My fifteenth birthday. My greatest fear. Funny how my life as a slave made the two synonymous. Even though I wished I could sleep through the day, hoping such an act would make the inevitable impossible, I woke up just like I did every morning. But today was different.
It wasn’t the icy draft tickling my toes under the mouse-nibbled blanket that roused me from sleep. Nor was it the chatter of the thirty or so other female slaves, who shared the sleeping chamber with me, prepping for their morning chores. No, I woke up knowing something was quite wrong because I didn’t hear my best friend’s snores. Like the other slaves, I shared a bed and today Ivy was curiously silent.
Without lifting my cheek from the pillow, I threw my left arm backward, reaching out for Ivy. Instead of thumping her on the head, the pillow caught my hand. I rolled over, expecting to see the sheets already tucked in, but instead I was surprised by a rumpled mess.
Ivy wasn’t usually up first, but she always made sure her side of the bed was neat if she was. Our overseer, Ranee could punish us from across the room with just a flick her wrist, leaving small welts on our backs if we didn’t keep our bunks clean. One of the magically gifted, she kept us in line when our masters weren’t around. Ranee loved thinking she was better than the rest of us because she was gifted and we weren’t.
I glanced around the room, but didn’t see Ivy. The other female slaves were getting dressed and shaving each other’s heads, just like they did every morning, but still there was no sign of her. Maybe she was up early getting a surprise ready for my fifteenth birthday today, anything to mask the agony our master had planned for me.
Eyeing the sheets, I sighed and reached down to tuck them in. Making the bed was a task I hated and wasn’t very good at. I grumbled under my breath as I yanked the sheets tight. A small object flew through the air, landed on the floor with a metallic ping and rolled under the bed.
I paused, my hands still grasping the edge of the sheet. What was that? My heart pounded. The mysterious object combined with Ivy’s absence caught me off guard. I had heard the rumors. What slave hadn’t? It was the moment we longed for and the moment we feared. My hands shook as I wondered if her early exit this morning hadn’t been her idea.
“Reychel,” Ranee yelled from across the room, “get that bed made quickly. They’re expecting you in the kitchen. Take an example from Ivy and try getting up early for once.”
I nodded, dropping to the floor. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be, I repeated to myself. I reached under the bed, where my fingers bumped the rough edge of the object. It was too thick to be currency, but too small to be a button.
“It couldn’t be,” I whispered.
My fingertips tickled the edge of it and I reached a little further until my fingernails scraped the top.
I dragged the metallic thing along the floor, barely grasping it with my fingertips. I prayed to Eloh that it wasn’t what I feared it was.
“What’s going on?” Ella, who slept in the bed next to us, popped her head up off the pillow. I had thought she was still asleep. “You drop something under the bed? Need help? I’m a little smaller than you and can slide underneath.”
Normally Ella’s company would be a good distraction in the morning, but the new girl was too eager to make friends and today I didn’t want to deal with her. I shook my head, hoping she would go away. Right now I needed to be alone. I slipped the object closer until I could see my hand on the floor, peeking out from under the bed. I palmed it before anyone, myself included, could see what it was. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ella inching closer.
“Ivy must have gotten up really early this morning. I didn’t see her leave. Did you?” Ella glanced at Ivy’s empty side of the bed.
I shook my head again, hoping Ella would get the hint. Unfortunately nothing short of a rude comment would turn the new slave girl away. Hoping there was nothing to hide, that the metallic item I felt under my palm wasn’t anything more than a piece of trash, I pulled my fist tight and stood up.
“What is it?” Ella asked, peering at my hand. She reached out, but I jerked my hand away, hiding it behind my back.
“Nothing.” I shrugged my shoulders, trying to avoid looking concerned.
“Ivy’s up earlier than normal. You’re being secretive.” Ella paused, her strawberry eyebrows arching. “It’s not a token, or is it?”
