By Mary Robinette Kowal
When the matriarch announced that she was sending the sixteen members of Pimi’s small-family across the ocean to settle in Repp-Virja, Pimi thought it the end of her life. For though she had seen only seventeen full years, Pimi considered herself ready to fill her crop and begin the social rounds, seeking a mate. Her mother and the matriarch felt otherwise, though how they could expect her to find a mate in a strange, sideways land like the colonies was beyond Pimi’s understanding.
But Pimi packed her luggage and prepared to leave the warm underground rooms of their home. Before her small-family departed, the matriarch held a feast to fill everyone’s crop for the voyage. The gas lights gave a gentle glow to the Deep Hall. Four stations with each of the food families, nuts, fruit, dairy, and grain, stood in corners of the room. Like the two fingers on a hand, the nuts and dairy stood at one end of the room; the fruit and grain at the other end represented a hand’s two thumbs. Each a distinct group, but vital for grasping life.
Assigned to the fruit dishes, Pimi ate until her crop distended the spotted green and amber skin of her belly like a bride’s. She adjusted her tunic to show off her growing roundness.
Pimi’s older sister, Ero, hissed in amusement. “Are you readying yourself for a bridegroom?”
Pimi’s toes curled and gripped the ground in anger. “No.” Perhaps her crop was not so like a bride’s as she might wish; she still only rounded out to an adolescent’s half-orb, not burgeoning into the sleek sphere for which she longed.
“Good. My turn is next.” Ero adjusted the scarf around her head to show off as much of her fine smooth scalp as propriety would allow. The flat bone of her ear plates barely peeked from the edges of the scarf. She had widened the blue spots above her eyes with paint, enhancing the grace of their pattern. The spots lightened as they continued down her face, past her perfectly round black eyes, until they almost vanished around her nose so that her chin and neck were smooth, pale and nearly white.
Pimi’s own amber and green complexion was the more common, a thing of which Ero never failed to remind her. That, combined with her mannishly small stature, made her feel as if she would never find a mate.
Pimi glanced sideways at the engorged belly of their mother. As was natural, Mother would serve as the small-family’s replete for the journey. When full, her crop would hold enough to feed them sweetly flavored pap for the half-month voyage. She reclined on a couch accepting food from the hands of their deep-family. Pimi’s cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings wore their Fest Day tunics. Red and orange scarves lay over their scalps and fluttered about their shoulders like fire, as they carried dishes to Mother. Her long, slender limbs lay in beautiful contrast to her speckled blue belly, which ballooned onto the floor.
When Pimi became a bride, her crop would be that large.
* * * *
On the seventh day of Planting Month, Pimi’s small-family boarded a Tep-Tep’s steamship bound for Repp-Virja. The captain lowered a special winch to bring Mother on board, as it was impossible for her to navigate the narrow plank spanning the gap between the dock and the steamship. On board, the ship’s crew ran about preparing the steamer for departure, their flat bellies illustrating the adage, “straight as a sailor’s crop.” From time to time, they darted into the shade where the vessel’s replete fed them lest they faint from hunger. Larger than any replete Pimi had ever seen, veins marbled his green and white skin.
Mother and the other passengers’ repletes took their places beside him. Each seemed like a child next to his vastness, though Pimi’s mother was quite the most attractive of the lot.
Around her, passengers scurried to stow their belongings. Winged irarad wheeled above the ship, chattering their excitement. Light shown through the thin skin of their wings, turning them into red stained glass. The ocean slapped against the wooden sides of the vessel, but the ship was massive enough that Pimi barely felt the motion. She stood at the railing waving at her deep-family members until long after they had become indistinguishable from the shoreline.
When she left the rail, her mother beckoned her over to the replete’s area. There, an attendant rubbed salve over the skin of a passenger’s replete. Another dozed, snoring softly.
“Speak, Pimi-min.” Mother’s crop billowed out into a beautiful blue orb. She held out her arm so Pimi could nestle beside her. “Why are you moping?”
Pimi snuggled against her mother, careful not to touch her crop without permission. “I do not mean to,” she said carefully.
“I will not apologize for taking you away from your deep-Family. It is needful for the status of our dynasty– You are needed if we are to establish a new branch of House Kejari in Repp-Virja. You are my natural daughter and I expect you to behave as such.” Mother tilted Pimi’s head back. “But I am sorry that you are sad.”
Pimi ducked her head away and played with the edge of her tunic. “Are there really savages in Repp-Virja?”
“No! Who told you that?”
“I saw them in Opperad’s play, The Vessel Laughed.”
“Truth, Pimi. You know the difference between fiction and fact.” She pulled her arm away. “Don’t say anything like that to Matriarch Imji. She’ll think the handmaid’s blight has got your brain.”
“I won’t embarrass you.”
The waves passed them by and Pimi thought for a moment that her mother would not answer, but she sighed. “No. No, I trust that you will not.”
Pimi saluted her and headed below deck, trying to sway with graceful majesty. Someday, her mother would see that for all her small stature, she was not newly-hatched.
* * * *
As the Tep-Tep’s crew tied up the steamer at the dock in Repp-Virja, the sun beat down, trying to set Pimi’s red headscarf on fire. Irarad wheeled overhead here, as they had at home. Beyond the gliders and the ocean, everything else had changed.
Pimi stared at the white stone spires of Repp-Virja. In addition to the traditional burrow markers, fully-half of the spires seemed to have structures attached to them as if their homes were not safely below ground. Crowds of people swarmed past the waterfront. Flowing robes, the color of marble, cloaked the passers-by. Their headscarves twined around their heads, wrapping their scalps in snug layers of pale cloth. Pimi’s saffron tunic glared beacon-bright against the muted colors of Repp-Virja.
Ero gestured with her chin. “Would you look at that. The entire city is starving.”
Only a few of the robes bellied outward and not a single bare crop showed. When the robes swung open, they showed narrow waists, bound tightly with ribbon. Not savages, but strange as a dayfruit in Deep Winter.
Her mother, tall and commanding with blue freckles spattering her skin like rain, crossed in front of Pimi. A light silk truss bound the loose skin of her belly. “Do not gawk. I expect my children to make me proud, not to stare about like uncivilized provincials.”
By the time the carriage arrived at the matriarch’s cousin’s home, Pimi had become convinced that she should have begged the matriarch to let her stay in Arropp-Yraja.
Only the gas lights in Matriarch Imji’s home bore any resemblance to what Pimi expected from a Deep House. Tall narrow windows stood open in constant reminder that they were above ground. Sailor-thin servants filled the foyer with pallid silks, almost disappearing against the white walls. All of them had the same tight ribbons binding their waists that Pimi had seen on the streets. She did not see how they could do their work without fainting from hunger.
A woman swooped up the grand ramp, her waist bound so tightly that it curved inward. She dipped her head in a gesture of welcome. “Speak, Matriarch Kejari!”
Mother tilted her head back, indicating that she accepted the hospitality. “We thank you for your welcome, Matriarch Imji.”
Stifling a gasp, Pimi looked again at this woman and then around the foyer at the other people. Now she noticed the richness of the fabrics; these were not servants, but members of House Imaji, bound tightly as if they were bragging about their empty crops.
“The pleasure is ours.” Matriarch Imji’s intricately wound headscarf framed her face, showing off the deep blue spots on her brow and the gentle line of her neck. The speckling continued down her neck and arms. “This must be your family. So… exotic.” Her gaze darted down to their bellies, all proudly full to show their prosperity, and her lips twitched.
