Read an Excerpt
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
From Fellowship Fantastic (DAW Books)
Alanna and I have been together most of our lives. She is the beautiful one, and I am the worker; at least, that’s how it looks to people who see us now. It is not how we began. I was a princess in a tower, and she was a drudge who worked for my father, tending all the machinery that kept me imprisoned and alive, and trained me in my terrible purpose.
All that changed when we found and ate the bondfruit.
We live more than half our lives beneath the surface now. Inside, we are all sorts of different people, and outside, we have tried on many different roles, but we also meld into one another as we share eyes and thoughts and conversation. Still, I am the one who doesn’t mind work and is driven mad by music, and she is the one who makes plans and minds details.
Alanna laughs and thinks, Tell them your name, Ylva. You always forget the important things!
Very well. My name is Ylva Sif.
Gwelf Kinnowar, currently married to Alanna, is the fourth husband we have had between us, and when we first met him, we thought he was the best. He didn’t argue when Alanna told him that to marry her, he had to accept me into his household. He has plenty of money, and let us use it; and, though we live with him in various residences on planets where oppressive social conditions hold, he gives us freedom from the prevailing mores in the privacy of his house, so long as Alanna acts the perfect ornamental wife in public.
The first time Gwelf slept with another woman after the wedding, we lost faith in him. He didn’t betray us in any other way, though, so we stayed, even though in his travels he often slept with other women. The benefits of the marriage still outweigh the troubles, so we adjusted our hopes and attitudes and went on with our real job, which is rescuing people, as we ourselves have been rescued.
Alanna was in the balcony room looking out over Haladion, the planet where Gwelf’s main residence was. Alanna and I loved the balcony room. The mansion was built into the side of a cliff, among a cluster of others, and below the cliff lay all the world: at the base, the market town, Risen, and beyond it, farmlands, with the spaceport to the west, ringed by businesses that catered to offworld travelers. Near the spaceport was the technomall for people who liked to shop for factory-made things in person.
Out beyond the farmlands lay the forest, with the Fang Mountains rising in the distance.
Alanna dialed controls on the focusing window and peered down at the central market square, where the servants of cliffside mansions bought fresh produce from the farmers. “Ripe sakal,” she thought.
I was in the kitchen, a level below, checking our stores and making a list. I paused and styled sakal on my list. “Much?”
“Going fast,” she thought. “Oh! Perberries! Only three pints left! At the SunGlo booth.”
“On my way.” I shut the list, grabbed a carrybag, and headed for the door. In the purification room, I dipped into the amber scent bowl and dabbed it at my wrists. I pulled on an outer robe and hooked my veil across my lower face, then coded through the privacy portal and entered the communal elevator bank. My pod opened a moment later onto the public access foyer to the outdoors at the base of the cliff. Others came and went in various pods.
Outdoors, the heat and scents and sounds were intense. Meat cooking, bread baking, the faint taint of scoot fuel, though no mechanized transport was allowed in the city core except float carts to carry home one’s purchases. Voices called as people spoke to each other in person or at a distance.
I headed to the market. At the SunGlo booth, all the perberries the vendor had on display were gone, but she saw the sigil on my hood and smiled at me. As a farm worker, she wore no veil nor head covering; she was outside the life lived in houses, and only another farmer would look at her as a wife. So the people professed to believe, anyway. One heard stories.
“I knew you’d be by, Ser Sif,” the vendor, Vigil, said, and reached under the table for a whole flat of perberries.
“Thank you, Vigil.” I pressed my thumb to her pay pad without even discussing price. Sometimes it was worth paying extra.
“Oh, no! I wanted some of those,” said a low voice to my left. I turned to see a stranger, her hood unmarked by house. Her eyes were large, dark, liquid, under narrow black brows, and she wore a very plain outer robe, dusty light blue with one line of white at the hem. Her veil was opaque, giving no hint of who she was beneath. “Someone at the clay booth said you had them,” she said to Vigil, “and I so hoped.”
“Maybe we can arrange something.” I opened the compartment in the carrybag for fragile perishables and slid the flat in, activating the stasis field that would hold my berries safe.
Ask her who she works for, Alanna thought-whispered; she was present behind my eyes, as I was behind hers.
“Whose house are you affiliated with?” I asked.
The stranger’s eyes looked frightened. “I can’t say,” she whispered.
“Come with me for coffee and I’ll sell you some of my berries. Thanks again, Vigil.”
