Chapter 7: Unanswered

Once before, she’d been a stranger in her own room. The first time Kierah had stepped through the giant double doors, she’d been transported to a paradise she’d never dreamed she would ever lay eyes on, never mind live in. It had been a foreign world, one where she didn’t belong.

But over time, it grew more familiar. The cushioned chairs, the crystal bowls of fruit, the indulgent pillows, the soaring wall of glass overlooking the gardens a half dozen stories below — she’d gotten used to it all. It was just part of every day, in her new life.

Now, as she let the doors fall silently closed behind her, she just stood there, taking it all in again as if she was seeing it for the first time. 

And she was disgusted with herself.

Quickly crossing over the plush carpet, she dropped the hat that she’d kept crumpled in her hand all this time. Going to the window, she leaned against one of the divider beams for support, as if she’d collapse without it there to hold her up. The sun was setting outside, casting golden rays and purple-hued shadows across the world.

It had been a bit lighter when she’d been reunited with the group at Kelmar. Tate and Dannon had gotten her to the surface just as they were getting ready to return to the transport. There had been questions, which the two guards had answered as nonspecifically as possible, but from General Azor’s attitude, it sounded like more questions would follow for the two of them later. 

That didn’t matter. There was only one question she wanted answered, and she had no intention of asking it there.

If Danan received repercussions for threatening the prince’s guest, he deserved whatever he got. That was the least of his offenses, as far as she cared, but the only one that might merit discipline in the eyes of officials. 

As she stood in her room watching the sun go down over the palace, she pictured the darkness settling on the rest of the world, the places that darkness always seemed to plague even in broad daylight.

That was where Rothan was right now, one of those places. 

If she could ask one question of those officials at Kelmar, it would be — why? Was it because of her? And how could she even begin to set it right?

All these “civilized,” “proper” Trythians could speak to how uncivilized and improper Enders were, and yet this is what they sanctioned? Children in chains? Innocent young men attacked at a guard’s whim? She might not be their ideal of a well-rounded Trythian, but if that’s what it entailed, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be.

The door opened on the other side of the room. She didn’t have to look to know it was Terula.

“Welcome back, dear,” the bubbly voice greeted her.

“Hi,” Kierah mumbled, then straightened her back, trying to pull herself together. Advertising her mood wasn’t exactly what she wanted right now.

“It’s good to see you back. And I hate to do this to you, but we have to get you ready for dinner already,” the maid said, going to the closet again. “Can you believe it, the day just flies by. Feels like just a few minutes ago I was getting your clothes together for breakfast.”

She walked over the carpet, and noticed the hat lying in a small heap. “Ah. Well, look at that, now. I take it hats still aren’t your thing, huh?” she commented, picking it up and reshaping it. 

Kierah shrugged. “It … kept things interesting, I guess.”

It was the truth, even if she was hedging. Without that stupid hat, she never would have stuck around long enough to see Rothan.

“So Kelmar wasn’t quite as boring as you’d expected it to be?”

“You could say that.”

Terula hung the hat back on a hook in the closet. “So what happened?”

“Not much,” Kierah answered absently before realizing that contradicted what she’d just said. “I mean, at least we got to walk around. And we were outside. So it beat the archives.”

“Uh huh. Well, I think anything could beat the archives,” Terula admitted. She looked at Kierah and tilted her head. “Everything all right?”

“What? Oh, yeah,” Kierah said, fidgeting with the roping on the edge of an armchair she was standing behind.

“You sure?”

With an effort, Kierah commanded her hands to lie still. “Yeah, I’m sure,” she insisted.

“Kierah. What’s wrong?” Terula prodded.

“Nothing.”

But the maid had seen her edginess. “Forgive me if I don’t believe you. What’s going on?”

“Nothing, really,” Kierah insisted. “I’m fine.”

She wasn’t sure how to talk about it, so she didn’t want to bother trying.

Terula fixed her with an even, stubborn stare. “Now you listen here, missy. I didn’t push this morning when you said you were fine; I listened and gave you a hat instead. I’ve been letting it go every time I ask, and every time you tell me you’re all right. But this has gone far enough. I’m not gonna turn a blind eye while you fall apart, you hear? So. Talk to me.”

Kierah didn’t move for a moment.

Had it really only been that morning that they’d had the last conversation? When her biggest concern had been her own uselessness, her own impotence? It had overwhelmed her at the time, but now … it seemed so trivial. Looking around, it seemed as pointless as everything else in her room.

“What do you want me to say?” she asked, her fingers reaching the edge of the roping.

“Nothing that isn’t the truth,” the maid replied.

Kierah sighed. 

It felt weird having someone else so adamantly insist on knowing what was going on in her life. And even weirder that it didn’t feel like Terula was prying. Instead, it just felt like she … cared. In Kierah’s life, that was a first.

And she knew she really wasn’t getting out of this. “Fine. I saw someone at the mines, someone I knew. That’s all.”

“Someone you knew, from the Ends? Who?”

“Just … a kid I’d met once.”

“You’ll have to define ‘kid,’” Terula suggested. “You’re a kid as far as I’m concerned; it’s a perspective thing. What was he, a teenager?”

“Oh, no, he was — he was an actual kid. Like, little. Maybe eight.”

Now it was Terula’s turn to sigh, but it wasn’t out of frustration. It sounded more like sadness. “That’s not a kid, that’s a baby.”

Kierah swallowed a lump of guilt. She didn’t disagree.

“And he was at Kelmar?” Terula asked. “Doing what?”

“Pushing parodesium carts up from the tunnels.”

The maid shook her head sympathetically. “So young. That must have been tough for you to see, especially if you knew him.”

“Yeah,” Kierah said quietly.

Terula came up to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not the one that needs to be sorry.”

“And who is?” Terula asked. “These little ones are only there because of someone else — I’ve never agreed with that policy, you know, but it’s the way it’s always been. It just — it breaks my heart, to know these innocent children are alone down there. It just doesn’t seem right, punishing them that way. Who knows what they go through down there?”

Kierah didn’t answer.

“So why is he there? Who put him there? Do you have any idea?”

Kierah wanted to melt into the armchair holding her up. “Yeah.”

“Well?”

She had to force herself to say it out loud. Somehow, admitting it to herself was one thing, but speaking it had such an irretractable sense of finality. 

“It was me.”

At first, Terula didn’t seem to know if she was serious or not. “You? Dear, what are you talking about?”

“You wanted the truth. That’s the truth,” Kierah shrugged defensively.

“But … how?”

“You know how I came from prison the day I met you?”

Terula nodded slowly.

“Yeah, well, he was with me when I was arrested. I thought he’d gotten away. But I guess not.”

“But I thought you said you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Kierah went back to fidgeting with the armchair fabric. “I didn’t.”

“So what did it have to do with him?”

“That bread I bought, that they said I stole — I’d promised I’d bring it back to him. So I threw it to him and ran the other way, even though guards were tailing me. Thought he got away,” she said. “Found out today, he didn’t. That’s all.”

Terula was quiet for a while, digesting her story. Kierah shot a glance at her, and wished she knew what she was thinking. Normally, that wasn’t an issue with Terula; the trick usually was getting her to quiet down.

