“You!” a man with a particularly fine red beard barked and Nate sprang to attention. He was loitering by the door of the shipping office down near the docks, waiting to see if there were any messages to take. Usually that was Willy’s job but Willy was sick abed and Nate had come down before supper to cover some of his time. They couldn’t spare even the few pennies Willy made nightly. “You,” the man said again, gesturing impatiently. He had strolled past Nate, just another Observant down by the wharf, walked casually into the shipping office like a dozen others had that night to check if there were any pressing messages for him from home and then burst back out the door, agitated. Bad news, presumably. “You sail?” the man said, and Nate stood up.
“I can sail,” he said, halting. His Platt was bad and he understood more than he could say but the man ignored Nate’s crap Platt and grabbed his arm.
“I have to get to Victoria tonight,” he said, and Nate looked at him. Nate had learned not to turn down any task that might pay, bar one; this man didn’t seem intent on that one, though you never knew. “You help me take my sloop to Inner Harbour tonight, I’ll pay five dollars and food,” the man said, which was suspiciously high but of course it was already growing dark and there weren’t many prepared to leave now rather than waiting for the dawn.
“Two fifty up front,” Nate said. “What if we drown?”
“I don’t see what good two fifty’s going to do you if you drown,” the man said, but he seemed in too much of a rush to really haggle.
“Two fifty up front,” Nate insisted. “My sister needs it for food for the little ones. I’m a Bluenoser from down East and I can crew a boat; half now, half on arrival, I find my own way home and no fucking.”
“Done,” the man said, handing over two fifty. “Jordie Benn,” he added, shaking hands. Nate admired his beard. He hoped to grow one like that some day but so far no luck. “Who’s trying to fuck you?” Jordie asked idly. “This is an Observant town - no one should be making those offers.”
“This is a port,” Nate said, “and I’m an orphan. I got blond hair, all my teeth and a heap of brothers and sisters to feed; you think I don’t get offers?”
“You’re Observant, though,” the man said, taking in Nate’s hat and trousers. “Why isn’t the Community taking care of you?” Nate just shrugged. The fledgling Community of Gastown had given their family two rough rooms for all nine of them to live in, a measure of oats and the same of flour quarterly, and allowed the younger children to attend the Church School. Beyond that he and Sarah had been left to find their own way and they had managed to stay a day ahead of starvation but only that.
“I don’t need anyone to take care of me,” Nate said, and flagged down another message boy to run take the money to them at home.
# # #
“You got a lot of brothers and sisters?” Jordie asked idly once they were out of the port and underway. The trip would take at least six hours, the first half easy sailing, and Nate guessed Jordie thought they might as well talk to pass the time. Whatever had been troubling him was clearly still weighing on his mind, but he seemed like he had decided to try to distract himself.
“Eight,” Nate said, reclining on the anchor rope, hoping Jordie would break out the eats soon. “You?”
“Just two,” Jordie said. “A sister and an Omega.” He spoke with understandable pride. To have an Omega in the family was a very great thing.
“I got an Omega too,” Nate said. He wasn’t going to go around bragging about it like some but he wasn’t going to hide it either.
“Shit!” Jordie said, sitting up to stare at Nate. “You’re the English boy with the Omega baby!” He stared at Nate intensely, as if his brain was whirring a thousand miles a minute.
“I guess,” Nate said, wary. “Why?”
“How’d you end up here anyway?” Jordie asked.
“My Ma was Mary Penner’s oldest granddaughter,” Nate began, the story of his reason for being in this benighted outpost well worn by familiarity. He had told it dozens of times. “Her Ma married a boy who took her to Halifax and my Ma grew up there outside the Community. We headed to Denver couple years ago but my Pa died on the way and six months later my Ma had Georgie. He was Omega so we came here for shelter.”
“Yes,” Jordie said, looking oddly excited. “Your mother was Mary Penner’s granddaughter, wasn’t she? And your father was English?”
“He was,” Nate allowed. Jordie was examining him with a very considering look and Nate didn’t entirely care for it.
“You looking to get married?” Jordie asked.
“Thanks,” Nate said. “I’m very flattered but I think your beard might be too much for me. I’d be too shy.”
“No,” Jordie said, ignoring his attempt at humour. “Are you?”
“I’m not quite eighteen,” Nate said slowly, not sure if he was dealing with an idiot. “I got no trade and my sister and I got seven little ones to raise so fathers aren’t lining up their daughters for me, no.”
“But you’re free to marry, if you wanted?” Jordie pressed.
“Free to do whatever I like,” Nate said, not pointing out that eight dependants and no money limited his options pretty severely.
