Clanless left the waiting room, on his way to the baths. In the hall, he stopped to hand the Siphon to Yesun, one of the arena attendants.
“To my room, Yesun. For the last time.” He smiled at the boy.
“Last time for him too!” the second attendant chimed in. “Yesun becomes a man next week!”
“Is that so?” Hagh asked. “Manhood ceremony coming up, Yesun?”
“Yes, sir. In three days’ time.”
“You won’t have any problems,” Clanless told him. “Good luck to you, Yesun. What will you do after that?”
“Find a better job,” Yesun said. “My family needs the blood.” He hurried away with the Siphon.
As Clanless continued toward the baths, his mind went back to the day he came of age. His memory troubled him at times, but he remembered every detail of that day, the day everything changed…
On the dawn of the last day of his twelfth year, Aldan of clan Tokuur rose from his bed with a thrill of anticipation… and, if he were honest, a small bit of fear. Today, he would become a man. Today, he would shed his own blood in front of his entire clanhold and offer it to the moon goddess in payment for his manhood.
He’d waited so long for this day.
“Aldan!” his mother called from the next room. “Prayers!”
He shouldn’t neglect prayers, today of all days! He hurried past his still-sleeping little sister and into the living space of their home. Father and Mother waited there for him, both smiling. He joined them and looked up through the circular window in the roof. The moon stared back at him, as it did every day, as consistent as his parents’ love. If he squinted, he could make out the entire circle, faded in the light of day. The early morning shield the moon generated toward the sun, a crescent on the lower left, always looked a little pink to him at this hour. With the start of Low Spring, the roof window would be open every day now, letting the cool air inside.
“This is a special day,” Father said. “And so, I have asked the rest of the family to join us as the sun begins its pursuit.” He stepped to the open door and beckoned.
Uncle Sejikdi crossed the courtyard from his adjacent home, along with his wife and Aldan’s cousin Borde. She smirked at him. If they were alone, she would have made a sarcastic comment about his transition to manhood. And he wouldn’t have minded. Three years older than Aldan, Borde defined youth and beauty to him. She would be married within the next month, much to Aldan’s disappointment. The betrothal had been announced only two days ago. Little sister Ot would be the only child remaining within their connected homes, too young even to be included in the prayers.
Aldan closed his eyes and gave a low nod to his uncle. “Here is the new man!” Sejikdi exclaimed, tousling Aldan’s hair. At least it wasn’t anything more embarrassing than that.
“Not until the ceremony,” Mother chided. “Come, come. Gather under the moon. It is time.”
The family assembled in a tight grouping and looked up. Father, as the Patriarch of this family—his own father having died two years ago—recited the prayer:
“Goddess above, watch over us today. Let our blood pulse for you. And should it flow, let it flow for you as well. Bless our work and our growth.”
“Blood is life. Blood is precious. Blood is power,” they all joined in to declare. At the familiar words, Aldan shivered. Today, those words would be more true for him than ever.
Mother clapped her hands. “And now for breakfast!”
After breakfast, Aldan set about his morning chores. At least he would not have to work in the field today. He hadn’t had a day away from the fields since… the last Sun’s Surrender, come to think of it. Now that had been a party. Caught up in his memories, he didn’t notice Borde until he almost ran into her in the courtyard. She swirled gracefully out of his path, an empty basket in her hands.
“Oh!” Aldan stumbled back. “I’m sorry.”
Borde smiled: not quite the smirk she’d worn at first seeing him, but not devoid of playfulness either. “Real men should watch where they are going,” she teased.
“I won’t be a real man until the blood spills,” he answered without thinking.
His cousin cocked her head. “Will you be all right with that? I’ve seen a couple of boys pass out when they see their own blood. Do you remember Buqu last year?”
“I can handle it.” Aldan squared his shoulders. “Father helped me practice two week ago. It doesn’t hurt much.”
“And will you be married soon after?” Borde swept her hair back. “Do you have your eye on any of the young ladies of the hold?”
Aldan wrinkled his brow. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get married.”
He shrugged. “Marriage is good for some people, like our parents. And you! I just don’t know if it is for me.”
