Kora

Kora Series Book 1: First Chapters

By Marina Epley

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19 min.
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CHAPTER 1

A thrown stone misses my head by inches. I shudder but continue walking, eyes focused on the muddy ground under my feet.

“Filthy pig!” I hear voices behind me. “Don’t you ever wash your ugly face?”

Tears well up in my eyes. I guess I do resemble a pig at the moment. I’ve just returned from a night shift in the Field where I had to survive twelve gruesome hours of sorting through trash. I’m a picker, the lowest ranking clan of servants. My long-sleeved shirt, baggy pants and boots are all smudged in filth.

“Hey puke!” they yell. “You stink!”

My chest aches. I lower my head, pretending not to hear their insults.

A second stone strikes my shoulder, causing me to flinch in pain. I stop and finally turn to face my attackers, five pretty, well-groomed factory girls. They stand several yards away, laughing and taunting, their long identical dresses free of stains.

“Where did your momma find those rags? In the garbage?” a short redheaded girl asks, motioning at my clothes.

It’s Samantha. She’s spiteful and loud only when surrounded by her obnoxious friends. They hate me. And I know I shouldn’t fight back. I must be obedient and respectful. But today is an exception. I can’t help myself because today is the day of the Exchange, and my life may soon take a turn for the better. So I bare my teeth and throw the stone back toward the laughing girls. It hits the ground harmlessly near their feet and they all let out simultaneous gasps of astonishment. No trash picker should dare to offend servants from a higher clan.

I take off running as fast as I can along the village street. This is one thing I’m really good at, fleeing from my enemies. Samantha and her friends give chase like a pack of rabid dogs.

Arriving at the end of the street, I cut abruptly between two shacks. I tear through dried brush, coming to another street and suddenly bump into a tall guy.

“Hey Kora,” he says, looking at me in surprise. “Are you all right?”

It’s Trent. My throat clenches. I temporarily lose the ability to speak, so I simply nod. Samantha and her friends close in.

“What do you want with her?” Trent asks my attackers in a harsh sounding voice.

The girls hesitate to answer. He’s a factory servant as well, and a few years older to boot. Not a good person to mess with.

“She threw a stone at us,” Samantha says.

Trent glances at me. “Is that true?”

I remain silent, staring into the ground.

“The stone hit me in the forehead,” Samantha whines.

I bite the inside of my cheek so hard that it bleeds, an unfortunate long-term habit. I expect Trent to say something mean to me or else call a guard to report my offensive behavior. But he must notice how Samantha has no mark on her forehead. He says, “Just leave her be.”

The girls mutter something incoherent.

“Get out of here!” Trent orders.

My attackers walk hurriedly away. They’re brave and strong only when they’re pestering me.

“What did you do to make them so mad at you?” Trent asks.

I shrug. This is the same question I ask myself every day. What did I ever do to become an outcast? Why do they choose me for their victim?

“You should keep out of trouble,” he suggests.

How? What can I possibly do to prevent these attacks, if my bullies don’t require a reason to come after me? No matter what I say or do, they will never stop hating and mocking me.

Trent waits for my answer. I nod again. I’m conditioned to be agreeable.

He sighs, looking me over. I avoid his gaze, although I still manage to see him in my peripheral vision. Trent is handsome. He’s much taller than me and has dark hair to go with a pair of intelligent, kind eyes.

“Well, gotta go now,” he says. “I’ve been selected for a trade.”

The word trade snaps me from my stupor. I take a deep breath and make myself speak, “I’m going to ask Master Dimitri to consider choosing me for a trade too.”

“Ask him?” Trent grins. “Kora, you shouldn’t ask your master for anything. If he hasn’t selected you, you’re staying put.”

I know I should nod again. But today is THE day, right? Everything is going to change very soon, so I need to change as well. Why not begin right now?

“I’m sick of this place,” I blurt out. “I’m going to start a new life.”

“You think another place would be any better?”

“I think any place would be better than this one.”

“Servants with attitudes like that don’t tend to live very long.”

True that. I’ve always had issues with my attitude.

“I’m not going to remain a servant much longer,” I mutter. “I’ll earn my freedom.”

“Good luck with that,” Trent laughs before leaving.

I remain frozen in place, waiting for my heartbeat to slow. My hands shake. I regret saying all those things to him. He must think I’m either rude or stupid. And I like Trent because he’s the only factory servant who treats me like a human being. I actually like him a little too much, which is of course silly. Factory servants don’t mix with trash pickers, as it would be a huge downgrade.

I straighten my back and head toward Master Dimitri’s mansion, occasionally slipping in the soft clay. Our settlement could serve as a definition of misery. The sky is always overcast with chemical fumes floating in the warm air, making your eyes itch. The single-story shacks look ancient and scruffy. Mostly consisting of rotten wood, torn plastic and whatever scrap the servants could find. Great piles of garbage surround our village on both sides. This is the so-called Field, where trash pickers sort through junk for plastic bottles, metal and other useful items. After sorting, our collections go to the Recycling Factory. The enormous building constantly rumbles a couple of miles away from the village, illuminating the clouds with an orange glow. Huge noisy trucks arrive continuously, delivering new loads of waste from Central Settlement far away. The wind carries a whiff of chemicals mixed with the stench of decay. Most servants in our village die young from various diseases. If you make it into your forties, you’re considered lucky.

I hate living in this place.

This day of Exchange is my one hope to earn my freedom. As long as I stay in this village, I can’t change my life. Unless sold, if you’re born a picker, you remain a picker. Central Settlement dictates these unforgiving rules and nobody can break them. But once a year, masters from Central Settlement arrive for the day of Exchange, to purchase a few lucky servants to take back to their residences. Each year I wait for this day, but so far Master Dimitri has never chosen me for a trade.

Leaving the village behind, I walk toward the three-story stone building with a metal roof, our master’s mansion. A fence topped with coils of razor wire surrounds his residence. It’s an unnecessary precaution left from our previous owner. Two droopy-eyed guards allow passage through the gates, paying me no mind.

On the way up to the mansion I pass several glass structures, where bright lamps pour artificial light over exotic plants. Three years ago I was caught here by guards while stealing fallen fruit. The previous master would probably have ordered me whipped, but Dimitri only laughed at the incident. Lady Augusta sent me home with a basket filled to the brim with oranges and apples. Since then I have become a regular guest in the master’s mansion. No other servant dares to visit the master without first receiving a special invitation. But I have a tendency to do strange things that other people find abnormal. That could be why Samantha and her friends consider me a freak.

Self-conscious of my dirty clothes, I enter the beautiful mansion. Lady Augusta, Dimitri’s wife, sits on a sofa in the living area, her back perfectly straight. My back is usually slouched in a futile attempt to conceal my excessive height. I’m almost six feet tall. Lady Augusta is a full head shorter than me, and I greatly admire this petite, seemingly fragile woman. She’s my mother’s age but appears hardly older than me. Her porcelain skin is smooth and her long dress flawless. In my mind, Lady Augusta closely resembles a queen whom I wish I could be more like.

Upon noticing me, she rises and greets me warmly. She leads me into the dining room, inviting me to share breakfast with her. This is unheard of behavior for a master’s wife, because servants are considered closer to animals than real human beings. But Lady Augusta doesn’t seem to care much for formal protocol.

Housemaids bring plates with fried eggs, biscuits, ham and other items pickers usually can’t have. My mouth waters. I give up my weak attempt to resist her hospitality and begin eating. Augusta doesn’t touch her food, twirling a glass of wine in her hand.

“Why have you come here today, Kora?” she asks softly after I finish my meal.

I mutter something about today’s Exchange and my desired life in Central Settlement.

“Central Settlement, I see.” Augusta rolls her eyes. “The city of dreams where everybody is rich and happy.”

I offer no comment. Lady Augusta and her husband used to live in Central Settlement. I believe they’re in some sort of exile.

“Are you so certain you want to be sold?” she asks, although masters aren’t supposed to bother asking what servants want.

“Yes, my lady,” I answer.

“Central Settlement can be very ugly at times.”

I shrug. I don’t believe any place in the world can compare in ugliness to our village.

“Life is hard here, but this is your home,” she adds, “where at least you’re safe.”

I remain quiet. Having a conversation of this type with my master’s wife unnerves me.

“Why do you want to leave so badly?” she asks.

“Don’t you want to leave as well?” I wonder out loud.

