“Chase Rydel, be still, sweet boy.”
Grandmother cocks a reproving brow. It has always been difficult for me to sit still.
“Yes, Teti.” I bellow, leaning over and giving her a kiss on the forehead. A kiss on the forehead always melts her some. She can’t hide the crimson blushing in her cheeks, despite her annoyance with my wandering mind and fidgeting knees. I don’t mind that she calls me sweet boy, even though the time for it has passed. I know she’ll always see me that way.
“You must pay attention.” She scolds. “Tonight will be special. You must keep your wits about you. Odessa Ford is flighty, and Salma—well, she’s an even bigger bore—but Robert is highly observant. He will be watching you from across the room. Don’t you do anything you’d usually do, alright?”
I snicker, barely heeding Grandmother’s warning. The things I usually do include poking fun at old Dasa men, or playing pranks with Ryder, Brutus and their friends. Sometimes sneaking up behind Grandmother and planting a kiss on her cheek in the middle of the Elders’ table. I have always been naughty, and impulsive. It’s what Teti likes most about me, but tonight is not that kind of affair.
“You are a man now, baby.” She yanks at my collar. “Time to act like it.”
She fixes my tie with her delicate, leathery hands. We still have ties in House Rydel—so do the other Houses, depending on whether they had decided, during Provisions, whether ties were important enough to keep.
I smile at Teti—my signature Cheshire grin.
“Don’t you start with that, now.” She tsks sternly. Teti says I look just like Grandfather. In her stories, she always tells of falling in love with his smile at a black-tie dinner in a place called Monaco, now overwhelmed with water in a part of the Barren Wastelands. I have yet to attend a black-tie dinner, as they are reserved for Elders, Seigneurs and Elder-initiates, but tonight will be my first because I have come of age. Tonight, I am twenty-five, and I finally meet my wife.
It sounds archaic, and perhaps it rather is, but control is what has kept The Province from falling into chaos and despair like other places did. Order is given the most respect, and is to be upheld at any price. I’m told there was a time before, when arrangements only happened in certain parts of the world, with certain types of people. Now, they are the norm, but only for the Elite. The servants—the Dasas—can choose who they like. I imagine when they do go home at night, it must be to someone they love, but most Elites care not for the going-ons of Dasas. They look upon them all as solitary pods, sub- or lesser humans leftover from The Storm to serve us so that we may reach and exceed our full potential as Real Humans—the ones who remained unchanged. The Dasas are all missing something, you see. The Storm touched all of them. Then again, it would be ignorant to say that The Storm did not touch us, too. But ignorance and elitism are luxuries practiced by those who were lucky enough to bunker, disguised as necessary evils in the interest of species preservation.
When Teti leaves, I contemplate my reflection in the mirror. The boyhood charm that got me so far remains, but something is different about me today—maybe it’s just the suit, and how elegant I seem in it. Though I feel silly, I know wearing one is an honour. I try to stand honourably, but the collar feels odd and suffocating, crunching against my skin. I adjust it, pulling at it with one finger, for space to breathe. With each step I take down our House’s grand staircase, I feel as though I’m walking myself to the gallows.
Mother and Father await me at our sleek steel doors. Ryder is waiting for me, too. Usually, we would be spending the evening at a Youth Feast. Tonight is different, though. Arrangements require the entire Province to be present. It is a group affair, which I’ve never truly understood. Marriage—or what I know of it—seems so entirely personal. When I contemplate, I wonder just how every Elder, and each star in the galaxy, have already made the decision for me.
The walk to Ceremony Hall is not long, and other Houses, each adorned in their finery, join us in our stride with the bustle and excitement that only comes before Arrangement ceremonies. They all smile at me, warmly and expectantly, but I find I don’t have it in me to smile back. The most I offer is a sheepish smirk, a grin masking my discomfort with being so heavily watched by their eager eyes.
We arrive to House names printed on the ballroom door. Rydel and Ford. Two of the oldest names in America. Of course, it follows that the oldest and richest survived The Storm. After all, they had the bunkers. The underground gardens, the secret storages, some of them miles long, nestled deep in the Earth. Those who didn’t, and who survived still, came out blind, or deaf, or without a sense of taste or smell. They all lacked something. They hadn’t been so well-preserved. Not like us. But I didn’t have much say in the matter.
The Storm came long before my time.
“Oh, Selma. Your insipid whining can truly drive a woman to faceplant headfirst in her soup and never return for air.”
I chuckle into my flute, failing to hide my delight at Grandmother’s tongue, and trying not to sputter as I sip the bubbly drink. I’m only allotted one—we all are—as the cellar has been wearing thin over the years. One of Father’s colleagues, now an Elder on his last days, stocked his bunker full of champagne and fine wine. Evidently he couldn’t imagine a world in which wine and champagne were things of the past. Legend has it he denied three cousins space in his bunker in service of keeping the vintage cold instead. I personally loathe the man, for as I know him, the tale is not a far cry at all. I have no issue imagining him sealing his own bunker shut to the faces of his own flesh and blood weeping on the outside. The image is clear as day, yet still, I drink the champagne. I drink mostly because it would be insulting if I didn’t, and I’d never hear the end of it from Father. I drink because it’s there, I guess—because the Seigneurs ration it and dole it out at important events like these, and to refuse the Seigneurs is an affront both personal and political. Because saying no, to anything, goes against the Order. So I drink, and I can’t deny that it is pleasant, but knowledge of its origin story means I never really enjoy the taste.
