Melbourne sat by the fire with her brother, Albany, in the living room of their red clay house, playing a game of snapping dice, their fingers both raw from a day of working in the laundry well, burned from the chemical soaps. Albany rolled the seven-sided bone die across the table, knocking through Melbourne’s guards. Melbourne’s die snapped open, pushing Albany’s back across the stone table. The game piece had been their mother’s, before she had died; but Melbourne and Albany had crafted their own guards, mostly out of sand rocks and stickum.
Melbourne and Albany’s mother had gotten the Cough, a mutation that caused her body to reject the Air of Newe. Not everyone’s bodies could withstand the Newe World, even twenty generations along. Albany had been too young, but Melbourne could remember watching her suffocate. And she remembered frequently. She smiled at her younger brother, her most frequent reminder of the mother they lost. He looked just like her, especially now that he was close to manhood. When she died, their mother was not much older than either Melbourne and Albany were in that moment.
Their family was once one of the elite, wealthy and powerful enough to have escaped the crumbling Earth as the rest of its inhabitants were forced to suffer through the destruction of their home planet. But in a society built entirely of the elite, of those who had become accustomed a class system and thriving off the backs of others, a new order had to be established — a Newe Order. These were the evils of the Second Generation, those nearly seven hundred years back. Her family had long fallen to the bottom of the Newe Order, but still they were grateful their ancestors got them there to begin with, away from suffocation, starvation, and eternal damnation. They had had privileges that many did not have, and those privileges led them there, to the Newe World. However, while Melbourne was grateful for her Life of Newe, she was entranced by the World of Olde, Earth as they were forbidden from calling it. Before her mother had died, she gave Melbourne a book of photos from Earth, given to her by her mother. It was her Melbourne’s cherished possession.
Melbourne snapped her die shut and prepared to roll, but there was a soft tap on their door. She looked at her younger brother confused, but he only smiled. Albany seemed to smile each time there was a knock on the door. Melbourne was of the age for the Ritual and he hoped this for her. She rolled her eyes and waved at him, brushing him off, and got up to answer the door. Albany’s smile only grew as Melbourne opened the door to a beautiful stranger. She was tall in stature but slight of frame, had an upturned nose, and sandy hair cropped just below her ears; and she stood on the stoop with her hands held level with her belly button. In them was a box of thin gold with gold floss flames rising up from where a lid should have been.
Melbourne did not notice the box. Instead, she was trapped in the deep brown eyes of the strange woman in front of her. Without breaking her mesmerized gaze, Melbourne stepped back and let the stranger in. Maintaining constant eye contact, they switched places — almost in a dance — and Melbourne closed the door. The stranger walked over to the bench, nodding at Albany, and set her Gift down in the middle of their game. She then turned to Melbourne and in a velvety voice asked, “Do you have a bucket of hot water and a bowl?”
Melbourne simply nodded and rushed to the fire to boil some water and retrieve a large wooden bowl from the mantel, “Will this work?”
“That’s perfect,” the stranger smiled. She understood what a great value the bowl must have been for a family like Melbourne and Albany’s. It was uncommon to find wood in this sector. The last artificially fed tree had died several generations back. At one point, they were no longer able to breed the Giants of Olde and they fizzled out of existence.
Melbourne handed her the bowl and took the water out of the fire. The stranger asked, “Please lay down on the bench, on your back.”
Melbourne looked at Albany, clearly still confused, and he got up and stood in the back of the room. Hiding in the shadows, he tried to give them some semblance of privacy, though privacy was forbidden. Melbourne did as asked by their mysterious guest, who kneeled at the end of the bench and put her hands on Melbourne’s shoulders. She gently pulled, indicating that Melbourne should move toward her, with her scalp hanging just over the edge of the bench. The stranger placed the wooden bowl on the floor under Melbourne’s head and pulled a small gold cup and several vials from a bag attached to the belt on her hip. She untied Melbourne’s hair from the knot on the top of her head and let the red tresses fall into the bowl. She dipped the cup into the hot water and softly poured it over Melbourne’s hair.
Melbourne gasped and the stranger stroked a thumb lightly across her forehead, “It’s okay,” and though her words of comfort were but short, Melbourne relaxed and allowed the woman to wash her hair.
As the guest trickled one of the vials over her hair, Melbourne wanted nothing more than to ask her name, but knew deep down that she shouldn’t. Instead, she closed her eyes as the welcome stranger ran her fingers through her hair, washing out the week’s grime and anointed her head with oils smelling richly of gardenia and frankincense. She pulled from the bag at her hip an ornate silver brush stroked it through Melbourne’s hair. The brush was so gentle, it did not pull on her head, much different from the metal bristles she had known her whole life.
“That’s so soft,” Melbourne breathed, almost inaudibly, “what are the bristles?”
