Tezzix loves her family but hates being sheltered. She strives to find her own purpose.
I dragged myself down the grand corridor after Viraxus. It led, by one route or another, to every room on the floating island.
The view may have thrilled any other being in the universe, but I’d seen it every day of my life. The west wall of the corridor was completely transparent, revealing the starry sky, the clouds surrounding the atoll, and two of the four Glaorian moons: Chisa, green and large, and Flessa, tiny but brilliant blue. Yes, a beautiful sight. But I had charted the Glaorian moons. I could tell time by the stars. There was no mystery in the scenery.
Digital portraits of my ancestors flashed on as we neared them, and faded as we passed. They served as ever-present reminders of what was expected of me, alongside those of what I was denied.
My father’s great grandmother, Zallashia, the platinum-haired, golden-eyed beauty, was portrayed in a red swamp, sitting on a fallen tree. A trio of Flits stood behind her, braiding their feathers into her hair; and a mischievous smile played on her lips.
Flits are much like Sendig, but have pale blue skin and feathered wings protruding from their backs. Their race never came from the mud; their homes have always been in trees or on mountains. The five races, despite our differences, live harmoniously on Glaoria. We usually live separately. However, Flits sometimes form strong friendships with certain Sendig, usually ones who share their frivolity. That had certainly been Zallashia’s way.
As we walked past, Zallashia vanished.
Illuminated next was a portrait of her son, Barasis. He was captured sitting in the dark, rich, study in the huge library on the third atoll. A pile of plasma ledgers, some dark and some lit, somehow massed atop a small table beside him without tumbling to the floor. His eyes were strong, but without joy.
Though Barasis was my great-grandfather, and he still lived and sometimes advised the Council, I felt no love for him. I feared the hard look in his eyes and never wanted it for my own.
I knew Viraxus was just as tired as I, if not more so, yet he held his head high, ever regal as he led me down the hall. I caught a warped reflection of myself in a platinum dais, and saw that my long, black hair was unraveling from its braid, my silver eyes were rimmed with dark shadows, and I was hunched over like I really was a monster. Right then, Viraxus would have been mistaken as the one with status.
It didn’t help that above my reflection, the dais illuminated the portrait of my mother. When I wasn’t run ragged, I was nearly her double.
Unlike most of the captured figures in the corridor, my mother was standing. It always seemed that at any moment, she would dance off, out of the lush garden, laughing her warm laugh. Her black hair curled around her shoulders, and her green dress rippled with suggested movement. Her silver eyes looked directly and purposefully out, seeming to tell secrets from the next life, and her quirked mouth not only hinted that she found portraits trifling, but that secrets were what made life worth living.
Nothing in the image indicated the sickness in her body, or how closely death shadowed her.
“Where were you born, Viraxus?” I asked in Sendish. I’d been denied the answer once already, years before, and I didn’t know what made me ask again today.
“What could you possibly gain from knowing that?” he asked, sounding bored. I’m sure he was bored. He was certainly boring.
“I want to know if the lore is true. About birthplaces.”
“Of course it is.”
He sighed. It seemed I was endlessly asking troublesome questions—questions he usually evaded, ignored or outright refused to answer. However, this time he surprised me. “Before she died, my mother told me I was born in sight of one of the first libraries of our people. It was half sunk in the mud.”
My eyes widened, weariness forgotten for the moment. “Why there?”
“Honestly, my mother and father meant to be in the Hardlands by the time I came. They wanted a physically strong child. They didn’t quite make it.”
I stared at the back of his head, where his hair was, once again, smoothly bound. “It angers you.”
“If you’d been born in the Hardlands, perhaps you wouldn’t be here, teaching me. Is that it?”
“Not at all.” He glanced back playfully. “I simply despise the fact that I was born behind it, rather than in front of it.”
I laughed. He was such a proud sed that I couldn’t tell if that was the truth or a diversion. As we turned right, down the front hall, I asked, “Why did you answer me this time?”
His neck stiffened. “I suppose I shouldn’t have.”
I sent a terrible frown at his back. “You know I won’t tell anyone. You can confide in me, Viraxus. I so wish you would. For once.” I’d made many similar offers over the years.
He continued to move rigidly down the hall but didn’t reply.
We arrived in the dining room: a shameless display of wealth and power. Here, digital portraits of my family remained lit always.
My father, mother, two sisters and I each had a portrait exhibited. Each of us was turned to the side, peering sedately into the distance. They showed nothing of our personalities and may as well have depicted strangers.
