I wasn't nervous, standing before the broad, polished wooden door, not in the least. I was in a stone hallway like any other in the building I lived and worked in, the Councillite. I knew it wasn't, though. Through these ordinary double wooden doors was the room where the possessor council met with people. The squirmy feeling taking my stomach for a ride could only be described as excitement- pure, unrestrained excitement, flipping over and over inside me. Almost as excited as when I was doing something really important for Estatutory Seraline.
Trying to calm myself, I examined the door. I'd done this so many times it was even more boring than standing with nothing to do- exactly why I did it. Nothing calmed me down like boredom. I couldn't resist tapping my feet as my eyes flew across the shiny wooden surface, catching every detail, every smudge in the polish, and each place where the wood stain had been applied too heavily, resulting in a dark spot. The dull sound of the lairose gong bored into my ears, coming from inside the double doors.
I squeezed my fingers into fists, immediately relocating my point of focus onto the door, for I knew it would be opened for me by a couple of servants. Young ones, not looking me in the eye, casting their gaze down at the scrubbed white stone floor frightfully. They must've been forced to wash and dress in clean white linens, the ones I saw scurrying around in the gutters were filthy. Not caring much about the servants, I strode forward, with eyes only for the possessors. All ten of them, all adults, but of varied ages and sexes, sitting in stone chairs that matched the floor exactly, arranged in two rows of five, the younger possessors sitting in the front row. There was hardly any other furniture in the room, and I didn't care to note it.
With important visitors, overseers from the House and such, they were painfully formal, I've seen it. But with me, they were stretched out in their chairs, watching me approach with leisurely unconcern. I tamed my smirk into something mildly more appropriate for a meeting with the possessors, but let my arms hang down casually.
"Still got that annoying smirk on, I see, Mairi."
"Oh, look. The cocky thrill-seeker kid's back. Thought we ditched her last time?"
"Mairi! How've you been, beggar?"
The last call came from the possessor on the seat furthest left of the first row, his possessor uniform of striking scarlet robes cast onto his body sloppily. He was leaning down so far his feet stretched out further across the floor than anyone else's, and his arm was laying across the armrest with the air of a spoiled prince. I crossed my arms with mock annoyance as I stood before both rows.
"Who's talking, Jollsund. I saw you dancing without clothes on before old ladies for money the other day."
My voice echoed noisy confidence throughout the tall room; shooting out sharply around the flat sides of the room and up into the high, towering ceiling. The possessors laughed to each other, stretching out against the limits of their broad stone seats, turning to each other to exchange looks. Jollsund was smiling a convincingly charming smile at me, and got up from the chair with a prince's choreographed grace. He moved toward me, a tall, thin-faced young man with his long, pale brown hair braided into hundreds of little braids. My mouth broke free of its restraints, lips forming an enormous smile as we hugged.
He was taller than I was, and I could feel the bones of his thin body against me. His fingers gave me one last squeeze, then he released me and stepped back. I adopted a wry expression as I looked him over. "Must be so hard, being a possessor. The reason you're so skinny, I assume." Jollsund gave off a little huff of indignation. I looked up at his face, while at the same time trying to compose mine. I knew what I was going to ask, and so did he, and I was going to ask despite the pang of shame I received. And I disliked feeling shameful more than I disliked cleaning out a Shaarmite's pen.
Jollsund opened his mouth, but for a moment no words came out, and I filled the gap for him, Altrayne's face clear in my memories. A square, smooth face. Lips taught with things he wished to say, wants and needs he wished to express. Matted shoulder length black hair he never bothered to clean, bright grey eyes alight with fire. The same eyes I had. And yet, only his eyes glowed bright, the rest of him was fading into Jollsund's mouth, open and puzzled. A sharp, rattling knock from the door cut off his reply. The gentle buzz of conversation died out with a sudden sweep, and all eyes were cast anxiously at the closed double doors. Representation from the House was something you treated with courtesy.
Without waiting for the servants to hurry over and open the door for him, it burst open from the outside. Jollsund backed up until he was standing above his seat, casting his eyes around at the others rapidly for support. They did not give it. Each and every possessor was sitting up straight in their stone seat, hands folded neatly across their laps, all traces of merriment vanished from their stances. We were in the presence of the House now, and the House shows no mercy. The man who had burst in strode forward quickly, his loose scarlet uniform pooling down around him as he moved right past me, whipping his untied sash across my side as he passed, not giving me a backward glance.
