"Get up, girl!" Pain erupted in my side as a boot rammed into my bruised ribs, yanking me out of my dream.
I gasped, and curled up, praying the guard wouldn't kick me again. The dark walls of the windowless stone cell closed in around me.
I know better than to look
up at the guards when they’re angry, but I did anyway. Bald head, lines
creasing his forehead, and that really ugly, ginger goatee… it was Kicker.
Without even looking down at me, he lifted his foot and swung. Pain lanced through my middle and I doubled
over clutching at my abused stomach.
"Come on, you disgusting criminal. Get your lazy bones off the floor. You’ve got work to do." His deep voice sounded like rocks grating against each other. “You’re a drag on our city’s limited resources. The king should just kill the lot of you!”
Well, silly guards, if you killed us, then who would clean the streets and change your chamber pots? Kill us, and you’ll no longer have slave labor.
I forced myself up off the stone floor, even though every muscle in my body screamed in pain. Still clutching my sore stomach, I stood up and straightened out my tattered burlap sack.
I dashed for my cell door. If I could escape into the prison
yard, I could find my work unit, and Kicker wouldn’t put out the effort to find
me amongst the other dishonored.
"You ain't goin' nowhere yet, trash." His hand struck my cheek, and I stopped, too afraid of what he might do. "I told you to get up, not to run out. You know the rules. Your whole family unit has to be ready before we move into the yard."
The stones worn smooth from generations of dishonored sleeping on them were the safest thing to look at. Any sign that I could think for myself could - and would - be treated as rebellious.
I kept my head down but looked over at my family. My skeletal mother still sitting on the ground as the guard walked toward them. Oh please God, help her get up. She’s too thin and beaten already. She scrambled to her feet just in time as my stepfather, Jordan, just stood there. She stared at the ground, her thin frame shaking with fear. Next to them, my five half-siblings were already standing, waiting, their little shoulders hunched.
My older sister, Casia, used to always be by my side. She used
to stand with her head bent down and her short curly brown hair covering the
top of her head. She'd look over, and share a smile with me when the guards
weren’t looking. Her dark green eyes were inquisitive and defiant, not like
some of the Dishonored who would get this far off glassy haze over their eyes.
But there was no one next to me now. My heart clenched at the thought of the
nights Casia stayed in the guard’s rooms, but at least they didn't beat her
Kicker looked me up and down, licking his lips in a way that sent shivers down my spine. I was all too aware that my sister was getting older and wouldn’t be considered ‘fresh’ anymore. Soon she would be discarded, and she’d need to be replaced.
My beautiful and noble sister should have married a nobleman who would have protected and supported her. Instead she was just another gutter rat. Of course, I was also a gutter rat. I could never let go of my hatred for the king who had taken my father's life and left my family shivering in this place. We hadn’t even done anything wrong; we were stuffed in these cells simply because we were related to a criminal.
“Dishonored scum.” A glob of saliva hit my cheek. I did not move a muscle. This was a test of my obedience. “Get out of this cell and go earn a reason to breathe. Should just kill the lot of you.” He laughed as if he had just made a joke.
I slowly trudged forward out of the cell, my bare feet shuffling against the cold, unyielding stone. Behind me I could hear Kicker closing the cell, and I could feel the glob of spit fall off my cheek.
A hand grabbed my shoulder. “You know girl, as soon as you're old enough… I’d give you a better night and something better to put in your mouth than soup …”
I waited, not moving, my heart beating like the wings of a trapped fly. Should I reply? Was he trying to get me to speak so he could whip me? Would he whip me if I didn’t speak? I glanced down at my trembling hands, my left hand marked by a large D, a sign of my Dishonor to all Honored citizens of the City.
He laughed and slapped my butt. “Get out of here, girl. Go do your job. But I’ll be seeing that pretty face in my room mighty soon.”
I’ve heard these comments so often I no longer react. Sometimes I wondered if death or exile would be better than being Dishonored. At least if I was dead I wouldn’t be treated as less that human. Of course, exile wasn’t really an option. That was a fate worth than death; to be forced out of the city to go die in the radiation beyond the Wall.
