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Will I see the sky today?
Ren Hark-Wadi sat in darkness, awaiting the sunrise.
As the first finger of dawn came sliding down the steep wall of the lightwell, it changed the color of the stones in his cell from black to brown to a faint, muddy yellow. Ren stood from his wooden pallet, took a scrap of polished iron from beneath his blanket, and slid the metal through a narrow slot in the window. It caught the light, filling the small chamber with streaks of blue-gray illumination. Ren let the faint rays wash over his face, hoping they might warm his skin, but the light was too dim.
Perhaps the upper rings can see a bit more of the sky? He didn’t know.
He leaned closer to the window, pressed his head to the slot, and peered upward. If he held himself just-so, sometimes he could see a wedge of sky—a blue sliver no larger than a nut. In his free moments, when he was certain no one watched, he would stare at that blue dot till his neck cramped, hoping to catch sight of a bird or an errant cloud, some sign that the world outside existed, that the breeze blew and the clouds drifted, but his neck was too stiff to find the sky that morning. He saw only rows of narrow windows, one above the next, five rings of arched windows, one for each level of the Priory, trailing far underground where the outside world never intruded—where the outside world, and all the people in it, were nothing but rumor.
Maybe tomorrow. Maybe then I’ll be able to steal a glimpse of the world beyond these walls.
Dousing himself with a bucket of foul gray water, his morning shower, Ren sputtered, rinsing the sleep from his eyes, as well as yesterday’s dirt from his cheeks and his long hair, which was always flopping into his face. The water poured across the floor and out to a stone scupper, where it disappeared. He suspected that it was simply used again the next day, the same water with more grit in it. The men who ran the Priory were nothing if not stingy with the necessities of life.
Pain makes the man. The priors said it every day. The Soleri taught their people that pain built character. Pain makes the man. It was their mantra, but Ren didn’t think it was a particularly good one. If pain truly made the man, then he had been made a man many times over. I don’t think pain makes a man. I think we become men in spite of it. He had seen pain drive boys mad. He had seen it drive them to cruelty. He had never seen it make them into anything Ren thought a man should be, but what did he know? All Ren knew were boys. And all the boys he knew were ransoms.
In the distance a trumpet blared, high and tinny and full of self-importance. The Feast of the Devouring had begun; in five days the sun would blacken for a brief span, the daylight turning as weak and shadowy as twilight, the people hushed and awed at the yearly spectacle of the sun god’s blessings.
Mithra-Sol dims his light to acknowledge our emperor and the whole of the empire watches as if it were some great miracle. Ren didn’t care if the sun dimmed for a brief span. He’d never even seen the sun, not even a sliver. The fact that the sky blackened each year didn’t seem particularly special. He was well accustomed to darkness.
Ren Hark-Wadi, the youngest child and only son of Arko, king of Harkana, had not seen the world beyond his prison walls since the emperor’s soldiers had delivered him to the underground city of the Priory ten years earlier. Only three years old at the time, Ren could not recall the moment he had been taken from his family, could not remember his father’s face, or his mother’s, or his sisters’. He knew his sisters’ names, Merit and Kepi, his teachers had told him that much, but he could not remember what they looked like. He wondered if they remembered him. If they would recognize him now. If anyone cared that he still existed.
Am I a name without a face? An empty chair at the table each night?
Surely they would know him if they saw him, even if he was now nearly as tall as a man. His hair, once honey-colored, so different from the other boys’, was dull and mousy now from years of living underground, though it had attracted a lot of attention when he was younger. Ren had sharp cheekbones and a narrow, angular face marked by fox-colored eyes and a mouth that sometimes seemed set in a permanent frown. He was tall for his age, but surely there was something left in him of the boy he had been. Surely his father and his sisters would see it, if no one else could. He spent his nights trying to recall his childhood, searching his memories for a glimpse of their faces: his sisters, his father and mother. Did they love me? Were we a family once? Did they eat meals and tell stories and were the children held at night until they fell asleep? He longed for memories, but had none. Even a dream would have been acceptable, but he had never dreamed of them either. The idea was too foreign, too distant to conceive. He recalled only these rooms, the boys, the priors, and the bitter nights he had spent in this cell.
