“Stop, please! Please...I’m sorry...I’m sorry...”
The boy’s pleas echoed in the narrow tunnel. Slime had formed in streaks where the water usually dripped down from the streets and drained into the poisonous canal that ran down the middle of the underground city. The boy was curled into a ball, trying to protect his face as the man hit him again and again with a wooden rod.
“What did you tell them?!” The man hissed. “What did you tell that Green-eyed guard, you useless worm? Why Belate cursed me with a son like you I’ll never know.”
“I didn’t tell them anything,” the boy sobbed. He was no older than ten, perhaps younger. With dark, matted hair and a thin, bony figure. And red eyes the color of the final embers of a fire. “Father, please...”
“Rat saw you speaking with them!” The father hissed, jerking his finger at the young man that was leaning against the wall. He was watching, amused, as the boy was beaten. Enjoying the pain of the younger boy as all bullies do.
"Nothing you can say, little prince,” Rat said smugly. He said the title mockingly, without a trace of respect, periodically glancing at the father as if yearning for approval. “I saw you.”
“I...I...I just asked…” The boy trembled beneath his father’s murderous gaze, “I just asked what they do to...to...to get into the Central City guard. That’s all...I swear. They didn’t know who I was or...”
“You what?” His father slapped him across the face. The strength of the blow sent the boy’s head snapping back to hit the wall behind him. The boy cried out and crumpled on the ground, tears slowly making tracks on his grime-streaked face.
“The Guards?” The father repeated, his voice dangerously low, “The Guards? You want to be in the Mixed Guards? Don’t make me laugh.” But he wasn’t laughing, the man looked furious. His red eyes narrowed into slits like a dangerous snake or a feral cat about to pounce. “You want to work alongside People from the other nations?”
“Disgraceful,” Rat volunteered but he quailed under the look the boy’s father gave him. “Sorry, sire,” Rat quickly amended.
“Speak up, boy,” the father snapped at the trembling figure on the ground. “Why?”
“I…I was c…curious,” the boy stammered.
“Curiosity,” the father growled. “What a disgusting word.” He looked at Rat. “Give him a taste of what will happen if he tries talking to the guards again.” And then the Red King left, his flame-colored eyes still sparking with anger. The silently sobbing boy curled up in the corner and wished he were invisible.
Rat grinned as he stepped forward, slowly pulling his belt free. His pants slid down a bit and the boy’s red eyes narrowed.
“What do you think, little prince?” Rat taunted, eyes like dried blood glinting maliciously, “Ready to see what curiosity really means?”
The boy didn’t reply, but his bright eyes watched the belt steadily. He’d stopped crying and was now still, holding his breath. If Rat had known the boy at all, he would have realized that the child was thinking – thinking hard and fast.
Rat brought the belt down in a black, leather arc. Only to grunt in surprise as the boy jumped up to grab the worn leather. The boy winced as it made contact with his unprotected hands, but was firm as he pulled down on the belt with all his might. Unprepared, Rat fell forward, stumbling. The boy jumped and yanked down on Rat’s sagging pants before sprinting away.
“Stop!” Rat shouted. He tried to turn but tripped and fell, tangled uselessly in his own pants. “Stop you, maggot!”
But the boy was already out of sight, having rounded a corner and then forced himself between a narrow crack in the wall, half-falling into the old study hewn from the rock of the sewer. His father thought that he had the only key; he hadn’t realized that the skinny, half-starved boy that was his son could easily sneak through the cracks in the crumbling stone. The boy pressed himself into a rectangular groove that may have once been a fireplace and began to cry again, hugging himself. Starving for comfort and warmth that his life no longer gave him.
“I just wanted something other...” He muttered to himself. Other than what, he wasn’t sure.
The boy looked up the narrow and dirty hole that had once let out smoke. If he really strained his eyes, he could see the dim light of a single star…so far away it looked impossible to reach. Still shaking, he wished with all his heart that his grandmother was still alive to pick him up and keep away the pain. But there was only the cold stone and the uncaring gazes of the people in the underground sewers. For several long moments, the boy kept looking at the blinking light of the single star, the only light in the dark sky.
Suddenly, he looked away. Biting his lip, he forced himself to stop crying. It didn’t do any good. He carefully traced the form of the raised welt on his hand and winced.
Just another scar.
