Categories
Science Fiction

Child of Night

The day the world ended was the day Joseph’s life began.

The red light winked to life, bathing his room and entryway in its soft glow. Joseph blinked several times, his eyes struggling to adjust to the intrusion of even this, the most gentle of lights. While many of the Night Children complained about the red light, Joseph found himself at odds. For the red light signaled more than just the Day Children’s arrival with their offerings of food and drink. It signaled the promise of Amina.

Joseph stood, smoothing his shirt. Today; he was going to tell her today. He pressed his lips and swallowed hard. He could think of no reason why he should be nervous. Amina wouldn’t laugh or call him silly. Surely, she felt the same way.

The heavy metal door swung open, gliding across the concert floor. Just as softly, in stepped Amina, her skirt flowing about her legs in what Joseph liked to image the swells of water at the ocean’s edge looked like. She smiled at him and warmth rushed through his inner most core to the very tips of his fingers and toes.

“Hello, Amina.” He was smiling like a fool and knew it. Today, he didn’t care.

“Hello, Joseph.” She nodded her head in greeting, sitting down her offering on the table. The smell of fresh bread and strawberry jam wafted up; his favorite. “I hope your day has been well thus far.”

“It has.” He swallowed again, rubbing his hands on his pants. “I finished the book you loaned me.”

“Oh?…And what did you think?”

“I think the people of Earth were unusual creatures.”

“They…were a fanciful people,” she agreed, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

Joseph watched entranced by her movements, the line of her neck. “Amina-“

“Today is the big day, Joseph.”

He frowned. “Today?”

“Today,” she echoed. She took a slow, steadying breathe. “You can already see it happening Outside.”

Outside; the one place he had never been. He knew about it. He knew because of his books, his lessons, and from Day Children like Amina. But never had his feet crossed the threshold between his home and there. Night Children were not able tread in that place; not yet. Outside belonged to those such as Amina. The care of Outside was theirs to tend until the Day of the Sleeping Sun.

Today.

How it could be today? Yes, he knew it would come during his lifetime. It was why he had been born; why he was a Night Child. The Day of the Sleeping Sun was the day the Night Children would be able to walk openly in the Outside. But for the Day Children, for Amina, it would mean… He shook his head, cutting off the thought.

“Outside is yours now,” Amina said.

Joseph could only look at her. How could she even think that, say that? Did she really think that was what his thoughts would turn towards? That he could be so shallow, so narrow minded?

She turned to him and he couldn’t help but note how her arms wrapped around herself. “You get to leave the Underground today. It is a good day.”

“Not for the Day Children,” he said.

“We always knew this would come. It’s how it’s always been on this world since time began. Day Children keeping the Outside during the Long Day and the Night Children keeping all well during the Long Night. You know this. All the preparations have been made and all stands ready. Once you go Outside, you’ll see. I even brought goggles for you. The sun is still too bright yet…but in a couple hours.” She smiled, but Joesph thought he saw a strain at the edges. “You’ll see.”

“I love you,” he blurted.

Amina’s smile reversed into a pronounced frown. “What? No, Joseph. You can’t.”

“But I do.”

“You have been Awake for barely two weeks. That is hardly enough time to know what love is.”

He blinked. His mouth opened to protest;  to seek understanding, to reaffirm his devotion. All these things he wanted to say and more, but nothing came. The words were gone, unreachable and foreign; just like Outside.

“Joseph, come now. Eat your meal. There isn’t much time.” Amina motioned to the food. “You’re needed to help us to our Rest. Others have already begun.”

“You gave me your books.”

“I let you borrow my books.”

“You remember my favorite foods.”

“It’s the common meal.”

“But you do love me?”

“Joesph,” Amina shook her head, “Day Children and Night Children cannot be together. I cannot survive the darkness of the Night. Just as you cannot the survive the light of the Day. We live in two different worlds.”

He looked down at the floor.”We don’t know that. No one knows that.”

“You’ve avoided the history lessons?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement.

He rubbed his hands along his legs.

Amina looked at him, head tilted to the left. She shook her head, tsking softly behind her teeth. “We left the old Earth thousands of years ago. Those few who survived landed here. Turned Espera into our new home. Then they learned about the Long Day and the Long Night. How the moon and the sun exchange places, creating such extremes that the only chance to survive here was to become two different types of people.”

