As far as neighborhoods go, there was most assuredly something odd about Aefenrest. This was a widely held, yet seldom voiced belief among the people of the several neighborhoods that were built up against its edges. These peripheral, impoverished communities were of course considered by most to be less affluent, less educated and generally less important than the inhabitants of Aefenrest by many orders of magnitude. These less fortunate enclaves were known collectively as Neodan, the Undertown, though their internal, cultural differences were as diverse as the whole of Port Frailty. And so it was that the poorest of the giant city's people were situated directly against the richest. So stark was the recognition of this contrast in class that the border between Aefenrest and Neodan was clearly and unabashedly marked by a wrought iron, filigreed gate about the height of a person, complete with sparcely placed entrances that were guarded by a force of masked, privately trained, well-equipped, well-spoken and well-dressed militia called the Waru. And the Waru only began to account for Aefenrest's oddity.
The Aefenrest region of Port Frailty sat regally in the Northeastern-most corner of the city, just inside and slightly above that part of the city wall—no small feat of engineering. The area had been scouted as a choice place for a select, fortunate few almost immediately after the city was founded in the wake of the peace that marked the end of the Sixteen Generations War; the war that redefined the world. The decision had been made chiefly due to the location's superior views of the northern shore and the open sea. Peculiar to its layout was the presence of something that the rest of Port Frailty was decidedly devoid of — open space. That is, while Aefenrest's opulent buildings were certainly stacked high, there were terraced gardens, lavish squares, landscaped parks and exotic nurseries between them.
These beautified grounds were vast. If one maintained a quick pace, it would take about one hour or so from any point along the filagreed gate to reach the great lighthouse which marked Aefenrest's farthest, northeastern corner. Just beyonod the great lighthouse was the small but busy Aefenrest waterfront with its well-maintained docks and piers which lay in contrast to the larger, dilapidated seaport to the west, along the northern shore, that served the rest of Port Frailty. This was yet another reminder of the reality of class in Port Frailty. But the Aefenrest neighborhood was not reserved for wealth-fattened estates alone. Sparsely situated throughout Aefenrest were the great institutions of old; the elite mystery schools among which was the fabled Cohort of the Knife, revered the world-over for producing practitioners of cookery unmatched in all of history.
Once per five cycles, the Cohort of the Knife opened its enrollment to three promising students from the slums of Neodan. It was a lottery of sorts; part contest and part chance. It was a rare chance at social mobility and the people of the Undertown spent years in preparation. The day of the Choosing was always a gala event. None of the other schools dared do such a thing and there was much contention among the citizens of Aefenrest concerning the risk of contaminating their culture by allowing it. But Schoolmistress Lorana Meadowbrook, School Adjutant and the preeminant public figurehead of arguably the most wealthy family in Aefenrest, insisted the tradition continue. Her father, Marthyn Meadowbrook was, in truth, the head and owner of the school, but had been completely absent from the public eye for near twenty cycles. Schoolmistress Meadowbrook had run the day-to-day ever since, carrying out her father's vision and representing his will in all affairs.
The first part of the contest was simple. One hundred children, between the ages of thirteen and seventeen cycles, were chosen by lottery and announced by the Choosing Committee for entry into the contest. This always took place the day after the previous Choosing occurred. From that day forward, each of the one hundred selectees would have five years to prepare for the final event. This included intense culinary training by local cooks and self-proclaimed culinarians of all kinds from the reaches of the city, more especially those within Neodan. There was regional pride to ensure.
And when at last, the day of the Choosing arrived, each selectee will have perfected a single dish; the apex of their social and cultural spirit, prepared savory, sweet or perhaps both on a plate of carved and sealed Gearwood that usually cost more than most selectees' families made in an entire cycle. Gearwood was a rare and special wood taken from the Gearwood Thicket, a single stretch of forest located in the frozen hills of Laedenor, across the ocean to the north, beyond the Neverwall. Despite the many millions of people in Port Frailty, there were a relative few who had access to this mysterious wood. However, these fortunates were usually willing to help selectees but at a lofty price. And while such an expense was not strictly mandatory, to present a dish without the Gearwood plate was considered to be an act of forfeit. Being a selectee was a great honor, but also unsearchably expensive. The unspoken rule tended to separate those who were not as serious as others. There were always a few who attempted to present without the plate. None of them had ever been chosen. But the only thing worse than presenting without the plate was not presenting at all. This was seen as a greatly selfish act and could end badly for the family of the selectee. After all, for the one hundred who would be chosen, there would be many thousands who had not been chosen. Not presenting was cause for violence at the least. And the only thing that paralleled the severity of the poverty in Neodan was the severity of the violence in Neodan, more especially that which was righteous. The mob would be satisfied.
Like so many times before, the day had arrived for the Choosing. This meant that there were a few, very important changes to the daily routine at the filagreed gate between Neodan and Aefenrest that would be in effect for the duration of the event. Firstly, there would be three times the usual number of Waru guards at each of the entrances to keep order. The Choosing could get rowdy at times, especially once people realized that their loved one had not been chosen. Secondly, there would be a fair amount of representation from the populace of both sides, even though each generally despised the other in most contexts. And even though most of the aristocrats of Aefenrest disagreed with the school's event on principle, they attended regardless as it was socially advantageous to do so. Thirdly, the gallows-tree near the main entrance would be made ready for the exchange ceremony. That is, the tradition of putting three, failed students to death in order to make room for the three new students. Every school had its secrets. And for those not academically inclined or otherwise unable to succeed, they were not allowed to simply return to Neodan with such secrets floating around inside their heads, unbound by obligation. No. They were instead kept in the school jails until the Choosing once again rolled around. Nobody except the leadership of the school knew just how many of these students there were. Yet, it was the way of it and a worthy risk according to most.
Xala Tuya had been one of the first selectees to arrive at the main gate. She was always early to arrive for her obligations and this was no different. The sun had had not yet risen in the eastern sky and it was chilly. The burgeoning season had just begun, revealing its arrival in the many closed wild flowers that emerged triumphant from cracks and crevices in the unevenly cobbled and filthy streets on her side of the gate. Xala thought of how she could use them as fragrance in a soup or garnish for the same. This was not unusual for her as her entire life for the last five years was spent in preparation for this day.
"What are you thinking about my dear?" said Xala's Grandmother Zuzi.
"Nothing bad, Grandmother," returned Xala. "I was just thinking about a recipe with wildflowers."
"Ah yes. Good, good," Zuzi nodded. "The sun will rise soon and the people will gather. Are you sure you are ready?"
Xala was not sure. "I think so, Grandmother."
"You will do just fine," Zuzi said lovingly. "Now remember to control your nerves and make sure you look the Headmistress right in the eye when you present." It was good advice.
"Yes Grandmother," Xala agreed. She had practiced that particular move for years but felt no better prepared than when she had been selected five cycles since.
Xala was somewhat short for a girl of twenty cycles but what she lacked in height, she made up for in brute strength and a keenly sharp wit. She had taken to scaling the buildings in Neodan for fun when she was little, which over time resulted in her incredible agility and muscled form; at times an advantage and at other times a liability. But she loved climbing things. Second only to cooking, climbing as high as she could, wherever she was at, was as close to feeling free as she was likely to ever get. People seldom escaped the drudgery of Neodan in one lifetime and the chances of her being one of the chosen three was slim indeed. She played the scene over and over in her mind. If she was not one of the three, she would take her chances beyond the river gates into the south of Arom, perhaps even into the uncharted regions or into the lands inhabited by the Gau, with whom she was told she shared ancestry. It was said that there were many mountains there; many heights to master. Either way, she could not see herself staying in Undertown, or anywhere in Port Frailty. There was more out there for her. There had to be.
Xala looked fondly upon Grandmother Zuzi with her chocolate-colored, almond shaped eyes. "Thank you, Grandmother."
"Don't be ridiculous," returned Zuzi, her own, dark eyes smiling. "This is a great honor, Xala. Just being considered. You have helped your family and no matter what happens here today, you can be proud to have been one of the original selectees. If your parents were here, they would tell you the same." It was a phrase Xala had become used to hearing.
"I know, Grandmother," said Xala, somewhat downcast. Her recently shaven head had begun to show the signs of new growth; a necessary precaution given the sheer amount of lice in her part of the neighborhood.
"Besides," began Zuzi, "You have a good chance at being chosen; a good chance, yes!" Zuzi nodded toward the wooden plate that Xala cradled close to her in the palms of her hands. "Nobody else but you will have the Egg of Lanminh to present."
It was true. The Egg of Lanminh was a legendary morsel among the most ancient of traditions maintained by the Gau people of Southeastern Arom. It was fantastically difficult to prepare, requiring two cycles of very specific and attentive work. In all of Gau history, written or spoken, there had been less than three hundred successful attempts at retrieving the most important ingredient: the freshly laid egg of a bloodletter crocodile. And her father had retrieved two! But he did so at the cost of his life.
Xala was fifteen cycles when she learned of her selection. They way her Grandmother told it, once Xala's father realized his daughter had been among the one hundred selectees, he knew that retrieving an egg and crafting the Egg of Lanminh would be her best hope at being one of the chosen three. This was partly because there were relatively few people of Gau descent in Port Frailty as compared to those from other regions of Arom and beyond. The chances of one of the other selectees even knowing about the egg would be quite unlikely. This gave a clear advantage. Further still, she had been told that the euphoric effects on a person who ate of the Egg of Lanminh were life-altering.
