Flash Fiction: Deathless (2006 words)

Lediah’s Name Day passed in all the usual ways.

The night before was almost sleepless, and the first few hours of the morning passed between nervous shakes and stifled yawns. As she ate breakfast, she tapped her foot so quickly against the kitchen floor that her mother reached out and stilled her knee with a heavy hand, then stilled the rest of her with a wordless look. Lediah glanced around the table at the rest of her family, and swallowed her rice and broth as best she could.

The tests started mid-morning, deep inside a square stone building that felt as if had been constructed to hold people down to the earth. The walls were plain. The ceiling was high. The windows and doors were scarce. Lediah felt as if she had walked into a cave, the way her voice and motions echoed in the empty space. Her judges felt twice as tall, the way they spoke in the reverberating air. The sun continued its pace in secret, counting time somewhere she couldn’t see. Everything seemed to stretch and press in on her. When they finally announced that she’d passed, she was sweating, exhausted, and muscles slung loose with relief.

She walked out in the daylight, surprised at the shape of the shadows. Then she saw her parents. She smiled. Her momma beamed. Her father grinned. They both wrapped her in a hug, and walked her out past the front wall. Her teacher, Anxo had passed just before them, but had already disappeared, as he was supposed to. He’d left behind her new name, scrawled across the grey stone in clean white chalk. Lediah read it as she walked, facing it until her neck couldn’t bend any farther. Her mother and father read it, and said nothing aloud. The rest of her family followed after, just as silent.

They might go the rest of their lives without ever calling her by that name. It wasn’t meant for them. It was what she would give outside the Clan, outside the people she trusted and loved and counted on. That name would only belong to strangers, and acquaintances, and enemies if she was ever so unlucky to gain them.

The silence of the tests broke as soon as the afternoon meal was laid out at home. The rooms filled to bursting with sound: laughter and chatter and heavy, exuberant footsteps. They celebrated, with stories and sweet pies and laughter and cake with frosting so heavy it was like biting into sugar bricks. Lediah turned toward every voice that said her name, smiled at the faces that smiled at her. So many hands clapped her on the shoulder. So many people hugged her tight, kissed her cheek, wished her well, congratulated her on everything. Her sister teased her, as she knew she would. Her brother held to politeness like a life raft, not sure what games she would allow on her great day.

And she laughed through it all, soaked it in, reveled. She had earned this.

When the sun finally slunk toward the horizon, the house started to empty. No one really wanted to leave, and they wandered out in ones and twos. The rooms quieted again. Smiles relaxed and deepened. Those that weren’t edging toward the doors grabbed seats, in the chairs, on the sturdy arms, on the floor. Lediah glanced around the room, and didn’t want to let it all go yet. Instead, when her mother sent her out to the yard to spill the scraps for the dogs, she did the job and slipped out the back gate.

It was a quarter hour’s walk to Anxo’s home, but only a seven minute run. She arrived at the door, chest reaching for all the air she could give it. She barely paused before she knocked. Then it was a long minute while she waited for him to answer. She had to knock two more times before he finally shouted for her to come in. By then, she’d caught her breath, and she stepped inside, shaking her head at him.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Anxo told her. He was sitting at his table, individual papers spread in a messy arc in front of him. Each of them was lined with creased as if they’d been folded for couriers, and he focused lazily on the one on his hand, as if he’d read it before, but was searching for a detail he only half remembered. He ran a hand through his gray hair, and snuck a quick look at Lediah. “You said you would never come back to this mess after the test, remember? It’s bad form to break oaths so quickly.”

Lediah glanced around the room at the close-packed furniture, dirty dishes stacked on the side board, old clothes kicked almost out of sight. She pulled a stack of papers out of the chair across from him and held them on her lap as she sat. “You kept telling me I’d miss it,” she said.

Anxo put his papers down and leaned forward to look at her. “You’re here to tell me that I’m right?” he asked, tone so heavy it was impossible to read something lofty like belief in it.

Lediah rolled her eyes, but smiled at him. “No,” she said.

He turned back to his papers, amused and satisfied.

For a moment, Lediah watched him, gathering her next casual sentence with care. “You could have come, you know,” she said. “My momma baked enough to feed the entire island, and everybody else showed up with an armload of something. Dexton brought that wine you like.”

“I could have come,”Anxo agreed without looking at her. He swapped the paper in his hand for one of the others on the table. “And I would have spent all eight hours of the celebration having the same conversation with a hundred different polite smiles.”

Lediah raised her eyebrows. “What? About how you named me Ashfire?” she asked. She shrugged. “After you name the first ten apprentices Ashfire, I don’t think the eleventh surprised anyone.”

He met her eye dryly. “Which is, of course, why you’re here.”

She rocked back, holding in her next flippant observation about how easy it would be for everyone to remember. She threw away her comment about how old-fashioned and charming it was, with its compound nouns instead of the current fashion of handing out the names of legendary characters. She even stopped up any comment about the inherent oxymoron. The way Anxo was looking at her, she could see he was prepared to trade barbs with her. Probably after ten apprentices, he could have the whole conversation on reflex, and still outwit her. And she hadn’t come for that anyway.

“You told me that I was the best you’d ever trained,” Lediah told him quietly. “I thought…”

His mouth tilted up in half a smile. “That I would be inspired to dream up a special name for you?”

He looked up in time to catch the downward flick her eye as she tried to cover her momentary embarrassment.

“Don’t apologize,” he told her cheerfully. “If your pride had bothered me, I never would have taken you on in the first place.”

Lediah crossed her arms over the tabletop. The papers shifted under her fingers. She glanced at the inked letters, read a few lines, then ignored them again. “Are these applications for a new apprentice?”

“Yes,” Anxo said easily.

“And are you going to name the next one Ashfire too?” Lediah asked.

“Yes,” Anxo repeated. Easily.

“How many more?” Lediah asked. “Going for an even dozen?”

“As many as I can train before I become too old for anyone to trust me,” Anxo said.

“Is she really that hard to forget?” Lediah asked.

He paused. Slowly, he looked at her, face just blank enough to relax into curiosity.

“The first Ashfire,” Lediah clarified.

He pushed back from the table. He rested his hands against the table edge, papers hanging off his fingers. “She’s dead,” he told Lediah evenly. “It’s supposed to be hard to forget the dead.”

“And are you supposed to immortalize her by painting her on all the faces of the living?” Lediah demanded.

Anxo blinked at her. When he smiled, Lediah tried not to feel like she was watching something breaking. He didn’t breathe, didn’t move, just looked at her and shook his head a little. “Is that the best reason you can come up with for why I do it?” he asked.

Lediah swallowed. “What other reason is there?”

Anxo laid his papers down, one on top of another. He slid each one slowly across the table, straightening them into piles, too neatly. Lediah watched his hands. She waited for him to stop. When the crinkled pages were out of his way, he mirrored her, arms crossed over the table, shoulders forward and he spoke just as slowly. “You remember the old kings I had you read about?”

Lediah nodded immediately. “Yes,” she said. Then she blinked at the sound of her own voice, surprised at how easily this had turned into a lesson, at how easily she had sunk back into the quick responses of a student, when she thought she’d waved all that into history.

“So, remember their armies,” Anxo said. If he noticed anything, it hadn’t surprised him.

Lediah gave a slower nod, checking through memory to see just what she did remember. Armies had never seemed relevant to their studies.

“The first king who dressed his army in a uniform, started a very interesting game on the battlefield,” Anxo said. “Each man wore the same boots, the same breeches, the same shirts, the same armor, the same hoods, the same masks. He held the same weapons. He carried the same shield. He moved the same way as the man next to him. He looked as much like his neighbor as he could, without shaving down his bones to make them all exactly the same height. And if the kings could have figured out how to do that without destroying their fighting men, they might have done that, too.

“Because the more alike they looked, the harder it was to tell them apart. The harder it was for the enemy to know if this man standing in front of him was the one he’d seen across the field an hour before hewing down every head in sight, or the one he’d seen cowering in the back of the ranks. The harder it was for them to know if this was a commander, or a new recruit. The harder it was for them to know if this was a hero, or a weakling. The harder it was for them to tell if this was a soldier they’d never seen before, or the soldier they’d gutted a moment before back from the dead to rip vengeance out of their skin.”

Anxo held her eyes, watching her blink to sort through what he was saying. “Imagine it,” he said. And she tried.

“You’re giving us a uniform?” Lediah asked quietly. She tilted her head to look at him, eyebrows snapped together in confusion.

Anxo nodded, slow. “There are ten Ashfire’s walking the world right now. Ten Ashfire’s sailing their ships, walking in and out of ports, dominating a world the way I taught them to. How could anyone keep them straight? How could keep their reputations separate? The story they tell about this one, will reach over and cling to that one. Maybe they’ll know that seven of them are fierce, and three of them are soft, but how will they know which ones? And won’t death always seem like a rumor for them, since Ashfire keeps arriving at port, no matter how many times they say she’s died?”

Shaking his head, Anxo still didn’t take his eyes off hers. “I don’t do this to keep her living. I do it to make you deathless.”

Holding his gaze steadily for the first time since she arrived, Ashfire nodded.

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