By Nicola Rakuljic
I wish you luck on your journey to the outskirts. Be safe and be wary of suspicious strangers.
You have always been the best at using your ice and I am happy that your Master has finally seen that and decided to send you on a mission.
Your father has not come back home, and I fear that if he does not come back, I will not forgive him. It is hard for me to forgive him, though I believe it is harder for you.
From your believing mother, Alicia
Standing in the crowded village hall, my eyes wander over the minuscule cracks in the walls. There are no windows, and everything is illuminated by flames upon massive candlesticks. There are bodies pressed up against mine, and with the extra body heat surrounding me, it seems almost impossible to breathe air that has not already circulated around the room. I fiddle with my hands as I look up over the heads of the people in front, searching for the reason why we are here.
What greets me is a sea of red. Red jackets, red scarfs, red hats, red trousers, red shirts. Red everything. It is how you identify which tribe someone is from, but it doesn’t make much sense now. No merchants travel from tribe to tribe anymore, so there is no need for the identification. No one leaves the tribe they were born in.
I am suffocating in the sea of red, the sea of uniform people. I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be the same as everyone. They are waiting because they were told to, but I don’t want to. I don’t care that the soldiers punish anyone who doesn’t come when they are called, and I don’t care about all the rules they put in place to keep us here. I don’t want to be here. The thought always runs through my head, pressing itself down upon me, seeping through the barriers that I put up to lock it away, pooling at my feet and dragging me down into its call, the mesmerizing call of somewhere else.
I bite my tongue, hoping that pain would distract me from the soft, tempting whispers of what if and I don’t want to be here.
The sinister whispers of my mind calm down as the Princess walks on stage and everything falls quiet as every single person in the hall stares. As much as I don’t want to follow people, and be the same, I can’t help but do the same. The Princess has an unintentional grace about her, and she just attracts attention as if she is glowing. It’s like she is a flame, and we are moths, drawn to and mesmerised by it, unable to run away, like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. She smiles and begins to talk, soft words tinged with a burning passion, her honey-laced voice flowing over the masses and lulling them into security.
The flames resting on the candlesticks glow a bit brighter. People around me nod in agreement to her words. I look around once again, searching for a window that will grant me a picture of the outside world, my respite, my longing.
An elbow appears in my side and I stifle a groan. I look over and see a young boy glaring at me before turning back to the Princess. His eyes light up and I have the epiphany of them being pounding hearts.
I shake the thought from my head and turn back to the front. The Princess says things in such a way that you feel obligated to agree, even when the words mean something that goes against your very morals.
I pay no attention to her words, I never have. They lead to despair in the poor, confidence in the rich, wonder in the young and disappointment in the old. For me, they remind me of a life I would never have, a life I missed out on, a life that is forbidden. A life where there is no discrimination and every element lives in harmony together, where you can be anyone you want to be, not cookie cut moulds for the army, or for making a family.
That time was quite a while ago and has been flushed out of our history books. No one speaks of it because they do not know of it. I question how I know of it, but I have learnt that it is like that connection to the plains. Mysterious, powerful, and always there. Omnipotent, ever present.
The Princess’ speech flies by, and soon the head soldier is stomping his way on stage, weighed down by his heavy armour.
“Thank you Princess Edana for that beautiful speech. I would hope that everyone is inspired to do the King’s work and will not hesitate to do so. May you all remember the message within the Princess’ words today.”
He bows towards the Princess and leaves the stage, the Princess following after. Once she is offstage, guards surround her and she is lost from view between shiny silver metal that blinds when seen out in the sun. The people begin to talk to each other and I see the boy next to me shaking his head. He wipes his mouth and frowns.
I place my hand over his arm and whisper to him,
“You were staring at her love-struck. I guess you started to drool.”
He looks at me, confusion settling into his face.
“Do I know you?”
“No, but I thought you may want to know.”
He nods slowly before looking behind him. People had begun to file out of the hall.
“Well, thank you.”
We stood there in awkward silence, him looking around for someone to save him and me watching the substitute teacher for the signal to leave.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a hand appear on the boy’s shoulder and another boy appears smiling at him.
“Found you! C’mon, let’s go. Maybe we can miss our classes.”
The boy nods his head and looks back at me. I continue to look straight ahead, staring at the substitute that didn’t seem to be moving. Was he even breathing?
“My name is Brendan.”
“Nice meeting you.”
“You too, drooler.”
The other boy snickers before taking Brendan’s hand and dragging him off.
“He’ll talk to you later, Amber!”
I nod at their retreating figures before continuing my watch on the substitute. He has begun to move a bit, but still looks like he’s not breathing. I notice the two boys who had been split up had ended up next to each other and the girl who was meant to be in front of me is missing.
As I wait for the substitute to notice and start yelling, I thought about how easy it would be to leave. Leave this group of people I didn’t know that well, leave them to do whatever they wanted with their lives. Leave them to be screamed at and to scream at others.
But where would I go? I had no home other than the room I shared with the other children at the school. I didn’t know my mother or father because supposedly they had abandoned me on the steps of the village hall.
If I had been abandoned here, I should feel some connection to this hall, but I feel nothing. The second I step inside this hall, there is nothing. No smiles, no laughs, no cries, no sobs, nothing. I am nothing when I am here.
Someone moves and suddenly I notice that there is no one else in here. Who could’ve moved then?
I turn around, and see an old man standing there, smiling at me.
“Your class left without you. I thought I should leave you alone with your thoughts. You must have a lot on your mind Amber.”
