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FORMLESS: Chapter 2: Of Masters and Slaves

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“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 an odd 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 sighs. “No, but he wants to marry me off into a more prosperous family. He’ll also grant his unsuspecting son legal inheritance rights to our estate, once the wedding is over.”


“What?! Little Master Tibran is only four years old! Is your father - ?”


“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 eldest son, Cairn, has his eye upon you.’ What Father won’t admit is that our whole family’s in trouble. If our harvest is poor again this year, we’ll have to mortgage our entire property, not just eight slaves, to the Unumites.”


I bite down on my lower lip tightly as I finish unlacing her gown. “So wedlock is the only solution?”


“Nay, but it‘s the quickest and safest one.“ Young Miss grabs hold of one of her ornately-carved bedposts as I do battle with her corset. “If we don’t want to be in debt to the priests and Masked minions of the One, that means we must do business with other potential creditors, who are slightly less unpleasant.” She gives me a sour look. “Do you remember Cairn from some of our dinner parties?” Reluctantly, I nod. At the sound of that young man’s name, the mingled stenches of cigar smoke and whiskey fill my mind. I hear the echoed shuffling of cards, raucous laughter, and language that makes a gentleman’s ears burn.


I also shudder, recalling how Cairn tried twice to sneak a peek down the front of Young Miss’ gown.


“He may be the son of the richest plantation owner near here,” I grumble, “but he’s still 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?” When I nod, she bends down to reach into the sewing basket under her bed. Removing a pair of shears, she promises, “I won’t tell Mother if you have to cut some of them.”


“Thank you, Miss.” I’m much more grateful than I‘ll let her know. The last time that happened…


“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 richer rivals wouldn’t be caught dead without overskirts and lacy pantaloons as well. In high society, clothes really do make the man, or the woman. It makes me wonder about her future wedding gown.


“What about the other young men I’ve seen in Cairn’s company?” I ask. “Surely there’s one better.”


“Two, actually,” she says, smiling at last. “Tristan is worried about not marrying well, although we like each other well enough. The other, Karl, on whom I’ve set my heart, has his set upon Aubade.” In this household, or at least out of Young Miss’ mouth, that girl’s name is a curse. “’Song of the morning’, she’s called, although it should be Façade. She’s the most beautiful and well-connected of the debutantes in our family’s social circle, but that hides her true nature. If she marries Karl, I’ll give her a special hand-glass.” Her eyes begin to gleam with a piercing, malevolent light. “Every time she glances into it, her features will be fine at first, but then they’ll slowly melt and twist until her face is that of a hideous troll.” She doesn’t laugh. “You’ve seen the way she treats me - like a writhing worm. If only Aubade were with the worms.”


“Pray don’t scare me, Miss,” I beg her, but I’m not only afraid for myself. “What does Cairn think of her?”


“For some reason, he fancies me instead. It would make sense for the richest boy to marry the richest girl, and the loveliest one besides. However, Cairn seems to be bored whenever she comes around. It’s as if he’s known dozens of maids like her before, and only one such as I. What does he see in me - Berezina?”


It’s a rhetorical question, but if I were to answer, I would say: He wants to tame your fierce tongue.


“Regardless,” Young Miss continues, “this means that in practicality, the suitors I prefer are out. Karl will probably propose to Aubade soon, and I don’t think Tristan will want to risk marrying me. When a husband takes a wife, he also takes her kinfolk into consideration. If our finances fail and not just fall, so will his. He can’t afford that.” According to rumors I’ve overheard, Tristan and his kin lie square in the middle of the nearby plantation owners’ hierarchy. Financial gain would naturally benefit them, but loss might kill them. Add Young Miss and her family’s worries into the mix, and it’s not likely that they’d stay owners for long.


“As far as I know, the only girl who’s worse off than me is Cordelia, and she’s…already indebted.”


Aye, but that’s not all. You’re trying not to say that she’s “mixed and halfway illegitimate” to boot.


“So it’s Tristan or Cairn, and I’m not counting on the former. The other lads who pay us calls aren’t exactly copies of Cairn, but they’re close, and also courting other girls. If I wed, will I really have a choice?”


“Have you talked with your father about Tristan, at least?”


“Of course, but much more often about Karl! He thinks my marrying him is a dream, but I’m trying to make it come true.” I’ve finally unfastened the needlessly-complicated corset and help her to peel it off. Her skin, as white as birch bark, is still sweaty from having to wear the raiment of her station.


