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summer_jackel ([personal profile] summer_jackel) wrote2017-05-19 11:33 am
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62. The lotus and the mothers

Scene 62

62. The lotus and the mothers

The curtains were drawn on both of Lial’s corner windows, and rain beat steadily against the glass. On the facing-side, traffic had slowed to a dull crawl, round headlamps indistinct in the sideways-driving rain. On the walk, two cyclists grimly faced the wind, while a single equestrian rode hunched and despondent in the opposite direction.

There came the loud wheeze of an expiring engine; a large one, and then increasingly weakening sounds of the driver’s attempts to revive it. Rubber exclaimed suddenly over the endless slap of water on glass, followed by multiple horns.

Zela carefully set her work aside, took the jeweler’s loupe from her eye and closed the case. Standing, she stretched her neck a little, stepped over Lial without looking at her, and peered out the facing window.

“Doesn’t look like a crash,” she said. “Looks like water got in someone’s electrics. Making a bunch of noise isn’t helping.” She shrugged, and after a moment, stretched both arms.

A slender blue neck rose from the depths of one large pouf chair. Perch noticed the position of her person, decided that she was doing nothing of note, and returned to slumber with a little groan. Sun-tiger readjusted slightly but did not otherwise indicate consciousness. Two long, woefully splinted legs poking at odd directions from another pouf indicated Ice, but the wolfhound did not stir.

Zela padded soundless on bare feet across the rugs. She wore only a purple sarong tied loosely around her hips; in this private space, without the need for modesty, she wore a black scarf to keep her hair out of the delicate work.

“It’s interesting,” said Lial inflectionlessly, without moving her eyes from their resting point at a random spot in the ceiling. “Sometimes, I sit at the window and watch. I’ve watched the facing from sunrise to sundown a few times, now. The walk is slower, and less happens.”

Zela stepped over her and glanced down for a moment, expression wry. “Isn’t that the point?”

“If I don’t want movement,” said Lial, “I close the curtains.”

Zela made a little sound of assent and settled back down onto the large cushion arranged beside Lial, who remained supine and unmoving on the floor. With care, she undid the latch on her travel-case and removed the shallow upper tray, laid it on her lap, and replaced her loupe. She adjusted her small, bright worklamp, careful to keep it pointed away from Lial’s face. Besides the weak blue light from the windows, Lial’s loft was lit only indirectly, with a small lamp on a long, slender pole in one corner.

The tiny parts were held carefully in a series of felt-lined compartments, while the larger work was laid out in pieces on the wider expanse of green felt beside. Zela handled the delicate gears and components of brass and steel with a series of small tools and tweezers, first dipping the parts in a vial of cleaning solution before laying them on the workboard. Adjusting herself again, she returned her attention to the task.

Outside, the rain intensified. Lial’s breathing was slow and even, her eyes blinking only occasionally and very slowly. She was both motionless and relaxed, stretched nude on a soft textile a little wider and longer than her body, otherwise uncushioned with the long, silvery expanse of her hair fanned out above her.

There were tiny metallic sounds, sweet and silvery. Zela sighed deeply, and gently spoke three immensely crude vulgarities. There was movement of Lial’s yellow irises, but she did not respond.

Zela stood up again and stretched, stepping into the small kitchen to pour two glasses of water from the tap. Without moving, Lial followed her with her eyes, watching the movements of muscle under soft skin, the careful way she placed her feet.

Zela set a glass of water beside Lial, trailing a finger lightly across her deep collarbones and the top of one breast as she settled again.

Considering her delicate options, Zela chose two small gears and a series of rods. Outside, there was a bright flash, followed by a loud crack, and water whipped furiously against the glass.

The Yllaii looked up again, then back to her work, first letting her gaze move appreciatively over her companion’s long, still blue form. It was easy to work in Lial’s quiet company, and she was one of the only people she’d met in this sorry city who liked to turn the heat properly up. It was never actually hot here, and with autumn’s chill beginning to set the stage for winter, Zela didn’t expect to feel comfortable until the following spring.

She and Feriin had used to do it, she remembered, back when Ebrin was little…take one room in the house and make it really, properly warm in defiance of winter, not just passed for comfortable room-temperature in Urkatriabek. Considering her selection of tiny parts, Zela remembered long winters curled close under blankets with Feriin and the baby, the furnace high and merry, listening to the wind. Her throat tightened.