I nod at him, questioning how he knows my name before I remember that everyone knows everyone. Except me. I know no one other than those two boys I just met, Brendan and Evan, and even then, I only know them by name. I would not be able to tell them apart from anyone else if I saw them on the street.
“I was like you once. I never felt like I belonged, and I wanted to belong. I wanted to light up the world, to show them that I belonged. I never did. I threw away that dream.”
His voice was full of longing and sorrow and I frown. Softly, I ask,
“Why? Why did you throw it away?”
I meant to ask why he was telling me these things made up by his inane brain, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t be mean to him like I was to everyone else.
He sent a toothy smile my way before explaining,
“You know. You feel it when you see the insignia. Don’t do what I did, Amber. Don’t throw away your dream. Go find your home.”
I shiver and look above the stage. There rested another one of the King’s insignia’s, the drake watching me. I look back to the old man, a question on the tip of my tongue, to see that I am alone.
I gulp before I walk towards the doors. Outside, I will be able to think clearly. Outside, I will be able to dismiss the old man’s words. Outside, I will be closer to the school. Outside, I will be closer to a detention with the substitute teacher.
For a few seconds, I stand outside the doors, afraid and more than willing to stay inside the hall for the rest of my life. But then the old man’s words ring through my head;
“Don’t throw away your dream. Go find your home.”
I take a deep breath and open the doors, allowing the sand filled air to fill my senses. I pull my bandana over my mouth and begin to trek back to the classroom.
I must have been hallucinating that old man, so why did his words stick with me? He threw away his dream because of the King? Was he forced to? He felt that same unease when he looked at the insignia as I do?
Or did I just make him up to help me cope? I had just made, hopefully, two friends, or at least two acquaintances. It has been a big day, and I had zoned out.
The classroom is in the outskirts of town because they cannot pay to be closer to the hall, the place of worship. I enjoy the long walk to get there and back, because it allows me to think, and allows me to look out into the plains for as long as I can without looking weird.
One day, I will escape. One day, I will leave, and I’ll take those two boys with me. We’ll leave, and I’ll find my home, my parents and my destiny. I will show this town that I don’t belong here, no matter how many times they tell me. I will show these people that I am not like them, that I will not sit down and be told what to do.
A small flame ignites itself by my feet and I yelp, jumping back. It starts to flicker before going out and reappearing next to my other foot. This time, all I do is stare.
Did I do that? How?
No one can really make fire anymore, even if we are in the Fire Tribe. I look around, checking no one saw what I did.
For safe measure, I begin to run towards the classroom and try to think back to the lessons we got about using fire.
The rule for fire was fire wants to glow, right? I never really understood that, but I just made a fire, so I must want to glow.
Green. Peace. Prosperity. Smiles. Laughter. Perfect.
Brown. Unease. Confusion. Glances. Whispers. Perfect?
Grey. Sorrow. Blank. Scowls. Silence. Ruin.
A yellow flower, nestled within brown hair.
A yellow feather, sticking out from hair.
A wide smile, unforced, free, and happy.
Wide green eyes, innocent, naïve, and happy.
Yellow, the colour of innocence with this brown and grey world.
Wide features, innocence spilling from them.
A bright green in this brown and grey world.
You sit with your hands in your lap, head hung low. You don’t dare raise it in fear of making eye contact with the principal whose glare is drilling a hole in your head.
“Camden, how many times are you going to get sent to my office? How many more times until you decide to take pride in your Tribe and your clothing?”
Right, because clothing represents your Tribe. Everything represents your Tribe.
You take a breath and raise your head, staring straight at the principal. You resist the urge to run your hand through your slicked back, blonde hair, to mess it up, to show even a tiny bit of defiance that would have you reprimanded. One talking to is enough for today.
You don’t say anything, just stare at the principal. She sighs and waves her hand, making you float off the uncomfortable chair.
“Go, or you’ll miss the Princess’ speech.”
You nod and you are dropped, just barely managing to catch yourself before you hit the floor. You turn your back to the principal and reach for the door.
“Oh, and Camden? I don’t want to see you here again. It’s bad enough you haven’t shown an ability to manipulate air.”
You nod and open the door, clenching your teeth together. Once you are outside, thoughts rush into your head, bad, hateful thoughts, about the ordered life of the Air Tribe, the Princess, the Air Tribe in general, your annoying teacher, the stupid Air Tribe rules, the amount of time that you have to spend to make yourself look ‘respectable’ in front of your peers that care more about their own appearance and the rules than they do about your appearance or you breaking the rules, your snobby principal that you once saw as a motherly figure but it began to go sour once she started pulling you up on every single little thing that you did.
You shake your head slightly, trying to get them to disperse; thoughts like that will get you nowhere.
Walking silently towards the school hall, you wonder what you would do if you didn’t want to go to the Elemental Valley. Would you become a scribe? Or a tactical leader?
Or would you raise a family in complete order and sameness, like everyone else?
No, that doesn’t sound appealing. Being like everyone else, having the same amount of kids, marrying who your parents want you to, working a normal job, living in a replica house, earning the same money, living for the same Tribe.
No way. Too boring. You are different. You want to know what the other Tribes are like, you want to be friends with people from there. You want to be free to do whatever you want, to learn what you want, to have as many children as you want, to marry who you want, to be who you want.
There is a brief breeze that picks you up from the ground. You float for a bit before your feet touch the floor again.
Huh, so it is true. Air really does want to be free.