“Shh.” I grabbed her by the arm with my free hand. I glanced around the room, hoping no one heard her. Luci yanked her dress over her head, wiggling to pull it over her ever-widening hips. Geannie fought with Terah over an apron. Everyone seemed enveloped in their own dramas, at least enough to ignore mine.
I pulled Ella down on my bed next to me. We sat quietly, both of us staring at my fist. My palm hurt as my fingernails dug into my skin. I was afraid to open my hand. Maybe if I squeezed hard enough it would disappear, just like the coins Ian, my master’s servant and fool, would lose and magically find behind someone’s ear.
“You need to look,” Ella said. She patted the back of my hand. It didn’t reassure me.
But I knew she was right. If I sat here much longer, Ranee would punish me. It wasn’t going to disappear, no matter how much I willed it gone. I took a deep breath.
I opened my fist and looked at it. The token. I held my breath and closed my eyes, not willing to believe what lay in my hand, the emblem left behind every time a slave was kidnapped. We didn’t know who or why but for years, intermittent reports had popped up all over the kingdom of slaves disappearing at all hours with only the token left behind.
There were rumors, of course. Some people thought the Sons of Silence, a band of outlaws, kidnapped slaves simply to anger the local authority. Others believed in the old tales and prophesy of a savior freeing slaves until an army large enough to overthrow the Malborn was built. While there were more theories than kidnapped slaves, it hadn’t affected me. Until this morning.
I glanced back at my palm. Even though I’d only heard whispers about these coins, it couldn’t be more obvious that this was exactly what everyone had been whispering about. Round, rough, and metallic with an unmistakable word engraved on one side: anathema. Flipping the coin, Ella and I examined the engraving of a man and a woman holding a baby framed by the outline of the island we lived on.
I traced my fingernail along the outline of the infant’s face, wondering if my parents had ever held me in such a loving embrace when I was a baby. Its head snuggled into its mother’s shoulder and playfully rested one chubby foot on its father’s arm. I smiled at the happy baby.
It winked at me.
I dropped the coin and watched it roll across the wooden floor. I rubbed my eyes. Since when did inanimate objects wink? Something had to be wrong with me.
“It must have been on the bed.” Ella snatched the coin from the floor before it could roll away and held it in her hand. “You know they always leave this token in place of the slave they take.”
I stared at Ella. “Did you see that?”
“See what? What happened?” She cocked her head to the side and examined the coin. “It’s just like everyone says, isn’t it?”
“The baby,” I stammered, pointing at the coin.
Ella squinted at the family.
“It’s supposed to be a girl,” she said. “That’s what the old stories say, at least.”
I glanced back at the coin. The baby didn’t wink. Its metallic eyes stared at its mother. Relieved that I was just seeing things, probably just light glinting off of it, I took the coin from Ella.
“Old stories,” I scoffed, “more like children’s tales. It wasn’t long ago you were sitting at your mother’s knee as she stuffed your head full of them. They are just stories. There are no prophets, no secret groups, and no war to come. Look around, Ella. This is our reality. Slavery to the Malborn.”
Ella stiffened as she rose from my bed and I felt my stomach sink to my knees. Why did I do that? I knew her mother was dead, her father missing. It’s the reason she ended up a slave. Like many other slaves, Ella had no one to speak for her, no one to care for her. My parents died when I was a baby. I’d never known a different life than the one I’d always led. Ella did. She knew what it was like to be free.
“Either way, Ivy’s a lucky girl.” Ella turned around to make her bed. “Wish I would have been kidnapped instead of being sent here.”
“Don’t say that.” I stood up and put my hand on her shoulder. “No one knows why slaves are being kidnapped. For all you know, they could be selling Ivy to the tunnel diggers in the south.”
“Ivy? With her body?” Ella laughed. “You think someone kidnapped her to sell her to the mountaineers? Doubt it. I suppose they’d be more likely to take you.” Ella glanced over her shoulder, looking at me from head to toes. Her rude comment was payback for mine.
