illustration by Alison Wilgus

What Happened to Lord Elomar during the Revolution

Kelly Jennings


Deep in the middle of the first bad storm of the winter, when the power had been down for two straight days, the old woman walked into Elomar’s study. She came from the door to take the fireside bench, plumping her satchel in her lap. Scarlet and orange, the satchel was the same Pirian silk as her clothing.

Elomar reached for her handheld to call her Security, and frowned to find it missing from her worktable.

The old woman rooted in her satchel. “Your mother would be interested in what I have here.”

Lord Elomar snorted, leaning back to peer at the floor, hunting the missing handheld. Her mother had been dead thirty years. The handheld wasn’t on the floor. Where had it gone?

The old woman fetched out a tiny ginger creature. Very faintly, it mewled.

Elomar sat up, frowning. “A kitten.”

The old woman showed stained teeth in a gappy grin. “Very magic.”

Elomar snorted again. Cats did not survive on Hokkaido even now, six hundred years into the planet’s rebuild—they couldn’t be kept from hunting the viciously toxic indigenous insects.

The old woman put the kitten on the hearth. Delicate as a spider, it crossed toward the fender, its small flat muzzle poking before it. Firelight ruffled, lambent, over its red-gold pelt. “If you do three things,” the old woman said, “this cat will grant three wishes.”

“Oh, please,” Lord Elomar said.

“First,” the stranger said, “you must feed me well and freely this night, and feed well and freely all who come to your door for all the days that remain to you. Second. You must care for this cat as you would wish to be cared for, if any lived who loved you yet.” The old woman folded shut her satchel. “You must do this freely and with your own hands.”

“Now listen—”

“And last,” the stranger’s bright dark eyes fixed on Elomar, “you must yourself grant three wishes, of your own free will, wishes asked in good earnest from good hearts.”

The wind roared down the chimney, flattening the flames of the fire. The kitten sat abruptly on the rug. Elomar could not move.

“If you do these things, your will shall be accomplished. If you fail…” The old woman paused.

Lord Elomar touched her forehead, which felt hot. The old woman bent, picked up the kitten, and gave it to her. She felt it in her arms, light as the flames of the fire.

* * *

“An old woman, miss?” Thiel stood as he always did when they spoke, his hands behind his back.

“In my rooms,” Elomar said impatiently. “In the middle of the night. In the middle of the storm? Why did you let her in?”

Thiel glanced up, and looked back at the floor.

In fact, though, Elomar could not imagine Thiel doing such a thing—allowing some beggar in the house? Giving her access to her suite in the middle of the night? She bit her lip.

“Dreams can seem real,” Thiel offered. “Even after I’m awake, sometimes, mine do.”

Elomar put her hand to her forehead. “She came here during the storm.”

“No one came in during the storm,” Thiel said, and then added, “Well, the kitten.”

They were planning the work schedule, as they did the last day of every End. Thiel nodded past her, toward the bench by the door. In a wooden box padded with rags, a ginger kitten slept curled tight.

“I found her out in the kitchen yard last night, when I was doing locking up.” Thiel hesitated. “Cook says we’ve got heaps of scraps.”

The kitten blinked. Elomar had remembered the eyes as golden, but they were green as new grass.

“She won’t be trouble,” Thiel said.

Elomar snorted. “Yes, none of you ever are. Have that box brought up to my quarters, please.”

“To your quarters,” Thiel repeated dubiously. “We were thinking a scullery cat.”

Elomar sipped coffee. “How many will you need for the orchard?”

“Six. Five, if one of them is Bismarck.”

“Bismarck’s working the road. What about the new one?”

“Miss,” Thiel said, which meant he thought it was a bad idea.

Elomar had bought the new contract laborer, Teo, down in the lowlands when she had gone to meet with—fight with—the Provost of the University in Maghreb. She hadn’t meant to buy new contracts, since her estate, like most estates on Hokkaido, had been doing badly lately. But she had been so furious at the Provost, and so furious at Isha too, she’d had to do something to improve her mood. “Nothing from Isha,” she mentioned.

Thiel was silent. Then he said, cautiously, “None of us have had a post from her, miss.”

