SINGULARITY Round Up

If you’ve been following along, you’re probably familiar with SINGULARITY–a project I had the opportunity and honor to be part of. In case you missed some things along the way–or still aren’t sure exactly what SINGULARITY is all about–here’s a round up of all the posts and promotions. Teasers, trailers, scary stories–they’re all here!

Advertisements

Featured on 1:1000: Comfort

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 10.01.01 AM

One for One Thousand is a collective of writers and photographers creating stories with a single picture and a story of one thousand words. It’s a pleasure to have my writing featured on their site with a hauntingly lovely photo from Daniel Vidal. Click the photo above to read “Comfort” on the site.

If you’re interested in other pieces I’ve written for 1:1000, see Wheels and Fishing Lessons.

SINGULARITY COVER REVEAL

Singularity 6 x 9 coverThe time has come.

The time is now.

Singularity is the new novel from Helena Hann-Basquiat, with Sara Litchfield, Sandy Ramsey, Lizzi

Rogers and Hannah Sears.

Singularity is the sequel to last year’s JESSICA — a metafictional look into Jessica’s possible pasts.

Singularity is coming August 1, 2015

Singularity is its own novel, and can be enjoyed all on its own, but if you haven’t read JESSICA, GO HERE to read the first chapter or GO HERE to purchase a copy in paperback or e-book.

 

 

Work in Progress: Novel Excerpt

Hi, hello, howdy. It has come to my attention that I’ve accrued some new followers in the past few months of my blog hiatus. Welcome! I originally started this blog as a way to encourage myself to write as well as to get some of my writing read. As I made friends through WordPress, I came to appreciate the interaction between writer and reader that can occur here. So please, if you have something to say, drop me a line in the comments. In the meantime, here is the intro to one of my current WIPs, with the working title Tell No Tales.

Clara’s life is not what one would call luxurious, but it suits her. After escaping the clutches of her power-hungry family at thirteen and living with her maternal grandfather, Clara is content to live out her life in anonymity—with no one the wiser that she is part of the powerful Lacey family. A “chance” meeting at a cemetery disrupts the plans Clara had for her life and she finds herself thrust headfirst into the intrigue and secrecy she fought so hard to escape.

Tell No Tales | Chapter One Excerpt

Clara stood across from the wrought iron gates of Highgate Cemetery finishing a cigarette and wondered if a single smoke really took fifteen minutes off her life. It was sunny enough that her dark sunglasses weren’t out of place and she had the collar of her leather jacket flipped up to help hide her face. She’d watched the exit gates for over half an hour, waiting for the crowd of men and women with cameras and press badges to disperse. There was little chance of being recognized—the last photo most of the tabloids had featured showed her in a sensible tweed suit with dark hair past her shoulders.  She had cut it off and bleached it blonde the year before. Between that and the sunglasses, she was fairly confident they wouldn’t recognize her. She was about to brave the expanse when a long, dark car pulled up and slowed. She squinted at it, but couldn’t see the driver’s face through the tinted windows. The paparazzi noticed as well and started towards it. The momentary distraction was enough. Clara stubbed out her cigarette and ducked her face deeper into her collar, trying to keep her pace casual.

At the gate, she showed her owner’s pass to the guard. He glanced at it and waved her past the queue of tourists waiting at the ticket booth with their cameras and sensible walking shoes and senseless chatter. She followed a group of Americans—two round women and a red-faced man with an assortment of school children–through the entrance. The man clutched a guidebook in one hand and his camera in the other, the three of them engaged in deciphering a map of the famous deceased. Clara skirted them when they paused to take photos of gravestones charmingly draped with ivy and topped with age-softened faces of angels.  She had visited on Grandfather’s birthday and the first anniversary of his death the year before, but the twisting pathways threatened to disorient her. It was something of a surprise when she reached the right plot, in a quiet curve of one of the many labyrinth trails. Squatting down, she brushed some fallen leaves from the top of the stone; its edges were still harsh, not yet weathered. The name–Peter Randolph–was still sharply etched in the granite.

