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There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.
I was searched. My single bag of clothes and books was searched. Everything I had brought with me except my citizenship papers was confiscated, including what little money I had. I was one of exactly seven elves on that train, and all of us were detained, and all of us were robbed. On the train, the seven of us had shared a single compartment. I knew, intellectually, that the train was full of Qin people, but I was with my own, like I had always been, and the nearness of that truth was lost on me. The train station was a sea of brown skin and fangs. I came to Rabatha for training, and as is traditional I came to my mentor on my thirtieth birthday. Thirty is when we consider a child to be grown. Before I got on that train, I felt grown. I felt adult. I felt ready. But when I looked around and saw no one who looked like me, it scared the thoughts right out of my mind. I was thirty, but I felt like a child.
So it was that I arrived alone in Rabatha, penniless and empty-handed. I arrived and had the securities of my youth brutally ripped away. I also arrived in the mid-afternoon, with only a few hours before curfew to find the man who would be my mentor. My parents had made me commit his address to memory, which had been good foresight, but the shock of the train station drowned the memory of it. All I knew was that he lived in the Semadran borough, and the Semadran boroughs inevitably sprang up on west side of town. That’s where the Qin like us to be. They know that magic in the westlands is stronger than in the east, and so they prefer to live east of anything and everything. I went west. I got to the borough without incident, though the walk took three hours. I was born in the summer, so it was a miserably hot day. I thought I’d die of thirst, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask anyone for water, not even other elves.
I never found his place. No matter how hard I wracked my brain, I couldn’t remember the address. He found me. The borough in Rabatha is cramped—it houses twice as many elves as Ardijan, in half the space—but Semadran boroughs are alike all over. The center had a schoolhouse. Elvish homes were planted around it in ever-widening circles, all facing outward, like sentries. When you are Semadran and you are lost, or hurt, or in need, you find the schoolhouse, and eventually what you need finds you there.
I made it to the schoolhouse a little before dusk fell, just when the streets were beginning to empty. I sat on the steps, cowering in the schoolhouse’s shadow. It was a stately building, two floors tall with real glass windowpanes. I don’t know how long I sat there. My mind was numb, my body was sore; I was tired inside and out. I hated everything about everyone. I was well-entrenched in these thoughts, the arrogant and bitter thoughts very young men think, when my mentor found me. “Are you Ariah?” he asked.
I looked up. I didn’t know whether or not to answer him. I didn’t know before then that Dirva was not fully Semadran. I am certain my parents didn’t know. My father likely would not have cared, but it would have been a deal breaker for my mother. It would have been hypocritical of her, but she had her standards, and she stuck to them.
I have always felt conspicuous. I have always been conspicuous. There is red blood in my family, and red blood rises to the surface. Both my mother and I have her mother’s green eyes. My mother even has freckles. I just have the green eyes; everything else about me is appropriately silver. My green eyes had always been an ambivalent thing for me. My father loves them, loves difference. My mother thinks them a curse. It is true that she and I got strange looks, that there were children growing up who were encouraged to play with boys other than me. And it’s true that some sought me out, curious and fascinated. As I said, I was very young then, and I had not yet lived enough or grown enough to know really how I felt about my diluted blood.
When you’re very young and you’re different, you begin to believe that no one has ever been as different as you and that no one has ever felt that difference as keenly as you. But there was Dirva. He was a tall man and broad-shouldered, a big man. He was a dark man, with skin a deep, deep gray, nearly black. And his hair was the same color—inky black. His eyes were green, like mine, but they were green in a vibrant and forceful way, the pupils a hair too small and the irises a hair too wide. He had whites in the corners of his eyes. He was a man with blood a far sight more muddled than my own, a man who looked like he had at least a dash of mundanity in him. His blood was so muddled that my mother’s suspicions took root. I didn’t answer. It was the strangest thing, but I felt when I saw him that I’d seen him before. I knew I hadn’t, but I felt it anyway. It made me trust him less.
He frowned and glanced out at the street. The shaper in him had cut its teeth on noticing the fear and disgust of those around him. He held out a hand to me anyway. “I am sure you are Ariah. I am Dirva. We have corresponded.”
There was nothing to do but take his hand. I was there in that unknown city, alone, with no money. I could not have gotten back to Ardijan. I knew no one else in Rabatha. All I had was him. “I am glad to meet you,” I said.
He laughed. Like most people, he has many laughs. This one was sharp and cold. He looked me over and sighed. “Oh, you came on the train.”
“You have had a long day.”
Suddenly the weight of it all bore down on me. I felt tears well up. Oh, it was awful; the shame of it was a force to drown in. I wrapped my arms around myself and stared at the ground. I nodded and somehow managed not to cry. I felt I would die if he saw me cry, if that was the first thing about me he saw.
He took me gently by the elbow and led me down the street. “I have had long days, too,” he said.
“Tomorrow will be kinder.”
* * * * *The next morning, I woke facing The Reader. The actual painting, the original. At first I thought it was a dream. When he is not working the assembly line, my father is an artist who specializes in portraits. He is something of an expert on the Nahsiyya Movement. He has copied The Reader himself for at least a dozen dignitaries. He invented a press to print paintings with a high level of fidelity. He prints books of art, and his books end up in Qin libraries all over. Every one of those books has a print of The Reader in it. In short, I was extremely familiar with this particular painting, this monstrously famous painting, which inexplicably hung on the wall in a cramped set of rooms in an elvish ghetto.
