Three Short Stories

By Foz Meadows

Letters Sweet As Honey

The Silver City Gazette, 11 Maytober 1510: Social Pages

Dear Miss Manners,

I know my query is outside your usual bailiwick, but as I have nowhere else to turn, I implore your advice, which, as a long-time reader of your column, I have always found to be of the highest quality.

There is no delicate way to put this: I am now, and have been for the past few years, a human sentience trapped in a swarm of bees. I shan’t bore you with the tedious magical details of how exactly it happened, as I don’t rightly understand them myself. As to the why, however – of that, I can be quite certain. My brother, Earnest, who dabbles in a great many things but is, I’m sorry to say, rather scatterbrained, decided to try his hand at amateur magecraft and apiary in the same week; and, owing to the state of disarray in which he keeps his own apartments, decamped his works to my garden shed without bothering to tell me. Sufficed to say that when I entered in search of some rose clippings, I experienced a rather nasty shock, and woke to find myself reembodied in my current – and, it seems, permanent – format.

Miss Manners, though there are some who consider etiquette to be wholly divorced from political matters, you and I both know that the opposite is more often true: that how we treat our betters, equals and lessers – and, more importantly, how we decide which persons belong to which category – is paramount in discharging social niceties. As such, you cannot be ignorant of the New Truth party’s current push to further erode the few rights yet afforded to magical citizens (who are so often now disparagingly referred to as ‘maggies’), and the impact their efforts have on our treatment in wider Amitian society. Before I wore my current bodies, I was, if not a social butterfly, then certainly a social moth: I had many acquaintances, both intimate and casual; maintained, despite Aunt Edna’s unfortunate taste in novels, an appropriately cordial yet caring relationship with my extended kin, and in all respects deported myself as a young, unmarried woman ought.

I could therefore be forgiven, could I not, for thinking some of my friends and family might stand by me during my transition – that the plight of one they claimed to love could sway their hearts, if not their public votes?

Instead, I am shunned. I find myself no longer welcome at family gatherings, social events or even on public transport. My bees are the very picture of apian deportment: when out and about, my swarmself adopts an appropriately feminine shape, so as to reduce the alarm my presence might otherwise cause, but even in a city filled with clockworkers, phoenix wives and lizardines – and whose higher institutes of magical learning count among the most revered in Amitia – my efforts are most often greeted with fright or disgust. And more than this wounds me, it wounds my bees, who go to such lengths to make themselves approachable, only to be cruelly rebuffed! Have we no decency, nor kindly curiosity? Is human feeling only praised when spared for those deemed human?

I have tried to accommodate within myself the many fears of strangers. I have made my swarm small, gone out adorned with ribbons and unmenacing clover; I have even had my bees bear placards graved with poetry and other soothing words, to show I mean no harm. I have tended my patience as once I tended roses. Yet still, still! – I am judged for my bees alone, and not the human sentience which guides them.

I am forlorn, Miss Manners. Please, I implore you: what else can I try? Or is the effort hopeless?

Yours sincerely,

Adeline Brooks

PS: Please pardon the messiness of this letter. It takes such effort for my bees to work the typewriter, I lack the heart to beg them fix their errors.

* * *

Dear Adeline,

I cannot rightly express how your letter affected me, both in terms of human feeling for you yourself – see, we are not all lost! – and anger at your mistreatment. Though I have never openly expressed my support for the sentient rights movement (certain former, less modern editors having insisted on my silence – not understanding, as you clearly do, the political nature of etiquette), you have moved me to do so now – and for that delay, I can only apologise.

I am appalled by the blindness infesting our society which insists, against all evidence to the contrary, that human flesh is the only true repository for, and source of, human sentience. Did not Saint Elphia of Pharos assume the form of a flock of birds in order to guide Saint Michael home? Did not our Lady imbue the last statue of Kalis Cay with the soul of its dying maker, thereby creating the very first clockworker?

Sadly, I can offer no cure for the foolishness of relatives, nor give you palliative against false friends. I can only extend my hand to you, and urge the residents of Silver City to do likewise.

(And though it is a lesser outrage, as a lifelong gardener and hobbyist of the natural arts, I am greatly saddened by the ignorance of so many citizens, who instinctively treat bees as threats! From where else, pray, do we find honey? Who pollinates our flowers and crops? Even a disorderly swarm is a thing of beauty; to see one gracefully echo the feminine form of its resident soul – I hope you will not think me impertinent, Adeline, when I say that such a glorious sight is almost beyond my comprehension!)

Yours in etiquette,

Miss Manners

* * *

The Silver City Gazette, 13 Maytober 1510: Letters to the Editor

Editor’s Note: Though I had anticipated a larger than usual response to yesterday’s Miss Manners column, the avalanche of opinions which has reached us between then and now has so far exceeded my expectations that, for the first time in my long career, I find myself at a loss as for which to publish. Clearly, this is a topic about which you, our faithful readers and representatives of the general public, feel strongly; and more than that, it is – I think I can safely say – a topic on which you fervently wish to be heard.

As such, thanks to the generosity of Councilman Rudge of the New Truth party, and under the auspices of the Silver City Gazette, I am proud to announce a public forum – titled Sentience, Flesh and Etiquette – to be held at six o’clock in the evening at the Silver City Chamber of Commerce this coming Friday, 15 Maytober 1510. The forum will be jointly moderated by Councilman Rudge and our very own Evelyn Carmichael, otherwise known as Miss Manners, and shall no doubt foster a lively and informative debate.

I look forward to seeing you there, and to hearing your fine opinions in person. – Cornelius Drake, Editor in Chief

* * *

The Silver Tongue, 16 Maytober 1510

GAZETTE GUTTED BY GHASTLY GAFFE: THE MISS MANNERS ETIQUETTE FORUM FIASCO

By Ashley Max: the silver-tongued sentinel of Silver City’s secrets

A public forum held at the Chamber of Commerce last night became the cause of a riot when representatives of the “sentient rights movement” (a term this reporter cannot help but find deeply ironic) interrupted a stirring oration by Councilman Rudge by bullrushing the stage and screaming obscenities, causing mass panic and hundreds of dollars of damage to city property. Among the offenders were many so-called magical “citizens” – and lest my detractors accuse me of poor fact-checking, as they have often done in the past, let me assure you that I report nothing less than the testimony of my own two, human eyes.

The trouble started five days ago, when Cornelius Drake, the Editor in Chief of the Silver City Gazette, allowed the publication, not only of a rambling, hysterical letter in support of magical “citizens”, but of a wholly biased and unduly favourable response from the Gazette’s current Miss Manners, Evelyn Carmichael (a decision which provoked more controversy than the Gazette felt able to handle without outside assistance; hence the excuse of a public forum).

The original letter-writer, one Adeline Brooks, is a maggie who – if you can credit it – is composed entirely of bees; and that, too, dear readers, you have straight from the unicorn’s mouth, as such an unlikely creature bearing such an incongruously pretty name – bearing literally, on a piece of card within her swarm – did, indeed, make an appearance at last night’s meeting, stinging several innocent bystanders out of pure carelessness as she pushed her way to the stage. It was this selfish act which ultimately precipitated the forum’s collapse.

Though Councilman Rudge did his best to keep order despite the untimely interruption of Miss Brooks, the ineffectual dithering of Miss Carmichael (who is, perhaps, better suited to dispensing advice about handkerchief fashions than meddling in politics) soon lead to chaos. When a mob of individuals loudly professing support of the “sentient rights movement” charged the stage, the “security” provided by the Silver City Gazette proved inadequate to the task of quelling so many maggie protesters, with the predictable result that many regular citizens, feeling justifiably threatened, fled the scene in disarray.

As of this writing, city officials are still in the process of restoring the Chamber of Commerce to its rightful state, while this reporter has been reliably informed that the Silver City police are in hot pursuit of several violent maggies and maggie sympathisers known to have participated in the affray, including two phoenix wives, a calumny, several Rei University students, and, of course, Miss Brooks herself (or should I say itselves?) who vanished during the proceedings.

