Author’s Note: This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. We here on the Earth are part of it — we just don’t know that, because as yet the powers that be haven’t made contact with us. We’re still a bit too backward for their taste.
This multi-tentacled entity is presided over by the Kaïna Rysha Delamona, the hereditary leader of a hereditary elite arising from the planet Varnis. Her home, a large rural estate north of the Varn city of E’o Cinorra, is called Skyhill. Most of her time and energy is consumed in continual political battle. Skyhill is occupied, maintained, and run by a large staff of slaves, some of whom work in day jobs or contract jobs off the estate (their pay is used to make life better for the servant class on the estate) and some of whom work in the house and grounds.
The Empire acquires slaves by condemning convicted criminals to lifetime servitude — those whose offenses are not deemed serious enough to merit execution. This provides a steady stream of workers, since the poor are always with us…and since at least one world, Michaia, possesses a busy underground of active, highly seditious revolutionaries.
Ella is the co-overseer of the Kaïna’s staff, working as a kind of second-in-command to Dorin, technically her boss, in practice her equal partner. Like Dorin, Ella — now a woman late in middle age — comes from Samdela, a world that is covered from pole to pole with urban development. Samdela is a center of organized crime. A vast syndicate based on Samdela functions as an inverted shadow government behind the official structure that is the Empire. As a young woman, Ella was a lieutenant in this organization, on her way up until, by a misstep or by betrayal still unknown, she was caught by the Blacksuits — an empire-wide police force and spy agency — convicted, punished, and sent off-world to a lifetime of “service.”
Ella’s Story, a kind of e-telenovela, is very much a work in progress. There’s always more to come…
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The Cast of Characters
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She could hear a voice moaning, muffled behind heavy privacy curtains, as she strode down the hall into the men’s quarters in search of Dorin. He called; she came, no questions asked. Ten doorways down, she found the source of the unhappy sounds, and her boss. She pushed the cube’s drapes aside and poked her head in.
Dorin perched on a stool beside the slave cubicle’s Spartan bed, trying to quiet and comfort its occupant. A small, dark-haired man, his eyes red and tearing, struggled to push off the covers Dorin was trying to keep on him.
He spoke in Ganel, a variety of Samdelan favored by the upper middle classes: “It hurts too much!” Samdi, then, she surmised, and not your average stick-up artist.
“I know,” Dorin was saying. “But you need to keep warm. It gets a lot worse if you don’t.” He also spoke a Samdi dialect, but much as he might try to polish it, the whiff of street argot misted like smog through his words.
“You wanted me, brother?” Dorin glanced over his shoulder –- he must not have heard her walking up the corridor.
“Ella! Yes, I sure do.” She stepped into the small room. “We might do better with a woman’s touch here.”
At our wit’s end, are we? “What have we got?” she asked.
“This is Darl. You know: the doctor I told you about.”
The man looked like he needed a doctor himself. That, of course, would not be forthcoming…and those details, taken together, were the gist of the fierce, body-searing ordeal Varn justice inflicted on convicted felons privileged to bypass execution for a life of servitude. Dorin and Bis, one of the Kaïna’s bodyguards, had been gone for quite awhile, presumably at the slave market where they picked up her ladyship’s latest acquisition.
She knelt beside the bed and laid a hand on the man’s coarsely shorn ebony hair. Slaves were required to wear their hair cut short. The first thing the blacksuits would do, even before clapping their victim into the cooker, was to hack off any hairstyle that fell below the ears — as most Samdelan men’s did. He was, she noted, just starting to go to gray.
Her grandmotherly frame protested. She shifted to a more comfortable position, sitting on the floor next to the cot. The man quieted briefly and stared at her wide-eyed, tears coursing down his face. She realized her livery, the Kaïna’s blue the same shade as the worksuits worn by every government functionary of the interstellar empire, must make him think she was someone else come to torment him.
“Shhh, it’s all right. I belong to the Kaïna Rysha. So does Dorin here. And so do you now. We’re brothers and sister, hm? We’re going to take care of you.”
“It hurts,” the man murmured. “Oh, God, it hurts.” He moaned and sobbed in one spasmodic breath.
