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The Death Pageant: A Worthy Sacrifice

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THE DEATH PAGEANT

A Worthy Sacrifice

By Sheilane Nadia

BOOK 1

An intriguing story of a love worth fighting for, and a deathly plan worth executing.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Text copyright© 2016 Sheilane Nadia

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, receording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Sheilane Nadia.

Chapter 1

The Baby

A few hours ago, Leo and Agatha Andalf gave birth to their first child. A girl. The midwife declared the baby perfectly healthy and had just left the young couple’s small, log cottage.

  They were both sitting on their bed, staring at the tiny new-born who was sound asleep between them in a woven basket.  Already, one could tell that this little baby was going to be a beauty; not necessarily because of any particularly favorable feature, but for how well all of her features merged together. Her thick head of loosely coiled, jet-black hair, bright green eyes, and scarlet lips, created a very lovely array of hues upon the canvas of her peachy-cream colored, heart-shaped face. Added to this remarkable mix were: heavy, dark brows and long, full lashes that curled up ever so slightly; all of which gave her an intriguingly exotic appearance and the look of utmost femininity. 

 Agatha finally lifted her gaze from the baby to look, anxiously, at her husband. “What do you think?” she said softly.

Leo looked over at his wife, equally as anxious, then swallowed deeply before he answered. “She’s beautiful… Too beautiful”.

“B-but all parents think that their children are beautiful.” Agatha said quickly, tears welling up in her eyes. “M-maybe she’s just average… or maybe she’ll grow out of it”.

“We can’t take that risk, Ags.” Leo said firmly. “That’s why I didn’t want to have children in the first place!” He added, clenching his fists.

“Nooo!” sobbed Agatha, throwing herself over the basket as if to shield the baby.

Leo’s demeanor softened up immediately, at the sight of his wife’s grief. “It’ll only hurt her a little, I promise” he said, patting her bent head with a trembling hand.

Just then, there was a knock at the front door. 

Leo got up and quickly crossed the tiny bedroom to the door, leaving Agatha still sobbing over the basket. He was too tall for the cottage’s low doorways, and had to bend a little as he stepped over the threshold. He walked softly through the even smaller but very comfortable-looking living room, to the front door. Through the peep hole, Leo saw that it was Jude and Fulvia Fabian, with their one-year-old son, Raj.

Mr. and Mrs. Fabian were the Andalf’s best friends and next door neighbors. They were also fellow ‘non-believers’. He could trust them. Leo opened the door and the couple’s smiles faded instantly when they saw the troubled look on his face.

“Come in quickly” Leo whispered to them. He ushered them through the door, then poked his head outside to make sure that no one else was coming.

“What’s the matter, Leo?” Jude asked, in his husky voice, as soon as Leo had closed and locked the door. This voice seemed too strong for Jude’s short, stout physique and round, dimpled face.

“Is something wrong with the baby?” said Fulvia, looking scared and squeezing the chubby Raj tighter in her arms; which made him squirm uncomfortably. She was much taller and slimmer than her husband, but shared his exact shade of white-blond hair; so that Leo and Agatha always jokingly referred to them as brother and sister.

Leo sighed and ran his fingers through the short curls of his bright-red hair. “Come see for yourself” he said.

 He led the way back to the bedroom, where Agatha was now cuddling the baby in her arms and crying softly.

Fulvia quickly handed Raj over to Jude and rushed to Agatha’s side. Being twelve years older than Agatha, Fulvia tended to behave maternally towards her; especially since both of Agatha’s parents had disowned her just a few years ago.  

“Oh Ags,” she cried, throwing her arms around Agatha’s slim neck. “Is it dead?”

Agatha shook her head. Fulvia released her and looked down at the baby. A slight frown came upon her face as she tentatively unwrapped the white, woolen blanket to get a better view. She then looked up wide-eyed at Agatha, then towards the door at Leo. 

“ You don’t think- do you?” Fulvia asked.

“It’s likely” said Leo, heavily.

Fulvia gasped. 

“I agree” said Jude, who had by now gone over to the bed and examined the baby for himself. “She could definitely be chosen”.

“What are you going to do?” asked Fulvia, her eyes still fixed upon Leo, who remained standing rigidly in the doorway.  

“We’ve got to maim her” Leo said, dismally.

“And you’ve got to do it soon, before anyone else sees her” Jude said intensely. “It must look as if she was born that way, or else”.

“I know, I know” said Leo, clasping his hands over his face in frustration. “But how?”

Jude’s expression changed to a mixture of discomfort and guilt. “Well…you could break her nose, so that it would be a little crooked; or twist her legs so that they form funny; or maybe even clip off her little toe”.

Agatha began to whimper again. 

“I can’t clip off her toe” Leo said, pacing the room; his face pale. “The mid-wife has already counted them-”

“I think that we should wait until after our next meeting!” Fulvia cut in loudly. They all looked at her. She was referring to their weekly non-believers’ meeting. The NB meetings, they were called. “That way, we can ask for the others’ opinions”.

“I think so too!” Agatha chimed in quickly, looking up at Leo, pleadingly.

“That’s five days from now!” Leo said to Agatha. “Hun, if we’re going to do this, we have to do it now.”

“I am not going to let you mutilate my baby!” Agatha said angrily, raising herself up on the bed.

“So you prefer that she go through what you did!” Leo retorted.

At that, Agatha’s demeanor weakened once more; and she flopped back against the pillow with her eyes closed, and tears silently streaming down her face.

Agatha too was beautiful. The baby was almost the splitting image of her, except for the eyes. She had gotten Leo’s eyes, while Agatha’s were clear hazel. Agatha remembered all too well the price that she was forced to pay for her beauty. The price that she was still paying. She did not want the same for her daughter. In fact, she had vowed never to have children; so that she would not risk passing on her curse to another girl.

 Even so, the thought of hurting this innocent and fragile little baby was too painful. What if it killed her?

After a few minutes of thoughtful silence, where the only sounds were Raj’s cooing, Leo finally said “Alright… We’ll wait”.

Chapter 2

Harun and The Death Pageant System

Above all of their many other Gods, the people in the vast hill country of Acus served and revered the powerful Rain God, Harun.

According to the priests and other noblemen, over one hundred years ago, Harun’s patience had worn thin with the people’s mediocre sacrifices of crops and animals; and so he punished them by refusing to water the land. For several years, Acus suffered devastating periods of famine and drought, which caused hundreds of thousands- men, women and children- to die. It was said to be a harrowing existence. Men hunted and feasted on each other. They knew neither kin nor foe, for even mothers cooked their own suckling babies.

Just when all hope seemed lost, and the Acusans’ numbers had dwindled almost to naught, a sacrifice was made that appeased Harun so tremendously that he immediately sent a great and extended downpour of rain, which replenished the streams and revived the land in a miraculously short period of time. This sacrifice was none other than the life of the most beautiful maiden in the country. The people had taken the most beautiful girl that they could find (in light of the unfavourable circumstances) and presented her to the priests, who then ceremoniously burned her alive in the holy temple of the gods. Harun apparently had a great love for beautiful women and their souls became his eternal wives. Hence, it became an annual sacrifice, evolving into what was known as the ‘Death Pageant’.

For three days in the month of July, fifty of the most beautiful young maidens in Acus, ages seventeen to twenty, participated in rigorous competition; where their physical beauty was meticulously inspected, their talents critically observed, and their loyalty to Harun severely tested.

The Acusans called these death pageant contestants ‘poppies’- because of the small encircled letter p, with which they were branded, on the right foot, just below the big toe. In reality, the p stood for pageant, but people thought that poppy fit better because, just like the flower, the contestants were very beautiful but their lives were extremely short- not only if they won the pageant, but from the day that they were marked for it.

Most contestants were marked for the death pageant long before they competed. Thousands of kings guards and eunuchs constantly travelled throughout the country, looking for girls that met strict physical standards- slender and of average height, with: thick hair of at least waist length, straight white teeth, symmetrical facial features and smooth, unblemished skin. There were no exceptions.

When a suitable girl was found, even as young as ten, the guards would brand her with a hot iron, bearing the pageant symbol p. Then, until the appointed time, the parents were responsible for preserving the girl’s physical beauty. This normally meant that she would not partake in routine chores, such as: farming, gardening or even cooking; nor was she likely to engage in rough outdoor activities, such as: swimming, fishing, hiking or cliff diving, as was popular among the younger people. The risk of tainting the girl’s beauty, and rendering her ‘damaged’, just could not be taken; for the parents were severely punished if they failed at their task and robbed Harun of a potential bride. They were normally forced to pay a hefty tax to the royal treasury, in: crops, gold and/or household items- enough to put them in poverty; otherwise, they were savagely whipped, sometimes until death.

So, as one can imagine, the poppies were seen as untouchable beings. People were very uncomfortable being around them, for fear of causing any sort of casualties to their person. For this reason, poppies tended to live very secluded lives, locked away in their homes. Even their own family members often found it difficult to be close and affectionate towards them. It was almost as if they were not considered human; just some magnificent creatures living to die.

But despite all of this, most people in Acus believed in and remained deathly loyal to Harun and the Death Pageant system; and were quick to hand over anyone to the authorities whom they merely suspected as being against them – even their own flesh and blood.

Disloyalty or non-belief was the ultimate crime and punishable by ‘rapid execution’. ‘Rapid’ only referred to the space of time between the discovery of the crime and the execution of the punishment; because the process itself was designed to be very slow and excruciatingly painful.

A popular method was to hang the criminal upside down from a tree, then saw them in half, starting from the crotch. Since, in an upturned position, significant amounts of blood will be flowing to the brain, the person was sure to remain alive and conscious until the saw reached the major arteries in the abdomen (this could last for hours in extreme cases). Or, to prolong the agony, the executioners stopped at the abdomen and just let the victim bleed out. Other methods included: boiling, gradual delimbing, and impalement.

Thus, as can be be expected, the non-believers lived in great fear. Some kept their non-belief only to themselves and did nothing that was different from the believing members of society. There were others, however, who were a little more active, and met regularly in very secluded places, such as: clearings deep in the woods, caves high in the mountains, in the middle of deserted fields and in abandoned houses. These meetings served to encourage one another, but most importantly to come up with ways to undermine the Death Pageant system.

Their main strategy was to reduce the number of available poppies by slightly deforming their beautiful daughters at birth, so as to make them ineligible for the pageant.

Unfortunately for the non-believers, their numbers were just too small for their lack of contributing off springs to cause any real harm to the death pageant system. And so, they were desperate for a new plan.

Chapter 3

The New Plan

In the small fishing village of Galden, the non-believers met every Wednesday at midnight. To throw off suspicion, the location of these NB meetings rotated weekly, between: the basement of the main village Browney (the owner, Mr. Caldwell, was the leader of the group), the old abandoned windmill on Buggy Hill, and in the centre of the village’s main corn field.

If there was an emergency change to the meeting’s schedule or location- maybe a party or other gathering was being held too close in proximity- all fifteen members were informed via mail, in secret codes.

This week’s meeting was to be held, as per normal schedule, in the Browney basement.

Leo and Agatha were scurrying up the moonlit dirt road with their new-born baby in tow, nestled in her basket. This was the commercial street of the village, and was lined with: two Browneies, a meat shop, a blacksmith shop, a food grocer, a fruit parlour, a tavern and a dress shop; all of which were contained in quaint, wooden structures.

The nearby sea blew a strong, salty breeze in their direction. Agatha had to use one hand to hold the scarf covering her head, while the other clutched the handle of the baby basket. They were running late.

Their only other neighbour, an elderly couple- Mr. and Mrs. Bernard- had had an unusually late night. At a quarter past eleven, Leo and Agatha could see them, through their candle-lit living room window, drinking tea and chatting merrily. The Bernards tended to be very nosey people, who poked their heads outside at the slightest sound. Thus, Leo and Agatha had no choice but to wait until twenty minutes to twelve, when they saw the lights in the Bernards’ cottage finally go out, then another ten minutes for them to get settled in bed, before they set out. It normally took about twenty minutes for them to walk from their small hill, on the outskirts of the village, to the Caldwells’ Browney. But tonight, they only had ten.

Keeping the baby hidden for these past five days had been both draining and nerve-raking. Of course the Bernards knew that the baby had been born, for they had seen the midwife come and go (from their regular peeps through their kitchen window) and had heard its crying. So naturally, the news had spread throughout the entire village.

From the very next day, groups of people had shown up at Leo and Agatha’s doorstep to see the new baby and to bring gifts- as was custom whenever a baby was born into the village. Leo was forced to lie that Agatha was battling a serious case of the flu, and so it was best that she be left alone to rest.

Most people understood and left; but others had been determined to offer their help in some way, and tried to force their way through the door. They insisted on coming inside to cook Agatha soup, make her special herbal teas or rub her down with homemade ointments. Once, Leo had to physically pick a woman up, who had managed to get past him, and place her back on the doorstep. He even ended up barring their bedroom window, with wood, because some overly curious persons had gone around to the back of the cottage and tried to peer inside.

Thus, Leo and Agatha were more than relived when the day of the NB meeting had finally arrived.

At last, they reached the end of the street, in front of the Browney, panting heavily. They looked up nervously at the large clock on the wall of the Blacksmith’s shop, opposite the Browney. It was five minutes past twelve.

“Oh no!” said Agatha, between breaths.

Mr. Caldwell normally locked the Browney door at exactly twelve o’clock, before retreating to the basement with the other members. He would peer through a small gap in the door from half past eleven until twelve, to see when members were coming; for they were not allowed to knock or call at the door, as that may make too much noise. If the door was locked when they arrived, members were to return home immediately so as not to be caught lingering outside.

“Let us check still.” Leo said, grabbing Agatha’s free hand and leading her up the Browney’s brick walkway.

When they got to the door, Leo turned the knob, and their hearts sank. It was locked. They had no choice now but to go home and disfigure the baby tonight, on their own. They could not delay any longer; unless they were prepared to go through another painstaking ordeal of hiding the baby, for an additional seven days, until the next NB meeting.

Just as Leo and Agatha turned to leave, with Agatha already beginning to whimper, they heard the Browney door open slowly. The couple spun around and looked disbelievingly at Mr. Caldwell’s large outline in the doorway.

“Well hurry up then!” he said, coarsely.

Mr. Caldwell was a no-nonsense kind of man when it came to the operations of the NB group. He required the utmost order. On any given day, Mr. Caldwell appeared to be a very carefree and jolly old man. He was always sharing jokes with the villagers that entered his Browney, and could regularly be seen crab hunting with some of the younger men. However, during these weekly meetings, he transformed into a completely different person. His demeanour was always sullen, he spoke very crisply, and he was quick to snap at any member who stepped out of line.

Owing to the serious nature of the NB meetings- undoubtedly, the members were all risking their lives to be there- and the fact that he was their leader and largely responsible for their safety, Mr. Caldwell’s attitude shift seemed to have an obvious explanation. Nonetheless, there was a rumour amongst the group that Mr. Caldwell had lost his only brother to the cause many years ago; and that this tragedy had not only fuelled his passion, but had also made him determined never to make the same mistake of being discovered.

Leo and Agatha hustled through the door and stood aside, waiting to be told off for being late. But to their surprise, after locking the door, Mr. Caldwell simply turned and headed straight towards the back of the Browney, without a word.

“He must have been waiting for us” Leo whispered to Agatha as they hustled behind of him.

Although inside of the Browney was pitch black, all three of them knew its structure well enough to manoeuvre comfortably. They walked swiftly across the spacious and bare entrance area, through an opening within the wall to wall selling counter, then through a door behind the counter, which led into a large kitchen. There, several rows of shelves covered the two side walls- for holding the baked goods- and a large stone oven ran deep into the center of the adjoining wall. In the middle of the kitchen stood a long and high wooden table, where the mixtures and doughs were prepared. Mr. Caldwell bent under this table and used a long, flat metal object to pry open a small trap door, neatly concealed within the wooden floor.

The first time that Leo and Agatha had seen this trap door open, they were amazed at how indistinguishable it was from the rest of the floor. No one but the NB members knew that this door or basement existed. Mr. Caldwell had dug it out himself when he was much younger.

The trio scrambled through the opening and descended a long row of narrow, wooden, rickety steps- until they landed in a room that was about half the size of the kitchen above. This room was always a little dusty and stuffy, with a mouldy odour, owing to the lack of windows.

All of the other members were already there, seated close together on wooden benches. From the light being emitted from several candle-filled lamps, set high on ledges, Leo and Agatha could see the great curiosity that was etched into everyone’s faces as they turned to watch the two of them walk across the room and take their regular seats at the end of the front row.

Mr. Caldwell went directly to the front and faced the group.

“Motto please.” he grumbled.

They always began each meeting by reciting the group’s motto. Everyone stood up immediately and placed their right hands over their hearts, and said in unison:

We stand for: freedom, truth and love,

Not: murder, deceit and hate.

And though we are few in number,

United we can be great.

We promise never to betray our brothers

Nor reveal our secret place.

We’ll do our best to eradicate Harun’s mess

For this whole country’s sake”.

“Now,” said Mr. Caldwell, before anyone had even had a chance to regain their seat. “let me see the baby”.

Everyone turned to look at Leo and Agatha once more. Agatha slowly walked forward and gingerly placed the basket at Mr. Caldwell’s feet.

Someone hurried to take a lamp from off of a ledge and placed it on the floor next to the basket, so that the sleeping baby’s face was illuminated. Mr. Caldwell knelt down and bent his greying head over the basket. After what seemed like a long time, he rose back up, with his face expressionless, and beckoned the others to come and have a look as well.

Everyone dashed forward immediately, as if catapulted, and formed somewhat of a circle around the baby. Some mumbled things like “definitely poppy material” and “poor thing”, while others just gazed in silence.

When they had all had a good look and returned to their seats, including Leo and Agatha with the baby, Mr. Caldwell cleared his throat loudly and spoke again. This time his tone was uncharacteristically less harsh and somewhat apologetic.

“I’ve been meaning to discuss something with you all for a while now, but I’ve had some difficulty bringing myself around to it… However, in light of the current circumstances, I can no longer put it off.”

A deep silence fell over the room as everyone listened intently.

“As you know, I am in constant communication with other NB groups around the country, so as to keep abreast of developments and occurrences. And you also know that we non-believers have been trying our hardest to come up with a more effective way to erode the death-pageant system, rather than simply maiming our beautiful daughters.”

Still, no one spoke.

“Well, some of the NB groups have considered letting their daughters enter the pageant”.

There was an eruption of gasps and mumblings. Agatha began to shake her head fervently from side to side, while Leo grasped her hand tightly; his face intent upon Mr. Caldwell.

“Silence please!” said Mr. Caldwell firmly; and everyone stopped speaking at once. “In entering the pageant, these girls will be able to make public protests on stage to show the people that the poppies are not all willing sacrifices, as the royals would have them to believe. It could be a great step in opening the believers’ eyes to the ugliness of this pageant-”.

The noise level at that point was very high. Everyone either wanted to express their feelings towards the new plan or get further clarification. It was as if they had forgotten that the meeting was supposed to be a secret. If someone were to have passed by the Browney right at that moment, they might have heard the commotion. Only Leo and Agatha remained silent.

After a while, Fulvia spoke above the noise. “So what does this mean for the baby?”

Jude was not there. Each normally came to the meetings on alternate weeks, while the other stayed at home with Raj.

Everyone stopped talking at once to hear Mr. Caldwell’s response. It was obvious that they had forgotten about Leo and Agatha’s baby; and that they were supposed to be discussing its faith.

Mr. Caldwell, who had surprisingly remained silent during the commotion, now turned to the couple. “It is hard to predict what a new-born baby will grow up to look like” he said. “And of course the choice is yours…but I implore you to let the child grow as normal. And if she’s selected to be a poppy, she can be a part of this revolutionary plan”.

Agatha jumped out of her seat. “I am not raising my child to die!” she shouted, glaring at Mr. Caldwell. Agatha had never been disrespectful to the group leader before, for she respected him highly; but this idea seemed preposterous.

Leo stood up also and said more calmly “Mr. Caldwell, I don’t think I like that idea either. Because our daughter will die, won’t she? The Kings Guards will execute her as soon as she says anything against Harun or the death pageant on stage.”

“It is for a good cause, Leo.” Said Mr. Caldwell, almost pleadingly. “Kill one to save many.”

“Then what would make us different from the believers if we do that to these innocent young girls?” said Robert Browne furiously, a young man of about Leo’s age. He and Leo worked as fishermen and owned a boat together.

“Mr. Caldwell is right” said the middle-aged local grocer, Samuel Payne. “We have to make a strong stand for what we believe in or change will never come.”

“So why don’t you put up one of your five daughters to be slaughtered then!” retorted Robert. “Oh I forgot, they’re all ugly!”

“No need to get personal, you jerk!” said Samuel, approaching Robert menacingly. “Everyone here has been complaining for ages that we need a new plan. Well here it is!”

Other people chimed in loudly and the baby finally awoke, screaming.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Mr. Caldwell shouted, pounding the hammer he always carried to the meetings on the desk beside him. They all stopped in their tracks. “If we continue like this, we will surely be discovered! Everyone go home now! The meeting is over!”

They all gathered their things and walked off tensely. Leo and Agatha were the last to reach the stairs, where Mr. Caldwell accosted them.

“I know this is hard” he said, looking genuinely sympathetic. “But please think about it. This group has not given birth to a girl that could remotely be a poppy in ages.”

Neither said anything in response. Agatha simply gave a hard look and Leo a slight nod, before they both turned and walked up the stairs.

“Leo? Are you asleep?” Agatha said to Leo’s back.

“Of course not” Leo sighed.

They had barely spoken a word since they got back from the meeting. After feeding the baby, they had both gotten into bed, fully clothed, and had lain there in the dark, consumed in their own thoughts. Dawn was now breaking and there they still lay, without having slept a wink.

“Can’t we just run away?” Agatha asked, desperately. “Somewhere far from Galden, far from Acus, from the death pageant, from the NB groups… Somewhere we can just live freely with our baby.”

Leo rolled over to look at Agatha. Her eyes held the same mixture of brokenness and hopelessness as when he first saw her three years ago. As he did at that time, Leo wanted to do everything in his power to take Agatha’s hurt away. Back then, all he had had to do was befriend and love her. Now, he did not think that that would be enough. He was at a complete loss and felt as if he had somehow failed her.

“You know we can’t Ags. There’s nowhere to run.”

“I know.” Agatha said, sadly. “I just wish that there was.”

Leo gently stroked her cheek. “I’ve been thinking a lot about why we joined the NB group in the first place… We were just so desperate to do something about the evil that we saw around us...even if most people didn’t see it yet. We wanted to make Acus a better place to live, where everyone was free- and I believe that deep inside we still feel that way”.

“You’re thinking about going along with the plan, aren’t you?” Agatha said, incredulously.

“What I’m thinking is that this may be the time for us to put our belief into action.”

“It’s not fair for us to make that decision for our daughter, Leo!” Agatha snapped. The dim rays of sunlight that was now shining through the bedroom window revealed her reddening face. “She might not feel the same way as we do when she grows up!”

“We’ll still be making a decision for her if we choose to maim her” Leo said, reasonably. “We’ll be choosing to make her live with a deformity for the rest of her life, however small it may be. We’ll also be preventing her from ever entering the death pageant and doing something big for a cause that she may grow up to embrace and be passionate about herself.”

Agatha pushed Leo’s hand away from her face.

“What do you want me to do Ags!” Leo said, in frustration. “You don’t want to maim her, yet you don’t want her to enter the death pageant! What is it that you want?”

“I just want what’s best for her!” Agatha cried, tears streaming down her face.

“I do too!” said Leo. “That’s why we need to do something, soon.”

Agatha climbed out of the bed and walked over to the small cot in the corner of the room, where the baby was beginning to stir. Leo watched Agatha stare at the baby for a long while before picking her up and walking back to the bed, where she settled in once more.

“I love you and I trust you” she said softly to Leo. “Do what you think is best.”

Leo kissed Agatha’s lips softly and then gently kissed the baby’s forehead. “I don’t have the heart to maim her, Ags.” he said weakly.

“Alright then” Agatha said, simply. “Now, what shall we name her?”

Leo smiled. Agatha had the uncanny ability to quickly pull herself together during an emotional time and do what needed to be done. He loved that about her.

“Well,” Leo replied. “I really like the name Magdiel, after my grandmother. She used to say that it meant Overcomer.

“Magdiel” Agatha repeated, smiling. “I like it too”.

Chapter 4

Magdiel

Seventeen years had passed since the new plan was discussed in Mr. Caldwell’s Browney; and the death pageant system remained strongly intact.

However, every couple of years or so, there had been at least one non- believing poppy to make a public declaration against the system and be executed- normally along with their close family members and friends (just in case they too were non-believers).

Before the new plan, poppy protests were unheard of. Thus, these disturbances always caused great shock and discomfort throughout the country; so much so that scrutiny of the poppies had been greatly increased at the palace, in order to facilitate early detection of the non-believing ones.

In Galden, the NB group also remained intact and meetings were held at the exact same time and places. The only differences were that the group was now headed by Mr. Caldwell’s eldest son - as Mr. Caldwell had become very feeble - and member count had increased to thirty-five- which was mainly due to some of the same members’ children becoming of age to join.

In the Andalf household, however, there was a very notable change. They were now one member short. Leo Andalf had drowned fifteen years previously, when his boat collapsed far out at sea. His partner, Robert Browne, described how Leo had run to the bottom of the boat to save him and had injured his leg in the process. This caused Leo to bleed out in the water, so that he was unable to keep himself afloat long enough for help to come.

Also in the household, the beautiful baby girl was now a beautiful young woman. Magdiel’s beauty had exceeded all expectations, and she was marked to be a poppy at the minimum age of ten. Her emerald eyes were as big and bright as ever and she had retained her: smooth, peachy-cream complexion; long, thick lashes; heavy, dark brows; and scarlet lips- which were now increased in plumpness and formed a neat pout. Light dusts of brown freckles had appeared on Magdiel’s nose and cheeks when she became a toddler, which she inherited from Leo, and which seemed to enhance and add a bit of uniqueness to her features- although persons had speculated that they would be counted as a flaw and make her ineligible to be a poppy.

At the moment, Magdiel was kneeling on her bed, staring expectantly out of the small square window. She ran a hand in frustration through her thick, bone-straight, jet black hair, which flowed all the way to the top of her buttocks. Magdiel hated her hair. It was too heavy and took a very long time to wash and brush; and it always got caught in things- doors, drawers, clothes and food.

“Why is he taking so long?” Magdiel whispered to herself, pushing her head a little farther out of the window to get a better view of outside.

She had been waiting like that for the better part of an hour, and now a deep sadness was beginning to take a hold of her- an emotion with which she was too accustomed.

Then she saw him, and her heart skipped a beat. He was running hastily across the spacious, green yard that separated their houses; his white-blond, shoulder-length hair blowing wildly in the wind. He carried a large, flat, brown box in his hands.

He reached Magdiel’s bedroom window in no time, with a broad smile on his face.

“What took you so long, Raj?” Magdiel demanded, though she could not help but to smile as well.

Jude and Fulvia’s son was now eighteen years old, and had grown to be exceptionally good-looking. He was tall like his mother, with a very lean physique, and a smooth, fresh face that can best be described as pretty. Magdiel always joked that if there were a death pageant for boys, he would be a poppy too.

“I’m sorry, Mags” Raj said. “I had to go down into the village to collect your present”.

“My present?” said Magdiel, her smile broadening.

“Happy Birthday” said Raj, handing her the box that he was carrying.

In excitement, Magdiel grabbed it from his hands and quickly ripped off the covering. Her smile faded as she slowly lifted out a very beautiful, yellow, satin dress. It was more extravagant than any dress that Magdiel had ever owned. There were intricate flowers embroidered all around the bodice-which was stylishly cut to hang off of the shoulders- and along the lengthy train as well. There was also a blue, satin bow neatly tied around the waist.

“H-How-” Magdiel began.

She had not expected such a costly gift. For her birthdays, Raj normally made her simple, yet meaningful little things at the carpenter shop where he worked with his father. Like last year, when he carved her a replica of the wooden doll that she had loved and lost as a child; and the year before that when he had made her a beautiful wooden box with her name carved into it for her to hold her most precious, small possessions.

“ I’ve been saving all year to get you this” Raj explained quickly. “I figured that seventeen is an important age and all- so I wanted to get you something really special”.

(Seventeen was the age of adulthood in Acus).

“But where would I go in a dress like this, Raj?” said Magdiel bitterly, stuffing the dress back into the box. “You know that I can hardly leave this house.”

“ But you will- as soon as you lose the death pageant” said Raj, reaching through the window and turning Magdiel’s sad face towards him. “Then I’ll take you to all sorts of different places. This dress will remind you of that.”

Magdiel’s eyes filled with tears. She longed for that life more than anything else. A life that did not centre on endless beauty regimens; where she would be free to go anywhere she pleased; to run wild and carefree, and even roll around in the grass, without concern for cuts and bruises; to feel the sun kiss her skin and not worry about discolouring it.

For these reasons, Magdiel planned to perform poorly in the death pageant so that she would lose and return home a free woman (for a poppy was only required to enter the death pageant once). She figured that it should not be that hard to lose, since all of the other girls would be fighting hard to win.

Magdiel had no care for the non-believers’ movement or their plan, and she knew that Raj felt the same way; although neither of them necessarily believed in Harun either.

“And… I want to marry you in that dress.” Raj continued, looking intently into Magdiel’s eyes.

Magdiel stared back into his bright blue ones, lost for words. It had always been an implicit plan for them to get married one day; but to hear him say it seemed somewhat surreal.

Magdiel loved Raj with all of her heart and wanted badly to be his wife. He had been her best friend ever since she could remember. Their friendship had become romantic when Magdiel was fifteen years old and Raj sixteen, and he had come knocking at her bedroom window in the dead of night to blurt out his overwhelming feelings for her- which she had already known. And during all of this time, Raj had always been the main- and possibly only- source of joy and strength in Magdiel’s life; especially after she became a poppy.

“I would love to marry you in this dress.” Magdiel finally said, tearfully.

Raj leaned in and kissed her lips gently, and Magdiel kissed back. They kissed for a long time, and it eventually became very forceful and hungry. Magdiel felt a pleasurable heat run through every part of her body, until Raj finally pulled away with a pained expression on his face.

Magdiel looked at him, breathing heavily.

“Ah Mags” he said in frustration. “I can’t wait until this stupid pageant is over, so that I can finally make love to you”.

Magdiel felt her face get instantly hot. She and Raj had never really spoken about sex before, because they knew that it was forbidden. The last challenge of the death pageant was for the top three contestants to sleep with the King. If they were not found to be virgins, dire consequences would follow.

Recently however, Magdiel had been hoping that Raj would bring up the subject, because since she was not planning to make it that far in the pageant, there was really no reason for them to wait any longer.

“No one would know.” Magdiel said, timidly.

She then quickly lowered her gaze to the window sill, for she was too shy to see Raj’s expression.

To her surprise, Magdiel heard Raj laugh and she raised her eyes back to him.

He looked very amused. “I can’t believe you just said that!”

“Well, haven’t you ever thought about it?” said Magdiel, incredulously.

“Of course I have! … A lot actually”.

“So why haven’t you ever said anything?”

“Because we can’t take that risk.” said Raj, his expression now serious.

“It’s not really that big of a risk-”

“Don’t make this harder than it already is, Mags.” His voice was almost pleading. “Besides, our parents would kill us if they found out; so we’d have nowhere to even do it”.

Magdiel did not respond. She was too embarrassed at being rejected, after expressing her most secret desire.

“I know you want it to be special” Raj continued. He placed his hand upon hers. “I want to marry you first. Then we can build our own house to make all the love we want”.

Magdiel giggled. Raj winked at her. Then the bedroom door swung open.

“What is going on here!”

Magdiel turned swiftly to see her mother standing in the doorway, looking at them furiously. Agatha still looked young and very beautiful, with a slim, girlish figure.

Magdiel and Raj had apparently lost track of the time. They normally confined their daily visits to late at night or between the hours of 5pm and 7pm- which was the space of time between when Raj and Agatha got home from work (Agatha had been working at Mr. Caldwell’s Bakery ever since Leo died).

“Mrs. Andalf please-”

“Raj-leave-now” said Agatha through gritted teeth. Raj lingered for a short while, the muscles in his face clenched. He looked as if he was about to protest, but thought better of it and walked away.

“How can you be so foolish?” said Agatha, now turning on Magdiel. “I’ve spoken to you about this before. If people merely suspect that you two are having a relationship, we could be in so much trouble.”

Magdiel, who had by now gotten over the shock of Agatha’s unexpected appearance, retorted “Leave me alone, mother!”

“You are not to see him again! You hear me?” said Agatha.

“If you dare try to keep Raj away from me I-I’ll cut myself, and the kings guards will have your neck.”

“Oh save it Magdiel! I’ve heard that threat before!”

“I hate you!” Magdiel shouted, at the top of her lungs. And she meant it.

Agatha looked a little taken aback. “If your father could only hear the way you speak to me-”

“Yeah, well, I hate him too.” Magdiel spat coldly.

In a flash, Agatha raised a hand to Magdiel’s face. She stopped in mid-air and tensed, as if in a great struggle not to strike. Magdiel smirked.

“Go ahead mother. Hit me. Bruise a poppy’s face.”

Agatha lowered her hand slowly. “Don’t you ever talk about Leo like that again!” she said, breathing heavily. “He was the best husband and father that anyone could ask for.”

“Oh please. I’ll talk about him however I want.” said Magdiel, enjoying the emotions that she had evoked in her mother. “You two ruined my life!”

“He made a difficult choice,” said Agatha, still tense.

“A selfish one more like it! You two just wanted to use me to fight your own battle! You didn’t care about what I might want!”

At that, Agatha’s expression softened. “Sweetie, we did care. You’ve got to believe me.” She placed a hand on Magdiel’s shoulder.

Repulsed by her mother’s touch, Magdiel roughly threw off her hand. Agatha gasped in surprise.

“If you really cared, you would have maimed me while you still had the chance, instead of letting me live like a prisoner.” Magdiel retorted.

She then hopped off of the bed and began to pace the floor in a rage. “I couldn’t even go to school, because everyone was too afraid that I might get hurt! I wanted to make friends so badly that I would stand by the kitchen window every single day, for hours, just hoping to get a glimpse of some kids as they passed by to go to the mountains… I still do that sometimes. But of course, none of them ever stop to chat because they’re all afraid to be around me; except for Raj.

And when I wasn’t daydreaming by the kitchen window, I was busy with the tedious tasks of oiling my skin or brushing my hair or exfoliating my face, just so that I can be perfect for the STUPID DEATH PAGEANT, THAT I CARE NOTHING ABOUT!”

Agatha slumped down onto the bed with tears in her eyes. Magdiel had never expressed her feelings in this much detail to her mother before, and she already regretted doing it. She did not want their issues to be resolved. She wanted to continue hating her parents, because they deserved it, and because it felt better to be angry than sad.

“I know it’s hard Magdiel” Agatha began. Magdiel turned her back to her. “I’ve had to make sacrifices for the Non-believers’ movement too… After returning from the death pageant, I told my parents that I didn’t believe in Harun anymore and that I thought the death pageant was cruel and made no sense. They kicked me out into the streets that very day, and even contemplated turning me in to the kings guards. I was homeless and hungry and depressed for months, until your father found me.”

Magdiel was shocked. Her mother had never told her that story before. Still, she refused to feel sympathy for her.

“That sacrifice was your choice. You and Leo didn’t give me that same luxury. And I’ll never forgive you for that.”

Agatha, once again, appeared angered by Magdiel’s cold attitude. “You know, maybe if you didn’t have your heart set on being with Raj so much, you’d see the good in this whole plan and- What’s this?”

Magdiel turned back around. Agatha’s eyes were on the dress that Raj had just bought. She reached for it out of the box and held it up with a dumbfounded expression on her face.

“Raj and I are going to get married after the death pageant” said Magdiel, smirking again in defiant satisfaction.

“Magdiel” said Agatha, visibly making an effort to speak calmly. “I can’t force you to go along with the nonbelievers’ plan; but as your mother, it is my job to protect you. So I can’t allow you to see Raj anymore.”

“How are you going to stop me?”

Agatha stood up and walked towards the bedroom door. “I’ll be back shortly”.

Chapter 5

Millikies

Panic instantly arose in Magdiel. She did not know what her mother was planning to do, but she could not allow her to take Raj away from her.

Magdiel followed Agatha out of the room and to the front door. Normally, Magdiel thought twice before going outside: making sure that the sun was down so that she would not get burnt, and that it was not raining or humid, so that her hair would not get frizzy and tangled (which may cause it to break), and that she was wearing boots so that her feet would not get scratched. But tonight she was desperate, and she dashed out of the door without a second thought.

“Get back inside!” Agatha hissed. “Bare-footed and all. Are you crazy?”

“Where are you going mom?” demanded Magdiel.

“Shh! keep it down or the neighbours might hear us.”

(The Bernards had died some years ago of old age, and some of their relatives- who were just as nosey as they had been- were now living in their cottage).

“I don’t care about the neighbours!” said Magdiel.

Agatha gave Magdel a hard look before continuing in the direction of the Fabians’ house. Magdiel followed closely behind, in angry silence.

Agatha knocked on the door. Fulvia opened it shortly and stared at the two of them in surprise. Her physical appearance had not changed much, except for some fine lines that had developed around her eyes and mouth, and some silver hair that had crept up on her head, though they were hardly visible amongst her white blond locks.

“You two look hysterical!” said Fulvia, stepping aside to let them in. “And Magdiel, what a surprise to see you outside.”

“I told her not to come” said Agatha. “But you know how difficult she is.”

Magdiel glared at her mother.

Agatha ignored her. “Fulvia, is Jude here? I need to speak to the both of you”.

“ Sure.” said Fulvia, looking worried- as she always did whenever Agatha had a problem. She called Jude into the room. Jude had gotten even rounder over the years, with his stomach extending far in front of him.

“What is it?” he asked, looking surprised at the sight of everyone in the room.

“It’s about Magdiel and Raj” said Agatha right away. “They’re still seeing each other. I saw them together when I came home this evening.”

Both Jude and Fulvia looked stunned.

“He promised us that he wouldn’t” said Fulvia, outraged. “He knows how dangerous a relationship between them is.”

“And it’s serious” Agatha added. “They’re planning to get married.”

“What!” said Fulvia. “Raj, get in here!”

Raj walked into the living room with the strong confidence that was so deeply ingrained in his character. Magdiel’s heart smiled in spite of the circumstances.

“I’m not going to stop seeing her, mom” he said firmly, before anything was said to him. The smile now appeared on Magdiel’s lips.

“Now you listen here young man,” said Fulvia, wagging a finger in his son’s face. “you are putting this girl’s and her mother’s life in danger. Poppies are not allowed to have these types of relationships!”

“We’re being careful, Mrs. Fabian.” Magdiel finally spoke up.

Agatha scoffed loudly. “You’re being careful by snuggling at the bedroom window, in plain sight? And by buying extravagant gifts?”

“What!” exclaimed Fulvia again.

“Now everyone, calm down” said Jude, stepping into the centre with his hands up. He then turned to Raj, his expression stern. “Now son, I raised you better than that. I’d like to think that I raised you to be a responsible man; not only for yourself, but for those around you. If you love Magdiel, you need to do what’s best for her.”

“And that is precisely why I came over here.” Agatha interrupted. “To suggest that Raj leave Galden for a while.”

“No!” Magdiel shouted, immediately.

“Leave Galden?” repeated Fulvia, seemingly confused.

“ Just until Magdiel leaves for the palace- which should be very soon- she’s of age now.”

It was February and the invitation letters to the of-age poppies were normally received during the months of May and June, giving them enough time to prepare themselves to move into the castle on August 1st. Magdiel had expected to receive a letter last year, since she turned seventeen before the pageant this July. If she did not receive a letter this time around, then she would have to wait another year.

“You know, that’s not such a bad idea” said Jude. “I have a Brother in Millikies, about fifty miles from here.

Magdiel clutched her chest. She could not believe her ears.

“Thank you, Jude.” said Agatha, sighing in relief.

“What do you say, Raj?” asked Fulvia.

Raj did not answer right away. His expression was unreadable as he looked across at Magdiel.

“Let me talk to Magdiel in private first” he finally said.

Raj then took a hold of Magdiel’s hand and gently pulled her forward, because she stood rooted to the spot, unable to move. Why wasn’t Raj immediately protesting this ridiculous idea? She thought to herself.

Magdiel then felt her mother grab her arm also and tug her backwards.

“It’ll only take a minute, Mrs. Andalf” Raj said testily.

After a moment’s hesitation, Agatha released her grip.

Raj led Magdiel into his bedroom. She had never been in there before, and had always been curious as to what it looked like. With a sweeping look, Magdiel noted that it was small and a little messy, with several wooden pieces of art scattered here and there.

She then leaned against the closed door for support, and waited. Raj was looking at her with the pained expression that he always wore when he had something difficult to say.

“Mags…what they say makes sense. I have to go.”

“Don’t be stupid Raj!” Magdiel snapped. “We’ve been seeing each other like this for two years now and we’ve never been caught by anyone, except our parents.”

“Yes, but you have to admit that we’re getting really serious now. We could hardly control ourselves today. And I don’t think we’ll be able to for much longer.”

“I promise, I will.”

“But I can’t!” said Raj.

Magdiel could tell that Raj’s mind was made up at this point, and she completely lost control of her emotions. She erupted in a flood of tears and began to grab at his shirt.

“ You’re all I have Raj- you’re my life-”

“Magdiel-”

“Please, please don’t leave me-” Magdiel cried, unable to breathe properly.

Raj grabbed a hold of Magdiel’s shoulders, trying to calm her. “What kind of a boyfriend would I be if I put your life in danger?”

“What kind of a boyfriend leaves his girlfriend when she needs him?” Magdiel spat.

“Don’t be like that Magdiel. I’m trying to do what’s best for you.”

Magdiel pulled away from Raj’s grasp and yanked open the bedroom door. She ignored his callings after her as she stormed out into the living room. When she got to Agatha, Magdiel hissed: “Just when I thought I couldn’t hate you any more than I already did.”

Without waiting for a response, Magdiel continued through the front door and stormed all the way back home.

On the kitchen table, she saw a birthday cake that her mother must have brought home for her from the Bakery. Magdiel picked it up and smashed it on the floor.

Chapter 6

Officially

Raj left two days after the meeting at his house, and the next four months for Magdiel were almost unbearable. She spent most of her days crying- some days more bitterly than others- or in a sort of numb trance. She also had trouble sleeping- sometimes waking in the middle of the night drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. Those were the nights that she dreamt of Raj. Some days, Magdiel would even sit by the bedroom window for hours just imagining Raj’s white-blond head running towards her. Those were the worst days.

If Magdiel were to describe the pain that she was feeling, it was as if someone had taken the last bit of light from her already dim world, and left her in an abyss of darkness- empty, lonely, meaningless darkness. That someone of course was her mother. Magdiel had not spoken to her since the altercation, despite Agatha’s numerous attempts. It was obvious that she was getting really worried because of Magdiel’s prolonged depressing behaviour, and Magdiel was glad. She wanted her mother to suffer just as she had made her suffer.

To pass the time, Magdiel often reflected on her last moment with Raj. It had been a dramatic departure. Raj had come at first to the bedroom window, but Magdiel had ignored his knocks and would not open. She just could not bring herself to say goodbye; and a part of her had still been mad at him for leaving.

So Raj had kicked open the locked back door and charged into Magdiel’s room, where she had been lying on the bed with her face buried in the pillow. Raj had picked her up and cradled her on his lap like a small child.

“It’s only for a while” he had said. “When we see each other again, you’ll be mines forever and I’ll never let you out of my sight.”

Raj didn’t cry. He never cried. So Magdiel had cried for the both of them.

Two weeks later, Magdiel received a letter from Raj and had been receiving bi-weekly letters from him ever since. In his letters, Raj mainly described his new village and the people in it, as well as little interesting things that happened to him.

Magdiel lived for these letters. When reading them, she would try to imagine herself experiencing the same things and seeing the same sites. It took her away from the dreariness of her room. Magdiel did not write back to Raj as often, because there was not much to say about the goings-on on her end; but when she did write, she was careful not to reveal her sad and pitiful state, so that Raj would not be too worried.

Today’s letter from Raj read:

Dear Mags,

I saw a field of poppy flowers today as I went past a meadow with my cousins, and I thought of you. Actually, almost everything makes me think of you lately.

[_ I’d hoped that it would have gotten easier by now, but I think I’m missing you even more as time goes by. I miss how excited you’d get every time I’d come to see you, and how you’d laugh at my simplest jokes. I miss your curiosity and the silly questions you’d ask me- Like, where does the sea lead to? And you know I miss the way you’d wrap your hair around my neck while you kiss me with your perfect lips. _]

But anyway, today was my cousin Binchub’s 20^th^ birthday, the one I told you broke his leg horseracing last month. So me and his brothers rode our horses to town to get some supplies for a party in the barn. It was great. There were lots of people, food and music. And no, I didn’t dance with any of the girls. I’m saving my dances just for you. I actually spent most of the night trying to play an instrument called the harmonica. It was not easy and I sounded terrible. Maybe I’ll bring you back one and we could learn to play together.