“I have other shopping,” said the stranger as I tugged her toward Kalenki’s Tea House. They had rooms in the back where women could unveil.
“I’ll help you with it when we’ve finished our talk. I can see you’re a stranger here. I can show you all the best bargains.” I raised my voice. “Kalenki!”
“Ser Sif.” He smiled at me and twirled his waxed mustache. “The sandalwood room?”
He gestured us toward the back, and I led the stranger to my favorite room, its walls fretted with carved wood, its scent warm and spicy. It had a heavy curtain that almost muffled outside sound and kept those within private enough to speak in low voices without fear. I took the bug zapper from the pouch at my waist and scanned the room for hidden ears. None today.
I settled onto the pile of cushions covered in white and red satin stripes, leaving the blue and green cushions for my guest, with the low inlaid-wood table between us. She looked at me, and then at the cushions, and then at her slippered feet.
She doesn’t know how to sit! Alanna thought. Who is she?
“Sister, hold your skirts gently and sink down onto your rear,” I said.
She grasped her outer robe in both hands and let herself sit, teetering. Then she straightened and looked at me with great intensity.
“If you are here stealthily,” I said, or Alanna said, “what is it you intend? How did you even find a sigilless robe?”
“I escaped from a ship,” she whispered. “I was sold into marriage, and the ship was carrying me to my husband in all luxury. I had a library. I knew Haladion was our only stop, and I studied everything in memory about it. I made this robe myself.” She straightened, glanced around the room, fixed on me, as though realizing she was being too direct. “You aren’t police?”
Just then, Kalenki whistled a warning and came in to take our order. “A big pot of spiced coffee, Ser, if you please,” I said, “with all shades of color for it. Some of the lace biscuits as well.”
“Your wish, Ser,” he said, with a head bob, and dropped the curtain again.
I turned to the stranger.
“No, assuredly I am not police, just curious. I will not betray you.”
“How can I know that? Have I given too much of myself away already?” She pressed the heels of her palms to the sides of her head and groaned. “I am so stupid.”
Kalenki whistled again. His assistant brought the tray of purification, with its two basins of warm water, two cloths, a bowl of powdered soap, and a second basin for rinsing; also the censer with its fragrant smoke, redolent of roses, through which we could pass our hands before we drank. Kalenki himself carried in the coffee tray and set it on the table.
“Thank you. You are gracious,” I said, and pressed my thumb into the pay pad he presented, tapped a tip into the options screen.
“Always a pleasure to have you visit, Ser,” he said and followed his assistant out.
After he left, I tied the curtain closed, then settled on my cushions. “There, they have gone and we may unveil without fear of men’s eyes on us.” I unhooked my veil. The stranger stared at my face as though it were a lifesaving liquid she could drink with her eyes. I wondered why. I had been to many worlds, and on most of them, I was considered ordinary. “I am Ylva Sif,” I said.
She did not drop her veil or offer a name. Rudeness, but perhaps she did not realize.
I showed her how to cleanse her hands, then poured coffee for both of us. “Have you tried our coffee before?” I asked. She shook her head. I handed her a cup with room left for colors. “Here is cream. This is cinnamon. This is pepper, and this, clarified butter. This is caramel syrup, and this holds serenity, and here is agitation. This — “ I lifted a small spoonful of pale powder — “is clear-eye.” I sprinkled it over my own drink, added a dollop of cream and two lumps of dark sugar, stirred with a cinnamon-flavored stick. “Here are chocolate shavings. These are sweeteners — sugar, rain sugar, invisible sugar, low-processed sugar, flowersweet. We consider coffee an art, one it takes time to master. You can start with something sweet and something white.” I pushed the doctorments tray toward her and sat back to sip my own mixture.
Alanna was with me for the first sip. We both found that the best, and always shared. My mouth said, “Aah.” I felt hers smiling too.
The stranger mixed cream and flowersweet into her coffee, lifted it toward her mouth, and encountered the dilemma I had presented her with. As a stranger, she did not know how to drop her hood over her face and drink below the veil, as one did in the presence of strange men. Finally she unhooked her veil and we saw her face. Alanna and I studied it closely. She was young, beautiful, tense. A small red flower hung on her left cheek beside her mouth, but whether birthmark, tattoo, or more temporary stain, I could not tell.
