Linnasoeta Choi woke, startled by the blazing toll of the iron bell. Lin sat up straight in her bed and surveyed her room with a sudden epidemic of surprise. “All workers rise!” A loud voice boomed over by the belfry, his voice seeming to have the potential power of waking the entire mountainside. The metallic vibration of the iron bell and the old man’s cry hissed into the air and rang in the ears of any villager near or far. Lin sat alarmed in her cot-sized bed and itched at her face. Groaning, she shoved her pillow over her head before someone pulled the rope that started the warning bell again. The sound barely muffled under Linnasoeta’s abrasive, cactus-like pillow.
The door screeched open. “Time to get up, girly,” Nyoka snarled, his lethargic yellow eyes encircled with dark, prominent bags. “Don’t want to upset Daddy again, now would you?”
Lin, after groaning by his presence, threw off her hairy, bearskin blanket, rising only to the dreadful thought of upsetting her father and peeked out her window.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” Lin said. She turned her attention from Nyoka quickly. It was best to avoid all unnecessary conversation with the thing.
The early chill of morning wind blew through the open, two-story high window of her bedroom, the Sun rising slowly. It cast shades of light pink across the land, accompanied by a soft red glow. Linnasoeta peered down the window to get a better glance at the world below her.
Loads of sleepy-eyed villagers lined along the rocky, unpaved paths, stumbling and grumbling, angered by the working call that had come much too early, especially on a week’s end. The bell continued to ring on, the sheer scrape of metal caught in the villagers’ ears.
“Lin!” Nyoka snapped, still standing by her bedroom door. She pivoted on one foot and blinked lazily at him.
“What…” a groggy protest escaped from her before she faked a deep yawn.
“Get away from the window and get dressed, now. Or Daddy will fire you, again!” Pointing to the old rusted blocktimer hung on her dirty-white wall, he barked, “In three minutes, you better be dressed!”
Slamming her door hard with a sharp, guttural screech, he hissed almost inaudibly outside her room door, “Don’t keep us waiting again, Linnasoeta. For I will not wait. Not this time… nor ever again.”
When Lin heard Nyoka’s bare footsteps retreat down to the first floor of the pavilion, she threw herself onto her bed (following multiple swears, of course). Maybe I can get a few more minutes of sleep, she thought, then I’ll be ready.
However, Linnasoeta, who lived somewhat near the iron bell, heard the sound as clearly as if she was standing right next to it. Her chances of more sleep were spent, and her father would not be keen on consecutive tardiness. Throwing off her cover again, an agitated, half-asleep Lin trudged to her bedroom closet and fetched her baby-blue work clothes.
A draft of cool air formed goosebumps on Linnasoeta’s arms. A fresh morning breeze had found its way through the open wicker windows of her room, and a faint fragrance of mid-winter drifted in. Lin dressed with fumbling fingers and tied a dark belt firmly around her waist. She untied her braids that hung by her face and pulled her thick brunette hair in a bun at the nape of her neck.
As Linnasoeta started out her door, fully dressed in her baby blue uniform and hair in a messy bun, she noticed that the bell had not stopped ringing. Fear paralyzed her—from the top of her head down to her toes—as the bell clonked on. The bell seemed to ring inside her. How many times did it ring? she thought to herself. 10? 20? 30? Linnasoeta saw the black smoke spew from the chimney of the Meeting Grounds through the stain-glassed building. That was an iconic sign. The sign seemed to shriek, “Hurry Up!!!”
Lin rushed out her door and down the stairs, running too fast for her brain to process. Nearing the last few steps of the dirty carpet, she tripped over her own feet, did a half flip, and landed hard on the solid wood floor.
Linnasoeta jumped up, despite the fact that her head felt near exploding. The bells raged on whilst Lin hurried to the Meeting Grounds. Surely she wasn’t late. Not for the second time. Lin’s breath grew heavy as blood pounded through her ears. Where was everyone? Had they left without her… again? Nyoka usually was true to his word, the bastard.
Many months ago, Lin had made the mistake of saying such a word in front of her father when speaking of Nyoka.
“Be wise enough to hold your tongue, Lin! You have no right to talk behind the backs of people who have done no harm to you, especially our good Nyoka. Do not swear either, do you understand? Now go, Lin, and leave me to the stack of work in which I must do!”
Yes, good Nyoka, Lin thought as she rushed down the main hall of the House. The weasel of a man who purposely left his Master’s daughter late in her bedroom and lied and said that she was ready to purposely prove a false point that she could not handle the responsibilities of Workclan Life. Yes, good Nyoka, indeed, Father!
Once Lin was outside, the noise of the bell grew louder and more violent, while the man’s call grew angrier and more disturbing. “All workers rise!” he called for the one hundredth time. “All workers rise!”
Yet the slow development of morning seemed to be untouched and perfect. The winds were gentle. Dew-dropped grasses shimmered in the scintillating Sunlight. Cherry blossom trees formed a semi-circle about the lawn, their dark trunks looking, oddly, ever so delicate. Their pink fallen petals, crushed by the rain, brought the sweet fragrances of roses and fruit.
Linnasoeta ran out barefoot onto the lawn in the back of the House –the place she considered her home—where the thick earthy smell of rain and mulch greeted her nose. Moist dirt wiggled between her toes as she ran in the direction of the belfry.
Wedging through the opening between the cherry blossom trees, Lin saw a stampede of villagers bustling around on the streets, all of them in their blue work clothes. She could tell that they were angry; who wouldn’t be on such an early morning, trying to get to the Grounds? Weary workers trudged across the unpaved roads with furious dispositions fixated on their bitterness, all the while holding onto the little ones that repeatedly tried to squirm away.