In your last letter you said that you were feeling peaceful, whatever that means. You don’t have to hide your feelings from me. I know how sad you get. But please hang in there. It’ll be over soon.

I love you more than words can say.

Yours forever,

Raj.

In her excitement at seeing Raj’s letter on the floor- which the mail carrier had pushed through the living room window- Magdiel had not noticed that another letter addressed to her laid next to it.

Later that evening, Agatha came into Magdiel’s room looking very pale and anxious. With a slightly trembling hand, she held out a small, white envelope. Magdiel’s heat beat quickened when she spotted the king’s seal. She opened it tentatively.

To Magdiel Dorind Andalf,

This letter is to hereby inform you of your selection for the annual Death Pageant, scheduled for the seventh to the tenth day of July of next year.

A carriage will be sent to retrieve you from your home in Galden at 8’ o clock on the morning of the thirtieth day of the month of July, of this year, and escort you to the King’s Palace. You will arrive by the first day of August, and will remain until after the pageant, if you are not selected for sacrifice.

Please be aware that you are not to bring any personal belongings, as contestants will be provided with everything that they need.

Congratulations on your selection and may the Great Harun find favour in you.

Best Regards,

Marcella Lindell

Pageant Coordinator for the king.

A smile formed upon Magdiel’s face as she re-read the letter.

Chapter 7

The Inspection

On the morning of the thirtieth of July, Magdiel sat in the living room of her cottage rocking slowly back and forth in a wooden rocking chair. It was only ten minutes till the royal carriage was to arrive to collect her, and her heart was beating painfully against her chest.

From the time she had read the official letter, to before she awoke this morning, Magdiel had not felt a bit of nerves about beginning her year at the palace. Instead, she had looked forward to it. Not only would she soon be over what had always seemed like a major hurdle and burden in her life, but it would also be a new and exciting experience -at least compared to her current humdrum existence. Magdiel was looking forward to: travelling far from Galden and seeing new sights, making friends with other poppies, and having the rare opportunity to meet Acusan Royalty.

In his letters, Raj had also expressed his excitement at Magdiel receiving her letter this time around; for it meant that, in just one year, the both of them could start their new life together.

However, almost as soon as Magdiel had opened her eyes this morning, she felt an overwhelming sense of panic at the realization that the time for action was at hand. All of a sudden, the palace no longer seemed intriguing, but very intimidating; and the prospect of meeting new people appeared daunting. But what weighed heaviest on Magdiel’s heart was that she was finally about to choose her own path in life. From the moment she entered the Palace, all of her efforts would be concentrated on losing the Pageant and returning home to Raj and freedom; and in doing that, she would be denouncing the non-believers’ movement and plan once and for all.

It was not that Magdiel was having second thoughts about her decision; she only hoped that it would yield the happiness that she so desperately desired.

“Magdiel, sweetie” said Agatha in a shaky voice, breaking Magdiel’s thoughts.

Magdiel looked over at her mother, who was sitting in a chair directly across from her. Agatha’s face was extremely white, and she appeared on the verge of tears. She had been looking like that for past few days, and Magdiel suspected that it had to do with her leaving for the Palace. She knew that her mother loved her, but she had too much resentment towards her to care. 

          “ You need to be very careful when you get to the Palace” Agatha said intensely. “Don’t trust anyone. These poppies will do anything to win- even kill.”     

         “Isn’t that what you want?” said Magdiel coldly. 

          “How can you say that Magdiel?”

         “Oh, I’m sorry. You don’t want me killed by poppies. You just want me executed by palace guards for the sake of your stupid cause.”

           Agatha paused for a moment, and looked at Magdiel sadly. Her bottom lip quivered slightly. Then she seemed to pull herself together and said “Don’t do this Magdiel. Please. Not right now. You need to listen to me. When you get to the palace, look for a eunuch named Choy Holland. He’ll help you. He’s one of us.”

         “I’m not one of you!” said Magdiel, indignantly. “And I don’t need hel-”.

  Magdiel suddenly heard the sound of horses trotting.  She whipped her head towards the window and saw, in the distance, a large carriage being pulled along the dirt path towards their cottage. Magdiel’s heart began to beat even more rapidly and painfully than before. She wanted to run and hide, like a child, but she doubted whether she could. Her whole body seemed to have frozen.

  Within seconds, the carriage stopped outside the cottage door. Magdiel could not help being in awe of it, in spite of her fear. She had only seen such an elegant carriage once before, when the eunuchs and guards had come to mark her as a poppy seven years ago. It was large and round, instead of the small square ones that the men of Galden used; and it was of a darker, much shinier wood. The various intricate designs carved all around it also intensified its glamour. Even the horses that pulled it seemed extraordinarily beautiful and big and shiny. 

  Magdiel watched, transfixed, as a very large and fierce-looking man swiftly descended from the carriage. He wore the full kings guard uniform of: a black iron helmet, black buttoned-up coat and black tights, and a long sword attached to his left. The guard stepped aside and stood very stiffly while a eunuch descended more slowly after him. The eunuch was a short and plump middle-aged man, dressed in a simple, brown, hooded cloak.

       Before Magdiel knew it, there was a sharp knock at the door and, through the corner of her eye, she saw her mother jump slightly in her seat. She too must have been frozen by the sight of the carriage and men, and was thus taken aback by the sudden sound. Agatha half walked, half ran to the door and opened it. 

        “Good day Madam” came a crisp and authoritative voice. “We have come to escort death pageant contestant, Magdiel Andalf, to the King’s Palace.”

       “Y-Yes, of course” said Agatha, as she stepped aside to let the eunuch and guard pass into the living room.  She had placed a broad smile on her face, and Magdiel knew that it was because believers were normally happy on this occasion.

        Both men immediately gave a quick glance around the room.

        “Is this she?”

The eunuch gestured towards Magdiel, who was still seated in the rocking chair. At once, Magdiel jumped to her feet and smiled as her mother had. Not sure as to the correct way to greet a eunuch, Magdiel improvised with an awkward curtsey and stumbled. The eunuch merely looked at her; and Magdiel blushed with embarrassment.    

“It is such an honour to have you here with us and for my daughter to serve the Great Harun in this manner” said Agatha to the eunuch. “May I offer you some tea?”

Magdiel was impressed by her mother’s sudden transformation. She looked very convincing.

         “No, thank you” said the eunuch, turning to Agatha once again. “I would like to do the inspection right away.”

         What inspection? Magdiel wondered.

         “Certainly” said Agatha, cheerfully. Then she pointed behind her. “Go through there, on the left.”

         Magdiel looked at her mother in surprise. She had never spoken of an inspection. What were they going to inspect?

        The eunuch headed towards Magdiel’s bedroom.

        “Go with him… It’s ok.” Agatha said, pleading to Magdiel with her eyes.

         Magdiel was very confused at this point; but she dared not disobey nor question her mother in front of the large guard. 

Magdiel followed the eunuch into her room. He closed the door behind them, then went to the only window and pulled the curtains across. Magdiel stood in the centre of the room, watching him- her bewilderment increasing with every passing second.

         The eunuch then turned and looked at her expectantly. Magdiel did not know what she was supposed to be doing, so she just stood there fumbling with her fingers.

“Well…” the eunuch said, impatiently. “Remove your clothing”. 

         Magdiel felt as if her heart had stopped beating. [_She must not have heard him correctly. _]

        “P-p-pardon me, Sir?” 

       The eunuch raised an eyebrow. “I need to ensure that you are not damaged, before I take you to the palace. Surely you must have been made aware of this routine inspection- after all, your mother was a contestant herself.” 

        “O-of course” Magdiel lied.

She had found her voice with great difficulty. No one had ever seen her naked before. She was not even comfortable taking off her clothes in front of her mother. Now she was to bare all before a complete stranger, and a religious eunuch at that. The thought alone made Magdiel feel light-headed; but she imagined that there would be dire consequences to disobeying this order.       

       Magdiel reached to the back of the dress that Raj had bought for her birthday, and began to unfasten the hooks. This took an unusually long time, since her trembling hand could not grip the small hooks very well. All the while, her heart seemed to be beating out of control, while the eunuch tapped his foot impatiently upon the floor. Finally, Magdiel freed herself from the dress and it fell to the ground with what seemed like a loud thud. Magdiel raised her hands instinctively to cover herself.

      “Your undergarments as well” said the eunuch, immediately. 

Magdiel had barely recovered from the trauma of taking off her dress. She hesitated for a moment, tempted to beg him not to let her do it; but then thought better of it. Magdiel breathed in deeply, trying to calm herself; for she felt her face get hot, and the tears had begun to sting the back of her eyes. Then she slowly removed her undergarments and was now completely naked.

     The excited look on the eunuch’s face, as he surveyed her body, made Magdiel wince. She felt as if his gaze was burning her skin, and it seemed to take all of her energy to stand still while he slowly circled around her- so close that his cloak brushed against her skin, and she could feel his hot breath upon her neck. After what seemed like an extremely long time, the eunuch finally stopped in front of her.  

      “Very well.” He said, nonchalantly. “You’ve passed inspections for now.” He could just as well have been speaking of an object. Still, Magdiel managed to force a small smile.  

       “I shall wait for you outside.” The eunuch continued. “Don’t be long. We have a strict deadline to adhere to”.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Magdiel grabbed up her clothing from off of the floor and began to sob. She had never felt more violated in her life; and she was very afraid now of going to the palace.

        Just as Magdiel finished redressing, the bedroom door opened and Agatha entered gingerly.

A deep and instantaneous fury arose in Magdiel. Her mother should have warned her about the inspection- to prepare her somehow. Infact, her mother was the reason why she was a poppy and had to go through this in the first place. 

       “I’m so sorry sweetie.” Agatha cried, tears already flooding down her face. “I didn’t want to frighten you.” 

       Magdiel walked up to her mother and looked her fiercely in the eyes. “Don’t ever visit me at the palace. And don’t ever write. As far as I’m concerned, you died with Leo.”

      Agatha looked dumbstruck.

      Magdiel walked out of the room and straight to the front door, where the eunuch was waiting for her with a large umbrella. He placed it over her head and they made their way towards the carriage, through the large crowd of villagers that had gathered outside.

“Goodbye Magdiel!” they shouted. “May Harun find favour with you!” 

      Magdiel kept her head down. Where had these people been when she needed a friend?

Magdiel sat stiffly within the spacious carriage, facing the eunuch and the guard. The inside was just as glamorous as the outside, with velvet felt covering the walls and soft, plush velvet cushions upon the two long seats.

However, Magdiel could not appreciate the beauty of her surroundings; for she was still reeling from her encounter with the eunuch, in her room. She stared intently out of the window, careful to avoid the eyes of the two men. They had not said anything to her since leaving the cottage, and Magdiel was glad. She was not sure that she would be able to speak and hold back her tears at the same time.

The carriage had just left Galden. Magdiel knew this because the line of cottages and shops had suddenly stopped. They were now speeding across deserted, stony, mountainous terrain.

This is what Magdiel had always longed for- to see outside of Galden. But instead of taking in the sites, she leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to come and ease her troubled mind.

Chapter 8

The Capital

It was mid-afternoon on the first of August when they arrived in the capital. Magdiel noticed that the roads were much smoother and wider than in Galden, or any other place that they had passed on the way; and that the houses lining the streets were larger and closer together, and were made of bricks, instead of wood. There were no stables in sight, but many elegant stores with exquisite items in the windows- some of which Magdiel had never seen and could not imagine what they were.

The people that walked by were all attired in what people of Galden only wore on very special occasions, such as weddings or religious festivals. Magdiel thought that even the dress that Raj had bought for her birthday paled in comparison to some of the extravagant gowns that the ladies were wearing; while most of the men were handsomely dressed in crisp, white buttoned-up shirts and long trousers, with distractingly shiny shoes.

Something else that Magdiel noticed was that the people of the capital seemed to be a lot more religious than those of Galden. Back home, on the rare occasions that she was allowed to go for a walk around the village, Magdiel would see the people in the streets busily doing chores and talking merrily with acquaintances; while the children ran wild.

Here, on the other hand, everyone looked very serious and wore all sorts of religious symbols- such as: necklaces with large sun pendants, which Magdiel knew represented the Sun God, Lima; as well as light blue shawls for the wind God, Ram. There were even some persons (including children), grouped together on street corners, who appeared to be praying. It all seemed very bizarre.

All the same, Magdiel was glad that the horrible two-day carriage journey had finally come to an end. The ride had been extremely bumpy, as the horses galloped speedily over rocky mountains and uneven terrain; and the blazing sun had made inside the carriage excruciatingly hot and stifling.

For the two nights of the journey, they sojourned in inns that they came upon along the way. These were not so bad. They were clean and comfortable and Magdiel had gotten her own room and much needed time away from the eunuch and guard- both of whom had significantly added to Magdiel’s discomfort. She felt as if they were observing her every move, and their facial expressions always appeared stern and pious.

On the rare instances that the eunuch spoke to Magdiel, it was mainly to question her about her love for Harun and her knowledge of the non-believers’ movement.

“So, young lady, have you always wished to be a sacrifice to Harun?” he had asked; as well as “Are you aware of any non-believers in your village?”

These questions had made Magdiel very nervous. She wondered whether the eunuch was suspicious of her or if these were routinely asked to all of the contestants, as part of the enhanced security against rebellious poppies. Fortunately, Magdiel had rehearsed questions like these countless of times in front of her mirror, in preparation for her move to the palace. Thus, she answered smoothly and always with the correct facial expressions; while, at the same time, being careful not to sound rehearsed.

“I’ve been enamoured with our Lord Harun ever since I can remember, Sir.” Magdiel had answered smiling. “When I was younger, I used to always beg my mother to tell me stories of his greatness and power, and I couldn’t help but to envision myself in the afterlife as his loving bride, interceding for the people of Acus.” At this point, she had let her eyes fill with tears before continuing. “I-I can’t imagine anything more wonderful and honourable than that.”

And about the non-believers, Magdiel had frowned deeply as she said “If I knew of any non-believers, you would not have had to ask. I would have already reported these ungrateful blasphemers.”

The guard, on the other hand, had never spoken a word to Magdiel; but she would often catch him looking at her in a way that scared her terribly- as if he would have liked nothing more than to have his way with her. For that reason, Magdiel had made sure that she was never alone with him and that her room in the inns that they stayed was always securely locked.

Magdiel suddenly caught her breath. The carriage had just turned a corner and, in the distance, she saw the most grandiose structure that she had ever seen, even in her most theatrical imagination- which had been greatly developed from the lonely years in her room. The size alone was astonishing. It was so broad that Magdiel wondered whether it would have fit in Galden, and the pointed tower in the centre seemed to reach the clouds. The entire building appeared to be made of pure gold as it shimmered dazzlingly in the sunlight.

“Welcome to the King’s Palace.” Magdiel heard the Eunuch say, as they glided along a neatly hedged, brick pathway.

They entered through a set of large, iron gates into the Palace’s immediate court yard, where they were greeted by countless kings guards, standing armed and stiff along the path, and along the edges of the vast green yard.

The carriage finally halted in front of the palace’s main entrance, which was as spectacular and intimidating as one could expect- an open porch atop a high set of wide stairs, held up by large pillars, painted in brilliant white.

Magdiel took in a deep, shaky breath before accepting the guard’s outstretched hand and descending the carriage. One of the ten kings guards, that were lined up at the bottom of the stairs, walked up before them and slammed a golden knocker loudly against the wooden double doors, which opened almost immediately. An elderly man, dressed in a golden tailcoat, greeted them- silently beckoning Magdiel and the eunuch inside, and bowing deeply as they passed.

Once inside, Magdiel’s mouth fell open as she looked around at her surroundings. They were standing in a very large, square room, on a pristinely white and shiny floor. The walls were white also, with large squares of gold at equal intervals. But the most outstanding feature of the room was the ten feet tall golden statue of a crowned man and woman on a circular pedestal, which Magdiel assumed represented the king and queen. Magdiel was so enthralled by the room that she did not notice the eunuch leaving her side nor that a young woman had approached her, until she felt something being pinned to her dress.

“Number 31” the young woman said, smiling brightly at Magdiel. She had a kind and very beautiful, almost poppy-standard face, except for a slightly crooked nose.

Magdiel glanced down at her chest and saw a small white card with the number 31 written on it. She looked up at the girl questioningly.

“It’s just our way of keeping track of the contestants.” the young woman said. “You’re the 31st one to arrive at the palace.”

“Oh.” said Magdiel awkwardly.

“My name is Felicia McDonald. I’m one of the assistants to the contestants.” Felicia was still smiling as she stretched out her hand to shake Magdiel’s.

Magdiel shook it. “I’m Magdiel.” She said timidly. “Magdiel Andalf.”

“Welcome Magdiel. Now follow me, and I’ll show you to your room.”

Magdiel followed closely behind Felicia towards the back of the room, keenly observing her appearance. She marvelled at the fact that even the help’s uniform was extravagant. Felicia wore a crisp, white, pleated dress that fell just below the knee. It had very puffy sleeves and a high collar; and a gold apron was tied around it, with a large bow at the back. The uniform was accentuated with thick white stockings and white high heels; and to top it off, Felicia’s golden hair was pulled tightly into a large, high bun.

They went through a set of white double doors. This new room mimicked the colour scheme of the first and was about the same size. However, instead of a golden statue as the focal point, there was a highly polished wooden staircase, carpeted in bright red, which branched off at the top into two more sets of stairs.

Magdiel had never been in a multi-level house before, so she held on tightly to the rail as she climbed.

They took the set of stairs on the right, onto a long corridor. After crossing this corridor, they turned right again, onto an even longer one. By the time they crossed this second corridor and climbed another flight of stairs, Magdiel began to breathe very heavily; but she was too shy to ask Felicia to slow down. Fortunately, Felicia seemed to have heard Magdiel’s breathing for she suddenly stopped and turned to look at her.

“Oh I’m sorry Magdiel. I didn’t realise that I was walking so quickly.”

Felicia turned back around and continued to walk at a slower pace, so that Magdiel was able to catch up with her.

“ You see, we assistants are very busy today with the arrival of the poppies- oh I’m sorry- I mean contestants. It’s sort of frowned upon here to use such informal terms. Anyway, we also have to prepare for the welcoming feast tonight.”

“Welcoming feast?”

“Yes.” said Felicia. “All of the contestants will meet in the dining room with the pageant eunuchs and assistants for the official welcome.”

Felicia must have sensed Magdiel’s apprehension, for she immediately added “Don’t worry. It should be fun. You’ll get to socialize with your peers.”

Magdiel nodded, though Felicia’s reassurance did not comfort her in the least. She was very nervous about meeting all of those people at once.

Just then, three women that were dressed like Felicia rounded the corner at the end of the hall in front of them. Indeed, as Felecia had said, they appeared to be very busy as they hurried past them without a word.

Magdiel and Felicia rounded the same corner, from which the two assistants had just emerged, and came upon an extremely long corridor. This paled in comparison to the rest of the palace. It simple had white walls and floor, and many wooden doors on either side.

“This is where you will be saying.” Felicia said. “It is one of the two quarters for the contestants. The other is on the opposite side of the palace.”

About half-way along, Felicia pulled a small brass key from the pocket of her apron and unlocked a door on the right.

The plain corridor was deceptive and had not prepared Magdiel for what she was about to see. She actually had to place a hand over her heart, to steady it, as she took in her new room. It was bigger than her entire cottage in Galden, and was like a wonderland of milk and honey. Everything was either cream: the walls, the extremely soft and fluffy carpet covering the entire floor, and the two large vanity tables against the left wall; or gold: the intricately designed curtains draping the floor-to-ceiling windows, and the beautiful sheets and drapes on the two large canopy beds against the wall to the right.

“It is believed that beautiful surroundings produce beautiful people inside and out.”

Magdiel started at Felicia’s voice. She had almost forgotten that the young assistant was still there.

“I just can’t believe how beautiful it all is” Magdiel said truthfully, as she walked further into the room.

“I’m glad that you like it.” said Felicia, grinning. Then, turning to leave, she said “I’ve really got to get going. So just get some rest. An assistant should be up later to bathe and dress you for dinner.”

Magdiel did not quite understand what Felicia meant by an assistant bathing her, but she nodded anyway, not wanting to keep her back.

“Hey!” said Felicia, suddenly. She was already half-way out the door, “Take a look at the clothes closet. I’m sure you’ll love that too”. She then left and closed the door behind her.

Magdiel did not think that she could stand to see any more spectacular things. She was already feeling overwhelmed by those that she had seen so far. So, instead of trying to find the closet, Magdiel crossed the room and plopped down unto the canopy bed closest to the window. It was even softer than she had thought. Magdiel hoped that, whomever her roommate was, she would not mind having the bed without the view; for, from the presence of the second canopy bed, it seemed as if Magdiel would be sharing the room.

Magdiel turned on her side and slowly caressed the smooth covering of one of the bed’s many pillows. She was trying to make sense of the mixture of emotions that she was feeling at the moment. Even though Magdiel loathed her mother, her presence had always been a source of security, where Magdiel knew that she would be provided for and protected. Now that her mother was not there, Magdiel did not know what to expect, and she was scared. At the same time, Magdiel was angry with herself for being so soft as to want her mother around, after all of the unforgivable things that she had done.

Still more confusing was Magdiel’s strong desire to be left alone. Ever since Magdiel could remember, all she had ever wanted was to meet people and make friends. But now, the prospect of having a roommate and relating to: forty-nine other poppies, how many ever eunuchs, and countless assistants seemed like a burdensome task. The thought alone made Magdiel feel tired; or maybe it was the long journey. She wiped the tears from her eyes and dozed off almost immediately.

Chapter 9

Alicia

Magdiel opened her eyes and squinted against the setting sun, trying to remember where she was. It soon came back as she eyed the cream and gold all around her. She propped herself up on the bed and was startled to see flaming red, curly hair, draped over the back of the vanity seat directly in front of her.

“Hello.” said Magdiel, in the friendliest tone that she could muster.

The hair rotated slowly, until it revealed a small and very pretty, round face, with slanted grey eyes, which were now glaring at Magdiel.

Magdiel was taken aback by the cold reception. Nonetheless, she proceeded to try and engage the girl further. “I’m Magdiel… You must be my roommate.” she said, consciously placing a smile on her face.

The girl pursed her ruby red lips in disgust, revealing deep dimples on both cheeks, before turning back around sharply.

Magdiel sat there on the bed, stunned and embarrassed. Was it something she’d said? Magdiel could not be sure, since she had not had much experience with people- particularly other poppies, or girls her age for that matter. After a few minutes of beating herself up, Magdiel remembered what her mother had said about the poppies being fiercely competitive and hateful towards one another. This made Magdiel angry.

“I don’t need to talk to you anyway!” she said to the girl’s back, though not loud enough for her to hear.

The next moment, there was a knock at the bedroom door and, immediately afterwards, two assistants entered the room. The roommate finally stopped examining herself in what was supposed to be Magdiel’s mirror (since it belonged to the vanity table in front of her bed), and greeted the two women enthusiastically.

“Hello Maams.” She said, curtseying and smiling broadly. “I’m Alicia Maynard How do you do?”

Alicia had such a high pitched voice that Magdiel cringed while she spoke.

Nonetheless, the assistants seemed to be pleased with her and they curtseyed back. Then the tall and bony, mean-faced one walked over to Magdiel; while the plump, jolly one stayed with Alicia.

“If you would please follow me into the bathroom” said the bony assistant to Magdiel, in a tone that made her hop to obedience.

All four of them entered a door to the left of the vanity tables, into a small and bare stone room, with two small, white tubs in the centre.

Magdiel was soon soaking in one of the tubs, filled with warm water, while her assistant wiped her down with a large, soapy sponge. Magdiel found this to be extremely uncomfortable, and sat very rigidly and upright. She did not understand why this was even necessary, since she was perfectly capable of washing herself. Yet, she dared not object, for her assistant scared her a little. Plus, she did not want to be different in any way and suspected of being a non-believer; especially since Alicia, who was getting the same treatment in the tub next the Magdiel’s, appeared very comfortable as she chatted merrily with her assistant about her fascination with the Palace.

“The colour scheme is absolutely lovely!” she was saying. “Simple and classic. You are so lucky to live in a place like this.”

The assistant seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this engagement. “Remind me to show you the art room one of these days. You’ll just die!”

However, once or twice, when the assistant was not looking, Magdiel had caught Alicia rolling her eyes in annoyance. Magdiel did not quite understand this behaviour. Why talk to the assistants if you clearly did not want to?

Magdiel’s attention was suddenly brought back to her own bath, as she felt the assistant’s hand going past her navel.

“Ah… I can wash down there by myself, if you don’t mind.” Magdiel said timidly.

The bony assistant frowned at her before grudgingly handing over the sponge.

After their baths, the assistants took Magdiel and Alicia through the door on the right of the vanity tables. Magdiel immediately understood why Felicia had mentioned the clothes closet. It was unbelievable.

At home, Magdiel’s closet was a small wooden chest below her bed, in which all of her clothes fit comfortably. So it was hard for her to fathom the amount of clothes needed to fill a closet of this magnitude. It was almost as big as the bedroom outside, with tall mirrored cupboards all along the walls. There was also a long, white table right in the centre, which was completely covered with a vast array of accessories, toiletries and perfumes.

Magdiel gasped when her assistant opened one of the mirrored cupboards, to reveal a long rack full of the most luxurious gowns. No wonder the official letter had told them not to bring any personal belongings, Magdiel thought. This was more than a girl could ever ask for. And in that moment, Magdiel’s spirits were lifted.

Chapter 10

The Welcoming Feast

The cheery feeling that Magdiel had experienced in her new closet was now completely dissolved and replaced by dread, as she walked alongside Alicia to the dining room. What if all of the other poppies are as hostile as Alicia? she worried.

Magdiel kept fidgeting with her dress so as to give her hands something to do. Her assistant had picked out a very frilly, light blue number, with a light pink band around the waist; and had paired it with light pink, satin slippers. It had been too late to do much to her hair, so the assistant had simply brushed it and let it hang straight; and applied some light makeup to Magdiel’s face. When Magdiel had examined herself in the full length closet mirror, she thought that she looked better than she ever had in her entire life.

But upon seeing Alicia, who looked even more stunning in a light green off-the-shoulder dress, which beautifully complemented her flaming red hair and lips, Magdiel had to fight hard to control her jealousy and the urge to demand an outfit change. She reminded herself that her purpose at the palace was to play down her beauty and other favourable qualities so that she would lose.

“Be quick girls! We’re already late.” said the bony assistant, crisply.

Both assistants were a little ahead of them, leading the way. Magdiel snapped out of her trance and saw that she was lagging behind Alicia. Her mind had been occupied rehearsing things to say and do at the dinner, so that she would not appear foolish.

Magdiel quickened her pace and caught up with Alicia, who immediately glanced over at her in contempt. Magdiel was tempted to give her a piece of her mind. If it had not been for Alicia’s persistence in curling her hair with tiny rollers, they would have been early. Now, the dining room would probably be full when they arrived and all eyes would be on them as they walked in.

They now came to the end of the very long dormitory hallway, and turned onto a very broad and elegant one, lined with red-carpet and gold-coloured walls. One of the assistants pushed opened a set of glass doors on the right.

Magdiel had to squint as she walked into the dining room; for the exorbitantly large, crystal chandelier that hung low in the centre, reflected the candle light against the golden walls and made its brilliance almost blinding.

Once her eyes had gotten accustomed to the light, Magdiel saw that the large room was indeed filled with people. They were seated around numerous small, circular tables; and, as expected, many of their heads were turned in their direction.

The two assistants and Alicia quickly proceeded into the room, while Magdiel lingered by the door, not wishing to go any further. She was about to turn back around, when the bony assistant suddenly turned and gave her stern look. Apparently, her duties entailed keeping a watch over Magdiel at the dinner too.

Very reluctantly, Magdiel followed her assistant along the centre isle of the large room. She kept her gaze down upon the shiny wooden floor, so that she could not see anyone. All that could be heard was the clinking of utensils against china, and soft, indistinguishable chatter. Every step felt painfully awkward, and Magdiel felt on the verge of tears. They’re just people! She chided herself. Until now, Magdiel had not known the extent of her social ineptitude, caused by years of virtual isolation.

Her assistant finally stopped in front of a table close to the back of the room. Magdiel raised her head slightly to see where she was to sit, before quickly plunging into the chair.

After a few seconds, Magdiel worked up the courage to raise her head and look around at the other occupants of the table. They were three poppies: two identical blond twins with the most amazing light blue eyes that Magdiel had ever seen, and a very pretty brunette with outstandingly plump lips. All three of them had stopped eating to stare at Magdiel; who, at the moment, could not recall any of the friendly greetings that she had rehearsed on the way, and so just sat there staring back at them.

Then one of the twins sniggered to her sister. “Oh look! She’s breaking out in cold sweat.”

Magdiel raised a hand quickly to her forehead and found that it was indeed damp. Horrified, she grabbed a napkin from off of the table and dabbed at her face, vigorously.

“You’ll never make it in this competition if you’re so pathetic.” said the other twin, hautily.

Then they both cracked up laughing. Even the brunette chuckled a little.

Magdiel placed the napkin back on the table and lowered her head once more. She could not understand why the other poppies did not seem as terrified or awkward as she was, since they too must have lived in isolation of some sorts.

“You know, it’s not very polite to ignore people when they speak to you.” said one of the twins, in a tone of mocked innocence. Then they chuckled again.

Now Magdiel was angry. She raised her head slowly and glared at the twins.

“Oh Suzette! I think we’ve upset her!” said one of them, exaggeratedly placing both hands over her mouth to imitate being scared.

“Well Josette, I guess it’s time for us to start sweating.”

This really had them cackling. They laughed so loud that persons from the nearby tables turned to look at them. Magdiel’s hand tightened around the glass of water in front of her. She was about to empty its contents in one of the twin’s face, when a plate was suddenly slammed down before her on the table. Magdiel released the glass quickly and looked up. It was her assistant again.

“Keep it down at this table!” she said, looking at the four of them in turn with her characteristic sternness.

“That’s alright, Maam.” said Suzette or Josette, wiping her gleeful teary eyes in a napkin. “We were just about to go and introduce ourselves to the eunuchs”.

The assistant made a sound like a grunt, before walking away; and both twins smirked at Magdiel before leaving the table immediately afterwards. Magdiel watched the two of them approach the tables towards the front of the room, where groups of eunuchs were sitting, cloaked in brown. The twins shook hands with some of them and began speaking animatedly. A few other poppies were around these same tables talking with the eunuchs as well.

Suck ups! Magdiel thought to herself, fuming.

She was done with being friendly to the other poppies. They were all too set on winning the pageant to have a heart, or to even feel normal emotions like shyness. Magdiel planned to stick to herself, like she was accustomed to, and get home to her fiancé as soon as possible. Thinking about Raj calmed her down a little, and she decided to eat some food.

Magdiel looked down at the plate her assistant had brought and frowned in disappointment. The portion of food did not seem nearly sufficient to satisfy her. It consisted of a very small square of a white meat that looked like fish, and a few slimy leaves of spinach. Magdiel was accustomed to watching what she ate at home, so as to maintain ideal poppy weight, but her meals were always significantly bigger than this. She looked over at the Brunette’s plate and saw that she too had gotten the same meal; for there were remnants of spinach and fish on her plate (although Magdiel did not see how it was possible to leave back anything from such a tiny meal).

“What!” Magdiel snapped at the Brunette.

Ever since the twins had left the table, the Brunette had resorted to silently sneering at Magdiel.

“Please refrain from speaking to me.” the Brunette retorted, before turning her head in another direction.

“Gladly.” said Magdiel. Her anger seemed to have given her courage.

Magdiel grabbed up her fork and grudgingly ate her measly meal, which was finished before she could properly taste it. Then just as she leaned back in her chair to dwell on her unsatisfied hunger, there was a loud clinking of glass.

An elderly assistant- with short, curly, grey hair- stood halfway along the centre isle hitting a fork against an empty glass. Magdiel glanced around at the other tables and saw that the poppies had all turned in their seats and were watching the elderly assistant with excitement. Magdiel also could not help but to notice how incredibly beautiful they all were- all with waist length hair, flawless skin and perfect faces. For the first time in her life, Magdiel felt average-looking, or maybe even less than that; and she was glad that she did not have her hopes set on winning the competition.

“Welcome contestants, to the King’s Palace.” The woman said loudly, after she had gotten everyone’s attention. “I’m Ms Greaux, Head Assistant.”

Magdiel noticed that Ms Greaux’s uniform was a little different than that of the other assistants. Hers was a gold dress with white apron, instead of the other way around.

“I wish to inform you of the purpose for all of the assistants you see here.” Said Ms Greaux, gesturing towards the long lines of assistants on either side of the room.

They were indeed plentiful; approximately a hundred, from what Magdiel could see. They all raised their hands and waved at the poppies. Magdiel did not wave back, but many others did.

Ms Greaux continued. “We are here to serve you. It is our duty to supply everything that you may need for your physical maintenance. We give you your meals, dress you, wash and style your hair, and give you your baths. At all times!

You are not to attempt to do any of these things on your own. Your purpose for being here is to receive the professional beauty treatments that only we can provide; which will ensure that you are in optimal physical condition for the pageant.”

Magdiel moaned softly. She resented the idea of being treated like an invalid. Many of the other poppies, however, seemed to be looking forward to this ‘professional treatment’, for they were smiling brightly.

“With that being said, an assistant will wake you every morning and take you through your day’s beauty regimes. Particularly, you will be expected to go through a three-hour soaking treatment three days a week: Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays.”

Ms Greaux paused for a moment. She then continued in what would have been a stern tone if her voice was not so squeaky.

“Now please know that, although we are your assistants, we still have authority over you. You are to promptly obey our instructions, at all times, or face the consequences. These consequences will now be outlined by the Head Pageant Eunuch, Choy Holland.”

Magdiel let slip a gasp. That was the same name that her mother had given her just before the royal carriage had arrived to pick her up two days ago.

A very tall eunuch arose from a table at the front of the room and sauntered over to Ms Greaux, who then walked off to join the other assistants. Magdiel stared intently at the eunuch, wondering if he could possibly be the Choy Holland that her mother had told her to find. If so, it was very impressive that the non-believers had infiltrated the system in such a high-ranking and strategic position. Magdiel leaned forward in her seat to get a good look at his face, but it was futile. She was too far away.

“Good Evening.” Choy said, in a voice that was too deep for his lanky physique. “I will try to keep this as short as possible so that you can get back to your rooms. It is almost an hour past your nine o’ clock bedtime, and Ms Greaux informs me that you need at least nine hours of beauty sleep nightly.” His tone was crisp and unhumorous. Still, a few persons chuckled.

“Now, while the assistants cater to your physical needs, the Eunuchs focus on your spiritual well-being; ensuring that you are well knowledgeable about our Lord Harun, and that you are properly trained to worship him.

You will therefore have lessons every Saturday, and are required to visit the Palace temple every Sunday morning.”

Magdiel moaned to herself again. Enduring Palace life was already proving to be torturous, with: cranky assistants, crude poppies and now these strenuous routines. How much more was there to learn about Harun anyway? Apart from the claims of him being the Rain God, who wants wives so badly that he would send a killer drought if he does not get them.

“We are also responsible for preparing you for the pageant.” Choy continued. “So each of you will be assigned to a eunuch, who will train you throughout the year.”

At that, the poppies broke out in loud applause. This must have been what they were so eager to hear. Magdiel thought, as she joined in the applause so as not to look odd. Magdiel regretted not being more up to speed on what occurred at the Palace yearly; but she never allowed her mother to talk to her for more than five seconds if she could avoid it.

Choy waited for the applause to die down before continuing. “After I am finished speaking, all of the contestants will line up in the hallway outside, while the Eunuchs take their pick.”

Applause broke out again.

“The eunuchs’ choices are final.” Choy said, after the applause had subsided once more. “And can only be changed by his request. Also, training will be held every Tuesday and Thursday and, as with the assistants, you are required to comply with all instructions given. This brings me to my next point of outlining the consequences for disobedience.”

There was a hush over the room.

“For the period leading up to the pageant, we use a merit system in order to cut down the number of contestants to fifty. This year, we have sixty-five prospective contestants, and so fifteen of you need to be eliminated. In the merit system, points are given for complying with rules and instructions, performing well in lessons and training, and any other pleasing behaviour. These points are called merits. On the contrary, points are deducted for breaking rules, disobeying instructions, being disrespectful and so forth. These points are called demerits. At the end of the period, the fifty contestants with the most points will enter the pageant.”

Magdiel now understood why all of the poppies were sucking up to the assistants and eunuchs so much. They were trying to earn points. Magdiel also realized what she needed to do in order to go home- get as many demerits as possible.

Chapter 11

Choy’s Poppy

Magdiel stood in line with the other poppies, against the wall of the long passageway outside of the dining room. The eunuchs stood on the opposite side, while Choy walked slowly along the line, closely examining each poppy in turn. Apparently, as Head Eunuch, he was entitled to the first pick.

The poppies on either side of Magdeil stood very tensely and were crossing their fingers, as if wishing for Choy to pick them. Magdiel, on the other hand, was hoping for the opposite. If Choy was the one that her mother had referred to, Magdiel wanted nothing to do with him. She did not need another non-believer on her case, constantly badgering her to join the cause. Apart from that, it did not matter to Magdiel which Eunuch picked her; as long as they were not unbearably mean.

Choy now approached the poppy next to Magdiel, and she was finally able to get a good look at his face. Magdiel was immediately surprised by how young he looked. She felt that he had to be in his early twenties, at most. How could someone so young possibly be Head Eunuch? she thought; especially since most of the other eunuchs appeared to be around middle age or older.

Choy’s face was very long and slim, and he had an abnormally long nose. Magdiel could not decide whether she found him to be ugly or just average. His dark hair was short shaved and his bushy eyebrows joined as he frowned at the poppy next to Magdiel. He then moved on to stand in front of Magdiel, and the rejected poppy leaned back against the wall, in deflated hope.

Magdiel focused on a blank space on the opposite wall. She hoped that in avoiding his eyes, Choy would somehow find her uninteresting. To Madgiel’s dismay, this strategy did not seem to be working; for in the next moment, Choy signalled with his finger for her to turn around. He had not shown this much interest in the other poppy. Magdiel turned around and slouched a little, in a desperate attempt to make her body appear unflattering. She waited, feeling very awkward in that position. Then after what seemed like a long time, Choy walked off.

Somewhere far down the line, Choy finally made his choice; and as the girl walked up the passageway beside him, Magdiel had to blink a few times in order to believe her eyes. This girl was more beautiful than anyone Magdiel had ever seen. She was almost as tall as Choy, and wore a tight, red dress that flaunted her deep curves, and which stood incredibly well against her mahogany brown skin. Her dark hair was big and fluffy, and rested just above her hips. As the girl came closer, Magdiel noticed the smooth outline of her oval-shaped face- with a high forehead and pointed chin that gave her the proud appearance of royalty.

Magdiel’s eyes did not leave the girl even after she had long passed, and she noticed that most heads were still turned in that direction as well. The girl next to Magdiel cursed under her breath and Magdiel tried to imagine what it would take for someone to win against a girl like that. Once again, Magdiel was glad that she had no such ambitions.

Eventually, Magdiel was picked by an exceptionally old Eunuch with stark-white hair and beard, and a hearing problem.

“My name is Magdiel” Magdiel repeated for the third time.

“Mad Michelle? That’s an unusual name” said the elderly Eunuch.

“No, no. Mag-di-el”.

“Mafadell?”

At this point, Magdiel was so frustrated that she gave up and said “Yes. That will work.”

It was almost midnight when the selection process finally ended and the poppies returned to their rooms. Magdiel sat in front of her vanity table, nodding sleepily, while the bony assistant braided her hair.

“Ouch!” Magdiel cried, when she felt a sharp tug on her head.

“If you would just sit still-”

“Why do you have to braid my hair for bed anyway?” said Magdiel angrily. She was accustomed to just letting hair hang loose at all times; particularly because she had a very tender scalp.

The assistant let go of Magdiel’s hair and scowled at her in the mirror.

“When you receive your merit parchment tomorrow, you will see that points are deducted for using such disrespectful tones!”

Good!” Magdiel thought. That was exactly what she wanted anyway.

Magdiel cringed all the while her assistant finished the long braid, pinned it up and wrapped a satin scarf around it; and in the end, Magdiel’s scalp felt as if it was on fire. Only then did her assistant answer Magdiel’s question.

“The braid and satin scarf are for retaining the moisture in your hair while you sleep. So you had better get used to this nightly procedure.”

She then dressed Magdiel in a matching satin nighty, which Magdiel thought could pass for a fancy dinner gown.

“Is this even necessary?” said Magdiel, grumpily. “Or is this for retaining the moisture in my skin?”

The assistant scowled again. “I’m deducting 20 marks right now for your cheek!”

Magdiel bit her bottom lip to stop herself from smiling. Twenty marks lost in the first night. She thought that she was off to a very good start.

“Some people just do not belong in this competition!” Alicia said, loudly, to her assistant.

They just entered the closet and had apparently overheard Magdiel’s altercation with her assistant. Like Magdiel, Alicia’s head was covered with a satin scarf, but hers was around many tiny rollers.

“They are just too uncouth!” Alicia added, turning to face Magdiel directly.

Magdiel was not sure what ‘uncouth’ meant; but she was sure that it had not been a compliment. However, Magdiel was too tired and in too much pain to argue; and so she ignored Alicia.

A few minutes later, almost as soon as the assistants left the room, Alicia hopped into the bed that Magdiel had already claimed- next to the window.

“What are you doing?” said Magdiel, bewildered.

“What does it look like? I’m going to sleep.”

“But that’s my bed-”

“Listen Mag-whatever your name is, I want this bed.” said Alicia, as she snuggled under the sheets. “Now leave me alone!”

The same hot anger that Magdiel had felt at dinner, towards the twins, rose again; and in a flash, she hopped up onto the bed with Alicia.

“Get off!” said Alicia, sitting back up in a rage.

“Look Alicia! If you don’t get out of my bed right now, I’ll pull out strands of your hair every night while you sleep, until you have a bald spot so huge that no amount of curls can hide it.”

Alicia threw back her head and scoffed.

“You know I’ll do it!” Magdiel said, daringly. “I’m uncouth, remember?”

Alicia’s smirk suddenly faltered. She held Magdiel’s hard gaze a moment longer, before pursing her lips and crossing over to the other bed, without another word.

Magdiel smiled to herself as she settled into her regained bed. These poppies are not so scary after all.

Chapter 12

Tangled

Magdiel woke up a few hours later with an aching heart and head. She had dreamt about Raj, and the pins in her hair seemed to have penetrated her scalp. Magdiel promptly sat up and pulled off the satin scarf, then unravelled her hair. She breathed a sigh of relief as the pain in her head began to subside.

Magdiel then laid back against the pillow, wishing that there was something that she could do to ease the pain in her heart as well. Her dream had seemed so real. It was as if she could actually taste each of Raj’s kisses and feel every gentle touch upon her skin. She erupted in a fit of controllable tears, and quickly placed a pillow over her face so that Alicia would not hear her.

Magdiel was awoken by someone shaking her shoulders. She reluctantly opened her eyes to see the white and gold of an assistant’s uniform, shining against the dark, at her bedside.

“Time to get up!”

Magdiel sat up slowly and rubbed her tired eyes. “What time is it?”

Her voice was croaky from hours of crying; and she felt as if she had only just fallen back asleep.

“It is 6 o’clock. That is the time that contestants are to begin each day.”

The assistant then moved over to the window and drew apart the thick, golden curtains. A feeble ray of orange sunshine came through the room and Magdiel was able to see the assistant’s outline more clearly.

“What happened to the assistant I had yesterday?”

This assistant was taller and significantly less bony than the one from yesterday. Magdiel wondered if she had been so unbearable last night that the bony assistant had decided not to return.

“Assistants are rotated daily.” The new assistant said dismissively, as she fussed with the curtains, trying to tie them together.

“Why?” said Magdiel.

The assistant sighed, exasperatedly. “We think that it is best if contestants get treated by all of the assistants during their time at the Palace. That way, they can get the best that each has to offer. It also prevents the assistants and contestants from getting too attach-”

The assistant had finally turned around, and paused in shock when she saw Magdiel.

“Your hair! What happened to it?”

“Oh…” said Magdiel, looking down at the tangled mess hanging all around her, and trying to think of an excuse. She also was surprised. Her hair had never gotten like this when she slept with it loose before. It had to be from all of the pins and products that the bony assistant had used last night.

“Did you undo it?” the new assistant said indignantly.

“Not on purpose.” Magdiel lied. “I-I’m just a bad sleeper.”

“Well, you’re going to have to learn to sleep better young lady. Just look at the state that your hair is in. And I’m going to have to fix it!”

The assistant placed both hands on her hips and looked at Magdiel expectantly, as if waiting for an apology.

Magdiel said nothing. Although she could understand the assistant’s grief at the prospect of handling three feet of unruly hair, Magdiel did not quite like her attitude. Furthermore, Magdiel had no intentions of ever sleeping with tight braids and sharps pins again; so she was going to continue making up excuses every morning and the assistants were just going to have to deal with it.

