I don’t know how long I sat there, watching her blood cool. It could have been minutes, hours, days. Hands on my shoulders, shook me from the stupor I had slipped into. My eyes snapped to green ones. I took in the long, graying blond braid that swung before my face. I looked back up into her green eyes, saw the tears that had been sliding down her face. Her usual harshness was gone, replaced by a deep sadness.
“I sold myself to save her,” a sob choked out of me.
“I know, Astra. I saw the whole thing.” She knelt down in front of me. I hadn’t heard her use my name since I was a child. “I had heard your mother talking to her household men. I tried to warn you. I didn’t get here in time.”
“How did you get in here?” I was still sitting against the closed door. I looked around the room. The only other way in that I could see was the window that lead outside. But I was on the third floor.
“It’s an old house. There are hidden hallways in some of the walls. They aren’t used anymore. But I know them. Come.” She stood, pulling me with her.
I let her lead me through my room, walking around the blood and matter that was starting to dry on the floor, into the bathroom. There was a garden sized recessed bathtub and a separate shower to the left, toilet to the right, and sink with large mirrors with vanity lighting directly in front of the door. I sat on the edge of the tub as she filled it. Steam billowed around us. Wordlessly, she directed me to climb in. With each inch that I slipped into the warm water, I could feel my body melting, releasing the cold and tension that had held me in a vice grip. I hadn’t realized how cold I had gotten before. I drew my knees up, laying my cheek on them, watching as the blood that had dried on me swirled in the water. Laura had come back in a moment later. I didn’t even notice when she had left to begin with. It felt like my mind was checking in and out occasionally, barely registering what was going on around me. She picked up a rag and bar of soap from the side of the tub, working a lather up in the former. I watched her from what felt like miles away as she lifted one hand, then the other, and washed the blood from my body.
“You have another choice to make,” she whispered to me as she started washing my hair. “Nothing as cruel as what your mother did.”
“You knew about the bug, didn’t you? That’s why you were always on her about minding her place.” That bit of information clicked into place while she rinsed the suds from my hair.
Her hands paused briefly as she massaged conditioner into my hair. “I did.” Water poured over my head again as she rinsed it again.
“And you said nothing.” My eyes fluttered closed. A great, yawning darkness was drifting up from inside of me, threatening to swallow me whole.
“Astra!” Her grip on my arms was so tight, they pinched as she shook me. “I know you’re still in shock, but I need you to snap out of it. Don’t let this consume you. Don’t give up. Get angry.”
“You said nothing!” I pushed her off me, sloshing water over the edge of the tub to splash on the floor. She tutted at me, turning to throw a towel over the mess.
“I was in an impossible situation. I know you. You have as little control of your temper as your mother has. Don’t look at me like that. You stabbed her, so you know it’s true. I knew as soon as I said anything to you, you would have stomped off to confront her about it. And as I was the only other person present that had contact with you, how do you think she would have taken me disobeying a direct order from her?”
I didn’t answer her, I just turned my head facing away from her. The water was pink from Elia’s blood, rippling against my body. She was right, of course. I’ve always known that I had inherited my mother’s temper, making barely more effort than she did at containing it. Which was none to speak of. I would have confronted my mother about bugging my room, and damn anyone else that it would have burned in the process.
“What choice do I have to make? It seems to me they’ve all been made for me.” I closed my eyes, leaning back against the side of the tub, sliding down. I wanted to be disgusted with the fact that I was basically lounging in the blood of someone I loved dearly. But it felt like it was the last time I’d ever have her wrapped around me, as sick as that was.
Laura’s fingers were cool as they slipped under my chin, turning my head to face her straight on. I’d never seen her grieving before. For as long as I had known her, she’d had a sternness to her. Never letting anyone see any other side of her. Even now, with her grief softening her features, that harshness was still there. I slipped my hand around hers, squeezing gently.
“The choice is this, to stay or to leave.” She squeezed my hand right back.
“Leave?” I sat up straight, water sloshing around me. “There isn’t anywhere to go.”
“What do you know about the Sullied Country?” her face slipped into a neutral mask.
“That there is little to no order. They’ve destroyed their land and live like animals in squalor. Cannibalizing their children when food is scarce.” A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as I spoke.
“So basically, what they’ve been teaching children since the war that divided us.” I nodded in answer. “What if I told you that I am from the Sullied Country?”
“That’s not possible.” I looked at her again, from head to toe.
“And yet, here I am. Your society has been lying to its citizens since the beginning. The Sullied Country is smaller than the Pure States, doesn’t have the same technological advancement, and they live simply. But they do not live as base creatures as you’d been led to believe. No cannibalism. Neither is their land destroyed.”
“If that is true, how are you here? We don’t have an open border. Even though we are in a border city, its sealed up tight. Our peoples do not mingle.”
“Again, it’s not as you’ve been led to believe. It is nigh impossible to secure the hundreds of miles of land that span the border between us.”
I leaned back into the bloody water again, trying to wrap my head around her revelation. It wasn’t too farfetched to believe that our society had lied to us since the beginning. I could believe that much of it very easily. Besides the fact that we were always expected to obey without question, there was just so much about the Puritans that just never felt right. Arranged matings instead of unions of choice. Strict division of social classes. Outlawed homosexuality. Genetic testing in order to be approved for one of the most basic functions; breeding. Sterilization if you were deemed impure. There was no real freedom. Of course, it was all on par with our tenants. Despite being raised in the thick of it, with a strictly devout mother, I was never truly at ease with any of it. Sure, when I was younger and eager to please, I was excited for certain milestones. But once I started being more aware of my own mind, I could not comfortably comply.
So, no, it wasn’t the idea of being raised on a steady diet of lies that was tripped me up. It was Laura that did. I looked over at her, with her coolly calculating gaze. I’d known her most of my life. How could I not have known she wasn’t Puritan? But more than that, what brought her here?
