Sanguinity: Deus Ex Machina
It had been Mother's idea to spend their yearly vacation on one of the rural, beachy islands west of Obel. Father had put up something of a fight - he always liked to go to the grand cities, Crystal Valley, Muse, Tinto, where he could lose himself in the whirlwind of activity and leave his wife and sons behind. They'd taken the fight behind the closed doors of their bedroom. Caesar had tried to listen in, but Albert had pulled him away.
"That's not something you should hear," Albert had said, had stared evenly at his brother when Caesar had scowled at him. He wasn't even fifteen at the time, but was already developing the elegance - the arrogance - that would mark him in his later life. He already had that almost infuriating calm. "It isn't."
Caesar couldn't decide, years later, whether or not he resented Albert for that. He couldn't remember years later if he had, back then.
So Caesar hadn't heard the venom his parents had hissed at each other, and the family had gone to the island for those weeks. Mother had liked the rural life, sitting on a cool breezy balcony overlooking the beach and growing progressively more pleasant as she drank successive glasses of wine. Those had been the best days that Caesar remembered with her, when she wasn't manic over his father's affairs, over entertaining company, when she would call him to her and put him on her bony lap and play games, sillier than he was in her drunkenness.
Father, on the other hand, was resentful, shutting himself up in the study of the house and going through books like Mother went through alcohol. But he didn't show up often to the dinner, which was a blessing: Mother, normally so frantic at meals, presided over the meal like a luminous queen, ruddy-cheeked and gracious; her sons paid homage to her, and she granted them their favorite foods and sweets with a sweep of her long hand, taking pleasure in his and Albert's voraciousness as though she had cooked the meals herself.
He remembered best of all how Albert had been, because he followed every mood and movement of his brother then, like he always had - like he still did, though in a different way. Albert read, just like their father, outside his study, glancing up with every opened door and at every footfall. Several times, he convinced Caesar to join him in chess, played against himself when Caesar gave up the prospect of ever winning and started to refuse his brother.
"Maybe I'd play more if you played fair," Caesar had pouted.
"Of course I play fair," Albert said, his voice level in contrast to the thrumming satisfaction with which he'd knocked over Caesar's king. "Just because I'm better than you doesn't mean I'm not being fair." Caesar had hit Albert's king over in retribution and ran out the open door before his brother's slow temper simmered up.
As for Caesar himself, he'd spent those days running the dirt pathways and hills of the island, playing explorer and finding hidden waterfalls and caverns. It was, he told himself, way better than the books Albert read. Albert didn't seem to agree with him, sniffing contemptuously when Caesar told him how much more fun it would be to play outside. In revenge, Caesar went down to one of his favorite springs and waged an imaginary naval battle against Albert's armies and crushed him, so that his brother begged him to forgive and Caesar granted lenient peace terms.
A few days in he forgot about his anger as he found a playmate, Yiran, a brown and lean boy a few years older than him who ran through the jungle barefoot and worked on the farm that fed them. Back home an eleven-year-old would never have played with an eight-year-old, but here, Yiran welcomed him ecstatically and ran with him until they'd explored the entirety of the island, and when that was done showed him the in and outs of farm life.
"Wanna know where your dinners come from?" Yiran had asked one day as the vacation drew towards its end, grinning over his missing front teeth. Caesar had been to the grocery store with his mother so hadn't seen any dangers in this question, thinking that Yiran would show him the dangling red strips of meat he was used to. It wasn't that he didn't understand that there was a connection between animals and meat either - it was just a purely academic connection. He frankly wasn't sure how it was possible that he hadn't made the connection at that point - naïveté, perhaps, or simply because he'd been so very sheltered.
Yiran had caught a chicken and had shown him how to hypnotize it. Caesar had entertained himself with tucking its head under its wing and waiting until it was docile, then pushing it over so that it woke from its trance and jumped back up again with a squawk. He laughed, and Yiran grinned, then taken the dazed bird from him and hung it up by its leg.
"What - " Caesar said, and only when Yiran picked up a long knife understood, horribly.
With a quick jerk of his arm, Yiran sliced through the chicken's throat. It let out a noise like a scream, terrifyingly human, and its wings flapped furiously so that its body lifted on the chain from which it hung. And Caesar was aware that he was groaning, more, in pain or something else -
And then Albert was there, kneeling before him, taking his head in his arms and pressing his face into his chest. In him the images faded, and Caesar sobbed, clutching at his shirt.
"What came over you?" Albert hissed, and there was something exhilarating in his sharp anger directed at someone else. "What possessed you, to show him that?"
Yiran's voice was low and sullen, contemptuous of the younger boy but unwilling to antagonize his senior. "I thought he wasn't a sissy."
Hands tugged Caesar to standing, and Albert grasped his arm to lead him out of the vicinity of the still-twitching corpse. Every step, he felt steadier, until he was able to pull himself from Albert's grasp and walk the trail back to the house on his own. Albert looked down at him, then back up.
"Mother told me to get you, was all," Albert said, preemptively defensive. "My job isn't to protect you from the realities of the world."
"I know. It's not like I want that sort of thing from you, either." Caesar looked down at the ground, then back up at his brother. "It was horrific, though."
"Things die, Caesar," Albert said. "It's best you get used to that. Animals die. Plants die." He kicked at a low root as he passed, as though to prove his point. "People die, too."
"I know," Caesar muttered.
"And it's what they do, too." The jerk of Albert's head encompassed the house, its inhabitants, and everyone connected to them. "It's what we do. We kill people. It's a necessary function."
"I know." All goodwill Albert had gained with his well-timed rescue was fading.
"Even when we play chess," Albert said. "Every taken chess piece represents another life lost. Knock a piece over and you've killed a thousand men, if only in your mind. It's what we do, Caesar. Slaughtering chickens, slaughtering men - it's no different. You should get used to that, because you'll see a lot worse in your life. You shouldn't be so weak."
"Shut up," Caesar said, and ran ahead of his brother into the house without looking back. He didn't talk to him for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, at dinner, their buoyant mother had looked at them with some concern. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Is the chicken not good?"
"I'm sorry," Albert said. "I just have no appetite."
Caesar made a noise of agreement and looked over to see that Albert hadn't touched the meal, either. He looked up, but Albert wouldn't meet his eyes. He still wondered, sometimes, what that had meant.