Finally, the maid spoke again. “You think he got arrested after you did.”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s the only explanation for him being there.”

“But you’re sure? I know Kelmar shoots low, but — would they really have brought an eight-year-old there just for catching ‘stolen’ bread?”

Kierah shrugged. “They arrested me, why wouldn’t they have done the same to him? If they caught him.”

“Yes, but they put you in prison. They didn’t send you to a slave camp.”

Her phrasing almost surprised Kierah; she hadn’t expected Terula to refer to the mines that bluntly. But it was what they were — especially for the inmates who weren’t criminals.

“Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter. I’m a girl, maybe that’s why.”

“And what’s he, a man?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Kierah,” Terula’s brow wrinkled in concern, “I’m just not sure you should take it all on yourself. After all, you said it yourself, you didn’t see him after that day. A lot can happen — maybe someone else used him to pay off a debt —”

“No,” Kierah objected. “I’m not just gonna pawn off the blame on someone else to make me feel better.”

“It’s not passing the blame if it doesn’t belong to you in the first place,” Terula pointed out. “Besides, I don’t think it would make you feel much better anyway. You know he’s down there. Even if it wasn’t your fault, would you be able to just overlook it? You know that kid.”

Kierah wanted to strangle the arm of the chair. Terula was right.

“So what do I do?” she asked.

Terula walked over to the closet and reached up to a hook on its door. Kierah knew without seeing it what she’d pulled down.

“Remember what we talked about this morning?” Terula asked, holding the hat she’d given to Kierah what seemed like ages ago.

Kierah nodded.

“You needed to find something that fit you, something that — I don’t know how to say it, gave you a purpose, I guess?” She came back to Kierah’s side and held out the hat. “Maybe this is your thing, your reason. We both know you’re not gonna feel okay now, knowing that little kid is down there. But you’re here. Here, you might be able to do something about it. This is your life, and no matter how much of it is out of your control, this part is up to you. At least you can try.”

Kierah accepted the hat, looked down at it. Just a stupid ball of fabric, foldable, crushable, nothing much to it. But it had fit her. And it had, weirdly enough, led her to Rothan. Could he be her reason?

Terula patted her shoulder. “Whether it’s your fault or not, if anyone can help him now, it’s you.”

_   __ ___ ______ ___  __ _

Kierah sat through dinner on the edge of her seat. She’d wanted to skip it altogether, but Terula had convinced her it was important to keep up appearances.

So she forced herself to endure the meal, and spent the whole time thinking about getting back to her room and firing up the notescreen. There had to be prisoner records somewhere, and she was intent on finding them. Or, at the very least, getting a better handle on Kelmar policy regarding kids accused of a crime.

She was walking back from dinner, alone, as usual, when she realized someone was coming up behind her. Not sneaking, but approaching.

“Miss — Kaelen, is it?” asked a female voice.

Kierah stopped walking, glad her back was to the woman so she couldn’t see Kierah roll her eyes. Forcing a slightly less hostile tone into her own voice than she’d prefer, she turned around without bothering to smile. “What do you want?”

“Straight to the point, huh?” said the reporter, catching up to her and grinning.

“Formalities aren’t really my thing.”

Kierah recognized this one, with her short, cropped black hair fringing a dark-skinned face that was quite pretty even though she seemed to avoid makeup, unlike most of her colleagues. She wasn’t much older than Kierah, probably in her twenties or early thirties. Kierah didn’t know her name or which branch of the Central Information Corporation she worked for, but she’d taken up residence in the palace’s media wing and put more effort than most into getting Kierah to talk. Kierah rarely obliged.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t at least try to get a statement from you after what happened on the trip today?”

Kierah crossed her arms, not in the mood. “I’ve got nothing to say. Sorry.” She turned and tried to leave.

“Why is that, I wonder?” the reporter kept pace only slightly behind her.

“Why is what.”

“Why do you have nothing to say? I mean, you disappeared for a huge chunk of time while you were supposed to be taking the tour. I would have thought —”

Kierah whirled to face her. “Disappeared?” She’d thought — hoped? — it hadn’t been noticed just how long she’d been gone.

“Well, yeah,” the girl shrugged, almost smugly. “You were gone.”

“Lost,” Kierah corrected. “I was lost.”

“Right. And those guards threatened you with a blaster because you were just trying to get back to the rest of the group.”

Kierah tried not to look defensive. “We had a misunderstanding.”

“So you’ll confirm that they threatened you.”

“Not both of them.”

“One of them?”

Talking to a reporter was just a slip of the tongue waiting to happen, and Kierah didn’t want to risk it.

“I said I’ve got nothing to say.” She tried walking away again.

“All right, all right, just one more question and I can take it from there. Please?”

One more question. Right.

But Kierah stopped anyway, hoping this might get her off her back. “What.”

“The guard’s name,” the girl said. “That’s all.”

“And then you’ll leave me alone?”

She held up her hands and her notescreen innocently. “I swear on my next paycheck.”

Kierah debated whether or not it was worth it. Why leak Danan’s name to the press? If this reporter decided to meet up with him, talk to him, she might find out what had really happened.

But then again, maybe she’d drag his name through the mud first. That’s what reporters were supposed to do, right? Kierah could only hope.

If this would get him the shame of being known as the guard who threatened the prince’s guest, then there was no question. After what he did to Rothan and Demarc, it was the least he should suffer. And it was in her control to make that happen.

“I only heard one name, not sure if it’s his first or his last,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter, whatever you know,” the girl replied, fingers hovering expectantly over her notescreen, ready to type in the name and begin her evil process of researching databases and archives for the guy’s background, work history, associates and favorite color.

Kierah shrugged. Fine. “Danan.”

That was her end of things. Now, supposedly, she’d be left alone, so she was about to resume her trip to her room. But then she noticed the reporter’s expression. The girl’s face had suddenly lost a little of its smugness, and instead of punching the name into her notescreen, her typing hand was still.

“Danan?” the girl repeated, voice calm — but it was almost as if she wished she had misheard.

Kierah nodded. “That’s what the other guard called him.”

The break in the reporter’s character didn’t last more than a fraction of a second. She cleared her face of the shadow of emotion that had crossed it and dutifully entered the name into her notescreen.

“Well, thanks,” she said, gluing on a pleasant smile. “That’s more than I usually get out of you.”

“It’s more than anyone usually gets,” Kierah replied, eying her. The name had meant something to her. 

“I know you won’t, but if you think of something else you want to tell me,” the reporter said, dropping her notescreen to her side, “you know where to find me.”

Kierah watched as she walked off down the hall before heading in the other direction herself. She couldn’t say that reaction didn’t make her curious. 

She’d thought she already knew all she could possibly want to know about this Danan character — he’d all but tortured Rothan, actually tortured his protector, and almost attacked her — what more was there to know? The man was the lowest kind of human being there was.

But maybe there was more worth looking into. Seeing the reporter’s hesitation … what did she know about him?

It was an interesting question to ponder — but Rothan came first right now. Whatever Danan’s story was, it could wait.

