Chapter 23: For all of Gabriel Fisher’s children are damned
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Alex had the decency to leave me to my thoughts for a while. Then he had the indecency not to come back to answer the few zillion questions I still had for him. Instead, Regina came back. It turned out she had left Quasopon at one point and had some training as a nurse before returning to the Children, which is why she was attending me. I wasn’t really eager to talk with her, she being Elsie’s rival for Alex’s affection after all. Far from being abashed about this, Regina set out to win my favor by telling me funny stories about herself and Elsie. I gradually warmed up to her, particularly after a story about a kitchen disaster she and Elsie had perpetrated together.
Otherwise I dozed and slept. I woke up late in the evening to find Jezebel sitting beside me reading. She hadn’t been told I was here, but had figured it out anyhow, and had come barging in to see if I was all right. To make up for the fuss she caused, she offered to take over watching me and gave Regina a chance to sleep.
Jezebel and I chatted a bit. We were talking about indifferent things, and then Jezebel asked me if I’d accept her apology for what she said to me after the whipping the other day. As she explained it, she’d just been so angry, having been whipped publicly once herself. She hadn’t realized at the time what a hypocrite she must have sounded like to criticize me for attending when she was there herself. I accepted the apology and told her to let the matter go.
So we were doing just fine, and then she asked me what had happened to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell her; I was afraid she might take it as encouragement to go meddling with Sacred Mountain. So I hesitated, Jezebel saw it, and tried to hide the disappointment writ large upon her face. There was something about the look on her face that made it hard for me to deny her. And I remembered what Alex said about treating her like a very intelligent adult for her own good. So I told her about what had happened on Sacred Mountain both times (so far as I could remember). Which meant I had to explain the secret paths. I might as well have tossed a match onto gasoline. Jezebel had to try the secret paths, had to see Sacred Mountain. It ended up that I had to promise to take her there before I left Quasopon, but only on the condition that Alex approved. Jezebel told me that would be no problem, she could talk Alex into anything. I couldn’t help but smile at her brash confidence. I wish I had that.
Come morning, I was feeling fine. Regina gave me a once over and declared me good to go. I got dressed and prepared to hunt down Alex to get some answers about Sacred Mountain. But I was forestalled. My half-sister Stacia showed up with an urgent summons from Sonia to come back to Milltown. There had been a riot, and Sonia had been badly injured.
Regina insisted on joining us, saying Sonia might need her nursing skills. So it was three of us who headed to Milltown. As we walked, Stacia explained what had happened while I had been recovering in Lakeview.
Sonia had heard that Tanya’s parents had ordered her back to West Village. She decided to go see the Thompsons yesterday to find out what was going on. To her surprise, they accused me of corrupting their daughter, citing Tanya’s attendance at Alex Bancroft’s festival orgy a few nights before as proof. Her parents absolutely refused to let her come back to work for me. And then, having blamed me for Tanya’s actions, they turned around and screamed at Sonia for being responsible. According to Stacia, Sonia was completely taken aback by this. The Thompsons were usually so mild and restrained, and yet they were all worked up and making wild accusations.
Sonia gave up trying to reason with the Thompsons and left their residence, but the Thompsons pursued her, calling her all sorts of names. Among other things, they called her one of those “damned Priests.” A crowd formed, and the next thing Sonia knew, they turned into a mob. They manhandled her, tied her to a fence post near the center of the village, tore her clothes off, and began beating her with their fists and with sticks. Someone from the Watch got out a whip, and the crowd cheered as Sonia was whipped repeatedly.
The mob’s mood turned even uglier. The cry went up to get the rest of the “Priests” and to kill them. So the mob spread out, hunting down the other three of my half-siblings. They found Gail, dragged her to join Sonia, stripped her down, and started whipping her, too. Ben apparently fought back and was clobbered in the head, because Sonia saw them dragging his body into the street, blood pouring from his scalp. Stacia managed to escape her pursuers, and ran to Center Village to raise the Watch Committee there.
No one among the Children normally disobeys the Watch on those rare occasions when it is called out. So the Center Village Watch Committee wasn’t expecting the wholesale defiance they confronted in West Village. They had to wage a pitched battle with the mob to rescue my half-siblings. It went badly for the Watch, for they were outnumbered by a mob on its own turf. Even so, they managed to cut my half-siblings free, only to find themselves surrounded and in danger of being overwhelmed.
And then to the Watch’s surprise, the mob fell back in confusion. Stacia had not stopped at Center Village, but had gone on to raise the Watch in North Village, and they had come on the run. They took the mob from behind and temporarily scattered it. The two Watches joined forces. They decided that rescuing my half-siblings took precedence over dissolving the mob, which they weren’t certain they could do. They began a retreat to Center Village. The mob had reassembled, so the retreat turned into a running battle between the mob and the Watches before the mob finally broke off in the fields between West and Center Village.