“You got any hereditary madness in your father’s family?” Jordie asked, which was the kind of intrusive question Nate had grown to expect from the Observant. He’d never met people with such passion for eugenics thinly disguised as genealogy.
“No,” he said, too tired to drag the conversation out and knowing what Jordie wanted to ask. “No madness. And my Ma had ten children, one died of illness, my Pa was one of fourteen, his Pa was one of twelve, his Pa again was one of six but that’s cause his Pa was crushed by a rock at twenty six, so he’d done good work in the time he had; my Ma’s Ma had eight, and you know my great grandma’s family better than I do no doubt.” Mary Penner had been a famous Omega Daughter, her younger daughters the first to form the Victoria Kolonie and herself the mother of an unprecedented three Omegas among her fifteen children. Much of the Victoria Kolonie’s wealth and position was predicated on Mary Penner’s children, and she was still a name to conjure with.
Jordie looked suitably impressed. There was nothing the Observant loved so much as large, fertile families. “What did your parents die of?” Jordie asked, and again this was the sort of thing that passed for light conversation among the Observant, though Nate found it painful every time.
“My Pa drowned,” he said shortly, not touching on their wagon’s fall into the North Platte on the long trip from Springhill to Denver, cut short by disaster. “My Ma took pneumonia year after.” There was nothing extraordinary about the story. Many others had similar sad tales and Jordie’s real question, was there any constitutional weakness in the family, was sufficiently answered. MacKinnons were robust, but even they couldn’t stand against every danger.
“Hmm,” Jordie said. “And then your youngest brother is Omega?”
“Yes,” Nate said, wary. They had come to Victoria Kolonie looking for shelter when Georgie was born Omega but the Kolonie, for all its lip service to family and community, had done little. There had been many, many offers to take Georgie off their hands, all embellished with a gloss of concern as if they were doing the MacKinnons a favour but Jordie surprised him with his next question.
“And your Mother only had the one Omega?” Jordie said. No one had ever asked Nate that before, as Omega births were so rare.
“Funny you ask,” Nate said. “There was one just after me, Minnie, who died at two from the summer diarrhea, and I always wondered. Whenever my Ma talked about her she had a tone, and Ma didn’t seem so surprised when Georgie came. I always wondered if Minnie was Omega but they hid it and called her a girl.”
“Holy shit,” Jordie said. “Mary Penner’s great grandson with two Omegas in the direct line. Why are you scrounging for messages?”
“Mary Penner doesn’t seem to have done me much good,” Nate said. “Got to feed the kids somehow.” He didn’t bother pointing out he’d only been covering Willy’s job - he was too old for a message boy and had his own day labour job on several farms.
“Hmm,” Jordie said and looked like he was thinking deeply. “You ever considered setting out on your own?”
“What?” Nate said, fiddling with the frayed end of the rope. “Set out where? Who would take care of the kids?”
“Let the Community care for them,” Jordie said, seemingly off hand.
“Can’t see the Community’s done much of a job so far,” Nate said, prepared to get quite peppery about it. They had come to Victoria Kolonie seeking refuge when Georgie had been born Omega six months after his Pa died; Victoria leadership had done their damndest to pry Georgie out of their hands and when that failed, sent them to live in squalor in Gastown, ostensibly to assist in the creation of a new Kolonie. Nate’s Ma had died almost directly after of pneumonia and once a quarter the Gastown Elders swang by with entirely insufficient food aid, tried various bribes to get hold of Georgie, and then departed, disappointed once again. Nate was in no mood to hear suggestions the Community relieve him of responsibility. Nate gave Jordie one of his Ma’s patented chilling looks. “I know you weren’t suggesting I abandon those children,” he said coldly and Jordie shrugged as if it were nothing to him but he looked approving at the same time. “The Elders only want Georgie,” Nate said. “The rest of us can go hang, for their money, but I’ll be damned if I break up the family.”
“That’s a lot of family to feed,” Jordie said, and Nate nodded agreement. It was. “You ever taken any of those offers you mentioned?” Jordie asked, and Nate knew exactly what he meant.
“No,” Nate said, exasperated. “I haven’t. We gonna talk about how I’ve kept my virtue some more or can we eat?”
“Have you though?” Jordie pressed and Nate snapped.
“Yes!” he said. “I never done a thing!” Other boys in town, Nate knew, had and Nate didn’t begrudge them their decision; occasionally, on days he was especially cold or hungry, going without so the younger ones could eat, he wondered if he was a fool not to but he hadn’t, quite, been desperate enough yet to take up the offers sailors and coarse men had made him. He had no objection to men, although he kept that a close secret, but he had quite an objection to taking it up the ass dry for money while crushed against the back of a privy, which was what the offers had amounted to.
