Winter, the year of Emperor Seren.

"Good luck, have a safe trip, Grandfather." I smile and hug my grandfather.

"I will. I wish you could come with me, Lady." He hugs me tightly then pulls away.

He has a long, white beard, nearly touches the ground, and his hair is just as long. His light blue eyes are surrounded by his hooded lids and wrinkles. His back curves forward, slightly, and he looks thin but he is the strongest man I know, and the wisest. Which is why he is our Voice.

"I know. But mama needs me. If I'm not here with her..." I shake my head a bit, my light blonde hair swishing.

"I know. Your mother is frail. And too ill to travel now." He sighs, his blue eyes saddening, falling into the despair of the knowledge my mother won't be around much longer.

"It'll be fine. She'll still be here when you get back." I smile, taking his hands into mine, and squeeze them a bit.

"I hope she will be." He tries to smile, but it doesn't reach his eyes.

"Good luck, grandfather." I let go of his hands and step away.

He nods then turns to the hover carriage. He slowly climbs in then he closes the door. I watch as the carriage lights up then it takes off at an extreme speed. Rarely are hover carriages slow, if you want slow you have to ride in an old carriage. One with wheels and uses horse power. I watch as the carriage disappears then I turn around and walk away from the town center.

I shiver a bit when a snow flake touches my nose. I rub my hands together and continue walking through the snow. No one else wanted to come out to say good-bye and good luck to our Voice today. It's nearly record temperatures, if my temperature controlled jacket had never been made I would be freezing. I'm still chilled, but it's not as cold as it would be otherwise.

I hurry a bit, wanting to get home before the blizzard starts. I turn down the paved street, pass the bakery, closed due to cold weather. The street lights are still lit. Dawn has barely broken through the sky, but this is my favorite time of day. No matter what the temperature.

I look around our winter wonderland as I pass by it. There is snow in the other counties as well, but here is the most real snow you will ever find in Xen. Well, not 'most real', the real snow. Whit has a special machine that generates a plastic like snow, so they have it no matter what time of year, Cern doesn't usually get snow, and... well... Goms is too much of a heated place due to the machines to get snow. I like it here best this time of year, even if it is freezing.

"Mama, I'm home." I call into the house. I close the wooden door behind me.

Our house, unlike others, is made of wood. We have a heating system and plenty of electronic items, but we do not have a completely modern cube house like several others. There are still plenty like ours though. And we love the ones who have cube houses, here in End. But the ones in Whit can be fairly stuck up about it. Those in Cern even more so.

"Darling... hot..." I hear my mother whimper from the couch in the living room.

"Lemon and honey tea with a sprinkle of caramel flavor." I know her favorite tea. And I know exactly how she wants it.

"Thank you." I can see her weakening smile in my mind's eye.

I take my jacket off and hang it up. I pull off my boots and set them aside, neatly. Walking from the main hall to the kitchen I pass by a hologram of my father and mother. The day after their wedding in Taidas, when they were the happiest people in the world. I had that picture turned into a hologram the second it was possible.

I start heating the tea, a special electric tea kettle that heats up water fast. I pull out the honey and caramel from the cupboard then I pull out a bag of lemons from the fridge. I close the doors and take a bay leaf from the leaf jar. When the water is heated I pull out mom's rose teacup and I pour the water in. I cut the leaf into four long almost-rectangles then toss it into the water. It dissolves and turns the water a bit of a murky-green color. I add a table-spoon of honey, a few flakes of caramel, which is difficult to achieve, then finally I squeeze a full lemon into the cup.

I stir it five times, exactly, counter-clockwise, then I bring it into the living room. My mother is sprawled on the couch, the television projector showing a documentary about rainbows and how scientists are trying to create real-artificial rainbows for everyone to see any time they want. Mother is 'tsk'ing them. She is happy for the advances in our technological world, but she doesn't like everything that comes out of these advances.

"Here you go, mama." I kneel down and set the cup aside on the coffee table. I help her sit up a bit then I hand her the cup.

"Can you believe that? And how could it be 'real' when it is artificial? I don't understand." She shakes her head and takes a sip of the tea, smiling and instantly calming down. A little bit of color returns to her pale cheeks.

"I grew up in this world and even I don't understand it." I giggle a bit and sit back, leaning against the dark green couch.

"These people... honestly."

My mother says that, but she let father do anything he wanted to. She let him skydive, she let him do tightrope walking, she even let him feed a shark. But, of course, she would always be against it initially. He would convince her with some of her favorite treats and promises that he would come back without a scratch. His ears were waterlogged but otherwise he kept his promise.

