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Dolphin's Song

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Going to Hartfeld was a gamble. You would usually be a normal student and make your way through without any hassle (no hassle out of the ordinary anyway). They offered the best of the best.

There was a catch.

Every person who applied would get their name put into a raffle. Everyone who was accepted got their name put in the raffle again. Every year you attended, their name would go in it again. And every few years, from five to twenty people who had ever applied, let alone attended, whether they got in or not and whether they had graduated or left or not, to the school would be selected and sent off to Cordonia, never to be seen again.

And that's how Solomon found himself and some random students from Hartfeld as well as some strangers being taken onto a flight, tied up with gags in their mouths and blinds over their eyes.

Their bodies were flung onto plane seats carelessly, and Solomon could hear the muffled confusion and the movements of his classmates. He felt someone grab at his wrist with their bound hands, gently caressing it to see if they could figure out who it was.

If they could, they didn't say. Or rather, didn't say it through the gag.

Eventually, the plane stopped, but only after what seemed to be a lifetime, and they were all forcefully manhandled out.

He could hear someone trying to wiggle their way to freedom, but they stopped when one of their captors (was that the right word? They knew the risk of applying to Hartfeld but they did so anyway. Did they ask for this?) threatened to shoot them.

They were laid down in a slim case - is this what dead people felt like? - and he felt something be pushed down on him (a door to the case, probably).

Then the case moved and was laid down, and then something heavy was put on top and then something on top of that and oh my God they were being stacked. Solomon tried to scream but the gag muffled him; then he tried to move around but the case was too slim. Tears fell from his eyes but the blindfold sucked those up too.

“Try to sleep, all of you,” someone said - they had a deep voice with no semblance of emotion. “It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.”


As the blinds, bounds and gags were removed, someone said, “That’s going to gimme back problems.”

“Diego?!”

“Wh- ohmygod, Solomon!” His short friend made an attempt to run to his side, arms wide, but was quickly restrained again with a gun to his chest. He looked to Solomon, eyes wide and darting around, from the gun to Solomon’s eyes to the captor holding him at gunpoint, before turning away.

No one else caught his eye - he knew some of them, like Sean, Aleister, Grace, Craig and Zahra, but they only made up five of what must have been twenty and he didn’t know the rest of them as he looked around. He then settled his gaze upon the building, which he and many others had to crane his neck to look up to. It was a glorious palace, with towers and turrets and walls that loomed over them. The predatory building’s windows glared, the sun’s fire raging through them, and the flames could not be doused even by the moat that surrounded it.

“Welcome to your new home, for either a month or the rest of your lives.” One of the guards, the one with a deep, emotionless voice, spoke. “You are going to be taken before your queen and she will explain your fates. You will then have the opportunity to pledge allegiance. If you do not, you will be held in the prison for a month until you give her your loyalty.” His voice turned harsher, if that was even possible. “If you do not give your life to her service by the end of the month, we will take it instead.” He mimicked a guillotine with his fingers. “No questions, good, let’s go.” He beckoned the captors, one per captive, to put their guns at their backs, and marched with them behind him.

The drawbridge over the moat choked and groaned as they crossed; Solomon could feel it giving way and the water licking its lips hungrily, waiting for it to break as it lapped under it, licking at the cracks.

“Pick up the pace, Herulata.”

“How do you know my last name?”

“I said pick up the pace, not ask questions!”

Inside of the castle, there was much more beauty and glamour, with gorgeous tapestries from the ceiling to the floor, stained glass windows that weren’t initially visible. He couldn’t tell what they were depicting but he knew they were probably taller than all of Hartfeld.

And there, upon the throne, she sat. Her Majesty, the one who’d taken over Cordonia and many countries years ago with a slight amount of her strength.

Shoulder length straight black hair, brown eyes with a sinister satisfaction as they swept over the twenty ‘offerings’, fair skin and a tall, slim body type dressed in a sleek black dress shirt, black leggings under a long skirt and tall heels. She sat on a throne, laying sideways, torso and left elbow leant on the arm, her left leg over her right.

“Kneel,” she said. Immediately, the guards forcefully pushed the twenty to their knees and forcing their heads to face the floor, firing a bullet into the sky whenever they tried to move their head up.

“Welcome to Cordonia, my subjects. You know how you were chosen but you don’t know why, huh? Well, it’s simple. A queen needs her army, and a queen needs her money. You will provide both a force to fight for me and also bring in a profit.” She laughed. “So there is an element of fun in it, don’t worry. If serving your Queen Isa isn’t enough fun for you already.”

One of the twenty had been pretty much snarling the entire time, but at her name, they jumped up and screamed out, “IT’S YOU! YOU BITCH!”

“Restrain him. Let the nineteen lift their heads, I don’t want my new army members to have neck problems. The means of transportation are probably bad for their backs anyway.” Isa tilted her head at the enraged, restrained student. “Why do I recognise you?”

“It’s Michael Har-”

“Ah, Michael Harrison, I heard you’d be coming to Cordonia, I was very excited to meet you. But it seems that I forgot your… attitude. This will be interesting.”

“You took over my school! You put my friends against each other! You-”

“-now rule parts of the world, including your country, and invading more as we speak? Yeah, you could say I’ve upgraded. How funny that you find yourself with me again. You went to Hartfeld?”

Michael ignored the question, posing his own: “How did you get out of jail?”

She waved her hands about, a sly grin plastered onto her face. “Magic.” Isa coughed. “Right. Does anyone pledge allegiance to my army? Or do I have to put you all in the prisons.”

“N-”

“I pledge allegiance!”

“Craig what the hell?!” Zahra turned to the footballer, face contorted with betrayal.

“I can’t go to prison! It’ll look bad on my records so when we go bac-”

“We aren’t going back, you idiot! We’re going to live and die here!”

“Well I still can’t go to jail, I’m too cool for jail!”

Zahra huffed. “In that case, I pledge allegiance too, your Majesty!”

“Zahra!”

“Someone has to keep an eye on this dipshit and make sure he doesn’t get himself killed on day one!”

“I pledge allegiance!”

“Aleister?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on both of those dipshits and make sure they don’t kill each other!”

“And that’s going to be you, you empathy-lacking donkey’s ass?!”

“Since no one else seems to be willing to, yes I guess it will be me!”

There was a heavy silence as Isa sat back on her throne, waiting for anyone else to pledge allegiance. “No more? Three out of twenty, more than last time. Your guards will take the three to their living quarters for the time being. The rest will be taken to the prison until they either decide to give their life to me.. or I take it away.”

Solomon was pulled to his feet and dragged down into the prisons, which seemed to just be a basement with four large cages in each corner, making a sort of plus sign in the room - opposite the door they came through was another door that was shut.

Some of the guards grabbed Grace and three of the other girls and tossed them into the cage nearest the door, and then two of the other girls and one of the guys into the cage opposite near the door.

“Hey!” The small guy hit the cage bars. “I’m supposed to be with the guys.”

One of the guards sneered. “Right. We’ll fix that in a minute.”

They didn’t. They just sorted Solomon, Diego and Sean with two other guys into a cage and then tossed the remaining guys into the last cage before leaving.

“... Circle time?”

“Not helping, Diego.”

“But, seriously, if we’re going to be sharing a room, even if we’re in four cages, we should get to know each other. So why don’t we just start out with our names!”

The Michael guy rubbed his face. “Go.”

“I’m Diego Soto.”

“Hi Diego,” everyone chorused.

“Huh? Oh, is it me now? I’m Solomon Herulata.”

As each person introduced themselves, Solomon learnt their names. Of course, there was Grace Hall and Sean Gayle, and he let Grace tell them that the first three people to pledge allegiance were Craig Hsiao, Zahra Namazi and Aleister… wait, did no one know Aleister’s last name?

“Spooky,” Diego joked.

But he didn’t know anyone else. Michael ended up being Michael Harrison and the other guy with them was Victor Brawid, who didn’t recognise anyone - everyone else seemed to have someone they knew, kind of a shame.

The guy lobbed in with the girls was Andy Kang and the girls with him were Stacy Green and Autumn Brooks. In the other guy cage was Lukas Seje, he also didn’t know anyone, Jamie Red, Aiden Zhou, Zack Zilberg and Wes Porter. And in the girl cage with Grace was Jocelyn Wu, Ava Cunningham and Kaitlyn Liao.

Jocelyn knew but pretty much loathed Ava, Stacy, Andy and Jamie. Kaitlyn knew Zack. Autumn knew Michael, Aiden and Wes - they’d dated, even. And of course, Solomon had his group. Lukas and Victor, upon discovering neither of them knew each other, finger-gunned at each other.

“They didn’t let us take anything we owned… do you think they’re going to supply us with new clothes and stuff? Will they take measurements for bras and clothes and all that?”

“Are they going to feed us? What are they going to give us?”

“Do we have to sleep on these mats?”

“They can’t keep us in these cages forever, can they?”

“There’s dried blood in this cage, oh my God!”

“Do you think they were serious about the execution thing?”

The door swung upon, and in entered Queen Isa and a blue humanoid… man? Solomon didn’t know what to call him. He was dressed up in a suit that reminded him of Alfred from Batman but he didn’t seem comfortable in it. He had plates on a trolley, each covered.

“This is Varyyn. He will deliver you your food and drinks and other small things that we can easily provide during your time in the prison.”

“This is inhumane!” Jocelyn screeched, clawing at the bars of the cage like an eagle trying to get at its prey. “You can’t keep us in here like wild animals! It’s illegal!”

“So what? I’m the queen. Who are you going to tell?” Without letting her respond, Isa continued, “You may be wondering about where he came from, I simply enslaved his species, the Vaanti, I believe? Anyway, give him no mind, he’s just here to deliver your food.”

“What about the guards that brought us here?”

“A part of the army, they can’t be wasting time on prisoners. Varyyn, give the jailbirds their food.”

Varyyn silently pushed the food into each cage through a hatch that could fit a corgi or any other smaller dog, starting with the cage of the girls and Andy and leaving Solomon’s cage for last.

Per cage, one person would get the plates given to them - Grace got hers, Stacy got hers and Aiden got his.

Diego fetched the food from Varyyn, their hands touching as the plates were passed from one to another. Heat rose to Diego’s cheeks and the two met gaze. Varyyn immediately broke eye contact and stood up from the cages and left the room. Diego, on the other hand, took a bit longer, crouched on the floor, plates in his hand. Sean stepped in and gave the plates around.

“Happy living, you lot! One of my guards will be down in a second!” Isa bid them farewell and followed the blue servant out of the room, a sly smirk on her face as she shut and locked the door.

“What even is this food?” Wes picked at the sandwich given to him.

“I think it’s a ham and cheese sandwich with apple slices and milk to accompany it.”

“Thanks, Aiden, definitely needed that.”

“Do they really expect us to eat this everyday for a month? And live here?”

“It’s probably a part of them trying to get us to join them. Threaten us with death, put us in terrible living conditions.”

“They’re probably going to wave the luxuries of being in her army in our faces,” Lukas scoffed. “Well, whatever they flaunt, I don’t want i-”

Two guards entered, one of them not familiar, the other one…

“Aleister, you bastard!” Sean tried to grab at him but only got his hand beaten by a spiked baton until he withdrew it to cradle the wounds.

“We've been instructed to guard you while you eat your food so you don't try anything with the food or the plates.”

“You were told to train me and decided to bring me down here.”

“Not train! I believe her Majesty said ‘babysit’.” At the correction, Aleister rolled his eyes but stayed silent.

Grace, putting her plate down, approached the edge of the cage and pressed her face against the gaps to ask, “How are Craig and Zahra?”

“The-”

“Don’t answer that, don’t talk to them.”

“But-”

“I told you not to talk to them. You’ll be allowed to talk to the prisoners when they choose to serve Queen Isa. Now eat.”

“But th-”

“If you refuse to ignore them one more time, you’ll join them and I’ll execute you myself. Now eat.”

Aleister wearily sighed, sat down by the door nearer Grace’s cage and bit into… food that was not a sandwich. It was an intricately spaghetti bolognese, with sauce that didn’t run down or clutch to the spaghetti. There were no meatballs but there was vegetables that replaced those instead. The guard had a larger bowl whereas Aleister, and probably Zahra and Craig as well, had a small bowl with a handful or two of spaghetti.

Everyone in the cages moved closer to their boundaries to see it properly, but the other guard quite happily sauntered around, smirk tugging at his grin, sometimes stopping right in front of the cages. He’d then twirl his fork around, spaghetti, sauce and vegetables, and slowly put in his mouth and ate, eyes watching them.

