The stone Arches towered above me, so beautiful that my eyes stayed on them despite bumping into people next to me. Each Arch grew higher and wider, awakening a feeling of vastness I never knew in any other place in the Territory. The stone and marble pillars stretched across the arena below, with ten feet of clear, blue sky between each arch. Even though the Arches were spread apart, the carvings on them formed a single mural across the sky, with the clouds moving through it like waves.
The wind pushed at my back, propelling me forward. The room always felt natural and open, so unlike the government buildings in the Republic. I remembered Megan would walk through one of the stoic, white buildings holding her breath that she would live. I became queasy with fear again.
I thought of leaving, but I wanted to support Megan. Besides, I wasn’t allowed to leave, by order of the Council. The Council never wanted to appear overbearing. They were fair and just, although never perfect. Some citizens of the Territory still felt ignored, timely laws were not passed fast enough, and fathers grumbled about politics while chopping wood or doing dishes. But for the most part, our people adored the Council and the High Counselor, Richard Eldridge.
Eldridge rarely spoke, but when he did, it mattered. He left the squabbling among lower-ranking members of the Council. He focused solely on the Protectors’ training and development. Some called him obsessed for staying in his office instead of holding press conferences, meditating in prayer instead of attending meetings, and disregarding some of the most luxurious attributes of being High Counselor. He would give up his spacious rooms to sleep on the floor in Central until he knew Protectors were safely home. His critics would accuse him of incompetence, but his supporters would label it passion.
I kept moving walking under the Arches. I recognized my friend’s mother, who gave up her seats when they saw us coming up the aisle. My mom thanked her, and we squeezed into the last few seats. I was on the end and as people passed, I soaked in their expressions and words. Some were reverent, others passionate, others impatient for the evening’s events. I hoped to write them down in words later, the bits and pieces of truth hidden in this canvas; the tear creased in a wrinkle under the one woman’s eye, the stage engineers moving the microphone and quickly taking it away again, who was pulled into her seat by a scolding mother after she was caught flirting with a boy, a couple rushing to their seats, a pregnant woman surrounded by admirers. All of them would put their lives on hold for a few minutes to hear Eldridge summarize our two-hundred-year history, sounding like my father on the train. Then Head Trainer Hannah McKinney would name twenty-six Protectors.
Someone came across the stage and welcomed us all to the commissioning of the 188th generation. I recognized him but couldn’t remember his name. As people settled into their seats ready to listen, he left the microphone and walked back behind the stage.
I turned to look at my father, only to see his confusion. A few whispers rose above the silence until it grew to a buzzing murmur. People continued their conjecture as a stranger came across the stage. I hadn’t seen him before, but he was not wearing a grey linen suit like all of those before him. He wore white, like the Protectors and trainers. He took a breath and spoke with an authority I hadn’t expected from his nervous demeanor.
“My name is Commander Luke Patterson, and I am, as of a few days ago, the new Head Trainer and director of the 188th Generation.”
I strained my memory. Had we pushed the usual history lesson aside for a speech from the new Head Trainer? I realized that I had no memory of anyone other than Hannah McKinney being the Head Trainer. I listened to Patterson run through some of his credentials, which sounded impressive. He joked that he once got outwitted by Bridgett, a very famous Protector from a few years ago, and that comment eased some of the concern with laughter. His expression would shift from focused to playful, as if trying to cut the tension that began with this announcement.
“No doubt…” he sighed, “That you are wondering why the order of this ceremony is different. We will not be reviewing or revering our history today. I would like only to tell you one story, but that will have to wait. We will now name the twenty-six Protectors of this generation and acknowledge their efforts, their passion, and their destiny. Thank you.”
The whispers echoed again. Patterson waited for the noise to subside, shifting cards in his hand and taking a deep breath before continuing.
“The First Protector is, and was always meant to be, Brianna Coulson, who has chosen to serve for a third year.”
My father whispered, “What?” under his breath. Most Protectors served for only a year, with only some serving for two years. Most Protectors considered it dangerous, whether from burnout or fear that the police would connect them to people’s disappearances. People stood from their seats as the applause rose like a wave. Brie took her place on stage; strong and silent, as I had seen in broadcasts. Her blue eyes focused on a space above the crowd, and she didn’t respond to the applause with any difference in her expression.
“The Second Protector is, and always was, Tessa Franklin, who has also decided to serve for a second year.”
The whispers started again, most likely because no one expected two Protectors to repeat service years. It was usually kept to one year, to ensure they weren’t captured when someone might recognize that people disappear after meeting them. Tessa had racked up impressive numbers in her first year. She was fast and smart, one of the top trained in athletics and broke records that had stood for decades. She waved to a few people who screamed her name. A few fans in the crowd whistled as she bowed, I turned to my mom and asked, “Why do I feel like this is a popularity contest?”
Mom sighed and said, “Because sometimes it is.”
“Why has that never bothered me before?”
She smiled at me and said, “You’re old enough to see it now. That’s all.”
The third Protector was a new name: Lillian Hoover. Patterson continued with the names, but his voice sounded muffled against my raging thoughts. The shallowness of seeking fame might have drawn girls to pursue this path, but it seemed like such a stark contrast to the heart of their mission.
Everyone continued to gossip each time they clapped and cheered, using the crowd’s applause to muffle their guesses as to why the ceremony had changed. I rolled my eyes as I heard someone behind me whisper, “There’s finally going to be a musical event this year.” Then I heard Patterson yell her name: Megan Crawford. She had ranked fourteenth.