If such “persons” cannot behave in a civilised fashion at such an informal event, then how can they be trusted at all levels of Amitian society? As Councilman Rudge himself said, “The bestowal of human rights is dependent upon an acceptance of human responsibilities – but how can such an acceptance take place, when the pivotal quality of humanity itself is so clearly absent? It is not prejudice to enforce such distinctions, but commonsense; else what is to stop us from conferring citizenship on every passing wasp, or treating dolls as people? Every dog has sentience, but only we have humanity.”

True words, Councilman. Let’s hope the Gazette has learned its lesson. This is Ashley Max, your silver-tongued sentinel, signing off for now.

* * *

From the desk of Evelyn Carmichael, 31st Maytober 1510

Dear Evie,

Please forgive my leaving this way; and forgive me, too, this illegible beescrawl, which is already leaving marks on your lovely table. You have been so patient with me, wasting good ink and paper on my fumbling efforts at speech, that I hate to seem ungrateful; but oh! How I miss my typewriter! Do you think the mob even realised that they were smashing, not just iron and ink, but my very voice? It was so much more than a mere machine, and yet they lack even the courtesy to notice what their destruction means. They are brutes, these Truth Now zealots, and thanks to my foolishness, Councilman Rudge is empowered to give them a freer rein than ever.

And that, dear Evie, is why I must leave you. I have felt more at home – more at peace – in your beautiful gardens, with their strawberries and persimmons, than I can rightly recall; and I could not bear the guilt and grief if so much as a single stem were broken on my account. You have taken in me in, and trusted me with the gift of touch – it has been so long, since anyone let me touch them; yet I have walked through your hair, and across skin no less soft than rose petals, and never have you flinched.

You have given me something I wanted, but never knew I needed; and so, in turn, I gift you a thing you do not want, but surely know you need: my absence. I will follow the wind to Valencei, as perhaps I should have done long ago, the better not to have caused all this trouble in the first place – but then I would never have met you, and that is a loss too grievous for me to contemplate.

How strange life is. How varied, and cruel, and – ultimately – beautiful.

I remain, as always, your loving friend,

Ada

* * *

From the desk of Evelyn Carmichael, 3 Junember 1510

Dear Corny,

I can call you that now, Cornelius, on account of the fact I’m quitting. Don’t make that face – you know the one, where you go all squinty and blue, like you’ve forgotten how to breathe – we both know I’m doing you a favour, jumping before you’re forced to give the final push. And don’t insult me, either, by trying to chase me down with talk of compromise this and apology that – I stand by every line of every editorial I’ve written since Rudge started slapping wrists, and I’ll no more retract a word of it than you’ll give up your lovely phoenix wife. (Oh yes, I know all about Vhairi – or did you think I was fool enough to stand my ground on principle alone? Please, give her my best, and if either of you can’t bear the truth of your scandalous liaison to be written down, she has my permission to burn this note as a feather-gift at her next undying. There’s so much more to me than etiquette, isn’t there?)

Which is the other reason why I’m writing this. Two days ago, I lost something more precious to me than I realised until it was gone, and though I hate to leave you with such a fight on your hands, I’ll be cutting out a piece of myself if I let this slip away. (Of course you were right about her, you smug old fox – and me, too. But as I’ll be gone before you can say I-told-you-so, I see no harm in admitting it.)

Should you be so inclined, you may write to me, care of Leitalia Second Post Office, Leitalia, Heuven Province, Valencei. I hear their lemon trees are superb; in response, I might even deign to send you some lemon butter, given your fondness for it.

All my best,

Evelyn

* * *

From the desk of Adeline Brooks, 13 Jovian 1510

Dear Earnest,

Please don’t discard this letter unread. I know you feel guilty about my accident, and have made it abundantly clear in the past how hearing from me pains you, but on this one occasion, I beg your indulgence.

I don’t know how up to date you are with news from Silver City, but even with your customary avoidance of both newspapers and the political scene – I say so with love, dear brother; I have always adored your quirks – you must surely have heard by now of what are, to my sorrow, being called the Maggie Riots, and the sweeping legal changes instituted in their wake by Councilman Rudge and the New Truth party. Perhaps you have even heard of my involvement: that your baby sister took the stage at the Chamber of Commerce and buzzed so angrily, like an alien thing, that several society ladies collapsed in a faint. (They did not; or at least, if they did, it was not my doing. The true events of that night have by now been so thoroughly distorted, if not replaced by outright lies, that I no longer have the strength to combat them. Nonetheless, I assure you that we were not to blame!)

As such, it is my sorrowful duty to tell you that, in the aftermath of the Maggie Riots, my beautiful cottage at Kilber Lane was burned to the ground, and all my possessions, including the Memeworth typewriter you gave me, destroyed. I know how you once loved that cottage, dear Earnest, but though I mourn its loss, I cannot say I am wholly upset. Against all odds, I have found happiness in tragedy, and it is for this reason, and not to relate my woes, that I write to you now.

I have resettled in Valencei, in a ramshackle house overlooking an orchard I pledge will not be derelict for long; and I am not alone! For with me is the dearest, kindest woman in all the world. Her name is Evelyn, and though our acquaintance has been brief, it has yet unfolded with such a certainty, a sweetness and a depth of human feeling that I can scarcely credit my fortune. She has sunkissed hair and freckles from spending so much time in the garden, and a wicked sense of humour; and, Earnest, she has bought me a voice! Not a typewriter, as you did, but an honest, sound-making voice, such as I used to have, and whose utterances can even be said to resemble my former tones. She had it made on commission by a Valenceian clockworker: a little golden heart my swarm now bears within itself, and will forever more.

It was an engagement gift, she said, and I accepted it readily. My bees have made it the basis for a new honeycomb, and it is my dearest wish, Earnest, that you should see it for yourself, at our wedding, the details of which are enclosed. I cannot imagine such an event without you there, if only in order to show you the depths of my current joy.

You did not kill me that day in the garden, as once you feared. Instead, you set me free.

All my love,

Ada

* * *

The Leitalia Herald, 22 Nova 1511: Births, Deaths and Marriages

We are pleased to announce the union of MS EVELYN CARMICHAEL (human) and MS ADELINE BROOKS (apian heartswarm), which took place in the Old Gardens, Leitalia, this past weekend. The brides were resplendent in white silk and sunflowers; MS CARMICHAEL was given away by MR CORNELIUS DRAKE, and MS BROOKS by her brother, MR EARNEST BROOKS.

Having exchanged their vows, the new wives shared a ceremonial meal of tears and honeycomb before proceeding to the reception. (The flowers were home-grown.)

Mnemosyne

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
15 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Shuttle approach to Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

Li woke me from longsleep two standard hours before docking – a flaunting of regulations I hadn’t thought to anticipate. Captain Vedeshi warned me of Li’s irregular habits back on Clio, but that was weeks ago, and the only odd thing she’s done since then is pin back her hair with spoons. Which, granted, is odd, but not the sort of oddness the Captain told me to watch for. I was frightened at first – I thought the shuttle was in distress – but Li said no, and made me come sit in front with her as we broke atmo, as though that would mend the protocol breech rather than compound it. But I was groggy and fogged, so I went with her and together we watched the planet rear up like a fat, round whale. Ayu Khadan is blue, which I hadn’t expected either. Blue to me means water; here, though, it’s gas. You can’t walk on the surface, and if it weren’t for the ore deposits underneath, it’s doubtful anyone would ever have tried.

“This won’t be what you expect,” Li said, suddenly.

That made me cross, but just in time I remembered the other thing Captain Vedeshi said: that Li was assigned as my pilot for a reason. Few enough people know how things work on Ayu Khadan, let alone visit it. Customs are different out here, and so long as the ore keeps shipping, the Republic doesn’t much care for the details. It’s my job to check the mining station is running in practice as well as it runs in reports, but even spot-checks go easier if you know how to keep from offending. Hence, Li, who’d apparently chosen now of all times to impart her cultural wisdom.

