Year of the Prophet Wattpad - Final 3

 

I write novels, articles, non-fiction, and short stories. My fiction is speculative, mostly high fantasy. In the realm of non-fiction, I write about Christianity and fitness.

 

 

 

Writing Sample

This is one of my short stories. It received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest.

The Exemplar’s Elixir

Merris grappled with the cork, his fingers stiff with arthritis.

“I’ll get it,” said Kenji. He took the jar and popped the cork with a single snap. Merris had his spoon in the honey before Kenji could set the jar onto the table. The old man smacked and gulped like a prisoner who’d been restricted to bread and water for months. He looked like a prisoner too, his hair and beard unkempt. He’d grown thinner, paler in the week since Kenji had seen him.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” said Kenji, scratching the skin beneath his conduit. His wrist had nearly outgrown the metal cuff, but Merris insisted he wear it at all times, even when he wasn’t making extract. Merris wore no such cuff, having shed his when he became an exemplar.

The petite dragon beat his face against his cage, as he did whenever Merris ate honey.

“Would you please release Sung?” the old man asked without response to Kenji’s apology.

“I had to pack,” said Kenji, opening the small door of the iron cage. Out slithered Sung, his wings unfolding like bamboo hand fans. The dragon flew to Merris and licked a spot of honey from his cheek.

“Thank you, friend,” said Merris, giving Sung’s head a pat. The dragon coiled his body around the old man’s arm, resting his head on his master’s shoulder. “You never told me you were traveling.” Merris glanced up at Kenji before taking another frenzied bite of honey.

“I’m moving,” said Kenji, “to the city. There’s an exemplar who runs an academy.”

“I’ve taught you everything there is to know,” said Merris, laying his spoon over the lip of the jar. Sung pecked at the honey on his beard.

“About plants,” said Kenji.

“Any other source will—” Merris started.

“Lead me astray,” Kenji finished. Sources were a topic the two had discussed, repeatedly. “I’ve thought about it—”

“Not enough,” Merris coughed the words, then went into a wheezing fit. The man was old and broken, like everything else in the town.

“If I stay here, I will rot,” said Kenji.

“We all rot, my boy.” Merris’ voice warbled more than usual.

“They say Exemplar Corsnyck, the man who runs the academy—”

“I know who he is.” Merris crossed his arms over his chest.

“They say he has cured aging,” said Kenji.

“And what about naivety? Does he have a cure for that?” Merris let out a long breath.

Were it not his last day in Ravensglade, Kenji might have taken offense to the insult. “Mother will deliver your honey,” he said as he pulled up his hood.

“You would be wise to cover your conduit,” Merris warned. “There are men who will steal it for trade.”

Kenji pulled his sleeve over the bangle, to appease the old man. Merris had always been paranoid, which was why he lived alone and would die in obscurity. Kenji would not succumb to such a fate.

#

Kenji’s breath caught in his throat as he stood before the defender at the door. The man’s arms were as thick as thighs. His skin, bronze and pulled tightly over decided muscles. A golden breastplate shelled his blue robe. His belt bore two blades, one long, one short.

“I…” Kenji cleared his throat. The day’s walk into the city had left him parched. “I have come to serve Exemplar Glyne Corsnyck,” he managed. The defender looked at Kenji in a way that made him feel his skeleton.

“The inn down the way is looking for servants,” said the man, his voice, higher in pitch than Kenji had guessed. The defender pointed with his nose in the direction from which Kenji had come.

“Please, good sir, can you tell your master I have this?” Kenji rolled up his sleeve and did as Merris had told him not to do. Goddess, he hoped the guard knew something about conduits.

“Wait here,” said the defender after a moment. He opened the large carved door and disappeared inside. Kenji found himself staring at a panel covered in symbols and formulas, of which he only recognized a few. A dragon leaves his nest to learn.

#

“Our supplies room is this way,” said Greta, the girl who’d been charged with showing Kenji around the academy. She wore a black robe, like everyone else he’d encountered. Greta’s skin was several shades darker than Kenji’s, and her hair was done in small braids, tied together by a black bow. Kenji had to work at listening to her, his attention ravaged by the size of the property. That, and Greta’s rounded vowels sometimes rendered familiar words foreign.