A prior tapped his door. “Out of your room, Hark-Wadi.” Already the boys were gathering for morning meal. Time to go, time to eat, time for lessons.
Ren removed a stone from the wall. Behind the rock, a blade occupied a stony niche. Ren palmed the knife, tugged a linen tunic over his head. He needed to hurry. Their rations arrived once daily and were seldom sufficient: thin soup with bits of tough dried meat or stringy vegetables; sometimes a paste of dried dates or figs and thin, unleavened wafers; sometimes nothing but hard bread with oil to dip it in. It had been a long time—a very long time—since they’d had enough to fill their bellies. That was how the men ran the Priory. “Pain makes the man,” a prior shouted as he walked past the boys’ cells, banging on all the doors, waking them up.
Ren stumbled into the corridor and caught sight of his young friend Tye Sirra of the Wyrre. An older boy, Kollen Pisk, was talking to Tye, going on about the Devouring. Ren slipped behind Kollen and shoved him playfully in the back. “Priors are calling for you.” It was a lie, but Ren wanted to get rid of the older boy, and a call from the priors was the surest way to do that. “Probably best be on your way,” said Ren, slapping the tall boy again.
“Later then,” Kollen said. He knocked Ren on the shoulder, but his eyes did not leave Tye, his gaze lingering up and down, as if taking measure. Then he laughed and disappeared down the corridor.
Ren waited until they were alone. “Do you think he knows?”
“I’m not sure—he might,” said Tye.
“Then we need to be more careful. You should grow your hair longer,” Ren said. “And maybe a different tunic?”
“My hair won’t grow any faster—or longer,” said Tye. “And this old tunic is the mangiest I could find. I already stink like a rat, do I have to look like one as well?”
Ren shrugged. “It’s better than being discovered. No one looks twice at a rat and they certainly don’t want to stand by one.” He pinched his nose.
“It’s no joke. Sooner or later someone is going to figure it all out and then—” Tye glanced around to make certain no one was listening.
“We can’t give up so easily,” said Ren. “We’ve fooled them for years.”
“Years, yes, but I was younger then and didn’t have much of anything to hide,” said Tye, brushing a bit of dirt from what had become a slight swelling in her upper chest. Tye was a girl. Only her friends Ren and Adin Fahran, the heir of Feren, knew the truth. Her father had swapped his daughter for his son when the Protector came to fetch the boy from their home in the Wyrre three years ago. Now twelve, Tye was tall and thin, and for the most part lacked the curves that would come with womanhood. She had the light hair and eyes of the southern tribes, a slender nose, and a sprinkling of freckles on her cheeks. She was growing more beautiful every day, and took great pains to hide it. She could still pass for a boy, though each day she looked a little less like one.
“What are you doing in this part of the Priory?” Ren asked. Tye’s chamber was on a different floor.
“Looking for you.”
“Aren’t you sweet—” he teased.
“Shut up, I’m here for a reason,” she said.
“What reason?” Ren asked, seeing her face turn anxious.
“Just follow me.” Tye darted down the corridor and Ren followed. What was so urgent that she would risk missing morning meal? The answer came soon enough when they saw Adin.
“My father’s dead,” Adin said, squinting in the gloom to look for his friends. He stood in the door to his cell, a yellowed parchment clutched in one hand, his skin dusky in the lamplight. Adin was a few years older than Ren, tall and lanky, his hair messy, his chin stubbled, shoulders hunched like a boy afraid of his own height.
“It’s over,” Adin said. “I’m leaving.” The Priory boys were unable to return home until their fathers died or were killed.
For a moment Ren just stared at his friend. This was the moment they lived for every day. Freedom. Home. But Adin looked far from joyous. “What’s wrong?” asked Ren.
“There was a note, from my uncle, Gallach. All is not what it seems. There was a revolt a year ago. A merchant named Dagrun Finner declared himself king of the Ferens and took the throne. He kept my father hostage, then sent him to the gallows for treason. Now the emperor has recognized Finner as king and since my father is dead and I am no longer the first son of Feren, I’ll be set free. My line is ended.”