“I know,” she said. “I know. It hurts a lot. I’ve been there.” She pulled up a sleeve so he could see the scar branding her wrist, kept hidden below the distinctive green and violet cuff bands that identified her as Rysha’s property. “But it’s going to get better. Takes some time, but it does get better.”
He clenched his eyes shut.
“Couldn’t get any worse, hm?” When she stroked his hair, he looked at her, maybe a little less fear in his glance. “Just breathe, one breath at a time. Think about breathing, breathing easy. One breath, that’s good. And now another. And one more…”
He seemed to quiet a little under her coaxing. Slowly he came round to breathing instead gasping for air. She saw a little of the tension release from his rigid shoulders.
“We’re going to take care of you,” she repeated. “You’re safe now. We’re here with you.” Like talking to a toddler, she thought. Keep the voice low and lulling.
Minutes passed. The atmosphere in the room grew calmer. Dorin looked relieved. The man looked less frantic.
At length she spoke again. “Darl, hm? This is your name?” No objection arising, she continued: “You need to stay warm, Brother Darl. Dorin will have turned up the thermostat in this room — you did, right?”
“But there’s always a draft under the curtains. So you should stay covered up.” She reached for the blanket to pull it over his shoulders.
“No,” he protested. “It hurts too much.”
“I know, it’s not very comfortable. But believe me: you don’t want to get cold. That makes it a lot worse. If you’ll let me put this over you and lie really still — don’t move and just keep on breathing like we were, hm? – then it gets better. In just a few minutes. I promise.”
He flinched as she spread the covers over him, but now at least he wasn’t fighting it. She gave Dorin a little wink and he smiled back, ever more relieved and now looking downright grateful.
Gratitude from one’s overseer, she reflected, could make your day. Even if he was your co-overseer.
The storm past, Ella climbed to her feet. Dorin offered a hand up, which she cheerfully accepted. Opposite numbers, brother and sister in service, they were so similarly built — stocky and well fed — they could have been blood relatives.
“So,” she said, having smoothed her close-fit livery and straightened her work belt. “What is this? Shouldn’t this guy be in the Recovery Center? How come they let you take him, with him in this kind of shape?”
“They threw him out in under two days. He was on the market floor.”
“Well, they claimed they had a big influx in felons to process. Didn’t have room to hold his bunch more than a few hours.”
“Ah.” She snuffed a soft snort through her nose. “Another little uprising, hm?”
His eyebrows lifted. “Shhh sh sh,” he whispered. “Careful.”
She sighed. “Right. Crime wave. And this guy…is he one of the, uhm, criminals?”
“Absolutely.” Dorin fished a sheaf of papers out of his belt pouch and handed it to Ella. They were the new slave’s service record and terms. Halfway up the first page, she caught her breath and glanced at Dorin, then took a closer look at Darl.
“Oh, my,” she said.
The man had killed his wife.
She lay abed, wide awake long after curfew. The rest of the day had gone according to routine: long, busy but pleasantly satisfying.
She’d organized the next day’s house and field chores and then assigned them to her women and couples. Checked the schedule for the contract workers who had jobs off-campus. She had a chat with one pair who had hit a rough patch; listened to them argue, advised, reassigned tasks, tried to discern what the real issue was, or if there were one. Did some bookkeeping. Rode herd on the little kids for awhile, long enough to give their teacher an afternoon break. Tended the atrium garden, tidying flowers and turning over soil – for her, its own break. Inspected the manor’s housekeeping from basement to third story, chatted with the head housekeeper over hot tea. Put in orders with several suppliers for the provisions the housekeeper said were needed; entered these in the records. Counted workers returning from off-campus, checked them all off the roster. Listened to Sigi, the carpenter, explain why she should take two or three days off from her contract job to do some repair work at Skyhill. Put off agreeing to this. Helped shepherd small children to the dining hall to reunite them with working parents; silently checked attendance over dinner. Spent part of the evening socializing with (and watching out over) brothers and sisters around the patio firepit. Shooed a pair of moonstruck teenagers back into the light. Herded all her charges to their sleeping quarters and then, at lights-out, checked each cubicle to be sure the occupants were present and bedded down.
