Buza System is Dyan's world. She has been a Crecheling, one of the System's children, trained in a broad range of skills and knowledge and prepared to take her place as an Urbane, a full-fledged adult member of the desert community with a Calling given her by the System and its Cogitant Council. Between receiving her Calling and admission into the System, though, stand the Hanging and the Selection. The System has a lesson it wants to teach Dyan about death. Against that brutal experience, and entwined within it, destiny has a different lesson for her, about the family she has never known… and about love. Crecheling is book one of The Buza System, a dark science fiction tale for young adults and other readers set in the crumbling ruins and blasted deserts of a future in which all people are not created equal and control is exerted by savage rituals of blood.
"I've read several of Butler's works, and this is clear: the guy can write. But with Crecheling he proves that he can WRITE."– Amazon Review
"D.J. Butler deftly combines some of the best elements of recent YA literature to create a stirring world and a conflicted heroine worthy of a series. One is not going to be enough!"– Amazon Review
Dyan walked to the Hanging with a spring in her step.
She wasn't happy, exactly, but she was excited. Proud. Eager. No, she admitted to herself, she was happy, too.
The summer was fading fast into autumn, pulling down red and gold leaves in heavy sheets from the trees all along the Buza River, along the side of which Dyan walked with her Crechemates. Buza's sun-browned Gardeners dragged rakes through the yellow and crimson carpet, gathering the leaves up to take them off and burn them somewhere. Dyan knew they weren't Urbanes, and she wondered where they were from.
The Gardeners nodded as the Creche-Leavers passed, without raising their heads or meeting the youths' gaze.
"You're disappointed," Shad said. He had a deep, manly voice and had had it for several years. When he'd first stopped sounding like a boy and started sounding like one of the Magisters, it had been funny. Dyan didn't find it amusing anymore. It excited her. She looped one hand inside Shad's elbow to show just how much she didn't find his deep voice funny. He grinned at her, square-jawed and strong, with just a hint of asymmetry in his nose and one eyebrow that tugged perpetually upward, like it felt compelled to go exploring in his slightly shaggy hairline, and then turned his attention back to Deek. "I get it," he told his skinnier, big-eyed Crechemate. "You thought they'd want you for a Cogitant, and you're disappointed."
Deek shook his head so vigorously it looked like a spasm, and kicked at a pile of leaves a young Gardener was shaping into a hump under a cottonwood tree. The Gardener's eyes flashed briefly, but one of his companions, an older man, stepped between him and the Creche-Leavers, hiding him and cutting him off.
"I'm okay being a Mechanical," Deek said. He held several rectangular chits of Scrip loosely in one hand and rattled them together. "The Council and the Magisters know what they're doing. They know what the System needs right now. Besides, no one ever gets Called as a Cogitant. Not right out of the Creche."
"I'm much better than okay," Cheela said, flashing her flawless white teeth and throwing back her shoulders in a way that threw her breasts forward. Dyan forced herself not to look at Shad to see exactly what he might be looking at. Cheela was taller than her and had perfect coffee-brown skin and hair that fell in rings onto her shoulders and down her back. "This is perfect. I always wanted to be an Outrider."
She already looked the part, in the travel gear she had taken to wearing even before the Magister had handed them their Lot Letters that morning. She had the hat, broad to keep the sun from her eyes, and a long coat and boots, slightly too much clothing for this day that was still on the heels of summer and warm. She wore her whip-handle openly on her belt, and had strapped a bola to each thigh. The only piece of the Outrider's traditional garb she wasn't wearing, other than the badge, was the large bandanna. Of course not, Dyan thought. That would cover her cleavage.
Dyan forced herself to smile.
She and Shad were not Love-Matched—they couldn't be, until they were fully out of the Creche and had become full Urbanes—but she liked him and she knew he liked her. After all, he had said he wanted to tell her something this morning.
"Nice hat, 'rider," Wayland quipped.
"Thank you," Cheela said, "or blast you, depending on how seriously you meant that."
"When have I ever not been serious?" Wayland protested. Dyan and her Crechemates walked towards Rose Plaza at a leisurely pace designed to accommodate Wayland. He was heavy, and walked slow.
"This morning," Dyan reminded him. "When Magister Zarah offered you your Lot Letter and you told her no thanks, you'd already had yours, you had been asked to join the Council."
"I was close," Wayland said. He wiped sweat from his balding head, which was slick and glistened in the morning sunshine.
