Crystal Robert-Ubaechu, Academy for Allied Health Sciences
The drudging sounds of distant wagons and gold-clad soldiers hardly cut through the red drapes of the large canvas tent. The tent was pitched in the center of the grey plains in the eastern Xeland queendom, bright like a drop of blood on ashen skin. Inside, each of sixteen women knelt or squatted on cheap cushions before her square meter of work.
Their spines would have a permanent curve from the way they hunched, guarding against peeking eyes. Stubs of chalk pecked against slates. Unbound pages were passed around, joining the small symphony of glass clinks and pencil scratches. They used dulled arrow heads to slice their portions, because the royal guard wouldn’t let the likes of them use proper blades.
The smallest woman whined in frustration and brought her shaved head down to touch the carpet. If the hourglass standing in the middle of the tent hadn't been so close to running out, no one would have broken her focus to hazard a glance. But a few did, confident in her work or resigned to her failure.
The sixteen were all members of the Fayonian race, a bloodline of alchemists given wardship under the Queen. They each had a choice out of three alchemical tasks, a week to prepare beforehand and seven hours to complete the task under the red fire of the lanterns. The small girl made her choice and regretted it bitterly.
“Ah’m gonna fail!” she sobbed and hot tears soaked into the carpet.
There was space in the silence for reassuring words, but none came. This wasn't like that first week in the Queen’s manor. They were one year beyond those newly-culled, starry-eyed champions holding hands as they gratefully learned the corners and edges of alchemy.
Once the grim competition and grimmer stakes were revealed, they had stopped wanting each other to succeed.
“You’d better figure it out, and soon, or it’s back to skimming berries for you.” Another waved her hand in the smallest one’s direction, letting the object in her hand glimmer in the lamplight.
Her offering, a tiny, stoppered vial, was as perfect as she was. She had a tight braid cascading from her head, thick and black with only a slight texture—the Fayonian-half of her almost completely buried. The queendom-issued red kaftan fit the best on her compared to the others’ starving bodies. One wouldn’t think she’d been anywhere near so much as a rainy puddle, much less the Inkberry Bogs.
“Ah still got skin peelin’ off,'' another girl drawled. She lifted the hem of her breeches and half-healed lesions peeked through old bandages.
They all groaned or sucked their teeth, and one girl reached her hand out to punch the scarred one on the arm until she concealed her markings. The fact of their old lives were to go as unspoken as blasphemy.
The smallest girl looked at her worthless offering. Through the blur of tears, it still looked like a lump of grey. Before, on the wagon, a year's worth of lessons crammed every cube inch of her skull. She knew how to make a panacea from the same inkberries she had been born to pick, as well as an elixir of life that wouldn’t require the user to drink it ritually. However, she had been most sure in her ability to transmute lead into gold.
Now, she couldn’t think of a single thing to do that would begin to fix the lump. Her queen, her sponsor, the closest thing she had to a parent, would see that she wasn’t worth the oil that greased the treasury doors. It would be back to the slums and the acid water, stealing scraps to survive.
The perfect girl was suddenly kneeling next to her.
“Pitiful,” She said in her sarcastic voice. “It still looks like lead.”
The small closed her eyes in shame, “Ah know.”
“How old are you?”
She humphed. “I already knew fifteen transmutations at your age. One for each of my years and the last for the number of Fay girls I was going to own for myself after I won the cull.”
The small girl choked out another cry as others allowed themselves to bristle. The hourglass was almost done; if you hadn’t cured, immortalized, or transmuted by then, you weren’t going to.
“Them is sharp words!” A voice rose up among the bowed heads, “let’s see what you made, then!”
The perfect girl’s grin cut her face as she straightened up like the long neck of a white swan. She pinched a thumb sized vial between her fingers, so the view of the shimmering black liquid was unobstructed. Story books and fairy tales described the elixir of life as a wine green as emerald, but the thing in the vial looked like liquid obsidian.
