Astral Chapter 6: Two Lessons

Jamie Copeland slowly woke. She was groggy, and the world around her was bright and blurry. She rubbed her eyes and the world came into focus. Which world, she had no idea.

Jamie found she was in a hospital bed being monitored by some device that appeared very much to be looking at her, rather than merely observing her status. Jamie breathed in deeply. The air was clean and sweet, nothing like the dank jungle of Chandace. A beautiful blue sky was visible through the window and she could swear she heard birds singing.

A calm, friendly voice startled her. “How are you feeling, Ms Copeland?” She slowly looked over to see that the machine monitoring her, was watching her. “Your heart rate has increased and I suspect that has to do with my greeting. I apologize. i am here to help; nothing more. I have sent word to the Doctor, he should be here shortly.”

Jamie merely nodded, having no prior experience to prepare her for polite, talking medical equipment. She began to step out of her bed, then froze. She wasn’t sure if she should. Jamie also realized that she was in a gown and nothing else. “May I?” She started to ask, and the monitor politely interrupted; “Of course you may!” it chirped with reserved enthusiasm. “The Doctor will no doubt be delighted to hear you are able.” With that, Jamie grabbed her blanket and wrapped it around herself protectively.

She walked over to the window, her steps uneven and unsure. She felt a wave of dizziness roll over her and had to grab a nearby table to to keep her balance. The wave passed, and she continued her short journey to the window. She suddenly realized that the floor was heated, comfortably so for her bare feet, but that cool air was drifting in from the open window. What she saw before her was a world she had never dreamed of.

As far as her eyes could see, neat, ordered rows of apple trees stretched out; their branches drooping with fruit. Large yellow machines that resembled dump truck buckets lined with robotic arms floated among the rows, inspecting each fruit and picking them, then loading the apples into the buckets.

For the second time in the past five minutes, an unexpected voice startled Jamie. “In a little while, I will take you down to see them close up, if you feel well enough.”

Jamie turned to see a tall, strong looking blonde woman standing in the doorway. The very sight of her caused Jamie to pull her blanket tighter. Where Jamie was average height, was unkempt and much softer around the thighs and midsection than she was comfortable with,, this woman was nearing six foot in height, with shoulder length blonde hair, sparkling green eyes, and the features of a model.

What was most striking to Jamie was the woman’s rippling muscles; not the masculine bulk of a body builder, though, but rather the lean, tight cords of an experienced runner. “Doctor?” Jamie blurted out, then suddenly felt very clumsy and awkward.

The woman smiled. “No, he will be along shortly. I am a friend. Erin asked me to keep an eye and greet you when you woke up. My name is Charlie Kilmer.” She said as she approached the disheveled Jamie with her hand outstretched. Jamie reached out awkwardly and received the friendly shake. Charlie was as strong as she looked.

“I imagine you would like yo get cleaned and wake up a little better before any more unexpected company arrives?” Charlie said. Jamie gave a sheepish smile. Then, suddenly, as if her contents had settled from her first time being upright in days, she had the overwhelming need to use the restroom.

Charlie immediately recognized Jamie’s panicked look. “The bathroom is the door just to the right of your bed. There are fresh clothes on there. Monitor Jeff will keep an eye on you in case you feel faint or sick. Take your time. I will be waiting down the hall, to the right when you are done.”

With that, Charlie moved out of the way and Jamie raced to the bathroom.

A half hour later, Jamie emerged from the steaming bathroom. Her hosts had spared no expense getting he cleaned and dressed. She had a complete outfit in just her size, the same sweater and jeans combination she preferred that Erin had no doubt informed them of.

There were several bottles of expensive-smelling perfumes, which she ignored in favor of deodorant, some make up, and to her delight, a razor. She padded through the room, all the while Monitor Jeff followed her with his strange digital gaze. “Ms. Copeland, I am glad you are well. You smell wonderful. I hope to see you again, soon, under different circumstances.” He said cheerfully, then reset to the position he was in when she woke.

Jamie started to wave awkwardly, then just dropped her arm to her side and left, still having no idea how to respond.

She stepped out into a sparsely furnished but comfortable hallway with a tightly carpeted floor. She stopped and looked in a mirror before continuing on. The clothes she was wearing were amazing; she had never worn anything so comfortable before.

