Born Human, Part 4 by Viola Grace
Part Four: Tempus Fugit
Habel glared at her closet. “I am not wearing that.” The gauzy wrap on the screen was not going to stay in place as she moved around.
“It is a request from the engineer Khyran.” Camder’s tone was reasonable.
“If he wants it, he can wear it.” She snorted. “You check my schedule and see if any of my activities suit that selection.”
Camder sighed, which was funny for an AI. “Very well. Consider this an alternative.”
He showed her a two-piece combination of a silky skirt in black and a silky top in white.
“No. Cover everything. I am fencing with Nerion in twenty minutes.”
He sighed again, and her previously worn costumes came out for her to put on. It was strange that he tried to dress her up each and every day, but he did. This discussion was commonplace now.
She was already wearing her boots, so she yanked the dress on over her head, closed the front over her left breast, and put a belt around her waist that the skirt was tucked up through to make it easier for her to run around. Her hair was already tied, and she was ready to chase Nerion around with blades.
“Right, have a nice day, Camder. Do whatever it is you do.”
“Enjoy your day, Novice Habel.”
Habel curtseyed and ran for the door, sprinting to the lift and moving with more energy than any of the elves around her, even after being in the tower for years.
Time blurred in the tower. The same people were in the building, there was always something new to experience, and with her days filled, the exact amount of time that Habel had been in the domain of the elves was a little fuzzy.
She was almost to her training site, and her bracelet chimed. “Yes?”
“Elder Monathian would like you to meet him at the platform. There is an incoming party that requires your services.”
She turned on her heel and headed for the elder’s lift. “Any idea what exactly is needed?”
“No further information is available.”
“Can you contact Nerion and inform him that I won’t be kicking his ass today?”
Camber chuckled. “Done.”
As she trotted past the elves who were leisurely enjoying their mornings, she waved a greeting and got smiles in response. Sometime after her first anniversary at the tower, she realized that she had met everyone, even if she didn’t know their names.
She got into the private lift and scanned her palm to get her down to the platform. She wasn’t really dressed for a formal meeting, but her clothing was still finer than most of the races who visited. They were certainly sturdier.
She got to the platform and stood at the edge, waiting for the train. She could hear it but not see it yet.
Her bracelet chimed, and the elder’s voice instructed her, “Take the delegates and their escort and bring them right up to the boardroom.”
He sighed and disconnected the call.
She waited, and when the dark train chugged into her line of sight with its gleaming brass accessories, she smiled. She could see the cloaked figure at the controls, and he brought the train in, settling it neatly at the edge of the platform with plenty of room for the delegates.
Khyran stepped out and flipped his cloak hood back. “Novice Habel, it is good to see you again.”
“Khyran. It seems that you still choose to move through the darkness.” She smiled.
“Novice, it seems you are still doing the elder’s bidding.”
She snorted. “It hasn’t been that long.”
“It has been twenty years. I have seen you a handful of times since then, and it has always been at Monathian’s side.”
Habel grinned. “I don’t think he trusts you.”
He snorted and walked to the car that held his guests. He opened the door brusquely, and when four figures stepped out, she paused. She wanted to run and hug them, but she couldn’t. They didn’t know her. She had kept evolving after she left them. They weren’t her family anymore.
To her surprise, Miiba was there, wearing the chief’s jewellery. The cuffs, the torque, and the bands around her lower tusks were all indicators that she had stepped up. Vanel was with their mother, and Haladen was looking around her with a nostalgic smile.
“Novice, will you take them to the council?”
Habel glared at Khyran and nodded. “Please, come this way.”
Miiba looked a little nervous, but she covered it with bluster. “What is this place?”
“This is where all night-world species can come in safety so that the blazing light in the skies above won’t injure them.”
Haladen sniffed the air. “It smells familiar.”
They got in the lift, and Miiba made a show of not liking the confinement.
Habel snorted. “It is no different than the mine rigging. Less chance of a dirt slide.”
Vanel looked at her. “How do you know about the mines?”
“No one is born an elf.” She smiled as she fought the urge to hug her mother, Vanel, and even Miiba and what seemed to be her new husband.
The lift brought them up to the council chamber, or boardroom, level. She led them to the room and showed them to their seating area before bowing and turning to go to the elder.
He saw her and called her over. “Habel, come over here and meet the centaur leader.”
She froze and turned to see all of the trolls staring at her. Her mother looked at her with hopeful eyes. “Habel? Is that you?”
She walked to her mother and grabbed her braids, rocking her head as she used to. “Hi, Mom.”
