I spent my entire childhood in the temple’s orphanage, rarely going outside the walls of the temple. It wasn’t until when I was about nine years old that I really understood why. I should have figured, though. They didn’t want a changeling out in town. People would be afraid of me and hate me. Obviously.
Here I sat on the stool in Riesz’s dormitory, same as yesterday and the day before, ready for the almost daily occurrence. Occurrence? Maybe I should call it a ritual. The dragonborn Dawnbringer would rub her hands together, quietly chant the words of a smell, and I would feel better. It was another healing spell. Riesz had been casting curative magic on me ever since tutoring at the orphanage had begun again last month.
Today’s injury was a gash across my left thigh, done with a sharp stick. I had confessed to Riesz that I had a crush on one of the girls at the orphanage for a few months now. I was always very careful to not say anything to her or anyone else. They were often cruel to me. But this girl was different! Her blond hair was so pretty and she had such a beautiful smile. I thought I could be her friend and maybe we would hold hands like I saw the adults do sometimes. The Dawnbringers had a tradition of showing affection and tenderness to each other through gifts. It seemed smart of me to give this girl some candy I had pilfered from the kitchens. She took the candy and I got stabbed in the leg. It was my fault, though. I should not have approached her while she was armed.
“Why did she hurt you?” asked Riesz, placing her hands over my injured leg.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “She hates me. They all do. I hate them, too.”
“But I thought you liked her. You fancied her.”
“No, I didn’t! Not anymore!”
The curing spell was almost finished. These kinds of spells did not take long to be effective, and soon the pain in my leg was disappearing, replaced by a spreading comfort across my pale gray skin. I got to her quickly this time. The healing magic would mean I wouldn’t have another scar. I wasn’t always this lucky to find her this fast.
“The tutor is mean to me, yoo,” I continued.
Riesz looked up at me. “How so?”
“He picks on me,” I replied. “He yells at me, even when I know the answers. And he only speaks in elvish.”
“You speak elvish, Leef,” said Riesz. “You learned it last year. We spoke elvish all day yesterday.”
I looked down at my shoes. “I’m not that good at it yet.”
“Even so, speaking elvish to you isn’t picking on you. Your pronunciation needs work, to be sure.”
“He hits me, too, you know,” I cried, wiping a tear from my face. “And he called me…” I stopped. I hated saying it out loud. It sounded so foul in every language. “Nurh malai,” I finished, slipping into draconic. Ugly idiot. They all called me that, amongst other things.
She wrapped her arms around me, knowing that I only slipped into my native tongue when I was truly upset. “Don’t listen to him, child. He doesn’t know you like I do. I think you’re smart and beautiful.” She stopped, thinking. “Or handsome? Which word do you prefer?”
I knew what she was doing. I was a changeling. I didn’t have a gender like everyone else. That itself did not bother me at all. But it was strange to think about at times. Riesz would often use words associated with a particular gender, then ask me which one I wanted to use. I looked at her quizzically. “What’s the difference?”
“Well” she said, “it depends on how you want to take it. We often say ‘beautiful’ when talking about girls and ‘handsome’ when talking about boys. They both mean you look very nice, though, and either word works.”
I pondered this. I had never really given much thought to an identity with a gender before. Changing genders was as easy as thinking it, like moving my hands or blinking. The cute girl in the orphanage seemed to like boys, so I thought I could be a boy. But now, I felt nothing but hatred for her. Besides, in the end, what difference did gender really make?
“I think I like ‘beautiful’ better,” I decided.
“Beautiful is good,” said Riesz. “But you’re using he and him. Is that right?” I nodded, though that decision was made when I wanted to hold hands with the pretty girl. “Then, Leef, I think you’re beautiful.”
“Mother,” I said to her. “Please don’t make me go back to school.”
