My fingers hold the pen in my right hand as it glides sideways across the paper, left to right, etching out that beautiful word. I read the finished product, glistening in black ink, fresh and new.
“Kaleidoscope,” I say softly to myself. Lovely.
“Give me the next word, Armand?” I say, without looking up from the page.
Armand, a servant in the Magistrate’s Hall, nods and draws another card from the deck on the desk. He stares at the card, focusing on the photo upon it. He says, “Champagne.”
I shiver with delight as I scrawl that delicious word below the first. “Champagne,” I whisper; the word almost tastes like that object to which it belongs; crisp, light, and bubbly. It seems to float off my tongue. “Armand, come here,” I say.
The manservant comes around to my side of the table, staring blankly ahead. “Yes, Miss?”
“Look at this word, Armand. Don’t you think,” I pause, trying to think of how to articulate my joy. “Well, don’t you think it’s just beautiful?”
I point to “champagne” and stare at Armand’s face, searching for a spark, a glimmer of recognition. His face remains passive.
He nods politely. “Very nice, Miss,” he says, in the mechanical way that all Botans do when they don’t understand something. I sigh.
“Thank you, Armand. I think that will be all for today. You may go.”
Armand bows to me and leaves. I lean back in my chair, propping my feet up on the surface of the ornate mahogany desk—my most prized possession. I watch Armand go, and then my gaze drifts to the left, peering between the curtains, out into the Hall’s courtyard. A fountain bubbles cheerily in the center of the yard, surrounded by white benches and beds of flowers, but I barely notice them. My thoughts are still on Armand. Fond as I am of him, talking to him sometimes felt like talking to a brick wall. But then, it’s that way with most of the people who live in this country of ours—Bota. I am a Literate, part of a group of twenty men and women—alone in six billion—who possess the ability to read and write. The Magistrate—the league of Literates that governs our nation—has ever since scanned the population for signs of literacy among the citizens. I was found in this way, and brought to live in Capitol Hall, where I’m trained to read and write.
Someday, I’ll Ascend to the Magistrate and govern our nation.
But for now I’m just a student; the only person of my age in the Hall with any literacy.
It can get very lonely.
I jump at a knock on my door. “Come in,” I call.
The door opens and in walks Shailee, my personal lady’s maid. I brighten when I see her, and she smiles at me. She lifts the hem of her pale green work dress and curtseys. “Hello, Miss Kira.”
I grin at her, moving my feet off the desk and pulling my skirt down around my knees. “Hello, Shailee, how are you?”
“I’m well, Miss. The High Councilwoman has requested you join her for dinner; I have been sent to help you prepare.”
I feel my heart make a feeble leap into my throat. The High Councilwoman has never been anything but kind to me, but still—she’s intimidating. “Lovely,” I say in a small voice.
I allow Shailee to guide me to the bathroom, where she sits me down in front of the chrome Vanity Station. My body sinks into the plush pinkness of the seat as Shailee tinkers with the mechanism; the Station whirrs to life. The chair I’m seated in reclines, and several metal arms emerge from the Vanity and begin grooming me—washing my face, polishing my fingernails, brushing my hair. Shailee walks to my closet and pushes a button on the wall. The clothes inside begin to slowly rotate, showing an array of simple dresses and elegant ball gowns, a myriad rainbow of a wardrobe, lit by golden light from somewhere inside the closet.
“Which would you like, Miss?” She calls. A sparkle catches my eye, and I select a forest green gown with beading down the spine—dinner with the High Councilwoman is a formal affair. Once the Vanity Station has finished grooming me, Shailee reenters to style my hair. I smile warmly at her.
“So how have you been, Shailee? It seems like ages since we last spoke.”
Shailee smiles; my lines of questioning used to make her uncomfortable, but she is used to it now. “I cannot complain, Miss Kira. Life has been…well, life has been mostly the same as it always is.”
I frown slightly; she sounds wistful, sad. “Are you alright, Shailee?” I ask.
The pensive look leaves her face, and she smiles brightly at me. “Of course, Miss! Perfectly lovely.”
I don’t believe her, and I open my mouth to argue, but Shailee changes the subject. She has two skeins of my hair, one in each hand on either side of my head. She looks at me, a mock serious look on her face.
“What do you think, Miss? Shall this be your style for dinner? It’s a regal look, I think. Elegant.”
I burst out laughing. “Oh God, no! Can you imagine her face if I walked in like this?” Shailee smiles. She drops my hair and returns to twisting it into a more suitable style.
