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Authors: Bella James,Rachel Hanna

The Choosing (The Arcadia Trilogy Book 1)

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The Choosing
The Arcadia Trilogy
The Choosing
The Arcadia Trilogy
Bella James
Chapter 1

T
he plow stopped
.

Livy herself jolted to a stop right behind it. Pushing made no difference. The thing wasn't moving again.

Looking up at the blazing sun overhead, Olivia – aka Livy - Bane wiped a hand over her forehead. It came away soaked. She wondered if it was drawing near to break time, when she could seek the shelter of some of the spindly acacia trees and drink a cup of water. She didn't dare pause too long here in the fields. The Centurions assigned to Pastoreum were changed out regularly, so no face became too familiar and no favor would be given to the serfs who worked the fields that belonged to the Plutarch, the supreme ruler of the world.

All things belonged to the Plutarch. The fields, the crops that grew in them, the ravens that ate the crops and were shot at by the Centurions, the Centurions with their hard cold eyes and their weapons unheard of in the four provinces.

The stupid plow that wouldn't move. The too-warm coarse woven clothes Livy wore, shapeless elastic-banded pants and a pullover shift that settled around her hips. These things belonged to the Plutarch also.

As did Livy.

Everything did. And today she resented it. If she belonged heart and soul to the ruler of the land, as her mother had taught her over the years, keeping Livy safe, then why didn't the ruler take better care of his possessions?

If she belonged to herself and no one, despite any outward laws or dictates, could touch that, as her grandfather had taught her over the years, keeping Livy awake and aware, then why wasn't she ever able to make her own decisions and rest in the shade when she was hot and tired?

For a second she rested her head on the handle of the plow she'd been pushing. The less vicious of the Centurions overlooked such breaks, as long as they were short, but she had no idea who was overseeing her section today. She didn't dare rest long, so Livy moved in front of the plow, crouching down to figure out what was stopping it from moving forward.

Nothing, it seemed. No rocks dotted this part of the field, no change in the elevation of the land. The fields had been plowed and planted for so long only the rotation of crops made them fertile enough to keep growing crops.

But then, Pastoreum had been flooded with early spring rains this year. Maybe something had come up from deeper in the earth. As long as she was actively working, no one would do anything to her. She could kneel in the dirt and begin digging to figure out what had made the plow sink in. Such behavior was beneath the regard of the guards.

With no other tools, she used her hands, feeling the ground change from hot on the surface to cool just beneath it. It almost felt good, at least until gravel began to grate her fingertips.

"Did you lose something?"

The voice came from above her. Livy closed her eyes. Not good. She'd attracted the attention of one of the overseers on his horse. She kept her head down and fought for calm.

I'm not doing anything wrong!

When she looked up, it was into the eyes of one of the more forgiving guards. New, of course, there were always
new
guards, but he hadn't been rotated out yet. She breathed out in relief.

"No, I'm – my plow stopped. I'm just trying to figure out why." She waved her hands at the part of the plow dug down into the earth, and the Centurion nodded. Livy expected the exhortation to not take too long, to get back to work as soon as possible, but it didn't come.

"Do you need the foreman?"

Her father. No, not so much. Her father was the keeper of the keys, the handyman, the mechanic, the blacksmith, the one who made things work again when they stopped and Livy had inherited a lot of his skill, or at least learned it by hanging around him asking questions. Her father had the ability to work with the older technology and tools from the Times Before when more of mankind had weapons and tools and used all of them so poorly that the world had fallen into chaos.

From which the first of the Plutarch rulers had saved them.

She was daydreaming. Overheated. She wished she could ask when the next break was but even that wasn't showing willingness to do her part for the community.

"I don't think so," she said, answering his question and realizing only seconds had passed. "I just need to dig down. A spade would help."

He barked a laugh at her for that. "I don't carry farm tools, little miss."

