Sun, Moon, Stars

Chapter 1

15th Withering Day of the Month of the Wheel, Year 416 of Settlement

Miyun shivered and burrowed deeper under the bolts of cloth, though she hated not being able to see out. The bound Wind that kept the barge aloft dragged a bunch of air with it so at least there wasn't any wind blowing on her, but her entire face was still turning numb. "Captain," she whispered, "this was a really stupid idea."

Yarumin scowled. "If you wanted to stay warm, you could have stayed and ended up in Censor Kirabu's featherbed," she pointed out. "Or you could have REMEMBERED THE PIG-FELCHING WATER BOTTLES!"

"I did remember! Just didn't stop, and that's why we have airmasks and maidenheads."

Yarumin snorted. "Yah, yah. Kirabu and his 'filling out the paperwork gives criminals time to get away' shit was letting the cogs run wild anyway; time to move on." She was interrupted by muffled coughing from somewhere deeper in. "Go help Shisan. Her lungs..."

Miyun crawled into the darkness, rag-wrapped hand groping until it found a bony hip. "It's me. You okay?"

Shisan coughed again, with a worrying gurgle to the sound. "I'll make it." She squirmed around to press the length of her body against Miyun's. "Not all of us have as much padding on our chests as you, but I won't die."

Miyun wrapped her arms around the smaller girl. "Doesn't make up for five years of men trying to pin me down," she assured her.

"I guess." Shisan nuzzled into the curve of her neck and shoulder, and Miyun flinched. Shisan's skin was ice-cold even to Miyun's half-frozen flesh.

"Pit with not leaving any traces," she muttered and drew a knife, wincing as the cold air slipped beneath her poncho and stabbed through her thin shirt. The coarse canvas keeping the bales of fish-silk bundled cut easily, as did the bands keeping each bale from unravelling, and she pulled yards of the fine cloth out to wad around her and Shisan. Under them, too; she could feel the bare wood of the deck sucking at her warmth. Another bolt she handed outward. "Captain! Wrap yourself in this."

"I said don't mess things up!"

"Your frozen corpse wouldn't give us away?"

"Yah, yah." She took the cloth, though.

Back in the silken nest, Miyun slipped out of her poncho and peeled the worrisomely passive Shisan out of hers, using the garments as blankets as they curled together to share warmth.

Shisan clasped Miyun's hand to the slight curve of her breast; even through the woolen sweater, her nipple poked at Miyun's palm. "You're warm..."

Miyun curled tighter around the other girl, breasts squashing against her shoulderblades, and ran her hand in a slow circle. "That's one way to make some heat."

"Mmmmm, I feel warmer already." She twisted around to face Miyun, tangling their legs together, and kissed her with cold lips that quickly warmed.

Miyun slid her hands up Shisan's sweater, eliciting a squeak from the cold touch and then another as her fingers walked up Shisan's unpadded ribs to settle on the softness of her small breasts. She could feel the girl's pulse quickening along with her breathing.

Shisan broke the kiss. "Mi', do you really want to?" Her warm breath caressed Miyun's cheekbone shiversomely."

Miyun's pulse throbbed, filling her belly. "Got anything better to do for the next ninety degrees?"

Shisan giggled. "Is there anything you like to do better for any ninety degrees?" She kissed Miyun again, warm tongue plunging deep, and untucked the tail of her shirt to run ragged fingernails in a zigzag up her spine.

The almost-painful catch of jagged nail in soft skin sent a quiver through Miyun's body, and she rubbed the heat of her groin against the wiry thigh so conveniently between her own. "Nothing," she mumbled against Shisan's mouth and rucked the annoyingly thick sweater up so only the thin linen of her own shirt and halter was between their bosoms.

Nimble fingers quickly disposed of those impediments, squashing her breasts together to unfrog the shirt where it stretched over them and then unfastening the halter's band at the front to let them bob free. Miyun sighed with pleasure as bare sensitive skin met bare skin, and nibbled along the line of Shisan's jaw. "Ahhhhh, Shisan..."

Shisan rubbed her breasts eagerly against Miyun's, digging her fingers into the larger girl's back to pull her closer, and traced her cheekbone with kisses that exposed just a hint of fang.

"Ahhhhhhhh!" Miyun reached down and grabbed Shisan's leg, pulling it into position for her to rub herself against at just the right angle to put pressure on the bit that radiated urgent heat throughout her body.

"Watch it, our clean clothes are all back there!" Shisan extricated her leg from between Miyun's, with some difficulty, and started unlacing the side of her trousers. Miyun's eager fingers took over, though, she returned the favor and they squirmed out of trousers and breechclouts together, bare legs rubbing against each other. Miyun's freed tail curled around Shisan's hips, pulling her close, and the tip slid down through damp fluffy plumage to tease the top of her cleft. With a moan, she grabbed the tailtip and dragged it down to press between her soft folds, against the nubbin of hardness where it made her moan louder and writhe.

Miyun burned with desire for the lithe body writhing against her, but put off her own needs while she kissed her way down Shisan's neck, nipped the length of her collarbone, nuzzled between her breasts, licked circles around one nipple. She pressed harder with her twitching tailtip, and was rewarded with a change in the noises Shisan was emitting, from moans to soft desperate cries, and frenzied thrusts of her hips.

With convulsive strength, Shisan dragged Miyun up and struck like a snake, sinking long fangs into her tender neck, muffling her climactic cries with her lover's flesh and blood while her body arched and clenched.

Miyun gasped and clutched bruisingly hard at the shoulders shaking in her grasp, but rather than withdrawing her body pressed even closer to Shisan's as the other girl bucked and ground her loins against Miyun and finally, shudderingly, subsided.

For a moment, Shisan lay still except for the heaving of her breast and the movement of her throat as she swallowed Miyun's blood, but the other girl's increasingly frantic motion broke her trance and she freed her mouth to cover Miyun's round breasts with sticky kisses.

Miyun gasped at every touch of lips adding to the throbbing fire within her, and when Shisan's wet mouth closed around her nipple, she cried aloud and shoved her hips against lean thighs, heated to the point of explosion and desperate for release.

Shisan's slender finger stroked the seed of Miyun's pleasure and she cried out against the palm that had suddenly clamped over her mouth. She barely noticed, thought lost in the sensations pulsing out from nipples and loins.

As her climax dwindled into aftershocks, she slumped dizzily against the wool-covered body behind her. The hand moved, letting her suck in air, although it seemed to take a long time to get her breath back.

"Did I not explain that stowing away means not letting EVERYONE ON THE WHOLE PIG-FELCHING BARGE know you're here?" hissed Yarumin. "Five gods in a bucket, I should have left you to the Censor."

Shisan giggled. "She's just jealous 'cause she glims we didn't save anything for her."

"Uh," said Yarumin as Miyun rolled and stretched languidly, pressing one still-tender breast against her captain's arm with a shudder.

* * *

Shisan's coughing woke Miyun from her dozing dream of being smothered between huge, soft breasts. This time, though, the hacking went on and on while her muzzy brain tried to figure out why that was important. Yarumin's breath came in rapid pants against the nape of her neck, and that reminded her. "Airmasks!" She scrabbled through the stolen silk, discarded clothing, and half-waking female bodies for the little sack that held the three precious airmasks. Shisan's coughing scared her, but, "If ya need 'em, put yer own on first," the old airsailor had told them. "If ya try to help somebody else first, yer like as not to pass out and then yer both buggered, right?" So she plastered the first velvety leaf across her nose and mouth and waited until it adhered firmly before slapping one onto Shisan. Yarumin moved behind her, and then her muffled breathing slowed.

Shisan choked, coughed once more, and then her breathing steadied. "Thanks, Mi'," she gasped. Her breathing was still fast, but Miyun wasn't sure what else she could do for her.

"Anyone know how long it's been? Yah, yah. Miyun, go take a look outside and see if you can tell where we are."

Miyun cleaned herself as best she could on the slippery fish-silk and groped around for her clothes. There were a couple of squeaks when her hands landed on naked flesh, but she finally came up with what felt like her own things. She'd still been wearing the breechclout when Shisan had gotten her good and ready, though, so she shoved the wet scrap aside and wriggled into the trousers, which did fit. The halter wouldn't close in front, though, which she finally realized meant it was Yarumin's. Another round of groping and some swearing from Yarumin got her her own, and a shirt that didn't seem any tighter than usual. Two ponchos, Shisan's gloves, and a shirt wrapped around her head didn't make the outside seem any more inviting, but it was the best she was going to get. She squirmed through the wall of wadded cloth, making sure to push it back into place to keep Shisan warm, and crawled to the far side of the pile.

Straight out past the rail was only dark, dark sky; she had to slither half her body out from hiding before she could see down to the mountain spine that was one root of the sky tree. Fortunately, a pyramid of casks concealed her from the bright warmth of the bargemen's cabin. Craning her head toward the bow, she saw the matching ridge from the other side join its mate at the base of the trunk only a little above the barge's current altitude and not too many leagues off.

She'd seen the sky tree, and the trees of other worlds, in dreams and pictures, but the real thing was entirely different. In the blue ghost of the dead day, it was a wall of darkness spangled with crystals, obscuring half the forward horizon and towering to join the night. Far far above, so high the sun hadn't yet set, the trunk became visible again as a golden spire that tapered to impale the heart of a green-and-gold fireworks display that dwarfed the half moon shining behind it. A tiny cluster of yellow lights gleamed where root and trunk met, and when Miyun realized that was a shipping yard that daily handled dozens or hundreds of huge barges like the one she rode, she thought she grasped the scale of the sky tree, and stared in wonder.

The tree kept growing, bigger than cities, bigger than mountains, and its far distant branches bore the dim stars for fruit.

A sudden vibration of the deck broke Miyun from her fascination, and she burrowed back to find her companions. From underneath, the mound of cloth seemed to cover much more of the deck than it had before, but eventually she found the nest.

"Took you long enough," Yarumin growled.

Miyun wasn't embarrassed at all. "It's beautiful, Captain! You gotta come see it, both of you!"

"Then give me back my pig-felching coat!" Eventually they got all sorted, swatches of silk augmenting their inadequate cold-weather clothing, and all three crawled out to watch the tree fill the sky.

"Even if they catch us and send us back, this is worth it," breathed Shisan, but she made the sign against ill-omen anyway.

"Back under," hissed Yarumin. "They might check before they put us on the climber." Miyun lingered at the edge, though, until the wall of vines parted and let the barge into the warmth of a cavernous dock all lit with tubes of flowing sunfire and swarming with men and golems.

Yarumin had called it right, of course; that's why she was the captain. The sound of boots and complaining was brief, though, and didn't come near the secret nest where the three girls hid, snug. The barge shook, moved, turned, slid sideways and crashed into something solid. Moments later, it shook again as something crashed into it.

A harsh metallic clang came from that side, and then the noises stopped. "That's the climber closing up," Shisan whispered. "This deck, anyway; I don't know how many they haveta fill before we go up."

Four more distant thuds and another clang reached them over the next couple of degrees, and then there was silence again. Time passed.

Very slowly, with a slight sway, they moved upwards. Miyun let out a squeal and hugged both her friends. "We made it! Even if they catch us now, we'll be in the port, not on Hoshadu!"

"Yah, yah! Censor Kirabu can go bugger his file drawers!"

"Or his cogs!" Shisan put in. Miyun pictured the scrawny guardsman who had kicked in the door of their attic, pinned under the round form of Censor Kirabu in a love-nest of silk and lace, and laughed until she could hardly breathe.

They gained speed upward gradually, but for a very long time; without a clock, they couldn't even begin to guess how quickly the climber was hauling them upwards, except "fast". Which was good; they had a thousand leagues to go.

* * *

"Shi', wake up!" Shisan mumbled sleepily and nuzzled into the pillow of Miyun's bust until a poke in the ribs brought her awake with a start and a whump of head on tight-rolled cloth.

"Ow! What'd you do that for?"

"We're almost there," said Yarumin. "Feel it? Like floating..."

The lightness was interrupted by jerks this way and that as the climber edgedinto its berth, but finally settled down as it thudded into place. The main doors opened up with a clang and a brief gust of howling wind; all three girls winced and clutched at their heads as their ears popped.

The voices outside were muffled by the mass of cloth, but Yarumin's bat-like ears could still make them out. "Two of them, a fem and a mal," she whispered. "They're each checking one side... the fem's on our side... she's coming this way..."

Miyun stopped breathing. She willed her heart to be silent as well, and did her best to imitate a bolt of cloth. No life, no mind, no sound, no scent.

It didn't help. "Come out from there, 'cause if I have to go in after, it's gonna be a mighty smiting, says I." The voice was female, with a strange accent and growling inflection, and no bluff in it at all.

Miyun squeezed Yarumin's hand, but the captain only sighed. "Yah, yah, we're coming out."

Insects swarmed around Miyun's face as she emerged, long-legged bugs that tried to crawl under the edges of her airmask even when she swatted them away. "Ew! Get off!"

"Don't squash the finder-bugs, says I, 'less you want to pay for them." Their captor was taller than Yarumin, broad-shouldered and unfeminine in a padded doublet, heavy knee-breeches, hose, and indestructible-looking boots. She had the pushed-forward lower face and broad, flat, almost canine nose of a Hulyu-lander, and that nose twitched as the three girls filed past her and down the gangway. She smirked. "Found some way to pass the time under there, thinks I." Shisan and Miyun flushed; Yarumin only glared. Her partner, a Shadrite with pale green plumage around the fringe of his balding head, chortled.

The climber bay was huge, tall enough to allow access to all six levels of the climbers and long enough for three of them side-by-side, with enough space left over to juggle a dozen barges, and brightly lit but windowless. If anything, it was busier than the shipping yard below, though with more golems and fewer people. Barges from another climber were being unloaded onto centipede-like golems with flat backs that carried the barrels away through a wide passage marked with warning signs, and more of the carrier-golems were bringing in coffin-sized boxes from the same tunnel. One of them, led by a Shadrite in stained overalls, scuttled right over the enormous leaves that covered the hole where a third climber could enter. It didn't even dent the leaves, but Miyun still shivered, thinking of the endless leagues of airless nothing below.

The women with the bugs grunted, and Miyun looked back at her with a sinking feeling. The badge of crossed staff and tree on her breast wasn't familiar, but the woman could have been stark naked and Miyun still couldn't have mistaken her for anything but a guardswoman for an instant.

* * *

The three girls had been in several mills before, but none quite like this. For one thing, it was more of a guardburrow than a guardhouse, since like the rest of the port it was dug into the living wood of the sky tree's upper branches. White-painted walls and a high ceiling kept it from being too claustrophobic, but it still had an underground feel. The cogs in Hamvin-town had been a slovenly lot, mostly young men who couldn't make anything better of themselves, almost all the Hulyu-lander people who unabashedly dominated Hamvin (like Censor Kirabu); these ones were presentable if not fancy, as many women as men, and of every people the girls had ever seen as well as a few they hadn't. Instead of lounging around gossiping, they were mostly busy with paperwork at their desks, or lugging bundles of paper around, although a few were staring at the ceiling. There was plenty of black tea around, but nothing stronger, not even beer.

Quite a few of the workers turned to watch as the Hulyu-lander led the girls between the desks to the private offices of higher-ranking guardsmen at the back of the place. Miyun crossed her arms defensively over her breasts as well as she could with her wrists bound, and scowled at one long-armed young man who showed too much interest. "What, never seen a fem before?" she inquired sarcastically, but he was too much a cog to be stung.

The office they ended up in had no windows, only blank walls of pale wood decorated with fancy-looking papers, and a plain desk with a middle-aged, paunchy hatuman man behind it digging in the thick layer of papers. He looked up as the door thumped shut behind them. "Good watch to you, Ordinary. What do we have here?"

"Found 'em under a load of fish-silk on the evening crawler, Second. Counter's man hasn't reckoned out the damage yet, but it'll be a bundle, thinks I." She dumped the pile of belongings she'd removed from her prisoners onto a low spot on the desk.

"Rn." The desk-guarder eyed them narrowly. "Thank you, Ordinary. You'd best get back to your go."

"Second." She half-bowed and let herself out.

In Hamvin-town, a lot of the cogs would let a girl off with with a warning in exchange for a few degrees alone in an alley, if the crime was something they could overlook, but even the slimiest of that sort usually wouldn't rape a prisoner in the mill itself. That was Hamvin-town, though, and although the cogs outside had seemed professional enough, Miyun had no idea what the standards here were. This one didn't seem to have that sort of thing in mind, at least, but she felt Shisan go still as water beside her, and Yarumin brought her hands up defensively.

The guardsman bent his head to his papers again, though Miyun could tell he wasn't ignoring them. After a long time, long enough that Yarumin couldn't keep her guard up anymore, he came up with a single sheet and looked up at them again. "Caution: escaped custody in Hamvin-town, unknown location, may be armed," he read. "Three girls between womanhood and citizenship, travelling in company. One half-hirudo, of diminutive stature, narrow as a boy, with pink plumage as a Shadrite and orange eyes--" He rolled one eye at Shisan, who still stood motionless, huge eyes fastened on his balding spot and fangs barely showing behind her blood-streaked lips.

"One lios of mixed blood, showing proper lightness of complexion and hair and well-formed ears but excessive height and an unsuitably womanly form--" Yarumin brought her hands up like Miyun had, though really she was only voluptuous by lios standards; to anyone else her figure would be modest, and anyway barely visible through her multiple shirts.

"And one of unknown heritage, with skin of honey and hair of ebony, of middling stature but extremely well-developed, dark-eyed, walking on cloven hooves and possessed of a hairless tail (which may be hid within her clothing)." He raised one eyebrow at Miyun, who flushed and twined her tail around her leg inside her trousers. "What people are you from, by the way?"

"I dunno," Miyun admitted. "I never knew my parents."

He nodded unconcernedly. "Please report capture to Office of the Censor of Hamvin-land," he concluded, and let the paper slip to the desk. "Do those descriptions sound familiar?"

Yarumin's long ears swept from tight against her head out to the sides. "If you were going to just write us up and send us back to Hamvin, we would already be out of here."

Both his eyebrows rose. "Not the dullest arrow in the quiver, are you? But we knew that. Do you know how many bodies we pull out from under cargo on those barges? Ten this year, and it's a light year."

Miyun gulped. It had been a stump-headed idea. Yarumin just inclined her head politely, in the graceful lios way.

"And these descriptions." He took up the paper again and shook his head. "I'm surprised the drool didn't wash the ink off the original before it got copied. 'Unsuitably womanly form,' tsch." It drifted back down, covering the little pile of their belongings.

Miyun couldn't stand it. "What are you gonna do with us? If you don't send us back, you'll have Censor Kirabu down on your head. Up. Whatever!"

"I'm sure your Censor is used to mere guardsmen jumping at his every word, but here in Treeport we prefer to observe the proper chain of authority. A request from the Hamvin guard would be one thing, especially if accompanied by proper identification and a list of charges, but this?" He brandished the paper disgustedly. "Censor Kirabu has a grossly inflated notion of himself."

Miyun stifled a snort. "Grossly inflated" was a good description of the Censor in most ways.

Yarumin's mouth turned up at one corner. "Being up here gives you perspective, doesn't it?"

"It lets you see who's a real problem, at any rate." He looked them over again, a little more like a guardsman and less like an opponent of over-inflated bureaucrats. "You'll get treated like anyone else who came into the port without papers, and anyone who damaged private property."

"We have a little glass," Yarumin offered, with a nod to their belongings.

The guardsman scooped up their stuff in both hands and let it clatter back onto the desk, where it landed in neat array, their paltry few coins neatly sorted and their weapons -- including Shisan's prized singing knife -- separate from the rest. "Not enough for fish-silk, if Halugat was right about the damage. We'll have to wait for the counting-man to file an official grievance, but you can count on having to work off the difference in the labor pool."

"Not for the owner of the silk?" That's how it would have been done in Hamvin-town, which is how Censor Kirabu would have made sure Miyun ended up doing civil service on her back.

He shook his head. "We used to do it that, but some of the traders have strange ideas about what constitutes honest labor." He looked Miyun up and down, not lecherously, but enough to make his meaning clear. "Labor pool's run by the port. You'll get indigents' housing and board and everything you make goes to pay off your debt."

"Then what?" Shisan put in. "We still won't have the--" she was interrupted by a bout of coughing, but gasped out, "--the papers you want."

"Stay in the labor pool for half a year and you get entered on the city rolls."

Miyun wrinkled her nose. In Hamvin-town, the civic labor pool did glamorous jobs like clearing the streets of flops and unclogging the sewers; with enough seniority, you could move up to spending a hundred-eighty degrees a day with a shovel, maintaining the earthworks against floods.

His eyes narrowed. "If you confess that you're the ones the Censor's notification describes, we'll probably feel compelled to send you back to him in the name of inter-province cooperation."

"We'll take the hard work on our feet," Yarumin said, and Miyun and Shisan moved to back her up.

The guardsman let out tension that hadn't been visible before. "Good. I'd hate to send anyone off to that sort of thing." He didn't say it, but "I have a daughter your age" was written in his eyes.

Miyun hadn't noticed any signal, but the door opened and another guardsman came in, the long-armed and hunch-shouldered one who'd ogled her before. "Main cage, until we find out their debt," the man behind the desk ordered, and resumed delving in his mountains of paperwork.

"This way, freewomen." He shooed them out ahead of him and followed with a hugely rolling gait. Miyun, feeling his eyes on her, tried to keep her rear from moving at all, which was probably mistake considering how hard it was just to walk with her body so light. When she stumbled going around a corner, he snorted. "Nothing wrong with being female."

"Only problem is men," she shot back.

"Sorry. But I really doubt I'm the first -- left up here -- to look at you that way. You're really very striking."

"I guess you could call them that," she said sourly.

"No, I mean it!" he protested. "You're exotic, and that's not easy here. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen anyone like you."

Yarumin elbowed Miyun in the ribs, plainly meaning "Play up to him, you stump-head!" She had to admit it couldn't hurt to have one of the guardsmen favorably inclined to them, and he wasn't entirely repulsive, but that didn't mean she had to like it, especially since, like everyone else she met, he was going on about her ancestry. Then Shisan elbowed her in the other side and she gave in.

"Well, thank you." She thought she managed to ignore his unsaid question graciously, and didn't show off too blatantly -- if there was such a thing, with men -- as she twisted to talk to him; he lighted up, at least.

"I'm Orugo, Guardsman Ordinary Formyth Orugo." He had a pretty good smile, although he was awfully sincere.

"Miyun. This is Yarumin, Shisan."

"A pleasure. Well, here we are." He had brought them not to a cell, but to a small room with white-painted walls, full of strange contraptions presided over by a tiny elderly Hulyu-lander woman. "Just stand on the red circle," he advised them, "And First Ormon will have you done in an instant."

Yarumin went first, standing stone-faced as a column of brass and crystal orbited her and lensed things clicked. Ormon retrieved the waxy cylinder she'd made Yarumin hold, taking it carefully by the ends, and rolled it across the bottom of the paper one of the machines had produced. A slot next to it had extended a strip of metal, which she fastened around Yarumin's wrist. "There you are, Freewoman."

Miyun was impressed; the Hamvin-town cogs took pictures and aura-impressions too, but did each part by hand, and usually wrong the first time, so it took about ten times as long as this did. On the other hand, law this efficient wasn't a good thing for people like them.

The metal bracelet Ormon gave her was stamped with her name and a number and, she suspected, her aura-impression as well, so that the cogs could find her no matter where she went. But she'd worry about that later, since she knew where she was going as soon as Shisan was done.

* * *

The fems' main cage was just another room separated from the corridor by diagonal bars of dark wood with short crosspieces placed randomly. The suntubes were recessed deeply into the ceiling and covered by metal grilles, and the only furnishings were benches built as part of the walls. A hirudo, only slightly less skinny than Shisan but well-muscled and shown to advantage in a sleeveless vest and knee-length trousers, looked up from her position against the far wall, spotted Shisan, looked from Miyun's neck to Yarumin's with a smirk, and went back to doing nothing at all.

Orugo tapped the bars with his ring in a quick rhythm, and they bent aside, around an oval opening just large enough for one person. Miyun let her friends go first so Orugo would get an unimpeded view of her bending over and wriggling through, and was rewarded with rapt attention. Not until the hirudo looked up again and asked "You coming in or staying out, chains?" did he look away and, embarrassed, hurry off down the corridor.

"They're too rows-and-columns here for you to get special treatment that way, sun-and-moon," she advised Miyun.

"Yah, well, if it gets me out of specially bad treatment, good enough. Sun and moon?"

"Two heavenly orbs." She gestured vaguely toward her own flat chest.

Shisan laughed. "I like it! Sun-and-Moon Miyun!" She bobbed back from Miyun's clumsy swipe; no matter how much Orugo liked Miyun, he hadn't unbound her hands. The hirudo was bound too, wrists resting on pulled-up knees.

"You got a name?" Yarumin asked.

"Cam." She went back to dozing or meditating or whatever, head drooping so black hair fell over her pale face and golden eyes.

Miyun threw herself down on the floor, which was somehow padded, although it looked like wood and blended seamlessly with the walls and bars. "More waiting."

"Yah, yah. Beats walking home." Yarumin flopped down beside her in a pose much like Cam's. "Warm, lots of air, what's not to like?"

Shisan looked around. "Do we get fed?"

* * *

As it turned out, they didn't, at least not soon. Three times guardsmen showed up with more prisoners: first two Shadrite women with roughly-patched wounds and bruised faces, who glared at each other from opposite ends of the cage and filled the place with alcohol fumes; an exaggeratedly voluptuous and highly indignant hatuman girl about Miyun's age with a skin-tight shimmering dress, her hair tumbled down because the guards had confiscated the pins holding it up; a lios girl just a bit short of womanhood, ragged and sullen, who seemed to know Cam at least well enough to sit beside her, copying her pose.

None of the newcomers seemed interested in talking; Shisan watched the houri flaunt her expensive good looks for while and finally tried to strike up a conversation, but was snobbishly rebuffed and returned to curl up against Yarumin's side. The boredom of the cage, after the excitement of the earlier evening, drew yawns from Miyun and she eventually put her head in Yarumin's lap, just to rest.

Chapter 2

16th Withering Day of the Month of the Wheel, Year 416 of Settlement

"Well, aren't you the popular one, dear!" Miyun blinked dozily and looked up at the ball of old clothes that was cheerily addressing Yarumin. "If we could bottle you and sell you to the young men, we'd be rich as priests!" There were bright eyes somewhere between a mustard-colored muffler and a faded brown cap, so Miyun guessed that was a face. "I'm sorry, dear, didn't mean to wake you! Just go right back to sleep, that's a good girl." Miyun wanted to snarl, but found herself sinking back into slumber. With an almost muscular effort, she forced herself awake.

The beggar woman rocked back on her heels as Miyun sat up. "That's a nice strong soul you have there, dear! You're not the leader of this little band, are you? But your friends rely on you for courage."

Miyun rubbed sleep from her eyes. "What? I glim so. Sometimes."

Yarumin stroked her behind the ear, almost eliciting a purr. "Yah, yah, it's true. I'm the brains, Shisan is the muscles, but Miyun is our heart."

Flustered, and still too sleepy to be polite, Miyun asked "Who are you?"

The beggar cackled. "No one in particular, dearie, just someone who knows good from bad."

"Then why're you in here?"

She cackled again. "Well, what's good isn't always what's legal, now is it? When someone has something he oughtn't, what's it matter if he has some paper saying it's his? I wrote a paper saying it wasn't, and that's just as good, isn't it? But the chains don't care, they want their special paper. Isn't really their fault, the poor dears. They mean well, most of them."

Miyun tried to unravel this. "You're a paperbagger?"

"But it's not forgery if what I write is true, now is it, dear? Oh my, I've been terribly remiss in my manners, haven't I? My name is... What is my name? I think it shall be 'Elestrol'; that has character, don't you think? And you shall be Miss Sun-and-Moon, Miss Tree-Tall, and Miss... Not-a-Crow!"

Miyun sighed. "I'm stuck with this, aren't I? No one's ever gonna look at me and see anything except two 'heavenly orbs'."

"Not until you see something different, dearie. Oh look, it's breakfast! What do we have today, Madame Locks-and-Keys?"

"Spicy rabbit," grunted the guardswoman as she thrust a stack of soft squeeze bottles through the bars.

"Excellent, my favorite!" The self-named Elestrol moved over to the bottles in some fashion that didn't seem quite like walking, but maybe that was just the effect of so many layers of skirts fluttering so raggedly. "Cam, dear?"

The hirudo caught the tossed bottle without looking up. "Thanks, Ancestress."

"Don't mention it, dearie. And here's one for your little friend, too!" That bottle bounced off the lios child's head, startling her awake, but although she glared at Elestrol, she didn't say a word. "Meshim, sweetheart?" The courtesan, who had been napping on the bench, turned her sculpted nose up at the offer. "One more for me, then!"

The two Shadrites, who had apparently formed a grudging alliance while Miyun slept, loomed over Elestrol. "Who put you in charge, anyway, wrinkles?"

"In charge? Oh no, no no! I'm just doing something that wanted doing, you see. It's what I do." She held up two bottles, which one of the Shadrites grabbed. The other bent and snatched away the spare bottle Meshim had rejected.

