Kierah felt like a piece of lint that didn’t belong in the pristine auditorium.
Despite spending the night in the most comfortable bed she’d ever lain in, she hadn’t been able to sleep, and after Terula’s scrubbing and primping and fussing, she felt as squeaky and sterile as the white plastark walls of the prison cell had been. The dress, albeit pretty, was tight — the shoes, cramped and impossible to walk in comfortably — the hair piled on her head like a sculpture, and nearly as heavy.
She looked up, intimidated by the sheer size of the place. Everything at the palace was huge. The rows of slate-gray seats stretched back from the stage like waves on an ocean; the screen that would display an enlarged projection of the speaker rose three stories high.
At least she wasn’t alone. Dozens of others filed into the room with her, in an orderly, silent line as they had been instructed. Row by row, the well-dressed attendees filled the chairs.
Even if she could have seen their faces, it wouldn’t have done her any good; she didn’t know anyone in the palace. Only Royals and Nobles lived there, and she was nowhere near their level.
Ahead of her, between the seating area and the podium, the press was settling in. Reporters, cameramen, lighting specialists, photographers — and with them, all their equipment, microphones, notescreens, tripods, recorders, cameras, lights — getting ready to stage a full-scale production. Whatever the prince was going to say, the entire country was going to hear it.
Just as her section of the line was about to reach the seats, a commotion broke out between two of the ushers directing the people where to sit.
“There was a change, I told you that!” one said, aggravated. “There are five now.”
“But we only have enough seats for groups of four,” the other protested.
“That’s why you were supposed to rearrange the seating plan.”
She didn’t know what the disagreement was about, but it made her more nervous than she already was. After a short delay to shift everyone back a row to adjust for the seating miscalculation, she finally arrived at her chair, nearly collapsing into it as her wobbly legs gave way. Grateful to be off her feet, she took the chance to discreetly look around. The woman sitting to her right looked tired, and a bit bored. How could she be bored at a time like this?
Rolling her eyes, Kierah tried her left. It was difficult to look sideways without looking like she was looking sideways, but she managed it just enough to see that the man was big, burly and with a bit of a beer belly underneath a frilled white shirt and dark jacket. Something about his profile looked familiar, she realized, but she quickly turned away. She couldn’t know anyone here. This was the palace. She was the one who didn’t belong here.
It took almost a full hour more before anything else happened. By then, she was fully sharing her right neighbor’s boredom. But finally, the lights readjusted to highlight the podium, and the prince strode out across the stage. His suit, his gait, his high chin, the angle of his head — he was every bit a politician with a speech to give.
With him came an older man, just as straight and tall as he was. He looked just like the prince, with a few decades added. It was the king, Kierah knew.
Following them was a small entourage of what looked like military officers. Those men lined up along the back of the stage, while the king paused behind the microphone, and the prince stood beside him.
“Hello, everyone,” the king began, his voice surrounding the room through the sound system. “Thank you all for coming today. I called this press conference in order to announce the commencement of a groundbreaking new project for Encidas, and for Trythia.
“Credit for this project goes to my son, Terzahn, so I will allow him to explain to you just what he has planned.”
The recording equipment jostled around in front of him, fighting to get a good angle. The rest of the room was completely silent.
“Thank you, Father,” the prince shook his king’s hand, as the elder gave him the stage. The younger Royal adjusted his collar, flashing a wide smile at the cameras.
“As High Prince of Trythia,” he began, leaning both hands on the ends of the podium, “I am very proud of our country. I am proud of the opportunities afforded to our citizens, of the freedoms we enjoy, of the quality of representation we receive in our government. I am proud of the progress we see in our economy, in science, in medicine, in construction developments — advancements in every area of Trythian life. We are at the peak of an amazing era of growth and prosperity, even as we have maintained peace with Etrusia these last few years.
“Of all of this, I, as well as my father,” he nodded to the older man behind him, “are proud beyond words.
“However,” he paused, looking around the room, “there is one thing I am not proud of. One thing I regret.” His eyes were dark, his voice low. “Despite the advancements we see throughout the country, there is one thing that remains unaffected by this progress.
“While innovation has taken off with blinding speed in almost every area of the country, the Ends of our cities have not reaped the benefits of development. While wealth has grown, and the economy prospers, the people of the Ends still suffer in poverty every day.”
He stopped for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Kierah watched him, wondering where he was going with this — and what it had to do with her.
“But I have a plan,” he began again. “I wish to help the Enders, to give them an opportunity to live as their fellow Trythians do. I wish to find a way to bring them back into the company of their neighbors, for them to not have to live every day in fear of violence, or wondering where they are going to sleep, or struggling to get something to eat. They deserve better than that.”
