Years ago Rilei and I came to a simple agreement: she would practice her embroidery, study her lessons, and do all the things Father expected her to do in his absence—and in return every year I would make her a pair of what we called “play pants” for her to romp around the playroom in when wearing dresses wasn’t absolutely necessary. It seemed fair enough to the both of us and we both held up our end of it. Because of this, Father never realized we were breaking one of his biggest and strictly kept rules; ladies always dress discreetly, in good taste, and in very feminine shades with beads, laces and ribbons.
One hot afternoon a week or two after Rilei admitted her desire to know the outside to me, we sat together on our library sofa with our embroidery supplies spread out on the coffee table. We had a classical record playing on our large dark wood gramophone, the needle beneath the long brass colored horn never skipping for even a second. Just one more luxury Father made sure we never went without. What good was a day without some good music?
“Ouch!” Rilei stuck her left index finger into her mouth. The sharpened tip of her sewing needle peeked out from behind the swathe of crème colored fabric. After a moment she took her finger out and wiped it on her pink skirt. “I hate this. Haven’t we done enough already? I want to go do . . . well . . . literally anything else!”
“Just a little longer.”
“But this is terrible!” She threw the project down on the coffee table. The force made the gold scissors rattle against the wood. She crossed her arms and leaned as far back into the sofa cushions as she could. “I hate this!”
“I think you mentioned that already.” I tried to stay smiling in spite of her frustration. I tried thinking of something—anything—I could do to help. Short of doing it for her, I was at a loss.
I breathed a sigh through my nose so quiet that the music managed to cover it up. I reached forward, placed my own work down on the coffee table, and picked her’s up instead. I began pulling at the threads with our seam ripper until I had a smooth canvas to work with. A few of the previous holes remained but they were easily overlooked.
“Watch me, okay?” I picked up the needle and began the process of stitching in the long green stalks for the flower bouquet image. She sat up and leaned over. “You need to pull tight like this. Not too tight because you don’t want the thread to snap, but don’t let it hang loose either. Don’t stretch it out so far either. Little stitches are what you want, it’ll make shading with darker colors easier. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah . . . I think so.”
“And start out with an outline stitch. Don’t start trying to fill it in until after you’ve got the outline done. That way you can . . .”
On and on the afternoon droned. Rilei watched with what I told myself was intense interest but was probably only pacifying awareness. I ended up finishing the entire project for her and, once I did, she went to do literally anything else while I stayed behind to finish my own. I never understood why she hated sewing so much. Personally I found it soothing and a good way to whittle away the long hours which seemed to stretch by in an agonizing eternity.
Then again, we’re allowed our own interests. I made a promise to myself that later I would make her do another project to make up for the fact that I did this one for her. Did it make a difference if she could embroider or not? Probably not, but she didn’t need to grow up thinking she would always have everything done for her—even if, as far as Pennyworth making our meals and Father bringing us everything we could ever need were concerned, it was true. Girls didn’t grow up right when they thought that way. I read all about it.
“I brought tea for the young ladies!” Pennyworth’s voice warbled as he floated in through the door with a silver tray balancing on his long, metal fingers.
Pennyworth was a B-16 model Robotic Butler, and though I’d never seen a B-17 with my own eyes Father promised they were worlds different from how Pennyworth looked. Two glowing eyes set against Pennyworth’s featureless face carved out of polished brass metal and a brown vest with golden flowers embroidered on the silk fabric sat over a loose white shirt.
He stopped short when he saw one of the ‘young ladies’ was missing from the room.
I didn’t expect the tray to also be carrying two slices of white cake slathered in pink frosting with little strawberries on top, but the moment I saw them my stomach growled. I tried making an effort to remind myself not to eat both cakes just because Rilei wasn’t here to claim her’s, but deep down I knew it was useless. Both cakes would be gone and there wasn’t much anyone could do to stop it.
“Oh, I thought Miss Rilei was in here with you.”