The fire, always just barely banked beneath her surface, sparked. "I wasn't suggesting you did. It's just one would be useful."

Instantly sorry. Because it wasn’t good to rile the guards. And because he wasn't a bad one. Her grandfather sometimes said if you found one who was halfway decent, be more than decent in return. Her grandfather was convinced that bullies and bastards could be made, even when they were already fully grown, and there was no point in creating more of them in the land.

"Thank you, though. If I do need my father, I'll signal. I think I just need – to – dig." With each word, dipping her hands into the ground.

His shadow passed off of her and she heard the sound of the horse stepping easily over the ground. Livy kept her head down, kept her hands working, but she didn't move fast. Just being off her feet felt wonderful. She could kneel here forever.

None of the guards were paying attention to her. One of their number had already spoken to her in plain view of all the others. As long as she didn't take an unreasonably long time to discover what was going on with the plow (or didn't take too long pretending to look after she figured it out for real) she'd be fine.

She moved her hands slowly through the earth. All around her the serfs performed their tasks. The seasons were the only things that dictated change in Pastoreum, the agricultural region under the Plutarch's rule. They supplied the food for the rest of the world and lived on very little themselves. Summers were the time of plenty, gathering crops and eating as much as they could before the Centurions came to claim the goods. Autumns were harvest times, bringing in the grains and root vegetables and tending the fields for when they'd lay fallow. Winters were barren, spent making breads to be shipped and digging potatoes to be eaten elsewhere. Springs were for planting, even springs as unseasonably hot and dry as this one.

In the evenings, after the rest of the family had gone to bed - her parents and five younger sisters and brothers - her grandfather would call Livy back behind the curtain into his own part of the house, the part cluttered with memories and books, anything he could get his hands on. Anything he'd been able to keep hold of after the war. Technically such treasures weren't forbidden. They just weren't welcomed. The elderly, with their visions for the future and memories of the past, were dying out. The new ruler preferred that, when they were gone, there'd be almost nothing left to remind anyone that there were Before Times. At least, nothing left that was anything other than useful, it's use meaning "for the Plutarch" being a given. There was no law stating Grandfather Bane couldn't teach his granddaughter to read. There just wasn't any reason for her to know how and so the general belief was she'd do better spending her time on other pursuits, maybe something that benefited the community as a whole.

Then again, things that were only
discouraged
or
frowned upon
could sometimes lead to violent reactions from the Centurions. Keeping your head down and going along with societal expectations was the safest route and the best way to keep your head on your shoulders and off a pike.

All around her, her sisters and brothers were spread out. School let out early in planting season. They were all in the fields, though not working together. Not far away, Livy's best friend Tarah labored diligently, her copper colored skin gleaming in the sunlight. Tarah toed the line pretty well, as did Dav, not that far away, his broad shoulders bent as he fought to get something into the ground that didn't want to go there. They worked when told to and rested when allowed and ate what was "provided" by the state.

And chafed under the rule of the Plutarch. Even those who hadn't grown up in a household with Grandfather Bane beyond the curtain in the back of the house.

Livy's father knew what it was they did back there. He knew about the hidden books and secret lessons. He'd never done anything to stop Livy and Grandfather Bane. She'd even heard him defending the practice to Livy's mother.

Livy's questing fingers found something square and hard in the dirt. Carefully she began brushing the dirt from it. Whatever it was, it was caught hard in the blades of the plow. She'd have to move gingerly to remove it without cutting herself.

And without damaging whatever it was. Her curiosity was aroused and she wanted to know. While her fingers worked and her eyes moved back and forth between whatever she was uncovering and the guards in the field, her mind wandered. It often did. Her mother called her dreamy. Her father called her undisciplined. Her grandfather called her bright.

If she got caught not working, the Centurions might call her a traitor to the community.

There was only one thing that ultimately happened to traitors. Though a lot of unimaginably terrible things happened to them on the way.

