The Dutiful Woman

"Ma'am?" said a tentative female voice from outside her door. "Ma'am, are you awake?"

571 opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. She was lying in her bed at the Council as she had been all night long, although she was fairly certain she had only had about thirty minutes of sleep. There was so much on her mind, after all. There had been for a long time.

"What's this about?" she asked, rubbing her neck wearily as she sat up and stretched. She might have only been in her thirty-fourth year, but for the past couple of months she'd felt positively middle-aged.

"The Head Councilman wishes to speak with you, ma'am," said the woman, who 571 guessed was a Servant. Her eyes widened and she sat up straighter, a chill running down her spine.

"What have I done now?" she blurted. "I – I haven't…"

Her voice trailed off. She swallowed, standing up and striding over to the door. She opened it to reveal a female Servant, as she'd expected. The girl was young, perhaps in her early twenties, with thick blonde hair and a heart shaped face.

"He has some business he wants to discuss," the girl clarified, looking up at the tall, older Gifted woman with a strangely forceful look in her eyes. It was slightly off-putting – after all, Servants were usually a lot timider. 571 usually didn't pay the Servants much thought, but after everything that had happened in the last year, she found herself noticing them in a way she never had before.

"I… alright," 571 said eventually, folding her arms across her chest subconsciously. "I'll… I'll just get myself properly dressed. I'll be out in a minute."

The girl nodded, stepping back slightly so she was leaning against the opposite wall. 571 turned back into her room and closed the door, her heart racing beneath her chest.

I… I'm sure it's nothing. He'll just be sending me on a mission of some kind. If they were going to punish me, they would've done it already.

Swallowing, she walked stiffly to her wardrobe and took out a fresh uniform. Stepping out of her grey nightgown, she pulled the clothes on and tied the laces of her slightly too small boots. When she was dressed, she sat down in front of the mirror and reached for a brush. She paused for a moment, staring into the reflective surface blankly. She looked into her own blue-green eyes, wondering briefly if she'd always seemed so tired, or if it was something new. Her thick, curly red hair was tousled and oily-looking, while any hint of a smile on her lips was long gone. Sighing, she reached up and tugged her hair into a tight pony-tail, tying it back carefully with a piece of string.

There's no point thinking like this. He's gone. You'll never see him again, so – Just stop this. You're Gifted. You have to be stronger.

The problem was, a part of her wasn't sure how she was supposed to feel. It wasn't like she'd ever wanted the child in the first place. It just wasn't part of the Gifted lifestyle, after all. Because of that, it had taken her a while to notice – she didn't know much about pregnancy, after all. It was only when she started gaining weight that she put the pieces together. Fearing for both the child and herself, she'd tried to get rid of it. She'd made herself terribly sick and almost died in the process, but the baby survived regardless. It hadn't taken long for the Gifted to figure out her secret after that. They carted her back to the Council and hid her away until she gave birth. That had been two months ago, but she still found herself haunted by the memory.

"Ma'am?" The Servant said loudly from outside. 571 blinked and stood up, hurrying towards the door.

"Sorry," she muttered as she stepped outside the room, closing the door behind herself. "I'm ready now."

The Servant nodded and started down the corridor. 571 followed quickly, her heart starting to pound as they made their way through the winding passageways of the Council. What could the Head Councilman want with her? She had behaved exactly as she was supposed to since giving birth. She'd thrown herself into her training, waiting for the day the Council would send her back out with the rest of the Gifted. As far as she could tell, she hadn't shown a hint of the doubt and confusion she felt inside publicly.

No. It must just be a mission or something like that. It's not – that's all it could be.

