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The line to the Well of Repentance was ridiculously long that morning. Vila had to walk parallel to it on her way to her district office, watching the faith-filled Hennians and Trewanians stand in line for their moment at the Well. Each of them clutched onto a piece of paper that they had written a confession on; each of them hoped that they’d be forgiven upon casting it into the eternal flames. Hennians and Trewanians traversed across the world to reach the Well to relinquish their sins. Vila’s office was but a five minute walk to the Well. Not once had she ever cast a word into the flames.
Two pairs of violet eyes made contact with hers as she walked. A Hennian and a Trewanian in line must have recognized her and then turned to converse with one another.
“Is that Representative Vila Pirral?” The Hennian asked the Trewanian, placing all four of her arms on her hips. Her blue, scaly skin was mostly concealed in the large brown mioghi furs she wore.
“I think so,” the Trewanian replied as she looked down at her Hennian friend. For Trewanians, looking down at other creatures was a way of life. The average height for them was over seven feet, which was a major contrast with the Hennians, who were commonly the same height as humans.
The female Hennian gazed up at her Trewanian friend. The Trewanian’s skin was light green. If the creatures weren’t so brute they would look sickly. “I hear she doesn’t pray at Temple.”
“I hear she doesn’t pray anywhere.”
“What I do and don’t do is none of your concern,” Vila snarled as she passed. “Good day, ladies.” She didn’t hear the rest of their conversation. She didn’t care to.
Vila took a left on the dirt-paved road and examined the two rows of tan adobe homes and offices. Most of the buildings were dome-shaped, while others were in the form of pentagons or hexagons with Hennian or Trewanian kanji written on them in black and gold. She walked between the buildings as several air shuttles flew overhead.
Her telecom vibrated in her pocket. She reached for it through her heavy mioghi furs and withdrew the device, a slender black object no larger than a pen with several buttons on it. She pressed the leftmost one. A holographic screen appeared with a list of e-mails on the left, video messages on the right, and a 4x4 inch screen in the center. The screen was usually blank, but this time it read: “New Video Message from Arowden Knownthey.”
Vila put it away quickly and continued toward her office. Whatever Arowden had to say, it was best that she watch it in private. He was most likely freaking out again and she had too much going on that day to put any effort into calming him down. She reached her office and scoffed at the faraway line to the Well before stepping inside.
Despite housing the office of a district representative, Vila’s building was far from impressive. The waiting room was home to a couple of chairs on one side, and on the other were desks where her two Hennian assistants were often busy at work. Of her two employees, so far only Dane had arrived that morning.
“Good morning, Vila,” Dane said without taking his eyes off of the telescreen in front of him, typing with all four of his hands.
“Big day today,” she said as she headed toward her office.
He glanced over at her as she walked passed him. “Excited?”
“I’m more anxious than anything. This could make a lot of waves.”
Dane smiled. “What about your rule hasn’t?”
Vila nodded. It was common knowledge that she was quite possibly the most liberal of the Hewenian government officials. Some claimed that she was a heretic. Others believed that she’d never even read the ‘Book of Gods’, the text that every believer in Hewenia followed. She never revealed if they were right or wrong. Her beliefs were her business and no one else’s.
“I’ll be rewriting my speech,” Vila said. “I’ll send you a draft in an hour.”
“I look forward to reading it,” Dane said gleefully. He seemed far more thrilled about the legislation than Vila was that morning. Then again, he wasn’t the one that had to give a speech and face the scrutiny of her more devout constituents while she pushed for the Separation of Religion Act. If only one fanatic interrupted her speech by setting a picture of her ablaze, it would be a successful afternoon.
Vila stepped inside her office. Unlike most of the offices of government workers, Vila’s was nearly a replica of her living room. Given the ratio of time she’d spent there as opposed to her home, it felt appropriate. She bypassed her all-too-comfy sofa and approached her desk: a long, sleek, and polished auburn piece of carpentry, and as beautiful as it was powerful. She sat at it and withdrew her telecom. She had to watch Arowden’s message before starting her draft. She wouldn’t be able to focus otherwise.
Arowden’s pale green face appeared on the screen. His violet eyes gazed right through hers and he spoke with conviction and solemnity. “Hey you… I couldn’t sleep last night. Actually, I haven’t really slept well these last three nights.” He was on the verge of tears already.
“Ugh… Here we go,” Vila muttered. She crossed both pairs of her arms and continued to watch the message.
“I know that you’ve got a lot going on, but I still don’t understand why you’re doing this. You can’t have much more time left, and we haven’t talked about how we’re getting out of here yet. You’ve got what—another week? Maybe two?”