The assistant finally raised her hands in frustration and hastily ushered Magdiel into the bathroom.

Alicia was already there with her new assistant, who was cleaning Alicia’s teeth over a face bowl. Magdiel’s assistant led her straight into the tub and attempted to wash her hair.

There was a great deal of grumbling on the asssitant’s part, as her fingers kept getting tangled in Magdiel’s hair; which caused many shouts of pain from Magdiel. Then came the excruciating process of combing it all through, at which point Magdiel was reduced to tears. Maybe sleeping with the braids and pins wouldn’t be so bad after all Magdiel thought.

Over an hour later, Magdiel’s hair was manageable enough to be styled into a high bun- though the assistant complained that there were a lot more knots still to be undone.

Magdiel was then allowed to eat breakfast around her vanity table, which consisted of: a few crackers, goat’s cheese, grapes and tea. Next to the breakfast tray, the assistant also placed Magdiel’s merit parchment.

Magdiel unrolled it and read:

Merits:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Attendance and Punctuality for: beauty treatments, classes, temple worship and other required events ……………………………………………………5 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Commendable aptitude in lessons……………………………………………………………………………..10 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Good behaviour: no/ few demerits, & promptly obeying instructions……………………………………………………………………15 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Any other activity that greatly pleases superiors………………………..15 points

Demerits:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Tardiness for or absence from: beauty treatments, classes, temple worship and other required events……………………………………………………-5 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Disrespect or Failure to respond promptly to instructions……………………………………………………………………………-5 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Poor performance in lessons………………………………………………………………………..-10 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Eating without permission from assistants……………………………………………………………………..-10 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Poor deportment…………………………………………………………….-10 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Weight gain…………………………………………………………………..-15points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Verbally or physically attacking another contestant…………………………………………………………………….-20 points

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Deep cuts and scrapes, or excessive hair breakage/ loss…………………………………………………………………Disqualification and flogging of the person at fault.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Tainting another contestant’s physical appearance…………………………………….Disqualification and definite flogging.

Magdiel wondered what determined whether or not a poppy received flogging for number eight; because disqualification would allow her to return home much sooner than expected. However, she decided that it was best not to take the risk, for her slight body might not survive a beating.

Magdiel also could not understand why the bony assistant had deducted twenty points for her cheekiness the night before, if disrespect was only worth five points. It was not that Magdiel was upset about losing the extra points, she just did not like the idea of being treated unfairly.

Then there was the surprisingly large number of points deducted for verbally attacking other poppies. One would think that that would have motivated the poppies to be a bit kinder; but instead, attacking each other was what they seemed to do most.

“Ok. That’s enough.” said her assistant, before Magdiel had finished her plate. She was looking up at the large, glass clock on the wall between the two vanity tables. “We have to be at treatment for half past seven, and it is now twenty minutes to eight.”

Alicia had already eaten and left with her assistant almost fifteen minutes ago.

Magdiel’s assistant dropped a pair of white, fluffy slippers at Magdiel’s feet- which matched the long, white robe that she was wearing- and they hustled through the bedroom door.

Chapter 13

Soak Treatment

The treatment room was on the floor below the poppies’ quarters, and for the speed that she and her assistant walked, Magdiel was severely out of breath by the time they reached its white, double doors.

A slight shiver ran through Magdiel as she entered the enormous room. Everything about it seemed cold and very serious- with its pristinely white floors and walls, and rows upon rows of circular tubs, which looked like huge, white stones with holes in the centre.

The only sounds were the clinking of heels against the tiled floor, as assistants walked up and down the aisles with large, golden trays that were laden with tiny bottles and jars. Many of the poppies were already soaking in the tubs, which were emitting significant amounts of steam and strong scents of lavender. Others stood beside their respective tubs, waiting, while their assistants pinned up their hair or removed their robes in preparation for the soak.

Magdiel’s assistant nudged her forward and they walked across the room and down the last column of tubs. The isle was very hot from the steam, and the lavender scent was now almost stifling. Magdiel had to place a hand over her nose as they walked on, until they finally came to an empty tub at the end of the isle.

“That is why we should try to come early.” said the assistant, testily. “There are only fifty tubs. If we hadn’t been lucky enough to find this one, then we would have had to wait until one was free in about three hours. That would have thrown off our entire day’s sched-”.

“So then I guess we should stop talking and claim it then.” said Magdiel, annoyed at her assistant’s constant nagging.

The assistant glared at Magdiel. “That’s five marks deducted for disrespect.”

Magdiel almost shrugged to show her indifference.

Soon after, two young women-dressed in the black and white equivalent of the assistants’ uniform- approached them, carrying two buckets each of steaming water. Magdiel waited while they filled the tub; after which, her assistant removed her robe. By now, Magdiel was accustomed to being naked in front of strangers; and so, she stepped out of the robe without hesitation and stood unabashed, while her assistant rubbed her down with some sort of oil.

“It’s for brightening the complexion.” The assistant said.

Magdiel then climbed into the tub, not expecting the water to be that hot. She yelped in pain and attempted to climb back out; but the assistant quickly grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back down.

“The hot water is used to soften your skin!” the assistant shouted over Magdiel’s protests.

“No! It’s burning it off!” said Magdiel, pushing back against the assistant and causing water to spill over the sides of the tub.

There were audible giggles from some of the other poppies in nearby tubs.

“Just stay still for a while.” said Magdiel’s assistant, through clenched teeth. “Your skin will become numb against the pain.”

Desperate for relief, Magdiel sat still and bit down on her lips, until the burning sensation began to subside within a few seconds. The assistant released Magdiel, panting slightly. She then turned to the tray of bottles and jars that she had placed on the floor, just before the struggle- which she had fetched from a large, glass cabinet at the front of the room.

While her assistant searched through the contents on the tray, Magdiel looked around at the other poppies, whose heads were still turned in her direction. She lowered her gaze, feeling embarrassed and hoping that she was not the only one that had had such a reaction.

The assistant finally seized a small, sharp- looking, silver object with a curved top, and began to scrape the oil from Magdiel’s skin. Magdiel felt as if her skin itself was being peeled away.

“What are you doing?” Magdiel demanded, after the first painful stroke.

“Keep your voice down!” said the assistant, icily. “This room is supposed to be relaxing.”

“But I’m in pain.” said Magdiel teary-eyed.

“The strigil peels off the top-most layer of skin, so that the treatment in the water can penetrate better.”

Magdiel looked up at her assistant, pleadingly; but she ignored and continued with the strigil. Magdiel was certain that she saw a smug look on the assistant’s face every time that she flinched in pain.

After every part of Magdiel’s body had been thoroughly scraped, the water in the tub was changed (to cool water this time) and a series of liquids were added to the new water, which severely stung Magdiel’s freshly peeled skin.

The assistant then ordered Magdiel to remain in the tub for three hours, “for full penetration”, and left.

Magdiel leaned back against the tub, exhausted from all of this morning’s beauty treatments, as well as a lack of sleep. Many of the other poppies were unattended in their tubs as well. With the cool, medicated water now pleasantly tingling her almost numb skin, Magdiel soon fell into a deep sleep, only to be roughly awoken by her enraged assistant.

“You wet your hair!”

Magdiel looked down and realized that what she felt wrapped around her was not a blanket as she had dreamt, but her drenched hair. It had fallen out of the bun during her nap.

After a quick lunch in her room, of two thin slices of chicken breast, a few strings of green beans and a small square of bread with water, Magdiel spent the rest of the afternoon in front of her dressing table, while her assistant tugged at the knots in her hair. During this process, Magdiel managed to receive four more demerits, amounting to twenty points, for verbally lashing out at her assistant because of the pain.

Chapter 14

The Altercation

Magdiel awoke very early the next morning to find her hair flared wildly all about her. She jumped up with a start, unable to understand what had happened. After her painful detangling ordeal yesterday, Magdiel had made sure to keep her braids intact, and had even slept on her face to keep it from undoing.

Magdiel jumped off of the bed and ran to her vanity table, intent on fixing her hair before her assistant came; but there were no combs or brushes on top of it. She frantically pulled open all of the drawers, but they were only filled with undergarments. Magdiel wondered if the assistants had hidden all of the combs, so that the poppies could not attempt to do their own hair.

Just as Magdiel was heading to the search the closet, she heard giggling behind of her. Magdiel hastily turned around and, through the dark, she could see Alicia’s outline sitting upright in bed.

Then it almost instantly occurred to her. “Alicia, did you do this?”

Alicia did not respond right away. She first lit the candle beside her bed, and Magdiel could clearly see the smug expression on her face.

“I did more than just unravel your hair. I took a little token as well.”

Alicia then raised her hand, which to Magdiel’s horror, was clutching some strands of long, dark hair.

“You really should learn to sleep a little lighter, Maggy.” she said, laughing. “But you should have seen your face when I pulled them out.”

Alicia scrunched up her face to mimic being in pain; and then her expression became suddenly serious. “That’s for threatening me the other night.”

Before Magdiel could think about how best to retaliate, she found herself lunging onto the bed after Alicia, who managed to slip off just in time, causing Magdiel’s head to slam hard against the head board. Alicia cackled loudly. Magdiel ignored the throbbing pain in her head and dashed at Alicia again. She wanted to grab her by the hair and drag her across the room. Magdiel missed again and crashed to the floor.

“Careful Magdog!” shouted Alicia, from the other end of the room. “Or you might damage your barely pretty face and be sent on the first carriage ride home.”

Magdiel scrambled up off of the floor, holding her nose, which had received most of the impact.

“That’s exactly what I want!” Magdiel spat. “To get out of here!”

Magdiel immediately regretted this outburst when she saw the stunned look on Alicia’s face. She stood frozen, staring at Magdiel, and the clump of black hair dropped from her limp hands. Magdiel stared back at her, at a loss for words.

Then finally, Alicia spoke. “You’re a-”

She stopped herself, as if afraid to continue.

Magdiel’s blood seemed to instantly run cold. Alicia definitely suspected her of being a non-believer.

“Alicia, l-listen…” Magdiel began, desperate to tell Alicia anything that would abate her suspicion.

But before Magdiel could continue, there was a sharp knock on the door and two new assistants entered the room.

Alicia turned quickly and headed for the bathroom, while Magdiel stood rooted to the spot, her heart pounding.

Magdiel was so caught up in fear that the assistant’s voice sounded very distant as she scolded her about her tangled hair.

Chapter 15

The Abandoned Room

Magdiel used her handkerchief to wipe the sweat that was pouring from her forehead. She was standing outside of her bedroom door with her assistant, waiting for the elderly pageant eunuch to collect her for their first practice. Other poppies were already passing up and down the hallway with their eunuchs, but Magdiel barely noticed them.

Alicia had not said anything further to her that morning, after their altercation, and had avoided even looking in her direction; until a few minutes ago, just before she left with her pageant eunuch, when she gave Magdiel a long, look. Magdiel was not sure what that look meant, but it was tormenting her greatly; so much so, that she felt physically ill and it was difficult to even stand.

“Don’t slouch!” said Magdiel’s assistant. “Posture is very important to the pageant eunuchs”.

This new assistant was a young, plump blonde, and equally as mean-spirited as the previous two. She had been sharp with Magdiel all morning, ever since she saw her mess of hair- which had required about an hour and a half of washing and combing in order to get it into a reasonable state. The assistant had even given Magdiel two demerits for no apparent reason. Thankfully, however, she had not noticed any bald area in Magdiel’s head, from where the clump of hair had been pulled out by Alicia.

Magdiel ignored her assistant’s order and continued to lean against the wall for support.

She had to find a way to stop Alicia from talking. Although Alicia had no real proof that Magdiel was a non-believer, the suspicion alone would make people start to investigate Magdiel more carefully; particularly since everyone at the Palace was already so nervous about poppy revolts.

“Did you hear what I said?” the assistant said testily.

Magdiel continued to ignore. A new and terrifying thought had just occurred to her. What if the palace officials traced her roots back to the non-believers in Galden? If they did, Raj might end up getting executed because of his parents’ strong involvement with the group. Magdiel knew, without a doubt, that she would not be able to bear it if anything happened to Raj. She would prefer to be executed alone.

Magdiel sunk lower against the wall, and she could feel the sweat flowing past her cheeks.

The assistant’s tone softened. “Are you feeling ill?”

“No, I’m fine” said Magdiel quickly, raising herself up and drying her face again.

Magdiel did not want her practice to be cancelled. She needed the distraction. Otherwise, she would spend the entire day in her room, mulling over her fears and becoming hysterical.

The assistant looked at Magdiel sceptically. She opened her mouth to speak, when the elderly eunuch suddenly appeared before them.

“A pleasant good morning.” he said, smiling broadly to reveal some missing front teeth.

The assistant turned her gaze from Magdiel to the eunuch.

“Hello Mr. Frederick.” she said. “Is the contestant appropriately dressed?”

Mr. Frederick squinted his beady eyes and surveyed Magdiel, who was wearing a simple, flowing white dress with bands of silver beads around the neckline and waist; along with a pair of very high-heeled white shoes. Her hair was let loose, and the remaining tangles gave the impression of loose waves.

“Yes, yes. I think she’s perfectly fine.”

Magdiel then followed Mr. Frederick down the hall, while her assistant went in the other direction.

“Both of the recreational rooms are crowded, so we’re going to have to scour the floors for an empty room to practice.” Mr. Frederick said, panting slightly; although they had not walked very far.

“Well, we could have just used my room. It’s empty.”

Mr. Frederick looked up at Magdiel, appalled. “No, no dear! That would not be appropriate. It is against the rules for a eunuch to ever enter a contestant’s bedroom.”

Magdiel shrugged indifferently. Her mind was still too occupied with dread to even be curious about the reasoning behind the rule.

They walked all the way to the dining room hallway. It took them quite a while to cover the distance, for Mr. Frederick had to stop several times in order to catch his breath. They finally entered a door, just after the dining room, into a medium-sized room that looked as if it was still under construction- with unpainted walls and pieces of wood and furniture scattered here and there.

Magdiel started at the sight of Choy Holland and his chosen poppy. She had not seen them right away, for they were huddled together on chairs in a far corner of room. They appeared to have been in deep conversation, and were now looking warily at Magdiel and Mr. Frederick.

“Oh, I’m sorry Sir!” said Mr. Frederick. “We did not know that this room was occupied.”

“That’s quite alright, Mr. Frederick.” said Choy, rising to his feet.

“But I must say sir, that it is quite a hassle finding a free room to practice at this time. And well, in my advanced age, I don’t think that I can handle much more walking.” Mr. Frederick ended with a little chuckle.

By now, Choy had crossed the room and was standing directly in front of Magdiel and Mr. Fr ederick. Magdiel thought that his height was intimidating.

There was an awkward pause, where Choy seemed to mull over Mr. Frederick’s obvious plea for an invitation to stay, before he finally assented.

“Well, I believe the space is sufficient for us all to share. Lucinda and I will use the back of the room, while you two have free reign of the front.”

“Thank you very much, sir.” said Mr. Ferederick. “I greatly appreciate it.”

“No problem.” Choy said. But Magdiel noticed that he did not seem very pleased.

As Magdiel watched Choy walk back over to Lucinda, a very conflicting and almost crazy idea came to her. She could tell Choy about her altercation with Alicia! If he was indeed the same person that her mother had told her about, then he could help- since he was in such a high position.

But what if he was not the same person? Choy Holland could just be a popular name here in the capital. Magdiel knew that confiding in the wrong person would cause her to be executed a lot sooner than Alicia’s suspicions would.

“Come along, young lady.”

Magdiel snapped out of her trance and followed Mr. Frederick to a corner at the front of the room, while Choy and Lucinda remained in the opposite corner at the back. She could not take her eyes off of them as she contemplated her idea, hoping to see some sign that would let her know what to do.

If it were possible, Lucinda looked even more stunning today than the night Magdiel first saw her. Her hair was thickly braided at the end of a high ponytail, which revealed the full beauty of her features and made her look extremely young- like around fourteen or fifteen years old; and she was a breath of fresh air in a light and frilly teal dress.

Choy was now instructing Lucinda on walking posture. Having placed a long, glass vase upon her head, Lucinda walked gracefully across the back of the room, without stopping or, as far as Magdiel could see, the vase making the slightest wobble. Still, Choy watched on scowling and shaking his head.

“Yes, yes. I think that we should start with walking posture as well.” Said Mr. Frederick; who apparently noticed Magdiel’s lack of attention. “I’m certain that the first segment of the pageant involves strutting across the stage in evening gowns.”

Magdiel was not nearly as graceful a walker as Lucinda- although she was not trying to be. The single book that Mr. Frederick had placed on her head kept falling off with almost every step that she made.

It did not matter how well Magdiel walked anyway, because there was no one to watch her. Mr. Frederick had quickly fallen asleep in his seat; and Magdiel gladly threw the book aside and settled into a chair to continue her observations of Choy and Lucinda.

Choy had now added a block of wood on top of the vase; and incredibly, Lucinda was still able to walk without letting anything fall. Choy, however, was still not impressed.

“Lucinda, I’m still seeing a slight curve in your back.” His tone was course, and Magdiel was quickly changing her mind about taking to him. He seemed much too hostile.

Soon after, Choy ended their practice with a frustrated sigh. “I think that’s enough for today.” he said.

As Choy and Lucinda began to gather their things, Magdiel tensed. It was time to make a decision. Choy and Lucinda were making their way towards the door and Magdiel’s mind was whirling. Approach Choy or not.

Magdiel finally decided to take the risk.

“Mr. Holland!” she said a little too loudly, causing Mr. Frederick to stir in his sleep.

Choy and Lucinda stopped abruptly in the middle of the room and looked over at Magdiel, curiously. For a moment, Magdiel did not know what to say or do next. She simply stared at them, and they back at her.

Eventually, Magdiel raised herself up from the chair, upon shaky legs, and walked over to them.

“ I just- I mean, can I have a word with you please, Sir?” she managed to say.

Chapter 16

What Do I Do?

Choy led Magdiel outside into the hallway. Magdiel thought that he looked even more intimidating up close, towering directly over her, with his dark eyes fixed upon her face. Magdiel had difficulty meeting his gaze as she tried to marshal her thoughts. She figured that she would begin with a non-threatening question- one that would not implicate her in any way, but would let her know if this was the right Choy Holland.

“Sir,” it felt weird calling such a young man sir. “do you know Mr. Caldwell, from Galden?”

If Choy said ‘no’, Magdiel planned to make up some sort of excuse, about him resembling Mr. Caldwell; and so she just wanted to know if Choy was one of his relatives, and if he was aware that Mr. Caldwell was sick.

But to Magdiel’s surprise and relief, a small, fleeting smile crossed Choy’s face. He then glanced hastily up and down the hallway, before asking softly “You’re Magdiel Andalf?”

“Y-yes.”

“I’ve been expecting you, of course. But I could not be sure which of the contestants you were.” Then he became suddenly serious. “Listen, this is not a safe place to talk. I’ll meet you again soon, and we can talk then.”

Choy then promptly turned back towards the practice room door.

“But I’m in trouble!” Magdiel said desperately.

Choy turned back around and contemplated Magdiel’s face, his thick brows becoming one as he frowned deeply.

“Look outside your bedroom door at exactly eleven tonight. I should be there. But if I’m not, don’t come outside. Go back to bed, and I’ll try to meet you at another time, as soon as possible.”

That night, after the two assistants had left the dormitory and they were both in their beds, Alicia finally spoke to Magdiel.

“I almost told my assistant about you today… you know, about your outburst this morning.”

Magdiel turned slowly onto her side to face Alicia, trying to control her racing heart. Alicia looked relaxed, lying on her back and staring up at the ceiling.

“What do you mean?” said Magdiel, in the most nonchalant tone that she could muster. “I was just upset. What I said meant nothing.”

Alicia now looked over at Magdiel, smirking. “You can’t fool me, Magdog. I know you’re a non-believer. I’ve noticed you. You act different than the other poppies…”

Alicia’s voice trailed off thoughtfully, as if she were speaking to herself. “It’s like… like, you don’t even care to win. I mean, all those demerits so soon, and…”

Alicia became silent, and Magdiel waited with bated breath.

“So,” Alicia finally continued “I’m sure that if they do a little research, they’ll find out that you are in fact a non- believer, and maybe your family members are even in one of those illegal groups or something.”

“That’s ridiculous!” said Magdiel; but her voice was shaky and unconvincing.

Alicia chuckled and it sent chills through Magdiel’s body. “We shall see, Mags.”

Alicia then leaned over and blew out her bedside candle; leaving Magdiel to lay in the dark, in anguish.

The moonlight shining through the gaped curtains revealed the time on the large, glass clock above the vanity tables. It was five minutes to eleven. Magdiel peered over at Alicia to make sure that she was not stirring, before quietly crawling out of bed and creeping to the door.

Magdiel did not dare sleep a wink, in case she over slept and missed her surreptitious meeting with Choy. Her mind had also been too occupied trying to figure out what Alicia had meant by ‘We shall see’. What was she planning to do?

There did not seem to be any hope of Alicia letting go of her suspicions, and Magdiel was certain that Alicia was going to use it as a weapon against her.

It was now exactly eleven o’ clock. Magdiel turned the door knob and hoped desperately that Choy was on the other side. The hallway was very dimly lit, and Magdiel started at the sight of Choy’s cloaked figure, leaning against the opposite wall. She tentatively stepped outside and quietly closed the door behind her.

“The dormitory guards are on rotation.” Choy said hastily. “So we have approximately seven minutes to talk.”

Taken aback by the time constraint, Magdiel cleared her throat and stated her problem in almost one breath. “Well, my roommate suspects that I’m a non-believer because of this fight we had, and now I think she’s planning to report me. And I’m scared for my boyf- I mean, my family back in Galden.”

It was too dark for Magdiel to clearly see Choy’s expression; but his voice was calm. “What happened during the fight to make her start suspecting you?”

“ I- I said that I wanted to be sent home.” said Magdiel softly, feeling embarrassed by her lack of self-control in the matter. Magdiel did not add that Alicia’s suspicions were also fuelled by her obvious lack of enthusiasm towards the pageant.

Choy leaned up off of the wall, but his voice remained calm. “Did she say that she was going to report you?”

“Not in so many words.”

Magdiel quickly recapped this evening’s conversation with Alicia. By the time Magdiel was finished, Choy had removed the hood from his face and walked towards her. His eyes were shifting rapidly, as if in deep thought.

“What do I do?” Magdiel said, after Choy had not responded.

She had hoped that Choy would reassure her that everything would be alright- that it was nothing to worry about. But his silence only seemed to confirm the seriousness of the situation. Magdiel pictured Raj being executed, and felt the familiar sting of tears at the back of her eyes.

When Choy finally spoke, his tone was severe. “We have to kill her.”

“ Wh- What!” Killing Alicia had never crossed Magdiel’s mind, and the idea seemed ludicrous and excessive.

“Your roommate seems devious.” said Choy. “We have no choice.”

“But-”

“How could you have been so careless?!”

Magdiel fell silent immediately and shrunk back against the wall.

“Do you have any idea how hard the non-believers have worked to put this system in place, here at the Palace?!”

Magdiel said nothing; only stared into Choy’s face, which was contorted in rage- with his jaw clenched, nostrils flared and eyes reduced to slits. The sight was frightening to behold.

After a few seconds, Choy finally stopped glaring at Magdiel and hurried down the hall; and in no time, he was out of sight.

It took about a minute longer for Magdiel to recover from the shock and walk back into the bedroom. Once inside, she slumped down against the closed door, her body trembling and mind racing. Was Choy really going to kill Alicia?

Chapter 17

Harun Class

It was a little after nine o’clock on Saturday morning- time for the first Harun lesson. Magdiel and the other poppies, on that side of the Palace, were seated behind highly polished wooden desks, in a large, white room.

While they waited for their teacher, most of the poppies occupied their time by coldly eyeing each other- though none said a word.

Magdiel, however, was resting her head upon the desk in front of her. She had been plagued by a throbbing headache ever since her meeting with Choy two nights ago, when he had come up with his murderous plan. Since then, every time that Magdiel was alone with Alicia, she had been tempted to give her some sort of warning; for as much as Magdiel disliked her roommate, she had not wanted her to be murdered. Alicia was still a human being after all, and not some object to be discarded just because it was inconvenient.

Magdiel had only managed to fight the urge because of the fact that she could not warn Alicia without implicating herself, and eventually Raj and numerous others.

However, after a rather horrific discourse with Alicia earlier that morning, Magdiel’s headache had intensified and her sympathy towards her roommate was now completely vanished and replaced by deep loathing.

“I know that there are more of you here at the Palace.” Alicia had said, almost as soon as Magdiel opened her eyes. She was hovering over Magdiel’s bedside.

“Hmm?” Magdiel had groaned, still groggy.

“ That night- after our talk- I heard you sneak out of our room to meet someone.”

At that, Magdiel had bolted upright, in shock.

This had made Alicia laugh. “I’m a very light sleeper.” She said proudly. “But I’m not sure who you went to meet, because I could only hear muffled voices through the door- but I know it had to be another non- believer- it only makes sense.”

Just when Magdiel had begun to feel a little relieved that at least Alicia had not recognized Choy’s voice, Alicia added “I also know that the person was a male. Maybe one of the guards? Or even one of the eunuchs? They’re the only men around.”

Horror-stricken, Magdiel had not known where to begin to refute Alicia’s claims, because she was so close to the truth; and so Magdiel had just stared up at her, open-mouthed- her words caught in her throat.

Alicia had smiled. “I’m right, aren’t I? There’s more of you here, undercover. And you’re all probably working to bring down the pageant.”

Magdiel had still been unable to speak. At that moment, she felt as if her life was in Alicia’s hands- for, with this information, Alicia could cause an in-depth, palace-wide investigation; and Magdiel just knew that they were bound to find something.

Alicia had smiled again. “Right. So, given that I know all of this, you have no choice but to help me win the pageant.” She said. “You’ve seen Choy Holland’s poppy, right? Well of course you have. Who hasn’t noticed her?”

Alicia had then bent closer to Magdiel and whispered “I want you to damage her for me.”

“What!” Magdiel had exclaimed, finally finding her voice.

“ I mean, cut her skin, cut her hair, break her leg- be creative.”

“Are you crazy, Alicia?”

“No. Just strategic. She’s serious competition and I want her disqualified.”

At that point, Magdiel’s anger had been at its boiling point; and she had wanted nothing more than to dig her fingernails into Alicia’s smug face. “I won’t do it!” she had said through gritted teeth.

That’s when Alicia’ expression had suddenly become cross. “Oh yes you will, Magdog! Or else!”

The door at the back of the classroom opened, which told Magdiel that the teacher had finally arrived. Quick, heavy footsteps could now be heard coming up the centre aisle, but Magdiel did not bother to lift her head to see the new entrant- partly due to the pain in her head, and also because she wanted to avoid even glimpsing Alicia- who was sitting directly across from her on the opposite side. Magdiel was afraid that she might lose control and attacked Alicia right there in front of everyone.

“Good morning, contestants.” said a deep, crisp voice.

Magdiel raised her head sharply. To her surprise, Choy was standing in front of them.

“You will notice that within every desk, there are: rolls of parchment, ink and quills for taking notes.”

The room was immediately filled with the sounds of persons rummaging through the desks. Magdiel, however, did not move. Her heart was pounding. What if Alicia recognized Choy’s voice as the person outside of the door, after hearing him speak throughout the lesson? Magdiel felt that Choy being head eunuch would push Alicia to report them sooner- for fear that he might influence the competition in the non-believers’ favour and jeopardize her chances of winning.

Magdiel also realized that she was afraid of Choy; and was uncomfortable even being in the same room with him. The decision to kill Alicia had come too easily to his mind, and Magdiel could not help but wonder how many persons he had killed during his mission at the palace; and if he would eventually kill her as well if she continued to compromise his progress.

Choy’s course attitude only helped to increase Magdiel’s fear of him.

“Were you not listening when I said to take out your quills and ink?” Choy suddenly snapped at her. He was standing next to her seat at the end of the second row.

Magdiel jumped a little in her seat, and hastily removed the contents within her desk. As she did so, she glanced over at Alicia, and was glad to see that, for now, she was busily arranging her quills and parchment- without the slightest indication of recognizing Choy’s voice.

“I suggest that you all pay very close attention in these lessons;” Choy continued, turning to the rest of the class once more. “for an entire segment of the pageant will be dedicated to your knowledge of our Lord, Harun.”

Choy then walked to the back of the long desk, at the front of the room; and slid across a white panel on the wall, to reveal a large, square blackboard. Magdiel remembered Raj telling her about these boards that they used in the village school that he attended- on which the teacher would write all sorts of complicated lessons. Magdiel had only learned basic reading, writing and arithmetic from her mother at home.

Magdiel quickly stopped herself from diving further into these thoughts, for she was beginning to feel the painful longing that sprung up every time she thought of Raj, as well as the common resentment towards her mother; especially now that she was in so much trouble. What was she going to do? Magdiel knew that whether she hurt Lucinda or not, Alicia would eventually report her. There just seemed to be no way out.

Magdiel was so lost in thought that she did not notice that Choy had written the topic of the lesson on the board- ‘ The Qualities of Harun’- until he said loudly “What makes Harun different from all of our other Gods?”

Many hands shot up around the room, and Choy pointed to someone behind of Magdiel. Magdiel kept her gaze straight ahead, not wanting to have any eye contact with Choy, in case Alicia noticed anything between them.

“He’s more powerful?” the girl said timidly.

“Isn’t the wind God, Zuk, just as powerful? Or the god of war, Remus?” Choy asked.

No one answered.

“Anyone else?”

“Well, we need the rain. So I would say that it is because he’s the most important.” said another.

“I believe that we need the sun as well.” said Choy. “So the Sun God, Risa, is just as important.”

“It is because Harun is the most demanding of the gods” said a more confident voice.

“What is your name?”

“Alicia Maynard.”

Magdiel’s heart seemed to stop for a moment. Alicia and Choy speaking to each other was too close for comfort.

“You get a merit Ms Maynard.” Choy said, though his expression remained stern.

Choy then went back to the blackboard and wrote the word ‘Onerous’ as one of the qualities.

“All of the other Gods require very little from us.” he said. “For instance, all we have to do to appease Risa is to have a feast, in her honour, once a year; and for Zuk, we just have to call on his name before battle.”

Choy was now walking down the aisle again. “But Harun- Harun demands total obedience and surrender. He accepts nothing short of our best. And by best, I mean the perfect sacrifice.” His voice lowered dramatically. “That is… one of you.”

There was a hush over the room, as all of the poppies seemed to relish the idea of being that perfect sacrifice for Harun.

Choy walked back to the front. “Now, would you say that this quality of Harun’s is a negative one?”

There were choruses of “No” and “Of course not”, from the poppies.

“You’re right.” said Choy. “He is a God; and so he has a right to do as he pleases. How can we, the creation, tell our creators what to do?”

No one objected.

“Next quality…” continued Choy.

Magdiel was amazed that Choy could deliver a message that he did not believe in, with such conviction. She dipped her pen into the ink and began to write, for all of the other poppies were frantically scribbling notes on their quills, and Magdiel knew that she could not afford to be different anymore.

By the end of the two-hour lesson, they had extensively gone through the five additional qualities of Harun: [_ Omnipresent (Harun is everywhere), Omniscient (knows all), Omnipotent (All- powereful) and Just (Always fair/ right). _] They would move on to describe his physical being and surroundings in the next lesson.

All of the poppies were filing out of the room to meet their assistants outside; but Magdiel lingered back, pretending to still be writing notes. Soon, she and Choy were the only ones left.

Magdiel knew that staying back was probably not the wisest thing to do, since Alicia might have noticed and begun to suspect Choy as being a non-believer as well; but once again, Magdiel was desperate.

Choy’s back was turned to her as he wiped the blackboard with a sponge. Magdiel got up from her seat and the noise made Choy spin around. His initial facial expression was of surprise, then fury; and Magdiel almost changed her mind and ran out of the room.

“I’m so sorry.” Magdiel said, running up to him. “But something else happened this morning.”

“Haven’t you caused enough trouble?” Choy whispered sharply, glancing nervously towards the door.

Magdiel felt herself getting angry, despite her fear of Choy. “Look! I don’t like coming to you either. But if you’re going to kill my roommate, you need to do it quickly-before she gets us all killed. She heard us the other night.”

Magdiel then turned and stormed out of the room; but not before noting the consternation on Choy’s face.

Chapter 18

The Unexpected Visit

The next morning was supposed to have been temple worship. However, Magdiel and all of the other poppies had instead been called to gather in the dining room for an important meeting. There, the Head Assistant had announced that a poppy, by the name of Alicia Maynard, was found dead earlier that morning at the bottom of the stairs- apparently an accident; and so they were warning the other poppies not to wander around the Palace at night.

Magdiel had instantly felt sick to her stomach, and spit up her orange juice on the table. She knew that it was not an accident. She had then scanned the dining room for Choy, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Magdiel’s conscience was now violently attacking her as she sat in her room, with nothing to do but think, while her assistant cleaned and filed her nails.

When she had not seen Alicia in the bathroom that morning, Magdiel had just assumed that she had finished bathing and was in the closet. Then when she was not in the closet, Magdiel thought that Alicia had already dressed and left. She had not expected Alicia to be murdered so soon and had even half hoped that it would not happen at all.

Magdiel felt that Alicia’s killing was just as much her doing as it was Choy’s; and that she was now a murderer.

That night, Magdiel feared that she might have vivid, horrible dreams about Alicia’s death- just like she had had about her father many years ago. So she lay wide awake in bed, waiting for morning to come.

Then at 11o’ clock sharp, her bedroom door opened. Magdiel froze in fright. She knew who it was; and a part of her had even expected him. He was there to kill her too.

Magdiel listened to his footsteps with bated breath; and waited until she felt his weight at the bottom of her bed, before turning to face him.

“If you touch me I’ll scream!” she said, trying to sound brave.

“I-I’m not here to hurt you.” Choy said. “You’re the only one that I can talk to.”

His voice was soft and weak. Magdiel had not expected that.

“Talk to me about what?” Magdiel said warily, sitting upright.

Choy turned to face her; and Magdiel was surprised to see that it was streaked with tears, glowing silver in the moonlight.

“About what happened?”

Magdiel could not believe that murdering Alicia had shaken Choy this much, when he had seemed so tough before.

“How did you do it?” she said, simply.

Choy answered immediately; as if he could not wait to get it off of his chest.

“ Yesterday, at dinner time, I-I told her that I saw special potential in her. So I-I told her to meet me in the recreational room at around 11 o’ clock that night, to begin secret training- because no one could know that we were training together- it was against the rules- since I already have a poppy… Then, I… I hid in the dark by the balcony, and when she passed by, I…”

Choy paused and bent his head. But he did not need to finish. It was obvious to Magdiel what he had done next. He had pushed her over.

Magdiel could imagine Alicia being so excited to get an advantage in the competition that she would have been quick to believe Choy, and not have bothered to second-guess his motive.

“I-I didn’t want to kill again.” Choy continued, fresh tears flowing down his cheeks.

“You’ve killed before?” Magdiel said nervously.

Despite Choy’s earlier assurance of peace, Magdiel shifted her eyes towards the door, and braced herself for a quick dash in case he made any sudden moves.

“Once before.” Choy said.

He then slumped forward suddenly and began to sob.

Magdiel sat watching him, torn between the impulse to flee and the urge to comfort him. He looked so fragile- like a sad child; the type of child that Magidel had always been. She could relate to Choy’s bitter sobs, that appeard to come from soul deep.

Magdiel forgot her fear, lunged forward and put her arms around Choy. He immediately let his head rest upon her chest and continued to sob, as the tears swelled in Magdiel’s eyes as well.

After a while, when Magdiel felt as if her heart would burst with empathy for Choy, she whispered “Who did yo0u kill before?”

Magdiel was hoping that talking about what had happened might help Choy to feel better and somehow begin to heal. But instead, Choy became suddenly irate. He pushed Magdiel away so forcefully that she fell back hard against the bed. Choy stood up and Magdiel looked up at him, stricken in shock and fear.

“It’s all your fault!” he said, glaring at her. “You made me kill her!”

Choy clenched his fists forcefully, and Magdiel shut her eyes tight, anticipating the blow; but it never came. When she opened her eyes again, Choy had already crossed the room and was disappearing through the bedroom door.

Chapter 19

Disappear

Throughout the remainder of the week, Magdiel sunk into a depression so deep that it made every task strenuous; even common ones, like: walking and speaking.

She also started getting even more demerits than before, mainly for her poor physical appearance.

“Your eyes are bloodshot! And just look at the bags under them!” the assistants would say. “You need to sleep.”

They had no idea that sleep was the hardest thing for Magdiel to come by these days, with Choy and Alicia mercilessly on her mind. Alicia- because Magdiel knew that she had caused her death. She tried to convince herself that Alicia had left her no choice, but she could not fully believe it. There was always a choice- although Magdiel could not quite see it yet.

In addition to that, Magdiel felt awful about causing Choy to commit the murder. It had obviously tormented him, and he seemed to have disappeared since that night in her room. Choy had stopped coming for dinner in the dining room, and had not held practice in the abandoned room on the two days that Magdiel had gone with Mr Frederick. Choy had not even shown up for Harun lesson this morning; and Magdiel was now very worried.

Did Choy just need some time to clear his head? Or Did he hurt himself out of guilt? These were some of the thoughts that ran through Magdiel’s mind as she sat in the dining room that evening, playing with the food on her plate. She was not hungry, although she had not eaten in two days. Her assistants were not aware of this, of course; for Magdiel always successfully managed to hide her food in napkins, towels and drawers when they were not paying attention. Magdiel simply did not have an appetite; and when she had forced herself to eat two days ago, she had thrown up all over the dining room table.

Magdiel looked up from her plate and noticed someone staring at her from two tables away. It was Lucinda- Choy’s poppy. She did not shift her gaze even when Magdiel started to stare back. Lucinda finally inclined her head slightly towards the door, before immediately getting up and walking towards it. Magdiel was stunned. Did Lucinda want her to follow her? Did she have news about Choy?

Magdiel quickly looked around to ensure that her assistant of the day was not nearby, before rising from her seat to follow Lucinda. Magdiel had to immediately grab ahold of the back of her chair, for she suddenly felt very lightheaded and weak. She had felt that way many times before, when she had lost her appetite from grief at home- especially after Raj had left; so Magdiel was not too scared. She walked towards the door as fast as her weak body could go; and desperately hoped that her assistant did not spot her before she made it through.

By the time Magdiel reached the deserted hallway outside of the dining room, Lucinda was nowhere to be seen. As Magdiel contemplated which direction to go in, she leaned against the wall, feeling exhausted. A few seconds later, Magdiel heard a door open down the hall. Lucinda was peering out from the abandoned room.

“This way!” she called.

It took all of Magdiel’s energy to lean up off of the wall and make her way up the passageway. Then, as soon as she entered the room and closed the door behind her, Lucinda pounced.

“Where is Choy?” She demanded; her beautiful face contorted in fury.

Magdiel was very taken aback and could not respond right away.

“Well?” Lucinda prompted, folding her arms.

“ Wh- why do you think that I would know?” Magdiel said feebly.

“Because I remember that day after practice when Choy left to speak to you. When he came back, he told me that you were one of us.”

One of us? Magdiel was not completely surprised to hear that Lucinda was a non-believer. She had suspected as much, since that first day of practice, when she and Mr Frederick had walked in on Lucinda and Choy whispering in the corner.

“When was the last time you saw him?” said Magdiel, trying to stay focus; because her sight and mind were becoming hazy.

“Last Saturday!” said Lucinda, still angry. “He even sent a new eunuch to train me this week! So I figured that if he wasn’t training me, then he must be with you; since we’re the only two non-believers in the pageant this year.”

“I’m not a non-believer.” Magdiel managed to say, holding on to the door handle for support.

She saw the fear immediately register on Lucinda’s face and added quickly “It’s ok. I’m not a believer either.”

“So what are you?”

“I’m just… nothing, really. And I don’t know where Choy is. Honest.”

Magdiel was now even more worried about Choy. She had hoped that he was at least attending practices with Lucinda; though just not in the abandoned room. He seemed to take it so seriously those times that she saw them together.

“So if he’s not with you, then where could he be?” Lucinda said, her voice trembling slightly. “I really need him if I’m going to make it to the top three.”

Magdiel tried to open her drooping eyes. “Why would you want to make it to the top three? You’ll have to sleep with the king.”

Lucinda suddenly looked at Magdiel in concern. “Are you ok? You don’t look too good.”

“I’m fine.” Said Magdiel, quickly. “The non-believers’ plan is just to make it to the top fifty, so that you can protest on the stage.”

“You don’t know about the newest plan, do you?” said Lucinda, surprised.

“What newest pl-”

Then everything went black.

Magdiel awoke to the concerned face of an elderly woman, hovering directly over hers.

“Who are you?” Magdiel said softly. She felt extremely weak; and it was difficult to open her eyes fully.

The woman’s face relaxed into a small smile. “I’m a nurse, dear. You fainted.”

“Fainted?”

Magdiel instinctively raised a hand to her forehead and felt a warm, damp cloth there.

“Yes dear. And you’ve been sleeping for over an hour.”

The nurse then turned to someone on the other side of the bed. “I think that she’s severely dehydrated and in need of more sleep.”

Magdiel turned and saw that it was her assistant. She then glanced around and realized that she was lying in her own bed, in her room at the palace.”

“Also,” the nurse continued, “give her lot’s of water and a nice meal. She should be fine by tomorrow.”

The assistant nodded. “It was a good thing that the other contestant happened to find her, wasn’t it?”

Other contestant? Magdiel suddenly remembered everything that happened just before she passed out; particularly the latter part of her conversation with Lucinda. What was the non-believer’s newest plan? and still, where was Choy?

Magdiel awoke the next day feeling perfectly fine, physically, just like the nurse had predicted. Still, her assistant felt that it was best to take caution; and so, she insisted that Magdiel stay in bed for at least one more day.

This inconvenienced Magdiel greatly. She had been hoping to attend temple worship that morning, where she might have been able to sneak a chat with Lucinda; so that, together, they could figure out a way to find Choy. Also, Magdiel was extremely curious to find out what the non-believers’ newest plan was. For what reason would they want their poppy to make it to the top three and sleep with the king?

Nonetheless, Magdiel dared not protest against her assistant’s order, in case she gined any more unnecessary demerits that would cause her to stand out from the other poppies. She did not want any more murders to happen on her account.

To add to Magdiel’s annoyance, her assistant also decided that they spend the entire morning praying to Asmos, the God of healing.

On Monday evening, when Magdiel was finally freed from bed, she entered the dining room and was stunned to see Choy sitting around one of the tables, chatting merrily with the other Eunuchs- as if nothing ever happened.

Magdiel tried to catch his eye as she passed closely by his table, but he seemed to purposely avoid it; and so did Lucinda. Magdiel had been staring at her for most of the evening, but Lucinda seemed determined not to look in her direction.

Finally, Magdiel pushed her plate aside and stormed out of the dining room, without her assistant’s knowledge. Fine! She thought to herself. If they’re going to pretend that nothing ever happened, then so was she! Magdiel decided that she did not need to know what the non-believers’ newest plan was after all, since she was not going to be a part of it. She was also not going to worry about Choy any longer. He was back. He seemed fine. And he should be able to continue his training with Lucinda.

Magdiel decided that, from now on, she was going to solely focus on her own plan of going home to Raj. In the meantime, she just needed to find a way to cope with the guilt of Alicia’s murder.

Chapter 20

Temple Worship

During the remainder of the week, Magdiel effectively numbed her emotions by continually pushing: Choy, Lucinda, Alicia, and the circumstances surrounding them, to the back of her mind. She did not even allow Raj to be in the forefront of her consciousness, for her longings for him always broke her down; and Magdiel was tired of feeling sad. For once, she did not want to feel anything.

Accordingly, Magdiel went through her week’s routine without much thought. She even managed to disregard Choy’s presence during Harun lesson that Saturday; to the effect that, to her, his voice sounded very distant- as if he were not even in the same room.

It was now half past seven on Sunday morning, and all of the poppies were gathered for worship in an extremely large and extravagant grey-stone room- located in one of the Palace towers.

Magdiel could not take her eyes off of the disturbingly large, golden sculpture at the centre of the altar, which she assumed must be the image of Harun. It was of a very muscular man, with a handsomely chiselled face and very fluffy, cloud-like hair. He wore only a piece of cloth around is lower half, which looked like a short skirt; and held what appeared to be a lightning bolt, in his right hand.

Many of the other poppies were already bowing at the statue’s feet and crying loudly; so Magdiel slid to the back of the group, so that she would not have to. After finding a comfortable spot, Magdiel was surprised to find herself standing next to Lucinda. Magdiel averted her eyes quickly.

The small, elderly priest finally got up from his seat behind the sculpture. Magdiel had never seen a priest before, though she had overheard tales (from the villagers in Galden) about the spiritual powers that they possessed, because of their closeness to the gods. Some even said that the priests had the ability to control the weather at will. Magdiel, of course, did not believe any of this; but the priest was still very interesting to behold. He wore an impressive, white, silk robe with a large, golden medallion around his neck; and bulky, golden rings upon each of his fingers.