No one in the room said anything, but there was a distinct shuffling as the audience began to take interest.
The Royals never paid any attention to the Ends. The stratification of classes was strictly enforced, a hard line that wasn’t crossed, wasn’t touched, wasn’t even looked at. And yet here was the prince, a Royal, speaking about not only the suffering of the Enders, but a desire to do something about it.
That never, ever happened. The press knew it as well as the audience did, and shifted a bit closer to the stage, eager to capture every second of this historic moment.
“But helping them is not accomplished by simply offering them jobs or providing new homes for them. It is not that easy,” the prince continued.
“It is well known that people coming from different backgrounds often have different ways of looking at things,” he said. “People who grow up in one culture have certain traits embedded in them that could prevent them from being accepted in other societies.
“So it is with Enders. It would be a simple thing to just hand out new jobs and transport all of them to better sections of their cities. But once they get to that new job — once they live in the new neighborhood — how will they behave there? They have spent their entire lives on the streets; do we really think it is possible for them to change from that mindset just because their surroundings change?
“Well,” he looked around the room again, his gaze settling beyond the reporters onto the audience sitting in front of him, “I am determined to find out. Before you, sit sixty-five Enders, here in this very room.”
The surprise rippling through the auditorium was audible. A gasp rose up not just from the press, but from the audience as well — the audience that was composed entirely of Enders.
The words fell on Kierah like rain, subtly at first, but gaining intensity as the layers of meaning sank in, soaking into her. Enders. She couldn’t tell if the catch in her throat was one of joy or of fear.
Everyone was looking around shamelessly now. That man to her left, the one who had looked remotely familiar — she turned sideways, not trying to hide it this time. Recognition hit her.
“Allin?” she whispered.
He saw her, and a wrinkle of effort creased his forehead, trying to place her face. “You — worked at Sirvan’s place —”
That catch in her throat almost choked her. Her mind was racing almost too fast for her to keep up. Allin had disappeared — no trace, no evidence — two others before him — she strained to see who sat next to him. A woman, a young man. Could they be Tam and Glim? That meant — no, it couldn’t.
She could barely hold herself together, afraid to look any farther. Could that dark hair beyond the young man be — should she even dare to hope? She had to know. Leaning forward, she caught a glimpse of a face, so painted in makeup, framed by perfect ringlets and cascading earrings that it looked more like a doll than a human being — but she knew. The doll looked toward her, their eyes met. Widened.
The prince’s voice rang out clear and strong over the quiet commotion, calling all attention back to himself. To the Enders’ credit, Kierah thought, they all fell into line again fairly quickly, for people not used to taking orders.
But she had a hard time sitting still. Her best friend was — alive. And not only alive — but in the palace —
“Yes, I know this is not protocol,” the prince was saying. “But nevertheless, here they are. Sixty-five Enders. Four from each of the four Ends of each of the four Cities. For those of you doing the math, that’s only sixty-four — yes, we had a special added guest at the last minute,” he smiled, “just as much a part of this experiment as the rest.”
Kierah frowned. A special guest? She was about to wonder who that was, when she realized there were already Allin, Tam, Glim and Zera from her own East Ends. That was four. Did that mean she was the fifth, and an extra — But no. She hadn’t been found in the East Ends. It had been, according to that little kid Rothan, the West Ends where she had been picked up. The prince was still talking. Brushing aside the question of where she fit into all this, she tried to listen.
“No, they don’t look like Enders now,” the prince continued. “This past week, they have been treated to the very best clothes, food, and luxuries this palace has to offer. They look nothing like they did when I met them on the streets of Encidas and the other three Cities a few short days ago.
“But this outer transformation is just the beginning. This is exactly what I meant when I spoke of taking the Ender out of the streets — they have been cleaned up, well fed, well taken care of. But the question of taking the streets out of the Ender — is such a thing possible?
“That has yet to be determined.”
Kierah was trying to pay attention. This was probably very important, but her mind wasn’t fully cooperating. The prince had taken Zera. Not a murderer. Not a slaver. The prince.
The prince cleared his throat, looking deliberately at the cameras.
“We have seen how a few days in good care can clean up rugged exteriors. I suggest that we continue to help these Enders, but to now go beyond a hot bath and a square meal — to now focus on developing character traits, behaviors, outlooks. If we can give them the opportunity and the tools to learn proper etiquette, polite behavior, socially acceptable attitudes, then we can see if they are indeed capable of changing — we can see if the streets can indeed be taken out of them.”
