“The Woven Ring”
by M. D. Presley
Marta was mad. Carmichael had lied to her. Again.
Her older brother’s lies were nothing new, Marta expecting them now whenever he spoke. But this time he had gone too far, had Whispered upon her, and for that he would pay.
Her mother had saved Marta that morning by removing Carmichael’s mental hold over her, but Cecelia Childress also knew her middle child’s tendencies well, ordering Marta to catch four Breaths from the nearby Coak ley. It was a mission of diversion, one meant to keep Marta occupied until her father returned. During daylight the ley was entirely invisible, the flowing Breaths that made it up almost impossible to capture. The task should have kept the six-year-old Marta busy all afternoon, but after two hours her head began to ache, each throb reminding her of Carmichael’s lie. Finally she had enough, flinging her luz jar to the ground hard enough to shatter the glass.
Cutting through the fields, the cotton crop loomed high above Marta’s head, but she navigated the rows easily towards the sprawling manor in the center of the plantation. Up ahead she heard a rustle, most likely a festation toiling away. Unlike the manifestations, their Weaver relatives, festations did not fade away after a single day, instead existing until their creator dismissed them. Needing neither food nor rest, festations made perfect workers, and the Childress family owned hundreds to tend to their crop of cotton and tobacco. There was no chance the mindless festation would alert her mother to her disobedience, but Marta shifted her course nonetheless. The lifeless eyes of the festations disturbed her, so she dodged through the stalks furtively from row to row until she reached home.
Once inside, she stormed up the first of the three sweeping staircases of Hillbrook Manor, the steps too steep to accommodate her stride. But Marta reminded herself she was growing every day, and soon she would outgrow the childish frills her mother loved dressing her in and receive her own gowns, girdles, and bustles. Soon she would be old enough to do something that mattered to the clan.
Carmichael was not in his bedroom and Marta gave the door a satisfying slam as she marched on down the hallway. If not in his room, then he was probably with their tutor, Mr. Mitchell. Mitchell was only required to stay for lessons until three bells but could linger for additional instruction if requested by one of the children. Although Marta’s shadow never remained in the classroom after the third bell’s final note died, Carmichael, to Mitchell and her parents’ delight, often took on additional studies.
Marta did not feel delight when she burst into the classroom to find Carmichael hunkered over his textbooks with Mitchell. Her brother always gave the appearance of the perfect oldest child, at least in the presence of others. Marta knew the truth, as her little sister, Oleander, would discover soon enough herself.
Carmichael stood at her sudden intrusion, decorum dictating he rise at the entrance of a lady, even if the lady was now plowing straight for him with no intention of stopping. Three years older, he towered over Marta, so she jumped as she aimed her fist straight at his face.
She missed by inches, Carmichael laughing at her attempt even as Mitchell scolded her. The laughter, more than the reprimand, enraged Marta further. Carmichael’s hands latched to her wrists before she could react, Marta struggling against her stronger sibling to no avail.
“Whatever is wrong with you?” Carmichael’s voice was amused, each word another twist of his knife.
“Rosealee,” Marta spat back.
To her surprise Carmichael blinked uncomprehendingly at the name. It had been rattling around Marta’s head like a Breath in a bottle for the last three months, but to him it seemed meaningless. Then the corners of his mouth curled up, Carmichael finally remembering.
“This is about our older sister? I forgot about her entirely.”
His dismissal of her months of misery infuriated Marta all the more, the girl fighting harder against his grip. Her helplessness stoked her anger further, fanning it into blazing rage.
And with the rage came clarity, Marta suddenly aware of each Breath within her body. There were the usual three all humans were born with, one in the center of the chest to representing the Body, the second in the middle of the forehead for the Mind, and the third at the crown of the head signifying the Soul. But in that moment of clarity, Marta could feel a fourth Breath nestled deep in her chest next to the Body. Were she not so angry, she might have been surprised to find it, to feel it thrumming with its own frequency. It had a resonance, a musical identity all its own that only she could hear.
So she inhaled, filling that Breath with both her air and anger.
The fourth Breath stirred, summoned by Marta’s will and obeying on her exhale. Though its base remained firmly in her chest, she felt it elongate as it stretched through her throat and out towards her mouth. The appendage was entirely new to her, but it felt natural as she experienced each sensation through this fresh limb: the light scrape as it edged over her teeth, the sudden coolness of the air outside her body; the crunch of her brother’s bones as it collided with his nose.
Carmichael released her as he fell, his face spurting blood as he sputtered for air. Mitchell was speaking again, almost yelling, but Marta paid him no mind as she stared in awe at her new appendage. It looked like a strange tongue, a tentacle thin as a ribbon and made up of her iridescent Breath. It was a marvel, one that entirely belonged to her and made her special; one that utterly disappeared as her anger dissipated. One moment the Blessed Breath was there, ethereal and unreal, but upon her inhale it retreated back within Marta to nest again in her chest.
