“All things are defined by their limitations. A kite without a string would not fly, no matter how much we wish it to. Ve is no different. It may seem that an unmediated supply of Ve might be more efficient or provide more power. But just as a kite suddenly freed may briefly soar, it will shortly thereafter crash, as was illustrated by the cataclysm that destroyed the Old World.” –from Ve: A Treatise by Laan Senki
2nd day of Skohi, 471 AC
Taine should have been there. That was all Emera could think of as she pulled mussel after mussel out of the shallow cave and stuffed them into the mesh sack that was tied to her back. It was nearly full, and she had picked only a fraction of the mussels clinging to the rocks. Instead, he was on a trip to Kinav with his family. She imagined him walking through its streets, surrounded by the colors and excitement of the City.
As she began the climb back up, she felt the weight of the mollusks pulling against her shoulders, but paid it no mind, she had climbed the cliffs since she was old enough to walk. She pulled herself up the rock, fingers crimping onto a ledge here and wedging into a crack there, always moving up. About halfway to the top, she braced her body between two outcroppings and stopped to rest. On the cliffs that provided the outer border of the island of Korsem, she felt like she was between two worlds, as though the winds that buffeted her were opposing forces trying to pull her inwards, homewards, and at the same time pulling her towards the wide ocean, towards possibility. As she rested, watching the deep blue ocean, the wind turned cold, cutting through her thin shirt and chilling the sweat on her skin. It was time to continue.
The sun was still high when she reached the crack in the cliff face that would lead her to flat ground. At the top, the crack was wide enough that she could only just reach both sides with her arms and legs fully extended, but at the bottom, it was only wide enough for her fingertips. It had taken her and Taine the better part of a year to work up to it, finding similar cracks and working on them until they were able to climb the big one. The hard work and scraped hands had paid off, allowing them to find secluded beaches that hadn’t been picked clean. Emera couldn’t wait to tell him about the trove that she had found a hundred meters below.
She hugged her body against the rocks and checked her hands. The strips of cloth that she had wrapped around them were still in place, though certainly worse for wear. Satisfied, she reached up and wedged her hand into a wide spot in the crack, flexing her fingers like she was trying to make a fist, even though she had less than a centimeter of room. When they had first tried to climb the cracks, they had tried to pull themselves up by their hands. It hadn’t taken long to figure out that even wrapped in protective layers of cloth, the only things their hands were good for was to keep them from falling backwards, all of the work was done by their legs, feet turned sideways and wedged into the crack like iron spikes. She pushed herself up, and repeated the process her other hand.
Emera looked back as she climbed, and saw clouds on the horizon. she clung to the rock face like a poorly designed barnacle and rested for a moment to celebrate the good luck, had she stayed much longer she would have been caught out in the rain. The crack was getting wider, so that she could fit an entire fist in, which brought its own challenges, but was easier on the hands. Hand over hand, foot over foot, she made her way up the rock. She reached into a pocket in the rock next to the crack with her left hand, glad to have something to hold onto that wasn’t sideways, and felt a pebble roll out of the way of her searching fingers. She stopped to rest a moment before moving on to the last part of the climb.
She felt movement in the pocket, and then there was a pinch on the top of her middle finger. The pinch turned into a searing pain which spread to the rest of her hand in the time it took her mind to register its panic. A scorpion scuttled out of the hole and on to her wrist, its sharp claws digging into the rough skin of her hands. She watched with a surreal feeling, her mind unwilling to accept the situation. The scorpion stopped on the back of her hand, and Emera imagined that it was looking at her, then turned around and disappeared back into the pocket.
Her hand was slowly but inevitably losing its grip on the rock, muscles relaxing as the toxin spread. She tried to pull herself up, to get some leverage with her legs. She relaxed against her weaker right hand and pushed her feet deeper into the crack. She tried to pump her left hand, but could only watch it spasm. She was less than a meter from a point where the crack widened enough that she could wedge her body into it and rest, and she focused on it until she could see nothing else. With only one hand, she could not work her way gradually up to the hole in the crack, she would have to surge up to it. Her right arm was burning, strength draining out of its muscles. With no other option, she lunged.
