“I think you should do it,” Kierah approached Zera. They were eating together during lunch, and Kierah took another swig of her coffee. She’d been feeling more and more sluggish lately, and was hoping the caffeine would kick in before anyone noticed.
“But what do I do, again?” Zera asked, looking properly befuddled.
“You think of something that you like, that you care about, and you put together a project focusing on it,” Kierah proposed.
“A project?” Zera wrinkled her nose, at the concept more than at the vegetables on her dish.
Later, Zera was talking about the concept like it was her own idea. Not because she was trying to cover for Kierah in any way, but because that’s just who she was, taking the credit for everything she possibly could.
This time, Kierah didn’t lodge any complaints about having her idea stolen by her friend. In fact, this was exactly what she wanted.
By the time the concept reached the prince’s ears, Zera got full recognition for her brilliant idea, and the rest of the Enders set about trying to craft a personal project that spoke to who they were and what they’d learned so far during their part in the experiment.
Kierah took a back seat and watched as the idea took off.
Some of her fellow Enders chose surprisingly impactful topics, like establishing a soup kitchen in their Ends, or setting up a forum to investigate the deteriorated relationship between Enders and the guards, or leading a class to educate Middles on the truth of the plight of their Ender neighbors.
Others settled for less challenging options, like researching the evolution of Trythian cuisine over the centuries, or volunteering at the animal shelter just outside the palace once a week.
It didn’t much matter to Kierah what the others chose. She was glad they ran with their own ideas, and that they might even help a person or two along the way.
But she was really only concerned with helping one person in particular. And that was a certain small boy who lived his father’s shack in the Ends.
In planning her project, she pointed out that the Ender experiment was incredibly thorough, but only as far as the limited demographics involved were concerned. The experiment included young adults and older adults — but they were all adults. And adults weren’t the only inhabitants of the Ends, she said. A huge percentage of the population were children, and the experiment did nothing to address the potential of those children to rise above their environment and become something better.
Under her idea, a handful of children would be taught life skills, as well as trained for jobs, such as mechanics, farming or cooking.
They’d also be given the chance to live where they were being taught.
Like one particular little boy who’d be escorted from his father’s shack, and brought to learn cooking in the palace kitchens, and live with the palace staff.
– – – ———- – – – –
Kierah was torn between wanting to skip down the hallway to the barracks, and wanting to storm down the hallway to the barracks. Everything was going swimmingly in her plan to get Rothan away from his abusive father and somewhere at least she, if not Ethan, could keep an eye on him — and tonight she was going to update Ethan on her progress, for the first time since Rothan’s disappearance.
But this was also her first time confronting Danan since he took Rothan away. She’d passed him on her way out of the barracks the night she’d found out about it all — Rothan’s abduction and Ethan’s history — but she’d been running later than usual and hadn’t had time to say anything. Now, she had a chance to say something.
There they were, him and Tate, standing at their post as usual. She took a deep breath and approached.
Both nodded in acknowledgement of her arrival. She looked at Tate, and wondered if he knew what Danan had done. Without being able to see his eyes, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking.
So she just jumped right into it.
“Do what.” His voice said he knew exactly what she was talking about.
“The kid,” she humored him. “You took him. After you promised you wouldn’t hurt them. Why did you?”
Tate turned to look at him. “What’s she talking about?”
Danan remained stone-faced. “You really think this is the place to discuss this.”
“You don’t give me much choice,” she countered. “You’re the one who did this.”
He muttered something. It took Kierah a second, but she stared at him when she realized what he’d said. She asked anyway, “What did you say?”
He set his jaw in refusal, as if realizing he’d said something he shouldn’t have. “Nothing.”
That’s what it had sounded like. Her forehead furrowed underneath her helmet.
“The kid’s sentence was up, that’s all I know,” he said, only a little louder than before.
“There’s no way that’s true,” she retorted, still stuck on what she’d heard him say.
“That’s all I know,” he repeated.
“What kid?” Tate asked, clearly not in the loop.
Kierah didn’t answer him yet, just stared at Danan, hard, for a few seconds. But if he felt any guilt, any remorse, he didn’t show it. Finally, she told Tate, “Why don’t you ask your partner here. Maybe he’d be willing to explain it to somebody other than me.”