Pimi wanted to tug the fabric of her tunic over her belly to shield it from Matriarch Imji’s disdain, but it was cut to hang open. She tilted her head back in cordial greeting and waited to be bid to speak.
Matriarch Imji turned slightly away and raised her arm. A double-handful of boys and girls came at her call, each with the grotesque bindings constricting their waists. She paired one of Pimi’s family with each, until only Pimi, the youngest, was left. Matriarch Imji turned to the blue and amber boy remaining.
“Duurir, will you host Kejaridoti Pimi?”
“It would be my delight, Mother.” He inclined his head to Pimi. “Speak, Pimi. May I host you this evening?”
“I thank you for your welcome.” Her toes curled. He had called Matriarch Imji “Mother,” which meant he was her small-family son. The House of Imarja was reckoned as one of the great Dynasty Houses in Repp-Virja and Matriarch Imji had not passed her off to a mere nephew. She had asked her son, her natural son, to host Pimi.
Duurir scratched his chin. “Mother tells me you are from Aaropp-Yraarja.”
As if that were not obvious. Pimi looked down at the floor, the pollen-yellow of her tunic a blazing tribute to her foreign origin. “Yes, we’ve only just arrived…” Her voice trailed away. What an idiot. Of course they had just arrived.
Duurir drew Pimi to one of the tall windows. “Our deep-family came from Aaropp-Yraarja five generations ago but I have not been farther than the next state. How do you find Repp-Virja so far?”
Strange, disconcerting, too hot. “Beautiful. At home our houses are underground and do not have views as expansive.”
“Truth? Parts of our house are underground, in the old style, but few build that way now because the breezes help with Deep Summer heat.”
“At home, the snows of Deep Winter were of more concern.”
“We only get snow on the mountains.” Duurir pushed the curtain aside and leaned out the window. “You can just see the mountains from here.”
Through a narrow gap between the tall white buildings, peeked the deep purple of the mountain range to the south of the city. Duurir placed a hand on her back, guiding her to stand before him. “There. See the tall peak?” He was tall for a man and slid an arm over her shoulder so he could point. Her gaze traveled down the muscled length of his arm, past his pointing finger to a blue peak which pushed above the other mountains.
“Yes.” Her voice was a whisper.
“I study astronomy at the observatory there.”
“I’ve never met an astronomer before.” Pimi winced inside. Such a stupid thing to say. Now he would think her uneducated as well.
“Funny. Most of the fellows I know are astronomers.” The warmth of his body radiated through her tunic.
Duurir jumped when Matriarch Imji clapped her hands together four times. “My dear friends, we have prepared a meal to welcome you. Please. Join us.”
Pimi followed Duurir and the others into a large, sunny room where more of House Imaji joined them. Instead of small tables with bowls of food around the perimeter of the room, one long empty table spanned the center. Couches circled the table, as if they were expected to dine seated like a replete. Windows let cool breezes waft through like additional guests.
Matriarch Imji moved to one end of the long table. Duurir led Pimi to a pair of couches and, once he was certain of her comfort, seated himself on the couch to her left so that his head faced hers. When everyone was settled, the double doors at the far end of the room opened.
A replete stood in the doorway, his crop so full that it did not seem possible for him to support his own weight. He held two padded mallets in his hands.
Pimi inhaled with recognition; he was a water drummer. She had never seen one outside of a temple before.
Leaning backward so that his back arced like a bow, he took two agonizing steps forward. There he stood until a servant slid a tall stool beneath him. The replete rested on this, raised the mallets and began drumming on his belly. The muted tones seemed to both fill the room and come from elsewhere, evoking the sound of a flock of varamid galloping across the steppe. He began to sing, weaving the sounds of wind and rain into the syncopated rhythm. His breath reflected each mallet strike outward in song.
Pimi leaned forward on her couch, breathless with delight. Around her, Matriarch Imji’s family continued their conversations, not recognizing the extraordinariness of the occasion. She glanced at Duurir, anxious to know if she were the only one for whom this was an exceptional event.
He was watching her, eyes half-lidded with pleasure. “May I guess that water-drummers are a rarity in Aaropp-Yraarja?”
The blood left her face in embarrassment; she must look so provincial. “I’ve never seen one outside the temple.”
“I did not mean to embarrass you. It is nice to see someone else enjoy the music.” Duurir gestured languidly at the rest of the room, at his family chatting, but did not say another word. They listened to the rest of the water-drummer’s song in silence.
The doors behind the water-drummer opened again and a stream of servants flooded past him, each bearing a plate of food. Their tunics belled out from their bodies around the smooth arc of full crops. These were not ostentatiously full, but the gentle swell representative of a day’s meal.
Pimi shifted on her couch as she understood: only the servants carried food in their crops here. Her vision lurched, and the beautiful orb of her mother’s crop became a grotesque bloating.
In crisp synchronization, the servants set identical plates between each couple. The white porcelain gleamed under the gaslights; skyberries on flatbread. Pimi did not want to eat anything. She was already larger than the servants.
Duurir reached forward, broke off a piece of flatbread and folded it around a cluster of sky berries. He turned to her, holding it out. Around them, the other couples were feeding each other, so she tilted her head back and accepted the food from him.
When she fed Duurir, his lips brushed lightly against her fingertips, kissing the crumbs away. It took her some time to recover her wits enough to carry her end of the conversation. Duurir filled the gaps with talk of the observatory and of all manner of strange phenomena: distant satellites, spots on the sun, strange bodies that traveled through the space around them.
“Now, you have been very patient to listen to my discussion of astronomy. Most of the girls my mother introduces me to find me exceedingly dull.”
“But you’re not!”
“You are sweet to say so.” He accepted a handful of skyberries from her.
“Truth. I am quite possessed of a desire to see a telescope.”
Duurir lifted his head from the skyberries and blinked at her once. “I almost think you mean that.”
“I do. Quite.”
“Well–” he took a berry from her “–that may be arranged. I am returning to the observatory at the end of Small Harvest, but it will surprise me if your Matriarch lets you come up.”
His nostrils flared in surprise. “The mountains are our border with Abar. I’m sorry. Of course, things changed during your voyage. You wouldn’t know.” He waved his hand, gesturing for a servant to clear their plates. “The Abarine High Council had a schism, splitting around Councilor Hadan; he’s begun leading border raids into Repp-Virja and our Observatory is close to the pass.”
“So you see, while I would love to have you come, I doubt that I will see you there.”
“I will petition my mother.”
Duurir gave his attention to the next dish, a slice of melon precisely centered on a creamy wedge of cheese.
Fruit and dairy? But they never mixed, not without provoking sour crop. Shocked, Pimi looked across the table to her mother. In the set of her neck, Pimi could see a tension, but her mother seemed to be following the lead of the people around them.
Pimi watched Duurir out of the corner of her eye.
“It must be very different here.” He held out a piece of melon topped with a slice of cheese.
“It is.” The tang of the cheese burst out of the sweet melon, tingling her palate. Perhaps they did not have to worry about sour crop with such small meals.
“Tell me.” His dark eyes were warm with regard. “I want to know everything.”
Beyond the windows, someone screamed. The conversation in the room stopped, shocked into sudden silence.
Pimi’s toes curled to grip the edge of her couch in the beginning of fear as shouting and the sound of wood splintering became audible. She kept the urge to scream trapped in her throat.
The door slammed open. A flood of men and women dressed in leather armor ran through the doorway. The room overturned in chaos as the guests leaped from their couches, running for the doors on the other side of the room. Her mother stood, staggered and fell to her knees, dragged down by the weight in her crop.