“Hungry?” He asked Solomon, collecting more spaghetti to point at him. “You have your sandwiches and apple slices. Eat up.” He kicked the cage just enough to not hurt himself and returned to Aleister, who was just about to offer Grace the fork. “Spaghetti is for people in the army. This isn’t even that good a meal.” He elbowed Aleister playfully. “You’ll soon have all the perks, once your friends decide whether it’s better to live in luxury or die in pain.”


“Your Majesty?” A guard spoke, hours before the arrival. “We selected those you asked for.”

“Prepare the cages. I’ll pay a visit to our…” She watched herself lick her lips in her dressing table mirror. “... guests .” She stood from her throne, pulling her hair from its bun as she moved to her dressing room’s wardrobe, where she changed from her sleek black dress into a jungle green baggy tank top, light, dull brown skinny leggings that clutched to her thighs and short heeled buckled shoes before opening a drawer and picking out five knives and three extra tools which slid out of her hands and into an waiting, open-mouthed satchel.

Following the guards to an, as of now, empty room of cages, she then passed them to go through the door on the other side.

Through the door were five people, two of them scantily clad except for cloth wrapped around their chest and pelvis and chained to a table in each corner, one of them hooked to a machine, shirtless with pads and wires connected and looping them within the middle of the room, and the other two chained up in in the top middle of the room, fully naked, hunched over and resisting against their restraints. There was a square out of the floor at the right, near one of the people on the table, which she knew as a hatch for her latest project to retract into when not in use.

She ignored the two chained up in the corner and the wired up person in the middle, and went to the person on the left that struggled as she came closer.

“I’ll never talk!” He yelled out in resistance, eyes widening as she came closer, eyeing her satchel of goodies.

She, however, laughed, taking out one of her fine knives and tracing it amongst his face. “Oh don’t worry about that,” she whispered, pressing her knife down into his cheek, nearly cutting into it. “I’m counting on it.”

She began to saw at his flesh.

 

Chapter Text

“No one wants to be here but we have no choice.”

“Not this early! Not right now. We haven’t even been here a day.”

“It’s only going to get worse, Kaitlyn. And it’s already looking pretty bad.”

“Hey! Asshat!” Andy hit the bars of the cage with his hand to get the new guard’s, the guard that had spoken deeply and emotionlessly,  attention. “Where does ‘your Majesty’ expect us to change?!”

“In your cage. Tomorrow fresh clothes will be brought to you and unless you went to fester in dirt and odour, you’ll change into them.”

“Not in front of everyone else!” Stacy gasped. “Surely there must be somewhere private to change.”

“You can all turn around but private dressing areas are-”

“For people in the army only, we get it, is everything for people in the army?!”

“What about other stuff?”

“Other stuff being…?”

“Showering?”

“There are sprinklers in the ceiling.”

“So everytime one of us wants to take a shower, everyone has to take one?”

“Efficient, no?”

“I’ll give you efficient!”

“Victor, calm down!”

“No, this bastard’s queen throws us all in cages and expects us to get dressed and shower in front of each other! Next he’ll be telling us we have to shit and piss on each other!”

The guard shook his head. “There’s a pot in each cage for that to happen in. There’s a hole in each side where there isn’t a door, it’s in reach of both cages, you pour it down there and it’ll make its way into the sewers.”

“You act like that’s better!”

“Her Majesty says it’s the best way for a future army force to bond.”

“More like the best way to convince captives to join her army,” Victor scoffed.

“That too, yes. But really, it’s not all bad. I lasted the longest in my group when we were brought to Cordonia, I refused and refused to join until the day of execution.” His fist and lips trembled. “A-and look at me now. I’m well fed, cared for. My days of being caged up like a bull practically forgotten.”

“Are they? Are they really?” Solomon reached out to the guard through the bars, his eyes soft and touch gentle.

“Yea-” The guard straightened and grabbed Solomon’s wrist. “If you think you can sweet-talk me into betraying my queen, you have another thing coming.” He bent his wrist back until there was a sickening crunch and then pushed the college student back into the cage. “I’m loyal to my queen. If you have sense, you be too.”

“You broke his wrist!” Victor held up the arm that he’d bent, eyes darting from Solomon to the guard.

“Prisoners shouldn’t touch guards.”

“We’re going to need a splint and a cast and painkillers, ice would be good as well.” Sean turned to the guard, eyebrows furrowed. “Can you get those for him?”

“You’re not a part of her Majesty’s service, you don’t get to ask for those things.”

“We need those so his wrist can heal!”

“He’s not going to die if he doesn’t get treatment.”

“But the bone might not heal!”

“Tough shit. You want treatment, join our queen’s army.”

Sean’s breath hitched in his throat. “Fine. I pledge allegiance. Now get the stuff for him!”

“We’ll send down a medic to treat him. Welcome to the army, son.” The guard let Sean out.

“Sean…”

“We need Solomon’s bone to heal, it could cause issues in the future. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.” And with that, the quarterback was taken from the room.

“Brilliant. Dropping like flies,” Ava grumbled.

“It’s not that bad, Ava. None of us have joined her yet.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve got Andy in your cage, Stace, I’ve got Donkey Kong with me.”

Jocelyn snapped her head around to glare. “Oh shut up, witch! That was when we were in high school!”

“You think I forgot how you used to bully my friends and I? I still haven’t forgiven you for that.”

“You and your stupid friends got Cody killed, and Britney and your fat friend started dating and I didn’t have any friends!”

“We didn’t kill Cody, and don’t you dare insult Lily!”

“Why not? She stole my friend away! In fact, I’m glad she’s not here, she wouldn’t last a second out there, she was always hiding behind you and your friends. She’s a coward who needs people to back her up!”

“Shut the fuck up!” Ava swung at Jocelyn, who promptly dodged and grabbed her arm. She struck Ava in the stomach with her knee. Ava kicked her chest and ripped her arm out of her claws, stumbling backwards into the cage. Jocelyn growled and went for her, fist outstretched to meet her face, only to be caught and thrown back, Grace barely moving out of the way.

“Guys, stop fighting!” Grace yelled out, trying to hold Jocelyn back.

“Go on Ava, kick her ass!” Andy cheered, punching the air.

“My best friend is dead because of you!” Jocelyn shoved Grace aside and pinned Ava to the cage by the neck. “If it wasn’t you, how did he die? How did he get impaled by a tree branch of a tree that was next to Jamie’s house?! Go on! Tell me! Tell me! HOW DID YOU KILL CODY ?!”

Ava kicked at her stomach, each kick getting weaker as Jocelyn squeezed and squeezed. Her hands scrabbled at Jocelyn’s, nails scratching her. “I-I-”

“Explain to me!”

Grace picked up the pot the guard had pointed to and hit Jocelyn over the head with it, knocking her out cold. Her fingers, though no longer at Ava’s throat, left red sore marks where they had been, leaving the girl coughing. “Are you okay, Ava?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“She seemed pretty sure you knew.”

Ava looked up at Grace, mouth ajar, lips trembling and eyes soft. She shook her head. “No, I do. I just… don’t think anyone would believe us.”

The medic entered the room and immediately saw the scene before her. “... Which one of you am I treating?”

“This one,” Diego raised his hand. “He has the broken wrist.”

“Okay, I’m coming over.” She unlocked the cage with them in, entered and locked it after her. “My name is Lila, my boss worked for Isa before she became queen.”

“I already hate your boss.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you know where the blue people came from? Isa said she enslaved them.” Diego watched her treat Solomon’s wrist with care.

“The Vaanti? No, I don't, I can't answer that. Why do you ask?”

“I’m just… curious. One of them gave us our food.”

“Oh, Varyyn? I think he was the prince or something.”

“Don’t you think it’s a shame that the queen was… able to do that? Didn’t they put up a fight?”

Lila glared up at him. “I don’t know why you think I have all the answers, I’m just the one who makes sure the new recruits don’t die or get any crippling injuries before they get a chance to pledge allegiance. That includes medical help when one of the guards says you can have it, and that’s usually when it’s either bound to be lethal or if one of the recruits joins the army to get the medical assistance.”

“What if it’s not lethal and a recruit doesn’t offer their loyalty?”

“Then they have to deal with it. I also make your meals in the kitchen.”

“What else do we get other than sandwiches and apple and milk?”

“Fillings of sandwiches change weekly. Grapes or banana slices or peaches. Basically other fruit instead of apple. And sometimes you get water. If more than five people pledge allegiance in one day, you all get strawberry or chocolate milkshakes.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Fuck what I wouldn’t do for spaghetti…”

“Spaghetti is f-”

“For people in the army only, we get it.” Michael rolled his eyes.

“If you join the army, you get different meals everyday, you can make your own food and you can ask for vegetarian options.”

“Knock it off, lady, we don’t ca-”

“What some other benefits of joining?” Aiden leaned into the cage bars.

“Aiden!”

“I’m not considering joining… I just want to know.”

“You can get someone to get your stuff from your home, you’re allowed to send letters home, you get your own living quarters, privacy, technology, you can hang out in a lounge with your friends, play video games, all that sort of stuff. When you aren’t doing stuff for our queen, of course, but she has a large force.”

“Why does she need so many people?”

Lila went quiet.

“Do you not know w-”

“I know why. But I don’t think she wants you to know quite yet.” She stood from Solomon and clapped her hands together. “There. It’s in a cast, it should heal soon.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank Sean. Was he your friend or…?”

Solomon shook his head. “I barely knew the guy. I don’t know why he did that.”

“I bet he was just dying to get out of here.” Wes called out from the other cage. “And when you got hurt, he was all too happy to get out of here.”

“Or maybe he’s just a nice guy who didn’t want Solomon have a shit wrist for the rest of his life?” Autumn retorted.

“We don’t even know how long we’re going to live. We could have a month to live for all we know.”

Autumn scowled at him from across the room and said the next seven words calmly. “I see why we broke up now.”

The atmosphere and silence so thick you could cut it with a knife, the two didn’t break gaze for too long. Wes stared long and hard while Autumn grit her teeth as her eyes and lips quivered.

Wes turned first, but Autumn was the one who cried. She grit her teeth and covered her face but everyone could hear her, the choking back of sobs, the double breathing, the struggle… and then the surrender.

No one could speak. Stacy rubbed Autumn’s back and sat her down. Wes sat amongst the rest of the guys, brooding to himself about her words.

Lila had left during the staredown, after waking Jocelyn, and she was swiftly replaced by Varyyn entering. “I have your dinners,” he said, gesturing to the trolley he held. Again, it was plates of ham and cheese sandwiches, apple slices and milk. He pushed the plates through the slits. “Miss Isa said I could sit and eat with you if you so permitted.”

Stacy began to speak but Diego was quick to respond, “Of course.”

The Vaanti smiled at the prisoner and sat against the door that led to the next room near Diego’s cage; Diego moved close to him (“So he doesn’t feel awkward and so I can talk to him.”) and began to talk to him.

“How’s your wrist doing?” Victor asked, sitting beside Solomon.

“Hm? Oh, it still kind of hurts but that’s to be expected.”

“Hopefully the painkillers will kick in soon. Did you take them?”

“Yeah, as soon as I got the milk.”

Victor nodded. “Sorry if I’m acting all… naggy, it’s just I don’t like seeing people in pain. One of my friends, you see, Candy…” He probably continued to talk but Solomon zoned out.

He always felt like he was leaving his body whenever he zoned out. Like something took his soul and yanked it out of his body. Like he was walking amongst the world within a spirit or something. Sometimes he saw things. Stupid things. Things he’d never seen before because they were so… inhuman, unrealistic. Crystals. The stars trapped within a faceless being, and yet he could still see the free stars behind and through it. A glowing orb. A city skyline. A figure, cloaked, atop the skyscraper. A wedding. A woman in a room overlooking an island.

… He’d seen the woman before.

Solomon broke out of his daydream with a violent gasp, throwing his head back and chest forward, as if his heart was pounding to break free.

“Solomon?!” Diego was there in an instant. “What’s wrong?”

He tried his best to explain: “You know how I sometimes go into really weird daydreams of things we’ve never seen before?”

“Yeah?”

“And you know how I tell you about three people I see, the three I’ve seen for as long as I can remember? Like a starry transparent faceless being and a guy standing on a skyscraper and some woman looking out over an island?”

“...yeah…?”

“And how I’ve had these daydreams since I was like five?”

“Get to the point!” Jocelyn yelled.

“It was Isa. The woman was Isa.”

“So?”

“I didn’t see Isa ever until today.”

“She must have been on the news once, she did try to take over our high school.”

“I… no. My family we never watched the news.” Why couldn’t he remember his family watching the news? Why couldn’t he hear his dad’s voice saying how everything on the news was wrong?