And she pushed past them through the barracks’ door.
If it was true, this was what she’d been afraid of, that by trying to help them, she’d actually invited more harm than good.
Then again, it was Danan who’d said it. It was difficult to trust anything he said.
She found her way to the wall, where just a few minutes ago she’d been planning to skip her way in. But it felt like a rope had been tightened around her ankles, tripping her up. Part of her almost considered turning around and going home.
But which was more home to her — the palace? Or the place she already was?
She cleared her head. She would stay.
Ethan was awake when she got there.
She still felt a little flutter when he called her by her name.
Suddenly, her worry about what Danan might have said blurred a little, and Ethan’s face came into focus, that light in his eyes warming her as if she were next to an actual flame.
“What happened?” he asked, jumping to his feet. “Were you able to get anything started with — with…”
“Next week,” she let out a grin at his eagerness. “Next week, he’ll be in the palace.”
That spark in Ethan’s gaze burst into a full-blown bonfire. He smiled, and it was unlike any smile she’d seen in him before, she thought. There was hope there, hope that Rothan would be safe. Hope because he was counting on her, and she hadn’t let him down. And it made all the difference.
She was surprised at the gesture — he’d never gotten that close to her before. His hands on her arms felt warm even through the sleeves of the guard uniform, and a little shiver of happiness ran through her.
“You did it!” he said again. “You did –”
But he stopped, suddenly realizing he was holding onto her. He jerked his hands away, the brightness on his face dimming in self-consciousness.
For an instant, she felt self-conscious, too. She hadn’t stopped him. She should have pulled away, she should have stepped back, she should have —
But seeing the cloud that passed over him took her by surprise as much as his touch had. Because it wasn’t a look of disdain, or regret. He wasn’t angry with himself for being impulsive. Actually, he looked awkward, almost sad.
She wasn’t sure what that meant, why sadness would be the feeling he’d have. Was he sad because — he wanted to be closer to her, but didn’t think he could?
She brushed that thought aside. There was no chance, and she was stupid for having even entertained it.
Whatever the reason, she didn’t want him to feel bad, not now. Not after he’d been so gloriously happy just a second ago.
He’d looked so young when he’d smiled, she thought. That fleeting glimpse of him without worry, without needing to be the last line of defense for the kids … maybe without feeling like he was alone in all this … it was like the years etched on his face smoothed away. And for the first time since she’d met him, she let herself really admit just how handsome he was.
“Do that again,” she whispered quietly.
He tilted his head. “Do what?”
“Smile,” she said. “It looks good on you.”
He seemed confused. “You’ve seen me smile before,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, but that’s different. You’ve only smiled before because something was ironic, or pathetic, or ridiculous.
The sadness began to edge away from his eyes.
“I have enough,” he said softly. And as the sadness faded, the warmth replaced it, that little flame that had sparked when she first arrived. She could almost feel it as he looked at her, nearly as warm as when he’d actually touched her.
“I have enough.”
Surely he meant the boys. But the way he looked at her, she almost wished he meant something more.
He couldn’t, though. Shouldn’t, actually. She was a danger to him, she reminded herself. Danan’s muttered words echoed in her ear.
“There’s something you should know,” she said. “What if –” she hated to say it. “What if it’s my fault Rothan got taken?”
The flame flickered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What if it’s my fault he got released early?”
“What do you mean, ‘what if’?” he clarified. “Is it or isn’t it?”
“I … don’t know.”
“But you’re the one who figured out a way to save him,” he said. “You’re the one who’s getting him back from … from …”
The flame wavered again. “If it wasn’t for you?” he asked. “How?”
She thought about it, and realized she didn’t know. “I think I heard Danan say it,” she said. “Just now. When I came in, I asked him why he did what he did, and he mumbled something. I think he said it was because of me.”
And to her surprise, Ethan actually smiled again. It wasn’t one of pure happiness this time; it didn’t erase all worry from his face. But she still hadn’t expected it.
“If Danan said it,” he said, “don’t forget it was Danan that said it. He could just be trying to mess with you. Don’t listen to him.”
“But what if it’s true?” she argued.
He paused, weighing his words before he answered. “Can you honestly say you did something to get Rothan taken away?”