“You can’t know that,” I pointed out. “You don’t know what I expect.”

Li only shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I know it’s wrong.”

“Enlighten me, then.”

“The miners use mech-genned avs,” she said. “To get around on the surface. They look human, but really they’re just brain-manned shells. The actual bodies stay linked from base.”

“I know that.”

She hesitated. “You know where the miners come from, then?”

Captain Vedeshi had told me that, too. “They’re probates,” I said. “Traitors and dissidents serving long-cycle labour in penance for their part in the Kado Rebellion.”

Li looked at me sideways. “Kado was fifty standard ago. That’s pushing it even for long-cycle. The original prisoners are grandparents and great-grandparents now, but each generation supposedly owes additional labour to the Republic for keeping them fed and housed as children, and that’s after their parents” terms are extended to pay for their right to breed, too. Call it what it is: transgenerational debt-slavery.”

“The Republic keeps no slaves,” I said, automatically.

“It does,” said Li. “It just doesn’t call them that.”

I glared at her. “Whatever you call it, they’re still free to leave once their debts are paid.”

Li snorted. “We’re here for a week. I give it three days, tops, before you eat those words.”

Her cockiness was infuriating. “Is that a bet?”

She blinked at me, surprised. “Do you want it to be?”

I thought about it, realised I did, and said as much. She grinned then – the first true smile I’d had from her – and shook her head. “You ever hear of Schrodinger’s Cat?”

“Of course.” I frowned, puzzled by the segue.

“Right now, that’s you. You’re superpositioned: potentially both right and wrong. A formal bet would tip the scales. I’ve already said too much.”

“Isn’t that why you’re here?” I asked, irritably. “To tell me things?”

But Li only laughed. “Go back to your bunk, little bureaucrat. Your assumptions give me wind.”

What could I say? Nothing sensible. So instead I left the cockpit and came back here, to record this while it was fresh. Let the record state, then, that pilot Li has challenged both my intelligence and my integrity, to say nothing of failing to properly brief me on Ayu Khadan. We’re almost at the station now, and whatever the miners are like, they can’t be stranger than her.

She still has spoons in her hair.

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
15 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

This isn’t what I expected.

Scratch that. Bet or no bet, I won’t give Li the satisfaction. Not that she’ll ever view this, of course – it’s simply a matter of principle. I just don’t understand how this station works.

Representative Garan met me at the shuttle doors, which was awkward. My briefing notes said Garan was a forty-year-old man employed by the GHR Corps; instead, I met a woman who didn’t look any older than me. I thought she was one of the miners, but no: her bio-ident matched with Garan’s data when I scanned it. So either there’s been a mix-up somewhere, which is unlikely but not impossible, or else the Representative is walking around in an unauthorised av specifically built to his genes, but which just happens to look female.

He was polite enough, at least, even though he couldn’t have known I was coming until the shuttle showed up on his scans. He took me into the station proper, showed me the room set aside for visiting Corps personnel, explained the station’s emergency procedures, then left me alone to unpack. I’ll admit, I barely took anything in: the whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how blatant a misdemeanour it was, to openly greet an auditor while wearing a stolen body. I’ve put it into my report – the first offence of many. In fact, the breeches here are so many and so great that I’m not quite sure how to go about correcting them without getting myself lynched.

It took me a while to spot it. Garan played the tour guide so well – this is the com room, that’s the airlock, here’s the sickbay, the dorms are that way – that it wasn’t until we reached the mess that I realised what was wrong.

Not only the Representative, but every single person on Ayu Khadan is wearing an av. And not just in the mines, as they’re meant to do, but walking around the station! Instead of offlining the avs to charge, they’ve altered them to accept chemical input that looks like food, and smells like food, but which I’d die if I ate; and though some of them, like Garan, are obviously male or female, most look like both or neither. Even the colours are wrong: the mix of skin and hair and eyes in the avs can’t possibly match the DNA of the actual miners – so who’s learned to tamper their build? And why? There’s several hundred people here, and though I’ve spent all day moving amongst them, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of a living, breathing human body since Li waved me out of the shuttle. Even their names make no sense – I asked for access to the station records, but none of the names officially listed in the GHR records match what the miners seem to call themselves.

I’m surrounded by dolls. It’s terrifying. And none of them seem to mind or care that I’m here to report them; that once I finish my audit and head back to Clio, the extent of their malfeasance will merit lengthy extensions of each and every labour term, at the least.

But that’s not even the worst part. I didn’t realise at first, because the bodies shocked me so much, I forgot what Li had said about this place being full of families. And then it hit me: where are the children? I asked to see the creche, but Garan said it would have to wait for tomorrow. He looked at me with a young woman’s face and smiled a smile that wasn’t his, and I felt like my skin was shrinking form the wrongness of it all.

Because this isn’t a place for children. It can’t be; not like this, not with all the adults living as avs and breeching the rules so badly. I think there’s something terrible here, something rotten and foul on Ayu Khadan, and once I find it, everyone in the Republic will want to know.

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
16 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

Today I inspect the mines, Garan says. She He reminded me when he brought me breakfast – a strange, unpalatable slurry, clearly foreign to a kitchen geared to churn out that weird, false fuel they feed their avs – and my stomach turned.

I’ll have to use an av.

Captain Vedeshi told me as much back on Clio, though it took Garan’s reminder to make sense of her words. But I’m frightened, and I don’t mind saying it. This whole place feels like it’s run by a cult: the miners all keep tipping me smiles, and though they look genuine, it feels like there’s something sinister beneath it. How couldn’t there be? Once I finish this entry, I’m sending a ping to Li, so that if anything happens to me while I’m using the av, she’ll know. I hope it doesn’t come to that – I don’t think it will – but just in case, I want there to be a record of where I’m going.

Garan will be back soon to take me down to the loading room. I’ve never really believed in the Triple Moons, but suddenly I hope I’m wrong. Sickle and Wax and Wane, watch over me. Keep my body safe.

I don’t want to die today.

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
16 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

It’s the chemical receptors in the avs. It has to be. Or the food – the fuel – they’ve done something, changed themselves somehow, not just like they’ve genned the builds but deeper than that. I tried to ask Garan but she just laughed. She said I didn’t understand yet, but that tomorrow I would. I want to believe her, but if I do, what does that say about me? About all of us?

Happiness can’t be this simple.

Can it?

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
17 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

I’ve seen the creche.

There isn’t a creche.

Today I experienced childhood on Ayu Khadan.

Just like in the wealthy districts on Clio, there’s no pregnancy here, no flesh-birth. If a couple wants to make a child, they petition Garan, and down she goes to the Heart-Vault, where their bodies lie in biostasis. She takes DNA from each parent, and the child is glass-grown in the dark, like a hothouse flower blooming for nine months straight. And then they, too, are put in biostasis, their bodies fed the same nourishment as their parents receive, while their newborn brains connect to an av.

The baby-avs are genderless and communal. The childmind transitions between them at each major developmental stage, learning to crawl, to walk, to speak, while down below their bodies grow, healthy and safe, in biostasis. There’s forty-odd children here now between five and fourteen, and though the youngest have smaller avs, the rest switch bodies like minnows, sometimes-boy and sometimes-girl, sometimes-neither and sometimes-both. Many still claim what the miners call a fixed heart, an immutable identity of male or female, but still they change avs happily. They claim each one has a different feel, a different perspective; as though the passage of so many souls through their mech-genned flesh has left behind a flavour, or an echo.

Not even the parents know the sex of their children’s bodies, down in the Heart-Vault; some don’t even know their own. It doesn’t matter here, Garan says. No one is forbidden to look, or to know, yet as the closest thing to an outsider it’s she alone who keeps track of their true bodies, running a double set of books on their humanity. One name for the body, and one for the soul. It’s why my records didn’t match.

