World of Zekira Stock in Trade is a novel set in the World of Zekira. Copyright 2004 Lethe and Droppin the Fork Productions. All rights reserved, no copying for any reason.

Legal Tender 7

A lifetime of service, that was how he would surely be remembered. Qhaleb drew in a long breath and smiled at himself. His younger companions came and went, in the huge household, but he remained. Steady, solid. He saw the looks that the other male Slaves got whenever he was chosen for a Breeding project by Lady Breeder Qez, and since he was considered almost normally fertile, that meant that he in fact had a good number of offspring running around. Without his name, of course, and without his proper heritage.
But that came with the knowledge that he'd be the one to carry on his one mother's line where she could not. That she was nearly sterile, and had borne him at all, that was the testiment to her abilities as a Breeder herself.
He continued to smile while he worked on the Hold, tidying up after a large, loud party that the Lady and her Lord brother had held the night before. There were still half a dozen people lounging or sleeping off their indulgences in the Hold, most of whom had found a room but a couple had to be dragged bodily around until they were on a couch or in a bed. It was after lugging one of those sloshy-brained Lords around with another Slave, that Qhaleb saw the Look again.
"What is it, Nikkal?" He asked. His voice was deep, he was a strong barrel chested middle-aged man, handsome - more than a Slave really had a right to be, especially since their Lady didn't use him herself as a personal attendant.
"It's you," Nikkal said. "You're always around. I just wonder, why you don't get moved around more?" He patted down the cloth covering on the big wide couch, and they went on to the next room to survey the damage. "I've only been here what, a dozen years or so? And there have been five sales and two Bondings, but you've never been sold or raised."
"Twelve years is hardly enough to determine a Slave's long-term value," Qhaleb replied, as they folded a sheet. "But you are correct. I have not been sold off. That is probably because I mean a bit more to this family than other bought Slaves do."
"Don't get so smug," Nikkal said, shaking out a pillow. "How do you do it? Mind powers?"
"I do not have powers like that," Qhaleb lied. "I do not need them. Not to remain here. It is as a service to my family."
"Your folks were Slaves too?" Nikkal asked. He was faintly tactless, as many Permanently Bonded Slaves were. Then again, Qhaleb was of a much better stock than most Bayaran.
"No, I am here as a service to my half-sister and my cousin."
"Annnnnd, they're who?" Nikkal asked, polishing up a single glass vase that had not been tipped over. Everything else in the room looked as though a tornado had ripped through it. Nothing broken, thankfully, but not one piece of furniture or accessory was still in its proper place.
"Lady Breeder Qez, of course," Qhaleb said, turning away and grinning madly. He loved playing with Nikkal. He wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, either. It might take him a while to get this one. So, Qhaleb turned back. The look on Nikkal's greeny-yellow face was precious. "Qez is my younger half-sister, on her mother's side. She is my cousin on my mother's side." That provoked an initial response of 'oh-I-get-it' but that predictably slid into the 'huh?' stage.
"What?" Nikkal said.
"I have two mothers, and several fathers, and Qez is my sister-cousin because we share our one mother, Lady Breeder Haloq." Qhaleb sighed. "I miss her. She always kept the pair of them more calm."
Nikkal merely stared blankly at the Slave beside him. "Okay. So, you have ... two mothers."
"And several fathers. But I never met them. In fact I don't even have the slightest idea if it matters. They don't make up enough of my gene pool to matter. Not with what the Lady Breeder did with them."
"I cannot follow this any more," Nikkal shook his head, and turned back to work. "I'm glad you're happy, Qhaleb, I guess it must be nice to... Wait a minute," Nikkal finally said, standing up and gazing again at his servant-companion. "That makes you ... what, what?"
"It makes me Lady Bhez's son, yes, but only barely."
"Then why aren't you commanding us instead?" Nikkal shook his head, and moved the black-green hair out of his eyes. "That makes no sense."
"Of course it does. I am merely my mother's prize. I think she keeps me close because I remind her of Lady Breeder Haloq. And when she is angry, of course. I can keep her occupied when she is in need of thrashing about."
Nikkal turned away, and suppressed a shudder. "I don't envy you that. Any Slave gets a beating, it's one thing. But to take what she doles out? I... Could never take it. I Obey pretty well, don't you think?"
"I do think, Nikkal," Qhaleb said with a smile, "I do."

Qhaleb became the storyteller for the Slave children. It was a job that he enjoyed, especially since it didn't involve a lot of picking things up and lifting. He had injured his back, and his Lady had the good sense not to put him back on hard duties right away. Plus, there were three children that needed tending. They were youngish, none more than eight years, and they were going to need the kind of education that he could give them. Their parents had landed them into such familial debt that they would never be able to pay off a Bayaran.
And Lady Bhez was quickly on her way to becoming something new: the Suzerain status that had gone into effect some sixty years before was looking quite appealing to her. She'd always been good with numbers, and great with people. That was apparently her father's doing. The Lady was shortly to become Suzerinne Bhez, something she and her stock were happy with. That meant she could Hold more and Sell more, things would get busier.
Qhaleb gathered the three boys, and they sat somewhat impatiently before him in their well-lit square room. He knew they were a bit excitable - and today he wanted to give them a taste of the sweet little things that Slaves could claim for themselves. "There was a day not so very long ago, when the safety of the Land President was endangered." He began. They immediately calmed, his Empathic ability was tuning well to this work. "Since we have only had very few Land Presidents, this was a significant event in our history. High Master Eshoy was enjoying a day hiking and touring a new portion of Stetil that he was thinking of Holding. You know that Stetil is packed with high, sharp peaks, and snow almost year-round?" The children nodded, he'd taught them that much in the days before. "Well this was spring time, there were many beautiful streams of cold icy water draining from the snow pack. HighMaster Eshoy and his group were led around a trail that had been made just the year before, by explorers. When he was rounding a certain pass, one of the great grey boulders above him broke loose!" He paused and sent a small empathic nudge to the children, who gasped and trembled, "the rock fell at great speed, toward the unsuspecting hikers!"
