“What matters is not that you boarded the ship, but whether the ship reached its destination due to or in spite of your actions.” -Ansauan Proverb
59th day of Skohi, 471 AC
“Are you excited?” Kai’s father asked as they worked their way down the steep stairs towards their seats near the arena’s edge.
“It should be a good fight,” Kai said.
“Not about that, I meant about the ceremony tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Kai said. He wasn’t sure what his father wanted him to say. It was the last night that he would spend as part of his family’s household, and for the next ten years he would be a part of the Vaarplikt. He did not know what he would be doing, or even which of the five sub-islands he would be on. The truth was that he was excited, but he didn’t want to hurt his father by telling him how eager he was to be out on his own.
His father picked up on his hesitance. “I know, it’s a strange thing. Just remember, your mother and I, we will always be here for you. The important thing is to keep your eyes open and your feet on the ground, and you’ll do fine.”
There it was, his father’s catch phrase. When he was young, Kai hadn’t really noticed or questioned it, but one day his best friend, Rafi, had asked him if he agreed that people who didn’t do well in life had just not been attentive enough or had simply been unwilling to take the opportunities that had been presented to them. Kai had never been able to come up with a good answer. The uncertainty had eaten at his perception of his father, the great business man and pillar of his family, and now Kai simply felt adrift.
“I’m sure I will,” Kai said.
“Who did you bet on?” his father asked, referring to the tradition of placing a bet on the last night before the Binding Ceremony, a symbolic last act of frivolity before the responsibilities of adulthood.
“Angeli,” Kai said, knowing that it was the same bet that his father had made, although of a smaller magnitude. He would have been a fool to not do the same, when his father favored someone, they tended to win. The bet had been the inciting incident between him and Rafi, who had bet on the challenger. She had asked if he planned on following his father’s lead for his entire life, if he believed that other cornerstone of his father’s worldview, about the world being divided between cheaters and losers. Kai didn’t have an answer to that question either.
“Good,” his father said.
He was spared more awkward conversation as the judge entered the ring and the buzzing of the crowd went silent. The judge walked its perimiter, inspecting the Seals that would hold the shield once the bout started, walking to the center and nodding towards the fighters’ entrances when he was satisfied. Kai felt a surge of disappointment as the two men entered the arena. Angeli looked like a prince standing beside a fisherman, wearing a green and white silk robe in contrast to the other man’s simple sarong and shirt of rough cream-colored fabric. The disparity in clothing only served to emphasize the fact that Angeli stood head and shoulders above his opponent, Vandon.
As the combatants turned to look at the crowd, Kai got a better look at their Seals. Each of them had three Seals, one to allow them to draw power from the Battery, one to tax them by drawing energy from them into the Battery, and one to allow them to channel Ve in different ways. Angeli’s skill Seal was full, representing his mastery of various arts. Vandon’s, in contrast, was mostly empty. Kai looked down at his own arms, where frames for the three Seals had been tattooed a year ago but would remain empty until the following morning, when he would go through the Binding ceremony and as an adult be forever linked to the Island.
It looked like it was going to be a short fight, and Kai had been hoping that his hero would face a serious challenge. His father, on the other hand, was excited at the prospect of an easy victory for Angeli.
The shield at the border of the ring snapped into place, like a soap bubble popping in reverse. It quickly faded, though, and after a moment it was as if it had never been there at all. Angeli immediately brought his hands together, and his brow furrowed with concentration as he readied his first blast. Vandon started to move sideways to the left, and though his body looked totally relaxed, Kai was close enough to see the intensity in his face as he stared unblinkingly at his opponent.
The quiet in the ring didn’t last long. After his opponent had only taken a few steps, Angeli turned to face him and outstretched both of his hands, the insides of his wrists almost touching and his fingers curved forward as though he were holding a bowl. A ball of energy appeared in the space between his fingers and grew until it was the size of two fists. As it grew in size, it also grew in intensity, and it became difficult to look at. Then it shot forward, directly at Vandon. Kai had seen it before, one of Angeli’s signature moves, using a powerful blast to force his opponent to put up a shield at cost of both energy and initiative. The ball was moving incredibly fast, and Kai knew from experience to look towards its target rather than try to follow its path. When he looked, though, Vandon wasn’t forming a shield, but standing with his arms loose at his side. Impossibly fast, he jumped to the side, and the ball of energy hit the arena’s shield, which turned opaque, like the surface of a reflecting pool that had been violently disturbed.
“No one’s that fast,” Kai’s father said, and Kai silently agreed.
The shield cleared just fast enough for them to be able to see a second bolt headed at Vandon, this one not traveling nearly as fast. By this time, Vandon was well out towards the center of the ring, perhaps fifteen paces from Angeli, and he dodged the ball easily, only to have it curve back towards him. This time he let it almost reach him before darting to the side. The ball curved again, but not in time to prevent it from splashing harmlessly against the shield.
