"Alexandra Spencer, how do you plead? Guilty, or not guilty?" The Judge's voice rang out through the silence, his microphone giving a high-pitched squeal of disgust at the volume of his voice.
I watched him nervously, wondering if he'd show a reaction to my plea. His focus was on the large audience watching my trial-even after all these years, he still loved the excitement of the courtroom. Silently, I dared him to look at me. He didn't.
With their features partially illuminated by the dying embers of the fire, the rest of the Council of Leaders stared at me through drooping eyelids. Sitting in a semi-circle around a ceremonial fire pit, the six most important people in our City were bored. They knew what I was going to say. They expected me to plead guilty-it was what everyone always did, whether we were guilty or not. I could almost read their minds-hurry up, so we can climb back into our beds.
I lifted my chin defiantly and passed my eyes over each face, stopping finally at the Judge. "Not guilty," I said, my words echoing into the night.
In unison, a thousand gasps spread around the amphitheatre, but before anyone could utter a word, the Judge yelled, "Silence!" His voice reverberated through the speakers.
Now he looked at me. And I stared boldly back. For one second he looked shocked, but with a single blink that was gone, and he was again a pillar of professionalism. Deep inside, I was quietly smug that I had unnerved him.
A muted hum rose from the audience as they whispered to a neighbour their opinions on my plea. My father's private view was that most of the people of New Phoenix were little better than villagers. The fact they were here at three in the morning, watching my trial, proved it. They wanted to see a ballot draw. But that wasn't going to happen tonight. This trial would never get that far.
I searched for Marcus among the crowds of onlookers. He was out there somewhere, but it was next to impossible to make out faces in the dim light.
"You are aware," said the Judge dryly, "as per City law, that a plea of not guilty will carry a harsher penalty should you be found guilty, than a guilty plea."
I nodded. If the verdict were not guilty, as I was certain it would be, I'd be better off still. Besides, I didn't have any choice. Marcus had told me this was the only way.
"Very well." The Judge turned to the other five people seated around the fire. "Council of Leaders, you have heard all the evidence. We must now make a decision."
Tillie Simpson slid elegantly from the little stool she'd been seated upon for the duration of my hearing. She passed each of the other Council members a blue plastic clipboard and pen, her stilettos sinking deeply in the decorative sand strewn across the stage. Stepping up to the microphone, she reached into the pocket of her tailored grey suit jacket and removed her notes. Her strong voice resonated through the microphone as she began to read aloud. "Leaders, you must write your verdict upon your paper without allowing anyone to see it. When you are done, I will call for the results. Remember, majority rules."
Immaculate was the only way to describe Tillie, from the pink lipstick she wore-in the middle of the night-to the French knot in her hair and the way she spoke. This was her first hearing as an elected member of the Council, and as such, she didn't get to vote in my trial. But she was clearly pleased to hold a role in such a prestigious case, and no matter how minor her job, she would do it perfectly.
Once it was clear that each Council member had written a verdict, and taking a little further time for dramatic effect, Tillie spoke again. "When I call your name, turn over your voting page for everyone to see. Remember, majority rules." Tillie looked at each of the Council members as if deciding who she would start with. She was obviously trying to draw out her time in the spotlight.
Leaning back on my hard wooden chair, I wished this were over already. I wasn't nervous anymore-I'd said my bit. But I'd had enough of this trial. I hated all these theatrics and was horribly uncomfortable-and I already knew what verdict they would return.
"Mitchell Johnson," Tillie said. "What is your verdict?"
Mitchell, a small man dressed all in brown, turned his clipboard over. I saw the sprawl of his messy doctor's handwriting before Tillie.
My heart missed a beat. Mitchell's verdict was totally unexpected.
But it didn't matter. His was just one vote. Two of the Council members were firmly on my side. One was family, the other almost family. I only needed one more not guilty vote and I was home free-they would not sentence me to a place that virtually guaranteed my death. Besides, the Council of Leaders never gave a guilty verdict to kids from the City. Ever.
Looking slightly flustered, Tillie smoothed the folds in her pencil-thin skirt. "That's one vote guilty. Judge Spencer, your verdict please."
