Serial: Earthrise, Episode 28

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Earthrise
Her Instruments, Book 1

Episode 28

      It had not been his plan to wander, but the alternative had not been palatable. So with Allacazam slowly calming in his arms, Hirianthial drifted through the gracious halls of the twins’ family estate. The subsequent rooms had been built on the same model as the first few he’d seen: large windows at ground level, high ceilings and fans. Lovingly tended plants lined the corridors, some reaching from outside to coil tendrils along the inside walls. Broad-mouthed pots proved to be water gardens, sporting exotic lilies and populations of tiny fish and other less familiar creatures. Each hall seemed to branch into a shaded terrace, a sheltered alcove, a perfumed garden. Occasionally he caught sight of stairs leading into the ground and up to the earth.
      Slaves passed him, their auras dense and lazy with pleasure. How could he explain how easily he could discern their contentment? He’d run his mental fingers over the distant auras of true slaves before, felt the spikes of pain so long suppressed the barbs had turned inward, sinking into the person’s mind with the cruelty of despair. He would never have willingly given himself to the work these slaves had signed themselves to, but their willingness was real. There was no menace in this household.
      In time, Hirianthial found a garden so charming he couldn’t leave it. He perched on a crumbled stone wall among flowers so tiny their blossoms seemed more like lilac spatters off a paint brush. They smelled spicy, like sandalwood and ember bark. Half a dozen orange butterflies floated among the bushes, and at his feet black lizards raced from one end of the patio to the other. With Allacazam drowsily eating sunlight at his side, Hirianthial relaxed.
      “Did my son release you so quickly, then?”
      “He seemed eager to arrange our rooms,” Hirianthial said, turning to look at Zhemala.
      “You are overdressed for the weather,” she said. The crumbling wall had once framed a gate, and she sat on the gate’s opposite side, her gaze resting on his.
      “If that was an invitation, lady, I’m afraid I shall ignore it,” he said.
      She laughed, her teeth and red mouth obscured by the filmy veil that fell from the level of her cheeks. “No, old alien. It was an invitation to have water. You will need more water than you are accustomed to drinking on a dry, cold ship.”
      “Water would be welcome,” Hirianthial said.
      She called for the attention of a servant and sent him away for a pitcher, then turned back to the Eldritch. “Will you forgive my staring? Most people expect Harat-Shar to stare, but your people are not rumored to know much of the Pelted.”
      “As you will, lady,” Hirianthial said. “Your eyes will not harm me.”
      And with amusement, he observed the frankness of her appraisal and how it did not lift until the servant returned with a sweating silver pitcher and two goblets. She did not pass him his after pouring it, but set it on the edge of his side of the gate with all the practiced etiquette of an Eldritch courtier.
      “I have lived long and hard and never regretted it,” Zhemala said. “But I never thought I’d see an Eldritch in the real. I would greatly love to see more of you, but if this is all I ever see then I am satisfied.”
      “Are we worth so much?” Hirianthial asked with a lifted brow.
      “Oh, anything rare enough is worth so much,” the Harat-Shar said. “But this… yes, this even more. Your captain is a lucky girl. But come, there is business to discuss.”
      The water was cold enough to shock, cold enough to numb his mouth. He could feel it traveling all the way down his throat and into his stomach. “Business, lady?”
      “My children tell me you’re a doctor, and I happen to have a particular need for a doctor at this time. If you show interest, I would offer your captain a contract for a few hours of your time a day.”
      “And my duties?” Hirianthial asked, setting the goblet down.
      “One of my husband’s wives is expecting and this is her first,” Zhemala said. “She is suffering from anxiety over her physical condition. A doctor would be a welcome addition to her midwife.”
      He was glad he’d put the goblet down as it gave him ample reason to fold his hands together in his lap where they could not shake. He was similarly glad that Allacazam was too far and too somnolent from gorging to react to the panic that had gripped his chest. “I do not have a specialty in obstetrics, lady,” he said.
      “I didn’t imagine so,” Zhemala said and took a long sip from her goblet. “I won’t require your help in delivering her baby—she’s not close to her time—only in reminding her to care for herself, to eat the right foods and take the right supplements, and to ease her anxieties about being a mother. I will talk bluntly, sir. I do not require a doctor. I require a babysitter whose degrees in medicine will lend him a lulling air of authority. I will pay your captain well for you to deal with her histrionics, for all of us are beginning to find them tiresome.”
      “I can play the nursemaid,” Hirianthial said, forcing his discomfort aside. “But I must point out that I am no woman. How can your co-wife believe me if I have no direct experience with what she will soon undergo?”
      “The midwife has not calmed her, despite her many successes and her own long line of children,” Zhemala said. “So perhaps the girl’s habit of obedience to men will shut her up in your presence.” She sighed. “I would have brought in someone from the city, but you are close, you are convenient, and you’ll be leaving… so I need not worry about alienating a neighbor.” She managed a faint smile, one that didn’t rise far enough above her veil to touch her eyes. “Her mother died giving birth to her second sister. The girl is convinced the baby will kill her. We’re tired of telling her otherwise. Perhaps you will have better luck.”
      The irony of the situation was heavy-handed enough to off-set the reminder of his grief. Hirianthial said, “You’ll have to check with Captain Eddings—”
      “—of course.”
      “But if she approves, I will do my best,” Hirianthial said.
      Zhemala smiled and left him with the pitcher. He poured himself another serving and watched the butterflies.

***

      “Reese!”
      She paused at the entrance to the hall to find the twins trotting toward her. She’d almost escaped without anyone seeing her, which would have suited her fine… her talk with Hirianthial had left her angry and unsettled.
      Sascha stopped first. “I was going to show you and Hirianthial to your rooms, but I get back to the Moon Patio and find you both gone! Where are you going? And where’s Hirianthial?”
      “I’m heading into town,” Reese said. “I don’t know where Hirianthial is.”
      “Town already?” Sascha asked. “You’re not even settled!”
      “In case you haven’t noticed, the ship’s in need of repair,” Reese said, clipping her data tablet onto her belt.
      “Can’t it wait a single day?” Irine asked. “Mamer’s preparing a glorious dinner!”
      “Dinner’s not for another five or six hours, unless you people call lunch dinner,” Reese said.
      “We can’t lift off for an entire season, though,” Sascha said. “What’s the point of rushing?”
      “The point of rushing is that the faster I get this done, the more relaxed I’ll be. I hate having things hanging over my head. So tell me which way, fuzzies, or I’ll have to figure it out on my own and you know how cranky that will make me.”
      Irine sighed. “Go down Market Avenue. The port’s at the end of it.”
      “That’s it?” Reese asked, lifting a brow.
      “Hey, that’s just how Hirianthial looks sometimes,” Irine crowed, tail waving.
      “What are you talking about?”
      “The thing with the brow,” Irine said.
      As if sensing Reese’s forthcoming tantrum, Sascha hastily said, “Market Avenue’s the largest street in town. You won’t miss it. It’s in the middle of everything.”
      “Right,” Reese said. And added, “I do not look like him.”
      “Of course you don’t,” Sascha said, pushing Irine deeper into the hall. “Enjoy your walk.”

***

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