Augusta smirks. “It’s sometimes better to accept what life brings. I once thought I wanted to leave, but that was a very long time ago. I’ve long since given up such fruitless thoughts. And that is one thing that has kept me alive.”

I don’t know exactly what her words mean.

“Lady Augusta,” I mutter. “Will you allow me to leave? Will you sell me? Please.”

“Such decisions are out of my area of discretion, child,” she answers. “You should ask Dimitri.”

I nod silently, rising to my feet. A growing anxiety sickens my stomach. I can’t survive another year in this wretched hellhole.

“I wish you luck, Kora,” she sighs with a sad smile.

I thank Augusta for her kindness and head toward Master Dimitri’s office on wobbly legs. In a few short minutes I’ll learn my fate.

CHAPTER 2

Dimitri’s office is a well-illuminated spacious room with antique furniture and several massive bookcases. At times, Lady Augusta has allowed me to read some of these precious books. The books containing the stories about dragons, witches and heroes impressed me the most. Afterwards, I spent hours daydreaming about living in non-existent places, wishing to escape from this unsatisfying world.

Master Dimitri sits behind his desk, examining reports from the Factory. He’s a short, heavyset man in his late forties, with small expressionless eyes.

“I figured you’d be coming to see me today, Kora,” he says, still looking into the reports.

I don’t know how to answer, so I just stand silently in the doorway, digging my fingernails into my palms. I’m scared of Dimitri. He’s never done or said anything to cause my fear, but he’s still my master. I can’t help feeling vulnerable when I’m around him.

“Are you hungry?” he asks. “Shall we feed you?”

“No, thank you, master. I’ve just eaten.”

“How was your shift?” he smiles. “Did you work hard?”

I feel grateful that my face never blushes when I’m embarrassed. Last night I did half as much work as the others.

“I did my best,” I lie.

“I’m aware of why you’re here,” he says, his smile fading. “And the answer is no, Kora. I don’t want to sell you.”

I fold my arms across my chest to prevent them from shivering.

“I must take part in today’s Exchange,” I say. “I hate being a picker. You know that. You must sell me.”

I think about what our previous master might have done with me after hearing such words. I still remember the public executions carried out right in the middle of the meeting square. I still envision servants being hung from trees by their arms, their bodies bloodied after whippings. I feel a new wave of anxiety enveloping me, then take a deep slow breath, and blink the memories away.

“I haven’t selected you, Kora,” Dimitri says. “And I have good reason for keeping you in our village. You’re a very bright, curious young lady. My wife and I both like you, so we close our eyes to your occasional occurrences of misbehavior. Other masters won’t appreciate servants like you, ones who happen to have a mind of their own. All they want are obedient, dutiful workers who wouldn’t consider breaking any rules.”

He pauses, letting his words sink in. I lower my eyes. I do realize I’m a poor worker. I just can’t concentrate well enough on that drudgery. Each shift my mind tends to wander off and at some point I simply stop working. And I often skip classes in the evenings, because facing Samantha and her friends is a little too much to bear. And sometimes, I just need a day free from worry. A day to run a few miles away from the village, to a place where nobody can see me and the air is fresher. It has almost become more like a physical need to get away. So I run off and sit under some half-dead tree, daydreaming and biting into an apple snitched from Augusta’s garden. It’s all I really need. Silence, fresh air and something yummy to eat. I’m really that simple of a person. And then…

I catch myself. I can’t let my thoughts wander right now.

“I can be more obedient and hard working,” I say. “I just need to find something I like to do, something different from sorting through trash.”

“Central Settlement is a dangerous place,” Master Dimitri warns.

I don’t say anything, fed up with warnings.

“I think you should stay here,” he concludes. “Let’s at least wait another year and see...”

“I can’t make it another year! If you don’t let me participate in the Exchange, I’ll run off.”

He gives me a long hard glare. I can’t believe what I’ve just said. I wonder again what the previous master would do with me. Press a gun to my head and pull the trigger? Quite possibly. Whipping would probably be too light a punishment in this case.

“I see,” Dimitri says calmly. “And what exactly would you do after running off? Would you try to join up with a band of roamers? You may have heard they kill trespassers on sight.”

“I’m going to leave this place one way or another,” I continue. “Even if I have to die.”