He paused again, taking a sip of water. The trio of boys had the whites of their eyes showing brightly, transfixed. "What happened?!" Asked one. Qhaleb held his violet-spotted hand up to calm him.
"Well, the rock loosened many other smaller ones, and that caused a landslide. This was mere spans away from the pass! High Master Eshoy was pulled back away from the path of the tumbling stones by his faithful Slave Melleth, but even so, they were both injured."
"What happened then? Where were they injured?" Asked another boy.
"The High Master's leg was crushed - they would never be able to really heal it completely. He was to wear a brace on his leg for the rest of his lucrative life. But the Slave, he came away with his foot broken, and his arm horribly scraped by the sharp sides of the rocks. But there was more to this than met the eye!"
"Oooohhh," the boys intoned. Exactly as Qhaleb wanted them to.
"Even with his foot in shambles, and bleeding from his arm most profusely, Melleth rose and looked up to the peak. There, he thought he had seen motion. He was a bodyguard, trained well. He left his HighMaster in the care of the healer in the group, and went himself up the side of the rock face!"
"Didn't it hurt?"
"Of course it hurt," Qhaleb said quietly, "Melleth was very brave. He ignored the pain in his body, because of his love for his High Master. There up on the top of the cliffside, was a raggedy man, a Worker named Kacha who had left his mining job that day to 'watch the President go by'. But that wasn't all he wanted to do! He wished to kill the Land President, to make some kind of statement!"
"What did he want to say?" Asked the third, more quiet boy.
Qhaleb turned and his tan-brown eyes blinked. "He was disgruntled that the Workers did not vote for the Presidents spots. That was all."
"But we don't get to vote at all."
"That is correct, we are Slaves. We do not need to vote. Our Owners do that for us."
"Then wasn't he right to complain?" The first asked.
"No, the laws do not work that way, little Fel. When the Land needs a President, when there have been disasters or there is some other need, the Land Holders and higher Status folk appoint them. Our job is to serve, theirs is a much harder service than ours is."
"What happened to the Worker and the Slave on the cliff?" Asked the other child.
"Ah - thank you. Melleth chased the Worker back down to the trails, where the group apprehended him. It was hard work, because he was meant for mine working, and miners are often quite strong and hardy."
"Like you are?"
"I'm hardly as strong as you'd like me to be," Qhaleb said, with a laugh. "My poor back has seen better days. I'm quite glad that I do not work in a mine!" He glanced over the delicate features on each of these three, "and you lot should be glad you do not either. Our Suzerinne-to-be fortunately does not Hold any mining lands."
"Anyway," Qhaleb continued after a moment of pondering, "the Worker was taken back with them. The pass would have to be cleared, and the President would have to be given treatments for his agonizing leg. The Slave, Melleth, though..."
"What happened to him!?"
"He was given his Freedom - Raised straight from Slave up to Worker. He remained with High Master Eshoy during his employment as well. His training served him very well in his working life. Your training will be well suited to your work."
"What will I do?" Asked the most beautiful of them. His long white hair looked equally good when short or in its current tail, and his faintly white-tinted peachy skin was a prize that his Lady surely thought was worth keeping. "You, my young Zehn, will probably be suited to personal work. You should learn the way to keep your Lady or Lord happiest. You have not been tested for any mutations yet, have you?"
The three boys all shook their heads. "That will come soon enough. You're a little young yet for that. For the moment I would be willing to be that you Fel will excell at helping a Lord or Lady place their betting at a race." The young lad sat straighter up.
"That's because I'm good with numbers, right?" Fel said.
"Yes, that is true. And you Polin, you're definitely going to work with plants. I can feel that much from you. I would put money - you could help, Fel - that when they test you, you're going to show some flora tunings."
The boys seemed satisfied. The lesson hadn't really gone entirely the way that Qhaleb intended, and it looked as though Fel might turn into one of those Slaves who wished he was a higher Status. Polin the plant-sensitive showed a higher degree of intelligence, but he also seemed to understand that knowing something, and enacting it, were different things. He would be happy to know how the laws worked - but he didn't necessarily need to affect them himself.
The boys got up and thanked the Slave for his lesson, they were all more polite after a lesson than they were going in. Qhaleb carefully got himself off the cushion he was sitting on, and found that he was being watched with bemusement by his mother, his Lady, his Suzerinne, Bhez.
"A nice ending," she said. "You saved that one."
"I like to think they can save it themselves," Qhaleb said. "My Lady, have the papers gone through?"
"Tonight," she beamed, "tonight. And tomorrow, I'm going to petition for a law class."
"Oh?" Qhaleb said, "that seems ambitious."
"Hardly - I've been looking over the laws, and you know how I feel about getting things right the first time."
"If I may say so without incurring your mighty wrath, my mother? It took you long enough."
Though he was ready for any ire that might spur her on to beating him, this time Bhez was in more than good enough spirits to simply laugh and embrace her Slave son.

It was fifteen years to the day after Suzerinne Bhez got her law practice going, that she helped win a most effective case. She was growing old, as well, and this felt like a victory that she would savor - cheated of the time to truly enjoy it. Attended by her helpful Fel and her ever-present Qhaleb, the Suzerinne presented the last bits of evidence that Lord Zrkee Zhkaahaa had contrived the need to have a Bayaran placed exactly where she could do the least amount of work. Obviously, that would lead to her eventual Slavery - something she intended to avoid at any cost. The cost really? Was that she for two years was to live again in Bayaran but this time to Bhez. During the extended trial and courtroom drama, Bhez had not only taken on the Bayaran's case, but she'd thrown enough money at Zhkaahaa to get Renta into her own camp.
Fel would be on his way toward Bayaran, soon enough, if this case was going the way it seemed to be. The judge looked over the final evidence, and glanced at the Lord. "You've put yourself in a most odd position, Lord Zrkee, wouldn't you say?"
"I have nothing to say, Judge Oda."