Kierah shook her head, trying to clear it. This particular reporter had been trying to corner her since the experiment was announced. Others had put in some effort, but this one was dogged. Kierah was the sixty-fifth, she insisted — the extra Ender allowed into the experiment. 

For some reason, she seemed to find it fascinating. As if the experiment wasn’t groundbreaking enough, the prince had gone and changed the rules he’d made up — it was supposed to be four Enders from each Ends: two male and two female, one young and one old of each. There were four Ends in each of the four Cities.

By that math, there should have been sixty-four Enders.

There were sixty-five. 

Somehow, there was an extra Ender. 

If it was broken down, it could have been any of nine; Kierah was from Encidas’ East Ends, but she’d been captured in the West Ends, so she could have been grouped with either. 

And who was to say she was the fifth? She could have been the second, or the fourth.

But she knew she wasn’t. In the East Ends, anyway, all four had disappeared before she was arrested. If she was counted from the East, she would have been the fifth.

But why was she the fifth? Why was there even a fifth?

And did it matter?

It mattered because she shouldn’t be there. If she was the fifth, she didn’t deserve to be there. None of this should have been hers.

She looked at the walls as she walked the hallway, the stone and steel pattern with the slate stripe between. The stone was the way life was in the old days. Then the slate-colored parodesium came and changed everything, leading to the new culture the steel represented.

Like her life. This experiment came and changed everything, just like the parodesium.

And if she was the fifth, it was only because of the whim of the prince, rescuing a girl from the prison. 

If she was the fifth, she didn’t even deserve it even more than she already thought she didn’t.

She’d managed to not think about it too much, but thanks to that reporter, it was now fresh on her mind.

Perfect. Another guilt trip.

Just what she needed. 


Back in her room, she grabbed her own notescreen and waited for Terula to come back. Somehow, she’d managed to survive her entire life without knowing how to read, but right now, she wished their lessons in that department were progressing faster. They were barely three weeks into the program, though, so she couldn’t expect too much of herself. She was getting close to knowing her way around the basics, but looking at a notescreen full of pages and pages of text still overwhelmed her.

She had hoped Terula could help her with the legwork, and the maid had agreed. Just looking things up wouldn’t help Rothan, obviously, but she had to start somewhere. Finally, the door opened.

“Back from dinner?” Terula asked, letting herself in.

“Yeah, finally,” Kierah slid over on the couch to make room for her. “Thanks for coming back.”

Terula waved her away. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m more than happy to.”

Kierah handed her the notescreen, and they set to work.

“Where should I start?” Terula asked.

Kierah had been thinking about nothing else since the ride back from the mines. She had questions, a lot of questions, that had been tumbling around in her head for hours now. Answers existed, somewhere, and she’d been staking her hope on this tiny thin device in Terula’s hand. It had answers to everything, didn’t it? Its access to databases and networks around the country was virtually unlimited. If there was any good place to begin a mission to help Rothan, it had to be on this thing.

Didn’t it?

One of the dozens of questions leaked to the forefront of her mind. Sure, the information of Rothan’s file existed somewhere out there in cyberspace — but what were the chances that just anyone could access it? 

Realistically, it wasn’t likely that prisoner lists were unclassified. Kelmar wasn’t some rinkydink, backroad jail for folks who’d had a little too much fun at the tavern to spend the night. Just casually requesting a who’s who of the highest security prison in the country likely wouldn’t go over very well.

Suddenly, she felt very small. Maybe she lived in the palace, but she had as little power as she did holed up in the Ends.

“I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I mean, I don’t even know his last name.”

Terula smiled sympathetically. “His name’s not the only place to start, you know.”

“What do you mean? Where, then?”

“Well, how much do you know about Kelmar?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

Terula lifted the notescreen and typed something in. “You think the boy is there because he was caught working with you. So that would mean, he was arrested for … theft, right? Being an accomplice, receiving stolen property, something like that.” Her eyes scanned the screen.

“Yeah, but if we can’t find his name, how can we know his exact charges?”

“We can’t. But we don’t have to.” She grunted with satisfaction as she found what she was looking for. “Here, see?”

She held out the tablet, and Kierah hoped she’d be able to understand whatever was on there. As it turned out, it was a large swath of mostly unintelligible gibberish, as far as Kierah was concerned — but instead of making her wade through it, Terula had considerately highlighted the phrase she wanted Kierah to see.

“‘Cause for…incineration’?” she tried.

“‘Incarceration,’” Terula corrected. “See, I’m of the opinion that something as minor as what your little friend is accused of, wouldn’t be enough to get him sent there. So if we can find a list of crimes that do get a person sent there, we can eliminate that as a reason.”

“You don’t think it’s my fault he’s there,” Kierah said.

“Of course I don’t. But I have to prove that to you. So let’s take a look here.”

“The government just has it listed somewhere?” Kierah asked skeptically.

“This isn’t the official government site, no. It’s just a public information one, like an encyclopedia, for general research.”

“Because this is a common question — why someone ends up in the mines?”

Terula smiled. “You’d be surprised how many Middle schoolkids have to write papers on this kind of thing.”

“You don’t say.”

“Well, yeah, it’s part of any education, like they brought you out there to see the place. But with the kids, they can’t exactly take them on that sort of field trip, so they just have them study it all. How mines work today and, well, of course Kumaari. Things like that.”

Kierah leaned back against the cushions.

Education. Right. That’s what the mines were to everyone that wasn’t an Ender — just another nugget of information to read about, watch through a television screen, hear in the news, and then forget about. It rarely became a part of their reality.

At least, not until they managed to commit a serious crime and get caught for it. Or, as was more often the case, get an Ender in their debt.

Really, it wasn’t that much more a reality for most Enders, either. Like the Underground. Only the very uncivil or the very unlucky had to ever contend with working off, or fighting off, a debt or a crime in either place. Kierah supposed that qualified Rothan as one of the unlucky ones.

And then there was, what else had Terula said? Kumaari. Of course Kumaari.

“Well, there’s a name we haven’t heard much about in a while,” she commented.

“What, Kumaari?”

“Yeah.”

Kierah rolled the word around in her head, the rumors that surrounded it like a fog — quiet, intangible, but lingering.

“What was the last official word on that, anyway?” Kierah asked. “It was, what, ten years ago now?”

Terula nodded. “Indeed. But even in the Ends you must have heard that it was to put down a rebellion.”

“Sure, I heard that. But they don’t always stick to their first explanation,” Kierah shrugged. “Especially when it comes to explosions as huge as that.”

“Well, the authorities were the ones who ordered the containment. They should know.”

“Yeah.”

Ten years. Had it really been that long?

That would be plenty long enough to qualify it as a topic to study in history class. It didn’t feel that long ago, though. The day the Kumaari mines were blown up in an effort to control a slave uprising was a day no Trythian would ever forget, even Enders. In some cases, especially Enders.

It seemed a strange tangent to go on now, but it was something she hadn’t thought about in years. When it had happened, it had shaken the entire country. 

