Blinding, bright lights filled my vision as I stared into it holding a square paddle with the number seven on it that represented me. I knew the people behind the bright lights held my fate as this was my third and final time attending panel. There were ten of us that had survived the waiting cells being trained to serve the ruling families that would be our only salvation. Only three this time would be selected—the chances for me were slim.
Several were told to step forward and then stepped back in line as the families decided who they wanted for a bondservant. The paddle in my hand began to slip through my fingers as I held my steady gaze with my shoulders square. I stood slightly on my toes to appear as tall as the girls next to me. Being shorter made me look weak and small. I wanted to prove that I would be a prime bondservant, so I spent hours standing still on my toes until I stopped wobbling.
“Number three, step to the line.” A harsh, female voice blared over the intercom.
A girl with red hair took a ridged step forward with her paddle held under her chin.
“Step back in line.” The same monotone voice announced.
“Number seven, step forward.”
My heart pounded as I took a slightly wobbly step forward. I thought I might faint in the hot lights that beamed relentlessly down on me.
I stepped back to the line trying to contain my trembling hand.
“Patrons, return to the selection room.”
Single file we walked silently into the adjacent room. It was a smaller room with a long metal table in the center with four chairs surrounding it, two on each side. Other than the bright florescent lights barring down, the room was barren, sterile and filled with anxious silence. We didn’t talk or look at each other. We had been taught for years to follow, obey and listen to all Elders. If you went against any of this, you’d be sent to a much darker place. And even if you did follow obediently, there were no guarantees that the Outerlands would be the place you ended up. This was my last time for panel.
My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when the door suddenly opened as if a gust of wind took it. Dressed in a black and white dress and hair pulled neatly into a bun, the Elder stepped in.
“Number three, number nine, and number seven, please step to the wall. The rest will return to their rooms.”
I stood between the red hair girl I didn’t know and Emma, the girl who was across the hall from my room. I glanced at each of them wondering who had selected us. Most of the time it was girls like the red haired one that got picked, not ones like me and Emma. Emma was darker skinned than me—almost the color of chocolate. My skin was dark, but had a yellowish hue to it. We were certainly a diverse selection.
The door opened again and in walked an older woman with white hair being assisted by a young man with greying, cropped, brown hair and blue eyes. He tenderly helped the woman whom I guess to be his mother, in the chair. He sat next to her as the Elder turned to us.
“Number three, have a seat.” The Elder pulled a chair out and both sat down, signed papers and pleasantly visited with the girl.
“You have one month to decide—” The elder started to say.
“No, that won’t be necessary. I know by just looking at the girl that she will be a good choice.” The elderly woman said raising her hand. “I will sign the ownership papers and we will need to schedule her time to receive her mark this week.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the Elder with her monotone voice. “I can do that for you right now.”
“What is your name, dear?” The elderly woman asked.
“Margaret,” she replied timidly.
The woman smiled. “Lovely name.” Her voice approved. “I’ll call you Maggie.”
The girl nodded and smiled. I watched the green and yellow colors swirl around t hem like loving arms. It was a good color and one I hoped surrounded me one day. She was lucky—unbelievably lucky. Emma and I shared shocked expressions as she slipped her hand into mine and gave it a quick squeeze—good luck, roomy.
I sucked in a deep breath as the happy mother and son left with their new bondservant.
“Number seven, you’re next.”
I stood next to the chair as a woman with blonde hair dressed in a tailored blue dress-suit walked in with a girl with mocha colored skin wearing a grey dress with a rounded collar and white sweater that let a portion of her mark peek out from under the sleeve. The woman had brought her bondservant with her. This was not the norm, but there were no rules as to who the family brings with them, but only two could come.
“What’s your name?” The woman asked as the Elder got out the agreement papers.
“Aya,” I replied in the same meek tone as Margaret before me.
The woman smiled as her bondservant gave me evaluating looks. I was truly uncomfortable as I felt this was not off to a good start.
“Please sign here,” the elder said pointing to the spot I had to sign.
