Long ago, before the Walls, the city of Spiregarden lived in peace with the creatures known as neylon. Large claws, sharp teeth, pale pink skin, neylon inhabited the forest beyond Spiregarden and the citizens came and went in peace as they pleased.
And Spiregarden prospered.
Then it came to pass, as it always seems to do in such stories, that everything changed.
One day, the daughter of a wealthy noble gathered nuts among the trees beyond the city limits. When she failed to return home, the man started a search for his daughter, gathering a group of one hundred men and searching the forest.
What they found could barely be discerned as human.
Blood splattered the grass, gore littered the ground, and scraps of cloth draped the low brush. The father shattered into tears at the sight of what had to be the remains of his daughter. In his grief, the man secluded himself inside his home.
The next day, three young sisters entered the trees to play when they disappeared. Again, all that was found were bloody swathes of clothing. When news of the sisters reached the wealthy nobleman, he gathered his one hundred men and formed the Foxcombe, a group of elite soldiers charged with protecting the city from whatever was killing young maidens.
Three more bodies were found before a witness came forward providing a culprit: the neylon. Surely, these peaceful creatures could not have been responsible for these horrific deaths. But as more and more bodies were found, it became impossible to ignore. The neylon had begun to prey on the maidens on Spiregarden.
A council of Spiregarden’s most influential citizens gathered to discuss the implications. The specifics of attacks showed that the creatures preferred young women of a certain age. They would have had to pass by boys, men, and women to reach a maiden. The creatures were drawn to the maidens, seeking them out. Their daughters, sisters, all seemed to be in danger from these creatures. How long before the predatory neylon turned on their sons? How long before it wasn’t safe to set foot out of doors? It was clear to all that something must be done—and soon.
In honor of his lost daughter and to protect all the future daughters of Spiregarden, the wealthy nobleman commissioned two walls to be built: an Inner Wall to protect the city itself and an Outer Wall to protect the integrity of the Inner Wall. And to protect all citizens of Spiregarden, the council spearheaded the Maiden Laws, prohibiting maidens from leaving the walls.
With the construction of the walls, the citizens of Spiregarden rejoiced in their safety from the monstrous neylon. In their gratitude, the citizens elected the wealthy nobleman as mayor. The Foxcombe grew into an elite force of fighters taxed with guarding the city from neylon.
And the maidens of Spiregarden were locked away for the protection of all.
The Maiden Laws
1. No woman shall leave the Inner Wall.
2. All maidens, once they reach puberty, will be entered into a maidenhouse.
3. No maidens will be allowed outside of the maidenhouse without a chaperone unless she is matched.
“The gallant knight swung his sword strong and it rang off the sharp fangs of the dragon. His polished armor sparked in the light as he twisted and parried. With a raised shield, he deflected a spray of fire so fierce the metal groaned as it fought to hold against the heat. The knight jumped back as a wicked claw slashed at his side and he brought down his blade, severing the dragon’s thick, scaly neck.
“Up the winding stairs he ran, bloodied sword still clutched in his hand, to the uppermost tower and a door barred with a magical lock. From around his neck he removed a silver key on a silver chain. A pulse of light flashed as the key slid into the lock and the door swung wide.
“Across the room stood a vision. She wore a fluttering mass of the purest white lace and silk, and she spun in a halo of gold to face him. Eyes of the deepest blue, skin of the palest porcelain, and lips full and red like the petals of a rose. A sleek, delicate hand stretched out toward him, trailing a slim gold chain.
“In an instant their eyes met and he knew from that moment he was hers, complete and true. Never before had he beheld such a vision; surely no other woman could compare…”
Kardin’s eyes rolled to the sky as she tossed the book aside in disgust. “Compare to what? A face?” What a pile of drivel. She glared down at the copy of Tales for a Modern Maiden. How was this knowledge any maiden needed? The book was required reading, one of many sanctioned books the maidenhouses of Spiregarden touted. It was meant to impart on the young women of the town what was important for a maiden to be: demure, delicate, beautiful.
But what did that tell a maiden who wasn’t demure, delicate, or beautiful? Kardin knew what it told her—it told her she had nothing to offer. Nothing to offer a society that needed only for them to marry, produce children, and give up their maidenhood to protect all.
Her lungs filled with the strong updraft that rose up the edge of the cliff, heavy with the wet, mossy essence of the orchard below. She stood in a flurry of fluttering fabric. Her stormy blue eyes sparkled with an intelligent glee of mischief; her red hair lay in tangled waves down her back. She was small, even for a maiden, but wiry with muscle. Dirt and green marred her otherwise white garment, but she was good at getting out the stains. Headmistress always told her with a little effort she could be beautiful, but her weirdness would win out over any beauty she could muster.
She knew her duty, of course. Every daughter of Spiregarden had it drilled into her from birth: The scent of a maiden drew neylon and endangered everyone. Therefore, it had become the goal of families to see their daughters married to remove their maidenhoods and increase the safety of all. It wasn’t just expected that she would get married and have children, it was law. Law dictating what she must do, not caring a whiff about what she may or may not want. But that was another thing. A maiden wasn’t supposed to want for more than that. She wasn’t supposed to want for more than family and home. That was her ultimate goal. To think otherwise was considered abnormal.
Guess she was abnormal.