“Mama!” Pimi ran toward her, but Duurir caught her arm and pulled her away, dragging Pimi out the nearest window. On the grounds, she staggered after him, desperate to vomit in her fear, but with no time to stop and disgorge.
Duurir pulled her into a storeroom and closed the door, shutting out the terror for the moment.
“Raiders.” Duurir’s face was grim. “They have not ventured this far across the border before.” He held up his hand and leaned his head against the door, listening. With the first flush of fear lighting his face, Duurir turned to her and opened his mouth.
The door slammed open, knocking Duurir back against the wall. A man filled the opening, twin swords held in his hands. The boney scales of his leather armor had inlaid spirals of metal.
Pimi loosed the scream in her throat.
Duurir pushed the door back hard against the raider. The raider stepped aside easily. He raised his sword and swung it at Duurir.
Pimi screamed again, covering her eyes before the sword connected, but she heard the meaty slap of the metal as it struck Duurir.
He grunted. A heavy thud followed.
Pimi jerked her hands away from her eyes. Two strides had the man at her side. He grabbed her by the throat, forcing her to look at him.
Nodding once, he lifted his sword again and brought the pommel down on her head.
* * * *
The Abarine raiders lived in a series of adobe houses built on the side of a cliff. The land on this side of the mountains was dry and barren compared to the tropical coastline of Repp-Virja.
Pimi waited in a small sandstone alcove off a large hallway, deep under the mountain. A hard muzzle bound her jaws shut and something hard and round filled her mouth. Her headscarf had been lost on the mad ride over the mountains to Abar and her naked scalp almost did more to cow her than the manacle that shackled her to the replete’s bench. She could forget the manacles if she stayed still, but the constant play of air across her bare skin touched on her vulnerability with every caress.
She had no idea what had happened to the other people at House Imarja. Though the opening of the unadorned alcove was unobstructed, Pimi could see only the wall opposite her. She could not call to see if others were in earshot, because of the muzzle that bound her mouth.
Wheels squeaked down the hall for longer than winter’s Deep Night before a vast replete was wheeled past the opening to her alcove. He sagged against his belly, drooling. His fingerless hands drummed a random tattoo against the tight skin of his crop. Pimi could not stop staring at the empty sockets where his eyes had been. The cart stopped in front of her alcove.
If not for the muzzle Pimi would have emptied herself in terror.
The men and woman accompanying the replete all wore the leather garments that the raiders had worn, though without the spiraling metal inlays of her captor. Underneath the leather, they belled outward in a modest crop, but the weight was worn high, trussed up by their criss-crossing sword belts.
The men went to the side of the cart and unrolled a long hose while the woman approached Pimi. “Now then, I am Maja, Keeper of the repletes. You’re frightened, poor chickling, I know. But once we know you are trustworthy you won’t have to wear this nasty thing.” She stroked Pimi’s cheek above the hard line of the muzzle.
Gently, as if Pimi were a varamid chick, Maja unhooked the front of the muzzle. A flow of cool air flowed through the hard thing in Pimi’s mouth and she realized that it was a tube. Maja took the long hose from one of the men. On the end, it had a notched collar a hand’s span from the tip. She threaded it into Pimi’s mouth and twisted, locking the collar to the front of Pimi’s muzzle.
“Now then, chickling. Disgorge for me, hmm?”
Pimi’s muscles, so ready to vomit before, tightened in fear and locked her closed.
Maja stepped to the side so that Pimi had a clear view of the blind replete. “Do not make me ask you twice or you’ll wind up like Blind Irvapp. You’ll find me more patient than others, because don’t I know how scared you are, hmm? But Councilor Hadan won’t brook disobedience. You understand me, chickling, hmm?”
Looking at the mindless fluttering of the vast replete’s hands, Pimi opened herself and disgorged in a rush. The hose leaped and throbbed in time with the surges from her crop, flowing down the hose and into the replete, until she was empty.
“There’s my sweet chickling.” Maja unhooked the hose and opened a jar. She poured three capsules into her hand. Gently, she placed them in Pimi’s mouth and connected a different hose. “Make certain these go into your crop, or it will go worse for you. These’ll help you stretch, but only if they’re in the right place and we’ve not much time to ready you for Deep Harvest. You’ll feel some discomfort, but that is a sign of growth, understand me? Growth is good.”
She put the tube deep in Pimi’s mouth. “I begin now.” Maja twisted the spigot.
Cold vinegar flooded down Pimi’s throat. Before she could get the sphincter to her crop open, her cheeks bulged from the influx. No gentle flow here, only the frantic rushing of sour liquid as it pushed into her crop. The cold weight dragged her crop down before it began pushing it out. Unlike the warm thick nectar a replete would have given her, this chilled her as it eddied inside her belly.
When she had been young, she had once swallowed glass after glass of water so that she could play bride with her best friend. Then it had taken only eight glasses to fill her. How many now passed her lips?
Something deep inside shifted and her belly violently expanded. Like three tiny explosions, waves of pressure suddenly pushed against the walls of her skin forcing her to five-day belly.
Maja turned off the spigot, but the pressure did not cease. Pimi’s skin tingled and burned as it strained to accommodate the fluid. She arched her back, trying to create more space within her body. As she moved, the vinegar sloshed inside as if she were still half empty.
“That’s gas from the capsules keeping you tight, chickling. If you show me that you’re a sweet girl, then maybe you won’t need to wear this and wouldn’t that be nice, hmm?”
Nice? Pimi would do anything to get the hard tube out of her mouth and to stop the pain in her belly.
Maja unhooked the hose and put the front back on the mask, sealing Pimi’s mouth closed. She stepped back and studied Pimi. “I can see why Councilor Hadan plucked you for his seraglio… He likes those he can feed from and are pretty enough to fuck.”
Pimi clenched her jaw under the muzzle. He’d killed Duurir. She would do whatever it took to get to him and if that meant the seraglio, well, that would not be so different from a social season in Arrop-Yraaja.
* * * *
Filtering through the screened chambers of the seraglio, giggles and murmured conversations played around Pimi as she lay on her side and let Maja rub salve on her distended crop. The cool gel eased the pricking of the constant stretching, though she really only noticed it in the span after a fresh dosing of soda capsules. The initial rush of gas always hurt, but not so much as that first time. And if she contained it, she grew. Growth meant she was one step closer to Hadan.
“Excited that harvest is coming in, chickling?” Maja peaked over the curve of Pimi’s belly, only the top of her head visible from where she knelt.
“I’m sorry I am not bigger.” The three months since the raid had only given Pimi time to gain a fourteen-day belly and most of the other girls still dwarfed her. Only the three new girls carried stretching fluid instead of nectar, and Pimi counted her blessings that she was, at least, the largest of them. Keria, a servant girl captured in the same raid as Pimi, was always belching to relieve pressure. These Repp-Virja girls had never aspired to a bride belly like Pimi had. Hadn’t they noticed that the larger girls weren’t required to wear manacles? “Do you think Councilor Hadan will ever call for me?”
“Don’t you worry your pretty head. We’ll make sure you’ve got a right tasty mix in your crop so as no one notices your size.”
Pimi nodded, feeling embarrassment steal the color from her scalp.
“Speaking of mix, we had to drain blind Irvapp because one of you lot had dairy mixed into your crop.”
Pimi paled further, but Maja was capping the jar of salve and did not notice. “Did he get sour crop?”
“Worst case we’ve had in years. My fault of course. I should have checked to see what the new repletes were carrying. But who would have mixed like that in the first place?”