It had been a long time, though; a long time since Feriin had wanted to do much of anything with her, really. She said the winters didn’t bother her as much anymore.

Don’t think about it, Zela decided. Pay attention; frustrating as all hell to slip something up and bend it or send it all out of alignment now.

Zela took a breath, exchanged one long, delicate tool for another, and placed the last gear. Almost, almost…don’t get excited, she reminded herself, don’t get cocky, that’s when you blow it. Like cool, blue and quiet over there. Without looking, without touching Lial, Zela was still acutely aware of her presence.

The jewel-fine brass gear teetered in its place as, breathless, Zela tightened it minutely. Zela replaced her tool for another and moved the clockworks carefully. Fore and back, balanced…ah, not quite in true. So close. She chose a truing rod and a tiny caliper, made the adjustment, tested the mechanism again. The motion, finally, went easy and clean.

Zela released a breath. A little spike of pleasure, and she lifted the outer housing of blue-frosted glass, tightened it in place with tiny screws. Behind her, she felt Lial sit up.

“Think he’s ready to test,” said Zela with a sudden, bright grin. “Want to see?”

“Yes,” replied Lial, leaning forward to rest herself against Zela’s bare spine. Zela felt her body respond—pleasure, attraction, of course. That irrational part of her that had teetered uncertainly between finding Lial disturbing or attractive had settled on the latter, given time and opportunity, but it was not just that.

Brilliant and strange and lovely and strange and just…easy to spend an afternoon with, and enjoy some heat for once. Zela leaned back into her, turned her head backwards to look up at her.

Her scarf slipped. Zela undid it, shaking her head a little and feeling the soft weight of her hair fall loose on her shoulders and upper back. The scarf she laid carefully on the thick, soft textile Lial had been resting on, taking a moment to look at it again. She stretched her hands and picked up the work.

It was a clockwork hound, beautifully articulated, with long legs and neck, sweeping curves, delicate paws and a flexible wire tail. Its eyes were frosted blue glass, in matching shade to the glass housing she had just set in place. It made of the dog’s left side and shoulder a window that revealed the mechanism, so that its workings could be viewed.

Zela picked up a filigreed key, slipped it into a depression beneath the dog’s brass shoulder, and turned it carefully. Inside, with a sudden, tiny ticking, the clockworks began to move.

“Ha,” said Zela, expression sparking with delight. “See? It’s going to work.” Carefully setting her workbox aside, Zela found a piece of the wooden floor that was not obscured by layers of rug, and set the mechanism down.

Zela moved the clockwork hound carefully into a crouch and touched a switch on its belly. It jumped forward into a standing position and the legs began to move. It trotted forward with remarkable smoothness, the four feet working harmoniously, if not quite accurately to a dog’s gait, but articulation at the paws and shoulder gave it realism. As it moved, the smooth, long neck bobbed up and down.

“That is beautiful,” said Lial, watching it keenly, “and quite remarkable.”

“This is the fourth one I’ve made,” she said, turning it so that it walked in the other direction. As it wound down, the clockwork hound slowly moved back into a crouch, its head slowly moving up and down as its wire tail wagged until it came to a stop. “The best one, too.” Zela grinned triumphantly and carefully wound it again. “Look how smooth that is.” She grinned. “I’ll race them, I bet he wins.”

Lial laughed. “It’s good you don’t tire of your work!”

Zela smiled and looked at her. “Well, I suppose I’m being a little predictable. Still, I’ll probably build out at least one more if they release the housing in another color. Whole team.” She paused, almost shy. “I have others.”

“Do you?”

It was the most direct attention she had had from the kept all afternoon. Earlier, Lial had seemed remote, almost displeased, and explained that she needed to be still. Zela had offered to leave if the time wasn’t good after all, with a little wince at the weather, but Lial, with the flicker of a look that was almost stricken, had asked her to stay. “I want you here,” she’d said, “if you want to be. I just need to be still for awhile.”

Now she seemed like a hound or a cat, freshly woken and full of unconscious, brilliant energy. Balanced lightly on her hands with one long leg stretched back, she touched her arm lightly against Zela’s from shoulder to elbow, and her long, pale hair spilled across Zela’s back.

