Ascension

**Winner of Replica writing Comp** In the city of Eto, the life of a noble is worth the live of ten commoners. In order to keep the world balanced, each time a noble comes of age at the age of 16, they select 10 commoners to kill.

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9. Lin- 3

 

I stumbled through the door into my house, my legs weak from running so far. I was confused and disoriented by everything that had happened today, and I just needed some time to get away and think. All I had to do was make it across the small room before-

“Lin? Is that you?”

Too late. I sighed, quickly dropping my head in case she caught a glimpse of my eyes. “Yes mother. It’s me.”

“I thought so. Come here, let me look at you.”

I turned towards the small table that sat in the room that served as our kitchen. We had two small rooms on the first level of the building that were our kitchen and living room. Above were the sleeping spaces, where we slept on mats most nights. My mother had been sitting with her back to me, on a wooden chair. How she knew it was me, I had no idea. It seemed to be a sixth sense that all mothers had.

She stood and met me halfway, looking me over with a critical expression. I kept my eyes on the ground. What if she noticed? What would she do to me if she saw my eyes?

“You are a disappointment,” she began, as she always did. “Leaving your poor mother alone all day… stealing from nobles… it’s a wonder they haven’t executed you yet. You’re just like that cursed brother of yours. He had an unlawful streak in him too. You must have gotten it from your father- ungrateful bastard that he was.” She shook her head. “Truly, I don’t know what to do with you, Lin. Any proper commoner would have turned you over to the aspects years ago. But though my soft heart, I kept you, nurtured you let you become such a disaster.”

I knew the real reason she’d never turned me over. I was a thief, yes, but I was good at what I did. I brought back a steady source of income. Steadier, even, that what my sisters made slaving all day under the nobles. That was the real reason I hadn’t been turned in years ago.

I could feel my face heating, as it always did when she mentioned my brother. It was just a painful reminder of what would happen to me if I was caught. What had nearly happened to me today, with that drunken noble in the tavern.

“Yes mother,” I said obediently. That was the only way to end her stream of vicious words. Agree, and move on quickly.

“You could have stayed honest,” she continued. “But no, you never could keep your nose out of trouble. And look at you now. Running on the borders of lawlessness. They’ll catch you and kill you one day, you know. And then what will we do?”

Rely on my other two sisters, no doubt. And what funds my brothers can send from the war. I didn’t speak these words aloud. I wasn’t supposed to respond to my mother’s anger.

She cocked her head, studying me. “Well, let’s see the spoils. Have you done your work, then?”

I reached into the pocket of the jacket Raphael had given me. To my surprise, I recognized it as my own. When had he recovered it? And in one of the pockets was a small bag. Hardly believing my good fortune, I pulled it out, dumping it into my palm.

Gold coins cascaded into my hand. Along with it were a few copper coins I had made, and the small personal items I had kept as well. A smile crossed my face, and I silently thanked Raphael. Why had he shown me so much favor? I suspected a trap, but right now I didn’t care.

“You stole these, didn’t you?” my mother said softly.

“What? No,” I said quickly. “A noble paid me extra for the messages, and-”

“You’re lying,” she said quietly. “You’re an ungrateful little girl, stealing what you can’t earn honestly. You’ll bring the aspects down on us!”

I should have been prepared for this. I felt nothing but frustrated resignation as she brought her hand whipping across my face in a sharp slap. The burst of pain at least helped clear my mind, though I could feel anger rising inside of me at the harsh treatment. It always went this way. I would return, show my mother what I had taken, and then be punished for it. She hated my stealing with a burning passion, but she didn’t hate it enough to forbid me from doing it. In a way, she depended on it. So I took the beatings and said nothing.

But today, as luck would have it, she hit one of the spots with an already forming bruise. I let out a soft cry of pain, and she studied me with renewed interest.
    “They caught you, didn’t they,” she said, her voice losing some of its harshness. “Poor, stupid girl. You’re lucky they let you live.”

They almost didn’t.

“Serena!” she called. “Lin’s back!”

As luck would have it, my oldest sister was here today. That was good. She was the only one who actually approved of what I did- even though I only did it to keep our family from falling hopelessly deep into debt.

She came running, her blond hair flying behind her. Like me, she wore the light blue dress of a commoner servant. She already had the small satchel that served as our medical kit in her hands. She took one look at me, and pointed at one of the benches around our low table. I sat without a word, as she rummaged through the kit. She found what she was looking for- a pale yellow cream that would ease the pain of the bruises. Taking a knife from our counter, she cut the back of my dress open. It had been damaged from the beating anyways- she would repair it later.

“I take it they found the pocket,” she said softly.