Her sweater was bright emerald, which somehow made her eyes look brighter, and the jeans were a rich, unfaded blue. She had pulled her hair back into a ponytail. She smiled, for the first time since she had met Charlie, she thought she looked pretty.

She could see the light streaming into the hall from the waiting room, and as she approached, the smells of rich coffee and pastry greeted her. Jamie’s stomach growled loudly as she got closer, and she rounded the corner to find Charlie having a conversation with a nurse in front of the most elaborate continental breakfast she had ever witnessed. The spread had to urns of coffee, at least a dozen different pastries, fruit, waffles, eggs (fried scrambled and poached) and several pitchers of milk and juice.

Charlie looked over and smiled widely. “Oh, hello! You must be famished. I would be too if I had been in bed for three days. Help yourself.”

The words had barely left Charlie’s mouth before Jamie had forgotten all modesty, completely overcome with hunger. She grabbed a plate and loaded it with croissants, a slice of melon, bacon, sausage, some eggs and toast. She poured a glass of milk and one of orange juice, and a cup of strong coffee with cream and sugar.

When she had a full platter, Charlie motioned for her to take a seat at the room’s one table. Jamie sat down and began to eat. She felt Charlie looking at her and suddenly became self-conscious again. Charlie smiled and Jamie saw nothing in her sparkiling green eyes but sympathy. “I have been there myself, my friend. Eat up, you will feel stronger.”

Jamie gave a weak smile and devoured a sausage patty, followed by a bite of croissant, and washed it down with the most exquisite sip of coffee she had ever tasted. Finally, she felt like she could breathe easier. She noticed that Charlie was staring at her plate with an odd look. Longing, perhaps? She couldn’t tell, but it disappeared from the other woman’s face quickly.

“I am sure you have a great number of questions. I will do my best to answer them.” Jamie nodded but continued to hungrily clean her plate. She paused at one point and asked “My first question is, where am I?” Charlie nodded, expecting that would be Jamie’s first question. “The planet we are on is called Flora. Some of the people you will meet today grew up here, like me. Others went to school here but aren’t originally from here, like Garrison.” Jamie noted that she was almost finished cleaning her plate, and was beginning to feel better. She emptied her juice and her milk shortly thereafter.

Charlie was smiling at the contented look on Jamie’s face. “Would you like to go for a walk, maybe get some fresh air?” she asked. Jamie nodded eagerly. “Definitely. I can’t wait to see this place.” Before leaving the waiting room, Jamie helped herself to a cinnamon roll and a travel cup filled with more rich coffee. The two women walked back down the long hallway and down some stairs, making small talk at first. Charlie led Jamie out a pair or swinging door onto a small concrete landing that faced the apple orchard Jamie had seen from her window. The sky was blue and perfect, with few light puffy clouds drifting lazily by in the cool breeze.

Charlie took pride in the look of quiet awe on the other woman’s face. Her family had tended the continents of food plants that had been grown and perfected on Flora for centuries. “Flora is an agricultural planet. Every inch of land that is not inhabited by humans is dedicated to growing food.” Jamie swallowed a mouth full of coffee hard and choked. She had to turn quickly to avoid spraying her beverage onto Charlie’s shirt. After a few seconds of coughing, she looked the other woman in the face. “This entire planet is a farm?”

Charlie’s smile almost took her ears. “Yes.” she said simply.

Jamie had to take a moment to process this new information. “Wow…” she mouthed breathlessly, and Charlie continued. “There are many planets that are dedicated to a single purpose; Garrison’s home planet, Rigel, produces wood. It’s largely about scale; when you have trillions of people spread out over hundreds of planets and solar systems, it takes a great deal to provide for them. Plus some planets are able to harbor life, but lack the necessary environments for agriculture, for instance.”

“You of course weren’t allowed to know any of this. McCleod’s family has maintained a stranglehold on information for their worlds for as long as they have had worlds to control. Absolute power is easy to maintain, even if that power is abused, if the people don’t know there are alternatives. Did you know there were other inhabited planets?”

Jamie shook her head, and Charlie started to walk out toward the orchard, Jamie keeping up with her long, graceful strides. Jamie watched Charlie as they walked, listening to her intently, sipping her coffee and doing her best absorb everything the other woman was saying.

She was beginning to think that after today, she might need another three days of sleep.