“How was your day, Miss?” She asks. My comfort in asking her questions has infected her; she now asks me questions too. It makes me feel close to her, somehow.
Excitement bubbles up in my chest, and I tell her of the words I’d written with Armand earlier.
“Midsummer, theatre, kaleidoscope and champagne, Shailee,” I say, warmly. “Such beautiful words!”
Shailee smiles at me in the mirror. “They certainly sound lovely, Miss,” she says, “I’m sure they look lovely, too.”
“Do you want to see them?” I ask eagerly. She has a wistful look on her face, her blue eyes filled with longing.
“I would love that,” she says, “but what’s the point? I can’t appreciate them the way you do…” She has a guilty look on her face, as if she fears she’s said too much. I look at her intently.
“What do you mean?” I ask. Shailee tugs at my hair, biting her lower lip.
“I cannot read, Miss Kira. You know this.”
I do. Shailee isn’t like me, no matter how friendly we are. She is not one of the Literate; the ability to read and write is genetically lost to her. But my closeness to her makes me want, more than anything, to share this vital part of myself with her. I want to teach my handmaid—my friend—to read, so that she may appreciate words as much as I do. I’d have someone to share my passion with.
My stomach turns, swift and powerful, as I make my decision.
“Maybe…maybe I can teach you,” I say.
Shailee’s hands stop, and she looks at me incredulously. “Miss Kira! How can you even suggest such a thing? I mean…” she glances down, dejected. “It is impossible, after all.”
I bite my lip and look down. It had never been done before. Botans were, according to our histories, incapable of gaining literacy. There had never been any outright laws against teaching an Illiterate to read, but I had the feeling it wouldn’t be a popular activity choice, either. Would the High Councilwoman be displeased?
I look up at Shailee’s face. I set my teeth; for in her face I see not only longing, but the faintest glimmer of hope. Shailee possesses a quality that very few Botans do; a thirst for knowledge, a desire to learn. I like to think it may be our friendship that causes her to be brighter than the other servants in the Hall—that she gets that drive from our time together. Her hope makes me determined. I reach back and tentatively pat her hand. “Well, no harm can come in trying, can it?” I say softly.
Shailee’s eyes widen; a smile spreads across her face. “If you wish it, Miss,” she says, her servile tone at odds with the joy in her face. I grin back at her, and she finishes preparing me for dinner. I rise from the Station and walk into my chamber; I know Armand is waiting just outside my door to escort me to the dining room.
“Come back tonight, after you’ve finished your chores,” I say.
Shailee glances over her shoulder at the heavy mahogany door. Though she has to know that Armand won’t be able to hear her, she lowers her voice anyway. “Miss,” she says, her voice excited but tinged with fear, “It isn’t…illegal, is it? What we’re planning to do?”
I shake my head, taking her hand and squeezing it. “No! No, of course not. But…well, it may be best that we not broadcast what we’re doing. Just…just in case.”
Shailee looks uneasy, so I hurry to reassure her. “Besides—it’s sort of fun to have a secret, between friends, isn’t it?” I grin at her, a hint of mischief in my voice.
Shailee curtseys, but she can’t stop smiling. “Yes, Miss Kira.”
I give her one last smile before leaving the room and allowing Armand to take me to dinner.
When we arrive at the entrance to the dining room, she’s at the door. The High Councilwoman. Waiting for me.
She always looks a mix of austerity and serenity, and today is no different. Her silver hair is pulled back away from her face in a high bun, and she’s wearing a floor-length gown of lavender with light, lacy sleeves. A lone diamond glimmers in the hollow of her throat. She looks down at Armand and waves her hand to dismiss him; he bows and leaves me alone with her. As soon as Armand turns the corner, the High Councilwoman looks directly at me. She smiles and holds out a hand. “Kira, child,” she says, “Welcome.”
I smile tentatively and take the High Councilwoman’s hand.
“How do you do, Madam.”
Her cool hand holding mine, she leads me into the dining hall. Our shoes echo off the marble floor, reverberating to the high domed ceiling. Golden arches climb the walls, and the ceiling in between them is etched with Latin words that give off a dim, silvery glow of their own, bathing the dining hall in simulated moonlight. The table is made of polished wood, and is laden with platters of food. My stomach growls as the High Councilwoman releases my hand and gestures at a high-backed, carved chair at one end of the table. I sit, and the High Councilwoman sits at the other end of the table. She snaps her fingers and two servants materialize out of the dim corners of the room. They serve us a lavish feast of roast meat and vegetables, with candied fruit and meringue for dessert. The High Councilwoman looks at me and smiles.
