The Best Option, Given The Circumstances
Catharine has a nasty bruise on her eye when she comes bursting into the apartment. I open my mouth to say something, but Daniel shakes his head, so I keep my mouth shut. She smiles. “We got it all worked out. Richard and I will be married tomorrow, and we can set off for Conwell.”
Daniel presses his lips together. “Are you sure you want to marry him? You're so young, and…” He trails off.
I've met Richard once or twice, back before he and Catharine got into a spat, and he seems like a fairly nice boy, nice enough I wouldn't mind having him as a brother, and Catharine is practically a woman grown, taller than Mama is. Was. Taller than Mama was. I'm still not quite used to referring to my mother in the past tense yet. Her funeral is tomorrow, and Daniel and Catharine are taking the day off work, and Anna and I will stay back from school, which is a shame, because we’re going to start learning about Rusticanotae properly tomorrow but I keep telling myself that it doesn't matter anyway, because I'm an orphan now.
Catharine smiles wanly. “He’s a good man.” Her smile fades. “Did Aunt Celeste come?” Aunt Celeste has been handling a lot of things, since she’s my mother’s only sister, and most of our late father’s family is far away in White Haven. Catharine directs the question at me, because I've been home since school got out this afternoon, and Daniel just got back from the factory an hour ago.
She did come, and I tell Catharine as much. “She was here. She didn't stay for long though. Just long enough to tell Anna and me that she got our futures all figured out, and that she’ll get everything set on Reisday.” Which is the day after tomorrow. I don't know why, but when she said that, it sent shivers down my spine, even though my Aunt Celeste has never been really mean to any of us before, no matter how much she and my mother fight. Used to fight.
“We'll be long gone by then.” Catharine looks around distractedly. “Where’s Anna?”
I can't do much but shrug. “She’s off sulking,” I say, knowing that Catharine will know exactly where to find out youngest sibling. She turns and leaves the room without saying anything, and all the questions I want to ask her about what’s going to happen die on my lips. Instead, I turn to Daniel. “What’s going on? What happened to her eye?” I know he doesn't know everything, but he’s the only possible source of answers I have available, and I want to know.
Daniel just sighs, and sets his hand on my shoulder, “James...” he says, which is how I know he’s being serious, but he doesn't say anything after that for a moment, then he says, “The injury must be from work. Everything will be alright.” I want to scream at him, to tell him to stop treating me like a child, but he pats my shoulder once and heads out of the room before I can get my words together.
For lack of anything else, I make my way to the one bed that we've all had to share since our father died, in the other room of our tiny apartment ,but stop and stand in the doorway, watching my three siblings. Catharine is sitting on the edge of the bed, braiding Anna’s hair, and muttering soothingly in her ear. There’s no point in the braiding, seeing as the braid will have to be redone tomorrow anyway, but Anna enjoys the process, and I've always assumed it was a girl thing. Daniel is sitting cross legged in the middle of the bed, leafing through my school book, bought second hand and worn with multiple uses. I want to tell him to be careful with it, but I bite back the warning. He was the one who taught me to be careful with school books.
Daniel glances up and sees me staring. “You should drop out already. I’d already been working for a year when I was your age.”
I huff. “You hated school. And I have to look out for Anna.”
Catharine ties off Anna’s hair with a bit of string and shifts Anna off her lap. She looks up at me. “Come here Jamie.”
I know what she means, and I sigh and make my way over to the bed, sinking down onto the edge. Daniel sets the book aside and gently sets a hand on Anna’s shoulder. Once we're all on the bed, Catharine clears her throat. “We’re going to get up early tomorrow. I'll make sure of it. And then Anna and I will go and meet Richard and then we'll come back here, and I'll be a married woman. Then, we’ll go to the funeral, and then we'll come back, grab everything we can carry, and get on the train to Conwell. Simple as that.” She turns slightly to look at us expectantly.
Anna frowns. “How come I have to come with you?”
Catharine pats her cheek. “Because you are going to serve as the handmaiden to Mell for my wedding.”
Anna’s eyes go wide. “Really?”
Catharine smiles. “Yeah. Who else am I going to have except my favorite sister?”
Daniel rolls his eyes. “She’s your only sister.”
