M.L. Buchman started the first of over 50 novels and an equal number of short stories while flying from South Korea to ride his bicycle across the Australian Outback. All part of a solo around the world trip that ultimately launched his writing career. Booklist has selected his military and firefighter series as 3-time “Top 10 Romance of the Year.” NPR and Barnes & Noble have named other titles “Top 5 Romance of the Year.” In 2016 he was a finalist for RWA's RITA award. He also writes: contemporary romance, thrillers, and, in this case, fantasy. More info at: www.mlbuchman.com.
THE FIVE CHOICES
by M.L. Buchman
Hartane the Younger hurried along the narrow cobbled streets, dodging around the droppings of burden beasts and a small pack of children deeply involved in a game of Evade that stormed up and down the street threatening trade and unwary pedestrians alike. Once clear of the mayhem, he crossed the street under the nose of a prancer awaiting its rider, and climbed the six stone steps worn into soft curves by the generations that had climbed before him.
He squinted his eyes to block his fuzzy reflection in the mirrored front door of the Cantel Kingdom’s Lifemark Shop—not that there was anything wrong with the mirror, he just knew that “fuzzy” was how everyone saw him. Not furry, but ill-defined like the blue, river clay molded by a child rather than shaped by a master potter.
But not after today. His twenty-third year began today. He’d at long last reached his majority, and choosing his Lifemark today—the one special power that would lead him forward—would surely snap his life into sharp focus.
It just had to.
Sweat stung his eyes and his hand was shaking as he grabbed the cool brass doorknob—the only one he’d ever seen, perhaps the only one in the whole kingdom. Hartane had asked three separate people who had gone before how to operate it so that he didn’t end up the fool trying to lift or push or slide. Grasp firmly and turn was the trick.
It squealed as he did so, a high-thin sound not unlike when he’d slipped a slimy, hand-long, densel slug down the back of his little sister’s frock for teasing him until he…well, slipped a slimy densel slug down her frock. The sister-like squeal of the brass was the only sound he heard over the blood pounding in his ears. The rumble of the heavy carts and brutish six-legged burden beasts jarring over the cobbles, mere steps behind him, might as well have been off in some remote village far away from the great capital city.
He truly couldn’t hear them.
Hartane actually turned to observe the carts to make sure that they still moved, and though he could see the dust they raised and the beasts’ weary manner, his racing heart was the only thing he could hear. His own fear-sweat was all that he could smell.
Curious, he took the single step from the stoop of the shop back onto the cobbled street. The world slammed back to life about him. The dried dung, both deposited and powdered by the successive burden beasts tickled his nose until he sneezed. The clatter of ironwood wheels over hard stone was such a surprise he had to cover his ears at the suddenness of it. He backed up onto the stoop—and once again there was silence.
Now he was no longer sure that he was ready for this moment to be so momentous, for a single choice to shape his entire life.
He faced himself once more in the mirrored door.
“Pull yourself together, Hartane,” he told his fuzzy reflection and could hear his father’s inevitable words. “…or you’ll end up as no more than a burden-beast driver until the end of your days.”
“Pull yourself together, Younger,” Hartane the Elder never called him by his given name. “You’ll be a man someday, though the Great Queen alone knows how.”
The mirror reflected his own gray eyes, wide with nervousness, blinking like a nightbird spooked from its nest in the midday sun. But the mirror reflected none of the world behind him. In this place, only he existed.
Hartane did his best to square his shoulders, though his reflection was unimpressed by the efforts on his gangly frame. He pushed open the door. Now that he was twenty-three, he could come as many times over the next cycle of seasons as he wished before choosing his Lifemark. However, he knew he would receive more of his father’s heavy judgments if he did not choose soon and wisely. Delaying the matter while he carefully considered the options was not an option.
He pushed open the heavy door and stepped into his future as boldly as he dared.
Again, he had asked many what to expect within. The shop both matched and didn’t match the image he had built in his head.
Damal waved from behind a wooden counter that filled half of the small entryway. They barely knew one another. Growing up in his family’s university housing, Hartane had little to do with the tradesmen of the village.
“You have your letters, boy?” Damal’s tone was like Hartane the Elder’s, filled with doubt that he, the Younger, could have possibly achieved literacy. Which explained Damal’s role here: to help those who didn’t have their letters. When Hartane nodded his assent, Damal lost all interest in him.
Hartane had learned to read by the time he could walk. Had read widely in the Great Library of the Blessed Aramala. It required only a child’s skill to read the simple words burned into the polished brightwood placard above Damal’s counter.
Hartane sent a brief prayer for wisdom to the Goddess. It sounded more like him begging to not make a mess of his choice, but it was the best he could manage.