By then, Vandon was sprinting towards Angeli, small jets of sand shooting up from his sandals as he ran. He wasn’t moving as fast as he had when he dodged the first shot, but he was still moving faster than Kai had ever thought possible. For a moment, it looked as though the match was going to end, as though Vandon was going to just run up to Angeli and beat him senseless. And then Angeli fired a series of pearl sized blasts into the sand between him and Vandon. Fast as he was, Vandon was simply unable to stop before hitting the wall of sand that was blocking his path, and as Kai sat watching Angeli begin to form yet another bolt, he felt himself grinning along with the rest of the audience, this was Angeli’s home after all.
There was nowhere for Vandon to go, and the bolt hit him square in the chest, reversing his momentum so that he was flying backwards. Before he had even hit the ground, Angeli had started to turn, hands up in a pose that was usually reserved for statues of the victorious, and the crowd was on their feet with him. The roar was deafening, and Angeli didn’t notice when Vandon got to his knees and then his feet. There was a hole in his white shirt, black and smoking at the edges, but underneath, there was only raw skin that was wholly healed by the time he had dusted himself off. The entire crowd let out a gasp. The shield prevented the fighters from accessing any external source of Ve, any energy they drew, they had to draw from themselves. To draw enough energy frome oneself to heal a wound like that was unheard of.
By then, Angeli had noticed that his opponent was not yet beaten, but it was too late. By the time he had turned around and dropped his hands, Vandon was on him. It only took one blow, a palm to the bottom of the ribs, and Angeli was down, like a fish that didn’t know what to do with the air. As Vandon walked up to his fallen opponent, Kai felt himself willing Angeli to get up, to fire off one last bolt, anything. Nothing happened, though, Angeli just lay there as Vandon walked up and placed a sandaled foot on his neck. Angeli went limp and Vandon took a step back, reaching down to offer a hand to his opponent.
Kai’l attention was drawn back from the arena as his father slammed his fist into his leg. Like Kai, he had bet on Angeli, but he had bet much more.
Kai was fascinated by the tattoo machine as it buzzed along the skin of his forearm. It was almost identical to the one that had been used for the framing tattoos a year earlier, looking like a large metal pen with a cage in the middle that trapped a furiously oscillating black bead. He knew that it was magic making the bead move back and forth, but without a connection to that magic, it wasn’t quite real to him. All of that would change when the Binder finished the Seals on his arm.
He watched her forearm as she worked, trying to puzzle out the purpose of the symbols that filled her Skill Seal. Six of the eight triangular slots were filled in. There was one that had a large swirl in it that he presumed allowed her to mix the special ink that was necessary for the Seals. One of the others would power the tattoo machine, and of course there was the half filled in circle that allowed her to vote. He had no idea what the rest were for but didn’t worry about it, he would only be getting the initial links to the Battery at first. The skills would come later, as he was required to interact with the world in new and increasingly complex ways, but two was the starting number. He looked again at his own arm, and she had finished the outlines and linkages, and was nearly done with the first. They would be centered on the inside of his left forearm.
“Almost done with the first one,” she said. “This is going to hurt.”
Kai didn’t answer her. He had tried to talk to her when she had first started working on him, but she had been distant, interested only in her job. He wondered what sort of path would lead to where she was, an official Binder for the Council.
His thoughts were cut short when she completed the first Seal. Up until that point, the pain had been consistent, and his mind had gradually filtered it out, but it came back to him tenfold when she lifted the machine’s needle from his skin. It was like an ember caught under his skin, burning its way along his veins. He was worried that something was wrong, that whatever was snaking its way through him was going to kill him when it reached his heart. But it didn’t. Instead, it sped up, spreading to every corner of his body and reaching into his skull. Had his muscles not seized up, he would have screamed. Then it was over, like cold water being splashed on his face.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked, and Kai couldn’t tell if she was joking.
She reached out to grab his arm by the wrist again. Kai shivered, unable to tell if it was due to the lingering effect of the magic or the cool skin of her hand and exotic smell of the ink. She leaned forward and the buzzing began again, and along with it the dull burning sensation in his arm.
Where the first Seal was a starburst of pink flesh against black ink, the second was the inverse, and he watched as the black star was etched onto his skin. When it was done, he expected to have the same sensation, and braced himself for it. Nothing happened. The binder laughed.
“Why didn’t the second one hurt?” he asked.
“Because the second one isn’t real, its just ink on skin,” she said as she started wrapping his arm with white cloth.
“You mean I’m just a freeloader?” he asked, the question feeling stupid before it was even out. If she were breaking the law for him, risking exile or worse, there must have been a good reason.
“No, I mean you’re lucky.” She pointed to her own arm, to her Seal. “Every second of every day, I feel it drawing from me. Not much, but I can feel it.”