“Dumb luck,” I muttered back, wincing as her hands brushed over all the bruises that were forming. “It was hidden really well. It wasn’t you.”

“I should have made it harder to open.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Still.” She let out a soft sigh. “They beat you pretty badly.”

“The noble was drunk,” I replied, wincing. “Ow, that hurts!”

“Hold still, you big baby.” I could hear the slight smile in her voice. “Now turn around and let me see if your face has been damaged too badly.”

Oh no.

I turned, but kept my head down. If she noticed…

She put a stubborn finger on the bottom of my chin, turning my face up towards hers. Her hands brushed lightly against my cheek, feeling the cut there with incredible tenderness. “Did mother-”

“This was from the beating too,” I promised. “Mother wouldn’t hit me that hard.” That was a lie, and I knew it. I had seen her hit much harder. When she’d grown angry at my eldest brother especially. And then the night where she’d thrown him out of our house…

I shook my head to clear it, and was surprised to find that I was blinking back tears, the day’s stress catching up with me.

“Don’t cry, Lin,” Serena murmured comfortingly. “You’ll be okay. It’s okay. You’re going to heal. You’ll be fine. You won’t end up like him.” Serena always seemed to know what I was thinking. But even she couldn’t understand the full extent of the stress I was under today. I blinked harder, trying to wash the tears from my eyes. Then Serena went silent, and I knew what she saw.

“Upstairs. Now,” she said quietly.

I obeyed as she all but dragged me to the ladder that led up to our second floor. Once we were safely out of earshot of anybody, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Explain.”

“Some… things happened,” I admitted softly. “I entered the hall of elements.”

There was a soft gasp from Serena, and her eyes widened. “They would have killed you.”

“I had some help.” I reached into my pocket, and pulled out my little sister’s hair clip, handing it to Serena without another word.

She took it, holding it close to her chest. She didn’t speak another word.

I found my heart racing. I had to tell her. I needed someone who’d understand, someone other than that infuriating noble. Someone from my own family. Serena wouldn’t tell mother. I trusted her. And I couldn’t keep this in me.

“I don’t know what happened. Raphael told me I’d been claimed but that can’t be-”

“Raphael?” she cut me off. “Who’s Raphael?”

I let out a soft prayer of thanks that her first guess hadn’t been the youngest crown prince. Of course it wouldn’t be. She’d assume that if he’d found me, he’d kill me. But she hadn’t met Raphael. Heard him apologize to me. Call me… lucky. She hadn’t seen the warm light in those soft red eyes of his.

“One of the palace servants,” I lied. “He got me out of there.”

“This palace servant claims to know quite a bit about choosings,” she remarked. “You’d better hope he’s the sort that won’t turn you over to the nobles for extra coin.”

I thought of the way he’d spoken about the nobles. The contempt that had filled his voice. “No. He won’t.”

She let out a soft breath of relief. “Thank the spirits. Let’s hope your judgement of character is accurate.” She paused, and took a deep breath. “Now we need to figure out how to fix those eyes of yours. You can’t go around all day with white eyes. Someone’s going to notice. You’re lucky mother didn’t. If this Raphael is right, and that was caused by a claiming, we might not be able to fix it…” she sighed. “I’ll buy you some colored eye drops tomorrow.”

“Those exist?” I asked, surprised.

She nodded. “The nobles don’t know about them, but commoners use them to color their eyes. Usually it’s to avoid being chosen. Or if a commoner is born with two different eye colors, they use them to mask them.”

I nodded. A child with two different eyes would be chosen for ascension as soon as they were old enough. They were like good luck charms to the nobles. I never knew why, and thought it was stupid, but that was that. I nodded, and let a soft smile cross my face. “Thank you, Serena.”

She nodded, gently running her finger along the length of the cut. “Don’t worry, little Lin. You’ll run again. These cuts won’t last forever.”

“He told me once that the shadows of cuts always stay,” I murmured. “The bruises vanish, and leave shadows behind. Those shadows are what destroy a person. They destroyed him, didn’t they?” I looked up at Serena.

Her face clouded over with a gentle sadness. She didn’t have to ask to know who I was talking about. “He was a dreamer, Lin,” she replied. “I don’t want to see you become like him. He thought he could change things, but we know he was wrong. He tried too hard. I don’t want that to happen to you, Lin. I don’t want to lose another sibling.”

I nodded slowly. “I won’t,” I found myself promising.

She smiled. “Good girl. You’ve had a hard day. Get some rest, and I’ll wake you when it’s time for dinner.”

I nodded. Curling up on my mat on the floor, the last thing I felt was Serena tucking a blanket around me. Then I closed my eyes, and let sleep take me.

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