Ella’s Story *Free Read*

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. A new chapter appears each week at our “News & Chat” blog, usually on Wednesdays. Collected chapters will be published below in sets of 10 as PDFs, which you can download for free. There’s always more to come…

Ella’s Story, Part 1: Chapters 1 through 10

Chapter 1. She could hear a voice moaning… 1
Chapter 2. She lay abed, wide awake long after curfew… 6
Chapter 3. She was only 26 when the bastards reeled her in… 8
Chapter 4. She’d been on the sale floor about four days… 13
Chapter 5. At this rate, she was never going to get to sleep. 24
Chapter 6. A guy I know… 32
Chapter 7. Her feet were freezing… 33
Chapter 8. Such a man could mean trouble… 35
Chapter 9. By then Vighdi had been her direct boss for several months… 37
Chapter 10. Months passed quietly… 42

Ella’s Story, Part 2: Chapters 11 through 20

Chapter 11. After her shift one evening… 1
Chapter 12. Dawn came early… 5
Chapter 13. Smooth, cream-colored walls embraced… 18
Chapter 14. She had, as instructed… 22
Chapter 15. Weeds cleared from the planting beds…31
Chapter 16. She could hardly paint Bintje’s wagon black… 37
Chapter 17. Ella disliked close, dark places… 39
Chapter 18. Lohkeh was waiting… 47
Chapter 19. The dinner he had ordered up was pure Samdi..51
Chapter 20. The yellow sun was dropping…54

21.

Much to be hoped it was, she thought, that this one would not remain a pain in the butt as long as she herself had.

The morning after Ella and Lohkeh’s visit to the mine and its hive of offices, Vighdi summoned her. Still feeling a bit dreamy after the satisfying encounter with her handsome co-conspirator, she entered Vighdi’s place in a good mood.

“Sit down.” Vighdi gestured toward a stool near the worktable that ran along one wall. “We need to talk.”

“Yes, ma’am?” No clue: so used to being congratulated on her good work was she.

Vighdi, her elbows on her desk, leaned forward and focused her attention on Ella.

“Where were you and Lohkeh yesterday?”

“Takrai, ma’am?” Puzzled, she realized the answer came out sounding like a guess. “I had a pass. You set it for me. And I’m sure Lohkeh had one, too.”

“Obviously. That’s not what I’m asking. Where did you go while you were there?”

Uh oh. Ella wondered: what did she know? People often said you were watched wherever you went. Maybe even on the toilet. But she’d never seen much proof of it. The car no doubt was connected. But…every wall? Really? “Uhm…we went to the mine offices first, ma’am. He left me with Chief Haidar while he delivered something to some other office. She showed me around the place and introduced me to staff in receiving and accounts.”

“And then where did you go?”

“Well, after Lohkeh came back, we…got some supper.”

“At the mess hall?”

“I guess.”

“You don’t know?”

Ella stayed quiet and aimed a steady gaze at her. In fact, they had paused briefly to pick up a couple of sweets at the company cafeteria as they headed back to Ethra compound.

“All right,” Vighdi said. “Let’s go over this more closely.” She passed her right hand across a hotspot embedded in the desk, and a diagram of the road system between Ethra Port and Takrai flashed up on a blank wall behind the work table.

“You went to the transit depot after first-meal, and you met Lohkeh there, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You got into an aircar and headed toward Takrai, which is the only way you can head. But you didn’t go there directly.” A lighted dot traced the car’s path over the map.

Oh, hell. “No, ma’am.”

“Here, you take the spur tunnel to Lake Jesiah. Correct?

“Yes’m. But…”

Vighdi gave her a look that silenced her.

“You stop there for awhile.”

“Yes.” Did the booze cabinet have eyes?

“And?”

“Well. We were just sight-seeing, ma’am. There was no big hurry to get to Takrai.”

“Uh-huh. Did you get to see the geyser go off?”

Ella couldn’t help smiling. “We did, ma’am!”

Vighdi’s tone softened for an instant. “It’s an amazing thing to watch, isn’t it?”

“It surely is, boss. I never saw anything like that.”