He looked back at the sixty-five. “I have brought you here,” he addressed them directly, “because I need your help. Without your participation in this study, we will not be able to understand how to best help you and your fellow Enders. It is my hope that all of you will be willing to assist me in this quest toward equality for all Trythians.”
This was really happening. He was breaking all class boundaries, just because he could. And the king was on board. He was going to give the Enders a chance, when they’d never had a chance before. And he had chosen Kierah and Zera to be part of it.
The prince was still talking, but she wasn’t paying attention anymore. The fact that Zera was sitting three chairs over from her was just as overwhelming as the historic revelation unfolding before her.
Eventually, he wrapped up, and the reporters immediately broke out into a commotion, shouting questions at him and his father and clamoring for a moment to speak. But with polite smiles, they simply turned around and walked back off the stage.
As they did, the Enders erupted into their own frenzy. Now that they knew who they had been sitting next to, there were shouts and cries and reunions breaking out across the auditorium. The mysterious disappearances, apparently, hadn’t just been relegated to the East Ends of Encidas.
Kierah was on her feet like everyone else, fighting to get through to where Zera had been sitting. Tam recognized Allin, and the two of them were talking rapidly to each other, occupying enough of the aisle width to make passage difficult. They didn’t notice Kierah. She squeezed around their sizable girth, holding her breath in anticipation. On the other side was a black-haired boy that must have been Glim, engaged in conversation with the doll-like girl sitting next to him.
Kierah broke free of the older adults’ barrier with more momentum than she’d anticipated, sending her stumbling into Glim and his partner. The doll looked over at her, and despite their dresses and makeup and sculptured hair, recognition was instant.
That voice confirmed what Kierah had been almost too afraid to believe. Beneath the doll mask were Zera’s green eyes, her perfect nose, her lips open in a cry of excitement.
Both girls squealed like children and threw their arms around each other, heedless of everything else. Glim backed off as the questions and tears and laughter flowed.
“It’s you — it’s really you — you’re all right!” Kierah cried, barely pulling away from the hug to catch her breath. “You have no idea how terrified I was for you!”
“I know, can you believe it?” Zera laughed merrily. “I can’t believe you’re here, too! This whole thing is such a huge surprise, and it just keeps getting better!”
“I thought I’d never see you again!”
“Me too! I thought I was the only one here!”
“So did I. I think we all thought that,” she gestured toward the crowd, but didn’t take her eyes off Zera, as if she was afraid she’d disappear again.
“How did you get here?”
Kierah shook her head, trying to temper the giddiness. She was too worked up to be able to string a narrative together coherently, so she brushed the question aside. “Long story,” she smiled. “What about you?”
Zera blushed, radiant through the makeup. “It seems so long ago — I can’t believe it was only a few days! I — I just woke up that morning, I wanted to let you sleep so I went out to get breakfast, and when I was out, these guards pulled up — and he was with them, the prince was with them! He asked me if I would come back with him, to the — to the palace. I still can’t believe it’s true!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kierah asked, still smiling. “Why didn’t you come back, just to let me know at least?”
“I don’t think he would have let me.”
Her smile faltered. “You don’t think? You mean you didn’t ask?”
“Kierah, it was the prince!” Zera glowed. “The palace! I just — I could barely think straight enough to walk without falling down.”
Kierah’s giddiness lessened a notch. “But after a while, didn’t — didn’t you know I’d be worried sick?”
“But I’m fine!”
The doll eyes were still shining. “Oh Kierah, you poor thing! I’m sorry!” She leaned over to hug Kierah again.
Kierah let herself be pulled in, the shadow of a grin lingering on her face. Her mind clouded with hesitation, but she tried to brush it away. Zera had always been the less responsible of the two of them; Kierah couldn’t really have expected her to think about anyone other than herself in a situation like this. She should know better.
But it still didn’t sit right, somehow.
Was this how all the Enders were chosen: Taken, whisked away without any chance to tell those left behind where they went? Most didn’t have families, but they did have friends, or at least people who knew them. Those friends would have been worried sick — Kierah knew from experience. Even now, that worry would still have a few more days to fester: It would take time before news of the project — and the list of participants — would reach the Ends, seeing as no one there owned a telescreen, and with few exceptions public billboards were located only in the Middles and above.
How much longer would the people back home have to wait before realizing that those missing were not only not dead, but living a better life than any of them could have imagined?
Was this what the prince had orchestrated?
Really, though, it didn’t much matter, she tried to tell herself. Dramatics was usually Zera’s department, not hers — and at the moment, Zera seemed to be handling this better than she was. Maybe she just needed to take a step back, stop overthinking it. The prince had everything under control.
Why didn’t that make her feel better?
