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Against the suffocating dust under the gazebo, a thousand promises fade. The floorboards creak, the planks just above my head bending, sinking alarmingly closer. I should have chosen a better spot, somewhere away from the heat and the flies, but the violins were already tuning, and the crowds were flocking toward the square like scattered sheep.
I shut my eyes to the sight of Micha holding that girl's hand. How bright with pride my friend's face beamed, how his body twitched for the music to start. I'd rounded the corner, bursting to tell him of releasing my eagle and that we should skip the ceremony altogether. I'd been so excited, I'd overlooked how he'd dressed. His hair cut short and his hands, always smudged with ink, spotless.
A memory, already so faint, sprung in my mind and brought tears to my eyes. It should be me waiting for my intended before the crowd. Someone taller and blond and with his gaze fixed only on me. My heart raced, every beat a stab as I fled like a coward, rushing to hide away and die.
Last year, there had been a band, and the air was sweet with hope. Not one speck of dirt was under my nails, and three perfect lilies were entwined in my hair. Today is different. Today I want to drift away and float in the wind, rise with the sun, soar against sky and earth far from here. But the starting bell chimes, and I wilt back to the ground.
The azaleas part and a thin, dark form slinks closer. It's Etta. She's left her father's side to find me. Scrunching up her forehead, she gives me that look that I love so well. "You're so much prettier than Nillia, Oriana."
"I don't think of Micha like that." It's true. Our friendship is solely based on our strength training and disdain for our enemy. But still, he should have had the decency to confide in me.
Weeks of him being too busy to practice, too much work at the printers with the embargo now affecting neighboring Odessa as well. Talk of a united island strike. A revolt to show all pagan Untouchables controlling Madera that our voices would finally be heard.
My dagger strikes the ground compulsively as the last chair, adorned with fresh daisies, is lifted for all to admire. Its strength vibrates with every thrust, and my weakness washes away.
From the moment I clutched the blade, it's always been this way, transforming what was once a pathetic girl frightened of her own shadow into someone her own people feel skittish around. Someone too daring, too outspoken, defying her enemy at every turn.
A whiff of soap makes me turn as Etta pries closer. "Will the wedding party pass out candies?"
"Only for family." Lifting myself from under the gazebo, I gaze toward the orchard, dreaming of an apple cake, and almost miss the procession. The chosen are adorned in scarlet, their hair braided tightly in the tradition that tells everyone that they are no longer girls; tomorrow they will be wives.
My own mother stands with her sisters and the rest of the married women from our village. Everything in me tightens. The wind picks up, lifting the voices higher so that the whole world can hear. The harmony is what water is to a dying man, perfect and utterly unbearable. The truth sears through me as I stab my dagger deeper at the soil.
There will never be anyone singing for me.
On cue, Etta's stomach rumbles. By the way her gown drapes over her shoulders, sagging, I know she's lost more weight since the cane embargo. I narrow my eyes at the orchard, unable to stand the sight of her sharp bones poking out of her arms.
If she can wait until tomorrow and doesn't mind a bit of dirt or eating off someone's discarded plate, there will be plenty of pickings.
"Last year everyone got candies. I got two caramels and a chocolate." She licks her parched lips and in her smallest voice whispers, "I would like a caramel."
Etta clears her throat with a rasp. I know what she needs. There will be no one in the orchards picking fruit. As our festivities end, the Hugganoff rulers' celebration begins. We all call them Untouchables, since they are too superior to touch. They pay homage to their false gods with fireworks and proudly display every picked rose and tulip for miles over their doorways. Ancestral ghosts are offered bowls of choice fruit, which will go untouched, by every doorway. Slaughtered lambs and goats roast on skewers, and savory vegetables simmer before an open fire. It's all calculated to make us Outcasts, the last of the true believers, feel more worthless.
The dagger jerks as if telling me to proceed. I get up, thinking of only one thing: the unattended apple orchard brimming with fruit. Untouchable fruit. Fruit we pick for them, wash for them, and serve them, feeling lucky to eat a bit of core and seed.
"Wait here," I order Etta. And for a moment, a wave of panic engulfs her.
She yanks my hand, tugging hard. "Don't." At a loss, her eyebrows arch. "Oriana, you know it isn't safe."
Etta doesn't understand how the dagger helps me overcome weakness. It would be too difficult to explain how I'd be dead a dozen times if it hadn't been for my treasured possession. Instead, I wink, shaking her off. "I never get caught."
To prove it, I toss my dagger midair and catch it like a boy. Then, in one fluid movement, I leap over the wall that separates our Outcast village from the Untouchable part of town. My feet gain momentum, and I sprint until I see the outline of the orchard calling to me, beckoning me forward. I unravel my knapsack, knowing that it will soon be filled with choice apples.