“Contestants.” he said, in a mystical, sing-song voice.

All of the crying and chatter stopped as the contestants turned their attention to him.

“Today is all about our Lord, Harun. You are going to meditate upon him, and express your love and devotion to him.”

This generated expressions of glee from the other poppies.

“Like last time, form pairs of twos or threes, and talk to him together. Our prayers are more powerful with others.”

Just as the priest had finished giving this order, Magdiel felt someone take ahold of her hand. She looked across and was surprised to see that it was Lucinda.

“Be my partner.” She said. It was more like an order than a suggestion.

“No.” said Magdiel firmly, snatching her hand away. She did not want to get sucked back into anything to do with the non-believers’ again.

“I have something to tell you.” Lucinda whispered. “Please.” she added desperately.

Magdiel tried to fight it, but her curiosity got the best of her. “Fine.”

Magdiel and Lucinda made their way through groups of poppies scrambling to find cushions to sit on (for there were no benches or chairs in the temple; only numerous large, circular, grey cushions). They chose one in a far corner of the room, a good distance away from everyone else.

After they were all seated, the priest began to walk amongst them.

“Hold your partners’ hands and close your eyes.” he said, in the same sing song voice.

Magdiel and Lucinda followed his instructions.

“Now just begin to think about Harun’s goodness, and tell him how much you adore him and wish to be his wife. Make him feel goooood!”

The room was immediately filled with shouts of praise from the poppies. Magdiel squinted her eyes and tried not to laugh as she observed the intense looks on their faces.

“Yes!” shouted the priest, above the noise. “Don’t be afraid to let go and worship him. Harun is worthy!”

Magdiel saw that the priest was now at the opposite end of the room. She looked across at Lucinda to tell her that she was free to speak, but paused. From this close up, and in the bright sunlight, shining through the tower windows, Lucinda’s beauty was breath-taking. Her tightly coiled and plentiful dark hair flatteringly framed her small face; and with her mouth closed, Magdiel saw that her full lips formed a perfect heart’s shape, and were a remarkable blend of light brown at the top and light pink and the bottom. Also, Lucinda’s glowing, mahogany skin was uniquely dusted with tiny beauty spots across her neck and chest, with a few on the top of her left cheek, just below where her thick lashes rested.

Lucinda suddenly stopped pretending to meditate and opened her eyes. Magdiel looked away quickly, feeling embarrassed at being caught staring; but Lucinda mercifully pretended not to have noticed.

“These poppies really love Harun, don’t they?” she said, with a small chuckle.

Magdiel shrugged. “So what did you have to tell me?” she said softly, keeping track of the priest through the corner of her eye. He was now walking towards the back of the room.

Lucinda looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Nothing really.”

“But you said-”

“I know.” said Lucinda, looking down at her lap. “I lied.”

“Why?” said Magdiel, feeling annoyed.

“Don’t be upset.” Lucinda said, quickly. “I – I just…”

To Magdiel’s surprise, Lucinda’s eyes suddenly filled with tears; but she blinked them away quickly before continuing. “I just thought that maybe we could talk.”

Magdiel clearly recognized the symptoms of a lonely and troubled girl- since she was one herself, and had been for almost all her life. Thus, she could not help but to feel sympathetic towards Lucinda.

“Well if you wanted someone to talk to, why did you ignore me the other night?” Magdiel said.

“ I don’t know. I guess that I was just scared- since you said that you were not a non-believer.”

“So why talk to me now?” said Magdiel.

“Because, as you said, you’re not a believer either… and, I’m desperate.”

“Are you alright?” Magdiel said, surprised.

Lucinda sighed deeply and shakily. “I think I’m just going through a weak moment, that’s all. This burden is not an easy one to bear.”

“Are you taking about the non-believers’ newest plan?”

Lucinda nodded.

Magdiel glanced over at the priest. He was now in the centre of the room, walking towards them. Magdiel and Lucinda closed their eyes quickly and started to shout along with the other poppies.

“Yes. I feel Harun’s presence very strongly over here.” the priest sang, as he glided past them.

When his voice trailed off to the front of the room, Magdiel and Lucinda resumed their conversation.

“What is the plan all about?”

Lucinda looked uncomfortable again, as if she was not sure she should share that information with Magdiel.

“You said that you wanted to talk, didn’t you?” Magdiel prodded.

Lucinda nodded and nervously glanced around the room, before leaning in closer to Magdiel. “I’m have to kill the King.” She said, in a barely audible whisper.

For a while, Magdiel was speechless. She had no idea how to respond to something so absurd.

“How?” Magdiel finally said.

Lucinda continued to whisper. “If I make it to the top three, I will get a chance to have one-on-one access to the king, in his chambers- without any guards. There, I can easily catch him off guard.”

“But why? How will killing the King help the non-believers?”

“Please, keep your voice down.” said Lucinda, looking around the room again.

“I’m sorry.” said Magdiel quickly, eager for Lucinda to explain.

After Lucinda was satisfied that no one had heard them- for the poppies were still chanting loudly- she regained her composure and answered Magdiel’s question.

“ The plan was developed only a year ago. My NB group leader saw how I’ve grown and he thought that I had the potential to make it far in the competition- to the top three… You see, the non-believers feel that the public protests aren’t making enough of an impact; but that killing the King will. It will show the believers how serious we are about change and that their lives aren’t safe until we get it.”

Magdiel could not decide whether she thought that the non-believers’ plan made sense or not; but something horrifying had just occurred to her, and she tightened her grip on Lucinda’s hands.

“Lucinda, how will you get away with killing the king?”

Lucinda shrugged sadly. “I won’t.”

Magdiel gasped.

“But they’ll kill me even if I just protested.” Lucinda added. “At least this way, my death will be worth more.”

Although she barely knew Lucinda, Magdiel felt like crying; for she knew that if Lucinda succeeded in killing the king, her fate would be much worse than those of the public protestors. The executioners would be sure to torture her in the most extreme way possible, as a means of revenge.

“You don’t have to do this Lucinda.” Magdiel said, almost pleadingly. “You have a choice.”

To Magdiel’s surprise, Lucinda suddenly appeared angry. She pursed her lips and said firmly “I’ve already made my choice.”

The newest plan was the main thing on Magdiel’s mind as she lay in bed that night. She could not understand why Lucinda, or anyone else, would choose to sacrifice themself in that manner. Magdiel had been unable to dig much deeper into Lucinda’s reasoning, for the priest had soon ordered all of the poppies to change partners; but Lucinda had made it clear that she was doing it of her own free will, and that she would not have it any other way.

To ease her mind, Magdiel reflected on her victory in an altercation with the blonde twins, Suzette and Josette, during worship that same morning. At some point, she had ended up being in the same prayer group with them, and they had kicked and pinched her every chance that they got- each time making it seem like a mistake. Magdiel had finally snapped and slapped them both in the face really hard, with one go. This caused her to be thrown out of temple worship and to receive a demerit of 40 points- for physically attacking another contestant (two in this case).

The look of shock and horror on the twins’ faces was extremely satisfying to Magdiel. She only hoped that her behaviour did not cause anyone else to become suspicious of her.

This last train of thought brought back memories of Alicia; and once again, Magdiel could not sleep.

Chapter 21

Roommates?

Over the next few months, Magdiel felt herself becoming more and more dependent upon Lucinda’s company; and she knew that Lucinda depended on hers even more. They met together every chance that they could get away from their assistants; mainly in: utility closets, the abandoned room next to the dining room, and in bathrooms.

Magdiel and Lucinda did not want to take the risk of being friendly in public, for it was not normal behaviour for competing poppies. It also helped to ensure that suspicion did not fall upon Magdiel after Lucinda had fulfilled the plan of killing the King- after which, the believers were bound to be on a heightened mission to punish all of the non-believers that they can find.

For Magdiel, Lucinda made life at the Palace more bearable. She liked having someone that she could talk to and laugh with, and just to give her some relief from her ever-plaguing sadness. Magdiel was also glad that she could help Lucinda handle the pressure of the competition; for Lucinda often worried about her performance, and Magdiel was there to help her relax or to deflect her mind off of it.

“I really thought that I would place higher.” Lucinda said, flopping down on a rickety chair.

She and Magdiel were in the abandoned room next to the dining room. They had snuck out during dinner, after the order of the contestants (based on merit points) had been announced- which was scheduled to be done quarterly.

“You’re at number five, Lucinda. That’s good!” said Magdiel, pulling up a chair and sitting down next to her.

Lucinda scoffed loudly. “It’s not the top three! That’s where I need to be!”

Magdiel was still amazed that someone was working so hard to die; but she decided not to mention it. Lucinda had made it clear numerous times that fulfilling the plan and helping the non-believers’ cause was her main desire; and so Magdiel felt that it was only right to respect her decision.

“Well, you still have nine more months to make it, Lucinda. And I’m sure that you will. You definitely have what it takes.”

In all honesty, Magdiel was surprised that Lucinda had not made it into the top three, since she was by far the most beautiful girl in the pageant. She wondered if maybe the four contestants above her had put in more of an effort into sucking up to the assistants and eunuchs to gain merits.

On the other hand, Magdiel was very pleased with her own position of fifty-nine out of the remaining sixty-four contestants (minus Alicia). It was not dead last so as to cause too much attention for lack of enthusiasm; yet far enough from fifty to guarantee that she was not in the running for the pageant.

“Maybe you’re right.” said Lucinda, using her handkerchief to wipe at the tears that had fallen from her eyes. “I guess that I have enough time to look prettier and gain more merits.”

Magdiel could not help but to chuckle. “How are you planning to look prettier?”

“I don’t know.” said Lucinda. “Maybe I could do the soak treatment for four hours instead of three or increase my nightly sleep by an hour.”

They both laughed this time. They were always making fun of the seemingly pointless beauty regimen that the assistants implemented, and at how seriously they took it.

Lucinda then became suddenly serious and straightened her posture in the chair, whilst gently placing her thick ponytail over one shoulder. Everything about Lucinda’s demeanour was elegant at all times. That was one of the reasons that Magdiel liked being around her so much. It was captivating to behold.

“I’m really glad that we’re friends, Magdiel” she said. “You keep me calm.”

“I like being your friend too.” Magdiel said, warily. She could sense that there was something deeper that Lucinda wanted to say.

Lucinda gave a fleeting, mirthless smile, before becoming serious again. “I was wondering… What do you think about us sharing a room?”

“As in a bedroom?”

Lucinda nodded.

Magdiel was not entirely surprised by this suggestion. It had crossed her mind as well, of how nice it would be to share her room with an actual friend that she could talk to whenever she wanted.

“But what about us avoiding suspicion?” said Magdiel.

“It wouldn’t seem suspicious at all!” said Lucinda, now getting excited. “If we were roommates, no one would know that we were friends. You see, we would only speak when we were alone.”

Magdiel thought for a while, trying to find a flaw in the seemingly simple plan; then said “But wouldn’t they wonder whose idea it was for us to room together, and why?”

“ That’s the thing! There is a very plausible reason!” Said Lucinda, now jumping up from her seat. “They already know that you are by yourself, because your roommate died. And I’m also by myself, because Choy made sure that I was the sixty-fifth contestant. And so it only makes sense that they eliminate a room by putting us together- it saves space.”

“And who is powerful enough to make that happen? Surely not us.” said Magdiel, still digging for flaws. She was hesitant to take the risk of heaping suspicion upon herself again.

“Choy of course! He is the Head Eunuch, isn’t he? And since I’m his charge, it would be natural for him to make such a suggestion.”

“Listen to yourself, Lucinda. Choy will never go for it. He’ll agree that it’s too risky for two non-believers to share a room.”

“We’ll never know unless we ask.” said Lucinda desperately.

Magdiel stared into Lucinda’s pleading face, wondering whether to reveal the real reason why she knew that Choy would not allow them to room together. She had never told Lucinda about Alicia’s murder and, apparently, neither had Choy. Also, ever since that night in her room, Choy had not said a word to Magdiel, and had even given her cold stares whenever they happened to run into each other- which Magdiel always promptly returned. She was angry at him for making her feel like some sort of monster, when he was the one that had committed the actual murder.

Magdiel finally settled with saying “I don’t think that Choy likes me much.”

“Why wouldn’t he like you? He barely even knows you, Magdiel!”

Lucinda sounded upset and Magdiel was beginning to feel that way too, now that the memories of Choy and Alicia had been stirred up.

“Just drop it Lucinda! It doesn’t make sense for us to room together. That’s it!”

Magdiel had expected Lucinda to snap back. But instead, Lucinda looked completely devastated. Magdiel could not understand why.

“Lucinda, I’m sorry. I-”

Lucinda suddenly crouched to the floor, with her knees bent to her chest and her head in her hands. Magdiel quickly rushed to her side.

“ I don’t know how much longer I can hold on, Magdiel.” she said softly. “Sometimes I-I feel like I’m losing my mind. I want go through with the plan- I do- but… the pressure just gets too much. The thought of killing someone, and knowing that I’m going to be brutally executed afterwards…I-I just don’t know how to cope…”

Lucinda broke down in soft sobs, and Magdiel placed a hand around her shoulders in an attempt to comfort her. She had had no idea that the plan was affecting Lucinda this deeply.

“You don’t have to go through with this Luc-”

Lucinda shook her head violently. “Stop telling me that Magdiel! I have to! I was born for this!”

Magdiel sighed deeply. She knew that she could not possibly refuse Lucinda’s offer to share a room after this breakdown. Lucinda needed someone around her more regularly- someone that she could vent to and help keep her calm. Otherwise, it was scary to think of what might become of her sanity.

Two weeks passed before Magdiel and Lucinda got the opportunity to confront Choy with their idea to share a room. It took that long because Lucinda had had difficulty trying to convince Choy to let them practice in the abandoned room, instead of int the recreational room with the other poppies. Magdiel knew it was because Choy wanted to avoid her as much as possible.

Choy and Lucinda were now training in the back corner of the room, while Magdiel was in the front with Mr. Frederick, strutting half-heartedly across the floor.

Not long afterwards, there was loud snoring, which told Magdiel and Lucinda that Mr. Frederick had fallen into a deep sleep. They both immediately abandoned what they were doing and approached Choy.

“What’s going on?” Choy said; his voice as coarse as ever.

“We want to be roommates?” Lucinda said immediately.

Choy looked bewildered. “You two talk?”

They had apparently hidden their friendship better than Magdiel had thought- for even Choy had been oblivious, and he always seemed so observant.

“Yes.” said Lucinda, unfazed. “So what do you say?”

“Of course not.” Choy said flatly.

“Why not?” Lucinda demanded. “We both have our own rooms.”

“Are you serious Lucinda!” Choy said, incredulously. “Why on earth do you need a roommate?”

Lucinda did not respond, and suddenly cowered under Choy’s gaze. Magdiel could tell that she was hesitant to let Choy know how badly the plan was affecting her.

“Because we’re friends.” Magdiel finally spoke up. “And that’s what friends do. They stick together.”

“Just because you have a boyfriend back in Galden, doesn’t make you an expert on relationships!” snapped Choy.

Magdiel was stunned speechless. How did Choy know about Raj? She had not even told Lucinda as yet. Lucinda also appeared stunned and looked over at Magdiel, questioningly.

“The answer is no!” Choy continued. “And that’s final.”

“You’re such a stubborn pig!” Magdiel said, angrily.

Choy’s expression suddenly became cross. “And you’re a careless, selfish, manipulative twat.” He said, towering over her. “And nothing but a distraction.”

“Distraction to whom?” Magdiel said, looking squarely up at him.

Choy’s cold glare faltered a little at Magdiel’s words, and he quickly turned and walked towards the door.

“Let’s go Lucinda.” He said over his shoulder. “We’ll finish practice in the recreational room.”

As Lucinda hustled pass, she whispered to Magdiel “What happened between you two?”

But Magdiel said nothing; and Lucinda went on her way.

Chapter 22

Visitors’ Day

Lucinda did not speak to Magdiel at all over the next few weeks. Each time that Magdiel saw her in the dining room, Lucinda was always careful to avoid even looking at her; and in temple worship, she was always quick to find a partner before Magdiel could approach; and not surprisingly, she and Choy had not returned to train in the abandoned room next to the dining room since their last altercation.

Magdiel had eventually given up trying to talk to Lucinda, though she still worried about her. She wondered how she was handling the pressure of the plan on her own. Magdiel was not angry at Lucinda for ending their friendship, but at Choy. She was sure that he had done or said something to scare Lucinda away from her.

As a result, Magdiel was back to being alone and relying on her now mastered ability to numb her feelings, in order to get through each day. However, her numbing skills were now being severely tested by the approaching visitors’ day.

It was late Saturday night and Magdiel lay in bed trying not to imagine what would happen if her mother showed up the next day. All of Magdiel’s struggles in the Palace had only helped to increase her hatred towards Agatha, and she feared that she might lose all self-control if they came face to face; and that she might do or say something incriminating, in front of everyone.

The person that Magdiel wanted to see tomorrow, more than anyone else in the world, was Raj; but she did not want on dwell much on that thought. Magdiel knew that it made no sense getting her hopes up for something that she was sure would never happen.

The next morning, Magdiel’s assistant informed her that by no means would she be allowed to stay in her room during visiting time, if someone was there to see her. It simply was not polite.

“But what if I don’t want to see them?” Magdiel groaned. She was standing in her closet, while an elderly assistant buttoned her up in a simple, bright green dress.

“Why wouldn’t you want to see someone that has travelled a long way to see you?” the assistant said, incredulously. “Harun’s potential bride should be one that is considerate and pure in heart.”

Magdiel decided that it would be futile and unwise to push the matter further; and accepted the fact that she would just have to face her mother, if she came.

Magdiel went off to temple worship in an even more sombre mood than usual.

“You’ve been at that plate for quite a long time now!” The elderly assistant said testily to Magdiel.

Magdiel figured that her assistant would not believe her if she simply feigned illness, since it was only just that morning that she had asked to be excused from visiting time; and so she decided to employ a strategy of delay. Magdiel had taken her time walking back to her room from temple worship, and was now eating her lunch very slowly; all in the hopes of reducing the amount of time that she would have to spend with her visitor.

“You still have to take a bath before you go down!”

“I know, but this is how I always eat.” Magdiel lied. “I can’t help it.”

The elderly assistant examined Magdiel’s face for a while, and then sighed in frustration. “You have two more minutes. That’s it!”

After finishing her plate, Magdiel spent an exorbitant amount of time on the stool bucket, pretending to have a bad stomach from the food. By this time, the assistant had had enough.

“If you do no not stop delaying, I’ll have the guards keep your visitors for an extra hour!”

At that, Magdiel promptly got up, took her bath and was dressed.

In the end, Magdiel was only about half of an hour late for the two hour visiting period. She had been hoping to miss at least one full hour.

She nervously stepped through the back doors of the Palace, onto a beautiful courtyard that she had always seen and admired as she glanced through the corridor windows of the Palace. It was paved with gold-coloured bricks, with small, stone benches and water fountains scattered here and there. From this view point, Magdiel saw that the Palace building enclosed the courtyard in the shape of a large square.

The courtyard was extremely crowded with what seemed like hundreds of persons: poppies, their visitors, and numerous kings guards; and with the noise level to match.

Magdiel paused on the outskirts to relish the unusual sensation of being outdoors- it had been so long. She lifted her face towards the bright, afternoon sun, and let its heat penetrate her skin. Magdiel had had no idea that they would be meeting the visitors outside, and had found it strange when her assistant lathered her skin with extra oil and placed a huge hat upon her head.

After a long while, Magdiel reluctantly lowered her gaze back to the happy, noisy crowd, in search of her visitors. The book keeper at the door had said that there were two people here to see her. Magdiel assumed that her mother had brought Fulvia along.

She sighed and walked through the crowd, passing by the blonde twins, who were excitedly telling their equally blonde parents about the wonders of the Palace.

‘Mother, it’s beautiful inside!” said Suzette or Jozette. “And the food is just amazing…”

Further along, another poppy was assuring her parents that she was performing well in the competition, having placed in the top ten; but that she had to particularly look out for this one extremely beautiful contestant, named Lucinda. She then pointed behind of her. “There she is.”

Magdiel turned in the direction that the poppy had pointed, towards the far corner of the courtyard, and spotted Lucinda. She was sitting on the lap of a tall, dark and muscular man, whom Magdiel assumed was her Dad. Lucinda had mentioned that her father was all the family that she had. She looked happy as she chatted with him, animatedly; and Magdiel smiled to herself as she watched on.

Then, two benches down from Lucinda and her Dad, Magdiel saw them. It was not her mother and Fulvia, as she had speculated; but Jude and Fulvia. Fulvia was wearing the very big and comical, bright-pink, ruffled dress- that she always wore on special occasions; while Jude wore his favourite- and very tight- three-piece, green suit.

Magdiel could not understand why they were here, for she had never been particularly close with the couple. In fact, she had nursed a little resentment towards them over the years, for always taking her mother’s side in their disputes- particularly when it came to Raj.

Fulvia suddenly looked over and caught sight of Magdiel. She tapped her husband’s shoulder and waved Magdiel over, smiling brightly. Magdiel walked over to them, glad that at least it was not her mother.

“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Fabian.” Magdiel said politely, extending her hand.

Fulvia brushed Magdiel’s hand aside and hugged her tightly. “Don’t be silly, Magdiel. We’ve missed you.”

Magdiel felt very awkward in Fulvia’s embrace, and tapped her gingerly on the back, whilst keeping her body stiff. Jude, however, simply patted Magdiel on the shoulder.

“How are you, dear?” said Fulvia, after she had released Magdiel.

Magdiel shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”

“That’s good.” said Jude, fidgeting with his hat. “That’s… ahh… really good.”

“Yes, and you look amazing.” Fulvia added, still smiling brightly. “Even better than before you left.”

“Thanks.” said Magdiel, instinctively glancing down at her ankle length, turquoise, frill gown.

A few seconds of awkward silence followed, which Fulvia broke.

“Magdiel, I know you probably weren’t expecting to see the two of us. But your mom wanted you to have someone here today, and… well, she feared you wouldn’t be too pleased to see her.”

Magdiel had figured as much, and did not respond.

“But sweetie,” Fulvia continued, in a whisper “you can’t possibly still be upset about the inspection? You know that your mother meant you no harm. She wants nothing but the best for you-”

Magdiel released an exasperated sigh. She was not in the mood for a lecture about her mother, especially not from Fulvia, who always seemed biased on the matter.

“No Magdiel!” said Fulvia, suddenly stern, which took Magdiel by surprise. “It’s about time you cut that out! Your mother loves you more than anything in this world. She’s been sick with worry ever since you left, and I just hate the way that you treat her-”

Jude placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder to cut her off; but Magdiel’s rage had already been kindled.

“How dare you tell me how I should treat my mother! You know nothing about what I’ve been through because of her-”

Magdiel stopped herself and took some deep breaths. This is exactly what she did not want- to lose her temper when there were so many believers around.

The silence that followed between the three of them was very tense; until Jude suddenly blurted out “Raj really misses you.”

Magdiel immediately felt her heart beat quicken.

“He wanted to be here today.” Jude continued softly. “But he thought that it might be too hard on you, and him as well; and, of course, we didn’t want to put either of you in any danger.”

“H-how is he?” Magdiel managed to say. Her throat suddenly felt very dry.

“A little downcast these days.” Jude said. “He’s back in Galden, and spends his time working hard with me in the shop… H-he-”

Jude looked nervously over at Fulvia, before continuing. “He sent you a letter.”

“Jude!” Fulvia whispered sharply, glancing over at the guard a little distance behind them. “Are you encouraging their relationship?”

“I promised Raj that I’d give it to her.”

“Give-it-to-me.” Magdiel said breathlessly. She had to place a hand over her heart to control its painfully increased beating.

Both Jude and Fulvia paused for a moment to look at Magdiel in concern. Then Jude reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and retrieved a small envelope. Magdiel’s hand trembled as she took it; and when she saw Raj’s hand-writing on its face, she could not hold back the tears.

“I didn’t mean to upset you Magdidel-” said Jude.

“No, no. Thank you, Mr. Fabian.” Magdiel said, still a little out of breath. “It’s just that I miss him so much. And I didn’t expect to hear from him until-”

Magdiel wanted to say ‘until she returned home’, but suddenly remembered where she was. Furthermore, she did not want to get into her and Raj’s plans with his parents- especially not Fulvia.

Jude seemed to understand and smiled warmly. “You’re welcome.”

“Your mother sent a letter too.” Fulvia chimed it. “It won’t kill you to read it.” she added, upon seeing the icy look on Magdiel’s face.

Fulvia reached into Jude’s pocket once more and retrieved an envelope identical to Raj’s, which Magdiel took grudgingly.

The trio spent the remainder of the hour in idle small talk about palace life, with Magdiel’s main focus on reading Raj’s letter as soon as she was alone in her room that night.

Dearest Mags,

I hope that you are safe and well over there in the Palace. As for me, I’m not doing too good.

I miss you a lot. Please stay strong, as I try to be too.

Love,

Your Cousin, Raj.

That’s it? Magdiel frantically turned over the paper to see if anything more was written on the other side. When she found no more writing, Magdiel angrily tossed the paper on the floor, leaned back against her bed pillows and began to sob bitterly.

Jude had warned her that the letter would be vague, because all letters were read by the book keepers upon entering the Palace, as part of the increased security; hence the reason that Raj had referred to himself as her cousin. Still, Magdiel had hoped for more; and the disappointment hit her hard.

After almost an hour of brooding, Magdiel leaned over to blow out the candle on her bedside table; but stopped when she spotted the letter from her mother- which she had completely forgotten about. Magdiel stared at it, battling with herself as to whether or not to read it. She finally decided that there was nothing that her mother could possibly write that was of concern to her; and she crumpled up that letter as well.

Chapter 23

Final Persuasion

At first, Magdiel had tried to figure out a way that she could send more personal letters to Raj, and him to her; for his vague letter had left her craving more. But not one plausible idea came to mind. Finally, after about a week, Magdiel shut away the letter into one of her drawers and tried to forget it; but that seemed impossible to do. Raj continuously plagued her mind, no matter where she was or what she was doing.

Magdiel grunted loudly in frustration, and a few curious heads turned in her direction- one of which was Lucinda’s. All of the poppies were standing at the altar for temple worship, and Magdiel was surprised to find Lucinda just a short distance ahead of her; for since their altercation with Choy, Lucinda had always been careful to keep her distance.

But what struck Magdiel most, was how much thinner Lucinda appeared; so much that her gown hung shapelessly upon her body.

Magdiel quickly squeezed through the poppy in front of her and tapped Lucinda on the shoulder. Lucinda started at the sight of Magdiel; and Magdiel immediately noticed the sunken appearance of her eyes, caused by the weight loss.

“Partner with me.” Magdiel commanded.

Lucinda looked awkwardly over at the poppy next to her. “I already have a partner.” she said.

“I don’t care.” Magdiel said. She needed to know that Lucinda was alright.

“Look.” said the poppy next to Lucinda, in a bored voice. “We can just make it three.”

Before Lucinda could respond, Magdiel turned on the other poppy. “Three is a crowd.”

The poppy approached Magdiel menacingly; and then, seemingly deciding that the dispute was not worth it, walked off to find another partner. Magdiel then led Lucinda to a cushion in one of the corners of the room.

“What’s going on, Lucinda?” Magdiel demanded, after she and Lucinda had taken their prayer positions, and the other poppies were sufficiently distracted by their own worship.

Lucinda looked up at Magdiel, shamefaced; and Magdiel could clearly see the dark marks under her eyes, that she knew too well were caused by either a lack of sleep or too much crying, or both.

“I’m sorry, Magdiel.” she said. “I know you must be upset that I’ve been avoiding you-”

“I’m not upset, Lucinda. I’m worried. You look awful.”

“Well, I’m fine.” Lucinda said, tersely. “And I’ve just been busy. That’s why you haven’t been seeing me-”

“Stop Lucinda! You can’t fool me.”

“I wasn’t trying to.”

Magdiel could not believe Lucinda’s cold attitude towards her. “What in the world did Choy say to you?”

Lucinda sighed and shook her head. “I really have nothing more to say.”

Magdiel felt stung at being so casually dismissed. She really thought that she and Lucinda had had a deeper connection.

“Lucinda, it’s me.” Magdiel said, incredulously. “We were friends. What happened?”

At that, Lucinda hung her head low, so that Magdiel could not see the expression on her face. She remained silent for a long while, then finally blurted out “Choy says that you’re not as good as you appear to be. He won’t tell me what you did, but he says that you’re working against us. That you’ve hurt another contestant, and that you will hurt me too if given the chance.”

Magdiel could not believe that Choy would stoop so low. He knew that she did not mean to get Alicia killed- it was her biggest regret. And he said himself that they had no choice.

“And you believe him?” Magdiel said indignantly.

“Who else am I supposed to believe?” said Lucinda. “All of the non-believers trust him, my father trusts him, and I’ve known him longer than I’ve known you.”

“Well, I guess I just thought that you would have given me the benefit of the doubt, after crying on my shoulder all those times.” Magdiel was now struggling to keep her voice low.

“But you have to admit, Magdiel, that sometimes you do try to discourage me.”

“Only out of concern for your well-being, lucinda! You know that!”

“Try to put yourself in my shoes.” Lucinda said pleadingly.

But Magdiel was too angry to look at anything from another point of view. She shut her eyes and joined in the chants of the other poppies to block Lucinda out.

“What happened between you and Choy?” Magdiel heard Lucinda ask, through the noise of her own chants. “Because maybe if you told me what happened, then I can better understand why Choy would say these things-”

“I’m not begging you to be my friend anymore, Lucinda! You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to.”

Magdiel shut her eyes once more and resumed her chanting. Soon after, she heard Lucinda whimpering softly, and her anger quickly subsided. She could not fight the soft spot that she had for Lucinda’s pain. Magdiel opened her eyes to see Lucinda’s head bent low, and her body shaking.

“ I really want to be your friend- I do.” Lucinda was saying, through her sobs. “But Choy said that he would stop training me if I continued to talk to you; and I can’t afford for that to happen… I’m just so confused.”

“Lucinda, Choy is just bluffing. He is just as vested in the plan as you are. He won’t stop training you.”

Lucinda looked up at Magdiel like a helpless child, her face wet with tears. “You really think so?”

Magdiel nodded.

“ Good.” Said Lucinda. “Because I really do need you. Most days, I can’t eat or sleep- everything is just weighing so heavily on my mind. I-I just don’t know what to do…”

But Magdiel seemed to instinctively know what needed to be done.

“Lucinda,” she said seriously. “do you still want us to share a room?”

Lucinda looked up at Magdiel in surprise; and then after a few seconds of thought, she nodded.

That evening at dinner, Magdiel made a stop at the Eunuchs’ table.

“Can I speak to you?” she said, in the politest tone that she could muster.

Choy looked up and his face hardened at the sight of Magdiel. “I’m about to have dinner.” He said.

“Don’t bother the Head Eunuch!” Magdiel’s assistant scolded her. “Come. Let me find you a table.”

The assistant took a hold of Magdiel’s hand and tugged slightly; but Magdiel did not move. She had already expected Choy to be difficult. Magdiel kept her eyes focused on his face and smiled sweetly.

“ I’m sorry Sir. It’s just that your contestant- Lucinda I think her name is- looks sort of ill; and I just wanted to suggest a useful reme-”

Magdiel’s astonished assistant cut her off. “And since when are you a nurse, young lady? You have passed your place!”

But Magdiel’s unfinished statement had done the trick. While the other Eunuchs at the table merely looked amused, Choy had quickly gotten to his feet.

“It’s alright Ms Henry.” he said calmly, placing a hand on the assistant’s plump shoulder. “I think I’ll humour the young lady a bit.”

“You shouldn’t encourage them in their disrespect, Sir.” Ms Henry persisted.

“It’s fine, really.” said Choy over his shoulder, as he walked towards the door with Magdiel.

Magdiel and Choy walked in silence- not to the abandoned room next to the dining room, as Magdiel had expected; but all the way down two flights of stairs. Magdiel’s heart raced a little as they walked along a dimly lit and deserted corridor. Had she pushed Choy too far? Was he going to get rid of her like he had gotten rid of Alicia, and whomever else had killed before?

Magdiel was tempted to turn around and run, but she reassured herself that Choy would not be foolish enough to hurt her- not after so many persons had just seen them leave together. Would he?

Choy suddenly stopped in front of a set of double doors and forcefully pushed them open. He entered and Magdiel followed. The room appeared to be a large library, but Magdiel could not be sure; for the only source of light was from the frail moon, shining through gaps in the curtains.

“What was that!” Choy bellowed almost as soon as the door closed behind them, and punching the wall hard behind Magdiel. “Are you an idiot?”

Magdiel now realized why Choy had brought them this far- so that he could unleash his full anger on her, without anyone overhearing them.

Still, Magdiel refused to be intimidated and squared her shoudlers. “It was the only way that I could get you to talk to me. I was desperate.”

“You’re always desperate!” said Choy, still at the top of his lungs. “That’s not an excuse to say stupid things! Don’t you get it? There shouldn’t be a connection between me, you and Lucinda!”

“Well, I wouldn’t have had to say that if you had just come when I asked you to.”

“What for? Why can’t you just leave me and Lucinda alone?”

“Lucinda was the one that came to me!” Magdiel shouted as well. “She needed a friend!

Choy sighed exasperatedly and turned his back to Magdiel.

Magdiel walked up behind him. “If you had an ounce of compassion, you would see how hard this whole thing is on her.”

Choy turned back around. Magdiel could not make out the expression on his face, but his voice was of a forced calm. “Look Magdiel. I was told that you wanted nothing to do with the non-believers’ plan. So I’m warning you, stay out of it.”

Choy then walked off towards the door; but Magdiel was not going to let him get away that easily. She shouted after him. “How is Lucinda going carry out this precious plan of yours Choy, if she loses both her mind and her looks?”

Choy paused, and Magdiel took the opportunity to continue.

“Haven’t you seen how she’s deteriorated in the past month alone? She looks like shit! She can’t possibly make it far in the competition like that… Let her share a room with me.”

Choy opened the door. “Find your own way back to the dining room.” He said, before storming out.

Magdiel slumped down to the floor, angry and frustrated.

Three days later, as Magdiel sat eating breakfast, her assistant of the day made a shocking announcement.

“You will be getting a new roommate this afternoon.”

“What? Who is it?” said Magdiel, choking on her boiled egg.

The assistant stopped from styling Magdiel’s hair, to check that she was alright, before answering.

“It’s Choy Holland’s charge.” she said. “Apparently, she has a room to herself as well. So instead of wasting resources…”

Magdiel was too stunned to hear anything further.

Chapter 24

The Kiss

“What changed Choy’s mind?” said Magdiel, almost as soon as the two assistants had left the bedroom.

She and Lucinda were both in their nightgowns, sitting up in their beds. Lucinda had moved in just after dinner, a little over an hour ago; and after going through the regular night-time routine with their assistants, they now finally had a chance to speak.

“ I’m not sure.” said Lucinda. “I vomited during practice yesterday, and was crying a lot, and he got really frustrated. Then the next thing I knew, he said that I was moving in with you- I couldn’t believe my ears!”

Magdiel smiled. “Maybe my little speech the other night worked on him after all.”

“What speech?” said Lucinda.

Magdiel quickly recapped her altercation with Choy a few nights ago, in the deserted library.

“I don’t even care how it happened.” Lucinda said, after Magdiel was finished. “I’m just so excited, I can hardly stand it!”

“Me too.” said Magdiel, honestly. She could not wait to start experiencing what it was truly like to have a close friend. She envisioned that her life at the Palace should be a lot better now and that she would not ache for Raj as much.

They spent the remainder of the night chatting jovially about any and everything that they could think of, until they finally passed out at around one in the morning.

A few hours later, Magdiel was suddenly awoken by loud, terrified shrieks. She bolted upright in bed to source the noise, and soon realized that it was coming from Lucinda. Through the dark, Magdiel could see her figure thrashing about wildly on the other bed.

“Lucinda!” said Magdiel, in fright. “Lucinda, what’s wrong?”

But Lucinda only continued to shriek and thrash about.

Magdiel jumped out of bed and rushed over to Lucinda’s side. As she was about to grab one of Lucinda’s flailing arms, one of Lucinda’s foot launched painfully into her right side. Wincing, Magdiel managed to hop onto Lucinda’s stomach and pin her arms down to her side.

“Lucinda, wake up!” said Magdiel, shaking her. “Wake up, Lucinda!”

All of a sudden, Lucinda’s body went still and her eyes opened wide.

“It’s ok.” said Magdiel, quickly. “It was just a dream.”

Lucinda was breathing heavily, and she started to sob. Magdiel quickly moved to Lucinda’s side and held her face on her lap. It was drenched with sweat and she looked to be in some sort of daze.

“Calm down, Lucinda.” said Magdiel, feeling even more afraid now. She wondered if she should call out to someone for help.

But after a while, Lucinda’s sobbing ceased and her breathing calmed.

“Magdiel?” she said weakly.

Magdiel sighed deeply with relief. “Yes Lucinda. I’m right here.”

“Good.” said Lucinda softly. Then she grabbed a hold of Magdiel’s hand and immediately dozed back off to sleep.

Magdiel did not get a chance to speak to Lucinda throughout the next day; for she had awoken that morning only just in time to crawl back over to her own bed, before the assistants had come and she and Lucinda went their separate ways.

However, at bed time, Magdiel was anxious to understand what had caused Lucinda’s breakdown the night before.

“ It’s these nightmares that I’ve been having- almost every night now.” Lucinda explained. She was curled up at the foot of Magdiel’s bed, and appeared perfectly normal.

“How long have you be having them?”

“ The past few weeks or so. And they’re always very similar. I’m lying flat on my back and something heavy, like a huge rock, is on my chest. And it’s suffocating me. But no matter what I do, it won’t budge. And in front of me I see the king and all this blood- it’s just horrible.”

Lucinda sat up and faced Magdiel. “The dreams feel so real- It’s like I actually can’t breathe… I’m just glad that you were there, because I normally end up crying non-stop afterwards, and I can never get back to sleep.”

Magdiel had listened to Lucinda intently, and did not respond immediately. The cause of the dreams was obvious, but Magdiel had to choose her words carefully, in case she angered Lucinda.

“ Lucinda,” Magdiel began, tentatively. “I don’t know what else to say, except- you know…” She gave Lucinda a knowing look.

“Don’t, Magdiel!” Lucinda snapped. “I’ve told you before. I’m going through with the non-believers’ plan, no matter what.”

“But it’s obvious that you can’t handle it!” Magdiel said. She felt suddenly desperate to help Lucinda see reason. “You’re driving yourself mad!”

Lucinda shot up off of Magdiel’s bed. “If I knew you were going to try to discourage me again, I wouldn’t have come to you.”

Magdiel was too exasperated to respond. She could not believe how stubborn and foolish Lucinda was being. She watched as Lucinda stomped over to her own bed; but, instead of getting in, spun back around.

“You know what your problem is, Magdiel?” she said, angrily. “You think that only the easy things or the things that make you happy are worth doing. Well you’re wrong. Sometimes, you just have to do something because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I just don’t see how the non-believer’s plan is the right thing to do.” said Magdiel, trying to keep her voice calm and reasonable. “They’re killing young girls just like the death pageant is.”

“But at least we’re working towards a better tomorrow! When one day, girls in Acus aren’t killed anymore for some false religion that only serves to oppress the poor! But in the meantime, I have to play my part. I have to die, so that they can live!”

Lucinda was so filled with emotion that her voice had cracked several times and her breathing was heavy.

Still, Magdiel did not agree that the non-believers’ plan was helping anyone; but she now saw how very passionate Lucinda was about it, and she felt bad for discouraging her. Magdiel had always felt that everyone had a right to believe in what they wanted- including Lucinda.

“I’m sorry.” Magdiel said sincerely, looking into Lucinda’s tear-filled eyes. “I will try to only support you from now on. I just wanted to make sure that-”

“That I wasn’t being forced into it?” said Lucinda, her tone still defensive.

“Well, yes.” Magdiel admitted.

“I told you that I wasn’t, Magdiel.” Lucinda said, plopping down onto her bed. Then her expression and tone softened, as she added “But to be honest, I feel like this plan is the only reason that I was born… Actually, it was.”

“What do you mean?” said Magdiel, confused. She vaguely remembered Lucinda saying something like that before.

“ My father… He had a twin sister, whom he was extremely close with. But she died. She was a poppy- and I guess that some of the other poppies at the Palace were threatened by her- and so they poisoned her during the pageant.”

Magdiel was immediately brought back to Alicia’s murder; and chills were now running through her body as the guilt came crashing down.

Lucinda, apparently unaware of Magdiel’s sudden discomfort, continued her story. “My father became so enraged by my aunt’s death that his entire belief changed. He went from being a faithful believer, to being determined to bring down the death pageant system, at any cost. It was around the time when the believers had come up with the plan to start sending in poppies for the pageant, to protest. And so, my father decided to have a poppy of his own that he could send in also.”

Magdiel’s eyes widened. “You mean, he only had you so that he could use you for the pageant?”

Lucinda nodded. “My mother was an ex poppy that had just returned home from the Palace. So, as you can imagine, she was very beautiful. And my father, being quite handsome himself, instinctively knew that the both of them could make a beautiful daughter together.”

Lucinda’s eyes filled with tears and she paused to compose herself. Magdiel waited, patiently.

“My father never loved my mom, because she was a believer. All he wanted was a daughter. So one night, soon after I was born, he snuck away with me while my mother was asleep… And she was never able to find us.”

“So you’ve never met your mother?” said Magdiel, incredulously.

Lucinda shook her head as she used the back of her hands to dry the tears that had spilled onto her cheeks. Magdiel felt that her parents’ wrongs paled in comparison to what Lucinda’s father had done to her; and she could not understand why Lucinda had been so affectionate towards him on visiting day.

“Don’t you hate your father?”

Lucinda looked taken aback. “No. Of course not. I mean, when he first told me what he had done, I was angry with him. But I can never hate my father. He loves me more than anything in the world; and I feel the same way about him.”

“But what he did to you was despicable!” said Magdiel. “H-he made you a part of this plan. He took your mother away from you. You had no choice in anything!”

Lucinda looked momentarily lost for words. “I guess I just see things differently.” she finally said. “I mean, maybe the choices that my father made for me were for the best, because now I’m in a position to help so many people… But even if his decisions weren’t the best, I know that he loves me and that he never meant to hurt me.”

“I’m sorry Lucinda, but the way I see it, your father didn’t care if he hurt you at all. He was just trying to use you as a means of revenge.”

Lucinda did not seem offended by Magdiel’s words. “I agree.” she said. “Maybe at the time, my father was only thinking of himself. But that was then, and I can’t hold it against him forever. I mean, nobody’s perfect. And he’s all I have in this world.”

She then gave Magdiel a sympathetic smile. “Maybe you should try to forgive your parents too. Your mother is all the family that you have.”

Magdiel had told Lucinda some time ago about her feelings towards her parents for making her a poppy, and she now regretted it; for she sensed a lecture on forgiveness coming on.

“I don’t need her. I have someone else in my life.” Said Magdiel, thinking about Raj.

“ Magdiel, try to put yourself in your mom’s shoes.” Lucinda pleaded. “Think of how hard it must have been for her to maim you- her precious baby girl. Maybe she had even hoped that you wouldn’t grow up pretty enough to be a poppy. But you did, and she had no control over it-”

“Let’s talk about something else.” Magdiel snapped. She did not like feeling pressured into doing anything that she did not want to do. If Lucinda wanted to forgive her father for the evil he had done, that was her choice. But as far as Magdiel was concerned, none of their parents deserved forgiveness.

“Alright.” Said Lucinda. “Then tell me about your boyfriend.”

“I don’t want to talk about him either.” Said Magdiel, knowing that talking about Raj would only make her sad again.

“Come on Magdiel, please.” Said Lucinda, clasping her hands together. “I want to know what it feels like when you’re kissing him.”

Lucinda’s face had transformed into pure and innocent girlish wonder. Looking at her, Magdiel’s heart broke. She felt that every girl should experience a romantic kiss at least once in their life; and it was sad that Lucinda never would.

Then Magdiel had an idea. She got up off of her bed and walked over to stand in front of Lucinda.

“Close your eyes.” She said softly.

“Why?” said Lucinda, looking up at Magdiel, nervously. .

“Just do it. Please.”

Lucinda gave Magdiel one last, wary look, before finally obliging.

“Now, think of the most handsome guy that you possibly can.”

Lucinda’s eyelids flickered rapidly for a few moments; then she took a deep breath and slowly released it.

“He’s standing right in front of you.” Magdiel continued.

Lucinda’s breathing intensified, and Magdiel thought of something that Raj had told her during one of their passionate moments.

“He leans in close to your ears, and whispers ‘Your lips give me life’. Then he gently takes your face in his hands…”

Magdiel placed her hands on either side of Lucinda’s face; and Lucinda shivered.

“And…”

Without another thought, Magdiel leaned in and softly kissed Lucinda’s lips. Lucinda tensed, but did not pull away. Then slowly, her lips parted. Magdiel closed her eyes as well; and before long, Raj was before her. She wrapped her arms tightly around him and kissed him harder. He reached around her waist and pulled her firmly against him; and she felt his hand run through her hair. Magdiel surrendered a soft moan and squeezed Raj even tighter. She did not want to ever let him go. She wanted him to have all of her.

