The Kalis Experiments
The sky was red on the last day of Xereks Lees’s life.
Calveeni’s dangled from the biggest mangrove tree at the western tip of Maresg, its wooden beams dappled russet by the sun squatting on the hills behind it. Whitecaps dotted the ocean and sighed up to blend their murmur with the hum of conversation. The emerald hills, like Calveeni’s famed balcony, were the color of rust in the bloody light cast between the remnants of a storm that trundled out of sight to the east.
The restaurant was three stories tall and as shapeless as the rest of the buildings of Maresg, built at an angle in the fork where the trunk of the tree split into two great branches. The top floor leaned over the water, supported by more giant limbs, and the balcony jutted out even further, held aloft by a snarl of frayed ropes and wooden chains tied higher in the tree.
Xereks Lees, once one of the most powerful low merchants in Skalkaad, now one refugee among thousands who hid among the branches of the tree city, entered from the Walk with his five bodyguards trailing behind him, and pushed his way to the front of the queue. He was broad without being fat, and jowly. His silver-gray hair was pulled back in a taut, slick ponytail. His beard was a wiry dull gray, trimmed to a point and a little unkempt.
“My table, if you please,” he said to the frowning host, in a pleasant voice that didn’t reach his eyes.
The host, a gaunt clean-shaven man with a handsome middle-aged face, pressed his lips together and glanced at the grumbling queue behind Lees.
“It’s fine today,” Calveeni’s tired voice called through the closed kitchen door, a moment before the proprietor himself appeared with a slight bow to Lees.
He was a lean, balding man with a black mustache that drooped to his chest, and he was a head taller than the host he stood behind. He wore a long white chef’s coat, rumpled and stained with brown blotches.
“Please have a table brought up from the dining room for Mr. Lees.” He turned toward the former merchant. “You prefer the south side of the balcony, do you not?”
Lees gave a little smile and nodded. “Indeed. Along the rail, if you please.”
Calveeni tapped the host on the shoulder. “You heard the man. Don’t keep him waiting.” He gave Lees another bow. “Thank you for joining us again, Mr. Lees. I apologize for the delay. I hope you enjoy your meal.” He smiled slightly behind his mustache and turned to walk back through the open door to the kitchen.
Lees pressed his lips together in an expression of thanks, and followed the host up the spiral stairs, to the upper dining room and the balcony beyond.
The balcony was always crowded, but a small table was rushed up and placed in Lees’s preferred spot on the southern corner, with mumbled apologies to the patrons that needed to move their chairs to make space. The busboy set it down near the low railing and waited for Lees’s curt nod of approval before scurrying back inside. When Lees looked out, it was as if he were suspended above nothing but a few stunted mangrove trees and the dark, ever-changing nothingness of the Expanse, seven hundred hands below. When Lees sat here, he was free of Maresg.
He moved his chair so that his back was to the sea, where he had the best view of the sunset without suffering its light in his eyes. Two of his bodyguards and his valet, Orvaan, took their places around him, careful not to block his view, while the other two stayed behind to hover by the door that led inside.
He stared into the horizon for a while, lost in his thoughts, letting them mingle with the shifting static sound of the distant water. He thought of his home—his real home, north in Eheene, and wondered for the thousandth time if he was a coward for hiding here. Maybe that’s what they all called him now, and maybe they were right. That’s the thing about being a fugitive. Too much time to think about everything he’d lost. Too much time to think about everything.
The breeze grew cool. As the sun dipped lower into the Upper Peninsula and the ruddy green of the mountains on the horizon deepened to a black silhouette, a pair of Calveeni’s errand boys emerged from the kitchen and began lighting the oil lamps that ringed the balcony with long candles. Lees realized he’d been sitting there for a half an hour without being served so much as a glass of wine.
Several patrons in his immediate vicinity had cleared out, leaving him in the center of a ring of empty tables. There were probably still a dozen people downstairs seething to get a seat, but Calveeni had apparently learned when to give Lees his space. Too much space, for that matter. Lees was hungry, and more than that, he needed a drink.