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. There’s always more to come…
Click here for
The Cast of Characters
Click here for
Click here for
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 — Distributed Off-World. We’re looking for someone we can train to help out in our freighting 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.
Her feet were freezing. She wished she had Vighdi in the bed with her, to warm her up. Vighdi would let her put cold feet up against some part of her body. Might complain about it, but never pushed her away. She pulled the blanket over her shoulders and wedged a pillow lengthwise along her belly, curling up around it.
Once a soldier of the Syndicate, always a soldier of the Syndicate. That was the rule. Didn’t matter what happened to you, where you went, what you did, what you tried to do. When you swore your oath to a Band, you swore into the Syndicate. From that time forward, through eternity.
Assuming there was an eternity.
Dorin had never admitted to it – Syndicato, that is. But all the signs were there.
She knew he’d made his living back on Samdela as a burglar and a fence. Supported himself, a woman, and a couple of kids in the life. You couldn’t pull that off without a few connections. Not without knowing a guy. Or three.
He’d gotten caught inside some mark’s house. Red-handed, as they say. That was the end of a fine career. The jerk came home before the job was done. And Dorin went to the slave market.
Oh well. He couldn’t have been living like he did now when he was on Samdela, however much he stole…one big, grim, hazy urban slum, most of it: pole to equator to pole. The Syndicate would have taken care of his family. No doubt he missed them. But he didn’t have to worry about whether they went hungry.
Every now and again he would let something slip. Like knowing “a guy.”
Like the bottle of fine brandy, unaffordable to any slave who didn’t have some connections, that he kept locked inside his desk.
Like his expectation that if you worked for him, you would be loyal to him above all others. Even, she sometimes imagined, above the Kaïna. Not that it would come to that, because he was loyal to Rysha above all others.
Like his bottomless skill at organizing and planning. And his confidence that if something needed to get done, he could get it done – even if it meant beating the system.
Maybe especially if it meant beating the system.
Such a man could mean trouble.
He was a good-looking man, that Lohkeh. She noticed him early on, sitting around the lounge where Bhotil first took her to show her how beautiful the universe was, where the sparkling bowl of the galaxic sky arched across a clear dome over the big room. She had never seen stars before.
“What are those lights?” she’d asked Bhotil, astounded.
“Those are other suns, other worlds, other moons. You can’t see them on Samdela because there’s so much dirt and light in the air.”
“We call them stars. They’re a long, long way from here.”
“Uh huh. Some of them.”
“Is one of them Samdela?”
“Probably. It’s too tiny for us to see from here. We might be able to see your sun. If we knew where to look.”
She glanced away, nonplussed. Across the room she could see a part of Samdela: a man unmistakably Samdi. Unmistakably a capo, even, despite his shorn brown hair and the slave livery he wore. You couldn’t miss the style, the swagger, the eloquent self-confidence.
He didn’t notice her, though. Not then.
Not while she was working in her first job, wrestling sheets and towels in the lunar resort’s laundry room, scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets and showers.
He didn’t notice her when she moved up to running the housecleaning division, either. Even though she moved up with record speed.
By then Vighdi had been her direct boss for several months, long enough to register that Ella was fairly bright and to take a shine to her. She—Vighdi—put Bhotil up to teaching Ella to read and write Varn.
He knew she was literate in Samdi, far from a given with felons deported from her world. Though he’d made a mental note to get her some training in Varn, he was a busy man. If it wasn’t written down, he soon forgot it.
Reminded, he arranged for her to come up to his office each day for an hour or two of tutoring.
Like most things Varn, she found the written language bizarre.
“Why,” she asked, mystified, “do they put every word inside a box?”
“So as to show it’s a separate word?” Bhotil responded, puzzled by her puzzlement. This seemed obvious to him. Each word was represented by sets of more or less phonetic symbols arranged in patterns within rectangular borders, according to fairly rigid conventions.
“Then…when you read something in Varn, it’s like a ball bouncing across the street, not like water flowing down the road? In your head, it goes Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah, not Blahblahblahblah?”
“Well. It flows together. I mean, when you take it all together.”
“No, it doesn’t. It chatters along like rocks tumbling down a hill.”
He chuckled. “I think it all comes down to the same place.”
“That’s what they say,” she replied. “But…it doesn’t, does it?”
“Sure it does. You understand what it means. I understand what it means. We understand what it means.”
“But I’ll bet what we each understand is different. I’ll bet what you think what it means is different from what I think it means. Because you’re Varn and I’m Samdi.”
He looked at her in surprise. “But we’re not different, really. Varn and Samdi come from the same genes, the same people.”
“Naw, Bhotil! That’s a fairy tale.”
“’Tis not. It’s science. And history. That’s why you could have a child by a Varn. Or an Ondai, or even a Michaian.”
“Sure. Because we’re all fairies.”
He sighed gently and gave her A Look, attenuated. Don’t get smart with me, please. She dropped her gaze, silently apologetic.
“Look. If we took a drop of your great-grandmother’s blood and a drop of my great-grandmother’s blood,” he resumed, “and we ran some tests on them, we’d see that from way back in the darkness of time, they both had some ancestor that carried genes from Varnis. That’s why your people walk on two legs, just like mine, and why we both have two hands with five fingers and one head with two eyes.”
She laughed. “Sometimes I think I need two heads to keep up with you!”
“You do just fine at that,” he remarked.
“In the Way-Before Time, before the Second Empire covered the galaxy, before the first dynasties of the Kaïnas, the people of Varnis had spread across all the starfields they could reach. But that was before they knew how to move through hyperspace, so there was only so far they could go in one person’s lifetime – or two lifetimes, or ten.
“But they could tell – they had the science to tell – where in the galaxy there were worlds that could support life like ours. And what kind of creatures were evolving there. So they sent out capsules bearing Varn genes, only engineered to be taken into the creatures’ bodies and blend in with their existing genetic material. And guide them to evolve, over many tens of thousands of years, into thinking, speaking Varn-like creatures.”
