I was in the Justicar’s office when the bell tolled to announce the approach of a visitor. “It is the superintendent,” the intercom buzzed. “She is not waiting.” My heart sank with despair as I eyed the practice rifle sitting on the Justicar’s desk. Two moments of awkward, knee-shivering silence were split by the her iron voice. “Imik, you understand the special rules for boys?” “Of course,” I smiled and nodded. “Good boys take their medicines, or the pandemic will return.” “I see that we understand each other.” “Yes, Justicar. I am in compliance.” To survive, you had to be. The world could only see the shell. A false smile to ensure subservience to the matriarchy. But being an ever-vigilant performer is hard. Doubly so when you’re only twelve. That wasn’t going to stop me from rising up, seizing the day as my own, giving my soul one life-giving moment of exhilarating freedom. Like the stories. The ones most boys won’t let you tell. The ones about how it used to be. They know that we remember. They know that we are only smiling and nodding. They know that our hearts are not in it. They don’t give a sht about our hearts. They give a sht about silly words like “sht” and whether or not you are able to smile when you say that you are sorry. So I smiled and nodded and complied and jumped in my seat like a frightened shadow when the Preceptor’s office door slammed open. Superintendent Justicar Fyrebruenger was a substantial woman with thinning hair and a dark, pleated suit. Pinned to her right shoulder was the brooch of her station, an elevation marking her family crest among the most elite of the continent. She carried two 9mm pistols, one strapped to the horizons of each hip. For all her girth, there was little doubt she knew how to use them. If you were daring, or crazy, or both, you might also catch a glimpse of the ruby-encrusted, dragon-shaped amulet of gold she wore beneath her high-forked collar, glittering like faeriefire in the otherwise incandescent surroundings. She was alone. But the Preceptor would be outside. Not to mention the Sentinels. Eunuchs. The “good boys.” If you don’t know, you really don’t want to know. I shivered. The Path of Maintenance. The Caste of Executors. Oh, how it was to them our highest honer. I am no pet. Of course, every boy knew to fear the Sentinels. They were the best of us. Poised. Fierce. Sold to mental subservience with fiery zeal. They would never be fathers, and this was their pride. “One hour’s whipping for the infraction,” the Superintendent said, her lips snarling at the fringe of her smile, her beady eyes inspecting the rifle. I let out a small sigh. It would not be enough. But showing proper remorse was essential. She went on. “Next, I want him prepared for inspection and transportation.” Her massive face turned with a cold fervor, a happy madness, her jowels all ready to gobble down on me and swallow me up. Probably not. But her right hand caressed the stock of its pistol. The pale, pulsing overhead lights rained down a fervent storm, and the thundering heat of the stuffy, stale air pressed over every gland in my face until I wanted to close my eyes and flee away into a dream. I didn’t. *That* would not go well. That would not be proper penitence. But today it didn’t matter how well I hid it. Today pretending would do me no more good. “Imik!” she sneered, lifting her left hand in a clenched fist. “Special, *observant*, pious Imik! Chief of liars, are you not? You have grown since your last infraction. You, at least, have also become what the Sentinel Master-Trainers call ‘ruddy.’” She put a finger under my chin, forcing my head upward, inspecting me like a horse. I could feel the mass of the woman. Glutton she may be, but sloth she was not. “I suppose you will expect leniency based upon your promise of granting us some helpful information? Will you sell us your brotherhood like last time? It is a good plan. It will work this time. But, I promise you, a third such violation and then the Path to Maintenance will be closed to you. In any matter, you are far too intelligent to have not prepared yourself with a fine tale to speak. Be direct. Your plea?” “If only it were as you say,” I said, holding her steady in the eye. “But no one will trust me now, as you no doubt know.” I shook my head. “And I do not expect leniency. I fully understand the need to punish me severely as a public example. In fact, in your place I might just invoke the extreme penalty. But for my own part, I face the Judge with the plea that the infraction is not my own, but that I have been the target of slanderous enmity and misdemeanor.” “The weapon is not yours?” the Superintendent asked, her curiosity almost peaked. That hungry snarl came back for only an instant. “I have heard many announcements in my time, Imik, and I will grant that you are as clever as you are beautiful.” Her eyes squinted as she picked me over. “I do not doubt that you continue to excel in your studies. But you have lost your worthless male mind if you hope for one second to dissuade our peace with such cynicism and slander as the claim that you were framed.” “Yes, Superintendent,” I said, bowing my head in obeisance. “I shall rejoice at your reconciliation, and offer my heart, mind and breath for the good of the city.” Lying was not something I believed in. But they drove it into you. Brainwashing. Really. I mean this: it is over before you know it. When the lie is the language of the people, how is a man to tell the truth? Not that I thought any of this was a reason to shoot people. That’s not why I had the gun. But not wanting to do something and having to do something are two very different things. Suddenly, the Superintendent turned, snatched the rifle from the table, and threw it at me. I did nothing. The butt slammed me in the face. I could have caught that rifle. I could have smashed her in her fat face and had her pistol unloaded into the Justicar before you could say “brainwashing” twice fast. Then what? The Justicar sat and watched. Then, a moment later, “You fool!” she shouted. The blood ran down my forehead from the gash. I did not reach up to wipe it. But I did smile. I did look the devil in the eye and say, “Yes, Superintendent. It is wisdom to me to hear such things from you.” She was not deterred. “You are the one who has been leading the secret society! You are the one who has been writing the poems! You are the one teaching the boys those damnable falsehoods of the patriarchs!” I shrugged, and gave her my very real chagrin, “If I were, I would confess it, and hand over my entire team for reeducation, that you might smile on us as your humble subservients again. I am your eager disciple. I only carry out our finest traditions. I am grateful if this must be the Year of the Scapegoat. How much honor to all!” A wise man sees trouble coming and hides himself. A fool acts on all he feels. The door opened, and in was pressed my brother, Usay. He was not my blood brother. Or, if he was, there was no way for us to know. From infancy we were kept in the herd. It was the herd that made us brothers. It was the herd that taught us to trust. He was dressed just like me, in the training school denim basics and the form-fitting farm-work shirt, tucked in. Usay’s real name, his herd name, was Lightbreaker. We called him that because he was never afraid to protect the brotherhood, even when alone under the worst spotlights. He entered and sat by my side, on one of the other chairs before the Justicar’s bench. The bottom of his trousers looked like they were still wet from the morning work in the yards. He did not make a sound, nor did we meet eyes. But we did not need to. Our kinship was greater than any signal could mean, forged in the experience of being the hated caste. No one else could ever know. No one else could ever imagine. We were more than brothers. We were better than trublood. We were the last of the Free Men.
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