[Po]: 80.Tenlotte Chapters 1-5

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2006-02-12 13:30:04
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Copyright Rose A. Campbell 2005

Chapter 1

The girl now known as Nimue Holtz stood at the top of the Grand Staircase and stared out at the foyer spread below her. Slaves and servants rushed and fussed about across the colorful marble, the finest to be found in all of Tenlotte. Her breath caught in her throat as she took in the sight of the huge expanse, knowing that it was her job to destroy the harmony of this place, regretting it even as she reveled in it. The palace will still stand without tyranny to uphold it, she thought.

"It is beautiful, isn’t it?" came a low voice in her left ear, and she started out of her reverie to find a human male standing beside her, gazing just as raptly as she had been at the bright stained glass and expertly laid marble of the palace foyer. The man stood inches shorter than her, his short brown hair tousled and unkempt, his thick, burly frame looking uncomfortable in high court clothes. He appeared to be close to twice her age and totally unremarkable in his looks until he smiled at her, then his intelligence glimmered in the rich blue of his eyes. "I occasionally have a hard time convincing myself that this is my home. Things do not come so grandly in Molof. It’s mostly just mountains and ice there. You are new to us, are you not, lady? I am Yoseth."

"I’m Ch- Nimue Holtz. Yes, I’m newly arrived from Wot, to begin my Service to the throne." She nervously grasped the man’s extended hand and dropped into a proper curtsy, careful to maintain her balance and not pull against his gentle grip. The High Consort! Oh, must he be the first person I meet here? Standing, she barely dared to meet his eyes before casting her gaze to the smooth hardwood floor of the main landing of the Grand Staircase. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Esteemed One."

"Oh, come now, no need for such pretty manners. We’re not at audience!" he laughed, loosing her hand. Resting his elbows upon the high stair rail, he gestured flippantly at the scene below them. "Please, think of me as no different than anyone else in the palace. I’m just here to do a job, and I try to do it well. I assume you know who I am?"

Abashed by his directness, it took the girl a moment to respond. Of course I know who you are. All of Erom knows you. Forcing a note of awe into her voice, she murmured, "I know you by your name alone, Esteemed One. I have never heard of another with your name. You are the High Consort, mate to the High Royal. All of Erom knows you."

If her self-assurance surprised him, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled at her, his kind eyes squinting slightly, dimples and perfect teeth flashing at her momentarily. He was altogether merry looking. She almost relaxed. Watching him standing so nonchalantly at the stair rail, the colorful stained glass in the background, she could see how completely he fitted the surroundings. He looked to her as alive and lively as the vivid tapestries that adorned the walls of the palace. He belongs here about as much as I don’t.

"Lady Holtz, a moment ago when you introduced yourself, you hesitated. Surely you had not forgotten your own name!" Yoseth laughed, and the girl could see the pure cunning hiding behind his good nature. This was a man who paid attention. She would have to watch him.

"Forgive me, Estee- Yoseth. I simply began to give you my pet name. It is second nature to me, and I had to stop myself from saying it before I could give a proper introduction. I had not indeed forgotten my own name!" She laughed along with him, but only to hide the terror she felt at having almost given herself away so soon. Contrary to her own words, she had forgotten the name of Nimue Holtz. She had almost given him her true name. But perhaps she could turn this slip to her benefit, somehow.

"Tell me then what this pet name of yours is, so I shall know how to call you when not at audience." She could feel that this was not an idle request, but a royal command disguised as camaraderie.

"It is Chela, Esteemed One." She replied quickly.

"What an odd name! I suppose it means something?" His eyebrows raised.

"Yes. It means ‘beloved one’ in an obscure Yrt language, Spinnash, I think. My Maker is human, and he called me by this name from my infancy." Oh forgive me, Bearer! The mix of truth and falsehood tasted strange to her inexperienced tongue, but she knew she came across convincingly. It was her Bearer that was human, her Maker had been volix and she had never known the uni. This meshing of lies with truth was another thing to acclimate to.

The High Consort seemed to roll the name around in his mouth for a moment, a thoughtful look upon his face. Then he smiled brightly once again and exclaimed, "I like it! It is a good name, and I will remember it!"

His enthusiasm took the girl aback slightly, and she jumped when he snapped his fingers at the bare air and shouted, "Scribe! Attend me!"