And in their avs, they are free. They showed me, when I came out of the mines, what the altered avs could do; how the mech components let them interface with a secret freescape built by generations of miners in defiance of the limits of Ayu Khadan. It’s where their children play, raised on dreams of the suns and grasses of other worlds their long-cycle contracts will never let them visit. Li was right: no one here can leave. The terms of labour are such that the only way free is to grow to adulthood in isolation, take no lovers, sire no children, have no parents, love no siblings; either that, or to disregard them all and leave not only them, but your perfect, self-chosen body. A few must still have gone at first, but now each generation here is raised in bodies that aren’t their bodies, siring yet more children whose feet will never touch the ground. The miners have built themselves bigger, internal worlds to cope with the smallness of the station. They were meant to be prisoners, trapped and punished. Instead, they’ve turned Ayu Khadan into a paradise.

The freescape is endless and beautiful; continually remade, yet permanent and unassailable – a life of the mind undreamt-of on Clio for any but the most privileged. Each person lives in an av that reflects their innermost heart, whether fixed or not; and until their bodies die of old age in biostasis, nothing can harm them. They have purpose, and ritual, and they are happy here; their kindness only frightened me because I hadn’t expected it.

Garan says I can use an av for the rest of my stay here, if I want. To help me understand.

I told her yes.

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
18 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

I pinged Li today. I told her my words were delicious.

She only laughed.

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
20 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

The shuttle leaves tomorrow. I’ve only been in this av for four days, but already it feels like mine. Last night there was dancing and drinking to celebrate the end of shift – not alcohol, but a synth-liquid the miners made themselves. It does something to the avs that brings about euphoria; boisterous in some people, contemplative in others, but all of them happy and dancing, even the children. They call it mnemosyne, after the system, and the feel of it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Every sound, every touch, every taste was intensified to the point of ecstasy, and when Garan kissed me, it felt like suns exploding.

I shared her bed last night, as did a fixed-heart man called Beyn. We did what we did and then slept in a tangle, rising all at once when our avs woke up. It was only one night, but I’ll miss them both.

I hadn’t expected that, either.

GHR Corps Private Personnel Log #8195473: Rau, Evke
21 Fex 3020, ISC
Location: Shuttle departure from Ayu Khadan Mining Colony, Mnemosyne System

I’ve sent my report on Ayu Khadan back to Captain Vedeshi on Clio. Beam traffic being what it is out here, it’ll probably reach her around the same time I do. A redundant exercise, but one that’s in keeping with regulations. I thought of Li’s spoons when I sent it, and smiled.

Everything is in order, says my report (and it is). The station functions perfectly (and it does). Representative Garan is to be commended for her his sterling efforts. (Which she well deserves. Though I had to keep an eye on what I called her, in the report. Strange to think that such a little word could potentially betray so much.)

Returning to my own body felt odd, like donning a shirt I wasn’t sure still fit. I felt heavier and weaker, yes, but no less real and alive than I had in the av. And when Garan kissed me farewell at the station entrance, her lips still carried the faintest tingle of sunlight.

The shuttle lifted off ten minutes ago. Right on schedule, down to the preordained second. Apparently, Li is something of a perfectionist despite her disregard for the rules. It’s a three week flight back to Clio, but this time, I’m planning to spend as much of it awake as possible. After all, when else might I get the chance to fly with a pilot who’ll rig the longsleep logs for me?

When I left the station, Li was waiting for me, leaning against the shuttle doors with her arms crossed and a gently mocking, I-told-you-so grin on her face.

“Well then, Evke Rau,” she said, her eyes running over me from toe to crown. “What are you, truly – a man or woman?”

In answer, I only laughed.

The Song of Savi

Valina stared at The Song of Savi, certain she must have mistranslated. The text was, after all, some three centuries old, the fine vellum cracking and yellowed with age. Surely, the Song did not describe its titular hero as the feminine kze’kya, but rather the masculine kzi’kyo, and Valina’s tired eyes were to blame for the error. Even when morning-fresh, it was an easy mistake to make: this copy of the Song – the oldest on record, discovered last month only by chance – was written, not in Kemic, but Enascan, which language marked all vowels save two with flicks and dashes above the consonants, rather than rendering them as whole characters. If the ink had bled, it would be an easy thing to misread e and a for i and o.

But thought the ink had faded, the once-dark letters russet-tinged, the script was true, and as she stared at the traitor sentence, Valina’s heartbeat quickened. Enascan was a historically significant language, but in the two centuries since Prince Tasrin had famously composed an Enascan sonnet for Empress of Stars, who had mocked its cadences as guttural, coarse and utterly unromantic, unpopularity had rendered it increasingly obscure, first among the Kemic courtiers, who copied the prince’s disdain, and then, in a spreading wave of disinterest, among academics, who had no use for a dead language shunned by their noble patrons.

Which was why Valina’s precious copy of the Song had gone so long neglected: someone had misfiled it decades or maybe even centuries ago, relegating it to the depths of the Hazic University Library stacks in a box of Enascan trade manifolds, presumably on the basis that, as it was written in the same language, it must have belonged there. Only the curiosity of a lowly undergraduate, whose smattering of Enascan had seen him put in charge of updating that ancient catalogue, had rescued it from obscurity.

Kze’kya,’ Valina whispered, fingertips hovering over the crucial word. Beloved. Or, to render a closer translation in Kemic, beloved woman. Unquestionably, the appellation was applied to Savi, coming as it did in the famous passage where the nameless author adopted the voice of Savi’s lover, Ilaya, describing him on his return from the Battle of Jansat.

Except that here, Ilaya was praising a woman – and when Valina scanned ahead in the text, she saw the feminine form was repeated more than once, in configurations that sometimes treated it interchangeably with the masculine. Which, in Enascan, could only have been deliberate: their pronouns distinguished individuals on the basis of relative status, not sex, and though some of their words were considered gendered by dint of tradition rather than grammar, few varied their spelling or structure to state gender explicitly. Beloved was one such word, a term of endearment used almost exclusively to describe one’s sexual partner; child was another, and sure enough, when Valina jumped ahead to the section with Savi’s mother lamenting her son’s losses, both the male and female forms appeared.

Hands shaking only slightly, Valina tipped her chair back on two legs to reach the bookshelf, pulling out her well-thumbed copy of Rashi’s Compendium of Classic Verse. It contained what was considered to be the definitive version of the Song; which is to say, Rashi’s own Kemic translation by way of Yavinese. Scholars had always known the original was composed in Enascan, of course, but the lack of a written copy in that language had never been considered a scholarly failure, largely because Enascan poetry – and especially epic poetry, which the Song personified – belonged to an oral tradition. What verses and stories survived nowadays did so largely thanks to the Yavinese obsession with narrative preservation and, more rarely, through the first-hand accounts of Kemic scholars, Kem having been in its cultural infancy during Enasca’s fall.

The Song as popularly known was really an artistically licenced copy of a translation of a translation which, despite being the next-oldest copy to the one Valina now studied, could yet have been the Yavinese equivalent of Rashi’s own work; which is to say, the product of a Yavinese writer more concerned with poetry than accuracy, and who could just as easily have been rephrasing yet another Yavinese copy as directly transcribing the original. Much scholarly debate had already been had on this point over the years, but lack of evidence meant the matter had eventually died down. Valina’s translation, once she released it, would see it reignited. And much else besides, she thought, eyes straying again to that first, impossible word.

Still clutching Rashi’s Compendium, Valina set her jaw. She was, at present, one of just fifty women studying at Hazic University, and one of only a handful whose position was secured by the formal academic mentorship of a Master. Though her gender was, for some, incongruous enough to render her presence implicitly disruptive, she lacked the reputation for active conflict that some of her sisters were forced – or, occasionally, strove – to cultivate. That Valina had made no deliberate waves had nothing to do with her politics or, indeed, her personality. It was just that, given Enascan’s unpopularity as a subject, she had no male rivals within her own discipline and was therefore seen to pose no threat beyond it.