“She was. I let her go play.” Though at thirteen I doubted she was playing with the same boisterousness that she did when she was a young child chock full of imagination. Still, I imagined there were a few teddy bears being held hostage by Rilei the Pirate Queen. “So its just me.”
“Ah, well that’s perfectly fine!” he floated over to the coffee table and placed the tray down well out of the way of my embroidery supplies. “Would you like a cup of tea then, Miss Shiloh? It’s been heated to a perfect seventy degrees.”
“That’d be wonderful, thank you.”
He set to work fixing one of the cups for me. He poured the pale amber liquid into the little white cup and as he did I saw little pink rose petals float along the stream. Rose tea! I absolutely loved rose tea!
“I can’t believe you brought all of this!” I couldn’t keep from smiling. “Thank you!”
He chuckled, the sound chirruping with uneven tones. “I thought you might like it. Your father’s been gone a while and I decided that, since you and Miss Rilei have been working so hard on your studies since his last visit, you two deserve a treat!” He snickered a second time, setting to work pouring in a bit of honey from the little honey pot. “Or maybe I’m just spoiling you! You know how I love to do that!”
“And I don’t intend to stop you!” I put my embroidery aside, laying it where Rilei once sat, and scooted forward to the edge of the seat as he picked up the cup—saucer and all—and handed it to me. I took a sip, allowing the mixture of floral and tangy flavors to sit on my tongue a moment before swallowing. “This is delicious, thank you.”
In accordance with his propriety programming, Pennyworth draped one arm across where his waist would’ve been and gave a polite bow. “Of course, Miss Shiloh.”
Just before he left, I stopped him. “Pennyworth, can I ask you something.”
“Do you think I spoil Rilei?”
He turned away from the door to face me. “Why ever would you think that?”
I nodded toward her embroidery project. “Well, for starters, I did that for her. I shouldn’t have but I did, and . . . well, I don’t know. I’m worried that I’m doing it too often.”
Aside from Rilei, I trusted Pennyworth more than anyone else in the world. I knew he wouldn’t ever tell Father what I’d just confided in him.
He seemed to stop and think about this for a moment before answering. “I think you do what you can to help her. I think you love her and you want her to be happy. Do you spoil her? Perhaps a bit, but to be honest I think that’s unavoidable when you love someone as much as you love your sister. I know I struggled with a similar question when you were a child, and again when Rilei came into the picture.”
“I’m glad to hear you say so,” I said with a smile. “I just hope I’m not ruining her.”
“You’re not.” Blunt. No room for argument. Pennyworth was rarely so abrupt with me that for a second it shocked me into agreeing whether I believed him or not.
Proud of himself beyond measure, Pennyworth decided against leaving me alone in the library and instead opted to stay. I don’t think I could’ve been happier to have him.
Bathing had always been a ritual for me, partially because of how much I enjoyed it. I loved being clean. I loved the preparation that went into making the perfect bath. I loved my scented mixtures and my shampoos and the lovely perfumes I spritzed onto my skin afterwards. I loved the way the warm water felt against my skin and how easily I could float way on the faint wisps of steam.
I closed my eyes, breathing deep the scent of the floral bath salts. Roses, lavender, orange blossom, and calendula—I took all these different aromas in. Allowed them to ease me into a state of total relaxation as I sank as much of my body as possible beneath the surface of the warm water.
Through the closed door I heard my mechanical lark’s high-pitched twittering. It filled the silent space with pre-recorded whistling and somehow seemed to only add to the soothing atmosphere.
Submerged beneath the warm floral scented water, I watched as the false sunlight streaming in from the window behind me winked off the long, thin faucet and its knobs. Partials danced through the air and floated around the gold tassels which hung from the ceiling and separated my private bathroom into two smaller halves. The loose golden drapery hid the toilet from sight.
Was there a more perfect way to say goodbye to the morning and usher in the afternoon?