Zela’s dark brows arched, and she leaned across to trace one of the cream stripes on Lial’s blue cheek with her lips. “You feeling better?”

“Yes,” said Lial definitely, leaning into her for a moment before turning her attention again to the clockwork hound. “For now, anyway.”

Zela nodded, and carefully removed the top two trays in her workbox. The lowest, deepest section was divisible into compartments, where three objects were wrapped in soft cloth. Zela carefully lifted and unwound the first, revealing another clockwork hound, this one with a silvertone casing. Its eyes were frosted cobalt glass, and the entire back was glass to show the workings. Its maker slipped and wound the key. The hound crouched, a bit more shallowly than the one she had just completed, and took off into its mechanical trot across the floor.

“How beautiful,” breathed Lial. “What a marvel.”

Zela grinned, again almost shyly, and removed the second. “This is the most recent one, other than the new hound,” she said as she unwound the cloth.

“How long does it take you to make them?”

“Depends on my mood and how much breaks down at the track to distract me but, a couple months. Few weeks if I’m really obsessed.” She paused, eyes sliding to Lial’s face for a moment before briefly closing the distance between them again. “This guy, I obsessed about.”

“Oh!” breathed Lial, eyes widening a bit, her expression one of artful pleasure.

Zela smiled, pleased, and set her work on the smooth floor. It was a little brass crocodile, beautifully articulated with a long, flexible tail, hinged jaws with tiny sharp teeth, and green jeweled eyes. Zela fit the key into a spot just above the base of its tail and wound, and the crocodile began to move slowly on its flat, clawed feet, tail moving side to side as its jaws opened and closed.

Lial watched with intent fascination, grinning. The crocodile slowed and stopped. “May I?” she asked.

“Of course,” said Zela, handing her the key.

Lial took it and slipped it carefully but confidently into the delicate clockwork, turned it and watched the crocodile come to life again. With another look to Zela, she wound first the silvertone hound and then the brass, so that all three of them traversed her floor in different directions.

Zela realized, watching her, that she had rarely seen such an expression on Lial, such unguarded delight. Everything about the kept was so poised, so intentional. This seemed less so; or perhaps it was a different kind of poise. She bounced lightly on her palms, watching the movement keenly.

The clockworks wound down, and Zela picked them up and returned them to the box. “You have another?” Lial asked.

“Yeah,” said Zela, suddenly nervous. “Probably my prettiest one, actually.”

With great care, she picked up the last piece, wrapped in a piece of white silk. Lial watched intently as Zela revealed a fat, teardrop-shaped bud on a green enamel base. She slid the key into the bottom and turned it, then moved a switch and held it in her cupped hands.

With the tones of a tiny, silvery scale, the bud opened petals of translucent white shell set in bronzed edgings. When they had fully extended, an inner layer of petals spiraled open gracefully in the other direction. Finally, the center of the flower rose, a shiny, rounded dome with neatly arranged pits.

“A lotus,” breathed Lial. “That is really beautiful.”

“It better be,” Zela said with a tiny smile, “if it’s supposed to be a lotus. They’re the prettiest.” She paused, catching herself, then said it anyway with a little shrug. “I miss them.”

“I have never seen one,” said Lial. “Only pictures.”

“Doubt I ever will again,” shrugged Zela, “Other than the root shipped in as a vegetable, anyway. Bless my Dorma and that restaurant. But they’re all over the floodlands. They were beautiful. So I made this one.”

“It’s extraordinary,” Lial said, watching the clockwork lotus bloom and close again in its maker’s cupped hands.

“Thanks,” said Zela, pleased. And then, “Well, you like them too, don’t you?” she shifted her attention to the textile upon which Lial had been resting. “That’s new, isn’t it?”

Lial leaned back, rearranging herself to sit on the edge, and ran her fingers along the soft, thick weft. At the bottom of the piece, cream-and-purple fishes moved in a kind of geometric spiral. The interlocking wings of teeri formed a similar pattern above, moving in the other direction, while stylized lotus blossoms, leaves, stems and roots wound between them.

“Yes,” she said, tracing the line of a green stem into a pink blossom. “I ordered it from a textile factory in Tenth-radial. You can pick from a list of designs and textures, and they will weave it for you.” Lial paused. “I could have written in or made an order through com. But I wanted to experience the entire process. So, I wore my robe and took transit. Went to the factory. Chose the yarn.” Her thin lips curved. “By the time I was there, my skin felt like it was bleeding. I was shaking, I wanted to tear the robe off so badly.”

