Darrick blinked. The words ‘you’, ‘betrothed’, ‘girl’, ‘husband’, and ‘married’ all made sense to him individually, but combined into a single sentence, he just couldn’t get them to make sense. Then, as his mind slowly pieced it together, he found himself with an unaccountable urge to laugh. This is a joke. Roger called them and told them about our conversation, and they’re all having some absurd laugh at my expense. But even as he suppressed his nervous giggles, he knew that couldn’t be the case, not with his mother involved. He wasn’t sure he had ever seen her so much as laugh at a joke; an elaborate prank like this was beneath her, if not absolutely beyond her. His mind began to churn uncontrollably.
“Darrick,” his father said, with alarm, “are you alright?” He stood up and placed his hand on Darrick’s shoulder, guiding him towards the couch. “Sit down before you fall down, son.” Darrick dropped onto the couch cushions, head still spinning, as his father turned to regard his mother. “Dammit, Cynthia, you didn’t have to put it so bluntly. You’ve almost shocked the life out of him!”
“He can handle it, John” Darrick’s mother replied calmly, though her gaze at Darrick’s face was less than perfectly sanguine. “I wanted to get his attention. Let the initial impact wear off, and he’ll be much more prepared to hear the rest of it.”
What ‘rest of it’? Darrick thought. There’s something crazier here than hearing my parents tell me they promised me to some girl when I was just a newborn? How can they do that? People don’t do that anymore! He had to acknowledge one thing, though – the first shock was indeed wearing off, and his thoughts were returning to some kind of coherent order, enough to take in the rest of his surroundings. His father was bent over him, concerned eyes scanning his face; his mother was a step or so back, arms crossed, her expression still oddly triumphant though dampened a bit from before. He met his father’s gaze and nodded slightly, letting him know that he was coming around. A slight smile bent his father’s lips, though he spoke with a sigh.
“Good,” he said, “but just to warn you, it only gets stranger from here.”
“None of that, John,” his mother stated. “I will not have you poisoning him with your small-minded prejudices, not when he’s so close to coming into his own. I want him anticipating his destiny with joy, not dreading it with your resentment.”
Darrick’s father stood and turned to face his wife, but his hand never left Darrick’s shoulder.
“At least give him the freedom to feel as he wants to.” His hand squeezed Darrick gently, and his voice softened. “It may be the last freedom you ever allow him.” Darrick’s alarm at this statement was interrupted by his mother’s response.
“He is what he is,” she said. “Nothing he, or you, can do will change that. He has responsibilities now, responsibilities that go far beyond your own petty ideas of choice. He will also have rewards far beyond what you can comprehend. All you’ve done here is scare him—” You’ve got that right, Darrick though – “and made things more difficult for all of us. Hell, you’ve been doing that from the beginning, as soon as you hid his true birthright from him.” At that, the hand left Darrick’s shoulder, and his parents faced each other. Darrick recognized their expressions from a thousand fights, a million tense moments, throughout his life. The familiarity, in the midst of such horrifying strangeness, might have been comforting, had any of the memories it evoked been pleasant ones. Still, at least this was something he knew how to handle.
“Do not try to pawn your guilty conscience onto me,” his father started. “We both agreed that¾”
“Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?!” Darrick shouted, his voice returning to him with a vengeance. Both parents turned to him, shocked out of their incipient argument, and his mother quickly stepped forward to take charge of the conversation.
“Yes, Darrick, I will do exactly that,” she said, “if you father will leave us alone.” Now it was his father’s turn to cross his arms and plant his feet.
“No, Cynthia, I don’t think so,” he said. “No matter what you may think, he is still as much my son as yours. I will not leave him alone for this.” Cynthia’s lips tightened to a slim line, but then she dismissed it with a wave.
“Fine, then,” she said, “but you will keep your unwanted opinions to yourself.” John’s posture didn’t change, but he didn’t protest either; Cynthia took that as close enough to agreement. She sat back down on the seat across from Darrick, visibly composing herself. When she spoke again, her voice was calm and soothing, if a bit uncertain.
“Darrick, whenever you’ve asked me about where my family comes from, I’ve told you that were are originally English—”
“And I think that the tradition of marrying kids as babies died out a long time ago there!” Darrick broke in, thoroughly confused, with the confusion quickly giving way to anger.
“As has the tradition of respect for elders, and that’s another one I don’t intend to let die out! Now, listen. It’s true that my family had lived in the British Isles for a couple thousand years, but before that, we were from somewhere else. Darrick, my family is one of the last remaining Atlantean Houses.”
“What?” Darrick interrupted again, trying to make something coherent of it all. “We’re from Atlanta?” It didn’t make any sense, but then again, he had stopped expecting things to about five minutes before. His mother made an exasperated noise.
