THE CHEER OF THE CROWD behind the curtain pounded against my ears as the Guards yanked my wrists and cuffed them to the bars, stretching my arms apart to the point I couldn’t move them without breaking something. They cuffed my ankles to the floor of the platform, shaping me into a cross. All I could think about was my family’s reaction to seeing their “little diamond of joy” strung up on the stocks in that stupid, hypnotic dress—if they recognized me at all. They tore the edges, to make the brainwashed people think there was a struggle before they brought me to the Courtroom. Nice name for a place where the defendant couldn’t defend herself.
My spastic hair drifted in front of my eyes. Sweat continued to trickle down my back and drip off my hair. I stared with one eye at the ground, dizzy from lack of food and almost nauseous with a terrible feeling about what my fate was going to be in a matter of minutes. My heart pounded steadily—not what I would have expected, given the circumstances of certain death and having made the city’s number one wanted poster. 9:57. I had three minutes to do something before the curtain drew open and everyone saw Emmaline O’Meern tied up like a mantis on a spider’s web. God, why is this happening? I begged, I prayed, I pleaded for His help.
A Guard strode up to me with the air of an executioner. So I was going to die. I stared at his boots, dark green and luminescent as the dying light from the window far to my right glinted off the tanned and treated forest leaves. Oh, how I’d love to walk the forest, the rivers, the mountains, the world, just once more before I died. He said, “Traitor.” That was my new name, and my cue to obey if I didn’t want another smack across the cheek like the one I got in the cell hole. The first cut had finally gummed up all the way, so it wasn’t bleeding, but it itched like crazy.
I pulled my head up, struggling to keep looking straight at him as my head swam. It felt like I was falling to one side, but there was no way to fall. You’re all hung up like a wet, smelly towel, remember?
His eyes glinted with a maniac’s pleasure. “Traitor,” he smirked, “you still have a way out of this. It’s really quite simple, Traitor. Admit you were wrong to disobey the High Order and all its affiliates, and we’ll let you off with a simple expulsion. Beyond the Wall.”
Nobody could survive beyond the Wall. That’s what they said, not that I believed anything they’d said anymore. But if it was true, I was dead either way. It was hard to keep my good eye open. Exhaustion crawled up from the floor. My knees started failing. I started crumpling up like a wet paper sack, but the cuffs on my wrists kept me from falling all the way to the ground. So this is what the Crucifixion must have felt like, minus the crown of thorns and metal stakes and the perfection of being God.
“So, Traitor, what do you say? Confess? Or die?” The executioner stared intently at my scrunched-up eyes and bloody face. That was their game: they threatened to kill your self-respect, and even if you said yes, they’d just plain kill you anyway. Some game. I refused to play.
I rose from my half kneel in front of him, pulling my feet back under me, straightened up, and stared squarely back into his face.
“You’re going to kill me one way or another. If I’m dying, I’ll die as myself.”
“Oh, but we’re not going to kill you,” sneered Shadela as she strode in front of me, wearing an elegant evening party dress, shimmering red. “They are.”
I heard the roar of the crowd rise again from ebb to tidal wave as the speaker called them out to face their enemy. He didn’t seem to be aware that the Traitor was a female or at least didn’t specify otherwise. Maybe that’s to make the shock universal. At least none of the younger kids I know will see me die. Thank God for the age restriction.
Shadela snickered sadistically, grabbed the ceremonial mask from the approaching Senator and shoved it over my pulsating head. She disappeared into her natural habitat of darkness behind me, and the Senator put a chain around my neck for an extra dose of theatrics and terror, grinning all the while. He gave my shoulder a friendly smack. “Knock ’em dead, kiddo.” He winked and walked away with a hop in his step.
The group of soldiers lined up on either side of the stocks. Any blood left in my face drained away as two of them pushed the platform forward to within three feet of the curtain, and the mob of angry and bloodthirsty citizens beyond it. Sparks jumped amongst the soldiers from the very twitchy, very sharp weapons they carried.
It was 10:00.
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