She stretched. “I repeated the process when it was ready. I like it. The texture is soft enough to soothe me. And I like that it is an ecology piece, a visual koan to civility, from a human source. The woman at the textile mill told me the design was Rethiy.”

Zela nodded, looking from the soft weaving to the delicate clockwork in her hands. “Yeah, it’s Rethiy…although you know, that covers a lot of people.” Her lips quirked. “Just about everyone down there has a version of this motif. We did.”

Lial’s clear-yellow eyes locked on her with that sudden, dazzling intensity. Zela thought again of a hungry dog, or a teeri getting ready to strike. Or a vayan, she supposed. “The Yllaii?”

“Yeah. Air and sky, fish and teeri. The lotus connects them.” She wound the clockwork again, and its shell petals delicately unfurled. “Eternity and transformation, life and death, all that.” She paused. “I like your taste, anyway. It’s pretty. And soft.” In her outstretched palms, the clockwork lotus closed into a bud with one last note and a tiny sound of gears.

“Yes,” said Lial, watching her closely. In the subdued light of the room, her eyes seemed translucent, like yellow glass. Outside, rain slapped at the window.

“Let me know if you ever want company wandering around the city,” said Zela, offering the precious object to Lial.

Expression serious, the kept one carefully accepted it. The shell petals were pale, faintly iridescent in her long blue fingers.

“Valerai too, I’m sure,” Zela assured her after a moment. “She and I first started doing it together, when she was all new to the city. Wanted to see everything, barely spoke a word of Yls-vel and couldn’t read the transit maps.” She grinned. “Got around, though.”

Lial carefully wound the lotus and watched it unfurl with deep concentration. “I have lived in this city almost all of my life,” she said in her usual low monotone. “I suspect that I was born here. But I have seen very little of it. I had never been in a human neighborhood.”

“Well,” said Zela, her throat suddenly tight, “You’ve got a lot to play with, then.”

Lial turned the closed lotus to its side, carefully traced a light fingertip across the join of shell and metal, the enamel base and keyhole. There was a maker’s stamp, a curving shark, just below it. “Marvelous. This is from Blackshark Mechanical in Rei Kenjai?”

“Yes,” said Zela, a little surprised. “All of these are their kits…I’ve made others, but they’re the best.” Lial offered the lotus, and she took it back. “This one’s special. The catalog kit was pink shell, but I wrote him and asked if he could do a white one, and he did.” She looked at Lial quizzically. “You’re familiar?”

“One of my…” Lial paused, signing the glyph that meant she was thinking about words. “Yes, call her one of my nestmates. Precision. She likes to make little clever mazes and courses that work with gravity and a small metal sphere. Usually she makes them herself, but there were a few moments I helped with the finework.” Lial stretched her long, beautiful fingers.

“A large part of my house duties was handwork where it’s useful, everything from minor surgery and trauma repair to childrens’ school projects.” She shrugged. “Precision’s marble mazes were fun. This was a big one, they installed it in her office —- she is a hydroelectric engineer, and she was illustrating a principle they use in the spillway system. There was a small dam with a gate; a steel ball bearing dropped on one lever to open it and release the water, which filled a cup, which released another bearing to close it.”

“And you got the works for the gate from Blackshark,” said Zela, wrapping her lotus in its silk.

“Yes, because the others we tried leaked. Or didn’t close quickly enough or completely, and that ruins the effect. Still, it was nothing close to this kind of complexity. I did look at their catalog, but these are amazing to see made, the catalog is nothing to it.” She grinned suddenly. “I’m impressed.”

“Well thanks,” said Zela. “Not easy to impress the finest of the fine, the fanciest of the fancy.” She caught Lial’s eye and smiled a little, making the sign for gentleness into their shared band as she replaced the lotus in its compartment. Lial flashed a brief, brilliant grin as she accepted context.

Zela wound the crocodile again, moodily watching it curve its swinging, implacably crocodilian way slowly across the floor. “I’m trying to imagine a vayan that likes to spend time building marble machines. Sounds like a neat machine, though.”

