“I love Tessa Saah!”
The scream exploded from the boy’s lungs, but as his voice had yet to crack, it came out sounding more like the shriek of a dying animal or a woman in peril.
They were sure to wake the RedGuard now.
“Merciful Crown!” Slink hissed as his head dotted back around the Keep’s bend. “For the love of the Eight, Robinson, shut up before you wake the entire Township, you fool!”
Robinson laughed. He didn’t care. He was a fool—a fool for love and he wanted everyone to know it.
Slink had an immediate urge to throttle his friend, but this wasn’t the time and place. For one thing, they were in the process of committing a crime that could get them both banished to the outer Regens. For another, they were currently perched six stories high in the sky, pressed flat against the wall of the Tower Keep, on a ledge barely wider than a man’s foot in the chill, howling wind.
What in the name of the Eight was he doing up here?
It wasn’t the fact that Robinson was the son of Tiers and he was the son of a Wall guard. The unspoken rule that his kind needed to defer to theirs was flat out stupid and went against everything the OnePeople were supposed to stand for.
And it certainly wasn’t because Robinson was too athletic for him. If anything, Robinson was undersized and a bit chubby for his age (although Slink would never say it aloud—his friend was sensitive about such things). Yes, Slink might look like a giant when standing beside him, but that was only due to his most recent growth spurt (and his father’s genetics). He still retained the uncanny dexterity, honed by years of sneaking around the hidden paths of the city, which had helped him earn his nickname.
No, he and Robinson had been friends since their first days of school, which had come as a surprise to most because A) fraternization between Nobes and Mucks was frowned upon, and B) Slink’s family was cheated out of a second child when Robinson’s mother gave birth to twins. They should have been bitter enemies. They became best friends instead.
Even now, Slink knew Robinson wasn’t simply acting out. Sure, he’d made an arse out of himself plenty of times before by playing the fool and engaging in acts so unconscionably illegal or immoral that they should have both walked the Road long ago. He didn’t even believe Tessa was the real reason for his outburst—though he had no doubt the sentiment of his declaration was true. No, the reason Robinson was shouting at the top of his lungs was much simpler: he had never seen the Township from on high before.
Robinson Crusoe was born in the year 2228 and, at sixteen years old, had lived his entire life in New London, sequestered behind the Wall that surrounded the four square kilometer sanctuary his ancestors had carved out centuries before. The impermeable, unyielding Wall —a dozen times the size of a man, built of stone and dirt and blood—served to keep all threats out while also keeping the Citizens in.
In the courtyard of the Crown below them, RedGuard would be patrolling at the crack of dawn. Beyond the six spires surrounding the Tower Keep were the Flats, where the underclass lived in cramped quarters overrun with rain. To the right, the Clutch, where the merchants peddled their wares.
At the Township’s heart sat the communal fields, divided by only a narrow, winding road—the Red Road—that led to the Western Gate and also up to the Shelf where the Tiers and their families looked down upon all else from a golden perch, but one that still sat in the shadow of the Wall. There, Robinson could see his father’s estate, tucked into the northeastern most corner, its grounds larger than any other, but not for the size of their home, which was surprisingly modest, but because of the flyer livery, which dominated half their land.
Even the Pate above—that massive slab of rock split only by the Tongue, the river that fed all, was inspiring from here.
But what truly stayed Robinson’s heart was what lay beyond the Wall. To the west was the Great Atlantica. To the east, Isle Prime, the continent of Europa, and the last refuge of mankind following the Great Rendering. Here, for the first time, he realized the enormity of the world and how small his place was in it.
“Come on, Robinson,” Slink grumbled. “The sun is almost up. Do you want to do this or not?”
“Then look there. The second window is the one you want. That’s where I’m told it is being held. Take your look and get back as quick as you can.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I have no desire to see that thing. I have enough nightmares as it is.”
Robinson clapped him on the shoulder. “I appreciate this, my friend. You can’t imagine the amount of bragging I’m going to do in school today.”
“Of course I can,” Slink said. “I am your best friend after all.”
The words barely left his lips before his giant hands locked onto Robinson, swung him over the abyss and deposited him on the other side of the ledge. It was such an effortless, graceful act that Robinson never had time to be scared.
Rounding the bend, Robinson was met by the sun as it emerged through the clouds. As he neared the first window, he fell to his knees to creep underneath it. Only when he heard a peal of drunken laughter did he realize what a stupid idea this was. He could get into so much trouble. Then again, it was the kind of brash, arrogant act that would ensure his reputation for a lifetime. He pressed on.
It wasn’t until he was passing under the window’s ledge that the sneeze struck him. He covered his mouth, but it was too late to pull it back. He hunkered down for what seemed an eternity, but eventually he began to relax. He had gone unnoticed.