Borde looked down at her basket. “You think it is good for me?”
“Yes, of course. Monge is part of a fine family. He will treat you well. Their back wall is the strongest in the clanhold!” Remembering his own chores, Aldan bent and lifted a large rock from a pile.
“Back wall, back wall,” Borde murmured. “Is that what you are doing now?”
Aldan nodded. While working the fields, he and his father would bring any stones they found to the courtyard. Each morning, as the sun began its pursuit of the moon, Aldan would place one of them on the back wall of the family’s home. All of these back walls linked together to form the outer wall of the clanhold.
“Don’t you get tired of silly things like that?” Borde sat on a stool and dangled the basket from her fingers, tilting it back and forth.
Aldan’s eyes widened. “The back wall is not silly! It protects us from the High Winter winds. Without the walls, the clanhold would be destroyed. And, and what if barbarians were to attack? We cannot be the weak spot!”
“When was the last time barbarians actually attacked a clanhold?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Because they don’t do that any more! It’s pointless! Just another silly clanhold tradition. Remember when you broke your arm trying to carry a rock too big for you?” Borde jumped back to her feet and spun in a circle. “I want to get away from this, Aldan. I’m so tired of this life.”
“W-where would you go?”
“To one of the cities!” Borde’s eyes sparkled. “That’s where real life happens. No more working in the fields. No more of the same old food every day. No more back walls!”
Aldan frowned. “Is that what Monge wants too? Will he take you away from the hold?”
“I don’t know.” Borde sighed. “I don’t know him at all. What kind of man is he, Aldan? Do you know him?”
“I’ve worked with him in the fields a time or two.” Aldan shifted the stone in his arms. He considered setting it back down, but as long as he held it, he could claim to be working if one of the adults came out. “He is a good worker.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.” Borde caught Aldan’s eyes with her own. “What kind of man is he? Is he… kind? Like you?”
“Kind?” Aldan echoed.
“You know what I mean.” Borde reached past the stone and brushed Aldan’s chest with her fingers. “You have a kind heart within, Cousin. Not like—” She broke off with a quick glance back at her home.
“I-I’m not sure.” Aldan swallowed. No one had ever called him kind before. He didn’t know what to think.
“Borde!” Uncle Sejikdi emerged and waved at them. “Do not keep the priests waiting!”
“I have to go!” Borde whispered. “Be a kind man, Aldan. Don’t change.” She swept out through the gate.
Sejikdi gave Aldan a large smile. “Strengthening the back wall, eh Aldan? Good, good. A man’s work.” He glanced after Borde as she hurried away. “Tonight, after your ceremony, we will celebrate, you know. We will show you how a man celebrates after a man’s work!”
Aldan didn’t know what to think of that either. He shifted the stone in his arms again and hurried back through the house to find a place for it.
The blood-priest, clad in his bright red robe, stepped away, holding the ritual knife as if it were a precious thing. Aldan watched blood ooze from his arm. The cut hurt, but not even as much as the practice cut his father had given him. The texture of the blood itself fascinated him, as it always did. The thickness of the red liquid reminded him of syrup more than water. It flowed in a slow trickle down over his hand, between two of his fingers, and into the ceremonial bowl.
What would happen to this blood, his blood no longer? The priests would take it away, but what would they do with it? Would they offer it to the goddess? Would they use it to create magic? Borde said they could do miracles if they had enough blood. The Hawk King himself might use this very blood in his rituals to protect the Empire. The possibilities were endless and fantastic. “Blood is power,” he whispered.
He spared a quick look at the crowd here at the temple, the central gathering place of the entire clanhold. His mother beamed at him, holding little Ot on her hip. Beside her, Borde smiled, but her eyes wandered the room. He saw childhood friends (and antagonists) among the crowd, many who still waited for their turn at manhood. How would his life with them change now? Would they still talk as they always did, or would it be different? Could he only talk of men things now?
Father stepped up beside him then, along with Uncle Sejikdi and three other men of the clanhold. As one, they cut their arms and let their blood flow into separate bowls, making their own sacrifice in honor of his.