“But then how–”
“Listen, kid, if you want to argue about this, go talk to your father,” she said. “I have work to do.” She was already cleaning her equipment, getting ready for the next Binding.
Kai looked at her arm again, at the mosaic of Seals, and decided that there was no point in trying to get her to finish the Seal. When he got out of the chair, little sparks of light danced in his vision and he almost fell over.
“Go get some sleep, you’ll be better in the morning,” she said.
Kai did indeed feel better in the morning. He was up before the morning bell and he felt as though he had gotten a week’s worth of sleep. He hadn’t known what to expect, but in his mind, he had pictured life in the Vaarplikt as being supervised to an almost military degree, but that was not the case. There had been a brief orientation the day before, after everyone had finished with their Bindings, where a bored looking cadet had explained to them that if they wanted to party all night and show up late for study or work, that was OK, but to expect to spend the rest of their lives working on the docks. After that, all thirty of them stumbled their way into the barracks where they would be staying until they worked something else out or the next class came in, whichever came first. The reality of his new freedom hadn’t dawned on him in his post-Binding haze, but laying in bed without any need to get up it settled into his mind, bringing with it an urgency to go out and do something, anything.
The sun wasn’t yet up, and he went out to watch the island wake up. He had seen it all before, the rhythm and beat of the commerce, the thousand individual routines that combined to form the Island’s character. For the first time, however, he didn’t feel as though he was watching from outside. The commerce and character were still part of the Island, but they were part of him too, and he comprised some small part of them. He found a bakery and bought a few pieces of fried bread that were covered in salt, seeds, and spices that were barely adhered by a layer of honey.
The bread had cost two Ve, and on his way back to the campus he was thinking about how long his remaining 48 Ve would last him. Not long. Even with the Vaar’s stipend, he wouldn’t be able to afford much. Suddenly the feeling about being part of the commerce and character of the Island took on a much darker slant, no longer seeming like a friendly dance in which you might bump into others, but rather an ecosystem, in which if you weren’t eating something, it was eating you. By the time he made it back to the campus, he just wanted to see a friendly face.
He was sitting on his bunk, eating his fried bread, when the others started to wake. They were not filled with the same energy as Kai, but groaned and shielded their eyes against the creeping dawn as though they had indulged in too much alcohol the night before. One by one, they reconnected with people they had known from school or neighborhoods, forming small groups and heading out to face the city together, excitement winning out over their pain. Kai’s father had made sure that he had an excellent education, full of private tutors, but the end result was that Kai was more comfortable around adults than his peers. His only bit of luck was that his friend Rafi, the daughter of their household’s staff, was in the same group with him. True to her nature, she was one of the last to wake.
“Stop smiling, you bastard,” she said after she had rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and made her way over to his bunk. “What are you doing up so early, anyway?”
“Here, have some bread, it’s pretty good,” he said. She pushed his offer away. “Really, it’ll make you feel better, I promise.”
“Screw bread, I need coffee,” she said.
“Alright, alright,” Kai said. He threw up his hands. “We’ll have to go out, then.”
A few minutes later, Rafi had gotten dressed, and they were leaving the youth barracks. The sun was already high in the sky, and its heat hit them as soon as they passed through the front door. Kai shaded his eyes and looked over to see his companion pale in the harsh light, looking ready to puke. She glared pure hatred at him.
“And why the hell are you so chipper?” she asked, and Kai felt the panic rising in his stomach. “We might as well be sleeping on the street for how soft the bunks are.” Kai relaxed, she didn’t suspect that he was a freeloader.
“I told you to eat some bread, it’ll help. It’s really no different from a hangover.” He still had the bread and he held it out towards her, then took a quick step back as she looked like she was about to puke on him. “Never mind, lets get some black gold into you,” he said. Rafi’s face was a mask of grim determination, and together they set off to find a cafe.
Kai didn’t protest when Rafi bought coffee for both of them, she had bet on Vandon, and would have Ve coming from the Numbers man after all.
“So where to now?” she asked after she started on her second cup of coffee and started to perk up.
“I was planning on finding another shirt,” he said.
“You really haven’t changed, have you?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone else in the campus is probably trying to figure out how to make their Ve last as long as possible, and you’ve been an adult for less than a day and already you want more clothes,” she said.
“I shouldn’t have let you get any coffee, you’re easier to deal with sedated,” he said. “Besides, I don’t need a new sarong, just a shirt. I’ll have to do it sooner or later, and we have the time now.”
The two of them visited the Numbers man, and Rafi collected her winnings. After that, they browsed through the neighborhood that had sprung up around the Vaarplikt campus, which Kai had passed through without noticing earlier. The neighborhood was full of shops that catered to the youth while at the same time recognizing their limited resources. There were several second-hand stores, a theater, and a couple of cheap food places. They went into one of the second-hand shops, and Kai found a white shirt that would go with his brown and white sarong. The two of them went back to their barracks to find the whole campus vibrating with excitement.
