Sevara: Dawn of Hope – excerpt #1 (of 30)

I wrote a dystopian YA novel. It was just a story that had to come out, the story of a young orphan girl who takes down an empire. Here is an except from Sevara: Dawn of Hope – on Amazon now: http://amzn.com/B0115CWE2S

Part I

“Don’t look,” Abigail said as the stretcher passed by. But Sevara and the other girls couldn’t help it. Two medics shuffled down the dingy corridor of Orphanage 127 carrying Chandra’s corpse on a wooden board. The bitter smell of fresh blood hung in the air.

“We all have to die some day,” said Sevara.

“But not like that.”

News had spread that the Minister’s son would be at today’s auction. Chandra and Minubar had gotten into an argument over who would catch the eye of the heir to the Plexian empire, which led to a bolo stick fight. That’s how arguments got settled at 127. Chandra lost.

“Come on, we’ve got to get you ready,” said Abigail, turning her eyes away and taking Sevara’s small hand. Abigail led Sevara into the staff lounge and closed the door.

“I think you’re more nervous than I am,” Sevara said, sitting down on a stool.

“Well, I should be. I took a huge risk not putting you to auction earlier.”

Abigail bolted the door, and then made her way over to Sevara. Her breathing was heavy by the time she had opened the vanity mirror and turned on the beauty lamps.

“But I agreed to it, Abbey. I know what I’m getting in to.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Abigail mumbled, and laid a variety of tiny boxes and tubes on the table: lipstick, blush, false eyelashes, hair extensions, and nail polish. These were the ornaments the girls of 127 used only once a year, at auction time. Since none of the girls knew their real birthday, the Curator selected a certain day each year to be the “birthday” for a few girls from each age group. That’s the day that the boys come.

Abigail wiped Sevara’s face with a cloth, taking in the girl’s features that she knew so well, and thinking about how, after today, she might never see them again. Sevara’s pale skin and light freckles were unblemished by womanhood, but just under the surface, an austere maturity, gained from fourteen years in the state-run orphanage, could be glimpsed. Her green eyes had lost their innocence years before, once the grim reality of this place had taken hold. Fourteen years of understaffed schools, underpaid caretakers, and hours of neglect, which the girls spent fighting for scraps of food or fabric. Fourteen years to make them grateful for whatever came next, even if that was marriage and servitude. Abigail applied some toning fluid. She started to put on some base makeup, but stopped short.

“You’ve got to take those out.”

Sevara sighed silently and removed her eyebrow piercing and her nose ring. As Abigail put on the makeup, Sevara pulled out her belly button ring as well. Tomorrow would mark Sevara’s fourteenth year in the orphanage.  She had spent the last year in B building, the last government housing project for most of them. 12-year-olds lived in C building; 11s lived in D building, and so on. There were 13 buildings in all:  M building (which was the nicest) housed the two-year-olds and younger. A girl only got to see the inside of A building if something went horribly wrong.

“I’m afraid the boys are going to be fighting over you,” said Abigail.

“As long as they don’t use bolo sticks, I guess that’s okay.”

“I’m going to miss you, Sevara.”

“That goes without saying,” Sevara said.

Abigail had protected Sevara from the dangers outside and inside the orphanage for fourteen years, as if it were her duty, her calling.

“But I feel I have to say it anyway.”

“You always have to say things that don’t need to be said, Abigail.”

“And you always have to say things that shouldn’t be said,” Abigail retorted, wiping off the bronze lipstick and putting on red. “And that’s what’s going to get you into trouble.”

“I learned it from you.”

“Very true.” Abigail held a few hair extensions next to Sevara’s red buzz-cut, then decided against them. She carefully took a wig out of a box on the vanity table and adjusted it on Sevara’s head. Now, long, glossy, flaming-red curls brushed Sevara’s shoulders.

“Much better.”

“I don’t even recognize myself,” Sevara said, peering into the mirror. The wig was heavy.

“That’s the idea.”

