No clue, so find out with me.
The once dull ache in my stomach suddenly flares into a more noticeable existence as I watch the berries dangling in front of my face. I do my best to control my desire; I haven't eaten since the night before last, and that had been pitiful at best.
Now, I force myself to stare at the dirty white-washed wall, a blank expression carefully held in place. My eyes tell nothing of the hatred seething in my veins, nor of the hunger that violates me. In these situations, it is best to stay small, weak, and dumb, though I do not feel any of that.
The Carrion man shoves the berries under my nose, his chapped upper lip curling. The cool, smooth skin brushes my upper lip. He is trying tempting me to take them, luring me into a trap. I am hungry, but a few measly berries are not worth my life.
"You can have some, if you like. Go on, I know you haven't eaten in a while. You must be hungry," he laughs cruelly. He is having fun as the sweet smell curls inside my nostrils, intoxicating me almost. I will always remember that smell when I look back on this day in the months to come.
It is all I can do to keep from strangling him and take the berries. My hands shake and so I keep them in my lap, balled into fists. My chewed up fingernails dig in and bite at my palms. I feel a warm sticky substance spill over my dirty fingers. Resisting all of my instincts, I shake my head in answer, continuing to stare past the vile monster.
As if to betray me, though, my stomach growls longingly. His laughter is sharp and it startles me, but I do not flinch. I refused to give him any power over me, even knowing just how close my life could be to its end.
I notice as the Carrion's eyebrows knit together in frustration. I am not breaking, and he feels powerless and threatened. His thin lips press together in a thin line, the vein in his forehead bulging. His eyes are black, cold pebbles and his stony gaze is locked hatefully upon my face. I try not to smile, because it will only make him angrier.
This man is new; he has something to prove, and I am not making it easy for him. As his eyes narrow into slits, I know I am in very real danger now, and I try harder to focus on the wall again, as the first tendrils of fear squirm and writhe in my stomach.
Abruptly, he relaxes and grins. His shoulders shake with his hard laugh again. He leaves the berries on the table in front of me to pace beside me. A fly lands lazily onto the largest berry, oblivious to my imminent demise.
My eyes follow the Carrion man, watching his chest rise and fall with each deep breath he takes. He is maybe two years older than me, and any pity I could have had for him dissolves when I recognize stains of blood on his pristine white uniform. Who was his last unfortunate victim, I wonder. They are hardly noticeable; no one could have spotted them from a foot away if they hadn't been looking.
But I am studying him, wondering how long he will last, or if he will be promoted quickly for his ruthless treatment of the laborers. Knowing how my society works, it will be the latter. He looks up and smiles; it is almost kind, except his beady eyes. They look me up and down, taking in my small build. He chortles mirthlessly, and I would be less afraid if he held a gun to my head.
The empty ache of hunger turns to a solid block of ice, freezing my heart, as fear really begins to set in. My breath catches in my throat, but still I refrain from showing any weakness.
He leaps at me, a steel fist connecting with the side of my face. I do not scream or run, which would mark me as a coward. I am not a coward. I do not hit him back, though I want to. I don't have a death wish. Instead, I block the worst of his blows with my arms, trying to throw him off of me without actually fighting.
His two comrades howl with laughter, and I wonder what I must look like to them. On average, most of the other young women close to my age are a head taller than me, and the few men that I see are two heads taller than them. I don't know what my face looks like, never having been privileged enough to look at my reflection. But I think I have at least a semi-pretty face because I draw a lot of attention to myself sometimes.
I imagine that my face, with guessed features, is determined, my jaw set hard. I am not a trained fighter, I always hold my own whenever I wrestle. It is only the boys who wrestle, sneaking off to an uncharted cave in the night. I used to pretend I was a boy too, so I could fight them. But one of them took my hair down, and my secret was revealed. I remember clearly their look of shock and awe. The ones who lost to me were infuriated--losing to a woman is disgraceful.
My attention is brought back to the Carrion man who has just got in a powerful hit to my stomach. I double over, wheezing, and he kicks me just under my ribs. His steel-toed boots will leave a mark, if I ever live long enough to bruise.
"That's enough, Blake!" a sharp voice shouts. The laughter stops, and the Carrion man named Blake hastily scrambles to attention, his arms crossed, his bony fingers like claws, stained with my blood. "Did this laborer attack you?"
I looked up to see another Carrion garbed in a red uniform trimmed with white and gold. I recognize him to be of higher rank, though I don't have a name for his position. I try to stand, because it is custom for the laborers to bow when a man like this enters our presence. But I am in too much pain, and he does not seem to have eyes for me just yet.
"No, sir, but--"
"Then why are you beating this woman? Did you forget that it is her hard work, and the hard work of others like her, that feed you? That mend your clothes and fix your beds?"
