The timegazer fixed atop the hallway's entrance marked the march of time in light. Farik crystal fixed on its smooth surface, twenty-one in total, began glowing, at the start of each new hour, adding their opaque light to the natural beams that came through the abnormally large windows. Jaris had spent the better part of the morning getting the paperwork in order. All that he needed to do now was to wait. He shifted his body, looking at the closed door. How much more, damn it!
Tapping his foot on the marble floor of the waiting hall, tried to focus his mind. The sound made no impact on the officials and clerks that went back and forth, but it did have a calming effect on him. The mid-day temperature was pleasant, making the way in the large corridor more of a nuisance than unpleasant. The wait was simply a formality, and the copper cylinder in his hand confirmed that.
The Department of Agriculture had its wing in the Magisterium building, its entrance marked by a marble arch with a sheath of grain carved into its tip. A bland, three-story building, one of nine that made-up the complex, was an amalgamation of a seemingly chaotic batch of corridors, and rooms, given identity by only the notices nailed on them. All except for one held no interest to the man. The one labeled Transfer and Commissions.
A slow creak drew his attention. The door opened, and a female voice from the small ambulatory called out:
"Jaris Hesb, please enter."
He nodded as he passed her desk, and then pressed the handle of the main office's sturdy door. The man sitting on the other side of the desk didn't bother getting up. He just nodded in acknowledgment and pointed to another chair, on the other side of the desk.
"Thanks for receiving me on such short notice, Oren."
"Consider yourself lucky. Things don't go as quickly here, as they do in Wing Four."
Jaris laughed silently. The army did after all move faster than farmers and artisans. He held out the copper tube he had been holding under his arm, and the Oren reached out to take it. He opened it, carefully taking out the rolled sheets stored inside of it.
"I take it that's everything?"
"As far as I know. You know how much I love reading those things."
"Try working eight years with them." laughed the other man, his fingers carefully tracing the lines of script.
The next five minutes went on agonizingly slow, with Oren comparing the papers Jaris had given him with multiple records stashed in various wooden crates and drawers that lined the walls. Several times he would stop, look again, then nod, scribbling down things with a sharpened stylus pen. Finally, he took out a completed sheet of graphen and placed it before Jaris with a smile.
"Just sign, and then I'll give you the rest of the details."
Jaris picked up the instrument and signed, and then the two men shook hands.
"Can't imagine being congratulated for harvesting grain and making lethian syrup," replied Jaris with a smirk.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, my man. What you're doing is just as important as any other department. Now come here, let me show you the rest"
The two men walked over to a large map that covered most of the wall opposite the door. Jaris had understood that Distria had expanded its borders massively over the last two decades, but seeing it on a map put things in a completely new perspective. He could see Canolfan, marked out in gold and green, standing at the center of a vast network of roads that spread in all directions.
"Light above, I can't believe how far we've gotten!"
"I know, right?" laughed Oren. "And most of it to the south. Makes sense if you ask me. The planes there have been giving record harvests the last few years. We've had to relocate over eight thousand workers just to keep up."
"I take it you haven't been getting any time off, lately."
"As if. Your transfer is just the latest one. We require overseers in over twenty different locations."
He took out an indicator and waved Jaris to come closer.
"You'll be leaving in a week. That should give you enough time to pack up. Your caravan's first stop will be here, at Jada. From there, it's a two days trip to your destination.
The wooden indicator touched the map, and Jaris had to squint to read the name: Pailt. Just a bleep among the markers of forests and yellowish spots that marked the grain fields.
"That's where you'll be stationed. For the moment, you'll be using a leased homestead, at least until you can build something better. And with fifteen separi per month, that shouldn't be much of a problem. All the rest is in your papers. I suggest you familiarize yourself with them."
"There's plenty of time for that. My wife's doing most of the packing. Anything else?"
"Yes, the population's mostly mistoa. There's only about fifty of us settled there, and I'm looking forward to more perspective expanders."
"Is that what we call colonists nowadays?"
Oren's laugh was cut short by a cough. He returned to his desk, leaving Jaris to continue examining the map. The name of the town stuck with him for some reason. And why not? It was a fresh start.
"I've told you most of your duties, and the rest are listed in here", said Oren, handing Jaris several graphen sheets. What's not stated, are the methods."
The man's eyes narrowed, seemingly pinning Jaris against the window. He wanted to say something, but Oren continued as if he wasn't even there.