“I know you must be scared,” Arowden looked as if his skin was replaced by brittle lime-colored glass. “I am too, my love, but you can’t avoid me much longer. We have to talk about our exit strategy. The only chance we have is to disappear. I know it’s scary. I’m scared too… Please get back to me.” A second later, the screen was black and the words ‘End of Message’ appeared in bold white letters.
Vila let out a long sigh and stared down at her blue scaly skin and toward her stomach, which was heavily covered in furs. Arowden was right. They needed to leave Hewenia before their child came to term. The words etched in gold above her door (which she covered up with a landscape painting of the Cavian Mountain Range long ago) served as a constant reminder to the bleak reality of her situation.
“The greatest sin of all is for a Trewanian to love a Hennian, and for a Hennian to love a Trewanian in return. Such a love will bring about a child of mixed breed—and with the child bring about the destruction of the Trenthean and Henthean ways of life.”
Vila wished that she hadn’t watched his message before starting on her new draft. Nothing was more distracting than the thought of her doomsday child. She wished he hadn’t said anything at all. She’d contact him later that day, after her speech was done.
She put away her telecom and turned on the telescreen at her desk. She opened up a new text document and wrote ‘My Speech’ at the very top. This would be the fourth draft of her speech. She could’ve pulled up one of the first three versions for inspiration, but it wasn’t necessary. She’d known all three of them by heart. The words ran through her head when she sat alone in her office, and she continued to mumble them in bed while Arowden would cling to her with both of his arms, fast asleep. Neither of the three versions seemed perfect, and she was running out of time.
She placed her fingers on the keyboard below and paused.
Come on, words. Come on…
A pop up appeared on the bottom right corner of her telescreen. She highlighted it and saw Dane’s face appear. “Representative.”
“What is it, Dane?”
“You have a visitor.”
If it was Arowden, she’d be pissed. “I don’t wish to speak to anyone right now. You know how important today is.”
“I do, but she’s come a long way—and you did schedule a meeting with her.”
Vila cocked her head. “Her?”
“The potential intern.”
Vila smacked her top two hands on the desk. “Are you kidding? I specifically remember telling her that I had to reschedule.”
Dane’s face turned from the screen. “I—Miss!”
Vila almost rose to her feet when her door opened. “Excuse—” she gawked, suddenly finding herself unable to finish her sentence.
A girl appeared in her office and shut the door behind her. She stared at the representative with a pair of emerald-colored eyes. Her hair was a dark brown with lighter highlights and came down to the tips of her shoulders, attempting to round out her otherwise hard face. She wore a shirt as blue as the sky and an expression of determination that overshadowed her timidity. What should have surprised Vila was that this girl couldn’t have been older than fifteen, but what actually baffled her was something she didn’t predict.
“I’m sorry in advance for barging in here. I did see your message, but I didn’t want to be canceled on again,” the girl said quickly. She clutched a portfolio in her left hand. “My name is Eliza Bennihan, and I would like to be your intern.”
Vila opened her mouth.
Eliza stepped forward. “I know you have a busy day today with writing a speech and all before your legislation comes to a vote, so I’ll try and be as concise as possible.”
Before Vila had time to react, Eliza was already sitting at her desk, sliding her portfolio across the table. “You’ll see there that I have three years of experience in Larcos on Representative Gerald’s campaign. He wrote me a lovely letter of recommendation. I started working for him as just an errand girl—I often took time between classes to do lunch runs for him and his staff and tried to provide whatever political insight that I could. Of course, it was hard to get adults to listen to a—then—twelve-year-old girl, but after I got him to read a draft of a speech I wrote for him, he chose to use it and coined some key terms that allowed him to get re-elected. By fourteen, people on his campaign were doing lunch runs for me at school and I was asked to stay on as a shadow to his campaign manager. Then my father’s job transferred him to Kalia and my parents weren’t fond of me living on another continent and forced me to go with them. How are you today, by the way? It’s quite beautiful out—you’ve picked a wonderful day to push for the Separation of Religion Act.”
“You’re a girl,” Vila muttered.
Eliza glanced down at her still-developing breasts, which were mostly concealed within her dress shirt. “That is a true fact, yes.”
“I mean, a human girl.”
“Of course I am.”
Vila turned off her telescreen. This girl was even more of a distraction than Arowden! “I wasn’t expecting you to be a human girl.”
“Ohhhhh,” Eliza bobbed her head slowly. Strands of her hair swayed with her. “You were expecting me to be a Trewanian or a Hennian—like yourself. I get it now.”
Vila went to sneer, but stopped herself.
“Is something wrong? Actually, don’t answer that. I just barged into your office and sat here without asking, so of course there is, but since I’m now sitting here and you’re obviously taking a break from your speech, can we do this interview?”