“Would you like a bath, Miss?”


“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 she‘s fearful. 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 worst fears prove to be unfounded.


“It’s going to happen this time, Emmy. 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 bed gown.” 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 her exposed before the One if not the world, I understand her despair.


My own mother, long gone, died doing the same thing of which Young Miss 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. 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 eight around the Unumites’ mountain. Maybe my siblings dwell along the coastline, where they can hear the sea all night long. I only hear lonely crickets.




I jump. “Sorry! I was just thinking about - ” Porcelain dolls, baby dolls, and slaves. “Marriage.”


“Right.” 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 Agate 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 Tib.


“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’s 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. Cairn only wants my fair face and fertility. When both of those things disappear, I’ll be nothing.” She lowers her head, hiding her face with her hair. “’What is the duty of woman? To bear righteous children unto the One.‘ Must I really do that for Cairn? I’ve done everything in my power to fan his hatred - everything that Aubade does to me. I’ve ignored him when I can, and given him withering looks when I must look at him. I keep my conversations short, and my temper even shorter. Most of all, I tell other people how low and rapacious he is behind his back. Still, he seeks me like a wolf seeks out a lamb. It’s no use.”


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.


“Miss, what if you lost your beauty? Have your father strike you so hard that it leaves a ghastly scar.”


Her eyes narrow in distaste. “Now you’re insane, not him! I don’t want to be repulsive to all men.”


Right… “What about those two suitors? Are Karl and Tristan even slightly open to the idea of becoming your lover?”


“While Cairn is my lawful husband? Never! Adultery means damnation.” She almost spits the words. “However, since when does a groom accept a bride who has already been defiled - especially by someone other than him?” After a moment, she shakes her head vehemently. “I can’t. Even if I gave the only other treasure that I have away before entering the marriage bed, it would bring shame upon me and my family. Dirty secrets always come to light. Who’s to say that the one who would defile me won’t tell? Men talk just as much as women do, especially about their conquests, when those poor creatures aren’t around.” Young Miss‘s shoulders sag. “I’ll speak with Father again, but it seems like Cairn is my only option.”


I have another one: “What about friends helping friends, and neighbors helping neighbors? Has your father not talked with one of the other plantation masters about assisting your family in their time of need?”


“That’s fine if we merely require extra harvest hands or the like, which we won’t this year. All we’d have to do is ‘pool our slaves,‘ so to speak. However, when it comes to money itself, our good neighbors will only make us loans with interest. There’s no telling when our crops will be good again, or if what they’ll earn will be enough to repay any loans we take out. Our scriptures say, ‘Be not a debtor, lest thee become a slave to thy creditor.’ It’s not that we wouldn’t want to pay anyone back, but what if we couldn’t pay on time?”


Another verse comes to my mind: Fill yourselves with the One, and It shall satisfy you fully…”Oh, stone it!”




“I apologize, Miss. It simply seems that for now, you’re stuck. All I can say is forget Karl, and seek Tristan.”


She grins. “My, aren’t you full of suggestions tonight?” Her tone is merry, but I’m suddenly filled with fear.


“I didn’t mean - I only wanted to - er, what I intended to say was - ”


“Let it be. If you were talking to Mother, she would not, but no matter what she says, I’m not like her.”


“My thanks.” These words come out as a froglike croak, because they’re all I can manage to say.


Young Miss puts a finger to her lips. “Do slaves have to worry about all this penny-pinching and marrying?”


“Not me, at least for now. I’ll likely be a spinster like Diamond, although she’s had suitors to refuse.”


“That’s strange.” Young Miss cocks a curious eyebrow. “I thought you’d both find husbands sooner or later.”


“It’s not husbands we spurn.” It’s childbirth. We don’t want to end up worn out and forlorn, like Agate. Besides, if what Diamond says is true, I won’t pass my early birth and clumsiness down to any children.


“As far as I’m concerned, it‘s no wonder Diamond has. She struts around like she knows more than 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 eyes, she’s not thinking good thoughts.” I cringe. Has hatred consumed Diamond? I don’t think so - 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 Tib, who’s only four.” Young Miss sinks down on her bed and is about to draw the curtains around it to keep out drafts. “Oh, Emmy…”




“I may have to marry for my family’s good, and that’s one of the rules of the game, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. What would I do without you?”

