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Chapter 2 – Jagger
Two Years Earlier
The dazzling smile plays across those full lips, almost up to her mysterious brown eyes, cheeks rosy with a natural glow. I smile back at her lovely face as the wind from the mountains dances through her hair, more vibrantly golden than beams of midday sunshine. How she can be so innately good, and happy, in such bad and unhappy times I do not know. She is so clear in my memory. She is perfect. With her, I am alive, truly and deeply alive.
Merritt. My love. My everything.
But she is gone. For a full month now. They took her, they took my love away.
I told her not to do it. Begged her, even. It wasn’t worth the risk, I would find another way. But my beautiful Merritt was as resolute as she was luminous. Determined as she was enchanting. I saw the way her mother’s hand-me-down shirt clung to her too-small body, I could see every rib exposed when she reached for something. And her younger brothers, gods. They were even worse. They were starving to death before my eyes, I watched it happen. I tried my damndest to do what I could to help them on top of my own family, but in the end it wasn’t enough.
It will never be enough, not for any of us.
I am an employee of The Order. I hate that they own me that way. But working in its security unit provides more wages and rations than the other meager earnings from jobs outside of The Order’s protective reach. And since my father’s death eight years ago, taking care of the people I love has been up to me. The meager wages, the miniscule rations The Order doles out in grandiose fashion, all of it…they’re supposed to be a physical manifestation of the gods’ goodness. But the rations – even the higher proportions The Order’s own receive – are never enough. I don’t think it was the gods’ will for The Order to take the best and most, while the rest of us are left to starve to death.
She promised me she’d be careful, did I think her an idiot? Of course she wouldn’t get caught. I saw the flicker of determination, dancing to mask the sadness and desperation threatening to reveal themselves. My darling was strong. Her decision had been made, an unwavering expression of the willful spirit I so deeply adored. And it worked, for a while. I didn’t ask questions, didn’t care to know how the extra loaves came to be in her family’s small apartment, or which of the men from town had provided the canned rations with their pleasure. For those several months I would look at her questioningly, searchingly. Begging her to be all right. My love only squeezed my hand and nodded, eyes alight with a graceful dignity that was resilient if not somewhat forced. Both our families went to bed at night nourished – still not fully content, but not crying out in the pain of hunger. So, like a fool, I allowed it to continue.
Sixteen is too young to know such pain, but still I close my eyes and relive the dreaded day again. The news comes while I am at work. I tear through the city streets, racing to the Temple. Around it. Behind it. Back, back, back to the Killing Field. My beautiful Merritt stands, wrists bound and head lowered, in the yard behind the Temple’s rear-facing wall. There is a small erected platform, and I make out a pit lurking dangerously in front of my love. The mountains loom ominously behind us, and I wish I could free her from the scene unfolding around us. I’ve never been back here. This is a place reserved for what The Order calls justice, “the will of the gods.” For execution.
How can a place be simultaneously holy and cursed? The saying goes that a house divided against itself cannot stand. I suppose the rules are different where temples are concerned.
The Overseer steps into his place at the microphone, painting his face full of sorrow and disquietude. I know better. This pharisaical man is putting on his best performance. “This woman stands accused of breaking Decree Number Two, a crime that is punishable by death. Though the gods are forgiving and merciful, they are also just and steadfast. Their commands are clear. To disobey The Order is to die.”
How stupid I was to let her do this. How stupid I was not to consider that The Order would have undercover operatives in place to root out the city’s alleged evils. How stupid I was. They lower her into the pit, the execution squad surrounding its edges. I claw my way to the front.
“You can’t do this,” I scream over the murmur of the crowd. “Take me instead. Please, take me!” Strong fingers grasp my shoulders, my thrashing arms, my kicking legs, and I struggle desperately against them as they pull me away.
I have made a scene, and an even larger crowd has gathered. My love stands bravely in place in the pit, looking up at me. She shakes her head no, and mouths “I love you.” Her eyes hold mine and my body stills.
She is beauty. She is peace.
I am terror. I am rage.
The squad steps closer to the edge, stooping to each collect stones from the ground at their feet. A shudder erupts violently through my body; I dread what is going to happen now. I want to close my eyes, but I can’t. I will be strong for her. With her.
A stone strikes her head. Her delicate hand rushes up to the wound, fingers drawing back marked with fresh crimson liquid. She doesn’t look afraid. From behind, another stone sinks deep into her back, knocking her to the earth below. She struggles to her feet again amidst the downpour of stony death.
Another. And another. And another. And another. Tears flow violently down my cheeks. I pray desperately that I will soon wake from what I hope is a nightmare.
Then, larger than the others, a flat-faced stone rushes through the air, colliding solidly with her sunshine hair with a sickening crack that I feel in my gut. Her thin frame crumples to the ground. This time she does not get back up. I cry out as my world fades to black.
Honor the gods above all else, The Order’s first Decree dictates. Fine. I can live with that. The second Decree is the problem: Respect The Order and its commands, as the gods’ anointed rulers of this city. Respect. What they mean is obey. I cannot obey that which I do not respect. This thought is sacrilege, of course, punishable by death. But The Order has destroyed that which the gods meant to be holy. Love. They took my love and they killed her. That I cannot abide by. I cannot.
I must fight.
My message travels through the channels I’ve been introduced to, but ignored, so many times before. The meeting will take place at midnight, behind the Pearl. I no longer care about breaking The Order’s city-wide curfew. I do not care what they will do to me if I am caught. There is nothing more they can do to hurt me.
I hear the sounds of shuffling feet before I see the dark shadow approaching. His voice shatters the night’s darkness.
“Jagger. It’s been a long time. What can I do for you?”
But it is what I can do for him. What he has wanted me to do for years.
I can’t make out his face in the dark night, but I hear his thoughtful breaths, long and pensive, as he mulls over my words. “Is this about your girl? Heard about what they did to her. A real shame.”
“It doesn’t matter what it’s about.”
“Jagger,” he warns. “Revenge will destroy you long before you can destroy them. It will annihilate you better than The Order ever could. We fight for justice. For what is right. For the true will of the gods.”
The gods. The gods who let her die. The gods who abandoned us all. I swallow the hot emotion, the wave of fresh tears boiling behind my eyes.
“Damnit it doesn’t matter why, I’m ready, I said. Use me.” My words are a growl, more animalistic than human. Like a snake who’s been stepped on, now lashing out in attack. The venom pulses, wildfire blazing through my veins.
The weight of his judgment washes over me as we stand in haunted silence, the air heavy with scrutiny. The moment lasts an eternity, yet it is over in an instant.
“All right,” he finally says with an analytical stare.
We shake hands and I turn to leave. I am again left alone with my grief and my anger.
I will have my revenge, and I will have it in spades. I will avenge my love.
I will ruin them.