“Day Children and Night Children.”

She nodded. “And we trade places just like the sun and moon, always passing and never joining.”

“I love you.”

Amina sighed and looked away. “Eat your meal.” She placed a pair of goggles on the table. “I’ll wait Outside for you.”

She turned to go.

“No!” The thought of her going to into Rest was unacceptable. He could not let her go. He could not be parted from her. He would not. His hands grabbed at her shoulders, fingers digging into her flesh like hooks and pulling her back. He thought she cried out, but he could not hear it over the hammering of his own panic. He threw her bodily as far away from the door as possible. “You’ll stay here! I’ll take care of you and you’ll be just fine. You’ll be the one to see!” Though he knew he spoke the words, they sounded distant, like another’s voice.

“Joseph!”

He scrambled to the table, grasped the goggles, and flung himself out into Outside.

The light burned.

Joseph’s eyes watered and he shut them tight against the searing pain. Working through touch alone, he fumbled with the goggles, trying to put them on. Sounds and smells assaulted his  senses in an cacophony of stimulus. It was too much. It was too big. It was too overwhelming. If this was Outside, he wanted nothing to do with it. He turned to find a way back into his home.

“Joseph?” A familiar voice cut through the noise.

“Henry?”

“Here. Let me.”

Joseph felt Henry, a Night Child like himself, grab hold of the goggles and adjust them.

“There. You can open your eyes now.”

Joseph swallowed hard. He didn’t want to feel the pain again. But he couldn’t just stand here with his eyes closed either. Henry had not lied to him before. If Henry said it was okay and safe, then there must be some truth to it. Slowly, Joseph opened his eyes.

“Welcome to the Outside.”

Even with the dark lenses, it was still almost too bright for Joseph’s eyes. He blinked several times.

Slowly, his vision cleared. He saw Outside. It was huge.

His brain began matching images with names that he had learned in his lessons; rocks, grass, buildings, birds, clouds, and sun.

“Don’t look directly up,” Henry advised, “unless you wish to be well and truly blind. These goggles apparently aren’t light proof. Just enough to give our eyes protection while the transition takes place. From what I hear, this started some weeks ago. Today is the last of it, though. Darkness will overtake, and us Night Children will walk the Outside for the next hundred years or so.” He laughed, nodding his head. “Yes, indeed. All of this will be ours.”

“The Day Children?”

Henry shrugged, “Do their thing in their Rest like we did in ours, I guess. Come on,” he nodded away across an open expanse towards a squat building on the other side. “That’s where the Day Children will be staying and they need our help to tuck them in.”

It looked a long way and there was so little between here and there. “It won’t fall on us?”

“What won’t fall?”

Joseph pointed upward to the sky.

“Oh. No. The sky stays up there just like our ceilings. Had one of them tell me just to pretend it was a big, painted ceiling. It’s worked well enough so far.” Henry shrugged again and started off without a glance back.

Having no choice that he could see which did not involve him being alone, Joseph followed. He kept looking back to the door of his room, but Amina never showed. What had she said once? That it locked from Outside to prevent the Night Children from accidently entering the Day and being burned by the sun? Unless he or another opened the door, there was no way she would get out.

Amina could have her Rest there. He would take care of her. Bring her food and drink and more, just like she had done for him. She would not die. She would be fine and they could be together. He would love her and she would realize that not only did he speak truth to her, but that she loved him back. Joseph nodded to himself. Yes. That was how things would go and how they would be. Everything would be just fine.

All around, he saw Day Children converging on the building that he and Henry were headed towards. Some of them he knew, others not. Day Children of all ages, all moving to escape the Long Night through an artificial sleep known as cryosleep. For the next several hours, Joseph aided the Day Children, following the instructions in his books. Each one thanked him as they closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Through it all, his thoughts kept returning to Amina.

“Why can’t you stay awake during the Night?” he asked of one man.

“Why couldn’t you stay awake during the Day?” the man replied with a laugh, settling himself into the sleep pod.

“The sun would burn us. Make us to go blind. Our bodies cannot live under the Day.” Joesph attached the sticky pads to the man which would monitor his vitals. Lights on a nearby panel started to pulse, affirming everything was set in place.