"I think we should get the extra."

"If you like, dear, but gluttony can't possibly be healthy!"

The Shadrite snorted and the two of them retreated to their corner, leaving Elestrol to gather up the remaining bottles and return to Miyun and Yarumin.

"Ah well, only one apiece for us, dearies. I suppose Miss Not-a-Crow will have to fatten herself up later."

The bottles were full of some sort of fine gruel, flavored with rabbit broth and viciously red flecks of pepper. Miyun had eaten better, but never in a cage.

Orugo appeared before the cage. "Miyun! How are you?"

Miyun eyed her breakfast that no one could choke on in a bottle that couldn't be used as a weapon no matter what. "Safe, I glim." She turned her smile, and a slight shimmy of her shoulders, on the guardsman. "Here to let us out?"

"Not yet, I'm afraid." He turned toward the two Shadrite women. "Freewoman Paskar? Freewoman Hantubul? Your clans have agreed to accept you into their custody. Freewoman Gorji?"

"It's Elestrol, dear."

"Er, right. Anyway, the priest is here to take you to the god's justice."

"What about me?" the courtesan demanded, but aside from Orugo's glance at her prominent charms, no one paid her any attention.

Elestrol turned back to the three girls. "I'm afraid I'm off, dears. Mustn't keep the August waiting; he's a very important man, you know! Now you three take care of yourselves, and make sure Miss Not-a-Crow gets plenty to eat and grass tea to drink!"

Orugo hung back a moment as the three freed prisoners preceded him down the corridor and waved. "See you later, Miyun!"

* * *

The counting-man for the owner of the fish-silk was a lios of excellent breeding, not as tall as Yarumin but lithe and narrow as a display rack inside his suit of embroidered velvet, with ears sharp as needles and a rope of silver hair down to his knees. He was also nearly apoplectic, but the desk-guardsman -- the same one who had originally interviewed the girls; his name was Porfiros -- was monumentally unimpressed. Miyun suspected the counting-man was habitually apoplectic.

"Six bales ruined!" he was shouting. "Even if it can be cleaned, and I'm not sure it can, with the, the, the secretions of these wretches all over it, it'll never be the same!"

Porfiros didn't blush, exactly, but he had trouble looking at the girls. "Please, Master Yindi, control yourself. I'm sure it's very distressing, but the debt will be made good."

"Money? You talk of money when these harlots have defiled things of beauty? Have molested the honor of my clan with their grotesque lusts?"

"He's just upset because he wasn't there," Shisan stage-whispered.

Yindi, who presumably like all right-thinking lios preferred his own sex, turned purple. "SILENCE! I will not be mocked by, by common criminals! Deviants and thieves! Vandals!" He appealed to Porfiros again. "Surely you can see that such infamous acts require more than a mere financial penalty! Flogging at the very least!"

"Master Yindi! The conditions under which your clan is allowed to participate in the trade of this port specifically include obedience to the laws of the port as set down by the Apostles of the Great Tree. Those laws do permit you to express your outrage, but to incite a guardsman to violate his oaths is to abuse that freedom."

Yindi subsided, muttering something about honorless unbred that Porfiros chose to ignore.

"These documents from the independant assessor corroborate your claim that the damage is in the amount of eleven hundred and fifty talents of silver." Shisan choked, but Porfiros ignored her too. "If you'll just sign here and here, you can be about your business."

Yindi stabbed the offered pen viciously into his arm and scrawled crimson in the spaces the guardsman indicated. "I hope your rice-counting laws are satisfied, for honor is surely not!"

"Entirely satisfied, Master Yindi. You may apply to the office of the fisc for the funds at your leisure."

Turning his back on them all, Yindi stalked out, yanking the door to behind him.

Porfiros sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I'm always amazed his veins don't simply explode."

"Eleven. Pig-Felching. Rocks." Yarumin collapsed back against the wall. "Our grandchildren will still be cleaning sewers!"

"It's not as bad as all that. There are three of you, and wages here are probably higher than you're used to."

Yarumin said without opening her eyes, "How much higher?"

"If you don't get docked for causing trouble, a quarter talent per day."

Her eyes flew open. "Five gods in a bucket! Honest labor does pay! So that's only forty-four, forty-five, split three ways is fifteen hundred days, so thirty months..." Her shoulders slumped. "Still five years. More."

"Did you have any guarantee of food and lodging for five years back in Hamvin? Or citizenship at the end of it?" He didn't wait for an answer; he didn't need to. "I'll have someone take you over to the indigent quarters so you can get settled in. You'll start work tomorrow."

* * *

Miyun tugged at the collar of her new tan-and-beige tunic where it chafed at the back of her neck. Maybe she should have taken the bigger one, but it felt strange and lumpy when she stuffed it into the waistband of the uniform trousers. It wasn't the first time she'd envied Yarumin and Shisan's ordinary figures, and she was dismally certain it wouldn't be the last. At least the trousers fit okay, even if they were the ugliest shade of brown she'd ever seen, and the rather plump -- and therefore sympathetic -- woman in charge of stores had found her a halter that was adjustable enough.

Yarumin saw her fidgeting and hissed, "If you wanted to look good while working, you could have stayed with Kirabu!"

"Hush," said Madame Kentrit. Stick-thin, and unguessably old but unbowed, the supervisor for their wing made the plain tan doublet-and-knee-breeches uniform of the indigent quarters' staff practically martial. She had taken charge of the three girls as soon as Orugo delivered them, running them through the process of being documented, uniformed, oriented, and welcomed efficiently and without a single smile. Miyun was just as glad; she could tell that Madame Kentrit was the sort of person who only smiled when things were very bad.

The god of the house had a small but extremely ancient-looking shrine set up in the lobby, where it could watch the front door. Miyun hadn't been able to ignore the presence about it when they'd first been brought in, but it hadn't seemed hostile, and even in a backwater like Hamvin most buildings had similar shrines. She'd never lived in a building that nice, though, and wasn't sure she was looking forward to even such a minor spirit knowing the taste of her blood.

Madame Kentrit knelt before the shrine, and Miyun immediately copied her. "Most honored, generous, and forgiving Manakut," the supervisor murmured, "I present to you these new daughters, that they may be made part of our family, subject to your blessing. Please, O open-hearted Manakut, accept their efforts to find worth in your eyes."

The drowsing presence roused and focused. Miyun kept her face lowered, but she could feel the eyes of the faded portrait within the shrine upon her. Millions of people lived with household gods; it wasn't going to hurt her. Sweat trickled between her breasts anyway.

"O charitable Manakut," began Yarumin, and Miyun and Shisan quickly chimed in, almost in unison. "We came before you naked, and you clothed us; we came before you hungry, and you fed us." Symbolically, anyway; they'd just missed lunch. "Now let us clothe your spirit with honor, and feed it with blood." They rose and lifted the sticks of incense they had been given. Miyun and Shisan lit theirs from the candles flanking the portrait; Yarumin, showing off, touched hers to her lips and it caught from her whispered word. The incense smouldered vigorously as they planted the sticks in the bronze pot of sand, with a spicy and faintly musty odor and pale coils that piled up at the top of the shrine niche. None of the sticks went out, so one by one each of the girls pricked her left ring finger and let a drop of blood fall on the glowing end of her incense stick. The blood hissed and sputtered, and the rising smoke faltered.

Miyun flinched. What if Manakut only accepted Treeport people? From the way Porfiros had talked, hardly anyone who tried what they had lived to get here, so Kentrit might not even know.

All three sticks flared up, bright as the candles. The flames wavered as Miyun and at least one of her friends let out their breath, and then subsided to orange coals.

"Very good," said Madame Kentrit. "Now you can start cleaning the dormitory."

* * *

"Hey, fresh meat!" Miyun looked up from scrubbing the middle of the floor to see a yellow-haired hatuman girl in labor pool tunic and trousers eying her with amusement. The hatuman and the cluster of girls behind her looked like they'd had a hard day's work, but not so hard that they couldn't haze the new girls. "What the hell are you?"

"A cobbler's nightmare?" suggested one of her followers, which made them all snicker.

Yarumin, also on her knees with a scrub brush that secreted fuming paste, shifted closer and put a hand to her ankle. The cogs had kept not only their weapons but their protective amulets, but these girls might not know that. More importantly, if it turned ugly, Shisan was peering in from the hallway where Madame Kentrit had set her to folding bedding and sweeping when the fumes from the brushes made her cough so much she had almost passed out.

Would anyone ever have a different first question? Still, it beat "How much for a quickie?". She answered politely enough, "I dunno, I never knew my parents."

The odds were still two to one, but the blonde glanced over at Yarumin, shrugged, and went to get a hair ribbon out of her footlocker. "Too bad. Well, scrub faster if you want any dinner tonight." She and her friends wandered back out. Miyun sighed and rinsed her brush, wondering vaguely what sort of trouble she'd have to deal with when the rest of dorm five got back.

"Why aren't you two in the refectory?" demanded Madame Kentrit from the doorway.

* * *

Falling for such an obvious trick put Miyun in a mood that made it lucky for the boys in the refectory that Madame Kentrit didn't let them move around during the meal. She was tempted to repay a couple of the comments from adjacent tables with globs of something that stained, but that would have been a waste of perfectly edible food. "Good" would have been stretching it, but the thick slabs of seed-filled vegetable in sweet orange sauce and lengths of rod-shaped herbed cheese were far from the worst she'd ever eaten, and farther still from going hungry.

"Cleanup!" yelled one of the supervisors, and the diners grumbled to their feet, drifting towards the buckets by the door while finishing their food or continuing their conversations.

"Hey," said a young Shadrite man with glorious violet plumes, "You're gorgeous! But what are you?"

"Never mind that," put in an adolescent lios girl as she elbowed the Shadrite aside. "I want to know if you're busy tonight!"

* * *

At the refectory door, Madame Kentrit extended a skeletal arm to bar Shisan's way. "The tableware is held in common, young woman, not provided for your sole convenience." Defiant but abashed, Shisan handed over the table knife from her sleeve. Madame Kentrit raked her with a cynical eye, but then turned to break up a couple locked in a clinch.

Yarumin slipped the knife into Miyun's hand without breaking stride, and Miyun tucked it into her waistband just as smoothly, trusting the worn fancywork at the handle to keep it in place.

* * *

In dormitory five, their beds were naked mattresses. The other girls ignored them, then acted surprised when Yarumin asked politely about their bedding.

While Yarumin stirred up a fuss, Miyun watched the crowd for the ones who didn't react enough, who knew what was going to happen. "Shi', three at the end." Surprisingly, they didn't include the blonde hatuman from before.

Shisan bounded across the room and seized the pillow from a fat but not particularly soft girl with a smooth brown pelt and brushy crest of black hair.

"Hey, bitch!" The brown girl grabbed Shisan's arm and pulled, with as much effect as pulling on a wall. Her two friends, a hulking blue-feathered Shadrite with a scar across her nose and a Hulyu-lander who could have been the sister of the guardswoman on the barge, closed in and grabbed Shisan by the shoulders so their leader could pummel her, like thugs anywhere.

"She shouldn'ta done that," a lios girl with a lazy eye advised. "You're gonna get it too, ya know."

Miyun smiled. "I glim not."

Shisan blocked the blow to her stomach with a raised knee, straightened her leg to send the fat girl sprawling, kicked back at the Shadrite's knee, and slipped free of the startled Hulyu-lander's grasp. She was still holding the pillow.

"Aa! You little jizz-drinker!" The Shadrite rolled on the floor clutching her knee. "I'm gonna kill you!"

The leader of the three bounced back to her feet and cut to the side, pinning Shisan between her and the Hulyu-lander. "You stupid or what?" she demanded. "Come in here, get mangled your first day?"

"Or what," said Shisan and punched her hard in the gut. She was tough; she didn't go down, but she doubled over with a wheeze. The Hulyu-lander brought her doubled fists down on where Shisan's neck had been and kept going as Shisan grabbed her wrists and pulled, spilling her on top of her boss. While they tried to untangle themselves, Shisan briskly stripped the bedclothes from the brown-furred girl's bed, wadded them up, and threw them to Yarumin.

The Hulyu-lander gave up on trying to stand and swept Shisan's legs from under her. Shisan landed on her side and immediately brought her heel down hard on the other girl's groin.

Stepping carefully around the bodies curled in various positions of agony on the floor, Shisan gathered up the other two sets of bedding and took them over to make her and Miyun's beds.

"Fuck me dead," said the lazy-eyed lios. "Where'd she learn that shit?"

"From a crazy old man in Hamvin-town. Said he used to be a marine scout. Said a lot of things, but no one ever argued with him."

"What in the name of the Sacred Tree is going on in here?"

"Nothing, Madame Kentrit," chorused the room.

"They tripped," volunteered one girl. "Musta had something on their shoes."

"I see." Madame Kentrit plainly did, but forbore to bring her wrath down on anyone. "Take better care in future."

"Yes, Madame Kentrit!"

Shisan's victims pulled themselves to their feet, if not upright, and produced some stained bedding from under other people's beds. The rest of the girls crowded around Shisan.

"That was royal!" enthused one girl, bouncing on her toes. "They deserved that so much!"

"Can you teach me to fight like that?" "Aren't you going to drink their blood?" "Hey, what is your friend over there, anyway?" "Can we sleep over here by you?"

Miyun stretched out on her bed, pillowed her head on her folded arms, and watched Shisan, pink-faced, glow in the admiration of the other girls.

Chapter 3

17th Withering Day of the Month of the Wheel, Year 417 of Settlement

Yarumin stretched luxuriantly under the stream of hot water. "Five gods in a bucket, this is great!"

"Not much water in Hamvin?" inquired the girl in the next shower, not pausing in soaping her small round breasts and flat belly in a way that probably was completely innocent but caught a good share of Miyun's attention nevertheless.

"Not for dimics." Yarumin ran her fingers through the chopped-off silver mass of her hair. "Can't remember the last time I had anything except a damp cloth to wash with."

"This is one thing the port has plenty of," commented another bather -- the hatuman who had wanted Shisan to drink the blood of the girls she'd defeated -- as she stepped under the shower. For someone so blood-thirsty, she had a remarkably nice smile. And nice legs, Miyun mused. "We can't possibly use more than a tiny bit of what the tree draws up for itself."

Shisan surfaced in the steaming pool with a tremendous splash and stood there grinning from ear to ear until one of the girls she'd splashed tackled her and they both went under.

A towel-wrapped head poked in. "Four degrees to breakfast!"

Yarumin stood indecisive. "I can remember the last time I ate..."

"You want to keep your strength up. Anyway, the baths'll still be here tomorrow!"

"I guess." Reluctantly, Yarumin shut the valve and padded out in search of a towel or three, followed by the girl with the smile and thus Miyun.

The towels were just the right size, so far as Miyun was concerned: when the girl with the smile and the legs wrapped one around herself and tucked it above her pretty round breasts, the lower edge came just down to her hips, so that she looked all legs.

Miyun swallowed. Nothing ventured, nothing touched, she reminded herself, and asked casually, "Do you have a brush I can borrow?"

"Oh, here, I'll do that!" She moved around behind Miyun and started brushing her hair with long even strokes just a bit too slow to be efficient. "You have beautiful hair. I'm jealous!"

Miyun arched her back in pleasure, hair swinging free from her shoulders. "Mmm. I'm glad you glim so; maybe you'll do this more!"

She giggled. "If you ask nicely, maybe!" Then she squeaked as Miyun's languidly-swinging tail curled around her calf. "I've never met anyone who had a tail before!"

Was that the right sort of curiosity in her voice? "It comes in handy sometimes," Miyun admitted. Should she move her tail up?

"I'm sure it does!" The smile in her voice was definitely interested. "I'm Millim, Hokashut Millim."

"Miyun." She squirmed, causing the towel to pop loose from her chest, and caught it while she was still decent but not modest. Even though Millim was out of sight behind her, she could feel her looking. Maybe the stupid things were good for something after all.

"What clan?"

"No clan, just my friends."

"Making your way without any family... You must be really strong."

Embarrassed, Miyun shrugged, dislodging the towel even further. "We get by."

Millim dropped the brush on Miyun's chest, letting it slide down into her cleavage. "My turn!" Her shoulder-length hair was thick as Miyun's or Yarumin's, but a rich chestnut brown just redder than her skin, and flowed like silk over Miyun's fingers. "With the brush, silly!" Miyun blushed, but Millim didn't sound at all offended.

Hesitantly, she put her hand on Millim's shoulder, ostensibly to turn her so the rest of her hair could be brushed. Her skin was warm and strangely unyielding, but satiny-smooth. Miyun's heart pounded.

"Hey!" Yarumin snapped a towel like a whip at Miyun's face; reflexively she shoved between it and Millim, hand raised. "Hurry up or we'll miss breakfast!"

"My heroine," said Millim, and brushed Miyun's cheek with her lips, leaving her there stunned and blushing.

* * *

"Count off by threes," the supervisor ordered. "Ones, follow me; twos, you'll be doing the north branch with Lalu; threes, east branch with Jurlilo."

Miyun had been standing next to Yarumin, but quickly moved to put two girls between them. Looking down the line to see who else would be in her group, she spotted Millim and the Shadrite Shisan had beaten elbowing for space. Had Millim moved, or was it the Shadrite?

"You, sun-and-moon! What number comes after two?"

"Um... Two and a half?"

The supervisor snorted. "Close enough; it's not like you're here for your brain."

"Doesn't it bother you to be called that?" asked Millim as they followed Jurlilo -- a squat, hairy man with no perceptible sense of humor -- toward the promised eastern branch. "I mean, they're pretty and all, but so's the rest of you, and your tail's more unique."

Miyun looked down at where the tan labor-pool tunic strained over her bosom. "My tail's not up here where men look. I dunno, I guess it bothers me a little." She shrugged. "Not much as life goes, though."

"I guess," Millim said dubiously. "I'd hate it."

"Really, not being able to get clothes that fit is worse," Miyun assured her.

"If you want, I can tailor that tunic. We're not supposed to, but lots of people do anyway."

"Really? Thanks!" Then she stopped dead as Jurlilo lead them through a plain door.

So far, Miyun had only been in the working part of the port: enclosed spaces of plain or plainly painted wood that could have been the insides of buildings back in Hamvin, except for the lack of weight. Even the green leaves and gold ribbons of Planting Day decorations were the same. She'd been disappointed, but figured that people did the same sorts of things everywhere they went. On the other side of the door, though, was what she'd imagined the port to be back when their escape was just a late-night fantasy.

Overhead, the stars shone in blackness, not as bright but far more glorious than the many-colored pictures of shop signs along the boulevard. Brightly-dressed people of every kind she knew and kinds she'd never seen before thronged like birds in a zoo, rushing back and forth like "the bloodstream of interstellar commerce" (as one of Martal's favorite dreams had put it. Even they, though, sometimes stopped and looked up at the stars, as though unable to believe they were really among them.

"Hey!" The Hulyu-lander Shisan had beat last night shoved her. "Get yer eyes back in yer sockets; it's just stars and rich bastards."

Miyun shook her head. "If that's what you use for a soul, no wonder Shisan mangled you."

"Miyun, come on!" Millim grabbed her hand and pulled her away from the Hulyu-lander's confused anger.

* * *

Miyun put her hands in the small of her back and stretched, which would have been more satisfying if a seam in her tunic hadn't given way. "Come to the sky tree, see the people of a hundred worlds, and pick up their garbage."

Yarumin came up behind and rubbed her shoulders. "It's still the best deal we've gotten so far, and you can't beat the scenery."

She leaned back against the strong hands and looked out the long windows lining one side of the corridor. The suntubes inside washed out the stars outside, but the brightest were still faintly visible, and both the larger moon Adlu and its tiny, fast-moving sister Kodlu were clearly visible through the shining branches of the Tree. A bright orange star beyond them was Vidram, the next planet in, which after another few centuries of labor might be fit for a god to inhabit. She wondered if Martal was there; she knew Irinso's clan was a big name in the project.

Yarumin's thumb gouging at a particularly hard knot dragged her out of dark thoughts. "Yah, yah," she agreed. "But that's all out there, and we're in here." She sighed. "It's better, yah, it's just not what we..."

"Dreamed of? But not much is."

Miyun sighed. "Not for dimics like us."

"I know she's hot," growled Jurlilo, "but grope her later. That fountain still needs cleaning."

* * *

Yarumin collapsed backwards onto her bed. "Fifteen hundred thirty-two days to go."

Shisan shrugged. "Fifteen hundred days with regular food, hot baths, and no one trying to rape us." She coughed, but not as painfully as before; maybe the steam from the bath and the moist air inside the Tree was helping.

"Yah, yah. Well, maybe we'll get better work later on. Dorm four is putting up Planting Day decorations, so it's not all picking up trash."

Miyun looked over from where she sat cross-legged on her bed in only trousers and halter, facing Millim while she tailored her tunic to be fitted rather than tight. "Hope springs eternal."

"Feh, broke the needle!" Probably because she was paying more attention to Miyun's chest than to what was supposed to cover it. "I'll have to get a new one. Come on, Miyun, I'll show you where the supplies are." Millim jumped up and pulled Miyun to her hooves.

Yarumin smirked. "Hope of something, anyway. Have fun!"

Millim blushed darkly. "I'm just showing her where to get needles and pens and all!" She fled, dragging Miyun behind.

* * *

"Hey, sun-and-moon! Looking for some company?" The Shadrite man's leer reminded Miyun that although the halter she'd been issued was as boring and practical as possible, it still clung and plunged.

She flushed and folded her arms across her breasts. "Sorry, just going to get a needle so we can fix my tunic."

"Too bad, you don't know what you're missing." He wandered off back toward the men's wing.

"I don't know whether to be glad I don't get attention like that or mad that he didn't even notice me!"

"He just doesn't have any taste," Miyun assured her.

"Sure he does. He liked you!"

"I don't glim that's taste so much as --"

Millim turned on her with mock ferocity. "So now you're saying I have no taste?"

Miyun flung up her hands defensively. "I'd never say that!"

"So no more saying you're not beautiful."

"Yes, madame." She lowered her eyes in pretend humility; too bad the straight-legged labor pool trousers completely hid Millim's legs. "Where is this supply room, anyway?"

"Oh, we passed it already. We'll get a needle on the way back."

Miyun stopped short, dragging Millim to a halt by their linked hands. "Where are you taking me? Are we -- Do you -- You really --?" Her face burned, and so did the rest of her. She felt like a babbling fool.

Millim laughed, but not with mockery; more like relief. "You seemed so sophisticated, so... worldly? I didn't think you'd get flustered just like anyone else."

Miyun looked sophisticated? That was news to her, but not bad news. "The more you want something," she said after a moment, "the harder it is to be smooth."

Millim put her free hand on Miyun's cheek, cool fingers stroking her cheekbone. "Then I'm flattered."

Miyun shivered and pulled Millim closer, arm curling around her slender waist. "I babble that much?"

Millim looked into her eyes from close enough that their nosetips touched. "You're cute when you babble." She cocked her head consideringly to one side without dropping Miyun's gaze, then leaned the last bit forward. Her lips were softer than her tough skin, soft as mist seeping through the window before dawn, and tasted delightfully of the spicy sauce that had been ladled over dinner.

Miyun closed her eyes and opened her mouth, invitingly. Millim's narrow tongue lingered at the entrance until her own pulled it inside, curling slippery and warm together. Millim melted against her, free hand running up behind her nape into her hair, holding her still while Millim's tongue explored. She could feel the beat of Millim's heart, speeding just in synch with her own.

"You sure do get around, Miss Sun-and-Moon," growled Jurlilo.

Miyun sprang free in startlement, but didn't lose hold of Millim's hand. "I, um, we..."

Jurlilo scowled up at her. "Not like you need my approval; anyone doesn't think you're of age for that has to be blind. And probably deaf. Just don't do it in the halls and block traffic." Behind him was a large table, the other end supported by a young lios man who was trying to watch the reddened lips and heaving bosoms while looking politely away.

"Sorry!" Mortified, Miyun flattened against the wall to let them past. Millim squeezed up next to her, still without releasing her hand, which helped surprisingly much. As the two men manhandled the table past, the lios contrived to rub his arm against her breasts, and the pressure on her swollen nipples made her bite her lip to keep from gasping aloud. Then they were gone around a corner and she let her breath out with a whuf.

Millim's eyebrows were raised. "I think that lios might be queer for girls!"

Miyun burst out laughing. "Or wants to know what he's missing!"

"I could call him back and we could show him...?"

This wasn't the first time Miyun had gone off alone with someone she fancied; it wasn't even the tenth, although maybe not much beyond that. Yarumin and Shishan had done the same, though not as often. No one had ever had to say it, but it was clear that such affairs were just for sex, or at most friendship, but never anything like the bond the three of them had. So why did it hurt so much to think that was all Millim wanted too? She recoiled a step.

"Miyun! Miyun, I was just kidding! Don't look like that!" She seemed honestly distressed. "If it was Pelelu I wanted, it would be him I was dragging off to have my way with!" She tugged on Miyun's hand.

Miyun opened her mouth to explain, closed it again. She knew the laws of nature, especially the one that went "Let anyone see your heart and someone will tear it out". But she didn't have to expose her heart to enjoy Millim's body, so why wasn't she following her?

Millim tilted her head the other way, and her hazel eyes were sharp. "That's not it, is it?"

Mutely, Miyun shook her head.

"Something... something against men?" She said it delicately, but her meaning was clear, and her hands were balled into fists.

"No! No, not that. It's..." There wasn't a way to say it that wasn't stupid, or insulting, or just plain pathetic.

"Oh! Are you geased against talking about this?"

"No, no. I just can't..." She couldn't say what, and that made her eyes prickle. "It's stupid!"

"Oh!" If anything she was even more alarmed. "Don't cry, Miyun! I never know what to do when girls start crying on me!"

Miyun turned away and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm stupid!"

Pure motion flower itself them and solidified into a young man in supervisor's uniform and a peaked red cap. "Freewoman, are you all right? Is she bothering you?" His eyes were long and blue, and reflected stars.

Miyun startled back, hand going to the knife concealed in the leg of her trousers. Despite his courtesy, he felt immensely dangerous, and not just from his speed; here was something far more important than romantic nonsense. "I'm fine, freeman, thank you," she said cautiously.

"I'm sorry, I hadn't realized there was any people who wept when 'fine'."

"Um. Maybe not fine, but it's not her fault."

"If you say so. Do you need assistance?"

"No! No thank you." She tried to indicate by tone that he should go, but it didn't seem likely she could make him leave if he didn't want to.

"Very well." His mouth turned up at one corner, a bit like Yarumin's. "I hope you feel better soon; no one as beautiful as you should have cause to weep." He turned and walked off, past Millim who had been edging away from him during the whole conversation and who put her back to the wall as he passed, as though he took up the whole corridor.

She watched him go, still overwhelmed though he was no longer present. Not until he turned the corner did she cross over to Millim. "Who was that?"

"I don't know. He must be new; I don't see how we could have missed anyone with that much mana. But what's someone like that doing here? Besides saving you from the brute who made you cry, I mean."

"Penance? Worshipping something that likes charity?" She held out her hand to Millim. "It wasn't you making me cry, or at least not anything you did that you shouldn't have."

Millim started to raise her hand, but stopped. "There were a lot of qualifiers in that."

"Yah. Maybe I should just say, 'It's not your fault'. You didn't do anything I should get upset at; I'm just stupid."

"But I don't want to upset you!" Her voice rose. "Tell me what I did, so I can stop doing it!" She broke off. "Will you come with me? This hallway has too many busybodies."

That was hopeful, but... "Yah, it does. Where?"

Millim's hideaway was a storeroom at the back of the complex, where the suntubes guttered orange, but still as bright as the fireglobes they'd had back in Hamvin. Millim spat on the thumb of her free hand and traced a twisty pattern on the face of the lock, and muttered to it until it opened. Inside was even dimmer, and claustrophobic with boxes piled high. Miyun stepped back in embarrassment as a blissful sigh came from somewhere inside, but Millim took her hand and pulled her in, around the boxes in the other direction. Tucked between stacks of boxes and the bare wooden wall was a folding cot with an inflatable mattress, a stack of clean sheets, and a hamper of dirty ones.

Millim sat down on the bed, bouncing slightly, and pulled Miyun down beside her. The sag of the mattress tilted them together, and Miyun quit trying to sit up straight when Millim put one arm around her waist and cuddled warm and firm against her side.

Miyun looked around. "Handy place. Won't we get in trouble, though?" Still pathetic, but better than talking about what Millim wanted to.

"I promise I won't get you pregnant if you don't get me pregnant," Millim said solemnly. "But if you come here with a man, there are tablets in that box over there, the kind you put up inside."

The voice of experience, Miyun was sure. No reason for hope after all; Millim just wanted to avoid an embarrassing scene in public. Miyun didn't care for one either, so she should have been grateful for Millim bringing her here, but she couldn't help saying, "You come here a lot, then?"

Millim was quiet for a bit in the semidarkness. Maybe Miyun had offended her, maybe she'd storm out, change dormitories -- "Here, just once. It... didn't work."

"Oh." She couldn't think of anything else to say that wouldn't be pathetic. Or worse.

