I am sooooo ready to leave this place. There have been moments of fun but for the most part it has been like a visit to the witch doctor to have a poisoned tooth yanked and they had to do it twice because the first time they only got half the tooth.
I swear there are some useless people in the world. Da used to tell me of the time before the Dark Days when people could lay around letting machines do things for them, or letting them go undone and they didn’t have to worry because eventually someone else would come along and do it for them. It was a time when food came from boxes and was cooked fast in boxes and that there was so much of it you could grow fat and no one would notice because nearly everyone looked like that. Where you could be fat because there were only a few monsters you had to run from; and where if you did run no one worried about winning because no one was allowed to lose. Where the government would pay for your care when you didn’t have enough sense to stop smoking the peyote or drinking the shine to feed yourself and care for your children. Where prisoners had playtime nearly all day long and workers had hardly any play time at all because they were working to pay for the prisoners’ life of ease. Where stuff was more important than your family and families could be separated and no one seemed to care as everyone was always trying to get away from where they came from.
I can’t even imagine living such a purposeless life in such a purposeless time. Where’s the challenge in it? Where’s the reward? And what would you do with all of that extra time? For that matter how would you learn to appreciate good times if both good times and bad looked the same?
We had ceremonies and feasts where I grew up and I know there’s nothing wrong with that. I even admit that a day or two of fun and games would have been nice, but this festival has been going on a week and has another to go and the “fun” is no longer fun but tedious repetition. How many times can you stuff your face with too much food and drink and still expect to be respected by your neighbors when they know your people struggle to put meat on their tables? How often can you brag about some accomplishment or other when everyone knows that it is in reality not you but your people that do all of the work? How many suits of clothes can you wear with pride while the people on your estate struggle to find enough cloth to cover their babies’ bottoms?
Those are the families that disgust me. I suppose I must be honest and say there are only a few that are that bad but they seem to have such an outsized presence. And the young unattached males from those families go beyond annoying to be a menace. I flat out refused to go to one function which caused me to get in an argument with the Captain, Winnie, and Cor.
When they asked me why I was being so stubborn about it I finally lost it. “Because I am tired of having to be even more careful of my person than I was back in the place I came from!”
Cor’s head jerked around from where he’d been pouring himself a drink and said, “What?!”
“You heard me and don’t act so surprised! Just because you could care less what other men think they can get away with me doesn’t mean that I appreciate their attentions! I can’t stand it!” I was in such a mood I was pacing around the room. “You go off and talk with real men in your closed meetings where you do nothing more than jabber and test each estate’s liquor and tobacco while I get stuck trying to avoid that bag full of puppies that passes for the younger ones. My sisters don’t have to put up with that nonsense. Why do I?!”
I had let the fact that Cor didn’t seem to need my company hurt more than it should have. I had tried to live with it, and I could have if we had stayed at the estate; but, living with it and trying to not beat the heads in of those men that went out of their way to annoy me was faced getting out of my reach.
“Who is bothering you Dear?” Winnie asked. “I’ll speak to their mothers.”
I rolled my eyes. “And they are supposed to be men when you have to speak to their mothers about keeping their hands out of the cookie jar?!”
The Captain smirked and I told him, “Oh yes, you can laugh. You’re not the one forever having to walk through a crowd like you have the palsy just to avoid all the unwanted touching. I leave these blasted get-togethers feeling like I need to scrub with strong lye in the hottest tub of water I can stand!”
The Captain then laughed with a loud “Hah! They don’t seem quite so eager since you bloodied Turlington’s nose with your elbow.”
“Yes well,” I said grudgingly. “It is what he gets for literally trying to show me how his male hounds greet one another. Just because his dogs are praised for their strength and speed doesn’t mean he has to go around mimicking them. He certainly doesn’t have their smarts. The idiot.”
Cor had been silent since his first question as I looped passed him in another tromp around the room he grabbed my arm and I realized it was anger that had held his tongue. “Why did you not say something before this? Do you think I am too weak to defend you?”
Struck by what a stupid question that was I told him, “Don’t be a looby, even in your state you’d skewer most of those nitwits with one toss of your bowie. Which reminds me I don’t see why you get to carry your blade when I have to leave my blade in our room. It’s not f…”
I stopped myself just in time and sealed my lips but Cor’s temper had evaporated for some reason and his lips started to twitch. “You didn’t nearly say the word fair did you?”
I jerked my arm away, stuck out my tongue and turned my back to him and tried to walk away but he pulled me back. “You leave your blade in the room because you would have skinned the … uh … bag full of puppies by now for a new coat. And I am sure there are several mothers grateful that you have not.” More seriously he asked, “Fel, why haven’t you said something before now? Why let it come to this?”
Frustrated I said, “Because I am trying to fit in to your infernal society. Because it looks like this is the way everyone expects it to be. But now I’m finding I will never fit in and I’ve lost all patience. Work is piling up on the estate. I have lists and lists of things that need doing. I’m missing the first harvests and going with the children into the forest to pick berries. I’m missing the strawberries!”
I felt like stomping my feet and it must have shown. The Captain and Winnie quietly left the room and I strained away from Cor’s hand that was still holding my arm. “Fel, I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was such a struggle for you.”
He finally released me and I put some space between us. “You know my Da was only able to part way civilize me. I’m all thumbs at these parties. These clothes are uncomfortable. The talk where I am seated is boring. I have no desire to get to know these flibberty gibbets I’m expected to charm and impress. I want to play in the games Cor … throwing, archery, even the wrestling. I want to be free to talk to people that interest me and not just those that seem to have no more than air between their ears. I can’t even go in the library and look at the books there because you men have taken it over like a private study.”
