They didn’t take very long to change; Nate only had time to scrounge some bread and butter from where it was laid out next to the tea urns in the Hall and sample the various pots of jams while Alpha Seguin asked question after question oddly similar to those Jordie had asked. The Observant were very intrusive and peculiar, but that wasn’t news to Nate. What, Tyler wanted to know, did Nate think about women being able to read? Did they plan to allow Georgie to read? Had Nate’s mother been literate? His father? Had Nate’s mother been allowed to handle cash? Did his father speak kindly to her? Jordie had said Nate told him his parents loved each other - was that true? Nate’s sister was the woman of the house, and Nate the man; had Nate ever disciplined his sister so hard he’d injured her? Nate laughed. What, Tyler said, disbelieving, never? Never, Nate said. Anyone who was so unwise as to strike Sarah could anticipate a blow with a fire iron next time they fell asleep. Some disciplined with kneeling, or by demanding silence - what did Nate think of that? Had his mother been allowed to speak freely? Would Nate like to have a love marriage? Was Nate morally clean? Which biblical figure did Nate think he was most like? It was overwhelming; Nate had not devoted any time to thinking about which biblical figure he was most like and was just puzzling over that one - he was absolutely certain Jesus was not the right answer but wasn’t sure who was - when finally the Omegas returned to the Hall and the questions ended.
Omega Barrie had changed since Nate saw him last and he was wearing a walking suit of heavy tweed with a cream, high necked blouse and a very silly scarf that was perhaps meant to be a mimic of a man’s tie. It looked charming on him but like a costume, like a rich man’s interpretation of work clothes. His hair was up in some different, fancier way and it caught Nate’s attention. How did it stay up? Sarah had told him years ago that Omegas and rich women sewed the braids to their skull but that couldn’t possibly be right, could it? Surely not. “Do you sew your braids into your head?” he asked Tyson, aware only after he spoke it was perhaps an odd thing to ask, especially as it was the first remark he had directed to him since he’d reentered the room. Tyson looked at him out of the corner of his eye, as if considering how to respond.
“Not to my head,” he said slowly, as if Nate was a real idiot who needed assistance to understand the simplest thing. “Sometimes we sew them into each other so they stay put but not into my skin. Alpha.”
“Oh,” Nate said. “Right.”
Tyler was staring at Nate, clearly less than impressed; Jamie was looking at the ground, but Nate suspected he was hiding a smile, and Omega Barrie looked like he was on the edge of saying something quite insulting. Nate was, he reckoned, only there to help carry the picnic basket and would be well advised to shut up, so he just stared back at them, mute, and there was an awkward minute of silence, finally broken by Tyler. He sighed gustily and gestured to the door.
“Better than the alternative,” Tyler muttered to himself, and they headed off to the wagon.
# # #
The beach was entirely empty, no one to see them for miles around.
“Alpha lets us run,” Omega Barrie said to Nate in a challenging tone, as if he were telling a secret but also waiting for Nate to condemn them, but Nate didn’t see why they couldn’t run if they wanted to.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go,” and he took off for the sand dunes above the beach. Tyson stood staring after him and then he let out a sort of whoop and chased after Nate.
“Beat you,” Nate said smugly ten minutes later, standing at the very edge of the dune and smirking at the boy. Tyson’s eyes narrowed and and he looked to one side and then laughed; Jamie had just come panting up the dunes. Tyson waited till he reached the top and then lunged, grabbing Jamie and knocking him down to the ground. Wrapped around each other, Jamie emitting cries of irritation, they rolled back down the dune. Tyler watched them go avuncularly.
“Alright there Bennie?” he yelled when they rolled to a stop. “Barrie?”
“Fine, thank you Alpha,” they called back in chorus.
Nate looked over at Tyler then back down at the two Omegas - they were laughing and wrestling and when they noticed him watching they sat up, mussed and red cheeked and charming. Nate thought he could imagine liking this Tyson, who smiled and laughed and bounced back up onto his feet and was trying to drag a protesting Jamie back up the dune.
“They’re delicate,” Tyler said to Nate, looking at him like he was checking to see if he understood. “They’re holy so they’re delicate, of course, but they’re not that fragile - they’re like race horses, they need to get out sometimes and run, so we come down here and play, but you can’t tell anyone.” He grabbed Nate by the arm. “Do you understand?” he said. “You can’t tell - do you understand what will happen if you tell?”
“I’m not going to tell,” Nate said roughly, pulling his arm away. “I don’t see why they can’t run and play if they like, even if they are Omegas.” He offered Tyler a secret in return. “We let Georgie play,” he told Tyler. “My Ma said it’s not good for anyone, even the Covenant, to sit all day and be silent, so we let him play and run about, though I don’t think the Elders approve. They say I’m not to touch him.”
“The Elders don’t approve of anything,” Tyler said casually. “But Jamie and I are married now, just five months ago, so I’m in charge, and I say Jamie can run, so long as no one sees.” He paused as if thinking. “Jamie doesn’t want to do anything bad, anyway,” Tyler told Nate with some pride. “He’s got a real natural born servants heart, you know?” Nate nodded agreeably. “He’s just so fine,” Tyler sighed. Nate said nothing. Jamie seemed very easy to live with and eager to please, but he was very tall, taller than either Nate or Tyler, a little doughy and no great beauty in Nate’s estimation. As if he heard him Jamie looked up from mid-dune at his husband and beamed at him. Tyler beamed back and Nate was reminded they had only been married a few months. Tyson turned towards Jamie growling and made a mock pounce and Jamie cowered and shrieked. Tyler rolled his eyes. “He’s a little pepperpot,” Tyler said fondly. “I hope the man who marries him can see it’s not sin, just high spirits.”