I tried to think of something I could do with Rilei later. So much of my time went to coming up with ways to keep her entertained. When she was a little child I always had to have a plethora of games and art projects stored up, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. Her attention was so short back then that I often struggled to keep her from prowling about the house whining about being bored. Father might have provided the means to care for my sister but it was I who did the actual raising. Not that I thought much about it. Father was a busy man. I couldn’t rightfully expect him to do all the things which needed done and raise a headstrong little daughter like Rilei at the same time.
A frantic pounding on my bathroom door woke me from a sleep I hadn’t realized had claimed me. Lucky it did; I’d begun to sink down below the water and the sound brought be back up at the last second. I blinked several times, pushed my hair out of my face, and regained myself from such an unexpected cat nap. Though I probably could’ve been quicker about it.
“Shiloh! Shi! Father’s here and I need help changing into one of my dresses!”
Father arrived while Rilei was in the pants I made for her? Goodness! No wonder the poor girl was in such a panic! I called out to her that I was coming and hurried to climb out of the bath. Water dripped from my body as I stepped onto the cool tile. I reached for my white ruffled dressing gown hanging upon a hook directly opposite the bathtub and wrapped it around myself as quickly as I could manage.
Outside the door Rilei stood half dressed in a little red dress with black ribbons dotting down the full length of the bodice and along the hump of the bustle behind her. The buttons on the back remained undone, her hair was an absolute mess around her little head, and under her gown she still wore the brown pants I made. She struggled to get the buttons fixed herself as I came into view, and once she saw me I swore the poor girl almost started weeping!
“It’s all right, it’s all right.” I spoke the words over and over again until they became almost a mantra for her. “We’ll get you fixed up. Go lock my door, I’ll make sure Father doesn’t see you until you’re presentable.”
She went and did exactly as I told her, closing my bedroom door and swiftly turning the lock until it clicked. She rushed back to me and I promptly set to work securing the large black buttons which ran down the full length of her back. She fretted more and more with each second it took for me to finish. It got so bad that I had to tap her on the shoulder and remind her to calm down.
Buttons complete, I ordered her to step out of her play pants. “Kick them under my bed as far as you can. He’ll never find them—and be quick. We still need to fix your hair.”
I then gestured for her to sit at the large dark wood dressing table opposite my bedroom windows. She finished kicking her pants beneath my bed as instructed and went racing for the plush seat in front of the oval mirror held in place by a pair of ornate carvings. I snatched up my brush and began working through the rats nest she called hair. Good lord! What was this girl doing all afternoon?
I pulled back Rilei’s hair and hurried to braid it. A simple braid, nothing impressive. Just enough to tame her wild hair into something more manageable for the time being. She winced when I pulled at her hair a bit too hard and I promptly apologized.
I finished with her hair within a few silent minutes. “There, see? Look how pretty you are.” I kissed the top of her head. “But you’re pretty no matter what. It’s just that now we can see your pretty face.”
Though she shrugged, I could tell she appreciated the compliment. “Thanks Shiloh. If Father caught me looking like I did—”
“Oh believe me, I know exactly what would’ve happened. Don’t worry about it. As far as Father knows, your play pants don’t exist and you’ve looked proper all day.”
In turn for helping her keep her secret, Rilei helped me get dressed. My dressings were a bit more complicated than her’s and would be for another three years. When she turned sixteen Rilei would have to begin dressing like an adult woman with a corset and garters and everything, and then helping her get dressed in a hurry would take a lot longer.
Once we finished I stood from my dressing table and took Rilei’s hand in mine. “Ready to go greet our dear Father?”
She rolled her eyes and I couldn’t keep from laughing.
“Dinner is served!” Pennyworth chirped he floated before the table fully dressed in the evening’s dinner. A fat, browned goose atop a bed of chopped potatoes dominated the center of the table alongside a bowl of Russian salad and a plate of mutton cutlets in aspie. Two three-tiered silver trays held piles upon piles of strawberries and grapes sat on either side of the large plate of fried fillets of sole.