She had generous lips and a narrow nose, not at all native to Haladion, but we already knew that. Dark freckles sprinkled across her nose and upper cheeks. She took a cookie and gave us a chance to study her teeth; they were narrow and pointed. She wolfed the sweet, then took another and another. “Forgive me,” she muttered. “I’m so hungry. I had only a few coins on me when I left the ship, and I dare not use my credit wand. I was about to buy food when I heard there were perberries here. They come from my world, and I haven’t tasted them since I was a child.”
“My manners,” I said. I opened the carry-bag and drew out a pint of berries. “Please accept these as a gift.”
Her skin paled, making her eyes look larger and darker than ever. Her freckles looked like fallen stars of night against a light sea. She nodded and reached for the berries, too anxious to be polite. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she whispered and plunged both hands into the little veneer box, scooped up a double handful of dark berries and pressed her face into them.
When she lifted her face from the berries, some of the small seeds clung to her face. The stain they left was the same color as the flower on her cheek. She selected one squashed berry and put it on her tongue, then leaned back with eyes closed. Her smile started small and widened.
“Oh,” she said, “it is the taste of the milk wind in the night sky on a hot summer night on Challis. My sister and I gathered these berries by starlight. They glow crimson in the dark to summon the night birds, and us. We said we were gathering for our mother. We ended up eating most of what we found. The thorns scratched us, but the berries were worth the pain.” She ate another berry, then another. “How can I taste my child-planet on this faraway place? How can that taste translate to another world?”
“You carry your home planet in your head,” Alanna said with my mouth. “The taste triggers memory; it is not the true place.”
The stranger lowered her hands. She looked toward the wall. “Challis is gone,” she said, “cindered in the Fractals War. My sister died in the attack.”
“And now you’re here, on Haladion,” I said, “running away—from what?”
“We lived in a refugee satellite for the past several years. We only had access to terminals a couple hours a day; I practiced my music, and my brother studied for exams. He is gifted. My mother sold me into marriage to give my younger brother passage to university,” she said. “She told me my intended was a Paki Prince who would treat me like royalty, but I saw the ship’s manifest. My husband is not even human. He is a toad, on Linkan, and he wants me to raise his status.”
“Ah,” I said. I had married a Linkan toad—my first and only marriage, which I contracted for so Alanna could get special training in cosmetology. “Those are hard to kill. Do you know his name?”
“I can’t pronounce it,” said the stranger. She tucked her hand into a fold in her robe, came up with a small mempad. A tap, and it displayed a word in Linkan script.
“Fimkim Ruggluff,” I said. “Almost I remember that name.”
“One of the ship’s officers used to come talk to me. She said Linkans kept their wives in bubbles and invited other Linkans over to view them. She said I was cargo to live in a bubble.”
“Yes,” I said. “They stack up their wife bubbles for display and try to outbubble each other. Their status increases if they have varied wives from different species. Also, they feed you everything you most love. They like big women. The health plan is good. Electrocize, peak conditioning, key nutrients.”
“What do the wives do all day?”
“Stare at stranger toads your husband brings to look at you. There’s a bonus if you can look happy and excited. The occasional sexual congress, which is a bit cold and slimy but not actually painful. Not much conversation is necessary. You can listen to music and stories all day. It’s not a hard life, and you will be let go the minute you get wrinkled. They give good parting gifts.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“Some of what I know is rumor, but I was a toad wife for a year.”
“You don’t look wrinkled.”
I shrugged one shoulder. “My husband and I didn’t suit. We had a semi-amicable parting, though.” After my fourth serious attempt to dispose of my husband, he and I had had a very intense discussion, and he had finally set me free. Sometimes we still messaged each other. Alanna and I had gone back to him twice to pretend we were his trophy wives; he had paid us well. All in all, a more satisfactory outcome for the three of us.
“The officer told me that with a Linkan, there was no possibility of divorce.”
“Who is this officer? She sounds unpleasant.”
“I don’t know her rank, only that she wore a uniform. Was she right? Is there no way I can divorce my toad husband?”
“I’m afraid she was right about that. They lose face if their wives leave them. I made an arrangement with my ex-husband to return when he really needs to show me off; all other times, he tells his rivals I am too precious a treasure to exhibit often. There are ways to work around problems like this. But you are already in debt to this Fimkim, and he won’t let you go yet. You should at least meet him.”
“But then I’ll be trapped!”
“You are trapped wherever you go,” I said, though Alanna and I had not found this to be true. We had double vision, special training and talents, and twice the hands and feet other human people possessed, so we never felt as helpless as this stranger appeared to. We had been trapped, together and apart, but we always worked with or toward each other, and we always escaped.
