A world were nothing changes.
How do you make progress in world where nothing changes?
How do you make progress in a world that doesn’t change? You don’t. Every now and then, though, I catch myself thinking about what my life would be like in a different world; one where progress hasn’t been declared an enemy of the people and locked away out of sight and — most people’s — minds.
A world where I could change.
I am a terrible fisherman. I know this, my father knew this, everyone knows
this. I don’t like water, I get seasick and I’m impatient. My market stall always has the thinnest offerings — unless the water had been uncharacteristically calm that day. Yet I am a fisherman by trade and will be one until the day I die. That’s what it’s like on the islands, where you are no more than what you were born to be.
Even the royals have no say in the matter.
For as long as we have known, a single family has ruled the people of our secluded, water-locked nation. Brother marries sister to keep the bloodline pure, and their offspring do the very same. There is, and has only ever been, one royal family; nobody new ever takes power. Nothing ever changes. Their only threat is the randomness of nature. A brother and sister have been known to produce only male or female heirs, which is a problem. Famously, a King and Queen of two-centuries past had eight sons. Their sons then had to be tasked with fathering a pair of siblings; a new King and Queen capable of carrying on the family line. A difficult task without a sister.
It was a worrisome time for our people, but with the help of aunts and nieces, the reign of the family continued. Insurance policies are always in place, of course; extra sons, daughters and cousins standing by to take up the mantle, should the current monarchs die or prove baron. It’s all the same blood, after all.
It may sound strange, but the system works. We are an affluent nation. A nation of stability. A stability that comes from a foundation of knowing that we all have a part to play; that we all have our jobs to do. If we were to change that, if we were to inspire progress, that foundation would be ripped from beneath our feet, and we’d end up like the unstable nations ruled by an ever-changing roster of royals and military leaders on the mainland.
At least that is what the royals claim.
So when I was born to a fisherman, I was to be a fisherman. To take his place when he retired. To keep the wheel turning without ever going faster. While I’m not an only child, my brother could never take over from me. The older child takes the father’s profession, the younger the mother’s. No trades; no exceptions. If a child dies, you have another to replace them. You must have two children - replacements - but you must never have more than that. One child for one parent.
Sadly, my family briefly had three children. My mother fell pregnant by accident. They prayed and prayed that the baby would be needed elsewhere. Sometimes a mother or father will die, then their offspring will die before they can carry on the family profession and keep the economy in its fixed position. Other times, a man or women will not marry, and have no heir. While most are required to marry and sire by law, as the Gods would have it, there is not always a man for every woman.
So, those women pregnant with a third can offer the child as a replacement for whatever role is unfilled. But when my mother gave birth, there was an abundance of third children and an island of good health. My late sister was drowned before she turned one day old. The grief killed my father and since then I’ve filled his place within the world; replacing him in all that he was. Nobody is unique on the island, we all follow the same path as the one before us, and we all will be followed by a copy of ourselves.
People from beyond our island find this practice very unusual. Not least because women can be warriors while men can be childcarers. In the customs of the mainland, men and women have very specific roles to play. On the islands, anyone can and will be anything, just as long as their mother or father was that before them. They also think it strange our royals marry their own blood. They seem disgusted by the notion. It makes sense to most on the island, those who are happy without progress. And most are that, happy. People have work, people have money, and people have purpose. We stay safe, we stay stable and we don’t go hungry. Visitors say we live on a knife edge, that one day it could all crumble. What if one man breaks rank; one ruler sees a new path?
They’re right, of course, which is why they aren’t allowed to visit often, and why nobody is allowed to break rank. Visitors are not only rare, but are never allowed to stay. We don’t take newcomers to the island. To live here you must be born here. New additions would require new work, new lands, new wives or husbands. That would mean change.
But I had to move forward. I had to.
While others celebrated the life of their ruling class and scoffed at the foreigners for their unusual and seemingly reckless economic and social practices, I yearned to be part of their world. I hated what I did, yet I was trapped without hope nor chance of escape. For anything close to that, I’d need a wife, then a child, then old age. But none of that was on the horizon. The only thing that was on the horizon was the sight of fellow fishing boats as I bobbed across the warm waters, my head spinning, my stomach churning and a pool of vomit slowly floating away from my little one-man wooden vessel. Although I hated my little boat, I did sometimes consider it my last resort — I could just sail away. The punishment for abandoning you duties was worse than you might think, though. All my remaining family would be slaughtered, the gaps left behind would be filled by the servers, a group of people whose profession it was to fill in for those that couldn’t work, be they ill, jailed, injured or dead, until a new draft of newborns could be trained and succeed our roles. There was no way to avoid your service to the island, not unless you wanted to pay a terrible price. Faking your death or getting ‘lost at sea’ was no promise of mercy from the royals either, and our current rulers, benevolent as they claimed to be, were more than ruthless enough to hang a family on unprovable charges.