As if summoned out of the ether, a court scribe appeared, tablet and stylus in hand to copy down the High Consort’s every utterance. The scribe was volix, tall and androgynous, with aggressively dark pigmentation patterns on its hairless humanoid body, and a haughty, self-important bearing. Even the girl had to crane her neck to see the scribe’s face. It was so pinched and sour, she wished she hadn’t bothered to look. It wore a portable essence herald on a chain around its neck.

"How may I serve, Esteemed One?" the scribes voice was musical and melodic, belying the uptight aspect of it’s physicality. The tone of blasé respect fit utterly.

Suddenly all business, Yoseth snapped, "Take this down…Lady Nimue Holtz, newly arrived to Erom Palace to begin the Noble requirement of Service to the throne, is to be assigned a position in the High Consort’s personal parlour, starting first thing tomorrow morning, by order of Yoseth, High Consort of Tenlotte, House of Molof. Now print that out. You, my Lady, are to give this to Haddin in Placement, and report to my parlour tomorrow morning promptly at eight. Don’t be late. "

"Of course, Esteemed One!" the girl exclaimed. She had been told it was difficult in the extreme to get a decent position during Service, but apparently the one carrying that information hadn’t made quite the same impression on anyone that Nimue Holtz had on the High Consort. Snatching the printout from the scribe, she clutched it to her chest as if it were the highest prize on Tenlotte. Ducking once again into a curtsy, the girl beamed at Yoseth. "Thank you! This is quite an honor! I have only one problem…where is Placement? I haven’t even been shown to my rooms yet!"

Dismissing the scribe with an offhanded wave, Yoseth grinned at the girl. With a whistle, he summoned a slave, and a tow-headed human child of no more than eight bounded up the great expanse of the Grand Staircase toward them. The solid ring of his steel slave collar jostled heavily against his collarbones as he mounted the steps, yet he seemed unaware of it. The girl winced inwardly at the cruelty of it, but forced herself to reveal nothing of what she felt. At the head of the stair, the slave boy dropped into a submissive bow before the High Consort and awaited his orders.

"Boy, take this Lady to Placement and be sure she is given immediate audience by Haddin. When she is finished there, you are to show her to her suite. I want her in the Crimson Rooms, understand? Lady Holtz is to be treated with the utmost care." The boy stood then, his head still lowered, but sneaking peeks at the girl as often as he dared. Yoseth pressed his finger to the green glowing oval at the front of the slave boy’s collar, imprinting his orders on the boy, guaranteeing that the child couldn’t pass his duties on to another slave and making sure that Haddin received the boys ' words as the High Consorts’ orders. "Now, Chela, I will see you in the morning. Until then, be well."

The girl watched him take the remaining stairs two at a time, meeting at the top with a gaggle of four elderly humans in ceremonial robes and skullcaps. Even the two women wore the unattractive headgear. All four began vying for his attention. Those are the Chamberlains; I shall have to watch out for them. They have their fingers in many cauldrons, I am sure. I must take care that they don’t find their way into my affairs. That would not be good at all. The group moved up the hall and out of sight as she thought this, and before she could form any other thoughts, there was a tug at the hem of her heavy quilted overtunic. Redirecting her attention, she found herself looking at that same blond slave boy Yoseth had given the orders to. He stood before her, not even chest height to her and skinny as a starved pigeon, waiting impatiently for her to follow through with the directives given her by the High Consort.

"Where do we go?" she asked, and the boy’s overlarge head hitched in the direction of the foyer. Nodding, she indicated that the child lead the way, and they headed down the stairs, the boy quite quickly, the girl at a more sedate pace. The stairs were large, and the risers high in comparison to every other staircase she had ever trod, so she descended carefully. She had recently come upon an uncharacteristic lack of grace, clumsiness one could even call it, and had no desire to plummet the length of the two-story high, broad stairway. As she reached the bottom, the slave boy appeared again before her.

She found it hard to follow him as he dashed this way and that through the foyer, darting around other slaves and servants on their own errands, cutting through parties of nobles on their way to see the Royal Menagerie, porters and palace guests on their way to and from suites, and past a long line of supplicants come to appeal various cases to the House of Bourgeoisie for settlement. Every few moments she would glance down to reassure herself that the slip of paper was still in her hand, although she could feel its crispness between her fingers soaking up the nervous sweat from her palm. Then she would search the crowd frantically for the boy, catching glimpses of his bright hair leading her down the right side of the foyer toward a large, wood-paneled wall marking the entrance to the west wing of the palace. After long minutes of pushing her way through myriad bodies to reach the wall, she found herself standing before a large door with only an electronic security device between herself and the relative quiet on the far side of the door.