“I suppose,” Nate said, uninterested.
“His father is too heavy handed,” Tyler said, and Nate could agree with that alright. “You’ve got to be nice to him,” Tyler went on. “There’s some as can’t learn from discipline and he’s one of them; but he’ll do anything for you if he likes you.” Nate made a vague noise of agreement while surreptitiously rooting through the picnic basket. It looked like there was some kind of pastry in there but he couldn’t quite tell exactly what.“He’s very sweet natured,” Tyler said, sounding like he was trying to convince Nate. “And an excellent cook.” He sounded, Nate thought, like an over enthusiastic Auntie, intent on match making. “Anyone would be lucky to have him.” Not sure what to say in return, Nate busied himself with the picnic basket.
“Leave that,” Tyler said. “The boys will get it.” He flagged down the Omegas who were just cresting the hill and waved at the lunch. “Serve, please,” he said, and he said it in a fond tone, and appended the word please, and smiled; and Jamie and Tyson smiled back, clearly not offended at the order, but it was an order, nonetheless. Tyson bent to pick up the basket then winced and dropped it; Nate lunged and caught it before it hit the ground.
“You alright?” he asked, and Tyson scowled back at him.
“I’m fine, thank you Alpha,” he said coldly.
“Little Brother,” Jamie corrected. “Little Brother, his ribs are bruised.”
“Why’re your ribs bruised?” Nate asked.
“Fell down the stairs,” Tyson said and turned away, done talking about it, but to Nate’s surprise Jamie turned to face him and said the longest thing he had ever directed to Nate.
“Little Brother MacKinnon, his father disciplined him and knocked him down the stairs,” he said, catching Tyson and holding him in place when he tried to move away. “We thought he broke his ribs but they were just bruised.” Tyson wriggled in his hold and pressed his face against Jamie’s chest. Jamie looked at Nate as if he was willing him to understand and Nate did. “Don’t wiggle,” Jamie said to Tyson gently. “Stand up straight and be dignified.”
“Won’t,” Tyson said, rather muffled as he spoke directly into Jamie’s shirt. Jamie looked fondly despairing and sighed.
“Be nice,” he whispered to Tyson, though Nate could hear him, “serve, and show him how well you can do it.” Tyson made a moue and looked up at Jamie, irritated, but eventually turned away and bent to the basket and made a pretty job of serving the meal in formal style.
Not that it made much difference to Nate. Tyson could have flung the basket upside down onto the dirt for all Nate cared, he’d gladly eat as much as he could get either way.
Tyson was watching him with horrified fascination. “You always this hungry?” he asked.
“Yes,” Nate said. “Pass the cheese?”
# # #
Nate and Tyler were sitting on the dunes, idly picking at the lunch basket. Tyson and Jamie were wandering within sight but out of hearing, picking up shells at the edge of the water, Tyson examining them closely and then flinging most of them away while Jamie just stepped slowly and placidly beside him, never stooping to pick up a shell but sometimes accepting them from Tyson’s hand.
“He’s making a table top,” Tyler told Nate and then expanded when Nate looked confused. “It’s a fancy table for the parlour,” he explained. “You glue shells to the top until it’s all covered.”
“Oh?” Nate said, not very interested. Sounded like the hobby of rich people with too much time on their hands. “How’d you come to be married to an Omega so young?” he asked Tyler, who laughed a little and flopped back onto the sand.
“That’s Jordie,’ he said, staring up at the sky. “Jordie’s a schemer and you might as well just fall in with his plans, because he always gets his way. He wanted Jamie to be happy but of course that means nothing if it doesn’t aid his schemes or I can’t pay his bride price.”
“Are you rich, then?” Nate asked, rummaging through the basket again. There were little pickles he’d never encountered before, sweet and crisp, and tiny pickled onions to go with them and he crunched them up as Tyler talked. There had been more of those pies Jordie had given him on the boat, rich and delicious, and a sharp cheese, and apples, and corked bottles of lemonade, something he had heard of but never tasted before. There was still some bread and butter left but he thought he was, for once, full. There were also a dozen little tarts, decorated with tiny gleaming wild blueberries, wrapped in a cloth. He carefully put them back in the basket, then picked up all the remnants of their lunch and tidied those away too.
“Little bit,” Tyler said casually, “but not enough, really. Jordie gave him to me cheap because they have consanguinuity problems with most of the Kolonie, and we’re a love match, and to thwart the Maartens because they crossed him on a deal. The usual. Still cost my father $20,000 dollars though.”
“Oh yes,” Nate said faintly. He had a bit of bread and butter to restore himself at the idea of Tyler, only a few years older than he was, talking easily about a $20,000 dollar bride price.
“Also we threatened to violate his Integrity,” Tyer said, perfectly calm and Nate’s head snapped round, mouth still full of bread. ”It was just a threat,” Tyler said, looking at Nate condescendingly. “And Jordie knew it. But I said I might forget myself so much as to take his hand in church and Jordie knew Jamie’d agreed to let me do it, so he gave in.” He grinned at Nate, pleased with himself and Nate felt relieved. He’d thought Tyler had meant something much worse than an illicit touch of the hand.
