This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.
Dawn came early to Skyhill the next morning, or so it seemed to Ella. How many minutes of sleep had she managed? she wondered as she splashed cold water on her face.
“Good morning!” Sanela stepped out of a communal shower and greeted her. Behind her she could see Fyadarh and Abuili rinsing off soap. In the dry room, Tuval was already tugging her livery on over half-damp hips and torso.
“Good day to you, ladies,” she replied. One, two, three, four: all the female early kitchen shift were up and moving. They set off for work as she stepped into the hot running water herself.
Namyra came in, followed by her two young kids. The mother shepherded them under a shower and greeted Ella sleepily before stepping in after them. Sigi, padding up the women’s quarters hall, said hello as Ella began her morning round. Five, six, seven, eight.
Dry, dressed, combed: into action. She made her way down the corridor, along the broad windows looking out onto the interior garden, still dimly lit by early dawn’s light.
“Deela, time to get up!” She pulled aside a curtain to announce the break of day.
“Good morning, Abia.”
“Wake up, Isa!” Nine, ten, eleven.
Into the married couples’ hall. “Up and at ’em, lovebirds!” Twelve, thirteen.
Two toddlers were already bouncing on their parents Bis and Lamit. “Breakfast-time!” Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…
“Ella, Ella, c’n I go to Cinorra with Talat today?” Ten-year-old Wilig never missed a beat. His fuzzy grayish hair stood up in clumps where he’d been sleeping on it.
“Go take a shower and we’ll talk about it at breakfast.” Eighteen…
She trailed the herd into the dining hall, where, while she stood in line to collect a breakfast plate, she counted heads again and made a mental note of anyone she didn’t see. Later, if one or another of her charges was missing, she would track them down electronically, quiz them, and find out why.
There in the cavernous basement kitchen and chow line, delicious odors perfumed the air: broiling meat, kettles of grains simmering in broth or milk and adorned with pickled fruits and vegetables, freshly baked sweet and savory breads, flavorful aromatics sautéed in oil and offered up to those who liked to spread them over their foods… If she wasn’t hungry before she got there – which, come to think of it, she surely was – within about five minutes of entering the hall she would be.
Windowless, the glowing paneled walls echoed with the sound of pots and pans clattering, grease snapping, people chattering, kids carrying on. Ella loved the sound of children’s voices – hadn’t realized how much so until she was brought here from Zaitaf and set down in the middle of a big houseful of singles and families.
Talat, a young mechanic, had agreed to take young Wilig on a field trip into the city, which meant she would have to dream up some supposed achievement for which she could claim he was rewarding the kid. Or, failing that, some extra chore with which he could pay for the privilege. Probably, she reflected, the latter would be best.
“You can go into town,” she told the boy, “if you do all your studies this afternoon, and you clean the swimming pool tomorrow as soon as you get out of class.” The estate’s children were instructed in a spectrum of vocational skills ranging from reading and basic math to mechanics to electronics, requiring daily classes until they reached apprenticeship age.
“Naww, Ella! We have a game tomorrow afternoon!” The largest estates organized their prepubescent boys and girls into sporting teams, a much-loved late-in-the-day activity, and the teams would compete against each other. This time of year was kickball season, and Wilig was one of Skyhill’s star kickers.
“Them’s your choices: E’o Cinorra today or the game tomorrow.”
“Well…lemme talk to the guys…”
“Better make up your mind pretty quick. Talat has to get going soon.”
The kid sulked off toward his friends. The women and older girls, already beginning to assemble in the big front hall back at the dormitory, would soon be waiting..
As the adult workers were finishing their meals, she gathered the children, took roll, and consigned them to Fihr for exercise and play before the teachers arrived from town. Fihr was apprenticing to be a teacher himself and, Ella expected, before long would have to be sent into the city during the day to attend courses and further training for the job. That meant she’d have to find someone to take his place…a little challenge she put on the back burner today as she did every morning.
Now she had to hurry to meet her women in the servants’ quarters gathering room. The big stone fireplace, she noticed, needed to be cleaned; made a mental note to assign that chore to someone, if Dorin hadn’t already foisted it on one of the men.
Here she took another roll—a formal one, calling names and checking off those present. As usual, everyone reported: to Ella’s mind a waste of time. It was part of the routine, though, and routine was key to holding these folks on-track. Then a round of announcements: birthdays, anniversaries, meetings, reminders, upcoming events. Ella made the day’s assignments, and, having sent the on-campus crew to their day’s work, lined up those who were going off the estate for contract jobs or various errands so that she could program their implanted passcard chips with the transit permits.
Sigi, a work belt around her full hips and a canvas daypack slung over a shoulder, stepped aside from the outflowing line and waited for Ella to finish sending off all the others.
“We were going to work a pass for me to do a little project for Dorin?” she asked when Ella finally could stop long enough to signal her with an assenting glance.
“Did you ask for a day off the job you’re doing now?
“Yeah. They said I could take off any time—just give them a day’s notice.”
“Well, all right. But…how long do you expect it’ll take to finish that job?”
Sigi’s earth-brown eyes grew distant as she figured up the work remaining to do. “Prob’ly two, three weeks. Some of the hired help he came up with aren’t too bright. Sometimes I have to ride herd more than do my own work.”
Ella snuffed an empathetic smile: she knew that routine well enough.
“Is there some hurry to do Dorin’s task?”
“Not an awful lot, I don’t guess.” Ella gave her a look. “I’d just like a break,” she admitted with a shrug.
“Mm hm. Why don’t you finish up what you’re doing for the customer—I’ll talk to Dorin and be sure he doesn’t mind. Then when you’re done, I’ll give you two freedays before you have to start on the next job.”
“Sure.” This appealed, Sigi made no secret of it. “So…” a calculating smile crossed her lips. “When are we going to start building this hospital for the new guy, that doctor?
“More like a little clinic, I think.”
“Here? At Skyhill?”
“I suppose. Dorin has in mind clearing out a storage room for the place. At least, so he says. You and he will have to talk about that.
“But you’ll need to work with the new man to decide what’s going to go in there and how it’s going to be built. And just now he’s in no condition to do much deciding about anything.”
“Heard he was in pretty bad shape…”
“He’s hurting. He’ll need to get back on his feet before we can build him a place to work. That’s going to take awhile.”
“How long do you think it’ll be?”
“Oh…probably three weeks or so. Just about right, eh?”
Sigi nodded. “Just about.”
“So if you’d get going, sister, maybe you’d get done sooner. And then you might even wangle some more time off.”
With Sigi, the last of the bunch, shoveled out the door, Ella drew a deep breath, relaxed, and headed off toward Dorin’s office at the other end of the slaves’ living quarters.
To get there, she decided to walk through the building’s sheltered interior atrium. If she couldn’t go outside just now, at least she could take in a moment of peace in her favorite garden. The morning sun was just climbing toward the low eastern roof, barely awaking the tiny, light-loving blue and white flowers that lined the pathway. The fat violet and red fish in the bubbling pond had noticed, though—always hopeful for a handout, they didn’t miss her passing.
Neither did Talat. He must have spotted her from inside the glass-walled passageway along the men’s quarters. Lo! Out he popped from the far door.
No rest for the wicked, she thought. He looked a bit vexed.
“Hello, boss,” he said. A friendly enough smile chased the cloud from his face.
“Talat. Good morning, brother.”
His blocky, tall frame blocking her way, she paused.
“Did you tell the boy that if he goes into the city with me today he can’t play in tomorrow’s ballgame?”
“Well, that’s what he thinks.”
“I told him he’d need to clean the mistress’s pool tomorrow if he was going to take off from his lessons today.
“The only time that he could do that job tomorrow is while the big game is being played. He’ll have to go to lessons in the morning, and then he’ll have to stay long enough to catch up with whatever he misses today.”
“Ah. Well, then. I suppose you could say that’s what I said. More or less.”
“Boss. That’s not very kind.”
The glance she gave him flickered razor-sharp but then softened before – she hoped – he felt it.
“Yeah, you’re right.” She sighed, a nearly unnoticeable breath. “It is kind of harsh. I’m sorry. I’ve been feeling a little touchy lately.”
Talat smiled, sensing a win.
“But,” she continued, “y’know, kids need to earn this kind of extra treat. If the other young folks see that Wilig gets to go trotting off to Cinnora for no other reason than that he asked a pal who’ll take him along, then of course they’ll think they should be allowed this or that special favor, too—just for the asking. And Wilig hasn’t done anything obvious to be singled out for a day on the town.”
“Sure. I understand. But if the team loses tomorrow, the boys will say it was because he wasn’t there. Instead of earning the privilege, that’s going to be more like paying for it with a punishment, don’t you think?” She raised an eyebrow, about to speak, but Talat barreled on: “Why can’t he clean the Kaïna’s pool the day after tomorrow? It’ll still be there – and besides, she’s busy. She’ll never notice a few extra leaves.”
She gave up, as she knew she should. “All right. The day after tomorrow…it’s not going anywhere. Will you get him out of class and bring him by Dorin’s space so we can set his pass chip?”
With a grin and a thanks, Talat hustled off toward the outbuilding that housed the schoolroom and gym.
Through the door on the far end of the garden she went, pleased to have that conundrum settled. Around the corner and in through the open door to Dorin’s quarters and office at the top end of the men’s quarters. He was already at his desk, wrestling with the day’s tasks.
She slid into the chair next to the table.
He glanced up at her. “Ever get any sleep last night?”
“Some. I suppose.”
“I’m sorry,” he said commiseratively, eliciting a weary smile.
“How’s our new boy this morning?”
“That one, I don’t think got any sleep at all.”
Not good. She frowned. What you needed most, after the ordeal that baptized you into service, was sleep. As she recalled all too well, you don’t even start to recover until you sleep through most of a night.
She produced her record of the morning’s roll, transit permits, and work assignments, which Dorin merged into his own and stored to a central archive.
Dorin and Ella each enjoyed certain privileges of rank, not the least of which was a generous share of living and working space. Like Ella’s, Dorin’s place occupied two of the servants’ quarters rooms, with two instead of one small window near the ceiling. About two-thirds of the area accommodated a desk, monitoring and reporting equipment, and several seats – enough space for several people to meet in private. A neatly made bed and small table stood along the far wall, a videospot installed conveniently on the adjacent wall, where it could be viewed while the proprietor lounged.
He poured her and then himself a cup of hot bazheflower tea from a pot parked on a hot spot at the back of his desk, then leaned back in his chair. This was the moment they took in a little slack preparatory to a day that might or might not be pretty busy.
Almost. Before brew could be lifted to lip, footsteps and a knock on the doorframe signaled Talat and Wilig’s presence.
“We’re ready to leave,” Talat announced. “Would you set Wil’s passkey so we can get out, Dorin?”
“Sure.” Dorin glanced tentatively in Ella’s direction.
“That’s fine,” she said. “And you’re going to make Her Splendor’s pool perfect, right?” she asked Wilig. “The day after tomorrow.”
He grinned. “Yes’m! You bet.”
“How long do you expect to be gone?” Dorin asked, his coder in hand.
“I dunno. Until dinnertime?”
“Well, that’ll be a full day.”
“Mm-hmm. There’s a lot to do.”
“No doubt.” Dorin glanced skeptically at Talat. “So, you’ll need something for the two of you to eat.” He unlocked a cubby in the side of his desk and drew out a 30-deen paycard. Sweeping the coder over a set of symbols on the card, he gestured for Talat to hold out his hand and then entered the code in Talat’s embedded passkey. “Bring the card back to me this evening.”
“Thanks, boss!” Talat’s day was made.
He ought to sound pleased, Ella thought. Thirty deens, for godsake. Five of those would buy a fine midday meal for the two of them. That would leave twenty-five for whatever attractions and games they chose to diddle away their time on.
“Spoiling that pair,” she remarked as the two disappeared up the hallway.
“Probably. But Willy’s already ruined and Tal is working on it.”
She chuckled. “That boy of mine is sure not ruined. Have you ever seen a kid who goes and goes like that one?”
“Long as he likes what he’s doing.”
“Speaking of going to town: Sigi is anxious to get off the job she’s doing for that shop down in the Redfield District. She says you have some project for her here?”
“That’s what she claims.”
“Oh—yeah. It was something she suggested.”
“Why did I think as much?”
He chuckled. “I don’t know. Why?”
“Is it anything that can’t wait awhile?”
“It would be a nice touch. But no: there’s no hurry.”
“Good. Let’s have her finish the customer’s job before she gets a break. She says she’ll be done in about three weeks, which I expect is about when you want to start working on this clinic thing?”
“I suppose. Assuming Darl is well enough by then to explain what he needs and help design the casework.”
Ella subsided, hovering over her half-empty mug of tea.
“Would you like a warm-up?” he asked.
“I should go to work.”
“Shouldn’t we both.”
Breathing a quiet sigh, she held out the cup.
“What?” he demanded.
“What is on your mind?”
“Out with it.”
“Well, I don’t know…just… Does Rysha know about this guy?”
“Of course. It was her idea that we should buy him. The whole clinic-in-the-boondocks idea came straight from the Kaïna herself.”
What could the woman be thinking? “But I mean, does she know he murdered his wife?”
“I expect so. She’s seen all his paperwork.”
He fell silent, lifting the cup to his lips.
“Why wasn’t he put down?” Ella persisted.
“Who knows? There must have been some extenuating circumstances. Maybe she tried to kill him first.”
“There’s some things you don’t want to know.”
“Yeah: most of them!”