I will never forget my father’s execution. He walked to his death as a nobleman, a man of honor, even if he was a traitor. Sometimes I hated him. Other times I wished he succeeded so no one had to live like animals.
He could have just ignored the system like every other nobleman, but then he wouldn’t have been my father.
A heavenly light shone through the door up ahead into the dark hallway. I quickly walked through it, and out onto the cobblestone covered yard where other prisoners were pouring out through other doorways, preparing for another long day of work.
At the far end of the yard I could see the tall smooth gray wall of the prison topped by concertino wire protecting the citizens of the city from the evil Dishonored.
I shuffled into line with the other dishonored who worked at Honorable Mr. Konjack’s house during the day. We were the lucky ones. People picked out of the Dishonored to work “easy” jobs. Most dishonored cleaned the streets and sewers. The best part though was that no one else in my family worked at his place. I am a selfish Dishonored; not wanting to share my good fortune with them, but they could care less about me so why should I care about them? We barely spoke much to each other anyway. And I didn’t want them to know about Kevin.
A big drop of water landed on my head. I glanced up at the pink sky overhead. When I was still Honored I asked Mother why the sky was pink, and a soft smile touched her heavily powdered face. We don’t really know. The ancients built the dome to protect us from the radiation outside the Wall. They chose the color, I guess.
Another drop hit my shoulder. A scheduled rain must have just finished, or they were preparing to turn on the water to give us a shower. Probably the shower. Normally they scheduled rain when no one was awake. Around us all the other work groups finished lining up in the prison yard.
“Alright, boys and girls. Time for a change of clothes.” Yup, time for a shower. I sighed and untied the string around my waist that I used as a belt for the sack-like ‘dress’. I learned long ago that privacy didn’t exist when you were Dishonored. The only reason we had clothing was for the comfort of the people that paid the king for us to do their dirty and disgusting jobs.
I pulled the simple burlap garment over my head and passed it toward the end of the line where the guards would collect it. I tensed up waiting for what I knew was to come, but I still jumped when the cold water hit me. Water came pouring out on us from overhead, and I quickly used my hands to clean myself. One nice thing about being a maid was that I was cleaner than most of the Dishonored.
Clean sacks were passed out and I grabbed one and passed the bundle on. I pulled the itchy material over my head and tied the belt back around my waist. Water dripped from my short hair and down my back, soaking the simple garment.
“Workers to your stations!” A man’s voice cackled over the old loudspeaker system that ran through the prison. It was time for the guards to get us to our places of work.
“Liv,” a girl to my right whispered at me. She should know better than to speak out of turn, but she was new. I’d stupidly befriended her and now I was paying the price. Maybe she would get the hint if I stopped whispering her warnings and instead just stayed silent. She would learn on her own if she wouldn’t listen to me, under the pain of the lash, the same way the rest of us learned.
“Forward March!” our group’s guard called out. He had a large scar running from his left temple to the right side of his jaw that he hid the lower half of with black stubble. I couldn’t help thinking of him as Scar-Face, especially since we were never told the names of any of the guards
We shuffled forward as the units in front of us made their slowly out the gate. Everyone had to get through the bottleneck of the gate. I could see the guards on this side watching us, pistols out and ready to end the life of anyone who tried to run.
We walked through the first gate into the empty area between the two walls, and traversed through the muddy walkway until we passed the second gate where more guards stood watch. There was a swath of barren land near the fence before the street became lined with tall brick apartments. Most were at least six stories tall, and many were abandoned.
Here and there chalky graffiti dotted the red brick. One read “The Spies see all.” Another simply stated “Life is Shit”. Others were unreadable and were simply splashes of color. A woman stood in front of a door, holding a dirty cloth over her mouth in the sign of disgust. A simple dirty smock adorned her frame, and her brown hair dangled down in tangled, greasy locks of unwashed hair.
“Hey woman, Get inside. Don’t want to find yourself marching with this lot do you?” One of the guards ahead of called out to her.
She lifted her rag away long enough to spit at the feet of some Dishonored ahead of us, and then turned and went into a doorway that was covered by a piece of cloth.
