Chapter 7: Love and authority
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
So unexpected was Sonia’s announcement that I misunderstood it at first. The Children use the term “brother” and “sister” to refer to close friends among themselves as well as kin, and at first I thought Sonia was weirdly and mistakenly reclaiming me for the Children. But the words “half-sister” clued me into the truth. Sonia was claiming blood kinship.
This was sort of two-thirds a surprise and one-third not. Given sexual relations among the Children, it was quite possible I had several half-siblings, maybe even some full siblings. On the other hand, my parents had never mentioned any. On the third hand, and I was feeling like I’d need that many, my parents may have felt no great need to acquaint me with any such family members, given that they’d left the Children. So I was astonished, annoyed, and sympathetic, all at once. Particularly because, now that she had made this claim, I could understand why she looked a lot like me: we both resembled my father.
Some sort of response was necessary, so I replied, “Sonia, I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know I had any siblings among the Children.”
She looked at me quizzically, then seemed to recall something. “That’s right. You wouldn’t know about us. But there are four of us, and when we heard you were coming, we persuaded the Council to make me your liaison. But don’t feel you’re under any pressure to meet us, if you don’t want to. Ben, Gail, and Stacia live over in West Village, and won’t bother you unless you tell me it’s all right for them to come visit.” And with that, she gave my hands a squeeze, got up, and left as quickly as she could.
Well, now I knew why Sonia was afraid of offending me. We were family. And now I had a brand new topic to introduce when I went to see my parents. I didn’t think it was going to make our reunion any sweeter. It would open up all sorts of questions about what my parents’ relationship had been before they had left the Children. And that might reopen the highly touchy question of whether Elsie is my full sister, or only a half-sister.
Tanya must have been waiting just outside, because she came in about a minute later. She dropped to her knees in front of me, and handed me a metal ring with a key in its lock.
I did not take it from her. I would not take it from her, and I was ever so sorry I had thought of Tanya as a slave. Because that’s what this was: proof she was my slave. It meant Tanya, as a minor child, had been ordered to obey my every command, accept any punishment I chose to inflict on her (short of death), and endure being chained up, if I wanted to do that to her. It was her religious duty. If I put that ring around her neck, fastened it, and took the key, I would be as close to a slave owner as you can legitimately be in the United States.
Tanya mistook my thinking from my unwillingness to accept the ring. “Should I also get the manacles for my hands and feet?” she asked.
I shook my head before this went any further. At the same time, I couldn’t believe anyone was still doing the full fetters. Cripes, the only village that might still do that . . . oh. “Tanya, are you from West Village?”
OK, take a deep breath, Emily, and try to explain to Tanya why she’s not going to be allowed to become your slave, even though her salvation depends on it. “Tanya, you know I’m not of the Children.”
“You are one of the Fallen,” she replied, in a singsong tone that implied this was a lesson she had learned and did not question.
I felt like pulling my hair out. “Yeah, I’ve fallen a long, long way. So far that I don’t recognize the right of the Children to bind you in service to me in this way. You want to stay here and work for me as your assigned duty, fine. But I am not taking that ring and binding you with it, I don’t care what your elders say. And as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t like working for me, and want to do something else, you’re free to do so.”
I took a breath. “And another thing. You’re not going to get down on your knees to me or call me ‘mistress’ or any of that other crap. Now get up and sit down like a normal human being.”
Tanya didn’t seem as disturbed by my reaction as I feared she would be. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to wear the thing in the first place. Maybe she just figured that the Fallen had weird ideas, and it was her job to accommodate me. She simply got up and sat down in the chair Sonia had vacated only minutes before. And then she held out the neck ring to me. “What do I do with this?”
Hmm. “Who gave it to you?”
“Eldress Hoopes commanded it.”
Did she now? I was tempted to put it around her neck. “Keep it. Put it away someplace here where no one will find it. And if anyone asks why you’re not wearing it, you send them to me.”
