THE BOY WHO WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER
As the new year came and went, bringing with it the curiosity of whether I was quick enough to dodge the elite Nightshades and their magic, my daydreams were filled with escape fantasies. I had approached Jem more than once and begged him to escort me into the city. Every time, I was met with his avid refusal. After the third time, I was frustrated enough to ask Andis after he had called me and was finished interrogating me about my welfare. His snappish reply was one that didn’t allow for rebuttal. “Absolutely not. There is nothing out there for you. Don’t ask again; my answer will be the same. Now, if you will excuse me, I was doing research and I can’t concentrate with you gawking at me like I’m going to perform some trick.”
I felt restricted and enraged, especially when I could witness the changing seasons outside and felt cut off from everything.
“I hate this,” I whined to Jem for the millionth and third time, throwing down my pencil in a tantrum midway through a lesson. It bounced against the ‘N’ inscribed over the northern point of the compass. “Why can’t you just take me to the city? Just once. No one has to know. We can go after your shift.”
Jem’s eyebrows lifted slightly as his gaze rested on my sketchpad. We had been working on shading. “Focus, Briara. Your shading for the circle looks unrealistic. You’re distracted.”
“Now, listen, here’s your x, representing your light source. Yet, you shaded the circle darker here. It wouldn’t make much sense.”
I pouted and my arms crossed over my chest. “Why won’t you take me into the city? You’re an adult. You’re sixty-eight years old. In the mortal world, you’d be somebody’s grandpa! You’re a Nightshade soldier! You have the authority; no one would stop you. You could, if you really wanted to. You just don’t want to! You hate me! You want me to suffocate in here and die! And when I die, I will burst into ashes and then you’ll cry, thinking about how you never honored my simple wish to see that magnificent city out that window!” I waved my hand towards where I knew the distant city horizon would be, aligning it with the compass’s ‘W’ line.
Irritated, Jem sighed and shook his head, but he wasn’t about to be persuaded. “Briara, stop behaving like you are two years old and please start acting your age.” A furious grimace dominated my face. Jem took one look at me and released a curse. “Hell afire, you’re a spoiled little brat. You deserve a good whipping!” Jem expelled all of his irritation out, and then ran a hand through his short blonde hair. “The Conquistadors probably have good reasons for not wanting you to go into the city; it can be dangerous. If you are going to have a foul attitude, go. Leave me. I don’t want to teach someone with such a horrible attitude how to recreate the world at the stroke of a pen. We have enough darkness tainting the world. We don’t need more of it created in art.” Jem’s words were as painful as a knife.
Humbled, but still frustrated, I set about to fix the circle’s shade.
One night mid-January, I made a discovery that would assist in assuaging my ennui. As usual, I was wandering around the Echelon, bored. The Conquistadors were in a meeting that had melted into nocturnal hours and had no need for me. The corridors were empty; those who were of importance were chained to the Conquistadors’ meeting, while those who were dispensable had gone home to their families for the night. As I wondered how Jem would sketch the various decorations in the halls, I wasn’t aware of where I was going and wandering around aimlessly. It was not until I pushed through the library’s elegant double doors with the dragon and phoenix designs etched as part of the frame that I stopped.
The library’s lights were dimmed for the night despite a boy hunched over a pile of books. His table was in my direct line of sight, and I noticed that it carried its capacity worth of books. I was surprised that its legs hadn’t yet begun to falter with the amount of books already stacked high on its surface. The boy looked up at the sound of the double doors falling shut behind me, announcing my presence. He stared at me just as I stared at him.
He was a preadolescent boy, perhaps only a few years older than me. His bearing had a cockiness to it. His nose was the least prominent feature on his face, followed closely by his wide honey eyes. There was some Asian ancestry lingering in his facial features. Hair, the color of black ink, was allowed to behave as badly as it wanted, and he had lots of it growing out to his shoulders. Tangled, it appeared to have gone a week without seeing the bristles of a brush. He wore a loose light-tinted hoodie, unzipped to the midpoint of his chest. It was easy to see from the stress and despair on his face that he despised his current circumstances. I’d never seen him in the corridors of the Conquistadors’ Echelon and was a little surprised; visitor traffic in the Echelon was usually limited to government officials.
