This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!
During the journey from Vienna to Ballston, Avalon watched Ainsel. She was beginning to think of Ainsel as having two modes. One was quiet, expressionless and intensely observant. The other was the toothed, clawed fighter, almost daring people to come at her. Even as she wished it gone, there was something admirable about that side of her. Ainsel was so tiny, even compared to the other children her side, and she would take on any number of them at once.
When they emerged into Ballston, Avalon saw a new side. She saw Ainsel smile. The trigger was a pack of dogs. There were six, all with the thick, pure white fur that every handler envied. Their elderly handler was haggling with a spinner, and all of them were sitting or lying in the shade, panting a light and friendly rhythm, blinking patiently. Ainsel slipped in among them. Avalon did not know how else to describe it. She did not charge them, but nor did she move in her usual cautious, testing way. Avalon noted Ainsel’s smile, and then in the space of time it took to look away, locate the source of the smile, and look back, Ainsel was no longer by her side, but was settling in next to the nearest dog, holding her hands up for it to sniff and then nuzzling against its chest. She moved from dog to dog, greeting them with no fear, and they happily submitted to her gentle petting. Avalon stayed where she was and studied this new phenomenon.
When the handler was finished and returned to her pack, Ainsel lost her smile. She re-entered the frozen, expressionless, tense mode, and huddled down against the fur of one of the dogs, as if she hoped she could hide in it. Suddenly Avalon became afraid of what would happen if the handler approached her, and she went up to talk to him. At her approach, Ainsel fled up a tree.
Avalon was disappointed, but instead of showing it she smiled at the handler and explained the situation.
The handler nodded. “Must be an Empty then,” she said, through old cracked teeth.
“I do not think so,” Avalon said, tightly.
The handler shrugged. “Not the worst thing if she is. I hear they’ve got a new use for them, down at the library.”
“Yes, I know all about that. But I do not think she is Empty. I think she’s just afraid.”
“I’ve seen lots of afraid, but I’ve never seen anything like that.” The handler nodded up at the tree. Avalon thanked her for her opinion and said goodbye.
She waited until Ainsel was hungry enough to be coaxed down the tree, and they began to wander together. As they passed other dogs, Ainsel ran away to visit them as well. Avalon noted that she had a very sweet face when she smiled, and it sparked a painful hope in her. There had to be a way, she thought, to transfer that trust and love of animals to humans. Ainsel could be a wonderful handler, if only that wall of silence and fear could be broken through.
Before she solved that question, Petruchio came. Avalon did not exactly find Petruchio intimidating. Not many people had that affect on her. However, she was aware that he intimidated other people, and she was aware that there was power in that. She was intimidated by that power more than the individual himself.
Officially, all placements were the decisions of high priests, but for the most part their approval of the selections made by the children and physicians themselves was a formality. Petruchio went through the physicians one by one, for the most part approving of the placements they made and advising those who had an undecided. Avalon, to her embarrassment, was the only one with two children unplaced; Bernard and Ainsel. After making some observations, he took her on a walk through the woods to discuss things.
“Bernard seems quite intelligent,” Avalon began. “He has been very diligent in studying his reading, and shows a great interest in the our philosophy.”
Petruchio nodded. “I will interview him for the priesthood. And the other one?”
Avalon hesitated, trying to find the right words. Why hadn’t Mother Miranda given her more time? “I think her potential is still an open question.”
An eyebrow went up. Petruchio was already forming an opinion, and Avalon did not like it.
“Isn’t it correct that the child does not speak?”
“I don’t think she’s incapable of it. She makes sounds, and she seems alert. Conscious. She does seem to be listening when other people talk. I think she’s afraid to talk.”
“Afraid to talk?”
Avalon knew from the way he repeated her phrasing that nothing she could say would convince him she was right. She decided to try, nonetheless.
“Her initial environment showed significant neglect. I believe she is currently recovering from some great trauma. She has shown some interest in animals, and I think that if she were given more time to recover, she might be willing to become a handler.”
“Is she not willing at present?”
“Not exactly. She runs away from most people.”
“Does she make any effort to communicate?”
“Does she demonstrate any other skill that would be typical of, how old did you say?”
“My best guess is that she is three or four.”
Avalon sighed. She had lost. “No. She really isn’t an ordinary three year old, in any way.”
“Well then, it’s clear you had an Empty.” He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. That isn’t the failure these days that it was in the past.”
Avalon ended her conversation as hastily as she could without seeming rude, and decided the only thing to do was find a place to feel miserable. She came across a brook that seemed like an appropriate place for the kind of thing, with a nice flat rock to sit on. The actual tears did not last long, her tears never did, but the feeling of melancholy lingered for a while. It was Bernard who found her.
“Avalon!” he said. “They’re taking Ainsel away!”
“I know,” she said.
“She’s screaming. Will she be all right?”
Avalon breathed in slowly, through her nose, gathering enough steadiness within herself to talk without trembling. “I’m not sure she’s the sort of person who was ever going to be all right.”
“Because she’s an Empty?”
“I heard someone call her that. What does it mean?”
“People are meant to be full of all sorts of things. Intellect, creativity, compassion, emotions, logic, hope… all kinds of things. But just like you can be born without a limb, or lose one from trauma, some people don’t have everything in their heads that a person is supposed to have. That’s an Empty. We can solve all kinds of things. We can’t fix an Empty.”
“So what’s going to happen to her?”
“Well, you know the nanonerves in your hand? They copy nerves in your body that carry information. Your brain is just a mess of nerves. Nanonerves can’t copy brain nerves well enough to fix an Empty, but they can store some information. Ainsel is going to be part of an experiment to make a biomechanical library. Understand?”
“They’re going to put books in her head?”
“Yes. Or, they’re going to try.”
Bernard suddenly smiled. “That’s wonderful. That means she’ll have a purpose after all.”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
“Petruchio says purposes are very important. He’s a nice man, don’t you think?”
“He’s very popular.”
“He said he wanted to talk to me later today. What do you think he’s going to say?”
Avalon contemplated keeping it a secret, and decided there was no point. “Bernard, do you want to be a priest?”
At the mere mention of the word, he was delighted and speechless. Avalon could recognize the answer in his face. “He is considering inviting you to join the priesthood. If you show him you are eager to learn and listen well, I am sure he will accept you.”
Bernard wrapped his arms around her neck and squeezed. “Thank you! Thank you thank you!”
She patted his back. “Better run off. He will want to be able to find you easily.”
He ran off, all fears relieved. She sat on her rock until the sunset, a rotten feeling growing in her stomach. Her explanation of what Ainsel was comforting to him, but she only felt worse about it for having had to say it aloud.