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           Chapter 1

    Serenity


I can barely remember a time before the war. The green, orderly lawns, the rows of houses, the neatly assigned shelves of food. That quest for perfection was the first thing to go when the king turned his attention to our land.

    The first, but not the last.

    War felled more than just order. We once knew casual compassion—politeness even. People smiled for the sake of smiling. Laughed because they couldn’t contain their joy. One positive emotion begat another, and it spread like the most decadent disease.

    And the colors. Every once in a while I still dream in such vivid colors. What I would give to live in such a bright place again.

    The world we knew is nothing like the one I live in.

 

        But none of this, none of it was so costly a price as the one we eventually paid. Somewhere along the way, my people lost the most precious thing of all.

    Hope.

    Well, most of us lost it. Most, but not all.


An alarm goes off in the barracks, and I groan. My roommates—all seven of them—slide out of their beds before I do. But they hadn’t stayed up late learning about international diplomacy.

    I pull back my threadbare blanket and swing my legs out. As soon as my bare feet hit the cold concrete, I begin moving, grabbing my fatigues and changing into them. Most of the women next to me have already shoved theirs on and left. They’re the smart ones. There might not be any breakfast by the time I get to the mess hall.

    I sit on my bed and pull on my boots, wishing for the hundredth time that there was natural light in this place. For the last five years I’ve lived in this bunker nestled belowground. No matter how much I get used to this way of life, I can’t adjust to this one thing.

    Once my shoes are laced up, I jog out of my room and down to the cafeteria. Just as I suspected, I’m too late. The line winds out the door.

    My stomach contracts painfully; it’s a familiar ache. We’re all underfed here. Most of the land above us has been razed, which makes food scarce. No one will admit it, but the war is coming to an end. It has to; our people are slowly starving to death.

 

        Despite the long wait, I stand at the back of the line anyway, hoping there might be something left over by the time I reach the front. I can’t bear the thought of waiting until dinner to eat.

    I’ve been standing in line for almost fifteen minutes when a hand wraps around my arm and tugs me out of line.

    “Wha—?” I glance up at Will, the general’s son. He’s handsome, has the dirtiest sense of humor, and he’s responsible for getting me into trouble over the last five years. If circumstances were different, we might have dated, married, then had kids. But this isn’t the world my grandparents grew up in.

    “Did you have to pull me out of line?”

    His face is serious, but his eyes shine excitedly. “The representatives want to see you—your father himself sent me here to get you.”

    Instantly my mood changes from annoyed to suspicious. “Why? What’s going on?” The people near me glance in our direction.

    Will’s eyes flick to them before returning to me. “Not here, Serenity,” he says quietly.

    I look longingly at the cooks serving up oatmeal and accept the fact that I’m going to go hungry for the rest of the day.

    I nod. “’Kay, I’ll bite.” I’m curious what put the twinkle in Will’s eyes.

    I follow him down the dimly lit halls until we arrive at the bunker’s conference room. This is where the American representatives of the Western United Nations gather. The WUN is a collection of countries that make up North and South America. It’s a coalition that’s been fighting the eastern hemisphere for almost fifteen years.

 

        Not the eastern hemisphere, I think darkly. King Montes Lazuli.

    When we stop outside the room, I can’t help but swallow. The last time I was called in here on official business, the representatives had decided that I would begin training as the next emissary. My father currently holds the role. Poor Will has been training to become the next general for even longer than I have. I don’t envy him, but I’m also guessing that no one envies me. If we lose the war, we’ll likely be killed or imprisoned.

    Not that the thought scares me. I’m already dying.


Will knocks on the door, and a moment later my father opens it. He smiles, but there’s a tension that pinches the corners of his eyes. “Serenity, glad you could join us,” he says. He nods to Will and opens the door for us both to enter.

    Unlike me, Will’s now required to attend these meetings with the representatives. I consider it a blessing that I haven’t yet been asked to sit in on them, but judging by the assessing looks I’m receiving as I step inside, I have a horrible feeling that is all about to change.

    The two dozen men and women seated around the table are all that remains of our political leaders. King Lazuli has killed off most of the presidential line of succession. We who live in this bunker are all that’s left.

 

        “Serenity Freeman,” General Chris Kline says. Will’s father. “Good morning.”

    I incline my head, my hands clasped tightly together. “Morning.”

    Will places a hand on my back and leads me to a free seat next to my father. I can tell my dad’s nervous by the tense set of his jaw.

    I sit down, Will following suit. A quick glance at the faces around me tells me that no one here has gone to bed yet. My clasped hands squeeze even tighter together. Whatever is going on, it’s big, and I’m somehow involved.

    “The WUN is in danger of collapsing.” The general just comes out and says it. I’ve always appreciated his bluntness, but now it makes my stomach clench. He’s as good as told me that we’re all dead men here. “The eastern hemisphere is much larger than we are; nuclear warfare has crippled our numbers and our economy. We’re not going to last much longer.”

 
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