It was stupid. Amata had known that it was stupid, but that hadn’t stopped her.
The worst part was that she hadn’t really wanted to save Nala. She cared about her friend, of course, and she hadn’t wanted the cook to hit her again, or, worse, report her, but Amata’s mind hadn’t been working properly recently.
All she’d cared about in that moment, as she’d spun around, fists clenched, and told the cook to leave Nala alone, was getting back to Jesse.
The cook hadn’t had to punch Amata like he had Nala; she’d been ready for him to hear her name. She’d been ready for him to report her because she’d thought that, then, she’d be able to see Jesse again. In her mind’s eye, she’d seen the two of them locked up together, awaiting their separate trials. She would have given anything for those last few moments with her brother.
Only now did she realise just how stupid that was.
Being reported wasn’t the same as being chosen in the Verdict. You were promised the same outcome – certain death – but it wasn’t the same. Those chosen in the Verdict were honoured; they were the favoured ones, chosen to represent their people, but those who had been reported… well, they were just criminals.
That’s all Amata was now – a criminal – a Disgraced.
There were no second chances in this world of the Guardians. Amata couldn’t just apologise and go home. She’d not only disrespected her superior by arguing with the cook, but she’d also disrespected the Guardians by failing to focus on her work. She’d been too slow – too distracted, and now she was their prisoner.
There was one other Disgraced in the cell with her. She didn’t know his name, but she was almost certain that she’d seen him working in the greengrocer’s a few times. He wasn’t talking to her; he was staring blankly at the wall ahead, eyes blank and glassy.
Amata wanted to say something to him, perhaps to find out what he’d done wrong, or to comfort him, at the very least. She knelt cautiously beside him on the sodden ground, trying to make contact through his unfocused eyes.
“You work at the greengrocer’s, don’t you?” She asked timidly, throat slightly hoarse from a lack of speaking. She didn’t know how long she’d been in the cell, but she could tell that at least a day had passed since she’d argued with the cook and she hadn’t eaten since.
The man seemed to focus in on her slightly, his eyes clearing a little.
“I did,” he grunted, his voice strangely cracked. “Don’t hang onto the past, kid. There ain’t no jobs anymore. All we got is this cell, ‘n we ain’t no one here. They don’t care, them Guardians. I could ‘a been the chief or mayor or church warden… all they need is their sacrifices, ‘n they don’t care ‘bout much else.”
“How long have you been down here?” Amata continued, taken aback slightly by his brutish manner.
“I ‘eard there’d been another Verdict,” the man grinned, revealing a row of charred, blackish teeth. “Let’s just say I weren’t about for that. Didn’t even hear ‘bout it ‘till a couple of days ago, so I guess ‘bout a couple of months.”
Amata gasped, backing away to the opposite wall.
“Why are they keeping you down here?” she demanded, glancing at the cell door as if she expected it to have magically opened somehow. She’d been counting on a quick death. She couldn’t stand the thought of hearing about Jesse’s fate from the guards, helplessly trapped in the dark with this strange, sinister man.
He grinned again, head turned slightly to the side as the sound of a bolt being drawn echoed through the cells.
“They like to sacrifice us in threes,” he gargled, as a figure was pushed into their cell, followed by three masked Guardians.
Amata backed further away from the door, blinking in disbelief as the figure in front looked up, and she found herself staring straight into the eyes of Nala.
Click here for part four!