I said, “You have chosen to be trapped on Haladion, unless you’d rather return to your ship. Do you know what you want to do next?”
She shook her head.
Ask for her name, Alanna thought. You always forget the important things.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“I won’t tell you,” she said.
“Is it such an important name I’ll recognize it? Hmm,” I said, “I know you’re from Challis. Who could you be?” Alanna, in the house above, asked the homeputer questions about who had been lost on Challis. Unfortunately, the planet’s death had been sudden, and many were missing and presumed dead. The list of living refugees was much shorter. Alanna scanned pix of survivors in a stream so fast I couldn’t watch what she was doing and see what was in front of me.
“You can call me Lennox,” said the stranger. Alanna put that into her search, even though we knew it was not the stranger’s real name.
“All right, Lennox. What will you do if you are not a wife?”
Lennox sipped coffee and did not answer.
Alanna thought, “Hey. Lennox is a street name in the capital city of Ponder. I’ve got some views of the planet before it was burned. I’m mapping now. Beh. Lennox is a very long street. I’m viewing along it. Business districts. No, wait, now I’m watching houses.” I could see as Alanna watched, but it was distracting; she was viewing a swoop down the street at the same time as survivors’ shocked faces streamed past on the left margin. I aimed my ringcam at Lennox and snapped a shot, sent it to the homeputer. It could cross-reference much faster than Alanna, though Alanna was faster than most other people.
The stream of pix of planet-lorn people slowed, reversed, stopped as the computer matched Lennox’s face with one of the people in the datafile. Alanna focused on that instead of the pix of houses. Milla Lyan, the caption read; formerly of 455 South Lennox Street, relocated to orbital refugee camp, subsequently relocated to permanent resettlement on Linkan, attached to Fimkim Ruggluff; currently in transit.
Alanna spoke the address, and the homeputer showed again the dizzying rush of Lennox Street. The view slowed, stopped on a small, decrepit black house with two cloudy front windows and a round door. We moved in closer, peered past wads of window drapery to see the back of a girl, who sat at a console with several extended keyboards. She worked her hands and music came out of small speakers inset in metal flowers on the wall. I sat back, my eyes closed, listening to music so inviting I couldn’t resist it. One of my faults or gifts was to be susceptible to music, sensitive to its nuances and effects. On occasion this had saved our lives. Other times it had almost doomed us.
There were messages in this music. It had strange overtones, and it pulsed as though it breathed. Though there were no words in it, there was enticing information encoded in melody, repeating promises. Just listen, it murmured, and you will learn things to make your life better. Here’s a mystery that will save you from grief—
Fingers gripped my shoulder. “Ser? Are you all right?”
I startled, looked up at Lennox’s worried face.
Alanna paused the playback, ran it faster so the audio wasn’t so compelling, found a spot where the musician turned toward the window. Lennox’s face looked at us.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as I stared up into a face I was also seeing a younger version of through Alanna’s eyes. “Have you decided who to become now that your world and your place in it are gone?”
She shook her head.
“A musician,” I said.
She drew back. “What makes you say that?” she whispered.
“I’ll explain if you come home with me.”
Her head was shaking before I finished my invitation. “No.”
“Your choice,” I said. “I had better finish my shopping before my mistress’s husband gets home. He likes supper ready when he arrives.” I drank the rest of my coffee; still divine, though cool now. Then I washed in the second bowl of water and passed my hands through rose-scented smoke, and she copied my motions. I said, “Please. Enjoy the berries. I hope you find safe haven.” I collected my carrybag.
“Ser,” she said. She climbed to her feet, struggling a little to free herself from the grip of the cushions. “Wait.”
I paused in the posture of one trapped by a single thread of obligation, a good pose for getting people to open up.
“You have been nothing but kind to me. I am frightened, though, and don’t know where to trust.”
“I understand. You’re not the only one who’s run from danger. You are right to be suspicious of strangers.”
“If you would help me....” She twisted one hand in the other, reached up to fasten her veil across her lower face, hiding the flower on her cheek. “Why would you help me?”
“That is one of my callings.” I thought of the tapestry of my and Alanna’s past, woven to include a number of people we had rescued. The tapestry of the one who had rescued us intersected with our early history. He had moved on, leaving us with the charge of helping others, which meant threads of his life were woven with ours as ours continued. “If I do it correctly, it becomes your calling, too. Will you accept my help?”
