Ooookay, so. Did you know, life happens rather frequently while you’re trying to accomplish something artful? Anyways, to cut a long excuse short: I butchered my cover image for today’s (or rather yesterday’s, *cough*) chapter and when I finally realized that early in the morning (around 2 am, to be exact) there was nothing for me to do, but to put my head on the
On a related note, I have decided, rather than disappoint you and me both whenever I can’t make the deadline of ‘every Tuesday’, I will take a short break after today’s installment and start uploading new chapters every 10th, 20th and 30th of a month, starting May 30th. That gives me time to translate and make pictures, and I don’t lose a day every week making up for lost sleepchrchrchr… -.-
Now, for what you really came here for… let’s get on with the fun part!
If you’re new to my SF Adventure Worlds Rising, you may want to start with Chapter 1 🙂
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
Abbida and Cole spent the remainder of the morning hours in the smithy, building a distinctly smaller version of Ashok’s steam recycling system, just to try their hands Abbida and Cole spent the remainder of the morning hours in the smithy, building a distinctly smaller version of Ashok’s steam recycling system, just to try their hands on it. They were both highly focused on bending red-hot pipe constructions with iron tongs when the gong sounded from the meeting hall.
“Already lunchtime!” Abbida exclaimed, jerking her head up.
Smirking, Cole bumped her side with his elbow, “Well, well, that’s got to be the very first time you haven’t been fidgety half hour early. Have we finally found something that’s more interesting than food?”
Abbida’s belly growled as if to make a point. She grimaced and punched Cole back which only made him laugh out. They secured the fire and their tools in all due haste and made for the meeting hall. It functioned as a refectory during meal times, and with people filing in from all sides Abbida wasn’t surprised to run into Ashok. He was smiling, but his eyes seemed sort of dull. Calmly he held the door open for them just as Rona emerged, “A word, Ashok?”
His expression darkened, but he nodded in agreement. Batting Cole’s shoulder he said, “I’ll be right with you guys. Don’t make Abbida wait, I can see she’s starving.”
Abbida grimaced, but couldn’t help grinning, “He’s right, you know? It’s called gut instincts.”
Cole huffed and shoved her inside where it was already getting crowded. Bending down to her ear, he murmured, “What do your gut instincts tell you about that?”
His breath tickled her ear and for a moment she thought he was teasing her about earlier. Then she saw his serious expression and realized he was talking about Ashok and Rona. “Must be about the Return, don’t you think? You suppose, he’s afraid the invaders might come back for him?”
Hunching his shoulders, Cole said, “Wouldn’t you? Who’s to say that’s not exactly what they’re planning to do?”
No one. They might just show up anytime, and, as weird as it seemed, now that actually somebody had come back, uncertainty had only become worse. Up until recently, the invaders seemed to adhere to a tacit rule of taking only young, healthy males and ignoring everyone else. Like a tribute in ancient, long-lost times. But, what happened when a tribute was given back?
A sudden rush of adrenaline surged through her, making her stop on the threshold to the dining hall: What if they came for the women instead?
“Do you think it’s possible–” she started to ask Cole, but he frowned and almost imperceptibly shook his head.
‘Later!’, he mouthed.
Realizing, she was blocking the entrance, Abbida stepped inside. She would wait for a better moment to bring up the issue.
Weaving through the hustling and bustling, she found her friend Ilka at their usual table who somehow had managed to drag Joram along. And Latisha. Seeing her sister, further dampened Abbida’s spirit. “Why don’t you go sit with your own friends?” she grumbled.
“Can I not share a meal with my little sister?” Latisha snapped back.
If they hadn’t grown up together, Abbida might have missed the emphasis she put on the word ‘little’. But that look her sister gave Joram from underneath her long lashes, she couldn’t have missed blindfolded.
Joram ignored her, though, turning towards Ashok instead, who had caught up to them. Smiling faintly, he greeted everyone, causing Latisha to turn her attention to the elder brother. Abbida raised her eyebrows. Her best friend and her sister, splitting the interesting guys between them and leaving her out in the cold. It figured.
Cole batted Ashok’s arm, “Come on, Tarek’s been saving places for us. You coming, Joram?”
Joram shrugged and followed along. Disappointed, Ilka and Latisha watched them leave, but Abbida could have kissed Cole for this. Sitting down next to Tarek he turned his head and winked at her. Huh.
“If Ashok only ever wanted to hang out with the guys why not just go and eat in his hut?” Latisha said, pouting.
Grinning from ear to ear, Ilka made room at the table for Abbida. “I think, your sister just got the brush-off,” she said teasingly. “I, on the other hand, got myself a date tonight. I’m meeting with Joram at the pond. Maybe we’ll go skinny dipping,” she mused, tipping her cheek with slender fingers, fluttering her eyelashes.
“Yeah, right. In the rain.” Latisha huffed. Her cheeks had turned darker, though, so maybe Ilka had scored a hit after all. Actually, Abbida could empathize with her. Ilka’s legendary luck with the guys got to be unnerving at times. The skies would probably clear up just long enough for her to win Joram over, too.