The corners of my mouth threatened to rise but I managed to keep them in check. This vote was mine; my father would not send me to Elder Grey.
The Judge stared blankly at the smouldering fire pit, his eyes distant.
"Judge Spencer?" Tillie prompted.
My father stared solemnly at me for what felt like an age. Then he shifted his gaze to Tillie. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned his clipboard over.
I blinked, certain I had misread until Tillie announced his verdict to the crowd.
This was wrong. Why would my father find me guilty? He was one of the most influential men in New Phoenix; he had the authority to stop this trial. He'd stopped trials before, many times, and with less reason than having his daughter on the stand.
Panic welled up inside my chest. My father had publically betrayed me. If I received just one other guilty verdict, I'd be going to a place where torture was the norm-that was if I made it through the gruelling three week trek to get there.
He wouldn't meet my eyes.
Could I be having some sort of psychotic episode? Perhaps I had mixed the words in my head. Maybe guilty actually meant I was going to be freed. Surely that was the only explanation.
But the shocked exclamations from the crowd told me I was kidding myself.
Tillie toddled over to me, her tight skirt, high heels and the sand on the ground all working together to prevent her walking steadily. She crouched and placed her hand on my shoulder. "Do you need some water, dear? You look quite pale."
I wanted to yell, is it any wonder? My father had probably just signed my death sentence; wasn't I entitled to look 'quite pale'? Determined to hide the fear creeping into my gut and numbing my extremities, I smiled and spoke in my politest voice. "No thank you, Tillie."
As she climbed to her feet, she squeezed my shoulder before toddling back to the microphone. With shaking hands, she placed her notes on the lectern and threw me a sympathetic glance. My father's verdict seemed to have shocked her as much as it had me.
"That's two votes guilty," she said, her eyes flicking over the three remaining leaders. "Mayor Rutherford, your verdict please."
I let out a breath I hadn't realised I was holding. The Mayor's was the other vote I was counting on.
He shot to his feet and turned his clipboard over. His writing was tiny, and I couldn't read it. Even Tillie had to step forward, squinting. She straightened up slowly, and turned to the crowd. "Guilty," she said. "That's three votes guilty-"
I stared at her in disbelief, not hearing another word. No, no, no! They were wrong. I was innocent. Why did they say I wasn't?
The world started to spin. I blinked, trying to keep everything in focus. Refusing to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me faint, I gripped the edges of my chair and tried to breathe normally. I didn't hear Tillie's final announcement to the crowd, but it didn't matter. I knew what she'd said. I, Alexandra Elizabeth Spencer, would spend the next 357 days at Elder Grey Detention Centre.
My life would not be the same for the foreseeable future-assuming I even had a future.
Tillie raised her hand to silence the crowd, although she needn't have bothered. The audience knew the drill. If they wanted to watch, they needed to be quiet.
Taking my arm, Tillie lifted me from the chair, guiding me silently to the stage wings. I was struggling to breathe. There had been some sort of monumental mistake. Right now, I was supposed to be walking home, my hand in Marcus', laughing at the ridiculousness of the trial. Instead, I was a prisoner about to go on a dangerous and deadly journey to get to a place where I'd be starved and beaten. Elder Grey was for the worst offenders, a place of nightmares. It wasn't for a good girl from a wealthy family. It wasn't for someone like me.
I'd only been to the outskirts of the City twice before. I couldn't survive in the bush. And I doubted I could endure a year in prison. How had this all gone so wrong? Where was Marcus? Or my father? Someone to comfort me, to tell me it was all a huge misunderstanding.
My stomach churned. I looked around, hunting for somewhere to throw up, because, on top of everything else, damned if I was going to vomit all over my shoes.
As I searched, a part of me was vaguely aware of the arena coming alive. Hundreds of workers in white overalls and orange hard hats had appeared from nowhere, readying the stage for the next part of the ceremony.
One of the workers, his hat pulled low on his head, stopped in front of Tillie, handing her a piece of paper. She unfolded and read it, then nodded. Her eyes flashed apologetically as she glanced at me, before looking up at him.
"I don't think I can do this." Her voice wobbled as she spoke.
"You don't have a choice," said the worker quietly.