“Well, I’m glad you got the opportunity. So…now you get back in the vehicle and continue on to the mines.”

“Yes.”

“When you get there, you go straight to the business compound.”

“Yes’m.”

“You go into a storage area, where you spend a short time.”

“Yes. We unloaded the stuff in the car. And helped Haidar and her assistant stack boxes where she wanted them.”

“Now Lokeh goes off in the vehicle, but you stay at the building.”

“Was I supposed to stick with him the whole time?”

Vighdi shot her a sharp look. “Yes or no?”

“Yes. Haidar gave me a tour of the whole business operation. And she introduced me to people I’ve been working with remotely.”

“That’s good. So now you can put faces to sign-offs, no?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Looks like you roam all over the building.”

“Pretty much, we did.”

“Eventually Lohkeh comes back. The two of you get into the car and drive off. And yeah, before you leave the mine, you do stop by the mess hall.”

“Yes’m. We picked up some sweet toasts and kekel tea. Hot.”

“All right. Then you came back here? To Ethra?”

“Well, yes…”

“See, the problem is, between here,” Vighdi stood and placed her finger on the map at the office buildings, “and here…” her hand moved to the site of the chow line, “you drop out of sight. You seem to stop about here,” her finger came to rest at a midway point, “and then you both evaporate. Where were you?”

So they were inaudible and invisible while they were enjoying each others’ company? This was good news, Ella thought. But how in the five goddesses’ creation had he pulled that off?

“We…had dinner, Boss Vighdi. It was delivered to the room.”

“The room?”

“Yes, ma’am. In that building. Right there.” She indicated the structure to which Vighdi had traced their passage.

Vighdi closed her eyes and, with the fingers of one hand, massaged her temple as though her head hurt.

“Mmm-hmm,” she murmured after a moment. “So you go off-grid, off-track, off-everything to go to this…room? Why?”

“To eat dinner, ma’am.”

“Ella…” Vighdi’s voice took on an edge.

“I didn’t…”

“Don’t ever do that again.”

“But…”

“You do understand that I can make life very uncomfortable for you here, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am. But I didn’t know…”

“I don’t give a damn what you knew or didn’t know. It’s your responsibility to be where you’re supposed to be. And to see to it that the company knows where you are. All the time.”

“But…maybe something happened to the equipment. I had no idea – how would I know if it just went off?”

“It didn’t ‘just go off.’ If a contact goes dead an alarm will signal you. So you can call in to your boss or whoever you’re supposed be working for and let them know where you are and what you’re doing.”

“Vighdi, ma’am… Honestly, I didn’t know.”

“All the rooms in that building were and still are off-limits. The place is for the use of free staff and guests.”

“How would I have known that?”

Ask. You let this guy take you into a luxury suite in a building obviously not meant as slave quarters and it never occurred to you to inquire as to whether you were supposed to be there?”

“Well…was there any problem with our going into that salon at Lake Jesiah?”

“Of course not. The indentured property work there all the time. Don’t be disingenuous.”

“What?”

“Don’t act dumb with me.”

“Oh. No, ma’am.”

Vighdi subsided into annoyed silence.

After what felt like endless minutes but probably was just a few seconds, Ella offered: “I’m sorry.”

At this, Vighdi emitted half a chuckle. “I’ll bet you are.” A skeptical smile broke through the shadow of her mood.

Sensing détente in the air, Ella added, “I’ll try to be more careful.”

“Do, please. Use some common sense.”

“I will, ma’am.”

Guessing the conversation had come to its natural end, Ella moved to rise and leave.

“Wait a minute,” Vighdi stopped her. “I have something else to tell you.”

Goddess, no! “Yes, ma’am?” She perched on the edge of the seat, hoping whatever was coming would get over soon.

“Look, sweet.” Vighdi’s voice mellowed. “If you want someplace quiet and private to spend time with your friend, all you have to do is tell me. I can arrange that for you.”

“You can?” Ella felt heat rise into her face. If she was turning red, was it obvious? For that matter, did these dust-gray Varns even know what that meant?

“Of course.”

“Would you?”

