CHAPTER TWENTY (draft)

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CHAPTER TWENTY

“You!” Aeson Kass speaks, having stopped directly before me. “What are you doing?”

I continue to stand on one foot—which is starting to acquire a fine muscle tremor—and stare straight ahead, so that his face is just barely out of my line of sight . . . so that I don’t have to make contact with his eyes. And in that first terrible instant I say nothing, as my pulse races madly in my temples, threatening to jump out of my head, if that even makes any sense. My fingers continue to touch Hasmik’s hand.

 If it’s even possible, but I think he is slightly thrown off. Because there is an unusually long pause as he continues to stare at me. Meanwhile I see him indirectly with my peripheral vision, and I think I am about to die. . .

. . . or about to be Disqualified.

“Look at me . . .” he says, seemingly gathering himself after that inexplicable pause. “I said, what are you doing?”

Slowly I turn my head a miniscule bit to face him—to face his eyes.

“I . . . don’t know . . .” I whisper.

The intensity of his gaze is impossible to describe.

“You what? You don’t know?

“I am sorry, I don’t—”

“I did not tell you to step forward and stand on one foot. So, what are you doing?”

“I—must’ve misunderstood.”

If I’m correct, I think his fury is now white-hot. But oh, he keeps it under such perfect control. . . .

He takes a step closer and slowly looks me up and down. And he looks at Hasmik, who is just about to pass out.

There is perfect silence in the arena, except for a few shufflings of feet and the lonely sound of one boy jumping up and down, his foot laboriously striking the floor.

If I weren’t in the middle of such utter hell right now, I might even find it kind of funny, in a sick, remote, ten-years-later kind of way.

“Your name, Candidate.”

“Gwen Lark.”

He watches me—for what seems to be another extended moment during which his dark blue eyes bore through me and I am rendered into nothing.

“Do you make it a habit to willfully misunderstand instructions?”

My heart is racing so fast it feels like I am going into cardiac arrest.

“No . . . only sometimes.”

“And is there a reason you are holding hands with the Candidate next to you?”

I take a deep breath and glance at Hasmik who watches me through narrowed fluttering eyelids, while rivulets of sweat pour down her temples. “She is hurt,” I say. “She cannot stand like that on her right leg. . . . As least not for much longer.”

 “I see. So you think you are helping her?”

“I am—helping her.”

There is a pause.

“You are cheating. The consequence for such action is Disqualification. For both of you—”

“No!” I exclaim, and let go of Hasmik’s fingers as if burned, while a sudden lump forms in the back of my throat, and I realize helplessly I am about to cry. “No, she had nothing to do with it! It was all my idea! Please, she really is hurt!”

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