On another world, one even Charlie wasn’t aware of, another lesson was going on.Jerylys Deswoun was once again being forced into a lesson about humility and his place as a male. He walked along the broken grounds surrounding the Sharrel city of Markilith, alone. Typically, no one walked outside the city limits un-escorted unless they were suicidal. the city’s high walls and constant guard prevented anything from ever entering, or even getting near the city, but beyond the first three hundred yards of that perimeter, a person’s lifespan typically dropped to minutes or hours. But not Jerylys.

One of three living Zeldrin, J as he was called, walked through even the dark, dangerous stretches surrounding Markilith with practiced ease and confidence. He was a Jester, the term having been bastardized centuries ago by Sharrel scholars because human depictions of royalty in their fiction so often depicted jesters being by their side. It wasn’t until decades after it became common use that they learned that jesters were entertainment, not protection. In the Sharrel world, jester was a position of honor; the personal; bodyguard of the ruling mothers.

J didn’t see things that way.He had always had a problem with being told what to do, being told that his place was to be subservient and to question nothing. In his one hundred thirteen years on Salvatore, J had always butted heads with authority figures. His parents had leaped at the opportunity to improve their standing in life when he was born, and condemned him to a life of expectation and servitude.

His only joy had been found in fighting; he had been placed in school at an early age and forced to learn everything both Dama and Baeris children were expected to learn, and expected to excel. Upon reaching adolescence at thirty, he was given the opportunity to train as a jester, by the young mother of the Deswoun family. He jumped at the chance, knowing that he could spend less time on academics and focus on melee combat.

J finished top of his class every last one of his ten years in training; he was untouchable. He graduated with pride, knowing that a glorious career lay ahead of him. Little did he realize he was then indentured to the Mistress, Masin’Duwell Deswoun, for the rest of her life. A jester’s only mission was that of his mistress, to protect her even at the cost of his own life and to follow her orders explicitly. In that capacity, J was a failure.

He argued, fought and disagreed with Mistress Deswoun at seemingly every turn. She hated him with all of her being, but lusted after him as well, forcing him into a physical relationship (not unusual for jesters) that he despised, if only because he had no choice in the matter. Masin’Duwell was easily the most beautiful of all of the ruling mothers, but that only made her more arrogant and intolerable. J was her guardian, her lover, and her advisor. Of all of the ruling mothers, she was also the only one to ever get involved in combat. She was a Dama, and true to her bloodline, she reveled in combat, either watching it, coordinating it, or sometimes engaging in it.

J hoped that one day she would be killed in an engagement and then he would be free. Unfortunately, he hadn’t worked out what he would do then; as her jester, if she died, so would he.

However, today, she was tucked away, safe in her fortress, surrounded by her vile daughters and plotting the conquest of several planets, for when Lythe D’elnohr made contact with that human wretch McCleod, Masin’Duwell would be ready to strike whatever target the council agreed upon first. J had quite vocally challenged the first several targets on her list, suggesting that perhaps hitting the most heavily defended targets first would deplete their ranks to soon and too quickly.

His mistress had ordered him, equally as vocally, to patrol the outer marches of the city defense, and to return in a day if he survived. She couldn’t reconcile her feelings for him. As much as she would hate to lose such a gifted lover and fighter, she was convinced getting killed was the only thing that would teach him his place in their society. She didn’t understand that J almost preferred death to life in that society.

He walked with unmatched agility, skipping over jagged rocks and piles of stone as easily as he walked over a padded carpet. J wore a red hooded cape that signified his station as a Jester over his silk-plate armor. The armor appeared to be made of silvery spandex when not being worn, but once it was put on, it changed into shining metal armor that conformed perfectly to the wearer’s body, and was harder than steel. His hair was white and tied into an elaborate braid that reached the small of his back, with a small three inch blade woven into the tip. J was one hundred and forty lithe perfectly muscled pounds, and was tall for a Sharrel at five foot eight.

He had less than an hour left before he was to return, having learned nothing about humility or his place. He hadn’t even encountered a single creature the entire time, so on top of everything else, it had been boring, not to mention exhausting. The rule he followed to a letter was never let your guard down, and it served him well a few seconds later.

A large, hulking form burst up from a rock formation to his right. In a single fluid motion, J leaped to the left, tucked into a sideways somersault and landed with both of his blades in his hands. They were identical, and aptly named Jester blades. The blades themselves were two and a half feet long, straight and single edged. J’s were linked to enchanted rings he wore on each ring finger to come to his hands with a thought.