Once we got that nonsense out of the way, Tanya and I settled down to the tasks of routine housekeeping. The Children had thoughtfully not stocked the kitchen with food, not knowing my tastes. So Tanya’s first order of business was to take down a grocery list from me, and go to Milltown’s grocery store with a cart to get them and bring them back. It was a long list. I was going to be doing a lot of walking, and I wanted to take advantage of this set-up and eat well.
I got most of my unpacking done by the time Tanya returned. I went down to see what she’d got and where she was going to put things. I didn’t want to have to depend on her to locate a midnight snack for myself. I was also curious as to whether she’d actually been able to get some of the things I specified.
When I entered the kitchen, Tanya started rattling through the list of things she got, explaining and apologizing for some of the things she’d been unable to get or for which the Milltown grocery store had supplied substitutes. I’d expected to run into some trouble because I have a sweet tooth, but the Children have always taken a dim view of sugary foods. It had been a running problem when I was a kid. According to Tanya, the only reason I got any chocolate was because the store kept some in stock for an Instrument living in Milltown. The store had also agreed to send in to Quasopon every day for doughnuts, assuming I wanted them in the morning. And instead of supplying commercial soft drinks or liquor, Tanya brought back the Children’s homemade root beer and hard cider. They were welcome substitutes. I’d had both of them as a kid, and remembered them fondly. I hoped they were as good as I remembered.
Tanya was pulling the bottles out of the bags when she yanked out an unfamiliar-looking bottle. She took one glance at it, muttered something about how it had to be a mistake, and was about to put it back when I took it from her out of idle curiosity.
It looked like a wine bottle. The flowery label just said, “Festival Spirits.” And there was a card attached with a ribbon. I asked Tanya, “What is this?”
Tanya looked confused. “It’s . . . ah . . . festival spirits. They must have put it in by mistake.” She reached to take the bottle from me.
I pulled it back out of her reach. “And what precisely are festival spirits? I’ve never heard of it before.”
Tanya reluctantly explained, “It’s made over at Lakeside. It’s supposed to be made from various fruits and herbs. I don’t think they make very much of it. It’s supposed to be reserved for religious ceremonies. You really shouldn’t have it.”
Well, somebody seemed to think I did. I opened the card to see if there was an explanation. It read, “To Emily Fisher / welcome / Alex Bancroft.” I looked up at Tanya, who looked away immediately. She didn’t want to look me in the eye. And that must be because I had caught her in a lie. She had known this was a gift, but she didn’t want me to have it. Why? I played the innocent and said, “It’s a gift to me from the Prophesied One, so I guess it should be all right. Just what kind of religious ceremony is this used in?”
Tanya blushed a very deep red. Without looking up at me, she struggled to get out some words. “I . . . I . . . it’s improper to speak of them.” That last came out in a rush, and I could see she was on the verge of crying.
That wasn’t much help, though I had to wonder just what could cause Tanya to blush. So I held the bottle out to her and said, “Put it in the pantry. It’s not going back to the store. I’ll talk to Alex Bancroft about it when I see him, and we’ll settle it then.”
Tanya sniffled, wiped her eyes, took the bottle, and placed it on the counter. And then she perked right up with a smile, turned to me, and asked, “You’re going to go meet with the Prophesied One, aren’t you?”
“I’ll have to at some point.”
“Could you take me with you when you do? I haven’t really had a chance to meet him.”
Looking at Tanya, I wondered if I was seeing one of the Prophesied One’s groupies in the making. She was looking at me with a nakedly pleading look. I gave her a vague commitment that she’d certainly get the chance before I was finished, and left her to finish putting away the groceries.
As I sat down in the study, once again I wondered just what had I got myself into. I came to investigate a murder. But that investigation was bringing a train of other problems with it, from trying to unravel the Children’s politics to coping with a family that was bigger than I had known. Now I might be turning into the Prophesied One’s procurer, and he had sent me a mysterious beverage that was apparently used for unmentionable purposes, whatever they were.
End of chapter eight