“Well, I never.” I hear Selma Ford harumph. “You really can be terrible, Alicia, when you want to be.”
“It’s a gift.” Teti muses.
I stifle another laugh.
Not all the Elders are like Teti. Most are viciously boring, and incredibly transfixed on their roles. Some shake, or have wild nightmares of The Storm. I suppose, having seen what they saw, it’s only natural. Teti has them, too, but she never really dwells. She is unlike the other Elders in this regard. I think it’s why she despises them so.
As I glance around the ballroom, I survey the familiar faces in their predictable habitats. Mother and Father politicking, Ryder, Brutus Ford and their gang of friends attempting to trick an old Dasa into giving them another drink. It will be the Dasa’s head, not theirs, should they succeed. I never cared much for my brothers’ friends, but these are the games one plays when one is young and testing for limits. The games are often cruel, and I can’t say I didn’t play my part as a younger boy. But I was never like Ryder—pressing my thumb into ants on the cement of the training playground. I never had the taste for cruel humor. I only wanted to be good, for myself, and for my family. When I was younger, I thought this would be the pinnacle of my life—to make my family proud, to wed, and to serve The Province as a true Son. As the days inched forward, though, all I wanted was more time.
“Chasen, darling.” I hear Mother coo. She is floating towards me in one of her prettier gowns, accompanied by Father, Mrs. Ford and a dainty girl who looks closer to fifteen than twenty. I know her, of course—we all know each other in The Province. But the girls are kept away from the boys, and so I’d only just seen her before.
“This is your betrothed, my dear.” Mother gushes. She turns to the little girl and squeezes her hand affectionately. “He was just telling me how thrilled he is to meet you.”
Lies. Mother likes to lie, or rather, dress up the truth.
“Lianna Ford, please allow me the pleasure of introducing my son—Chasen Rydel.”
“Chase, please.” I tell her formally, leaning forward and kissing the top of her little hand.
She gazes up at me with big blue eyes, glassy and soul-less. Simple and plain.
“Lovely to meet you.” She chirps robotically, a little intimidated and altogether touched.
Father can read my face already, and so he pretends to clear his throat and begins a conversation. I tune out as my eyes wander again, behaving exactly how Teti warned me not to. I cannot help it—already, I have been bored by my future wife. The Elders say the match is in the stars, but I can’t help but scoff. I know I’m duty-bound, but surely this cannot be it. A life with Lianna Ford already seems bleak and bland, listening to her robotic chirps each morning before I leave for Province Hall—day in, and day out.
As I scan the crowd, looking for nothing in the midst of all the chatter, my gaze is pulled towards a silhouette of raven hair and olive skin, burnt red-brown from long mornings walking to work and across The Walls in the scorching sun. Darker hues, as it stands, are thought to be less beautiful. It is a characteristic of the Dasas, an indicator of the sun shades they lack—but truth be told I have always found it to be more beautiful than my paler coloring. We were never allowed to be outdoors for long, as The Elders worried of sun-poisoning or toxins in the air, but I always snuck out on hot summer days to feel the rays kiss my face. Mother would freak and powder my cheeks and forehead with her makeup before dinnertime, and I’d spend the rest of the evening looking like some sad, pathetic clown covering up the husky golden shade I’d developed all day long. It was really only Teti who would wink at me from across the table. She had grown up spending her summers in a place called The South of France, long before The Storm, with Grandpa by the sea. One time, while I’d been dawdling on the property before Mother or Father had woken, I caught her on her bedroom balcony. She was basking in the rays from her waist down, her face covered by a scarf and a shady linen awning. Her legs were a warm caramel brown, a lovely hue I’d only ever seen on kitchen Dasas. Those who tended to the gardens were much, much darker. Teti and I never spoke of the incident, but we both knew it had always been one of our many little secrets.
The Dasa girl notices me watching her, and it is odd for us both since we are discouraged from having contact with Dasas beyond their roles. She shifts from one foot to another, uncomfortable in her own skin, and perhaps even a little afraid. But I cannot peel my gaze from her, for her almond eyes and supple rose-red lips are so enticing that I have to hold myself back from the physical pull I feel inside of me—the desire to be nearer to her. I had felt something like it only once before, in the presence of a kitchen Dasa at House Walton. Her lips were luscious, with dark eyes and long hair, and a smile prettier than I’d ever seen before. I had fantasized about her for years as a young boy, but one day when I went to the Walton House, she simply wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t want to think of what harm may have come to her. She was much too lovely to be harmed.
Despite the conversation around me, I remain transfixed, and perhaps I look as though I am under a spell, because the worry mounts in the Dasa’s eyes. She locks her gaze onto mine and delivers a warning from across the room, resisting the invisible magnetic force between us.