The boy stood up on his toes to allow the security lock to scan the green-lit collar. A few seconds later, there was a soft double beep, and the door clicked and opened inward upon a hushed warren of offices. The girl stepped through the door accompanied by the young slave, and the constant white noise of the administrative heart of Erom Palace muffled the thud of it closing tightly behind her.

The boy flicked his eyes to indicate that she was to follow him, and took off down a dimly lit, narrow gray hall. There were many branches off the main hallway, all marked with colorful pennants and bold text declaring which department belonged there for anyone daring enough to approach. Toward the end of the hall was a door with a pennant almost twice the size of the others, the word PLACEMENT emblazoned upon it. The boy stood before it, his flawless brown eyes staring blankly at the doorknob, waiting for her. Sucking in a deep breath, the girl reached out and opened the door.

Chapter 2

Kiran Jaktiani focused hard on the diaphanous floating visage of the girl Chela, determined not to lose the connection with her before she finished her report. Cik and the other SLG Elders would frown upon an incomplete report, and Kiran wasn’t willing to do anything to jeopardize his good standing with the Elders or with Je-an at this point. Chela was his find, his creation, and the fortuitous circumstances behind her placement in Erom Palace had given his career as an SLG operative quite a boost. Besides all that, he was interested in what Chela had to tell him. She was after all his fosterling, and he had a natural concern over her wellbeing. The psychic link they shared was another bonus for Kiran, as it provided him continued value to the SLG. It allowed mental communication between he and the girl without aid of a magical connection, which would certainly be detected by the palace security system.

"…and I am assigned to work with the High Consort himself, Kiran! Not even half an hour in the palace proper and already I have one of the most sought after positions available here!" Chela’s voice reverberated throughout the deep reaches of his mind, the tingle of her excitement buzzing and tickling his nerves so strongly that he could feel it in his fingertips. Her emotion was almost overwhelming, and he had to remind himself that it was not his own tension, but only a reflection of his fosterling’s feelings. His own fears were nearly buried in the forceful mental fuzz of her thoughts in his head.

"Be careful, my child." He cautioned her, pressing his own feelings of trepidation and uneasiness into her mind. "The High Consort is a smart man. He will not have assigned you to his side unless he suspected something was not right about you."

"But Kiran, how could he suspect anything? We only spoke for a few moments. Nobody is that discerning, are they?"

"He’s not the type to assign young women to his employ simply because he had a pleasant first impression. No, he’s a master strategist, that isn’t his style. He most likely wants you near so he can keep his eye on you, to watch for signs of trouble. Don’t trust him, my child. He will try to ensnare you."

Chela laughed at this, and her mirth shot brilliant streaks of gold and crimson through his mind. He could feel through her humor that she was taking his advice seriously. "My dear Kiran, do you suggest that he might not simply want me around because he admires my more, um, physical charms? You mean he doesn’t chase after plain malix girls as a hobby? Don’t worry, Maker of my heart, I won’t blow my cover. You’ve trained me well to this vocation, and I will not betray you, or the Slave Liberation Guild."

"I trust that you won’t, child. Remember to keep your mind guarded at all times. You know there is no anticipating when any of those charms you wear might lose their magic and leave you vulnerable to unwelcome probing. And only report to me in your sleep, when your neural signals are the most scrambled. Let’s make this risk worthwhile. Open eyes and closed mouths. Take good care of yourself, my dear fosterling. You know what to do if you need help." He admonished.

Kiran wanted to continue the conversation, but could feel the concentration waning on both ends of it. It took a great deal of effort to maintain a dream connection for more than a moment or two, and they had already been joined for almost twenty minutes now. Chela sent him an outpouring of love before allowing her subconscious to pull her all the way into the dream realm.

Kiran resisted the urge to settle into a dream just long enough to drop his hand into the soft pocket of the recording device he kept on the table beside his bed. Barely awake, he allowed the soft dream memory of Chela’s report to download into the SLG mainframe AI. The elders would be able to patch into it whenever they chose and experience it from Kiran’s viewpoint. The burden of that duty relieved, he let himself drift into deep sleep, welcoming the dreams that awaited him. As he slipped into one, his heart hurt for Chela.