But suddenly, a whiff of lavender caught Magdiel’s nose. That was not Raj’s scent. Magdiel quickly pulled away, and Lucinda was staring back at her, dazed and breathing heavily. Magdiel’s breathing was thick as well. Mortified, she turned and hurried over to her own bed, without a word.

Chapter 25

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Every so often, Magdiel’s head bobbed painfully against the edge of the hard, stone tub and brought her back to temporary alertness. The treatment room’s ever present, lavender -scented steam always made her drowsy; but today, especially so, since she had gotten very little sleep the night before, after the kiss that she and Lucinda had shared. The kiss had plagued Magdiel’s mind all night long and even now as well.

She was ashamed and surprised at how carried away she had gotten- ravenous even. She had only meant to show Lucinda how it felt to share a simple, sweet kiss with someone that she loved; but Magdiel’s fantasy of Raj had gotten the best of her. It had seemed so real- like she had been kissing him instead.

Magdiel was certain that she had frightened Lucinda, and was afraid that things might be different between them from now on.

She and Lucinda had not gotten a chance to speak that morning, because of the assistants; but had shared a few, awkward glances- so that Magdiel was glad when Lucinda had finally left the room, before her, with her assistant; and was now out of view, in a tub at the other end of the room. It gave Magdiel a chance to think clearly, so that she could come up with something to say to her later that night- some sort of apology or explanation.

“Magdiel?… Magdiel?…”

Magdiel feigned sleep and was determined not to answer Lucinda; for she had not yet gathered the courage to speak to her. Therefore, Magdiel had gotten into bed as soon as her assistant had finished with her- while Lucinda was still being taken care of.

Magdiel now heard Lucinda blow out her bedside candle and settle into bed; and she felt panged with guilt. First she had forced herself upon Lucinda, and now she was avoiding her.

Tomorrow. Magdiel thought to herself. She would try to talk to Lucinda tomorrow.

Over the next two days, Magdiel still could not face Lucinda; and it was obvious that Lucinda was really hurt by it. Magdiel had glanced over at her during temple worship that morning, and saw her sobbing in front of her partner.

The priest mistook Lucinda’s grief for spirituality and got so excited that he generously praised and merited her in front of everyone.

Then that night, Lucinda had another nightmare. Like last time, Magdiel jumped out of bed and rushed to her side.

“I’m sorry Magdiel.” Lucinda said weakly, after she had sufficiently calmed down.

“For what?”

“For making you feel like you had to kiss me the other night. It’s obvious that you regret it.”

The shock of Lucinda’s nightmare had completely wiped the kiss from Magdiel’s mind, and she now had to fumble for words.

“ Lucinda, I- I… it was my mistake. You didn’t- I didn’t mean for it to… get so intense.”

To Magdiel’s surprise, Lucinda gave a small smile. “You were thinking of your boyfriend, weren’t you?”

Magdiel nodded.

“You really miss him.”

Magdiel nodded again.

“I could tell by the way you kissed me.” Lucinda chuckled. “I think you said his name too.”

Magdiel smiled; feeling relieved that Lucinda was at least making light of the situation.

“Didn’t he come to see you on visiting day?”

“He couldn’t.” said Magdiel. “He… He sent me a letter instead.”

“That must have made you happy.”

Magdiel shook her head. “Sort of the opposite.”

“What do you mean?”

Magdiel took a moment to respond. She did not want to talk about Raj’s vague letter, after working so hard to forget it. But she also did not want to push Lucinda away again. Magdiel felt that she owed Lucinda that much, after all that she put her through these past few days.

So Magdiel went over what had happened on visitor’s day, and recited Raj’s letter to Lucinda. She also explained that its brevity was because of the increased Palace scrutiny; and that she had been completely devastated- since her hopes had been high, expecting something more personal.

Lucinda had listened intently while Magdiel spoke, and seemed very sympathetic. “I’m so sorry Magdiel.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine now-”

“Oh!” Lucinda suddenly piped up. “I think I know how you can send more personal letters to him.”

“What? How?” said Magdiel sceptically.

“There’s an assistant here, named Felicia McDonald-”

“Yes, I’ve seen her.” said Magdiel, remembering the young, blonde assistant that had greeted her the day she arrived at the palace.

“Well, she’s a non-believer.” said Lucinda.

This surprised Magdiel; and she wondered just how many non-believers there were, working at the Palace.

“Felicia was my assistant once.” Lucinda continued. “And she mentioned that she was responsible for distributing the letters to the poppies, whenever anyone wrote to them-”

“But the letters are still scrutinized, aren’t they?”

“That’s what I’m trying to say!” said Lucinda, excitedly. “Maybe Felicia can find a way to get your letters in and out of the Palace without any of the officials reading them!”

“I don’t know, Lucinda. It sounds too risky. If me and Raj’s personal letters fall into the wrong hands…”

“Come on Magdiel. Just try talking to Felicia first. Maybe she has more control over the flow of the letters than you think.”

Magdiel shook her head. “Maybe it’s best if I wait until I return home to talk to Raj.”

Lucinda paused and looked at Magdiel seriously. “Do you really want to wait that long?”

“Of course not. But I will, if I have to.”

Lucinda sighed. “Alright. But just promise me that you’ll think about it.”

She pinched Magdiel’s cheek playfully, like she had done many times before; though this time, Magdiel felt a little uncomfortable- for their kiss immediately came back to her mind.

“Sure. I’ll think about it.” Magdiel lied, rising to go over to her own bed. She felt that sending letters to Raj was just not worth risking their lives.

“Oh, and Magdiel.” Lucinda said, after Magdiel had settled into her own bed. “About the kiss…Thanks.”

Magdiel felt herself blush. “No problem.” She said awkwardly.

Lucinda smiled and blew out the lights.

Chapter 26

The Question

“ Ms. Andalf,” said Choy, in front of the entire class- though he was careful to avoid looking at her. “you have been transferred to the other Harun class, starting today.”

“Why?… Sir.” said Magdiel, very taken aback.

Choy cleared his throat and his expression was pained, as if it disgusted him to speak to Magdiel. “Well, now that we have Ms. Reynolds with us,” he said, gesturing towards Lucinda at the back of the room “the other class could use an extra person- to even things out.”

Magdiel did not see how this made any sense. Why hadn’t he just left Lucinda in the class that she was in?

However, Magdiel did not protest. She quietly got up from her seat and made her way down the centre aisle, towards the door. Lucinda gave her a sympathetic look as she passed by, and Magidel shook her head slightly, to let her know that she was not bothered. Magdiel knew that Choy only moved her so that he would not have to see her anymore- and Magdiel did not mind in the least. She felt that it might help her to get some peace of mind; for every time that she saw Choy, the memories of Alicia’s murder became even more powerful.

Out in the hallway, Magdiel contemplated what she should do. Her assistant would not be back for her until the next two hours, because there was no way for the assistant to know that she had been kicked out of class; and Magdiel had no idea where the other Harun class was being held. Also, there was no one in sight to ask for directions, except for the hallway guards- but they forbidden to converse with the poppies; and Magdiel would not dream of returning inside to ask Choy for directions.

Magdiel finally decided to try to make her way to the assistants’ quarters. She had once overheard an assistant telling Alicia that they all lived three floors below- in the dungeons. Maybe she could find her assistant there. Magdiel did not feel like returning to her room; for her mind always became her worst enemy when she was alone.

Magdiel made it down two flights of stairs, with no sight of anyone; but the stairs seemed to end on this last floor. It was the entrance hall of the Palace, where Magdiel had come on her first day. Magdiel wondered whether she had heard the assistant correctly about the location of their living quarters; because, looking around, there were no more stairs in sight to descend.

Magdiel noticed that the hallway guards that she had passed along the way had all seemed to look at her crossly, but even moreso those on this floor. Maybe they thought that she was trying to leave the Palace Magdiel wondered. Then just as she attempted to go through one of the arches leading off of the entrance hall, in search of another set of stairs, the guards on either side suddenly touched their swords together, blocking her path.

Magdiel hopped back, in fright.

“I’m trying to find my assistant!” she said to them, angrily.

But the guards did not so much as look at her. They kept their gazes straight ahead, their expressions stern and held their position.

Magdiel turned to the other archways and saw that they were guarded as well, and knew that it would be futile to try to get through. She, therefore, turned and went straightway back up the stairs, deciding that her only choice was to wait for her assistant in her room.

When Magdiel came to the landing at the top of the first flight of stairs, she was accosted by an assistant.

“What are you doing down here!?” she shouted at Magdiel. “You shouldn’t be walking around unassisted! If anyone from the royal family sees you…”

The assistant paused, wide-eyed, as she tried to find the words to finish her statement. She then suddenly frowned at Magdiel, as she came to a realization.

“Shouldn’t you be in Harun class, Young Lady?”

“I was.” Said Magdiel. “But I was asked to transfer to the other Harun class, and I have no idea where that is. And so I was looking for my assistant-”

“Fine! I’ll take you to her.” the assistant said, hastily. “But don’t let this happen again. Contestants are by no means to wander around the Palace, alone. You are not to be around the royals. Ever!”

Magdiel nodded, feeling annoyed at how much the assistant was reiterating the point.

“And you’ve got to walk swiftly.” the assistant continued. “I’m very busy at the moment.”

Magdiel followed the assistant through an archway behind the staircase, and there was the third, and very long, flight of stairs. They descended onto a very narrow and dull-looking passageway- with simple grey walls and floors- lined with many doors on either wall.

“What’s your assistant’s name?” The assistant asked Magdiel, after they had walked a little way up the passagway.

“I don’t remember.” said Magdiel. “But I should recognize her if I saw her. She has dark hair, slender, around middle-age…”

“Many of us fit that description!” the assistant snapped. “Aright, here’s what you’ll do. Go straight down the hall, through the last door on the right. That’s the lounge. She might be there. If not, you can ask around. I have to go.”

The assistant walked off in the direction that they had just come, and Magdiel made her way alone up the passageway. She stopped at the first open door that she encuntered- through which came racous laughter and chatter. Magdiel peered inside and saw that it was a tiny, but very neat and clean, bedroom; with two beds- on which were gathered a small group of about six or seven assistants.

“… and that poppy with the huge breasts…” said one of the assistants loudly, extending both hands far in front of her to illustrate the breast size.

Magdiel noted the assistant’s use of the informal term, ‘poppy’; though the assistants were always careful to refer to them as contestants whenever they were in their presence, and even punished poppies for saying it.

“I think her name is Julia.” said another assistant.

“Yeah, that’s the one.” said the first assistant. ‘I can’t stand her! She’s always complaining about something. If I have my way, I’ll make sure that she never makes it to the top fifty.”

“How?” asked another assistant, cackling.

“ There’re so many ways.” said the first assistant. “Fill her up with demerits, give her extra food so she gets fat, or even burst out a few strands while I’m combing her hair- because Harun would never want that nag for a wife!”

At that, all of the assistants were laughing so hard that two fell off of the bed.

“I do that to poppies I don’t like all the time.” said one of the assistants on the floor, holding her stomach.

After the laughing finally died down, an assistant said “But seriously, who do you guys think is going to win this year?”

“That’s easy!” exclaimed the first assistant. “Choy’s poppy of course.”

“Yeah, she’s a rare beauty.” one of them said; and the others agreed.

“But you know that makes her a target, right?” the first assistant said more seriously. “Remember what happened just last year?”

“Of course.” answered another assistant. “All of the top ten contestants died mysteriously.”

She had said the word ‘mysteriously’ with great emphasis; and it was not hard for Magdiel to understand what she meant. The poppies’ deaths were not mysterious at all. They had all been murdered.

Magdiel was listening to the assistants’ conversation so intently that she did not notice someone approach her, until she heard the loud clearing of throat close to her ears. Magdiel jumped high into the air, before turning around to face a furious- looking assistant.

“You had better have a good reason for snooping around down here!” the assistant said, with her nostrils flaring.

For a few seconds, Magdiel forgot her reason for being in the assistants’ hallway; and just stood there staring at the angry assistant. Then, after recovering from the shock, she remembered.

“I-I came to see my assistant.”

“Why couldn’t you just wait for her in your quarters?” demanded the assistant. “Contestants are not supposed to be down here!”

“I-I know” said Magdiel, looking around at the faces glaring at her; for the chattering assistants had emerged from the bedroom and were now watching Magdiel from the doorway. “B-but you see, I was transferred to another Harun class, and I don’t know where it is.”

“Who showed you where the assistants’ hallway was anyway?” demanded an assistant that had come from the room.

“An assistant that I met upstairs.” Magdiel said quickly.

“Did anyone from the Royal family see you?” demanded another.

Magdiel shook her head vigorously; though she still did not understand the big issue with being seen by the royal family.

“Who is your assistant?” said the assistant that had caught Magdiel.

“I only know her by face.” Magdiel said.

The assistant sighed and said roughly “Come with me.”

They walked swiftly along the passageway, past many more opened bedroom doors, with assistants gathered inside, apparently on break. They finally came to the end, and the assistant opened a set of double doors into a comfortable-looking, medium-sized room, filled with armchairs and lined with books.

There were only a few assistants gathered there, lounging lazily; and Magdiel immediately spotted Felicia, as she was sitting in one of the foremost armchairs, staring into a large book. She looked up just as Magdiel and the assistant were making their way into the room.

At the spur of the moment, Magdiel pointed at Felicia and said. “There she is. That’s my assistant.”

Magdiel lied so that she could get away from the miserable assistant that was escorting her, as soon as possible. She knew that Felicia was nice and would help her.

Felicia looked bewildered, and Magdiel just hoped that she went along with her story. After what seemed like a long time, Felicia finally smiled and said “Oh yes, yes. I am.”

“For a while there, it seemed as if you didn’t remember her.” said the miserable assistant, looking at Felicia sceptically.

Felicia chuckled. “You know how it is Marge. With these daily rotations, it’s hard to keep track. If you asked me which contestant I assisted just yesterday, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

To Magdiel’s surprise, Felicia’s explanation seemed to be enough for Marge, who chuckled also. “Yes, indeed. I know all too well.”

“So you can just leave her with me, thanks.” Felicia said to Marge.

“Sure. But let her know not to wander about the castle next time.” said Marge, suddenly stern again. “You can’t be too soft on these contestants, or they’ll get you into trouble.”

“Yes. I definitely will.” said Felicia. “Thanks Marge.”

At that, Marge turned and left the room.

“I’m so sorry.” said Magdiel, as soon as the door closed behind them.

“ You’re Magdiel Andalf, right?” Felicia whispered, nervously glancing around at the other occupants of the room- who were all sufficiently consumed in their own leisure activities.

Magdiel nodded, surprised that Felicia remembered her name from their first and only brief meeting, over four months ago.

“Choy told me about you.” Lucinda explained.

Magdiel was mortified. She wondered just how much Choy had said. Had he mentioned Alicia’s murder?

Felicia then leaned in closer to Magdiel. “Is something wrong? Can I help you with something?”

“Ah… yes, you can.” said Magdiel, deciding not to question Felicia on her conversation with Choy. “I was kicked out of Choy’s Harun class, and I just wanted to know where the other one was. Can you take me?”

Felicia looked relieved and smiled warmly. “Sure.” she said. “I have a little time.”

As they walked in silence, along the deserted corridors, Magdiel battled with whether or not to ask Felicia about sending letters to Raj- like Lucinda had suggested. Lucinda had been reminding her all week, but Magdiel always had the excuse that she did not see Felicia anywhere around the Palace. But now here she was; and although Magdiel still thought that it was too risky, she felt that there could be no harm in asking, if it would at least get Lucinda off of her back.

Magdiel stared across at Felicia, not sure how to begin. Fortunately for Magdiel, Felicia caught her staring and saved her the trouble of initiating conversation.

“You’re from Galden, right?”

“Yes.” said Magdiel.

“What’s it like there?”

“Ahm… a lot of sea and fishing.”

“Wow.” said Felicia, smiling broadly. “I’ve always wanted to visit the sea. You must miss home a lot, don’t you?”

“Actually…” said Magdiel, seeing a gateway to her question. “it’s more of a someone.”

“A family member?”

“No. It’s… my boyfriend.” Madiel said, deciding that honesty was best in this situation.

“Oh!” said Felicia, in surprise.

“ And I was wondering…” Magdiel continued. “If you could help me to contact him- you know, privately.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.” said Felicia, still appearing to be in shock. “Poppies aren’t allowed to have boyfriends.”

“You sound like my mom.” said Magdiel, crestfallen.

“But she’s right.” said Felicia, incredulously. “It’s extremely risky; not only for you, but for her and all of the other non-believers around you.”

“ I know, I know.” said Magdiel, beginning to feel irritated. She had heard this warning too many times before. “But Raj is more than just some boyfriend. He’s my fiancé- and I just really want to talk to him. Can you help me?”

Felicia continued to look at Magdiel with utter disbelief. “No. I can’t.” she said flatly.

“Why not?” demanded Magdiel. Now that she had finally asked Felicia about it, Magdiel suddenly felt desperate to send the letters to Raj. She did not care anymore about the risks. “I was told that you handle the letters to the poppies.”

“Why not?” repeated Felicia, coming to a halt. “Why not?”

Her face was full of rage; and in that moment, she was unrecognizable as the kind-face, friendly assistant that Magdiel had met upon first entering the Palace. Magdiel had to take a few steps back out of pure shock.

“ Magdiel, my job here at the Palace is no light matter!” Felicia continued. “I am one of several persons in charge of screening all of the mail that enters and leaves this place, and the only non-believer of the bunch. So the non-believers rely on me- and only me- to get their mails through, so that we can collaborate and keep abreast of things. In order for me to do that, I have to meticulously memorize the handwriting of each of the many NB group leaders scattered about the county, so that I can spot these letters and remove them from the pile before anyone else does; because if you haven’t noticed, security here is extremely tight. So I put my life at risk EVERY SINGLE DAY in that mail room, and the lives of countless other non-believers are practically in my hands. SO THAT IS WHY, Magdiel, I am unable to help you send silly love letters to your little boyfriend back home.”

After several seconds of heavy breathing, with Magdeil looking on motionlessly, Felicia finally seemed to take ahold of her anger and added more calmly “Look Magdiel, the non-believers’ movement is obviously not very important to you. But it is what I live for.”

“And Raj is who I live for!” Magdiel snapped, before storming off in the opposite direction.

She was too angry and devastated to attend Harun class anymore. She needed to cool down in her room.

Chapter 27

The Visit

The next few months flew by so gracefully fast that Magdiel hardly noticed them. To Magdiel, rooming with Lucinda was one of the best things that had ever happened to her; because for the first time in her entire life, she was not sad- though she would not necessarily describe herself as being happy. Magdiel did not believe that she would ever be completely happy until she was over the death pageant and finally free with Raj.

But in the meantime, her friendship with Lucinda was quite blissful. The awkwardness about the kiss was completely forgotten and almost every night was like a celebration, in their room. They would stay up late hours into the night talking and laughing until their stomachs hurt. They confided in each other about any and everything – except for Alicia’s murder. Magdiel did not yet trust Lucinda to understand what she had done and not think lower of her because of it.

Still, Magdiel wished that she could share this dark secret with someone else; for maybe that would help to dissolve the persistent guilt that still plagued her.

Another dreary thing on Magdiel’s mind recently was the sudden increase in poppy deaths. Two had died within the past three months alone- one had been poisoned and the other was found in the bathroom with her neck broken just yesterday. Magdiel had not witnessed any of these murders nor had she been anywhere near to the bodies, but they shook her up nonetheless; for she knew that it was only a matter of time before the other poppies tried to kill Lucinda as well- especially since she had finally attained the number one position in the contestants’ ranking (having fully regained her beauty), which was announced last week.

“Magdiel, don’t worry about it so much.” said Lucinda as they both lay in her bed, engaging in their nightly chats.

They had taken to sharing a bed, and then separating in the mornings before the assistants came, for it helped Lucinda to sleep more peacefully. Now, Lucinda did not have those terrible nightmares nearly as often, and had not had one in weeks.

“I can’t.” said Magdiel. “Remember what I overheard those assistants say. The top contestants are targeted every year. And they were fearful for you especially.”

“Yes, I know.” said Lucinda, still sounding very nonchalant. “But Choy is extremely vigilant. He’ll make sure that nothing happens to me.”

Magdiel rolled her eyes. She still despised Choy; and even the mention of his name upset her. Fortunately, they had not had another altercation since the day that he kicked her out of his Harun class; and they both always avoided looking at each other during dinner time.

“Choy is only human.” said Magdiel, propping herself up on her elbow to look at Lucinda seriously. “He can’t be everywhere at all times and he can’t see everything.”

“Ok, so what do you want me to do Magdiel?” said Lucinda, sounding a little exasperated. “Because worrying won’t solve anything.”

Magdiel did not quite have an answer. There was nothing that Lucinda could really do to keep safe that she was not already doing. She did not have any sort of relationship with the other poppies, so Magdiel did not need to tell her not to trust any of them. And Lucinda did not go anywhere in the Palace without being accompanied by her assistant or Choy.

Magdiel laid back against the pillow and sighed deeply. “I don’t know. Just be careful, I guess…I don’t want you dead…yet.” Magdiel added, remembering that Lucinda still planned to fulfil the non-believers’ plan.

This last thought caused tears to form in Magdiel’s eyes, and she turned her head away quickly. Now that she had gotten so close to Lucinda, and grew to care about her so deeply, the thought of her dying at the end of the pageant was difficult for Magdiel to think about. She wished that there was some way to talk Lucinda out of it; so that they could both leave the Palace free at last, and possibly remain friends on the outside. But Magdiel dared not try to dissuade Lucinda again, in case an argument erupted- like on the second night that Lucinda had moved in- and changed their happy friendship.

Lucinda, seemingly aware of Magdiel’s thoughts, immediately placed her hand over Magdiel’s and squeezed tightly.

After a few moments of mournful silence, Lucinda finally spoke in what was apparently meant to be a cheerful tone. “We’d better get some sleep. Big day tomorrow, remember?”

Magdiel nodded. She had not forgotten in the least that tomorrow was the second visiting day at the Palace; and had been seriously dreading it for the past two weeks. Magdiel had a very strong feeling that her mother was going to come this time, and she was still not willing to see her.

Lucinda leaned over and blew out the candle on the night stand before settling in under the covers. Magdiel crawled under as well, closed her eyes and tried her best not to imagine Raj’s handsome face greeting her in the courtyard the next day; for her hopes always led to misery. For that reason, Magdiel had tried very hard for these past months not to talk or think about him, and had accepted the fact that they would not be able to speak to each other before she returned home- since Felicia had so strongly refused to help. Magdiel had nursed some bitterness towards the young assistant ever since.

Magdiel stood in the middle of the palace courtyard shivering profusely- partly because of the cold and damp March air, but more so because of whom she was looking at. There, just a few yards in front of her, sitting on a stone bench next to her mother, was a stunning young man with shoulder–length, white-blonde hair.

“R-Raj?” Magdiel whispered to herself, still frozen to the spot. She could not fully grasp what her eyes were seeing, and so her body did not quite know how to respond.

Raj’s head was turning in all directions about the courtyard, searching through the large crowd. Then he finally spotted her. Raj placed his hand upon his chest, as if to steady his heart, before making his way over to Magdiel- half running, half walking.

Raj halted about an arm’s length away, and the both of them stood there, in the centre of the courtyard, staring awestruck at each other. Raj looked even more handsome than Magdiel remembered, and slightly more mature- in a crisp, brown suit that Magdiel had never seen him in.

To Magdiel, all of the noise and chatter around them seemed to have muted under the loud thumping of her heart.

Raj was breathing heavily, and seemed hesitant to move closer; so Magdiel edged towards him. Raj raised a slightly trembling hand to her face; and Magdiel immediately placed her hand upon his and pressed it deeper into her skin, savouring his touch that she had missed so much. He’s real! She thought; and in that instant, all of her emotions seemed to have melted as the tears came pouring down, hot and fast.

“H-h-how are you here?” Magdiel managed to say through deep, heavy breaths.

But before Raj could answer, Agatha suddenly appeared from behind of him and hastily removed Raj’s hand from Magdiel’s face.

“People are watching!” she whispered sharply to the both of them, glancing around nervously.

Indeed, a few persons directly next to them were looking at Raj and Magdiel, curiously.

“I don’t care.” said Magdiel.

A careless defiance had come over her, and all she wanted to do was entwine herself in Raj’s arms and to never let go- no matter who saw them.

“Well I care!” Agatha hissed.

Then next thing Magdiel knew, she was being whisked across the courtyard by her mother. Magdiel followed along in a sort of dazed silence, having not fully recovered from the shock of Raj’s presence.

There was much less of a crowd at the back of the courtyard, since the strong winds blowing in from the vast valley beyond made the area significantly chillier. Still, there were a few kings guards lined up close by.

When they arrived at an empty stone bench, Agatha finally released her firm grip on Magdiel’s hand. Magdiel turned around and breathed a shaky sigh of relief when she saw Raj just behind her. He was still here! She had not imagined him.

Raj took a hold of both of Magdidel’s hands and squeezed tightly.

“Listen you two.” said Agatha, her tone firm. “You are supposed to be acting like cousins.”

“I remember, Mrs. Andalf.” said Raj, his intense gaze never leaving Magdiel’s face. “But do you think that you could give us a moment to speak alone?”

“Absolutely not!” said Agatha. “It would look much too suspicious if you two are seen crouched up alone.”

“Mom-” Magdiel began, spinning around angrily.

But Raj quickly interjected. “She’s right Magdiel. I don’t want to do anything that will put you in danger.”

“Why don’t the three of us just sit here on this bench.” said Agatha, gesturing towards the stone beach behind them. “You two can sit next to each other and talk.”

Magdiel did not like the idea of her mother being able to hear her and Raj’s conversation; but she knew that, at the moment, there was no other choice.

“I wasn’t planning to visit you while at the Palace.” said Raj, once they were seated. “Because I knew that it might be hard on the both of us.” He paused for a moment, as if trying to compose himself. “But I just had to see you.” He continued, in a strangely raspy voice. “I missed you so much Magdiel.”

The tears came pouring from Magdiel’s eyes again, and it was difficult for her to speak. “I missed… you too Raj… every day.” She leaned in to give Raj a hug, but Agatha suddenly cleared her throat very loudly, and Magdiel reluctantly refrained herself.

Raj and Magdiel sat silently for a while, not quite sure how to proceed under Agatha’s and the kings guards’ surveillance.

“It was actually your mom’s idea for me to come.” said Raj, finally. “She thought that I might cheer you up.”

Magdiel looked down on her lap, instead of at her mother. She did not know what to make of this unusual gesture of hers. Did her mother now approve of her and Raj’s relationship? Was she finally accepting that Magdiel did not want to be a part of the non-believers’ movement? But Agatha said nothing.

Raj mercifully broke the silence.

“Tell me how you’ve been Mags?” He demanded. “Are you alright here at the Palace? I want to know everything.”

Magdiel slowly raised her gaze back to Raj. She did not know how to tell him the thing that was heaviest on her heart; especially with her mother and the kings guards close by. But Magdiel knew that she needed to tell him. She needed to get it off of her chest and to hear Raj’s comforting, wise words.

“I… I” Magdiel paused. It was harder than she thought.

“What is it Mags?” said Raj, looking fiercely concerned. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

Magdiel nodded. Of course she knew that she could tell Raj anything. He was her greatest confident, and would understand her completely. Her hesitation was out of shame; for verbalizing what she had done would confirm the evil that she was.

Magdiel took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I killed someone.” she said, in a barely audible whisper.

Raj was expressionless; and it was Agatha who spoke first. “What!” she said, looking at Magdiel wildly.

Magdiel quickly averted her eyes and said nothing. It was hard enough saying it the first time. Agatha then got up and squeezed herself between Magdiel and Raj.

“Oh sweetie, what happened?” she said, caressing Magdiel’s face with her hands.

Magdiel stiffened under her mother’s touch, but did not pull away. “I’d rather talk to Raj about it.” she said softly, still not looking at Agatha.

“Magdiel, I’m your mother!” said Agatha, hysterically. “I need to know if you’re in trouble.”

At that, Magdiel felt a sudden pang of anger; for it was her mother’s fault that she was in any sort of trouble in the first place. She was the reason that she was a poppy. But Magdiel decided not to express that. Not today. Not after she had brought Raj to see her.

“I just want to talk to Raj.” Magdiel repeated.

Magdiel did not look to see her mother’s expression; but Agatha slowly let go of her, and Magdiel felt her gaze continue to linger on her face.

“Alright.” Agatha finally said, stuffily. “I’ll take a short walk around the courtyard… You two just remember not to get too close.” She then got up and left.

“What happened Magdiel?” Raj said calmy, as soon as Agatha was a few steps away.

Magdiel explained as best she could, through her heavy tears, how Alicia had suspected her of being a non-believer and threatened to inform on her if she did not hurt another contestant; and how, in desperation, she had pressured Choy into killing her.

By the time Magdiel had finished, she was sobbing so bitterly, that her entire body seemed to be convulsing.

“Listen to me Magdiel.” Raj said firmly, holding her by the shoulders to steady her. “You are not a murderer.” He was side-eyeing one of the kings guards, who seemed to have ebbed closer after Magdiel had started crying a little too loudly.

“Yes… I… am” said Magdiel between sobs. “She was just a girl.”

“She was a girl that could have caused a lot of people to die; including you.”

“But it was my big mouth that put them at risk in the first place. I was the one that made her suspicious.”

Raj’s face was now tensed, and his blue eyes were staring intently into hers. Magdiel knew that Raj hated to see her in distress, and would not rest until he felt that he had sufficiently put her mind was at ease. Unfortunately, Magdiel knew that this meant that his comforting words were not always objective; but sometimes just meant to make her feel better. Still, she longed for them all the same.

“We all make mistakes Mags; and you did what you had to do to correct it.” Raj said firmly. “You had no other choice. Who knows what else she would have wanted you to do. Maybe even kill another poppy so that she could get ahead in the competition. Then in the end, she would have still reported you.”

Although Magdiel had thought up these excuses numerous times before, it felt much better hearing them from someone else- from Raj; and her sobbing started to die down.

“I know that it’s hard for you to see right now.” Raj continued. “But you did the right thing. You saved a lot of people by getting rid of her. And I don’t want you to dwell on it, alright?”

Magdiel nodded, wiping her eyes with her lace handkerchief, whilst trying to bring her breathing back to normal. She wanted nothing more at the moment than to collapse into Raj’s arms and feel his strong, warm embrace- that had been her main source of security for so many years; and to inhale the familiar, fresh, woody scent of his skin. But here, amongst these believers, Magdiel had to settle for a brief holding of hands.

Agatha returned soon after, and spent the remainder of the two-hour long visit sitting next to them in silence; while Magdiel filled Raj in on all of the happenings in the Palace that she could think of; including: her friendship with Lucinda, her hostile relationship with Choy, and the mean attitude of the assistants. She even told Raj about her altercations with the blonde twins, Suzette and Josette, who continued to provoke Magdiel every time that they saw her.

When it was time to leave, Magdiel held on tight to Raj’s hand and did not want to let go. Agatha had to rip their hands apart when the kings guards were not watching.

“Control yourself Magdiel!” Agatha said, looking around petrified at the dispersing crowd.

Luckily, the poppies were too busy saying goodbye to their own loved ones to notice Magdiel’s hysterical behaviour; and the kings guards were already making their way to the front of the courtyard to direct the guests out.

“Just breathe.” Agatha continued, holding Magdiel around the shoulders.

But her words did nothing to calm Magdiel down. It was complete torture to leave Raj again, and she fought hard against her mother’s restraint. Freeing himself from Magdiel’s clutch, Raj turned quickly and walked away, without saying goodbye. He seemed unable to bear seeing Magdiel in such agony.

“You’ve got to be strong, sweetie.” Agatha cried. “It’ll all be over soon; and you’ll see Raj again.”

Magdiel composed herself enough to look at Agatha in bewilderment. She found it strange that her mother was encouraging her to come home and be with Raj, instead of going along with the non-believers’ plan.

Agatha seemed to have read Magdiel’s mind. “Like I said in my letter, it’s all up to you, Magdiel. I’ll support you in whatever you choose- I love you…Maybe your father and I did make a mistake by not maiming you at birth, but we never meant to hurt you. We just didn’t know what to do. We were young and scared. You’ve got to believe me.”

Agatha then gently caressed Magdiel’s wet cheeks, as Magdiel stood still and in shock. Her mother had never before admitted to being wrong about making her a poppy.

“I’ve missed you.” Agatha continued. “Maybe you could allow me to write to you sometimes?”

Agatha was looking at Magdiel pleadingly, awaiting her response; but Magdiel’s emotions were all over the place at the moment.

“ I- I can’t.” Magdiel finally said, removing her mother’s hands from her face. “I just can’t.”

She then ran off towards the Palace building, leaving Agatha sobbing behind.

Chapter 28

Goodbye

I wish that my sorrow was something I could touch;

Something I could see, and not just feel.

Then it could no longer hurt me

Because I’d cut it out from inside of me

And bury it in the deepest sea.

Oh sorrow, what is it that makes you cling to me?

Slowly killing me.

I can hardly see my hands in front of me;

Because I’m blinded by these tears you bring; you see?

Please say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Please say goodbye.

Magdiel woke up with these lyrics still in her head. Lucinda had sung them all throughout the night, until they had both finally fallen asleep. Her voice was beautifully low and husky, and the melody was slow and mournful to match how they were both feeling.

Magdiel’s sorrow was from saying goodbye to Raj the day before, which was much harder than missing him over the past months; for it made the pain fresh again. Now, Magdiel felt that she had to begin healing all over again, and she wished that Raj had not come to visit at all.

That was something else for Magdiel to blame her mother for. Magdiel felt that, although Agatha’s intentions may have been good for bringing Raj along, and even for not maiming her as a baby, she always seemed to mess things up. Her mother had made too many mistakes that had cost her dearly. How could she forgive someone like that? Magdiel thought, remembering Agatha’s plea just before she left the courtyard. Almost as far back as Magdiel could remember, all that she had ever felt for her mother was hatred; and she did not know how to stop.

However, Magdiel knew that Lucinda’s pain took precedence over hers. Yesterday was the final visiting day before the pageant, and Lucinda had said goodbye to her father for the very last time. If she was successful in fulfilling the non-believers’ plan – like they both hoped that she would be- they would never see each other again.

Last night, Lucinda’s cries had been so bitter and heart wrenching that Magdiel quickly forgot about herself, and tried to comfort her as best she could. But in the end, it was Lucinda who comforted them both with that song. It seemed that Lucinda had made it up herself, and Magdiel had clung to every word- reliving her years of misery.

Magdiel now turned on the bed and felt Lucinda beside her. It was still dark, but Magdiel could tell that it was morning because of the orange tinge of the window curtains, from the rising sun.

“Lucinda, wake up.” Magdiel croaked, groggily. “It’s time to go over to your bed. The assistants will be here soon…Lucinda?”

Magdiel gave Lucinda a slight nudge. “Lucinda, did you hear what I said?”

But still, Lucinda did not budge. Magdiel was mildly surprised by this; because normally, Lucinda was awoken fairly easily. She was lying with her back to Magdiel. Magdiel quickly turned her over.

“Lucin-”

Lucinda’s face was ice cold. The cold seemed to run through Magdiel’s entire body and she froze, with her hands still on Lucinda’s face.

After a minute or two of being immobilized, the realization finally hit Magdiel hard. Lucinda was… dead.

Magdiel let out a deafening, high-pitched screech and did not stop. She was still screaming at the top of her lungs when bewildered assistants rushed into the room, along with several curious poppies; and she continued even while some persons pried her off of the bed, dragged her into the bathroom and doused her face with cold water.

Magdiel then felt herself being placed to lie on the wet, cold bathroom floor. She looked up at the group of nervous-looking faces that formed somewhat of a circle around her- a mixture of eunuchs and assistants, who all had to shout in order to make their voices audible over her screams.

“I think we need to take her to the nurses’ room.” said a small assistant, in a shaky voice.

“Yes. She’s lost it.” said another.

The next thing Magdiel knew, she was being lifted up and carried back out into the bedroom. There was now a large crowd of poppies, assistants and eunuchs gathered there, around Magdiel’s bed, where Lucinda laid. They all turned their heads to look at Magdiel, who was still screaming madly. Magdiel squeezed her eyes shut as she passed by. Seeing Lucinda’s lifeless body would confirm that she was really dead; and Magdiel could not accept that. Lucinda just could not be dead. Not yet. Not like this.

In the nurses’ room, which was just at the end of the poppy hallway, Magdiel was set down upon a bed. She thrashed violently against the persons holding her, until they tied her hands and feet to the iron bars surrounding the bed. A nurse then squeezed Magdiel’s mouth open and drained some liquid down her throat. It was bitter and it burned. Magdiel choked, and then began to scream even louder. But within a short while: her vision became hazy, her body weakened, and everything went black.

Chapter 29

Unexpected Helper

Magdiel’s eyelids felt extraordinarily heavy, so that she had some difficulty opening them. When she eventually pried her eyes open, she was instantly blinded by the bright sunlight shining against the brilliant white of the unfamiliar room that she was in.

Magdiel panicked and tried to sit up, but realized that her hands and feet were bound. Then she remembered. She was in the nurses’ room and Lucinda was dead. This recollection struck Magdiel so hard that her entire body went limp against the bed. She quickly shut her eyes again and forced herself back to sleep. Magdiel did not want to feel the terrible grief that she knew would come. Not yet.

Magdiel felt something wet on her face. She flicked open her eyes and found a nurse standing at her bedside, wiping her brows with a damp cloth. She was still in the nurses’ room, but it was much darker now that the sun was setting.

“How are you, dear?” the nurse said gently.

Magdiel did not respond. She merely stared blankly up at the middle-aged woman.

The nurse gave a small smile. “You must be starving.” she said. “I have some porridge right here for you.”

Magdiel’s eyes followed the nurse as she reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a small, glass bowl. She lifted a spoonful of the porridge to Magdiel’s mouth, but Magdiel would not open.

The nurse did not look the least bit surprised or upset. She continued to smile gently and returned the bowl back to the table.

“You’re still in shock, that’s all.” the nurse said. “It’s never easy witnessing a death; especially that of someone you were accustomed to seeing. But it shall pass-”

The nurse abruptly ended her speech, for Magdiel had suddenly squeezed her eyes shut, and began to breathe heavily. Magdiel did not want to hear this. Not from this nurse, who knew nothing about her and Lucinda’s relationship. She had no idea what Magdiel was going through. How dare she!

“Okay. Alright, alright…” The nurse said calmly, until Magdiel’s breathing returned to normal. She then reached for the leather strap that bound Magdiel’s hand closest to her. “How about I take these off of you?”

“There.” she said, a few minutes later, after she had unbounded Magdiel’s hands and feet. “That feels much better, doesn’t it?”

Still, Magdiel said nothing, and the nurse shook her head sympathetically.

Magdiel was back in her own room by the following night. The nurses had said that she was now calm enough, and had begun to eat some of the porridge that was fed to her. Still, as a measure of precaution, they advised the assistants not to let Magdiel participate in any: pageant training, classes or intense beauty regimes for the remainder of the week.

During her time in the nurses’ room, Magdiel had been surrounded by persons for most of her waking hours. She was therefore sufficiently distracted, and had not broken down once.

But now, all by herself in the room that she and Lucinda had shared, Magdiel felt the full impact of her loss. Magdiel had grown to need Lucinda just as much as Lucinda had needed her; and she did not see how she would be able to pass the remaining months at the Palace without her.

The grief was so overwhelming that it caused Magdiel’s body to twitch upon the floor, on which she laid- at first slightly and insignificantly, then violently and uncontrollably. To try to stop it, Magdiel folded herself into a ball, with her knees pulled tightly to her chest; but it was to no avail. Every passing second was agony, and she felt her mind being pulled to a dark place of: utter despair, hopelessness and fear.

Magdiel’s body was moving so rapidly that it caused a buzzing in her head; so that Magdiel did not hear the bedroom door open and someone walk in. She only became aware of the person’s presence when she felt herself being lifted off of the floor by a pair of strong arms. She was being carried towards her bed.

“No!” Magdiel shouted, frantically. “Not there!”

She could not bear to go near the beds that she and Lucinda had slept in; and especially not the one that Lucinda had died in.

The person paused, and Magdiel felt herself being lowered gently back onto the floor. She was still twitching - now out of fear- and she kept her eyes determinedly closed. Who was it? She wondered. And were they there to kill her too?

Then surprisingly, Magdiel felt the person lie down next to her, and enclose their arms around her.

“It’s alright, Magdiel.” said a deep, course voice. “Just sleep.”

Almost immediately, Magdiel stopped twitching and relaxed against the warm body. It was Choy.

Chapter 30

True Motives

“Why are you on the floor?” Magdiel’s assistant said sharply.

Magdiel opened her eyes fully, and realized that it was morning, and that Choy was no longer beside her.

“You need to sleep on something soft.” The assistant continued. “The hard floor will cause bruises on your skin…”

Magdiel did not hear much else of what the assistant was saying, though she was looking right at her. She was trying to figure out if Choy had really come into her room the night before, or if she had only dreamt it.

To Magdiel’s surprise, Choy returned that very night, and every night for the remainder of the week. Magdiel found that she could not sleep until he came, and the moments before were always torturous. Sometimes Magdiel felt as if the pain of the grief would overcome her, and she would begin to twitch, even in front of the assistants- who always nervously held their distance until she stopped.

But she never twitched when Choy was there. Something about his presence comforted her. Maybe it was because Magdiel knew that he was the only one who could understand how she was feeling, since he too was close to Lucinda- being her trainer. Maybe that was the reason Choy came- he was hurting and needed comforting too. Magdiel found Choy’s motive to be a troubling mystery, for she had thought that he hated her. Still, Magdiel had not asked him, because they never spoke during these nightly visits.

However, tonight, Magdiel needed to ask what she had not been strong enough to ask before. She gently shifted out of Choy’s arms and turned to face him. She could not see his face clearly, for there was no light in the room; but she felt his hot breath upon her face.

He spoke first. “I thought you were asleep.”

“How did Lucinda die?” Magdiel blurted out, ignoring Choy’s statement.

There was silence; and for a moment, Magdiel wished that she could take the question back. She was not so sure anymore that she wanted to know; for whatever the cause, Lucinda’s death would still seem premature and pointless. Also, Magdiel feared that knowing the facts might unsettle her even more.

“The nurses say that it’s likely she was poisoned.” Choy finally said.

Magdiel’s heart seemed to drop into the pit of her stomach. Choy placed his arms back around her, as if he feared that she would start to twitch again. But Magdiel was not going to twitch; for at that moment, she did not feel grief, nor fear- just plain fury.

“How?” Magdiel said, her voice gritty.

“Someone must have placed it in her dinner the night she died.” Choy said, still holding on to Magdiel. “It normally takes only a few hours for the common poison to take effect. So she couldn’t have consumed it during breakfast or lunch, for she looked fine that eve-”

“It had to have been one of the poppies.” said Magdiel, breathing heavily. “They were all jealous of her.”

“ I believe so too.” said Choy. “Though I’m not certain how they got their hands on the poison. It’s not like there’s any just lying around in the Palace. But the day Lucinda died was visiting day. And so, the poppies’ relatives could have snuck some in, if they concealed it well enough. Then, from there, it would have been easy to sneak it into Lucinda’s food or drink. Maybe bump into her assistant as she passed by with the tray. Or it could have even been someone at her very table that slipped it in while she wasn’t looking- it has happened numerous times bef-”

Choy stopped short, and Magdiel waited in silence. She knew that he was thinking the same think as she was.

“That’s why I should have protected her better.” Choy said, after a few seconds. “I know what these poppies are capable of.”

“Yes. You should have!” Magdiel spat. “Lucinda trusted you to keep her safe!”

“ I know.” Choy said, in an uncommonly weak voice. “I thought that I was doing everything I could. Between Felicia and me, we made sure that we knew where she was at all times, and I even kept guard outside the bedroom door at nights- while you two were asleep. I also made sure that I kept track of all of her assistants, and told them to pay careful attention to her meals, never letting her plate out of their sight; because I knew she would be the main target. But… somehow, someone got through…” Choy’s voice trembled slightly. “I just feel so...”

Magdiel’s anger softened towards Choy. It was one thing to lose someone that you cared about; but it must be so much worse to feel responsible for it.

“You’re only human.” Magdiel said, softly. “There’s probably nothing more that you could’ve done.”

Choy scoffed. “Thanks… But I know better.”

Magdiel did not try to convince him any further; for that was exactly how she still felt about Alicia’s death- like there was some alternative to killing her that she should have thought through and explored.

They laid there on the floor, in silence, for what seemed like a long time; with Magdiel trying to come up with ways to find the poppy or poppies that poisoned Lucinda, so that she could avenge her friend.

Then, as if he had read Magdiel’s mind, Choy said “It makes no sense trying to figure out who did it. Trust me, it’s almost impossible. And even if you did have an idea of who did it, you’d have to convince most of the assistants and eunuchs, as well as the pageant coordinator. And she’s not very willing to get rid of a perfectly good poppy unnecessarily. It’s not good for the pageant.”

