Ella’s Story, Chapter 20 **FREE READS**

Ella’s Story follows 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.

Ella’s Story

20

The yellow sun was dropping toward the distant Sky Hills that, blueing in the afternoon shadows, marked the estate’s west and north borders. Workers contracted out to the village or city were beginning to straggle back in. Children, their studies done and the teacher having left the grounds an hour or two before, were playing games under Fihr’s supervision. A couple of the women field workers came in a little early, checked in with Ella, and headed to the showers.

Another while yet, she reckoned, before the Kaïna returned from the Empire’s core, hovering over the government sector in the center of E’o Cinorra. Rysha would be tired, she expected, and probably irritable after a day spent dickering with a dozen self-important diplomats from almost as many far-flung planetary governments. She called Shaben, the front door porter, on her personal intercom and reminded him to be sure her Splendor’s private lounge was adequately stored with calming beverages.

Better look in on the new boy, she thought, before the dust started to rise again. Pretty quick the whole off-campus crew would show up and she’d be busy again, checking them in, listening to their reports and complaints and gossip, and generally riding herd.

The corridor down the men’s quarters was quiet. That was good, she supposed. She announced herself: “Woman in the hall!” And hit a button to turn on a small green light over the two doorways at either end of the hall. Some men from some cultures did not like to be surprised in the altogether.

Seven doors down from Dorin’s space, she came to Darl’s quarters. She knocked lightly on the wall and pushed the drape aside.

He was awake but quiet, seemed even to be resting. Apparently he’d learned to control the pain by staying still. That was something, she supposed. His eyes glanced her way and followed her as she stepped inside and parked her ample frame on the small chair near the bed.

She spoke softly, remembering that a turn through the cooker made every part of your body hurt, including whatever is inside the ears. “Hello, there. How are you doing now?”

Silly question. Good enough to sound like someone cared, though.

“Still alive, I think.” He tried to smile, weakly. “Unless I’ve died and this is Hell.”

Ella chuckled, a little surprised to hear a quip. “Not quite. To the contrary, come to think of it.” She pulled the edge of the blanket around his shoulders and saw that it covered his legs and feet. “Keep yourself warm, brother. You don’t want to get chilled. Because that makes it worse.”

“I know.” He winced when he tried to reach for the covering’s edge. “What did you say your name is?”

“Ella.”

“Ah. Yes: Eliyeh’llya,”

He spoke with a distinct South Hemisphere accent. His enunciation was that of an educated man. That would make him a privileged man. Things were better in the south, at least for those with some tribe or some money. Chances are, she thought, this one had never gone hungry.

“No one here can pronounce it.” She shrugged. “So the Varns say ‘Ella.’ And so does everyone else.”

“Not many Samdi here, then?”

“Oh, there are a few. Dorin and me. Dita is Samdi – though she was born on Varnis. But we’ve got people from all over the Empire. Kanats and Tamehali and Gathrani. A Kraen. And a couple of men from Aravla. Even a Michaian guy. That’s why we speak mostly Varn. In fact, it’s kind of rude to speak your own language in front of someone who doesn’t know it.”

“Well. That makes sense.”

Also means I don’t have to listen to your snooty tone, she thought unkindly. Then corrected herself: Not his fault. Probably. If he could be persuaded to use Varn all the time, he’d be a lot less likely to get on the wrong side of the usual Samdi types who found themselves in service. At least, not the instant he opened his mouth. She made a mental note to encourage this…later.

He fell silent and closed his eyes. She let him rest briefly and then asked, “Would you like something to eat?”

“No.” His eyes stayed shut. “Thank you. I don’t think I can get any food down.”

“I could bring you a fruit or vegetable drink.”

“That’s kind. Thank you. But no, not just now.”

“Well. All right, then. Try to get some sleep.” She moved to get up and leave.

“Wish I could.”

“Did you not sleep during the night?” She settled back onto the seat.

“Not so as I could tell.”

How long had he been on the market floor? At least a day, maybe two. And this was his second day at Skyhill. Not good: he should have recovered enough to sleep at least a few hours. And had he eaten nothing?

She laid the back of her hand against his face. He winced a little, opened his dark brown eyes, but didn’t seem to be fevered. He must have gotten chilled, she speculated, when they put him out on the selling floor almost direct from the cooker. Theoretically that violated the rules – they were supposed to keep you in a heat-regulated berth for several days, until you could stand up, sleep, and eat. But the blacksuits warped the rules to fit their purposes.