“Hmm,” Jordie said noncommittally, but he seemed satisfied with Nate’s answers, somehow. “Can you read?” Jordie asked, and Nate was surprised at the change of direction but answered.
“I can read,” he said, and that was true. He’d gone to a decent enough school until they left Springhill when he was fourteen. “English, not German though,” he added. He’d barely learnt enough Platt to get by - learning to read High German, a whole different language again, was beyond him.
“What were your people like?” Jordie asked and Nate was even more puzzled but answered that too.
“My parents loved each other,” Nate said, because he knew that had meaning to these people, and Jordie nodded approvingly.
Jordie went on, asking if Sarah could read, if she was a good girl, if she could cook, about the younger children; would Nate consider consigning Sarah and the others to a farm family as servants and keeping only Georgie close by to care for, how large was the house they were living in now, were the children healthy, was Nate sure he was insistent on keeping the family together. How did Nate discipline the younger children? Had he ever struck one so hard they bled? Had he ever struck Sarah? What did Nate do when they didn’t have enough food - who ate first? Had Nate ever worked with unbroken horses? Did he believe they had to be whipped or just tamed? Finally Jordie sighed and sat back. “Alright,” he said. “You want chicken or steak pie? I got one of each and a bottle of beer.”
“Oh, God, either,” Nate said, relieved by the end of the questions. He hadn’t eaten chicken or beef for over a year; they could afford salt pork once a week or so but that was it. “Gimee,” he said and Jordie handed the chicken pie over. It was delicious. Anything would have been; Nate ate twice a day, three if his employer fed him midday, and had missed his second meal hustling for messages, but the pie was particularly succulent. The pastry was perfect, crisp and flaky, the chicken was tender, the vegetables just right, the thick gravy that held the pie together was flavourful and rich. “I want to marry whoever made this,” Nate groaned.
“Funny you should say that,” Jordie said, and his tone was strange enough Nate looked over at him. “I got a little problem,” Jordie said, and laid out the situation. This was the news he had just received in the shipping office; apparently he had a ‘family friend’ who was in need of a quick marriage to redeem their lost Integrity. Very quick; Jordie proposed the same day they were to arrive in Victoria, and evidently it was of great importance to Jordie; he was willing to pay Nate two thousand dollars as a dowry for the favour.
Nate stared back at him; there was only one possible reason Jordie was willing to pay a dowry for a marriage this rushed and he wondered how he would feel raising Jordie’s child, beard and all. Still, it was an enormous, unexpected chance. Jordie appeared to be able to make good on the offer and the money was desperately needed. It would buy dozens of things they sorely needed but most importantly it could buy Nate and the other boys apprenticeships, the only possible way out of their poverty.
“Well?” Jordie said.
Nate looked at him coldly. If he’d gotten a girl pregnant, he’d have married her himself, not hired it out. “I’m gonna need more than that,” he said speculatively. “Double.”
“Can’t do it,” Jordie said, and it had the ring of truth. “What else would you take?”
“An apprenticeship,” Nate said. “I need an apprenticeship.”
“Done,” Jordie said quickly but Nate held up one hand. This all seemed much too good to be true.
“With articles of apprenticeship and all,” he said. “In writing. For the full seven years. And I’ll need my sister and all the little ones with me.”
“You want me to feed eight more people?” Jordie said, outraged.
“Nine,” Nate said. “Assuming this girl you want me to marry eats.”
“Oh it’s not a girl,” Jordie said, and Nate looked warily around him. It was pitch black and the water only a few degrees above freezing year round; there was no chance at all of survival if he went off the boat to escape what he now assumed was some weird fake proposal that ended with Nate ‘married’ to an ex convict with a taste for boys.
“Calm down,” Jordie said, accurately assessing Nate’s look. “It’s an Omega.”
This was even less believable. Omegas were rare and precious, the living incarnation of the Covenant between God and man and central religious figures of the Community, kept physically separate and pure from the contaminating touch of all but their Alpha and women closely related to them. Marriage to an Omega was for the wealthy and powerful, not Nate, although as the brother of an Omega he was technically numbered among the Blessed, Community members who had an Omega within the household. Omega marriages were practically affairs of state and involved years long negotiations and the exchange of tens of thousands of dollars. There was absolutely no circumstance under which Nate would be asked to marry an Omega. “I will fucking stab you if you touch me,” Nate said. He didn’t have a knife but Jordie didn’t know that and he now suspected Jordie was insane. Why would he create such an unlikely tale?