Elomar sighed. “Put Teo in laundry.”

Knowing even less about kittens than she did about wishes, Elomar did research, searching Hokkaido’s banks. The kitten bit and scratched when unhappy, and buzzed like a tiny motor when content. It could not roam free, which meant a box of earth in the scrub. Elomar considered detailing this to the bootboy, but her data on wishes changed her mind.

“That might be the very aspect you use to turn me into a newt,” she told the kitten, watching it prowl craftily after a woodhopper that had invaded her morning room. “Wish for a perfect chorizo, you turn me into a sausage?” She caught the kitten and scrubbed at its soft belly. “I know your games.”

It growled and batted at her, its baby claws like minute thorns.

Winter played out; snow thawed. All through the mountains, free labor began making the rounds of the great estates. In general, they knew not to try Elomar; but the winter had been hard, and finally one came through the gate.

Thiel brought the boy, a skinny scrap barely out of childhood, into the kitchen, where Elomar was going over accounts with the cook. Elomar was angry at first. But Thiel didn’t argue. He only stood waiting, the boy at his elbow. Elomar looked at them, and then past them, at the cat on the scullery windowsill, its long tail sweeping. Something dry went down her spine.

She said, “Feed him well.”

The cook straightened. Thiel glanced up. To the free labor, Elomar said, “We have work for you in the gardens, if you would like the job.”

“Lord Elomar,” he said faintly.

After that, many came, not only to see if Lord Elomar would give, but because it was Lord Elomar giving: Lord Elomar, who never gave. Lord Elomar, who wouldn’t spit on a burning man if he didn’t pay for the water up front.

* * *

Thiel had been six, his contract claimed, when her father had bought him out of the orphanage, but so tiny, his dark eyes immense under his cropped black curls, his shoulder blades stark as wings.

Elomar remembered that first morning, showing him the bunk in the scullery where he would sleep, watching him pull off the orphanage gear to change into her cast-off shorts and jersey. She remembered the raw welts across his skinny back. What did you do? she had asked, awed.

Nothing, he said, shrugging into the jersey. At the time, she admired his cool toughness. Later, older, she knew he was probably speaking simple truth—probably he had in fact been beaten for nothing at all. Crying in his sleep. Spilling his tea. Wetting the bed.

Why’s Thiel chipped? she asked her father, one evening. What did he do?

Because she knew people got sentenced to the system for committing crimes, going into debt, losing their land. But Thiel was a child, almost exactly her age. What could he have done?

It had been a late summer evening when she asked, her father working at his desk. He said it was complicated, that he would explain later.

He had, too: her father wasn’t the sort of man who dodged hard questions.

Now Thiel’s hair was shaved. And it had been years since he had given her the direct stare of their childhood. “Two more, miss,” he said, staring at the rug. “Will I give them work?”

“We can use help in the mani field, I suppose.”

“Yes, miss.”

When they were gone, she picked up the kitten. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she told it, only half in jest. The cat mewed creakily and she rubbed its chin.

* * *

Summer came, and rumor with it: unrest in the lowlands among the field workers.

Uprisings in the work camps had been endemic for years, though usually the chips were too battered by long work hours and short rations to start trouble. Not this year. Up on her mountain estate, Lord Elomar worried: about the uprisings, and about Isha, missing half a year now.

Isha Lord Elomar, only child of Elomar Estate, had never tread carefully. Whatever she took to—gardening, fishing, rock-climbing—she took to it entirely. At university, she took to politics.

“Do you know what the life expectancy is in those work camps?” Isha had demanded of Elomar, the last time she came home. “Or the zeolite mines? Do you know what happens to slave labor in the textile mills?”

“First,” Elomar said, “I can’t think why you’re shouting at me. I don’t own those camps, and I can do nothing about their labor policies. Second, slave labor? Please.”

Isha flung her spine straight. “Can the workers quit? Are they allowed to negotiate their working conditions?” She drove her forefinger at Elomar. “Do they enjoy the fruits of their labor?”

“They’re convicts,” Elomar said, with the steady patience she had learned when this child was six days old. “Working out a sentence.”

