Iris is a young, seventeen year old girl residing in the world of Aaeyorn. She has one unique physical trait: burgundy colored eyes. In her village, there are recurrent celebrations for the Emperor Radik that end with the sacrifice of a random select of citizens. So far, Iris has managed to stay out of trouble, but everything changes when a stranger shows up and her life quickly turns upside down.
I was sitting with my head buried in my knees. I was in a cell. A dungeon cell. Twelve others surrounded me. We didn’t talk to each other. None of us made a sound. didn’t know how much longer I would be in here, but I did know that if I ever got out, I was going to dash into my family’s small house, run up the rickety stairs to the safety of my bedroom and hide in there for the rest of my life. If I ever got out.
I hadn’t done anything wrong. Neither had the others. I told myself it was okay and tried to breathe. After all, I may get out of here unscathed. But who knew? I was essentially waiting to die.
Then the door opened and the guard walked in. I lifted my face up to see him. He looked smugly over all of us, as if he was worth something and we weren’t.
“Blondes,” he announced, authoritatively.
Two blonde headed boys and three blonde headed girls got to their trembling feet. I was thankful, for once, for my brunette locks that had just saved my life. Those five poor souls weren’t as lucky, though. They had the misfortune to be born with blonde hair. They walked over to the guard, quiet and wide eyed.
They followed the guard out the door and down a dark hall and another guard entered the cell and led the rest of us out into the sunlight, out of the castle courtyard and into the village. He left us there and we all headed to the City Circle to watch the ending of The Celebration.
Our ruler, the Emperor Radik, is someone we didn’t know much about, but I hated him. I assumed other people in the village hated him, too, but there wasn’t really a way to tell. We were supposed to worship and adore him so any sign that someone wasn’t devoted to him was immediately reported and those people were usually never seen again. So, like I said, I assumed others hated him, but that was a dangerous assumption.
We never saw much of Emperor Radik. In fact, he only made public appearances a few times a year, standing on his balcony for a while and looking down on all of us then disappearing back into his castle, which caused something we called The Celebration. It was a random occurrence and we never knew when it was approaching, but we were notified about a week before the special day. Every time he showed his face, there was a festival. It was our only holiday. It went on for three days. People from all the different sub-sectoms came to our tiny village to celebrate Emperor Radik. Then, at the end of the third day, a random select of villagers would be publicly sacrificed to him as he watched from the balcony of his palace. That is what was happening now: the end of the festival, the public execution of five innocent, blonde haired individuals.
I found my parents and siblings in the City Circle.
“There you are, Iris,” my mother said. “It’s almost time to watch the sacrifices.”
It wasn’t exactly fair how the selections for the sacrifice were picked. Guards simply walked through the streets grabbing people or dragging them out of their homes until they had a decent number to choose from, then the sacrifices were selected by some random trait, such as hair color, or age. Only people from our village were eligible to be sacrificed since we lived in the same sub-sectom as Radik. Visitors had to wear cloth strips around their wrists so they wouldn’t be chosen. Since I walked the street so often on my own, my family wouldn’t have known I was even in that cell. If I had been chosen, they would have had no idea until I walked onto the execution platform. We wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye. I was grabbed off the streets and saved by nothing more than the color of my hair.
It was obvious my mother hadn’t been worried about me. She thought I’d just been walking around, which I had. But then…it scared me how close I came to being sacrificed and my parents weren’t even wondering where I was. I didn’t know if I wanted to tell them or not. I hadn’t ended up being one and it would only stress my mother out. There was nothing they could do about it. Maybe I wouldn’t tell them. At least not right now. There was too much going on.
We all stood around waiting for the sacrifices to be led out. It took a few minutes, though. They had to get their hair straightened up and their clothes brushed down. It was, after all, a public execution. They had to look halfway decent for their deaths.
Then the sacrifices were standing on the platform before us. I had been cramped up in a cell with these very people not one hour ago, and now I was to watch them die. I glanced up at Emperor Radik, standing on his balcony, but his face was expressionless.
I looked back at the platform and the white, ashen faces of the young five standing on it. I wondered where their families were standing and what was going through their minds.
Then the announcer walked onto the platform, dressed magnificently and with an air of pride and disdain in his expression, as if he were what we had all gathered to see.
“Greetings!” he bellowed out, energetically. “Well, we have come to that blessed day where we honor our gracious Emperor Radik!”
The crowd applauded and I joined, mostly because Radik was watching but I scoffed inwardly. There were many words I would use to describe our Emperor, but gracious was not one of them.
“We’ve all had a wonderful three days of celebrating…well, at least I have!”
When the announcer started laughing here, we all did the same, realizing he thought he’d said something funny.
