Chapters 1 & 2 of “Demae’s Story” by Betsy Gahman

Chapter One

Ilyya crossed her legs primly and smoothed her skirt. The cherry blossom petals overlapped to create an elegant dress that smelled faintly of the fruit they could form. She trilled before beginning her song.

“Where the wind blows

I follow with my nose,

The shining sun

Cannot escape or run,

Ilyya I am:

Great huntress of the wood!”

A chuckle erupted from under her branch, and Ilyya peered through the leaves. A Faerie wearing a suit of pine-needles lounged in a particularly large hollow left by a broken branch. He stood up, stretched, and flew to sit next to Ilyya.

“Very clever, sister. Do all your songs end in such a self-glorifying way?” Ilyya felt her cheeks grow hot as she retorted,

“At least I sing what is in my head, instead of borrowing the words of others, Hneus.”

“Ah, but I don’t just use others’ words. You should give me more credit; I work very hard at my songs. Listen:

You use your nose

To find people when wind blows,

The bright bold sun

Wishes that you would run,

Ilyya, sister:

Leave and improve our mood!

See? I can – Ow!”

Ilyya left Hneus to rub his burning cheek and flew farther from the center of the Forest.

“What a smart-mouth! Who is he to tell me what to do? I am a full two seasons older than him, and he presumes to tell me how to praise the Designmaster! One day Looren will hear of his silliness and then he’ll be sorry.” The vehemence of Ilyya’s internal tantrum fueled her wings and she continued zipping past trees until the edge of the Forest loomed in front of her. Pulling up short, she gazed out at the foreign world.

“I wonder what the air tastes like out there. The people are all so strange and hurrying. Not like Looren. He walks slowly and talks to anybody who wants to. So many of those people out there don’t even look at each other! Strange, strange people, living in brown and grey. Don’t they get tired of those two colors?”

She looked past the tall buildings and steamy air, and felt she could see the rumors she had heard of; wide open spaces with noble mountains rising before buffeting touch of the wind.

“What would it be like to fly in the wind and sunshine with only the peaks for company? I love my trees,” She placed a hand on the branch next to her, “But sometimes I can’t play with the wind as freely as I want. They get in the way, and only move if they feel like it.” She sent a withering frown back into the Forest and addressed the trees. “Maybe if you would play with me, I wouldn’t want to leave the forest. But I don’t want to become Witless. Why is it one or the other, Designmaster? Why can’t I leave the Forest and keep my Wits?” The gentle whispering of the wind was her only answer, and Ilyya turned back to gaze at the outside world.

Beings, humans, people, walked past the Forest without so much as giving it a glance. Ilyya had noticed that for the past three hundred years, or so, humans didn’t seem to want admit that the Forest existed. But there it stood. They could ignore it, but it wasn’t going away. A lilting sound caught Ilyya’s ear and she searched the crowd for the elusive hum.

“There! That girl there! She’s singing!” So few of the humans sung that Ilyya always watched those who did with particular attention. Singing was the very reason that Faeries existed in the Designmaster’s plan. Humans who sang must be something special. The girl seemed huge to Ilyya, although humans would think her a bit small. Rebellious black curls escaped from the simple hat the girl wore, letting the wind tug them different directions as it blew by. Her clothing was simple, just a pleated skirt with a blouse and sweater. Sturdy shoes and stockings matched the dull brown color of the rest of her clothes. Ilyya knew from watching humans before that this meant the girl was of the middle class. People above the middle class wore very fancy clothes, and people below the middle class wore very holey clothes.

“Why do humans separate themselves from each other? How can they talk and listen to each other if they make each other so different? They don’t make any sense. Surely the Designmaster didn’t tell them to do that.” Desperate to hear the human’s song, Ilyya began flitting along the edge of the Forest.

The massive wood was circular, and stood at the center of Comm City. People were forbidden to go into the Forest, but they were all so afraid of it that no enforcement was needed. Fear of the Old Religion was ingrained so deep that no one had tried to enter the Forest in over 250 years.

“That was so scary. I’m glad Looren was here to protect us!”

Ever since, the humans had kept their distance. That did not stop them from walking near the Forest, however. In fact, it would have been difficult to avoid it. After the fall of the Old Religion, the very first City Council had deemed the Forest harmless and issued the first edict that it be left as a reminder that all false teachings are doomed to abandonment. So they continued building the city that had sprung up around the Forest, and now people from all walks of life walked within two hundred feet of the very place they feared. Ilyya kept just inside the shadows of the Forest as she followed the girl. The human had been humming before, but now she began a soft refrain.

“The one who makes life is,

The one who gives life is,

The one who takes life is,

The ruling king is and will be here forever!”

“A human singing about the Designmaster! They have not worshipped him since before was born!” Ilyya flittered in excitement, dancing from leaf to leaf. Picking up the tune, the Faerie began to hum along as she continued to follow the girl. In all her time watching the humans, Ilyya had never hear one mention the Designmaster, much less sing his praises. Without warning, the girl stopped and peered into the Forest. Ilyya froze, gazing back at the human. “What does she see? Hopefully she didn’t see me. Maybe she heard my humming. I should have sang with her instead of humming; then she wouldn’t have heard me.” The Faerie

continued to wait, tiny body tense and still, for the human girl to end her inspection of the Forest. The words caught in Demae’s throat when she heard a sound come from the Forest next to her. Stopping in her tracks, she peered at the mysterious wood, trying to see past the thick screen of brush and bushes that tried to hide the trees looming over them. Nothing met her gaze.

I was sure I heard something. She blinked slowly. It sounded like a little voice. It was humming with me. Her scrutiny of the Forest didn’t yield a sight of anything, so Demae turned to continue her way home. Spirits above, I must have been imagining things. Although it did feel like someone was watching me. But who would be in the Forest? Surely the tales of goblins and sprites living in

there aren’t true. Nonetheless, Demae moved a little quicker and soon found the street that took her away from the Forest and toward home.

Comm was laid out like a giant ring. The perfectly circular Forest in the center was the middle of the ring, and everything was organized in a circle around it. The original town that had sprung up around the Forest had largely been torn down when the first City Council designed the new plans for the City. There were several main roads that formed larger rings around the Forest, and then hundreds of smaller side-streets ran East to West and North to South, providing practical connections for the larger roads. Not a single road ran through the Forest. Even with the latest technology, no one considered passing through the enigmatic wood a good idea.

This meant for people like Demae, who lived in the East Side but worked in the West Side, that the shortest way to get to work was to walk to the Forest, around either the North or South edge, and then continue the way they needed to go. Unless they had the money for the trolley, of course. Many didn’t. So every day, Demae would make the two hour trek to work before the sun was ready to wake, and then as the sun was going to bed. She was one of many, though, and did not feel any injustice in her difficulty. It was just the way it was. The brown-paper package in her hand felt light, but Demae knew that her mother would make the meat stretch for the whole week. The trimmings from the hog had cost a whole eyring, a week’s wages, but Raema, Demae’s mother, thought meat was nutritionally important for children. The Researchers had just begun studying nutrition in the past twenty years, but the idea had caught on very quickly. The Middle Class had latched on to the idea as something they could claim as their own; the High Class didn’t care what they ate, as long as it tasted good. So Demae had grown up eating lots of nutrition-based meals. Never mind that almost anything could be said to have nutritional value; everyone had an opinion about what it was they needed nutritionally. It can’t be helpful to just eat what you think will help you. Demae mused. Maybe one day there will be Researchers who specialize in nutrition and will help people decide. But what does that matter? As long as we have food to eat, I’m happy. Demae earned her part of the family’s bread by working in Comm’s largest makeup factory. It was an industry fueled by religion, and it was a steady job, guaranteed. She worked in the eye-shadow department, putting palettes of complementing colors together. It was one of the more difficult jobs in the factory; Demae was required to be able to remember which colors went where on each of the forty separate palettes, and had to place them precisely without disturbing the valuable powder. If there was even a hint of a fingerprint in one of the colors, a customer was bound to complain.

The customers. Demae snorted. The only people who have time to wear makeup are the High Class. The snooty High Class. They are only High Class because of their bloodlines. They rule over us, make us work, and then spend all day making themselves look beautiful, eating, and dancing. What good is it to be beautiful when you treat the people below you like they are inferior human beings. Just because we have different ancestors. By the Spirits above I sometimes wish that I lived in the Shadow Times, before the Purifying of the Blood. Then there would be none of this Class nonsense.

Like Comm, the Class system had been set up by the first City Council after the Purifying of the Blood. The Prophet of Doom had appointed the members of the City Council to create order out of the chaos caused by the Purifying. They were, in turn, under the leadership of the Lords, who were answered to the High Spirits. A Lord hadn’t visited Comm for many years, but Demae had heard it was quite an event whenever they did visit.

While the City of Comm did have a corner on the makeup market, it was located in the far South of the known world, and therefore was inaccessible for seven out of the ten months, due to the heavy snowfall that blocked the passes through the Southern Mountains. This meant that the three months in which travel was an option, the merchants paid a handsome sum that monopolized the trade routes so they could move their wares out of Comm, and then come back in time with all the supplies needed to keep the City on its feet during the next seven months of isolation.

The main import to Comm was food and clothing. The soil surrounding the City was not rich enough to support crops, and therefore any grains or natural textiles had to be brought in by the merchants. Comm did have a bustling live-stock market, which helped to bolster the city’s economy when the makeup market took a dip. Demae had heard stories of animals raised in Comm and sold to cities North of the Southern Mountains lying down and rolling in the grass when seeing it for the first time.

She wasn’t sure what to think of the tales of grass. There were many people who claimed to have seen the stuff, but not many who could actually describe it to her satisfaction. Everyone either says that grass is a nuisance or a piece of art. And that it is sometimes soft and green. How can it SOMETIMES be soft and green. What is it when it isn’t soft and green? Well, there’s no point in thinking about it, since I probably won’t ever see it for myself.

With this thought, Demae turned onto her street and began the last quarter mile walk to her home.