Salty sweat stung my eyeballs, but I kept my eye on Cephas’s scarred fists.
“Arms up Myra, never let your guard down,” Cephas huffed as he threw an uppercut that I barely managed to deflect. My soaked shirt clung to my small frame. While I was panting like a dog, Cephas had barely broken a sweat. Not a strand of his thick brown hair budged when he jabbed me in the jaw. His piercing forest eyes trained on my every muscle twitch, predicting my next move. He charged at me, each throw and kick as rapid as the blink of an eye. My body responded before my mind could process what to do. While Cephas attacked with the strength and accuracy of a lion, I used my small stature to weave around his attacks. I ducked under his fist and threw my elbow into his gut. I quickly withdrew, as he staggered back in surprise. Cephas raised his eyebrow as if he was impressed with me. Just as I thought he would compliment me, Cephas kicked me in the stomach. Pain blossomed in my body and I knew a nasty purple bruise would be tattooed on my skin. A boot appeared above my head, in a split second I rolled to the side as his foot landed near my ear. The cool grass tickled my exposed skin.
“Hey!” But my protest was ignored as Cephas continued to try to stomp my face into the ground. Eventually, I saw my opportunity, I hooked my ankle around his leg and tripped him on his next attack. Cephas tumbled into the soft grass, his eyes wide as I caught him off guard for the second time today. I threw myself on top of him and faked jabbing him in the neck to end the spar. “I win.” I relished the feeling of my lungs burning and my limbs feeling like rubber. I yanked Cephas to his feet.
“I guess fifteen years of training is paying off.” Cephas brushed off the grass and dirt from his clothes.
“Or, maybe you’re just getting old.” I nudged Cephas playfully as we trudged back into his farmhouse. The darkness of the night was just starting to fade away.
“I knew I never should have introduced you to fighting from such a young age,” Cephas grumbled under his breath as he passed me a cool glass of water. “What kind of a kid is intrigued by fighting and weapons anyway?” I arched my perfectly waxed brows at him.
“Don’t blame this on me. You are the only secret I’ve had since I was born, so basically, this entire training operation is your fault.” I quipped. Cephas’s brows furrowed together as if a solemn thought had drawn him away from our bantering. I was about to ask him what was wrong, but then the small obsidian box above the fireplace erupted with colors, forming the United flag. A single golden star danced among crossing lines of scarlet and navy. An alluring female voice echoed from the box.
“Good morning, sector one citizens of the United. Today, June first of 2090, is the inaugural First Day. It is the day where offspring who are deemed Pure and beneficial for society will join the workforce.” My stomach leaped towards my throat at the words.
“Hey kid,” Cephas interrupted the gentle, invisible voice. He shoved a plate of toast and eggs towards me. I eyed the food cautiously. “Today is a big day, you need to eat.” My heart sunk past my toes. Cephas saw my constipated expression and took back the plate. He then stuffed his face with the speed of a starving dog.
“Today is also a day of celebration,” the voice continued. A stunningly, gorgeous woman with sharp features appeared as a hologram above the box; an image of the United’s Monarch. Her raven hair was pulled back to show her small, elegant face. “On this day, our great country was founded by our three founding families, the Roy’s, Marcini’s and Khan’s. Our Monarch, Heera Roy has established a society which breeds only the finest citizens. She has done so without the support of the Marcini’s due to their show of weakness. As well as, without the aid of Ari Khan, who has abdicated his position in the Magistrate and become the ambassador of sector five.” the voice continued. On either side of the Monarch’s face, two other figures appeared. On her left was a lithe man with feline features. His black hair was slicked to the side, showing off his sharp jaw. On the other side of the Monarch was a woman with skin as white as snow and eyes as green as a field of emerald grass. I recognized the two as the legacies to the founding families. I had a vague recollection that the woman had committed suicide. That suicide had lived on in infamy. It condemned the Marcini’s family lineage as Tainted and useless to the United. Any sign of weakness was not tolerated by this great nation. “We celebrate the tenacity and wisdom of our Monarch who has continued to bring prosperity and success to the United.” The skin on my neck tingled as if ants were crawling on me. I glanced back and found Cephas staring at me. His eyes were crinkled and forehead creased with age lines.
“What?” I demanded. Cephas blinked rapidly. He focused back on his food.
“Nothing.” He said through a mouth stuffed with bacon.
Suddenly, the real Monarch materialized. She wore a perfectly tailored midnight pantsuit. Her presence sucked the air out of the room. Her almond eyes pierced through me as if she were standing in front of me.