Marta tried desperately to bring it back, but her clarity was gone, the fourth Breath again a mystery as Mitchell’s voice finally penetrated her mind. Though Carmichael was still calling for aid on the floor, Mitchell’s attention was turned solely upon the Childress’ middle child.
“Congratulations, my girl, you are one of Sol’s Blessed. And a Shaper, no less. Your parents will be very proud.”
But looking down on her brother dripping blood upon the carpet, Marta was not so sure.
Marta remained in her room for the rest of the evening, forgoing dinner, though her belly soon cursed her for it. Her father was still away at his kennels, and her mother, having married into the Cildra clan, did not make decisions on important matters. The discovery that she was a Shaper would certainly be considered an important matter, so Marta determined it was best to remain hidden until her father’s return. Only her little sister dared to disturb her, Oleander too young to realize the gravity of the situation and wanting to play as if this were any other day. Marta sent her away rudely, Oleander’s sobs haunting as they disappeared down the long hallway of the children’s wing. Though she felt a pang of regret for Oleander’s tears, Marta realized she would be lucky if those were the only ones spilled after her father returned home.
“I’m Blessed,” Marta whispered. “A Shaper.”
It was true and today’s events proved it. She was Blessed and touched by Sol Himself.
The tale was taught to all children as soon as they were old enough to understand: In the beginning the divine Sol had wandered the black void between the stars until He found Ayr. And there their deity had fallen in love with the beautiful, but lifeless world. Saddened that there were no living beings like Himself to take pleasure there, Sol performed the ultimate sacrifice in surrendering His own life, shattering His essence into an untold number of fragments. It was those fragments, known as Breath, which gave life to Ayr.
All living things therefore had an aspect of Sol within them, a piece of His divine essence a part of them from the moment of their birth. Plants, as the lowest form of life, had only the one, consisting of the Body. Animals, being imbued with intelligence, had two: the Body and the Mind. And humans, as Sol’s greatest creations, were superior with their three aspects of the divine: the Body, Mind and Soul. It was this third Breath, the Soul inherent in all humans, that made them Sol’s chosen children and the inheritors of His beloved Ayr.
And some humans were made sacred by a fourth Breath of Sol, marking them as Blessed. Their abilities depended upon where the fourth Breath resided. Those with it within the Body were called Shapers and were capable of constructing solid, spindly Armor around their bodies to give them inhuman strength. If it inhabited the Mind, then the Blessed were known as either Listeners or Whisperers depending on how their powers manifested. The Listeners were capable of hearing stray thoughts of those around them, whereas Whisperers, like Marta’s mother and Carmichael, were able to implant ideas into the minds of others. If the fourth Breath was within the Soul, the Blessed was able to influence the flow of Breath and became either a Render or Weaver depending if they lived in the West or the East.
Overall, the Blessed were quite rare and no one knew exactly how they were chosen since a child of two Blessed parents was no guarantee their progeny would share their abilities. Some, like the Dobra, increased their chances in the lottery of birth by only breeding within their tribes, but even then their numbers were almost laughably low, only two in ten Blessed and the majority of them simply Listeners. Only Marta’s own Cildra clan had any real understanding of Sol’s secrets, the proof being that many more of their clan were Blessed than not.
And she was finally fully one of them.
Singing the ode “Joy and Ease” with abandon, Marta heard her father’s approach before she caught sight of him. His kennels were located a half-mile from the house to save them from the hounds’ constant baying. Only a few miles outside the Mimas’ state capital of Gatlin, buyers often traveled hundreds of miles to purchase her father’s famed hounds. The kennel and the hounds were all pretense though, expected of an aristocratic man of leisure, as her father pretended to be. Although the plantations around them and the sale of his hounds explained away their affluence, the family’s true purpose always belonged to the Cildra clan.
The ode meant he was in a good mood, one cut abruptly short as Marta’s mother met him at the front steps. After a few quiet words, her father looked up at her window, Marta slinking for cover behind the curtains. His Cildra training ensured Norwood Childress saw her movements, which meant he knew she was watching. Her hiding was pointless, but Marta was not ready to face her father quite yet.
A servant summoned her to his study minutes later, Marta trudging down to finally receive her punishment. Her father’s study was the one place her mother still allowed him to smoke his pipe indoors, and the smell of his fragrant mixture permeated the hallway like a stain upon the air. It was a pleasant scent to most, but to Marta it was sour since it meant she was about to receive yet another entirely undeserved punishment.
To her surprise she found Carmichael waiting outside the door as well. As far as she could recall, this was the first time he had to enter Father’s study, though she had been within so many times she had lost count. Carmichael’s nose had been set, but a bruise bloomed around his eyes, making him resemble a raccoon. He refused to look at her directly, but upon her appearance Carmichael turned the handle and strode inside their father’s study. Marta had no choice but to follow or be considered a coward.
Father was seated at his desk, and though Marta expected him to be angry, he looked them both over gently. He held his pipe in one hand, the tobacco packed and ready, yet the matches remained forgotten on the desk as he spoke in a calm voice.
