Since Ariah made it to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest (!!) I thought I’d share the pitch and the excerpt I entered for it.
Ariah has never quite known who he is. He is an elvish man at the mercy of his magical talents: a mimic and a shaper. He is a man who speaks in others’ voices, who feels others’ emotions as keenly as his own. For Ariah, the line where he ends and others begin has always been murky.
When his teacher, Dirva, receives an unexpected visitor, Ariah’s magical training comes to a screeching halt. Ariah follows Dirva across borders to a city where there is no one to help him marshal his gifts. Ariah meets Dirva’s brother, Sorcha, a man who will change Ariah’s life forever. The thread of his life weaves high and low: he meets queens, works in factories, is nearly killed by bandits in a desert, and sails the southern seas with pirates. Ariah finds love, loses it, and finds it again. Along the way Ariah finds mastery of his magic. He discovers what kind of man he wants to be, and what kind of man he is.
Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, Ariah’s is a story of a young man’s journey to reconcile his heart, his talents, and his beliefs with a world that is sometimes hostile. Ariah’s story is about the ways we surrender and the ways we fight to survive. It is a tale of love found in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.
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 to Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train plowed right into the center of the city, a loud violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see the spires and domes of the palace. 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 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 looked around and saw no one who looked like me. It scared the thoughts right out of my mind.
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 to find the man who would be my mentor before curfew fell. My parents had made me commit his address to memory, which was 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 school house. 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 school house and eventually what needs you 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, one two floors tall with real glass window panes. 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 thought 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 better.”
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 beside 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, starstruck, 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 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. I do not follow art closely, but I know enough to know that if word got out it was here that 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, then back at him. “Just one.”
“Agh.” 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 such 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.”
Dirva did not have the patience to mentor me conventionally. I had expected to do the cooking and the cleaning during the day, to run his errands and do his shopping while he worked. I expected to have some time to myself. My expectations were not met.
Dirva was employed as a translator to the Rabathan Office of Foreign Relations. He worked closely with the Qin bureaucrats who developed suggestions about foreign policy which eventually filtered up to the Emperor. The Qin did not quite trust Dirva – no one quite trusted Dirva, not even the Semadrans – but they valued his skills with something which approached respect. He transcribed foreign documents. He worked as an interpreter for diplomats. He was conscripted with regularity to teach language classes at Ralah College for the sons and daughters of well-to-do Qin families who were interested in foreign politics or foreign trade.
To the Qin, he was his work: a cultural and linguistic resource. To the Semadrans, he was his magic: an auditory mimic and a man who had once been considered for training by a shaper. Exactly like me. He wasn’t there to teach me his trade, exactly. That’s not what we do. We had been paired because his mind worked the way mine did, and he could show me how to live with a mind like mine best. That he was a linguist was not really important. He was supposed to help me hone my gifts, understand them, grow comfortable with them. I very much needed training. Mimicry nagged at me, surfaced at inopportune times and in odd places. When I grew nervous, I sometimes repeated what was said to me in the same voice it was said. More than once I’d been thrown out of places, assumed to be mocking someone. Before my training, it had already gotten me arrested twice by particularly bad tempered Qin policemen. Shaping was even worse. I had no control over it. It was a needling curiosity, a need to know, and it was unearned knowledge that got me in trouble. I didn’t always know when I’d read something, and when I was reading someone I didn’t know how to stop. This particular set of gifts I have is not common. It took my parents some time to find a match.
Dirva was supposed to train me in the skills that let me control how the magic expressed itself. I’d gotten some training in school, but school was primarily to teach literacy and math and mechanics and our history. The five years of mentorship is how we dealt with magic. Dirva was supposed to sit with me at night and drill me through established exercises. He was supposed to talk me through what scared me and what didn’t. I was supposed to have the time during the day to reflect on what I’d learned, and to make myself useful around his house. That’s what was supposed to happen. What happened instead was Dirva and I had one short conversation about my gifts. I told him I picked up languages easily, both if I heard them and if I read them, and I was extremely insightful when it came to other people. He asked me is I was a shaper, and I told him emphatically that I wasn’t. The Ardijan shapers had met with me, felt me out, but decided the gift was not present enough to benefit from training. He decided I would make a good linguist. He decided to mentor me in action instead of through abstract evening exercises and heartfelt conversations. I have wondered in the years since if he decided that because he had so little patience.
I became his right hand. He took me everywhere with him, and he was valuable enough to get away with it. I served as his secretary, his attache, his note taker, and his teaching assistant. Whenever my gifts got the better of me, he stopped whatever he was doing – a meeting with diplomats, a class, shopping in the market, it didn’t matter – he stopped, and he had me tell him how it felt. He coached me through and told me what he did when he felt like that. The entire world waited for me to grasp his techniques. It was quite a lot of pressure, actually, but in time it began to work.
The thing that was strange about this was that in time he and I grew quite close. Well, that’s not so strange. A man is usually quite close to his mentor; it’s a pity when a mentor and a student don’t bond. What’s strange is that we grew quite close, we bonded, and he wove me into the fabric of his life, but that as well as I knew him I knew virtually nothing about his past. It never occurred to me to ask. He was a single man, just him and me in his apartment. He kept me as busy as he kept himself, so I had little time to ponder him. I got used to him, and I forgot to wonder about his blood and black hair and foreign spices. He was just Dirva. That’s just who he was. I think part of me didn’t want to ask. To him I was just Ariah, just myself. He never asked me about my green eyes. It didn’t matter to him. I wanted the strangeness of him not to matter to me in turn.
