Chapter One: Elcenia

At least one of Mallyn's toes was broken. This was not an excuse - to walk slowly, to drop the sack of beans he was carrying, or to complain. It was something to account for while he strove to do none of those things. His left pinky was also broken, but that was easier to avoid using than the toe, and he'd been able to figure out how to splint it when given the chance. He wasn't sure about the rib. That might just be a bruise. There was no good way to avoid straining that altogether, but he could mostly manage to have the beans bump against his other side.

The dairy came into view. They'd painted it since last week. Mallyn half-limped, half-hopped towards the side entrance, and heaved the beans onto the counter. "Miss Syl?" he called tentatively.

Miss Syl, a human with gray streaks in brown hair, peered around the corner from behind the counter. "Oh, it's you," she said. "Last-minute changes?"

"Butter, not yogurt. Please," Mallyn said, ducking his head. Miss Syl didn't usually hit him, but she didn't see enough of him for that to mean much.

"Tallem!" she called into the storeroom. "The Caryllen boy is here! Get me their order, swap the yogurt for butter, don't dawdle!" She opened the sack and looked into it. Smaller bags were nestled among the main delivery of black beans. She checked their labels. Mallyn couldn't read them, so he didn't know whether to expect to be cuffed for misdelivery or not. Even if he'd read them and they'd been wrong he wouldn't have been able to challenge his parents on the subject, so it didn't really matter.

They seemed to accord with Miss Syl's memory of the order, at least. She closed the sack again. Tallem came out of the back and gave Miss Syl a wooden box with the week's dairy. She handed it over to Mallyn.

He was halfway out the door before Miss Syl swore. Mallyn flinched and turned around, in case it was about him - something wrong with the beans? He should have thanked her? But she wasn't looking at him at all.

"Damn Elcenians, meddlers," she was muttering at her newspaper, while Tallem separated out the types of beans into their places under the counter. "Did you read this, Tallem?"

"Which thing?" Tallem asked. Neither of them had noticed Mallyn pausing there, eavesdropping, yet.

"Just because they're the ones who can make circles to their world, they think they're gods over anybody stands on it a few fragments!" exclaimed Miss Syl. "Some malcontent child shows up on their end, in that country, Esmaar, this treaty says they can keep it if the parents don't suit those arrogant bastards. Paper says to keep kids away from it if you so much as swat them for backtalk and they're prone to wander away - didn't you read it? You've got six sprogs, you're taking them to Aristan City in two days, you need to know this."

Tallem took the paper Miss Syl shoved at him and peered at it. "Huh," he said. "Does sound like that. Don't reckon the Watch would let runaways in the circle, though, do you?"

"Boy, what're you doing?" asked Miss Syl suddenly, and Mallyn jumped and finished leaving the dairy.

The whole place stank of cows.

But the cheese in the box looked delicious. Mallyn didn't know how animals as smelly as cows made things as lovely as cheese.

His parents would know if he took any.

He limp-walked home, trying to speed up to compensate for the time he'd spent listening at the dairy. His toe hurt. He was hungry. And if he said that aloud to either parent to explain why he was late or why the cheese was missing a corner, he'd hurt more and get hungrier.

Lyrrae had wet her mat again.

"Did they see yet?" Mallyn asked.

Lyrrae shook her head. Mallyn couldn't take the fall directly, but he shooed her outside and then got one of the dogs, which growled and snapped at him while he dragged it into their room. He locked it in.

When they asked who'd put the dog there, he owned up (but he made them shout a bit first, he didn't want to seem like he was trying to provoke them). He took the whipping, and left his shirt off until the bleeding stopped so it wouldn't show through. They didn't touch Lyrrae.

He wondered what the "circle" in Aristan City was like. The Watch wouldn't help him, he knew that. Renn had gone to an officer once, saying Mallyn didn't know what, and the officer had marched him right back home, and their parents had kept all three up with screaming and blows all night long. As far as the Watch was concerned, the Caryllens had badly behaved children and had to keep them in line because there was so much work to do on the farm. As far as the Watch was concerned, any of them setting a foot out of step on their errands could be sent home.

But if Miss Syl had been reading the paper right, there was a way in Aristan City to get to another world. A way that a runaway child could stumble into. And this other world would keep any children it got hold of whose parents hit them for backtalk.

Aristan City was a day away by cart. He'd been there once, to fetch and carry while his parents made deals with grocers in the dense, crowded city. It would be about the same on foot, if he ran til he was out of sight and then jogged the rest of the way. There was a public well twelve miles along the highway from his house. Could he make it that far with only as much water as he could swallow before leaving and any rain that fell into his mouth? It was still early spring, almost as cool as it ever got in Aristan, but he still poured sweat when he did his chores.