“Surely you must have? It kind of became a law when Isa took over America.”

“Yeah, but I don’t remember watching the news before that.” Why couldn’t he remember his dad’s face?

What did Hartfeld look like?

“And even when Isa did try to take over your school, that didn’t happen when Solomon was five, and he’s been seeing her in his daydreams ever since then.”

“Are you saying Solomon is magic?”

The starry, transparent, faceless being stood amongst the crowd in his cage.

Watching.

“What? No, of course not.”

It disappear from sight.

“I’m just saying it’s weird.”

He’s weird.”

Diego didn’t deny it.

Varyyn stood. “It’s best you continue to eat. I will take my leave.”

“What, why?” But he didn’t respond, pushing his trolley and shutting the door behind him, quickly replaced by a guard with a bowl of baked beans and pork sausages, clearly from a can, with a few slices of buttered toast with it. Though it wasn’t an outstanding meal like the last one, one only had to glance around the room to see the hunger in everyone’s eyes. The way they stared down the guard, who sauntered in and flaunted his (subpar, at best) meal around to the caged recruits, a gleeful smirk plastered onto his face. Their mouths were practically watering at the sight.

“Go on, kids,” the guard taunted. “Eat your sandwiches, stop gawking.”

“But-”

“No, eat your sandwiches, that’s good enough for you.” The guard sat in the middle of the area of the cages, making sure all of the recruits could see him.

“Oh I hate this…” Jocelyn growled, hitting the bars. “Hey! Give us some of that food! Or I’l-”

“Or you’ll what?” The guard chuckled, putting down his bowl and walking over to her. “ You’re the one in the cage, missy.”

Jocelyn said nothing, suddenly grabbing his collar and slamming him into the bars over and over and over again. “I’ll!” She slammed him into the bars. “Do!” She slammed him into the bars. “THIS!” She slammed him into the bars and then shoved him back where he slumped backwards, unconscious, hitting the back of his head on the opposite cage, the one without Solomon in.

Everyone stared in silence at the panting girl, who kept staring at the guard with satisfaction.

“... Damn Jocelyn, you went off. Did you really want his food or-”

“No. I just wanted to beat a guard up.”

“Preach!”

“Well now we’re going to get in trouble,” Lukas muttered, putting a hand on his forehead. “That guard broke Solomon’s wrist for just touching him. How well do you think they’re going to respond to Jocelyn beating the crap out of this guard?” He approached the guard. “He doesn’t seem to be dead, we have that on our side. That and nothing else.”

“He was taunting her,” Aiden offered, at which Lukas scoffed.

“Yeah, that’s probably what he was told to do. They’re trying to get us to join them, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I didn’t forget, I was just saying that he took joy in showing off.”

“And they must know Jocelyn is violent.”

“If the raffles weren’t random, I’d say that’s why they brought her here, that’s they’re counting on it.”

The door opened and the guard entering didn’t even bother looking at the prisoners before letting their eyes fall on the unconscious guard; their eyes widened, and they talked into a walkie-talkie. “We got a 405 here, Wolf is down, I repeat Wolf is down.” They took off their helmet.

“Cameron?” Aiden darted forward toward the bars, but Wes held him back. “It’s been years, I-”

The guard, or Cameron, pointed their gun to his face, silent, still approaching the unconscious guard near his cage. They crouched down and inspected him. “Dead?”

“I-”
“No. I checked.”

“You shouldn’t have. Now, tell me which one of you did this? And how? I can’t see any marks on his neck from strangling so-”

Jamie put his hand up. “It was me! I did it. I grabbed him from behind and bashed him against the bars.” Jocelyn, whose mouth was open to confess, stared in disbelief.

Cameron used their walkie-talkie. “Wolf is knocked out, Recruit #95231, Jamie Red, admitted to attacking him, I need the army medic and some backup.” They straightened up and glared at Jamie. “And you are going to pay.”

The back up cam quicker than anyone but Cameron thought, six guards with a person with a First Aid kit trailing behind them. Whoever it was, it wasn’t Lila like before. Still a girl but a very different girl. Blonde hair, light skin, small eyes, nose and mouth that made her head look large. God was she pretty, thought the very gay Solomon.

She didn't even give the recruits a passing glance as she swiftly weaved in between the guards to ‘Wolf’.

“Which prisoner did this, Luna?”

“Recruit #95231, Jamie Red. Chain him up to the wall,” they said, nodding to the wall in between the cage Jocelyn was in and the cage Solomon was in. “Medic, get Wolf out of here.”

She nodded and, with the help of the guard who Cameron, or rather Luna, had been talking to, took the unconscious guard out of the room, shutting the door behind them.

Jamie, meanwhile, had been wrangled out of his cage, hands held above his head by the much taller, burly guard.

“Didn't you hear what I said? Stop dawdling about and chain him to the wall!”

“Which wall, ma'am?”

“It's boss to you.” Cameron took Jamie by the wrists and dragged him over to the wall they were going to chain him up to. “I have to do everything myself, huh? Wouldn't do you lot any harm to listen better, huh?” They took out a knife from its sheath on their black, form fitting uniform. They beckoned one of the guards, who in turn took out a lighter, some wood and some contraption to hold things above the fire within two tongs. Cameron put their knife within the tongs, ignited the wood and lowered the knife so its blade hung in the fire.

Solomon watched the fire blaze, licking around the knife, tugging at it, beckoning, begging for it to fall.

It was begging him too.

Cameron turned away from the flames and put protective gloves on their hands before looking back at Jamie, who had now been tied up by his wrists so that his feet dangled off the floor. The two shared a long stare, Jamie’s eyes darting from the knife to their fists to the people in his cage to Jocelyn (she couldn’t look at him), Cameron cocking their head and following his gaze before smiling back at him.

Then they began to punch him. Each punch was brutal, tearing at his skin until it bruised, and then even more so until it bled. Other guards would take over and have fun in bending every part of they could until it was on the verge of cracking, breaking.

There was so much blood.

His screams were so loud.

They mostly punched his face but they also seemed to enjoy beating in his chest and stomach.

Cameron picked up the searing knife, the blade red hot, and gently pressed it to his neck, licking their lips as the flesh beneath it seared. “No one hurts Wolf and gets away with it.” They pressed down, ready to slowly carve into his skin.

“I ple-”

“I DID IT!” In a moment of despair, Jocelyn threw herself to the wolves, body thudding against the cage bars. “It was me! He’s innocent. I lured him over and I bashed him against the bars and then shoved him into the other cage. I don’t know why he took the fall but it wasn’t him.”

Cameron turned back to Jamie. “Is this true?”

“No, she’s lying. She just wants me to not be tortured, it was me, I promise.”

“... Put him back in his cage. She’s telling the truth.” Like that, Jamie was hoisted down and carelessly flung into his cage like a ragdoll with no care for his wounds, and Jocelyn was chained up and tortured in his place. She screamed and bled but not as much as Jamie, even when the knife carved some sort of sigil into her chest (no medical attention could ever get rid of that), a moth within a shield, like the one on the back of Cameron’s uniform.

Hours must have passed before Jocelyn, head limp, eyes drooping, bottom lip quivering, was finally allowed to be relieved of her suffering. Once they were done, Cameron blew out the fire, set down their knife and lifted Jocelyn’s chin. “When you pledge allegiance, ask Queen Isa about Luna. She’ll make sure you get into the right part of the army. But for now, we’ll leave you there. I’m sure Her Majesty won’t mind.”

“I… I… I pledge…”

“Pledge what?”

“... I… pledge… pledge allegiance…” Her head dropped from exhaustion and, at those words, she was freed from the chains and caught in Cameron’s arms.

“Good, good…” And with that, the guards began to lead her away.

“Jocelyn…” Ava reached out through the bars, her hand just about fitting. “Why did you give yourself up for Jamie? You’ve never liked him. Or us.”

She weakly grinned. “I don’t. But I knew that I had to pay for my actions, and that I’d manage more torture than he ever could.” She paused for her next words. “I’ll see you on the other side.” And with that, she and the two guards assisting her were gone.

Cameron and the three guards that remained stayed for a while.

“Why is the boy with the girls?”

“Queen Isa told us to put him there.”

Cameron pursed their lips. “The worst torture of all. A torture I was put through when I was first brought here.” Approaching Andy, they looked at him, inspecting him. “You pass well. I hope for your sake that you pledge soon.” They beckoned the guards, who left and returned with night clothes - the boys had blue and white striped flannel tank tops and shorts while the girls (and Andy) had long pink criss-crossed gowns that reached to their knees with short sleeves with ruffles on the end - and clothes for tomorrow, a burgundy sweater with a white shirt, cargo trousers and Converse-style shoes for the boys and a maroon cardigan with a lighter shade of maroon shirt, black thigh length skirt, white knee high socks and black shoes with slight heels.

“Welcome home, you lot. I hope you enjoy your stay.”


As he screamed and cried in pain, she sat by the other prisoner on the counter, reading her list. “Such a boring bunch this leap year. Why on Earth would my assistants choose a character like Aiden Zhou ? This must be…” She trailed off as her eyes caught sight of one of the upper names. “Oh now, now this is interesting…” She read the list with new eyes, smile growing wider with every few names.”

Until she got to number fifteen. Her beam filled half her face, eyes just as wide as she laughed. She laughed and laughed, trying to cover her mouth with one hand and that was simply not enough. The prisoners didn’t dare move as she got up and laughed giddily, and the recently tortured one even silenced himself.

“Oh this is going to be absolutely brilliant.” She dropped the list in her glee. “It’s always been just you five but if I set this up right, there will soon be six of you.”

The four conscious met each other’s concerned gaze. Meanwhile, she leant on the one unconscious prisoner, fingers playing with his hair. “And maybe you won’t have to be the only permanent powersource,” she whispered in his ear. His eyes slowly opened.

His entire eyeball was black.

“I can’t see. I can’t see! I ca-”

“Shhhh, shhh, shhhh… That’s a side effect. A side effect that might not last for long…” She slyly grinned, showing her teeth. “My favourite battery deserves a break every once in a while.”

“I can’t see! I can’t see! I-” She turned on the machine he was hooked up to and he froze still before going limp.

“That’s enough of that, isn’t it?” Bending down to pick up the list again, she chuckled. “Oh yes... “ She sat back down where she sat before. “Solomon Herulata. This is going to be very interesting...”

Chapter Text

Days passed. Weeks passed. The end of the month grew closer and closer.

The numbers of people in the cage dwindled with each day, out of hunger for more, freedom, anything.

Soon, it was just Solomon, Diego, Victor, Stacy and Zack.

Autumn got tired of being cooped up. So did Wes. Andy was sick and tired of being with the girls. Jamie and Ava wanted to talk to Jocelyn, see how she was doing. Grace wanted to know how the first three pledges were. They were gone within the first week.

Then Aiden wanted to talk to his family, but Michael scoffed and said he just wanted to be able to play music again. But when Michael heard that one of his other friends were there, waiting and hoping, he was quick to follow. They left on the same day, the second week’s Thursday.

Lukas lasted until the last day of the third week. He’d been a journalist, it seemed, working on an article when the news was announced that he’d been plucked from the raffle. The guards - after Jocelyn, two guards would be sent down instead of one - had read some of his old articles aloud, acting like they really cared. It was years before Isa had even begun to invade, let alone reign, so it was uncensored and outdated.

Solomon, and the others assumedly from their faces, enjoyed the narration, even they seemed to be mocking it.

“I think we have one of the O’Malleys up there.”

“We had both of them at one point, right?”

“No, I don’t remember them both being there. Not at the same time.”

“Oh, was one of them one of the casualties?”

Lukas’ head shot up, eyes wide and panicked. He rushed over to the bars, pressing himself so close to them that he also slid through. “Which one? Which one?”

“Don’t interrupt, prisoner.”

“Which one was it? Which one was the casualty? Was it Kate or Flynn?”

“Hm… I don’t remember. Do you remember, Adonis?”

“Nope. Could be the girl. Could be the guy.” ‘Adonis’’ face lit up like a Christmas tree, if a Christmas tree could ever look so sinisterly gleeful. “Could be both.”

Lukas was on the verge of tears, his voice broken by sobs and double-inhaling. “Please, just tell me. If… If anything bad happened to either of them, I… I… I-”

“You… You… You what?” One of the guards, not Adonis, stood and sauntered and pressed his face against the cage bars as well, laughing. “Need to know? Why?”

“I know them!”

“You know them? Well, then, not telling you just makes it more fun.”

“You bastard!” Lukas grabbed Not-Adonis’ throat and began to pull him against the bars.

“Lukas, no, you’ll just get tortured!” Zack yanked his hands away and pushed him to the wall. He landed with a thud on his arse on his sleeping area, which was just his jacket from Day One and the sweater they wore for their day clothes. “We don’t need another Jocelyn situation.”

“If I find out that my friends are dead-”

“Oh, they’re his friends! This is even better!” Not-Adonis sauntered back up to the bars, this time greeting Zack. “Tell your little cage buddy that we’ll only tell if he pledges allegiance.”

“It’s the third week, nearly all of the recruits have pledged. Can’t you give us one thing, just one small answer?”

Not-Adonis pretended to consider it. “Nah. Answers are for pledges only.”

“Fine then! I pledge! Now tell me if Kate and Flynn are okay!”

“We’ll have to take you through the official steps first but then you’re free to know the answers. Now c’mon.” Not-Adonis wrangled Lukas out of the cage. “And if you guys think you’re going to last the last week, don’t even try it?”

“Why not?” Stacy raised an eyebrow.

“Because you don’t know what happens to recruits who don’t pledge.”

“Yeah we do, you kill them.” Zack mimicked shooting someone in the head.

“You really don’t know the Queen’s aesthetic. And I doubt you’ll like it.”

Diego left the next day, the first day of the last week. Varyyn came down with the food and they’d been getting on. The Vaanti were slaves to Isa despite being strong and agile fighters that had barely been beaten, by some advantage Varyyn couldn’t speak of without endangering his people, so many years ago.

“They killed my mother and kidnapped me. Held me at gunpoint and forced them all to stand down. Those who didn’t died.” His eyes had become wet. “The children, most of them knew to stand down but Taari… oh he was so fearless and brave and yet so stup-” He’d covered his mouth to stifle his sobs but the tears dribbling down his face spoke a thousand words. Diego had reached out to him, offering his other hand.

“Taari would have never been an obedient servant.” The ellyshar chuckled. “How could he be, he was barely an obedient subject?” His hands moved to cover his face. “Even if he had stood down, they would have killed him for being so disobedient…” He must have tried to speak but broke down.

Diego reached out through the cage and clutched Varyyn’s wrists gently. “Hey…”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here.”

“No, it’s okay!” Diego blushed, laughing anxiously. “I like you being here.”

“Vaanti, get a move on,” one of the guards who had just entered said, pointing a thumb to the door.

When Varyyn didn’t immediately stand, still rubbing the tears from his eyes, the guard grabbed him and yanked him up.

“Hey! Stop that! He’s grieving, can’t you see that?!”

“I know, I know, he’s mourning someone, or something, aren’t we all? But we need him in the kitchen with the medics.”

“But he’s an excellent fighter! Why are you putting him behind the counter?”

“Because we can’t trust the species.”

“Because you enslaved them and murdered those who stood up against you?”

“Because they didn’t pledge allegiance.”

“But what if I did?”

The guard narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“If you let the Vaanti fight instead of being slaves, I’ll pledge allegiance.”

Solomon dragged him back, speaking in a hushed tone: “Diego-”

“Solomon, pleas-” Diego tried to respond, in the same hushed tone.

“Why do you…”

“Care so much? It’s not because they didn’t pledge allegiance. It’s because they aren’t human.”

“You don’t know that.”

Diego’s brow furrowed with angry confusion. “I know the look in that guard’s eye because I’ve seen it before. I’m not standing for it anymore. I’m not just going to let this happen.”

“Diego, please…”

“No. Let me do this. It’s what you’d do.”

“No it’s not, otherwise I’d be doing it.”

His best friend eyed him up and down. “Well then.”

“What?” Solomon narrowed his eyes.

“Maybe you’re not you.”

“Are you pledging allegiance or what?”

“If the Vaanti are freed from kitchen duties and are allowed to be on the battlefield.” Diego looked at Varyyn. “Is that okay with you?”

The ellyshar’s gaze was cast at the floor and he dragged out his sentence. “It’s… it’s what my people would want. A chance to show their skills.”

Once he finished, Diego turned his stare to the guards manhandling Varyyn. “So? You accept my pledge of allegiance?”

“... Fine.”

And just like that, Diego was gone.

The end of the week dragged its heel, desperate to stall its coming. Zack broke when he heard that his friends who had already been taken were waiting, and that his phone was blowing up with text messages.

Only one day left. Only Solomon, Stacy and Victor remained.

“Everyone else we know is up there. Our friends-”

“You only know four of them, max,” Victor scoffed. “It's just a fear tactic, threatening to kill us.”

“They aren't going to let us go. You know that no one who is selected ever returns.”

“Maybe they'll send us out to live on the island? Or maybe no one has ever taken them up on their bullshit and we'll be the first that ever got sent home.”

“And what if they're telling the truth?”

The older man grit his teeth and glared. “They aren't. I promised Candy I wouldn't die.”

“Then maybe-”

“I'll never pledge allegiance.”

“What about you Stacy?”

The girl didn't respond for a time. “I don't want to pledge.”

“Why not? Your friends-”

“They pledged because they had reasons. Andy didn’t want to be in the cage with the girls. Ava and Jamie wanted to thank Jocelyn. I don’t really have a reason.”

“They allow outside contact up there.”

Stacy shook her head. “No, they don’t. When we get brought here, we’re never heard of again. They’re probably saying that but the messages never get sent.”

“How do you know that?”

“My brother was taken. A few years ago. We never heard from him again. I have no reason to believe he’s even still alive.” She scratched her arm. “And my mother… I’m not too close to her, or Connor, my brother.” Her brow furrowed. “I want to make a stand. Show this bloody queen I’m not afraid of her.”

“What about you, Solomon?”

“Me?”

“Are there any other Solomons here?” Stacy mock-looked around. Victor didn’t seem so pleased; he leant forward and glowered at him, as if trying to penetrate him with his eyes.

“Answer the question.”

“... I don’t know. I want to be with my friend. Thank Sean for pledging allegiance to get my wrist fixed up.”

“How is it, by the way? The wrist?”

“Better. Kinda numb but better.”

Victor nodded. “So, you’re going to pledge.”

“I never said that. I just… want to show my appreciation for what he did. And see Diego. See if the others are okay. But I don’t know. I don’t know.”

If you want to pledge allegiance, fine. That’s your choice. But I’ll never be loyal to such a bitch. I promised Candy.”

“Do you mind me asking who is Candy?”

The scowl that contorted Victor's soft face faded into a softer smile as he gazed down at his hands. “No, I don't. She's a… good friend of mine. Attended Hartfeld. We promised each other that we’d never succumb to whatever they did with us here. She got taken a few years ago.” He went silent.

“Victor?”

“They killed her.”

“Wh-”

“Her body washed up on the shore last year. I was visiting and I saw her. I looked into her cold dead eyes.” He grit his teeth and clenched his fists. “And now I’m here. It’s my time to stand up to her killers.”

Solomon couldn't help but gaze into his eyes, so cold, so dark, and then looked away.

“It's nearly the end.”

“You say that like we're going to die.”

“... I think we are.”


For a day in the cages, everything went so normally. Varyyn didn't deliver the food, someone else did, grumbling as they did, pushing the food into the cages and picking up his own from the trolley which he sat down with and ate hungrily, not even stopping to taunt. Solomon couldn't even tell what it was, red and hot and with chunks in it.

“You better fucking pledge or today ain't worth it,” grumbled the guard, mouth half full with the chunky red stuff, eyes staying on his food. “You'll be better off anyway. Living quarters, good food, a lounge area. You can receive messages from family but due to what pledging is, you can't reply. Shame but most families tend to update people even if they aren't alive anymore.”

“You aren't making a good sales pitch,” Victor scoffed. “I think I'll take my chances.”

Solomon saw Stacy look at Victor for affirmation before she nodded in agreement, glaring at the guard.

“Suit yourself. But your little buddy, he ain't saying anything.”

“I didn't say I would pledge.”

“But why not? What do you have that we have?” Solomon opened his mouth to answer. “And before you say friends… remember who pledged before you.”

Solomon remembered. Head against the cage bars, he remembered all the times his fellow recruits, his companions, cried out in anger, despair or pain that they pledged allegiance.

He'd kill to see those faces again.

The guard finished his meal and looked at the recruits, scrunching up his face. “You need a shower.”

“We don't want to take one,” Stacy replied hastily, crossing her arms across her chest. “I'm not stripping in front of two guys.”

“Yeah, no, she's a kid, you can't make her do that.”

“Fine.” The guard strutted over to a button in the wall and pressed it; immediately, freezing water gushed out of the sprinklers above then, it splashing off and dripping down the guard’s gear but soaking the recruits as they shrieked.

“What the fuck?!”

“There.” The guard tossed them towels, white and just a head shorter than Victor, one of the tallest recruit. Stacy caught it while Victor didn't and Solomon caught it with his face. “Get dry.” The guard picked up his empty bowl and began to leave. “You have two hours to pledge allegiance. Any non-pledges will be promptly executed.”

“Aren't you cheerful?”

“I'm just doing my job, ma'am.” With a farewell nod, he was gone.

Victor ended up taking his shirt off and wringing it dry. It was a plain white T-shirt so it didn't make much difference, but Solomon, despite having been given the same outfit to wear, did his best to dry himself off without stripping.

Stacy wrapped the towel around herself and stayed put, waiting for the water to soak into the towel.

“Two hours to pledge allegiance,” Victor repeated, then he scoffed, “As if.”

“Two hours to live.”

Stacy gulped. “W-Well, we'd better make use of our time then.”

“Think about the people waiting for us.”

“In case you didn't notice, I don't exactly have anyone waiting for me.”

“Well I suppose Jamie, Ava and Andy would be waiting…”

“And Diego would wait for me. Perhaps Sean and Grace would too.” Solomon scratched the back of his neck.

Victor raised his eyebrow but looked at the two young adults with warm eyes.

Stacy was next to speak - “But I'm sure they'll understand why I'm not going to pledge.”

Victor nodded. “Atta girl.”

Solomon's eyes traced where the guard had walked before, as if the guard was still there in his mind's eye, and the guard’s words tumbled around his brain.

Did he really want to die today?


“You’d think that we’d get to choose our last meal but go off I guess.”

“Stop being a smartass and eat your fucking sandwich.”

Stacy gulped at Victor’s words and bit into her sandwich. There was no guard with them, just Isa herself, leaning against the door and watching silently, pursing her lips. She’d occasionally glance at the group or around the room but her gaze mostly tended to be on Solomon.

Each and every time he moved, whether it was to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand or to eat or to shuffle to the side, her eyes would flicker back to him as if she was waiting for something to happen.

Maybe it was for him to suddenly pledge allegiance. Solomon couldn’t deny that he was considering the option; he could feel the plea on his lips but bit his tongue and refused to meet the Queen’s gaze.

She’d brought a clock in. She’d hung it on the wall where the trio could see the hands and hearing the ticking. The ticking was loud, it drummed through Solomon’s thoughts.

Twenty minutes to go.

At first they’d been confused as to why they were eating again, but then she showed them the clock and told them, “It’s your last meal. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s your last as a prisoner or your last ever.”

Solomon looked up at the time again. Twenty to three. He was born at three o’clock, his parents had said.

Right?

With an enraged grunt, Victor threw the plate at the cage bars. The two men in the cage immediately ducked down as shattered porcelain flew out toward them; even though she wasn’t close enough to be harmed, Stacy ducked too. Isa didn’t.

“You’re Candy’s friend, yes?”

Victor didn’t make eye contact.

“She was a good soldier.”

That got his attention. He kicked the shards of his plate out of his way as he approached the bars. “You’re a liar,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at her through narrowed eyes. “We promis-”

Isa approached the cage, just out of arm’s reach. “Tell me, Victor, you’re smart, it’s why you’re here after all, what’s more important? A flimsy promise or one’s life?”

Victor didn’t answer. For a split second, his angry demeanor broke into confusion and betrayal before he shook his head. “You’re a liar.”

“It really was a shame when she tried to rally the people against me. I had her drowned, but they lost her body.” Isa smiled. “Funny how the tides work, hm? One minute she’s in Cordonia, next minute she’s washing up on… where did you two come from, again?” She leaned forward teasingly.

“Shut up!” Victor grappled at her, trying to grab something, anything, but she leaned back again and watched, entertained, as he wriggled his fingers in a futile attempt to take revenge.

Was he crying?

“You know, she threw a plate at the cage too. But-” She laughed, having to pause to gather herself. “But she threw the plate on the first day. She pledged like Sean did, to get their cuts treated. Apparently, all the way there, she muttered about how disappointed you’d be in her.” Isa cocked her head. “Are you?”

Victor choked back a sob. “N-no…” Isa seemed delighted, until he stiffened up. “Cause I know you’re a fucking liar!”

The pleasure dripped from her face and she pouted her lips and narrowed her eyes. “If you say so.”

Solomon glanced at the clock and his gut dropped.

Five minutes to go.

Isa followed his gaze gleefully. “This part is my favourite.” And then she took the clock from the wall and left. “See you soon.”

A guard took her place immediately and took them out of their cells and began to speak.

“When you are taken out to the execution fields, you will be met by a wooden stage with an assembly. Some of them will be guard captains, but the majority of them will be misbehaving guards and your recruit group.

“A letter will be called out and, depending on to whom it applies, parts of the assembly will stand. Then, the three guards who escorted you to Queen Isa and then to the prisons will lead you to the stage, where you will be prompted to pledge allegiance if you so wish to. You will be given thirty seconds to decide.

If you choose to pledge, you will be escorted from the stage and lead to your recruit group’s side where you will watch the execution. There will be a chair each for two of you. If all three of you pledge, the execution will be called off and the assembly will separate and return to their dorms or wherever else they need to be.

You will be taken to Queen Isa either after the execution or immediately after the execution is called off to re-pledge allegiance and then you will be taken to your group’s dorms.

If none of you pledge, the execution will go on as normal. Each of you will be called out by your recruit number in alphabetical by your forename. You will be set up to be executed and then have the chance to say last words. If it takes longer than a minute, you will be executed. After that chance is gone, Queen Isa will give you a blessing for paradise and you will be executed.”

As soon as he finished, the guard began to lead them toward the door.

Something Solomon hadn’t noticed before from all the confusion and fear; behind the door, which was automatic, was an elevator. It seemed to be like a see through mirror, as Solomon and the others could see through it and though people looked toward the elevator and he and Stacy waved, none seemed to even notice the people inside. Though, he supposed, if it was see through, the guard would have told them to stop waving, that they’d distract them from their duties.

Maybe the guard was just letting them have a bit of fun one last time.

Well, the fun didn't last long, as elevators never seem to take their time when you want them to, and the elevator opened its doors to let the dim afternoon sun shine through.

Solomon, Stacy and Victor shielded their eyes and blindly let the guard lead them out, and once their eyes got used to the light, they dropped their arms and took in the field they’d die in.

The wooden stage the guard had mentioned was larger than Solomon had imagined; he wasn’t short for his age, and he could fit underneath the stage without having to crouch, and it’d come up to Victor’s chin. The stairs were Solomon’s height. Chairs were gathered around it by what Solomon assumed was its front (which, to him, was the right side), seating forty people, seventeen of them people in his group. Diego was amongst them, sat on the end next to Craig. He saw some of the others, like Jamie and Jocelyn sat awkwardly next to each other, Kaitlyn leaning on an empty chair to talk to Zack over Zahra, Grace leaning back to smile at and laugh with and talk to Aleister, whose pale face seemed to show colour for once.

Behind them were mostly people Solomon didn’t recognise. Sure, there was that Cameron person Aiden had recognised before they started to torture Jamie and Jocelyn but everyone else were completely new, aside from the blonde medic.

And by the recruits, two seats away from Zahra sat Isa. Legs together, arms folded against her chest, face… calm. Peaceful, even. As if she was in her element.

That would have been fine, Solomon thought, if she wasn’t about to watch an execution.

The guard clicked his finger in Solomon’s face. “C’mon, kid, quit looking at the assembly.”

And so Solomon finally looked at what was on the stage; some people… and a large guillotine.

So that was how Isa played, huh?

There was no point Solomon could see in fighting back, and Stacy seemed to agree with him (Victor was twitching like no tomorrow, so maybe he saw a point), and so he stood, watching the assembly from the corner of his eye, watching as they stood when a letter called - his recruit group stood at the letter ‘D’.

Three guards took them off the other guard’s hands and guided them up to the stage. Victor was the first, and he wasn’t going without a fight, so they dragged him up kicking and screaming (the kicking was more of verbal kicking and the screaming was just all the profanity he used). Stacy was much more quiet, her guard just had to hold her arm and guide her up as she trembled (Solomon could even hear the guard hush her and gently tell her not to cry).

“Herulata? Quit daydreaming.” The guard he’d been taken in by grabbed his arm and began to pull him up the stairs; Solomon didn’t fight it.

He could see everyone from up on the stage., and the guillotine from the corner of his eye. He could feel everyone’s gaze on him, his group’s fear and shock from seeing people they knew being prepared to die.

“Stac-” Jamie began to shout but Jocelyn smacked him upside the head and subtly gestured to the captains sitting up, moving their hands toward their holsters.

Stacy’s face only turned more sorrowful as her eyes watered.

“And so-” The guard who had led them up the elevator had followed them onto the stage and begun to speak. “- Recruit #D15738, Solomon Herulata, Recruit #D16525, Stacy Green and Recruit #D17626-”

“Victor Brawid!” Victor corrected, only to have the back of a gun hit against his head. He fell to his knees, and his guard held the gun up with a menacing glare.

“-Recruit #D17626, Victor Brawid, are to be executed by beheading by the guillotine. As due to palace policy, they will be given half a minute to pledge allegiance. Those who do pledge will join the assembly. Those who do not will be executed. If all non-pledgers choose to pledge, the assembly will be cancelled.” The guard turned to face Solomon, Stacy and Victor. “Your thirty seconds starts now.”

Thirty.

Solomon looked out at the assembly. While the captains and the ones Solomon had assumed were misbehaving guards looked comfortable, even numb, to the situation, his group were on the edge of their seats. Literally.

Twenty five.

He met Isa’s eyes. She smiled softly at him, like he was collecting an award, not facing a literal life or death situation. And even though he didn’t want it to, his face twitched into a polite smile.

Twenty.

Diego… oh God, he couldn’t leave Diego, he couldn’t. He and Diego had been friends since before he could remember, he needed Diego and Diego needed him; Diego especially needed him, he had no one else. He couldn’t leave Diego.

Fifteen.

Jamie and Ava couldn’t stop staring at Stacy, mouthing at her; Solomon turned his head and she had her eyes closed, either to stop herself from crying or to ignore them. Maybe it was so she could pretend it was a dream. Solomon looked at his hands.

Ten.

Did he really want to die today?

Fi-

“I pledge allegiance!” The scream cut through the thick silence. “I pledge! I pledge allegiance!”

Isa’s smile twitched up into a smile. Solomon couldn’t smile back.

“Recruit #D15738, Solomon Herulata, please go down the stairs and sit with your group.” The guard took his arm, led him down the stairs and sat him down next to Zahra.

Thirty seconds were gone.

“Recruit #D16525, Stacy Green, please come to the guillotine.”

This time, it was her who struggled, crying and screaming all sorts of things. “I pledge! I pledge!”

“It’s too late for that,” her guard said, forcing her onto her knees and shoving her head into the slot. “Any last words?” Stacy stayed silent.

“Queen Isa, please come up.”

Isa sauntered up, her smile gone but her smug aura radiating off her as she pulled back Stacy’s loose hair away from her face to run her index finger along her face, down from between her eyebrows, across her the bridge of her nose, over her lips and underneath her chin, which she held for an amount of time, before she whispered something in her ear.

Solomon closed his eyes. He could hear her.

“Your brother is alive.”

“I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE!” Stacy began screaming. “I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE! I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE!”

The guillotine blade fell.

Ava, Andy and Jamie burst into tears, and even Jocelyn cried. No one else cried, at least not as loudly as them. But no one could stay still or keep dry eyes.

Stacy’s guard pulled the basket and the body away as Victor’s guard dragged Victor to the guillotine. Perhaps due to giving up or perhaps in shock, he was deathly silent and even kneeled down himself and placed his head into the bloody slot.

“Any last words?”

And so returned the Victor fire. “Your queen’s a fucking bitch. She’s a lying whore. You hear me?” And then he directed it to the assembly. “Queen Isa is a fucking liar!”

The lying whore made her way to him and traced his face again the same way she traced Stacy’s and leaned in and whispered into his ear.

Solomon could hear it too when he closed his eyes.

“I execute all my non-pledgers the same way. Those who commit treason once pledged.”

Victor choked back a sob. “FUCK YOU!” He screamed it at her, even as she walked away.

And then the guillotine blade fell.


~ten years earlier

“This way, your Highness! The boats are closeby!” Hana Lee held Queen Leshawna’s hand, and Leshawna held her husband, King Liam’s hand, as the trio ran. There used to be more of them: Drake, Maxwell, Olivia, Kiara, Penelope, Mara and Bastien. Drake, Maxwell and Olivia had been captured while fighting for their escape, Kiara and Penelope left to go into hiding with Bertrand, Savannah and their son and, while no one knew the fates of Mara and Bastien, it was assumed they were dead. And if the woman was as bad as they thought… there was no reason to believe that those she captured would live long either.

Leshawna squeezed Hana’s hand, and she squeezed back; the Queen smiled to herself.

At least she still has her.

“How much further?” Liam asked, voice heavy with panting. “I don’t think my legs can take much longer. How did you ladies run in heels?”

Leshawna laughed. “Barely! That’s why we ditched them!”

Liam chuckled along; his chuckle died when he heard a distant roar. The trio looked toward the skies and spotted two growing figures. “It’s her! She’s catching up!”

“Hana, how much further are the boats?”

Hana began to sprint, tugging Leshawna and Liam behind her. “Not far!”

As they began to sprint, the figures seemed to spot them and glide toward them with terrifying speed.

“The docks!” Liam let go of Leshawna’s hand and ran toward the boats… or the boat. “Where are the other boats?!”

“People must have used to them to escape,” Leshawna realised, freezing as she saw the scene. “It’ll be a tight fit but I’m sure all thre-”

“AH!” Liam jumped back as fire blazed at his feet. The two figures from the skies landed too close for their liking. Scales as big as their heads adorned the winged creatures, their beady eyes like a cat’s, their claws and teeth as sharp as swords, and the creatures were so large that they could probably swallow the three whole.

Dragons.

Atop one of them was the woman who slaughtered, captured and terrorised their friends, allies and subjects. Well, she had been on top of one, but now she’d dismounted her beasts to threaten Liam.

Oh hell fucking no.

“Get away from my husband!” Leshawna yelled, unsheathing her sword and raising it at the woman. “Or else.”

The woman drew her own sword and held it in the air, pointed slightly toward the Queen. “Or what, your Majesty?” Her tone mocked her, a hiss on her tongue. She raised her free hand to beckon the dragons to approach. “You may have the crown but I have the palace!”

“Not for long if I get my way!”

“I bet you’re used to that by now, huh? Allow me to break your streak.”

Leshawna growled.

“Leshawna, don’t worry about her! Just get to the boat!” Hana called over to her, holding up her own sword, the one Drake had used to fight Neville. “And get Liam to the boat too!” She nodded her head to the King, who was backing away, unarmed.

“What about you?”

“I’ll join you in a minute!”

“Take my sword as well!” Leshawna tossed the blade to Hana, who caught it with her free hand and deflected an oncoming swipe from the dragon the woman hadn’t made her entrance on. She jumped back and twisted the swords to comfortably duel wield them.

“Thank you, Leshawna!”

Now unarmed, Leshawna grabbed her husband’s arm and ran to the boat, bare feet getting splinters from the harbour. “Help me unti-”

“ARGH!”

“Liam!”

The dragon that the woman had rode in on had its foot raised for what appears to be a second attack, as blood dribbled into Liam’s shirt from a large wound, from his right shoulder to the left of his stomach.

“Get away from my husband!” Leshawna shrieked, pulling an unstable board from the harbour and running at the dragon, aiming the board at its chest. Though it didn’t do much damage, it struck the creature back and she sent it toppling into the water. Immediately, it transformed… into a young man, perhaps around her own age. The young man scrambled out of the water and ran off, only to be grabbed by the woman that Hana was currently fighting and pushed into the other dragon.

Liam tried to scramble up but collapsed. “Hnngh…” He laid his arm over his wound; it was bleeding profusely, soaking his shirt. Pushing himself up by his other hand and getting to his feet, he blurrily reached out and stumbled to Leshawna. She helped him into the boat and lay him down before fiddling with the knot.

“Hana!” Leshawna put her hands around her mouth. “We need to go!”

Hana ran toward the boat but instead of jumping in, she hesitated and threw Leshawna’s sword back to her. “Go without me!”

“What?!”

“I’ll fend her off while you escape!”

“No, I’m not leaving you behind!”

“You have to!”

“Hana you get in this boat right this instant because I am not leaving you behind.”

