She knows she is different because the others her age have been sorted into groups (warriors, healers, and farmers), but she is told to remain with her family.
“There is time for you yet, child,” a woman with striking grey eyes tells her, a sad, knowing smile on her face. She presses a hand to her shoulder, something like regret flashing over her face. “Do not be in a hurry to grow up.”
Later, while she watches her older brother chop wood—he is to be a warrior, and she looks up to him, admires and envies him—she is told that the woman is the Commander, that she had not planned on visiting their village, but her spirit had sent her here. At this point, her brother gives her a knowing look, a sad, small smile, and she knows that the Commander’s spirit telling her to come to their village is not a good thing.
But her Commander ordered her not to be in a hurry to grow up, so Lexa ignores her brother’s knowing look and sad, small smile (an expression eerily similar to the one the Commander herself gave Lexa), and she rushes off to the field to collect the flowers she knows her mother loves.
(The Commander leaves their village the very next day, but not before telling Lexa that they would see each other again soon. Lexa forgets this almost as soon as the last of the Commander’s guards are out of sight).
The little girl is not actually her little sister, but she does not mind the lie her parents tell her. She knows that the girl—not even two—has lost her parents to the Maunon, and Lexa is fiercely proud that her parents would take the child in (just one child is an honor, and her parents now have three to care for). She is also a little glad, because more and more often, large men with long beards and lean women with braids and tattoos that mark them as important warriors arrive in their village, pulling her away from her family to train.
Lexa is glad her parents have the little girl especially because, more and more, she gets the feeling that she will not be able to stay much longer.
The first time she gets this feeling is when one of the warriors training her shakes her head in disappointment when Lexa is unable to hold her stance correctly (the sword is too heavy, she wants to complain, but that will be weakness, and she has been warned about weakness).
“You are flimsy, Leksa,” the young woman says, not unkindly, as she fixes Lexa’s stance. It takes a second for Lexa to translate the woman’s words (they all speak English with her, tutting impatiently when it takes her too long to catch on to what they mean), and she breathes out deeply through her nose.
“Why must I learn this, Anya? My brother is the warrior.” She does not speak in English, but in Trigedasleng, and she ignores the Anya’s disapproving look. “I want to be a farmer, like my parents.” Farming is important to her people; it is far more honorable, her father likes to say, to grow life and provide for others than it is to take life. Lexa is inclined to agree. Anya however, shakes her head.
“You do not get a choice, Lexa,” she says, once again correcting Lexa’s stance. “You were born for the position you must fill—it is my job to ensure you are ready for it.” It is Lexa’s turn to tut impatiently, shaking her head in absolute frustration. She wants to complain in her native tongue, but a single look from her mentor quells the desire quickly. Instead, Lexa lets the sword drop to the ground, and she feels her shoulders droop as she looks up at the woman with the blonde hair and hard gaze (a gaze she usually cowers under, but this time, she merely meets it head-on, refusing to look away).
“Tell me then. Tell me what I was born for.” Anya smiles—a rare sight, Lexa thinks she has only witnessed it twice—and kneels down in front of Lexa so that they are eye-level.
“You were born to be a warrior. You were born for your people.”
“I do not know what that means,” Lexa says, and Anya’s smile slips away. She stands in one fluid motion and looks down at Lexa, who finally turns away, no longer able to keep up the eye contact (she thinks she is brave, but she knows she is not stupid).
“It means your stance is flimsy and you must fix it. Now, pick up your blade.” And no matter how much Lexa prods over the next few days of training, Anya never mentions what Lexa was born for.
The second time she feels that her time with her family is quickly coming to an end is when one of the large, bearded men who teach her about subjects she cares nothing for—things like strategy, diplomacy, the politics of the different Clans, and even writing—tells her she will be great one day.
“What does that mean, Gustus?” she asks him shrewdly, more confident in her English after a few months of speaking nothing else. “Why will I be great?” Gustus huffs gruffly, but Lexa can tell he is hiding a smile.
“You are smart, Lexa. And you are strong. This is a rare combination.”
“Our healer says that it is important to be strong, smart, and good, and that our warriors have forgotten that.” Gustus does not look happy about her comment, and he shakes his head.
“Remember, Leksa,” he says, slipping into Trigedasleng pointedly, clearly wanting to ensure she does not misunderstand what he wants to say. “Sometimes, being good is not an option. Sometimes, to make the smart and strong choice, you must sacrifice what is good.”
“I do not think I could do that,” Lexa says softly, worried about disappointing this warrior who laughs at her jokes (unlike Anya) and who brings dried fruit to help particularly boring lessons pass by more quickly. Gustus places a gentle hand on top of her head as he lets out a sigh.
“You will be great one day, Lexa,” he repeats. “And you will always be good.”
The third time she feels she cannot stay for much longer—or more accurately, she discovers that she knows she must leave soon—is when she’s with her brother.
They do not play together anymore, that had ceased when he turned twelve a summer ago and became a second. Now, they spend time together when they accompany the other warriors on hunts, when there is a need for chopped wood and she and Rox are assigned the task, or at nights, when she returns home—exhausted from her day with Anya, who has stayed longer than normal in their village—and he is still awake so that he can ensure she eats something before falling asleep.
They do not play anymore, but Lexa has never felt closer to him: he is to be a warrior, and she…well, she thinks she is too.
“Do you know who Anya is, Lexa?” he asks her in stiff English one night, as he pushes a plate of food towards her. “Or Gustus? Do you know who they are?” Lexa frowns at the question and also at the tone her brother is using—she thinks he sounds…angry.
“They are warriors.”
“Yes, but do you know who assigned them to train you? Or why?”
“No. I have asked, but they refuse to tell me.” His eyes flash and he shakes his head.
“Can’t you put it all together?” he demands. “Don’t they teach you about the Commander?” She shakes her head in confusion.
“Yes, but…” she trails off, not understanding what he is trying to tell her. “Why are they here, Rox? You must know.” For a second, the old Rox, the one who looked at her with pity, with a sad smile, shines through. But old Rox is gone quickly, and in his place is the angry warrior she does not recognize.
“Do you know what they are preparing you for?” he asks in a heated whisper, and Lexa is shocked to see tears form in his eyes—this is a weakness Gustus taught her to never have, that Anya said made her look small and stupid. But on Rox, it is just heartbreaking, and she does not know why. “They’re preparing you to die, Lexa,” he says, switching to Trigedasleng, the tears spilling over and rolling down his cheeks, much to Lexa’s astonishment. She wonders if his anger was ever for her. “And you’re going along with it, willingly.”
“No,” Lexa says (not switching to her native tongue like she so desires, hating the look in her brother’s eyes as she speaks), shaking her head. “I said I did not want this. But I have no choice.” Rox reaches out and he grabs her hands, squeezing them tightly.
“Please, Lexa,” he says, and though Lexa does not know what he is begging for, she nods curtly, her face blank (the way Anya taught her). She watches as her brother’s face crumples briefly before he too is able to school his features as he was taught. “We don’t want to watch this happen to you, Lexa,” he says, not explaining what ‘this’ is, making Lexa frown. “When you leave, make sure you never come back.” She nods again, and he leaves her, and it is only then that she lets her tears fall.
Lexa is glad when her parents take in the little girl. Because when she leaves—and she will leave—it will be good that they will have one daughter left, one who will be a farmer like them, one who will stay. When she leaves—and more and more she thinks that is just a nicer way of saying ‘when she dies’—her brother will still have a little sister to look after and love.
When she leaves, her family will not be alone.
After training one afternoon, only weeks after her brother’s tearful plea, Anya tells Lexa that she will be staying in their village permanently. “You will be my second,” she says, her eyebrows rising, as if she is daring Lexa to argue.
“I am not old enough. We become seconds at the age of twelve,” Lexa mutters, the closest she can get to resistance without actively standing up to the warrior. This causes Anya to laugh.
“You are an exception, Lexa. This is a good thing—you will be a warrior.” Lexa remembers what her brother said to her, remembers the tears in his eyes and her own desires to be a farmer like her parents, but she pushes it all away, blinking back tears that threaten to form in her eyes. She does not get a choice; she was born to fill a position; she will be great one day.
“I am honored to be your second, Anya,” she murmurs, looking down. She misses the flash of sorrow that passes over Anya’s face.
Her mother is the only one she speaks Trigedasleng with. Her brother is often not at home, his duties as a second taking him further and further away, and her little sister barely speaks at all. Anya and Gustus speak exclusively in English—“I know you do not like it, but I also do not care,” Anya likes to tell her—and she has no friends to speak of. It leaves her parents, and though she loves her father, the disappointment and sadness she sees in his eyes makes it difficult to speak with him at all. So it leaves her mother as the sole person she converses with besides Gustus and Anya, and the only person she speaks with in her native tongue.
This does not seem to bother her mother at all.
“Lexa, help me with your sister,” her mother calls, practically shoving the child into Lexa’s arms.
“Would you like to know what I learned today with Gustus?” Lexa asks over her little sister’s head (the child will not be named until she gets through her fourth year, a tradition, her father once explained, that was started because children often did not survive to see it, and this practice made it easier on the parents). Her mother pauses whatever she is doing—since her lessons began, Lexa spends little to no time helping her parents, and knows little of what they do anymore—and nods with a smile.
“Of course, tell me everything.” And so Lexa does.
Other times, Lexa does not wish to speak with her mother, but cry on her shoulder, and her mother seems to know which it is intuitively. She notices Lexa rush by to crouch by a tree with her head between her knees, and the next thing Lexa knows, she is being pulled into an embrace.
“It is all right, child,” her mother says soothingly, her grip tightening as they sway gently in place. “It will be all right.” And usually, Lexa believes her mother.
When her mother dies that summer, Lexa stops believing her.
A sickness goes around, an awful one that causes its victims to cough up blood, to be wracked with fever and hallucinations, to suffer through blinding headaches, and Lexa is somewhat unsurprised her mother becomes ill. Her mother is good, and she spends her days caring for the ill, caring for those even their healers had given up on despite all their protests.
“We have a duty to each other,” she tells Lexa blearily the morning before she falls ill. “Saving lives is much more important than taking them, Lexa.” She smiles and tucks a stray strand of Lexa’s hair behind her ear, her eyes—which Lexa has inherited, the only thing she has inherited—shining. “Do not forget that.” Lexa promises she will not, as long as her mother promises to be all right.
The next day, she wakes up with a fever, and two days after that, she is gone, and Lexa wonders when her mother became a liar.
“It is good to mourn the ones we love,” her father tells her, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, his eyes shining with tears that are spilling into his beard. He is not a warrior, but he is just as strong, just as large, as any of them, and the sight of his tears makes Lexa’s stomach turn.
“I do mourn,” she answers in English, knowing he knows very little. The only one she was willing to speak Trigedasleng to is now dead and gone, so the language, too, is dead and gone. Lexa bites her lip hard, drawing blood, and pushes the thoughts of her mother away, trying to quell the crushing feeling in her chest, but she thinks her heart will shatter from the force of it.
Her father stares at her for another moment before nodding and walking away from the burning pyre, clearly unwilling to watch as what remained of his wife turns to ash. But Lexa remains, stock still, her back straight as if she is in battle.
“Yu gonplei ste odon, nomon,” she whispers, but like she expects, there is no soothing response. It is not all right, she wants to scream, it is not all right and it will never be all right. But later, when Anya asks her if she cried for her mother, Lexa does not respond, and Anya nods approvingly.
“The pain will pass, Lexa, I promise.” Lexa nods, but she does not believe her.
She sees her brother again when they have their little sister’s naming ceremony.
It is never a big affair, usually reserved for immediate family and close friends, but her father—who has spiraled since his wife’s death—has turned it into somewhat of a farce. Anya sees this too, and she takes over the celebration.
Each family member gives one thing to a child the spring of their fourth year. Rox gives the little girl a blessing, and her father gives her a name (Tris, he says with tears in his eyes, and Lexa pretends not to feel the lurch in her stomach at her mother’s name, not to feel a pang in her chest). Instead, she steps forward and gives Tris two things: a prayer and a promise. She prays that the little girl will become just as soft, just as kind, just as wise as their mother, and she promises that she will always be there for her. Lexa notices that her brother and father seem pleased by her gifts, but Anya looks furious. It takes the older woman only seconds to grab her by the arm and drag her out of her home.
“You cannot make promises like that,” Anya says, her eyes narrowing. “It is selfish and foolish to believe you can be there for anyone.”
“If I am to be a warrior, then why not promise to be there for her? I want to be able to protect her.” Anya growls.
“She will not know you, Lexa. She will never know you. This village,” Anya gestures all around her, “is not where you belong. You will leave, soon, and you will never look back.”
“Why?” Lexa demands, throwing her hands up in the air.
“Because you love this village. You love the people here,” Anya says softly. She steps forward and she holds Lexa by the shoulders, something in her features hardening—almost as if she is steeling herself to continue to speak. “And your love will be its downfall. So learn to forget this place and the people here. If you want to protect her, harden your heart, Lexa.”
“Why? Please, Anya, just tell me. Why do I matter?” She cannot help the tears that fill her eyes, and Anya falls to her knees, her eyes sad.
