Two adults in their late teens stood up and approached the table. Daphne forced herself to take long, deep breaths as the trial began. Her heart thumped so wildly she was sure the other ombudsmen could hear it.
“I understand you two are separating?” Lucio said. They nodded. Separations were rarely cause for involving the legal system, but both Kiva and Gabriel wanted sole custody of their toddler.
“It didn’t work out,” Kiva said. “I’m going home to Prescott, and I want to take Julius with me.” After her mother’s death Kiva assumed the responsibility of raising a house full of boisterous younger siblings while their father managed the crops and goats. When she met Gabriel on a diplomatic mission four years ago she thought he was her ticket to adulthood, but she was working harder now than she ever had before. Kiva had lived in Mingus Valley for three lonely, exhausting years and was looking forward to going home again. Her siblings were older and more independent now. Maybe she could even get her younger brothers to care for Julius so she could go back to travelling on occasional town business with their mayor?
“He belongs with me,” Gabriel said. “If she takes him away I’ll only see my son a few times a year, and fathers have a right to their children.” It was true he’d left most of the physical labour of raising a baby up to Kiva and the other women in the family, but now that the boy was walking and talking Gabriel had begun looking forward to seeing what his son learned next. In a few years Julius would even be old enough to begin working alongside his parents.
Lucio asked the plaintiff, defendant, and the rest of the public to wait outside while the ombudsmen debated in private. Aunt Lucy sighed and poured herself a glass of water as Lucio and Daphne dragged their chairs closer to her.
“I don’t know why we’re debating this,” she said. “The law is clearly on Gabriel’s side here. Women have the right to petition for a divorce, but men are always awarded custody of the children.”
“Well, not always,” Lucio said, glancing at Daphne. “There have been cases where mothers keep their children.”
“Only in extenuating circumstances,” Aunt Lucy sniffed. “Gabriel might be young, but there’s no evidence of him harming the child. He would have his mother and sister to help out, but Kiva would raise Julius and her last few siblings with no guidance from anyone.” Daphne felt a fine layer of perspiration form on her forehead. She had to say something.
“I raised my boys alone,” she said in a deceptively quiet voice. “It wasn’t always easy, but they’ve turned out ok. I think Kiva should keep her son.”
“Well, you had the option to give them more parents,” Aunt Lucy said. “Would it have been so bad to live with MacArthur?” An old anger sizzled in Daphne’s chest.
“I think we – ” Lucio said before Daphne cut off his train of thought.
“Yes,” she said just a little too loud. “He never thinks the rules apply to him, and he has no problem manipulating people into doing things they’d never do otherwise.”
“There’s no need to dredge up the past,” Lucio squeaked into the conversation before Aunt Lucy interrupted him again.
“You could have said no if you didn’t like the terms of his arrangement,” she said. “You didn’t have to eat his food or drag his name through the mud when you realized there was a baby on the way. He would have taken care of you.”
“It was either that or starve!” Daphne said as her anger boiled over. “He knew Naomi and I didn’t have any food left and were too weak to hunt, and he took advantage of that. I couldn’t let my children be raised by someone that selfish or cruel!” If she lived to be as old as Aunt Lucy she’d never forget what it felt like to realize his offer was all that was standing between her and almost certain death when drought destroyed almost all of her crops that fateful spring.
“Let’s bring this back to the matter at hand,” Lucio said.
“No, I’m done debating,” Daphne said. “I vote for the boy to return home with his mother. His father can always move with them if he’s that attached to the child.”
“That isn’t what the law dictates,” Aunt Lucy said. “Kiva gave no compelling evidence that she should be awarded custody, so I can’t agree with breaking with tradition on this case.” Daphne stood up and shook the wrinkles out of her skirt.
“I have to agree with Aunt Lucy,” Lucio said. “I know it’s difficult to separate your experiences from this case, Daphne, but the court made an exception for you. We can’t make exceptions for every flighty woman who changes her mind.” In his most private thoughts he agreed with Daphne, but Lucio believed that their responsibility as ombudsmen was to preserve traditions, not tear them down.
Daphne slammed her chair underneath the table and flung the front door open as she stormed out of the courtroom. The crowd parted as she stomped her way home. In her anger she didn’t even notice the soldiers standing at the edge of the crowd.