Aldan’s eyes darted from one bowl to the next. All of the blood looked so much alike, even from men of different ages and sizes. The goddess truly made them all equal, all possessed of the same liquid life within.
“Blood is life. Blood is precious. Blood is power,” the priest declared, lifting both arms in the air, letting the sleeves of his robe fall loose. Aldan compared the robe with his blood. They weren’t the same color at all, were they? Shouldn’t blood-priests have blood-colored robes?
“Blood is life. Blood is precious. Blood is power,” the crowd recited again and again. Aldan joined in, but on the third recitation of the words, he experienced a change within.
Something swept over his entire body, like the time he’d been sick with the sand cough and run such a fever he could feel the temperature changes passing over him. But this wasn’t a temperature. Light-headedness followed. He struggled to stay erect. Passing out during the ceremony would be the worst thing possible. He’d be like Buqu. He’d never live it down!
He focused on the blood, each drop pooling in the bowls. As the other men continued the chant, his eyes wandered again from bowl to bowl. Something had changed. Something was happening with the blood. He didn’t know how he knew, but he did. Something altered within the blood itself.
A burning sensation erupted behind his eyes. He blinked repeatedly with no relief. Someone in the crowd murmured something about “eyes.” Others joined in. Trying to ignore the odd feelings, he re-focused on the blood in his own bowl. He stared at it, trying to repeat the words, or at least mouth them. A spark flew out of his bowl. How could that be? Blood didn’t burn; it—
In the exact same moment, all five of the other men broke off their chanting and cried out. They seized their bleeding arms with the other hand. “Burns!” his uncle gasped.
The heat behind Aldan’s eyes spread throughout his head and neck. Pain—a burning sensation—exploded, first in his bleeding arm, then shooting up into his chest and cascading throughout his body. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t scream.
One by one, four of the men fell to the ground. “Aldan,” his father gasped, “what—” He fell forward, knocking the bowl of blood from its pedestal, spilling the precious liquid across the platform. Spectators shrieked in horror.
As his father collapsed, Aldan himself could bear it no longer. His vision turned dark. A sensation of falling added on top of everything else. Before he hit the ground, he heard a feminine voice, low but distinct over the sound of the crowd. It seemed to come from within him somehow.
“Oh, well done. Very well done.”
Aldan woke to find himself still inside the temple. Two temple guards stood near him, holding their maces at ready. Aldan pushed back against the wall and jumped to his feet. His eyes bounced around the temple, his heart beating faster than he ever remembered. An enormous bandage covered his arm, hiding the cut and preserving any more blood.
“Aldan! Son, stay calm!” The voice of his father drew his attention past the guards. Father and Uncle Sejikdi stood with one of the blood-priests almost exactly where the ceremony had taken place. The rest of the temple was empty.
“This is ridiculous,” Sejikdi grumbled. “He’s only a boy.”
“He spilled his blood. He is now a man,” the priest answered calmly.
A second priest charged into the chamber from a side door, waving an arm. “The Taint!” he shouted. “It is the Taint! All of the blood is tainted. All of it!”
The three other men gasped. “Are you certain?” Father demanded. “It can’t be,” Sejikdi said at the same time.
The priest leveled a finger at Aldan. “And it is all his doing! He bears the Taint!”
“You don’t know that.” Father pointed at the bandage on his own arm. “It happened to all of us.”
Aldan wished he could hide. None of this made any sense.
The blood-priest drew himself up. “The rest of you have all given before, and regularly. Nothing untoward has ever occurred. His presence is the only difference!”
“He’s just a boy!” Uncle Sejikdi argued. “Whatever happened, you can’t hold him responsible.”
“He completed the ceremony.” The priest folded his arms and glared. “He is a man by the law. And responsible for his own actions.”
“What action did he take?” Father demanded. “You were right there. Did you see him do anything?”
“He was right beside me!” Sejikdi pointed at Aldan. “I would have seen it.”
“Did you look at his eyes?” Before Aldan’s uncle could answer, the priest went on: “No, of course not. You were beside him. Both of you. The rest of us, all of the crowd, everyone else: we saw his eyes. We all did. They glowed red.”
