It was Moulting Day, and all Iv’s brithers and sosters had got up early, chattering with excitement, eager to help prepare her for the occasion.
Iv’s mather and fother pushed the kids aside, but they could themselves hardly contain their pride at her being chosen for the Moulting. Her mather herself gave her a bath, and then rubbed her dry, examining her anxiously from head to foot for any signs of premature Moulting. Fortunately, there were none.
Iv could have told her there would be none. But she merely sat in sullen silence as her brithers and sosters crowded around, helping put bracelets of flowers strung together round her wrists and ankles, and getting in the way of everyone.
Her mather frowned at the children, but not very hard, because she was half beside herself with excitement. She really didn’t understand why Iv herself wasn’t interested.
“Sullen, I tell you!” she said to Iv’s fother, who was just about to leave to meet the priests and elders for the final arrangements for the Moulting. “She can’t even appreciate the honour. She doesn’t deserve it, that’s what.”
Iv’s fother smiled weakly, muttered something and left. He’d long since learnt that it was better not to reply to his mate when she was in these moods; not even to agree with her, because then she’d demand why he didn’t do something about it. Besides, it was Moulting Day, and he did have a lot to do.
“Just one’s selected every three years to Moult,” Iv’s mather reminded her, pushing away the brithers and sosters who still crowded around. “Everyone’s eager for the honour, even though they know there’s almost no chance of them being chosen. And look at you – chosen and still you don’t appreciate it.”
Iv muttered something under her breath, but fortunately her mather didn’t hear it above the chattering of the brithers and sosters, or there might have been trouble. Iv herself wasn’t quite as uninterested as she let on, of course; life was so utterly boring in Dis that she welcomed any excitement at all. And usually, when something exciting happened, she was always on the fringes, looking on. This was the first time she’d got the chance of having a personal part to play. And what a part! Right at the centre of attention, no less. Let them try putting on airs now. Let Lil or Eth or the others who ignored her try ignoring her today!
She still had no idea why the Priests had chosen her, of all those they could have, but of course nobody knew what the priests thought and how they planned and plotted and schemed behind the high walls of their temple at A’ven. Iv herself had never seen the temple, but those who had said it was made of glittery shining silvery stuff and that the glare of the sun on it was enough to give one a headache. They all said it was much better in the woods and streams of Dis. Well, not Iv – she didn’t want to see the glittery temple, but she did want to see something of the world outside Dis, someday.
“Daydreaming again!” Iv’s mather snapped. “You should be thinking of the Moulting, not gathering wool. The idea!” She fetched the Moulting Robe that had been specially made for the occasion and held it out for Iv to put on. “There,” she said. “I suppose you’ll say that’s no good either.”
Iv looked at the robe. It was dark brown, worked in designs of golden yellow. She’d said the day she was chosen to Moult that she wanted peacock blue and green, so obviously those were the colours that her parents had specifically not considered. Still, it could have been worse. The last one who’d Moulted had been dressed in – Iv suppressed a shudder at the memory – maroon and silver. “It’s not bad,” she said, holding out her arms, and shutting her ears alike to her mother’s screech of anger at this lack of enthusiasm and the squeals of delight of the brithers and sosters.
Then there was a tap on the door and Iv’s fother returned, bringing the elders and the priests, and her mather’s tirade cut off in mid sentence. She rushed to make them welcome, only to be ignored totally as the visitors crowded round Iv.
“Are you ready?” the Priest of Priests, who was slim and altogether too handsome for a priest, asked.
“I suppose,” Iv replied. The priests didn’t seem to mind that she wasn’t more enthusiastic, and merely ushered her out of the house. The street was lined on both sides by white-robed acolytes, who began sprinkling flowers on the ground before Iv’s feet. They crushed petals smeared and stained her new shoes.
“They’re all waiting for you,” the Priest of Priests said. They walked right through the village, the acolytes showering her feet with flowers all the way, until they came to the field called Pera, where the Moulting was going to happen. And oh, my, was it crowded!
Not just everyone seemed to be there, everyone was there. The entire village, and even those not from the village, was there. Iv’s Grandfothers and Grandmathers were there. Her Goodfriends from school were there, apart from her real friends. Lil and Eth were there, green with envy. Why, even the giant from the castle from up on the hill, who made noises like thunder when he walked, was there, and a jollier and friendlier giant you never did see.
There was, in fact, a full blown fairground that had been set up in the field, and when they saw Iv, everyone, customers and stallkeepers alike, crowded around her, smiling and cheering, and the acolytes finally had to beat them back with their staves.
Taking Iv by the arms, the Priest of Priests and his Chief Assistant conducted her to the middle of the field, where, in the shade of a huge tree, there was a chair on which she was formally seated, to await her Moulting. As the Priest of Priests began to calculate the exact time of the Moulting on his complicated brass instrument, first one and then another acolyte began chanting the Songs of Praise, so loudly that they almost drowned out the hubbub of the crowd, which was getting ready, and just awaiting the signal to begin. The Songs of Praise were, of course, in honour of Iv, and they made her blush even though she’d known what was coming.