“The floor dips,” she warned as she led the way into a dark room, her terra cotta lantern illuminating a shelf crowded with clay jars. Kenji owned three clay jars—gifts from Merris. Light flickered over a shelf full of glass bottles, which were so rare that most exemplars could only afford one or two. Merris kept his only glass bottle on his mantel for show.

“Exemplar Corsnyck asks that we keep the other rooms locked at night,” said Greta. She led Kenji from the supply room and into the hallway of arches. Kenji wanted to ask her what the other rooms contained but didn’t, for fear of proving himself ignorant. “And this,” she continued to the end of the hall, her sandals clicking the stone, “is where we keep our conduits.”

Before them stood a cavern, two defenders guarding the entrance, their hands on their hilts. The cavern walls were covered in small pots. Greta entered and returned with one such pot.

“Your conduit.” She held out the pot to receive Kenji’s bangle. Kenji laughed nervously, wishing he had a better defense against discomfort. “It is safer in here than on your wrist.” She held the pot closer to him. Kenji’s pulse throbbed in his ear. He hadn’t removed his conduit since the day of his binding, eleven New Years’ ago. “Either it stays, or you leave,” Greta breathed. There was a weariness about her eyes. Kenji was not the first to resist and he probably wouldn’t be the last.

A dragon must molt to grow. He twisted the cuff around and pulled his wrist through the opening. His skin breathed in freedom.

“I’ve never seen a braided one,” said Greta.

“Most people haven’t,” said Kenji, holding the cuff in his palm. Braided conduits were rare, and his was made from the three most precious metals in the empire—green ore, red dust, and white slab.

“You can still leave,” she whispered.

Kenji closed his fingers over the conduit. If Greta was trustworthy, then her words were worth heeding. But she could be testing his commitment to the academy. Or maybe she wanted Kenji to leave, so there would be less competition. If I do leave, where will I go? Back to Ravensglade? Greta knew nothing about peasant life. She was from the city, and she carried herself like someone who’d been raised on an estate. She’d probably had servants who braided her hair and baked cakes whenever she pleased.

Kenji dropped his conduit into the pot. The metal clamored against the clay.

“You are seventy-seven,” said Greta, turning the jar over so he could see the carved numerals. Kenji rubbed his wrist, his hand feeling as though it were floating without the weight of the cuff. “The sleeping quarters are in the building to our right. The defenders will tell you where to go. You will find a fresh robe on your bed.” Greta took a torch from the wall and handed it to Kenji.

“When do I meet Exemplar Corsnyck?” Kenji asked.

“Morning tea is ninety-degrees before zenith,” she replied. “After that you will fetch your conduit and go to door eight—down the hall, on the left. Anything else?” The look in her eyes told him they were through.

“No, thank you,” said Kenji.

#

“He’s probably got the new laundry maid in his chamber,” said Vingrov, the oldest of Corsnyck’s pupils. Kenji had learned the man’s name at morning tea, by piecing together overheard snippets of conversations. Vingrov’s conduit was thick and bronze, a common design for conduits. Kenji ran his fingers over his own cuff, relieved to have it back. He rolled down the collar of his new—black—robe. The fabric was twice as thick as any other robe he’d owned.

“Maybe the master is sick,” said the boy sitting next to Vingrov.

“He’s readying the source,” said Greta. Her eyes were as deep as they were dark. “I saw him in the cold room before I got here.” She took a leaf of parchment and a stylus from her bag.

“I’ll bet our new friend doesn’t know what we’re talking about,” said Vingrov, motioning to Kenji.

“I know…” Kenji searched for the words. He wasn’t quick witted like his younger brothers. “Things.” He knew what a source was but didn’t understand why it needed readying. He and Merris simply used cuttings or whole plants straight from the earth.

“He probably knows more than you, Grov,” said Greta.

“Your soul burn,” said Vingrov. He snapped his teeth at her, a gesture to which most would have taken offense.

Greta sat unaffected. “Why else would Master have let him in halfway through the quarter?” she pressed.

Kenji hadn’t met the exemplar yet. The academy assistants took one look at his braided conduit and admitted him. Before Kenji could speak again, a large man cloaked in black appeared in the archway.

