I’d been awake before dawn.
I’d woken to a small feeling tugging at the back of my mind, telling me that this day would be different. That this day would change the course of my life.
I brushed it off, of course. Today was my Talent Gaining; naturally, things would be different. Like all the other thirteen-year-olds in the village, I would get a chance to stand before the Globe of Tarahabi and receive my hidden talent.
A sudden wave of anxiety clenched my insides. How would my parents react if I had a useless talent, like levitation or eccentric speed? They wanted me to have a mind-based talent that would strengthen my intelligence. But if the speculations were true, and your talent was drawn from the parts of your body that were already the most developed, I had nothing to worry about. My mind was fine. Wasn’t it?
I wiped my palms on my pants and sighed. I’d never been one to dwell on my feelings, anyway.
I was sitting in the armchair in the corner of my room with my legs tucked underneath me. The curtain was open just enough for the early pink sunlight to crawl through the window and across the floor. I was watching it slowly make its way over to me when I heard the telltale scuff of my Nana’s boots on the stairs.
I leapt silently out of the chair, slid into my bed, reached up and pulled the curtain shut. A few seconds later a loud knocking shook my door on its hinges.
“UP!” my Nana said, exactly as she did every morning. Intelligent women don't waste time sleeping in, she always told me.
“I’m up!” I called back.
I stared at the ceiling and listened to her boots scuff back down the stairs. Then I climbed out of bed for the second time that day.
I stood at the end of my bed for a moment, welcoming the chill, before heading over to the big white wardrobe. It was the largest of my belongings, and had elegant vines and flowers carved along the edges. My bedframe also had this design, and so did the little bookshelf beside the armchair. It contained the few books I was allowed to keep in my room. As Nana said, a bedroom is for sleeping, not for storing useless junk.
I had a dress already set aside for the day. It was pale grey, and had a light skirt that twirled. Simple enough, but suitable for a special occasion such as this. I didn't want to draw attention to myself with some frivolous outfit. I would already stand out as it was.
Before leaving the room, I quickly ran a comb through my hair. It was shorter than I was used to because I'd recently gotten it cut. Now it only reached my shoulders. I liked how much easier it was to maintain, but it reminded me of my mother.
I put the comb down as soon as the thoughts of my mother came into my head. Nana would go over it again before I left, so it didn’t matter if my hair wasn’t completely brushed. Right?
My door swung open easily. I closed it again behind me, then made my way down the hallway past empty bedrooms. My house was much bigger than the other houses in the village. To be honest, I didn’t see a point in its size. Besides Nana, none of the people who worked here, like my tutors, the cleaners, and the gardeners, actually lived with us. I assumed it was for my parents to make a statement of money and power, but even they hadn’t lived here since I was a tiny baby.
I was only a few months old when they got the job offer. It must have been the chance of a lifetime, because they took it right away, leaving me in the hands of my Nana. They came home briefly, sometimes only once a year. When I was really young, I could never remember what they looked like so, for years, each time they showed up it was like I was meeting strangers. I only knew they were scientists, working in secret to improve the development of the world. There were no questions asked, and I wasn’t allowed to speak about it.
I barely paid any attention to the rooms I passed as I walked to the dining room for breakfast. Many of them didn’t have much of a purpose; they were just another sitting room that no one ever used or a closet that held nothing but cobwebs.
I only looked up when I passed the library. I always did. I often thought of the library as my sanctuary, a place where I could disappear, where I got to decide what I wanted to learn. Rows of shelves looked back at me, stacked to the top with books that I wasn’t allowed to keep in my room.
Before the Great War of Laze, the kids in the poorer villages of Mencia weren’t taught how to read. I can’t imagine how terrible that must have been for them. At least now that King Trub was on the throne, they led better lives.
When I entered the dining room, my breakfast was already set out on the long table that was definitely meant for more than one person. I could see Nana through the door that led into the kitchen, her back towards me.
I stuck my tongue out at my food before she could notice. I never liked breakfast. Nana always said it was the most important meal of the day, and therefor had to be the most healthy and energizing, but I didn’t see why it had to be so gross.
Nana turned around and I hurriedly stuck my fork into my mouth, chewing the sour, green fruit.
She nodded stiffly. “You will eat everything on that plate. I won’t have you going hungry on your Talent Gaining.”
I swallowed the fruit before saying, “I’m never hungry in the morning, anyway. I could go until lunch without eating anything.”