– – –—– – – –
It had only been a few hours, but felt immeasurably longer.
Kierah was back in her room after the announcement and its subsequent dinner and socializing, and felt exhausted. Physically tired, yes, but it was as if her mind had been stretched like a rubber band, and suddenly let go. Emotionally, she felt limp.
Slumping into a chair, she kicked off the awkward shoes and pulled off the jewelry, wishing she had a clue how to begin dismantling her hairstyle. All she wanted to do was sleep for a week.
A knock on the door reminded her that that wouldn’t be likely.
“Come in,” she called, trying not to sound as drained as she felt.
The maid opened the door and peeked in. “I don’t mean to disturb you, dear, but the prince has distributed your schedules for the next several weeks. I thought you might like to see it tonight before you turn in.”
“Schedules,” Kierah repeated, trying to force her mind to work. “Yeah, why not — er, I mean,” she caught the casual tone in her voice, and tried to compensate. “I mean, thank you, yes, that would be, um, most … appreciated?”
Terula smiled as she stepped fully into the room. “Now, no need to try to sound all fancy to me, Miss Kierah. If they want you to talk like a high-class lady, they’ll teach you how, I have no doubt. But when you’re around me, I expect you to be yourself and nobody else, you hear?”
Kierah stared at the little woman in front of her.
“I mean it now,” Terula said, her voice almost scolding. “You’ll be under enough pressure the rest of the time, sure enough, by the looks of this schedule,” she nodded toward the notescreen in her hand. “I think you deserve somewhere you don’t have to worry about being graded and evaluated. So if it’s all right with you, I’d just as soon have that ‘somewhere’ be right here in your own room. Fair enough?”
Kierah blinked. It was more than fair. Frankly, it was opposite everything she expected, based on the past few hours.
“If that’s how you want it,” Kierah answered, “I’m, uh, I’m totally okay with that.” She decided she liked this woman.
“Well, I’m glad we agree,” the maid beamed. “Now, let’s get this schedule out of the way.”
So they did. Kierah listened as the maid read off the prince’s plan for the sixty-five. From the sound of things, they were going to be schooled from the ground up, in everything from reading and basic mathematics, to etiquette classes, driving and flying lessons, archery, combat, fashion, politics, speaking, social interaction —
In between classes, they were also scheduled to take trips visiting various national landmarks and historic sites.
“Sightseeing?” Kierah raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Well, I suppose it is sightseeing, now that you put it that way,” Terula replied, looking down at the screen. “They’ll be getting you familiar with important places in the country, cultural places, economic places — there’s a whole list here of things you’ll see. The point, I would guess, is to make you well-rounded citizens. Nothing gets a lesson through your head quite like seeing it in person.”
“And we start tomorrow?”
Terula nodded. “Bright and early.”
Kierah tried to run her hand through her hair, and almost got stuck in the hairdo. “Can’t wait…”
– – –—– – – –
Ari strode into the office, closing the door behind her. Gold letters on its glass pane announced “Editor,” in a style that was a throwback to the original newsrooms centuries ago.
Aside from those boxy characters, the rest of the room was up to modern standards, she thought. Then chuckled to herself. Yeah, right.
The old system of pens and paper might have been replaced by notescreens, and antique bulletin boards and televisions might have been taken off the walls in favor of 500-inch interactive panels — but nothing had been updated in at least a decade by now.
And in the fast-paced world of the media, a decade was a veritable lifetime. The panels’ network connections were getting slower by the day, and the notescreens’ old memory capacity couldn’t keep up with the amount of information reporters needed to process now.
Ari would have been willing to buy her own personal notescreen to use for work, but like the gold lettering on the editor’s office door, that was one thing that hadn’t changed over the years: Journalism wasn’t a field for those looking to rake in a fortune.
“You wanted to see me, boss?” she asked.
Mason wasn’t a big man, but he had an imposing presence. Leaning back behind his notescreen-buried desk, he eyed her sharply, attentive and observant as a hawk.
“Stern, what took you so long.”
It wasn’t meant to be answered. Ari was as used to his impatience by now as she was to being called by her last name.
“I’m pulling you off the Kumaari research project,” her boss stated flatly.
“What?” Her composure fizzled. Mason was about as blunt as he was impatient, but she wasn’t prepared for this one. “You can’t seriously pull me off — I’ve been working on it for five months now, and —”
“Five months ago, Hemeth wasn’t on maternity leave, and the prince hadn’t just announced some hairbrained idea of bringing Enders into the palace,” her boss monotoned. “Much as I think this whole thing is nothing but a publicity stunt, it’s by far the biggest story this year, possibly in our lifetime. We need this covered. And with Hemeth off having a baby, I need someone to take her palace beat.”