Lin dashed across the rocky streets where she greeted the villagers with a too loud “Good morning” as they half-heartedly grumbled the phrase back and then cut across the North Pasture to save time. She was alone on the grassy trail. There were no roads, houses or huts, villages, or people back here.
Alone was rather nice, for a limited amount of time, to be honest. Linnasoeta heard the gentle crash of the North Rapids fall onto a bed of smooth stone. The trees hung firmly in the wind, towering over her like an earthy veil. She drew in a long, sweet breath and then exhaled, smiling a bit, getting a whiff of the flowers.
It was quiet and serene on the back pasture behind the streets; nature was at its greenest here, where velvety bushes and scratchy undergrowth snaked along the whole way of the pasture. Cherry blossom trees and rose bushes danced with grace in the wind. Little animals slept in their dark, cozy caves. Soon, they would awaken.
Living in the Pavilion—or the Wither House, which was its official name—was something very hard to do. It was passed down from generation to generation, a symbol of strength, an entity that represented the honor of the country.
But also a hellish place for a girl like Lin.
For one thing, the bedrooms were small, and the House was noisy. Secondly, about fifty people lived in that one building; some people even had to share a room with strangers. (Perhaps that was why it was nice to be left alone.) Thirdly, Shen was Lin’s father, and her father was the controller of the House and all the Workclan who lived in it. He led the people of Rodem, but not in a tyrannical manner. He was the commander (accompanied by a fleet of consultants) and the man who received and delivered news first.
But with all his work, he had little time for his daughter.
The gentle crashes of rushing water by the riverside, the quiet chirp of the birds in the distant shrubbery, and the warming Sun that had risen up to the horizon line were the only things that made Linnasoeta continue forward to make it to the Meeting Grounds. Also the thought of disappointing her father, which she may have already done, made her run even faster.
All tension and worry began to fade upon her entrance into the Soreyth Woods, however. In fact, Linnasoeta’s speedy jog slowed to an unhurried stroll, as if she had forgotten everything. As if she had forgotten that she was doomed to be late.
Something stirred in her brain.
A sudden memory came to Lin when she was promenading through these peaceful woods. It was random, how the memory just came and went as it pleased, and it was rather strange that she remembered such a great deal of it, from the last detail of her mother’s distinctive face to the taste of the air from the salt river nearby. The memory came at unexpected times, times where Linnasoeta was alone, especially by the Banks of Soreyth (or the North Pasture, as those who couldn’t remember the name called it).
The memory forced her to walk. In fact, it made her not walk at all, and Linnasoeta soon forgot where she was going, for she was so engrossed in the rolling film in her brain. Linnasoeta thought for a moment and pictured her mother, Kima Choi, with every description she could find possible. It was not hard to do.
The rapids crashed, and she was back at the age of seven.
Kima— the rebellious, confident woman—had held her hand and led her through this sundrenched passage eight years ago. She was indescribably unique; and she was indescribably beautiful. Kima’s body was one of great strength: powerful back and arms, wide hips, and firm, bountiful legs. Her smooth, caramel skin shone with youth. Her thick, dark-blue tresses swept down to her lower-back. Though she had a strong connection to her brown-eyed lineage in Jainu, her eyes were a penetrating, iridescent blue. Intimidating? Most definitely, but that woman was too astounding. To Linnasoeta, she looked like the Almighty Goddess of the Sun: strong, gorgeous, radiant.
Linnasoeta then tried to picture the day with her mother itself, the day after the glorious spring festival party, the day before the Demon Queen had… Stop! Linnasoeta shook her head at the thought and instead remembered the good day.
It was indeed a good day; light from the Sun cast a sleepy golden afterglow upon Lin’s skin and shone on the slightly damp, deep green hills and grass; the shallow, cream-colored river bank was quietly humming in its flow; and her mother had packed a delicious picnic for them to share.
The picnic lunch consisted of many delicious items, all of them Lin’s favorites; Mailberry Fool; the juiciest and meatiest part of the antelope; Romona Chicken sautéed in a bed of spices and herbs and cheese crust; Hot Rolls drizzled with golden syrup and sprinkled with pecans and powdered sugar; Creamer Bread, which was vertically cooked dough with butter and sweet-berry honey; Sherry Wine – for Kima; and Strawberry Cider for Lin.
“Linnasoeta,” her mother said when she had finished a small portion of the picnic lunch, “These moments I shall savor forever with you, and I must not trouble your young mind with the Demon Queen. However, I must ask of you something. Your friend, Isthmus, is that her name?”
“Ismus,” Lin nodded, wagging her tongue as she did. “I-S-M-U-S. Ismus.”
“I see, Ismus. From what you have said of her, it sounds as though she is very sweet. Your loud exchanges across the border must be exciting.”
“Yes, Ismus is my friend,” Lin explained with a smile as she recalled their constant shouting. It was hard to hear when they were miles apart; usually they would shriek nonsense and laugh and wave stupidly.
“She is my friend because, um, we are nice to each other.”
Her mother responded with a distressed nod. “Yes, but will Ismus always be your friend, Linnasoeta? She is a one-way system to that Demon Queen–Lin, stop looking at that bird and listen—and I must not let you be directed into that path. Linnasoeta, do you hear me?” Lin stayed quiet in confusion, her mother’s eyes full of anxiety.
One way system? She thought.