Magdiel looked up at where she knew Choy’s face was. “I can’t just let them get away with it. Like Lucinda’s life meant nothing!”

“I understand the need for revenge, but that’s not the way to go about it.”

“Then what is?” demanded Magdiel.

Choy took a few seconds, then said “What was Lucinda’s main purpose for living?”

Magdiel did not have to think about it. “To help the non-believers.” She said right away.

“How?”

“You know how.” Said Magdiel.

“Just say it.” Choy said, his tone coarse again.

“By fulfilling the non-believers’ plan.”

“Right.” said Choy. “So if you want to give Lucinda’s death meaning, don’t let the plan fail?”

“What do you mean?” said Magdiel, bewildered.

“You’re the only non-believer left in this competition, Magdiel. Only you can finish what Lucinda started.”

Realization finally hit Magdiel and her anger returned instantly, and in full force.

“So that’s why you’re here!” she said, pushing Choy away forcefully. “To try and persuade me to join your plan!”

Choy did not answer. Magdiel bolted upright to look down at him.

“I was actually beginning to think that you had a little decency in you. And that you genuinely wanted to comfort me. But you’re nothing but a heartless opportunist!”

I’m heartless?” said Choy, sitting up also. “You’re the one who hears of innocent people dying almost every day, in the crudest manner- all because of some mythical god- and won’t lift a finger to help. My heart bleeds every single day because of them. So forgive me for seeking every opportunity that I can to help-”

“It-is-not-my-responsibility!” said Magdiel, through gritted teeth. “You fight for what you believe in, and I’ll fight what I believe in.”

“And what’s that? Prancing around with your little boyfriend back home?”

Magdiel glared at Choy; feeling as if she could strangle him.

“That’s right.” Choy continued. “Mr. Caldwell told me how much trouble your mother was having trying to keep you and him apart.”

Magdiel could not believe that her mother confided in Mr. Caldwell about her.

“Get out!” Magdiel said fiercely.

“I said to leave!” Magdiel repeated, for Choy had not moved.

At that, Choy slowly got up off of the floor and made his way towards the door.

In her anger, Magdiel could not help but to shout after him. “If you want someone for your plan so much, why don’t you tell Felicia to fix her bent up nose!”

Choy did not respond; and Magdiel heard the door open and close behind him.

Chapter 31

Severed

Over next week, Magdiel hardly slept and was once again getting demerits for her poor physical appearance and performance.

Lucinda’s death seemed to have completely vanished from the assistants’ mind, and so they were very unsympathetic towards Magdiel, and expected her to function as normal in her: classes, training and beauty regimes- which Magdiel found impossible to do, since Lucinda’s death was all that she could think about.

As much as Magdiel hated to admit it, she missed Choy. She would even dare to say that she needed him. His presence kept her sane.

It was now late at night, and Magdiel lay twitching on the bedroom floor. She was clutching her knees and fighting hard to keep her mind from going to that dark place she feared, for it was not certain that she would return.

Then, Magdiel thought that she heard the bedroom door open, and instantly froze. She could now clearly hear swift footsteps across the floor, coming towards her. Magdiel breathed a sigh of relief. Choy was back.

After a few minutes of being cuddled in Choy’s arms, Magdiel was finally calm enough to speak.

“ I- I didn’t think that you would ever come back.” she said softly.

“I guess I have a heart after all.” said Choy.

Choy returned night after night to keep Magdiel’s company, and Magdiel was beginning to feel guilty for taking up so much of his time. She was also beginning to feel angry with herself for being so weak as to crave these visits.

They still did not speak much. Nonetheless, as the days passed, Magdiel began to feel more and more comfortable around Choy- to the point where she felt that she could ask him something that she had been dying to know ever since she was a child. She had heard it from some of the villagers in Galden and wanted to know for certain.

“Choy?” she said softly.

“Hmm.”

“Is it true-” Magdiel stopped herself, wondering whether the question was too personal after all.

“What is it?” said Choy.

“Well… Is it true that Eunuchs have to be castrated?”

Magdiel was glad that it was dark, for she did not want to see the expression on Choy’s face.

A few tense seconds passed before Choy finally cleared his throat and said “Not all of them.”

Magdiel had half-expected Choy to get defensive and refuse to answer her question. But since he had, she could not help but to dig further.

“Were you castrated?”

Again, silent seconds passed; and Magdiel suspected that Choy was deciding whether or not to answer.

“Yes.” he finally muttered.

Magdiel was so shocked by his answer that she let out an involuntary gasp. Then she quickly put her hand over her mouth, feeling ashamed of herself.

“Why?” said Magdiel, after a moment of awkward silence.

“All pageant eunuchs have to be castrated.” Said Choy. “It’s the king’s way of ensuring that we are not tempted by the contestants that we are around all of the time.”

“I meant, why would you let them do that you?” Magdiel said. “You’re a non-believer. You don’t believe in these things.”

“How else would I have been in the position that I’m in today?” Choy snapped. “And able to help the non-believers? I had to follow the rules!”

Magdiel fell silent. Choy’s bitterness told her that his castration was something that bothered him; and she immediately felt a pang of sympathy for him.

“I’m sorry for asking.” Magdiel said softly.

“Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand.”

“Someone like me?”

“Someone who sees self-sacrifice as something to be shunned.” Choy spat.

“Are we really going to do this again?” said Magdiel, more exasperated than angry.

“You’re the one with the questions.”

“Why are you even here?” said Magdiel. “You obviously despise me.”

“Would you prefer that I leave?”

“That’s not the point!” said Magdiel, now annoyed.

She grunted and turned her back to him. “No one’s forcing you to be here, you know. I can try to manage on my own.”

Choy said nothing for a while, then “You’re right. I don’t like you. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you.”

Magdiel was taken aback by Choy’s honesty. She had thought that being this close over the past few weeks would have dissipated whatever negative feelings he had towards her- like it had done hers.

“You still haven’t forgiven me for causing you to kill Alicia, have you?” said Magdiel.

Choy did not answer right away, and Magdiel knew that she was right.

“It’s not only that.” said Choy. “And it’s not that I hate you. But I just… I have no respect for you.”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t stand for anything.” Choy continued. “It’s either you believe or you don’t; you’re for Harun or you’re against him. I mean, there’s a war going on here in Acus, and you just don’t care to pick a side.”

“I have picked a side!” Magdiel snapped. She turned around to face him again. “The side of freedom!”

“Freedom for whom? No one but yourself!”

Choy’s condescending tone was making Magdiel even angrier, and she had to fight hard not to raise her hand to his face.

“Like I said,” Choy continued, “you’re content to let everyone else do the hard work, while you run around with your little boyfrie-”

Magdiel lost it. “Shut up about my boyfriend already! You don’t know anything about Raj and I. You don’t know anything about relationships at all! I’m sure you’ve never even had a lover- and you never will; because you’re an ill-mannered fanatic with no penis!”

At that, Choy shot up and made his way towards the door.

“Don’t come back this time!” Magdiel shouted after him.

Chapter 32

Shocking Decision

A part of Magdiel wished that she could believe in at least one of the gods of Acus. That way, she could rest assured that an all- powerful being was fighting for her; and that life would eventually work in her favour, so that she could one day finally be happy.

She no longer found much comfort in the prospect of going home to Raj; for there was no way for her to be sure that they would have the life that they had always hoped for. The events of her past showed that there would always be something that would go wrong; something would always steal her joy. From birth, it had been her looks, which made her a poppy. Then here at the Palace, she had not only been forced to commit a murder that she was sure to be forever haunted by, but she had also lost the only friend that she had even known (apart from Raj).

Magdiel quickly shook her head to clear her mind, and tried to focus on praising Harun with her partner. She was in temple worship and the priest was standing closeby.

As Magdiel mumbled off meaningless words, she realized that there was no way that she could bring herself to believe in any of the gods. She knew nothing about most of them really, and Harun had too much going against him- with all of the deaths and pain he caused. Magdiel figured that her argument with Choy a few nights ago must still be getting to her, when he had tried to guilt her into picking a side: believer or non-believer.

But Magdiel was determined not to let him get to her. She squared her shoulders and began to shout even louder, so as not to think about it anymore.

“You’re squeezing my hands too tight.” said Magdiel’s partner, testily.

Magdiel opened her eyes to make a crude remark, but stopped short. She noticed her partner’s incredible brown eyes for the first time, which strongly resembled Lucinda’s. Magdiel immediately felt a sharp pain in her chest, and she could not stop the tears from falling. It was only a few weeks ago that Lucinda had been her worship partner on this very cushion in the corner, where they had shared many surreptitious snickers at the other poppies’ intense facial expressions during worship, and at the temple priest’s silly, sing-song voice.

Magdiel’s partner was looking at her in bewilderment; but the priest, who happened to pass by as Magdiel’s tears turned to convulsing sobs, was greatly pleased.

“Excellent! Excellent!” he exclaimed. “This is the kind of worship that I’ve been looking for. Such dept! Such total surrender!”

Magdiel’s grief transcended throughout the remainder of the day, and her eyes became extremely swollen - to the horror of her assistant- from shedding so many tears. It was as if Lucinda had died all over again.

Then when it was time for bed, Magdiel tried desperately to delay her assistant’s departure, so that she would not be alone; for that was when her mind wandered to that dreadful, dark place.

“I don’t think I feel too well.” Magdiel lied. “Could you please make me a cup of tea?”

Then after she had received and finished her tea, “Could you please oil my skin again? It feels so dry and itchy.”

But the assistant eventually had to go (after snapping at Magdiel in frustration) and Magdiel was left in the dark, on the floor, to face her thoughts.

She felt that she needed some sort of closure, so that she could come to terms with Lucinda’s death. There had not even been a burial, so Magdiel did not know what had been done with the body. Probably discarded, along with her memory she thought, bitterly.

Magdiel could not get over just how abrupt and meaningless Lucinda’s death was, when Lucinda herself had planned for it to change the country’s entire belief system and help future generations of girls. She had sacrificed so much for the non-belivers’ cause: love, friendships and even her own freedom.

And then there was Lucinda’s father. He had risked the life of his only child for nothing.

Magdiel slammed her fist hard against the floor. It just was not fair! Someone had to do something to preserve Lucinda’s memory. Someone had to make sure that her death was not in vain. Someone-

Magdiel’s train of thought halted abruptly as a daunting realization came crashing down upon her. She was the only person that could do anything to right this wrong. She was the only one that could finish what Lucinda had started.

Magdiel shook her head vigorously.

“No, no!” she said out loud.

She was not about to be a part of the non-believers’ plan. Magdiel was horrified that the thought had even crossed her mind. It must be Choy’s lecture from the other night that was still affecting her.

But what about all of the girls that Lucinda wanted to save?

Magdiel shook her head again to fight away the thoughts. She could not be their saviour. She had to get back home tor Raj. He was waiting for her. And if she went through with the plan and was convicted of being a non-believer, Raj’s life would be at risk. Magdiel felt that her loyalty should be to Raj above anyone else, even Lucinda. He had been with her from the very beginning. She owed it to him to come home; and she desperately wanted to return to him also.

Then Magdiel remembered her unlucky past again; and fear engulfed her once more. She just knew that something would eventually thwart her and Raj’s happy ending; and this made Magdiel feel dreadfully hopeless- like there was nothing left to look forward to- like there was no point in even living.

Magdiel began to squeeze her head tightly between the palms of her hands, forcing herself to think more positively. But it only got worse; and her next thought was, what is the best way to die?

The answer came to Magdiel almost immediately.

The next night at dinner, Magdiel hesitated to approach Choy at his regular table, at the front. What she had to tell him was not something that she wanted the other eunuchs to hear; but Magdiel knew that these were the only times that she would encounter Choy- as she was no longer in his Harun class, and he no longer had anyone to train in the abandoned room.

As some of the other poppies finished their meals and were leaving the dining room, Magdiel finally got up and walked towards Choy. She thought that he looked a little nervous; for he probably remembered what happened the last time that she came to his table.

“I’ll do it.” was all that Magdiel said to him across the table, before proceeding towards the door.

Magdiel did not wait to hear Choy’s response, nor to see the expression on his face, nor the faces of the other eunuchs. She too needed to digest what she had just said.

Chapter 33

Pageant Segments

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“Yes Choy.” said Magdiel, exasperatedly. “You don’t have to ask me again.”

Over a week had passed since Magdiel approached Choy’s dinner table with her decision to fulfil the non-believers’ plan; and he had been completely overbearing. He had visited Magdiel’s room every night, just to make sure that she had not changed her mind.

“Magdiel, this is not a game!” said Choy, suddenly raising his voice. “I need to know that you will be in it till the end, and that you will act with due diligence. There are many lives at risk here!”

“And I’ve told you that I’m fully aware of what I am getting myself into!” said Magdiel, raising her voice also.

She had told Choy that her reason for changing her mind was so that she could preserve Lucinda’s memory, by finishing what she had started. and he seemed to believe her.

“When are we going to start practicing anyway?” Magdiel added.

“Tomorrow.” said Choy. “But before I ask Mr Frederick to hand you over to me, as my charge, I had to check one last time that you were still in it.”

“Well I am.” Magdiel said seriously, staring into Choy’s eyes. “Till the end. Nothing will change my mind.”

Magdiel meant it. She knew for sure that she was ready to die. It was the only way that her sorrows would end. And if her death helped to vindicate Lucinda, then that was a bonus.

Choy’s anxious expression finally relaxed, and Magdiel guessed that it was because of the certainty with which she had spoken.

“Alright.” Choy said. “I’ll talk to Mr. Frederick first thing in the morning. And I’ll send out letters to the main non-believers’ groups to let them know that the plan is still on.”

“And don’t forget to tell Mr. Caldwell to make sure that my family is safe.” Said Magdiel, staring fiercely into Choy’s eyes. “I won’t do this unless they are.”

Choy had ensured Magdiel that her Mom, Raj and his parents would be given the utmost protection, in the event that she was successful in the plan. That meant that they would have to escape to a highly secluded society of non-believers, far in the mountains; where they would never be found by the authorities.

“Of course.” said Choy.

He blew out his candle and rose up off of the floor to leave. Choy had not spent the night with Magdiel since their last altercation, although she wished that he would- for she still battled with her thoughts. Magdiel knew that he was still bitter about her assaulting his manhood. She had gone too far, and she felt bad about it; but her pride would not allow her to apologize.

“Before we begin, let me explain the pageant segments.” said Choy.

He and Magdiel were gathered in the abandoned room, next to the dining room, for their first practice. They were seated close together on wooden stools, and Magdiel was listening intently.

“ First is the presentation segment.” Choy continued. “That is where the contestants strut across the stage to show off their beauty. This means that you have to look your absolute best, or even better- perfectly glistening skin, full shiny hair, bright white smile, perfect gown and accessories, and of course, the perfect walk.

The group of judges consists of six priests and the King; so they know all about proper posture and elegance. The royal family lives for it.”

Magdiel shivered slightly at the intimidating thought of meeting the royal family.

“Now, you are going to have to earn the best of the dresses and accessories.”

“How am I supposed to earn them?” said Magdiel.

“By being nice to the Assistants. It’s not that hard” Choy added, for Magdiel had instinctively made a face. The thought of sucking up to those wretched assistants turned her insides.

“They’re grumpy busybodies, I know. But they’re also responsible for dressing the contestants for the pageant, and they always help their favourites to get ahead.”

Magdiel nodded that she understood. If she could face death, she could handle the assistants.

“ This segment is extremely important Magdiel” Choy said intensely. “Almost half of the contestants are eliminated here- ten in the first appearance and another ten in the second, for a total of twenty. So you have to be instantly pleasing to the eye.”

Magdiel sighed. She was already feeling overwhelmed and doubted whether she could make it past even this first segment.

“Don’t worry just yet.” said Choy. “We have enough time to get you prepared.”

“Are you sure about that?” said Magdiel. “Because if you think about it, I’m not even in the top fifty. I’m fifty-sixth. So I’m not even a contestant yet.”

“Like I said, you have enough time to catch up. Over the next four months, if you try hard enough, you can earn enough merits to make it to at least the fiftieth position. That’s all we need. A place in the pageant.”

Then Magdiel thought that Choy’s tone sounded a little accusatory as he said “It would have been ideal for you to enter the pageant in a higher position, because the points that you earn now are counted with your pageant scores. So the higher your initial position is, the better your chance of winning… But it’s not impossible to catch up.” Choy added quickly, spotting the discouraged look on Magdiel’s face. “We just have to work all the more hard.”

Magdiel nodded again; although he did not feel any more confident. “What’s the second segment like?”

“ The thirty contestants will move on to showcase their talent. This will happen over the space of two days- fifteen will perform on each day; and in the end, fifteen will be cut.

“I must tell you though; I’m not particularly gifed.” said Magdiel.

She had never bothered to acquire a talent, since it was never her intention to compete effectively in the death pageant. Thus, Magdiel had never played an instrument, nor learned to dance; and she hated the sound of her singing voice.

“That’s alright. I’m a great teacher.” said Choy, without so much as bashing an eye. “You’ll do a dance. The judges are very partial to dancing. It excites them to see the way the girls’ bodies gyrate.”

“But I thought that the priests were supposed to be holy.” said Magdiel, feeling very disturbed.

Choy scoffed. “They are also men; and probably the most perverse of them.”

Magdiel did not fully understand what Choy meant, but he moved on too quickly for her to ask any further questions on the matter.

“In the third segment, the fifteen contestants will be drilled with about ten to twelve questions about Harun and Acusan religion in general. Harun’s wife is expected to know everything about him, and his fellow gods. And you are not only required to answer them correctly, but eloquently as well; in complete, informative sentences- with just the right mixture of firmness and femininity in your tone.”

“What sort of questions?”

Magdiel never paid much attention in Harun class; but could not imagine that there was much to know about Harun.”

“Like, who or what created Harun?”

“What sort of question is that?” said Magdiel.

“Try at an answer.” said Choy. “I might not be able to prepare you for every possible question, so you have got to know how to think on your feet.”

Magdiel thought for a while, but the only answer she could come up with was “He was created in the believer’s mind?”

Magdiel thought she saw a flicker of amusement on Choy’s slender face. “Say that, and you’ll never make it off of the stage in one piece.” he said. “Whatever you do, never let your answer give away even an inkling of your non-belief. The correct answer is that Harun and his fellows created themselves, and were there even before the creation of the world.”

Then Choy’s expression became suddenly serious again, and somewhat sullen.

“ The fourth and final segment, as you know, is where our plan will climax- literally. The three contestants that make it through the question segment are to sleep with the king.”

Magdiel could not help but to wince in disgust at the thought. This, to her, was the worst part of the plan.

“ This will happen over a period of three nights- one contestant per night.” Choy continued, visibly uncomfortable. His face had become slightly red and he turned his gaze away from Magdiel. Magdiel felt her face get a little hotter as well.

“ The goal is to bring the most pleasure to the king. The one who does so will be sacrificed- for it shows that she is capable of bringing great pleasure to Harun as well.”

Magdiel was now thoroughly disgusted. “So the king is doing Harun a favour by testing out his potential brides?”

Choy nodded, his gaze still averted. “That is what they say.”

Magdiel was amazed that people could believe in any of this.

“This segment had not always been a part of the pageant.” Choy continued. “Not back when the believers actually believed in what they professed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the believers these days are only upholding the Harun religion because of the benefits that they reap from it, and not because they actually believe.” said Choy. “Before the non-believing poppies began to make public protests, the king used to sleep with almost all of the contestants, not just three; and the priest used to get his left overs. They have only calmed down now because they realize that they can’t fully trust the poppies any more. But I’m almost certain that the king has already slept with a few of the poppies that are here now.”

“So you’re saying that the entire death pageant system is just a scheme to satisfy the king’s sexual desires?” said Magdiel, sceptically. “That seems a bit excessive.”

“Not entirely.” said Choy. “It is mostly a way of spreading fear. Fearful people are submissive and easier to rule over. If you pay attention, in recent years, none of the high standing girls in Acus have been chosen to be poppies, even though many of them have met the physical standards. Only the poorer ones are disposable.”

Magdiel had never thought about any of this before, and it made her angry to think that an entire population was being misled and taken advantage of.

“Now you know why we have to stop them.” said Choy.

Magdiel did not respond. Although she could now better understand Choy’s motives for pursuing the non-believers’ cause, she still did not feel the same passion as he did.

Choy broke the silence. “Now, according to the nonbelievers’ plan, if you make it to the top three, you will not necessarily have to have sleep with the King, because your aim is just to kill him.”

Choy swallowed deeply, averting his eyes from Magdiel once more. It was odd to see such a coarse man as Choy get this uncomfortable talking about sex. “But in case you find the need to do so before-”.

“No.” said Magdiel, firmly. “I’ll make sure that I kill the bastard before he touches me.”

“But realistically-”

“I said no!” exclaimed Magdiel.

She could not imagine having sex with someone that she did not know or love. In Magdiel’s mind, her body belonged to Raj and she was going to be faithful to him till the end. Magdiel quickly ended her train of thought; for it was almost unbearable to dwell on the fact that she would never experience physical intimacy with Raj.

“Fine.” Said Choy, finally looking at Magdiel again. “But you had better still be a virgin. Because if by some chance the King does have sex with you, and you aren’t, he’ll kill you before you can kill him.”

“I am!” Magdiel snapped.

“So you and your boyfriend back home never…”

“No!” Magdiel snapped again. She was not sure why she was so angry all of a sudden.

“Good.” said Choy awkwardly; and he rose up from his stool. “Let’s begin practice.”

“Wait. You haven’t told me how I’m supposed to kill the king.” said Magdiel.

“I’ll let you know in due time.” said Choy. “I don’t want it to weigh on your mind until absolutely necessary.”

Chapter 34

Strange Reaction

“Ah, thanks for combing my hair… You ah… really did a good job.”

The assistant stopped from putting the finishing touches on Magdiel’s bun, to look at her through the dressing table mirror. She was dark-haired and looked to be in her early twenties.

“Thanks.” the assistant said, looking slightly bewildered.

Magdiel sighed softly, feeling disappointed. She had been trying for the past two weeks to get the assistants to like her, so that she could earn more merits; but her efforts only seemed to make them view her as weird. Thus, Magdiel had not been receiving any more merits than usual- which was little to none.

To add to Magdiel’s frustration, Choy had been very impatient with her on matter.

“Lame compliments aren’t going to cut it!” he had shouted during their last practice. “You’ve got to be more real! Connect with them on a deeper level!”

“Well, at least I haven’t been getting any demerits.” Magdiel had pointed out.

“That’s not enough!” Choy had said, his face flushed with anger. “You need enough merits to make it to the top fifty.”

“So why don’t you just give them to me?”

“And that won’t look suspicious at all- you getting a bunch of merits from one person only, would it?”

Magdiel had not responded. She knew that Choy was right. He could only give her as much merits as would look normal. She had to put in more of an effort in winning over the assistants.

Then, through the mirror, Magdiel noticed something shiny around the assistant’s neck.

“Beautiful necklace.”

Magdiel immediately chided herself for giving yet another lame compliment.

But to her surprise, the assistant said “It was my father’s.” And right away, Magdiel saw a leeway into deeper conversation.

“So your father passed away?”

The assistant nodded behind her. “When I was seven.”

“My father passed away when I was really young too.” Magdiel said. “He was a fisherman, and he died at sea.”

“I’m so sorry.” the assistant said quickly. “You must have been devastated.”

“I was.” Magdiel lied, trying her hardest to look sad. She had been too young at the time of Leo’s death to understand her loss.

“My father died from an illness.” the assistant continued. “He was sick for months… I-I miss him every day.”

Magdiel saw the glistening of tears in her assistant’s eyes, and quickly looked away. Her grief was bringing back Magdiel’s childhood fantasies, when she had spent many days imagining what it would have been like to have a father. But, at the moment, Magdiel had enough to deal with than to grieve over a father that she hardly knew and whom she resented.

“He was all I had, you see.” cried the assistant. “So when he died, I had no choice but to look for work here, in the Palace, to support myself.”

Magdiel handed the assistant a handkerchief. “I completely understand.” she said.

Magdiel then went into a greatly exaggerated tail of how impoverished she and her mother became after her father passed away- even on the verge of starvation; until the local baker took pity on them and gave her mother a job.

By the end of their heart to heart, the assistant was completely enamoured with Magdiel and showered her with merits; even vowing to visit Magdiel again for another talk.

Magdiel found another relatable topic to discuss with her next assistant, and received the same positive results. They had spoken of resentment towards their mothers- though Magdiel of course could not share the reasoning behind hers. She had mainly lent a listening ear.

Magdiel was overjoyed with her accomplishments, and could not wait to tell Choy the good news. But to her dismay, she found that he did not share her excitement.

“Hmm.” was all he said when Magdiel told him about it at the beginning of their next practice.

“You’ve been complaining about my lack of merits for the past few weeks, telling me how vital it is. Now you don’t even seem to care!”

Choy stopped from gathering objects for Magdiel to balance on her head, and looked up at her. “I don’t congratulate people for doing exactly what they’re expected to do.” he said, simply. “Now, if that’s all, come over here and let’s get started with practice.”

Magdiel walked over, roughly snatched the piece of plank from his hand and placed it on top of her head. She was shaking all over, with anger; though she did not understand why she felt so irrationally upset, or why it was so important that Choy be pleased with her.

“I’m going to add a glass vase to your plank today.” Choy said, seemingly unaware or unbothered by Magdiel’s anger.

“I’m not ready for that yet.” Magdiel snapped, trying not to remember the first that time she had seen Lucinda practice with the same plank and vase on her head. She also remembered that Choy had been extremely hard on Lucinda that day. He was hard on everyone it seemed.

“You’re doing it anyway.” said Choy, firmly.

“I can barely make two steps without dropping the plank! How am I supposed to balance a glass vase as well?”

Before the practices began, Magdiel had had no idea that the art of walking (or strutting, as Choy referred to it) could be so complicated. She had great difficulty keeping her posture straight and elegant, yet sufficiently sensual the same time; and Choy’s constant irritation with her did not help the matter.

“It’s all in the mind.” said Choy. “The added anxiety of having something fragile on your head will force you to correct your posture more than my yelling will.”

He then carefully placed the vase atop the plank on Magdiel’s head, and Magdiel felt it wobble slightly. She had to put all of her concentration into stiffening her body until the vase eventually became steady.

“And for some added motivation,” Choy continued “know that if you drop the vase, glass shards will splatter everywhere; some of which may probably slice you, and cause this entire plan to come to a halt.”

At that, Magdiel’s heart rate quickened, and she was afraid to even breath- in case the vase started to wobble again.

“Start walking.” said Choy.

“I can’t.” Magdiel managed to say, barely opening her mouth. “It’s going to fall.” And Magdiel knew that her hands were not long enough to reach above the plank to grab the vase if it did.

“Just do it!” Choy said more firmly.

“But I-”

“Do it Magdiel!”

Magdiel lifted her right leg tentatively and took a small step. It felt as if her entire body was trembling, but the vase remained surprisingly still.

“Now straigthen your posture a little more… that’s it. Continue walking… Just trust me.” Choy added, for Magdiel had not moved.

With Choy’s continuous prodding, Magdiel finally obliged and made another small step, then another, until she was almost halfway down the makeshift aisle.

“Keep going Magdiel.” said Choy. “You can do it.”

Feeling more confident, Magdiel picked up to an almost normal pace.”

“You’re doing great!”

Then, through the corner of her eye, Magdiel caught a glimpse of Choy smiling. She suddenly lost her step and felt the plank jerk forward and off of her head. Magdiel instinctively covered her face in fright; and through her fingers, she saw Choy leap forward and catch both plank and vase just before they hit the floor.

Choy and Magdiel stayed immobile for a while, breathing heavily and staring at each other.

“What happened?” Choy finally demanded. “You were going so well.”

“I-I-” Magdiel began, unable to find a plausible explanation; except that, for some reason, Choy’s smile had both stunned and elated her.

“Try to be more careful next time.” Choy said coarsely. “Let’s try again.”

Magdiel sighed and ran a hand through her hair. She was thoroughly confused about what had just happened. Why had she reacted that way?

Chapter 35

Execution

“ A girl that becomes Harun’s wife will be truly blessed. She will live in a mansion of pure gold, she will never feel sadness again- or any other negative emotions- and she will be eternally young and beautiful, enjoying the company of Harun himself and his other charming brides.”

Many of the poppies sighed dreamily at the prospect of having this perfect life. Magdiel, however, was frantically taking notes. Ever since she had decided to be a part of the non-believers’ plan, she was extremely attentive in each Harun class so as not to miss the tiniest detail that may cost her points in the question segment of the pageant.

It was to the point where Magdiel was often on edge during these two hours. So when the blonde twins, Suzette and Josette- who were sitting directly behind her- threw a ball of paper on her back, Magdiel became irate.

She spun around in her seat and knocked one of the twin’s quills off of the desk.

“Pick it up!” the twin hissed.

“Or what?” said Magdiel, feeling satisfied that she had upset her.

The twin sat glaring at Magdiel, until her sister interjected. “Don’t fret about it Josette. There are better ways to deal with poppies like her.”

“Oh?” said Magdiel, turning to face the twin who was apparently Suzette. “Like what?”

Suzette smirked. “Just be careful what you eat from now on.”

It was as if something in Magdiel snapped. She shot up and kicked her chair aside.

“WAS IT YOU? DID YOU DO IT?”

The twins looked both bewildered and terrified. “W-What are you talking about?”

“DID YOU POISON LUCINDA?”

The twins just stared at Magdiel, dumbstruck.

“Young lady, how dare you-” began the teacher, a heavy-set, middle-aged eunuch.

But Magdiel now turned on the other poppies in the class, most of whom were staring at her with a mixture of shock and amusement. “I KNOW THAT ONE OF YOU DID IT! ONE OF YOU POISONED HER! AND WHEN I FIND OUT WHO IT IS-”

“Young lady, that’s enough!” the teacher shouted more forcefully. He was now standing directly in front of Magdiel.

Still, Magdiel ignored him. At that point, she had lost all self-control and sense of reason as she poured out almost everything that was weighing on her heart. “YOU ARE ALL HATEFUL, STUPID TWATS; AND I CAN’T STAND EVEN THE SIGHT OF YOU! I CAN’T STAND BEING HERE IN THIS PALACE! I CAN’T WAIT TILL THIS PAGEANT IS OVER SO THAT I CAN SEE THE LOOK ON YOUR FACES WHEN YOU’RE SENT HOME. I HOPE THE PAIN IS SO UNBEARABLE THAT YOU KILL YOURSELVES

The teacher eventually had to take a hold of Magdiel and drag her out of the classroom, so that she would end her rant.

The darkness was impenetrable and the silence deafening; but Magdiel was peaceful as she lay still on the cold, stone floor of a dingy cell, somewhere deep within the Palace dungeons. Maybe it was because she was now extremely good at numbing her emotions. Or because she had long since prepared her mind to die; but Magdiel was not the least bit afraid. She had never imagined that her life would end like this- so abrupt and purposeless; but at least it would be over, and her sorrows finally gone away.

After her tantrum in class, Magdiel’s Harun instructor had dragged her to the first guard that he came upon in the hallway, and explained to them how he suspected her of being a non-believer. The guard had then brought Magdiel straight to this cell; and as he roughly threw her inside, he had laughed cruelly and said that she would be executed in just a few hours.

Magdiel was not sure how long she had been in the cell- because it was always so dark; but she had received about five meals during the time, pushed through a slot in the cell door. Thus, Magdiel assumed that it had been about two days; which was much longer than she had expected to still be alive.

Magdiel jumped suddenly at the sound of her name. No one had come to visit her since she had been down there; and so she thought for a moment that she had imagined it.

“Magdiel!” the person said again, and she recognized Choy’s voice.

Magdiel hesitated to get up, for she was not prepared to see him. She knew that Choy would be furious at her for bringing the non-believers’ plan to a halt; and Magdiel herself felt embarrassed and disappointed at what she had done. She should have had more control over her anger. Then she would not have had to die this way; and could have truly avenged Lucinda.

Choy called out to Magdiel again and again; and began to pound loudly on the door. After a long while, when the noise became unbearable, Magdiel finally got up and made her way to the door, stepping into the plates of uneaten food scattered about the floor. She pulled across the eye slot in the door and was immediately blinded by the light that Choy was carrying.

He did not speak right away; and Magdiel could feel his eyes carefully examining her face.

“Are you alright?” Choy finally said.

Magdiel had not expected such a soft greeting. She looked up at him in surprise, and nodded.

“I’m here to take you back to your room; as soon as the guard gets down here with the key.”

Magdiel was speechless for a moment. “I- I thought-”

“That you would be executed?” said Choy.

Magdiel nodded again.

“You were very close.” Choy said. “But I managed to persuade them against it.”

“H-how?”

“Never mind that now.” Choy said. “Let’s just get you out of here.’

Chapter 36

I’m Sorry

News of Magdiel’s crazed outburst and subsequent arrest spread quickly throughout the Palace; and as the days went by, Magdiel found that she could no longer move about in peace. Almost all of the eunuchs, assistants and poppies would hiss curses at her wherever she went- about filthy non-believer, deserving of death- and they looked at her with such disdain that Magdiel sometimes felt that they would physically attack her. It was both frightening and heart-breaking.

Still, no one’s reaction hurt Magdiel more than Choy’s. After releasing her, Choy had dropped her off at her room and left without any words of comfort, or even so much as a goodbye. Then, in the two weeks that passed, he had not come to visit Magdiel even once; and now, during their first practice since the incident, Choy was being very withdrawn.

How many times do I have to say that I’m sorry?” said Magdiel, after Choy had placed the plank in her hands without a word.

She had apologized with bitter tears the day that he released her from the cell; but Choy had shown no reaction. He suddenly stopped from rummaging through the objects in the abandoned room, but still did not look up at Magdiel.

“What are you talking about?” he said tensely.

“You know.” Said Magdiel, walking to stand in front of him. “You’ve barely even acknowledged my presence.”

Choy slowly stood up and looked down at Magdiel; and for the first time, she could see the deep disappointment in his eyes.

“That’s because I have nothing to say.” Choy said bitterly. “I feel like I’m wasting my time with you.”

Choy’s response cut Magdiel like a sharp knife and left her speechless. She had not realized how much she had hurt him; and the guilt she felt suddenly seemed to double.

“I’m sorry.” Magdiel finally said, softly.

“You being sorry can’t regain the one hundred points that you lost in demerits.” Said Choy. His tone was now of a forced calm- but Magdiel would have much preferred that Choy blew up on her and got it over with. She could not take this cold passivity.

“And it definitely won’t erase the suspicion form everyone’s minds.” Choy continued.

“They’ll soon forget all about it. Won’t they?”

“Don’t be so naive Magdiel. Once people suspect you of something, it’s almost impossible to completely reverse it. And they are going to hold it against you in the competition.”

“But if everyone is still so suspicious of me, why did they let me go?”

“I told you not to worry about that. Just be glad that your head is not on a platter right now.”

“I know. It’s just that, you seem to be more influential than you let on.” said Magdiel, desperately. “So maybe there’s something you can do-”

“There’s nothing, Magdiel!” Choy snapped. “Just forget about it! The plan is over!”

Choy’s breathing was hot and heavy on Magdiel’s face, as he stood glaring down at her. Magdiel quickly bent her head to conceal the tears that were forming in her eyes. “Please Choy.” She said, weakly. “I need someone on my side right now… I-I need you.”

Magdiel paused, waiting for Choy to speak- but he didn’t. She could still hear his heavy breathing.

“And I need to finish this plan…” Magdiel continued. “For Lucinda.”

There was silence for a moment longer; then Choy gave an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know.” he said- his tone defeated. “I just need some time to think things over… Let’s just forget about practice for today.’

He then turned and walked out of the room.

That night, as Magdiel lay on her bedroom floor, unable to sleep, she heard the door open. She knew right away that it was Choy, and her heart leapt. He walked over and lay down facing her; and, to Magdiel’s surprise, he wrapped his arms tightly around her. She did not pull away. Instead, she leaned forward and rested her head against his chest.

“I’m sorry too.” Choy said softly in Magdiel’s ears. “I’m on your side.”

Magdiel felt such relief and comfort from his words that the tears immediately began to flow- until she eventually fell asleep in Choy’s arms.

Chapter 37

True Motives

“The number of guards at the Palace has definitely tripled over the years.” Said Magdiel’s assistant pointedly, as they walked along a passageway lined with guards. “So a non-believer would be foolish to try anything here. I also heard that they’ve introduced a new and most painful way of executing non-believers this year, where they peel the skin right off of their bodies.”

The assistant suddenly turned to look directly at Magdiel. “What do you think of that?”

Magdiel kept her head straight and did not reply. She was tired of the assistants directing these types of statements at her to scare her. Some of them had also started giving her demerits for no apparent reason, other than the sight of her offending them. They even refused to touch her (as if non-belief was contagious); and so, Magdiel had to now take care of herself- which she did not mind much; for she had missed bathing her own skin.

“Here you are.” Magdiel’s assistant said grudgingly, stopping at the bottom of the dining room passageway. “I’ll be back to get you in a few hours.”

She then spun around and walked away quickly; as if she could not wait to put as much distance between herself and Magdiel.

Magdiel walked up the passageway, feeling very discouraged. Choy was right. There was no way that she could redeem herself and win this competition. Everyone hated her too much.

She put her hand on the door handle of the abandoned room and paused. This was her first practice with Choy since four days ago, when he had left to think things over; and so, Magdiel was not sure what to expect. She did not even know if he would be there. Magdiel had not seen Choy since his surprise visit to her room that night, to apologize- not even at dinnertime.

. Magdiel pushed open the door and found Choy sitting on one of the many chairs in the centre of the room, slumped over, with his elbow resting upon his knees and his head hung low. Unsure of Choy’s temperament at the moment, she approached him slowly and cautiously.

Choy looked up at her, his expression blank, and said “Grab the planks and the vase and let’s get started.”

Magduel’s heart skipped a beat. “So the plan is still on?”

Choy nodded.

Magdiel was stunned. “But how? What changed?”

Nothing changed.” said Choy. “We still have a lot of work to do in order to get back on track.”

“Anything.” Magdiel said quickly.

“I’m glad you said that.” Choy said. “Because you have to begin by making a public apology to everyone.”

Magdiel’s heart sank, instantly. The idea of talking in front of all those people- especially when they hated her- was terrifying. Unthinkable.

“And you have to do it as soon as possible.” Choy continued. “We only have three months till the competition, and you need to get back in their good graces so that you can build back up your merit points and make it to the top fifty.”

“Do you really think that an apology speech can fix everything?” said Magdiel, remembering how horribly her assistants were treating her.

“Depends on how good it is.” Said Choy.

Magdiel was still sceptical.

“There’s only one other way to make it to the top fifty.” said Choy.

At that, a sudden chill ran through Magdiel’s body as she held Choy’s gaze. She knew exactly what he was thinking, for it had crossed her mind as well- but she had quickly wiped it away. She was not going to do it, no matter what.

“It’s the only sure way, Magdiel.” Choy prodded, as if he had read Magdiel’s mind. “Even if you did manage to win them over with your apology, there is still a lot of points that you need to gain in so little time.”

“I’m not going to murder anyone else!” said Magdiel forcefully, as an image of Alicia flashed through her mind. “I can’t handle any more deaths, Choy!”

Choy sprang up from his seat and took a hold of Magdiel’s face, fixing her gaze back upon his. His eyes were as wild as ever.

“ If you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to see this plan through, then we might as well quit now. I’ve told you before Magdiel- this is war. And in war, you can’t play nice. Another poppy died last week, so we have ten extras. If we get rid of about three per month, you have a sure spot in the pageant. But at the rate that they’re killing themselves off, we might not even have to take care of so much ourselves- maybe three or four-”

Magdiel pulled her face out of Choy’s grasp, feeling disgusted. “You sound like a monster.” She spat.

“I don’t want to kill either, you know.” Choy said, his tone less harsh. “But this may be our only chance for years; and every time we delay this plan, the stronger the death pageant system gets, and the more people will get hurt.”

Magdiel plunked down on one of the chairs surrounding them, suddenly feeling weak and sick to her stomach. No matter what reason Choy brought, she could not bring herself to take a life- not again. She rested her head upon her knees, and closed her eyes. Her mind was working rapidly, trying to think of another way.

Choy waited silently.

“Let me try the apology first.” Magdiel finally said, raising her head to look up at Choy. “Then give me a few weeks to show you that I can make up the points.”

Choy remained silent for what seemed like a long time, rubbing his palm back and forth against his forehead.

“Alright. I’ll give you two weeks. And you have to earn at least three hundred points in that time. It’s the only way that this will work.

Magdiel was shocked by the large amount of merits that she needed to earn; but she felt that it was well worth a try if it would avoid murdering poppies.

“I can do it.” said Magdiel.

Magdiel thought she saw a fleeting look of relief on Choy’s face, and knew that he was depending on her to make up the merits; so that he would not have to kill again.

“Now get your planks and vase.” Choy said a few minutes later, after Magdiel had sufficiently composed herself.

Magdiel did not move.

“What’s the problem?”

Magdiel sighed. “It’s just, I’m really bored with walking… Can’t we move on to something else?”

“As I’ve said before, your walk is extremely important. You have to do it in every segment of the pageant-”

“I know, I know. But I think I’ve sort of mastered it already.”

Magdiel had now gone from balancing one plank and a small vase, to two planks and a large vase; all at a normal walking pace.

Choy raised a bushy eyebrow. “I wouldn’t say you’ve mastered it as yet; far from it actually- your back is still not completely straight and you still struggle to walk in a perfectly straight line…”

Magdiel had to try hard not to snap at Choy and start an argument. She could not believe how meticulous he was being.

“But I guess we can start to work on your dance and fill in some more walking practices here and there.” Choy finished.

Magdiel had completely forgotten that she was supposed to be dancing for the talent segment; and she was not sure that she could be any good at it.

“Can we maybe consider singing?” Said Magdiel. “I think I can be better at that.”

“Why? Haven’t you ever danced before?”

“Only a little.” said Magdiel.

“What kind?”

“Actually no, I haven’t.” Magdiel lied. “Forget I said anything.”

Magdiel’s only dancing experience was from the occasional late nights that she and Raj would sneak out and dance underneath the stars, wrapped tightly in each other’s arms. She remembered how Raj would sometimes twirl her around until her head spun, which made her double over with laughter; and when he would suddenly dip her to place a smooth kiss upon her lips.

But Magdiel did not want to bring this up now. She did not want to talk about Raj at all- especially not to Choy, after he had clearly expressed his disdain for their relationship.

Choy raised his eyebrow again. Then, as if he had read Magdiel’s thoughts, said “You really miss your boyfriend, don’t you?”

Magdiel was taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“It only makes sense, since you were planning to go home and marry him, weren’t you?”

Magdiel did not like the nonchalance with which Choy spoke about something that was so important to her; and she felt the anger rushing to her head.

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.” She managed to say calmly.

“ It actually is.” Choy said. “I’m still not fully convinced of your true motive in joining the non- believer’s plan. You say that you’re doing it for Lucinda, but why would you put someone you’ve only known for a few months, over a boyfriend you’ve loved for years? Unless you’re on some sort of death wish-”

Magdiel’s expression must have given her away, because Choy suddenly looked dumbstruck. “Is that it?” he said intensely. “Are you trying to die?’

Magdiel swallowed deeply, for her throat had suddenly turned dry. “Of course not. I-”

Choy looked a little frantic. “Magdiel, what’s going on? If this is some sort of suicide attempt, I can’t let you go through with it. You’ve got to do it for the right reason-”

“ What do you care what the right reason is!” Magdiel snapped. “Either way, you’re getting what you want- the plan will be completed.”

“I do care!” said Choy, incredulously. “What kind of person do you think I am? I want you to do this from your heart; otherwise, it’s just cruel and you won’t stick with it!”

“I am going to stick with it!” Magdiel said, testily. “And like I said, I’m doing it for Lucinda, so that no more girls have to go through what she did. It’s not a suicide attempt.”

Choy examined Magdiel’s face closely; and Magdiel tried to keep a neutral expression, desperately hoping that he could not detect her lie.

“How can I be sure?” Choy finally said. “How am I supposed to be sure that one day, during the pageant, you won’t wake up missing his sweet kisses and just abandon everything to return to him?”

“I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.” Magdiel said simply.

A long silence followed, with the both of them staring into each other’s eyes- Choy’s brown into Magdiel’s green. Then Choy leaned in slightly closer towards her, and Magdiel’s heart rate quickened. She thought that he was going to kiss her; but then he suddenly raised himself back up, with a pained expression on his face.

“You’re doing a dance.” Choy said awkwardly, running a hand over his shaved head. “Like I said, the judges love it. But I’ll be getting someoneelse to teach it to you. So for today, let’s just focus on your walking.”

Chapter 38

The Apology

Magdiel’s fingers shook as she lifted the fork, in her third attempt at eating a piece of the chicken that was for dinner. Once more, she began to feel queasy and quickly placed the fork back down on her plate before it reached her mouth.