Catharine huffs and bends down to unlace her boots. “That doesn't mean I wouldn't choose her anyway. Besides, I think she’ll be a great Handmaiden.”
Anna puffs up her chest. “I’ll be the best handmaiden of Mell there ever was!” I can't help but smile at that.
Daniel begins unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt-sleeves. “We'll see about that.”
Catharine sits up and asks, “You all have your clothes ready for tomorrow?” And maybe it’s the way we’re all sitting on the bed the way we always used to, but I can see a flash of our mother in her, before it’s gone.
I swallow and say, “Yeah. Our suits are hanging up there.” I gesture toward the hook on the far wall of the bedroom where the mourning suits that Aunt Celeste commissioned for us are hanging. There’s also a black dress for her and one for Anna. Catharine lets out a sigh and kicks off her boots, then peels her socks off.
I get the hint and start unbuttoning my own shirt, before I hear Catharine swear, “Mogus smite it!” and look up. Catharine is struggling with the buttons on her dress, which run from the back of her neck to the middle of her shoulder blades. She’s flexible enough to reach the top two, and half the time she gets one of us to help her, and half the time she just lets the last three buttons go undone and doesn't care that anyone could see her slip and corset underneath. The last three buttons are done today though, and she must have forgotten.
“Can one of you…” She says, and I move over to her and reach for the buttons before she can finish the request.
“Thank you Jamie,” she says, before she reached for the hem of the dress and shucks it off.
Daniel frowns from where he’s pulling his shirt off. “I thought you left the last three buttons undone this morning?”
Catherine goes stiff and doesn’t move for a minute, then she swallows and says, “A girl at the mill did them up during lunch. Said it was driving her crazy, and I didn’t have the heart to argue.” It seems reasonable enough, but it sounds like a lie. She begins to squirm her way out of the dress. Neither Daniel nor I say anything.
Anna breaks the silence by saying, “I don’t see why anyone’d put buttons on the back of a dress anyway.” She’s focused on undoing her own buttons, having a good deal of trouble, even though they’re in the front of her chest. She won’t let any of us help her though, too proud of the fact that she can do it on her own.
Daniel seizes on the topic of conversation. “It’s because they want to make things difficult for girls,” he says matter-of-factly.
“It does seem kind of silly,” I add, because It’s true.
“It’s because nobody lives alone.” Catharine says, face hidden by the skirt of the dress she’s pulling over her head. “The girls who are orphans or who have families in other cities rent beds in the flop-houses, surrounded by other girls, at least until they get married.” She sighs, standing there in her corset and underskirt, and tossing the dress aside, because it’s just a work dress, and it doesn't matter if it’s wrinkled. She begins to undo the laces on the top back of her underskirt.
“I guess that’s true” I say, and set my own shirt aside and begin to work on the buttons of my trousers, because this has been habit for too long for me to be ashamed.
Then Anna tumbles backwards into Daniel, who's pulling off his own trousers, while she’s pulling her dress over her head, and he shoves her and says, “Watch it ,will you,” more grumpy than actually mad. Anna just pops her head out of her dress and giggles. I can almost see Mama watching fondly in the doorway for a moment, but then she’s gone, leaving nothing but an ache in my chest.
“Settle down,” says Catharine, working the laces of her worn leather corset, the underskirt pooled at her feet. “We have to get an early start tomorrow.”
I step out of my trousers and take my place on the bed, pushing Daniel over. He grumbles a bit and pushes back until Anna hops up and boroughs between us, and Catharine finally gets her corset loose enough to get off, but not loose enough to become completely unlaced, and twists the knob controlling the single gas lamp, plunging the room into darkness, then climbs in on the other side of Daniel, and there’s the usual bouts of shoving and fighting over blankets. Anna says, “I wish Mama was here to tuck us in.”
I can hear the soft sound of Catharine’s lips of Anna’s forehead. “So do I. Now get some sleep.”
The next thing I know, it’s morning, or at least Catharine claims it’s morning, but the sky is still dark, and my brain is still half-asleep. Catharine is shaking me and saying, “Jamie, Hey James, come on, wake up. We've got to pack.” There’s a candle burning, casting a dim light over the room, and I give Catharine a confused look. She sighs. “The lamp isn't working. It’s probably an omen or something.” She moves back off the bed.