Hana didn’t meet her eyes, turning on the engine of the boat. “Get pressure on Liam’s wound, use his shirt as a bandage and sail to a country. And when you get there-” Hana met Leshawna’s eyes, her own watering and her voice broken up. “Give her hell.”

“Hana please I can't lose you too.”

Hana’s eyes flickered up to Liam before she pressed a brief, sweet kiss to Leshawna’s lips and then another one to her cheek. “Do it for all of us.”

Leshawna nodded and began to steer the boat away; Hana smiled gratefully.  can’t lose you too…”

Her eyes flickered up to Liam before bending down and pressing a sweet, brief kiss to Leshawna’s lips and then a similar, longer kiss on her cheek. “You won’t lose me,” she whispered, her voice shaky. “I’ll always be in here.” She pressed a soft hand to Leshawna’s heart. “Now go.”

Leshawna nodded slowly and began to maneuver the boat away from Cordonia, gripping her sword tightly and squeezing it, as if Hana’s hand was still there. “Give her hell!”

“I will!”

She watched as the sight of Hana fending off the remaining dragon and the woman became smaller and smaller until the image began less clear and slowly disappeared into the horizon.

“I’ll come back for you,” she whispered, clutching the sword tighter, tears rolling down her face. “I’ll come back for all of you.”

Chapter Text

~ten years earlier  


 Leshawna opened the bag again, trying to fool herself into thinking there was anything to eat while Liam slept fitfully nearby, curled up and snoring.

At least the bleeding had stopped, but Leshawna knew that the bandage (which was just his shirt, really) would have be to changed.

They’d eaten all of the food they’d managed to gather before setting out to the boats over the past four days, and she’d always been a terrible fisher, especially without a rod. Liam had tried to catch a fish but eventually the pain did him in and he’d been forced to rest. All she’d gotten was seaweed.

Hana would know what to do. So would’ve Olivia and Drake and Kiara and Bertrand and maybe even Maxwell. Ignoring her stomach’s grumbling, Leshawna drew her knees to her chest and looked out at her surroundings.

Water.

Water.

Water.

Boat.

Liam.

Water.

Water.

At least the woman wasn't chasing after them. Either Hana had subdued them or the woman knew that if she left Cordonia’s shores, she could lose what control she had established over the country. And after all, she probably knew they'd be back.

As soon as they got to a country, explained the situation and prepared for war, they'd be back to save their friends.

As a particularly harsh wave washed underneath the boat, an even harsher thought washed over Leshawna.

What if they're dead?

For a moment, it seemed as if even the waves paused to ponder if the thought could be truth.

After all, there was no reason to assume that anyone who was captured would be allowed to live.

“No, not all of our friends were captured. Bertrand and Savannah and Bartie and Kiars and Penelope and their families…” As soon as she assured herself, the thought shot back:

You assume they won't be found.

The woman would almost surely conduct searches and other reasons to make sure that the town is running smoothly and not planning any uprisings. They could always be found…

And then…

“She wouldn't kill children!” Leshawna cried out to herself, on the edge of tears. The though didn't even have to respond, she betrayed herself. A memory of herself, holding the hand of one of the Cordonian children that she'd played sports with as the sword in their chest slowly killed them.

Her eyes wet with tears, the child's eyes still vibrant and bright though the child was terrified and begging her to save them. .

“Please, please, please, I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die.”

“No… I… I…”

“Leshawna, the boat!” Liam yelled out, suddenly awake. Leshawna tore her eyes away from the memory too late as a larger, harsher wave crashed over them into the boat, more of its kind following suit until the boat sank beneath their feet and into the murky depths below.

Liam hissed in pain as the sea washed over and into his wound. “Our supplies,” he managed to whisper out.

“There was nothing worthwhile in there anyway… And it's not like it'll matter soon.”

“We aren't going to die-”

“Our boat is gone, we're stranded in the ocean, we have nothing to eat and you're injured!”

“... Maybe someone will pick us up. We can't give up hope, we have to save our friends-”

“They're probably dead, Liam! They got captured and she tortured them and they’re fucking dead!” Leshawna began to sob, ugly tears streaming down her face. “And now we’re going to die too. We’re going to either die of starvation or dehydration or from being the freezing ocean or just general drownin-”

“It’s a ship!”

“Wh-” And lo and behold, when she turned around, there was a ship. Headed right for them; well, not quite headed toward them, more like it was moving to the side of them.

When it pulled up beside them, the person looking overboard spoke in a thick accent Leshawna couldn’t quite place, speaking in different languages until discovering they understood English.

“Why are you neck up in water?” She said, almost laughing. “Did your boat sink?”

“Yes,” Liam answered. “We are the Cordonian King and Queen; we’ve been attacked and need to get to another European country to plead for their help.”

Her laughter dropped from her voice. “I’m on my way to Germany. I can take you there but I can’t help you any further.” As she spoke, she levered a lifeboat down. “Climb into that and I’ll get you up here. Try anything, I’m armed.” The stranger showed off her gun before putting it away and heaving the boat back up once the couple clambered into it.

“Thank you for helping us.”

“You’re welcome, your Majesties.” She laughed dryly, almost a scoff. “Suppose I'll hear this on the news someday, won't I?”

The King and Queen stayed silent, an arm wrapped around one another. As Liam continued looking out to the endless sea, Leshawna ignoring her wet hair, instead gazing at her husband.

“We’ll save them,” Liam insisted, squeezing her hip. “We’ll save them all. I promise”

“We’ll save who’s saveable,” Leshawna corrected, pulling his arm to her back and pressing herself against his body. “We just have to hope they pull through. And if I know our friends, I’m sure they will.”

“I’m sure they will too. But we have a lot lying ahead of us. A lot of work and preparation and fighting.”

The ex-queen grinned up at her husband, tracing his soaked chest. “You know…?”

“Mm?”

“With you, I feel like I can do anything.” 


 

~present day

Heads all collected and bodies ready to be disposed, the assembly was separated. Solomon’s guard grabbed his arm as his recruit group began to shuffle toward what Solomon assumed were their living quarters.

“Not you,” the guard said. “You need to go through the pledging routine.”

“But I already pledged.”

“The guard who brought you up confirmed he told you about this: after you pledge, Queen Isa must confirm that you are loyal to only her and you must pledge allegiance once again.”

He began to speak, a protest all ready, some rant on how ridiculous that was. But it wasn’t. It made sense.

His eyes wandered around the scene; the corpses and heads of Stacy and Victor in body bags ready to be heaved away by a truck, four people carrying the bags and tossing them into the back. Queen Isa had already left and someone had to pick up the chair. That appeared to be the duty of the misbehaving soldiers, and the chairs were being stacked up into sixes and shoved toward the truck, where the same four who had just carried corpses carried chairs into a separate truck, pushing them in.

Solomon could see his group in the near distance, Diego at the back, lingering, turning to look wistfully over his shoulder. To look to him.

“Let’s get this over and done with. Once you’ve proved your loyalty, you can settle in for a while and then your group will be summoned to be placed into their roles in the army.”

“I thought we were all just going to be soldiers.”

The guard scoffed. “There are many factors to an army, Herulata.” As the guard elaborated, they followed the truck as it slowly clunked along behind the van, the people who had moved everything into the van and truck (but not the misbehaving folks) perched on the sides of the trailer, watching them walk. “Not just the soldiers - assistants, blacksmiths, medics, chefs, that lot all serve their part. And there are certain factions that specialise in different parts, such as making sure the subjects aren’t planning on committing treason, training the soldiers, outsmarting and crushing the rebellion that’s beginning to form on the outskirts of Cordonia, the actual soldiers who fight. And then there’s Queen Isa’s little faction, they dabble in allsorts, but usually oversee everything.” The guard tapped his helmet where Solomon assumed his eye would be. “Queen’s little eye, you see. Very few are in her faction, and most of them are undercover.”

“So how do you know?”

“The Queen declares she has this faction. She has no reason to lie.”

Solomon could think of many reasons for Isa to lie, but he bit his tongue. The guard tugged him a little harder, walked a little faster before breaking into a jog, chasing down the truck that clunked and chugged and heaved until they could touch the trailer and jump onto the back. Well, rather, the guard jumped up, Solomon was pulled up.

One of the corpse draggers nodded in brief greeting.

“That’s Horatio,” the guard explained. “He’s one of the people who helps in the kitchens. None of them are really fighters, they just do the handling.” Nodding to each individual, the guard said their names. “That's Mark. That's Cole. And that's Sereena. They were hostages when Cordonia invaded America, Canada and Mexico and they've served her ever since.”

“Are they loyal?”

The guard turned to look at Solomon and lowered his voice. “If you dragged the corpses of anyone who didn't become or stay loyal to the queen, would you not be?”

Fair.

The truck and van approached the gates of the palace that opened as the driver of the van showed some card that Solomon couldn't quite see. The van was given access, but the truck had to go through the same process, the driver showing off a card. It glinted a metallic burgundy in the setting sun light and was gone in a few moments.

“Cards?”

“Only people who work with the palace get them and the colour depends on what tier you are. Burgundy is pretty low. Both the van and the truck are burgundy tiers.”

“What’s the highest tier?”

“Light blue. Gold is second best tier.”

Solomon was about to ask about the rest of the tiers when the van and truck groaned to a halt. The guard hopped off, and so did Solomon. “We stop here.” As the van and truck separated, he pointed to the truck. “They go through the castle gates, collect some stuff and then dispose of the bodies. Only they know what they collect. No one asks.”

“Why, aren’t you allowed to?”

“No one wants to. Anyway, the van drops off the chairs in the main hall and then goes back to the city. We’re going to the throne room.” They took the same journey Solomon remembered taking a month ago, or at least the journey his feet remember taking. He only recognised some things: the bridge, for example, it still scared him almost, but at least it’s not the most terrifying thing anymore.

No, he was quite sure that role either belongs to his queen or what he’s just seen.

He can still see Stacy and Victor’s last few moments. The fear. The rage. The death.

Shaking off the memory, he walked over the bridge, cringing at each creak.

“It’s safe, Herulata. And if it wasn’t, it would be fixed.”

“What if it breaks now?”

“It won’t. Trust me. Now stop fretting about the bridge and get of it, hm?” The guard, already on the other side, offered a hand to the new pledge, who takes it and quickly hops on over; he could have stepped a couple more times but (if he’s to be honest) he preferred to be off the bridge quickly - and hopping is just that more fun.

“Wasn’t so hard, huh?”

They made their way through the journey; the throne room wasn't too far yet every footstep felt heavy and seemed to take hours, each step like a mile.

“What's your name?” He blurted it out. “You know mine-”

“Because you're a new soldier. An interesting one at that. It's my job to know.”

“I'm… interesting?”

“The Queen recognised your name and told us to keep an eye on you. Told me to keep an eye on you. Was heartbroken when she heard that you were going to be executed. And here you are.”

“How does she know me?”

“I don't know everything, Herulata. And don't expect special treatment from whatever faction you're put in.”

Solomon blinked and stammered, “I-I won't.”

“Hmph.” The guard approached the door to the throne room and pushed it open. Once he'd gone through, he held it open for Solomon as he slipped inside.

There she sat, the queen, his queen, like she had before when he first saw her.

“So,” she said, adjusting herself to get a better view of the pledge and leaning forward. “Solomon Herulata is the last pledge.” She smiled, and in no way was it villainous or cruel, but quite the opposite. Kind and welcoming. He wasn't sure what he disliked more. “You gave u- me quite a fright there. I was very excited to see you as a soldier.”

“Is she like this with all her pledges?”

“I said she was happy to see you on the list of recruits. Most of the time she doesn't care so take a wild fucking guess.”

“Jake, stand down.”

“Jake? That's your name?”

“Shut up, Herulata.” With another glance from his queen, the guard - Jake, rather - stepped away and bit his tongue.

“You were always very interesting to me. I’ve heard of you, your mere name sparking intrigue. I should have expected you to pledge in a… better way than your fellow recruits. Sean Gayle pledged just to get your wrist fixed. You got Jake to talk to you. You surprised everyone with your pledge. You clearly have some power already.”

Solomon felt his cheeks flush “Already?”

She coughed. “Pledge. Prove your loyalty.”

Solomon looked around, and saw Jake mimicking kneeling as he clutched his hands together, right thumb in the gap between the left thumb and index finger. Copying that hand position, Solomon dropped to his knees.

“Repeat after me. I, Solomon Herulata.”

“I, Solomon Herulata.”

“Recruit number D#15738.”

“Recruit number D#15738.”

“Pledge my service, loyalty and life to Cordonia.”

“... Pledge my service, loyalty and life to Cordonia…”

“And to its queen.”