Unlike the happily-ever-after ending Margaret had, I felt mine was headed into a dark and uncertain place. I usually didn’t search for the colors that acted like warning signs secretly for my eyes only, but this time I did and they didn’t reveal themselves. I pushed my apprehension away and tried to smile as anything would be better than the work fields of the Outerlands.
I stood at the bedroom window listening to the birds sing their morning song. For me, it was the most peaceful time of day. Most importantly, I was alone with no rules, no judging, and no way I had to be as expected by others. I wanted to freeze time and escape.
The sky blossomed with reds, yellows, and orange hues that pushed the indigo night sky away. Cool air floated around me seeping through my thin nightgown making goose bumps erupt on my skin.
I took in a deep breath and held it in like I did every morning. I wished I could pause time and stay in this moment for as long as I wanted, but it wasn’t up to me. So, I did the thing I did every morning: take in one deep breath, hold it and exhale. When I did this I envisioned everything that made the mornings so peaceful and beautiful fill my every cell. It was now the only thing that kept me going.
“Take the pitcher and I’ve got the tray,” Muri said lifting the large tray filled with an assortment of eggs, pancakes and sausages.
Muri, with one graceful movement, twirled out the kitchen door and into the breakfast room. It was my job to help her with meals when we served them to the Stack family which consisted of only three people. I was still in awe at how large their home was. I knew it would be nice, but I never expected so many rooms and a yard so lush and full of flowers. Even though I was their bondservant, or actually one they were trying out, I still felt like a princess here in all of its grandeur. And if I wanted to stay I had to be perfect in everything I did.
I obediently followed Muri with the pitcher of orange juice and poured it into the crystal goblets sitting evenly spaced on the buffet table. Bright sunlight sliced the room in daggers of sunshine and made the ornate glasses filled with juice sparkle. They were pretty and I took a second to enjoy their beauty before serving them.
“Thank you, Aya.” Ciril, the father of the family, said as he looked up at me with his pale, blue eyes. He smiled in a way that one would do when summing one up. This made me nervous. “You know, you don’t have to hide your hair. In fact, you should wear what you like and such a lovely girl shouldn’t cover her beauty.” He tapped my hand gently before he turned his attention to his wife. “Neema, take the girl and get her some different clothing. I don’t want my servants feeling like servants. They are part of our family.”
I felt like one of the beams of sunlight had cut through me. Ciril had spoken as though he had selected me as the family’s bondservant—a position that is permanent and no one can take away. This was good, and I felt like dancing with the sparkling glasses of juice in my hands. But I didn’t change my demeanor on the outside. I still had to keep an even appearance as when serving one of the ruling families you are in tune to them and nothing else. That’s was I was trained to do in the waiting cells. And if I wanted to survive in this world the Stack family was my salvation.
“I was planning on doing that soon, but time didn’t allow it.” Neema glanced up at me with a smile. “Today will be a good day to go.” I replied with a nod in agreement.
I sat the third glass by a vacant seat that belonged to their son, Nimon. I guessed him to be about my age and he was an even cross between Ciril and Neema. His eyes were the same color as his father’s, and his wavy hair matched his mother’s blonde color perfectly. His broad shoulders and height that stopped at the same level as Ciril’s, was smoothed by Neema’s gracefulness.
I let the glass slip from my fingers gently to the table and took a step back waiting for Muri to finish serving. Neema glanced at her son’s empty seat with a flash of sadness. It was a weary look as if she had years and layers of sadness that had built up making her look old in that one moment. She let out a quiet sigh only I heard before she took a sip of the juice I had poured.
Out of all three of them, it was Neema I felt sorry for. Her heart was kind and the colors surrounding her were soft and pale blending into one another as if they were bleeding onto one another.
I hoovered by the wall and stood as still as the portrait of the girl dressed in some bygone era outfit with the passive look on her face behind me.
“Muri you are a wonderful cook. Everything looks –amazing.” Ciril let the word roll from his mouth as slow as the syrup she poured over his pancakes.
“Thank you, Mr. Stack.” She replied quickly with a clank of the silver lid shutting the bottle.
“Mr. Stack?” Ciril repeated. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Ciril?” He gazed at her with his lips that always seemed to hold a small smile.