Blend in? Do you mean “infect”? She restrained herself from expressing the thought aloud.
“And that’s why now we have the peoples of Samdela and Kana and Tamehal and Michaia and all the other worlds that belong to the Empire. We can prove it by comparing our genetic make-up. And it’s written in the ancient historic records.”
If it’s written down, it must be true, hm? “Can you read those things, sir?”
“Me? No, of course not. But there are translations. Would you like me to order up a copy for you?”
Oh, dear gods . . . will there be a test? “Mmm. . . no, sir. I think that would be over my head.”
He smiled. “I doubt it.”
What an idea, she thought, that the people of Samdela, her Samdi, were somehow, in any way or in any part, the same as the dusty-skinned gray-eyed aliens of Varnis. And yet, yes. She did know a few individuals who supposedly had sprung from a Varn and a Samdi. Supposedly.
Why, one could not imagine. But…strange things happened.
This man, this Lohkeh that she had seen across the base, saw him every now and again: he surely was all Samdi, solidly built and authoritative in gait.
He was, she had learned, indeed a capo. It wasn’t easy to find out. But by now she knew a guy…one who had access to state records.
He, on the other hand, didn’t seem to realize she herself had been a ranking member in the organization back on Samdela. No doubt, she figured, because he hadn’t noticed her.
Months passed quietly. An airless moon is by its nature a quiet place, even when partying aristocrats decide it looks like a vacation spot.
Ella stayed quiet, herself. She worked steadily, did what was asked of her, sometimes even added a little more.
Bhotil had her reading Varn fluently in just a few months. He practiced her with every form and document and instruction manual he could think of, making her read aloud some of the driest data in creation. Then he gave her things to read in her spare time, stories and image tales and even poems. These she came to enjoy. As for the rest, it wasn’t long before she was writing those boxed words and entering data on her own.
She moved into a more responsible job, keeping track of supplies and moving linens, tools, and provisions from site to site within the colony. Her skill at managing information and organizing projects becoming evident, before long she was scheduling deepspace ship arrivals, offloads and transfers of freight, shipments to and from the planet’s surface. And she was keeping all the records of supplies and needs…that is to say, she was doing mostly what she did for the bosses back on Samdela.
Well. Except for arranging the travel and the female companionship. Or male companionship, depending.
She grew closer to Vighdi, who told her she was proud of her, who often gave her small gifts for milestones or sometimes just for general progress. Did these lead her to work harder? Probably not. Work was in her veins.
After her shift one evening she wandered over to the lounge where the great arm of the galaxy sparkled through the clear domed roof. She’d missed the chow line’s last full meal of the “day,” but she could get a hearty snack at the lounge’s food bar. If she wanted an alcoholic drink, which she did, she’d have to pay for it from the pennies she was given for consistent good work, but that was fine. She had quite a few such pennies.
Plenty of other workers were sitting around, taking in the slack. Formless music and relaxed chatter filled the air. Stars like sand scattered across black velvet glittered overhead. She sat at one of the small bars intended for singles or small groups, nursing the remains of a bowl of stew and a mug of dark ale. Tired, she wasn’t ready to go to bed but neither did she feel like socializing. She just wanted to eat and sit quietly for awhile.
No such luck.
She felt him come up to her before he pulled out the chair next to her and sat down.
“Hello, babe,” he said.
She looked at him, surprised. “Hello there, butch,” she replied. “Do I know you?” She did, of course – everybody knew who he was. Everybody knew who everyone was: the colony was like a small town.
“Well, we haven’t had a formal introduction. Your name is Eliyeh’llya, right?” He spoke Samdi with a smooth NorthCity accent. “They call you Ella here.”
“Mm hmm,” she gave him a vague smile and an assenting nod.
“My name is Lo’hkeh jai-degh Inzed Mafesth. ‘Lohkeh’ to the overseers.”
“I’ve heard the name,” she allowed. “Good to meet you, brother.”
Handsome fellow, this one. Sandy hair spread a golden late-afternoon shadow across his sturdy jaws, his green-flecked brown eyes framed with black lashes under dark brows. He wore a red gem in his ear-stud. Whether it was real or not, she could not tell, though she assumed it was glass.
She wondered at this. The blacksuits took away every piece of jewelry or decoration on a newly convicted felon, especially the ear stud that marked a Samdi man’s coming of age. Once in service, he could buy another one – if he managed to earn enough…if his owner agreed to it.
So…sure, he bought himself a stud. But did they – the overseers, the management here – know what the red jewel signified?
Depended on the shade of red, o’course. His had some deep orange overtones: imitation garnet, she figured. That would make him…what? A midlevel boss in the Syndicate’s transport and communication business. Way over her head, that much was for sure.
But why would they let him make a statement like that, about his past life? They must not know, she thought. The blacksuits and the overseers where always dumber than you expect, Teryd used to say. Once again, he was right.
“Would you like another drink?” he offered.
She would. Careful, she thought…take it slow. “Thanks,” she said. “But I’m pretty beat and it’s getting late – don’t think I should.”
“Next time, then.” He smiled and leaned back in the chair, displaying a finely muscled torso.
“All right.” She returned the smile, trying not to look over-eager.
“So, Ella. You’re pretty well settled in by now, no? You’ve been in-colony for awhile.
“Yeah… I’ve kind of lost track of time, without real days or months.”
“Mm hmm. It’s been a year or so, give or take. Samdi time, that is. How are you getting on? Service suiting you all right?”
“It’s good enough,” she said. “I’m getting used to it. They treat me pretty well.”
“Yeah, they do. If they like you.”
She made no attempt to answer this odd remark.
“The work’s decent. The bed is warm. The food’s edible. What more could you want?”
He laughed. “What more?” He raised his mug to her.