“Citizens.” That one word from her lips sent an unreasonable shiver through my bones. “Today is not about my victory. Today is about our victory over our past selves. We have overcome our flaws and weakness. Now we breed only the most desirable of citizens. You who are established Pure’s have served the United well. You have brought only intelligence and success to your country. You have eliminated hate, sickness and all other evils which once corrupted our ancestors. Now, those who are joining the workforce today, I charge you to uphold this mantle which has been established. We expect nothing less than perfection because only the strong survive. Good luck to you all today, and remember, being a Pure comes with responsibilities. Don’t let your country down.” The strands of color were sucked back into the black box and the farmhouse fell silent.
The words “nothing less than perfection” played in my ears as an unpleasant melody. I looked at Cephas through my curtain of raven hair. His once bright eyes were staring blankly at the black box. He had rolled his sleeves up which showed the ugly reminder that Cephas was far from perfect. A capital T glared back at me. The branded flesh served as a nasty reminder of what happened to those that were not perfect. Cephas was one of the lucky ones. Cephas was breed to be a commander in the Magistrate’s army since he was a young child. When Cephas was around my age of twenty-three, he had taken his proficiency exam to prove his worth as a Pure citizen; he scored a 98%, a failing grade. The Magistrate deemed him unworthy of becoming a Pure citizen. They marked him Tainted.
Unlike most Tainted, Cephas was not condemned to death for being worthless to society. Instead, they gave him what they considered the dishonorable but necessary job of sector one’s farmer. If his story ended there it would have been just plain old depressing. But the Magistrate went on to make his life pure misery. Because Cephas was considered impure, he was thought incapable of breeding intelligent offspring, so they sterilized him. Unluckily for Cephas, he already bore an offspring, a beautiful baby girl who was slaughtered in her sleep by mercenaries from the Magistrate. In frustration and grief, his United partner committed suicide, an act considered a sign of mental weakness and therefore impure by the Magistrate. He was further exiled from society like a leper would be. Despite all the misfortune rained upon him, Cephas still had laughter lines etched around his eyes. From the young age that he saved my life, he treated me with kindness and respect, paying no mind to the status difference between us. However, the unspoken truth of our divergence was always there, rotting away like expired milk, until neither of us could no longer ignore the stench.
Cephas caught my gaze and covered his arm. He pointed at the sky, “you should head out, the sun will be coming up soon and you need to sneak back home.” I tried to follow his gaze outside, but I focused on the table in the middle of the living room where an array of weapons we had practiced with were laid out. Guns, knives, swords, and daggers glinted in the first rays of the rising sun. My muscles ached as if they were remembering practicing with them all night.
“Cephas,” my voice wavered.
“Myra.” He set down his glass of water. “Do you remember all those years ago when I first met you?” His question caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought about that day in a long time.
“I didn’t want to go to the learning pod that day. I wanted to be outside in the sun. I ran away from home with a backpack filled with apples.” I smiled at my childhood optimism. “But when I tried to climb your fence, I fell and broke my ankle.” I stretched out my ankle, just to remind myself that I had completely recovered and had nothing to fear anymore. “I was so scared that the Magistrate would terminate me. They have no use for cripples.”
“The Magistrate has no time for anyone who is not perfect,” Cephas said. He seemed to flash back to his deceased wife and offspring.
“But you helped me.” I quickly said. I didn’t want Cephas to go back to that dark place. “You reset my leg and let me rest until you could discreetly reach my family. You did that all without alerting any Magistrate doctors to my condition, for fear of reprisal. You helped a complete stranger, even though I was terrified of you.” I trailed off. I felt ashamed at myself for being so afraid of a Tainted; as if he had a contagious disease that would strip me of my purity.
“That is all in the past, Myra.”
“I almost shot you.” I sheepishly looked at the corner of the room where I remember hiding from Cephas.
Cephas grinned at me. “Yes, but the important part is that you didn’t. And because of that, you wanted to learn how to actually use a gun. Eventually, you were sneaking over here every night and I couldn’t get rid of you. I had no choice but to teach you everything I knew.”
“Why are you bringing up the past?” I tried to hide the annoyance in my voice, but Cephas’s grin told me I hadn’t done a very good job.
“Because you have come so far from that scared little girl and I couldn’t be prouder.” I felt my eyes misting up. I quickly averted my gaze to brush away a falling tear. “But today, just remember to be brave as you always have been. Keep your head up and your eyes open.” I smiled at the old phrase that Cephas had drilled into my head whenever he was training me. That phrase seemed to apply to daily life in the Magistrate. I tried to speak, but no words would come out, so I just nodded. Cephas tossed a piece of toast at me. “Eat that on your way back. You need energy for today.” Then he disappeared back outside to start his daily chores on the farm. I ripped off a piece of toast and relished the silence of this sanctuary that I had known since I was a child. A place far from the pressures of the United. Far from the recently strained relationship with my family. My family. At the thought of them, I inhaled the piece toast and sprinted for my home.