Xala's father set out for the Gau region to find a bloodletter crocodile's nest. He eventually did and he lifted the two eggs he found there, thinking the mother was foraging. But the the crocodile was hiding in the reeds nearby and attacked him. Xala's father was able to escape destruction with a small claw wound on his neck. Over the next three years, he slowly bled to death, all the while ensuring that Xala knew the secret of the Egg of Lanminh's preparation, which had been taught to him by his own grandfather. The first egg was a failure, owing its demise to an improper balance of seasoning. However, Xala's father was able to trade the failed experiement to a local alchemist for a Gearwood plate. It was a welcome turn of circumstance, since Xala needed one anyway. About half way through the preparation of the second and final egg, her father died from the sickness caused by the crocodile's wound, leaving her and her Grandmother to figure out the rest of the process from memory and what had been written down. It was a hard time.
And it came to pass, that their efforts and sacrifice proved fruitful. With only several months remaining, the egg turned the tell-tale purple color that indicated it had undergone the change from a normal egg into the Egg of Lanminh. From that point forward, it would never spoil nor would it ever taste like anything but the pinnacle of bliss. In the remaining months and weeks, Xala and Zuzi protected the egg carefully, hiding it in a hidden hole in the wall of their small dwelling. But now it was out in the open, sitting atop a small bed of seaweed on the Gearwood plate. It was almost time.
Xala contemplated the events that led up to this day, she became sad that her father was not there to share this with her; that she never knew her mother due to her being taken during childbirth. She stared at the egg and wondered how many had died in its pursuit over the ages. Just then, the sun peeked over the horizon and a beam of morning light glinted off the purple egg then on to her golden skin, the color of harvest wheat.
The sound of her Grandmother's pointed, kurt admonishings woke her from her trance. Grandmother Zuzi was yelling at a boy who had shown up for the event but who was also trying to get a better look at the egg. By now, there were many people arriving, some of the selectees were there and many more onlookers were setting up tents and booths. But Xala knew this particular boy. His name was Toryn; Toryn Fane. He had bullied her since they were small, more especially these last few years as he was also a selectee. His was a presumptuous countenance; shortened nose above a snarling mouth of unusually reddened lips, all overshadowed by deep-set, blue eyes and a wild mane of strawberry hair. His teeth were quite large and straight, though his neck skinny, not unlike the rest of him.
"What do you have there, Xala?" mocked Toryn, trying to croon over Zuzi's shoulder.
Xala's eyes narrowed. "None of your concern, leave me alone!"
Toryn repeated her exactly, but in a high-pitched tone. He managed to push his way passed and beyond Zuzi and lunged for the egg. Xala hadn't time enough to move before Toryn snatched the egg from its dias of seaweed and popped it into his own mouth. Xala could not believe what she was witnessing. Everything slowed down and all she could do was watch in horror as Toryn chewed the egg thoroughly, his intense eyes communicating gleeful power over her. Before she could process anything that had happened, Toryn had then snatched from her the Gearwood plate and hurled it over the gate, deep into the crowd that was quickly forming on the Aefenrest side of the divide; the place that she would now never see. There was no time to prepare anything. The Choosing was about to start. Toryn chewed the last bits of the Egg of Lanminh and grinned widely at Xala.
"That was delicious!" Toryn declared brightly. "Too bad that means the end of the show for you, I'm afraid." He turned to his little brother Thalis who had been holding Toryn's finished recipe for him. "Give me that!" He swiped it out of his brother's hands and brandished it like some sort of weapon.
Xala was in shock. "Why, why would you?"
"Because you don't belong in Aefenrest and you know it," Toryn replied. "Anyway, my chocolate cake is superior in every way."
Just then, Zuzi fell ill, grasping her chest and crumpling to the ground slowly. Xala yelled out. "Grandmother!"
Toryn began laughing. "I feel wonderful! What did you put in this egg anyway?"
Xala tended to her Grandmother, no longer caring about anything else; not eggs or Toryns or fancy schools. Perhaps Toryn was right. She did not belong there.
"Child, you must continue and present," said Zuzi, catching her breath somewhat. "Don't worry about me, I will recover. It was a bit much. That is all."
"But Grandmother, I have nothing to present," replied Xala.
"Yes, yes you do."
"You have you."
"I don't understand."
"You are almost out of time. What did your father teach you?"
"To be true."
"Then be true."
Xala looked at the gathering crowd and realized she had to present, no matter what. She kissed her Grandmother on the forehead and bolted into a full sprint toward her dwelling which was only moments away. She had an idea. As she disappeared into the alleys of Neodan, called Undertown by most, she could hear Toryn laughing in the distance.
To be continued in Tales from Port Frailty: Knives and Knellings Part Two