This story is part of a serial; to read part one, click here. Thanks for reading!
Amata’s memory seemed somewhat stunted from the night of Jesse’s Verdict. She could remember him reaching up and plucking the fiery orb from the air, and even him floating eerily above the masked Guardians like kind of a perverse doll. After that, though, her mind went blank.
She knew the facts, of course: five people had been chosen that night – two boys, one married couple, and a girl, younger even than Amata. Another two had been executed for breaking rank after the Verdict; they had been the owners of the frightful screams that Amata had heard, and the parents of that little girl. Amata supposed that it would be worse for the girl, now that she had no family left in the village. She would have no reason to stay alive, not that her chances of doing so were ever going to be particularly high.
As for Jesse… Amata’s heart seemed to numb as she thought of her brother once more. She hated not seeing him on guard duty as she stepped out of the house, and missed those dashing grins that he’d sneak her as she collected her daily rations from him. More than anything else, though, she hated not knowing that he was there, safe from the wrath of their captors.
No one had ever survived the Verdict; Amata knew that. She remembered, from a time when she knew only rumours of the Guardians, asking her father about them. She hadn’t needed to know. No one’s life had depended on it, but she’d asked, and she’d never gotten an answer. Since then, of course, Amata knew everything there was to know about the Verdict. Attendance at the Ceremony was compulsory for all villagers, which meant that Amata would have to watch her brother die.
Her various packages of flour and crockery seemed much heavier that day as she trudged down cobbled alley after cobbled alley towards the kitchens. Usually, she enjoyed the distraction of work, but she was far too preoccupied to concentrate. A pot would fall to the ground, Amata would stop to pick it up and several more would fall. When she had collected all her burdens once more, she would take only a couple of steps before she had to repeat the process.
All she wanted to do was see Jesse, but she knew that she couldn’t. She hadn’t been able to see him when he was just another villager, let alone when he had become one of the Chosen. The likelihood was that they would never see each other again, but Amata just didn’t seem capable of coming to terms with that fact. It was, after all, her fault that her brother had been chosen. If she hadn’t reached for his hand, or let out that pathetic sob that had made him turn to her, she felt sure that the Guardians never would have chosen him.
Now, all was lost.
The same thoughts were milling about Amata’s over-filled mind as she reached the kitchens and slipped through the back door. She placed her packages neatly at her workstation and then hurried to where the aprons were kept. She realised that she was horrifically late, what with her frequent stops along the journey, but couldn’t face the thought of being reprimanded. Not that day. It was too much.
Back at her station, she frantically began chopping and cutting, trying to stop the guilt she felt from making it onto her face. The Guardians themselves rarely came to the kitchens; they were far too busy patrolling the village perimeters and strengthening the walls of what had become the villagers’ prison. Yet Amata could still be punished for bad behaviour, the cooks knowing that they, along with their families, would be put in jeopardy if they did not deal out the Guardians’ punishments for them.
Nala’s workstation was right beside Amata’s, and Amata could see her friend trying to catch her eye as they worked. She knew what she was going to ask. She was going to ask if everything was okay. Amata couldn’t stand lying to her only friend, so she decided to ignore her, instead.
Her first dish complete, Amata placed it on the end of the queue behind them, her head hung low as she desperately tried to avoid Nala. Two years her senior, though, Nala was far too assertive to allow Amata to escape. Just as Amata turned back to her station, Nala left hers, causing them to collide halfway between the food queue and their workstations.
“Stop it, they’ll see!” Amata hissed furiously as she picked herself back up and straightened her apron. She picked up her knife again and tried to hide behind her curtain of long hair, but there were voices from behind them now, and Amata had a horrible feeling that Nala wasn’t working. She was going to get into trouble. Amata was sick of trouble.
“What are you doing, girl?” a harsh voice asked from behind the food queue. “Don’t just stand there! Get on with it!” Every inch of Amata’s body was begging her to turn, to grab her friend and yell at her to do something, but she didn’t move, and neither did Nala.
There was the sound of heavy footsteps and Nala screamed as a fist made contact with her face.
Amata knew that there were tears welling in two sets of eyes now.
The cook’s punches were the most painful. He didn’t just want to save himself. He wanted to hurt them just as much as the Guardians did.
“Get up!” he yelled at Nala, his voice quaking with the rage that he was yet to release. “What’s your name?” he demanded, a mock tone of calm taking over his voice. That was when he was at his most dangerous because it meant that he wanted to cause more than physical pain. Nala was going to be reported.
When Nala didn’t answer, there was another squeal as he punched her again.
Amata sighed, regretting her decision even before she opened her mouth.
Click here to read part three!