Emilyn sat on the wooden bench, gazing into the depths of the pond. The sun glinted off the scales of the koi fish as they swam in lazy circles. Wisps of her shoulder-length brown hair drifted in front of her eyes in the cool breeze, but she stared right past them. She had no idea how long she had sat there, trying to memorize the peaceful garden scene that surrounded her. Though the silky fabric of her yukata was already free of folds, her slender fingers continued to smooth the skirt against her thigh. She traced circles on the cloth. Circles were supposed to be the essence of calm and wisdom, according to the Mahru. That's why all but the main streets radiated outwards from the Palace like ripples in the pond and how the City of Circles earned its name.
The wind stirred the branches of the cherry trees. The circles she traced on her thigh were doing nothing to settle her whirling thoughts. She only had one cycle left before her fifteenth birthday. Only seven days before this beautiful sight would be lost to her.
The day she turned fifteen she would be blinded. Acid would be dripped into her eyes, turning them pearly white. It was supposed to be a rite of passage, the transformation from child to adult. It was supposed to symbolize a person's complete faith in the Gods. The ceremony showed that they were willing to give up their vision to let the Gods guide them and give them True Sight. It was the final step in the development of a person's Mantra; a form of divine guidance that would become the person's eyes once theirs were blinded. After the ceremony, the person would be able to see far better than they had on their own. Some people even said that their Mantra allowed them to see the patterns on a leaf from twenty feet away. Everyone who had been granted True Sight raved about it. There was always someone watching over them, keeping them safe. There was only one problem; the Gods hadn't come to Emi yet.
The signs began to show when a child turned ten; a feeling of lightness, divine voices and enhanced vision. So far, the only voices in Emilyn's head were her own, asking over and over what have I done wrong?
A man walking along the path turned and glanced at Emilyn, then looked away. There were few people who would make eye contact with her, the girl who had witnessed death. Most of the servants at the palace avoided Emilyn like the plague-- her and the blind boy in the stables. Emilyn had heard rumours about him. He was sixteen now, apparently, and his Mantra still had not surfaced. She hadn't wanted visit the stables and find out for herself. Death was supposed to be a holy thing that symbolized the ascent of the deceased’s Mantra back into the sky. It was not supposed to be dirtied by human sight. Only those who had been granted True Sight could be in the presence of the dying. Some people said that a child who witnessed death with their own eyes would be punished by the Gods, cursed with a lifetime of impurity without a Mantra.
Emilyn could still remember the day her brother died. She'd be able to see the scene play out even after she was blinded. She had been only six years old, and Kato had been only three. Their nanny had watched them as they collected fallen cherry blossoms to toss into the pond. Suddenly Kato stood up. His leg began to twitch. The seizure lasted for two minutes, and then it was all over.
Her mother said Emilyn had never been the same since. Emi didn't speak for two months after her brother's death, and even now her words were as sparse as coins in a poor man's pocket. She no longer danced down the garden paths, singing songs to which she only knew half the lyrics and making up the rest as she went along. Her father still blamed her for not saving his precious son. Emilyn blamed herself, too.
The gong signalling that it was time for dinner saved her from the whirlpool of her thoughts. She must have been sitting there for hours; mid meal had come and gone without her noticing. Her stomach growled louder than the palace guard dogs.
The walk through the palace gardens to her family's rooms took longer than it should have because her knees ached. They hadn't liked sitting still for so long. Outside the little bubble of calm that surrounded the pond, the palace was crowded. Boys and girls who studied under the watchful eye of the Mahru were rushing off to supper after class. The Mahru themselves who had been off doing errands or gathered at the Temple for prayer ambled to their dining hall.
Emilyn's father, being the member of the God's Council in charge of law and order, had his own rooms in the palace in which he and his family stayed. The entrance was a set of double doors off the covered walkway that encircled the palace gardens.
Already she was late; her mother would not be pleased. She fumbled for the key in the pocket under the sash at the small of her back. As soon as she pushed the door open, her mother called out.