“Tyson was going to be $150,000,” Tyler said casually and Nate’s heart practically stopped at the thought of so much money. Down by the beach Tyson was shrieking and hopping about, flapping his arms madly - it looked like he’d wetted his feet in the surf. Tyler followed Nate’s doubtful look and smiled. “Well, he’s very beautiful,” he said, “at least when he’s not shrieking, the most beautiful Omega in his generation. And his breeding is impeccable; he’s from an alternating line of Omega’s Daughters and Omegas back ten generations. There’s every reason to assume he’ll have at least one daughter. And of course, his father’s rich as Croesus, and connected. A firm hand and he’ll be a prize no one else in the New World has, especially as he’s got Jordie Benn behind him. He’ll make the man who marries him rich, and powerful, and chosen of God.”
“A firm hand,” Nate echoed. Tyler talked a big game but he certainly didn’t seem to value a firm hand when it came to Jamie, or even his own dealings with Tyson.
“Don’t you think Omegas need a firm hand?” Tyler asked. He was still reclined casually on the sand but he sounded like he wasn’t quite so casual as he was trying to appear, though Nate couldn’t figure out why he would care what Nate’s opinion was on the matter. Nate thought of Georgie, and of Tyson being belted down the stairs, and of his own experience being beaten by Mr. Hiebert, his Tuesday and Thursday employer who had whipped him with a willow switch so hard he couldn’t walk the next day and they had lost three day’s pay. The year they came to Gastown he had foolishly allowed Mr. Hiebert to see him picking up and kissing Georgie fondly on the cheek as he left for the day’s work. Mr. Hiebert had been waiting outside in his wagon and he had unfortunately seen; more unfortunately yet there had been passersby on the street who had seen Mr. Hiebert witness it, and Mr. Hiebert, a decent man who never disciplined anyone harder than he had to, had glanced at them, sighed, and picked up his switch.
Nate still worked for him, and respected him, and even liked him, a little; and more than that, Nate had learnt a valuable lesson about the rules the Observant lived by. But would he ever put any of his family in such hands? No. He would not. “No,” Nate said. “I don’t think they need a firm hand.”
“No?” Tyler said, as if he were waiting for more.
“No,” Nate said and laid back on the sand too. “I don’t think Omega Barrie’s so sinful he needs to be knocked down the stairs,” he said. “And we don’t discipline my brother, not like that at least.”
“What’s your brother like?” Tyler asked, interested.
“Well he’s awful,” Nate admitted. “But he’s two, you know.”
“Hmmm,” Tyler said noncommittally. “Is he beautiful?” and Nate made a face. The Observant cared deeply about beauty; the outward appearance reflected, in their view, the inward virtues.
“He’s two,” Nate said again. “He’s not beautiful, don’t be weird.”
“Well, but you know,” Tyler said. “Will he be? What’s the prospect there?” Nothing mattered more for an Omega, especially one from a poor family, than how they looked. Nate knew, although Tyler would never voice it, that part of the reason Jordie had allowed Jamie to be married for such a low price to such a young husband was because Jamie didn’t look right at all. He was too tall, too fat, too large and manly in frame to be worth much on the marriage market, despite his many values.
“He’s small and blond and has curly hair and big blue eyes,” Nate said gloomily, and it was all true. The Observant families with Omegas were mostly Russian in heritage; although there were intermarriages and natural variation, Orthodox Omegas were largely dark like Tyson and Jamie. A blond, blue eyed Omega was a rarity and as had been pointed out to Nate many times, the fairness raised Georgie’s value significantly.
“Lucky,” Tyler said approvingly and seemed set to say more but Tyson suddenly appeared, standing at their feet.
”You’ve eaten all the tarts!” Tyson cried. He glared at Nate then kicked sand at him.
“Hey!” Nate said, spluttering, sand in his face and eyes. “Quit that!” The command seemed to rub Tyson on the raw and he danced a little in place with irritation.
“I won’t!” he said and Tyler and Jamie, puffing over the edge of the dune, looked at Nate fearfully for his reaction. Direct contradiction of an Alpha deserved immediate and forceful discipline, even for an indulgent Alpha.
“Stop it or I won’t tell you where the tarts are,” Nate said with dignity and Tyson looked at him suspiciously.
“Where are they then?” he asked, but the idea that the tarts had been preserved calmed him down and he added a begrudging “Alpha.”
“Little Brother,” Jamie corrected and Tyson rolled his eyes.
“Alpha,” he said, and Jamie looked at Tyler pointedly; “Where are the tarts, please.”
“I put them in the basket so they wouldn’t get sand in them,” Nate said, getting to his feet and dusting off his pants. Tyson had eaten quite matter of factly while out with them; it was clearly understood between he, Tyler and Jamie that no punishments would be enforced while out of sight, although of course all central Integrity rules had been strictly observed. There had been two sets of food, one for the Alphas and one for the Omegas, and Nate had carefully not touched the Omega tarts, wrapped up in their special cloth.
“How’d everything get back in the basket?” Tyson said, carefully picking through it in search of the tarts. He looked up at Nate, puzzled.
“I put it in,” Nate said and Tyson looked even more confused.
