Chapter Four

Nora’s home, in Traveler’s Rest, had a wood floor and walls, but the canvas spread over the top still did most of the work keeping the wind out. On the Ledges, arguably the richest area, Zena’s family had a solid, well-built house, but her brother and his wife, much farther down on the social ladder, were protected only by wooden beams and packed snow walls, not unlike the structures that dotted the Slope and the Dirty Hills. The Kenazians of the Pieshop lived only in well-carpeted canvas tents.

There were two public buildings, both strong wooden ones, each central to the life of the colony in its own way. The Trade, directly in the middle of the colony, was both the center of what limited commerce the colony offered and the source of the common grapevine. If someone told you a rumor they’d heard, the first thing to ask was where they heard it. If it had come from the Trade, then it was disregarded, because so many people passed through there, who knows where they had picked it up?

The council house was on the edge of the colony, under a large tree between Traveler’s Rest and the Dirty Hills. The colonists were proud of their government, and would tell any visitors, (of which there were few besides the couple soldiers and an occasional volunteer who accompanied the supply cart) how unusual it was for a new colony, barely ten years old, to have such a functional government. That was everyone’s favorite word. Functional. When they said it, they meant that rarely were there fights over supplies in the Trade and that the colony seemed to lack a flourishing crime life, one of the hazards that often befell young settlements, full of rejects and outcasts. Never mind that the gossiping groups of the Trade learned their secrets from eavesdropping on the others, rather than risking talking to them; never mind that no council member who delayed action used any other excuse than the youth of the colony, claiming that people were still “finding their feet” and that things would work themselves out when the ground firmed, that the problems faced now would blow over when people were settled, whenever that was; never mind that the colony was fast growing out of an unsteady colony and into a tumultuous adolescence.

For being the second most important building, the council house was plain. One small room was furnished only with a rectangular table of five chairs. On the wall, a map of the colony and a round clock hung next to a rough cabinet which held the few important documents the council was charged with keeping: a citizen record and a copy of a propaganda-laced history of Kana and the surrounding countries. The cabinet also held a tape recorder, so that a secretary could, theoretically, produce an account of each meeting. In an attempt to keep the room as neutral as possible, there were no decorations of any kind.

Zena was the first to arrive, ten minutes before eight a.m. She knew she was early, and was prepared to be the first one there. She’d worried about it for ages that night, and had finally decided that it didn’t matter if she appeared overeager, because she was, and she wanted to be taken seriously. She’d dropped Neo off with a neighbor who thought he was an angel. Zena had thought so too, until dinnertime the night his parents left, when he’d cried himself to sleep upon being so abruptly weaned. Still, Zena found that a year-old baby made just enough noise to cover the silence marking the absence of her family, a gap she hadn’t thought she would be so eager to fill.

After another internal debate, Zena had put her hair, which was light brown and silky, in a simple headdress of her mother’s. It was made of strips of fake gold that you could bend around your hair to hold it in place. Her mother had tried to make Zena wear it on other occasions, but she’d rarely agreed. Looking at herself in the mirror, though, she decided not to look too wild. She balled the hair, which fell halfway down her back, at the nape of her neck and fitted the gold around it.

 

She tried out every chair at the table, carefully smoothing the fold of her dress over the edge of the chair each time before delicately placing her fingers on the rough table or lacing them together in her lap.

She was seated at the head of the table, in the chair reserved for the Head of the council, Rianne Deniquae’s old position, when Atkin came into the room. She jumped up, sure of the criticism she was about to face, and then cursed herself for sitting down in the first place. She’d closed her senses to what people thought of her when she was just an outspoken girl, but now that she was actually here, she couldn’t care more.

“Already plotting your power?” Atkin asked, liking the ring of the words.

“Just…testing the waters.”

“I’m sure.” He paused, and leaned just a bit over the table, “I suppose you’re the natural choice.”

She was still blushing from having him walk in so suddenly, but it just made her look angry. “You know as well as I do that there’s never been anything other than a Mashomi Head.”

“Yes, but you know as well as I do that Nora doesn’t even want to be here.”

“So it would appear the position is open.” She jerked her head on instinct, in order to give her hair an affected ripple, and too late remembered the gold ornament. “Am I so bad for wanting it?”

“Just as long as you realize you aren’t the only one.”

Zena glared at him, and then she sat down at the table, on the left side of the head of the table. Determined not to lose the battle entirely, she held his eye contact. Slowly he sat across from her.

They were busy avoiding looking at each other when the other three walked in. Jacques and Sheen, who had been in a conversation, stopped talking when they came through the door. Behind them, Nora took a few tentative steps toward the wall with the clock and the map.

“I didn’t know we were picking seats already,” Jacques said, eyeing Zena and Atkin, both of whom briefly considered saying something lame like, ‘oh, we can move’ and decided against it.

“How’s the cartography, Nora?” Sheen asked to break the silence.

“Fine, thanks,” Nora flared back, sure Sheen meant to be sarcastic. Another awkward pause settled over them before she realized her mistake, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

“What’s in the cabinet?” Jacques inquired. Gratefully she opened it, removing the records, tape recorder, and book. “Not much.”

“Just the basic start-a-colony kit, I guess,” he said.

“Yeah.”

Atkin cleared his throat. “Shall we start?”

They all sat down at the table. Nora, the farthest away, was left standing by the head. A small trickle of panic ran through her veins. Oh, why am I here? I don’t want—she took an internal deep breath. Find something to do. Be a leader. That’s why. Unceremoniously, she said, “I don’t want—this.” Casting around for someone to dump it on, she seized on Jacques’ recent clearing of the air. “Jacques should do it. He’s the most—uh, the most—”

“Uncontroversial,” Zena supplied.

Sheen was furiously thinking, Just because Zena and Atkin can’t resist attacking each other doesn’t mean I’m controversial. Why do the sneak-elves always have to be controversial? They’re afraid of what we’ll say. I should nominate myself. She almost opened her mouth, but didn’t. Better not mess it up. It’s tense enough in here. “Yeah, Jacques should do it,” she said.

“Um, okay,” he accepted. He stood up and Nora quickly took his seat. He went over to the cabinet, placed the tape recorder on the table, and pushed the ‘record’ button after he sat down.

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