It just wasn’t fair.
“Is that all you guys ever think about?” she grumbled, ignoring Ilka’s knowing grin as best she could. Thankfully, council apparitor Rona stood up to speak, clapped her hands for attention and announced the latest official arrangements, mostly concerning clearing and timber work. Abbida only listened distractedly. Finally, the guys from kitchen duty came in, hauling kettles of food.
“And pickled cabbage, yay…” Her sister scrunched up her face, making a gagging sound. Ilka laughed out and Abbida couldn’t help join in. No need to say they all got their share and dug in eagerly. This was still better than a growling stomach.
Ilka and Latisha dropped any guy-related topics to discuss their work in the cloth mill instead. A new machine had been introduced since the Return: It enabled them to control multiple automatic looms at once, producing twice as much output than humans could. Ashok had explained the mechanism diligently, in order to transfer the same concepts to sewing the manufactured cloths.
“But is it really safe?”, Ilka asked, weighing her head in doubt. “What if someone’s fingers get caught between cloth and the needles? They’d end up with broken bones or ruptured sinews.”
“We’d have to start small, of course, with simple stitches. More artistic needlework would be reserved for clothing and such, and done by hand. Who needs pretty ornaments on tarps and awnings?” Latisha said, rolling her eyes.
“Well, I for one!” Ilka exclaimed. “If I have to stare at something day in day out, it had better be pretty!”
“Speaking of which…” Latisha sighed, glancing over at Cole’s table where the guys were putting their heads together.
Rona had joined them, waving for Tarek and Cole to follow her outside. While Tarek obliged immediately, Cole came over to speak to Abbida first, “You need to go on without me at the shop. The council is calling for me.”
He shrugged. “Probably something to do with the lighting again. Or the roof is leaking. Catch you later.” Nodding to Ilka and Latisha, he pushed his way out through the crowd.
Now what? Abbida wasn’t sure if she felt delighted or not. Without him, there was more work for her. On the other hand she got to spend time alone with Ashok…
“Lucky you,” Latisha grumbled, eying her from the side.
If she only knew.
Abbida worked well with Ashok, that much was true. He was helpful and never thought himself above including her ideas in new projects. But he’d never shown any interest in her romantically, what so ever. He hardly ever really looked her in the eyes. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Though Abbida thought, her breasts were rather nice.
Secretly, she wondered if he even liked women at all. He’d be seen in Kyle’s company frequently–that strange guy from another village. Just thinking about it gave her the shivers: other villages besides theirs! And was there something going on between the two of them?
It just wasn’t fair.
On the way back to the smithy Abbida and Ashok got caught in a heavy rain shower, but at least their clothes would dry quickly from the fire’s heat. Practiced, they worked hand in hand, suspending any plans for steam constructs for when Cole returned. After all, he had the most experience with making tools–and the physical strength to hammer heavy irons into shape.
Abbida was greasing a screw jack, checking if it wound and unwound easily, when a thought struck her, “We’ll need glass, too.”
“For the jack?” Ashok asked, looking confused, poker in one hand, bellows in the other.
“For the pressure gauge. Gears, pointers, floats and pistons, they should all be put inside of glass casings, so they won’t get dirty.”
“But, where to get it? It’s been ages since I’ve seen any new glass. If it breaks, it’s lost. No one has been able to manufacture new glass. Except maybe… I’d have to ask Kyle…”
Lost in thought, he raked the poker through the fire without looking. It got caught somewhere, and when he pulled free, it set sparks flying off, spraying over his leather apron and his bare forearms. Swearing, he brushed off the gleaming ashes and chunks of coal. Abbida sprinted for the water pump where they always kept a bucket of water ready and soaked a fresh cloth.
Ashok scrunched up his face. “I’m okay. It’s just a scratch.”
She didn’t even bother acknowledge the obvious lie. His arms were already turning bright red. Wordlessly, she wrapped them with the dripping wet cloth and led him towards the pump. He resisted only halfheartedly. With her foot Abbida angled for a stool and pushed him down by his shoulders, “Sit. We need to water this until the pain stops.”
“But I need to get back to work.”
She didn’t bother answering that either. Truth was, there was no hurry. There hardly ever was. She just kept scooping water over his bandaged arms, and Ashok let out a long hiss.
“As long as it doesn’t get infected, you should be okay,” she said. Too late, she realized that maybe she should have kept the thought to herself. No use in alarming him further. Clamping her mouth shut, she poured more water over his arms.
After a while he nodded, “It’s getting better.”
Carefully, she loosened the compress. “Seems rather reddish to me. Better keep cooling for a while.”
Looking up, she realized how close their faces were. Barely a hand’s width separated them now, and for the first time his glance met hers directly. Long, dark lashes shadowed his eyes like a silky curtain to an unknown world. His irises were of a deep, dark brown, his pupils wide, endless, promising… Unable to look away she forgot to breathe.