Pushing against the replete couch, Pimi levered herself into a sitting position. “I hardly know.”
With Maja’s help, Pimi stood and leaned way back to balance her belly. With slow, mincing steps, she felt her way across the floor into the main room of the seraglio. Amid the pillowed recesses of the main room, the other girls reclined on their couches. Deep under the mountain, the cool rounded chambers reminded her of home. Rich reds and pollen yellows enhanced every hanging cloth. Her own tunic had a hem densely embroidered with fine gold thread. Should Ero see her, she would think Pimi very fine indeed.
Maja helped Pimi settle on her couch and slid the shackle around her wrist. It was all but unnoticeable among the bangles that graced her arm.
Leaving Pimi, Maja went to one of larger repletes and pressed her hand deep into the soft bell of Dama’s crop. “I’m glad to see you’ve got space.”
“Oh, you know Hadan-min. He was hungry both ways when he called for me.” She preened, moistening the skin around her mouth. “Said he had to empty me to make space for his manhood.”
Laughter filled the seraglio.
Dama lifted her arm over her head and a new bangle rolled back on her forearm, flashing sparks of red light against her fine green skin. No shackle competed with it. “I should say I pleased him on both counts.”
When the laughter faded, Maja said, “Well and good, but you’ve pleased me as well. Harvest is supposed to be a large one this year. We’ll need that space.”
* * * *
Not until they reached the Deep Yard, did Maja have the new girls empty themselves. “No point in wasting a moment of stretch, hmm?”
Pimi flushed with water three times before Maja was satisfied that no soda remained in her crop. When she’d finished her last disgorgement, Pimi looked down to her feet. How long had it been since she had seen them? The long grasping toes seemed as if they belonged to someone else. Pimi wiggled each in turn, delighted when they responded. She bent at the waist to touch her feet. The muscles in her back protested before she came near them, but she was able to feel her calves and shins. Across her thighs lay the flaccid skin of her crop, waiting for the harvest.
At the deep end of the yard, near the stables, a small band of pipe and string players tuned their instruments. Snatches of unfamiliar folk tunes skirted around the edges of conversation.
The room filled with other people. Some replete, some Abarine workers, but all ready for the harvesters to bring in the baskets of dayfruit. Sweet, nutritious and delicate, it would rot if not consumed within a day of picking.
The other new repletes were easy to spot, because they too had folds of empty skin hanging across their laps. The ones from the replete caves wore heavy chains. She owed Maja a great debt for picking her for the seraglio. One more day in the replete caves and her face would have been like theirs, slack and dull from isolation in the sandstone alcoves. One man held his face, rocking, as if the sunlight frightened him. Another woman still wore a muzzle—
The woman was Pimi’s mother. Dressed in simple muslin, with naked head and shrunken crop she was almost unrecognizable. She stared at nothing, listless save for the tapping of one hand. Her other hand was wrapped in a bandage; only two fingers emerged from the gauze.
Pimi turned and vomited. Great dry heaves shook her shoulders, leaving the sickness still deep in her body. Behind her, Maja walked down the line of girls from the seraglio and put a hand on Pimi’s back. “Are you ill?”
Pimi wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “No. Not at all, I only wanted to be certain that I was truly empty.”
“Such a good girl.” Maja stroked Pimi’s scalp.
Behind her mother’s row of repletes, guards paced, checking shackles and muzzle straps. What had her mother done to merit such treatment? A guard connected a web of hoses to each of these repletes’ muzzles. The hoses led back to a pulping machine, its coarse iron gears and blades standing in sharp contrast to the civilized world she had left behind.
The band started to play a bouncing tune that begged its listeners to dance. A slender boy, too young to have more than a child’s belly, stepped forward on the stage and raised a megaphone to his lips.
When the irarad saw her mate
With a sigh and a hiss she knew,
Oh–she knew that she’d be late.
And when fate showed me your sweet face
With a sigh and a hiss I knew,
Oh–I knew I’d found my place.
As soon as they had finished with harvest, Pimi would sneak out of the seraglio and find her mother. It could not be so hard. She knew where the isolated alcoves were. Likely, her mother had been next to her and she had never known. Pimi craned her neck, looking around the yard. Perhaps Ero was here too.
Though she saw one man that she thought she recognized as a servant from House Imarja, she did not see any of her family besides her mother.
What if the raiders had dealt with them as they had dealt with Duurir? She had put him out of her mind as a way to survive in this place, but now the thought of him filled her like bittersweet nectar. Her pores pulsed with anguish that she had not known him longer, that one so young and fair should have perished.
The first of the laborers came in with carts of dayfruit. Straining under the load, they deposited baskets in front of each waiting replete. The sweet fruit sent a heady fragrance into the air, of musk and honey, with the warm notes of spice tangled in the midst. Pimi took one in her hand, warm from the sun.
As she bit into it, the juice spurted down her throat. Across the room, a guard dumped a basket into the pulping machine and turned the crank. The pulp and fluid coursed down the hoses to her mother and the other muzzled repletes.
Pimi swallowed. The dayfruit slid down her throat and landed heavily in her crop. Mechanically, she ate another piece, transfixed by the sight of her mother, who swallowed without any seeming awareness of her surroundings.
The bulge in her mother’s crop grew faster than Pimi could keep pace. She picked up fruit and shoved it into her mouth, barely taking time to chew. Beside her, Keria picked at the fruit daintily, her crop barely showing any growth.
“Are you afraid they will run out of food, Pimi?” Hissing, Keria looked at her crop. “I’d always wondered why you were so anxious to distort yourself like that. Your family must have been starving all the time.”
Shocked, Pimi stopped with a dayfruit halfway to her mouth. “What do you mean?”
“Back in Repp-Virja, it was all we could talk about in the kitchens. As if any of us would demean ourselves to carry food around if we could afford not to. And then your family shows up, pretending to be from a Dynasty House across the sea, but it’s clearer than the sky in Deep Summer that you aren’t. Carrying great big loads like you’re thinking you’ll never see another meal.”
Keria had never spoken to her this way; their couches were on opposite sides of the room to keep the new girls mixed in with the established repletes.
Maja came down the line, bearing a tray of spices. “Here chicklings, here are some fine things to add special flavor to your nectar.”
Covering the gold tray, an embroidered cloth held long seedpods, pale gray-green dried leaves, tiny round seeds and bundles of purple blossoms. She glanced at the uneaten dayfruit Pimi still held. “What’s the matter, chickling? Is there a borer in your dayfruit?”
Pimi opened her mouth to answer, but words did not come.
“Pimi spotted the Matriarch of her house.” Keria popped a dayfruit in her mouth.
Maja showed her tongue to Pimi. “Matriarch? Don’t try to tell me that you are from a Deep House. We never harvest nobles, so I’ll not believe that, Pimi.”
“But she is. Or they claimed they were.” Keria patted her belly, which undulated under her touch. “All of them came to a feast at House Imarji, showing their disdain and repleteful like they were better than Matriarch Imji just because they came from the old country. I was serving. I saw them and they were all bigger than any of us.”
“You are from Arropp-Yraarja?”
Pimi inclined her head in agreement, but Keria answered for her. “The lot of them.”
“And your matriarch is here?”
“Over there.” Keria pointed at Pimi’s mother.
Maja almost dropped her tray. “That’s your matriarch?”
Pimi nodded and squeezed her eyes tightly shut, not wanting to see or hear anything else.