Still, despite her attempts to reassure herself, her stomach twisted on itself as she followed the Servant through the corridors. Eventually they stopped outside a set of large, mahogany double doors – the entrance to the Council's chambers. 571's heart raced as the Servant pushed the doors open, revealing a large room with deep red walls and wooden floorboards the same dark colour as the door. There was a large table spanning almost the entire of the room, with twenty-five or so chairs spaced evening along it's length. The Servant led her to the other side of the room, where three men were sitting, muttering quietly amongst themselves. One of the men, a tall, balding man with a nose that had been broken in multiple places, wore the pure white uniform of the Council. The grey patterns on his sleeves indicated he was a Gift of Air and the small, slightly battered star-shaped golden broach pinned to his chest gave away his position as the Head Councilman – the second most powerful man on the Island after the Leader himself. However, unlike the Leader, he hadn't been born with Potential. Instead, he had been elected by his fellow Councilmen and women to be their representative. As a result, it was his job to oversee the day to day running of the Gifted. The Leader had far more important matters to confer to.

The Head Councilman bowed his head slightly as 571 and the Servant entered, his bright green eyes lingering on the younger woman for a moment.

"Thank you," he said, reaching out and touching the Servant's wrist for a brief moment while 571 sat down. "You may return to my rooms. I won't need you until later."

The Servant bowed her head, swallowing. "Yes, sir," she said quietly, turning around and hurrying back to the door. The Councilman watched her leave in silence for a moment while 571 glanced at the other two Gifted. One was a dark haired man a few years older than her with blue patterns on his sleeves, the other blonde and much younger, probably nineteen or twenty. She had seen him before – he was a Gift of Fire, like herself. Still, they had never exchanged any kind of meaningful conversation. She couldn't even remember his number.

"I have a mission for you," said the Councilman eventually, leaning forward and clasping his hands together. 571 blinked and shook her head slightly, tearing her eyes away from the two Gifted men and turning her attention to the older man. "There's been some trouble with rebels down in villages 13 and 14. I already sent three people down there, but… Well, from reports we've received in the last few days it seems there's more than we first thought. The three of you are to join them and see if you can find the group and eliminate them."

"What kind of rebels are they?" said the Gift of Water, sounding almost bored. "Do they have any kind of credibility?"

The Councilman shrugged. "It doesn't seem like it. They're just a bunch of angry vandals. It shouldn't take much to get rid of them, but… Well, it's best to be cautious."

"So what's the plan, then?" asked the younger man. "Will we just go down there and join the other group?"

"Essentially," said the Head Councilman dryly. "6559 – he's the man in charge of the group down there – sent us a message. They've scoped out the area and found the sanctuary they're associated with, although he said they're camping out now. Anyway, there's around twenty, he said. They just wanted a few more Gifted before they mount an attack. Otherwise, everything looks pretty run of the mill. They don't seem overly talented or threatening. We just need to deal them a good hard blow and they should fade away."

He paused, glancing at the two Gifts of Fire. "Anyway, I should introduce you. 712 –" He nodded at the Gift of Water – "This is 571 and 4340. They'll be accompanying you down to the farming villages involved. If you take a carriage you should be there in a couple of days. I imagine you'll be back here in a couple of weeks, tops. It won't take long to dispose of them."

712 stood up and shook hands with the two Gifts of Fire while the Head Councilman flicked through the papers in front of him. He frowned slightly when he reached one of them, glancing at the three Gifted.

"Anyway, I have more important matters to attend to," he said, standing up and gathering the papers together while he cleared his throat. "712, I trust you'll go down and make sure the carriage is ready? You'll be leading this mission, of course."

The Gift of Water stood up and bowed deeply. "Thank you, sir. I'll do the Council proud."

He paused, glancing at the two Gifts of Fire. "Pack a bag quickly and meet me at the stables. We'll be leaving as soon as we're all ready."

6559 nodded and stood up right away. 571 hesitated, glancing at the Head Councilman briefly. She cleared her throat before continuing.

"I… I'll be along in a bit," she said uncertainly. "I… I just need to clarify something."

712 nodded, glancing at the door and beckoning the younger Gift of Fire to follow him. When the two of them were gone, 571 took a deep breath and approached the Head Councilman, who was still frowning down at the sheet of paper at the very top of the pile.

"Are…" she began uncertainly, shifting her feet. "Excuse me, sir, I know it's not my place, but… I was just wondering. Are you sure it's alright to send me on this mission? I haven't exactly been…"

Her voice trailed off. "You – you do know, sir, don't you? They told you, right?"