And he knew Lyrrae and Renn couldn't even walk that far, let alone run it.

If he went, his brother and sister would have to pick up his slack on the chores, and he was doing half of their work as it stood because they didn't have his stamina. If he went, the next time Renn screamed in the middle of the night with terrors, Mallyn wouldn't be able to wake him up before their parents heard. If he went, the next time Lyrrae tripped carrying water, he wouldn't be able to say he'd shoved her.

If he went, he could ask the unknown people beyond the unknown circle for help for his siblings too.

But maybe they would only keep, or could only take, children who made it into their circle? Maybe the circle wasn't even real, maybe Miss Syl had been talking about a story - but she'd talked like it was something Tallem needed to worry about with his kids.

Maybe the newspaper was wrong.

Maybe he'd get caught on the way to Aristan City, or once he was there but before he found the circle.

Maybe they'd think his parents were not bad enough to keep him away from them.

The next day, Lyrrae spilled her beans on their mother's dress while they were looking right at her, and there was nothing Mallyn could do. He couldn't say he'd done it, he couldn't say he'd pushed her, he couldn't blame a dog.

He couldn't stop his parents from beating his little sister, but maybe the people on the other side of the circle could.

He was gone as soon as their parents fell asleep that night.

It rained the entire way there, and Mallyn couldn't see anything except when he passed farmhouses with candles in their windows, but he remembered the highway well enough to draw a map in his head and he could feel grass under his feet if he veered the wrong way. Mud clung to his feet, but overall he was grateful for the weather. No one could see him, he could drink rain, and it wasn't cold enough for him to mind being damp. He let himself slow to walking between paved sections; his parents wouldn't notice he was gone until morning. (Unless Renn woke them, screaming, but even then they'd search the farm first.) The splint on his finger became sodden and slipped off, and he couldn't see it, so he went on without. Maybe he'd be able to re-splint it in the other world.

The highway went straight past the cluster of farms he'd grown up in to Aristan City. He avoided the fork that would have led south to Coryla Port. At sunrise, he was dragging himself through a suburb of the capital of Aristan.

He desperately wanted to stop somewhere and sleep - under a bridge, in an alley, with horses in a stable - but he was almost there. All he had to do was find the circle and get by the Watch and stay on it for just a few fragments. And then he could ask the people there. The people who would keep children away from parents who even just swatted them for backtalk.

He walked, and looked, and listened.

Finally Mallyn went up to a girl his age who looked like she was waiting for someone, but didn't have anyone with her. "Do you know which way the circle is?" he asked her, after a couple of false starts.

She pointed, and he went in that direction, and he gradually heard more and more conversations about the circle. He zeroed in on the place, trying not to draw attention to himself.

It turned out to be indoors. He slunk around the building, looking for a less-trafficked entrance. There was a side door, with some lettering on it, which he pushed open.

The corridor led towards a large, open room, and Mallyn flattened himself against the wall, trying to look like he was leaning nonchalantly. His rib twinged and he winced before schooling his features into nonchalance again, and he started to inch towards the circle.

There were a handful of people in Watch uniforms, but one of them was buying something from a little food stall - Mallyn's stomach gurgled - and two were watching the main, front entrance, leaving only one who might look his way. Mallyn crossed the corridor and pressed himself to the other wall, out of the line of sight, and moved towards where the hall joined the main circle room.

When he got close enough to have a view through the crowd, he saw men and women and children appearing and disappearing in the circle. They walked on, they stood a while, they vanished. Others popped into place unexpectedly. They seemed to bump into each other a lot; Mallyn hoped that wouldn't happen to him too much. It wouldn't be good for his rib any which way, and depending on the angle, it could also hurt the healing lines on his back or his finger or his toe.

He was just barely able to see the guard who might spot him. When the man looked away, Mallyn checked for an opening in the crowd. There wasn't one. The next four times, there wasn't one. And the time after that, there was. Mallyn ran. He stepped over the white paint that marked the circle.

Some people made sounds of protest, someone shouted for the parents of the unsupervised child, the Watch turned to look, and Mallyn ducked a reaching hand and spun past a pair of grasping arms, then scrambled back from the border of the circle. He had to stay on it long enough. Someone grabbed for his shirt and he flung himself to the floor, half-choking himself before he broke their grip.

The world changed.

He forced himself up to his feet and ran again.

Mallyn couldn't understand anyone around him, but they weren't dragging him back into the circle, they weren't hitting him, and he didn't have a plan beyond "get through the circle" anyway. He sat in the chair he'd been gestured to and looked at his knees. There was purple brusing on his pinky, now that there was enough light to see it. (The ceiling was glowing. He couldn't muster the energy to wonder how.)