The creature was a type known to him, a rock wanderer. They were ten feet tall, covered in a thick rocky exoskeleton, and vicious fighters. Rock wanderers were known to cripple or kill entire patrols; even so, it had no idea that it was no match for J. Its fist sized, mirrored eyes followed him as its chest heaved in anticipation of a kill. One massive arm swung down, its balled up fist almost as big as J’s chest. The stone shattered where J had stood a second before, but he had moved as soon as he sensed the creature’s movement. As the fist swung down, he rolled over its arc, barely touching it, and landing lightly to the wanderer’s right.

J exploded into motion the second his feet touched the rock. His paired blades slapped, dove and stabbed at the beast’s armor, searching for an opening in the plates. The wanderer roared and spun, surprisingly fast, and struck out again. This time, J rolled under the blow, then sprang up and stabbed out at the elbow joint in the armor. He felt the blade bite, not much, but enough to elicit a pained shriek from the monster. J had to dive backwards to avoid getting crushed as the rock wanderer dropped to the side, hoping to catch him under its bulk.

J hit the ground hard on his back, and rolled backward onto his feet, his armor absorbing most of the impact, his blades out before him. The rock wanderer pulled itself back to its feet and launched a series of blows at J. The nimble zeldrin dodged and twisted, avoiding a crushing blow on several occasions by less than an inch, and always repaying the attempt with a flurry of cuts and stabs. The wanderer bellowed in frustration, wanting nothing more than to crush the life out of the quick little creature. It balled its fists together and brought them up high over head. J reacted to its overhand swing by diving into a roll closer to the beast.

He flinched as the ground gave an audible crack where he had been standing. He finished his roll between the wanderer’s legs and sprinted to get away. Again showing surprising speed, the creature spun on its heel and reached out for the running sharrel. Luck was not with J, as the wanderer’s hand clenched tight around his braid. With a sudden jerk and a blaze of pain, J stopped, his head jerked back by his own momentum.

The rock wanderer drooled in anticipation of the kill, and pulled back to lift J into the air by his hair. Had it known what it was holding, it might have just let him go.

J twisted to face the creature, and lost a good piece of his scalp for his trouble. He flipped one sword over so that its blade rested against his arm, then lifted it and stabbed straight at the wanderer’s hand. The blade bit deep into the joint, right where the finger met the hand. The wanderer shrieked and loosed its grip immediately; exactly what J anticipated. As soon as the hand opened, he stabbed straight up with his other sword, hitting the same joint as the first from below. In a single synchronous movement, J twisted and pulled both blades, and popped the rock wanderer’s middle finger off.

J turned to run, but the fighting had attracted others; lathelle. Imported from another planet as slaves, lathelle we disgusting humanoids by anyone’s standards. They were much taller than a sharrel, averaging between six an seven feet in height. Their heads were bald, their skin a pale, sickly looking dun. They were wiry, lanky beasts, but surprisingly strong, and the sharrel had originally started using them as shock troops because they could regenerate lost limbs, even a lost head within minutes.

Unfortunately, they escaped from time to time into the wilds, where they prospered. Most creatures had a hard time going against something that could only be killed by fire or acid. There were six lathelle circling J and the rock wanderer, all of them wearing tattered remnants of clothes. J sneered; they were all escaped slaves, meaning there was no chance they would leave a lone sharrel standing; sharrel were notoriously cruel keepers, often torturing slaves because they were bored. Lathelle were particular favorites since they could withstand untold horrors without dying.

Three advanced at once. J dove to the left as the wanderer punched down where he was standing, even though he had not consciously sensed the danger, then sprang to his feet and stabbed straight out at the two closest lathelle. Both blades pierced a creature, one through the eye and the other in the throat. The third, thinking he was engaged with the other two reached out with both hands; J yanked his right blade free, then swung it in a circle and chopped across, severing them.

Again, he barely sense another strike from the rock wanderer; this time, he let it come within a hear’s breadth of him, before jumping into a graceful roll over its thick arm. The wanderer, expecting the hit to connect, swung through and punched the lathelle that had its hands cut off, launching it thirty feet in a backwards somersault.