"Healer isn't half close to Cogitant," Deek grumbled, shaking his head quickly again.
"Come on, you Landsy," Wayland argued. "It's at least half."
"Two weeks ago," Shad added, "when you pretended you were sick during lessons so you could sneak back into our dormitory and remake my bunk, with the sheets shortened."
"Hey, are you still holding a grudge about that?" Wayland asked. "I had no idea your sheets were so rotten that you'd kick your feet right through them."
"No," Shad agreed, "but you laughed pretty hard when I did."
"Besides," Wayland shrugged, "I gave you my sheets."
"I know," Shad muttered darkly, scratching himself under one arm. "I'm still delousing myself."
"This morning," Cheela threw in. "When you filled my boots with oat porridge." She put her hand on a whip, and Dyan's eyebrows both shot reflexively up her forehead. Cheela had to be joking, of course. The monofilament whip was one of the Urbanes' most deadly weapons. Using it without justification, and especially on a fellow Urbane, was a serious, serious crime. A criminal of almost any sort would be hung, but a whip-murderer would be publicly tortured first.
"Cheela …" Dyan said.
Wayland threw his arms wide. "Why would you think that I had anything to do with that?"
"How could he even get into the girls' sleeping rooms, anyway?" Deek pointed out. His voice whistled a little bit, through the nose, which it always did when he got nervous.
Shad chuckled. "You'd be surprised."
"Yes," Wayland said, straight-faced. "How could I even get into the dormitories while they were actually full of sleeping girls and put a full bowl of porridge into each of the freshly-polished riding boots standing side-by-side in your closet? You know I have no access, and besides, I was running endless miles up and down the Camel's Back."
He winked at Dyan.
For a moment, Dyan thought Cheela would kill Wayland then and there. She drifted off Shad's elbow, moving to be able to jump in between them. Though that would be pointless, since the whip would slice her and Wayland in half simultaneously just as easily as it would slice through Wayland alone.
But then Cheela moved her hand away from the whip and relaxed her scowl into a grin. "You're just not worth it, Wayland," she said. "Tomorrow, fellow Outrider Shad and I will be roaming the Wahai and the Snaik in search of runaway Landsmen and other outlaws, and you and your juvenile pranks will be nothing but a memory."
"Until you get bitten by a rattler." Wayland beamed. "Or crushed in a fall or stabbed by one of the outlaws. And then I will be thrilled to exercise my Calling in your aid."
"Not tomorrow," Dyan objected, hating all the images that Cheela's words conjured in her mind. "After the Selection."
Shad squeezed her hand but didn't look at her. "There are lots of Outriders," he said to Cheela, "and lots of Squads. I don't think they'd put two new Creche-Leavers on the same Squad."
"However much they might both want it," Cheela snapped. Shad looked away and kept walking, but Cheela caught Dyan's eye, just for a moment. She had a flare in her gaze that might have been triumph.
The Greenbelt Path they'd been following, a dimpled strip of rubberized ceramic that ran all along Buza River through thick trees, stopped at the edge of Capitol Boulevard. It was a path their Magisters used to teach them the basics of Buza System geography, and this was the first time they had walked it unaccompanied.
Capitol was broad and busy with motion. Shad barely looked both ways for wagon traffic before dragging Dyan into the street, weaving in and out among horses as their Crechemates followed.
He pulled up sharply just out of hoof-reach but within range of the fierce stare of a Guardsman. The Guardsman was armed, not only with monofilament whip and bolas, but also with knives, and a long sword at his hip that must be a vibro-blade. A bow and quiver of arrows hung attached to the side of his saddle, behind his hip, and the tabard on his chest bore the symbol of Buza System officialdom, a stylized tree with five arms. He snorted at the youths, chucked at his big roan horse and pulled its reins, making it step around Shad as Shad tipped his head in deference.
"What I want to know," Deek said, bumping into Dyan's back and clattering to a halt, "is what kind of Mechanical I'll be. I mean, I accept that I have to be specialized, but if I'm going to do just one thing for the rest of my life I want to do something really cool."
"Like hydroponics," Wayland puffed, catching up.
Deek shot him a glare like a rattlesnake. "Do I look like a Landsman?" he snorted.
"Weapons?" Shad asked mildly, pulled at Dyan's hand again to lead them all forward.
"Meta-Systems," Dyan guessed. "You want to know how Buza works."
