In the violent country of Ludania, the language you speak determines what class you are, and there are harsh punishments if you forget your place—looking a member of a higher class in the eye can result in immediate execution.
Seventeen-year-old Charlaina (Charlie for short) can understand all languages, a dangerous ability she's been hiding her whole life. Her only place of release is the drug-filled underground club scene, where people go to shake off the oppressive rules of the world they live in. There, she meets a beautiful and mysterious boy who speaks a language she's never heard, and her secret is almost exposed. Through a series of violent upheavals, it becomes clear that Charlie herself is the key to forcing out the oppressive power structure of her kingdom.
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Queen Sabara drew the wool throw over her lap and smoothed it with her crooked fingers. She was too old for the chill, her skin too thin now—nearly paperlike—and her lean flesh clung to her tired bones.
Two servant girls entered the room, crouching low and speaking quietly to each other so as not to startle her where she sat.
It was ridiculous, she thought. She was aged, not skittish.
One of them—the newer of the two—foolishly reached for the switch on the wall that would turn on the electric lights overhead. The other girl stopped her just in time, clamping her fingers around the girl’s wrist before she could make that mistake. Clearly, she hadn’t been there long enough to know that her queen detested the glare of an electric bulb, that she much preferred candlelight.
Sabara watched the pair cautiously—her eyes sharp as ever—as they added more wood to the hearth and stoked the flames. After a moment, she turned to gaze through the wall of windows overlooking the verdant lawns of her estate.
She had much to think about and her heart was heavy, bearing the burden of a country in turmoil . . . her country. She couldn’t help wondering what would become of her throne if the rebel forces were not soon stopped. Already they were doing too much damage, and her body ached in sympathy from the injuries they’d done to her lands, and to her subjects.
She wondered how much more an old woman could bear.
But she once again reminded herself that she had no choice. If there had been another to take her place, she would gladly have stepped aside. The bitter truth was, there was no one.
This body had failed her, and she cursed it for providing her with just one heir, and a son at that. One lowly male child.
Then she silently cursed her only son, whose seed was more plentiful than her own, yet not one of them female.
Fools, all of them. Weak and lacking the skills required to rule a country . . . unable to provide her with what she needed.
If only the whispers from the past could be proved true. If only she could find the One, a survivor to the old throne, the lost heir who could succeed her. But even if such a girl did exist, the queen would have to find her first. Before her enemies could get to her.
Until then, or until another suitable child was born, she must remain in power. She must stay alive.
She scrutinized the servants as they went about their work, never casting a single glance in their queen’s direction. They understood their place in this world. When her chief adviser crashed through the doors, he barely drew their attention.
Sabara watched as he rushed forward and bowed low before her, waiting impatiently until she gave him permission to rise again.
She stared at the top of his head, drawing out the time longer than was necessary, knowing that it made him uncomfortable, knowing that age made his back ache.
Finally she cleared her throat. “What is it, Baxter?” she intoned, giving him the signal to stand upright at last.
He cast a suspicious glance toward the servants in the room, and two pairs of eyes stared back at him. But the moment his words slipped into the cadence of the Royal language, both sets of eyes shot downward, anchoring to the floor beneath their feet.
“General Arnoff has gathered his troops along the eastern border. If Queen Elena insists on siding with the rebels, then she’ll have a fight on her hands. And blood on her conscience.” He paused, just long enough to take a steadying breath, before continuing. “But I fear we have a bigger problem.”
Anger simmered below the queen’s cool exterior. She shouldn’t be dealing with such matters. She shouldn’t be listening to war reports, or deciding which troops to sacrifice next, or wondering how long until the rebel factions would have her palace under siege. These should be the problems of a new ruler, not a decrepit old woman.
She watched the girl servant—the new one—and she willed the girl to raise her eyes, daring her to break not only etiquette, but law, by casting her gaze upward in the presence of a language above her own.
The girl had been in the queen’s service for only a couple of weeks, but that was long enough to be noticed, and long enough to understand that her queen was not a forgiving one. She knew better than to look up at this moment, and she kept her eyes focused on her feet.
