For Better or Worse, Pt. 1: The Drawing Room
My eyes sealed tightly, I barely breathe as the hush fills the room with an uncomfortable stillness. The drawing feels too long, longer than the other three I’ve attended as a pupil. No one speaks. I can hear no movement. Did I miss it? Have they already announced the chosen, my anxiety causing me not to hear it? Images flash through my mind of the three drawings which ended in being passed over by younger pupils. Doubt overtakes my hope and I accidentally exhale too loudly. Head bowed, I crack my eyelids to find my hands clenched tightly around wads of my dress. I glance around the assembly to make sure I didn’t disrupt the ceremony. I see the crowd of attendants murmuring between one another. Are they staring straight at me? Are they pointing out my visible paranoia?
I release the grip on my dress, trying to calm the heaving in my chest, and focus my attention to the platformed table where the group of eleven men and women spoke in even tones to one another. They simply appear more elite than everyone else in the room. I tune out the crowd in the assembly who stare openly at me--if they’re even staring at me. I try to tune out the throbbing of my head and the screaming in my ears. Is someone really screaming or is that just me? I catch myself trying to locate it in the crowd.
Someone clears their throat, breaking the stillness--which had turned into tension--and bringing everything to a halt at the same time. It came from the elite table. My throat feels scratchy now, but I resist every urge to make another sound again.
Am I the only one who feels this drawing is lingering a bit too long? I try to preach my way through the invading idea. You’re afraid. This is it for you, so you’re freaking out over nothing. It’s no longer than the other drawings. You just...didn’t have as much at stake. That’s an understatement to say the least. I was nervous at the other drawings too, so they could have felt long. But was I this nervous?
I allow myself one glance at the section of the crowd intentionally set aside from the rest of the attendees. Ten men, women, and children of varying ages look painfully bored with their uncomfortable-looking clothing and near perfect posture. Are they trained for that? I straighten my back without thinking. My eyes fall on the single empty chair on the back row of that section, and I feel my hands tightening around my dress again.
The final chair. My final chance.
I look again at the ten ul’Ahnurs. Not one of them will meet my gaze. If they look upon one of the pupils not chosen, they might feel guilt at the thought of what will happen to that pupil. It’s best if they not make eye-contact with any of us--especially me. Each of them once stood in this very place, waiting as anxiously as me--maybe not quite as anxious--and facing the possibility of termination from everything they’d ever known. They now each spend his or her life as a apprentice to an Ahnur, collectively making the ruling body of the city.
No one knows exactly what happens to a pupil who turns seventeen without being chosen as an ul’Ahnur. They’re never seen again. But I’ll know soon enough if this drawing turns out like my other three chances. My instructors tell me this is actually my fourth drawing, but I was only infant for the first. That information doesn’t exactly infuse me with a lot of hope.
My eyes drift to my fellow pupils, twenty-three in all including myself. I’m the oldest by at least five years. There are two infants this drawing...how fortunate for them if one is drawn, growing up completely devoid of the fear of termination. I fight off another wave of terror. Have I really been here for sixteen years? Have I really been passed over four times?
I shouldn’t feel so badly for being “passed over.” The drawing is completely left to chance. Every pupil has the same odds of being chosen, with no way to raise or lower their chances. This being only the fifth opportunity in my lifetime to become an ul’Ahnur, many other pupils have outgrown their welcome here and have been terminated. I don’t know why I should feel this to be an extremely cruel fate. It’s the way of the Ahnur. An ul’Ahnur can only be chosen when an Ahnur dies and the need arises. There’s nothing that can change that fact.
So here I stand, hands clenching my dress and my eyes dry and itching, still fighting off the urge to clear my throat. Something clatters one the elites table and catches my attention. The dice roll finally begins. My personal symbol--my identity to the Ahnurs--is etched on one of the twenty-three die pieces. The small cubed stones will battle head-to-head for my fate. They will not announce the results of each round, leaving the pupils and myself to wait the final cast.
My heart barely beats at this point. The silence has reentered the room. Or have I gone deaf from my panic? I try popping my ears open. My dress feels wet from the sweat of my balled fists. A bead of sweat trickles down my face. I think it’s sweat--it may be a stray tear. I’ve never been an emotional person. But I might die today...that’s never really happened.
The clatter of dice continues to echo in the small room. Long minutes pass, and I can no longer regulate my fear-induced thoughts. I begin to fantasize on what actually happens in termination. Is it actual death? Or is it something worse?
My thoughts drown me in their heaviness. And that’s when one of the Ahnurs finally addresses the entire assembly. I watch her mouth move without hearing her voice. But the gasps from everyone else catch my attention and my stomach twists as I realize they’re all looking at me. I suddenly process the sounds of the woman’s voice.
“Pupil Quantis, Elesia. You have been chosen to become Elesia ul’Ahnur.”
I think I stop breathing for a full minute as the entire room bursts into talking voices, some laughter, a few congratulatory shouts in my honor. I’m too stunned to move. Is this real? Did she really just say my name? I look at the elite table again to be sure and see the woman still standing with her words hanging fresh in the air. She nods once.
“You will serve Vareth Ahnur with all wisdom and submission.”
I look to the end of table to find the youngest of all of the elites. His bald head glistens as if waxed, yet his eyes hold no such twinkle. He doesn’t smile, or give any indication that I exist. My elation turns once again to dread. I’ve survived, haven’t I? I beat the termination! I don’t have to fear anymore...right?
Is it actual death? Or is it something worse? I’ve won the chance to live as an ul’Ahnur. Or is that a death in itself?
Or something much worse?