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The Ways of Parting


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By Samuel Horton

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Kritana lowered his head as he brought the open tea infuser towards his nose. He closed his eyes and breathed in, delighting his senses with the perfume unique to the vegetative tracts of Duskeron. A flitter of images crossed the inside of his eyelids — an orange forest, silhouettes of ancient satellite dishes along the horizon, scorched sandstone pillars. Kritana opened his eyes as he snapped the tea infuser closed. He gingerly lowered the meshed device into a steaming cup of water.

A faint moaning echoed from outside. Kritana paused and turned towards the balcony. Upon listening, there appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. He turned back towards the table and resumed his methodical process of bobbing the tea filter in the water. The key was to not scorch the tea or have it burst; his former students to the south had worked far too arduously for such a precious gift to be compromised.

Another dehydrated moan emanated from the outdoors, drawing Kritana’s attention once more. He frowned as he looked back towards the balcony. He would not have suffered this most any other day, but this one was particularly muggy, resulting in him vacating the Headmaster’s Quarters. Even as a native to the desert, Kritana had his limits — just as he had limits when it came to obnoxious students imitating cats in heat directly outside his auxiliary workspace.

There was no further caterwauling to be heard — Kritana resumed his care for the tea. Perhaps it was serendipity that he was relegated to continuing his work in the open air of the balcony. Afterall, he had a prior engagement planned with Professor Flame; Halley’s Comet was due for its closest approach that night and as two of Thanabus’ keenest minds, they intended on marveling at its magnificence.

A long, exasperated moan — nay, a shout — filled the air. Kritana lurched with a start, resulting in the tea infuser bursting open, spilling out its contents. Kritana stiffly leaned over the cup and looked down, to see his once-beautiful beverage reduced to a porcelain bog. Kritana stood up straight and sighed.

Kritana lifted the teacup off its coaster and headed to the open door. He stepped through the doorframe and began descending down the steps spiraling along the interior of Apsis Tower, gazing into his pitiful experiment all the while. His first order of business would be to dispose of this rubbish onto the guilty culprit’s head. A sweaty pupil in his early twenties was climbing the stairs and barely stepped out of Kritana’s path.

“Ah, Headmaster? I wish to discuss-“

“My assistant, Felix, has all the answers!” Kritana declared, his eyes not leaving the teacup.

“But, Headmaster,” the young man said hesitantly, “I am Felix.”

All the answers!”

Using his shoulder, Kritana pushed the heavy wooden door open and stepped out onto the front steps of Apsis Tower. With the Sun drawing sweat out of him, Kritana squinted as he walked up to the trimmed hedges nearby and flipped his teacup upside down, emptying its contents. As he flicked the teacup for extra measure, he heard that familiar whimpering noise — the bane of his afternoon. He turned to see a sixteen-year-old boy sitting at the top of the steps on the opposite side, tightly hunched over and with his face buried in his lap. This young man was of dark complexion, handsome, toned, well-groomed and dressed in distinctly ornate gold-colored robes. Kritana immediately recognized him as being a native of Duskeron. He meandered over to the young man and looked down at him.

“Though the waters here are more plentiful, the thunder from tears cascades just as loudly as they do in the desert,” Kritana mused.

The young man went stiff, before jerking his head up to see Kritana towering over him. “Dalc- Headmaster Kritana!” he exclaimed, as he struggled to cover the face-shaped tear stains on his robes. The young man stood up and faced Kritana.

“What could possibly chill you on a day like this?” Kritana asked.

“Oh,” the young man said with a feigned, cocky grin, “sometimes a man just needs to cry, to show that he can if he wants to — that nobody is perfect, even if they look it. There are plenty of stars in the sky and they’d all be lucky to have their light reach us. Sure, you may have had that one star that burned brighter and seemed to have been made for you — that one that just went dark one day — but that light was years older and not on the same wavelength. You know what I’m saying?”

Kritana stared blankly over his spectacles at the young man. He watched him fidget, with his mouth contorting as he trembled.

“I have no idea what the hell you are saying.”

The young man burst into tears. Using his sleeves, he covered up his eyes, as he slowly turned around and began taking the steps down from the doors of Apsis Tower. Kritana looked around, to see students and professors alike casting perturbed glances as they passed. This was certainly not what Kritana had in mind for his afternoon leisure time. He took a step forward and wrapped his arm around the student’s shoulders. Before the young man could react, Kritana directed him back towards the tower.

