The afternoon of Mistress's funeral was sunny, chill...thin wisps of clouds rushed by overheard, trees rattled their nearly bare branches in the brisk breeze. Jensen closed his eyes and pressed into the leather seat back. Breathing deeply, he caught the scent of wood smoke through the slightly opened car window, maybe a hint of roasted chestnuts in the air. His eyes flew open as bells tolled—one loud, echoing roll, silence for a full minute, and then another toll.
At that, the stroke of noon, the sedans started out on the mistress's final trip from home; the long lines of big, silent, black vehicles—all electric cars due to the solemnity of the occasion—headed out.
Jensen sat silently, hands folded properly in his lap, swallowing carefully because the high collar of his new gray jacket bit into his throat. He was in attendance owing to his place as school companion to Jared and appointed trainee of the estate. All the heads of the Household were charged to attend, (though the Padalecki's thralls considered their attendance an honor) and traveled in one sedan with the exception of masterTechnologist, who was a freeman.
Jensen's position next to masterHouseboy was intimidating—most of his concentration was caught up in not moving, or breathing too loud out of fear of angering Jim. Facing them on the other seat were masterGardner and masterCook, who spoke so quielty to each other that Jensen couldn't catch a word. In the seat behind the two sat the head of the Estate—the Landsman, along with his subordinates, masterHusbandman and Wagonhandler.
Jensen looked sadly at the empty place between the masterGardner and masterCook. That would have been the space where masterMaid sat. In all his days on the estate, she'd never been more than a cold, rather distant figure. But the trip to Philadelphia had changed all that. She'd revealed herself as a canny, intuitive woman, someone who'd hid a warm heart under an icy, efficient exterior. Jensen was sure they'd been on the cusp of friendship. The loss of that possibility made him sad.
Jensen sighed deeply. Dark thoughts were the order of the day, he supposed. He was worried—about the estate, about its workers and its land. He worried about Jared, alone with no one to stand for him—with him. Jared had wanted Jensen to ride with him and his father in First car, but Gerolt had forbidden it. Jensen breathed another sigh, subtly picking at an already ragged thumbnail. The expression on Gerolt's face when he'd denied Jared that tiny bit of comfort. That quickly veiled spark of satisfaction in the man's eyes at Jared's disappointment....
Jared's father...Jensen saw nothing good coming of his reappearance. As far as he knew, Jared hadn't spent more than a dinner or two with Padalecki before he'd unexpectedly left for the seaside estate without a word, returning just in time for his wife's funeral. And now, Jared was alone in a sedan among strangers and a man whose only claim to Jared was the donation of sperm….
Jensen shook himself free of dangerous thoughts, looking up to catch Jim frowning at him. He shook his head and Jim turned his gaze away.
Looking out the sedan window, Jensen was surprised to see they were well off the estate now. He'd been sunk in his thoughts for much longer than he'd thought. They drove past the small town that was part of Padalecki Freehold, the official, rarely used name for the estate. The Padalecki was the only landowner around that area. Everyone knew who they were; Patricia Padalecki was a known entity. But now...there was Gerolt. A Padalecki by name only, trusted by no one save Jared, loved by no one save Jared, who in his father's absence had made a hero of the man, as children were often inclined to do—rather, free children had the leisure to do so. When Jensen's sire was gone, there'd been no loving memories left behind to embroider, to make the man more than he'd been. One day he'd had a sire, the next day he hadn't. It was what it was—life.
* * *
Several men and women, dressed alike in dark suits and stiff, white, shirts—very important people, Jensen knew—lined up on either side of the bier. They grabbed the oar-like handles to slide it along a track until it was caught up gears that would guide it into the furnace.
As she slowly passed, the people in the stands unpinned sprigs of herbs tied up with horsehair from their lapels. They stood, and threw the little bundles of sage and holly and lavender onto the open bier. Some threw small cards with pictures of food or wine, of flowers, of the land, onto the bier as well. A holdover, Jensen knew, from days long gone, when those items would have been placed in the fire with the dead.
Before they'd left the estate, Mark had whispered to Jensen, as he'd buttoned his collar for him, then passed him a card with the symbol for thrall written on it, "Once upon a time, when thralls were called slaves, the masters would have gone into the fire with company—their slaves. These cards they've given you and the others, Lucky, they're symbolic of those days…" Mark had looked Jensen up and down and then he'd smiled. "You are a lucky shit, aren't you?"
Jensen twirled the thrall card in his hand, waiting for Mistress to pass, and thought that, yes, this was very much an improvement on those days.
