"The Price We Pay"
Ssh. Shhh. It's okay. It's okay now. Don't struggle. It's alright, you're safe. Don't be afraid. You're safe here, I promise. You're among friends.
The Lady found you... three nights ago, I think it was. Out in the Salt Marshes, raving with thirst and bright with fever. You probably would have died if not for her. But don't worry, the doctors treated your infected wounds with antibiotics and sewed you up, and you should be fine so long as you don't try to walk on that leg for another few days. Your fever broke this morning, and they don't expect it to return.
Oh yes. You heard me right. We have doctors here. And more than that. Look at the lights on the walls. That's not fire, my friend. It's not even gas. That's true electricity lighting those bulbs, same as it was in days gone by. We've got running water in every home, books to read and light to read by. This is what you were looking for, weren't you? It's okay to say yes. There aren't many reasons to go crossing the Salt Marshes in midwinter by yourself. You came looking for Haven. You came here to see if the stories were really true. Well, they are. Every last one of them.
Except for the lies. People like to spread lies about our Lady. You shouldn't put any stock in them.
I'm sorry, where are my graces? Here I am chattering, and you missing hot food for probably a dozen nights! Here. Please. Take tiny bites now, your stomach has probably squeezed tight for want of food to fill it. It's only mushroom stew, I'm afraid, but it'll do you a power of good. They grow well down here, and it's almost as filling as meat when you cook it proper. Our herds are small, so we save the beef for special occasions. You'll get used to the taste, I promise.
I suppose we've all had to get used to a few things, haven't we? Not so much the young ones--to them, the days gone by are just pictures in a book. But the rest of us remember what we lost. Oh, we've been working to get a computer back up and running, but nobody's quite sure what we'd do with it if we had it. There's no one to talk to and not much time for games, I'm afraid. The old entertainments just make your heart hurt anyway. Who wants to be reminded of the way things used to be when we can't bring them back?
But forgive me, I'm nattering on when I should be telling you the way of things now. You've got on a necklace, same as mine. You'll want to wear it at all times, from the moment you wake in the evening to the time you go to bed. It's your mark of citizenship, see. It tells everyone who sees you that you're with the Lady, that you're under her protection and serve her purpose. That doesn't mean all that much anymore, mind you; we haven't seen any raiders or press-gangs around here in a month of Sundays. But if someone does come upon you, you may be glad you have it.
Right now, your necklace has thirty beads. Every evening, you'll remove one of those beads and bring it down to the commissary to get your rations for the night. You're not to use more than one bead every twenty-four hours, and it's against the rules to ask for someone else's beads or give yours to another. That's for your safety and theirs. You'll get plenty to eat, believe me. The Lady wants us all well-fed and well looked after, and the doctors know full well how much food you need to keep you hale and hearty. You'll also get vitamin supplements, as well. Mushrooms and potatoes keep you fed, but they don't give your body everything it needs.
Oh, it has been a long time for you, hasn't it? Let me guess, you've maybe spent a little while here and there with some other nomads like yourself, banded together for a few weeks at a time until raiders came and you scattered like pigeons. No, no, it's okay. I understand. It's been a hard few years for most of us. But... the problem was never a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of sanctuary to apply that knowledge. How do you rebuild civilization from the ground up when there's always someone ready to tear out the roots of what you've made?
Everyone's in it for themselves out there. Everyone wants to be the king or the emperor or the czar, and nobody can trust each other. But in here it's different. The Lady saw to that.
What I'm trying to say is, we know how to make vitamins. We know how to make medicines and tools and clothing, to write and to till fields and to tend cattle for food. But none of that is what makes us special. What makes us special is that we have the time to do those things without fear, and we have a safe place to make progress without some would-be King of New America coming along to seize it. That's all down to the Lady. She is literally our light in the darkness. We'd just be a group of strangers huddling in caves without her.
Oh, she also helps us with our studies. She knows more languages than most of us have forgotten, and she's learned from physicists and philosophers alike in her years. There's not a one of us that hasn't gone to her for help with a vexsome problem, from astronomy to zoology and everything in between. But if all we needed was an expert, we've got some olders here who remember plenty from days gone by. No, our Lady keeps us safe from harm at night, and guards us while we sleep. There's not a one within a hundred miles who would even try to raid here anymore, not with the Lady on duty. She's made it clear to any who'd try the cost they'll pay for such an act. She's fierce in her loving protection, and--
How do you earn the beads? Oh. Well. About that.
