A Wedding Ring
Orchidea City was buried beneath the forest floor. Great gaping
holes peered between gigantic roots. The doorways led to taverns,
inns, businesses, and private homes. A few bungalows were visible
beyond the city’s center. Further away, tree houses filled the branches
of sycamores and banyans. Sally thought it was strange to see such
dissimilar trees sharing the same ecosystem. It was even stranger
to realize that most of the dwellings were uninhabited. The site of
abandoned tree houses saddened her. As a Spa’Lab child, tree houses
were the most enchanting concept she could imagine. The difference
between sleeping in a hammock attached to metal walls and sleeping in
a hammock tied to living, breathing, growing trees was the difference
between mundane and magic. Of course, the probable reason why
there were so many abandoned houses was part of the reason she had
come to Orchidea, and that thought saddened her further.
Adelaide stopped in the middle of these underground dwellings
and sank to her belly as the women crawled off.
“Thank you, Geoffrey. How much do I owe you?” Sally reached
into her pack.
“I’d be a gentleman if I told you Mr. Haskell’s done paid it in full,
but the scoundrel in me wants to charge you a kiss.” He grinned. “One
from each of you.”
“Seems to me Adelaide did all the work. She’s the one should get
the kiss.” Sally grinned back and slapped his palm. “Thank you.”
“Inn’s through that hole. See you around, if you change your mind.”
He touched Gaia’s cheek, then jumped back onto his croc and rode away.
“Sally,” Livia touched her arm. “I don’t have any money. Sejanus
was supposed to meet me here. What should I do?”
“Let’s go to the inn and get cleaned up. You don’t want Sejanus to
see you like this.” Sally pulled her arm through hers. “My treat.”
“Oh, I couldn’t take charity. I’ll work it off …”
“The Field of Honor has no room for charity given or received. That’s
an old NewPhee scripture.”
“What’s it mean?”
“It means I’m not offering you charity.”
Livia stopped and her face reddened. “I don’t understand.”
Sally stopped, too. “Livia, I trust that you will not slit my throat
during the night, or sell me to the nearest Harvester.”
“I couldn’t do that.” Livia scowled. “If I sold you to a Harvester,
you’d turn into a Walking Dead.”
Sally tilted her head, glaring at the Earther’s rudeness, and fingered
the cube-shaped sterling pendant hanging at her neck. The fact that
Spa’Labs had altered themselves so that they could not be harvested or
sold as slaves was not a topic discussed in polite society. The fact that
the Songbox, as the pendant was called, healed this alteration was a
sp’lab kept secret. It wasn’t discussed at all.
“Or so I’ve heard.” Livia blushed.
“Is that the only reason you wouldn’t do that?” She crossed her
“Of course not. I couldn’t.” She swallowed. “I wouldn’t sell you.”
“Because it wouldn’t be right.” She bowed her head and whispered,
“You’ve been nice to me.”
“I’ve yelled at you and made you cry.”
Livia grinned. “My mother used to do the same things.”
Sally grinned too. “I’m lonely, Livia. I miss my family. I’m used to
being surrounded by my children and grandchildren and staff. I’m not
offering you charity. I’m offering you friendship. I would be honored
to be your friend.”
Livia beamed in surprise.
The door had to be pushed open manually. It led into a darkened
tunnel which declined steeply. Tiny track lighting ran at ankle-height
and above their heads. The tunnel smelled of moldy cabbage and
peppermint. Sally used her walking stick and Livia held her elbow with
The dimness didn’t change, but the air freshened and the tunnel
leveled into a round room. A beautiful oval wooden table filled the
center of the room, and its highly polished surface reflected the ceiling
lights. The sound of a stringed instrument, played poorly, came from a
doorway to the women’s left.
“Hello?” Livia called.
The music hesitated and then began again.
“Hello!” she called louder. “We’ve come for a room.”
A frizzy-haired and bearded head stuck out of the opening.
Livia and Sally smiled.
The head disappeared. The women waited.
After a while, Sally opened her mouth to call out again when a
huge man waddled out of the opening. His hair had been slicked down
since she had first seen him, but hadn’t been combed in years. Sticks
and leaves stuck in his beard. The scent of cedar and sweat permeated
the air around him. He came closer, scowling fiercely.
“Geoffrey told us this was an inn.” Livia took a step backwards and
moved behind Sally.
The man squinted between them, silently appraising their
appearance. Sally stood still and stared patiently at his bare dirty feet.
The man took a deep breath. “Women.”
Sally looked up at him. “Yes, we’re women.”
“No.” He turned away. “No rooms. No rooms for women.”
“You would turn away a child?” She pulled Livia from her safe
place behind her. “Her name is Gaia.”
The innkeeper kept his face averted, but glanced at the baby.
“We’ve been on shuttles for months now. And we’re very tired. We
need a shelter for the child. Haskell sent Geoffrey and Adelaide to pick
us up at the port and Geoffrey said this was a safe place.”
The innkeeper’s eyes rolled and he breathed in gasps. “Mr. Haskell?”
“Yes. Haskell Benjamin,” Sally nodded.
“And Adelaide?” He turned toward the women, his eyes fastened
“Yes,” she confirmed.
He snorted and nodded fiercely. “Through there. Choose any room
They turned to look at an opening to their right.
“Thank you,” Sally turned back, but he was gone.
Livia bathed Gaia first, then Livia bathed while Sally unpacked.
Then it was Sally’s turn. There are certain times in one’s life when
bathing becomes a spiritual experience. Sally remembered her first
bath ever. She was eight years old and had left OrionLab to visit some
friends on Talmedia III. Then there was the first time she and Jacob
bathed together. And now, the first bath on Orchidea. Each time, the
water felt thick — not hard, but thick — like oil. Soft, caressing. So
clean. These were the times Sally truly believed in silkies and halfwaited
to see herself turn into a seal and swim forever in this water.
They decided to save money and eat what they had, sleep the rest
of the day, and begin tomorrow fresh. Gaia woke them every now and
then, but she never cried.
© Evelyn Rainey