I frowned at the man's lairose-hard back. In my opinion, Estatutory Hartford didn't deserve to be an Estatutory at all. I'd never once seen the man crack a smile. Not once. Add to that the fact that his spine didn't seem to slouch or bend at all, and I'd all but classified him a shaarmite. Except I would never clean out his pen. Hartford cleared his throat with scratchy imprecision. "I knew it would come to this. Can't even trust the possessor council with an announcement. An announcement, for the aide of Ahemitri! Get it together, people! We've got about two days before it all goes down; time's a rarity at the moment. Now, shall I tell Seraline's apprentice why she's been summoned, or can you lazy idiots handle it?"
A bit of a shocked silence followed Hartford's declaration, but one of the older possessors had the good sense to nod. Hartford bristled indignantly; he turned to me. I looked him dead in the eye coolly. He looked me dead in the eye coolly back. And when he spoke to me, it was in a deadly whisper I barely recognized.
"I know you think you're special and talented, just because you'll join me in the ranks of Estatutories when you finish your apprenticeship.Hear this, Mairi, and hear it right. This is the possessor council. I suppose those words are too big for your little sixteen-year-old brain? This is the third most important group of positions in Ahemitri's Realm. First come the Gods. Then comes I, and others that share my position of Estatutory. And then comes the possessor council. So I don't really care if you want to stay all relaxed and casual like you usually are. You will remain formal and treat the council with respect. I can always terminate you, Mairi, would you like that instead?"
I clasped my hands together and shook my head earnestly, trying my best to appear innocent. On the inside, I burned with fury. Hartford knew how much I treasured this job, knew I had left everything for it. Like Altrayne, I had left Altrayne. Altrayne who raised me. I felt the shame return and cloud my anger. Without raising my head I heard the click of Hartford's boots against the cool stone floor, signifying his departure.
I jerked my head up to see a mildly embarrassed looking possessor addressing me, not in an unfriendly way, but businesslike. I returned his professional stare politely, composing my face expertly.
"Sorry, Mairi. We're only human, we like to have a good chat sometimes too. Everyone thinks we're stiff and composed all the time. Anyways, I thought it'd be all right, seeing as we do it all the time…"
"Yeah, I know. He always catches us every once in awhile, and gives us all a good yelling at anyways."
The possessor's eyes twinkled at me. We were often a lot less formal with each other than we would be with, say, Hartford. After all, I had just sixteen years, and I was apprenticed to be an Estatutory in two years, when Estatutory Seraline was done teaching me and it was time for her to retire. In the meantime, I followed her everywhere, learning her duties, memorizing her rules, and of course, reading books. About history, especially the Gods.
"Anyways, since the possessor council's duty is to inform persons of announcements, we're telling you this instead of Seraline."
The man had my attention now, and I cut my daydreams short, riveting my sight on the possessor that was speaking. As opposed to looking at the bare stone wall behind them. The House really favors stone, and not just in the House. Streets and buildings all over the realm. It shows off our wealth, I suppose. Our realm, Ahemitri's Realm, is the richest on the continent. All thanks to the Gods, of course, Ahemitri in particular.
"Mairi! Just take in this one miniscule bit of info, and we'll let you go!"
I sighed, uncrossing my arms and straightening my legs. The possessor frowned at me, then continued.
"Estatutory Seraline's leaving for the House in two days. Some Godly matter; I don't really know. You're going with her. You've been places with her before, correct?"
I nodded wryly. Many times. The House was where the Gods lived and met with Estatutories, and sometimes possessors. Inconveniently, the building I was in now, (the Councillite) where Estatutories, the possessor council and other important positions were housed was half a day's journey away. There is a lot of travel between the House and the Councillite. I think there's a separate shaarmite just for travel between the two places.
The possessors were giving me a group look, an idiotic glare. I nodded my head earnestly. "Yeah, I know the drill. Am I gonna get to see Gods this time, you think?" I'd never been allowed to see them before. Seraline thought it would scare me. I, however, thought it would be fascinating. The possessors were throwing each other looks. One of them cleared her throat. "We don't know. Get on outta here, Mairi. Seraline's waiting."
Huffing at the obvious dismissal, I left the room in a hurry. The servants, still not looking me in the eye, shut the door behind me quickly. Once outside, I slumped against the stone walls, breathing excitedly. The House! Another chance to see a God! The most important beings in all of Ahemitri's Realm, the reason we were filthy rich, the finders of Lairose! I stood back up. Seraline was waiting. I set off at a casual pace, my head full of thoughts. I was thinking about all the other realms. They had Gods too, of course. But theirs were stupid. They had never done anything to help out their realms. They just left them alone. The thought that a God, who had inconceivable powers, wouldn't use them to make their realm rich, made me chuckle. Our Gods were the best.
The stone hall stretched out before me, each door I passed the same as the last. When I came here two years ago, I got lost hundreds of times. But you've got to learn your way around fast. Seraline would be waiting in our chambers, which were approaching on the left. We had separate bedrooms, and shared a room in between. The simple wooden door came up in front of me. I opened it and stepped inside, shutting the door behind me. The masculine fireplace, lit, threw cheerfully crackling firelight around the room. A stone room, decorated simply. Two armchairs, a few bookshelves. A table and chairs. Two opposite doors led out of the room.
I collapsed into the armchair opposite Seraline, who was sitting in her armchair, scrawling something out on paper. She looked up briefly, then returned to her writing. I rubbed at the chair's armrest, which was faded beyond color and rubbed of all comfort value.
"Oh, finally! Quick, fetch me that book on the properties of lairose!" Seraline snapped her fingers at me anxiously. Sighing, I got up again, heading over to the bookshelves. My hand scurried across the shelf looking for the right book. I found it, a heavy leather thing, thick and dusty.
Carrying the book, I dashed back to Seraline. She quit snapping her fingers and rubbed her head instead. I flipped through the pages, hurriedly looking for lairose. It was bound to be in the front, it was the most important export we had.
"You find it?"
"Almost. I can't see!"
I blew at the page, and an enormous plume of dust spiraled up from it, churning up my nose. I wrinkled it, trying not to sneeze.
"Here it is. Whaddaya need to know?"
"How dense is it right after they take it out of the ground?"
"Hmmm…" I flipped a page, scaling it down. "Well, it comes out in liquid form first, doesn't it? They solidify it later."
Seraline glared at me. "That's elementary stuff, Mairi. Oh, I give up. I'll look it up later." She dropped the paper on her chair, getting up and stretching as she did so. Seraline looks a lot younger than she is. She's got hardly any wrinkles, and her hair is still a deep chestnut brown, very long, though she usually piles it on top of her head. I fingered my own dark brown hair longingly. It wasn't ugly, but it was nothing special like Seraline's. Plus, I haven't got her length. Mine's a couple inches past my chin, hers goes to her butt.
My teacher was taking the book back to the bookshelves. "They tell you?"
"Yeah. When do we leave, day after tomorrow?"
"Possibly sooner. Depends on how fast the travel is arranged, I heard it's an urgent matter. Actually…"
I leaned forward conspiratorially. "I won't tell."
She couldn't resist, I knew Seraline wouldn't be able to resist. She told me things I didn't even want to know.
"I heard, and mind you this is just a rumor, but I heard that they're fighting."
"Fighting? Haven't they got more important things to do?"
Seraline stroked her hair. "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times. The Gods are idiots. Absolute idiots."
I wouldn't have taken it quite that far, but there was no denying the Gods made mistakes. I thought of Altrayne, and my skin prickled with the shame of it.
"Do I get to see one this time?"
"Hmmm. I think you're old enough."
I beat the air with my fist, giving a little cheer. Seraline eyed me sternly. "Mairi, Gods aren't what people expect. Everybody who sees them says they look like humans, which they do. But they're not. They're not humans at all." Seraline gave a little shiver as she slid the book back onto the shelf. "It's late, past the third quarter already. You wanna go to bed?"
"I'm not tired, but I haven't got anything else to do."
"Quite right. Busy day tomorrow, meetings with loads of different people. You'll be exhausted, and I don't want to hear your complaints all bloody day."
Later on, lying under the covers in my narrow bed that night, I thought about what Seraline had said. "Not human at all…" but that didn't matter. Because they were Gods, and Gods were better than humans. Weren't they? My room didn't have a fireplace, and the lamps weren't lit, so it was dark. I peered around the silent room, contemplating. The blackness surrounded me like another blanket, and I scrunched down and tried to fall asleep.
A/N: The entire storyline for this story, complete with plot twists, came to me today. And I got a weird urge to try it out. For almost all the other chapters there won't be an A/N, I'm just establishing that I'm thankful you're reading and requesting reviews that focus on what I'm doing wrong, not what I'm doing right.