“Kora.” Dimitri frowns, seemingly worried. “You don’t really mean that, do you? You wouldn’t hurt yourself?”

Probably not. But he doesn’t need to know that. I remain quiet.

“Oh, all right,” Dimitri sighs. “Come closer.”

I approach him in some sort of daze, my lips stretching into a wide grin. I’ve won. He’s about to evaluate me.

“Take off your shirt,” he orders.

I execute his request. I stand in front of him, wearing only my pants and tiny undershirt. I feel nervous. Girls aren’t supposed to reveal too much skin when they’re around men. But of course it’s different with Dimitri. He has to know what he’s about to sell.

He directs me to turn around, checking my arms and back for sores. My skin is clear. He asks me to open my mouth and checks my teeth. I become even tenser, because I have a couple of missing teeth on the left side of my lower jaw. You can’t really notice it when I smile, and it doesn’t bother me when I’m eating. But I’ve heard masters prefer servants with better teeth.

“Too skinny,” Dimitri finally says. “Do you eat enough?”

“I eat a lot, master.”

“All right then. Put your shirt back on before you catch cold.”

I dress, shivering. Will he allow me to be part of the Exchange? Am I good enough?

“I’m stronger than I look,” I mutter. “And I’m a fast learner.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Dimitri says, still hesitant. “But is this what you really want? Are you positive about your decision to be sold?”

“Yes, master.”

“You won’t be able to return, should you change your mind. I’d be more than willing to buy you back, but another master may not agree to sell you. You understand that?”

I nod.

“What about your mother?”

My throat tightens and I have to remind myself to breathe. My mother…

“She wants me to live in Central Settlement,” I lie.

I don’t think Dimitri believes me but he finally gives in, allowing me to participate in today’s Exchange. I leave his office and head back into the living room area. I find Lady Augusta sitting on a sofa, reading a book.

“I’m to take part in the Exchange!” I blurt out, laughing and running toward her. “He’s agreed to sell me!”

I stop short a few feet away from her, giggling stupidly, having once again forgotten the rules.

“Well,” she sighs. “Maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe things will work out fine for you.”

She rises from her seat and throws her arms around me, kissing me lightly on the cheek.

“Just be careful, child,” she whispers, stroking my hair gently.

I stand motionless, utterly stunned by her show of affection. Sad to say, my own mother never hugs or kisses me. Sometimes I secretly wish I were Augusta’s daughter. Other times I feel ashamed for even having such thoughts.

***

Dreamy minded like a lovesick girl, I stroll back toward the shack where my mother and I live. It’s smaller and uglier than most in the Recycling village. Low-ceilinged, with no furniture to speak of, save a small ancient stove and self-made table. The single tiny window is barely enough to provide meager lighting during the day. Still, this is the place where I grew up. The darkness and tight space bring comfort and a feeling of safety. Of course, we don’t really own this shack. Servants can’t own anything. But that we’re allowed to live here is good enough, I guess.

I enter the shack, hunkering down to pass through the small doorway. My mother lies resting on a blanket in her corner of the room after her shift. I sit on the floor and watch her sleep. She has a hollow face and prematurely graying hair. My mother is an outcast just like me. Other servants avoid her as if she’s contagious. When she goes outside, her head is always lowered, back slouched and eyes full of guilt. She’s a woman with no husband raising a child alone, which is considered shameful in our village. I’ve never seen my father and don’t have a clue who he might be. My mother never speaks about her past, and I often wonder what made her the way she is. Was she born so spiritless? Or maybe something terrible happened to her before I was even born? I have no idea.

I don’t want to sleep, but fatigue finally takes over. I’ve been awake the entire night, and my eyelids are heavy. I think about the Exchange, Lady Augus

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About Marina Epley

I’m a former journalist turned full-time author who began writing at an early age. Growing up on science fiction, horror and action movies more than cartoons, where the stuff of my dreams (or nightmares) quickly evolved into the short stories I shared with classmates. Well, nothing much has really changed since, except nowadays I write for your enjoyment and reading pleasure.
I published my first YA dystopian trilogy The Mind Breaker in 2016, and I’m currently working on a new series. I mostly write science fiction with plenty of action and adventure, but appreciate any good stories with lots of unexpected twists and turns.

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