And suddenly, she felt a fresh urgency to find out why Rothan was at Kelmar — and to figure out what the next step was, quickly. He couldn’t stay there. Whatever she had to do to make that work out, she would. Remembering what had happened at Kumaari just made that conclusion a little more clear.

As a rule, Enders never paid attention to the news, ten years ago, or now. Most things on the national stage didn’t directly affect them, so they spent their time focused on things that did, like finding food or keeping a roof over their head.

But when one of the biggest mines in the country became a crater in the ground overnight, even they sat up and paid attention.

As the story went, the slaves at Kumaari, which rivaled Kelmar in size and population, had organized themselves and had been planning to stage a revolt. And with their sheer manpower, they would have come dangerously close to succeeding.

With Kumaari’s proximity to Encidas, and the prospect of thousands of top level criminals unleashed on the population, officials high up the chain of command made the decision to pull the trigger. In an effort to contain the impending disaster, the threat was eliminated altogether. Military personnel were evacuated, and a bomb was dropped, obliterating the mines and everyone in them.

Crisis averted, the media had proclaimed in the aftermath. And that had been that.

But after the smoke cleared, the theories started flying — at least, in the Ends, where most of the killed rebels had come from. Relatives, friends, even complete strangers speculated how such a plot could have leaked to the authorities. Those who knew the now-deceased claimed their loved ones would never have been foolish enough to get involved in as doomed a plan as staging a rebellion in a high security prison.

And even if they had, they’d have been smart enough to keep it quiet. Officials shouldn’t have known about it until it was too late.

Everyone had his own speculations of the “truth” behind Kumaari, everything from elaborate cover-up schemes involving the entire Noble class and slave scapegoats, to an unsuccessful terrorist plot in an effort to cripple the Trythian economy one major mine at a time.

But the most prevalent theory, probably because it was the simplest, agreed with at least one part of the official story: the prisoners had indeed been planning a revolt. But if they had, they would have done it right. Some of them, the ones who naturally rose to be leaders among the other slaves, were highly intelligent, at least when it came to pulling together criminal activity. They wouldn’t have made any mistakes that could have gotten them caught, and the dumb sheep that followed them wouldn’t have dared.

In the minds of most Enders, that left only one logical way the government could have found out about the plan before it happened: The slaves had had an informant.

But a leak would have required an active strain of betrayal within the ranks of the slaves, which Enders generally refused to accept, especially in the wake of what was, for many of them who lost loved ones that night, a tragedy. For them, the only place to lay blame was at the feet of those who’d ordered the bombing.

So began the rumors, hushed but unstoppably contagious, of what had really happened that day. A leak was undeniable, but it was the source of that leak that was the the sticking point; it hadn’t been a fellow slave, it couldn’t have been. The Nobles in government were the ones not to be trusted, and those Nobles felt the same way about Enders in general, enslaved Enders in particular. 

What must have happened was the Nobles acted on that distrust, deciding that the usual security wasn’t adequate. They’d needed to get closer to the slaves, to keep an eye on them more thoroughly than the average guards could. And the only way they could have accomplished that effectively, barring the expensive and indiscreet installation of a more highly sophisticated monitoring system throughout the entire barracks and along every single mine shaft, would have been to plant a spy.

That was the only explanation many Enders would accept.

The slaves hadn’t had a leak. They’d had a bug, someone who’d come in as one of their own, been accepted into the ranks, been invited to join in the plan to break out. That, agreed most Enders, was how the secret had reached the ears of officials that signed the death warrant of so many that night.

Because of a spy, Kumaari had been destroyed, thousands of lives ended. Many of those lives had been criminals, serving sentences because they’d deserved it. 

But how many of them weren’t?

Kierah swallowed. Kumaari was Kelmar, just on the other side of the city. It had had the same structure, the same purpose, the same prisoners. If Kelmar had kids, Kumaari must have, too. Innocent lives had worked alongside guilty ones, and had been buried alongside them, too. Their living hell had become their shared grave.

Kierah didn’t need a Middle school textbook to clarify the parallels between that history lesson and her present situation. She was pretty sure no such textbook existed that addressed the underage slaves anyway, then or now.

This was a game plan she was going to have to make up on her own.

“So what’s this encyclopedia have to say?” she asked Terula.

The maid was scanning the notescreen. “Honestly, the only thing listed here, other than a long list of major crimes, is debt.”

Kierah opened her mouth.

“And before you ask, when I say ‘major crimes,’ I mean that actually, not just a Noble’s definition. Murder, extortion, theft —”

“What kind of theft?” she pressed.

“The big kind. Bread doesn’t cut it.”

“I wasn’t accused of stealing bread,” Kierah pointed out. “The bread just came after I allegedly stole money, and then attacked a Middle.”

“And the boy would just be an accomplice to anything you did,” Terula countered. “Nothing here lists anything other than first-person crime. Assistants or enablers don’t count, except for accessory to murder. And I don’t care how prone Nobles and Middles are to exaggeration, even they can’t pin that on him.”

“I don’t put anything past them, but fine.” Kierah wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or frustrated. “So then, what is he in for? I mean, they could make exceptions, right?”

“You just have to be stuck on the idea that it’s your fault, don’t you?” Terula sighed. “Honestly, you want to know what I think?”

“That it’s not my fault. I know.”

“My bet is that he’s there for debt — not yours,” she added quickly, “before you get any ideas. I’m sure there are other people in his life that could make this happen to him.”

Kierah dropped her head in her hands. “What am I supposed to do, then? I can’t just leave him in there, not now.”

“Dear,” Terula’s voice softened, “you can’t fix all the problems in the world.”

Kierah set her jaw. “But I can fix one.”

She sat back up. “Look, you said I needed to find something that fit me. This fits me, Terula.”

The maid only hesitated a second before letting herself smile. “Yes,” she agreed gently. “Yes it does. So what are you going to do?”

Kierah thought about it. To get Rothan out, she’d have to make a case before … someone … to argue for his release, but she couldn’t very well do that until she found out why he was there. Somebody had to know, she just had to figure out who. And how to get them to tell her.

It wasn’t like she could just walk up to the prince himself and ask for prisoner records. He might not even have them.

She grimaced. Of course he wouldn’t have them. He had bigger things to worry about than keeping track of who was arrested when. That was a job for the military.

The military.

“Terula,” she held back a grin, “I think I need to meet up with Zera’s boyfriend.” 

_   __ ___ ______ ___  __ _

She was lost. Again 

Walking down the hallway, she wished she had just asked Zera to come with her. Or, at the very least, to draw her a map.

She’d been meandering through hallways for a while now, and was certain she had no idea where she was going. Problem was, she also had no idea how to get back.

Hudsen had been the soldier that had helped escort the tour group to Kelmar, the one Zera had happened to find herself next to. And while he wasn’t technically Zera’s boyfriend yet, as far as Kierah had heard, the two of them definitely were a fast-formed item.

To Kierah, that made him a viable resource; he’d probably be willing to do a favor for the best friend of his, uh, beloved. Or at least, that’s what she hoped.

He would theoretically be getting off duty soon, so he’d be somewhere in the military wing of the palace. It sounded simple enough to find, but apparently the military wing was just a bit larger than Kierah had expected. 