“How are you, child?”
“Quite fine, ma’am,” I say.
“Your studies progress?”
“At a suitable rate.”
“Good. You are aware that you are to sit in when the Magistrate convenes next week?”
The High Councilwoman snaps her fingers, and a servant bustles out of the corner and begins spooning candied cherries onto her plate. After she is suitably plied, she flicks her fingers at the servant, who retreats to the corner.
Like clockwork, I think. I stare at the servant’s face, wondering why Shailee had that glimmer of interest when none of the other workers in the Hall do. It doesn’t seem like illiteracy should be linked to overall obedient dimness. Why?
“Kira?” The sharpness of the High Councilwoman’s tone brings me back to myself.
“What were you staring at, child?”
“Staring? Was I? Oh. My apologies, madam, I was…” I wave my hand absently. “Thinking.”
She raises her eyebrows at me. “A dangerous pastime, Kira. You shouldn’t waste time on the matter.”
“Why?” The word flies out of my mouth before I can stop it. I sit in petrified silence as the High Councilwoman surveys me over the tips of her fingers. After what seems like an age she smiles; I breathe again.
“My dear, I should think it was obvious,” she says with a high, tinkling laugh. “I mean, what sort of a world would this be if everyone were to waste their time thinking? If everyone in Bota—” she gestures to the servant in the corner—”were to sit around wondering and speculating all the time? Complete anarchy would ensue.” She laughs again and shakes her head. I remain silent as she looks me dead in the eyes. “No, no. Thinking is best left to the Magistrate. And as you are not Magistrate yet, Kira,” a note of severity creeps into her voice, and her gray eyes hold a reined ferocity as strong as steel, “you would do well to remember that.”
I drop my gaze to my hands, clenched white-knuckled in my lap.
Armand escorts me back to my chamber, where I change into more comfortable clothes and sit at my writing desk, waiting.
I find myself daydreaming, thinking about everything Shailee and I will be able to talk about if we succeed. I’ll finally have someone to share my words with; we can write together, read together, talk about books together! With each passing moment my excitement grows. Before long, there’s a knock at the door.
I leap from my chair to let Shailee in. I smile at her. “Are you ready?” I ask.
She nods eagerly. “Yes, please, Miss.”
I lead her to my writing desk and sit her in the chair opposite mine. I pull out a pen and a pad of paper. I look up into her eager face and a twinge of fear pains my stomach—is this the right thing to do? The High Councilwoman’s words about thinking echo in my mind. I push them aside.
I smile at Shailee. “Alright then. Let’s start with something basic, shall we?” Shailee leans forward in her chair. “This is called the alphabet, Shailee. It’s a sort of list of all the letters we use to make up words…”
“I’m trying, Miss Kira, but…I just don’t see it.”
“What, Shailee? What don’t you see?”
I sit back in my chair, astounded. Shailee has never shouted before. As soon as she’s done her hand flies to her mouth, and terrified tears well in her eyes. “Oh, Miss Kira, I am so sorry,” she whispers, “I didn’t mean to raise my voice at you, I—”
“Shh, Shailee,” I hold up a hand to stop her protests. “It’s all right. I understand.”
In reality, I don’t. I’ve been working with Shailee in secret for four weeks—teaching her everything I know about reading and writing—everything I love and want her to understand and love too. But she wasn’t comprehending—couldn’t comprehend—it.
“Shailee, can you…” I pass a frustrated hand through my hair. “Can you explain it to me again, please? What about this are you not understanding?”
Shailee bites her lip and looks down at the paper I gave her, inscribed with three words in large print: CAT, BAT, and HAT. She shakes her head. “I’m not sure how to explain it. I listen to what you’re saying and I understand perfectly—it’s child’s play—but the moment I look at the paper it stops making sense. I see that you’ve written something there, but I can’t—in my head it just looks wrong. That which you say represents ‘cat’ can’t represent ‘cat’. Only this,” she picks up a card from my desk emblazoned with an orange tabby, “is a cat. Nothing else, I think…” She presses her fingers to her temples and closes her eyes. “Why don’t I understand this?” she murmurs.
I wish I knew.
Instead of voicing this thought, I smile at Shailee. “We’ll keep trying,” I tell her.