“Oh, it is entirely charming, and very exciting and sudden when the water spills.” Lial lay back down on her textile, stretching and then rolling onto her back. Muscle moved smoothly under supple, blue-and-cream striped skin, spare and defined from a lifetime that had demanded casual athleticism. Her ribcage showed like a greyhound’s on her deep inhalation as she stretched above her head. “I think you would like Precision.”

Zela’s expression went deeply skeptical and not entirely humorous. “I’m not so confident of that.”

“If you were to like any vayan,” qualified Lial, “there is a higher probability that it would be her.”

“Fair enough,” shrugged Zela. “Harmless little fanged bunny, is she?”

“All vayans are dangerous.” Lial’s low tone was calm and bland. “All humans are dangerous.”

Zela thought sourly of the Kaishi and Valerai’s scars. “Suppose that’s true.”

“I would like you to meet her, actually,” Lial said slowly, “like her or not. It’s necessary, it’s time for Pattern’s nest to meet Orchid. They must meet.”

“Must they?” Zela asked lightly.

“It will be safer for Valerai, for one thing.” The quality of Lial’s voice had changed, gone softer; there was a subtle shift in her posture on the mat, a calm pliance that was nonetheless quite awake.

“How likely is it they eat her?” asked Zela, making a moderately ironic glyph.

“Well none of them want to.” Lial’s tone went dry enough to make marshlands arid. “But keeping two nests with no common ambient can be personally complex for a vayan.” She turned her gaze upward at Zela, and her curved, ivory brows quirked. “I’d honestly rather she didn’t try. Ambitious and confident, our Valerai.”

Zela rubbed her temples and laughed a little. “God.”

Lial rolled onto her belly, propping herself up on her forearms so that she was just below Zela’s eye level. “Do you believe in God?”

Zela blinked and went still. Her back tightened, and she hunched a little forward. Her dark-olive eyes hardened and then softened again, as they went thoughtful.

“I’m tempted to be flippant,” she said at last, playing with a lock of her long, dark hair and staring pensively at the crocodile. “It’s complicated.” She paused, looked across at the kept’s calm, blue face searchingly, suddenly self-conscious. “Yes.”

“It is human behavior I do not understand,” said Lial. “I do not dislike you for it.”

“You think less of me for it? Like a vayan?”

“You know that covers a lot of people,” said Lial, deepening ironic ambient with a curve of her beautiful hands.

Zela ceded context archly.

“I’ve had my moments with it,” Zela shrugged. “Pretty sure God abandoned us when we lost.”

“That seems rational,” Lial said calmly.

Zela laughed a little. “Never met anyone like you, that’s for sure.”

“Even I haven’t met that many of us,” replied Lial. “Why did you decide otherwise?”

Zela watched Lial for a moment, letting herself openly admire her in the way that still felt so rude, so breathlessly provocative. Lial indrew a deep breath, exhaled it, her bones moving evenly under soft blue skin.

“When we were taken, I decided I’d personally offended God,” Zela said tightly. “Then he gave me a sign I hadn’t. We argue, I have doubts. Maybe outside the floodlands, he’s weak. I don’t know.” She paused. “I feel him. He helps me sometimes.”

“What sign did he give you?” They dipped into the Yls-vel pause, and Lial thoughtfully signed questioning, offered an open context. “Is that an offensive question?”

“No,” Zela assured her. “It’s alright, it’s private, but—” she indicated her unbound breasts and loose hair with a gesture to casual-ironic. “We’re private.”

Lial’s flash of smile was genuine. “I am pleased by that.”

“Well that’s good,” said Zela, letting her tone brush insinuation. “Finest of the fine.”

Lial stretched, preened a little.

“When God led us into the floodlands,” Zela said calmly, “He used them to speak to us. Any element, a fish or a plant or the movement of current, could be God’s eye seeing us, and if we were lucky and holy it would help us see with his vision, show us what he meant for us to do. That’s a godseye.” She stopped, looked at Lial, who was watching her with calm interest.

“Families had them, brotherhoods had them. Some people had personal ones. The vayans caught us, we were rounded up and murdered and shipped away. I was in…this awful, cold camp in [ city ] about a month after. My godseye was gone. God was gone. And then he came back.”

Zela picked up the clockwork hound she had just completed. “An animal came to me, this little stray terrier puppy. And I knew. We didn’t keep dogs—-they’re unclean according to our rules, and they didn’t do so well on the floodlands anyway — but I knew when he found me that this was my godseye. And it helped.”