Ours is a kind and gentle Lady. You probably don't remember her, what with the fever and all, but when you look her in the eyes, I can promise you, you'll know it the instant you see her. There's four hundred souls down here in the caverns, with room for mayhap a thousand more, and never a night goes by when she doesn't go up to the peak and scans all the way to the horizon for someone like you who needs a refuge. Someone all alone, weak and helpless and desperate. Every single one of us was like that once, and the Lady found us in our time of need.
And she keeps us safe and warm down here, with plenty of food and water... and more than that, she gives us hope. When the world fell apart, it happened so fast, riots and wars and plagues and famines and lawlessness on top of lawlessness until it seemed like we'd never remember how to be human beings again. The Lady reminded us. She gave us something to work toward, a chance to someday find our way back to the people we once were. That's a treasure beyond imagining. That's a gift beyond price.
And in return, she asks for so little. Do you know how long I've been here? Ten years. I've been in our Lady's care for longer than many live these days, and I'm not the first one she gathered to her side. I've counted every bead off of my necklace over a hundred times, and gone to my Lady to thank her for her kindnesses every single one of those times. Do I look weak to you? Do I look scarred by my service to her? No. You can barely even see the marks. She's so gentle. She's so careful. She's so kind.
And you won't feel it, I promise. She's got the sweetest eyes, and once you see them, you'll feel her gentleness inside you like your thoughts were sinking into a tub of warm honey. Nothing can hurt when you're in our Lady's eyes. Nothing at all. You'd remember, if you weren't so sick when she brought you in. All the pain in your leg, the sickness in your gut, the fever burning you up... she looked into your eyes and it all went away and you slept like a baby while they treated you. It's the same when she takes from you each month. It doesn't hurt a bit. It feels like joy.
No. I'll be honest with you. It feels a good sight better than most of the joys we have these days. Are you old enough to remember the sweetness of candy, the burning warmth of a good malt whiskey, the joy of sitting down in a movie theater and letting all your cares slip away for two hours while you lost yourself in the magic lights? Our Lady's kiss is all of those things and more. It's an escape from fear and sorrow, a delicacy to be savored, a drug that takes all your worries and melts them away to nothing. I'll say for free, even though she's nowhere around to hear me, I'd give every night if she let me. I'd go to her every evening and offer up my throat for nothing if it meant that I could feel like that again, even if it meant my life.
But you couldn't be safer than with our Lady. Four hundred people means there's always someone who can spare the, the strength to give her thanks for her devotion to us. She scarcely needs to take half a pint. The good and the generous used to give twice that in days gone by. No one's ever been hurt by her. Even when we had a few greedy gluttons who tried to trade beads for favors, the Lady never took more than a person could live without. She's careful. She's kind. She is worth every drop.
And... she's all we have. Oh, I see the way you're looking at me. I can tell the fear in your eyes without a word of it passing your lips. You're wondering if you have what it takes to be so good and so generous as to pay for our Lady's favors, or if you might not just decide to take your chances one morning after the rest of us have gone to bed and run for the hills. Too many old stories from the times before the times before, mm? All the tales that used to scare us late at night, back before we learned that the worst horror we had was each other. You think you know what our Lady is, what her eyes have done to our minds.
But no. There's not a one of us here that calls ourselves a thrall. You leave this place, and there'll be no one stopping you, not even our Lady. She'll watch you leave, and she'll mourn your death when you die, but she won't take your life or stop your heart--there are plenty who'll do that for her, and she needs all the warm-blooded souls she can find in times like these. She'll slay none, save to protect those who serve her. You can go whenever you wish. And as far as you can run.
But this is a place of safety. Perhaps the only place of safety now, although I couldn't say for sure. Strength and kindness together are rare, but not unheard of. But it's the only place you're likely to find. And this necklace? This is the price we pay for it. In days gone by, they called it a 'social contract', a bond between the ruler and the ruled. Down here, it's written in blood. And it's the best deal you're likely to find.
Go ahead and finish your stew. I'll leave you to think on it. You've got twenty-nine days before you have to decide. I'll give you one word of advice, though. If you do go? Let your leg heal first. You can't run the way it is now... and if you leave here, you'll be running for the rest of your life. Good day.