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.
The tick-sized intercom pasted to her left bicep vibrated, a signal to get her attention. From Syo, on the security guard: Rysha had arrived at Skyhill’s front gate.
Having managed to coax about half of Tabit’s soup into Darl, Ella was carrying the dishes back to the manor house’s basement kitchen. Now she hurried along, popped in, and found Lior and Tabit working over the stoves and counters, where they were preparing dinner for four dozen staff – give or take. She dropped the tray on a counter, thanked Tabit for her work, and ran back up the stairs, headed for the main floor.
The intercom buzzed again: Talat.
“We’re still in Cinnora,” he said. “Dorin gave us enough money to cover dinner. All right if we eat here and come in a little later?”
He gives you enough for dinner, so you’re honor-bound to spend it? She flew in the ground-floor service door and raced up the hallway toward the central atrium. “How much later?”
“We’ll be back by curfew.”
“How about before curfew? Make it by first moonrise.” That would bring them in around fifteenth hour. Curfew shut everything down at seventeenth hour – after Wilig’s bed-time. She’d need to remember to tell Wilig’s parents, whenever they came in for dinner.
“All right. We’ll probably get in before then.”
“Let me know.”
She bounded into the entry hall and took her place next to Essio – another of the guard, scheduled to relieve Chadzar, his boss, after the kaïna was safely deposited inside the house. Dita joined them, a small bag of gear in hand, and the three formed a straight, identically uniformed line to one side of the entry. Shaban stood ready to open the heavy double doors when the mistress arrived in front.
Shaban gestured over a wall pad so it would read his embedded ID chip. “Lights,” he murmured, and glow panels in the vestibule and an adjacent tall-ceilinged reception room came on. A fountain burbled, calming, into a pond occupying a corner of the entryway. Against another wall, a willowy tree held court over mounds of multicolored, leafy plants. He took up his position next to a panel of windows that looked out across the broad, fern-covered meadow in front.
“And…here they be,” he announced when he saw Rysha’s vehicle float under the portico, settle to the ground, and release its passengers.
As the two walked up the shallow entryway steps, he opened the door. Chadzar, a large, snow-hued Michaian, his hair, eyebrows and even his eyelashes so blond as to appear white, took half a step in ahead of his mistress, glanced around, and nodded a greeting toward his colleagues. Ella never failed to feel a twinge of amazement at the grass-green eyes, though she’d seen them every day for…how many years? Fifteen, yes?
He stood aside. The empress of the known universe glided into the room. Smoke-blue she wore, as always: hereditary badge for the absolute ruler of a dozen civilized worlds, several score developed satellites and asteroids, another several dozen planets whose cultures had not advanced enough to be worth contacting or that had not sprung from the seed of the Mother World, and some uncountable number of outposts where organizd civilization had yet to develop among ancient Varnis’s far-flung offspring.
Yes, fifteen years, just about. Not so long after the Kaïna Djitti slipped away in her sleep and left this Rysha to grow by instinct and by blood into her place. Her little girl, as Ella came to think of her, now a lithe, dark almond-eyed creature, surely too delicate to own such power. Two layers of fine, silken fabric drifted like mist around her, one white bordered all the way around with a violet band, the second the faintest green. Green and violet, the House of Delamona’s colors worn over a blue body suit, very much like the ones all her slaves wore. Rather a nicer fabric, though, Ella knew.
Chadzar lifted a hand in the car’s direction and it rolled away to park itself inside its stable.
The waiting staff bowed their heads briefly when she entered, as custom dictated. First to step forward, Ella unfastened the long jade-colored outer tunic, slid it off her mistress’s shoulders, and folded it over an arm. Rysha smiled and gave her a hug. She looked tired, Ella thought: more than her fill of roundabout palavering, no doubt.
Shaban took the translucent tunic while Ella and Dita accompanied their mistress into the private sitting room off the entry foyer. The two guards stayed behind, so Chad could pass along whatever Essio needed to know before he took over his boss’s shift.
Rysha sighed with evident relief as she collapsed into her favorite overstuffed chair.
“Long day, hm?” More of an observation from Ella than a statement.
“Oh, my! Some people never tire of arguing.”
Ella knelt beside her to replace tight-fitting brocade shoes with a pair of soft leather sandals. Shaban, having put away the shimmering tunic, began to prepare a drink at the serving desk.
“The usual, madame?” he asked.
Ella felt the tension in Rysha as, briefly, she massaged each foot and ankle. Dita unpacked a collection of containers and combs and brushes. By the time Shaban delivered a ruby-red mug full of icy intoxicant, Dita was pulling out pins and clips, unwinding and unbraiding and untwisting the complicated ceremonial hairdo, and gently combing each newly loosed lock straight and tangle-free.
In private, Rysha’s shiny black hair fell below her shoulders. In public, though, the kaïna wore a distinctive, very elaborate hair structure that marked her as who and what she was, part of the symbolism of her authority. To construct it took special training, such as Dita had been given – it wasn’t something Rysha could put together herself. Today’s diplomatic meetings required the full costume. Sometimes, Ella reflected, it must take as much patience to wear the robes and the crown as it did to weave them.
“How was your day, dear?” Rysha asked Ella.
“Good enough, my lady.” Ella rested on her knees beside the chair. “It’s been quiet.”
“And our new man? How is he making out?”
What to say? “He’s been having a hard time of it, madame.”
“Ah. He doesn’t like it here?”
“Doubtful if he understands where he is. They…the blacksuits seem to have let him go a little too soon. He’s pretty much out of it.”
“I see. Can we handle it? You and Dorin, I mean?”
“Well. Yes, I think so. He ate a little this afternoon. There’s really nothing to do for him, other than let him rest and keep him warm. When you come right down to it. He’ll get better.”
“I expect. But meanwhile…it’s extra work for you two.”
That would be why we’re here, no? Ella nodded. After a pause she spoke again, in Samdi: “Kananei…” – My lady…
This was a gesture whose meaning Rysha took. She glanced in Shaban’s direction: “Would you leave us for a moment, please?”
A quick bow, then he ushered Essio and Dita out the door.
“Hkal?” Rysha spoke Samdi – the elite variety – almost as fluently as she spoke Varn. Yes, what? Part of her upbringing involved learning all the Empire’s major languages. The conversation proceeded in Ella’s native tongue.
“Is something going on somewhere? That we’re not being told about?”
Rysha gave her a sharp look and raised a finger: hush!
They could be heard inside the Kaïna’s private quarters? This was new to Ella.
“Eliyeh’llya, give me your hand.” Ella responded by offering her right hand. “No. The other one.”
Rysha tapped the back of her own left hand and spoke a single code word, one Ella had never heard. She repeated this with the passkey chip in Ella’s hand, then ran the back of her own hand over the back of Ella’s.
“We have five minutes,” she said. “Now: why do you ask, dear?”
“Well…” What to say to avoid getting anyone else in trouble? “I just wondered why…they told Dorin the reason they put him out on the market just about straight from the cooker is that they had a lot of criminal offenders to process. But…what kind of crime wave would max their facility, madame? Unless it was an uprising, no?”
“Mmm… That certainly could be.”
“No. There’s unrest on Idaemas just now. In Odambra Nation.”
“Oh, my.” Odambra was the largest Idaemasan industrial center. “Is it very serious?”
“Any sedition is serious, Eliyeh’llya. So, yes, it’s serious. But we have it under control.”
“I see.” This was not the best of all possible developments. “So…what about Tabit? Will she…no one will bother her, will they?”
“She and her husband are being watched. But then…everyone in service is watched, no?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ella felt her heart in her throat. And apparently Rysha sensed her distress.
“It’s all right, Eliyeh’llya. We know Tabit can be trusted – she’s been away from Idaemas for two decades, for heaven’s sake. And she’s never shown any interest in politics. Has she, to your knowledge?”
“No, my lady. Never.”
If she had, Ella wouldn’t dream of saying so.
“Can we let it drop? I’ll tell you or Dorin if there’s anything you need to know.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ella rose, walked to the door, and called the other three servants back in. While Dita finished unweaving the kaïna’s hair, Shaban set a place at the long table in the dining room. Ella followed him there, pulled back the drapes over the high windows to open the garden view, and went downstairs to let the kitchen staff know what Rysha had said she’d like for her light evening meal.
Everyone but Talat and Wilig was in and accounted for. Talat had called to say they were riding a public shuttle into Skyhill Village, whence they would walk out to the estate. Dinner was served and consumed, and this week’s after-hours kitchen team was cleaning up under Lior and Tabit’s direction.
In the cooling late dusk, stars twinkled overhead as black night pushed the last mauve glow of the sun below the distant, silhouetted hills. A few sticks of wood glowed and snapped in the outdoor firepit, a central focus of the patio and mossy fields where people gathered between the workday’s end and curfew. Dorin and Ella, having about finished riding herd for the day, sat near the hearth sipping one of his supposedly calming teas out of the same heavy mugs with which they had started the day.
Syndicato, she thought. If he was – if he was any good at it – he would know the silent sign language used when things were tight or dangerous. Wouldn’t he? She tapped him gently on a knee and, holding her hand between their chairs, let her fingers flicker a quick message.
He looked…what? Surprised? Puzzled, she thought. But he nodded, just so slightly as to be barely noticeable. He drew an appreciative sip of the hot tea and then remarked, “Beautiful night, isn’t it.”
“Why don’t we go for a walk and enjoy the evening air for a few minutes, before we have to herd this bunch off to bed?”
“Now there’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” she said.
They ambled toward the gathering’s periphery and then, coming to a path that led into the exotic flower gardens on the west side of the manor house, angled away from their charges.
“The ileeri fruit are starting to blossom,” she remarked.
“Yes. They smell lovely at this time of night.” By a path’s lamplight, she could see his fingers move. What’s this about?
“Almost as lovely as ileeri tastes.” The mistress told me the reason we got our healer before he was healed.
“Yeah. It’s one of the highlights of the summer.” So?
Uprisings. Ideamas, of all places. “We should have some put in the mistress’s sitting room for her.” She wasn’t inclined to say much. But I gathered it’s pretty serious.
“She’d like that, I expect.” So I’d heard. “Why don’t you suggest it to Shaban?”
“Look at that sunset!” You know about it?
“It was outright amazing an hour ago.” Not much. How did she come to bring this up with you?
“There’s little Gathra coming up,” she observed. Gathra, the smaller moon, was just rising over the trees in front of the house. I asked her.
“I’ve heard it looks a lot bigger from Ethra Compound.” That’s probably not a great idea.
“Oh, my yes. Because it’s so much closer to Zaitaf than it is to the planet.” She didn’t seem to mind.
“Didn’t we tell Talat to get back here by first moon?” Best not to bring it up again.
She glanced at him: was this an order? “Yes. Yes, that’s so.”
“We’d probably better get back to the party,” he said.