She looked toward the curtain, with the wide world outside that she was a stranger to. She looked at me. I kept my face still.
“I will,” she said. “Thank you.”
I closed my eyes to let Alanna tell me what she thought. She thought, Good.
“The first thing I must do is give you a sigil,” I said.
“A sign on my hood?”
“An affiliation. Will you join my household?”
“What obligations does such a choice give me?”
I frowned. “At this point, it is nothing more than a mark on your clothing. You can choose Kinnowar, my mistress’s husband’s clan name, or you can join the houseless—that’s a spiral sign and means you are without affiliation. Little protection in that, but recognized status. Or you can go unveiled and uncovered in public, and proclaim your status as a country worker. Not a comfortable existence.”
“I will accept your mark,” she said.
I took four of the berries from her basket and made the mark of Gwelf’s house on her hood in juice. It would wash out if she changed her mind.
This was just a disguise, but after I lifted my hand, I felt a kinship shadow between us. She raised her head and stared into my eyes, and even though her face was veiled, I knew she, too, sensed that something had changed.
She tucked her berry basket into the sleeve of her robe and followed me out of the tea house. She walked a step behind me as I finished shopping for the evening and morning meals. Then she came with me in our pod up to the mansion. We paused in the purification room to let scented smoke wash away the accretion of pollution we had picked up in our encounter with the outside world, and then moved toward the arch into the house.
Alanna waited there.
Milla saw her and hid behind me, clutching a fold of my robe. “Who is that?” she whispered.
“This is my mistress, Alanna Brigid Kinnowar. She will help you, too.”
“How do you know?”
“We are good friends,” I said.
Ha! thought Alanna. She smiled wide and held out her hands. “Ser, how may I help you?”
Milla collected herself and stepped forward. She bowed to Alanna. “Ser,” she said in a low voice. “Thank you for having me here.”
“I welcome you, Ser,” said Alanna.
“Thank you,” Milla said again.
“Come into the kitchen,” I said. “I’ve a meal to prepare.” I led the way, Milla following, and Alanna after.
“I’ve put the name of your husband into search,” Alanna said as the two of them sat in the breakfast cozy. I stored everything I had bought at the market in the proper places, cold, dry, damp, warm, what each thing needed, and assembled ingredients for the night’s meal on the center table.
“Ylva and I have a link, so I know your story, Ser,” Alanna said. “I apologize for this violation of your privacy.” She put a projector on the cozy’s table. “What I’ve discovered disturbs me. This husband of yours is an important person on Linkan. He has two hundred fifty-five wives already, and you are to make up the perfect four times four times four times four, two hundred fifty-six. This is the most wives anyone on the planet has. I think he’s the king. I need to do some more checking. He has already started a massive search for you. His minions are in the marketplace now, and people are telling them things.” She tapped the projector on. It showed an overview of the marketplace, people moving among the stalls, those searching for Milla tagged with red. An impressive mobilization of diverse forces. “Did your parent get much money for your sale?”
“I— I—” Milla clutched her hooded head. “She didn’t say. I thought not. Just enough to send my brother to university and keep my mother in food until she can find a career.”
“She sold you cheap, then,” said Alanna. “What’s special about you? Ah, the music.”
“The music?” she said faintly. “What do you know about that?”
“You left tracks on the net,” said Alanna, “and we followed them back to your home on Challis.”
“How could you? Challis is dead!”
“Everything gets recorded by someone. Your planet still exists in the netmem. So does your home. Your younger self, playing some keyboard on a wall. I prefer manufactured music, but Ylva was much moved by yours.”
“What?” Milla whispered.
Alanna coded instructions on the projector, and it produced a 3D image of that view through Milla’s gold-gauze-shrouded window, Milla with her back to us, her fingers working over the stacked triple keyboards; black metal flower speakers sprouted from the pale gold wall. An older woman stood against the back wall, watching Milla play, her face blank.
Music spilled from the projector. I realized this was a different view than the one Alanna and I had studied earlier. This music was not about mysteries and promises. It was about being trapped in a box.
I stood by my work table, my arms frozen at my sides, and tears flowed.
Alanna glanced at me. “Ticka!” she cursed, and tapped the pause button on the projector. “What happened, Ylva?”
I shuddered and broke loose of the residue of the music’s spell. “That was a different piece,” I said. Milla reached toward the image of herself, her eyes wide. She tapped the button to start the projection moving again, and I ran from the room, closing my link to Alanna so I wouldn’t hear any more of the song.