The bone-crushing hug lasted for quite a while. Vanel took his turn next, and even Miiba clasped arms with her in friendship.
“Well, you always did stand out, but I never thought you would be so shiny.”
Habel chuckled. “It happened over a few days. But, I proved you wrong.”
Miiba blinked. “What?”
“I actually can blast light out of my ass. I practiced my whole second year here.”
Miiba paused and then laughed. The whole family laughed.
Habel murmured to Vanel. “Where is Dad?”
“Holding down the settlement. Someone has to deal with the new babies and trade disputes while we are away.”
She looked at him and saw the ear bands that indicated that he was a husband and father. “You have little ones?”
“Three. Two girls and a boy.” He sighed. “He’s the youngest, and they are always braiding his hair. Miiba has four. Two sets of twins. Both sets are mixed sexes.”
Habel smiled, but she felt the pang in her heart. “Kids. Nieces and nephews. I wonder what they would make of me.”
“They are very proud of you, and they don’t fear their changing day. None of our bloodline fears it, and after seeing you again, I know that they will wait for whatever comes with a welcome heart and no fear.”
Habel hugged him, and he hugged her back. Her mother chuckled. “Habel, people are staring.”
Habel released her brother and clung to her mother. “I don’t care. They can stare. Trust me, I get stared at a lot.” She straightened. “Pardon me. I have to go and work.”
She smoothed her skirt and hair, winked at her sister, and walked over to Monathian. “Pardon my distraction, Lord Fengar. I was reacquainting myself.”
The centaur took her hands and smiled with a raised brow. “With trolls?”
She smiled brightly. “No one is born an elf.”
Lord Fengar widened his dark brown eyes. “Just so. Nerion was going to become one of our great leaders until his change. I had not thought of what it would be like for one like you who was new to the tower. Your relatives still live.”
“They do, and I have just learned that my family’s line has grown and looks like it will stretch into the future.”
Monathian sighed. “Lord Fengar, this is Novice Habel, our brightest new addition.”
Habel smiled. “Only new addition. I am eager for someone to kick me off my weird little throne.”
The elder spoke through gritted teeth. “Greet our guests. We are about to begin.”
Lord Fengar smiled. “It is good to see you so animated, Monathian. You have been slipping into polite repose for far too long.”
Habel left them and fought the urge to pat the long glossy hide of the leader of the plains centaurs. His skin was only a few shades lighter than the rich mahogany of his hide, and the cascade of black and crystal white hair was particularly stunning.
She stopped and greeted the sirens, the goblins, the forest fey, pixies, and several other species. She eased them toward their labelled seats and finally turned to stare at the collection of men with leathery wings.
She walked over with a polite smile. “Greetings, Khyran. Are you staying for the conference?”
He inclined his head. “We are. We are the dragons, after all.”
“Oh. Right. Twenty years, still no real proof. You can read; please get to your section.”
She turned and was going to walk away, but a hand gripped her wrist. She turned, identified the blond dragon known as Khyhal. She pulled, pushed, and flipped him, so he thudded to his back. He blinked up at her in shock, and the room went silent.
Khyran put his hands on her biceps and eased her away from the prone dragon. “Easy, killer. He is young and wanted to tell you that he finds your colouring fascinating.”
She inclined her head as two of the others helped him to his feet. “If that was your intention, thank you, but don’t grab a lady until you learn if she works out.”
He nodded and muttered, “I will keep that in mind.”
“Welcome to the tower, Khyhal.” She turned to look at Khyran. “Why are you laughing? I have flipped you a few times.”
He grinned. “Because it is nice to see that the treatment wasn’t personal but reflex.”
“Aw. Trust me, with you, it was personal, now, dragons, please take your seats.”
The men were chuckling, and they headed to one of the seats closest to Monathian’s podium. The elder nodded, and she left to prepare dinner and entertainment. This was a very big deal—it was twice a century, and it needed to be spectacular.
The united races could discuss things amongst themselves. She had a buffet to wrangle.
Six hours later, the tired, parched, and hungry delegates emerged and were led into the entertainment centre. Musicians begin gentle music as the representatives of the magical races walked around, took part in their meals, and settled at tables or on couches.
When the meal was underway, the musicians switched, and the performances began.
Habel waited for her cue, gripped the banners that hung from a corner of the stage, and took a few steps before she was launched up and over the crowd in an aerial display that had several of the different delegations gasping. Part of her routine was the panels, but most of it was the controlled platform moving the banners high in the shadows of the ceiling.