A plump white flake drifted to her cheek and left the faintest impression of a touch. Hers was not a face to inspire love, to encourage devotion and be beyond compare. In fact, there was nothing special to speak of. Her skin was a mottle of freckles amid a warm pinkish brown from the sun, and her lips were nowhere near the red of a rose. Her eyes dropped to her callused hands. No one would ever call them delicate. Add to that the mass of unruly waves that surrounded her face, she wasn’t exactly swimming in potential matches. In fact, she had exactly no prospects.
She sighed as her eyes came back to Tales for a Modern Maiden. It had flopped open to an engraving of a handsome knight with his fair maiden sidesaddle behind him on his mighty steed. Try as she might, she couldn’t picture herself clutched to some handsome man to be whisked off to who knows where. Surely there was more to life than sitting around waiting for some unknown knight to rescue you?
Back in her room, there were stacks of books on her bedside table, a fantastic mix of topics from plants to animals to the stars. No knights, no perfect maidens sitting around waiting for rescue. There was a world full of fascination out there, and she learned how to set a proper table, how to remove stains, how to properly season meals. It was enough to turn her stomach.
But that was Spiregarden. Women were not allowed outside the walls. Maidens were not allowed near the walls. The entire town lived under the fear of the neylons—the nightmare creatures that infested the world outside the walls—trapped them all here. The neylon were drawn to women, maidens especially. Maidens were kept secluded until they were paired, until their husbands took their maidenhood. Until then they were a target for any neylon within smelling range. The maidenhouses were full of horror stories, lessons to the young girls to follow the rules. Stories of maidens stolen in the night, whisked away by the monstrous neylons. As far as Kardin knew, no one had seen a neylon within the walls in generations.
A frigid gust snagged her hair and snapped the robes tight around her. It was time to head back; she’d be missed if she didn’t make third bell. She snatched up her discarded book and lifted a satchel across her shoulders after storing the book inside. She secured her clothes with her cloth belt, leaving her spindly legs exposed below the fabric. Soft slippers gave her toes surpassing dexterity as she clung to the rocks and vegetation. The sharp, rough surface fazed her callused fingers little as she descended. They got her in trouble with the headmistress of her maidenhouse often, her rough hands and feet. Young ladies had soft skin like silk. Guess she wasn’t much of a lady.
Her feet sank into the moss that coated the ground at the base of the Spire. She shook dirt and debris off her robes and turned toward the city, fabric swirling around her feet—but something stopped her short. Her eyes scanned the trees, staring into each shadow as she searched for what had distracted her.
Satisfied that whatever had caught her attention had just been in her head, she turned toward the wall.
And found herself staring into sharp brown eyes.
She leapt back, her heart jamming up into her throat as she crashed into the cliff wall behind her. The rock scraped against her skin and her lungs screamed for air, but the forest before her was empty. Sparks of pain tingled along her arms and legs, burning at the tips of her fingers.
Her racing heart struggled against her chest as she waited for her body to still. There had been no one there, no eyes boring into hers. There never was. She’d had the hallucinations her entire life. The same eyes every time. It never got any easier. They were always waiting for her when she least expected it. She couldn’t remember when the visions had started. Maybe she’d always had them. Perhaps that explained some of her weirdness.
She shook the vision off, thin tendrils of uneasiness slipping from her mind. It was easier each time. There was never malice in the encounters, just shock. Just enough of a leap to catch her attention. There was a time she remembered thinking that the encounters had to mean something, had to be some portent of some kind. For years she kept journals of each encounter. Everything she could recall about each incident she recorded in as much detail as she could. Journals littered her room, hidden in all the places a child would think to hide things, which meant they weren’t really hidden at all. Several burned up in the chimney of her fireplace, a handful were destroyed when her sheets were laundered or her mattress stuffing replaced. She had never been able to glean anything from them anyway, but it was a lot of work lost.
She set about to right her appearance, order her robes, brush out her hair. A maiden would draw attention walking Spiregarden alone, but an unkempt maiden would draw every eye for streets around. Any extra attention would slow her return to the maidenhouse, and tardiness would prompt more questions than she needed to deal with.
The Spire was outside the Inner Wall but well inside the Outer Wall. Her presence there would be punished—young ladies were not permitted outside the Inner Wall, not even permitted unchaperoned in town. Best not to draw any more attention than necessary.
Around her the forest loomed, trees tended and cared for by special members of the Guard. On the ground, even under the canopy, the air was warm and comfortable. The forest floor was mottled with the filtered sunlight that seeped through the leaves. The trees sheltered wildlife in the Between that fed Spiregarden. The limbs were alive with the songs of birds and the chittering of squirrels. The forest stretched for as far as she’d ever seen, perhaps even all the way to the Outer Wall, far out of sight beyond the gently rising hills past the Spire.
She glanced around before she made a mad rush back to the Inner Wall. Her robes rustled against the undergrowth. Her toughened feet carried her through the young forest and kicked up must from the leaf litter as she went.
Dusk darkened the sky as the Inner Wall reared up above her. Stark and unadorned, the Inner Wall rose above the roofs of the buildings closest to it. It was ten feet wide with guard towers every fifty yards. It was said the Outer Wall appeared to brush the very clouds, making the Inner Wall pale in comparison, but she would never see the Outer Wall, never see anything but the streets of Spiregarden.