“Boar,” the stranger replied, equally as quiet, as though they were sharing an intimate and private moment, without Albany supervising from the shadows.
Melbourne’s hair dried quickly as the stranger brushed it. The stranger tapped Melbourne’s shoulder delicately with the tips of her fingers. From the simple act of washing her hair, Melbourne and this stranger became more in sync and she knew that this meant she was to sit up. So she did, without moving her position on the bench. The stranger sat behind Melbourne, close enough that Melbourne could feel her breath on the back of her neck. They sat there silently as Melbourne’s Rite Partner held her red hair in three strands between her fingers and braided it in a long plait down her back. She fastened the plait with a thin strip of leather and tapped Melbourne’s shoulders. Melbourne turned around to face her. The Partner took the Gift from the sitting room table and placed it in Melbourne’s lap.
Still a little confused, Melbourne’s hands shook as she pulled the floss paper from the box. Her hand shot to her open mouth as she pulled in a silent breath of air. Lying just below the floss paper was a fabric of the deepest green, a color Melbourne had only seen in photos of the Forests of Olde from her mother’s Earth book. She looked up at her Partner, whose face lit up seeing the excitement in Melbourne’s.
“Go ahead,” the stranger said.
Melbourne nodded and pulled the fabric out of the box and held a simple green dress up to her shoulders, standing up to let it cascade over her knees. She stared at her Rite Partner, speechless.
“You should go get dressed, if you’re going to make the Date.”
Melbourne slipped into the room she shared with her brother. Once the door was closed, Albany emerged from the shadows. “You weren’t who I was expecting,” He noticed the stranger’s smile fade a bit and he tried to correct, “I’m excited for you both.”
The stranger opened her mouth to respond, but at that same moment, Melbourne emerged in the green dress which seemed to fit her perfectly, the fabric hugging her waist and elbows and flowing effortlessly just past her knees. Melbourne brushed her hands over the material, admiring the deep emerald, “It’s beautiful, thank you.”
The stranger nodded in recognition of her thanks, her eyes caught at Melbourne’s worn canvas boots. Noticing this, Melbourne scrambled back to the golden box. She had not looked past the dress, but she now found another gift — a pair of delicately crafted leather slippers. She pulled her boots off in a flurry, “I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend.”
“You have not.”
Melbourne slid her foot into the gifted shoes and reached for the laces of a cuff meant to support the ankle. As she tied them, she felt oddly comforted by the support the cuffs provided, despite the delicacy of the rest of the shoe. She looked from her shoes to the gold box they had resided in, to the ornate cups that lie next to the bowl used to wash her hair and knew that her Rite Partner was of the Class of Lavish.
Growing even more nervous, Melbourne looked to the stranger standing in her tiny home, awaiting further instruction. The woman reached for her hand and placed a folded piece of paper. Melbourne rose from the bench and followed the stranger to her door. She left her home alone and wove through the streets of the outer village to the city center, in pursuit of the address on the slip given by her Partner. It led her to an ornate auditorium, where she sat in the middle of a crowd of bourgeois aged silver, dressed in reds, golds, and oranges — colors of the Days of Newe.
With Melbourne gone, Albany came out of the shadows to perform his role in the Ritual — the offering of a meal in approval of the Union. Knowing their father would not accept what the Fates had offered, Albany was eager to bypass the opportunity for his participation.
“Albany,” he said, passing the stranger a copper bowl of bone broth.
“Thank you,” she said, accepting the bowl. “Florence.”
Albany and Florence sat in silence, sipping the broth. Speaking of Melbourne during her Outing was forbidden. The Fates only allowed one to know their Partner through the Ritual, it was only once the love was discovered, could their name be known. It was a subliminal kindling of Soulmates, through an Offering, a Gift, and an Outing. The Fates offered a Partner and one was to introduce themselves only through a thing provided and an activity planned; and if love was there, by the end of the night, one’s name would be whispered in the ear of the Partner by a Fate.
It was a tradition discovered only in the World of Newe, as the Fates revealed themselves to the Third Generation. And for several generations, a Union such as this was forbidden by the People of Newe. In a society desperately trying to repopulate, Queer identities were seen as a frivolous concept of the World of Olde. To the Founding Generations, it seemed a waste to allow infertile pairings to form. But repopulation was no longer a concern and these ideas were antiquated.
However, there were those who still clung to the ideas of the Founding Generations, Melbourne and Albany’s father among them. While Albany was excited for his sister and her Rite, he feared for the return of their father for this reason
Melbourne watched the cello with fascination, entranced by the dust lifting from it’s strings. She closed her eyes and can feel her Partner’s hand on her hip as she led Melbourne in a dance of their souls, despite her absence. While in her home, Melbourne struggled to follow the steps of the Ritual, thrown by the presence of another woman; but as the dulcet tones of the string quartet emanated through the gilded concert hall, Melbourne understood the Offering of the Fates and accepted her Rite. Warmth washed over Melbourne as the quartet finished its third song. She looked around her at the silver haired couples in the hall, seeing that many of them were same sex couples. This was a comforting sight, one she would never see in the outer ring of the city were the working class resided, were she had lived her whole life.