“The Moulting!” the Priest of Priests shouted, holding up the brass instrument. It was a very curious thing, like seven wheels interlocked together, and only the priests understood exactly how it worked. The singing of the acolytes ceased, so suddenly it was as though they’d lost their tongues together. “The Search for Knowledge,” the Priest of Priests said, more quietly, “is sacred. The search for knowledge and enlightenment is what keeps us alive, keeps us thriving. And the Moulting symbolises, in each facet, real and spiritual, that search for knowledge. Not always is knowledge good in itself, but it is vital to seek it out, because without knowledge we would wither and die.” He paused as some of the acolytes lit the Sacred Flame in its black metal brazier, and others tied resin-soaked cloth round the blade of a long, unwieldy knife. The resin sparked and sputtered, reluctant to catch fire. Then he held up his instrument again.
“The Moulting is about to commence! And the best of the best of us is the One who will Moult this year. Iv,” he said, pointing at her. “Arise!”
Her knees suddenly trembling, Iv rose. The Priest of Priests turned to the crowd. “As we all know, only the best are chosen to Moult each time. It is not just an honour – it is an honour deserved.” He beckoned forward Iv’s mather and pressed the Sacred Stone into her hand. It lay on her palm, rich red and glowing. The acolytes were already going around the crowd, starting with Iv’s brithers and sosters, handing out stones to everybody. They clutched them tight to their bosoms, looking at Iv eagerly. The murmur of their conversation died away, and a great silence fell.
The Chief Assistant brought a dish in both her hands and handed it to the Priest of Priests to offer to Iv. The two pieces of fruit in the exact centre of the dish were supposed to be glowing golden, but in reality were small and crinkled and yellow, and Iv looked at them with trepidation.
“It is her right to choose not to Moult, if she so desires,” the Priest of Priests announced formally. “It is entirely her choice. If she does not Moult, we will have no Moult till the next Cycle, for only the best are chosen. It is up to her what she chooses now. Iv.”
The weight of the silence was like a mountain pressing down on her. Iv suddenly wanted, more than anything else on the world, to say no, to draw back her hand from the fruit. But even as the thought entered her head, her hand reached out, picked up one of the two pieces of fruit, and put it in her mouth. It lay on her tongue, a piece of tastelessness, for a moment, and then dissolved away.
Everyone cheered frenziedly, as though there had ever been a real possibility that Iv would have refused. The Chief Assistant went behind the tree and brought a furry black animal at the end of a rope. “The Companion,” she announced.
Iv looked at the animal. It was really rather cute, with stubby little horns and a blunt nose. It nuzzled at her hand and she felt the touch of a coarse tongue.
“It chooses her,” the Priest of Priests announced, as though there had ever been the slightest doubt about the matter. “Feed it the other piece of fruit, Iv.” So Iv took the other piece and gave it to the animal, which plucked it from her fingers with prehensile lips and swallowed quickly.
Then the Moulting began. Iv felt it start from somewhere inside the pit of her stomach, spreading all over her in a wave. She gasped and staggered, holding to the chair for support.
“It begins!” the Priest of Priests shouted, but Iv barely heard him. She felt her body shake uncontrollably as the Moult took over her. Her great curved horns, of which she’d been so proud, fell off, first one and then the other, and bounced on the ground at her feet. Her skin, with its rough familiar plates of scale, began itching furiously, until she began, helplessly, to scratch at it, and then it began to come away. Her face felt numb, as though she was wearing a mask on it, and then it fragmented, as the new smooth skin underneath came into view. The last to go was her lovely long tail with the flat tip, which broke off, wriggled once, and was still.
Crouching on the ground, helplessly scratching at the last remnants of her old skin, Iv looked up at the crowd. Already, they looked strange to her, bizarre and unknowable; and when her mather stepped forward, she couldn’t help but leap to her feet.
“Iv,” her mather said, tears glittering in the corners of her triangular eyes, “I’m proud of you.”
Iv opened her mouth to speak. Nothing happened.
“She can’t speak yet,” the Chief Assistant said. “It takes time.”
“You’re going out in search of Knowledge.” Iv’s mather went on, ducking her head in acknowledgement of the Chief Assistant’s words. “To know, whether for good or ill. We do not know where you will go, or what you will see, for those who Moult never go the same way. Remember us sometimes, and not too harshly.”
“Now,” the Priest of Priests said, his slim, handsome body weaving sinuously. “Do it now.”
So Iv’s mather threw the Sacred Stone at her, not hard, just hard enough to strike her between her new-grown breasts and fall to the ground. But that was all it needed, and the others began to throw the stones the acolytes had given them, throw them much harder, hard enough to draw blood, hard enough to kill. Iv stumbled away, the stones falling hard around her now, scarcely aware that the Companion trotted by her side, his own Moulting happening as well.
Behind her, the Priest of Priests signalled to the Chief Assistant. “Take the flaming knife and stand guard,” he said formally, “to make sure she does not return.”
So Iv left the field of Pera, outside Dis, and came out into one of the Worlds of Knowledge. And alongside her came the Companion, now moulted, and raw and tender as Iv herself.
“I’ll call you Yedam,” Iv said to the creature, when she could speak again, and ruffled its hair. “Do you like that name?”
The Companion did not reply. There was no interpreting the look in its opaque eyes.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016