The word “no” wouldn’t escape her lips.
Eliza took Vila’s non-responsiveness as a ‘yes’ and began. She pointed to her portfolio and opened it. “So on the first page here is my resume. As you can see I am about to graduate from Haddenford Secondary School in Kalia two years before most of my peers. I’m looking to get into the Barencos Advisory Academy in a few months—and I’ll be sixteen by then so it’s the earliest that anyone can get in. My marks are all perfect, and below that is my list of job titles during my time with Representative Gerald’s campaign.”
Vila turned the page and saw the letter of recommendation written by the representative. She skimmed through it, making note of phrases like “incredibly bright” and “strong-willed” as she went on. She turned to the next page and saw another letter, this one from the Dean of Students at her old school in Larcos.
“Even though I'm a human, as you’ve cleverly pointed out, I am quite educated in the Hewenian ways of life. I’ve read the ‘Book of Gods’ in both of its original languages, and am fully educated about the origins behind the Well of Repentance, the nightly Ceremonial Circles, and I know much about your city-state’s brief, but impressive history. I can also name all of the monarchs that this city-state has had in the last hundred years both chronologically and alphabetically. Would you like me to—”
“No. No, that won’t be necessary. I believe you,” Vila said. She continued to scroll through the pages of Eliza’s portfolio. She found herself unable to not at least examine what this girl had accomplished. Only a particularly ballsy individual would ever storm a representative’s office in search of a job. Most would have sent Eliza on her way, but she got the inclination that the girl knew that she was doing the right thing by ignoring the rules. “I’m noticing that you have great grades and some valuable skill sets, but I’m not seeing too many extra-curricular activities. Why didn’t you partake in student government or other leadership classes?”
Eliza bit her lip. It was the first time since she’d barged in that she hesitated to speak. “Truthfully?”
“Well I wouldn’t want you to lie to me.”
“I don’t really get along well with most people.”
“I’m socially awkward.”
“Really?” It came out more sarcastically than she’d intended.
“I don’t really like what most kids my age like. Boys are troglodytes and sports are good for exercise but they don’t excite me. I’m not into games or make-up or dresses—my mother picked this outfit out for me. She picks out all of my nicer clothes. When I dress myself the gay baristas at the café by my house tell me that I hurt their eyes, which is disconcerting because now one of them is blind. I don’t care about fashion though. I like to read, I like to learn about government, and I love to watch videos of the senate when it’s in session. I’m a little grateful that the Monarchical Board meetings aren’t televised. If they were, I don’t think I’d get anything done!”
“So what do you do with your friends? Do you… have any friends?”
“I’ve had several friends!” Eliza protested.
“Yes—three! There’s Sally, but she hasn’t spoken to me since we were four. Then there was Tamika, but she found better friends. My last one was Aurelia, who was my best friend until last year when she called me a bitch.”
“Why did she say that?”
“Did you read the opening line to the letter of recommendation from the Dean of Students at my old school?”
Vila returned to the third page of the portfolio and read the first line of the letter Eliza referred to. “Eliza Bennihan is a very astute and driven individual.”
“He said that I am ‘astute’ and ‘driven’.”
“That means I’m a bitch.”
Vila closed the portfolio and placed all of her focus on Eliza. “That’s hardly a selling point for an internship interview.”
“In most cases, no, but I think that you’ll find them to be some of my more likeable qualities.”
“Being a bitch?”
“No, being astute and driven. You’re a pioneer in this city-state. At the age of twenty-seven you are not only one of the youngest representatives to ever get elected, but you did so successfully on a platform completely devoid of religion. That is unheard of in this city-state! I’m not saying that following the ‘Book of Gods’ is a bad thing. I’m simply stating by your essentially replacing the word ‘religion’ with ‘culture’ and—thus implying that you believe in a separation of church and state—was genius. Not even the conservatives or the fanatics made too much of a fuss about it.”
“Well, I’d like to think that I’m right,” Vila said with the traces of an unintentional smile. “Our forefathers created the city-state of Hewenia so that Hennians and Trewanians alike had a place to gather and celebrate our culture. There are a lot of commonalities in our respective religions that intertwine with our culture, but the two remain mutually exclusive. And I’m twenty-nine, by the way.”
“Yes, but you liked it when I said you looked twenty-seven.”
“You said that I was twenty-seven, not that I looked it.”
“But you do look it.”
“Oh. Well, thanks.”