The dining room was filled with the usual clatter of utensils against near silence; for even after all of this time, the poppies still had not warmed up to each other; and thus, rarely spoke during dinner- unless of course it was to bicker or hiss threats to intimidate their table mates. For that reason, Magdiel often found dinner time to be unbearable; but tonight, especially so.

She was sitting at her usual table near the back of the room, with her eyes fixed upon the back of Choy’s dark head- which was bent low over his plate. Magdiel was amazed that he could eat at a time like this, when very soon he was to announce Magdiel’s apology speech- which, as he said could make or break their chances in the competition.

Magdiel was almost certain that, when the moment came, she was going to forget everything that she was to do and say. Choy had been very hands off in the process, only stating the main things that Magdiel needed to mention in her speech- such as: emphasis on a great love for Harun and deep hatred of non-believers. He said that her speech needed to come off as sincere as possible; and so, if he helped her too much, it would only sound rehearsed.

Magdiel could not afford to have her speech be unconvincing, or nine poppies would have to lose their lives. Thus, she had stayed up all night trying to develop the mind-set of a believer, hoping that, in so doing, the right words would just come to her; and surprisingly they did, along with something else- something surprising.

It was the realization that the believing poppies were not to be hated, but rather pitied. From birth, they were made to believe in a marvellous world of blissful immortality, and that the only way to get there was through winning this competition. So of course they would be evil, vicious murderers- anything it took to attain the once-in-a-lifetime prize; especially since, like Magdiel, they were raised to not have a life outside of preparing for the death pageant. Thus, they probably felt that they had nothing else to live for.

Choy finally stood up, and Magdiel felt like she could no longer breathe. He clinked a silver utensil against his glass and movement in the dining room stopped as all eyes turned questioningly in his direction.

“Good evening everyone.” He began, coarsely. “Most of you are aware of the incident that happened with my new charge, during Harun class, over two weeks ago.”

Magdiel quickly bent her head low to avoid meeting the gazes of those who had turned to look at her.

“Well,” Choy continued “she sincerely regrets it – as she should; and would like to address all of you at this moment.”

Many angry grumblings could be heard; and Magdiel took her time getting to her feet and making her way forward. Through the corners of her eyes, she could see the assistants and poppies shaking their heads in distaste- their guards already set against her.

When Magdiel reached the front of the room, Choy gave her what she supposed was meant to be an encouraging nod- though he seemed just as tense as she was; and that made Magdiel even more frightened.

“Speak loudly and clearly.” Choy whispered to Magdiel, before walking off.

Magdiel watched him all the way to back his seat, before turning to face the room. All eyes were intent upon her- no one was moving or making the slightest sound.

Magdiel’s prepared speech was now jumbled in her head, so that she did not know where to begin. She just stood there, staring wide-eyed at the crowd. Time passed, and most persons began to appear irritated. Deep sighs were echoed all around the room. Magdiel knew that she had to say something right at that moment- anything; and so, she closed her eyes and put herself once more in the mind-set of the believing poppies. Then the words, surpsingly, began to flow.

“I-I know how it feels to want something desperately- with all of your heart, and your entire being… so much in fact that it hurts every time you think about it, because you don’t know if it will ever be yours… and it kills you, literally, because you feel like, if you don’t get it, then you might as well just die-”

Magdiel paused to catch her breath, because she felt as if she would choke from the tears caught in her throat. Real tears; on account of she was thinking about the thing that she wanted more than anything, and had come to accept would never be hers- freedom and happiness. The expressions on the staring faces had already began to soften, and Magdiel went on more confidently.

“That’s how I feel about Harun, and becoming his bride in the wonderful afterlife. It’s what I’ve lived for since… well… since I’ve started living. And so, I was really bitter towards the other poppies, and the entire death pageant system on a whole; because it only gives me one small chance out of fifty to become Harun’s bride, when I wish it was mines for the taking at this very moment.

So when I lashed out the other day, it wasn’t because of non-belief, but the complete opposite. I believe in and love Harun so much that… sometimes I can’t contain it… But I’ve come to realize that the system is not my enemy at all because it is doing what is best for the country in trying to select the very best for our Lord- even if it isn’t me. And the poppies aren’t to blame either, because we can’t help but to desire the same wonderful thing…”

Magdiel let the tears flow freely and heavily now.

“And so, from the bottom of my heart… I am sorry.”

Chapter 39

The Dance Teacher

What were you thinking about during your speech?” Choy said.

“What do you mean?” said Magdiel.

“You sounded … sincere.”

“I was just saying what they wanted to hear.”

It was a half lie; because the first part of Magdiel’s speech was indeed sincere, where she was grieving over the freedom that she will never have. But the rest had been pure fluff.

“Well,” said Choy, awkwardly. “you did really well… amazing in fact.”

Magdiel was a taken aback, and took a few seconds to respond. “Thank you.” she said softly.

Magdiel already knew that her speech had been a success, because there was hardly a dry eye amongst the assistants and poppies after she had finished- and even some of the eunuchs had looked a little emotional. Plus, over the few days since, Magdiel had been bombarded with compliments from the assistants and eunuchs, wherever she went, about how touching her apology was and that they were rooting for her to win- that she somehow deserved it.

The poppies also had started to behave more warmly; not only towards Magdiel but to each other as well. Some even attempted to make friendly small talk with their table mates during dinnertime. Magdiel concluded that her speech must have verbalized exactly how they were all feeling, and somehow created a sort of bond between them.

Still, Magdiel had not expected Choy to humble himself enough to actually praise her.

“You know Magdiel” Choy continued, his expression slightly pained now- with his bushy eyebrows coming together to make one. “You never cease to amaze me with the things that you do…”

Magdiel wished that Choy would stop talking. She had not fully gotten over the shock of the last practice, when he appeared to have made an attempt to kiss her; and now his compliments were only adding to her discomfort, so that she could no longer meet his gaze.

“It’s like, I never know what to expect from you… and I have every confidence that you can win this competition if you want to-”

The door of the abandoned room flew open and Magdiel spun around. She was unpleasantly surprised to see Felicia bustling across the room towards them.

“Sorry I’m late.” Felicia said. “I had a whole bunch of mail to sort through in the mail room. It seems like all of the family members want to have their last bits of communication with the poppies as the pageant draws nearer. Not to mention all of the order mails to get everything that’s needed.”

Felicia greeted Choy with a hug and a small peck on the cheek; and for some unexplainable reason, Magdiel felt a slight twinge in her stomach.

“You don’t have to explain to me, Licia.” Choy said, pecking her back on the cheek. “I know how it is.”

All Magdiel could think was that Choy had never greeted her in such a friendly manner.

“Nice to see you, Magdiel.” Felicia said brightly, after releasing Choy. “Wonderful speech the other night- very convincing. You had them eating out of the palms of your hands! And you’re all that the assistants can talk about. I think you’re their favourite contestant right now, and I won’t be surprised if they start to do everything that they can to get you to win.”

Magdiel shrugged unsmilingly. Felicia had obviously forgotten or simply disregarded their altercation about mailing Raj, but Magdiel was still bitter. “What are you doing here?”

Felicia’s smile faded a little at Magdiel’s cold response. Choy looked surprised.

“Felicia is here to help you with your dancing.”

Magdiel was appalled. “You never discussed that with me!” she spat at Choy.

“I did. I told you that I was bringing someone to help you.”

“But you never told me who it was.”

“You never asked. And does it matter?”

Magdiel took a moment to come back with a rebuttal, because she knew that Choy was right. “Well, is she any good?” She said harshly.

Choy frowned, but Felicia played off Magdiel’s question by chuckling.

“Oh, I hope so.” Felicia said. “Because Choy taught me everything I know.” She then nudged him playfully in his side. “He’s a really great teacher.”

Magdiel wanted to slap the smug smile off of Felicia’s face; but she fought hard to control her anger.

Choy quickly stepped between the two of them.

“Let’s just start the practice.” He said.

“Sure. Whatever.” Said Felicia.

Magdiel mumbled her consent. She could not understand why she was so upset. Choy meant nothing to her. Raj was her everything.

Magdiel returned to her room that afternoon, feeling angry, confused and embarrassed. All attempts at controlling her anger had dissolved during practice, and she and Felicia had had a big row.

Magdiel just could not help but to let Felicia know exactly what she thought of her- a pretencious, judgemental snob is what she called her; after which, Felicia had called Magdiel boy-crazy, for wanting to send letters to Raj.

Choy had to physically hold them apart so that they could not get at each other.

Practice then came to an abrupt end when Felicia stormed out of the room; and Choy blamed Magdiel for the entire ordeal.

“You had better stop being so childish! We need Felicia to help us whether you like it or not!”

“No we don’t! Why can’t you teach me?”

“Because it’s better for you to see the dances demonstrated by another girl.”

“But you taught her yourself! That’s what she said. You taught her everything she knows.”

“That was different, Magdiel! It was just for fun then, not a competition. I need you to learn in the best way possible.”

The image of Choy and Felicia dancing jovially together had struck Magdiel hard.

“No, it’s not the best way!” she had shouted. “You just want your little girlfriend here with you! I bet you just love seeing her dance, don’t you?”

Choy had looked completely bewildered. “What’s this about, Magdiel?”

“Nothing!” Magdiel had said, before hustling out the door.

Now, in her room, Magdiel had to remind herself once again that Choy meant nothing to her. Raj was her everything.

Chapter 40

Emotions

Magdiel deduced her strong emotions at the last practice to her missing Raj so much; and so, since she had been spending a lot of time with Choy, she must have transferred some of her feelings for Raj unto him. It was the only explanation that Magdiel found plausible; because Choy was not someone that anyone could love. He was not handsome, he was emotionally disturbed and volatile, he was mean, and the fact remained that he had no genitals.

Therefore, on her way to the next practice, Magdiel determined that she would not create another fuss if Felicia came back. She was going to focus solely on what was best for the competition. She only hoped that Choy did not believe that she had feelings for him, as that would make things too awkward.

Choy was in the abandoned room alone, and Magdiel could immediately sense that something was very different. It was the way that he was looking at her. Not sternly or with the cold indifference that she was accustomed to; but as if he had been waiting for her and only her- as if she was all whom he wanted to see at the moment- like, she was all that he had been thinking about.

Magdiel felt her heartbeat quicken under his gaze, and she wondered if she was still transferring her feelings for Raj unto him.

“You’re early.” Choy said, after a while.

“You’re earlier.” said Magdiel; and she was mortified that her voice had trembled.

“I was hoping to have a word with you before Felicia got here.”

Magdiel nodded. “Sure.”

“There is absolutely nothing going on between Felicia and me. We’re just friends-”

“Why are you telling me this, Choy?” Magdiel snapped defensively.

“I just don’t want-”

“You don’t want me to get upset and cause a scene like last time, right? You actually believe that I was jealous!”

Choy looked taken aback. “Well, weren’t you?”

Of course not!” said Magdiel. “I’m already in love with someone, and you know that. And frankly you are nothing compared to him!”

Magdiel thought that Choy looked a little hurt, and she immediately regretted being so harsh with him.

“Good.” Choy finally retorted. “That way, we can have some peace today.”

Felicia’s hands were on Magdiel’s waist and she was turning it around in a circular motion.

“An important part of being a good dancer, is learning to loosen up- to be limber. And a flexible waistline is vital in enticing the judges.”

Felicia removed her hands. “Let me see you try on your own.”

Magdiel made a very feeble attempt at moving her waist in the same circular motion.

“Come on, you can do better than that.” said Felicia, smiling warmly.

Felicia had been nothing but kind and jovial ever since she came into the room, and that made Magdiel dislike her even more; because whereas Felicia seemed to get over grudges easily, Magdiel struggled- and so, it made Felicia seem like a better person than she was.

Magdiel glanced over at Choy, who was sitting quietly in a corner of the room, watching them. She felt very self-conscious doing such a sensual dance in front of him. She could now understand why Felicia’s presence was necessary; for she helped to cut the tension.

“Give it another go, Magdiel.” Felicia said.

Magdiel turned away from Choy and made a better effort.

“Good!” said Felicia. “Now a little faster and more forceful… nice! Now even faster…”

After a while, Magdiel found that she was really getting the hang of the move and liked how freeing and powerful it made her feel. Soon she was moving her waist so fast that Felicia excitedly exclaimed that she was a natural.

“Next time, wear something that reveals your stomach.” Felicia said. “That way you can feel the movement more, and I can assess you better.”

It was the end of practice and all three of them were making their way out of the abandoned room.

Magdiel nodded; though the thought of Choy seeing her stomach made her a bit nervous. Still, she enjoyed practice today and was actually looking forward to the next one.

Out in the hallway, Felicia went in one direction, leaving Choy and Magdiel to walk together in the other. They both travelled in complete silence, without daring to look at each other; until Magdiel’s assistant met them half-way and they parted ways.

Chapter 41

Carried Away

Over the next few weeks, dance practices with Felicia went from simple waist rotations, to routines that pushed Magdiel’s flexibility to it’s limits. Magdiel was in pain and sweating profusely at the end of every class; but she preferred it that way. It kept her mind too weary to stray to its usual dark places.

At the moment, Magdiel was admiring her figure in a full-length mirror in the abandoned room. Choy had put it up to help her practice her moves. She was wearing what had now become her regular dance attire: a short lace top that revealed her full stomach, and a knee-length lace skirt, with ankle-length tights underneath. Magdiel could see how much more toned her arms and stomach were; even her face seemed more defined. If only Raj could see her now. Magdiel’s smile faded instantly at the thought. What was the point of having a great figure, if there was no one special to see it?

Magdiel suddenly realized that she was not the only one looking at her figure. Through the mirror, she could see Choy in his corner, staring at the back of her. He was so fixated that it took him a few seconds to realize that Magdiel had noticed him; then he hastily lowered his gaze and cleared his throat.

“Ah, Felicia won’t be coming today.” he said, rising from his seat to walk towards Magdiel. “Actually, she won’t be coming back at all.”

“What? Why?”

Magdiel had actually started to like Felicia; who turned out to be a genuinely nice person. Felicia paid much concern to Magddiel’s emotional state, often trying her best to give Magdiel positive pep talks to help build her confidence and to ease her mind from worrying about the challenges ahead, with the plan; especially the dying part (she did not know that that was the part Magdiel looked forward to most).

Things are getting even more hectic now in the mail room.” Choy explained.

“But why didn’t she tell me anything?”

“Because she hadn’t planned on stopping so soon. But the quantity of mail suddenly became overwhelming.”

“So who’s going to train me from now on?”

“I will, of course.” said Choy, simply.

“Oh.” said Magdiel, feeling disappointed.

Things were still quite awkward between her and Choy. They hardly spoke to each other anymore, and he only dropped into practice once in a while to silently observe her and Felicia’s performance. Thus, Magdiel was not very keen to be alone with him.

“Don’t worry. You won’t be with me for too long. It’s only a month till the competition.”

Magdiel felt bad. “I didn’t mean-”

“You don’t have to explain.” said Choy. “I’m not offended.”

Still, Magdiel looked away from him, feeling embarrassed.

“Anyway,” said Choy “Felicia taught you the technique of dancing, so it’s time for me to teach you the routine. On the night of the pageant, persons will be playing the drums and the flute while you dance. But for now, we just have to keep the beat in our heads.”

Magdiel nodded that she understood.

“I want you to start off slow, simple and very sensual.”

“Sensual?”

“Yes.” said Choy. “Make the judges want you. The more aroused they are, the more points you’ll get… Like I said, they’re just men.” Choy added, at the appalled look on Magdiel’s face.

“So, in the beginning, do more waist movements.” Choy continued. “And make deep eye contact- there’s nothing more captivating than the eyes. Afterwards, pick up the pace and attempt more complicated techniques. That way, you’ll get points for talent. And the outfit is important too. Make sure that the assistants dress you in the skimpiest outfit they can find- something like what you’re wearing now, but without the sleeves and the tights-”

“But my skirt is sheer.” Said Magdiel, incredulously.

“Exactly.” Choy said simply.

Magdiel felt overwhelmed by how much thought had to go into her performance. And although she was now very accustomed to being naked in front of the assistants and other poppies, it was terrifying to imagine being so scantily clad in front of a large audience of strange men- especially the priests and the king himself.

“Let’s begin.” Said Choy. “Show me your most sensual move.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Show me how you would begin your dance on the day.”

“You mean right now?”

“When else?” said Choy. “Just keep the beat in your head and pretend that you’re dancing for that boy of yours back home.”

Magdiel gave Choy a hard look.

“Sorry.” said Choy. “I know you don’t like me talking about him.”

“No. I don’t.” said Magdiel, firmly.

“I was just trying to help.” Said Choy; but Magdiel did not believe him. His tone had sounded much too bitter. “You can think about whatever you want. Let’s just get started.”

Magdiel took a few deep breaths, then closed her eyes and did a little jig with her waist.

“You need eye contact.” Said Choy.

Magdiel opened her eyes, but found it difficult to keep contact with Choy; so she kept her gaze past him and did the jig again. She knew before Choy started shaking his head that it was not good, because she had felt very awkward doing it.

“That’s not how Felicia taught you.”

“Just give me a moment to get myself together.” Said Magdiel.

“Why? Do I make you nervous?”

Magdiel could not tell whether Choy was being playful or not, but she did indeed find herself feeling very self- conscious. Nevertheless, Magdiel could not let him know this.

She immediately straightened her stance and clasped her hands high above her head- in a form that Felicia had said was a sure tease. Then, bending her knees slightly, Magdiel began to move her waist from side to side - first slowly and smoothly, keeping a steady rhythm in her head; then deeper and more forcefully. All the while, Magdiel kept her eyes fixed into Choy’s and he kept her gaze is well. His eyes then began to slowly roam her body, and Magdiel felt an intense heat wherever they went. She now began to move her waist in deep circles, with her hands flowing freely all about her.

Choy’s face was now a deep shade of red. It was incredible to Magdiel that she could make a man as coarse as Choy blush; and it made her want to do even more.

She stepped forward bit by bit, twirling her arms and hips all the while, until her chest was grazing against Choy’s stomach (since he was significantly taller than she was). She could feel Choy’s rapid heartbeat. Magdiel was looking up at him and him intensely down at her, his hot breath upon her face. Magdiel then turned her back to Choy, took ahold of both of his hands, and placed them firmly on her waist. She shivered slightly, despite the warmth of his touch against her bare skin; then she began the motion of her waist once more.

After a while, Choy’s hand moved upward from Magdiel’s waist and over her chest, until it reached her face; which he gently turned and inclined upwards. He leaned in for a kiss. It was then that Magdiel realized that things had gone much farther than they were supposed to; and she quickly released herself from Choy’s grasp.

“I can’t.” Magdiel said, breathing heavily, with her back still turned to him. She felt too ashamed to look at his face.

“I’m sorry.” Said Choy, his voice raspy. “I shouldn’t have-”

“No. It was my fault.” said Magdiel. “I did too much. I went too far.”

“It’s what I asked you to do; and you did great. I-I should have had more self-control.”

Magdiel did not respond. She just stood there, with her back still turned to Choy, waiting- for what? She did not know.

Finally, Choy said “We can cancel practice for today, if you want.”

At that, Magdiel hastily left the room, without anther word and without looking back at Choy.

Back in her room, Magdiel could not stop from crying. She felt that she had committed the ultimate betrayal.

Raj did not deserve what she had just done. He had always been good and faithful to her. Raj was hers and she was his. That is what they always said. But now, Magdiel felt that she had given Choy a piece of her- a piece of what belonged to Raj. And it was not only because of their intimacy during the dance today. Magdiel had been thinking of Choy entirely too much over the past few weeks; and had sometimes tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in his hovering wake, wrapped in his long, strong arms. [_ Maybe that was why she did it- to satisfy her curiosity. _]

Magdiel knew that, if given the choice, she would choose Raj over Choy in a heartbeat- she still loved Raj above all else. However, she longed to get back to when Raj was all who she wanted-the only man that she yearned for.

Magdiel finally reached for a handkerchief in the top drawer of the dressing table and wiped her face. She did not want her assistant, who would be there at any moment, to find her in such a mess; though Magdiel was sure that her assistant would not be the least bit upset. Ever since her speech, it seemed that she could do no wrong in their eyes. They had been raining down merits for every little thing that Magdiel did. Sometimes, she only had to smile and she would receive ten or twenty points for being pleasant, or even if she woke up before the assistant got to her room in the morning (which Magdiel normally did before), she would receive merits for promptness. Thus, Magdiel had long since made up for the one hundred points that she had lost, and had exceeded the quota that Choy had given her; and so, she seemed to have a sure spot in the top fifty.

As Magdiel re-did the bun in her hair, she tried to figure out what she could do to master her feelings towards Choy. It seemed impossible to completely erase him, for she had to see him every night at dinner; and now, she would be having dance practices with him all alone. It was just too much contact.

Magdiel lowered her hands from her head and looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes were still a bit puffy, but she looked fine otherwise. She was also impressed by how well she had created the bun on her own- never having done it before. To Magdiel, it looked even better than how the assistant had done it.

Then it came to her. She knew what she had to do to get over Choy.

Chapter 42

Feelings

“Absolutely not!” bellowed Choy.

It was the day of the very next practice and they were in the abandoned room. Magdiel had addressed Choy calmly, cautiously even; but he had still gotten angry.

“Why not?” said Magdiel, still trying to remain composed.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Choy said, incredulously. “You can’t practice on your own, because you are not a professional. You don’t know what you’re doing!”

“But you said yourself, Choy, that I already know the technique. All I need is the routine.”

“And do you really think that you can make up a decent enough routine on your own?”

Magdiel gave Choy a knowing look, to remind him of how good her impromptu routine had been at the last practice.

Choy’s face immediately started to turn red. “Look Magdiel, what happened last time was… you don’t have to worry about that… You had just caught me off-guard, and… it won’t happen again, I promise. I can control myself.”

All of Choy’s harshness suddenly seemed to dissolve and he appeared very young and vulnerable- like a small, pleading boy; and Magdiel felt her heart tug. She wanted badly to caress his slender, sad face, to just embrace and comfort him; and to even kiss his full lips.

Magdiel finally understood how Raj must have felt when he decided to leave her for Millikies.

“Maybe you can control yourself, but I can’t.” Magdiel said softly.

Choy’s eyes widened, in surprise; and Magdiel quickly lowered her gaze.

“That’s the problem.” she continued. “Although I might die after all of this, I want to be faithful to my boyfriend till the very end… I also need a clear head for the competition, and you are… sort of a distraction.”

Magdiel was surprised at how open and honest she was being. She looked back up at Choy, and he opened his mouth to speak; but Magdiel stopped him- afraid that he might take this opportunity to profess is feelings for her as well and weaken her resolve.

“Please Choy. I can do this on my own. I promise.”

For a while, Choy’s expression was unreadable. Then he nodded slowly.

Chapter 43

Final Ranking

Two more poppies had been killed over the past two weeks. With the competition close at hand, the poppies had long forgotten about Magdiel’s speech and the bond that it had formed between them. They were now even more deathly competitive than before. Magdiel lived in complete fear, and made sure to keep her bedroom door securely locked at all times; as well as to closely examine every meal before eating.

For that reason, Magdiel was glad that the end had finally come. A big blackboard had been pulled to the front of the dining room. In just a few minutes, the sheet covering it would be removed, to reveal the fifty official pageant contestants.

The dining room was even quieter than usual, as everyone ate their dinner in complete silence. Magdiel made no such effort to eat, for she knew that the knot that had formed in her stomach would not allow anything to stay down.

From the looks of it, the other poppies were not taking the wait very well either. Many of their beautiful faces were stalk white and sombre-looking, as they played with the food on the plates in front of them. Some were whispering frantically under their breaths, and Magdiel assumed that they were praying.

Magdiel knew that she had a good chance of making it into the top fifty, because of how generous the assistants had been in awarding her merits. Still, the fact remained that she had started to receive these merits much later than the other poppies, and so it was possible that she had fallen short.

Magdiel shifted her attention to the front of the room, where Choy was busily conversing with some assistants and fellow eunuchs. It seemed as though he was giving them instructions- maybe about how to go about revealing the results. Magdiel wondered if he already knew what they were. She kept her eyes fixed on Choy, silently willing him to look over in her direction and give her some sort of sign; but he did not. He ignored her as he had done for the past month.

Although Magdiel had asked Choy to let her practice alone, she had expected him to check in on her every once in a while- to see how she was progressing; or at the very least, to help her study for the question and answer segment. Magdiel had had to completely fend for herself; and she wondered whether Choy had taken her rejection harder than she had thought.

Magdiel pushed aside the twinge of guilt that had suddenly began to pester her. She had never meant to hurt Choy, but she had done the right thing. They could not have gone on spending that much time together, without things going completely wrong.

Felicia appeared at that moment, and was tending to a poppy at the table in front of Magdiel’s. She turned surreptitiously and gave Magdiel a quick, feeble smile, before hustling away. Magdiel thought that Felicia looked even more nervous than she did.

There was a loud clinking of glass, and everyone jumped a little in their seat, including Magdiel. She turned and saw that it was Choy trying to get everyone’s attention, from the front of the room.

“Before I reveal the results,” he said to the room at large, in his characteristically coarse voice, “I just want to lay down some instructions. If your name is listed in the top fifty, you are officially a contestant in the pageant, and will be moved to new quarters within the Palace. However, if your name is listed higher than fifty, you are no longer a contender for sacrifice and will be escorted from the Palace first thing in the morning.”

At that, there were audible sobs across the room, from the poppies; and Magdiel closed her eyes in an effort to master her own trepidation.

“Now as you are all well aware,” Choy continued, “there can only be one winner. And as unfortunate as the loss may be, I implore all of you, who are not fortunate enough to win, to find a way to move on and live a happy and fruitful life. Comfort yourselves in the fact that you were willing to serve your country in such a noble manner as this. I can assure you that Harun knows your heart and is pleased with your effort.”

Magdiel knew that Choy was saying this because the poppies tended to have a hard time coping with life after losing the death pageant. She had heard that many of them committed suicide soon after returning home.

Choy uncovered the blackboard and, at first, none of the poppies moved. They sat looking around, anxiously, at each other. Then, after a few seconds, many of them dashed forward. Magdiel stayed behind with a few others, for she needed some more time to prepare herself for the possibility of failure.

Soon after, there were shouts of joy mingled with despairing cries, coming from the front of the room. Magdiel saw eunuchs struggling to lift poppies off of the floor, who had apparently fainted- whether out of jubilation or anguish, Magdiel was not sure; but the more she looked on, the more nervous she became.

After the commotion had died down somewhat, Magdiel finally made her way to the front. Choy was no longer there. Magdiel could see him in the corner of the room, trying to revive one of the fainted poppies; and she was glad. She did not want to see that look of disappointment on his face if she had not made it.

Just as Magdiel was about to make her way through the crowd of poppies, Felicia burst through infront of her and gave her a bright smile as she passed by; which caused Magdiel’s heart to leap. She quickly pushed through the crowd and saw her name in the fortieth place.

Chapter 44

Closure

“Fortieth place! Wow! That’s much better than I expected in such a short period of time!” Felicia exclaimed. “Oh I’m so sorry Magdiel!” she added, after splashing soapy water in Magdiel’s eyes.

They had just returned from the results ceremony and Felicia was in Magdiel’s bathroom, giving her a bath. She had asked Magdiel’s assistant to let her take over for the night, stating that Choy had given her specific instructions for his poppy. That was a lie. As far as Magdiel could see, Felicia had only wanted to expound upon their victory.

“It’s alright, Felicia.” said Magdiel, leaning back to allow Felicia to pour some fresh water into her eyes, from a small jug.

Felicia then wiped Magdiel’s face with a damp rag.

“What’s wrong, Magdiel?” she said, after she had finished. “You don’t look too excited.”

“I don’t know. I just… don’t think that I’m ready. I think that maybe I need more practice.”

“Choy told me about you practicing on your own.” Felicia said.

Magdiel nodded. She felt that annoyingly familiar pang of jealousy at Choy and Felicia’s close relationship. “I don’t know what I was thinking really.” She said. “It’s been a disaster.”

Magdiel had had a lot of trouble, over the past month, coming up with a suitable dance routine. Every time that she thought she had one, she tweaked and re-tweaked it, before scrapping the entire thing and starting with something completely different; so that now she still did not have a routine for the pageant.

Furthermore, due to the strain of dancing for countless hours- even sometimes all throughout the night- Magdiel had also had difficulty memorizing her Harun notes for the question segment.

“Magdiel, I’ve seen you dance. You’re a natural. You can do this.”

Felicia placed a gentle hand on Magdiel’s bare shoulder. “Please don’t worry so much. Try to… Try to enjoy every moment that you have left.”

Felicia’s voice trembled slightly, and Magdiel was surprised to see her eyes fill with tears. She looked genuinely heartbroken by the possibility of Magdiel being executed at the end of the pageant- if the plan were to succeed.

Magdiel felt dejected as well. Now that she was officially a contestant in the pageant, it was more of a reality that she might be leaving Raj for good.

“Magdiel,” Felicia continued, “the main reason that I came here tonight is to talk about that letter you wanted to send to your boyfriend-”

“It’s alright Felicia. I’m over it. I completely understand why you couldn’t risk it.”

“That’s good to know.” said Felicia. “But I want to help you send it now.”

Magdiel sat up straighter in the tub. “Why?”

“Because you can’t face death and not say goodbye to the one you love.” Said Felicia. “It’s… not right.”

Magdiel cleared her throat from the tears that were suddenly threatening to come, before speaking. “Choy already sent a letter to Mr. Caldwell, and Mr. Calwell will pass on the message.”

“He needs to hear it from you, Magdiel.”

Magdiel looked up at Felicia’s intense face, not sure of what to say. Ever since she decided to be a part of the non- believers’ plan, writing to Raj had no longer seemed appealing. In fact, Magdiel dreaded it. How do you tell someone that you love more than anything that they will never see you again? And that all of your hopes and dreams together will never come to pass? How could she tell Raj that it was not because of any uncontrollable circumstance, but because of her own choice to die.

“I can’t, Felicia.” Magdiel finally said weakly, the tears now released. “H-he’ll be crushed.”

“But don’t you see, Magdiel? He’ll hurt even more if he doesn’t hear from you this one last time.”

Felicia had long left Magdiel’s room, but Magdiel was still up and seated around her vanity table.

There was a large pile of scrunched up balls of parchment at her feet, which represented her numerous attempts at constructing a farewell letter to Raj.

Dear Raj

I’ve decided to be a part of the death pageant after all, because this life is too painful for me to bear.

Magdiel quickly scrunched up that piece of parchment and added it to the pile on the floor. It was just as hard as she knew it would be. The more Magdiel tried to explain herself, the more ridiculous and selfish she seemed to sound. But she needed to write something by tomorrow morning to give to Felicia; because after moving to the new poppy quarters, they were not sure to see each other again.

Just as Magdiel rolled out a fresh page to begin writing again, her bedroom door opened. Magdiel turned and was immediately angered by the sight of Choy.

“Hi.” he said simply, walking towards her.

“What’re you doing here?” Magdiel spat.

Choy stopped halfway across the room, looking taken aback by Magdiel’s cold reception.

“I just came to say goodbye.” he said.

“Goodbye?” said Magdiel, confused.

“ Yes. The eunuchs are not allowed to see their charge after tomorrow- after you’ve moved. Didn’t you know?”

“How could I?” Magdiel said. “You completely deserted me!”

“Wasn’t that what you wanted?”

“I wanted you to let me practice alone, not to forget about me!”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Magdiel. I knew you could handle it.”

“But I couldn’t! That’s the point!” Magdiel said, becoming even more angered by Choy’s nonchalant attitude.

“What do you mean?” said Choy, more seriously now.

Magdiel explained how she did not have a routine and knew hardly anything about Harun, and how she felt that she had even forgotten her walking posture.

When Magdiel was finished, she did not think that Choy looked nearly as concerned as he should.

“That’s just fear, Magdiel.” he said. “You’ll be fine.”

“How are you so sure?”

Choy appeared a little uncomfortable now. “Because… Like I said, you always amaze me.

Magdiel felt herself blush. She quickly turned her face back towards the vanity table mirror and tightened her night robe around her.

Then, to Magdiel’s horror, Choy walked over to Lucinda’s bed and sat down. It felt as if he had violated a sacred place.

“What are you doing?” Magdiel said, breathing heavily.

“Come here.” Choy said, patting a place on the bed next to him.

“No!” said Magdiel. “Get up from there!”

Choy tilted his head a little as he looked over at Magdiel. “You’re still sleeping the floor, aren’t you?” he said.

Magdiel did not respond. She could not bear to look over at Lucinda’s bed any longer, and turned her head away.

“Magdiel, you’re never going to get over it until to you stop avoiding these beds.”

“I don’t need to get over it.” Magdiel said, with her head still turned away. “I’m about to die soon, aren’t I?”

Choy took a few seconds to respond. “Well, until then, you need some sort of peace… so that you can move forward more freely.”

“Why do you even care?” Magdiel said.

Again, Choy did not respond right away. “So that you’ll perform better in the pageant.”

Although it was a legitimate reason, and one that should have been expected, Magdiel felt disappointed. She chided herself immediately; because [_ why had she wanted Choy to say something more personal- like maybe how much he cared for her? _]

“I can perform just fine without sleeping in any of those beds.” Madiel said stubbornly.

“No, you can’t.” Choy persisted. “Trust me. I know how hard it is to function with a heavy heart.”

Magdiel looked over at Choy again and saw that his expression was deeply pained. She knew that he was referring to the murder that he had committed- the only one, apart from Alicia’s, which had haunted him on that first night he came into her room.

Madiel opened her mouth to ask him about it, but remembered how irate he had gotten the last time.

“I’ll manage.” she said instead.

Choy gave a long, exasperated sigh. “Come over here, Magdiel.” he said again.

Magdiel turned her head away again and did not move.

“Come here.” Choy said more sternly.

Still, Magdiel remained seated. Her body began to shake slightly as the image of Lucinda’s cold, dead face against the pillow, came vividly to her mind. She suddenly felt the need to get as far away from the bed as possible.

Magdiel made a dash for the closet; but before she reached the door, Choy blocked her path and picked her up in his arms- as effortlessly as if she were a small child.

“No! Choy no!” Magdiel screamed, squirming wildly in his hand. But Choy was too strong, and she could not free herself.

“Be quiet, or the guards might hear you.” Choy said.

But Magdiel did not have the capability to care about anything at the moment, besides making sure that Choy did not put her into that bed. She continued to scream until Choy placed a hand over her mouth.

“Listen Magdiel! Look at me! Calm down and look at me. Look at me, Magdiel.”

Magdiel stopped screaming and fighting, and looked up into Choy’s face. He smiled warmly at her, and Magdiel felt her breathing begin to steady and she could think more clearly. She had never seen him smile before. He had a nice smile. The next thing she knew, she was being lowered onto the bed. Magdiel shut her eyes tight, as Lucinda’s face came back to her mind, and the fear started to overtake her again. But right then, she felt Choy’s firm hold around her, and she was calm once more.

“Shhh. It’s alright.” Magdiel heard him whisper. “It’s just a bed.”

Magdiel was not sure how long they had been lying there, on Lucinda’s bed, cuddled tightly together; but it felt like a very long time. All of her memories of Lucinda had come flooding back; not only of her death this time, but the good times too- of the many nights laughing in that very bed. It was no longer Lucinda’s cold, dead face that Magdiel saw, but her young, vibrant and extremely beautiful one, that was filled with purpose and determination.

Magdiel remembered that Lucinda’s sole ambition was to help create a death-free future for young girls in Acus; and this somehow resurrected Magdiel’s willpower. [_ She had to win this pageant- not only for herself, but for Lucinda. She had to ensure that Lucinda did not die in vain _].

In the end, Magdiel did indeed feel lighter. She felt as if she was finally able to tell Lucinda goodbye.

Chapter 45

Unfinished Plan

Magdiel awoke while it was still dark, and immediately felt for Choy on the bed. He was not there. She bolted upright and glanced around the dark room, but saw no shadow of him. He was gone.

Magdiel was instantly saddened by this discovery, for she had not gotten to tell him goodbye. The last thing Magdiel vaguely remembered saying to Choy was that he needed to deal with what was hurting him too- that murder he had committed. Choy had said something about how he needed to hold on to that hurt in order to do what he needed to do.

This had not made much sense to Magdiel; but she must have been too tired to push the issue, and had fallen asleep.

Magdiel was not sure what she would have said to Choy if given the chance. That she wished him all the best? That she hoped he eventually got over the murder that was troubling him? That she thought he was a great and caring person, although he had difficulty showing it? That she hopedt he found love one day, despite his missing genitals ? Yes. Magdiel wished that she had said all of that; because she realized that she did in fact care about Choy, and wanted him to be happy. But she definitely would not have told him anything romantic- no matter how strongly she felt about him. Magdiel was determined to preserve that part of her only for Raj.

“Raj!” Magdiel suddenly said out loud.

She had completely forgotten to finish the letter to him. Felicia would be there any minute to collect it.

Magdiel scrambled out of bed and rushed over to the vanity table. There, she lit a candle and attempted to write the letter as quickly as she could.

Magdiel found that, under the time constraint, and with her renewed perspective from last night, the words came much easier.

Dear Raj,

When you asked me to marry you, it was the happiest moment of my life; because a future with you is all that I had ever wanted, ever since I was old enough to have any real desires.

It gave me something amazing to look forward to. That is what got me through those lonely days in my room and those awful months when you left me, and through my worst days here at the Palace.

What I’m trying to say is, my hope for a happy future with you is what has kept me alive all of these years… until now.

I must have been naïve to believe that we could actually be happy together forever. Being here at the Palace, my eyes have opened and I realize that life is not fair. It is hard and downright cruel. And just not worth living.

That is why I’ve decided to be a part of the non-believers’ plan, because if I am successful, I will be executed and eased of my sorrows.

And so, as I am sure you’ve figured out by now, this letter is to say goodbye.

I know you may think I’m selfish for leaving you like this, and maybe I am, but I don’t know what else to do. I’m not strong enough to handle you falling out of love with me one day or you leaving me, or whatever other calamity life might throw our way. And it’s not fair for me to strain you with my constant sadness.

This is the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. My heart feels as if it is ripping apart while I’m writing. So I’ll stop here.

Goodbye Raj. I love you more than words can say.

Magdiel.

Magdiel sat immobile, staring at the letter. She could not believe that that was it. That might be the last time that she would ever speak to Raj. Magdiel felt too devastated to even cry.

Some time later, there was a faint knock at the door, which broke Magdiel’s mournful trance. She knew that it had to be Felicia.

Magdiel quickly folded up the piece of parchment that she had written on and ran to unlock the door.

“Do you have the letter?” Fe licia said, as soon as she had slipped inside. “We don’t have much time.”

Magdiel handed the letter to her, and Felicia hastily turned to leave.

“Wait!” said Magdiel. “Will he be able to write back?”

“Well, the royal mail carriers are the fastest there is.” said Felicia, turning back around. “But for Galden, they take at least two days both ways; which will bring us to the final day of the pageant.” Felicia sounded sympathetic. “And it’s unlikely that the mail carriers will wait for a response anyway… so, probably not.”

“Good.” Said Magdiel. She did not think that her resolve was strong enough to withstand a response from Raj, begging her to come home.

Felicia looked surprised by Madiel’s response but was apparently in too much of a rush to ask for an explanation. She turned to leave again.

“One more thing.” said Magdiel. “Are you sure that the mail carrier is a non-believer?”

Felicia had told Magdiel last night that two of the royal mail carriers were non-believers, and that she would use one of them to send Raj’s letter; although this was not entirely necessary, since no one would dare to open a letter sealed with the royal stamp- as Raj’s letter would be. Still, Magdiel did not want to take any chances with Raj’s life.

“Yes, I’m positive.” said Felicia impatiently, already half-way through the door. “I’ll give it to the mail carrier myself, don’t worry.”

Felicia took a few steps through the door, before turning back around to face Magdiel. Her face was downcast.

“The mail room is crazy around this time;” she said, “especially since I’ll have to keep the NB leaders abreast of your performance… so, if I don’t see you again…”

Felicia got so emotional that she could not continue. Magdiel felt touched that the young assistant could care about her so much, in such a short period of time; and in that instant, all of her resentment towards Felicia, because of Choy, seemed to vanish.

“Goodbye Magdiel.” Felicia said, after composing herself. “Make us proud.”

“Before Magdiel could respond, Felicia was already speeding down the hallway.

Magdiel closed the door and slowly walked back over to the vanity table. Felicia’s words were still playing in her head. Make us proud. All of the non-believers were depending on her to be their saviour. This plan was not just about her. She had given these people hope; and Magdiel was afraid that she might let them down in the end.

The end. Magdiel suddenly began to panic. Choy had forgotten to tell her how the plan would end. How was she supposed to kill the king?

Chapter 46

New Quarters

The contestants’ new quarters were on the first floor of the Palace. The assistants had placed them into two separate rooms across the hall from each other.

Magdiel sat on her bed, waiting for her assistant to return. She had shown Magdiel to her bed just a few minutes ago, and had left for the linen closet outside.

Magdiel looked around, warily, at the twenty-four other poppies that were her new roommates. She did not like the way that some of them were eyeing her. She knew that they saw her as a threat because of all of the special treatment that she had been getting from the assistants and eunuchs recently.

For that reason, Magdiel had hoped to get her own room, so that she could lock herself away from them. Instead, she was mortified to discover that they would be sharing a long room with no separation whatsoever- just thirty or so small, canopy beds lined against the two opposing walls.

She lowered her gaze and tried not to imagine what the other poppies might try to do to her once the assistants had left the room and they were alone.

It was late at night and Magdiel was wide awake, too afraid to even close her eyes. There were some other poppies fighting sleep as well, sitting up in their beds and nodding ever so often. Magdiel assumed that they too did not trust the other poppies.

Even Magdiel’s assistant had warned her to forget about beauty sleep that night, and had assured Magdiel that she would cover any dark eye circles with makeup in the morning.

But Magdiel could not fall asleep even if she wanted to. Her mind was still troubled with the fact that she did not know how to complete the plan. Choy had deserted her once again. How could he possibly expect her to know how to kill the king on her own? Unlike him, she had never murdered anyone.

The only thing that Magdiel could do was to try to perform optimally in each segment so as to make it to the top three, and hope that Choy worked something out within that time. Because of her placement, she was coming into the pageant with just ten points- forty points less than the top contestant; so she had a lot of catching up to do.

Chapter 47

The dressing room was hot, crowded and chaotic. Poppies were breaking down in tears and snapping at assistants for not doing their hair and make-up just right; and assistants were shouting orders and bustling about carrying big, heavy gowns and trays of shiny accessories.

Magdiel alone appeared calm. She stood still and quiet in front of one of the many mirrors lining the walls, while her assistant fitted her into a gown for her first walk across the stage. On the inside, however, all of Magdiel’s emotions were running wild, and she felt like screaming.

“I think that this is the best gown of the bunch.” The assistant said softly in Magdiel’s ear. “Me and some of the other assistants fought hard to secure it for you.”

The assistant was smiling kindly, but Magdiel was too distsracted to smile back.

“There.” The assistant said, after she had fastened the last button at the back of the dress.

Magdiel did not recognize herself. Her hair was big with numerous tight curls (which her assistant had taken all day to do), and it now flowed to the center of her back instead of to the top of her tail bone. She was also wearing much more makeup than normal- with her face a significantly lighter shade than the rest of her body, her cheeks deeply blushed, and her lips blood-red and strangely sparkly. Magdiel thought that she looked about ten years older, and was not sure that she found the new look flattering. But then, what did she know? Maybe the Judges had different tastes that she did.

The dress, on the other hand, was clearly stunning. For a moment, Magdiel forgot about her nervousness, and almost smiled as she turned and admired the very long lace train. The entire dress was a deep red with intricate floral designs upon its widely flared bottom. The strapless bodice was simple and very tight, which made Magdiel’s bossom appear much larger than it really was. On the contrary, it made her already tiny waist look miniscule.

Magdiel touched her bare chest. In normal circumstances, a woman would be considered unrespectable to wear a dress so revealing. But the rules did not seem to apply to the death pageant, Magdiel thought bitterly, as she turned to look at the angry, yelling poppies, who she knew would kill each other in a heartbeat just to win. Here, all morals and heart were cast aside.

“What’s wrong?” said the assistant. “You seem troubled.”

“It’s just, today is the big day.” said Magdiel.

The assistant smiled sympathetically. “I really do hope that you win, Magdiel. You deserve to be Harun’s wife.”

This time, Magdiel smiled back. She was surprised and touched by the genuine affection shown to her by all of the asisstants. Maybe there was heart here after all. It was just hard to see, because the people were just so deceived. They needed a savior. They didn’t know it yet, but the believers too needed her to win and finish this plan.

“Come. It’s time to line up.” The assistant said; and Magdiel’s knees suddenly felt shaky and she almost toppled over.

Most of the poppies were fidgeting frantically with their hair and dresses as they made their way towards the back of the castle, in two straight lines. Magdiel was close to the back of one of the lines, fidgeting as well- not because she thought that something as wrong with her appearance, but she needed something to do with her hands.

As they approached the set of double doors that led into the courtyard, Magdiel could hear the loud commotion outside.

Ms. Greaux, the Head Assistant, met them at the door. All of the fidgeting stopped abruptly, as the poppies gave her their full attention.

