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Essence of Truth

I'm a desert rat (native Nevadan) transplanted to a humid climate. My ideal home has bookcases in every room. My fiction has appeared both on-line and in print in various places, placed in the PARSEC short story contest, earned honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest, and been shortlisted for the UPC Award. When not writing, I enjoy various handicrafts, though I prefer spending time with family. I blog three to four times a week at www.erinmhartshorn.com/blog.

It was the quality of Reina's silence that first drew Sarna to her as Reina sat in the gardens outside the old palace ruins. Sarna had come to the outskirts to gather the grasses that would be used for the First Meal at the convent after the midsummer fast. Her sickle for harvesting hung at her belt, untouched; the gardens might be on her way to the gathering fields, but she would not remove plants from the palace gardens. Nor would anyone else--too afraid of ghosts or magic or the ire of the current prince of their city-state, even if he would never have the power kings once did. She knew she had nothing to fear from magic, from essence, and ghosts could be banished to drift. Crossing the prince, however, would not be wise.
Thinking how fortunate she was to have the gardens to herself this morning--the city was increasingly crowded as the fast and its ensuing feast days approached--Sarna walked along a path tiled with bricks from one of the broken walls. She rounded a corner to see a girl of perhaps twelve sitting on a fallen pillar, intent on a red lily in the nearby grass. Her black hair was tied on the top of her head in an Estian artist's knot, exposing the flat planes of her face to the summer sun. The one bit of ornamentation she had was her hair clasp, of volcanic glass the same sheen as her hair; otherwise, her attire was as quiet as she herself, an unremarkable dove gray blouse with a charcoal-colored divided skirt. The girl could have been the child of anyone in the city were it not for her complete stillness of body and soul.
Sarna opened her mouth to invite Reina to the convent for tea, but before the older woman could say a word, the girl held one finger up, motioning for her to wait. As Sarna watched, a ruby image of the lily appeared half a foot in front of Reina, a jeweled mirage suspended in the air. It trembled, flared, then disappeared.
The girl turned to face Sarna. "I am sorry for my rudeness. It's just--I was so close." She lowered her gaze. "Not quite there yet."
"Closer than many twice your age," Sarna said, moving next to Reina and seating herself on the pillar. "May I ask who your teacher is?"
The girl shook her head. Tears trembled in her dark brown eyes, and her voice dropped. "I can't... I'm not supposed to... if my brother finds out, I'll be in trouble. You won't tell, will you?"
"I won't tell." That was easy enough to promise; she didn't know who Reina's family was. "Surely you risk him finding out anyway. Somebody must be teaching you," Sarna pressed.
Footsteps sounded from the edge of the garden, and Reina glanced past Sarna in alarm. "I must go. Remember, you promised."
The girl fled past the pampas grass at the end of the pillar, leaving the off-white plumes bobbing in her wake. After a moment, even that stilled, and there was no evidence anyone else had been in the garden.
"There you--excuse me."
Sarna turned toward the voice. The man who faced her shared Reina's dark coloring, and the lines around his mouth said that he could be stubborn if he did not get his way. Where Reina's clothes had been simple and retiring, however, his stood out like a peacock's tail. There could be no mistaking the gold threads of his vest, or the sharleen blue of his pants. Reina's brother was rich and in favor with the prince.
Sarna did not acknowledge his perceived importance. "I beg your pardon?"
Her tone did not appear to sit well with him. Rather than meeting her detached gaze, he swiveled his head from side to side--no doubt searching for his errant sister. His words, when he spoke again, confirmed this. "I thought you were someone else. My sister has run away from her studies again."
"And her tutors could not chase her?" Sarna leaned on one arm and cocked her head in an invitation to tell her more.
He flushed. "I am interrupting your enjoyment of the garden. I will go."
Without another word, he did, turning back to the path behind him. He either hadn't seen Sarna's sickle or finding his sister was more important to him than the prince's claims on the garden. At the very least, he should have questioned her intentions.
