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Carve the Mark, Page 3

Veronica Roth

  "I don't know where your mother is," he finished. "I'm sure she's fine."

  "She didn't warn you about this?" Akos said.

  "Maybe she didn't know," Cisi whispered.

  But they all knew how wrong that was. Sifa always, always knew.

  "Your mother has her reasons for everything she does. Sometimes we don't get to know them," Aoseh said, a little calmer now. "But we have to trust her, even when it's difficult."

  Akos wasn't sure their dad believed it. Like maybe he was just saying it to remind himself.

  Aoseh guided the floater down in their front lawn, crushing the tufts and speckled stalks of feathergrass under them. Behind their house, the feathergrass went on as far as Akos could see. Strange things sometimes happened to people in the grasses. They heard whispers, or they saw dark shapes among the stems; they waded through the snow, away from the path, and were swallowed by the earth. Every so often they heard stories about it, or someone spotted a full skeleton from their floater. Living as close to the tall grass as Akos did, he'd gotten used to ignoring the faces that surged toward him from all directions, whispering his name. Sometimes they were crisp enough to identify: dead grandparents; his mom or dad with warped, corpse faces; kids who were mean to him at school, taunting.

  But when Akos got out of the floater and reached up to touch the tufts above him, he realized, with a start, that he wasn't seeing or hearing anything anymore.

  He stopped, and hunted the grasses for a sign of the hallucinations anywhere. But there weren't any.

  "Akos!" Eijeh hissed.


  He chased Eijeh's heels to the front door. Aoseh unlocked it, and they all piled into the foyer to take off their coats. As he breathed the inside air, though, Akos realized something didn't smell right. Their house always smelled spicy, like the breakfast bread their dad liked to make in the colder months, but now it smelled like engine grease and sweat. Akos's insides were a rope, twisting tight.

  "Dad," he said as Aoseh turned on the lights with the touch of a button.

  Eijeh yelled. Cisi choked. And Akos went stock-still.

  There were three men standing in their living room. One was tall and slim, one taller and broad, and the third, short and thick. All three wore armor that shone in the yellowish burnstone light, so dark it almost looked black, except it was actually dark, dark blue. They held currentblades, the metal clasped in their fists and the black tendrils of current wrapping around their hands, binding the weapons to them. Akos had seen blades like that before, but only in the hands of the soldiers that patrolled Hessa. They had no need of currentblades in their house, the house of a farmer and an oracle.

  Akos knew it without really knowing it: These men were Shotet. Enemies of Thuvhe, enemies of theirs. People like this were responsible for every candle lit in the memorial of the Shotet invasion; they had scarred Hessa's buildings, busted its glass so it showed fractured images; they had culled the bravest, the strongest, the fiercest, and left their families to weeping. Akos's grandmother and her bread knife among them, so said their dad.

  "What are you doing here?" Aoseh said, tense. The living room looked untouched, the cushions still arranged around the low table, the fur blanket curled by the fire where Cisi had left it when she was reading. The fire was embers, still glowing, and the air was cold. Their dad took a wider stance, so his body covered all three of them.

  "No woman," one of the men said to one of the others. "Wonder where she is?"

  "Oracle," one of the others replied. "Not an easy one to catch."

  "I know you speak our language," Aoseh said, sterner this time. "Stop jabbering away like you don't understand me."

  Akos frowned. Hadn't his dad heard them talking about their mom?

  "He is quite demanding, this one," the tallest one said. He had golden eyes, Akos noticed, like melted metal. "What is the name again?"

  "Aoseh," the shortest one said. He had scars all over his face, little slashes going every direction. The skin around the longest one, next to his eye, was puckered. Their dad's name sounded clumsy in his mouth.

  "Aoseh Kereseth," the golden-eyed one said, and this time he sounded . . . different. Like he was suddenly speaking with a thick accent. Only he hadn't had one before, so how could that be? "My name is Vas Kuzar."

  "I know who you are," Aoseh said. "I don't live with my head in a hole."