Henry was right; Megan and I did look similar, but her hair was more auburn and her eyes were blue like Henry’s, instead of my simple brown. She waved and smiled at the crowd, but shyly, even as we stood and cheered for her. She shook hands with Patterson and took her place on the stage behind him, glancing at us for a moment and then her eyes resting on her father in the front row.
Patterson called more names, with everyone thinking that the surprises were finished. But he had one more.
“And the 26th Protector of the 188th Generation is, and always was, Evangeline McKinney.”
That name got a lot of shock and awe. Evangeline McKinney was the daughter of Hannah McKinney, the former Head Trainer and legendary Protector. Hannah’s sister and aunt had preceded her as Protectors. Her husband had died years earlier on a mission to the Republic, while she had been pregnant with Evangeline, who became a famous child as she excelled and advanced in the Academy. But no one expected Evangeline to serve this year, even as a legacy in the making. Being a Protector was the family business. At fifteen years old, she was the youngest Protector ever.
My mom whispered, “That’s why Hannah had to quit.”
I nodded. “I get it. Hannah couldn’t be the Head Trainer with her daughter in the field. She’d be compromised.”
Evangeline took her first steps on stage; intentional about her movements, not waving and smiling like the others. She looked like she couldn’t care less what anyone else was doing, but not in an arrogant way. She flashed a quick smile at Eldridge, gave a casual nod and a high-five to Patterson instead of a handshake, and took her place in line. Evangeline seemed like the kind of person I always envied— so sure of herself, right down to her quirky salute to the Academy Principal.
After that, Patterson made some acknowledgments for the staff at the Academy. A teacher had retired, but no one was listening to the accolades.
Their eyes would dart around the stage where the twenty-six girls still stood. The girls left the stage with their Head Trainer, and to the sound of cheers and yells, and I was sure Megan didn’t hear me, but we screamed her name anway.
And finally, Eldridge walked on the stage.
“Well, you all have had ample time to wonder why I neglected to share our usual history lesson. I’m sure you’ve come up with many theories, most likely, all of them wrong.” He got laughs from the crowd. “I will delay you no further from experiencing something that has always been, and always will be, an awe-inspiring, ever-terrifying entity: change.”
He paused for a moment, as if to draw in everyone’s attention. But he didn’t need to stop. Everyone was silent.
“Change is what we cannot predict, but sometimes need, and in the realm of the Protectors, someone knew that. Someone who we still consider the best and bravest of them all. Naomi was twenty years old when she addressed the Council, asking for action against the Republic for their lack of respect or humanity concerning those whom they deemed unnecessary. That Council did not react. They told her that they could not take action. They said it was ‘regrettable.’ She decided that living with regret was worse than dying; she risked her life to be the first one in fifteen years to enter the Republic and come back. And she returned with a Vessel. And you all know Naomi’s story. She recruited helpers. The Council eventually supported her. She started the Academy. But what you may forget is that something happened in the fifteenth year of training Protectors. She never explained it completely, and claimed she never could.”
I heard my father sigh. I almost looked to him for a reaction, but I could hear his breath evening out. At least he had guessed what was happening.
Eldridge took a breath before continuing. “Naomi chose twenty-five girls to join her the first years, and then she chose twenty-six girls. But one year, she didn’t. She needed change, or so she wrote in her journal. And after naming her Protectors, she surprised everyone, maybe even herself, and she named one more. Just one more.”
“It’s been more than twenty years,” my mother whispered. “I barely remember the last time…tell me he didn’t.”
My father whispered back. “I think he did.”
Eldridge had chosen a 27th Protector.
The 27th Protectors were legends: the ones chosen because they excelled in a specific skill that was desperately needed. They never trained at the Academy, but they were exceptional in their work. The first one, who had been chosen by Naomi, saved more Vessels than anyone else that century. Another 27th Protector had developed the best spy-craft techniques and saved countless lives through medical research. The 27th Protector of the 158th Generation had created the technology that all current Protectors still used to remain under the Republic’s radar.
Eldridge continued, “The truth is… there is a 27th Protector for one reason. We need her, and we didn’t know it until now. So please, 27, our first words to you are an apology. We forgot to tell you that you are a hero. Hear our apology. We did not value the gifts you had to bring, but we hope you bring them now. You didn’t fight, or even ask to be a part of this, but now we have a chance to fix what we couldn’t see was wrong. And in that way, 27, you will protect us all. So, protect us.”
He stopped suddenly, backing up from the microphone. As Patterson came out, the tension grew. He didn’t speak at first. I had a feeling there hadn’t been a silence that thick under the Arches in thirty years.
Patterson finally moved, adjusting the microphone. He began to speak a few more words, but I only heard my own voice inside of my head: A voice I instantly tried to silence.
What if… ?
It could be.
But maybe…
No! The Council would never have let him. I’m nothing. I can’t.
But that doesn’t mean a part of you doesn’t want to see…
I finished the voice’s sentence— to see what it would be like.
I buried the thoughts, shushing them as if Eldridge could overhear the debate screaming in my brain or Patterson would call my name instead of whoever they had chosen.
Patterson stared at the back wall. Eldridge appeared to be waiting, looking out into the crowd, seemingly looking at no one in particular.
Except I could tell he was looking at me.
I slowly shook my head, my eyes still glued to him, but he only responded with a strange expression, a slight smile and sad twinge in his eye, as if to say, Didn’t you know? This was always going to happen.
Patterson took a deep breath as I held mine, in the very last moment of normal life I would ever know.
“The Twenty-Seventh Protector of the 188th Generation is, and always was, Aislyn Williams.”