After Slaves, School
::Report to the Central office at 1 First street at 11 a.m. today::
Desmond touched the collar around his neck; the voice repeated itself.
“Okay…” He didn’t know if he was supposed to talk back to the collar. How did that work, anyway? “Will do?”
He touched the collar again and got silence. Well, maybe that had worked.
“Mo-om!” He tossed his robe on over his pyjamas and hurried out into the main center of the house. “Mum. I–” He fell silent, because his mother was talking with someone in the foyer.
She’d already turned around to look, though, and stopped mid-sentence. “Oh, Desmond. Darling. Oh…” Her hands went to her face and she turned back to the person in the foyer before turning back to Desmond.
“It’s okay.” He dropped his voice to the sort of volume he was supposed to use inside. “I’ll wait. I’ll start on something for breakfast, all right?”
“Oh, honey…” She looked back and forth between the door and him again before deciding that she had to talk to the person in the doorway.
Des squashed a surge of jealousy and unhappiness. He’d just told her to go talk to the stranger in the doorway – the way she was standing, he still couldn’t see who it was — he couldn’t do that and then be upset that she had.
“What’s going on?” His younger sister bounced down the stairs, wiping sleep from her eyes…. “Oh. Oh, Des, that’s great.” She hugged him, something she hadn’t done since she turned eight and put away her dolls. “Oh, Des, you’re going to get to go somewhere fabulous! That’s what the teacher said, last week, that the collared people are the lucky chosen of the fates. You’ve been chosen.” She touched the collar gingerly. “What does it feel like?”
“Like… not much, I guess.” He patted her shoulders carefully. “I have to be to First Street by eleven. I should eat, and get dressed, and…”
“Your best suit, I hope?” She gave him an arch expression that she had copied from their father. “And your shoes should be polished, I can do that. And we’ll get Annelle to do your hair, she’s always the best at it. And — where’s Mother?”
“In the foyer, talking with someone. She saw the collar, though.” She hadn’t been nearly as happy looking as Therese had been, though. “I’m going to start breakfast. My best shoes are in the bottom of my wardrobe…”
“…collecting spiders and dust, as always. They’re not that bad, Desmond, not really.”
“You say that because you’ve never worn them. Go on, let me make breakfast.” He patted her shoulder again, not as eager as he might sound to send her away.
Collared people did not have families, as far as he could tell. Collared people did not have anything that he knew about, but nobody had ever said “my cousin, who’s collared, visited last weekend.”
Then again, he knew nothing at all about collared people, except that it appeared he was one now, and it appeared that his collar spoke to him.
That ought to be disturbing him, but Desmond found that it was all a part of the whole package — he had a collar now. He was going away in a few hours. His collar spoke to him. When he did finally have his break-down, it was going to be an impressive one, he imagined. He hoped he was there to see it.
He made breakfast by rote, although he found he put a little more cheese and spices in the eggs, a little more butter on the toast, a little more cream in his tea. He was leaving; nobody chided him on the waste.
His sisters dressed him as if he were going to meet the Potentate or the local Judge. Their mother fussed around him, not saying much, fluttering out a hand to brush against his shoulder before pulling it back. Finally, when he had pulled himself together, when his shoes were laced to Anelle’s satisfaction and Therese had declared herself pleased with Anelle’s work on his hair, when he looked as perfect as a too-thin, too-pale someone like him could manage to look, his mother tugged the collar of his shirt under his cravat, patted his shoulder, and sighed.
“Go with the eyes upon you and the hands guiding you,” she murmured. “Go as my son, and if you return, return as my beloved kin.”
Desmond felt a chill. They said the same thing when a sailor went on one of the boats leaving sight of the coastline, when a voyager went through the Bastion Pass northward, when a glider strapped on wings from the Yorthmouth Tower. It meant they expected him to return only as a ghost.
He bowed and managed the return words as well as he could. “I walk into the unknown lighter and yet steadier for your blessing. If I return, I will return as blessed kin.”
That was it. He was gone from the family; they would mourn him quietly, as if he’d vanished at sea. Des hugged his sisters again, even if it wasn’t exactly what was called for in this situation, and stepped out the door and towards whatever came next.
Even if he hadn’t known where the Central Office on First Street was — and how could you not? It was in front of the Potentate’s Palace! — the collar certainly did. When Des took a slight detour to wander through one of this favorite parks, the collar gently reminded him that Genderon Road was a quicker route to the Central Office. When he paused for a while in front of the giant duck pond, the collar gently reminded him of the time. When he paused across the street from the Central Office, looking at the library where he’d spent more than a few stolen afternoons, the collar suggested he turn around.
“Are you going to keep doing this for the rest of my life?” he muttered.
The collar said nothing for a moment, long enough that Des felt silly talking to an accessory. Then it answered slowly.
::There is going to come a time when I am quiescent. And you can always ask me to be quiet before that. But, for the moment, my job is not to answer to you but to the people who want you in the Central Office at eleven.::
“You sound very alive,” Des muttered. He didn’t want to be seen talking to himself. He didn’t want to be seen at all, not with a collar — and so far, he hadn’t seen a single person he knew. Still.
::That is a matter they’ll teach you later. Now, into the Central Office. There’s someone coming I don’t think you want to encounter.::
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