CHAPTER TWO: OF MASTERS AND SLAVES
“Oh, those horrible people,” Young Miss snaps when we‘re in her chamber. She shuts and locks the door.
“Do you mean the Unumites?”
“Yes, but not only them.” With a whirl of her long skirts, she turns around, and I start untying the back of her bodice. “I don’t see how they can just take good slaves away whenever they want to, or how my father can -” She abruptly falls silent, and then poses a strange question: “What’s the name of our plantation?”
“The Firmament, Miss.”
She backs up, faces the looking glass on the opposite wall, and spreads her arms. “As great as the sun, moon and stars shall the lands of my faithful be, yea, as vast as the heavens themselves.
That’s what our people have been promised in the scriptures. Our family has always fasted and prayed, even my poor little brother, who can’t say the long words in the Eight Vows correctly. Nevertheless, our lands haven’t grown. In fact, in terms of crop yield, they’ve been in decline for the past five years. What have we done wrong?”
“Nothing I can see. You’ve even sacrificed sixteen percent of your income, instead of the usual eight.”
“Aye. However, what’s the matter with giving more to the One and his priests than we ought? Shouldn’t we be rewarded for our great faith? Instead, we’re dwindling, and so Father has…made some plans recently.”
My stomach drops into my feet. “He’s selling everything, isn’t he?”
Young Miss scoffs. “Only his daughter, after arranging legal inheritance for his four-year-old son.”
“What?! Is he…?”
“Insane? I wish he were! However, as master of this household and lord over everything in it, he’s within his rights. ‘It’s high time you were wed,’ he told me at dinner, ’and our nearest neighbor’s son has his eye upon you.’ Little does Father know or care that I rejected that particular suitor several years ago.”
I try not to let her see me grin as I finish unlacing her gown. “You mean the boy who pulled your hair?”
“He pulled it out,
Emmy.“ Young Miss grabs hold of one of her ornately-carved bedposts as I do battle with her corset. “That happened when I was my brother’s age, of course, but he hasn’t lost his mean spirit. You’ve seen him at some of our dinner parties. If he isn’t smoking, drinking or playing cards, he’s trying to sneak a peek where he shouldn’t.” Her face doesn’t look hot, but the tone of her voice is scorching. “If he doesn’t catch a glimpse of me, then one of our other neighbors’ daughters is willing to stand still for a bit!”
I bite my lower lip and sigh. “What a pig.”
“Don’t give swine a bad name, now.” Young Miss frowns at me and wonders why her corset’s still on. “Are my laces causing you trouble tonight?” When I nod, she bends down to reach into her sewing basket under the bed. Removing a pair of shears, she promises, “I won’t tell Mother if you cut some of them.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
“The latest fashion entails the greatest pain, or at least it seems to me. Besides, I have two more of these. What’s the use of buying new underthings if you can’t get in and out of them easily? It’s sheer folly!”
“I wouldn’t know, and I‘m glad,” I reply, trying to keep my tone light. It’s a great irony: the more free and wealthy a young lady is, the more confined she must be by her garments. Every day Young Miss wears a corset and at least one petticoat, with two or three if she’s dressed for a special event. Some of her friends, and even her richer rivals, wouldn’t be caught dead without overskirts and lacy pantaloons as well. In high society, clothes do make the man, or the woman. My kind can simply wear rags and like it.
After a few more minutes, I finally unfasten the needlessly-complicated corset and help Young Miss peel it off. Her skin, as white as birch bark, is still sweaty from having to wear the raiment of her station.
“Do you want a bath?”
“In the morning. That‘s when the Selection is, right?” I nod again. Even though she’s trying not to show it, I can tell that she’s worried. The two of us grew up together, and as fate would have it, we’re the exact same age. Even as a very young girl, I would fetch her dainty snacks and help to fix her dress and hair. I was a slave, and Diamond had taught me about my duties from the time I could walk. Fortunately, Young Miss treats me more as a friend and confidante than as someone owned by her family. Every year, she frets herself sick over whether I’ll be Selected or not, and every year her fears prove to be unfounded.
“It’s going to happen this time. I can feel it.”
“You’ve ‘felt it’ from the time we were toddling around the front hall together, and it’s never happened.”
“Still…” Young Miss impulsively gives me a hug, even though she’s naked. I blush a little.
“Let me fetch your bedgown.” I wince inwardly. That’s an old squat-head’s term, not a tall-head’s.
“Not yet.” She stares into the looking glass again, with me beside her, and sighs heavily. “Is this all that I’m good for?” she asks, stroking a hand down her torso. “A porcelain doll with a secret compartment?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
She gently turns my face toward hers, and her dark eyes are bottomless pits. “Fields aren’t the only things that are to bear much fruit.” I hear the shudder in her voice, and feel the trembling of her fragile hands. In that moment with Young Miss exposed before the One if not the world, I understand her despair.
My own mother, long gone, died doing the same thing of which my friend is terrified. According to Diamond, I was her last child and her luckiest. I almost went to my grave as soon as I came out of her womb, as tiny as a real doll. However, I survived, and Crow says it was in the cards. I don’t know who my brothers and sisters are, except that I have two of each and that they’ve all been sold. The island upon which we all live contains many plantations, but there are merely eight around the Unumites’ mountain. Maybe they dwell on the coast, where they can hear the sea all night long. I only hear lonely crickets.
I jump. “Sorry, Miss. I was just thinking about - ” Porcelain dolls, baby dolls, and slaves.
“Aye.” She shivers. “Please get my nightdress. I’m cold.” I do so and slip it over her long chestnut hair. One more time she takes a glance at her reflection, and mine. “We couldn’t be more different, could we?”
