Chapter 7: The Solemn Hour of Midnight
It is the second day of Haruki Pason's birthday celebration. Guests have been given the opportunity to tour Otium while staying at whichever resort they chose earlier. This is a privilege for many as the planet is very beautiful and unique. Resorts are themed and are worth at least a visit to experience each one's creativity and splendor. Activities of all sorts are available so there is nigh a possibility for a humdrum holiday. There is also a main town for guests and local tenants alike filled with bakeries and restaurants; boutiques and hobby shops; ladies' parlors and gentlemen's barbers; each vendor providing top quality goods and services with deluxe standards to suit any upper class member.
Professor Naris Dunsten, being a man of modest needs and a modest income, opts to stay at the Pason estate. In fact, the elder Pason prefers it, so that they may spend more time in deep conversations and debates. The benefits are two-fold for the professor. The first, to be in the company of a good and wise friend, and his intelligent and intriguing son; the second, to create the opportunity to be in the company of his friend's daughter, the most beautiful woman he ever beheld.
At this moment Dunsten is walking through the main courtyard, keeping a slow pace to soak in the breadth of the gardens. Pinks, soft purples, bright yellows, and dozens of shades of green surround him. Trees of varying sizes scatter the garden, some with small red flowers laced and hanging from delicate branches. The fragrance being produced is amber sweet, as though honey was dabbed in each blossom. He is along the side when he sees Steena crossing one of the small bridges over a sparkling blue pond. She carries a cream parasol with lace-gloved hands. To him, this moment is not chance, it is destiny. A fool he may have been in his youth for passing such an opportunity, but today he would not be. He calls to her. "Lady Pason!"
Steena stops. She watches the red-haired man run up to meet her. He is shorter in stature, though of similar height to her. She is greeted with a smile, so she nods in return.
"I was hoping I would run into you again." He is not given a reply. "You have a beautiful home."
"It is my father's home."
"Well, it certainly is magnificent. I am glad to finally meet and speak with you. I've known your father for a few years now, and I've met your brother on several occasions. I've heard many great things about you, and I'm glad I can now put a face to your name."
Steena nods again.
"I'm very much looking forward to seeing your performance of a tea ceremony. I hope you don't think me too bold by asking for your company."
Conjuring a mantra of elegance and propriety, she says, "It would be my honor, Lord Naris."
"Professor is sufficient, as I'm not a lord over anything except my humble abode near my university."
"Perhaps we can arrange a time then. For the tea ceremony."
Her chestnut eyes look down as she thinks carefully. She seems to be at a loss of what she truly wanted to say. Finally, she responds, "I am at your leisure, Professor."
"Then tomorrow after lunch sounds ideal." He is smiling from ear to ear. "Thank you kindly, Lady Pason."
"I'm looking forward to it. Please enjoy the rest of your afternoon." Dunsten watches Steena walk away, and it is at this moment that he believes in 'love at first sight'.
"He is a great bore."
"Really? I assumed that you favored him, considering the amount of time you spent together in the past few days."
Steena and Garrex are taking tea together in Garrex's villa. Since the sister is not fond of being in the sun, they set on the veranda facing inward the palace, which overviews the gardens and main courtyard instead of the ocean on the opposite side. The villa's style reflects the owner, basic yet detailed, modern yet timeless. Black-and-white marbled tiles are shaped as round flowers that interlock with each other to create a seamless floor which is an artwork in itself.
Steena removes the sieve holding her tea leaves onto a designated porcelain plate. "Do not say together. The word insinuates affection. I can assure you that it is not by my choice that he is in my company. I am dragged from place to place to tour the gardens, the crystal hall, the spas, the library – oh the library – and not to mention the tea ceremony." An icy glare is thrown to her brother.
Her front does not fool him. Garrex responds with an amused laugh. "You surprise me. To crave the attention of such a simple man."
"How dare you." She turns up a proud nose. "I would never."
"Oh come now, I understand your reasoning: You have not had a suitor for three years, and Naris Dunsten is agreeable in looks and manner; but he is so . . ." He pauses for a more positive word. ". . . so poor."
"You cause me a great affront with your teasing. I could never settle for someone beneath our class."
"Then you will have much to cavil among suitors with Pason men as standards."
"Yes," she says distantly, "you and father set a rather high bar to compete with. It is practically impossible to find anyone who owns his own company, never mind a planet, who isn't over the age of fifty. Sometimes I resent your success and the effect it has on my ideals." She brings a slender hand to her forehead. "What am I to do? Am I to remain a prisoner on this forsaken planet?"
"Shall I bring you flowers for such a theatrical performance?" Turquoise eyes gaze at her unimpressed.
"You don't understand. You never will." Steena turns away, knowing her brother will turn her back.
Garrex gets up and crouches beside her, taking her hand in his. "Don't say things like that. I know you're still hurting from losing Akira. How could you not be? You were together for eight years and he's only been gone three. At the same time, it has been three years, Steena. Don't you think it's time to start moving forward? Be positive. Meet more people. Make friends. Find new hobbies. You will always have a part of Akira with you through Lemei, isn't that right?"