Ari clenched her jaw, but tried to listen to what he was saying. Dropping the Kumaari project was a blow, but if he was implying what she thought he was implying —
“I need someone with spunk, with –” he waved his hand in the air, as if trying to waft the word toward his mind. “Tenacity. The Royals and Nobles are a tricky breed to navigate around. Believe me, I’ve done it. And we won’t be the only news branch of Central crawling around there now — not with a story this big. The other Cities are gonna send their own teams, and I want mine to be the top of the pack. Encidas is my city, and no one will cover it like my team.
“I know you’re not my most experienced reporter by several dozen years. But you’ve got that tenacity, the kind that’ll prove itself in the line of live news. Research projects are great, but nothing lets you cut your teeth like getting out there in the middle of something.”
Ari swallowed. It wasn’t like him to elaborate quite that much, but when he did, people paid attention. She certainly was now.
“I need you to take that beat, Stern. Training’s over. Pack your things tonight; you start tomorrow at eight.”
Ari couldn’t do anything but agree. “You’re the boss. Wait, pack my things? Why?”
“This is going to be a constantly evolving story. I can’t very well have you wasting time coming back to the office to put your writings and clips together,” he shrugged. “There’s a media floor at the palace that we have access to. I expect you and the others to make use of it. Stories and footage need to be posted as they develop, so you can forget whatever you know about set deadlines. Deadline is as soon as the news happens, if not sooner.”
“Got it,” she nodded.
“Then get outta here,” he turned his attention to the pile of notescreens scattered across his desk. “You’ve got an early start tomorrow.”
She was dismissed. “Will do.” There was nothing else to say.
She backed toward the door, then stopped. There was something else. “Just one question.”
He glanced up with his eagle-sharp stare, but she wasn’t phased.
“What’s gonna happen with the Kumaari project?”
His stare was level, but his voice wasn’t as hard as it could have been. “The others will continue without you. I know this means a lot to you personally, but that’s also part of the reason I’m pulling you off it. I want my reporters to care about their work, but you’re becoming too emotionally invested in it that you’re losing your objectivity. You need this break, and I need a palace reporter.”
She felt herself turning red. “You know?”
Mason’s voice returned to its normal monotone. “Of course I know. You think I hire just anyone to this newsroom? It’s called a background check, Stern. Look it up.”
The conversation was officially over, and this time, Ari didn’t try to prolong it.
– – –—– – – –
The strap snaked through the air toward him. He cringed as it struck across his bare back, red rushing to the broken skin and his voice fleeing in an anguished cry. He was young still, too young to understand that his tears only fueled the attack.
Wait. No, that was a long time ago. Years. It seemed a lifetime away — and like it was just yesterday. He wasn’t that child anymore — he was older. Twenty-four? Twenty-six? What did it matter. Old enough to know not to cry.
Was this a memory?
Now he stood at the base of a wall of slate-colored stone, a cliff that disappeared into the blackness high above. Everything else around him was foggy, indiscernible. It was him, the cliff, and nothing else. He looked for a pick, something to attack the rough surface with, but found nothing.
Instead, he realized, the wall was cracking on its own. A gap shot up from the base, then branched out as it crawled up the sheer face, interconnecting like a web. He was frozen — mesmerized and terrified.
As he stared, the cracks took on a new life. They became more than just slits in stone; they were morphing into the whips from his past, multiplying, growing, eating into the rock.
The cliff would fall on him. He knew it. Yet he couldn’t run.
A whimper behind him made him look over his shoulder, and he saw the faces of the boys cowering a few feet away. All of them, Terrell, Jonah, Shalin, a dozen others. Teenagers; little ones. All younger than him. They looked as scared as he was, but unlike him, they had hope that someone would protect them.
That he would protect them.
He didn’t have the words to tell them he couldn’t.
The wall loomed over him, over all of them, a shadow. He braced himself. The whips, the parodesium — his past and his present, together, about to crush what little future he had left.
In a surge of despair, he opened his mouth, tried to scream — but his throat was empty, hollow.
Nothing came out. No one would have taken notice, even if it did.
No one knew he was down here. No one would have cared, even if they did.
The wall splintered. Shards of parodesium fell around him, small and sparse at first. Then the bigger pieces, raining like daggers. He didn’t run. He watched a slab crack off from high above, smaller flakes showering like sparks off an anvil. It hurtled toward him in slow motion. Its shadow hovered directly over him, growing, engulfing him.