“Let me see if I have this correct. Carmichael, you told Marta you have an older sister named Rosealee, but she never met this sister because Rosealee was not Blessed like the rest of us and your mother and I sold her to a traveling tribe of Dobra Wanderers. I have that right?”
“It was a test to see if she could spot-the-lie.”
Her father chuckled at Carmichael’s response, Marta’s cheeks burning as her brother joined in. Spot-the-lie was a common game among Cildra children, one Carmichael loved tormenting Marta with. Yet her brother’s laughter died instantly as her father’s voice turned hard.
“And if that was the all of it, I would congratulate you, but it wasn’t. You Whispered at your sister, kept her from searching for the truth. You locked her mind in a cage with a lie, and if your mother had not noticed and undone your deceit, the damage would have been terrible. You used your abilities upon your sister, Carmichael, something forbidden to the Cildra clan. We do not use our blessings to harm each other, something you must keep in mind as well, Marta.”
Her father’s gaze flicked from one child to the next, neither willing to acknowledge the other. For a moment he looked crestfallen as he regarded them both. “Hate is easy. Love hard.”
“And indifference the most difficult,” Carmichael chimed in. The saying was old as time, most people only recollecting the first half. But Carmichael was a good student, always reciting his lessons proudly.
“That it is,” her father responded, waving Marta forward.
Marta remained planted firmly in place, her words spilling out in an attempt to lessen her impending punishment. “I let my anger get the better of me again. Instead of acting, I should have stepped back and thought first. I’m sorry. Again.”
Her father smiled, her apology not fooling him for an instant. “I think you can be forgiven so long as you both learn a lesson today. Marta, my precious little girl, you must remember to never use your Blessed abilities in front of someone outside the clan. For the rest of the world, the Blessed are a tiny minority, only one in twenty gifted by Sol. But we of the Cildra clan are special, nearly eight out of ten of us touched by Sol. And this is our secret, only to be shared within the family. So though it is law that all Whisperers and Listeners wear pins to announce their abilities, neither I, your mother, nor your brother do so. This is our secret to be used to our benefit and none others. Even though it was your first time, it is no excuse for showing your Shaper nature in front of an outsider. Mitchell is not one of the clan, yet he now knows you for what you are. We must ensure his knowledge remains hidden, which means we must keep him under our employment until he dies to keep our secret.”
“He could die early, then.”
Shock took hold of Marta at her brother’s casual suggestion, only to be replaced by horror as her father seemed to be genuinely considering the idea.
“Mother could just Whisper at him and make him forget! She can make it better!”
“Your mother is strong, Marta, but she couldn’t make him forget. That type of power is the stuff of fables. A Whisperer can impart impulses in someone not paying attention, but to make him forget entirely is impossible.”
“No! Mr. Mitchell’s a good man. He was happy for me today. You can’t kill him!”
Hot tears ran down Marta’s cheeks as she screamed. Real tears were a sign of weakness, something a Cildra child, lest of all a Childress, should be embarrassed by, but Marta did not care as she defiantly stared her father down.
“He will not be harmed,” he replied without emotion. “Not because he is a good man, but because his death might raise suspicions. It’s more risk than he’s worth, especially when he already enjoys taking our money. Greed is easy to use, whereas those with principles significantly more difficult. You must remember that every action you take has repercussions, not just upon you, but upon the clan as a whole. Remember that, Marta. Remember it well.”
Again her father waved with his pipe for her to approach and Marta trudged forward. Though she expected her long-awaited punishment, her father set his pipe aside to pick up a small inlaid box. Carefully lifting the lid, he revealed the ring.
Marta’s tears instantly disappeared, her breath catching as she beheld the thing: three silver strands intricately woven together with a fourth golden one.
“Your mother has one just like it, one I gave her when I asked her to marry me and join the clan. But this one is yours, to commemorate the moment you became Blessed. This was a special moment, Marta, one I am sorry I missed. And though that moment must remain a secret, when you look upon this, you can remember the secret is yours to treasure. I’m very proud of you, Marta, very pleased that you are Blessed. You are a single gleaming gold strand in a world of dull silver.”
Her father suddenly scooped her up, planting a kiss upon Marta’s forehead. “But I would have loved you no matter if you were Blessed or not. You are my daughter, Marta.”
With another kiss he deposited her back upon the ground, Marta snatching her ring away. Too large to fit upon any of her fingers, Marta slid it over her thumb and held it up to see how her new treasure glinted in the light.
Waving them both away, their father finally remembered his pipe, setting it to light and bathing the room in the sweetest scent Marta had ever known. Never taking her eyes off the ring, Marta dutifully shuffled towards the door, though Carmichael remained in place. Snorting derisively at Marta and her gift, his bloody nose turned the noise into more of a gurgle.
“And what is my lesson in all this?” Carmichael said.
Their father did not even look at his son, instead blowing a smoke ring into the air. “Never antagonize someone more powerful than yourself.”
Too entranced by her prize, Marta did not see her brother taken off guard. It was an entirely new look for Carmichael, one she entirely missed. By the time she glanced back at him, his indifferent façade was firmly back in place.
“I will remember it well, Father.”