Even so, when the Song had been discovered and its significance realised, her Master’s decision to leave the pivotal first translation to Valina – to his student; to a woman – had scandalised the university fellows. Valina had escaped direct blame only because the issue was so demonstrably beyond her control: she and Master Jarrah were the only true Enascan scholars at Hazic; Jarrah’s eyesight was failing; and unless the fellows wanted to surrender their find – and therefore the credit of its revelations – to another institution, there was no choice but to let Valina translate under Jarrah’s supervision. The fellows had still grumbled and stalled, of course – hence the frustrating gap between the Song’s discovery and today’s commencement of her work – but the rivalry between Hazic and its nearest competitor, Ravinal, was strong enough to overcome even the barriers of gender. Mere hours ago, the fellows had finally met to settle the matter; there’d been some token debate, but when Master Zevis had quipped that ‘even the women of Hazic are better than Ravinal’s men, and what better way to prove it!’, Valina had finally been allowed to proceed. The vellum sheets of the Song had been passed to her by Master Jarrah himself, and once she’d carried them back to her rooms, she’d spent a good fifteen minutes simply staring in wonder.

However grudgingly, Valina had the support of the university fellows, for now. But if she produced a translation that was not merely accurate, but radical – if she did as her instincts told her, and pursued the question of the feminine words – then that tentative support would evaporate like so much mist. Even if Master Jarrah backed her interpretation – and despite his egalitarian treatment of her thus far, that was no sure thing – the other fellows didn’t read Enascan. They wouldn’t be able to verify Valina’s findings with their own eyes: it would be her word against their scepticism.

For a brief, awful moment, Valina contemplated the coward’s option: producing a translation whose commentary made no mention of the feminine words, or which did so only to dismiss them, and which might, in its inoffensiveness, even serve to lift the general scholarly opinion of women academics. See? such a gesture would say. We’re not all termagants and radicals. We can play nicely with your disdain, and you can congratulate yourselves on how unthreatened you feel by our good manners.

Valina’s inner voice at this moment bore a marked resemblance to that of her best friend, Sarathi, whose aesthetics and approach to life could both described as cordially acidic. Disgusted with herself for even considering it, Valina flung the Compendium down on her desk and ran an angry hand through her thick, black hair. She’d tied it back in a queue to work, but now as ever, her curls were proving difficult to contain, and after a moment’s hesitation, she freed them entirely.

Valina had never made waves before. But that didn’t mean she feared to make them now.

Resolved to investigate the linguistic mystery, she opened Rashi’s Compendium to the relevant page, weighted the book with a chunk of half-geode her brother had given her as a Year’s End gift, and cast about the desk for her own, handwritten copy of the little-known Yavinese version from which Rashi had derived his famous one. Valina’s mother was Yavinese, and though she’d inherited little from her in the way of looks – her tight curls, slender nose and dark copper skin were all classically Kemic features – she had a native’s proficiency with the language, such that she’d never needed to learn it at Hazic.

Arranging all three versions of the Song just so, and taking care that nothing overlapped the fragile Enascan vellum, Valina took up a fresh sheet of paper, dipped her quill, and copied out Rashi’s translation of Ilaya’s famous passage. Below it, she ventured a literal Kemic translation of the Yavinese, and underneath that, she did the same again with the Enascan. It was surprisingly difficult: Rashi’s version was so deeply embedded in her consciousness that, more than once, she had to resist the urge to substitute his more poetic phrases for own, despite their lesser accuracy. Still, she managed, and once she was done, she sanded the ink, waited for it to dry, and read the whole thing through again, scribbling marginalia in the right-hand space as she compared Enascan to Kemic, Kemic to Yavinese, Yavinese to Enascan.

In Rashi’s version, Ilaya sang:

There he is, my beloved Savi – saviour of Jansat! How I long
to run my fingers through his bright hair; how I long
to once more kiss the sweat from his brow, his shoulders,
stronger than the sturdiest aurochs; and how he will kiss me –
with passion, as the artist is passionate, his hands a cartographer’s hands
as they map my body; oh, my beloved, my beloved Savi!
I have yearned for you
as the weeping rain yearns for the ocean.

In Kemic, the allusions were all decidedly male, except for when Ilaya described herself. Words like ‘bright’, ‘artist’ and ‘passion’, though not intended to refer exclusively to men, were nonetheless coded as manly attributes by dint of being grammatically masculine, while the metaphors of strength and skill, the aurochs and the cartographer, were more overtly so. Both rain and the ocean, however, were feminine for the same reasons: just as water in all its forms was deemed the sacred provenance of the goddess Haliyeva, so were fire and the arts were presided over by the god Aravas, making the passage a deliberate, classic contrast between male and female, fire and water, strength and yielding. Even the word Rashi used for ‘kiss’ was a variant that implied heat and forcefulness, reflecting Savi’s strength.

But in Yavinese – both linguistically and culturally – the same lines had a very different flavour. Rendered without Rashi’s gift for scansion, but with Valina’s meticulous attention to literal meaning, Ilaya sang:

I see him approach, [weary] beloved Savi – conqueror of Jansat! How I wish
to card [my fingers through] his shining tresses; how I long
to kiss the sweat from his forehead, the lines of his shoulders,
muscular as a stag; and how he will [gently, slowly] kiss me –
with love, as those who create are loving, his hands a mapmaker’s hands
as they discover my body; oh, my beloved, my beloved Savi!
I desire you still
as the [heavy, summer] rain desires the [winter] ocean.

On one level, Valina supposed, you could see why Rashi had made certain of his changes, given that the deities of the Yavinese pantheon governed different things to their Kemic counterparts. There, the rain and sun – and therefore summer, as Yavin’s weather was monsoonal – were ruled by the sister goddesses Ina and Yava, while the ocean famously and frequently changed ownership, being the sole wager in an eternal game of zakh played by Ilin and Aris, the gods of dreams and chaos. To a Yavinese reader, Ilaya’s desire for Savi was therefore a more complicated thing than in Rashi’s version, the final lines deliberately evoking the tempestuous relationships between Ina, Yava, Ilin and Aris, who were, in deference to their pantheon’s peculiar fixation on dramatic infidelity, constantly hopping in and out of one another’s beds.

(Valina was not a very devout person, but where she felt polite indifference to all Kemic gods save Haliyeva, to whom she sometimes made offerings, her mother’s stories had instilled in her a feeling that the many Yavinese deities were like a flock of distantly raucous relatives whose exploits were exclaimed over at family gatherings: which is to say, she felt for them an affectionate, if cynical sort of deference, all while hoping never to meet one in person.)

Other scholars had noted, of course, that Savi did not save Jansat in the Yavinese version, but rather conquered it. Again, Valina wasn’t surprised at the Kemic alteration, given that the battle in question represented a Yavinese loss to Enascan forces, while Savi went on to become, both literally and figuratively, the forefather of modern Kem, but in changing this detail, Rashi also changed the tone of the passage. His Ilaya was exultant, uplifted by the sight of her triumphant lover; Yavinese Ilaya, by contrast, expressed an air of melancholy in her initial use of the word virinaqui, ‘weary beloved’, as distinct from the more possessive kuynaqui – ‘my beloved’ – used later. The number of discrete Yavinese terms that existed purely to describe one’s relationship to a spouse or lover with specific reference to their mood, your mood or the alignment of the celestial spheres was, Valina thought wryly, yet another reflection of that culture’s sexually rowdy pantheon. Kemic gods were seldom so adventurous; which was, perhaps, why they bored her in comparison.

