“Does it?” I said.
“Everyone knows that. You’re such a dullard,” said Petra.
The low autumn sun warmed the dahlias and poppies, and picked out bright berries among the fading leaves of thorn and rowan. Our school might be regimented in its classrooms, but out here in the garden, nature roved free.
“It’s the wrong time of year,” Una said.
“Oh, for the love of the Great Able,” said Petra, impressing the younger girls with her swearing. “I am just wasting my time!”
“So don’t come,” I said. I plucked at my Final Year sash, the colour of eyelids, as if I could remove it, and my time at this school, together. But the sash remained, and so did my dreary life without travel or variety.
“I’ve got to come. Otherwise I won’t be able to tell the story of your typical suburban idiocy.” Petra liked to use precise, cutting words that showed she was better than us. “Where are you going now?” she said as I creaked open the wooden gate in the garden wall.
“Cook’s garden.” I curled my lip. Now who was stupid? Not only was the teachers’ garden devoid of roses, leaving us no choice, but also visible from the staff room. The kitchen garden was enclosed and we were less likely to be seen. And from the far end, between the gaps in the high hedges, you could see the distant sea, sparkling and free.
“Una already said, wrong time of year. Thick.” Petra sneered at me.
“And you never waited for me to say, there are always late roses.” I shouldered the gate and led the way into the walled kitchen garden.
Rose scent filled the air. Yellow roses, the kind I had seen in December on my parents’ tiny balcony, lined the walls. The high brick boundary which separated our school from its neighbours provided a perfect climate for these autumn blooms.
“Ssh! If Cook hears us-“
“She won’t -“
“They still cane you if you’re caught – “
“Just be quiet!’”
Although this expedition was supposed to be for me, Petra led our group. Her family were long-standing members of the priesthood, and of the well-to-do in this, the capital city. She lorded it over lesser girls, and wore the blue silken sash of an Able apprentice with a great deal more pride than our daily worship suggested was appropriate.
“Come on, Shay! This is for your benefit!” Petra marched me to the nearest rose bush. “Kiss it!” she said, flinging out her arm.
One day she would make a wonderful priest. Her penetrating voice, raven-haired good looks and love of a bold gesture were all crowd pleasers.
But I’d never wanted to be what others were. “You kiss it.”
“I don’t need to,” said Petra. She tossed her glossy black hair over her shoulders. “I’ve kissed a boy.”
“-Whether he wanted to or not.”
“Shut up Shay.”
I smirked. Petra was a lot less pretty when she was spitting.
“Just do it,” muttered Una to me.
Kissing a rose and asking the Able to manifest a lover is a minor crime. It is punishable in school for all the same reasons that you are not allowed to read naughty books, flirt with the teachers or mingle with pupils from the boys’ school next door. It also offends the priests, because manifestation is not supposed to be used for selfish reasons.
“All right,” I said. I did not have the energy to argue. The longer we stayed here, the more likely we were to get caught. My parents would be hurt and upset if I got into trouble, after everything they’d done to get me into this school.
My classmates gathered around, giggling. Petra lifted her chin. My humiliation as a girl from nowhere was about to be complete.
“It’s pointless,” I said. “Nothing’s going to happen.” Una shushed me.
Petra’s eyes narrowed. “What did you say? Did you question the power of the Able, to whom each of us owes our very existence?”
“Shay didn’t mean that,” said Una.
I did, but realised it would be pretty stupid to continue. My parents had made me promise to keep my cynical views to myself. So my coming of age had been celebrated in school with traditional Able worship – and this. I mumbled a Sorry and bent to the rose.
“Do it properly,” commanded Petra.
I scowled, my face growing hot as sniggering broke out behind me. Everyone was staring. And surely the whole point was that I had no idea how to kiss anyone?
Proper kissing was meant to involve tongues. I knew that from peeking at Una when her betrothed came to visit. It looked strange, such invasive intimacy. But I had to survive another whole year at school, and Petra was lowering her lashes in disdain, so I did it, I pretended to really kiss that yellow rose, because not to would have prolonged the torture.
At last, Petra declared the attempt over. “The Able clearly don’t favour you,” she told me with great satisfaction. “I expect you’ll never kiss anyone.”
She turned and swept away in the direction of the school, her sash fluttering behind her. The other girls followed like pigeons after a plough, even Una.
I stood still, golden pollen tickling my nose, and bit back angry tears.
Then there was a clatter nearby, like a bin lid tied to an angry horse. I looked up and there in front of me was a young and handsome man.
I gaped. The Able had heard me, or seen me, and had… manifested a lover.
“I am Oleander,” said the young man, offering a bow. He was slight, had brown hair and skin, and sparkling dark eyes. He wore a puffy pink gilet, over a yellow silk shirt unlaced at the neck, and close-fitting purple trousers. His boots were studded with tiny stars on the leather. I had never seen any man dressed in such colours.