Isha snorted, her chin rising higher. “Yes, like Thiel is working out a sentence. Thirty-five years because his father was so careless as to die bankrupt.”

Elomar bit down on her tongue. She had explained to Isha, as her father had to her, how society had to be allowed to recover the costs of raising indigent children, or else allow parents to learn they had no need to be responsible—and then every idler, every addict, every fool who wanted to spend their time chasing a dream instead of supporting their children, would dump their offspring on the state.

Somehow, though, the explanation that had seemed so plain to Elomar only infuriated Isha.

Returning to the university, Isha had continued to frequent political bistros. Worse, she had begun to involve herself in protests. Twice she had been up before Discipline on charges serious enough Elomar had gone down to the school to intervene. Then, at half-term, Elomar received notice that Isha had left school. When Elomar synced the Provost to learn what more he knew, the Provost pursed his mouth. His opinion was Lord Elomar should be grateful he had posted her, and not Labor Security. These rebels, he said.

As if Isha were one of them.

Elomar had hoped, for a time, that Isha would come home of her own accord. When that did not happen, she sent out her private Security, who found nothing.

Or claimed to have found nothing. They had been her father’s Security before they were hers; she was not certain even yet that they might not hide shameful details from her, for her tender sake.

Now, the reports from the lowlands grew worse daily. The rebels burned entire work camps, estates, factories; Lord Holders were slaughtered, along with the free labor and any chips loyal to their holders.

“Even children,” Elomar heard the house girl whispering to Thiel outside her quarters. “Why’s anyone kill babies?”

“Get on to your work,” Thiel ordered her. “Scoot.” He came to Elomar’s door, his eyes down. “Free labor in the yard, miss.”

With the kitten in her lap, Elomar wondered whether, if she hadn’t been thinking of Isha, she would even have noticed how Thiel’s voice changed when he spoke to her. She stroked the kitten, watching Thiel, his head bent, thinking of running through the orchard with him when they were both ten years old. Sighing, she looked out at the bright sky. “Well, it’s time to mow. How many?”

“Five. Lowlanders,” he added.

“Give them a good dinner. Don’t work them too hard tomorrow.”

Her father had always insisted that everyone in his house work. Keep the dirt under your nails, he had taught her. Eat meals with the workers. Let them know your sweat is in these fields same as theirs. So she had prepped fields alongside her contract workers, planted mani and pruned the orchards, cut goats and sheared them. As had her daughter, until she had run off to these rebels.

Even now, for rough jobs, Elomar put on her work gear and went out with the crews.

Mowing was as rough as it got. They started at dawn, worked as long as the light held, cutting and loading and hauling the blocks of hay and clover. This far north, at midsummer the days were long—even with two hours off at the hottest part of the afternoon, it was a fourteen or fifteen hour workday.

By the third day, many of the workers were stumbling-tired, especially those not used to field work: the house and garden contracts, and the free labor hires. Elomar told Thiel to start rotating people out, giving everyone an hour break every four hours. They were mowing the high north field, which bordered on the peach orchard. People went over and slept in its shade or swam in the stream that ran through the orchard. Elomar could hear them laughing and splashing as she tossed bales up onto the flat to be driven back to the hay barn. When she was young, they’d had an automatic baler, which also loaded bales into the wagon on its own; but it was always breaking down, and required too many imported parts. Finally, reluctantly, her father had given it up for this design, which their own machinists could repair. She pulled off her hat, rubbing sweat from her face—sweat everywhere, soaking her shirt and trousers, sopping her long braid. She gazed at her crop-haired chips, splashing in the shade, thinking what cool water might feel like on her skin.

Someone shouted, terror and alarm. Someone screamed. She spun to see Thiel, who had been driving the mower—falling? (Impossible to fall from a mower, had he been standing? Why would he stand while driving the mower? Had the mower hit a rock? The north field was famous for rocks, but why would he be) falling into the path of the rattling blades –

The mower should have stopped, the failsafe should have stopped it, only the contracts always knotted a rag around the bar, binding it to the throttle so that they wouldn’t have to keep their fists gripping the failsafe while they drove. When Elomar caught them at it, she punished them, but they would do it, and now the mower trundled at Thiel as he fell. Shrieking filled the field. Over in the peach trees, people rose screaming. Those who had been asleep scrambled up. Elomar was running. Blood rocketed like a fountain over the hay, over the mower. The screams squealed like jamming metal. She shut her eyes. No, she said, into darkness as she fell. No, don’t let it be.