Holding his breath, he finally turned to face the main room of the shop. It had lurked there, out of the corner of his eye, but he had not wanted to turn and gawk like some tweenling. Old Vanek, his tutor, had told him to read the sign carefully when he entered and consider it thoroughly before proceeding.
“No need to know what it says before you are ready,” the old scholar had insisted. “But do not go quickly by.” Vanek had guided much of Hartane’s exploration of the library, so he had tried to let the ancient’s wisdom guide him in this as well.
Old Vanek had never told him what Lifemark he had chosen for himself. “I shall not influence your thinking in these matters.”
Hartane desperately wished he knew, but not even on Vanek’s deathbed would he say.
He tried to honor Vanek’s instructions and read the sign one more time, but he couldn’t force himself to turn away. The shop! It was magnificent.
Light shone down through clever windows in the ceiling, reflecting off white-mudded walls.
The room was completely filled with shelves. From knee to eye-level, tiers of brightwood lined the walls. Down the middle stood even more rows. Rare brightwood, so precious that he had seen it but a few times in his life, was everywhere. The luster that glowed from within warmed the shop and scented it with memories of the air as clear as the high mountains on which it grew—he had to trust Mendal’s word for that. He alone of all the people Hartane knew had traveled to the mountains for the hundred-year harvest.
Upon each shelf were long lines of baskets woven of simple wicketweed. The juxtaposition of the valuable and the mundane spoke that neither of those were what was important here. It was the contents of the baskets: small vials that would define a future. And beside each basket rested a far smaller basket filled with colored strips of paper.
Though the shelves were separated into sections around the shop, the array was still bewildering.
Each of the five major sections were broken down into subsection rows. It was as familiar as the library and as foreign as his father’s office that held very few texts and much equipment.
By chance, the first basket he focused upon must be the one his father had chosen. Hartane the Elder trained others in the advanced design of mechanical tools: force and its application were his father’s great knowledge.
Hartane the Younger knew the expectation. Knew that his father would bend him to be an apprentice and had trained him all his days to that purpose. Even reviving the arcane custom of naming your offspring after yourself; Hartane the Younger was perhaps alone in his generation to bear such a burden.
Instead of instantly doing as his father would want, he turned and faced…the Warrior’s collection.
It was a small act of defiance, one he knew he would not sustain but he felt lighter for it nonetheless.
Though he had turned from the Teaching of Skills category of baskets, he knew that was where he would end up after investigating all of the others. Still, it was his one chance for a view of other possible lives within the community and he was going to make the most of it.
He knew he was no warrior, but it was the furthest choice he could imagine from his fathers’ world. Rather than simply moving on, he selected the small strip of red paper from the tiny basket beside vials of the Spearman’s Lifemark.
He slipped it into his mouth and let it dissolve on his tongue. There was a bitterness of unboiled tankar sprout and the sweetness of redberry. And for five long heartbeats he felt the power surge through him as if he stood far broader than he did. The enemy lay below and they would rue this day. And though his comrades-in-arms or even he himself might fall, the victory would be sweet.
On the sixth heartbeat the sample released him. Hartane looked down to make sure he was unchanged. Still slender and over-tall. Still awkward. Definitely not a good fit.
He looked to the next basket out of the hundreds that ranged down the shelves. There was only one way to be sure, but it was going to be a very long day trying every option in the vast shop.
He took the slip of paper for a Tunneler and laid the cool earth-tasting strip upon his tongue.
Rania had entered the shop many times in the past, even though it was forbidden. This time felt no different except she used the front entrance rather than the back.
The mirror didn’t reflect the carriage her father had sent her in, as if she was too frail to walk from the palace. It reflected only the face she washed each morning. Yet in this mirror it was changed somehow though she could not discern exactly how.
Her bright hair was tied back with a thin strap of Royal’s-only blue tak-tak hide that matched her eyes. Her face was clear of blemish. Still…she was somehow different in this reflection.
With a shrug she turned the knob, so strange against the palm of her hand as if it too was changed. Or perhaps it merely was testing that her maturity had been reached. She breezed into the shop because this was her valid majority day. Not that it really mattered. Princess following in parent’s footsteps to a throne she wasn’t interested in, her life in a nittle shell. Besides, the king and queen were so healthy they’d probably live a hundred-year. If they did, she’d be too old, and her offspring—required in the next five years or else—would take the seat in her place.
Damal greeted her with a knowing smile that she ignored and brushed by him into the shop. No more need to tolerate his oaf-clumsy hands or rancid, fried-streamslipper breath overly hot upon her bare neck. He had served his purpose these last nights, letting her see the choices before her time.