“I didn’t,” she answered.
“But Danan says you did.”
“Then you didn’t do it.” There was no room for doubt in his voice.
“Your word against his?” Ethan met her gaze evenly. “I’ll take yours.”
“You believe me?” she said.
“Honestly, I think I’ve had enough of doubting you,” he said. “Since you came here, you’ve done nothing but help us. Sometimes we’ve been slow to see it, I guess. But I’d be really blind if I didn’t see you’re just trying to do the right thing.”
She didn’t dare blink, or swallow, or even breathe. She just stared at him, afraid that if she moved, she’d find it was just an illusion.
Without using the exact words, he was saying he trusted her. Ethan. Trusted her.
“So, yeah,” he said, “don’t worry about what Danan did or didn’t say. That’s all. I mean, you got Rothan back. And ya know, I found out he’s … my brother.” He shook his head, apparently still trying to let that sink in. “So it isn’t all bad. It’s never all bad.”
“How do you do that?” Kierah asked quietly.
She chuckled, just a little. “No, I’m not. I break. Before I came here, I was — oh, never mind.”
She’d been about to say too much. He didn’t need to know how she felt. Maybe he half-trusted her, but he didn’t care enough to see her feelings.
“What?” he asked. “Never mind what?”
“Nothing, it’s stupid.”
“No it isn’t.” He looked like he meant that, too. The fire in his eyes glowed like embers, warm and smoldering. Kierah had never really paid attention to his eyes so much before. They were so bright, so intense, she felt she could stare into them forever. How had she never noticed that?
“Look, I gave you my entire life story last time,” he said. “You don’t really think you can get away that easily, do you, writing it off as stupid?”
“I wasn’t about to tell you my life story.”
“Oh? Somebody, huh? And who might that be?”
“If I find them, I’ll let you know.”
They both grinned.
“There’s not much to tell, really. Nothing like your story,” she said.
He folded his arms and leaned back against the wall, ready to listen. She sighed, and dove in for an abbreviated version.
“I was born in the Ends, I grew up in the Ends, my parents died in the Ends. That’s kind of it.”
“Your parents died?” he asked.
“Yeah, when I was 8, there was a fire in the tenement building we lived in. My dad got me out, and then went back inside for my mom. Neither of them came out again.
“My friend Zera lived in the same building with her mom. They survived the fire, so they found a new place and took me in. A couple of years later, when Zera and I were 10, her mom got sick and died, too. So we got sent to an orphanage until we were 14, when we got jobs and took care of ourselves ever since. See? Nothing that exciting.”
Ethan didn’t let her end so quickly. “Are you still friends with this Zera girl? Sounds like you went through a lot with her.”
Kierah was about to answer flippantly, but then she thought about the question. “Yeah,” she said slowly, “I guess I’m still friends with her. Ya know something I didn’t really think about before though, she’s actually the reason I’m here.”
“In the palace. In the experiment. Here with you right now.”
He seemed a little confused.
“She’d gotten taken as part of the experiment before I was,” Kierah explained, “and I had no idea where she went. All I knew was that she’d disappeared, and I … didn’t take it well, so I ran away. And that was when I met Rothan, and he’s the reason I came down here in the first place.
“From there, I got arrested, but you know that part. Then the prince took me out of prison and added me to the experiment.” She paused. “I still don’t know why he did. I wasn’t part of his original plan. He had all his Enders. I — I don’t actually belong there.
“Definitely not in the palace, because I’m trying to be what they want me to be.
“But it was the same in the Ends, too, when I lived there. I wasn’t myself. I had to shut down, be quiet, be strong to get by.
“Going back to the part where you said I don’t break — I do. I did. In these places, I was some sort of broken.
“But when I came down here, the first thing you asked me was, who am I and what do I want. Ever since I’ve been here, you just wanted to know who I actually am, because you needed to decide what to do with me.
“That’s never happened before, that I didn’t have to fit into a role that someone expected. If I had any chance of earning your trust — even if it was just to get you to let me see Rothan — I had to be completely honest with you. And with myself. I guess it was the first time I had to figure out who I really was, not what anyone else wanted me to be.