Sarna tapped a finger on the pillar. A girl, still a child, who had a grasp of essence beyond her years; her brother, a confidante of the never-to-be-king prince; and neither one of them wanted to tell her why the girl was hiding here in the garden, though their actions gave it great import. A grin stretched across Sarna's face. She had thought the week leading up to the fast would be boring, but someone else could deal with harvesting the grain.
She would not follow the girl now, however. Sarna did not trust the brother--he might well be watching, and she walked only on the surface now, not seeing the drift of essence around her. If he remained, she would not know it. Instead, she set off past the lily that the girl had been focused on, heading for the small pool beneath the willow. The fish, with their flashes of gold and red amidst the green water plants, always eased Sarna into a meditative trance within moments. Restful, contemplative--and more deeply connected to the essence. Perhaps she could find the girl this way.
Sarna's skirts brushed against the grasses and plants as she walked, adding the sweet scent and golden pollen of the lilies and the soft rattle of last year's paper lanterns to the aroma of thyme beneath her feet. She inhaled deeply as she sat on a rock beside the water. Another day, she might slip her toes into the water to feel the coolness and touch a different portion of the world. Now, though, that was not her intent.
She closed her eyes so she could focus on the drift patterns in the garden. The plants faded from her mind, leaving birds, frogs, the fish--and the girl, who had not run as far as Sarna had thought. Sarna opened her eyes as the girl peered around the willow on the opposite bank of the pond. Wisps of green essence overlaid the hanging branches before Sarna banished all such traces from her sight.
The girl stayed half-hidden behind the tree, "Thank you for not telling him you had seen me."
"I said that I would not." Sarna considered how to phrase her question without frightening the girl away. "Finding you seems important to him."
"Only because Naton wants to stay in the good graces--" The girl clapped a hand across her mouth. Looking about guiltily, as though certain they were observed, she lowered her hand. "I shouldn't have said that."
Perhaps not, for Sarna knew whose graces the brother--Naton--would want to stay in. She stared at the girl--young to be married off, though that would not matter for a house alliance, and what else would Naton use her for? Sarna's brow furrowed. There were rumors about the prince, that he sought to reclaim the kingship, and perhaps Naton hoped to become a higher-level sycophant.
"And Naton does not want you to learn more of drift and flow and essence? Because you will not need such skills as a sheltered princess?"
"Princess?" The girl snorted and stepped out from behind the tree. "I could live with that. No, the reason Naton doesn't want me to learn more is that then I might be able to stop the prince from taking my control. He wants to shape the flow of the world, and he thinks he can do it, if--"
"If he takes your essence first." Sarna's voice was quiet.
There were stories of such attempts, of course, and even one successful one, early in the days of the fallen kingdom, though only the record-keepers of the convent had access to the details. The prince must have dug deep to learn of it. However, how he came by the information wasn't as important as stopping him before he used it.
"You cannot hide from him forever."
"I don't need to. Just until First Meal. When midsummer's past, he must wait--and I think I will be too old for him to use next year."
Interesting. Sarna would have to see if she could verify this information with the record-keepers (who were, for good reason, reluctant to share such knowledge), but it sounded as though the prince needed a strong shaper who had not yet reached her menses--or, perhaps, a boy of similar power. Most such tended to go to convents early, and the prince would not raid those, not after his grandfather's mistake. If she could keep the girl safe for a few days more, all might be well.
She stood. "My name is Sarna."
They fell upon Sarna in the marketplace early in the afternoon, a dozen guards in sharleen and gold, white cords wrapped around their arms as wards. When the first blow struck her from behind, she twisted, striking out at her attacker. However, she saw their garb and recognized them as emissaries from the prince, or at least from Naton, doing the prince's will, and she dropped her arms to her side. No good would come of challenging them among the crowd, and the key shapers would call him to account soon enough.