I sit up and swing my legs over the edge of the bed. Anna is bouncing on her toes, scowling as Catharine works on the buttons. The dress is elaborate with a line of buttons going down the back and lace and ruffles and everything. She looks adorable, apart from the scowl firmly planted on her face.
Daniel stumbles back into the room, presumably from the bathroom down the hall, looking as tired as I feel. I stand up and stretch. Daniel snorts. “About time you got up.”
I want to snap back at him, but it’s too early for this, and I push past him, into the other room, where my mother’s bed is empty and untouched, and out into the hall to take my own turn washing up. When I get back, Anna is perched on the bed, with Catharine braiding her hair, and Daniel doing the buttons on the back of Catharine’s dress, which is identical to Anna’s. Catharine doesn’t look at me, but says, “get dressed James.”
The suit Aunt Celeste picked out for me is lying on the bed, so I go over and pick up the trousers, which are black and nicer than I’ve ever worn. I take a deep breath in and do what Catharine says. The pants have suspenders attached to them, which is not something I'm used to. Evidently, Daniel isn't used to them either, because once he’s done doing up Catharine’s buttons, he fidgets with his own suspenders; his outfit is exactly the same as mine.
Catharine has a brown leather bag that I've never seen before, the kind used for traveling and the like, and she picks up her dress and underskirt from where she left them last night and throws them in the bag. That’s when I notice that her dress actually has a real petticoat, complete with hoops, under it. The extra bulk seems to be causing her some trouble. I carefully button up the crisply pressed shirt that comes with my suit and ask her, “What are you doing?”
Catharine looks at me. “I told you. We’re leaving right after the funeral. I’m packing.”
I bite my lip, because she keeps acting like it’s no big deal, but it is. “We can't just leave. This is our home. I mean…”
“It’s not like we can stay,” Catharine snaps. Then she sighs. “Things are…If we want to stay together, we have to get out of here. Think of it as an adventure. It'll be fun.”
I want to protest further, but Catharine has an almost pleading look on her face, and our mother is dead, so I just say, “We're going to Conwell, right?”
Catharine reaches down to grab my shirt from where I tossed it last night. “Yeah. Richard’s got us train fare. We're setting off late this afternoon.”
I'm still not sure how I feel about this, but I take a deep breath and say, “Fine. What are we going to do in Conwell?”
Catharine sighs. “I don’t know. But they have industry there, so finding jobs won’t be hard, and Richard said he’s got connections, so…”
I go to pull the suspenders up, but they slide off my shoulders. Catharine comes forward and begins to adjust them. I’m not sure why she seems so enamored with Richard now, when I’m pretty sure she hasn’t spoken to him in weeks. “Why Richard? I thought you two…”
“He asked me to marry him a while ago,” she says, switching to adjust the other suspender. “He wanted to run off to Conwell with me., but I was scared because I was so young, and I had everything here. But now…I talked to him, and luckily, he hadn’t given up on the dream.” She straightens up. “Right, now help me pack.”
I shrug into my waistcoat, then go to get my school book, because I like school, and I still want to read it, and Catharine bends to get the box of spare clothing out from under the bed and tips it in. Anna brings her box of “treasures,” mostly just shiny trinkets she’s found and other useless things, but Catharine throws that in the bag to, and I slip my school book on top of it.
Daniel, who I hadn't noticed leaving, comes into the room, carrying a box that I know is Mama’s, that has what little jewelry she inherited from her mother. He doesn't quite meet Caharine’s eye when he asks, “Is it alright? I mean…”
“Of course,” says Catharine, her voice gentle, as she shifts the top of the bag so he can set the box in it. The sun has mostly risen at this point, so Catharine blows out the candle. I go to gather the few other books that I've managed to collect over the years, and grab my pants on the way. Anna wants to bring some of our mother’s clothing, now that she’s seen that Catharine didn't snap at Daniel, and Catharine goes with it, but tells her not to bring too much, because she isn't around to wear it. Anna bites her lip. I slip all the books, Anna’s school books, and Daniel and my old ones, a few issues of the Glass Octopus, and a book of common prayers, into the bag. Daniel brings our father’s wedding token, which he slips in as well.