This was it. He closed his eyes —
Breathless, he jerked awake. The wall, the avalanche — he looked around. They weren’t there. Just the boys, asleep in their little cots around him, and Jonah, keeping watch. And the silence.
He lay back down against the stiff bedding. Above him, the barracks’ ceiling was invisible in the blackness, as dark as his dream.
– – –—– – – –
The days flew by like something was chasing them.
Kierah and the other sixty-four Enders were learning more in that short time then they had in a lifetime before. Every morning, they sat through reading and writing classes, getting the basics under their belts. Once those skills were mastered, they would eventually graduate to more cultural training. But in the meantime, when they weren’t in classes and practice sessions, they were out on tours of life beyond the palace.
On those tours, they were to see all of Encidas — the side none of them, not even the Enders from that city, had seen before. According to the itineraries Terula described to Kierah, the trips were to cover the history in the libraries and the museums, the entertainment in the theaters and cultural centers, and the price tags in the high-end shopping centers and specialty markets.
They would also tour the surrounding countryside — the farms where the livestock was raised, the fields where the crops were grown, the fireshops where the metals were refined, the factories where everything from plasma shields to transport cruisers were produced.
They would be shown the armories, the training fields, the transportation hubs and spaceports — all the while being shadowed by a dogged army of reporters and news cameras, documenting their every move.
And at the end of the first two weeks, looking back on the reading lessons introductory lectures, and looking ahead to all the tours and cultural exposure sessions lined up for them — Kierah wondered what it was all for.
With her mind already bursting with more new information than she could process, she tried to sort through it for bits and pieces worth holding on to. Usually, though, she came up empty.
Aside from learning to read, she struggled to find substantial practicality in most of what they were teaching her. Now, she was getting close to almost walking down a flight of stairs while blindfolded and carrying a drink in one hand without tripping in high heels — which might indeed be all well and good if she was planning to settle into this new posh life permanently. But that wasn’t guaranteed. None of it was.
But at the same time, as fleeting as it all seemed, she also couldn’t shake the feeling of responsibility that rested on her and the others: The fate of the Ends was squarely in her hands. Whether they were helped, or continued to be left out in the cold, was dependent entirely on how she and the other sixty-four succeeded or failed here.
It was difficult sometimes to fully grasp the enormity of what had been placed on her shoulders, but what she did grasp was that she couldn’t give up just because the things she was being taught felt ridiculously superficial. The future of millions of people depended on her learning to use the correct fork at the dinner table.
What surprised her, though, was that she seemed to be the only one who registered any of that. As she watched the rest of the Enders throughout the other activities, classes and tours, they seemed to take so easily to everything, with very little reservation and equally little sobriety.
The fact that it could all be taken away from them didn’t seem to occur to most. Neither did the importance of their role in the chance to rehabilitate the Ends. As far as Kierah could tell, they just blundered headlong through everything that was offered them, like starving guests at a banquet. She couldn’t really blame them, though. That was, pretty much, exactly what they were.
All she could do was try her best to keep a level head — or at least, what she thought was a level head; with all the directions they were all being pulled in, it wasn’t always clear which way was up or down.
So she played along, waiting for the only four-times-a-week sessions that she actually looked forward to: combat training. Compared to everything else she was introduced to, self defense was at least a worthwhile technique to master, no matter what the outcome of the experiment in the long run.
“My name Lieutenant Braykir,” their instructor had introduced himself gruffly at the beginning of the first session. “But I expect to be addressed as ‘sir,’ and only ‘sir.’”
He’d strode across the front of their line, slowly looking them up and down, eyes narrow. “None of you has the first clue of what it takes to become a respectable human being, never mind a soldier,” he’d continued, “but that is not an excuse for failure. And failure will not be tolerated.
“You’re here to take a crash course on what it takes to join normal society. I’m not here to baby you. I will work you, and I will work you hard. If I don’t get the results I want, you will keep at it until I do.
“This is not a vacation. I don’t care how fancy they treat you anywhere else. In this training room, you’re here to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your miserable lives. And if I have to put up with you, you’re gonna have to put up with me. Got it?”
Kierah had indeed gotten it. And actually, she had almost appreciated the man’s bluntness. The way he’d eyed them like meat waiting to be butchered had been slightly unnerving, but at least he hadn’t beaten around the bush.
At the moment, what she did think he’d beat around, was Zera. No matter how many times they repeated this particular defense today, the poor girl just couldn’t seem to wrap her muscles around it — and the look in Braykir’s eyes hinted that if she didn’t figure out how to fix her shortcomings, and quick, there would be consequences. Failure, as he drilled into them dozens of times a session, was not to be tolerated. How any of them had made it this far under that rule, Kierah wasn’t exactly sure.