"Of course they did," said the Head Councilman dryly, glancing at the doorway again. Clearly, he was hankering to leave. "But it doesn't matter now. You're hardly the first woman in this position, after all. Our regulations say you're ready to re-join Gifted society after two months, and that time has now passed. What use would it be to us to keep you out of action for any longer?"

"But –"

"Besides," the Head Councilman continued, his brown eyes narrowing slightly. "It's not like I'm making you head of the mission. That's something you shouldn't expect in the future, by the way. What you did might not have been a capital crime, or even one deserving of severe punishment… But still, your actions reflect poor self control. We'll be watching you closely from now on, okay? Make sure to improve yourself."

"Yes sir," said 571 quietly, bowing. He gave her a short nod, picked up his file of papers and strode to the other side of the room. 571 followed him quickly, thanking him once before hurrying through the corridors back to her room. She packed a bag as instructed, her heart pounding in her ears as she joined the two other Gifted at the stables. They travelled to the farming villages for three days in a carriage led by two large draft horses. Throughout their entire journey, 571 kept to herself, barely speaking to the two Gifted men or the Servant accompanying them. By the time they arrived in village 14, she had been so preoccupied that she barely even remembered their numbers. After all, how could she focus when she knew the Council were likely watching her very closely to see how she handled being out in the real world again? It had been such a long time since she'd been out in the villages, and here she was, expected to pick right up where she left off even after everything that had happened.

Once arriving at the village, she and the two Gifted men were introduced to the three Gifted who'd already been on the case for a month. 6559, the man in charge of the mission, was a short man in his forties with the Gift of Air. He was accompanied by a young, small woman with the Gift of Earth and a man around 571's age with the Gift of Air as well. Their mission was clear, 6559 explained – the rebels had left the sanctuary and were constantly on the move, but they knew they were somewhere in the forest adjacent to villages 14 and 13. All they had to do was eliminate the group and their troubles would be over.

When night fell, the six Gifted set off on their mission. They split up to search through the forest, looking for any sign of the rebels. The first to find them would send up a signal of some kind and the other five were to follow immediately. It was a quiet night and very chilly, but 571 found herself rather enjoying the task. She barely felt the cold, after all, and getting to wander around outside was quite refreshing after spending so long cooped up in the Council. A part of her hoped they wouldn't run into the rebels at all, so she could just keep wandering in the moonlight. She told herself that if the rebels were smart, they would have moved on rather than stay in the same area they'd been vandalising. That was just common sense, after all.

However, despite 571's hopes, her peaceful night was soon to be interrupted. After an hour of trudging through the forest, she heard someone muttering nearby. Her heart pounding, she ducked behind a nearby bush, peering out in the direction of the voice to get a better look. Instead of a group of twenty rebels, like she'd been told, there was only one man. He was sitting with his back against a tree, staring out into the forest surrounding them. He was young, probably in his early twenties, and 571 might have thought of him as handsome if it hadn't been for the horrible scars distorting the left side of his face. His left ear was missing and his left eye partly closed from the swollen, deformed skin on his forehead, giving him a permanently lopsided look. Beside him was a small blonde girl. She was nestled against his leg and sleeping soundly, covered almost entirely by a large pile of tattered coats. The man himself was wearing nothing but a thin brown shirt and trousers despite the winter chill. Oddly, despite his overall lack of winter clothing he was wearing a pair of gloves. His lips were taut, probably from the cold, but his deep brown eyes darted around the forest, his fingers resting over the hilt of a cheap-looking, battered sword. 571 knew she should leave her hiding place and demand the two of them tell her why they were there. After all, the man was clearly a rebel with an illegal weapon, and the child… Whoever she was, she was outside the villages and 571 highly doubted she had permission to be so. That itself was a crime punishable by death, and it was her duty to be the executioner.

