CHAPTER ONE: AN EIGHTFOLD FORTUNE
“I wonder what the tall-heads really want with us, anyway.”
Even in our cramped kitchen for house slaves, we nearly whisper. There’s no sense in disturbing the family, especially when it’s almost time for bed. Besides, we don’t want them to hear us one bit - not now.
“We aren’t speaking about just any of them, mind you, but the Unumites and their Masked Ones.”
No one says anything for a minute, and then a few slowly nod. There are eight of us here, hoping that our voices won’t carry: six around the dinner table and two on three-legged stools, who keep to themselves.
“I’ve never understood the real difference between them and - them,”
says the head cook, glancing toward the family dining room. “Goodness knows their foreheads are all so high, whether Unumites or not.”
Diamond, the lady’s maid who attends Madame, explains. “The difference is that our ‘tall-heads‘, as most of you so rudely call them, are our owners. The followers of the One have utterly separated themselves from the world, living in the mountainside city surrounding the Lesser Void. Our masters purchased us, but the Unumites may choose us. That’s what tomorrow’s about
: the Selection. They don’t believe in slavery.”
“Oh, no?” asks the cook. “What do you think they do with the ones they choose,
then, all squat-heads?”
“No need to be insulting,” interjects Equus, the butler. “It’s true that every year the Unumites select eight slaves apiece, from all of the plantations surrounding their mountain, to come along with them. It’s also true that those slaves never return. What becomes of them is a mystery, I believe, even to our family.”
“Our buyers, you mean,” says one of the scullions. “They’re no kin to me.”
“Regardless, I’m not sure whether they know what happens to the selected slaves, even their own…”
This is the main reason why we’re afraid they’ll hear us. We’ve suspected for years, although never saying so out loud, that our masters and the neighboring plantation houses have a secret arrangement with the Unumites. If so, it means that they’re the ones behind the annual disappearance of several of us. Those who follow the One may perform their Selections, but who allows them to do so? After all, we slaves are property. If one of us dies or is sold to another master, then that loss must be made up. There’s no way that our family would allow the Unumites to take whom they will without expecting payment in return.
There’s a long silence, and then we hear Crow smacking his lips. He’s one of the two sitting on a wooden stool in the kitchen; I am the other one. “You know what?” he rasps. “I think they eat ‘em.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Diamond cries, “or disgusting.” She looks around nervously, as do we all.
“Why not?” Crow lowers his voice even further. “We’re nice and lean, although some of us are fat. Who knows what goes in those tall-heads‘ mouths, if they can’t raise cows or chickens on a mountain? They’ve got to have meat. Once we’re dead, we’re as good as any of the animals we’ve butchered, aren’t we?”
“You hush,” she snarls, “and keep gnawing on that little hen bone you managed to pocket at dinner.”
“I gum it,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t have many teeth left.” He sticks the short, slender morsel back in his mouth. Crow’s been at this plantation as long as any of us can remember, having served not only our master, but his father and grandfather before him. Only I know his real age: eighty. He tells everyone else he’s sixty, for two reasons. One is that he doesn’t like to seem more frail than he is, even though one of his eyes is milk-white with cloudy water. The other is faith, which we and our owners share. According to the Scriptures of the One, and our own slave superstitions, our kind aren’t supposed to live that long.
There are two verses to prove it: For those who were of the One from the beginning shall live fourscore years. Those who turned to the Dragon are cursed, and shall live threescore at most.
That’s why we’re bound to be slaves, and why our days are cut short - except for Crow’s. The One blessed Its most loyal followers with long lives, an average height of six feet, and tall foreheads as smooth as windowpanes. We aren’t much more than five feet and a half, and compared to theirs, our foreheads are short and squat.
Diamond is still mad at Crow. “Now I know for sure that you’re as stupid as you look.”
He shrugs again. “Don’t all of us basically look like this? Don’t their people have bigger brains?”
“Yes,” says the scullion, “but all they know is what they’ve learned in books. We know the world.”
“What does any of this have to do with the Selection?” asks Bear, an eight-year-old kitchen boy.
“Absolutely everything.” Equus puts the tips of his long fingers together so that they form a pyramid. “It’s why the Unumites pick slaves instead of their owners. For some reason they want those of lesser mind.”