After that, the bag is mostly full, so Catharine goes and brings out her stash of ciams, and Daniel does the same and I bring out the few Simos I've been able to save, since I’m not working, and Anna has two brass twosies, and once all the money is in the bag, Catharine closes it, and tucks it under the bed. Then she glances up at the clock on the wall.
“I have to go. I’m meeting Richard at the Black Leaf and Earl.” She grabs Anna’s hand. “You two stay here. We'll be back with Richard before the funeral."
I blink twice. “Wait a second. You're getting married in your mourning dress?”
Catharine shrugs. “Can't be helped.”
Anna frowns, “Don't I have to be wearing pink to go up to Mell’s alter?”
Catharine squeezes her hand. “Don’t worry. You can borrow a smock from the temple. Mell will understand.”
There’s a knock at the door, and we all look at each other, and Catharine, pulling Anna along with her, goes to open it. Daniel and I creep out into the front room and watch her intently. When Catharine opens the door, our Aunt Celeste is there, wearing a simple yet elegant black gown. Catharine steps aside silently, and Anna scowls but steps aside with her. Catharine looks at Daniel, eyebrows raised, and Daniel nods slightly. I know they’re planning something, but I can’t quite figure out what it is.
Suddenly, Daniel comes forward and says, “Aunt Celeste. It’s wonderful to see you.” He pulls her into a hug, and takes a few steps backward, then lets her go and grabs her hand and pulls her farther into the room, then he spins around and says, “Thank you so much for the new suit. It…it means a lot, to look so good for our mother’s funeral.”
I’m half watching Daniel and Aunt Celeste and half watching Catharine, who is using the opportunity to pull Anna out into the hallway, until Daniel says, “James, go shut the door. And button you waistcoat for Mogus’ sake.”
I make my way over to the door, and glance out into the hallway, where Catharine and Anna are well on their way to the stairs, and I shut the door and then look down, beginning to button my waistcoat.
Aunt Celeste frowns. “Where did your sisters go?”
Daniel shrugs. “They left earlier. Anna hasn't been taking the death of our mother well, and Catharine thinks a little sister bonding time would do her good.”
Aunt Celeste frowns. “They were here a second ago, weren’t they?”
Daniel frowns. “No. They left before you got here.”
I see where he’s going with this, and I figure better go along with it. “Yeah, they did.”
Aunt Celeste looks toward the door, then sighs, and sits down at the table in the middle of the room, and I sit down as well, while Daniel bustles about making tea. She sighs and sets her hands down at the table. “I do hope your sisters are back soon. I want to make sure I tell you all what’s going to happen before the ceremony starts.”
I clear my throat. “What do you mean what’s going to happen?”
Aunt Celeste takes a deep breath in. “I am, as of now, your legal guardian, since both your parents are dead.”
“So we're going to come live with you?” I ask, because if that’s all that’s going to happen to us, fleeing to Conwell seems a little extreme.
Aunt Celeste presses her lips together. “I’m afraid that won't be possible. I've arranged foster parents for you and Anna, an apprenticeship for Daniel and a marriage for Catharine.”
“But Catharine’s already got a marriage!” I blurt out, before I can stop myself. Daniel glares at me, but I quickly cover my tracks before he can say anything. “Last Ceilday, before Mama was dead, Catharine came home a little late from work and said, ‘Mama, Richard asked me to marry him.’ But she had to get permission, because she wasn't a woman grown yet, and Mama said yes.”
“Also,” said Daniel, bringing the tea to the table, “How did you get someone to agree to marry Catharine without seeing her?”
Aunt Celeste gave a small hum of amusement. “Oh, my poor naïve child. Marriage isn't about love. You talk about the suit I got you. The only reason I had the money for those suits and the dresses for your sisters is because I married well. I married my husband because he could provide for me, not because I loved him.”
Daniel set tea in front of each of them. “Richard can provide for Catharine. Besides, it’s not like Catharine makes a lot of money or anything. I mean your husband married you, and Richard will marry Catharine, but they both knew what they were getting into. Why would someone agree to marry someone who doesn't give them some advantage if they don't even know anything about them. Or even if they did give them some advantage for that matter. I mean not liking someone you’re going to marry is one thing, but marrying someone you've never seen or heard of before? That’s stupid.”
