Authors: William Bernhardt
Daman rose early the next morning to help his father prepare
his booth. The Spring Festival was the village’s sole annual holiday and they wanted to be ready for it. Everyone in Merrindale congregated near the North Gate—the millers and bakers, the blacksmiths and wheelwrights, the parents and their children and, of course, the ever-present Black Sentry. All villages were assigned specialized duties, and Merrindale principally focused on food production, not only for itself but for several other villages. As a result, food figured prominently in the Festival. Market Square abounded with aromas and odors, all mouth-wateringly appealing—and for a poor baker’s son, torturously unobtainable.
s father and the other merchants set up carts or booths to display their wares. His father had black bread and spice cakes and a few simple pastries. The Sentinel frowned on frivolity in all matters, including food, but his father still managed to have a few treats for the village’s children. Toddlers pressed against the booth, pointing, salivating. Even if they were not tall enough to see what was on display, their noses gave them a complete description. Many a parent eventually parted with one of his hard-won coins so his child could have something special for Festival Day.
On one occasion, about mid-morning,
he watched a small boy whose parents could not afford treats depart looking dejected and disappointed. His father quietly crept behind the child and placed a small tart in his tiny hands. The elated expression transformed the boy’s face.
“That is no way to
run a business, husband,” his mother said later.
His father smiled, then squeezed her
hand. No matter what his mother said, his father would never change.
he first heard the rumor. Two children, much younger than he, standing some distance from his father’s booth, exchanged some astonishing news.
Is it true?” the small girl gasped, her eyes wide and incredulous.
“It must b
e,” the boy replied. “Papa said the Magistrate told him.”
is heart raced. The Acolyte. The chief representative of the Sentinel in this district. The Acolyte had not appeared in Merrindale since before he was born.
At the close of ev
ery Festival, the villagers gathered in the Arena for the Celebration of the Sentinel. But a Celebration presided over by the Acolyte would be an extraordinary event. For poor Merrindale, it would be an honor of the highest magnitude.
“Don’t become too excited, Daman,” his father warned
. “But the Acolyte—!”
laid his hand upon his shoulder. “I don’t want you to be disappointed, son. Our village is one of many. Barely a speck in the Sentinel’s great empire. He’s hardly likely to send his personal representative to our little celebration.”
e returned to his work, but he didn’t abandon hope that the children’s whisperings would prove true.
He loved the Spring Festival.
Although everyone was careful not to violate any of the Sentinel’s prohibitions against frivolous behavior or deviant activities, the people of Merrindale tried to make the most of the Festival. Many of the small cottages were festooned with flags and drapes and other approved decorations. Many people wore bright hand-sewn costumes. Often a single color or pattern was worn by every member of a family. Eating and drinking and playing livened the festival, although the Black Sentry ensured that none of it reached a level that would be inappropriate for an event that was, after all, a celebration of the Sentinel. The Sentry patrolled the grounds in dark uniforms that covered their entire bodies and made them seem invulnerable. As the light dimmed, their goggles seemed to glow, an eerie orange. No one knew how it was done. No one but the Sentinel, of course.
sat in his father’s booth and inhaled deeply, drawing in the smell of farm animals brought for show and slaughter, the smoke from the blacksmith’s fire, the dust kicked up by a hundred footfalls on the dirt roads lacing the village. He heard small children playing Creeper tag, the chirping of invisible birds, the creaking of cart wheels. He admired the perfectly spaced trees, each one equidistant from the other, precisely the same size and shape, framed by the twelve-foot-high fence that surrounded and protected the village. Everything was exactly as it had always been, as it should be, in the Sentinel’s perfectly ordered paradise. So he had been taught, even before he was old enough to understand.
As the Festival Day progressed, m
any familiar faces passed his father’s booth—friends and families he had known his entire life. They greeted Citizen Bodie, the Systems Administrator, and his passel of six children, all of whom appeared to be systematically tormenting one another. Since Bodie won his Winnowing years before, he had achieved enough Merit to be permitted this almost unprecedented number of children. Of all the senior members of the Administration, Bodie was the friendliest. Of course, he had good reason to be merry.
On the other hand, p
oor Mister Cantrell, the village blacksmith for more than forty years, still had not Merited children or even a wife. In a few years, it would be his time to retire to Balaveria, never having known the blessings of family.
And there was Mister Blackthorne, the physic who, although he had achieved sufficient Merit some time before, still had no children
. If there was no change soon, his wife would be reassigned, in accordance with the Laws and Ways of the Sentinel.
also spotted the Garrett family, including their daughter, Brita, who was only a month older than he was. She would soon be assigned a husband. A popular rumor held that she would be assigned to Mykah. Even though Mykah was his friend, this prospect bothered him–more than he would ever have admitted. Brita was a strange, proud girl–and she had fascinated him since they were small children. She was the only girl in the village with yellow hair. Even her mother did not have it. She talked fast and often used words he did not understand.
“Greetings, Daman,” Brita
said, as she paused at his father’s booth.
. Greetings.” He dared a look at her, and saw that she was not entirely her usual self. Her face seemed drawn and tired. “Are you well?”
“I’m magnificent,” she said
. “Only exhausted. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
struggled for words. “It…is warm at night this time of year.”