Eliza smiled slyly and clasped her hands on Vila’s desk. “When I found out that I was being moved to Kalia, I instantly knew that I wanted to work as your intern. I find you to be a very fascinating individual and if my career path could emulate anyone’s, I would want it to be reminiscent of yours. You’re a strong woman; you’ve stuck to your guns and you remain unrelenting and unmatched. As your intern I would do my best to continue to keep you guided in that direction. I’m excellent as a speech writer and I’m proficient in social and global media. I’m also not afraid to ask you the hard-hitting questions that you’ll sometimes need to be asked.”
“You have more than up-sold yourself,” Vila said.
Eliza’s whole face lit up the way most girls would if the loves of their lives had just proposed to them. “That said, I respect you and hope that you will consider me as a candidate for internship. I can start tomorrow—or right now even. I can make my parents understand.”
Vila smiled, but the smile was short-lived. “Miss Bennihan—”
“Eliza,” Vila sighed. “I’m sorry, but this just isn’t a good time.”
Vila had never known what a person looked like while having their soul crushed until that moment. Eliza's eyes welled up, but she knew that the girl was going to do her best not to cry. Even so, part of Vila wanted to cry for her.
“You’ll… You’ll like me,” Eliza said in a voice just a hint above a whisper. “I know you will.”
“It has nothing to do with that.”
“I know that I’ll stick out here, but that’s always been one of my strengths. Frankly, that’s been one of yours as well.”
Vila felt a kick. She clutched onto her stomach and saw Eliza’s eyes divert toward it. She removed her hands quickly and placed all four of her palms down on the table. “I’m sorry. You are a very convincing young woman, but soon I will be too busy to advise anyone.”
“What? No!” Vila said all-too-quickly. “I’ve got a lot going on. And even if I did bring you on as an intern, you won’t get into the Barencos Advisory Academy. Good grades and two letters of recommendation from government officials won’t be nearly enough. You need in-school experience, and, not to offend your lineage, but over ninety-five percent of students accepted into that academy come from families that are respected world-wide, like the Xeras', or the McKellas, or the Donnicks. If any of the Bennihan’s had ever been involved in a political sphere, you would’ve led with that.”
Eliza frowned, but understood. Vila was relieved. Hopefully the girl wouldn’t make that accusation again. Vila had managed to go nearly her full three month term without anyone noticing the very small bump over her stomach. She couldn’t let this fifteen-year-old kid blow her cover.
“Hey—look at me,” the representative said in the voice that she had practiced to use on her child one day. Eliza obeyed. “If you want your career path to emulate mine, you won’t let rejection get to you. I once had to work under a religious fanatic for university experience because no one else would have me. I had to write propaganda pamphlets and keep my opinions to myself for a year. Right now you strike me as the type of girl who could never do that, but—”
“Funny; you strike me as a woman who never did.”
Vila bit her lip. “A little bit of humility might do you some good, Eliza.”
“Look at me,” Eliza retorted while she, too, examined herself. Her confidence continued to wane. “Think about what I’ve just told you and everything that I’ve accomplished in just the last three years.”
“I can’t deny that it’s impressive—”
“Think about what my life must be like beyond that portfolio. Think about my peers or my family. The kids at school write me off as a freak and my mother so desperately wants me to be normal that she refuses to see everything that I am and can be. I know a thing or two about humility. I eat my lunch in the library surrounded by a scattered pile of open books. Then I silently have dinner across the table from my mother, who just stares at me and hopes that she’ll eventually find a conversation topic that will pique both of our interests. I took a huge risk by even coming here. If you send me on my way, I’ll be devastated.”
Vila reached for Eliza’s hands and held them with a firm, yet gentle grip. The suddenness of Vila’s actions caught her by surprise. Before she knew it, she was speaking in a much softer, more soothing voice than she’d used a long time. “You will leave here, and it will be devastating. That much is true. But if you are truly like me, you will find another way to get what you want. I am certain that, for you, the solution is out there. It might not be where you thought it would be, but you will prevail, and you will eventually get to where you want to go. I have no doubt of this.”
The girl remained silent, fixated on every word that Vila had said to her.
“Now, if you will, I have some work I must attend to, and you have another representative to start admiring. Good day, Eliza Bennihan.”
Eliza bit her lip, but respected Vila’s decision enough to not waste any more of her time. She withdrew from her seat and picked up her portfolio. “Good day, Representative Pirral. And good luck with that speech… and with your child.”
“I’m still not pregnant,” Vila said. She returned to her telescreen and purposefully kept her eyes away from Eliza.
She could feel it in her bones how much Eliza wanted to refute her, but the girl said nothing. Vila pretended to read her blank screen until Eliza finally gave up and left the room. When the door shut behind her she reached for the telecom in her pocket. No, she couldn’t look at Arowden’s message again. She had a speech to prepare and a political career to continue.