The pupils rose from their benches. Kenji did the same, reasoning it must be an academy custom to stand for an exemplar. He and Merris had only ever bowed to each other, but Merris had neither the education nor the reputation of Exemplar Glyne Corsnyck.

Corsnyck ducked to pass through the archway without striking his head. The man was lean with a pockmarked face and hair that was neither gray nor white. His eyebrows were unnaturally dark, as if powdered with ash.

“Success to you,” said Corsnyck, his voice thin with age. He raised and lowered his hands, wrists free of a conduit.

“Success to you,” the pupils repeated back in unison, then sat.

Kenji fooled with his robe, still unaccustomed with its thickness. The room fell silent, and when he looked up, he saw that Exemplar Corsnyck was staring at him. Kenji let go of his robe and waited for the exemplar to say something. Or perhaps I should introduce myself?

The hallway clamored with noises and moaning. Kenji breathed when everyone’s attention turned from him and toward the archway. A servant wheeled a table into the room. On top of it lay a man, stripped to his undergarments, shivering. He was strapped by leather bands across his thighs, torso, and shoulders. His head lolled from side to side, and his chest rose and fell rapidly with breath.

Kenji’s stomach stirred. He’d seen much death as Merris’ apprentice. This man was at the banks of the fiery river. There wasn’t a plant in sight from which Kenji might extract a cure.

“Another drunk,” Vingrov puffed.

“I swear to Goddess he poisons them,” Greta whispered, just loud enough for Kenji to hear. Corsnyck snapped his eyes in her direction. The man on the table heaved, but only a choked breath came up his throat.

“Should I get the man water?” Kenji asked, his face going hot when he realized he’d forgotten to address Corsnyck by title. Greta shook her head at Kenji.

“What is your name?” asked Corsnyck, his dark brows coming together.

Kenji’s breath caught in his chest. He cleared his throat. “I am Kenji Addack, Exemplar.”

“Of?”

“Ravensglade.” Kenji tugged the word out of his mouth.

“Ravensglade?” said Vingrov through a laugh. The others laughed along.

“It is a sullen place, isn’t it?” asked Corsnyck.

“Indeed, Master,” said Kenji. Ravensglade had its charm, especially in spring, but it was populated by laboring families and the aged. No one with talent or wealth stayed there for long.

“Kenji, come here,” said Corsnyck, clasping his hands behind his back. Kenji did as he was told, taking a stand beside the man on the table. The stench of him would have turned another man’s stomach, but Kenji had smelled worse. “Hold out your extracting arm,” Corsnyck instructed. Kenji raised his left arm, all three colors of his bangle gleaming.

“What palace did you rob?” teased Vingrov.

“A shame you’ve been rotting in Ravensglade,” said Corsnyck, eyeing the conduit. “Worry not, I will break you in.”

Break me in? Kenji had expected his education to be difficult, but he wasn’t sure that he needed to be broken.

“Help,” groaned the man on the table. His skin was pale and badly blotched.

“Go on,” Corsnyck said to Kenji. “Help the man.”

“Exemplar, I have no source,” said Kenji. Everyone laughed, except for Corsnyck who’s expression held no hint of amusement.

“Please,” coughed the man on the table.

Kenji’s stomach twisted for him, and for his own embarrassment. Corsnyck couldn’t possibly be implying that Kenji extract from the man. He’d heard of human sourcing, but he’d only ever sourced from plants. Would a man so weak even survive an extraction?

“Here,” said Corsnyck. Taking Kenji’s hand, he placed it on the man’s shoulder. The skin was warm—fevered. Muscles tensed under Kenji’s touch. “Use the same energy chain as you would for spikenard.” Corsynck placed a clay jar near the man’s head. “Now, extract.”

Kenji’s pulse thrummed in his ear. He looked up at Greta, who didn’t seem fazed. Perhaps sourcing from the man wouldn’t kill him. Kenji could almost hear Merris squawking warnings into his ear. But Merris didn’t know everything. He’d probably never sourced from a human himself. A dragon must cross water to find new lands. Kenji held his right hand over the mouth of the jar, as he did whenever he made an extraction.