“That’s utterly irrelevant.
” She looked mildly annoyed. “I’ve been having dreams. Strange dreams.”
About the festival?”
e looked as if she thought him utterly hopeless. “No, not about the Festival. Or Merrindale. About other places, other people.”
“But–how can that be?
” He knew Brita had never been beyond the fence surrounding Merrindale. Only those in the Administration were allowed to travel, and then only in accordance with strict, regimented plans pre-approved by the Sentinel. Those who lost their Winnowing would only travel once, when they were taken from their families and transported to another village. And they would be blindfolded for the entire journey—for their own safety. They would see nothing.
“It was just a dream,” Brita said quickly
. “Are you ready for your Winnowing?”
. Have you…been assigned?”
” A strange expression crossed her face.
“Do you have any…preferences?”
“Would it make any difference if I did? Don’t be so stupid, Daman. The Magistrate will do the will of the Sentinel, and the Sentinel will do whatever he wants, and there’s not a thing any of us can do about it.” She turned away from the booth and rejoined her parents.
Her words lingered even after she left. He had often thought the same—but he had never heard anyone express such thoughts out loud.
A Black Sentry platoon passed by. Although in uniform, they were apparently off-duty, because they did not march in formation, two had removed their masks, and one was accompanied by a slave. The Sentry typically did not permit slaves to accompany them when they performed official duties because it was thought slaves should not be trusted.
knew the slave, a short, broad-shouldered man called Martin. He served as pack animal for the entire group, toting their food and drink. One Sentry snapped his fingers, and Martin immediately pressed a flask to his lips. Another did the same. Because Martin was slow to respond, the Sentry cuffed the slave soundly on the side of his face.
turned away. He did not like seeing people mistreated, even if they were slaves. Bad enough to have so little personal freedom without being publicly humiliated.
An older man ap
proached his father’s booth—Mister Hayes, one of the elders of the village. He kept animals for slaughter near the North Gate. A patch of gray highlighted each side of his head. In a few years he would turn fifty, retire, and travel to Balaveria–a paradise where those who obeyed the Laws and Ways would live forever at the right hand of the Sentinel.
s usual, Mister Hayes came not to trade but to talk. “Have you heard the news, Mister Adkins?”
“I’ve heard the gossip,” hi
s father replied.
hat do you think about it?”
I hear rumors about the coming of the Acolyte every year at this time. But he never comes.”
. “I’m not talking about that foolishness. I’m talking about Mister Blackthorne.”
s father’s eyes darkened. “What about him?”
“The Prosecutor has ruled
. He is to lose his wife, and probably his livelihood.”
am—sorry to hear that,” His father said haltingly.
. “He knows the Laws and Ways, as we all do. He failed to produce a child. We have too few women of childbearing age. We cannot allow them to be wasted.”
s father nodded but remained silent. He knew his father was prudent and he should do the same. But he could not keep his mouth closed. “This hardly seems fair. They’ve been married for almost ten years and have always been happy. He’s the best physic in Merrindale.”
nows the Laws and Ways,” Hayes intoned.
“But surely it’
s not his fault that he has no children.” Although he was hardly an expert, he knew enough of such things to believe that this was true.
es rose to meet Daman’s father. “Mister Adkins, your son does not appear to be well versed in the Laws and Ways of the Sentinel.”
s father flushed. “Oh—I’m sure Daman did not mean—”
“Then what did he mean?”
“He meant nothing. He’s just a boy. Not even of Winnowing age. He knows nothing of these matters.”
“He should be better instructed in the Laws and Ways
. Someone might be tempted to report him to the Black Sentry as a blasphemer.” Mister Hayes lowered his eyes. “Are you a blasphemer, son?”
He did not meet Hayes’
s gaze. “No, sir. I’m not.”
“I’m glad to hear it.
” Hayes talked a bit longer about nothing at all, then finally left. He was relieved–but he could see that his father was even more relieved. His mother left abruptly, saying she needed to retrieve something from their home.
e time later, Xander delivered a fresh batch of supplies. As always, Daman tried not to look at him. He didn’t know why. Xander just made him uncomfortable.
“Thank you, Xander,” hi
s father said. “Is everything well at the bakery?”
Xander nodded courteously, then set his bundle down on a bench
. He was a strong boy, with broad shoulders and tough sinewy arms. A lifetime of servitude undoubtedly produced firm muscles.
“Any news of the day?”
Xander hesitated. Like all slaves, he was cautious about speaking. In this instance, though, he had been asked a direct question.
“Have you hear
d the news?” Xander asked.
“What news would that be?”
his father asked.
Xander’s voice drop
ped to a whisper. “The Acolyte. They say he is coming to our village. That he will preside over the Celebration.”
“What business would the Sentinel’s chief representative have here?”
“I don’t know, but they say he’s coming all the same.” Xander stopped speaking, perhaps afraid he had said too much. His eyes drifted toward a plate of freshly baked spice cakes. Xander was a large boy—nearly twice his weight and half a head taller. He probably had an outsized appetite as well.
s father smiled. “You must be starved, Xander. Please take one of those cakes. Maybe two. Here, I’ll—”