"The department demands results, and harvest times will be punctually checked. You have working tools, but your real job is making sure the other tools work."
"They're still human, you do know that?" replied Jaris, perplexed.
"They're half-breeds who mate like vermin with whatever hairy women they can find!" shouted the other man, causing Jaris' eyes to twitch. "But if that helps you out, see them as you wish. Just make sure they work! The land is plentiful, you just need to know how to squeeze it."
"I'll...keep that in mind," replied Jaris, making his way to the door. He turned, giving Oren a final nod of salute, before going out into the long hallway. One more crystal had lit up on the device's shiny surface. Time was flowing as it should.
The fresh air and the expanse of the town stretching ahead of him helped Jaris refocus his mind. Passing under the expansive arch, he made his way through the outer courtyard, and into Canolfan's massive stretch. The Magisterium was itself connected to the main palace, allowing for the flow of high-ranking officials, but those weren't open to the general public, much less to bottom workers.
Traffic was even at this hour fairly dense, with workers in various uniforms coming and going through the multiple gates. With the shadow of the palace behind him, Jaris began walking along with other workers towards the west gate, where a dashlong waited, hovering three feet above the ground on its crystal suspenders. Workers from various departments were streaming towards the open-top coaches, either making their way for a chair or just sitting on the floor. Jaris paid two limna for the fair, and with years of practice behind him, reached one of the few remaining seats. The wooden doors closed, followed by the amplified voice of the driver.
"All the stops will be respected. We insist on being orderly"
The vehicle began its silent movement, and the buildings around Jaris' peripheral vision became a blurry haze. In the mixed luminosity of the two lights in the sky, the capital had its charm, with its mixture of old and new buildings springing up along tidy roads. Shops and businesses mixed with homes and apartments built in three or four tiers to accommodate the ever-increasing population. Roads intersected and parted in all directions, but all of them had the palace as their end goal. Under its looming eight spires, the city was a veritable heart, pumping the blood of the Kingdom of Distria towards its vast hinterlands.
All along the transport lane, green and gold banners were being hung at various intervals, intermingled with various flower arrangements. The feeling was one of general festivity, and Jaris felt relieved that his last week in the capital would not be one of constant repetition of the same routines. It's not every day that the heir to the throne is born. Regrettably, he wouldn't be here to see it, but then again, a form of birth awaited him. The water he knew had broken, and he was sliding along into the unknown.
He felt like he stood alone, leaving all of that behind, going into a world that only thirty years ago was used as a scare for children. Still, working the land was a joy for him, be it in the kingdom or a hinterland. He lay back in the seat, basking in the glow of the Third Light that had shifted its position, hovering right above them. Life went on, and for the first time in a while, it went his way.
The smell of cooking was always one of the joys of coming home. Turning the key, he entered and made his way to the kitchen. The woman busy stirring in the pan greeted him with a smile that could have made him take on a horde of monsters if she had only asked.
"Just a moment, let me get this out of the way".
She removed the pan from atop the fire cooker, placed the content on a plate, then cleaned her hands on a cloth, before jumping him in a passionate hug. Jaris felt his body go limp, and let himself sink into the ever-stronger sense of loving adoration. The woman's ginger curls felt soft and inviting on his skin, and her touch sent shivers down his legs.
"Keep this up and I may not go to work tomorrow" grinned Jaris.
Ajutine just laughed, and the two parted. The man went to wash his face in a tumbler of cold water, before going to the bedroom to get dressed. He opted for a green tunic and matching pants, before joining his wife back in the kitchen. She continued cooking, and Jaris could see that there was also a nice fruit pie, already sliced up, and a bottle of diluted lethian juice.
"If you're planning to celebrate our departure, I think you overdid it."
Ajutine laughed, continuing her activity.
"You don't think I'm going to raise a swine, do you? That's lunch, but don't touch the pie. That's for something else."
She continued to set plates and cutlery on the sturdy dining table, visibly annoyed by the activity. Jaris counted four plates and understood.
"Ino and Egal. They sent their memo yesterday, but since you were so busy, I didn't want to waste your time with it."
"Can I...go back to work then?"
Jaris meant it all too literally. Anywhere was better than sharing a room with his wife's dismal sister. Most of the visits were generally boring, her work in cosmetics not being something that he was particularly interested in. What ticked him worst, however, was her daughter. Barely having finished her mandatory studies, she preferred to just continue living with her mother at their country home, not even bothering to work in the same field.