To each side of her stretched the sheer face of the wall, only broken by a patch of ivy straining up toward the sky. The ivy snaked well above her head and thickened into a curtain of green near the base. She ducked behind the fall of vines and felt around in the dark until she found an edge in the wall’s foundation. She had discovered the fault in the structure in the first years of her maidenhood. The Inner Wall was not as well maintained as the Outer Wall so her secret pathway remained unrepaired.
Cool, damp air wrapped around her as she moved deeper into the wall’s thick stone. She trailed a finger along the side of the fissure to guide herself through the pitch toward the muted light at the other end. At the far end of the wall, she paused behind a cascade of green vines that lined the inner edge. She crouched in the darkness, straining her hearing for any sound beyond the veil. When no sound reached her, she spread the leaves and rushed into the alley beyond. It ran along the edge of the wall behind the Merchant’s Mile.
The Merchant’s Mile housed Spiregarden’s merchants. The more prosperous merchants were on the opposite side of the Merchant’s Mile, but the buildings on the wall side were just as large if less ornate. The buildings towered high over her—monstrous composites of wood, stone, and mortar. The fronts of the buildings were covered in garish paint to display the prowess of each merchant, but back here the walls were natural, gray and brown with darker black where materials were close to needing replaced. Materials were hard to come by in the city, so even the best manicured houses had to be lax on repairs until material could be gathered.
The windows that faced the alley were most if not all covered with heavy drapes. Before the walls, these would have provided a view of the forests beyond the city. Now they just looked out on a back alley and the gray expanse of wall.
Though a thin patch of grass stretched between each building, little traffic traversed them; the alley was more for deliveries. This was the best walk in Spiregarden. The view may leave something to be desired, but the lack of traffic and smells more than made up for it. Spices and perfumes permeated the air. Sometimes the street was filled with smoke from cooking meat and it was near torture to traverse the small road.
She could turn right and make a quicker trip to the Bellaro Maidenhouse where she was enlisted, but at this hour there was no way to evade notice by herself. Instead, she turned left, away from the maidenhouses. She needed a chaperone, and there was one person she could trust not to turn her in for being out in the city without one in the first place.
The pathway along the wall was mostly packed earth, and here was no exception. It wasn’t until past the last merchant house that the road became paved with well-laid bricks. The transition from Merchant’s Mile to the Foxcombe compound was marked by the alley turning from dirt to smooth bricks.
The Merchant’s Mile fell away behind her and the alley curved along a head-high fence of stacked stones. The fence ran the length of the Foxcombe headquarters with only a handful of gates to allow entrance. The largest, main gate was wide enough for two wagons to pass through side by side. It also garnered the most traffic. She was looking for something more discrete.
A side gate barely wide enough for a large man to pass through led straight to the barracks. It was used entirely by the ’combe on personal trips into the city proper. It was this small gate she utilized now, avoiding all eyes that may question why she was out alone. The path beyond led around behind the barracks to the side entrances.
The barracks itself was an ugly brown square building with a multitude of windows staring out toward the bland wall or toward the central courtyard of the Foxcombe campus. She passed by the first entrance at the side of the building and headed around to the back that ran along the wall. Halfway along the building was the door she was headed for. She rushed inside, pulling it shut behind her.
The room beyond was dark and filled with stores, bags of tubers and flour, jars of spices and candies stacked and piled on shelves lining the walls. She loved this room, the delicious aromas of curries and peppers. She pressed her ear to an inner door and waited for the sounds of talking and footsteps to fade before she opened it. The hallway opened onto several rooms but she moved past them to the end and took the stairs. She climbed to the third floor and rushed into the first room.
The room was sparse, with a small bed against the wall, a wash table under the window, and a peg behind the door for clothes. Her lips spread in a sneer as she slammed the door and startled the young man sleeping on the bed.
“Geedah, Kardin!” Gray eyes flashed as Glend dropped his legs over the edge of the mattress and ran a hand through his rusty hair. He was handsome, as boys her age went, tall and strong. She had heard many of the girls in the maidenhouse go on about him, but Glend was different, smarter. For years she had nursed quite the crush on him, assuming in her childhood ignorance that nothing would ever change. But as she grew and learned, became more herself, she realized that even Glend and the comfort he offered just wasn’t enough. She wanted more than what she could be offered by marriage, though what that could be she couldn’t begin to understand.
“Were you seriously asleep?” she asked.
His hands rested on his knees as he glanced up at her. He was big for his age, only a season older than her, barely old enough to be a proper escort. His uniform jacket was folded neatly at the foot of the bed. He glanced at the window and shook his head. “It’s nearly dark!”
Her arms crossed as she straightened her back. “Then I suggest you hurry.”
His grumbles were unintelligible as he moved about the tiny quarters. He stuffed a foot into a tall boot. “You do know it’s illegal for you to be outside the maidenhouse without an escort?”
“You could always come with me,” she said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
He stood, broad shoulders heaving with a sigh. “I may have promised your mother to keep an eye on you but I never promised to climb the Spire once a week just to look at birds.”
She handed him his jacket and challenged his stare with a grin. “You should try it, Glend. Might loosen that stiff jaw.”
Glend could possibly be the dullest man in Spiregarden but there was no one she trusted more. The son of her parents’ neighbors, Glend had been her constant companion as a child. Kardin’s mother had never had time for her; she was too busy planning parties and dinners—the true life of a Spiregarden wife. So, Kardin spent her days in the yard where she wouldn’t “be underfoot,” as her mother would say. One day she had seen someone watching her through the fence. Young Glend had also been sent outside to get out from under his mother’s feet and they spent most of their time together from that day on. Up until the day she had been sent to the maidenhouse.
His jaw muscles tightened as he buttoned his jacket then offered her his arm. Her eyes sparkled as she flashed him a coy smile. “My big strong protector!”
“You are intolerable!” he said.
When they had been children, they dreamed and played at what life would bring them. In their fantasies they explored beyond the walls, rescuing Spiregarden from its seclusion and the ever-present danger of the neylons. It wasn’t until later that it was impressed on her how foolish her childhood dreams were. No maiden, no woman would ever be allowed to set foot beyond the Outer Wall. It never hit harder than when Glend had been accepted into the Foxcombe. Now he lived the dream they’d both had and she sat in her cell at the maidenhouse awaiting a life of boredom.
Glend moved with a light grace as he guided Kardin out of the barracks. “It’s dangerous for you to leave the Inner Wall; we’ve had incidents inside the walls, you know.”
Her face lit up. “You have? When?” she demanded. “What got through? What happened?”
Her enthusiasm pulled an even sterner glare to his eyes. “There is definitely something wrong with you.”
She rolled her eyes as he pushed open the heavy front doors and led her into the street that bustled with soldiers preparing for the night. Men from their mid-teens to gray-haired seniors carried about their evening chores in a sea of blazing red uniforms. A handful of glances shot her way but she wasn’t an uncommon sight in the complex. She showed up whenever she had the need of a chaperone.
“Why? Because I’m not some boring fop? What happened?”
He sucked his lip as his gaze moved along the bustling street. Boots echoed off the stones beneath their feet, filling the air with a chorus of marching. Several uniformed men saluted and nodded to Glend in greeting. Despite her jealousy, it always pleased Kardin to see how well her friend fit in in his chosen profession. He deserved to be happy and she was sure his boring attitude of following rules allowed him to excel in the ’combe.
No matter how terrible her day, Glend could pull her from any foul mood. No matter how irritating he became, she could find solace in the one person she could be herself with. Life in the maidenhouse meant suppressing her personality to put forth the proper visage of a maiden, locking herself away. The façade put a weight on her soul that no sleep could counter. The only true relief came when she was able to completely drop all pretense and allow herself the only freedom she could attain in Spiregarden.
They passed from the soldiers’ section through the main gate and into the town proper. The buildings of the city proper pressed against the walls of the Foxcombe compound, seeking to take over the open space within. The streets were even darker among the buildings with the sun well below the wall. Flickering torches lined their path, casting shadows that danced and gathered in the corners and alleys. There was no need to worry about thieves or crime even in the dark. Between the Watch and the Foxcombe, most nefarious minds found themselves with nowhere to hide.
With the protection of a chaperone, Kardin was able to pass directly through Market Street. Gilded walkways stretched over them, connecting the buildings. Bright colors screamed for attention. Shoppers milled about the spaces decorated with beautiful carvings of animals and women, looking to grab a few last items before the shops shut down for the night. They strolled through, allowing the crowd to cut in and around them in their evening rush.
Glend waited till they had passed the throng before attempting to speak again. “Kardin, you can’t keep this up,” he said. “The laws are in place for a reason.”
She glared at a group of young men who watched them from across the street. “I know. How could I forget? The neylons hunt maidens; it’s been beaten into my head my entire life. Doesn’t it matter that no one has seen a neylon within the walls for three generations?”
He guided them around a large puddle and tucked her hand tighter into his elbow as a Watch soldier in a black uniform turned his attention to Kardin. “No one has seen one for three generations because we built the walls to keep them out. Walls which you continually thwart, I might add!”
She shook her head as her attention shifted to a stall of fruits and vegetables that had been gathered beyond the walls by the Foxcombe. Knobby blackberries, bright raspberries, even the strong bulbs she had never grown a taste for still adorned the table, even as the man behind it packed away his wares for the night.
“I climb the Spire, it’s not like I flee the walls completely!”
Traffic on the street vanished as they left the market district for the Arlottian Gardens where the maidenhouses were. The four houses sat at the center of the city far from the wall and anything that might resemble excitement. In the maidenhouses, the daughters of Spiregarden were taught how to attract a husband.
The buildings sat back from the streets, allowing for flower beds and decorative statues. The air was chilly here with the buildings spread so far apart, heavy with the perfume of the flowers. The gardens had once been a part of a group of elaborate estates long before the walls and the maidenhouses. Silence descended this close to third bell and nothing accompanied them but the sound of their steps on the rock paths.
The pathways wound about the gardens, offering views and scents to those who walked them. The identity of most of the statues that graced the garden were lost to time and history. They had to be women of some great import and maidens now were told to look upon them as models of decorum and beauty. Kardin couldn’t help but feel sad when she looked at them, though. No placards adorned these statues but she didn’t believe they were erected for their beauty. Beauty wasn’t an achievement, it was luck of nature. Anyone could be born beautiful, you didn’t build statues to that. Well, that and despite the statues’ flowing gowns and elaborate hair, none of these women appeared that beautiful to her. They had stern faces and strong jaws, nothing maidens were praised for nowadays.