I stammered soundlessly. I had prayed, not very sincerely, for a lover, and this man had appeared. And he had come dressed as a fable.
“I heard your appeal,” said Oleander. “Please tell me your name.”
“I. I’m Shay.”
He smiled, and held out his hand to me. I yelped and darted back.
The girls making their way back to school had heard Oleander’s arrival. Now they were hurrying towards me, shrieking and clutching each other. I can’t believe it! was the general gist of their chatter.
I found it amazing, too, but the person most surprised by this brown eyed, bare-chested proof of the Ables’ attention was Petra.
I frowned as Oleander bowed again and edged closer to my side. Something was wrong here. Petra looked shocked. Her face had paled and her hands trembled on her apprentice’s sash. She looked sick. “Catch her,” I said, but she slithered to the lawn in a clumsy heap, quite unconscious.
I ran to her and crouched, feeling for her pulse. “We need to take her to the doctor,” I said. “Um. Oleander. Help us carry her.”
“We mustn’t move her,” said Una. “She might be having a vision!”
“She might be having a fit,” I said. “Come on!”
Oleander glanced around. “Shay is right. Take her to your teachers. I cannot join you though. I must bid you farewell.” And he bowed again, looking up at me through his dark eyelashes.
“Right,” I said. So Petra, even unconscious, had contrived to steal the show and also deprive me of my manifestation’s attention. Even though I never wanted a rose’s kiss, now there was a chance of a real one, I wanted to reject it on my own terms. “So you’re not going to use the power of the Able to carry our friend inside?”
He quirked an eyebrow at me. “You think a manifestation couldn’t do that?”
“I think manifestations don’t like hard work,” I said. “What are you going to do? Demanifest?”
We all fixed him with the challenging gaze usually saved for substitute teachers.
“I’m going to walk out through your school front door,” said Oleander. “And nobody is going to question me. So. Until next time!”
“Wait,” I said. “What next time?”
He gave me a cheeky grin. “Your wish has not yet been fulfilled,” he said.
True enough. “So do I just… Pray to the Able, or what?”
Oleander fished out a coin on a chain around his neck. “Take this,” he told me. “You’ll understand. Now go. Help your friend.”
He gave me a farewell made up of two waves and a flourish, and sauntered through the garden gate, heading for the kitchen.
I sighed and stared at Petra. Apart from having finally (I hoped) shut her up, I was very interested to see that the person most likely to stamp on disrespect of the Able, was apparently also the person utterly certain that manifestation did not exist.
We were forbidden to see Petra once she was admitted to Sick Bay. The priests guarded her door and told us Petra had experienced an important thing and needed time to recover.
“We all experienced it,” I said.
The chief priest raised one of his impressive eyebrows. “But as an apprentice of the Able, Petra naturally felt it more deeply.”
“Naturally,” I said, gritting my teeth. Una dragged at my arm, but then a junior priest, a girl little older than us, stuck her head out from Petra’s room. She gestured me inside, and after a moment the chief priest let me pass.
Petra lay pale and afraid, a flask of tonic wine on her bedside table, expensive bouquets piled on every other surface.
“Shay. Where’s Oleander?”
“Leave us,” Petra said to the young priest. “I must win the trust of my classmate before she can help us.”
I goggled, but the priest did as she was told, overborne by Petra’s natural command.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked Petra once the door closed.
She shook her head “I haven’t said what we were doing. I just said…. I saw him.”
She struggled to an upright position. “Where is he?”
“He left. But, Petra – he’s not – I mean, look, don’t be upset, but -” I was going to get myself thrown out of this respectable school but it had to be said. “He’s not real. He’s not a manifestation.” I ducked my head and waited for Petra’s icy wrath.
To my amazement she laughed. She looked much younger suddenly, and I realised I never knew she had a sense of humour. She grabbed my hand. “Of course he’s not! Nobody’s seen a manifestation for a generation at least.”
I took a deep breath. “Right.”
She said, ” But how did you know?”
I took Oleander’s pendant from my pocket and showed Petra the engraved coin. “I very much doubt that manifestations graduated from art school.”
She snorted. “Three years ago. He’s twenty-one.” She blinked at me with a new respect.
“Yup.” I had, somehow, bagged myself an older man. And thanks to his graduation token, I knew how to find him again if I chose. “But the more interesting part is – how did you know?”
Petra glanced round.
“All right,” I said. “Sworn to secrecy. I understand. But let’s say I never believed in any of it – that you can’t shock me?”
“Just tell me before they come back.”
She twisted up the bed covers. “The Able,” she said. She bit her lips. “They are real,” she whispered.