“Exactly. And we cannot survive the lack of Day.” He clasped his hand on Joseph’s forearm, an blotch of inky darkness to the near translucence of his own skin. “So, thank you. Mine and all my fellow brothers’ and sisters’ lives are in your hands until the Day dawns again.” He smiled at Joseph, rested his hands across his chest, and closed his eyes.

The Day Children could not survive the lack of Day. Those words haunted him as did Amina’s stricken face. But it didn’t make sense. The Night would not burn her. It would not do any physical harm to her at all. Had she not spent hours with him in his home with only the faint red light to give her enough to see by? Never had she spoken of ill effects or shown any. There would be food and water for her. He had seen the crops on his way over here and heard a river in the distance.

With those things, she would surely be fine.

She would come to see that.

She would become the first Day Child to show that they could survive and stay awake during the Long Night.  It would be a new era for this world. An era where he and Amina would be together.

That first night, she cried. She was scared. “Please, Joseph,” she whimpered, “I know you don’t think you’re doing wrong. But you’re killing me. Please. I need to enter the Rest.”

He merely shook his head. “Trust me, Amina. All will be well.”

The next day he brought her her books to read.

She refused to look at him.

Joseph comforted himself with the knowledge that this was all only passing. She would not avoid him like this forever. It was her fear that made her hostile and harsh against him. Once she saw that she would be fine, she would look and speak with him again.

In the meantime, he explored Outside. It was proving to be a place of wonder. Every day, Joseph and the other Night Children expanded and learned more and more about the world they had inherited from the Day Children and what was required of them to sustain that life. Joseph found that he particularly enjoyed working in the fields among the plants. Three quarters of the fields were thriving, their plants growing strong and well in the darkness which continued to grow as the moon finalized its replacement of the sun.

It was the remaining quarter that had him concerned. The plants there were starting to wilt and die. No matter how much he tended to them, how much water he gave them, how he moved and arranged them, they continued to grow increasingly weak and sick.

How like Amina who now never left the bed and barely touched the food he brought her.

Joseph knelt at the base of one of the sick plants. His fingers ran through the rich dirt. “I don’t understand. Why are you dying?”

“Lack of sun,” Henry’s voice answered him from behind.

Joseph turned and looked up.

Henry knelt beside him. “This plant? It’s a Day plant. Needs the sun to live. No sun, no life. Simple, see?”

“No. Why does it need the sun?”

The other man shrugged. “Just what the books say. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to get them to live.”

“There’s nothing that can be done?”

“Not that I know of. Seems to be the way of this divided world. Day or Night. Sun or moon. If you’re born under one, you can’t live under the other. Shame though.” Henry ran his hands over the delicate stalks. “Would have liked to really see this one. Pictures of it are so pretty.”

Like Amina was pretty.

Like Amina was dying.

Joseph swallowed, head bowed. He loved Amina. He couldn’t just let her leave and go to her Rest. He’d never see her, hear her, share with her again. He didn’t know if he could stand that. But by keeping her, he was killing her.

Either way, he lost her. The only question was how he was going to lose her.

“I have to go,” he said, standing.

“Sure. See you at dinner?”

Joseph nodded. His steps took him without having to look to his old home.

Amina was lying on the bed, curled into a tight ball. The food from yesterday still untouched. The books he had left her still right where he had left them. Not even a rumple of the sheet was different from when he had last come.

“Amina?” he asked.

If she heard him, she gave no acknowledgment.

“Amina!” he rushed across the space, nearly tripping over a chair in his haste. He threw himself beside her, hands seeking her skin, her pulse. “Amina!”

Her eyes blinked open, red rimmed from crying.

“Amina…I am….I love you.”

Her eyes looked at him for a moment, before sliding away to focus on some distant point beyond his shoulder.

“Amina.”

Silence answered him.

“I’m sorry. I…I can’t lose you. I can’t…I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. His head dropped limp, brushing his cheek against hers. Her breathe was faint, soft. He could hardly feel it.

He thought of the Day Child man. He thought of the Day plant. He thought of Amina.

He thought of himself. Alone and unloved in this strange Outside.

Was it better to be alone and unloved because Amina was safe in her Rest or because she had died in this room for lack of the sun?

Joseph sat there as the seconds slipped by one by one; unmarked and unheeded.

He heard himself say eventually, much to his own surprise, “I will take you to your Rest, Amina.”

She looked at him. Her lips pressed together and parted as if she wanted to speak. In the end, she only gave a small nod.