# # #
Four hours later they landed. Jordie had done a great deal of fast talking, blabbing on about his brother’s friend and something about a letter, and eventually produced several more meat pies, all of which had convinced Nate to stay peaceably on the boat, but none of which had convinced him Jordie was telling the truth. They had still been hashing it out when the wind whipped up and they had needed to stop talking and start sailing, and the conditions had stayed bad right into the Inner Harbour. Jordie tied the boat up and hustled Nate up the docks. He seemed in a great hurry to find someone. Nate still didn’t believe there was an Omega Jordie wanted him to marry, but he was willing to follow along behind and see what happened, given that he had no real alternatives and still hadn’t been paid his second two fifty. The meat pies had been good, and Victoria was a fully Observant community, unlike Gastown; Nate had heard Observant towns had Community Halls that would feed all Observant comers and he was interested to find out the truth of that. Maybe they had more pies.
“Where’s Segs?” Jordie asked several men as he passed and they all pointed up at the warehouse at the top of the hill. On their way up the hill, stepping double time, they passed a tall, pudgy Omega taking the morning air appropriately chaperoned by a young woman about his age and several married ladies. An Auntie stood about ten feet in front of him, preventing anyone from getting too close. Nate stared. He had never seen an adult Omega; Georgie was the only Omega in Gastown, though the Victoria Kolonie had said they would send two Omega Daughters soon, ready to produce more Omegas to found the new Kolonie. He had not known grown Omegas were so tall and doughy. Somehow he had imagined someone smaller than him, closer to a woman’s size, and he tried to imagine Georgie, grown up and hemmed in with attendants. Certainly the Omega had a beautiful face, enormous doe eyes and lovely pale skin, and he turned towards them as they approached. He tilted his head towards Jordie and lowered his eyes; everything he did seemed very mannered, irreproachably reserved and decorous.
“Alpha,” he said as they drew within hearing distance.
“Alright, Chubbs?” Jordie said as they passed, but he didn’t stop and continued on towards the warehouse. Nate followed after him, staring back.
“Are they supposed to be so tall?” Nate asked as they continued their climb.
“No,” Jordie said, sounding irritated. “Jamie’s the ugliest omega in several generations, but he’s my brother and I won’t hear a word against him, so shut your mouth.”
“Sorry,” Nate said. He hadn’t meant it as a criticism, but he supposed when someone was paying tens of thousands of dollars to acquire an Omega they got touchy when their possession didn’t look right. He could see how a 6’3 Omega could be a difficult situation. He followed Jordie up the hill. Before they got to the warehouse, they passed the Community Hall and Jordie gestured to Nate.
“Go on in there and wait til I come back,” he said. “There’ll be an Auntie or so about to feed you if you look pitiful enough.” Nothing loathe Nate hustled in.
There was indeed an Auntie, sitting by the fire but she leapt up when he entered. “Och,” the Auntie said. “Has anyone fed you today? You’re too thin.”
“No,” Nate said, trying to look pitiful and it seemed to work as he was propelled to one end of the long communal table and a bowl of oatmeal with cream was set in front of him, followed by corn porridge fried up with liver pudding and maple syrup for the top. The auntie reappeared briefly, considered Nate as he shovelled it down enthusiastically and then left to return with a tin of cookies.
“Whose son are you now?” she asked, and he mumbled through his mouthful.
“Mary Penner’s great grandson, Auntie,” he said, and her eyebrows shot up.
“Through the English?” she said, as if it were a bad word.
“‘Fraid so Auntie,” Nate said cheerfully. He was used to this reaction, and she snorted rudely and left, no longer sympathetic now she knew he was tainted, but she also left the tin of cookies and he opened it to inspect the contents before returning to his liver. Cream cookies; excellent.
Someone pulled out the seat across from Nate and sat down. Nate was too occupied with the largest meal he’d had in weeks to bother looking up but then a man’s voice at the other end of the hall caught his notice. There were several men milling about near the door, arguing, Jordie and an older man and someone Nate assumed must have been the missing Segs, a tall man with dark hair and beard. “No!” the dark haired man said loudly. “Not some stranger... “
“They’re coming after all,” Jordie said. “It has to be tonight.” Nate looked away; their fight was no concern of his, and his gaze passed over the occupant of the seat opposite him. It was an Omega, different than the first, this one a boy a little older than Nate.
The boy looked a great deal more like what Nate had imagined an Omega would, and he stared at him admiringly. He was beautiful, piles of dark glossy braids that marked him as Omega, a tiny waist and a sweet little face with lovely skin. He was wearing a pink shirt patterned with red birds and on him it was charming. His clothes were visibly of the highest quality and he had a sleek, well fed look of wealth but there was a deep bruise all along one side of his face, a nasty purple green that suggested it was at least a week old, and when he saw Nate looking at it he scowled. He moved stiffly, though he tried to hide it and he winced when he shifted in his seat. The boy noticed Nate staring and tossed his head disdainfully. “You’re not supposed to look at me,” he hissed. “Alpha?” The boy clearly wasn’t sure if Nate was eighteen or not and had to be addressed formally.
