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.
At this rate, she was never going to get to sleep. Leaving the light off – none was needed, after all, nor did she want to wake anyone – she slipped out from under the covers, pulled on a robe, and padded barefoot down the cool stone hallway to the side entry at the far end of the women’s quarters. The door was alarmed, but she had a key and a code, which she used to let herself outside.
Zaitaf cast her argentine glow across the landscape that spread out before Ella’s restless gaze. What a thing, she reflected. Who would have imagined she would ever see such a place, pastoral and only half-peopled, much less live in it? Monochromatic beneath the moon’s platinum mantle, the broad pastures, the sturdy manor house – conservative but large and commanding – the gardens, the domesticated woods, and off in the distance the low mountains from which Skyhill took its name glowed like a painting limned in ebony ink on silver. Lovely by daylight, this evening it took her breath away. It wanted to fill her with love for the place. But it also stole other things away from her: her self, her loves, her past.
She gazed up at Zaitaf and wondered which of those gray patches on its face was Ethra. Could a person see Ethra at all without a magnifying lens? And . . . how was it possible that she’d been here almost thirty years? That she’d spent almost ten on Zaitaf?
Djitti had died a couple years after Ella was brought to Skyhill, recruited as Dorin’s second in overseeing the estate’s staff. Her daughter, now the Kaïna, was ten at the time. Not quite twenty when her father was assassinated. Five years Kaïna now, Rysha was.
How did all that happen between yesterday and today?
Bhotil would be in his 90s now, if he’d lived. He had been good to her, helped her work her way up from the resort’s laundry to dispatching and then to supervising staff. She missed him.
Every now and again she missed Bhotil. Now and again. But she missed Vighdi—her lover, her boss—every day.
Vighdi, shining bright in the sky. What was she doing now? Was she still on Zaitaf? Hell, was she even still living at all? Ella had never heard, one way or the other.
She jumped, startled out of her reverie. At the door, watching her with a half-smile, stood Dorin.
“It’s after curfew. What are you doing out here?”
“Not much,” she said. “Just having a hard time getting to sleep. You, too?”
“Well, no. But opening the door sets off an alarm on my desk.”
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry. I thought my key would open it without waking you.”
“Well – at least it doesn’t wake the dead an all their kindred.”
“Can’t win, hm?”
He stepped outside onto the landing with her and stood gazing at the silver-plated landscape.
“Beautiful night, isn’t it?” he remarked.
“Oh, my, yes.”
Dorin stood quietly, his attention taken by the glowing scene. The moonlight picked up the silver in his hair and, to Ella’s eye, made him part of the show.
“So,” he said after a moment or two, “what’s keeping you awake tonight, Ella? Something on your mind?”
Ah. The talk-to-me gambit. She’d had the same steward’s training that he’d taken: social work and counseling. Maybe it was unkind of her, though, to suspect a “gambit.” Overseer, he was, but he’d also been a good enough friend to her.
She shrugged. “I dunno. Different things, I guess.”
He was quiet for a moment. The wait-’em-out gambit. She gave in. “The Darl business, I suppose. It’s just…a little much.”
“Upset you to see him suffering like that?”
“I suppose, yeah.” He waited some more. “No,” she added. “It’s not anything we haven’t all been through.”
“Most of us,” he agreed.
“When you think about it…well, hell. Dorin. You and I worked like animals to get where we are. This guy comes along, this guy, and he just drops out of the cooker into the dormitory at Skyhill? I mean…how does that happen?”
A dubious glance. “When did you start expecting life to be fair?” He actually sounded a little surprised. And yes. It probably was…out of character. The man could spot bullshit a mile away.
“Not recently,” she admitted. He smiled distantly, gazing at the silvered landscape. At length she spoke into his silence. “It’s just that it annoys me. This is Bintje’s doing. If she hadn’t gotten herself knocked up, we wouldn’t have to be dealing with a new slave, and the paperwork and the damn blacksuits in our faces and the training and the headaches that go with someone fresh out of the cooker.”
“Well. It’s not Bintje’s fault she got pregnant. She had the shot. You saw her get it. And you know the stuff doesn’t work a hundred percent of the time.”
