Realm Rule 1:
Honour thy Autokratōr and esteem thy Realm. Both come before thyself.
Today is the biggest day of my life. I will find out my name.
‘It’ll be fine, Seven. You’re going to ace it,’ whispers Six. I tilt my head closer as her quiet voice tickles my ear.
I turn my head to face her, and frown, lost in her dilated pupils. The impending Caste Test is forgotten for that second. ‘Maybe.’
I’m soaked and sticky, surrounded by twenty fellow Greenhorns from our training camp. Well, at least we’re Greenies for one more day…after this, we’ll either be someone else or no-one. Named or Nameless.
The smell of damp, sweat, and urine fills the back of the truck. Twelve wears a permanent frown, One bites his nails, and Nine’s hands shake on her tapping legs. The road out of camp is bumpy and the rain outside thumps on the canvas roof.
The Guardian stares at me. Smiler, I call him. He’s never seen a fluoride bar in his life and his teeth are rotting, black shards of obsidian. He must’ve heard something but can’t be sure I spoke otherwise he’d smack me over the head with his rifle.
‘Silence. ‘Specially you, Seven. And you, Six.’ He gnashes his decaying teeth, glowering at me, then her.
I stare down, rubbing my scarred back. My stomach howls in hunger. I didn’t eat the meal they gave us last night. Nerves kicked in big style. The prospect of finding out my real name sent my guts jumping like an angry snake was lodged in there.
When we’re alone my foster mum, Cherish, calls me Cas.
But it can’t compare to a real name.
A name will make me human.
And closer to discovering my real family.
Part of the Realm.
It’s all I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember.
Six chews her nails, then stares at them. A fly crawls through her matted, blonde hair. At least, it would be blonde if it were clean. Flecks of mud and dust make it sludge brown. If we get assigned to Military, I heard we’d get to shower any time we want.
The truck turns hard, and I’m pressed against Six. The bare skin of our arms touch. I keep mine there for much longer than I should. I close my eyes. Then it’s gone and my skin is cold once more.
I rub my arms to heat up, but it’s useless, so instead I rub the tattoo on my triceps. E820927. It gets lasered off when we graduate. If we graduate.
Every Greenie in our camp wears the same thing – a sleeveless grey top, with calf-length grey trousers. No shoes, of course. The Guardians swagger around in their worn boots all day, thinking they’re big shots. Yes, shoes would be real good.
I assess the twenty Greenhorns around me. Some have stern, focused looks. Those are the ones who’ll pass the Caste Test, get assigned to their role and find out their names. But some have pale, panicked faces. Those will fail. Especially Three. His round, colourless face is sodden. His fear makes me angry. He’s given up. I want to shake him, but it wouldn’t do any good. He used to be decent, maybe even one of the better ones, but now he’s done for.
I shiver at the thought. We’ve all heard the rumours.
The truck stops and a Guardian opens the back door.
‘Out. Single file.’
We form a straight line, facing a large criss-cross wire gate. All that metal makes me shudder. Like the Cage of Solace.
Rain splashes down hard, creating a mud bath at my feet. I squeeze my toes into it, releasing some of my nerves. Floodlights surround us, making the night timid.
‘Scary, huh?’ whispers Six.
Smiler’s on us in an instant. ‘Who spoke? I heard something. One of you spoke.’
The group of Greenies remains silent. Smiler prowls. He slides his hood back and eyes us all, one-by-one. As his hair gets wetter, his frown gets deeper.
‘It was her,’ says Twelve, pointing at Six.
Smiler licks his lips as he approaches Six. ‘Ah, the pretty little Alpha. Not sure I’ve lashed you before. Down on the ground. Lift your top…’
Six leans away, her hands trembling as she grips the bottom of her shirt. She’s always in-line. She’s never been in trouble before.
‘It was me,’ I say, my jaw tightening.
Smiler turns his ugly head.
‘No,’ says Six.
‘It was me. I said it.’ I nod to Six, who shakes her head. Her eyes are wet and wide.
Smiler’s smile capsizes. ‘Down. Top up. Three lashes.’
I fall onto the ground and slide my top up. My stomach squelches against the soft mud beneath, my back exposed to the rain.
Smiler hands me the wooden stick, covered in deep bite marks. Probably half of them are mine. I place it between my teeth and wait. The whip snaps through the silent night air as he gets ready. An earthworm slides and burrows through the wet mud, struggling to survive.
Smiler’s foot pushes my head further into the mud.
My teeth bite down into the wood, a splinter piercing my gum. My eyes scrunch closed to better hide the tears. My back arches as a reflex to the lash.
‘Flat on the ground, Seven. This’s good for you. Embeds discipline and respec’’. And some nasty scars to remind you of both.’
The leather slices through the skin still raw from the first lash. My fists ball and bury into the mud. I force my face further into the sludge, trying to disappear, hoping it’s over. Maybe the worm has it right. My teeth are now embedded in the wood, my mouth almost numb. But I know there’s one more to come.