Aunt Celeste looks like she wants to retort, but she and Mama always argued about marriage, and it always turned into the worst arguments. So I say, “Plus, that’s assuming that Catharine agrees to the marriage. She could did her heels in and refuse, or make him hate her, or something. I wouldn't put it past her to say ‘no’ in front of the official and face your wrath.”
Aunt Celeste looks like she was going to say something to that, then takes a deep breath in and ends up saying, “We’ll talk later, when your sisters are present as well.” After that, she falls silent, and Daniel and I look at each other, but neither of us say anything, and we just sit there, not saying anything, as the minutes tick by excruciatingly slowly. All I can think is that if our only other option was to be separated, which Aunt Celeste’s plan suggests, then maybe fleeing to Conwell is not all that bad of an idea.
After what feels like an eternity, but can’t have been more than an hour or two the door opens and Richard and Catharine come in, Catharine holding Anna’s hand, with her other arm looped through Richard’s.
Before Aunt Celeste can say anything, Daniel speaks up, “See there they are.” He turns to Catharine. “Aunt Celeste dropped by while you were out.”
Catharine’s mouth tightens and Anna glares. Richard looks at Aunt Celeste, then at Catharine, a mildly confused expression on his face. Aunt Celeste looks at them and raises one eyebrow. “I presume this is Richard?”
Catharine for her part, doesn't lose her temper like I thought she would, and simply nods and says, “Richard, this is my Aunt Celeste. Celeste, this is Richard.”
Richard bows down and says, “It’s an honor to meet you Ma’am,“and kisses Aunt Celeste’s hand.
Aunt Celeste raises one eyebrow, then looks both of them up and down. She frowns when she notices the hem of Catharine’s dress. I glance down to see what it is, but it’s just a mysterious white stain. Daniel smirks when he sees it, and Aunt Celeste frowns disapprovingly. “You've been busy, haven't you?”
Richard blushes, looking down at his feet. Catharine blushes as well but squares her shoulder. “As an orphan, I take comfort wherever I can find it. And the pain of grief can be washed away for a brief moment by pleasures of the body.” He voice hitches slightly on the word pleasures. “If that’s wrong, then so be it. But I will not be ashamed.” Having said that, Catharine pulled a handkerchief out of her sleeve and used a bit of the water left in the kettle to dampen it, before she bent down to rub the stain out.
Aunt Celeste considers that for a moment. “Well, clearly the marriage I had planned for you isn't going to work out. Luckily, everything should work out fine for you siblings. I have the Lorell family fostering Anna, the Tymark family fostering James, and Marcus Hampshire agreed to take Daniel on as his apprentice. Marcus Hampshire will be at the funeral, as will the Tymark family, which means that both of them can leave today. Anna can stay with me until the Lorell family pick her up on Reisday.” Her voice is matter-of-fact, as if this weren't her own family she was talking about.
Catharine nodded. “Alright. But you have to let us say goodbye first. Our family is about to be split up.”
Aunt Celeste huffed. “When your mother was young, she left our home without a thought, and didn't stop to say goodbye to us, oh no. She just ran off and got married.” She says this bitterly.
Catharine straightens up and balls her hands into fists to try to keep herself calm. “Well, we're not like that. We need a chance to say goodbye.” She glances back at Richard, and he gives her a small nod.
Aunt Celeste rolls her eyes. “Fine, you’ll say your good byes. We should leave for the ceremony, already.” She gets up, and makes her way toward the door. Daniel and I follow. Catharine and Richard do the same thing, until Catharine looks at me and says, “Jamie, your tail coat!”
I look down and hurry toward our bedroom. Catharine releases Richard’s arm and he comes after me. I see why a minute later when he grabs the bag from where Catharine stashed it under the bed while I grab my coat and shrug it on. He winks at me, and I’m starting to feel like maybe he’s got a plan. I really hope so, because I don't want to leave the funeral with strangers. Fleeing to Conwell is seeming more appealing by the second.