“Well, what is it? Say what you’ve come to say,” Sabara insisted, knowing he wouldn’t have disturbed her if he didn’t have news. Her eyes remained trained on the girl.
“Your Majesty,” Baxter groveled, bobbing his head respectfully. He was unaware that he did not have his queen’s full attention. “The rebellion grows stronger. We believe their numbers have doubled, possibly tripled. Last night they took out the train tracks between 3South and 5North. It was the last remaining trade line between the north and south, which means that even more villagers will be moving into the cities seeking food and supplies. It’ll take weeks to—”
Before Baxter could finish his sentence, Sabara was on her feet atop the dais, staring down at him. “These rebels are simple outcasts! Peasants! Are you telling me that an army of soldiers is incapable of shutting them down?”
And it was at that moment that the servant girl made her fatal error. Her head moved, only millimeters. The shift was barely perceptible, but her eyes . . .
. . . her eyes glanced upward in the presence of the queen’s words. Words she was unable to comprehend, and forbidden to acknowledge.
And the queen had been watching her.
Sabara’s lips tightened into a hard line, her breath becoming erratic. She quivered with excitement that she could barely contain. She’d been waiting for it.
Baxter must have realized something was happening, for he remained where he was, frozen in time as he watched his queen lift her hand slowly, regally, into the air, signaling for the guards who stood beside the door.
The girl appeared too stunned to do anything but stare, like an animal caught in the sights of a hunter. Sabara had her cornered.
She thought about dealing with the girl herself, and her fingertips tingled in anticipation as her hand began to curl into its telltale fist. Were she a younger woman—stronger—it would have been effortless, a simple clenching of her fingers. The girl would be dead in seconds.
But as it was, she knew she couldn’t afford the energy it would cost her, so instead she uncurled her hand and made a quick, flicking gesture toward the condemned serving girl instead. “Send her to the gallows,” she commanded, switching to Englaise so that everyone in the room could understand. Her shoulders were stiff, her head high.
The guards strode toward the girl, who didn’t bother to fight them, or even to beg for mercy. She understood her breach. She knew the penalty.
The queen watched as the men escorted the girl from the room. It was the most alive she’d felt in ages.
She’d just discovered a new sport.
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to The Pledge By Kimberly Derting About the book Seventeen-year-old Charlaina, “Charlie,” lives in Ludania, a country ruled by a cruel monarch and strictly stratified by a caste system divided by language. The smallest transgression results in immediate death. But Charlie has lived her life with a secret so dangerous that if anyone ever found out, she’d be killed. Charlie can instinctively understand the languages of every caste, including the strange new language spoken by Max, a beautiful and mysterious boy whom Charlie meets one night at an underground club. Though Charlie is intensely drawn to Max, she isn’t sure where his loyalties lie. As the violent clashes between the totalitarian monarchy and the rebel forces escalate, it becomes clear that Charlie is the key to something much bigger—her country’s only chance for freedom from the terrible power of a deadly regime. Common Core Curriculum Standards: Reading Standards for Literature Key Ideas and Details RL 1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. RL 2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. RL 3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text. Craft and Structure RL 5. Analyze the structure of a text, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole. RL 6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text. Speaking and Listening Comprehension and Collaboration SL 1. Prepare for and participate in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. Note: these are the anchor standards for reading and speaking and listening. You may want to visit the Common Core Standards website (www.corestandards.org) to locate the specific standard for your grade-level equivalent. Prereading Questions 1. If you were to make a pledge to protect someone or something above everyone and everything else, who or what would you choose? Why? 2. How does loyalty develop between friends and family? 3. How is loyalty instilled in the citizens of a country? Discussion Questions 1. Describe Charlaina’s world—her friends, school, and work. How does it compare to your own? What are the similarities? The differences? What are the most compelling aspects of Charlaina’s world? 2. Charlie’s two best friends seem to compete for her attention. Find an example from this in the text. Is this always the case with three friends, or is it a gender issue? Who do you think has Charlie’s best interests in mind—Aron or Brooklyn? Why? 3. If you had to choose three words to describe Queen Sabara, what would they be? How is her cruelty revealed to the reader? Do you think all people with power are corrupted by it or not? Explain. 