“Ah, poor thing. I’d not have had you discover her like this.” Maja brought the tray over to Pimi. “Still and all, you’re a sweet girl. You won’t give me cause to doubt you, not like her. Now swallow these down and show me I’m right to be proud of you.”
Her gorge rose in her throat, but Pimi swallowed it down. If she had any hope of seeing her mother she had to stay in Maja’s good graces. Tilting her head back, she let Maja place the spices in her mouth.
Chewing each took an eternity, though the band played only one song. Pimi continued to eat dayfruit, no longer tasting it. Maja returned to palpate her belly after Pimi had finished the first basket, mixing the spices with the dayfruit.
Except for the muzzled repletes, the sense of celebration was unbroken. No one, save Pimi and the guards, seemed to notice them. Only the music reached into their corner, as Pimi’s mother tapped her hands in time with it.
After her third basket of fruit, Pimi shifted to a reclining position to let her crop hang off the couch and rest on the ground. It was harder to watch her mother from this position but between swallows she stole peeks across the yard.
Salina topped off while Pimi was on her fourth basket. When Maja came to lead Salina back to the seraglio, the girl staggered as she stood. Despair bleached her face of color. She waddled without a hint of grace in her movement.
Pimi would not do that. She would show the other girls the graceful sway she had learned from her mother. Maybe, if she could show Maja how much her mother could teach the girls in the seraglio, they would take the muzzle off.
During the seventh basket, Pimi felt herself close to topping off. Her crop was comfortably full and firm to the touch, but without the harsh pressure of the stretching fluid. Her mother was almost twice the size she had been when they had boarded the Tep-Tep steamship to leave home. If Pimi could contrive to leave the Deep Yard at the same time as her mother, she might have a chance to speak to her in the hallways.
Where before she had raced to keep pace with her mother, Pimi slowed down now, trying to delay the moment when she was taken back to the seraglio.
By the eighth basket, Pimi would only eat a piece of dayfruit when Maja looked at her. With each piece she swallowed, she thought that surely she could not hold any more.
And then it was true. Stretched beyond capacity, her belly hurt. The last piece of dayfruit she swallowed lodged in her sphincter, holding it open. She strained, trying to push it in by sheer will.
Maja came down the line and touched her belly. She hissed appreciatively at the hardness. “Well done, Pimi-min. There will be a fine treat for you in the seraglio tonight.”
“Let me rest a moment. I would like to finish this basket.” Dayfruit still filled half of it and her throat tightened in involuntary protest.
Maja pushed again. The piece of dayfruit caught in Pimi’s sphincter rose in her throat. She held down a cough.
“You seem topped off to me.”
“But my skin will relax. It always does.”
“Truth. Though if you can fit the rest of that basket in, I will be beyond surprised.”
With a hand stained blue by the fruit, Pimi picked up a dayfruit and swallowed it, sending it into her primary stomach. “See. I still have space.”
“You are a sweet girl, Pimi. Don’t hurt yourself trying to make me proud.” Maja glanced across the yard at Pimi’s mother. “I wish all our repletes were so eager to please. If we’d known she was a matriarch…”
Pimi ate as slowly as she could, but still filled her primary stomach before the bottom of the basket. As she had hoped, her crop relaxed somewhat and she was able to get three more dayfruit into it. The rest sat in her throat, neither in her stomach nor in her crop. Her breath came in shallow gasps; it felt as if her entire body consisted of nothing but dayfruit. The blue of the dayfruit tinted her amber belly green. Maja looked down the line and Pimi swallowed another bite which sat in her throat, itching.
A guard checked Pimi’s mother and unhooked the tube from her muzzle.
Pimi struggled to sit. “Maja, I am ready to go now.”
From where she palpated Dama’s crop, Maja did not look up. “When I finish here.”
The guard wheeled Pimi’s mother toward the door. Pimi could not wait for Maja or she would miss her chance. Putting her feet on the ground she pushed to stand. The weight of dayfruit in her crop, so much greater than the half-belly of stretching fluid, pulled her forward and down.
As she lost her balance, Pimi’s sharp cry fell into a sudden silence between songs, cutting through the harvest crowd. Her distended crop smacked against the packed gravel ground.
The sudden force pushed the overabundance of dayfruit up her throat. She vomited blue juice and pulp down her front.
The girls nearest her shrieked. Baraida screamed, “Pimi’s ruptured!”
Her mother raised her head. Horror bleached her features of all color.
Pimi scrabbled, trying to get her feet under her, trying to stand and get away from the mess she had made. Her own body was too heavy for her limbs. She was trapped on the ground as surely as her mother had been when the Abarine raiders had come.
In an instant, Maja was by her side. By the time she had ascertained that nothing beyond overfilling was wrong, the cart bearing Pimi’s mother was gone. Pimi had to wait crouched on the gravel until a gurney was fetched to hoist her onto a cart of her own.
“What has happened here?” Councilor Hadan came to stand by Maja. Even at harvest, he wore his distinctive armor; the spirals of inlaid metal swirled across each overlapping horn plate.
“I’m afraid Pimi over-filled herself, Councilor Hadan.”
Pimi nearly vomited again as he crouched in front of her. She had not been so close to him since she was captured. Pimi kept her eyes downturned, her stained tunic and belly filling her vision.
“Now why would you do that, little girl?”
Always, her size made people assume she was younger than her true age, but he was very nearly her height. In fact, with his amber and green coloring, Pimi had an impression of what she might have looked like had her mother wanted a boy and placed Pimi’s egg in a cool part of the deep-family’s hatching cave.
“Speak,” he said, giving her permission to respond.
“I wanted to be beautiful for you,” she whispered. “So you would pick me instead of Dama.”
“And why would making yourself overfull do that?”
Pimi did not know how to answer him–to her, still, it seemed so obvious that a full crop was the most beautiful adornment a person could have. Though, looking at her stained and sorry state, she could not see any glamour in it.
Maja answered for her. “Pimi is from Aaropp-Yraarja.”
“That is in fact, her matriarch.”
“Did you know you’d claimed a Dynasty House in your conquests, Councilor?”
He was silent for a moment and the music twirled around them. “I did not. Well. I hope you are better behaved than your mother. She tried to claw my eyes out when they brought her to me.” Hadan tilted her chin up. “You do not look much like her.”
Maja hissed. “Were you ever in Aaropp-Yraarja, Councilor?”
“I’ve not had the pleasure, though I have heard much about their social season.”
Maja waved a cart over. “Pimi is the sweetest girl you can imagine.”
Hadan straightened. “Well, next time Dama is unavailable, send me Pimi.”
Primped and scented and oiled, Pimi held still while Maja broadened her forehead spots with paint. Across the room, Dama writhed and groaned in the grip of sour crop. A doctor oversaw the tortuous task of draining the congealed clumps from her, while the other girls affected not to watch.
Pimi tried not to let the guilt she felt show on her face. Had she not slipped the cheese into Dama’s mix, who knew when Hadan would have called for her.
Maja had wondered how Pimi had gotten rug burns on the bottom of her crop. Pimi had feigned ignorance. After all, if they thought a replete’s crop was reason enough to not shackle a girl, who was Pimi to let them know that by sliding backwards she could still drag the weight of her belly across the floor.
The outer door of the seraglio opened and two attendants arrived to push Pimi’s cart to Councilor Hadan’s chambers. Her toes gripped the edge of her couch as if she were not anchored firmly enough.
Ornamented tapestries covered the walls of Hadan’s apartment, finer than anything in the seraglio, which Pimi had thought opulent.