“I can find you a place that’s just as nice as Takrai’s guest hostel. Only not clinging to the side of a mine shaft. And I will – but you need to ask, that’s all.”

Ella suppressed a giggle. “Thank you. That’s…” astonishing, she thought, “…awfully nice.”

“Go on back to work now, please.” Vighdi waved her toward the door. “And don’t fail me, dear.”

“No, ma’am.”

Right.

22.

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 organized 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.

“Good. Fine.”

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.”

“Michaia again?”

“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.”

“It is.”

“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.

23

He was, she reflected, the studliest man she had ever known. In the solitary comfort of her bed, night flowing over her and through the resting dormitory, her body remembered. He filled her like no man had ever done, before or after. Filled her physically. Filled her emotionally, too, with his humor and his dark ironic eyes and foxy smile, with the endless stream of small kindnesses and gestures, with his company that filled their off hours and many of the hours that were on.

A satisfactory man, she thought. The best she’d known. But then, come to think of it, most of the men she’d been with on Samdela did not aspire to the category of “satisfactory.” And after Lohkeh, she hadn’t come to know so many men. Not so many at all.

Each morning he would meet her in the mess hall, share first-meal with her – or with her and a few friends – and then wish her a fine day before the each went off to their separate jobs. Lohkeh got around in his work. He seemed to be all over the place. Every day, two or three times a day, he would drop by her desk and say hello. Unless he had to go down to Takrai, he would – which he often did. Every eight or ten “day”-cycles, he disappeared into the dark tube to the mining center, never reappearing until after last-meal. Often not before Ella had gone to bed.

Vighdi made good on her promise to find them a private place to spend their off hours together. They made excellent use of it.

None of this went unnoticed. Her friends teased mercilessly, dubbing them Wista and Qarfan, the mythical Kanat lovers whose passion turned them into stars and caused them to drift into that strange, seasonless world’s firmament. Ella quickly grew aware that every unattached female and several who were attached wished they were in her place. So she didn’t mind. Much.

Lohkeh played a pitcher’s position for one of Ethra Compound’s eighteen-man bechabon teams. In bechabon, six pitchers tried to throw six balls each – red, blue, white, green, orange, and purple, in order, into a series of holes set high overhead in the walls of a octagonal playing field, while two team-mates tried to defend each pitcher them against three opposing players. Each team worked across six walls — three on either side of the court — and then if and when an entire set of balls had made its way through the targets, tried to throw all of them into the other team’s goal net.

This, she thought, was an amazing thing to watch from the rows of benches above the walled arena. In Zaitaf’s low gravity, each player could jump a good ten feet into the air, seeming to hover aloft several seconds. Throwing an object at the apogee of such a leap would shift the person’s balance. It took skill and strength to steer oneself so as to avoid coming down wrong and breaking an ankle. Lohkeh had both of those, in abundance.

Spectator sports had never called out to Ella. She could take them or leave them. But somehow watching Lohkeh dance and fly and throw made watching bechabon a lot more fun than it had ever seemed before. Before long she knew all the rules and what was a good move and what not so great, what was a foul and what was a brilliant move. And Lohkeh’s grace and strength put her whole body to singing for him. Watching him in action made her relish the action that would follow all the more.

That action could take place anywhere. Behind the spectator stands. Down a dark hallway. Inside a random vehicle that somehow materialized exactly when and where Lohkeh wanted it. Inside the greenhouse, hidden between of tall plants. Once, after he invited her to help him practice by chasing stray balls and returning them to him, inside a shower room.

Was there any retreat he didn’t know about? If there was, she couldn’t imagine where it might be.

24

The late part of the day-cycle was often slow in Ethra Station’s bookkeeping department. Just now it seemed especially slow to Ella. She had entered all the incoming and outgoing lading statements: Everything offloaded from the gigantic freighters standing off the surface, including a few new convicts headed for the planet just as she had been a couple of years before. Everything (and everyone) onloaded to surface-going carriers, vehicles small enough to maneuver a planet-sized body’s atmosphere, geography, and gravity. And conversely: everything hoisted from the planet’s surface into orbit near Zaitaf, and from there transferred into one or the other of those big freighters, depending on the cargo’s destination.