She hugged me and laughed. At first, I was insulted by the laugh. She said, “I don’t mean to laugh, Leef, but you’re being silly right now! You wear these masks all the time. You pretend to be one of the boys so you can steal sweets and candies from the kitchen. You pretend to be one of the girls so you can sneak into places you shouldn’t be, then sweet-talk whichever cleric finds you. I know you’re only nine years old, but you must know how that makes people feel about you. If you’re going to pretend to be someone else, why not do kind things instead of sneaking about and tricking people?”
I didn’t want to respond. Mother was right, of course. But in my defense, I felt like I would have gone my entire life without ever tasting peppermint had it not been for wearing the mask of that tall boy last month. The cook hated me as much as everyone else. They all thought I was a monster. Looking back, I believe Mother was both trying to give me advice for getting along better with people, as well trying to help curb any changeling tendencies she and the others thought I might have been having. She must think I’m a monster, too.
I started to leave her quarters when she called out to me, “One moment. Have you been saying your prayers and practicing scripture?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She looked at me and asked in a harsher tone, “Is that so?”
I looked down at my shoes again. She was always so good at reading me. “No.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said. She walked over to me and kneeled down. “The Morninglord is watching us. We’ve both felt his presence many times. You’ve seen his miracles. You’ve performed your own miracles in his name, too. Have you made a decision yet?”
I had, most certainly. I knew what she was asking. Children my age in the orphanage would soon be asked to start their vows to the Morninglord. A few were already Awakened, our word for acolytes or clerics-in-training. The older boy got his tattoo a month ago. They would grow up to become clerics in the temple when they came of age at seventeen years. As of now, most of the orphans were already Awakened. Only I and the two younger children were not.
“I’m not doing it,” I said as resolutely as I could.
“Why not?” She feigned shock, but I think she already knew this was my answer.
I halted. I didn’t want to say it, but I knew I was supposed to tell the truth. “Because I don’t want to be here. I don’t like it here, Mother. Stuck in these temple walls all day. Everyone hates me! When I come of age, I’m… I’m leaving this place!”
I regretted saying it because I knew it hurt her. Mother’s face dropped. She was the only one who cared about me here. And here I was, a nine year old malai who wanted to run away from her and everyone else as soon as I could. I tried telling her I didn’t mean it, but she just smiled and said she understood. She excused me from her quarters because she had some needlework to be done.
I felt awful all day after that. I didn’t truly want to abandon her. I had always had this fantasy in my mind that she’d leave with me. We would leave the place where everyone makes fun of me and calls me names, and she and I would find someplace by the sea where we could live peacefully. But even at nine years old, I knew that was never going to happen. I had no future in that temple. She did. Daily, the others would hurt me, physically or emotionally. They called me names, they spit on me, they threw rocks at me. It wasn’t just the orphans, either. The Dawnbringers would turn a blind eye. The High Priest said I was a monster, and everyone believed him.
The Sacrament of Sunset was always the most peaceful time of day for me. Usually, anyway. When the sun went down, it would cast a brilliant orange light across the fields, creating an array of shimmering lights in the stained glass windows of the chapel and the towers that brightened our already colorful flowered courtyard. The Dawnbringers and the children gathered in the center of this courtyard for the sacrament, their prayer blankets all close to each other, each with a stick of incense and a candle burning close by. My prayer blanket was always laid out between a pair of trees at the far end of the courtyard. I wanted to keep my distance. Last night, one of the younger boys had thrown a rat at me while I was praying. Tonight, no one bothered me.
I had made no further attempts to talk to the girl I liked. The crush was over. The kids seemed to have already had their fun tormenting me for the day, so they left me alone and didn’t bother me again until we were in the orphan dormitory. I got struck in the back of the head by a pillow. The others were fighting with the pillows in a playful manner. With each other, I mean. Not with me. When I got struck, I also got punched in the gut. I stumbled away to my bed, gasping to get my breath back and wiping away fresh tears.