“What’s this?” Gwelf said from the entry. “I don’t smell my supper, and you look distressed.” He slipped off his shoes in the purification room, shed his outer robe, walked through sandalwood smoke on the men’s side, pulled a fresh robe from the rack near the arch into the apartment, and slid it on over his undergarments.
“We have a visitor,” I said.
“In process. Alanna’s showing her her own memories.”
“And this distresses you?”
“I’m sorry, Ser. I expect you’re hungry. I’ll get you your supper.”
He frowned, grunted, then said, “I’ll be in my work room.”
I returned to the kitchen. The projector was off, and Milla was crying.
I worked to trim and peel vegetables I had just bought, set a pan over heat, added oil, and fried food quickly for Gwelf. He always appreciated a fresh-made meal. No matter how well I programmed the homecooker, he could tell the difference. Besides, I liked to cook for him. He had given me a home.
“Gwelf?” Alanna said as the hot oil hissed and bubbled and engulfed everything I fed it.
“In his workroom.” I added spices and flavors I knew Gwelf liked. He enjoyed things that burned the tongue, but only a little. “I’ll fix supper for us when I’m done with this.”
“Milla said the song she was playing that froze you was her box song,” Alanna said. She widened her eyes at me, and I opened my connection to her again. I always missed her when we separated, but sometimes we did it anyway, especially when she wanted to be private with her husbands.
Reconnecting with her was like sinking into the comfort of my favorite couch, something that supported and cushioned me. I smiled at her.
I stirred Gwelf’s supper one last time through the singing oil, then spilled it onto a plate, set the plate with utensils and cleansing cloth and a bowl of hot, lemon-scented water on a tray. I poured a glass of cool tea for him as well.
“My box song was the song I wrote when my mother first mentioned selling me,” said Milla. “Even before the planet died, she had that plan, and she wouldn’t listen to no.”
“I understand.” Before Alanna and I shared bondfruit, I had been in a box, no hope in my future, little comfort in my present, and very few memories of light in my past. Alanna and our rescuer opened the door to my box, and nothing had been as bad afterward, not even living in a bubble and being gaped at by toads.
I didn’t want to hear the box song again, ever.
“I’ll be back.” I took the meal to Gwelf. He cleared space for it on his workbench, moving aside tools and sculptures-in-progress. Sometimes Alanna said his hobby was his true love. He built small, fantastic dwellings, and carved the creatures that might live in them. Here, too, he disdained the use of instant manufacture, preferring to craft things by hand.
“Thank you, Sif,” Gwelf said.
“You’re welcome, Ser. Again, I apologize for my lateness.”
“No matter. The rescue, why does it trouble you?”
He never asked questions about these things. We managed them without troubling him with details; we needed to use his funds for some of our arrangements, but he was generous that way and never denied us. I wasn’t sure what to tell him. “I am not troubled by her rescue, only by her talent. She’s a musician—”
“Oh, no. Not the Ruggluff bride?”
“There’s a planetwide alert for her. I should have known.”
“Why would a toad want a musician wife? How is she to play inside a bubble?”
“He’s an innovator, and wants to turn over the old order on Linkan. To that effect, he’s ordered a bubble big enough for the bride and her instrument. No one else’s wives perform for company, but he took the notion after watching too many netcasts from other cultures. It was supposed to be a bold political move and cement his popularity for the next election, but it falls flat if the bride escapes. The Federation of Fair Traders was in favor of the change, as perhaps it would lead toward more freedom for the Linkan brides.”
“But Ser, the girl—”
“Whoever aids the Ruggluff bride will have to pay a price.” He set down his food sticks and picked up a half-polished lump of wood. He frowned.
“How high is the price, Ser?”
His gaze rose, and his brows lowered. “Such an act could damage me politically,” he said. For the first time I saw the power of his actual profession, Fair Trader and financier, on his face, and knew that the person he had always been toward me—a slightly bumbling, pleasant, undemanding, often absent master—was perhaps a construct, not his true character.
“Must we return her?” I asked/Alanna asked. He had never interfered in a rescue before; but we had never rescued anyone politically important before.
“Do they know you have her yet?” he asked.
In the kitchen, Alanna projected the marketplace over the table again, with the searchers marked. They were spread wider through the place, though most of the shops were closed for evening. A concentration of red-tagged searchers had collected around Kalenki’s Tea House.