He picked her up, marveling at how light she was in his arms; no more than a heavy blanket. The journey to the Rest Hall as it was now named was swift and one in which he would later only remember her eyes, bright with unnamed emotions he couldn’t understand.

He found an empty pod for her and gently deposited her within. Joseph was quick to attach everything she would need for her Rest, hands moving almost of their own accord.

It was time.

All that was left was to touch the final button. The pod would close and Amina would enter her Rest which take her all the way through the long Night only to awaken again as Day dawned, years after his death, once more.

“I am sorry, Amina. I love you. Believe me, I do.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek.

As he moved to pull away, she whispered, “I know. Thank you.”

Joseph almost faltered in his resolve. He almost undid the wires. Almost picked her back up to take her back to the room. Almost.

Instead, Joseph pressed the button, watched the pod close, and bore witness as Amina, the last Day Child, drifted into dreamless slumber. He didn’t know what would become of himself in the time to come, but he would face the future and figure it out a day at a time.

Categories
Fantasy

Sage’s Choice

Sebastian leaned back in the chair and threw his legs upon the corner the solid oak desk. Gray eyes watched his friend pace and fidget, worrying the hem of his jacket and the collar of his shirt. “And this is why I’m glad I’m not you.”

“How kind.” The answering voice was dry and devoid of any and all humor.

A faint smile pulled the corners of his lips up. “I know.”

His friend, best friend, the Crowned Prince Gilleon Marlus Harthian of the Emerald Highlands, paused before the full length mirror in the room, feet spread apart. He leaned forward, fingers fumbling with the mound of fabric and the emerald stick pin at his neck. “Damn collar. I can’t get it to sit right.”

“Relax. It’s not like anything important is going to be happening in the next hour.”

As the old saying went, if looks could kill, Sebastian was certain that he would be beyond the realm of the dead right now.

“If you wanted someone to whisper sweet platitudes and fret with you, you should have asked someone else like Harry to be here.”

The roles reversed as Gilleon smirked at him in the mirror’s reflection. “I know. It was highly encouraged in fact.”

“Of that, I have little doubt. I can hear your mother now. Why don’t you pick Harry to be your Oath Keeper? He’s a good, stable boy.”

“Would she have been wrong?”

Sebastian flashed a lupine smile, eyes glinting. “Of course not. If there is one thing your gentle mother is, it is that she’s always right.” He steepled his fingers before his face, “Honestly though, I am glad I’m not you.”

Gilleon gave up on his collar, pulling instead on the bottom his jacket. “With privilege comes responsibility.” The words sounded old, route, long since drilled by countless mentors, headmasters, and tutors. At what point did words lose their meaning? When did they become nothing more than pointless touchstones, used not for their message or wisdom, but to steel the nerve as chants did a warrior before battle?

“And apparently the lack of ability to chose one’s own wife.”

“The Tests will ensure a proper match is made. I have been Tested and I have no doubt that Freesia Tested all the others thoroughly as well.”

Sebastian noted fingers dance along the jacket, smoothing non-existent wrinkles. “Are you saying that convince me or yourself?”

Gilleon’s answer came as a raised eyebrow and frown.

He had overstepped his bounds. If the reprimand bothered him, it never crossed the lines of his face. He sat up and pushed himself smoothly to his feet.

“Remember, you are the one who asked me to be here this day.” Sebastian made short work of the distance between him and a small serving table with wine and refreshments. He poured a glass and handed it to Gilleon. “I am but a minor noble in your father’s court.”

“Hardly minor. Your family stewards nearly a fifth of the land.” Gilleon took a long drink, nearly draining the cup, before handing it back.

“As exciting as that sounds,” Sebastian conceded, taking the glass to refill it again, “I’m still dismissed by practically everyone in court.” He poured a second glass for himself.

“That might change if you followed the rules every once in awhile.”

“But where’s the fun in that?”

“Where indeed?”

The two friends smiled at each other over the rims of their drinks.

“What if I don’t like her?” Gilleon blurted.

“That afraid you’ll end up with the fair lady Tylinda?” Sebastian teased, “But everyone has been Tested, correct? And Testing is supposed to ensure a most noble, worthy, and blessed matching. Besides, it’s a beautiful day. Surely that in itself must be a good omen. Or do you not trust our wise King’s Sage?”