The ground hit hard. Her chest hurt. Hit a rock, she thought, terror knifing through her. She opened her eyes to see hay stubble green as the kitten’s eyes.

“Miss?”

She sat up, dizzy. Thiel helped her to her feet. “You’re bleeding,” he said, brushing at the hay bits on her scraped forearm.

“You’re—all right.” She looked past him at the mower.

He smiled. “Bet that’s the fastest I ever moved, huh.”

She stared at the mower, stopped in the shaggy field. The blood. The screams.

“The sun,” Thiel said. “Too hot for you, miss? Maybe you should go to the house?”

“No,” she said, though she did feel faint. She looked around for her hat. Thiel handed it to her. “No,” she said, putting on the hat slowly. “But…take the tie rag off the failsafe, please?”

“It is off, miss,” Thiel told her, surprised. “I never drive with it on.”

She still felt dizzy. The hay, fresh from the mower’s blades, lay fat and ripe on the ground, sharp-scented, ready for the baler. In her memory’s eye, dark blood spilled wet across it. Everyone was watching her, their dark eyes curious. She glanced at the sky, the sun meters above the mountains still. Hours yet in the workday. Her muscles so loose she could barely stand, she drew a breath and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “We’ll quit early today. Everyone down to the house for a big dinner.”

Thiel met her eyes, startled. All around the field, everyone else stared too.

“Come on,” she said. “I’ll even break out the cider.”

* * *

The cook brought out dumplings, and smoked ribs for the grill, and sent the kitchen girls for corn and beans from the garden. The first of the new peaches made sherbet, always a favorite. Between that, the cider, and the music and dancing that soon started in the yard—Jenny, her physician, was good on the sint and one of the bootboys was a drummer—it was quite a party.

“We’ll never get them up for dawn,” Thiel warned her, coming to stand next to where she sat on the rock wall, the kitten in her lap. She was keeping a good grip on it, lest it try to run off and chase lace bugs among the trees.

“Well.” Elomar was watching the contracts dance, remembering dancing with Thiel at a harvest party when they were both thirteen. He’d been so handsome, his black eyes clear. They had each of them always known exactly what the other was thinking. The next year she had gone off to university, and when she returned ten months later he had been in the fields. When she asked her father why, he said Thiel needed to learn that work. Busy with her own life, Elomar hadn’t questioned this logic. When next she had seen Thiel, he had been a head taller, heavy with muscle, his gaze fixed on the ground.

In her lap the ginger cat tensed, hissing. Out from the shade of the pear orchard came a pack of contract labor, strangers, ragged and filthy. Thiel moved in front of Elomar.

“No,” Elomar said. She put her hand on his arm. “Let’s see what they want.”

“Miss,” Thiel objected.

“Come on.” She gathered the cat into her arms and walked toward them through the trees.

* * *

Lowland rebels, three of them injured. Jenny treated them; Elomar hid them in her basement, though holders caught harboring rebels had their property impounded. In the cool of the evening, the rebels came up to the kitchen yard, talking to her workers and, Elomar saw from her window, Thiel.

“I hope you are certain about this,” she muttered into the kitten’s neck. The last thing she needed was her labor force running off to get themselves killed in the lowlands. She remembered arguing with Isha. All labor should be free labor, Isha had insisted. All people should be free to negotiate their wages, to refuse assignment, to organize coalitions.

Elomar had scoffed. Free? Did Isha think she was free, or anyone was? Could any Lord Elomar walk away from the estate? “Those contracts own me as surely as I own them,” she had snapped at her child. “I work longer hours than anyone here.”

Before the rebels left, she went down to see them one evening. But though she was as cunning as she knew how to be, their dark eyes slid away from hers. They claimed to know nothing of Isha Lord Elomar, or of any holder’s child involved in the fighting. Elomar watched as the youngest rebel, a boy near Isha’s age, fed the cat scraps of shredded pork from his own dish, considering other approaches she might take. Jenny, she knew, could mix a patch which would make anyone speak freely. She studied the young woman who led these rebels, thinking of ordering Thiel to force her to the infirmary.