“Not yet,” Nate said cheerfully. “Sorry. Have a cookie?”
“Little Brother, then,” the Omega said, looking at him, surprised. Nate was used to it. He had been six feet tall since last year and his labour on the farms and meager diet had put wiry muscle on him and stripped away any baby fat. He knew he looked older than he was and exhausted by his responsibilities. Sometimes he dreamed of a day spent just lazing in the warm sun, sleeping in a grassy field, his stomach full and his family secure, but there was no point in dwelling on it now. “Alright,” the boy said and looked around carefully to see if anyone had heard; they had not, all their attention focussed on the argument going on at the other end of the table and he gestured at Nate to slide a cookie over. Nate pushed one over and the boy gave him a contemptuous look and pointed at his crown of braids that marked him as Omega; Nate realised his touch made the cookies base, contaminated, too base for an Omega to touch directly after Nate’s hand had been on it.
“Sorry,” he said again, took a napkin and carefully using the side he hadn’t touched, picked up three cookies and slid them across the table. The boy’s eyes widened with pleasure and he grabbed at the napkin. He had terrible manners and began to simply cram the cookies into his mouth. The older man down the end of the table who looked like his father noticed and strode forward to smack him on the back of the head, knocking the cookie from his mouth.
“Have a care, Omega,” he barked. He swept the napkin and uneaten cookies to the floor and then backhanded the boy who simply held still for it, absorbing the blow silently. Nate watched, mouth agape. He’d heard Omega discipline was very severe but this still seemed extreme.
“Your will, Father,” the boy gritted out sounding deeply insincere and his eyes flitted to Nate and then away. He looked humiliated and proud and like he was on the verge of doing something deeply unwise.
“Sorry,” Nate said, just to interrupt the stand off between them. “I gave him the cookie, my fault.”
The father turned his glare on Nate. Slowly, still looking at Nate, he put his hand on the Omega’s forehead. Even Nate knew that was unacceptable between a father and a grown Omega, and the Omega cringed, clearly uncomfortable and ashamed; the man pushed with his hand so the Omega was forced into an awkward position, head craned back and neck arched so the boy was forced to stare at the ceiling in discomfort. Nate could see the boy swallow several times but he was silent. All the people in the room were watching with varying degrees of dismay and Nate wondered that no one else was interceding. Nate tried hard to ignore it. He didn’t want to get into an argument about how to treat Omegas, or this Omega in particular - he wanted to eat his meal and see if he mentioned Jordie Benn had brought him, would they feed him even more. He had eight people to feed and food to scrounge for himself; he had no time for righting wrongs done to people he didn’t know, no matter how pretty. He had learned this lesson the hard way and wouldn’t make the same mistake twice; the Community had very rigid rules for conduct and believed strongly in physical discipline and Nate couldn’t afford to miss another day of work to nurse a beating.
“Look,” Nate said. “It was my fault, I’m sorry. Let me just move down the table and it won’t happen again.” He started to gather up his plate to shove down to the other end of the table but the man put out a hand to stop him.
“Len,” Jordie Benn said from the end of the room, but the man, evidently Len, ignored him.
“Apologise,” the man snapped, but he was talking to the Omega, not Nate.
“I apologize, Little Brother, Father,” the Omega said and Nate hoped that would be the end of it.
“Properly,” Len said and the Omega stood, leaning away from his father and then dropped to his knees.
“God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble,” he said, looking at the floor, his hands folded in his lap. From this angle Nate could see the nape of his neck and an inch or two down the back of his shirt, and he looked away. It felt like the only dignity Nate could give him, and he was deeply sorry that he had given the boy those cookies and drawn this down on them. He looked up and met Len’s gaze, trying to hide his anger but doubtless doing a bad job of it. He had learned, just like the Omega on the floor at his feet, to bend to Observant rules but again like the Omega, he only did so under threat of discipline and it tended to show on his face.
“Who the hell are you?” Len said, clearly not liking his look.
“Mary Penner’s - “ Nate began but Len waved him off and reached towards the table. He knocked the cookie tin to the floor and smirked at Nate, clearly trying to start something. “Hey!” Nate said. Those were the only cookies he was likely to see this year and he’d had plans for them.