She flew over them twice and then stilled the silk, sliding down and wrapping herself as she moved up toward the ceiling. When the music reached its peak, she let the silk unwrap and focused on catching herself before she struck the stage. She spun, twisted wrapped, and unwrapped herself in the silk until finally, the music wound to a conclusion. She slid to the stage and stood with her hands folded in front of her, her performance trousers flowing around her legs.
There was no response from the viewers, so she nodded and left the stage. She shrugged into a long-sleeved robe and tied it over her breastband so that she could have a controlled cooldown.
Sorata smiled. “That was amazing.”
There was murmuring from the audience, and Habel smiled. “I am glad you thought so. I am hoping that the dancers do better.”
“Oh, they are always silent for the acrobats. They don’t want to scare them.”
Habel blinked. “Oh. Nice. Okay, start the first round of dancers. I have to get changed for a fight demo with Nerion.”
“We haven’t had a fight demonstration before.”
She grinned. “I know. There is a first time for everything.”
Sorata’s eyes widened. “Oh, speaking of, when is your first time scheduled?”
Habel winced. “Next week. Monathian says he is still getting applications. I should have taken you up on your offer.”
Sorata laughed. “It isn’t too late, but if it isn’t your inclination, I can accept that. Barely.”
Sorata ran off and got the dancers into position while Habel went to get changed. Time to kick Nerion’s butt in public... again.
When she stepped onto the stage, a roar came from the crowd. She kept herself focused and looked at Nerion. He nodded, and they walked to the centre of the stage. Music sparked up, they bowed, and then they engaged in an honest fight.
She bent and charged him, aiming for the midriff. He grunted, and she stood up, but he gripped her arm and flipped her across the stage. They got to their feet, and the fight was on. They went from grappling to one song, to fencing to another. This event, the audience was cheering. She felt a sear of the blade across her abdomen and another to her arm. There was a gasp from the audience, and she felt a trickle of rage through her. She looked at Nerion and attacked. She slashed and struck at him, drawing blood, and he stepped back at her attack. When she used the guard of one of her sabres to knock him out, he hit the floor with a satisfying thud.
She panted and looked at the crowd watching her. The trolls jumped to their feet and cheered—the rest of the more warlike species following suit. Medics came to assist them, and they made their way off the stage—time for more dancing.
Monathian was in the wings of the stage, and he held his hand over her arm, coursing light through her. She looked at him. “So, it is common knowledge that you are choosing someone for my first.”
The assisting medic inhaled in shock.
Monathian chuckled. “With you not caring about who is listening, I am not surprised. Yes, I know. I am still getting applications.”
“Do they have to fill out a skill-testing question?”
Monathian grinned. “There is an idea. No, they need to demonstrate that they have an interest in you furthering yourself with the community, not with them. Basically, if I think they are going to tell you who they are, they are out.”
She peeked out through the curtains.
“Why are you so interested in it? I thought you didn’t particularly care as long as they had the regulation number of limbs and good oral hygiene.”
She watched Khyran as he sat with his people. “It has to be an elf, right?”
Monathian moved and followed her eye line. “Yes, it has to be an elf. Have you been practicing the ceremony?”
“You mean, can I pour a cup of tea blindfolded? Yes.”
He sighed. “There is more to it than that.”
She grimaced. “Not much more. Not on my end.”
“It is one night.”
She nodded, and he finished healing her. She could do it herself, but she had to get ready for the final performance. She thankfully wasn’t in it.
She wandered out in a silky, comfortable outfit that counted as formal and mingled with the folk who were alternately watching the entertainment and conversing.
Nerion was standing near Khyran and speaking quietly.
She stopped by and asked Nerion, “How is your face?”
He grinned. “Healed. Nice shot.”
Khyran scowled. “You were injured yourself.”
“I heal fast, and Monathian helped. Did I interrupt something?”
Nerion grinned. “I was just telling Khyran that your first is scheduled for next week. It is a long list of candidates.”
She blushed. “Ah. Right. That. Well, have a nice evening.”
Khyran touched her arm lightly. “The topic upsets you?”
She looked at his dark eyes with the molten gold in their depths. “I don’t get to choose, but I am not considered a citizen in the eyes of society, so I will do it. It’s just an activity like fighting with Nerion in the morning. Maybe less sweating and cursing.”
Khyran leaned down and pressed his forehead to hers. She felt calmer at that moment. “Well, I hope that you had an interesting day.”
He lifted his head and smiled. “It has been very educational.”
She didn’t know what he meant by that, but she got to spend a few more hours with her family before they were shipped home by train. It was nice to know that they were alive, successful, and had little trolls-to-be of their own. Even Miiba said she would be happy if one of her children was an elf when the time came. That was huge.
It was a very healing day for her.
