Can You Keep a Secret
If you have a means of reading this, you’re probably an oldie born around the new millennium. You might think we have nothing in common. You live in the perfect little world your generation created from the ashes you were given, but you left no room for us.
Children are rare and unnecessary. I’ve been told that a million times, but for just a moment, can you remember what it was like to be eighteen?
My fingers keep slipping, and I don’t have much time to type. They probably have a way of erasing this, too, so read fast.
My name is Isabella Morales. This is the last I’ll be able to tell anyone that, so remember it. Remember me.
Azalea had things—food that wasn’t gruel, electronics that worked, confidence in herself rooted in her bones. She came out of nowhere and invited a bunch of girls to her place for makeovers and to watch oldie movies.
My mother told me to avoid strangers. I should have listened to her.
As Azalea brushed glitter over my cheeks, she complimented my mocha skin. She called my lips delicate and glossed them in pink. Blushing, I thanked her.
“I love this chocolate color,” she gushed as she wove my waist-length curls into a basket atop my head. “How do you keep it so soft?”
She must not have really wanted to know. A sting sunk into the base of my neck, and a frozen burn radiated from the touch, shimmying into every nook of my being as I fell forward.
When I awoke, the room smelled of spice and incense. Low voices buzzed, nothing loud or distinct enough to give me any clue what was going on. Fur swathed the pallet where I lay, and scalloped gold formed the walls and arched ceiling.
“I see the questions dashing through your eyes,” Azalea said, hand on hip as she stood over me. “It’s a sweet look. Matches that honey color.”
I did have questions, but they were all stuck in my throat. Silently, my mouth motioned a “wh—”
“You don’t say too much. I like that.” Flipping her ginger hair over her shoulder, she turned to survey the room’s other occupants. The trail of her sari slapped my face, and I choked on its cloud of perfume.
“Fools, all of them,” she denounced, swiveling back to me. “I know what my brother likes.”
I didn’t like her smile. At least a dozen girls flitted behind her, but I was too dizzy to count them. Did the room actually rock, or was that just me?
Azalea knelt. “We are at sea. Don’t think you’ll get anywhere if you run.”
How far out at sea? Run from what?
Again, the questions refused to leap from my tongue. I stared dumbly as Azalea applied shimmer and scent to every part of me not covered by skimpy, scarlet satin. I wore more jewelry than dress. Goosebumps screamed my discomfort, yet I said nothing.
It felt like hours, days, but eventually the commotion settled with seven girls lined up in a grand hall. I could barely stand. The floor’s chill numbed my bare feet and stiffened my knees.
As Azalea held me in place from behind, her whisper fluttered in my gut. “If my brother chooses you for his bride, you’ll never be in want of anything.”
A group of men entered the hall. With the same peachy hair and moss green eyes, Azalea’s brother was easy to spot. His gaze raked our line with a seedy greed.
Don’t choose me, I chanted as he approached.
He passed the girl to my left with a dismissive wave and paused before me. Fear and pride twisted my insides. Had he seen something he liked? Was I desirable?
I didn’t want to be desirable, not to him. I didn’t want to be undesirable either.
His icy fingers slipped beneath my chin and raised it until I met his lecherous gaze.
“Her round cheeks give her a youthful look of innocence,” one of his companions remarked.
The man’s lip curled. “She looks too innocent.”
His touch abandoned me, and as others lifted me from behind, I didn’t understand the disappointment that weighted my limbs. I didn’t even know this stranger’s name. I hadn’t wanted him to choose me, and he hadn’t.
But it was another nail in the coffin of my pride, yet another confirmation that I was lacking somehow.
I didn’t get to see whom he thought was more beautiful. Shadows without faces lugged me into another room. The first girl was already there, strapped to a table. She screamed, but the masked people surrounding her appeared unable to hear.
Every discordant wail stabbed into my heart. A scalpel caught the light as it sliced into her throat, and I said nothing.
More hands forced me onto a similar table. I opened my mouth in vain. Silent tears raced down my cheeks as a knife burrowed into my skin. Its frozen kiss left a burning trail as the first girl’s screams fell into the abyss of silence.
Afterward, I sat in the corner of a cell. Pain was a storm within and without. Every breath brought a rain of swords. Not even stillness fought off the hands of invisible lightning that clawed into my skin.
In its wake, restlessness grew. I stood, and my feet made no sound.
I punched the wall.
I screamed, but it emerged as less than a wheeze, not even a sigh.
What had they done? My skin possessed a translucent sheen, and any attempt to snap, clap, or pound on other things rendered no noise.
Fear had made me quiet before, but this was beyond that. They had taken my ability to make any sound. I was the embodiment of silence.
I had nothing, but they found more to take from me.
I tried to beat the walls, but my kicks and jabs slid aside with no effect other than fueling my pain. Not even my anger could produce a growl. The emotion was nothing but a bonfire in my chest, and I had no way of letting it out.
