
Meanwhile, the denizens of Undertown and Aefenrest alike turned once again to their own affairs, parting ways and returning to despising each other. Toryn and the third chosen, an older girl, tall, lanky and red-haired followed after Xala across the Maerg gate into Aefenrest.
As Xala and her new companionis passed the gallows, she watched as the dead were taken down by family members and it gave her a chill.
“Judge Kamdyn,” said Xala.
“You may call me Kamdyn,” he returned.
“Kamdyn, what if I fail?” Her concern was genuine.
“You can not fail,” He said.
“Because you have the three of us as teachers,” He said pompously and with great ceremony.
Together they walked into the lush fields and manicured lands of Aefenrest toward the Cohort of the Knife’s stronghold. Xala would have no way of knowing that she would never set foot in Neodan again. But for the first time, Xala did know that she felt a fulfillment of purpose and even a little happiness.