  "Grab him," the man called Vas said, and the shortest one lunged at their dad. Cisi and Akos jumped back as their dad and the Shotet soldier scuffled, their arms locked together. Aoseh's teeth gritted. The mirror in the living room shattered, the pieces flying everywhere, and then the picture frame on the mantel, the one from their parents' wedding day, cracked in half. But still the Shotet soldier got a hold on Aoseh, wrestling him into the living room and leaving the three of them, Eijeh, Cisi, and Akos, exposed.

  The shortest soldier forced their dad to his knees, and pointed a currentblade at his throat.

  "Make sure the children don't leave," Vas said to the slim one. Just then Akos remembered the door behind him. He seized the knob, twisted it. But by the time he was pulling it, a rough hand had closed around his shoulder, and the Shotet lifted him up with one arm. Akos's shoulder ached; he kicked the man hard in the leg. The Shotet just laughed.

  "Little thin-skinned boy," the soldier spat. "You, as well as the rest of your pathetic kind, would do better to surrender now."

  "We are not pathetic!" Akos said. It was a stupid thing to say--something a little kid said when he didn't know how to win an argument. But for some reason, it stopped everyone in their tracks. Not just the man with his hand clamped around Akos's arm, but Cisi and Eijeh and Aoseh, too. Everyone stared at Akos, and--damn it all--heat was rushing into his face, the most ill-timed blush he had ever felt in all his life, which was saying something.

  Then Vas Kuzar laughed.

  "Your youngest child, I presume," Vas said to Aoseh. "Did you know he speaks Shotet?"

  "I don't speak Shotet," Akos said weakly.

  "You just did," Vas said. "So how did the family Kereseth find itself with a Shotet-blooded son, I wonder?"

  "Akos," Eijeh whispered wonderingly. Like he was asking Akos a question.

  "I do not have Shotet blood!" Akos snapped, and all three of the Shotet soldiers laughed at once. It was only then that Akos heard it--he heard the words coming out of his mouth, with their sure meaning, and he also heard harsh syllables, with sudden stops and closed vowels. He heard Shotet, a language he had never learned. So unlike graceful Thuvhesit, which was like wind catching snowflakes in its updraft.

  He was speaking Shotet. He sounded just like the soldiers. But how--how could he speak a language he had never learned?

  "Where is your wife, Aoseh?" Vas said, turning his attention back to their dad. He turned the currentblade in his fist, so the black tendrils shifted over his skin. "We could ask her if she had a dalliance with a Shotet man, or if she shares our fine ancestry and never saw fit to tell you about it. Surely the oracle knows how her youngest son came to be fluent in the revelatory tongue."

  "She's not here," Aoseh said, terse. "As you may have observed."

  "The Thuvhesit thinks he is clever?" Vas said. "I think that cleverness with enemies gets a man killed."

  "I'm sure you think many foolish things," Aoseh said, and somehow, he stared Vas down, despite being on the ground at his feet. "Servant of the Noaveks. You're like the dirt I remove from under my fingernails."

  Vas swung at their dad, striking his face so hard he fell to the side. Eijeh yelled, fighting to get closer but intercepted by the Shotet who still held Akos's arm. Held both brothers without effort, in fact, like it cost him nothing at all, though Eijeh, at sixteen seasons, was almost man-size.

  The low table in the living room cracked right down the middle, from end to end, splitting in half and falling to each side. All the little things that had been on top of it--an old mug, a book, a few scraps of wood from their dad's whittling--scattere
d across the floor.

  "If I were you," Vas said, low, "I would keep that currentgift under control, Aoseh."

  Aoseh clutched his face for a tick, and then dove, grabbing the wrist of the short, scarred Shotet soldier standing off to the side and twisting, hard, so his grip faltered. Aoseh grabbed the blade by the handle and wrenched it free, then turned it back on its owner, his eyebrows raised.

  "Go ahead and kill him," Vas said. "There are dozens more where he came from, but you have a limited number of sons."

  Aoseh's lip was swollen and bleeding, but he licked the blood away with the tip of his tongue and looked over his shoulder at Vas.

  "I don't know where she is," Aoseh said. "You should have checked the temple. This is the last place she would come, if she knew you were on your way here."

  Vas smiled down at the blade in his hand.

  "It is just as well, I suppose," he said in Shotet, looking at the soldier who held Akos with one hand and was pressing Eijeh to the wall with the other. "Our priority is the child."