He continued, after a swallow of beer. “I understand you were a lieutenant in the Tullsta Band. Back on Samdela.”
“Well, yes. I worked for the Zaïn. For B’jadaram.”
“How did you find that out?” she asked. One’s past life, as she had been firmly instructed, was to be left in the past: dead and buried. Never mentioned again.
“I know a guy who knows things.”
“Nobody has any secrets, hm?”
He smiled and allowed as to how that was so. After some small talk, he said, “I’m going up to Takrai in a couple of days. Would you like to come along?”
The mining colony was at Takrai, and Ella had also heard there were some exotic extra-planetary geological features near there. “Sure,” she said. “If we do some sight-seeing, too?”
“Absolutely. That’s the whole idea.”
“I’ll have to get time off from my boss. And I guess I’d need to clear it with my overseer, too.”
“Don’t worry about that—I’ll arrange it. Ask Vighdi for a pass tomorrow – wait till after mid-day. I’ll meet you here first thing, next day after tomorrow.”
He had noticed her.
Dawn came early to Skyhill the next morning, or so it seemed to Ella. How many minutes of sleep had she managed? she wondered as she splashed cold water on her face.
“Good morning!” Sanela stepped out of a communal shower and greeted her. Behind her she could see Fyadarh and Abuili rinsing off soap. In the dry room, Tuval was already tugging her livery on over half-damp hips and torso.
“Good day to you, ladies,” she replied. One, two, three, four: all the female early kitchen shift were up and moving. They set off for work as she stepped into the hot running water herself.
Namyra came in, followed by her two young kids. The mother shepherded them under a shower and greeted Ella sleepily before stepping in after them. Sigi, padding up the women’s quarters hall, said hello as Ella began her morning round. Five, six, seven, eight.
Dry, dressed, combed: into action. She made her way down the corridor, along the broad windows looking out onto the interior garden, still dimly lit by early dawn’s light.
“Deela, time to get up!” She pulled aside a curtain to announce the break of day.
“Good morning, Abia.”
“Wake up, Isa!” Nine, ten, eleven.
Into the married couples’ hall. “Up and at ’em, lovebirds!” Twelve, thirteen.
Two toddlers were already bouncing on their parents Bis and Lamit. “Breakfast-time!” Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…
“Ella, Ella, c’n I go to Cinorra with Talat today?” Ten-year-old Wilig never missed a beat. His fuzzy grayish hair stood up in clumps where he’d been sleeping on it.
“Go take a shower and we’ll talk about it at breakfast.” Eighteen…
She trailed the herd into the dining hall, where, while she stood in line to collect a breakfast plate, she counted heads again and made a mental note of anyone she didn’t see. Later, if one or another of her charges was missing, she would track them down electronically, quiz them, and find out why.
There in the cavernous basement kitchen and chow line, delicious odors perfumed the air: broiling meat, kettles of grains simmering in broth or milk and adorned with pickled fruits and vegetables, freshly baked sweet and savory breads, flavorful aromatics sautéed in oil and offered up to those who liked to spread them over their foods… If she wasn’t hungry before she got there – which, come to think of it, she surely was – within about five minutes of entering the hall she would be.
Windowless, the glowing paneled walls echoed with the sound of pots and pans clattering, grease snapping, people chattering, kids carrying on. Ella loved the sound of children’s voices – hadn’t realized how much so until she was brought here from Zaitaf and set down in the middle of a big houseful of singles and families.
Talat, a young mechanic, had agreed to take young Wilig on a field trip into the city, which meant she would have to dream up some supposed achievement for which she could claim he was rewarding the kid. Or, failing that, some extra chore with which he could pay for the privilege. Probably, she reflected, the latter would be best.
“You can go into town,” she told the boy, “if you do all your studies this afternoon, and you clean the swimming pool tomorrow as soon as you get out of class.” The estate’s children were instructed in a spectrum of vocational skills ranging from reading and basic math to mechanics to electronics, requiring daily classes until they reached apprenticeship age.
“Naww, Ella! We have a game tomorrow afternoon!” The largest estates organized their prepubescent boys and girls into sporting teams, a much-loved late-in-the-day activity, and the teams would compete against each other. This time of year was kickball season, and Wilig was one of Skyhill’s star kickers.
“Them’s your choices: E’o Cinorra today or the game tomorrow.”
“Well…lemme talk to the guys…”
“Better make up your mind pretty quick. Talat has to get going soon.”
The kid sulked off toward his friends. The women and older girls, already beginning to assemble in the big front hall back at the dormitory, would soon be waiting..
As the adult workers were finishing their meals, she gathered the children, took roll, and consigned them to Fihr for exercise and play before the teachers arrived from town. Fihr was apprenticing to be a teacher himself and, Ella expected, before long would have to be sent into the city during the day to attend courses and further training for the job. That meant she’d have to find someone to take his place…a little challenge she put on the back burner today as she did every morning.
Now she had to hurry to meet her women in the servants’ quarters gathering room. The big stone fireplace, she noticed, needed to be cleaned; made a mental note to assign that chore to someone, if Dorin hadn’t already foisted it on one of the men.
Here she took another roll—a formal one, calling names and checking off those present. As usual, everyone reported: to Ella’s mind a waste of time. It was part of the routine, though, and routine was key to holding these folks on-track. Then a round of announcements: birthdays, anniversaries, meetings, reminders, upcoming events. Ella made the day’s assignments, and, having sent the on-campus crew to their day’s work, lined up those who were going off the estate for contract jobs or various errands so that she could program their implanted passcard chips with the transit permits.
Sigi, a work belt around her full hips and a canvas daypack slung over a shoulder, stepped aside from the outflowing line and waited for Ella to finish sending off all the others.
“We were going to work a pass for me to do a little project for Dorin?” she asked when Ella finally could stop long enough to signal her with an assenting glance.