“Oh good, is the meeting over? I thought I was to spend eternity with these books and I would be here until the earth melted over with hot lava!” The boy broke the silence that hovered around us. Eagerly, he started to shut his books and shove them into his backpack. His words contained the inflection of self-importance, a quality I would have found immediately agitating if it were not for my curiosity and excitement over seeing someone my own age here; it had been a long time.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I murmured. The boy paused and gave me a speculative glance.
“You’re not the messenger? A servant?”
“I’m not wearing a servant’s uniform, am I?” I answered crossly. I did not appreciate his assumption.
The boy arched an eyebrow. Mirroring my cross tone, he said, “Well, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to work.” With a tug on the precise book he needed, he held onto it while allowing his backpack to drop to the ground. He propped the book in front of him open and his eyes rested resolutely on its pages. He hadn’t placed his notebook in his backpack yet, so the book was next to the open notebook. Even from where I stood, I could see that half of the notebook’s page contained illegible handwritten words. His hand hovered over the page in hesitation, as if he was attempting to gather his thoughts. I knew that he was not as studious as he seemed, for another book had been inserted in the text. It had a shiny, animated cover and looked like a comic book. The boy glanced longingly at it.
I shifted near the door, one leg supporting all of my weight, then the next, uncertain as to what to do. My eyes darted around the library with a casual glance. Bookshelves and silver filing cabinets with the Conquistadors’ most important books and papers lined the walls while a scattering of tables filled the middle. The books were stacked on the shelves with the utmost care. The precision was characteristic of Emileigh Cardling, who was not currently present.
“Are you all right?” the boy questioned. I nodded. He shifted in his chair. His chin rose in the air and his back straightened, acquiring his previous haughty stance. “Well, good. I certainly didn’t want to be distracted like I would be if you fainted or something. This is important work here,” he declared. As if to prove his former point, he refocused on his book. In a quick movement, he flipped a page and frowned at the new one in front of him. In another quick movement, he pulled the comic book down to his lap and tried to shield it by hunching over the table.
I pushed myself away from the threshold. Drawn by my curiosity and doubting that the boy had work so important that it made his tone that haughty, I approached the table. The boy refused to look up when I reached the edge though he had to be aware of my movement. My fingertips skimmed the table’s surface and without waiting for recognition, I scanned the table’s surface. Mostly, I was interested in what the boy was working on. I craned my head forward a couple of inches. I recognized English words printed on the pages of the boy’s notebook, although the handwriting made them almost illegible. An intense surge of recognition shot through me and I forgot all about the boy’s antagonism as I blurted out in pure excitement, “What are you working on?”
The boy stiffened visually, his pen idling on his notepad. “Work,” he said curtly.
“What kind of work?” My head tilted; my eyes narrowed to focus on the notebook.
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be? Maybe playing house with your dollies? You’re distracting me from very important work,” the boy sneered. I slipped into a stiff silence, but couldn’t be intimidated into leaving. Seeing my resistance for what it was, the boy returned to staring at the textbook page and ignored me. His concentration was fragile; more than once, I saw his eyes drift wistfully onto his lap where his comic book rested.
After the boy’s last retort, a dull silence punctuated by pages flipping every so often and the boy’s pencil scratching across paper filled the library. I took the liberty and sat down in a chair opposite of the boy’s. The boy’s back stiffened, but his eyes never lifted from the books. My hands grabbed for the nearest book. Its front cover was a collage of cherubs and humans engaged in different tales and its corners were frayed. I focused on reading the words on the cover. It took some time to sound out the words, drudging up my old reading lessons a year ago. In bold and colorful lettering encompassing the width of the cover was From the Roman Empire to the European Union: a Complete and Comprehensive Guide to European History. As I flipped the cover over and saw the first mass of pages stacked in front of me, my blood soared in my veins, excited. I forget to breathe.
Thus began my path of enlightenment.
Thus began my pursuit of knowledge, as my mother and Andralyn’s Order would have called it.
The boy ignored me for the duration of the evening, his eyes obsessively stuck to his work until a servant messenger appeared. The servant reported that the Conquistadors’ lengthy meeting was finished and the boy’s mentor, Dante, was ready to leave. The boy was to meet him in the Hall of Portals. The messenger gestured the message quickly, as if he had better things to do than passing messages to a mere boy. The boy responded with a curt nod and went about packing. He shoved his books into his backpack with too much force and disregard for their condition, making me wince over their rough handling. Hovering protectively over the history text, I felt an immense disappointment.
