This is a version of two segments of a larger novel I am working on. I submitted it to an online writing contest being held over at The Dark Globe. Enjoy!
The first time Alethea was presented to the Inspector General for the Capital Sanctuary District, Brother Merrill, she didn’t know where to look. Her parents, back in New Atlanta having been denied a travel pass, had taught her to never, ever look into their eyes. Looking at the floor, while safe, was not conducive to observation. They recommended the mouth because the tiniest movement of the mouth betrayed an enormous amount of information.
Alethea fixated on the area of his chin, but to her immediate horror encountered a hank of wobbly flesh dangling beneath. It moved with every breath. She had never seen such a thing before. The man before her was painfully thin and his body, as was required, was entirely covered in a white robe. It hung off his shoulders as if on a wire hanger. The presence of such an expanse of extra skin meant that he had once been grossly overweight. She had heard tales of such people living in the Capital but had never seen one before. She wondered what caused him to lose all of the weight and when had it occurred.
These weren’t the only oddities. Most men of the Pater Ordinatio had a personal assistant, but he did not. She had been given to him to be an investigative assistant only. The staffing recruiter had assured her that officials in the Capital would not want a cripple for the bedroom. Unfortunately, she then said, “Unless they have certain…um….predelictions, in which case your deformities, Alethea, would be seen as a…um…positive.’ Alethea might still have to share his bed. She imagined the loose skin in other places that probably hung from his skeletal frame. She quickly suppressed a shudder and prayed that he did not notice.
She moved her gaze slightly higher to his nose and was relieved to find it was not repulsive.
Clearing his throat, in a phlegmy voice he asked, “How was your trip to the Capital?”
“It was good. Thank you, Brother Merrill,” she replied while showing the proper obeisance. The old man raised one eyebrow and smiled. She wasn’t sure if his being amused was better than a no expression at all. She would have to learn his tells.
He waved a hand non-chalantly, “Just ‘Brother’ will do fine without the obeisance unless we are not alone. Here in the Capital to give too much status to another is just as bad as not giving enough. I will call you Alethea unless we are in the presence of others. Do you understand?”
She simply said, “Yes, Brother” with a nod and refocused on the bulbous end of his nose.
Brother Merrill was originally from New Atlanta and there was a very distant family connection. Technically, everyone in the United Colonies were related to everyone else and the records of the families were as revered as the Bible. Alethea had harbored a secret desire to actually touch the genealogical records. She was, however, unclean so this would never be allowed to happen. She and her family had to make do with holoprints instead.
“Good. Now you must report to the Casamater. She will see to your room, clothing, food allottment, etc. You still have the stink of the Colonies on you.”
Another “Yes, Brother” with a nod and she promptly exited into a long empty hallway. Outside his office door, as a casabot floated above her head, she allowed herself a brief moment to relax. Then she braced herself to meet the woman who managed the Brother’s estate and would rule whatever hours Brother Merrill did not, the Casamater. Looking up at the floating bot just above her head, she said, “Lead”….it turned and zipped down the hall with her in tow.
For the next few years, Alethea focused on learning her job and helping the Inspector General investigate crimes within the Capital Sanctuary District. She amused herself in her spare time by slowly unraveling the Inspector’s secrets. Five years after beginning her first assignment, they received a case for the murder of a young woman, a personal assistant, in the house of the Patriarch in the center of the District. Much to her dismay, Alethea knew the victim.
Alethea heard a little girl’s pure voice quietly singing, “You are my sunshine my only sunshine….”
The singing petered out in snuffling noises. Curiosity piqued she wanted to see the sad little girl’s face. Alethea swam upward from the darkness engulfing her toward a diffuse light above her. She surfaced blinking in the natural light. After her eyes adjusted, she saw what looked like an angel. Tears streamed down a heart shaped face, over cheek bones beginning to shed baby fat. The trail of tears glinted in the sunlight streaming through a window between their adjacent beds. Dressed in a black cotton robe, with perfect cafe au lait skin, large liquid golden brown eyes, and long, straight silken black hair hanging in a sheet down her back, she was stunningly beautiful, making her sadness seem all the more tragic.
Most little girls would be jealous, but not Alethea. What would make such a beautiful young girl, the kind of girl who would have her pick of esteemed families by which she could earn her “right of abode” so sad? Surely the Quorum of Elders had noticed her by now. She must be about eight years old. Even Alethea could see the potential of womanly beauty that would blossom within the next couple of years.
‘La angelita’, for so Alethea now thought of her, noticed her movement and stirred, hastily wiping her tears on the thick cotton sleeve of her robe.
She turned and introduced herself as she handed Alethea a ceramic cup full of water, “I am Serena7344 from New Deseret” followed by a shallow curtsy. It was perfectly executed and appropriate for two young girls of an age meeting for the first time. Now Alethea did feel jealous, jealous of her physical grace, something she could never match because of a club foot.
Alethea noticed all of this about Serena with increasing curiosity. A girl from New Deseret, with coffee and cream skin, who has been taught the proper forms of obeisance….it was a puzzle and Alethea could never leave puzzles alone. To hide her thoughts Alethea took a drink of the water. Sufficiently composed she introduced herself, “I am Alethea12 of New Atlanta”.
It was Serena’s turn to be surprised. She had managed only a slight widening of her eyes at hearing such an unusual name and to have that followed up with such a far away Colony, the only surviving Colony on the mainland since The Great Tsunami of 2275 wiped out what remained of the former U.S. That’s as much as Serena knew of history since her education had mainly focused on etiquette, beauty and generally remaining pleasant under any and all circumstances. Her instructors found Serena to be perfect in every way except for one thing. They had not been able to stamp out her curiosity. Instead the best they could do was to show her how to hide it very, very well.
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