I glanced down at my body. Maybe I wasn’t curved like Ivy, but there wasn’t anything about me that suggested I’d do well at hard labor either. My hands were calloused from washing dishes, not smooth like Ivy’s. Buying food at the open-air market outside the castle laid a nice tan on Ivy while my confinement only accentuated my already pale skin. But kidnapped for hard labor? I don’t think so.
I sighed, glad the awkward moment was over. We were even. Maybe Ella had more fire inside her than I thought. She was also forgiving. “The tunnel is being built by Emperor Palen’s men. They wouldn’t kidnap slaves that already belong to the empire.”
Ella tucked in the last corner of her sheet, and then turned back to me, a smile on her face. She looked down at my hand again.
I fingered the token, rolling it around in my palm. I didn’t know what to make of Ivy’s disappearance. Did she struggle? Wouldn’t I have felt it? If she left willingly, why did she leave me behind? And who kidnapped her?
Another worry pushed through my already crowded mind. If Kandek, our master, knew Ivy had been kidnapped that famous temper of his would explode. Rulers didn’t take kindly to escaped slaves, but kidnapped slaves were downright shameful. Kidnapping signaled a collaboration, defenses being breached from both the inside and out. Would he think I had something to do with her disappearance?
Rubbing the stubble on my head with my empty hand, I worried over my decision. Should I feign ignorance and hide the token? Or tell the truth and be possibly punished for something I didn’t do?
I already had enough to worry about today, just thinking about my birthday celebration sent shudders through my body. What if he did something worse to me than what he already had planned?
Whatever was going to happen, there was little I could do to avoid it now. Ivy was gone and I was left behind. Grasping the coin between my finger and thumb, I pulled my itchy wool shift over my head, replacing it quickly with a clean one.
I knew I couldn’t sit around and stew. My chores waited for me in the dark bowels of the kitchen. Bowls to clean, plates to dry, and cups to put away. It wasn’t a stimulating job, but it kept me away from windows, just like Kandek wanted. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t allow me outside, or even to peek out a window without his permission, but rules were rules. I had to follow them or face punishment. I’d seen enough slaves punished to know I never wanted to be in their place.
No matter what I did, eventually Ivy would be missed and not found. Everyone would assume she’d already left to pick up food in the market. I, on the other hand, was on duty to wash the breakfast dishes and would be missed. If I didn’t show up, they would suspect me of having a hand in Ivy’s disappearance. If they even discovered it any time soon. Maybe no one would notice she was gone until the midday meal when their fruit from the Southern Kingdoms didn’t appear on their plates.
I slid the coin into the secret pocket I sewed under my shift. Not much of a secret since nearly every slave had sewn at least one of these pockets to the inside of her dress, but better than leaving it out for someone else to find while I was about my chores. Just one more way to delay the inevitable.
I nudged Ella’s arm with my elbow as she straightened her dress. She too had to hurry, but she was part of the cleaning crew wandering the castle all day to clean up after the nobles. I wouldn’t see her again until night and I had to be sure our stories concerning Ivy’s disappearance matched.
“Ella, did you know that Ivy already got up to do her chores?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” Her eyes narrowed as she glanced at the few slaves left in the room and then she whispered, “She didn’t get up. She was kidnapped like the others!”
“Ella, did you see Ivy get up to do her chores?” I repeated, stressing each word, hoping the lie would sink in quickly as the other slaves began to leave to attend to their chores.
“Did you?” Ella grabbed my hand, her eyes widening, convincing me she finally understood what I was doing.
“Yes, I did.”
“Then I did too,” she whispered, squeezing my hand. I could still feel the spot on my palm where the token had been. Even though it was now well-hidden, it had left an invisible mark on me.
But I knew we couldn’t stall any longer, our chores were waiting for us. I let go of her hand, reached under the bed, and grabbed my shaving kit. Then I handed Ella my razor. “Can you shave my head this morning since Ivy got up so early to get started on her chores?” If I repeated it enough, maybe it would be real.
