I, Jaydin, sat in the tree, enjoying my last few minutes of leisure as I gazed at the majestic sky. I had left home to get away from Mother and her constant nagging me to go deliver the food barrel. I knew I would have to do it soon. But I had time yet, and she was so harassing.
The sky was grey and homogenous, the kind of sky I liked. It was so beautiful. Well, all of nature was. But it was so hard to get these moments of peace inside the city, surrounded by the noises of civilization. And of course, no one could leave the city without government approval.
I saw a growing blue dot in the distance. Uh oh. Not again. I started to climb down the tree. It continued to grow and gain detail, and started to emit a tweeting sound. Yep. The despicable bird was coming.
Drat! How could it have sensed me already? I hadn't even been up here for a full minute yet!
I jumped down to the three-way fork, cursing my decision to go past it in the first place. If I had just stayed there I would have had enough time to get down, but no, I had to have the thrill of the higher spot. Figures, every time I did something brave it worked out badly for me.
I carefully but quickly extended my foot, reaching the next V down, and put my hand on the other branch. I was almost ready to swing down and jump to the ground, where the bird never followed - but I was one second too slow. The bird bit me in the left hand just as I jumped.
Blasted bird. It was the only bird I had ever seen that would fearlessly charge at and bite humans instead of being timid and skittish like other birds. And it bit me in the same place every time. It always came so fast, too. Only once before had I escaped it, and that I had done by jumping down from too high and getting hurt anyway.
I swung my non-bitten hand at it, but it expertly dodged. Stupid aggressive ninja bird. I would get that nuisance critter. Someday. Somehow.
Nayomi was nearby, and came over to me. "Hey. Did that bird bite you again?"
"Yep. Bleeding now. I hate that thing."
"I'm sorry. It's so weird that it only ever bites you."
I kicked the ground. "I can't get away! That tree is the only place I can be alone with nature, and every time I go up there I get assaulted by a bird! I want so badly to get out of the city... it's like a cage!" No one was allowed to leave the city without a specific government-approved purpose, which were hard to come by, so most people had never seen the outside world at all. Supposedly it was harder for the government to 'keep order' if people could just go in and out as they pleased.
"Yeah, I want to get out too. Go see the Edge and everything." The Edge (of the world) was a place no one had ever been too, and that Nayomi and I greatly aspired to see. I imagined it must be a beautiful place. What would it look like? To see into what did not exist?
"But the government is never going to let us," Nayomi continued, "and there's nothing we can do about it." Her doomsaying hurt, but she was right. "The best thing we can do is take our minds off it. Want to go play zo?"
"No, I need to go home and do the food delivery. But thanks for the offer."
"Alright. But we should play sometime today."
"Agreed." I headed home.
Mother was waiting for me outside our home. "Jaydin, you shouldn't leave home so much," I knew she would say. "The guards will be expecting us to deliver our produce any minute, and you have been missing for an hour. When Father is sick, you must deliver the produce. Your mother can't lift the barrel with that terrible rash she has." Yes, that was exactly what she would say.
"Jaydin, you shouldn't leave home so much," she said. "The guards will be expecting us to deliver our produce any minute, and you have been missing for an hour. When Father is sick, you must deliver the produce. Your mother can't lift the barrel with that terrible rash she has." Ever since Father had fallen ill, she gave me this lecture every day, and I had memorized it verbatim.
The government required all the farmer families to hand over their produce every day at noon. The guards then sorted it out and decided how much everyone should get. Unfortunately they required it to be delivered in unreasonably large barrels that only I (a recent development) and Father (when healthy) could lift (you were not allowed to roll them because that might damage the food inside, and scooting them didn't work because there was just too much friction). That was what she was talking about.
This was why I enjoyed the tree so much. Whenever I wasn't in it, I was being sent on some errand or getting a speech from Mother or working in the fields or something. I went to the tree whenever I had free time as an escape from the constant hassles, and it was one of the few things in life that I enjoyed.
"Yes mother, I understand," I said habitually. Mother liked formality a lot, so I used it whenever I wanted to put her in a good mood.
"Good boy, Jaydin," she said, patting me on the shoulder. "Now I must go and take care of your father." She walked inside, not noticing my hand injury. I had gotten good enough at hiding it that she knew little of my frequent visits to the tree, of which she disapproved because of the bird.