Instead, sighing, she got to her feet. “If you see my daughter,” she said, “will you give her a message from me? Will you say this estate is open to her always?”

The young woman nodded warily.

The night before they left to go down to the lowlands and rejoin the fighting, Thiel came to her rooms. “Give me my freedom, Lord Elomar.”

Elomar had been on her desk, going over the work schedule. She looked up in shock.

“Please,” he said, meeting her eyes. “I want to go with the lowlanders. The chips.”

“Don’t use that word,” Elomar said.

“It’s what they call themselves,” he said, shrugging.

“You want to be a rebel.”

He lifted his head further. “I am a rebel,” he told her. “I want to join the fight.”

Her heart thumped hard. She stared at him.

“No one will give us freedom,” he said. “We have to take it.”

Lowland talk, she thought, but it came to her how strong his voice was now. The slur was gone, the mutter, the contract grammar. Against her will, she smiled. “I’ll clear your contract tonight,” she said.

In her lap, the cat stretched and then cuddled closer.

In the morning, she woke before dawn to help the rebels load the transport they would drive to the lowland. She was giving them food and clothing, medical supplies. “What else?” she asked the leader. “Tell me what else I can do for you.”

The woman traded glances with the young man closest to her age, so alike that Elomar would have suspected they were siblings if she hadn’t known how unlikely that was. In the contract labor system brothers and sisters, like parents and children, were always sold far apart.

“Weapons?” the young woman said. “Ammunition?”

Elomar bit her lip.

Thiel put his hand on the young woman’s shoulder; her smile twisted. In a flash, Elomar saw blood spill across mown hay. She saw Isha stumble to her knees on the bloody ground, gripping an empty Lopaka short rifle. Her face filled with shock as a plasma blast took her in the chest.

“Miss?” Thiel said gently.

Elomar bared her teeth, wanting to hiss like the ginger cat. “Come with me to the gun safe.”

* * *

Late summer, and more and more refugees flooded the hills. Elomar gave refuge to any who asked. She asked always about Isha, but no one ever knew. All the rebels, and many of the free labor, told terrible stories, how any contract caught outside the camps was liable to be impounded and shipped uphill to the asteroid mines; how often small holders and Lord Holders did not wait for this, but shot stray chips on sight, or did worse things. “You hope it’s only the bullet,” one of the rebels told her, one with a bad burn scar. “Pack come after you, you wish for a bullet.”

Elomar told herself nightly that if Isha had been taken among these rebels, surely, in that extremity, she would call for her mother’s help.

But finally one night she could bear no more. Holding the cat, she said, “My second wish.” Though she did not believe in wishes. Though she knew what a merciless world it was. Though she knew only hard work brought anything, and even that no promises. “Bring my child home,” she said, and kissed the kitten softly.

* * *

Two days later, as she was having her morning tea, the house girl tapped her door. “Miss. Dub say more of the ch—the lowlanders, coming through the timber.”

“All right. Tell Merry to get breakfast. Did he say how many?”

“Yes, miss, only a few. Six or eight.”

“Tell cook.” Elomar gathered the cat from her lap to put it on the windowsill. The girl went skipping down the stairs. This rebellion, Elomar thought, going into the dressing room, was all adventure to these Estate contracts. Like some sporting match, with their side doing better than anyone had expected.

When she arrived in the kitchen, there at the scullery table with the other rebels, scrawny and filthy, ragged in contract clothing, her lovely amber hair cut short, gulping down barley mush as if she were starving, was Isha Lord Elomar.

Elomar’s heart thumped. Isha swallowed a last huge mouthful and climbed to her feet. “Mother,” she said. “I have come to ask your help.”

* * *

Isha had brought the leader of the lowland rebels home.