“My eyes turned red at my first offering too,” Father said. “It’s a common ailment—”
“They did not ‘turn’ red!” the priest snapped. “They glowed! Red light shone out from them! It is the Taint, and nothing less.”
Father and Uncle Sejikdi did not answer. Aldan lifted his fingers to touch his eyelids. They felt fine now, but he recalled the burning sensation. What did it all mean? What was wrong with him? What was this Taint? His body trembled with each breath.
“And the blood is now tainted. Ruined,” the priest continued. “He did it. He is unholy, tainted.”
“But the goddess spoke to me!” Aldan exclaimed, remembering.
The three other men all turned to him, eyes wide. One of the guards murmured something and lowered his mace.
“What did she say, son?” his father asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” The priest threw both hands out in dismissal. “The moon goddess would not deign to speak to a mere boy!”
“I thought you said he was a man.” Uncle Sejikdi’s observation earned him another glare.
“She said ‘well done,’” Aldan said. “I heard her. I swear it!”
The blood-priest mimed putting his hands over his ears. “So now he blasphemes as well. When the Daghilch hears of this, there can be only one outcome.”
“No,” Father pleaded. “Have mercy, please.”
“There is no mercy for blasphemers and those who taint the holy blood offerings.” The priest drew himself up. “It is only a matter of a new ceremony being completed, but once it is done…” He paused, then pointed at Aldan. “This one will be clanless.”
“You would banish him for an accident?” Aldan’s uncle looked dangerously close to attacking the priest. One of the guards turned away from Aldan and took a step closer to the men.
The first priest raised a hand. “Brother, perhaps they do not know our history as well as they should. The Taint is not something we can allow, regardless of how it manifests itself.”
The ranting priest scowled and nodded. “Then educate them.”
“Hear and observe,” the first priest said. He put both palms together and looked up toward the moon. “Long ago, clan Tokuur held honor within the Empire. We were warriors first and foremost. But in a battle with the barbarians, we went too far. In our zeal to overcome our enemies, we chose dishonorable ways of fighting. We shed their barbarian blood into the sand. Gallons and gallons of that which is precious to the goddess spilled out into the hungry earth, wasted and worthless. This was a grave sin.”
He turned and looked toward Aldan. “On the same day, though we knew it not at the time, four children were born with the Taint, the ability to destroy the value of spilled blood. It is the curse on our clan. The Taint appeared in dozens of children that year, but as we sacrificed more and more to appease the goddess, such births decreased. There has not been a child born with the Taint now in several ten of years.”
“Because we wasted blood, the goddess cursed us with a way to waste more blood?” Father asked. “How does that make sense?”
Both priests glared at him. “Do you wish to join your offspring in the penalties for blasphemy?”
“It was an accident,” Sejikdi repeated. “Whatever he did, we can teach him not to do it. It doesn’t have to happen again.”
The priests shook their heads. “All of the clanhold witnessed it. He cannot stay,” the first said.
“We cannot allow this to remain within our clan,” the second continued. “Either we kill him, or we banish him. The Daghilch will decide, and now that your son has blasphemed as well, he will be lucky if he lives another day.”
Father looked toward Aldan. His eyes, red with tears, said more than his words ever could. He was giving up. “Aldan. Son…” He covered his face with his hands.
Uncle Sejikdi put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “We… we understand. Will you allow his family to say farewell at least?”
“That will be the Daghilch’s decision as well. He will be summoned and be here within two to three days.”
Aldan’s uncle nodded. He helped Father turn away. The two of them walked slowly out of the temple. Aldan opened his mouth to call after them, but didn’t. What good would it do now?
One of the priests looked at him again. “Take the blasphemer to the unused cell,” he commanded the guards. “Feed him as necessary, but allow no one within with him.” He paused. “And shed no blood in his presence. Not even a drop.”
The temple’s “cell” grew cold that night. Without a blanket, Aldan shivered and slept little. The cell itself was little more than a tiny room made entirely of stone, with a circular window viewing the moon high above Aldan’s head. He heard one of the priests muttering that the room was intended for prayers, not prisoners.
