Farian wakes me at some ungodly hour.
He comes in like he lives here, drags me out of bed, and gets me into a pair of boots. My corner candle’s out, so I can’t even see which cloak he throws around my shoulders or which hat he slaps on my head. Farian would say that’s for the best. According to him, fashion and I were never properly introduced. He’s always threatening to throw away my favorite dresses. It is a point of contention between us.
We stumble through the dark. Someone’s asleep on the couch. An uncle, but I couldn’t say which one. They all snore the same. Empty bottles spin away from my clumsy steps. Farian keeps a steady hand on my back until we’re in the candlelight of the kitchen. He sets a cup of coffee in my hands, lets me take a few sips, and then pushes me out the door.
It should be black at this hour, but the sky’s cloud-clear, and the stars recognize a stage when it’s there. Dueling nebulas slash over the dark, rolling mesas. I hear Doctor Vass explain, “Each light is a sun. To each sun, planets. To each planet, moons. How endless it all is. . . .”
Farian looks back. “You awake yet?”
“No talking until I can see what color your clothes are.”
He laughs. Farian has always laughed easily. Doesn’t know his way around a joke, but he always makes you feel like you do. My best friend and confidant lopes ahead, his limp barely noticeable, a satchel full of camera gear tucked under one thick arm. He’s always been big. Fourth son in a family of farmers, with three older brothers that have all grown even bigger than he is. But that’s because Farian’s made his world more than digging irrigation pits. He skips out on his chores to enhance photographs or edit our film series. He’s bound for an education if he keeps at it, as long as his parents don’t disown him before he can get there.
We’re not the only ones awake at this hour. The door to Amaya’s bar bangs open, and three ranch hands slide out into the slick shadows, laughing and singing the wrong words to “The March of Ashes.” Farian hums the tune long after we’ve passed them.
Down the road, a pair of postmen trot past on slender mounts. Both tip their brims, looking like any other riders but for the government-issued gloves threaded with gold and the sacks full of letters strung to their saddles. We arrive at the ranch well before sunrise. It’s dead and dark, quiet-like. The stars are fading.
“Looks empty,” Farian says. “Only Martial is out there.”
I squint, but Farian’s eyes have always been better than mine. I can’t make out much beyond the nearest row of fence posts, but there’s nothing surprising about the quiet. It’s a holy day. “The Ashlords only bow to the gods,” I remind him.
He snorts but says nothing. We’ve caught hell for skipping Gathering the past few years, but we both know it’s the only way to get any respectable riding time. Martial owns the only Dividian-friendly ranch in the district. He won the Races about twenty years ago and used the prize money to build his own ranch and buy his own herd of phoenixes. He promised it would be a training ground to hopeful Dividian riders who couldn’t afford their own horses. Like him.
It was a stunning kindness.
Until the money started running out. It always does. Gold is worth less when it’s in Dividian pockets. Not to mention they tax Dividian landowners twice as much. A few years back, Martial opened the ranch to some of the lesser Ashlord nobles. Carved out just a few days of the week at first, but it wasn’t long until he was booked solid. I don’t blame him, either. Ruling-class gold pays too well to turn down.
“What’s it going to be today?” Farian asks, glancing back again. “Something new?”
“Something old,” I reply with a smile. “Something long forgotten.”
We head in different directions. Farian strides out to talk with Martial. He’s been working up to asking the old champ to do a biopic, but Farian’s about as careful as thunder. Won’t make any noise until he’s sure lightning’s already struck. I leave them to it, heading for the stalls.
Martial might have sold out to the Ashlords, but there’s still no ranch like his. As a Dividian, I get to ride his phoenixes free of charge. And he slashes component prices by half. He even lets us pay off all the expenses through a little side work. I’m pretty sure there’s no better setup in the Empire, at least not for a Dividian like me.
His barn is a fine thing, too. All stone, with slightly sloping roofs and lamps dangling every few paces. I walk the outer courtyard, hearing horses occasionally stomp in their stalls on my left, seeing columns and arches running on my right. Martial sank most of his winnings into the place. People called it a mistake, but the quality of the facility is the only reason gold keeps moving from Ashlord pockets into his accounts. He has seven city-bred families boarding horses here, and more on the waiting list. I’m just glad he hasn’t turned the whole place in that direction. He’s still got about eight of his own horses, and they’re the closest I’ll ever come to calling one my own.
At the end of the yard, a great red door waits. I lift both latches and put my whole body into a shove. The door opens into the dark. I smile as a great smash of scents carry through the opening. I follow them inside. Practiced hands find the lamp thread and I give it a pull. The bulb takes its time, warming the room with light, brightening until I can see the endless containers with all their precious powders. All those possibilities . . .
I remove a half-ripped theater poster from the pocket of my riding jacket. Proper paper is too expensive, but street litter and old playbills are always free. I copy ingredients from the poster to one of Martial’s inventory forms. I cringe, though, when I see the price he has listed for unborn ash.
“Seventy legions. Pick my pockets, why don’t you, Martial.”
After a second, I scribble the component down. I know today’s video will make up for the cost eventually. It still stings to use anything that costs that much. I haven’t taken on a component with a price that steep since my disaster last year with powdered gold. Burned through a hundred fifty legions in less than two clockturns. But I won’t make that mistake again.
After noting each component, I take five racing containers and link them up. Martial’s cubes are a cheaper version, about a fourth the size of the Race-regulation ones, but I’m only doing one rebirth anyway.
It takes a few minutes to locate each component, measure out what I’ve purchased, and strap the cubes to my riding belt. I lock the door behind me and find Martial rolling a cigarette outside. He keeps his thinning hair long and pulled back in a knot. His eyes are bright and blue, so shockingly Dividian that it’s like looking across oceans, a few hundred years into our past. I can almost see our ancestors arriving on the shores of the Empire for the first time, eyes bright with desire.
He nods once. “Imelda Beru,” he says. “The Alchemist.”
“That name was Farian’s choice. He says we need a brand if we want it to sell.”
Martial taps the end of his cigarette. Dissatisfied, he starts rolling it again.
“Smart kid,” he says. “I watched your last video. Some twelve thousand views, no?”
“Enough to pay you back, and buy Farian a new lens.”
“What an age,” Martial says. “Getting paid for people to click on a box.”
“The modern world has its charms,” I reply. “Speaking of which, sun’s rising.”
He glances out, nods once. “Seventh stall. Your ashes are waiting.”
I thank him and head that way. He and I both know the sun won’t touch the ranch for another twenty minutes, but talking with Martial makes me nervous these days. He’s a man of hints. Idle comments intended to stir me up. Too often he talks about the Races with Farian. He thinks I have a chance to be chosen as this year’s Qualifier. There’s also a chance I’ll be devoured by wolves, but I’m not betting on either one. Martial was chosen all those years ago, and a man who’s been struck by lightning always thinks it’s likely to happen again.
Opening the seventh stall, I find the ashes piled neatly in a metal box. I lift them up, careful with the lid, and start my search for Farian.
The land stretches north and south of the barns, and even though the estate’s massive, Farian’s been complaining about the shots getting stale. Like me, though, he knows we’re lucky to even have this option. I find him at the south end of the property, navigating the low limbs of Martial’s lonely shoestring tree. He doesn’t like climbing, but by the time I reach him, he’s wedged fifteen feet in the air. The mountains glow with coming gold. I frown up at him.
“You’re going through all this trouble to film a Stoneside rebirth?”
Farian shoots me a furious look. “You serious? Why would you do Stoneside again?”
I grin at him. “Just snacking on you, Farian.”
He flicks me off, laughs, then almost drops his camera. We both gasp, then laugh again when he catches it to his chest. He shakes his head, like I’m the one who almost dropped the thing.
“I hope you have something good for me,” he says, glancing back through the branches. “I think this lighting will be flawless. It’s the only time we’ve ever done a camera angle this high, you know? I’m thinking of doing some crosscutting for this one, if you ride well.”
“Crosscutting,” I say. “Glad to hear that. I was going to suggest . . . crosscutting.”
He makes a face. “It’s when you--”
When he sees my face, though, he goes quiet. We’ve played this game too many times. He talks like a textbook and I end up . . . distracted. He gets annoyed; I get mad.
“You film. I ride. It’s simple.”
“Gods below,” he says, eyeing the light again. “Get me to a university already. I’d like to have a proper conversation about montages and backlighting with someone.”
I smile up at him. “I thought you talked about all that stuff with Doctor Vass.”
“For fifteen minutes.” Farian shrugs. “Not his area of expertise.”
“Guess you’ll have to go to university.”
“Guess so,” he says, but his voice is full of doubt.
His family doesn’t send off to school. Neither does mine. Every uncle and cousin is proof enough of that. Education is reserved for Ashlords and city-born Dividian with deep pockets. Out in the rural villages, we’re more likely to inherit trades. Both Farian and I spend most of our time ignoring the trade we’ve been pegged for since birth. Farian knows as much about farming as a chicken. And I know even less about charming and getting married to a boy. My parents are already hinting that I can’t spend my life riding other people’s horses. One day they’ll shrug and say that all we can do is make the best of the world the Ashlords offer us.
But on holy days--while the Ashlords worship their gods--I forget all of that. I walk out to greet the sunrise and become who I really am.
He jams an elbow into his lap, turning the lens slightly. At his signal, I start spreading the ashes out over the ground. They’re still warm, so I take quick handfuls and sweep them out in a flat, even circle. I don’t flinch away from the heat, not after Farian claimed my cowardice ruined his shot a few months ago. I am as bright and fiery as the creature I will summon.
Once that’s done, I unclip the cubes from my belt, flipping the individual lids so Farian has a good angle on each stored component. Sunrise isn’t far off. I lift my eyes to Farian, focused on the camera. He’s been walking me through the acting cues, but I always need a deep breath before we start, no matter how many videos we’ve made. He signals, and I begin.
“Good morning.” I offer the camera an unnatural smile. “My name is Imelda Beru, also known as the Alchemist. First, I wanted to thank all of you for watching our recent videos. If you missed our Stoneside or Fearless rebirths, you’ll find the link to those videos below.
“Today, we’re staying with the theme of vintage rebirths. Everyone knows the standard resurrections these days. Those are tired. They’re boring. All we have to do is look back at the pages of history to see just how inventive phoenix rebirths used to be. Since you don’t have time to wade through codices and scrolls, I’ve done your homework for you. Here’s a rebirth I like to call Trust Fall.”
Farian leans out from behind his camera long enough to roll his eyes at my chosen title. I kneel down, hiding my laughter as I take a healthy pinch of locust dust.
“You’re going to start with an outer ring of locust,” I explain, letting the powder feed between my fingers and highlighting the circle’s border with a deep tan color. “Keep the circle unbroken. You want your locust to burn hard and quick. You’ll know you did it right if there’s the faintest trace of sandstone coloring just as sunrise hits.
“Next: gypsum and limestone.” I empty those containers into a central pile on my ashes, mixing them slowly with both fingers. “You’ll want to lightly mix them, but don’t spread them out too far. Three fingers of height will guarantee your mixture doesn’t burn away.”
As I hold up the last cube, I throw a wicked grin at the camera.
“Now, unborn ashes are as vintage as it gets. Our ancestors lived in a crueler world. Blood sacrifices every month and gods roaming the land. Unborn ashes aren’t the cheapest component in the storeroom, but they’re what you need if you want to call on the powers of old. Make another circle.” I take a handful of the dead ashes. They’re so cold that the hairs on that arm start to rise. “Place them inside the locust powder, but ringed outside the mixture of gypsum and limestone. Make the circle thick and add them just before sunlight hits.”
I stand back, wiping my hands clean and gesturing past the camera.