One week later, she was kneeling in the chamber with her eyes covered, and a robe with a single delicate tie was all that she was wearing. The teapot was in front of her, and the teacup was waiting.
Finally, the door to the room opened, and she heard the rustling of fabric and something else. He knelt next to her and touched her hand. She felt callouses and a strength in the hand that was not present in most of the elves she knew.
He squeezed her fingers, and she nodded and reached for the cup and the teapot. She lined them up and poured a cup of hot tea before taking it between both hands and pivoting to hold it toward him. His fingers touched hers, and she jolted, sending the hot tea over her fingers. He sipped at the teacup, set it aside based on the click, and then he pulled her hand toward him, and his mouth wrapped around her scalded fingers. The breath left her lungs in a rush.
He licked at her fingers and then pulled her to him for a kiss. He remained silent, as he was supposed to, but over the next eight hours, she was fairly sure that she knew who her first lover was, and she wasn’t upset in the least. Even if the guess was wrong, her instruction had been very thorough. She now understood the elven fascination for coupling. She wanted to try it again herself.
Exhausted, she fell asleep in her lover’s arms. He was gone when she woke.
Her bracelet chirped. “Habel, it is time to remove the blindfold and return to your quarters.”
She took off her blindfold and sat up. She found the robe she had been dressed in and slipped it back on. She was moving slowly, but it was bemusement at the memories rather than the discomfort a few friends had warned of. Her body had already healed all of her aches and twinges.
She ran into no one on her trip to her quarters. She left the top of the tower and entered her room, walking to her bedroom for a look in the mirror before her skin removed all trace of him.
Camder spoke to her. “You look a little surprised.”
“I am. I think I am supposed to be.”
“Khyran left a message for you.”
She smiled and turned. “Really, what is it?”
“Look out the window.”
She walked to the window, pulled back the drapes, and a dragon’s snout was resting on the stone. She squeaked, he snuffled, and then he kicked off and flew westward.
“He stated that it was the proof you have been after and to get off his balls.” Camder’s tone was dry.
Habel spluttered out a laugh and watched the huge and graceful figure fly off. She knew why he had shown her. She had been doing research on dragons for years, and while their origins were even more mysterious than her own, they had a strict sense of honour. She had called him out in public, and this was his answer.
She smiled and went to bathe. She technically had the day off, and that meant she could spend a day in the forest.
When she left the bathing room, she walked to the closet and flicked through the options.
Camder asked, “What are you looking for?”
“I am going for a walk in the forest. I have the day off, so I want to spend it there.”
Camder was amused. “You are supposed to spend the day in contemplation and repose.”
“That is for the elf virgins who don’t heal before their partner has pulled out. I am physically fine and just want to go for a run to consider the remembrance of yesterday.”
The scans moved over her face. “You are lying.”
She grinned. “I just want to go for a run. I rarely have a day off lately.”
“Fair enough. I would recommend this clothing.”
The trousers, tunic, and long vest were more than she usually wore around the tower, but today was not a usual day.
As she stood and waited for the new outfit to be crafted against her skin, she heard Camder say, “By the way, the energy that you put into the tower last night was tremendous. Plants in the arboretum shot up several inches, and the great tree shuddered as it tried to grow. Everyone who is on a harvesting team is busy right now.”
She winced. “What happened, exactly.”
“The tower was bathed in light intermittently throughout the evening.”
“In that case, I definitely want to get out of here today.”
“You needn’t worry. Everyone who could pair up last night did. No one is going to look at you for your interactions. No one comments on the first night. It is considered impolite.”
She stood while the clothing was woven over her. She had a decent wardrobe now, and Camder kept track of what she preferred to wear. He adjusted the patterns he could make to her preferences.
“So, I have asked this before, but why do you have Khyran’s voice?”
Camder chuckled. “The engineers have all donated copies of their mental imprints to the tower, including voiceprints.”
“As I have stated before. Sometimes the elves need others to speak to.”
The webbing around her legs was covered with the extruded fabric, and when he chimed completion of her clothing, she stood straight and rubbed her hands down her legs. The long vest emerged on a hangar, and she slipped it on, buckling it together and then turning to check the view. She grabbed a crossbody bag for snacks and checked her appearance. Wearing all black in a pastel community was now her thing. It wasn’t a stigma; it was just accepted as part of her identity.
“You have a message.” Camder was amused.
She walked over to her desk and checked her messages. The displayed text and image made her smile. “My nieces and nephews. I can really tell whose parent is whose. Wow. They are going to be changing soon. Time has sure flown by.”