Crime wave, indeed. Had there been another revolt? Michaia perennially incubated unrest. And she’d heard that Krae and Ilaema had a few nests of the dissatisfied and the disgruntled. Nice thing about working for a criminal syndicate: it didn’t leave you much time to raise rebellions.

The outcome was about the same, though…on an individual level.

“I’m going to bring you something warm to eat,” she said, not as a suggestion but as a fact. “You need to build your strength back up.”

“But…”

“Hush. I’ll be back shortly.”

She left without giving him a chance to argue.

Down in the kitchen, she found Cook Lior’s wife Tabit supervising a clean-up of the freezers and cold boxes while she also tended a couple of large, steaming kettles.

“Do we have any comfort food?” Ella asked. Probably a pointless question: Tabit seemed to find all food comforting.

Tabit glanced up from her labors. “I expect we can find something. Feeling a little harried, are we?”

“No more than usual.” Ella chuckled. “It’s not for me. It’s for our new boy.”

“Oh.” As though morning’s light dawned. “Heard he was in a bad way.”

“Some. He’ll be all right – it’ll take some time, though.”

“Well. Take the weight off, sister,” she wiped her hands and waved a towel toward an empty stool at the work bench. “And I’ll see what I can hustle up. It’ll take a minute or two.”

Ella sat down, happy enough for an excuse to take a moment’s break, and watched Tabit rummage in a pantry. Quick enough, a pot went over a stove burner, filled with frozen stew, or, Ella thought, maybe a rich soup, and a generous dollop of hlann cream was added.

Tabit and Lior had all sorts of ethnic theories about the feeding and nourishment of slaves. One of them was that Samdi, all Samdi, loved the various flavors of hlann, a manufactured treat the creatures used as a condiment, a thickener, or a flavoring, depending on the context. Accordingly, a pitcher of hlann cream and a pottle of hot-spiced hlann sauce always appeared on the meal table. Ella thought she could take or leave it. But she usually took it.

“Tea?” Tabit lifted a pot to pour a mugful for herself.

“Sure. If you’re having some.”

Tabit set two full mugs and a pitcher of cream on the table, stirred the warming pot, and settled onto the seat opposite Ella.

“How’s your day going?” she asked. Her broad Gathran features made her look cheerful, even when she wasn’t. And like most of her kind, she was stoutly built.

Ella sipped enough of the tea to drop its level below the cup’s rim, then poured in cream to take up the slack.

“No crazier than usual, I suppose.”

“That’s not saying much.” Tabit chuckled empathetically. “That girl of yours was in here earlier today,” she remarked after some small talk.

“Bintje? That would explain where she was when she was supposed to be cleaning.”

“No doubt.”

“What did she want?”

“To get out of cleaning, I expect.”

Ella laughed. “We were never that young, right?”

“Not that I can recall.” Tabit got up to stir the rapidly defrosting soup. “I wonder if she’s all right – with the baby, that is. She was complaining that she didn’t feel good.”

“She has morning, noon, and afternoon sickness.” Ella took an appreciative sip of Tabit’s tea, always a league or two better than Dorin’s. “Besides, she complains all the time. If she didn’t complain, that’s when I’d worry about her.”

“Life’s a stage play, after all.”

“In some corners of the galaxy.”

Tabit set a napkin, spoon, and bowl on a tray she’d pulled down from an overhead cupboard.

“This new brother,” she asked, “what’s his name again?”

“Dorin says he’s called Darl.”

“He’s supposed to be a healer?”

“That’s what we’re told. Not by lore but by training.”

Tabit fell silent while she dished up the hot chowder. She snapped a lid onto the one-serving bowl and placed it on the tray.

“So… Why did they put him out for sale when he’s still in such bad shape?”

Love that gossip mill, Ella thought. “Apparently ran out of room.”

“Michaians had another bellyful, did they?”

Ella raised an eyebrow and brushed her left earlobe with a finger. “Sister, I have no idea.” She picked up the loaded tray. “It has nothing to do with us, hm?”

“No, ma’am. I expect not.” Tabit looked chastened enough to give Ella a brief twinge of guilt. Very brief: some things were unsafe to talk about. Especially inside a set of walls.

She took her leave and carried the light meal back toward the men’s quarters, there to try to coax it down Dorin’s new charge.

What a pain in the butt it was, she thought, to have to take on and train up a green new slave. Especially one in no shape to work. One who is, for godsake, still too hurt to drag himself off a cot.