She should be plenty tired. But where the hell was sleep?
Somewhere down the hall a woman snored. Jeenan, Ella guessed. Remember to remind her to take her meds. Yet in the darkness, the bass tchida-ditta-tchitta-tida serenade of a lonely male tittlebug sounded louder than Jeenan’s eloquent breathing. From up toward the married couples’ quarters came a muffled giggle. A baby woke and cried briefly, then quieted. Outside, a ring-tailed tree bat emitted a distant squall, as if in reply to the infant human.
Feeling too warm, she kicked the covers off. A few minutes later, she pulled the blanket back over her shoulders. Damn!
It brought it all back, this Darl thing.
She was only 26 when the bastards reeled her in. Truth to tell, she’d had a fairly good run. She’d started with the Syndicate at age 17 and had been in the life since she was ten or twelve, depending on how you looked at the “life.”
She was good at what she did. Always good at it. That made a point of pride for her. And for about anyone who employed her. At 26, she was doing the hiring, a mid-level lieutenant for the Band that ran the Galilu and Janan districts in the northern part of Tahana.
Never killed anyone though.
Well. Not directly, anyway.
Watching that man groan and squirm in pain, the burnt bands the cooker seared around his wrists and heaven only knows what unholy damage going on inside his body… God! It made her own muscles tense and twitch, just thinking about it. About him. It made the scars around her own wrists sting.
Holy Gods, how it hurt. How long it hurt! She would have given anything to make the pain stop. She would have given over her life to stop it.
And how did Dorin and Bis get him all the way out here, in a little hovercar, from the government slave market – way to hell and gone on the other side of the city – with him in that condition? How did they stand it? How did he stand it? How did it not kill him?
She couldn’t imagine.
She couldn’t imagine what would possess the blacksuits who ran the whole torturous process to have put him out for sale on the floor of the main market after…what? Did Dorin really say two days? No, less than two days? She wasn’t sure how long she’d been kept cosseted in a Recovery Center bunk, watched over and tested and washed and watered and fed and even sometimes comforted. But she figured it was at least a week. Probably ten days.
The faint ghost of Dorin’s desk light, bouncing off the walls and polished stone floor of the hallway that ran across the long side of the family quarters between his room and her own, at the top end of the women’s quarters, glowed dimly under the door drapes. She saw it go out.
He must have had paperwork to do before he could go to bed. Or maybe he lay awake, too, trying to unwind.
Time to go to sleep, damn it.
She burrowed under the blanket and determined to close her eyes.
Moonglow shimmered through the window. It spread across the bedcover and poured onto the floor.
Now that she was old, no one expected her to act like a vulnerable young girl. She wasn’t vulnerable back then. But now sometimes she felt that way.
She still ached all over her body that morning when they marched her out into the market. A vast, high-ceilinged room, glaringly lit by acres of overbright glow-walls, spread out below her and the blacksuited guard who pushed her forward. Rows of raised platforms, each about ten feet square, stood in files, line on line. Narrow aisles divided these on all sides, tracing pathways at right angles throughout the building. Each platform had a cot, a small table with a pitcher and a mug, and a stool. About half to two-thirds of the sites were occupied, most by a single person, some by couples, a few by one or more adults plus a child or children. Each was secured to his or her platform with a loose, rope-like line locked to an ankle cuff. The air resonated with the racket of voices echoing off hard surfaces from all directions.
Ella balked at the sight.
“Come on now,” the woman behind her said. “Let’s go—it’s not much further.”
“Oh, Gods…no,” Ella breathed.
She felt a hand squeeze her shoulder and heard a voice speak into her ear, so quietly she had to pay attention to follow the words: “Don’t worry: you won’t be here very long.”
“I can’t do this,” she said.
“Of course you can.”
She looked at the woman, who was watching her calmly. “How long does it take?” she asked. “I mean, before someone…gets you?”
“Depends. On who comes along, I guess: a few hours, sometimes. A few days. Maybe a few weeks.”
“Weeks! No…I can’t…”
“You don’t have to do anything. You just wait. But trust me. You’re young. You’re healthy. You have skills. And you don’t have any kids in tow. People will jump to buy you.”