"Things would be better if you were home more often."
"Now, we discussed this many times over."
"I am merely saying that things would be better. I am not asking you to do so. But perhaps I could go to Casternia for a while."
"You would be bored stiff." He rises and sits back in the chair opposite Steena. "There are no designer shops or cliff-side restaurants. Entertainment on my planet is paltry for your taste. Most of my men and their families go elsewhere for their holiday and for good reason. Casternia is purely for my company. Of course, my home is always welcome to you, but I cannot guarantee you my constant attention."
Steena sulks. "All work and no play –"
"Brings me a higher pay," Garrex finishes cheekily. He looks at his pocket watch, and then prepares to leave by donning his gloves. "Stay and finish your tea."
"Please let me visit you for a short while. It's no fun here with father and I really want to get away."
"If getting away is what you're after, then you'd be better off marrying the professor!" The sound of his laughter is heard down the hall, followed by the clicks of his boots.
"Do it again, Uncle Rex! Do it again!"
"Again? Are you not dizzy?"
"Alright, you imp." Garrex picks up Lemei above his head and spins her round and round and round. Peals of squeals fill the pink bedroom, mixed with laughter from the both of them. He bounces her onto the bed, eliciting giggles upon giggles. "Again!"
Garrex wonders briefly if there is such a contraption that could perform this task on his behalf, for at this moment he would pay any price to own one. "Would you like Uncle Garrex to tell you a bedtime story?"
"No! I want to go up!" She reaches out her arms and gives him a smile that reminds him of his sister.
He sighs. "Last one." The sequence is repeated for the fifth time, and suddenly Garrex feels older than his twenty-eight years. Relief washes over him like a wave when Lemei crawls under the covers. He sits by her side and asks, "Did you have fun today?"
"Yes, lots of fun! I wish grandfather can have a birthday everyday!"
"That would be something, now wouldn't it? Well, there are still two full days left to celebrate, so let's make sure to have as much fun as we can."
"I'm excited for the ball! Mummy picked out a pretty dress for me, and she bought me a mask too! She said everyone is going to wear masks. What are you going to wear?"
"I'll be wearing my uniform, as usual. Soldiers don't wear masks at parties."
"I'm going to wear one!"
"And you will look beautiful in it, I'm sure. Now, go to sleep and I'll see you tomorrow."
"Hurray! Goodnight, Uncle Rex."
Garrex kisses his niece on the forehead and turns off the light. Just as he is about to close the door, he hears Lemei ask, "Do you love me?"
"Of course, I do."
"I love you, too."
Garrex closes the door and makes his way back to his villa. To get there, he must pass the lower courtyard that is surrounded by all three villas, of which are the only ways to access it. The night is dark and he is glad the day is over. Parties and social mingling bore the general officer, as he is more inclined to one-on-one exchanges. Mentally fatigued and slightly dizzy from spinning Lemei, he unbuttons his jacket and the top of his shirt, loosens his tie, and removes his gloves. That feels much better. The crisp ocean air remedies his minor botherations. Then from the corner of his eye, he sees a white figure pass through the shadows. Garrex watches from an unseen corner and realizes it is that peculiar slave, Shaia. She crosses the courtyard and takes a seat on a bench that is flush with the ivy wall, making it seem as though she disappeared. Curious as to what she is doing, he walks over to her, taking care that his shoes make no sounds against the cobblestone. He is three feet away from her when he sees that she is reading. She does not notice his presence. He clears his throat.
Shaia jumps and nearly drops the book she is holding. Seeing Garrex there, she immediately stands and bows her head. "Forgive me, my lord. I did not see you."
"You most certainly did not. I have been observing you read for the last few minutes with such fatuous fascination that I wonder if you have forgotten your duties; and your position." His innuendo is not lost unto Shaia. "Does my father know you stay here and meddle with his property?"
"Yes, my lord, he allows me one book at a time; but if it vexes you then I can return it."
"It vexes me."
She removes her bookmark and offers the book to him with two hands.
Garrex takes it and looks at the cover. "What else are you trying to discover by prying through my father's personal library?"
"Nothing, my lord. I am not a spy, nor do I seek personal gain from your family. Please do not mistake your father's kindness and generosity as a malicious act from me, my lord. I assure you that my actions, if observed, will prove my virtue."
Garrex ruminates while holding her pleading blue gaze and then looks at the book in his hands. "This book is ancient. What interests you in this?"
"I enjoy the story, my lord. Stimulates my mind."
"So you particularly like books written from Earth."
"Yes, my lord."
"Why not from now?"
"I fear my reasoning may bore you, my lord."
"Just answer the question. I will be the judge of the value of the information given."
"Yes, my lord. I appreciate books from Earth because I relate more to their values."
She is curious of his curiosity. "Honor. Respect. Truth. Love. Freedom."
"What, do those not exist in our era?"
"I don't believe they are an adherent value to many, if not most."