A few times a year, the boys came to buy future wives. And boys they were—as young as eight years old, though most were usually ten, twelve, or fifteen. As soon as a boy had saved up enough money, he would go to an auction and secure a lifetime of comfort by buying a girl who could be groomed and shaped into the perfect domestic servant. If the boy saved up more, he’d be back in the next year or two to buy another and another—as many as he could afford to help with the house chores, give him children, flaunt his status.

Sometimes the buyers came with their fathers, who lagged behind and smoked cigars in a rowdy group. The buyers were the boys who would go in and search for their prize. For them, the youngest girls were the most practical. A young girl could be more easily trained. Usually, the two- to eight-year-old girls were sold right away, leaving only the most homely and rebellious older girls. Only a handful of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds were ever left at any orphanage. In Plexian culture, a girl over the age of fourteen was considered impossible to train into a quality wife: she was undesirable, unsuitable—Unwanted was the term of choice. “Too much personality, too much trouble,” the Plexian families would say, and it had become the norm to reject any girl who had been passed over at fourteen auctions, the fourteenth “birthday”.

Those girls would be sent to live in A building, where they would spend one last year in the state facility before “graduating” and being thrust out onto the streets of Plexus with no certification or registration. After that, they were never heard from again.

Abigail pulled out a few carefully rolled dresses from her bag and held them up to Sevara’s chin. First a white one with pink bows, then a purple one with a black belt. Finally she settled on a light green one, and Sevara stepped into it quickly, letting the older woman zip it up. It matched Sevara’s eyes perfectly.

“I’m supposed to walk in those?”

“You’re going to have to,” said Abigail. She handed her a pair of shiny, new kitten-heel, patent-leather loafers; hard and cold compared to Sevara’s broken in leather boots. Sevara stepped into them and stood in front of the mirror in her ribbon-belted dress, green hairband and red wig. Abigail had transformed her into a proper house princess. She was embarrassed by the costume, but it was a ticket to a better life. Without certification, Sevara wouldn’t be able speak to a hostel receptionist, let alone find a job. Without a Plexian certification document, you were not a Citysin, and had no rights or permission to work, own property, marry, or even walk down the street after dark.

Sevara and Abigail made their way to the main courtyard of Orphanage 127. This served as the playground, hang out spot, and ceremonial plaza of the walled complex. Far above them, the long spider-like arms of the central hub slowly turned, held aloft by giant zeppelins that swooped low to pick up packages and then rose again above the clouds. Ropes hung down to ground level, pulling cars and trolleys that were forever hidden behind the orphanage’s high walls. By now, all the other girls were in position, standing in groups according to their age. M, L and K buildings housed the majority of girls. These were the littlest children, just barely toddlers, looking angelic in their best gowns. Here and there a woman hissed, and a little girl pulled a thumb from her mouth. The girls from I, H and G buildings—past age six—stood in evenly spaced rows, trying not to fidget. The groups of homely girls had found dresses and shiny shoes, and did their best to look appealing. None of the girls from B building looked as dazzling and perfect as Sevara however. The girls from A building, the Unwanted, didn’t bother to show up. The younger girls joked at what the A might stand for. “Awful,” they would chuckle. “Abominable.” “Atrocious.”

“If I had auctioned you off at that age,” Abigail said to Sevara, motioning to the two- and three-year-olds with their plump, pink cheeks, “some aristocratic family would have whipped your personality right out of you.”

“And what would I do without my obstinate and rebellious nature?”

“Shh, here come the grooms,” said one of Sevara’s building mates. The rear gate opened with a loud grating sound. This was the large metal gate usually reserved for the garbage truck. Some of the girls joked that they went out the back because they too were garbage. Sevara wasn’t sure it was a joke. Rows of black sedans parked outside, their hookmen sitting on top waiting patiently. Twenty or twenty-five boys from a range of ages and classes strolled in, enjoying the sight of the merchandise so nicely arranged for them. Their fathers milled around near the gate, chatting with one another so their sons could choose their future brides in peace. Middle-class men had just one or two wives. The rich had six or seven. There were rumors that the Minister had upwards of fifty. Boys who failed to buy a bride by their sixteenth birthday were drafted into service. The headmaster of the orphanage, whom everyone simply called the Curator, made her way to the guests.