“Old habits are hard to break.” Muri said in an even tone.
He gently took Muri’s right arm and turned it over revealing her new mark.
“This is our family’s mark on you.” He lifted his eyes to her as she stood shifting her weight like a cat being held too long. “This means you belong to us and are under our protection.”
Muri nodded her head and Ciril let go of her arm letting his fingers cascade across the palm of her hand. Red and orange colors erupted around the gesture. Muri stood and waited for Ciril to let go of her hand before taking her place next to me. I held my breath and watched the warning colors fade. I knew I was the only one seeing them as I glanced over at Neema who ate her breakfast and concentrated on some of the papers she always carried in her briefcase. Ciril then turned and smiled at me switching his eyes between his two servants.
“Well, both of you will call everyone in this household by their first names. Understood?”
In unison, we both nodded in agreement.
Muri scrubbed the pans and cleaned the countertop without a word. I wanted to tell her about the warning colors, but it was a secret I’ve held all my life. It wasn’t a normal thing to have and normal is what the ruling families wanted in their servants.
Muri had her bondservantship to the Stack family and made her automatically above me. If she didn’t like me or I went against her, she could report me and I’d be back to the waiting cells. My time there was running out, and this being my first assignment meant it was close to a last chance.
I did my usually job of sweeping and mopping the floor and collecting the towels Muri had used. I was also in charge of clearing the table when the family was done.
I cracked the door open enough to see in the breakfast room and see if they had finished.
“Ciril takes forever.” Muri whisked behind me and opened the refrigerator getting out a deep pan with a beef roast peeking out of the top. “You might as well have a seat and help me cut up potatoes and carrots.” Muri handed me a small paring knife.
The narrow preparation table sat in the middle of the kitchen and had four chairs surrounding it. I sat down and began peeling a potato from the silver bowl that sat between Muri and me. In the month that I’ve been here, words and conversation had been scarce between us. I had to make a good impression, but I was running out of small talk and I can only ask so many questions about my duties before I looked like an idiot.
If Muri wasn’t watching me from the corner of her eyes, she always had a distant look as if she was trying to find a place just out of her vision and hang on to it. When I did catch her staring at me she would look away with a content smile as if she had found something she had lost. It made it hard to talk to someone and hold a conversation when their mind was somewhere else, or they turned away from you when the opportunity was there. I wondered what she thought about and how I could find some common ground other than our duties to discuss. I had to make her like me enough so I could stay here.
“This is a cheery kitchen.” I tried to strike a conversation. “The colors are very pretty.” I really did like the soft yellow and white trim. “It’s the color of butter.” I smiled just realizing the comparison.
“Yes, I suppose it does match.” Muri looked passively around and then back to cutting potatoes.
I glanced at her wondering if she liked me or not. It was up to her as well if I stay here or not and I wanted to get along with her. I decided to move the conversation to the weather, the garden outside and then to the cat that hung around the back door and pawed at it until Muri gave him his breakfast. She liked the cat, but the cat was wild and didn’t stay for long. I had to make sure I won Muri over as my time here for internship was running out.
This was the first house I was assigned to, and I really wanted to stay and earn my bondservantship with them. I was welcomed warmly and nothing has been said negatively, but nothing is solid until you have the family’s crest tattooed on your right forearm. I looked at Muri’s mark that was circular with a thin border and what looked like gathered wheat in the center with two lion heads on either side. Each of the ruling family marks meant something from their beginning reign.
Muri was fast at cutting up potatoes and diced them it to evenly sized chunks. I glanced several times at her mark. She never noticed me staring at it as she concentrated on her job and that distant place she always had in her eyes.
“Did it hurt?” I blurted my thoughts aloud not intending to, but at the same time I’ve grown frustrated of our general conversation.
“Did what hurt?” She asked and I pointed to the place on my wrist a mark would be.
“Physically no, but in other ways, yes.” Muri’s dark, brown eyes lifted to me like two doors that slowly opened to a room closed off except for special occasions. “Are you frightened to get yours?”
“Get mine.” I repeated with a flutter in my chest. “No, I mean, I hope I get one. I don’t want to return to the waiting cells.”