"I had a sweetheart, Archa. I loved him for years, and when he finally noticed I was a girl, I was so happy. If my family had let me, I'd have married him as soon as we came of age; I might have even if they didn't. But..." She was quiet again, maybe trying to figure out what to not say. "He needed some stuff, and I got it for him. I got in a lot of trouble, but I didn't care, because it was for him. Then he used what I gave him... Later they told me the details, and there was no way he could have survived. He knew, too, but he did it anyway. And he made me help."

Miyun struggled for words, appalled at what her jibe had brought forth. What came out was what she should have said already, but better late than not at all. "I'm sorry." She understood how Millim felt; Martal wasn't dead, but she was so far from what she'd been as Miyun's friend that she might as well be in another incarnation. And Miyun had helped her.

"I'm sorry too. I thought..." Her voice rose again, and her words quickened as she spoke. "It's been half a year, I should be able to, to like someone again, and you're beautiful, and sexy, and if you think those are the same you haven't seen a purebred lios, and you stepped in front of me when you hadn't even seen what was coming, and I thought you liked me but I made you hate me and I don't even know what I did!" The last came out as a miserable wail, and Millim put her face in her hands and sobbed.

Miyun wrapped her arms tight around Millim, pulling the other girl's head against her breasts. The inflated mattress tilted them over until they toppled over, but she didn't let go. "Millim, you didn't do anything wrong. I like you. Maybe a lot. When you talked about bringing that boy, Pelolo, I glimmed it meant you just wanted a tumble, and I felt stupid for wanting... anything else." She stroked Millim's hair and held her close as her sobbing quieted. "I mean, we just met this morning, you don't even know me, so when you dragged me off how could it mean anything more than you have the itch? What kind of idiot would want more from someone she just met?"

Millim sniffled, and mumbled into Miyun's cleavage, "An idiot like me." Her throat vibrated with speech, sending tickly little sensations into Miyun's breasts.

Miyun squirmed, not at all unhappily. "I guess this can be our clubhouse, so all we need is a pass-sign."

Millim arched her neck, pressing the delicate lump of her larynx into the inner curve of one breast while her hair swept the top of the other where the scanty halter bared it. She hummed, and Miyun writhed, clutching at her shoulders. "Oh, Mi'!"

Millim looked up at her, face streaked with tears but that smile flickering behind them. "That was gratifying. I always thought girls with more to show were less sensitive."

Miyun took a deep breath, breasts squashing and relaxing against Millim's neck. "But then they wouldn't be heavenly."

Millim's fingers worked up between their bodies to flick open the button fastening Miyun's halter. "And they definitely are!" She pushed Miyun over onto her back and bent over her breasts, silken hair brushing suddenly erect nipples as she covered the full curves with kisses.

Miyun gasped and squirmed a lot more, clutching Millim's head to her. Then Millim did the humming trick again, this time with her larynx resting right on the nipple, and Miyun arched with pleasure that ran down through her belly to her groin. "AHHHHHHHH!"

Millim giggled and started to raise her head to make some comment, but Miyun's frantic fingers pulled her back into place, and she obligingly went on with her humming. Heat filled Miyun's body, radiating from burning nipples and aching groin.

Millim shifted her attentions to the other breast, easily overpowering the hands holding her in place, and the change was just that bit more needed to send Miyun over the edge, writhing and crying out from the pulses of ecstatic release.

When Miyun slid back down from her peak, the buzzing against her nipple was suddenly too much to bear, nearly painful, and she pushed Millim away. The other girl slid up, smooth cloth of tunic feeling rough as burlap on oversensitized skin, and smiled at Miyun. "Lucky!" she declared, pretending envy but with delight shining through. "I didn't know it could happen that way!"

Miyun gulped air dizzily. "Me either! You have the magic touch, I glim."

"I bet I'm not the only one." Millim sat up and pulled her tunic off over her head, revealing breasts straining against a lacy halter and nipples jutting through. She arched her back and raised an eyebrow in challenge, then squealed as Miyun sprang, knocking her over and nipping at the lace-covered mounds with mock ferocity.

Supporting herself on one elbow, Miyun bit in earnest, teeth indenting resistant skin until Millim squealed again. Her other hand fiddled with the button fastening Millim's trousers, fingers brushing bare belly above until her victim couldn't decide between laughing and moaning.

Finally the trouser fly came open, letting the tickling fingers in and into a breechclout lacy as the halter above. The moans won out as Miyun ran her nails over hairless skin and along each side of the damp cleft below.

Millim pulled her legs up and clamped her thighs on Miyun's wrist, trapping it. As the fingers, unable to escape and not trying to anyway, slowly wormed their way between her folds, she arched up, shoving her breasts against Miyun's face and grinding one nipple against her teeth. Miyun took the hint and bit down hard on the tip of that breast, trusting to the odd toughness of Millim's skin. Frenzied writhing, nothing like an attempt to pull away, resulted.

Miyun's questing fingers found a hard nub, pressed in beside it, working the skin of its hood back and forth. Millim arched her back incredibly far and her legs crushed Miyun's arm between them, but no sound escaped her mouth while her body jerked climactically.

Millim sagged back onto the bed and sucked in air as though she hadn't breathed for an eighth of a degree. Despite the gasping, her smile was at full luminosity. "Oh, I told you, Miyun!"

Miyun, still breathing heavily herself, grinned smugly and kissed Millim softly but thoroughly.

Chapter 4

19th Withering Day of the Month of the Wheel, Year 416 of Settlement

Millim bent over the board, chewing her lip in concentration, hair swinging forward to shadow her face. It was a pose that made Miyun lose her train of thought every time, but it wasn't her turn, so she had plenty of time to meditate on the graceful curve of cheek and fan of lashes. Beautiful, beautiful and all hers.

"Hah!" Millim tapped one piece, a chariot, and the blocky green statuette galloped across the board, between two walls, and onto the square where Miyun's greater hierophant stood, knocking it flying. The defeated piece picked itself up and slunk away to the graveyard, while those it had collided with strode back to their places.

Miyun hadn't expected that; half her strategy was built around her heirophants. She hadn't played against Yarumin so long without learning the necessity of an interlocking defense, though, and she picked up one of her cataphracts, then dropped it embarrassedly as it squirmed in her grasp. She still hadn't gotten used to the way everything in Treeport moved by itself; in Hamvin-town, only the rich had anything like that, but here even the dimics in indigent housing had it.

The cataphract recovered its dignity and with a single step pinned the chariot. Millim's piece wasn't captured, but it couldn't do anything without exposing itself. "Hah yourself!"

"Hmph. I'll never get used to your siege variants. What's wrong with the field ordinary?"

"Miyun's all about the imposing edifices," jibed a passer-by. Miyun stuck out her tongue.

"Hey!" It was an unfamiliar voice, male and accompanied by the squeals or protests of those dorm-fivers who didn't feel they were wearing enough to entertain company. "Anyone here a virgin?"

Universal laughter answered him. "In here? We're the wanton criminal classes!" "Not since I was old enough to know what it was for!" "I may be a pervert, but virginity's just unnatural!" "I still got the box it came in, though!"

"You asking socially or technically?" someone inquired. The laughter subsided as the young women considered the question.

"Uh, technically. We're um looking for maidens for the Procession of the Twelve Joys." The speaker was young, ascetic-looking with shaved head and simple green robe, and trying very hard to not goggle around at the residents of dormitory five, not all of whom minded being seen in their underwear or less.

"Shit, that late in the month already?" said the same girl. "I better start getting my sacrifices together."

"The Procession is to be composed of young women from all parts of the community," explained his superior, who was taller, older, fatter, and had ears that drooped far out from his head like a sick bat. He also didn't seem to care that most of the girls seemed to know this already; the script called for an explanation, so he was going to give one. "Traditionally, one is drawn from the Houses of Charity, and our casting of the signs has led us to this dormitory." His gaze, as it encompassed the residents, was much less approving than that of his assistant. He also looked completely unwilling to be put off.

"What's the Procession of Twelve Joys?" whispered Miyun.

"Maidens bearing symbols of what the port is grateful for this year, parading around the fane and putting them on the altar, kissing the men in the Procession of Twelve Tribulations, standing around looking maidenly. I did it two years ago, before I met..."

Miyun looked for Yarumin and Shisan, but neither of them had come back since she last looked -- not that Yarumin was qualified anyway. Feeling more than a little trapped, and not particularly relieved that the duties of a Processional maiden didn't sound like they involved either blood sacrifice or ritual deflowerment, she raised her hand.

The younger priest turned bright red; his superior cuffed him absently and bustled over to Miyun's bed. "Excellent, excellent! I knew it was a good casting! But you will understand that we must verify your eligibility?"

"Um. Sure?"

The priest brought out a small clay pot full of dirt, from which a single living green bud protruded. "If I may have a drop of your blood?" He grabbed her arm without waiting for a reply, and then looked startled when she twisted from his grasp. He hadn't seemed to mean any harm, but then Miyun hadn't had to think about what to do when someone grabbed her. "My dear young lady!"

"It's all right," Millim put in. "He's a priest!"

The priest looked at her, then brightened. "Ah, yes, you were in the Procession last year-- no, the year before. Mim, was it?"

"Hokashut Millim, Elevated Sir."

"Of course, of course. Now, my dear young lady," he addressed Miyun. "I understand you are a newcomer to our community, but surely your friend Millim stands as proof that we have no ill intent." Miyun looked over at Millim and bit back a smile. The priest looked a little confused but reached for her hand again, and this time she let him take hold. His subordinate passed him a tiny lump of resin, which he twisted open to expose a shining needle. Apparently he did this a lot, because Miyun barely felt it when he pierced the side of her fingertip and squeezed a single drop onto the bud.

Nothing happened.

Miyun realized after a moment that she was holding her breath, and inhaled, feeling a bit foolish. The acolyte completely forgot about the pot.

When the priest had counted to sixty under his breath, he beamed and put the pot away. "As pure a maiden as I've ever tested!" From his other sleeve he produced a length of green and white banded ribbon which he tied onto her wrist in a complex bow of many loops. "Excellent! Now if I may have your name, I will arrange for you to be excused for your other duties for the length of your instruction."

"Miyun."

"Of what clan?"

"No clan."

That stopped his officious fussing, but he recovered quickly. "Well, the Procession must represent us all, from the highest-placed to the lowest. I am sure you will do admirably. Please present yourself at the fane at sixty degrees ascending tomorrow to begin your instruction. Now, if you will excuse us, we must locate your colleagues." He dragged his assistant away from fascinated observation of Miyun's respiration and they departed.

Miyun blinked after them, fidgeting at the bow on her wrist. "That was sure sudden and unexpected!"

Millim giggled. "Really, Mi'? Never? Not even for curiosity?"

Why was she embarrassed? She shrugged. "A lot of dimic girls were happy to get glass that way, but we promised to get by with our wits and wills, not just warm holes. And this parade of yours isn't the only ritual that needs virgins, so we even got a little glass for not doing it."

"Oh." Millim squeezed her hand and was quiet for moment. "I'm sorry, Mi'. I always thought of my life as hard, so when you say you grew up in bad circumstances I picture, well, this." She waved her hand at the warm, comfortable dormitory and its healthy, well-fed inhabitants. "There's nothing up here as bad as what you had to go through, so I don't have any basis to feel it. Or I can't stand to think of you in someplace so horrid."

Miyun's heart flinched at Millim's distress. "It wasn't as bad as all that." She patted her chest. "I wouldn't have these if I'd been starving, and I kept the choice of remaining a virgin. We didn't have it easy, but we did a lot better than some." Thanks to Yarumin's cleverness and Shisan's strength, mostly, but she couldn't bring herself to say that in front of Millim.

Millim lifted Miyun's hand to her lips and softly kissed the palm. "I'm glad. You deserve the best, even if what's available isn't much." She looked up, eyes dancing. "So what didn't you say to old Ghirlees?"

Relieved at the change of subject, and loving Millim for it, Miyun grinned. "Whether this Procession thing is harmless depends on whether you glim turning someone into a split-tail is harm!"

"Hey! I come by it naturally! Anyone who's seen you with your shirt off would!"

A bedsheet landed over them. "Next time it'll be a bucket of cold water," warned Nosanis, the youngest dorm fiver and the most loudly disgusted at such goings-on. Fake disgust, as it turned out -- her desire to have Miyun instruct her in "goings-on" was obvious, at least to Miyun -- but she wasn't going to admit it.

"That's what you think!" Millim leapt up, gorgeous legs flashing beneath the hem of her tunic, and threw the sheet back over Nosanis. Laughing, she and Miyun tickled the younger girl into submission, then wrapped her in the sheet and sat firmly on her.

"You're not just lewd, you're mean! And using your tail's cheating!"

"That's not what Mi' says!" said Miyun smugly.

Chapter 5

20th Withering Day of the Month of the Wheel, Year 416 of Settlement

The top of the sky tree was so high above the ground that the sun rose only a little more than thirty degrees after midnight, but that didn't make sixty degrees ascending any less early. Only Millim's whispered suggestion that the god of the tree would strike her frigid if she didn't do her duty got Miyun up; not even the bitter, steaming tea passed out by acolytes at the fane got her awake.

Together with eleven other maidens, who all seemed to be naturally early risers, she stumbled through the forms of the Procession: how to progress with dignity, accept an object with dignity, offer up an object with dignity, make proper obeisance to the chief priest, to the people, to the presence of the god. Their instructor was a priestess, still young in years but crochety as any oldster when one of her pupils backslid from the proper forms. In those rare periods when none of the girls incurred her wrath, she helped the male instructor shout at the young men practicing their own forms at the other end of the hall.

By the time rest of the port would finally be getting out of bed, no doubt with slippers and rugs between their skin and the chill wood of the living tree, Miyun was awake but not at all glad of it. It was easy to take a step, to kneel or to bow, but doing it over and over for dozens of degrees, and at half speed, was not, even in the lesser gravity of the port. When a break was finally called, she collapsed in her place and lay there doing nothing but breathing for a degree or two.

"Um, excuse me, but are you all right?"

Miyun opened her eyes to see one of the other maidens bending over her, one of the ones from the middle classes; a small girl with a rabbitty face and unflattering bangs but a rather nicely rounded, if compact, body under her close-fitting athletic outfit.

"I'm okay. Just not used to this."

"Oh." She still looked worried, though, and bent low to whisper, "The boys are staring!"

It wasn't surprising; Miyun's labor pool tunic now fit properly, but plastered to her body with sweat, it was at least as revealing as before Millim had altered it. She flopped her head over anyway, and was rewarded by seeing several male heads snap back to face their instructor. One waggled his bushy brows and winked a large violet eye at her first, though, making her blush and then scowl at herself for it.

The rabbit-faced girl was blushing too, but also holding out a hand to help Miyun up, and pulled her to her hooves when she took it. "Um, what are you? I've never seen anyone like you." She was even smaller than she had looked, not even up to Miyun's shoulder.

"I don't know, I never knew my parents," Miyun explained patiently for what seemed like the fiftieth time.

"Oh! I'm sorry! Er, I'm Cabastral Ishin."

"Miyun, of no clan." To avoid all the other questions she expected, she continued on. "You seem to be okay; you do this a lot?"

"I play steeple-ball," she confessed, as though embarrassed at her own fitness. "After doing fifty high jumps and fifty long jumps every day, this isn't so bad."

Miyun had only a vague idea of what steeple-ball was: something involving kicking, throwing, or somehow getting a ball back and forth over a field covered with obstacles. She got the idea, though, and was impressed. "I bet!"

"Come over here and have some water. You need to replace what you're losing." Ishin's face was at just about the level of Miyun's bosom, so there was no way she could gesture at her sweat-soaked tunic without embarrassing herself. She was cute when she blushed, although in a way that inspired protectiveness more than desire.

Along with half a dozen cups of water (small cups, to enforce a limit on how fast one could drink), Miyun got introductions to the other ten maidens, all of whom also wanted to know what she was. Most of them were polite but not friendly; even the undistinguished middle class considered itself far above the labor pool. Allil, a plump blue-crested Shadrite with her baby fat pleasingly concentrated behind the front of the ratty old tunic she wore for exercise, and Mimanid, a lios of passably good breeding, were more welcoming; she was not surprised to learn that they were the daughters of, respectively, a golem foreman and a guardswoman.

Least friendly, but also by far most striking, was the maiden from the priestly class, Anjut Kasis. She was tallest of the group and slender enough to make her curvature seem more than it was -- not too far off Yarumin in build -- but only a few tiny bits of her darkly bronzed skin were covered by a red halter and breechclout that fit like paint. Black hair bound with fancy silver rings into a rope thicker than Miyun's wrist hung almost to the floor, swirling behind Kasis's quick elegant movements, and her black eyes shone arrogantly. If she had thought a labor pool worker was even slightly like a person, Millim would have needed to worry; even so, Miyun was almost hypnotized.

"I can't believe she wears that in public," whispered Allil, scandalized. "She looks more like a street-corner girl than a temple dancer!"

"But she's here, so we know she's not like that. She just pretends to make boys notice her," Mimanid whispered back. "Anyway, if she really did lie down with them, they wouldn't always be following her around."

"I heard she doesn't even like boys," put in Ishin.

Allil clapped a hand to her mouth. "She does it with girls?! But she's not a lios!"

"Well, I guess she doesn't actually do it, or she wouldn't be here."

"It doesn't count if it's just two girls," said Miyun. Allil and Ishin stared at her. "Well, it doesn't!" she said defensively.

"That's enough gossip! Finish your water and get back out here! None of you can genuflect well enough to greet a janitor, never mind the Inestimable. Except Kasis, and even she could stand some polishing," the instructor added. Groaning, the other eleven girls followed Kasis onto the floor.

* * *

This time Miyun staggered over to the table to fill her hands with meat buns and her mouth with a sweet seed cake before collapsing against the wall. "I'm dead," she moaned. "And I must have been a real bitch when I was alive."

"If you're dead, you don't need this!" Allil grabbed at one of the meat buns, but Miyun clutched it possessively to her chest.

"Mine! It gets buried with me!" Then she looked at the sweat it was absorbing from her sodden tunic. "Never mind, you can have it."

"No thanks. Ew."

Ishin flopped down cross-legged beside them. Miyun was relieved to see that even the athlete looked worn out; maybe she wasn't as pathetic as she'd thought. "See, doesn't Kasis look like she doesn't want any of them?" Ishin's chin indicated the pack of half a dozen boys surrounding the beautiful dancer, who held herself aloof from them all.

"Maybe she just likes older men. You know, ones with some tact," suggested Mimanid.

"I didn't know other girls even could," mused Allil. "I thought lios girls were special." She seemed even more interested in the idea than Nosanis; Miyun was sure at least one of Allil's friends was going to get a surprising offer soon. Well, surprising if they were as sheltered as Allil. "Does it really not count if it's with another girl? It's still sex, right?"

Miyun hid a smile. "What's important is whether it can make a baby. Same reason we all have to be past the age of womanhood; if we weren't, we'd just be little kids, not maidens. And nothing before that counts, even if it was with a man."

One of the other maidens, eavesdropping, blushed, but luckily Allil didn't notice. They'd probably never have heard the end of it if she had.

Allil considered Miyun's explanation. "I guess that makes sense. But it still seems funny that you can get all naked and sweaty and... whatever with somebody and still say you're a virgin!"

"Here come the rest of the boys," warned Ishin, and she and the other two quickly brushed crumbs from their fronts and finger-combed their hair into shape. Miyun had gotten as far as propping herself up on elbows to see a bit better when the other half of the young men's class surrounded them.

There was a flurry of introductions, of which Miyun remembered one, the willowy bronze-skinned boy with the big violet eyes and bushy black brows who had winked at her last time she took a break. His name was Anjut-su Calido, and he was some sort of half-cousin to Kasis. That was obvious from his dress sense, though: he wore only rather tight knee-breeches, and a headband to keep his shaggy mane out of his face. In Miyun's opinion, he had the muscles for it, and it looked like Ishin and Allil, at least, agreed with her.

All the boys, on the other hand, remembered her name, though she had quickly sat up so her shoulders weren't pulled back so emphatically, and they all wanted to know what she was, where she was from, and what life in the labor pool was like, or least how much free time she had. She somehow put them all off until, by whatever arcane means the boys determined such things, it was Calido's turn.

He knelt in front of her and with a shameless grin said, "There's no point in your being a virgin after the Procession, so how about I help you with that?" Ishin spit out her mouthful of juice, turned bright red, and retreated; Allil and Mimanid just made choking noises.

Miyun burst out laughing, which didn't seem to wound his pride at all. When she recovered, still giggling, she said, "At least you know what you want!"

He gestured dismissively. "Just what all the men and three-quarters of the women here want. The only difference is, I'm not ashamed to try and get her." He pretended to ponder for a moment. "Well, not the only difference, but I'm too modest to mention all the others."

It was obvious that he meant his outrageousness to be charming, but Miyun was embarrassed to realize that it was, at least to her. Men had tried similar approaches, as well as every other sort a city full of one-track minds could devise, but for Calido, it worked. The bastard. But at least he hadn't asked what she was!

"It's a very kind offer, but I glim my sweetheart wouldn't like it." It wasn't hard to sound regretful, not hard at all.

He perked up even more. "You have a lover? Maybe we can work something out. Is she as beautiful as you?" Before she could answer, he went on. "No, can't be; I don't see how there could be two women as beautiful as you in one star system, never mind one little port."

Miyun, more dazzled than she wanted to be, stomped on thoughts of two welcoming bodies waiting for her in bed. How could she be such a split-tail, after the scene she'd made when Millim so much as joked about such a thing? But Millim had brought it up first, so she must have already been thinking about it, right? Miyun was taking much too long to reply; Calido probably thought he was getting somewhere. Quickly -- in case he was right -- she said, "My lover is ten thousand times more beautiful than I am." She paused and added, sincerely, "She's even more beautiful than you."

"Ah well. I'll have to ask again when I'm all bedecked and bedizened for festival. You will bring her, won't you?" He widened his eyes appealingly, and all she could do was nod mutely.

"Enough lollygagging!" shouted the male instructor. "One degree to finish up!"

"Alas, fair lady, we must part!" Calido sprang nimbly to his feet and walked away. Dizzily, Miyun observed that he also had the muscles to wear skin-tight breeches. She only noticed the other boys trooping after him as obstructions to her view.

"Not bad," said Kasis, who had appeared unnoticed at Miyun's back while she was being sweet-talked. "Most girls propose marriage on the spot when my baby cousin turns on the glamour like that."

Miyun shrugged and gestured toward her chest. "Lots of practice." But it was still much harder than it should have been to move her gaze from Calido's rear to Kasis's face.

"I'm surprised they let him anywhere near this year's crop, but the Tree knows where sun lies," Kasis said idly as she turned to the remaining seed cakes.

"What?" That sounded juicy.

"Never mind," said Kasis, and before Miyun could press, the female instructor was yelling for them to get back to work.

As they returned to their places, one of the other maidens -- Rhanit? Rhonid? -- noticed Miyun's scowl and whispered, "Two years ago, Calido seduced one of the Processional maidens before the Procession. I don't know what he's doing here either!"

* * *

Much to everyone's relief, the next lessons were mental and spiritual instead of physical. A different priestess, much older and more sarcastic, lectured the maidens on the origins of the rite they were to be involved in, the symbology of every part of it, the underlying theology (and other bits that seemed interesting), and finally the significance of each of the ritual objects, of which there were not many.

"We do WHAT?!"

"Disrobe at the portal of the temple," the instructor repeated with exaggerated patience, "to show that you are bringing nothing of the vulgar world with you. Would you like smaller words?"

Miyun put her face in her hands.

* * *

Millim looked up from the broadsheet she was reading as Miyun stomped in. "Oh," she said guiltily. "You found out about the no clothes?"

"You could have MENTIONED it! Five gods in a bucket, don't I have enough problems with men already?"

"I could have told you, but that wouldn't have made it not the right thing to do."

Miyun flung herself backwards onto her bed with a resounding whump. "I guess. Oh well, at least I'll get to see Kasis naked. Not that I'll see much more that way."

"Anjut Kasis, the temple dancer? She's one of the maidens? Oh, she's gorgeous!"

"No kidding." Miyun stared up at the ceiling, too tired to be very angry. After the lectures, which lasted exactly long enough for all her muscles to stiffen up, the day had finished off with another agonizing session of physical training. Her limbs felt as though they had been sawn off -- with blunt saws -- and replaced with leaden fakes. "Hey, Mi', you said it was two years ago you were in the Procession?"

"Right?"

"Did Kasis's cousin Calido really seduce one of the maidens before the Procession?"

"Kind of. It wasn't as one-sided as you make it sound, though. Gillin and Calido had been sniffing around each other for a while, doing a little kissing practice, that sort of thing. I don't think either of them planned it, but somehow they ended up alone together, she was nervous and tense about the Procession, he was warm and comforting, and nature took its course, as they say. She got in a lot more trouble, of course, because she had the sacred obligation. I think she got sent down to the ground for schooling."

"Sacred leaves. So what'd they do about the procession?"

"Fortunately, one of the maidens from the year before didn't like men so she was still qualified and didn't need much training."

"Lucky! I glim you can't have earthquakes or floods up here, but fires? Air leaks? Dry rot?"

"It really was; most of the maidens don't keep their qualifications very long at all. It's good luck to be a Processional maiden's first, and even the ones who prefer women usually have some male friend they want to give the luck to."

"Hey, Miyun! How was maiden practice? Did you get fitted for your costume?" Yarumin grinned down at her.

Miyun dragged her pillow over her face. "Kill me now," she mumbled.

"She's just grouchy because she's stiff. Yarumin, help me flip her over and I'll give her a rubdown." Miyun yelled as ruthless hands grabbed her and flipped her over onto her belly; the pillow went flying. She yelled again when strong fingers sank into her weary muscles, but although the massage was painful, she knew she needed it, so she gritted her teeth and bore it.

Chapter 6

21st Withering Day of the Month of the Wheel, Year 416 of Settlement

Once again, sixty ascending came much too early, though Miyun had fallen asleep right after dinner. When she stripped down at the instructor's order, though, the touch of cold air on her bare skin woke her right up. The first thing she saw, of course, was twenty-five people looking at her tail, which at least took her mind off her bare breasts and groin; all the other girls had those anyway. She wasn't surprised to see that Calido was watching her openly, nor that his cock was standing up stiffly. She didn't have much to compare it with, but it looked awfully big to fit inside. That was supposed to feel good?

Most of the boys, like the girls, had their bodies turned half away from the other group but their heads turned back in hopes of getting a peek without showing anything themselves, but she could see that they were all standing as stiff as Calido, if not as big. The girls had arms over breasts and hands between legs, except for Kasis. The beautiful dancer stood easily at rest, one knee bent and foot up on the ball to display the swell of her calf, apparently oblivious to the hungry and jealous eyes.

Not to be outdone, Miyun stood up proudly as well, hands at her sides, shoulders back and chest out. One of the boys choked on an oath, but she didn't look to see who; she knew it wouldn't be Calido.

She was a bit surprised to see the other girls drop their concealing hands and stand up as well, but glimmed they felt like she did about Kasis. That lasted all the way to the first break.

"Miyun, you were so brave!" Ishin gazed at her with stars in her eyes. "I was so embarrassed, I don't think I could have done anything if you hadn't stood up to them!" The semicircle of girls behind her looked just as admiring, although a lot of them were still looking at her tail.

Surprised and nervous, she coiled her tail around her leg and protested, "Me? I was just doing what Kasis did."

"Kasis is practically naked when she dances anyway, so it's easy for her!"

Miyun looked over to see Kasis, arms folded, eyeing her coldly. Apparently she had taken the top spot again, like in the dorm, but this time she didn't have Yarumin and Shisan to back her up. She wasn't even sure how normal people fought these battles; beating up Kasis probably wouldn't help.

Before anything could happen, though, the instructor called the girls back for more agonizing training.

* * *

"You have ten degrees for lunch!" shouted the instructor. Half the girls collapsed in place, but this time Miyun wasn't one of them; she managed to catch herself bent over, and pant with her hands on her knees. When she recovered, she glared at Kasis and Ishin for their atheltic figures, although at least dignified movement was slow. If they'd had to do any running or jumping, she would probably have strangled the instructor.

The boys also got a break for lunch, but neither class got clothes, so they ended up clustered at the ends of the long table, looking longingly down its length. Some of the girls were even looking at the food.

Kasis, still unfazeable, simply went and got the bowl of fruit from the other end of the table, ignoring the effect she had on the boys. Calido followed her back, watching carefully; when she turned to look at him, he studied her carefully from head to foot. His cock, which had gone almost limp while he concentrated on the lessons, rose eagerly. "Exquisite as ever, cousin."

"Careful, or your prey may take advantage of your distraction and escape." She indicated Miyun with a flick of her head that sent her hair coiling silkily around her calves.

Calido strode past Kasis and clasped Miyun's hands in both of his. "O uniquely beautous maiden, please tell me you have not come to doubt my love for you!" He did the wide-eyes trick again.

Smiling despite herself, she retorted, "I believe you just as much as before you got hard from ogling your cousin."

"If any other woman stirs me, it is only because I see in her the faintest reflection of your loveliness, your courage and grace!" he declaimed, sinking to one knee before her and lifting his arms like an actor in a florid melodrama. She noted that he was as large and upright as when they'd first met; definitely more than Kasis had caused.