“No!” I laugh out loud, slapping my hand over it so as not to wake the rest of the family. If Young Miss is a birch tree, I am a pumpkin at harvest time. Even clothed, her body speaks of long branches and light breezes. My stout body never sways with the wind, although it does because my balance isn’t that good. It’s one of the effects of having been born early, or so Diamond says. Our cook says that’s utter hogwash.
“What does she know about birthing children, eh? I’ve had three, and she’s had absolutely none.”
When I first heard her say this, I told her Diamond had attended Madame when she’d had Little Master.
“Humph! He was born right on time, and so was his big sister. Besides, that doesn’t mean she’s so smart about bearing some of her own. Once your womb has been opened, you wise up right quick, and that’s that.”
One thing I‘m now certain of, with my unopened womb, is this: If and when my time comes, I’ll only change from a fat gourd into a fatter one. It’s the birch tree I’m worried about, slender and prone to breaking.
“I’ll never marry,” Young Miss murmurs, “not if it’s to that devourer of women who disgraces the name of Man. He only wants my fair face and fertility. Once both of those things disappear, I’ll be nothing.”
The only thing I can do is hug her back, as she hugged me. I can’t tell her she’s wrong, because she isn’t.
“Why is it,” she asks me, “that I feel like a bird in a gilded cage?” A slight pause. “Am I going mad?”
“No more so than I am. I’ll likely be a spinster, too, as Diamond is, although she’s had men to refuse.”
“That’s odd.” Young Miss cocks a curious eyebrow. “I thought you’d both find love sooner or later.”
“It’s not love we spurn.” It’s childbirth. We don’t want to end up worn and forlorn, like the cook, once our young ones are sold.
Besides, if what Diamond says is true, I don’t want to pass my early birth and bad balance down to any children.
“As far as I’m concerned, Diamond already has. She struts around like she knows more than my mother, with her nose in the air and her heart locked up. It’s not proper for a slave.” As much as I hate to admit it, I agree. “She’s always thinking, but in my opinion, she’s not thinking good thoughts.” I cringe. Has hatred consumed Diamond? I don’t think so - at least, not yet - but jealousy is consuming Young Miss. Why?
“My mentor does keep her own counsel.” I have to be careful here.
“However, she respects Madame.”
“As she should! Even so, it’s quite apparent that she mocks the rest of us - if not with her words, then with her eyes. She should know better than to look at us directly, even my brother, who’s only four.” Young Miss sits down on her bed and is about to draw the curtains around it to keep out drafts. “Emmy?”
“What would I do without you?” Her voice is as quivery as the flame of the candle on her bedside table. That scares me. As often as she’s been wrong about me being Selected, another possibility looms. She might soon be taken in triumph to the altar, and maybe her new husband won’t buy me from her father. If so, I’ll be stuck with Master and Madame, but then what will become of me? Equus takes care of Little Master when he needs to, which is fitting because they’re both male. Diamond isn’t getting any younger, but that doesn’t yet mean she can’t tend to Madame. Without Young Miss, I would float adrift in this house.
After a long pause, I smile at her in the dim candlelight. “What would I
do without you?
Good night, Miss.”
“Good night.” She slips under the covers gratefully, but doesn’t smile back. I pull her bed curtains closed and then take the candle off of her nightstand. I have the feeling that neither she nor I will sleep tonight.
Diamond meets me in the upstairs hallway. She takes the candle from me so I won’t drop it or burn myself while going down the stairs. That’s rather embarrassing, because she can easily carry two lighted ones.
“Where are Crow and Equus?” I ask her, looking around.
“I believe they’ve gone to their rooms already, after putting their masters to bed. Madame’s tucked in, too.” She gives me a suspicious look. “Was something the matter with Young Miss?”
“Only with her corset.” Why did I just lie?
“She’s gotten two new ones lately, and their laces are the Dragon’s own work.” Diamond grins, and my shoulders slump with relief. “I almost had to cut some of them.”
“Emerald, you didn’t!” I shake my head no. “If you ever did, and Madame found out -”
“I’d get her belt buckle.” I swallow the lump in my throat and grasp the banister. “Let’s go downstairs.” When we reach the bottom, with her taking two steps to my one, Diamond begins her routine check of the family rooms. She wants to make sure everything’s in its place and there are no smoking pipes or cigars lying around. Also, she wishes to see how the scullions are doing scrubbing the kitchen floor. That’s the cook’s job, and we both know it. We also know that when it’s this late at night, the cook gets a bit lax.
“Come with me,” she says. “If Bear and that lazy girl Opal aren’t done, I’d like you to help them.”
“Of course.” Of course not,
I’d rather say, but keep my mouth shut. I follow her to the kitchen, hoping.
Diamond opens the door and sees them both hard at work, although flagging. “Pick up the pace, you two.”
“Aye, ma’am.” Due to their lower status, they address both Diamond and the cook this way. As for the family themselves, these three never get to speak to them directly - only through Equus. Such is proper, because he’s the butler. He and my companion both have the right to give orders, at least to the rest of us.
“Well, then,” Diamond tells me as the scullions swish their brushes harder. “They’re only half finished.”
I bow my head and look up at her wistfully. “Before I go to bed, would you please let me sky-gaze?”
Her lips tighten as she lets out a sigh. “Really, Emerald? Are you that anxious?Ten minutes, and then we’re both retiring. I know that the Selection has you worked up, but why don’t you get to work instead?”
I mouth the word rather than saying it, because something tells me I need the stars tonight.
Before I can catch a glimpse of Bear and Opal’s faces, I turn and dash for the back door.