“I don’t care. That would not be good for you.”
She brought over the mug of thick, green vitamin mixture that she’d been stirring and slammed it on the table. The liquid sloshed in the mug, threatening to spill over the side. I never understood her reasoning for this disgusting concoction either. It was supposed to help with brain growth, but other kids didn’t have to drink it, and they certainly didn’t seem to be missing out on anything. I’d pointed that out to Nana more than once, but she’d given me the same answer. You’re not other kids.
I shovelled mushy oats into my mouth as Nana began combing through my hair. She pulled it back tightly and began the braid. Nana braided my hair almost every day. She said it made me more sophisticated, and that I looked like my mother.
I ignored this comment.
As time went by, my parents started coming home only when it was necessary to check on my progress. It was the same every time. There would be a meeting in one of the sitting rooms, where all my tutors would come and discuss my studies while I sat obediently in the corner.
When I was about nine years old, my favourite tutor’s name was Aiza. She’d only been with me for a few months, but I had loved her, and her positive teaching style had been a breath of fresh air compared to my other tutors.
“I’m so very proud of her,” Aiza said with a smile on her face. She always had a smile on her face. “Lae has accomplished so much in my time with her.”
“Is that so?” my mother said. “What did she accomplish?”
Aiza nodded fondly. “I worked with her on a research project analyzing the years leading up to the Great War of Laze. Her paper results were excellent. Her writing is the best I’ve seen for her age and I really recommend using this to—”
“You said you worked with her?” my mother interrupted.
“So how does this project demonstrate what she can do on her own?”
“Ma’am, she did the entire write-up section by herself. I only helped her figure out what she wanted to say.”
My father cleared his throat. “We hired you to teach her Mencia’s history, not language arts.”
“Yes sir.” Aiza’s smile faltered slightly.
“Now, what was her final exam score this term?”
There was a silence in which I held my breath. My heart beat so loudly I afraid everyone would hear it, and then I would be in even more trouble for acting so cowardly.
“What happened to your perfect score, Lae?” my mother asked in a voice of forced softness. I knew that voice. She was disappointed in me again.
I felt a sinking in my chest. Don’t cry, I told myself, it’ll be worse if you do. I opened my mouth to reply, but Aiza beat me to it.
“It’s not an easy topic. And she has an incredibly good mark compared to other kids her age.”
“Other kids’ marks don’t matter. Lae is better than them, and she is better than this.” My mother turned her gaze back on me. “What we’re asking isn’t hard. You should be able to accomplish so much more! All you need is determination. You need to put more effort into your work or nothing is going to improve. Do you understand?”
“Yes mother. I understand.”
My new tutor for Mencia’s history was an old man who smelled like burnt vegetables and spoke in dull, repetitive verses. I never saw Aiza again.
Nana finished my hair and tapped me sharply on the back of my head. I hadn’t realized that I’d stopped eating. I shovelled down the rest of my oats, then swallowed the vitamin drink in one gulp. The awful taste filled my mouth and I immediately regretted not leaving some of my breakfast to follow it. I struggled not to make a face, knowing that Nana was watching me. I would have to grab some water from the bathroom on my way out.
I pushed back my chair and stood up. But before I could move a bony hand clamped onto my shoulder. Confused, I sat back in the chair.
“Nana?” I said, turning to look at her.
“Here,” she said simply, and handed me a necklace.
It was beautiful.
In my hands, a light silver chain looped together perfectly. From it hung a single pendant; a bright, earthy green stone in the shape of a leaf. I’d never had much interest in jewellery, but I could see how this would draw eyes wherever it went. It was probably expensive, too. I could bet it was worth more than most people could afford.
“It’s a present,” Nana said. Her brown face was stony, but her eyes held a softness that I’d come to look upon for comfort. “It’s from your parents.”
I stared at the necklace. My parents had given me things before, but they were always intended for me to use. I’d gotten rare textbooks, and some science utensils for a birthday. Was this a reward? If they really cared so much as to get me something like this, why didn’t they come to give it to me themselves?
I didn’t know how I should reply. So I just nodded.
She nodded back at me. “You should get ready to leave. Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?”
“I’m sure,” I said. I didn’t need to be escorted around.
“I’ll have lunch prepared when you get back, then.” She scooped up my plate and strode into the kitchen.
I slid the necklace around my neck and left the room.
Before leaving the house, I stopped in the bathroom. I cupped my hands and took a long drink from the tap, washing away the aftertaste of the vitamin drink. I looked up at myself in the mirror on the wall. What would the other kids think of me, the daughter of the mysterious rich couple, the girl who had private tutors instead of classmates?
I flicked my braid over my shoulder. It didn’t look as sophisticated as it had when my hair was longer. Now it just seemed … childish. I tugged the tie from the braid and shook out my hair until it fell straight back, down to my shoulders.
Was that better?
At least the necklace looked nice.
“I’m here for the Talent Gaining.”
The school secretary was hidden behind a giant stack of papers so that only the top of his spiky hair was visible. He didn’t even look up as I spoke.
“The auditorium is straight down the hall to your left,” he instructed.
I breathed for a moment, then started again.
“My name is Lae Polpher and I’m thirteen years old. My parents are Sonadel and Jimen Polpher. I’ve never been to school, but by the Children’s Law, section twenty-seven, I have every right to stand before the Globe of Tarahabi for a chance to gain a talent.”
I stood back, raising my chin.
The secretary peered at me around the tower of papers. He peeled his spectacles away from his face and set them on his desk, then peered at me some more.
“Ah yes, I was told you would be here. You’ll find this year’s class in the prepping room beside the auditorium.”
I thanked him and left the office, feeling his gaze on my back as I walked out and around the corner. I walked with my chin up and back straight. Even though most of the children weren’t at school yet, I needed to project an era of confidence.
I’d never been inside the school before. It was much plainer than I’d been expecting. There weren’t anything lining the walls, and some of the paint was actually peeling. I knew the school didn’t have nearly as much money as my parents, but I’d never really understood what that meant. Did the other kids’ houses look similar to this? Was this normal for them?
Did I look rich and snobbish? I’d chosen my grey dress carefully, but what if it was wrong? I tucked the necklace under my dress and felt the cool gem press against my skin.
When I got to the room, the class were already seated, and as I opened the door every eye snapped in my direction. I forced myself not to look at them, but instead at the teacher, who had been conducting a speech.
“My name is Lae Polpher.” I said. “I’m here for the Talent Gaining.”
“Yes, I was informed. Please have a seat, Miss Polpher.”
I sat in the seat closest to me, ignoring the kids’ whispers and stares. I strained my ears to hear some of what they were saying.
“What’s she doing here?”
“She lives in that big white house near the park.”
“I heard her parents are so rich, they paid to keep her out of school, away from the rest of us!”
The teacher went on with his speech. It was one I’d read before; the story of how Tarahabi had found the globe, which led to the Talent Gaining being born. I found myself listening to the story instead of the kids. It was comforting to hear a story that was familiar.
When he finished, he instructed his class to line up in alphabetical order, then turned to me.
“You’ll be going first, Miss Polpher.”
I made my way to the front of the line.
After that everything moved very quickly.
The teacher directed me through the side door to the auditorium stage. I took my place by the Seer and the globe. I didn’t even know my village Seer’s name.
There were many people watching in the audience. Were my parents out there? What would they do if I didn’t get a useful talent?
My brain was cloudy. My body was shaking with nervous energy.
”Stare into the Globe of Tarahabi and it will help you discover the talent hidden deep within you,” the Seer whispered, softly enough so that only I would hear.
I stared at the globe. It was fractured. There seemed to be small pieces missing from it. Would those pieces be as powerful as the globe itself, or would they lose their power when they broke away from the source?
No, I told myself. I had to focus. I stared harder.
The sound of someone shifting in their seat broke me out of my concentration. How long had I been standing there? A minute? Two? Five? I could hear more people moving around, becoming restless.
Then something formed in the centre of the globe. A little ball of swirling red gas. Panic struck me in the chest. I couldn’t breathe properly.
“Let me try again,” I said to the Seer, “I’ll do better this time, I promise!” But she was already shaking her head, eyes wide.
I looked back at the globe anyway. The red now filled every crevice of the glass. I begged it to turn dark orange, or even purple, but it just spun around faster like it would explode at the slightest touch.
Maybe that was exactly what I needed.
I reached for the globe. Immediately, large hands grabbed me from behind, forcing my hands back. I didn’t resist as they pulled me down from the stage, through the crowd of alarmed spectators towards the exit.
Because the red meant I was Untalented.