Heavy footsteps echoed outside, the priors were coming. Their yellow robes emerged from the dark of the corridor. The Prior Master, Oren Thrako, walked at the head of the group. He was stout and strong, the skin over his bald head stretched smooth and bulging like an overdeveloped muscle. He gripped Adin by the neck.
“Time to go, boy,” Oren said.
“Give us a moment,” Ren protested
The parchment shook in Adin’s hand. His eyes darted between the Prior Master and Ren. “The new king will surely kill me once he learns I have gained my freedom. They’re sending me home to my death.”
“Save your worries for someone who cares. Time to meet the Ray,” Oren said.
Ren put himself between Adin and the Prior Master. “Just a moment,” he begged.
“Go back to your cell,” Oren said.
No. He would likely never see his friend again. But before Ren could speak, Oren slammed him against the wall. His fingers wrapped around Ren’s neck, slowly tightening. Ren gagged, his face turning red, fingers twitching. Then something made the Prior Master let go. Tye had taken hold of Oren’s tunic and was frantically tugging at it. The loose threads of the tunic caught Oren’s bronze necklace. She gave the cloth another tug and the necklace bit into his neck, drawing blood.
Oren forgot about Ren. He lashed out at Tye, slamming her with his fist and knocking her to her knees. “Stupid boy,” he said, gesturing for one of the priors to hand him his cudgel, meaning to beat her, right there in front of them.
No, no, not Tye, this is my fault. Ren swiftly drew his blade and pressed the iron against Oren’s back.
The Prior Master turned slowly around, his eyes settling on the little knife. “What are you going to do with that?” he scoffed. “Skewer a mouse? You’d be better off threatening me with a thimble,” he said. “Throw it down or I’ll carve you with it myself.”
More priors hurried down the corridor. Seeing the knife, three of them immediately surrounded Ren. A fourth took Adin and led him away. His friend resisted the prior’s pull. “When you get out, find me, you sons of bitches!”
“Go, you idiot!” Ren backed toward the wall, the knife feeling heavy in his palm as he faced the priors and an enraged Oren Thrako. At least he’s forgotten about Tye. “May you share the sun’s fate—and all that!” he called to Adin. “We’ll find you sure enough, I promise. If we ever get out of here,” he muttered to himself.
Adin twisted to look back at his friends, and seeing them in obvious jeopardy, struggled to return to help. He struck the prior who was leading him down the hall, knocking him on the jaw and hurrying back down the corridor. But two more priors arrived, blocking his path. They faced Adin with a snarl and each one took one of his arms.
“I mean it—come to Feren,” Adin yelled before he was pulled back into the shadows.
Before Ren could reply, Oren took him by the fabric of his tunic. “You should have dropped the bloody knife,” he said. “I’ll take a finger in payment, or maybe two.” He held Ren by the neck while the remaining priors scrambled to take hold of the blade. It took two of them to restrain Ren while the other pried the knife from his hand, peeling back his fingers one by one. The knife clattered to the floor.
Oren took a step back, removing himself from the melee, straightening his tunic, and fixing his necklace. His hand came away red with blood from the ugly cut on his neck. “You’ll go to the wells for this, Tye,” the Prior Master raged. He held up his red fist. “We’ll let the sun judge you for your sins.”
“No,” Ren said. “I’ll do it, I’ll stand beneath the sun. I drew the blade. Let me take his place.” He knew the Prior Master would not pass up an opportunity to punish him, so he offered himself in Tye’s place.
Oren glanced from Ren to Tye and back again, weighing the matter. Then he grunted his acceptance, as Ren knew he would. “Good enough, Hark-Wadi.” He smiled grimly, as if this was what he had wanted all along. “In place of a finger, I will send you to the sun. You will stand and face the Sun’s Justice,” said Oren.
Ren had seen a boy survive the Sun’s Justice, had seen the ransom’s charred and flaking skin, his blind eyes and cracked lips, his neck and shoulders dotted with yellow and white pustules that ruptured when the boy bent his arm or flexed his neck. Now it was he who would stand and wither in an oven-sized shaft while the sun’s heat turned the stones around him into searing coals. If he survived the ordeal, he was innocent. If he died, he was guilty and would be sent back to his kingdom in a casket, and the empire would demand a new ransom.