She lifted an eyebrow. "You give these speeches a lot?" Allil giggled.

"Knowing that we must one day meet, I have spent the entirety of my life in study and practice for this encounter. How could I do otherwise, when my slightest negligence might bring it all to ruin?"

She inclined her head. "It's true, everyone knows you're best at bedding Processional maidens."

"Ow." He stood up and walked away, shoulders stiff. A couple of his friends hurried after him.

"Among most people," Kasis said nastily, "saying 'no' to an offer you're not interested in is quite enough."

Miyun really hadn't glimmed that someone who'd slept around as much as Millim said Calido had, and who even acted like it, would feel guilt over bedding someone, but that was because she was a complete idiot. Millim had said he and Gillin had liked each other; two years ago, he would have been young enough that she could easily have been his first real love, and by not being strong enough to resist asking or refuse when asked, he had ruined her life. Anyone with brains enough to fill a thimble would have known better than to bring up something like that ever, let alone in flirting.

Calido's friends were talking earnestly to him, and occasionally shooting dirty looks in her direction. His shoulders were still hunched with unhappiness, though, and she thought she saw them shake a bit.

At least she'd made him stop trying to shove that huge thing into her to get her luck. That was what she wanted, wasn't it? Except that if he were that heartless, he wouldn't still be miserable over what happened with Gillin.

Heedless of the eyes, variously surprised and confused and angry, of the other girls, she went after him.

One of his friends, a massively-built Hulyu-lander, stepped in her way. "Don't you think you've done enough? Go back and cackle with- GRAGH!" He didn't quite fall to the ground when she hooked his feet out from under him, but he stumbled out of her way.

The muscles of his back tightened, but he didn't turn around, so she said it to the back of his head, loud enough for the whole room to hear. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It was stupid and, and cruel, and you should hate me for it, but I didn't mean to hurt you."

His big friend grabbed Miyun by the arm, but Calido mumbled something and the Hulyu-lander stopped.

"What was that?"

A little louder, though not very, he said, "I don't hate you." He still didn't turn around, though.

She sighed, distracting Calido's other friend from the aid and comfort he was giving. "I'm glad," she said, and left him, shaking off the Hulyu-lander's grasp.

* * *

All through the afternoon's singing lessons, he avoided her, not even looking toward her. During the break, the girls Miyun hadn't made friends with went over to talk to him. He was pleasant enough, and even flattered a couple of them, but none of them looked satisfied when they returned, and several of them gave Miyun nasty looks. She couldn't say she didn't deserve them, though, and when class ended for the day, she fled. She was halfway out the fane's door before she realized she hadn't put her clothes back on.

* * *

"I don't know that you're an idiot, exactly," Millim said once Miyun had explained the situation.

"Just a good imitation?"

"Well, did you get rid of him because you didn't want him? Or because you did?"

"Millim!"

"I'm serious! I've met him; he's very handsome and he can be incredibly charming when he wants. I know your history has led you to swear off men, but that doesn't mean you only want women."

Miyun sighed. "I dunno. I glimmed he was just... being a man. Looking for someplace to stick it in near two big tits. But that's no worse than the rest of them, and he was awfully upset when he glimmed I was mocking him over Gillin."

"So you don't hate him, you even think he might be kind of nice, but do you actually want him?"

The image of Calido as she had seen him first that day popped into her head: tall, grinning, curves of muscle under smooth bronze skin, sparkling violet eyes, and obvious desire, not just the way boys always were, but for her specifically. She sighed again. "Maybe?"

"So you're not completely lacking in taste after all! Good!"

"Millim!"

Millim squeezed her hand. "But stabbing a guy right in the heart isn't the best way to get him into your bed. Not even if you're stark naked at the time."

Miyun fell over on her side, pulling Millim with her. "I glim that. But I already have someone to bed down with."

"That's never stopped anyone's eye from roving, you know." But she snuggled in and nuzzled under Miyun's jaw. "I'm glad you're not planning on replacing me right away, though."

"Never!" swore Miyun, then gasped as Millim bit down and started sucking.

Chapter 7

Planting Eve, Year 416 of Settlement

The problem with nudity, thought Miyun, besides the bouncing bits and the chill and people seeing your tail, was that it let other people know too much about what you did. She could mostly ignore the scandalized glances Allil kept shooting at the mark on her neck, but she still turned pink when anyone looked at the row of bite marks along the inside of her thigh. Millim had done that on purpose, the wretch!

At least she didn't have to see what Calido thought of them: he was still ignoring her, so thoroughly it couldn't be real. Also so thoroughly no one could help noticing, which meant everyone thought he hadn't really forgiven her and that she was still the most heartless person who had ever lived. If the god of the tree didn't strike her down during the Procession, maybe she'd join an order and retreat from the world, like the one she'd heard mentioned in a dream, where each nun spent her entire life in a tiny cell dug into a remote mountain, seeing no one, seen by no one, completely isolated except for the water and vegetables tossed down weekly by caretakers.

At what she thought was going to be the afternoon break, the instructors pronounced both groups good enough. "Enjoy the rest of the day," the priest ordered. "But don't do anything that might hamper your performance tomorrow," added the girl's instructor. Calido winced and slunk off. The instructor looked confused; probably she just meant "don't get drunk and come to the ceremony with a hangover".

Miyun winced too, mostly in sympathy but a little because she knew that anyone who liked Calido would blame her for his unhappiness. Sure enough, the girls who had made their plays the previous day were all looking daggers at her, or maybe vacuum swords.

Not everyone hated her, though. As they were getting dressed to leave, Ishin and Mimanid approached her. "Um, Miyun," said Ishin hesitantly, "Do you have anyone to be with tonight?" Miyun's eyebrow rose, and Ishin flung up her hands defensively. "Not that! Just, it would be terrible to be alone on Planting Eve. I know you don't have any family, but... maybe you have friends?"

"You can bring your sweetie," Mimanid added.

"Mimanid's and my families usually have Planting Eve together," Ishin explained. "We live right next door to each other."

Miyun wavered. She liked Ishin and Mimanid, but they were regular people, rows-and-columns like they said here. Millim would know how to behave, but how could she? She'd probably have an easier time faking it with tonns; she and Martal had seen plenty of dreams about the upper crust, but no one made stories about regular people! And what about Yarumin and Shisan? "Um. It's very nice of you to invite me--"

"Oh, please come, Miyun!" Ishin was nearly as good at Calido at the pleading eyes; Miyun weakened.

"Well... But what about my other friends? I can't leave them alone!"

"You'll come if they can?" Mimanid bounced on her toes. "Then you and your sweetie can be my family's guests, and your friends can be Ishin's, and you can stop worrying about imposing a whole crowd on us!"

"Hey! I asked her first! You take the friends!"

"Whatever!" Mimanid waved her hand negligently. "Anyway, you can't say you don't have anything to wear, because we can find you something, and you can't say you don't have any presents, because they aren't required, so you're coming!" She beamed triumphantly.

Miyun closed her mouth. Was she really that obvious? Oh well. Even if their parents had put them up to this so they could feel all charitable, Ishin and Mimanid were nice, and there would probably be food. She was pretty sure normal people always had food at holidays. "Yah, yah. You win. Tell me where and when, and we'll be there."

"Hurrah!" Ishin and Mimanid both leapt into the air in excitement, a fairly ridiculous sight since one was twice the height of the other. "Come to my place," said Mimanid. "Branch four, left at the seventh crossing, second house on the left. It has yellow flowers around the door. Dinner is at a hundred five past noon, but people show up earlier; eighty-five or ninety is fine."

"Four, seven left, two left, ninety descending," Miyun repeated. "So many numbers!"

Mimanid shrugged. "Space is too big for names, so we sort of got in the habit of numbers."

For practically the first time since she'd arrived, Miyun thought about where she was: straight up twice as far as Hamvin-land was wide, above the entire atmosphere, and still barely a hundredth of the way to the outer moon; the nearest planet was a hundred times farther still. It really was an emptiness that could swallow worlds, and yet people crossed it every week. She shivered, feeling again the same wonder as when she had seen the sky tree towering above her. She couldn't imagine staring out at that every day; no wonder the port didn't have many windows.

"Miyun?"

She shook herself. "Yah. Big. I better run and tell everyone. I'll see you in a bit!"

"See you soon!"

* * *

"I don't know about this," Yarumin said slowly. "What do they get out of inviting a bunch of dimics into their home?"

"I glim they don't glim what we are," Miyun said. "I'm just some fem their daughters met at class for the Procession, who doesn't have a family to go home to. Best they know, we're just poor, and they probably even glim I'm good-hearted, since I got picked for the Procession."

"So they get to glim they're being all charitable to the poor," said Shisan. "How noble of them."

"They get to feel good, we get free food, I get some people who don't want to screw me up tomorrow so I get cursed by the tree, so what's wrong?" she wheedled.

"Mi'! Everyone!" yelled Millim from the doorway. "Clothes!"

The half-dozen girls loafing about the dormitory perked up. "Clothes?"

"The recyclers just brought in a big load! They're in the refectory!" She leapt nimbly from the path of the stampede, and giggled. "Come on, Mi'! You need something I can show you off in!"

"Like I'm not going to show off enough tomorrow," muttered Miyun, but she ran to take Millim's hand. "So Mi', you didn't have any plans for Planting Eve, did you?"

* * *

The load of clothes was huge, all right: every table in the refectory was covered with them, and the room was full of people from every dormitory pillaging them with good cheer. Miyun had expected tooth-and-nail fights over choice pieces, but there was remarkably little conflict; the worse she could hear was one lios woman telling another the velvet tunic she was wearing made her look like a sack of poles, and that was just the truth.

Miyun went to the nearest table and started rummaging, but her idea of good clothing was warm stuff with no holes in it. None of this had more than minor wear, but little of it was warm: it was all brightly colored, and often thin or nearly see-through; festival clothing. She knew perfectly well that clothes made the woman, or at least the drop-dead gorgeous one, but had no idea how to pick them herself. The best she could hope for was to look like a mid-priced houri. Still, that was better than some girls.

Milim grabbed the flimsy shirt Miyun was pretending to consider. "Not that; with your coloring it'd make you look like a zombie!" She tossed it across the table to someone else and turned to look at Miyun. "You don't have any idea how to pick clothes, do you?"

Miyun shrank, feeling like an idiot again. "Not clothes like these," she admitted.

"I bet Yarumin and Shisan don't either." She grabbed Yarumin's wrist as she tried to slide by, and waved at Shisan until she came over, still holding a thick brown sweater dubiously by the cuffs. "That's not bad, but we're picking clothes for a festival, not wilderness survival." Shisan scowled and clutched the sweater; Millim sighed.

"You three come over here and follow me." She surveyed the tables, picked one for no visible reason, and marched to one end. Every garment there got inspected and sometimes held up to one or another of the three. Most were tossed back, but a few got handed to someone. Miyun had no idea how Millim was sorting them, but she seemed to.

The thought crossed Miyun's mind that someone who left visible bite marks on her the night before she had to take her clothes off in front of two dozen people wasn't the best source of fashion advice,, but then she would be back to having no idea. Anyway, it wasn't like people who had to work for a living would be able to dress perfectly either.

Millim had worked her way down a second table and was all set for a third when Yarumin cleared her throat. "Maybe we should try what we have before we completely bury Shisan?"

"But then all the good stuff will be gone!" She looked at the huge pile of clothes supported by Shisan's legs, and giggled. "Maybe we do have enough. Okay, over here." She led them to the corner of the room farthest from the door. "Shisan, clothes off."

"Hey! Oh, all right." Hidden by her her friends, Shisan stripped down to her breechclout, pointedly ignoring the whistles. She wasn't indecent for long, although she was frequently, as Millim threw clothes at her, studied the result, gestured her to take them off, and repeated.

"I like this one," Shisan protested, at being told to remove a jacket of some stiff blue material, lined with silk that showed at cuffs and collar and embroidered with knotwork down the front.

"It's huge! You could get lost in that thing and we wouldn't find you for weeks!" As had many before her, however, Millim succumbed to the dread Quivering Lip. "Oh, all right. Put it over there. We need to find you something for the party, though."

According to Millim, that was a better-fitted jacket of velvet in some sort of reddish-purplish brown, or brownish-purplish red, depending on the light, and a calf-length skirt of almost the same color with crimson embroidery around the hem.

"Hmm," said Yarumin.

"Hmm," said Miyun. The outfit did look nice, although she wasn't sure it looked like Shisan. But then, if they were going to a party with normal people, maybe that was for the best.

"A skirt?" said Shisan, dubiously. "What if I have to kick someone?"

"Knock them down first," suggested Yarumin.

Millim rolled her eyes. "We don't have all night. Can you stand to be seen in public in that?"

"Um." She spun around one way and then immediately the other, so the skirt flared out and swirled around her legs. "Sure."

"Good! Yarumin!"

Yarumin was too tall to be completely hidden; even if most of her was, it was obvious she was undressing, and her friends weren't the only ones who whistled. Miyun wondered if the Tree would get mad at her for not being more sympathetic.

This time it went faster; apparently Millim had a better idea of what lios wore to look good. Yarumin looked down at herself in sky-blue tunic of soft clinging material and darker, shiny trousers pinched in at the waist with a belt of the same brocade that spiralled down one leg. "Um. I look..."

"Female?" suggested Millim. Embarrassed, Yarumin nodded. Millim threw a thigh-length robe of shiny blue fabric that almost exactly matched the pants around her shoulders and belted it so that a V of light blue showed, curved but not obviously so. "Perfect!"

"Um," said Yarumin again, but Shisan flew into her arms. "Captain! You're gorgeous!"

A much larger crowd collected when Miyun stripped down; they didn't go away when she scowled, or even when she three things at them, so she ignored them. Anyway, after the past couple of days, having a halter and breechclout on was practically as good as being fully dressed.

Of course Millim had her shuck the halter to try on a strapless dress.

Some sort of stiffer band around the top of the dress kept the neckline on the upper curves of her breasts, though just barely so, and the back swooped lower. From there down to her thighs, the silky fabric clung like paint, finally letting go to swirl down to her ankles. The dress was a deep purple color she would never have picked, but it did seem to go with her skin. Like Shisan, she twirled to get a feel for the skirt, which slid sensuously against her legs.

She looked up and everyone was staring, wide-eyed and silent. "Five horned gods in a silver-plated bucket," breathed Yarumin.

Acutely self-conscious, as badly as the evening five years ago when Martal had suggested a good way to keep warm in the half-ruined attic they occupied, Miyun laughed weakly. "It can't be that bad!"

Millim choked on a laugh. "Bad?! If you could see yourself, you'd become a narcissist in an instant!"

Miyun felt the flush spreading down her half-exposed bosom. "Oh. Um." She knew Millim was biased, both in favor of her lover and of the clothes she'd picked out for her, but when Jurlilo said, "Hokashut, I'll give you twenty talents to take the next ship out," she started to believe maybe she did look good.

"Mi', you look wonderful!" Shisan's eyes shone admiration, as well as lust.

"Um, thanks?"

"Show's over! Go on! Get out of here!" yelled Millim, making shooing gestures at the crowd. "Yarumin, Shisan, put those clothes back on the tables. Miyun, come on." She grabbed Miyun's hand and towed her away; Miyun, still dazzled by the notion that she might be pretty, not just young and busty, followed without protest.

"Don't mess up the dress before the party," Shisan called after them, laughing.

Millim led her back to the dorm, not the love nest, but she did peel Miyun out of her new dress. Alas, she then dug her sewing supplies out and went to work on the back of the skirt, leaving Miyun breathing a bit fast and clutching her annoyingly plain labor pool tunic to her bare breasts.

"Mi', what are you doing? It fit fine!"

"Fine's not the word. Just a moment." About that long later, she sealed the edges of her work and tossed Miyun the dress. "Try it now."

Miyun didn't notice any difference, until she felt the cold air on the base of her tail. "Um, Mi', I'd rather--"

Millim put her hands on her hips and looked firm. "You're taking my advice about how to dress, right? And I think your tail is lovely, so pop it out!"

More embarrassed by this than by the bodice threatening to fall off, Miyun did as she was told. Millim stepped back and studied her thoughtfully, then then leaned forward and ran her hand from Miyun's waist over the curve of her hip. "Okay, that's got to go."

"What?"

"Drawers. Off!"

Wearing nothing except the dress felt even nakeder than no clothes at all, and the way Millim looked at her didn't help. Fortunately, the same band that kept the neckline above her nipples kept them from sticking out too much.

"Miyun, you are now utterly and completely perfect. I'm going to have to carry a vacuum sword to beat off all the attention you'll be getting."

Experimentally, Miyun bounced on her toes and twirled around again. The clingy fabric kept things in place well enough that bouncing wasn't uncomfortable, but from the way Millim's eyes bobbed, it still had all the impact she could want.

"Um, Mi', could you stop that? I have to get dressed too, and you're not motivating me."

Miyun decided she could get used to being beautiful.

* * *

"Seventh crossing?" Shisan called back from where she danced ahead of the other three, practically vibrating with energy.

"Left, second door on the right," Miyun yelled back, and then went back to beaming at Millim some more. She was pretty sure she looked foolish, but she didn't care what anyone except Millim though.

Millim wore a fitted velvet doublet that she had made the same color as Miyun's dress by pressing a tab inside it to her breast, and then lightened a few shades by holding it up to the firetubes. The top two buckles at the front were undone so that it always seemed that if she leaned forward just a bit, the shadowed depths of her cleavage would be revealed. They never quite were, but effect was entrancing.

Even more distracting, the doublet ended just at the bottom of Millim's rump, so that nothing covered her legs except translucent, pearlescent grey hose, and nothing at all concealed them. The heeled slippers were just overkill.

Millim obviously found Miyun just as captivating, which was probably why Shisan didn't walk with them. Yarumin just stayed behind them, where they couldn't see her smirk.

The door within the yellow flowers opened to Shisan's knock, letting out the scent of something wonderful frying. "Merry Planting!" said whoever stood within; probably a female lios. "Can we help you?"

Shisan bounced. "We're here with Miyun! She's late 'cause she's being goopy with Millim." She turned and yelled, "Miiiiyuuun! Hurry up, or we'll eat your share!"

Laughing, Miyun dashed for the door, but first Millim and then Yarumin passed her. Being last meant she got to watch Millim run, though.

"Last one in's a-- well, a vision of paradise, but that's not much incentive!" Millim giggled and drew Miyun by the hand into a crowd of beautiful dressed people, who stopped and stared admiringly as she made her entrance.

"Merry Planting!" they cried, "Mimanid, your friend's here!" and "Have some cake!"

Mimanid and Ishin appeared from the crush and threw themselves on her. "Miyun! You're beautiful!" exclaimed Ishin. "Of course she is," retorted Mimanid, "why else would we invite her?" Mimanid's dress was a single piece of fabric in white and subtle greens, elaborately tucked and gathered and apparently held in place only by two onyx brooches in the shape of stone knives, and her silver hair was held in an elegant pile atop her head by pins with matching heads. Ishin's outfit was much like Millim's but in shades of pink that made her look younger than she was, at least for the brief moment before Miyun saw the way her doublet that emphasized her bust, and the loose-laced neckline that showed more than a bit of cleavage. Her face too was pink, and Miyun suspected she had already been at the festival wine.

They dragged Miyun and Millim deeper into the crowd for introductions, of which Miyun remembered hardly any. She noticed that Millim clung tighter to her hand the better-looking the person she was being introduced to was, and the more they complimented her, so after that she made a point of putting her arm around Millim and introducing her as her sweetheart.

After a bit, the party dwindled from a huge confusing crowd to a mere twenty or thirty people: Ishin, her older brother, and their parents; Mimanid, her little sister and little brother, and their parents, a male pair of lios and a female pair; another pair of lios men who were Mimanid's uncles, and a childless quartet who were cousins of some kind; another whole family of Ishin's people, apparently not related; and quite a few muscular young adults who she gathered had come up the tree to work in the port and not been able, for whatever reason, to go back down to their families.

Despite Yarumin's worries, everyone was perfectly nice and didn't seem to look down on them any more than on anyone else their age. Many of the adults had spent some time in indigent housing or even the labor pool when they were younger, so they didn't care about that, and no one seemed to know about their history before that. Miyun was terribly smug, although really being right wasn't much compared to being on Millim's arm.

"Miyun!" A male voice, adult; she turned uncertainly and her eyes got round. "I didn't expect to see you here!" said Guardsman of the Second Circle Porfiros. He had traded his uniform for a clashing but festive outfit of red and blue which hid neither his paunch nor his guardsman's soul. "I see your new life agrees with you."

Miyun blushed. Guardsmen always looked like they could see through anything, and being crowded in with so many people was making her acutely conscious of what she was barely wearing. "It's okay. I didn't glim I'd see you, either, although I glim I should have, Mimanid's mom being a cha- a guardswoman and all."

Next to Porfiros was a woman of similar age and shape, in a slightly more tasteful but equally bright red gown that looked as though it were an old favorite of hers. On her brow was a tattoo, faded with age, of a Maker's triple-ended arrow combined with a Binder's crescent. She had the vague look of the powerfully gifted, as though what she saw with her eyes and heard with her ears just wasn't important, but Miyun couldn't feel her aura at all. "Merry Planting, dear."

"Merry Planting, Madame Porfiros." On a whim, Miyun tried a curtsey. Once, she and Martal had practiced until they thought they were as smooth as the tonn girls in dreams, but she'd been wearing a lot more then, and it had been better attached. Still, it felt like the effect was good, and when she straightened, Madame Porfiros's vague smile was vaguely more approving.

"There you are, Mi'!" Millim, returned from the lavatory, caught hold of her arm to swing her around and then stopped short. "Guardsman Second Porfiros," she said warily.

Porfiros beamed affably, which seemed to make Millim even more nervous. "Merry Planting, Freewoman Hokashut! I see you've made friends!"

Millim blushed but clutched Miyun's arm. "A few, although not as many as I had before," she said angrily.

"But a much better sort of person." It wasn't a question.

Miyun looked from one to the other, worried. Porfiros wasn't her friend, by any means, but he'd done her and Yarumin and Shisan a very good turn, and she didn't want to have to choose up sides.

"You'd say that about anyone!"

"And I'd be right, but it doesn't matter anymore. We should go pay our respects to our hosts." He drew his wife away, leaving Millim glaring after him, shaking.

Miyun wrapped her arms around Millim. "Mi', what was that all about?" She suspected she knew, though.

Millim let her breath out and stuck a smile on her face. "Ancient history, really. Come on, let's get something to eat."

Dinner was still a few degrees off, but a table had been stocked to keep anyone from starving before then. No one else seemed to realize or care what had been put out for nibbling was enough food to keep all of dorm five fed for a week. Miyun felt a flicker of resentment, thinking of all the times she'd gone hungry, but this was a festival, after all; she doubted these people ate this well the rest of the year.

Munching on something that had started out as the same sort of huge cylindrical vegetable that the indigents' refectory served so often, but sliced thin, fried crisp, and dusted with spices, Miyun and Millim escaped to a nook that would have been a bay window if the house hadn't been dug out of a giant tree. "We should get the recipe for this and give it to the refectory," Miyun suggested.

"It's terribly rude to ask someone for a recipe! Anyway, they could find something similar in a cookbook, but it would take work. Maybe even skill." She made a face and propped her legs across Miyun's lap. "Anyway, then what would we eat for festivals?"

"Miyun! Millim! There you are!" Ishin looked, if anything, even more tipsy, and her neckline seemed lower. That might just have been the effect of Millim's legs on Miyun's senses, though. "Come on, we're all in Mimanid's room!" She grabbed hands and pulled, too hard. Squealing, she toppled over backwards and was buried beneath Miyun and Millim.

Miyun, blushing again, yanked her skirt down from where it had ridden high up on her thighs, and let Millim help her up. "No wonder I never used to wear skirts," she muttered. Millim laughed and waggled her eyebrows.

Mimanid's room was in the traditional lios style: pale wooden walls decorated with colorful abstract banners, floor a step up from the hallway and softly padded, chests fashioned like woven reeds arrayed around the walls and bright cushions strewn across the floor. Soft string music wafted from one of the chests.

"We" turned out to be everyone of anywhere near Ishin's age: her, her brother Mishki, Mimanid, Mimanid's brother Ardu, Yarumin, Shisan, and two boys Miyun hadn't met yet, who turned out to be guardsmen-in-training. The better-looking of the two, Basadu, a broad-shouldered and very dark-skinned young man with a hairless head, was obviously pining for Mimanid, who appeared oblivious. The other, Janre, who looked half lios and half whatever Ishin's people were, was regaling Yarumin and Shisan with tales of his derring-do, but like Basadu he paused to. watch Miyun enter with the wide-eyed expression she was starting to take for granted. Just because she could, she added a little extra sway to her walk, her hip bumping softly against Millim's. Janre completely forgot why he had been out on the bark to begin with.

In fact, Miyun thought as she greeted everyone, these boys should be sending up prayers of thanks; they'd managed to fall in with a remarkably good-looking lot of women, even not counting the one who was hers. Well, all the boys except Mimanid's brother, but she was sure he'd do okay with Basadu and Janre.

Mimanid's brother passed them a bottle of wine, or what had been wine before it was mixed with pure alcohol and tart fruit juice. Millim took a long swig before passing it to Miyun. Apparently she hadn't forgotten the encounter with Porfiros as thoroughly as she had pretended. Miyun, worried, took only a sip, although even that was enough to warm her face and make her the slightest bit light-headed.

"You don't really like only girls, do you?" Mishki (just barely old enough to have figured out what girls were for) asked Miyun's cleavage. "I mean, that's just until after the Procession, 'cause you have to be a virgin, right?"

Miyun tipped his chin up with a finger, turning him bright red, and deliberately kissed Millim long and deep. "Mmmmmm...." He fled.

"Miyun, that wasn't nice!" scolding Shisan, although not very sincerely.

"Oh yes it was," purred Millim, eyes still half-closed. The girls giggled; the boys sweated.

"It's a good thing Miyun's going to be naked tomorrow," laughed Ishin. "'cause if you give her a skirt she turns into a huge tease!"

Miyun batted her lashes innocently and wriggled sideways against Millim. "Who's teasing?"

The boys were saved from spontaneous combustion by a call of "Dinner!" from down the hall. It was only temporary, though, since the sizes of tables and the seats that had already been claimed pushed all the teenagers together. Millim seized the position next to Ardu, but Miyun had Janre on her other side, and Mishki sat directly across from her breasts.

Miyun did about as well at remembering the names of the dishes as she had with the guests, but it was all wonderful, as far beyond than the indigent's refectory as that was from the dirt-cheap or scrounged food she'd eaten in Hamvin. She particularly liked the whole grains boiled in broth until they swelled into soft masses that slid interestingly over the tongue, and the finger-sized rolls of leaves which could turn out to contain just about anything, sweet, savory, or just plain strange, but the mashed green vegetables topped with jam were good too, and the bread rolls, especially once they'd been used to sop up the juices of everything else, and... It was, in fact, all wonderful.

The wine served at dinner wasn't nearly as strong as that in Mimanid's room, but Millim made up for that in volume. Her conversation with Ardu became more animated but less coherent which each course, but then he was drinking a fair amount himself. Miyun only had a cup or two, which maintained her pleasantly wicked state of mind for quite long enough to turn Janre into a flustered mass of lust and fear. Eventually her worry for Millim won out, though, and he got a chance to recover.

After her sixth or seventh glass, Millim gave up on talking to Ardu, and in fact on talking altogether. She leaned up against Miyun's side, silkily-clad foot tracing the curve of her calf beneath the table and sharp teeth nipping at her ear while a hand on her hip pulled her closer. Ishin applauded, and some of the adults at the other table made jokes and offered advice that made Miyun want to hide under her bench.

"When the guests are chewing on each other, dinner is over," declared one of Millim's fathers, possibly because his mate was sucking on one of his fingers with a ridiculously overdone expression of lust and ecstasy, and the party broke up again.

Covered by the commotion of people groaning to their feet, Miyun whispered in Millim's ear, "Mi', maybe you should go easy on the wine."

"Hah," said Millim distinctly. "I'm not drunk in the slightest!" She drew herself up with great dignity, which she promptly spoiled by tripping over her own feet and nearly pulling Miyun's dress off with her chin. "Well, maybe a little."

Miyun pulled her neckline back into place before Mikshi actually fell into her cleavage, and gritted her teeth against the temptation to become the Nagging Lover.

Fortunately, no one brought out the wine bottle again, and Millim didn't ask for it. Basadu was busy trying to snuggle up to Mimanid again, and she was relaxed enough to let him, although she kept slapping his hands away from the openings of her dress. Ishin, her doublet definitely unlaced much farther, was expostulating to Yarumin about the magnificence of the Thorn Crowns, the best steeple-ball team to grace this or any other world; Yarumin was looking down and nodding agreeably.

Millim plastered herself against Miyun's back, softness of bosom just palpable through the doublet, and folded her arms around Miyun's body so she could cup her breasts in her hands, warm through the thin fabric. Miyun was grateful for that stiffened band again. "Mi', can't you wait until we get back?"

"Why wait?" Millim breathed in her ear, making her squirm ticklishly. "You don't have anythin' anyone's not gonna see tomorrow, an' I bet Mish'd pay us a talent to do it in front've him." Her whisper loudened as she went on, so that everyone in the room plainly heard the last bit.