I went in a mild hurry off to the fields, where the barrel was waiting for me. I was already a little short on time, and I knew from experience, as did everyone in town, that the guards were very pedantic about the food being delivered on time. I also knew from experience, as did everyone else in town, that it was not a good idea to risk their anger.
The bite on my hand prevented me from gripping the barrel normally, so I caved my left hand just enough that my palm wasn't touching, and held it tightly against my torso, relying on friction to compensate for the lost gripping power. It was painful, and I had to set it down many times to adjust my ever-slipping grip, but I was able to do it.
Finally I arrived at a field of a few dozen full delivery barrels located in a grassy clearing near the bureau of governmental oversight. The area below my palm (whatever you call that part that's like the heel of your hand) was aching from all the tension, and I gave a sigh of relief when I put it down.
But my relief vanished when I saw the supervisor guard coming over to me. It was not just any guard. It was Nemesis, and I wasn't exactly early.
The apt nickname had been given by my little sister Mitilda, who got in trouble with Nemesis almost as often as all the other guards combined - which was very often. He hated me too, as if Mitilda's constant disrespectful attitude toward the guards was the entire family's fault.
Nemesis gave me this look and said, "You're almost a whole minute late."
"I'm sorry sir," I said, bowing my head.
"You do this one more time and your entire family will not eat for 24 hours." Figures. Punishing the family for the crimes of one person. The government loved that tactic.
"Yes sir. It won't happen again, sir."
"Then why did it happen this time? And the time before that?"
"I was lazy, sir. Please forgive my impiety."
"The lenient state always forgive repentant citizens. You are dismissed."
"Thank you, sir," I said, and walked away as fast as I could without earning another scolding. (To run away from a guard would express distrust in their lenience and would be considered insulting.)
I wanted to go play zo with Nayomi, but Mother came and found me immediately. "Thank you for delivering the produce, Jaydin. Now why don't you go spend some time with your father? He hasn't seen you all day. I have to go ask if the government will let him have more medicine."
Figures. There would probably be at least two more distractions like this before I was finally free. "Yes mother," I said again. Mother walked off to the bureau of governmental oversight. I ran home.
Father was in bed, and Mitilda was by him. "Hello," I said, and walked over to Father's bed.
"Hey, son," Father said in his sick fake-cheery voice, although it was obvious that he wasn't happy.
"I just delivered the produce. I was almost a minute late though, so the guards are in a bad mood."
"They're always in a bad mood," Mitilda said. "They're just stupid, cruel, piggish brutes who don't know anything and hate everyone."
"Don't say that stuff so loud!" I said. "Someone could hear you."
"We're inside, Jaydin."
Sometimes I wished Mitilda wasn't stupid. How thick did she think these walls were?
Father spoke as if our exchange had not occured. "Aww, I'm sorry they were mean to you again. Say, where'd your mother go?"
"To get more medicine. I doubt the government will give it to us though. We've already fulfilled the standard allowance for the month."
"They'd better give it to us," Mitilda said. "If they don't - you know what, I bet they posioned Father. They sure are sadistic enough."
I rolled my eyes. Yes, the government was bad, but Mitilda's conspiracy theories could be rather immature. Not every misfortune was the king's fault.
"They wouldn't do that," Father said, coughing. "We're farmers. We produce food for the entire village, including them. They can't afford to hurt us."
"If there's one less barrel of food," Mitilda said, "it'll be subtracted from us, not them. I bet they only fill our barrel halfway."
The first part of that was true. But the second part was unrealistic.
"Would one of you bring me some water?" Father said roughly, and coughed again.
I went to get a cup and fill it, but before I could reach it it slid off the counter. This was not mysterious. I knew it was Mitilda's telekinesis.
Magic was outlawed (for supposedly being volatile and dangerous), and the guards would take you away if you were caught doing it. That was why most of the citizens, including me, did not practice it much. I speculated that most people did it a little bit on rare occasions, when they were feeling rebellious. And I did have those moments. The government promised a huge reward for catching another citizen doing magic, though, so nobody ever admitted it to anyone outside their nuclear family. This prevented citizens from sharing knowledge and experience well, and so everyone had to figure out all the conceptual aspects largely for themselves, making it even harder to grow in power.