Richard shoos me out of the bedroom door first, because once Aunt Celeste sees me in my tail coat and Richard’s head peeking out after me, she turns and walks out the door, and doesn’t see that Richard’s got the bag.
Richard has a chanka carriage, with a waiting driver, and casually sets the bag in it. He holds out his hand for Catharine to help her up, but Aunt Celeste insists all of us ride in her Paddock’s carriage with her. Catharine huffs and kisses Richard full on the lips before she makes her way over and climbs in to our aunt’s carriage. The ride is absolutely silent, as Catharine and Aunt Celeste glare at each other fiercely. Anna curls up against Daniel’s side, and I want to do the same, but I’m hardly a small child anymore.
A half an hour outside the city, we came to the lines of stones marking where bodies were buried in the sand. There were four vehicles parked in the sand. One was the one used by the Brothers of Gorrn to transport my mother’s body, two of them belong to the people Aunt Celeste wants to hand us over to, and the third is a steam bike. A young woman, not much older than Catharine stand by it, looking rather out of place. When Catharine sees this woman, she smiles and makes her way over to her. Daniel follows, tugging Anna along, and I follow because I have nothing better to do.
Catharine throws her arm around the woman and says, “Aunt Jane! I’m so glad to see you. I wish it was under different circumstances, but…” She trails off.
Jane is my father’s youngest sister. The last time we saw her was when he died, which was just after Anna was born and I was very young then and only have vague memories of a brown haired woman laughing and being nice to me, which I’m pretty sure was Aunt Jane. Daniel takes his turn to hug her, then she bends down and say something to Anna that has her giggling, and I come forward and she gives me a hug as well, saying, “James, you were tiny last time I saw you.”
I let her hug me, and it isn't bad. Then Richard comes over, followed by Aunt Celeste, who comes and grabs me by the arm and pulls me over to meet the Tymarks. The family consists of a bear of a man with a thick beard and his pinched looking wife. They have a daughter who keeps glaring at me like I’m stealing her parents or something, which I can't really argue. I hold out my hand though and say, “Pleasure to meet you Mr. and Mrs. Tymark,” just like I’ve been taught.
The man laughs. “You're a polite one. The pleasure’s mutual. I hear you're coming to stay with us?”
I want to scream that I have no intention of doing that, but I swallow and say, “That’s the plan.” Aunt Celeste has gone to drag Daniel over to meet the man he’s supposed to be apprenticed to, so I say, “If you'll excuse me,” and dart away before they can say anything else, straight to Catharine’s side, and I don't even care that it makes me look childish, because it’s my mother’s funeral.
The Brothers start chanting, and everyone gathers to the side of the hole they've made in the ground. There are a few prayers chanted, a bit of a speech about life and death given, and my mother’s body is lowered into the ground. The corpse is mangled and ugly, she died in an accident at the mill, and I can’t bring myself to look at her. Everyone takes a handful of sand and to throw over her, before leaving the Brothers to do the main burying, and I feel my eyes sting with tears.
When the ceremony is over, I’ve barely said “Gorrn rest her soul,” in unison with everybody else, when I feel a hand on him and Richard starts pulling me toward his carriage. I’m still trying to blink the tears from my eyes, but I hurry along after him, and before I know it, I’m squished in next to him and the rest of my siblings, and he’s yelling at the driver to get use out of there.
I'm pushed in next to Anna, who’s between me and Daniel, and we’re across from Richard and Catharine and Catharine’s skirt is pushing up against my leg. The carriage starts moving and after a while, Catharine says, “They're following us.”
Daniel stares at her. “A carriage chase!? Are we in an issue of The Glass Octopus or something?” I agree with him on that point.
Catharine just sighs. “It’s an adventure,” she says pleadingly. Just then, the faint sound of the other carriages, interwoven with the sound of a steambike, which seems to be going from side to side start to reach us. Catharine smiles. “That’s Aunt Jane. She agreed to help us.”
Anna looks terrified. “What’s going to happen?”
Catharine looks at Richard. “We’re going to take the train to Conwell, and start over there.” Richard smiles at her and gently kisses her bruised eye. She smiles and leans into him, resting her head on his shoulder and says, “Everything is going to be fine.” For a split second, I can hear my mother in her voice.