***

It had rained the day they buried him. Clara remembered the sound of water drumming on the tarp that the gravediggers had hastily thrown over the mound of fresh dirt, and how it turned each footprint into a miniature lake. She had stood to one side with her grandfather’s house staff with the cold and damp seeping through her too-tight best shoes. Icy water had dripped down her neck despite the umbrella. Her parents and brothers had arrived just before the priest, black coats flapping in the wind. Their pace was hampered by Cassandra’s heels and the chauffeur that held an umbrella over her, looking miserable as the rain flattened his hair against his bare head. It was the first time she had seen them since the day Grandfather died.  A week prior, she and Cassandra had stared at each other across Grandfather’s motionless body, as the doctors unhooked the life-sustaining IVs he no longer needed. The room had been eerily silent, devoid of the beeping machines that had become so familiar. She remembered feeling like the world had narrowed to the hospital bed, that nothing else existed besides the all too still form.

***

Grandfather had been the most permanent fixture in her life after she began attending a boarding school outside London near his home. She was thirteen and glad to escape the Kensington flat with its stringent code of conduct and icy formality. He had earned his years of quiet but he welcomed her.  He would put away whatever he was reading or writing, listening to her school stories and woes as though they were every bit as interesting as his travels in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

It was strange to think that today was just another set of digits on the calendar to anyone else. Despite knowing that the box beneath the ground held nothing but his shell, Clara felt close to her grandfather here beneath the open sky, breathing in the smell of damp earth and mossy growth. It brought to mind the wide green lawn at the back of his house that stretched down to a bubbling stream and the comforting, woolen forms of sheep in the fields across the narrow road. A world away from the aggressive aromas of silver polish and freshly waxed floors in her childhood home. Clara wrapped her arms around herself as she crouched by the headstone. She heard footsteps behind her. When she turned, expecting to see a photographer or reporter who’d managed to slip past the gates, there was only sun-dappled shade. But she felt suddenly exposed, alone next to the grave of a man two years dead. She noticed a splash of colour behind the headstone and stood to get a better look.

There were pink peonies splayed across the loamy earth. Clara realized she was holding her breath as she stared down at the flowers and reached out to grip the top of the stone. She closed her eyes and counted slowly to twenty, carefully regulating her breath. When she opened her eyes, the flowers were still there. Several had burst as they hit the ground, laying in the ruin of their own rosy petals. She thought she felt eyes on the back of her neck and turned, but the only witnesses were a few birds, flitting in and out of the greenery. He gave her peonies on her birthday each year until he died; they were the only flower she really liked. The air felt oppressive, and the cool, earthy aroma smelled suddenly like rot and decay.

Featured on One for One Thousand: Fishing Lessons

I’m excited to be part of 1:1000 again. If you haven’t found your way to this site, I highly recommend it. Gorgeous photos and lyrical writing pair two of my favorite expressions of art through writing and photography. The writers and photographers are all so talented and an absolute pleasure to work with.

Read it here: Fishing Lessons  (amazing photo courtesy of Blake Bronstad)

My first story on 1:1000 was Wheels (fabulous photo by Emily Blincoe)

Into the Woods

I haven’t participated in Friday Fictioneers in a long time. If you’ve never heard of it, Friday Fictioneers encourages participants to write a 100 word story based on a photo prompt. Click the blue froggy to read the other stories.

© Rachel Bjerke

© Rachel Bjerke

I went to the place where we used to meet, where we shared secrets with sheltering trees. I followed my wandering feet, back to the place where we used to meet. The moss grew thick over the stones and the earth; time thickened air that once was sweet. The well was there, as I knew it would be, the old well in the place where we used to meet. I leaned over the edge and stared into the deep. The water was black and the only face was my own, alone in the place where we used to meet.

Therefore I Am

I haven’t done a Flash Fiction Challenge in a really long time and wanted to get back in the game. We had to choose a random sentence* from a list and use it in a 1,000 word story.