"But to send her to that awful place just because her father is angry at the world, it's not right. What if she gets caught by one of those horrible Drifters, she might end up as a slave-"
"Tillie, I don't think you're helping-"
Tillie appeared not to hear. But I had, and my heart filled with hope. The worker raised baby-blue eyes in my direction.
I blinked, knowing who I was seeing but not fully believing. It was Marcus. And I was ridiculously relieved. Finally, here was someone who might get me out of this mess-I nearly jumped into his arms.
He raised one finger and shook his head, stopping me. My heart dropped and all the expectation I'd felt a second ago, disappeared. That shake of his head told me he couldn't help me, he shouldn't be here. The guilty verdict meant any privileges I'd once had, were now gone. I wanted to scream. All of this was so unfair.
Tillie continued talking. "She'll starve, or die of exposure... she should be here, living a normal life, going to school, seeing friends... except that her father thinks she's to blame."
"Have you told her?" Marcus asked, adjusting his hardhat.
Told me what?
Tillie shook her head. "It's not my place."
Marcus stepped closer to me.
"It's not your place either, Marcus," Tillie warned.
Marcus looked at me as he addressed Tillie. "I don't care. This is my last chance to see her for a long time."
Tillie took a step back, willing to let Marcus have his say but clearly wishing to take no part in it.
I wanted to ask what Tillie was talking about, but standing beside Marcus I felt the familiar tug at my heart, and the words wouldn't come. My fingers itched to reach out and take his hand-to feel reassured by his presence. But everything about him told me he wouldn't want me to, and I didn't want to upset him, so I stayed glued to the spot.
Beneath his eyes were dark circles and his usually styled hair was flat and messy, sticking out in every direction from beneath his hard hat. He looked as tired as I felt and I wondered if the strain of the trial showed so obviously on me.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This wasn't supposed to happen. You could have pleaded guilty."
"You told me not too. And I wasn't guilty." My voice was hoarse, probably from the effort of holding back my distress. "Not of what they said, anyway. I never thought Father would take such a hard line." A tear ran down my cheek, but I didn't care-I couldn't hold them back any longer.
"Neither did I." Marcus ran his tongue over his lips as he hunted for the words he needed. "Alexandra, I know why the Judge found you guilty. It has nothing to do with your trial. I heard him speaking to my dad." He took a breath. "When you were in hospital a few weeks ago, the Judge had some extra tests done on you."
I nodded, only half hearing. A single word kept running through my head.
"Anyway-" Marcus swallowed hard. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and let the words tumble out. "You're not his daughter."
From somewhere far away, I heard myself laugh. It was a hollow sound, and not much like a laugh at all, but the suggestion that I wasn't my father's daughter was ridiculous.
"You're wrong." Marcus' eyes were awash with sympathy and sadness, but I refused to believe him. "Why would he want tests done? Father and I look alike. We have the same colour eyes, and-"
Even before he interrupted, I knew what he was going to say. Everyone always said the same thing about me. "There are some similarities, Alexandra, but you look far more like your mother did."
My bottom lip started to quiver and I quickly stiffened my jaw. If I didn't try to hold it together now, I was certain I'd be a blubbering mess for the ballot draw-and I wasn't going to let that happen. In a matter of minutes, my entire world had turned upside down. Nothing made sense; it was like some kind of sick joke.
Except I knew it wasn't.
A chair seemed to arrive from nowhere and Marcus helped me sit, crouching at my feet.
"He's angry, Alexandra. Hurt. His actions tonight, they weren't those of the kind, loving man you know him to be. You need to remember that."
Red-hot coals of anger exploded inside my chest, banishing the shock. "Remember that?" My voice trembled with outrage. "Why should I consider the feelings of the man who has probably sentenced me to death? He's sending me to Elder Grey, Marcus, to punish me for something my mother did. And you want me to remember his kindness?" My voice had grown louder with each word, and Tillie stepped closer to us.
"Unless you want Marcus to be caught here, Alexandra, you'll need to keep your voice down."
I swallowed and continued in a loud whisper. "Was that your father's reason for the guilty verdict?"