“You put the dishes away?” he said. “Why would you do that when there’s an Omega about to serve?” Nate didn’t know what to say to that so he just accepted his share of the tarts and was silent while they ate them.
“Alright,” Tyson said standing up and looking back at the basket. “I need more shells.” He looked over at Jamie, but he was stretched out in the sun, full of tarts, his hand almost touching his husband’s which was pretty daring stuff for the Observant, and he didn’t look interested in moving.
“You can go with MacKinnon,” Tyler said, half asleep, his hand creeping towards Jamie’s. “Jordie said.”
“Did he?” Tyson said, sounding puzzled.
“He’s a Little Brother,” Tyler said, and Tyson looked consideringly at Nate. At seventeen, Nate was technically a Little Brother and would remain so until he turned eighteen, but he was aware he didn’t particularly look like it - Little Brothers were largely school aged brothers of Omegas, smallish boys left in ostensible charge of their siblings for convenience or out of necessity. An Omega could, for example, remain in the wagon outside a store if accompanied by a Little Brother, or walk from the house to the barn with them in tow - and Nate was six feet tall and covered in muscle. Nate thought perhaps Tyson was as puzzled as he was but he didn’t pursue the issue.
“Which shells are you looking for?” Nate asked, and Tyson looked over at him, confused. “I’ll help you look,” Nate said. “I got good eyes.”
“Alright,” Tyson said uncertainly. Nate imagined he’d never been allowed to be alone with an unrelated Alpha or Little Brother and Nate didn’t know why they were letting him now, but he didn’t really care. Tyler nodded at Nate approvingly as they headed down the beach, which was also puzzling but Nate shrugged it off as he started running.
# # #
“I’m sorry about the sand,” Tyson said, trailing behind Nate. Nate had let him win the race and then found him a great heap of shells and it had put him in a good humour. “You’ve been very nice about the food and all, and not telling, and I shouldn’t have got so mad.”
“That’s alright,” Nate said. He lived with seven siblings younger than him; he got worse on a daily basis. “Did you make the meat pies?”
“I did,” Tyson said, sounding wary. “Why?”
“Oh, well, then,” Nate said. “I definitely forgive you if you made those pies, they were delicious.”
“Oh, thanks, Alpha,” Tyson said brightly. The Observant rarely offered praise, and Tyson seemed unduly pleased by the little bit Nate had given him. Nate held out another double handful of shells and Tyson held open his bag so Nate could carefully pour them in without touching.
“Lots of shells,” Tyson said. “Maybe I’ll make you a table. Are you staying in Victoria long?”
“No, I’ve got to get back,” Nate said vaguely. He’d found a pool with sea anemones in it and he was occupied by poking them to watch their tendrils retract and then flower back out.
“I said,” Tyson repeated, coming to sit on the rock next to Nate, “I’d make you a table, if you like, or a box.”
“No thanks,” Nate said. He was vaguely aware fancy ladies, and apparently Omegas, occupied themselves with fancy shellwork but he had no great passion for a small box covered in shells. “You think you can eat these?” Tyson peered down into the tidal pool.
“No,” he said, looking at the anemones. “I don’t think so. But you can eat the mussels. And there’s clams out here a foot long. If you stamp next to their hole on the flats they squirt you.”
“Do they?” Nate said, intrigued. He so rarely had a moment like this, rested, with enough to eat and no work demanding attention; he was enjoying himself and smiled at Tyson. Tyson smiled back. The wind was whistling past them and it was pretty brisk but Nate was used to colder and Tyson didn’t seem to mind it either, sitting on the rock and dandling his hand in the tide pool without any concern for his fine clothes.
“You sure you don’t want the box?” Tyson asked, sounding as if he were offering a treat. “It’ll bring you luck, you know. And the other stuff. The other stuff’s important if you want to get on.”
“What other stuff?” Nate asked. Tyson looked uncharacteristically awkward.
“It’s a sign of favour,” he said, not meeting Nate’s eyes. “You know. You show it to people and tell them I gave it to you and then they think better of you.
“I’m OK, thank you,” Nate said. “Want to show me the clams?”
“Alright,” Tyson said, sounding puzzled. Nate supposed people rarely turned down an offer of his favour, but what use was it to Nate? Nate was only there to fetch and carry, not to mingle among the quality, and concerns about getting on in business were beyond him.
“You want to race again?” Nate asked, gesturing at the flat beach spread before them. The tide was out and there seemed a million miles of endless horizon laid out, no one to see, no one but the two of them there to run about and play.
“Yes!” Tyson said brightly, bouncing back to his feet, already running. “Go!” He was surprisingly fast, and they passed the remainder of the afternoon happily, gathering shells and trying to dig out a geoduck.
# # #
Nate suspected Jamie was trying to give him favour too, as he formally bid Nate goodbye at the docks. He appreciated his effort but didn’t understand why he felt Nate needed it. Day labourers did not change their stations, whether they had the favour of Omegas or no.
“Thank you Little Brother MacKinnon,” Jamie said loudly, eyes on the ground but well aware, Nate was certain, of the crowd of well off Alphas talking to Jordie within hearing distance. “I’m grateful for your diligent attention to our Integrity and good counsel.”
“Yes,” Tyson said, surprising Nate. “Thank you Alpha, for the afternoon and we would be glad to see you again.”
