THE QUEEN’S ARMY
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They came at the end of the long night, when the manufacturing dome had not seen sunlight for almost two weeks. Z had crossed his twelfth birthday some months ago, and just enough time had passed that he’d stopped imagining glimpses of gold embroidery on black coats. He’d just stopped questioning every thought that flickered through his brain. He had just begun to hope that he would not be chosen.
But he was not surprised when he was awoken by a tap at the front door. It was so early that his father hadn’t left for the plant where he assembled engines for podships and tractors. Z stared at the dark ceiling and listened to his parents’ whisperings through the wall, then to his father’s footsteps padding past his door.
Muffled voices in the front room.
Z balled up his blanket between his fists and tried to pour all his fears into it, and then release them all at once. He had to do it three times to keep from hyperventilating. He didn’t want his brother, still asleep on the other side of the room, to be afraid for him.
He had known this was inevitable.
He was at the top of his class. He was stronger than some of the men his father worked with in the plant. Still, he’d thought that maybe his instructors would overlook him. Maybe he would be skipped.
But those thoughts were always flitting. Since he was a little boy, he had been raised to expect a visit from the queen’s thaumaturges during his twelfth year, and knew if he was deemed worthy, he would be conscripted into the new army she was building. It was a great honor to serve his crown. It would bring pride to his family and his sector.
“You should get dressed.”
He lifted his head to find his brother’s eyes shining in the darkness. So he wasn’t asleep after all.
“They’ll ask for you soon. You don’t want to make them wait.”
Not wanting his brother to think he was scared, he swung his legs out of the bed.
He met his mother in the hallway. Her cropped hair was sticking up on one side and she had pulled on a cotton dress, though the static of her slip had it clinging around her left thigh. She paused from adjusting the material, and, for one crushing second, he saw the despair that she’d always hidden when they talked about the soldier conscription. Then it was gone and she was licking her fingers and desperately trying to soothe down Z’s unkempt hair. He flinched, but didn’t fidget or complain, until his father appeared beside them.
“Ze’ev.” His voice was thick with an emotion that Z didn’t recognize. “Don’t be afraid.”
His father took his hand and guided him into the front of the house where not one but two thaumaturges were waiting for him. They both wore the traditional uniform of the queen’s court—high-collared coats that swept down to their thighs, with wide, elaborately embroidered sleeves. However, the woman wore black, denoting a third-level thaumaturge, while the man wore red. Second level. Z didn’t think there were more than a dozen second-level thaumaturges on all of Luna, and now one was standing in his house.
He couldn’t help picturing his home as it must look through the eyes of such high officials. The front room was large enough only for a worn sofa and a rocking chair, and his mom kept a vase of dusty faux flowers on the side table. If they’d bothered to look through the second doorway, they would have seen a sink piled with dishes where flies were buzzing, because his mother had been too tired to clean last night and Ran and Z had decided to play kicks with the other sector kids rather than do their chores. He regretted that now.
“Ze’ev Kesley?” said the man, the second level.
He nodded, clutching his father’s hand and using all his will not to duck behind him.
“I am pleased to inform you that we have reviewed your aptitude tests and chosen you to receive the physical modifications and training in order to become one of the great soldiers of Her Majesty’s army. Your enrollment is effective immediately. There is no need to pack any belongings—you will be provided with all that you need. As it is expected that henceforth you will have no more contact with your biological family, you may now say your good-byes.”
His mother sucked in a breath behind him. Z didn’t realize he was shaking until his father turned and grasped him by both shoulders.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said again. A faint smile flickered, then disappeared. “Do what they ask, and make us proud. This is a great honor.”
His voice was strained. Z couldn’t tell if his father believed what he was saying, or if it was only a show for the thaumaturges.
His chest constricted. “But…I don’t want to go.”
His father’s face became stern. “Ze’ev.”
Z looked at his mother. Her dress was still clinging to her slip but she’d stopped fidgeting. The tears hadn’t yet spilled over onto her cheeks. There were wrinkles around her eyes that he’d never noticed before.
“Please,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist. He knew how strong he was. If he held on tight enough, they could never force him to let go. He clamped his eyes shut as the first hot tears slipped out. “Please don’t let them—”
Just as a sob tore at his throat, a shadowy new thought slipped to the forefront of his mind.
This was a small, pathetic house in an inconsequential manufacturing dome.
The people here were miserable and unimportant. His parents were weak and stupid—but he, he was destined for greatness. He was one of the selected few to serve the queen herself. It was an honor. The thought of lingering here a moment longer made him sick.
Z gasped and pulled away from his mother. Heat was crawling up his neck—spurred by mortification and shame. How could he think such things?
Worse yet, he was still thinking them, somewhere in his head. He couldn’t shake them entirely, no matter how much guilt they stirred up.
He turned to gape at the thaumaturges. The woman had a smile toying around her mouth. Though he’d first thought she was pretty, this new expression made him shudder.
“You will be given a new family soon enough,” she said, in a voice that lilted like a nursery rhyme. “We have means of making you accept this and come willingly, should we be inclined to use them.”
Z cringed, repulsed by the knowledge that she had seen these horrible thoughts. Not only seen them—she had created them. She had been manipulating him, and it had been so seamless, had intertwined with his own emotions so effortlessly. When his peers practiced mind control on one another or an instructor prodded him with thoughts of obedience, it felt like a new idea being etched into his brain. It was recognizable and, often, he found that with enough focus he could defy it.