Less obviously, however – or at least, less obviously if you only looked at each detail in isolation – were the changes to Savi’s character. Rashi described Savi’s hair as ‘bright’ rather than ‘shining’, ignoring the traditionally feminine undertones the latter word had in Yavinese, and especially when paired with ‘tresses’, which suggested someone with longer hair. Changing ‘stag’ to ‘aurochs’ was another telling tweak. Deer were more common in Yavin, while the aurochs had been native to Enasca, but Kemic readers would still have understood the allusion. But stag or doe, deer were not considered a masculine creature in Kem, but a feminine one – as, indeed, they were in Yavin. Even the longed-for kiss was different, gentle rather than bruising, the softer Yavinese ‘love’ replaced by the harder Kemic ‘passion’, and Valina felt an odd stab of anger at Rashi’s presumption in changing that, too, as though Savi was somehow unmanned by Ilaya’s wish to be treated tenderly.

Little things, but significant: Rashi wanted his hero to seem more masculine than the Yavinese would have him, more firmly contrasted with Ilaya’s femininity. Not a crime, but not strictly accurate, either, and though this was only a single passage in a much longer work, Valina had a tingling intuition that, were she to pay such close triple attention to the entire Song – and she fully intended to do so – other such adjustments would stand out. But Rashi, whatever his motives, had never read the Song in Enascan, as Valina now had the privilege of doing, and though he might have guessed what the Yavinese hid, he couldn’t truly have known.

Because in Enascan, Savi was, if not quite inarguably female, given the few instances where masculine and feminine forms were used interchangeably, then certainly, he – or she – or they – was something other than simply male. There, Ilaya sang:

I see my beloved [woman], Savi, approaching, [heavily] burdened with Jansat. How I wish
to brush their flashing [like a river] hair; how I wish
to kiss the sweat from their forehead, the curve of their shoulders,
lithe [and strong] as a deer’s; and how they will kiss me [with their honeyed mouth] –
with love, as those who create [living things] are loving, their hands turned mapmaker
as we rediscover their body [and mine]; oh, my beloved [woman], my beloved [man], Savi!
I desire you still [but not in the way I did once]
as the [spring] rain desires [and comforts] the [swelling] ocean.

Slackjawed, Valina dropped her quill.

‘Gods and girls in a cericot brothel,’ she whispered. ‘Haliyeva’s blood.’

In Enascan, the word used to describe Savi’s hair, the one that meant ‘flashing like a river’, implied its considerable length; as did Ilaya’s stated desire, not to finger-comb it, as per the Yavinese or Kemic versions, but to brush it. Savi was neither the saviour nor conqueror of Jansat, but ‘heavily burdened’ by it, a word with literal, physical connotations as well as metaphoric ones. The deer to which Savi was compared had no gender, with litheness an express quality in the comparison as well as strength: Savi was not a big person, and they were sweet-mouthed, tasting of honey. Combined with the telltale kze’kya – beloved woman – every detail, when filtered through the lens of Enascan culture, suggested femininity.

But this is not what made the breath catch in Valina’s throat.

She’d missed the significance, somehow, the first few times she read it, still too confused by the unexpected gendering to grasp its later implications. The Enascan zhivalinu was a difficult term to translate in either Yevinese or Kemic, largely because it had so many subtleties. It was a complex, sacred word applied to those who created life, such as deities, gardeners, and – in particular – mothers, and if not for what came next, Valina might still have convinced herself its usage was only metaphoric. But Ilaya spoke of rediscovering the body of someone both male and female; someone she desired, but differently to before, in the manner of nourishing something that already prospered.

In Enascan mythology, the god of spring, Naki, had as his consort a perpetually pregnant ocean goddess, Kidai. Not all of her many children were sired by Naki, but as he was also a god of fertility, it was nonetheless held that they belonged to him, and in Enascan myth, he loved them no less for that. Kidai was often described as the ‘swelling ocean’ – it was one of her formal titles – and many bawdy Enascan jokes made reference to Naki’s ‘spring rain’.

‘Gods,’ said Valina again, unable to wrap her head around it.

Savi had returned from Jansat pregnant.

Suddenly, a great deal that had always seemed confusing about the Song – and which Valina, like every other scholar, had attributed either to Yavinese error or the inaccuracies of oral tradition as a medium – made a great deal of sense. Savi and Ilaya’s child being born a mere five months after the former’s return from war was not, as was widely argued, the result of either a timeslip between the Enascan and Yavinese calendars or infidelity on Ilaya’s part, but the literal truth. The section where, in Rashi’s translation, Savi ‘screamed triumphant’ when his son was born, so overcome with feeling that he briefly collapsed, was not an incongruous, comic exaggeration of masculine pride in fatherhood, but – as Valina quickly confirmed, once more comparing the three texts – the result of Yavinese confusion, or perhaps wilful obstinacy, as to which of the two was actually giving birth.

Goosebumps prickled Valina’s skin with each new revelation. In Rashi’s version, the child – Liarin – was described thusly:

Graceful, steady – bright Liarin:
Ilaya’s child in looks, with Savi’s will;
and yet a third spirit, wild and tender,
flourished where fate had sown it.

Always, the ‘third spirit’ was taken to be an allegory for inherent virtue: that part of any child that comes neither from father nor mother, but from themselves alone. The Yavinese translation, too, supported this thesis; Rashi’s verse copied it closely, and even when rendered in Valina’s unpoetic literalism, it still read almost identically. The Enascan version, however, was wholly different:

Graceful, steady – shining Liarin;
child of a mother’s heart, a father’s will;
and yet unknown, the spirit of that third wild, tender sire
flourished in them too, where fate
had sown them.

The more Valina read, the more she understood; and the more she understood, the angrier she became. She tried, at first, to give that unknown Yavinese translator the benefit of the doubt; to assume they had simply misunderstood the question of Savi’s gender, confused by the combination of Enascan pronouns and poetic phrasing. And perhaps, at the very edge of her charity, it was still so – the result, not of malice, but ignorance. There was no word in Yavinese for one whose gender did not match their sex, or whose expression of it shifted, as Savi’s clearly did, from day to day and place to place. Well, Valina thought savagely, I say there is no word for it – no polite word, certainly, beyond whatever secret terms are used as self-description. There were, however, plenty of well-known slurs, and in that moment, Valina might have felt personally betrayed by half her heritage, if not for the fact that Kem and Kemic, until very recently, had been no better.

Nowadays, it was strange for Valina to think there’d ever been a time in her adult life when she hadn’t known about cericot brothels, increasingly reputable establishments that were the sexual refuge of, as the current slang had it, sly girls, shy boys, harivets, drakes and lillies. But then, when your best friend worked in one, it was hard to stay ignorant, and even if she’d never been so fortunate as to cross paths with Sarathi, Valina had a native dislike of ignorance, and especially her own. When Sarathi had explained, in response to her naïve enquiry, that cericot was, quite literally, a bastardised contraction of ceramic cock, in honour of her professional tupping apparatus, wielded on men and women both, Valina had blushed hot and strong for five full seconds; and then, typically, her curiosity won out over embarrassment, and she’d spent almost the next two hours peppering Sarathi with follow-up questions. Friendship came to them as naturally as swimming did to fish, and now Valina’s social circle included, not just the expected female academics and smattering of tolerant male ones, but several of Sarathi’s colleagues – called cerries, a term originally meant to demean, yet swiftly adopted and consequently rehabilitated by those to whom it applied – some of whom professed to be neither male nor female, or whose ownership of either term was prone to fluctuation, as if their blood was a tidal ocean swayed by some secret moon.

It was a surprisingly lovely thought, and an increasingly applicable one, the more Valina considered it. The moon was always the moon, but each of its phases had different names and a different significance depending on when it fell, or who was looking. If the moon could be harvest and sickle, waxed or waned in its presentation, yet still be the moon and the sacred eye of Haliyeva, then who was to say a person could not be male and female, sly or slipped or any other thing, and still be a person, too?

I was ignorant once, Valina reminded herself. But when Sarathi came along, she hadn’t fought the new learning, as so many men did the admission of women to the universities, nor had she sought to correct it in turn, as the Yavinese translator had. Yet who was she to judge, from the distance of three hundred years or more? She ran her hands down her face, abruptly exhausted. Perhaps the translator had shared Valina’s own fears of reprisal, had they accurately translated the Song. Perhaps they had a disbelieving Master of their own, who’d commanded them keep the secret. Or maybe – and this was a sobering thought – they truly had produced an accurate version, only to have it altered, the original forgotten.