I, additionally, had a healthy dose of rational fear holding me back. I took the danger of being caught seriously. I only ever practiced it inside, when no one but family was around. Mitilda practiced it for hours each day, and sometimes outside. It was really a wonder she hadn't been caught yet. She had been working on her telekinesis a lot lately, since we both agreed that it was the most practical power of magic, although demonstrably not quite as easy as energy magic. Apparently she was ready to try lifting a tin cup.
Her eyes were closed with the effort of it, and her arm outstretched. Meanwhile the cup moved toward her at about three inches per second. It took years of diligent practice to acheive even this level of power. Mitilda had been passionate about magic pretty much her whole life and she was just starting to be able to lift objects like this. I didn't practice it nearly as often and couldn't yet lift an object so heavy as an empty cup.
I snatched it out of the air. I was embarrassed by her success. We all already knew her telekinesis was stronger than mine, but I still didn't like to see it demonstrated. For all my concern about how dangerous and unwise magic fanaticism was, I retained a sense of competition about it.
"Don't delay unnecessarily," I said, walking quickly toward the door (the water was outside). The excuse was ridiculous. It wouldn't have been half a second slower to just grab another cup instead.
"Jerk!" Mitilda called after me. I ignored her, supressing the feeling of guilt.
I went outside. Like the food, water was distributed by the government in large barrels that were generally kept outside so the rain could slow the frequency of need for refills (nobody knew where the government got the water they used to refill it - the guards claimed not to know either, although I suspected they did). They were capped whenever it wasn't raining to stop evaporation. I walked over to the barrel, removed the lid, and dipped the cup in the tepid water.
As soon as it was filled, Mitilda snatched it and stepped quickly out of my range as I tried to take it back. She scurried inside as quickly as she could without spilling it.
"Thank you," Father said as Mitilda handed him the cup.
"I can deliver a cup of water," I said.
"What's wrong with telekinesing it?"
She also insisted that the verb form of the word was 'telekinese'. We all knew it was 'telekinet'.
"Telekinesis takes too long. It would have been inconsiderate."
"What's the problem?" Father said, putting the cup down.
"Jaydin's a jerk."
"In other words, I accelerated the delivery of the water."
"He snatched it out of the air while I was telekinesing it."
"That was unnecessary," Father said impassionately.
"Sorry, I'll never be so considerate again," I said.
"You're a jerk," Mitilda said, and proceeded to telekinet another cup off the counter. Not wanting to embarrass myself any further, I started to walk outside again. Maybe I could get away and go fit in a game of zo with Nayomi before I had to do the food distribution too.
"Where are you going, son?" Father said. "Stay here and visit with me."
I turned back. "Okay. Do you want to talk about something then? Cause I don't think there's any point in just standing here."
"How's your day been? Mine's been rather boring."
I shrugged. "Well, I did the food delivery today. That was fun."
"Oh thank you!" Father said, even though I had been doing it ever since he fell sick and he knew that already. "How nice of you!"
"So what else happened today?" He said when I didn't continue.
I looked at Mitilda. Help me out here, okay? But she wasn't looking. She was still doing telekinesis.
"I don't know," I said. "Some stuff." Father frowned.
"I got Hobart to complete a transaction behind the goverment's back," Mitilda said. Mr. Hobart was the village's blacksmith. "Mother told me to place the order for the new scythe with the government, but I just went to Hobart and he agreed to give it to us without telling the government in exchange for me telling them he gave us some food back as part of a bribe to get a favor out of me."
The government demanded to know about all transfers of ownership between citizens, claiming it made thieves easier to catch. The reason Hobart would give it to us for free was that the food we produced was already being distributed communistically, and so other things had to be too.
"That was risky and disobedient of you. I was hoping to hear some good news."
"Well I'm glad I was able to give you what you were hoping for."
Father gave a long sigh. "Jaydin, I want to hear more from you."
Finally I got the idea to make something up. "Oh yeah - I beat Nayomi at zo without a handicap today!" Nayomi was a prodigy at zo. I hadn't beaten her in over a month.
"Wow! Well done, son!"
Mitilda looked over too. "Really? Are you sure you're not making that up?"
"Of course. Why would I make something up?"
The door opened, and Mother came in. "Hello Mother," I said. "How did it go?"