“Come,” Kritana said. “You are in no shape to galivant across the campus — and, I am struggling to fix my beverage. Perhaps we may help one another during this mutually dire hour?”

Kritana led the young man into the tower and climbed the stairs together. Though Kritana was sixty, keeping up with his companion was hardly a challenge, with the youngster dragging his feet with every stride. Kritana stopped outside his office midway up and silently waved his hand, beckoning the pupil to enter the muggy room. Kritana exhaled with a hoot as he entered the office, fanning the air around his face.

“I propose we first gather refreshments, before making our timely ascension to the lower balcony, as the Sun is rather boisterous today, wouldn’t you say? I’m going to indulge in some tea from back ‘home’ — would you care for some? Or, perhaps something stronger?” Kritana asked, as he looked up towards the cabinet behind his desk.

“Chilled Enceladus?”

Kritana looked at the young man, then back at the cabinet, where an old half-filled blue bottle was glistening at the top. Kritana cast a bemused expression at his pupil, expecting a sarcastic grin. But, no; the boy was deadly serious. Brushing aside the child’s insolence in this confusing time, Kritana chuckled and wagged his finger. He opened the cabinet and extracted a small bronze can from a lower shelf.

“I have here a coffee bean from Grimchester, Sevrend. Their mayor, Nana Mara, is a delight and an old friend. The people from the southwest,” Kritana said, as he loaded up a silver platter with accessories, “though ununified and in many shades, host many of the best in that harsh land. Forgive me; Chilled Enceladus — it is exceptionally rare and that one bottle required feats beyond most life purposes. There is a saying that accompanies it: ‘The best will arrive, when you arrive at your best.’”

Kritana turned around, to see the young man sitting in a chair, his face buried in his hands, with tears dripping between his fingers. Kritana hurried around his desk and kneeled down in front of the young man.

“Was it something I said? I am sorry; I did not mean it as any slight towards you.”

“No… Well, yes, actually… A little bit of everything,” the young man said as he looked Kritana in the eye. “Anymore, I know I don’t understand much of anything. I mean, I thought I understood Sevrend until I didn’t… Then, I thought of that drink as anything else, until I hear from someone like you that it isn’t a privilege, so much as a trophy… I’ve been given so many participation trophies, Headmaster.”

Kritana shook his head, “How could you have such a perspective, young man? I see a good heart, yet your appreciation for not only the common touch, but reality in general…”

“I’m still trying to figure it out. I always figured that running through the hanging gardens — Mom’s vineyard,” the young man mused aloud.

“‘Mom’s vin’ — who are you?”

“Mars Scarrow.”

“Do you mean to tell me… that you are the son of Trade King Noss Scarrow?” Kritana asked, his voice tainted with fear. This day was metamorphosizing quickly and it had finally reached a point where he was dealing with the emotional crisis of the heir to a foreign nation — with the wrong words, it could become a diplomatic crisis. He abruptly turned around and reached for the Chilled Enceladus at the top of the cabinet.

“Please, no,” Mars pleaded, “it’s perfectly alright! Coffee will do. I’m trying to empathize better and feeling humble is a grand place to start.”

Kritana nodded, as he turned back toward the table. He slowly took his seat, groaning from a lifetime of physical and mental exertion bearing down on him in a single moment. Kritana locked his fingers atop his great belly, eyeballing his pupil from over his round spectacles. He smiled at Mars.

“Why don’t you tell me why you feel humble?”

Mars arched his back with his eyes closed as he reclined against the steps of Smyrill Library. He enjoyed the feeling of the marble ridges against him and the aroma from the deep woods of Solarwood. He took in every sound; the different birdcalls, the fluttering of leaves and the wind sweeping over the heaping terrain, from the small mounds to the majestic Hills of Creation in the distance. The woods were so very populated by fauna that a hermit could never truly be alone in these parts.

Mars opened his eyes and looked over to his right, to marvel at Tina sitting a short distance over on the same step. There was a particular attractive quality to her, with the way she wore a simple loose-fitting gray wool shirt, yet seemed so far from common, as she stoically gazed out onto the world. The way the Sun met her light-brown skin and reflected off her steel eyes, without eliciting so much as a flicker of her eyelids, it made her both insatiably desirable and stunningly intimidating. Mysteriously in lieu of those keen triggers of the five senses the rest of Mars’ surroundings provoked, there was an indescribable magnificence, when it came to Tina.

“You know, I have two years to go at Burkhalter’s. But, you don’t,” Mars said, as he watched for a reaction. “How does it sound, you accompanying me back to Majda and meeting my father?”

“That sounds awful,” Tina said, without breaking her gaze. “‘Make way for Prince Mars! Yet, who is that slight-looking Sevrendi peasant? Why, I presume it’s his elephant’s private dung girl, of course!’”

“Don’t be like that. We could have you dressed so nobody would think anything out-of-sorts about you.”

Before Mars could blink, Tina was staring directly at him, lobotomizing him with those steel eyes. If he could make a wish upon a falling star, it would be for it to strike him right then and put him out of his misery. Perhaps the right topic change would backtrack him out of this minefield.

“No Dusker courtesy, then. How about your father… Asher?”

Tina looked away and stood up, facing away from Mars. “Asher, who sent me on a one-way trip here six years ago — never telling me why? Asher, who frightened away my friends growing up, saying ‘humanity could never be trusted’? Asher, who never let me take up his last name, despite claiming me as his daughter? That ‘father’?”

Mars hung his head and considered his predicament. He understood that the differences in both age and background were coming to heel with Tina’s impending graduation and the couple had neglected to seriously consider these plans in the time leading to this impasse. Tina had generally not held this radioactive mood, meaning it was only recently weighing heavy on her mind, as well.

Mars rose to his feet and walked up behind Tina. He placed his hand gently on her shoulder, ushering her to turn around. She hung her head low, gazing down at her loafers. That piercing intensity was lost, once more reminding Mars that she was not steel or extraterrestrial — despite her efforts to appear so. Like him, she was a child of several nations, with no firm grounding with the coming-of-age.

“You are the smartest woman I have ever heard of; you could still accomplish great wonders here in Solarwood. Are you wishing to stay?” Mars asked.

“I’ve spent far too long in Claudius’ toy castle,” Tina said, as she looked out towards Apsis Tower, peeking from above the tree line. “I need to keep moving and be somewhere beyond the eyes of the Republic.”

“Like back home, in Sevrend?”

Tina shook her head. “I don’t know if I can look Asher in the eye again — not after so long without hearing from him. Maybe,” Tina smiled at Mars, “we could find something beyond either of our visions, out in the dunes of Duskeron — the real desert — away from Majda.”

Mars opened his mouth as he considered his words. “Tina… I don’t think that can happen. As I come into my own, I’m going to be drawn only further towards Majda… And… I need to be there, as the world changes.”

“What are you talking about?” Tina asked with a confused smile.

“Well… there are certain calls that are made and in the long run, it’s best that I’m there for them — for instance, a new trade agreement.”

“‘A new trade agreement’?” Tina asked suspiciously.

“Like one that my father made with the President, which provides Republic territories with unilateral prioritization,” Mars said, his voice wavering.

Tina stepped back and gazed at Mars, her expression full of horror. After what seemed like a painful eternity, she spoke, “‘Republic territories’… Ediseau and Solarwood… bartered with Duskeron, leaving what little corner out, I wonder?”

“Tina,” Mars said as he stepped forward, “I didn’t ask for this, nor do I want it. But, this is bigger than you and I; if my father doesn’t engage with the Republic and these invisible walls remain, who knows what will happen? He needs all the help he can get.”

Tina turned and walked down several steps, before wheeling around to yell, “What more can you give? Are you going to lick Claudius’ chamber pot next, Trade Prince?!”

“I will, if it means not going to war!” Mars shouted.

“A deal bartered between the father of my love and the monster who scraped my ancestors away to Sevrend, like leftovers from a plate,” she shouted, her voice cracking from anguish.

“What was he supposed to do? They were criminals!”

Tina turned away and stared out towards Apsis Tower. Mars began gingerly taking steps down the stairs, careful to not make a sudden movement — as if his girlfriend were ferocious wildlife. Tina remained motionless, purposefully hiding her terrible rage away.

“Please,” Mars said, “I need you to talk with me. In fact, I need you now more than ever. We can get through this, but that means you need to talk. Please, talk. Please, talk to me. Talk to me.”

Tina remained motionless.

“Talk to me, damn you!” Mars shouted.

“What did you just say to me?” Tina shakily asked, as she slowly turned towards Mars. Her eyes were full of tears, but she was not pitiful; with her teeth bared and her rage comprehensive, she was more terrifying than anything Mars had ever seen in his life. “I will turn your desert to glass if you speak of my family again!”

“Do you mind?” a stern voice cried out from within Smyrill Library. An elderly woman in a gray robe stomped out and stopped at the top of the steps. She looked between Mars and Tina. “This is a library, not a theater!”

“Then give my buddy a hand and help Claudius burn books!” Tina bellowed. She stormed off down the path, leaving Mars and the librarian staring in disbelief.

“That was yesterday. Now she’s gone,” Mars said, as he ran his finger through the residual coffee grounds at the bottom of his mug.

“Are you going to try and win her back?” Kritana asked.

Mars looked out over the campus. Through the thick of their heart-to-heart, he and Kritana had somehow made it up to the much cooler balcony. With a grimace, Mars replied, “I meant every word of what I said. I can’t elope to the desert and leave my father to deal with the Republic alone.”

“My Trade Prince, I may be unmarried, yet I am all too familiar with the motions of love. Even the most compatible relationships will have uninsulated points of contention. For you and Tina-What’s-Her-Face, yours is politics,” Kritana explained.

Mars looked at Kritana and nodded, “We successfully avoided it for years. But, I never sought it out; I was born a politician. Like with the Chilled Enceladus, I didn’t earn it, so much as I was bottle-fed it. In the end, Tina was another casualty, broken against my silver spoon.”

Kritana nodded as he stared out over the campus.

“She’s wrong about Claudius, right?” Mars asked.

Kritana leaned forward, as he set his teacup on the Ottoman to his left. He looked at Mars and asked, “Are you familiar with the Temple of the Autonauts?”

“That old, charred building on Unmajestic Boulevard?”

“It was the final place of worship for the now-extinct Autonaut religion, comprised of the belief that we were sparked by twelve metal deities. My earliest days were spent in acolyte robes, sweeping the halls and lighting cube-shaped candles, beckoning our overlords to save us from ourselves. It was never for me,” Kritana said, taking care to look Mars in the eye. He cringed as he continued, “You can imagine the disappointment my father felt when I pursued a life of unadulterated science… and the pain I felt… when he was killed, along with his entire congregation.”

Mars perked up. “His congregation?”

“The last Voice of the Autonauts… The last high priest. The bombing tore my heart asunder and nearly brought me to an early end twenty years ago. But, there was one man who held me together. He reinvigorated my passion and ensured that I would be the next Headmaster of Burkhalter’s Academy,” Kritana said. “I owe him my life.”

Mars gulped as he looked out into empty space. Kritana could almost see the cogs of the young pupil’s mind turning before his eyes. Mars stood up and walked out onto the balcony and stared down at the cobblestone two stories down. He held his hands behind his back and began tapping his wrists.

“During your darkest hour, you learned to regret straying from your father.”

Kritana stood up and walked to the spot next to Mars. “I needed to become my own man. Every path we take in life means that another is unexplored. Sometimes, it hurts to realize that other lost path. But, yes; the passion of my mind cost me the passion of my heart.”

“Yet, in that darkest hour… Arch Claudius was that man… He was there for you.”

Kritana frowned as he turned towards Mars. Alas, Mars was not sorrowful or even contemplative anymore; he was beaming with enthusiasm. Kritana looked over his glasses at him. Those cogs in Mars’ mind were no longer turning, as a conclusion had been made — a wrong one.

“Well…” Kritana began to speak.

Mars beamed with enthusiasm as he walked past Kritana. Pacing aimlessly, he chewed on the callous on his index finger as he made vague swiping motions with his other arm, trying different imitations of swordplay.

“‘Trade Prince’, ‘Heir to the Dusker Trading Company’… but then, ‘Champion of the Republic’… the ‘Seeker of Unity!’”

“Young Scarrow…”

“Unstable doors fall off their hinges, only to be replaced with resolute iron ones! I owe you everything for this — as will my father! Thank you for the coffee!” Mars shouted, as he bolted down the stairs.

Kritana was left standing alone on the balcony, flabbergasted. He looked over the railing, to see Mars bursting through the front doors of Apsis Tower. The young prince sprinted in the direction of the Government District. Kritana looked down at his Ottoman, where his empty teacup was sitting. He picked it and the coaster up and looked inside, to see the fine bits of leaf resting in miniscule mounds in the small brown puddle at the bottom. Despite his best efforts, the Dusker tea had settled poorly.

“Oh, dear,” Kritana muttered under his breath.

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The Ways of Parting was originally published in EmberSword on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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