Perhaps Valina’s own work, too, would suffer such a fate.

Briefly, the prospect chilled her, before giving way to the fire of renewed determination. If she was to be silenced, then first, she was determined to make a noise worth hearing.

All exhaustion banished, she began to work feverishly, returning to the start of the Song and starting a new, triple-checked translation. Her desk, which had hardly been tidy to start with, became exponentially messier, ink-smudged and paper-strewn as she set down page after page, the margins crammed with annotations in Kemic, Enascan, Yavinese. She wrote until her hand cramped, eyes blurring in the candlelight, but still she continued, too frenzied to stop until the task was done. She almost laughed to think that her initial plan – reverent, cautious, bare hours past – had involved translating only the first few pages, the better to draw the project out; to produce something worthy of Master Jarrah’s trust; of Rashi’s legacy, even. Now, though, she needed evidence: a translation strong and true enough that her Master, at least, might accept her conclusions. How easy some men find it, she thought, to deny the truths of a language not their own, as though the words themselves were flawed, and not their understanding.

Valina worked through the night, and The Song of Savi flowed from her hand to the page with all the torrential certainty of water running downhill.

When she finally stopped, the outside light had changed from steel grey to a lighter slate, tinged here and there with salmon. Dawn had come, and as she stretched her spasming fingers, Valina walked to the window and smiled grimly, wincing at the knots in her back. Her translation did no justice to Rashi, but honoured the Enascan; honoured Savi, whose song had been sung so many times, but seldom truthfully. She stared at the half-moon, fading from the sky like a lover’s wink, and winged a silent prayer to Haliyeva, Ina and Kidai.

Let them believe me. Let me speak the truth.

And then, legs shaking with fear and nervous exhaustion, she locked the Song away for safekeeping, gathered up her wayward notes, took the iron key from its peg by the door, and headed off in search of Master Jarrah.

As a regular student, Valina had shared a boardhouse near the university with three other women, a tidy, noisy, bustling place that forced her to do the bulk of her translations at the university library. As Master Jarrah’s apprentice, however, she rated a small apartment on the campus itself, and thus lived almost within a stone’s throw of the Fellows’ Square, so-called because many senior academics occupied the upper levels. Jarrah was such a one, and as Valina ascended the old stone stairs, she became hyperaware of the telltale clicking sound her shoes made as she walked. Though she was tall enough to have no need of the current fashion for height-extending footwear – and practical enough in any case to mistrust it on general principle – her soles were nonetheless distinctive, louder than the softer thudding of male boots. At Hazic, the male students sometimes joked that they could hear a woman’s approach from two buildings away, and while the jibe had never truly bothered Valina – why should it, when there was so much worse to endure in the way of taunts? – now, it made her feel clumsy, conspicuous, obvious.

By the time she’d knocked on Master Jarrah’s door, she was sweating all over and starting to second-guess herself. She looked a mess, with ink on her hands and cheeks and clothes; gods, it wasn’t even fully dawn! She ought to have waited, ought to have taken the time to wash and change and get herself in good order before barging across to wake an old man from slumber –

Master Jarrah opened the door, took one look Valina, and briefly shut his eyes in an expression so intensely full of emotion, she could scarcely interpret it – relief, maybe, or exasperation. She gulped, her throat unaccountably dry, and then Jarrah looked at her again, and said, in a softer than usual voice, ‘I’ve been expecting you, Vali. Come in.’

Hesitantly, Valina did so. She’d seen her Master’s rooms before, of course, but their contents were eclectic enough that she was yet to lose her fascination with them. Jarrah was a collector – a hoarder, according to Master Zevis – and his towering shelves were laden with curios. The Enascan artefacts stood out to her eye, but there was also Yavinese glasswork, statues and carvings and innumerable goods from places Valina had barely heard of, and, above all, books and tablets, scrolls and papers, all vying for the limited space like a motley band of limpets clinging to the same overburdened rock.

As Jarrah took up his customary seat by the fire, motioning Valina to take her usual place opposite, she noticed two things: firstly, that the Master was fully dressed, as though he’d never retired to bed; and secondly, that all his lamps were lit, though the university servants didn’t begin their morning shift for another few hours. Her pulse leapt.

‘You waited for me?’ she asked, though it wasn’t really a question.

‘I waited,’ said Jarrah, ‘for Savi.’

Valina inhaled sharply, studying her Master. Even by the standards of the university fellows – who, with the notable exception of Master Zevis, both looked and acted as though they’d all been born at the age of forty-five – he was an old man, well into his eighties, his bald pate gleaming against what remained of his hair, his kinky curls turned white and cropped close to the scalp. He was usually clean-shaven, but at this hour, his jaw was subtly bristled with silver. His skin was the same Kemic copper as Valina’s, but where her eyes were dark brown, Jarrah’s were blue, a piercing shade whose intensity yet defied his failing sight.

‘Tell me, Vali,’ Jarrah said, his thin fingers gripping his knees. ‘Tell me about the Song.’

And Valina did – haltingly at first, heart clenched against the possibility of pre-emptive dismissal, but as Master Jarrah made no move to interrupt, she steadily relaxed, excitement at her discovery colouring her voice. She forgot to be afraid; forgot everything but The Song of Savi – the real Song, as she thought of it now, or as close to that first, spoken version as she could ever hope to come. Valina was so absorbed, in fact, that it wasn’t until she’d finished her closing arguments that she realised Jarrah was crying.

She froze in her chair, completely at a loss. As with the first kze’kya that had started it all, she almost didn’t believe it, though the evidence was scarcely four feet away. Master Jarrah wept silently, beatifically, the smile on his face an expression of pure joy; and yet, undeniably, he wept, and the sight stirred something so deep in Valina’s heart that she almost cried, too, even without quite understanding why.

And yet, on some level, she did understand, and as she stared at Master Jarrah, the reason found its way to her mouth and popped on her tongue like a bubble.

‘You knew,’ she said – and then again, disbelievingly: ‘You knew?’

‘I suspected,’ said Jarrah, laughing as he wiped the tears from his cheeks. ‘Ever since I first read the Yavinese, I suspected something was amiss. We Kemic love to claim a cultural descent from Enasca, but the language, Vali! Even with so much history lost or distorted, so much purposefully destroyed, their language remains; and their language is not like ours at all. Their pronouns were old and utterly ungendered; right away, that tells you something crucial about how they perceived themselves, the relevant lines of distance. Have you ever noticed that all their grammatically gendered words are later linguistic additions – loanwords, derivatives, new inventions? Of course you haven’t,’ Jarrah said, not unkindly, as Valina shook her head. ‘It took me years of study to pick up on it, and I’ve never published about it. Who would have listened, eh? Who would’ve cared?’

‘I would,’ said Valina, quietly. ‘I do.’

They shared a moment of silence; at which point, something else occurred to her.

‘Master,’ she said carefully, ‘if you knew – if you suspected –’

‘Why didn’t I say anything?’

She nodded. He laughed.

‘Confirmation bias, Vali. I wanted to see if you’d reach the same conclusions on your own. I was worried –’ his hands clenched, trembled; stilled again, ‘– after so many years, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been fooling myself; if wanting to see Savi as someone different, someone radical, was all just born of bitterness at my own obscurity, at… at hiding.’

There was a pointed pause. Jarrah looked steadily at Valina, and all at once, she understood, the knowledge clicking into place like a once-dislocated shoulder. On some level, she’d always wondered why the other fellows never joked that she’d slept her way into Jarrah’s favour, though they made such remarks with clockwork inevitability about every other apprenticed woman. Now, it made perfect sense.

‘Oh,’ she said, inadequately.

Jarrah’s smile was a small, complex thing, and though it was ostensibly directed at Valina, it remained, in essence, utterly private. ‘I’ve often envied you your cerrie friends,’ he said. ‘They seem a lively bunch.’