Granted, it wasn’t that there wasn’t anyone else around. Guards and officers strolled by often enough, and Kierah would have asked for directions — except the looks the men gave her, as a young female civilian who didn’t exactly blend in, were somewhere between suspicion and amusement, and she took that as a challenge. Instead of admitting she was hopelessly lost, she tried her best to look like she knew exactly where she was going. Playing the damsel in distress to a bunch of musclebound meatheads wasn’t exactly what she’d hoped to accomplish by coming down here. 

Besides, if she wanted to plead Rothan’s case eventually, she had to appear strong, confident — might as well start practicing now. Even if it was only bluffing.

Then, straight ahead, a face bobbed above the intermittent current of soldiers — a face she recognized. 

It was the colonel, and his trajectory was leading him straight toward her. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

By the time she’d decided she should try to find a side hallway to duck down, it was too late. He’d made eye contact. When he was only a few yards away from her, he stopped, looking at her, as a few other soldiers passed around them. 

“Miss Kaelen,” he nodded. “What are you doing down here?”

“Oh, Colonel Ames, hi,” she greeted. Not having much choice, she stopped too. She tried to maintain that cool, composed look she’d been going for earlier, but had serious doubts it would hold up in front of this particular man. 

Something about the guy made her feel like a five-year-old who got caught sneaking a snack out of the kitchen, even though technically she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Yet.

It wasn’t necessarily a fear of him; he had, after all, kept quiet about her insubordination in training. No it wasn’t fear. And unlike most everyone else in the palace, it wasn’t blatant disgust or distrust either.

It was hard to put her finger on it, but that one interaction had been enough to make a more favorable first impression than anyone else had as of yet. He’d skipped the drama, the prejudice, the stuffiness, and could almost — almost — pass for a normal human being, not one of the pretentious puppets everywhere else around her.

But his warning had stuck with her as much as his attitude had. “Look out for yourself. Because here, nobody else will.”

It wasn’t his words themselves that had surprised her, necessarily — it was that he’d chosen to say them. Because of that, the nerves she felt now fell somewhere between curiosity and a guarded admiration.

“I’m just looking for the lounge hall,” she told him. “I’m allowed to be down here, right?” she added, hoping a touch of innocence would play in her favor.

The colonel’s stoic demeanor didn’t change. That was one of the infuriating things about military men — the experienced ones, anyway, Kierah thought; they always wore a mask, even when they didn’t have a helmet on.

“You’re lost,” he observed bluntly.

Kierah shrugged. No point in denying it. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“If you’re looking for the lounge, I suggest turning around and heading about fifteen halls the other way. Then you’ll at least be in the same quadrant as the lounge. There, it’ll be easier for you to ask for directions the rest of the way.”

“Oh,” she was taken off guard. No questions? “Um, thanks.”

He nodded, eyed her for a second, then continued on his way.

Kierah was glued to the spot. That had gone surprisingly more smoothly than she’d expected. And in a weird way, she was almost disappointed.

Turning around, she took about a dozen steps before she realized she was now walking in the same direction as the colonel. And he a was only a few paces ahead of her.

Well, this was awkward. When he’d given her the instructions, he’d known she would have to all but follow him. So what did she do now? Just hang back and tail him from a distance? Because that wouldn’t be uncomfortable at all.

She sighed. Maybe she’d get lucky and he would turn down another hallway soon, and she wouldn’t have to worry about it. Then she could just find the right quadrant, get to the lounge, hope Hudsen would be there, and keep her fingers crossed that he could actually help her.

Hudsen wasn’t exactly what could be considered a high-ranking soldier, and she wasn’t sure what kind of security clearance he had. After all this, he might not even be able to get access to Rothan’s file, wherever it was kept.

She’d known it would be a bit of a long shot going in, but it was worth a try. Hudsen was the only connection to the military that she had.

Well, no, that wasn’t entirely true. There was Braykir from combat training, who despised the sight of her. And the two lovely acquaintances she’d made at Kelmar the day before, Danan and Tate. So that meant Hudsen wasn’t her only connection to the military, just her only remotely amicable one.

She realized she was walking a bit too fast, closing the cushion of distance she was trying to keep between herself and the colonel. Slowing down, she tried to relax into an easy pace, and keep her impatience down. She’d already wasted far too much time getting lost. If she even got to the lounge hall at this point, what were the chances Hudsen would still be there?

Watching the back of the colonel’s head bob up and down as he walked ahead of her, though, suddenly gave her an idea. It was a long shot, but maybe not much worse than putting her faith in Hudsen. And definitely not much worse than awkwardly following a man who knew she was following him.

Quickening her pace, she caught up to him. “Excuse me, sir?” she asked, trying to discreetly fall into step next to him.

He looked down at her as he kept walking, his expression, or lack thereof, again annoyingly impossible to read. “Yes, Miss Kaelen?”

“I, um, had a question.”

“You’re going the right direction for the lounge this time,” he offered.

“I know, no, this isn’t about that. Well, it kind of is. I mean, that’s the thing I was wondering about.” 

Ugh. She began seriously reconsidering the wisdom in asking this man for help. By the time she’d manage to blurt out her question, she’d trip over her tongue so many times that she’d lose any credibility she could possibly have with him.

She tried again. “I was going there to meet up with a guard about something, but I thought maybe you could help me with it instead.”

He eyed her again. “With what?”

All right, how to explain this to the second highest ranking official in the military. Without sounding like she couldn’t speak her own language.

“I’m sure you know we were — the Enders, I mean — we were taken to visit Kelmar yesterday. I just was wondering if it’d be possible to take a look at the arrest record for one of the prisoners there, that’s all.”

That unreadable expression darkened ever so slightly.

“I know someone there,” Kierah added. “I just want to find out why he’s there.”

“Do you remember what I told you the last time we spoke?” he asked.

Kierah frowned. Did she ever. “You told me to look out for myself.”

“I told you to not do anything that would draw attention to yourself. Which, yes, involves minding your own business.”

How did they get back to this?

“What does that have to do with looking up —”

“This is the kind of thing that will raise questions,” he told her. “You go looking around Kelmar, and someone will notice.”

“What’s there to notice?” she dared to be as blunt as he was earlier. “It’s not illegal to just look at an arrest log, is it?”

“This isn’t a matter of legality, it’s a matter of good judgment. Someone will notice,” he said again. 

This was getting too cryptic for Kierah. “Someone? Why is this such a big deal?” she asked. “All I know is a little kid is down there who shouldn’t be. I want to –”

“It’s not your concern, do you understand me?” he said firmly. 

“Even if it’s my fault he’s there?” she threw back.

That made him pause for a second. “Then why do you need to get into his file?”

“Because I don’t know for sure. I just know it could be my fault. And I need to know.”

His face didn’t change much, but he didn’t shoot her down right away. By the time he did, his tone wasn’t as harsh. But his message was the same.

“If he’s there,” he said, “nothing’s going to get him out. No argument, no evidence, no matter whose fault it is. He’s there until his sentence is up. Child or not.”

“I didn’t say anything about getting him out,” Kierah said defensively.