“You still work with dogs.”


“This does not help me understand religious experience. But I like the story.”

“Yeah,” said Zela, a little savagely. “It’s just as easily a story about how a scared kid latched onto a stray puppy and made something up to make sense of a horrible fucking thing, and there is no God and there is no reason, just hungry fucking vayans and psychology.” She reached out to touch Lial’s textile. “Belief is a choice, maybe. But it’s still something I know.”

Lial gently lay her hand on Zela’s. “I mean no disrespect.”

Zela shook her head. “There’s none taken. I don’t know, a lot of religions want to convert people. Maybe they find it easier to talk about.” Zela smirked. “Kaishi try to convert you right and left, and somehow they succeed even though they want to make the world out as even worse than it actually is. Maybe you should ask Valerai.”

“Valerai is an atheist,” said Lial.

“Is she,” chuckled Zela, winding the clockwork hound again.

Outside, the wind drove high and fierce. The room illuminated suddenly with a bright, white flash, and a great boom cracked outside. There were no horns or other noises from street or facing.

Two long necks rose from the pouf next to the window, small ears up.

“Oh dog, please don’t need to go outside,” muttered Zela.

Perch and Sun-tiger watched the weather for a moment, and then, as one, seemed to agree with their person about desire to part from warmth and softness. Perch yawned at the weather, stretched her lengthy toes, and sank back into the pouf. After a moment, Sun-tiger repeated her actions, but with a wider yawn directed at Perch, and settled back in beside. There was no response from Ice.

“Good,” said Lial with a little smile. “We are saved.”

She lay back down and looked at the ceiling again. “I honestly never expected dogs to be so important. I never even thought about them.”

Zela smiled at her. “Yep.”

“I will want to bring mine,” Lial mused, “when we introduce the nests. I assume Valerai will bring Pilot, and you will bring Perch.”

“Is there a particular reason you are including me in these plans, or assuming I can be convinced to go?” asked Zela with a thread of bright hostility.

“You are part of the nest.” Lial’s tone was calm and empty. “You may, of course, choose to abstain, but it will be stronger if you are present. You understand that part of this is meant to teach them our scent in the part of their brain that acts more quickly than thinking. It will be stronger with you in context, and it may make Valerai safer. So you will go.”

“Fuck you, vayan bitch,” sighed Zela tiredly.

“This is how it is,” said Lial, without inflection.

“They can’t sniff me,” Zela responded tightly, glaring at the floor and her motionless clockworks, “and they can’t touch me. Their fucking existence makes me feel threatened.”

Lial raised a brow. “It can be arranged.”

“When they caught us,” Zela snapped, “They killed all the men, and every woman who fought or smelled like they were about to fight. Just straight-up slaughtered us.” Her lip curled over even, white teeth, and she glared at the jewel-eyed crocodile.

“I wanted to go down fighting. So badly. But if I died, Ferriin and the baby would be alone. So I lived for them.” Zela’s words were acid. “Hardest fucking thing I ever did. I managed to convince the vayan guards at the examination to import me live rather than fresh on ice, convince them I could be tamed with a little work.” Her olive eyes were dark and hot with banked rage. “Even if I was lying.”

Lial, motionless on her back with her long hands loose above her, watched Zela with timeless, level calm. Her hair spilled silver around her among the woven lotuses, her creamy stripes like sunlight on the surface of water. “You succeeded,” she said quietly. “You survived. With your nest. Your child.”

Zela leaned back a little, stretched as Lial had stretched, paid a little attention to her breathing, noticed the hard knots in throat and stomach. “Yeah. I made it. I got here and I lived, but they cannot. Touch me. Not again.”

“I will make that very clear,” Lial said quietly.

Zela nodded and exhaled softly. Looked down at Lial, elegant and magnificently strange, stretched nude on the weaving, soft in the dim, warm room. The long, glorious lines of her, the toned sweep of thigh into the deep blue curve of hip, the flat, darker skin of her belly.

Her cream whorls and stripes confused the eye, and of course there was the mere distracting fact of her casual nakedness, her shockingly different beauty. But other lines marked her at thigh and belly, vertical where most of her odd brindling went on a horizontal or curving plane; marks of a more typical kind.

Zela wondered if Valerai had even noticed. She’d never been a mother, or had a lover who was.