“Welcome, welcome. Come in please. The girls of 127 are the finest wives you’ll find in the whole city. They are well taken care of, well fed, well exercised, and well disciplined. Right this way.”

The boys pushed past her as if she were invisible. They walked down the rows of girls, feeling the hair and inspecting their teeth of the products. In Plexus, families never bothered to raise their own daughters. They would just be married off someday and so were of no use to their parents. When a woman became pregnant, she disappeared to a relative’s house for nine months. If she had a boy, she would come back in triumph and celebrate. If the baby were a girl, the mother would go to one of the 500 state-run orphan homes and drop the infant off at the front door. The babies were raised there until they were sold, came of age, or turned fifteen, whichever came first. Years later, the mothers would instruct their sons which orphanages to avoid, so that they wouldn’t be marrying their own blood.

“There’s a lot of new faces since you were here last,” continued the Curator, “and a lot of girls who have improved considerably. Take a close look, gentlemen, you won’t be disappointed.”

“That snake,” said Aynagul.

“Worm,” said Tumara.

“I can’t wait until someone breaks her skull with a bolo stick,” said Minubar. No buyers were interested in the girls from B building, so they were free to chat quietly even though they continued to look straight ahead.

“Now, girls, the Curator’s just trying to get you into good families,” said Abigail.

“Maybe she should start a family of her own,” someone said.

“Who would buy her?” said another.

“No one would take her, not even the chimney sweeper’s son,” said Rana.

“I bet someone bought her, then returned her the very next day.”

“Defective goods.”

“Her own mother probably didn’t even kiss her goodbye.”

The girls had motive to sneer. The Curator was the one who usually ripped the baby girls from their mother’s arms in the late hours of the night, closing the door on them forever. Mothers were not permitted to visit the orphanage or have any contact with their daughters whatsoever. In fact, there was no way for the mothers to know which girl was theirs. Well, almost no way. The rules in Plexus were very strict, but women are known to break rules.

An older man wearing round, tinted spectacles strolled casually into the courtyard behind the buyers. He wasn’t here to shop. He was the subsection’s doctor. He wore an all-black suit and surgical apron, and kept one hand behind his back. He fidgeted with a time dial with the other hand, feigning disinterest. In reality, he looked each girl up and down carefully, memorizing her building and badge code number. He grinned and occasionally took notes in a tiny ledger. He had bulging pale blue eyes and a small mouth with lips too plump and red for his age. Flecks of spittle glittered on the shiny skin. There was one other way out of the orphanage. Everyone knew he’d be back for an “inspection.”

“Don’t look at him,” one girl hissed, and they all avoided the doctor’s sinister gaze. Sevara stood behind the other girls from B building. Minubar looked particularly desperate and angry, always getting passed over due to her large, masculine frame and rough features. Sevara didn’t want to outshine any of them; she’d grown up with them and considered the other girls to be her sisters. The girls were raised their whole lives for auction day, a day where they could join a family and serve a man. They all memorized a simple phrase, “Be helpful, be useful, be scarce.” But the men mostly ignored the older girls. The buyers were busy with the younger, more trainable ones. The girls from B building had given up hope of finding a husband and had spent their last years training how to fight. Their new motto was,  “Be fast, be bold, be strong.”

“Where’d you get that dress?” Minubar whispered.

“I’ve been saving up,” said Sevara.

“How?”

“Odd jobs here and there,” Sevara said. She’d kept her relationship with Abigail a secret. The other girls had made their own dresses, and although they did their best, they didn’t have the latest patterns or designs that Abigail had gotten from the city.

“You’ll be chosen for sure,” said Tumara. As the first buyers bargained, paid, and took their prizes back to their vehicles, the remaining girls reached out and took each other’s hands. Once purchased, the girls would live in a small shed in the backyard of the new family’s house, where they’d live as a servant until they were sixteen, and a proper wedding ceremony could be held. Abigail had urged Sevara to avoid the auctions until the last possible opportunity, and Sevara was glad to have escaped that kind of humiliation.

“You’ll be chosen too,” Sevara said.