Alanna zoomed the spy-eye closer and turned up audio. Kalenki himself stood at the door, talking to six of these men. He offered them tea. “A woman in an unmarked robe?” he said. “No one like that left here. Ask at Sook’s, across the square. He caters more to the transient trade.” He pointed.
“Sif?” Gwelf touched the back of my hand.
“Alanna is searching,” I said. “So far, they don’t know who has her, but they’re getting closer.”
In the kitchen, Alanna rose from the table, and gestured for Milla to follow her into the living room.
“I can’t decide whether I should meet her or ignore her,” Gwelf muttered.
Music sounded from the living room. Alanna had unlocked the keyboard that was in the house when we bought it. Neither of us played, so we usually hid it in the wall. Now Milla sat at it and ran her fingers over the keys, waking answering sounds.
Gwelf groaned and rose from his workbench. “I guess I’ll have to meet her.” He glanced toward his half-eaten supper. “Next time, call me when you’re hosting one of these rescues, and I’ll stay out until you’ve sent her on her way. I can deny knowledge.”
“Alanna can hack the house records and make it so you were never here,” I said.
“Of course she can,” he said, and sighed. He snapped the code that dimmed the lights in the room and left, with me on his heels. We went to the living room, where Gwelf often entertained with Alanna at his side and me handling refreshments.
Milla was playing a third song now, an interleaving of hopes and fears. I wavered, afraid of the fears the song showed me, bonds and lashes, and the hopes that were hardly better, images of clawing through tearable sky to something Milla couldn’t imagine but only hoped would be better. Ribbons of loneliness wove through the song.
“Come, Sif,” said Gwelf; he stepped over the threshold into the living room, paused to look back at me. I was frozen, trapped in the living lace of the music. Alanna, inside my head, was intrigued by how I heard it, and able to resist its call.
At Gwelf’s voice, Milla’s hands stilled on the keys and she turned, her face panicked. She lifted a hand to raise her veil, fumbled it so it hung half across her mouth.
“Child, you’re wearing my sign; you may as well be unveiled before me, at least until we straighten out the question of who you are.”
“Gwelf,” said Alanna, “why are you here?”
He glanced at me. Alanna and I had never known how aware of our bond Gwelf was; we had found it prudent not to ask. But now I knew he knew, had perhaps always known.
Perhaps that explained why he slept with other women. Alanna had betrayed him first, by our bond, even though it wasn’t physical. My heart softened toward him.
“I heard music,” he said.
“Ser Gwelf says there’s a planetwide alert out for Ser Milla,” I said. Planetwide did not mean very wide; all settlements on Haladion were new, with Risen the largest, when you combined its population with that of the spaceport. A few other small towns had sprung up, some of them with different social structures. This was a planet ripe for strange cults to take root in it, but so far they hadn’t discovered it, despite the fact that it was a good stopover point on six major trade routes.
Alanna said, “There was a lot of activity about her being missing, but not right away. She wandered in the marketplace awhile without attracting notice.”
“I left a simulacrum with life signs in my cabin,” said Milla. “But then I was so stupid with hunger and nostalgia....”
“It was not that so much as the unmarked robe,” I said. “Everybody will have noticed. They’re not always motivated to tell what they know to strangers, but it sounds like your husband-to-be has enough money to bribe everybody.”
“If you return now, perhaps the penalty won’t be steep,” said Gwelf. “They can chalk it up to youthful spirits.”
Tears seeped from her eyes as she stared at him. I heard again the box song, though she didn’t touch the keyboard. It had moved into my head, ready to trap me whenever appropriate. Alanna came to my side and took my hand.
With a glance at our linked hands, Gwelf said, “Sif. Tell me what’s so terrible about this fate.”
“They’ll lock her in with her gift,” I said, and realized my own cheeks were wet. Inside, I was still trapped in my father’s high-tech prison, pummeled every day by the sounds he chose—he knew I was sensitive to them, but he didn’t understand what they did to me. He only saw the outward signs—that I was made pliant and would do what he wanted, not that I was broken in spirit, losing part myself every day. He never heard what I heard in that pounding military music, the feet of soldiers walking over the hearts of children and the death of dreams.
Every day I was trained in the art of soundstrike, vocal skills that armed me; I carried no weapons but my voice. Every day he tried to teach me to look at people as targets. Every day I listened to other music in the archives and heard life stories, from lullabyes to dirges, jumprope rhymes to the songs of starships.