"No sir. Permission to explain?" Blake asks, frustrated. He is given no reply, and so continues. "Sir, we had reason to suspect her of thievery. My men saw her from several rows over sneaking berries into her mouth in the fields." I know he is lying. They did not see me steal berries; I rejected Blake.
"Which men, Blake?"
Blake points to his two comrades, who are standing at attention too. I am pleased to see fear etched into the lines on their harsh faces.
"You," he snapps, pointing to me. "Look up." I stand up as straight as I am able, and stare him hard in the face, a challenge.
As grateful as I am for his interruption, I do not trust him. I don't trust anyone.
He turns back to the men who claim to have seen me stealing the berries. "You were not right next to her, according to Blake." Here, they throw Blake a dirty look and quickly and return their expressionless eyes back to the Carrion dressed in red. "Are you sure this is the girl?" They each look at me, disgust pushing color back into their cheeks. I smile at them, not sure what's come over me. One of them nods firmly, a sharp downward thrust of his chin. The other is hesitant, unsure.
"Commander Zane, I'm not a hundred percent sure. It is possible that I could have been mistaken." The hesitant one answers. My eyes widen with shock. Today seems to be full of surprises.
Commander Zane nodds approval, turning his eyes back on me. Zane doesn't see the murderous glare Blake throws his men, nor the look of contempt cast at his back.
"Very well. Men, you are dismissed." I watch them march out of the room, relaxing as they crossed the threshold of this interrogation room.
"How are you feeling, miss?" Commander Zane asks me after the door is slammed shut. His voice is soft, trying not to scare me I presume.
I turn my gaze to him, my eyes tracing the bridge of his nose, the thin line between his unusually full lips. This Carrion officer has startlingly green eyes. That is very uncommon here in the Flats.
Without answering him, I make to pick up my chair that had been knocked over during the attack. Before I can lay a finger on it, however, Commander Zane beats me to it. He gestures for me to sit.
A sudden thought strikes me: How ruthless did this man have to be to get to Commander? I distrust him even more at this revelation, and instead, press my back against the wall and remain standing. He watches, clearly confused by my behavior. Does he understand my aversion to him?
"Are you mute?" he asks after a long silence. He's not cross, merely curious. Curtly, I shake my head once. It is subtle; if he hadn't been watching me closely he would not have seen it.
I am doubtful of his intentions. The Carrion were only gentle when they wanted more from a woman. Out of fear, many of the women in my faction succumb to the cruel men and wind up carrying their bastard children. I do not let myself become that weak. I will kill myself before I willingly let them touch me that way.
"You would do well to answer me, then." He is not threatening me, nor is his tone menacing. He says it like a suggestion, giving me a choice. I press closer to the wall, wishing I could slip through it and disappear. "What's your name?" He asks now. He is still watching me, but not like the other Carrion watch me. They study my body with lust coursing through their blood. Commander Zane studies me like an equal. I wonder if he is foolish, or if he is good.
"Johanna," I tell him finally, breaking the thin veil of silence.
"How old are you?"
I do not answer him this time, instead choosing to watch him watch me. I can get away with my silence with him, though it would be foolish to try it for much longer. I have no clue what kind of temper this man has.
"I see." He murmurs after several minutes pass.
I venture a question, a test. "Why did you stop him?" Laborers such as myself are not permitted to speak to the Carrion unless spoken to. I know I am out of bounds, and expect to be reprimanded. However, no punishment comes.
"Johanna, are you a thief?" He replies, his eyes alight. That is not an answer. I shake my head, wondering what will happen next. "That's why." Another long stretch of silence settles in the room, and again he breaks it. "You should see a nurse. You'll be in no condition to--" I cut him off, another daring move.
"There are no nurses for laborers. I am fine, I have survived worse at the hands of you and your men."
His eyes flash, and for a brief moment, I regret saying anything. But when I blink and look again, his eyes are normal, though he frowns with concern.
"This isn't the first time that's happened here?" He asks. He sounds like he already knows the answer. I shake my head, biting my lip so I do not laugh at his ignorance.
"You're not from around here." It isn't a question. "Your eyes are green."
"No, I'm not from around here. I was transferred; this is my first day on duty in the Flats." He admits. I suddenly feel sorry for him, knowing that his men will tear him apart. They smell weakness. This man knows the meaning of mercy, and his men will despise him for it.
I think hard, choosing my next words carefully. When I can't find the right order for them, I decide to abandon that approach. "Are we done, then?" I ask instead, staring at the door. My absence from the fields will not go unnoticed.
I bow to him, and feel his eyes following me as I exited the room. The back of my neck prickles.