The Beginning Of The Fall
Avon knew it was a dream, but it was a wonderful one, the kind you physically fight waking from. She soared on a dragon over a racing landscape, wind rushed through her thick, curly hair - what her mother called a "pile of frizz".
Lifting her hands toward the pink and gold underbellies of the clouds, she splayed her finger and laughed toward the heavens. The light of the setting sun glistened fire on her mocha skin and glittered on the gold scales of the creature beneath.
"Avon," came a familiar voice and something tapped her shoulder. She frowned, resisting, but the persistent touching dragged her out of the dream.
Jerking awake in her seat, she blinked and mumbled, "Y-yes?" Students snickered around her and Mr. Shanoth loomed over her, his large, square face painted with disapproval. With a sigh, he tapped at his blubbery chin and she realized what he meant.
After wiping a dribble of drool from her chin with the back of her hand - causing another round of snickering from the others - she straightened in her seat. "Do you not get enough sleep at home?" he asked. His fat lips pressing together in disapproval as he stared down at her through his half-rimmed glasses that made his dark brown eyes look large and watery. "Why must you sleep in my class? Do you find geometry that dull?"
"Do I have to answer that honestly?" she asked and the nostrils of his broad nose flared as more snickering followed, but this time not at Avon..
"Do you want another trip to the principle's office?"
"No sir," she replied, "I just wanted to know if I was to lie and flatter you again today."
More laughter bubbled out. He glanced around in annoyance. "I'll be writing you up," he snapped, making his way back to the blackboard.
In the corner of her eye, she saw Anye, gold comb of pearls stuck in her hair - softened by expensive potions and oils to make it not stand up in a bush - glaring at Avon. Avon didn't know what she'd done today to piss off the most popular girl in class, but she was just one more reason to hate Prevora Academy.
Avon longed for Mage School. To go The Floating City. Except mother will never allow it, she reminded herself. Eighteen, the age she was considered an adult, seemed a long time to wait to go face The Testing. Her mother hoped to break Avon by then of any desire toward magery. It was a battle of wills between the two. One Avon would not lose.
Avon was carrying a stack of parchments down the stairs when a foot stuck out and sent her flying onto the rose marble landing below, her parchments scattered about. Laughter ran about behind her and recognizing that high-nasally snicker, she asked Anye, "What do you want?" as she began gathering her stuff. The hallway ran in either direction and was empty as her peers rarely came to the school library.
"I wanted to know how you cheated," Anye said, coming around with her two friends, Tansha and Pula, to plant her foot right on Avon's stack of papers and grind the toe of her slippered foot into it. Avon stared up, gaze rising past Anye's silken pants, flared until mid-shin where they were tied in. She wore a belt of silver over a tabard of milky-white. At the sides of Anye's narrow face hung two large fan-shaped gold earrings with sapphires encrusted in their center. Her wrists were covered with bangles and charm bracelets. She wore a gold nose ring much like Avon's. Her friends that flanked her wore similar outfits but with more gold and orange colors over their coal-black skin.
"I never cheat. I study. You should try it," Avon replied, rising to her feet. Anye's eyes narrowed, her face contorting with anger. Avon's feet slid shoulder-width apart. "I suggest you walk away."
Beneath Anye's foot was a picture of a dragon sketched soaring over the Floating City. Avon had discovered the notes in the library and borrowed them. Anye's twisted her toe until the paper tore.
"What you're going to do? Freak!" Anye said.
Mr. Dupath, the principal of Prevora Academy, sat, tapping a forefinger impatiently on his desk of Tuskin willow oak, and glared at Avon. She was seated comfortably in a cushioned chair twice the size of her small body. Nevertheless, with hands gripping the arms rests and feet not able to reach the gold and black rug on the floor, she acted like it suited her perfectly and met him glare for glare.
He clearly wanted her to cower and remember he was the adult and she was a mere ten year old. Yet Avon wouldn't have it. And when he reminded her vocally, she reminded him he was sixty and still no wiser. She knew what he thought of her, what most of the teachers thought of her, with their remarks of "sullen brat" and "dreary girl". They didn't care for Avon and the feeling was mutual.
"Have you reflected on what you've done?" he asked, his voice deep and baritone.
"I succeeded in not getting beaten up," Saffron replied, lips stretching into a smile.
"And you're proud of what you did?"
"Very," she said and he slammed a fist on the desk, rattling his brass cup of tea on its saucer. She didn't flinch, merely raised an eyebrow as if he were being immature, and she could tell her lack of reaction only added to his anger.
"Violence is never the answer," he reminded.
"But victimhood is?" she mused.
A vein popped out of his square forehead. "I'm tired of that smart mouth of yours. You must think you're clever Ms. Bon Vendagi, but you're no more clever than any of your peers."
"I don't think I'm clever. I know I am. If I were stupid, you'd like me better."
He took in a deep breath and, with a heavy sigh, plastered on a smile. She knew it was false and only a mask he and most of the teachers here hid behind. They pretended they were moral. "Panth teaches us humility is a virtue."
"And that confidence is an asset," she added. Adults always tried to act like she couldn't read and quote their own religious works.
He raised his finger, ready to go on another of his tirades. "You need to learn to act your age!"
"And so do you!" she quipped.
He shot to his feet, slamming his hands on the desk. "You wretched little br-"
A knock on the door interrupted. His secretary announced a visitor from the other side and moments later the door swung open. Mr. Dupath was already seated once more and his mask of "peaceful and benevolent" once more dominated his features. "Mrs. Bon Vendagi, I'm sad you had to come all this way today. There has been an unfortunate incident involving your daughter."
"What has she done this time?" Her mother asked in her dry, high-strung voice as she entered the edge of Avon's vision, coming to stand in front of his desk. She could feel her mother's eyes narrowed at her.
The woman hid almost every inch of skin under a grey dress and headscarf. She wore one small silver nose ring and two silver studs in her ears. Her skin held an ashen-grey look, the result of too much lightening powder over her dark brown skin, as if attempting to rob any life from her appearance.
"Mrs. Bon Vendagi, please have a sat," Mr. Dupath said, gesturing at the other chair. Her mother did so very primly as he continued, "She attacked three girls and broke Anye Lilfurth's nose. I'm afraid that's the third strike and our rules are very clear."
"Oh please no," her mother said, falling easily into a display of emotion. Avon had seen this game before and it amazed her how many men fell for it. "I'm so sorry. She's just been such a handful since her father died." A sniffle. "Please just give her one more chance. I'll straighten her out for sure." Her mother blew into a handkerchief she kept carefully stashed in her leather purse. Avon didn't need to see. She knew her mother well.
"Well, here at Prevora Academy we do believe in forgiveness. It is the way of Panth," he said, "But only for those who are truly repentant." Both their eyes flickered to Avon who crossed her arms and clenched her teeth. "But I'm afraid is more than just those incidents. The teachers have complained about your daughter. Though they admit she's quite gifted - her grades are remarkable - but she makes everyone uncomfortable."
"Her grades?" Her mother said in a tense voice. "She's just an average student, right?" There was a quaver in her mom's voice.
"Oh no, she does perfect on every test and homework. Didn't you know?"
"Oh, y-yes of course. She's a real gift," Avon could hear the hidden fury in her mother's voice. There was a test of aptitude calld the Sundath Exam that all children at eight and every three years after had to take. Avon on her first try dazzled the graders, scoring well above most adults. But unlike most parents who'd have been thrilled that to hear that their daughter might be a certified genius, her mother paled and became devastated at the news. And from then on did everything she could to sabotage and bury Avon's talent. Too bad, her mother hadn't been clever enough to figure out that Avon had started giving her old homework to throw away and had easily seen through her mother feeding her false answers on the homework she allowed Avon to turn in. And that Avon left her study notes with Toth, her only friend and the neighbor's son. "Please don't expell her again. This'll be the third school in two years."
"All right. I'll let this slide if," his gaze swiveled back to Avon, "She apologizes and admits she's a bad child. At Prevora we want to hear true repentance."
"Oh thank you so much. Avon apologize," her mother ordered.
Avon fixed her gaze on her knees.
"Avon," Mr. Dupath said, warning in his tone.
"Ien," Avon replied, kicking her legs back and forth.
"Avon," her mother hissed, "He is your elder. You don't address him like that."
"Mr. Ien?" she said and Mr. Dupath grunted with anger.
"Avon!" her mother snapped.
"Child, just admit you have devil inside and we'll help you cleanse that darkness in your soul. Don't you feel sorry for your hurting your class mates?"
Avon raised her gaze. "Do I have to answer honestly?"
"The honest answer is 'yes, I feel terrible for what I did'," her mother reminded. "Now tell him the truth."
And so Avon did answer honestly.
"I hope you're happy!" her mother yelled, dragging Avon by the wrists as they walked down the dusty, desert path home to Odable, a small town of round, white buildings. "That was the last school in any easy distance of us!"
Avon's leather satchel was heavy with all her school supplies. "If you hate me so much, you could send me away. I could live with Uncle Igins."
Her mother halted, turning around to tower over Avon. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? To live in that vile Floating City of sinners."
"Dad lived there," Avon said, "He wasn't a sinner."
"Your father is dead thanks to that vile craft. Can't you see?" Her mother said, face changing to distraught as she knelt down taking both of Avon's hands, "I'm trying to protect you."
Her mother's brown eyes were flecked gold at the rim of her irises. They grew wide and pleading, but she knew it was all an act. Her mother manipulated everyone for stuff. Men for money. Women for social status. And her own daughter for convenience.
Her mother's full lips curved into a smile that gave an illusion of warmth. "What does Panth teach us about magic?" She squeezed Avon's hands almost painfully.
"That magic is the nectar of sin, an abuse of nature," Avon said, reciting what her mother had drilled into her. "Avoid it wherever possible."
"Exactly," she said, standing up. "So we'll you give up this foolishness?"
"But children as young as ten can test. I'm ten. Give me a chance."
"Avon!" Her mother snapped, the sweetness vanishing to be replaced by fury. "You pig-headed brat! I'm sick of how stubborn you are. You are a normal kid. Average. No better than anyone else. And you're not cut out for that!" Then tears began to blur her vision. "I just don't know where I went wrong. Why can't you be like other little girls?"
"I don't know," Avon said, her lower lip quivering. "I want to be normal," she said, her vision clouding with tears, "But more than that, I want to be where me is normal."
"There is no such place," her mother said, "You'd best just try to blend in here. Just pretend you like them. A smile is an excellent mask. Your current expression scares people."
"Do I scare you?" Avon asked.
Her mother looked down at her for a long moment and then replied, "Do I have to answer that honestly?" Then she turned away and Avon watched her walk away in silence.