With bowed head, Sarna let them escort her to the prince. He sat in a chair carved in the shape of a tree, branches spreading behind his head to give weight and presence to the slight man who ruled the city-state. Unlike his multi-hued sycophants, the prince dressed in somber black, and Sarna shivered at the way he set himself apart from the flow, a dark rock without light or color. Though she had seen him before during festivals, he always had some trace of color or emblem of the season about him. The lack of any such symbol now spoke of his decision to bend the flow to his will, using essence, rather than to follow the drift as he should.
Naton stood to the prince's left, not near enough to speak into his ear, but near enough to leave no doubt as to who had counseled the prince to bring her here. His mouth was set, stubborn and grim, as she had expected, but she did not waste much time considering him.
The prince spoke. "You seek to thwart me."
"Your Highness?" It was not a denial, although he might take it as such. Whatever he said, however, would be where all could hear.
"Do not play games with me. You are not even a shaper; you merely float and would have all do the same. You have no authority, even within your convent." He leaned forward in his chair. "Turn the girl over to me."
Sarna's mouth was dry, and she licked her lips before she answered. "I was not aware that she was your relative, Your Highness. You know we cannot release one in the convent to--"
The prince waved at Naton. "Her brother worries for her, and he has asked me to effect her release. It seems the shapers would not hear his petition."
No, she had seen to that, taking Reina before them to tell her tale. Even if the convent were to be burned down around them, they would not hand her over to the prince.
"I do not understand what you think I can do, Your Highness. Surely you know that I am bound to the shapers' will."
"You are the one who took her! I saw you in the garden. Have you forgotten?" Naton sneered at her.
The prince ignored Naton's outburst. "If you cannot return her here, you will be burned for heresy, your essence cast forth to the winds to be borne in every direction but home."
The formal wording, used since time immemorial, sounded in her ears, and Sarna's throat went even dryer. She couldn't swallow. It didn't matter whether the charge was true or not; he had the power to carry out the decree of death. She bowed her head. She would yet find a way out of this, and if she could not, it would be better for her essence to be scattered than to allow him to take Reina's. Now, however, was not the time to challenge him.
"You have until the sun sets," he told her. Then he glanced past her to the guards who had brought her in. "Take her to the convent. Be sure the shapers know that she must return."
Accompanied by the pair who had met her at the gate, Sarna entered the shapers' chamber, a warm place paneled in wood grains, with a creek that cut through one corner of the room. The shapers sat cross-legged on the floor, motionless and watching Reina focus on a potted orchid with a spray of purple flowers. Before her, an image of the plant glittered jewel-like and perfect. As Sarna knelt nearby, she noted the drift of a bee that circled the flowers.
Kala, the key shaper, said, "Now, can you match the colors to life?"
Reina frowned, and sweat trembled on her forehead. The colors faded to mere glossy green and velvet purple, rich with the details of life but not sparkling with essence. The bee, however, remained a drift of sparkling gold.
Reina's head slumped, and the orchid disappeared. "I can't."
Kala leaned over and touched her hand. "You did fine. One day, you will be able, as we are, to create an essence image that in every way seems as the thing itself. Rest now, while we talk with Sarna."
Reina nodded, but she still looked disappointed in herself. She moved to sit near the creek, where the flow would restore her essence, away from the shapers but near enough to hear what had happened. Sarna wondered whether the girl knew the prince had been responsible for Sarna's disappearance.
Taking a deep breath, Sarna gathered her thoughts. Her voice low, she said, "The prince demands that we turn Reina over to him. If we will not--and we must not, I know--he will burn me at dawn. His guards are waiting to take either her or me back to the prince by sunset."
"There can be no question," Kala replied. "I am sorry; your essence will be missed in the flow."
"No!" Reina said. "She can't die in my place."
"If he has you, if he takes your essence, your death will be but the first of many," Sarna said.
"Once you are dead, what's to stop him from coming after me here? He will just continue to get rid of everyone who stands in his way."
Sarna nodded. "He has decided he wants you, and he might forget himself enough to repeat his grandfather's mistake, which would bring death to many in the city besides. However, if we are careful, no one needs to die."