I spent four years in Rabatha with Dirva. By my last year of training, I was happy, and comfortable, and making good progress. He groomed to become a linguist like him, perhaps placed in an important city when my time with him was up. I felt very potentially important. I think he was happy and comfortable, too. But then his past came knocking and life grew much more complicated.
His sister did not tell him she was coming to see him. We found her asleep on his doorstep. His apartment then was a bachelor’s apartment: he had no family to insulate from the Qin, so he lived in a set of three rooms carved out of the attic of a building which housed an ink and stationary shop on the first floor, the ink seller on the second, and Dirva on the third. The building sat on the outer edges of the district where the Semadran shop keepers congregated. It was not an obvious place, or one that was particularly easy to find, and in fact it did not even have his address listed outside. The only sign that the third floor had an apartment was a set of narrow iron stairs discreetly bolted to the back of the building which led to a small landing at Dirva’s door. He had his mail addressed to the ink shop. His sister must have known where he lived. She must have had more than an address, because it would have taken a measure of familiarity with the district in Rabatha to know where to look. More likely, she had to have been there before to have found it.
We didn’t see her until we came around the back of the building. It was deep winter the day she arrived and getting on towards dusk. The days in Rabatha never get properly cold, but at night the temperature drops like a stone. “We have a vagrant,” I said.
Dirva looked up. She was wrapped in a patched coat up to her ears. Her white hair was the only thing visible. I could tell by the way her clothes hung on her that she was not a large person. The white hair and her size made me think she was a half-grown runaway seeking shelter in the district. Possibly a nahsiyya. Possibly an escaped slave from the Qin parts of town. In any case, I had assumed she was at least mostly Semadran. Dirva knew better. He cursed, which was exceedingly rare for him. “It’s not a vagrant,” he said. “It’s my sister.”
He started up the stairs before I could ask him about it. I scrambled up the stairs after him, and between the two of us, we made a bit of a racket. The figure in the doorway stirred. She pulled her head up and blinked. Her skin was very pale, a milky white. Her cheeks had a smattering of freckles across them. Her eyes were elvish – flat, broad pupils, no whites – but the pupils were ringed in a steely gray. Where Dirva’s face was narrow and angular, his sister’s was round and wide. His eyes were almond shaped, one of the few decidedly Semadran things about him, but hers were ovals with deep folds. His nose was thin, hooked, and hers was flat. They looked nothing alike. I saw absolutely no family resemblance. She grinned. Her face lit up when she grinned, her emotions so raw and uninhibited that it embarrassed me. She had a grin that made me feel like I’d eavesdropped. “Lor! Was wondering when you’d get home.”
She spoke in City Lothic, which I’d never heard spoken before. Dirva spoke City Lothic back. He pinched his forehead with one hand and rested the other on his hip. “Abbie, what are you doing here?”
She pulled herself upright. She was short. She had a roundness to her, frankly outlined by her close-cut City-style clothes, which embarrassed me further. She shrugged on her coat and ruffled her short, white hair. “Came to see you, you daft bastard. What else would I be doing here? What, not happy to see me? Been ages.”
Dirva’s eyebrows drew together, then apart, then together again. The corners of his eyes crinkled. I could feel a ripple of contradictory emotions flicker through him. He frowned at me and I marshaled my rough skills to pull the shaping back. “I am happy to see you. Of course I am happy to see you. But there’s a catch, I know there is.” His sister’s grin turned canny. He sighed and hugged her, and then he unlocked the door.
She stared at me as he unlocked the door. It was different than the stares I usually get, something more penetrating. More overtly judgmental. It made me extremely uncomfortable. “Hey, Lor?”
“Who’s this little copper shit you got following you about?”
Dirva sighed and held the door open for her. “He speaks Lothic. He can hear you. Please stop insulting him.”
She hovered in the doorway, still looking me over as she gathered her things. “So what’s your story, kid?”
I blinked. I opened my mouth, and then closed it again. Dirva pulled her into his apartment by her elbow. She half-stumbled through the doorway, head cocked to one side, watching me too closely like I was a potential threat. Dirva’s sister, who had the improbably Semadran name of Abira, declared herself hungry as soon as she stepped inside. She found Dirva’s armchair, the single comfortable piece of furniture in the apartment, and curled up in it. She was dusty from travel and left a trail of sand wherever she went. She seemed bored, and playful, and I was left at her mercy when Dirva went to go start dinner. I took a seat at the table and made a pretense of sorting through Dirva’s correspondence. There was nothing to sort through, just a handful of already opened envelopes, and I could feel her watching me. The shaper in me fought to the forefront of my mind, reaching out to her, as curious about her as she was about me. I kept my eyes pinned to the envelopes. They passed through my hands, one after another after another in a steady unending and pointless march. I could feel her canniness, her curiosity. I hated the way she studied me; it made me feel meek and trapped. Periodically, she shouted something to Dirva, questions and quips for which I had no context, but her voice was distracted, and I knew I was what she really wanted to ask about.