It was precisely that moment when the windows above him blew open and a gauntleted hand clamped onto his coat.
“And who do we have here?” a deep voice said.
A turn later, Robinson’s RedGuard captor delivered him by carriage to his father’s estate. As they passed through the front gates, his ears barely registered the rocks kicked up by the carriage wheels or the sound of the leather reins going taut as they lurched to a stop.
Vareen, the family’s aged housemistress, answered the door. She became the closest thing to a mother the children had since their own died six months earlier. Even from the carriage, Robinson could see her face fill with disappointment.
Once inside, Vareen directed him past the kitchen where the staff prepared breakfast. They continued on into the sitting room.
“Your father has company in the study. Wait here until he can get to you. And mind your tongue.”
Company wasn’t a common occurrence at the Crusoe estate, so when Robinson heard several deep voices from under the partitioned doors, he crossed the room and gently set his ear to them.
“We must be careful. The man has spies everywhere.”
“Forget his spies! Time is running out. We need to act now!”
“You always want to rush in head-first, with no thought to the consequences.”
“The consequences have always been the same if we fail. But if we succeed…”
“Once we start down this road, there will be no turning back.”
“Only a coward would want to.”
Voices erupted in unison, but Robinson recognized none of them. His hands suddenly felt damp. The situation inside grew tenser by the moment. The tenor of anger gave way to mistrust and even fear.
And then all at once, the arguments ceased. A new voice spoke, calm and sure. Robinson recognized it as belonging to the Tier of Transportation, a man who was also his father.
“Sers. We all have much to lose by acting. But failing to act presents an even worse fate. The Campaign moves forward. Each and every one of you must ask yourself here and now, will I support it or stand against it?”
The room went quiet. Robinson didn’t know what this Campaign was, but even the mere mentioning of it set his heart thrumming in his chest. He didn’t know why. He wanted so badly to see what was happening on the other side of those doors. Finally, when he couldn’t take it any longer, he bent down to the keyhole for a glimpse inside.
And just as his weight shifted, the floorboard under his feet groaned. It was a subtle sound, but it sent a jolt of terror straight through him. He quickly stood up, about to back away when the doors were thrust open and his father met him eye to eye.
“Father,” he stuttered. “Uh…Vareen asked me to tell you that breakfast is ready.”
Leodore Crusoe was dressed in grey slacks and a grey doublet with a bootlace tie. His black hair was slicked back to unruly curls that billowed over his collar. His beard had been trimmed that very morning, but it was his eyes, so thin and foreign, that froze Robinson in his tracks.
Even more disconcerting was the dozen or so guests spread about the room. They were Tiers and not of minor houses or faux titles. These were men of power from all over the Isle—men who rarely gathered together outside the council and never in secret.
What were they doing here?
Finally, one of them spoke.
“Fellow Sers,” Leodore finally said, “My eldest, Robinson.”
“Your Tierships,” Robinson said while bowing with an open hand facing them, thumb curved in. It was an old tradition, the One and Four. The open hand symbolized that he held no weapon. The inverted thumb meant he was positioning himself between them and harm, which signaled that he was a friend.
Several returned the gesture, though none bothered to bow. Robinson recognized several of the men. Fonel Keric, Tier of Water Resources. Byron Frostmore, the flamboyant Tier of Horticulture. The elderly Vonus Cork, Tier of Agriculture, scowled from the corner. But it was Roland Fallow, Tier of the Exterior, whose presence surprised Robinson most. It was well known Ser Fallow and his father didn’t get along.
“Perhaps it is time to wrap this up,” he said. The men muttered quick assents.
Leodore turned back to his son. “See that Tannis and Tallis are dressed and ready for breakfast. I’ll be along shortly.”
Robinson nodded and bid a quick goodbye before leaving the room.
Once in the kitchen, the twins questioned Robinson fervently about what he saw, but he gave little away other than to say, “Of course they welcomed me. Now that I’m to be an apprentice, they value my opinion about certain things.”
The twins looked at him with awe. But his pleasure quickly ended when the final carriage left the grounds and his father returned and slapped him across the face.
“That is the last time your antics embarrass me.”
Vareen and the twins gasped. Leodore had never struck any of his children before. Tears sprung to Robinson’s eyes.
“Ser,” Vareen pleaded. “It was a harmless prank.”
“Harmless? Scaling the Tower two days before the Day of Naming when every Tier from around the Isle is in New London? Damnit, Boy! You couldn’t have picked a worse time if you tried! Should that RedGuard report back who was in attendance here, the IronFists will be breaking down the door before the staff can hide the silverware!”
“I assure you, Ser,” Vareen said calmly, “that man did not so much as glimpse who or what was inside the parlor. And did he not accept your token?”