“Okay, so Bintje brings home a belly, and the mistress decides…what? She’s going to buy a doctor for her? Why? The place is crawling with perfectly fine midwives.”
“She’s right that there isn’t enough medical care for people in service. Certainly not out here.”
“That’s why we have aircars: to take people into a hospital in the city.”
Dorin assented with a subtle laugh.
“How many times have you had to do that? All of…what? Once!” She was getting on a roll now. “For heaven’s sake. A parlor maid turns up pregnant, so we provide some crazy new medical service for every estate on the north side of E’o Cinnora?
“And what are we going to do if the Kaïna finds out that the sire of this urchin is a free man? For the love of all the gods! You and I are the ones who’ll get the heat for that.”
“Well, she’s not going to find out.”
“All she has to do is look it up in the girl’s records.”
“Why would she do that, when she has us to push papers, Ella?”
Exasperated, she gave him a look. “Accidents happen.”
“And the child is his,” she continued. “If he knows about it, he’ll send the blacksuits to come take the baby away. Won’t that be a fine little drama!”
“He does know,” Dorin said.
“A little talk was had with him. He agreed to sign the baby into the Kaīna’s possession. She’ll be born into Rysha’s service. She’s already inscribed in the state records and in ours as a slave. Belonging to Rysha Delamona, Kaïna of This, That, and the Other, not to Exclude the Whole Fucking Universe.”
She stared at him in astonishment. He smiled back at her and then returned to taking in the moonlit night.
“How the hell did you pull that off?”
“Well. It’s not what you know…”
“Uh huh. Some friend in high places?”
“Look. Far as I’m concerned, diddling a slave woman is rape – or it is, if you happen to be a free male. It is against the law. I know that, he knows that, we know that. It wasn’t very hard to track him down. He gave Bintje a fake name. But when he paid for his food at the dive where he picked her up, his financials went into the system. Along with a video of him coming on to her.
“After it occurred to him that he might not enjoy life on some asteroid, he got real interested the alternatives.”
She considered this for a minute.
“So…you had this ‘talk’ with the man?
“No, ma’am. Just happened to hear about it. From a guy I know.”
A guy I know. Once a Syndicato, always a Syndicato.
“Holy shit, Dorin! Do you know how much trouble we’ll get into if the Kaïna finds out about this and figures out we hid it from her?”
“Oh, no. It never entered my thick little skull.”
“She’s not going to find out. And even if she does, why should she care?”
“Why should she care that the father’s a free man and so the baby should be, too?”
“Not anymore. He signed the baby over to service. Permanently.”
“Seven Gods and All Their Cousins,” she swore softly.
He fell silent, as in this conversation ends here. Not so much luck, though. . .
“What if Bintje blabs to this doctor, this Darl? And what if he tells the mistress?”
“Well. We may have to have a little chat with him, too, before that can happen.”
“A secret’s not a secret when everybody and his little brother know about it.”
Dorin shrugged. “It’s not a secret. It’s public record.”
She sighed, annoyed beyond words.
“It’s too early to think about this stuff now, Ella,” he continued. “The guy’s in no shape to do any work, and he won’t be for four or five weeks. Bintje’s fine, and she’ll stay fine for that long. Mistress knows she’s pregnant and she thinks – correctly – that it was from a random encounter on a freeday. It hasn’t occurred to her to ask whether the sire was in service or in whose service, and I don’t think we should put that question into her mind. She’s busy. She doesn’t have time to worry about that kind of stuff. That’s our job – and we’re doing it. Right?”
She subsided. He made no rejoinder to this last jab. Knew it was pointless, she figured. The two stood quietly together, each returning to their private thoughts, gazing across the metallurgical landscape. A cool breeze was coming up, and the moonlit leaves began to shimmer as they whispered in the flowing air.
“Well, sister,” he said, about the time she felt it was growing cold, “we have to get up at dawn. Think we ought to go back to bed?”
“I suppose,” she said. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“That’s all right. We probably needed to talk. Besides—what a fine evening!”
Inside, he bade her a good night before she headed down the corridor through the women’s quarters and he walked back to his own room.
A guy I know. Yeah. He was a Syndicato, all right.