Scar-Face laughed and muttered only loud enough for the Dishonored close to him to hear, “Undesirables, always needing to show they rank above one group of people in this city.” He liked to make comments like this sometimes. We would never say anything back, for fear of punishment, but it was an odd behavior.
I looked again at the brick buildings with their boarded up windows and cloth covered doorways. This was probably the best location in the city for a fugitive to hide, with its interwoven buildings and masses of people who hated the king. Of course, the people would have to let go of their love for being superior to any fugitive. Most of them would probably turn a fugitive in the second they found them for the wealth and rise in status such an act would bring them. Everyone in the city would.
Eyes stared out from behind the curtained doorways, watching us, waiting for the marching lines to pass by, and then they in turn would head out to jobs in the farms.
The houses became nicer with market stalls lining the streets, but the markets were silent as we walked through. Many of the people out shopping and the shop keepers turned their heads away. Some children ran up, and one boy threw a rock screaming, “Dishonored Slime!”
I wanted to yell back, to say, “You don’t understand!” But I couldn’t. I had to stay silent, or I would be punished.
His friends all followed suit, and one hit me in the shin, and I stumble, but kept walking, blinking back tears. I was once one of them.
I could see it, me, running as fast as my little legs could to keep up with the boys as they ran screaming through the streets. I was just focused on breathing, on trying to keep up like I swore I would. Up ahead, all the boys were grabbing rocks, so I grabbed a small pebble and ran to where the rest of the boys were standing in the shade of a building.
In the distance I could see the Dishonored line approaching. I had no clue what we were doing, and no one seemed inclined to tell me. I leaned over toward one of the boys- What was his name? Daniel? That sounded right- I leaned over toward him, and whispered, “What are we doing.”
His lips turned upward in a parody of a smile, “You’ll see, girl.”
And then we were running again, toward the Dishonored line trudging toward us. Up at the front of the pack, Henry, lifted his arm and threw his rock at the Dishonored. “Dishonored Pigs!” He screamed at them and then ran backwards.
I could hear my father’s voice in that moment, “Little Lively Elizabeth, you mustn’t ever treat anyone who is less Honored than you badly. We are Most Honored, and we must keep our place by treating those souls who cannot attain our level of honor with kindness and forgiveness. You should not insult others of lesser honor like you did today, at the shop. It is their birth that makes them lesser. You must be understanding.”
As the other boys threw their rocks, I hesitated. I remembered my pact, not to complain, and to keep up. A Most Honored never broke their word. I threw the rock at a woman. “Dishonored viper in our streets,” I screamed out the two worst things I could think of to call someone. She flinched as my little pebble hit her leg. And I felt a fierce satisfactions and joy.
Daniel smiled at me, and this time the smile seemed genuine, echoing my own feeling of excitement, “Nice shot, Liz.”
What a horrifying little brat I’d been. There was a reason I refused to ever go by the name Liz again. I watched as the kids ran off to find some other entertainment, and I couldn’t help but remember the comradery of the gang. I couldn’t blame the children for their fun. They didn’t really know any better, and only copied what others before them did.
The apartments became nicer, and the shops were now inside the buildings. The streets were cleaner, and city guards walked the streets with their shiny breastplates and green trappings. One guard had his helmet off, and was watching us with a scowl. Stubble grew on his cheeks, and smooth black hair was hacked off at his ears. He’d been here every day for about a year now, watching us go by with that scowl. But I’d seen him before that.
My first time marching down prison road with my golden locks of hair freshly shaved off, and the salt of tears staining my cheeks as I was forced to march in the line, a guard near me to shove me forward or drag me up whenever I stumbled. I looked out, into the people on the streets that just days ago I’d been a part of. I saw my old friends running toward us, Henry in the lead with his silky black hair. I watched as he lifted his stone, about to throw it, and then he stopped, staring at me. I knew it was him. My pack leader.
He stared at me in shock, his arm still, all the other boys waiting for him to throw. He hurled his stone at me, “Traitor’s bitch! Dishonorable witch! Viper!” He launched the words at me. His eyes full of shame and betrayal.
Each word was like a punch in the gut. My pack leader declaring me to be the enemy now.