The Assignments had been delivered.
For the next five years, their time would be split between civil service duties, such as fixing roads, and a more specialized profession. There were several basic areas that were open to all, such as the Guard, but everyone was also given the option of of more specialized fields based on a series of tests that were administered prior to the Binding ceremony.
Kai took the paper and unfolded it with shaking hands. When he saw the assignments, goosebumps rose on his arms. ‘Kai Olanki’ was printed in block letters across the top, and below it was his assignment: Clerk. It was a good Assignment, and in it he could see his father’s hand. As a Clerk, he would become intimately familiar with the political system, a well worn path to power, something that it was becoming increasingly clear that his father wanted for him. His thoughts subject were interrupted when Rafi came into the room and pulled him out into the hallway.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I just received my Assignment,” she said, and continued before he had the opportunity to ask what they were. “I’ve been offered a position as a junior apiarist!”
“I get to work with the bees,” she said, and Kai understood. There were beehives peppered across the island that provided honey and wax and ensured that all of the plants were pollinated, and tending them would allow her to interact with nearly everything on the island. It was an excellent assignment, and Kai felt envious that she had gotten it on her merits alone.
The next day Kai woke up unusually early again, but waited until the morning bell that would signal them to assemble and confirm their Assignments. When it rang, most of the others repeating their performances of grogginess, although this time there were certainly some who had drank too much the night before. Kai put on his clothes and ate some nuts and dried fruit that he had purchased the day before. Rafi was up as well, and together they walked to the amphitheater that served as a gathering place for the new Vaarplik cadets. Two man were in the middle, one standing holding a sheet of paper, the other sitting at a small table that held a book that would record each of their choices on that day.
“Good morning,” the standing man said, his words drawing a low groan from his audience. “I am Instructor Malik, and I would like to welcome you to the Vaarplikt. As all of you have been Bound and presumably already know your responsibilities, I will move on to the actual assignments.”
Kai looked down at his slip, as he had been doing every few moments since he had found it on his bunk. He knew that he should be happy, but he wasn’t. He was barely aware of what was happening, even when Rafi was called and she squeezed his shoulder before bouncing down the stairs to accept her assignment.
As he sat and waited for his name to be called, Kai could see his future stretching out before him. He wondered how many other strings would be pulled, what sort of path would be cleared for him. He pictured himself moving up through the Council, acquiring more and more influence; his options seemed limitless. But how much satisfaction would he be able to derive from a fixed game? He pictured himself as an old man, having accomplished much but feeling unfulfilled from a life that had never done more than muddle around in the shallow waters, never exploring the challenges and boundaries that made up the shores of experience. Still, the course of his life would be shaped by his own choices more than anything his father could do. Declining the opportunity that had come his way would be no better than letting his father pull his strings. Kai’s internal deliberation was still going on when Malik called his name and he went to stand in line behind his peers.
When he reached Malik, the man smiled and said, “What do you choose?”
Kai hesitated before speaking. “I choose to work with the carpenters.” He had been unsure up until that moment of just what he would say, and Malik’s face looked as surprised as he felt.
“Are you sure?” Malik asked.
“Yes,” Kai said.
Malik nodded and the clerk at the table scratched something out and wrote something else down. Kai went back to his seat to watch as the rest of his peers made their choices. As he walked back along the central aisle, he saw a few eyes cast his way, no doubt wondering what Assignment was so bad that he would choose to be a carpenter.
“What were you thinking? You might as well have opted to be a common laborer.” Rafi said when he sat back down.
“I’m not going to be a clerk just because my father wants me to,” he said.
“That’s just silly,” she said. “If your slip said Clerk on it, it’s because someone thought you’d be good at it, not because your father made it happen. Besides, do you even know anything about carpentry?”
“I know they build stuff.”
“Just let me know where you’ll be working, alright, so I don’t get killed by a falling scaffold of yours or something.”
“I guess you’re right,” he said, ignoring her jibe. A part of him felt that his decision had been petty, but he looked down at his arm, at the false Seal, and knew that he had made the right choice.
This short story is just one part of a larger story, use the links above or the navigation at the top and sidebar of this page to see the rest.
Notes: Bound was the first story that I wrote for Broken Shores, or more accurately, it was originally the opening for a novel that I was working on set in this cool new world with floating islands and contract-based magic that Kevin and I had come up with. After that, I kind of put the story in a drawer for a while, until Kevin asked me if he could use it as a setting for an RPG campaign, and I started working on it again. Somewhere along the line, I came up with the idea for The Ash Tree, and here we are today. I still love Kai’s character, and I hope you do to, because he is going to be one of the central characters of this whole thing.