“Alright, contestants. This is it.” She said, looking around at them intensely. Her high-pitched voice shook slightly, and she seemed just as nervous as they were.

“This is your one and only chance to achieve the goal that you have been preparing for all of your lives… So remember your training and perform at your best.”

Magdiel’s insides suddenly tightened and she had to open her mouth and take deep breaths so that she would not stifle.

“Now, straighten your lines.” Ms. Greaux said, her tone suddenly sharp. “When the doors open, walk straight along the path to the stage. Keep your heads in front of you, and turn neither to the left nor the right. The coordinator will direct you from there.”

Ms. Greaux gave them one last, long look. “May Harun find favour in you.” She said, before nodding to the guard at the door. He opened it and the noise was almost deafening.

All Magdiel could see at first was a blur of lights. Then as she got closer to the door, countless cheering faces were visible behind high, wooden fences on either side of a long and narrow pathway- which was brightly lit by a line of lanterns on high poles. It lead to a magnificent, wooden stage, which towered lumoinously over the crowd.

Instead of keeping her head straight as she walked, like Ms. Geaux had instructed, Magdiel searched the faces behind the fence for Raj. Magdiel knew that it was very unlikely that she would see him, even if he was there, because of the immense crowd; and that his presenece would only make it harder for her to do what she needed to do. Still, a part of her longed for one last glimpse of the handsome face that had been her rock for so many years.

Magdiel’s search came to an abrupt end as the crowd became more and more raucous, and the fence creaked as if to break. Large numbers of Kings Guards rushed forward to surround the poppies, while others used fat sticks to beat persons away. It was complete mayhem.

When they reached the stage, someone directed the two lines to ascend each of the stairs that were on either side. Then they met at the top and formed one long line across the stage, facing the crowd.

Magdiel looked around in amazement. From so high up, she had a full view of the crowd. It looked as if all of Acus was there. She had never seen so many people in one place before. They were still cheering excitedly, and Magdiel could hardly hear what the director was saying.

The same lady that had directed the lines at the bottom of the stage, now stood before them, shouting orders. Magdiel thought that she heard her say something about a door, as she pointed towards the back of the stage. Magdiel began to panic, because What if she missed out on some important information?

The director then began pulling poppies out of the line, and putting them in order, according to the numbers that had been stuck to their chest since inside the castle. Magdiel’s number was forty.

All of a sudden, there was a deafening sound, which vibrated painfully through Magdiel’s entire body. The crowd quieted almost instantly. Then there was the sound again, and Magdiel turned and saw that it was coming from a sort of flat, circular, metallic object, suspended between poles at the end of the stage closest to Magdiel. It was being hit by a large Kings Guard with a thick, rounded stick.

Magdiel heard the director much more clearly now. “The king and the other judges are about to come out!” she was saying. “Stand still and wait for further instructions-”

Just then, five extinguishably dressed little boys ran out to the very front and center of the stage, where there was a long, shiny, wooden table. Each stood behind one of the five chairs behind the table, facing the poppies.

Soon after, Magdiel watched in awe as a very tall and muscular man, wearing a long, green robe and golden crown sauntered across the stage.

Right away, the crowd began to chant “All hail king Jon! All hail King Jon! All Hail King Jon…”

Magdiel had never seen the king before, and he was nothing like she had expected. For some reason, Magdiel had always imagined the king to be an old, overfed, round-bellied man. In reality, however, the king looked about in his forties, and very fierce-looking and strong. How was she supposed to kill this beast?

The boy at the center if the table quickly pulled out the chair infront of him, and the king took his seat.

Magdiel was so fixated on the king that she hardly noticed the four priests that had joined him around the table, until persons began to bow their heads in reverence. Magdiel quickly followed suit.

The director then stepped forward and addressed the crowd at the top of her lungs.

“ People of Acus. Welcome to the beginning of our most important annual event- The Death Pageant.”

She paused to let the people cheer wildly for a few seconds, before continuing.

“Tonight, we present to you fifty of the best that Acus has to offer to our great God, Harun; and from them, we will select our Worthy Sacrament. Please welcome them as they walk across the stage.”

There was deafening, unending cheers. Then the line moved down slightly as contestant number one stepped forward and made her way across the stage, and in front of the judge’s table.

As more contestants took their turns across the stage, Magdiel watched each of them intently, hoping to glean something from their performances – which varied greatly. Some walked so smoothly and elegantly that it seemed as if they were gliding on water, and Magdiel feared that she had already lost. Others were not able to effectively maneuver their lengthy trains and stumbled often, with one actually falling flat on her face. Magdiel thought that she saw blood when the kings guard rushed to pick her up.

Throughout each performance, however, the judges’ expressions remained the same- blank. Magdiel knew that she had to do something unique, in order to capture their attention and secure any chance of winning.

As Magdiel’s turn neared, she closed her eyes and tried to remember some of Choy’s words during their practices. Just keep your back and neck straight and move one foot in front of the other, swaying your hips ever so slightly. And, eye contact is the most powerful.

Magdiel opened her eyes. She was next. The contestants had all strutted across the stage twice before disappearing towards the back; so that must have been what the director was saying when Magdiel could not hear her, and that was what Magdiel had to do as well.

Magdiel kicked her train behind her and started a slow, careful strut. She was not sure if it was her imagination, but there seemed to be a sudden increase in the crowd’s applause. Magdiel thought that it had to be her dress that appeased them, because her walk at the moment as not very impressive; and, as her assistant had said, her dress was the best of the bunch.

As the loud cheering continued, Magdiel got the confidence to increase her pace. The length of the stage was greater than Magdiel had first thought, because it seemed to be taking her a long time to reach the judges’ table.

Finally, she was there; and, through the corner of her eye, Magdiel saw that the judges’ expressions were still passive. On a desperate whim, she turned to look straight into the king’s eyes and gave a small, quick wink. Eye contact is the most powerful.

Magiel’s heart was beating rapidly as she turned forward again and continued to walk past the judges’ table. Had she done the right thing? Was it against the rules to look at the judges? None of the other poppies had looked over. Magdiel now fearfully remembered that Choy had talked about using eye contact during her dance performance. He never mentioned it for the introduction. He had told be elegant and poised during her walk.

Magdiel reached the end of the stage and turned around. As she walked back towards the judges’ table, she battled with whether to look over at the king again. At the last minute, Magdiel decided to take the risk. To her surprise, there was a marked difference in the judges’ expressions. They were now looking at her with deep interest; but none moreso than the king. His gaze was fixed on Magdiel, staring her right in her eyes- and she stared back.

It was announced that the fallen poppy had been disqualified, because her nose was broken. Magdiel and the others were now on stage again, waiting to find out their own fates.

The director had just returned from the judges’ tables with a piece of paper. She now stood in front of the poppies, looking at it. Then suddenly, she put the paper into her dress pocket and started pulling poppies out of the line, who immediately began to scream. One poppy…two… three… four… Magdiel held her breath until the director passed over her; then she breathed a sigh of relief.

After nine poppies had been eliminated (the one with the broken nose making ten), it was time to walk across the stage for a second time. They were already dressed in their second gown. Magdiel’s was another unique stunner – deep blue, blindingly sparkly and very tantalizing. Her full back, upper chest and arms were revealed through a thin, lace covering; and it hugged and emphasized every curve of her body.

As Magdiel watched the other poppies’ performances, she was not surprised to see many of them looking over seductively at the judges as they passed. B ut luckily for Magdiel, her first impression on the king was the most powerful; for he was looking at her even while she was still in the line- long before it was her turn. And by the time she walked past his table, Magdiel was sure that she saw a smile cross his face.  

Chapter 48

Trust & Sleep

Ever so often, Magdiel’s head dropped back hard against the wooded bed head, and she would snap awake.

It was about three o’clock in the morning and Magdiel had barely slept a wink all night.  

At first, Magdiel was too excited to sleep. She had come first place in the presentation segment last night, and was awarded twenty points. This bumped her up to fifteenth place, out of the remaining thirty contestants. If she kept up this performance, she was a sure runner for the top three.  

Now that the initial thrill of winning had worn off, Magdiel was desperate for some sleep- especially since she had not gotten any the night before either; but she was still too afraid to let her guard down around the other poppies. Magdiel knew that she was an even bigger threat to them now, and was thus a bigger target. 

Once again, Magdiel’s head plopped back hard against the bed head and sounded off across the silent room. Magdiel opened her eyes with a start and rubbed the back of her head. She heard someone snicker, and looked around the moonlit room for the source.

Many of the beds were empty- since there were now only fifteen poppies sharing it, intead of twenty-five. Magdiel leaned forward a little to see past the two empty beds next to her, and saw someone sitting upright in the third bed. They seemed to be looking right at her. Magdiel waited to see if the poppy would say anything. She did not know who it was, for she could not make out any features nor remember to whom the bed belonged.

“You won’t be able to function tomorrow if you don’t get any sleep.”

Magdiel recognized one of the twin’s voice and immediately leaned back against her bed. She could not be bothered to get into another petty altercation with them. She had much more pertinent things to concentrate on; like the fact that she still did not have a routine for the talent segment tomorrow night.

Soon after, Magdiel bumped her head against the bed head again.

“Are you gonna keep that up all night?” said the twin.

Still, Magdiel did not respond.

“I can watch over you while you sleep.” the twin continued. “I’m doing that for my sister right now.”

Magdiel could not help but to chuckle. “How dumb do you think I am?”

“I promise, I’m not trying to hurt you.” The twin said. “I just want to help you get some sleep.”

“And why would you do that?”

“Look, Magdiel.” Said the twin seriously. “My sister and I feel really bad about the altercation we had last. We never expected it to blow so much out of control, and have people accusing you of being a non-believer. So, this is sort of our way of making it up to you.”

“No, thanks.” Said Magdiel quickly. She still did not believe that the twin was genuine.

“Do you really think that you can go without sleep for the entire pageant?”

“You do realize that I’m about three places ahead of you both.” said Magdiel. “So maybe it’s best that you worry about yourself.”

The twin did not answer right away; then said “Whether or not you believe that my intentions are good, you know that I’m telling the truth. You can’t win this competition without sleep.”

Magdiel opened her eyes the next morning and breathed a deep sigh of relief. She was still alive. She hopped out of bed and ran over to the mirror at the end of her room. There was nothing wrong with her. The twin had kept her word and watched over her.

Chapter 49

Talent Segment

The sudden applause from the crowd made Magdiel jump. A little while after, the thirteenth contestant came running through the door, into the backroom, with a broad smile on her face. Her assistant hastily rushed to fuss over her.

Magdiel turned back to face her own assistant, who was finishing her makeup. She wished that she could go into a quiet room to practice her dance. The fourteenth contestant was already making her way through the door and onto the stage. Then Magdiel would be next, and she had nothing substantial to do.

The thirteen contestants who had completed their performances were now talking animatedly to their assistants, and breaking Magdiel’s concentration. She was trying to construct a routine in her head.

Magdiel’s eyes now began to fill with tears as frustration and fear overwhelmed her.

“Don’t worry.” said her assistant, stopping to dry the tears that had flown onto Magdiel’s cheeks. “Judging from your performance last night, I know that you’ll do fine.”

Magdiel merely nodded. She did not feel like engaging in conversation at the moment.

“ Listen.” the assistant said softly. “I heard that none of the contestants have danced so far. They’ve all sang or played the flute or said poems. So I think that you have a leg up- you’ll be unique.”

“Yes. If only I had a dance to do.” Magdiel said sadly.

“What do you mean?”

But Magdiel did not have time to explain. The crowd had erupted again, which meant that the fourteenth contestant had just finished.

Magdiel’s assistant quickly put a few more dabs of powder on her face and ushered her to the stage door. There, the director met them and practically dragged Magdiel to the center of the stage.

“Contestant number fifteen!” she shouted to the crowd, who erupted in applause again.

Then to Magdiel, she whispered abruptly “Be as quick as possible. We have fifteen more contestants to go through.”

The director then walked off, leaving Magdiel alone in the center of stage, staring at the vast crowd, who were now silently staring back at her. Magdiel glanced over at the judges’ table, where the priests and the king were looking at her expectantly as well.

Magdiel suddenly felt someone behind her and turned to see that the director had returned.

“Either you do something now or get off my stage!” she whispered sharply into Magdiel’s ear, before walking away once more.

Magdiel lifted trembling hands to her throat, and untied the black, satin cloak that was wrapped around her. It fell to the ground and revealed the dance outfit that she was wearing underneath. Magdiel’s assistant had searched hard to find one exactly like Choy had described. It was light pink and very see-through; the sleeveless blouse ended just below Magdiel’s breasts, to reveal her full stomach; while the skirt flowed to her ankle- underneath which, was nothing but matching pink underwear.

The crowd went wild at the sight of Magdiel’s outfit, and Magdiel saw the king’s eyes light up with excitement. This gave her a boost of confidence. She closed her eyes and began to slowly move her waist.

Almost instantly, Magdiel heard drums begin to play a slow beat behind her; and as she picked up the pace of her movements, the beat sped up as well. Magdiel kept her eyes fixed upon the king, and he stared back at her intently. Then when Magdiel began to do more complicated moves, his stare became hungry. Choy was right Magdiel thought. The king did love to see women dance. The crowd loved Magdiel’s performance as well; and their cheers began to overpower the drums.

Magdiel continued to flow with the music in her head, and the dance moves kept coming. She glided swiftly up and down the large stage, feeling free and limber. She then attempted to do a twirl on one leg, but lost her balance and fell flat on her stomach.

The crowd went silent. For a while, Magdiel was too horrified to move. What if she was bruised, or worse, cut? She would immediately be disqualified.

When Magdiel finally got to her feet, she did not feel as if she had a cut anywhere; but her stomach burned a little. She raised her head and looked around. The audience was still silently staring at her, and so was the king. His gaze was even more intense than before.

Through the corners of her eyes, Magdiel could see the director swiftly making her way over- surely to pull her off of the stage.

Magdiel began to panic. She could not leave on such a bad note.

At the spur of the moment, Magdiel opened her mouth to sing the first song that came to her mind- the one that Lucinda had sung on the night that she died. Her voice came out soft and shaky at first, and Magdiel saw that the director was still coming; so she picked up her voice.

The director stopped right next to Magdiel; and Magdiel sang on.

The more Magdiel sang, the more she thought of Lucinda, and the more emotional she became. The tears began to flow heavily and Magdiel’s voice became more and more raspy.

When she had sung her last note, Magdiel hung her head low- too nervous to see the crowd’s reaction. There was silence at first; and then, to Magdiel’s great surprise and relief, an explosion of applause.

Magdiel raised her head and saw that even the director was a little teary eyed; but the king’s expression was unreadable.

That night, Magdiel’s assistant closely checked every part of her body for marks and found none.

Still, the assistant looked worried. “There’s a chance that you might have some slight bruising on your stomach in the morning.”

That is what Magdiel had feared. “What will happen then?” she asked the assistant soflty.

There were a few other poppies in the bathroom with them, and Magdiel did not want them to have the satisfaction of hearing that she might be disqualified- especially since she had come first again and was now in the sixth position, out of the remaining ten. They were all routing for her to fail. Even now, there were disgruntled stares being cast in Magdiel’s direction from the poppies as they passed by her tub.

“You’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” Magdiel’s assistant said softly as well.

She looked genuinely sympathetic to Magdiel’s dilemma.

Chapter 50

Magdiel could not breathe properly. Something was clamped over her face. She was not sure whether she was awake or dreaming. Everything was black and she felt dazed.

Magdiel began to thrash about wildly, desperately trying to remove whatever it was that was stifling her. She felt a hand. It was then that Magdiel realized that she was not dreaming. Someone was trying to suffocate her.

They clamped down even harder on her face, and Magdiel could no longer draw breath- no matter how hard she tried. Her throat felt as if it were on fire.

Magdiel tried to claw at the person, but only grasped air. Someone then climbed ontop of her and pinned her hands firmly to her side. One person could not have held something over her face and manage to pin her down at the same time. Magdiel realized that there had to be more than one person attacking her; and she began to panic even more. She did not have the strength to fight off multiple persons. In fact, Magdiel felt that she did not have the energy to fight at all.

Magdiel stopped thrashing and lay still against the bed. She could no longer think clearly. She seemed to be drifting away into nothingness.

Then suddenly, the thing was lifted off of her face and there was light. Right away, Magdiel opened her mouth wide and took deep, painful breaths. She heard noise around her, but paid no attention. All she was focused on was taking in as much air as possible.

And then everything went black again.

Magdiel awoke in a bed barred with iron on all sides, and immediately knew that she was in the nurses’ room. It was silent and dimly lit by a few wall lamps.

Magdiel turned and saw a nurse sitting in a chair at her bedside.

“Who was it?” Magdiel promptly asked. It hurt to speak, and her voice came out very hoarse.

“Who was what dear?” the nurse asked in surprise.

“That tried to kill me.”

“Oh thanks be to the god of healing! You’re making sense!” the nurse said, rising to lean over Magdiel’s bed.” I feared that you might have suffered damage to your head. People who experience near suffocation sometimes end up retarded.”

“Who tried to kill me?” Magdiel repeated irritably.

“Don’t worry about that now.” The nurse said dismissively, fixing the blanket around Magdiel. “Try to get some res-”.

“Tell me!” Magdiel shouted, her throat burning now.

The nurse looked insulted.

“How am I to know? I’m the nurse. I’m not around you poppies all of the time. You’re going to have to ask your assistant in the morning.”

“It was the twins, Suzette and Josette.”

Magdiel had guessed as much, since they were the ones that she had entrusted to watch over her. She felt angry with herself for being so stupid as to trust them.

“One of the assistants on duty caught them in the act, while making her nightly checks in the room.” Magdiel’s assistant continued. “You were lucky.”

Magdiel was too upset at the moment to feel lucky or grateful. She wanted to tear the twins apart, limb by limb.

“What’s going to happen to them?” Magdiel demanded.

“They’ll be disqualified of course.” Said the assistant.

“That’s it?” said Magdiel incredulously. “They tried to kill me!”

The assistant looked at Magdiel as if she were deranged. “What’s worse than being disqualified from the Death Pageant?”

Magdiel leaned back against the bed, lost for a response. She had completely forgotten that the believers thought differently than she did. To them, the Death Pageant was everything; and so losing it meant that they had lost everything.

“You’re right.” Magdiel finally said. “I wasn’t thinking. I’m just so angry with them.”

To Magdiel’s relief, her assistant did not seem suspicious of her at all.

“ I completely understand.” The assistant said. “They almost stole your chance of wining- when you’re so close. If you do well in the upcoming segment, you’re sure to be in the top three.”

Magdiel managed a smile. Then she rememebered her stomach.

“Do I have any bruising on my body?” she said frantically to the assistant.

“No. Don’t worry. They didn’t leave any marks.”

“No. I mean from my fall last night on stage.”

“Oh.” said the assistant. “I hadn’t checked.”

Magdiel closed her eyes while her assistant lifted her night gown. Her stomach did not hurt when the assistant touched it, so Magdiel felt that that was a good sign.

“You’re perfectly fine.” Magdiel heard her assistant say. “Now let’s get you out of here and ready for tonight.”

Chapter 51

Bonus Question

Magdiel tried to take deep, calming breaths as she stood in line, on stage, with the seven other contestants (minus the twins). They were all waiting to be called before the judges’ table.

For some reason, Magdiel felt even more nervous about the question segment than she had been for the previous two. Maybe it was because she knew that it was her last chance to make it to the top three and fulfill the nonbelievers’ plan. By the end of the night, the three winners will be announced.

Then there was still the pressing matter of figuring out how to kill the king if she did make it. Magdiel had not heard a single word from either Felicia or Choy. It was almost as if the plan was no longer in operation- like they had cancelled it without informing her.

Magdiel was so lost in thought that the top five contestants had finished their turns without her noticing. The poppy beside her had to nudge her sharply in the side for her to move.

Magdiel’s legs trembled as she walked awkwardly towards the judges’ table. All was silent, for the crowd had been ordered to remain quiet throughout the process, in order for the contestants and judges to hear each other; and so, Magdiel thought that her steps echoed disturbingly loud against the wooden stage floor.

Magdiel sat on a chair before the judges’ table, directly facing the king. The priests had not yet looked up at her, as they were still busy recording the scores of the previous contestant. The king, however, was taking this time to hungrily roam Magdiel’s exposed chest area, with his eyes. This made Magdiel extremely uncomfortable, and she was tempted to adjust her hair forward, to cover herself; but then thought better of it. She needed him to want her.

The priest to the right of the king cleared his throat, and Magdiel’s heart jumped. She was sure that she looked like a frightened kitten.

“Ms. Andalf, I’ll give you your first of five questions.” The priest said, scanning through a long roll of parchment.

He took a while to locate the desired question, and Magdiel kept her gaze fixed on him, not making the slightest move.

Finally, the priest looked up sternly at her and said “What are the six qualities of Harun?”

Magdiel almost sighed with relief. She remembered all of the qualities from the first Harun class that she had ever had with Choy. “Our Lord Harun is: Onerous, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Just.” she said confidently.

The priest made a slight nod and scribbled something on a piece of paper.

When he was finished, he looked back up at Magdiel and said “Of these six qualities, which do you find most intriguing, and why?

Magdiel was not as excited about this question; for she had only studied the facts, not how she felt about them.

A few seconds passed while Magdiel contemplated the six qualities. Then she remembered Choy warning her that marks were deducted for delayed answers; so Magdiel decided to just pick any quality and make something up.

She cleared her throat and tried to speak with confidence, despite her lack of it. “I would say that Harun’s omniscience intrigues me most… not only because it is absolutely amazing that he knows every single thing- including all of our thoughts and actions and feelings… but also becasue I know that he is blessed when he sees into my heart. Because it all belongs to him. He is my beginning and end… my everything. And all of my thoughts towards him are pure.”

The priest’s serious expression had softened by the time Magdiel was finished, and she could not help but to smile. She was doing so well. She could not believe that she had come up with such a profound answer right on the spot.

The next two questions were asked by two other priests, and Magdiel knew these answers as well. It was as if all of her notes had suddenly come back to her memory.

Then it was time for the fifth question, by the fourth priest. “What is Harun’s most dispised quality in a wife?”

Magdiel looked back blankly at the priest. She remembered studying the qualities that Harun liked, which were: beauty, submissiveness, talent and a gentle and kind spirit; but never what he disliked.

But the qualities that Harun disliked had to the opposite of those that he liked. It only made sense. But which did he dislike most?

Magdiel opened her mouth to say something, then quickly closed it again. She was too afraid to say the wrong answer. Four out of five was not good enough to make it into the top three.

Then, to Magdiel’s horror, the priest said “Time is up, Ms. Andalf. You lose that question. Please return to the line.”

Before Magdiel could fully process what she had just been told, an unnaturally husky voice said “Ask her another question.”

Magdiel looked up at the king in surprise.

“Pardon me, Your Highness?” said the fourth priest.

“I said to ask the contestant another question.” the king repeated, his eyes still fixed upon Magdiel’s startled face.

The priest looked horrified, as if someone had just peed in his holy oil. “But Your Highness” he whispered, “that is against the rules. These rules were put in place so that we can find the most dedicated wife for the Lord.”

Magdiel held her breath as the King finally turned to face the fourth priest. His handsome face looked murderous, with his jaws tightly clenched and his eyes deeply narrowed.

The fourth priest cowered sideways in his chair, away from the king; while the others hung their heads low.

“I believe that she is sufficiently dedicated.” The king said, his voice even huskier, but still low and out of earshot of the surrounding guards. “This one question does not determine that. Give her another one.”

“Very well, Your Highness” said the priest, his voice trembling slightly.

“An easier one this time.” the king added.

The priest nodded and turned to face Magdiel once more. He did not even bother to look at his list of questions.

“What did Harun do many years ago when he was displeased with the people’s sacrifices?”

This question was almost too easy. Still, it took Magdiel a moment to find her voice.

“H-he sent a drought.”

Magdiel could not fully grasp what had happened this evening. She lay in bed, in the contestants’ dormitory, staring up at the dark ceiling. She had made it to the top three and now had the power to take the non- believers’ cause to unexplored heights.

As incredible as that was, at the moment, Magdiel was more concerned with how she had gotten to the top three, rather than the fact that she had. Magdiel knew that she did not deserve to win the question segment, but the king had wanted her to. Why? Was it just lust, or something more sinister? Did he figure out what she was up to, and wanted to get her alone in his room so that he could kill her before she killed him?

Magdiel quickly eliminated the latter option. If the king was suspicious about her plans to kill him, he could have her killed on the spot at anytime. But maybe it was a mixture of the two options. Maybe the king wanted to sleep with her first and then kill her.

Magdiel eliminated that option as well, for it sounded too twisted that someone would want to kill someone that they desired. Plus, she had seen the way that the king looked at her. It was all lust; and that disgusted Magdiel.

Of course she had had her suspicions, but the king’s actions tonight confirmed his disregard for religion. He did not believe in Harun. If he did, he would have been sure to stick to the rules- as the priest had pointed out- for fear of the punishment that Harun might bestow upon Acus. The king was clearly in this for his own benefits; and the priests did not seem too believing either, since they had not put up much of a fight. Although the king was extremely intimidating, shouldn’t they have feared God instead of man?

The non-believers were right, Magdiel thought. The entire death pageant system needed to be done away with; and she was actually glad to be a part of it.

Chapter 52

Change of Heart

Magdiel was scheduled second to go into the king; so today was her day off. A curly haired brunette was first, and she had already been whisked away since dawn to begin her beauty treatments.

It was still very early in the morning, and the third contestant -a blonde- was snoring surprisingly loud from the bed across from Magdiel.

Magdiel tried to ignore the noise, found a comfortable position in the bed and closed her eyes. She figured that it was now safe to get some sleep, for she did not believe that the other contestant would dare hurt her. Since they were the only two persona in the room, everyone would know who did it. Plus, last night, Magdiel’s assistant had advised her not to bother waking too early, for today was her day of rest. That way, she would be refreshed for the king.

Just as Magdiel had drifted into a half slumber, she heard the bedroom door open. She reluctantly opened her eyes and saw Felicia walking hastily between the lines of beds.

Magdiel sat up with a start. “It’s about time you came!” she whispered sharply when Felicia had reached her. “I was going crazy wondering if you two had forgotten about me-”

Magdiel now noticed that Felicia was wearing a bright smile. “What are you so happy about?”

Felicia did not speak, but continued to smile; and Magdiel noticed that she had both of her hands hidden behind her back.

“What is it?” Magdiel demanded.

“He wrote back.” Felicia said softly, pulling a small, crumpled brown envelope from behind her back.

Magdiel felt a horrible chill run through her body as she stared down at the hand writing on the face of the envelope.

“I know that you said you didn’t want to hear his response,” Felicia said “but I think that this is a good thing. It might give you some peace before… you know… before you complete the plan.”

Magdiel did not respond. She was experiencing too many strong emotions at the same time. She merely looked up blankly at Felicia, whose smile was now faded.

“Let’s go into the bathroom.” Felicia said, glancing over at Magdiel’s still snoring roommate.

Magdiel please please please don’t do this. You don’t even care about the non-believers’ plan. What is going on? Is someone forcing you to do this?

Magdiel I won’t be able to bear it if you were executed. Please don’t leave me.

I can’t promise you that our life together will allways be happy, but we love each other too much not to try. What has you so scared all of a sudden?

It’s me and you Mags. It’s always been us. What am I supposed to do without you?

I have to end my letter now because I begged the mail carrier to wait only a few seconds. But I want you to know that if you die I die too.”

“Are you finished reading?… Magdiel?… Magdiel!”

Magdiel gave a slight nod of her head, her eyes still fixed upon Raj’s letter.

“Then I have to get rid of it now.” said Felicia, taking ahold of the top corner of the letter.

Magdiel absentmindedly loosened her grip and watched Felicia rip the letter into very tiny pieces, before throwing it into the bucket of water beside her.

Felicia then turned her attention back to Magdiel.

“Was it that bad?” she said anxiously.

Magdiel did not know what to tell her. She shifted her gaze down to her hands, which were now gripping the edges of the tub that she was sitting on so tight that her knuckles had turned white.

Raj’s letter had done exactly what Magdiel had feared. It had changed her mind. How could she possibly go through with the non-belivers’ plan now, after she saw how much it was hurting Raj? He had even threatened to kill himself. ‘If you die I die’

It was like Magdiel’s eyes had suddenly opened. Raj was right. It had always been just them. So what made her doubt that they could not make it through whatever came their way? And how could she possibly leave him this way, when Raj had always been there for her?

“Please Magdiel, speak to me. You’re scaring me. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you that letter after all.”

Finally, Magdiel looked up at Felicia. “It’s alright, Felicia.” She lied. “I’m just sad, that’s all… I might never see him again, remember?”

“You really love him, don’t you?” said Felicia sympathetically.

Magdiel nodded.

“Magdiel, I just want you to know that I think you are one of the noblest persons that I have ever met. You have so much to loose, with a boy at home who adores you; and yet, you’re willing to loose it all for the good of Acus.”

Tears now began to fill Felicia’s eyes. “But I also want you to know that you are doing the right thing. I would give anything to be in your place right now.”

“You want to die?” said Magdiel, surprised.

“No. It’s not that. I just wish that I could help the cause the way that you are right now… I don’t know if you noticed, but I could have been a poppy if it weren’t for my broken nose.”

“I did notice.” said Magdiel honestly.

Felicia gave a small, fleeting smile. “I was so resentlful towards my parents for breaking my nose as a baby and robbing me of the chance to help the non-believers. I just hated seeing people around me suffer, all because of this pageant- with pareants being flogged for not taking good enough care of their poppy daughters, little girls trapped inside of their houses so that they would be perfect for Harun, and contestants returning home, devastated that they had lost and not being able to face life… my heart broke constantly. That’s why I ended up here. I figured that, since I couldn’t help the non-believers by being one of the protesting poppies, I at least wanted to make it easier for them, you know? And so, even though my job in the mail room is extremely risky, I love it; because I know that I’m doing it for the greater good… But you, you Magdiel are about to do something greater than everything that I’ve ever done for the cause. And I think that that is so amazing.”

Magdiel could no longer meet Felicia’s gaze. She knew that Felicia intended for her speech to strengthen her resolve to finish the plan, but it only turned Magdiel’s mind against it even more. Felicia’s story was the exact opposite of Magdiel’s. She had hated her parents for maiming her, while Magdiel had hated hers for not maiming her.

So how could Leo and Agatha possibly have known which decision was right? Either one could have ended up with her hating them.

Magdiel now felt an overwhelming surge of sympathy towards her mother; and guilt for how hard she had been on her over the years. She could not possibly finish the plan and die without making amends. She had to go home.

After Magdiel’s assistant had given her a quick bath and meal (she was only allowed one small meal so that her stomach would be at its optimum flatness for the king tomorrow), she spent the remainder of her rest day in bed, trying to figure out how she was going to get herself out of the non-believers’ plan and make it home alive.

Magdiel ended up crying in frustration for much of the time, because she just could not see a way out. The only thing left to do in the pageant was to sleep with the king, and the winner depended solely on his judgement (or pleasure). Since Magdiel knew very little about sex, she did not know how to alter her performance to ensure that she lost- especially since the king had already taken a special liking to her.

An alternative outcome could be that the king’s liking for Magdiel would cause him to purposely make her loose so that he could keep her around as one of his mistresses. Magdiel had heard all about the mistress houses that the king owned within the palace yard.

So, either way, Magdiel would not be going home to her mother and Raj.

Chapter 53

“What would you like to wear tonight?”

“You decide.” said Magdiel, distractedly.

“Are you sure?” said her assistant. “Because you have a choice, depending on what sort of things you want to do in there.”

Magdiel had to try hard not to cringe at the thought of going into the king.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

The assistant looked at Magdiel in mild surprise. “Most contestants want to plan every aspect of their outfit. After all, it is your last opportunity to win.”

“Oh… well, what I have planned doesn’t really require a special outfit” Magdiel said. “As long as it’s appealing of course.” She added, so as to demonstrate some sort of interest.

“Well, what is it that you have planned?” said the assistant. “Maybe I can give you a few tips.”

Magdiel awkwardly splashed about the water in the soaking tub she had been in for the past four hours. Her hands were extremely pruned and her skin felt even rawer than usual.

“I-I’d rather not say. I-it’s kind of uncomfortable to talk about.”

In truth, Magdiel did not have the slightest thing planned. She still had not decided what to do in order to ensure that she would be sent home. It was late afternoon now, so she only had a few hours left to figure things out. She had to be in the king’s chambers by 8’o clock sharp.

“ I understand.” said the assistant, smiling warmly. “It’s a very intimate matter.” She then leaned over the tub, a bit closer to Magdiel, as if they were not the only two persons in the treatment room. “However, make sure that you don’t just lie there- men hate that- they find it very boring. Try to be more participative - but not too much. Men like a bit of innocence as well...”

Magdiel found it so peculiar that this young assistant knew so much about sex, when the assistants were not allowed to have those sorts of relationships. Magdiel had heard that the assistants’ lives were dedicated to the pageant and nothing more. So who could she have been with? Certainly not the pageant eunuchs, for they had no parts. Maybe the guards?

Magdiel abruptly stopped herself from delving any further into the sex life of the assistant and other Palace workers. She had much more pertinent things to concentrate on.

As the assistant went on about the things that Magdiel should do in the King’s bedroom, Magdiel decided that she would do the complete opposite- nothing at all. She would just lie there, like the assistant had advised her not to do. That way, the king would be bored and not see any use for her.

Magdiel’s heart wrenched at the realization that she would actually have to sleep with the King; and she had to fight hard to stop herself from breaking down in tears in front of the assistant. She would be giving away what she had been saving for Raj; but there was just no other way for her to get home.

Magdiel stood staring at her reflection in one of the dressing room’s full length mirror.  

Her assistant had dressed her in black, lacy intimates, covered by a sheer, red robe. Her hair was in curls once more, with light make-up and only a thin, sparkly belly chain for jewelry.  

“What do you think?” said her assistant from this morning, who was standing right behind her.  

“I’ve never seen myself look this… sexy.” Magdiel said honestly.  

Her breasts appeared about two sizes bigger in the push-up boostierre; her waist was almost non-existant in the tight corset; and most of her behind was left uncovered by the tiny pair of panties.  

“ Good!” said another assistant, who had also come to help Magdiel get ready. “The king will definitely be pleased with you- much more than the others.” 

Magdiel sighed inwardly. That was exactly what she feared.  

Chapter 54

Maybe the king would see beyond the make-up and fancy lingerie, and recognize the superior beauty of the other two contestants.

Magdiel tried to hold on to this feeble ray of hope as she made her way through the castle, with her assistant, towards the king’s chamber.  

It was a far way off, on the opposite side of the Palace, in the tallest tower. 

This side of the palace was even more extravagant than any other part that Magdiel had seen-with highly polished, glass-like floors and heavily embellished walls.  

The higher up they went, the more guards there were lining the passageways, and the more violently Magdiel’s legs shook with every step.

“You look like you’re on your way to be executed.” Said the assistant.  

Magdiel started at the assistant’s voice and caught a glimpse of herself in one of the glass picture frames that lined the walls. Her face was indeed stark white and terror-stricken.  

“Let’s just keep going.” Magdiel said, picking up the pace. She did not want to talk to the assistant about how she was feeling. 

“Wait!” said the assistant, grabbing Magdiel’s arm.  

Magdiel reluctantly stopped, but kept her face turned away from the assistant so as to hide her annoyance.  

“I know that I’ve only assisted you once before now, so I haven’t spent much time with you… But I’ve seen you around, and you seem different than the other contestants.” 

Magdiel’s heartbeat quickened, fearing that the assistant suspected her of being a non- believer.

But the assistant continued and said “You seem kinder and less demanding- you don’t complain about anything that I put on you or how I style your hair or anything… But what I notice most is that there is always a sort of deep sadness in your eyes- you never seem to be happy. So… I guess I just want you to know that I think that you deserve to win. You deserve to be happy.” 

Magdiel kept her head turned away; but now it was to hide the tears that were forming in her eyes. All that she had ever wanted was to be happy – nothing more or less; but it had always eluded her. So if there was the slightest chance of her finally attaining it by returning home to Raj, she was going to take it.  Magdiel wiped away her tears, along with any guilt that she felt about not going through with the non-believers’ plan.  

“Thank you.” she said softly to the assistant, before they started off again.  

They soon arrived at the bottom of the final flight of stairs; where four Kings Guards stood menacingly, blocking the path.

“You cannot go any further.” one of them said roughly to Magdiel’s assistant.  

“I know.” The assistant said hotly.

She then turned and gave Magdiel one last smile before retreating down the hallway. Magdiel watched the back of the young assistant until she disappeared from view. The assistant had been her last source of security. Now, Magdiel felt as if she had been left alone in dangerous, unknown territory.

One of the Kings Guards escorted her up the stairs. At the top, they were greeted by a small, circular sitting area with many elegant pieces of furniture.  As they approached the back of room, six kings guards stepped aside to reveal a set of large, wooden, double doors.  

“You may enter.” said the guard escorting Magdiel. “He is waiting for you inside.” 

Magdiel suddenly felt faint, and hesitated a moment before stepping forward and placing a trembling hand upon the golden door handle.  

 

Chapter 55

Upon entering, Magdiel immediately scanned the room for a small, white nightstand with golden knobs.  

The day that Felicia had brought Raj’s letter, she also gave Magdiel a message from Choy. It was that the king normally kept a small knife in the top drawer of this night stand. Magdiel was to try to retrieve the knife, when the king was asleep, and use it to kill him. Magdiel had been curious as to how Choy knew the room so intimately, when he was just a pageant eunuch; but Felicia had had no idea.

Magdiel spotted the nightstand easily on the left side of the huge canopy bed.  Although she was no longer planning to kill the King, she felt comfort in knowing exactly where the knife was.

Magdiel now surveyed the rest of the room. It was much smaller than she would have imagined for a king- and significantly smaller than her dormitory had been here at the Palace. Magdiel assumed that it was not the king’s main bedroom; but was only utilized for purposes such as this- for him to have his way with the pageant contestants. 

Everything about the room was sensual. It was strongly perfumed and dimly lit by candles that lined the walls. There were also spots of red everywhere: the window curtains, the drapes around the canopy bed, the tinted glass ornaments on the tables and the bunches of red roses on almost every available surface.  

[_But where was the King?  _]

Magdiel had expected to find him sitting on the bed, waiting for her; but the room was empty. 

She remained close to the door, unsure as to what to do. Should she stay where she was? Or should she go over to the bed? Magdiel immediately dismissed the latter option. The thought of going onto the bed, where countless intimate escapades must have taken place, was disgusting; and Magdiel did not wish to touch it any sooner than she had to.

A moment or two later, a door on the left side of the room opened and Magdiel’s entire body tensed.  

The king sauntered out of what Magdiel assumed to be a bathroom, drying his hands in a towel. Magdiel was relieved to see that he was fully clothed, in a pair of white pants and a white buttoned up shirt- though is was buttoned too low, and reavealed his very hairy chest.  

For a few seconds, the king stopped and looked Magdiel slowly up and down, smirking. Though he was a very handsome man- with a muscular body and a chiseled face- Magdiel felt repulsed.   

The king then walked over to the side of the bed and sat down.  

“Come here.” He said to Magdiel.

His voice was hoarse and far from gentle; so Magdiel obeyed immediately.

“Closer.”  The king demanded.

Magdiel moved forward tentatively. She was now so close in front of him that they were almost touching.  

The king then unexpectedly reached up and pulled off her robe.  

Magdiel tried to stand still, but she was breathing heavily and she could feel her entire body trembling uncontrollably. 

“You’re not what I expected.”  

In surprise, Magdiel raised her head and looked into the king’s strong, hairy face. He did not look disappointed, but amused.

“From your performance during the pageant,” the king continued, “I expected you to be less… timid. Feisty.”

Magdiel did not know how to respond. She stood there, gaping at him.  

The king chuckled. “Don’t worry. You’re still just as appealing.” He said, running his hands along the sides of Magdiel’s legs.  

Magdiel flinched impulsively.

“There’s just something about you that is exactly my type.” He continued. “You’re ravishing.”  

“Just like any other girl in this competition.”  

Magdiel immediately wished that she had not said that, for fear that she may have come off too resistant- too much like a non-believer.  

But the king did not seem to think that way; for he chuckled in amusement once more. “I wouldn’t know anything about the other contestants. You were the only one that caught my eye.” 

Magdiel’s heart sank with disappointment.  

The king then stood up suddenly, grabbed Magdiel’s waist and pulled her hard against him. 

Magdiel let out a soft yelp of pain and shock.  

“What do you have planned for me tonight?” he whispered in her ears. 

Magdiel shook her head, unable to speak.

The king loosened his grip around Magdiel’s waist and looked at her, with his eyebrows raised. “You are very peculiar…” 

Magdiel held her breath. 

“But don’t worry.” the king added. “I’ll show you exactly how to please me.”       

Magdiel lay in the King’s bed, thinking about the knife in his night stand. He was asleep. She could easily walk over to his side, take it out and cut his throat. There would be no struggle, and no one would hear a sound.  

[_But then how would she escape afterwards? She would never make it home to Raj. She would be executed immediately.   _]

More silent tears trickled down Magdiel’s face, as they had been for the past hour or so since the king had fallen asleep. She felt as if her body had been violated; but that was not what made her so angry at the moment.  It was that, after it all, the king still seemed to be enamored with her. Her impassiveness had not worked. In fact, the King had mistaken it for innocence and was excited by it.

During his excitement, the king had said something about keeping Magdiel close to him; and Magdiel knew that that meant making her one of his mistresses. As a mistress, Magdiel knew that she would have to live around the Palace for the rest of her life; for even after the king had tired if his mistresses, they were not allowed to return home. They were just kept around like purposeless, unloved beings- or so she had heard from Choy.

The only thing that was keeping Magdiel from killing the king right at that moment, was the small hope that his infatuiation might dissipate by the next night– when he was wrapped in the arms of the last contestant.

Just then, there was a soft creaking sound from the wall on Magdiel’s side. She quickly snapped her head in that direction. It seemed as if a piece of the wall was moving.

Magdiel quickly dried her eyes to have a better look. She was not sure whether she was seeing correctly in the room’s dim lighting. Then, all of a sudden, the piece of wall was pushed out and to the side, to reveal a small opening; through which crawled a hooded figure. 

Magdiel bolted upright in bed, prepared to scream; but, at that moment, the person removed their hood and Magdiel’s voice caught in her throat. It was Choy.  

Choy took in Magdiel’s naked figure for a few seconds, in surprise; and Magdiel quickly covered herself in the sheets.

She then silently watched as Choy moved swiftly and silently over to the king’s bedside and stood looking down at him. The expression on his face was not of contempt, as would have been expected, but of deep sorrow.  After a while, Choy reached into his cloak and retrieved a small, silver object. Magdiel gasped when she realized that it was a knife.

“No!” she whispered sharply. “Don’t-”

Choy raised a finger to his lips to tell Magdiel to be quiet, but it was too late. The king’s eyes had burst open.

In a flash, Choy pressed the knife against the king’s throat.

Magdiel remained frozen on the bed. The King made no attempt to fight Choy off; which he could have done easily, considering his relatively enormous size. Instead, he was looking up at Choy in a mixture of disbelief and hurt.  

Even more shocking was that tears were streaming down Choy’s face, and his knife hand began to shake violently.

       “Son.” The king said softly. “Why?” 

Before Magdiel could fully take in what the king had just said, Choy swiftly moved his hand and there was a wild spurt of blood. 

As blood splattered all over her, Magdiel turned her head and began to scream wildly. Almost immediately, she felt Choy’s arms around her mouth, stiffing her sounds.  

“We have to get out of here!” she heard him say.  “Or we’re both dead!”

THE END.

Stay tuned for the second book in the series.


The Death Pageant: A Worthy Sacrifice

At birth, Magdiel Andalf's striking beauty marks her to be a contestant in her country's annual Death Pageant, where the winner receives the coveted title of Worthy Sacrament and is burned alive as a sacrifice to the revered Rain God, Harun. However, since Magdiel's parents are a part of the secret society of non-believers (those who do not believe in Harun), Magdiel's beauty is cause for great sorrow. Her parents are advised by their leader to raise Magdiel to enter the pageant and be a part of their revolutionary plan to dismantle the death pageant system. Magdiel grows up to resent being a part of this plan, because she craves a normal life; and so she desperately seeks a way out. At 17-years-old, the book follows Magdiel’s struggles to overcome self-will for the greater good. In the midst of all of this, she holds the hearts of two great men: her neighbor and secret, long-time boyfriend; and an undercover non-believer, serving as a eunuch at the king's Palace- where Magdiel and the other contestants spend a year for pageant preparation. The story takes place during an Ancient era, in the fictional hill country of Acus. Young women everywhere will relate to Magdiel's plight in finding her own path to happiness, as well as her resentment towards structures that try to impede her freedom. They will also enjoy the unique and powerful love triangle enfolded within the story, which is the first of a trilogy.  

  • Author: Sheilane Nadia
  • Published: 2016-09-11 20:20:34
  • Words: 76650
The Death Pageant: A Worthy Sacrifice The Death Pageant: A Worthy Sacrifice