Come on, go. You have to. This is the Gifted way, and – if you don't, then you're –

The snap and crunch of a twig caught her and the young man's attention immediately. His hand tightened around the hilt of his sword and he leaned over, partially shielding the blonde girl with his body. His dark brown eyes narrowed and he stared directly towards the noise. 571's heart pounded, expecting to see one of her Gifted colleagues emerge from the shrubbery. Instead, a small blonde woman in nonGifted clothing stepped into view, smiling and raising her eyebrows.

"I didn't realise I was that scary," she said almost playfully as he relaxed and leaned back against the tree. "Why aren't you at the camp with the others? I got back there and they said you'd wandered off with Alice."

"They're too noisy," the man said with a small shrug. His voice was deeper than 571 had expected. "Ali couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd take her somewhere quieter."

The woman grinned, shaking her head as she knelt beside him. She placed a hand on the scarred side of his face and kissed him gently.

"That's fair, but you could've told them where you were going," she murmured, leaning against his side and nuzzling into his neck. "Alistair said you just walked off without saying a thing."

The man said nothing at first, instead reaching out with one hand and pushing her away gently. "Don't distract me," he said solemnly. "I'm keeping watch."

"Oh, I'm sorry," said the woman softly, slipping her hand under his shirt and stroking her fingers slowly over his at his belt. "Here I was, thinking I'd give my husband a bit of a good time…"

"I – Marina…" 571 looked away quickly, her cheeks reddening slightly. She needn't have worried, however, as the woman started to laugh.

"I'm just teasing you, Caleb," she said, leaning back and smirking at him. "As if I'm gonna start getting all handsy with you when Ali's right here."

He stared at her for a moment, his expression strangely impassive. To 571's surprise, the woman smiled up at him like he'd expressed some kind of affection. She glanced down at the girl, leaning into his side once more and drawing her arms around his waist.

"How's she been, anyway?" said the woman, watching the sleeping toddler.

The man shrugged. "She fell asleep pretty quickly. She complained about being outside and not having a bed, but… Well, there's not much we can do about that. Trevor won't let us back, I already tried asking him. There's too many Gifted in the area, so he's scared we'll attract them to his place."

"So instead, he sends a little girl out to suffer in the cold," said the woman hotly. 571 shifted, biting her lip uneasily as they mentioned the Gifted and reminded her of what she was supposed to be doing – punishing rebels for being outside the villages. At the same time, a sudden gust of air burst through the treetops a short distance away. 571'as eyes widened as she realised what it meant – one of the other Gifted had found the camp.

"What was that?" the rebel woman whispered hurriedly, scrambling to her feet and quickly lifting the sleeping girl into her arms. The man stood up too and reached for his sword, holding it at the ready.

"Mummy…" the girl mumbled, burrowing further into the pile of coats while the woman shushed her, her eyebrows knotting anxiously.

"Caleb," she whispered, holding the toddler close to her body. "Can you see anyone?"

He didn't answer right away, his deep brown eyes surveying the woods before them carefully.

"No, but… You should go back," he said in a low voice, glancing back at her briefly. "Tell Alistair and Ingrid and the others to start packing."

Biting her lip, the blonde woman nodded and hurried off in the opposite direction, shushing the girl frantically as she started to cry. 571 glanced at the hilt of her sword, swallowing back the lump in her throat. Even though they were rebels, a part of her heart ached at the sight of the woman carrying her baby directly towards the danger, although she didn't know it. After all, 571 knew the signal could only mean one thing – the Gifted had already found their camp. She knew it was her duty to jump out of the bushes and attack the man directly – she had sat and watched him long enough. Now was the time to do her duty.

I have to do this. I'm Gifted, I… I have to prove to myself, once and for all, that I can do this. That I can live this life without any second thoughts. It's what I was born to do.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she started to draw her blade, ready to spring into action. Before she could however, she heard a familiar harsh clang of metal. Opening her eyes, she saw 3372, the Gift of Earth, fighting him. It was clear he was outmatched; the Gifted woman was far stronger and better trained, but the rebel was just managing to fend off her strikes. Biting her lip, 571 drew her sword properly and ran out to join her colleague.

"She went that way!" 3372 yelled as she kicked the rebel man in the stomach. He fell to the ground, winded. "There was a woman, before. Follow her! I'll take this one, easy!"