"Good," the judge said, "because you've brought me to make a more broad decision than I would have, if I'd never seen you before. As the court might know," he said, looking over everyone in the room, including the media who had two cameras there and were broadcasting to the local Area stations, "I am involved in researching legal matters such as Bond laws. Payment schemes like this one, Zhkaahaa's in particular, have come across my desks before today. It has made me painfully aware that certain Bayaran are being exploited and pushed into jobs that they have no prior training for. This situation as of this moment will be permanently rectified. My colleagues and I have developed a plan, and Suzerinne I would dearly appreciate your input to it as well, after I pronounce this case finished," he waited for her nod, which she gave - Qhaleb could feel her excitement at the matter, though her exterior was quite calm.
"Lord Zrkee Zhkaahaa, you have been found guilty of Bayaran abuse. In this case I will formally announce that your Bayaran are to be immediately Raised and all prior debts to you be nullified. Your Slaves will not be placed as Bayaran, however. You obviously should not be trusted to keep them either," he said with a baleful gleam in his golden-orange eye, "but since this case did not examine the situation with your Owned Stock I will not presume to judge it. I expect your full cooperation and all the paperwork to be delivered to a qualified Bond agency -"
"I am a qualified Bond agent!" Zhkaahaa bellowed. "This is an outrage! I can do as I wish with the Bayaran in my service, and I will hardly see fit to give them up to y-"
"If you do not calm yourself immediately, Zrkee, I will have Suzerinne Bhez here make you calm. You are aware that she can do that."
"And will," She added quietly. "Boorish actions like that are hardly fitting of a man of your station. Suck it up, Zhkaahaa. You've merely lost your Bayaran. It could have been more."
If Zrkee wasn't already a shade of plum-violet, he'd surely have turned it, stewing in anger.
"Further, however," the judge continued, "I will no longer allow you to place any individual no matter their need, in your care as Bayaran. Needless to say the other judges and lawgivers of this Area will be watching you closely, Lord Zhkaahaa, so if I were you, I'd watch where I put my Slaves as well."
With a final bluster to his clear outrage, a wordless growl coming from the Lord's throat, he vanished from the courtroom with a flurry of papers coming from his briefcase. His two Membayar lawyers packed up those papers more carefully, both of them apparently glad that they weren't named in the suit as well - though they could have been.
When the Lord and his people were out of the room, judge Oda beckoned Bhez near the big table where he sat. The one camera crew had followed Zrkee, but another remained. Perhaps there would be something amazing happening, here.
There was.
"I would like to say that even though you do have a bit of a reputation for being somewhat... prone to violence?" The judge said, "your work here has inspired myself and others to offer a Land-wide law proclamation. If you would, please take a look at the contents."
Qhaleb and Fel got the chance to look over their Suzerinne's shoulders to read the document, which basically summed up would give Bayaran the chance to work at their skilled jobs - provided they had one before going into debt - and not be placed into an inappropriate location or position against their will. If they wished to learn how to garden after being a maid, that's one thing. But if they petitioned for a job suited for their level of skill, they would have to be placed in one.
Bhez smiled, widely. "What do you think, boys?" She asked, and Fel glanced doubtfully at the older Qhaleb - he wasn't sure whether he was allowed to say what he really thought.
"I think it is a grand piece of work, very important," Qhaleb announced, and Fel nodded.
"It's a lot of work, do you think that it will be voted in?" Fel asked, and the judge nodded.
"It will not be difficult to convince Membayar to vote for it - and given the typical lack of response from Lords in voting matters, I doubt that it will be opposed in any organized manner."
At that, the court's remaining camera-person cleared his throat. He might be a Worker, but he might also have something to say. The judge folded his grey-colored hands around themselves, and nodded at the man.
"I think I would like to ask for some interviews now, if I might?" He flashed a bright smile, "I think today is a very special day for Bayaran around the world..."

"You know that this complicates everything for you," Qez said. They were now merely cousins, ones mourning the loss of Suzerinne Bhez. "Do you have any idea how many children you've actually got?"
"I have no children, Qez," Qhaleb said quietly. "But I would surely like to meet one or two of them. I would choose who will Inherit this fortune."
Qez nodded, only slightly younger than he and both of them were showing signs that they too would be growing older shortly. "I'll get some information to you soon." She turned her red-brown eyes toward the casket, which would be buried in the estate where Qhaleb and she had been born. "She did great things, Qhaleb, I never thought she would have so much compassion, really."
"It took her a number of years to learn it," Qhaleb said.
Qez was silent, thinking deeply on that. Then, she said in a whisper so that others in the room did not hear, "you did that, didn't you?"
"Changed her mind about the Bayaran? I nudged her in that direction, and I rewarded her when she went the right ways."
"That is what I do, Qez, do you think that someone of my breeding would allow too much more abuse? Do remember that I am heavily empathic. I would come back to the Slave quarters and feel every moment of agony coming from the boys she'd beaten. They should hardly have to look forward to that." He gave a nod to one of the other visiting mourners, and turned back to Qez. "Plus it got easier once she was older. Her own powers faded rapidly, you understand."
Qez wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but she was never going to say that it wasn't in his blood. It clearly was. Their grandfather had been a master manipulator, and thus the offspring could be as well. "I'll bring you some pictures and information, just give me a call. Lord Qhaleb?"
He looked up immediately.
"Well, that didn't take long," Qez smirked and left the room after paying respects to her aunt.
LandMaster Fel came toward the casket and shook 'Lord' Qhaleb's hand. "I'm... Not sure what to say. I'm not happy she's gone, but congratulations to you, sir."
"And you," Qhaleb said. "You will be well on your way to whatever status you deem worthwile, Fel. I knew you could do it."
They stood in a pleasant silence for a moment, ex-slaves often would do that. Whether they were both appreciating their new Status, or just trying to find ways to avoid smiling like idiots after having been Raised (in both cases, significantly) because of the death of this woman, was a mystery that neither wanted to explore.
Finally, Fel said, "I do wonder, though, why you dote upon her like this. She was... Well, she was a vicious woman at times."
"Yes, she was." Qhaleb said with a smile. "Such my mother was."
"I never heard her call you son," Fel said, "nor that she loved you."