Ben and Gail had been beaten unconscious. They were sent out of the Children’s lands to the nearest hospital. Hardly a member of either Watch had escaped injury, and several of them were also sent out to the hospital. Although she had been attacked first, Sonia had never lost consciousness. She absolutely refused to be sent to a hospital, and nobody dared overrule her. So instead she was at home in Milltown, recovering from her extensive injuries. The High Council had met in emergency session last night. Rumor had it that they had suspended the West Village council and Watch Committee, but that both were proving obdurate and refused to disband.
I had never been to Sonia’s residence. It turned out to be in a large dwelling that served as a residence hall for teenagers. Sonia was just one of the six adults who ran it. She looked dreadful. Almost every inch of her flesh that was visible was bruised. Most of the rest was covered by bandages, including one place on her face where she had been cut by a knife. She had suffered three broken fingers on her left hand, and her left leg was in a cast. And those were just her visible injuries. A young girl was tending to her, but Regina immediately took charge and began examining Sonia herself, issuing instructions to the girl when she could, and to Sonia when she had to.
Sitting with her in the living room was Hilda Strong, who had arrived not long before we did. Her domineering presence was reassuring; we knew the High Council was taking this matter seriously, if Hilda was representing them to us. She let us get settled before starting on business. “I little expected when we spoke the other day, Emily, that I would be meeting you again under these circumstances. In fact, it is because of you that I am here, not because of what happened in West Village yesterday.”
I suppose I should have replied, but I was taken aback. What could I have done more that was more serious than a riot? It was Sonia who rasped out, “Explain, Hilda.”
Hilda nodded to Sonia. “Last night, the High Council convened to consider what measures to take in light of the violence in West Village, as they should have. We had barely started when Harold Lewis, a member of the High Council from West Village, Emily, got up and said that you were the problem, not West Village. He accused you of corrupting the Thompson girl. He also accused you of bringing a demon onto the Children’s lands, by which he meant your sister Elsie Fisher. Finally, he accused you of being a demonolater yourself. Somehow he had gotten into the old Council records about your expulsion, even though they are supposed to be sealed. Not only did he cite them as evidence that you were a demonolater, he also claimed that you are here illegally, because the Council never voted to reopen your family’s case.”
Sonia interjected with a croak, “Harold Lewis is a fool.”
Hilda favored Sonia was an unfavorable glance. “That is not for you to say, Sonia, though,” and here she shook her head and lowered her voice, “privately I agree.” She returned to speaking normally. “In fact, the legality of Emily’s presence here is very tangled. I moved to table the matter while we discussed the West Village situation. To my surprise, I lost the vote, 6-3, with Angus abstaining as usual when his vote isn’t needed. In fact, I lost almost every vote we took that evening. The Council has decided to put you on trial, Emily, on the charges of corrupting the morals of our youth and being a demonolater. They considered this so important that they put off every other measure, save suspending the West Village Watch Committee for dereliction of duty.”
After giving us a moment to assimilate all that, Hilda continued. “I don’t know how well you know our procedures, Emily, but when the High Council sits as a tribunal, there must be a Prosecutor and a Defender. The higher the prestige of the person selected, the better. Harold Lewis is going to conduct the prosecution himself. I took on the responsibility of finding a Defender for you, Emily. You have been wronged once by the High Council; it will not happen again if there is anything I can do about it. I would willingly take on the duties of Defender myself, but that means I could not vote on the decision, and we need every vote if we are to stand any chance of stopping this. Finding you a Defender has proven unexpectedly difficult. I am extremely disappointed in some people.”
I winced upon hearing that. I remembered Hilda well from my childhood. When Hilda says she’s disappointed in someone, she is not just expressing her feelings. No, she’s saying that she means to do something about it that will make that person long regret disappointing her.
Hilda continued. “At this point, the most prestigious person who might serve would be Alex Bancroft, but to select him under these political circumstances would be fatal to your case. So that leads me to ask if you will take on the responsibility, Stacia. You have never held an official position, it is true, but you are known and respected by many.”
Stacia had lapsed into her dreamy look as soon as we settled down, but she now snapped out of it. She looked at me, at Hilda, and then at Sonia. The two sisters stared at each other for some time, as if communicating telepathically. Then Stacia got a smile on her face. She turned to Hilda. “I must decline, Hilda. There is one person whose name you have deliberately not mentioned who has considerably more prestige and can do a much better job than I can.” Stacia looked back at Sonia.