“Did you ask for a day off the job you’re doing now?
“Yeah. They said I could take off any time—just give them a day’s notice.”
“Well, all right. But…how long do you expect it’ll take to finish that job?”
Sigi’s earth-brown eyes grew distant as she figured up the work remaining to do. “Prob’ly two, three weeks. Some of the hired help he came up with aren’t too bright. Sometimes I have to ride herd more than do my own work.”
Ella snuffed an empathetic smile: she knew that routine well enough.
“Is there some hurry to do Dorin’s task?”
“Not an awful lot, I don’t guess.” Ella gave her a look. “I’d just like a break,” she admitted with a shrug.
“Mm hm. Why don’t you finish up what you’re doing for the customer—I’ll talk to Dorin and be sure he doesn’t mind. Then when you’re done, I’ll give you two freedays before you have to start on the next job.”
“Sure.” This appealed, Sigi made no secret of it. “So…” a calculating smile crossed her lips. “When are we going to start building this hospital for the new guy, that doctor?
“More like a little clinic, I think.”
“Here? At Skyhill?”
“I suppose. Dorin has in mind clearing out a storage room for the place. At least, so he says. You and he will have to talk about that.
“But you’ll need to work with the new man to decide what’s going to go in there and how it’s going to be built. And just now he’s in no condition to do much deciding about anything.
“Heard he was in pretty bad shape…”
“He’s hurting. He’ll need to get back on his feet before we can build him a place to work. That’s going to take awhile.”
“How long do you think it’ll be?”
“Oh…probably three weeks or so. Just about right, eh?”
Sigi nodded. “Just about.”
“So if you’d get going, sister, maybe you’d get done sooner. And then you might even wangle some more time off.”
With Sigi, the last of the bunch, shoveled out the door, Ella drew a deep breath, relaxed, and headed off toward Dorin’s office at the other end of the slaves’ living quarters.
To get there, she decided to walk through the building’s sheltered interior atrium. If she couldn’t go outside just now, at least she could take in a moment of peace in her favorite garden. The morning sun was just climbing toward the low eastern roof, barely awaking the tiny, light-loving blue and white flowers that lined the pathway. The fat violet and red fish in the bubbling pond had noticed, though—always hopeful for a handout, they didn’t miss her passing.
Neither did Talat. He must have spotted her from inside the glass-walled passageway along the men’s quarters. Lo! Out he popped from the far door.
No rest for the wicked, she thought. He looked a bit vexed.
“Hello, boss,” he said. A friendly enough smile chased the cloud from his face.
“Talat. Good morning, brother.”
His blocky, tall frame blocking her way, she paused.
“Did you tell the boy that if he goes into the city with me today he can’t play in tomorrow’s ballgame?”
“Well, that’s what he thinks.”
“I told him he’d need to clean the mistress’s pool tomorrow if he was going to take off from his lessons today.”
“The only time that he could do that job tomorrow is while the big game is being played. He’ll have to go to lessons in the morning, and then he’ll have to stay long enough to catch up with whatever he misses today.”
“Ah. Well, then. I suppose you could say that’s what I said. More or less.”
“Boss. That’s not very kind.”
The glance she gave him flickered razor-sharp but then softened before – she hoped – he felt it.
“Yeah, you’re right.” She sighed, a nearly unnoticeable breath. “It is kind of harsh. I’m sorry. I’ve been feeling a little touchy lately.”
Talat smiled, sensing a win.
“But,” she continued, “y’know, kids need to earn this kind of extra treat. If the other young folks see that Wilig gets to go trotting off to Cinnora for no other reason than that he asked a pal who’ll take him along, then of course they’ll think they should be allowed this or that special favor, too—just for the asking. And Wilig hasn’t done anything obvious to be singled out for a day on the town.”
“Sure. I understand. But if the team loses tomorrow, the boys will say it was because he wasn’t there. Instead of earning the privilege, that’s going to be more like paying for it with a punishment, don’t you think?” She raised an eyebrow, about to speak, but Talat barreled on: “Why can’t he clean the Kaïna’s pool the day after tomorrow? It’ll still be there – and besides, she’s busy. She’ll never notice a few extra leaves.”
She gave up, as she knew she should. “All right. The day after tomorrow…it’s not going anywhere. Will you get him out of class and bring him by Dorin’s space so we can set his pass chip?”
With a grin and a thanks, Talat hustled off toward the outbuilding that housed the schoolroom and gym.
Through the door on the far end of the garden she went, pleased to have that conundrum settled. Around the corner and in through the open door to Dorin’s quarters and office at the top end of the men’s quarters. He was already at his desk, wrestling with the day’s tasks.
She slid into the chair next to the table.
He glanced up at her. “Ever get any sleep last night?”
“Some. I suppose.”
“I’m sorry,” he said commiseratively, eliciting a weary smile.
“How’s our new boy this morning?”
“That one, I don’t think got any sleep at all.”
Not good. She frowned. What you needed most, after the ordeal that baptized you into service, was sleep. As she recalled all too well, you don’t even start to recover until you sleep through most of a night.
She produced her record of the morning’s roll, transit permits, and work assignments, which Dorin merged into his own and stored to a central archive.
Dorin and Ella each enjoyed certain privileges of rank, not the least of which was a generous share of living and working space. Like Ella’s, Dorin’s place occupied two of the servants’ quarters rooms, with two instead of one small window near the ceiling. About two-thirds of the are accommodated a desk, monitoring and reporting equipment, and several seats – enough space for several people to meet in private. A neatly made bed and small table stood along the far wall, a videospot installed conveniently on the adjacent wall, where it could be viewed while the proprietor lounged.
He poured her and then himself a cup of hot bazheflower tea from a pot parked on a hot spot at the back of his desk, then leaned back in his chair. This was the moment they took in a little slack preparatory to a day that might or might not be pretty busy.