“Why are you here, Laura?” I felt heavy. The weight of everything that had happened pressing down on me.
“Come now, Astra. When have I ever given you an answer you were more than capable of finding yourself?” She watched me down her narrow nose, her lips cocked to one side in a mockery of a smile. “Think about it. I’m not here for no reason. I’m not here because I just love the Pure States so much. What about this household could possibly draw me here?”
This was highly reminiscent of my childhood with her. She was my nurse, my tutor; present far more than my parents were. While my father had chosen to be home more than work, work he still did. So, my early education was primarily up to Laura. Lessons taught with her looking down her nose at me as I puzzled through one problem or another. She never did give me an answer that I was capable of working out myself. On the surface, there wasn’t anything special about us. We were descendants of a founding family on my mother’s side, affluent. Both parents worked in the research department for the Council of Genetic Purity. Mother was an only child. Daddy’s family had never really been close, probably because they hated my mother too. There was only one thing that made sense.
“CGP. Mother’s research.” A smile crept across her face as she tapped her nose once.
“Though I’m more interested in her role with the council than her research. She’s been in more of a leadership position for a while now. But that hasn’t always been the case.”
“So, you’re a spy?” A shiver ran through me, reminding me that I was still in the bathtub, which the water had gone cold. Laura noticed, standing with a terry cloth robe in her hands. I stood, carefully stepping out of the tub into the robe. I sat on the edge of the tub, turned to the side as Laura toweled off my hair.
“I guess I am a spy. I always just thought of it as under cover.” She went to the counter for a brush. Starting at the ends, she carefully brushed out the snarls in my hair. “For the past 20 or so years, relations have been precarious at best between our two nations. I’m here more as a precaution than anything. I watch to see if there is any threat to us. Other than wanting to make sure we are able to defend ourselves, we don’t have any other real interest in the Puritans.”
“What does any of this have to do with me?” she started to braid my hair, starting at the edge of my hairline, her fingers making quick work of combing sections up into the plaits.
“I can get you out of the city. I can get you out of Puritan territory all together. If that is what you want.” There was a snap of an elastic band as she tied the end of the braid.
I looked over at the now cold bath water, stained pink with the blood of my Elia. Somewhere in the house, I could hear a clock chime midnight. Mere hours ago, we had been lying in bed together, blissfully ignoring the rest of the world. I couldn’t imagine life without her in it. In moments, the world lost its luster, its vibrancy. Apathy settled into me, right next to the grief that was strangling my heart. There was no point to run without her. I can be miserable anywhere, might as well stay with what is familiar. I wiped the tears that had escaped from my face, turning to give her my answer.
“Same sex relationships are legal in the Sullied Country. You both could have lived freely, openly.” She paused as a frown creased my brow. “And I think she would still want you to. There’s also the bonus that it would really piss off your mother.”
I chuckled at that. My mother’s fury would be boundless. That more than anything made me consider her offer further. Elia was gone, she didn’t want anything anymore. So, this choice had to be for me alone.
“Also, you’re not the first I’ve smuggled out. The CGP has mostly kept it all swept under the rug. Some were all like you and Elia too. Some were forbidden from having children and wanted to escape before sterilization. Others just wanted out. You’re not alone in thinking this place is wrong.”
I turned towards the door, which was still open. From where I sat, I could see my still rumpled bed, and our clothes in a pile on the floor. I turned back to the tub, drawing my sleeve up so I could reach into the tub and pull the drain. I watched as the water flowed away. Once it was empty, I stood and headed for my room. I was distantly aware of Laura watching me carefully, impatience for her unanswered question openly displayed on her face. Yet, she didn’t push. I walked to Elia’s clothes, picking them up. I could smell her on them. Holding them to my face, breathing in her scent, trying my hardest to file it away into permanent memory, I almost missed it. There in the folds of her dress was her necklace. I carefully pulled it out. The delicate silver chain caught the light in sparks. The tiny, half inch Matron with her arms raised to the heavens, legs dipping to a sharp point. The sight of it brought a smile to my face, despite the pain that lanced through me. She was so full of love for life, wanting nothing more than to give that love to those around her.
I slipped the chain over my head, turning to where she had died. Laura had covered it with the blanket from my bed. I was grateful for that. I realized in that moment that I didn’t really want to see the horrific reminder of what occurred. I would instead hold on to her charm, and remember that she was more than what we had been reduced to.
“I want out.” I whispered to Laura as she stepped close to me, not forgetting that my room was bugged. She nodded once, and set to pulling out clothes for me.
She pulled aside the tapestry that hung to the floor next to my bed to the side, and opened a door hidden there. My eyebrows shot towards my brow as she slipped inside for a moment. She came back with a backpack that appeared to be half full already. It must have been for Elia if she had known what my mother had intended to do. Setting it on the bed, she snatched up Elia’s clothes from where they had lain on the floor, handing them to me.
“Put these on.” She mouthed at me before turning to shove some other clothes into the bag.
The rough spun, brown dress and white apron was simple, functional. The part of me that was raised in luxury started to balk at the idea. Another part wailed at the desecration. Fortunately, the logical part of me won over. It was practical. No one would be looking for a missing maid, except me of course. The dress was loose and a little short on me, but it would do.
“Ready?” she asked turning back to me.
“As I’ll ever be.” I finished buttoning the dress, smoothing it down the front of me, pulling on the simple flat shoes that matched, they were held in place with elastic straps, allowing them to stretch enough to accommodate my slightly wider feet than the ones that used to wear them.
She looked me over, nodded once, and turned back to the door behind the tapestry; disappearing inside. I slipped in behind her, pulling the door closed behind me. I could hear the tapestry swish back over the door on the other side.