"They won't let Father have any more medicine. Said we can't exceed the standard monthly allowance."
Well what a surprise! Of course the government wouldn't let us go past the standard allowance, they never had and never would. It had been a waste of time to ask.
"They're sadists!" Mitilda said. "What the hell is the medicine for if they won't let sick people have it? It's not like anyone else needs it more!"
"Jaydin, have you checked the clock recently?" Mother said. "You know you have to be at the food distribution soon."
"The clock" of course meant the one and only clock in town: a big sun-dial in the center of town. "Right," I said. "I'll go check it now."
I ran as soon as I was outside. At last I was free from my sick and simple-minded father, my demanding mother, and my angry sister. They were all so unpleasant to be with. All I wanted was some leisure, and now, as soon as I checked the clock and saw that I had plenty of time left, I would have it. Maybe I could even sneak in a game of zo with Nayomi before I had to do delivery.
I couldn't stop thinking as I ran about Mitilda's telekinesis demonstration. It made me so jealous. The biggest thing I had ever telekineted was a spoon. It had been evening a few days ago, just after Nemesis shoved me into a wall (the usual punishment for being out after curfew). It had hurt my knee very badly due to an unlucky impact, and I had tried to fuel the telekinesis with my anger at Nemesis. It had worked very well.
Last time I had tried fueling it with anger, though, it hadn't worked nearly as well. That time I had been mad at Gabriel, Nayomi's brother, for convincing me to go up the tree to prove to him that the bird existed. I had been bitten, of course, and had blamed Gabriel. I had used this anger to fuel my magic later that day, without success.
It was very aggrivating to fail epically after doing so well the day before with the exact same techniques, nor was this the only example. The rules of magic just seemed so unfair and inconsistent. Every time I had success, I felt like I had figured something out... and then it wouldn't work at all the next day. Honestly this frustration was a large part of why I didn't practice magic very much. But I decided I would do it tonight, to try and catch up with Mitilda.
I reached the clock.
Drat. So much for plenty of time left. I bolted off to the food distribution, remembering Nemesis's threat.
The food distribution was in the same place as the delivery, meaning only a few hundred yards from here - if I ran straight, which I couldn't do because of the buildings. Sundials weren't terribly accurate so I didn't know if I had a few minutes left or a few seconds.
The guard was picking up the barrel to take it away when I got there, evidently deciding that no one was coming. "Wait! Please!"
The guard turned around. "I'll do you a favor, citizen," she said, and put the barrel on the ground before walking away.
"Thank you kind madam..." I slowed down to catch my breath. Phew... that had been close. I panted for a while before I picked up the barrel. It felt oddly light, which worried me.
Mother and Mitilda were both still visiting Father when I got home. Mitilda was sitting down, probably exhausted from having pushed her magic too far. (Based on the experience we shared with each other, it seemed that if you did magic for too long you would run out of some mystical energy that fueled it. We called this "mana". If you kept pushing it after your mana was exhausted, it would start sapping your physical energy as well, and very quickly. When I did magic I was always smart enough to stop well before that point, but not her.)
"Here's our food," I said, putting the barrel on the floor.
"Thank you, son," Father said.
"Good boy, Jaydin," said Mother. She removed the lid to inspect the food.
"What'd they give us?" I asked. "It felt oddly light."
Mother looked at me and pointed accusingly at the basket, as if I were responsible. "This is supposed to last us three days?"
"What?" I said, trying not to accept what had probably happened. "What's in there?"
"Come see," Mother said.
I came, as did Mitilda. We beheld the contents. It was half what it had been yesterday.
"What is it?" Father said.
"Not enough," Mitilda said. "I'm going to go ask for more."
I was surprised she felt rejuvenated enough to do that. Usually the physical drainage of pushing an exhausted mana reserve lasted a long time.
"You know that's not a good idea," I said in vain as she walked away. I prayed that Mother wouldn't send me out to go stop her.
"Go stop her," Mother said, "she's going to get hurt!"
Drat! This was not going to be easy. Drat everything about this day.
"Yes Mother," I said. I followed Mitilda outside reluctantly.
"Mitilda! Come back! By order of parents!"
Mitilda did not look back. When I broke into a run, so did she.