‘They are, sir,’ she said, and was about to extend him an invitation to meet them some time – or to meet Sarathi, at least – when he suddenly sat bolt upright, staring urgently at her.

‘Savi gave birth?’ he asked, breathless. ‘I always thought he was a man like me, but if you’re right – Vali, gods, show me the passage again, bring it closer, here –’

She tugged her chair closer, passing him the relevant pages. She’d copied out the whole of that particular section in both Kemic and Enascan, and as she watched, Master Jarrah mouthed the latter version, as though taking it into himself.

‘Gods,’ he said again, and sat back dazedly. ‘Oh, Vali, Vali. Don’t you see?’

‘See what?’ said Valina, thoroughly confused.

Jarrah closed his eyes. ‘After Ilaya’s death, when Savi fled the fall of Enasca, he travelled to Kem and eventually married Princess Emasurin. They founded a dynasty together, Vali. Our dynasty. The King’s dynasty. And, thanks to the wonders of royal intermarriage, the current Yavinese dynasty, too.’ His eyes snapped open, blue as sapphires. ‘Except, apparently, they didn’t.’

Valina’s mouth fell open. Unbidden, the lines of the song came back to her, and she recited them without thinking:

‘Child of a mother’s heart, a father’s will;
and yet unknown, the spirit of that third wild, tender sire
flourished in them too, where fate
had sown them.’

‘Well-spoken,’ said Jarrah. ‘And very accurate. Which leaves us with something of a problem.’ He tapped the tips of his fingers together. ‘Kem is changing, Vali. You know it; I know it. More, it needs to change. Like children, countries need stability with which to grow, but change with which to flourish. The Song is part of our national identity, and like it or not, whatever we do next – whatever we say or withhold, and how we present our findings – will impact that. If we go straight to the other Masters, they’ll likely try to discredit us and bury the findings. Not that they’ll succeed, of course – too many people know we have the Song; someone else is bound to want a crack at it – but then again, they might just destroy it.’

‘They wouldn’t dare!’ Valina exclaimed, but even as she spoke, she felt the naivety of it. She waited quietly, contrite, as Jarrah continued.

‘We could, though it pains me to even suggest it, ask the fellows at Ravinal to endorse us instead, but there’s no guarantee they’d be more sympathetic, even if it meant stealing an academic march on Hazic.’ He rubbed his forehead. ‘We could go to the crown, of course – assuming we managed to gain an audience – but I can’t imagine His Majesty would be too pleased, either. Or, well.’ He tilted his head, considering. ‘We could always dig into the archives, see who’d legally inherit if we traced the alternate descent from Emasurin’s sister, but –’

‘Why should it matter?’ Valina said, suddenly. ‘We know Emasurin carried her own children; royal births always had witnesses, even back then, and she was set to inherit the crown regardless. The King might not share Savi’s bloodline, but he’s still Emasurin’s descendent, and Savi claimed all their children. Legally, they weren’t cuckoos; we might know better now, but that doesn’t change their legitimacy.’

‘You’re likely right,’ said Jarrah. ‘But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still those who’d want it kept quiet on principal.’

‘Whatever we decide,’ said Valina, slowly, ‘there’s going to be consequences. For everyone, potentially, but most of all, for us.’

‘Yes.’ Jarrah offered her an apologetic smile. ‘And that, I think, is why the choice will have to be yours alone.’

‘Mine?’

‘Yours.’

Valina swallowed. ‘We can’t decide together?’

‘We could,’ said Master Jarrah, ‘but whatever happens next, I won’t have to live with the consequences; or at least, not for long. I’m an old man, Vali, and the world is changing. Age must give way gracefully to youth, and I fully intend to do so.’

‘Oh.’

He smiled again, reaching across the distance to squeeze her hand. ‘Take your time,’ he said. ‘There’s no rush yet, and you’re clearly exhausted. Sleep on it.’

As though his words were a spell, Valina slumped, her much-delayed weariness settling in with a vengeance. ‘Sleep,’ she said, yawning around the word. ‘Gods be good, I could do with some of that.’

‘The sofa is quite comfortable, I’ve been told,’ said Master Jarrah, and as though it was the most natural thing in the world, Valina rose, set her papers on the table, staggered over to the couch, and promptly collapsed in a heap. She had just enough awareness to register a blanket being draped over her shoulders, and then she was gone.

Her sleep was deep and utterly dreamless, as heavy as Savi on the road from Jansat. When Valina finally woke again, she was dry-mouthed, cramped and disoriented, blinking back into consciousness. Remembering where she was, she rolled on her side and stared at Master Jarrah’s crowded shelves. It suddenly occurred to her that Master Zevis called the collection of items a hoard only because he didn’t see the value in everything there. Jarrah’s possessions weren’t meant to impress his colleagues, but to please himself, and they suited the purpose admirably.

‘There’s tea, if you’d like some,’ Jarrah said, his soft voice startling Valina out of her reverie. She sat up, feeling a little sheepish, and gratefully accepted a cup whose contents smelled of lemon and sweetgrass. It was a blend she’d always favoured, and she felt oddly touched that Jarrah had remembered.

Outside, the afternoon light was warm and golden, filtering in through a tall glass window. From where she sat, Valina could just see the spire of the university library, a spike of creamy stone against a cloudless blue sky.

Valina set down her cup and turned to Master Jarrah. ‘I know what we ought to do,’ she said. ‘But I think I’m afraid to do it.’

‘Good,’ said Jarrah, firmly. ‘It means you’re paying attention.’

Valina laughed. ‘I suppose it does,’ she said. ‘Well, then. Good. Well.’ She took a breath. ‘The Song has always been the heart of Kem and her people, so I think we should turn its history – and its future – over to them. Spread the word so far, so fast that it can’t be stifled. Let the Kemic decide what it means, that our King has an unknown ancestor, and that Savi was slipped, neither female nor male, and won the Battle of Jansat while carrying a child.’

‘Bold,’ said Jarrah. ‘Very bold, Vali. In theory, I agree. But who can we trust to help us see it copied and shared? Tell the wrong person too early, and we might as well just go to the Masters now.’

Valina bit her lip. She would have liked to trust that the other female students at Hazic would see the significance of her find and help her out of solidarity, but they, too, had good reason to fear reprisals. Besides which, any opprobrium that fell on Valina herself would likely besmirch them, too, however unfairly; the least she could do was give them the space to truthfully deny their involvement with her. Valina’s inner voice once more turned biting at the thought of what Sarathi would have to say about that; pragmatism was one thing, but liking its necessity was another.

Sarathi.

‘The cerries,’ Valina breathed, staring at Master Jarrah. ‘Sarathi, my friend, her friends – who benefits more from the truth of the Song than they do? The cerries are literate, ubiquitous, known, and like it or not, they’re connected to everyone. We give the Song to Sarathi, and it’ll spread through the brothels like fire!’

Jarrah reached out and grabbed her hand, his blue eyes bright as stars.

‘Do it, Vali,’ he whispered. ‘Go and do something worth telling new songs about.’

Shining like Liarin, wild with will and the truth of Savi, Valina set forth to remake Kem.

Foz Meadows is a genderqueer fantasy author, essayist, reviewer, blogger and poet. She has most recently published An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens with Angry Robot, and Coral Bones with Rebellion; a full list of her publications can be found here. Foz is a reviewer for Strange Horizons, a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate, and a repeat contributor to the podcast Geek Girl Riot. Her essays have appeared in various venues online, including The Mary SueA Dribble Of Ink and The Book Smugglers. She is a two-time Hugo Award nominee for Best Fan Writer in 2014 and 2017, and won the 2017 Ditmar Award for Best Fan Writer, having also been nominated in 2014 and 2016. In 2017, An Accident of Stars was a finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards.
Foz currently lives in Brisbane with not enough books, her very own philosopher and their voluble spawn. Surprisingly, this is a good thing.