As he conferred with his fellow councilors, Hadan’s voice carried from a room on the far side of the apartment in uneven waves. At times, it was an indecipherable murmur, at others she would hear words or whole phrases. “…other sorties might…” or “…stay within their borders….” And once, “…from Aaropp-Yraarja in the last raid.”
Her toes curled tighter then.
When they broke the meeting and came to her, she kept her eyes downcast and lips parted as Maja had taught. Councilor Hadan ran a hand up her crop, over the crest and across the smooth dip where it belled from her chest. With his hand resting gently on her neck, Hadan said, “This is our newest prize gentlemen. A daughter of one of the Dynasty Houses of Aaropp-Yraarja.”
One woman hissed in amusement. “I see you don’t boast of having the mother.”
Hadan fondled Pimi’s chin. “We broke her before anyone realized that we’d taken a noble.” He turned to the man nearest him. “You saw her. All puffed out like a Repp-Virji serving girl.”
“Bigger than that.” The man hissed. “I trust she’s worth it?”
“Shall we find out?” Hadan lowered his head and put his mouth over hers. Pimi opened herself and disgorged in a smooth steady stream. Hadan grunted in satisfaction. He pressed on her crop, swallowing greedily as the flow increased.
He tapped her arm and stood, almost before she could stop disgorging. Bound up as it was, his crop formed a rounded mound at the top of his chest. It could not have held much more than a one-day belly. “Maja’s created a fine brew in this one. Please, help yourself.”
In all, Pimi fed each of his three companions. Hadan led them back into the inner room of his apartment, but did not call for the attendants to wheel Pimi away.
Left alone on her couch, Pimi shifted with impatience. She had not expected him to have company. Her slackened crop quivered in response to her movement. They must have taken nearly five days out of her. She tried to stand and could almost raise her bulk. She hoped they had not lightened her too much.
As she lay waiting, she listened with half an ear to the conference in the other room. The words and phrases she heard hinted at another raid on Repp-Virja. She could gather no details, only the impression that it must be immanent if they were spending so much time discussing it.
After what seemed hours, the group filed out of Hadan’s apartment, leaving her alone with the man. As short as Pimi was, she was almost of a height with Hadan.
Hadan said nothing to her and without his permission, she could not speak. He walked behind her, casually, as though she were a varamid at market. He ran a hand up the nape of her neck and fondled her bare scalp. Pimi shivered as his hands touched the delicate skin above her ear panels.
“Do you like that?” He leaned close, so that his breath tickled her skin.
Pimi nodded. It was expected that she would like anything that he did to her.
Sliding his hands down to her shoulders, Hadan tugged on her tunic, pulling it down her arms. Pimi shifted to let him slide the garment off. Her skin contracted in the cool air of his compartment.
Hadan reached around her and pressed his hands into the soft skin of her crop, leaning against her, so his hard leather armor pressed into her back. He nuzzled her neck. “Well, my exotic beauty. Tell me how they do this in Aaropp-Yraarja. Speak and teach me something new.”
Pimi had been through Maja’s training for the seraglio, but Hadan would know all those tricks. She prayed that he would find the love scenes from Opperad’s play, The Brothel of Intention, exotic. If not, she would have to think of something else. “I would not presume to teach you, Councilor, but it is true that we do approach things differently in Aaropp-Yraarja. If you were my groom, I would want you filled to hardness, and to let the weight of my crop rest on yours as I straddled you.” She turned her head and looked out under the edge of her eyelid at him. “I find it strange how skinny everyone here is. A man at home is not considered attractive unless he has at least a five-day belly.”
“Sa-ha! Is that so?” Hadan slid his hand between her thighs. “So you find me unattractive?”
“I would not say so, Councilor.” She took a breath and then a chance. “But I do think on how fine you would look without your truss.”
Hadan nipped her hip gently. “You have succeeded in proposing something I have not tried. You intrigue me.”
Pimi reached back to touch a buckle of his armor. He slid across the couch to let her undress him. As she peeled the leather away, his crop sagged. The single day of food made a sad lump in skin that hung to his thighs.
Taking his face in her hands, Pimi lowered her mouth. He opened wide for her and accepted her offering eagerly. The nectar flowed into him until he tapped her arm. She lifted her head and put her hand on his crop, half-expecting him to not allow the intimacy. She pressed and the surface gave slightly. “You can hold more than that, I am certain.”
“You do not want me to overfill, do you?” He encircled his crop with his arms, as if amazed at his own girth, meager though it was to Pimi’s eyes.
She blanched at the memory of her embarrassment at harvest. “No. That was foolish of me. But I want you to be hard with my gift to you. It is what brides do for their grooms in my country.”
He let her push more food into him, until he broke gasping from her embrace. “Hell’s frozen gates. I cannot recall ever being this full, not even when setting out on a long campaign.”
Pimi slid a hand under his crop to the folds where his genitals were. She pulled the long forks of spiraling flesh out and held them, pulsing, lightly in her palm. Hadan stood to give her easier access, and staggered under his unfamiliar weight. He hissed. “How graceful I am. You see why we do not allow ourselves to be full. It would destroy us in battle.”
“But we do not plan to battle, do we Councilor?” She stroked his spirals until they writhed in her grasp. “Lie down for me?”
He gasped and lay down on the floor, then groaned. “The pressure…”
“Do you like it?” Pimi asked.
“I am surprised that I do.” He reached for her with a foot and curled his long toes around her ankle. “Show me what else they do in your country.”
Pimi let him guide her to stand over him. Her crop, so loose that it hung almost to the ground, required both of them to maneuver it onto him. She could stand, but not walk. As the weight settled and wrapped around Hadan he moaned with pleasure.
Pimi tucked his spirals into the folds of her egg chamber. She would not trigger ovulation for him, but still, she felt his flesh screw into her as if he could line the chamber with fertile seed.
As Maja had taught her and as Pimi had seen at the theater, she stimulated Hadan until he spasmed in ecstasy. At last, spent and sated, he lay on the carpet with his eyes half-closed in drowsy contentment.
Pimi waited until he fell asleep, and then shifted to grip his ankles with her toes. Sliding forward, she pushed her crop in front of her. It slid off the mound of his belly to cover his face.
He woke. Pimi leaned on him as Hadan struggled to free himself. Even half-empty, she still outweighed him and his own unfamiliar bulk fought him. He heaved under her, trying to disgorge.
Warm and sticky, the nectar stung the rug burn on the bottom of her crop. She felt him gag on the pap sealed around him by the skin of her belly.
Pimi held tight to his ankles as she clung to thoughts of her mother, of Duurir, and even of Keria. She leaned on him until he stopped struggling.
Holding as still as a river in Deep Winter, Pimi tried to feel for any sign of life, for any sign that he was not dead, that she had not killed him. Pimi retched at the thought, but held it down. For the moment, until she was certain he was dead, she needed all her weight.
She did not know how long she waited, but at last she was satisfied and released his ankles. Standing, Pimi tried to drag herself off of him. Her posture and weight held her pinned firmly. Panic flared in her lungs before she realized that she could simply disgorge. No one would care if she soiled the carpet.
She leaned as far over as she could, to avoid spattering herself with the nectar she spilled. The carpet was wet and thick with pap before Pimi could pull herself off Hadan.
* * * *
With the excess skin of her crop bundled up and hidden in the truss of Hadan’s armor, Pimi strode with her best approximation of an Abarine warrior. Her legs trembled and cramped from the unaccustomed exercise. She would have to steal a varamid–two, with her mother–if they had any hope of escaping. She rested a hand on the satchel she’d taken from Hadan’s room. With luck, the maps would help them find their way home.