As Florence finished her last sip of bone broth, the door opened and Melbourne and Albany’s father staggered in. Seeing a female figure on the bench beside Albany, he assumed it was Melbourne and ignored them both. He slammed around the room, serving himself a bowl of broth and muttering to himself about something had overheard in the market.
Hate spewed from his voice as he spoke, “It’s unnatural. It’s shameful. It’s not a gift the Fates give to the fertile,” He flopped down at the table behind them and Florence stiffened. “These stupid kids trying to tell me that I’m wrong, but they are too young to understand. It’s a dishonor to the family…” Broth dribbled down his chin as he gulped down the entire bowl without a breath.
Afraid, Florence turned to Albany as his father left the room, “You have to help me escape, before he notices me”
Albany frantically looked to the door of his father’s room, wanting to protest that it was all just talk. But he knew better. Their father had a tendency toward violence, just as many traditionalists did. He looked back to Florence and reluctantly nodded.
Albany reached for the gold box and escorted her out the front door. He closed it quietly behind them, but grabbed her wrist before she could walk away. “Wait! You know if you walk away, you end the Ritual right?”
Florence looked panicked, “I know, but do I have any other choice?”
Albany looked at his worn canvas boots, “I wish I could tell you that it would be fine, but I just don’t know. He’s of the old Newe, honor is more important to life. He’s of those who cling to the idea of our family once being elite and knows no compromise to their ideas.”
She took the box from Albany, “Then you know why I must leave.”
“At least tell me where my sister can find you? Even if the Ritual is broken, maybe we can salvage the Union without the hand of the Fates.”
Florence nodded, “I live in the third ring, in the green house just past the–” They heard a slam from inside the house and Florence bolted down the street, out of sight before it even registered for Albany to follow her.
Melbourne was entranced by the movement of the bows and the dance that played in her mind’s eye. And soon, the music in the hall bellowed to her one thing — Florence — and the beautiful stranger in her living room, guiding her in effortless turns of the spirit, was Florence, her Soulmate.
“Florence,” Melbourne whispered.
Those around her turned their eyes to the serene smile on her lips and smiled themselves, warmth in their eyes. They understood the moment, remembering their own Ritual namings.
“Florence,” she said it again, louder this time.
“Florence,” and the music stopped.
Melbourne rose from her seat and ran from the auditorium, running home to find her Soulmate and introduce herself. It was dark then, she streets lit only by dull orbs of artificial light hanging in front of the buildings of the inner ring, the homes of the second ring, and continuing all the way back to the outer village of the City.
She showed her pace and began to panic as she rounded her block to see the tail of her father’s cart poking out from behind their house. She approached the house with caution and stopped at the door to listen. Beyond it was only silence.
She entered to find Albany sitting alone, waiting for her. Melbourne’s stomach dropped at the sight, knowing instantly that something had gone wrong.
“Melbourne, I’m so sorry,” Albany sputtered, “It was Dad. He scared her away.”
“Where is she now?”
“In the third ring, in a green house. I don’t know much more.”
Melbourne ran through the house and back to the third ring, red dust kicking up around her as her feet beat into the surface of the rock. By the time she reached the third ring her breathing was heavy and the hem of her dress was red with dust. She stopped to catch her breath and orient herself. The third ring had a circumference of nearly ten miles and contained hundred of homes. The odds of finding Florence brought tears to the brims of her lower lids.
Left, said the wind in almost a whisper in her ear — in a place with no wind. Melbourne did not take a moment to question the direction and turned left.
“Florence!” she called, rushing through the street, “Florence!”
But there was no response.
Melbourne ran through the third ring calling for Florence until she lost her breath once again, nearly half an hour after the initial direction.
Melbourne’s energy picked back up and she turned right, calling for Florence. This continued for hours until she found herself gasping for air in a sculpture park, tears burning streaks into the red dust that dressed her face.
“I can’t!” she cried out loud, stumbling forward, “I can’t.”
Melbourne fell to her knees, giving up. She was devoid of energy, her vision blurring and her spirit waning. In the darkness of night, it was too difficult to see the colors of her surroundings. But it was nearly morning and the orbs that hung above the houses began to brighten to create artificial daylight. And as the light rose, Melbourne found herself kneeling in front of a green storybook house with artificial wisteria growing up its side. Melbourne had never seen even artificial plant-life, and believed herself to be hallucinating. But just as she began to close her eyes, resigned to the exhaustion, the door opened.