When John is young, before he goes to school, or is old enough to realize that most people sleep through the whole night and don’t get up at four in the morning to eat toast, his mother tells him stories in the dark. They lie curled together on John’s bed, foreheads almost touching, breathing at each other the scents of butter and strawberry jam and crumbs, and John closes his eyes and listens as his mother paints pictures with her voice.
“Once upon a time,” she says, sounding for a moment as if she might laugh, “In a place no one remembers any more, there was an ocean. And in the middle of that ocean was a city, the most beautiful city ever seen, full of scholars and magicians who were the loveliest that ever lived.” And John imagines a city that looks like a sand castle, and people that look just like his mother, because there is no one prettier.
She tells him stories about the people who lived in the city, people with strange names that eventually become as familiar to him as his own: Moros, Oma Desala, Janus, Ganos Lal, Anantha. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes foolish things. Occasionally they are wise. They break rules to save people, and often escape unscathed. Often, but not always.
“There are always consequences,” she tells John when he protests Moros’s exile. “He knew that when he chose to act.” And John subsides into mutinous silence because he both does and doesn’t want to hear how it ends. He’s learned a little about how unfair life can be, has grown used to being the odd one out, has had to say goodbye too many times.
As he grows older the stories spill over into the books he reads for school. Moros becomes Merlin, and John comes close to tears when Arthur’s kingdom, Merlin’s dream, falls apart. He clutches the promise of REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS to him like a talisman, and every morning, in the bleak hours before the bus arrives, his mother tells him stories of heroes rescued even from death.
The kids at school talk about Batman and Superman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and he picks up enough to fake his way through the conversations—there’s never enough money for him to buy any comic books, but sometimes he manages to wheedle Bobby into lending him old issues. Batman is pretty cool, though not as inventive as Janus, and now sometimes it’s John telling tales in the dark. His mother laughs at him sometimes, but mostly she listens in flattering silence.
Once he learns the trick of being friendly without actually being friends, school is a lot easier—it’s almost too easy, sometimes, but his family moves often enough that he never has time to get bored. It’s a little lonely, but he’s never really known anything else.
And then his mother is sick.
(Later, he would sometimes dream of a city like a snowflake, made of snow and ice, but empty, and cold like Antarctica. There was never any blood, though, or dead bodies, and that made it a good dream.)