“Bow!” Tyler hissed and whacked Nate hard on the back until he jerked into the approved response. He’d never had to use it, not having met adult Omegas before, but he was aware of it. Right hand over his heart he bent forward, more than a nod but not a full bow. He could see the other men looking over at him, and tried to look like he knew what he was doing, but Tyson giggled a little.
“Very nice,” Jordie said dismissively, striding over to them having concluding his business with the other men. “It’s done,” he said to Tyler and Tyler gave a sort of relieved sigh. Even Jamie looked relieved, although Tyson didn’t seem to know what he was talking about and Nate certainly didn’t. Jordie turned to look at the entire group. “Hope you all behaved yourself,” he said, “Tyler?” Tyler looked considering then waggled his head at Jordie, a sort of begrudging approval - of what, Nate didn’t know. “Jamie?” Jordie said, and Jamie looked startled to be asked.
“Alpha?” he said, and looked shy. Omegas were not meant to be offering opinions in the public street.
“Go on,” Jordie said, and Tyler looked encouraging. Jamie looked pained but obeyed.
“Seems nice,” he whispered, and would say no more.
“Who seems nice?’ Tyson said, intrigued. “Who’s nice?” but no one would answer him and Tyler hurried the Omegas off to the Community Hall at Jordie’s signal, Tyson still nagging as they left. “Me?” Nate heard him say as they went. “Am I nice? I kicked sand at him, that wasn’t so nice.”
Nate watched them go, wondering what they were talking about but not caring enough to pursue it. He was just about to press Benn for his money when a blond man, young, well dressed and extraordinarily good looking, snuck around the corner of the warehouse and looked cautiously about him. “I’m looking for Benn?” he said to Jordie. “That you?”
“Landeskog?” Jordie said, sounding as close to panicked as Nate had ever heard him. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d land midnight tonight at earliest.”
“Favourable winds,” Landeskog said, shrugging and pulling Jordie into the darkest corner behind the warehouse. Nate followed at Jordie’s signal. “I sent you a letter?” Landeskog said, speaking quietly.
“I got it,” Jordie said. “I got it and I want to know what you’re going to do about it?”
Landeskog looked about them and lowered his voice even more. He looked terrified and very young. “Brother Benn,” he said, and Nate could see he was near tears. “There’s nothing I can do. For God’s sake keep this quiet - they’ll kill me if they find out I told you. My grandfather is the head of the family, and the Swedish Orthodox Church and there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. I keep his commands and follow them. But.”
“But?’ Jordie said.
“But this can’t be right,” Landeskog said in a rush. “They came without notice to exercise Bilhah and nothing I say will stop them. They didn’t tell his father we were coming and they hope to force his hand with threats of demand for reparation. They’re going to insist on enforcing the contract without marriage and I know it’s biblical but it isn’t right. I have a twin sister, and - “ he ground to a halt, visibly struggling to control himself. He looked up at Jordie pleadingly. “I wouldn't let this happen to my sister,” he said.
Nate had no idea what Bilhah was, but it must be something awful if Landeskog was so worked up about it. Jordie was standing stone faced, looking back at Landeskog.
“Alright,” Jordie said, terse and intent. “OK, That’s what I thought. You got any money of your own?” Landeskog shook his head. Jordie put one hand out to Landeskog and took his arm. “Look,” Jordie said, and Landeskog listened intensely. “What if I gave you enough to run? I bought his rights off his father this morning after I got your letter - you marry him tonight and I could spare another couple thousand, maybe, but it’d be enough to set you up in a western town like Salt Lake or Denver as a homesteader.”
“They’d come after us,” Landeskog pointed out. “They want reparations and they won’t let go of me so easy either. I’m the only Landeskog son.”
“If you kept him strictly cloistered and quiet, you could probably get a couple years before they figured out where you were,” Jordie said. “News doesn’t spread so quick around here.” He bent forward. “You’d have to be very strict to keep him safe but so long as he was breeding by the time they found you, you’d get away with it. They can’t exercise Bilhah once you have a child if the husband’s living.” Landeskog looked uncertain.
“That’s no guarantee,” he said. “It could be years before he - you know.”
“You’d have to keep at it,” Jordie said casually. “You’re a young man, every second day without fail, even an Omega’ll fall in a couple years.”
“Really?” Landeskog said. Nate knew from back of the barn talk that the official Community line on marital relations was that they should be indulged in only when the Alpha was unable to resist, once a week or better, once a month, although he imagined this direction was rarely adhered to. Presumably the Orthodox were even more rigid in their application - Landeskog certainly looked pretty surprised at being directed in this way by an Elder of the Community. “I suppose,” he said, looking even more unsure. “How long do your rights to him last?”
“Twenty four hours,” Jordie said, and Nate had no idea if that was normal but Landeskog didn’t seem surprised.
“So someone’s got to marry him tonight,” Landeskog said, “or his rights revert tomorrow and they can exercise Bilhah if his father agrees?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Jordie said.
“Will his father agree?” Landeskog asked. “My father’s in there talking to Elder Barrie and when he finds out you’ve got his rights, first thing he’s going to do is come offer you half the cash, and if you say no, send his men to try to take him and wait out the twenty four hours.”
“I don’t know,” Jordie said sourly. “How much cash you got?”
