Divine Freedom I
The Lady’s Justice
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Elaeis needed rest.
Aching muscles in her legs and feet demanded relief.
Surrendering, she closed her eyes. Darkness embraced her, briefly. Torn from her respite by the sting of a whip, she awoke startled, but not surprised. Exposed flesh burnt across the bridge of her nose.
Nearby, an Instructor standing on a pedestal, swiftly reprimanded other drowsy slaves with his whip. They were to remain awake until the end of the Offering. Perhaps if they were allowed to move or stretch, the task would not be so difficult. Instead, they were required to stand still, shoulder to shoulder, unable to turn freely. Obediently, every slave faced the elliptical colosseum’s center.
Built from towering volcanic rock, the tiers of the colosseum were saturated in red-orange hues. The light reflected a ring of lava that separated the congregation from a raised column of polished stone, spanning hundreds of feet in height, placed in the heart of the amphitheater.
The column’s top surface was level with Elaeis’ tier. She kept her gaze downwards though, focusing on the legs of the man in front of her, rather than the stage. He had well-stitched leather trousers, she observed the seams.
Stacked beneath their tier on separate platforms were levels of Mortilli and their necromantic overlords. Above them was the echelon of elite slaves that resided within the Lady’s Fortress, known as the Vigere.
Elaeis was amongst the Labor, between the two; not disposable, not prosperous, nothing more than a worker.
Scratching her ear, she tugged at the lobe, then fiddled with the long, pointed cartilage, “Stand tall, she says to we,” She softly recited, “let us not wither from the light of our Queen, she, thy Lady.” Falling quiet, she lowered her hands so that her fingertips touched together, palms held gently open.
A nudge in her side kept her from nodding off again. A childhood friend, Raukaua, who usually stayed near her, cleared his throat and didn’t acknowledge his nudge beyond the small noise.
Rubbing her eyes, she followed his gaze towards the column. How many hours had passed? How many vays?
She had lost track of time a while ago.
Her father’s corpse had begun to attract lava coleoptera, angry thick-shelled beetles that fed on deceased flesh. Behind their fluttering wings, her acute eyesight spied the intricate threads of rope binding his decomposing neck. He was amongst a circular formation of nine similarly displayed slaves, strung up on the massive iron carousel.
The iron device was known as the Offering. In the core center of the metal ring, a tenth slave was barely suspended by ropes, his chest impaled on a conical spike. The body had been dried of blood. Crimson lifeforce streamed down deep grooves in the spike, collecting in an ornate eight foot crystal vase below.
Nausea rolled inside her stomach. Elaeis turned her head towards Rau. Behind her, her mother whispered, “Look forward, not much longer.”
She could hear her younger brother, Burret, hiccuping. His bursting, nervous breath was distinct. Then, someone collapsed.
Stumbling forward, she fell into the man with nicely stitched trousers and he fell into another who cried out in surprise.
Had she been asleep? Elaeis felt groggy, her vision blurring as the mass of bodies pulsated around her. They went tumbling into each other until twisting into a pile of flailing limbs at the walled edge of the level.
A blaring horn echoed, vibrating the surroundings, demanding their wearied attentions.
Carefully separating themselves, no apologies were murmured. Sweaty skinned and waving from exhaustion, they looked to the Instructor, whose whips announced it was time to leave. Turning in near synchronization, they followed the cracking whips to where they were to go.
Jostled by the masses, Elaeis kept her head down, hands together in prayer. On the stage, necromancers had begun to raise the newly dead so that they could join their brethren below. Soon, her father would be amongst the thrumming Mortilli mob. Most likely, he would work in the mines. She’d never seem him again. Her steps slowed, but she was forced to keep moving forward as others marched to the tunnels.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw her father being released from the rope by a couple necromancers. Lava coleoptera took flight into the air, a vibration tornado of reds, leaving her father to hungrily land on the carcass that remained impaled on the spike. That slave, who she did not know, would not be revived. The core Offerings never were.
“Keep in line!”
The command did not go unheeded. She fell into a row as they shuffled into a narrow stone corridor. Magic sparked between cracks in the walls, magma seething underneath. The pressured hissing haunted them as they traveled, weaving through the tunnels to the village path on the other side. As they funneled out from the open iron gates, the crowds kept their collective eyes downward.
Expansive sky jolted most into leisurely pacing. The sun had set. Winds had settled. The moons of the vonth of Capricornus shone high above; one pink, one blue, one orange and one white, the others dark and hidden. From them, there was easily enough light to see. They had a far distance to walk across the Pits. On the sides, upon mounts, Overseers herded stragglers, Occasionally, they had to clear away those who collapsed from exhaustion. She didn’t know where they took the bodies, but assumed they would join the Mortilli, nearly all who died within the Pits did.