"But she did, Fel," Qhaleb told him, "she did. Here I am, the Lord of her estate. Her own brother inherited only a small portion - he's got his own worries and I'm sure that he will be in need of your services soon enough." He sighed, "no, Fel, she did not need to tell me anything of the sort. She was a Lady, and I her Slave. It would have been grossly inappropriate to choose to lower herself to being my mother, the mother of a servant."
"Sometimes, Qhaleb, I don't understand you at all," Fel said. He too bid Suzerinne Bhez farewell into the next world, and left the funeral service. He would attend others, not the least of which would be his friend Qhaleb's, within only another twenty years.

"Do you remember when we came here the first time?" Asked the brightly-violet skinned girl of her companion.
"I do, and it was so dreary... Everyone had gone, and there was a funeral wreath still hanging." The spotted-brown skinned girl next to her said. They were examining the entrance to the Estate at Mada. It was old, perhaps three or four hundred years old. It was starting to look that way too.
Naaki, the brown colored grand-daughter of Qhaleb, glanced over the wood and tsked her tongue. "This is going to rot."
"We've been having some warm weather, miss," Said one of the remaining Slaves of the estate. He'd stayed on, serving no one specifically, because he knew he was much too old to be sold. Though he was still a Slave, he was treated more like a Worker, especially by the girls who had showed up to claim their Inheritance properly.
"Well, there are treatments for such things available," Naaki announced flatly. "It could save us a lot of time and effort if we just start the renovations now."
Her cousin Khadai nodded in agreement. Though they had both been Raised from Slavery into their Holdings, they did behave more like proper Holders than servants. Trained well, though, they both almost flinched when the Membayar they'd left in charge of fixing the estate up shouted from across the courtyard to them.
"Heyo! You're finally here, good, good," he approached. He was a portly and pasty-skinned man, too much fat for either woman's taste yet he had a handsome smile. The young women always walked on eggshells around him though - he was well known as a Hard Stock auctioneer, and they'd both encountered him separately before being Raised.
"We are, but we're looking at a lot more of a mess than I remember there being," said Khadai, seriously. "Lemlo, you told me that you'd be able to have the place fixed up within a year. It's been ninteen months, and nothing!"
The large framed man swung his arms over the pair's shoulders, nearly crushing both of them with his weight. "Now, now, you don't expect a miracle to happen overnight, do you?"
"I expected you to be as good as your word, which isn't amounting to much," Khadai said, grunting and forcing his arm off her. "The contract was for short term success. I see no success, and the short term is rapidly turning into something longer."
"We don't have time for this kind of waste," Naaki said, as the Membayar began to get a concerned frown on his flabby face.
One of them he could probably handle. But two? And such young things? Lemlo briefly wondered what it was about them that made him nervous. They'd been Raised, and that was probably half of it. He mistrusted Slaves that became anything else. He wasn't much for Raising. He was more a 'best value for your money' sort of guy. He'd of course voted against the Worker Laws back in '27 - why make things more difficult to Bond someone? If they were intent on being in debt that was their look-out. And people like himself were always there to care for them. But of course, the Ka bastard was elected a couple more times, for no apparent reason that Lemlo could sense.
Khadai watched the man intently. Though she didn't have a strong psionic presence, she did always seem to know what someone was thinking just by the way their body moved. Few indeed were the people she'd ever encountered in her fifty years, that she could not read that way. Lemlo wasn't one of those few. He sweated, panted, his heart obviously fluttered (though those things were halfway because he was so overweight), his sallow eyes moved between the two women nervously and he fiddled with his hands. She noted all these things almost subconsciously, and packed them together to add up what was going on.
They were being ripped off, that was what she saw.
"Lemlo, let's put this out on the table because I'm tired of wondering if you think we're idiots." Khadai said, her own feet planted firmly and her neck arched down to look at him through serious golden eyes. "You are cheating us out of our contractual due. We would like you to finish the job, or refund our money for the work you have clearly not done on our estate."
"See here - I - " He sputtered, but then the other shark in the water started circling.
"Lemlo, I know you're afraid of me," she tilted her own head, just like her cousin's. "I know because it's my job to know. I filtered out the bad visitors from the good, for my Lord. Now that I'm working for myself, I can still do that job, you know. It's not something that I have easily forgotten how to do."
"That's ... admirable," Master Lemlo said. "But I can't see what-"
"Let me show you, then," Khadai said, and she firmly took his elbow and walked toward the estate.
Mada's summers had indeed been growing warmer, but the storms had never abated. There was always one edge of the endless storm circling the planet, hitting Mada and other such towns. Though there were forests to the north, and the gigantic mountains of Polaen, Mada was always graced with a bit of warmth with their downpours. The end effect of which was that this estate that their great-grandfather had set up, was rotting from the inside out. Damp and warm today, but when the place was built the climate seemed to be a bit cooler all year round. They hadn't counted on such things... But the pair of women knew that they could account for it now.
Refitting the place for new beams would be the hardest and costliest piece of work. They knew that Lemlo had contacts in the wood industry, and they'd contacted him specifically because his name was one they knew. They realized their mistake, now.
"This whole floor should have been refit, torn up if need be," Khadai said, as she kicked at a loose board. "And it does, need to be. Look at this mess. It's hardly fit for even a Slave to live in, it's hardly luxury! Look - the window sills are all warping away from the wall, and the beam!" She exclaimed as they walked into the huge hall central to the estate, "look at it. I don't dare put that chandelier back up on it, it'll fall in a moment."
"You sound like a Lady already," muttered a male voice, from a corner. Lemlo started and almost cried out, but calmed himself. He knew this Free Holder too - a former Bayaran whose inheritance also brought him up to the same level as the women. Another of Qhaleb's distant and unknown offspring brought together.
"Mhorlait," Naaki grunted. "Didn't see you come in."
"That's right, you didn't." He said, grinning. He was dark against the shadows in the corner, where a big curtain had fallen onto the floor and was draped over two couches and half the mantlepiece of the huge fireplace. When he stood, the light hit him, and his skin changed color to a more bright shade of reddish brown, then settled into a sort of wood color - the same shade as the floor.