“We brought 30,000 in gold,” Landeskog said, as if it were nothing. “One fifth of the agreed on price no more, because of the letter.”
“For that Len would kidnap him for you,” Jordie said. “We got to get him married right now.”
Nate stared at them, fascinated. He had heard tales of this sort of maneuvering, but assumed they were exaggerated, though now that he considered, he didn’t know why he’d thought that. The Observant paid a lot of lip service to their beliefs, but would never let them obstruct a deal and Tyson was a $150,000 proposition, too much money to pass up because of scruples or law. He felt sorry for the boy, even if he had kicked sand in Nate’s eyes, and it made him uneasy about Georgie.
“And would you agree to Bilhah?” Landeskog said.
“No, I won’t allow Bilhah,” Jordie said offended. “Barrie grew up with my brother and I’ll see them both safe whatever else I do. I got my brother married off to a kind man and I’ll do the same for Barrie.”
“Barrie, huh?” Landeskog said knowingly. “Can’t you marry him yourself? I don’t know anything about farming and I hear the winters in the West are brutal, worse than Sweden. I’m likely to get us killed.”
“Consanguinuity,” Jordie said shortly and Landeskog nodded. Many of the older Community families were so interrelated their marriage prospects were very limited.
“Let me ask you something,” Jordie said abruptly. “How Orthodox are you?” Landeskog drew himself up, offended.
“I’m staunch in my belief,” he said. “Those old men, they want to exercise Bilhah for their own reasons, none of them biblical, and I won’t stand by and see it done but I’m faithful, and a true believer.” This didn’t sound promising but Jordie pressed on.
“Will you take Omega Barrie and run?” Jordie pressed. “It’s got to be tonight.”
“I don’t know,” Landeskog said sounding very doubtful. “His Integrity is befouled, and he’d have to do penance. Does he have a meek and quiet spirit? I can’t support Bilhah but I’m Orthodox. I expect Orthodox silence and a meek spirit, nothing else.” Nate looked from side to side. He didn’t feel called on to offer an opinion but he felt the most casual acquaintance with Tyson Barrie would make it pretty apparent, that no, he didn’t have a meek and quiet spirit, and would be a terrible fit with this man’s beliefs. Evidently Landeskog gathered as much from Jordie’s expression.
“I don’t see how I can marry him,” he said. “Even if we ran, the odds of escaping are slim, and as I say, the Stockholm Kolonie doesn’t farm; we’re scholars. You got any other alternative?”
“Yeah,” Jordie said, sounding resigned. “I got an alternative, though it’s not ideal. I appreciate you doing the decent thing and telling me.” He shook Landeskog’s hand and watched him walk away. When he was out of sight, Jordie sighed and turned to Nate.
“MacKinnon, you slept since I met you?” Jordie asked, looking exhausted himself.
“No,” Nate said, of course he hadn’t. He’d planned on sleeping on the boat back to Gastown.
“Right,” Jordie said. “Well, come on. We’ll get you a cup of coffee. You can sleep later - I need you at the Hall right now.”
“I have to get back,” Nate demurred. His sister would be wondering why he hadn’t returned and Will could only cover his jobs for so long. He wanted his seven fifty and to head for the docks where no one required him to bow or to remember to finish chewing before he spoke.
“I’ll get you a spot on the boat tomorrow morning and we’ll give you breakfast,” Jordie said. “Come along, I got a job for you, something only you can do, ” and that settled, Nate did. He wondered what time supper was and what the job was. He hoped supper and the coffee was first.
Sadly they weren’t headed to supper. Tyler was standing outside the Little Hall, the old gathering room at the North end of the Hall, and Jordie just nodded at him. “Watch the door,” Jordie ordered, “They’re here,” and stepped inside.
Tyler caught Nate’s arm as he passed. “I said I’d support it,” Tyler said and Nate had one second of confusion and then suddenly realised what was happening. Everyone else had understood what he had missed; he had been engaged in an audition all afternoon, though he hadn’t known it. Tyson was the Omega Jordie wanted him to marry, and Jordie hadn’t been bullshitting after all. Gobsmacked, he trailed into the room.
Tyson was seated in the Omega chair and Jordie knelt in front of Tyson, closer than Nate had ever seen an unrelated Observant man get even to a woman, never mind an Omega, but still well shy of any contact. It was a strange reversal of the usual order, Jordie kneeling on the floor and Tyson seated and Nate felt the gravity of the moment, though he didn’t really understand what was happening. Jordie sighed, and looked up at Tyson who was looking about the room curiously. Evidently he was unaware of the plan too and Nate didn’t think it was going to be very well received.
“Barrie,” Jordie said and Tyson looked down at him, surprised at the name and Jordie’s posture.
“Alpha?” he said, and Jordie waved his brother over. Jamie came and knelt to the side, close enough to Tyson that he was able to touch him, though he didn’t. Jordie waved his hand and at his signal Jamie took Tyson’s hand but remained otherwise silent and unobtrusive. Tyson clutched his hand back but ignored him otherwise, his eyes still on Jordie. “Alpha?’ he said again, but Jordie waved him off and rooted in his pocket. He came up with a few stuffed dates wrapped in gay papers and put two onto the table and the second his hand was off them, Tyson snatched one up and greedily crammed it into his mouth.
“Be my good boy,” Jordie said. “Are you?”