I turn my head up and I look at her, so different now than when father was alive.

Her hair was once a dark brown with beautiful shades of gold weaved between each strand. Now it's just dark brown with a lot of random gray patches. She loves having it long, it reaches her waist now. Her eyes were such a gorgeous color of blue, still are, but they were shining with happiness and love when my father was alive. It lasted a few years after his death and while they still have those elements it has dimmed quite a lot. Now it's mostly irritation with the world and extreme exhaustion should she so much as go up a stair. And her skin... it was so lovely before, when it was tanned. But she barely gets outside now, especially since it's winter, so she's extremely... sickly pale.

"Mama. Are you well enough to tell me the story of when you fell in love with Dad, again?" I smile at her. Not only is it my favorite story to hear, it's her favorite to tell.

"I think so." My mother hums, thinking, then coughs. "I hope so." She chuckles a bit then coughs roughly. My heart leaps and my brown eyes widen with fear. "I'm fine dear. Let me think where to start."

I watch her sip her tea while she thinks. That's always tricky. There are so many places she could begin, but she usually picks the moments right before she met my father. Those are my favorite moments. I've longed for a romance like theirs my entire life. I don't get out much, though, so it's nearly impossible.

"All right. I was walking back home with the linens my mother, your grandmother, wanted me to bring back from the dry cleaning. It was the winter of Emperor Cailin and it was a lovely winter day. As you know the Emperor sought me out a few months before I met your father and asked my hand in marriage. I told him I had to think about it, even though my mother urged me every second of every day to take him up on his offer of marriage." She giggles, a hint of color returning to her white face, "Of course that made me want to say 'no' more. I was a bit of a rebel. Cailin was... is a sweet man but I just couldn't see a future with him. Not like when I bumped into a bumbling man in the street. He sent the linens flying everywhere. Oh the mess he made of those sheets!

"Oh, when I first saw him after the linens went flying... I was glaring and furious with whoever bumped into me. My anger almost melted away the moment I laid eyes on your father. You see, he was such a handsome man. His deep brown eyes nearly sucked me in right then and there. And his curly hair made him look wild..." Her thin lips turn up in a dreamy smile, her blue eyes far away, returning to that moment in her memories, "Of course I scolded him. I was tempted to hit him too but I held back. He just apologized and groveled and said something about machines. Oh he was a mad man but he was just... dreamy and oddly charming. He helped me gather the linens and while picking up the last one our hands touched and our eyes met... You only hear about such things in books or movies but it was magical. These moments are real and that moment was just... amazing."

I lift my hand up and I close it around her frail, thin hand. I smile at her, she's practically glowing with inner happiness. That moment is her favorite. It's above even their first kiss and the day they married. I wish I could see what she sees when she remembers. I wish father had created something that could do that for me. My mother yawns so I take the cup away from her and set it down.

"Why don't you sleep? I'm sure you could use the time to dream to reenact that moment." I cover her with the blanket more and I turn down the volume on the screen. I turn back to say something else but she's already asleep. I clean up the living room a bit and put the tea away in the fridge to be drunk later.

I walk up the stairs to my room. There's another hologram picture of the current Emperor. That will be changed in a few more weeks. All of them get changed automatically. He's an old man but he does this job well. This is his third time as Emperor too. It doesn't happen often that an Emperor is chosen more than once to rule over Xen.

Next year his son will be Emperor. The year after it will be his son's cousin. As it has been for hundreds of years, we name our years after the current Emperor. Our Emperors reign one year then their chosen heirs become the next ruler of Xen. The only restriction... the child must be ten years old to become the Emperor. And he cannot be just turning ten that year.

I push open my door and I walk over to my desk. I sit down in my chair and I stare up at the map of Xen. My father brought it home a few days before his murder, it was in storage since it's a family heirloom. It's been my favorite map ever since. The country has changed, but not as much as I would think it would have in so many years.

Xen is split up into four counties.

The first, colored gold on maps, is where the Emperor lives, Whit. Whit is filled with aristocrats, of those with immense wealth. The houses are larger there than in any other district. There are no beggars, no homeless, no trash of any sort in the streets. It is a absolutely perfect place for those with wealth to live.

The second, colored blue on maps, is an upper-middle class, Cern. They have wealth, their houses are fairly large, and there are still no beggars or homeless. But that is because the homeless are kicked out of the county before they can contaminate the entire area. They are false aristocrats. They pretend to be better than everyone but grovel should they meet with the Emperor.