"Any particular reason?"
"She never specified" replied Ajutine, finishing the placement of the cutlery. "She kept bragging about it being too important not to tell us before we left."
The table was set as best as it could be, and the two stopped to admire their work. Both had their version of perfectionism, and while Jaris took pride in his fieldwork, Ajutine made the managing of a house an ever-growing canvas of beauty. He took her hand, and lead her to the couch.
"Promise me you'll be good to them, Jai."
"As far as it depends on me."
She leaned, kissing his forehead. The touch felt magical, and his body felt no need to react. In her eyes, compassion found its home, and with every gesture, it yearned to move towards ever-greater expanses.
"Please. I don't want to leave home with anger in my heart."
He stroked her ginger locks and returned the kiss. Her words had all the ringing of truth, and they always did. The first start was eight years ago when he took the path of marriage. That path had ended here. The next one would begin in seven days. He held her hand, their foreheads touching in simple intimacy, waiting for life's gears to move them forwards.
A simple knock on the door announced the arrival of their guests. The last few hours had been a blurry loll, and Jaris felt no need to make this difficult. Just smile, have some drinks, finish dinner, and then he could get back to what was important. He opened the door, allowing the two women to enter. One of them was a woman in her late thirties, hair cropped short and wearing a cream green chemish and matching knee-length skirt. Behind her, a girl that looked no more than seventeen, having the same ginger hair as Ajutine, gave them a sweet wave.
"Ajutine, so glad to see you!"
The two sisters hugged tightly, and Egal shook Jaris' hand, also giving him a polite bow. The girl entered with a soft step, shook hands, then gave Ajutine a sweet smile.
"Long time auntie. Glad you still have time for us."
She gave her a brief hug, then waited patiently to be invited into the guest room. Jaris did not answer, so Ajutine stepped in, opening the door.
"Come in, fresh lethian juice and tart are waiting."
They sat at the table, then Ajutine excused herself before leaving. Jaris looked at the two women, deciding on what approach to take. Egal sat patiently, but it was her daughter who acted strangely. She kept tucking her sleeve, trying to cover something underneath.
"Anything new at the saloons?" he asked finally.
The woman stretched her arms, in a gesture of both anger and exhaustion.
"Busier than ever. At least the past few days. My stocks are almost dry, and the customers just keep on coming. I get that they want to look pretty, but let me tell you, going through all this hassle for just one day isn't worth it. I mean, most of those people won't even be let in the outer court, much less in the inner ones."
"Coins are coming in, aren't they?" replied Jaris.
"Enough to at least make this whole thing a beam of sunshine. Hope the birth of the second child won't be this big of a deal."
"Royal births generally are. But then again, you're right. This is their firstborn after all. They're bound to make a show of it." replied Jaris.
"Like they do in most other cases. Look Jaris, you're working at the Magisterium. Any idea if there's going to be any holiday? Time off for, I don't know, making the world feel happy that they have a new prince?"
"Not my department, sorry. And besides, we never get time off, other than the usual. From what I heard, they're planning a week-long celebration. Probably something else for the Confirmation as well."
Ajutine came in, carrying a plate with slices of fruit tart, together with four tall glasses filled with a light purple drink. Each picked up a glass, then raised it.
"To fresh starts. And even greater success!"
The glasses clanged, and each took a short sip, before deciding to dig into the slices of tart. Ajutine did have her cooking reputation, and despite what anyone in the family had to comment on, she did know how to make a lasting impression. Ino finished her piece first, washing it down with the remaining juice in her glass. She sat comfortably in her chair, waiting for the rest to finish.
"No, auntie, just let me enjoy what I already got."
A quick hiccup escaped her lips, causing her to blush. Even at her age, she still had the sweetness of a schoolgirl that just wanted to be noticed. Jaris felt conflicted, and while he knew better than to fall into a false sense of compassion, he did feel strong disappointment. All four having finished, they waited for Ajutine to remove the plates, while the rest sat comfortably on the couch and two of the easy chairs.
"So sis, care to tell us the big news is?"
Ino didn't bother waiting for a reply. She just pulled up her sleeve, revealing an armband that seemed familiar to Jaris. It had a copper shine, with a full moon and a beamless sun flanking a pillar that looked like a stylized phallus. Jaris' eyes moved from the object to the girl's face, trying his level best to keep his nerve. Egal didn't say a word, but her discomfort was obvious. She kept her eyes pinned to the floor, not daring to look at either her sister or her husband.
