Oliver Black doesn’t like the way he’s been treated at the orphanage, so he escapes with visions of living life on his terms, surviving on his wits, and being completely free in Lamarant, the grandest city anywhere. The city has other plans.
This is the first episode of a serialized story exclusively for subscribers to my e-mail list. This episode was released to the list on Feb. 2, and I’m offering it here as a sneak peek at what you’re missing if you don’t subscribe. If you’d rather read it on your Kindle, phone, or other device, the Free Download link at the top of this post will allow you to download it as a Kindlle .mobi file, .epub, or as a .pdf.
Oliver looked down and immediately questioned every decision he’d ever made.
Oliver sat at his assigned table with his assigned partner. His head was angled slightly down and he held the broken charm in his teeth as he stroked a small gouge in the wax tabletop.
As soon as he heard the door open, he sighed and shook his head. Sister Agape stopped her lecture to speak to the visitor in a whisper. He sighed again. When the High Mother interrupted class it meant only one thing.
He felt a sharp pain in his leg and looked to his left where Elphren sat, smirking. Oliver gave him a glower that held as many dire portents as Oliver could muster and raised his head to see the High Mother looking in his direction.
“Come with me, Oliver,” she said in a calm voice that somehow managed to convey her utter conviction that he would do as he was told.
He spat the broken charm out of his mouth and said, “Yes, High Mother.”
As soon as they were alone in the hallway, the High Mother said, “You should treat that charm with more respect. Your mother left it for you, you know.”
He did know. The charm was a golden colored circle with four notches—at the cardinal points of a compass—that revealed the baser metal beneath the gold and the origin of the charm. It had once been the circle-and-cross symbol of the Church of Lamarant. It had once been complete, but no more.
Oliver knew where it came from as well as he knew that he wanted nothing of what it represented.
“Who is it this time, High Mother?”
The High Mother pursed her lips and gave him a disapproving glance. Questions were frowned upon, but she answered anyway.
“Our visitor is the personal envoy of the Archimandrite himself…”
Oliver rolled his eyes.
“…and if I hear that you have treated him with anything less than the utmost of respect, we’ll have to have a discussion in my office later.”
The inflection she placed on the word “discussion” was one Oliver had learned—by repeated experience—meant the discussion would be entirely one-sided and conducted primarily through the use of a leather strap.
The High Mother had a very strong arm.
Oliver resolved to himself to stifle his inclinations and be as polite as possible to his visitor but, perhaps because he could only behave himself so much, he broke a rule again.
“Why do I always have to talk to our visitors?”
It was a question he had asked many times before without ever receiving a satisfactory answer.
“It’s only pol—”
“Lying is a sin, High Mother, or so Sister Agape tells us.”
The High Mother stopped dead in her tracks and gave him a look he couldn’t quite place.
“Very well then,” she said in a husky voice, “you see your visitors because I decide you do.”
“And you will remain silent until spoken to.”
Her eyes burst into flame and she said in the same calm voice of command. “My office. One hour before dinner. Tardiness will be noted.”
Oliver stifled a sigh and kept his face forward and his lips shut as the High Mother took his wrist in a very firm hand and led him to the Guest Parlor where the Archimandrite’s Special Envoy was waiting.
The Archimandrite’s Special Envoy was a sweaty little toad of a man who clearly enjoyed the little gustatory indulgences his title allowed him.
He was reading a small book when the High Mother led Oliver into the parlor. He looked up and quickly closed the book in a single motion as if he’d done it a thousand times before. His face broke into a wide, toothy grin and Oliver firmly wished he could be back in class with Sister Agape.
The absurdity of the wish struck Oliver and he couldn’t help but bark a small laugh. The envoy’s grin faltered a bit and the grip the High Mother held on his wrist tightened, promising an extended discussion with the strap.
“I’m sorry, your Grace, I meant no disrespect. I just found the humor in something one of my classmates said earlier.” The better part of valor convinced Oliver not to mention that the classmate in question had been using a frog to mimic the Archimandrite at the time.
“Oh, no worries, no worries,” the envoy said. “We were all boys once, weren’t we?” he said to the High Mother who refrained from correcting him.