Thankfully, the caretaker of the orphanage – a harsh elven woman – announced the time to put out the lights, ending the game and any chance of the others chasing me. She shouted an order to snuff out our candles, but she usually disappeared to her own quarters before making sure we complied. This was perfect for me. The other orphans settled into their beds, all pushed far away from mine, and doused their lights. Because I was so far away from everyone else, I could keep my candle lit. I’ve always hated the dark, but I hate getting slapped by the caretaker for misbehavior more.
With my candle still lit, I was able to stay awake and read. I had a fondness for books, and especially a fondness for stealing books. It was so easy! The librarian didn’t want me to sully the books with my dirty hands (even though I washed and cleaned them every time I went to the chamber pots), so I pretended to be one of the more studious girls in the orphanage. If the librarian was upset that a book wasn’t returned, she got in trouble instead of me. I had a collection of about thirty books hidden in various places in our dormitory.
On this night, I thumbed through the pages of a magic book, paying attention mostly to the pictures of the somatics. A few years ago, I discovered I had some minor magical abilities. Mother wanted this to be a secret for reasons I understood years later. Those reasons are so obvious to me now. Imagine a changeling casting magic innately! The High Priest would have killed me on the spot if he knew. The book I had stolen was a wizard’s spellbook from decades ago. The pages were worn and notes were scribbled in the margins everywhere. Unfortunately for me, this book was written entirely in elvish. My ability to speak and understand elvish was already limited, but my ability to read it at nine years old was almost nonexistent. The stupid letters all ran together! And why do all the vowels have to look the same? Why does line thickness convey different meanings?
I practiced the hand motions of the spells pretty regularly. I could already conjure light like Mother’s wand, though I didn’t need a wand to do it. With a snap of my fingers, I could light or put out a candle fairly effortlessly. Tonight, I found an interesting spell that used both hands to conjure and control a ball of fire. Or was it a ball of ice? The picture looked very strange and the wizard who wrote the spell did not have colored inks. I couldn’t read the name of the spell at the top of the page. It had something to do with diamond and drawing energy from them, depending on the gestures used. I could mimic the hand movements without too much trouble. The incantation was only a few short words that I would need practice reading and pronouncing. The problem with this spell was that it required a diamond. Even wearing the mask of one of the other children, there was no way a Dawnbringer would give me a diamond. Those were far too valuable.
A noise startled me while I was trying to distinguish the letters of the spell’s name. There were people outside our dormitory and they were approaching. I quickly snapped my fingers and put out the candle, plunging my corner of the room into darkness. I pulled my blanket over my head and waited, hoping whoever was coming in would not notice the candle’s smoke.
“There’s a bed over there,” said the voice of the orphanage caretaker. I think she was trying to be quiet for the sake of the sleeping children, but it wasn’t working. Her voice was as shrill as ever.
“And be wary of that one,” said the voice of the High Priest.
I shuddered under my blankets. I hated the High Priest. The orphans were mean, to be sure, but the High Priest was vicious to me. I recall one time he kicked me in the stomach for no reason other than I was smelling a flower and was in his way.
“Who?” asked a new voice. Another child. A boy.
“That’s…” started the caretaker. “What’s the name? I don’t know. They call it Flee. That idiot is a changeling. Avoid it as much as possible. Changelings are not to be trusted.”
I kept the blankets over my head, trembling. Surely the High Priest would see the smoke from my candle and hit me. The caretaker might see my book, lamentably left outside the blankets. Last time she caught me reading late into the night, she hit me with a cane. That was the first time Mother tried setting a broken wrist.
From under the covers, I heard a muffled sound, some shuffling, and then footsteps receding out the door. The door closed with a click and the sounds of the High Priest and the caretaker faded away into the distance. I heard the shuffling sound again. It was coming from the bed nearest to me, about ten feet away. The other orphans had gathered their beds together on the far end of our dormitory, but they shoved my bed into the corner of the room. They kept the empty beds between us like a moat protecting them from me. Or me from them? I cannot say.
