Inside These Walls

Inside these walls, Jex Azmi thought, I am a prisoner.

This both surprised and alarmed him, for he'd never had such an idea before. Although his life was not easy and all his days were not filled with the simple pleasures he cherished, he had never before imagined himself a captive in this place. The compound had always been his home, and the Emri his brothers and sisters and parents. It was true that he did not always enjoy his life, but he hadn't considered there might be something better beyond the tall, black fence. This was the only life he knew, the only life he thought possible for himself.

Until today.

He hadn't thought much about the outside world at all in his twenty-seven years and, until today, he'd never questioned why that was. Now, in a burst of clarity, he realized that he'd never thought about the wider world because the Elders had not encouraged him to do so. In fact, the Elders painted such a horrifying picture of the people beyond the walls that the details of society outside the compound didn't bear thinking about.

He recalled being terrified as a child when he'd heard the Elders speak of the things that happened to Emri who ventured past the gates of their compounds. The Elders told of Emri being imprisoned in small rooms where they would never again see the sun's light, and those, they said, were the fortunate ones. They warned that in many cities, Emri were chased in the streets. If they were caught, they were tortured and killed, burned or drowned or murdered by slow poisons. This was for no crime except that of being born Emri, the Elders intoned. All the people of Eris feared and hated telepaths. The people believed the Emri were evil, and one of the Emri risked his life each time he travelled through the streets, even on a necessary errand.

But today, Jex had felt no fear in Piri Viridis, no revulsion or hatred. Piri's thoughts were curious and compassionate and kind. It seemed that he wanted to know all there was to know about Jex, but he also respected that the Emri had secrets Jex could not reveal.

Surely, Piri was not the exception that defined the rule? Jex felt positive that he would have sensed feelings of rebelliousness or defiance if Piri were going against the current of society. Piri was a little hesitant, it was true, but Jex decided that was only because he'd never spoken to one of the Emri before, and not because he believed any harm would come to him.

Could it be that all Erisans shared much the same feelings as Piri? Could it be that Eris did not hate the Emri after all? Today, for the first time, Jex Azmi began to wonder whether the things the Elders said of Eris outside the walls might be nothing but lies.

Thinking of Piri made Jex smile to himself as he did his work in the garden. An Elder arrived to check on him, but when he saw that Jex was working and that he was by himself, the Elder went away again. Jex was glad. He didn't want anyone to intrude on his small refuge, least of all one of the Elders. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts and his flowers. He wanted to daydream, to stretch his mind beyond the walls and imagine what could be. The possibilities, he felt certain now, were far greater than he'd ever suspected.

In fact, he was discovering a lot of things today that he'd hitherto believed were impossible. The last thing he'd expected when he rolled off his sleeping cushion this morning was that he would meet a handsome stranger, but that was exactly what had happened, and Jex knew that from now on his memory of their meeting would be forever linked with the scent of ro flowers and the warm touch of sunlight on his hair.

After his tasks in the garden were done, Jex lingered a while among the flowers. He lay on his side in the grass, breathed in the rich soil smell and felt the tiny blades prickling against his ear and cheek. He wished he could feel the grass all over his skin, but it was forbidden to uncover himself here. The people outside the walls weren't forced to cover themselves like this, and he envied them. A man on the outside could lie in the grass, roll around in it, and be tickled from head to toes by the scratchy-soft shoots. Jex tried to picture Piri doing that; tried to imagine Piri's delight as his strong green body tumbled over the even greener grass. It was a vibrant, exuberant image, and Jex liked it.

Even as Jex let himself soar beyond the compound on the wings of his imagination, he watched other small souls fly in. Two piri birds, both males, fluttered down to rest on a pair of nearby flowers. They were so tiny and delicate that the flowers barely bowed at all from their weight. Piri hardly ever stopped moving, so it was a rare treat to be able to observe them when they weren't in flight. Their feathers were bright yellow, shading through orange to brilliant red on their tails and wingtips, and they stood out strikingly against the pale purple of the ro blossoms.