“I think an hour will be sufficient, Mother.” the envoy continued and when the High Mother had left the parlor, he turned to Oliver. “Sit, sit, my boy, and tell me—you’re about to turn fifteen, aren’t you?”
“Y-y-y-yes Your Grace,” Oliver said, “In about a month.”
“Excellent, excellent,” the envoy said, “and have you thought about what that means?”
“What it means, Sir?”
“You’re a bright boy, surely you’ve noticed that students rarely stay here past their fifteenth birthday.”
Oliver had noticed, but hadn’t put that fact together with the special treatment he had always received. Most of the orphans left shortly after their first Mating vision. Those who didn’t were generally apprenticed to a merchant within a week of turning fifteen. Oliver had had his first Mating vision over a year before. In it, he had seen his Mate dressed in a noblewoman’s finery. He couldn’t forget the look of relief on the High Mother’s face when he told her. Orphans didn’t marry noblewomen, even if the Father of All intended it be so.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace, I guess I just hadn’t put it all together before, but I’m to be initiated into the Church aren’t I?”
The envoy beamed. “There you are, there you are! The High Mother has always reported that you were an intelligent boy.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
With growing excitement, the envoy told Oliver about how initiates of the Church were trained for priesthood and how some of them—it was strongly implied Oliver would be among them—were trained for positions in the Church hierarchy. The envoy almost squealed with delight when he mentioned that only church members could join the hierocracy and got decidedly breathless when he mentioned that Archimandrites were, by custom and law, chosen from the membership of the hierocracy.
Oliver’s horror grew with every word.
Oliver lay in his bunk, face buried in his pillow, and pretended to sleep. His brain was too occupied with thoughts of escape to sleep. That those thoughts were constantly interrupted by the pain in his backside only convinced him that the night was destined to be a sleepless one. It was no matter. He’d lived through sleepless nights before.
His bunk was in a dormitory on the fourth floor of the orphanage and while it had windows large enough to provide an easy exit, he had dismissed them on first glance. The first glance through them, that is. It wasn’t that he was afraid of heights as such, he just didn’t want to fall from them.
He rolled over and instantly regretted it. The High Mother had been intent on testing the limits of her strength. He tossed his legs over the side of the bed and sat on the edge willing the pain to subside. He looked around the room. Nearly two dozen other boys of various ages lay in beds just like his. Several of them snored. Not a few of them cried—and not just the youngest either.
He crossed to the room’s only door as silently as his bare feet and creaky floorboards would allow. He paused and, turning the latch, slipped into the hallway. He replaced the latch and crept towards the stairs. Being careful to place his feet as near the wall as possible to avoid creaks, Oliver crept down to the third floor where the classrooms were. He slid his bare feet across the floor and held his breath as he crept over to the top of the stairs down to the second floor.
He saw nothing so he allowed himself a shallow breath and made his way down enough steps that he could bend over and peak around the corner to see the landing at the top of the stairs down to the ground floor.
His heart pounded and he cursed himself for a fool when he saw one of the sisters—he couldn’t tell which—seated on the landing that led down to the ground floor.
The sigh wasn’t halfway out of his mouth when he realized his mistake and heard the sister say in a hoarse whisper, “Who’s there?”
Oliver huddled just around the corner trying with equal measure to make no sound and hear any sounds the sister might make. He heard a creak as she shifted in her chair, but didn’t move. She could just as easily be sitting back as getting up.
Then he heard a step and he bolted, not bothering to stay quiet. He flew up the stairs two at a time and didn’t bother to redo the latch on the dormitory door before he launched himself into his bed and buried his face in his pillow just as he’d been laying before.
He heard the sister enter the room but didn’t dare open his eyes to see which sister it was. His heart was beating a million times a second and he feared it would betray him, but he forced his breathing to slow and his heart soon followed.
After several minutes, he slept dreaming of escaping the only home he’d ever known.
Outdoor time the next day was as troublesome as ever. The other boys were just as aware of the special treatment Oliver received as Oliver was. Being removed from class to visit with church officials is not something that could be kept secret. Oliver saw the visits as a trial, but the other boys just saw someone being treated differently and took that as their cue to do the same.
“Who’s that you were meeting with, Oliver?” one shouted at him.
Oliver ignored him. He was too busy scanning the yard for escape opportunities. There were none. The fence was climbable, but not quickly. Any of the sisters could cross the yard and clamp their hand on him before he made it over. If the sisters were all inside, it would be easy but the boys were never let out without several of the sisters to monitor them. “Well that won’t work,” he muttered to himself.
“What’s that you say?” the same boy asked. It was Elphren and as Oliver’s attention returned to the here and now, he realized that Elphren wasn’t the only one looking at him.
“I asked you what you said,” Elphren said in one of those artificially calm voices that drip with barely restrained violence.
Oliver sighed. Elphren slept in the next bunk and sat next to Oliver at meals and in classes. He was always the first to notice when Oliver was doing something other than what the other boys did. Worse, he resented the difference.
Elphren didn’t see that the meetings with church officials were a nightmare. He didn’t see that whatever special treatment Oliver received came with heightened expectations. If Oliver was forgiven for breaking some of the lesser rules, he was also held to higher standards in class and out.
Oliver sighed and lifted his voice so it could be heard by all the boys, “I didn’t say anything. I asked if you’d managed to get through the night without wetting the bed again.”
Most of the boys laughed. Some pointed. Elphren and those few boys who had decided it was safer to be his friend than his enemy kept quiet. “What. Was. That?” Elphren muttered.
Oliver took it all in with one glance. The glint in his eye. The clenched fist. The hangers on closing in. A smile lept to his face as he made a decision. If a fight was inevitable, it would be better fought on his terms.
“I said you pissed the bed last night. And the night before. And the night before that. And the night before that.”
Elphren’s face reddened with every syllable and by the end, Elphren had crossed half the distance to Oliver. Oliver waited until just the right moment then, stepping forward to get all his strength behind him, he punched Elphren square in the nose.
Elphren fell, rolled over, and curled up into a ball, blood slipping through the hands covering his nose. Oliver turned and hailed one of the nuns. “Sister Alys, come quick, Elphren’s hurt himself!”
In short order, three of the sisters were on the scene. Sister Alys was tending to Elphren. Sister Maybelle was shooing away the onlookers, and Sister Gelia was questioning the witnesses.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It was an accident,” Oliver said, “he was running and tripped over something. He landed face first and when he rolled over he was bleeding badly. That’s when I called for Sister Alys.”
“That’s not—” Elphren began, but Sister Alys shushed him immediately.
“Did anyone else see what happened?”
Three of the boys spoke up, echoing what Oliver had said. Elphren, being the prickly sort, had few real friends.
Elphren was sitting up when they were done. He glanced at his cronies and shook his head slightly. He turned to Oliver and gave him a glower that returned all the ill-will Oliver had directed his way earlier.
Oliver allowed a half a grin to slip onto his face.
Dinner that night was a very enjoyable affair. With Elphren in the infirmary, Oliver had a little space to spread out and was even able to slip Elphren’s roll into his pocket before anyone noticed. They weren’t starved at the orphanage, but Oliver had learned that the advantage of an extra roll was not to be refused under any circumstances.
It wasn’t until near the end of the meal that Oliver truly realized the import of the empty seat next to him.
Chores were assigned by lot—to most boys anyway—and one of Elphren’s cronies had been assigned to clear the plates from Oliver’s table. Oliver saw him coming, dressed in the pure white of the kitchen staff, and prepared to block any attempt at retribution, but there was none.
Instead, when Jakob reached for Oliver’s plate, he bent and whispered into Oliver’s ear. “Outdoors. Day after next. Be there or it will be worse.”
It was not the first time Oliver had been threatened and he instinctively looked to the high table where all the sisters were seated.
All the sisters.
Oliver grinned at Jakob and said, “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
The next morning, Oliver raised his hand as soon as Sister Agape called class to order.
“I haven’t begun the lesson yet, Oliver, how could you possibly have a question?”
“It’s about an older lesson, if you please.”
“You said that the Father of all deplores violence.”
Oliver could feel Elphren’s glare as he spoke. “If someone knew that some violence was going to happen, would it be a sin not to stop it?”
“Of Course, Oliver.”
“But nobody loves a snitch. What if the only way to prevent the violence is to snitch on someone who won’t like it?” Oliver’s eyes flicked in Elphren’s direction for a fraction of a moment.
Sister Agape sighed. “I would think that a boy like yourself would be more concerned about committing a sin than what your fellow students think of you. I don’t think I have to add that I rather suspect the High Mother would think the same.”
“But—” Oliver said.
“But nothing, Oliver. It’s clear you know something. Quick. Out with it.”
“I don’t—” Oliver began, but Sister Agape had such a look of fire in her eyes that he decided it was time. “I overheard some boys talking. A bunch of them are going to do something to someone tomorrow in the Guest Parlor during our outdoor time.”
“The guest parlor?”
“During outdoor time?”
“That’s what I heard, yes.”
“What rubbish! Have any of the rest of you heard anything about this?”
There was nothing but silence.
“Come come! Someone must know something of this. Out with it now or the consequences will be…dire.”
Sister Agape stared at the boys for a full ten heartbeats before moving back behind her desk at the front of the room, taking a piece of paper from a drawer, scribbling a brief note on it, and handing it to one of the smaller boys with a curt command that it be delivered to the High Mother immediately.
When she was done, she addressed the class. “If none of you have the courage to speak, it’s clear we need a lesson in courage. Have any of you heard of Alphias in the Wilderness?”
Oliver loved it when a plan came together.
Oliver joined the other boys in taking their outdoor time, but he couldn’t help smile a bit to himself when he glanced in the large window and saw the High Mother sitting on a divan doing paperwork.
She never did that. She’d even tell you that’s what she had an office for, but there she was anyway.
When he got out to the yard, he saw Elphren waiting for him and his grin got just a bit bigger.
“What are you grinning for? Elphren asked.
Oliver’s grin just got bigger.
“Are you stupid? I asked you a question.”
Oliver could feel a laugh coming on and he made it the most condescending laugh he could and followed it up by saying “You don’t think I actually care, do you?”
Elphren sputtered but Oliver continued, “You think we’re rivals or something? You mean nothing to me. You’re just a tool I can use to get what I want when I want it.”
“Blah blah blah. Nothing but air,” Oliver said, and turned his back on Elphren with a glance at the High Mother in the window.
Elphren was precisely as predictable as Oliver had thought. As soon as Oliver had turned around, he felt Elphren jump on his back. Oliver went down to his knees and quickly, before Elphren could do anything, Oliver punched himself right in the nose. Once, twice, a third time—he stopped when he felt something trickling out. He wiped his hand across his nose and just barely had time to look to see that it was blood before Elphren had him on the ground.
Elphren rolled him over onto his back and oliver didn’t resist. Elphren straddled Oliver’s chest and began raining blows down upon Oliver’s face. Oliver put his hands up to protect himself both because he didn’t enjoy getting hit in the face, and because he had already accomplished what he needed.
Then he heard the High Mother’s voice. “Stop! Stop! What is this nonsense? We will have none of that!”
Elphren didn’t stop until the High Mother pulled him off and even then he struggled to get free and have at it again.
Absently wrestling with Elphren’s attempts to escape, the High Mother looked at Oliver and said, “Can you get up? Are you okay?”
Oliver climbed to one knee and paused, making it perfectly clear to everyone watching that it was a struggle to do so. When he made it to his feet and turned to face the High Mother, his shirt was covered in blood and dirt.
“I’m okay,” he said.
The High Mother looked at him as if he’d just had the wits beaten out of him. “Get to the infirmary this minute.” she said. “Tell Sister Agatha what happened and I’ll deal with this one.”
Oliver didn’t bother tossing Elphren a grin as he walked inside.
Boys that had been beaten bloody were not supposed to enjoy the fact, so Oliver did his utmost to suppress a smile as he spooned a light broth into his mouth.
“Is everything okay?” asked Sister Agnes.
“Of course. I could even come down to dinner with everyone else if it would help.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll spend the night here and join everyone else for breakfast tomorrow…if you’re up to it.”
Oliver smiled at that and Sister Agnes must have misread it because she strode the few steps to him and leaned down to kiss him on the top of the head. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we’ll have you back with the rest of the boys in no time.”
Oliver stifled a laugh and as she pulled away from him, he did his best to appear dejected.
“No time at all,” she said, and strode out the door, latching it behind her.
Oliver listened carefully, following her steps as she descended the stairs and joined the rest of the household in the dining room.
Then he counted heartbeats before making even the slightest movement.
When the count reached thirty and he’d heard nothing but the sounds of a few dozen people eating dinner, he slid out of his bed. He tiptoed to the door fearful of creaking floorboards paused for another thirty count before drawing the latch, slipping thrugh the door, and glancing quickly down the stairs. Nobody there.
He latched the door and let loose a tiny sigh of relief.
He crossed the landing in two large steps and hugged the wall on the opposite side of the hall from the infirmary door.
He hugged the wall the whole way, sliding across the floor as much as walking.
When he reached the door to the linen closet, he stopped to count heartbeats again, and to slow them down as much as possible.
When he had it under control, he took a breath, held it, and turned the latch. It wasn’t locked. The door opened with nary a squeak. Oliver exhaled and slid through the door, closing it behind him.
They called it a storeroom and used it as a linen closet, but the room had clearly been intended to be a bedroom like those around it. Oliver suspected that the High Mother had decreed it be the storeroom just so she could have some space between her and Sister Abigail, who snored.
He wasted no time thinking of the High Mother, Sister Abigail, or anyone else. He crossed immediately from the door to the back wall of the room and slid between the last shelving unit and the window that overlooked the alleyway to the side of the orphanage.
When he got there, he stopped and stared. The window was higher than he thought. The window latch stuck at first, but a judicious application of youthful energy remedied that problem.
Then Oliver tried to hop up on the windowsill. It was too high. He tried again. And again. And again.
This was a problem. If he couldn’t get out the window, his escape was going to be wholly imaginary.
“Think twice, do once,” he reminded himself. He took a brief stroll around the room looking for something—anything—upon which he could step to get up to the window.
He found nothing. No buckets. No chests. No nothing but towels, bedclothes, and the shelves themselves.
The shelves themselves.
He hurried back to the window. There was enough space for him to get between the last shelving unit and the window, but not much more. The lowest shelf was a good few inches off the floor. It wasn’t much, but it might just be enough. He put his left foot on the lowest shelf, his right hand on the windowsill, and his left hand on a higher shelf.
He took a breath and pushed with every limb be had.
He had half a buttock on the windowsill when the entire shelving unit screeched across the wood floor.
His half buttock slipped from the window and he landed square on his back with a resounding thud.
Two heartbeats later, he heard people moving downstairs. He leapt to his feet and, knowing no impulse other than to run, he ran out the door and cast a desperate glance about. There was nothing on this floor but nuns’ rooms, the infirmary, and the High Mother’s chambers.
The High Mother’s Chambers included a balcony that overlooked the yard. In a flash, Oliver sprinted to her door, opened it, slid into the chamber, and shut and latched the door from the inside.
Then he took a breath. Then another. Then he looked around and sprinted to the door to the balcony. He slipped through it and hopped up on the railing. He slid his legs over the railing and gingerly lowered himself to the point where he was holding on to the edge of the balcony, his body and legs dangling below it.
He heard a noise and looked up right into the face of the High Mother. “Oliver! What are you doing?” she screamed.
Oliver looked down and immediately questioned every decision he’d ever made.
He faced forward, seeing the underside of the balcony and the wall it was attached to. There was a spider there, repairing her web. She fastened a thread of web in place and climbed to the underside of the balcony to attach it there. Then she dropped straight down, trailing a thread behind her.
He took a breath, held it, and pushed off with everything he had, allowing himself to fall into the yard. The landing knocked the breath out of him, but he rolled to his feet in an instant and—scrambling over the wall—he ran into the night.