Of Silver and Beasts(4)

By: Trisha Wolfe

Willa laughs, and I stop walking to face them, but Lilly takes off on a bound toward the random guy she picked out at the fruit stand. I latch on to her arm, and she tugs me behind her. “Lilly, stop—” She laughs, and Willa doubles over. “Oh, goddess. Don’t embarrass me again.”

Lilly finally stops when she has to grab her stomach, her laughs tumbling out in pants. “I won’t,” she says, and gasps in air. Then she looks into my eyes. “I just want to see you happy.”

“I am,” I say. And I mean it. “I’ve got you guys, and we’re advancing today. I couldn’t be happier.” I raise my brows. “Who needs a man?”

Willa throws her arms over both my and Lilly’s shoulders and urges us forward. “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

I shake my head and wrap my arm around her as we walk together toward the palace.

The migrating crowd clusters closer as we near the gatehouse. We form a long line and inch forward slowly. Soon, I won’t have to bother with checks. I’ll live in the palace and people will look to me to keep them safe.

I only wish I could bring my mother along. For the past few years, I’ve done well at playing the child. I’ve given her ways to feel like she’s the one taking care of me, when really it’s been the opposite. I’ve kept her fed and living in our apartment with my training salary. Made sure she saw her physicians every month when she’d fight me on it. And monitored her medication, assuring the disease in her lungs didn’t spread.

Her caretaker Emily has been with us since my father was taken away three years ago. She’s only a couple years older than me, but responsible. I hired her myself, and I’m confident in her, but when I’m not there to oversee everything, I worry. I’ll be able to visit during my leaves, and I’m not far away, but not being able to be there for her daily fills me with guilt.

I guess my mother and I are both plagued by our guilt in some form, though.

She couldn’t protect me from my father’s fits of rage, and I grew up ashamed of a woman who submitted to her husband. She wouldn’t stand up to him. I know that wasn’t her fault, though. She hadn’t been trained by the protectors to know her own strength. And any duration of time being belittled and abused can subdue the strongest of wills.

If she would’ve exposed my father—a man—for what he’d done to us, he would’ve been executed. Her gentle heart could never allow that, no matter the monster he was. So as I got older, I learned to keep his anger directed toward me, away from her. Still, I wonder how a mother could bear it. Maybe the goddess Farrah gave her a timid heart and me a stubborn will for a reason, a purpose. At least I discovered mine.

One of the gatehouse sentries runs a metal detector along Willa’s front and back as the one next to me mimics her motions, stopping only to give me a small, heartened smile when the tip of the wand illuminates as she passes over my chest. Claudia is her name, and she performs this routine with me nearly every day.

She knows of the cybernetic instrument, but not of the mercury. The clamp in my chest had to be revealed to her the first day I was brought here and, thank Alyah, her station has been consistent since. I couldn’t handle all the sentries knowing of my abnormality.

“Live well, in Farrah’s name, Kaliope,” Claudia says to me, smiling.

I nod once. “Live well, in Farrah’s name,” I repeat to her. Then we enter the palace court where our new life awaits.

The wall surrounding the palace looms over the crowded court. Citizens mingle and push ahead to find the best position to view the empress. Lilly, Willa, and I move toward the protectors standing in front of the platform before the palace.

Free-standing colonnades line the cemented path through center Court. Sheer white fabric is draped between the white columns, and it wavers slightly in the slight, warm breeze. Herb scented smoke billows from the top of large copper burners, perfuming the dry air.

As we near the middle of the gathered crowd, I see my mother standing alone near a stature of Farrah. Where’s Emily?

“Go ahead without me,” I tell Lilly and Willa. “I’ll find you before the ceremony begins.”