"I must disagree. Our society flourishes upon honor and respect, and love has never ceased since the birth of mankind. But perhaps you speak of eros love, which I then must admit myself that it is more a vice than a virtue."
"Do you speak from experience, my lord?"
"Do not think for a moment that you are entitled to ask me any questions, slave, especially regarding matters that you have no business knowing."
"Forgive me, my lord."
Garrex does not have anything to say, but oddly he does not want to leave. To stall, he says, "I am curious to know what work requires you to peer from a bench in the garden. Slacking, are we?"
"I am off-duty, my lord."
"Excellent. I am very bored. Entertain me by telling me how you came to Otium."
"I don't believe you are bored. You are here to interrogate me, my lord. Please excuse me as I must adjourn for the morrow."
"You must learn to obey me, slave, or you will bear the consequences. I am not your direct master but you must still obey me. I will not warn you again." He uses his military tone to intimidate her as it guarantees efficiency. He takes a seat at one end of the bench. "Sit."
Shaia sits at the other end of the bench. Thumps of her heart beat against her chest.
"It is Shaia, correct?" He feigns ignorance for he clearly remembers her name.
"Use words to answer me."
"Yes, my lord. Shaia Kaim, my lord."
"Where are you from?"
"Imberia, my lord."
"Oh, yes. I remember now. How long ago did you arrive?"
"Three months ago, my lord."
"How old are you?"
"Eighteen, my lord."
"What did you do before becoming a slave?"
"I was a teacher, my lord."
"What did you teach?"
"Basic academics, my lord."
"Did you enjoy teaching?"
"Yes, my lord."
A pause. "My lord," he reminds her.
"My lord!" she rushes out.
"You said in the tree that you were not comfortable in my presence, but it seems that is beginning to change. Shall I make you more uncomfortable?" Garrex begins to smile.
"No, my lord."
"In time you will learn to differentiate when I speak in command and when I speak in rhetoric. Move your arms."
She is unsure of what the young master means, when he lies down on the bench and places his head in her lap. "Lord Garrex!"
"It's actually Lord Pason. You make a terrible slave."
Shaia tries to somehow remove his head from her lap. "My lord...this...I don't think..."
"If you're going to touch my head I prefer that you comb my hair with your fingers. I enjoy that sensation."
Her hands return to her sides.
He smirks and continues. "Now, tell me more of your background. Start with family."
"My mother currently resides in Imberia, and I have a sister two years my junior, my lord."
"What of your father?"
"He passed away, my lord."
"When I was fourteen, my lord."
"Four years ago. How?"
Shaia resists the urge to ask the relevancy of his questioning. Instead she answers, "Heart attack, my lord."
"And what of your sister? You did not say she resided in Imberia."
She is slightly shocked at his lack of sympathy towards her father's death, but she continues. "She was captured with me, my lord."
"Why is she not here?"
"We were separated, my lord."
"Yes, my lord."
"Did you not wish to remain together?"
"Yes, of course, my lord; but we were not able to."
"You must have not tried very hard. Or perhaps you did not want it as much as you say."
"May I leave now, my lord?" She speaks through clenched teeth, barely able to contain her anger, and she wishes to throw his head to the ground. She feels his head shaking, followed with a callous chuckle.
"What a touchy little thing you are! Shall we find out other ways to rile your temper?"
Silence is her retort, lest his sadism is encouraged.
"Answer me." His amusement trickles away like sand passing through fingers.
Shaia does not believe this pompous man deserves even one more uttered word, regardless of his stature or her position. So she continues to remain silent.
Now Garrex Pason is displeased. "Dare you to ignore me?"
His icy tone sends prickles of fear to Shaia. Her response is reluctant. "You upset me, my lord."
"What gives you the impression that I care for a moment of your thoughts or feelings?"
"I desperately wanted to remain with my sister," she ignores his caustic remark. "I still do, and I hope to find Aeureilia, though the task seems an impossibility from my position."
"How do you plan to find her? Escape? You will die trying."
"I hope to earn my freedom."
"That may take decades. By the by, free men even have difficulty finding the captured."
"Just knowing of her state would be a great solace."
"So if you discover she is on such-and-such planet with so-and-so master, what then?"
"I would write to my mother and tell her Aeureilia is safe to lessen her worries."
"And if you discover she is dead?" It is not yet within Garrex's capabilities to consider the sensitivity of our heroine. For a few moments he only hears the gentle sound of waves crashing against the rocks. Irked that he does not get an immediate reply, he turns his head to bark a command of impatience, when he sees that she is staring straight ahead, the moonlight sparkling against her tears. To him, it is strange that she cries so silently, without a furrowed brow, without a turned mouth. Her blink causes more tears to fall, and he feels the inclination to touch the glistening streams down her cheeks. He is in wonder, and her name accidentally escapes his lips. To disguise his embarrassment, he repeats, "And if you discover she is dead?"
"If that is so . . . if that is so, I would write to my mother and tell her Aeureilia is safe . . . to lessen her worries."