Six stitches across my palm, butterfly bandages along my left cheekbone, various scrapes along my upper arms from the rough sand, and a lovely purple bruise blossoming along my collarbone. Those are the visible wounds. Numerous bruises and scrapes litter my legs and the strip of lower stomach that became exposed during some tumble earlier in the trail.
The bandages and bruises will only make Milo look more rugged and soldierly. I’m still expected to pocket my knife, be delicate and alluring at these functions. One of the maids my mother staffs stands behind me, frowning at my appearance through the reflection of the large mirror sitting atop the cool stone vanity, which is littered with cosmetics and hair baubles.
Usually I don’t mind getting dressed up, but since tonight I’m not there to represent my father or my family, I wish I could skip this whole process. Why shouldn’t I take pride in these marks, they are a visible indication of my victory, my standing within The Academy’s graduates, of an independent, strong, and influential member of the MacCray family.
Even if this symbol is about to become one of the most feared people in the city. A person known for her ruthlessness and ingenuity when it comes to extracting information.
I feel the crack in my facade beginning to open again. I take all thoughts of who I am about to make myself into and I push it deep, cover it with ice and stone. Father told me I must achieve status. I have. Now I await further instruction. Because I am good soldier and I follow orders. I lock away any resistance or contrary thoughts behind that towering wall of ice and stone. And though I feel cracks webbing across the surface, I continue to burden it, because it is the only way I can make something of myself within this society.
The tapping of my nails against the polished vanity sends the stylist moving into action. “We can cover most the bruise on your face with makeup, and a dramatic sweep of your hair should cover your collarbone. I’ll pull the dress with sheer sleeves to help conceal your arms, there’s nothing to be done about your hand though I’m afraid,” she says, looking more pained than when I slammed my metal clad hand into Milo’s lower abdomen in the arena earlier.
“Good,” I retort, “and I want the sleeveless one we discussed yesterday.”
“But Peer MacCray, your father specifically requested that we present you as unharmed as possible.”
My jaw tightens, holding back an argument before processing the statement. I plaster a sweet smile across my face, give a nod of assent, and sit back as the maids fingers fly across my person. She transforms me from a battered warrior into a powerful young woman and I can’t help but be pleased at the result. She conceals my freckles and the bruise so only a faint tinge of yellow shows through, dotting the bandages with sparkling stones so they look intentional. My green eyes are lined and smudged with a dark purple pencil before a grey matte powder coats my lids. Lashes are curled and lacquered, brows filled and shaped, lips painted to exaggerate their pucker. The dress is zipped up my back, a deep blue that glows against my fair skin and sets off my auburn waves as they are smoothed and draped across my shoulder.
Mother and Father are waiting for me by the door. Mother looks regal in a pale pink column dress, the soft glow reflects off her warm skin and contrasts dramatically with her dark hair. The green eyes we share crinkle as she holds out her arms to me, “You look beautiful darling. A beautiful force to be reckoned with.” I turn to Father, wearing the same dress uniform from the area, it’s soft leather vest giving off a warm scent that has always reminded me of home. He hold out a hand, presenting me with a jewel hilted dagger, sheathed in richly dyed leather. “Though pleasing to the eye,” he draws the blade, “Still deadly.” With a wink he loops the dagger around my waist with a braided silk belt. The weight is reassuring against my hip and brings a true smile to my lips. “Perfect,” sighs Mother before leading us through the large wooden door and to the waiting car.
The Commander’s home is situated on the edge of the plateau that marks the Western edge of the Elysian state. He shares the high vantage point with the Polis – our central government, The Academy, and The Fortress. Atop the red cliff one can look out over the flat red landscape, littered with random red rock formations that contrast with gleaming steel buildings. If I strain my eye I can see the hint of another color, green, from the greenhouses mother manages at the edge of the eastern border of the city. Surrounding the city is a wall. Tall and red like the rest of the landscape, designed to keep us inside the controlled and civilized walls of the city, to combat the chaos that reigned for almost a century when the old nation fell.
A light finger brushes my elbow and I break my gaze from the landscape, turning to find Olivia watching me with a bemused smile. She’s wearing a billowing ivory pleated dress that sets her dark skin glowing, and subtly covers the cast encircling her ankle. She made it to the third round of trials before a misstep on the high beams of the obstacle course sent her plummeting to the ground.
I link my arm though hers, allowing her to distribute some of her weight to me since she has been denied the use of crutches. “When are they shipping you out to Sanctuary?”
“Tomorrow, just like everyone else. I’ll be on desk duty while I finish healing.”
“Well, even with a cast and a limp you look beautiful,” I say.
“So do you. I especially like how the neckline of your dress draws the attention away from that rather ugly bruise near your shoulder.”
I narrow my eyes at her for a moment before we both loose a laugh. “You know what Father always says, utilize every tool you have.”
“Well, you may want to guard that tool of yours, we’re about to be assaulted by the Kato brothers.” I follow Liv’s gaze over my shoulder to see Damien and Lou sauntering toward us, with Milo flanking them.
“Ladies,” croons Lou as they draw near, sweeping two flutes of champagne from a passing tray and presenting them to us with a little bow and a low whistle as his eyes scan us from toe to head as he straightens.
Lou and Damien share the soft angles around their eyes that crinkle when they smile and straight fine black hair. Lou, two class years above us, is stationed in the northern most colony of Commonwealth, but secured a pass to watch his brother compete in the trials. Damien made it to the fourth trial, only to loose against Milo in the first round of arena combat.
Milo grasps my shoulder, squeezing a bit harder than necessary on a shallow cut he knows exists, “Your beauty tonight outshines even your fierceness in battle Peer.”
“And I daresay all those scrapes and bruises make you even more handsome,” I grit out between my teeth.
We hold each other’s gazes, a challenge in each of our eyes, until a throat clearing breaks Milo’s grip. Damien’s lips thin at the interaction and I notice him edge a step closer to me as I turn my focus to Lou, asking, “How is it in the Commonwealth?”
Lou shrugs, “Pretty quiet. A few small groups from Calypso have come up through Frontier, but we always catch them. I’m pretty sure your ‘prize’ was actually one of those who we got in the last raid.”
An uneasy silence settles over the little group. The wind whips up behind us, flowing over the edge of the balcony and kicking my skirt around my ankles.
“So,” says Liv with a mischievous smile stretching her full lips, “when are we bailing?”
Three hours later, after endless toasts in honor of myself, Milo, every other graduate of The Academy, and The Commander. After continuous plates of delicacies and fragrant drinks, when the music is nothing but soft lullabies lulling the intoxicated guests into a stupor on their soft cushions, we make our sly exit out the kitchen store room, several bottles of fine wine tucked under the boys tunics.