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Minubar.

“I’d come back for you all if I could.”

“No, Sevara,” said Tumara, “don’t look back. Make a better life for yourself.” Marriage was no easy life. If you were lucky, there would be other wives to share the workload and bear some of the children. But if your husband’s family was poor, you’d be worked hard and given very little.

Regardless, it was better than going to A building and “graduating” at age fifteen with no certification. There were only rumors about what it was like to live in Plexus without the proper papers. The orphanage school system was laughable, and they had no reflector screen channels or news wire service, so the girls were oblivious to the perils that lay beyond the cement walls. The older ones might sneak out now and again to buy candies, but none dared venture onto the streets of Plexus—day or night—without a stamped certificate. Maybe it was better that way.

The older girls would spook the younger ones and tell them that the shadow monsters ate the Unwanted once they “graduated.” Some believed that the government sent you out into the desert wastelands to starve, since there wasn’t enough food for the people in the city as it was, but most assumed that they’d be ground into chuck to feed the soldiers who fought against their neighbor the Chinnai. In reality, it was something much worse than that.

“I’ll come back for you. I’ll find a way to help you. I’ll free you all,” said Sevara, and she meant it.

By now, a good number of the younger girls had been selected. Now, some of the fathers haggled with state property managers who were responsible for the sale of the girls and the collection of the money. The noise began to rise. Still, none of the boys had come to see the older girls.

“Now, go on,” whispered Abigail. Sevara did as she was told and stepped in front of the other girls from B building. She had given them adequate opportunity to be spotted, but now it was Sevara’s turn. Her pale green dress, green eyes, and long red hair immediately attracted the attention of one skinny servant in a bow tie and top hat. He took one look, turned on his heel, and ran back out through the gate.

A short moment later, a luxurious sedan pulled into the courtyard, powered by a rope that disappeared high up into the sky. The giant pill-shaped balloons circled slowly overhead, powering the cars, carrying mail, and hoisting cargo.

Everyone knew it was the Minister’s vehicle. Minister Alexander Paris was the second most powerful leader in Plexus, right behind Chancellor Oliver Vincent. Although Paris was one of many advisors to the Chancellor and the council, he was the most influential. His son was thought to be the prime candidate to become the next Chancellor, ruler not just of Plexus but also of Dalorac and the entire aligning powers that held treaties with the city-state.

The Minister’s son Lief, a handsome young man just a year under military age, exited the vehicle and looked at Sevara. He unwrapped his scarf, put it in the sedan, and walked straight up to her.

“How come you were never picked before?” he said, looking at her curiously.

“Because I was never available until today.”

“How is that?”

“I chose not to put myself on auction.”

“Is that legal?”

“I can assure you it is,” Abigail interjected.

“It makes me more precious,” said Sevara.

“Why is that?”

“Because in all of fourteen years, I’m available for one day only.”

With that he stopped, stepped back, and looked hard at her.

“Turn around.” Sevara turned. “I had heard rumors about you. I can’t believe it’s true.”

“Do you like what you see?”

“You’re beautiful. I mean, yes, acceptable enough.”

Sevara blushed. She wasn’t used to the dress, or the shoes, or the gaze of a man.

By now a crowd of older boys crowded around the girls of B building. Suddenly, the girls nearest to Sevara seemed infinitely more attractive than they had a few minutes before. The boys and their fathers pawed and tugged at the newly discovered merchandise, making remarks about their qualities. One boy looked at Tokmok and offered to purchase her. Another raised his eyebrows in agreement. A third seemed impressed by Anya’s strong arms and wide shoulders.

“Let’s go somewhere else. Is there anywhere else to go?” said Lief, uncomfortable with the other kids crowding around him. As a member of the upper class, he wasn’t used to brushing shoulders with the lower castes.

“Sure, follow me.”

“The proper way to say it is ‘I will be your guide.’ You see, I don’t follow anyone. People are my guides.”

“Oh, I see. Well, let me be your guide,” said Sevara, not seeing the shame in saying the same thing in another way, “I’d love to give you a tour of 127.”

“You’re looking me in the eyes.”