Not that it mattered. She was half tempted to select Entertainer of Men simply to send the Great Queen into another of her spells; Mama had been breathing down her neck for months about this.
And then she spotted Hartane the Younger among the baskets.
She hadn’t known they shared a birth date. Rania sampled a creamy strip of Clothier while she watched him move from the martial arts to the building trade. His clothing was barely presentable, though before her sixth heartbeat she could see how a few adjustments might bring out the man in the boy’s clothing.
When the sample faded, so did the idea of how to fix him up, but not the memory that it was possible.
She’d roamed these aisles a dozen times, once she’d freed herself from Damal’s overeager gropings, but no fate had suited her. Who needed a future Queen who could fish, understand the laws of numbers, or heal the injured?
Yet as she wandered this time, she could not help noting that Hartane the Younger was doing something other than mere sampling. He moved methodically from basket to basket, trying every one.
She watched him through grimaces, sweating, wide-eyed horror, and an odd fit of laughter that had him shaking his head for several moments after the effect of the sample wore off. Every now and then he would make a small note on a coil of paper.
“What are you doing there?”
His marker and paper coil sprang aloft from his fingers, but his hands were quick enough that he recovered the paper mid-air. The marker landed in a basket of Animal Healer vials. He retrieved it before turning back to his notes.
“Sorry, you startled me.”
“Answer the question.”
Hartane had not previously considered the possibilities of working with animals: handling, healing, or husbandry, and wished a moment to consider the implications though none of the three had tasted properly on his tongue. He knew that wasn’t an essential element, but it was, he hoped, a strong indicator of being on the right path or not.
The Trainer of Kattines had left him laughing, as if herding such animals was even desirable, never mind possible. He couldn’t imagine a single kattine, lying asleep in the sun, would have the least interest in being herded.
He turned to the woman beside him and this time lost both his marker and paper coil to the floor. Bending down to retrieve them, he banged his elbow on a shelf setting off a thousand vials rattling together like his nerves.
He held his elbow as well as the unintended bow as he mumbled out, “My lady.”
“Hartane,” she huffed out her exasperation. “Stop that.”
“As you wish,” he rose slowly, so that he didn’t catch his elbow on the way up. Then had to bend back down to retrieve his marker and paper, like a popping-toy being pressed down and springing back up.
Toymaker, he hadn’t thought of that possibility. Would that be in the Practical category or the Community one?
“What are you doing?”
He thought it was a little obvious, even for the Princess. He considered a pedantic reply such as, “Picking my Lifemark.” But instead he began babbling: much more his normal form.
“I’m sampling all the possibilities and noting compatibility trends based on sample color, temperament of resulting Lifemark alignment with my own natural taste profiles and….” He squinted at the Princess. “Why are you smiling?” He inspected his clothes, but they appeared clean and tidy.
He looked back up at her. He’d never stood so close to royalty, and definitely not to the Princess, the one True Heir. Her perfection was quite breathtaking and made it very difficult to see past it to who she was.
That was his mother’s skill. She could see the good in anyone and help them find it. A Mind Healer. He had tried to learn what he could from her, but that was so incompatible with his mental predispositions and Hartane the Elder’s training that it rarely availed him any results. He’d spotted the Lifemark in the Universal section but the sample had tasted of nothing and he’d only felt disgust at what he’d sensed from Damal the clerk—a desperate neediness to make himself feel superior to others, especially to those he knew he wasn’t.
Hartane tried to see past the Princess’ pampered skin, the golden fall of hair, and the bodice unlaced just the right amount to make the most of showing off her slender form. She was beauty. She would have power. Yet he could see….
“You are laughing at me, yet you are unhappy.”
Rania spun on her heel and stalked away.
Damal was smirking at her from a distance. Fine. She grabbed a vial of Entertainer of Men, but a hand rested lightly on her arm to stop her.
“What?” she ground out to Hartane the Younger, who had followed her and touched her without permission. She didn’t turn to face him, which left her glaring at Damal as he made a point of looking her up and down. Of course he would know the arrangement of the baskets and exactly what vial she had grabbed. Even as an Entertainer of Men she would never, ever give herself to him again. Not even for the mere kisses she had previously allowed.
“Do not choose in anger, Princess. Choose carefully. The sign says so.”
“And you always do what signs say?” She turned her back on Damal. She pulled off the strip of blue tak-tak hide so that her long hair spread and hid her bare shoulders from him.
Hartane shrugged uncomfortably.
“So, what would you choose?”
“I have yet to sample all that is possible.”
“I would not choose that which my lady presently holds even if I were a woman.”
Rania looked at the thin vial filled with viscous red fluid, that moved slowly as if it had no life. He would not choose it? Well, neither would she.