“You didn’t have to. Why else would you want to look at his file?”

Kierah grimaced, feeling like she did when Terula would have to pull the blankets off her to get her to wake up in the mornings: cold, defenseless, and not entirely sure what had just happened.

“It’s just for my own conscience,” she said weakly. “I need to know if he’s there because of me. That’s all.”

That wasn’t all, and the colonel had known it. But it was true enough; if it turned out that it wasn’t her fault, at least she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it.

“After what you did for that friend of yours in training the other day,” he answered, “I almost believe you. But it doesn’t change anything. This isn’t something you should stick your nose in, and no one under my command will be authorized to access those files. So whoever you were going to meet won’t be able to help you either.”

They were coming up on the opening to another hallway just ahead of them. Colonel Ames stopped at it. Apparently this was where they parted ways, and not just figuratively.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, then walked off.

Deja vu. The man said something ominous and non specific, then walked off, leaving Kierah staring after him, trying to interpret what he’d meant.

Except this time she wasn’t just puzzled; she was angry.

She wanted to stand there as he left, forlornly watch him walk away, agonize over his reasons, maybe even follow him and confront him again, demand to know why.

But her feet kept moving, and she was glad they did. Forlorn and frustrated though she felt, it was obvious she’d hit a dead end with the colonel. Somehow he hadn’t seemed much more pleased about his response than she had been, but that was neither here nor there. He’d refused to help her, and shut down any chance of Hudsen or any other soldier helping her either.

Back to square one.

Briefly, the idea of approaching someone higher up the food chain crossed her mind. Ames might have said no, but he was just a colonel — pretty high up there, but by no means at the top.

There was General Azor who outranked him; he could override his order, but Kierah didn’t like that man to begin with. And then of course there was the prince. Honestly she wasn’t sure what she thought of him, either. But did personal opinions really matter in a situation like this? If bringing Rothan to his attention could help —

And just like that, the colonel’s latest cryptic warning came back as clearly as when he’d spoken it. “I told you not to draw attention to yourself.”

Is this what he meant? And frankly, why would he care? Unless he was the one hiding something. Was there something at Kelmar he didn’t want coming out?

But somehow, that didn’t seem to fit. He’d warned her to look out for herself, long before Kelmar had even been a thought in her mind.

So what was it, then? He clearly felt strongly enough about it to eliminate any other chance she had at getting to Rothan’s file.

Poor Rothan, she thought, finally resigning herself to try finding her way out of the military wing. Really, he was who this was all about. And while she sat here trying to figure why he was at Kelmar, he was still at Kelmar. Beat up, with a broken arm, alone.

Well, no. Not alone. With Demarc, Morellin and whoever the younger teenager was who’d come out to help him. And even if those three were all he had, he actually seemed to have more friends than she did at the moment.

_   __ ___ ______ ___  __ _

Terrell’s turn at keeping watch was just about done. Ethan watched him push himself away from the wall where he’d been leaning for the past hour or so, and head toward where the teenagers slept to wake his replacement.

Ethan himself wasn’t supposed to be awake, though. Given what he’d gone through the past two days, he should have been getting as much rest as he could, when he could. And right now, he could.

Except he couldn’t.

“Ethan, you’re awake?” Terrell whispered as he passed by, stopping at Ethan’s cot.

“Can’t sleep,” he muttered, eyes closed but mind nowhere near shutting down.

He hated when his head did this to him. His body was beaten, exhausted, but apparently that wasn’t enough to convince his thoughts to take the night off.

“You okay?” Terrell asked.

“I’m fine,” he shrugged it off, then sat up. “Why don’t you get some rest, I’ll take the next shift.”

Terrell didn’t oblige him. Instead, he sat on the edge of the cot, giving Ethan a stern look. “What is it.”

“What?”

“I know that look,” Terrell said. “What’s wrong?”

Ethan sighed. “You’re really bad at taking orders, ya know that?”

“I’ve never gotten along with authority.”

“You’re tired,” Ethan tried again. “Go to sleep. I know you want to.”

“Not as much as I want to hear you own up to your big, dark secrets. So spill.”

He hadn’t left him much choice, and Ethan didn’t bother protesting again. With a resigned huff, he gingerly swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat next to him.

“Nah, no dark secrets this time,” he warned. “You know them all, anyway.”

“I know. So what’s wrong.”

Ethan stared absently at the dark abyss that swallowed the ceiling somewhere above their heads. “I guess I’m just wondering — what happened yesterday? I mean, how’d you and Jonah end up coming to help us?”

“I told you, they just pulled us up there. Nothing much.”

“But they didn’t say anything?” Ethan pressed.

They’d already had this conversation the day before, after they’d gotten back to the tunnels, but some things still felt unanswered. Or at least, the answers seemed to leave some gaping holes.

“Nothing,” Terrell shrugged. “Like I said, the guard just came in, pulled me and Jonah off the wall, and told us we were going up. Seemed suspicious at the time, and I’m not gonna say I wasn’t nervous, but we had to follow him.”

“And when you got outside…”

“The other guard told us what happened and brought us to you. We’ve been over this already.”

“I know, but doesn’t it seem weird to you? I mean, why would they authorize that?”

“I’m just glad they did,” Terrell pointed out.

“Yeah,” Ethan agreed. “But guards just don’t do that, no matter what kind of shape we’re in. Rothan and I — we could barely get splints for our arms yesterday morning, and those were something we’d actually asked for. We didn’t ask for this.”

“Maybe someone else did?” Terrell suggested.

Ethan entertained the thought for about half a second before laughing. “Yeah, maybe Garn saw us and thought he’d make up for the night before.”

Terrell was grinning. “I know. I’m kidding.”

“So who was the guard, anyway?” Ethan asked. “I never got to see him.”

“The one up by you? I don’t know, he was green. Must’ve come in with the last batch of recruits.”

Ethan thought back to a bit earlier that day. “So was the one who took me out.”

“So? They’re so bored already that they’re putting together a team — one breaks you, the other fixes you?”

“Very funny. No, I don’t really know why it would matter. Just wondering.”

But it did seem rather odd a coincidence that both of them had been rookies. Ethan just wished he knew what kind of a conclusion to draw from it.

“Well, think about it, that might explain why he ordered us up there,” Terrell said, apparently speaking off a tangent that he’d figured out in his mind but hadn’t actually developed out loud.

“What might explain it?”

“Since he’s new, maybe he just doesn’t know how things work around here yet,” he elaborated. “Maybe he just thought — ‘Hey, there’s a guy down, I shouldn’t just leave him there.’ Ya know, something crazy normal like that. And he just hasn’t learned yet that that’s not how they do things here in merry old Kelmar.”

“Maybe,” Ethan considered it. But that didn’t seem to quite fit either. “But maybe not. From what I remember, he sounded nervous, kind of shuffling around while you guys were finishing cleaning up. If he just honestly didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to be helping us, he wouldn’t have had a reason to be so edgy, or to bail as quickly as he did.”

“Point,” Terrell conceded. “And if he was really just being helpful, wouldn’t he have wanted to stick around to tell you that he got quota waived?”