With a bang the door crashed open and Cole blundered inside, smashing it shut behind him, shaking himself and spraying droplets everywhere. “I swear, it’s raining cats and dogs–” He stopped in his tracks and stared. “What’s happening here?”
Ashok blinked, slowly, and Abbida almost dropped the scoop, fumbling for something to say, but Cole only clicked his tongue and eyed Ashok’s arms. “Bad?”
“Eh, you know Abbida! Always fussing over nothing.”
Fussing! Abbida shot him an indignant look. Behind Cole’s back, Ashok made a face, pleading for forgiveness. She huffed.
Men. He’d rather suffer than show weakness in front of Cole. Frowning, she punished him with a knowing look and showered his arms with another squall of cold water so that it splashed up to his face. He shuddered and grinned ruefully.
The iron he had dropped had cooled by now, so Cole pushed it back into the fire. For a while, he worked quietly and self-absorbed. Suddenly he stopped, braced himself against the workbench and tilted his head towards them. In a strangely restrained manner he said, “You guys wanna hear something funny?”
Abbida lifted an eyebrow. “Funny as in strange–or bad?”
“They want me to equip an expedition.”
“An expe…-what?” Abbida rolled her eyes.
Ashok said nothing, he just stared down at his feet.
“A scouting group. We’re supposed to bring tools and provisions and explore,” he hesitated, “the woodlands.”
“The woodlands! We know the woodlands inside out. Besides rain season has set in. What’s the point?”
“We’d need boats, to cross the river,” Ashok cut in.
“Cross the river? Why would anybody do that?!” Abbida exclaimed. “The river is taboo! It’s completely uncharted land! What do they even hope to find out there–besides crocodiles and gnats?”
In past rain seasons, when it had rained longer than usual, on occasion the river had swamped the land and crocodiles had strayed even near the village. Abbida shuddered. There might be all kinds of predators living out there.
“If you ventured out long enough–” Mid-sentence, Ashok clamped his mouth shut and shook his head.
Cole drew a breath as if to say something, instead he straightened himself and went back to work. “Anyways. We need tools, machetes and bolts for four to five people. And spare parts, naturally.”
After this, Abbida watched him bend and hammer the iron, and carry out all the regular maneuvers she’d seen him execute over and over, since becoming his apprentice. Every move, every flick of the wrist, every raising and lowering of his arms, every scrutinizing look–she knew them all by heart. In fact, she’d dreamed of him like this before. His work had become second nature to him. There was no hesitation, no doubt. So, why… why could she not shake the feeling, his mind was nowhere near the task right now?
Sighing, she went to pick up another stool and set it down at the water pump, next to Ashok’s. Just in case.
“Impossible! Not with the wedding due in mere weeks!” the secretary of family affairs clamored. Arms akimbo, he was standing in the front of the plenary hall, next to the now empty podium, trying hard to stare down the secretary of war.
Li Xiao did his best to stay in the background, leaving the field to his superior.
Behind them, the auditorium and the delegates’ seats remained vacant. Other than a handful of dozing lobbyists nobody took interest in the House of Houses today. However, as the secretary of family affairs raised his voice, some craned their necks, casting glances at the two arguing statesmen.
“The wedding will take place as scheduled,” the secretary of war rasped. “Until then, First Lieutenant Zhao Li Xiao subjects to my command and will move out according to his orders.”
In contrast to the short, somewhat stocky secretary of family affairs, the secretary of war did not need to raise his voice. His words were easily audible throughout the entire room. Even the last of the lobbyists had woken up now, eavesdropping eagerly on the latest dispute in government circles.
“But…,” the secretary of family affairs stammered, his cheeks glowing with a bright red flush now. “What if the Young Lord gets injured? We can’t take any risks this close to the ceremony!”
Inwardly fuming, Li Xiao fought to keep his expression neutral, looking straight ahead, as was expected of him. He was no amateur, for crying out loud! He’d completed the same training as any other pilot in the Armed Forces and knew to defend himself quite well, thank you!
“The first lieutenant will be conducting flight service only, no combat. We have deployed plenty of troops and even the Guard are dispatching some of their men to ensure the station commander’s safety. Do you not have confidence in the capabilities of our valiant fighters to defend the homeland, esteemed colleague?”
At a loss for words, the secretary of family affairs sputtered. His “esteemed colleague’s” killer argument had won this dispute, and everybody present knew it. Shooting Li Xiao an angry look, he gave in. To keep face, he rambled on for a while about a rehearsal ceremony, for which Li Xiao needed to be back in the capital on time. Then he fled the plenary hall.
Disappointed, the lobbyists went back to snooze: the much anticipated escalation had been canceled.
Thus, the last obstacle blocking Li Xiao’s second planetside dispatch was removed. Behind the secretary of war’s back he permitted himself a tiny smile.
Thank you for reading!
Please check back for this chapter’s cover pic! Worlds Rising: Rebellion will take a short break, but you can look forward to chapter 5 on May 30th here in Joey’s Café.
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Keep the fire burning!