Instead, she liked to think of them as some long-lost leaders. Great women of Spiregarden whose deeds were long forgotten or intentionally erased. She wondered if they looked down on the maidens of today with shame for what society had forced on them. The Maiden Laws hadn’t always been in place—so at some point, women were able to leave and do as they pleased, to walk the town unchaperoned. She wondered if she would ever know how that felt.
Bellaro Maidenhouse reared up before them all too soon and her freedom was torn from her just that easily. She knew that walks chaperoned by Glend weren’t true freedom, but she could pretend, if at least to herself, that she was somewhere else, some when else.
The maidenhouse was a beautiful building, tall and dark with sharp lines and large windows. House Bellaro was the first of the four maidenhouses clustered within the gardens.
Glend paused at the foot of the stairs flanked by marble statues of women in flowing floor-length wraps. He regarded them with a peculiar intensity. “I’ve had an offer.”
The words hit her like a slap. He had been building up to this, she realized. It was why he had been so quiet. Her jaw fell open as she stared up at him, her mind numb. “An offer?” Somehow the probability of him being paired hadn’t crossed her mind. Glend had always been there for her; that was how they were. That was how they had always been. “From whom?” she asked, her voice cracking. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
Her hand slid from his arm as she stepped back. He turned to face her, his hands clasped before him. “Luam.”
Her face twisted in distaste. “Luam?” Memories of Luam flooded her mind. She was lovely, of course—a perfect maiden—and couldn’t be further from Kardin herself.
“Yes, Luam,” he said. “She is a good woman.”
Her mind burned with ire. Not Glend—he couldn’t be blinded by looks, could he? “She is a vacant peacock!”
His hands spread in caution. “Easy. She is caring and lovely.”
She spun on her heel and paced toward the railing. He couldn’t be defending Luam to her; it was just too awful. “Is that what you want?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer. “Some vacant decoration for your arm? A simple creature that won’t challenge you!”
“Why are you mad at me?”
She paused, the world stretching out into eternity. Of course, he didn’t understand; how could he? He wasn’t a maiden. He was judged on his abilities, not on a chance of nature. What was more, he got choices. He got to live a childhood dream denied to her.
She chilled her mind and pulled her arms across her chest. “And what about us?” She hated how that sounded, hated that she couldn’t stop herself from asking.
His brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
She berated herself as her eyes burned a threat. She didn’t know how long she could hold back the pain at the thought of losing her only friend and the relief he offered. Why did this feel so much like a betrayal? “Will Luam stand idly by while you continue a friendship with a maiden?”
He rubbed a hand down his face. “Kardin, we shouldn’t be friends now!”
His words sliced deep, but with her years of maiden training, she was able to keep the hurt from her face. She just let it dig into her soul. “You really like her?” She glared at her shoes as the silence stretched between them.
“I don’t really know her, but we’ll have a lifetime for that.” He glanced up at the marble statues watching them, appearing uncharacteristically awkward. “You better get inside, you don’t want to miss third bell.”
The breath rushed from her lungs. “Yes, I should.” She kept her eyes down as she turned to climb the stairs.
Glend grabbed her elbow as she passed. “Kardin, you know I’ll always be there for you, whatever you need.”
Her chin rose as she kept her eyes forward. “I’m sorry Glend, I don’t think that would be very proper.”
She jerked her arm from his grip and locked the door behind her.
The wood spread a coolness across Kardin’s back as she leaned against it, her mind numb. She stared blindly down the empty hallway.
Glend was getting married. To Luam.
She doubled over as pain ripped through her chest. She was losing her only friend. Her mind tripped back to afternoons spent in the yards of their parents’ houses, adventures and fantasies and shared dreams and a bond forged from abandonment. She pressed her eyes closed as a jolt shot back through them. What was wrong with her? She had only known him since she was a child, how bad would it be to never talk to him again?
A ragged breath struggled past her trembling lips as she forced the tears back. She wouldn’t cry; she wasn’t some simpering fop. She wasn’t Luam.
She kicked off from the door and tried to ignore the accosting regulars of the maidenhouse: the overwhelming haze of lavender and vanilla, so strong it worked its way into the food; the frigid air of an inefficient fire pit; and the nauseating chorus of sappy songs that drifted through the walls. Along the right of the hall was a square of boxes with chalked names that contained folded parchments. Hers was empty, as it always was. She had no interest in the simpering vacant-headed maidens who occupied the maidenhouse, and they had no interest in her.
She kicked open the door to her own room and reveled in the heady mixture that permeated there: dirt, pine, must. Good scents, real scents. The scents of a woman with a brain, a point.
There had never been the smell of dirt in her house as a child. Her mother prided herself on her home. Everything had a place and should not be moved. She had learned that at a young age: Don’t touch the pretty objects. So many pretty things within her tiny grasp. She could still feel the cold firmness as her chubby fingers had wrapped around a trinket. The memory burned to this day, vivid and clear. It had been a silver sculpture of a deer, intricate and long-legged. She traced her fingertips along the slim stylized neck. Blissful joy had suffused her entire body. Right up until the scream. The punishment for her audacity had left welts across the back of her thighs.
After a while, she began to see the perfection for what it truly was: a lie. A lie projected to a world that only cared about appearances. Soon, even the thought of perfection and tidiness made her feel fake and dirty. She wanted nothing to do with either.