The room was silent again, but I did not move. I wanted to see the boy. If anything, I wanted to identify my future antagonist. But I also didn’t want to scare him. My ugly skin and silver eyes alarmed people. I am a monster, after all. The new boy would say so, too. If I scared him, who knows what he would do? The last new kid that came in had a knife and I had a new scar on my arm. Hopefully this boy would leave me alone, at least for tonight.
He surprised me by whispering, barely audibly, “Are y-y-you awake?”
His voice was closer than I expected. I pulled down my blanket to look. In the darkness, I could barely make out his shape. He was standing halfway between his bed and mine, coming closer with very quiet, barefoot steps. The boy stopped when he saw me peek over my blanket.
“H-H-Hello,” he whispered, stuttering. “I saw the c-c-candle smoke, and-”
I quickly pulled the blanket back over my face and rolled over, hoping he would take the hint and just leave me alone. I waited for what seemed like an eternity before I heard his footsteps again. He settled into his bed. After a very long while, I heard a steady, rhythmic sound, indicative that he was asleep already. I chanced a glance over my blankets at him again, just to be sure. He was in his bed, rolled over, and quietly snoring. Even in the darkness, I noticed he had two blankets on his bed. I usually kept three or four on my bed to stay warm. I stole them off some of the empty beds in the dormitory and hid them underneath my bed until lights were out.
Should I have talked to him? It looked like he just wanted an extra blanket.
Thank the Morninglord he left me alone.
It was a new day and, like all new days, the kids were chasing me again. This time seemed different, though. The girl I fancied was the pack leader this time. She led the charge, chasing me through every corner of the temple, relentless in her pursuit and inspiring the others who were tiring of the chase. Normally they didn’t follow me through the halls of the Dawnbringer dormitories, but this time they were determined. Rocks flew through the air, striking against the stone walls of our home. One found its mark right in the middle of my back. The kids eventually ran out of rocks and instead found new ammunition in the form of books, pencils, plates, or anything they could find. I was lucky today, though. No one had a knife.
“Flee! Flee!” they jeered. “Flee from us! Run away, monster!”
I hated that name. They started calling me Flee because, according to them, that’s what monsters do when they know they’re beaten. I ducked behind a column, dodging a shoe. Why were they throwing shoes? They must be desperate to hurt me now. With a leap, I sailed through an open window and rolled onto the grounds of the courtyard again. I could try running to the chapel. That seemed to be the one place they wouldn’t follow, even though I’d get slapped for going in without a Dawnbringer to escort me. But before I could go anywhere, a sharp blow crashed into my stomach. The girl, the one I fancied, was there, wielding the same stick as yesterday.
Their game of torture was entertaining, but only for a few minutes. They laughed at my pain as they kicked and hit me. I vomited onto the ground from the pain, and this seemed to turn their fun away. It’s funny, my sobbing did nothing to them, but as soon as I was sick, they stopped. I curled into a ball and waited patiently for them to yell at me a few more times before disappearing back into the halls of the temple.
I stood up and wiped the mud from my face. Everything hurt, but I would have only bruises this time. There was no one else around me. Not that any cleric would have helped me anyway. I needed to find Mother. She could use magic and heal me. She-
My thoughts were interrupted by the boy from last night. “Here, d-d-drink this,” he said. He was behind me, walking towards me. In his hand was a small glass vial with a red liquid inside.
I shrank back immediately, and my voice broke as I yelled, “What do you want? Leave me alone!”
“I saw w-w-what they d-d-did to you,” he said, sheepishly. His stutter made it hard to understand him. “I’m s-s-sorry they’re so mean. I found this in the infirmary earlier t-t-today. It’s a potion. It will make you f-f-feel better.”
“I don’t think so!” I retorted, backing into a wall. My eyes shot around me, trying to find an escape. “I know this game. The others already did that trick to me. It’s poison, isn’t it? I was sick for a week last time. I’m not falling for that again!”
