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Like everyone, Su’s life has been laid out before her by the immortal Augur. Today is her final day - and her first choice.
Su was going to die today.
It had started when she was twelve. The swamp had sucked at her feet, soaked her shoes and filled her nose with the stench of dead and decayed life then as it did now. The humid air was hard to breath, thick and soupy and laden with the noxious stink, and the nerves had only made it harder. She remembered the feel of her heart, fluttery and eager in her breast, as she had approached the first time. Now Su felt it again, but it felt like a clock ticking its way to a final end. But she had something she needed to do before it ran out.
Hundreds of thousands of feet had wound their way to the Augur’s house over the centuries, deep in the marshes, from peasants to kings to thieves to priests. Everyone, when they turned twelve, went to see the undying Augur, and came back bearing their fate. She didn’t know of anyone else who had approached the Augur a second time. There was no point, once your destiny was set.
Torches flickered in the shadows, one on each side of the door, as Su approached. They had been unlit when she had come the first time, full of life and hope, but now it was night and her old scars ached and complained in the cool night air. The door swung open silently at her touch.
Her footsteps sounded loud, scuffing the rushes and crackling down the hall. It had seemed interminably long, all those years ago, dim and dreary, and she had thought it a mere figment of her young mind and nerves. But even now it stretched before her, dark and unknowable. No doors to break the surface of the walls, no decorations or tapestries. Only chilly darkness and her own thoughts.
Su took a deep breath and began to hobble forwards.
She had never enjoyed the cold, but it had only scared her once Baden was born. Every winter she took pains to rug him up, kept him close, made sure the doors were locked. Her wedding and her husband hadn’t been the prince she had wished for - far from it - but she still hoped that the Augur was wrong. They had been right about so much, but maybe, just maybe, she could avoid one thing. One thing.
And Baden was such a bright boy, rosy cheeked and happy. Strong, too, and even her husband softened a little to the boy. Bruises were less common when he had Baden to distract him. Su’s knee twinged warningly, and she stopped to lean against the wall, catch her breath. It never had healed properly.
Neither had her heart. Cháo had been colicky and fussing, and Su was frantic running between the kitchen and the nursery, knowing Anzo was going to be home late and she needed to have dinner ready when he arrived. She forgot the date in her rush, didn’t check on Baden as often as she should have. He was happy playing with his toys in a warm corner of the kitchen and she had so much to do.
The food burned, black as the ink dictating her future in cramped and crawling script in the thin tome by her bed, and Anzo arrived home in a flurry of cold air and fiery temper. Spirits, both sorts, running high and stinking, and it wasn’t until her head had stopped ringing and she had staunched the blood that Su had thought to wonder where Baden was. She told herself he was just hiding, but when the house failed to produce him and the back door was swinging in the wind, Su had trudged down to the pond. She hadn’t bothered calling his name. The ice had partly refrozen, but not enough. He was cold, rosy skin bleached of colour, and the creak and crack of the ice mirrored her splintering heart.
A few years later, she just watched as Cháo shattered under Anzo’s rage. What use was there in fighting destiny?
Her soul shrivelled and hardened, sitting like a tiny pebble digging into her breast as the years wore at her. Anzo vacillated, remorseful and angry in turns, and her body bore the storied history of his emotions. Everything the Augur had written came to pass, and more and more Su wished she had at least hit the ancient crone. She had almost done it, when the frail old mouth had pronounced the summary of her fate. Tears streaming down her face, she had screamed, shaken, stepped forwards in a rage fuelled by the burning of her hopes and dreams... only to collapse in tears at the Augur’s feet, clutching the thin, nondescript volume that held her nondescript future. As the Augur knew she would. They hadn’t even moved to avoid her.
And now she was going to die. She had tried so hard, but rot had got into the pantry despite her best efforts, and this morning she had hurried to the store as soon as she had realised. It was stupid, but she had never quite given up hope. She didn’t even know what would be worth saving; a broken body and a shattered heart? Fingers that couldn’t quite bend on one hand, a scar running across her back that twinged when she turned too fast or bent over? A knee that ached in the cold, sunken eyes and hair going prematurely grey?
But Su didn’t want to die, even if she wasn’t living how she had dreamed as a child so many years ago. So she had hurried to the store.
And everything had gone wrong. One thing after another, as her heart counted her remaining time, each beat a sand slipping through the hourglass to spiral into the dead-end future. She would be late home. Anzo would be there. Dinner wouldn’t be ready.
She could feel her pulse counting away the seconds as she approached the doorway to the Augur’s inner sanctum. In a fit of pique, Su had left the groceries lying on the floor of the store and strode out. If she was going to be late home anyway, what difference did the reason make? The spidery writing that dictated her fate didn’t describe every detail, only the more important moments, and Su was going to use her final hours to put at least one thing to rest. If she was going to lose everything, had already lost everything, she wasn’t going to pass up her last chance to do something with her life, no matter how insignificant it was.
She didn’t know what she was going to say, what she might do. Half of her was surprised she had made it so far, the rest was as numb as if she had already died. It had been that way for years. Maybe even since she was twelve, and the Augur had spoken her fate.
Su had learned to read in the hopes that the book held a different destiny, but alas.
Su paused outside the door, listening. A lantern inside cast warm yellow light out over her feet, and she wavered, uncertain. What could she possibly say? From inside the room came the sound of a pen scratching on thick cotton paper. Another destiny etched indelibly into reality by an ageless hand.
She remembered reading her own words; wondered if this person’s fate would be kinder than hers. Su hoped so.
Gathering what little courage still remained to her, Su stepped into the room. It was exactly as she remembered it - thick with sweet-smelling smoke, the ink-stained table in the middle of room huge and imposing, dark wood gleaming in the lantern light. Sheafs of paper lay on the floor and tucked onto shelves. The stool she had sat on seemed smaller, and that was it. The Augur sat hunched over a piece of paper, their pen moving with a steady, hypnotic motion as it scribed another destiny.
“You were right, but I wish you hadn’t been.”
Her voice cracked and broke under the weight of her own sorrow, too weak to bear the burden placed upon it. The Augur’s head shot up, rheumy eyes focussing on her, a look of surprise spreading across their wizened face as they registered her presence. Su wondered if this was the first time they had ever worn such an expression; for a moment, in the lantern light, it made them look human.
The old mouth opened, and Su wondered what the immortal Augur might say to her. A curse? But what did she care about further curses? A faint croaking noise reached her ears, and Su watched in shock as the Augur’s eyes glazed over, skeletal hands clutching weakly at their chest. With a slow inevitability, the ancient body slumped forwards until it rested on the desk.
Silence and the sound of Su’s hourglass-heartbeat filled the room.
In a daze, Su stepped forwards. A touch told her hands, so familiar with loss, that there was nothing to be salvaged here. She thought to read the words the Augur had been writing. Perhaps she could write some good ones, give whoever it was a pleasant life, better than hers.
In the flickering lantern light, Su’s eyes scanned the shelves. A hundred thousand lives written down, waiting to be read and made real. A hundred thousand deaths, recorded before they happened so they could be acted out in precise and perfect detail.
She was going to be late home anyway. She picked up the lantern.
Standing in front of the smoking wreckage of Augur’s house, Su breathed the fetid air and watched as oily black smoke stained the dawn sky. It was a new day, and today, she would live.