She never earned points for tidiness. Young ladies were tidy, neat, and organized. Her room couldn’t be more the opposite. Her bedclothes were a rumpled mass at the foot of her bed; the spine of a book peeked from their wrinkles. More tomes were stacked in piles scattered about the walls and windowsill. A couple spare robes and dressing gowns were tossed in a corner awaiting her attention. Stashed beneath the bed was a small box, no larger than the average book found in its vicinity. Inside was stored stones, trinkets, and dried flowers she had collected on her trips to the Spire.
Not a thing in its proper place, not a stitch in order. Perfect chaos, truth.
The door shut behind her and she slid down it to drop on the floor. Her body shook with the effort of holding back her sobs. Even within the safety of her room, she didn’t want to give in to the tears. She was not weak. She leaned her head back as she slowed her breathing. She couldn’t stop her mind from bombarding her with memories of her friend, each more painful than the last.
Both the children of Spiregarden’s elite families, neither she nor Glend had mothers that afforded them any time. The two children, sequestered to their yards, had clung to each other for the attention they had been denied. He had always been a comfort when she felt an outcast, a freak. Her mother never held back her beratement for the oddness that being shunned had built in her.
Then her mind turned to Luam. Perfect Luam. Beautiful Luam. A model of sheer maiden perfection. Everything Kardin could never be. Luam was a vision. A maiden that could have stepped out of one of the books the maidenhouses required. But it had to be a lie, didn’t it? No one was that perfect.
Kardin had no wish to be a perfect maiden, no wish to don the lies and illusions that it would entail. All she really wanted was to have someone appreciate her for herself. There had to be more to life than perfection. She would never be a perfect maiden, but that didn’t mean she had nothing to give. Did it?
She dragged a sleeve across her damp cheeks, angry at every tear that had escaped. Traitorous, vile things.
Her stomach growled as she felt a weight fall over her. She had missed dinner and the lunch she packed had long since worn off, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Her limbs felt leaden, much too heavy for her body to lift. A weakness filled her gut pulling her down into the floor. All the energy gained from her trip to the Spire drained out through her toes. An ache settled into her neck, creeping down her spine and stretching into her lower back.
She couldn’t stay there forever. Her legs were already tingling from being on the hard floor. Nothing had changed. She was still the same person she was before tonight, before she lost her friend. He was matched now. They would get married. They would have a family, children, a home.
And she would still be here.
The air rushed from her nose as she leaned back against the door.
Her stomach growled again and she clawed her way to her feet. Shedding her robes, she added them to a pile in the corner and changed into her small clothes. She slumped into her bed, retrieved an apple from her satchel, and snaked a book from among her blankets. The stub of a candle sat on the bedside table and she lit it to dispel the gathering darkness.
The sputtering light made reading difficult, but she was used to it. The book was one of her favorites, a study on the dangers outside the wall—the dangers and the wonders. Illustrations of exotic plants and animals decorated the pages and filled her heart with a savage yearning. Every ounce of knowledge she gained felt like one more weapon in an arsenal against the dark and the nightmares that filled it. It gave her the ability to face it, to find someplace in this world where she belonged. Even bound by the Laws, she could still let her mind wander the world beyond. How could anyone be content to spend an entire lifetime huddled behind these walls?
A knock came from the door and she dropped the book on her chest and palmed the apple core.
“Kardin…” The door opened to reveal a prim, matronly face. “Reading again,” the woman said, her voice heavy with exhaustion.
Kardin bit back a sigh. “Yes, Headmistress.”
The woman stayed at the threshold and folded her hands before her. “It is a pleasure to see you in before third bell.” The headmistress’s appearance never changed. She was tall, slim, with a grim expression and her dark hair neatly tucked into a bun at the nape of her neck. Kardin had long suspected that the tightness of her bun was the reason for the woman’s sour expression. Her plain dark dress covered her body from chin to wrist to floor.
Kardin sat up, careful to tuck the book beneath her blankets. She cast around for a robe that was decently clean and snatched it up. Headmistress kept her gaze averted as Kardin threw the robe around her shoulders. “I do try, and I haven’t missed third bell for nearly a moon.”
The headmistress dropped her head in resignation. “And I suppose young Glend was your escort again this day.”
Kardin, sensing a trap, wet her lips. “Yes, Headmistress,” she said. “There is no one Mother trusted more.”
“He has been chosen, you realize.”
Kardin felt her body deflate. The talk. “He told me, headmistress.” If there was something more awful than the pain she was feeling at Glend’s betrayal, it would be having it be public knowledge. And the absolute worst, having Headmistress know. Her shoulders hunched as she waited for the blows to begin.
The older woman took a small step forward. “I’m sure even you understand the implications.”
Kardin filled her body with a deep breath as she rose to her full height and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “A maiden is not allowed in the company of a paired male.” Her voice slid into a flat drone.
The headmistress’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Young lady, your insolence is completely out of hand,” she said. “You do know what happens to insolent maidens.”
Headmistress loomed toward her. “It is maidens like you who endanger us all. If it were up to me, you would be shipped out this very moment to the Cell. It would save me a lot of headaches. And we both know what that entails. I’m sure the monsters will find you ever so delectable.”
Blood rushed from her head to her toes. Was she at that point already? Had she gone so far to risk the ultimate punishment?