         I tried to hide the revulsion in my eyes as I wiped the dribble of saliva from his chin. Stubble flecked his cheeks where the Carers had missed. I wondered if he was somewhere else in his mind—somewhere nice. Maybe he relived his greatest successes or humble beginnings. I hoped he was staring into the moment where everything ended, the start of my personal hell.

I.

It was supposed to change the world—the sharing of consciousness. A chip implanted behind your ear translated your thoughts into layers of complex code that could be relayed to others. They marketed it as MindMeld and the first ads read like a science-fiction dating app. But popularity grew and the first inklings of the capabilities rippled through the techsphere. MindMeld became the next “it” thing—opening the doors to other technologies powered by your brain. The iCorp conglomerate pounced and soon you could calibrate your mobile devices to MindMeld. The usual anti-tech groups protested—it was turning us into robots, stealing our thoughts, our souls, our individuality. The programmers ignored them, the marketing campaigns mocked them, and soon even they were silenced.

II.

Caleb convinced me to get ours done together. “It’s the future, Macy!”
I asked him if he was worried about not having any secrets—about the total lack of privacy. He took my hands the way he always did when I was nervous and rubbed his thumbs across my knuckles and said I don’t have any secrets from you. It seemed sweet—the tech at the clinic said it was romantic.

III.

With MindMeld, you could shake someone’s hand at a networking event and they could download your resume and work history. It would be stored in the individual’s ThoughtCloud and could be accessed later. There were more intimate uses for it, too—dating profiles or personal ads. The privacy settings were unmatched, they said. You had to have permission to MindMeld with someone through a series of specially tailored, unique thought commands. When the advertising potential was fully realized, there were certain “public” zones where advertisers had limited access. Times Square was one of the best examples—information from billboards downloaded directly to your cloud. They lauded it as the greatest technology invented; its uses were universal: medical, social, financial.

No one knew that our privacy settings were as sturdy as tissue paper in a hurricane. MindMeld underplayed the extent of the breaches—isolated incidents, insufficient caution on the part of the user. We believed it. We didn’t know how to live without the constant, instant exchange of information, thoughts, feelings. The first hackers took the basics—bank information, nude photos, government secrets. Then came the Miners. They took memories, experiences—your fifth birthday, the way a first kiss felt, the sound of your grandmother’s voice. At first they asked ransoms—how much was your memory worth to you? But, once the door was opened, there was no stopping it. They took weeks, months, and years. They took your power of speech, your sense of smell, the ability to see color, and MindMarket was born. Don’t like your past? Change it. Want to replace bad memories with good? Switch them. Memories themselves became currency.

IV.

Caleb and I updated passwords, paid for extra firewalls, but with the same attitude you put up a “Beware of Dog” sign when you only own a cat. We believed that as long as we took the recommended precautions, it wouldn’t happen to us. We enjoyed the ability to communicate just how much we loved each other without words. He loved me like the sunset we’d watched together in Mikonos. I loved him like the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning with the sunlight streaming.

Have you ever dreamed that someone you loved had amnesia? That they looked at you with blank eyes and had no memory of the years you spent together? When you wake from your nightmare you shake them until their eyes open and, even blurred with sleep, you can see that they know you. Until it takes them a minute to remember you, then ten, then—nothing. This is what happened when the Miners wormed their way in.

V.

It took a month to reduce Caleb to the wide-eyed, slack mouthed shell of the man I loved. He had been “mined”—everything that made him Caleb was gone, lost forever. We were in agreement about what to do if it happened to either one of us. It was easier than I thought to let his body go. I’d already said goodbye to his mind.

VI.

The man in the chair deserved no such release. The Carers thought I was a doting relative or a good friend—the way I sat by him day after day. I needed to know he was still breathing. I needed to know he was still suffering. The tubes and wires that pumped nutrients into his body did their job well. He had standing orders to keep his body alive no matter the circumstances—waiting for his mind to be restored. He was the inventor of the original MindMeld, which he aptly called HiveMind. He was fully aware of its destructive potential from the very beginning. His fingers twitched on the chair and a nearly inaudible groan escaped his lips.

The upload was a simple one, started at the beginning of my visit when I activated the MindDrive in my purse. Caleb is gone; the memory we used to share is no longer coherent. But the new memories I gave to the man in the chair were clear. I’d searched for the most excruciating sensations for years. I had burned, drowned, been torn to pieces, and suffocated. I had felt every way there was to die and none of them hurt as badly as watching the life fade from Caleb’s eyes. As I left the room, I knew the upload was successful. From the sound of his screams, he was living out the hell I’d created just for him.

*”The memory we used to share is no longer coherent”

Waking Nightmares

This is part of an ongoing story that begins with The Initiative

Mina shoved her way through the revolving door and burst out into the street, the wind cool against her blazing cheeks. Damn Delancey St. Clair. Damn him. She hunched her shoulders against the gusts and walked quickly down the street, wanting to put as much distance as possible between herself and Del. It was stupid to meet with him—stupid to put herself this close to Holler, Grim, Alberich & Mors. She had given into a moment of sentimentalism and contacted Delancey when she was a bottle of wine deep and alone in her tiny apartment. Del had no idea she was living in Boston—she was sure of that much. Why would he? She had no doubt he remembered her, but she knew better than to believe he still thought about her. She wished she didn’t still think about him, the arrogant asshole. Mina’s jaw ached and she realized she was grinding her teeth.
She glanced up to see the Boston Public Library looming ahead and walked quickly up the stairs to enter the warmth. The two stone lions at the top of the marble staircase stared impassively at her as she passed them, wandering the marble halls until she came to the Abbey Room, emblazoned with paintings by Edward Abbey depicting the quest and discovery of the Holy Grail. She leaned against the doorway, admiring the vivid works and letting her mind drift.
She had finally begun to feel safe, snug in her creaking, drafty apartment. That was before she saw him—she would recognize that face anywhere. The nightly nightmares kept it fresh, undimmed by time. She heard his name—the name he used in daylight—for the first time as the bartender handed him the bill. She shouldn’t have been in that part of town—but the cobbled streets and gaslights of Beacon Hill drew her in, reminding her of home in that small Russian town, of a simple time before her home meant blood pooling on the wooden floors her mother meticulously mopped and the china from her many times great grandmother’s dowry smashed and smeared with crimson.

The wine bar had seemed cozy, welcoming, and she sat at her corner table letting the flow of conversation around her sweeten her wine. She noticed him after a quarter of an hour, sitting at the end of the bar. His silver hair caught her eye and the expanse of his broad shoulders made her fingers go cold. The slightly crooked nose and pointed chin were unmistakable and the smile that he flashed the bartender almost made her drop her glass. She turned her head to the wall and drank as he got up to leave, scarcely able to breathe until she heard the door shut and saw him walk past the windows as he disappeared into the night. Richard Moretti. The name resonated in her brain. She knew him before only as Sinistrari.
She finished her wine and waited for the tremors in her hands and knees to subside before paying and slipping quietly out of the restaurant and making her way back to her flat. She immediately got out her laptop and searched for Richard Moretti. She had no doubt he would be a man of importance. When she found out the reach of his public influence, however, she was floored. CEO of a large XYZ company, he was known for his generosity and charitable nature. Photo after photo showed him shaking hands with someone and flashing his blazing smile for the camera. She shut the laptop as a wave of nausea rushed over her. It seemed to stretch belief that he could be in the city in which she chose to hide. She did not think he would leave Europe. She cursed herself for not checking—but what would she have used? Perhaps Richard Moretti was one of his many names, just because he originated in Italy did not mean he used his real name. She panicked then and opened her computer again, hammering out an email to Delancey St. Clair—a search for him found his cocky grin smiling up at her from the website of Holler, Grim, Albrecht, & Mors. A name she saw over and over in association with Sinistrari—Moretti. His legal counsel.
Despite that, she clicked on Delancey’s company email and sent him a message from one of her many disposable addresses. It was apparently too much to hope that Del would notice the message within her chosen handle. WilHMurray. Wilhemina Murray. As an alias it was obvious to her eyes, but, apparently not to his. The library suddenly seemed oppressive and she turned away from the intricate Abbey paintings and walked slowly down the stairs and out into the blustery day. She couldn’t believe Del was working for the firm that supported such ilk as Moretti—she had to get used to thinking of him that way. The last thing she needed was to go spill the name Sinistrari to someone. Looking up at the gray sky, all the anger seemed to leech out of her. What right did she have to expect Del’s help? She drug him straight into the middle of her mess ten years ago in Budapest and left him without so much as an explanation. Or a goodbye.