Camder’s voice came from her bracelet. “You will have to get used to that. It is why your first night was important. It is your switch from the mortal world to the ageless. Your turning from your own people to the elves.”
She sent a reply to her mother, and then, she headed to the dining area to have some breakfast and tea. Niika was an early riser, and she was always a good person to talk things out with. This was the best time to catch her.
She headed down to the dining area, got some sandwiches that were wrapped for her adventure, and a cup of tea, as well as a flask of water.
Niika was sitting with a book and a pot of tea. Habel walked up to her and paused. “May I join you?”
Niika beamed. “Habel, please. Have a seat. So, how was it?”
Habel cocked her head and focused on her tea. “It was definitely something I would like to repeat.”
“Do you have a guess as to who it was?” Niika was squirming in her chair.
“I have a guess who it was and also who it was supposed to be. The two were not the same.”
Niika paused. “What?”
“One of my instructors was tapped to do it, but that was not the man in bed with me. The hands were different. Different callouses.”
Niika was stunned. “You are joking.”
Habel gave her a look over the rim of her teacup.
“Who do you think it was?”
“I do not wish to get anyone in trouble, so I am not going to say, but I am fairly certain.”
Niika sat back. “That never happens. There is always a record made by the lover the night after the event. I was going to peek right after breakfast.”
Habel grinned. “Does Ibera have it?”
“It is in the private archive of Monathian.”
Habel got to her feet. “Gotta go. Bye!”
She had her bag of snacks over her, and she sprinted to the private archive, using Monathian’s code to enter. She read the account in the book after a bit of searching for the right tome. It was out on a lectern. The signature was the one she associated with that scent and those hands. Nodding to herself, she headed out to her day in the forest. It was just what she needed to absorb the details of what had just happened.
She ran into the forest and kept running until she was winded. She turned and looked back at the tower and smiled at the distance she had covered. Habel sat silently and felt her ears twitching at the sounds of nature around her.
So. She sighed. According to the documents, it had been Khyran with her the previous day. How he had gotten there and why he was allowed to sign the official documents were baffling. Nerion had been the original decision. She could tell because his contact during their combat trials had changed. He had wrapped his arms around her and tried to get her used to his touch, which was strange considering their two decades of friendship without any romantic overtures previously.
She sat for hours and replayed the touches, the stroking, and the strange feeling of trusting someone else with her body. The hours had been spent in silence, and that was something that she wished had changed.
She heard a footfall and turned to see Nerion standing on a nearby rock. “Afternoon.”
She dug out a sandwich. “Want one?”
He chuckled. “You don’t seem despondent or depressed about yesterday. Niika was worried.”
Habel cocked her head. “Why did you put your name on the list?”
“I wanted you to have someone you trusted who cared for you in return. I believe that is what we had.”
She laughed. “It wasn’t you, dumbass. The hands were wrong. Khyran’s hands are a lot rougher than yours are. You have bands of tough skin from the sword work. Different feeling.”
He sat next to her and took the sandwich. “You knew the whole time?”
“The moment that I burned my hands with the tea.” She shrugged. “Also, there is the little issue that I still have most of my troll senses. Dragons and elves smell different. He did do a good job of hiding his wings, though.”
Nerion mumbled as he ate. “He can hide them if he wants to but not for very long.”
“That was the confusing part. He smelled like Khyran, but the wings were missing.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. He and I had it worked out, and I was willing to swear to even you that it was me and not him. I am both relieved and disappointed that you don’t think it was me.”
She grinned. “We are friends, Nerion. You can take lovers as you like. I am not like that. Even though this was supposed to open me up to the wonderful world of following my impulses, I am not inclined to do so. I like being me, just as I am. The sex was lovely and exciting, but it isn’t what I am going to build my life around. Khyran has gone his way, and I will go mine. I am good with that, and he is as well.”
Nerion smiled slowly. “Are you sure? I haven’t seen him this focused on anyone, and I have known him for hundreds of years.”
She shrugged. “Focused or not, I have a job to do, and I do it very well. His focus isn’t my concern. By the way, don’t tell him that I know if he doesn’t bring it up. He might not want it to be common knowledge.”
They chatted as they drank the water, and then, they started back to the tower at a slow jog when Nerion asked, “So how was he?”
She tried to stomp on her reaction and said, “Pretty good.” Her mind flashed back to lying with his body around hers and their breathing even. She stumbled and slammed into a tree.
Nerion helped her back up and laughed. “Pretty good, indeed.”
They continued back, and she took more care of her path. He was going to be teasing her about this for years. She just knew it.
She grinned as they got back to the tower and headed for the dining area. Definitely pretty good.