In the lower replete chamber, Pimi found her mother in the third alcove she entered. Kejari closed her eyes and turned fear-red as Pimi crossed the room. Moaning, her mother pushed back on her couch as far as her crop would allow her.
“Mother?” Pimi whispered.
Gasping through her muzzle, Pimi’s mother opened her eyes wide. Pimi undid the buckles and peeled the fetid leather thing off her mother’s face. The skin underneath was pasty and stank like the dead leaves on a watervine.
“Speak, wraith-child. Why do you haunt me?” Her mother touched her thumbs together in the ancient sign to ward off foul spirits. Pimi had not made such a childish sign since she was an adolescent passing under the burial nets.
“I am not a wraith. I am your natural daughter.” Pimi grabbed her mother’s hand, trying not to flinch at the stubs of thumb and finger. “Truth. Feel the warmth in my bones?”
“But you ruptured.”
“No. I over-filled and vomited.” The rest would have to wait until they were away. “I need you to disgorge.”
“Oh no.” Her mother reached for the muzzle with her free hand. “No. It would make Councilor Hadan angry.”
Pimi dropped the muzzle on the floor and captured her mother’s other hand. “He will not hurt you again. That is truth.”
* * * *
Pimi did not have another set of armor for her mother, though she was able to fashion a truss from a hanging she had brought from Hadan’s apartment. Her hope was that her mother would be taken for an Abarine woman, perhaps a Councilor, but the hope was only a small one. In truth, she had thought of how to kill Hadan and find her mother, but the likelihood of her scheme succeeding had seemed so remote that she had been unable to imagine their actual escape from the compound. She knew only that on foot they did not stand a chance.
The sandstone labyrinth of halls threw the sound of every footfall back at Pimi, shattering her nerves with each blow. At her side, her mother followed with the blind trust of an infant.
Pimi stopped outside the pool of gaslight at the intersection of two halls. Behind her lay the replete quarters. The varamid stables were above ground and the hall to her left sloped up. In the absence of other clues, she steered her mother that way.
The light in the intersection blinded her to the dim hall beyond for a few steps. The man coming toward them might have materialized out of the wraithworld for all Pimi could see.
Toes clenching the floor with each stride, Pimi tried to effect the easy swagger of a warrior. Her legs trembled with every step closer and Hadan’s swords slapped against her back as if mocking her. What could she do with a sword?
Then they were abreast.
The man inclined his head, as to a superior, but gave no other indication of her passing. For the length of the hall, Pimi listened for some sound that he had realized her deception. Only gradually did it occur to her that perhaps his nocturnal errand was also something he did not want discovered. There was little reason for anyone to be active in the quiet of night. Still, with that encounter past, Pimi felt more secure.
Three more turns, following slopes and breezes led Pimi to an exterior hall. Through the small rounded windows that pierced the wall every arm’s span, she could see the fenced paddock of the stables. She slipped through the first door she found onto the Deep Yard fronting the buried city.
Her mother hung back at the door, staring up at the sky. Pimi glanced upward. What constellations would Duurir have seen there? “Mother, we must hurry.” It would be hours before anyone visited Hadan’s apartment–Dama was regularly gone until late morning on the nights that Hadan took her–but still Pimi did not want to stargaze.
Her mother’s tongue flicked out to wet her lips. “You go without me.” She still stared upward, backing into the hall.
“No and no. What sort of daughter would I be if I left you here?” The time in the replete caves must have addled her mother’s brain. Pimi reached for her hand.
“You would be a living child.” Her mother waved her mutilated hand in protest. “I do not want to go back. What is there for me?”
“Your family. Your duty.”
“Neither of them saved me here. Why do I owe them?”
“I have saved you.” Pimi drew herself up, praying that it was true. She saw though, that her mother had lost her sense of self. She needed a purpose. “And now I need you to save me.”
Pimi’s mother tore her gaze away from the sky. “Do not think to play my emotions. I have none left.”
“I am not playing. Look at me.” Pimi held her arms out, so her mother would look at the distinctive inlaid spirals of metal on Hadan’s armor. “You took me for Councilor Hadan. I am his match in build and coloring, but not in voice. If you tell the stable clerks that Councilor Hadan requires two varamids, do you think they will dare say no?”
Some of the life came back to her mother’s expression as she considered Pimi’s words. “Would they not expect you to ask for the steeds?”
Pimi pulled a scroll from her satchel in answer. “Not if I am occupied studying our plans for another raid.” The effort of keeping her voice to a whisper made her sound calmer than she felt.
Her mother’s face was unreadable in the shadows. “I would not have expected such plans from you, Pimi-min.”
“I’ve had nothing to do but plan and think.” Pimi pointed at the stables. “Now, we must go.”
The night sounds filled the space between them with the creaking cries of stargliders and the buzz of hairyworms burrowing in the rock cliffs. A varamid’s sleepy chirp seemed to break her mother’s daze. She adjusted her headscarf and stood straighter to show her full height. “Truth and full. You are truly my Councilor.”
With that, she led Pimi across to the stables moving with the magnificent swaying confidence of a matriarch. Pimi stopped at the edge of the paddock, and turned as if to allow the gaslight from within to fall on the scroll she held, but really so that her face was shadow obscured. Her gaze darted from the map to the great yard. The dim gaslights showed but a single guard at the main gate. She supposed that more would be in the gatehouse.
Behind her, the sharp clap of her mother’s hands broke the night quiet. “Councilor Hadan needs his varamid. You there, show haste.”
“Wha–?” A young man’s voice, still muzzy with sleep.
“Did I invite you to speak?” The smack of flesh on flesh and the grunt that followed spoke the man’s answer for him. “Would you care to speak to the Councilor? Go and bring the steeds for which I asked.”
No response then but the man’s footfalls as he raced into the stable. Pimi’s hands shook the scroll she held, blending the words to a meaningless blur. What if he saw their lie and had gone to raise the alarm? The two swords strapped to her back would give her no aid if her treachery were discovered.
Her mother paced to her side and stood with head bowed over the scroll. “He is bringing them now,” she murmured, then pointed at a line on the page …heightened activity in the border… as if they were conferring on some important point of policy.
Pimi grunted, the only sound she trusted herself to make. Unrolling the scroll to another portion she pretended utter absorption while listening to the young man bring out the varamids. One of them squawked in protest.
“Councilor?” Her mother gestured to the waiting varamids. Pimi rolled the scroll, stuffed it back in her satchel and turned to mount. The boy kept his eyes downturned, as she had been taught to do. He never looked at her, but even so, it did not seem possible that she would get away.
Then, she was mounted and her mother rode beside her toward the front gates of the compound. Pimi strained to hear past the sound of her own pulse. The night sounds contained no surprises. The scrape of talons on gravel gave the only indication of their passing. Pimi could not draw breath for fear of destroying the silence.
At the main gate, a single guard waited, leaning against the armored wood, her head tipped down in half slumber. Other guards would be in the guardhouse, no more than seven arm’s spans away. Pimi’s mother pushed the varamid in front and said, “Sleeping on duty?”
The guard straightened abruptly, her blanch of embarrassment visible even in the dim gas lights. Her face whitened more when she saw Hadan’s armor, but she did not speak.
Pimi’s mother did. “Open the gate. The councilor and I are going out. I caution you to tell–”
An alarm undulated in a rising wail, echoing off the face of the sandstone cliffs so that it seemed to come from everywhere.