“Do you have a child?” Zela asked quietly after a little while.

“Yes,” said Lial, almost immediately. Her tone was soft; almost inflectionless, almost light. “But kept children are separated at birth. My strain especially. My mother never saw me, as it always is. I did not see another human until I was…nearly adult.” She shrugged. “My childhood was boring, in many ways, but full of many difficult things to learn. I was kept in my room and the exercise yard, socialized and tested by vayan raising staff.”

“So civilized,” spat Zela.

“According to some,” said Lial.

“Must there be vayans?” Zela asked suddenly. “Does there have to be? Couldn’t you just. Leave, not be around them. Excluding the issue of Valerai getting eaten, for the moment.”

“Well, excluding that,” said Lial drily, staring up at the ceiling. At the window, the timbre and cadence of the storm suggested rain had turned to sleet outside.

“Well?” asked Zela, watching her, admiring her beauty, sorrowing.

“It was originally the dream,” Lial said slowly. “Leave entirely. Live in a human quarter, go somewhere rural even, a human community far from civilization.” She paused, and her tone when she resumed was as empty and distant as her clear yellow eyes following the grain of the ceiling panels.

“When planning my freedom was like a strategy in a game, that fictional, and very distant. The reality is that my life has gotten so much easier since Orchid came.” Her mouth curved. “That is something rarely said of vayan males.”

Zela laughed a little, quietly. “I guess not.”

“I would not be free if Pattern had not decided to free me.” Her tone was that same level distance, but there was something like horror in her eyes. “It was so close. Very close. They do not want the kept freed, not after all this time. And it was a difficult thing for Pattern to do, against the will of many people in her house, against her mother’s will.”

Lial’s gaze slid to Zela, who watched her closely. “Rosegarden: Senator is one of the most powerful vayans in Urkatriabek, and even though Pattern is very much her daughter in terms of strong will, crossing her was hard. Difficult, and she was punished for it.”

“If you’ve gotta have vayans, it may as well be those, is that it?”

“No other vayans freed me,” Lial said quietly. “None of hundreds. She freed me, and her nest supported her.”

“Is it just that, then,” snapped Zela. “Gratitude for being the least awful.”

“I’ve wondered,” Lial replied evenly. “But…I have a feeling, when I am with them. When I am away from them. Longing. When I am close to them, I felt a relief. A desire. Not just the conditioning receiving its key and unwinding in my head. Its own need. And when we were together, she let me go again.”

Zela sighed and reached to Lial’s temple, stroked her forehead and the soft, silver hair. Lial made a tiny pleasured sound, her eyes fluttering closed as she pressed lightly into the touch. Zela brushed a fingertip along her cheek, down the long sweep of throat and clavicle, playing lightly across the deep slaty blue of her nipple before trailing down her belly with its cream whorls and telling, damning lines.

Lial had evaded, of course. She hadn’t really answered the question. Zela was kind enough to see and not to chase it.

“So,” she swallowed, brushing the lean thighs, feeling her insides tighten and focus as Lial parted them with a soft inhalation. “You get your vayans together, you get your nest the way you want it. Ideally, this moves Valerai a little farther away from the sharp-tusked maw of accidental doom.”

“It should.” Lial’s voice was breathy, her body responsive.

“Does that mean you’re done with me?” Zela’s tone was light, but there was a thread in it more serious than she liked.

There was a note of surprise in the clear yellow eyes, a slight tightening of her body under Zela’s hand. “No,” she said. “Is this a human thing I do not…I thought you understood.” Lial reached up, touched Zela’s narrow forearm. “Pattern does not replace you. You cannot…fill this sorrow I have, when I do not have Pattern.”

Her grip tightened—-so strong, Zela thought. Don’t forget how strong she is. All humans are dangerous.

“I imagined that freedom would be lonely and confusing,” Lial continued after awhile. “I did not imagine you.” She paused. “Or anything in the human world I liked as much as you. I wish to continue.”

“Good, you rare thing,” Zela said roughly, and bent her head to brush her lips over the warm skin of Lial’s thighs. “You vayan. I’m here.” She paused, resting her forehead on Lial’s belly. “I’ll go with you.”

“Thank you,” whispered Lial, sighing, offering herself to Zela’s mouth. “Thank you.”

Outside, the storm howled on.