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The Right Thread
“Gissel!” I shrieked, clawing and biting at every restraining hand I could reach. “Gissel!”
My ten-year-old brother lay sprawled on a thick slab of stone. The slab was in the middle of a clearing, under open sky and a sun that shed light, but little warmth. It was cold for a Fourth-Month day, so cold that most of us were clad in our patchwork jackets. Around the clearing squatted living spaces of all shapes and mostly uniform sizes made of any sort of weather-proof fabric, from old tent material to shiny-sided leather, all from the days of the world-killers. And then there was me, surrounded by anyone brave enough to chance an eye-gouging or rib-elbowing as I fought with all of my strength to get to Gissel.
“Keep that girl back! This boy was caught stealing food. You all know this is his punishment,”said a tall, almost freakishly thin man. His dark brown eyes flashed when they met mine. “We don’t have room or food enough for thieves here, and you know it, child.”
I fiercely shook off the people holding me back and spat at the man’s feet. “That is what I think of scum like you, Forsnig. Let him go! He was hungry, is all!”
“That is no matter. He is old enough to know better, and so he shall pay the price.” Forsnig signaled to his very short, very overweight second-in-command, Alerin, who grinned. It was a creepy grin, full of yellow teeth and malice. And as he grinned, he drew a long steel dagger from under his pieced-together jacket.
“Aida,” Gissel suddenly called weakly, reaching one small hand out to me from where he lay on the thick slab. Alerin sneered at him, but we both ignored the fat man. My brother’s blue eyes were locked on mine, and I wasn’t going to look away if my life depended on it. I reached out to him, but distance and Alerin wouldn’t allow us to touch. “Stay alive, okay?” he rasped.
When I heard his quavering voice, I couldn’t help it. I nodded helplessly and broke down into hysterical tears. Trembling and sobbing, I was hauled away from my little brother. From around the corner of someone’s living space, I heard a loud thud from the direction of the stone slab and choked back a gasp. My little brother had been caught stealing one measly little crust of bread, and now—he was gone. Just like that.
The crowd of people dragging me along dumped me unceremoniously into the dirt in front of my recycled living space; for a long time, I just lay there on the ground. Never in my life had I cried so much so much as I did that day. That was where Berin found me later, curled up and asleep with tears still drying on my face. He carried me inside and let me sleep. When I woke up a few hours after Berin brought me into my living space, I waved him over from where he was stirring our dinner soup over a small stoveplate.
With his usual grace, he came and sat cross-legged on the floor next to me. Wrapping an arm around my shoulders, he asked, “What is it, Aida?”
“Berin? Have you been planning with Kinley to kill Forsnig?” I asked softly, not daring to look up and see if he was surprised at my knowledge.
His muscles tensed, but he kept his arm around my shoulders. “Aida, if he finds out, he will kill my entire family, Kinley’s family, and you. If you tell him—”
I cut him off with a glare. “You think I would tell him? Berin, he killed my ten-year-old brother for stealing a crust of bread! Why would I tell that twisted man anything but how scummish he is?” I paused, and then drew out of the comforting circle of Berin’s arms to meet his amber-eyed gaze. “I want to help you.”
He blanched, making his skin stand out in stark contrast to his ebony curls. “Aida, you’re only sixteen. You—”
“And you’re seventeen,” I interrupted. “What’s your point?”
“I—” He stopped, closed his eyes. Taking a deep, calming breath, he told me, “Aida, they all think you’re going to go insane and kill him because of what he did to Gissel. They’ll be suspicious if you start sneaking around his living space. And that’s all we can really do right now: sneak. We don’t even really have a plan yet.”
With a sigh, I lay back onto my canvas-covered straw bed, thinking, as Berin rose to stir the soup again. Staring at the patched-together ceiling of old tent material and blue plastic tarps above me, I followed the line of messy stitching with my eyes. The black thread held everything together, it was true, but not very effectively. I could see every place where the stitches were too far apart and so made a hole between the tarp and tent material.
Ingrange was like that, I observed to myself. Held together with thin threads. If one thread snapped, the whole thing could tear apart at the seams. With this thinking, we could take these people and their system. We just had to cut the right thread, and then this whole cruel place would fall down around their badly scrubbed ears. But what thread were we supposed to cut to make this work?
“Alerin!” I suddenly whisper-yelled, shooting up into a sitting position. I barely registered the savory scent of soup in my excitement.