“But, on a more serious note, we can’t let all the fun go to our heads. We must never forget why we do all this; never forget the reason for The Celebration! It’s easy when we’re just eating and dancing to forget the important things, but without them, there would be no fun things. Let me remind you The Celebration is not just about fun and games. We celebrate for a reason.”
He paused here to open a scroll, the same scroll he read every time The Celebration came around, and continued.
“Many years ago, the people of this land were ruled by lazy rulers with a lazy ruling system that was passed on through several generations. The people were not peaceful and they did not respect authority. Everything was in chaos until Emperor Radik came along and changed everything, making our land a much better place to live!”
Again, we applauded to show our appreciation to Radik for saving us from living like our ungrateful ancestors.
“To honor the Emperor and thank him for saving us is why we have The Celebration and why we have the sacrifices. He sacrificed himself for our sakes and saved us from ourselves. He gave himself to us and, in return, we sacrifice ourselves to him so we never forget what he did for us and never forget to respect authority.”
He rolled up his scroll and, as that was the end of his speech, we applauded one last time. I didn’t like doing it and I didn’t like the reason we had the sacrifices, but I had to act as though I did. I wondered if I was the only one acting.
“I have here,” the announcer said, gesturing to the five people behind him, “our sacrifices. Five of them this time around, all with blonde hair just as was decided.”
He beckoned the boy first in line, and the boy slowly approached the front.
“What is your name, young man?”
“Well, Frello Ashburn, how old are you?”
“An excellent age to be sacrificed at. Don’t you feel honored to be among the selected few?”
He didn’t. It was obvious. But he had to say it. It was expected. We were all taught from the time we entered school that it was a very great honor to be a sacrifice and we should all strive to be one someday. It was hard to tell if people grew up believing that. No one dared speak a word against Radik, but, once you were a sacrifice, your true feelings started to show.
The Master of Ceremonies waved him back and beckoned for the next one in line. A young girl.
“Your name, child?” he asked.
“So, Miss Miles, what is your age?”
“You’ve lived a good, long life, Deena. You should be proud of your predicament.”
Then he went to the next sacrifice. Another girl.
“I’m Bree Drydlemyer.”
“You’re quite the lovely one, Bree. How old are you?”
“I am eighteen. And I would just like to say that I am pleased to be a sacrifice. I believe it is the greatest honor in life.”
“That’s the spirit, My Dear! You are quite right in what you say. It was a pleasure knowing you. Young man, your name?”
“Bo Cliver. I’m twenty.”
“Dying young and strong. Who could ask for a better end?”
I noticed that Bo didn’t respond. He probably wasn’t excited to be a sacrifice as Bree was. He simply stepped back into his place in line.
“And you, my dear girl, last in line but not the least of worth as a sacrifice, what might your name be?”
“Hanniah. What a splendid name. And your age?”
“It looks like we have found people of perfect ages to be our sacrifices. Not too old and not too young. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Hanniah nodded. The announcer then turned to face us.
“Dear Emperor Radik, and people of the village, these are your sacrifices!”
We all then proceeded to give a round of applause as was our custom. All except for Emperor Radik. He remained motionless and unmoved.
“I suppose you are all eagerly waiting to hear how our sacrifices will be sent into the afterlife…well, I shall not keep you waiting any longer. Death by poison! That’s right. Our sacrifices will be drinking from a poisoned goblet and will die instantly. Let’s give it up for the masterminds who put this together!”
We applauded again. We were supposed to, but I felt wrong doing it, especially after I came so close to standing up there with them. I wouldn’t want people to cheer for my demise. It couldn’t be right.
“Frello Ashburn,” our announcer proclaimed as he approached the fifteen year old boy. “You are the lucky one chosen to go first. Do you have any last words to say before you exit this world?”
“Yeah. I hope none of you ever have the misfortune to end up as a sacrifice.”
There was silence in the crowd. The announcer was stunned. Emperor Radik looked stormy. I was proud of Frello for using his last words to convey what he really thought about being a sacrifice. It didn’t matter what he said now. He would have been killed even if he had paid our Emperor the highest compliment. He couldn’t escape death, so why not say the one thing you’ve always wanted people to know? I smiled. He was a smart kid
“He didn’t mean that, folks!” the announcer assured us. Then it happened. The announcer was handed a golden goblet. A guard walked up behind Frello and pulled the back of his head so his face was tilted back, looking up into the sky. He placed his thumb and index finger on each side of Frello’s mouth and pulled it open. Faster than I had ever seen a death performed, the announcer poured some liquid down the throat of the young boy. He gagged and coughed for a moment, then fell over dead at the announcer’s feet.
“Deena Miles, you are next.”
I saw Deena take a quick breath and force herself not to look at the dead boy beside her.
“Any last words? I hope they are more spectacular than Frello’s.”
“I love you, Mom,” Deena said, a few tears squeezing through, despite her attempts to remain emotionless.
