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The snap echoes between the walls of my skull as white-hot pain shoots down my throat and into my ears, pushing water from my eyes.
One shaky whimper flees my lips. Just one.
His boot—now a vise with the ground—clamps my cheeks between the hard grate of its sole and the sharp, icy gravel beneath me.
Snow drifts down, sweeping me with cruel, frosted kisses.
The Coliseum is taller, more menacing, than ever. This time, I’m the cause of all the commotion.
Down here, the large stone arena orbits me, the traitor, mocking the Sun instead of honoring it. Each towering arch surrounding me is an ashen rainbow, cracks and all. And below each arch, the stands are crammed, stippled with faces like small dewdrops piled on grass. The Coliseum is strong as always, but today, it’s suffocating, the unbreachable walls yards away yet closing in on us.
We’re positioned front and center, the main attraction: a girl and her executioner. Our stage: snow and dirt. Our audience: the blood-hungry citizens of Bellona.
I’m numb and frozen and burning all at once. Long strands of red-tinted hair stick to my forehead and hang over my eyes. Blood trickles thick from my nose down the back of my throat. It tastes of tin. I spit it out and blood sprays the snowy ground.
The crowd cheers.
“More!” several shout as one.
“Traitor!” a woman calls out.
A child lets out a high-pitched “Off with her head!”
Mass laughter ensues.
They lust for this, are entertained by it, feed on and frenzy over it.
But all of that is background noise. At this moment it’s only me and one other—the Imperi officer who holds me with the intensity of his eyes. Each fleck, each shadow. I know so much and so little of those eyes.
Tears collect in my own, blurring his image. Bloodying every memory. It’s better. I can’t stand seeing him.
As if on cue, the gray clouds break. The Sun shines down, casting a fiery ring around us; a spotlight illuminating the place where I lie and my executioner crouches over me, his boot at my jaw like a hunter with fresh-killed game.
The Coliseum quiets.
All of Bellona hushes.
A newly hung banner flaps in the wind, the red words IN SUN’S NAME, THE IMPERI WILL PROTECT YOU FROM THE NIGHT distorting with each whipping gust.
“Veda…” My name cuts through the silence as a whisper in my ear.
I strain my eyes to see past his exterior. To find the boy I thought I knew so well within the enemy. But I can’t begin to pluck a single piece of him from the fray. Instead, my sight settles on the altar, the slate pedestal to our right, the large sacred hourglass suspended above. Red sand fills the bottom bulb.
A single bell rings.
It’s time for the finale.
The icy hand of early morning slaps my face the instant I step outside. I gasp and then force an exhale that leaves gray clouds hovering on the other side of my lips. It’s dark. It’s freezing. I’m breaking the law.
Quickly, quietly, I make my way from shadow to shadow toward the woods. My face stings with numbness, my nose already tingling, but I ignore it. I’ve gotten used to that, ignoring discomfort, because there’s always something more important. This morning, it’s bait.
The one bait that trumps the worms I sell at the market. The worms do fine, but the fish are tired of them, fewer and fewer biting with each passing day. And who are they to be so picky? It’s a free meal after all. But Poppy and I need to eat too. And right now, our hunger trumps stinkin’ finicky fish. It also trumps the law.
Not only am I out before the Sun, but I’m headed to the Hill, the Dogio side of the island. The side Basso folk like me aren’t supposed to wander. If we’re found near the Hill it can only mean one of two things in the eyes of the law. We’re either stealing or looking to steal. No one gets lost on this island; it’s too small. No one walks around after dark; it’s too dangerous. If I’m caught by an Imperi guard, I have no excuse. If I’m caught by the Night, I die.
A branch snaps in the distance and I skid to a stop, hiding behind a tree. For a moment I question everything. Can Poppy and I continue living on scraps if I don’t catch any fish today? The cellar is emptier than ever. Even the mice have moved on. But is this truly worth it? My stomach grumbles in answer.
A plump mud beetle will assure me at least one decent catch.
As I keep to the edge of the woods, steering clear of any lamplight or main walkways, I can’t ignore the crudely posted signs. Paint on parchment. Some of it still fresh and sticky.
Names … Photos … More and more Basso have gone missing. Taken by the Night. Snatched from their beds or from tunnels or while sneaking around after sunset, forced into illegal deeds to stay alive. A gust of wind blasts from nowhere right through the trees above me, casting leaves down like heavy raindrops. I startle when they hit me, but as fast as they’ve fallen, I brush them away, silently cursing the cold breeze for scaring me. For reminding me of childhood bedtime stories.
When evening’s wind laps through the trees, the Night’s light footsteps hide ’neath the breeze.
I force away the shiver.
Fear is a luxury I can’t afford at the moment.
Besides, how many times have I gone out before morning bells? Countless. How many times have I encountered the Night? Never.
Making my way deeper into the woods, I take in the crispness of impending winter, the clean smell of snow that hasn’t yet fallen but brews someplace not far off. The canal whispers to my right. At first, it sounds like a warning, hissing stop. Then it quickens, the rush of water urging me to move.
I stop when I reach the pond, which is only a small pool off the main canal that runs like a thick vein through our island. I crouch, my knees sinking into cold, damp earth. The mud beetles always nest in the soft dirt near fresh water. Not only is the soil richer on the Dogio side of the island, there’s more fresh water. It’d take me days to find a mud beetle in the dry, unforgiving sandy stuff we Basso call soil.
Pulling my blade from my belt, I use it as a shovel. As I dig deeper and deeper, a black, iridescent beetle scurries and burrows farther into the ground. But before I can claw my fingers in to pinch the thing, a sound steals my concentration.
Just below the whistling wind, footsteps crunch over dry leaves behind me.
My heart lunges into my throat and the words … the Night’s light footsteps hide ’neath the breeze … repeat on a loop in my mind.
I search my surroundings. Too quickly, the gray of night is churning into early morning indigo, shadows showing all over the place, distorting everything around me into Imperi soldiers sent to arrest unruly girls who leave before the morning bells. Or worse. Because there’s always worse.
The footsteps crunch again. Closer now.
I tell myself to focus. To pay attention. “Look sharp,” Poppy would say. But all I can picture is the brutality of the Night. Of bedtime horror stories about heathenish, moon-worshipping monsters cloaked in black like death. How they snatch children from their beds and put them to work underground, milking mud beetles and feeding the toes of naughty children to snakes and fanged groundhogs.
Bait, Veda. Bait.
With a deep breath and clumsy fingers, I claw my way into the ground in search of the pest. Determined, dirt caking my hands, finally, I get ahold of what I know is a mud beetle, its spindly legs fighting for dear life. With a gentle yet quick pinch, I yank the bug out of the earth and shove it into a jar. One’ll have to do. But it’s alive. Fresh is always better.
Fast as I can, I throw the jar in my bag, wipe my hands over my wool shawl, and shove my gloves on to cover the evidence. Step-by-slow-calculated-step, I inch my way to a tree and duck behind it.
Another loud crunch sounds. If it’s an animal, it’s large.
My breath catches.
I wait, silent as night itself, not daring so much as a long breath. As the Sun rises, I use the increased light to check the small hourglass slung around my neck. Holding the metal frame between my finger and thumb, I strain to see that the brown sand has nearly reached the one-hour line. Only a few minutes until the all clear.
Dropping the pendant, tucking it back under my shawl, I peek around the tree trunk, allowing one eye to sneak a look.
Whoever or whatever it was that made those footfalls is gone. I want to think it was an animal, a fox or deer. But sense tells me I’d have heard it run away. Even an Imperi soldier at their sneakiest would have made more noise. No, this was something stealthy. Something heavily cloaked. Sly and devilish.
Rumor is the Night melt into shadows like pitch in a crack, taking whomever they can skewer their bony fingers into right along with them. Usually unsuspecting Basso like me.
The Sun’s risen.
Morning bells ring. Quick as I can, I flee the forest and make my way to the Hole.
Copyright © 2019 by Jessika Fleck