Alanna brought the bondfruit one day when I lay on my bed and wouldn’t move, even to eat. “It’s experimental, from the labs,” she whispered as she massaged my arms. “There’s a resonance component. Animals who eat from the same batch of bondfruits at the same moment synchronize their activities. The scientists haven’t used it on humans yet. I got a matched set. If we each eat one at the same moment—” She slipped the small hard fruit into my mouth, positioned it between my teeth, used her palm under my chin to hold it steady. She put one between her teeth, too, a green thing the shape of an olive. “It could kill us,” she whispered. “I could make you bite it by pushing your teeth together, but I want you to do it yourself. I’m going to count to three. Bite on three, and so will I. Maybe it’ll work, and maybe it won’t.”
I don’t know where she got the strength to do it. I hadn’t responded to anything she said that day; I didn’t even twitch when she worked my muscles too hard and it hurt. Yet she trusted.
She counted. We bit. We were both sick for a week afterward, but when the fever went down, we had our connection. Our lifeline.
Soon after that, they shut down the bondfruit experiments.
“What’s so bad about being locked in with your talent?” asked Gwelf. “Doesn’t that give you time to refine it?”
“Some kinds of talent are cold bedmates, unkind companions if you can’t get away from them. It could kill her.” I had cut out the talent my father had been force-training me in. I still had faint scars on my throat.
“I see,” he said. “Well, then, I suppose we have to do something else.”
Alanna released my hand and went to kiss Gwelf.
“Do you have a plan?” Gwelf asked us.
“No.” I wondered why he kept asking me questions. It was all strange to me. Alanna made the plans.
“We could marry her ourselves and pay off Ruggluff,” said Gwelf.
“Oh, Ser, I’m afraid it must have been a lot of money,” said Milla.
“Money is not the problem,” said Gwelf. “It is maintaining face, and encouraging him to take the same steps with a different wife so that the proposed social reforms don’t fall apart. We could manage that somehow, I suppose.”
I turned to Milla. “I have asked you this question several times already, and gotten no answer. Who do you want to be, if you are not the Ruggluff bride?”
“I don’t want to be a musician,” she said. “That was always my mother’s idea, since I was very young. She made me take the lessons and told me to write music. She entered my works in competitions. If I wrote songs that won, we ate good food for a couple of weeks. She made me get better at selling myself. That’s not a part of myself I want to work with anymore. But I never had time to find out what I like.”
“How musically knowledgeable are the toads?” Alanna asked me.
“I never noticed they had any particular taste, except for their own vocal stylings. In the bubble, I had access to music libraries imported from other cultures, but I didn’t hear anything indigenous except mating songs,” I said.
“So — any musician might do? The woman who plays evening music at Sook’s, whose rescue we’ve been contemplating for a month?” asked Alanna.
She and I smiled at each other. Cassie, at Sook’s, played for tips; Sook didn’t pay her, but he let her use the keyboard. People who went to Sook’s for the evening didn’t care about music, so she didn’t make much. She had run away from a worse place. Haladion was a good planet for runaways if you had a marketable talent and knew how to live off the land, but her skill wasn’t very useful, and she had no woodcraft. She might like to disappear to a place of plenty using someone else’s name, and she looked a bit like Milla.
Alanna says I always forget the important things. I remember what was important about this rescue. It woke many ghost wounds in me. When we succeeded in freeing Milla from the chains of her music, some of my wounds healed.
I washed the sigil from Milla’s robe. Gwelf took it down to town, found Cassie in her secret roof home (Alanna liked watching town through the focus window, and knew where most of the homeless lived), and consulted with her. Cassie was happy to get room, board, and a chance to entertain an uncritical audience. She didn’t like sleeping out in the weather.
Milla shadows me through the mansion these days, trying everything I do, waiting for a new trade to call her, one she’ll choose for herself. The keyboard is locked back in the living room wall, but I remember the three songs I heard Milla play, whether I want to or not, and sometimes my ghost voice, the one that could kill, sings them. Only Alanna hears, and she doesn’t let them hurt her.
Over the past twenty-four years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold novels, juvenile and media tie-in books, short story collections, and more than two hundred short stories. Her works have been finalists for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, and Endeavour awards. Her first novel, The Thread That Binds the Bones, won a Stoker Award. Nina's YA novel Spirits that Walk in Shadow and her science fiction novel Catalyst were published in 2006. Her fantasy novel Fall of Light will be published by Ace Books in May.