“I’m always your good boy,” Tyson said, a little muffled by the date but clearly confident of Jordie’s affection.
“Then listen to me calmly and don’t get in a flap,” Jordie said. “Because you got one chance here and that’s all and I need you to be my good boy and take this chance. Will you?”
“I’ll do whatever you say, Alpha,” Tyson said obligingly, but even on a half day’s acquaintance, Nate knew Tyson would not do what Jordie said, not if a mood took him to do otherwise.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Jordie said, sliding the second date towards Tyson. “Because I’ve bought your rights off your father and I want you to marry this boy.”
“What!?” Tyson yelped, a little muffled by the date. “What? This one here?” He looked at Nate very doubtfully. “I don’t want to marry you,” Tyson said to Nate petulantly.
“Fine with me,” Nate said, shrugging, He’d gone along with Jordie’s suggestion when he heard the amount of money he was offering but it had never seemed real; even now it didn’t seem plausible. Still, it seemed real enough to Jordie, who was audibly grinding his teeth at this exchange.
“Goddamnit, MacKinnon,” Jordie said. “Will you do it or no?”
Nate looked at Tyson, who was whispering frantically to Jamie. Jamie was nodding emphatically at Nate while trying to pretend he wasn’t. Nate thought of what it would be like to be married to a virtual stranger, of Tyson’s bruised ribs, of the offered two thousand dollars, and the eight brothers and sisters he was responsible for. He thought, really thought about how much longer they could hold out. One more winter, he reckoned; they’d been riding the ragged edge of disaster for a year and the children were all growing thinner and more sickly. Sometime this coming winter, he thought, one of the children would die, or grow so ill he and Sarah would have to bend to survive, bend in a way far less palatable than this. The money would change that. It would mean enough food, decent clothes and no more of the charity the Community had wielded like a brand, trying to pry Georgie away from them. They could live mostly off the interest if they were careful, set the younger boys up with their own apprenticeships and have a little left over to guard against the day.
“I’ll do it,” Nate said, feeling he had no real alternative - where else was he going to find two thousand dollars - and he had no idea if such an opportunity would ever come again, so he gritted his teeth. “I would be honoured,” he said and straightened up and tried to look presentable, though as Omega Barrie had already met him while he was busy shoveling eats into his face he wasn’t sure any attempts at respectability would do much now.
“No!” Tyson yelled, stamping his foot and at Jordie’s signal Jamie pushed his leg back down and then patted his cheek. Tyson curled into the affection but looked poutily at Jordie, head prettily cocked for maximum effect and eyelashes fluttering delicately over unshed tears. Jordie waved his hand again and Jamie turned Tyson’s head, very gently, to face Jordie. Nate realised Jordie was using Jamie’s hands to touch Tyson and was impressed both by the coordination of the movements and the appalling creepiness of having to use your brother to touch someone for you. “I’m to marry Landeskog,” Tyson said sulkily. “He wants me because I’m the prettiest in the Community and he’s the most handsome, and so we’re to marry. It’s been arranged for years.”
“You know that’s been off since you wrote that letter like a twit,” Jordie said but Tyson clearly didn’t believe him. Nate wondered what could have been in that letter.
“It’s alright, Alpha,” Tyson said confidently. “Landeskog will see me and it’ll be back on again.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jordie muttered. “You’re pretty but you’re not that pretty. You’re not Helen of Troy.” Tyson scowled at him and Jordie sighed and hunkered a little closer.
“Your Integrity is gone,” Jordie said kindly. “I’m sorry but it’s true and for an Orthodox it ends there. Now I got news while I was in Gastown; they’ve come to demand reparations and they’re going to exercise Bilhah,” Jordie said. “Do you understand?”
“But that’s not allowed,” Tyson said bewildered. “We haven’t allowed it since 1802, we don’t do that anymore.”
“The Orthodox do,” Jordie said grimly. “And Len’ll allow it if the price is right.”
“No, it’s not allowed,” Tyson said again, as if Jordie was confused.
“They will exercise Bilhah,” Jordie pressed. “Do you understand?” and Tyson looked at him, wide eyed, and shook his head. Nate didn’t either. Who was Bilhah? Had she been a concubine in the Bible, or a Patriarch’s wife? He wasn’t sure. “Cover your ears,” Jordie ordered Jamie, and obediently Jamie did, although Nate could see from his angle Jamie’s hands weren’t pressing firmly against them. He was damn sure Jamie could still hear. “It means no marriage but every man can have you,” Jordie said to Tyson, and Tyson looked back at him unmoved, as if he still didn’t understand. Nate understood, though, and his stomach sank. He suddenly saw why Jordie had conceived this cockamamie plan and how absolutely critical it was that Tyson play his part. “Every Elder can mate with you,” Jordie explained using the Platt word for animals breeding, beranen; it was crude and carried a suggestion of force but was the word used by most of the Community for the marital act between humans too. Tyson still looked blank. “Do you understand what that is?” Jordie pressed. “It’s martial responsibilities; has Jamie told you what that is?”
“Jamie won’t tell me anything,” Tyson said sulkily. “I know it’s, you know,” - he gestured vaguely at his lower half - “but Jamie won’t say, specifically.”
“Well good for Jamie,” Jordie said. “He’s always had more sense than you. But I’m going to tell you now, mating means the Alpha puts his thing inside you, inside your passage.” Tyson looked extremely doubtful, as if he thought Jordie was lying to frighten him. Jordie sighed again and produced one more date. Tyson gobbled it.