Elaeis looked to her mother, who had collected Burret and their younger sister, Tilli. The youth stuck close to the frail matron. Even though Burret surpassed the woman in height, he still held hands as if he was a young boy. Ahead, riding a stunning white capreoe, their Overseer surveyed with a pompous smirk on his thick lips. Elaeis kept her head down as they walked past.
“Overseer Kolbeck,” Her mother broke from the group, shaking her hand to get Burret to let go. Her tone was quiet, gaze fleeting, “May I speak to you, my Seer?” She bowed her shoulders downwards, proud Idaltu heritage diminished underneath the Sapien’s gaze.
“If you must.”
“Might I know when my daughter may be returning, my Seer?”
“Yes, Kass, my dau-”
“Oh, her,” He sneered, “Yes. She’ll be expecting you.”
“Now, my Seer?”
Scoffing, he snapped the reins of his impressive mount to observe the rest of the slaves. Elaeis looked at her mother, moving to walk beside her.
Tilli grabbed Burret’s hand to walk side-by-side, following the older women, “Does that mean Kass will be home?”
“I hope so,” Elaeis mentioned. Their mother was silent, picking up the pace. The closer they got to home, the faster her pace became until Tilli and Burret had to jog to keep up. (Elaeis fell behind with short breath.) Their mother rushed through the entrance with frenzied longing for her eldest daughter to be waiting there.
Searching, their mother hurried past the timber and stone main room to the back room which hid in carved volcanic rock. She called for Kass. It was a mismatched house, but kept out the searing winds that blew through the volcanic corridors. For that, Elaeis was grateful. She smiled, albeit sadly, as she sat at the table. Her siblings joined her, waiting for their mother to finish her search. To them, it was obvious that Kass was not home.
Eventually, she returned, slumping into a chair with a defeated sigh.
“Rest, ma.” Tilli comforted her, standing to put together a meal. None of them had eaten since the morning that they’d waited for word on father’s escape. It wasn’t until they were marched into the colosseum that they found it hadn’t been successful.
They had olives and cactus to eat, still waiting for other harvests. It would be a long while before that happened though only the most hardy plants were able to manage the harsh winds of Saggitarus and Capricornus.
As Tilli set down arranged olives, cactus skins and guts, Elaeis delicately swiped three olives from the bowl. The silence that’d taken over broke when the front door opened. Willem, the eldest, stood in the frame with wide eyes and a sweaty brow. Kass, second eldest, slouched behind him. Her tunic was drenched in moisture.
“Sorry, ma. I wanted to come here first, but we got caught up at the east point.” Willem quickly explained.
“It’s fine, It’s fine, come in.”
Shutting the door, Willem followed Kass to the table. There were only enough chairs for five, so Burret graciously stood since he was finished eating.
“We weren’t sure if you would come straight home.” Kass added as she took Burret’s seat.
“We wanted to check on you.” Willem flopped heavily into his chair with a loud exhale.
“It’s fine, let me see you.”
“How are you doing?” He asked, concerned.
“Fine.” Willem couldn’t dodge his mother’s agile grab as she examined a lesion on the curve of his jaw, “What happened to your chin?”
“Nothing, just a whip.”
“It doesn’t look li-”
“Mom, I need to tell you something.” Kass stood, her tone serious and expression somber.
“Huh?” Confused by the interruption, the woman frowned, “What is it?”
“Can we go to the back?”
“Oh, yes.” She stood, then paused. Her gaze slid over each of her children, “Burret, eat more olives, you need strength.”
“Mom?” Kass waited anxiously at the draped entrance to the back room.
“I don’t really want any more olives.” Burret grumbled.
“Yes, I’m coming.” Their mother waved a hand at Burret as she left to join Kass, “Willem, please.”
Elaeis rolled an olive inside her mouth with her tongue. She considered playing with Tilli, the younger girl seemed quietly upset in the way her gaze was stuck downwards and barely touching her food. Sadness weighed too heavily over the home though. Their father deserved some reverence, some time.
It wasn’t silent for much longer. Willem questioned the youth about what they were going to say when they went to the fields in the next morning. Burret assured them that he’d handle it all, just fine, thank you very much. After that, Willem sent them to their cots, though Elaeis caught him doing a quick glance to check that they had finished eating.
Sitting across from her with a hearty sigh, he smiled weakly before his expression fell. He leaned forward, resting his forehead against his palms.
Elaeis shifted in her seat, unable to keep a steady gaze since she was still tired, “Do you miss him?”
“I guess.” He shrugged.
“You should get to bed, unless you want another face full of food.”
Yawning, she dragged herself to stand. Heading towards the side of the room, she paused with thought, “What did Kass have to say?”
“Oh, she’s-” He waved a hand at his belly in a spiral formation.
“What? No.” Elaeis gasped, “But-with, who, not Kolbeck?”
“Yeah,” Willem said, “Unfortunately.”
“And dad is- oh.”
There was tense silence as Elaeis stared at Willem. He picked at his long fingernails, a guilty expression furrowing his thin brow. Then, he stood, grabbing a washrag and dipping it into a water dish, “I shouldn’t have told you.” Wringing the cloth, he moved to clean the gash on her nose. She held still as he dabbed away dirt.
“Right, you didn’t.” Elaeis agreed. She winked, causing him to smile despite the situation. Once he finished, she bid good night. Unrolling a straw mat at the far side of the room, she nestled her lengthy body upon it. Willem held the rag on his chin, sitting back at the table.
“Rest well.” He said.
Within seconds, she was asleep.
Her dreams were ominous and when she woke, she went to her knees, “Blessed am I to be alive to say thee words to thy self.” Raising her palms upwards, she inhaled deeply then stood to prepare for the morning. Willem was already at the table or had he never gone to sleep? He held a flask in hand. His lips were stained with berry color. As his grey eyes looked to her, reminding her of father’s eyes, she noticed they were redder than usual. Had he been crying? She looked downwards, “Good morning.”
“Mush or olives?”
“Mush… with an olive?”
Willem looked her over, then smiled, “Okay, just one though. Your nose looks like it healed.”
She nodded, feeling the new skin on the bridge. Tilli walked into the room. With a sleepy yawn, the girl came over. Elaeis set to combing, braiding and twisting the girl’s black and red hair, making sure Tilli’s ears weren’t wound into any of the braids. Once done, she fixed the girl’s tunic and pant cuffs.
“May I have two olives, please?” Tilli asked in a small voice.
“Why,” Willem raised an eyebrow, preparing bowls, “If you get two olives, everyone should have two olives, then we won’t have any olives for the rest of Capricornus. Is that what you want, Tilli?”
She frowned, sitting with tightly crossed arms, “No.”
“She can have mine.” Elaeis offered.
“That’s kind of you.” Kass joined, walking in from the back room, grabbing a couple olives while simultaneously nudging her shoulder into Willem. She winked as she walked around the table to stand in front of Tilli, “But let’s eat olives in memory of father. So we don’t forget him, he would have wanted us fed well.” She handed the girl the swiped olives.
“You sure about that?” Willem sat down, pushing bowls of mush over to the sisters. Elaeis looked down at the grey-white creamy film over the clumps of yellowed dough. It smelt like sulfur. Holding her breath, she ate anyways.
“Of course, you know the Instructors are going to work them hard.” Kass leaned back in a chair, casually twisting her black hair into a single braid. Out of the three sisters, Kass had the shortest hair. Unlike Tilli, it was a singular color.
Elaeis had the most varied haircolor out of the family; red, black and blond striped together in a varying pattern. Black was the most dominant in their family though, then the red with only slivers of white-blond showing in Elaeis’ long hair. It hadn’t always been that way, having been born with black hair like the rest, but it was that way now.
Willem shrugged, “I’m going to check on mother.”
Elaeis finished her bowl, then took a couple deep breaths. She picked up Willem’s flask, taking a swig and finding out that it was a heavy wine. With a sigh, she stood, “I’ll go wake Burret.”
“He already left.” Tilli mumbled through a mouthful of mush.
“He got up early and left.” Kass ate an olive.
“It’s no big deal.”
“He shouldn’t be walking to the fields on his own!”
“Calm down, he’ll be fine. Willem and I have walked through the Pits plenty of times without an escort.”
“I’m going to look for him.”
“Fine, but take Tilli with you.”
“You’re not going?”
“No, I’m looking after mother.”
“Sure you are.”
“Shut it. Get going.”
Dragging Tilli along, Elaeis headed out of the hut and down the path. Thick grey clouds partially blocked hazy sunlight. It wasn’t hard to follow the trodden road that led to the tunnels, but if winds hit, it would be difficult to get there without injury. There used to be ditches in which they could walk that potentially protected them from a heatwave’s winds, but the trenches had been filled with lava by the Lady’s command. The bubbling red-orange brewed, searing the air with licks of flame. Luckily, the Pits were calm – not even a breeze – as they diligently walked the route.
“Do you miss him?” Tilli pulled at Elaeis’ sleeve.
“Yes, I miss knowing I can talk to him.”
“I’m sad.” Tilli’s voice broke.
“Oh,” Elaeis wrapped an arm around her shorter sister, making sure they kept walking, “It’ll be okay, you’ll see, thank the Goddess you’re still sentient.”
“I know.” Tilli mumbled, then moved away from the embrace to cross her arms, “But if father isn’t free, then how are any of us going to be free?”
Elaeis wanted to answer, “Well,” She struggled, “Maybe Willem will go?”
“He already said he doesn’t want to. That it’s a stupid idea.”
“Kass can’t.” Elaeis murmured thoughtfully.
“This is why Burret wanted to leave.”
“No, Tilli,” Elaeis stopped, grabbing her by the shoulder, “What are you saying? Why did Burret leave early?”
“He wanted to find the Preservers and go with the next group.”
“Is that where he is right now?”
Tilli scuffed her toe into the ground, “Maybe, I don’t know.”
Whistling pierced their ears. Elaeis guided them forward, hurrying towards the stone tunnels. Soon, the wind would be there and the closer to the tunnels they were, the less they would have to endure. The temperature steadily rose until both sisters panted for breath and sweat dried instantly on their skin. Thinking of the wine she had earlier, Elaeis whispered, “Let thy beauty guide me, through the gusty chaos of our realm, let thy mistress guide the way, for I am weak and cannot see.”
Tilli began to sob. Elaeis kept her hands on the shorter girl’s shoulders to make sure they kept jogging, “You can be sad in the tunnel.”
“Willem said that the Goddess was a bitch.” Her voice broke between sniffles. She was having trouble moving in a straight line.
“He doesn’t know what he is talking about.” Elaeis assured as she heard the heatwave whip through the far end of the Pits. In the distance, rumbling vibrations of erupting volcanos shook the ground, “Time to run.”
They took off sprinting, side-by-side. By the time they reached the tunnel entrance, Tilli’s tears had dried. Their skin had darkened to bloody red as surface rashes burst forth on exposed limbs. Silver ash showered the area, sticking to their eyelashes and lips. Violently, the winds arrived.
Both sisters collapsed to their knees inside the alcove. Elaeis raised her hands in prayer, her words muffled by the sheer noise of the gusting force that visibly rippled with heat. Tilli crawled to the iron doors that led into the tunnels, knocking rapidly on hot metal. The rapping noises were lost in the din.
Elaeis covered her face, grabbing Tilli to roll into a ball as the heatwave’s core blew past. The screeching of demons sought their souls, but both sisters kept still and quiet. Her body trembled, covering her sister from the painful blast. Soon, the shrieking faded into whistling.
The temperature rapidly declined. Elaeis stretched out, waiting for her skin to heal. She had taken the brunt, her flesh burning a bright pink. Maroon patches sporadically bled on her arms and legs as her body struggled to heal. Tilli returned to knocking on the cooling door.
Instructor Tourmal opened the iron panel with a stern expression. Even with a partial mask hiding his face, his discontent was noticeable. Elaeis squinted at the black metal that conformed to his forehead, wondering if its purpose was to hide a wound of some sort. Forcing herself to stand, Elaeis held onto Tilli’s arm to walk through the gate as the door pulled open.
“What do you want, Vadosa scum?”
“Nothing.” Elaeis quickly answered, returning her lingering gaze downwards. She held her breath, then released Tilli’s arm as the Instructor didn’t seem to pursue.
“Stop.” He said, “I’ve got to search you both.”
“What, my Instructor?” Elaeis closed her eyes, realizing she had relaxed too soon.
“Searches. Come here, now.”
Concerned, Tilli looked at her. Elaeis bit her lower lip while turning around, “We’re looking for our brother, my Instructor, he went on ahea-”
“I didn’t ask you what you were doing.” Tourmal interrupted, his cheeks flourishing with eggplant splotches, “I told you what you need to do. Come here.”
Elaeis walked in front of Tilli, “I understand, but look,” She shook her tunic, “We’re wearing simple tunics, there can’t possibly be anything, please, I-”
Again, she was interrupted. This time by a glare the Instructor had grown. His hand was upon the whip that hung from his engraved belt. He pointed at Elaeis with familiar fury, “Kneel, now!”
She nodded, glancing at Tilli before moving a few feet to the side and kneeling with her back towards the Instructor. Without being prompted, she drew her shirt up overhead so that her skin was bare. As the first lash connected with her shoulder blade, she tightly pressed her lips together and grimly smiled. Tilli began to hurry down the tunnel. By the fourth lash, Tilli had disappeared around the corner.
Instructor Tourmal had a known habit of his incapacity to track slaves while concentrating on aiming his whip. He would notice around the seventh lash and take his brief humiliation out on Elaeis, but at least Tilli would escape his temperamental wrath.
Her back was numb by the tenth lash, but she was surprised there weren’t any more following the strike. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that the Instructor had gone to the door. More slaves were arriving. Returning her shirt, she winced as the coarse fabric scratched against fresh wounds.
She hurried down the tunnel, hoping it wasn’t too late, that Burret hadn’t committed to something that would get him dead like their father. It took her a while to find the location. Her breathing was labored. The gashes were healing slower than usual since her burnt skin also needed to regenerate.
Winding tunnels blurred her vision and the deeper she went, the stranger the passages became. At times it felt like she was walking sideways, backwards, then she became confused which was the ceiling and which was the floor.
Magic hissed constantly, barely contained magma boiling between gashes in the volcanic stone. In some areas, lava leaked through to create boiling puddles in her path. It was as if she were inside the belly of some great fiery beast.
Light-headed, she leapt over a puddle and sat upon a flat rock. She tried to remember the directions that her father had taught, in case anything went horribly wrong. Her skin had mended to its usual toffee color, though her back still stung from the lashes.
Low murmuring with an occasional recognizable word was detected by her precise ears. Head spinning, at first she thought she was hearing voices in her mind. It became apparent, as she heard a familiar hiccup, that there were people nearby. It had to be the Preservers.
Crawling, she found a small entrance carved in like a mousehole that descended into a cellar. From her angle, it was difficult to see through, but she could hear conversation.
“We can’t use the South Tunnels anymore, they’re being monitored too closely.”
“I can’t understand why Abenaki would betray us like that?”
“Who knows? Maybe he was poisoned or tricked?”
“We’ll never know now, no point in talking about it.”
“Still, how do we know it won’t happen again?”
“We can’t afford more causalities like this. We’re already losing our Voice.”
Her heart stopped. Could they see her?
“State your name or get an arrow in the brain.”
Squatting on the first step that led into the cellar, she quickly responded, “Elaeis.”
“Come down, Elaeis.”
“She looks familiar.”
“You’re the daughter of Artheo, are you not?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Sorry for your loss.”
“Thy Goddess teaches we all lose eventually.”
“Pains my heart to hear you say that.”
Elaeis approached through the shadows. In the cellar, there was dim orange lighting and the gaunt, scarred faces of the Preservers ominously came into view – except for one smooth face with round cheeks, Burret. He stood next to an Idaltu Altus, who spoke with a lilt and gesturing hands, “What brings you to us?”
Elaeis looked at Burret, who avoided her gaze, hiccuping nervously. She sighed, then looked to the Preserver, “I want to take my father’s place in the next attempt.” The words rolled off her tongue much easier than she expected them to.
“You can’t!” Burret responded first, his exclamation gaining a number of looks from the group, “I was going to!”
“You’re too young.”
“I’m too young to be free?”
“That’s not, you know that’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?!”
“Enough.” The Altus raised her hands between the brother and sister. Each sibling peered at one another with challenging looks. “The eldest shall go, simply because we will need those most experienced with life to help.” She placed a hand on Burret’s shoulder, “When we return, you shall lead the rest of your family to freedom.” Looking to Elaeis, she smiled. She was missing a few teeth. “Your father did not give his life in vain.”
Elaeis took a deep breath, nodding, then waiting before rushing forward and hugging Burret close. Her younger brother had grown up so much in the past vonths, but she still felt like he was little and that she was doing her best to protect him like father had asked. Burret wiggled in her grasp before reluctantly hugging back.
“You better not die.” He mumbled into her tunic as she squeezed him tight.
“I won’t.” She promised.
He pushed away, fixing his hair and nodding with an overly serious gaze, “I’m going to find Tilli.”
“That’d be good.” Elaeis admitted, not wanting Instructor Tourmal to find Tilli on her lonesome, “Thank you.”
Burret paused, then reached an arm around Elaeis and hugged her briefly once more before hurrying to the stairs. On the way, one of the Preservers joined him, striking up a conversation as they walked away.
“Your clan is particularly brave.”
“Huh?” Elaeis turned to see the Altus woman standing beside her.
“I knew your father for many years before he chose to be free, I know your grandmother and some others of your clan as well.”
“Who are you?”
“Please, call me Nsut.”
“Nsut…” She didn’t recognize the name, but smiled anyways, “How did you know my grandmother?”
Nsut glanced over her as if weighing ways to answer the question, slender fingers scratching at her crescent chin. Elaeis noticed that the woman’s left ring finger was entirely missing, covered with a silver cap. A Sapien Preserver approached with scrolls in hand, interrupting her thought as he cleared his throat. He looked between them with nervous eyes before begging Nsut’s attention, “I do need you to look over these, now, please.”
Nsut placed a hand on Elaeis’ shoulder, “Welcome to the Free, we’ll find you when we need you.”
“Is that all?” Elaeis supposed she expected more.
“Wait for our word. Keep doing what you’ve been doing otherwise.”
“Okay.” Elaeis nodded as the two walked to a corner where the other Preservers stood. She lingered before realizing it was time for her to leave. Glancing around the room where she was certain her father had spent most of his time, she took a deep breath, then she left to attend to her duties before someone might notice she was absent.
The sun had set by the time she arrived to the fields. Having left the tunnels to reach the flat entry lands, to the west was the Colosseum and to the north, the Lady’s Fortress dominated the vista. Built from a dormant volcano, the earth had been forced into an elaborate architecture that dripped with spires and balconies. Beyond the fields, a massive obsidian wall blocked sight of the inner courtyards that surrounded the Fortress.
Workers continued to labor under the light of the moons. Far from her path, she could see Burret with Tilli. They didn’t notice her as they cut leaves, picking weeds and maintaining the rows. The Instructor’s whip kept the line of fieldworkers moving further out. She couldn’t see if it was Tourmal or not.
Eventually the farmlands transitioned into the playgrounds, which were used for sports that could not be contained within the Colosseum. She passed the obsidian gates, entering the Fortress courtyard. Upper class slaves littered the sand-filled gardens, but she kept her gaze directly on her feet. If she dared sneak a glance, a Instructor was nearby to punish her – maybe even take her eyes if they were in a mood to show off. Picking up her pace and ignoring soft waves of casual laughter, she waited briefly at the Fortress doors before they opened with shrill creaking. She hurried down the left corridor to reach the stairs that led to the barracks.
She was allowed to look up within the barracks. Soldiers, though still slaves, were not upper class and so, she could look freely in their company. She smiled as she recognized a few, nodding to them, but not stopping as she hurried to the small room that served as her working quarters.
There was already someone at her door. Broad-shouldered and two heads shorter, the Denisovan seemed nervous as he anticipated her approach. Placing her hands together, she bowed briefly, “Merry Capricornus, Soldier.” Opening the door, she led inside.
He followed with a limp and scratched at his beard, “So, I’ve heard you’re able to mend well?”
“Yes. What is it that you need help with?”
Reaching into his knapsack, he pulled out a pair of thick leather pants. Elaeis accepted them, examining the trousers with a sharp eye. There was a huge tear through the rear stitching. She recognized the flaw, “Lunges?”
“Aye, that’s it.” He quickly agreed.
“What unit are you under?”
“That’d be Officer Uvarov.”
“Please, sign your name in the ledger there. I will send these once they are complete, presuming you do not collect them beforehand.”
“It’s much appreciated, seamstress.”
She nodded, though she knew she had little choice in accepting the work. Any soldier that required mending to their clothes could request it. She was not allowed to refuse. There was no compensation, other than the Officer of the unit would report his ledger to her Overseer. Combined with her own ledger, Overseer Kolbeck could confirm she was properly working. She had a quota, as well, of twenty signatures within a veek. If she didn’t meet her quota, she would lose the room and be put back into the fields or possibly an even worse position.
The Denisovan had left. Elaeis realized she was holding the trousers, staring at the wall with a blank expression. Wiping drool off with the back of her wrist, she sat at her workstation. She was only five stitches in before Raukaua strode in.
“Merry Capricornus.” She continued to sew.
“I came by earlier, you weren’t here.” Rau set a stack of collected clothing that needed mending in the wide basket beside the desk, “I thought to myself, where could she be? She couldn’t possibly be in the fields. I had just been there and I saw Tilli, oh, but I did see Burret coming out of the tunnels. I wonder, what is he doing in them without his sisters? I think to myself, and then I tell myself, I don’t have to worry about any of that. Elaeis would tell me if anything is happening.”
The lanky Vadosus scribbled in the ledger as he spoke, “But then I remember that you didn’t even tell me about your father until he was strung up with the Obstructionists in an Offering. So,” Rau shut the door, pulling a chair to sit in front of the desk, “I wonder to myself, what’s with that? I thought we told each other everything, pact and all that.”
Elaeis listened with somber concentration on her work. She could hear hurt wavering underneath Rau’s voice and didn’t take his words as hostile. With a small sigh, she answered, “I didn’t know.” It was a lie, but it was much easier, and safer, than the truth, “I’m sorry, I would have told you if I’d known.”
“Liar.” Rau snarled, rolling his eyes and standing, “I don’t care if your family is in cohorts with the Obstructionists. I’m the last person that’ll snitch on you, but if I find out you’re still lying to me regardless, I’m not going to consider us friends anymore.”
“That might be for the best.” Elaeis murmured in a measured tone.
Rau stared at her for a long moment. She could hear his heart beating rapidly. He left without another word, slamming the door behind him.
She wasn’t worried. Rau wouldn’t tell the Instructors anything. He hated the Overseers just as much as any of them, but without a family it was harder to maintain commitment to the Preservers who worked in secrecy and limited information passed purely by tongue. Rau didn’t have the benefit of sharing stories and songs like her father had with them. At the same time, the orphan probably didn’t even know what loyalty actually meant. Elaeis did.
She thought of Burret as she stitched, thinking about how close it’d come to him being involved with an escape attempt – of him dying like their father had – of lava coleoptera landing on his decaying body in the Execution Ring. “Ow.” Elaeis pricked her finger with the needle.
A couple droplets of blood dripped onto the leather. Tears escaped. She began to cry over her work. Elaeis was scared. Though she knew it was necessary, that she was the only one who could volunteer her family’s efforts to the Preservers, she was frightened that they would fail, that she would lose her life and her family along with it. Still, the life she had was not one worth living. Deep down, she knew it to be true. Her father echoed in her mind, “Look forward, my dear, don’t let them see you fear. Appear brave, child, and all your fear shall become their own.”
The door opening startled her. She dropped the trousers in her lap, quickly wiping away tears. Hesitantly greeting the soldier, who awkwardly stood in the frame, she motioned for the Sapien to approach.
“I can come back later?”
“No, it’s fine, come in.”
“Sorry. It’s my shirt, the sleeve got torn in training.”
“I’ll fix it up, please remember to sign the ledger.” She sniffed.
There was awkward silence. She tried to pretend to sew the trousers, though she couldn’t concentrate and just poked the needle against air. The soldier left without comment, lightly shutting the door. Left alone in the windowless room, Elaeis didn’t know whether the sun had risen yet. She focused on her work, stitching with skilled precision.
When the door opened next, she was nearly done with the shirts from the basket. Her eyes felt swollen. She had haphazardly twisted her hair into a knot on the top of her head. Wearily, she looked towards the entrance and instantly sat proper.
“Director.” She set the shirt on the desk, brushing string from her tunic and bowing deeply to the muscular Idaltu Ignis who closed the door behind him. This was not the first time he’d come to her room, but it was only the second and the first time that he wasn’t escorted by a gaggle of Officers. She could not imagine what the Director would want with her, “Thy Lady is Blessed.” She greeted nervously, wondering if he knew she had met with Preservers earlier. How could he know? Her heart pounded in her chest, but she bit her tongue to keep the startled panic from being noticed.
“At ease, seamstress.” Director Ignimbr pulled off his black gloves and unbuttoned his tightly fastened jacket, “I require your assistance.”
“Of course.” She hurried forward, hesitating before helping him out of the fitted sleeves, “What is it that you need, my Director?”
“There is a rip in the seam at the spine of this jacket.” There was, near the neck.
“Is that all, my Director?”
“No, I would like to talk while you work.”
She hesitated before nodding, “Of course.” Sitting down, she glanced over his features briefly. His taupe skin was dark and his amber eyes, bright. Unlike her family’s lengthy ears, the drawn out cartilage of his ears was slanted downwards, though like all Idaltu ears, still longer than any Homo ear. He looked around the small room with disdain, taking a seat on the wooden chair. It creaked under his weight.
“Do you enjoy your work?” He asked casually.
Picking out a thread that would match the jacket’s shade, she nodded, “Of course, my Director.”
“You can tell the truth.”
Elaeis’ heart nearly stopped when she heard the statement. She didn’t dare glance at him again, wondering if he knew. Why else would he be talking to her? But why in this setting? None of it made any sense. She bit her lower lip to avoid saying something stupid.
“So?” He prompted.
“Huh?” She forgot what he was waiting for. Looking back to her work, she threaded the needle with a small exhale, “Well, it is a good use of my skills and I can help thy Lady’s soldiers be prepared for ceremony or battle.”
“Indeed.” Reaching out, the Ignis took hold of a thread bobbin to look over the blue color, “I have heard that you are fast and precise with your stitching.”
“I do not know who is telling people such things.” She said it faster than she should have, her burnt cheeks stinging as heat gathered in them.
“I would assume people who admire wearing your work.” The Director set down the bobbin, “I need someone talented with a needle and thread to craft me an outfit, do you think you could do it?”
She hesitated, putting on a thimble to avoid another embarrassing finger prick as she concentrated on the jacket’s stitching,“What sort of outfit?”
“Traveling. It needs to be layered and piece together easily, as well as come apart quickly.”
“I’ve never done an unique design before.” Not for someone as important as a Director, that is.
He nodded, “Your mother is also a seamstress, is she not?”
“Yes, my Director, this used to be her quarters.”
“But she passed the role on to you?”
“Yes, my Director.”
“Well, certainly she can help if you need advice.”
“That is true, my Director, you are wise.”
“Wonderful, then it’s settled.” He leaned forward, glancing to see if the jacket had been repaired yet.
“What fabric might it be made of?”
“I will send the materials here before next sunset.”
“You are most thoughtful, my Director.”
“Indeed,” He leaned back in the chair when he realized there was still work to be done, “You’re fairly beautiful, for a Vadosa.”
The stinging in her cheeks worsened and her thoughts became foul. Did the Director want something else from her? She had heard stories from other slaves about such things, but somehow managed to avoid personal experience. Usually such slaves were elevated into the upper class fairly quickly, rather than kept in the lower rungs. Glancing at the Director briefly, she couldn’t read his expression and quickly returned to knotting the last of the thread.
“I am finished.” She murmured, “Is there anything else, Director Ignimbr?”
“Yes, one more thing. Will you recite a prayer for me?”
“Yes, a prayer.”
She licked her lips, then nodded. Unsure of how elaborate a prayer he expected, she decided she would extend the highest amount of reverence she could muster. After all, the man who sat beside her desk was not a simple soldier, he was not an Instructor or Overseer, he was not even an Officer. He was a Director and there were only four in the entirety of the Lady’s territory. Neatly folding his jacket on the desk, she stepped around and took a steadying breath.
At first, she raised her hands so that her palms faced the ceilings. She breathed in deeply, summoning the courage to speak as she hummed the same tone that prayer ceremonies started with. Kneeling in front of the Director, she lowered her gaze to his feet, “Almighty Goddess, Lucky are we to be blessed by thy grace.” Bringing her hands down into a delicate prayer stance, she balanced on the tips of her toes, “To know thy beauty through thy glorious Lady, who shares with us that which She wishes us to know.” Fluidly, she brought her hands down to the floor and bent so that her forehead touched the space right before the Director’s feet, “For we are Ignorant and we have been humbled by thy Lady’s great patience. Thy Lady is my mistress, let thy soul of mine tribute to thy Goddess, as it was in the beginning, is now and will forever be.”
Closing her eyes fully, she hummed a lower tone. Tears pricked behind her eyelids and she silently begged that they would not show. She could not help, but think of her father though and his dead body being torn down from the rope.
A hand upon her head startled her. She glanced upwards to see the Director smiling. He had sharp feral teeth that were a vibrant ochre color, which boldly contrasted with his elderberry lips.
“Those words are immensely beautiful coming from your tongue.” He commented, looking as if he was about to say more when the door opened. Rau stood in the doorframe. Beside him was Officer Uvarov, a husky Sapien with a thick brow.
“Director!” Uvarov quickly bowed, seemingly startled by the sight, “What are you doing in here? I was told you were to be in the hall.”
Grabbing his jacket, the Director looked it over before pulling it on, “One of your soldiers accidentally stuck me with a spear and tore my jacket, however.”
“What? Who was it? I will make certain he is punished.”
“No need, I have already seen to it.”
“You are most magnificent in your duty, my Director.” Uvarov bowed again.
“Now, what is it that you needed here?”
“Oh,” Uvarov glanced to Elaeis and then Rau, before shaking his head, “Nothing, nothing, come, I will escort you to the strategy room. There is much to discuss.”
“Very well.” Director nodded to Elaeis, “It was a lovely prayer, thank you for sharing.”
“Of course, my Director.” She bowed, causing a couple shirts to fall off the desk as she scrambled to do so.
The two commanders left the room, murmuring between each other. Rau stood at the door frame with a shadowed glare upon his usually cheerful features.
“What were you doing?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” She picked up the shirts, returning to her work.
Rau walked in, “With the Director? What were you doing with him in here?”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to tell you.”
“What’s that mean?!” Rau snapped, “Why are you acting this way? Has the last ten vonths been for nothing then?” He paused briefly, but when no answer came, he continued, “I thought you were different. Everyone around here is so caught up in themselves, no one cares about anyone, but their own skins. I thought you were different, but look at you, kissing the Director’s feet. You’re just like everyone else.”
“I suppose so.” Elaeis mumbled, feeling defeated by his words. She wondered if she should tell him of the Preservers, but again, she did not want him to be burdened by such information. She could hardly handle the burden herself, how could she dare put something like that on a friend? Rau didn’t understand that she was still thinking of him though.
He kicked the chair that the Director had been sitting in, “Fine, fine. Fine.” He pointed at her, “Be that way. Are they done?”
Elaeis finished the last seam of the shirt she’d been working on. Folding it in the basket, she set it on the desk. Rau snatched the handle, glaring. Her heart ached as he left with anger radiating from him.
She sat down and began to ponder how to go about making traveling clothes that would easily come on and off… especially since she had forgotten to get the Director’s measurements. With a faint curse, she covered her face in her hands and returned to crying.
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