The wanderer shrieked in rage and began throwing a fury of punches, hoping to smash the the stinging sharrel. With every swipe of the club-like fists, J rolled over or under the swipe, barely avoiding being flattened, and each time guiding the furious beast into crushing or slapping aside a lathelle that was trying to reach him. After a few minutes, the wanderer was beginnign to tire, it’s rage beginning to play out. The tireless lathelle never let up, however, driven mad by their desire to kill the sharrel, to gain some feeling of revenge for slavery and torment.

J was as tireless as the lathelle; nearly a century of training and combat had forged a nearly limitless reserve energy. His step didn’t slow, nor did his blades, and the lathelle each bore dozens of cuts, punctures and missing limbs to show for it. J knew he needed to do something decisive, and soon, for he could see the limbs and eyes beginning to grow back, and knew inherently that the severed hands and arms would soon be turning into new lathelle themselves.,

He changed his momentum, changing his stance from defensive to offensive, stabbing, slashing and cutting with unmatched ferocity at the three closest creatures. So intense was the attack that all three were put back on their heels. Chunks on flesh fell from their arms as they backed away, immediately on the defensive. Then, to all of their surprise, J stopped and pivoted on his heel. He leaped straight up as the rock wanderer predictably punched the ground where he had been a second before. J landed lightly on the beast’s wrist, then ran up it’s tree-like arm, then kicked off into a forward roll.

When his head was pointing straight down at the ground, and his feet directly over him, J thrust out with his right blade, driving it into gap between the head and the neck and burying it halfway up the blade. He landed gracefully on his feet, his left blade meeting two surprised lathelle that were trying to sneak around the wanderer. The giant was desperately trying to reach over its shoulder to pull the sword out, having, for the time at least, forgotten about J.

J fended off the surprised lathelle with his blade, slapping them with the flat of his blade and working them around to their fellows. they gladly obliged, figuring with their superior numbers (now eight) that they would easily overwhelm the warrior. They didn’t notice that his right hand was working through an intricate set of gestures and then grabbed a small marble from one of his belt pouches.

He flicked his wrist and tossed the marble into a graceful arc, then grabbed onto the hilt of his remaining sword with both hands and cut into the surrounding creatures. He was surrounded on all sides, whipping the blade, around defeating every attack the split second before it landed. The lathelle pressed in, swiping at the jester, their dirty claws bouncing off his fine armor. J shouted a single word, the leaped straight up. To the surprise of the attackers, he floated up out of their reach. He flipped toward the wanderer, landing lightly on its shoulders as the levitation enchantment wore off. J, like many sharrel, wore a pair of wings, attuned to his blades, allowing him to call them back to his grasp with a thought.

However, he was not feeling generous. He grabbed the handle of his blade and wrenched it out of the gap at an awkward angle to maximize the damage and pain to the wanderer. It screamed and began to reach back for J when the marble began to fall. It grew in size to that of an orange, glowing bright red. The wanderer stared at it, transfixed. the lathelle were about to rush around it to get to J as he jumped down behind the behemoth, placing it’s bulk between himself and the glowing ball the exact second it touched the wanderer’s open palm.

There was a loud explosion as the ball erupted into fireball that burned with the intensity of a controlled nuclear blast. J calmly slid his swords away as he landed, then walked around to the front of the wanderer. All eight lathelle and the rock wanderer were frozen in place as if time had stopped, only now instead of flesh and blood, they were carved out of ash. J tapped the wanderer’s arm, which crumpled and fell, causing the remains to topple over onto the charred lathelle.

J shook his head and turned back to return to Markilith. The encounter proved nothing that he didn’t already know, although he took great pleasure in the thought that Masin’duwell would be disappointed he would be returning. His step was quickened by the thought of the look on her face when she viewed this encounter.
Charlie sat and watched Jamie as she chewed her lip and digested the mountain of information that the blond woman had presented her with over the past few hours. Jamie had mostly just listened, occasionally chiming in for clarification of a point, but otherwise just absorbing the stream of facts.

The two women sat under an over-burdened cherry tree in the failing sun of the late afternoon. Depending on how Jamie took things, Charlie was either taking her back to her hospital room, or to the spacious dorms where the others lived.