At lunch, she had searched the collected and sophisticated face of the young lawyer in front of her for a sign of the impetuous Delancey—little more than a boy—that she thought she knew. She remembered the last day—the last night. Remembered the chill of the hotel room as she slid out from beneath Delancey’s encircling arm and warm sheets and slipped out of the room. They had gone to the ballet that day—she convinced him and he protested in the Louisiana drawl she found so charming. He hadn’t lost that, at least. He was still charming, of that she was sure. A face like his would win the most stable woman over—and she had been so far from equilibrium. She remembered the faintest taste of his cologne on her lips as she pressed a farewell kiss to his bare shoulder and left when the sun was just peeking over the red roofs of Budapest.
Could she really blame him? She dragged him into a world most people still didn’t know existed outside the annals of fiction. She wouldn’t have believed it herself if she hadn’t seen them herself—jaws unhinging like a snake’s and a double set of sharp teeth descending to tear out the throats of her mother, father, her brother Piotr, her sister Nastia—all snuffed out in gouts of hot crimson.
The certainty she was having a nightmare faded when one of them stepped forward, his teeth receding as his face returning to normal. Normal but for the smears of blood around his face. He bent down towards her, his sharp chin catching the dim light. The strange noises that drew her from her bed had given no warning of this—the floating, nighttime drowsiness only enhanced the nightmare effect. And so, she did not shy away from the man who crouched down in front of her, hands and face dripping with her family’s blood.
He greeted her in Russian. “Hello, little one.”
She stared mutely at him, in dreams, one could not speak.
“What is it Sinistrari?” One of the other men asked, wiping his face with a red handkerchief he pulled from somewhere inside his coat.
“A child, Valac. Only a child.”
“What are you waiting for, then?”
“This one lives.” The man in front of her tilted his silver-haired head to the side and regarded her.
“What?” The one called Valac’s voice dropped to a hiss.
“When she wakes again, this will all be as a dream.” Sinistrari’s voice never broke its deep, gentle cadence.
He leaned towards her and opened his mouth wide again. Mina shut her eyes, certain that there would be a snap of teeth and she would awaken, but there was only a rush of breath across her face—strangely cooler than the warmth of the living room—and smelling of cold earth. She opened her eyes and saw the familiar shapes of her bedroom cast into shadow by her flickering nightlight. It wasn’t until the next morning that she saw the bare, bloodied footprints that streaked her bedroom floor and recognized them as her own. The six year old Mina’s testimony of monsters was discounted with much sympathetic headshaking and murmurs of trauma. Her aunt in St. Petersburg took her in and, once Mina was stirred into the mixture of four cousins, treated her no differently than one of her own.

She walked through the Boston Public Garden—where some of the trees still clung to their colorful autumn crowns—feeling aimless. She didn’t want to return to her apartment. She thought she would meet with Del and have all her problems solved. A completely ridiculous notion–born from some lingering damsel in distress fantasy. If he couldn’t help her, it would be just another disappointment she could pencil into the column reserved for Delancey St. Clair.