At the head of the table, behind my father’s chair, a group portrait of himself, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, loomed, not only larger, but brighter than the rest. They all looked roughly the same age except his great-grandfather, whom time had finally touched. He was a head taller than the rest with silver hair and elongated neck. Unlike his descendants, his ears pointed down toward his back.
The middle of the long, elaborately carved table was under the plasma-filled, platinum-plated chandelier. It ran with many colors, all chasing each other, flickering sparks. It was an impressive object to behold, reminiscent of our race’s bioluminescence. It took the leet of many Sendig artisans to accomplish. Platinum and plasma—one a precious metal, one a material, manipulated repeatedly with leet—were both displayed boastfully throughout our home. They were the ultimate symbols of wealth and power.
The table itself was of bax: wood from a rare tree that always seemed wet. It was dark enough to appear black, but flashes of red reflected in its polished sheen.
The kitchen staff brought us a small meal, placing mine at the head of the long table in my father’s seat, and Viraxus’s to my right. I was always pleased to sit here, not because of the display of status, but because it was the only seat where I couldn’t see the dutiful eyes of my ancestors.
Viraxus cleared his throat to get my attention. He always waited, with his spoon poised, for me to begin eating before he did. It always irritated me.
Despite the delicious scents of spiced uurun beans filling my senses and the angry roar of my stomach, I took my time settling into my chair and unfolding my napkin in my lap. I spaced my utensils equally and turned my plate four or five times.
Viraxus cleared his throat again.
I glanced up, feigning innocence.
He was watching me blandly from behind his spectacles, his spoon still hovering.
He must have been starving.
With a satisfied smile, I began eating. He knew how much I hated him acting according to social rule, especially when we were alone. I was punishing him, and it was shameless, childish behavior.
I spent most of my waking hours with Viraxus. He was there with me at breakfast and he remained with me until dinner, giving me lessons between each meal. I loved him as much as my sisters, respected him beyond all but few, but often, I wanted to strangle him. We spent so much time together, I easily became annoyed about almost everything he did: the way he cleared his throat, the way he chewed his food; the way he sat straight as a rod.
I suspect he emphasized these habits just to bother me. We were constantly, deliberately picking at each other’s nerves…which somehow calmed us. We both had obligations we couldn’t fight, and an even opponent was just the outlet for the accompanying restlessness.
We finished our meal in silence, and then, as always, he led me to my room. It was one of the duties given to him by my father, meant to keep me out of trouble and free of reputation. Such things caused the biggest rift between Viraxus and me because they were reminders that, before being my friend, beloved like a brother, or even my tutor, he was my father’s sed. Viraxus would do anything my father asked, without a care for my feelings. Or his own.
The way to my family’s living area was barred by two passcoded portals. Each required unique codes to enter and exit. My codes only worked during the day. Viraxus would open them for me, if needed, at night. Once inside our family quarters, I was stuck there until Keleet rose in the morning—or until my father, Viraxus, or one of two other high-ranking servants let me out again. It had always been that way.
Viraxus nodded, waiting for me to close the portal to my bedroom behind me, again, as always. However, for some reason, that night our eyes met through the round doorway as it darkened and solidified.
In that moment, whether it was from the wear of the day or the wear of his life, his eyes looked unfocused and cold.
After the portal was completely solid, I stood there for a while, fighting the urge to switch it open again to make sure Viraxus was no longer standing there. I had the strangest feeling that I didn’t know him.
I rested against the wall for a few moments, and then laughed at my fancy. Viraxus had been working us too hard lately.
To relax, I went to my dresser and assembled my flute. Then, moving to the bubbled window, awash in starlight, I began to play.
The notes, long and clear, erased so much of the day’s tension.
The flute was one of few Human instruments beautiful enough to pique Sendig interest. The violin was another. The piano, though initially seen as too simple to bother mastering, was a rising favorite as its true versatility became known. Noteworthy, Sendig musicians frowned on brass instruments, claiming the sound to be vulgar, and they never became popular. Stringed instruments were on the rise.
My mother was of high birth, and her father still sat upon the council with mine. Being noble, she was one of the first Sendig to own a flute and one of very few to play it well. My father, a traditionalist, disliked the idea of his daughter playing an alien instrument and vied for me to learn his forte: the mud pipes. Just as they sound, they are massive, clay bottles, filled with different amounts of mud to produce various, thick notes.
On a few special occasions during my childhood, my mother and father played these instruments together, making eerie, half-alien music.