Her voice quivers like the flame of the candle on her bedside table. That scares me. As often as she’s been wrong about my being Selected, another possibility now 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 what will become of me? Equus takes care of Tib 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’d 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. This is rather embarrassing, because she can easily carry two lighted ones.


“Where are Crow and Equus?” I ask her, looking around.


“They’ve gone to their rooms, after putting their masters to bed. Madame’s tucked in too.” She gives me a suspicious look. “Was something the matter with Young Miss? You were in her chamber a long while.”


“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 smirks, 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 Bear and Opal are doing scrubbing the kitchen floor. That’s Agate's job, and we both know it. We also know that when it’s this late at night, she gets a bit lax.


“Come with me,” she says. “If those two little lazy-bones aren’t done, I’d like you to help them.”


“Of course.” Oh, stone it, 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. Both he and Diamond have the right to give orders, at least to us house slaves.


“Well, then,” Diamond tells me as Bear and Opal 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?” I nod. “Ten minutes, and then we’re both retiring. I know the Selection has you worked up, but why don’t you get to work instead?”


Please. I mouth the word rather than saying it, because something tells me I need the stars tonight.


“All right, but before you go, I want to show you something.” She beckons for me to follow her away from the kitchen, and leads me to the parlor. It’s not entirely off-limits to us, but we shouldn’t be in here without having to dust or serve the family. This is one of their rooms, after all, as the house is theirs. Even our humble bedrooms on the third floor are theirs - ours in name only. The parlor is a mansion in itself, and I thank the One inside my heart. We have this whole space to ourselves, lit as it is by Diamond’s candle. “Don’t try the lamp. Sometimes Tib sneaks down here by himself, and then it’ll draw too much attention.”


“As you say.”


She lies down upon the daybed and turns over on her stomach. “Unlace the back of my dress, please.”


“What?” This definitely isn’t one of my duties. We slaves take care of ourselves and our own clothes.


“Do it. My hands are aching tonight.” Hesitantly, I perform the same task that I did for Young Miss.


“Feel my back.” Her murmurs sound like shouts, and I tremble as I run my hands along her skin. Large welts startle the tips of my fingers, and I find three or four of them along the curvature of Diamond’s spine. “I’m hoping that these will help you remember who you are, and who she is - the one you deem ‘friend’.”


“I -”


“Enough! It’s natural for children to pretend, but you are no longer a child. Do you honestly believe that girl feels as much loyalty to you as you do to her? Do you not even suspect that she will beg Master to sell you, if it helps to save her from a loveless marriage? He might as well sell a chair or a table. That’s right, Emerald, we’re property, and in case you’ve forgotten that, let these scars remind you! Day in and day out, we serve, but that is our sole purpose. A favor is a favor to their kind, but to ours, it is only a duty. Why should we be rewarded or thanked for doing it, or even fed past the point that we’re able to work? Of all the slaves on this plantation, our field hands know this best. Maybe we should have been in their ranks.”


“You can’t mean that.”


“I do! We may toil in the house instead of underneath the broiling sun, but what’s the real difference? At least we’d always know, in the sting of our sweat and the salt of our tears, that we are naught but beasts of burden. We would have no illusions that our masters cared about us beyond our usefulness to them. As for Berezina?” Diamond says Young Miss’s name in the same way Young Miss pronounced Aubade’s. “Watch and wait. I’ve been with this family longer than you have, and like mother, like daughter. Madame’s venomous blood courses through her veins as well, and when push comes to shove, her kindness will die. She’ll send you off without a second thought. You have no hope. Neither do I, except for the Selection.”


I understand, although not exactly. “Aren’t you afraid of the Unumites, Diamond?”


“Yes, but not as much as Crow and that fool Agate. Our cook and the old man have one thing in common: they’ve allowed our people’s folk beliefs to blind them to the possibility of freedom that they're given every year.”


Freedom. To me that would mean being Young Miss’ real friend, but that would mean being her equal. Impossible. What freedom can the Unumites give me? I’d no longer be a slave, but then what WOULD I be?


“Have you ever known anyone, yourself included, who has been truly happy in bondage to others?”


I think and think, racking my brain until my head starts to be sore, but then I bow my head, conceding.


“Now, then. Pray thee, lace me back up.” I do so. “If you’re going to sky-gaze, you’d better do it quickly.”


Without another word, I meander through the house and dash through the servants’ entrance at the back.

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