“Clean them up, you,” Len said to his son, who darted a look up at his father and then, still on his hands and knees, began to pick up the cookies. Nate watched him do it and told himself he wasn’t going to intercede. He wasn’t going to do anything stupid like get in the middle of this, and he wasn’t going to challenge this Omega’s father; he wasn’t going to do anything but eat as much as he could get and then depart with his two fifty and possibly the purloined cookie tin, but just as he had almost convinced himself, Len looked down, noticed the Omega trying to palm a cookie, and backhanded him flat to the floor. The Omega, who had borne all this with a silence that suggested he was overly familiar with the abuse, made a sort of involuntary grunt when he hit the wooden floor, the bruised side of his face impacting the floorboards and then lay still.
Fed up, Nate scraped his chair back and stood up slowly, trying to look menacing though it was heavy going as he still had a napkin tucked in his shirt and a mouthful of liver. “Leave him be,” Nate said, and Len smiled at him nastily. The Omega closed his eyes, resigned. Drawn by Nate’s motion, Jordie Benn, the man Nate assumed was Segs, and the Omega he had seen earlier, Jamie, drew nearer.
“Get up,” Len ordered the Omega. The boy sat up, lip bleeding but otherwise ignored his father’s order and Jamie grew visibly nervous. Even Jordie looked anxious but he did nothing. With his father in the room, there was no one with the right to challenge Len’s management of the Omega.
Len raised his hand and Nate watched as the boy shut his eyes, preparing for the blow and without thinking about it Nate shot his hand out and caught it before he could begin to swing. “No!” he said and tightened his hand around the older man’s wrist. Nate was shy of eighteen but he’d been man sized for over a year and doing a man’s work since his Pa died three years ago; Len was a wealthy man thirty five years older who ran his holdings from an indoor office. If Nate wanted to hold his arm in place, he could, and that was apparent to all the onlookers. The Omegas’s eyes opened and shot to Nate and then travelled down to where Nate was still holding his father’s wrist and there was a long, nasty pause as everyone waited to see what Len would do. It was broken by Jordie Benn.
“Len,” Jordie interrupted. “Leave him. We need to sort this out. This boy’s no threat to yours but we need to make some decisions quick, they’re coming and we got no time left for arguing. You want to preserve any part of your asset, you need to take what I’m offering.” There was another lengthy, tension filled pause and then Len pulled his arm out from Nate’s grip, shot him a contemptuous look and stalked away, silent, trailed by all three of the onlookers.
“Jesus,” Nate said, disgusted. “You want a cup of tea?” he asked the Omega. There was a stove, pumping out heat at the end of the long room, and on it sat an enormous kettle full of constant hot water. Beside it was a small table with many rough cups, ready for tea. The Omega, of course, could not drink from the shared cups - even Nate knew that. “Aunties,” he called towards the kitchen, “please can the Omega have tea?”
“Oba jo,” drifted back. “Tea in a minute.”
The boy looked surprised by Nate’s offer but nodded and climbed back into his chair. “I’m Tyson Barrie,” the boy said. “You can call me Barrie, since you’re still a Little Brother.”
“Only two more months,” Nate said cheerfully.
“Och,” an Auntie called, a different one this time, bustling out of the kitchen to bring tea in a special Omega cup. Both the Omega cup and chair were identifiable by their light rainbow pattern of stripes. Nate had heard of this too but never seen it. At home they didn’t bother with the careful rules required even of an Omega’s family, though that was a secret kept close. Georgie’s seat was on someone’s lap and his cup and plate was shared with whichever brother or sister he sat with. Nate jumped up and went to meet the Auntie, carefully took the tray out of her hands and carried it to the table, the Auntie fluttering beside him. Both the Auntie and Omega Barrie gave Nate a funny look when he put the tray gently on the table and then looked at one another. “Thank you Alpha,” Barrie said, and then the Auntie looked at him funny, although Nate didn’t know what was so odd about what he’d said. Finally the Auntie shrugged and reached for the cup.
“Räajenboagen,” the Auntie said, placing the cup onto the table before Omega Barrie. “Why you got to wind your father up, you stupid thing?” but the Omega just smiled at her a little. “You want sugar?” she said, and the boy nodded. “Cream?” she asked, but it all seemed rhetorical as Nate could see the tea was already heavily doctored with cream and, he assumed, sugar.
“You,” she said to Nate and banged a large tin mug of plain tea in front of him. “You came with Benn, eh?”
“Yes, Auntie,” he said. “Thank you Auntie.”
“You stopped Len from disciplining Tyson,” she said. “Not your place,” she added. “Watch it.”
“Sorry Auntie,” Nate said, genuinely sorry if he had made things worse for Tyson. “I got an Omega and we wouldn’t ever treat him so and maybe I got carried away.”
“Hmmph,” she said. “You have to respect the Covenant.”
“I do respect the Covenant,” Nate said, hotting up again. “I respect it so much I don’t go round slapping him across the chops every time he talks.”
“Hmmph,” she said again. “You still hungry?”