Muri turned her attention to the carrots. I finished the potato I was dicing up to match the cubed ones she had cut and wondered if this was the end of our conversation.
“So, where are you from, Aya?” She asked without looking at me.
I looked up at her. This was the first personal question she had asked me since I came here. Until now, our conversations had been safe, but now I felt a door had opened and Muri was standing in the threshold. I had to be honest and pleasant as I knew I was from somewhere else as I didn’t look like the majority of the population of Greenland.
“I’ve always lived here in Greenland.” I answered in an upbeat tone. “I grew up in a nurseryhome and when I was older I went to the waiting cells.” I answered quickly and glad we were talking about something other than our work, but I felt it was headed in a touchy area. I had to change its course.
Muri smiled and looked down at her carrot as she diced it up. “You are not from Greenland.”
I looked at her and held my breath for just a moment. “I’m from Greenland.” I replied with apprehension.
She lifted her eyes. “No, not originally. Like me, you are not from Greenland, but from somewhere else. Our families came from other lands.”
Family. We used that word many times when I was little in the nursuryhome. They called all the children there a family and had many brothers and sisters. A family outside Greenland, I didn’t understand at the same time I did. There was something out there I always sensed was waiting for me, though disregarded it. I felt I was standing on the threshold of a door that had opened to a great and terrible chasm and Muri was asking me to step in. I wasn’t about to fall into the darkness of what she had opened in front of me.
I shook my head trying to look confused, but deep down I knew what she meant. I’ve heard rumors, but to stay alive, I ignored them.
“Muri, I don’t understand.” I felt she was talking about something that would get us, and especially me, in trouble. “Greenland is all that I know.”
“All that you know.” She inclined closer to me. “That’s it—all that you know.”
The chair creaked as she leaned back into it and continued peeling and dicing the carrots. Muri didn’t say anymore and I wondered if I had angered her, or she just didn’t like me for whatever reason and wished to cause the Stacks’ to have concern over my bondservanship with them.
I made several quick glances at Muri wondering what she meant. But I also knew enough not tread where treading didn’t need to be. I had to play it safe and show the Stack family that I wished to serve them with a full heart. Whatever Muri was trying to tell me I had to ignore. I knew enough to not add gas to the fire. I remained quiet and cut up the last carrot.
“Aya, Mr. Stack is done. You can clear the breakfast room now and don’t be late with Neema. She likes promptness.” Muri picked up the bowl of mixed potatoes and carrots and took them to the sink to fill with water.
I stood up and looked at her for a moment before picking up the tray.
“Aya,” Muri said and caught me before I went out the door. I turned and glanced over my shoulder at her. “Neema has good taste and will pick out something nice for you to wear doing your duties around here.”
I nodded and she smiled swirling the blue rag in large motions over and over the preparation table. I left her humming a sad tune to herself.
With the dishes done and the breakfast room ready for tomorrow, I stood in my pressed, grey dress that went to my knees, fitted snug around my torso and sleeves that nearly reached my elbows. I waited quietly in the entryway for Neema. I was told by Muri that she always meets her servants in the entryway when she needed them to either go with her somewhere or whatnot.
The large clock stood in front of me like an ancient guard ticking each second, minute and hour by. I liked the clock as it had a calming rhythm to it. Sharp, dagger-like hands pointed ferociously at the swirling numbers evenly spaced on the face of the clock. Glass and wood intertwined throughout the body of it as if the two materials had grown together randomly. It was so beautiful I wanted to run my fingers over it.
“I bought that from and estate auction years ago and no one can tell me anything about it.” Neema’s voice echoed behind me and I didn’t realize I was standing directly in front of the clock.
“I am sorry, Mrs.—I mean, Neema.” I lowered my head and turned to her.
She crossed her arms. “Whatever for, Aya?” She took her finger and lifted my chin.
“For looking at your clock when I didn’t need to be.” I replied lifting my eyes to hers.
A deep look of sorrow and empathy washed over her face. “Don’t be. It’s a beautiful thing and should be admired. I know, because I picked it out and it’s good to see someone else share the same eye for beauty as me.” She smiled.