I had been focused on the book for hours, and hadn’t noticed that time was passing by. For the first time in eight months, time had rushed forward. My progress had been unremarkable. In the hours the Conquistadors’ meeting had provided me, I had only flipped through the pages and examined the pictures. The text surrounding the pictures enchanted me, luring me in with its mysterious wealth of information. Most of it was indecipherable due to my deteriorating reading ability, but nonetheless, I tried. Reading, as challenging as it was, had satisfied my loneliness and restlessness. It fueled my internal strength and with each slowly deciphered word, with each enlightened meaning, I was rewarded. I didn’t want to give up the book.
As if I never existed, as if our previous conversation had been lost in time and meaning, the boy departed from the dimmed and shadow-lined library, leaving his book behind in my possession. If it was not for the way his neck twisted in a slight angle to glance back at me in subtle movement, I would have believed he had truly forgotten about me, that I had become invisible. As he passed through the threshold of the double doors, his golden eyes looked back and connected with my violet ones. Before I could see the surprise written across his features, he rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.
The textbook the boy had left in my possession brightened my world in the following months. It was something that I found myself dedicated to; not so much the actual subject matter, which I couldn’t yet really comprehend, but the act of reading itself. In time, I managed to make substantial progress on the book and my vocabulary. There were words that frustrated to me to no end because their meanings eluded me. I circled them with one of my drawing pencils and continued on, intending to return to them. Yet, after many failed attempts, I had to admit to myself that I needed assistance.
During one of the nights that Jem was assigned to the East Tower’s mysterious door, I appeared, carrying both my sketchpad and the textbook. Jem was eager to start the night’s lesson, which concerned relating inanimate objects to their background. We had progressed from two-dimensional shapes to setting three-dimensional objects against backgrounds. Enthusiastic about the lesson, Jem had procured a gala apple from the fortress kitchen. I sat my history book aside and listened to him with half of an ear as he demonstrated how to make the subject matter come to life.
It was not until Jem was concluding the lesson when I shifted gears. “Jem?” I asked, setting aside my sketchpad, its top page featuring a variety of hilarious attempts at trying to connect the fruit to the tower’s background.
Jem lifted his focus from his own sketch. He was working on a brilliant piece of Vollioppe Gaean’s skyline. His eyes shifted to where I had set aside my sketchpad, and then to my hands, which held the textbook. “Yes?” he questioned suspiciously, already grasping my intent from his observations. I sensed the negative flow of his thoughts, but did not understand why.
“I was wondering,” I began, taking a deep breath in the middle to calm my anxiety, “if you would help me.”
My fingers opened the history book. Its cover landed against my knee. I noted Jem’s eyes drop to the book and take in the disorganized chaos. He saw the symmetrical printed text of the book with its organized paragraphs, margins, pictures, and captions, as well as the smudged gray circles that appeared consistently throughout the text, circling the majority of the words.
“What do you want?” Jem prompted, resistant, his words strained and harsh.
I annunciated each word to its fullest potential. “I need help.” His suspicions, usually quiet and subdued, flared. I noticed the sharp questions and fears in his eyes. In that moment, I was no longer the innocent eight-year-old he was teaching how to draw. I was an atomic bomb with an unknown detonation time.
“You don’t know how to read already?” Jem asked incredulously despite all of the fear roaring in his mind right at that moment.
An embarrassed flush heated my cheeks from Jem’s words as a sudden need for escape raged in me. I slammed the book shut and reached for my sketchpad, all within milliseconds.
Jem groaned, frustrated. “Briara, what are you doing?”
I refused to look at him. “Going away,” I muttered.
Jem caught my wrist before I could straighten and take my first steps away. His grip was tight. “Briara, please, I was only teasing you. Sit back down. This is stupid. Hell afire, you are too young to become hormonal like other females!” he muttered underneath his breath.
Jem rolled his eyes. “Just sit back down; I’ll teach you how to read if it really means that much to you. Hell afire, you’re so stubborn!”
I remained and passed the night with Jem, who spent the rest of the shift teaching me the definitions of the words I had circled in the book. Part embarrassed and part curious, I didn’t give Jem any more trouble with my attitude. I was ever the attentive student; every definition he provided me, I learned. Around three in the morning, my eyes started to droop, but I kept plowing on.