She returned it to its basket, resisting the urge to slip it into the True Love one that was close by.
Metna the baker’s son came in, greeted Damal, and, joking together in the way she’d heard tradesmen do, they headed down the aisle discussing what choice Metna should make: his mother was a chef, his sister made the best sweetgoods, perhaps Hunter of Animals for their table.
“If you are so wise, Hartane the Younger, choose for me then,” Rania told him.
“I could not!” Hartane’s protest was one of abject horror.
“And why not? You have clearly given much thought to this. More than I,” she didn’t enjoy admitting. To take the bite out of her next words, she smiled upon him and liked the feeling of it. “Choose, I command it.”
“You might as well command the stars, Princess.” Hartane shook his head. “How could I choose but a single strength for our future Queen? She must have wisdom and heart and fairness. A keen sense of consequence. And—” he was rambling again. “Sorry Princess,” he took a deep breath before starting again. “Your beauty will make people listen. Your power will gain respect. But as the sign says, balance is what will make you beloved.”
“What is this sign you constantly speak of?”
Hartane laughed in surprise, but the consequential scowl no longer scared him. The Princess saw none of the possibility of her future. None of the importance.
He offered his arm and escorted her back to the entryway until they stood once more before the sign. He could hear Damal make some insulting joke about his manners, but with Princess Rania’s hand resting lightly in the crook of his elbow, he was above such noise.
“Life is balance, my lady. The Great Queen and her consort, your father, bring that balance. Some day it will be yours to bring as well.”
She stared up at the sign for a long time and Hartane waited.
It was long enough that he could feel his “Younger” nerves struggle to resurface as if drowning in the great river. But this time he would not descend into those dark waters; he had a Princess on his arm. Even if only for this one moment, he was at her side.
Her voice was soft when she turned to look at him. So close that he could see the details of her irises as clearly as one of Elder’s gear-driven pumps. “And what would you choose for yourself, Hartane?”
“I have not completed my study yet, Princess,” he held up his coil of paper as if to prove his point.
“Okay. Let me try to ask you in your language.”
“I have a language?”
“Shush,” her breath was warm upon his cheek they were so close. She was tall, as tall as he was. For reasons he could not explain, he liked that and wondered why he hadn’t noticed it earlier.
“If it is wrong for me to choose any single Lifemark—”
“It is. You mustn’t…” Her elegant arching of her eyebrow said that she too had a language. He clenched his jaw against further speech.
“If it is wrong for me to choose any single Lifemark, why would you choose to so limit yourself?”
“It isn’t a limit. It’s a….” But was it?
In his mind, a chasm opened before Hartane’s feet right there in the entryway of the Lifemark Shop.
To one side stood all of his years of study, building up to this moment, this choice.
On the other stood…what? Suncycle after suncycle of striving to be like his father? Ever seeking Elder’s approval, knowing it would never come? Or—choosing a different future.
He looked over Princess Rania’s shoulder at the five signs marking the five areas of the Lifemark Shop.
“What if,” it seemed a sacrilegious thought, “what if there is a sixth category?”
The Princess turned to follow his gaze, “I see no gap. No sixth sign.”
She squinted those lovely eyes at him as if he’d lost his mind.
Perhaps he had.
Still she waited.
Laughter once again rippled back and forth between the counter attendant and his friend and Hartane could feel it take root inside him, for entirely different reasons. Laughter. Not the dutiful laughter at one of Elder’s carefully planned jokes. Nor the laughter that comes from slipping a densel slug down your sister’s frock. No, it was the laughter that started in the heart and welled upward, that sped up his pulse and made him dare smile upon the great beauty and future power before him.
“I shall not influence your thinking in these matters,” he repeated old Vanek’s oft-spoken phrase to the Princess.
“Then what are you doing, speaking of six categories when none are to be seen?”
“It is a message from an old friend. Come, Princess,” he offered her his arm once more. When she took it, he began leading her toward the door.
“But—” she tugged back lightly and pointed toward the arrayed vials.
“The sixth choice, my Princess, is to make no choice at all. Life is balance exactly as the sign says. By selecting a Lifemark, we become very powerful in a single area. By selecting none, the few who understand and dare to follow that last instruction know that only as ourselves can we truly find that balance.”
At the threshold, with the door still open behind them, standing on the isolation of the front stoop, the Princess looked at him and whispered little louder than the beating of his own heart in his ears.
“Perhaps, Hartane the Wise, you should begin to call me Rania.”
Together they stepped from the Lifemark Shop and the door swung closed behind them. Off the stoop, the world came to life and wrapped about them with open arms.
Copyright © 2017 by M.L. Buchman.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor