Rice student Erika Lynn Schumacher ’19 shares an excerpt of her fictional work in progress. In Spring 2017, Schumacher was a student in Justin Cronin’s fiction writing class. Her novel centers on three siblings who are fleeing their war-torn homeland when the eldest winds up in a magical coma, and the younger two must find a way to heal him. Interwoven with the main conflict is a secondary story about a man on a quest to stop a doomsday curse. “It’s a story with alternating perspectives that are on differing timelines, and it’s also a family drama in a fantasy package,” Schumacher explained.
Caesar sat at a table across from a man in a tophat.
“You must be Caesar.”
“And you must be…”
“You must be Percival.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Around them, it was dark. Caesar could see nothing else but the man in the tophat. His brown hair brushing the top of his shoulders, unmoving. The flattened shoulders of his navy blue jacket. Skin the color of the ridges of fallow fields, eyes a darker shade of brown. Caesar couldn’t find the light around them, but he could see clearly.
“I wanted to see if I could bring you out of here,” said Percival. “But there’s a little more in the way than just you and me.”
“What does that mean?”
“Please, start from the beginning,” said Percival. “How did you get here?”
Caesar lifted a hand. Gold as the day he was born, gold as coins, gold as light on fields of wheat, gold as nostalgia.
“I don’t think I had a choice.”
People often said that your twenty-fourth year was the most stressful year of your life, a time of waiting and breaking and not-quite-enough-getting, but Christophe Len’s years had been a lot worse. There had been the first few months of his pre-apprentice institute, for instance. There had been the first year of his second pre-apprentice institute. There had been the application period to apprenticeships with anyone who would look him in the eye – not that any of them had accepted him, in the end. There had been the time his home had been blown out of the ground in front of him. So hanging upside down with his ankles notched on the topmost spire of a roof with a book in his head and a sphere of light hovering just above his forehead, Christophe thought his twenty-fourth year was off to a relatively good start.
He turned the page of his book with one hand. With the other, he waved an ungloved finger. A string of light attached to his knuckles, no bigger than a hair, wound more securely onto an enchanted dictating pen, which he had taken from his father’s study.
“As it stands, the laws aren’t loophole-able,” he murmured. “It’s not even heritage. Just skin color. Faer is Faer is Faer is Faer. Dammit, pen, that’s F-a-e-r. F-a-e-r is f-a-e-r is – oh, forget it. Refer to 1936 court decision AX719, judge name Jameron U. M. Lasir.”
As the pen scratched all this down, Christophe let his head fall back again, nearly banging into the shingles as he took in the sunset upside down. He liked the way the sun was escaping into the sky, like it was too good for Magistere. For a few seconds longer, orange light washed onto his face. He was glad no one was watching him; he probably looked like some crispy bronze statue dug up from the base of the Ebene River.
He kept reading until the last of the light crept up across the horizon, leaving Christophe, the institute roof, and the streets of Nareala in the liminal half-darkness. With a sigh, Christophe revolved to a sitting position, balancing among the spires for a few seconds staring down at the ground. He’d climbed a long way. Reluctantly, he tucked the book and the pen and parchment into the pockets of his coat and began climbing down from the tower of the history building of the Nareala Apprentice Institute.
It had become a routine, during the warmer months of the year at the very least, for Christophe to haul himself to increasingly impractical study spots when he had readings to do. The institute’s library, and Nareala’s central library, were both okay if he needed to write. But on a day-to-day basis, it was far too much of a hassle to deal with the librarians. Especially if Danessa was on duty. If Danessa was on duty, there was no hope he’d argue his way in the door. And even after making it to a comfortable study table, someone would poke him in the ribs with a broom or glare at him from afar. Nareala was very good at reminding people like Christophe that he was not supposed to be in places where there were other people – so essentially, that he was not supposed to be anywhere.
His feet hit the kind and supportive ground as some of the late-night street lights came on, those that guided the security patrols on their way and made sure students without light or fire magic didn’t run into each other or into buildings on their way home. The air was getting oppressively warm, a trademark of the near-swampland of east Magistere in late spring, and Christophe was overdressed. He wore too thick of a coat, a scarf around his neck, pants that he could roll all the way down until they covered his boots, and a hat over his dyed-brown hair at all times. His gloves were still made from rigid winter materials instead of the light summer silks and leathers most people wandered the city in. It was just easier that way – easier to pretend he was freezing and hide the skin on the back of his neck than for someone to see the gold shimmer beneath his hair as an invitation. As Christophe made his way through the streets around the Nareala Apprentice Institute, heading for the soon-closing side-gate that would mean the shortest walk home. The Institute at dusk lay quiet, a fenced-in first chance that most people would have walked past without hesitating.
“Hey, shiny.” Christophe pushed his hands into his pockets as two Magisterean men – student recruits to the campus’s limited security force, according to the badges on their shirts – approached him. Both were the type that looked like security was where they’d end up, protecting heiresses and alchemists on their way across the world. Christophe stood still as they approached him. The one on the left was bigger, with facial hair taking over his face like a kudzu bush. The one on the right had the kind of pale violet, squinting eyes that Christophe didn’t like.
“This is private property,” said the bigger of the two. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I’m student at the Institute,” said Christophe.
“A student?” The squinty-eyed one had a squinty voice, too. “I hate to be the one that breaks it to you, but your type doesn’t go to institutes.”
“Well, I am a student here,” said Christophe. He fished inside his jacket for his paperwork proving it, trying to pull his glove off his other hand at the same time. The two other students watched with painfully satisfied expressions until Christophe pulled out his student identification card. “There. Look for yourselves. I’m just walking home from studying.”
“Christophe Len.” The bigger of the two held the card up to the nearest light.
“Yes.” With his now-ungloved hand, he thought furiously about his father’s dictating pen in his pocket, relieved when he felt his magic tug on the pen. “I’m a student here. My father is Professor Maeron H. Len – Linguistics.”
“You hearing this?” said the bigger of them. “He says he’s got a professor as a dad.”
“Which I do.”
“I’ve seen a lot of student cards looking just like this,” said the squinty-eyed one. One of his blue leather gloves hit the ground. Christophe swallowed and took a step back. “You can tell the real ones from the fakes. The real ones don’t have this burn on the edge of them.” Looking Christophe in the eye, he drew a flame-tipped finger and left scorch marks along the edge of the card.
“You just burnt my card.”
“I think you’re right,” said the bigger one. “Counterfeit’s a pretty big offense.” He took a step closer to Christophe, who instinctually stepped back. He could run, but it wouldn’t do much good. He could fight, but that would get him in more trouble. Or he could sit here, wait, and hope they’d be satisfied with feeling superior for a few minutes and toss his card back at him. “We might have to take you in.”
“And they’d be able to prove I’m a student here,” said Christophe.
“How about we cut him some slack?” The squinty-eyed one picked his glove off the ground. “You probably just got lost, right? Didn’t know what you were getting into. We can just toss this fake card and see you out. You could say we’re being generous.”
“Sounds fair to me,” said the bigger one, and Christophe watched with his teeth gritted as his student identification card turned to ashes in the squinty-eyed boy’s hands. “Walk, sparkly.”
Ashes dripped like a trail of intangible evidence behind them as they walked to the front gate of the Institute. The front gate led straight into the shadier industrial district of the city, not the closer side gate. It would add fifteen minutes of walking to Christophe’s schedule – plus, now that his student card was being distributed as ash particles around campus, he wouldn’t be able to take any street car to make up for the distance. Great.
“You stay out of our school, shiny boy,” jeered the student guard recruits as they nudged Christophe out of the gates. “Go back where you came from.”
Christophe just turned his back on them and stormed into the night, his hands fiercely in his pockets, though when he was a couple streets out, he tugged out the dictating pen and the parchment it had been writing notes on. He flipped eagerly through the pages. The street car he usually took home jostled by him, and in the momentary flashing light, Christophe could see the empty back rows he usually sat in and the curious faces peering down at the well-dressed Faer boy not paying attention to the fact that this was a Magisterean city, and he didn’t belong there. He scanned the pages and laughed with self-satisfaction, and irritation, as he read over the conversation he’d tried to record between him and the student guards. He’d gotten mostly everything.
“And, for the record, pen, I can’t go back where I came from,” said Christophe. “Aemus was one of the first cities destroyed when Pelorias starting blowing up anything within a hundred miles of the border.” He wasn’t sure who he was talking to – himself, maybe, or the night, or the student harassment office, where he would bring this transcript the next morning when he demanded a new student card. It brought some relief to walk through the streets and hear his own voice. It was dark in these parts of the city and always had been, lit only by the occasional street car and windows from poor apartments not yet sealed. Peeling propaganda posters and the occasional splatter of anti-war graffiti were the only things to look at other than grey slates of factory walls, where during the day workers would make weapons and train parts. Since they’d left Aemus, his mother had done this kind of work – casting durability spells on projectile knives and modifying vials to explode. All in the name of Unity, teased a propaganda poster plastered sixteen times over the doorway of a potions factory. The continent’s balance is at stake, contributed another, this one showing three exaggerated Peloriasian soldiers, their brown skin almost orange and their eyes sickly white-green like algae, all ready to throw vials of smoke-grey explosives. The war between Pelorias and Magistere had been waging since Christophe had been fifteen, and at this point, it was starting to seem unnecessary. It was only a matter of time before Magistere closed in on the capital of Pelorias and poisoned all their generals in the same room. Intelligence and magic, technology and balance – these were Magisterean strengths. What did Pelorias have, other than desperation and an unlimited supply of poor people to hurl into the flames?
Thinking about the war depressed him, especially when he turned at last into the swamp-leaning “Developing Quarter” of the city, which was little more than hut after hut of refugees and people that needed refuge from Nareala but couldn’t get themselves out. It was probably the only place in the city that he kept his head down not out of fear that people would see the color of his cheeks and attack him, but that people would see his thin, Magisterean frame and nice coat and solicit him for money. Finally, he found himself on the doormat that read OPEN in an ancient language and held up his hand to the dying magical lock. The spell took a few tries to activate, but then the door swung open. Christophe walked inside.
He loved the sounds of home: the muffled stirring of his father speaking a different language behind the heavy dribbling of the constant waterfall that separated his “study” from the rest of the house, the whisper of light breaking into the air accompanying the hiss and spit of their stove boiling something, and his own footsteps, never masked, against the creaky steps of the breaking wooden slants. Christophe draped his coat on the only unoccupied hook and took his boots off and gloves off, turning without hesitation past the room where his father was working and into the soft glow of the kitchen.
“How was the studying?” Gwenllyan H. Len resembled a lens flare: she danced along the edge of every frame, a single step disrupting an image, the long golden tresses of her hair swinging like the branches of a tree, a single turn of her feline eyes cutting into space. She smiled happily at him when he entered, extending an ungloved hand to him for him to take. Christophe may have inherited nearly all of his father’s facial features, but no one would see it, not past the light-attracting glimmer of what he shared with his mother: the mark of the Faer, their brilliant golden skin tone.
“Fine,” he said. There was a second when he could feel her light magic against his palm, and she could feel in his pulse that he was – shockingly – not fine. Christophe could see the question growing in his mother’s eyes. “Okay, no, some security recruits destroyed my student card, but otherwise…”
“Christophe…” His mother squeezed his hand. “Will you be able to get another?”
“I’ll find a way to make it work.” Christophe massaged the back of his neck with his other hand and stepped closer to the stove. “Are there onions in this?”
“You’ll have to go to the department, won’t you?”
“I have my SCS thing.” Christophe picked up a wooden spoon from the countertop and stirred the soup, tipping the pot each way to see past the dark broth into the contents. “What’s father working on?”
“He could probably go with you. He doesn’t have class until the afternoon.”
“No, it’ll be quick.” Christophe offered her a sip of her own soup. “Will he be joining us for dinner?”
“He should be.” Hip-checking Christophe out of the way, his mother took her position at the stove again. “Something about intensive pronouns on his mind. You know how he feels about the intensive.”
“And how close are we to shutting down the Yasies?” asked Christophe.
“You would have to send a letter to your brother to get the answer to that.”
“But you’re the one doing the important work. Making weapons. Glass and metal isn’t dangerous by itself.”
“If there’s something I have learned in all these years, it’s that I am quite replaceable.” She pushed Christophe with the bottom of her foot in the direction of their cupboard, where Christophe began searching for a matching set of plastic bowls and cups. He laid them out across the small dining table, big enough for the three of them but not much else, and then moved to help his mother transfer soup into bowls. Christophe sliced bread as his mother fetched his father from the study, or what was effectively an office chair isolated inside a collapsible water wall. He purposefully passed his mother the largest slices and waited around the table as his parents re-entered and sat with them.
Maeron H. Len was one of the least important professors at the Institute, possibly because of his specific interest in bilingualism and isolated societies, or perhaps because he was the father of three Faer children and the husband of a Faer woman and saw this as a perfectly honorable thing to be. He had the face of a propaganda poster: rigid jaw line and flat nose, skin tone of winter beach sand, violet eyes eagle-sharp.
“Christophe won’t want to bring it up, but he’s going to need a new card,” said Christophe’s mother almost immediately.
“I’m going myself,” said Christophe. His father narrowed his eyebrows.
“What happened to the first one?”
“Rude people, same as everything else. I can go alone, you yourself told me I need to not let this sort of thing bother me.”
“At least consider it,” said his mother.
“I have considered it,” said Christophe. “Look, I can take care of everything myself, it’s all on transcript.”
“Transcript?” said his father.
“Ah,” said Christophe. “Yes. See, you tend to leave things in your study, and myself, I like to take precautions, ah…”
“I was wondering where my transcript pen went.”
“You can take it back yourself if you want, but you have to admit, if I hadn’t taken it, I’d have no proof of what happened.”
“Christophe…” His father kneaded his forehead for a few seconds. “You could have just asked.”
“Why would he?” said his mother, sipping her soup innocently. “You yourself did say that resourcefulness is a trait to be admired.”
“Good one,” said Christophe. “See, mom herself is saying –”
“Don’t think I can’t hear what the two of you are doing.”
“What?” said Christophe’s mother. “I myself am a tired, uneducated old lady –”
“Who knows perfectly well that no one says I myself unless they understand what an intensive pronoun is and that they bother her husband incredibly.”
“I’d say myself that it bothers him intensively,” said Christophe.
“For that, I won’t come with you,” said his father. “You can go yourself – I mean, alone.”
As they laughed, Christophe glanced over his father’s shoulder at the two kitchen chairs they’d converted into shelving units for papers and supplies. The kitchen table had never been big enough for five chairs, but they had still bought five – no matter what, we can all fit around a table, his mother had insisted. But with his brother at war and his sister questing in the northern mountains, it fell down to just the three of them: the Magisterean scholar with an intensive problem, the Faer worker with tireless energy for a game, and Christophe.