Berin stared at me with those amber eyes of his as though I’d gone stark raving mad. After a little while, though, he caught on to my thinking and nodded animatedly, the strange look in his eyes becoming eagerness. Waving his ladle around and forgetting the soup in his enthusiasm, he whispered, “It’s perfect! With Alerin gone, Forsnig would have no spy, no evil little brain changing his mind on everything, and nobody to kill the ‘criminals’!”
“Because everybody else in Ingrange wants to honor their family by being honorable,” I added, nearly bouncing up and down. Alerin was our thread! Now for a knife…
Shadows hid around every small building, every living space, threatening to be another person, another dog, another thing that could leap out and call out a warning to the rest of the dingy city. The dirt under my bare feet was well-packed from use and cold from night. Lingering smells from dinner an hour earlier still wafted through the pathways between living spaces, carrying with them the bitter scent of many unwashed humans and the pungent odor of animal feces. The gibbous moon lit my way with a pale, milky whitish light, allowing me to dodge tell-tales in front of people’s door flaps that warned about a thief.
It had been a month since Gissel’s death, and we were still gathering intelligence on Alerin. I was our main spy, being the sneakiest of all of us. Our other main spy was a girl a few years younger than me named Pae whose older sister had been arrested and beheaded for chasing one of the city cats away from her living space—according to Ingrange law, we were forbidden from denying any of the mangy, flea-bitten city creatures shelter in our homes.
Pae and I traded off espionage nights; it was my night. Pae was taking care of her sickly father at home while I was out risking my neck for the chance to bring this city crashing down. Of course, I didn’t mind the potential peril I was putting myself into to gather information. Pae, Berin, Kinley, and Pae’s father Olfinn were the only people who cared about me anymore, so if I died, it wouldn’t matter too much, would it?
I forced my thoughts to focus on the task at hand. So far, we hadn’t gathered much about Alerin, so I had decided to creep in closer than ever before. For tonight, I had worn tight black clothing that would stay to my skin and not make noise; I couldn’t risk any extra sounds in the still, quiet atmosphere of Ingrange at night. I had even taken the time to wrap my long brown hair up in a dark cloth so it wouldn’t get in my way.
There! I spotted Alerin’s large living space between two smaller ones. Of course the man would have twice the space he needed. Shaking my head in disgust, I crept closer until I was right at the eastern corner of his space. Crouching down, I leaned my ear against the well-made tent fabric of it. I had to stifle a gasp when I heard multiple voices.
“Alerin, they won’t go for that,” came Forsnig’s voice from inside. I frowned. I hated that skinny twig of a man almost as much as I hated his fat second-in-command. “They may all be stupid unwashed little sheep that do whatever we say, but even they’re cleverer than that. Especially that Aida girl and her boyfriend.”
“Nobody listens to them after what happened with the girl’s brother.” I glared at where Alerin’s too-smooth, sickly sweet voice was coming from. In my mind, I could just picture him pacing back and forth, grinning that cruel grin and knowing that all of Ingrange was in his greedy, grubby hands. “Even if they found out it was a false conviction, nobody would believe them.”
That time, I hardly muffled my gasp. They killed Gissel on a false conviction! I could barely keep from leaping inside and murdering the both of them with my bare hands right then and there. Forcing myself to calm down, I continued to listen to the hushed conversation. Our entire rebellion was, right then, centered on what information we gathered, making this conversation crucial to our cause.
“But how do we convince them that Kinley is guilty? He is a good worker, an honest man, and he cares about them for some reason I cannot fathom. They won’t believe it,” Forsnig was saying. “They trust him.”
Alerin’s laugh was loud in the silence of the sleeping city, and it nearly made me jump in surprise. “Forsnig, how you ever became the leader of this city is beyond me.” He paused, probably for dramatic effect, then: “He must be framed. We will make it impossible to doubt that Kinley committed a crime against Ingrange, and then he will die like the other rebels we’ve had in the past.”
This information was overwhelming. How many people had they framed, then? My parents had both been killed a year after Gissel was born, convicted of buying more food than they needed. Frida, Millin, and Link, three young inventors, had all been executed three years before, charged with using non-recycled product in some of their inventions. There had never been any proof against any of them; the people of the city had just believed that Forsnig and Alerin were telling the truth. And then Gissel and Pae’s sister had been killed, and nobody had spoken for the kids who had never done anything wrong in their lives.