There. She had it. Her fingers had worked the obstruction free and now it was coming loose into her hands, hard and thick and oblong, a little damp from having been in the ground, but whole except for the one slice the blade had made in the thing.

Book. The one slice the blade had made in the
book
.

Livy held the book and stared at it in wonder. Cloth cover, once-gold lettering flaking out of the engraved spaces where the letters went. The pages were thick, soft, there was cloth mixed in with the paper - one of the reasons the book had held together so long.

Anything found in the fields belonged to the community and what belonged to the community was provided by the Plutarch, who was not bound to like books, Livy thought. It was the work of an instant to tuck it into the elastic waistband of her shapeless pants and pull her even more shapeless blouse down over it. She didn't look up to see if she'd been spotted. If she had, the Centurions would be standing over her soon enough, meting out punishment or calling her a traitor or doing whatever they pleased.

If they hadn't, she'd go on digging here for a few minutes more, waiting to see if anything else turned up in the plow's way, and letting her legs rest. The book rested against her belly, warm from its place in the ground. The back was missing, so the soft pages pressed against her, coated in dirt. She longed to look at it, determine if she'd found something wonderful or some old accounts book; people in the before times had saved the simplest, most everyday things in beautiful ways. The excesses of those people had led to the fall of the world.

Tarah managed to work faster long enough to catch up with Livy until they were working side by side. No one said talking wasn't allowed but most people didn't, for fear of being thought a traitor for wasting time that could be spent furthering the goals of the community and, more importantly, the Plutarch.

There were too many ways to be branded a traitor, as almost any infraction could lead to the accusation. Sometimes Livy thought there had to be a better way to live life.

"What did you find?" Tarah asked quietly. Her gaze barely slipped to Livy and her pace didn't slacken at all.

Livy felt like her heart had just stopped beating. "What do you mean?" Surely no one had seen her!

Tarah blinked long and slow, and looked back at the row of seeds she was planting. "I saw you digging. With your hands, I mean. I figured…" She let her sentence trail off.

Livy had grown up with Tarah, who was a year younger than she was. They'd played hide and seek, and various games in which they were prisoners of the pleasure palaces, at least until Tarah's mom found out about it and punished them both soundly. Nice girls did not think about the pleasure palaces where only the most unfortunate ended up.

Livy considered their history. She considered that Tarah was her best friend and she had always told her everything.

And then she lied.

In the end, lying was safer for both of them.

"My plow stuck. That's all. I dug up a rock and freed it." For proof she took her bloodied fingertips from the handles of the plow long enough to show Tarah.

Tarah's chin came up slightly, her rebellious nature meeting Livy's. "You didn't get up for a long time." No accusation, just noting that she'd noticed which meant so, likely, had the guards.

"Tired," Livy said, and before Tarah could point out, however mildly, that everybody was, she added, "Haven't been sleeping well."

Tarah's mutinous expression melted. "Your grandfather isn't sick, is he?" Tarah loved Grandfather Bane too.

"Just old," Livy said, and to herself, added,
I hope that's all.
She never wanted to lose him.

The book glowed against her skin, a gift for her Grandfather or the seeds of the undoing of her family.

They moved together up the rows of crops for a couple more minutes, talking mildly about a dance their neighborhood might sponsor. Everyone would pool whatever extra they may have, especially sugar so the best bakers among them could make treats. Dance days were times the entire community lied, just a little; rather than tithe 50 percent of their pleasures to the Plutarch in the form of food gifts to the Centurions.

The sun beat down on the fields. Livy never quite forgot about the book pressed against her belly, solid and damning and still feeling like a small victory.

"One of us needs to move forward," Livy said after too short a conversation. Too much more quiet conversation, even out here in the open, could appear to be collusion.

"I'll drop back," Tarah said, already starting to.

"I'll do it," Livy said, and to her friend's startled expression, "You always do. Might as well show them you're pushing ahead for brotherhood and solidarity and the community."

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