“Yes, thank you, Auntie,” Nate said eagerly, and she disappeared into the kitchen and quickly reappeared with a plate full of farmer’s sausage, white cream gravy, ham, shredded cabbage and glums koki.
“What is this?” Nate whispered to the Omega, poking at the glums. His grandmother had left her Observant community for marriage to an English before Nate’s mother was born and along with the language and parts of the Observant culture, there were many Observant foods he had not grown up with.
“It’s cottage cheese fried up with flour and egg,” the Omega whispered back, looking amused. “It’s good, try it.” Nate did, and like everything on the plate, it was delicious.
“Not bad,” Nate said, shoveling. He wished the children could have shared it; they were doubtless back home having dinner right now, coarse bread with bacon fat as always. They could afford no different and the children didn’t complain but Nate felt slightly guilty about enjoying such luxury. Still, every meal he ate here meant one they didn’t have to pay for at home, money that could be reserved for new boots or coats and that thought cheered him.
“You hungry?” Nate asked, vague ideas of Omega plates residing in the kitchen in his mind.
“No, thank you, Alpha,” Omega Barrie said formally.
“No?” Nate said. He had gotten the idea from Barrie’s rapid cookie ingestion that he was a keen eater and he was surprised.
“I’m being punished, Alpha,” Barrie said. “No food for the rest of the week.”
“No,” Nate said, absolutely certain. “That’s ridiculous. You’ll faint. No one’s watching - have some of mine.” He nudged his plate towards Barrie and then felt stupid. Of course he couldn’t eat from Nate’s plate; it was offensive to have even suggested it.
“Someone’s always watching, Alpha,” Tyson said, resigned. “You think we’re alone? We’re not. The Aunties are chaperoning from the kitchen.” He waved at the pass through to the kitchen and several hands waved back along with some laughter. He settled back with a sigh and watched as Nate finished his plate.
Yet another Auntie appeared. Nate was beginning to think they were taking turns coming out to have a look at him. “Good eater,” she said approvingly, taking his empty plate and trading it for a large bowl. “Rice pudding,” she said, dropping a spoon in front of him. “Pudding for the boy who respects the Covenant.” Evidently this Auntie was a little more liberal than the previous one.
“Thank you Auntie,” Nate said eagerly. He’d eaten more in the last twelve hours than he’d had in the past week but he thought he probably had a few crevices here and there he could cram the pudding into.
“And extra raisins because you stopped Alpha Barrie,” she added.
“Do I get a whole cake if I punch him?” Nate asked, joking.
“You get beaten up by the Kolonie and thrown in the hold of the slow boat back to the mainland if you punch him,” she said, serious. “Watch it.”
“Thank you Auntie,” Nate said around the pudding, and vowed to stay out of any further fights. He could take a hint and he needed to be whole so he could work to keep the children. He wouldn’t interfere in anyone’s discipline of their Omegas and he’d keep his mouth shut til he got home with his five dollars. Anything else was none of his business. Still, minding his own business didn’t mean he had to be rude. “Does it bother you when I eat in front of you?” he asked Barrie although he was almost done the pudding so the question was mostly politeness. The Omega shook his head.
“Can Omega Barrie have something to eat?” Nate asked the Auntie, still hovering by the table. “I think he might be hungry.” He wasn’t sure if the Aunties knew about the punishment and thought it was worth a try.
“I know he’s hungry,” she said to his surprise as Omega Barrie just sat, looking between the two of them. “He’s on punishment restrictions and hasn’t had a meal since last Thursday. He’s not allowed anything but tea. His father finds out we disobeyed, we’re in for it too.” She paused. “Last time this happened he fainted in church,” she offered.
“Go on, Auntie,” Nate wheedled. “Can’t he just have a bun or something?” Omega Barrie looked at him, surprised; evidently he wasn’t used to people advocating for him.
“Are you suggesting I question the direction of the Community Alphas?” she said. “I can’t start challenging Alpha headship, boy, that’s a good way to get a thumping.” She scowled at Nate. “Something you might want to keep in mind yourself.”
“Alright, Auntie,” Nate said. He wasn’t going to argue with her anymore, he was just going to wait til she went and then slip the Omega his tin of cookies, though it would pain him to see them go.
“I respect the Covenant,” the Auntie said, scolding. “I respect the headship of men and my husband and Alpha Barrie too, so when he says nothing but tea for Tyson, by god, that means nothing but tea.” She nodded her head sharply to punctuate her thoughts. “Good thing that tea’s got three spoonfuls of sugar, quarter cup of thick cream and a egg beaten into it,” she said off hand. “Nothing but tea for you,” she said firmly to Tyson. “And I hope you’ve learned your lesson!”