“No, not even close. Be silent, and let me explain. We are one of the final ten Atlantean Houses. Atlantean, as in Atlantis. When Atlantis sank, almost everyone died, but not all. Some escaped. Traders and sailors in foreign ports, and a few families who had believed the rantings of mad prophets and had prepared for the end. The survivors were scattered all over the world, but over centuries they managed to find each other, and rebuild their civilization. We had to rebuild in secret, however; thanks to Plato’s distorted morality tale, people believed us cursed by the gods, and would hunt and kill us when they discovered our identities. So we lived in hiding, blending in with those around us, but never forgetting who we were – Atlanteans, the last remnants of an old and revered culture, the heirs of divine knowledge and ancient customs. We have survived as a people for millennia, and you are the most recent of a line that stretches back to the beginning of time.”
Darrick could feel his jaw hanging open, but was able to get enough control of it back to form a few words, though they were halting.
“You . . . you expect me to believe this? It’s crazy!” His mother smiled understandingly.
“You already believe it, in your heart. Look at me, and tell me you think I’m lying, or mad.” He didn’t need to look into her eyes to know that was true. His mother would never make up a story like this, and he knew she was as sane and sober as humanly possible. Nevertheless, he glanced quickly at his father; as confident as he was in his mother’s sincerity, he could never take such a story without some kind of outside corroboration. His father nodded very slightly, once. It’s all true. Cynthia noticed, and her eyes narrowed, but she remained silent. Darrick’s mind began to race with all of the implications of this revelation, but he caught himself. I’ll worry about the complete reorganization of my worldview later. I need to find out what’s going on here first.
“So . . .” he began, then had to take a deep breath before he could continue. “What does this have to do with me? Why am I only finding out about it now? And why does this mean I have to get married in a month?” This last came out in a tone that was threatening to become a shriek if he went on much further. He mother took it in stride.
“One of the ways we preserved ourselves and our culture was to ensure that the heirs of the ten Houses only married other heirs. The firstborn son and daughter of every House is betrothed at birth to another Atlantean firstborn. This is more than just a promise; the minds and hearts of the betrothed are bonded through . . . well, you would probably think of it as ‘magic’, though I don’t care to use that term. They are bound together in a bond that cannot be broken, destined for each other throughout life. They can never be satisfied with another. Do you understand me?”
Darrick thought he did, all too well. This was the great mystery of his life, all his relationships, laid bare, solved at last. He had never stood a chance. All that pain. All that searching. All because my parents “bonded” me to some girl I never met before without my permission, because of some stupid custom, from some stupid heritage they never even bothered to tell me about!
“How could you do this?” he seethed. “How could you not even tell me?”
“That was your father’s idea,” his mother responded, glancing sideways to where his father stood, arms now at his side, uncertainty on his face.
“Darrick,” he began, “I wanted the best for you. I wanted you to grow up in the real world, not obsessed with all these stories about Atlantis. I wanted you to have a normal life. Your mother agreed that was best.”
“I compromised,” Cynthia said flatly, “and I regret it every single day. I agreed to keep your heritage from you until it came time for you to marry. Your father thought that would give him more time, no doubt time enough for you to be so caught up in your own world that you would have no problem leaving your commitments behind. Your father has never been particularly accepting of Atlantean culture.”
“Then why did you marry her?” Darrick asked.
“Because I loved her,” he replied. “Because I thought she loved me. Because she didn’t tell me any of this until much later. Tell him the whole story, Cynthia.”
“I intend to, dear,” Cynthia said, “if I am given the time to speak without constant interruption. Darrick, you know I am not the firstborn daughter of my family. Normally, children who are not firstborn are sent into the outside world, to live among and marry ordinary people.” Her voice twisted with disdain on the world ‘ordinary’. “In order to keep the Houses secret, they are kept small, by essentially disowning all children other than the firstborn son and daughter. Oh, they aren’t abandoned or anything like that, but they are not considered to be Atlantean, and they are expected to leave their heritage behind and blend in, keeping who they really are secret from everyone, even their own spouses and children. If we didn’t do this, the Houses would grow until we could no longer remain in hiding, and that would place us in danger. So, under ordinary circumstances, I would have left my Atlantean nature behind, and you would have never known your true ancestry.”
“I remember,” Darrick said as he made a connection. “Your older brother died shortly after I was born.”
“Exactly,” Cynthia said, smiling at his quickness. “When he died without children, the responsibility passed to me. I was faced with the highly unpleasant task of explaining all of this to your father, who took quite of bit of convincing before he believed. Even more important, though, I had to find a match for you quickly; it would not do to leave the heir to my House without a betrothed.” The smile grew bigger. “But I made you a very good match, to a very wealthy family.”