Finally after more gesturing and more gibberish, one of the people spoke intelligibly. "Hi, I'm Marak. What's your name?" asked a human man. He had brown skin, like the family on the tree farm a mile west of the bean farm.

"Mallyn," said Mallyn.

"Where are your parents, Mallyn?"

He winced. "Don't know. Farm," he guessed. They might not have noted his absence yet. Checking the fields, even from horseback, would take a while.

"They didn't take you to the circle?" Marak said.

Mallyn shook his head.

The man muttered with one of the other Elcenians, then turned back to Mallyn.

"Did you come here by mistake?" asked Marak.

Mallyn shook his head again.

"Can you tell me why you came here?" Marak asked.

"Parents," said Mallyn, looking away.

"They sent you?"

Another head-shake.

"Did you run away from home?"

Mallyn nodded.

"Can you tell me why?"

"They..." Mallyn hadn't known he'd be questioned this much. He swallowed. "They hit us."

Marak sat back on his heels. "Ah-huh." He looked surprised. "Okay. Don't worry, we won't let them hurt you. Ever again."

Mallyn swallowed. "Us," he choked out.

That seemed to startle Marak. "You've got siblings." Mallyn nodded. "They're at home? In Aristan?" Another nod. "We'll do what we can, Mallyn, but Aristan is... We'll do what we can. Kohar!" he called, to another man, an elf like Mallyn, who was wiping some kind of ink or chalk off the wall with a cloth. "That can wait, I need to be in touch with Parliament." He turned back to Mallyn. "We'll do what we can. As for you, you're going to need healing, and a place to stay. Will you come with me to the light and then the public housing place? It's not far."

Mallyn nodded again and followed Marak out of the circle building, with shaking limbs.

The "light" was a plump halfblood lady who looked to Mallyn like she might be Fyrran. She did magic. It didn't sound like what he'd heard about kamai, but he hadn't heard much about kamai. He touched the blue sparks in her hands when Marak told him to.

The ache in his side, the stinging soreness on his back, the throb in his toe, and the sharpness in his finger all disappeared, and he gasped.

The lady said something, with a big sad smile on her face, and Marak translated, "She says, all better."

Mallyn nodded again.

The light said something else, which Marak didn't translate.

Mallyn followed Marak out of the lady's office.

By the time they were at the public housing unit, Mallyn had re-learned how to walk without any limp at all, and he'd seen a hundred wondrous things. People talked to green glass shards that they held near their ears. Flying capsules streaked across the sky above everyone. The buildings were tall, some even taller than the biggest ones in Aristan City. There was only one sun, which he squinted at until Marak shaded his eyes with one hand and asked if he liked going to the light that much. The air was so dry, and it was chilly; Mallyn shivered.

Most of the people were humans (brown ones) or elves (light-skinned, paler than Mallyn because he got so much sun) but he'd seen tiny little people shaped like grownup halfbloods who only came up to his chest. He'd seen halfblood-shaped people so pale that they had to go around in black cloaks with gloves (and he could have sworn he saw one of them turn into a bat). There were even people who looked like two-legged lions, like the toothless old pet one the banana farmers had. Mallyn couldn't help but stare, memorizing everything. Even if Marak was wrong and they would send him back, he'd remember it all like an amazing dream. He could draw all the strange people and structures on discarded bits of paper, and show Lyrrae and Renn.

The housing place was neat and clean. Mallyn felt bad about walking into it in his muddy, barely-held-together shoes, but Marak ushered him in anyway. "Mallyn, this is Lorin Deskan," the man said. "She runs this place. She'll look after you until we have a longer-term solution. Okay?"

"Hello, Mallyn," said Lorin. She was intelligible, just like Marak was. "What can you tell me?" she asked him.

"Mallyn, do you want to tell her what's happened to you yourself, or should I do it?" Marak asked.

Mallyn pointed at him. Anything that let him avoid stuttering through it again was good. He looked at one of the chairs, and Lorin said, "Go ahead and sit down," so he did.

"Mallyn came through the circle without a ticket, and he got out of its area, but he couldn't get through the ticket ward. Since he's young and came unaccompanied, we manually let him through the ward so we could have a word with him, and he says his parents hit him. He's got siblings at home, too - someone else who works with me at the circle is getting in touch with Parliament to find out what we can do about them. Protocol for these kids - this is the first time we've used it - is bring them to you, after a trip to a light, right?"

"Right," agreed Lorin. "Don't worry, Mallyn, we've got a room for you upstairs. Are you hungry?"

Mallyn didn't trust himself to speak on the subject of hunger. He nodded again.

