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.
Jregli stared at the folded fabric as she set the lid aside. Hesitantly, she picked up a corner and lifted it. As it cleared the box, it unfolded itself, revealing a somewhat rectangular piece of white fabric edged on three sides by a mottled green strip of fabric evenly gathered and a long strip of the same green fabric sewn flat across the fourth side and extending a Unit to either side. The white square was gathered into the long strip, and two smaller squares of the green were patched onto the white. Jregli noted that the green squares were only sewn on three sides, like little pouches.
“What is it?” she wondered.
“Why, it’s an apron!” Mahl cried as Ressnib, Wilson, Inop, the Twins, and their aunt and uncle made approving exclamations. Shdr’edno looked as puzzled as Jregli felt.
“Oh, urbii, it’s just darling! Such a thoughtful gift! A little barmaid should have a little apron to wear!”
“You … I wear it? How?” Despite her confusion, Jregli felt a stirring of excitement. This was clothing?
“Yes! Stand up, stand up! I’ll show you how it goes.” Jregli scrambled to her feet and watched Mahl wrap the “apron” around her waist. “See, she even included a loop here in the front to put the extra length of the ties through; they’re long enough to wrap all the way around you. Such a clever seamstress. Watch how I tie it, urbii, so you can do this for yourself later. Now, there’s a pretty bow for you! And Ketis knew just where to put the pockets, too; they’re in just the right spot for you to reach anything you put there!”
Everyone– except, obviously, Shdr’edno– voiced approval. “It looks lovely! Looks good on you, kiddo. Ah! Little sister! Your gift is a delight upon you!”
Jregli gently stroked the back of her hand across the fabric. It was thicker than the materials normally used to make clothing and yet still soft. The ruffles shifted under her touch, making a quiet sound. She could smell Ketis’ scent, the same warm, earthy scent Jregli associated with Tingorts and yet unique to the female … the woman who’d made it. As Jregli lifted the corners of the apron, she could almost taste the odor of the fibers; they were organic, not fabricated. The dyes, too, were organic; Jregli thought they smelled somewhat sweet and tangy at the same time.
“I do think that Ketis must have sewn this completely by hand,” Mahl gushed. “See how the stitches are just slightly uneven? A machine would have made them all exact, without any personality in them at all! A hand-made item always has a bit of the maker in it!”
Yes, the apron did have something of the alien mother in it, Jregli agreed silently. It had gratitude. And approval. It had the value that this strange female, who’d never met, spoken to, or seen a single Yerbran placed on one ugly, stunted slave.
Jregli felt her tail begin to lift as warmth blossomed in her hearts. This apron was a mark of favor. The responses from the employees were marks of favor. She was favored! And her Master, fume though he might, could not change that!
“Such a clever little garment!” a new voice exclaimed. Everyone spun around to face the speaker, who had come up quietly behind the group. It was the beautiful Dancer from the Glass Room! The two Dancers who’d first noticed Jregli come out of the lavatory stood behind her, and the dashingly handsome Brother stood behind them.
“It does become you, child,” she said kindly. Jregli stared back, dumbfounded.
“My Lady! I bid you most welcome to my humble establishment!” Shdr’edno stepped in smoothly and bowed to the Dancers.
“We are truly well met, my lord,” she replied, and all three of them made the most graceful bows imaginable.
“I am the Master of this place, Shdr’edno nn’ ‘Ovvunnith.”
“I am the Matron of this family of the Children of the Wind, Kkle’drqo nn’ Pherrver of the Uunfe Dpolqr, the Stars Watchers,” she translated for the others, “this is our family Patron, Rnn’fern nn’ Grrevtt, and these Daughters are Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl nn Tonepy. We have been on this Station a brief while and have found it wondrously different. One of our hosts, knowing how this strangeness pressed upon us, mentioned a certain Pub and its owner to us. He indicated we might find something of our Home in it furnishings and might hear the breath of the winds in the master. Our duties have thus far kept us from learning the truth of his words until now.” Kkle’drqo’s rich, sweet voice washed over Jregli, causing a quiver that started in her chambers and ran all the way out her toe claws.
“You have honored me and raised my status with your presence in my establishment. I beg you tell me how I may repay this favor,” Shdr’edno replied. Though his words were exactly proper, they somehow sounded flat and unctuous after the Wind Dancer’s speech.
“I would expect no less, my Lord,” Kkle’drqo said politely. “You will repay us by hearing our apology.”
Shdr’edno paused, nonplussed. Jregli froze, shocked. The others looked at each other, confused.
“The wind is in your favor, my Lady,” Shdr’edno said slowly. “I know of no offense you have given, yet if this apology is so great that it will repay the honor you have given me, I will be most attentive.”
Kkle’drqo bobbed a short bow, and Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl dropped into the lowest bows Jregli had ever seen. Rnn’fern kept his watchful stance, though he lowered his tail respectfully.
“I am told the child Jregli belongs to you. This is so?”
“Yes,” Shdr’edno answered slowly.
“These Daughters have given the child and therefore you great offense. They encountered her at the place called the Glass Room, where we Danced these two nights past. They were impolite in their speech and callow in behavior, insulting the child and not caring that she could hear them. They have been corrected for their actions, and now they offer you their apologies.” Kkle’drqo flicked her claws reprovingly at the two Dancers bent behind her.
“We humbly beg your forgiveness, Lord Shdr’edno,” the two Dancers said in synchronized Yerbran. “We have acted without thought or honor and shamed our family. We have slighted you by slighting she who is in your care. We have betrayed our founder and our sworn way. We have rightly received the wrath of our Matron and Patron and our Sisters and Brothers. We would know what price you place on this crime, that we may repay it in full.”
Jregli’s hearts turned to stones in her chest. NO! Did they have any idea what they had just done!
Shdr’edno tried to keep his lips from curling back with moderate success. This was too perfect! Wind Dancers coming to him, begging him to name a price for an insult? Oh, this was even better than seeing Dko’llp’s face when Shdr’edno had taken the entire shipping line away from him. A feral snarl of triumph was not proper etiquette, but it was so hard to restrain himself! Two fetching young Dancers all his for the asking? How perfect! How perfect indeed!
And something this perfect should not be rushed. Shdr’edno took a deep breath to affect his distress.
“How dreadful! Now I understand why it is the child came back to me in such great upset! Why, she was so overwrought that I could get no word from her about what had happened! Indeed, until this very morning, she has not stirred from her nest; this is the first I have heard of the events of that night. I am deeply affected by the strain that you have caused my child. It will take some time for me to fully consider the ramifications of these things. You must allow me a day or two to consider, and I will consider most carefully, of that you may be certain!”
Kkle’drqo dipped another brief bow and flicked her tail in acknowledgement. “You shall have the time to consider, Lord Shdr’edno; this is a grave matter. We await your answer on the morrow.”
Shdr’edno managed to turn his tail-curl of triumph into one of resigned acknowledgement. Then Kkle’drqo shocked him.
“Child, you are called Jregli?” she gently asked. The child asked felt her petrified hearts explode into motion as the elegant woman focused on her.
“Nnn–nnn … mmm, yes, gracious lady, I-I am,” she somehow managed to reply. Kkle’drqo flicked her claws at the two Dancers again, and they, still bowed to the floor, gracefully turned to Jregli.
“We humbly beg your forgiveness, child Jregli. We have acted without thought or honor and shamed our family. We have slighted you and slighted the one who cares for you. We have betrayed our founder and our sworn way. We have rightly received the wrath of our Matron and Patron and our Sisters and Brothers. We would know what price you place on this crime, that we may repay it in full.”
Jregli’s legs buckled, and she fell to the floor with a loud thump. Shdr’edno looked like he wanted to fall over as well, but he remained standing. He was so stunned that he couldn’t even protest the unprecedented, even obscene, action.
“Yo–you–you– Don’t apologize to me!” Jregli wailed. “Don’t ever apologize! You are great and noble and beautiful and–and–and I don’t deserve any apologies! I’m a child, a– You don’t have to apologize to me!”
Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl recoiled slightly at her outburst, and Gp’nifse’s tail twitched slightly, though with what emotion was unclear since Rnn’fern immediately tapped it with his toe-claw. Kkle’drqo bobbed once.
“We understand your confusion, child. It is not the way of most Yerbrans to consider younglings, but we are the Children of the Wind, and we consider everyone we encounter. Younglings have the same rights as adults among us, and we extend that courtesy to you. These Daughters insulted you; therefore we have insulted you. You have the right, even as your Lord does, to claim recompense.”
Jregli could only stutter nonsense.
“Take ease, child Jregli. This is some shock to you. When we return for your Lord’s answer, we will hear yours, as well. For now, we shall leave you to think. And to enjoy your lovely garment,” she added with warmth. Kkle’drqo and Rnn’fern bowed again, Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl dipped their heads, and then the four left.
“Well, that was nice of them!” Mahl commented brightly.
Jregli remained on the floor, unable to move. There was no … what had just … Why??
She knew that the Wind Dancers, all the Children of the Wind, were different, that they didn’t hold to the same social standards of the rest of Yerbra, but what did they think they were doing? How could they even think of speaking to a child, a child they did not know and who held no potential status? They knew she had no status because Shdr’edno had called her his child, not his heir or progeny or any of the other terms used for a child who was being groomed to inherit. Kkle’drqo had called Shdr’edno Jregli’s “Lord,” so she knew that Jregli was nothing. Did she suspect that Jregli was a slave?
It was impossible to tell, just as it was impossible to understand why she’d forced her Dancers to apologize. If all of them were like that, treating younglings like that … Jregli wasn’t so sure she wanted to be like them anymore. They were too bizarre.