At sunset, the convent's doorkeeper opened the gate to allow Sarna to go with the guards. In addition to the white cords the prince had ordered, glittering onyx bands also circled her arms and hands, glinting in the last rays of the sun. When the guards would have grasped at her sleeves, she pulled back, and the doorkeeper yelled at them to allow her some dignity. Grumbling, they subsided and led her away, untouched except to steady her on uneven ground.
At the prince's home, Sarna was shown to a darkened room, stripped of anything within that might have essence she could call on. Ignoring her guards, she laid herself on the floor in the middle of the room. They may have watched her through the night, but she knew not. She waited for morning and the triumph of light once more.
Dawn came, pink and gray, full of the hope and promise of midsummer. The fast was not yet upon the city, but it approached, and everyone made their plans. Sarna stood in her cell, hands folded before her while the guards unlocked the door to lead her out to the marketplace.
No stalls had been set up this morning. The prince would have seen to that--no loss to him if the farmers didn't make their wage this day or if the baker had loaves on hand that needed to be thrown away when the fast came. Instead, a platform of dry gray wood, aged for years in the sun, stood upon stacked logs, their right angles hatching across the drift through the empty square, disrupting it and leaving the platform an isolated island untouched by the essence of the watching crowd.
Sarna stepped onto the platform unaided and bent to tie her own bonds to the grommets fixed on the corners of the platform. The murmurs from the onlookers washed over her as though she were not there, as did the taunts and insults of the guards.
The prince raised his left arm, and the crowd fell silent. He sat, black and brooding, in a palanquin carved to resemble the fallen palace in its glory. Naton stood chief among the courtiers and guards surrounding the prince, his dark eyes glaring at Sarna, blaming her for interfering with his advancement.
The prince's voice carried over the crowd. "Drifter Sarna, you stand on the platform of judgment, having been found guilty of heresy and bound by royal decree and convent hands. Have you anything to say in your defense?"
She shook her head and looked beyond him, to where the walls of the convent shone in the early light. Shapers and drifters and students stood on balconies, clad in mourning for the loss of her essence. On the middle balcony, Reina stood, anguish and strain written upon her face, despite Kala's calming hand upon her shoulder.
The prince brought his arm down, and guards lit the wood with torches at each corner. The kindling crackled with red and orange tongues that spread to either side as well as encroaching on the center. The onlookers backed away as the flames grew in ferocity, eating at all within their path with a hungry roar. Smoke rose in billows, but Sarna merely lifted her chin and did not cough.
Most watchers left long before the fire died. The blackened husk on the platform could yield no more entertainment. The prince motioned to his bearers to take him back to his home. As they turned the palanquin, his gaze raked across the convent and all who had gathered there, including the girl whom he still had less than a week to claim.
Reina stepped forward, closer to the balcony rail, her face as defiant as ever. A shaper let go of Reina's shoulder, hand dropping behind the girl's back. Without warning, the girl pitched over the balcony's edge into the walled courtyard below. The shaper stared at the prince as if to say that now he had no need to trouble the convent further, as indeed, any attempt at revenge would destroy him as they had his grandfather. No one moved against the convents. The message conveyed, the shaper turned and went inside.
When the prince had left, a fearful Naton trailing behind him, and the guards with him, a handful of drifters, still clad in green mourning robes that swirled as they walked, entered the courtyard and moved to the broken figure beneath the balcony. They knelt and draped a cloth over the body before working together to lift it and carry it inside.
"Do you really think someday I can create figures as lifelike as that?" the youngest asked.
"If Kala said it, it must be so," Sarna told her, "and now, you will have time to learn."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 5th, 2010

Author Comments

"Essence of Truth" was my first real attempt at writing a caper story--a story where a con takes place but all the clues are present in the story for the reader. Playing with showing enough of the magic and the world to keep it fair while also aiming for misdirection was a challenge, but one I enjoyed.

- Erin M. Hartshorn
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