“And to its queen.”

“I promise to represent the faction I am assigned to.”

“I promise to represent the faction I am assigned to.”

“And to respect those in higher and lower tiers than I.”

“And to respect those in higher and lower tiers than I.”

“I finally swear to carry out my duties with grace and speed.”

“I finally swear to carry out my duties with grace and speed.”

“And to support Queen Isa whenever necessary.”

“And to support Queen Isa whenever necessary.”

Isa beckoned for him to stand. “Jake, take him to his group's dorms and show him around the place. Then leave him to settle in with his group. In a few days time, you will be assigned to your factions and tiers.”

How fun.


Surprisingly, the dorms that Solomon and his group and supposedly other groups were far away from the palace, near the city more than anything. They appreciated the vibe of city, it appeared, blending in quite comfortably, like a block of flats. At least they didn't have to walk all the way, because nearby to the palace was a bus stop. A taxi place as well but it didn't matter - when Jake flashed his purple card, it appeared he and anyone with him got free access.

The taxi driver, Solomon noticed, had a burgundy card in his dashboard.

“What do the burgundy cards represent?”

“Transportation. This means of supplies, people, anything. He doesn't have a cerulean or beige card so that means he doesn't own the business.”

“What's the difference?”

“Size. Beige is a larger business. Cerulean is a smaller business.”

“What about the purple cards?”

Jake looked at him with a certain glare that said something like ‘stop asking me questions, I'm busy, if you don't I will actually go livid’.

Solomon didn't ask more questions. He instead settled into the bus, which, inside, was a dark purple with purple plastic chairs with colouring seats. Everything looked a little grubby but it was a bus. Buses were always grubby. He'd probably be more freaked out if it wasn't grubby.

The bus didn’t heave to a stop once, despite passing many bus stops with people waiting. Perhaps it was because of him.

The one time it did was when it finally finished the journey; Solomon craned his neck back to take the height of the flats in all its glory and, while most of the windows were drawn, he could see someone peering in through the top window, faintly.

“You and your group will only be here a few days longer at most, so don’t bother settling in. When you’re at your official Cordonian home, you’ll be allowed to request possessions to be taken from your home and transported here.”

“Is that why so many break-ins happen after people are taken? And why people are discouraged from selling things?”

“If they sell things, we have to go on a hunt to find it. It makes the whole thing very messy.”

“Ah. Understandable.” Not really.

“For now, you’re on the top level. Each dorm has six en-suite rooms with a desk and single bed and each dorm has a kitchen-living room. Doesn’t matter who you stay with, you’re going to be in a twenty bedroomed house soon.” Jake waved his hands around as he explained, showing his card to the person at the reception, who mockingly waved his pink card back, and leading Solomon to the elevator. “You must be excited to see your friends again. Or friend, at least.”

“Mm.”

“No questions, Herulata?”

“I don’t know. I just keep thinking abou-”

“Green and Brawid? The two that didn’t pledge?”

“Yeah. Them. I keep seeing their faces. It plays over and over again and it doesn’t stop and I see it when I blink and I just told their murderer I’d obey her and during that little pledge thingy all I could hear was their yelling and I couldn’t see anything but the guillotine blade an-”

“It plays like a broken record, hm?”

“... Kinda…”

“It’s a shame, really. And that’s not just from an officer’s standpoint. The girl was young and the guy was smart. But they’re gone. You’re going to see more deaths like that. Maybe not of new groups, but there are always the people who think they can rise up and save the world. Isa always gets them though. I watch them plot and I watch them die.”

“You think the world needs saving?”

“... Doesn’t it always?”

The elevator slowed to a halt and the doors opened. Jake led Solomon down a corridor toward a few doors. “Here you ar-”

One of the doors flew open and Diego stumbled out, hair tousled, half of his facial hair still on his face and shaving cream smeared clumsily over it, and threw himself onto his friend. “SOLOMON!” He cried out, slamming into the taller man and sending both of them onto the floor. “It’s you!”

“Yes, Diego, you saw me earlier. You knew I was alive.”

“I could hardly believe it, to be fair! It’s not everyday your friend nearly dies!”

“Before we have a touching moment,” Jake interrupted, “Can you at least get off the floor?”

“Right, right of course. I’m sorry, sir.” Diego picked himself up, pulling Solomon too. “We have a spare room in my dorm. Aleister, Grace, Craig and Sean are in the other rooms, everyone else are in those two dorms.” Diego gestured briefly to the other dorms. “When I saw you by the bus, I tried to shave but then I heard the elevator and realised I didn't have time to get you in my dorm if I continued shaving.”

Solomon turned back to wave Jake goodbye. Jake had already left.

Diego unlocked the dorm door and ushered his friend inside. “Through that door is the kitchen living room thing. The last dorm free is the one at the end, so I hope you're okay with that.”

“I can’t argue with that. Jake says we’ll be put into factions in a few days.”

Diego nodded and then squinted. “Jake? Who’s Jake?”

“The soldier guy who led me up here.”

“You learnt his first name? The guard who took me here didn’t even tell me his faction name!”

“The queen kinda told me.”

“Damn.”

“Grace where did you put the mustard? I can’t seem to find it.” Sean’s voice got louder as he left the kitchen. He was wearing one of the outfit the prisoners had been given, a polo shirt under a blue zip up hoodie with business casual trousers and black trainers with grey laces. They must have been giving the pledges the same outfits. “I could have swore…” He trailed off as he and Solomon met eye, his own eyes widening. “Hey Solomon. How’s your wrist?”

“You didn’t have to pledge just so I’d get it sorted out, you know?”

He averted his gaze and sighed. “It brought back a memory and I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone having an injury untreated.”

“Oh. Well, uh, it’s doing better. Hurts a bit but I think it’s okay.”

“Hm…” Sean continued to look at the floor before wrapping his arms around Solomon in a tight grasp and whispering, “I’m glad you’re not dead.”

“M-Me too…” Solomon wrapped his arms around Sean and held onto him, head on his shoulder.

“Sorry, Sean, I had the mustard. I was testing somethi-” Craig, who had wandered out of his room holding several large jars of miscellaneous condiments, paused as the scene unfolded before him. “Oh. Hey Solomon.” He was wearing a hoodie with jeans and blue shoes.

“Hey Craig. Why do you have so many sauces?”

He shrugged. “Experiment. Sean still want the mustard? I'm done with it now.”

Sean pulled away from Solomon to take the mustard from Craig's pile. “Yeah, I still need it. I don't want to know what you were doing with it.”

“I don't think anyone does.”

“It's not quite ready anyway so it doesn't matter. You know where the mayo is?”

“No.”

“I'll ask Mayo Boy.”

“For the last time I am not Mayo Boy.” Mr Mayo Boy, who turned out to be Aleister, emerged from his room, or, rather, opened the door and hovered in its frame. Unlike everyone else in the dorm he was wearing the clothes he'd came in, adorned in white and blues, arms crossed and a characteristic scowl on his face. “We ran out of mayo anyway.”

“Damn it. I need it for my experiment. What am I going to do now?”

“Improvise. Or better yet, throw it out!” And as soon as he'd came, he'd slammed the door.

“Charming,” Solomon muttered.

“He's just annoyed at Craig. Ever since he pledged, they've butted heads.”

“Not my fault,” Andy grumbled before returning to his room.

“Anyway, I'm going to go use the mustard. Diego, you're going to tell him what he's missed, right?”

“Yeah, sure. C’mon buddy, let's go to my room.”

The rooms were cramped but Diego at least made use of the space, or lack of thereof, piling the clothes he'd been given by the guards on his desk and putting the towels on the shelf part of the desk, letting them hang down. His bed was taller than him, though that had never been difficult, and felt like it was rock hard when Solomon pushed his hand on it. Once he sat, however, it was a different story, the bed sinking comfortably under his weight yet still remaining tough under him.

“I call it an oobleck bed,” Diego said, sitting beside his friend.

“I can see why.”

“So, apparently there are these card things. When I was taken to Isa to pledge properly, the person taking me held up a teal card that told the guy who was by the throne room he had access to the room.”

“Teal? Jake held up a purple card.”

“Yeah, well they mean different things. I have a little list here, apparently the cities are full of keys that tell you what each colour means. Some cards don’t have anything to do with the army. Like the bus that took me here, the driver had a burgundy card despite not being connected to the palace.”

“Do you know what each card means at the moment?”

“Only gold, silver, brown, teal and white. Gold means captain of a faction, silver means second in command, people with brown cards are bodyguards, soldiers have teal cards and white cards are for medics. That’s all I know.” Diego flaunted the little list he had. “The Vaanti are going to be their own faction according to Isa. Told me when I pledged. I doubt Varyyn will lead them though, she probably doesn’t want to risk an uprising.”

“Who do you think is going to lead them?”

“I don’t know but I hope they’re nice. They’ve been through enough.” Diego sunk down into the bed as he flopped back and gazed wistfully at his ceiling. “It feels like I’ve been here forever.”

“Bad dreams tend to feel like that.” Solomon lay down beside him, stretching out his arms, one dangling off the side of the bed and the other above Diego’s head.

“At least those aren't real. This just feels unreal... A month ago we were at Hartfeld in America and now we’re in dorms in an entirely new country…” He rolled onto his side, tucked his hands under his cheek and gazed up at Solomon. “Do you miss your family?”

That was a good question.

“I do. Even though… yknow.” He knew. “I can’t stop thinking about that day. We go into Hartfeld and we’re all carted into one huge room and the raffle and I heard my name and I saw the Cordonian guards walking through to grab me an-”

“Breathe, Diego, breathe.”

“Right, right, sorry.” Diego closed his eyes and inhaled… then exhaled… inhaled… exhaled… “But they continued to pull out tickets and soon… I heard your name. And it’s bad but I was glad.”

“Glad?” Solomon chuckled, uneasily, and raised an eyebrow.

“Glad that no matter what… I’d have you.” He scooted closer to his taller friend. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t pledged. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Died?” Solomon joked, his chuckles more at ease.

Diego snorted. “Probably.” Despite his laugh, he felt too serious for Solomon’s liking.

“Hey, I think you’d last a good while without me.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah. You’re not incapable, Di...”

“Oh my God, that nickname… Don’t make me remember that.” Diego covered his face with his hands.

Solomon squinted cheerfully at him. “But seriously, Diego, you’re not… useless.”

He snorted.

“You’re not! You’re just… not very independent.” Solomon edged closer until their feet were touching and began to fiddle with Diego’s hair, ringing it around his fingers. “What happens if I do die? What will you do?”

“Avenge you. Join you. Cry.”

“No… you’ll carry on. Maybe avenge me.”

“Promise you’ll never leave me. Like, of course, you’ll have to be away from me if we get assigned different duties, but promise you’ll always come back and talk to me about your day and laugh with me and just…” Diego moved his hand to touch Solomon’s. “Just… be with me. Even if we don’t talk. Just… be there for me.”

Solomon smiled. “I’d never dream of leaving.” 


 

Duties were given out in the same week, four days later.

It was Tuesday.

February, definitely. They were taken at the beginning of the leap year, as always, so it’d been January. Not the first day, a few days later.

Didn’t help with the date. Probably near Valentine’s Day. Didn’t matter though.

The days were filled with worry and fear and Craig and Aleister’s daily bickering, but Solomon and Diego always talked at the end of each day to chat, perhaps to laugh or chat or even eat the ice cream they’d found in the freezer which they would later discover was Sean’s, but he’d never know who ate it.

Jake didn’t return; it was other guards that came to collect the group. Cameron was there, and they seemed happy to chat with Jocelyn, who’d all but forgiven them for the torture that had her pledge allegiance and was happy to chat back. Everyone sat with people they’d known prior and talked to their selective groups, maybe about what they thought about the situation or about their old lives or about their old dreams.

Lukas sat alone. Lukas stayed silent.

“Craig, get your legs off of me or so help me,” Zahra hissed in the seats in front of Diego of Solomon.

“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Jamie mumbled to Ava in seats opposite them.

“I miss them, Kaitlyn. I miss Chris and Zig and James and Grant an-” Zack continued to list people a couple rows behind them.

“You pledged for me…? What on Earth were you thinking, Wes? You’re such an idiot sometimes,” Autumn loudly whispered from all the way in the back.

“God we’re so lonely,” Diego said to Solomon, nudging him in the side. “Everyone’s got something to talk about and all we have is the guilt about eating Sean’s ice cream.”

“Excuse me, you what?” Sean said from behind them.

“Oops.”

“... It's fine. I can buy more. Plus, since we're all moving into our group house today, it would have melted anyway when I got all the food.”