Almost. Before brew could be lifted to lip, footsteps and a knock on the doorframe signaled Talat and Wilig’s presence.
“We’re ready to leave,” Talat announced. “Would you set Wil’s passkey so we can get out, Dorin?”
“Sure.” Dorin glanced tentatively in Ella’s direction.
“That’s fine,” she said. “And you’re going to make Her Splendor’s pool perfect, right?” she asked Wilig. “The day after tomorrow.”
He grinned. “Yes’m! You bet.”
“How long do you expect to be gone?” Dorin asked, his coder in hand.
“I dunno. Until dinnertime?”
“Well, that’ll be a full day.”
“Mm-hmm. There’s a lot to do.”
“No doubt.” Dorin glanced skeptically at Talat. “So, you’ll need something for the two of you to eat.” He unlocked a cubby in the side of his desk and drew out a 30-deen paycard.” Sweeping the coder over a set of symbols on the card, he gestured for Talat to hold out his hand and then entered the code in Talat’s embedded passkey. “Bring the card back to me this evening.”
“Thanks, boss!” Talat’s day was made.
He ought to sound pleased, Ella thought. Thirty deens, for godsake. Five of those would buy a fine midday meal for the two of them. That would leave twenty-five for whatever attractions and games they chose to diddle away their time on.
“Spoiling that pair,” she remarked as the two disappeared up the hallway.
“Probably. But Willy’s already ruined and Tal is working on it.”
She chuckled. “That boy of mine is sure not ruined. Have you ever seen a kid who goes and goes like that one?”
“Long as he likes what he’s doing.”
“Speaking of going to town: Sigi is anxious to get off the job she’s doing for that shop down in the Redfield District. She says you have some project for her here?”
“That’s what she claims.”
“Oh—yeah. It was something she suggested.”
“Why did I think as much?”
He chuckled. “I don’t know. Why?”
“Is it anything that can’t wait awhile?”
“It would be a nice touch. But no: there’s no hurry.”
“Good. Let’s have her finish the customer’s job before she gets a break. She says she’ll be done in about three weeks, which I expect is about when you want to start working on this clinic thing?”
“I suppose. Assuming Darl is well enough by then to explain what he needs and help design the casework.”
Ella subsided, hovering over her half-empty mug of tea.
“Would you like a warm-up?” he asked.
“I should go to work.”
“Shouldn’t we both.”
Breathing a quiet sigh, she held out the cup.
“What?” he demanded.
“What is on your mind?”
“Out with it.”
“Well, I don’t know…just… Does Rysha know about this guy?”
“Of course. It was her idea that we should buy him. The whole clinic-in-the-boondocks idea came straight from the Kaïna herself.”
What could the woman be thinking? “But I mean, does she know he murdered his wife?”
“I expect so. She’s seen all his paperwork.”
He fell silent, lifting the cup to his lips.
“Why wasn’t he put down?” Ella persisted.
“Who knows? There must have been some extenuating circumstances. Maybe she tried to kill him first.”
“There’s some things you don’t want to know.”
“Yeah: most of them!”
Smooth, cream-colored walls embraced a tidy, tailored garden filling the slave quarters’ central atrium. A tall line of windows traced a wide band all the way around the interior walls, punctuated by doors in the center of the north and the south ends. Light poured into the living space, and people walking along the hallway that followed the windows looked out onto greenery and flowers, a meandering pathway and a fish pond. Cast metal benches placed in strategic spots and flanked by small tables invited off-duty residents to take in a little slack.
Ella, having completed most of a routine morning’s chores and seen to it that all her charges were doing the same, was decidedly not off-duty. But she’d contrived a way to make it look like she was working while she relaxed and enjoyed herself. Conveniently, she enjoyed few things more than she enjoyed gardening.
Vighdi had put her onto this—no doubt, Ella reflected, by way of keeping her too busy to get into any more mischief than she had already achieved. Ella was astonished that day, many years ago, when Vighdi had taken her into mile-long greenhouses, the ceilings blandly alight with uniform glow-panels. Row on row of brilliant green, yellow, and red crops stood reaching toward the luminescent ceiling, their feet deep in the rich black artificial soil, the air around them damp and pregnant.
Not that she’d never seen a plant growing in dirt before. She had. Occasionally. But certainly never so many, and surely not in one place.
Yes, Samdela had a few parks here and there. But they weren’t for the hoi polloi. Proles like Ella were kept out by tall, barred, electrified iron fences. She had never touched a tree before Vighdi had brought her into one of Ethra’s hothouse gardens.
As for a place like Skyhill, where open, half-wild land went on and on and on, forests and streams and grasslands running down hills blued with distance: unimaginable. Even a small garden like this one, open to workers free or slave, open to children: unimaginable. Every time she set herself to cultivating the garden’s earth, she felt noumenally privileged.
There on Zaitaf, the air-tight glow-panels of Ethra were programmed to ape a diurnal cycle: light slowly rising from a false nocturnal darkness through a “morning” followed by about ten hours of “daylight, then dimming back toward “night.”
She understood that most of the plants were food—she had heard that once food grew outdoors, in the ground, before people learned how to manufacture it in factories. “We grow things for the visitors at the resort,” Vighdi lectured her redundantly. “And for ourselves.”
“What’s this?” Ella asked, puzzled by a many-leafed blue-green thing.”
“It’s a flower,” came the answer.
Ella examined it, puzzled. “Is it good to eat?”
Vighdi laughed and then looked apologetic at the wounded glance this elicited. “No,” she replied. “It’s just for pretty. We put them in the guests’ rooms. Smell it.”
Perfume was what it smelled like to her. Was this where perfume came from? Not wanting to sound stupid, she didn’t ask. Just smiled, politely appreciative.
This afternoon at Skyhill, Ella had assigned herself the task of spading soil and pulling weeds in a small flowerbed near the fish pond. She knelt on the flagstone pathway to do the job, a midday sun’s warmth flowing across her back.
The light from Varnis’s sun still struck her as slightly off-kilter, when she thought about it. Faintly golden, maybe. But then, the air was cleaner, clearer than Samdela’s. That world’s perpetual layer of smog no doubt grayed or blued the sunlight there. Or maybe the two stars just shone with different light. That stuff was over her head. All she knew was most transported slaves would sooner or later remark on the strangeness of the light on their new world.
How the plants thrived here! With just a little water and care, under light from a real sun, in air that wafted on the breeze – not through vents. The bright violet and red fish lazed in the burbling pond as though this was what their kind was made for.
She dropped small weedy sprigs into a brown paper bag, to be discarded in the compost bin. Tiny white blossoms sprang from the fast-growing, ground-hugging plants. Once on a whim she’d let them grow, just to see what they’d do. Within a couple of tennights they piled up in great fuzzy mounds – and the fuzz on the young leaves turned into prickles as the plants matured. A job it was, to pull out those hillocks.
Wielding her trowel, she dinged a fully opened, cultivated blossom and damn! Snapped its tall stem.
She lifted the red flower from the ground, sniffed its lemony scent, and inspected the neatly groomed scarlet petals. Garnet, she thought, the same vermillion-tinted red as Lohkeh’s ear stud. What a beautiful flower.
He was – had been – a beautiful man, the handsomest she had ever seen. So she thought at the time.
She had, as instructed, gone to Vighdi and asked for a day to travel up to Takrai by way of learning about the mining operation and seeing the sights. Vighdi, evidently apprised beforehand, had made no objection. Ella got her day pass and trotted out to the tube-car station, where Lohkeh stood waiting for her.
A chain of freight cars was rolling out of the station, headed toward Takrai no doubt bearing the same supplies whose arrival and offloads Ella had recently logged in the books she kept for the Company. Over a dozen rolling containers, she estimated, slipped into the dark tunnel in the distance.
Lohkeh smiled when he spotted her, called her “sister,” and guided her toward a walkway over the pavement.
At the gate to the bridge, they each past the backs of their hands under a passcard reader, allowing the embedded code to register. From there they were at liberty – or as much so as anyone, free or slave, could get in an underground passageway beneath the surface of a steaming moon.
She must have looked a little wide-eyed. “Is this the first time you’re come outside of Ethra Compound?” he asked. He sounded amused, distantly.
“Well. . .” She could hardly claim otherwise, “Yes. Yes, it is. Do you get out often?”
“I go back and forth to Takrai every week or two. Part of the job. Speaking of. . .give me a hand with these packages, will you?” He gestured in the direction of a stack of boxes standing next to a small air car. A wave of a pointer, pulled out of his workbelt pouch, opened the brushed-steel pod’s cargo door.
She helped him pack the cartons into the vehicle. Then they entered the passenger pod through a clamshell door that seemed to open unbidden.
The interior, padded in serviceable gray upholstery, was comfortable enough – surprisingly roomy, she thought. Lohke climbed in, beckoned to close the door, and settled into a seat facing her. Without a word, he raised a hand to his face, brushed a finger past an ear, and raised an eyebrow a faint smile going as fast as it came.
She understood: listeners. Barely noticeable, a passing nod of her own acknowledged the message.
“It takes about 40 minutes to come to Takrai Station,” he remarked. “Then we have to get through the freight docks to reach a passenger ramp.”
“Is it underground the whole way?” she wondered.
“The direct route is. But there are side stops here and there.”
The tunnels, she knew, protected any passengers on the vehicles from Zaitaf’s extremes of heat and cold, and from the cosmic radiation that rained onto the surface absent an atmosphere of planetary heft.
Lit only faintly by embedded strings of emergency lighting, the view through the car’s small windows was mostly black as night. At intervals they passed a small alcove or lurking piece of equipment. But once she saw one of each, she’d seen them all. Disappointing: he’d offered to show her the sights, and so she assumed there were some.
“Have you ever seen a geyser?” he asked, as though he were reading her mind.
“Don’t know what that is,” she admitted.
“No. Well, there aren’t a lot of them on Samdela. At least not that the underclass can see.”
She shrugged, unenlightened.
“It’s like this . . . blast of water and gasses that comes shooting out of the ground. Here on Zaitaf, they’re mostly hot water and methane.”
“Methane? It’s what makes your farts flame up if you set a lighter to them.”
She looked at him, amazed, and laughed. “That sounds splendid!”
“Zaitaf: ever lovely!” Grinning at her dubious look, he barreled on: “There’s a lot of heat under the crust. And a fair amount of water is hiding underground, too. The water gets hot in some places. It’ll seep through the dirt till it finds a hot spot, and then when it hits the boiling point it’ll blow its way through the surface.”
“So…does it explode?”
“You mean catch on fire? Not exactly. There’s no oxygen to speak of in Zaitaf’s air.” Catching her blank look, he added, “Oxygen is what makes flames happen.”
“Oh.” Not the methane stuff? she wondered. “So it just blasts out?”
“Into the sky. Like a giant fountain. It’s something to see, especially if the sun is high enough to light it up.
“Maybe we’ll get to see it. Up here a couple miles, we can turn off on a spur to a view station that looks out on Lake Jesiah. The richerati feel like they have to come here…it’s one of the attractions that call them to Zaitaf.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve heard there were things to see. So this thing is like the hot springs?” She thought of the pools and tubs of near-simmering water that she’s had the privilege of cleaning not so long after being assigned to labor at the resort.
“Like that, only combined with a frozen methane pond.”
“If the water’s hot, how can the stuff be frozen?”
“Because the surface is beyond cold. That’s why the methane is a liquid. If Zaitaf were warm enough for us to stay alive out there, the stuff would evaporate. It would be a gas.”