Every day after that, he’d be there, waiting to throw the first stone, to throw it directly at me. And then, one day he was just standing to the side, next to a shop, quietly glaring at me, the glare hurting more than the rocks. Someone else was leading the pack. I guess he’d grown out of the pack.
His eye caught mine for just a second, and for a moment the scowl smoothed away to a simply emotionless face, before returning as he looked elsewhere. It was so long ago that I’d joined his pack.
I’d run out of the house the second mother finished my braid. She’d yelled something from the doorway, but I’d ignored her, running out to meet my friends, led by the older Henry Hongew. Thinking back, he probably wasn’t actually that much older, but at the time he’d seemed so much older.
“You again?” His voice taunted my memory, facial features blurred by time, “What’s a girl doing here? We let you come that one time because Kevin insisted, but shouldn’t you be back doing embroidery or something? That’s what my sister does.”
Little seven year old me lifted her head up high, “I don’t have to be back doing anything. I don’t want anything to do with boring embroidery, dance lessons, or school.”
Henry laughed, “Fine, but don’t complain about anything we do, or fall behind. If you do, you can go complain to your mommy.”
“I won’t,” I proclaimed with all the strength of an Honored Daughter’s vanity.
“Swear it.” He spat on his hand and held it out, waiting for me to be disgusted and run away.
I stared at his hand for a moment.
“I thought so,” he laughed and started to retract his hand.
I spat into my hand, “I, Liz, swear I will keep up and not complain.”
His laugh stopped, and he reached forward, eyes staring into mine, “Well little one, we will see how you do.” His hand clasped mine firmly, and our deal was sealed.
Our group turned off from the main line onto a side street, and Henry disappeared. Scar-Face walked next to our ten person group letting the Dishonored at the front of the line lead. I looked over at Scar-Face, and saw his hand casually resting on his one shot pistol.
The apartments suddenly disappeared to an open park. It was a beautiful place, with towering trees covered in wide yellow leaves and pale grass. Benches were recessed back from the path. I could see a couple, sitting on the grass nearby sharing breakfast. The air was fresh, and smell sweet compared to the rest of the stale air of the city. A light breeze from a fan ruffled my hair. This was the only open place in the entire city. This beautiful, peaceful place that was the fastest way to Konjack’s house, and we were lucky our group was allowed to walk through here.
The trees gave way to Farm stacks, tall multi-layered, open aired buildings with giant lights on each level and sprinkler systems hanging over crops. I could hear cows mooing for their breakfast a couple stacks over.
The stacks continued on our left, and a stone wall rose up on our right, surrounding the castle grounds in the middle of the city. I couldn’t see the castle, but I could vaguely remember it. It was surrounded by an area similar to the park, and had a cobblestone courtyard. On one side of the courtyard, there was a stable made of beams and stone, a brown horse nose peeking out a window. Stepping out of our carriage, and seeing the matching stone and beam castle on the other side. The building, four stories, maybe five stories, tall. Little slits for windows. A tower near the door. It was so long ago, and the memory stopped there.
The stacks on the left were replaced by a stone wall. This was the Hongew residence. Henry’s home. His family was quite wealthy and hired servants instead of paying the King for the use of cheaper but less reliable Dishonored. His family owned many of the stacks next to their residence.
We passed by the gate to his home, and then continued with stone walls on either side. A man on a horse rode past us, his bay horse well-groomed and content. My pony was a wonderful little gray. I used to braid his main with little blue ribbons, and go riding along like this man.
We continued past another residence. I couldn’t remember who lived here anymore. Details weren’t always important to young selfish me.
Finally, the long walk ended an we were outside the Konjack residence. The gate was wide open, waiting for us to come in.
We walked into the yard and came to a halt. Kevin waited for us there with a smile on his face. His messy brown hair looked like he’d only combed it with his fingers, and his white blouse was only partially buttoned. My heart stuttered in my chest at the sight of him. We’d been childhood friends, and now…well, now I had the biggest crush on him.
Scar-Face tried to act casual, but I could see he was tense in the face of nobility. Kevin wasn’t the one who was usually waiting for us. Normally it was one of his hired servants.