The door whooshed open, and I leapt on the one it revealed. The woman tutted and shoved me off.
“You are not taking this well.”
Of course not. My mouth moved, but words were no longer mine.
“You have become a Specter,” she explained, “a servant deemed pretty enough to decorate the presence of the families of means.”
Of the oldie cities? I wanted to ask. I had always wanted to see one, but not like this.
As she helped me change into white garb barely more decent than the scarlet strips, her rough hands skimmed across my skin soundlessly.
“Can you keep a secret?” she whispered.
That is a stupid question.
“You really are beautiful. I hope you survive.” She tied up my hair in a platinum ribbon. It was heavy.
From there I was led through a crowd. Whispers snagged in my ears, useless snippets and something about a wedding feast.
As I reentered the grand hall, my eyes fell on Azalea’s nameless brother. The girl he clutched to his side was drunk and incognizant. She wasn’t that pretty.
The groom raised his wineglass. “Time for an entertaining contest!” The crowd pressed against the room’s edges quieted so he could explain. “Four Specters have come to battle.”
I hoped that didn’t include me.
“One is a borrowed servant of my brother.” He pointed across from him, where a giant woman stood. Her skin was just lighter than coal in focus-defying contrast to her white attire. Crimson as vibrant as fresh blood painted her lips.
“Something borrowed,” the crowd murmured.
He indicated someone across from me. “Another possesses eyes that have captured the sky.”
Her ice blue gaze was not as lustrous as he made it sound. It was dull and tired like her posture. Her pale skin sagged, and her golden hair hung like a flag with no wind.
The crowd labeled her anyway. “Something blue.”
He gestured to a small man near him. “One has served me my whole life.”
Old. Right. He wasn’t nearly as old as the undying oldies.
“Another is newly made.”
Following the sweep of his hand, all eyes turned to me.
My heart pounded. I felt it trying to break out of my chest, but I couldn’t hear it. For several silent beats, I couldn’t hear anything.
“The one who lives will serve my bride.”
He snapped, and the borrowed Specter shot forward. Her mute, svelte moves were stolen from a jaguar.
As she approached, Sky remained immobile. They were puppets on strings, one laced in place, the other guided through a sequence of flips. Jaguar danced though there was no song. The movement itself was her music, and I suddenly understood why the dresser had asked if I could keep a secret.
Despite Jaguar’s inability to make noise, she spoke. Of power. Of the futility of hope for escape.
She glided behind Sky, and I wished I could move like that. Her long fingers fanned across Sky’s cheek like shadows. Sky looked directly at me, acceptance and a warning in her dull eyes.
You don’t want to see this.
It was too late to look away. Jaguar snapped Sky’s face to the side, and the smaller woman’s body crumbled.
The crowd cheered. I no longer wished to be like Jaguar.
From behind, the male Specter snatched at my shoulders, but I slipped away. Before I could turn, Jaguar pounced on him, and he, too, fell limp.
Did she just save me?
No, I was the easier target. That was strategy. Kill off the harder opponent while he’s distracted.
Jaguar prowled toward me. My feet skated backward, but our arena was only so wide. I glanced about, and my ribbon knocked against the back of my neck. Why was it so heavy?
At the very least, I might be able to tie Jaguar with it.
But as I grabbed it, a handle fit against my palm. The ribbon hid a knife.
I yanked it free, and silken curls fell around my shoulders as I pointed it at my foe. She pounced, hands hooked under my arms before she felt the sharpness of the concealed blade between her ribs. She rolled aside, and for a moment as she hit the ground and I was still airborne, I had the advantage.
I landed atop her, but the knife hovered, and that instant’s hesitation was all she needed. I was on my back, and my weapon was hers. Her knees pressed into the curves of my hips, holding me in place as the knife dropped.
One breath took forever.
As my lungs emptied, my bare heels slapped the metal floor. I slid beneath Jaguar. As I rose and she twisted, I spun with her. If we were puppets, I would tangle our strings.
At her back, I moved to the same unheard song, only leaving when she slashed behind herself. My evasion brought me around her side and into her embrace, but I was too slick to hold. She pulled the knife toward my spine, and I dropped. Passing through my fan of hair, the blade paused just shy of her navel.
My foot found the back of her knee. My shoulder crashed into her hip, and down we went.
This time, I did not think. I did not hesitate. We hit the floor together, and the knife ripped a fatal line in my foe.
The crowd cheered, and I sat in silence, my dress no longer white and my hands stained. Though clean now, I still feel her lifeblood, warm and sticky, cooling into crust.
I am not perfect or innocent. You might not want to rescue me, and I will not wait for you.
As a Specter serving our new lady, I had the task of preparing the Master’s chambers for tonight. I found this tablet. With my lady behind the closed door, my fingers fly across this screen. I will take any smidgen of opportunity to crawl my way out of here.
All I ask is to be heard. Remembered. If you have any power at all, please—