“Emilyn, there you are. Quick, go wash up. Dinner's already on the table!” Emi's mother, Leisha, was one of the few who still cooked their own meals, despite the team of cooks who were assigned to do it for her. The kitchen was the servants' place, the cooks said. Her mother paid no heed to the knives in their eyes and hands as they tried to lay claim to their territory.
Emilyn turned the tap on and scrubbed the grime out from under her fingernails. Her family was lucky they had running water to wash with. A pipe ran up through the wall and onto the roof, where it was connected to a bucket that collected rainwater. Once it was used, the water ran into another bucket under the sink basin that had to be emptied by a servant a few times a day. It hadn't rained in a while, so the water running from the tap was little more than a drip.
Emilyn used the last of the water to wipe her face. Her brown eyes gazed back at her as she studied her reflection in the mirror. A dusting of freckles was the only mark on her honey-coloured skin. Her dark brown hair was a tangled mess.
“Come along, Emilyn! The rice is getting cold!” She didn't have time to brush it now. Everyone had already taken a seat on the pillows that surrounded the low table.
“Finally Emi! I'm starved!” Her younger sister, Willow, bounced in her chair. Her father gave the little girl a stern glance and she stopped, meekly asking for him to pass the rice.
Emilyn spooned some stir-fried vegetables on top of her rice, then passed the bowl to her sister. She picked up her chopsticks and began to eat, one wilted leaf of bok choy or mouthful of rice at a time. Maybe if she ate slowly, keeping her mouth full until the end of the meal, her father wouldn't bother her.
No such luck. “Any progress today, Emilyn?” her father's fingers were laced into a steeple, his food untouched. He had asked that question everyday for what seemed like forever, though the answer was always the same.
Weeks ago her father's steepled fingers would have pressed against each other so hard they'd have turned white when he heard Emilyn's answer. He tried everything in his attempts to force her Mantra out of her: intensive one on one spiritual tutoring with Mahri Hamilton, three-hour art lessons six days a week, involuntary solitary visits to the temple. Today, he just took Emi's answer in stride. She could tell by the smirk on his face that he had a plan, and he was convinced it would work. As the days until her fifteenth birthday grew fewer, he became more and more confident in his belief that the blinding would bring her Mantra to the surface. No daughter of Master Niko Koril would be deemed unworthy of the Gods' guidance. He seemed to think he was a God himself.
The silence stretched on. A candle in a sconce on the wall flickered and went out. Emilyn swore she could see the dying rays of sun move across the floor as the minutes ticked by. The only sound was the click of wooden chopsticks as they ate. Willow could no longer contain herself and began babbling on about her day at school.
“We read a story about Brinstome, that guy who gave the gold to the poor man even though he'd lost two fingers in a bet to get it -”
“You mean Brimstone?” her mother interrupted. Her glossy hair was pulled back in its usual neat bun, her fingers holding the chopsticks daintily as she ate.
“Yeah, and how Brim's Day is actually Brimstone's Day and it's named after him. Isn't that interesting?” The rest of the family smiled and nodded. Yes Willow, that's very interesting.
The rest of the meal dragged on. Willow nattered on about the days in a cycle being named after people who had demonstrated one of the seven Virtues, and how she wanted to have a day named after her when she grew up. Her father liked that. He would expect nothing less.
The days came and went. Only six days until her birthday, then five, then four. Emilyn spent most her time wandering the palace, trying to drink in all the sights so she would remember them once she was blind. She painted pictures of her spot by the pond, and of the cherry trees where she had lost her brother. Her well-loved paint set had been untouched since her father had forced her to take lessons with Mahra Aika. Now that her father had given her freedom for her last few days before she was given True Sight, her love of art had come back. However, along with it came sadness. There would be nothing to paint after she was blinded; just the blackness of the prison her mind would become without sight. She would become like the boy who hid in the stables, just sitting there. He was sixteen and his Mantra still hadn't come to him.
Emi brought her focus back to her work. Her hand had drawn a jagged black line across the cherry tree she had worked so hard to depict. A single tear fell, rolling down the canvas and smudging the painting further.
She wiped her eyes and gathered her brushes. Crying is only going to make it worse, she told herself. You need a plan.