Her fingertips caught in the hole and found purchase, but stretched out as she was, her legs provided little support. She carefully removed one of her feet from the crack and traced it up, searching for the right spot by feel. She was getting her foot in when the wind gusted. It wasn’t particularly strong, any other day she probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. The additional strain was simply too much for her weakened right hand, though, and she felt herself falling backwards.
The world seemed to move in slow motion, and Emera could feel her legs instinctively pushing off against the rock, hopefully propelling her far enough to land clear of the rocks at the bottom. Not that it mattered, a hundred meters was a hundred meters. As she fell, the world came into focus around her. She could smell the brine mixed with the rich smells of the forest only a few meters above her, and hear the wind rushing around and past her. She could see the cracks and fissures of the rock, and could feel the strange absence of gravity even as her body heeded its call.
Please, she thought, she prayed. Please, I would give anything, anything. Just don’t let me die today.
Emera woke up to an expansive awareness of pain. For perhaps the first time in her life, she was aware of every part of her body simultaneously, each part with its unique agony. She was lying half out of the water with something sharp digging into her back, and as she dragged herself up she felt it tearing her skin. The waves were slow, but infinitely stronger than her beaten frame, and every time one hit her, she was pulled back into the sea or thrust farther upshore.
After many attempts, she managed to get herself onto a patch of semi-dry sand. Her body seemed to recognize that it had reached a position of relative safety and she felt consciousness slipping away. She did not fight it.
When she woke up again she still hurt, but she felt more stiff and crusty than anything. She sat there, in the rain, exploring her body. Somehow, nothing was broken, although she was covered in cuts and bruises. She couldn’t open her left eye, and when she tried to rub it, the pain was so severe that she immediately pulled her hand away.
It was twilight or dawn, she couldn’t tell. And she was hungry. she looked around, only to find herself by the cave where she had found all of the mussels. She considered for a moment grabbing a few and eating them raw, but was spared from the prospect of eating raw mollusks by the fact that she wasn’t strong enough to open the shells. No, she would have to find easier prey. Her eyes settled on the tide pool between her and the rocks that blocked her view of the ocean.
The emptiness in her stomach turned the seaweed into perhaps the best thing she had ever eaten. The salt might kill her, but if she didn’t get enough strength to find fresh water, she was dead anyway.
She was halfway through her second salty-crunchy-squishy kelp when she saw it. A scorpion, like the one that had stung her on the cliff face, was perched on a rock perhaps a meter away from her. When she saw it, she froze, the food forgotten in her mouth, and watched as the scorpion skittered forward. It clicked its way down the rock and across the sand until it reached her and, much to her horror, climbed up her leg.
It stopped when it reached her knee, and lowered itself so that its cold scales rested on her already cold skin. It was then that she saw that it was cobalt blue. It was an Amekt. But what was it doing on the beach? A byproduct of any contract or agreement in which enough Ve was channeled, she had seen her share of them, though never so close. Then everything clicked in her mind. When she was falling, praying for something to help her, something had, and the scorpion had been created. Which explained why she wasn’t dead or lying broken on the rocks.
She held out her hand, hoping and fearing that she wasn’t hallucinating about the color. The scorpion got up, and crawled onto her hand, clawed feet digging into her, but not painfully. She brought the scorpion up to her face, and it looked right at her, relaxed. Emera reached out with her right hand and touched the top of the scorpion. She felt warmth flowing through her fingers and pleasant tingles of pain as the warmth spread up her arm and her body began to heal itself.
After a few hours, she was able to move, and she found a rivulet of water running down the rock face. The water tasted horrible, something between mud and medicine, but she drank anyway. Eventually, the dry and cracked feeling in the back of her throat subsided, and she rested. she considered eating more kelp, but the water had filled her stomach. Sitting up was wearing her out, so she laid down and watched the sky. The scorpion crawled up her arm and onto her chest, where it stayed, facing her.
When the morning came, Emera woke feeling like hell, but better than the night before. She was startled to find the scorpion still on her chest reminding her that the past days hadn’t been just a bad dream. She studied it carefully, looked at the shiny armor plates, and could see that it wasn’t solid cobalt, but that its shell was crazed with streaks of pale blue. It appeared to be sleeping, but when she moved, its eyes snapped open and it scurried to her shoulder. It was still raining, but less, and she could see the sun starting to break through the clouds on the horizon. She resolved to wait until it had dried out. In the meantime, she was hungry again.
She tried to build a small fire, but all of the wood was too damp for her to overcome with her rudimentary skills. Instead, she cracked open some mussels, and found that if she shut her eye and didn’t think about it, they just slid right down her throat.
A few hours later, the rock had dried out enough for her to climb.
The climb back up was difficult, with fear and anxiety compounding her fatigue. It was perhaps the most cautious climb of Emera’s life, where she carefully chose the easiest route up and stopped to rest at every opportunity. When she reached the crack, she was exhausted, but only slightly moreso than when she had started. She stopped to check the fabric that she had torn from her shirt and wrapped around her knuckles, pulling it to make sure that it would not slip. When she was satisfied, she began to work her way up the crack. Her hands and feet were healed, but still very sore, and soon the pain of wedging them into the crack blended to become one long, low note rather than the differentiated symphony of pain that she expected.
When she reached the pocket that had hidden the scorpion, she was tempted to reach in and kill it. But she didn’t. Out the corner of her eye she saw the scorpion perched on her shoulder, but if it had a feeling either way about its mundane brethren, there was no way to tell. Another moment’s hesitation, and Emera moved on. It had not acted out of malice, and there was nothing to be gained from killing it.
A few minutes later, she had pulled herself onto the grass at the top of the cliff. She got a leg over the edge, and pulled herself up, rolling onto her back, feeling her muscles begin to relax for the first time in two days.
She was brought out of her calm by the feeling of the scorpion’s claws digging into her upper arm, and when she looked at it, it was motionless, like a startled animal. She looked around, and then back at the scorpion, but she couldn’t tell which way it was looking, as its eight eyes seemed to point in all directions. After a moment of complete silence, Emera heard it too, a group of Watchers moving towards her as they patrolled the coast, watching the horizon for ships or storms. Emera got to her feet, feeling like an bent old woman, and then ran towards the treeline. she hadn’t realized how tired she was, and her legs wanted to be about a step behind her, resulting in a stumbling run across the uneven ground.
When she reached the relative safety of the trees, she collapsed. Despite the jarring ride, the blue scorpion was still attached to her shoulder, its claws digging into her shirt.
After she had caught her breath and her thoughts were no longer clouded with panic, she got up and moved a little deeper into the trees. She needed to think, to plan. Caught in the vice of fate, Emera despaired. Even at the bottom of the cliff, it had seemed as though all she had to do was make it back up and everything would be better. But with that accomplished she felt the weight of the consequences bearing down upon her. She looked down at her left arm, where the tattoos that would frame her Seals still surprised her on occasion, even after a year of bearing them. Three patterns, two small and one large, two to bind the island to her and her to the island, and one for the Skills she would need in whatever profession she pursued.
If she revealed that she had formed a link with the Island without the safeguards of the Seals, she would be forced to leave, to crew a ship or perhaps simply be exiled. And she couldn’t break the link, either, the backlash could burn out her mind or kill her outright. At the same time, she had no idea how she would hide the scorpion, especially after she was Bound and went to live in the Vaar barracks. She didn’t cry, but she sat there, paralyzed, lacking the will even to raise her head until the chill of the approaching night brought her out of it. With the cold cutting through her tattered clothes, she began to walk towards her parents’ house. She had reached no conscious decision, but her mind had settled on a course nonetheless. She would do her best to hide the scorpion until some other option presented itself.
When she reached the house, it was lit up like a party, but silent and absent all mirth. She did not simply turn the handle on the front door as she had her entire life, but knocked, like a stranger. Something had changed down on the rocks, it was no longer her home. She had left the scorpion in a stack of boxes at the side of the house, hoping that she was right and that it somehow understood her, understood that it could not come in with her.
Emera’s mother opened the door, her face drawn with worry and fatigue. For a heartbeat she just stood there, looking at her. Then she was through the doorway, arms wrapped around her, squeezing against her bruised ribs and sore muscles.
“Emera! What happened?” she said when she finally released her grip. “Your eye!”
Emera reached up and rubbed her eye again, feeling it still swollen shut. “I was climbing, and I fell,” she said.
Her father appeared behind her mother’s shoulder, and Emera could see the relief in his eyes. “Come, let’s get some tea in you.”
At the mention of tea, Emera felt a wave of relief wash over her. Tea was her father’s response to anything. It was a way of relaxing, grieving, and celebrating, each event with its own special blend. There was no event so terrible that it couldn’t be dealt with through the rubric of tea, and even that tiny bit of normalcy was enough to loosen some of the anxiety that had been strangling her. Emera and her mother sat down in the front room and she could hear her father in the kitchen going through the rack of ceramic jars, and a moment later he came out with a mug full of steaming liquid. It was strong, black tea with citrus and something sweet that Emera couldn’t identify. By the time her father joined them with two more mugs, she could already feel whatever it was in the tea working, adding a layer of insulation between her and her injuries, and making her muscles feel loose and free.
The three of them talked, with Emera giving them an edited version of what had happened, reducing the fall to something survivable and omitting both scorpions entirely. By the time she had finished talking, she was too tired to stand up, and her parents had to practically carry her to her room.
Emera woke to find the sun already high above the horizon, and still felt fuzzy from the tea the night before. She reached up to rub her eye, and instead found a strip of linen wrapped tight around her head, covering it. Someone had dressed her in clean clothes and she made her way out to the kitchen, none too steady. Her parents were sitting at the kitchen table with Taine and his father, Mr. Nilge.
Emera’s father was the first to speak. “How are you feeling?”
“My head hurts,” she said. “Will my eye heal?” she asked.
Everyone looked away but Mr. Nilge. “Emera, I had to remove the eye,” Mr. Nilge said. “There was no way to save it.”
Taine’s father had always been kind, but Emera heard stone in his voice. She knew that the surgeon would not have removed the eye unless it was absolutely necessary. Even though her rational mind was able to accept it, the rest of her was not, and in shock, Emera walked outside. There was a bench in front of the house, but Emera didn’t want to sit, she kept on walking.
She tried to picture herself with an eye patch, and couldn’t. She had seen sailors with them, at the port in Kuopi, and she had seen the rich sons of merchants wearing them as a fashion statement, but had never seen one on a woman not old enough to be her great grandmother. Even if women did wear them, Emera wasn’t sure that she had the necessary swagger to pull it off. The more she thought about it, the worse it got, and she had to stop walking when her remaining eye filled with tears that tasted like the sea.
Taine found her sitting with her back against one of her father’s tea trees. He sat down next to her, and put his hand on her forearm, his dark skin contrasting against her white shirt.
“Emera, I’m so sorry,” he said.
“It’s not your fault, even if you had been there, there was nothing you could have done,” she said.
“What happened?” he asked.
Emera began to tell him the story that she had told her parents, but stopped. He would know that she was lying, know that she never would have fallen off like that. He looked at her, and she felt her stomach clench.
“You know the crack that we were working on?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Well, I climbed down without any problems, found a beach loaded with mussels. But on the way back up, at the start of the crack, there was a scorpion in one of the pockets. It stung my hand and I fell.”
“We are talking about the same crack, right?” he asked. “The one that starts out as a chimney and ends up as a fingerline?”
“That’s the one,” she said.
“But that’s over a hundred meters down,” he said, sounding like he was about to drag her by the ear and hang her over that same cliff to get the truth out of her.
“I know,” she said.
“Then how did you survive?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” she said.
He just stared at her with disappointment. A part of her wanted to believe that if she just stared back long enough and didn’t back off, he would give in and accept the story. Of course that wasn’t true, he knew her too well. A couple of tense moments later, she broke.
“When I was falling, I panicked, you know?” he nodded, smiling with obvious pleasure that he had won the contest of wills. “And in my mind, I called out for something, anything, to help me,” she said. His smile faded as he realized what was coming.
“And something helped you,” he said. He stood up and started pacing, like he always did when he worried.
“Yes. I woke up beat to splinters on the beach with the mussels. I waited a day, and then climbed back up.”
“That isn’t all there is to it,” he said.
“No,” she said. There was no point in hiding any of it from him. “When I woke up, there was a scorpion sitting on my chest, an Amekt.”
“Tell me you killed it,” he said. “Please tell me you severed your link to it.”
Emera shook her head no and his face transformed from shock to sadness. His disappointment hurt more than the fall, hurt more than the lost eye. She had hoped that he would hear about the scorpion and accept it, accept her, maybe even begin to look at her as more than a friend.
“What are you going to do, then?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Emera said after a few seconds, as though she would come up with an answer in that short span. She had hoped that Taine would be there for her, have some sort of suggestion.
“You have to figure something out soon, the Ceremony is next week.”
Emera had been trying hard not to think of the Ceremony, but now its approach was palpable. She didn’t say anything, didn’t get up, just sat there and dropped her head into her arms. When Taine spoke again, she didn’t look up, but she could hear the fractures in his voice.
Emera had hoped that the week leading up to the Ceremony would fly by, but even with the tasks for her preparation it dragged on. Her parents assumed that the Ceremony was the cause of her distress, and were partly right, but next to the loss of her lifelong friend, it didn’t seem that scary. The only Vaarplikt campus on Korsem was in Kuopi, which stretched along the interior shore of the island. Kuopi was several hours walk from her parents’ home, and they walked there with her. They walked in silence, which was a mixture of relief and torture. The week had been exhausting, with her talking around the new, secret, part of her life, and walking next to them, about to leave their protection and care, part of her wanted nothing more than to tell them everything.
That part of her was frighteningly persuasive, logical and persistent. There was a chance that she would be forgiven for her mistake on account of her age or circumstances. There might be someone at the University on Kinav who could sever the connection without killing her. A thousand scenarios played themselves through her mind, and she rejected them all, feeling a coward for it. The persuasive minority of her mind used that, too, dwelling on her shame, so that by the time they reached the city, she could think of nothing else.
Her parents ate lunch with her, splitting a side of roast lamb. It was her first time eating any meat other than seafood or poultry, and she found herself happy for the culinary distraction. The lamb, which they had always regarded as an unnecessary expense, only served to underscore the import of the Binding ceremony, and she found herself talking to them about everything she could think of, about what Assignment she hoped for, where she wanted to go and what she wanted to see, about the Battery and what it would mean for the Island, everything but she scorpion. At the end of the meal, she found herself more relaxed than she had been since before the fall. She was ready.
The three of them went to the building that housed the Vaarplikt induction chamber, and she said her goodbyes, shared tearful hugs, and went inside. The induction chamber was a small room containing just her and the man who would perform the Binding. On the floor next to her was a small bag, containing all of the possessions that she was allowed to take with her to her new life. She had stashed the scorpion in a small woven cage padded by layers of clothes, and had to work not to look at the bag as the man began to work.
The process was not painful, although she was not sure if it was due to her link with the scorpion. When the man stopped, two Seals had been inscribed into the two smaller frames on her arm, one the Island’s symbol, the other its negative. Emera looked closely at them, and saw a gap in the outline of each. she looked up and started to open her mouth, but the man beat her to it.
“They aren’t done yet.” he leaned back in his chair for the first time since he had started, and ran a hand through his wiry gray hair. He looked at the bandage that covered Emera’s missing eye, and quickly looked away. Would anyone ever look at her like a woman, or would they just see what was missing? “Once I complete those outlines you will be connected to the Battery. At first it will be incredibly painful, which is normal. You’ll wish you were dead in the morning, and that’s normal too. Ready?”
“Yes,” Emera said. It was a lie, but it was the expected lie.
The man leaned forward again and began to work on the lines. A few seconds later, the first was finished, and Emera could feel energy rushing through her, like when she had first touched the scorpion but more intense, and a burning sensation worked its way from the back of her head down her spine. The man looked up and nodded. When he completed the second Seal, he was quick to scoot back before Emera convulsed, doubling over as it felt like something was trying to pull her stomach through her spine. A minute and a hairsbreadth from puking later, she felt something like herself again, and stood up, trying hard to look more steady than she was.
“Thanks,” she said, and the man just laughed and waved her through the door that would lead her to the Vaarplikt.
Emera picked up her bag, which felt like someone had filled it with stones while she was in the chair, and moved towards the door. The next room was larger, but felt smaller due to the bookshelves that didn’t leave a spot of open wall in between them. The shelves were filled with books and it seemed to Emera that they might soon encroach on the floorspace. A man sat at a table with a book spread in front of him. When Emera got closer she could see that the book was a list of names, each of which had a signature next to it.
“Emera?” the man said, looking up from the book. His voice was tired and distracted. Emera wondered how many more he would have to go through before the day was done. “You have completed the Binding Ceremony, and are ready to enter the halls of the Vaarplikt, where you will spend the next ten years in service to the community, its people, and yourself. Do you accept this responsibility?”
“No.” Emera had decided her response to the ritual question after she had spoken with Taine, but even so was surprised to hear herself say it.
The man at the table was equally surprised. “No?”
“No,” Emera repeated. “I volunteer myself for service on the watch islands.”
“For what term?” the man asked as he made a note next to Emera’s name. The surprise left his face as she adapted to the different ritual.
The man stopped writing, and put down his pen. For the first time he gave Emera his full attention. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re running from, and I don’t want to, but ten years is a long time. You can take a shorter term and always sign up for more later, but you cannot change your mind once I enter it into the book.”
Emera had studied the ritual, knew the exchanges, and knew that this was not part of it. The challenge threw her off, and it took her a moment to reassert herself.
“I’m sure,” Emera said.
The man sighed and finished the entry in the book. “I’ll need you to sign,” he said, rotating the book so that it faced Emera and placing the pen in its crease.
After Emera had signed, the man told her to wait there while he left to make arrangements. Emera set down her bag, and looked at the book, flipping through the pages until she found Taine’s name and signature from earlier that day. She had expected him to request service on one of the other islands, but him column read that he was to serve on their home island of Korsem. She heard voices coming from the other side of the courtyard and flipped back to the page with her name on it as the man returned with a woman who was looking at Emera like an insect under glass.
“Emera?” she asked. She looked Emera up and down, eyes lingering on the bandage around her head, and nodded to herself.
“Let’s get going, the ship will be leaving shortly,” she said, beginning to walk towards the side exit before she had finished speaking. Emera picked up her bag and hurried after her. She didn’t look back.
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: Induction has an interesting history. The story itself came fairly easily, spurred partially by me wanting to incorporate rock climbing into a piece of fiction. The more interesting part was that the main character was originally male. By simply changing the gender, the story changed completely (for the better, in my opinion) and gained much more depth. On a more amusing note, when I first set fingers to keyboard, I intended for the story to be stand alone. You can see how well that worked out.