She was going a lot faster than could be expected of a ten-year-old girl, especially considering the mana exhaustion should still have been affecting her. I was four years older and should have been able to catch her easily, but wasn't. In my defense, I was still tired from the distribution, and I was gaining ground, just slowly.
We were more than halfway there by the time I reached her. Upon entering range, I tried to grab her shirt, but she dodged, and I lost a couple feet missing.
"Stop!" I called again in vain, taking several seconds to regain the distance I had lost. I waited until I was a little closer than I had been last time.
This time instead of grabbing her shirt I grabbed her arm when it was sticking out behind her. I gave into exhaustion and stopped running, focusing only on gripping her arm. We both toppled to the ground.
"You, can't, go," I said, after a moment.
"This, is for the good, of the family," Mitilda said. "Now leggo."
"Parents, say, too, dangerous... And, parents, right..."
"I'm doing this, for the health, of the family. And, if I succeed, they'll be glad, I disobeyed them."
"You can't go," I said, tightening my grip.
"You, can't stop me," Mitilda said. She waited for me to exhale, then kneed me in the stomach just as I started to take in air again. My much-needed inhalation was replaced by a fit of violent and painful coughing. Mitilda broke free easily and continued toward the bureau.
I layed on the ground, struggling desperately for air. Curse Mitilda; what would I tell Mother? That I just hadn't been able to catch her over that much distance? That she turned a corner and lost me? I was absolutely not going to tell her she knocked the breath out of me and actually stopped me from following her. Drat... This was not good...
I got up when I could, which wasn't soon. I decided I would keep going after Mitilda. Maybe I could at least get her to agree not to tell Mother what had happened.
It wasn't long before I met her on the way back. She wasn't carrying any food (big surprise) and didn't look happy.
"How'd it go?" I asked anyway.
"The vile guard tried to make me apologize for ingratitude and for failing to address him as 'sir' and then shoved me into a wall when I refused. Arrogant ball of mud."
"What'd you expect?"
"And thanks for the symathy, jerkface. Do you have any idea just how hard he pushed me? You would cry if you got hit that hard."
Well, she had been a fool to ask. She hardly deserved sympathy, and definitely not as much as I did. Besides -
"You kicked me in the gut and knocked the breath out of me," I said. "If you wanted any sympathy from me, you shouldn't have done that."
"Actually I didn't kick you in the gut and knock the breath out of you. I kneed you in the gut and knocked the breath out of you."
Mitilda waited for me to start to speak before continuing: "And that was totally just. You were trying to stop me from doing something for the benefit of the family."
"All you did was get the guards even more aggravated with our family. That is not called benefit. We're just lucky they didn't decide to take back what they did give us."
Mitilda glared at me hotly for a long time. Eventually she just said, "You're wrong," and walked away. It made me feel like I had won this argument. Then I remembered why I had wanted to talk to her in the first place.
"Wait!" I called after her. "Please don't go tell Mother you knocked the breath out of me, okay?"
Mitilda stopped. After a moment's pause, she turned around. "Then you don't tell her I got pushed into the wall. Deal?"
"Deal," I said immediately.
She continued walking away from me, without a word. I was glad that as stupid as she was, she could be reasonable sometimes.
I stood there for a moment, enjoying the air and not wanting to go report that I had failed to stop her. The sky had turned a much darker grey over the last couple hours. The dark clouds were mesmerizingly beautiful, even if I didn't much like the rain they produced.
But I couldn't stay and enjoy it. It would be suspicious if I waited too long. I would use excuse #2, I guessed.
"Did you stop her?" Mother asked.
But I held my tongue from spitting out excuse #2. Now that I faced the question, a third one came to mind. A much better one.
"I tried, but the guard from the food collection earlier intercepted me wanting to rant some more about how I shouldn't be late. By the time he let me go she was out of sight." Now that was a good excuse. "I did find her on the way back from her errand, though, and she wasn't hurt."
"Oh, well that's good at least," Mother said. My lies had played out perfectly.
"Where is she now?" Mother continued. After a delay, my stomach tensed as I realized where this was probably headed. Please not again.
"I don't know. Probably off by the tree." It was a reasonable hypothesis. Although she could not climb it, she sometimes liked to stand at its base and aspire. She came there especially often when she wanted to do magic, which she usually did after someone made her mad.