It was at that point in my thoughts that the talking from inside Alerin’s living space completely stopped. My mind was instantly on the alert, but it was already too late. There was a brief flash of intense pain, and then—
My crime? I was caught attempting to assassinate Forsnig, or so said old skin-and-bones hisself. Apparently Alerin could qualify this claim because, according to this extensive, well-thought-out tale of theirs, he was the one who stopped me from doing it.
I didn’t defend myself. I lay quietly on the same stone slab that Gissel had laid upon, and I stared at the sky. Forsnig’s voice was a constant drone on the edge of my subconsciousness, accompanied by the low hum of mutters from the gathered crowd. The stone was cold underneath me, slowly sapping my warmth and numbing my body. Above me, the sky was a perfect, clear blue, dotted with small cotton-fluff clouds and bright from the early morning sun. I vaguely heard shouts in the distance, but I ignored them. Berin and Kinley wouldn’t be able to save me from my fate.
Then a bitter smell made me wrinkle my nose in familiar disgust and snap out of my dreamlike state. Sitting up a little, I saw Alerin standing next to the stone slab with one of his trademark creepy smirks. “Hello, small one. Finally you are going to die! I was wondering when it would happen. Shame on you for spying at my living space.”
“You,” I spat, matching his quiet tone and glaring at him with all of the force of my hatred. “You killed Gissel for no reason. What did he ever do to you?”
The man raised an eyebrow and pushed a limp lock of dishwater-brown hair out of his eyes, keeping the smile fixed on his face. “You were getting confident. We had to make sure you wouldn’t be trusted by the citizens of Ingrange.”
My reflex reaction would have been to slap the man right then and there, but I refrained. Instead, I just kept my expression carefully blank as I stared into his pale blue eyes. “You killed my brother because you thought nobody would trust me when I reacted badly? They would all have reacted the same if their little brothers had been sentenced to death for stealing a bread crust. Wouldn’t you?” I addressed the crowd that still ringed the slab. “Would you just stand by and allow your siblings, your children, your husbands or wives, to be killed for something so trivial?”
There was doubt there; I could see it in the eyes of the people. All I had to do was wrench it to the surface, and then we’d have a full-scale rebellion. This could be another thread, one I hadn’t seen before. This could be the key to unraveling Ingrange so it could be started anew. Suddenly confident, I leaped to my feet atop the slab.
“She’s crazy! Don’t listen to her!” Forsnig cried as soon as I drew myself up to my full height. A withering glare from Pae’s father silenced his protests.
From atop the stone, I looked over the growing crowd of people. Near the middle of the sea of bodies, I saw Berin, Kinley, and Pae, and I smiled at them before speaking. “How many of you have had relatives or friends executed by Alerin and Forsnig for small matters? Anyone?” A few people raised their hands into the air, whispering among themselves. “How many of you have doubted the tales spun by these two?” I asked, more loudly than before.
As I gestured to the cowering leader and his furious second-in-command, the murmurs of the crowd people began to get louder. My spontaneous Plan B was working out perfectly. Triumph rose up inside of me.
“What evidence has there been other than the words of these two and their cronies?” I shouted, pointing an accusing finger toward Forsnig as the townspeople echoed my questions in gradually louder voices.
“None!” someone yelled back.
Suddenly, my legs were yanked out from beneath me. I hit the slab with an audible smack and just lay there for a moment, stunned. Alerin leaned over me, glaring into my eyes with a fury I could almost feel. “Your time’s up, small one.”
With those words, the hilt of his dagger came down on my temple. I instantly lost consciousness.
Berin’s voice was above me, but I couldn’t quite make out the words. A pair of strong arms lifted me up; the pain from just that one movement was so intense that I fainted again.
Before I did, I heard one word: “Alive.”
Alive. Yes, I’m still alive. For several months, we have been fixing the damage done by Forsnig and Alerin, who are both dead now on account of all of the murders they committed. They were the last executions of Old Ingrange, and the first truly guilty people to be charged.
With help from my few short moments speaking to the crowd a few months ago, doubt was raised, and the threads of Old Ingrange snapped, making way for the New Ingrange of today. Kinley is our new, benevolent leader. Pae, Berin, and I are his advisers. We are pulling the city back together, mending it carefully with new, stronger threads that will hold it together for years to come.
There will be no more executions. No girl will have to shriek and cry for her falsely accused brother ever again. New Ingrange will be a better place when we pick up the unraveled remains that fell apart with our revolution and fix what we helped destroy.
We are determined to stay stubbornly together, working to make our city a place to be free.
We will thrive.
We will live.
My name is Aida, and I am alive.