“You will maintain your distance from young Glend. You will stop skipping your classes and you will clean this sty of a room. What do you need all these books for anyway? What man would want a woman who wastes her time reading? I want them gone by the over day.”
Headmistress clasped her wrists at her waist, her face ugly with smug satisfaction. “You’ve been very difficult in your time here,” she said. “More so than any other maiden in my career.”
“I’m sorry, Headmistress.”
Headmistress held out a halting hand. “Sorry is no longer good enough.” She shrugged as she shook her head. “I’m afraid if I don’t see some improvement”—her lips curled—“you are in danger of being labeled unmatchable.”
The older woman spun on her heel and continued on her bed checks as if she hadn’t just pronounced a death sentence. Kardin slumped and dropped her head into her hands. There was no holding back the tears this time as the full weight pressed down on her. It was all too much, too much for her to process. Thoughts stormed through her mind, threatening to overwhelm her.
Tingling ran up her legs and her knees gave way beneath her. Unmatchable. The world hazed as her vision blurred and she was filled with nothing but the whirlwind of her thoughts and the roaring of blood in her ears. Pain clamped her chest and she pressed a hand against her heart. Her heartbeat thundered in her chest, galloping out of her control.
The word burned through her mind, chased by a litany of horrors each worse than the last. Not all maidens enlisted in a maidenhouse were matched. Most were given until their thirtieth birthday to be matched—but special cases, troublemakers, deviants, and the like were labeled unmatchable earlier. Couldn’t have undesirable oddballs mucking up your maidenhouses forever, could you?
So, what was a town surrounded by maiden-hunting monsters to do with unwanted maidens? That is where the Sisterhood came in. Unmatchable maidens joined the Sisterhood and were sent out to a compound called the Cell. The structure itself sat somewhere beyond the Outer Wall, well away from any innocents that could be endangered.
Stories about the Sisterhood haunted all maidens and were used to keep them in line, punish them when they got out of line. The Sisters were fed to the neylon in an attempt to placate them. The Sisters had their maidenhoods taken before they were left to wander the forests beyond the walls. The Sisters were left to fend off the neylon until they were picked off one by one in the dark.
Kardin remembered the first story her mother had told her when she had been too noisy during a dinner party. Following a stint locked in her room, her mother had put Kardin to bed with a story of a young maiden sent to the Sisterhood for not following the rules. The maiden had been chained and dragged from her maidenhouse, paraded through the streets, and pelted with jibes and refuse by the law-abiding citizens of Spiregarden. The Watch had then dangled her by her arms from the Outer Wall where she was devoured by the creatures while her screams rattled the trees beyond. That story had haunted her for years afterward.
All of the stories couldn’t be true, Kardin knew, but if even part of any of them were true…
Quakes wracked her hands and arms, running up through her body as she felt the grains of sand draining away. The breath rushed past her lips. She was going to die. Not just die, she was going to die the nightmare of nightmares.
She saw her life slipping away through her fingers like smoke, spiraling beyond her meager control. Her only friend betrayed her and she was staring down the throat of the beast.
Glend was her only friend, the only person she could share her true self with. Even though he never truly understood her, he listened and accepted her weirdness. Without him, she was alone. And worse, if she was labeled unmatchable, she would never see him again.
Exhaustion washed over her, leadening her limbs. She pooled on the floor, unable to fathom where she was to go from here. The weight of the end pressed in against her. She was trapped, and there was no chance at escape.
The window was dark now, twilight having moved in while she sat trying to stem the flood from her eyes. The sounds from the rooms around her faded and left her an empty shell long before the candle guttered out.
Marsda took one last look at her belongings collected into a small satchel. Her entire life in one bag. Everything she was and everything she ever would be.
Not that it contained much: a handful of decorative combs in silver and gold, a letter from her mother, some other odds and ends, trinkets and bobs. It was a pathetic collection for a pathetic end to a pathetic life, and all of it meant nothing.
She had done everything right. She excelled in all of her classes, applied all the right paints, had grace and poise. But none of that mattered. Nothing mattered but that she was unattractive. She was too tall, too heavy; none of her features were delicate enough. Her skills had garnered her several potential matches but her looks had ended them all. No one was interested in a plain wife.
She glanced down at her hands. Never would they comfort a child, feed a husband, set a table. Her entire purpose in life was wasted by the luck of nature. What did she do now?
The knock on her door sent a ripple of terror through her body. She had told herself over and over again that she would face the Sisterhood with grace and dignity like a true maiden of Spiregarden. But words were slim comfort in the face of the journey ahead of her.
She had nothing solid to go on as to what she would be facing. There was no account of life in the Cell, no knowledge on how the Sisterhood actually lived. There was only rumor and conjecture, the horror stories told to little girls to keep them in line.
Now she was to be that horror story made flesh.
Was she about to be led to her death? For all any maiden knew, the Watch could march them straight out of the gates and stake them to the ground for the neylons to feast on. Her breath hitched at that. Helpless, afraid. She pressed her eyes closed. No. She couldn’t believe that, not if she wished to keep her sanity. She had to maintain hope that there could be something on the other side of this, that her life could still have some kind of meaning outside of the walls and Maiden Laws.
The knock came again and she shouldered the bag. Eighteen years she had spent in this room, learning and growing. Eighteen years but she had never been given the red. So, this was the future she had—the future she must accept and live with. She was given no other choice.