Miyun cringed with embarrassment, and tried to control her anger. "Mi'," she hissed, "remember what I said about why I get to be in the Procession?"

"Oh." She blinked with the effort of remembering. "Sorry? We shouldn't charge?"

Miyun pried the hands from her chest and flung Millim's arms off, causing her to topple over backwards. She turned around and glared down at the supine girl. "Millim! Quit it!"

Millim's eyes flooded with sudden tears. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I just want to make you happy but I always make you mad!" She rolled onto her side and curled up, weeping into her hands.

Miyun was tempted to agree, at least with the last part, but it wasn't really true, and mad as she was, she didn't want to hurt Millim. Much. Instead she threw her arms around Millim and hugged her tight. "It's okay, Mi', it's okay. I'm not mad."

"You yelled at me," Millim sniffled.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have." Not that she knew what else she could have done, but that didn't help. She looked up at the people trying to avoid noticing the scene occuring in their midst, and winced again. There was definitely a way to make a good impression, and this wasn't it. She could still minimize the damage, at least. "I glim we better get her home," she said apologetically.

"No!" Millim wiped the tears from her face. "Thas' jus' a dorm, isn't home!"

"Sorry, back to the dorm, I mean."

"You don't have to," said Mimanid. "We have a guest room. I don't know if it'll be private all night -- drinking too much is a Planting Eve tradition -- but it should be empty now." She looked embarrassed by Millim's outburst, but sympathetic too, which Miyun hadn't expected.

Miyun weighed being indebted to Mimanid's family against trying to maneuver a completely drunk Millim half a league back to the dormitory, and decided an invitation to a party had to include a place to sleep it off, so it wasn't really an imposition anyway. "Um, thanks. I glim that might be better. Come on, Mi'." She helped the inebriated girl to her feet, and with Mimanid's assistance got her down the hall and into the guest room, which was indeed empty.

Like Mimanid's room, the guest room had a padded floor and plenty of pillows, but apparently lios didn't believe in blankets. "Do you have something to cover her up with?"

"Sleeping robes, here." Mimanid brought a quilted robe out from one of the chests and tossed it to Miyun. "I'll be back in my room if you need anything else."

Gossiping about the weepy sot and her nagging sweetheart, no doubt, but she couldn't really blame them. "Thanks, Mimanid."

Millim was rapidly progressing toward the unconscious stage of drunkenness, but wasn't entirely dead weight as Miyun wrestled her out of the doublet and wrapped the robe around her. "I'm sorry, Mi'," she whispered. "Your firs' Plan-Planting Eve, an' I ruined it for you." Her eyes filled with tears again.

"No you didn't. So what if we have to go to bed early? We already had a good time." She kissed Millim softly on the brow. "Don't worry about it, just go to sleep."

Millim clutched at her arm. "Stay with me?"

"Sure." Miyun folded herself into the robe with Millim; it turned out to be oversized enough that the two of them fit easily inside it. Though Millim was slightly taller, Miyun curled up around her, bare arms around her bare torso. "I still like you," she whispered to Millim's neck, and realized it was true, emotional fragility, flickers of sadism, and embarrassing scenes be damned.

"'m glad." Millim wriggled back against Miyun's front, murmured, "Mmm, sof'" and was asleep.

Chapter 8

Planting Day, Year 417 of Settlement

"Miyun! Miyun!" Someone was shaking her; she automatically rolled away and came up to her hooves before regaining consciousness and the ability to feel embarrassed.

Mishki, looking considerably the worse for wear, stared at her from where he had fallen on his rear. "You're scary!" His gaze shifted past her, and then he pinkened and looked away. "Um, your friend..."

Miyun flipped the robe over Millim's bare breasts with her foot. Apparently Mimanid had been right about Millim being only the first; at least half a dozen forms lay scattered about the floor, most of them robe-wrapped. Yarumin was fairly unwrapped, but was lying with her robe folded underneath her, and Miyun's sluggish brain couldn't work out how to cover her. She still had her halter and breechclout, at least.

"What's-- Oh!" Memory flooded back. "The Procession! Am I late?"

"Nah, Ish' and Mimanid're in the bath. Down the hall to the end, on the left." He yawned enormously. "I'm going back to bed." He stumbled out.

Fortunately the lavatory was the door on the right; Miyun wasn't convinced she would have been able to find it otherwise. Her night might have been earlier than some others, but it came after a day of exhausting training and considerable worry, and this morning was much, much too early.

Ishin and Mimanid looked much like Miyun felt, but were active enough to scrub each other's backs. Mimanid tossed her one, but she fumbled it into the pool. Both their eyebrows rose when she slithered out of the dress; Ishin poked Mimanid in the ribs smugly and said, "I win!"

"Huh?"

"I knew you didn't have anything under that dress except you, but Mimanid didn't believe me. Like she knows anything about breasts!"

Mimanid stuck her tongue out at Ishin, but had to quickly retract it before it got scrubbed.

Miyun sank into the just bearable water, submerging completely in her quest for the dropped brush, which was sitting there merrily producing what seemed like unlimited quantities of soap. Staying underwater was a lot like being boiled, but when she surfaced and scraped her hair out of her face, she felt infinitely better. Awake enough, in fact, to realize that in a few dozen degrees she was going to be stripping to the skin in front of several thousand strangers, who would be grading her not only on size, shape, and firmness, but also on her performance of a ritual she'd only been practicing for three days. She submerged again.

Indelicate hands dragged her up, surprised and spluttering. "You can't drown yourself now!" said Mimanid. "It would bring a curse down on the entire tree!"

"But I wouldn't be here to suffer it!"

"We would! Now hold still while I do your hair." Ishin pushed Miyun to her knees and applied the brush ruthlessly to her hair. A few knots yanked painfully at her scalp, but whatever cleanser the brush secreted was apparently also good for hair, and soon the brush was running smoothly through it.

Miyun closed her eyes and arched her back, making happy little noises. She'd always thought the enjoyment she got from having her hair brushed came from anticipation of other things those hands were going to be doing, since she hadn't worn her hair long until after Yarumin and Shisan and she had become lovers, but she'd never seriously thought of doing that with Ishin, and the brushing was still wonderful.

"Wow, she really likes that!" Mimanid giggled.

Never before seriously thought of doing that with Ishin, anyway, but she was definitely worked up now. She put an arm over her breasts and made a face in Mimanid's direction, but it would take more embarrassment than that to make her pull away. "What, you don't?"

"Not that much!"

"Poor you," Miyun said smugly, and stopped paying attention to anything except the smooth sliding pull until Ishin finally stopped.

Arms went around her, and firm breasts pressed against her shoulderblades. Ishin tentatively laid her cheek on Miyun's shoulder. "Um. Miyun. Um."

Miyun folded her arms over Ishin's, snuggling them up under her breasts. "Hm?"

Ishin's nipples hardened, and her voice became a little less hesitant. "Since it doesn't interfere with the Procession if it's just girls... Wouldn't it be good to start Planting Day with pleasure and, and affection?" Despite the heat of the room, Miyun could feel Ishin's cheek heat.

Miyun's eyes flew open. She had been half-expecting something like this ever since she explained that lying with another girl didn't remove your virginity, but not from Ishin! Allil, perhaps; the Shadrite girl had seemed to find the idea scandalously fascinating. Mimanid wouldn't have been surprising at all. Maybe Ishin was still drunk?

Skin slid on skin, so Ishin could kiss the side of her neck.

It certainly would be an auspicious beginning to the day and the year, and Miyun, Yarumin, and Shisan had seen in every year that way since they found out what pressure in that certain spot was for. That reminded her that there was another person in the bath, and she opened one eye a crack. Mimanid was bright pink from head to toe, but watching avidly, just like someone else she knew did when she was naked and ready.

"Miyun?"

It was one of the hardest things she'd done lately, but she twisted out of Ishin's grasp and took her hands to keep them from wandering. "It would be a wonderful way to start the new year, but cheating on Millim wouldn't be, especially after last night." That was why she had taken so long to decide, she told herself. It was just that her body had gotten used to being exhausted by Millim's every night, but last night Millim had drunk herself to sleep first.

Ishin's flush of arousal turned to embarrassment. "I'm sorry! I didn't know you had sworn anything!"

"We haven't, but I know it would make her unhappy. If I didn't glim she'd mind, then I'd be glad to, but..." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Ishin."

Mimanid moved around behind Ishin, on her knees, and hugged her friend. "I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have suggested it. I just didn't think you and Millim were that serious."

Miyun embraced them both. "It's okay. I'm not mad. I just feel bad that I got you so heated up but can't finish."

"Don't mind me; go on with your orgy," said Ardu sourly. The three girls squeaked and sprang apart, but Mimanid's brother was more concerned with getting into the bath without moving his head than with watching them. He was, after all, a lios man. And a fairly well-endowed one, Miyun noted, although not up to Calido's standard.

"Ardu! What are you doing awake?"

"Slept wrong and bent my shoulder all out of shape." He sank into the water with a groan. "After I soak it a bit, it's back to bed for me." He looked suspiciously self-satisfied at that last.

Miyun wasn't the only one who noticed. "Ardu! Really? Who? I didn't think there was anyone who suited!" exclaimed his sister.

Ardu looked embarrassed, but there was definitely movement under the water. "Janre. I don't think he thought he was suitable either, but he's a fast learner."

Mimanid laughed. "I'm impressed! I thought he only had eyes for Miyun!"

"Availability beats huge tracts of land, it turns out." Miyun stuck her tongue out at him, but sucked it back in when he said, grouchily, "Tease."

An audience, even one with almost no interest in naked young women and what they might do with each other, dissipated the remaining sexual tension, at least for the moment, and the three processional virgin quickly and efficiently finished up their bath.

Miyun eyed her purple dress, which had managed to get sopping wet despite being on a bench away from the pool. "Mimanid, I glim I need to take you up on that offer of clothes."

"Sure! I think Ishin brought some too."

Wrapped precariously in a towel, Miyun followed the other two back to Mimanid's room, where she was startled to see Shisan's and Mishki's heads sticking out from under the same sleeping robe. Shisan's outflung arm was still clothed, which if anything made the situation even more confusing. Miyun could imagine, barely, Shisan getting drunkenly curious enough to succumb to Mishki's pubescent desire to get into anything female, but had no idea what other value anyone might find in him.

A wad of cloth hit her in the face and she yelped, not very muffledly. Shisan's eyes flicked open, swept the room, lingered on Miyun where the towel had slipped, and fluttered shut again.

"Sh! Don't wake them up! And here, try these too."

"Then don't hit me in the face!"

Even though she only needed clothes for long enough to reach the fane, Miyun wanted to look nice, but fortunately there was much less to dither over than last time she dressed. A strapless elastic top of Ishin's, though strained to its limit, kept everything in place firmly enough to substitute for a halter; over it she wore a green vest donated by Ishin's mother, which was also fairly tight and plunged deeply as well. The first skirt Mimanid passed her would have required not only a breechclout, but one she didn't mind showing to the world, but the second, though still well above the knee, she decided was decent.

Looking at the scatter of revealing garments, she wondered how long Ishin and Mimanid had been thinking of her that way. Not that she minded too much inflaming the lusts of women; they generally felt much less entitled to grab anything that caught their fancy than men did.

A mechanical bird atop one of the clothes chests suddenly spread it's wings and sang, but Mimanid hit it with a thrown blouse before it could wake up Shisan and Mishki. "Time to go!"

* * *

The corridors were bizarrely empty; there wasn't even any sound from the doors lining them, for the most part. Old instincts prodded Miyun, but she doubted that Ishin and Mimanid would approve of burglary, even were it not Planting Day morning.

The only people they passed on the way to the fane were two labor pool workers earning time and half again by clearing away the litter of last night's celebrations, who waved and whistled. Mimanid, wearing the skirt Miyun had found too embarrassing, gave them a little extra sashay and blushed when they responded enthusiastically.

They weren't the first maidens to the fane, but only Kasis and a groggy Hulyu-lander, named Askin or Orskin or something like that, were there ahead of them, sitting in a small room behind the temple proper drinking bitter tea. The Hulyu-lander winced and clutched her head at their cheerful cry of "Merry Planting!"; Kasis, bright-eyed and alert, definitely took malicious pleasure in responding just as enthusiastically. The Hulyu-lander whimpered and slid down in her chair.

"Don't mind Arskin; she's just finding out why temperance is a virtue." Kasis was wearing a red dress not unlike Miyun's purple one, except that, even in Miyun's own opinion, she didn't fill it nearly so well. On the other hand, at the point where Miyun's skirt had flared out to concealing looseness, Kasis's ended. Noting the direction of Miyun's gaze, she crossed her gorgeous legs, which seemed like it should make that tiny skirt ride up to her waist, but sadly didn't.

The priestess who had instructed them peeked in, shook her head sadly, and disappeared again.

That seemed to be about all Kasis had to say to the abuser of her cousin, so the five of them sat in not entirely companionable silence, drinking bitter tea. Arskin looked extremely grateful.

The twigs were about as long as Miyun's fingers, or maybe Mimanid's, skinny and black and gnarled. The boy holding them was perhaps a bit younger than Ishin's brother Mishki, shaven-headed and dressed in an acolyte's robe, looking at the five maidens with the starry-eyed expression of someone who's figured out that girls are good for something but isn't clear on the details yet. A girl of similar age, hairstyle, and dress watched over his shoulder from behind the doorframe. "Ladies? I gathered these for you. You know, for luck...."

It was obvious that the twigs were something important, but Miyun had no idea what. She was sitting closest to the door, though, so it seemed up to her to do something. "Thank you!" She smiled and held out her hands for the twigs. "That was nice of you!"

Looking like he'd been coshed over the head, he dropped the twigs into Miyun's hands and retreated. Around the corner, they could hear his friend excoriating him, "You didn't even ask her name! You're pathetic!"

Miyun picked up one of the twigs and studied it. It had a definite aura of power, but shrunken in on itself and faded. "What are they?"

Kasis plucked it from her fingers. "The last twigs from last year's blossoming. When Planting Day dawns, they fall to the floor, and the acolytes have to sweep them up. Usually they crumble to dust right away, but sometimes they last."

"Are they really good luck?"

Kasis shrugged. "They have mana, certainly. I suspect it's what you make of it, though." She tucked the twig behind her ear like a scribe's pen and returned to her seat.

"Hm." Miyun handed out twigs to everyone else and arranged the remaining eight in a star shape on the table. As she handled them, she realized that the power wasn't shrinking or fading, but regrouping, coiling in preparation to spring forth. It reminded her of Shisan's energy in certain fighting techniques.

"Gack!" Ishin pointed at Arskin. "What is she doing?"

It was a rhetorical question: the Hulyu-lander, still less than half awake, was quite obviously stirring her bitter tea with the twig Miyun had handed her. Before anyone could do anything to rescue her from the consequences of her sacrilege, she took a swallow.

Arskin sat up straight in her chair, bright-eyed and alert as Kasis but looking a bit confused. "That's some powerful tea!" Then she noticed the wet stick in her hand dawn broke. "Gah! What was I thinking?!"

"You weren't," said Kasis. "But apparently the Tree has a soft spot for fools."

Arskin set her cup carefully on the table, folded the twig between her hands, and bowed her head over it. Her lips moved, but Miyun could only make out a few words, most of them abject.

The jolt of alertness from Arskin's actions faded when she didn't seem likely to explode, change shape, or transcend material form, and Miyun found herself yawning.

"Sleepy? You can do something about that, you know," suggested Kasis, far too helpfully.

Arskin looked up and unfolded her hands; a bit of ashy powder drifted downward. "I don't think it's anything bad. Bitter tea is made from herbs, so in some sense it's a gift of the Tree already."

"Miyun!" gasped Ishin. "You aren't really going to--"

Miyun took a sip. It tasted just the same as that from her cup, with perhaps a tiny bit of extra grittiness. She shrugged and put the cup back down, and only then realized she wasn't the slightest bit tired. There hadn't been any miraculous rush of energy, no visions, no overt sign of anything. She just felt as though she had slept well a full night through, risen in her own good time, and breakfasted just enough to prepare her to face the day. "Wow."

"Miyun, are you all right?" Mimanid took her hand and checked her pulse at wrist, base of thumb, and inside of elbow.

"I'm fine. Just not tired. This is definitely a gift of the Tree!" She looked around, realized she was completely surrounded by the substance of the Tree, and decided to address the floor, since after all she was above the bulk of the Tree, and it supported her. "Our thanks for your gift, Sacred Tree of the Sky! We hope we may use it to do you honor."

Kasis snorted. "That's a prayer?"

Miyun shrugged. "Fancy words are for rich people. And con artists, if there's a difference. I show gods respect and speak honestly to them, and it's seemed to work okay so far."

"She's right," said Arskin. "It's what's in your heart that matters, not what's on your lips. It's best if they match, of course."

Mimanid picked up the cup and considered it. "If it's a gift of the Tree..."

Ishin took the cup from Mimanid's hand and, before she could have second thoughts, took a sip. She handed the cup back to Mimanid, who shrugged and followed her friend's example. A bit of extra color blossomed in their cheeks, and the sparkle of their eyes brightened.

"That is good stuff!" Mimanid put the cup back on the table, next to the twigs. "And if we break out in green spots later, at least we'll do it together."

"Miyun!" Allil and the other Shadrite maiden, Kidran, had come in while everyone was occupied with the tea. Allil was dressed nicely enough, in a gown with a tight-laced midsection that made her look curvaceous rather than plump, but her eyes were red and her feathers dishevelled.

"Allil, what's wrong? You look like you've been crying."

Allil brushed embarrassedly at her face. "Just nervous. I'm okay now. Well, mostly okay. I still can't help worrying that I'll do something wrong and offend the tree. Not that I'm worried about getting cursed! It's just... this is important, maybe the most important thing I've ever done. I don't want to mess it up!" She paused and sniffled. "How about 'kind of okay'?"

To Miyun's surprise, it was Kasis who went to comfort her. "You'll do fine, Allil. You're keeping the Tree in your thoughts and trying your best to do it honor, and that's all it asks of you." She led Allil to a bench and knelt to put her arms around her. "It's the ones who treat this like any other walk across any other floor and any other staircase, who don't worry, that might be problems." She looked pointedly at Miyun, who gazed back calmly. She had already determined to do the best she could; fretting about it wouldn't help.

Allil hugged Kasis back. "Thank you, Kasis. I'm glad-- well, thanks." She mopped at her eyes more effectively this time.

Ishin came up on Allil's other side. "Here, maybe this will help." She offered one of the lucky twigs. "One of the acolytes gathered these for us. For good luck." Kasis glared, but Ishin, in another of her sporadic displays of backbone, ignored her.

"From the last blossoming? I thought they crumbled away."

"Usually, but I guess sometimes some last longer. There are twelve of them, so I'm pretty sure we're each supposed to have one."

Allil took the twig and prayed over it as Arskin had, though apparently wordlessly. When she looked up, she was, if not smiling, much less morose than before. "Thank you, Ishin." She clasped the twig to her heart, or at least to the padding over her heart. "Does anyone have a feathercomb? I bet I look terrible."

Kidran had a comb, but that didn't do anything about Allil's red-rimmed eyes or reddened face, so Mimanid offered her the cup of special tea. "Here, try a sip of this. Arskin stirred it with her twig, and, well. It'll make you feel better, I bet." Kasis fumed in the background.

There was no sudden change, but also no intermediate steps, between when red-faced, red-eyed Allil lifted the cup to her lips and cheerful, sparkling-eyed Allil lowered it. "Sacred leaves!" She clapped her hands to her mouth. "Um, I mean, wow!"

Mimanid giggled. "I told you! Here, Kidran, you have some too." Since Kidran was already awake and well-groomed, the effect of the tea was barely noticeable, but she was definitely that little bit more energetic afterwards.

The five remaining girls arrived almost together, herded along by low-ranking priests like the one who had recruited Miyun. Mimanid made sure they each got a twig and a sip of tea; most of them needed the tea, since they were the ones who had had to be rousted out of bed. The priests were slightly dubious about the proceedings, but apparently Processional maidens had somewhat more credibility than the average layman. Kasis continued to sulk.

"One more stick... Oh! Miyun, you forgot to keep one for yourself." Mimanid handed the twig over and extended the cup to Kasis. "One swallow left." Kasis turned up her nose, but Mimanid persisted. "Twelve maidens, twelve sips."

Kasis grabbed the cup, drained it, and flung herself back in her seat, the very image of ill temper.

"I wonder if we should do anything with the cup?"

* * *

The priestess in charge of the maidens bustled in. "Good, good, you're all here. Let's draw the lots, and then we can get you robed." She produced two sheafs of paper slips and held one in each hand. "Take one from my right hand to determine which object you'll carry, and one from my left to determine the order you'll proceed in. Don't say anything until everyone's drawn."

The maidens filed forward and drew their lots, Kasis last. Miyun wondered if it was just that she was still sulking, or if it was some sort of surrender to the will of the god. If the latter, Kasis was going to be disappointed, since there were still two slips in the priestess's hands: she still had to make a choice.

The priestess displayed the two leftovers: the number 13 and some word. "Very good! It's good luck to not have a number 13, and the basket is one of the ones we were uncertain about including." She beamed indiscriminately at them, possibly the first time Miyun had seen her smile. The girls all smiled back, which seemed to disconcert her slightly. "This is the most chipper lot I've seen in quite some time! I think this will be a good year." She studied them all. "A very good year. Now, let's go to the robing room."

* * *

"Miyun, what did you get?" whispered Mimanid. "I'm fourth and have the egg; Ishin's third, with the mirror."

Miyun showed her two scraps of paper. Mimanid squeaked. "You're first? Lucky! And the key. That's for new people come to the port, so it fits that you'd have it. But it seems..." She thought for a moment, and almost tripped on the step up. "Eeep!" She caught Miyun's shoulder for support, and gave it a little squeeze before letting go. "Miyun, when a god says something twice, only an idiot doesn't listen."

Beautiful, sure: anyone lucky enough to be born with or rich enough to buy big eyes, thick hair, and big tits could be that. Popular, all right: beauty was half of that, and Miyun tried to be nice to people when she could. But if she understood Mimanid right -- and she had to admit that she, recently come to the port, carrying the symbol for immigrants at the head of the Procession of Twelve Joys, which represented the blessings of the past year people were most grateful for, was a situation that didn't need choruses of angels singing "Here's an omen" and bathing her in heavenly light -- there was something else. Something the god of the sky tree had her specially in mind for. Kasis would have been jumping for joy in her position, but Miyun had seen too many wrecks in the slums of Hamvin who had played their part on the stage of the gods, exited stage left, and found nothing and nowhere for them: Adalo, the old soldier who had taught Shisan fighting, three times decorated with the highest award his nation could give and then quietly shuffled offstage when the war was declared a tragic misunderstanding; Kamvin the Eldritch, so god-ridden she couldn't even beg properly, raving drug dreams and prophecies in her corner of Temperance Square; Redfoot, who had been Son of the Sun and now ran a dirt-floored wineshop in a cellar, his own best customer because everyone he had ever loved had died bloodily.

Miyun stumbled as she tried to step up onto a tread that wasn't there, but Kasis steadied her. "What number did you get?" she whispered.

Miyun showed her the slips and then stumbled again as Kasis released her and turned away.

"Watch it!" Arskin almost tripped over her, and in the narrow hallway several other girls piled up behind.

"Sorry! I was just... contemplating."

"Better leave contemplating and walking at the same time to the priests; they're trained for it! Hey, what did you get?" Miyun showed her. "Congratulations! I'm last, with the fruited bough." She clapped Miyun affectionately on the shoulder. "You lead us where we need to be, and I'll sweep up the stragglers."

Miyun smiled, glad to be reminded that not everyone devout was like Kasis. "Deal."

"Less gossip, more praying!"

* * *

The cloaks were grey and black, streaked irregularly with such an appearance of filth that Miyun had hesitated to touch hers at first; it was actually immaculately clean, being only a symbol of the dross of the vulgar world, but it was very cunningly made. They were also heavily weighted about the shoulders, so that even strongly-built Arskin was bowed beneath the load. One of the maidens had whispered that the weight was gold, for symbolic value, but Miyun was pretty sure it was really just lead. Anyway, even if it was gold, she had better sense than to take apart a ceremonial garment half a dozen paces from the god's temple.

The cloak was also extremely warm, despite Miyun being naked beneath it. She flapped the edges to fan herself, and desperately willed her skin to stop oozing sweat, but it wasn't working.

Through the closed door of the little room where they waited, she could hear the high priest, Inestimable Jurnga, going on at length about the virtue his flock and how their piety pleased the Tree. It was mostly pretty boring, but she did figure out why Kasis hadn't like her impromptu prayer, or at least one of the reasons: it seemed it was not the done thing to address the Tree directly; Inestimable Jurnga only spoke of it in the third person. No one had gasped in outrage at Miyun, though, so she figured that was just an affectation of priests and snotty temple dancers.

The priestess bent to Miyun's ear. "Are you ready?" Miyun adjusted her sweaty grip on the sculptured shank and bow of the heavy golden key, tried to assume a state of absolute religious devotion through sheer will, and nodded. "Don't try so hard, Miyun. You're supposed to look serene, not panicked." Miyun nodded again, not feeling much better. The priestess kissed her cheek and straightened up. "Ready, everyone. Just the way we practiced, only do it better this time. Kasis, wait until you see Miyun disrobe and then go. Everyone else, same spacing. And Kasis, stop frowning!"

Inestimable Jurnga's voice was eclipsed by a roar that Miyun could feel through her hooves: the entire population of the port crying out their devotion at once. Two hundred thousand people, someone had said; another girl had said two hundred and thirty. Out of all those, Miyun and these eleven others had been chosen to represent them to the god. She shivered, not with anticipation, but not with fear either. Awe, perhaps, though she hated to admit to feeling so far beneath anyone or anything.

The door slid open, and she could hear the Inestimable more clearly. He was speaking in an archaic form, though, of which she understood only a word here and there: "hope", "gratitude", "purity".

A touch on her shoulder, and she was moving. The hallway was darkened, but beyond the enormous arched doors, the temple was bright. She knew all two hundred and thirty thousand would be watching for her to enter, but she couldn't see them for the brightness. That was probably deliberate, to keep the Processional maidens from breaking and running for it, she thought.

At the edge of the light, she shrugged the cloak from her shoulders without breaking stride. The weight vanished instantly, as though someone with tremendous strength had lifted it from her, instead of it sliding down her back, and she straightened automatically. The congregation gasped, a sound like gusting wind. They knew it was staged -- it wasn't subtle -- but seeing a dark hunched shape in shadow instantly transform into a beautiful naked young woman standing proudly upright and bearing a holy item must still be quite impressive. She resisted the urge to turn and watch Kasis's transformation; she'd get to see the spectacle next year.

Her eyes, grown used to the dimness, were still dazzled, but she had practiced this dozens of times. Five paces forward, turn a right angle left, and go. Eyes front. Measured, stately tread. Hold the symbol at breast level. There was another gasp, and though she couldn't hear bare footsteps over the crowd even at its quietest, she knew Kasis was following.

Her sight cleared, and she almost gasped herself. The temple dome was at least a tenth of a league across, and completely transparent between the wooden ribs that branched and rebranched from the massive central pillar. On two sides, rough-barked branches wide as a city swept up, but everywhere else the stars shone bright and unwavering.

The floor was dished like a theater's, so the entire congegration could see the Inestimable on his balcony, but now they were all looking up to the walkway around the temple's circumference, where the Procession of Twelve Joys walked. As they walked, they sang, and though they were only twelve, and though Miyun knew none of the maidens except Kasis and Allil were more than indifferent singers, their voices filled that great space with joy. The faces she could see below the walkway's edge shone, and some glittered with tears. Miyun sang for them, and for all the others in the sea of upturned faces beyond, for her friends wherever they might be, for her fellow maidens, and perhaps even for herself.

Some time later, a way opened up at her right hand, and Miyun realized that she had walked a third of a league, singing the whole way. Neither her legs nor her throat was at all fatigued, though, and if anything she sang louder as she led the Procession inward between the walls of the congregation. At the base of the pillar, broad curving stairs led up to the Inestimable's position, and twelve young men were arrayed in a slanted line there, from bottom to top. Each had some object smashed or broken beneath his foot; she could no longer tell what any of them had been. The third from the bottom -- the Hulyu-lander who'd tried to protect Calido from her apology -- had cut his ankle badly on some jagged fragment, and his blood flowed red onto the stair, but he didn't seem to care, or even notice.

Miyun climbed, still singing, to the top stair, and took her place at Calido's right hand. She turned to look out over the people, holding the final note she had learned. Kasis, to the right and one step below, turned to look outward and, though they had not learned it that way, held a note just below Miyun's. Past her, one step lower still in position and tone, Ishin, then Mimanid, and so on down to Arskin. The harmony swelled, then faded slowly away. The temple was perfectly silent.

* * *

The divine strength that had sustained Miyun through the Procession had long since faded, and with it the exultation. Compared to that, the rest of the ceremony had been boring, mostly just the Inestimable sermonizing on the meaning of each of the symbols the maidens held. He didn't comment on Miyun being one of the newcomers her key represented, but he clearly hadn't missed the significance. Miyun was a little surprised, though she shouldn't have been: grey-bearded blowhard he might be, but he was also the chosen representative of the Tree in the mortal world. The congregation was still filled with expectation, though, so she waited patiently to see what the big finish would be.