A hawk flies overhead, its call a welcome relief from the celebration that had me hunched over and cowering like a frightened animal. I scan the area, counting the steps that will deliver me there and back. The dagger in my pocket electrifies as in warning. I flinch just as a twig breaks behind me; a glimmer of red hair and a long shadow causes me to run in the opposite direction, away from the orchard, as panic takes over.
When I get to the south wall, I race across the field headed toward the sea. Before I clear the field, I realize too late that it's a trap. I have been herded like a sheep, far from the few scattered homes, toward the deserted cliffside where no one will hear my screams for help. Another boy with flaming red hair stands behind a tree waiting for me; I recognize him from the market. I can smell him, sweaty with a tangy sweetness that can only mean one thing. He's been eating apples and waiting for some starving girl foolish enough to think she could steal some fruit.
I reach for my dagger, strength pulsating so deeply that I nearly drop it from my sweaty palm. Then, the voice of the boy of my dreams, whispers, "Hold it steady, Oriana. You can do this."
I tuck all fear down deep within me. Later, I tell myself; later I will worry.
My would-be attacker's breath hitches in the back of his throat, excited that his plan has worked. The first boy, obviously his brother, clumsily rushes toward us. He stumbles and curses loudly, determined to catch up.
I don't bother to look for help. I am too far from my village and with the celebration underway, even Etta couldn't convince anyone to come find me.
I bite the dull end of the blade to free my hands, and dive under a thistle patch full of thorns and splinters, making my body twist. Down below, waves crash violently. The sea here has a fierce current too strong for most to master. The boy hesitates, eyeing the thistle patch warily. Unlike me, he wears new clothes, a bright jacket and tailored trousers, no doubt for his ceremony later tonight.
My throat going dry, I edge closer to the cliff, a fresh cut on my hand oozing blood. The Untouchable follows. He pretends to be brave, but the moment his hand brushes against the splinters, he cries out. He stops to suck the gashes, and his jacket catches and rips. His look of resignation says it all. If it were only him, he would give up, go home and fabricate some excuse why his new jacket is now ruined. But his taller brother, with the grace of a drunken mule, finally manages to catch up, his velvet trousers stained and torn from falling so many times.
When his eyes catch mine, he sneers, flashing his crooked teeth. Holding his thighs for support, he gasps, "For an Outcast, you're fast."
My mother says there are worse names to be called than Outcast. But right now, all I'm thinking is that there are two of them and one of me. No matter how many times I play it in my head, I can't win. The weaker one, a trickle of blood soaking his shirt, moans, "She's not worth it."
The taller brother, the one who chased me, touches his privates and shoots a devious look. I process their exchange with a shiver running down my spine. These boys don't intend to beat me or humiliate me. They intend something far worse.
Everything in me trembling, I drop the dagger. It stabs the ground just above my feet. While they gawk in triumph at the surrendered blade, I step back, inching further toward the ledge.
"Smart move. It'll go easier for you if you don't put up a fight," laughs the tall one with the stained trousers, who climbs unsteadily up the crumbling wall once used to prevent people accidentally falling off the cliffs. His arms are so long that all he has to do is reach down and it's over.
"Oh, Neliem ... don't you fret." The shorter one, who should have had the sense to flee, hisses.
I get called that a lot. Neliem is an Untouchable name of a hero from long ago that means "he who would fight to the death." Legend states he offered guidance to the broken and poor of spirit using a dagger like mine to overcome evil. Since I'm only a skinny girl who happens to be fast on her feet and good with a dagger a boy who died taught her how to fight with, I wear the name as a badge of honor.
His plait coming undone, the dimwit sloppily scoops down toward me, his foul breath commanding, "Come here."
The boy's voice in my head whispers, "Fight."
In answer, I flip and kick the redheaded boy hard in the face. He stumbles back, his face red with shame at being bested by a girl who will, one day, if she is lucky, clean his bedpans. But I do not stop there. In one fluid move, I collect my dagger from the ground and release it full force. It flies true to its mark, slicing off the shorter one's ear before impaling firmly in a tree.
With blood pouring down his neck, the shorter one screams, ready to bolt, as the taller one sizes me up. We stand at an impasse with me cornered against the ledge, nowhere to run, and my dagger out of reach. And I still want those apples.
The same hawk as before swoops down, its wingspan casting a wide shadow over where we stand. It's a sign from Neliem himself.
Without hesitating, I glide like a dove. I am like my namesake, who does not fear death, but overcomes it. The rush of adrenaline takes over, pushing me to do what no normal girl would. Every muscle in my body throbs as I dive off the cliff and soar into the endless blue waves. I am light and dust and magic. No fear, just pure elation.
Less than an hour later, as the fireworks announce the start of the Untouchable ceremony, I share three perfectly ripe apples with Etta on her porch. Etta eats greedily, even swallowing the hard peel in careful, tiny bites. Distracted by the delicious apples, she doesn't bother once to ask why I arrived at her door completely soaked through my undergarments, the tips of my hair still dripping wet and without my cherished dagger that the Untouchables must've stolen before fleeing home.