Gilleon’s face drained to a blank mask. He let the silence speak the words he could not.

Sebastian nodded in sympathetic understanding. To be so trapped by one’s station and at the mercy of other’s choices was nigh intolerable. A gilded cage, no matter how comfortable, was still a cage.

He gripped his friend’s shoulder, gray eyes serious, “For all his faults, the Sage knows people. He also knows that his life and position depends upon our nation’s prosperity and your future happiness. I may have no faith in his Tests and riddles and rhythms, but I do have faith in his self-interest to keep his comfy life. I think it’s safe to say you’ll be safe from the, how should we say, tender cares of Tylinda.”

A rare true smile graced Gilleon’s face, lighting his features. “And this is why you are here and not Harry.” He gripped Sebastian’s forearms tightly, almost to the point of bruising. He clung like a man desperate not to drown.

Perhaps he was.

Sebastian barked out a short laugh. He may indeed be nothing more than a minor lord in the court, and one of disrepute, but he and he alone held the keys to Gilleon’s friendship and trust. Would they have allowed him to be the whipping boy all those years ago if they had known the bond of friendship that would emerge?

Sebastian doubted it. The fourth son in his family, he had been meant to be a throwaway child; one son to inherent, one to war, one to scholar. That was all that was needed in a lord’s home. So what was left to a lad of birth too noble for less but too low to be more?

Whipping boy to the prince was the suitable answer.

“It will be okay, Gilleon.”

Gilleon’s eyebrows furrowed. “What did you do?”

Sebastian brought a finger to his lips.

“Sebastian.”

He was saved from having to answer by the steward’s arrival. The Ceremony of Handfasting was about to start. It was time for Gilleon to meet his future queen.

The ceremony was long and vapid just like every ceremony that had ever been before it and every one that would ever come after it. Freesia, the King’s Sage, droned on and on about the wisdom of the gods, purposes of the Tests, and how glorious was the prepared match for the kingdom and the Crowned Prince. Dull, dull, dull.

The most interesting part of the whole thing was watching Gilleon as he tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to determine Sebastian’s secret. Every time, he merely redirected his prince back to the event, giving him nothing more than a smile. That at least was amusing.

Hours later, the pinnacle of the Ceremony had come. It was time to announce the Crowned Princess to be. All the Ladies that been Tested began to preen, clasp hands, smooth gowns, and let forth sighs enough to be audible in the large hall. Every one certain that she would be the one selected. They eyed Gilleon like a rancher eyed his cattle. It disgusted Sebastian.

Freesia picked up an ornate scroll and held it aloft. Upon that scroll was the name of the chosen lady. All attention was dutifully focused upon it. A mouse scurrying at the far end of the hall would have been heard it was that quiet. No one wanted to miss the next words spoken. The future and fate of the kingdom rested upon those words.

Sebastian reached forward and discreetly grasped Gilleon’s elbow. Tenison was so high, his arm nearly trembled with it.

“The gods have guided and the Tests have confirmed,” Freesia intoned, “she who will be Crowned Prince Gilleon’s wife and our next Crowned Princess is known as…Lady -” This close Sebastian had a front row seat to the confusion that swept across the King’s Sage’s face and the falter in his voice. “Lady Analyn.”

To a one, the whole hall erupted in confused mummers. The Princess’ least Handmaiden raised her head in shock upon hearing her name. Gilleon’s eyes locked with hers.

She had never been Tested.

Sebastian leaned forward. “I told you not the worry.”

Slowly, Gilleon turned to look at him.

He grinned at his best friend. “Sometimes you just don’t need some stuffy Test to know a good and proper match. I have no faith in the King’s Sage to realize that. But the Prince’s Sage…Now that’s someone I’d trust.”

“Sebastian,” Gilleon hissed.

“You’re welcome. Now go and meet your bride. She’s waiting.” With a gentle push, Sebastian encouraged Gilleon onward towards the only woman he’d ever taken a fancy and a liking to.

Gilleon would no doubt chew him out later for messing with the Tests, the Ceremony, and practically the whole future of the kingdom. But that was fine by him. As long as his prince was happy and his needs were met, that was all that mattered. Seeing the pure joy on Gilleon’s face as he clasped hands with his lady made everything he had risked to change that damned scroll worth it.

Anything for his prince. Anything at all.