She was staring out at the endless stars, trying to discern if any of them were actually ships, when Calido took her hand. She started, although she hoped not so badly anyone in the congregation had noticed, and looked up into his grave eyes. From the corner of her eye, she saw Kasis and the second youth, a surprisingly muscular lios, step forward to join hands, and then Ishin and her counterpart, Mimanid and hers, and so down the stairs until the two lines that had been angled away from each other had condensed into one.

Belatedly, she took in what the Inestimable Jurnga was saying, something about the strength gained from overcoming adversity and the strength from the blessings of the Tree combining in the might of their community, and remembered that Millim had mentioned kissing. She winced inwardly; of course the god had arranged for the two with the most awkwardness between them to be paired up. Calido didn't look like he was facing a disgusting test of his faith, at least, although he wasn't smiling either.

Miyun took his other hand as well, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. He could make of this kiss what he would; she wouldn't force anything more on him than the god had.

It was with considerable surprise, therefore, that she felt his soft lips part and hot tongue tentatively emerge, probing carefully for admission.

She didn't think about whether to respond; her mouth opened to his automatically, and her tongue beckoned his inside. The space between their bodies burned away. He was smooth and strong and instantly ready.

The kiss, at least, was no different than with a woman: Millim's tongue was just as aggressive, and Yarumin kissed even harder, crushing lips between two sets of teeth. Even without the physical compliment prodding her belly, though, his body was utterly unfeminine. Miyun had always thought of Shisan's as boyish, but now that she had something to compare it to, she knew that it was just that of a thin, strong girl. She wasn't sure if the male body was less appealing or more, but the difference was unmistakable.

His hands clutched hers harder, and his mouth shoved bruisingly at hers, tongue wrestling hers into submission and pinning it against her teeth. She only felt her moan of pain and confused arousal; the drumming of her pulse drowned out all sound. His erection twitched against her stomach, leaking a bit at the tip, and for a dizzy moment she thought he was going to push her down and try to take her there on the floor. She wasn't sure she'd stop him, either.

He broke the kiss and pulled away, although only a little; she realized she had wrapped her tail around his rump to keep him from escaping, or maybe to keep herself from escaping. His loins were still pressed against her belly, and her breasts rubbed against his chest, but elsewhere air leaked between them, cold on her feverish skin.

No longer completely occupied by the sense of touch, she opened her eyes. He still wasn't smiling, but his expression was anything but calm. The possibility of being ravished didn't seem to have receded much.

A loud whistle shocked her back into thought and she looked around startledly. On the next step down, Kasis and the lios boy stood hand in hand, grinning; he was the one who had whistled. Behind them, Ishin was round-eyed and flushed with excitement; her youth was applauding. Mortified, Miyun pulled her hands from Calido's grasp and stumbled back a step.

Overhead, wood creaked.

Miyun's heart stopped with the awareness that the only thing between her and the killing vacuum was a thin shell of glass and wood. She looked up, though there was a not a thing she could do if the dome was giving way, and let out an "Oh" of wonder.

The ribs of the dome were sprouting, putting forth twigs and leaves fast enough that even from the floor she could see them grow. Buds swelled and bloomed white, red, and violet, and the temple filled with their scent, sweet but biting as pepper, and evocative as the smells of childhood but bringing forth memories of nothing from her life: glass spires, blue in the coming dawn, rising from blue fog on a bitterly cold morning; stars so thick the night could hardly be seen between them, and moving as though caught in a whirlpool; a vast echo-haunted space, and her in the middle, her blood running hot down the web of iron wires that suspended her. More, too, and she sank to her knees under the weight of what the scent of the Tree's flowers drew up from within her, but those three images were all she could hold onto when the scent withered.

Silently, the flowers fell upon the congregation, who stretched their hands up to catch them. There were far fewer flowers than worshippers, but there was no struggle; no one even jumped to try to reach higher than his neighbor. The flowers went to those they chose, and no one questioned their choices.

Miyun squeaked as something struck her on the head; her hands flew up and found something softer than a lover's hair. The flower was wider than her shoulders, red in the center where the magenta stamens and vermillion pistil sprang forth, violet as her dress at the rim, and white between, with splashy streaks of the colors reaching toward each other. The petals were limp, and fading as she watched, but there was still a trace of scent, and it was the smell of that summer evening when she and Yarumin and Shisan and Martal had climbed the old clock tower and seen the world spread out at their feet, waiting whatever they might choose to do, for anything was possible. Wind and clouds had come with the darkness, a rushing and rustling of the world's wildness on which anything might blow in. She sank to her knees, cradling the flower to her breasts and filling its cup with tears.

More creaks and cracking came from overhead: the branches that had been lush with flowers were growing heavy with fruit that gleamed like the stars. As each swelled to ripeness, it broke free and fell; so high was the dome that the fall of the shining fruit looked gentle as a misting rain. Anything falling from that high, even in the light gravity atop the tree, should stun and bruise, though, if not crack bones, and she flinched and curled in on herself, arms over her head. Then Calido was there, arched over her though it exposed his own spine to the plummeting fruit. Past him, she saw shining streaks rain down upon the congregation, but for some reason the cries were of joy, not of pain.

Calido yelped, but the fruit rolled from his shoulder into her lap as though it had been gently placed upon him instead of falling a twentieth of a league. He gingerly felt the place where it had struck, and then stood upright, drawing Miyun up with him.

The head-sized fruit was clear as glass, hard as an apple, and had a smooth blood-red stone in its heart. The short stem had a faint purplish tint, which faded as it went inward. Miyun looked at it for a long moment, then handed it to Calido. "It fell on you, so it's yours," she said to his look of surprise, and he nodded and took it.

She looked up to see if the fall was ending, and saw one hanging in the air above her, swelling but unmoving, and reflexively put up her hands. The fruit settled into them, peach-soft and scratching her palms lightly with the edges of the leaves still clinging to it.

This one had the same clear flesh and blood-red stone, but an elaborate structure of violet pigment radiated out from the stone, touching the skin at each end of the central axis, and the deep violet stem also bore three leaves, each larger than her two outspread hands together. She turned it over in her hands to see if some hidden hint as to its meaning might appear, handling it carefully since it felt easily bruisable.

Hers was almost the last fruit to fall; by the time she finished examining it, the dome was quiescent, though dense foliage still obscured the structural members and encroached on the starfields between. The noise of the crowd was swelling from the unnatural silence of the miracle, and Miyun was again aware of where she was and what she was doing. Also, her mouth hurt.

The other maidens and youths also held flowers or fruit, though she was the only one with both. Kasis had a red-and-white flower, and was studying it calculatingly; Ishin and Mimanid had fruit, Ishin's with a leaf, and looked dazed but happy; Allil had a violet flower with narrow white stripes, and seemed remarkably pleased with it. The others seemed to be about evenly split between flowers and fruit, regardless of sex, but Kasis's lios partner was the only other one who had fruit with a leaf. Miyun wished she knew if that meant anything.

She noticed that every pair, even those where one was lios or, like Kasis was reputed to be, just not interested in the opposite sex, was holding hands or standing or sitting close enough that skin touched skin. Calido, though, was sitting a full arm's reach from her, watching her cautiously while one hand stroked the fruit in his lap. She was pretty sure it would take more than one ritual kiss to smooth over their quarrel, but he had protected her at his own risk when the fruit fell. Of course, the falling fruit was perfectly safe, so she wasn't sure why he had bothered, since he must have known that.

"Ah." She held up her own fruit. "This doesn't happen every year, does it?" Talking hurt, but not as much as curiosity.

He shook his head. Kasis put in, "Twenty-three years since the last. Nineteen before that, thirty-one before that, then seventeen, then twenty-nine, then seventeen again, then nineteen again, then forty-seven." Miyun expected Kasis to be furious at not getting a fruit, but her expression had only that same calculating appraisal. "And in all that time, no one who wasn't Inestimable or at least August has gotten both flower and fruit."

"That's not exactly true," interjected a mild voice. Inestimable Jurnga sounded much less imposing in person than from his platform with amplified voice, but he was full of power, running so smooth it took a second or third look to see the depth and strength of it. "Signid Openhand received both, as had her mother Signir of the Halo."

Even uneducated Miyun knew those names. Signid Openhand had made half a dozen fortunes in as many ways, and given each one away to the last thousandth of a talent. She wasn't officially a founder of Hamvin-town, but it had been built with her wealth. Signid's first fortune had been inherited from her mother Signir, who had spent nine years meditating on a rock smaller than this temple, until the strange many-in-one god called Halo noticed her and permitted her to take the knowledge of a better way to breed gods of life with gods of the void to make ship-gods.

Everyone within earshot was staring at her. Blushing from hairline to tops of hooves, she stammered, "There, there must be some mistake! I'm not a hero! I'm not even-- I'm not anything! Just a clanless girl from the armpit of Hamvin-town, scraping just to survive!"

Jurnga said, still mild, "That may be what you are now, but the question is, what will you become?" He looked up at the foliage of his god. "Not even the Tree knows for sure, though its wisdom in these matters far surpasses mine." His eyes, pale grey and misted with age, met Miyun's. "It is the folly of youth, however, to presume that anything important must of necessity also be glorious. Perhaps you will be a hero or a prophet, but perhaps not. Perhaps you will live, love, marry, leave children, and return to the gods with nothing to distinguish you from those around you save that you once lead the Procession of Joys and received both fruit and flower from the Tree. It may be sufficient to the Tree's ends that, in years to come, a young woman will step aside from her path to see the woman of fruit and flower, and thus arrive at her ship those few moments later, after a potential lover or assassin has already moved on."

The Inestimable's voice was not entrancing or even soothing, but rather clarifying. Miyun's flusterment dissipated as she contemplated the subtle ways of the gods. "Then how," she asked at last, "will I know what to do?"

"The Tree asks of you only what it asks of us all: do the best that you can with what you are and what you have." He smiled faintly. "I would recommend starting by putting some salve on that lip." He inclined his head and went away.

"Sorry," mumbled Calido.

"What are you apologizing for?" asked Kasis. "Maybe she likes it rough!" She slipped back from Miyun's swipe, grinning.

"Hmph." Miyun looked around and saw that the crowd was beginning to leave, through an arc of doors as wide as the one she'd entered by but much less grand. "Now what?"

"Now we go and change for the party!" said Kasis.

"Party?"

"The rest of the year you may be just a 'clanless girl from the armpit of Hamvin', but today you are one of only twenty-four chosen from the whole port, so you get to attend the Portmaster's Ball." Kasis grinned again at Miyun's horrified expression. "Don't worry, the Portmaster almost never has anyone executed for bowing in the wrong degree."

"Kasis!" Calido took Miyun's hand. "Don't worry about it. There's always at least one and usually several of the youths and maidens who have never been in the heights of society before; you're not going to make any new and exciting errors of protocol. Anyway, today we're holy enough to pass rudeness off as eccentricity."

She smiled gratefully. "That's good to know. I just hope they don't expect me to work miracles!"

* * *

Millim, Shisan, and Yarumin were waiting for her when the maidens emerged from the robing chamber, along with Mimanid's family, Ishin's family, and apparently the twenty-two other families of the youths and maidens. Yarumin, who was closest, almost knocked her down with her hug, and Millim, with the advantage of a running start, tackled her to the floor and kissed her so passionately that she barely noticed her bruised lip. "You were wonderful!" Millim burbled between kisses. "You were so beautiful and and dignified! I don't know what you were worried about!" She looked around. "Did you get flower or fruit? I got flower; that means success in love. Fruit is for prosperity."

Miyun hooked the string bag she'd been given to carry the gifts of the tree and pulled it over. Millim's eyes got wide. "BOTH?! But that never happens! And three leaves!"

"Will someone tell me what the pig-felching leaves mean?"

"Luck," said Yarumin, since Millim was still too stunned to answer coherently. "They say each leaf is a huge lucky break, but it might just be more leaves is better luck."

Miyun kissed Millim, carefully, and looked around at her friends, old and new. "Then I had to get three, or I'd be in debt."

* * *

"I wish you could come with me..."

"What would we do there, with all the fancy people?" Yarumin shook her head. "They'd put us in a pig-felching cage and charge people to see us!"

"They're not going to treat me any different!"

"Sure they are. You're holy, remember? So you're not rude, you're direct and not poor, you're above material things." She paused. "Or at least entertainingly insane."

Miyun kicked her in the shin. "They lock crazy people up too! Anyway, I don't have anything to wear!"

"Ow." Yarumin looked around at the litter of rejected clothing. "Not a pig-felching thing, I can tell."

Mimanid's head popped out of the dress she was trying on. "Just wear your purple dress, Miyun. We can wash and press it in no time."

"I can't wear that! It's too-- it's not--"

"Not fancy enough? You don't need fripperies; they're just there on the other women to disguise that they aren't as beautiful as you are."

Miyun blushed. "People keep saying that!"

"Yah, yah," said Yarumin. "Only because it's true." She looked Mimanid over thoughtfully. "Like Mimanid, here, needs to wear all that loose drapy stuff so no one notices she doesn't have any tits."

"More than a mouthful's just decoration," Mimanid said haughtily.

"But so very decorative!" Yarumin leered at Miyun's bare breasts. Miyun rolled her eyes.

"Well, yes," Mimanid admitted. "That's why I think she should wear her purple dress."

Miyun threw her hands up. "Okay, okay. When people laugh at me, I'll just have to have the Tree strike them dead."

"No one's going to be laughing, Mi'."

* * *

They weren't laughing, Miyun had to admit, although she was pretty sure it was because they were distracted from her pathetic dress by Millim's display of leg: her hose this time were black floral patterns around transparency, and she had done something to her doublet so that the lower edge came right to the swell of her rump. It was certainly distracting Miyun, although unfortunately not so much that she wasn't still scared.

The Portmaster's ballroom was in the same style as the temple, although the dome was only a slightly outward-bowed ceiling, and the tree pattern of the supports was rooted above the door rather than in a central pillar. A sort of arcade ran around it, behind the pillars that supported the edge of the dome, shadowed from the fireglobes hanging from the dome, looking ideal for private assignations and conspiracies. No one was meeting there now, however: the few guests who had so far arrived were milling around the banquet tables, either confused about where to sit or just not interested in being seated yet.

"Mi', where do we sit?" whispered Miyun, intimidated. "There's some order, right, where rich people set together in the good spots and poor people at the far end?"

"It's status, not wealth exactly, and today the port thinks you're almost as great as I do. But everyone here is important..." She caught the eye of a handsome young lios man in doublet, hose, and half-cape of black and green encrusted with gold braid and dripping gold tassels, and beckoned him over. Without so much as an introduction, she asked, "Where do we sit? This is the Processional maiden Miyun, and I'm her companion."

Miyun was appalled; even she knew you didn't just buttonhole people with that much gold and start questioning them. The lios was unperturbed, though. "Freewoman Miyun and Freewoman Hokashut, of course. The Portmaster has asked that Freewoman Miyun be seated at his side; Freewoman Hokashut, if you please, a place has been set for you immediately opposite your friend." He bowed and gestured toward the far end of the room, where one table ran perpendicular to all the others. "Dinner will be served in approximately ten degrees, but if you wish anything beforehand, please ask."

Miyun blinked and looked at the several other people -- mostly lios, mostly male, but not exclusively either -- in matching outfits, and was even more intimidated. If the servants wore that much shine, what must the other guests be like? She amended her earlier thought to, they weren't laughing at her yet.

"Nothing just now, thank you," said Millim. The servant bowed again and went off to serve someone else.

Miyun clutched at her arm. "I can't sit next to the Portmaster looking like this! I don't even have any jewels! Or or hair ribbons! Or anything!"

Millim kissed her on the nose. "I'll keep saying it as long as you keep not believing it, you know."

"Yah, yah, I'm so beautiful I could wear an old sack to the ball and all the princes would still neglect their princesses to dance with me." A sudden horrible thought leapt into her head and she clutched Millim even tighter. "Five gods in a bucket, what if someone wants me to dance?"

"Tell him you don't know this dance and ask him to teach you, of course." She paused. "Actually, in that dress, you should check whether he means vertical or horizontal dancing."

"Millim!"

"Don't worry, if he says horizontal I'll duel him for your honor!"

Miyun giggled. "What weapons will you use?"

Millim waggled her eyebrows. "Silk scarves."

Miyun blushed. "You are a nymphomaniac!"

"Are you complaining?"

"Well, no...."

"Freewoman?" A middle-aged Shadrite gentleman, dignified enough to be portly instead of fat, approached them, or rather Miyun. He was wearing a craftsman's calf-length robe, but of fine black velvet and so embroidered and beribboned with dark blue that Miyun doubted it could survive a single degree's real work, and his feathers, dyed dark blue to match, were rucked up in a precarious-looking crest. "Permit me to introduce myself; I am Candalet Horsho, Master in the Fourth Degree of the Smiths of Glass and Adamantine." He bowed with surprising elegance, arms crossed over his breast and one foot behind. "At your service."

Miyun automatically glanced around to see if there was someone nearby who deserved bows, but Millim nudged her in the ribs. Blushing, she practiced her curtsey again. "Miyun of no clan, and this is my... companion, Hokashut Millim." Millim bowed, but Candalet wasn't paying her much attention. Miyun cast about for some appropriate phrase; if only she had shared Martal's taste for dreams and plays of high society. "A pleasure to meet you."

Candalet beamed satisfiedly. "The pleasure is mine, I assure you." When Miyun looked at him expectantly, he went on, "I only wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your participation in today's Procession. It was very moving." His eyes kept dipping, so Miyun had a pretty good idea what he appreciated and what part of him had been moved, but he did mostly speak to her face.

"Thank you. Um, it was an honor to be chosen. I've only been here a few days-- I hadn't expected--" She willed her mouth shut.

"Then it is our good fortune you were not delayed those few crucial days," he declared. Beside him, Millim rolled her eyes.

Before Miyun could come up with a suitably polite and meaningless response, a shrill voice flew at them from the growing crowd by the tables. "Horrrshooo! Where have you gotten to?" A tall woman in a dark blue gown with long full skirts bustled over to them. From a distance, she looked quite attractive, but when she drew near, it was obvious that her pretty face was mostly cosmetics, and her willowy curves corsetry. Her lips tightened as she looked over Miyun and Millim. "Introduce me to your friends, won't you, dear?"

Candalet's high brow glistened a bit. "Of course, of course. My dear, this is Miyun, who led this year's Procession of Twelve Joys, and her friend Hokashut Mirrin. Freewomen, this is my wife, Candalet Jessil."

"Charmed, I'm sure," Madame Candalet lied. "Horsho, there's someone who's been looking for you." Obediently, he bowed to Miyun and retreated. Before his wife followed him, she raked Miyun from half-bare breasts to wholly-bare ankles with her gaze. "Many people have difficulty recognizing the Processional maidens in other settings. How kind of you to make it easy on them." She pivoted on one heel and switched off after her husband.

Miyun grabbed Millim's arm again. "Aaaah! I told you this dress wouldn't fit! Why didn't you listen to me? Why didn't I listen to me?"

Millim winced and detached her. "I need that arm, you know. And your dress is fine; that old hag is just jealous of your youth and beauty."

"If I just wanted men to drool on my tits, I wouldn't have bothered to get dressed! I want to, to fit in! I mean, I can't really; I'm not rich, I haven't had classes in snootiness. But I don't want these people to look at me like I'm just here to become some rich bastard's bit of fluff!"

Millim took both Miyun's hands in hers. "Even if you wear six layers of robes down to your feet, I mean hooves, and a mask, some people are going to think that. But that's their jealousy and insecurity; it's not your fault at all. So you might as well look your best, and let them think what they want. The ones who are worth a damn -- and that's not many -- will treat you as a person, and the rest can go rot!"

"Mi'...." Miyun searched for words. "Four days ago I was just a clanless labor-pool worker. Tomorrow, I'll be a clanless labor-pool worker again. I'm only in this," she gestured around, "for one day, so I want that one day to go well."

"I think you're underestimating yourself." She sighed. "But if you really want to, we can ask the servants to get you a different dress. They always keep some spare clothes on hand for emergencies."

Miyun wavered. She wanted to please Millim, very much. But she didn't look forward to an evening of scenes like the one she'd just been in.

"Miyun!" Kasis was wearing another remarkably short red dress, although this one was darker and high-collared, and trimmed with shiny ribbon of the same color around neckline, hem, and armholes. Her hair was coiled up atop her head, though there was so much of it that the end had to hang down over her shoulder. A heavy pendant of red stone set in gold dented her bodice in at her cleavage, making her breasts much more apparent than the tight-fitting dress would have done alone. Miyun looked at her, got distracted by the easy motion of long sleek limbs, tried to bring her mind back to objective consideration of Kasis's sex appeal, and finally gave up and shrugged at Millim, who was really quite restrained in her gloating.

"Kasis! I'm glad there's someone else here who isn't old and scary."

"I didn't think anything scared you. But, um, can I talk to you for a moment?" She looked uncharacteristically nervous.

"Sure. Should we go over there? I think that's what the shadowy place behind the pillars is for."

Kasis obligingly followed her into the semi-darkness of the arcade, but seemed at a loss for what to do next. Miyun could think of several things to suggest, but didn't.

"Miyun... your friend, the tall one? Short silver hair?" She indicated how long with a hand.

"Yarumin? What about her?" She was pretty sure she knew what Kasis was thinking, but couldn't resist making her say it.

"Does she, um." Between dark skin and dim lighting, Miyun couldn't see any change in Kasis's complexion, but she could practically feel the heat radiating from the other girl's face. She tried to not smirk as Kasis continued in a small voice, "...like girls?"

Miyun pretended to consider. "Well, I know she's not qualified for the procession..." Kasis's shoulders slumped, and she relented. "But I don't think she's completely closed to the idea." She stifled a giggle as Kasis perked right up.

"Is she seeing anyone?"

That, Miyun actually had to think about. She had already abandoned Yarumin and Shisan for Millim, at least as far as bedding down went; was it fair to break them up, leaving Shisan to sleep alone? But the last time she'd seen Shisan sleep, she hadn't been alone. Finally, she admitted, "Not formally, anyway. Whether she's actually available, you'll have to ask her yourself."

Kasis nodded. "Oh, is she clanless too?"

"Yah." Not technically, but practically.

Kasis nodded again. "Um. Miyun." She paused embarrassedly. "Thanks for not laughing at me too much."

"Love makes fools of everyone, they say."

"That's a bigger step for some of us than others."

Miyun laughed. "But not a very big step for anyone."

"I suppose not." Kasis preceded her out of the arcade, a slender swaying silhouette rather like another one Miyun knew, and she had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing aloud.

"It's not that Kasis likes girls, exactly," she explained to Millim after passing on the gossip. "It's that she's a narcissist."

Millim eyed Kasis and broke down giggling. "You're right! I bet that dress would just exactly fit Yarumin!"

* * *

The Portmaster was indeterminably old but still vigorous, and as dignified as Master Candalet wanted to be. His grey hair was swept back between the curling horns that grew from his temples, and his equally grey beard was brushed straight to match. He wore the umbrella-like back covering of a port official over his plain black robes, but was otherwise unadorned, the very picture of dedication to his position. In truth, he had at least one other interest, or at least Miyun was pretty sure he did; the mention of the luck allegedly bestowed by a Processional maiden's virginity and of the well-being of the port being tied to that of the Portmaster, within only a few sentences, couldn't be an accident. That she couldn't tell whether the implication had been directed at her or at Kasis on his other side just meant he was keeping his options open, she presumed.

On her other side was Calido, and beyond him Ishin and the third youth; the lios second youth was on the far side of Kasis, and then Mimanid and her counterpart, and so on. It was very orderly, and if that order meant that the Portmaster sat between the first and second maidens, surely no one could be found to pin the blame on. Unfortunately, Millim had recognized the set-up immediately, and was less than happy about it. She hadn't crawled as far into the bottle as at the Planting Eve party, but was alternating trying to distract the Portmaster with having her cup refilled, so it was clearly only a matter of time until another scene broke out.

Miyun was considering ways to kill herself with a soup spoon when inspiration arrived in the form of the handsome lios servant who had told her where to sit. As he leaned between her and the Portmaster to refill her cup -- for the first time; one of them needed to be sober -- she murmured into his ear, "Could you see that my companion gets a little more water and a little less wine?"

"Of course, Freewoman." She had already learned that no one paid attention to the servants unless you needed to give them specific orders, so she wasn't sure who he talked to, but after another of the innumerable tiny courses she noticed that Millim wasn't getting any drunker, and seemed rather dissatisfied with her cup.

Miyun sighed with relief, immediately gaining both Calido's and the Portmaster's attention, and returned to trying to make small talk. She suspected she sounded vapid instead of breezy, but wasn't sure what to do about it. At least it went with pretending to be oblivious to the Portmaster's continuous hinting.

When the Portmaster excused himself to attend to some sort of official business, possibly related to the amount of wine he'd drunk, she leaned over to Kasis and whispered, "Is he being as dirty as I glim he is?"

Kasis looked unhappy. "Yes, but he has a point. He might have mentioned the bond between the Portmaster and the port just to get us into his bed, but it is real. If you're only going to bed down with a man once, you might as well do as much good with it as you can."

Miyun was shocked. "Kasis! Are you really going to?"

She looked even more unhappy. "I'm considering it. It's my... civic duty, I guess, if no one else will." She looked hopefully at Miyun. "I don't suppose you want to?" Miyun shook her head and Kasis's face fell. "I didn't think you would." She sighed, pulling Miyun's gaze lower for a moment. "I know girls who'd do it and not worry about it, but of course they aren't virgins. At least he probably knows what to do."

"Kasis..." Miyun tried to put her objections into words. "It's not a, a duty. It's a gift you can give, but it's a gift, not a.. tax. You can give it to the port if you want, but they can't demand it. You can give it to someone else, or keep it for yourself, and that's not wrong." Kasis looked unconvinced, but then she probably had duty to the tree bred into her bones. Maybe another angle would work better. "Luck doesn't spoil, does it?" Kasis shook her head. "So if you feel you have to give it to the port, wait until they really need it. It looks like things are going well now, with the fruit and everything, so wouldn't it be a waste?"

"Smart as well as beautiful," muttered Kasis, and Miyun felt the blush rising upward from her breasts.

"Don't you start too!" she pleaded.

Kasis cocked an eyebrow. "Humble, too. If I weren't perfect myself, I'm not sure I'd be able to stand you."

Miyun sat up straight and paid strict attention to her soup. And to the foot stroking up her calf, if for no other reason than that she couldn't be sure if it was Millim's or Calido's. Calido still didn't act like she was his favorite person in the universe, but his cup had been filled several times so perhaps his body was making the decisions.

If it was Calido, she wasn't sure what to do about it. The thought that it might be him quickened her pulse and made the soft fabric of her dress seem confining, but teasing aside, she didn't think Millim would take it well. Also, aroused or not, she wasn't sure that thing would fit without a lot of pain, and she didn't think she felt that much of a debt toward him.

Absorbed in the injustice of being female, she didn't realize the Portmaster was talking to her until Calido kicked her chair. "And have you decided who you're going to bestow your luck upon?" he repeated.

Luckily for her bodice, Miyun hadn't been eating while she wasn't paying attention. "I, um," wouldn't tell you if I had because it's none of your pig-felching business! That seemed impolitic, though, so she settled for a curt "Not yet."

He accepted this with a nod, and launched into the story of some adventure from his youth.

"What's the matter?" whispered Calido. "You were paying more attention before."

"Just not feeling well. The Procession took a lot out of me." The guilt was immediate, but she wasn't about to admit she was trying to decide whether or not to bed him and leaning towards not because he was too well endowed. Although the maiden he'd tumbled apparently hadn't fled screaming once she got his pants off. And that incident hadn't made him ineligible for the Procession. She scowled.

"Are you mad at me?" he pressed.

"Yes," she admitted, "but only because you're a man."

He nodded. "It is pretty unfair that sex and virginity and everything is so complicated for women, but there is mana in it."

"And if I were a priestess, I'm sure I'd care," she said sourly.

Millim leaned across the table, distracting Calido with the hope that her doublet was about to show some cleavage. "Mi', what's wrong? You're making the most awful faces!"

"Gah." Rather than explain, she tapped a servant on the shoulder. "Where's the lavatory?"

He pointed with his chin. "Through that door, turn left."

"Thanks." She set her napkin on her chair as the Portmaster had done when he left for a moment and strode off.

The women's lavatory was as opulent as the rest of the place, all marble fixtures and carved wooden partitions, and thankfully empty. Miyun dropped down on a bench and put her face in her hands. It wasn't fair to be this confused without being drunk!

Millim sat down beside her and dabbed at her forehead with a damp cloth. "Miyun, what's the matter? Are you sick? Too much strange food?"

Miyun sighed and leaned her head on Millim's shoulder. "No, not sick. And the Portmaster's not bothering me, or at least he's fairly polite about it, and Calido is only bothering me by being alive."

"I thought you liked him!"

"Kind of, which is the problem." She sighed again. "I take my clothes off in front of two hundred and thirty thousand people and suddenly everyone expects I'm going to jump into bed with a man."