  "We know which one is youngest," the soldier replied in the same language, jerking Akos by the arm again. "But which of the other two is the second-born?"

  "Dad," Akos said desperately. "They want to know about the Smaller Child. They want to know which one of them is younger--"

  The soldier released Akos, but only to swing the back of his hand at him, hitting him right in the cheekbone. Akos stumbled, slamming into the wall, and Cisi choked on a sob, bending over him, her fingers stroking her brother's face.

  Aoseh screamed through his teeth, and lunged, plunging the stolen currentblade deep into Vas's body, right under the armor.

  Vas didn't even flinch. He just smiled, crookedly, wrapped his hand around the blade's handle, and tugged the knife free. Aoseh was too stunned to stop him. Blood poured from the wound, soaking Vas's dark trousers.

  "You know my name, but you don't know my gift?" Vas said softly. "I don't feel pain, remember?"

  He grabbed Aoseh's elbow again, and pulled his arm out from his side. He plunged the knife into the fleshy part of their dad's arm and dragged down, making him groan like Akos had never heard before. Blood spattered on the floor. Eijeh screamed again, and thrashed, and Cisi's face contorted, but she didn't make a sound.

  Akos couldn't stand the sight. It had him on his feet, though his face still ached, though there was no purpose to moving and nothing he could do.

  "Eijeh," he said, quiet. "Run."

  And he threw his body at Vas, meaning to dig his fingers into the wound in the man's side, deeper and deeper, until he could tear out his bones, tear out his heart.

  Scuffling, shouting, sobbing. All the voices combined in Akos's ears, full of horror. He punched, uselessly, at the armor that covered Vas's side. The blow made his hand throb. The scarred soldier came at him, and threw him to the floor like a sack of flour. He put his boot on Akos's face and pressed down. He felt the grit of dirt on his skin.

  "Dad!" Eijeh was screaming. "Dad!"

  Akos couldn't move his head, but when he lifted his eyes, he saw his dad on the ground, halfway between the wall and the doorway, his elbow bent back at a strange angle. Blood spread like a halo around his head. Cisi crouched at Aoseh's side, her shaking hands hovering over the wound in his throat. Vas stood over her with a bloody knife.

  Akos went limp.

  "Let him up, Suzao," Vas said.

  Suzao--the one with his boot digging into Akos's face--lifted his foot and dragged Akos to his feet. He couldn't take his eyes off his dad's body, how his skin had broken open like the table in the living room, how much blood surrounded him--how can a person have that much blood?--and the color of it, the dark orange-red-brown.

  Vas still held the bloodstained knife out from his side. His hands were wet.

  "All clear, Kalmev?" Vas said to the tall Shotet. He grunted in reply. He had grabbed Eijeh and put a metal cuff around his wrists. If Eijeh had resisted, at first, he was finished now, staring dully at their dad, slumped on the living room floor.

  "Thank you for answering my question about which of your siblings we are looking for," Vas said to Akos. "It seems you will both be coming with us, by virtue of your fates."

  Suzao and Vas flanked Akos, and pushed him forward. At the last second he broke away, falling to his knees at his dad's side and touching his face. Aoseh felt warm and clammy. His eyes were still open, but losing life by the second, like water going down a drain. They skipped to Eijeh, who was halfway out the front door, pressed forward by the Shotet soldiers.

  "I'll bring him home," Akos said, jostling his dad's head a little so he would look at him. "I will."

  Akos wasn't there when the life finally left his dad. Akos was in the feathergrass, in the hands of his enemies.


  I WAS ONLY SIX seasons old when I went on my first sojourn.

  When I stepped outside, I expected it to be into sunlight. Instead, I walked into the shadow of the sojourn ship, covering the city of Voa--the capital of Shotet--like a massive cloud. It was longer than it was wide, its nose coming to a gentle point with panes of unbreakable glass above it. Its metal-plated belly was battered by over a decade of space travel, but some of the overlapping sheets were polished where they had been replaced. Soon we would be standing inside it, like masticated food inside the stomach of a great beast. Near the rear jets was the open terminal where we would soon board.

