East Country upheld the laws. Mid destroyed them.
In the year 2185 Earth is rebuilding after a global eco-crisis. Countries maintain complete isolation so there is no warfare over scarce resources. One Elected family is chosen to lead each country for 100 years to ensure stability. Women aren’t allowed to take office and must reproduce at all costs. Technology use of any kind is banned to preserve what’s left of the environment.
And yet, I’m my country’s Elected. I’ve just sanctioned technology use to ready us for war. I’m about to cross the border to spy on our neighbor. And…I’m a girl. Shhhhhh…..
Even the terrain in Mid Country senses we are intruders. Jagged rocks and thorny brown weeds jut out of the earth, scraping our ankles and slowing our progress. I didn’t have as much trouble hiking up East Country’s side of the border, but now that the three of us, me, Griffin, and Margareath, descend the steep slope into Mid, we’re constantly catching ourselves mid-stumble.
“You ok?” Griffin asks, reaching out a hand to steady me.
“Uh-huh.” The lie sounds hollow, even to my own ears. But I say it anyway and pick up my pace. I don’t want Griffin to convince me to turn back again like he tried to do as we waited for Margareath at the hill’s crest. Going back to East Country is the one thing I can’t do, and Griffin doesn’t even know the whole reason why. All he thinks is, I left East Country to spy on our neighbor and to help him escape our country’s death penalty.
Yet there is another reason, and thus far, there has been no good time to tell Griffin he’s going to father not one, but two children in the Elected family. My pregnancy is something I want to divulge in a special way, not as we run like fugitives, breaking almost every law of our forefathers.
When the lights from Mid catch my attention again and almost set me into a forward tumble, I try to focus on doing one thing at a time: get down the hill, cross into Mid Country, then tell Griffin the news.
Everything about Mid so far is offensive: their flagrant display of electricity, the strange way Margareath didn’t remember her family when asked about her children moments ago, even the air on Mid’s side of the Nirogene mines smells different than ours. There is a faint scent of wet metal and something sweetly acidic, which I can’t quite place, but that’s causing me to gag. I stop for a second, burying my face into the fabric of my shirt sleeve to take a deep, clean breath. Vienne warned me that newly pregnant I’d have a heightened sense of smell. That, on top of my perpetual nausea, is overwhelming to say the least.
I blink my eyes once hard before proceeding forward again. The massive amount of illegal light emanating from Mid’s epicenter miles to our west is tremendous. It’s so dark on the mountain and so bright in the distance; our direct path seems even bleaker.
“Just a little more to the bottom of the hill,” says Margareath. She pants in between every other word, the exhaustion of our trek down this treacherous mountain evident on her features. “Once we reach the bottom, it’s about a day and a half walk to Mid’s city.”
I try to estimate the number of miles from the border to Mid’s center. Maybe fifty, given Margareath’s statement and the fact that our pace is relatively slow. How long, I wonder, would it take a group of fighters from East to traverse the plains if an invasion was required? Every nugget of data on Mid gets me one step closer to understanding why they’re trying to invade my country, steal our resources, and kill my people. And closer to figuring out how to stop them.
I turn my head to peek at Griffin. Even in the inky darkness, I can see his brow furrowed in concentration. He’s been trying to act calm as we make our unlawful descent into enemy territory, but I can see the uneasiness in his eyes. He’s an escaped convict, and I’ve just broken at least two of the world’s Eco Accords. He’s as determined to thwart Mid as I am, but sneaking into the country is dangerous for both of us.
And Margareath is only barely helping. She’s been strange ever since we met her at the hill’s peak, giving hints about Mid Country, but not really telling us anything tangible. Her apparent glorification of our enemy and its “amazing” capabilities is unnerving.
What if it’s a trap? Could Margareath, the first and only spy I sent into Mid, have defected? Would she dare lead us straight into the hands of Mid’s Elected? Breaking the Eco Accords and country isolationism would be a good enough excuse for their leader to execute me and Griffin right on the spot.
It’s the year 2185, and in two weeks, Aloy will turn eighteen and take her father’s place as president of the country. But to do so, she must masquerade as a boy to avoid violating the Eco-Accords, four treaties designed to bring the world back from the brink of environmental extinction. Aloy hopes to govern like her father, but she is inheriting a different country. The long concealed Technology Faction is stepping out of the shadows, and as turmoil grows within her country, cryptic threats also arrive from beyond their borders.
As she struggles to lead, Aloy maintains her cover by marrying a woman, meanwhile battling feelings for the boy who knows her secret—the boy who is somehow connected to her country’s recent upheaval. When assassination attempts add to the turmoil, Aloy doesn’t know whom to trust. She understood leadership required sacrifice. She just didn’t realize the sacrifice might be her life.