“Ah, lovely words. And, look, folks! Tears of joy! What better ending could we ask for?”
The guards grabbed at Deena’s hair and pulled her face upwards, just as they had done to Frello. By this time, she was weeping freely. The guard forced her mouth open and the announcer poured the poison in without hesitation. The guard let go of Deena and she fell to the ground, motionless, next to Frello.
A woman in the crowd screamed out and began climbing up the platform in an effort to reach Deena’s lifeless form. Two guards quickly appeared and dragged her away. I would have bet anything that she was Deena’s mother.
“Well, well, well,” the announcer said after the screaming woman was out of earshot. “There’s a lot of excitement going on today! I blame it on the wine!” He then proceeded to laugh at his own joke. “Let’s hope we can make it through the rest of these sacrifices with no more interference. Bree Drydlemyer, you’re next. Smile for the crowd!”
Bree gave us a dashing smile and turned to the announcer. “I’m ready!” she proclaimed.
“Any last words?”
“Only these: All hail Emperor Radik! May he never die!”
After saying these words, she grabbed the goblet from the announcer and killed herself.
“What a show!” he hollered as Bree’s body hit the ground. “Unbelievable! Don’t you wish all sacrifices were as feisty as she was?”
We clapped again.
“Bo Cliver, your turn! Anything you’d like to say to the crowd?”
Bo looked out at us as he said, simply, “Goodbye.” Then his head was pulled back, his mouth forced opened and the poison poured in. With a thud his body hit the platform and he was gone. Forever.
“Hanniah Berry,” the announcer said, ignoring the four dead bodies behind him as if they had never been. “Always last but never least.”
She did her best to smile, but failed miserably. Her body was visibly shaking. I felt so bad for her.
“What would you like to say?” he asked her.
Hanniah gulped and looked at us.
“I….I, uh, would like to say that…that I…that I wish I could have been around for another year or two. My friend who’s been gone for a long time is coming back and there was something I wanted to tell him. Well, life is short…especially mine. Don’t wait…for anything."
“Wise words, Miss Berry.”
I watched as her head was jerked back, her mouth opened and the cup lifted to her lips. I didn’t even realize she had swallowed the drink before she fell over dead.
“Well, well, well. Was that not wonderful? I speak the truth when I tell you this is my favorite time of year…the sacrifices. Such honor, such devotion to our dear Emperor. What will happen next is that these bodies will be burned. It is the last step we take with the sacrifices to show our devotion to our wise and gracious emperor.”
The guards standing around the platform stepped onto it and piled the five lifeless bodies of Frello, Deena, Bree, Bo, and Hanniah on top of each other as if they were nothing more than a pile of waste. They surrounded the bodies with straw and a guard knelt down, lit a match, and we watched as the bodies went up in flames. I was amazed that none of the other sacrifices family’s made a scene, but I couldn’t judge them for it, either.
That was it. The sacrifices were over. Five people were dead. They hadn’t been strangers to me. Our village wasn’t large, and even if they hadn’t been friends of mine, the faces were familiar. I had been to school with both Hanniah and Bree. I hadn't known either well, and now I wished I had taken the time to get to know them...at least Hanniah. Now they were gone forever.
I turned and walked away with my family. My father put his arm around my shoulder as we headed home.
“Promise me you’ll never be a sacrifice.”
“I promise,” I said, even though we both knew that I could never promise such a thing. I had almost ended up as one today.
“How horrid that whole thing is!” my mother said as soon as we entered our home. “I can hardly stand to watch it. It’s even worse when children have to be sacrificed. Hearing all their last words makes me cry. That one kid, Bo, he just captures your attention the moment he opens his mouth. I felt he was looking right at me when said goodbye. Like he was only talking to me. Now that ripped my heart in two.”
I was surprised when my mother said that about Bo. I had felt exactly the same way.
My mother turned and headed into the kitchen to prepare dinner. My dad smiled sadly at me. “Well, Iris, why don’t you take your siblings outside for a while, let them run around?”
“Okay, Dad. Come on guys, let’s go play outside.”
My siblings didn’t need any more persuading. They loved to play outside. What pair of seven year old twins doesn’t? Besides, they needed to do something, just like the rest of us, to get their minds off the sacrifices they had just seen.
I took them outside, as my dad had requested and they immediately began running around and screaming. I smiled as I watched them. I loved them so much. I remember when they were born; my mother had allowed me to name one of them. I had named Mylene, my sister. Then my father had chosen Mylo for my brother’s name. The names fit them well. As I watched them, I was immensely thankful they hadn’t been pulled off the streets by the guards or they would be dead right now, considering their lovely, shiny golden tresses.
“Mylene! Mylo!” I called out after about an hour. “Do you guys want to walk to town?”
They loved walking as much as I did. So we went. I grabbed their hands in mine and had one of them on each side of me as we headed to town.