[Po]: 80.Tenlotte Chapters 6-9
"…a nice dress?" Yoseth’s barking voice sliced through the girl’s concentration and gave her a startle. Confusedly glancing up, Chela saw him standing just inside the parlour door, face flushed and apparently struggling to gain his composure. She hadn’t heard the door open or close.
"What?" she asked, trying to pull her mind from lingering thoughts of the record book before her to the High Consort’s words.
"I asked you," he moved to the desk and stood directly in front of her, speaking much more smoothly, "if you own a nice dress. Do you?"
Hearing his question hadn’t cleared up any of Chela’s confusion, and she looked at him blankly. "Um, no, I don’t think so, why?"
"You’re coming with me to the theatre." he stated, looking away for an instant.
"What? When? Why?" She was dismayed. Why would the High Consort want to take her to the theatre?
Yoseth chuckled, digging the fingers of one hand deep into his unkempt sandy hair. "All you need now is ‘where’ and ‘who’, but I think we already covered that. All right, seriously now. I’m obligated to go to this show tonight, and Gahered won’t go with me. Argued with me like Arva was falling from the sky. Claims to be ‘ill’ again."
"The High Royal is ill?" she asked, the natural concern of a subject for her monarch overriding her discomfort with and sudden excitement of the idea of being seen socially with Yoseth.
He screwed up his face like a child presented with distasteful food and dropped into the overstuffed armchair by the desk. "Nauseous. Gestating again, I’m sure, and this one isn’t mine, I can tell you. I haven't shared a bed with my mate since little Marne was conceived. But that’s Gahered. I’ve never met a person with less of a sense of propriety. Gahered will sleep with anyone willing. But enough of my grapping volix mate. I’m expected at this play tonight, I need a companion, and you’re it."
"Why me? Isn’t there anybody better suited?" Chela felt a tingle of anxiety slither under her skin. Yoseth had been sharing some pretty personal things with her lately, and this was not the least of them. Their relationship had been progressing from professional to personal quite slowly up to this point, and she was not quite sure if sharing a friendship with the person whose business she had been sent to infiltrate was really the best idea. Fighting her growing attraction for him was difficult enough when they were researching together. How much harder would it be if they began associating socially too? Going with him tonight certainly wasn’t a good idea.
"Chela, who better to go with me? You’re nobility, a member of my household, a daily tovarich placed under my supervision for your Service. You’re a trusted friend, Chela. Tell me now, who could be better suited?" Leaning forward, he grasped her hand between his atop the books spread before her. His blue eyes pleaded, and dimples creased his cheeks as he offered an imploring smile. "Please come with me. It will be fun, I swear."
His hands were warm on hers, squeezing ever so gently as he waited for her reply. She couldn’t help it, but she wanted to please him. I’m a trusted friend! Her heart ached at that, because she knew that she could never truly be trusted, could never be his friend. She wasn’t even a loyal subject, but the worst kind of traitor, a spy. Yet she ached to be more to him than a friend. Swallowing her feelings, she nodded. "I’ll go. But I don’t have proper clothing."
"We shall have to remedy that immediately. For now, I suggest you put up your research for the day and return to your chambers. I will have a couturier sent there to help you with the gown. As soon as you’re ready, send a child to the Great Hall. I’ll meet you here." Softly he pressed her fingers and released her hand, smiling broadly. "I suppose I should send you a stylist too. We want you gleaming."
* * *
Chela stood once again in Yoseth’s parlour, waiting for him and vacillating between the ease she felt at the familiarity of her surroundings and her discomfort at being so gaudily dressed. The gown that the dresser had chosen was a corseted, form fitting thing of shiny and gauzy materials, turquoise and peacock blue. It made her feel utterly ridiculous. The heavy skirts swept the floor, covering what was in Chela’s mind the one redeeming quality of the whole attire; the shoes. The low blue satin pumps were made extremely well with comfort in mind, and fit her feet flawlessly. As long as she could wear the shoes, she was willing to be squeezed into the wretched, deep-bodiced dress, have her hair piled and knotted atop her head and stuck with peacock feathers, and her face painted heavily. She felt so silly all done up like that, she hadn’t even bothered to look at her reflection. She was afraid to ruin the dress by sitting, so she stood as she waited.
The door from the hall clicked open and Chela looked up expectantly. It stayed just a slit for a moment, allowing a chill draft to creep in from the unheated hallway. Her skin twinged with goosebumps, but she didn't know if it was the cold that caused them. She heard the sound of Yoseth’s voice and that of another, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Then the door was thrown wide and Yoseth strode into the parlour with Chamberlain Harnah of Arge following at his heels. Seeing Chela, the High Consort stopped still, his eyes large with appreciation. The elderly Chamberlain being less observant and far more nearsighted tottered into Yoseth and they both nearly fell over, pulling a laugh from the nervous girl.
"Esteemed Ones." Chela said, remembering her painstakingly taught manners and dropping into a deep curtsy. As she bowed her head she was reminded of the deep cleavage and just how low her décolletage really was. She felt her blush spreading across her face as she realized the display she was giving the two men before her. Straightening, she collected herself and offered them a smile. "High Consort. Chamberlain Harnah. Good evening."