Already the priors were grabbing him by the hood of his tunic, taking him to the roof. “Go,” he told Tye, who had tears in her eyes. “Forget about me.” At least she is safe. It was comfort enough to know he had kept her from the worst of it. And Adin was free. His friend had escaped the Priory. Ren had spent the better part of his brief life dreaming of the day when the three of them would be free. It was all he wanted for himself and his friends. He tried to take some solace in Adin’s freedom, but his thoughts were a jumbled mess. Soon he would face the Sun’s Justice.
Strong hands lifted him by the armpits while he kicked and strained. His foot met the face of a gray-haired prior. He kicked again, but a younger and stronger man took hold of his ankle and wrenched the joint into a painful half-turn as they dragged him down the corridor.
They enjoy this, he thought, they like watching us squirm.
Ren saw an arch above him, which meant they were on the stairs. He had struggled for years to see the sun, to catch a glimpse of the sky, and now it was here, bright and blistering.
A door banged open and everything went white. Warm air buffeted his face. Ren squeezed his eyes closed, but sunlight pierced his eyelids, filling his vision with a red-veined panorama.
“Open your eyes, boy. We’re on the roof,” said one of the priors.
“No,” he murmured, “I don’t want to see the sun.” In truth, he had wanted to see it his whole life, but now that the moment had come he wasn’t ready. No matter. Ren did as told and saw a pair of crooked teeth smiling at him. The prior turned his head and spat into a lightwell. The spittle hung in the air, falling and falling, then disappearing into the darkness.
“That’s where you’re going—into the well, to bake like bread, to cook like a goose,” he chortled. “Pain makes the man. Pain makes the man,” the prior hummed the words.
Two and ten shafts dotted the roof of the Priory—long, narrow cuts dug into the flat stone, wells that fed light into the underground chambers of the Priory of Tolemy, the house for the emperor’s ransoms.
“Here you go,” said the crook-toothed man as he fed a rope under Ren’s arms and tied a knot behind his back. “Careful not to touch the stones, you don’t want to burn yourself,” he japed.
Ren closed his eyes, the sun was too bright—he wasn’t ready. The rope tightened around his chest. He felt a tug as the prior led him forward. His eyes clamped shut. He wished he could shut his ears too. The city was loud, almost suffocating. Dogs barked and hawkers cried.
The prior’s foot hit his back and Ren fell, tumbling into the darkness. The rope caught beneath his arms, the knot tightening like a hangman’s noose. He grabbed the cord and tried to steady himself as his feet hung, kicking in the air.
“Help,” he said.
A grunt echoed from above as the priors struggled with the rope. Ren was dropped again, but more slowly this time. When he kicked, his foot hit stone. A ledge. He put one foot down, then the other, until he stood on a small foothold within the lightwell.
“Is this it? Is this where I’ll stand?” he asked, but no one answered.
The shaft felt like nothing more than a narrow pipe, one that was slowly tightening around him. He wanted broth on his lips and amber in his belly. There was an angry pulsing in his head that only a meal could fix, but he would not eat this morning. There was no knowing when the next meal would arrive, or if he would eat at all.
I wish I were back in my cell. He had not appreciated how much he had until it too was taken away.
The priors pulled up the rope and soon they were gone.
It had all happened so quickly that he had not yet had time to consider what was in store for him.
He was alone on the ledge. The light shaft provided no shade, nowhere to shit or piss. He could jump, he could end his life, plunge to his death. But even then the fall might not kill him. If he was only maimed, the priors would surely nurse him back to health just so they could abuse him once more.
The sun was rising, and the rocks were already growing hot. Soon the stone would be too hot to touch, the air too smoldering to breathe, and the sun and his justice would be upon him.
Ren wanted to be back in the dark, loamy comfort of his cell. I want to eat bread and drink amber and see my friends. A ransom had no other desires, no other privileges. Standing alone beneath the vast sky, trapped inside a veritable oven, the absence of those comforts struck him as a blow mightier than any the priors could strike.
He pressed his shoulders to the stone. The rock was warm.
A ray fell across his face, and after ten years in darkness, Ren raised his head, opened his eyes, and finally saw the sun.
Copyright © 2017 by Michael Johnston