“Don’t put me in there. I’d rather die. Right now. Right here.”
The hand tightened on her shoulder. “Stop that.” The voice stayed low but firm. “You’ve been through the worst of this and you’ve done just fine. Will you be my good woman now, please?”
Hot tears welled up in her eyes. She blinked them back as she shook her head, “No.”
“Yes. Be good. Just once at a time.”
“What? Just once this time?” She pushed back the tears with the crack.
A smile crossed the woman’s broad, unvarnished face. “Sure,” she said.
Even if she couldn’t speak, Ella couldn’t resist smiling back. The other woman’s grip softened and she felt the strong fingers rub sore muscles between her shoulder blades.
“Come on, then. We’ll find you a quiet place where you’ll have a little peace. And I’ll check on you a couple times a day. You’ll get through it all right. Trust me.”
Never trust a blacksuit. It was a fundamental rule of life.
Zaitaf, in its fullest phase, crept higher into the dark, clear sky. Bright, gold-tinged white light shone in through the cell’s small window and laid a square on the floor like a luminous glow-wall. A shining rug, as it were.
Zaitaf. Weird, how she missed it, that claustrophobic, air-tight settlement the Varns called Ethra. She wondered how Vighdi was doing – did she get the promotion she’d been angling for? Did she have a new lover yet? No…how long had it taken Vighdi to find someone to take her place, that was the question. And Bhotil. Was he still there, running the show? Or had he also moved on? Maybe he was on Varnis by now, who knew?
Certainly not Ella.
Dorin, in his position as the Kaïna’s overseer, no doubt could break into the colony’s personnel records. If he couldn’t do it himself, he knew the right strings to pull to get someone else to do it. But Ella, a step below him in rank as steward, didn’t have that kind of authority. Or access to government databases. She wouldn’t think of asking him. It wasn’t any of her business, after all. Nor, for that matter, of his.
She’d been on the sale floor about four days—seemed like four years to her. She never saw the blacksuit woman again. Not that she was surprised at that.
Sleep came only with exhaustion, for all the good it did. The lingering pain from the punishment inflicted in the cooker would wake her as often as it blocked her from dozing off. The only place to pee was a bidet in the floor, fully exposed to the glassy eyes of cameras in the ceilings and walls—and of the miserable souls around her. Food was just barely food, but she had no appetite anyway.
A couple sat on one of the four platforms nearest to hers, on display like herself to any and all prospective buyers, of whom there was an amazing dearth. The woman wept on and off – more on than off, really – for no reason that Ella could see. The man sat in surly silence, never making the smallest effort to quiet her or even to speak to her. Why they were being sold as a pair escaped Ella. Only later did she learn that separating a married couple for the purpose of selling one or both of them violated some Varn law of service.
Others around her tried to sleep or sat staring blankly, bored. Carrying on a conversation would have been next to impossible: the racket of children screaming, carts and robot observers rattling around, ventilator motors grumbling bounced off the windowless cavern’s flat, unadorned glow walls. Nor, for that matter, did Ella care to speak to anyone.
She saw, eventually – what time of the day or night it was, she had no idea — a blacksuit making his way up the aisles ahead of a visitor, obviously a free man. Tall and long in build and in face, he was; once no doubt slender but now, in silver-haired middle age, a little pot-bellied. From a distance, she could see the blacksuit chattering away while the other man listened with little expression and less comment.
They were coming in her direction. As they approached, she heard the blacksuit going on, “…no track record…fresh out of the cooker. But other than that she pretty much fits your needs. You’ll need to train her, but she won’t cost you much.”
The man approached, stopped, and looked her over blandly. If he was interested, he wasn’t advertising so.
“Her health is excellent. She’s had all her inoculations, a year’s worth of contraceptive… She’s 26, still plenty young and strong but not a kid, and.…” The blacksuit barreled on in a sales pitch that quickly faded out of Ella’s consciousness. She looked at the gray-haired buyer and he looked at her. His expression, to the extent that he could be said to have an expression, was utterly unreadable.