Curled up in the corner, Aldan stared up at the never-moving moon. “I know I heard you,” he whispered. “Why? Why is this happening to me?” He didn’t receive an answer… and didn’t know how he would have reacted if he did.
What did the “Taint” mean? The priest’s explanation didn’t help: it made the blood useless, somehow. His own blood had felt like it burned within him. Did that mean all of his blood was now tainted? What about Father and Uncle Sejikdi and the other men? Would their blood be tainted forever? None of it made much sense. Whatever it meant, he could not change it, apparently. He would always bear this curse.
Maybe he deserved it. Or maybe the Taint explained why some other unpleasant things happened in his life before now. Either way, he found no comfort that night.
In the morning, the guards allowed Borde to deliver water and some food: bread, cheese, and a little bit of dried meat. Under the watchful eye of the guard and his threatening mace, the cousins embraced and exchanged a few quick words.
“Your father is doing everything he can,” Borde whispered, “but no one wants to go against the priests.”
“Tell him not to get in trouble for me. The family needs him!”
Borde sniffed and wiped an eye. “See there? A kind man. Just like I said.”
Aldan looked down at the food. The flatbread looked delicious, especially considering how long it had been since he ate, but… it hadn’t been made by his mother. Her bread always held a certain golden tone. This bread looked like someone trying to imitate it, but not quite achieving the same results. He picked up a piece. “Who made this?”
Borde smiled with a lowered head. “I did.”
“Is Mother all right?”
“That’s long enough,” the guard interrupted. “Time to go.”
“She’s taken it hard,” Borde said in a rush. “And she admitted she’s been feeling ill the past few mornings.”
The guard stepped between them, and Borde backed out of the cell. As the door swung closed, she called a few more words: “My mother thinks she’s with child!”
The door shut. Aldan sat alone again.
“With child.” At first the words thrilled him. His mother would have another baby! He would have a new little brother or sister! And then the reality of the situation settled upon him: he would never meet this new sibling.
As he ate Borde’s bread—not as good as his mother’s—and the rest of the food, his mood sank even further. His family would give up on him. And then they would forget him. They would have a new child to take his place. A new son, perhaps. One without this “Taint.” Ot would be the older sister to this boy. He would be loved by all of them.
And Aldan would be forgotten.
He drank some of the water the priests provided, then scooted back into the corner. He pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged his legs.
For all that day, he sat alone with nothing to do… nothing save staring up at the moon and wondering. What would happen to him? What did it mean to be banished? To not belong to a clan? Obviously, he would have to leave the clanhold. But where would he go? To another clanhold, maybe belonging to a different clan? Or would they drive him out into the wilderness, where he might meet wild animals or barbarians or beastmen?
Maybe it would be better to die. At least then he wouldn’t have to think about the wilderness. Or his family replacing him.
But he had no way of ending his own life. He knew people could die from lack of food or water, but he’d just eaten and drank. He didn’t know how long it would take to die that way, but it couldn’t be easy. He didn’t know if he could refuse sustenance while his body demanded it.
And of course, his captors had made sure he had no way of cutting himself. The cell was empty. Even the basket Borde brought was a thick woven fabric. The hardest substance in the room might have been the bread he’d eaten. Borde definitely needed more practice.
No. He would have to face the fate the priests intended for him. Maybe once he knew more, he could find a way to escape, or end his own life.
After another cold night in the cell, the Daghilch arrived. Aldan knew little of the priestly structure, but he understood enough to know the Daghilch had authority over many temples in clanholds throughout this region.
When the door to the cell opened, Aldan didn’t move. The guard stepped aside and let the Daghilch enter. The two local priests remained outside the door.
The Daghilch stared at Aldan from dark eyes under pronounced brows. The religious leader was a tall, thin man wearing red robes much like the other priests. He wore a purple sash across his chest, the only indication of a differing rank. Other than his haircut, that is. The regular blood-priests shaved the sides of their heads, leaving only a circle of short hair on top, presumably in the shape of the moon. The Daghilch’s hair, Aldan noted when he bent lower, had been cut into a half-circle, leaving the front half of his head bald.