“Water,” the man on the table whispered. His sweat dripped between Kenji’s fingers. The conduit warmed.

#

Kenji clung to the bricks of a pillar, his legs shaking, his hand so cold he wondered if it would splinter from his wrist. The tightness across his chest forced him to gasp.

“Seventy-seven,” said Greta. She held out Kenji’s conduit jar to him.

“Thanks,” he coughed, taking the jar.

“I retched after my first human,” said Greta. “Plants are less painful.” She stood tall as Master Corsnyck approached.

The Exemplar held the jar into which Kenji had deposited the man’s extract. The extract would not help Kenji, as an extractor was immune to his own making, but perhaps Corsnyck would refresh him from his own reserve. Merris always replenished Kenji after a difficult extraction. Not that I deserve refreshing. I deserve hanging. Kenji tried to straighten up but his legs would not allow.

“It gets easier,” said Corsnyck as he passed. The exemplar gave no healing touch, not even a breath.

A servant wheeled the table past them. The man’s body barely made a bulge in the black cloth draped over it. Kenji swallowed to keep his throat from closing. “Murderer,” he breathed.

“What did you say?” Greta asked.

“I just murdered a man,” he said.

“No,” said Greta. “You gave him relief.”

“I’ve seen men recover who were worse off than…I don’t even know his name.”

“Stop,” said Greta, her voice firm.

“Stop what?” Kenji asked.

“Talking like that. Don’t do it. Not here, not in your head, not anywhere.”

“I can’t just turn off my thoughts.”

“You have to.” Greta tucked a loose braid behind her ear. “Now deposit your conduit and come. There might still be some honey left in the dining hall.”

“I’m a healer, not a killer.” Kenji removed his conduit and held it to the lip of the jar. I should take it and leave.

“You can’t leave,” said Greta, as if reading his thoughts. “We source anyone who tries.”

“You…” Kenji stood petrified, his lungs going to stone.

“Drop the conduit,” she whispered. “Please.”

One of the cavern defenders approached, blade unsheathed. “Is everything all right, Thirty-three?” the man addressed Greta.

“Fine,” she replied, tilting her eyes at Kenji.

Kenji let go of the conduit. The metal rang hollowly against the bottom of the pot.

#

Kenji faced the open archway and breathed in the cool air. A tinge of purple had worked its way through the predawn sky. He shivered with the feeling of the man’s residue coursing through him. It was nothing like the tingle sometimes left behind by plants. Kenji had once seen lightning strike a man in a field. That was the feeling, a twinge of lightning in the veins. Something stirred behind him. He turned to see a man with long white hair shuffling down the hallway in his night garment. A woman held the man under the arm with one hand and a lantern with the other.

“This way,” she said as she guided him toward a nearby chamber door.

Kenji recognized her voice. “Greta?” he whispered.

“Goddess!” she jumped, the lamplight flickering. “I thought you were a spirit.”

“I once knew a spirit,” rasped the white-haired man. His eyes went out of focus.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” said Kenji.

“No,” said Greta. “It’s me. I loathe the dark.”

“I need a moment,” said the old man, pulling on Greta’s arm as he lowered himself onto a cushioned bench. “Ah,” he huffed as he sat.

“He’ll never go back to his bed now,” said Greta. The light of her lantern glowed golden on her cheeks.

“Who is he?” Kenji asked about the man.

“You don’t recognize him?” Greta pointed to a large fresco on the wall. A richly clad family posed in front of the academy courtyard. Kenji recognized one of the men as Corsnyck. Behind him stood a distinguished older man with military medals pinned to his robe. His face shared a likeness with the old man’s.

“The decorated man?” Kenji asked.

“The exemplar’s father. Honorable Jykar,” said Greta.

“Honorable?” Kenji glanced at the man on the bench—mouth agape, head resting on the wall.

“It happens to us all,” said Greta. “Master Corsnyck would have relieved him, but gossip says the two never got along.”

How odd, to punish your enemy with life. A cart rattled outside. “At this hour?” Kenji asked as he turned to see the cart stopping at the door.

“Pickup hour,” said Greta.

“For?”

“Extracts,” she replied. “The officials pay fortunes for them.”