Don’t come any closer, her eyes tell me. Look away.
I do—I know I have to—but I don’t want to. She is the most beautiful woman in the room tonight, and quite possibly the most beautiful one I have ever seen before.
I steal another glance.
Not possibly. Definitely.
“Chase, your father tells us he’s been grooming you quite relentlessly to step into his shoes when the new season comes upon us. How has it been, getting taken under the wing of the most esteemed Seigneur in The Province? Not everyone gets that kind of inside look at how things really run.”
I glance back at the company around me and smirk.
“He certainly has been relentless.”
Mother giggles nervously while Lianna just smiles like a doll programmed to squeeze the apples of her cheeks at the triggering sound of others laughing around her.
The look on Father’s face tells me he is not so amused at my joke. I take any opportunity to humiliate Father in public. In public, he never does anything about it.
“Oh, I think you’ll be a wonderful Seigneur,” Mrs. Ford says graciously, sensing the tension between us all.
“Thank you, Mrs. Ford.” I respond appropriately, feigning finesse as best I can.
“Mother, darling, please.” Mrs. Ford instructs me, setting a gloved hand upon my forearm and giving it a warm little squeeze. “We’re going to be family, after all.”
While my own mother beams, I search again for the Dasa girl, only to find she has disappeared. I know she will be serving until the evening is over, unable to leave her post until we have all retired to bed. The Dasas are basically kept prisoners, only we let them return to their own homes beyond The Walls each night. As payment, they get our leftover scraps—some food and compost to take home to their families. Nothing grows beyond The Walls—an endless sea of sand—and no Dasa is allowed in The Province while the Elites slumber. The way I see it, if I were a Dasa, that would be the perfect time to slit all of our throats quietly, inconsequentially. I suppose the Seigneurs figured the same—hence, the curfew is as much for them as it is for us. Should a Dasa be spotted in The Province once the curfew alarm bells cease to ring, they can be shot by their own employers should the fancy strike them. Otherwise, they are shot on sight by the Reapers or high tower guards. Even if their House dismissed them too late.
The bell to prayer sounds, and I’ve already been coached on what to do. Lianna and I are meant to take our places upon the platform. I offer her my hand, and she takes it. We walk together under the careful eyes of our families and Province Elders. Mother beams with an artificial sort of pride. Teti rolls her eyes and nibbles on another grape. I exchange a mutinous glance with her, and while she bids me to maintain a galant air I know deep down she thinks all this is rubbish, just like I do.
Lianna and I present ourselves. The Province is watching. Robert Ford takes the podium.
“We pray you, Lord our God, bless young Chasen of House Rydel and his new bride, Lianna of House Ford. We pray they will always follow Order, and stray from Chaos. We pray they will give, rather than take. We pray they will contribute, rather than consume. We pray they will move, ever in your image, towards the ideal of what you desire us to be—your followers, so that destruction may never again come to this world.”
“Let us remember.” Robert Ford bellows, now the eldest of the Elders, and as such the Leader of Ceremony. The one sentence signals to all of us that we must bow, and so we do, in silence, and respectful penance.
I can’t remember, but I do imagine. I’m told the Elites carried their children into the bunkers, following the Elders of each family they promised to protect, come what may. Our House was in oil before the storm, and our bunker was enormous—I’d seen pictures, much, much later—and I often dream that had I been there, I would have told them to take as many people off the street as we possibly could. Bring them down into the ground with us. Not enough provisions, someone would have said, knowing full well that there certainly were. They had enough space to store steel and cement, enough bandwidth to accumulate material for The Walls. They had enough room and forethought for everything they really wanted, and the ability to decide what, and who, they didn’t.
The Storm was acid rain, snow and sleet, hurricanes. Clouds so black they ate up the sky to nothingness. Tornadoes as far as the eye can see, multiplying in a never-ending game of doom God was playing with us here on Planet Earth. There’s very little that can explain or describe exactly what had happened. Scientists—the few who survived, saved by the Houses who had a benevolent bone—attempted to compare it to the Ice Age, though it looked nothing like ice from what I understand. The Storm in tales told about it by the Elders is always described as angry, vindictive, vengeful, unforgiving. The Storm was spiteful, cataclysmic. The Storm was ill-intentioned. The Storm had an agenda: to obliterate, destroy, and eviscerate the species that had been slowly chipping away, draining, drinking, eating, polluting and irrevocably wreaking havoc upon the Planet’s surface. Fundamentally altering it forever.
The Storm, the Elders say, was meant for us. The Storm brought with it lessons—ones we must never forget. We are reminded of them every day, and especially on formal occasions such as this. I do my best to imagine, but I don’t really know. All I am truly certain of is how desperately I long to lay eyes on the Dasa girl again.
I open my eyes, while all the others have theirs closed. To do so is a risk, but the way I see it, from my vantage point on the Podium, this is the only moment I’ll get to scan the crowd and find her again. I finally spot her at the back of the room. I spot her because her eyes are open, too. And then I do something unheard of during Ceremony. Unheard of during Remembrance.