He looked so confused and hurt when I said this, but he took another step forward. “No, it’s not… It’s a potion. M-M-Magic potion. It can… Well, here, look.” He removed the cork stopper and drank a small amount of the liquid. “See? It’s not p-p-poison. It’s-” He stopped and gagged, bending over. I thought he stopped talking because of his stutter, but his face turned green for a split second. Maybe he would vomit, too, but he looked up at me and smiled. “Rhachon, that tastes t-t-terrible. But I feel a little b-b-better already!”
I regarded the boy. He was cute, too, like the girl I thought I liked. He was a little taller than me and had long, messy blonde hair. Unlike the other kids, he was extremely lean. Right now despite the disgusted expression he wore from the potion, his face was a bright smile, kind and concerned.
It was a gamble, but decided to trust him. Everything hurt already anyway. What was a stomach ache compared? I reached out a hand and the boy passed the potion to me. Our fingers briefly touched and I felt a flush in my face. Where did that come from? Why did my face feel hot? Why was he smiling? Why was he being nice? What game was this? I took a small drink from the potion. The boy was right; I felt better immediately. The pain in my back and limbs began to dull, and I was met with the worst aftertaste I’ve ever encountered.
“Thanks,” I tried, breaking the uncomfortable eye contact and staring down at my feet.
“You’re w-w-welcome. H-H-How’s your back?”
“Good.” I replied. “You found this in the infirmary?”
“W-W-Well,” he stammered, now looking down at his own feet. His face was red. “Maybe ‘found’ isn’t the right w-w-word.”
“You stole it.”
“I stole it.”
Normally, this is where someone’s smile turns to a devilish grin. He would probably make me eat a snail. Or he had some coppers in a stocking and would strike me with it. Or maybe he’d go with a more classic approach and just punch me in the face. But his smile never faded. It was different, somehow. I couldn’t think of the word to describe it. He never broke eye contact with me. I kept wondering, why is he looking at me like that?
“You’re F-F-F…” he tried. The stutter was making it hard to understand him again.
My face probably turned red again, this time with anger. “That’s just what they call me,” I replied, angrily. As soon as I said it, I was suddenly very sorry I interrupted him. It was rude to interrupt someone anyway (the tutor informed me about this with a slap across my face last year), and I felt especially bad because this boy was already having trouble speaking.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “It’s a n-n-neat name.”
I paused again, not knowing what to say or do. “I’m… I’m Leef.”
“That’s a n-n-neat n-n-name, too!” he said, oddly cheerily. “Flee is your n-n-nickname, then? Can you run fast? Is that why-”
“No, that’s not it,” I interrupted again. “They chase me. So I run away. I flee.”
“I think you r-r-run fast,” he said, making me wonder if he even heard me. “C-C-Can I call you Flee anyway? It’s a pretty cool name.”
“What?” I asked. “Why?”
“You change your skin, r-r-right? I heard what you are.” The smile never faded. Sincerity. That’s the word I was trying to think of. “That’s really c-c-cool you can do that! And since you c-c-can change your face, you could change your name, too! I think F-F-Flee is a cool name.”
“But,” I stammered, a tear in my eye again. “They call me that because they hate me.”
“I don’t h-h-hate you. Can I still c-c-call you that?”
I don’t think he understood what he said. Even the mere thought of someone not hating me was so alien, it made me burst into tears. As far as I knew, Mother was the only one who didn’t.
“Oh, hey, n-n-no, don’t c-c-cry!” he cried, stuttering even more now. He moved toward me so fast I couldn’t react. His arms wrapped around me in an uncomfortably tight embrace. But then he immediately backed off. “Oh! S-S-Sorry! I sh-sh-shouldn’t have-”
“It’s okay,” I said, flushed. “Fine, then. Call me Flee if you want. But I get to call you a dumb nickname, too.”
The boy smiled and reached out his hand. I looked at it for a moment before reaching my own hand out. What was he doing? He took my hand and shook it vigorously. “That’s okay, you can c-c-call me whatever you w-w-want. But my r-r-real name is Heath Wendell.”