I felt my insides bubble, but contained them. Instead I smiled and gave her a nod.
“And stop that,” She said taking my chin again and pinching between her fingers. “We’ve got shopping to do and I don’t want a shadow following me, but a young girl at my side instead.” Neema opened the door and I went outside feeling exhilarated and nervous at the same time.
Since I was selected by the Stacks to come to their home, I’ve been asked the basic questions about myself, but mostly observed. This is the first time Neema has said anything like this to me before and it made my head spin as I got into her sleek, black car.
We traveled for a moment in silence as we wound our way through the tree-lined streets. Large homes dotted the area like a strand of pearls. It was a peaceful and beautiful area that I wished to stay in and live out my days here. That was all I ever wanted since I could remember. I didn’t want to go back to the waiting cells and much less to the work fields that bordered the Outerlands between the Four Sects.
I let a smile escape my lips as Neema turned several corners until the black road led us to a busier section of Neighborhood 1.
“This car is a loaner I’m trying out, so we can speak freely, Aya. Ciril hasn’t bugged it yet. He’s a control freak and thinks everyone is a suspect.” She glanced over at me as we flowed with the fast moving traffic surrounding us. “I’m not exactly who you think I am and I want you to know that I mean you no harm.” She smiled and I felt my palms begin to sweat. This had to be a trick or a test.
“You are Mrs. Stack whom I can call Neema by your husband’s request. I am honored that you are taking me with you, and even more honored you are buying me clothes other than my uniform.” I couldn’t fall into whatever she was doing. This had to be a test to prove trustworthiness.
I closed my eyes remembering what I was taught in the waiting cells: Stay true to the family, never sway in your thoughts, and above all, do what you were trained to do.
I glanced over at Neema and our eyes met for a moment.
“I know this is coming suddenly to you, but Aya,” she took a deep breath and glanced again at me with worried eyes. “You are the one that I have been looking for. Muri told me you could see colors surrounding people.” She glanced over at me as we stopped for a red light. “You have the sight to see auras—a very rare talent, Aya.”
I looked forward out the windshield without a reply. I felt the blood rush to my feet as I swayed slightly and clutched the handle in the door to steady myself. I never told anyone about seeing the colors that sometimes surrounded people, and how did Muri know this? My skin prickled with goose bumps and my chest tightened restricting my breathing. If I was going to be sent back, I wouldn’t die in the work fields, but right here in Neema’s fancy car.
I closed my eyes and tried to maintain that even temperament that we were taught in the waiting cells. I felt her eyes on me again as I kept focused on the car in front of us. How could Muri find out about my ability that came suddenly two years ago and told no one about? Doing so would mean immediate deployment to the work fields by the Outerlands. The spaces between the Sects were filled with monsters, magic, and evil things that threatened our peaceful and organized world. And I didn’t want to go there.
The light changed and all I wanted to do was run away.
“Muri has a gift, too.” Neema said in a gentle voice. “She can sense vibes that people give off and knew of your ability when we came to select a new bondservant. Though at the time she didn’t know exactly what it was, but just recently found out.”
How far was she going to take this, and what did she want from me? What was I to prove to her?
I turned and looked at Neema. “I am honored to be with your family and hope to serve you to the best of my ability.” A general statement—I wasn’t going to acknowledge my color-seeing ability. “I don’t have anything wrong with me and desire to be your bondservant.”
She smiled, found a spot to park and we sat quietly between the cars surrounding us. The cheerful mall loomed around us filled with stores. I glanced at it taking in the large windows, bricks, stone and the water fountain spewing water as if it were diamonds sparkling in the sunshine.
“I’ve never been to a mall before.” I stated hoping to change our conversation. “Thank you for taking me.”
She took in a deep breath. “And when we are done here, I’ve something to show you, Aya. You will have an opportunity to change your life and the choice will be yours.” Neema leaned closer to me with a hardened look on her face. “But if you decline my offer, you will have to be sent back to the waiting cells—I can’t take the risk.”
I swallowed hard getting out of the car. Looking at the long building covered in cement and glass, I knew I really didn’t have a choice.