"Well, come with me, we'll get you something to eat in the kitchen," she said. "Besides hitting you, how did your parents treat you? It could be important."

Mallyn trotted after the other elf as Marak let himself out the door, trying to think of what to say about that. Food. Maybe it wouldn't even contain beans.

After Mallyn had eaten a meal at the housing unit's cafeteria (sliced lamb on soft bread, and vegetable stew, and a fruit-stuffed cake, not a bean anywhere in sight - Mallyn ate until he couldn't hold anything more), Lorin showed him to an empty little room. She said that he could sleep if he wanted, and could touch a crystal on the wall if he needed her help, and she told him how to work the plumbing, and said he could go to the cafeteria for more food when he was hungry again.

He slept. When he woke up, he went to the cafeteria, and Lorin was there. She said he had to talk to another light, so he went with her to that light's office. This one didn't make sparks for him but instead quizzed him about how much he'd eaten, how much he'd slept, how often he'd gotten injured and how badly. He began to describe how a light could remove any scars Mallyn might have accumulated - none of them were visible, when Mallyn had his clothes on - but stopped when Mallyn paled and hid his face.

When the light was done extracting answers, he turned to Lorin and said that Mallyn needed to eat small amounts of food six times a day for the next several weeks to get his metabolism working properly. He said the big meal had been a mistake, that Mallyn should've had half the sandwich and a small cup of the stew and only a sliver of cake, but just once hadn't done harm.

Lorin started reminding Mallyn to take meals, and she always suggested things. Everything she suggested was delicious. Once she did tell him to eat something with beans, but they were drowned in cheese and spices, so that was all right, and he didn't complain. Lorin was very nice and he liked immensely that there was someone with her job around. He didn't want to tell her that he wouldn't eat beans.

After he'd been there for two days, Lorin told him that his brother and sister had been taken away from their parents' farm and were living in an Aristanian orphanage. They couldn't come be with him, and he couldn't go be with them, but they were safe. He tried to believe her.

He did believe her, the day after that when Lorin took him to Aristan to sit in on his parents' trial. He got to see Lyrrae and Renn and the man who was watching them like Lorin was watching him, and he got to hug them and tell them he was okay and get them to tell him that they were okay.

He didn't watch the trial - he didn't want to store any more pictures of his parents than he already had. But he had little choice but to listen to it, while the Speaker paraphrased everything his parents said in their defense, and what the plump light lady and the other light and Marak had to say, and finally what Lorin added when she went down.

His parents kept shouting and having to be reprimanded for it. "Those kids are ours! You've got no right!" hollered his father. "They're there to work the farm, not play around and eat sweets!" His mother was less loud but longer-winded - "You've misunderstood something, those Elcenians don't understand, they're lying, they're making it up to make us look bad! They coached our kids to tell tales!"

The protests - in their original form, and as rendered by the Speaker - fell on deaf ears. The judges sentenced both parents to personality revisions, and ordered their farm confiscated and sold so they could no longer hide in the countryside with all their neighbors far away. Half the proceeds would be held for their use when they were revised. The other half would be split into thirds, one for each of the children when they came of age.

His mother and father were dragged away, shouting - they even said Mallyn's name, once.

Lorin told him that he should say goodbye to his brother and sister and that then they'd leave.

He hugged them as tight as he could.

Mallyn couldn't talk to anyone else in the housing unit, (though he'd picked up the words for hello and yes and no in Leraal) but that was okay. He got some paper and a stick of graphite and drew his brother and sister, and all the things he'd seen on the way to the place, and sometimes birds. He ate six times a day, and listened to Lorin when she explained things -

"That family are halflings, not short half-elves."

"I can talk to you in Martisen because of kamai in this nugget."

"It's called chocolate, and it's not mud."

"Soon enough, someone will adopt you."

That one threw Mallyn for a loop. "Adopt?"

"When someone here in Esmaar doesn't have good parents who'll take good care of them - without hitting them or keeping them up at night or anything like that - then the government takes them away. You took yourself away, but it's otherwise the same. There are parents who are much nicer to their children than yours were. Some of them want to look after children who they didn't have the usual way, and that's called adoption."

Parents. He was going to have to have parents again. Lorin had been so kind, but she was going to give him to some set of parents.

He opened his mouth to say something, like "Oh," or - well, that was his only idea. But nothing came out.

"It might not be very soon," Lorin said. "You need a little longer to adjust to the world, and it might take some time to match you with a family."

Mallyn didn't think any amount of adjusting to the world would make him ready to have parents again.

But he nodded at Lorin anyway.

She had hair made of silver, and it was so pretty it hurt his eyes.