Deek blushed, pointing his beaky nose and emerald eyes at his walking slippers. "Well, yeah," he admitted. "If that's not too much like being a Cogitant."
"I don't think so." Dyan smiled at her Crechemate, and he smiled shyly back.
"No, the thing that's too much like being a Cogitant," Cheela said, with a sharp edge to her voice, "is Magister."
Dyan shrugged and tried to pretend there wasn't envy in Cheela's words. "Hey, I'll probably get a Creche straight out of the Nursery," she said mildly. "I'll be wiping snot out of babies' noses and pulling them out of Buza River while you're chasing rustlers and runaways in the Wahai. I might not even really leave the Creche. Doesn't sound much like a Cogitant to me." But she had a warm feeling as she said the words.
"Kind of it does," Deek muttered.
Cheela smiled teeth. "I'll dedicate my second kill to you," she offered, "my lowly Magister friend. My first kill, of course, I'll have to dedicate to my Crechemate Shad."
"Kill or capture," Shad reminded her. "Kill or capture."
They reached the far side of Capitol's broad lanes and found Magister Zarah waiting. Around and beyond her, foot traffic continued to flow upstream along Buza River, into Rose Plaza where the Gallows Tree was. The sun was in its afternoon zenith and uncomfortably warm, and Dyan envied neither Cheela in her hat and coat nor the Magister in her ankle-length black cloak.
"You're almost late, children," Zarah said. Her face was stern, its usual expression, made sterner by the way she wore her iron-gray hair back in a bun at the nape of her neck and wore no cosmetics. Dyan thought of herself as sparing in the use of make-up, and even she had painted her lips.
Wayland grinned. "Isn't almost late better than almost on time?"
Zarah arched an eyebrow at him and turned to walk into Rose Plaza.
"Why are we children?" Dyan asked. "We've had our Lot Letters."
"You're not Blooded yet," Magister Zarah said. She seemed unusually terse, so Dyan let the matter drop.
"After the Hanging, then," Cheela said with satisfaction.
The Magister didn't answer.
Rose Plaza lay along Buza River in the heart of the System. It was a large array of rose bushes of every color, part of the Garden, arranged in a symmetrical pattern that wasn't a maze but vaguely hinted at one. In the center of the Garden was the Yard, in the center of which stood the Gallows Tree, a five-armed scaffold, arms pointing out and spaced evenly around the central column. The Gallows Tree was the image reproduced on the Guardsmen's tabards, in the badges of the Outriders, on the medallion that every Magister wore on her or his breast, and anywhere else the Council and Buza System needed to mark its most solemn authority.
On every day of the year but four, the Garden was open to any Urbane who wanted to take a stroll, and Dyan and her Crechemates had taken many lessons from Magister Zarah there. In the grassy fields beyond the Garden, the Greenbelt, they had even practiced with whip and bola, a fact that explained many of the tree stumps, scarred limbs and blasted patches of grass-less earth along Buza River. On those four days, though, the Yard was off-limits. No one physically blocked access, but Crechelings were taught from a very young age that they were not permitted access to the Yard until they were Creche-Leavers, and then only on one day a quarter.
Dyan followed Magister Zarah past two tabard-empowered Guards, who frowned at the Creche-Leavers but nodded them through. Crowds filled the grassy spaces in the Garden and the ceramic paths, all facing inward towards the Tree, but at the sight of Magister Zarah's cloak and medallion of office and her five charges in tow, the crowd parted to let them pass.
At the front of the crowd, arrayed in a ring around the Gallows Tree, were knots of Creche-Leavers, each with an accompanying Magister. Zarah stopped.
"I guess we get a front-row seat." Cheela smiled like she was talking about getting the drumstick off a game bird. "Just this once."
"Hopefully just this once," Wayland said softly. "The other front row seats look a lot less comfortable." He nodded at the Gallows Tree itself.
Five condemned criminals stood on the platform of the Tree, one under each arm. They wore white trousers and tunics, and Dyan recognized none of them. There was no reason she should, of course. She knew the Magisters she had had during her life, and other Crechelings, Urbanes who were important enough to have been identified to her by her Magisters and guest instructors in the Creche. None of those people was likely to be standing on the Gallows Tree. Still, the sight of women and men with nooses around their necks and armed Guards behind them, as prepared as Dyan had thought she was for it, unsettled her.
"Magister," someone said behind her.
Zarah didn't move.
Magister Zarah stood motionless, staring at the Tree. Dyan tugged respectfully at her cloak, but she stayed frozen.