A chorus of gasps swelled, as if at the cue of an imaginary conductor, and settled over the tent like a chill. Some swore they could see unfathomable colors swirling in the galaxy water. Others claimed they felt rejuvenated by even the slightest glance at it.
“It’s cold to the touch.” She bragged, and for the first time no one felt envy or annoyance.
“We all goin’ back,” A girl breathed, tearing the scratch paper she was using. “Shame! Ah’m gonna miss the hot meals, the soft beds.”
“Ya think ah can still continue my readin’ lessons?” Another asked rhetorically, snapping the tip of her pencil and smudging the graphite on her fingertips.
There was this collective resignation in all of them as they rolled their necks and stretched their legs. The hourglass was down to an inch of sand at its neck. A soldier would round them up at any moment.
“We not goin’ back to the Bogs.” The voice was shaky, and small, but it leeched venom into the air. It was the youngest girl, and she sat with her knees tucked beneath her chin like a beaten animal.
“My sister got took three years before me and she still not come home! She not come home or write or anythin’!”
A collective pit in their stomachs. A vacuum cold silence.
“She’s...busy learnin’ more witchin’,” one decided.
“Maybe her letters got lost in post.”
“No one delivers letters to you slum girls,” the perfect one offered loudly.
“No!” The young one wailed. “She promised she would! She―” and the girl started to cry, her pitiful lump of lead bespeckled with shine waiting beside her.
The fact of their world: Fayonian males cursed with strong bodies and stronger minds were sent to fight and die for the queen’s endless wars. The females cursed with the propensity for the devil’s science were sent to work and die for the queen’s pocket and to keep her young and beautiful for eternity. Downtrodden and broken was the song of the slum girl, and her innate alchemical ability was suppressed as a result. Not even the smallest opportunity was spared to her, who would have taken over the world if not for the queen’s perfect coup. Culling was the only way out, but no one realized that the door would lock behind them.
Blossoms of panic grew on their hearts. The tent drapes seemed to close in, like the red stomach of a giant beast. The smallest girl couldn’t take the shock. Her feeble legs collapsed like weak branches. She stumbled against the perfect girl, clawing against her kaftan before sinking to the floor, fevered and clammy, clutching a balled fist to her chest.
She was dragged from the tent by a soldier who splashed her face with ice water. Sputtering and shivering, she marched with fifteen others under the blanket of a grey sky. Gilded swords threatened anyone who dared step out of line. They waited at the guarded gate, the queen’s tent filling their view. Under that mountain of red and gold, silk and leather, the queen herself would be poised on a throne, judging each offering, tallying each worth. Sentencing each a place at the gallows.
One by one the girls ushered forth. Some marched bravely or nihilistically; it was hard to tell from behind. A few who screamed, begged, or bargained had to be lifted, skinny legs kicking, through the flap. None of them would be seen again.
Next in line, the perfect girl found reassurance in the heavy mass in her pocket. It was still thumb-sized and cold to the touch … as most hunks of lead were. She squeezed it for good luck, not noticing the switch, and kept it jealously hidden from view. She didn’t see the smallest girl behind her, swiping obsidian water from her lips.
The perfect girl was pampered by the gifts her Xelandian father smuggled into the slums. School tutors, unspoiled food, intact rubber boots. She didn’t know what it meant to go hungry, to have to steal what you didn’t have. She also didn’t know that shoeless feet, permanently slick with acid water, didn't just fall over.
The wet streets were the small girl’s father and tutor. They showed her how to balance when her legs were tired and burning. They starved her small enough so her hands could fit into tightly clutched purses. They taught her every trick and trade of petty crime and thievery. Twelve months away from those winding, dangerous alleys weren’t enough to forget their lessons.
Every drop of obsidian crawled down the small one’s starving throat as she watched the black braided head crouch under the tent flap. Then, the small girl cast down the pilfered vial and crunched it to pieces beneath her tiny foot, as if it were made of eggshells. She would enter that tent soon after, hands empty, offering nothing, but the queen would not kill her for it.
With this newfound immortality, her highness wouldn’t be able to.