"That doesn't mean you have to. Remember when I told you about the maiden who replaced Gillin? No one bothered her about it."

"Yah, yah. I know I don't have to, but suddenly not doing it means going against this, this pressure. It was easy before!"

Millim rubbed her shoulders with the heel of her palm. "Easier, anyway. I might not be built like you, but I developed early, so there were boys who wanted to bed me long before I did the Procession. But it wasn't as hard saying no as it was after. It was like... 'Okay, that's what your maidenhead was for, you've done it, so why are you still keeping it around?'"

Miyun arched her back against the massage. "Yah, exactly."

Millim turned Miyun away from her so she could work with both hands. "I'm not worried about you, though. You're strong, you won't let people push you into doing something you don't want." She leaned her weight onto her hands, provoking a sigh of relieved tension. "Which means if you're this upset, there must be something else. Do you want to bed Calido? I'd... I can't say I'd like it, but I wouldn't stop you, I'd just want you to come back to me after."

Miyun bent forward, hair falling down beside her face, and was quiet, or at least incoherent, for a long while. "I don't know," she said finally. "When he looks at me and wants me, it gets me as worked up as any girl doing the same thing, so part of me wants to. But... I don't know if I like him, and if I bed someone for some other reason, isn't that just the whoring we vowed to avoid?"

"I don't know that mutual lust is a good reason to bed someone, but I don't think it's a bad reason, as long as both sides are honest about it. It's when there's deceit, or some kind of power thing, that it gets icky." She worked her way down Miyun's back. "But you're honest and brave and kind, so I don't think that would be a problem for you. And Calido sure still wants you, but he doesn't seem to be trying to make you think he loves you."

Miyun snorted. "Hardly. But even if I just want to tackle him, have my way with him, and throw him out the door, the luck thing gets in the way. That he glims I have nice tits doesn't make him special, and even if I glim he has nice eyes, does that mean he deserves it?"

"Ah. You're making the luck too big a deal. It's just some good luck, it's not the keys to a happy life of glory and sex. If you can't choose between two men, then pick the one you think most needs or deserves it, but otherwise, don't worry about it. Men were falling at your feet before, so if they don't care about it, you shouldn't either. Here, lie down and I'll get your legs," she added.

"You're being sensible again," Miyun accused her, but she obligingly stretched out on her stomach on the bench, shivering a little as her breasts pressed against the chill marble.

"One of many reasons you love me." Her fingers dug into the tense muscles of Miyun's legs, making her gasp. "So, are you going to jump Calido or not?"

"I don't know. It's scary. Ow! I mean, I know the first time hurts, and Calido's a lot bigger than most guys. Down there, I mean. I guess it has to fit, since it's not as big as a baby, but..." She winced just thinking about it.

"He's not really that huge, just a couple of years older than most of the other youths, I think. Bigger than my first, but not nearly as big as, um." She concentrated on digging the knots out of Miyun's calves for a bit. "This is going to make me sound like a terrible slut, but after my Procession, when I was still experimenting, finding out what different men were like-- I guess that does make me a slut. Anyway, I bedded one man just because some of the other girls said he was huge, and I wanted to know what it was like."

Miyun craned her head to look back. "How big?" Blushing furiously, Millim shaped something in the air with her hands, and Miyun choked. "Five gods in a bucket!" Millim covered her face with her hands. "How did it go?"

"That was definitely Too Big. I enjoyed it a lot, but he wasn't the best ever, and we had to be really careful. And I was so sore I could barely walk the next morning."

"I'm not surprised!"

"Anyway, my point is, Calido's a perfectly reasonable size. And he has lots of experience, so there'd probably be a lot less pain and a lot more pleasure than if you picked someone smaller but less knowledgeable."

"You sound like you do want me to!"

"I have a definite interest in encouraging you to become uninhibited! But really it's that I see you fretting and dripping over him, so I know you want him, and I think you should have everything you want. I'll just have to hope that includes me."

Miyun rolled onto her side and grabbed hold of Millim's hair, drawing her up until they were face to face. "Always," she said, and kissed her.

Millim kissed back enthusiastically, sliding her fingers into the roots of Miyun's hair to keep her when she would have pulled away. Since only some vague sense of what rich people thought was proper had made her break off the kiss, she didn't object. When those fingers trailed around her neck and down to her breast, though, her eyes opened. "Um, Mi--mph!" Small sharp teeth closed on her tongue to keep her from escaping again.

Millim rolled Miyun onto her back, half-standing and leaning over her to maintain the kiss. Her warm fingers slid into the top of Miyun's dress, pressed against flushed, sensitive skin by the elastic. Miyun's eyes drooped shut again and she squirmed, lifting her breasts to Millim's hands.

Millim cupped Miyun's breasts in her hands and popped them entirely out of the bodice, which contracted around her chest just beneath them, and squeezed lightly. Miyun moaned into her mouth and put her hands to the back of her neck, raking Millim's nape with her nails. Millim shivered violently and released Miyun's tongue so she could gasp for breath.

Miyun nuzzled Millim's face, smiling against her cheek. "I'm so glad I found that spot," she murmured, and applied her nails again, with much the same result. Millim's panting gusted warm against her cheek and she shivered some herself.

Millim left off playing with Miyun's breasts to detach her hands and pin them against the bench above her head, but her hot mouth and slippery tongue dipped to take care of the bosom arching up toward her. Miyun struggled, but more because the urgency Millim was producing made her unable to lie still than because she wanted to escape. The part of her mind not completely given over to the sense of touch knew what came next, so it wasn't until her skirt was rucked up around her waist and Millim was running a finger along the crease between belly and thigh that she remembered where they were. "Millim!" The finger moved. "Ahhh! Mi', what if someone comes in?"

"I've got my clothes on," Millim said breathlessly, and pulled Miyun's hands down to her rumpled skirt and pinned them against her stomach, so she could move down next to Miyun's legs. Alarmed, Miyun pulled her wrists free, but Millim recaptured them and held them with both hands. Miyun struggled for real, but Millim was a lot stronger than she was.

"Millim! We can't-- AHH!" With both hands busy, Millim had only way to continue what she was doing, and Miyun thrashed as her tongue slid gently over her most sensitive part, body desperate for more of that feeling even though her mind wanted to stop things right where they were. Teeth carefully indented skin to either side of where that tongue was eagerly exploring soft folds, and the cause of resistance was lost. If she couldn't stop it, better to get it over with before anyone came in, she reasoned with the last thought that could be put into words.

Millim seemed to have the same idea, at least; her tongue moved back up and circled around the seed of Miyun's pleasure, filling her body with unbearable heat. Miyun writhed, pushed up hard against Millim's face, and lost herself in the clench and rush of sensation.

When the spots cleared from her vision, Miyun discovered that she couldn't breath, and almost panicked, but Millim withdrew her hand. Miyun sucked in air gratefully.

"See, that wasn't so bad," said Millim, grinning. "And the Tree knows I couldn't get you to relax any other way." She put a kiss over where her tongue had recently been so busy, and an echo of that feeling made Miyun tense inside and out for a blissful moment, but when that passed she lay limp and panting again.

Miyun stroked Millim's hair, but motion caught her eye and she looked back and above her, to where Mimanid was just lowering her hands from her mouth.

Every visible bit of Mimanid's translucent lios skin was brilliant pink, and that was most of it, because her dress was a single strip swooping from neck around chest and down to hips, where the remaining length was gathered as a sort of skirt that barely covered one leg. Her expression was embarrassment, except that her grey eyes were open wide and avidly taking in all that Miyun showed.

With a squeak, Miyun tried to simultaneously pull her skirt back into place and tuck her breasts back into her bodice, and succeeded at neither. She might have gotten the skirt if Millim hadn't caught it, but she did. "Careful! We should get you cleaned up before you get all over your dress."

Mimanid finally looked away, seeing Miyun's embarrassment, and then fled, abandoning whatever need had brought her to the lavatory. Miyun started to call her back, on the general principle that you didn't let friends run away in distress, but realized it would probably be easier to deal with whatever came of this after she was clean and decent.

Millim brought damp cloths and started cleaning where she had been encouraging Miyun's body to make a mess, but Miyun grabbed them away and cleaned herself. "You know Mimanid was there, didn't you?"

"No! Well... not until stopping would have been mean and wouldn't have kept her from seeing everything. Hasn't she seen you naked all day for the past three or four days running anyway?"

"It's not the same!" She sighed and used the dry cloth Millim handed her to finish up. "I hope she'll still talk to me."

"She didn't look revolted to me! Anyway, she's a lios; she's probably done this sort of thing herself often enough."

Miyun remembered Mimanid's surprise at learning that bedding down with other girls didn't technically count, and was pretty sure she hadn't, but didn't say anything while she pulled her bodice back up and riveted Millim's attention by shimmying to make sure everything was in place. "I don't suppose anyone else came in? Guided tours, maybe?"

Millim looked at the ground. "If they did, I didn't see them either. I'm sorry, Mi'. Are you really mad?"

"A little. What on-- in the tree possessed you?"

"You were all upset and tense, not just tight muscles but like you might stab the next person who got you mad, and this is a party, you're supposed to have fun and not kill people! I tried saying nice things and rubbing your back, but it wasn't helping, so..." She waved her hand embarrassedly. "I really didn't think anyone would come in if they hadn't while we were talking. There hasn't been enough banquet for anyone to have had that much wine yet." She smirked a little. "I guess there isn't room in that stick-like lios body for much a bladder."

"I guess not!" Miyun laughed, but then sobered. "Well, now that we've been gone for a few degrees, we might as well go back all pink-faced and bright-eyed, just in case there's still someone who doesn't know why we ran off."

Millim took her hands and drew her up and into her embrace. Her kiss had only the slightest remaining touch of musk to go with the salt. "With the number of lios here, we may be the first, but I'm sure we won't be the last."

"Probably not, but still." Miyun sighed. "Well, let's go." She took Miyun's arm to show she wasn't angry, although she still was, a bit. She was pretty sure Mimanid had imagined her in a position like that, but that still wasn't the same as being seen in the writhing, moaning flesh.

The instant the door opened, though, she forgot all about it. Her hand went to her thigh, and the thought flashed by that if she was going to keep wearing this dress she needed a garter sheath, and preferably a real weapon to carry in it.

The man who had attempted to rescue Miyun from Millim on their first night turned around and his long blue eyes widened fractionally. "Freewoman. A pleasure to see you again. You look lovely." He glanced past her at Millim, who tried to shelter behind her. "And I see you've tamed the beast. I should have known; I shouldn't think there are many who could resist you."

He still had the peaked red cap, Miyun noticed, but now he was dressed as a soldier, in a silvery-black coat quilted like scales and belted with metal at the waist but open above and below to show a waist-length doublet with no front opening and skin-tight hose, of the same red as his cap. The scabbard at his side was gleaming red lacquer with an elegant silver rose of a hilt protruding from it, but she was sure it contained a perfectly functional vacuum sword, or worse.

Miyun still found him immensely threatening, but then, wasn't she blessed by the Tree itself? It undid all Millim's work at relieving her stress, but she smiled at him and curtseyed. If his eyes dipped toward her cleavage, it was too briefly to notice. "Thank you, freeman. Or is it... captain?" It was a sheer guess, but he seemed very young to have any higher rank, and too competent for nepotism. "I'm afraid we haven't been introduced." It was remarkably easy to slip into the fancy speech of fancy people, but then she'd been listening to it all evening.

"I beg your pardon! Captain Lanchu of no clan, at your service." Miyun couldn't tell if his bow was correct according to the manners of the Portmaster's court, but his grace far exceeded any courtier's. She saw the flex of muscle beneath the hose, and noted that he had very nice legs, perhaps even better than Calido's.

"Miyun of no clan. The pleasure is mine, I assure you. And this is Hokashut Millim, who I assure you is not beastly in the slightest." Although her trembling against Miyun's back did resemble that of some small cornered creature.

His mouth turned up at one corner again. "Not to you, I'm certain." A door opened behind her and his gaze moved past her. "I have business that I must attend to, but I hope that later you will grant me the favor of a dance, or at least of your company."

"If neither your business nor mine precludes it, I would be delighted." She meant her business to preclude any further meeting with this man at all, ever, if she could help it, but despite everyone's praise of her courage, she couldn't bring herself to risk offending him.

"Until that blessed degree, then." He bowed again and took the hand of the little boy who had just emerged from the men's lavatory. The boy was dressed in blue velvet doublet and hose, with white lace ruffles at neck and wrists, and had a lace-trimmed velvet band tied across his eyes. He let Lanchu lead him away without acknowledging the girls' presence at all.

Miyun turned and put her arms around Millim. "Are you all right? Why does he scare you so much? He's scary, but not so much that you can't talk. I mean, not so much that I can't talk, obviously it is that much for you. He just scares me so much that I do talk. Talk and talk to try to get him to go away--" She didn't stop for several heartbeats after Millim covered her mouth, though even she wasn't sure what she was saying. When she realized that, she also realized that she was shaking as much as Millim and the two of them were clinging together for mutual support, rather than her comforting her more-frightened sweetheart.

"I know who he is," whispered Millim. "He was one of Archa's enemies. I never met him, but I know his name."

"Archa?" After that one tear-soaked revelation in the love nest, Millim had never mentioned that name again. Miyun was curious, of course, but had never pried, trusting Millim to mention it when it mattered. Like now.

"You better tell me about this." Miyun steered Millim to a bench at the back of the arcade and sat her down, kneeling at her feet. Dinner and Mimanid's upset were completely forgotten.

Millim was quiet for a long time. "Archa was a necromancer," she said at last. "Not a serious one, just a little ghost-talking, but he wanted to be more. I met him at school the summer afer I was in the Procession; he was only a couple of years older than me. He was beautiful, all flashing eyes and floating hair and pale pale skin. Like a lot of girls, I fell for him, but I was the only one of his admirers he responded to. He never said why, and I still don't know, but back then I didn't care. He paid attention to me, he taught me secrets, he told me he was special. I was jealous of the pretty boys he bedded, even though at midnight he got out of their beds and came to me. We went into secret places of the tree and... did things. Not sex, not then, although I would have let him do anything he wanted to me. We drew the circles of bone and mist, we saw the past and the future and far distant worlds -- or that's what we thought then. I think really it was just dying dreams, but I didn't know any better and I'm not sure he did."

"Sometimes we met with other necromancers. They had a master, who always appeared wrapped in shrouds and chains and only taught them after they had consumed the ashes of the dead together. I didn't get to hear those lessons, only what Archa taught me later, but sometimes they just talked, and we novices -- there were two others like me, followers of one initiate or another -- were present for that. That's where I heard about Lanchu. He was a student of some necromancer who was a rival of Archa's master, wanted to steal his students or his territory or something."

It was Miyun's turn to be silent, though she was appalled rather than guilty. She had guessed Millim's crime to be theft or vandalism or something minor but expensive; she would never have expected her to turn out to be a necromancer, even a reformed one. If she was reformed; necromancy was about suffering as well as death, and Millim certainly had a sadistic streak, although she usually kept it repressed. Miyun thought about the lips she had kissed so often, that had recently brought her so much pleasure, powdered white with the ashes of cremated corpses -- no, Millim had said only the more senior necromancers had done that. The image refused to vanish, though. "What happened?" she asked finally. "How did you end up in indigent's quarters instead of... whatever they do to necromancers here?"

"Archa was ambitious. All the students were, always trying to stand out so the master would teach them something he didn't teach the others. Archa's plan was to strike at the Circle Lanchu was in, but to do that he needed more power than he was getting. He needed the bodies and souls of the newly dead, but those are always locked away, to keep people like him from getting at them. But he had me, a locksmith's daughter. At first I wouldn't help him, because I knew it was too dangerous, but when he finally got jealous about all the boys I bedded to get his attention, and made me get down on my knees and..." She shuddered, not entirely with arousal but not entirely with disgust. "I stole from my parents for him, powerful devices to open any ordinary lock and most of the better ones." Her voice shook. "I handed him his own death, and he praised me for it, and I was so proud." She put her face in her hands and wept.

Miyun could guess the rest. "He tried more than he could handle, and... died." She wasn't sure he had really gotten off so lightly, but Millim was upset enough. "You weren't as good at stealing as you glimmed, so the chains got you, but you said you didn't know Archa was a necromancer, and they couldn't ask him."

Millim nodded, tears dripping through her fingers to spot her hose. "I don't think Porfiros was fooled, but there wasn't evidence for anything except the theft. I never led anything, it was always Archa, and I never did anything that would leave marks just from participating."

From the sound of it, Millim's soul should have been tainted at least a little; maybe having been in the Procession had given her enough grace that the marks didn't stick? But that didn't matter. She wasn't sure what did.

Millim stood, forcing Miyun to lean far back or get kneed in the face, and went off in the direction of the lavatory, leaving Miyun to wonder whether she should follow.

She had the power to destroy Millim's life, to make sure she got punished for whatever desecrations she had committed. The chains could check that her memory of Millim's confession was true, and that would be enough for them to question Millim hard enough to get the story out of her. That would lead them to Lanchu, and although as a soldier he might escape civil judgement, his career would be badly wounded, and that could be fatal for a soldier.

But the Tree had granted Millim a flower, and although divine notions of right and wrong didn't always make sense to mere mortals, there were very few gods who didn't object to necromancy. And... Millim was still Millim. Whatever she'd done in the past added up to the person Millim was now, the person Miyun cared for.

Let anyone see your heart and someone will tear it out.

Someone, maybe, but it wouldn't be Miyun.

She stood and hurried to the lavatory, flung open the door, and collided with Millim on her way out. They rebounded, but Miyun caught Millim and pulled her close. She didn't say anything, but from the way Millim's arms tightened around her, she didn't have to.

"You're not going to turn me in?" she mumbled into Miyun's hair.

Miyun shook her head. "You trusted me with your secret. I don't know why; I didn't ask you to. But I won't betray you."

Tears rained onto Miyun's bare shoulder.

* * *

"Are you all right?" Ishin standing was about the same height as Millim sitting, in an ideal position to see the faint traces of emotions, if not actual tears, on her face. "The portmaster's not really going to steal Miyun, you know."

Millim laughed, not entirely naturally, and Miyun had to stifle a laugh of her own at how far Ishin's otherwise reasonable guess was from what was actually the matter. "No, it's not that. I just... saw someone I used to know. It shouldn't still bother me, but..." She shrugged one shoulder.

"Oh. Well, maybe you can get Shisan to beat him up for you!" Miyun did laugh at that, though not happily, and Ishin and Millim both looked over at her. "Miyun! You're really who I was looking for. What did you do to Mimanid? I suggested we come talk to you, and she ran off!" She scowled.

Miyun willed the Tree to open up a pit in the floor beneath her hooves, but it failed to oblige and she had to stand there blushing furiously. At least Millim was turning a fetching shade of pink too.

Ishin put her hand to her mouth. "When she went to the lavatory and came back all-- You didn't!" Miyun shrank against the pillar behind her, unable to even hide her face without spilling the drinks she had brought. "You did?!" Ishin was red too, now, but laughing behind her hand. "Oh, poor Mimanid!"

"It's not my fault!" protested Miyun. "She ravished me!"

"You weren't complaining!"

"I tried! But you wouldn't stop!"

"I didn't think anyone was going to walk in!"

Ishin's giggled helplessly. "Poor Mimanid!" she repeated. "No wonder she was that color!"

"I meant to apologize to her," Miyun said defensively, "but we got sidetracked by Millim's past!" She looked around. "Where did she go? I should go to talk to her now."

"She went off to talk to Allil. But um. I think it would be better if Millim went. It would upset her less. Anyway, you say it's all her fault!"

"Only because it is!" She was glad to make Millim take the embarrassment, though, and handed her her drink and pulled her to her feet. "Go!" When Millim balked, she pushed her in the small of the back. "Go on!" Laughing nervously, she went.

Ishin plopped into the vacated seat. "You know Mimanid has a crush on you, right?"

Miyun blinked startledly. "She does? But it was you who, um, this morning..."

Ishin turned red again. "She was hoping to join in. She's too shy to ask someone herself, but she thought if I got you started and she was there, she wouldn't have to actually ask."

Miyun shook her head. "I guess that sort of makes sense. I didn't know you liked girls at all, though. If you do, why haven't you and Mimanid already-- I mean, if you tackled me, and then she joined in, you and her would also be together, and you didn't mind that..." She felt embarrassed about being embarrassed; she could do this, had been doing it for years, so why couldn't she talk about it? Because she hadn't done it with Ishin?

Ishin looked down. "I don't like girls much, and that's probably good, or I'd die every time I had to get changed for a game. But, um." She looked up. "I like you." She was still blushing, but she met Miyun's eyes.

Miyun sat down with a thump. "I-- Um--" She took a deep breath, and tried again. "I was really tempted this morning. If it wasn't for Millim, you and Mimanid would both have gotten what you wanted."

"I bet Ardu would have interrupted us anyway. But it's okay. I wouldn't want you to break up with Millim. I just thought you should know how I feel." She stood up.

Miyun caught her hand. "Ishin... Thank you. I'm sorry I can't do anything about your feelings, but I don't glim you shouldn't have them." She let go.

Ishin smiled and departed, leaving Miyun watching the switch of her rump in the form-fitting doublet she wore over her hose.

She counted on her fingers: Millim, maybe Jurlilo, Calido, Ishin, Mimanid, Lanchu, the Portmaster, the glassmaker, maybe the other eleven youths in the Procession. She wished she knew what she was doing or saying or radiating to get all this attention. She wasn't sure she would stop it; she liked being wanted, after all, but it would be nice to be able to.

She remembered the peculiar old woman in the guardsmen's cage. "Will anyone ever look at me and see anything other than the sun and moon?" she'd asked. "Only when you see something else when you look at yourself," the old woman had said. Millim didn't only see Miyun's heavenly orbs, but she definitely saw them. The men probably weren't aware that her body extended above the shoulders or below the knees, never mind that there might be a brain somewhere in those neglected parts.

Except Lanchu; he definitely saw something in her, but it didn't seem to be what other men saw, and now that she knew something of his background, she was deeply disturbed by what it might be. Maybe he liked the shape of her skull, or thought she'd render down nicely into candles.

It was nice to be desired; she liked sex a lot, so there were definitely worse things than having plenty of people willing to indulge her. But that wasn't the only thing she liked.

The banquet tables had scampered out of the way on golem paws, leaving only a few around the edges of the room to hold extra food and drink, but the music was still the barely audible background it had been during dinner, so the middle of the floor was clear. Across that empty space she could see Millim, Mimanid, and Ishin giggling together. Millim turned and blew her kiss, which she caught and tucked into her cleavage automatically. Then she noticed what she had done, and decided nothing was going to change if she didn't change it.

* * *

Millim actually gasped. "Miyun! What happened to your dress?!"

"I'll get it when we leave." Nervously, she smoothed down the front of her purple doublet, which was fitted enough that no one could possibly mistake her for a boy, but held closed by a silver vine twining through loops far enough that only a thumb's length of cleavage showed. The skirt was equally fitted, but covered her down to the top of her thighs. Her hose were silver too, or at least a sparkling grey, with a purple ribbon spiraling down one leg to end in a bow at the outside of her ankle, and one resourceful maid had dug up enough silver nailpolish to cover both her hooves as well as her nails. The bow on her tail matched the one at her ankle.

"I like your hair, Miyun!" said Ishin, and Mimanid nodded enthusiastically, although she was still too embarrassed by Miyun's presence to say anything.

The same maid had deftly braided Miyun's hair with silver and purple ribbons and coiled the braid up around her head like a crown. It wasn't much compared to Kasis's extravagance, but she liked the effect.

She saw Millim staring at her eyes, and covered a smile. The twig the young acolyte had given her before the Procession had disintegrated into black dust at an incautious touch from one of the maids helping her change. The girl had noted the resemblance of the powder to a cosmetic and, moved by what Miyun was going to claim was divine inspiration, she had rubbed the powder carefully into Miyun's eyelids, and the tiny bit that remained into her lips. In the dim light of the ballroom, the slight darkening of her mouth wasn't easily apparent, but the black above her eyes made them look even larger.

Looking at the image of herself produced by the dressing room, she'd decided she was still enticing enough that she wouldn't have to give up on being desired, but liked her new appearance better than what one maid, not as softly as she might have intended, referred to as "two tits in a coat of paint, with a light skirt".

"But I liked your dress! And your hair all flowing!" Millim seemed on the verge of taking Miyun's change as a personal attack, which wasn't surprising after how vigorously she'd argued for the purple dress earlier, but stung Miyun's heart with surprising sharpness.

She leaned forward and whispered in Millim's ear, "Then you can help me take my hair down after the ball." She was rewarded with an immediate flush.

"And Mimanid captures the award for least-dressed, in a stunning upset!" giggled Ishin. Mimanid stuck her tongue out.

"Have any of you seen Calido?" asked Kasis, coming up beside Mimanid in her tight, short-skirted dress. "And what's so funny?"

* * *

Miyun helped the young gentleman hobble back to his seat and then fled to where Ishin was sitting. "Why doesn't anyone believe me when I say I don't know how to dance? At this rate the whole port government will be limping!"

"It's the eyes."

"Oh. Too much? I hope not, because I glim this doesn't come off."

"Oh no! Just right!" Ishin hadn't drunk nearly as much as Millim, but there wasn't nearly as much of her to absorb it, and she was in quite a merry mood. So was most everyone else at the ball, of course; maybe they were just so drunk they didn't feel pain? It was shame that Ishin didn't feel, though. "How about I sit in your lap and pretend to be your girlfriend so people won't ask you?"

"Running around on me already, Mi'?" Millim detached the gentleman from her arm and pre-empted Ishin. Her arms twined around Miyun's neck and, after a sideways glance to make sure her dance partner was still there, planted an enthusiastic kiss on her lips. The forlorn young man faded into the crowd. Ishin pouted.

"For the public good, really! We figure hardly anyone will ask me to dance if there's a girl on my lap, so fewer people will be crippled."

"At least if you step on their feet, they'll be too distracted to do anything with their hands." She made a face.

Miyun felt him well before he arrived, and Millim only a moment later. It wasn't until he was actually there that Ishin's eyes got huge and round and she scooted back in her seat.

"Freewoman Hokashut, may I borrow Freewoman Miyun for a few degrees? Presuming your business doesn't preclude it, of course," he added to Miyun.

Knowing that he was a necromancer should have made her more frightened of Lanchu, but it was just the reverse: knowing about him, even the little that she did, reassured Miyun. He didn't feel any less dangerous, but she felt some amount of ability to handle him. It helped that her new outfit had pockets in which she had stored some salt.

Some of Miyun's confidence must have been contagious, because Millim was able to say, "Just bring her back intact," with only a slight quaver in her voice. She slid into the next chair over, but caught Miyun's hand and squeezed it. Lanchu did his quarter-smile, but didn't respond to Millim.

"I believe I can spare the time, Captain Lanchu," Miyun said, and let him help her to her hooves. His hand was gloved, but even that contact sent a shiver of fear down her spine. Not only fear, though; she realized her tail was lashing back and forth, and stilled it with an effort.

Miyun had never been entirely sure what the word "sprightly" meant, but the music the orchestra was playing sounded like it should be called sprightly: fast and cheerful, ideal to demonstrate her complete lack of ability on Lanchu's feet. She took his hands, stepped back, let him pull her in, turn them around, and push her away again, and realized with confusion that she was moving in time not only with Lanchu but with all the other couples. It was nice to be dancing well, even with borrowed skill, but infuriating that the one person she most wanted to annoy could make her dance well. Still, there was nothing for it but to plaster a smile on her face and let him lead her.

"You've changed your style yet again," he observed during a passage where they were face to face for half a dozen slow rotations, clasped hands outstretched to each side. "Very fetching, although perhaps not quite as much so as your last. What does your lover think?"

"You sound as though you expect her to be disappointed." Out, half turn, in, half turn. Distressingly, dancing was fun! Unfair!

"Let us say, your new costume does less to emphasize what she values in you."

Her reply was interrupted by him releasing one of her hands so she swung out to catch the hand of the man in an adjacent couple. With only one hand, he couldn't guide her as well as he had been, and it took her own nimbleness to step forward, kick, step forward, kick, release, pivot, clasp hands again and do the same thing back to where she had been. "You seem to be implying that you have rather intimate knowledge of our relationship," she said when they were a separate unit again. "How would you come by that, I wonder?"

"Not of your relationship in particular, but of Freewoman Hokashut's ability to relate to others." Apart, release and turn to fly into the clutches of a woman in a dress like Mimanid's but with a real figure within, a clumsy circle, and back to her original partner. "To her, people exist only to fulfill whatever needs she has at the time, and if you will forgive my saying so, there is little doubt about which needs impelled her to draw you to her."

Apart, then together so close their chests pressed together and they had to lean back to keep noses from colliding. From kissing distance, she looked into his face, but nothing there was readable. "That's a rather harsh accusation," she said mildly, although she really wanted to knee him in the groin, beat him to the ground, and kick his ribs in. "Does it have any basis in reality?"

He did that almost-smile again. "I had ample time to observe her while she was my brother's disciple."