Jamie stared off into space, contemplating everything she had been told. It was all bouncing around in her head, trying to make sense, occasionally interrupted by the thought that the cherries were probably staining her new pants. Charlie had explained a lot of how the galaxy worked outside of McCleod’s influence. There were nearly twenty intelligent species that operated in open trade with one another, with varying populations on most inhabited planets. Surprisingly, many of them were humanoid, with one, the Varlchaness, being from a different reality entirely. Charlie carried a strange little computer that fit in her pocket, but rolled out to the size of a large book when she needed it to that she used to show Jamie pictures of everything she described.

She clicked through several of the pages that they had been through; pictures of deep blue-green skinned Varlchaness, lithe little Enderi and stout meaty Dumoth scrolled by. She knew she would probably scan the entire encyclopedia as soon as she had a chance.

“May I borrow this?” Jamie asked. Charlie smiled at her. “That one is actually yours.” Jamie’s face lit up; the computer was easily a third the weight of the one she had done her writing on, and easily collapsed into a space the size of a lipstick container. “Thank you…” she said, overwhelmed. “Why are you doing all of this?”

Charlie knew that quest would come eventually, and she was prepared for it. “You were Erin’s friend. We consider friendship extremely important. In some of our cases, our friends are the only family we have. Plus, who wouldn’t want to have such a talented and brilliant writer around?” Jamie beamed at that.

“You read my manuscript?”

“All of us did.Unfortunately, so did McLeod and Prosek, which is why you are now here.” Charlie stood and brushed off her pants, the offered Jamie her hand, which she accepted. Charlie was surprisingly strong and lifted Jamie to her feet easily. She looked at the other woman, her shock plain on her face. Charlie just grinned “I will explain later. I want you to see something.” Charlie led Jamie back toward where the Hospital lay, but more to the north. She noticed that Charlie didn’t appear to have any cherry stains on her pants, despite sitting in grass filled with over ripe fruit that had fallen from the tree. A quick glance back at her own pants showed that she appeared to be wearing the same self-cleaning denim. She just shook her head in awe of this strange new world. She pushed a button on the bottom of her new computer, and the entire thing rolled itself into a small cylinder, which she tucked into her pocket.

“Dinner should be ready in the next half hour or so, so let’s head back home.”

The walk was easy on the soft grass of the field, and once out of the orchard, Jamie could see the building Charlie referred to as their barracks. They were unlike the boxy military buildings that Jamie expected; It was a single huge building made of shining glass molded into rounded, organic shapes. It had the feeling of having grown out of the ground rather than having been built, and appeared as solid as a mountain despite it’s glassy exterior. The front doors opened automatically as the pair walked up to them, and Charlie led them to an elevator to the right of the hall. “The gym is downstairs, and sound proof, so that the noise doesn’t bother anyone trying to nap during the day, and no one has to worry if they decide to get a workout at night.” Charlie said, gesturing to a door on the left.

The view from outside could not prepare Jamie for the inside of the building. Spiralling ramps connected multiple levels in the open atrium that made up the center of the building. Looking straight up, it was easy to get lost in the multiple layers of what appeared to be glass walkways. No, Jamie thought, not transparent… While the undersides of the walkways showed the sky and trees outside the building, Jamie realized that the same people that were visible through the glass railing didn’t make so much as a shadow through the floor beneath them.

Charlie smiled for perhaps the thousandth time that day at Jamie’s look of wonder. “The surfaces in the barracks are covered by a layer of organic LEDs. Every surface is a projector showing the world outside.b It actually artificially adds shading so that you can tell an object is there. Without it, we would walk walls doors and handrails.”

“But.. why? What?” Jamie stammered quietly. “It creates a much more relaxing environment indoors. It’s like being out in the orchard or the flower garden in the back, without the bees.” Charlie redirected Jamie’s gaze out the back of the building. An incredible garden of a thousand bright colors stretched out behind the barracks, broken by marble walkways and elaborate fountains. From what she could tell, the garden was at least the size of a football field. “At last count, there are over five hundred varieties of flower in the garden. Your room overlooks it, Erin suggested it.”

The mention of her friend snapped Jamie from her reverie. “Is Erin here?” Charlie shook her head. “Not yet, she was on another part of the continent, but she should be home in time for dinner. I will show you to your room, then we can go to the mess hall for some dinner.”

Charlie directed Jamie to one of the winding ramps that led up the center of the enormous treelike structure. Jamie found the view a lot less dizzying once she was actually on the strange walkways, and only then did she realize that dangling in the middle of the open atrium was a tree, hanging from a gigantic bulb the size of several basket balls glued together, dangling a full three stories in height, 10 feet from the atrium floor.

