Anyone who thought a single person couldn’t change the world hadn’t met the Discerner.
The Discerner was tall, with broad shoulders and thick hips, heavy brows and intense eyes. The Discerner’s skin was painted in dark symbols, twisting lines, indistinguishable words. High cheekbones lined with stylized knives, a broad forehead full of eyes, drips and ropes and chains and words spilling down the neck, pooling at the collarbone. Long, dark hair tied up with scarves, braided with fathers and beads, stained with uneven streaks of bleach. Heavy black wings electrifying that already piercing gaze.
The Discerner had looked regular once, with nondescript clothing and downturned eyes, but no one had noticed, and no one remembered. The Discerner had always been this way, now.
A girl with faded hair and skeptical eyes stared up at the house crammed into its spot on Evening Street. Number thirteen. It hadn’t been number thirteen originally, but the number hadn’t been taken and now it was. The bricks were stained and weathered, the buildings on either side edging ever closer, trying to shove the place out without anyone noticing, gradually. Buildings are immensely patient. Number ninety-three and number ninety-seven had never liked number thirteen, but number thirteen was stubborn. It pushed back, gradually, immensely patient.
"Go on, Ava." The girl’s mother put a hand on her thin shoulder, a reassuring squeeze, and let her go with a little push toward the house. "It’s nothing to be afraid of."
Ava looked back at her mother, at the wisps of hair that blew around her face, at her small smile, at her posture that said, go on, it’s easy, it will make everything easy. Ava wondered if she was the only person alive who didn’t want easy.
She turned back to the house, unable to explain her fears to her mother. She frowned up at the dark, dirty windows, filled with gauzy curtains in different dark colours. She would have liked the house, if it didn’t have the Discerner inside it. That made her dislike it more. She huffed and started down the steps, sizing up the door at the bottom, set halfway under the street. As if it wanted to hide itself fully, but couldn’t quite justify it. The paint, discoloured by the sun, was peeling off. She wondered what she would say.
The handle was cold under her fingers, the sun not yet having touched the metal. The door said, skree. Ava looked at it. She went through it and shut it behind her and blinked into the dark hallway.
"This way." The voice was round, very round and deep. It didn’t sound quite human, but Ava thought it also sounded like someone had tried very hard to make it sound that way. She squinted dubiously down the narrow hall to her right, where the voice had come from, until her eyes adjusted. She still couldn’t see much, but she could walk down the hall without crashing into the stacks of curious objects on either side. She glared at them. She liked curious objects. She liked strange, dim houses with narrow, cluttered hallways. And she liked mysterious carved doors that let out heavy incense when she opened them.
She just didn’t like these particular ones.
The Discerner sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, draped in various materials, hung with strange jewelry. The room was huge, the ceiling soaring. Two storeys worth of windows fit inside, dim light filtering through their layers of curtain. Candles flickered everywhere.
"Shut the door behind you, child."
The Discerner stared straight into Ava’s eyes, never blinking. Ava stared stubbornly back, and flicked the door shut. She wondered where the incense was venting out; it would have been much heavier and more cloying if it was confined to this room.
The Discerner’s head tilted to one side, very slightly. "Come closer."
Ava crossed her arms, still staring into those unsettling eyes. Supposedly the Discerner could only see inside a person through touch, but you never knew.
"No." Ava wanted to say more, but she wasn’t sure what, and she was interested to see how the Discerner would take this. Had anyone said no before?
Apparently unfazed, the Discerner’s stare did not waver. "You hesitate to learn your purpose."
The voice was very good, Ava had to admit. Everything about the Discerner made you think you had probably better listen, because you could never be so wise and intelligent as that. Ava didn’t trust it, but it was tempting.
She considered her next words. "I don’t hesitate," she said decidedly. "I refuse." Her own voice was thin and small in the big room, but she was proud of the little stubborn spark in it.
The Discerner replied slowly, syllable by syllable. "I offer you the true purpose of your life, your path forward, your suspicions confirmed, your doubts settled, your mark easily made, and you refuse."
Ava couldn’t read anything of the Discerner’s reaction to this in that voice. Every word was spoken straight, just as it was. A word meaning only that word.
"I don’t want it to be easy." Ava didn’t break the intense gaze between them. "I want to slip and fall and get up and try again. I don’t want to know my purpose, I want to find it."
"You know the risks. You might search forever, and die before you find a thing." It wasn’t a question. Somehow, the Discerner knew she knew. Ava nodded.
"Very well. Leave me. Tell them your purpose is to search. Tell them I told you so, and they won’t question it."
Ava was thrown. She hadn’t expected it to be that easy. She hesitated, then asked, "Really?"
The Discerner blinked slowly, the first blink. The first break of eye contact, and yet, it didn’t feel broken. "You’re one of the easy ones," the Discerner said, the faintest smile tugging at mouth corners. "You know your purpose already. You understand the path of life."
Ava was beginning to feel she had been tricked. "No, I don’t know my purpose!" she said. "That’s the whole point!"
The Discerner smiled for real this time, a grin that split and spilled sunlight. "Exactly."