"Well, the good Holders here were going through the ... list of -"
"Complaints," Mhorlait completed for the Membayar. "They were going over the list of things that you promised and didn't deliver, Master Lemlo."
Great - Lemlo thought - Now all three of them. What next? The Slave in the hallway going to jump out at him too?
"Well," he said, as though they'd reached an agreement. "I can see that I have my work cut out for me."
"I think you should pay us back and get out," Mhorlait said, not quite casually. More caustic, actually. The girls found themselves agreeing with their much younger cousin. Naaki especially, who took a step toward him and turned back to look at Lemlo over her shoulder. He did look much too fat to get anything done.
The threesome of cousins, Inheritors, gazed at the Membayar in the middle of their wreck of an estate, and among them their powers seemed to grow.
"I will get my contracts in hand, and we will look over them," Lemlo stated hurriedly. "Now if you will excuse me please, I have another appointment that is very pressing."
He turned on his heel and trundled back out of the estate, and got back into his carriage. It sagged with his weight, and the Bayaran who held the reins urged the Steeds into a trot. The trio stood in the doorway, behind them their not-really-Owned servant.
"Landmistress, Landmaster? Would you care to see what I have done with the garden and gazebo in the meantime?" He asked, cordial.
"If it involves a spot of wine and cheese, I'm up for it," Khadai said. She changed her tone so quickly, from the assault on Lemlo to the casual chipper addressing the Slave. "I'm positive that you've done a good job, Polin. I always wondered how you got the blooms to keep shining even in winter."
"I am flora-tuned, Landmistress," he said, smiling. He led them into the back of the building, and out to the rear courts. Where once stood the grand statues and collection of exotic items that their ancestress had created, was now a garden that could have grown quite wild in the intervening decades. However, Polin had always kept Qhaleb's words in his heart. He did love plants, and he loved the estate where he'd spent all of his life.
The trio of Land Holders sat in the gazebo, looking out at the wonderful garden, until one of them turned to Polin. He lay slumped in the chair just on the side of the stairs, still. Between the three cousins, they knew he'd died.
"Aw, crap," Naaki said. "We're never going to get this garden to behave now."

The trio was joined by the other pair of Inheritors that Qhaleb had chosen before his death. Endree, a woman Raised from Bayaran out of her parents' Slave status, trained for organizational work and filing. The other was Theakhid, the youngest of their group by a year, only halfway through his twenties. He was the most perceptive of the cousins, psionically speaking, while Endree seemed to have a distinct lack of good luck in that realm. It looked as though whenever someone nearby would use a psionic ability, she'd get some kind of headache or backlash from it even though it wasn't aimed at her. It did give her a unique method of determining whether someone in a room was Bred, though.
Among the five of them, they'd split several Holds up and sold off enough of the things they did not need nor want to keep themselves in decent luxury for a good long while. They did not all share the Estate, but that was why they'd called this meeting together. To see about really fixing it up, making it into a party house the way it used to be.
"Remember that we're just lowly Slaves and Bayaran at heart," Endree said quietly. Her red-violet skin contrasted with her short bright blue-green hair. "We don't know how to throw parties."
The others laughed loudly at that. Of course it was a joke - among Slaves and Bayaran, who best knew how to run a party? Who was the one with the tray of fruit? Who served the wine at the proper chill? Who set up the tables and chairs with all the silverware in their proper places? Who occasionally was called upon to actually do the invitations and deliver them?
That's right. The Slaves and Bayaran.
"I suppose it would be far too much to ask, if we invited the Lords and Ladies that we know," Theakhid asked. He was halfway serious, too. "I mean, they don't much care for Workers and Holders coming to their parties, but... Who else do we know?"
"Maybe we don't need to know anyone," Khadai said with a thoughtful look on her diamond-shaped face. "We can make our own group. There are hundreds of Workers and Land Holders here in Mada, who would probably jump at the chance to have a nice party."
"We still have to fix this place up, though," Naaki said.
"Will you stop putting a damper on everything?" Mhorlait quipped.
"No, I will not. How are we meant to put on a decent party until the place isn't going to fall apart under our feet!?" Naaki stood up. "Look at that." She pointed with her brown-striped finger up to the ceiling. "That part of the wall is almost going to peel away from the stairwell. If that falls, it'll kill someone. And needless to say I don't even go up the stairs. That is suicide."
After a moment of pondering, grumbling and sullen silence, Theakhid asked a question. "How many people used to live here?"
Khadai glanced through a pile of papers. "Close to a dozen, I think. That might or might not include Slaves, though. It's always hard to tell with their records."
"But we've got at least six good bedrooms, upstairs, and three suites down here," Naaki pointed out. "Plus the Slave quarters around back, which can house what, six more? Comfortably, too, their quarters weren't cheap."
"And a ballroom, an art gallery, and that turret with the haunted bathroom?" Said Mhorlait, "I've always wanted to find out what happened there..."
"What have you got, Endree?" Asked Naaki.
"I've got a twin-towered Hold that has a courtyard filled with weeds, but its heating system is superb and it's got three very sound suites with little kitchens attached to them. I don't know what they were thinking."
"They were probably thinking it'd be a good long-term-stay type place." Khadai said, nodding. "Is there anything else sellable in it? I'm just trying to figure out how much it's going to cost to actually renovate the place."
"Why didn't we go after Lemlo?" Theakhid asked. The three estate Holders just glared at him. "Okay, okay, fine..."
"He's not going to be mentioned again," Naaki grunted.
"Okay! Okay!"
"I don't want to sell the towers," Endree said, quietly. "I like it."
"Even with the weeds?" Jibed Mhorlait.
"Especially with the weeds. They're charming. Smelly, but charming."
"... Smelly?" said the others, in unison.
"In a good way!" Endree exclaimed, "honestly you people!"
"We're just like you!" Mhorlait whined, doing an admirable emulation of his cousin.