Lena Rye, Isha named her, though Elomar had heard her called Helen Riot, Hell’s Rival, and Lee Rider. She was not what Elomar had expected: shorter, for one thing, square-built as a truck, with broad cheekbones and a narrow—almost cat-like—chin. Her eyes were cat-slanted as well. Her skin was brown; her short cropped hair was black as coal. She was a field contract, that was plain from her language. Underneath her right eye was a small livid scar, curved like the sliver of a new moon.

What she wanted—the rebels would lose, she said, if they kept fighting in the lowlands. While they had allies, their camps were too easy to spot by satellite there, and also too many people lived in those lands. Someone would always betray them. What they needed was land and allies here in the mountains. They had heard Lord Elomar gave help to those who asked. Would she give them leave to put their camps on her land?

“Headquarters, do you mean?” Elomar said. “Out of which you may mount attacks on my country?”

Lena Rye nodded, her dark eyes steady.

Elomar gazed back. “There is a difference between feeding the hungry and the injured at my back door and giving my estate over to your rebellion. That is what you ask for. Everything I own.”

“Everything you own and everything you are,” Lena agreed, her gaze unshifting.

Elomar looked past her at Isha, her child, home safe, though, it is true, only for the moment. In the shadowy dusk of the doorway beyond her, the house girl stood knotting her fists in her apron. Not like someone watching a sporting event at all, Elomar realized. Like someone betting her life. They want me to give up everything. My life for theirs. My world for theirs.

She shook her head. “All right,” she told her daughter, and also Lena Rye. “You must tell me what you need, and I will help whenever I can.”

“Lord Elomar,” Lena said gravely.

“Tatiana,” she said and took the rebel’s hand.

* * *

Many years later, years of hard, desperate fighting in Parliament and the law courts as well as in the mountains, one fine spring morning Lord Elomar lay mortally wounded on her terrace. Her estate house roared with flames around her. Helos thudded through the air, chasing the scraps of Lena Rye’s East Mountain Raiders back from the bridge they had been holding against the Labor Security Forces pouring in from Ahuja’s Gap. Security and Raiders shouted; the wounded wailed; plasma rifles and hard shots cracked the valley air. Elomar heard a distant whump as the bridge blew. Maybe their munitions team had gotten to it in time.

She touched what was left of her ribs. The plasma bolt had hurt astonishingly, hitting her, but that great blaze of pain had faded. She wondered where Isha was. Weeks since her last visit. What would become of them all.

The cat poked a cold nose at her ear and creaked out a protesting mew.

Elomar opened her eyes. “You should get out of here. Shoo.”

The cat sat down, its green eyes narrowed. It mewed again.

Elomar tried to reach out, to push it off the terrace. Nothing worked properly, and anyway her fingers were slick with blood. Or something worse than blood. “Idiot cat. Go.

The cat stretched, arching its back, and shook its head and rolled from the golden fur into a shape, a smoky shadow, a lick of flame. Dying, Elomar thought. Oh, well.

“You still have your last wish.”

She opened her eyes. On the terrace where the cat had been, among the rattle of flames and billowing smoke, the old woman sat cross-legged in shimmering gold and green and electric blue. “Oh, shit,” Elomar said sleepily. “Magic.”

The old woman smiled. “Magic. Will you take your wish?”

Out across the fields, a helo fired a strafing run. Elomar turned her head, listening to the screams. She knew every chip in Rye’s Raiders. Who was dying out there?

“For instance,” the old lady said, “you could wish your injuries away. Wish to be whole and hearty and young again.”

Elomar rolled her head back. “That can’t happen.”

“Oh, it can. You have done your part. I will do mine.”

Elomar watched her, but she was listening to rockets and plasma fire, she was thinking of dark eyes and desperate determination. And Lena Rye as she took her child’s hand.

“Will we win?” she asked the old woman.

The old woman tilted her head to one side, shrewd as a cat. “Is that your wish?”

Elomar felt the world rock with weariness.

“You could have anything. Wish for victory tomorrow. Yesterday! Wish all your enemies dead.”

“Let us win this,” Elomar said, dizzily, distantly, the rattle of gunfire sounding like the tide in her ears. “That’s my last wish.”

She waited for an answer, confirmation, some promise. Nothing but the scream of a rocket streaming toward its target, and then, soft as a cat’s paw on her face, the old woman’s fingers shutting her eyes.