Rakamai sat on an old wooden chair that matched the round table opposite him, both in its rustic color and lack of artistic design. He rested his elbows on the table causing it to shake a little, so he leaned his weight toward one side to stabilize it.
Tora, his wife, glanced at him through the corners of her eyes while pulling on a curtain. “We need new furniture. We’ve upgraded nothing in the house since our wedding,” she said to Rakamai, still struggling to pull the gray curtain open, her bronze skin glowing as the rays of the sun crashed against it.
While everything in the couple’s home appeared bleak, that wasn’t how Rakamai felt. The nearly unrecognizable yellow paint peeled away in large chunks revealing the mudbricks forming the walls, while the wooden frame holding the construction steady bulged at two corners of the ceiling. Behind Rakamai, two identical couches with old frames and worn-out handmade cushions sat face to face, filling the small living room. An open kitchen took over the wall in front of him with a mudbrick sink and a rusty water pump. Yet, none of that mattered because a simple smile from his wife or a loud laugh from his son was enough to brighten his days.
Tora stepped out of the house for a moment then returned with a pile of wood, which she carried to a large metal stove next to the sink. She shoved the pieces through a hole in the side, and soon fire came out the top. She then picked a teapot and pumped some water into it before placing the pot on the fire.
“You didn’t answer me,” she said, turning to her husband.
Rakamai met her gaze and tried to force a smile on his face but failed. “I will approve a raise for us next month. You can do whatever you want with it.”
Tora sighed and removed three pottery cups from a shelf above the stove. She added a single teaspoon of honey in each cup, then carried them to the table, placing the first two opposite empty chairs on both sides of Rakamai.
Once she put the third in front of her husband, she planted a kiss on his cheek. “Don’t approve anything,” she said. “I know it bothers you.”
Rakamai lifted her hand and kissed it. “I’m sorry, love. I want you to be happy, but—”
“I know. Our people come first.” She leaned in and kissed his forehead.
As Tora straightened, another kicked the main entrance open. A woman in her mid-thirties strode in, a wide grin filling her face. Her light blue dress fell to her ankles, its width masking her curves. A simple pattern decorated both the edges of her long sleeves and her wide collar. Her obsidian skin matched that of Rakamai, and so did her sloped nose and full lips. Her cheeks, however, were fuller with small dimples at the center.
“Take it easy on the door, Retan, or you will have to fix it yourself,” Tora said, walking to the now boiling water.
“Sure thing.” Retan closed the door in slow motion, its squeal prompting Rakamai to roll his eyes and turn to her.
“Seriously? What are you? A child?”
Retan chuckled while pushing the door at an even slower pace. “Is this how you talk to your older sister?”
“Officially, I’m your elder.”
She gave him a morose look and slammed the door shut. “Not in here.”
Tora poured the hot water into the cups. “How the two of you are the leaders of our faction is beyond me.”
Rakamai shrugged. “She is not the leader of anything, and it’s for good reasons. Trust me.”
Retan knuckled the back of Rakamai’s head and darted her gaze around, ignoring her brother’s words. “Where’s my nephew?”
Tora put the pot at the center of the table and took a seat next to her husband. “He stayed out all night again, but I made him promise to come home before his father left for work.”
“Man, this kid trains so hard. He’s going to embarrass all of us when he’s older.”
“It’s better for him. The faster he masters the gates, the less training he needs after his awakening.”
“I agree with your logic, Tora, but he is a child. This path we follow takes everything away from us. You can’t deny him his childhood too.”
“We’re not denying him anything,” Rakamai quickly added.
With Rakamai’s last word, the young boy pushed the door open and limped his way into the house, dirt covering both his turban and beige thobe that fell two inches short of his ankles.
Tora jumped off her seat and ran to the boy, lifting his thobe and checking his legs for injuries before cleaning some sand off his dark-colored cheeks.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
The corners of the kid’s almond-shaped eyes lifted, and he nodded.
“Rondai,” Retan said, her tone sharp while standing by the dining table, “come here.”
The boy ran to her, and she lifted him into her arms. “Oh my, you have become so heavy. Soon I will have to open a gate just so I can carry you.”
Rondai laughed as Tora took him from his aunt’s arms and put him down. “Go into the bathroom,” she said. “I will pick fresh clothes and come to help you shower.”
Rondai ran up a narrow staircase by the side of the open kitchen while Tora followed him with slow steps. As the latter disappeared up the stairs, Retan sat opposite the third cup of tea and took a sip.
“You’re awfully quiet today. What’s wrong?” she asked.
Rakamai cradled his cup, connecting the edges of his fingers, “We need to do something, Retan.”
He glanced at his deteriorating house. “About all of this. If the leader of the faction can’t even have a proper home, how does everyone else live?”
“The same way they always did. We are Kalangous. Quality of life has never been of interest to us. Only a few would live long enough to enjoy it anyway. What we are good at is getting stronger.”
“Well… Maybe we should change how we view the world and focus on living for once.”
Retan gulped the rest of her tea in one shot, pushed back her chair, and rose to her feet. “Such discussion should take place in the temple, not here.” She headed toward the stairs and called for Rondai, who came running toward her, naked and dripping water. Retan stopped him before he reached the last step. She put her palm on his chest, so he doesn’t jump on her then kneeled to match his height.