In less than a minute the birds were in flight again, flitting here and there, drinking the nectar from the sweet purple flowers. When they'd satisfied themselves, they circled the garden once as if bidding it farewell, and then disappeared over the fence. Jex watched them go.

Take me with you, piri, he thought, and then found himself smiling at the irony of that.

He reached out to touch the petals of the flowers where the birds had first landed. They were soft and slightly damp despite the day's dry heat, and they were intimately familiar to Jex. He liked to think no one knew the garden like he did. He often petted his flowers, told them stories, talked to them in his true voice even though the Elders discouraged him from speaking aloud.

"Kiro…kiro…" he sang to his flowers now, but only with his mind's voice. "Kiro ni anoa."

His flowers, he reflected, were the only living things he'd ever touched with affection, the only living things that had touched him without hurting. The only living things…until today. Another first for him, to be asked his permission and then to be touched with no other motive than curiosity and friendship.

No one had ever asked his permission before. Lesser Emri were not allowed to touch each other casually, and when the Elders wanted to touch someone, they didn't ask. The Elders never wanted to touch just for the sake of touching.

In Jex's experience, Elders touched lesser Emri for only two reasons; punishment and Testing. Jex could remember many instances of being grabbed by the arm or the back of the neck, and then being pulled or pushed to the Testing place or to an Elder's room for discipline. He'd been reading in the garden on the day of his last Testing and when the Elder had come to fetch him, she'd seized him by the hair and dragged him backwards across the grounds to the Testing place. He'd cried all the way there, whether from pain or fear he could never decide.

When they reached the Testing place and the Elder saw that he'd been weeping, she slapped him across the cheek with all her strength. Then, she'd made him take off his robe and she had Tested him. Even though he knew it would further weaken him in her eyes, he screamed when she carried out the Testing. He could not hear himself scream, but he felt it, body and soul. It was a physical thing that started deep in his belly and, raw-edged, tore its way to freedom up his throat and through his mouth, but it was also a jagged, white-hot shard that stabbed deep into his mind. The pain of the Testing paled beside the brutal energy of that scream, and the only being who bore witness to it was one who broadcast clearly that his pain meant absolutely nothing to her.

He felt certain that people not of the Emri - normal people - did not behave like this. Outside the walls of the compound, if one Erisan did such things to another, there would surely be consequences for the perpetrator, but here beyond the borders of the normal world, things like the Testing happened with impunity. No one dared question the ways of the Elders. That was how it was. To question meant punishment and, in Jex's view, the risk was too great. Besides, the Testing was a kind of punishment in itself, wasn't it? Punishment, he supposed, for being unfortunate enough to have been born Emri. Punishment for being alive.

But, today had not been a Testing day. It had not brought punishment but a wonderful, unexpected surprise in the form of a large green man with wild hair and bright, intelligent eyes. A man who thought he, Jex Azmi, was beautiful.

Jex stroked the palm of one hand with the fingertips of the other, pretending that the slowly moving fingers were Piri's instead of his own. What would it be like, he wondered, to feel Piri caressing his hand like this? The thought sent bolts of both terror and excitement coursing through him. He wanted it, but he feared what might happen if his desires were fulfilled. When he'd told Piri that punishments inside the compound were strict, he hadn't been entirely honest. Strict was perhaps too generous a word.

What would he do if Piri came tomorrow? He would be in the garden, but could he make himself go to the fence? When the moment came, would he have the courage to talk to Piri and touch him?

He decided that he would.

Many things were not worth risking the Elders' anger, but something deep inside him, some emotion for which Jex had no name, convinced him that this was. He did not know why, but he was willing to defy custom and the will of the Elders to see Piri Viridis again, his new and secret friend beyond the walls.

In the midst of this thought, someone else's consciousness inserted itself forcibly into Jex's mind.

"Jex Azmi, what are you doing?" the newcomer demanded.