Hilda understood. She shook her head. “No, no. Sonia’s too badly injured. And you don’t understand, Stacia,” a comment that drew a frown from Stacia, and from Sonia, too, “but this may well be a losing battle, dreadful though that is to contemplate. I don’t fully understand why, but I fear we have a majority on the High Council who will vote against Emily no matter what is said. I would spare Sonia such a futile task in her condition.”
Sonia spoke up, making an effort to speak clearly. “Hilda, I will be Emily’s Defender. Stacia will explain why.”
Stacia took her cue from her sister. “Don’t you see, Hilda? They attacked Sonia first because they are afraid of her. If Sonia appears as Emily’s Defender, it will demoralize her enemies, and might swing a Council vote.”
Hilda shook her head. “No, Stacia, I understand what . . .”
Sonia abruptly shouted, “Hilda!” Hilda stopped speaking, shocked by being interrupted. Sonia continued in a raspy voice. “I will be Emily’s Defender. I state that as a fact. It is not open to debate.”
Hilda’s voice grew cold. “You do not sit on the High Council, Sonia. It is not for you to tell me what to do.”
Sonia sat up and leaned forward, to Regina’s considerable alarm. If Hilda’s voice had turned icy, Sonia’s now burned. “Then you had best make the right decision, Hilda, because I will hold you accountable if you do not.”
I could feel the tension building in the room as Hilda and Sonia glared at each other. And then, for the first time in my life, I saw Hilda Strong back down. She lowered her eyes and nodded. “Very well, Sonia. If you will not spare yourself, then I may trust that you will spare no one else in defense of your sister.”
After Hilda left, Sonia and Stacia began plotting strategy. It was strange to watch the two half-sisters working together. They each seemed to know what the other was thinking, and they were intent on a common goal: to terrify the family’s enemies, and to gain me every advantage possible. Both women took my trial very personally. Although I appreciated this, I didn’t understand why, so during a break, I asked them.
Sonia waved to Stacia to reply. Stacia hadn’t once relapsed into her dreamy state since Hilda had asked her to be my Defender. Rather the contrary, she seemed almost hyper-aware, jumping ahead in discussion time after time. And her response to me was of the same kind. She didn’t so much answer my question, as answer the deeper question behind it.
“It’s like this, Emily,” she said, “Ben, Gail, Sonia here, and me, we had a reputation growing up. We were the weird kids, our father was one of the Fallen, and his mother had been one of the last of the Priests. People despised us, yet they feared us a bit, too. You’d have been included, if your parents hadn’t moved to North Village and then left.”
“I don’t think that made much difference,” I interjected. I knew what it had been like to be despised, thank you.
Stacia gave me an appraising glance. “Just so, then. But you all left and we grew up, and it seemed we’d left our reputation behind, that people weren’t bothered by us anymore and judged us on our merits. When Sonia was elected Milltown’s treasurer, we figured we’d put the old hatreds to bed for good. Now you’re back, and they’re after you and they’re after us, both. Neither Sonia nor I think that is a coincidence, and we’re not treating it as one. You are family, and since they will not respect us, we are going to make them fear us, all of us.”
I was reminded of what Penelope Wyatt had said. “Someone told me all of Gabriel Fisher’s children were damned.”
Stacia jumped up, crossed over to stand in front of the chair I was sitting in, planted a kiss on my forehead, and gave me a big smile. “Guess what, sister. By the time we’re finished, they are going to discover that the state of our souls is the least of their troubles.”
My contribution to all this was to let Stacia quiz me on Sonia’s behalf about anything related to my interactions with Tanya and any reason why I could be accused of worshipping demons. So I had to explain everything I’d learned about Sacred Mountain and the original decision to expel my family from the Children. In my humble opinion, Stacia proved she was even a better interrogator than Bonnie had been.
At the end of the meeting, Stacia decided to set off to hunt down Hannah Wyatt and find out if she was involved in charging me with being a demonolater, based on what had happened on Sacred Mountain. I was thinking of heading into town, only to find that Sonia had made that impossible. She had placed a phone call while I was in the bathroom at one point, and ordered the Milltown Watch Committee to furnish a standing bodyguard for me. The Watch was to escort me back to the Burns Cottage and keep me there until the trial. I protested, but Sonia pointed out that she’d ordered the same protection for herself, and that my investigation would get nowhere if I were killed.
I also pointed out that Stacia wasn’t getting a bodyguard. Stacia was already almost out the door, but she came back in, put her arms around my neck, and looked me straight in the eye with an impish grin on her face as she said, “Hate to tell you, Emily, but you and Sonia are the more important targets. No one’s going to bother me. Besides, I evaded a mob yesterday. A bodyguard would just slow me down.” She stood on tiptoes and gave me a quick kiss on the lips and headed out, leaving the sound of a laugh behind.
After that, what more could I say? Hilda had given in to Sonia. So did I.
End of chapter twenty-three