Ikan is a child in the ancient city of Sayil. He desperately wants to be an adult in the tribe, but when his coming of age arrives, will he choose acceptance or his oldest friend?
Ikan looked out over the sea. Really, it wasn’t even the sea. It was eternally flat, about as far removed as you could get from the building-high waves that crashed into the coast – the real coast – several kilometres away. The water in front of Ikan connected to the proper sea, but did that make it the same thing?
A little boy tugged on Ikan’s shirt, the highest point he could reach, snapping him out of his thoughts.
“Are you going to play chasey with us?” he whined. “You won’t be able to after tonight.”
Ikan ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately. He rose from the rounded rock he’d been sitting on.
“Of course I can. Man, I almost forgot about the ceremony. Thanks for reminding me, Chac.”
“You didn’t forget,” he said accusingly. “You’re just saying that.”
“Nah, without you, I’d have missed it! Then I’d have to wait around a whole ‘nother year before I can become a man.”
“You’re silly,” Chac replied, pulling Ikan’s shirt again.
“Speak for yourself, short stuff. Who else is playing?”
Chac lead him along the beach. To his left, water lapped gently away at the shore. On his right was the city of Sayil. It was a sprawling mass of ochre blocks, thatched roofs and bustling adults going about their daily business. Soldiers would have finished their morning training, always alert for a Myrur attack. Farmers would be taking a break from the sweltering sun overhead. Midday was the busiest time in Sayil.
Chac stopped and called over the other participants; Canul, who was even tinier than Chac, and Puch, who was forty years old. Ikan knew them both well, especially Puch. With his father spending most of his time out of the house, Puch had become something of a mentor to him. The tribe didn’t really respect him, but he had more experience than almost anyone.
Chac closed his eyes and started counting loudly from five. The others scattered, trying to find good spots to hide in.
Did the adult onlookers think it strange for a forty year old male to be playing alongside children a quarter of his age?
Puch had never completed the initiation ceremony. In the eyes of the scandalised onlookers, he was still a child. A forty-year old child.
They chased each other around until the heat became unbearable. Chac and Canul collapsed into a patch of shade while Ikan and Puch went to buy fruit.
It was warmer than normal, which meant that the queue was twice as long as it had been yesterday. The plump vendor smiled with delight as he scooped up his customer’s coins. Selling fruit wasn’t always the most profitable or respectable job, but on blistering days like this it reaped profits.
That, and you could stand in the shade.
A muscular warrior walked purposefully towards the line. Ikan and Puch lowered their eyes to the ground and let him go in front of them. Being a man – a fully-fledged member of Sayil – came with its advantages.
They had to let another half-dozen people in before they got to the front of the line. Ikan pushed a handful of bronze coins over the counter. The vendor inspected them suspiciously. After a minute of examination he eventually decided they were real. He threw them in a bucket and shoved a slice of stringy mango into Ikan’s hand.
Ikan tried to stay calm as he and Puch walked away.
“That’s ridiculous,” Puch said in an angry whisper. “You should have got a lot more than that rubbish.”
Ikan sighed, looking at the chewy sliver of mango in his hand.
“That’s never going to happen again,” Ikan vowed.
In a few hours he’d be a man. Then he’d be allowed the privilege of speaking to adults. The fruit vendor wouldn’t be able to rip him off again. He wouldn’t have to let others into the queue.
Puch seemed to know exactly what he was thinking.
“You know, it’s not all it’s made out to be,” Puch said. “Most warriors die within five years and it’s not much better for farmers.”
“Look, anything’s got to be better than not having a voice.”
Puch remained silent.
They arrived back at the beach. Ikan tore up the single slice of mango into four and handed it out to Puch, Chac and Canul, the latter wearing half of the beach in his hair.
“Thanks Ikan,” Canul squeaked, popping the fruit in his mouth.
“That’s fine,” Ikan responded, but his mind was elsewhere.
In a few hours, the ceremony would be over. He would have respect. He would be part of the tribe.
The sky was dark above Ikan’s head. The moon was the only sliver of light in the night sky. The stars had yet to glow.
Ikan’s footsteps echoed through Sayil’s empty streets; a tiny echo in a deserted room.
He reached the golden steps of Adoc temple. They rose up into the distance, glittering faintly in the pale light of the white moon. The climb begun by every Sayil boy; the descent by the resultant man. It was every child’s most important journey. It was every child’s last.
Ikan began to climb.
The stairs seemed to go on forever. It didn’t help that each one came up to the top of his knee. His thighs strained with effort.
He was sweating. It was always hot in Sayil, but never like this. Not at night.
Ikan swatted the air, pushing back a swarm of errant flies. He wished he could swat away his dread as easily. What would they make him do? He knew it wasn’t anything that left a mark; not like what the Myrurnians did.
Ikan shuddered. Surely there couldn’t be anything worse than self-mutilation. Right?
A patch of white fog shimmered several steps ahead. Ikan paused, his nose almost touching the silky mist. He turned around, looking back at where he’d come from.
Ikan realised that he’d never truly seen the sea. He’d thought he had. Thought he knew it. It was only from here, high up on the steps of the temple, that he truly comprehended its true scale.
It stretched out into all directions. Immense. Intimidating. Infinite.
He took a deep breath. This would be the last time he looked over the ocean as a child. When he saw it again he’d be a man. Ikan turned around and walked into the cloudy fog.
Ikan breathed shallowly, hands stretched out in front of him. He moved much slower now. Cautious of the rising stairs, cautious of the huge drop on the side. That hadn’t been a problem before, but it felt almost as if the gigantic golden pathway was narrowing. He doubled over, using his hands and feet to climb.
Ahead of him, the fog began to lift. The stairs slowly became visible. He was right – the path was narrowing. He gulped. It was a good thing he had been so careful.
He broke out of the fog, emerging onto flat, golden ground. Ahead was Adoc temple itself, a pyramid of gigantic blocks stacked so perfectly that they rested in place without needing mortar of any kind.
Between Ikan and the temple was an altar. It was a plain slab of grey rock that didn’t fit into its golden surroundings. On it rested linen wrappings, bound together with some sort of glue to form a hard, faintly glowing shape. With a shudder, Ikan realised that it was in the shape of a human.
Standing next to the altar, with his back turned towards Ikan, was the High Priest of Sayil. In his right hand was a dagger made of – was that bone? It was pearly white, with a jagged edge.
“Step forward,” the High Priest said, startling Ikan.
He steadied himself, took a deep breath, and moved cautiously forward.
“Ikan, son of Bachue, take this dagger.”
The High Priest, still facing away from Ikan, held out the dagger. Ikan, hands trembling, reached out and took it.
“This cast represents your immaturity, your irresponsibility, your childhood. Use the dagger to rid your future of this.”
Ikan obediently walked to the altar. He raised the dagger above his head.
Was it him, or was the cast’s chest moving? Shifting up and down like someone in heavy sleep? He lowered his dagger slightly.
“Strike,” the Priest ordered, a note of annoyance in his voice.
Ikan raised his dagger back up. The cast couldn’t possibly be alive. He must have been muddled from the altitude.
No, a voice in the back of his mind said. Don’t do it!
“Strike!” The Priest said, the annoyance was becoming replaced by anger.
“I said STRIKE!” the priest yelled, turning purple with rage.
The voice in the back of Ikan’s head faded. He gripped the dagger of bone and plunged it into the chest of the figure.
A loud shriek filled the air. The cast wriggled off the altar. It flopped to the floor with the sharp sound of breaking bones. Ikan’s legs gave out. He pushed himself away from the writhing cast, more frightened than he’d ever been before.
The High Priest laughed a cold, high laugh. He walked over to the squirming bindings, pulled out a dagger of bone, just like Ikan’s but tinted red, and plunged it into the cast’s neck.
The screaming stopped. The High Priest turned towards Ikan, his eyes full of malice and amusement.
“Thank you,” he said. “You have done us a valuable public service.”
The Priest bent down and ripped the linen wrappings, now stained with blood, off the cast’s face.
The bruised, broken and gagged face of Puch stared back at them, jaw slack, covered in blood, and very much dead.
If Ikan had been standing, he would have fallen again. His face drained of whatever colour was left in it. He grabbed his dagger and waved it weakly in front of him. It was no longer gleaming white. It was covered in Puch’s blood, stained up to the hilt.
The High Priest laughed again, and knocked the knife to the floor.
“I’ll forgive that,” he said, casually rolling Puch’s body off the edge of the platform. “Usually, you get a slightly easier task.”
He looked over the edge with a calm expression.
“But sometimes you need to cut the weed if you want the wheat to thrive. What Puch did was completely unacceptable. Older than me and still not a man! He should have gone to live in the desert.”
Puch’s limp body hit the floor, far, far below. The High Priest smiled and turned back to Ikan.
“Oh my, I’m going off on a tangent. Kneel.”
Ikan nervously got to his knees. He looked at his hands. They were shaking. The High Priest placed the flat of his knife on the top of Ikan’s head.
“You have renounced your childhood. You have proven yourself to the tribe. You are no longer Ikan. Rise, Ayamarca. You are now a man.”