Tora threw down a towel from upstairs that Retan snatched out of the air by lifting her other hand. She wrapped it around Rondai and began drying his body.
“You’re too old for this behavior,” she said. “You shouldn’t be running around the house naked.”
“I was going to get dressed, but you called for me. I didn’t want you to leave before…” Rondai’s face turned a little red.
“I wanted to ask you for a birthday gift.”
“Birthday?” Her eyes widened. “Has it already been a year since your last one?”
“Yes, I will become nine in one week.”
“Okay, okay.” She ruffled his hair. “Go get dressed, and I will wait to hear what you want.”
Rondai ran up the stairs, his bare feet bounding on the wooden steps as he pivoted to avoid his mother, who was on her way down.
Retan sighed. “Despite how much I love him, I can’t stand how he always reminds me that time moves faster than we think.” She returned to the dining table with Tora by her side.
The latter collected the empty cups and carried them to the sink while Retan returned to her chair. She opened her mouth to say something, but the sound of Rondai’s feet as he skipped several steps before leaping to the ground grabbed her attention. The boy was now wearing a thobe identical to his father’s, right down to its light green color and wide V-neck. He climbed the chair next to Retan’s and portrayed a wide smile that put his perfect teeth on display.
With a smile, Retan shook her head and pinched his cheek. “Stop pretending to be cute and tell me about that gift you want.”
The child lowered to one knee while still on the chair and clasped his hands together while raising them to his chin. “Aunt Retan, would you please be my master?”
Almost simultaneously, the three adults in the room cracked a loud laugh.
Rondai frowned. “I’m not joking.”
Retan was the first to stop laughing. She took a deep breath to pull her serious expression back on her face.
“What do you say?” Rondai asked.
“Don’t you already have a master?”
“I do, but he said I’m ready to pass the exam for the first gate.”
“Did he?” Rakamai asked while surprise took over the faces of both Tora and Retan.
“Are you sure this is what he said?” Tora asked.
“Yes. I will take the exam the morning of my birthday.”
Retan put her hands on the boy’s arms. “Listen to me. You can ask for any toy you want for your birthday, but mastering the gates is not something to joke about.”
Rondai’s grin widened as he raised his right hand to the level of his chest. He folded four fingers and straightened his thumb before using it to paint an imaginary number one over the location of his heart. Right after, and while Rondai raised an open palm over the teapot, Tora jumped to her feet and half-circled the table toward her son. The pot floated toward his hand but instantly fell back in place when Tora grabbed his wrist and pulled it back. She folded his four fingers and held his thumb straight before pushing it toward his chest.
“Close the gate,” she shouted.
Rondai’s facial features downturned as he painted another imaginary image of the same number in the same location.
“What did I tell you?” she shouted again, pushing his hand to his side.
The kid lowered his head. “You said never to use magic unless it was for training.”
“And was that training?”
His eyes grew watery, and his voice broke. “I just wanted to convince Master Retan to take me as a student.”
“Tora,” Rakamai broke in, and when she looked at him, he slowly blinked and gave her a slight nod. Tora sighed and kissed Rondai’s forehead before walking back to her seat.
Retan took her nephew’s hand. “You will make a great master one day, but you need to listen to your mother. We learn magic for the sake of our faction, not for fun, and you must abide by its rules.”
Rondai nodded, his head still low. “Will you teach me then?”
“Maybe one day, but you don’t need a new master just yet. You have to stay with your schoolteacher until you open the third gate. When you get there, we can talk. But for now, I will get you any other gift you want.”
“Anything?” Rondai’s smile returned and his eyes widened.
Retan paused before uttering the word “Yes.”
“I want to change my name,” he said.
“Really?” She chuckled while Rakamai and Tora leaned closer, their eyes focused on their son. “What do you want your new name to be?” Retan asked.
“Katin,” he answered quickly. “I want to be a great master, and I should have a great name like the founder of our faction.”
Retan ruffled his hair again before pulling his head to her and hugging his face to her chest. “What’s with you and asking for the impossible today?”
“It’s not impossible,” Rondai said with a muffled voice before Retan released him. “I know a kid in my class who changed his name. Why can’t I do it?”
“Because,” Rakamai started, “you are a Pureblood. Your name has to start with the letter R.”
“Mother’s name doesn’t start with an R.”
Rakamai and Retan turned their gazes to Tora but said nothing, allowing Tora to respond. “No, it doesn’t,” she said, “because I’m not. But your father is a Pureblood, and that makes you one too. You are a descendant of Katin himself. His blood runs in your veins.”
Rakamai tried to speak, but Tora raised her hand, forcing him to stay silent as she continued. “One day, you will be on the council, and maybe you will lead our people like your father, but until this day comes, you have to follow the rules like every other Kalangou, and that means your name stays the same.”
Rondai crossed his hand over his chest and frowned. “Then I don’t want to be a Pureblood,” he said as he jumped off the chair before running upstairs.
“I’m afraid this boy will grow a lot faster than we expected,” Rakamai said, a large smile on his face.
Retan chuckled as she rose from her chair. “Looks like I have to find him a real gift this time. The age of toys is over.” She started toward the door before turning back to her brother. “Are we going?”
Rakamai rose to his feet and leaned toward his wife, kissing her lips. “I will see you soon, love,” he said and followed Retan.