"Nice, isn't it?" she asked with a wide grin.
"I...guess," replied Ajutine, not knowing exactly what she was looking at.
"Please tell me this wasn't your idea!" hissed Jaris.
"No. And don't give me that righteous look, Jaris. Put yourself in my position. If she came to your door wearing that, how would you feel?"
"What are you two talking about?" asked Ajutine, trying to defuse the tension.
"Try asking your niece. I'm sure the people in Department Nine have already filled her in on her duties."
"The Department of Desirable Traits" replied Jaris, his voice filled with disgust. "Or, to make it clearer, the breeding department."
The two women remained in stunned silence, one from shame, the other from shock. Ino pulled down her sleeve, crossing her chest. Jaris felt the need to tie her up and beat into her the common sense that seemed to have left her. He looked into her eyes and dreaded what he saw.
"That's it? No support from anyone? Come on mom, even you said that it was time for me to start working."
"DON'T YOU EVEN DARE!" shouted Egal, her right arm barely stopping from a strike motion. "You never even talked to me about this! Do you even know what goes on there?"
The girl leaped from the couch, deciding it would be best to keep her distance from her mother. Her demeanor had changed, and Jaris realized that what was in front of him was no longer a schoolgirl, but a woman that had found a purpose that she had no intention of abandoning. Her fists clenched in anger, but other than that, she made no other moves.
"Mom, it's not that big of a deal. I only need to mate once. If the birth is successful, I can move on to bigger things."
Egal screamed and lunged at her, only to be intercepted by Jaris. The woman screamed incoherently, trying to wrestle her way up from the couch, and it took the man all his wits to keep her in check. Ajutine and Ino backed up, both of them in shock, while Jaris tried to calm the struggling woman down.
"Uncle, you work for the Magisterium too!" shouted Ino, tears flowing from her eyes. "Tell her...tell her that..."
Jaris let go of Egal, who had now stopped moving altogether and simply curled into a fetal position on the couch. Ajutine went to her, allowing her to rest her head on her chest. She felt tears streaming down her chest and just closed her eyes.
"Tell her what? This isn't planting seeds or harvesting. You're talking about human lives. For them, it's just about making better workers."
The girl's hands turned into fists, and Jaris realized that it might well turn into a situation where he would have to retaliate against his own family. The girl's cheeks turned into a disturbing shade of crimson, but her eyes remained dry and defiant.
"It's work, uncle! I can handle it. Just...let me explain..."
"Explain after you've seen a few weeks of it." replied Jaris in a low voice. "I have to wonder, how many weeks of watching mistoa women getting impregnated by selected studs can you endure, before deciding to quit?"
The girl placed her hand on her abdomen, but her eyes didn't waver. Her eyes moved to her mother, then back to the man that had dared to question her. Her fingers cracked as they stretched, and before Jaris had time to watch her next move, her palm made contact with his face, nails leaving red lines, visible through the stubble on his cheeks. The two older women watched helplessly, while Ino began making a slow retreat towards the door.
"Get back here this instance, you..." yelled Egal. Her voice was hysterical, but she did not dare to move from the couch.
Jaris began walking towards her, hands opened into what he hoped was a peace gesture. Keeping eye contact, his movements were cautious. The situation had escalated far past anything he had imagined, and at this point, the only option available to him was to say anything that could keep the girl from making the worst mistake of her life.
Her fingers found the knob, and the door opened, the sounds of the street crashing into the house. The two crossed eyes once more, then she made two steppes backward.
"I've made my choice. And I hope you won't talk to me this way when we meet at work."
"At least think it over a day or two," pleaded Jaris.
"And what conclusion do you think two days will add? I want life! For me, and my side of the family! After all, your side ends with you!"
Her words spat out with all the venom she could muster, leaving Jaris paralyzed. Memories of childhood and school came flooding into his mind, and for the third time that day, he found that he had in himself the power not to respond in kind. His lips moved in vain, trying to find any other argument to use. The sounds were stubborn, however, and they remained in his lungs.
The girl turned her back to the tear-stained eyes, not bothering to close the door. Her footsteps, all too familiar to Jaris, reached him until she left the small, improvised garden in front of the house. The sounds of the city replaced them, echoing in the man's ears with the same carelessness they did in the lives of all that lived there.
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