Once done, we begin our ritual prayers. As Etta lights the candles, praying for her mother and father, I think of the boy of my dreams. Hiding my eyes, I whisper the blessing, wondering for a moment if I made the whole thing up, conjured up someone who never existed.CHAPTER 2
I don't eat the last apple until a full week after my escapade on the cliff. It's by far the largest and juiciest, but it doesn't remove the sting of not being able to retrieve my dagger.
With an indescribable ache in my bones, I notice that my mother has unexpectedly set a new dress and a ribbon on my dresser. Last night she insisted I bathe, even though Sundays are reserved for proper bathing. A hot bath means two unnecessary trips to the well, plus all the boiling and excessive soap usage. I stare at the dress from the only mirror in the house, wondering who it belongs to. Usually dresses this well-made are sold.
All week, noisy neighbors have been trotting in and out, inquiring over ordering a gown. They chatter mindlessly about the embargo and how we might face yet another famine. If Micha were here, he would call for action, spreading his pamphlets at every door, demanding that all of us in Madera unite with the neighboring islands of Odessa, Phillma, Cortos, and Waria for equal rights against the mainland of Perla Del Mar.
But Micha is not here. He's in Odessa with his bride, planning to work for his uncle's printshop. The short note he left has already been torn into bits and used as kindling.
I can feel the wind pick up through the broken glass in my window. The Prince's proclamation, nailed to the gates, rattles mercilessly. Some say it is what stands between my people and certain death from Untouchables. A sworn promise of protection by the gracious, most sovereign Prince Philippe. But the faded cut on my arm says it's merely wasted ink.
It is the last day of the pagan Untouchable matching ceremony, during which an Untouchable male may choose whomever he desires. This means a half-day at the prison we use as a school, so we are all dressed a bit nicer than usual. The ceremony comes from an asinine legend where the groom rides on his horse through villages and selects a bride simply by tossing her on his back and stealing away into the night to do whatever he pleases.
Swallowing, I run my fingers down my dress. It's not new; it's someone's hand-me-down, like everything else in my closet. I lift the soft blue fabric and admire the flawless stitching, the way my mother has sewn it to fit my small waist perfectly.
Tracing over the ribbon, the silky texture beneath my fingertips feels like rose petals. I know it was made with love. Or, I should say, the only way my mother knows how to show love. Now it is the only love I'll ever know. The season is officially over, making me the oldest unmarried girl in our village. The only one left without anyone choosing to claim her.
Absentmindedly, I reach under my pillow, only to find my dagger still missing. The day after the attack, I heard those boys were seen by Dr. Wenloe, the traveling doctor who makes regular rounds of all the towns and villages and sees us Outcasts if time permits. Both had black eyes and cut lips. The shorter one with the missing ear was walking with a limp, and the other had a dislocated shoulder and five cracked ribs. I couldn't help but feel a perverse sense of justification tickle down my spine thinking that their parents had had the last word, beating them senseless for ruining their clothes.
A gentle tap on the door interrupts my daydreaming. I slip the dress over my head and, avoiding the mirror, turn to the doorway.
My mother fusses like a mother cat over her kittens. "Your eyes will look blue today. Like your dress."
I sit down under the pretense of doing my stockings. I have no interest in my eyes or any other feature, but she persists. She reaches for my hair, thick with curls and the only similarity we share. "Let me do your hair," she says. "It's so pretty."
The memory of Nillia adorned in scarlet with proud fathers and uncles and male cousins parading the chosen on chairs toward the quarter square, sends a fresh wave of nausea.
There will never be anyone singing for me.
So, I close my eyes and accept the scraps of my mother's pity, all the while biting back the sarcastic remark threatening to deflate her. Not today. Let her pretend that someone might be interested if I wear her silly dress and have nice hair.
Since I am now seventeen, a trade will be selected for me in the few remaining days of school. It will probably be something I detest, like cleaning or cooking for a rich, Untouchable family who won't even bother to feed me properly. Then, as the days grow colder and if there remains an odd-numbered Outcast boy from a neighboring village, he will reluctantly accept me rather than have no one.
Just dwelling on the unfortunate Outcast boy who will lower his standards to bond with a girl known as 'Neliem' makes me almost pity the poor sap and wonder if perhaps my escape skills will not be entirely wasted.
I laugh hollowly, and my mother momentarily stops braiding my hair. Avoiding the mirror, I follow her orange-brown eyes to the small altar erected at the far corner of my room. She has collected coins since my first blood to set aside for my wedding chest. Nothing too fancy, just the necessities: a veil, clean stockings without holes, and one pair of spotlessly white shoes.
Now the chest lies closed, a layer of dust covering the lid. I can think of a dozen better uses for the money. Perhaps a goat, one that's been fattened.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Neliem"
Copyright © 2019 Clare Di Liscia.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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