“My mind’s not ‘lesser’. I can beat Young Miss and Little Master at any game,” Bear says. I’m an apprentice lady’s maid for Young Miss, who is sixteen. Little Master, her brother, is one-quarter that.
“Of course you can beat Little Master.” The scullion giggles. “He’s only four, but Young Miss? Hardly.”
“Shut your big mouth!” Bear springs up and wants to hit her, but level-headed Equus holds him back.
“Now, now. We’re all tense because of tomorrow, so let’s calm down. How about the cards, Emmy?”
“Aye, aye! Do the cards.” Bear sits back down and stares at me eagerly, grinning from ear to ear. He means the fortune-telling ones, which Equus hides in the left-hand pocket of his coat. “You’re the best.”
“Only because I learned from the best.” I wink at Crow, who winks back with his cloudy eye.
“I’ll sit out,” Diamond sighs. “Madame’s bell hasn’t rung yet, but they all will soon. Be quick about it.” She and I switch places. I take her chair at the table, and she sits on the stool I usually occupy. After taking one more glance around to make sure no one else is looking, Equus pulls the deck out of his pocket.
“It’ll only be eightfold tonight. I don’t think we have time for sixteen- or thirty-twofold,” I tell the rest, and they nod. Our butler hands the cards to me. “You first, Bear. You’re about to fall out of your chair.”
As he watches with the intensity of a hawk, I place the nineteenth card in the middle of our table, face-up - the symbol of a man’s fortune being told. Around this central one I place eight more - three directly above, three directly below, and one on each side. The layout resembles a frame, with Bear’s card as the picture. However, the surrounding cards are all face-down, as is proper. I am to flip and divine each one at a time:
The first has a drawing of a book on it: “The book means that there’s a mystery surrounding you.”
“The Selection,” says Bear, his eyes bright. “No one knows what happens to the ones who get picked.”
The second depicts a mouse. “This means either loss by theft, or recovery from great difficulty.”
“Hmm. I haven’t had anything stolen. I guess this is talking about that high fever I had last month.”
I turn over the third card. “The clover with three leaves is a bearer of good tidings.” Bear smiles.
The fourth confirms this: “Two clasped hands mean that you are easy to trust, and confide in others.”
“What does ‘confide’ mean?”
Diamond speaks up from her stool, which had been mine. “It means to tell someone your secrets.”
“I haven’t done that,” Bear snorts. “I guess even the cards are wrong sometimes. What’s next?”
“The shepherd. It means you love life, and also your fellow human beings.” He nods, pleased.
Card number seven is unlucky: “Oh-oh. The scythe. It means that you’ll soon face disappointment.”
“Does that mean I will be chosen in the Selection tomorrow, or I won’t be?”
My stomach sinks. “I don’t know. Although I’m good at telling fortunes, I can’t say for certain.”
Bear flips over the last card himself. “Gah! The snake! What does it mean, Emmy? I forgot.”
I should lie, but I won’t. “You have an enemy somewhere, and maybe something bad will happen to you.”
Diamond stands up and hurries toward me. “Now look what you’ve done, Emerald! You’ve gone and frightened the boy for no reason at all, and he’ll have bad dreams tonight.” She picks up the nine cards and shuffles them into her palm. “It’s time we got rid of these wicked things and turned our thoughts to the One. You know what It says in terms of how we learn the future: Scripture and prayer, all else beware.
We’re not meant to play around with cards and dice, whether for gambling or divination. What you call harmless fun is actually great evil, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to toss them straight into the hearth.”
“You won’t.” Equus frowns. “They all belong to me, and Bear? Think nothing of that snake, you hear?”
The young lad nods, but I can see the sorrow in his eyes. Is he sad due to his ill luck, or Diamond? Before I can ask him, four out of eight servants’ bells start ringing: mine, hers, Equus’s and Crow‘s. The family is retiring for the night, and we’re going to help them to bed. The rest of us will stay here in the kitchen.
“Come on, you bags of bones,” the head cook says, addressing Bear and the scullion. “Scrub the floor.” It will be clean and dry by morning, but they groan because it’s a hard job to do so late. “No complaining.”
As we four body servants climb the stairs to the family bedrooms, our necks prickle with an autumn draft.