Though they are both wind instruments, as you can imagine, the flute seemed the far better choice to a young kess: light and airy rather than deep and heavy.
Perhaps because it was an alien instrument, playing the flute was a kind of escape from my highly-scheduled life. When I played, I went to other places in my mind: under the clouds, over mountains, onto other atolls, and into other homes; into other lives.
I wondered if my mother knew how perfect an outlet for longing the flute was.
When my mother was alive, she taught my sisters and me many things: sewing, embroidery, her native language, High Sadeesh…
She taught Vella how to garden.
She gave Tanetta her first few years of lessons about leet.
She taught me the flute.
She’d been ecstatic at my interest and immediately sent an order through the Port for an instrument of my own. We both loved the lessons she gave, and it may have been the only time I enjoyed being elite; she and I were among few who’d ever laid hands on the instrument.
It was almost like a secret.
After she was gone, I often closed my eyes and imagined that she was the one playing. Then I could remember her: the playfulness of her eyes, the thrill she had from preforming a difficult piece, and the way she often drifted or danced around the room to the music, with me trailing behind her.
I stopped playing, cleaned my flute and put it away. After I changed into my nightgown, I sat in front of my mirror. “Evening Tezzix,” the mirror said, and displayed the time and outside temperature. It was often the only reminder that outside existed.
“Magnify,” I told it, and I had a larger view of myself.
I always felt detached from my reflection. I didn’t really think of it as me. I thought of it as an image that I had to maintain. It wasn’t mine. It was the image of Tezzix Faresh, descendant of Keleet and future Council member.
I pulled the tie and shook my braid. My black hair fell to my waist in curls and I set to brushing it, for a moment, seeing my mother’s reflection instead of my own. It was a result of looking so much like her and happened often.
There was a soft rap on my door and I called, “Come in,” continuing to groom myself. I knew it was Tanetta. My little sister always visited me in the evenings.
Tanetta crept into my room, somehow managing to look like a mischievous child, though she was eighteen now.
Like my father, and like legendary Keleet, Tanetta had a long, wavy, golden mane of hair, but while my father’s hair was never out of place by a strand, Tanetta’s always seemed to be streaming behind her in a gold blur. Where my father was regal and staid, and had a small notion of humor, Tanetta was wild, outgoing, and laughed often.
Tanetta was a light in my life, and though she was free to follow her own path, I did not envy her. I envied my older sister, Vella, but not Tanetta. She looked up to me and I felt stronger for it.
Tanetta was devoutly interested in my lessons. She begged me to tell her what I learned each day, and because of her interest, the tasks I had to undertake seemed almost bearable. She actually thought the prospect of joining the Council was exciting!
“Tez!” Tanetta cried happily. “You worked even longer today. I’ve been waiting to talk to you!”
Though I was tired, I perked up considerably. “Oh?”
She nodded. “I finally learned how to assimilate knowledge from books without reading them! Only children’s books so far, though.”
“That’s amazing, Tanetta!” From a young age, my little sister had shown a great acumen for leet, but the focus for assimilating knowledge had eluded her for weeks. Who knew what could come of such an incredible ability? I would have learned it if I could.
Power coursed through Tanetta’s entire body, but my share could fit in my little fingernail. Viraxus teased that I must have been abandoned by Keleet as soon as the good star saw how wicked I was.
Tanetta’s leet, however, could only be seen as a blessing from our ancestor. It filled the house in practical and wondrous ways. Her orbs of golden light circled many ceilings of our enormous home, yet they didn’t float out of open windows, and they went dark the moment you closed your eyes to sleep. With leet-enhanced plasma-lighting throughout our estate, the orbs weren’t necessary, but they added so much light to the mood of the place.
She consulted with Vella and the staff every morning, and with an intent twitch of her head, the rugs would change patterns, the tablecloths would change colors, the platinumware to Sharvish-wrought copper, the dishes from floral to flecked; the floor from wood to stone. It was all illusion, but it was extraordinary. It kept our days interesting, though some of us were often stuck indoors, studying.
Tanetta sometimes broke the rules to poke her head in on my lessons. “Hello, my dears!” she would sing happily. Then she might do some silly little thing, like use leet to produce an illusionary hat on Viraxus’s head (which made him frown), turn my dress a different color, or leave a bit of her essence behind in an orb to speak to us (this distraction also made Viraxus frown).
Fresh, new, extraordinary experiences were always close behind Tanetta. Her imagination was endless and the manifestations of it were ever-changing.
I told her that where the Port opened on Earth, the compressed stream of Glaorian atmosphere intoxicated Humans and sometimes asphyxiated them. The next day, Tanetta produced tiny, floating Human corpses around us in the air. Their ears were stubby, but they had fangs, like us. It made me laugh whenever I thought of it throughout the day.
Vella told us, secretly, that sed preferred to hunt their mates. Tanetta and I were both giddy at the information.
Tanetta, however, put it to use.
Next day, every male who entered the house, had the head of a predator. Our father was aptly a lion. The servants were terrified when he yawned at the breakfast table, and my sisters and I laughed madly. I only glimpsed our handsome servant, Saero, as a mudcat, though I watched for him out of the study window frantically, as Viraxus (a hawk) rapped on the desk with his knuckles, calling me to attention.
The true potential of Tanetta’s leet had revealed itself when our mother died.
Tanetta was merely seven, Vella twelve, I nine. Anyone careless enough to land on the atoll wearing color swiftly found themselves in black. Any kess was greeted with a muted veil about her face when peering into the glass. And as I writhed in my parents’ bed, wretched with agony, I was met with my mother’s scent, rockflower, each way I turned.
Since, at that age, Tanetta was merely a beginner, it was a burst of power that had baffled her tutors. They finally attributed it to her grief. Viraxus was the first to mention (with grave certainty) that Keleet had smiled on the purity of her essence. Strangely, while my mother’s death seemed to force Tanetta’s leet to blossom, my moderate abilities all but vanished.
The next day, there were no little tricks or illusions. Not one. The drab household added to the absence of my mother’s laughter, bluntly announcing that Vah Faresh was gone.
We held vigil on the surface, in the mud and rain, as bright Keleet rose in the sky. Everyone in attendance sent out their leet to guide my mother’s energy to the bright star. However, there were dark whispers that none could connect with her essence and that perhaps Zareesh had taken her. These whispers were met with hurt stares. Even her acquaintances knew that my mother had been filled with light.
Later, Vella had appeared silently at the open portal in my room, and beckoned me to join her. We found Tanetta in the cellar, among the casks of marshberry wine, completely out of her wits and sobbing inconsolably. That night, our father found us all lying in his and my mother’s bed, eyes red and raw, throats sore from wailing. He sighed sadly and tucked us in. He slept elsewhere, though we all wished he would stay and comfort us.
That was my father’s way. He loved us, we all knew, but he was raised to hold etiquette and regulation over indulgence.
That was something he endeavored to pass on to me.
“What did you learn today?” Tanetta asked. “Anything about Nirvana?” The Earthly atoll was a subject that enthralled us both.
“Hardly,” I told her, dropping my brush with a clatter. “All Viraxus told me was that if I speak arrogantly, I’ll get stabbed.”
Tanetta frowned. “Why isn’t he more forthcoming? He’s the one who convinced Father to have you go there.”
I frowned too. “He wants me to rely on him, I suppose.” We gazed at each other. She understood me better than anyone, and she didn’t pity me. I was glad for that. “Has anyone had word from Vella?”
Tanetta’s frown deepened. “Still nothing. She must be having a wonderful time.”
I smiled. Vella was traveling with her new mate, Coredesh, whom she affectionately called, Cody. My grandparents (who usually ignored Tanetta and me) treated Vella like a princess, and my parents had raised her much like one. To my envy, she had a platinum-haired, violet-eyed beauty, which, when set with her pale skin, seemed exotic and icy. She possessed grace, patience, gentility, and charisma. She knew ways to excite anyone in conversation, and the lessons she received bolstered her natural charms.
My mother had chosen a garden as her birthplace. So, was she graceful because she was born in the garden, as the lore stated? Or was it just a preview of how she would be raised?
Such things as grace were not meant for me, and I knew that I had nothing like it. I felt gnarled in comparison to Vella. That shouldn’t have mattered, as I was supposed to be single-mindedly oriented on my studies. Council members, after all, were revered for their wisdom, not their charm.
Sometimes the fact made me grit my teeth.
“Tezzix…” Tanetta urged, impatiently. She had every opportunity to follow in Vella’s footsteps. I smiled at her. She was never burdened with the desire to follow in anyone’s footsteps. She learned only what she wanted, and that meant she could focus on controlling her leet... and prodding me for information.
“Very well. A short lesson,” I said, grinning. “English.”
She perked up. English was necessary if one entertained thoughts of taking the Port to Earth and speaking to Humans. Tanetta certainly did. “Excellent,” she said, grinning through the English word. Her English was almost as good as mine. It was a little secret that we shared.