"Magister!" A Guardsman struggled to push past the Creche-Leavers. "You're blocking the path!"
Magister Zarah snapped out of her reverie. "Come, children," she said, and started moving again. She led them across the Yard, close enough to the Tree that Dyan could have touched it if she'd wanted to, and into a vacant spot between two other Creches.
Shad nodded at other Creche-Leavers he knew well, from the boys' dormitory and from various joint exercises, and former Crechemates. Dyan knew others, too, especially other girls, but she couldn't look at them. Electricity held her captive, a jolt of something that seemed to flow out of the Tree itself and sting her in her heart and stomach. It was the realization of the moment, the delivery of the promise of the morning's nerves and excitement. Maybe that was what had made Magister Zarah pause, too, she thought.
Maybe that was how death always was.
She knew, in a way that she suspected her Crechemates did not, that she was being brought here this day to confront the great mystery of death, and thereby become an adult. She thought that her sense of this necessity, and her Crechemates' obliviousness to it, was why she had been Called in her Lot Letter to be a Magister, and they had been summoned to other occupations. Not less important Callings, not less worthy ones, but roles that weren't so entwined with the growth of the soul, weren't so tightly wound into the fabric of the family that was Buza System.
She trembled, though the sun's rays were warm on her skin.
The Hangman pushed through the ring of Creche-Leavers and climbed the wooden steps onto the Gallows Tree's platform. The Hangman was a woman, burly and square. She wore a Guardsman's tabard, but her face was obscured by a hood, like a sack over her head, with holes for eyes.
She passed the lever that operated all five traps and stepped to the edge of the platform.
At the sight of her, all the crowd's ordinary murmur and rumble ceased, as if its collective windpipe had suddenly been stoppered.
"These five criminals die!" she shrieked. Her voice was surprisingly shrill, coming out of her barrel-like body. Shaped ceramic walls at the edges of the Plaza bounced the sound back so that everyone could hear her words, but Dyan had no need. She stood directly in front of the Hangman, and in her imagination the hooded eyes looked right at her.
Then she heard a tune.
"Death shows no mercy!" the Hangman continued. "The System can afford no remorse!"
Tension rippled through the crowd. Dyan looked at Magister Zarah, looking for an example of how she should hold herself for this experience. Expecting dignity and reserve, she was shocked to see a tortured look on the Magister's face and a single tear on her cheek.
Was this the reaction that was expected of her, too? She realized, to her surprise, that she felt a thick lump in her throat. Her eyes stung and she looked away. She looked randomly at anything, trying not to see the Tree and the condemned man on it, and when she looked into the crowd she found herself looking into a stranger's face.
The woman wore a Magister's robe and medallion. Her jowls and nose drooped in a matronly way, and one eye fluttered slightly. It was not a strange or a frightening face, but where every other face in sight was turned towards the tree, this unknown Magister focused squarely on Dyan.
Beside the Magister stood a man, and the sight of him made Dyan's breath catch in her throat. His face alone was striking—he was tall, with a strong, pointed nose and smallish ears—but that wasn't what caught Dyan's attention. The man wore a white tunic and trousers, and Dyan thought, seeing him in the Yard, how similar that clothing made him look to the condemned criminals. The difference was that on his chest, in black, was emblazoned the sign of the tree, and around his shaved head he wore a tight-fitting silver circlet, like a plain ring just above his thick eyebrows.
He was a Cogitant, a member of the Council. Dyan had never seen one of them so close, and this man stared at her.
And his eyes and face were cold.
Dyan heard the melody again, and she realized that one of the condemned criminals was whistling. She looked back at the Tree, which was the source of the melody, and then stared even harder. She hadn't noticed it before, but the man about to die looked familiar. He was a tall man, slightly stooped, with a thin beard. He looked out into space and whistled his tune.
And then Dyan realized she had heard the melody before. She felt her heart beat faster. What was that? She ran through all the songs she knew from the Creche in her head, martial songs, marches, hymns, nursery rhymes … none of them matched the melody, the familiarity of which now seemed eerie, haunting.
"These die, but the System lives!"
Was that it? Maybe Dyan didn't know the man at all, but she had heard the melody before, and in recognizing it she had convinced herself that she recognized him.
Dyan sniffed. She looked up at Magister Zarah in time to see another tear fall.
Then, with a loud CHUNK! the Hangman pulled her lever.
The condemned fell.