<<< Previous

Tools and Weapons

monk22
This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Someone flicked Zion’s forehead and he stifled a yelp, opening his eyes. He had dozed off, soothed by the stillness and the fragrant lavender that hung drying from the ceiling. Solas stood with his arms crossed, a smug smile playing across his lips. Zion noticed his damp hair and the scent of the olive oil soap the Order bought from the bedouins. He wondered if Solas had bathed merely to rinse after the trial or if he was trying to rid himself of the smell of Redheart.
         “Did the Council change their minds?” Zion asked. “Or is it already time for me to be disciplined ?”
         “Get up,” Solas said, ignoring his question.
         Zion held up his ruined shirt. “Will I need clothes?”
         “Garth? Get the boy something to wear.”
         Zion’s fingers moved quickly, telling Garth to forget it. The healer looked between the two, half rising from his chair. Solas’ smile had vanished but Zion stood, pulling on his ripped shirt, and held out his arms to say he was ready as he was. Solas’ fingers twitched once, calling him a name that would bring any other two men to blows. Zion raised his chin slightly, lessening the gap in their heights, and smiled at his mentor. To his surprise, Solas snorted and turned, preceding him out of the room, without saying a word. Solas did not speak as they made their way through the wide halls, giving Zion plenty of time to remember those first brutal years as he struggled against the Brothers, the other novices, and the sinking fear of failure that threatened to engulf him before the trials.

         As they passed various doors, sounds wafted out–mandolin music, singing, voices raised in monotonous repetition. They learned more than killing–more than Zion thought his brain could hold at first. A true assassin must be able to take up any role, any place in society necessary to gain him access to his mark. He winced as he remembered his failed attempts at every musical instrument the Brothers tried. Brother Calver had not been surprised, saying his hands were more fit for casting nets than playing the harp. For once, Zion was only too happy to agree.
         “Well, Brother Solas?” Zion finally broke the silence, knowing it was calculated to make him speak first. “Are you going to take me out in the forest and leave me for a day and a night? I passed that test on my first year. No?” He quickened his pace and turned to walk backwards in front of Solas. “Perhaps three days in the pit? Or was it four? I did not think I would ever be able to straighten again.” He searched Solas’s face for any hint of expression, but the assassin was impassive. Zion let his expression slip into one of barely controlled panic and did a slight jig. “Not dancing lessons, for the love of Avior, don’t say more dancing lessons.”
         Solas’s left hand shot out and gripped the front of Zion’s shirt, pulling him to a clumsy halt. His other fingers pressed against Zion’s windpipe making him gag before he relaxed against the grip, feeling for a moment like the kitten Rael had killed so many years before.
         “Watch your mouth, boy. Do you think the Council is not searching for reasons to cast you out? Do you know how long a lone assassin lasts before the Council decide he is too much of a risk–that he may too easily become a weapon, ready-honed for someone else’s hands?”
         Zion felt a cold tendril wind down his back and instinctively clamped his mind against the tingle of fear. They were told that they could leave at any time in their training, that they would be trusted to keep the secrets of the order, knowing full well the consequences if their lips loosened. But no one left by choice. Solas’s threat was not an empty one. The Order created tools and a tool was only useful so long as it obeyed the hand that wielded it.

         “How long does it take?” Zion asked.
         Solas’s heavy brows lowered and Zion swallowed hard feeling the pressure of Solas’s fingers as his Adam’s apple moved.
         “How long does what take?” Solas growled.
         “How long does it take to forget you are a man with a will of your own?” Zion knew if he looked away, he would never have the courage to question his mentor again, so he stared into Solas’s dark eyes.
         “For some, the first month. For others,” the assassin’s hand tightened briefly around Zion’s throat before releasing him. “Never.”
         Zion waited until Solas had turned away before massaging his throat, aware of how easily the older man could have ended his life.
         “Come on. We don’t have all day,” Solas said over his shoulder.
         Zion padded quietly after his mentor, wondering how long he had before he pushed Solas too far.

Assassins’ Academy II

Aconitum_napellus-6

This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Before the week was out, the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palatable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls.

         Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”

         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long, but Zion had seen the tremor that ran through his hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. Brother Calver was afraid of him.

NEXT>>>

photo