“Because you will be heda, Lexa. The Spirit has chosen you, and when our Commander dies, you must take her place.” Lexa shakes her head violently, suddenly unable to breathe.
“No. I am not strong enough. The Spirit chose wrong.” Anya lets out a gruff laugh and she pulls Lexa into a hug—the first one she has ever given.
“You are strong, Lexa. And you will be a great Commander.” Lexa is unable to stop the flow of tears, but Anya says nothing; she merely holds onto Lexa until her sobs have subsided and her cheeks are dry. “You will be great one day, of that I have no doubt.”
And somehow, Lexa believes her.
She and Anya leave for a place called Polis two weeks later.
Her farewells are brief and tearless. Her father hugs her, whispers in her ear to stay strong, be smart, and be good (and her heart clenches at the last one, because Gustus has already warned her that she will not be good). Rox does not hug her, but the look in his eyes makes Lexa want to cry, to scream, to beg to stay home.
“Remember your promise to me, Lexa,” he says with his sad, small smile (and if Lexa understands now why he asked her to never return, if she realizes the request was more for her than for him, she does not dwell on it). “Remember that you will always be my little sister.” Lexa nods once, shakily and tentative, before she moves to kiss Tris’s forehead, the little four year old staring up at her in confusion.
And when Anya grabs her by the shoulder and gently leads her away, Lexa does not protest, and she does not look back.
They take her to the Commander first.
Lexa remembers nothing but the woman’s striking grey eyes, and the image she has conjured for herself is nothing close to reality.
The Commander is young, possibly only a few years older than Anya. Her long brown hair is pulled back in complicated braids, her clothes look stiff and uncomfortable, and the guard that rests on her shoulder seems heavy and cumbersome.
“There you are!” she says, a tiny smile appearing on her face when she notices Lexa and Anya. She moves away from the large table she was hovering over—looking like she intended to burn holes through it with just her eyes—and motions for Lexa to step further into her chambers. “Leksa kom Trikru, you are a very special girl.” Lexa notices that the Commander’s expression does not match her tone, and she is reminded again of what her brother had said: They’re preparing you to die. So she does not speak. Somehow, this seems to be the right answer, because the Commander laughs. “You are a smart girl, Lexa. I can see why the Spirit would choose you.”
“It chose wrong, heda,” Lexa suddenly says, horrified at her own outburst. But though Anya is pursing her lips disapprovingly, the Commander nods thoughtfully.
“It is not a weakness to be afraid, Lexa,” she says kindly. “But you must never let your fear govern your actions.” Lexa wants to protest, and the Commander must sense this, because she holds up a hand. “I do not know why you were chosen. There has never been a Commander from a small village like yours.” She places a hand on Lexa’s shoulder, and the action—which is so comforting when it is Anya’s hand—makes her want to shiver. “But the Spirit did not choose wrong. Of that, I am quite sure.”
They are dismissed soon after that, Lexa is given a room in the Commander’s large home, and she is told she has two days to rest—to explore—before the real work begins.
It takes her only a single morning to know Polis like the back of her hand.
It is a large, expansive city, quite different from the village she grew up in, with street vendors yelling from the streets, homes that were more than sheets of metal but actual wood, and a large area in which you could sit at tables and buy food (so unlike the way everyone in her village had to hunt and grow food for their meals).
In Polis, just like in her village, Lexa is immediately seen as different, as special. She thinks it is the clothes—everyone, from the vendors to the warriors, wears shades of blue, black, and grey. Lexa however, was given a deep red sash and told to wrap it around her waist.
“It is a mark of who you are, Lexa,” Anya explains as she teaches her how to tie it properly. “When you become Commander, it will be on your shoulder guard and flow behind you.”
“What does it mean? Why is it red?” Anya rolls her eyes at the question, but answers anyway.
“Blood, my little heda-to-be. It symbolizes blood.” Lexa swallows, but is unsure how to respond, so she lets it go.
It is not, however, merely the clothes that mark her. Anya’s constant presence, the way she is never asked to pay for anything, the way the children stop when they notice her walking in the street and incline their heads stiffly, all of these mark her as different, as other, and she has never felt more alone. But when she asks Anya if they are friends, the older woman seems a little frustrated.
“You have no time for friends, Lexa,” she says, but Lexa goes to bed with a smile because Anya did not say no (which is as close to a yes as she thinks she will ever get from her mentor).