“Yes Auntie,” Tyson said, smiling into his tea cup. “Thank you for the advice.”
“Oh,” Nate said, mulling that over. What the Auntie was describing wasn’t really tea anymore; it was more a tea flavoured custard and presumably rich enough to keep body and soul together. He was glad to see the Aunties were on Barrie’s side. “Well. Can he have more tea then?” He turned to Barrie. “You want more tea?” he asked. He assumed he must but it seemed polite to ask, in case.
“Thank you, Alpha,” Barrie said, looking amused. He necked down the contents of his teacup and held it out to be refilled. Laughing, the Auntie bore it away. ”What are you doing here anyway?” he said to Nate, watching him eat the last of the rice pudding.
“Helped Jordie Benn sail his sloop over last night,” Nate said, wiping at his mouth and looking longingly at the empty bottom of his bowl.
“Oh, Alpha Benn,” Barrie said, and there was an admiring quality to his tone.
“Yeah,” Nate said vaguely, wondering if he could scrape the bottom of the bowl with his finger. Grudgingly he discarded the idea. He wondered where Jordie was; he wanted his two fifty and to head to the docks to find a ship back to Vancouver. He had put all thoughts of Jordie’s ridiculous marriage proposal out of his mind. He thought perhaps Jordie was harmlessly mad, a little, or playing some sort of deeply unfunny joke on him.
He nodded to the boy and headed out to find Jordie Benn. Luckily, Benn was just outside the Hall and even more luckily the elder Barrie had departed elsewhere. Benn and the tall man, Segs, were huddled together, talking rapidly in low tones while the Omega Jordie had called Jamie was stood an appropriate distance away, looking vague and pleasant. Nate approached them, detouring around the Omega; he noticed that although he took no obvious notice of Nate, as was correct, his eyes carefully tracked him and he seemed to be taking a very thorough, surreptitious inventory of Nate. Disconcerted, Nate nodded to him politely and sidled past til he got to the two Alphas. They were so intent on their conversation they didn’t notice him at first, and he heard Segs say “Better than the alternative, I suppose,” grudgingly and then both he and Jordie turned to look at Nate censoriously.
He looked back at them at a loss. It seemed to him an awful lot of people kept looking at him and he didn’t know why. “Oi!” Nate said. “I’ve got to head back. What about my money?”
“This is Alpha Tyler Seguin,” Jordie said, ignoring Nate’s demand and introducing the tall dark haired man from before. Alpha Seguin shook Nate’s hand civilly enough but looked extremely skeptical about him, which seemed unnecessary. What did Seguin care about who Jordie hired to sail his boats?
“Pleased to meet you,” Alpha Seguin said, although he looked no such thing. “I’m taking my husband and Omega Barrie for a walk down the dunes; I wonder if you’d like to come along.” Nate was not at all sure why he was being invited for a promenade among the gentry, and they were gentry if Seguin was married to an Omega and trusted enough to chaperone another, and he didn’t care why, either. He had plans, plans to quit this place and go home to spend his five dollars on boots for Tommy and some pork. He wasn’t interested in a walk. He opened his mouth to say so but Jordie beat him to it.
“Go along, MacKinnon,” Jordie ordered before Nate could say anything. “I’ll give you another five dollars for your trouble - we’re going to need you for the day.” Nate looked from side to side, puzzled by this. Five dollars was vastly over the going rate for a day of labour and he wasn’t sure what was so special about him that he merited this pay, but it was hard to turn the sum down. He eyed Seguin and decided he could take him if he had to, and nodded. Maybe he didn’t look persuaded because Jordie threw in a sweetener. “There’s dinner,” he said, waving at a large basket being lugged out of the Hall by Omega Barrie and Nate craned his head.
“Alright, Barrie?” Seguin said and Omega Barrie nodded. He looked strikingly beautiful when he was not scowling or sulky and Nate could tell he liked and trusted Seguin from the way he looked up at him, properly submissive but eager for the treat.
“Alright Alpha,” Barrie said eagerly. “Can Jamie come with me? I’ll change and meet you back in the Hall.”
“Of course Jamie can come with you,” Seguin said indulgently and gestured the tall plump Omega forward. He swept forward, nodding to his Alpha as he passed and caught up Tyson around the waist. It was strange, seeing them touch one another so freely and stranger still when Jamie took Tyson’s hand and held it as they walked away, following Jordie who had moved to chaperone them after a pointed look at Tyler.
“Come,” Jamie said, dignified as always. “We will make you even more beautiful. Today is a special day.”
Obediently Tyson trailed behind him still holding his hand, but he looked puzzled. “I’m already beautiful,” Nate heard him say as he moved away. “Today’s not special, anyway.”