The rain was what I remember most, damp socks and fat drops pounding against my head. It was that hard, ice cold rain that chilled you to your bones. An incurable cold that I still couldn't shake, no matter how many times I submerged my body in the hot water at the bath house, it lingered.
I was young, I can't remember being much younger, deep brown eyes shrouded by innocence and a clueless naivety that made me the target of Madame Claudette for many years. I remember squeezing my sister's hand I couldn't see her but I knew she was crying.
Thirty or so young girls all lined up against the grey brick fence that lined our street, they came twice a year, Madame Claudette and her pack of henchmen. They were part of the military, although I didn't know it at the time, children taken just like us once upon a time.
"Is that all of 'em?" One of the men boomed, he had a harsh tone to his voice which sounded much older than his face suggested. He had a deep cut across the side of his face which must have impaired his vision somewhat because he seemed to be constantly squinting through his left eye.
"This is the last call! If you want to keep your pesky rats consider how you will fend for Winter- no food, no money and one more mouth to feed!"
There was an eerie silence, just the sound of the wind whipping against our cheeks and the faint whimper of children. I desperately wanted to turn my head, to catch the eye of my Mother, but I knew she wouldn't be watching- she couldn't.
"If that's it then… commence the inspection Madame."
There were two carriages waiting, I didn't understand it at the time, the inspection, why some girls were put on different carriages, but I soon learned.
Madame. Claudette was a small, wiry woman with deep wrinkles engraved into her once pretty face. She was dressed all in black, her grey hair pulled back in a tight bun and there was a constant sadistic smirk placed on her thin lips, she approached the first girl and without so much as glimpsing at her and yelled "first carriage!" Without hesitation two henchmen approached the girl and escorted her to the carriage, she was quiet and limply followed the two without so much as a sigh.
The second girl followed in suit, and the third- but the fourth required further inspection.
Madame. Claudette peered down at the blonde girl, examining her intently. She pulled up her arms, patted her down and narrowed her small, black eyes as if she were in deep thought.
"There's potential here, second carriage!"
The girl let out a screech, "No! My sister's in the other one!"
The two men picked her up by the arms, and covered her mouth with big, greasy hands that reduced her screams to muffled words.
Slowly the line dispersed, by the time Madame. Claudette reached my sister the first carriage was over-packed, while the second boasted only four girls.
Poppy was younger than me by less than a year, but there was a vast ocean of difference between us. I mothered her more than our own Mother did, if we were separated I would do more than scream.
Poppy looked terrified as she stared into the black pits of Madame. Claudette's eyes, but she didn't flinch once, even as Madame. Claudette inched closer and closer until their noses were almost touching.
"Pretty girl," she muttered. "A little chubby though… Somebody's been taking too good care of you."
Madame. Claudette backed away, rubbing her chin with her long, jeweled fingers.
"We can't have a little piggy at the Manor now can we? With all that extra padding you'd fit in great at the Workhouse… Viktor! What do you think?"
The man with the deep cut across his face narrowed his eyes.
"Uh- what do you mean Madame?"
Madame. Claudette crossed her arms in impatience, "what do you think? You're a man, you're better equipped to judge- tell me, is there something alluring about this young girl?"
Viktor looked visibly uncomfortable, he shifted his sword awkwardly. "The first carriage is on the verge of over-crowding-"
"I don't care about the first carriage! I just want to know whether this girl will make me money! Now tell me, will this girl make me any money?"
Viktor looked to his comrades for some sort of support but their heads remained bowed, he sighed. "She's pretty enough."
Madame Claudette beamed gleefully, "I'll have your head if she's a bad investment. Second carriage!"
My body stiffened at the sight of Poppy being dragged away, she was limp and didn't put up a fight but I saw her red, tear stained face as she entered the carriage. I had to be put with her, I couldn't let her be terrified all by herself.
I turned and faced Madame Claudette with a stern face, her features were twisted into an oddly happy scowl, her eyebrows arched as she peered down at me.
"You're prettier than your sister, similar features… but they look better on you. Too bad. You would have been so popular if you didn't have such a strong glare."
My heart sunk and my face must've followed suit because Madame Claudette let out a wicked cackle. "Show me you can smile and I'll let you leave with your sister. If you refuse… it's off to the workhouse for you."
My hands were shaking in anger, this woman made me sick, my brows were furrowed and my lips refused to budge.
"What a shame," Madame Claudette sighed. I caught sight of her heaving in her breath to screech my carriage number, with all my might I managed to shift my features into the only half-hearted smile I could manage.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and then suddenly the world became clear again. There was nothing to be relieved about, I was being sent away. The fat cold drops were pounding against my head and my hair clung to my face. I stared up at the grey sky, and felt two hands grab me at either sides, pushing me forward as Miss. Claudette began examining the next girl.
I knew I would probably never see these people again, the ones I had grown up with, my Mother… But I refused to look for her, refused to look at the crowds of onlookers. Just keep walking, I chanted internally, don't look around, don't remember. Let it go.
I made it to the carriage without a single sideways glance, I was ushered next to Poppy and I immediately gripped her small, cold hand, she squeezed tighter than she did the day I had to pull the thorn from her foot. She was scared, but I couldn't look at her. I couldn't let her know I was scared too.
There were only two other girls in the line after me, I had heard Madame Claudette call the fate of Willow- she had been my neighbor. A chubby ginger girl with a face full of freckles, she had been sent to carriage one almost immediately. The last girl had lived further down the road, Sasha was her name. She had long ebony hair and deathly pale skin, she kept to herself- I had barely heard her speak a word growing up. She was directed, after some deliberation, to carriage two. Her fragile frame was seated opposite me, I peeked up at her through thick lashes. Her face was unreadable, expressionless, vacant dark blue eyes staring at the ground.
I had to close my eyes to stop myself from looking as Madame Claudette wrapped up her speech, I didn't want to see her face as we drove away. She had promised never to do it, to never send us away- but times were tough, impossible even. Poppy didn't understand, she was too young to involve herself in politics, but I knew- even then, at twelve years old.
Things might have been different had Father still been alive, but they had increased tax so much that I knew Mother couldn't afford us for much longer.
You see, we live in a world of poverty ruled by a strict government, years ago we engaged in a war so brutal it completely collapsed our economy, ruined our reputation as a country and many, many lives were lost.
Our military depleted drastically in size and skill, we were beaten viciously. Our once prosperous and influential country lost everything. A new government took over and enforced strict new rules, they wanted to regain their military and in order to do so they began taxing children. People who were already living in poverty were forced to either pay an annual tax on each child that inflated every year, or sell them over to the government where they were placed in either workhouses or, if they were strong enough into elite training for the military. They were trained from the age of ten to become the most ruthless and trained assassins in the world. Revenge was all the government had in mind.
But I wasn't going to either of those places, I didn't know it at the time, but I was being sent somewhere far worse.
"Stella… I'm scared."
I peered down at Poppy, her brown eyes welled up with tears. Her face was puffy and red.
"It'll be okay. I'm with you."
I tried to force a smile as the carriage began to pull away. I wondered if I'd ever see home again.