Quota. There was that, too. After they’d gotten back to the tunnel, Terrell had told Ethan the guard had arranged for two quotas to be commuted for the day. Effectively, he’d given both Ethan and Rothan the rest of the day off. Two other boys had picked up their shifter duties, and no one had replaced them at the wall.

That was something else that had never happened before.

“Either the guy is unusually gutsy, or unusually stupid,” Terrell concluded. “Either way, you’re right, it doesn’t make sense. And I wouldn’t count on it happening again.”

“I’m not,” Ethan said.

But if he’d had to choose a time for it to ever happen, yesterday had been excellent timing. If he and Rothan had been left on their own, who knew how long they’d have been stuck out there, an easy target for any other prisoner or Garn’s henchmen who might have passed by.

The questions that it raised were hard to ignore, but he couldn’t deny the bare fact that it had happened, and he was grateful. Apparently, at least for the time being, he would have to be content to settle for the best conclusion they could come up with.

“So you think it really was just a rookie mistake, then?” he asked.

Terrell gave a noncommittal nod. “What other explanation is there?”

_   __ ___ ______ ___  __ _

A day passed. Two days. Three.

Kierah was stuck. She and Terula had searched all over the digital network, and hadn’t been able to turn up a single clue on Rothan’s record. At least, not anywhere they could access.

She couldn’t go through with her plan to talk to Hudsen, or any soldiers Terula knew.

And besides them, there wasn’t anyone else she could ask, with Ames’ warning hanging over her head — she wasn’t supposed to draw attention to herself. But why not? Somehow, by not telling her, he’d ensured she wouldn’t do anything. She wouldn’t be able to without wondering if it was the very thing he’d warned against, wondering what terrible consequence would blow up in her face if she did.

But every day that passed was another day Rothan was holed up down there, just waiting for another Kumaari-like disaster to happen, in the worst case — or for another guard or prisoner thug to abuse him, in the best case. Neither were acceptable alternatives. And she was running out of patience.

There had to be some way through this. She just had to figure out what it was. And with the state her mind was in, that was something she couldn’t hope to do.

Lately, when she felt frustrated, which was irritatingly often, she’d go to one of the few places she could think straight: The gardens. And unlike the training center with its stress-relieving punching bags, the gardens were the one place that nobody bothered her, where she felt like she could breathe.

The first time she’d seen it was through the enormous glass wall when she’d been transported from the prison cell to her room. For days afterward, she’d gotten so lost any time she left her own hallway that she hadn’t been able to find it again.

But since then, as she’d gotten her bearings, she’d found her way back. The quiet that she found when she was out there was different than the quiet in her room or anywhere else in the back hallways of the palace; here, it was an alive kind of silent, and when the sun was out, it was the most peaceful place she could hope to find.

She still had a soft spot for the training center, but even though running her body into the ground usually did make her feel better, it wouldn’t help in this situation.

This time, she didn’t have a problem with getting troublesome thoughts out of her head; it was more an issue of getting ideas into it.

But even out there, she couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being closed in. The palace and grounds were structured in a series of concentric circles in the direct center of Encidas, starting with the circular outer wall, across the immense stretch of lawn dotted with extra-palatial buildings like military barracks and transport hangars, to the palace in the middle — itself a ring with a hollow center. In that center were the gardens. Sometimes being out here, Kierah felt like she was sitting in the middle of a bull’s-eye, but no amount of target comparisons could completely overshadow the positive effect it had on her.

That’s why she found herself out there again during the free time scheduled between classes, hoping maybe it would help clear her head. And it was beginning to work.

Until she saw him.

Off to the side from where she sat on a bench, past a copse of blossoming fruit trees, was Colonel Ames. He was just standing there, looking pensive — at least, as far as Kierah could tell; all she got was a glance. As soon as she saw him, she whirled her head away, hoping he hadn’t noticed her noticing him.

Instinctively, she leaned away, casually shielding the side of her face with one hand, elbow propped on her lap.

Great. Another awkward almost-meeting. Well, at least this time she didn’t have anything to say to him. She could just stay on her bench, minding her own business, until he left.

It was a fairly uncomplicated plan, one she should have no problem sticking to, wondering why he was out here but deciding she didn’t care. She had bigger things to worry about than what the colonel did in his spare time.

Problem was, now she couldn’t really concentrate on anything else. Instead of focusing on what she could be doing to help Rothan, all she could think of was what she couldn’t do. What that man standing only a few yards behind her had made impossible.

“Is this seat taken?” a voice asked from over her shoulder.

She hated herself for it, but she jumped. So much for him being a few yards away.

“Oh, hi Colonel,” she said, composing herself.

What did he want now? She didn’t have a very good track record when he was around, and she really wasn’t in the mood to continue the trend at the moment. Hadn’t he made things cryptic enough?

But he just stood there, expectantly, next to the other side of the bench she was sitting on.

It was a wide bench. She couldn’t pretend she was using the whole thing for herself, so she swept her arm over the empty side, scooching over a bit closer to her edge.

He nodded his thanks and sat down.

“You like coming out here?” he asked once he got comfortable.

So it was to be small talk, was it?

“Yeah, I do.”

“Helps you think better?” he suggested, accurately.

“Yeah, actually.”

“Me, too,” he admitted. “Sometimes I need all the help I can get.”

Well, that explained why he was out there in the first place.

“That makes two of us, then, I guess.”

“When there’s a lot on your mind,” he said, “sometimes just getting away from it all helps put things in perspective, for me. And for you?”

“For me?”

All right, so not small talk. Since when did the colonel concern himself with why an experimental Ender went somewhere, as long as it was perfectly legal? She was allowed to be out here.

But now she was second guessing herself. He had to be trying to get something out of her, under the guise of friendly chit chat. But she could play along, too. She just had to be careful what she said.

If she could count on herself to speak in coherent sentences.

“Oh I don’t know. I guess it’s just, out here, it’s kind of like —” she looked around, taking in the life around her, the glass walls beyond. She had to come up with something to say.

“It’s like,” she said the first thing that came to her mind, “everything’s just free to be itself in here, even though it’s still trapped.”

And with that, she’d done exactly what she’d wanted to avoid. Speaking of traps, she’d just walked right into his.

“I — I mean — ugh, why do I always say the stupidest things?” she asked in aggravation, suddenly not caring what she said. It was, obviously, a hopeless effort.

“That wasn’t stupid,” he disagreed.

She waited for him to gloat. No, it wasn’t stupid; it was precisely what he’d wanted. He could read anything into it that he chose to, now.

Of all the things she could have said. She just had to say “trapped.” And to this particular man. She’d only spoken to him twice, and both times he’d given her cryptic warnings. He knew his way around underhanded messages.

If he was paying any attention at all to her answer — he was military, of course he was paying attention — he would know what was really on her mind, including the obvious interpretation: That’s how Kierah herself felt. Trapped in the palace, trapped by the foolish conventions she was supposed to be learning, trapped by the inability to help the one person she needed to.

That must have been what she was subconsciously getting at, and she couldn’t deny it — but it was the kind of thing she would barely confess to Terula without significant coaxing. And here, she’d just blurted it out to a virtual stranger, one she didn’t trust and who could use it against her in the skip of a heartbeat.