"We need to fix the estate, and then we need to throw this magical party." Said Khadai, matter of factly. The others looked at her, at the big table they were gathered around. "If we have to do it ourselves, we'll throw that party. And it will be the best party that any Land Mistress or Worker could ever attend. In fact it'll be better than any party our own Lords or Mistresses have thrown."
With that said, they got to work. They started with estimates of what was actually going to need repair, and what had to be replaced. Raw material costs, from the manufacturers would come next. Building codes and permits to do new work would have to be examined, and the replacement of the ancient furnishings would come last. No, the garden would come somewhere in there too - it couldn't be last, because they knew that in order to have the smelly weeds that Endree had in her courtyard blooming properly across their own estate's grounds, they would have some planting to do.

"We're on a tighter budget than we used to be," Mhorlait said.
"Is that a complaint?" Asked Naaki.
"Hardly. It's actually a lot more fun this way." He grinned widely and then vanished into the big warehouse. They were looking for some wood trim, something to keep the blooming vines from creeping everywhere across the estate. When given the choice, apparently, that vine would rather cling to wood and climb around trees. It would not kill the trees, but if it went into the house they'd be smelling the heady odor of the blooms until it was unlivable.
What the pair was looking for was shortly found, and paid for, and brought back to the estate for working. But what they were actually achieving was an entirely different thing. In the process of finding the qualified workers for the jobs, locating the raw materials, and collecting the information and doing their research on how to actually renovate the place, they were impressing and catching the interest of every Worker, LandHolder and even a batch of Membayar who ran small businesses in Mada. When anyone asked, they found out that this batch of people had Inherited their Status, and were actually quite well prepared to keep it.
They were professional, together, smart. In fact some might say kind of scary when they were working together. The more of them there were, the more amazing they got.
The Qhaleb Kids, as they became known, inadvertently gave themselves the reputation of being swift and sure, charming and clever, and most importantly, they had this estate they were sprucing up.
So when the announcement went out that they were going to have a kind of formal Homestead Warming party, it was no surprise that every invitation they sent out got an immediate response. They would have to hire on some workers, so they went through one of the better Bond Agencies nearby. That would take care of the food and drinks, place settings and such. They found a florist who helped them trim up the smelly vines, but also to use the existing batches of flowering plants that Polin had tended so well during his life. A cook - none of them could cook worth a damn, so that was a given - that brought along his own staff of Bayaran.
The furnishings were a bit less grandiose than any of the five wanted, but on their budget they couldn't afford to really go all out on them. Plus, it really looked as though the more embroidery or ostentation on a couch there was? The less comfortable it was to sit on. They chose practical things, silverware that wasn't completely overflowery, who would want to steal it? The plates and dinnerware were sedate, but matching.
It was the best they could do.
It was probably the party of the decade. A number of Owners showed up to crash it, and found themselves being out-done by a bunch of LandHolders? One of them stuck around, while his two snooty companions took their Slaves and went back to make their own party. The wood seller and the gardener got on famously, but it became clear that the cook and his entourage would have to be kept away from Naaki, and when one of the cook's Bayaran made a comment about the vine blooms overshadowing the smell of their wonderful meal Endree almost fired him there and then. But it went off without any real glitches.
It was an endless night of talking, discovering neighbors and making the foundations of a very solid friendship group. Theakhid took some pictures - something he had wanted to do all the while he was a Slave and was denied.
At the end of the party - which went well into the wee hours of the next morning, and made half the attendees quite late to work (which didn't matter much, since their employers were just as late, seeing as they were also at the party), the cousins lay exhausted in the pit of the huge square sectional couch. The ballroom made for a much better party locale than the gazebo, since it was easier to clean up. The polished floors were strewn with napkins and one or two broken dishes, scuff marks, and one lone sleeping man.
"Who is that?" Asked Naaki.
"That's the Lord who showed up, remember? His friends were the idiots that told us we couldn't do a party if it was the last thing we did. Then they left because we had better food than he'd tasted in years." Mhorlait gloated tiredly.
The man stirred, moving a pile of plain white napkins off his shoulders. Someone had used his curly hair to set a pair of flowers into, as a joke. Apparently he'd been asleep for a long time.
"Welcome to the day after," Khadai purred tiredly. The sun was coming up. The whole ballroom looked bleached out, the east facing windows had but simple white lace curtains on them, and let all the glory of the sun into the wide room. The red-blond wood of the floor and the trim along every other surface glowed brilliantly in the dawn.
The Lord made some kind of gurgling noise, but then shifted himself around so that he could see everyone. With no embarrassment whatsoever on his round-cheeked face, he grinned and said, "great party. Can I join you? I'm really tired of the people I hang out with."

"What exactly do you see in him?" Asked Theakhid of his cousin Endree. She shrugged, an inelegant move for someone as normally eloquent as she.
"He's... he's cute. I like him, is all. Why? Does it matter?" Endree replied. "It's because he's an Owner, isn't it?"
"He's not even an Owner any more, Endree," Theakhid said, "he's divested, and he's a complete slacker! He doesn't even have a job!"
"But he has Land, and Holdings, just like we do."
"But we have jobs too, Endree," the youngest Inheritor insisted. He was exhasperated, because when they'd allowed Lord (now LandMaster) Veen into their lives, he had stuck there with a tenacity that even the smelly vines outside the Mada Estate didn't have. He had steadfastly stood by them when the collectors for certain bills came through, and had endeared himself to the girls. But for some reason, Thea and Mhor didn't like him in the slightest. Not after getting to know him, anyway.
It was not because Veen was a bad person. Quite the contrary, he was very nice, well mannered for a Lordling, generous to a fault, and hardly at all like other Owners they'd all known. But he was so... clingy. He didn't know when to leave, even though he had a nearby Homestead. He was always around, the neighbor who just never knew when to quit. Half the time, Veen would be found sleeping in one of the couches or the guest room - if not the bathtub if it was one of those nights for him. He was always smiling, when he wasn't asleep - and that was about half the time.
Theakhid drew in a sigh. They had been brought together now nearly twenty years, and just under half that was spent with their sixth member, Veen, tagging along. He was able to get them into certain places they otherwise weren't welcome, one or two parties where they established contacts with crafters and even an Animal Master or two. But that was, in Thea's opinion, small effort compared to what they all went through for him. Half the time, he didn't have his money on him - which was a travesty. They wound up paying his way to several events until they actually ganged up on him and changed how he handled his own cash.
Veen right at this moment, was upstairs in a bed being tended by a Healer for a fever. The Healer would be staying on, it appeared, until the ex-Lord was well. That meant that the estate's food supply, laundry service, and other such sundries, were going to be even further depleted.
It wasn't bad enough that Veen was apt to give his own money away at a moment's notice. It was that he seemed to do it for other people too. Whether they wanted him to or not. It just happened that way.
Endree thought for a moment on Veen's rose-colored face, how his bright yellowy-orange hair framed it, his beautiful smile... And melted again.
"I'm sorry, Thea, what were you saying?" She asked, and then jolted when the door upstairs clacked shut.
"He's going to be all right, I must have some tea. You do not have any proper servants, do you?" Asked the Healer, with a bit of a taint in her voice. The disdain for the group of LandMasters was clear, but she was obviously not above remaining there for her own friend's sake.
"Of course we have tea," Endree said, and scampered off to get some. Theakhid watched her, and then turned back to the Healer.
"You know, I don't think you see it either." He said.
"What would that be, LandMaster?" She said, nearly spitting out the words.
"That you're all women. All of Veen's best friends are women." He said blandly.
"And there is something wrong with that? I would think it is jealousy that runs in your veins, Land Master." The Healer accepted Endree's offering of tea, and went back upstairs abruptly. Her charge was coughing.
Endree turned to her cousin. "What did you say to her? She's a very well-qualified healer, Thea, it's not good to make healers angry."
"I've got my own," Thea said, "and he's not blinded by hormones or something. Whatever it is." Theakhid turned and went to the office room where he had been looking at maps and balancing figures.
"What are you looking over, there?" Endree asked, from the doorway. The way Thea was behaving she might think he didn't want to be interrupted.
"It's a map of Altem, I've been thinking of investing. There is a small new Zone called Imat, it's got some prime Lands up for Holding, and it'll be a good area for transportation and gathering. I'm thinking an inn would be a good thing to have in a transport town."
"That's a wonderful idea!" Endree exclaimed. "I must go up and see if Vee-"
"NO!" Thea shouted, pounding his fist on the table and rising angrily. "No, you will not. It is not his idea, and it is not his money, and I don't want him anywhere near Imat with my Holdings there!" When he saw the horrified, frightened look on his cousin's face, Theakhid immediately regretted yelling at her. "Endree, look - it's not that I don't want you to tell him, I just don't think he needs to be a part of everything we all do. If you want to let him into your place, that's great. But I don't. I'm capable of making my own way, and ... I don't think he can contribute to it."
"I... see." Endree said. Her voice was flat, so unlike her normal tone.
"Endree, I think you should stay away from him for a while." Theakhid suggested, to the further ire of his cousin. "Endree, we all know that you get affected by powers - what if... What if he's using something subtle, maybe he doesn't even realize it? You'd be the very first target that it would hit, and you'd be hit hardest." He paused, got up, and shut the door so that Endree didn't bolt out of the room. "Endree, I'm worried about you, not him. He might not be doing something maliciously, like I said he might not even know he's doing anything at all. And it's been ages since you have spoken to anyone else, gone anywhere without him. How about you and I go out to the Steed park, and see about taking a fly, how does that sound?"
"It sounds like you're trying to bribe me," Endree said.
"Maybe I am. Is it working?" Thea said. He knew very well that Veen upstairs was doing 'something' but he wasn't experienced enough with using his ability to tell just what it was. Over the last few years, his senses had grown outward, and now he could tell if there was an animal in the yards, who was where at a party, and even if someone was a strong psionic, at a distance.
Endree looked at the floor and the ceiling, and then back at her cousin. "Okay, I'll go with you. Can we see if-"
"No, we cannot see if Veen is healthy enough to go with us," Theakhid cut her off, a little sharply. He twisted his mouth into a halfway grin, "sorry. Look, today it's just you and me. Okay?"
"All right." Endree looked like she would turn black and collapse if she was away from Veen too long.
Theakhid closed up his reference books and shut the cabinet - locking it - and went outside for the Steeds to take them to the park. The group of Inheritors had three grounded Steeds to their estate, normally they would be hooked to the carriage, but Thea decided that Endree needed a good jolting ride. The park wasn't too far away, either, so it would be an easy ride even if she (or he) were distracted.
Their day went well, all things considered. Endree tried to slip away twice to vid-phone the estate and check up on Veen, but Theakhid distracted her with a snapping ribbon that he put into her hair, and a ride on an oversized cart drawn by four huge Steeds. The park was closing up for the evening, and they finally had to head back home.
When they got back to the estate, Naaki was home, and Endree swept past her to get to the upstairs bedrooms. Thea and Naaki could hear them above, as Endree gave off a croon and lavished Veen with talk of missing him and wanting to be by his side.
"Is this annoying you, or are you going to join her?" Theakhid asked his elder cousin.
Naaki sighed. "I know there's something going on. It's all I can do to stop myself from doing just that, cousin," she admitted. "Which means that yes, there is something pretty strange happening here. And that's what is annoying me, not so much that Veen is a slacker twit."
Thea laughed at that, "come on. I want to show you something I'm thinking of investing in. Keep it from Veen, right?"
"Got it."
At least Thea could count on Naaki to keep her word. Her willpower was much stronger than their cousin's.

"I wonder if he could have known we'd wind up like this?" Theakhid asked of Mhorlait. "Two Membayar, one dead, one LandMistress and one back into Bayaran?"
Mhorlait shrugged. "I don't think he really planned it out this far, cousin, I think actually you're ascribing our grandfather a bit much in the way of forethought."
"It is a pity about Endree," Naaki commented, "but thank you, cousins, for keeping us all together."