Mother sighed. "Would you mind going to fetch her again? It's about time for dinner."
Here we went again. Of course when Mother said "would you mind" she meant "you have no choice". Drat... why did I have to be my sister's keeper?
I checked the tree first, and sure enough, she was there. She wasn't doing magic, though; she was trying to climb up the tree. Of course, even I couldn't just jump from the ground and grab the first branch, so she was trying to run up the trunk and then jump off it after a few steps. I only needed one step on the trunk, which wasn't hard, and there was a good knob you could kick off after the first trunk step. But for her this knob was not high enough. She needed a second step on the trunk, and taking two steps up a wall without simply pushing oneself away was a lot harder than one.
"Mitilda!" I called. "Come home!"
I came to stand by the tree. "It's almost time for dinner."
"I'm not hungry," Mitilda said, without turning around. She tried again, but didn't quite make it.
I thought about saying "Mother says", but that hadn't worked last time, so I held my tongue until I could think of something else.
Ah. Here was something else.
"Look at the clouds," I said. "It's about to start raining."
"That's why I'm staying out," Mitilda said. "I like the rain."
I watched her take another try. She almost made it this time, but not quite.
"If you come inside now, I'll give you a boost up here later." There was no way she could refuse that.
Mitilda made another attempt, but failed again. "I'll take that offer in a minute," she said, without turning to face me, "but I want to try it a few more times first."
I felt a raindrop. Drat... I was going to be soaking wet by the time I got her to come inside. This was not fair! "The offer goes away in five seconds!" I said.
She made one last attempt up the tree. This time her hands managed to wrap around the lowest branch. She hung there for a second, then began to walk up the trunk. Soon she stood atop the branch, more elated than I had seen her in a long time. "I made it! I can climb the tree now!"
Perfect. Now that she knew she could get up, she would spend hours every day up here, and I would constantly be sent out to make her come down. Everything was so wrong today.
"Wow - you did it, that's great. Now will you please come inside?"
Three more raindrops landed on my head, followed by a rapidly accelerating trickle. Mitilda hesitated, savoring the moment.
"Okay," she said eventually, and jumped down.
"Great, thanks," I said, and began fast-walking toward home. Mitilda broke into a run to catch me.
"I thought you didn't want to get wet," she said as she passed me. She didn't stop running, so I ran too.
"What's with your change of mood?" I said as we ran together. "A minute ago you were so interested in that tree you wouldn't even look at me and now you're running away from it eagerly."
"That was because I was mad at you for trying to stop me when I went to get more food, and for trying to make me come inside just now. But I guess it's not your fault you keep getting sent out to fetch me. I realized you didn't want to do either."
I smiled. "So is everything good now?"
"Yep. As long as you're sorry for interrupting my telekinesis."
Trying not to smile slyly, I said, "I am - as long as you're sorry for making me stand in the rain while you took your time deciding to come down."
"I'm sorry for that," Mitilda said. I was surprised, but pleased. It felt good to be reconciled.
When the rain was done, I was finally able to go play zo with Nayomi. Nayomi was playing against herself when I came in. "Hi Jaydin. Here to play at last?"
"I wanted to come a lot sooner, but stuff kept getting in the way after the food collection. Mother kept thinking of errands to send me on."
"Sorry... that must be frustrating. But a game will take your mind off it."
We determined a random starting position for one of us and mirrored it for the other, as was the custom in competitive games, and gave me a one-zu handicap. The game ended in a draw, which was the most satisfying kind of game in just about anyone's opinion.
"Thanks for playing," I said. "I needed it today."
"You're welcome. Say, curfew is soon. You should probably be going home."
"Yeah. See you tomorrow." I headed home, but I didn't go inside immediately. I stayed out to watch the sun set. Its golden glow illuminated the flat landscape, casting massive shadows on everything. It was one of the most beautiful things in the world. This was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to get out of the city and travel to the Edge. Presumably the sun could be seen to set right before one's feet, right? But the government would never let me out to go see it. It was times like these I could feel Mitilda's hatred for them. But I could also imagine Nayomi telling me it was pointless to aspire to the impossible and that it would only add to my pain, that I should just focus on enjoying what I could see from here. Nayomi was right. I would never be free, and it was best to take my mind off it.