Chapter 3

She was young, so young. This small creature standing in the midst of chaos, tears scribing channels of clean down her dirt smudged little face, powerless to effect the insanity around her. Lazuline blue eyes ringed with long black lashes, pert little nose, tiny lips wrapped tightly around her baby thumb. Wild, curly brown hair tugged by the rough breeze, her hand clutching to her chest the volix doll Bearer had given her for Arva day. She stood still in the riot surrounding her, delicate back pressed against the vehicle that until moments before had been carrying her from Jela’s house to the offices of Child Placement Services.

The people had overrun the vehicle, torn her military escort from the vel and ripped them apart before the child’s eyes, left her for naught. Then she grew angry at the milling crowd of rioters, angry for the escort, angry for her Bearer who had fallen just hours before while attending to the wounded in the early stages of the revolt. Pulling thumb from mouth, the small girl hefted the largest, heaviest piece of debris she could find and hurled it into the mass of flesh surrounding her. The following scream made her grin a fierce, feral grin. She reached for more debris. This bit was slightly smaller, with tough, sharp edges, and she was able to pitch it harder at the seething throng. The child had only her little hands and the rubble at her feet, but she fought the chaos with every ounce of her considerable courage. She refused to allow their war to infringe on her personal sanctity the only way she knew how; by fighting back.

She threw stones and bits of plastic, handfuls of unyielding tire rubber, anything she could lift. She found things that had belonged to her military escort; unnamable, bloody things, which she aimed at the faces of passersby. She began keening, wailing, and grunting with the effort of keeping the rioters out of her personal space. She lifted a palm-sized, smooth black ball with a clip and a button, and with sparkling eyes she pressed the button and cast it into the multitude. At last her efforts made an impression, as the person struck by it took notice of it and raised a howl of terror. The girl could see the ball being tossed person to person, like a game of hot paddayda. It seemed nobody wanted to be the last one caught with it. Seconds later there was a great boom, and the girl hid her face behind the precious volix doll, shielding herself from the billow of flame that accompanied the sound. The angry babbling had lessened, and the crowd was dispersing. An explosion was simply too much for them.

Left with no more enemies to fight, the child cowered beside the carcass of the vel and squeezed her charred doll to her chest. I’m a big girl, Bearer says so. I’m supposed to be good and take care of myself. I know how to tie my shoes and braid my own hair mostly, and I can almost reach the top shelf in the parlour, I’m that big. I’m big enough now, I’m six. I can be brave, I can do this. I don’t need any help. I’m big.

But she wasn’t big, and she knew it. She was small and alone, and she was terrified. There was nothing between her and the darkening night except the heaping hulk of an overturned vehicle and a small, sooty plastic doll with real leather breeches and a now-melted nose. She began to sniffle for her Bearer again.

In the dark, huddled against the side of a military vehicle in the midst of the low-income Plebe district, the gentle man found her. Her eyes were too full of tears to see his face, but her little body instinctively knew the feel of caring arms when he wrapped them about her and lifted her to his chest. He was warm, and he tucked her under his great coat to keep the harsh breeze from her. He made soothing noises to her as he carried her, dirty and exhausted, from the now empty riot scene. There was a strange noise in her ears which she failed to realize was her own voice, a soft, high-pitched hum that comforted her and kept the torrent of tears to just this side of her eyelids. Every now and again the man would stop walking for a moment and rock her in place, which made the noise fade slightly and brought her closer to the edge of sleep. She was barely conscious when he set her down on a warm, soft surface and drew a blanket over her. Her heavy lids closed and she heard the man whisper kindly, "Now you rest, my child."

A soft daylight glow filled the air around her, and she could hear the muffled sounds of dishes rattling, accompanied by a strange food smell. It was the smell that dragged her from the dream realm to wakefulness, reminding her that her stomach was woefully empty and that she was in need of a good meal. Thoughts of preparing for the morning with Bearer filled her mind, and she stretched languorously with a loud yawn before opening her eyes to greet the new day.

What she saw was not the comfortable little apartment that she and Bearer shared in the Laborer district of Sed. It wasn’t Jela’s big, spacious house full of children, or the medic’s wing at her afternoon school, either. Those being the only places she’d ever woken up, the girl was bewildered and frightened by this strange place she found herself in. Casting about, she found her precious volix doll and squeezed it to her, conscious of the noises coming from the other room. A loud banging crash was accompanied by a deep voice yelling "Grap!"

"Bearer?" the girl called, her voice trembling. A strange, familiar high-pitched hum filled her ears. Another bang came from the other room and then there was quiet. An unfamiliar man appeared in the archway, a small towel gripped in one hand, a spatula in the other. His dark, narrow face lit up with a rough smile when he saw her awake, but quickly changed to brow-furrowed concern. At the sight of him, the girl scuttled against the wall and curled up there, her doll placed protectively between them against her forehead. Her soft blue eyes stared frightened at him from between the toy's plastic torso and arm. She demanded, "I want my Bearer!"

Carefully he set his towel and spatula down and slowly approached the bed, his light brown eyes filled with sorrow. He sat on the edge of the bed, turning a sharp profile to her. "I can’t give you your Bearer, child. I don’t even know where you came from. I found you in the streets last night, I’m amazed that you’re alive after that explosion."

"You found me?"

"Yes, I found you. Next to the CPS vel. You were the only one left on the street, I think. I’m lucky I came upon you, you might have been in some big trouble when the looters came out. There’s always looters after a riot, and they’re pretty mean people." The dark man with the kind eyes shook his head, smiling a little at the sadness of the situation, because he didn’t want to cry instead. "How did you manage it, child, all alone in that crowd? How did you do it?"

The girl scrunched her face up in concentration, willing the bad memories back just long enough to tell him, and found that she could think about the day before without feeling too scared. Lowering her doll and looking him directly in the eye, she grinned. "I threw things at them. They didn’t like that. And when I threw the black ball at them, it blew up and they all went away."

The man couldn’t contain his astonishment at that. His eyes popped open wide and he gaped for a moment, then he began to laugh, and it was the most welcome sound she’d heard yet. "So the big anti-terrorist bombing was nothing but a little girl trying to keep the madness at bay! Priceless! So, my little bomber, do you have a name? I’m Kiran."

"Chela." she stated defiantly, her little chin rising a bit as if he would challenge her. Instead of a challenge, he offered her a callused hand and a smile.

"Well, Lady Chela, It’s a pleasure to meet you. Shall we have some breakfast then?"

Chapter 4

"Shall we have some breakfast then, Lady Chela?" asked Nerro, hopping unceremoniously onto the bed beside her. The final fragile strands of the dream realm’s grip upon her snapped, and she was once again faced with another day in the waking world. Another day she had to spend entertaining Nerro the Incorrigible.

Not that Nerro was all that bad. For a pubescent volix, Nerro was actually pretty tame. If she’d been given a choice, no doubt Chela would have chosen the young, energetic uni as a companion. But Chela had not been given a choice, and that being as it was, spending time with Nerro was becoming quite a chore. And this habit of waking her every morning as soon as Arva had risen above the horizon! There was no wonder that Chela was weary before she even climbed out of bed every morning.

"Holy kruk, Nerro, why do you always get up so grapping early? Not everyone likes to rise with Arva, you know!" She grumbled at the uni, throwing evil thought daggers with her eyes at the tall, slender humanoid. The uni was typical of the volix species, beautifully androgynous and completely hairless, neither male nor female, but rather both in one. A rather unique species in the galaxy, almost as rare as a pureblooded human. All volix had the ability to both create and bear life, although a single volix could not procreate without another volix…or a genetically compatible race like the human. The volix prided themselves on the beauty of their pigmentation pattern. Nerro’s pigmentation patterns were dark and aggressively v-shaped, very similar to the tracks made by many common vehicles, a fact that Chela often exploited. "Go away, tire tracks! I need another hour’s sleep!"

"Oh, come on Chela! You’re so krukking lazy, always wanting to sleep the best part of the day away. Let’s go down to the kitchens and get breakfast, I’m starving!" Nerro had all the energy of a growing cub and the appetite too. Food was an endangered species when the uni was near.

"I’m not lazy, I’m tired! I was up until all hours last night doing that research for High Consort Yoseth. I think I fell into bed less than an hour ago. Let me sleep some, will you? Take Norah with you to breakfast." The pretty human maid Norah stopped short in the act of tidying the room and shot Chela a look of pure terror. All the palace slaves seemed to fear Nerro for some unknown reason. "Or order up. Take your breakfast here and watch the vid for a while until I get up. I don’t care, just give me some sleep, grap it!"