571 swallowed, wishing more than ever that she could be back in the Council in her room. Trying her best to tune out the rebel man's shouts, she turned around and ran through the forest after the blonde woman, jumping over tree roots and dodging around trunks expertly. She could do this. She could close off her mind to everything she was feeling and be the perfect Gifted citizen. It didn't matter how tired she was, or how much she wanted things to be different. Her destiny was clear, as it always had been.

By the time she reached the camp, it was already ablaze. About fifteen or so bodies were scattered throughout the smoking camp, all of them rebels. Five more rebels were still alive fighting the rest of her Gifted comrades. 571 could not see the blonde woman anywhere, a fact she felt strangely relieved about. One of the fighting rebels, another woman, was far more skilled than the rest of the rebels combined. She was fighting 712 and 6559 at the same time, dodging around their strikes with ease. She was strangely graceful with the way she moved her sword, circling around the two Gifted while her long brown hair rippled in the wind. Occasionally she would close in on them and make a quick jab with her blade, most of which they managed to dodge. One of her strikes made contact with 712's belly and he swore loudly as he stepped backwards, clutching at his wound while 6559 stepped forward and shielded him from the woman's next attack. 571 bit her lip, momentarily stumped as she watched the woman fight. There was no doubt in her mind that if her sword had been of good quality, she may very well have killed 712 rather than merely grazing his abdomen. The woman kicked 6559 directly in the stomach, sending him backwards with such force that he toppled directly into 712, sending them both crashing to the ground. Turning slowly, her eyes flashed when she saw 571 standing at the edge of the camp. Swallowing, the Gifted woman raised her sword, resigning herself to what was about to happen. She ran forward and swung her blade through the air, shooting a stream of flames from her other palm. The rebel woman ducked quickly to the side to avoid getting burnt, the tip of 571's sword slicing through the muscle of her lower left arm. She swore as blood oozed from the wound but it barely slowed her down. The rebel jabbed her sword towards 571, who only just managed to step backwards quickly enough to avoid getting stabbed through the stomach. Swallowing, she glanced behind herself and saw a young, dark haired man running towards her back. Whirling around, 571 reached out as he came close and grabbed his arm. Closing her eyes for a moment, she set his body on fire, keeping a tight grip on him as he screamed with pain. Tears welled behind her eyelids, both from the smoke and his terrible cries, she dropped his corpse as soon as she was sure he was dead and blocked another strike from the rebel woman, sweeping her foot beneath her legs so she toppled over. 571 gritted her teeth and pressed her boot into the woman's back, ready to stab her through the chest. To her surprise, the woman managed to manipulate her uninjured arm out from under herself and grabbed onto 571's ankle, flicking it sideways with surprising force. 571 staggered to the side, managing to keep herself upright but allowing the rebel woman to scramble to her feet. The dark-haired woman glared at 571, blood slowly dripping from the ends of her fingers. She raised her sword again, but before she could attack 712 sent a powerful stream of water her way, knocking her off her feet. She rolled over and sprang back up, water dripping from her hair as she turned her attention to him. 571 glanced around the camp. There was one rebel left fighting; a man who was faring a lot worse than his comrade. It wasn't long before the young Gift of Fire who 571 couldn't remember the number of finished him off. When the rebel was dead, the Gift of Fire turned and joined 712. The rest of the Gifted were nowhere to be seen – 571 realised they were most likely chasing after any escaped rebels. She turned around, deciding she should probably go and seek out survivors too, but she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw who was standing before her. The scarred man from earlier had returned to the camp. His sword and his shirt were splattered with blood – it clearly wasn't his, but even so, his hands shook so badly he was barely able to hang onto his sword. His dark brown eyes darted around the smoking camp, taking in all the bodies and debris. He stayed rooted to the spot, barely glancing at 571 even though she was an enemy standing only a few feet away.