We weren’t allowed mirrors and relied on each other to keep our heads cleanly shaved each morning. Ella’s tiny hand shook as she reached for the razor. I wasn’t sure how much skill she had in shaving. I’d frequently spied her shaving herself in the corner when she thought no one was looking. It must have been hard for her to be the new girl with no one to rely on for help and friendship.
“Sure, Reychel. Anything to help a friend.”
Ella dunked the soap in a bucket of water and then rubbed it on my head. I shivered as the cold water trickled down the back of my neck. I felt the coarse towel scratch against my neck as Ella sopped up the drips.
If Ivy knew this was coming, and her silent escape told me she knew, why wouldn’t she have shared it with me? We’d been best friends for as long as I could remember. We had always sworn to stick together, especially after Ivy’s fifteenth birthday last month. She’d faced her horror with my help. Who would be there for me today?
I reached for Ella’s shaving kit as she wiped the last bit of soap off of my freshly smooth scalp. Years ago the tingle I had felt after shaving disappeared. I was used to the barren sensation. It definitely felt better than the itchy black stubble that grew overnight.
“What do we do now?” Ella switched positions with me. She sat on my bed while I stood up behind her, ready to return the favor.
“The same as always.” I carefully pulled the razor over the curve on the back of her head. Making my way over to the ears, the most difficult part to shave without nicking, I leaned over and whispered in Ella’s ear. “We go about our chores. We stick to our story that we saw Ivy get up early. I’ll keep the token hidden.”
“I’m scared, Reychel.”
“Me too,” I said, trying to keep a steady hand as I finished shaving her head.
Walking through the servant’s hallways, roughly chiseled parallel to the grand halls to keep us separate from those who ruled us, I ran my fingers along the cool, damp stone walls. I wondered what it was like outside today. I’d heard it was beautiful. Sunny skies with puffy clouds. Not that I would get to see. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been allowed outside this year.
My master, Kandek, only allowed me glimpses of the outside world in his presence. No open windows, no glances between the curtains, nothing. It was forbidden and anyone who saw me try was ordered to turn me in to him or face punishment with me if caught. To avoid getting anyone else in trouble, I had learned to ignore windows. I couldn’t bear for anyone else to get in trouble for my mistakes.
Most of my days were spent in the dark back room of the kitchen. I washed and dried dishes, put them away and repeated that for every meal. Not exciting, but better than cleaning out urine pots.
It wasn’t my place to ask why the outside world was forbidden to me, but the other slaves had their theory. Due to Kandek’s interest in having private meetings with me in his chambers, everyone thought he wanted to make me his concubine after I came of age. After today.
Yet he always seemed interested in what I had to say and I’d never noticed anything inappropriate about his behavior.
While it was strange he would request an audience with me and not any other slaves, I couldn’t believe he had bad intentions. Behind closed doors he was kind, almost friendly to me. Although I had witnessed his cruelty, I couldn’t believe he would ever treat me that way.
No matter how much I protested their beliefs, the other slaves still treated me like an outsider. Only Ivy had gone out of her way to befriend me and over the years, she had defended me many times.
“Morning, Luci,” I said as I walked into the kitchen. The heat of the room overwhelmed me as the breakfast bread baked in the ovens. The smell of rising yeast never failed to make my stomach growl.
“Finally.” Luci said, wiping her flour-covered hands on her gray dress. “I’ve been waiting for you. I was about to send someone to fetch you. You spent too much time chatting with Ella this morning. You two need to move faster in the morning.”
“Sorry.” I balled my hands up into my dress, feeling the token lying within the secret pocket. “Since Ivy left so early this morning, I had a little extra work to do.”
Luci rolled her eyes and grunted. “Ivy has never been anything but nice to you and here you are blaming her for making you late. You’re so ungrateful. Now get out so I can open the windows.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I took one quick glance at the heavily curtained windows. Not only did they provide light for Luci and her staff on sunny days, but they also gave the heat from the ovens a place to escape. And they couldn’t be opened until I had taken my place in the back room.
Holding back a sigh, I shuffled into the dark dish chamber. The walls were filled with shelves and with dishes of every kind waiting to be filled with every kind of delicacy from roasted pheasant to exotic fruits from the Southern Kingdoms beyond the mountains. There were small bowls for finger cleaning between courses. Soup bowls, salad plates, and mixing utensils. Hand-painted plates saved for visits from dignitaries ranked higher than Kandek and the chipped ceramic plates we slaves used for everyday meals. I was amazed how many dishes one man and his household could use in one day.
As I pulled dishes off the shelf for today’s breakfast and placed them on the cart, I let my mind wander away from Ivy and to my other troubles.
I wanted to forget today was my fifteenth birthday. I wanted to lose myself worrying about Ivy, but no matter how hard I tried to keep my mind off of it, I couldn’t forget that today I faced my greatest fear.
Handmaids sewed dresses of the finest silk with gold thread and embellished with pearls. Every man’s finest garb would be aired out for the occasion. Food from all over the island arrived daily to be added to the feast. The oranges from the south shined like gold. My mouth watered just looking at them. I could smell the cakes, already in the oven for today’s celebration.
Unfortunately none of it would pass my lips. I wouldn’t wear a beautiful dress either. Those were only for noblemen and their wives who would be here to watch me receive a permanent gift from my master, the brand of a fox on the back of my head, forever marking me as his property.
Every morning we slaves shaved our heads as a sign of our restricted status. Only free people were allowed to grow their hair. Long ago, there was the theory that if a slave ever escaped and hid long enough to grow an adequate amount of hair, she could join society as a free person. To avoid losing their slaves forever among the masses, masters branded the slaves they intended to keep on their fifteenth birthday.
Ivy received hers last month and we had gripped hands until the moment the guards came to take her away to her party. Forced to stay behind because the great room had many windows, I called out to Ivy as the guards grabbed her elbows and led her away.
“Be strong Ivy, but don’t be ashamed to cry.” I cupped my hands around my mouth, yelling to Ivy as the guards dragged her out of the room.
“I’ll never give him or any of his stupid guests the satisfaction!” Ivy shook her arms free from the guards. Shoulders thrown back, arms straight, and fists at her side, Ivy marched out ahead of them.
I imagined the scene taking place and the murmurs of the lords and ladies as they would watch Ivy get strapped into the chair. Forced to bend at the waist with her arms still tied behind her back, Ivy’s face would rest in a hole on the table. One guard would hold her head down as the other would sear the brand into the back of her head. It was always the same story, but only from those who were brave enough to tell the tale.
Kandek did allow each slave one person to wait for them after the branding. Ivy naturally chose me, so I waited alone in our sleeping chambers for her return. Not long after taking Ivy away, the guards returned with her propped up on their arms.
Her head hung down; the branded fox red and swollen on the back of her head. In the background I had heard the raucous laughter of the partygoers. My stomach flipped as I realized this would be me in a short time. I had never seen the immediate after-effects of branding before and I would never forget.
Throwing her into my waiting arms, the guards left as quickly as they had come.
“Are you okay?” I whispered into her ear. Her head lay on my shoulder, my arms around her back.
“When it’s your birthday I promise to hold your hand until the moment they force me away from you.” Ivy held her head up to gaze into my eyes. A lone tear escape from a blue eye. After that, she didn’t speak to me, or anyone else, for three days.
I helped Ivy hobble to our bunk. Once she settled into bed with a medicinal poultice made for her by the herbalist, my duties as her aide were over and I was forced back to work. The day’s party would dirty many more dishes than normal and I was needed in the kitchen. But that night we held hands as we fell asleep.
As I pulled the last of the dishes off the shelf, tears fell as it hit me how alone I was.
I wondered what anathema meant as I slipped the coin out of my pocket. I flipped it over and looked at the baby again. Its head turned and looked straight at me. But it didn’t wink. Oh no, this time it smacked its hand to its mouth and blew me a kiss.
Anathema, and its exciting sequel, Oubliette, are available now!