Kindling

Helena Torres de Costa pulled the covers up to her daughter’s shoulders and whispered, “Regina, darling, I would like to tell you a story.”

“Mother,” Regina scoffed, “I’m too old for stories.”

“Nonsense,” Helena replied. “Seven is not nearly old enough for a girl’s mother to stop telling her stories.”

“Fine,” she sighed. “Are there princesses in it?”

“Of course not,” her mother said.

“Thank you.” Regina hated stories about princesses. They existed solely to be kind, beautiful, and passive. Kings too were passive in their own right, often chained to their thrones and powerless against some blight befalling their lands–be it as small as the kidnapping of their daughter or as large as a kingdom-wide curse. Knights and princes were enslaved to their quests, which were usually on behalf of their useless king. Queens, on the rare occasion they hadn’t died long before the tale began, were selfish and cruel, but at the very least took agency of their own lives. Besides, all their power resided almost entirely on an antiquated political system based upon tradition, gender, genetics, and superstition, so what kind of heroes were they, really?

“That would be silly,” Helena added.

“Peasant girls?”

“We’ve discussed this before, darling,” Helena replied. “Peasant girls are atrocious role models.”

“But they’re so clever and fearless! I want to be clever and fearless!”

“Indeed, but peasant girls typically sacrifice their autonomy and accomplishment to the altar of a broad chest and a broadsword; I, for one, will never allow my daughter to believe there is anything remotely ‘Happily Ever After’ about that.”

“Not witches!” Regina whined. “Witches are boring!”

“This story is not about witches, or peasants, or royalty, or gods, or fairies, or even dragons. This story is about five different merchants from five different lands who spoke five different tongues, and united to defy feudalism and create the world in which you live today.”

“The entire world?”

“I’m speaking in metaphor, darling,” she clarified. “Specifically, I’m speaking of the New World.”

“America,” Regina whispered.

“Not exactly,” replied her mother. “Over the years, the non-indigenous inhabitants of this continent have misunderstood the term as a reference to geography. In truth, ‘the New World’ is a metaphor for the system of merit, commerce, and education that was developed and cultivated by these merchants and their descendents.”

“Oh,” Regina frowned, “I get it.”

“Of course you don’t,” Helena laughed. “Over time, you will.”

“When?”

Helena smiled. Her daughter’s stubborn curiosity far exceeded her own at that age, and it was certain to lead to great success in the future. “This story,” she said, “is not as much for your entertainment as it is to prepare you for what to expect in the coming months.”

With a wide grin, Regina gasped and sat up. “You’re sending me to the school in the cavern?”

Helena pushed her back onto the bed and adjusted the blankets. “You have much to do before then.” She averted her eyes and added, “If you knew what to expect, you would not be so eager.”

“But that’s where I’m going to learn how to use magic!”

“Magic requires sacrifice, Regina,” she told her. “This is the most important lesson that waits for you there. Besides, you can’t be admitted until you complete a number of tasks.”

“Like what?”

“First, we must find your home.”

“But…” Regina said cautiously. “This is my home?”

“Physically, yes,” her mother explained. “What we’re seeking is the city to which your heart truly belongs.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Once upon a time,” Helena began, picking up a small globe from the end table near her daughter’s bed, “while they still served their respective crowns, the five merchants traveled the globe to search for ways to expand their commerce. In the course of their journeys, they discovered knowledge–and with it, strength. I don’t mean physical, or even political strength. I’m referring to the strength of nature–of science, metaphor, and of other forces entirely. Years later, when the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of these merchants banded together, they founded the four Invisible Cities.”

She showed Regina a spot just off the Mediterranean Sea, on the boot of Italy. “Here we have the City Built Upon Flames, Herculaneum–buried and abandoned.” She slid her finger slightly to the right. “Here we have the City of Walls, Byzantium–denied and abandoned.” She spun the globe and stopped it at a seemingly random spot in the Atlantic Ocean. “This is the City That Drowned, Atlantis–fictional and abandoned. And finally,” she said, tapping her finger on the Pacific coast of South America, “we have the City of Mists, Machu Picchu–dissolved and abandoned.”

She returned the globe to its resting place and concluded, “As you will learn very soon, every witch draws his or her power from one of the four elements. Those of us descended from the five merchants must discover our element by walking within all of the Invisible Cities, exploring their streets, and talking with their people, until we understand where we belong–among the fires of Vesuvius, the stones of Constantine, the water of the Atlantic, or the winds of the Sacred Valley.”

“How will I know for sure?”

“The moment I stepped through the archway and beheld Machu Picchu…” Helena twirled her finger, creating a miniature, mighty vortex in the air. “… everything became clear.”

“If the first place I go is my home,” Regina asked, “will I still have to see the others?”

“You will,” she replied. “There is much to experience in every place you visit. The food in Byzantium, for example, is exquisite. Besides, children all over the world love to play, and playing will soon become a luxury.”

“I’m excited!” Regina leaned into her mother’s ear and whispered, “I’m a little scared too.”

“These feelings are appropriate,” she said. “The latter will fade. Hopefully the former never will.” Helena kissed her daughter’s forehead and switched off the light. “Now get some sleep. Tomorrow we depart for Peru. I, for one, cannot wait to go home again.”

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