“Yes,” I said. Whatever my opinion, it was not wise to be rude about gods. “But they don’t make manifestations. That’s just an idea put about by priests to keep us all paying our taxes, right?” At last, my suspicion of our system of government was to be confirmed.
But Petra shook her head. “They can. Or, they could. The Able truly can manifest whatever they choose. But… They’re disappearing. The priests are searching for them. But we can’t find them anywhere.”
So that was why the interest in Oleander. The priests – and initially Petra – had thought a genuine manifestation of the Able had popped up in our kitchen garden.
“I don’t know what to do,” Petra said. “The chief priest thinks Oleander is a rogue agent. Appearing without sanction.”
That took me a moment. “You mean the priests employ people to pretend -”
“Sssh! Anyway, there are still some real manifestations.”
“Are there, though?” I mentally reviewed newspapers of the last few years. Visions and visitations – it would be easy for the huge network of priests to falsify minor miracles. But you couldn’t secretly manifest a bridge or a castle without involving hundreds of people. “When was there anything big?”
“That labyrinth,” said Petra.
“In Tyros? Nobody’s even been in it.”
“Because it’s got a minotaur!”
“So the priests say. In fact, what a perfect way to make sure nobody ever checks their work.” It was making more and more sense.
“Ssh!” Petra clenched my hand.
A priest looked in at the door. Petra leaned back on her pillows as if weak with religious fervour, and gave the woman a brave smile. The priest vanished again.
“So now what?” I said.
“I don’t know. The priests will search everywhere for Oleander. And then if they find him guilty of impersonating a manifestation…”
“Yes.” Prison. Or death. Not to mention a minor version of the same for me, for invoking him. “You say the priests are searching for the Able themselves?” My mind raced. “Does this involve travelling the world? Freedom to do as you please because you have a religious remit?”
“We are the living channels for the will of the Able,” Petra said automatically. “That is, yes.”
“Right,” I said. “Then I know what we’re going to do.”
My parents were astonished at my unprecedented display of faith. My classmates corroborated my story, every word. Hadn’t they seen it themselves? And Petra used her influence to allow me to by-pass a lot of tedious priest training and progress directly to the level of independent Able seeker.
Petra herself rose to the rank of priest-seer, the first apprentice in a hundred years to have witnessed a genuine manifestation. Surrounded by adoring followers she quickly adapted to the role of Oracle, whilst also expertly managing the agents who maintained the day to day myth of manifestation.
My role was different. I was to board a ship, sail to the desert lands, investigate the manifestations throughout the world, and try to discover what had happened to the Able. I put on the anonymous, hard-wearing clothes of a traveller and left school with a light heart.
Before I left, though, I had one task to perform. I traced Oleander through his college records and passed a message to him, to meet me at the harbour, the night before I sailed.
“Shay!” His eyes lit up as he spotted me, alone at my tavern table, a flask of sweet desert wine before me, a real grownup at last.
I gave him back his pendant. “Forgive me if I seem rude, but I knew you were a total fraud.”
“Yes. My name is Oleander, though.”
I poured him a cup of wine. Nobody stopped me, nobody told me I couldn’t. Perfect. “So why?”
He sipped wine, smacked his lips in appreciation. Priests have deep pockets and the wine was excellent. “I heard you over the wall. Once I knew which girl you were…” He spread his hands. “Opportunity.”
“What do you mean, which girl I was?”
He scuffled his starry boots under the table. “I’d heard your voice. I heard your opinions. Many opinions,” he added, glancing up.
“And?” I narrowed my eyes. No woman likes to be told she is gobby.
“I liked what I heard,” he said, redeeming himself slightly. “And when I saw you one day and found that you were also beautiful….” He shrugged.
Nobody had ever called me beautiful. I tried to ignore the powerful effect of this compliment, coupled with the gleam in Oleander’s bright brown eyes. “So what do you do for work?” I asked. “Something paid for that outfit.” I gestured at his colourful clothes.
“I’m an art teacher,” he said. “I know a few of your teachers. That’s how I walked out through the school.”
I laughed. “My parents are college professors,” I said. I had recognised the graduation engraving at once. “And they are as cynical as I am. I think they might approve of you.”
He eyed me warily. “So does that mean-?”
He reached for my hand. “I’m not really interested in marriage, settling down,” I said. “But.” His fingers closed around mine. I allowed it, adding, “Potentially. If.”
“What? Just tell me.”
“Firstly. Never be recognised by anyone who saw you in our garden that day.” I gave my stoniest glare. Petra had taught me a lot about charisma and power. In turn, I’d let her know that it rarely helps to tick people off.
“All right.” Oleander nodded eager agreement.
“And secondly-” I put down my cup and reached to touch his cheek. He was warm and smooth, freshly shaven. Most importantly, he was quite real, a blessing when so much of my life was based on lies. “-I can’t leave home without at least one kiss.”
For more from the world of the Able, see: