To Touch the Stars
A Fearless Universe Story
By Ilithi Dragon
A/N: Well, this post ended up being both a lot longer than I was expecting, and covering a shorter timespan than I was expecting. In this episode: A day in the life of Mel, and chocolate. Next episode: More interactions with Terrans, and death.
A/N 2: The standard Kel measurement of a “hand” is approximately four inches. Due to the difference in size between male and female Kel (gender dimorphism is more significant for Kel), it is a common joke or disparagement to refer to a measurement in “hands” as made with “ladies' hands.”
At this early stage in the story, Mel is 3’6”, or 10.5 “hands” tall. Captain Edwards is above average height at 6’3” without armor, and with her armor she stands 6’8” tall. Mel barely comes past her waist.
The next morning Mel woke up as if from a dream, surrounded by her sister-cousins. Kahlen sprawled against her back, snoring gently, while Mayla draped across both of them. With Hayl brooding over her twin clutch, Mayla usually slept with one or the other of her sister-cousins. Having thought their “sister” lost the night before, Kahlen and Mayla both insisted on sharing a bed with Mel instead of sleeping in the rooms they each with their own mothers.
Mel nuzzled into the shared warmth of her sisters, taking some small pleasure in the knowledge that the way Mayla was lying across them meant she would be drooling on Kahlen for a change. She slowly stretched as the memories of the previous day started trickle back into her awareness, not wanting to wake her sisters. Eventually, if they didn't get out of bed, she knew her uncle would come in and threaten them with a bucket of cold water. Mel ignored that thought, not ready to get up and start her chores just yet. A low rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, and Mel idly wondered if she dreamed the previous day's adventure.
The whole notion was quite crazy. The Terrans came out of nowhere, and everything they possessed seemed to run on magic. Strange and bizarre, they came in so many shapes and sizes. Were they just one species? Or multiple kingdoms allied as one? Did they really have no castes?
Instead of fading, the rumbling thunder continued and exploded into the unmistakable, tearing roar of Terran engines booming almost directly over her family's house, shattering her wandering thoughts. The ground-shaking boom banished all notions of her having dreamed the previous day, and woke the entire room with a start. Mel jerked upright. Kahlen jumped straight from sleeping to standing in a coiled crouch. Mayla found herself thrown towards the ceiling by her own spasms and her sisters.' Flipping around tail-over-head, she flopped back onto their bedding mat facing the opposite direction she had started, petrified in fear at the tremendous noise and waking to find herself tumbling through the air.
Mel looked to her mother, who had also startled to her feet, then scrambled to the room's single window, flinging it open. The Terran engines continued in a loud, whining rumble, and sounded like the very sky itself was tearing. She stuck her head outside, her frills twitching flat at the chill still lingering in the cool morning air. "Mel, get back in here before someone sees you," her mother chided, but Mel ignored her.
She spotted the Terran craft making all the noise. They were two of the sleek, agile-looking craft she had seen yesterday. The rumble of their strange engines shifted to more of a high-pitched whine and back to a sky-tearing roar as they circled in tight formation low to the ground. Mel watched in wide-eyed fascination as the two craft banked around as if they were one. The predatory craft turned to head straight for the Vizier's palace on the hill the city of Tenza was centered on. They flew low over the palace grounds and then, directly above the palace, they simultaneously stood on their tails and shot straight up into the sky, air condensing in a cone around them moments later.
Several seconds later, the sudden thundering roar of their engines and the sonic boom as they surpassed the speed of sound reached Mel, rattling shutters across the city. Mel craned her neck back, trying to follow their progress into the sky, but they quickly disappeared beyond her sight.
Pulling herself back inside, Mel hauled the shutters closed against the still-chill air, and turned to her mother and sisters as her uncle and aunt Kanlo burst in.
Sol shrugged her frills at her brother. “I guess we won’t need the bucket today, Ki’Wei,” He looked at her nonplussed.
“I think I like the bucket better,” Mayla said from where she was still lying on the bedding, staring at the ceiling. Mel tittered, and they all broke out laughing as Mel hopped over to pull her little sister into a hug and nuzzle. Mayla shared with Mel the deeper brown coloring along her back and spine, but the scales on her belly, sides, and snout had a greener cast to them, and the skin of her frills was a pale green.
“I think the Terrans were just fluffing and posturing for the Vizier,” Mel said, describing what she could see from the window. She was only eight, by measure of Shan’Xen (seven by measure of Arabo’Lye), and a T’Lai-caste peasant, but he spaceport was close to their side of Low-Town. She saw many freighters and shuttles flying overhead and she had always been fascinated by them, so her knowledge of spacecraft capabilities was not as limited as would be expected. Never had she seen any of the Civilized Kingdom shuttles perform like the Terran craft did. Not even that time when a squadron of Kel’Kul’Ti Imperial Navy battlewagons stopped at Arabo’Lye to top off their bunkers nearly half a year ago, and put on an air show with their assault pinnaces.
“Why do you say that, love?” Sol asked as she extracted Mayla from her daughter and began the process of getting the young ren’tan dressed, while also prodding at a groaning Kahlen, who had laid down and tried to go back to sleep. Kahlen and her mother both took their coloring more from their grandfather, along with their shorter, stubbier tales. Her scales faded from yellow-brown to yellow-tan, and she had their grandfather’s cream-and-brown colored frills.
“Well, you heard Captain Edwards last night,” Mel pounced on her big sister and tackled her out of bed. Kahlen gave a half-hearted hiss and struggled to stand up with her sister on her back, before falling backwards onto the bed mat. “Oof,” Mel grunted as her sister landed on her and faked falling asleep. “Besides,” Mel kicked at her sister and played at raking her with her talons. “I saw Captain Edwards come and go to the palace a few times, and every time she came back, she and the other Terrans looked angry.”
Suddenly forgetting about her desire to go back to sleep, Kahlen rolled off Mel and sat up, looking at her with eyes wide in curiosity. “What were they like, when they landed? Grandfather said they were storming the spaceport, and Uncle Ki’Wei said it sounded like the sky was crashing down!”
“It sounded like the sky was crashing down just now,” Mayla said, sitting next to Mel while Sol collected her clothes.
“It did!” Mel pulled herself into a sitting position. “Their shuttles are loud! And they blow hot air everywhere! It was so loud, I didn’t hear Grandfather when he and Uncle Ki’Wei left, and when I turned around after they landed, it was just me and the shopcart.” Mel swallowed the pain in her heart at the thought that her grandfather and uncle would just abandon her with barely a word.
“Then what happened? What did the Terrans do to you?” Kahlen asked.
“Did they mubila-“ Mayla struggled to say as she was interrupted by Sol dragging the young Kel into her lap and pulling clothes over her head. “Mmf. Auntie Sol, I’m tryna have a conversa- mmf.” Mayla glared at her aunt as she finished pulling on her sabtah before turning back to Mel with her question, her eyes wide. “Did they mubilate you? Papa Son’Ki said you would be murdered and mubilated.”
“Mayla, don’t talk about your sister like that,” Sol chided, untangling her niece’s spines and pulling the hood of her sabtah up properly.
“I didn’t! It’s what Papa Son’Ki said!” Mayla struggled to twist around and glare at her aunt, but continued dressing her with the deftness of experience.
“No, they didn’t mutilate me,” Mel rolled her snout, her frills twitching more in amusement with her little sister-cousin than annoyance. “Captain Edwards came over and bought my whole basket, and told one of the Marines to watch over me, and then they just left me alone.”
“Captain Edwards was enormous!” Kahlen spread her frills and arms wide to imply great size. She was only a year older than Mel, but already into her third growth-spurt and a full hand-and-a-half taller than Mel. Despite this, she still didn’t even come up to Edwards’ chest. Mel herself barely came up to the Marine commander’s waist. “Are they all that big?”
“Some were way bigger!” Mel said, describing the giant, gray creatures she witnessed the day before. “Some were smaller, too, though most were close to Captain Edwards’ size. There were even bird Terrans that were smaller than I am!”
“Come on, you two,” Sol prodded them both in the side. “I’m sure your grandfather is already awake, and you know how he gets before breakfast. You can talk while you do chores.” Mel and Kahlen shared a groan, but got dressed and headed downstairs to start the day’s work. Mel continued to recount the previous day’s adventure.
On their way downstairs, they passed Hayl’s room, where Kanlo was still working to calm down her brooding baby sister. Angry hisses frequently interrupted Hayl’s paranoid ramblings as Kanlo spoke to her with soothing words.
Once downstairs, Mel and Kahlen found themselves immediately sent up to the roof to hang the last of the laundry from the previous day up to dry. “We just came down from upstairs!” Kahlen grumbled as they turned around and trudged up to the roof. Curtains and linens collected and washed the previous day had been left to soak overnight in a tub of perfumed sweetwater to imbue them with the scent. They now needed to be wrung out and hung to dry in the morning sun.
“Ugh, I hate this part,” Mel said, poking at the mass of fabric soaking in the tepid water. “It’s always so cold, why do we have to let it sit out overnight?”
“Because the heat affects the perfume. And because we don’t have it washed and ready to soak until almost dark.” Kahlen rolled up her sleeves. “Now come on, quit being a diaper-butt.” she plunged her hands into the tub to snag some of the fabric. Mel joined her, shuddering as her hands entered the frigid water. They wrung the laundry out, one item at a time, and hung it up to finish drying in the heat of the rising sun. By the time they finished, their hands were stiff and dull, they bodies sluggish, and their frills pressed tightly to their skulls with the chill.
Taking a few moments to soak in the sun’s heat, they lay down on the roof together, fully extending their frills to catch as many rays as they could. Mel kept Kahlen from falling asleep again by slipping a cold hand under her sabtah and between the layers of her frills, placing it on the back of her neck. Kahlen whined and wriggled away, then turned and pounced on Mel. She used her larger size to pin Mel to the floor and force her own cold hands into Mel’s armpits. With a shriek, Mel kicked at her sister, shoving the larger ren’tan off of her. They both fell giggling on their backs, sharing the fun of their game before rolling over to expose their frills to the sun and press against each other for warmth.
Rejuvenated by the rapidly-warming morning air, they gathered the laundry hung to dry the previous night, and folded it. Sol showed up to help them carry it all down shortly before they were done. After loading the laundry into the family laundry cart, Sol sent them into the kitchen to help their grandmother prepare the day’s meals.
“Everything they have is like magic,” Mel said, as she and Kahlen hauled water from the cistern behind the house. Without the spring rains to help keep it full, they would have to start making daily trips to the water fountain soon. The well and fountain was half-way across their city quarter, and Mel hated hauling the laundry cart when it was loaded down with jugs of water. “Their shuttles are so small, but they fit so much into them. I think they might be bigger on the inside.”
“What nonsense are you babbling about?” Klensa asked as they hauled the water jug into the kitchen. Their grandmother was putting flour and other ingredients in a bowl to make dough for bread. The color was only just starting to fade from her scales, but it was still clear where her daughters drew their darker brown scales from. Her scales were all dark brown, and deepened almost to black along her frill spines, though her frills were a solid cream color.
“Just what I saw in the spaceport, Shimi,” Mel said as she and Kahlen maneuvered the heavy, two-handled jug into its corner of the kitchen.
“And what do you think of these Terrans?” Klensa asked, as she drew water from the jug Mel and Kahlen had just refilled, adding it to her mixing bowl.
“I don’t know,” Mel tilted her head in thought. Kahlen tried to sneak a finger into the dough, but quickly snatched her hand back when Klensa swiped at it with the wooden ladle. “They were very intimidating, and busy, and everything they brought seemed to have some kind of magic, but they were only nice to me, Shimi.”
“Hmmm…,” Klensa gave Kahlen an admonishing glare, then leaned over her bowl to mix the dough with her hands. “We’ll see. Be wary the ones who hide their frills and shower you with sweetmeats,” she intoned. Mel stiffled a giggle as Kahlen mimed the common phrase behind her grandmother’s back. “Now get the grind stone and kaktl. Your grandfather is already in a sour mood and grumbling that business is going to be slow in the shop, and you know how kaktl rolls cheer him up.” Without breaking her focus on the dough, she picked up the ladle and swiped it behind her, clonking Kahlen on the snout. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing back there. Now get your scales over here and help.”
“Ow! Yes, Shimi.” Kahlen rubbed her snout as she climbed onto a stool to help her grandmother. “Papa Son’Ki always thinks business in the shop is going to be slow,” she said, quickly forgetting the injury. It was a frequent occurrence. Mel nodded in agreement, hauling the grinding stone and block off the shelf where they were kept.
“That he does, but he’s not wrong today,” Klensa said, handing Kahlen a chunk of dough to kneed. “This occupation is going to have everyone nervous and cautious with everything until they get a feel for these Terrans.”
“At least they’re just occupying us,” Kanlo said, walking into the kitchen to join them. “They could have bombed us from the sky before they landed, or just bombed us into oblivion.” She removed some betta tubers from an urn and began pealing them. “The Ka’Shii I visited last night said that’s what the Empire would have done.”
“Pssh. Such dark thoughts from you today, Kanlo,” Klensa said, pounding on the dough. “How is your sister?”
“Hayl has settled down, finally. That racket had her really worked up,” Kanlo shook her head, quartering a pealed betta and dropping it into an empty pot. “Letting her stay cooped up like this is not good for her, she has little to do but imagine threats to her eggs.”
“I know, I know,” Klensa said, “But you know your father. With a twin clutch, their sire is sure to take Hayl to marry when they hatch. Even if they are both daughters, the chance of twin sons is too great to pass up. Son’Ki doesn’t want her to do anything but focus on the care of her eggs.” She fluttered her frills with a shake of her head. “I swear, he almost broods over them as much as Hayl!” Her daughter snorted in agreement.
“Isn’t their sire a Sun’Ka’Shii?” Mel asked, crushing a strip of dried kaktl bark on the grinding block. The bark of the local kaktl trees was bitter to taste, and the sap was toxic if ingested in large quantities, but when soaked in salt water then dried, the bark could be ground into a spicy-sweet, sinus-tingling powder. It was a commonly used to spice sweet breads on Arabo’Lye and was one of the planet’s main exports. Only coal and the sheemgaz ore used in starship gravitronic scopes and the gravitronic gun directors on the Empire’s warships brought more value to the colony.
“Yes, dear, he is,” Klensa replied, collecting all the dough and piling it into the mixing bowl, then setting it by the hearth oven to rise. “And your grandfather is not going to take any chances with the opportunity for the family to be so elevated by marriage. Your grandfather is too old to be a warrior, but Ki’Wei might be taken on as a manservant, or even be elevated into the garrison. Coshi’Shagn’s family can almost live on her dowry alone now that she is Del’Ka’Shii.” The conversation continued as they prepared the day’s meals, shifting more to regular gossip as Klensa deflected it away from anything to do with the Terrans.
By the time they cleaned up from breakfast and gathered the laundry hung to dry earlier, Son’Ki and Ki’Wei had opened the shop. “Just one patron so far, just one! And that was Mal’Wehn, who came over to trade for grouse eggs for breakfast! These Terrans are going to ruin our family at this rate,” Son’Ki grumbled loudly as they loaded the last of the laundry to be delivered onto the cart. There normally was not much business this early in the day, but what little business they usually received was non-existent.
“And you,” he said, pointing at Sol. “Fussing over Mel like she was lost in the underworld when she was only misplaced for an afternoon!” He snorted. “The girl was returned, unharmed. Might have been better if she hadn’t. Would have been one less mouth to feed.” He grumbled under his breath for a moment longer, then waved at Sol. “Go with her and Ki’Wei to deliver laundry, if you want to fuss over her so much. Kahlen can stay here and help Klensa for a change.”
Mel exchanged a glance with her mother, but neither questioned Son’Ki’s words. Instead, Sol gave her father a respectful bow of thanks, and helped Mel and Ki’Wei haul the cart out of the house and into the street. Son’Ki went back to grumbling about the lack of business at the shop as they headed for Up-Town.
The trip through Low-Town was made in relative silence. Mel and Kahlen would usually gossip quietly with each other, or make up whispered stories about the people they passed while they hauled the cart together. With her mother, Mel found herself to be at a loss for words.
Shortly after dragging the cart into the street, Sol shrugged her pull rope over her right shoulder and wordlessly reached over with her left hand to take her daughter’s right. Mel shifted her pull rope to her left shoulder and squeezed her mother’s hand tight, giving her a smile behind the veil of her sabtah.
She promptly tripped on the excess pull rope and fell flat on her snout.
Ki’Wei glanced over his shoulder, chuckling at Mel as he slowed the cart to avoid running her over. Sol helped her daughter up, dusting off her sabtah and ensuring she was unhurt.
Mell glanced about to make sure nobody was looking, and lifted her veil enough to stick her tongue out at Ki’Wei when his back was turned, or so she thought. When she put the rope back to her shoulder, Ki’Wei jerked the cart forward sharply and the sudden absence of the cart’s weight caused her to stumble and nearly fall flat on her snout again.
“Hey!” Mel said, glaring up at her uncle.
“Don’t be obscene in public,” he cautioned, glaring down at her from his great height. Ki’Wei had just barely become a kul’ti that year, and had not yet fully grown into his adulthood, but at nearly eighteen hands tall he towered over his older sister and niece. He was expected to match his father’s height of nineteen-and-a-quarter hands when he was fully grown.
“And don’t speak in public,” her mother chastised, glaring down at her. Sol was on the shorter side for a kul’tan, but at fourteen-and-a-half hands she was still four hands taller than Mel.
“Yes, Mama,” Mel muttered, lowering her head. Putting the rope over her shoulder once more, they continued their journey with renewed reticence.
Traffic was sparse as they trekked down the back streets of Low-Town. Some Kel were out and about, running necessary errands, or trying to continue on with business as usual as Son’Ki insisted his family do in his own grumbling way. Still, the number of Kel up and moving so soon after the sun had risen was fewer than normal. The twisting, narrow streets of Low-Town varied in width as they wound their way through them, and occasionally widened into small plazas. Ki’Wei kept the cart towards the center of the street, to avoid the sewage and slop dumped there. Shops and stalls were slowly being set up and the further they went, the more people ventured out to do their morning work, though a strong sense of unease pervaded the streets.
Finally wending their way out of the narrow streets of their neighborhood, they reached one of the larger, main streets that passed through Low-Town. Ki’Wei steered the cart to the left-hand side of the street to make room for traffic going the other way, though he was careful not to get too close to the open gutters where sewage and other waste from Up-Town sluiced out of the city.
Aqueducts, built and expanded over the thousand local years of the colony’s history, channeled water nearly a league from the river that lay to the west of Tenza. They supplemented the wells dug for each fountain, and provided flowing water to wash the waste into canals outside the city that carried it back to the river, downstream of the farms that supplied the city with food.
They passed the water fountain for their quarter of Low-Town nearly half-way to the main thoroughfare that led to the western gate to Up-Town. It was connected to a well, but was also fed by pipes connecting to the aqueducts. The aqueducts kept the wells full during the rainy seasons, and the wells supplied water during the dry, summer months when the river ran low and little water made it through the aqueducts.
Eventually, they reached the main thoroughfare that led from Up-Town straight through Low-Town and out of the city and turned towards the gate. Ki’Wei no longer needed to avoid the edges of the street, as the East, South, and West thoroughfares had covered gutters, the only streets that did in Low-Town. This made navigating traffic, which was finally starting to pick up to something that resembled its normal volume, easier. They didn’t have to deal with much congestion, though, as it was still lighter than the norm.
Reaching the gate, they discovered that the Terrans had it opened, but they were searching everyone passing through the gate. A line had formed as people waited to be checked, though it was not long and moving briskly.
Above the gate, an absolutely ginormous Terran perched atop the wall that divides Up-Town and Low-Town. Standing as much as 25 hands tall, this Terran looked like a moving statue made out of armor. Slowly patrolling back-and-forth above the gate, it had two alien-looking guns with three barrels mounted above each shoulder. Like the guns on the gray fish Terran, they tracked back and forth on their own. This enormous Terran also carried an equally enormous cannon like a Ka’Shii would carry a rifle. Mel noted that the behemoth watched both sides of the gate.
Six Terrans stood before the gate, all wearing armor like the Marines she met the day before. Two held the alien-looking Terran rifles and stood on either side of the gate, observing everything before them. The other four Marines carried weapons that looked about the right size and shape for a revolver or a pistol strapped to their thighs. Three of them stood in a line, waving people forward to be searched, and the fourth seemed to be supervising. They held strange wands in their hands and passed them over the people traveling through the gate, but never actually touched anyone except for an occasional, momentary contact to direct movement.
Two more armored Terrans patrolled around the gate with great, furry animals on leashes. Eight hands tall at the shoulder, the great beasts were almost as tall as Mel despite walking on all fours, and looked to outweigh every kul’tan and even some of the smaller kul’ti there. They had long snouts and pointed ears that swiveled around as they sniffed the area and snuffled around the Kel being searched, or their carts and wagons.
Nearing the end of the line, Mel noticed that the Terrans had set up on the other side of the gate, searching everyone coming from Up-Town as well, regardless of caste. The traffic coming from the other direction was far lighter at this hour, but it appeared that the upper castes were raising more of a fuss. Mel had an internal laugh at their expense, amused to see the upper castes suffer the same hassles as the rest of them, but she kept that particular thought to herself.
Eventually, they reached the front of the line and one of the Terrans finished examining the kul’ti ahead of them and waved them forward. The Terran was of the taller, bipedal variety, and stood nearly three hands taller than Ki’Wei. Sol barely came to its armpit, and Mel barely stood taller than the alien’s waist. Sol stiffened as they reached the Terran and she looked up, and up at its impressive height before catching herself and throwing her gaze back down to the dirt, much like Mel had the day before.
Mel gave her mother’s tail a reassuring flick with her own, giving her a glance and trying to tell her it was okay with her eyes. Remembering what Captain Edwards told her when they first met, she turned back to the Terran. Mel wasn’t sure how to be brave, but she did have an idea of what brave looked like. With another reassuring flick to her mother’s tail, she steeled herself and looked up, and up, and up, until she was looking through its clear faceplate.
Stepping forward, the Marine waved a strange wand of some kind around her uncle, before turning to her and catching her gaze. She couldn’t tell if it was kul’ti or kul’tan, she had no idea how to tell the difference and the Terrans’ armor all mostly looked the same, but it was one of the mostly-hairless Terrans. Sol gave her ankle a not-so-subtle kick to remind her of her impropriety, and she felt Ki’Wei glare at her, but the Terran just gave Mel a smile and ignored her uncle and mother as it knelt down in front of her. Mel still only barely came up to its chin.
Ki’Wei turned to apologize for Mel’s behavior, but the Marine held the wand out for her inspection and spoke before Ki’Wei could. “I’m going to wave this around you to make sure you’re not carrying anything bad, okay?” it asked. “It won’t hurt, I promise.” Sol’s normally unshakeable demeanor cracked again as she turned to stare at the Terran, her gaping mouth hidden by her sabtah. The giant, mighty Terran Ka’Shii was asking permission from a T’Lai ren’tan.
Mel met the Terran’s sky-blue eyes, her own eyes almost bulging wide in a combination of disbelief and determination to look brave. After what she realized was an awkward moment of silence, she jerkily dipped her snout in a gesture that was half-bow and half-nod. With another smile, the Terran slowly moved the wand up and down around her. Mel stood stock still, staring straight ahead as he did so.
“All done,” it said a few seconds later, giving her another smile before standing up again. It stepped over to Sol and a few seconds later completed whatever wand-waving ritual it was performing. “Can you shift the contents of the cart for me, please?” the Terran asked, gesturing towards the pile of laundry with its wand. Sol nodded demurely and stepped to the side of the cart with Mel, taking turns with Ki’Wei to shift the folds of fabric around the cart at the Terran’s direction, or remove some items entirely while the Marine passed the wand around inside.
“What are you doing?” Sol hissed at her with the cart between them and Ki’Wei and the Terran. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble!”
“They don’t follow the castes, mama,” Mel whispered back. “They don’t think looking at each other is improper.”
“That might be,” Sol said, quite skeptical of the concept, “But you’re still kel’ren’tan and surrounded by kel’kul’ti, who don’t need magic to hurt you.” She dropped a pile of folded bedsheets into Mel’s arms large enough to cover her face, forestalling any reply.
Mel heard the sound of others approaching, and worked her snout over the top of the sheets in time to see the giant, furred beast come around the cart, snuffling up and down its side. Freezing in place, she stared wide-eyed at the enormous creature as it traced its way to her, sniffed around the pile of bedsheets she was holding, snuffed in her face, and then moved on. She would have squeaked in fright if her vocal chords hadn’t been petrified, as well.
The furred monstrosity and its Terran handler inspected Sol and Ki’Wei before the creature went back to the cart. It reared back to place its giant paws on the side of the cart and shoved its nose around inside, huffing through its snout.
A moment later it snorted, dropped back down on all fours, and padded away. Mel remained stock still until her mother took the bedsheets from her, bringing her back to the present. Shuddering her frills under her sabtah, Mel climbed up the side of the cart to help Sol and Ki’Wei resettle the laundry.
Once everything was settled again to Sol’s satisfaction Mel hopped back down, but when she and her mother turned to take up their pull ropes again, they found the Terran standing before them. “She yours?” it asked her mother.
Sol’s frills clench under her sabtah. “Yes, henj’ii,” she timorously bowed her head low. Henj’ii, honored sir; an informal honorific that denoted great honor and station.
“No need to sir me,” the Terran chuckled, “I work for a living.” Sol paused, not sure how to respond to this quip. Mel risked a glance up, and it smiled at them. “Your daughter is a very brave little ren’tan, ma’am. I’m sure she’ll do great things one day.” Sol kept her head low, but Mel could see the confusion in her mother’s eyes. Those were not words she had ever expected to hear.
The Terran stepped back and waved them on. “You’re all set, go on through. Have a nice day.” Sol hesitated only half a moment more before stepping forward to pick up her pull rope once again. Mel joined her mother as her uncle picked up the cart handle and they continued on through the gate.
On the other side a coh’dai noble was complaining vociferously to one of the Terrans that he and his belongings should not have to be searched. The Terrans were having none of it, and when the coh’dai popped his frills out the Marine closest to him surged forward. It got right into the kul’ti’s personal space, practically shoving its chest against his. “Down on the ground, now!” it shouted, its voice unnaturally loud.
The coh’dai was taken by complete surprise, deflating and recoiling in shock at the unexpected aggression from the big, armored Terran. After a glance at the half-unholstered sidearm the Terran was gripping, he clamped his frills to his head and dropped to the dirt. The Marine practically sat on him, pulling the kul’ti’s hands behind his back to bind them in an awkward position with manacles that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
The Terran hauled the coh’dai to his feet and off to the side. Another Marine joined it, and they proceeded to strip the coh’dai of all of his possessions, dumping his bags and purses and rifling through all of his pockets, all in full view of everyone on both sides of the gate.
Ki’Wei gave the scene a very wide berth. “We could have avoided this whole embarrassment if you had just cooperated,” one of the Marines said as it dumped the coh’dai’s bag into the street. The kul’ti said nothing, sagging in defeat and humiliation.
They hurried past the checkpoint. Mel wanted to see what the Terrans would do next, and to laugh at the disgraced coh’dai, but she knew that compounding the scene by watching inappropriately would not do well for them.
Once they were clear of the gate, Sol silently reached out her hand once more. Mel wrapped the rope around her left arm and took it.
The streets of Up-Town were much wider than the streets of Low-Town, and much cleaner. Large clay- or tile-lined gutters ran on either side of the road, covered by large stones, set flush to the ground. Walking further into the upper city, they periodically passed grates set in place of cover stones, both for drainage and to allow easier access for clearing stoppages. The streets near the wall that divided the upper castes from the lower castes were still packed dirt, but they needed only to travel a couple blocks before the main thoroughfares became paved with stone. Mel had been told that even the side alleys around the Baron’s residence and the palace grounds were paved, though she had never been that far into the wealthier districts of Up-Town herself.
Mel glanced about at the buildings around them. Most of them had recently been white-washed, and combined with the cobbled streets and covered gutters it made Up-Town feel so much cleaner and brighter. The buildings around them were still comprised of adobe brick, but of more precise construction, and rose to four or five stories tall, compared to the two- and three-story buildings of Low-Town. Her neighborhood looked shoddy and run-down by comparison.
A few buildings were capped with terracotta tile roofs in place of flat-topped parapets, and the really nice buildings had terracotta ornamentation in addition to the tiles. Mel always enjoyed looking at the sculptures and carved antefixes, but doing so sometimes required she sneak glances at them. Kul’Tan should keep their heads low in public.
Rounding a corner, they continued down a side road and approached a villa that was a large house conjoined by a wall with two smaller houses, forming a courtyard. This structure stood out from its white-washed and plain-adobe neighbors by being painted a sandy red on the lower floors and the enclosing wall, though the upper floors had been white-washed. Mel knew that this household was large enough and wealthy enough to have afforded their own T’Lai house-servants or slaves to clean their laundry, and she also knew that they were too cheap to pay the extra expense of housing. Boon to her family’s business.
Cheap or not, the Sun’Ka’Shii who lived there, Kaighen’Tsalam and his family held high enough status to have an electric line connected to their house. Electric power lines ran down all the main streets of Up-Town, supplying power to workshops and higher-status residences. Coal was precious fuel for the Empire’s war fleet and merchant armada, too valuable to be spent supplying electricity to the peasant castes, but modern industry demanded it. The city’s power plant burned continuously to supply the smelteries and refineries and the local factories, belching smoke into the air from the industrial quarter in the eastern side of Low-Town. The Vizier’s palace and the Baron’s hall, of course, were also fully supplied with electricity, and the Baron was generous enough to allow the excess output the power plant needed to produce to properly supply the city’s industries to be shared out among the higher castes.
Ki’Wei led them past the large, double-doors that comprised the main front entrance to the villa and down a narrow alley between the western wall and the neighboring house. Coming out on the smaller side street that ran behind the walled compound, he steered the cart to the back door meant for servants and other low castes. He pulled a rope that rung a small bell, and a few minutes later one of the lower stewards admitted them. With the cart too large to fit through the narrow door, Ki’Wei began directing Mel and Sol to unload the appropriate linens and ferry them inside.
The work didn’t take long, yesterday was one of the lighter wash days for this patron, and soon the three of them found themselves back outside on the street. They were just starting to resettle the remainder of their deliveries in the cart when the door opened again and one of the sons of the house stepped out. Sol and Mel both immediately turned away. It was not their place to look upon and see the business of a Sun’Ka’Shii, though Mel had enough incidental glances in previous trips to recognize Teta’Ru’Tsalam, one of the younger sons of Kaighen. Ki’Wei turned to acknowledge the presence of the greater caste. “Henj’ii,” he said, casting his eyes to the kul’ti’s feet and dipping his head low in the proscribed show of respect, “Was there an issue with our service today?”
The Teta’Ru was young, about the same age as Ki’Wei, but he was not quite as tall. His coloring was a pale cream, with dusty red along his back and snout that matched the color his family’s walls. He held his sand-colored frills half-extended in a casual, unconcerned manner, but they moved with a subtle stiffness. He shifted his posture in almost twitchy jerks. The young kul’ti was clearly still mastering the ability to keep his emotions hidden. “No, no,” he waved a hand dismissively. “Your services are adequate, as always.” He paused, shifting his feet. “Your kul’tan provide more services than just laundry, no?”
Ki’Wei hesitated, suddenly as uncomfortable as the Sun’Ka’Shii before him. He knew what the kul’ti was speaking of, but it had always been his father who made those deals, never him before. “They are, henj’ii,” he said. “I can make arrangements for this evening, if you wish…”
“This evening will not do, I do not have the time,” the warrior cut him off impatiently. “How much for your kul’tan now?” he asked, jerking his snout at Sol and Mel.
“They, uh…” Ki’Wei glanced back at Mel and Sol. “One is a ren’tan, henj’ii, and does not perform such services yet.”
“Well, of course I’m not asking for the ren’tan! I am not a tasksh,” Teta’Ru spat, his frills flaring in incense. “I would have the kul’tan. She has a pleasing color and shape.”
“Of course, henj’ii, no disrespect was meant,” Ki’Wei said, his own frills tucking in humbly as he dipped his head. He tried to keep himself lower than the other kul’ti without drawing attention to their height difference. “It’s just that she is working, and the ren’tan is too small yet to make the rest of the deliveries on her own.”
“And I will not be all day,” the young kul’ti rolled his snout along with his eyes, his frills flexing in obvious annoyance. “She can continue your deliveries when I am done with her.”
“As you say, henj’ii, but-“
“Are you refusing me a service?!” Teta’Ru snapped, popping his frills out to full length and stretching his neck in a full dominance display.
“No, no, of course not, henj’ii,” Ki’Wei stuttered, clenching his frills to his skull and hunching down in a display of submission.
“Good,” Teta’Ru said, glaring at Ki’Wei, though he relaxed his frills, seemingly mollified. “Now, how much for the kul’tan’s service? I would be a proper kul’ti today, before all of this begins.” He waved vaguely at something beyond his villa’s wall.
“Fifty gren,” Ki’Wei said, keeping his head low. After a moment’s pause, he added, “Plus ten gren, for the home service and discretion.”
Teta’Ru narrowed his eyes at Ki’Wei for a long moment, while Ki’Wei kept his eyes squarely on the warrior’s feet. “Fine,” he said, pulling out a coin purse with a grumble and shook out a handful of coins. He selected a single silver drol to hand to Ki’Wei and returned the rest of the coins to his purse. “Come, kul’tan,” he said, turning for the door. With a sigh that only Mel heard, Sol turned and meekly followed him back inside the villa.
Mel glanced up at her uncle as he pocketed the silver coin, and he gave her an awkward look in return. “I guess we wait,” he said, lifting Mel up to sit on the cart before joining her. Mel glanced around, not sure what to say, and settled on putting her hands together to twiddle her thumbs. Ki’Wei did not appear to know what to say to fill the time, either, and Mel was not permitted to speak without being addressed. Not that she felt particularly unperturbed about anything she could immediately think to discuss.
After what felt like an eternity of agonizing silence, but was really only about twenty minutes, the door opened and Sol walked out alone. A house-slave shut the door behind her without ceremony. “Mama!” Mel hopped down from the cart and stepped over to nuzzle her mother. She was relieved to discover that she didn’t smell too terribly much like kul’ti or sex. Someone in the household had been generous enough to allow her to clean herself up after the fact. Sol nuzzled her in return before turning her back to the cart. Hand-in-hand, they picked up their pull ropes as Ki’Wei took the cart handle and continued on without a word.
A block later, after crossing one of the covered canals dedicated to carrying sewage and other waist out of Up-Town, Mel turned to Sol. “Mama,” she said, careful to keep her voice low, “Do you think he might make a ren’ti with you, and take you in marriage?”
“I doubt it, sweet one,” Sol whispered. “I doubt he’ll sire anything with me, nevermind claim us in marriage.”
“But how can you know?” It was considered taboo for kul’ti to lie with a ren’tan until she had fully grown into a kul’tan and could properly conceive a clutch, but Mel was already starting to feel the changes begin within her. She was just beginning her third growth spurt, and knew that with it would also come the path to adulthood. She was curious about what those changes would entail, even if she was not very keen on the prospect of her grandfather selling her time to “service” kul’ti.
“Young kul’ti are not very skilled at siring eggs,” Sol explained. “They can rarely bring things to a proper conclusion, and even the more skilled kul’ti often aren’t able to easily sire an egg without the blessing of a priest.” She glanced at her daughter out of the corner of her eye, and Mel recognized her mother’s subtle smirk under the sabtah. “Teta’Ru was definitely not a skilled kul’ti. I doubt he managed to sire anything with me, let alone a son. Besides, I doubt he will be claiming anything, even if we did produce a son.” Sol frowned at something for a moment before shaking the thought away.
“I don’t think I’d like him as a sire, anyway.” Mel tilted her head “He seemed skittery, and he’s only as old as Uncle Ki’Wei. You could have changed his diapers like you did when Uncle Ki’Wei was a hatchling!” she whispered a giggle.
“I know!” Sol shared in her daughter’s giggle, attracting Ki’Wei’s attention.
“Sshh,” he quietly hissed over his shoulder. “You’re going to make a scene.”
Reminded that they were in public, Mel and Sol demurely bowed their heads. Satisfied, Ki’Wei faced forward again, but Mel whispered “Diaper-butt,” under her breath with a giggle.
They continued in silence for a while as the city came alive around them. Some T’Lai worked as house-servants and lived in Up-Town as part of the wealthier households. Many of the indentured slaves were also kept as house-slaves and lived in their masters’ houses in Up-Town. These T’Lai, and the few house-slaves trusted enough to be allowed out in town, comprised much of the early-morning traffic in Up-Town.
As the sun climbed in the sky and warmed the streets, more of the upper castes filled the streets, along with more T’Lai from Low-Town with business or duties in Up-Town. Between the T’Lai and Morgh castes and the slaves, the majority of the city’s population lived in Low-Town, and most of the labor and industry was performed in Low-Town, but the majority of the city’s business was conducted in Up-Town.
The city’s commerce today was muted, with most people opting to stay at home if they could. Those whose needs demanded they go out tried to spend as little time outside as possible, and many Kel scurried back and forth between their destinations. Despite this, Tenza was still the largest city on the planet, and the primary spaceport. Over half-a-million kel lived in the city and the surrounding farmland, and another hundred thousand lived and worked in the mines to the north and east. Mel knew that it was nothing compared to the grand cities of Shan’Xen, whose people numbered in the millions, but Tenza was still quite the metropolis.
By the time the sun had climbed half-way up the sky, the streets were a bustling hubbub of activity, and a sense of normalcy and routine was starting to return. They passed many Terran patrols, most of them paired with one of the constables, and Ki’Wei maneuvered the cart out of the way of their motor carriages on several occasions. Once, a column of enormous vehicles clad in thick armor that ran on strange loops of metal bars linked together and wrapped around many sets of wheels forced them into a side alley to get out of the way.
Despite the patrols, and the Terran air activity that quickly ramped up as the day went on, the rest of their morning was uneventful and they made the rest of their deliveries without incident. Dropping off the last of the fresh laundry as the sun reached its zenith, Ki’Wei decided they had earned a lunch in Up-Town, a rare treat. Normally they brought hard bread from the previous day and maybe some meat or cheese, or went without.
Hauling the empty wagon into a market plaza, Ki’Wei searched for an out-of-the-way place to park their empty wagon. Spotting a suitable location by one of the covered sewage canals, he pulled the cart off the road. Mel and Sol dropped their pull ropes into the cart and hopped onto the raised stone roof of the canal, using it as a bench while they waited for Ki’Wei to purchase lunch. Both of their feet dangled over the edge of the roof, which was almost as tall as Mel.
Ki’Wei spent a few minutes browsing the vendors, before choosing a cart run by a mottled green-and-brown Del’Behksh that sold landa skewers cooked fresh over a small wood stove set up behind the cart. After haggling for a few moments, Ki’Wei pulled out the single silver drol Teta’Ru paid him, and exchanged it for three skewers and a large handful of lesser coins. Before returning with their food, he counted out fifty gren and stuffed those coins in his meager purse with the payments taken for the day’s deliveries. He tucked the few remaining gren and bits into a hidden fold of his trousers.
Joining them on the canal roof, Ki’Wei handed each of them a skewer before biting into one of the chunks of meat on his. Salivating, Mel eagerly took her skewer, barely managing to chirp a thanks before she dipped the skewer under her the veil of her sabtah and took a bite. She felt the warm juices run over her chin as she pulled the hunk of meat off the tinzelwood stick and snapped it into her mouth. The heat forced her to immediately suck in air and juggle the near-scalding morsel in her mouth while she chewed.
After sucking air in and out several times, she felt the piece of landa was cool enough to properly eat and clamped her jaws shut. Mel closed her eyes as she relished the savory, slightly tangy flavor of the meat and seasoning, and gulped it down. Her frills shuddered a happy rattle as still-hot morsel slid into her belly and warmed her from the inside. Waving her skewer back-and-forth to cool it a little more before taking another bite, Mel looked around the plaza. It was rare that she got a moment to stop and take in the sights of Up-Town, and Mel savored every moment.
As she looked around, she noticed one of the town criers, in his eye-catching garb, hauling his stool into the middle of the square. Plopping it down, he clambered up to stand atop it, putting him head-and-shoulders above the rest of the crowd. “ATTENTION TO DECREE!” the crier shouted. “ATTENTION TO DECREE!” Mel pulled another slice off her skewer as the rest of the plaza ground to a halt and gave the crier cursory attention.
The crier cleared his throat and popped his frills out taught, displaying the dominance of the message he was conveying. “His majestic royalness, our great Vizier Kol’Rehk Su’Nahlan Sun’Kai’Bahn has met with the leaders of the Terran Stellar [Republic], and negotiated terms!”
Mel nibbled another piece off of her skewer, wondering what the word [republic] meant as an elderly Ka’Shii nearby scoffed, muttering to the younger kul’ti next to him. “Met with their leaders, alright, like he negotiated with the leaders of their whole empire. He’s always inflating his own importance.” The younger kul’ti, bearing a similar charcoal-and-ruddy coloring, responded only by shushing him, more concerned with the decree than the complaints of a tired, old warrior. Mel pretended not to listen to them.
The crier continued, having paused a moment to ensure he had gained the plaza’s attention. “The Terrans have assured our glorious Vizier that they wish no harm to the Kel’Kul’Ti people, nor did they wish war with our glorious Empire. Ill advice and misinformation given to our most wondrous Emperor, may he rest in eternal peace, led him to order an attack on the Terrans, forcing them to war.” The old warrior scoffed again, but the younger Ka’Shii shushed him again before he could say anything.
“The Terrans do not wish to compound the disaster that has befallen our people, nor do they trust that rogue elements of the Empire might not seek to attack them again. To ensure our stability, and to contain any malefactors, the Terran Stellar [Republic] has claimed the entirety of the Kel’Kul’Ti Empire as a protectorate.”
This brought a great number of murmurs and outcries from the crowd, and the younger Ka’Shii was too disturbed to remember to shush his older relative. “How we have fallen. We were one of the great empires of the Kingdoms, favored by destiny. None could truly rival us for three hundred lightyears. Reduced to a protectorate of some never-before-heard-of upstart.” The old kul’ti snorted, though the target of his derision was unclear.
Waving the crowd to silence, the crier continued. “Terran forces will remain on our worlds to help ensure stability and order, and to protect Terran interests while they help rebuild our nation. In return, the Terrans have promised to share some of the miracles of their technology with the Kel’Kul’Ti, in time. For now, the Terrans wish to cause as little disruption as they must. The Vizier has decreed that the people of Arabo’Lye shall comply with the Terran warriors in all things, but otherwise continue with business as normal.” His decree finished, the crier relaxed his frills and hopped down from his stool. Shaking his head to resettle his spines, he picked up his stool and hauled it away.
Mel glanced at her mother and uncle as she pulled the last two pieces of landa meat off her skewer and munched happily, savoring the last of her treat before gulping it down. They were both finishing their own meal. Hopping down from the canal roof, Mel collected their skewers and stowed them in their cart for use at home.
Ki’Wei stood up with a satisfied stretch. “Shall we continue as normal?” he asked, picking up the cart handle without waiting for a response. Mel picked up her pull rope as her mother climbed down and joined her, and they set off.
The rest of the day was spent collecting used laundry from other patron houses. The task went quickly; it was a lighter day, and picking up baskets of laundry left out for them was much faster than returning clean laundry and asking for pay.
Mel did discover a new game to pass the time, however. Leaning forward into her rope, she was able to stretch her body enough to tap the corner of the cart with her tail with a soft tak. Kahlen, whose shorter, stubbier tail took after their grandfather, could not match the feat without getting too close to the cart to walk properly. Sol, on the other hand, was from where Mel got her long tail, and she could perform the feat more easily than Mel could.
Showing off out of boredom, Mel stretched and tapped the side of the cart. Her mother gave her a sly glance, and with a casual stretch, flicked her tail over and back to strike the cart with a soft tak. Smiling, Mel repeated the gesture. Tak. Tak. Tak-tak. Tak-tak.
They both froze their tails and stared straight ahead when Ki’Wei glanced over his shoulder at them. He gave them a suspicious look for a moment before facing forward again. Mel and Sol exchanged a glance, their grins hidden by their veils. Tak. Tak. Tak-tak. Tak. Tak-tak. Tak. Tak.
Ki’Wei glanced over his shoulder again and they stared straight ahead, pretending to have heard nothing. Turning ahead again, he steered them around a corner to their next pick-up. As Mel and Sol loaded the soiled garments, he inspected the cart wheels and undercarriage. Mel shared a quiet giggle with her mother.
Back on the road, Sol quietly signaled to her daughter to wait a moment before starting the game again. They traveled another block-and-a-half before Sol gave her daughter a nod. Mel whipped her tail. Tak. Tak. Tak. Tak. Tak-tak. Tak. Tak.
They successfully evaded detection for the rest of their trip through Up-Town.
Soon enough, their pick-ups complete, it was time to return to Low-Town. Ki’Wei navigated around the increasing bustle of the afternoon and back to the western gate. They found the Terrans still inspecting everyone going through the gate, causing a queue to form. Fortunately, they were ahead of the evening rush and the line was short. The great beasts and their handlers were also nowhere to be seen.
Moving through the line, Mel noticed that one of the shorter Terrans was a bit more animated than the rest. It was talking and gesturing at the other Terrans, and conversing with the Kel it was inspecting. It finished inspecting a T’Lai couple in time for the kul’ti ahead of them to be next, but it waved him to one of the Marines next to him, and motioned for Ki’Wei to step up with their cart, instead.
As they got closer, Mel recognized it as one of the furrier Terrans, and realized it had recognized her when it greeted her by name.
“Hi, Mel! Fancy seeing you here!”
Mel froze, unsure of how to react as the Terran continued with his inspection duties, seemingly oblivious to her reaction.
“Ki’Wei, right?” it said, stepping over to her uncle with its magic detector wand. Ki’Wei nodded in response, confused as well. “Hold your arms straight out for me, thank you!” The Terran waved the wand around Ki’Wei, and when it glanced at Mel with a wink, she was finally able to place him.
“Corporal Dunahue!” Mel said, before immediately clamping her hands over her snout, receiving several severe glances for her impropriety.
“Heey! She remembers me!” Dunahue grinned, ignoring the looks from the nearby Kel.
“Dunahue, nobody is happy to remember you,” one of the Marines standing by the gate with a rifle called.
“Of course they are! I’m a beacon of happiness and hilarity!” Dunahue finished waving his wand around Ki’Wei and stepped over to Sol, gesturing for her to put her arms out. “Watch!” He turned to Sol. “What did the green [grape] say to the purple [grape]?”
“Oh, god,” groaned another Marine.
“Ma’am, please don’t answer that, you’ll only encourage him,” said the one with the rifle.
Dunahue didn’t want for a response, however. “Breath, stupid!” he shouted before bursting out with laughter at his own joke.
“God damnit, Dunahue, that’s the fifth time you’ve told that joke this watch. They don’t even know what [grapes] are!”
“Humor transcends all languages!” Dunahue insisted, finishing his inspection of Sol and stepping over to Mel. “It’s like the Muffin Joke!”
“What?” said the Marine to their left, giving Dunahue a look of confusion that transcended species barriers.
“Oh god…” said the rifle Marine
“I don’t think I’ve heard this one,” said the other rifle Marine.
“No!” said the first rifle Marine, pointing a hand at the second rifle Marine like a knife. “I’ve got five more hours of watch with this asshole, you will not encourage him!”
“What’s the muffin joke?” Mel asked quietly. The first rifle Marine groaned. Dunahue grinned.
“So, two muffins were sitting in an oven,” he said, holding his hands out like he was setting a scene. “One turned to the other and said, “Wow, it’s pretty hot in here.” The other turned and shouted, “AAAHHH! A talking muffin!”” Dunahue jumped back and waved his arms about like he was startled, animating the joke. Mel giggled, both at the joke and Dunahue’s antics, despite her anxiety at being the center of so much attention in public.
“[Fuck] me…” groaned the first rifle Marine. The other rifle Marine next to him appeared to have come down with some kind of coughing fit.
“Hey, mind your language!” Dunahue spun around to scold the first rifle Marine. “There are children present!” He waved both hands up and down while indicating Mel.
“They don’t have an equivalent word for [fuck] in their language, it’s just gibberish to them. So I can say [fuck] as many [fucking] times as I [fucking] want.”
“Anders!” Dunahue hooked the wand on his belt and clapped his hands over Mel’s ears. Mel froze at the alien touch, with no idea how to respond. “Translation or not, you’re corrupting the youth!”
“Alright, knock it off, both of you, you’re making a scene,” said the Marine to their right, waving the next in line up to be inspected.
“Fine, fine,” Dunahue said, patting Mel’s back. She felt something slip into one of the folds of her sabtah. Mel was barely able to suppress a startled jump. This whole event would have been considered taboo for the lower classes, but the Terrans weren’t of the lower classes, nor of any class. “I’m just trying to protect the innocent from Anders’ foul-mouthed influences.” He winked at Mel and stepped over to the cart. “Whoa, that’s a smell,” recoiled from the cart, waving his hand in front of his facemask in exaggeration. “Did you guys raid Anders’ laundry bag?” Anders growled.
“We are taking clothes and linens from the noble houses in Up-Town to be washed,” Ki’Wei explained, trying to locate his place in the conversation.
“Hmmm… You’re probably right,” Dunahue scratched at the chin of his helmet. “Anders’ socks would have set off the biological hazard alarms.” Anders shook a fist at Dunahue, but with his middle finger extended. “Still, glad I’ve got biofilters on this thing!” He tapped his helmet, then winked at Mel. “Makes sharing a barracks with him bearable.” He jerked a thumb at Anders. The second rifle Marine chuckled.
“What are you laughing at?”
“He’s not wrong.”
“Man, [fuck] you, too!”
Wand in hand again, Dunahue stepped over to the cart and began waving it around. He asked Ki’Wei to shift some of the baskets, but finished quickly. “Alright, you’re all set. Have a good afternoon!” He waved as they departed with the cart. “See you around, Mel!”
Mel ducked down at the attention, but couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder to watch him wave the next person in line over. “Alright, who’s our next contestant? Come ooon dooown!”
Uncomfortable silence reigned as they continued back into Low-Town, trundling their odorous load down the main thoroughfare, until they turned onto the side-streets that would lead them to their neighborhood. “How did that Terran know my name?” Ki’Wei asked, perplexed.
“That was Corporal Dunahue,” Mel said quietly. Technically a breech of propriety without being specifically addressed, but if nobody else heard her, who was going to complain? “He was the one who watched over me yesterday.” She considered a moment. “He came with us when Captain Edwards brought me home, but he stayed outside. I don’t know how he knew you.”
“What kinds of magic do these Terrans have?” Sol wondered. Neither of them could give her an answer. The rest of the trip home was spent in quiet contemplation for the trio as they wove around the bustle of Low-Town traffic and business.
Returning home, their work was far from done. Mel did manage to slip into the room she shared with her mother and dig out whatever item Dunahue had slipped into her sabtah. It was some kind of thin bar, wrapped in paper and foil, and it smelled deliciously interesting. She squirreled it under her bed mat to investigate later, and returned to work.
Ki’Wei met with Son’Ki, and he handed over the coin from the day’s deliveries. “There is an extra fifty gren from the Tsalam Sun’Ka’Shii household,” he handed his father the extra coin. “Teta’Ru’Tsalam requested service with Sol while we were there. He played the dominant lord, but he was impatient and didn’t even try to haggle. I priced her at ten times the rate for a day’s service, and he took it without argument, for all of twenty minutes time with her.”
Son’Ki flicked his frills up in approval. “Really? Excellent, my son, I am proud.” He threw an arm over Ki’Wei’s shoulder and ruffled his frills. “Though do be careful with over-selling too much to the upper castes; they can take offense if they catch on. But fifty gren?!” He snorted a laugh as they walked away from the cart, the kul’tan unloading and sorting the laundry. “The boy must have been desperate. I’d have settled for a single gren!”
The rest of the day demanded more work than the route through Up-Town. There was the cart to be unloaded. Water to be hauled from the cistern to be heated, and then back out to the laundry tubs behind the house. The laundry needed to be scrubbed, wrung out, and hung to dry. The tubs on the roof would need to be refilled and refreshed, and the laundry to be imbued with the oils in sweetwater carried up to soak overnight. Dinner had to be prepared, merchandise for the shop cart restocked, and the whole mess cleaned and readied for the next day.
By the time the last of the work was done, and they sat down to share what Klensa and Kahlen prepared for dinner, Mel was exhausted. Son’Ki and Ki’Wei discussed the Vizier’s decree, and what impact the occupation might have on the family’s business in the days to come. Sol and Kanlo took turns entertaining Mayla and convincing her to eat all of her food, even the greens and roots. Kahlen took Hayl’s share of the meal to her room, and complained when she returned that her aunt was particularly aggressive and paranoid that day.
“You really should let her come out of her room more,” Klensa told her husband. “Staying cooped up in there is not good for her. She needs things to occupy her, and to talk to people, or all she’ll have to do is imagine threats to her eggs.”
“The more she is focused on protecting and caring for her clutch, the better,” Son’Ki sighed. “Besides, the last time we let her out for the day, she nearly bit Ki’Wei, and actually spat venom at the front window.” He shook his head, rattling his spines. “Keeping her locked in her room is as much for everyone else’s safety as it is for the safety of the clutch, and she will remain there until she is done brooding and no longer producing venom.”
Klensa flexed her frills as if to argue, but Son’Ki raised his with a glare, making it clear that the final word had been spoken. The meal continued for several minutes with the only sound being the clack of their wooden spoons and tin forks against their wood and tin plates. “I talked to Bahkla this morning,” Klensa said, changing the subject. “She told me that Shek’Sa will be leaving with a caravan to the mines tomorrow, and won’t be back for three days. He would have his wife and daughters work with us and the Sensts again while he is gone.”
Son’Ki nodded, finishing his meal. “Of course. It would do no good to leave them alone all day with no kul’ti to watch over them.” He stretched and stood. “I will go speak to him now. The Tumks usually have dinner earlier in the evening, and Shek’Sa will have to be up early if he is leaving with a caravan tomorrow.” Klensa bowed her head in agreement, and her husband left.
With the rest of the family finishing their meals, Klensa oversaw the business of cleaning up and readying the final few things they would need for the next day’s work. An hour after the meal, Son’Ki returned from his visit with Shek’Sa, slightly drunk. He promptly took his wife to bed, and with the chill of the night starting to creep in from outside, the rest of the family soon followed.
In her room with just her mother, Mel readied herself for bed. Kahlen and Mayla decided to sleep with Kanlo that evening. She was just settling onto her sleeping mat when she remembered what she had stashed underneath it. Her weariness instantly banished by her curiosity, Mel dug under the mat and pulled out the Terran bar and examined it more closely in the dim light.
The outer paper wrapper was a dark brown, and the inner foil wrapper was a shiny silver, but only on the outside. Carefully examining the folds of the foil, it looked to have some kind of waxy paper on the inside. Puzzling over how to open the wrapper, she decided that the best way was to slide the paper wrapper off, as it was glued to itself and not the inner foil.
“What do you have there?” her mother asked, peering at her from her own bed mat.
“I don’t know,” Mel set the hoop of paper off to the side and carefully pealed open the foil. “Corporal Dunahue slipped it into my sabtah when he was inspecting us at the gate.” She folded it open, exposing one end of the bar. It was a solid brown color, and one side of it had a pattern of smaller bars scored into it. “I think it’s food.” She sniffed it. “It smells… sweet.” She snapped off a corner of it, it broke easily enough, and before her mother could say otherwise, she popped it into her mouth.
She went rigid as soon as it touched her tongue. It was… heaven. She clamped her jaws shut and closed her eyes. Whatever it was, it was melting in her mouth, smearing deliciousness like she had never experienced all over her tongue. “Mmm…” It was sweet, and creamy, with a flavor like nothing she had ever known. She chewed and savored the treat even more as the flavor exploded through her mouth. “It’s amazing…” she muttered. She swallowed and turned to Sol.
“Mama, you have to try this!” She scrambled out of her bed and clambered into her mother’s. Sol chuckled at her daughter’s exuberance and made room for her on her mat, pulling the blankets over the both of them. Mel snuggled in against her mother and broke off another piece of the bar, practically shoving it into her mother’s face. “Try it! Try it!” she whispered.
“Okay, o-mph,” Sol said as Mel shoved the Terran food into her mouth, struggling against her daughter before going still as the flavor hit her tongue. “Gods above,” she muttered, her eyes rolling into the back of her head and savoring the explosion of sweet delight. “Is all Terran food like this?”
“I on’t ow,” Mel said, biting off another piece. She offered the bar to her mother as she chewed and immersed herself in ecstasy. Sol took another bite. “Maybe it’s a special treat?”
Sol nodded. “It must be,” she said when she could speak again. “That Terran was very kind and generous to give it to you.” She looked down at Mel as her daughter bit off another chunk. “Do you want to save some of it for later? This is a rare treat.”
Mel considered for a long moment, the temptation to shove the rest of the bar into her mouth hard to overcome. “Yes,” she finally said. “I’ll save it for later.” She offered her mother a final bite, which she accepted, before carefully folding the foil wrapper around what was left. They had eaten about half of the bar. She crawled out from under the covers and shifted her bed mat. One of the floorboards was loose where it rested on the frame of the wall underneath them, and she had hollowed out a small pocket to hide her secret things.
She tucked the Terran food bar and its paper wrapper into her stash, slid the bedding back in place overtop, and scurried back into bed with her mother. Sol murred happily at her daughter as she wrapped the blankets around them both and nuzzled her snout into Mel’s frills. Nestling against her for warmth, Mel soon found herself drifting off to sleep, her dreams filled with images of Terran feasts.