But Varns. . . who could read anything about a Varn? Still seated, she backed away as far as the leash they’d tied around her ankle would allow.
“Hey, girlie!” The blacksuit reached for her. “Stand up and let us look at you.” She stared at him, unmoving.
“Enough of that,” the other said. “Leave her alone.”
She turned her level gaze on him. He looked into her eyes, and a ghost of a smile crossed his long, sharp-planed face.
“Will you please back off?” he said to the blacksuited salesman. The guy fell resentfully silent.
He put a foot on the platform and hopped up onto it. But he didn’t move any closer. He just held a hand out toward her. “Let me help you up,” he said. His voice was calm and gentle. “C’mon.”
She hauled herself to her feet, declining to take his hand, and stood as far from him as she could get.
“That’s good,” he said. “It’s all right now: I promise not to bite.”
She wasn’t amused. Her expression said so, much as she tried to keep her face blank.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Her name is Ella,” the blacksuit said.
“I thought you were going to shut up?” the man replied. This elicited another surly silence.
“What do you call yourself?” he turned back to her.
“Eliyeh’llya,” she said, pronouncing her name in the Samdelan mode.
“Ah. Well,” he smiled a little ruefully, “do you mind if I call you Ella?”
She shrugged. Did she have a choice? “It’ll work.”
“All right. Ella. My name is Bhotil. I work for DOW Enterprises. We’re looking for someone we can train to help out in our offworld operations. And . . .” He leafed through a binder of papers he had in hand. “It looks like you’ve had some experience in managing some kind of shipping. Is that so?”
“You could put it that way,” she replied, wondering what he was talking about. She’d dealt with Distributed Off-World on Samdela, but not in ways one of its employees would want to know much about.
“What exactly did you do in your work? Can you describe it?”
What did I do . . . that I wouldn’t be arrested for? She grasped for something to say. “Well, I . . . scheduled deliveries and checked with customers to be sure they got made. On time. And just . . . sort of rode herd on things.” And kept the books for three under-the-table businesses, using coded math and my mother’s northern Samdi dialect that not very many cops were likely to understand, and reported any violations to the bosses, and did their bidding and kept their orders private, and forged government and financial documents as needed, and located girls when the bosses wanted a change or had cronies in town and saw to it that their wives didn’t find out and ran money through the “laundry” and . . . What do you want to know?
“Did the bookkeeping and kept the records. And saw to it that anything that wasn’t about to get done did get done. Just…made sure everything got done, and got done right.”
“That can be quite a chore.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes.”
“Think you’re up for another job that’ll keep you busy?”
“If it’ll get me out of here. Sure.”
“Oh, it’s a long way from this place.”
The longer, the better, she thought.
“You’ll have to work pretty hard,” he added.
“I earn my way,” she said.
“We’ll see.” He glanced in the direction of the blacksuit, who was watching them in blessed silence. “I’ll take her. Set her loose, if you will, please.” He seemed, she thought, like a man who was accustomed to cooperation from those around him. She knew men like that. From before…
The blacksuit acted like his sun had just come out from behind a cloud as he moved to release her from the bond around her leg.
She could kick him in the face while he was kneeling by her foot…better not, though. Better not.
They followed him up to a set of offices on the building’s second floor, where they were parked in a waiting room.
“This will take awhile,” Bhotil said. “We have to fill out a lot of forms and then listen to enough lectures to fill your ears for the next week.”
“Fine. As long as it gets us to the door sooner or later.”
He smiled. “That it will.”
“That guy looked like you’d made his day,” she remarked after a moment of silence.
“Well, yeah. He gets a commission on whatever sales he makes.”
“Oh.” Follows. I’m a “sale” now. Well, she’d been a “sale” before…but that, she hoped, did not appear in her record. She imagined she’d find out soon enough…surely the blacksuits would go over all her sins with the prospective new master. Those they knew about.
The two sat in the silence for a more minutes, he staring into the distance and she covertly studying him. He must have been a handsome man in his younger years…she guessed he was pushing 60. Still good enough looking, his features distinctively masculine and his gray eyes thoughtful-looking, if absent with boredom. She wondered how often he’d been through this slave-purchasing process.
