I don't remember parents. I just remember the clumps of children bundled together on the street, huddling under shelters and blankets and shivering next to each-other in the dark. We did that for years, wandering aimlessly on the streets - everyone forgotten, together. Then one of the older ones said it made sense to hide in a blown-up building, that they wouldn't bomb something they'd already blown to bits.
Until they did, for good measure, and when they dug us up from the rubble I remember closing my eyes because someone had taught me to play dead. I'd wished I was.
We weren't child soldiers. Not at first. The war was albeit over by the time the Circle came. Found what was left of us in the rubble, feeding us bowls of hot porridge and clearing our plates, then placing a knife in front of each of us and asking a single favour in return.
"Pick up the knife, children."
I didn't hesitate. The ones that did I never saw again.
The Stroms wanted all the little girls, the Cottonmouth's the ones with intellect, the Copperheads the most feral. I just wanted a house, and perhaps a bed with a blanket. Instead they gave me a place with the Montague's after four strangers bickered and insisted, playing with us like trading cards and bargaining chips.
There I was, eleven years old and blinking up at four adults I'd never seen before, still with a knife in my hand. At one point the Montague leader who I would later call Boss caught me looking at myself in the reflection of the blade and paused the conversation.
"What are you doing child?" Boss asked.
I looked up and shrugged. "Didn't know what I looked like 'til today."
He smiled, amused. "And what's your name?"
"Terra," I replied, southern drawl dripping from my words. It's the only thing I knew was absolutely correct in this world.
And with a laugh he turned to the Circle and said "Little Terror's coming with me."
Terror was my nickname. Nobody was allowed to call me by my real name - I didn't mind as much, because they sounded so similar. Terra, Terror, it was easy enough to adopt a new persona, a new name, a new life, when you barely had any of it to begin with.
For five years they trained us to be ruthless and polite, hostile and graceful. To say "Sir" and "Ma'am" and how to poison Peacekeepers in the night. How to communicate with nothing but a whistle or a tap of my foot. How to fight with my weak hand when they broke my right. I came to them barely able to spell my own name and at the end of it all we were reading forbidden scripts kept buried underneath floorboards every night before bed.
On the outside, we were the scrappy little orphans some of Ten's richest families had taken pity on. On the inside, we were scrappy, and we were orphans, but the Circle did anything but show us pity.
We would compete, all desperate to be the best, to earn the best rewards that the house of Montague would have to offer - and then we would face the children of Copperhead, Cottonmouth, Stroms. Then the tests came, that same old knife at my side the entire time. I'd wipe off the blood of chickens, pigs, lambs. Cottonmouth kids, Stroms kids, Copperhead kids. Eventually, the blood of crooked men. Then I'd look at myself in the reflection of my smeared blade, long and hard like I had at eight years old.
The girl in the blade smiled.
I never smiled back.
Not until they called my name across the District square.