Training too, changes. It is no longer just lessons with Gustus and fighting with Anya. She is thrown against opponents older and stronger than herself, and she is forced to take ‘exams,’ to prove she is learning all that she is taught. The exams terrify her more than the bigger and stronger opponents who make her bleed and attempt to break her bones.
“A new threat emerges from the east, Lexa. What do you do?” Gustus asks her, and Lexa stares down at the map he has marked up for her. She swallows.
“I send warriors to get rid of the threat before refocusing my attention on the food shortage.” Gustus shakes his head wearily.
“And you have just killed them all,” he says, expressing the loss by furiously scratching out the warriors on the map. “What was your mistake?” Lexa clenches her fists.
“I have to send the warriors to take care of the threat. Otherwise the people in that village would die.”
“Yes, but now there are no extra hands to help with the food shortage, and your people have all died from starvation,” Gustus says harshly, causing Lexa to wince. “Sometimes, to win a war, you must concede a battle. You must be able to give up that village in order to save the rest of your people.” Lexa swallows, her fingers grazing over the imaginary village drawn on the map.
“It is wrong, Gustus,” she says in a whisper, and he gives her an unreadable look.
“It is also your only choice. You cannot save us all, Lexa, so you must be ruthless and help as many as you can survive.” He pauses and looks at her carefully. “Do you understand?” Lexa blinks back tears and nods.
“Yes, I do.”
On hunts, she has always been an observer, but three weeks after arriving in Polis, the Commander requests that Lexa accompany her on a hunt, to get her first kill.
At first, Lexa is excited. She has been practicing every day—her footwork is sure and silent, her movements measured. She is ready to get her first kill—she is ready to prove that he Spirit did not choose wrong (because, intuitively, she knows this is a test, that the Commander wants to see what she is capable of).
So when she spots the deer, grazing peacefully about fifty paces away, Lexa nearly grins. She nocks an arrow and aims, trying to ignore the feeling of the Commander’s gaze on her back. Lexa sighs softly, pulls back on the bowstring, and is about to release it when something stays her hand.
Saving lives is much more important than taking them, Lexa.
Shof op, Lexa thinks furiously. This is not the same.
Do not forget that, her mother tells her, and Lexa feels the bow and arrow slip out of her hands. It is not the same, she thinks to herself, but somehow, it is.
Lexa is drawn out of her thoughts when the Commander claps her on the shoulder, something shining in her eyes. “Sometimes,” the woman says loudly so that the others can hear, making Lexa’s cheeks burn with embarrassment because everyone will be privy to her failure, “the mark of true strength comes not from being able to take a life, but knowing when not to.” Lexa’s head snaps up, and the Commander points towards the deer, where two fawns have joined it. “Had you killed her, her children would have starved,” she says softly, a smile on her face. “You have good instincts, Lexa, do not doubt them.” Lexa nods, flushing with pride, and feeling a surge of affection for the Commander who seems to have so much faith in her.
“Yes, heda,” she says, and the Commander’s smile widens.
“Now, we still have hunting to do. Pick up your bow, Lexa. We must get you your first kill.”
(They do—it’s a wild hog, and Lexa’s aim proves to be impeccable. The Commander ruffles Lexa’s hair with a grin, and Anya stands back, the grin on her face her version of beaming with pride, and Lexa thinks this is the best day she’s ever had).
“You are entering your ninth year soon,” Anya says one night as she teaches Lexa how to pull her hair back in the same intricate braids as the Commander (yet another sign of how she is different, of who she is to her people). “Is there anything you wish for?” Lexa blinks, surprised by the softness of Anya’s tone, and she somehow knows that she can be honest—that whatever admission she makes will not be taken as weakness or reported to the Commander.
“There is nothing I want, Anya,” she says, lying. Because she wants to see Rox and Tris, wants to tell her father about the wild hog she killed, wants to hug her mother again, wants to be able to tell someone about all the things she wants but knows she is not supposed to desire. Because she knows, no matter Anya’s tone, she cannot admit her weaknesses. Not to anyone.
This, the Commander has told her in confidence, is one of the true challenges of being a leader—your desires are no longer of importance and they will always be used against you.
She knows she has passed this test—because of course it is a test, everything is a test—when Anya chuckles and shoves her head gently forward. “You are a liar, Lexa,” she says with another laugh, before she grows serious. “That is good.”
She is unable to sleep that night, her thoughts only on liars and how they’re made (because Lexa turned her good mother into a liar, and now, Anya and the Commander have turned Lexa into one).