He spoke: “You look a little tired.”
Understatement. “It’s not easy to sleep here.”
“No. I’m sure not.” She having nothing to add to that, he continued, “When we get back to the ship, you can have a warm bath and something to eat, if you’re hungry. Then you can go to bed and sleep as long as you like. You’ll have your own quarters there, while we’re in transit.”
Ship? Transit? What “transit”? “What ‘ship,’ Mr. Bhotil?” she asked.
“They didn’t tell you? I’m sorry, I thought they had. We’re based on Zaitaf. We’ll be going back there tomorrow morning…that would be in about eighteen hours.”
Her breath stopped. Her chest wouldn’t pull in any air. “Zai… You mean the moon?”
“Well, the larger one. There are two.”
“No!” She couldn’t breathe. She jumped to her feet and managed to gasp in enough air to yell another NO! “I’m not going! You can’t take me there! No!” She stumbled away from him.
“Ella! Calm down!”
“No! No, I’m not going! No way!”
He stood and reached for her. She dodged out of his grasp. “No! Leave me alone! You can’t take me there!” She started to sob, still trying to catch enough air.
A blacksuit approached, brandishing a billy club.
Bhotil glared him down. “Back off! She’s mine. I paid for her. I’ll handle this.”
The man paused, uncertain.
Now Ella was weeping uncontrollably. What was that he said? He already owned her? They already owned her? “No!”
In the instant she was distracted, Bhotil reached out and set his hands on her shoulders, exactly as the woman blacksuit had a few days before. He pulled her toward him.
“Ella,” he said. “Ella, will you please stop? Be quiet. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Sobs came in waves. She was beyond stopping them. All the fear and pain and anger and despair poured over her like a river of lava.
He held onto her and spoke something; what, she couldn’t make out over her own weeping, but he kept talking to her, low and gentle. How long this went on, she did not know. She felt the blacksuit nearby. She felt the eyes on her, other people in the waiting room staring. She felt Bhotil speaking. But what all that meant escaped her.
Then she was in his arms, weeping into the jacket covering his chest. He held her, for how long she couldn’t say. Finally, when she couldn’t draw another breath to sob, she stopped. He held her for a few seconds, a few minutes longer, she didn’t know.
“What in the Gods’ heavens is the matter, Ella?” he said. “Why are you carrying on like this?” He held her by the shoulders again, stroking the muscles between her shoulderblades.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life breaking rocks,” she wailed.
“Don’t send me to the mines. I haven’t done anything to deserve that.”
“Oh!” The light dawned across his face. “Is that what you think is happening?”
She tried to seek shelter against his chest again, but he held her in place. “No. Ella, woman. That’s not what’s going to happen at all.”
“What else would people do on some godforsaken moon?”
“Ella. Will you please pay attention to me?”
She nodded, but the tears flowing down her face gainsaid her.
He held her back away from him and then lifted her chin. “Listen to me.” She shook her head. “Yes.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “You’re not going to any mines. Are you an engineer? Is there anything you could do for us there?
“Mining is just a small part of what the colony does. Ethra…it has so many other jobs. Hardly any of us work at the mines.”
“What else is there to do?” If she choked out the words, still she could not help gainsaying him.
“Well… Freighting, for one. None of those big deepspace ships can land on the planet. They dock at Ethra, where they offload their cargo. Because the gravity’s lower. And we ship it all to the surface. Don’t you remember? That’s how you got here.”
“You were offloaded on Zaitaf and loaded onto a local surface lander.”
“I don’t think so. They just dumped us into some sort of…garage. Here. On the planet.”
“Well, you would have been in a pod. You couldn’t see out, could you?” She shook her head, no. “Your pod would have been moved over to a surface-bound ship – like the one that will carry us back to Ethra Port. You probably didn’t even know it. From Ethra Port you would have been carried down to Varnis, and from Cinorra Port they would have brought you here.
“Everything – and everyone, free or slave – that comes into the Varn system by deepspace carrier is laid off on Zaitaf and reloaded onto vessels that carry cargo to the surface. Same is true for whatever and whoever leaves the planet.”