"Partly, I guess. They've been friends a long time, and he feels for your father, thinks Elizabeth shouldn't have cheated on him. Of course, it won't do Dad any harm when the public realises that his guilty verdict was a show of support to the Judge. But mostly, I'd say, it was because Dad wants to be voted Mayor again next year. What better way to prove he's above favouritism than to send a Councillor's child to Elder Grey? It was just unlucky timing that it was you in front of the Council, not someone else."
The anger burning in me drowned under a tidal wave of emotions I could barely process. I was going to a place of horrors because my father, who wasn't even my real father, hated me.
Marcus rested his hand on mine. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should never have let you take the blame."
No, I wanted to say, you shouldn't have. But even now, when my life had been ripped apart, I still couldn't find a voice to say that to him. Instead, I thought about Monday-it seemed like weeks ago rather than days-when a normal afternoon had turned into something extraordinary.
With one eye on the clock, I'd tried to study as I waited to phone Marcus when his shift with the Armed Guard finished. I was so proud of him. He was the youngest person ever accepted to train the new guards.
As I leaned back against the fluffy pillows on my bed with the phone to my ear, the doorbell had rung. I flew down the stairs to find Marcus on the other side, looking sublime in his guard uniform. Somehow, after a full day of work, his blonde hair still spiked neatly up in the front and his pants were perfectly pressed. The baby-blue shirt that matched his eyes was rolled up at the cuffs showing off tanned forearms. Even stepping out of the pouring rain, he still looked perfect, and I grinned, happy to see him.
"Don't know why they ever called New Phoenix the Land of the Long White Cloud," he said stepping into the house and shaking water droplets from his hair. "Land of Lots of Rain might have suited better." He handed me his umbrella. "Your dad's at a Council meeting, right?"
"Yep. Won't be home until late."
"Good." Marcus leaned down and brushed a kiss across my lips. "Do you feel like company? I've invited a couple of friends over. It's been a rough week."
"Here?" I wondered vaguely why he hadn't invited them to his own place, and how rough the week could have been since today was only Monday. But he seemed happy. And if Marcus was content, I was too.
He nodded, pulling a bottle of gin from his backpack and placing it on the table.
"But we're not allowed parties. It's a violation of the Youth Conduct Code."
"And we could end up at Elder Grey?" Marcus laughed. "You know they never send City kids there anymore, they haven't for years. And even if we were taken before the Council, our fathers have two of the five votes; we'd never end up there. The Youth Conduct Code is just an ancient piece of paper."
I wasn't so sure. The YCC had been in place ever since our ancestors had hidden beneath the ground in a purpose built City to escape the effects of radiation and nuclear winter. It was there to ensure we listened to our elders. To ensure that we never thought we knew best. It was a veil the Council used in the hope that another war wasn't brought on the world as it had been once before, by those too young to understand. We learnt about it in school, the way our parents had, and their parents before them. Among other things, we were not to congregate in groups, have parties, or spend time with friends without an adult present. I believed in it. I did not think the YCC was just an ancient piece of paper.
Marcus smiled and my resolve waivered. "Go on," he said. "No one will know."
I hesitated. Marcus was right. We wouldn't get caught, and even if we did, what was the worst that could happen? We'd have to pick up rubbish from the streets of New Phoenix for a few weeks.
About twenty of Marcus' friends came round. We drank, talked and listened to music. Marcus told me not to worry, handed me a gin and kissed me on the lips. I liked that he wanted to show me off to his friends, so I drunk my gin and tried not to think about breaking the YCC.
Just before midnight, someone pounded on the front door. For a split second, everyone froze, already knowing it was the Armed Guard. Silently, people began moving in every direction-out the back door, a window, whichever way they could, not wanting to be found inside my house by the Armed Guard after curfew.
Marcus grabbed my hand, pulling me away from the front door. "We're in trouble, Alexandra."
I thought about what he'd told me earlier. "No we're not."
"We are. I can't go down for this; I have a long way to fall. The Council will go easier on you, Alexandra, you're only fifteen. But I'm supposed to know better. You have nothing to lose, but the first thing I'll lose is my job. I'll help you clean up rubbish or whatever sentence you get."
"You want me to lie to them?"
"Not lie. Just...don't mention me."
The guards banged loudly on the door, shouting something I didn't understand.