Mistress traveled slowly down the shallow slope of the hillside; the men and women honored with ushering her to the furnace were red faced, sweating with exertion of keeping their burden from rolling willy-nilly down the track. The bier was a massive thing, meant to survive the flames. It was heavy, metal bars suggesting the ribs of an ancient viking ship. The brassy autumn sun winked off the curved arc of metal at the head of the bier—the prow of the ship.
As she finally passed by the Estate staff, Jen tossed his card between the bars and fortune brought it to rest on her hands. He murmured a quick wish for her soul—and on she went, out of sight, until the crematorium doors slid open and the automatic rails caught her and pulled her alone into the flames.
The doors shut quietly, and the observers raised their hands to the sky in a final farewell. Jensen and the rest of the household turned to go, when suddenly the crowd let out a collective gasp of horror.
Decorum was lost as arms flailed, fingers pointed to the sky, and a low, thrumming hum that had been nibbling at the edges of Jen's mind became a thick, heavy buzz—a sound that was oddly familiar.
Something came out of the sky, dropping quickly and heading straight at them.
A biplane, Jensen thought excitedly. Why was it here? More importantly, why was it flying so low...it rolled, and lifted skyward again, and a glittering cloud spread behind it. The crowd gasped again, and angry voices rose—"Such disrespect! How could they! The horror! Someone cover the boy's eyes!"
The voices rose to a roar, drowning out the sound of the plane, making the descent of hundreds and hundreds of tiny, golden, paper dirigibles silent.
Padalecki's voice cut in over the roar of the others. "Proof! Proof of murder—there! It was the followers of that gods damned Dirigible Captain nonsense. Murderers!"
The crowd agreed, shifting this way and that, distressed waves of black and gray, and then parted in such a way that Jen could suddenly see Jared clearly, saw him bend over and pick up a small, golden airship and stealthily shove it into his pocket as he glanced around, peering out between the disheveled mess of his bangs. Jensen swiftly took a step back; for some reason he didn't understand, he wanted to hide himself from Jared's view.
The attendees were ushered quickly back into the sedans, and the return trip to the estate took much less time without the stately speed meant to show respect. As the sedans pulled into the driveway again, Jensen looked towards the fields and the lines of thralls there. He knew that they'd attended their own funeral, had remembered Mistress in their own way. They stood stock still, watching the returning sedans, elders and toddlers alike silent...it reminded Jensen of birds on a wire.
Once the sedans let out their passengers, the thralls dispersed quickly—Jensen hurrying to the cook's garden to hide out in the shrubs.
Along his way to the evergreen corner of the gardens, he overheard the masters murmuring to each other as they walked along the estate paths. They gossiped about what had happened at the crematorium, convinced that the airships were proof that DC followers had murdered Mistress Padalecki. She was famous and admired and part of the social elite, and of course the hoi-polloi were jealous of her. And it was rumored that the meetings she'd held were in support of stripping the last remaining rights held by the bornThralls, reducing the rights of indentured with an eye towards making their indenture void and their service permanent—why, everyone knew that; everyone who was anyone knew Patricia Padalecki's stance in regards to thralldom…but Jensen doubted.
He rounded the corner where holly shrubs grew high and thick, the anticipation of finally being alone to think, to relax, bringing a small smile to his face. He plucked open the buttons of the gods-damn uncomfortable collar as he walked, and felt like he could breathe free for the first time all day."With any luck," he whispered to himself, "I'll have a blessed few minutes to my—oh!"
Jensen came to an abrupt stop.
Mark was hunched over on one of the small benches tucked into a nook created by the shrubs. He was turning a shredded piece of golden paper over and over in his fingers. He raised his head slowly; his bright blue eyes were wet, and distant, but at Jensen's gasp they sharpened. There was no trace of fondness in Mark's expression, it was closed-off, icy...apart from his burning eyes. He leaped up from the bench, balled-up fists shaking at his sides as he loomed over Jensen.
Jensen managed a stumbling step back, his heart pounding in his chest. "Ma...Mark?" he stuttered, and Mark was suddenly right there. He took Jensen's shoulders in a painfully hard grip, and yanked Jensen tight against his chest. He let out a gasp that was more sob than anything else, squeezed the breath out of Jen before letting him go. Mark clapped him once or twice on the back, then swung around and stalked off without a word.
Jensen watched him walk away, until a glittering something caught his eye and drew his gaze to the ground. There was a bit of thick, gold paper caught in the grass.
Jensen knelt swiftly, snatched up the bit of paper and tucked it into his pocket, planning to keep it always as remembrance of the day, but in the coming weeks, lost it, as he did many other items of his past.