“Do we get any profit?” Kenji asked. The old man laughed, as though he’d been listening, but he’d only stirred from a dream and fell straight back to sleep.

“We get lodging and food,” said Greta.

Figures, Kenji thought. Corsnyck wouldn’t even proffer him a breath that afternoon. “I don’t suppose the master is making an exemplar’s elixir for anyone.”

“No,” said Greta. “But he knows of exemplars who are. He’s promised Grov an elixir if he stays on for another decade.”

“A decade?!” Kenji’s voice spiked in pitch.

“Not many of us want to be exemplars anyway. A skilled extractor can earn just as much.”

Kenji had never considered that. He’d always thought that most extractors wanted to become exemplars, but only a few ever found a master charitable enough to make an elixir for them. Merris would never produce a master’s elixir. The old man was slow to give away anything. He would make Kenji read through piles of books for hours, sometimes days, to glean the knowledge he needed.

The rattling from outside grew louder. Someone or something was banging on a covered cage.

“It’s also drop-off hour,” said Greta. “Animals and humans.”

“The exemplar uses animals?” History was filled with cases of animal extractors that had gone mad or suffered untimely deaths.

“He’s experimenting,” said Greta. She pulled up the sleeve of her robe and turned over her arm. The skin was raised and red, almost purple in parts. “This happens when you source from an eel.”

“Will it heal?” Kenji asked.

Greta shrugged. “It’s been three days. Doesn’t seem to be getting better.”

“Have you shown Exemplar Corsnyck?”

“Master knows,” said Greta.

“Why won’t he—” heal you, Kenji was going to say when they were interrupted by a loud snore. The honorable curled up on his side.

“Master cannot study the effects if he erases them,” said Greta. Kenji thought he saw something like regret in her eyes, but her expression flickered back to stone.

“If I come across chamomile or rose, I’ll make an extraction for you,” said Kenji.

“You won’t find many helpful plants on the grounds, and all of our extracts belong to the exemplar.”

Anger pressed hotly against Kenji’s eyes. He’d never known such greed. A woman screamed as she was dragged from the covered cage below. A guard clubbed her silent.

“I won’t kill again,” said Kenji. “I have to leave.”

“If you do manage to escape, you’ll never see your conduit again,” said Greta. “Exemplar keeps them until graduation.”

“But I’m the only person who can use it.”

“Yes,” said Greta. “But anyone can wear it for fashion.”

Kenji remembered that Merris had told him the same. “Surely, they don’t wear active ones,” he said, reasoning that there was nothing wrong with wearing the conduit of a graduate.

“They wear what looks good,” said Greta. She went back to the honorable, and after a moment of fussing, took him into his chamber.

Kenji gave the fresco another look, the dawn light having illuminated more of it. There, beside Corsnyck stood a woman cloaked in gold, her forearm cuffed in dozens of conduits.

#

Kenji took his conduit from pot seventy-seven and slid it onto his wrist. The braided metal warmed against his skin. It belongs with me. To me.

“I’ve never seen a dragon like that before,” said Greta as she came down the hall, her eyes fixed on the open archway ahead.

Kenji followed her gaze. A small snaking dragon flew in a figure-eight. His heart dropped into his gut. Merris must have been in danger. The only other time Sung had left Merris’ side was when the old man slipped in mud and couldn’t get up. Merris would have lain on the ground for days if the dragon hadn’t appeared to Kenji. “Sung,” said Kenji as he hurried to the window.

“You know him?” Greta asked as she followed. Sung stopped his figure-eights and hovered in the archway, his yellow eyes fixed on Kenji.

“Sung, what is it?” Kenji whispered, as if the creature could reply.    Sung beat his leathery wings and took off in the direction of Ravensglade. “I have to go,” said Kenji, his mouth going dry as he considered the many things that could have gone wrong.

“You can’t,” said Greta. Corsnyck’s sandals clicked down the hall. “See you in class.” She hurried off to the extraction room.

Kenji could feel the exemplar standing behind him. He turned to the man, his hands clamped into fists.

“I’ve got a source I think you’ll like,” said Corsnyck, brows arching. The exemplar was all that stood between Kenji and the way out. “She’s a pretty thing. It’s almost a waste to source her, but her parts are too soiled to serve any other purpose.”