“Stand up, boy,” the Daghilch said in a coarse voice.
Aldan’s first inclination was to insist he wasn’t a boy, but he stood nonetheless.
“Bring a bowl of blood,” the Daghilch instructed the priests.
The priests’ mouths dropped open. “Sir, he could taint it!”
The Daghilch’s eyes rolled before he turned back to them. “Of course he could. I must confirm the Taint. It is the law.”
“You’ve seen the already tainted blood. Surely—”
“I have only your word for its origin,” the Daghilch interrupted. “Bring me a bowl. NV blood, if you must.”
One of the priests hurried away. For the first time, Aldan experienced a glimmer of hope. If the power or Taint didn’t work again, would they let him go? Maybe it only happened the one time. Maybe…
“Tell me of your heritage, boy,” the Daghilch said.
Aldan blinked. “My… what? Sir?”
The Daghilch sighed. “Your bloodline. Are you pure Tokuur clan?”
“Oh. Yes, sir. As far back as I know, sir.”
He nodded as if he’d expected the answer.
A moment later, the priest returned, holding a small bowl of blood. The Daghilch took it, murmured something Aldan couldn’t hear, and then held it out toward him. “Show me!” the Daghilch commanded.
Aldan looked at the blood. “I, I don’t know what to do. What happened at the ceremony was… it was an accident.” His father had called it that, anyway.
“Hold your hand out over the blood,” the cleric instructed.
Aldan licked his lips and obeyed.
“Now. Look at the blood. Imagine it burning, on fire.” The Daghilch’s voice grew sterner with each phrase. “You want it to burn. You want to ignite it. Burn it. Taint it. Let the power flow through you!”
Aldan gasped as the burning sensation exploded behind his eyes again. In the same moment, a bubble burst from the blood, as if it were boiling. The Daghilch drew the bowl back in a swift move and handed it to one of the priests, both of whom gasped and muttered about Aldan’s eyes.
The burning sensation faded as quickly as it had come. Aldan blinked. It hadn’t hurt him that time. He didn’t lose consciousness. What did it all mean? Only then did he realize he’d condemned himself. He looked up at the Daghilch.
The cleric nodded. “We have our confirmation. He has the Taint.”
“What is to be done?” one of the priests asked.
The Daghilch dipped his thumb in the tainted blood. He reached forward and drew a line across Aldan’s forehead with it. Fear kept Aldan from resisting.
“In the holy and hidden name of the goddess of the moon,” the Daghilch intoned, “I banish you from clan Tokuur. I remove you from the clan’s bloodline. You have no part in this or any other clan beneath the moon’s gaze. You have no relations, no family. I strip you of your name.”
“My name?” Aldan exclaimed.
“Should anyone need to refer to you from this day onward, it shall be as Clanless. Should the goddess have mercy on you, and you attain adulthood, you are forbidden from marriage or the fathering of children. Let it be known throughout the Empire and under the moon’s gaze.”
“Let it be known,” the other priests echoed.
“He must be marked,” the Daghilch proclaimed. “See to it, and then have him ready for departure. I have other duties.” He handed the bowl of tainted blood to the nearest guard and turned to go.
“But… but I heard the goddess!” Aldan cried. “Surely that has to mean something!”
The Daghilch paused. “What do you mean?”
“She spoke to me. At the ceremony!”
“A blasphemous claim,” one of the priests hastened to put in. “We did not wish to trouble you with it, sir.”
The Daghilch held up a hand. “I must investigate all such claims. Tell me, Clanless, what did she say to you?”
Aldan swallowed. “She said ‘well done.’”
“After you used the Taint?”
“I guess so. I didn’t know what was happening.”
“What did she sound like?”
Aldan shifted and tried to remember. “I, I don’t know. Like a woman. Young. Not old.”
“The goddess has many voices,” the Daghilch murmured. “But her voice can be discerned by what she says, and she would not say such a thing.” He shook his head and walked from the cell.
“What will be done with him?” a priest asked as the door began to shut on Aldan’s last hopes.
“Brand him. He is for the arena.”