“Yes, why, is that not okay?”

“Well, I guess it is. Okay, you may proceed.”

They walked together past the medical examination room and the teacher’s lounge. The boy wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“Is your real name Lief?”

“Yes it is. What, did you think it was fake?”

“Well, I thought maybe you used that name in public and that you had another name.”

“Do you do that a lot, the thinking?”

“Yes, I do. Do you not like it? It’s just who I am.”

“I like it fine. Most of the girls I meet don’t think as much as you do.”

“Do you want to know my name?”

“Yes.”

“Well are you going to ask me what it is?”

“Yes, of course.”

They had made their way to another small courtyard between the cafeteria and the walkway to the school. The moldy smell of the orphanage was obviously bothering Lief. The fresh air brought the color back to his face, and the much-needed privacy allowed Sevara to relax.

“Doesn’t the smell bother you?”

“I guess I’m used to it, said Sevara, “I’ve lived here my whole life.”

“I don’t know how you can stand it. It’s awful. I can’t wait to get you out of here. You’ll really like the house; dad’s youngest wife did such a good job decorating it. I didn’t think I’d be bringing anyone home today. I hope there’s food ready. And we’ve got this hound named Grey – she’s just so sweet…”

“Are you going to ask me now?”

“What?”

“What my name is?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Then go ahead.”

Lief paused and scratched his head. He’d never asked a girl what her name was before.

“Umm, what’s your name?”

“My name’s Sevara. Nice to meet you, Lief.”

“Sevara. That’s beautiful. You’re different from any girl I’ve met before.”

Sevara hadn’t met any boys at all. She wasn’t sure what to think of Lief. But Abigail’s plan, whatever it was, seemed to be working. Sevara smiled, happy at the idea of leaving 127 behind. The custodians had been kind to her, but life was brutal. Death matches broke out regularly between the older girls. You had to form groups of friends and train for combat to survive until the next auction. Rations were small, beds were dirty, and if a buyer didn’t take you away, you had to survive another year. Those not chosen got more jaded and more deadly each year, as the prospect of becoming ‘Unwanted” gripped them. If you didn’t know how to handle a bolo stick, you’d be dead before you got to D building.

“Shall we go back?”

“Yes, right away. I’ve got to buy you before any of the other fellas get their dirty hands all over you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a bigger cache then all of them put together.”

“Have you got any other wives?”

“No, no I don’t. I’m the youngest of five brothers and they all have many wives and sons, so I have the right to take just one wife if I want. It’s an old tradition in my family. My father is a modernist though, he has twenty-seven. Funny you should ask.”

“Not really. I wouldn’t want to share my life with more than one person.”

“Share a life? That’s a funny way of putting it.”

“You find a lot of things I say funny.”

He stopped, deciding whether or not to be insulted. Then he smiled and continued to walk. They made their way back to the courtyard.

“All my friends, their wives are more like, I don’t know, I always considered a wife to be a servant, not a partner.”

“Well, its okay to re-consider.” She put a heavy emphasis on ‘re’ and added a smile that made him smile. Ordinarily, a woman would be punished for speaking to him in such a manner. But for some reason, he didn’t mind when Sevara did it.

“Who taught you to speak the common tongue?”

“The custodians here. Why? Do I speak funny?”

“I just want to clarify – how do you share a life? Each person has their own; you can’t cut it in half or anything like that.”

“You really think so?”

“A husband doesn’t share a house with his wives, if you think about it. It would be my house, and I’d be permitting a wife to live in it. The clothes would be mine, the shoes, the food.”

“We all share our lives with the people around us. You see, my life will depend on you for food and—”

“Yes, depend, that’s a good word.”