“Oh.” She looked at him, amazed. With his fingers, he wiped the hot tears from her cheeks.
“And we have a research station there. More scientists and mathematicians than you can count. And a communications station. And a power station. And an agriculture pod that raises fresh fruits and vegetables and grain to feed us all. And a survey system studying the planet. And there’s a big, fancy resort. Believe it or not, rich people think it’s a fine place to go for vacations.”
“Yes. You want to see some famous Great One? Sooner or later they all show up on Zaitaf.”
“Seriously? Like the Kaïna?”
“I’ve seen the Kai and the Kaïna myself. In person.”
“She goes there?”
“She does. They all do.”
The Kaïna Djitti. No, Ella never saw her on Zaitaf, not in all the years she spent there. Who would have thought she’d end up in her service?
No one. Least of all Ella.
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.
Amira: Proprietor of a cathouse and a lunchroom/bistro
Bintje: slave woman at SkyHill and thorn in Ella’s side
Bis: member of the Kaïna’s guard
Brenny: a small child, son of Sehbad and Faisa, both blacksuits
Chadzar: a Michaian slave; head of the Kaïna Rysha’s guard
Dade: companion of Tand and aristocratic friend of Rysha in her youth
Darl: a defrocked medical doctor who is purchased by Rysha after her father dies and she takes over running the place. She thinks it would be a good idea to have a healer not only for her own people but for slaves on the surrounding estates.
Deela: a woman slave at Skyhill, given to making mischief
Djetti Delamona Kaïna leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hededalla: Rysha’s mother, deceased some years ago
Dorin: overseer of the Kaïna’s estate at Skyhill
Eestom: Companion of Ghemma
Ella: matron and second-in-command to Dorin; oversees women and married couples.
Emarr’, heiress to the title of Yrandag’chla; friend of Rysha in her youth
Essio: member of the Kai’s guard
Faisa: a blacksuit; father to Brenny
Ghemma leh PlehkNembine: aristocratic friend of Rysha in her youth, brother of Tand
Haddam: owns an academy that trains high-end servants for the elite
Hebedalla: Sahuru’s former title: Lord Hebedalla
Iteile: Chadzar’s mother; formerly a revolutionary activist
Myallim leh Zsian-tinan: woman aristocrat; companion of Rysha in her youth
Narehtal: ambitious, scheming Machiavellian aristocrat
Nehdo: member of the Kai’s guard
Odine le yNoraldia: companion of Rysha in her youth; has crush on Pachilu
Pachilu besh Andona leh Ciand’paran: a young aristocrat and admirer of Rysha
Pach’Ora besh Andona leh Ciand’paran: Pachilu’s father, a powerful aristocrat and advisor to the Kai and Kaīna
Rysha Delamona Kaïna leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hededalla: daughter and heir apparent of the Kai Suhuru
Sahure en Delamona Kai leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hebedalla: Rysha’s father; after Djitti’s death, emperor of the freaking universe. Kaï by virtue of marriage to the Kaïna Djetti; sovereignty descends through and to the female line
Sehbad: a blacksuit; mother to Brenny
Siji: a carpenter
Skeet: an eight-year-old boy
Syo: member of the Kaïna’s guard
Tand leh PlehkNembine: sister of Ghemma and aristocratic friend of Rysha in her youth
Treykhan or Treykam: son of Narehtal; articulate his full name
Vighdi: Ella’s overseer during her time on Zaitaf
Wilig: a ten-year-old boy
E’o Cinnora: capital city of Varnis; a large metropolis to the south of Skyhill’s locale
Ethra: colony and resort on Zaitaf
Idaemas: member world of the Empire
Kana: member world of the Empire
Michaia: an ice world; incubator of rebellion and revolution
Samdela: fully industrialized and urbanized world in the Empire. Birthplace and center of operations for the Syndicate
Skyhill: hereditary home of the Kaïna; so named because of a set of distant, low mountains
Takrai: Mining colony on Zaitaf
Temeha: member world of the Empire
Veshia: the smaller of Varnis’s two moons
Varnis, the Mother of Worlds: birthplace and ruling capital of the Empire
Zaitaf: the larger of Varnis’s two moons