I hold my breath.
It’s the worst. The end of the whip catches my cheek, right up to the corner of my eye. The blood flows down my face as I freeze, unable to unclench. My back is on fire, but my face is worse, like a knife carved right through it. I lay it on the cold, wet ground, hoping the temperature will soothe it, but it only stings more.
Rough hands pull me to my feet. ‘Good, Seven. Took it like a Guardian. No crying or whimpering. You might have a future, yet.’ Smiler gives me a broad grin, showing every one of his five decaying teeth, and moves to the front of the group. He indicates for us to follow.
I pull my top down over my bleeding, stinging back. That sure isn’t going to help during the Test. But I would never be able to watch Six get lashed.
I try to use the emotional shutdown technique. Imagine the blank, white wall. Close eyes. Relax muscles. Slow breathing. But it’s not working. Every movement, every breath is a continuum of agony.
A small hand from behind brushes mine. I turn as much as I dare and see Six. She nods but doesn’t risk talking. I nod back and walk on, the pain dissolving.
Our group marches, silent and in sync, towards a low, square building, unlike anything back at camp. The gutters around the flat roof overflow and cascading waterfalls give the metallic walls a shiny, cold look.
A barbed wire fence claws twenty feet into the air. From two towers, men with large rifles watch us. One of them fixes me with a frosty stare. I turn away and scold myself for losing focus again.
As we pass the front doors, a yellow laser drifts through the air, scanning our tattoos. The number E820927 appears on a screen to the left. My number. My name.
A plastic frame beeps as we march beneath it. They could be metal detectors, which they had at the old A-reports. I want to ask, but Realm Rule gigabillion, or whatever; think, but don’t speak out of turn. Crap, I can’t even remember the Rules.
Breathe, Seven. You know this. It’s Rule 16, isn’t it? This is what happens when you lose focus. Loss of focus leads to confusion, which leads to frustration, and ultimately to indiscipline. Nobody wants that. Not the Autokratōr. Not the Realm. Not me.
We stand for a moment in a long corridor. Cold, sterile, and white. I feel cleaner just being here. Once everyone passes the detector, or whatever it is, we begin moving again, deeper into the station. Six’s eyes are wide, taking in every detail.
At the end of the atrium, there are two doors, one labelled female and the other male. Three new adults scrutinise us. I wonder if they’ve started assessing us already.
A lady, tall and thin, pushes a strand of dark hair from her stretched face, and holds out her skinny arms. She’s dressed in white, like everybody who serves the Realm. I can’t wait for my own whites. My bones ache at the thought of belonging.
‘I’m Serra. The Chief Tester for this centre. Today’s a big day for you all. If you perform well enough, you get assigned a role and serve our noble Autokratōr Tyndareus. Hail the Autokratōr. Serve the Realm.’
Everyone mimics her, in unison. It’s strange but I don’t want to say the memorised words. I’ve never hesitated before. I pause, glancing at Six, but finally murmur it, just a second after the others. Serra doesn’t notice. She smiles and walks through an unmarked white door.
I know I should respect her because she works for the Realm, but I don’t trust her forced smile as she turns away. I’ve seen that fake smile before, when that scientist from Circle City came and took my blood. ‘It’s just a little sample we take from everyone,’ he said. He lied. Broke Rule 5. Nobody else had blood taken.
Several Guardians, who’d been waiting behind us, now stand beside the marked doors.
‘Greenhorn males through here, Greenhorn females through there. Time to get cleaned up.’
Six gives me a small smile before disappearing.
Inside the changing room, my bare feet trace dimpled cream tiles. Rows and rows of white sleeveless shirts and three-quarter length trousers hang from pegs all around the room. In the centre are showers.
‘Remove your dirty clothes and place them into this garbage chute,’ shouts a squat, dark-haired Guardian. ‘Then shower, properly. The Testers don’t want to deal with filthy Greenhorns. Dry yourselves with towels from the shelf in back, then put on a set of whites. There will be one that fits you. Find it.’
The Guardians exit the room through a second door at the back. We’re alone.
I stare at the boys from my training camp. They don’t speak to me usually, unless it’s to throw an insult, so I look for a spot to change, imagining life in the City. I’ve seen incredible pictures. The Realm covers all Europa, but I only care about The Hall of Ancestral Records.
‘What do you think will be in the Test, Rex?’ asks Thirteen.
‘It changes each year to make sure we can’t prepare for it,’ says Twelve. His fan club calls him Rex. Thinks he’s better than all of us and can get a name without earning it. He’s the biggest grub around here.
My body tenses as I approach him. ‘Why’d you tell Smiler it was Six?’
Two of his groupies stand in my way.
‘She’ll have enjoyed your little hero act. Pity you’ll always know I’ve been there first.’