“But if you think that each individual has a life, I’d have to disagree. There is only one life, and each one of us leaves our own footprints in it. Our existence intersects with other existences, maybe for just a minute, maybe for a day, maybe a week, maybe a lifetime, and in that intersection, we share something. And not just physical things, not just food and water. We share our experiences, our hopes, our desires. And we pass them on to other people, who then pass them on and on and so on. So if one person feels something, that feeling can pass on to ten others, who then pass it on to ten more, who pass it on to ten more. If that feeling were grace or forgiveness or hope or love, then it would spread like a brush fire. And life, the one life, would alter its course towards that love. And the more time you spend with someone, the more you can intersect. And if you and I are going to be married, we have a lot of time to exchange our ideas. We can learn from one another as I’ve learned from the custodians, and grow with one another. I mean, that’s what has happened between me and the other girls here, so I guess that’s what’s going to happen with us.”

Lief furled his brow. His teachers were too afraid of the Minister’s wrath to challenge Lief academically. He’d never truly been forced to think about things. Until today. In public, he’d probably defend himself and dismiss Sevara as a simple orphan girl. But here, away from the crowd, he transformed from a statesman’s son to the apprehensive boy he really was.

“That’s not what’s happened with my friends and their wives.”

“Well, I’m not your friend’s wife. I’m your wife.”

Lief looked at her face, maybe for only the second time that day. It was if he had never seen a woman before. He had a sheepish expression that made Sevara chortle.

“Not yet,” said Lief, “but you’ll be my wife very soon.”

“Do you want try to share a life with me?”

“I’m not sure I know how,” said Lief, thinking about how impossible it seemed to share a single commonality with his own father or most of his twenty-seven mothers.

“I’ll go easy on you at first. Promise you’ll try. The worst that can happen is we give it our best shot, grow old and die, which is what what’s going to happen anyway.”

“If you agree to teach me, I’ll try anything.”

“So why do you look like you’ve been caught stealing a dirty magazine?”

“Do I?” He tipped his head back and laughed –which made her heart beat a little harder –  then took her hand and led her forward.

They stepped into the center of the playground. The auction was almost finished. The girls who hadn’t been selected were marched by their hall wardens back to their respective buildings. They would pack a small bag and move to the next building. Those that had been chosen were in various stages of sale. Men exchanged credit tabs, registrars took down code numbers, and notaries stuck elaborate wax seals to brown parchment papers. Lief gave his servant Jaggat a glance, and the thin boy leapt into action. He butted to the front of the line of buyers and started to negotiate with the chief money handler. Lief returned.

“You’d better go and get your things,” said Lief.

“I haven’t got much. Don’t laugh.”

Abigail had packed her small travel pack and left it by the door. Sevara scooped it up off the floor and felt her the hair on her back tingle in nervous anticipation.

“Have you got enough dresses? asked Lief”

“You’ll have to buy me more. This is my only one.”

“Only one?”

“And today’s the first day I’m wearing it. These shoes too. I don’t know how I’d study in these, or practice bolo.”

“Then what do you wear on, umm, the other days?”

“Normal clothes, I guess.”

“Explain.”

“Umm, I don’t know. Regular clothes, day clothes, my orderlies. I can’t wear dresses like this every day.”

“My moms do. Every day they wear their best dresses and high heels.”

“Well, your moms must have been purchased when they were very little.”

“But you wear lipstick every day, right?”

“No. Today’s the first time.”

“But you will wear a dress and makeup for me every day.”

“If you ask nicely,” said Sevara with an innocent smile.

Sevara’s charm didn’t work this time. Lief’s mind was lost in the confusion of an impossible image, the image of a woman without makeup, a woman who looked other than the twenty-seven women he called mother.

“So what do you really look like, without, without all that?” said Lief.

“This is what I really look like.”

“No, without all the makeup.”

“Oh, I don’t know, different I guess.”

“I want to see.”

Tumara, Anya, and the other girls from B building were being walked to the sedans of their new husbands. They turned back to take a last look at Sevara and to see what was holding up the sale. All the girls from B building had been sold, thanks to Sevara. And sold to rich families at that.

“I don’t think you’ll like it,” said Sevara.

“Change back into your normal clothes immediately,” hissed Lief.

“Do you promise you won’t be shocked?”

“I don’t like having to give commands twice.”