“You’re bored,” he said.
Turning to him I nearly yelled, “I’m half crazed with the waste of it all! The time, the coin, the energy, all of it! What is the purpose to it?! I’ll never be good enough, I’m tired of being laughed at and treated strange, I’m tired of the snide and nasty comments hidden between lines of talk. I don’t want to be here anymore! I want to go home!!”
“Home?” he asked quietly.
“Fine, if you want it that way … I want to go to your home. I want to go back to the cabin where even if I have nothing else I have some peace!”
He had followed me across the room and said quietly. “That’s not what I mean Fel. Of course the estate is your home now. I’m … I’m just glad you can call it that.”
“Then let’s go Cor ... let’s just leave all this … this … gaaahhh … I don’t even know what to call it.”
Quietly he asked, “What is it really? Is it having Hazel here?”
“What? No. No, she’s nice. Besides she spends all of her time with the older women trading recipes and woes about having too many sons. I’ve already told you, I don’t mind that you still love Francine and I don’t mind the reminders of it. Nobody has the right to …”
“Yes, you have said that a few times,” he said with a sigh. “I still prefer not to have it thrown in my face as some are doing.”
“Tell me who and I’ll …”
He snorted and said, “And that’s precisely why I ignore it so it doesn’t upset you.”
“What upsets me is if they are upsetting you otherwise it doesn’t bother me in the least.” It was a small lie but one I could live with.
“Then if it isn’t Hazel is … is it … Luke?”
I rolled my eyes at the absurdity of his question. “And he’s got to be the biggest puppy of them all. The only difference is that he has manners and knows I’ll break his hands if they wander where they aren’t welcome. I think I’ve thrown him off by putting him on the scent of Lem’s cousin. I know she’s a little cross eyed but given that he’s not exactly an Adonis they should match pretty well.”
I’d caught him off guard and he gave a great bellow of laughter and then grabbed his side. “Cor?!”
“No … no I’m fine,” he gasped. After regaining his composure he said, “Oh Fel … I’d leave this place tonight if I could but the truth is I do still owe a few debts and I need to make the contracts that I am negotiating; without them it could be another few years before I can finish getting the estate out from under the burdern. The interest will compound and kill us if I’m not careful. As it is the raiders have crashed too many of my plans … and the other things that have happened …” He shook his head; he always talked around the situation, never about it directly. “If it isn’t Hazel … or Luke … what is it?”
“I’ve already told you what it is. And I just hate feeling stupid.” I turned my head away so he couldn’t see just how much I hated it.
“You aren’t stupid.”
“Says you. You aren’t the one always having to watch what comes out of your mouth for fear you’re gonna cause someone to faint … or at least act like they’re going to. I swear life here in Kipling is so different from what I grew up with. And these people …”
“Fel listen to me. They’re just trying to test you and putting on airs. Ignore them.”
I growled, “That’s what I’m doing! But I’m getting fed up and if they don’t smarten up and leave me alone …” I left it hanging because we both knew I had a short string. “I’ll be good Cor … I just can’t stand the idea that I’m embarrassing you and the others that are counting on me to make something of this ridiculous muck up.”
He shook his head and said, “You don’t embarrass me Fel, quite the opposite.”
I blinked like an owl in the sunlight. “Huh?”
He smiled and for the first time in a long time the kindness I knew him to possess peeped out at me. “I said you don’t embarrass me. If anything you should be embarrassed of me. I’m a mess Fel and barely fit company for anyone much less you … after all you’ve been through, after all you’ve put up with …”
I wasn’t sure what to do so I poked him. Hard. With my finger right in his chest.
“Ow! What was that for?!”
“For being a looby. I’m not ashamed of you. You earned your bumps and bruises trying to save the estate not falling out of a rocking chair where you were lazing away.”
I have a feeling if my hair had been in braids he would have tugged one but the mess was all piled on my head since I was supposed to be pretending I was a fine lady of the estate. “And who was it that really saved the estate by killing the snake?” he asked.
I had my own issues I suppose and accepting that was one of them. “So I did but not because that’s what I set out to do Cor. And that one act is not what saved the estate but all the acts by all the people, including you, that came before it. I … I lost my mind there for a bit after I saw you fall. It was like losing my family all over again. I’ve accepted it but it isn’t anything I’m proud of and I’d … I’d prefer others not to know of it.” In a very quiet voice I added, “Please.”
“I won’t say anything so long as you promise to believe that I’m not ashamed of what you did … or of you.”
I looked at him from beneath my lashes. “That’s fair close to blackmail.”
With an exaggerated look of innocence he said, “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I sighed, “It’s really important that I come to this flaming dinner?”
Cor gave me another kind look. “I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t. We have to show a united front.”
I sighed. “Yeah, yeah. We’re the biggest, strongest, baddest little estate in Kipling.”
He chuckled, “Exactly. Besides, I’ve heard there will be news about the raiders shared by one of Uncle Rob’s friends that is in charge of the Kipling militia. If you truly wish it, you can come to the library with me after dinner, some of the … the wives … do.” He gulped and then continued, “And Docia said there is to be a surprise tonight as well.”
“Oh glory … tell me she didn’t really say a surprise,” I moaned.
“She did. Why?”
“Never mind, you’ll see soon enough. Just keep in mind that you said I wasn’t an embarrassment to you.”