She stopped abruptly, and her face felt warm. “I can’t believe I said all that. Please pretend that didn’t happen.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because that’s more than you wanted to know. It had nothing to do with what we were talking about.” She’d done exactly what she hadn’t wanted to do: she’d said too much. And she was embarrassed.
Not because she didn’t want to tell Ethan these things. Just the opposite. She wanted to tell him everything — because it was true what she’d said, that she felt most like herself when she was in Kelmar.
When she was around him.
“No, it fit in just fine with what what we were talking about,” he said. “It’s actually what I asked.”
“You wanted to know?” A small hope stepped over the fear in her mind, a hope that, maybe, that fear was unfounded. That maybe, possibly, he did care.
He didn’t answer directly, but instead just said, “I think you should do that more often.”
“What? Do what?”
He pointed to his lips and the corners turned up, ever so slightly, and she realized she’d been smiling. “It looks good on you, too.”
– – – ———- – – – –
Terzhan watched with amusement as the little brat was led out of the kitchen and bolted into the arms of the Kaelan girl. She scooped him up and held him tight, a huge grin on his face.
Through the security cameras, he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could see just fine.
Azor nodded. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect it to get to this level.”
“Nor did I. But it makes it all worth it, the effort to wrangle up the boy’s father and have him released early. I was wondering what she’d do about it, and apparently we have our answer. Though I too will admit this is beyond what I’d expected.”
“All the effort to make it look like this project wasn’t her idea, it’s quite impressive,” Azor smirked.
“She thinks she’s flying under the radar,” Terzahn agreed. “She made sure someone else got the credit for what’s actually an ingenious idea. It’s already given a huge boost in popular support for the experiment; it’s gotten our Enders back out into society, put them in a position to interact with the populous. It’s brilliant. But that’s not why she did it. She did it for this one kid. Of all the things she has, all the things she could do, this is what she focuses on. This kid, and Kelmar.”
“And Demarc,” Azor added. “She’s focused a lot on him lately as well, according to our insider.”
Terzahn eyed him. “Because they now know the brat is his half-brother?”
Azor shook his head. “They seem to have their own interactions most of the time, apart from the kid.
“And how much does he know?” Terzhan asked sharply.
“He doesn’t know why he’s there,” Azor assured him. “He knows it’s for me. He doesn’t know what I did. He doesn’t know about the Project.”
“Make sure it stays that way.”
“It’s stayed that way for a decade. I think it’s safe to say he’ll never know.”
Terzahn nodded and returned his attention to the security cameras. “And the girl, does she confide in him as well?”
“It seems to be a two-way street, yes.”
“Do you think she cares for him?”
Azor wasn’t sure he heard clearly. “Sir?”
Azor looked at him in surprise. “Why would you want to know, sir?”
“You know what my end goal is, Azor,” Terzahn intoned. “I have to choose someone, and I’m setting my sights on her.”
“You are? Her?”
“She intrigues me. I want her. And I don’t want her to want anyone else.”
“You think Demarc could get in the way of that?”
“Do you think she cares for him?” the prince asked again.
“She might. She certainly puts a lot of effort into seeing him. It may have not started out about him, but it appears to be developing that way.”
“That might be a problem.”
“It’s Demarc,” Azor chuckled. “He’s always a problem.”
“Problems can be solved. We’ll monitor the situation, and take action when necessary.”
“Define ‘action,’ your highness.”
“It depends on how the situation escalates. I’m intrigued by the girl. She’s perfect for what I need, and the Demarc boy must not get in the way. I’m the prince, I have the power to play god with their lives. It amuses me, so I’ll continue until they both serve their purpose.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said she intrigues you, sir.”
“Because she does,” Terzahn shrugged. “As I’ve said, she has everything. I gave her everything. I excused her when she was accused of assaulting a Middle, back at the beginning. I made an exception to the original number of Enders for the experiment when I added her into it. From the start, she was different. And it’s only fitting that she finishes as different as well.”
Azor raised his eyebrow. “So you’re going to go through with it, then?”
Chapter 24: An unexpected invitation coming Tuesday! We’re in the home stretch now 🙂 This all wraps up on Friday!
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He was going to go in there. He was going to fight. And he was going to kill someone, or die. Continue reading Chapter 22: A fighter and a slave