The scents welcomed with open arms, enticing the three of us to the table. Father, like a gentleman, pulled my chair out before moving to do the same for Rilei. As we girls sat, he took his own seat. Pennyworth came around the table and poured us our drinks. Red wine for Father and I, milk for Rilei.
I never knew for sure if it was entirely because of his programming or because Pennyworth valued etiquette above all else, but every single dinner we ever had was done to perfection. The white table cloth draped over the dark, polished wood table was always pressed and devoid of any creases or stains; he always folded our napkins just perfect (tonight they were folded in the shape of large white rosebuds); and he set our places just right, down to something as small as the order of the water goblet, red wine glass, and white wine glass.
In turn he attempted more than once to instill the same deep affection for the tiny details of a proper meal in Rilei and I when we were growing up. Though we didn’t put in as much attention as he and Father, we still knew the more important points like where the spoons and forks went and how to arrange our soup bowl and dinner plate. I could do a few simple napkin folds, but whenever Rilei tried they came out as impressive clumps of white fabric.
“Thank you, Pennyworth,” Father said.
“Of course, sir! Happy to be of service!”
Mealtimes were very specific engagements, right down to where we were supposed to sit. Father always sat at the head of the table because he was the head of our family, obviously. I sat to his left where the second most important person in a household is supposed to be (though I didn’t like thinking of it that way. Aside from not feeling any more or less important than Rilei, it just sounded obnoxious), and Rilei’s place was directly across from me.
Even if he could, Pennyworth wouldn’t have been allowed to dine with us. Father told us stories about how there are people in the world with human servants who had no choice but to dine in their own quarters away from the family. I always thought that was kind of sad. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to eat with the people they gave such dedicated service to? I thought about asking Father about it a few times but ended up losing my nerve before I did.
Then there was the meal itself. A typical meal is a full seven courses, beginning with the entrée. Tonight it was a plate of the grapes on the tiered tray. Father and I discussed one of the books in the library while Rilei ate the little purple fruits without a word.
After the entrée came the soups. Pennyworth kept the soup in the kitchen to keep it warm, but now that it was time to eat he brought it out and began serving it. Pot-au-feu tonight. Again, most of the conversation remained between Father and I while Rilei ate in silence.
The fish course came third. Pennyworth cleared our soup bowls and served us from the plate of fried fillets of sole. Father talked about philosophy while my sister and I listened with the attention of eager students before their master.
Once the fish course ended, we were served the main course—the goose, fat and browned and glistening from having been basted. Pennyworth served us with the speed and grace so often seen in robotic butlers. Once our plates were full of food, he hurried to refill our drinks.
“Rilei dear, you’ve been quiet all night,” Father said as he cut into his food, slicing it into smaller pieces with his knife before placing it in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. “Is there something on your mind?”
This was invitation enough.
“I was thinking . . .” she hesitated for a moment, then blurted out the part that followed. “Do you think it might be all right if Shiloh and I went outside?”
A flash of wild panic quaked through my veins and turned my skin hot. I couldn’t believe my ears! Did she really just ask that? Didn’t we move past this?
My eyes darted between her and Father, desperate to figure out what was going to happen before it did. Steeling myself against whatever might’ve been on the horizon, I put my fork down on the plate.
“I was wondering the same thing.” At least if Father got angry with Rilei she wouldn’t have the bear the brunt of it alone. I would stand as her human shield as much as I could. Nobody, not even our own dear Father, would be allowed to hurt her.
Father’s face went through a series of subtle changes as he processed our question; and as I watched the nearly imperceptible shades of confusion, anger, distant melancholy, and what I thought looked like quiet resignation play across his face the air grew tighter with horrible tension. It threatened to strangle us.
Seconds stretched into horrible eternities. How long could we sit there in absolute silence? Wasn’t our food getting cold? Wouldn’t Pennyworth come floating in from the kitchen asking if we were ready for the dessert course? Was he already making the coffee for the final stage of our meal? I tried to focus on these things instead of what actually stood in front of me. It was my little way of soaring into a more breathable atmosphere.
Then Father wiped his mouth with his napkin and folded his hands on the table’s surface. “You want to leave?”
Though his eyes were fixed on my sister, I was the one who answered. “J-Just for a little while. Just to see what it is we’re supposed to be so afraid of. We’re curious, and aren’t you always teaching us that we ought to really take a look at something before we form an opinion on it?”
He never said those words exactly, but it sounded close enough to something he might’ve said.
I might as well have not spoken at all with as much good as it did. Father blew a long sigh out of his nose and leaned forward a bit, turned more towards Rilei than me.
“Haven’t I taken good care of you?” he asked, somehow managing to sound both concerned and annoyed at the same time. “Didn’t I give you everything you could’ve wanted? My sweet little girl, aren’t you happy here?”
“I—” the words stayed in Rilei’s throat, changing form before coming out again. “Of course. I’m very happy here. I just . . . I’m curious.”
“I suppose I always knew this day would come sooner or later.” He leaned back into his seat, tenting his fingers as if he were thinking deeply on the subject. I saw a flash of hope cut across Rilei’s face. “Though I think it would be a better idea if we didn’t jump right into it. You’re both still just baby birds. There’s plenty of time for such things.”
He reached for his fork to continue eating, then—
“I know, but I think . . . I think it would be all right. I think we’ll be okay.”
No! Stop! I wanted to scream at her, wanted to reach across the table and shake her. We almost made it out of the situation with the evening intact. There might’ve been a few hairline fractures in the air but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be mended. Now . . . well, now I didn’t know.
Another long sigh poured from Father. He reached for his wineglass, took a sip, and placed it back down with fluid and graceful movements. “You know why I want you two to stay here.”
“I know, but—”
“That’s right. To keep you safe. There are dreadful, horrible things out there. Starvation, disease, wild animals, men in tattered rags who want nothing more than to torture you to the brink of death.”
Pennyworth, who had been hovering on the edge of the room the while time, seeming to want to jump to our defenses but unable to do so because of the decorum in his programming, at last spoke up. The sound of his metallic voice made me jump. “Oh sir, surely you don’t want to fill their heads with such terrible stories! They’ll both have nightmares tonight!”
But Father ignored him all the same. “You don’t know how to survive out there. You’re too small, too delicate for such a harsh world. I know your sweet mother didn’t die just to see her most important accomplishments go out into a world so unworthy of them!”
The mention of mother put another layer of horrible pressure on the air. I tried to find a way to jump to Rilei’s side, to put myself between her and Father lest he say something that completely destroys my precious sister.
“Damn it Rilei! I said no!” The house seemed to shake from the force of his anger. I cringed, biting back an urge to throw my arms around her and hold her close. It got worse when I saw her eyes glaze over with a thin film of tears.
Oh my poor girl! My poor, sweet sister! Her torment shattered my very soul into a thousand jagged pieces. If the two of us had been arguing she might’ve started screaming, crying, and eventually stormed upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door. But because it was Father she had no choice but to swallow her hurt, her anger, her bitter disappointment and sit there with her head hung in shame.
Father tapped his fingers against the table as the ripples in the air tightened and released, tightened and released, tightened and released without ever offering even a single second of reprieve. Then at last he reached out a hand and grasped Rilei’s wrist lightly.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to shout.”
She nodded, silent. Even she knew that if she opened her mouth she couldn’t be entirely sure of what might come out. A cry, a scream—no matter what it wouldn’t be good and there was no point in arguing anymore.
“You just . . . you need to understand. I want to protect you. I want you and your sister to live long, happy lives. I know what’s out there and believe me, you don’t want anything to do with it.”
She nodded again. Still silent.
I reached for a drink of wine to wet my dry throat, then placed it back on the table with a smile. I had to save her. Take his attention off her, and there was only one way I knew how to do it.
“You know, I read an interesting book today. It was about the Allegory of the Cave.”