Kenji’s blood heated. The heat flowed to his neck, down his arm, and into the conduit. He opened his palms and lunged.

#

Kenji lay awake on his side, his hip bruising as it pressed into the stone floor. He breathed shallowly, trying not to inhale his own stench. His conduit had been replaced by an iron cuff, which had made his fingers swell and purple. Will I lose my hand? There were rumblings among the guards that Kenji would lose more than that. He’d drained Corsnyck, halfway to death. The good it did. The exemplar had healed himself by the time the defenders had dragged Kenji to the cell.

Goddess, spare me, Kenji prayed, for only she could help him now. Thoughts of home and the glade invaded his prayers. The taste of his mother’s bread, the smell of the river, the sound of his father’s pipes, his brothers’ games, his sisters’ giggles. He even missed old Merris. Kenji recalled Sung’s visit and was anxious to know of the exemplar’s state.

“Kenji,” a soft voice roused him. He rolled over to find Greta crouching at the iron bars. “Don’t speak,” she whispered, fiddling with the lock. The door silently opened. She stepped inside the cell, sleeve to her nose.

Kenji stood with shaking legs. He’d nearly exhausted himself during the attack, and his strength had been slow to return.

“Stand still,” Greta whispered, eyes damp with fear. Kenji tensed his legs to hold himself steady. Kneeling, Greta unlocked his cuff and pulled it off. Blood gushed back into Kenji’s hand. His fingers throbbed with the pain of freedom.

#

Kenji leaned against a post and gulped down the honey Greta had given him.

“Your stomach will turn if you eat too fast,” she said.

“Don’t care,” Kenji said between swallows.

“Here.” She unearthed a stack of millet cakes from her bag. “Something solid.” Kenji took a cake and devoured it. A lone cart rumbled in the distance, the pattering of horse hooves lilting toward the city limits. At night, the city roads could have passed for country trails. “Save some for the journey.” Greta wrapped up the cakes and put them away. “Here.” She held out her sack to Kenji. “A gift from Honorable Jykar.”

“I can’t take a gift from a man without his wits.”

“He’s been feigning madness,” said Greta. “He told me he admired your attack and wanted to free you.”

“In that case…” Kenji took the sack.

“He’s secured a corpse,” Greta explained, “to make it look like you died in confinement. Goddess, bless the guards who hang.”

“How many will die because of me?” Kenji asked, his shoulders sinking under the guilt.

“Put it out of your mind,” said Greta.

“I should go back and let Corsnyck hang me,” said Kenji. It would be better than letting innocent men die on my accord.

“No,” said Greta. “He will torture you until he gets the truth about your escape.”

“And you and the honorable will also hang,” said Kenji. He squeezed the bag between his fingers. “I’m a murderer either way.”

“You should go now,” Greta urged.

“I deserve to die.” Kenji forced back tears, his throat feeling as if it was caving in on itself.

“We all do,” said Greta. “My hands are bloodier than yours.” Kenji couldn’t imagine a girl of such refinement draining someone to death. She gave his shoulder a gentle push. “Go.”

“I won’t see you again,” said Kenji. There was no one like Greta in Ravensglade. “Come with me,” he blurted.

“I’m not leaving without it.” She held up her bare wrist.

“Honorable didn’t manage to get mine, did he?” Kenji asked, remembering about his own conduit.

“He couldn’t,” said Greta. In her eyes, the moon was a silver speck.

“He’s done enough,” said Kenji. “So have you.”

#

Kenji nearly tripped over his sandals as he came upon home. His mother dropped her garden shears and ran to embrace him. She smelled of the lavender she’d been cutting.

“I stink,” Kenji warned.

“No worse than the chickens.” She stepped back and looked at him. “You need to eat.” His mother had soft eyes set inside a leathered face.

“I am hungry,” he admitted, having gone through all the food in the sack hours before. Kenji’s father emerged from the side of the house in his usual silence, shovel in hand. His father had not been schooled past his eighth year and had always struggled with words.

“Tilling a new plot?” Kenji asked. His father only ever dug on the side of the house for family burials. Kenji’s father looked to his mother. Kenji remembered Sung and said, “It’s for Merris, isn’t it?” His parents had always talked about how they would bury Merris, though he wasn’t family. They were the closest to kin that the old man had.