“Did you get my CondiCombo?” Craig piped up.

“No, I threw it in the food waste bin.”

“Whaaaaat?”

“Where it belongs.” Aleister rolled his eyes.

Diego shrunk down as conversation struck up again, though this time it was less casual, and pulled a face at Solomon. “Yikes.”

“We’re coming up to the palace,” one of the guards said. “Don’t bother getting your shit from the top deck, you’ll get it when we go to the houses. You'll be escorted into a room near the throne room, a lounge area, and told to wait. In some order, one by one, you will be summoned, and when you are summoned, you will be escorted into the throne room. The captains of the factions, one of whom we have with us, will be with Queen Isa and they will have decided your role. Depending on your role, you will be given a certain coloured card, perhaps with a sigil on it. You may share your role with the others unless told otherwise. Perhaps, in that case, make something up.” The escorters chuckled. The escorted didn't.

“Is it weird to be frightened?” Grace's voice was hesitant.

“Not at all. I think I am too.”

“You think?”

Aleister bit his lip and turned away, saying nothing more, to Grace's chagrin.

The bus whined as the driver pulled to a stop, and the guard who spoke before said, “We're here.”

Two by two, from front to back, they were filtered off the bus and lined up in alphabetical order, of their forenames.

Sean nodded to Solomon and Michael; like Wes to Solomon, Michael rebuffed the greeting.

Marched into a room nearby the throne room, they were given the following speech:

“So, you're here. You've pledged and roomed with your group and seen what happens to those that don't. For however long you've been a pledge, whether you never stepped foot inside the prison-”

Eyes fluttered toward Aleister, Craig and Zahra.

“-or whether you made up your mind on the chopping block-”

Solomon felt the eyes burning into his face.

“-you have wondered what happens next. Perhaps some have assumed you’ll all be soldiers, or at least you assumed you’d be until someone told you otherwise. Today, you will be assigned roles, as I explained before. Due to Isa’s request, you will be summoned alphabetically by forename, but backwards, starting at Z and ending at A.

“Each summoning will be followed by roughly ten minutes of discussion between the captains of the factions, Her Majesty Queen Isa herself and you, as your input is very important to her, especially during role giving. Roles can be changed but it’s a lengthy process that disrupts duties and the army as a whole, so we might as well get it right first try, eh?”

The guard smiled, teeth appearing almost artificial., and it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He clapped his hands together as the smile dropped from his face, which became grim.

“Certain roles cannot be changed or traded, or you have to build your way up to get to the next role. You will be told if you have one of these roles. Some roles have already been decided for certain people-”

His eyes didn’t just gaze upon Solomon, but Aleister, Grace, Diego and Jocelyn as well. The five of them gulped. “-and these are non-negotiable. Your ten minutes will be to decide the role of anyone whose role is undecided and to go over duties. You will then be given your role card and what benefits you will earn from it, as well as a routine and weekly schedule for your role. Duties start on Wednesday.”

The guard paused before turning to Zahra. “Zahra, you’re first.”

Everything rushed to a stop as she calmly stood and let one of the guards guide her, and everyone else was allowed to disperse from their line and settle down.

Solomon glanced around the area as he looked for somewhere to settle and chat with Diego. A few two seater sofas had been available but Kaitlyn and Zack had already taken the vibrant orange one, Grace and Aleister were about to sit down on the calmer blue one, Lukas was lying down on the greyish purple sofa and Andy had laid down on Ava and Jamie who in turn sat on the lime green sofa. There were some bean bags, white, black and grey, but there was only black one left since Aiden, Michael, Autumn, Wes and Jocelyn had taken the others, and Solomon didn’t dare test its limits. Craig had taken the rocking chair and Sean sat on its arm.

“We can just sit on the floor, Solomon, we don’t need chairs.” Diego plopped down and patted the ground beside him. “Plus, you won’t have to wait too long.”

Conversations clouded Solomon’s mind. Kaitlyn and Zack were discussing the city, and both wanted to explore the area. Strange, that a month after their kidnapping, they’d focus less on their situation, their abandoned friends and family and the future but on… shopping? Wild.

Jamie, Ava and Andy seemed to be grieving. Jocelyn was silent, probably grieving as well. If she knew Ava and Ava knew Stacy, it was likely they knew each other too.

Solomon ignored them. If he thought about her for too long, he knew he’d get sucked into the memory.

Lukas was alone, but he’d gotten a notebook from somewhere and was jotting stuff down in it. The picture of loneliness. He half considered leaving to talk to him, but Diego was his best friend.

“Solomon?”

“Hm? Sorry, I was just-”

“Listening. You always listen to other people’s conversations, it’s just what you do.” Diego chuckled to himself. “Is it because I’m not interesting?”

Solomon shook his head. “Sorry, it’s just… I don’t know but it’s like I have a habit. Cause I’m weird.”

“Quirky, more like.”

Solomon grinned but lowered his head as he shook his head. “What do you think you’re going to get?”

Diego regarded him with a raised eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be an assistant. Probably not even to Isa, to someone else. I’m not exactly the poster boy for a soldier, huh?”

“Maybe you’ll be put in a programme to buff you up.” Solomon mimicked muscles as Diego laughed.

“They’d probably get sick and tired of me.”

“Maybe you’ll be something that doesn’t require muscles. Maybe a sniper or something.”

“Doubt it. I don’t think they’d willingly put me on offense.” Diego frowned before quickly smiling gently. “I think that’s a good idea. But what about you? What do you think you’ll be?”

Before Solomon could answer, Zahra returned, and in her hands was a sigil-less lime green card, like the lime green sofa, with a slight smile. “I’m a tech manager.”

As she slumped down onto the free bean bag next to Jocelyn, Zack was summoned.

“Solomon? You didn’t answer my question. What do you think you’re going to be?”

He pursed his lips. Maybe it was just him but Isa seemed to take an interest in him. Something said that she’d want him close, for whatever reason. Diego would probably think he was insane if he said that though, so he shrugged. “I don’t know. Medic. Something behind the scenes.”

“I can’t see you out on the battlefield, fighting for queen and country. You're too nice for that.”

“Thanks.”

Zack came out quicker than Zara had, clutching an amethyst card that, like Zahra’s, had no sigil. As he darted over to Kaitlyn, Wes was led away.

Solomon was sure to be next.

“What do you think the house will be like?” Diego changed the subject quickly. “It has to fit all of us. Do you think we’ll have to share rooms or do you think we’ll have a room each? Cause that’d be a pretty big house.”

“To be fair,” Solomon said, “She is the queen. She could probably reserve some large houses, or even a large area for houses. Like the block of flats. I think they’ll be fairly big.”

“I bet we’ll be living in mansions. Do you think we’ll be sharing with other groups?”

“Doubt it. But maybe we will be. Isa might want us to do-” Solomon grimaced at the mere thought, voice dropping with his disgust. “Team building activities.”

Diego gagged through strained laughter. “Our greatest fear!”

“How would we survive?!”

“We'd be dead by dusk!”

“Remember us as we were, not as we are!”

“Bury us next to each other so even in death we'll never be apart!”

“No, that's not enough. Bury us together!”

“Dual coffin!”

A couple stray eyes glanced at them; Aleister turned his nose up, Lukas chuckled and genuinely smiled as he jotted something down in his notebook, Ava, Jocelyn, Zahra and Michael rolled their eyes, nearly in unison too, and Sean and Craig watched from afar.

“I think we're being a bit loud, Sol.” Diego patted Solomon's knee. “We should calm down.”

“All right, all right.” Solomon put his fingers to his lips and held his breath with a smirk that reached his sly eyes, waiting for people to go back to their conversations. They did, whispering to each other.

Before he could even open his mouth again, Wes returned, clutching a teal card. Soldier.

Solomon didn’t have to wait to be summoned before he stood.

“I’ll be back soon, Diego.” He put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and quipped, “Try make some friends.”

He was led through the corridors and stopped at large double doors that would tower over even Aleister. They were a goldish-bronze hue with light blue decals that appeared to zigzag across the door in thin stripes, like a lightning candy cane. Despite being push doors, it took two guards to open it. Obviously for show.

While they were near the throne room, this clearly wasn’t that, as no throne was in sight, instead chairs like the one at the execution, fold up wooden chairs with arms, all filled with armoured guards, wearing their helmets, who had their arms rested on the chairs’ arms either side of them to show off the sigils on their chest. Some of the sigils seemed to have a theme of insects, some of them being different themes. Cameron was amongst them - the sigil of the moth on the shield was on one of the chests, and they’d greeted the bus driver with their gold card with the same sigil on it - but wore their helmet.

The chairs were positioned to create two incomplete semi-circles, with no separating lines, just two gaps, one by the door where Solomon presumed he had to stand, and where Isa had moved a bigger, wooden throne-like chair with no arms and a seat and back larger than her. Her feet only just touched the ground.

“Solomon Herulata, Recruit #D15738. Seventeenth pledge, highlighted recruit. D group of Hartfeld, America,” the guard who had made the speeches said, stood to attention behind Solomon.

“Thank you, Dave. You’re dismissed. Wait outside.” Isa ushered him away with a disregarding flick of the wrist. Once he’d left, she turned her head to Solomon. “Are you enjoying your time here?”

“... no.”

“You will, in time.”

“Maybe when I’ve forgotten my old life.” The closest captains stood and pointed their guns at him until Isa waved her hand.

She grinned slyly. “Maybe indeed.” She crossed her legs and scowled. “This won’t take long, Solomon, I promise. You’re one of the people who already has a decided role so I just have to print out your ID onto an appropriate card, explain your duties, your tier, give you your schedule, all that boring shit.”

Even though he doubted he’d be a soldier, he found himself glancing at the captains, their sigils and their gold cards balanced in their laps. In the corner of his eyes, Isa stood and began to approach him, sorting through a satchel, and he directed his attention to her.

“You’re very interesting, Solomon. I can’t tell why but I don’t want to risk you being busy, injured or dead whenever I require your presence.”

Her fingers flicked past aquamarine, lime green, green, amethyst and grey cards as she spoke.

“I want you to be working close to me, so I can keep an eye on your progress.”

Navy blue, orange, teal, white, black, all colour cards she ignored.

“If I send you out into the field, who knows if you’ll return alive, at least?”

She ignored cards of purple, brown, bronze and silver before pausing at the gold and light blue cards, turning her gaze to him.

“Of course, I would have to send you out in the city sometimes, to watch over your peers…”

Her hand skipped over the gold cards.

“But I’ll be able to have an excuse to command you directly.”

She plucked a light blue card from the bag and held it between her fingers to him.

“Welcome to my faction, Solomon.”

He later left the room, clutching a marked light blue card. He was the highest tier. He was above the faction captains. He was a direct link to Isa.

“Holy fucking shit.”

No one could know. That was an order. He’d have to say something like a certain kind of soldier or some sort of employee in the castle. The light blue card quivered as Dave, the guard, walked him down to the lounge area. Dave saying ‘Sean Gayle’ was barely audible over the rushing blood pounding in his ears.

Diego rushed over to him and pulled him toward one of the now free sofas, the purple one. “What did you get? Are you a medic? A chef?” He grabbed the card and began to pull it out of Solomon’s hand.

“Fuck off Diego!” He didn’t mean to snap. He didn’t mean to swear at him either but he couldn't even tell Diego what role he'd been given. If that meant not showing him the card, then he wouldn't let even him see it.

It was too late now anyway. The damage had been done and Diego’s formerly excited face fell.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Isa just… she pissed me off. I'll tell you later when I don't feel so angry.”

“Mm. Okay.” Diego didn't believe it, and he couldn't lie his way out of this.

The silence between them was deadly.

After what felt like hours, Diego was summoned and so, Solomon sat in a guilty silence, wallowing to himself and shifting his position on the sofa into a resting one. He tossed and turned trying to get comfy, even though he couldn't sleep.

Every time he closed his eyes, he'd feel something that made them open without his control.

Victor screaming. Stacy crying. Diego’s hurt. Jocelyn and Jamie's torture. The body bags. The way the guillotine fell during the yelling. The noise and then the silence. Isa. How she looked at him. Hungry and tempted but patient and waiting. Like it was a game of cat and mouse and she had him at the tail but had no intention of eating him, not quite yet. Killing mice was hard work for cats, and she'd prefer he did the hard work for her.

Same old, same old. He couldn't remember the last time he slept. Probably before he was taken from Cordonia but he couldn't even remember before.

Diego returned like he had. Shaking and lost in thought. As he began to get up, Diego approached him and sat down as he moved his legs.

“Diego?”

“Don't, Solomon,” he whispered.

In his hands, he held a gold card.