The quaking in her hands kept her fingers from being able to grip the door handle and it took her a couple of tries to open the door. A lump blocked her throat as her eyes landed on the black-clad Watch soldiers beyond. The Watch normally wore green uniforms with black accents. Black was reserved for transporting the unmatchable. This was her death march.
Four of these ghouls waited beyond her room. They looked like vultures with their pink-skinned heads popping out above the jackets. Vultures waiting to pick at the remains of her life. There was no life for her anymore; they were here to remove her from it.
No one spoke. They were not there to talk, they were there to protect her on her journey to the Cell. At least, that was what she had been told anyway. They would protect her from any dangers she might face. But why protect her at all when they just intended to abandon her to the whims of the neylon anyway? If they were her protection, why did she feel like a prisoner?
This would be her first journey beyond the Inner Wall. She had never even been to the wall. A quiver fluttered deep in her stomach, building fast, threatening to overwhelm her, but she wrestled it back under control. She knew the rules, told herself she had prepared for this day. Society must be protected. No matter the cost to the individual.
The soldiers formed a wall of armor and weapons, closing her in. She bit her lip to hold back the tiny cry that screamed to be freed. She told herself it wasn’t their fault she was born this way. These men hadn’t made the Maiden Laws any more than she had. They were the victims of fate as much as she. But no matter what excuse she tried to grasp, she couldn’t evade the fact that they knew they were escorting her to her death. And only because she didn’t fit some mold set long before she was born.
The hallway was empty save for them, silent as the grave. She couldn’t force her feet to move, not when she knew where this journey ended. They remained stubborn against the runner of the hallway. It wasn’t until something hard shoved against the space between her shoulder blades that she took her first lurching step.
The floor creaked beneath their feet as she followed the soldiers to the stairs. The world was lost to her in the rush of blood through her ears. A voice in her head screamed to run, to escape this horror and hide. But where would she go? Even if she evaded the blades and weapons of the guards, there was nowhere safe for her to go. Not even her family would take her in. It was too dangerous.
It wasn’t until her feet reached the landing at the bottom of the stairs that she discovered why the halls were devoid of life. The first-floor hall was lined with maidens. Downcast somber faces greeted her as she passed. They all knew what was happening; she’d seen plenty of women joining the Sisterhood in her days in the maidenhouse, today it was her turn. She remembered chanting in her head that these women were being sent off to protect all. It was a harsh comfort to her now, as was the knowledge that the maidenhouse would spend the day mourning her loss. For them, this was her funeral.
The warmth of the day wrapped around her when they slipped from the door, and the sun baked her cheeks as she stared up into the cloudless sky. The streets around the maidenhouses were rarely busy. Most citizens had little reason to be near the maidenhouses. There were no shops or houses, only a handful of parks, and the Temple of Arlotta, the patron protector of maidens. Today was no exception. A handful of maidens milled about the gardens, the only place a maiden could go unchaperoned. Other than that, no one else was in sight.
She turned her face up to the sun and savored every sensation—the perfume from the flowers, the heat of the sun, the cool caress of the breeze, even the feel of the pebbles beneath her shoes. All she would have for the rest of her life in the Sisterhood, however long that may be, were her memories.
A second nudge got her moving again. The handful of maidens stopped what they were doing and stared at the procession. An addition to the Sisterhood wasn’t such a common sight not to draw attention. The gardens were gone before she knew it, the protection of the maidenhouses flowing away like water as they passed into Spiregarden proper.
Traffic picked up beyond the border of the maidenhouses and with it the attention toward their small procession. Each gaze felt like an accusation, a blow she couldn’t deflect.
She could see the sympathy in the eyes of the few women who braved the streets. They knew what was happening. Even after marriage and the taking of their maidenhoods, women were still virtual prisoners in their houses. They were safer than maidens but were not encouraged to traipse about the streets.
The truly rare sights on the streets were children. There was nothing specifically forbidding children in the streets of Spiregarden, but when their mothers had to stay in the house, most were kept close. Her eyes burned at this. Being a mother had always been the one thing she wanted—loving and protecting another life. One more thing the Maiden Laws were denying her of. She would never fulfill this one fundamental urge.
Clothes and buildings grew shabbier as they walked through town and the wealthier sections drew down to the Lowlands. More children and women braved the streets here than in any other part of Spiregarden. Money bought a lot of things, including safety.
The cobbled streets crumbled into packed dirt beneath her slippered feet. The Lowlands housed the workforce for Spiregarden. No one admitted that aloud, but there was no denying it. They grew the food, tended the animal yards, worked the factories. But despite how needed all of these things were, the people of the Lowlands were mostly forgotten.
The daughters of the Lowlands would never be subjected to the terror of the Sisterhood. Without the means to afford the tuition of the maidenhouses, daughters were married off as young as ten before they could become a danger to anyone else. These child brides were left to be raised by their new husbands.
Marsda’s eyes traveled over the small shacks, where these poorest of Spiregarden’s citizens lived. They were hovels really—dirt floors, walls with little substance, sometimes nothing more than a frame with fabric draped over them. She thought about their days of labor in the fields, the years of work just to get enough food to survive. All of the struggles just to stay alive.
And on her march to the Cell, she couldn’t envy them more.