She stares at me. She rises from the chair and smoothes her skirt without a word. I shift, uncomfortable, awkward in my chair, and then stand as well.
“Yes, well…I suppose that’s enough for tonight, Shailee. Shall I see you tomorrow night?”
Shailee nods, curtseys, and leaves, still silent and stoic.
I flop down on my bed, my mind too full of buzzing, bristling thoughts for sleep to be possible. My impatience with Shailee is at odds with my desire to help her—I feel as if she is capable of more. I’m not sure what else, if anything, I can do. The thought both frightens and depresses me, but I promised her we’d keep trying. Not just for her sake, but also for mine.
Eventually I sleep, and I toss and turn fitfully to visions of a shouting Shailee and angry orange cats.
I awaken the next morning to Shailee drawing back the curtains. The sunlight framing her form instills in me a sense of new hope. I leap out of bed. “Shailee, are you busy today? I wonder, if we get going earlier, before you’re exhausted from working all day, if there mightn’t be some benefits—”
“Miss Kira!” Shailee whirls around, a look of alarm on her face. She glances at the open door. “Please try to keep your voice down,” she whispers.
I can feel my eagerness rushing out of me, deflating like a popped balloon. Shailee takes a deep breath. “I’m afraid I’m too busy during the day to have lessons. I would be missed.” She is stony as she makes my bed. I watch her, the joy I’d felt moments ago gone now. She finishes the bed and turns to me. A curtsey. “Will that be all, Miss?”
“Will I see you tonight?” I ask softly. I see the smallest of sighs shift Shailee’s shoulders.
“Yes, Miss Kira.” She doesn’t sound pleased about it. Just as she’s about to leave I ask her, “Are you doing this because you want to, Shailee, or because you feel you have to?”
She looks over her shoulder at me. Her blue eyes are sad. “I don’t exactly know, Miss,” she says. She walks out the door.
I sit at my desk and try to read, but I can’t get the vision of Shailee’s unhappy face out of my head. All the vibrancy she had when we began is long gone. Every time we meet, I sense her growing resentment and unease. I know she’s right to feel this way, but I can’t bring myself to stop her lessons.
I don’t want to lose the closest thing I’ve got to a friend. I slam the book down on the desk and rest my head in my hands.
It’s quite late when Shailee arrives; I see exhaustion in every move she makes, but she still sits across from me at the desk, hands folded on its surface, smiling pleasantly at me.
So dedicated, I think. Or is it obedient?
We begin, picking up where we’d left off the night before—with “cat”. “This,” I say, tapping the word cat on my pad, “means this.” I rap the card down on the table. “Do you understand?”
Shailee’s eyes flick back and forth between the word and the picture, but it doesn’t matter; there’s no spark of comprehension. I sigh and lay the card down.
“Maybe we’ll try a different word, shall we? Here, let’s…” I thumb through the deck of photo cards. Shailee watches dully. “Let’s go to ‘hat’, shall we? Yes. Hat. H-A-T. Do you see?”
“All right, then. So this word—hat—represents this image.” I hold up the card with the hat on it. Shailee nods, mechanical. I sigh. “Are you understanding this, Shailee?”
Shailee’s eyes flick to mine. “What do you think?” She asks softly.
“Well, well, well. This is interesting, isn’t it?”
I freeze. The pen falls from my hand. I look to Shailee’s face; she is immobile with terror as she stares into the face to whom the voice belongs—the High Councilwoman.
Her dress is white, looks like rose petals, smooth and pure, wrapped around her body. The delicacy of her appearance is at odds with the look on her face. She looks thunderous.
“Are you finally beginning to understand, Kira?” The High Councilwoman’s tone is cordial, but there is a note of steel in it that frightens me. “Is it finally comprehensible to you? That these little people,” she strides forward and seizes Shailee by the braid, dragging her away from the desk into the center of the room, “cannot be taught?”
Shailee shrieks and I jump up. “Wait—wait! What are you doing?”
The High Councilwoman regards me haughtily, her fist still tight at the base of Shailee’s skull.
“I am explaining something in a way I hope you will understand, Kira,” The High Councilwoman says. “People like this,” she shakes Shailee’s braid and Shailee whimpers, “are incapable of reading and writing. Such things are utterly incomprehensible to them. You know this, do you not?”
I nod, terrified. “I—I—yes, I suppose, I—”
“No, Kira! Wrong! There can be no supposition. Not where these people—” another jerk of Shailee’s braid, another whimper—”are concerned. Now tell me, do you understand?”
