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One of the earliest memories of my mother is of a knife.
My bedroom was on the second floor of our box of an apartment, a tiny window set into the chipped cream walls. I remember the light of fire dancing on the bottom of my windowsill. I was nine, and I had to climb atop my bookshelf to see the street below.
A few men marched past our house, and I wondered why they carried torches when the streetlights were enough illumination. I watched them come and go, and a few minutes later another clump of marchers came from the shadows. They were oddly silent, the sound of their footsteps echoing down the street like thunder.
Enter my mother. She burst through the door with such ferocity I tumbled off my bookshelf, scraping my knee. She started towards me, and I thought, of course, that she was going to take me in her arms and sing to me like she always did whenever I was hurt. It wasn't until she was close that I saw the glimmer of silver flash in her hand, or the way she gripped the hilt so tightly her knuckles turned white.
"It's okay, Vivian, sweetie," she said. "It's going to be okay."
I remember the blade came towards me, pressed against my cheek, and all the while I could only stare at my mother, my sweet, affectionate mother. The blade began to bite, and the tears filled my eyes. Her hands shook, and a second later it fell to the floor, and my mother drew me into her arms. She spilled no blood.
"I can't do it," she said, over and over and over again. "I'm so sorry. My sweet baby. I'm so sorry."
The next half an hour was madness. She tore through the house like a storm, whatever we could carry into two packs. And then we ran. I didn't understand it at the time, why we were running from the people I had known my entire life. I didn't understand why there was so much smoke in the air, why we ran into the deep of the forest. Why we joined a group of people I had never seen before. Why my mother had put a knife to my cheek. But now, now that I understand, I almost wish she would have cut.
The fabric presses tight around my eyes, grinding into my temples and causing a pounding of a headache. As if the bag around my head isn't good enough to blind me. I'm not supernatural, just pretty. Pretty is why I've been running all my life, and pretty is what got me kidnapped. There's a saying that goes around: Destroy the face before they chase. Words of wisdom that I didn't follow, and my mother couldn't go through with.
Beauty is a sin, or so says the Book of Light. Cecil Harrington wanted to change the world, and she started with our small island nation Meridian. She thought the way to change it all was through commonality. She searched for a target: what was the starting factor that would foster a society of purity? Years later she wrote the Book, and the very first passage reads:
Beauty is the gravest sin. It is the cause of lust, of hate, greed. It poisons our culture and destroys our society. Throughout history wars have been fought of unspeakable magnitude, rights given to some but not others, all for the glance of a pretty face. We must stop this evil while it can be eradicated. Some are born with beauty as the ultimate test of the human spirit. They must cast off this face of sin and embrace the true light of the human soul. If they do not, we must cleanse them of the demon ourselves. Only through commonality can we truly have a peaceful society.
I wish I was kidding. And the strange thing was, people believed her. I understand wanting to blame the problems of the world on someone else. I get it. But the idea was absurd, and yet months later my neighbors had a copy lying on every bedroom pillow. The spark of revolution had caught hold in Meridian. It started with name-calling, derogatory terms. Then it moved to stone throwing, broken windows. Houses set on fire. By the time the book was passed into law, my mother had had the good sense to be miles away from civilization.
My family now comprised of a small group of refugees, always moving, always running. Running from the Black Coats, whose job it is to hunt us all down and bring us back for judgment.
Hence: before they chase.
As sinners, we are judged by a jury of our peers, the people of the Book who determine our fate. Not everyone gets the same punishment.
Let's say my best friend Rex and I were taken. We would go to Stage, a small room of cold and dark that looks nothing like a stage, or so I've heard. These peers would judge us on a scale of one to ten. One is the least dangerous, or the least bewitching, and ten is a one way ticket to death.
Rex receives a Five, and he gets thrown in jail, possibly an opportunity to repent. Basically, he'd have to break his face. But let's say I got a nine. There are only two options for me: burning, or the Plastic Surgeons. Whichever town I'm brought to would have a demonstration, throwing me up onto a pyre and watching me writhe in flames. The revolution of the Book of Light isn't religious at all, but it sure acts like it.
The Plastic Surgeons aren't a picnic either. They tear you apart tinkering with your genes, trying to find out how to reconstruct your entire genome to make you look just like everyone else. They want to know how to alter the next generation. I've heard rumors about pregnant volunteers who inject their fetuses with vaccines to test how their efforts can change a baby's phenotype. Commonality.
I should have done it, but I've always been a defiant child, and ten years of running has only cost me the wrong finish line. The rope around my wrists rubs the skin raw. This morning was so beautiful. It shouldn't have happened like this. We weren't even close to a town. Rex's scream rips through my head. It's the last things I heard from him: my name. We were sitting on the banks of a river, hidden from view behind a tall boulder. "I feel like we eat mushrooms every day," I said, keeping my eyes glued to the water for the swish of a fish tail. We were trying to get lucky.