“Sung came to us five suns ago,” said Kenji’s mother. “Merris had fallen into a deep sleep. He passed yesterday at zenith.

“The lavender…” Kenji started, but didn’t have the words to finish.

“His favorite,” said his mother.

“Let me.” Kenji held out his hand to receive the shovel from his father. “Please.”

His father wiped his brow.

“You need morning tea,” said his mother.

“Later,” said Kenji, his hunger filling with grief.

His father handed him the shovel.

#

Kenji stood by the fire and slathered his hands in the chamomile ointment his mother had made—by traditional means, the same means he would be using without his conduit. He rubbed the oil over the raw ring of skin where his shackle had been, and before that, his conduit. An extractor can only be bound to one conduit—ever. Kenji tried not to think about it, but that was like trying to ignore a splinter in the eye.

His brothers and sisters whispered among themselves as Sung flew around the loft above.

“The dragon only likes petting on his head,” Kenji yelled up to them. “And don’t let Mother catch you awake.” Their whispers quieted until all that could be heard was the rapping of their father’s hammer. He was finishing Merris’ burial box. Kenji held his hands to the fire, hands that had murdered, hands he’d vowed only to use for healing. I’ve failed you, Merris. “I’ve failed myself,” he whispered.

His mother came through the door and set a large crate on the table. “Merris liked his collections,” she said.

“And books,” Kenji added, remembering the many times he’d found the exemplar asleep with a book in his lap.

“I haven’t even begun to go through those,” said Kenji’s mother.

“I’ll help you after the burial,” said Kenji.

“Here.” She pulled an amber bottle from the box and gave it to him.

“His only glass bottle,” said Kenji. It was heavier than it looked. He held the glass to the firelight. The bottle was filled with a viscous liquid, like honey, but thicker.

“Merris told me to give it to you after he passed,” said his mother.

“What is it?” Kenji tipped it to one side and then the other.

“You don’t know?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Didn’t you wonder why he was weak all the time?” She raised a brow.

“Exemplar Elixir,” said Kenji, almost disbelieving his own words.

“He could have lived another decade if he hadn’t made it,” said his mother. Kenji had learned from Merris’ books about how painful it was for an exemplar to bottle his own essence—drop by drop, night after night. It shaved years, sometimes decades off of one’s life. Drinking an exemplar’s elixir was the only way an extractor could become and exemplar.

“Merris said it was yours to do with as you wished,” said his mother. “You could get a fortune for it,” she added. “And your father and I don’t want a coin.” Kenji’s parents had often talked about how they liked their simple lives, how they didn’t want or need riches.

Something cold prodded Kenji’s arm. It was Sung. The dragon hovered above the corked bottle.

“I wonder if it smells like Merris,” said Kenji. His brothers and sisters were whispering again.

“You better be asleep when I get up there,” their mother called to them. The room quieted, save for the crackling of the fire. She turned back to Kenji. “Merris said it will expire in a year, and if you should drink it, you’ll be sick for seven suns.”

Kenji had never gotten used to the pain of making extracts, and he’d heard that exemplars suffered far worse than extractors. An exemplar doesn’t drain his essence into jars, but bears it in his body. If he fails to use it for healings, the essence crystalizes and infects the joints.

“Why don’t you decide later?” said his mother as she put more wood on the fire.

Kenji held the jar to his chest, still unbelieving of what Merris had done for him.

#

Kenji sat in the grass beside the burial mound. A chorus of pipes played from the common barn, where unions and burials were often celebrated. Seven lavender cuttings had been set into the mound. If the seasons were kind, the cuttings would grow into bushes.

Kenji turned the amber bottle in his hand, ran his thumb over the cork. He could wait until the New Year, before deciding what to do with it. That would mean spending time at home, farming. He was a mediocre farmer at best, and his parents could barely afford to keep his brothers and sisters fed through the winter.

Kenji held up the bottle to the sun. The glass appeared almost orange in the light. “What do you think, Exemplar?” he asked the mound.

A dragon enters the abyss with his master’s map. Kenji breathed as he popped the cork.