“Again!” he barked.
As they all repeated the technique in the air at their own pace, she nudged her friend. Zera turned toward her, and the frustration on her face morphed into a pout.
They weren’t allowed to speak in class, which was going to make this difficult. Trying to be as subtle as possible, she threw a gentle punch in her direction. Zera stared at her fist, flinching away, and Kierah sighed to herself. This girl was hopeless.
She gestured with her fist that Zera should try to block it. Her hope was that by working with an actual partner, instead of imagining it and trying to defend against the air, Zera might have a better chance of seeing how the technique worked in actual practice.
Or maybe not. She was just as clumsy as her midair attempts had been, her hands flailing aimlessly as Kierah’s punch found its mark every time.
This wasn’t going to work.
Taking a step back, she motioned for Zera to come at her instead. Again, Zera stared at her. Again, she gestured, and finally the other girl extended a stiff fist in her direction. Kierah parried the attacking arm away and, turning her hand, gripped Zera’s forearm and pulled down, knocking Zera off balance. A swift but restrained kick to the back of her leg forced her to her knee, and a second punch to the back of her head finished it.
Pulling her back up to feet, she grinned at the other’s dazed expression. Maybe now that she’d felt it personally, she could understand it better? It had been worth a try. She’d give her one more chance to redeem herself, and if she still didn’t get it….
She rolled her eyes. As she did, her gaze happened to sweep high enough to pass over the balcony that ran along the upper perimeter of the room. It was where a running track was, but she’d only been up there a handful of times herself. Now, it appeared someone else was using it. And it wasn’t a news crew; those were all focused on Braykir at the other end of the room.
She looked closer, and realized she recognized the man watching them from up there. She didn’t know his name, but he’d been standing on the stage with the prince during the original experiment announcement weeks ago. After that, he’d shown up before a few of their military-related outings — but always on the outskirts, never introducing himself or getting directly involved. It was as if he was keeping an eye on things, but from a distance.
Like he was now. How long had he been standing there? What had he —
Suddenly, she belatedly realized he was looking directly at her. She quickly averted her eyes, swallowing. He was somehow related to the military, someone fairly high ranking, she guessed.
Had he seen her help Zera? She bit her lip. Of course he had, he was staring right at her. What would that mean, though? Braykir was hovering down around the other end of the line, far away enough to not notice her breaking rank. But if this man, someone far higher up than Braykir in more ways than one, had noticed, it wouldn’t matter.
She tried not to think about it, turning her attention back to Zera. If she was caught already, so be it. Continuing to help Zera now wouldn’t make a difference.
By the time Braykir made his way back to their end of the row, Zera had mastered the technique enough to get past his inspection.
After the session, she was walking down the hall outside the training center. The others had all gone back to their rooms or were still lingering in the locker rooms chatting. She’d almost waited up for Zera, but then found out Zera was planning to spend a little extra time primping — she had plans to visit with a special someone she’d met, she said, and Kierah didn’t really want to hear more.
That was when she heard footsteps approaching. By the time he came into sight, she couldn’t avoid him without making it obvious. Attempting to stifle the nervousness she suddenly felt, she propped her chin up and kept her walk even, hoping she didn’t trip or do something else inopportunely stupid. Maybe he would just pass by.
But he didn’t. As he got nearer, he looked straight at her, just like he had from the track balcony.
She swallowed. When they were just a few strides apart, the military man stopped fully, and she felt compelled to do the same. He didn’t say anything, just looked at her. That was awkward, she thought, so she opened her mouth. But nothing came out. What could she say to a high ranking military official? Braykir hated the Enders, and he probably wasn’t anywhere near this man’s rank. After all he must have gone through to earn his post, what must he think of them?
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said at last.
It was a surprisingly cordial start, Kierah thought.
“I’m Ames, Colonel Jeos Ames.”
Colonel. He was one step down from the general of the entire military. A colonel had seen her break the rules. She was done for.
“And you are?” he asked.
“In trouble,” she said inadvertently, realizing a second too late that she’d said it out loud. “Er, I mean,” she stumbled, “I’m — my name is Kaelan — Kierah. Kierah Kaelan.”
“In that order?” he asked, and she wasn’t sure if he was mocking her, or just actually joking.
“I’m sorry,” she tried again. “I guess I’m just still getting used to meeting military who aren’t trying to arrest me.”
“Ah, I see. Do you usually give them a reason to want to arrest you?”
“Do they usually need a reason?”
What was she saying? She began thinking she should look for the nearest hole and crawl into it.