Mhorlait was the Bayaran. Endree and Veen had endured a stint as such, as well - after he convinced her to all but jump into the ocean with him on investments. It had been a good thing that Endree listened to Khadai once before she disappeared, and transferred her Holdings to the Estate itself. That way her Wa'bin Tower Inn became part of her cousins' transportation web. Khadai and Theakhid had thrown together in their investments, Naaki keeping them aware of habits on the landHolding front, and Mhorlait? He had gotten himself into tremendous trouble when he 'accidentally' killed a rather rich Lady on his way into her husband's office to steal some information. Spy business was never quite what it was cut out to be in the viddies after all. There were debts that only his cousins wanted to incur with him. He was far too valuable - as a spy - to let him be thrown into prison or to be Bonded out to someone else. They paired up and invested Membayar status just to keep him on. As Membayar, Khadai and Theakhid did stunningly well - after a decade or so, Mhorlait wasn't the only Bayaran on hand that could sneak into places or acquire information in ways that weren't always legal. And there were always people that would be willing to pay for that kind of service.
Mhorlait was still the same slighty bitter, very blunt individual as he always had been, one hundred twenty years into his life. Yet he also seemed the most content to be in his Status. As long as he was put to good use, he claimed, there was no reason to think he'd be better off managing his own resources. So he clearly had no intent on going back into his Holdings - they were forfeit several years before when his cousins had to bail him out. He just liked to play spy.
Naaki enjoyed a fruitful partnership with a man that was so unlike Veen, Thea or Mhor - he was a simple Reimal Land Master himself, a Steed cabbie, with a good set of Steeds and the ability to fix their tack and make the carriages that they pulled. He could never have afforded a flying Steed - they were all grounded. Naaki and Yeldan took care of not only Endree's child with Veen, a frail girl named Evenree, but their own young boy they'd named Yanaak. Naaki had her hands full, but she still made the time to fly to Mada often enough.
The others had no offspring - that they knew of. Mhorlait hinted that he did, that his exploits around women were becoming legend. They weren't sure whether to believe him or not. Theakhid's attempts to even settle down with a woman were bringing him to believe that even though he was a nice enough guy? He just was too normal or perhaps too simple in relationships. He'd been born a Slave after all, and that would stick with him. He had no trouble getting a girlfriend, being a transportation expert he made the effort to impress anyone who came through Imat's inn. Yet it was keeping their interest which seemed to elude him. Khadai remained resolutely single as long as she could. She was sought-after, more by Breeders than anything else, and mostly due to her splendid coloration. It was that she really didn't want to give all that time to bearing a child that she might not keep.
They had gathered this day as a means of a small celebration. The Wa'bin territory had just been Zoned, meaning that the Towers were worth considerably more today than they had been a few years before. It was an unspoken agreement that Evenree, if she was healthy enough when she passed any exams, would be the one to take care of her mother's Inheritance. Mada would normally have been their group's destination, but this time they decided since Wa'bin was the focus, they all descended upon it.
By this time, of course, they'd all seen each of their separate Inheritances and Holdings. Yanaak giggled with pleasure at seeing his uncles and aunties, and Evenree made a brief appearance before she needed to take a rest. Her fragile health seemed to be a perfectly normal thing, according to the Breeders that they'd spoken to. Veen's inheritance to her, apparently. While he spent a lot of time being ill or being affected strongly by drinks or drug, Evenree's illness manifested itself in the form of an aversion to sunlight, exertion, and certain basic foods. Her diet had to be watched closely. Yanaak didn't understand why his 'sister' didn't ever want to come out to play with him on nice days.
Yet, everyone knew that Evenree had much stronger psionic powers than her adoptive brother. She seemed to gather people around her, though she was growing into an age when she'd rather be left alone. She was only nine, her brother four, when Wa'bin was Zoned.
As the adults conversed about transportation lanes and Steed housing, Evenree slipped out of her daybed and walked quietly around the Towers. The smell of the vines was something she'd been used to since birth, of course, as they were now the mark of this family's Holdings. They spread anywhere, but since they weren't ugly things, and they grew decently enough in almost any climate, the Qhaleb group Holds could always be identified by it.
Someone else in Wa'bin had made her fortune by weaving the slender and durable vines into rope - Zoning Wa'bin had become a goal for that woman. Evenree faintly knew that history - just like she faintly knew tidbits about everyone around her.
"You're too quiet, uncle Mhorlait, you can come out now." Evenree said. The chilly stone floor didn't bother her at all, even though her feet were bare. There would never be light gracing this particular corner of the Towers, and she found herself gravitating to it.
"You're good," Mhorlait said, voice low but obviously with a smile. He flickered himself visible. His control over his camoflaging powers had grown, but he would never become truly invisible to the eye. That was perhaps a blessing. He'd go invisible and never come out again. "Do you want to test your powers?"
Evenree tilted her head. She was a pretty girl, with Veen's round cheeks, and Endree's stunning eyes. Mhorlait knew that to remain with this girl would probably be courting more disaster with his family, but like her father Veen, Evenree obviously had some kind of sway over him. Either that, or he was just a pervert. Both were possibilities.
"I would like to, but I get so tired. It's not fair," she whispered. She always had such a willowy, whispery voice. Yet behind her voice, behind the facade of sadness or delicacy, there was a current of undenyable strength of mind and will.
"Then we will go easy and if you don't come for me, I will find you and make sure you're all right." Mhor said, and Evenree nodded.
"Well then - I'll get going..." Mhorlait said, and to the unpracticed eye he seemed to simply vanish into thin air. Evenree could sense him, but she squinted anyway. There was a faint outline, he was merely mirroring the colors and shades of the area behind him. And since this was a darkened stone hallway, it wasn't all that challenging to him.
"Go on," Evenree said, plainly.
She heard a chuckle from her great-uncle. "Well, that's one." With that, he did start down the hall. He led a trail through the two stone buildings, the courtyard's shadows, and finally the basements. She caught him, with more effort going in to staying standing, than to actually having to locate him. She was quite expert at this, already - but she got better with time.