How unlike a Samdi capo, she reflected. On Samdela, one knew what one needed to know to survive and put food on the table. Anything else—like what caused your farts to burn—was neither needed nor wanted. She studied him blandly, with effort hiding her puzzlement.
The little car came to the side tunnel’s end and parked itself. Lohkeh glanced around briefly. “Great!” he said. “It’s all ours. C’mon!”
She followed him up a short ramp and then through a door that slid open at their approach and, after they stepped into a rotunda-shaped lounge, sighed shut behind them. Banks of ceiling-high windows filled about 290 degrees of curved walls. As they entered, bright outdoor lights came on, revealing a rocky, pitted landscape of dust and stone, holes and hills in all directions.
“Meet Lake Vesiah,” Lohkeh announced. With a wave of his hand, he directed her attention to a broad, shining sheet that lay in a basin bordered by low rises and a few rocky upthrusts.
The still, polished surface shone like plate silver. Around its edges, it reflected nearby stony ridges. Looking closely, she realized it also reflected the galactic arch that stretched through the black sky overhead, blurred and faded by in the glare of the station’s artificial lights. Without the lighting, the surface would echo the universe in a perfect mirrored tracing across the barren landscape.
“What?” she wondered.
“Right there,” he said, “that’s a lake of methane. Have a seat.” He directed her to a chair among a group set around a low table. “I’ll get us a treat. You like whiskey?”
“No. The fleas in your fur.”
“We’ll get in trouble,” she protested, unconvincingly even to herself.
“I doubt it,” he said. “But if we do, don’t worry – the static will be mine. What’s your taste?”
She named the harsh, inexpensive hootch popular among the women she hung with back on Samdela.
Lohkeh winced. “How about you let me choose one for you?”
“All right.” She didn’t know whether to be offended or grateful. Or scared: how would they be punished if anyone found them getting into the tourists’ liquor stores?
He poured a splash into each of two fine porcelain cups he’d pulled out of a crystal cabinet, handed one to her, and then slid into a nearby chair. He put his feet up on the table and, possibly with more flair than necessary, relaxed.
“This is a favorite tour stop for the Great Ones,” he remarked after a sip and an appreciative sigh. “Some kind of government chivaree is happening on the surface just now, so there’s only a few of them at the resort. And it’s the middle of the ‘night’ for them just now—they’re all asleep. Or wish they were.”
The room, she realized, was as expensively furnished as it was spare. The chairs and tables they’d moved in on wasted no unnecessary embellishments or pieces. Same was true of the long, curved bench pressed against the wall beneath the windows that spanned three-quarters of a circle, looking out onto the dark and barren landscape outside. Yet she’d never set her tush in a chair so comfortable. The thing felt like it had been custom-made for her.
“Uh oh,” Lohkeh interrupted some small talk a few minutes later. “Did you see that?” He indicated the placid metallic lake.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A moon fart.” He grinned at the look she gave him. “Just watch. It’ll take a minute or two.”
“Zaitaf has gas, does it?”
“Oh, yeah. Lots of it.”
He got up, retrieved the bottle, and poured them each another inch of the velvet elixir.
Ella had never tasted anything like this — and on the occasional job she had been expensively squired by some well-heeled men with well-heeled pocketbooks. It was sweet but not sweet, soft to the tongue. Its luxuriant perfume floated into her nose. This Lohkeh was what she thought he was. Maybe more than what she thought. She didn’t know why she should feel surprised at that.
He nodded in the direction of the lake again, and she followed the line of his sight.
“Oh, my goodness!” she gasped.
A vast radiant plume shot out of the now roiling, shimmering surface, reaching through the black sky toward the distant stars. It sprayed gold and red and blue mist around itself as it blasted upward, streaking toward the infinity above them.
“Holy gods! What is that?”
She glanced at him, nonplussed, then turned back to stare out at the exuberant jet.
“Water? How can that be water? And where the hell is it coming from?”
He laughed and, not answering, watched her gaze in astonishment.
“I don’t understand,” she said after a minute or two. “What is that? Really.”
“Water. Really. Very hot water.”
She stared, silent, at the pillar. Wreathed in iridescent, swirling fog, it reached several hundred feet above the lake’s surface, lingered for awhile, and then subsided, bubbling back down whence it came.
After Lohkeh returned the decanter to its backlit glass shelf, only slightly relieved of its contents, and then washed, polished, and put away the delicate cups they’d used, they climbed back into the aircar and continued on their dark and claustrophobic way.
Weeds cleared from the planting beds around the garden pond, Ella came to the end of the quiet tasks that made for an occasional break in her sometimes hectic days. Time to get back to work. She gathered the wilting intruders and tossed them into a compost bin.
The garnet blossom lay on the ground near where she had knelt by the water. She picked it up and gazed briefly into its blood-red depth. Its alluring perfume drifted on the air.
Ella crushed the flower in her fist and dropped it into the bin on top of the other debris.
Back at the manor house, she checked in with Tabit, Cook Lior’s wife and Skyhill’s chief housekeeper. Work was proceeding, Tabit said, “as per usual.”
That sounded pretty ambiguous, Ella thought. She climbed the broad stone stairway to the second floor, there to begin her own inspection of the morning’s routine activities.
Chadzar, the snow-colored Michaian bodyguard and valet, was not on duty at the station outside the Kaïna’s quarters. Nor, when she looked down the corridor formed when both doors at either end of the central meeting room stood open, could she see him at the station at the far end of the building, outside Rysha’s office and private meeting room. She hadn’t checked the day’s schedule for the mistress – she should have, admittedly – but knew if Chad wasn’t around, it meant Rysha was somewhere else, too.
She knocked tentatively at Rysha’s door. Receiving no response, she peeked in and found yes, the mistress was out.
And no, the bed was not made, draperies were not pulled open, the night’s dishes not picked up, the furniture not freshly polished, the morning’s towels not replaced with fresh ones, the bathroom not cleaned, polished, or reprovisioned. And it was past mid-day.
This was Bintje’s job: second-floor maid service. Where was the brat?
Ella walked through the central meeting room, which occupied the middle part of this floor, and came out in front of Rysha’s private office. The suite had been Suhuru’s private quarters, mirroring Rysha’s at the other end of the building. But after he died, it was converted into a secluded work and meeting space for his daughter, presently the sole survivor of the Delamona dynasty.
Interestingly, this set of rooms had been cleaned. Or possibly, Ella thought, it simply hadn’t been used since yesterday. A faint fresh scent of cleanser told her that wasn’t the case. Bintje had been here, but had failed to visit the Kaïna’s living quarters.
What colorful excuse, Ella wondered, would the girl have this time? She passed her hand over a console on Rysha’s desk, which recognized her and brought up a scheduling calendar. Just now Rysha was in E’o Cinorra addressing the diplomatic representatives of the Sector 5 Governing Council.
Good. It would take Her Eminence awhile to get back to Skyhill, even if she went nowhere else. That would give Ella time to track down the truant maid, sparing herself the task of cleaning the rest of the second storey.
She coded to intercom to signal the kitchen downstairs. Lior’s broad, cheerful face appeared on the monitor.
“Have you seen Bintje lately?”
The cook pulled a blank expression. “Not since this morning, ma’am.”
“How about Dita,” the Kaïna’s personal maid.
“She’s helping in the laundry right now. Want me to call her?”
“Bintje’s not with her?”
That was middling positive news: those two weren’t up to something together. If they were, it would have been a surprise – Dita was no great chum of Bintje. But Ella knew enough to put nothing past anyone.
“If you see Binnie, tell her I want to see her, will you?”
After bidding Lior a good afternoon, she pulled up the front guard post’s log for the day.
No: Bintje had not left the estate.
She glanced out the office window, which looked onto a large, formal garden of exotic flora. Two of the agricultural crew – both men – were grooming some strangely sculptured plants. They were alone.
Walking up an outside corridor, she checked the north side of the building through a long bank of windows: no Bintje loafing on the patios. Nor could she be seen out the windows of the Kaïna’s quarters.
Inside the slave quarters? Not in her room. Not in the atrium garden. Not in the meeting room with its big stone fireplace.
Near the back end of the building, the servants’ snack canteen separated the corridors along the single people’s and the married couples’ sections. There she found her quarry, parked in front of an active vidspot and munching on some crispy, pungent air-roasted red-vine beans.
Give me strength, Goddess, Ella prayed. With a wave of her hand, she shut off the noise. the vidspot went blank, invisible against the wall’s glowpanel.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
Bintje didn’t even look surprised. “Taking a break.”
“Oh yeah? On whose say-so?”
“I don’t feel good, boss.” Ever so slightly whiny.
“That’s too bad. But it’s not getting the work done.”
Bintje sighed and affected a woebegone look.
“I’m sorry you don’t feel good,” Ella said, though not inclined to relent. “That’s part of getting pregnant. You’ll live through it. And while you’re living through it, you need to finish cleaning the second floor.”
“I threw up,” Bintje protested.
“You did . . . when?” Ella knew the girl had been sick in the morning but expected she should have come past it after a few hours.
“Just now.” The barely perceptible pause and the handful of spicey snack morsels gave the lie to that. Ella had to restrain herself from laughing aloud.
“Did Rizana give you anything for it?” Rizana: the midwife who operated out of the village a few miles to the west.
Maybe the Darl thing wasn’t such a bad idea, she reflected fleetingly. She could hardly wait to foist this one onto him. Think you’re in pain now, brother? Just wait…
“Some special crackers,” Bintje replied.
“Uh huh. Why aren’t you eating those?”
“I wanted to save them for mornings. Just anything to eat helps. Later in the day.”
Right. “Bintji. I am not going to do your work for you. No one else is going to do your work for you. Do you understand me?”
Was there ever any question? “Back over to the house right now, sister. Get to work cleaning the Kaïna’s suite. And this time do it right. I don’t want to hear her asking me where her face soap is again.”
“Now. Get going. And don’t miss the corners!”
Bintje dragged herself to her feet as though she were bearing the weight of full-term triplets.
Not until the prospective mother lumbered out the door did Ella permit herself a dry chuckle. The drama in full swing, well short of three months: this was going to be a long opera.
Well, she could hardly paint Bintje’s wagon black, given her own flair for inflicting headaches on her overseers, back in the younger days. How many times, she wondered, did Bohtil contemplate wringing her neck? And what possessed Vighdi to put up with her at all, much less coax her along through all those lively, duplicitous months and years?
Vighdi. If she wasn’t a saint, then she was truly in love. Misguided love, one could argue.
Surely, though, never as misguided as her own.
By the three-spirited goddess of Dawn, he was a gorgeous thing! Should she have known better? Obviously. Did she care?
Did Bintje care?
She should have picked up the danger signal that day in Takrai when Haidar was introducing her around the freighting and lading offices. Meeting the staff who cranked out the river of requisitions, invoices, and receipts that flowed through her books was useful, even interesting. At some point, after the division superintendent had given them a tour of the cavernous workroom and then the two had paused for a pot of almost flavorless ywird tea, the subject of Lohkeh came up.
“He’s a good man to know,” Haidar remarked. “He’s still in the life.”
“He is?” Ella was startled. “How can that be? How could you stay in the life when you’re locked up here?”
Haidar gave her a look that Ella interpreted as condescending, almost pitying. “Sister,” she said, “your oath doesn’t go away just because you do.”
You’d think I’d have been smart enough to register that, she reflected. She poured herself a mug of iced water and juice from the canteen’s coldbox tap. Young and dumb. Just like Bintje.
Sometimes, though, she thought it was almost worth it.
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
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
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
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…