But the colonel smiled. Faintly, but it was a smile. “If you make a habit of pulling stunts like you did in the training exercise today, I’d say they’d probably have plenty of reason.”
So he had noticed. And he remembered it was her. Of course he did. Did she expect anything less?
“My friend just needed a little help,” she said, her tone more quiet, subdued. She couldn’t talk her way out, but at least she could try offering an explanation. “She figured it out after that. She just … needed a nudge in the right direction.”
“But it meant breaking your own stride in the class.”
“She would have gotten in trouble if I didn’t.”
He looked at her strangely. “But you could get in trouble if you did. You knew that.”
“Yet you did it anyway.”
“If I could help her, I wasn’t just gonna sit by and watch her struggle, sir.”
The colonel didn’t answer right away, just looked at her. She wished she knew what he was thinking. When to tell Braykir, how to punish her, if he should punish Zera too —
It was her turn to stare at him. He wasn’t going to turn her in?
“Good day, Miss Kaelan,” he nodded, then turned and continued his way down the hall.
– – –—– – – –
The clang was a jarring, obnoxious sound, but he still looked forward to it. Like now. It echoed through the mine shafts, pulling all the workers up short. The shift was over.
Propping his pick on his shoulder, he turned to the half-dozen boys working next to him. Their little faces looked up at him, dirty, worn, but smiling.
“Time to go,” he found himself grinning, their smiles infectious.
Soon they were all trekking through the main tunnel, a few boys joining them every now and again, until the group had multiplied to two dozen or so. The men passing by mostly ignored them, and that was fine with him. Any attention from them would be about as welcome as attention from the guards, and he knew what that felt like.
When they emerged at the end, the mass of slaves spilled out into the open arena like water from a pipe. The tunnel was just one of many, all branching off from the center hub, a giant hole in the ground several stories deep and nearly as wide. Whenever a set of tunnels became depleted, the hub would be dug another level deeper and fresh tunnels would begin, like spokes on a wheel. After centuries of use, the hub’s walls had been punched through with hundreds of holes; looking up from the ground, those inside were surrounded by a pattern of dots soaring above them like stars in the night sky — only, instead of lights, they were black holes, responsible for swallowing up thousands of lives of the slaves that had gone before.
The small group of boys was engulfed in the steady stream emerging from the other shafts as they forged their way toward the only way out: a set of crisscrossing stairs that resembled scaffolding more than anything permanent. Guards supervised the ascending column of slaves from hovering crafts floating far away enough to keep any crazed slave from attempting to jump to it from the scaffolding, but close enough to keep them within the range of their weapons.
As the group approached the stairs, Terrell and several teenagers fell in step alongside them. Catching up with the young man, Terrell lowered his voice. “There’s another.”
The young man flicked a glance at him. “Where.”
The teenager tilted his head over his shoulder. “Jonah and I saw him back in our tunnel.”
“Not long before the bell.”
“Was he alone?”
“There was a guard. I would’ve waited until he left to take the kid with us now, but…”
The young man nodded. “No, that’s okay. I’ll find him later. Do you have a name, an age?”
Terrell shrugged. “Not sure. Definitely no name. He was little, though, probably Shalin’s age. Eight-ish?”
Another young one. He tried to figure out how he felt about that. If he had a choice, he would have hoped for an older boy, someone who added to the group’s strength, not its weakness. Already, the little kids outnumbered the teens. Not that Kelmar itself was lacking for young blood, but often, incoming teenagers opted to stay out on their own rather than join the ragtag band. So even if this newcomer was older, he might not have wanted to come along anyway.
As it was with their numbers the way they were, if certain of the other slaves decided to make trouble, the chances that he and the boys could repel them —
He stopped himself. This kind of thinking wouldn’t get him anywhere. They’d defended themselves before, and it wasn’t because of their number or their age.
Besides, it wasn’t up to him to pick and choose who was brought in. The only choice he had was whether or not to offer them a hand once they were brought in.
He thought about that for a second. It was a choice. This had never been something he had to do, as Terrell had told him years ago. He had chosen to do it, and he couldn’t let himself regret it.
Looking after the boys made life more difficult than if he had turned a blind eye and kept to himself. Without question.
It would be so much easier to be on his own, and it wasn’t the first time he’d thought so.
Then he noticed Terrell watching him, and he remembered why he put himself through this.
They looked up to him. All of them.
It was a responsibility he never thought he was worthy of, but that apparently didn’t cross their minds. He was what many of them had never had in their outside lives, and what all of them definitely didn’t have down here: He’d become family to them. And now, he was about to expand that family again.
“You’ll keep an eye on the boys while I search for this new kid tonight then?” he asked Terrell.
There was no argument.
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