“The word is bribe,” my father said. “And just because he accepted it doesn’t mean he won’t write a report later.”
Ser Crusoe’s eyes fell back on his son. “When I think of the tutors we wasted on your education. And the dance masters and the elocution lessons and for what? So my son might be the laughing stock of the entire Isle? Thank the Crown your mother cannot see you now!”
Before he turned and fled, Robinson saw a glint of something lustrous clutched in his father’s hand. It was attached to a long, thin chain. Only later when he calmed down would he realize it was his mother’s locket.
He had not seen it since she died.
A half turn later, Vareen appeared at the Livery door and saw Robinson sitting at a small desk tinkering with leftover components. She never understood where the desire or imagination to create came from, but it had always been present in the Crusoe line.
“What are you building?” she finally asked.
“It’s a tracking unit. You can carry it aboard a ship or on your person and if you’re ever in trouble, you push this and it will emit a pulse to help others find you.”
Vareen knew what he was thinking. Had his mother been in possession of this device, she would have still been alive today.
“It’s brilliant, Robinson. Everything you create is. You’re just like her in that—”
His hands stopped churning. “What does it matter? Thanks to the Eighth Law, it will never even see the light of day.”
“The Eight are here to protect us.”
He stifled a laugh before looking up. “Does he hate me, Vareen?”
“No, Child!” She said, stepping close. “Your father loves you very much. He is just— These are difficult times. There is a change in the air, something I have not felt in a very long time. It’s like the coming of a storm. You father feels it too. It’s why he met with the Tiers today. Leodore has always had a deep love for the OnePeople, as did your mother. Both felt it incumbent upon them to preserve what our ancestors built.”
“But we have a good life here. Why would he risk that by consorting with men like Tier Fallow?”
“Because not all views look out from the Shelf. Most have no windows at all. Isn’t that terrible, considering how big the world is?”
Robinson nodded, but he wasn’t sure. New London was the only world he’d ever known.
Vareen lifted his chin. “You’re too young to worry about such things. In two day’s time, I will dress you in your finest and load you into your carriage for the Crown. And there, you will hear your name spoken in front of the entire OnePeople. And I will watch you on the Feed as I did your father and I will cry because you will no longer be the boy I have held and loved and watched grow. You will be a man—an apprentice to your father. And maybe then we can set about finding you a wife.”
She saw him smile oddly. “Or have you found one already?”
“There is no one,” he said, frustrated by his transparency.
She clucked. “You have always been a terrible liar. At least with me. Now, come. We must clean you up. You’re already late for school.”
He looked at the clock on the wall. “I have plenty of time. The carriage trip only takes a quarter turn.”
“Your father took the carriage a while ago. You’ll need to go in on foot.”
Panic immediately swelled in Robinson’s chest. He quickly ran for the door. Vareen yelled at him. He needed a bath, but before she knew it, he was halfway down the road. He’d already enraged one of the two men he feared most in this world.
He was about to face the other.
Crimes and Punishment
The Academnia had been one of the first buildings built after the Wall went up, so no one could have foreseen the area around it going so quickly to seed. But the irrigation to the communal fields had been improperly engineered and the result was constant flooding to the streets surrounding the school.
Over the course of time, the underclass had built a beehive of stacked domiciles and shanties to live in, but they were often flooded, earning those citizens who lived there the slur, “Muckbacks.” Robinson never used the word himself. After all, his best friend was one of those citizens, but few children of Tiers gave them the same courtesy, as evidenced by the scrawl over the bathrooms that read, “Nobes only, no Mucks allowed.”
When Robinson arrived at his classroom, he found the door locked. It wasn’t a surprise. Taskmaster Satu was as strict about punctuality as he was about everything else. Through the window, he saw the class rigid and attentive as always. His only relief came when he spotted Slink inside. He had successfully managed to escape the tower, though Robinson was sure he bore some guilt for leaving his friend behind.
Robinson took a deep breath and knocked. The door opened slowly.
Taskmaster Satu wore his usual burgundy robe, fringed with gold leaf brocade around the neck that designated him as Taskmaster Overseer of New London. His hair and beard were both long and grey, but it was his penetrating eyes that had weakened the knees of generations of students and sent many from the rural Regens scrambling back to the safety of their homes.
“Citizen Crusoe,” he enunciated with relish. “You are late. You know the penalty for tardiness in my class. You will return tomorrow with a five thousand-word essay enumerating the myriad ways in which you have hindered my teachings over the years. This, you shall read for the amusement of your fellow students and myself. Good day.”
He slammed the door in Robinson’s face. He knocked again.