“You remember back a few years,” Jordie said, “when I caught you and Jamie out back unchaperoned by the paddock?” Tyson nodded, mouth full of date. “And you were watching the mare being served?” Tyson nodded again, eyes wide. “That’s how it is,” Jordie said and Tyson looked horrified. Nate didn’t know exactly what they’d seen but a stallion serving a mare could go very wrong and if young boys had seen an example of that, he could imagine they might well have been frightened.
“I know you saw,” Jordie said. He held up one finger to forestall Tyson’s denial. “Don’t lie!” he said, “I know you did, I was standing behind you. You recall how big it was? And how the mare fought but we held her down?” Jordie had picked a hell of an example; even now Nate was sometimes shocked at the violence of the stallions and a horse’s penis was certainly an intimidating sight, but he supposed that was Jordie’s goal - he wanted Tyson well frightened. From the looks of it he had achieved his end, though Nate thought he’d left a real mess for Tyson’s future husband to unpick. Then he remembered who Tyson’s proposed future husband was, and winced.
“Alpha Seguin does not do that to Jamie,” Tyson said doubtfully. “Jamie wouldn’t like it and Alpha Seguin wouldn’t do anything Jamie doesn’t like.” Jordie looked pained at this talk of his brother but went on.
“It’s Jamie’s duty to serve,” he said. “I’m not going to discuss it with you but Alpha Seguin does do that and so will your husband, but Bilhah means every Elder in the Community can have you, not just your husband, and they will.” Tyson looked mulish, as if he would refuse to believe Jordie out of sheer pig headedness and Nate was afraid Tyson’s contrariness was too strong for Jordie to crack but he was wrong.
“Landeskog’s not so bad,” Jordie went on. “But he’s not an Elder and he’s got no money of his own and he won’t be your husband, not once they exercise Bilhah, and he won’t be able to stop his father and the other Elders. Do you understand what that means?”
“Yes,” Tyson said, sulkily, refusing to look at Jordie.
“Do you?” Jordie said. “That means every evening maybe, and if you cry, or fight, or say anything at all, because remember, they maintain Orthodox silence - they’ll discipline you. And do you remember how the Orthodox discipline?” Tyson was silent. Nate had no idea how the Orthodox disciplined but he couldn’t really see how it could be much worse than the Observant methods.
“Closed hand,” Jordie said and Nate realised it was a lot worse. Jordie nodded his head and Jamie brought his hand up to Tyson’s face to force Tyson to look up at Jordie. “Closed hand, Barrie,” Jordie pressed. “Closed hand and the rod, and it’s not uncommon for wives to die. Do you understand?” He stood and his hands, already in fists, unclenched and then tightened again and Jamie took the cue and shook Tyson violently by the shoulders. “Do you understand?” Jordie said one final time, and Jamie stopped the shaking. Tyson was crying and he nodded, defeated.
“Yes,” he said quietly, and Jamie stroked his cheek sympathetically, of his own volition, Nate felt.
“And will you marry this boy?” Jordie said, gesturing at Nate.
“But Alpha,” Tyson whispered, ”I don’t want to. I want to marry Landeskog.”
Jordie closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again. “Tys,” he said, the use of the first name shocking. “This is the best I can do for you. It’s not a question of want, you’ve got to marry someone now, this afternoon before Landeskog exercises his claim.” Tyson turned his face away. “Listen to me,” Jordie said, and Jamie put one hand on the unbruised side of Tyson’s face, very gently. “I bought your rights from your father - I put up my house, my business, everything. I won't be able to afford to marry for ten years now and all so I could give you this one chance and by God I won’t falter at the post. You will not go to them so they can exercise Bilhah, and I’ll stop your god-damned father if he tries.” Tyson loosed an involuntary titter at the insult to his father and Jordie smiled wryly.
“There’s a reason the Orthodox have to buy their Omegas,” Jordie said, calming down, “and that’s because no more are born into the Community because God has cursed them for their treatment of those Gifts. You deserve something better.” This seemed to resonate more with Tyson and he swallowed the last of his date and nodded, though he looked fleetingly at Nate as if he wasn’t sure Nate was that something better. He looked quite affronted by Nate’s very existence.
“He stopped Len from beating you,” Jordie pointed out, correctly interpreting Tyson’s look. “What more do you need to know?” He gestured at Nate encouragingly. “He’s a good boy doing his best,” he said, which was pretty poor praise, Nate thought. Nate tried again to look presentable. He knew he wasn’t especially good looking but he was tall and had all his teeth, and his pimples were much improved lately - he wouldn’t dare say they were gone, but better - and Sarah had said that if he’d just smile instead of looking dour he did well enough, but it wasn’t so easy with this pretty boy glaring at him.
“I was to marry Landeskog,” Tyson said, but it sounded like he was growing resigned. “We were going to be rich and the best looking couple in the Community.”
“Well you scotched all that with your stupid letter,” Jordie said severely, and Nate wondered again what could possibly have been in that letter. “It’s this boy this afternoon or Alpha Plummer.”
“Alpha Plummer!?” Tyson yelped, and even Jamie looked briefly put off. “He’s 82 and takes snuff!”
“Well then,” Jordie said triumphantly.