Twelve laughs and his fans copy. I surge for him, try to fight my way past Thirteen and One to hit him. Hard. With anything. My arms, legs and head jerk back and forth, but four of them have me held tight-like.
‘Always the hot head, Seven. That’s why you’ll never make it in the Realm. I’ll need to speak to Father about getting you a nice Guardian job back here at camp. You and Smiler can be Gutters together.’
I continue to wriggle but I’m wedged in. My back’s agony, wet blood sticking my shirt to my skin.
‘Leave him.’ It’s One.
‘What’s it to you?’ asks Twelve.
‘It’s not a fair contest, four on one. Let him go, he’s been through enough already, no?’
I turn to One. He towers over the rest of us, staring at Twelve.
‘Leave him, boys. Not worth it,’ says Twelve, turning back to his shower.
They let me go and move into the water.
Nobody messes with an Enhanced. And One is clearly that. He’s what the Realm is all about: honesty, integrity, and fair play. Unlike Twelve or Smiler.
‘Thanks,’ I say.
He nods heads to a shower at the far end of the room, alone.
I remove my bloody, wet, and muddy shirt with care and step into the hot water.
Wisps of steam circulate the room as I enjoy the first warm shower I’ve ever had – or recall having. My earliest memories are of life in camp and one or two snippets of time when Cherish first took me in. She’s always been there for me; sneaking extra food or clean clothes, even when I haven’t earned them. Those other Greenies hate it, but it saved me. Plus, the Guardians love her, so she gets away with it.
My skin turns red, and I push my muddy hair off my face. The water stings the bleeding flesh on my back, but I force myself to stay under. I won’t give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me in pain. Turning for relief, the water running down my chest, I close my eyes and enjoy the pulses of the shower. I want to stay under here forever.
I wriggle my toes in the rust-coloured liquid pooling at my feet. I will get a shower every morning in Military training. And probably clean clothes, too. And I’ll be with a group that like me. Maybe.
‘What you hoping for, Rex?’ Thirteen asks.
‘Military or Academics. As long as I don’t get exiled. I’d rather be killed than take that shame.’
‘Really? You’d rather die than be exiled?’ asks another boy. I think it’s One.
‘Absolutely. Living off next to nothing, fighting and killing each other for scraps of food. Nothing but the rags on their backs. And worst of all, they don’t even have a name. I’d never live like that.’
‘And cannibals,’ adds Thirteen. ‘I heard some of them are scutting cannibals. Leeches, they call them.’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me,’ says Twelve. ‘Anyway, Father says he’ll talk to the Autokratōr himself if my score is high enough. I might even get assigned to the Black Knights. Father used to serve with them on the front line of the Eurasian border.’
The Greenhorns surrounding him give gasps of awe. He’s told everyone this story, a million times, but they always lap it up. Black Knights, what crunk. I’ll still hammer him in the Physical Test.
‘Did you hear about that new Black Knight, Rex? The telescreen showed him in a training drill last night. He was so good, they promoted him right up. That could be you!’ It’s Thirteen. Sniveller.
‘He’s no big deal. He’s not even been in combat yet. Father served for twenty years.’
Here we go again. His Father is some kind of big deal, apparently. It’s why he gets to see and know his parents, while the rest of us runts must fight and scrape for any kind of identity.
‘Are your parents coming to the Destination ceremony?’ ask Thirteen.
‘No, it would be beneath them to travel to such a place.’ Twelve turns to me. ‘Only muck like Seven’s wet-nurse will be there. Can’t believe he took lashes for his girlfriend, the big sog.’
My eyes blaze. My fists clench. I take two steps forward. ‘Shut your mouth or I’ll break it.’ The words spit out angrier than the wounds on my back.
He takes a step forward, a mammoth grin on his face.
I swing for him, but my feet slide on the soaked tiles, and I fall hard. On my back.
Seconds pass where I hear, see, smell nothing. The pain plummets me into an abyss, which I don’t want to come out of.
A kick to my stomach brings me back around. As I double-up, the wounds open further on my back. Twelve laughs, echoed by several others. An almighty punch lands on my right thigh. The tissue throbs and I struggle to move my leg.
Lying on the floor, lashed, beaten, and naked, the thought of destroying Twelve in the Tests consumes me. I want to pass for me. But even more, I want to pass with a better score than Twelve, just so I can see that smug face fall.
I stand up and Twelve stares at me, expecting a backlash. My muscles contract, my fists close.
Smiler walks into the changing room. ‘Two minutes, Greenies.’
I turn away, exhaling to blow out the hatred. I’ll wait for my chance.
Closing down my feelings like they taught us, I’m in the zone. Concentrating on what’s to come. If I blow this, I’ll never discover who my real family are. A mum or dad, perhaps a brother or sister.
I must pass the Caste Test.
I must become a citizen of the Realm.
I must find my name.
You can buy the book here: