Ella’s Story *Free Read*

Author’s Note: This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. We here on the Earth are part of it — we just don’t know that, because as yet the powers that be haven’t made contact with us. We’re still a bit too backward for their taste.

This multi-tentacled entity is presided over by the Kaïna Rysha Delamona, the hereditary leader of a hereditary elite arising from the planet Varnis. Her home, a large rural estate north of the Varn city of E’o Cinorra, is called Skyhill. Most of her time and energy is consumed in continual political battle. Skyhill is occupied, maintained, and run by a large staff of slaves, some of whom work in day jobs or contract jobs off the estate (their pay is used to make life better for the servant class on the estate) and some of whom work in the house and grounds.

The Empire acquires slaves by condemning convicted criminals to lifetime servitude — those whose offenses are not deemed serious enough to merit execution. This provides a steady stream of workers, since the poor are always with us…and since at least one world, Michaia, possesses a busy underground of active, highly seditious revolutionaries.

Ella is the co-overseer of the Kaïna’s staff, working as a kind of second-in-command to Dorin, technically her boss, in practice her equal partner. Like Dorin, Ella — now a woman late in middle age — comes from Samdela, a world that is covered from pole to pole with urban development. Samdela is a center of organized crime. A vast syndicate based on Samdela functions as an inverted shadow government behind the official structure that is the Empire. As a young woman, Ella was a lieutenant in this organization, on her way up until, by a misstep or by betrayal still unknown, she was caught by the Blacksuits — an empire-wide police force and spy agency — convicted, punished, and sent off-world to a lifetime of “service.”

Ella’s Story, a kind of e-telenovela, is very much a work in progress. A new chapter appears each week at our “News & Chat” blog, usually on Wednesdays. Collected chapters will be published below in sets of 10 as PDFs, which you can download for free. There’s always more to come…

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

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

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

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

21.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where were you and Lohkeh yesterday?”

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

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

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

“And then where did you go?”

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

“At the mess hall?”

“I guess.”

“You don’t know?”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

Oh, hell. “No, ma’am.”

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

“Yes’m. But…”

Vighdi gave her a look that silenced her.

“You stop there for awhile.”

“Yes.” Did the booze cabinet have eyes?

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Yes’m.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Looks like you roam all over the building.”

“Pretty much, we did.”

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

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

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

“Well, yes…”

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

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

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

“The room?”

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

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

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

“To eat dinner, ma’am.”

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

“I didn’t…”

“Don’t ever do that again.”

“But…”

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

“Yes, ma’am. But I didn’t know…”

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

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

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

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

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

“How would I have known that?”

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

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

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

“What?”

“Don’t act dumb with me.”

“Oh. No, ma’am.”

Vighdi subsided into annoyed silence.

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

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

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

“Do, please. Use some common sense.”

“I will, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

“Would you?”

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

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

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

“No, ma’am.”

Right.

22.

The tick-sized intercom pasted to her left bicep vibrated, a signal to get her attention. From Syo, on the security guard: Rysha had arrived at Skyhill’s front gate.

Having managed to coax about half of Tabit’s soup into Darl, Ella was carrying the dishes back to the manor house’s basement kitchen. Now she hurried along, popped in, and found Lior and Tabit working over the stoves and counters, where they were preparing dinner for four dozen staff – give or take. She dropped the tray on a counter, thanked Tabit for her work, and ran back up the stairs, headed for the main floor.

The intercom buzzed again: Talat.

“We’re still in Cinnora,” he said. “Dorin gave us enough money to cover dinner. All right if we eat here and come in a little later?”

He gives you enough for dinner, so you’re honor-bound to spend it? She flew in the ground-floor service door and raced up the hallway toward the central atrium. “How much later?”

“We’ll be back by curfew.”

“How about before curfew? Make it by first moonrise.” That would bring them in around fifteenth hour. Curfew shut everything down at seventeenth hour – after Wilig’s bed-time. She’d need to remember to tell Wilig’s parents, whenever they came in for dinner.

“All right. We’ll probably get in before then.”

“Let me know.”

She bounded into the entry hall and took her place next to Essio – another of the guard, scheduled to relieve Chadzar, his boss, after the kaïna was safely deposited inside the house. Dita joined them, a small bag of gear in hand, and the three formed a straight, identically uniformed line to one side of the entry. Shaban stood ready to open the heavy double doors when the mistress arrived in front.

Shaban gestured over a wall pad so it would read his embedded ID chip. “Lights,” he murmured, and glow panels in the vestibule and an adjacent tall-ceilinged reception room came on. A fountain burbled, calming, into a pond that occupied a corner of the entryway. Against another wall, a willowy tree held court over mounds of multicolored, leafy plants. He took up his position next to a panel of windows that looked out across the broad, fern-covered meadow in front.

“And…here they be,” he announced when he saw Rysha’s vehicle float under the portico, settle to the ground, and release its passengers.

As the two walked up the shallow entryway steps, he opened the door. Chadzar, a large, snow-hued Michaian, his hair, eyebrows and even his eyelashes so blond as to appear white, took half a step in ahead of his mistress, glanced around, and nodded a greeting toward his colleagues. Ella never failed to feel a twinge of amazement at the grass-green eyes, though she’d seen them every day for…how many years? Fifteen, yes?

He stood aside. The empress of the known universe glided into the room. Smoke-blue she wore, as always: hereditary badge for the absolute ruler of a dozen civilized worlds, several score developed satellites and asteroids, another several dozen planets whose cultures had not advanced enough to be worth contacting or that had not sprung from the seed of the Mother World, and some uncountable number of outposts where organized civilization had yet to develop among ancient Varnis’s far-flung offspring.

Yes, fifteen years, just about. Not so long after the Kaïna Djitti slipped away in her sleep and left this Rysha to grow by instinct and by blood into her place. Her little girl, as Ella came to think of her, now a lithe, dark almond-eyed creature, surely too delicate to own such power. Two layers of fine, silken fabric drifted like mist around her, one white bordered all the way around with a violet band, the second the faintest green. Green and violet, the House of Delamona’s colors worn over a blue body suit, very much like the ones all her slaves wore. Rather a nicer fabric, though, Ella knew.

Chadzar lifted a hand in the car’s direction and it rolled away to park itself inside its stable.

The waiting staff bowed their heads briefly when she entered, as custom dictated. First to step forward, Ella unfastened the long jade-colored outer tunic, slid it off her mistress’s shoulders, and folded it over an arm. Rysha smiled and gave her a hug. She looked tired, Ella thought: more than her fill of roundabout palavering, no doubt.

Shaban took the translucent tunic while Ella and Dita accompanied their mistress into the private sitting room off the entry foyer. The two guards stayed behind, so Chad could pass along whatever Essio needed to know before he took over his boss’s shift.

Rysha sighed with evident relief as she collapsed into her favorite overstuffed chair.

“Long day, hm?” More of an observation from Ella than a statement.

“Oh, my! Some people never tire of arguing.”

Ella knelt beside her to replace tight-fitting brocade shoes with a pair of soft leather sandals. Shaban, having put away the shimmering tunic, began to prepare a drink at the serving desk.

“The usual, madame?” he asked.

“Good. Fine.”

Ella felt the tension in Rysha as, briefly, she massaged each foot and ankle. Dita unpacked a collection of containers and combs and brushes. By the time Shaban delivered a ruby-red mug full of icy intoxicant, Dita was pulling out pins and clips, unwinding and unbraiding and untwisting the complicated ceremonial hairdo, and gently combing each newly loosed lock straight and tangle-free.

In private, Rysha’s shiny black hair fell below her shoulders. In public, though, the kaïna wore a distinctive, very elaborate hair structure that marked her as who and what she was, part of the symbolism of her authority. To construct it took special training, such as Dita had been given – it wasn’t something Rysha could put together herself. Today’s diplomatic meetings required the full costume. Sometimes, Ella reflected, it must take as much patience to wear the robes and the crown as it did to weave them.

“How was your day, dear?” Rysha asked Ella.

“Good enough, my lady.” Ella rested on her knees beside the chair. “It’s been quiet.”

“And our new man? How is he making out?”

What to say? “He’s been having a hard time of it, madame.”

“Ah. He doesn’t like it here?”

“Doubtful if he understands where he is. They…the blacksuits seem to have let him go a little too soon. He’s pretty much out of it.”

“I see. Can we handle it? You and Dorin, I mean?”

“Well. Yes, I think so. He ate a little this afternoon. There’s really nothing to do for him, other than let him rest and keep him warm. When you come right down to it. He’ll get better.”

“I expect. But meanwhile…it’s extra work for you two.”

That would be why we’re here, no? Ella nodded. After a pause she spoke again, in Samdi: “Kananei…” – My lady…

 This was a gesture whose meaning Rysha took. She glanced in Shaban’s direction: “Would you leave us for a moment, please?”

A quick bow, then he ushered Essio and Dita out the door.

Hkal?” Rysha spoke Samdi – the elite variety – almost as fluently as she spoke Varn. Yes, what? Part of her upbringing involved learning all the Empire’s major languages. The conversation proceeded in Ella’s native tongue.

“Is something going on somewhere? That we’re not being told about?”

Rysha gave her a sharp look and raised a finger: hush!

They could be heard inside the Kaïna’s private quarters? This was new to Ella.

“Eliyeh’llya, give me your hand.” Ella responded by offering her right hand. “No. The other one.”

Rysha tapped the back of her own left hand and spoke a single code word, one Ella had never heard. She repeated this with the passkey chip in Ella’s hand, then ran the back of her own hand over the back of Ella’s.

“We have five minutes,” she said. “Now: why do you ask, dear?”

“Well…” What to say to avoid getting anyone else in trouble? “I just wondered why…they told Dorin the reason they put this Darl out on the market just about straight from the cooker is that they had a lot of criminal offenders to process. But…what kind of crime wave would max their facility, madame? Unless it was an uprising, no?”

“Mmm… That certainly could be.”

“Michaia again?”

“No. There’s unrest on Idaemas just now. In Odambra Nation.”

“Oh, my.” Odambra was the largest Idaemasan industrial center. “Is it very serious?”

“Any sedition is serious, Eliyeh’llya. So, yes, it’s serious. But we have it under control.”

“I see.” This was not the best of all possible developments. “So…what about Tabit? Will she…no one will bother her, will they?

“She and her husband are being watched. But then…everyone in service is watched, no?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ella felt her heart in her throat. And apparently Rysha sensed her distress.

“It’s all right, Eliyeh’llya. We know Tabit can be trusted – she’s been away from Idaemas for two decades, for heaven’s sake. And she’s never shown any interest in politics. Has she, to your knowledge?”

“No, my lady. Never.”

If she had, Ella wouldn’t dream of saying so.

“Can we let it drop? I’ll tell you or Dorin if there’s anything you need to know.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ella rose, walked to the door, and called the other three servants back in. While Dita finished unweaving the kaïna’s hair, Shaban set a place at the long table in the dining room. Ella followed him there, pulled back the drapes over the high windows to open the garden view, and went downstairs to let the kitchen staff know what Rysha had said she’d like for her light evening meal.

§

Everyone but Talat and Wilig was in and accounted for. Talat had called to say they were riding a public shuttle into Skyhill Village, whence they would walk out to the estate. Dinner was served and consumed, and this week’s after-hours kitchen team was cleaning up under Lior and Tabit’s direction.

In the cooling late dusk, stars twinkled overhead as black night pushed the last mauve glow of the sun below the distant, silhouetted hills. A few sticks of wood glowed and snapped in the outdoor firepit, a central focus of the patio and mossy fields where people gathered between the workday’s end and curfew. Dorin and Ella, having about finished riding herd for the day, sat near the hearth sipping one of his supposedly calming teas out of the same heavy mugs with which they had started the day.

Syndicato, she thought. If he was – if he was any good at it – he would know the silent sign language used when things were tight or dangerous. Wouldn’t he? She tapped him gently on a knee and, holding her hand between their chairs, let her fingers flicker a quick message.

He looked…what? Surprised? Puzzled, she thought. But he nodded, just so slightly as to be barely noticeable. He drew an appreciative sip of the hot tea and then remarked, “Beautiful night, isn’t it.”

“It is.”

“Why don’t we go for a walk and enjoy the evening air for a few minutes, before we have to herd this bunch off to bed?”

“Now there’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” she said.

They ambled toward the gathering’s periphery and then, coming to a path that led into the exotic flower gardens on the west side of the manor house, angled away from their charges.

“The ileeri fruit are starting to blossom,” she remarked.

“Yes. They smell lovely at this time of night.” By a path’s lamplight, she could see his fingers move in the forbidden code. What’s this about?

“Almost as lovely as ileeri tastes.” The mistress told me the reason we got our healer before he was healed.”

“Yeah. It’s one of the highlights of the summer.” So?

Uprisings. Ideamas, of all places. “We should have some put in the mistress’s sitting room for her.” She wasn’t inclined to say much. But I gathered it’s pretty serious.

“She’d like that, I expect.” So I’d heard. “Why don’t you suggest it to Shaban?”

 “Look at that sunset!” You know about it?

“It was outright amazing an hour ago.” Not much. How did she come to bring this up with you?

“There’s little Gathra coming up,” she observed. Gathra, the smaller moon, was just rising over the trees in front of the house. I asked her.

“I’ve heard it looks a lot bigger from Ethra Compound.” That’s probably not a great idea.

 “Oh, my yes. Because it’s so much closer to Zaitaf than it is to the planet.” She didn’t seem to mind.

“Didn’t we tell Talat to get back here by first moon?” Best not to bring it up again.

She glanced at him: was this an order? “Yes. Yes, that’s so.”

“We’d probably better get back to the party,” he said.

23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds exciting. Are you almost done?”

“Should be, by knocking-off time.”

“Mmmh, that’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uhm…it should?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe they should.”

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

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

§

The favor did not go unrewarded.

25

Dorin, she thought, must have been a good-looking man when he was younger. Well. Good enough. From across the lawn she watched him help Ronel the head gardener carry heavy bags of fertilizer-laced tcompost into a storage shed. He had a certain grace, given his age and his chunky frame.

Sigi’s crush on him, after Merren died, had quietly come to naught. Dorin had taken Sigi into his arms and comforted her and seen her through the worst of her shock and grief. Of everyone’s shock and grief. But when he sensed her affection was transferring itself to him, he deftly stepped out of the way and guided her in another direction.

Nothing if not deft, Dorin was. Sigi would’ve been a little young for him, to Ella’s mind. Yet why not? She’d have made a good mate.

Why not, Ella reflected, had to do with a wife back on Samdela that he would never see or hear from again. He did not speak of her. Yet Ella knew he thought of himself as a married man, one who had sworn an oath to be with that one woman. Another indicator of Syndicato: an oath was permanent. Forever, never to be denied. Even if it was, for all practical purposes, inoperative.

What was her oath worth, she wondered: the one that swore her to her band and bonded her with the Syndicate?

§ §

Not only did Lohke make love to her that would shake Zaitaf’s moonscape, if anyone had been measuring seismic waves, but he brought her gifts from worlds she’d barely heard of. Little gems. A shiny black stone necklace that she could hide under her livery or not, but wear close to her skin all the time, even in the showers. A box of strange, unbelievably tangy sweets. More sex.

And the next time he asked her to correct a set of lading figures, she refrained from arguing with him.

§

“Errors” kept surfacing. Five crates here, ten barrels there, three tons somewhere else.
when Lohke would ask her to fix some anomaly, she would oblige. And then he would oblige her. Within a few months, they were climbing into some hideaway every couple of tennights for some special experience. She found their encounters uniformly satisfying. So, apparently, did he.

It was Syndicate business as usual, she reasoned, when she thought about it at all. Her being, after all, was dedicated to the Syndicate. That she had been caught, tried for a long string of felonies real and invented, tortured almost beyond endurance for the privilege, and then relegated to a lifetime of service on the godforsaken moon of an alien planet did not erase or even slightly change the oath that bound her to her people. To the Syndicate. Did it?

She wondered. Did it? She pushed the question into the back recesses of her mind.

One day Vighdi called her in for one of the company’s periodic reviews. Ella sent her a report reprising the jobs she and her assistants had been doing, identifying her accomplishments, and highlighting room for improvements. At the appointed hour, she trotted up the metal steps to her overseer’s office and presented herself, as directed.

Trying to appear at ease in the chair next to her boss’s desk, she watched Vighdi skim over several months’ worth of data and reports from the other departments her group served.

“How are Behji and Hanya doing?” Vighdi asked. “Are they both handling the work on time? And without making a lot of mistakes?”

“Corrections” were silently installed before the records moved out of Ella’s precinct – after her assistants had done whatever they had to do with the data. “They’re fine, ma’am. They help a lot.”

“Mmm-hm. I’m sure. It’s a big job.” She studied a spreadsheet, pausing over it longer than she had with other parts of Ella’s report and records. “Had any particular problem with one or the other of them?

“Not really.”

Vighdi raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Sometimes Hanya needs to be reminded to finish up things. But once you mention it she always gets it done.”

“Well. That’s why we call it ‘riding herd.’”

Ella smiled politely. She had never seen a “herd”—of anything., And why would ride on one – or how – escaped her.

“What about Behji?”

“She’s very smart, ma’am. And thorough. Never a problem with her. But…are you going to send her down to the surface?”

“What?”

“She wants to go to some business school there. So she can get a better job. Said she’d talked to you about it.”

“Oh…yeah,. We talked about that. Bhotil and I are still looking into it. Are you willing to train up someone to take her place?”

Just what I need, she thought. “Uhm…yeah. If you send her away. That’s what I’ll have to do, no?”

“Yes. But I expect you can manage it.”

“Probably.”

Vighdi leaned back in her chair and gazed at Ella for a couple of seconds.

“I’m proud of you, sister. You’ve come a long way from laundering sheets for the tourists.”

How to answer this? Or was an answer expected? Ella smiled shyly.

“You couldn’t even read Varn when you got here. You’ve always done good work. But now you have a very responsible job. You’re doing it well, and you’re supervising two helpers. Good job, Ella. I hope you keep it up.”

She felt a blush spread over her face. “I hope so.”

26

Dorin had the new man up and walking around. This took a tennight and then some. But Darl could now make it up to the men’s washrooms, shower, and use a toilet without someone to see that he didn’t hurt himself. He’d been to the chow line for meals, too: twice.

Sigi was eager to talk with him about tricking out the room Dorin had designated as an office and for examinations – mostly, Ella figured, because Sigi was eager to wrap up the job she was doing for a paying customer in E’o Cinnora. Given a choice between working on the estate grounds and traveling to town, Sigi would take the manor any day. This had become so obvious, over time, that it was now a matter of quiet amusement between Ella and Dorin. Tabit and Shaban had also let themselves in on the joke.

Another day had charged into evening. All the off-campus workers were inside the gate, accounted for, and fed. Everyone whose work kept them on the estate had laid down their tools, checked in with Ella or Dorin at the end of their shifts, and partaken of Lior and Tabit’s evening meal. The golden sun of Varnis once again slipped behind the violet Sky Hills. Children played on the field behind the slave quarters, watched intermittently by parents scattered about the grounds.

Across the way, Bintje held court brightly with a group of chattering cronies. She looked not the slightest bit green around the gills. She was, Ella thought, grown in girth, no question of it.

Might she be further along than she thought? Or said she thought? If that were so, then the free man she’d blamed might not be the father after all.

Surely not so. Ella had carted her to Rizana, the village midwife, several times. The woman seemed to agree that the baby would be born about when Bintje said it was due.

Chadzar was off this evening, she observed: no doubt a welcome change for him. He had spread out a budil game mat on the paving stones near the firepit, where he was attracting players to bet on a throw of the dice and the track of a glass marker through the painted maze. Firelight and the glow of a garden lantern beamed off his silver hair.

Tuvine, the long and slender high-cheeked tailor who maintained a shop in the village dressing potentates as well as humbler souls, chose a clear green stone and set at the mazes starting point. He squatted nearby to watch the action. Nehdo picked an obsidian marker. Fihr joined them, followed by Shaban the porter. Neelon, the bricklayer whose father had built the slaves’ courtyard these many years before, stood on the sidelines to watch.

Before the first roll could be thrown, Sigi stepped up to the circle and knelt to join the men. She picked up a sparkling diamond-clear stone and, when handed the pair of dice to throw for the starting place, rolled low. Chadzar smiled – a warm smile for a snow creature, Ella thought – and named Sigi first, then Nehdo, then Shaban, then Fihr, and finally Neelon. He – Chad – would throw last in the rotation.

“That boy has a crush on the carpenter girl,” Ella remarked quietly to Dorin, speaking in Samdi.

“Chad?”

“Mm hmm.”

“She barely knows he’s alive.”

“No. But sooner or later she’ll get over Merren. Don’t you think?”

Dorin watched the play proceed from Shaban to Fihr. “I don’t know,” he replied. He paused. Whether he was thinking or just watching the play, Ella could not tell. “I doubt it. It’s been a long time.” Neelon threw the round’s highest score, advancing his glittery red stone at the front, and now he led off the second round. His next roll went high, too, eliciting a chorus of dismayed groans from the other players.

“Yonder comes Lior with our new brother,” Ella remarked.

The cook proceeded across the lawn, supporting Darl by letting him hold onto an offered arm.

“Oh, Gods around us.” Dorin sighed and rose to his feet, and Ella stood with him. By this time of day, she knew, he was tired and valued a few moments to unwind before he had to shovel his bunch off to bed. So, for that matter, did she.

Curious gazes, not unfriendly, followed them through the dusk. Everyone was interested in meeting this addition to the crew – and in hearing some explanation for why he was joining them. A few rumors had passed around, but a formal announcement was yet to be issued.

Dorin stepped forward and, in welcoming Darl, took him off Lior’s hands. The evening chatter died down, making way for an expectant hush.

“You look like you’re going to live a while longer, after all,” Dorin said softly. “Come on over here and let’s introduce you.”

Ella had to restrain herself from wincing: he was still in pain, and it was pretty obvious. But, she supposed, it was game of him, even admirable, to let himself be led out in spite of it.

Dorin spoke the new man’s name, said they would all be pleased to come to know him, confirmed and clarified the rumor circulating to the effect that he was a healer, one trained at a special school on Samdela, less by lore and tradition than by science. They should introduce themselves, one or two at a time, and make him feel at home. A ragged chorus of greetings arose and then died down.

“Just thank them, in Varn,” Dorin prompted, and Darl did that, sounding very tired. “Good. Have a seat now,” Dorin guided Darl toward the chair he’d just vacated and stood squatted next to Ella when she sat back down. People went back to what they were doing, and the budil game resumed.

Shortly, though, Sigi disengaged herself and came over to introduce herself.

“Sigi is a builder,” Dorin added, seeing Darl at a loss for conversation. “She makes cabinetry and furniture. You decide what you want and where it should go, and Sigi can make that happen. And she’s very good at it.”

“Well, thank you, boss.” She sounded neither flattered nor surprised.“You do outstanding work, Sig’,” Dorin said. “You’ll be pleased,” he added, for the newcomer’s benefit.

§

Later, after the whole company had gone off to bed, or, in the case of the guard team, to relieve a partner at the gate or a security station, this came back to her.

Was it a good idea, really, to compliment a slave on work that was simply expected? Wasn’t a degree of excellence – or at least competence – also expected? How many times did you have to tell someone they were doing what they were supposed to do?

It was the remark Vighdi had made about how much progress she’d made, even saying she was proud of Ella, that blew things up.

If Vighdi had never said that, would things be different? Where would she be today? Would she even be alive?

27

It bothered her, what her boss said. Proud of her? Wouldn’t she be thrilled to learn what Ella had gotten up to with Lohkeh.

They had been getting up, all right: to more and more. That very afternoon, not two hours after she’d met with Vighdi, he showed up at her desk with a new set of “corrections” to enter in the lading records of the freighter that had just docked at Ethra Port. Part of the cargo was bound for Takrai – but not that much.

“How did your pow-wow with the boss go?” he asked.

“All right.” She shrugged. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Nothing ever is, around here,” he remarked.

“She did say she’s going to send Behji down to the planet to get trained for some new job they want her to do. I’ll have to bring up the new person to take her place.”

“That so?” He paused, appearing to consider. Then he said, “I know a guy who could do that job.”

The thought flickered like distant lightning on the horizon of her conscious. Oh, good! Let’s park someone in here to keep an extra eye on me! She tried to push it out, but it wouldn’t go.

“I expect she has someone in mind,” she offered.

“Probably. She’ll change her mind when she talks to this guy, though.” He winked, sexy and wily at once, and sauntered off.

Haidar had said Lohkeh was still in the life. “In”? The man personified the life. She even wondered if some Syndicate general had found a way to get him arrested, run through the cooker, and sent specifically to this place – just so he could do what he did best: steal. Embezzle, filch, swipe, and liberate.

He had drawn her back into the life, too.

Her first couple of years in service at Ethra had felt, ironically, like some kind of escape. She’d been bound into slavery, true; yet in the process she sprang free of the life. And that, she’d found, was like breathing clean air.

Which, she supposed, was what breathing amounted to here on Zaitaf. Filtered, recyled air. But clean. Very clean.

Hiding Lohke’s purloinments made her feel like she was back in the filthy air and daily dirt of the life on Samdela.

What if they got caught?

They weren’t going to get caught. Of course not. But if they did? She and Lohkeh would be summarily executed: deported down to the surface and infused with a fast-acting poison. Few, if any, questions would be asked. There would be no defense. Because there was nothing that could be defended.

But what about Vighdi? What would happen to Vighdi if they got caught?

They were not going to get caught.

But if they did…?

If they did, Vighdi would get some blame for it, so Ella figured. Vighdi’s job was to help oversee the Company’s slaves, to see that they did their jobs, got straight, and stayed straight. She was, after all, about to certify that Ella had spent the past year doing admirable work.

What would happen to Vighdi. If they got caught…

Would the blacksuits, the law, think Vighdi was in on the con? That she was abetting the theft of some tens of thousands of bars worth of rerouted goods?

How could she prove that she wasn’t… It would be her word and maybe Ella’s against Lohkeh’s. And Haidar’s, Ella imagined. There would be no way to prove Vighdi wasn’t complicit. Or at least selectively blind.

Even if she could persuade the authorities that she didn’t know what was going on, that would be held against her, too: ignorance a sign of incompetence.

Vighdi had never shown her anything but kindness. Even when she was being strict with Ella, even when her patience may have worn thin, whatever she asked, demanded, or ordered ultimately seemed to drift more toward the good than…otherwise.

How then, Ella wondered, was she, Ella, not returning the favor?

She turned on a printer and set it to emit several pages of figures. Working quickly – for she was a fast and efficient worker – she selected a page apiece from each of six recent lading books. She got up and ambled over to the refreshment bar. There she refilled her glass mug with hot kekel tea, one of her favorites. She paused to visit with Hanya, asking how the day was going, chatting about the previous evening’s dance competition at the rec hall. Picked up the printed sheets and carried them back to her desk, where she folded them in thirds and stuffed them into the waistbag she wore on her work belt.

She sat down and got back to work.

28

It took her two days to decide to do it.

She knew she was going to do it. Sooner or later. But deciding to do it was different from knowing she would do it.

So beautiful, he was. She thought she loved him. No: she knew she loved him. But…did he love her?

Did he love her? If he loved her, would he put her at the kind of risk they both ran? One slip, just one slip and they both would be walking dead. Or maybe only she would be. If she alone were caught massaging the books, would she give him away?

He was a brother in the bond of the Syndicate. She was bound to him, and he to her, by the oath. But…

Was she?

Where was he going when he journeyed down the tunnel to Takrat every few days? Far as she could see, there wasn’t any business that should call him to the mine offices every time he turned around. Except, perhaps, Haidar? That glance the woman had shot him when he introduced them…the memory didn’t want to leave her mind. It nagged when someone would ask him about Haidar and he would change the subject, direct the conversation elsewhere.

Who else could be helping him to disappear offloaded cargo?

Anyone, she supposed. Any number of people. Was Haidar one of them? The one?

What if Lohkeh was taking advantage of her? What if Lohkeh and Haidar were taking advantage of her?

The thought had crossed her mind more than once.

What if? Would the oath still apply?

Would it apply to her and not to him? Why?

Sequestered inside the den-like cubbyhole of her enclosed bunk, the drapes pulled shut and snapped closed, she studied the printed ndata by the night-lights’ glow. If there was a pattern to it, the pattern was vague, at best. She couldn’t see any predictable variation. Probably, she thought, that was deliberate. Where was the stuff going? She had no idea. To the planet’s surface? If so, why offload it on Zaitaf? They must be transferring it to some outbound freighter. Or freighters. Going where?

What would Bhodil think if he saw this stuff? He had spent month after month teaching her to read and write Varn and helping her convert the kind of math Samdis used for bookkeeping into the variety used in Ethra Port. He lifted her out of the laundry room so she could do…this?

He would, she guessed, be furious. The prospect made her wince.

Maybe she should keep quiet about it. Just let Lohkeh go on exploiting her. Maybe they would never be discovered.

“Never” was forever. How likely was it that they could keep the con going forever?

Not very, she thought.

Could she ask to be transferred? Maybe…the low gravity gave her headaches. Sure.

Not a chance.

She heard the door on the corridor’s south end slide open: Vighdi, making her last round of the day. Quick, she shoved the the papers under a pillow and stretched out on the bed.

Slender gray-brown fingers undid a couple of the curtain snaps, and yes: Vighdi peeked in.

“Lights out, sister,” she said. Her tone was friendly but firm.

“Yes’m.” Ella reached for a switch, then paused.

“Boss?”

Vighdi, already moving on, paused. “Yes?”

“Could we talk tomorrow? Just us?”

“I expect.” Vighdi lowered her voice. “When?”

“Early?”

“After breakfast?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll see you then.” She smiled. “Sleep tight.”

Sure.

In the dark, Ella slipped the papers from beneath the pillow and shoved them between the mattress and the smooth metal wall, then lay back, pulled the blanket up, and sighed.

Oh, gods!

Cast of
Characters

Amira: Proprietor of a cathouse and a lunchroom/bistro
Bintje: slave woman at SkyHill and thorn in Ella’s side
Bis: member of the Kaïna’s guard
Brenny: a small child, son of Sehbad and Faisa, both blacksuits
Chadzar: a Michaian slave; head of the Kaïna Rysha’s guard
Dade: companion of Tand and aristocratic friend of Rysha in her youth
Darl: a defrocked medical doctor who is purchased by Rysha after her father dies and she takes over running the place. She thinks it would be a good idea to have a healer not only for her own people but for slaves on the surrounding estates.
Deela: a woman slave at Skyhill, given to making mischief
Djetti Delamona Kaïna leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hededalla: Rysha’s mother, deceased some years ago
Dorin: overseer of the Kaïna’s estate at Skyhill
Eestom: Companion of Ghemma
Ella: matron and second-in-command to Dorin; oversees women and married couples.
Emarr’, heiress to the title of Yrandag’chla; friend of Rysha in her youth
Essio: member of the Kai’s guard
Faisa: a blacksuit; father to Brenny
Ghemma leh PlehkNembine: aristocratic friend of Rysha in her youth, brother of Tand
Haddam: owns an academy that trains high-end servants for the elite
Hebedalla: Sahuru’s former title: Lord Hebedalla
Iteile: Chadzar’s mother; formerly a revolutionary activist
Lohkeh: Ella’s male lover during her time on Zaitaf; a Syndicato of elevated rank
Myallim leh Zsian-tinan: woman aristocrat; companion of Rysha in her youth
Narehtal: ambitious, scheming Machiavellian aristocrat
Nehdo: member of the Kai’s guard
Odine le yNoraldia: companion of Rysha in her youth; has crush on Pachilu
Pachilu besh Andona leh Ciand’paran: a young aristocrat and admirer of Rysha
Pach’Ora besh Andona leh Ciand’paran: Pachilu’s father, a powerful aristocrat and advisor to the Kai and Kaīna
Rysha Delamona Kaïna leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hededalla: daughter and heir apparent of the Kai Suhuru
Sahuru en Delamona Kai leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hebedalla: Rysha’s father; after Djitti’s death,  emperor of the freaking universe. Kaï by virtue of marriage to the Kaïna Djetti; sovereignty descends through and to the female line
Sehbad: a blacksuit; mother to Brenny
Siji: a carpenter
Skeet: an eight-year-old boy
Syo: member of the Kaïna’s guard
Tand leh PlehkNembine: sister of Ghemma and aristocratic friend of Rysha in her youth
Treykhan or Treykam: son of Narehtal; articulate his full name
Vighdi: Ella’s overseer during her time on Zaitaf
Wilig: a ten-year-old boy

List of
Place Names

E’o Cinnora: capital city of Varnis; a large metropolis to the south of Skyhill’s locale
Ethra: colony and resort on Zaitaf
Idaemas: member world of the Empire
Kana: member world of the Empire
Michaia: an ice world; incubator of rebellion and revolution
Ondai: a humanoid species of the empire, engendered by early Varns
Samdela: fully industrialized and urbanized world in the Empire. Birthplace and center of operations for the Syndicate
Skyhill: hereditary home of the Kaïna; so named because of a set of distant, low mountains
Takrai: Mining colony on Zaitaf
Temeha: member world of the Empire
Veshia: the smaller of Varnis’s two moons
Varnis, the Mother of Worlds: birthplace and ruling capital of the Empire
Zaitaf: the larger of Varnis’s two moons

 

Contents

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