“I don’t see why my father pays for these filthy dishonored. I guess because they are cheaper than actual servants,” Kevin smiled at Scar-Face as he said this, as if he was sharing a joke.
Scar-Face nodded stiffly. “Your family has always needed cheaper labor, my Lord.”
I was surprised by how frank Scar-Face was. A statement that blunt could get a person in deep trouble.
Kevin only laughed, “Too true, too true. Well, I’ll go ahead and take the three for the house and the rest can go to their jobs.” I could see his grey eyes looking straight at me for a second before turning back to the guard. “I do wish my father didn’t use any in the house, but it’s his call to make.”
“Yes, sir. Alright rats, house workers go to Sir Konjack and the rest of you are with me. Cleaning up manure is first, as always.” He didn’t normally tell us where to go unless there was someone new. It was probably for the benefit of Kevin.
I filed out along with the new girl, Reese, and an older woman named Rachel, who was born dishonored. She had worked for the Konjacks since she was old enough to leave her mother’s side . It was terrible that the system kept such good people as Rachel Dishonored simply because she was born this way. She was more a better person than the petty spoiled Most Honored that owned the city’s land.
“Liv,” Reese whispered again.
“Reese, just stop trying to talk to me or you’ll get us both whipped.” I couldn’t help snapping. I had to warn her. I had to get her to stop trying to talk to me in front of the guards, for her own safety and mine. She was just a murderer’s daughter like me, except she had no family left to look after her.
Kevin cleared his throat to get our attention. “Change quickly. My father has a big list of chores for you ladies today.”
He tossed us each a dress up, and we quickly stripped out of our burlap garment and into a servants garb. If visitors came to the house and we were seen, it was best for his status if we just looked like Undesirables.
It felt so soft and comfortable against my skin. The feel of it was simply wonderful. The cotton was so soft and delicately woven that every part of my skin the dressed touched tingled. In truth it was nothing compared to the gowns I once wore, but after the sack it was heaven in clothing.
I stopped admiring the feel of the cloth, for each chore on our list that wasn’t finished at the end of the day all three of us would receive one lashing of the whip. We normally finished our chores, but it was still best to be quick.
“First on the list is of course neatening your master’s chambers. Mistress Lianne will have your next chores after you finish that. I will see you at the end of the day.” He walked away. Today he hadn’t looked back, but some days he would and my heart would flutter.
There was one of us for each master of the house. I cleaned Kevin's room. Rachel cleaned the Lord Konjack’s room.
The new girl, Reese, cleaned Felise’s room. Felise was the Lord’s second son and the cause of his wife’s death. I remembered going to his mother’s funeral back when I was a nobleman’s daughter - before my honor and title were stripped away. Felise was only a year old when my father tried to kill the king.
“Hey, Liv…” I sighed as I walked towards the house. The new girl wasn’t going to give up until I responded.
“What happened to the previous girl in my position?”
I gulped. I will never forget the previous girl, kneeling with her hands bound to a post, the metallic smell of blood and the flies buzzing around the blood running freely from the lash marks on her back. The sound of a pistol being shot, and a hole appearing in her head, blood flowing out as her head fell to the side.
“I’m not sure you want to know.” It was best not to form attachments. Everyone died in this place. Maybe if she knew, she would stop bothering me and be more respectful about the rules I outlined for her. We entered the house through the servants' door and turned down the hallway that eventually lead to the rooms.
“She refused to sleep with a guard, and when he tried to force her, she hit him and tried to run. They caught her.” There. I said it. The best friend I had made in this place was dead. I could still see the tears streaming down her face as they dragged her toward the post. I begged her to plead for exile, but Annie had already made her mind up. I will always remember her last words to me: “Better dead than to lose what little honor we have, Liv. I would rather die a million painful ways than give up what little honor I hold for myself.”
Poor Annie. She never really had a choice. No one had a choice in this awful place ruled by the strong hand of that dreadful king. That’s why I would kill him.
The new girl stared at me shocked.
“Yup,” I said. “Be careful and take everything they give you.” I turned into Kevin’s room before she could reply. I was the only person he ever allowed in his room, so I closed the door quickly to make sure Reese didn’t follow me inside.