Food sizzled in the kitchen, and it smelled slightly strange. I crept out of bed, barefoot and timid, and studied the painting, which my father himself had seen only once. It had hung in a gallery in Tarquintia for a fortnight many years ago, and my father spent all of his money to get there and see it. He wanted to drink it in, absorb it, let it burn into his mind so he could replicate it again and again. No one was entirely sure what had happened to it after that. No one besides me, Dirva, and the artist.
My father’s copies are excellent copies, but they are still copies. The copies couldn’t quite show the way the bold lines captured movement and obscured it at the same time. The palette was brighter than in the copies—the blues and the greens burned bright and ice-cold at once. I think it might have been a matter of the medium, of his use of ink instead of oil paints. The paint gave it a dimensionality lacking in the prints. The artist slapped it on thick, in ridges that cast subtle, shifting shadows. The shadows made the subject look like he was breathing, like he was just about to turn the page. I studied the figure: a black-skinned boy with black hair and green eyes. He wore a subtle smirk. He had broad shoulders and long, graceful fingers. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times before, and it dawned on me as I stood there that it was a face I had seen the day before.
Curiosity got the better of me. I crept around the corner and peered into the kitchen. Dirva was at the stove. I watched him for some time, star-struck, before he noticed me there. “You survived the night,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
“I…yes?” I said, though it came out closer to a question. He glanced at me quickly. His eyes were overly expressive; you could tell precisely where he looked. He is a reserved man, but his eyes give him an air of penetrating intensity.
“Did you sleep well? Will the cot suffice?”
“Yes?” Again it came out like a question.
He turned towards me. It was then I learned he is not a patient man, that he has a brusqueness rooted to the core of him. “You seem to have some question for me. It would make sense for you to have questions, considering the circumstances. You should ask it.”
“You should ask your question.”
I blinked. I likely blushed. “I don’t have any questions.”
Dirva stirred the food, but kept his gaze pinned on me. “If you have no questions then there is little I can do for you as a mentor. Curiosity is a virtue, so say the wise.”
“The wise say curiosity, in moderation and used with tact, is a virtue.”
He frowned slightly. “Just ask it. Whatever it is, just ask it.”
“There’s nothing to…” He looked at me again. I laughed erratically, nervously, and he frowned a little more. “I have…I have just a little question for you. I guess. You don’t have to answer it. I didn’t ask because…I don’t know…it struck me that the answer might be personal? I didn’t want to pry. There’s no reason for me to even know the answer, whatever it is, and…”
“Ariah. Please, just ask it,” he said, turning his attention back to the stove.
So I asked it. “Is that…is that the actual Reader? The original?”
My mouth fell open. “How?”
“How is it here?”
“Where there are borders and guards, there are also smugglers, Ariah,” said Dirva. “It was smuggled to me.”
“It must have cost a fortune.”
“I am sure it cost quite a lot to smuggle it, yes, but it cost me nothing. It was a gift.” He turned away from me. He opened his mouth to change the topic.
And I couldn’t let him do it. My heart thudded against my ribs. I had to know. “Is that you? Are you The Reader?”
He froze. His eyebrows knit together, then he sighed and looked over. “Your father is an artist. He mentioned that. You know about art. Yes. It’s me.” He pulled the skillet off the stove and emptied the contents into a bowl. He gestured at the table and laid out flatbread for each of us. I sat across from him and scooped up some of the potatoes and peppers in a bit of flatbread. They had been spiced with something uncommon in the Empire, which was not bad, but was unfamiliar. I couldn’t help but stare at him. It was him, undeniably him, but he had none of the magnetism or quiet enthusiasm of the figure in the painting. The sharpness was there, the quickness, but in the painting, as a boy not much older than myself, he looked happy. Across the table, as a man approaching middle age, he seemed mostly irritable. How did one grow into the other?
“Please don’t stare,” he said. His eyes flicked up at me when he said it. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t quite do it. I resorted to staring at him from the corner of my eye while pretending to be very much interested in the floor. He let out a short, impatient noise. “It is me. Yes, I know the painter. I trained in the City of Mages, and I knew Liro when I was young. He sent me this painting some years ago. Please don’t ask me why he did such a fool thing. He was always prone to grand gestures. I do not follow art closely, but I know enough to know that, if word got out it was here, I would be very quickly robbed. Please don’t say anything to anyone about it. Do not write of it in your letters to your father, for example. I do not want to be robbed. Do you have any other questions?”
I stopped chewing. I swallowed. I felt vaguely sheepish. I cut a quick glance at the painting, just visible through the doorway, then back at him. “Just one.”
He flicked one hand at me, dismissively, irritably, and rested his forehead in the palm of his other hand. “Ask.”
“I’ve always wondered. What are you reading? In the painting, what book is it that you’re reading?”
Dirva looked up at me. “That’s your question?”
“That is an odd question.”
“Well, it’s, uh . . . it’s my question.”
Dirva smiled. He stood up from the table and went into the other room. I followed closely at his heels. He studied the painting and began to laugh. “I’ve never looked. You know in all these years, I never looked. It could have been anything. It’s not really a book.” He covered his mouth with his hand and looked over at me. His eyes were bright; they crinkled happily at the edges. It brought out a warmth in him that I had not thought he had. When he looked at me like that, conspiratorial, surprised, that was when I began to trust him. That’s when he became my mentor, and I became his student. He laughed again. “I am not proud of this. I can’t believe he painted me like this. That’s not a book. That’s my brother’s diary. I’d stolen it. I used everything I read in there to get under his skin. He never knew I read it.”