This is a draft from the series: The Okal Rel Universe by Lynda Williams. If You Are Interested in Learning more about the series visit the website www. Okalrel. Org (without the spaces)

It was the coffee, Erien told himself as he ran.

If it hadn't been for the coffee, he wouldn't have been sitting on a rock beside the series of linked pools – the West Alcove water park – when the Spiral Hall Vrellish appeared.

And if it hadn't been for the coffee, he might not have lost his temper quite so completely when the two women decided to make a pass at him. He'd dealt with enough of that in the Nersallian fleet to be able to deal with it. He just hadn't been expected to be - groped. And when the men weighed in to lend a hand –

Maybe without the coffee he would have still thrown the one woman in, and maybe without the coffee he would still not be hoping particularly hard that he hadn't broken her wrist. But maybe without the coffee he would have stopped there.

At least he had made sure they had a nice soft landing … most of them … one on top of the other.

And he supposed it was provocative behaviour turning around and running, and he supposed he could have left off the hand gesture – that was definitely the coffee – which not to his surprise seemed to transcend racial boundaries in meaning.

No more coffee, Erien promised himself. Assuming I survive this …

Which, given that his pursuers knew the district a great deal better than he did, was looking questionable. He supposed the sensible thing to do would be to swing back to the Nersallian hydroponics plant and find some allies, but … it was probably the coffee.

So was the balcony, probably the coffee. A wide balcony, reaching more than half way across the alley and well out of comfortable jumping range – probably for a reason. He didn't know he was going to jump until he planted his feet and lept. He caught the balcony with the fingertips of his left hand, at full stretch, straining tendons, snagged the edge with a wild sweep of the other and swung his feet sideways and up, hooking his toes over the railings. Thus secured, he handed himself up the railing, rolled over the top and dropped face-down an instant before his pursuers boiled around the corner.

He heard them pelt by underneath, and then briefly mill at the far end of the alley, with curses and slaps. Then they rolled on.

He breathed out, and his arms, braced beneath him, relaxed.

Above his head, someone young giggled.

If there'd been a balcony above him, they'd have peeled him off it (the coffee). As it was he thrust himself to his feet with fighting speed – and found himself confronting a cluster of young children, the tallest no older than twelve.

He'd frightened away the giggles, not to mention exposed himself. He dropped to a crouch, sweeping aside the sword and told himself firmly to calm down.

"I'm sorry I startled you," he said, in a low voice, speaking an undifferentiated rel-pol. "I'll be gone in a moment."

His sharp ears caught something that gave the lie to that: he ducked as Vrellish curses rose from underneath. One of the children tiptoed to the edge of the balcony and peered over. "He went that way," he said, and pointed authoritatively. "He got in a car at the end of the alley. A Nersallian car."

After a moment, he tiptoed back, and dropped down on his haunches to peer at Erien. "I didn't think Nersallians ran away from anyone. Even if they were outnumbered."

"Sten, come back here," whispered one of the other boys. "He's a Sevolite."

"That's a big jump from down there," the boy observed, still examining Erien minutely. "You'd have to be really Sevolite to get that."

Erien had the uneasy feeling he was working up to something that promised to be awkward, for one or the other of them.

"Why were they chasing you, anyway?"

"I threw some them in the pools."

"Ooh," said one of the girls. Erien looked at her.

His primary rescuer frowned. "You don't know about the pools? You're not supposed to go in them. They have something to stop bacteria growing. Only it makes people itch."

"Ah," said Erien, "and I thought it was just the Vrellish didn't like water."

"Why'd you throw them in the pool, anyway?" one of the other girls summoned her courage to ask.

"I lost my temper," Erien admitted.

"There were a lot of them," the boy said.

"It was the coffee," Erien muttered.

"Vrellish highborns aren't supposed to drink coffee," a second, older girl told him off with authority. "Even if they ask for it, or chocolate or another caffeinated beverage, you must never, never give it to them." She might have been eleven or twelve, but seemed comfortable in his presence. Even though her grammar suggested she was commoner.

"If you're Nersallian," his boy rescuer asked. "Have you ever met Liege Nersal?"

"Oh, Sten!" the younger girl protested, rolling her eyes at him.

The older one dropped to her haunches to get eye to eye with him. "We'll hide you if you like," she offered, adding with courage, "Mother Dee says Nersallians can be trusted with children." Her expression firmed a little. "And repay debts." She stood up again, adding in a businesslike manner. "But if you want sex, we'll have to fetch a working courtesan." She admitted with a touch of self-consciousness, "We're novices."

The littlest girl took his hand, "You'd better come in off the porch. Kista's gang might come back." She wrinkled her attractive nose. "They're not very honorable Vrellish."

"We don't like them," Sten volunteered, stridently, and dosed the violence of his feelings with a scowl.

The little girl holding Erien's hand looked up and said with old grief, "Kista's been here before."

The children had a strange authority, innocent yet worldly. Their courage and acceptance was compelling and he had the sense rejection would offend them. They'd adopted his cause for some reason.

Erien was led into a lived-in common room, decorated in worn and mismatched furniture of quality. The sight of Amel, on the wall, surprised him. It was Amel, although the artwork had the mildly gaudy and exaggerated quality of something made in quality for profit. He was poised as a sword dancer, looking purposefully young.

"Pureblood Amel was a courtesan," a child said, with stubborn pride, as if daring Erien to deny it. "Once."

The table beneath the ersatz portrait was a humble shrine. There was a small Ameron portrait in a frame of flaking, false-gold that looked as if it would be more appropriate for a Golden Demish poet, and some cheap, stone charms for carrying in one's pocket and rubbing for courage. The figures were small and streamlined, barely recognizable as male or female, but distinguished by their house braid or devices.

Fascinated, Erien went over to inspect them, pausing as the children clumped around him, to ask, "May I?"

The little gave a familiar giggle. The older girl looked embarrassed. The boy nodded gravely.

There were six little figures. Two had Amel's courtesan name, "Von", engraved on them. One was Ameron's, marked with symbols for house Lor'Vrel and "Ava". Two honored the Liege of Nersal, or possibly simply House Nersal, suggesting more than random compassion on the part of the children when they decided both to trust and help him. One, interestingly, was named "Mira".

The eldest girl snatched it up as Erien's fingers withdrew from it. "She was Amel's commoner sister," the girl said. "A medic. He took her to TouchGate to study." She seemed to want to say more, but bit her lip, uncertain of the details. What she'd already said, though, she was sure of. It was the first time Erien had seen value in the travesty of Amel's early life becoming public property. The courtesan girl harbored no doubt that Amel had valued Mira like a sister, despite their vast disparity in birth rank. And it meant something to her. Mira had become her idol. He noticed, then, that the Mira figure looked homemade, instead of market bought, carved from a chunk of cheap construction plastic and painted to look like the smooth metal rub stones. The ancient medical symbol of twined serpents was inexpertly carved beneath the name "Mira" in Gelack.

The boy, Shen, broke the mood with a grunt. "Don't mind Sue," she told Erien, boldly, speaking up with differencing now, with an initial guess—no doubt intended to be flattering—that pegged Erien as Royalblood. It was a typical strategy to "guess above" what one thought a stranger's rank was, so that the other party might "correct down". Shen probably thought Erien was Highlord, since the leap to the balcony suggested something highborn, and very few Nersallians were more than Highlord. "Sue's smart, so she's sort of goofy about Mira. Personally," the boy added with a shrug, and sideways glance at the "Von" posture, "I don't even like Pureblood Amel all that much. I mean, he's Demish." He hunched his shoulders. "He was okay when he was Von, though. Von was sort of cool and daring. Working Vrel and Dem. And the backrooms songs are funny."

"Shen!" Sue said fiercely, eyes flashing. "He's Sevolite!"

Shen shrugged again, unrepentant. "Darl thought the backrooms songs were funny."

Sue's eyes filled up with tears, instantly.

Erien, a little at sea, said, "I'm sure some of the songs I've heard in

the fleet are worse and not nearly as witty as Von's songs."

But that didn't seem to be the comfort intended. And tracing back

through the conversation, Erien asked, with a sense of unease, "Who is

Darl?"

"A Nersallian," said the little one, big eyes fixed upward on Erien. "A Midlord," she added, proud of fixating on what mattered.

Sue turned away to hide her tears, fussing with the icons on the table.

Shen got brisk and brassy. "Tell you what," he told Erien. "Since you need to kill some time in here, I'll trade you. One Von song for a fleet song." He raised a palm defensively. "But you have to promise not to be offended. I didn't write them." Another doubt crossed the boy's mind. "Can you sing, Your Grace? I mean, at least a little?"

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