She didn’t even know why she’d done it. What was it about this guy that made it impossible for her to control what she said? It wasn’t that she was nervous around him — or was she? Nobody else made her this way, and there were plenty of other people that she felt more intimidated by.

Maybe it was because, unlike everyone else, she couldn’t figure out which side he was on.

“I think it sums it up pretty well,” he said. “Trapped.” He mulled the word over, and she didn’t dare say anything else, not knowing what would come out.

“It’s the same as this experiment you’re in,” he finally said. “You’re in the palace, but it can be the same as prison if it’s something that’s forced on you. The walls in here may be glass — but they’re still walls.”

So he’d read into it just what she thought he might. Of course he would.

Now what?

Then he said something she wasn’t expecting. “You’re right.”

She was?

“I am?” she asked. “About what?”

His voice didn’t change, but somehow it seemed, barely, heavier, like he was carrying something. Kierah just hoped he wouldn’t drop it on her.

“The experiment, the whole thing. It really is asking you to be something you’re not.”

She hesitated. “Yeah, but isn’t that the point?”

He opened his mouth to answer, but changed his mind. Instead, he said,

“I’ve tried to keep my distance from the experiment,” he said, not really answering her question. “It’s Prince Terzhan’s and General Azor’s territory. I’ve had no role in it, mostly because I can’t condone the use of human beings as lab rats. Asking you to take responsibility for the future of your entire class is, in my opinion, unjust, and the prince knows that’s my position. So he’s seen fit to keep me out of it.”

Kierah felt blindsided, trying to follow him. That was what he thought of the experiment? 

“Really?” was all she could lamely manage to get out.

“With or without my support, it was going to go forward. I just decided I wanted no part of it.”

“But then, why talk to me?” she asked. “I’m part of it.”

“Because I’ve gotten glimpses of you all, here and there, and unlike the others, you’re bold. Foolishly so. And it might be enough to alter the outcome of the experiment.”

Bold, huh? That was different from what people usually implied that they thought of her. Awkward, quiet, antisocial — sure — but bold was a new one.

“So you’re still rooting for a winner, then,” she said. “Even though you say you want nothing to do with it.”

“I want to keep the playing field level. As long as you all are predominantly successful or predominantly failing, the end result will speak for itself. But if you stir things up, who knows what will happen.”

“You know,” she countered. “You do know, don’t you? Why else would you talk to me like this? I’m not anything to you.”

It was true. Now, strangely, instead of feeling relieved by what he was telling her, she felt almost angry. Here he was, a high-ranking official in the military and, consequently, someone with recognition in government — and he was hiding his head in the sand. He disagreed with the experiment, which was great, but what good did it do any of them?

She was acutely aware of the pressure she and the others were under to perform to the expectations set for them, and this man apparently didn’t like it any more than she did —

But unlike her, he had the luxury of turning the other way and waiting for it to be over, regardless of which way it ended.

It was the same thing she did when it came to watching a nailbiter sporting event on television; she could change the channel, wait for it to end, and then check the score afterwards — when it was over and nothing more could be done about it. All the heart and soul of the process would get boiled down to two cold numbers on a scoreboard in the end. Why commit the energy and the emotion when the result would play out anyway?

Except in this case, the game had stakes infinitely higher than which team walked away with a piece of hardware.

“I’m talking to you to preclude what would happen if I didn’t,” Ames answered her. “Believe what you will, but I don’t know what that would be. I just don’t particularly care to find out.”

He still wasn’t telling her anything. Nothing she didn’t already know.

“Then why Kelmar?” she asked. “How would asking about a prisoner file be a problem?”

He pondered his answer before giving it. “There’s no reason Kelmar is off limits, just like there’s no reason the ballroom is off limits. But the difference is, all the Ender girls want to get into the ballroom to learn to dance. No one wants to get into Kelmar. No one even asks about Kelmar. If you make it obvious that you’re more interested in the mines than the tango, you’re going to stand out. People — I’m not saying who, or even why — but people will notice that. 

“You’re part of an experiment, Miss Kaelen. That has never been kept from any of you. You’re a specimen under a microscope, and everything you do will be analyzed. They’ll try to figure out how you tick. They’ll ask questions. They’ll look into the reason why. And they’ll find out about the boy.”

“And do what?” she asked. “What will they do with it? I know someone in the mines. So what? Half of all Enders knows someone that’s in there.”

“How did you say you know him? Half of all Enders can’t say that it could be their fault a child got sent there. As it stands, a vast majority of Trythians don’t care about the kids at the mines, as long as they can look the other way. But if this gets out, they’ll be face to face with it.”

“That’s what this is about?” she asked incredulously. “Bad publicity? I’ll make the experiment look –“

“What do you think the whole point of the experiment is?” he posed. “This whole thing is about publicity. Why else would the prince go through all this with you? If it really was just out of concern for the Ends, he could just sign the order to help them, set up programs, initiate reforms. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s creating entertainment, building up rapport with the people. This is the kind of thing, one of the few things, that goes over well with all classes — amusement for Nobles and Middles, hope for Enders. It’s getting a good response, and he wants the attention. He’s trying to create a name for himself, get out of the shadow of his father. And so far, it’s working.”

It made sense, but Kierah was slightly dumbfounded to hear it spelled out quite like that. And even moreso that it was spelled out by the colonel, with so little reserve. He didn’t know her. He had no reason to trust her. Yet he was laying bare the prince’s motives to her.

“But if they didn’t want anything bad to come up, why even take us to Kelmar in the first place?” she pointed out. “They had to know some of us would know someone there.”

“For the same reason they take you anywhere else, or teach you anything else. It’s a test. What will you do? How will you react? Will you conform like good little test subjects, or give in to your uncivilized Ender nature — their words, not mine. Like everything, it’s a test.”

“And if I don’t drop this, I’ll fail it?” she asked bitterly.

Bad publicity. Could it really be that simple? She couldn’t try to help an eight-year-old kid, who was being punished likely because of something she did — because it would make the prince and his system look bad?

“I’ve said all I can say,” he said, standing up abruptly. “I’ve warned you. I’ve put any military connections you may have off limits. I can’t control what you do with what I’ve told you, but I’m telling you, if you pursue this, it could come back to hurt you.”

“Hurt me, or the prince’s reputation?” Kierah muttered.

He stared at her sternly. “I may be a colonel, but there’s only so much I can do. And I just did it.” He dipped his head in farewell. “Good afternoon, Miss Kaelen.”

He strode off, disappearing into the foliage, and leaving Kierah only slightly less confused than she’d been before.


RE-READ THE LAST CHAPTER ↔ OR KEEP READING TO THE NEXT!

Chapter 6: Guilt

It was a scene that could have been taken from the pages of any East End guard’s logbook, something Kierah could have passed by any day, on any street where she’d grown up. Guards attacked Enders, Enders fought each other, … Continue reading Chapter 6: Guilt

Chapter 8 coming Monday night! I’d love to hear your thoughts — please leave a comment OR shoot me an email!

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