For Ezra’s 18th birthday, he treated himself to fresh pecan rolls and listened to a flute concert in the village square. For his 19th birthday he was exiled.
Likely nobody realized the significance of the day he was sentenced to gather as many of his belongings as could fit on his back, climb onto the back of a saddled roc and let the roc driver carry him away from the Cloud Island of Mielle. No one was that intentionally cruel. Even the judge seemed to sympathize even as she ignored his pleas and protests. The elderly lawyer arguing on his behalf had set a bony hand on his shoulder and sighed, shaking his wig-clad head.
“It’s just how people are, Mr. Kettle. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here. People need someone to blame.”
Ezra was prone to travel sickness and promised himself he would not mingle it with spite as the enormous, red-feathered bird sailed through the atmosphere. He would rise above this. It was nothing but a setback, one of many the brilliant and misunderstood were likely to face in their lives. The more he reflected on how gracious it was of him to forgive the angry citizens in the jury, the better he felt about himself. Anything was a comfort in a time like this, when the cold, thin air stung his face and left him shivering in his too-light coat.
“Didn’t bring a parka with you, laddie?” The roc driver was far too jovial and friendly to have ended up in the position she had, Ezra thought. Sammie, as the woman called herself, wore the heavy leathers and hooded mask of one used to braving the chilly winds; only her eyes were visible. She had a rather deep and throaty laugh. “Lucky for you the spring’s coming down there. Wouldn’t want you to freeze.”
“Wouldn’t want me to freeze, would they? No, they’re just content to let me rot.” Ezra imagined he had nothing to lose by talking with this woman; he certainly couldn’t make a break for it on the back of a bird soaring over a valley.
“S’not so bad! Not so bad at all. I’ve driven exiles in far worse states than you’re in, and they always make it. Usually, anyway. Weather’s a bit harsh, what with the rains. Oh, and you’ll have to get your land legs; that’ll take a bit. And plants take much longer to grow. And then there’s the humans…”
“I know! I know. Thank you, ma’am. I did my research on the Center of the Universe in the time I had.” It was, Ezra thought, kind of them to give him a few days to prepare before he was banished. Considering the charges, he knew they didn’t even have to offer him that. Perhaps the judge was more merciful than she revealed.
“My husband’s brother had a friend whose grandfather traveled to the Center of the Universe. Willingly! Old Kentammenon just hopped off onto a mountain peak and made his way down from there. Drank from the streams and ate the creatures he could catch.”
Ezra blew on his hands to warm them better than his gloves were doing, and looked back up at the driver. “Did he? Was he a humanologist?”
“Nay, he was up to his ears in debts!” Sammie laughed again, steering the roc into a sharper turn than Ezra cared for. “Read about diamond mines in the Center and thought he could make his fortune that way. Funny thing about diamond mines; dragons love ‘em. One bit his hand right off.”
Ezra paled, covering his mouth. “Was that meant to be encouraging, ma’am?!”
“You didn’t let me finish, laddie! He knocked that dragon upside the head and took it down with one blow. The little human folk were so impressed, one of ‘em gave him a job with a traveling show. Kent made his fortune that way, and he didn’t have the sense The Sun gave a baby buzzard.” Sammie looked over her shoulder briefly, and he thought he saw her wink. “With all those books, I’d guess you to be a scholar. Am I right, laddie?”
Ezra tugged the pack of books, jars and cooking pots tighter over his shoulder, even if it strained his back. “I’m a cook, actually.”
“Then those are recipes?!”
“They’re family heirlooms. The recipes, I mean.” Ezra now felt rather foolish having brought them instead of more important necessities, but he couldn’t abide leaving his pride behind with what was left of his family home. “It’s a way to make a living.”
The pilot just shrugged. “Long as the humans know you don’t want to cook any of them. They get strange ideas in their heads about we Sky Folk. Comes from living so far from the sun. Makes the body puny and the brain odd.” She tapped the side of her head, and then whistled. “Alright, girl! We’re almost there, so time to bring her in!”
The descent was far too quick for Ezra’s stomach; he barely realized what had happened until the bird reared back and landed in a cluster of great tall fir trees that towered far over his head and brought to mind thick hair brushes. They were standing at the bottom of a rocky cliff covered with lichens and green moss. Ezra wondered at first if Sammie had stopped here in order to let the bird rest and drink from a stream, but she looked expectantly at him over her shoulder.
“Well, laddie? This is it!”
“This…what? What do you mean, this is it?”
“The Center of the Universe. We’re standing on it. It’s quite big, you know! A huge marble covered with things. You need help getting that down? Noticed you’re a little on the short side…”
Ezra shook his head, dumbfounded. “No, I can get down just fine.” Despite his reassurances, he had to take a few false steps and then more tumbled than dismounted from the roc. His bag followed after, spilling cookbooks and pots all over the too-hard, too-damp surface of the forest.
He scrambled to recover his belongings and save them from the mud before he continued, gesturing all around him. “I know it’s the Center of the Universe! I read about it, remember? So I know this is a forest. But I was told I’d be sent to somewhere I could make a living. Like a town, perhaps.”
“A town? Full of humans? Can’t believe you’d take that kind of chance after what happened when you trusted one of them.”
The memory stung, and Ezra sucked in a breath.
Sammie continued, oblivious, as she dismounted the roc and landed with far more grace. “Doesn’t help that some of the Folk down here feel the need to throw their weight around and give us a bad name. You know what sorts get exiled and all. No offense meant to present company,” she added while ignoring Ezra’s glower. “Word of advice, stay away from the wee humans. They won’t trust you and you’d best not return the favor. Cook for yourself from what you can hunt and forage. Maybe sell some cakes to the local witches in exchange for charms and chicken eggs. They’re not afraid of anyone.”
The last of the line of Kettle, chefs who shaped custards out of lightning and soups littered with stardust, and he was to spend the rest of his life in oblivion in the woods eating nettle stew because of some overgrown beanstalk. “Where am I to live, then?” he asked, no longer attempting to hide the defeat in his voice. “I was told I’d be given a place to live.”
“And thankful you should be for that! Usually they just send you on your way with your belongings and let you do as you will. But I suppose you’re not yet two decades old so they had some mercy. You’re to live right there.” Sammie pointed to a path through the crooked trees.
The canopy of the forest dimmed the sunlight even at high noon; what escaped fell upon a dilapidated, one-floor cabin with a tiled roof staying on apparently through willpower alone. The tiny shapes of birds nested in the windowsills, and an overgrown mess that might once have been a garden crowded around a stone well.
“…Oh.” Ezra wondered if he shouldn’t be thankful it wasn’t a cave.
“This used to belong to a fellow by the name of Chulainn the Great. Bit of a cranky sort as he got older, and the humans started calling him a wicked giant. Get used to hearing that, by the way. Humans think they’re normal-sized. Anyway, it’s got furniture and a stove; ought to serve you just fine, though I’d get it fixed up some before winter. Suppose you could find yourself another place if you wanted. The Center of the Universe is your prison, not that house. Well! I suppose this is goodbye…”
Sammie moved to slap Ezra on the back, but then seemed to notice the way he was staring at the lonely little cottage. Her eyes creased in sympathy, and she gave him a pat on the shoulder instead. “You’re younger than my daughter. I think it is unfair what they did decide for you, laddie. But…”
“It’s for the best, I know. Public good. People feel safer when there’s someone to blame.” Ezra sighed and started walking towards the cottage. “Thank you for the transport, ma’am.”
“You’ll be fine. The young always thrive better. Just…do be careful who you open your door to, won’t you?”
He looked over his shoulder with a rueful smile. “Oh, no worries. I intend to be very careful about that from now on.”