The Gifted woman bit her lip as she watched him closely. She knew if she wanted to she could probably stride right over to him and kill him easily without a second thought. Given the state he was in, she highly doubted he'd put up much of a fight. Taking a deep breath and burrowing any doubt she felt deep down inside, 571 adjusted her grip on her sword and strode towards the rebel. She raised her left hand and sent a stream of flames in his direction, which he just managed to jump away from. Shaking his head slightly, the man sheathed his sword and set off, running through the trees. 571 swallowed and ran after him as he jumped over tree roots and changed direction constantly. He shouted a word she didn't recognise over and over again as he ran. 571 kept pace with him easily, her heart thudding under her chest. She had no idea what he was doing or why, but still, she knew she couldn't just let him go.

"Caleb!" she heard someone call from a distance, although she had no idea what the word meant. 571 stopped running when rebel man did, her shoulders heaving. The blonde woman ran towards him, still carrying the girl in her arms. The scarred man dropped his sword and hugged her tightly, kissing the toddler on her forehead. He glanced back at 571 and placed his hands on the woman's shoulders, muttering something she couldn't hear as they started to run. He didn't even remember to pick up his sword. 571 watched them go, hesitating.

They… They've learnt their lesson now, surely. I don't… I can let them go. Can't I? Most of their group had died back at the camp, after all. She highly doubted they'd think about joining another rebel group again after the destruction caused this time. She was still trying to decide what to do when she heard a set of heavy footsteps approaching her from behind. Thinking it was the dark-haired rebel woman again, she drew her sword quickly and turned around, relaxing when she saw 712 standing before her.

"Have you seen any more?" he said breathlessly, leaning over and wiping sweat from his forehead. 571 swallowed, glancing over her shoulder quickly. She was relieved to see the three rebels had slipped out of sight.

"I… I haven't seen anyone," she lied, folding her arms across her chest. "What about you? Did the woman…"

Her voice trailed off. 712 shook his head, his dark eyebrows narrowing slightly. "No, she got away," he said slowly, absentmindedly reaching for the wound she'd inflicted on his stomach. "But… There's seventeen dead, in total. And that's not even counting the ones who ran. Some of them must have been picked off too. Still, even if they al survived I'd call it a victory. They won't be troubling us again, I'm sure."

"Yeah," 571 muttered, avoiding his gaze. Rebels or not, the idea of so many young men and women losing their lives did not fill her with much joy. Her stomach twisted itself in knots at the shame of that feeling. "I – I'm sorry, I'm not… I should be –"

"It's alright," 712 interrupted. She looked up at him and was surprised to see he was staring back at her with an almost haunted look in his eyes. "It's – let's just find the others and go back. We've done our duty, haven't we? That's all we need to do."

571 nodded, shifting her feet slightly as she noted the resignation in his voice. It reminded her uncomfortably of herself. Shaking her head, she swallowed and pushed any doubts she had from her mind as they made their way back to the camp in silence. She tried so hard to think of their victory and what it meant for the Gifted, but instead she found herself thinking of the rebels she'd let go. Despite the shame it filled her with, she hoped with all her might they had gotten away. A part of her couldn't believe what she'd done – it was a small thing, sure, and the Gifted would likely never find out, but she'd gone against her duty. She knew why she had done it, of course – it was the girl, plain and simple.

She… I don't know why, but - she reminded me so much of… Well, of him.

Her eyes started to water, but she swallowed and wiped the tears away quickly before they'd had a chance to fall. This is ridiculous, but… I wish I'd at least gotten a chance to see him properly. She'd only caught a quick glimpse as the medical Servant took the child away. All she had seen was a small baby with a tuft of black hair wrapped tightly in a towel, their face screwed up as they wailed in the Servant's arms. In truth, she didn't even know if he really was a he. They hadn't told her the gender. It wasn't an important fact for her know.

He – or she – is a Servant now. He was always a Servant. He was never mine.

Swallowing hard, she clenched her fingers tightly into fists and forced herself to look straight ahead. Right then and there, she vowed to herself that she would never make such a mistake again. The Head Councilman was right, after all – her actions showed her poor judgment and self control. She would push any doubts she had far away and do her duty, no matter what it meant. If she couldn't do that, then she was nothing. It was a difficult truth, but one she had to live with.