Gas lights flooded the Deep Yard with their bright hiss. In the barracks a clamor arose as warriors raced outside, some still donning their armor.
It had been too much to hope that Hadan’s body would stay undiscovered until morning.
As if unwilling to admit defeat now that she had committed herself, Pimi’s mother bellowed at the bewildered gatekeeper, “Open by order of Councilor Hadan.”
The gatekeeper, isolated and still groggy, slid back the massive steel bar that held the gate shut.
Before she had it fully open, Pimi’s mother pushed her varamid forward; its long taloned feet threw the ground behind it with each stride. Behind them, the din of warriors rose as they mounted varamids to chase Pimi and her mother.
Pimi squeezed the flanks of the varamid and leaned forward over its long neck, urging it to speed past the gate and down the twisting canyon road that lead from the mountain city. The road, so simple for the Abarine to defend, gave no easy egress; the first bend lay a scant thirty-four arm’s spans past the city gate.
As Pimi’s mother rounded the bend, she pulled back on her varamid’s reins. Four strides more and Pimi could see around the bend.
An army of men and women filled the pass.
They were trapped as surely as an irarad snared from the sky with a net. Pimi pulled her varamid to a halt, having nowhere else to run. Beside her, Mother half stood on the back of her varamid.
She would not be returned to the seraglio if she was caught. Neither of them would be allowed to live. Pimi reached over her head and fumbled a sword free of its sheath. Holding it aloft, she bellowed as if disgorging all the helplessness she had held inside.
An answering shout rose from the throats of Abarine men and women as they raced forward to pin Pimi and her mother between the two forces. How had she thought this would work?
In that frozen moment, an officer broke from the ranks of the soldiers behind them and brought his varamid beside hers. Not until he was close did she recognize him as Uramikk from Hadan’s apartment.
Uramikk kept his attention on the force facing them, watching for some signal. “Councilor. Did you plan to parley?”
She whipped around to face him. He still thought her to be Hadan. Pimi turned back to the front, as her mind caught up with her body. The troops in front of her must be from Repp-Virja. Flashes of Hadan’s conversation crystallized. …other sorties might…, …stay within their borders…. The Abarine had not been chasing fugitives, they had been following their leader into battle.
If Uramikk thought she would parley, then that is what she would do. Pimi grunted, and kicked her varamid into motion. Her mother’s varamid followed with the flocking instinct of its kind.
The ranks toward which they rode leveled their weapons at her. Sweet goddess on the mount–the Repp-Virji thought she was attacking them. Pimi pulled up her varmid sharply.
Beyond what she had seen at the theater, she had no idea how someone would signal that they wanted to parley. And she could not say anything without Uramikk realizing that she was not who he thought she was; only the night and the armor hid her identity.
She swung off the varamid.
Uramikk said, “Councilor–”
Pimi held up a hand to stop him, keeping her face turned toward the Repp-Virji. Her legs wobbled as she strode forward four paces. The soldiers kept their weapons aimed at her, but made no move to attack, though surely they would willingly kill her at the slightest signal.
The line of men and women stirred and a group of four tall women stepped out to meet her. They stopped eight paces away. One said, “Speak, Councilor Hadan. I have at my back the combined forces of four of the Deep Houses of Repp-Virja with a warrant for your execution. Will you surrender for the sake of your followers or will you force us to lay open your gates by force?”
Pimi did not speak. Her voice would carry to the man behind her, as clearly as to the women in front. She dropped to her knees with Hadan’s sword held out in front of her and tilted her neck so far back in supplication that she stared at the sky. The cold stars glared back at her.
Someone pulled the sword from her grasp. Pimi squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the sword to come down on her own neck. If they killed her and her mother lived, it would be worth it.
“Wait!” To Pimi’s right, her mother said, “I beg you.”
Pimi opened her eyes and spun to face her mother. If she told them who Pimi really was, then the entire host of Abarine would fall upon them.
Her mother’s neck was tilted back in supplication, with her hands pressed to her crop as if ready to void all for them. Pimi gestured sharply to her mother to kneel. After a moment of hesitation, her mother lowered her eyes in submission and knelt.
Without looking at him, Pimi repeated the gesture at Uramikk. Her toes curled inward as she sought something to grip in her fear. The wind carried the sounds of armor creaking as the Abarines waited with her.
With a muttered curse, Uramikk cast his sword upon the ground. “You are right. We are out-numbered.” He knelt beside her and Pimi nearly fell forward to embrace the ground in relief.
Behind them, hard metal rang on the ground as men and women followed suit. She knelt, trembling from anxiety and fatigue until hands hauled her to her feet. As she was dragged forward, past the troops who had the task now of accepting the Abarines’ surrender, she wanted to see what happened to her mother, but she kept her head down so none could peer inside her helm. Pimi prayed that with her surrender her mother would not be harmed.
They stopped in front of a cart and roughly turned her. Two of them held her, while a third ripped off her helmet. Pimi fought her instinct to tilt her head back and kept it bowed so her face would not show. The night wind played across her naked scalp, chilling her.
Someone undid the buckles of the armor, peeling it away from her. As they did, the truss loosened and the slack skin of her crop spilled in an empty sack at her feet.
The woman holding her armor gasped and stepped back. “You’re not– Where is Councilor Hadan?”
“He’s dead. Please.” Pimi lifted her head and leaned toward the woman. “The Abarines think I’m him. Don’t let them know.”
The woman flung Hadan’s armor to the ground. “And who are you, little replete?”
“I’m Kejaridoti Pimi from Aaropp-Yraarja.” Pimi hurriedly explained everything that had happened since the Abarine took her captive. When she’d finished, she looked around at the assembled troops. “Grateful though I am, I don’t understand why you are here.”
“The Abarine have only ever taken repletes. Not worth escalating tensions over, you understand. But your mother and yourself… that was quite the affront.” The woman who had pulled the helmet from her head came closer and Pimi recognized her as Duurir’s mother, Matriarch Imji. “Councilor Hadan would not return you, and we could not let him take such liberties.
A man’s familiar voice exclaimed wordlessly. Then Duurir appeared at her side like a manifestation of flame. “Pimi!”
He took her head in his hands and tipped it back, his own bowing in deep welcome. “I had all but given up hope.”
Pimi stared at him, nearly falling. His hands cradled her face. The warm rough pads on his thumbs could not belong to a wraith. “But Hadan killed you in the storeroom.”
“He knocked me on the head.” Duurir lowered his hands as if suddenly conscious that he held her. “Nothing more.”
She kept staring at him, unable to believe that he was there and alive. His face was as she had remembered him; blue spots marching down his brow from his headscarf.
Pimi touched her bare head. Until that moment, she had forgotten that her head was naked. His hands had been on her bare scalp and Pimi hadn’t even noticed the intimacy.
“Are you hurt?” Duurir’s dark eyes widened.
“No.” Pimi looked past him into the night that had once more fallen around them. “Is my mother safe?”
“Thanks to you.” His eyes skipped down, resting briefly on the loose skin of her crop.
Pimi drew herself erect. So much had changed since she’d seen him last. “Will you take me to her?”
“Of course.” He looked as if he would say more, but Pimi gestured for him to lead the way.
She was her mother’s daughter, and no clothes or headscarf or crop could alter that. Later, when she knew her mother was safe, there might be time for courtship.
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Mary Robinette Kowal is the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cosmos, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer and voice actor, lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and eight manual typewriters. In 2009, her story “Evil Robot Monkey” earned a Hugo Award nomination.
She has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures and founded Other Hand Productions. Her design work has garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve.