The sun was rising over Iliathor, the capital of the Sysaran Empire, and thirteen-year-old Seoc MacInnes was awake. He had not slept the previous night. He had not slept the night before that, either. He had taken to sleeping during the day, unintentionally. At the breakfast table, for instance, ignorant of the slice of sausage sliding off the end of his fork, or in the bath, waking in a panic when his head slipped beneath the surface and he took a breath of water.
But right now he was awake, sitting in the window seat and watching people begin to go about their business on the street below. His head hurt, and his eyes and throat burned from exhaustion, but the Iliathorians bustling to and fro three stories beneath him did not care how he felt. They did not care that their esteemed sheriff visited often with Dr. Tormod MacInnes, they did not know that the same Dr. MacInnes was under investigation for medical fraud, and they did not care to know that the good doctor was selling the ‘services’ of his own son in exchange for the sheriff’s protection.
But Seoc wasn’t going to tell them. Seoc had no intention of ever telling anyone.
As he sat by the open window, he contemplated jumping out of it. He wondered if he would die immediately upon impact, or fade away slowly, broken and bleeding on the cobblestones. He would have to time his jump so that he wouldn’t land on anyone and take them out with him. He didn’t want to hurt anybody.
Cautiously, keeping his feet firmly on the floor inside and his hands braced upon the sill, he leaned out. The morning sun stung his eyes and a slight breeze brushed against his face, bringing with it the familiar smells of the city. Sewage, animals, food cooking. Mostly sewage, though.
Pulse rushing, Seoc stepped through the window and onto the ledge beneath it, still holding tightly to the window frame. He looked down. The road had been turned the color of brimstone by the golden sunlight. There was no one beneath him right now. If he was going to step off the ledge, this would be the time to do it.
But it was an awfully long way to fall.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, doing his best to banish from his mind the image of his own body splattered on the street below, a crowd of aghast onlookers gathered about it. The thought, however, refused to leave. It would be a terrible sight to see so early in the morning. Who was he to so selfishly ruin the day of a complete stranger?
Seoc climbed back in through the window and closed the leaded glass panels to prevent further temptation. Then, with a sigh, he sat down on the edge of his bed and glanced wistfully about the room. There, against the westerly wall, sat a crooked old bookcase, overflowing with volumes read and reread so many times that the pages were warped from use, some coming free of the binding. At one point, those stories had meant something to him. He had imagined himself in the place of the heroes of old, defeating dragons and saving the world and so forth. Then, no one would think him a sickly, weak little boy. He would show them how wrong they had been about him.
But now he recognized the stories for what they were: naïve fantasies meant to entertain and educate children, fables centered around the notion that bad things happened to bad people, and that the world was split clearly between good and evil.
And anyway, he was a sickly, weak little boy. It would be futile to try to prove otherwise.
He lay back upon the bedspread—a patchwork quilt his mother had made for him, depicting squirrels and hedgehogs parading across a green and blue checkered background—and turned his attention to the window once more. It would be so simple. All he would have to do would be to open it and step out. Then the nightmare would be over.
But it would hurt. Oh, Rezyn, it would hurt.
Tears clouded his vision and he blinked them back, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t want to kill himself. Dying would be painful and frightening, no matter how he went about it. He just wanted to stop existing.
There came a gentle knocking at his door, and Seoc pretended to be asleep.
“Seoc?” he heard his sister say softly as she pushed the door open. “Are you awake?”
The tears were rolling freely down the sides of his face now. He turned over so that Fiona wouldn’t see that he was weeping, but his action betrayed the fact that he was indeed awake, and she crossed the room to sit down on the edge of his bed.
“Are you feelin’ better, Seocan?”
He did not answer, so she lay her hand on his shoulder.
“Breakfast is ready, if you want ta come doon.”
Shaking his head silently, Seoc buried his face in his pillow.
“Is somethin’ the matter, Seoc?” When he did not respond, she gave up and patted his head lightly, standing to leave. “Weel, I’ll be doonstairs if you need me.”
He nodded into the pillow, waiting until she was gone before sitting up and drying his eyes with the heels of his hands. Rising to his feet, he began to pace the room, breathing through clenched teeth. His despair was fading now, replaced by growing anger against everyone and everything. Anger at Fiona for her inability to read his mind. Anger at himself for being too scared to tell her.
Seoc didn’t want to go to breakfast, but he knew that he probably should. He had skipped two meals the day before, telling his mother that he felt sick. This wasn’t far from the truth, but his real reason for retreating from the table was that he didn’t want to see his father, to see him smirking at him, estimating his monetary value.
Right now, though, he was extremely hungry, and starving himself to death was definitely not on his list of preferred ways to go.
Quietly, he exited his bedroom and stood on the landing at the top of the staircase, leaning upon the wooden banister and looking down to the vestibule beneath, hoping to catch a glimpse of Fiona as she made her way between the kitchen and the dining room. He didn’t need to wait long.
“Fiona!” he called upon sighting her curly red locks bouncing along below him.
“Can you bring me up a tray? I need ta talk wi’ you.”