Nerro heaved a melodramatic sigh and slid up the bed until their bodies fitted comfortably together in a relaxed spoon. Draping its arm across Chela’s body, the uni pushed back the curly bush of the girl’s hair and cuddled in the nape of her neck. There was nothing sexual in the act, as Chela had thought uncomfortably the first time Nerro had done this; it was simply the uni’s way of feeling near to the people it considered important. She had seen Nerro do similar things with its maker and bearer, as well as several friends and companions. She had, after a short amount of time, become used to the displays of affection. It was, apparently, a very common thing for the volix. "I wish you wouldn’t treat your slaves like they were people, Chela. It’s not good for them, they get ideas that way."

Chela, who had begun to relax again, stiffened at that. "How I treat my slaves is my business, Nerro. Not yours."

"I’m just saying that it might be better if you didn’t treat them like they were free. Just imagine the chaos around here if all the palace slaves acted like freebeings." the young volix’s voice had a placating tone, trying to soothe her back into her mellow state.

"Would that be such a bad thing, you think? Freebeings work just as hard, you know."

"But, well, you have to pay freebeings. All you have to do with slaves is feed and house them. They work for free, don’t they?"

"It amazes me that you can use the word free when you’re talking about slaves, Nerro. And it amazes me that you don’t think slaves are people too. They are, you know."

"Chela, hush!" Nerro’s voice held a note of authority to it that Chela was unused to hearing, but beneath that, there was a thread of panic, and the involuntary tightening of Nerro’s arm around her waist. "Don’t you know how dangerous it is to talk like that? If anybody heard you, you’d be considered a dissident. Or worse, a Freedom Runner!"

Chela laughed and rolled over to face Nerro and look in the uni’s eyes. Deep, vulnerable, lashless green eyes that really were afraid of what would become of its friend should anyone think she were a dissident. Kissing Nerro’s forehead at the lower point of one of the ‘v’ markings, she said, "Me, a Freedom Runner? Don’t make me laugh! I could never do anything like that, that would make me a spy! And you know how bad a liar I am, my friend. I could never be a spy."

Nerro rubbed a gentle finger down the slope of Chela’s nose and smiled, eyes glinting mischief. It ignored her last statement and tapped the tip of her nose playfully. "Since you’re up now, how ‘bout we go get some breakfast? I’m still starved! Can’t you see me withering away to bones before your very eyes?"

"Aargh!" the girl cried, throwing her hands in the air. "Oh why did I ever come to the palace, where nobody ever lets me sleep? How will I become a great beauty and be the envy of all of Erom if I don’t get at least an hour a night? All right, all right, lets go get breakfast. But you krukking well better let me grab a nap before my shift in Yoseth’s parlour. I’ll never be able to do all that research without recharging a bit. Now go wait for me in the other room, I have to get dressed. I don’t need help."

With a bounce and a grin, Nerro left the room, followed quickly by Norah, who was anxious to be sure that nothing was broken. Nerro had a habit of ‘accidentally’ damaging things. Most everyone in the palace knew of the uni’s awkwardness and took measures to keep things out of the young volix’s reach.

Chela languished in the large, soft bed for another moment before rising and slipping off her bedclothes. She stepped onto the sanitizer platform and felt the waterless shower tingle over her body as it removed whatever filth had accumulated on her since the day before. In the fifteen seconds she stood in the shower, she longed heartily for the water she had grown up with. In her mind nothing electronic, no matter how efficient, could compare to the exquisite wetness of fervid water raining down on her skin, and the silkiness of soapy lather sliding along her bare body. She missed massaging her fingers through her drenched tresses and working shampoo down to the roots, then scrubbing hard to rinse the bubbles out. Standing naked in the sanitizer for a few seconds and emerging clean and dry sounds so much nicer, but it really takes the fun out of getting clean.

"Morning." She announced to her armoire, and was presented with acceptable underclothing for daywear in the form of a comfortable pair of red satin trousers, a low-cut cotton undertunic, and a wide leather hip-belt. Average attire for an average young noble. Nerro was wearing something similar. As it was Faybearry, Chela pulled on a pair of heavy cotton stockings and a multicolored overtunic to combat the cold of the public areas of the palace. Only private quarters and workspaces were heated in winter to save on the astronomical cost of heating so many large rooms with vaulted ceilings. Palace denizens were well trained to dress warmly while going about their business. Cold feet in mind, Chela laced on a warm, sturdy pair of grap-kicker boots.

Swiftly combing through her wild, curly hair, she clipped some back away from her face and let the rest hang loose in frenetic strands. Shaking her arms, she was satisfied with the noisy jingle of the myriad bracelets adorning her wrists. Some were simply decorative while others were actually potent charms and talismans to protect her secret while she lived her double life as the pampered young noble Nimue Holtz.

It really is quite strange how Nerro keeps telling me to be careful about my views. It’s almost as if the uni really does care about what I do. She found that thought hard to believe. Hadn’t she been taught almost all her life how heartless and cold the nobles were? That only people without a care for others could possibly buy, sell, and own slaves, and that they were the ultimate evil? What she had been witness to while living all these months in the palace wasn’t the coldhearted cruelty that she’d expected but the average everyday goings on of normal people. Wealthy, yes, but for the most part normal. Chela had slowly come to realize that the biggest crime the nobles committed was the crime of indifference. They didn’t know or care what the slavetrade was doing to the rest of Tenlotte. To them it was their heritage and their birthright.

This attitude was the main reason that Chela felt no guilt over being a Freedom Runner in disguise, an undercover plant in the palace. What she was doing was right. It would change the face of the world and help millions of people. Unfortunately even after all this time, she was no closer to her goal. Months of working side by side with the High Consort himself had yielded nothing but the realization that Yoseth smelled like freshly picked lilacs, his left eye squinted slightly more than his right when he smiled, and that her heart fluttered when he looked directly into her eyes. What Chela needed now was a deus ex machina, a catalyst of some sort to tilt the tide of information her way and enable her to take some real action on the part of the SLG.

For now though, she would go to breakfast with her charge, and try to maintain her good humor on only an hours’ sleep. She would be patient and understanding, and she would remind herself that just a few years ago she too acted like a spoiled puppy in need of attention. And she would remind herself of how fond she really was of Nerro. And when Nerro closeted with its tutor for lessons, she would take a grapping nap. Out in her salon she could hear Norah fussing after Nerro to be careful, don’t break it. Chela laughed, then went to join the uni for breakfast.

Chapter 5

"I hope you like singed battics and gravy, my child." The man called Kiran smiled, setting a plate of totally alien food before the little girl. The child looked at the plate, then at the smiling man, then back at the plate again. Her little thumb creeped between her lips and she sucked it unconsciously in her indecision. As hungry as she was, she could not fathom that the curdled grey mass in front of her was actually food. It looked like the muck Bearer scraped off her shoes when she came home from an emergency call at the quarry.

"I don’t like it." Chela mumbled around her thumb, looking directly into Kiran’s concerned eyes. The child was no bigger than a thimble, but she had spirit, and he could see that it was going to take a lot of convincing to get her to eat her breakfast no matter how hungry she was. It was at the child’s insistence that he was feeding her already, before having a chance to clean the girl up at all. She was a mess, that was certain, and badly in need of a hot bath. But she had demanded food first, and now it looked as if she would refuse it out of hand.

"Oh, come on, it’s good stuff. At least have a bite." he prodded. She shook her little head hard, curls and dust flying everywhere. Accidentally inhaling some of her own dust, she let out a loud sneeze without removing her thumb from its comfortable seat in her mouth.

"Not even one bite? It’s so good for you, it will fill you right up, I promise."

Again curls sprung and dust flew.

"Now why won’t you try it? I know you’re hungry." Kiran asked, hoping her answer would lead to her eating some.

"Ith loosh lie poo." she stated simply and eloquently, unhindered by her thumb. Her little nose wrinkled.

"No it doesn’t look like poo…well, ok, maybe it does, but it doesn’t taste like it. You sure you won’t try it?" Nose wrinkle. "Will you try it if I have a bite first?"

Reluctantly she nodded, her expression deadly serious. She watched him as he took her fork and shoveled some of the battics up, cornflower eyes widening, impressed by his daring. Raising the fork to his mouth, he ever so carefully opened his mouth and slid the food between his teeth. Closing his lips around the tines, he slowly slid the fork out and began chewing. Chela watched him without blinking, her breath coming in little gasps with every movement of his jaw. After about ten seconds, Kiran’s face crumpled and he frantically grabbed for a napkin.

Chela squealed as he spat the half-chewed battics out and wiped his tongue with the napkin, barely controlling his urge to gag.

"Oh, Holy Arva, it does taste like poo! Aargh! I’m so sorry, Chela, you don’t have to eat that…grap, nobody should ever have to eat that!" he sputtered, still spitting the taste from his mouth and scrubbing at his tongue with his napkin. His disgust was tempered by the girl’s wild giggling, the most heartening thing he’d heard from her yet. Her squeaks were contagious, and he soon found himself laughing uproariously with her. It took several long minutes before he could compose himself enough to speak coherently.

"I guess that’s that then, hehehe…" he grinned at the little girl. "Still hungry? What would you like?"

Pulling her thumb from her mouth, Chela said clearly, "I want cereal."

Dry cereal it was for the both of them. Because he was a bachelor, cereal was something Kiran had a full supply of. Chela ate far more than someone her size should have been able, but she ate with gusto. After the meal she helped him clean up, which came as a surprise to him. He hadn’t realized that someone that small would be accustomed to doing chores. After the cleanup Kiran herded her into the bathroom, intent on scrubbing all the dirt he could find off her little body.

She was more than willing to bathe, and jabbered excitedly the entire time the tub was filling with steamy water. Before he could stop her she grabbed a bottle of shampoo and dumped half of it under the rushing flow of the spout. Instantly bubbles began to multiply on the surface of the water.

"Can I go swimming? Bearer sometimes lets me go swimming in the tub. And sometimes she gives me a cup so I can wash myself like a big girl." Kiran nodded and smiled, helping her unfasten her belt and taking the filthy clothing from her as she undressed. Good, she isn’t scared to undress with me here. She hasn’t been abused at all. As a matter of fact, she seemed quite comfortable with him there, and she giggled and chattered contentedly as mountains of bubbles grew around her. When he turned off the flow of water she protested, but not stridently, content with the water at mid-chest. She put out her arms obediently as he reached for her with a soapy washrag, and told him all about how her Bearer liked to play peekieboo with the bubbles and that her favorite game was making dwarf-faces.

"You see you put your face into the bubbles like this, and when you come back over here, you have a great big dwarf beard! Even girls look like dwarf men, or dwarf girls, because even dwarf girls have beards too! And then I use the bubbles and wash my face! See?" As she wiped the dirt from her face, Kiran noticed the plethora of freckles dotting her nose and cheeks which had been unseen beneath all the filth.

"Here, let me wash your face, my child. I don’t think the bubbles will take care of all the dirtiness on you from yesterday." He said, and she obediently presented him with her face to scrub. He wiped her face gently, but with strong, firm strokes, removing a lot of dirt and dust. The girl’s freckles seem to get darker by her hairline. Maybe she has some malady. Washing her cheeks and neck, he noticed a distinct change in the color of the dirt on the cloth. Where before it had been almost black with sooty dust, it was now a rich shade of reddish brown…almost the exact color of the girl’s skin. Experimenting with a sudden idea, Kiran rinsed the cloth in the bathwater, then made a long, deliberate stroke from her jaw to her shoulder. As he suspected, the same color was ground into the washcloth, and there was now a swath of pale spotted skin showing where he’d wiped away the tint. "Now it’s time for the rest of you. Let me scrub you up good, then we can wash your hair, ok?"

Kiran washed her body, and doing so made a thorough but not invasive hunt for signs that might confirm his growing suspicion. Yes, the child had some mild but unmistakable pigmentation on her face, neck, shoulders and back. Yes, there was the narrow horizontal seam across the mons pubis that concealed currently vestigial organs. Yes, the genitalia lacked definition, although it could easily be mistaken for female. As the child leaned back to have her hair washed, Kiran fought to contain his amazement. A malix child lost in the city of Sed? Why have there been no bulletins, why have there been no searches? Surely a missing noble would make the news at least! But if nobody is looking for her, she can’t be considered missing!

Then it dawned on him. This child thinks it’s female! Malix are not raised gendered, they grow into a gender at puberty. No noble would ever think to raise a malix child as a boy or a girl in case the hormonal changes at puberty caused the body to choose a different gender, or even uni. This child has been raised in the city, but not by nobles. The Bearer was a medic, but the Maker is never brought up. Chela’s very existence is illegal! No wonder her skin was tinted, the child’s bearer would have been sent to a penal colony and charged with political dissidence the instant they were discovered. Imagine, an unregistered malix! To Kiran, the amazing thing was that Chela was completely unaware that she was something special. She thought she was a human child, a girl like any other girl. Kiran was determined that she should not know until she was ready…, which obviously wasn’t then.

He let her play in the bath until the water went chill, then bundled her in one of his tunics. Belted around the waist like that, it fit her just like a dress.

2006-01-06 Po: Whoohoo! Supa-kool!

2006-01-07 SleepingDragon: This is such an excellent story. I really want to see you try to get it published!

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