ONE BLONDE CURL IS wrapped lusciously around my pointer finger. I gaze down at it and then force my eyes upward to drink in the image of my face. Long, blonde hair trails past my shoulders and onto my back. In the cracked mirror, my eyes squint, trying to capture this one fleeting picture of myself as a girl.
This is what I could look like if I weren’t forced to masquerade as a boy.
I am staring so intently into the mirror I don’t even hear my mother—my Ama—come into the room behind me.
“Take that off immediately!” Her voice is tight and stiff, like rubber being stretched too far, about to snap. “Can you imagine the controversy it would stir?” She whisks the blonde wig off my head and bunches it into a ball. Before I can say anything, she throws it into the fireplace in my room.
I look at my fingers, the ones that a moment ago delicately touched the wig like it was my own hair. “Sorry, Ama,” I say, head bent downward. “I was just looking.” My voice comes out gravelly like a dull knife coaxing butter across a dry piece of toast. I lick my lips and let a few beads of cold perspiration appear on my forehead without bothering to wipe them away.
My mother comes to stand behind me, peering into the shards of mirror in front of us both. She lays a hand on my fuzzy head. I try to imagine my dark blonde hair grown out, looking like the wig. But all I can see in front of me now are the short tufts my parents insist get trimmed every other week.
“My darling, your eighteenth birthday is coming so fast. Just two more weeks.” I look up into her wistful, worried eyes as she tries to smile back at me. “You’re going to be a powerful leader. I know it.”
I’m not as sure as she pretends to be. I’ve been training to be the Elected all my life, but now that it’s two weeks away, the worry makes me feel like I’ve eaten moldy bread.
I want to tell her my concerns. How I’m not sure I’ll like Vienne, the girl I’m set to marry. How I don’t think I’ll be able to convince everyone Vienne is pregnant with my baby when it’s utterly and physically impossible. How I wish the real future leader hadn’t run away from the job, leaving it solely in my incapable hands. It’s almost laughable how many ruses we’ll have to pull over on our own people for me and my family to stay in power.
But I don’t have time to voice any of these thoughts because there’s a sharp knock at the bedroom door.
“Come,” my mother commands. Her tone is authoritative, as it should be in her position as Madame Elected.
The door opens, and a maid with a bob of shoulder-length red hair steps inside the room. I can’t help but stare at her, wishing my life was easy like hers—that I could be who I really am, instead of playing a part constructed for me. The girl is beautiful. I don’t even know if I could be that beautiful, but one day I’d like to at least have the opportunity to see. For now, I shudder, remembering the ragged, short hair on my head and the men’s clothing, which doesn’t sit quite right on my curving waist.
“Ma’am, it’s time for Aloy’s lessons.”
I stand up without having to be told. I actually like my lessons. Tomlin’s been my tutor since before I can remember.
The maid leads me into the hallway, down a flight of stairs, and into a room once called the Oval Office. Tomlin is already sitting on the large, reddish couch near the fire. It’s particularly chilly this time of year. I know August has grown colder since I was a child. Thoughtfully, someone has already laid a stack of blankets on the side of another couch, and I grab one for my shoulders before I sit. It smells like moth balls and bleach, but I wrap it around myself anyway.
“Are you well today, Aloy?” Tomlin asks, not even looking up from a book open on his lap.
“I’m fine. And you?”
“A bit cold lately, isn’t it? I can’t seem to shake the sniffles.”
I look at Tomlin carefully and see the tint of blue shadows under his eyes.
“Have you called anyone to look at your cold?” My eyebrows rise with concern.
“No, I don’t have time for the bother of it.”
I know what he means. There’s a serum stored in our house. The stuff will practically erase all traces of a malady the second you swallow one of the little pills infused with the serum. We have bottles upon bottles of it. However, because we don’t have the ability to manufacture any more, the serum is guarded behind vaults, and only the Elected family is allowed to take any of it. No one is even worried I’ll catch Tomlin’s cold because I can easily be given one of these purple pills to cure myself. It’s a waste really. But for Tomlin, a cold in August weather can mean months of coughing, sneezing, and sore throats. Unfortunately, there’s nothing our doctors can do for him. So I understand why Tomlin doesn’t want to bother seeing a doctor.
“We just have two more weeks until you’re in office,” he says, getting right to it.
“And just two more weeks till I’m married.” My voice carries a distinct crack.
Tomlin looks me in the eyes for the first time, his brow furrowed. “Are you backing out?”
I purse my lips and smile, finally able to lose the formality I’d held around my mother. “No, don’t worry. I’m still planning to be the Elected.”
After all these years, I think they still worry I’ll run away from my birthright, not wanting the responsibility and the farce, which goes along with it. But it’s my duty to family and country. It’s what I was born for. So while I may be reluctant, I’m still committed.
“Well, good.” Tomlin relaxes a bit back into the couch. “Political history seems like a good starting point for today, given the upcoming events, don’t you think?” He goes on, not expecting an answer from me. “So tell me, what was the year of the Elected Accords?”
I answer immediately. “Twenty-one fifteen. Too easy. Give me another.”
He smiles. “All right, what countries signed the Elected Accord in twenty-one fifteen and why?”
This is a trick question, but I know this one too. “All of the ones still left.”
“Go on. What kind of stability is provided by the Elected Accord?”
“Voters choose a whole family to take each country’s Elected office for a century at a time. Which means more stability and less chance of a new official negating any of the Accords.”
“Very good. All right, what was the last Accord enacted by the countries?”
I stop for a second. “The Technology Accord?”
“No, you continually get that wrong. It was the Ship Accord.” Tomlin doesn’t look in my direction as he delivers this slight admonishment, like somehow my error signifies a foreboding, more significant ramification. He shifts in his seat with an uncomfortable tic of one shoulder.
I always get it wrong because I don’t understand why the Technology Accord didn’t fulfill its designated purpose. It was supposed to make all the fighting—all the world wars—stop. If people couldn’t fire guns, fly missiles, or hurl bombs across oceans, then fighting should have ceased. My brow creases and Tomlin shakes his head.
“The Technology Accord banned creation of technology for two distinct reasons,” Tomlin continues. “One, so we wouldn’t keep destroying the environment, and two, so countries would become isolated from one another. It should have forced peace. Yet, people still rode ships through the oceans to reach distant lands and fight in hand-to-hand combat. The Ship Accord finally stopped world travel and communication as a whole.”
I see my opportunity to ask the very thing that’s been on the tip of my tongue for months. Something I know my parents won’t answer but that Tomlin might—if for no other reason than to further my education. “The Ship Accord didn’t stop everyone, though.” I know I’m bringing up something painful.
“You’re right.” Tomlin looks down.
“My brother.” I lean forward in my chair, expectant for some new tidbit of information from Tomlin. “What happened to him?” I am unwavering with my request for information on Evan.
“We don’t know.” Tomlin’s sadness is apparent.
“You were his tutor, right? What was he like? Would he have made a better Elected than me?” I’ve always wondered if Evan would have been better suited for the role than I. I know the answer must be yes since he was the true Elected, the only male heir of the family. Only men are allowed to be the Elected since women must focus on repopulation. But my parents and Tomlin encourage me to have more confidence. They have to, I guess, since they have no other choice. I’m their only option left.
I know Tomlin doesn’t enjoy talking about my brother. No one does. Evan was everyone’s pride and joy until he ran away. But I never knew him at all. My parents had me as a hurried attempt for another child after Evan disappeared.
I keep pressing Tomlin for other information, knowing I won’t get an answer about Evan’s character. “How does everyone know Evan escaped via boat? How did he even find a ship to get away? I thought my grandfather destroyed all of them.” I see Tomlin cringe at my word ‘escaped’, and I chide myself that I’ve yet again made the Elected role sound like a prison sentence.
“As far as anyone knew, they were all dismantled, the parts used for building materials.” Tomlin rakes a hand through the thin wisps of his hair.
“So how’d Evan get one?” I am relentless. “And how’d he get it past Apa?” I can’t imagine how Evan managed to plan such an elaborate departure under my father’s tight scrutiny.
“Enough.” Tomlin’s tone is harsh but quiet. I know he can’t be budged when he doesn’t want to proceed. “We need to keep going with your studies. The public will expect you to be well-trained when you take office.”
“Okay, just one more question?” I ask, looking at my fingernails. They are perfect half-moons except for the two pinkies on whose nails I obsessively gnaw. As I get nearer to the date of my inauguration, the two nails seem to get shorter and shorter.
“One more, then we go on. But it must do with the Accords.”
“It does. Sort of. What do other countries do with people who make it through the sea to their lands?”
I can’t look at Tomlin while I wait for the answer. It’s something I already know in my heart, but I want to hear it out loud.
Finally, Tomlin answers, his voice a mere whisper. “What would we do?”
I stretch my palm out so I’m playing with my fingers instead of concentrating fully on my own words. I almost don’t want to hear them—don’t want to hear what might have happened to Evan.
“We use hemlock.”
There is a tour wide giveaway for the book blitz of Suspected. This giveaway is US and Canada only. These are the prizes you can win:
– a kindle ereader and a signed copy of Elected by Rori Shay