Rough hands tossed me violently into the depthless cave. I wrapped my arms around myself to ward off the cold that wafted from the dark tunnel. I turned to Leif, expecting his insults and chastisement, but his eyes seemed to be tormented.
“You should know better than this. You can’t break the rules without getting killed.”
I was taken aback – he almost spoke as if he was aware of my unconforming demeanor. But how was that possible? I had fought so hard to disguise it. Had I failed entirely? No, that didn’t seem possible. I would have joined Priya long ago if The Thirteenth Quorum suspected dissent.
I didn’t speak – I was not allowed. To say anything to the esteemed Diocesans merited punishment far worse than I’d already earned. I ambled to the side of the cave and leaned against the cold wall, sliding my back against the rough rock until my backside hit the dirt. It was going to be a long two days.
Leif still had not left. He stood before me somewhat uncomfortably as if he had more to say and I began to wonder if he would pronounce an even more devastating sentence upon me. “They know,” he simply stated.
I fought the desire to met his eyes and read his intentions. My searship abilities had always enabled me to see beyond the obvious, but there was only one window to the soul and The Thirteenth Quorum cut us off from it at every turn. I simply nodded my head in obedient response, completely unaware of what his words were intended to communicate.
“No, you need to listen to me,” he stepped closer, gripping my chin and tilting my head upwards. I kept my eyes downcast. “Look at me!” he demanded.
I dared to regard him directly, fear taking my body captive at his unusual behavior. He was asking me to break the rules, but it was difficult to determine if avoiding his gaze would be worse than disobeying his demands.
“They know,” he repeated, his cold eyes boring into mine like daggers. “You have to be more careful.”
Somehow I knew exactly what he meant – I had unwittingly made my nature known. The Thirteenth Quorum had me in their crosshairs. My jaw tightened and I fought the desire to run past him and fling myself into the desert. Escape was always futile, but fighting instinct was almost as impossible.
“You’re unharmed because they value your gift. But their mercy has limits.”
I was baffled by his words. His standoffish disposition and unforgiving gaze seemed at absolute odds with these words of warning.
It must be a trick. He’s trying to lead me to believe I can falter in his presence. It would only give them an excuse to destroy me and secure my brother’s allegiance.
For a small instant in time, his eyes softened. In the same moment, his finger strayed from my chin to stroke the base of my jaw. It hit me with unrelenting force that he was to be 21 this year, as I was to be 18. He was no doubt scouring our ranks for his womanly prey of Vivaaha. I had already determined I would not be taken; least of all by him.
‘Advocate of Peace’. He brings insult to the principle.
I wrenched my chin from his grasp and turned away, huddling closer against the bitter stone wall. I would not give him the satisfaction of believing I was an option on his menu of depravity.
He quickly became enraged. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. Your stubborn ways will have you killed – I could call Odin here and have you sacrificed on the spot for that.”
I refused to respond. He grabbed my dress by the collar and yanked me to my feet, tearing the cloth and bruising my chest. “You will stand here unmoving for the duration of your punishment. That will surely cleanse you of your insubordination.”
I shut my eyes and fought tears. No food and water was difficult enough – to try remain standing while my body wasted away was an impossible endeavor. I glanced at the mouth of the cave, but the mist of the dome was already seeping its way in. There was no choice but to comply.
Leif walked to the door. “I have no interest in Vivaaha,” he muttered, as if reading my earlier thoughts. “It is not to the benefit of the Justice of Peace to waste time with weak women.” He paused. “You will follow my demands for the next two days or bring your own death upon yourself. If you survive, your gifts will still be requested by the Quorum before our departure.”
He stepped through the fog now creating a soft and cloudy mask of surveillance across the entrance, and disappeared into the desert.