Sevara paused, then raced back to her tiny room in B building. She found her bunk bed and took her old clothes from it. Lief and his servant had followed her, so she quickly shut the door and changed. She pulled off the wig, peeled away the fake lashes, and wiped off the makeup. Next, she wriggled on her only pair of casual pants and her favorite tank top. Finally, she put her piercings back in and slipped on her black leather boots. These were steel toed, good in a bolo fight.

“Are you ready?” Lief asked through the door.

“If you are,” said Sevara. She opened the door slowly.

“Well, there you have it. This is who I really am.”

Her words faded into the vaulted ceiling behind them. Lief stared in horror at the sight of the real Sevara. Girls didn’t dress like this on the streets, in the magazines, or on the reflection screens. He’d never seen short hair on a girl, or piercings, or leather bracelets, or men’s boots. It frightened him.

Lief took a few steps back and bumped into Abigail, who had also followed. He turned, looked up at her, then walked swiftly back to the courtyard. Abigail stole a glance into the dorm room, turned pale, and then ran after him, hoping to salvage the situation. Sevara stood motionless, looking at herself in the tarnished mirror. In her old clothes, she recognized herself. This was the girl she was used to. This was the body and the face she had lived with her whole life. She was angry that the stupid rich kid didn’t like it, and embarrassed for even presenting an alternate version of herself to begin with.

“Should I cancel the sale?” his servant Jaggat asked. Now in the open air, Lief paused.

“No, no, I guess not. That would be cruel. Woman, bring Sevara to me immediately.”

“I’ll make sure she changes back,” Abigail said breathlessly.

“No need, I want to show everyone.”

Abigail ran back to the dorm and took Sevara by the hand.

“Grab the shoes and let’s go.”

The two made it back to the doorway as fast as Abigail’s arthritis would permit. Lief was waiting, back straight, chin high.

“I’m so sorry, Master Lief,” started Abigail.

“Silence, woman,” said Lief as he strode to the center of the courtyard, dragging Sevara with him. “Everyone, may I have your attention. I want you all to take a good look. I’ve purchased this old rag, and when she reaches childbearing age, she shall be my bride. Poor thing, she has only one dress and one pair of shoes. I shall take her and make her comfortable. I’ll buy miles of fine silk and make a thousand dresses for her. I’ll transform her from the wretch that she is into a fine lady. I want you all to see what she looks like now, so that you can marvel at her on our wedding day.”

The families that were about to depart stopped to watch the spectacle. Even girls who had gone back to their rooms poured back out into the courtyard or spied through the windows. Sevara stood in the center of it all, head hanging low, engulfed in shame. The other buyers cheered and applauded at Lief’s words. He’d make a damn good politician one day.

“Make sure you have the wig; it will have to do until I can get you a new one. Come on, we haven’t got all day.”

Abigail kneeled and helped Sevara put on her backpack and stow the wig and heels in her bag. She tightened the straps, looking Sevara in the eyes without saying a word.

“There’s just one condition,” said Lief, now that a large crowd had assembled. “You will never, until after my dying day and my bones have been picked bare by hyenas, let me see you dressed like, like this,” gesturing furiously with his limp hand at her entire self, “again. In fact, even in private, even in your own room with the door locked, you shall not dress like this.”

Lief smiled, drunk on power as the rally of men roared with laughter. Sevara took a step forward, paused, and looked back at Abigail. A tear fell from Abigail’s eyes. To her, Sevara was more beautiful now than with all the makeup and fake lashes money could buy.

“Unless you want to be banished to the wastelands,” Lief added, arousing another laugh from the men.

It was Abigail who was working the front door instead of the Curator the night Sevara had been dropped off. Ever since she had held the tiny newborn in her arms, Abigail had loved her like the daughter that she, an Unwanted, wasn’t allowed to have. And although she was happy to see Sevara go to a wealthy family, she also knew that Sevara deserved to be treated better than this.

“So, do we have a deal?” said Lief, looking down at Sevara.

Sevara turned and looked at Lief’s condescending expression, felt the sting of shame in her gut and the heat of hatred in her chest. At that moment, she stopped thinking about consequences, repercussions, or A building. She acted on impulse, out of a secret strength etched deep into the core of her being. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, opened them again, and said one word.

“No.”

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