4. Explain how one slip of her secret, one mistake, could ruin or even end Charlie’s life. How is language a source of power and control in the realm? What is the penalty for ignoring the rules? 5. Charlie’s gift often seems like a curse. Why? Do you wish you had a special talent, such as having the ability to read people’s minds? How do you think it would change your relationships? Do you think Charlie would give away her gift if she could? 6. What has Charlie’s father done to protect his daughters? Why is the family especially protective of their youngest daughter, Angelina? What type of life is she expected to have in Ludania? Why? 7. Describe the clubs that Brooklyn and Charlie visit. Would you be willing to go with the added risk of the hand stamp or not? How does Brooklyn act at these places? 8. Compare the male characters in the novel—Aron, Max, and Xander. Which one is your favorite? Can you relate to any of them? Explain. What qualities make a great male lead character and possible love interest? 9. Despite the fact that it’s against the law, Max speaks to Charlie in a language that she shouldn’t understand. Why? How do you know when you can trust someone with your secrets? How about with your heart? 10. How did the caste system develop in Ludania? Do you think there is any type of caste or class system in our own society? Why do you think castes exist at all in human societies? Even without a formal system, people like to put themselves above or at least compare themselves to others. Why do you think that is? 11. What pledge did Max make to Charlie? How is it tested the night of the “rallie”? Would you have helped Sydney or not? Why? 12. When the bombing starts, Charlie has one goal, and only one person to save. Who would you most want to protect in the world? Who would most want to protect you? 13. What does Charlie finally realize about the true identity of Max? What clues did she miss along the way? Does this make him more or less desirable to her? Why? What about to you? 14. What is Xander’s true role? Why does Charlie doubt him? Would you doubt or believe him? What are the important facts that Charlie learns about the resistance? 15. How does the Queen treat those she wants information from? What are her powers and limitations? Who did the author make you believe was the Queen’s captive at first? Who was it really? How did this add suspense to the story? 16. Who is the most surprising soldier of the resistance? Have you ever been surprised by a friend, similar to how Brooklyn shocked Charlie? Why didn’t they share their secrets? How did Brooklyn get involved in the resistance? Why didn’t she trust her own father? Is there anyone you should trust, but you don’t? 17. What clues are revealed of Charlie’s and Angelina’s birthrights? What does Charlie find and how is she able to interpret its meaning? What artifacts are important in your family? In other words, what would you save first in a fire? 18. What must Charlie know about the Queen in order to protect herself? Who do you have to protect yourself from? How do you do it? 19. Describe Max and Xander’s attempt to save Charlie. How does it backfire? Can you imagine learning that you are a royal? How would it shift everything you knew or believed? 20. How does the Queen manipulate Charlie into accepting her essence? In the end, what happens? Were you surprised? What makes a compelling ending to a story? What do you think will happen next between these characters and in the country of Ludania? Activities Art Create a movie poster or collage that will inspire others to read the book. Use a large format, bold fonts, color, and an interesting design to entice the readers. Music Create a playlist for the soundtrack of the movie. Choose which scenes you’d add music to and then decide on the music itself. In at least one sentence, explain why you chose each piece of music. History Research the caste systems in various parts of the world. How did they develop? Do they still exist today? What are the rules of the system and what happens to people who break the written and unwritten rules of their caste? Writing Write a brand-new scene that was not included in the novel between two characters, or rewrite a scene that did occur. What would you change? You could also write a journal entry as if you were one of the characters in the book and explain an event through their point of view. About the Author Kimberly Derting is the author of The Pledge and its sequel, The Essence. She has also written several other teen novels, including The Body Finder series. She lives in Western Washington with her husband and three children. Visit her online at www.kimberlyderting.com. Guide written by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, author and English teacher. This guide, written to align with the Common Core State Standards (www.corestandards.org) has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.