"We probably do," he said. The sky stretched blue with the occasional accent of a cotton ball cloud. Rex lifted his face to the sun and smiled. And that was all. I didn't realize I'd been hit until the world swam, and my vision bled black. The last thing I saw was Rex's mouth opened in a silent scream, and I was gone. Now I was tripping over my feet through the darkness.
I had to be in a narrow hall, because occasionally I would lilt too far to the side and meet stone. The Black Coat jerks me to a stop, and the air rushes as a door opens in front of me. He shoves me inside, and hands move me sideways. The cold air stings my skin. He rips the bag from my head, then the blindfold. A spotlight blinks on overhead, and white spots dance across my vision. The other side of the room is dark, but I can feel the press of their stares, the heavy weight of them. Someone stands next to me, and it's the first time I notice I'm not the only one being judged today. The line of pretties stretch across the room. I search for Rex, but even with half still bagged, I can tell he's not here. Relief floods me.
The Black Coat un-bags the person next to me, and a boy with skin like porcelain and bones as delicate as a bird's wing squeezes his eyes shut against the light. He turns his head to me, his eyes the color of robin's eggs.
The voice speaks soft, measured. The lights cut on all but one. The silence crawls along my spine. Then, after what seems like forever, the voice reverberates throughout the room.
"Five." The light goes off, and with it a memory comes unbidden.
I'm walking next to Rex through the thick forest. The sunlight spills through the trees and pools in places on the soft ground.
The light shines over the next sinner. The silence returns.
We don't tread lightly here, too deep into the forest for anyone to care.
"Seven." I swallow. The next light comes on, and my heart spikes. I feel sick.
We climb up the hill ahead of us, the path unfamiliar and wild. We break out of the tangle, and before us stands a cliff.
The boy next to me stills as the light comes on next to him, and I see his profile outlined. He looks at me again, his eyes wide, wet.
We stand at the edge of the cliff, look down the hundreds of feet below and see the nearest town diminished to the size of an ant.
The light goes off, comes on, and now I can see the tears on his cheek. He stops breathing. "Nine." Blackness.
Overhead a falcon soars, its cry piercing past the horizon, to lands unknown. The wind picks up, bringing with it a shower of leaves and flower petals.
My hands shake, and suddenly the light is over me, the light is accusing me. I search outside, try to land on a face, but all I can feel is their hate. Everything is so still. I can't feel the slamming of my own heart.
The petals catch in my hair, and I stretch my arms and take in the world.
The tears fall, but I can't feel them. All I can feel is the way time has suddenly become finite, how my life is so much shorter than I ever thought possible. The judging finishes minutes later. Slowly the room brightens, until I can see their faces.
My heart stops. This isn't normal judgment. The faces at the back of the room are too refined, the clothes too pristine. On each coat lapel rests a pin, a silver Treble Clef encrusted in diamonds. Instead of the gentle curve of the tail of the clef, a paintbrush slices it in two. Those are Aristocrats, and this is the Black Market.
My mouth runs dry. I thought it was all a rumor. I don't know if I should be relieved. The Aristocrats are a last stop to save skin. The Black Market exists solely for them; Black Coats bring us here first for a chance to make money. The rich can buy us and take us to their homes.
And then we will become Living Dolls.
Slaves, really. I've heard the stories. Glamorous playthings, powered and made up to bend to their master's every whim. Illegal? Yes, and I never knew it actually existed.
"Gentlemen," the woman says, her hair falling in a sharp curtain around her face. She gestures to us, and they step forward for examination. They walk the line of us, some with women on their arms, made up as if this were tea time in the afternoon. I keep my eyes down, my heart hammering my head dizzy. I'm going to throw up.
Fingers lift my chin, and I'm staring into the tawny eyes of an older man, salt and pepper hair slicked back. His fingers feel like slime against my skin, and I want to shrink away, to run and never look back. But I don't look away, study his hawkish features while he studies me. His eyes narrow, and then he releases me with a dismissive flick.
"Eight," he mutters, and walks away.
My breath comes back, and I straighten just in time to see my partner hauled from the line by a pair of Black Coats. He turns his head to me one more time as they pull him through a door in the back of the room. I see the apology, and the terror reflected in the blue of his eyes. And then he's gone forever.
"That is all," the woman says, and the Black Coats come forward to take the ones that remain away. And now I know. I close my eyes against my fate, as if I could stop it, and feel the harsh grip of the Black Coat's gloves over my skin.
A voice rings out through the room.
"Daddy, wait." The room stills. A small child pulls on the pant leg of the gentleman that examined me. "She looks like my doll," she whines. I look down at the toy in her hand. Indeed. Jet black hair, wavy and thick, with jade eyes. A figure that's more stick than curvy.
"Please," she says. "I want her daddy. Please, oh please!" He looks up at me, then back at his daughter. She blows out her cheeks and pretends to hold her breath. He sighs. Points to me. And suddenly I'm stumbling forward and into another life. I look down at the child again, a plain little thing with blond plaited curls.
And I don't know if I should call her savior.