About Space & Time
The Galaxy is a big place. No matter how well you prepare, you aren’t ready for it.
Jregli thought she was tricking someone into buying her; she got more than a new Master. Shdr’edno thought he was buying a machine, and he got a slave who outsmarts him at every turn. Frank Neim thought he was pursuing a military career, and he got an opportunity to fail. Their lives collide as they try to survive Space & Time.
“It also gives the Sons opportunity to learn better manners; some of those boys have the social skills of a hungry urr’l,” Rnn’fern noted dryly. Kkle’drqo chuckled.
“Come now, Jregli; let me make known to you our home here and the Children of the Stars Watchers who live here.” Kkle’drqo’s welcoming gesture was grace itself. If Jregli could gain even a fraction of that … well, the time here would be well worth it.
Mmm, no. The time here would be well worth it if she could gain that fraction and make her plan work.
There wasn’t much to the Stars Watchers quarters, so the tour didn’t take long. Upstairs were the sleeping areas; downstairs were the learning and work rooms. Most of the sleeping rooms were neatly partitioned for additional privacy. The unmated Dancers shared the rooms on the upper left, and the unmated Brothers on the right. Mated couples shared two of the rooms in the upper center, and Matron and Patron split the centermost room.
Jregli was surprised to learn that Kkle’drqo and Rnn’fern were not mated to one another. Kkle’drqo’s mate was an unassuming man named Gpo’wkil, and Rnn’fern’s mate was Oonh’kill, who had more energy than Jregli thought healthy. She was as bright and bubbly as Gpo’wkil was plain, as though trying to compensate for his lacking.
The sleeping quarters were spacious by Yerbran standards, though just as bland as the rest of the decor. Jregli had learned through her studies that many Races preferred having large, open places to rest and huge nests (rather, beds) to sleep on. A proper Yerbran nest was just big enough for the person or couple occupying it and was usually built into a wall. The thought of sleeping in the wide open made Jregli’s scales crawl. Granted, her nest at the Pub was not “proper,” but the storeroom was normally dim, and she had some shelves above her head, so it wasn’t too bad.
“You may notice that there are more nests than Children,” Kkle’drqo said just as Jregli was about to ask. “Those here are but a small portion of our family’s number. We came ahead of them to make preparations, to ascertain if this was indeed a good place to bring the rest.”
“How many Children of the Stars Watchers family are here, Matron?” Shdr’edno would want to know.
“We brought thirty Dancers and five Daughters, thirty Brothers and five Sons, and three pairs of Cousins.”
Jregli twitched her tail in curiosity, which Kkle’drqo warmly satisfied.
“Daughters and Sons are those of the family who are training to become Dancers or Brothers, yet are still younglings. When they become adults, they may become Dancers and Brothers. To call an adult a Daughter or Son is either an endearment or a rebuke.” Mmm, that would be why Kkle’drqo had referred to Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl that way.
“Cousins are those of the Family who are neither Dancers nor Brothers. They perform many vital tasks for the family: managing our funds and businesses, procuring supplies, facilitating communication, and the like. Their work enables us to pursue the Dance.
“As you may well have guessed, I oversee the Dancers and Daughters, and Rnn’fern oversees the Brothers and Sons. We each brought two instructors to assist us. As Matron and Patron, we have administrative duties beyond the Dance itself. You will spend much of your lessons with them and your particular teachers.”
Jregli broke off her admiring of Kkle’drqo’s green markings at that. “My particular teachers, Matron?”
“Yes, dear child. I have assigned Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl to you; they will be responsible for your education among us.” Kkle’drqo seemed quite pleased with herself. Jregli was not as pleased.
Jujk’anrl and Gp’nifse did not approve of Jregli, that was abundantly clear. Jregli wasn’t Dancer material, and the two were not likely to appreciate having her tag along after them. Jregli would, no doubt, learn more about how humiliating it was to be stuck with a deformed child than how to Dance.
“You are a bit older than is customary for a new Daughter,” Kkle’drqo commented as she led the way down the stairs and into one of the lesson rooms.
“Then I am doubly grateful for your generosity in considering me, Matron.” Jregli carefully seated herself on one of the cushions, opposite Kkle’drqo.
“It is not always a generous thing to take so old a child as a Daughter. The things we teach are best learned from a very young age. It is possible for even an adult to learn our ways and the Dance, but it is by far easier to begin when five Cycles old.” Kkle’drqo picked up a pitcher and cup from a tray beside her, filled the cup, and offered it to Jregli. Shocked that the Matron would serve a mere “Daughter”, Jregli belatedly reached to accept the drink.
“Our ways are much different than those of our Race,” Kkle’drqo continued, serving herself. “We consider all to have equal value, and we do not demand proof of that value before we believe it. We do not look to take from others, and we do not practice defeat. We encourage ourselves to excel, to improve, to push our personal limits, but never at the expense of any other. Do you think that many of our Race would find these things simple to accept?”
“No, Matron. Most would find it … mmm, obscene, to be honest.” Jregli took a sip of her cup, enjoying the cool water.
“This is so. It is why we do not often take Daughters or Sons from those older than twelve Cycles; by that age, younglings have begun to accustom themselves to the ways of Yerbra and find it too hard to adjust their thinking. What we teach is not merely a pattern of steps upon a stage; we teach a new pattern of life. You, however, I think will be able to make this change.”
Jregli shifted uncomfortably. This wasn’t exactly what she had thought of when she’d started admiring the Children of the Wind. She’d known they were different, but not this different. It was one thing to read up on a group of people, and it was entirely another to hear them speak about themselves. When she’d studied other Races, Jregli had found it comparatively easy to accept the oddities of their cultures; after all, these were alien Races which were by definition unfathomable. But the Children of the Wind were Yerbran.
Kkle’drqo savored her water while she spoke. “Your mind is incredibly facile, Jregli, and you tack well to the changings of the winds. This is why I believe you will have an easier time learning than another of your age. Although you will likely have some difficulty with the physical aspects of the Dance.”
Jregli ducked her head. “Yes, Matron. I realize that I will never be able to perform. I hope to learn something of the Dancer’s grace and movement; I do not expect too much of myself. My body is stunted–”
“Broken would be a better word, child.” Kkle’drqo assessed Jregli coolly. “Let us have no secrets or pretense. No child is so badly off as you without interference of some kind. Either you fell to a horrible accident, or the horror that happened to you was no accident. I feel it is the latter.”
Jregli flattened herself against the cushion. Hearts pounding, she wildly wondered what Kkle’drqo would do. Surely she wouldn’t try to expose them!
“Speak plainly. Are you the slave of the ‘Ovvunnith?”
“Yes, Matron,” Jregli whispered, beginning to tremble.
“Is he the reason your body and voice are broken?”
“Oh, no, Matron! He is the best Master I’ve had! He’s never hurt me, only laid the gentlest of touches on me!”
“How did you come to this physical state?”
Now that Kkle’drqo had asserted her status, had reinforced the she was an adult and Jregli was a slave, there was no point in dissembling. So Jregli told the Matron her life story, condensing it but not avoiding the pertinent details. Well … she did leave out a few things about Shdr’edno. Wouldn’t do to cast a dim light on her current Master. Or mention his instructions for her time among the Dancers.
She kept her voice level and her body flattened, tail curled up and under. The cup rested on the floor to the side, untouched. Slaves did not drink in the presence of adults. Slaves did not raise themselves up in the presence of adults.
“Interesting. Not many slaves would dare seek a new Master or Mistress, no matter how cruel. I have known numerous slaves, and none have shown any of the courage you have.”
Kkle’drqo had known slaves? Actually known them, not merely seen them when visiting a lord’s caverns?
“This former Mistress of yours … I do not like the sound of her. She is precisely the kind of woman that we strive to never be. Come here, Jregli; let me see you.” At Kkle’drqo’s gesture, Jregli scurried to her side, again flattening herself to the floor.
Kkle’drqo made a careful examination of Jregli, starting on her back and tail, urging her to stand and show her legs and chest, even peering into Jregli’s mouth. Disconcerting, but not humiliating, so Jregli meekly submitted. After looking, Kkle’drqo stood and demonstrated several movements for Jregli to copy. She then had Jregli recite several phrases and sing some popular songs. Jregli gamely attempted everything Kkle’drqo asked, with varying degrees of success. The singing was, naturally, an abject failure; Kkle’drqo could not conceal a wince at the sound.
“Very well, that is enough for now, Jregli. Sit, child. On the cushion, you need not abase yourself like that here. Now, tell me what hurts.” Kkle’drqo settled herself on her own cushion and looked expectantly at Jregli.
“Hurts, Matron? What do you mean?” Jregli cautiously lowered herself to the cushion (after making sure that Kkle’drqo was firmly settled).
“What I said. You have been grievously injured, therefore you hurt. I need to know what hurts and how. Begin with your tail. Where does it hurt the most?”
Jregli had to think about that. For several minutes. As she did, something surprising revealed itself to her. Something she’d never stopped to consider before, had never paid any attention to. It had never seemed important before, and there had always been more urgent matters to consider. Matters that were more profitable, that she could affect and act upon. This realization had never dawned on her because she’d always known, subconsciously, that she couldn’t do anything about it.
Her whole body hurt. Every bit of it. It seemed that it had always hurt, that something was always jabbing, aching, stinging, or stabbing. As she considered this, the pain she’d become so adept at ignoring roared up with new life and tried to swallow her mind. How had she never noticed this?
“Child! Jregli! What is the matter?!” Kkle’drqo leaned in, arms outstretched, as Jregli gave a soft cry and pitched forward.
“Nnn–It is … nothing … Matron. I … only … a moment, and I will be fine.”
“Do not lie to me, Jregli,” Kkle’drqo rebuked her. “I realize that slaves are not given any medical treatment, but while you are here, you are not a slave. You are a Daughter of the Stars Watchers . Here, take a sip of water, wet your throat. I imagine that your injuries are far more extensive than my simple examination can uncover. Mmm, this will not be easy. Legally, you belong to your Master, yet we have a moral obligation to you. It is our way to care for all the needs of those who join us … but you have not joined us, have you? Your place is a very odd one, and I am not certain how to proceed.”
Jregli focused on reciting Innobin’s fifteenth theoretical principle of aethology and how it could be applied to hyperstellar engineering. As Kkle’drqo fretted, the pain receded. Actually, it didn’t so much go away as Jregli’s awareness of it faded. When Kkle’drqo rose to call someone from outside, Jregli managed to sit up and hold herself steady. She would beat this. She was stronger than this.
“I will be fine, Matron; please; do not extend yourself on my behalf.” Her voice came out firm and calm.
Kkle’drqo spoke over her shoulder. “It is far too late for that, my Daughter.”