Yoseth simply smiled in return, his teeth flashing and his dimples creasing his face deeply. Chela thought for a moment how handsome he looked in his black velvet pants and purple dress tunic. Harnah stepped forward and took her hand in his gnarled and arthritic scarecrow fingers, bringing it to his papery lips for a polite kiss. Without releasing her, the septuagenarian brought his haggard face close to hers and spoke to her in a wavering voice that he seemed to believe was a whisper but which was indeed rather loud. "You look lovely my dear, but you should have left the bird in your chambers."
Yoseth’s eyes went wide at this and try as he might he could not hold back his snort of laughter. For a moment Chela had no clue what bird the old man was talking about, then she too burst into laughter when she realized that Harnah had mistaken her elaborate feathery hairstyle for a pet. It took an inordinately long time for the two younger people to reign their cachinnation in, because on top of the humor of the old man’s statement, they also had to deal with the Chamberlain’s utterly perplexed expression. After a few moments' wild giggling, they had calmed enough to carry on a normal conversation.
"You look amazing, Lady Holtz. Truly you do." The High Consort smiled, the corner of his mouth twitching in an effort to resist bursting into giggles again. He had to reach out and grab a chair-back to steady himself.
"You don’t look half bad yourself, O my Monarch." Chela replied teasingly. The Chamberlain’s unintended joke had done much to untie the knot of anxiety that had been growing in her chest since Yoseth announced that she was to accompany him that evening. She felt that she could interact as usual with the High Consort at last. The relief she felt was surprising. I need to stop drinking so much coffee! I’m strung tight as this corset!
"Good Chamberlain, will you pardon us for a moment? I need to speak with the Lady Holtz privately, if you don’t mind." Yoseth turned to the old man and bowed respectfully, waiting until Harnah assented to the request before standing straight and extending a hand to Chela. "My Lady, please, accompany me to my chamber."
Chela raised her eyebrows skeptically but accepted his hand with a slight nod. His courtly manners were exemplary, and he gave no sign of it, but she suspected that he was playing a game of sorts with her. She couldn't find a reason not to play along. Gathering her long skirts in her free hand, she followed Yoseth past the overflowing desk to a small door. In all the months she’d been working from this very room, she’d never noticed it before. The entrance to the High Consort’s private quarters. Chela made a quick mental note that it wasn’t sealed or locked.
His bedchamber was plain compared to the one Chela slept in. There was very little by way of decoration, and what was there was minimalist. There were no overstuffed comfy chairs or throw pillows. Everything was decorated with clean lines and hard angles, unlike all the other rooms in the palace that she’d seen. Even his bed was spartan, the polished mahogany box-frame totally devoid of any scrollwork or carving, again unlike the others she’d seen here. It was dimly lit and it was cold, almost as cold as the unheated halls. She shivered.
"I’m sorry about the cold, Chela. I’m originally from Molof, you know. Bardotonankion was far too hot for me when I first came here, so I had my rooms especially temperature controlled to mimic the environment I was used to. It’s a bit warmer in here now, I’ve gotten used to the temperature some I guess. But I still like to sleep in the cold. Just more comfortable that way." Yoseth shrugged. He still held her hand firmly, towing her to the far side of the room.
"Oh, I don’t mind. It’s a bit cool, but I’m used to that. Have you ever been to Wot?" Wot was the home city of Nimue Holtz, the young noble whom Chela was impersonating. Four thousand miles to the west of Bardotonankion
Yoseth smiled, and Chela realized that as well as she knew this man, she didn’t really know much about him. I have been slacking! What’s wrong with me, this is my job! I have to get inside his mind, no matter what it takes! She returned his smile silently.
"I didn’t really bring you here to talk." The High Consort confessed, ignoring her question. His smile became a sheepish grin, deepening his dimples. Chela gave him a look of polite interest. "I brought you here to give you something. If you’ll accept it, that is."
Without waiting for her reply, he loosed her hand and turned to open a cabinet that was recessed into the wall above a simple desk. Cautiously, almost lovingly, he pulled a flat black case from the shelf and set it softly on the desk. Chela watched curiously as he stroked the flocked surface and began to lift the cover, his face suddenly serious. Checking himself, he closed the lid and looked at her, all levity gone. "I intend this as a gift, Chela. I don’t want you trying to return it to me, not ever, all right?"
Catching his solemnity, she nodded, agreeing that she would never attempt to return it to him, for any reason. With her word given, he turned back to the case and lifted the cover, revealing what was the most expensive single piece of jewelry Chela had ever seen. It was a necklace as ornate as Yoseth’s bedchamber was sparse. The elegant ‘v’ of the chestpiece was encrusted with a rainbow of precious gems, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, almandine, girasol, amethyst, and stones Chela had no name for, all set in the most exquisitely wrought platinum. Yoseth lifted it reverently from the case and it slid supply beneath his fingers. Thousands of facets caught the soft light and sparkled like the Mindosia nebula. Chela’s breath caught in her throat from simply looking at it.
"Stand there, in front of the mirror." Yoseth directed, indicating the full-length frameless oval mirror mounted on the wall beside the desk. Chela did so, seeing herself for the first time since putting on the ridiculous gown. She was amazed to find that she didn’t look silly in it as she’d expected, but was indeed quite striking. The décolletage was very low, but the corset did wonderful things for her shape and that somehow made the plunging bodice less of an issue. Chela gasped as the High Consort settled the necklace about her throat and clasped it.
"It’s so heavy!" she exclaimed, gingerly touching the glittering neckpiece with hesitant fingers. Yoseth’s reflection grinned at her.
"She’s been called ‘The treasure of a thousand kingdoms’, and I think she’s been passed down through as many generations. Was my Bearer’s, a long time ago. Now she belongs to you." Chela began to protest, but Yoseth quickly cut her off. "Remember your promise, Lady. This treasure is yours. Oh, and don’t forget the earrings!"
* * *
There was quite a stir at Central Stage Theatre when the High Consort arrived with his entourage. The press was there early for the opening performance of The Central Stage Troupe’s interpretation of Banet Muscea’s classic historical tragicomedy, "Yarda and Kupt". Whether the play was a rave or flop, it was good to be any reporter assigned to this story. The arrival of the Monarchy was an unexpected bonus, especially when it included a mysterious new face.
"Esteemed One!" came an insistent voice over the general hubbub. "Esteemed One, Kennon Urts here from HIHR Vid Service. Will you and your companion acquiesce to an interview? Good PR for you!"
"Just one interview, I’m anxious to see this play, I don’t want to be stopped every ten feet for a new interview." The High Consort answered loudly enough for half of the crowded foyer to hear. "And on the condition that this not be exclusive. Is that acceptable to you, Uni Urts?"
"Perfectly, Esteemed One." Kennon replied, motioning hurriedly to the HIHR recording crew. Several other cameras followed. Waving its hand before first Yoseth’s face, then his companion's, the uni mumbled a few incoherent syllables then snapped his fingers. "Don’t worry, Lady, it’s just a bit of occupational magic. Voice amplifier, it will make you come across more clearly on vid."
"Good evening, Erom! Kennon Urts here, live from the foyer of Central Stage Theatre, where I’ve had the good fortune to run into our Esteemed Monarch, High Consort Yoseth of Molof, and his lovely associate. Tell me, O my Monarch, who exactly is this beautiful creature you have with you tonight?" The reporter’s voice was smooth, its smile broad and oily in the manner of most media icons. Yoseth’s smile seemed boyish and uncontrived in comparison. The girl looked like an animal caught in a vel’s headlights.
"This would be a friend of mine, the Lady Nimue Holtz of House Erom. When the High Royal was unable to join me for the evening, I invited Lady Holtz, and she was gracious enough to accompany me." His answer came comfortably, as if he were speaking one on one with this person instead of having his image transmitted live into billions of homes around the continent.
"Why was the High Royal unable to join you, as you say?" Kennon asked, looking appraisingly at the girl as if the answer were indicated by her presence.
"Gahered isn’t feeling well." blurted the young Lady, to the High Consort’s amusement.
"As my Lady Holtz said, my mate isn’t feeling well tonight and decided to stay in. Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure it’s not serious." Yoseth laughed.
Kennon again. "My Lady, that is quite a piece of hardware you’re wearing tonight. Wherever did you come upon such an incredible necklace?"
"The necklace is, I guess you could say, on loan, from House Molof." Yoseth, before the Lady could reply.
"And how much must something like that be worth, Esteemed One?" Kennon.
"At most recent appraisal, just over three billion, Universal Guidelines Standard." Yoseth, matter of factly. The girl gasped and her free hand flew to her throat. Her face twisted momentarily, but she composed herself quickly.
"I had no idea." She murmured.
"Excuse us, please, Uni Urts. I believe the play is about to start, and we wouldn’t want to miss any of it. Lady Holtz has never seen the Central Stage Theatre Troupe." The High Consort bowed gracefully out of the interview, pausing momentarily for Kennon’s assistant to remove the voice charm before leading the young Lady to the Royal Box.
"And that was High Consort Yoseth and his companion for the evening. Isn’t she charming? Let’s see who else we can spot in the crowd tonight. Oh, wait, I think I see Ambassador Tukk! Ambassador Tukk! Oh, Ambassador Tukk! Kennon Urts from HIHR Vid Service. Will you and your companions acquiesce to an interview?"
* * *
Chela threw herself into the overstuffed armchair in Yoseth’s parlour, unable to keep a smile of sheer happiness from surfacing. The evening out was over, and it had been glorious! Chela had been to the theatre in Sed before, but it was nothing compared to what she’d just experienced. "Yarda and Kupt" had sounded at first like it was going to be some boring history lesson, but was in reality far from boring, even if it was a history lesson. The Central Stage Theatre Troupe had breathed life into the High Royal and High Consort from millenia ago and given them spirit and intent and relevance.
The story itself had been straight out of the World History textbook. Yarda and Kupt were the Monarchs in a time when succession to the throne was accomplished by direct lineage. Large Royal families with many offspring were the norm to insure that if one child were not suitable or came to an untimely end, there would be another direct descendent to take their place. Yarda and Kupt didn’t disappoint in that aspect, and produced nine legitimate heirs. Unfortunately, every single one of them was a raving imbecile. Not a one was capable of ruling an empire like Tenlotte. In their desperation, Yarda and Kupt created the Office of the Four Chamberlains. One Chamberlain chosen from each of the Royal Houses, Erom, Arge, Molof and Fanau, who would in time of need choose an heir from House Erom. They were also given the responsibility of choosing the heir’s mate. Before there could be celebration over Yarda and Kupt’s ingenuity, however, one large obstacle had to be overcome. An heir could not be chosen when there were nine heirs with a stronger claim to the throne than any heir that the Chamberlains may have chosen. So Yarda and Kupt did the only thing they could. They gathered their children for a feast, and poisoned all of them. After the Chamberlains’ had secured an heir, the High Royal and High Consort succumbed to their grief and guilt over having murdered their own progeny. They poisoned themselves and thus began the mournful reign of Hern the Great and Yalla.
"That was amazing, Yoseth. Absolutely amazing!" Chela gushed, adrenaline still coursing through her veins from the intensity of the play. "I’ve never seen anything like that in my life! I don't think I've ever gone so quickly from laughter to tears. Look, I'm still crying!"
The High Consort grinned at her and gently closed the door behind himself. "It is a rush, isn’t it? Nobody can put on a show like that troupe. Every time I see them it’s a revelation. I’m glad you enjoyed it."
"How do they do it? I mean, how do they draw everybody in, make them feel like they’re in the story like that? Is there some trick to it?" she asked him, still astonished by the reaction she had to a simple stageplay.
"Of course there’s a trick to it. True, they are talented actors, but more than that, they’re every single one of them magical geniuses."
"Magic? I’ve never seen magic that can do that kind of thing. No illusion feels that real. And no holo or vid looks that real, either."
"Believe me, it’s magic. Every member of that troupe is a level four mage at least. They won’t accept anything below that."
"Level four? But, isn’t that criminal?" Chela herself was a level three mage; trained specifically in the arts of deception by an outlaw whose magic was so strong he rated off the scales. She was well aware of what was legal when it came to practicing magic. She also knew quite well which technology was allowed to the different classes. A tight reign was kept on both technology and magic. Magic was a nuisance, but technology was dangerous, and the combination of the two was something feared by the Royal Houses.
"Oh, no. There are special provisions made, they’re licensed and legal to practice their occupational spells." Yoseth smiled down at her then took her hand in his. "You’re not looking very comfortable there. What do you say we put that necklace back in her box?"
"Oh, oh yeah. Of course! I forgot I was wearing the grapping thing!" Chela laughed, and levered herself up out of the chair. Standing only inches from him, she could smell the faint scent of lilacs and look directly into the sky of his eyes. "You’re taller!"
"No I’m not. I’m just wearing shoes." He grinned, his eyes flashing. Mussing his hair unconsciously, he led her once again to the mirror by the desk. Unclasping the necklace, he let it slither from her skin to fall with a soft rattle into his hand. Chela stood looking at herself while he put the jewels in their proper place. "Does that hurt?"
His warm fingers were brushing her collarbone, indicating the dark indented divots of skin where the weight of the necklace had left its mark. She brushed her own fingers across the dents, a mockery of his thrilling touch. Her voice when she spoke was husky. "Not when you do that."
His hand hesitated, and they made eye contact in the mirror. Dark blue and light blue touched, the sky and the sea meeting in the reflection. The longing his eyes gave away was so intense that Chela flinched and looked down. His hand dropped away from her and inside she cried out no, that’s not what I meant! Reaching for anything to say, she blurted, "Do you mind if I take these silly things out of my hair?"
"No, go ahead." Yoseth answered, trying to cover his emotions with a false note of cheeriness.
There were only three feathers skewering her hair, but there were far too many pins holding everything in place. She succeeded in removing one feather before the other two became hopelessly tangled. Trying everything from coaxing them verbally to yanking viciously at them, she quickly decided it was fruitless.
"Oh, help!" she cried. "With the rate I’m going, I’ll have to cut all my krukking hair off!"
"No you don’t! Here, sit down; let me see if I can help. We don’t want you chopping off all this gorgeous stuff now." He sat her down on the edge of the bed and began toying with her hair, removing every pin he encountered. Chela closed her eyes and enjoyed his gentle touch. His fingers in her hair felt delicious, drawing soft sighs of pleasure from her and sending chills throughout her body. She felt ready to weep when he was done. "There, all set."
"Do you have a hairbrush I might use? I’m feeling pretty tangled." She breathed, trying to steady herself.
"In the bath, right through that door."
Stepping into the bath, she squealed when she discovered that he didn’t have the usual sanitizer. "You have a bathtub! A bathtub! Lilac soap! No wonder you always smell so good!"
Her glee brought him to the door, and he leaned against the frame, smiling at her happiness. "I’m a firm believer in water."
"I haven’t had a real wash in ages! Will you let me borrow your tub sometime? It would be so nice to actually bathe." The word ‘bathe’ came out as barely a breath, her eyes closed, imagining how exquisite it would feel to be immersed in hot water again. Wet hair and the feel of a nice dry towel wrapped around her afterwards. Heavenly.
"Would you like me to draw you one? I’m more than happy to, if you let me." Yoseth offered.
Chela looked at him with wide eyes for a second. Then a slow smile spread across her face. "Holy grap! You’re serious, aren’t you?"
"Of course I am, bush head." He grinned, reaching out and tugging a wild curl. "Do you like your bath with or without bubbles?"
"With, of course!" she hooted, and threw herself bodily at him, wrapping him tightly in her arms and drawing a soft ‘oof’ from him. His arms circled her and he buried his face in her unkempt mane.
"You know, if you want that bath, you’re going to have to let me loose." Yoseth teased, rubbing his hand gently down her back. Loosening her hold on him, she moved back a couple inches and looked smilingly at him. His eyes told her it was too much for him to bear. He leaned forward into her and tasted her lips. She melted into the kiss.
His mouth danced his desire on the flesh of her neck and shoulders and back to her hungry lips, moaning her name. His hands pulled at ribbons and laces, desperate to feel as much of her as he possibly could against him. Her hands gripped his hair, pulling him into her kisses fervently. His breathing was coming harder, and she could feel his chest heaving against hers as he crushed her to him. "Chela, will you…"
"Yes!" she replied, softly but firmly as well. She kissed him hard then, dragging on his lower lip and pushing frantically at his overtunic.
"Is this all right…"
"Oh, blessed Arva, yes!" By the time they arrived at the bed, Yoseth was in trousers and boots and Chela had decided that no matter how nice they looked on, gowns most definitely had too much gown to them. Deliberately slowing him, she took a moment to properly release her corset, letting it fall to the floor.
* * *
Breathless they lay in each others arms, allowing the waves of satisfaction to wash over them. Yoseth repeatedly kissed Chela’s face all over, unafraid to show his affection. Chela lay there deep in thought, regulating her breathing and letting the refreshingly cold air of the bedchamber seep into her sweating body. She tried to convince herself that this was only a means to an end, a way to deceive him into trusting her even more than he did now. A way to achieve her objective. She was knew she was lying to herself. He meant so much more to her than that. I have to tell him. It’s not right! Why should I have to love him, he’s my enemy! He has to know, I can’t keep him in the dark. I have to tell him.
"Yoseth?" she began haltingly, pained at what she was about to do to herself, her love, and her cause.
"Yes, my beautiful Chela?" he adoringly kissed the tip of her nose. His arms pulled her closer.
"I have something I need to tell you." Almost there, just a little more!
"You don’t need to be embarrassed, sweet lady. I could tell." He kissed between her eyebrows.
"What? That too, but that’s not what I need to tell you. It’s much worse than that." Very nervous now, skin prickling, but I’m going to say it!
"Oh? Much worse, eh? What is it then?" he asked softly, and she could see that he was almost asleep. Better spit it out, then.
"I’m not Nimue Holtz." There! Said it! Chela was prepared for any reaction but the one she got.
"Oh, I already knew that." Yoseth mumbled, then he drifted into the dream realm.
"Operative Jaktiani, what is the word from our watcher in the palace?" snapped a paunchy, middle-aged uni. Elder Cik. Its face was pinched with displeasure, forseeing the unsatisfactory reply it was about to hear. Cik’s heavy, hairless browridge was pulled low, hooding its eyes, strongly emphasized by the lack of facial pigmentation. Several of the other Elders in the chamber shared Cik’s expression. Kiran cleared his throat nervously.
"I have had no news from Operative Chela, Elder. I fear she has been discovered." The man hung his head as he spoke, barely able to raise his voice above a whisper. The Elders already knew what he had to tell. It was why he'd been called to the meeting. For a small moment shame overwhelmed his feelings of concern for his fosterling. All my years of faithful service to the SLG are slipping through my fingers because of this, and I can do nothing about it! Tears prickled behind his eyes and he forced himself out of his self-pity by remembering of Chela’s plight.
"If she has been discovered, our entire mission is in jeopardy. We cannot let that be. What are our options, Yarl?" the speaker was a short, stocky human woman in her late fifties who was a shadow of her obvious former beauty. A heavy crease was worn between her sculpted brows from years of worry and overwork. Elder Rue. She had been well known in her youth as one of the highest quality escorts available in Bardotonankion
Yarl was the youngest Elder, not even halfway through his twenties. His baby-face and exuberant mannerisms made him appear even younger than he was, and if Kiran had been judging him on these traits alone, he would be hard-pressed to understand what Yarl was doing on the Council. But the young man had a reputation in the SLG as one of the most successful Freedom Runners in history, and had led more than nine thousand slaves to freedom offworld in his eight years as an operative. He also had the greatest strategic mind in the room. He was quicker than a fairy-trap.
"The way I see it," Yarl said brightly, tapping three-quarter time on the tabletop with his fingers, "We have several. Not a single one is low risk, however. We could cut our losses and scrap the entire operation, leaving the girl to fend for herself. We could act with the limited information we’ve already been provided. We could give her another week, see what happens."
There were displeased mutters around the meeting table at his statements. Some of the Elders were unwilling to abandon the plan they had worked so many months on, others were resistant to the idea of another week lost with no news from the girl. Almost all of them felt that trying to continue the scheme with the little they knew was suicide. None of them liked the idea of losing a good agent. Yarl raised a hand patiently and the chatter died down.
There were nods of approval all around the table, and softly spoken questions as to the identity of the stealth team they would send. Elder Rue whispered something to the Elder beside her, and it nodded and whispered to her in return. Smiles were breaking out as the Council regained its customary good nature.
Elder Cik’s voice cut roughly through the purposeful talk. "I don’t think we should send an entire team in. What if this Chela girl has gone rogue? I can’t justify risking an entire band of scouts for a single girl."
There were several murmurs of assent, but Elder Rue cut them short. "Since when have you become a coward, Cik? I recall you had no qualms about sending in a full crew when your protégé Dallan got himself in a fix. I also recall that trip to the Yaeso penal colony I took with a contingent when you had gotten your grapping carcass indicted for political dissent! You didn’t mind risking those agents, did you? Someone must go after Operative Chela. This Guild is not made for ‘cutting our losses’, as Elder Yarl so eloquently put it. Even the least of us deserves to have someone attempt to rescue us if we are in need of rescue."
Elder Cik raised its hands as if they were a wall with which the uni could block Rue’s verbal onslaught. "I am simply saying that there is potential for an extreme loss of personnel if we send a team into the palace. I personally was astonished at the ease with which we inserted Operative Chela into such a high security emplacement. Mark me, if we try to send a rescue squad, there will be loss of life!"
"And what of the loss we suffer if we don’t retrieve her? There is only so much we can do without the intelligence she was to provide us. We cannot carry out our plan without it! And I will not sacrifice this girl because you fear the palace guards, Cik!" Rue shouted.
"We cannot sacrifice an entire team, I say! It is an unacceptable risk!" Cik returned her outburst, standing so violently that its chair shot back and hit the wall, tipping noisily to the floor.
Kiran looked on in amazement the two Elders continued their argument, Rue growing redder in the face and Cik growing paler with every verbal volley. Every yell drew muted calls of support from the other Councilmembers
"Of course we shall have to see what Je-an says, but I have an idea that may work, my Esteemed colleagues. What would you say…" he paused melodramatical
Both of the battling Elders looked at Yarl wide-eyed. Slowly a smile spread across Cik’s pasty face, and Rue nodded. It was a good compromise. Cik moved to sit again and barely caught itself on the table when there was no chair where the chair should have been. Sheepishly Cik retrieved the chair and sat, struggling to maintain its dignity. Kiran barely stifled his laugh, and a few of the Elders didn’t bother.
"Now that we have that settled," said a tall, courtly volix Elder that Kiran didn’t recognize. "Who do we send?"
"I’ll go." Kiran heard himself say it before he knew he was going to. His dark complexion masked the flush he felt creeping up his face at his rare nerve.
"You, Operative Jaktiani? Why you?" Yarl leaned toward Kiran, looking interested. His youthful face was deceptively sweet.
"Because, Elder Yarl, she is my daughter. I owe it to her."
"Let me pay her, oh please, Kiran!" Chela’s sweet voice called to him as he entered the combat studio where the girl trained two days a week. She’d become quite the little expert at hand to hand combat in the past three years, and he was rather proud of her accomplishment
"If you show me what you learned today, I’ll give you two knaves and a jester!" he shouted as she ran off to hand the weekly payment to Denela, her self-defense teacher. The petite sprite pocketed the money then stood on the practice mat, feet spread and knees bent, nodding Chela into place opposite her. The tall nine year old almost matched the woman in size.
"Stance!" barked Denela, her voice surprisingly loud in Kiran’s ears. Chela instantly snapped into a ready position, half-crouched with her hands raised shoulder height. Her face took on an intensely serious expression, her full, pretty mouth puckered in concentration. She watched her instructor unblinkingly.
Faster than Kiran could account for Denela was inside Chela’s grasp, arms wrapped tightly around the girl, squeezing her mercilessly. The child gave a small grunt and then seemed to collapse in on herself, sliding smoothly from the woman’s deathgrip. Without a seconds hesitation, Chela was between the sprite's legs and her foot was swinging up to land a blow to the woman’s knee, staggering her. Before Denela could steady herself, Chela knocked her completely off balance and snaked herself around her body, effectively pinning her to the floor on her back. The girl grinned fiercely and feigned a jabbing blow to the woman’s face. Then she climbed off her instructor and assisted her to her feet, nodding respectfully.
"Your daughter is a good student." Denela said to him, smiling tightly. Chela beamed, knowing that she’d made her instructor proud. Denela was not free with her praise, and when it was given, it was genuine. Kiran smiled in return and inclined his head, thanking her with his eyes.
Outside the studio, Kiran handed Chela her earnings and hugged her. Still glowing from the praise of her teacher, she hugged him back tightly, something she was doing less often lately. He shook his head at the thought of how quickly she was growing up. It seemed that just last week she was bringing him her primer, begging him to help her sound out a new word. Now she was turning into a young woman. Releasing her from the hug, he held his hand out to her and she took it unquestioningl
"Oh, this is easy!" she giggled, flashing a smile at him. "The biggest one is Mount Mountain, see, you can see it peeking over the buildings there!"
"Which direction is that?"
"Southwest!" she answered promptly. The drill was familiar to her.
"And what’s the second landmark?"
"Galaxy District. It’s a great big market with everything! It’s in the east quadrant, right? Mannyn’s Maker sells spells and potions there. Mannyn says that the tourists can’t get enough of stuff like that, and that they live good because of it. I don’t like it there, it’s too squishy."
Kiran couldn’t stifle the laugh that bubbled up at her statement. Only Chela could think to call the mass of humanity filtering through the Galaxy District marketplace squishy. "And the third?"
"The slave market." The girl whispered, her voice a mixture of fear and fascination. Every Seddan felt the same way about the slave market, what the governance had the gall to call ‘Center Sed’. Fascination at the workings of the slavetrade, the buying and selling of sentient creatures of all types to those wealthy enough to afford it. Sed being a hotspot of tourist activity, both planetary and offworld, there were plenty who could afford a slave or two. Fear because every single resident of the city was subject to capture and sale as a slave.
"Yes, the slave market. I’ve never taken you there, because it’s not a place I like to go. I have no wish to see my fellow beings bought and sold like so much merchandise. But it is a place that every Seddan must see at least once." Kiran’s voice was raised so she could hear him above the rumble of the crowd surrounding them. The crush of people had become more compact as the buildings on either side narrowed the street and made it almost funnel-like. Chela squeezed close to Kiran, both of her hands gripping his. He could see the bewilderment on her face. He knew she had not experienced a crowd like this one since the riot that had brought them together. She looked at him questioningly, a look that turned to horror as she realized what was happening.
"No, no Kiran!" she wailed, trying to push him against the rushing tide of people moving toward the slavemarket. "I don’t want to go there! I don’t want to see it!"
"It’s time, Chela. You need to see what really happens to your fellow citizens when the soldiers take them." He spoke firmly, but bent down to her level and kept his eyes on hers. Ignoring the jostling of the eager crowd, he held her there with his eyes until her panic had subsided a bit. Tugging on one of her long brown curls, he gave her a solemn smile. "I promise we won’t stay long, my child. I can’t stand it either."
Giving in with a whimper, Chela allowed him to pick her up and move forward with the crowd. After a few minutes of being pressed like pilchards, the crowd burst past the confining buildings and spread out onto an immense balcony circling the well of an amphitheatre. Kiran set Chela on the flat surface of the balcony’s thick wall, wrapping his arms around her waist in what could be taken as both a loving gesture and a protective one. The little girl’s legs dangled over the edge of the wall, and she could lean forward just slightly and see the tops of people’s heads.
Chela’s terror soon faded into fascination as she studied the amphitheatre below her. It was separated into three sections. The risers served as seating for the countless nobles and offworlders participating in the auction, with a shimmering blue fence that the girl knew to be a neuroshield dividing the buyers from the stage beyond it. The stage itself was small, only big enough for three or four to stand on at once. There was another neuroshield on the far side of the stage, this one with a gate. Beyond that were gathered people. People of every species Chela had ever seen. Human and volix stood side by side with elfs and werewolves, pixies with clipped wings sat on the shoulders of fae who also suffered the indignity of clipped wings. Far in the back of this motley collection lay a dragon, looking severely depressed. Crooning to it and softly stroking its head was a woman with snakes for hair. Chela knew her name.
"Kiran, there’s Marta! What’s she doing there? She’s our neighbor!" Chela growled. She could feel Kiran’s sigh against her back.
"Dominic said she was taken yesterday. Nobody knows why, but he thinks it’s because she’s an ‘exotic’. Some cretin with a snake fetish will most likely pay big bucks for her, my child."
"That’s not right, Kiran! Why doesn’t somebody do something to stop it?" she was far too angry to ask him what a fetish was. Something about feet, probably.
"There are people who are trying to do something, my child. I’ll tell you about it later. For now, watch the auction." He waved one of his hands toward the stage, and Chela caught sight of the faded tattoo on the inside of his wrist. She gasped in recognition and he grabbed her waist again, thinking that she was frightened of falling without his arms around her. Glancing up at her, he saw she was looking raptly at the amphitheatre below.
Chela had happened upon something she didn’t understand and was struggling to get a grasp on. Kiran’s opposition to slavery was no secret to her, and neither was the existence of the terrorist organization known as the Slave Liberation Guild. Their Guildmark was plastered everywhere in Sed. A circle with two parallel horizontal lines running through it. But she had never before explored the idea that he might have anything to do with the SLG. They were outlaws, right? Bad people who did bad things to others because they thought having slaves was wrong, right? Is it wrong? Is everyone that has a slave a cretin? What’s a cretin? Kiran says there are people trying to do something about it, does he mean the SLG? How come I never noticed that tattoo before? Chela rolled things around in her young brain as she watched person after person sold into involuntary servitude.
As she watched and thought deeply about Kiran’s tattoo and the SLG Guildmark, her sight turned inward until all she could see was the circular outline of the amphitheatre, slashed through horizontally by the two parallel glowing fences. That and the identical image in faded green ink on the dusky skin of her beloved surrogate Maker. She didn’t want to admit what it meant.
"You smell like you've been in someone's bed." Nerro said without preamble, wrinkling its nose at her.
"And you would know that exactly how?" Chela demanded, pulling the blanket up to cover her nakedness from the young uni’s eyes. Strangely she felt no shame, just a desire for the common courtesy of averted eyes when too much skin was showing. Nerro did not oblige.
"Because I have parents. And a heightened sense of smell." The volix retorted with a melodramatic snort. Pinching its nose, Nerro feigned a swoon and sank into one of the comfy chairs in Chela’s bedchamber. "Please, shower. The stench is killing me!"
"Oh, all right!" Chela huffed good-naturedly
"Certainly, my Lady." Nerro replied, not moving from the comfy chair.
Chela passed up the speedy sanitizer in favor of the water shower Yoseth had installed for her. It wouldn’t hurt Nerro to wait for her. Adjusting the temperature, the girl stepped under the spray of water and simply reveled in it for a moment. All those months without a real shower, and now I have one of my very own! Yoseth had been kind to her, giving her everything she could desire and even many that she never knew she could desire. As she washed, she ran through her mind the events of the past few weeks.
She recalled the moment of panic when Yoseth told her that he knew she wasn’t Nimue Holtz. She had laid there for long minutes with the cruel claws of fear tearing at her while she weighed his words. He knew. How long had he known? How had he known? Was he the only one who knew? Why was she still here with him if he knew she was an impostor? Did he know she was an SLG agent? How much did he really know? Almost at the point of tears, she shook Yoseth awake and assailed him with questions.
He had comforted her, enfolded her in his strong arms, reassuring her that she was safe, that he was the only one who knew her secret. How had he known she was an impostor? Because he was very familiar with the real Nimue Holtz. She had been intended for him before the Chamberlains had chosen him to be the High Consort. Chela was nothing like the other girl, he claimed. Her courtly manners weren’t as polished, but besides that, their personalities were almost completely opposite. Where Chela was generous and forgiving, Nimue was jealous and selfish. Where Nimue was arrogant and demanding, Chela was humble and bighearted. And according to Yoseth, Nimue was much less attractive in an evening gown. He claimed that he'd employed Chela in order to keep a careful watch on her. Instead he had been charmed by her.
"Why didn’t you challenge me when I gave you her name?" Chela asked him.
"It didn’t suit me to." He grinned.
Her main concern after that was how much the High Consort actually knew of her and her purpose for being in the palace. He knew surprisingly little, although he had assumed it was some illicit activity, though exactly what he couldn’t say. Unable to keep it from him, Chela told him of her involvement with the SLG. He was concerned, but not for the reasons she thought he should be.
"But it’s so dangerous, being an outlaw, isn’t it?" he asked, worried for her well being, not in the least his own. She laughed at him, explaining that she had been brought up to it, trained from childhood to be a secret agent.
"But how is that possible? You’re noble." He couldn’t conceive that she might not be noble, as all malix were. The laws were absolute on the intermixing of human and volix genes: none but Royalty and Nobility were allowed to intermingle to produce offspring of mixed species. Thus all malix were noble, and Chela must be noble. She found the idea rather silly.
"If I’m nobility, I don’t know it. I never knew my Maker, and since my Bearer died when I was so young, I’ll never know who the lucky volix is. For all I know it might have been another medic or any one of the quarriers in Sed. I’m not even sure I’m registered." Yoseth was aghast at this, and insisted that just because she didn’t know who her Maker was, it didn’t mean her Maker was a commoner.
"That kind of thing happens all the time, my beautiful Chela. Children are gotten on servants, slaves, even those outside the household. It’s not the fault of the children. As innocents, all children born to a noble parent are given the rights of a noble. Grap, Chela, Gahered has been Maker to about half a dozen servant-born children, and has carried at least two that I had no part in Making." After that, Chela let the subject lie. Gratefully, so had Yoseth.
He had courted her like a schoolchild in the days since, providing her every whim, treating her like she was the living incarnation of his Bearer’s incredible necklace. Unconcerned about what the rest of the Court may think, he lavished her with every gift he could afford—and he could afford much. Chela was quite overwhelmed.
In the evenings he would dine with her, spend hours talking with her, learning her more intimately than was possible when she was simply working for him. And she learned much about him in that time too.
He was unruffled by her admittance to being a spy for the SLG because he himself was an advocate of freedom for slaves. He brought to her attention something that she should have noticed but never had: he employed no slaves for anything other than matters of state, relying on the work of willing and well-paid servants and freebeings. Chela was gratified to learn this.
After several intimate hours, her hunger for him would grow out of control, and they would end up having a go at it furiously or gently, however things developed at the time. Chela’s body tingled simply remembering it. She was learning to live with only a little sleep, because there were just not enough hours in the day to perform her duties of Service and have a full-scale love affair. Chela was surprised to find that it had been more than two weeks since she had reported to Kiran at SLG headquarters. She vaguely wondered if he was well, and then her mind turned once again to Yoseth and last night’s intense lovemaking.
Stepping from the shower, she wrapped a towel about herself and returned to her bedchamber. Nerro had done as requested and ordered her morning clothes from the wardrobe, setting them out neatly on the bed for her. Grinning, she kissed the uni fondly on the head and gave her thanks, to which the grumbled reply was something about taking long enough to shower. Nerro had chosen the gaudiest orange and gold trousers and brown and gold tunic in the armoire. Her stockings were bright orange, but at least the overtunic was a sensible brown.
"I’ll look like Autumn Festival in these!" she exclaimed, and Nerro joined her laughter.
"I thought you’d better dress brightly so I don’t lose you in all the greenery." Chela noticed then that Nerro was wearing a tunic of bright pink and purple, and below the purple trousers the uni had on horizontally striped yellow and pink stockings.
"And what is it we’re doing today that requires such bright clothing?" Chela inquired.
"I thought a visit to the Menagerie would be fun. After breakfast, of course!"