The third, colored a yellow color on maps, is working class, Goms. There is often a smog covering the area. Almost everyone here is ill. They work day and night, rarely do any of the people have a day off. Those born here either die from the deep smog covering the city or they become immune. More and more are becoming immune to the toxic smog, which those in Cern and Whit consider to be the best thing for them. But is it really?

Finally there is End. A brown area with no names of towns on any map I have ever seen. The other three counties consider this to be a waste land. Filled with disease and death. In truth this is likely to be one of the most healthiest counties, aside from, perhaps, Whit. It is not a waste land either. It is filled with nature, unlike the other three.

I have lived here my entire life. I have been ill three times. This is not the place the Emperor thinks it is. Nor what the aristocrats think. They have been vying to get the Emperor to demolish the trees. To turn Xen into only three counties. They don't trust us because we have our own way of living.

We live off of nature, most of the time. We have the same technologies that everyone else has, we just choose to use them sparingly. I have been to Whit once, when I was seven. My mother took me through a park they had and I was astonished that they didn't have a single real tree in the park. The flowers in the garden were fake as well. I couldn't comprehend how they could live without real trees and flowers. My mother tried to explain it to me.

'Lady, this is how they live. They breathe false air. They smell manufactured scents. This is how they live. And one day it will be their downfall. But for now smile at the false trees, be happy that they know what a tree is.' She smiled at me gently and continued walking with me to the doctor's office.

That world... and the one I live in... they are vastly different from each other. They rely on technology. We rely on nature. They rely on their wealth and status. We rely on each other. How can a country have such vastly different counties? I asked my mother that once. She didn't have an answer. She simply said 'it is the way things are.

The day before the Emperor must step down is the day of final choices. All should go extremely well since my grandfather is our Voice. We should have End for another year. I don't enjoy thinking that we will have only one more year as a county. Every year for four years it has been that way. I hope our Voice will change it this year, and the next.

I open my journal and write what has happened so far today, how my mother is feeling. Every day I write in this leather-bound journal, I have been ever since I learned to write. Of course that means there are many pages filled with scribbles I once called writing. All the other girls write on tablets with passwords but I don't care if someone reads this. If anything should happen to me someone needs to be able to take care of my mother. This is the only way they'll know how.

I barely remember when my mother was perfectly healthy. Then an alien virus infiltrated her system and the doctors have been unable cure her. They don't know what the virus is but it's making tumors and killing off her white blood cells. They all agree it's a miracle she's still alive. They have given her just about everything they can. They've tried figuring out what the virus is, but all the blood samples they have taken show there's nothing wrong with her. The doctors finally agreed that it was a thinking, solitary virus that doesn't multiply or leave a trace of where it's been.

They looked in all of her tumors, though they couldn't remove all of them, and there was no distinct cause. No other person has this virus. They have sent messages all over the world asking about it. No doctors anywhere could help. Doctor Wilhelm is doing extensive research for us. He has been since we first met him. He wants to be the first to cure it. He promised he would find the cure, but we have little hope now.

I jump, hearing the doorbell ring. I look at the digital clock sitting on my desk. When did it become ten o'clock? I stand up and quickly head down the stairs. I get lost in my head so easily. I rummage through my brain, trying to remember if we are expecting company today. But I can't think of anyone besides grandfather that would come here. I hesitate when I reach the front door. I'm not sure why but I have a bad feeling.

"Good morning." I open the door slowly and I look at the person, an officer.

"Good morning-... I... I'm sorry." He shakes his head, apparently he's not supposed to say 'good morning'. "I'm sorry, miss, but are you related to Decoy Yelsi?"

"Yes. He is the Voice, he is my grandfather." I open the door more, my heart sinking but I can't place why.

"Halfway to Cern his hover carriage exploded." I inhale sharply and cry out. My hand flies to my mouth and tears fill my eyes. "I'm afraid it came from inside the craft. We are searching for someone who could have done it. I'm sorry for your loss." The officer is trying to be gentle as he tells me the awful news.

My heart falls into my stomach, breaking into a million shards. Like a rippling effect my body was stiff, relaxed, then numb. My nerves are on end, both numb yet active. My heart stopped, my breath held. My mind tries to find the emotion felt. Depression, anger, regret, distress. When I come to with an emotion, I fell my heart freeze, in the million pieces. I feel heartbroken, and I feel I can never heal.