It was Elder Jiyani, her mental voice strident in his head. He scrambled to rise, his sore leg protesting vehemently at the sudden movement. Desperately, he tried not to broadcast his pain to the Elder, or his resentment of her, for she was the one who'd hurt his leg. "What am I doing? N-nothing, Elder Jiyani."

"You are lying."

"I was only thinking."

"About what?" she said. "Do not lie to me, Jex."

She did not have to add, 'or else you will be punished'. Tension and fear coiled around his belly like a tree snake crushing helpless birds. He hesitated for a heartbeat, but then felt compelled to answer. "I…I was thinking about a…a boy."

"What boy?"

"A boy in my imagination," he said.

Jiyani scrutinized him for several seconds, and Jex felt as if she were trying to stare into his soul. At length she said, "It is good that you will be bonded soon, I think."

"Yes, Elder."

"It is yet to be decided whether you will be sent to the compound in Kimana City or if your Chosen will come to live here. I can see the advantages in both options."

"Yes, Elder."

"You do not feel pleased about being bonded," she said. It was not a question.

"I do not know what to expect," Jex told her. "And I have never left here. I have lived in Edmi City always, and I do not think I would like the cold weather in Northern Continent. Perhaps, if it would please the Elders, my Chosen could come here to live."

"The Elders will make that decision," said Jiyani.

"Yes, Elder."

Jiyani sighed. "If you are finished your work here, put your tools away and go take a bath. You may do as you like after that until the evening meal."

"Thank you," Jex said, and hurried to comply.

He returned his few tools to the garden shed and then crossed the grounds to the shelter that enclosed the compound's bathing pools. No one else was there when he entered, and he was grateful for that. He took off his robe and placed it neatly in one of the baskets for cleaning. One of the others would collect the baskets later. Jex filled the smaller of the pools with hot water and healing salts. When it was ready, he sank into it gratefully. The water embraced him, and he closed his eyes.

While he floated in the steamy pool he thought about what Elder Jiyani had said. The Elders had been talking more about his bonding lately and, if he were to guess, they seemed to intend that he should be bonded before the end of the dry season. The Elders had chosen a woman from another compound to be his partner, and Jex assumed they wanted to make sure any travelling happened before the rains came.

The name of Jex's Chosen was Sola, and Jex had never met her. He knew she had pale blue hair and blue eyes, and that she came from Northern Continent, but that was all. Sola, he imagined, knew just as little about him. The Elders of her compound would have talked to the Elders of his and the entire thing would have been arranged without any input from either Sola or Jex. Lesser Emri were never permitted to bond in the interests of love, only in the interests of good relations between cities and the diversification of genes.

Jex knew that he was expected to make children with Sola. He had a vague idea of how that worked, but no real knowledge of it. His only consolation was that Sola probably had no more idea about making babies than he did. They would have to figure it out together, he supposed. He worried that it would be unpleasant, or that he and Sola might accidentally hurt each other, or – worst of all – they would do something wrong and manage to make no babies at all. The Elders would not like that. They were never pleased when someone failed to do what was expected, and there was a very strong expectation that bonded couples would have many children together.

Jex didn't like the idea of having children. He didn't like the feelings of discomfort and weariness he sensed from the women of his compound when their bellies swelled, and he didn't like to feel their pain when the babies came. Then, after the babies were born, they broadcast emotions of their own; hunger, frustration, rage, and an almost all-consuming self-centeredness. And babies were so often foul-smelling and messy. It was too much.

When Elder Jiyani observed that Jex was not pleased about being bonded, she couldn't have been more correct. Jex did not want to be bonded to a stranger, nor did he wish to father a brood of squirming, crying, leaking, emotionally uncontrolled babies with her. What he wanted was… He did not know, but it certainly wasn't that.

Of course, what Jex Azmi wanted did not matter. He was lesser Emri, and his fate would always be decided by someone else. He might have his small rebellions - his screams and his stolen moments with people outside the fence - but the Elders would always win in the end.

Take me away…take me away…The plea he'd sent to the bright little piri echoed over and over in his mind.

Oh, sun and moons, if only someone could.