  Most Shotet children were permitted to go on their first sojourn--our most significant rite--when they were eight seasons old. But as a child of the sovereign, Lazmet Noavek, I was prepared for my first journey through the galaxy two seasons earlier. We would follow the currentstream around the galaxy's edge until it turned darkest blue, and then descend to a planet's surface to scavenge, the second part of the rite.

  It was traditional for the sovereign and his or her family to enter the sojourn ship first. Or at least, it had been traditional since my grandmother, the first Noavek leader of Shotet, had declared it to be so.

  "My hair itches," I said to my mother, tapping at the tight braids on the side of my head with my fingertip. There were only a few, pulled back and twisted together so my hair wouldn't fall in my face. "What was wrong with my regular hair?"

  My mother smiled at me. She wore a dress made of feathergrass, the stalks crossed over the bodice and extending to frame her face. Otega--my tutor, among other things--had taught me that the Shotet had planted an ocean of feathergrass between us and our enemies, the Thuvhesit, to keep them from invading our land. My mother commemorated that clever act now, with her dress. By design, everything my mother did echoed our history.

  "Today," she told me, "is the first day that most Shotet will lay eyes on you, not to mention the rest of the galaxy. The last thing we want is for them to fixate on your hair. By fixing it up, we make it invisible. Understand?"

  I didn't, but I didn't press the issue. I was looking at my mother's hair. It was dark, like mine, but a different texture--hers was so curly it trapped fingers, and mine was just straight enough to escape them.

  "The rest of the galaxy?" Technically, I knew how vast the galaxy was, that it held nine significant planets and countless other fringe ones, as well as stations nestled in the unfeeling rock of broken moons, and orbiting ships so large they were like nation-planets unto themselves. But to me, planets still seemed about as large as the house where I had spent most of my life, and no larger.

  "Your father authorized the Procession footage to be sent to the general news feed, the one accessed by all Assembly planets," my mother replied. "Anyone who is curious about our rituals will be watching."

  Even at that age I did not assume that other planets were like ours. I knew we were unique in our pursuit of the current across the galaxy, that our detachment from places and possessions was singular. Of course the other planets were curious about us. Maybe even envious.

  The Shotet had been going on the sojourn once a season for as long as our people had ex
isted. Otega had told me once that the sojourn was about tradition, and the scavenge, which came afterward, was about renewal--the past and the future, all in one ritual. But I had heard my father say, bitterly, that we "survived on other planets' garbage." My father had a way of stripping things of their beauty.

  My father, Lazmet Noavek, walked ahead of us. He was the first to pass through the great gates that separated Noavek manor from the streets of Voa, his hand lifted in greeting. Cheers erupted at the sight of him from the huge, pulsing crowd that had gathered outside our house, so dense I couldn't see light between the shoulders of the people before us, or hear my own thoughts through the cacophony of cheers. Here in the center of the city of Voa, just streets away from the amphitheater where the arena challenges were held, the streets were clean, the stones under my feet intact. The buildings here were a patchwork of old and new, plain stonework and tall, narrow doors mixed with intricate metalwork and glass. It was an eclectic mixture that was as natural to me as my own body. We knew how to hold the beauty of old things against the beauty of the new, losing nothing from either.

  It was my mother, not my father, who drew the loudest cry from the sea of her subjects. She extended her hands to the people who reached for her, brushing their fingertips with her own and smiling. I watched, confused, as eyes teared up at the sight of her alone, as crooning voices sang her name. Ylira, Ylira, Ylira. She plucked a feathergrass stalk from the bottom of her skirt and tucked it behind a little girl's ear. Ylira, Ylira, Ylira.

  I ran ahead to catch up to my brother, Ryzek, who was a full ten seasons older than I was. He wore mock armor--he had not yet earned the armor made from the skin of a slain Armored One, which was a status symbol among our people--and it made him look bulkier than usual, which I suspected was on purpose. My brother was tall, but lean as a ladder.

  "Why do they say her name?" I asked Ryzek, stumbling to keep up with him.

  "Because they love her," Ryz said. "Just as we do."

  "But they don't know her," I said.

  "True," he acknowledged. "But they believe they do, and sometimes that's enough."

  My mother's fingers were stained with paint from touching so many outstretched, decorated hands. I didn't think I would like to touch so many people at once.