It was not until minutes before Jem’s relief was scheduled to arrive that I scurried away from the tower and its mysterious entrance, for both of us believed that Commander Narath and the Conquistadors would not approve of my visits. The sun was rising in the sky when I reached the Echelon’s main corridor after leaving the tower. Already, the fortress had started to awaken. The corridors became saturated with sleepy-eyed servants focused on morning chores. I maneuvered around them. Although I was satisfied, I also was exhausted and promptly fell into my bed without exchanging my dress for a nightgown.
During the time I was waiting for the boy to return to the fortress, I spent a lot of time sketching in the Hall of Portals. At first, my drawings were awkward and most of them were discarded. As I practiced, however, that awkwardness vanished and was replaced by an artistic grace that even Jem noticed. “These are extraordinary for your skill level, Briara. I love how you captured just the right angle of his nose; it looks just like him!” he complimented a portrait I had done of Jeremy Boone, the Secretary of the Treasury, one night when I had enough courage to show him my recent sketches. I blushed with pleasure.
When I was not kneeling in front of the Conquistadors as they interrogated and criticized me, or capturing the beauty of the world with the assistance of paper and pencil, or staking out the Hall of Portals in the hopes of seeing the strange boy passing through, I had my nose shoved in From the Roman Empire to the European Union. With Jem’s assistance, I expanded my vocabulary and memorized the definition and usage of every single word in the book. By the time I had completed my survey, I had circled a million and three words, almost nine hundred pages later. Once I had expanded my vocabulary, I returned to the beginning and started to read for content. My mind expanded with miscellaneous dates and people in European history. I lived through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the enchantment of the Enlightenment Era, the religious zeal of the Reformation, and the mass production and propaganda of countless wars. Enthusiastically, I learned all the text had to offer.
All the while, I wished that the very arrogant boy with the messy hair and concealed comic books would return to the Echelon. Eventually, he would, but not until some time after my birthday, which passed without celebration. It was spent alone and confined to my room, reading about World War One for the third time in a row as the winter’s snowflakes decorated the horizon and my window.
It was after that when the boy returned.
I knew of his arrival only because I had been in the Hall of Portal’s foyer. As usual, two Nightshades were posted at the entry. I had been in the middle of drawing one of the solders’ chiseled profiles when I heard the approach of two new visitors and glanced up. My spine stiffened and all of my focus vanished when I saw the arrogant boy standing off to the side as an adult male with flame red hair in a pea jacket argued with my portrait’s subject. I took no interest in this debate, only to note that the soldier was reluctant to whatever the newcomer was suggesting.
The boy had grown a couple of inches since the last time I had seen him. Puberty had claimed him for its roller coaster. He was looking at the soldiers with ill-concealed admiration. His hand opened and closed against his thigh, as if his grip itched for the hilt of a sword. His backpack looked heavy.
My gaze fell upon his adult escort. There was an intensity wrapped around him. It went beyond his towering height and bold-colored hair. With frantic gestures and a series of frustrated expressions, he made his point very well, at least in my humble opinion. He was a strong person, both physically and mentally. While there was a bluntness and sincerity inscribed in his features, there was also an explosiveness. After a few tense exchanges where phrases such as “no appointment” and “unscheduled” were tossed around, the lead soldier glanced at his partner, at a lost. The by-standing soldier shrugged and with that, Dante and the arrogant boy were admitted into the Echelon. Dante and the boy took a direct path to one of the wide hallways branching off of the chamber and headed towards the library. Both of them seemed extremely tense. The adult’s frustration with his ward could be seen in the stiffness of his body and the coolness towards the boy.
I leapt up from my seat and grabbed my books.
Despite my speed, the adult accompanying the boy was gone by the time I had reached the library. The boy had enough time to unload his work onto the wide surface of the table. Emileigh was nowhere to be seen. The boy was frantically flipping through the pages of his textbooks, which were spread out in a semicircle about him. I inhaled a couple of deep breaths, trying to subdue my breathing before I lifted my chin and marched into the library like I belonged there. I kept this same mindset as I sat down at the boy’s table and opened the history textbook. He glanced up through his eyelashes and shaggy hair to acknowledge my presence. Before they dropped down after a moment, I saw that they held an expression I could not identify. I thought it was related to smugness and shielded excitement.
For some time, the only sound in the library was that of pages flipping. His was frantic and searching, while mine were slow and leisurely. Every so often, he would reclaim his discarded pencil and scribble something down on one of his countless worksheets. Out of the corner of my eye, in between paragraphs from From the Roman Empire to the European Union, I noted how a faint shadow of weak stubble had already sprouted on his chin and upper lip. As if he felt my gaze on him, he glanced up. Embarrassed, my eyes darted back to my book, landing on a picture depicting Rome’s coliseum.
Until the boy tossed a worksheet in my general direction, grabbed another textbook, and restarted his tumultuous page flipping. Unable to look away from the worksheet, I blinked; it was only a couple of inches away. If I really wanted it, I could have it. My curiosity lifted my hand and pulled the worksheet towards me. The worksheet resembled the ones I had seen in my second grade classroom at Premier Academy for my spelling and reading assignments. This one listed twenty typed terms relating to history in a neat and organized type on the left side of the page. On the other side of the page, the boy’s despicable and almost illegible handwriting crawled together. I scrunched up my nose in distaste and narrowed my eyes to attempt its deciphering. The left column’s first term was a name: Caesar Beccaria. On and on, the list went. Edward Gibbon, Joseph Hadyn, divine rights of kings, natural law. The boy’s horrendous writing providing inaccurate definitions and descriptions for each one made up the right column. For Montesquieu, he wrote, a French composer.
Inspired by the incorrect answer and my knowledge, I peered at the boy over the paper. “You got one wrong on this,” I announced.
“No, I didn’t. I am never wrong. I’m what you call a perfect human,” he bragged without looking up. His voice cracked in the middle, reverting to a higher octave.
A few moments of silence drifted by as I wondered why I had returned to the library and if I had really been obsessively thinking about him ever since that first meeting. “Yes, you did,” I declared in my best know-it-all voice after the moment had passed. “You wrote here that Montesquieu was a French composer, or at least, I think that is what you wrote. Your handwriting is quite horrendous by the way! Anyway, he wasn’t. He was a political thinker, famous for his thoughts on the separation of power.”
The boy’s face scrunched up in consideration. Then unexpectedly, he lunged across the table and tore the paper out of my hand. “What do you know about it?” he said, his pride tainting his words.
“Plenty, I should think. After all, you left your history book behind with me.” I bit my lip. “Why are you doing the worksheet anyway? It seems like a pointless way to learn if you are not going to try to define the terms correctly.”
“The Conquistadors want to see me educated.” He scowled as if the thought was an anathema to him. Embittered, he scribbled out the Montesquieu mistake and wrote in the correction.
I tilted my head, curious. He scribbled out a new, sudden mistake on the page while his frustration escalated to another level. “You don’t want to be educated?” His reluctance was foreign to me. I couldn’t understand it. Ever since I had seen the amount of books the boy had in his possession, I had been envious. I wanted to learn as much as I could. In addition, judging by the scene in the Echelon’s portal entrance alone, his mentor appeared to be a passionate teacher.
After correcting another mistake, the boy hurled his pencil down. His hands moved to cover his eyes as he rested his elbows on the table. His hands seemed to be trying to shove his eyes back into his skull. “I’m not made out for this. I don’t want to do this,” he whined, mumbling. His previous arrogance faded.
“Can’t you tell the Conquistadors that?” It was a simple enough solution, I thought.
The boy released a snort. “Them? Ha! Rearranging their plans for the empire they are building? That would be like asking the earth to turn in the other direction!” His voice continued to crack from puberty’s strength, but it didn’t affect the trapped, bitter emotion embedded in it. For the second time, I grabbed the worksheet, taking pity on him. The right side was in even more chaos from his new, irritated corrections. “I never wanted this, you know,” the boy admitted before a sudden liveliness illuminated his face. “I want to become a part of the Society’s military. I would do anything, just as long as I was a soldier, anything! I would serve the land, air, or sea!”
Scanning the corrected worksheet, I saw numerous incorrect statements. Without alerting him, I procured a pencil from the stash on the table and started to correct his errors. I found that I knew the answers without having to second guess myself. They came easily, almost like they were flowing out of the pencil and onto the paper the instant the left side word or phrase activated my mind.
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” the boy said. He had uncovered his eyes and was now watching me. “Dante’s going to know I didn’t do it; he’s used to my failures by now.”
“I want to,” I replied. My eyes never lifted from the page. I kept writing, unable to keep from noting the difference between the two different types of handwriting on the page. His was sloppy, awkward, and forced; while mine, certainly not immaculate, was somewhat small and still undefined by my personality. My writing was slow as I struggled with my letters. It had been a long time since I had written a single word.
The boy sighed, recognizing my stubbornness for what it was. “I’m Levi, by the way.”
“Briara,” I muttered, more focused on the description I was writing.
“I’m not very good at this whole school thing. I’m rather good with a sword. I can win a fight against anyone in the military, even the Nightshades! We’ve even tested it out! It’s true,” Levi boasted.
My lips twitched in an almost smile. Levi didn’t say anything else as I completed the assignment. I finished and tossed down the pencil in satisfaction. “Here you go. The answers should be correct now.”
Levi sat his chin on his upturned palm. “The worksheets are Dante’s way of preparing me for the Conquistadors’ Discon. It is coming up, you know. Two months away, right after the Masquerade at Midsummer. He wants to make sure I exceed expectations. The Seconds are said to be brilliant. All I have is a man who has never taught anyone before and thinks a mountain of worksheets will help me learn.” Levi snorted, and then losing his amusement, stared past my shoulder.
Lost, I struggled with a myriad of questions I needed answered. “What is a Discon? I’ve never heard of it. And the Seconds? Who are they?”
Pleased that he knew more than I did, Levi perked up. “The Conquistadors have a set of kids they want to be more formally educated than what is supplied by the normal Academia education the other guardian kids get. Instead of going to the Academia, these kids, called the Seconds, are educated by the best the Conquistadors can find. It’s like the difference between an Ivy League school and public. The Discon is an oral final where the Conquistadors’ Seconds are called up in front of everyone to answer questions about different subjects.”
“Why are they named ‘the Seconds’?”
Levi shrugged. “Dante thinks that they are being molded into Lyrana’s future leaders.”
“Are you a Second?”
“No, of course not. They don’t want me anywhere near political power.” Levi shook his head as he stared down at the table. “They think I am something else.”
“What?” I asked, my voice hushed. Curiosity was bursting in me; I wondered if Levi and I were similar. The Conquistadors had certainly separated us out from the general population. Were they collecting children?
“I don’t know.”
Setting my elbows on top of the table and resting my chin on top of my hands, I asked, “Is that man you were with your father?”
“What man? Oh, you mean Dante?” Levi laughed. It was a laughter that was void of joy and amusement. “Oh no, he is not my father. He is just the lucky person the Conquistadors pulled out of the rat pile to bore me to death. He really tries when he is focused, at least. Most of the time, he is not. Most of the time, he is focused on whatever the latest stupid scheme he and his friend, Galileo, are planning. I don’t care really. At least it distracts him from me.”
“Where are your parents?” I inquired, holding my breath on the chance that he was an orphan exactly like me who the Conquistadors took in.
Levi shrugged again, noncommittally. “Don’t know.”
“How do you not know? Are they dead?”
“Probably not. I don’t remember them.” There was a harsh, dismissive tone attached to the statement, which made me think Levi wasn’t telling the entire truth, but he refused to talk about it.
“Are you magical?”
Levi snorted. “No, I wish. Then I could escape and set this place on fire. I would make this gigantic fortress go up in one massive explosion.” He paused, a glint in his eyes. “What about you? Are you all powerful and mighty like the rest of them?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I was told I couldn’t do any magic.” Disappointment swarmed Levi’s features, but it didn’t stop me from my inquiries. “Why are you separated from everyone else? What do they think is so special about you?”
Levi leaned his forearms on the table so that his upper body was partly over the table. Shadows lingered everywhere, streaking across Levi’s features. “Now that is the billion dollar question, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Dante and his friend Galileo have been trying to find the answer to that question ever since he became my mentor. Why not simply just erase my memory and toss me back into the mortal world? I’m nothing special and why me, why a boy who does not care to know historical dates or why flames turn blue? It’s been three years since I glowed from the inside out in the middle of a parade. One of the Conquistadors’ monkeys saw it, and then whisked me off to his masters. They tested me, but I didn’t have any magic whatsoever. So they decided to keep me under observation while making me learn pointless crap about people who died centuries ago just to keep me busy so I can’t blow the place up like I tried before!”
Levi grinned. “You didn’t hear that story? Yeah, I actually tried to blow up the fortress by making a lot of bottle bombs. It would have been so cool — I had them lined up to set off a chain reaction too. But I was caught and my punishment has been to cry my eyes out with tears of extreme boredom as Dante reads straight from the textbook all day.”
I leaned back in my seat and stared at the European History textbook that had become my joy throughout the past months. I frowned as I pondered if I would have to resort to the same pyromania as Levi. What would happen if I started to cause trouble? If what Levi said was true, our situations were very similar.
“You know what? I’m done with all of this! I want to be free! I’m declaring my liberation right now!” Levi exclaimed suddenly. With one dramatic and seemingly freeing sweeping motion, he knocked all of his books and papers off of the table.
My eyes widened, alarmed. “You just tossed all of your papers onto the ground!” I cried with indignation.
Levi shrugged and started to dig in his bag. “So? None of this matters anyway.”
“Won’t Dante be angry?” I eyed the mess on the floor. Papers lay disorganized on the floor, books had been thrown open. Papers were folded at odd angles.
“No. You should see the mess we live in. It’s all clutter and junk. There’s a pizza box on the kitchen counter that has been there for three weeks now. He claims a messy house is the sign of a genius. I’ll just say that this is my sign of genius, but he won’t care. Deep down, he hates our assignments as much as I do.”
“But your papers are going to be bent and wrinkled,” I argued.
Levi gave me a sideways glance as he let his bag fall to the ground. In his hands, he held a set of playing cards. “You are a little strange,” he commented, “but I like you anyway.”
At his words, my debate was derailed and a blush heated my cheeks. Levi proceeded to distribute the cards between us and explain the rules of a game. Although my eyes occasionally drifted to the upturned pile of books and papers on the floor, I stifled my indignation over their improper handling. Instead, I memorized the game’s rules and focused. Levi asked me questions about my situation during the competition, although there was nothing of interest for him to latch onto since I hadn’t been rescued from a gang of poltergeists or raised by a pack of wolves. When he realized this, Levi stopped asking me questions and went on to tell me about all of the misguided adventures he had been on.
After many hours and still no sign of Dante or a messenger, our concentration on the game faded as our energy levels increased. Levi climbed onto the table where he preceded to engage in an imaginary sword fight filled with turns, lunges, and jumps. I was left to turn into a heap of helpless giggles until he yanked me up onto the table with him to play the role of damsel in distress. Our imaginations transformed the floor underneath us into hot lava in which dangerous man-eating monsters lurked, waiting for prey. During our childish stint, I remember looking over at Levi and wondering if I had made a friend in this dismal place.
The next time Levi visited the fortress, it was midsummer. His visit came at a surprising time. The fortress had been in a frenzy of preparations. It wasn’t until I overhead Andis and Clarissa speaking as they walked through the Echelon’s foyer that I learned the chaos was due to the upcoming Masquerade, which was one of the most popular guardian holidays. Since Andis failed to bring it up, it was implied that I would not be attending. Yet, that was not the case at all. The third time Levi visited, it was on Masquerade night. After I had met him in the library, he removed a pair of horribly homemade masks from his backpack and lifted them up in the air. “We are not going to open a book tonight,” he declared proudly as he tossed me one of the masks. “We’re going to go on an adventure.” I fumbled the mask but managed to maintain possession of it. Looking at it, I noticed fake purple jewels had been hastily applied to the black velvet of the mask. The ribbon meant to keep it on my head was attached unevenly to the sides of the mask, which meant the mask would sit askew on my face. Even so, my blood was humming with excitement over Levi’s declaration.
That year, the Masquerade was held in one of the fortress’s ballrooms on the first floor. After getting past the soldiers posted at the Echelon entrance using a bit of trickery and distraction, Levi led me to the Masquerade. Once there, however, he acted sensibly and led us to a small balcony alcove that overlooked the ballroom. We were on the outskirts of the festivities, but that didn’t matter. Better to avoid detection than to get caught in the middle of the masked dance floor and led out by someone tugging on our ears. The space was nearby the kitchen and Levi made frequent trips there to snag us platters of treats. As we dined on chocolate-covered strawberries, scones, lasagna, steaks, cheesecakes, and an assortment of sugared nuts, I observed the masked-covered adults down below. I found the Conquistadors in the middle of the festivities; often they could be seen entertaining a wide circle of admirers. I saw a man covered in a heavy white fur with a white tiger’s mask so realistic I wondered if he had hunted it himself. There was a woman who wore a dress that shimmered when the right light hit it. Her blonde hair was straightened down her back, and the heavy mass of it swayed across her back as she walked. I saw her often with the White Tiger; the chemistry between them was palpable.
With visions of peacock dresses, the melody of laugher and champagne glasses being clunked together, and the overwhelming opulence of the festivities, I was lost in awe. I wanted to be apart of it. Observing from that balcony, I promised myself I would, someday.
Levi and Dante visited only once more before the Conquistadors’ Discon, a week before its scheduled occurrence. Levi was different; his easygoing and carefree nature had been overwhelmed by the stress of the situation. When I found him in the library, he was staring down at two different stacks of flashcards, caught in indecision between studying science terminology or mathematical principles. We debated for five minutes on which would be more beneficial to him before settling on science terminology. I acted as an assistant by holding the flashcards for him and comparing his answers against the answer scribbled on the back of the notecard. After the fiftieth incorrect answer in a row, Levi threw his hands up in the air in frustration.
“Why don’t I know this already?” he exclaimed. “I’ve been studying!”
I blinked at his outburst. “Levi, breathe, okay? If you get a couple wrong here or there, what’s the worse that can happen?”
“It’s not a couple, Briara,” Levi declared, his eyes settling on the ever expanding stack of flashcards I had set aside to go over again. “It’s more like three-fourths of the pile.” He wasn’t exaggerating this time.
“Still, what’s the worse that can happen if you get all of them wrong at the Discon? You’ll fail? So what? It isn’t like you’re going to lose everything. What’s the worst the Conquistadors can do? Throw you in a moat with gigantic spiders and crocodiles monsters and hot lava?” I said it in a joking manner in the attempt to bring him back to reality. What I was not prepared for was the large dramatic groan accompanied by the burying of his face in his arms. I frowned over his dramatics.
“Besides my pride — because those Seconds are tyrants — I’m worried about Dante. They’ll exile him to Idyllium with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back. He’s no one special, after all.”
“You aren’t serious. It’s not like he didn’t try!” I protested.
Levi lifted his eyes to mine. There was not any laughter contained in his irises, unlike the many times before. The muscles around them were haggard and frustrated as faint red lines ruined the pristine white around the irises. In only a matter of weeks, Levi had aged from a preadolescent boy with aspirations of a military career to an old man forced down to his knees by stress and apprehension. “The Conquistadors will consider it a lenient consequence. They gave Dante a choice; they gave him a chance to reject their job offer. Yet, he didn’t, saying that he appreciated the challenge. If I do not do well at the Discon, he will pay the price and lose everything. I’ll either be forced to learn under someone else or just thrown in a dungeon somewhere and forever forgotten.”
“That’s a lot of pressure,” I whispered, horrified. How could a grown man’s fate rest on a twelve-year-old?
“Sure is. The Conquistadors are not fooling around with their empire; they are completely serious. We are to be educated to their standards and curriculum. Period. Their word is God, basically.” Levi took a deep breath and straightened. He grabbed for the flashcards lying in front of me. “Do you think we could switch roles? Maybe all of this crap will sink in if I quiz you.” He sounded so defeated, so even though I doubted my success, I agreed.
As each new flashcard appeared, containing a different scientific term waiting to be defined, I answered it. To our joint astonishment, there were only a few terms I struggled with. The rest, I answered correctly. By the end, only three cards out of seventy-five were in the incorrect pile.
Levi stared at my success, a morose expression on his face. “I’ve been at this for weeks and you come along with an almost perfect score! Have you even studied science before?”
“Never.” I breathed; I was as astounded as he was.
“Maybe you should take my place at the Discon.”
I shook my head. “Maybe I am just a quick learner. After all, I went through the cards with you before you quizzed me. The information was still fresh in my mind.”
“Maybe.” There was a determined and calculated glint in his eyes as he stared at my face, but I got the sense that he was looking straight through me, not really seeing me. “You should be the one up on that stage next week, not me.”
“The Conquistadors will never allow it, Levi. I would if I could, you know that,” I rationalized. “You’ll be fine, I promise.”
“Impossible,” he grumbled underneath his breath.
I narrowed my eyes just as a split second decision sprung to life in my mind.
Try as I might to cheer him back to his old boisterous attitude, I couldn’t. He left the library with a gloomy disposition and nervous tension constricting his back. Although his backpack was seven books lighter, he didn’t notice, as his carriage was slightly hunched over from depression and anxiety.
The seven books I seized from his collection focused on seven completely different subjects. I was going to master all of them in the span of a week.