“Not that you asked me,” Darrick said, his ire rising once again at that last statement. “You couldn’t know what I would want, what would be best for me, not at that age. You didn’t know me, you couldn’t know her. Do you think I care if she’s got money? I might have been happy with any of the girls I’ve dated, but your ‘bonding’ kept me from even having the chance. All of their pain is on your head too. And you¾” he turned to his father¾ “went along with it, even though you obviously knew it was wrong. No, don’t say anything. Nothing you say could even come close to making this better.” He stood up with such force that the cushion beneath him shot out onto the floor, and flew through the front door, slamming it behind him. Walking to his car, he flipped open his cell phone.
“Roger, I have to talk to you about something . . .”
John and Cynthia watched Darrick’s car squeal off out of the driveway and onto the road outside. For a few moments, silence reigned between them.
“That went well,” John said eventually, sardonic tone only tightening the tension. Cynthia turned from the window to glare at her husband.
“Oh, I’m sure that went exactly as you wanted,” she spat. “You scare him by telling him how strange things will be, and then you undermine everything I say. Well, you got exactly what you wanted; a son who has no conception of the wonders of his background or the gift that I have given him in this betrothal.”
“Gift?” John replied. “You’ve practically sold him to that girl’s family, tied him to outrageous and outmoded traditions that he wants no part of. You’ve made certain that he cannot be happy outside of your plans, but I find it hard to believe that he could be happy inside of them either!”
“I have assured our son’s happiness!” Cynthia said, taking a step towards John and gesturing forcefully with her hands. “I am marrying him into a family wealthy beyond our wildest imaginations. He’ll never have to work another day in his life; he can do whatever he fancies, with no worries about money or the future. Tell me how many parents can promise their children that?”
“Money’s not everything, Cynthia,” John said, shaking his head. “You’re giving him to strangers, to a girl you know nothing about. You’ve said that he can’t be happy without her, but are you certain he can be happy with her?”
“All Atlantean marriages are happy,” Cynthia said, her voice choking up, and her head tilted downwards as her thoughts turned inward. “I’m giving Darrick what I never had – a true Atlantean union. A truly joyful marriage.” She turned away and looked out the window once more, wrapping her arms around herself. John started to step towards her, then thought better of it.
“We were happy once,” he said, “before your brother died. Before you told me any of this. When you thought you were permanently cast out of being Atlantean. I really think you loved me then.”
“I settled for you,” Cynthia replied, without turning around. “An Atlantean marriage was denied me, so I wanted just to get someone as quickly as I could. You seemed like the best choice at the time.”
“I don’t believe that,” John said. “I don’t think you could fool me that well for that long. You were happy on our wedding day, and deliriously so when Darrick was born, and that was when you thought he was going to be just another child, not heir to some noble Atlantean house. No, it was only after Robert died that you started to resent me for not being Atlantean. Resented me because, now, the heir to your House was a half-breed son.” This finally made Cynthia turn to face him; she whirled around, her face ablaze, her breathing rapid.
“Don’t you ever call him that!” she exclaimed. “You will never call my son such a foul name. And you claim to love him!”
“I do love him,” John said firmly. “And I can call him ‘half-breed’ because I do not care if he is one or not. He is my son; that’s all that matters to me. It is your people who are so concerned with the purity of their blood. Hell, you were the one who told me that, had your House not been the descendents of nobility, that you might not have been able to find a willing match for him. This girl’s family doesn’t care for Darrick; all they want is his name. And all you want is to get the stigma of being married to an outsider lifted from you and your family.”
“Abigail will love him, and he will love her. That’s all that matters.”
“Plenty of women could have loved him, and he could have loved plenty of them.” John sat down, the fight draining him. He leaned his head on his hands. “But he’ll never have the chance to find out.”
“Does that matter,” Cynthia said, incredulous. “Where does it matter where love comes from, so long as it is there?”
“This isn’t love, it’s magic.” Cynthia winced at John’s word. “Yes, I know you hate that word, but I’ll use what seems appropriate. It’s magic by any other name, and black magic if you ask me.”
“Fortunately, what you think doesn’t matter,” Cynthia replied. “Magic, or power, or whatever you want to call it, it’s being used for good here.”
“Without any choice on Darrick’s part.”
“Choice?” Cynthia exploded. “Who gives a damn about choice?! He will have a happy Atlantean marriage, a happy Atlantean life! That’s all that matters! Choice is an illusion most of the time anyway. How many people go into marriage, or college, or children knowing enough to really make an informed choice anyway? God knows we didn’t, and look at how that turned out. No, things work out better this way.” She paused for a second, then shrugged. “But since it seems to be so important to the both of you, I will give him the choice. If once he meets Abigail he wants to cancel the betrothal and take his chances with his own ‘choice’, then I will ask the priest to break the bond – assuming that’s even possible – and Darrick can go his own way. Will this satisfy you?”
John studied his wife’s exasperated expression, trying to find out the trick, the hidden catch, but could not think of any. Finally, he nodded.
“If Darrick agrees to that, I will never bring it up again. I’ll respect the choice he makes.”
“Agreed.” Cynthia said. “The choice will belong to Darrick alone.” Or at least he will believe so.