“Yes!” I say, frantic.
She nods. “Good. Then allow me to drive the point home. People like this cannot be taught, can barely think, and therefore they are…” She looks down at Shailee, a cruel glint in her eye.
With speed and strength I thought impossible, the High Councilwoman seizes Shailee by the chin and twists. I scream as Shailee’s body crumples to the floor, neck broken, eyes lifeless. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I look into the High Councilwoman’s face. She looks content as she smiles at me. “I do hope you understand now, Kira,” she says. “These people just aren’t worth the trouble.”
She breezes past me towards the door. I still can’t move. “I’ll send Armand to clean this up.”
I’m shaking in my chair. I can feel my mouth opening, forming soundless words. I finally manage to find my voice.
It’s low, quiet; it’s all I can muster. The High Councilwoman turns around and walks back to me. She peers down her nose at me, eyebrows raised.
“Why what? Why this? Because you need to understand, Kira. It doesn’t matter how noble your intentions were, how badly you wanted things to be different for that girl. It was impossible for her from the very beginning. I allowed you to carry on with this little experiment,” she snorts derisively, “to try and show you the futility of your actions, but the message just wasn’t getting through to you. Hopefully now it will. We cannot afford to have you wasting time on those whose lives are insignificant.”
She turns on her heel and walks back toward the door. She pauses in the doorway and looks back at me. “We are the Literate, Kira. We alone matter.”
She turns and walks out of my room, dress and hair streaming behind, the picture of serenity.
Armand comes and takes the body away. I’ve been hiding in the bathroom, vomiting up everything I’ve got in me, wishing I could throw back the decisions and darkness into the porcelain bowl and fix what I’ve done.
I’ve killed my friend. Oh God, oh God, I killed her. This is all my fault. The revelation was a long time coming, but still it hits me like a weight.
It’s more pain than I can bear.
I rise from the floor and walk back to my bedroom. I sit at my desk and take up my pen, casting aside the page that bears the word “hat”. I sit, poised, ready to write. Midsummer, theatre, kaleidoscope, champagne. Such beautiful words, I think. I look across my beautiful desk to the empty chair where my friend sat. I’d never sit around writing and talking about books with Shailee.
She never even got to see my beautiful words.
The High Councilwoman was sitting down to breakfast, waiting for Kira to join her. So unbecoming of her to be late, the High Councilwoman thought. She wished she could be more sympathetic to the girl’s despair at the loss of her maid, but really, it was a fact of life, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t do to grow attached to people. She had to learn. In the end, everyone would learn.
The door to the dining room burst open, and there stood Armand, white-faced but trying to keep his composure. He bowed stiffly. “Your Ladyship,” he said, “your presence is required.”
“In…” Armand cleared his throat. “In Miss Kira’s room, Madam.”
The High Councilwoman sighed and got to her feet. Troublesome girl. “Very well, Armand.” She strode past him and made her way to Kira’s bedchamber, where the door stood open. She walked in, demanding, “What’s all the fuss, then? Kira?”
Kira was not in her bed. The only person present in the bedchamber was the new handmaid. She was staring up at the ceiling. Armand entered behind the High Councilwoman and his chin went up, staring as well. The High Councilwoman followed their gaze upwards. She tensed in shock.
There, hanging from a ceiling beam, was Kira. Her eyes were shut, her face pallid, blue-lipped, frozen. Her auburn hair swung ever so gently as her body slowly rotated, spinning on a golden curtain-rope. The High Councilwoman’s jaw dropped, and she put a hand on the desk to steady herself. Her fingers brushed a slip of paper and she glanced down at it. It was covered in Kira’s elegant script.
Midsummer, Theatre, Kaleidoscope, Champagne.
The High Councilwoman was shocked. Maintain your composure, keep your composure, she reminded herself sternly. She straightened, slipping Kira’s last words into her pocket. “Yes. Well. I must convene with the Magistrate, under the circumstances. Take care of this, Armand.”
Armand bowed. “Yes, Milady.”
The High Councilwoman left the room, leaving Kira alone with Armand and the handmaid. They stared at her a moment longer, her slowly rotating feet reflected in eyes that couldn’t, would never, understand.
Elizabeth Trueblood is a sophomore at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, majoring in English with minors in Theatre and Writing. She loves spending time with her friends and family, and sharing her stories with others.