It looked like an inverted tree carved out of glass, except the limbs curved up from the bottom to catch the sun’s rays. The stem, bulb and branches were perfectly clear, while the leaves were a bright glassy green. The tree was already breathtaking, but Jamie noticed that when the automatic doors opened, the leaves fluttered in the breeze!

“How did they do that?” she asked. Charlie glanced over at the amazing “sculpture” dangling in the empty air. “They planted it.” The McLeodian woman shrugged her shoulders; She wansn’t sure how to process everything she had seen today and was too amazed to react properly. “Of course they did…” she said. Charlie understood, but she explained anyway. “Thirty years ago, they planted the bulb and hooked in some systems to feed it water. It grew to its present height in the first 5 years, and has filled in since.”

“What is it? I mean what kind of tree?” Jamie asked, her voice filled with awe.

“We call it a Welsian hanging fig. They actually grow from other trees on the planet Welsy. That is an amazing world; every living thing appears to be carved out of crystal or glass. Flora Agricultural actually employs several hundred of the Welsian people right here.” Charlie gently tugged on Jamie’s sleeve. “You can look down on it every morning when you come out of your apartment.”

Jamie tore her gaze away from the amazing plant. “How much is rent?” She asked, sounding dazed. Charlie laughed. “What rent?” Jamie just shook her head and allowed herself to be guided up to the fourth floor where her new home apparently lay.


J stood at attention in front of his Mistress while she dramatically paced back in forth in front of him. He knew this was nothing more than a show for her beastly daughters; how she loved to humiliate him in front of her “girls” as she called them. To J’s reasoning, they were more like monsters.

All four of them bore their mother’s blue Dama skin, and played their ethnicity’s stereotype to an extreme. They were all fine warriors, but J could not bring himself to respect their choices of weapons; all were designed to maim and cause pain, not a one used a weapon that would provide the quick, surgical kills that his blades could perform.

The eldest, Morgan, was the personal protege of Shun’upir Ellibane, head mistress of the Quenthel Duir, the “Torture Queens”, a disgusting cabal of women who specialized in causing pain and suffering, and extending it for unheard of durations for information, or simple pleasure. Shun’upir’s name was from an ancient dialect of the Sharrel language that itself meant “pain.” That was one Dama J had frequently fantasized about sticking his blades through. The universe would be a better place without her.

Masin’Duwell stopped in front of the Zeldrin and crossed her left arm over her chest and cradled her right elbow on it, tapping her finger against her cheek. “What am I going to do with you? Despite my repeated attempts to teach you humility, you continue to flaunt your talents and avoid learning the point of the lesson.

“I apologize, mistress. The Jester academy taught me to survive and my simple male mind slips back to my training when I am confronted with stressful situations.”

Masin’s daughters seethed at J’s breach of etiquette; as a male, and their mother’s personal body guard no less, his place was not to speak out of turn, and especially not without being addressed. Shendril, the youngest daughter, started to uncoil her bullwhip, a vicious device made from jointed metal rings instead of the traditional leather. The tip was blunt, about the size of a pencil tip, but the power of the rings generated enough energy that she was often able to sever hands or feet when using it.

She stepped back when she caught his gaze; looking up from under his thin white eyebrows, his periwinkle blue eyes promising a swift, painful death if she dared to strike him. Although the daughters hated him, as they did all males, they knew better than to push him too far. His lapses in decorum might one day lead him to strike, and none of them wanted to be at the receiving end of his ire if he was unchained.

Masin suddenly paused and snapped her fingers, a look of feigned realization on her face. “I know! I have a meeting with four other mistresses tomorrow. Perhaps they can be convinced to bring their champions to put on a show for us.”

J’s shoulders slumped; Masin occasionally forced him to fight for the amusement of other house mothers, usually with a wager at stake, against odds that would likely kill any other warrior. J had never lost Masin a single wager, but that fact did little to improve his feelings about her “lessons”; they all felt like a waste of his time.

“That settles it, Shendril! Inform my guests for tomorrow’s luncheon that I wish to place a wager; their champions against mine.” J glared at his mistress. It was all for show, of course. He knew arrangements had been madfe as soon as he walked through the city’s gates.



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