When the door opened this time, Taskmaster Satu’s nostrils were flaring. In his hand was also a long, slender riding crop made of yew that extended from a worn handle, down a narrow shaft, to a leather tongue keeper that was cracked with age and overuse. It was an implement Robinson was very familiar with.
“My apologies, Taskmaster, but there is no school tomorrow. Today’s our final day.”
His teacher fawned surprised. “Is it now? How foolish of me to assume that I, your teacher, might have some say in the fulfillment of your academic obligations. By all means, come in! Come in, so you might inform all my charges of their fate as well.”
As he entered, Slink rolled his eyes and most every other student frowned with irritation. Only Jaras Saah, seated in the back, wore a perverse smile.
Robinson was about to head for his seat when the crop barred his path.
“Before you take your seat, there is some business we must attend to, yes?”
He knew what was coming. “Yes, Taskmaster.”
“You have willfully interrupted my class. I will have an explanation.”
Robinson knew he’d have no problem fabricating an excuse, but Taskmaster Satu would then have the right to vet that excuse, which, given this was the last day of school and how such an act could further cement his reputation, was not beyond him. If a student was caught in a lie, he could be brought up on charges in front of the Tier of Civil Obedience, which was a grave thing. He could easily tell some smaller lie, something Slink could corroborate, but if the RedGuard did indeed file a report, then Slink too would be disciplined, and his punishment would be far worse. Robinson had only one option.
“I have no excuse, Taskmaster. My tardiness is no one’s fault but my own. I apologize to you, my fellow classmates, and all the citizens of the OnePeople.”
His disappointment was evident. He’d clearly been itching for a confrontation. “Your sentence is two lashes. To be exercised—” he brought the crop down with a snap that made most in the room jump, “immediately.”
Robinson swallowed and began rolling up his sleeves.
“Unless, you think it unnecessary.”
“As you say, Citizen, this is the final day of your education, which would imply there is nothing more I can teach you. If that is indeed the case, then your tardiness is inconsequential. You have learned all that you need to move into the world and rightly take your place as your father’s apprentice. Is that how you see it?”
Robinson knew he was being baited, but he had no intention of giving him what he wanted. “I doubt there will ever be a day that you couldn’t teach me something, Taskmaster.”
“Well said. Very diplomatic. But I’m not speaking in riddles. There is no subterfuge on my part. You have always been one of my brightest students. Or am I mistaken?”
The students shuffled, eager to see where this was going. Robinson felt a flare of anger. He’d already had a tough morning and didn’t deserve to be singled out like this for being a quarter of a turn late, so he ignored Slink’s subtle shake of his head.
“No,” He said, finally. “You’re not.”
“Excellent! So, theoretically, I could pose to you any question and you should be able to answer it.”
“Theoretically. If the question was based on the curriculum taught to us here, under this roof.”
“Or things that I am sure you have knowledge of?” He asked.
“A difficult concept to verify since no one knows my mind but myself.”
“An excellent point! Let’s find out. Shall we say six questions?”
He still wasn’t certain he wanted to do this, but the idea of beating Taskmaster Satu at his own game was too much to turn down.
“Six is fair. But what happens if I answer one incorrectly?”
“Then, as the ancients used to say, the punishment should fit the crime.”
“I’ll be kept an extra quarter turn after class?”
The class tittered nervously. Taskmaster Satu grinned.
“No. You will receive a lash for every question posed.”
Six lashes! By the Spires, Robinson had never taken more than three and had never heard of anyone taking more than four. As tempting as it was, he had doubts he could bear the pain of six lashes, much less the unending humiliation that would accompany it.
“I think I’ll take my two lashes and move on, Ser. After all, I was late and that punishment more than fits the crime.”
“Pity,” his teacher said. “Though, I’m not surprised. Over the years I’ve made similar offers to a handful of students and all but one declined.”
“Then he is a better man than me.”
“Of that, there is little doubt. Even less since he was a she.”
“Forgive my assumption. I’m sure she was a remarkable student.”
“A remarkable citizen,” He corrected. “She too refused the challenge at first, but if memory serves, she came up with an interesting counterproposal.”
“That her fellow students be allowed to pose the questions. Ironic that you did not think to do the same.”
“I admit it’s clever, but how is it ironic?”
“Because the woman in question was your mother.”
The blood instantly ran from Robinson’s face as a buzz moved through the room. Taskmaster Satu’s eyes never wavered.
“And to answer your next question, yes. She replied correctly to all six queries. As I said, she was a remarkable citizen, an exemplary student, the best I’ve ever taught, which is why you, her son, are such a disappointment. But to quote the ancients once more, “Virtue is not hereditary.”
“Thomas Paine,” Robinson said, immediately. “I’ll consider that the first question, Taskmaster. Pick your students.”