It was here, within the northeastern walls of Port Frailty, at the gate of filigreed iron called the Maerg which separated the neighborhoods of Aefenrest from Neodan, the morning throng was gathering for the Choosing.
The sun had risen. However, sunrises in Port Frailty were unlike anywhere else in in the land of Arom, or anywhere in the world of Myn for that matter. The morning light only somewhat hinted at illumination, barely glinting off the highest structures and the giant, city walls. Even at the height of the sun’s journey at midday, the light was thin and flat on the streets, muting color and increasing the presence of shadow. Part of the reason for this was a dense, grayish and ever-present haze that hung in and over the entire city, being thickest near the southern, river-docks and thinnest here along the Maerg by the Northern Sea.
The citizens of Port Frailty called it the miasma and its exact composition or reason for being had long been lost. Local historians had cautiously maintained for many cycles that it was a sorcerous consequence of the fabled Sixteen Generations War, fought so long ago though how it came about exactly, nobody could say. There were none still alive to attest to it one way or another. Surely, it was difficult to see through, especially at night. And it perpetually reeked of rotting kelp, a potent and inescapable feature of the locale. A person could always tell a newcomer, be they rich or poor, by their constantly crinkled nose. If one wanted the warmth of the sun, being a fisherman was a good occupation to take, because the miasma did not clear for a league at least in all directions around the city. Certainly, the miasma made for bleak days and isolating nights. But that was life in Port Frailty.
Xala Tuyan had just returned from a maddened sprint home to retrieve something to present to the judges after the ill-intentioned Toryn Fane had mercilessly taken from her and eaten the fabled Egg of Lanminh, which took months to prepare and had cost her father his life. The recipe was known only to certain Gau, an advanced, peaceful people who resided many leagues to the southeast of Port Frailty in a region of the same name. Few Gau made their home in Port Frailty, or anywhere other than Gau, save for outcasts or the very adventurous. Xala’s grandparents had been such people, though whether they were outcast, adventurers or both was never discussed.
Xala had become used to secrets, and of losing things and people too. And now of her family, only her grandmother Zuzi remained living, though she was not doing well having just fainted under the stress of young Toryn’s cruel act. Luckily, Zuzi was on her feet by the time Xala got back from her frenetic errand. Winded and cupping her hands, Xala joined Zuzi at the gate, where the one hundred selectees had lined up for presentation and judgement. Zuzi had saved Xala’s spot.
“Granddaughter,” Zuzi began. “What is it you are holding in your hands?”
“My last hope,” returned Xala.
“I see,” said Zuzi. She seemed apprehensive but supportive nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Toryn Fane was in the spot next to them on the right. He was with his mother, Ruby, a wretch of a person, skin and bones, vacant brown eyes and hunched like a vulture. Her clothes were typical of everyone in Undertown; burlap and cotton in interesting, brindled arrangements toward something resembling pants and shirt with soft leather shoes. Her gray and red hair was long and surprisingly well kempt, being restrained into a braid that lay the length of her back. She took a position between her son and Xala.
“Yes, what is it you have there, Xala,” Asked Ruby. “Something good I hope. Yes, something good. My Toryn worked so hard on his presentation. But I think he must have a good chance.” Her pride was quite visible.
The words cut Xala, angering her even more. “Your son ate my presentation! He is a monster!”
Ruby shrank back some. “Oh, I am so sorry,” she replied. “Toryn can get so hungry sometimes. It is not his fault really, what with the state of affairs in Undertown. Food is scarce and I am afraid he had skipped the morning meal to be here on time.”
Xala huffed through approaching tears. “Well he should have eaten his own presentation, then! And he didn’t have to throw my plate away!”
Ruby stepped out of the way and revealed Toryn, who was himself guarding the chocolate cake he’d made perched on the gearwood plate. She shook a finger at him. “That was very inconsiderate Toryn,” she admonished. “Tell her you are sorry! Go on!”
Toryn lifted his gaze from his presentation and met eyes with Xala. This was not the first time he had been forced to apologize to her. Xala’s childhood was mottled with many such apologies as they had been neighbors their whole lives. Toryn was her enemy. Of that there was no question. But now his eyes were different. They were sharp and glinting. Inside them resided something new and unknown to Xala. He was smiling but at least he had stopped laughing.
“I am sorry Xala,” said Toryn disingenuously. “I should not have eaten your special egg”. His eyes remained unmoving as did his smile, sending icy waves of foreboding down Xala’s spine.
“There,” said Ruby. “Thank you Toryn. There is always next time, Xala. But you may be too old by then. At least you have something hidden in your hands to present.” Her expression hardened as she protectively motioned Toryn back behind her. She turned her head toward the gate and started smiling and waving at the aristocrats and socialites approaching the gate from the other side, signaling she was done with the conversation.
“Do not pay any attention to them, Xala,” said Zuzi. “We will deal with this after the Choosing. Just get ready for the judges. They are approaching.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, old woman,” warned Ruby, without turning her head and continuing to smile and wave. “We wouldn’t want poor Xala to be left to grow up all alone in Undertown, would we? The outlook for a young girl in such a harsh place is not so good is it?”
Still looking pale from her earlier fainting, Zuzi shook her head slowly but said nothing in return. Xala had already moved up to the gate and took position as did the other selectees. Each knelt on one knee, resting their hands and plates on their forward knee. Xala had no plate, so she kept her hands cupped but likewise on the knee. Every selectee knew exactly what to do. They had all practiced for five cycles.
As Xala waited, she could feel Toryn staring at her just outside the realm of her peripheral vision. She dared not look for she did not want to know who it really would be looking back at her. She knew this: it was no longer the Toryn she had grown up with. He was partly someone or something else now. The Egg of Lanminh was a mysterious creation, yes. But she had never heard of this effect before. She could feel his possessive sight; his desire to smother her. She shuddered and tried to remain focused on the Choosing.
The ringing of the Aefenrest bell signaled the beginning of the Choosing. The Aefenrest bell was set into a guard tower not far from the middle section of the Maerg. It was made of brass and was the size of a house at least. Its tone was low, long and pensive. Through the crowds of well-dressed, well-fed aristocrats of Aefenrest, came the judges. There were in fact one hundred of them, one for each attendee. The judges came in all sizes, shapes and bearing. They were dressed in a variety of livery in blazing colors and exotic fabrics some of which Xala cold not even name. Some wore hats or head coverings, and some carried weapons, though not all. Behind each judge, was a small contingent of assistants, heralds and pages, dressed to match, some of whom bore boxes, chests or other fine vessels atop silken pillows or platters. There were even a few domesticated animals led on silken cords: peacocks, dogs and the like.
What started out as merely a massive wave of decadent, chaotic movement began to take the shape of a line comprised of judges standing side-by-side with their attendants behind them in single file. However, at this distance, it was still too far for Xala to determine who her judge was to be.
Without breaking her own composure and being careful not to look at Toryn to the right of her, Xala turned to look down the line to her left. Every selectee was kneeling, holding out their creations they had spent so many years preparing and practicing for. Proud relatives stood behind them, hands on their selectee’s shoulders. For a moment, she felt the sting of despair as she again realized that, without the Egg of Lanminh and without a gearwood plate to present it on, she had no chance of being chosen. At best, she could hope to avoid public shaming or even violence by submitting something, anything. She pushed the feeling down into the depths of her stomach where her other hurts resided. It did not want to stay there.
Just as she began to quake, she felt the warmth of Zuzi’s hands on her own shoulders. They were remarkably strong and brought with them the promise of family, no matter what. They were good hands. With a squeeze, her anguish subsided somewhat. Xala took a deep breath, regained her focus and resolved to see this through.
The Aefenrest bell sounded again and with that, the line of judges began to advance slowly forward. Simultaneously, three hooded figures were ushered ceremoniously to the gallows near the guard tower by a person in a silken, hooded costume in the semblance of a raven.