Tormenting citizens was the only interesting thing they ever got to do.
I was doomed to a life I loathed in a world not meant for me, but then, as I floated along, trying to keep the contents of my stomach very much within my stomach, I was struck with an idea. For the first time in my life, I felt like I’d made progress.
My dream, since I was a boy, was to develop some form of magic. Most of those blessed, or cursed as islanders would say, were born with their gifts, yet on that rare occasion, some found it caught them later in life. Magic on the islands was seen as a dangerous thing. A force for change — a challenge to the ruling class. A threat to our fragile existence. An enemy that must be eliminated.
Those with magic were not killed like the unwanted children, however. Our rulers were too God fearing for that. But, they couldn’t stay here. Magic wielders were shipped to capitals cities on the mainland, places where they were worshipped, not shunned. It was the only way off the island — that or to be an unwanted royal. Too many royals meant a need for more wealth in the monarchy, which meant a shift of wealth distribution across the whole island, which meant change. But you couldn’t kill a royal either. Their blood may be needed. To save on costs, those on the furthest edges of the family were sent overseas too, although they didn’t enjoy the same warm welcome as the magic wielders.
Yet I was not blessed with either royal or magic blood.
Magic was rare, very rare, and those that did possess it had very obvious gifts. You’d find either element-wielders, those that could conjure flames from mid-air or ice from stone, or see-ers, individuals granted visions of the future or distant lands. Both types of magic were easy to test and recognise, and seemingly impossible to fake. Or were they? Of course, there was no way I could feign a jet of fire spitting out of my fingertips, but, as my mind wandered over the horizon, letting more and more fish slip through my net, I wondered if I could work a plot cunning enough to appear as if I’d made a prophecy come to bare.
To me, it was all simple enough. So simple I spent days scolding myself for not thinking of it sooner. One happy result of being stranded at sea most of the day, with a desire to focus on anything other than the choppy waves, was that I had found methods of distracting my mind. Unlike many of my kin, I’d taught myself to read. When you were unable to stand for fear of falling over in a fit of dizziness and nausea, remaining clamped in the corner of your boat with a book was the most appealing option you had. As it turned out, reading was a powerful ally in the world of scheming. I could access knowledge that so few others knew existed. Our library was small but full of history, including plenty of scrolls and even the occasional book on two subjects I found most interesting: magical occurrences, and poisons.
The greatest prophecies, the ones that never failed to get the see-ers of the island banished, were always tragic in their end result. Death was a recurring theme, but should I claim to foresee the death of my neighbour and they turn up with a knife in their neck, suspicion might just overcome the royal’s fear of magic. I had to be more subtle — and poison, I had discovered, was the most subtle killer of all. I’d read all about the vilest and vicious of poisons. Poisons that could kill with just a drop. Poisons that could kill without a sound or symptom. I had to face a very serious question though:
Was I a killer?
The answer, sadly, was an overwhelming cacophony of no’s echoing inside my mind. I was desperate to leave my life behind, just not at the cost of another. But poison did not always have to kill people. Livestock was just as vulnerable, as were crops and food stores. But the whole thing had to be dramatic. It had to get people’s attention if I were to bewitch the public, inspire hearsay and convince the royals I was a danger to their world. Happily, a few scrolls existed on the art of acting, left behind by a very learned old theatre performer.
So what did the scrolls say I needed for a good performance? A crowd. I chose my location wisely. A bustling market by the water’s edge during a warm summer’s day. People were out in droves. Then I had to make it believable. Candid recounts in the books and scrolls I’d read spoke of how see-ers gripped by powerful foresight would collapse into a heap, muttering inaudible words and contorting their bodies. Finally, I had to follow through. I had to carry on the performance to reel in my audience. The true see-ers would wake in a daze and utter words of prophecy, before becoming unnervingly energised and without recollection of the moments prior, instead, slowly coming to remember their vision over the next few minutes. And so, after a multitude of practices hidden away at home in the dead of night, I began.
A plague was coming, a monstrous plague, I believe my exact words were, before I snapped back to life. It’s hard to know if I did a good job, but those crowding around me seemed alarmed and fearful, which I took to mean that I had followed the old performer’s words well enough.
The acting was the hard part, making the prophecy come to fruition was far easier. Mashing up the glands of poisonous fish and mixing them weeds for added potency was challenging, not least because of the smell, but far less taxing than being a live performer. I concocted a deadly liquid to spread across the lower farmlands in the dead of night. By morning, the crops wilted and began to rot, the poison soaking into their roots and decimating everything it touched.
I was quite surprised by its effectiveness.
Not an hour after sunrise I was taken, strung by the wrists and spread across a wooden wrack, set before the royals. And with that, I achieved what nobody on the island had done for centuries. I progressed. I worked my way out of a hole I could not bare to exist within, and I was free.