“Once upon a time,” the boy whispered to himself. Stories were useless. But still, it was nice to hear his own voice repeating the story of Erate, the story his grandmother had told him to keep the darkness of his life at bay. “There was only darkness, called Nothingness. But then...then our world was created in a single breath…”
Nothingness breathed out and the Nothingness became Belate – the Goddess of Light. Nothingness’ breath became Her heart-beat and Her searching eyes became the sun and the moon. Belate breathed in the stuff that is the Stars and breathed out our world, which included our land; the land called Erate. From the Stars she made everything living. And the rainbows caused by the shining of the Stars was what she used to put color into the world. Each color was taken and placed into the souls of the People of Erate – and the color of their souls became the colors of their eyes; each clan consists of people with the same type of soul, and the same colored eyes.
Golden eyed sailors, merchants and peace-keepers took the Gold coast and were the only people who dared explore the “unknown world” beyond the Matari Sea and the White-Peak Mountains that surrounded Erate.
Pink-eyed farmers and healers were from the Pink Plains, and Brown-eyed salt miners and animal keepers took the Brown Desert. The traveling Green-eyed performers and messengers took no land but traveled freely, spending most of their time within the Great Forest. Blue-eyed artisans and fishermen took the edges of the rivers within the outskirts of the Great Forest, and built cities on islands within large lakes. The tough, Matriarchal, warrior-like Purple-eyed People claimed the swamp-lands, and the great trees that grew in them, as theirs. The regal and traditional clan with white-eyes lived in the White-Peak Mountains and made their wealth from the diamonds and mounds of marble as cold as their expressions.
Finally, those with Red eyes claimed locations throughout Erate. They lived on land that belonged to the other clans in exchange for their skills; the Reds were the best architects, and the most curious scientists. For a time, all the monarchs were happy to grant them a small area of land where they could build a city in exchange for their skills. It was in the writings of the Reds that the other clans first discovered the means to build their own marvelous cities – and each monarchy paid the Red king the due respect for many years.
That is what all People believe. But the shared myth was never enough to keep us together…and that was when the war began and Erate erupted into Chaos. The War of a Thousand Sorrows; culture, art, and history was lost. Lives were thrown away like so much trash tossed into a storm.
Eye colors became both marks of shame and badges of honor. If your eyes were different, you were thrown out, told to find your own people.
Thousands lost their lives, but the Red’s lost all their dignity. For a time, the Red Clan thrived as they became traders of weapons and secrets. It was easy for them, as the architects of all the cities, to walk among the other clans, listening, and then turn around and sell positions of armies and numbers of supplies to the highest bidder. After all, they reasoned, they had no loyalty to the people in which they stayed – they were Reds, not these other people that lived within the cities they had designed. When the other clans discovered what they were doing, though, they suddenly found themselves alone…
Eventually, the king of the Golds had enough. Using the wide rivers of Erate and their magnificent navy built for ocean storms, the Gold People had patrolled their lands and managed to keep the bloodshed away from their cities. The Gold king ordered these ships to travel throughout Erate and he begged the leaders to meet at a central location for a peace meeting. No one else had a navy that impressive, even the Blue People of the lakes could not match the magnificent ships built for ocean waves. So they all came. A treaty was created. A final deal was struck.
The Gold king bartered with the other monarchs to allow those with Red eyes to be spared from punishment in exchange for a new city – a Central City that would belong to all the clans and would be used for trade and peace negotiations. The people of the Red eyes agreed and built a magnificent city – it was a small price to pay for their almost cultural crimes of espionage. The peace negotiations were deemed successful - but Erate was not what it once was.
And, although everyone agreed to follow the new rules, the treaty was never formally signed.
Years of fear and paranoia had left everyone with the steadfast belief that it was dangerous to become friends with those that had different eyes; “They were not your people, they could not be trusted.” It was considered foolhardy to trade names with anyone who might sell you for the best price. Many believed that such an act would curse you and your family forever.
The Reds had gained a reputation of being thieves and liars – and they suddenly found themselves without a true home; their traitorous ways had caught up with them before the peace, and the other clans had burned their magnificent cities to the ground.
But there was finally peace, however uneasy. Trade and culture flourished once more for two-hundred years.
Then our story began. It began with a girl that made a list, almost a song, scribbled in a journal as an afterthought. A simple poem that did not rhyme and barely had a rhythm, and that spoke of a hope she didn’t understand. It went:
Blue for Azul.
And Sol is Red.
Green like Briar.
Oak, Brown ahead.
I’m a Gold Star.
Rosa the Pink flower.
The Silver Sierra,
So ends the list.