She now had two assistants working under her supervision. Her eyes were starting to glaze over as she checked their entries when Lohkeh poked his head around the corner nearest to her work station.

“Pretty woman!” As though he’d made a discovery.

Ella felt her body warm in response. “Hello, there,” she greeted him. He slid onto a stool beside the desk. “Who let you loose?” She set her hand on the table top near him.

“Just got in from the loading dock and thought I’d come by and see what you’re up to.” He touched her hand and stroked her fingers. If a Samdelan could purr, she would have.

“Not much,” she said. “Just working on today’s lading sheets.”

“That sounds exciting. Are you almost done?”

“Should be, by knocking-off time.”

“Mmmh, that’s good.”

He lifted her hand to his face and brushed her skin his lips. She felt the prickle of a day’s beard growth. A delicious little shiver coursed down the back of her neck.

“Would you like to do something for me?” he asked, his voice low and sensual.

“Sure,” she replied: Something having to do with a bedroom?

He pulled a sheet of paper out of the bag on his workbelt. “We need to update these figures,” he said, as thought this were something they both needed to get right. He unfolded it and spread it on the desk. “See, these numbers are wrong. It says here that 700 cartons were shipped from Tamehal. But that’s not correct. The actual number shipped was 690.”

Reaching around her to the electronic lading system on her desk calculator, he deftly brought up records from the freighter of the day, which had come in from Tamehal via Krae. “So this” – he seemed to know exactly where to highlight the line indicating the specific shipment – “should be the same as this.” He pointed to a line on the printed sheet, reading 690 containers.

“Uhm…it should?”

“Well, yeah. This is what was unloaded.”

“Why would what was unloaded be less than what was loaded?”

“It wasn’t. This – 690 crates – is what was loaded. Somebody just made a mistake.”

“So, whoever made the mistake needs to fix it.”

He gave her a look: was it the are you stupid look or the don’t get on my nerves look? She wasn’t sure but sensed neither was good.

“No. Then we’d have to jump through a dozen hoops. We need to move this stuff planetside now, not sometime next year. And besides, if we start with that bullshit, whoever made this mistake will get in hot water.”

“Maybe they should.”

“We watch each others’ backs. Don’t we.” It wasn’t a question. This was Syndicate doctrine. Ella grew up with it, no less than Lohkeh did.

She nodded. And, without further comment, changed the entry.

§

The favor did not go unrewarded.

Cast of
Characters

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
Lohkeh: Ella’s male lover during her time on Zaitaf; a Syndicato of elevated rank
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
Sahuru 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

List of
Place Names

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
Ondai: a humanoid species of the empire, engendered by early Varns
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

 

Contents

Chapter 1. She could hear a voice moaning…
Chapter 2. She lay abed, wide awake long after curfew.
Chapter 3. She was only 26 when the bastards reeled her in…
Chapter 4. She’d been on the sale floor about four days…
Chapter 5. At this rate, she was never going to get to sleep.
Chapter 6.  A guy I know.
Chapter 7. Her feet were freezing.
Chapter 8. Such a man could mean trouble.
Chapter 9. By then Vighdi had been her direct boss for several months…
Chapter 10. Months passed quietly.
Chapter 11. After her shift one evening…
Chapter 12. Dawn came early to Skyhill.
Chapter 13. Smooth, cream-colored walls embraced…
Chapter 14. She had, as instructed, asked for a day to travel up to Takrai…
Chapter 15. Weeds cleared from the planting beds…
Chapter 16. Well, she could hardly paint Bintje’s wagon black…
Chapter 17. Ella disliked close, dark places.
Chapter 18. Lohkeh was waiting…
Chapter 19. The dinner he had ordered up was pure Samdi…
Chapter 20. The yellow sun was dropping toward the distant Sky Hills…
Chapter 21. Much to be hoped it was, she thought, that this one would not remain a pain in the butt as long as she herself had…
Chapter 22. The tick-sized intercom pasted to her left bicep vibrated,
Chapter 23. He was, she reflected, the studliest man she had ever known.