Apart then, and around and around, giving her time to think. One of them had to be lying, and she would put her money on Lanchu, but really all she had was their words. Lanchu was frightening, but did that make him a liar? If he was a necromancer, probably, but Millim had confessed to necromancy herself. Or maybe they were both telling the truth as they knew it; necromancy was supposed to be capable of moving souls from body to body, or bringing ghosts to coexist in a living body. Any amount of confusion was possible there.

As he drew her back in, she realized that she could check on at least some of Lanchu's story. And Millim's, she added to be fair. "I'll take your advice under consid--" The separate threads of the music wove together in the final crescendo, and as the dance came to its end, couples standing motionless with no space between them, he kissed her.

Her heart stopped from the terror and revulsion. The mouth performing a composed imitation of passion on and within hers had tasted the ashes of the dead, she was certain of it. She could almost taste them herself, coating his tongue in a powdery layer. She would have bitten his tongue if she had dared; she did try to shove him away, but the music the orchestra was picking apart hadn't come to an end and she was still bound by the dance.

The last woodwind note faded into illusory distance. She wrenched herself free and fled to the lavatory, where every bit of the luxurious banquet came up. Not even the burning bile that flooded her mouth after her belly was empty could clean it, though.

* * *

Millim stroked Miyun's hair. "Don't worry, the physician will be here soon."

Miyun clutched the blankets tighter around herself, but it didn't help the shivering. She didn't know if Lanchu had infected her with something in his kiss, or if it was only horror that was doing this to her, or if there was even a difference. If dying of fear happened outside of stories, it would probably be a necromancer's fault.

Millim lay down beside her and hugged her through the covers. She huddled against her sweetheart, no longer appalled by her past. If nothing else good came of this, and she couldn't see how it could, at least she knew what a necromancer was like, and that Millim was as far from that as the air she breathed was from the lethal uncaring cold and vacuum outside.

Mimanid, still wearing her fetching but impractical ballgown, sat on the bed beside them. "Here, Miyun, try to have some grass tea. It'll warm you up." She held the cup so Miyun wouldn't spill it while she sipped at the sour liquid. It did calm her, a bit, but that didn't make her feel any better: she couldn't imagine that grass tea would do any real good if she was suffering from some necromantic poison or plague, and if she wasn't, then she had no excuse for making everyone worry over her.

She tasted the ash of human corpses on her tongue again and barely made it to the edge of the bed before the tea came back up. She could tell Millim and Mimanid were exchanging worried looks over her back, but they didn't say anything. Mimanid just fetched a towel, and not even the glimpse of satiny white afforded by her crouching to clean up the mess cheered Miyun.

Ishin returned, bearing a message slip. "The physician says he'll be here in five degrees. I wrote to where the boy I asked said everyone had gone for a party, but your friends weren't there. They said they'd go look for them, though." She sat where Mimanid had, and squeezed Miyun's hand. "It'll be okay. You'll be okay." She sounded more hopeful than certain, though.

It might have actually been only five degrees, but to Miyun in her misery it seemed ten times that long before an unfamiliar voice said, "I presume this young woman is my patient?" Millim helped her sit up, tucked pillows behind her, and made sure she was well wrapped in the blankets.

The physician's appearance didn't inspire much confidence: he was somewhere in that middle ground between youth and middle age, no taller than Miyun and rather weedy. At first Miyun thought they had sent her an apprentice, but he wore the physician's red robe and white and blue braided sash with no self-conciousness, and had the rods of heliotrope, sodalite, hematite, and a dozen more stones strung as pendants.

"Chills, mm-hm. Color poor, pupils large, hm," he muttered to himself. Taking a small clockwork device from his satchel, he checked Miyun's pulse at wrist, elbow, and throat against its ticking, then unwrapped her to check at heart, belly, inner thigh, and knee. Miyun wrapped her arms around herself, for warmth more than modesty -- she was still in the scanty halter and hose she'd borrowed from the Portmaster's household -- but even losing the blanket didn't seem to make any difference in her shivering. "Mm-hm," the physician mused.

"Ch-check for nec-necromancy," Miyun said through chattering teeth, and everyone except Millim stared at her. "I p-pissed off someone who m-might be a n-necromancer."

The physician looked sternly at all of them. "You should report such matters to the guard. I know many indigents have a poor relation with the guard, but necromancy is too great a danger to let that stop you."

"We don't have any proof," explained Millim smoothly. "He's creepy and horrible, and talks like a necromancer, but maybe he's just a bastard with pretensions. Better safe than sorry, right?"

"Mm-hm." He looked unconvinced, but fished a hard leather case out his back and drew a raggedly circular flake of obsidian from it. "Where would the contagion have entered your body?" Miyun's hand went involuntarily to her mouth, and he nodded. "Tongue." She stuck her tongue, nervously; that obsidian looked sharp. He did slice her tongue painfully with one of the protrusions, but a droplet of liquid from a bottle in his other hand erased the pain almost immediately, along with all other sensation from her tongue.

He held the blood-edged obsidian to the light, but nothing visible changed. After a few moments, he wiped it clean with a scrap of tissue paper than consumed itself in flames before reaching the floor and stowed his implements away. "It is my professional opinion that you have been taken in by some young idiot's affected air of danger." He dropped a few sticks of incense on Miyun's lap. "Get some rest, use these if you have trouble sleeping, and in the future, exercise more discretion about who you kiss. Good evening, freewomen."

Miyun flushed with anger. She hadn't wanted Lanchu to kiss her! Her tongue was as responsive as a block of wood would have been, though, so the doctor escaped with the last word.

"Miyun, how did you get mixed up with necromancers?" Mimanid demanded.

"Or even necromancer wannabes!" put in Ishin.

"Oh! The soldier who came and asked you to dance? The really scary one? You kissed him?"

Miyun tried to deny it, felt her tongue squish between her teeth, and settled for shaking her head vigorously. She felt like the stupidest person in the entire port, at least, but pulling the blanket up over her face because she couldn't stand to look at anyone was astonishly pleasant compared to hiding under the covers because she thought she was about to die.

"He kissed her," Millim clarified. "After talking up his ominous yet unspecified ability to hurt people."

"And she worried herself into this?" She couldn't see Mimanid shake her head, but knew what gesture the lios girl would put into a pause like that. "That must have been some talking!"

"You weren't there," said Ishin. "He had mana coming out his ears, and none of it nice. I didn't think of it at the time, but if I had, I would have believed he was a necromancer without him saying a word."

"Does that say more about him, or you?" wondered Mimanid. "Ow!"

"Do you want us to stick around? In case Captain Whatsisname comes around to scare her some more? It's not like we could fight a soldier, but I don't think he'd try to put a curse on her with people around."

"And, no offense, but if we have to call the guard, they'll probably take us more seriously than they would you," added Mimanid.

"If you don't mind..." said Millim. "Oh, but if we do have to get the guard involved, Guardsman Second Porfiros is the one to ask for. He knows what kind of people I was mixed up with, and won't laugh it off."

He'd probably reconsider Millim's role in it all too, thought Miyun. But being hated by necromancers was probably a good recommendation to the guard. Unless they thought it was just a faction fight among the Circles.

"Miyun, are you asleep, or just hiding?" Millim prodded her ribs and she flinched. "Okay. Try to sleep. We'll just be on the other side of the room so we don't disturb you." She pulled the blankets down from Miyun's face and rearranged the pillows so she could lie down. "Let me know if you can't sleep, and I'll burn some of this incense for you." She kissed Miyun gently on the mouth. "Or if you need anything else, just yell, okay?" Miyun nodded and nestled into the bedding. Across the room she heard Millim say quietly, "Does either of you play?"

"Field ordinary?" asked Mimanid. "Or some strange siege variant?"

Chapter 9

1st Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

Muzzily, she tried to roll over and bumped against someone sitting on the bed. For a while she wasn't sure why someone would be sitting on her bed, or why her tongue hurt, but it all came back. She pulled the covers over her head again and waited hopefully for the world to go away.

"Miyun? How are you feeling?" It was Yarumin, and Miyun relaxed at the sound of her voice. She loved Millim, Mimanid and Ishin were her friends, but it was Yarumin and Shisan she trusted and relied on. Because it was Yarumin, she didn't have to feign politeness, so she grumbled, "You don't have to fuss over me. I'm just stupid, not sick."

"Millim told us what happened. That Lanchu sounds like serious trouble. Why under heaven did you let him kiss you?"

Miyun sat up, and realized happily she wasn't shivering any more. She was still an idiot, though. "He did something so I could follow the dance, but I couldn't not, and that was the part where we were supposed to be face to face..."

Yarumin made a face. "I can imagine that. Ugh." She was back in her labor pool outfit, but her hair was still sticking to her neck. She looked a little short on sleep, but not hung-over. "Why did you dance with him in the first place?"

"I knew he wasn't good, but I didn't know how bad he was. I glimmed I could handle it."

"And you were dazzled by his ass?"

Miyun shuddered. She had thought he was attractive. "I won't make that mistake again!" She still had to admit he was beautiful, but as Millim had reminded her ages ago, that wasn't the same as attractive. She counted back and realized that it had been only a week since Millim had showed her the communal love nest. She wasn't sure she could stand another week like that.

"Yah, yah. Always make new mistakes; it's more fun. Anyway, what do we do now?"

"You're the captain." She rubbed sleep from her eyes and looked around. The firetubes were at the middling brightness that meant either early morning or late evening; from the damp, half-dressed girls wandering in from the hallway, she guessed it was the former. None of her other friends were visible. "Where's Shisan and Millim? I guess Ishin and Mimanid went home?"

"In the bath. Yah, Ishin's family wrote and told her to get Mishki and Mimanid and get back home or she'd be scrubbing out the lavatory for a month."

Miyun laughed. "Friendship only goes so far, I guess." Then she laughed again, because she could.

"Yah, yah. Anyway, I haven't met this Lanchu bastard; I don't have the feel of him like you do. If you glim we should just lay low until he goes off to be a bastard somewhere else, okay. If you glim he's going to come after you or Millim unil he's put down, I'll figure out how we can do that. But I don't know how much of a problem he wants to be."

"The feel wasn't so bad," Miyun said absently. "It was the taste." Just the mention made her tongue feel coated with ash again. Shuddering, she tried to scrape it off on her teeth, but only the usual morning-after sludge came off. In fact, she felt like she was covered with it; fear sweat wasn't really any better than fever sweat once it dried on you. "I need a bath. Then we can plan."

"Anyone who isn't finished bathing in five degrees will miss breakfast," Madame Kentrit announced from the doorway.

Miyun sighed. "Or maybe then we can work."

Chapter 10

3rd Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

"Hey, doesn't she look familiar?" Miyun waved her broom toward a Shadrite woman sitting propped against the wall of a tiny side passage. The Shadrite was slumped forward, and vomit had congealed in her lap.

Yarumin stopped sweeping for a moment. "Yah, yah. She was in the cage with us, remember? I glim they shouldn't have let her out; she looks terrible."

Yarumin was right; the Shadrite had been muscular, if slightly battered, the last time they had seen her, but now her copious flesh hung loosely from her bones, and fever-spots of pink glowed on her cheeks. Miyun remembered the old beggar woman looking up at the brawler who had just snatched the tube of gruel and saying "Gluttony can't possibly be healthy"; had that been this one, or the other Shadrite? She was pretty sure it was this one.

Yarumin and Miyun looked at each other. "I'm glad we were polite," said Yarumin.

"What's so interesting back here, Sun-and-Moon?" growled Jurlilo. He wrinkled his nose at the Shadrite. "What, never seen a wino before?"

"Shouldn't we do something?" Miyun asked before realizing she sounded like an honest citizen.

"Next message booth we pass, I'll write the guard. Doesn't look like she's going anywhere. Now get back to sweeping up the rubbish that ain't alive!"

Miyun did as she was ordered, but not without one last look at the Shadrite, cursed, ruined, and probably soon dead, because she'd been rude to a little old beggar woman. But if Miyun's idea was good, wouldn't Yarumin have already thought of it?

* * *

Yarumin looked at the slip of paper lying on her bed. "What's this?"

"Just means you got mail waiting for you in the office," advised a passer-by.

"Mail?! Who'd be sending me mail?"

Miyun and Millim looked at each other and smothered giggles.

Yarumin eyed them. "I'm not going to like this, am I?" They giggled harder. "Five gods in a pig-felching bucket." She slouched off.

Half a degree later, she was back, more bewildered than before, carrying a huge bouquet of red and maroon flowers in one arm and a small box wrapped in metal foil in the other hand. "What the hell?" She stomped over to Miyun's bed, where she and Millim sprawled pretending to play battle, and glowered down at them. "What's going on?"

Miyun giggled so hard she fell off the bed. Millim helped her back up and said, "Didn't you read the card?"

"Card?" Yarumin turned the box over and saw the envelope stuck to one side, with her name on it. She ripped it open and pulled out the note, written in red ink on luxurious paper. "What the hell?" she said again and sat down to puzzle out the words, lips moving silently until she got to the end. "Add, ore, Adoring?! Who under heaven is Anj, Anjut Kasis?!"

Miyun and Millim clung to each other and laughed and laughed. Perhaps it wasn't that funny, but Miyun, at least, was still feeling light-headed from her reprieve from necromantic death.

"Kasis... One of the Processional maidens?!" Still giggling, Millim nodded. "Which one?" Yarumin demanded.

"About your height..." said Millim.

"Kind of flat-chested like you," Miyun added.

"All the hair on the whole tree..."

Yarumin went from confused to appalled. "The one right behind Mi'? The snooty dancer? Five rabid gods in a fur-lined bucket! What does some gorgeous rich bitch like that want with someone like me?"

Miyun tried to stop laughing and couldn't, so Millim had to say, "The flowers and candy didn't give it away?"

"Candy?" Yarumin turned the box over again, obviously unwilling to ruin the beautiful wrapping.

"That seal stamped by the corner means it's from Sarujanuld's shop, best in the port."

"But..." She looked at the note again. "Even if I hock the candy, I can't afford to eat in some fancy place like that!"

"She invited you, so that means she's paying."

Yarumin's expression vanished. "And then 'cause she's spent money buying me stuff, I'm supposed to just spread out?"

"No, no!" protested Miyun, finally able to speak. "Well, I'm sure she wants you to, but I don't glim she glims she can buy you." She wasn't entirely sure of that, but Kasis had seemed honestly smitten, and anyway probably wasn't used to girls who weren't rich themselves.

"Yah, yah." She looked up at the clock. "Sea and stone! I don't even have ten degrees!" She leapt to her feet and bolted for the bath, shedding clothes as she ran. Several of the other girls whistled, but she didn't slow.

Still giggling, Miyun trailed after, gathering up the discarded garments and folding them over her arm.

"Hey, Mi'!" Shisan waved from the door and came over. "Old Kentrit had me running for her. Hey, are those Yar's clothes? Where'd she go?" She looked around hopefully for a naked half-lios.

"She has a date," Millim announced gleefully.

"Really?!" Then Shisan's expression changed to a scowl and she cracked her knuckles. "He better treat her nice, or..."

"She! It's the maiden who was right behind Mi' in the Procession!"

"The tall dark one? With all the hair? Wow! Lucky!"

"Don't sound so envious; it's not like you don't have something to fill your evenings!" Miyun blinked confusedly. "What do you think Mishki was doing here last night?" Millim said.

Shisan turned bright red and looked away. "We were just kissing," she mumbled.

"Shi'! A boy?!"

"He's nice!" she said defensively. "I know he was staring at your chest at the party, but so was everyone! When you went off with Millim, he wasn't distracted, and we started talking... Anyway, he is nice! He doesn't make me feel like some kind of bug even though he has money and a family and goes to school and everything!"

Miyun rocked back from Shisan's vehemence. "Okay, okay! But if he doesn't treat you right," she copied Shisan's knuckle-cracking gesture, "let us know."

"I can take care of myself," Shisan protested, but then she leaned forward and kissed Miyun on the cheek. "Thanks, Mi'."

Yarumin reappeared, dropped her wet towel on the floor to the accompaniment of more whistles, and scrabbled in her footlocker for fresh underwear and the clothes Millim had found for her. "Millim, where is this place?"

"What place?"

"Something salad?" She pulled on her tunic and shook her hair out. "Good thing I don't have huge piles of hair like you, Mi'! Um, salad something?"

Miyun picked up the note and skimmed it. It wasn't nearly as flowery as she'd expected from Kasis, but that was probably for the best; Yarumin would have died of embarrassment if she'd had to have someone read this stuff to her. "Alien Salad."

"She must really like you! It's out on branch one, just past the fountain. It has a sign, and big things sort of like feathers made out of flowers beside the door."

Yarumin looked at the clock and wailed, "Out past the pig-felching fountain?" Still trying to belt her robe, she sprinted away.

"Don't get all sweaty before dinner!" Millim called after her.

* * *

Miyun closed the door gently and picked her way back across the unseen floor to where Millim had settled. The sliver of reddish light at the door's edge didn't illuminate the storeroom, at least not for any eyes less sensitive than Shisan's, but it kept her from getting lost on her way to the back corner. They didn't expect anyone to come down this way, where half the firetubes were dead and the rest senile, but it still seemed best to be as far from possible eavesdroppers in the hallway as they could.

She tripped over Millim's outstretched foot, but managed to convert what could have been a nasty fall into a plop into Millim's lap.

"Oof!" Millim complained. "Maybe I should have taken up with Shisan."

"Hmph." Miyun slid off and nestled next to Millim on the pile of unfashionable tapestries. "And leave me with the boy?"

"Well, he does think you have nice breasts."

"So does everyone else. Including necromancers."

"I admit I don't understand that part. These--" a soft hand landed on Miyun's breast and stroked it gently "-- are symbols of fertility and life, or at least make people want to do those sorts of things."

Archa hadn't had any interest in doing that sort of thing with women, she recalled. Did that make him a better necromancer than Lanchu? He had bedded other men, but, she knew from male acquaintances, that could be painful and disgusting if not done carefully, and she was willing to bet Archa had never been careful. Suffering was part of necromancy, and most necromancers preferred someone else to do the suffering.

But then, a man could hurt a woman just as much, especially if it was her first time, and stealing the luck she could have given away would probably just add to the necromancer's thrill. She shivered and huddled closer to Millim.

"I guess even necromancers are alive," Millim mused.

"Maybe we can fix that."

"I'm not sure how. Even if he got into the army by deception, he's still got to have been trained, and can carry real weapons. And he's a captain, so if he thinks someone is after him, he can have a hundred bodyguards."

"Yah. Not even Shisan could take him straight on. Well, she might be able to if she got the jump on him, but if she messed up at all she'd be dead. Maybe even if she did everything perfectly."

"So we need to get someone else to do it for us. If I told Porfiros everything, he might be able to do something, but there probably isn't any evidence."

"And if you told him everything, he'd have to chain you, too."

"I know." Millim sighed. "But whatever Lanchu wants you for, it isn't good. Even what the petty necromancers like Archa talked about would turn your hair white, and he's got to be well beyond that now. If I can save you from that... If I really thought it would help, I'd turn myself in now."

Miyun caught Millim's hand against her breast. How could she have thought about betraying Millim, even for an instant? But she hadn't, and that was what counted. "Let's save that for a very last resort." Silky hair slid against her neck as Millim nodded.

"Who else has power over him? His superiors in the army, but either they already know and that's why they enlisted him, or they think he's warm as sunshine and aren't going to listen to a couple of labor pool tarts who are probably just mad he didn't pay them afterwards. And if they do know, they probably can protect him from the guard anyway. If we can show he's a threat to the whole port, the Portmaster can overrule both the guard and the army, but we'd need evidence to make the Portmaster risk his seat."

Miyun remembered how she had fled while the Portmaster was making fairly polite advances, and winced. "Maybe I should have given him my luck. Then he might listen to us."

"If you could foretell the future, we wouldn't be in this mess." Millim kissed her cheek. "Anyway, I'm glad you only have eyes for me." Miyun blushed, and clapsed Millim's hand tighter to her breast, making her giggle. "And other things only for me!"

"I wonder if that's why he's after me. Not because he wants me, or wants girls at all, but because he can get to you through me, without having to do anything any other bastard couldn't do."

Millim was quiet for a while. "I thought of that. If Archa really was his brother -- and they do look a bit similar, although I never knew Archa had siblings -- he might blame me for, for what happened."

"If we pretended to break up, and you were crying all over and stuff, do you think he'd glim he'd hurt you enough, and leave us alone?"

"If he thinks I killed his brother? No. It might buy us some time while he thought of some other way to torment me, but then we wouldn't know what he was planning. Anyway, he probably wouldn't believe it unless you took up with someone else, and wouldn't feel like he'd done it himself unless it was him you..." She shuddered against Miyun.

"If we get to you turning yourself in, and that still doesn't get rid of him... Then I'll kill myself so that can't happen."

Tears soaked through the shoulder of her labor pool tunic. "I can't blame you."

Miyun turned and took Millim in her arms. "Don't cry, don't cry. We'll glim something."

"But what?" Millim was trying to keep her voice down, but it still came out as a wail.

Miyun had suspected it was going to come to this, but had wanted to try everything else first. "Who is over us all?"

"The gods?" Millim sniffled. "But they don't work directly in the world, and the priests would want evidence before they went messing with a soldier. Really, they'd probably just pass the case on to the guards."

"The regular priests, yah. Even the Inestimable probably would want more than our words. But when I was in cage, I met a little old woman who cares more for what's right than what's legal..."

* * *

Yarumin practically glowed as she bounced in. "Mi'! Millim!"

"You look like someone who had a good time," observed Miyun.

"A very good time," said Millim, and tapped the side of her neck. Miyun glanced at the corresponding spot on Yarumin and saw a smudge of red. Yarumin wiped it off without looking embarrassed in teh slightest.

"Yah! I was pretty nervous at first, but so was Kasis, so I figured it would be okay. We had really good food, and you--" she pointed to Millim "--are not going to tell me what was in it, and just talked about... all kinds of stuff. What it was like growing up as me, what it was like growing up as her, why men suck, where we want to go when we escape what we're in now... All kinds of stuff."

Miyun remembered nights sitting with Yarumin and Shisan and Martal, discussing those very things, and it hurt a bit to imagine her friends having those conversations with other people, but not as much as she'd thought it might. Mostly just nostalgia, and the memory of the memory of that stormy summer night on the old clock tower the Tree had evoked. Her eyes were a bit damp, but that was just left-over religion.

Yarumin babbled on happily. "After dinner -- the waiter said we made a cute couple! After dinner we just went out walking, looking at the shops and people and stars, and talking. She lent me a thousandth to throw in the fountain for luck."

"It looks like you did more than just talk!" said Millim. "Get to the good parts!"

Miyun shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, she's a nymphomaniac." They both stuck out their tongues at her.

"Well... we did find a bench out past the end of the shops, you know, Millim, where there's sort of a park and a dome so you can see the stars, and even Hoshadu if you lean over the railing?" She sighed blissfully. "She's a really good kisser. But we didn't do very much more than kiss; it didn't seem right when we'd just met, even if we were getting along. But neither of us had to say stop, we just... both knew what to do." She flopped over on her back, still beaming. "She has to work in the fane tomorrow night, but we're going out again the night after."

One of the girls listening from a nearby bed made a gagging face; apparently she'd been hoping for juicy details with real juice. Nosanis hit her in the face with a pillow, though, before she could do anything to puncture Yarumin's mood. "I think it sounds terribly romantic," she said, starry-eyed.

"Ready yourselves for bed," ordered Madame Kentrit. "Lights out in five degrees."

Four of those degrees later, Shisan and Mishki came in, holding hands. Mishki looked embarrassed and upset; Shishan just embarrassed.

"Couldn't get it up?" jibed the Hulyu-lander Shisan had beat on their first night in dormitory five, but Shisan whirled on her with blazing eyes and fists clenched, and she tumbled backwards off her bed with a resounding crack of skull on floor. Some of the other girls laughed, probably at the Hulyu-lander's clumsiness, but Mishki, obviously on the verge of tears, fled.

Shisan ran after him, but collided with Madame Kentrit in the doorway and fell on her rump. "You can console him after work tomorrow, young woman," the supervisor said sternly. Shisan obviously wanted to argue, but not even defense of her sweetheart gave her the will to outstare Kentrit. She slunk off to her bed as the firetubes dimmed to the faint orange glow of sleeptime.

Chapter 11

4th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

"Poor Mishki," said Millim. The four girls had taken the lunches they'd been issued -- more of the refectory's blandest and least identifiable -- and found a bench tucked away in a corner of the square they were cleaning to talk without the rest of the labor pool chipping in.

"He was just scared," Shisan said defensively. "I bet you weren't all that ready your first time!"

Millim put her hands up placatingly. "I'm not blaming him! Or you! In the life of wantonness I used to lead because I hadn't met Miyun, I had that happen with lots of men. The first few times I took it personally, but then I realized that just like they get hard at embarrassing and useless times, sometimes they get soft when they don't want to. It's just part of being male, I think."

Shisan settled back down, embarrassed. "Yah, that's what I glimmed. But he felt really bad about it, and then all those fems laughed at him..."

"I glim they weren't laughing at him," Miyun reassured her. "Just at Madris, 'cause she used to be tough and then you scared her right off her bed just by looking at her."

"Yah, but how am I going to get him to believe that? He'll probably never come near dorm five again!"

"Same way you tame any other skittish beast," said Yarumin. "Patience and kindness, and sometimes a whip."

Millim burst out laughing. "Sorry, sorry! Just imagining Shisan in those really high, pointy heels, with a whip!"

"Nah, that's one of the things I like about Mishki; he's not so tall that I end up talking to his belly button."

Miyun took a deep breath. "We have more important things to talk about than Shi's sex life, though."

Millim's smile vanished. "Yes, we do."

"That pig-felcher Lanchu? You haven't decided to wait for him to go away."

Miyun shook her head. "We're pretty sure he has a grudge against Millim that he's not going to drop until we put him down."

Yarumin frowned. "Will even that do it? He is a pig-felching necromancer."

"A necromancer's ghost is just like any other ghost," said Millim. "Meaner and smarter, but if you keep your protections in good order, he can't do anything except scare you. Even if your protections aren't very good, he's still very limited."

Yarumin gazed thoughtfully at Millim, and nodded. "How do we make him a ghost, then? We can't fight one soldier, never mind a whole company."

Miyun took a deep breath. Thinking about involving someone else in a band matter was one thing, but seriously proposing to the captain was definitely another. "You remember that old woman we met in cage? The one who went to the god's justice for doing something right even though it was illegal? I don't know if you heard, Ishin, but that Shadrite who bullied her and stole the extra food? Elestrol said 'Gluttony can't possibly be healthy?', and yesterday Yar' and I saw her passed out in an alley, three-quarters of the way to eating herself to death."

Ishin frowned, looking rather like Yarumin for a moment. "You think she really cursed her? Can you curse a necromancer?"

"I don't see why not."

"We don't even know if she's still alive," Yarumin pointed out. "If I understand how the god's justice works here, either you walk away clean or you become fertilizer; there aren't any poetic curses or anything. And just because Elestrol, or whatever her name really is, thought she was right and had some power doesn't mean the Tree didn't eat her."

Miyun opened her mouth, then closed it. Elestrol had seemed so unconcerned about the Portmaster's law and the Tree's justice that she hadn't considered the possibility at all. "But we can probably find out. Even if records of the god's justice aren't open to everyone, I bet either your new sweetie or Porfiros can find out. She was nice to us in cage, we know she went to the god's justice, we were wondering what happened to her. Nothing shady."

Yarumin scowled dangerously. "I'm not leading Kas' on just so you can have an in to the fane."

"I know! I know! I can ask her myself; we've been naked together, which should count as an introduction. I'll just need you to put in a good word for me."

"Yah, yah. Well, maybe the records are open. It would let people know what they can't get away with."

"Right. So after work, I'll go to the fane and see what I can find out. I might still be in favor. The rest of you, ask around the dorms? Probably Elestrol is either in a dorm, or hiding in some corner of the port where most people don't go, but the labor pool does."

"The labor pool does what?" Jurlilo growled. "Never mind, the only thing I want to see this labor pool doing is scrubbing off graffiti!"

* * *

"May I help you, freewoman?" The clerk behind the counter was young, male, shaven-headed, and engrossed in a broadsheet. The paper fluttered to the ground when he looked up and saw Miyun. "Oh, it's you! Freewoman Miyun! What do you need?" Miyun smiled with relief that he wasn't going to be difficult, and he became even more attentive. "If it's about the honorarium, you should already have received the note..."

"Honor-- what?"

"The payment? For being in the Procession?" Her eyes widened, and so did his. "No one told you?"

"I guess they glimmed I already knew. That's happened a lot."

"Oh. Anyway, since the maidens and the youths have to skip school or work or whatever for the training, the fane gives you a bit of money to make up for that. I think this year it's ten talents."

Miyun could feel her eyes trying to pop out of their sockets. "Ten talents!?" That was far more than she'd ever had at one time, possibly more money than she'd had in her life total. She knew that silver bought less in the port than it had in Hamvin, but that still seemed like a ridiculous amount of money. Until she compared it to their debt, anyway: that was only forty days of labor-pool wages.

The clerk blushed. "We don't want to make it too much, or it's like we're putting a price on virginity."

"I glim that makes sense." It didn't make any sense to her that he thought it was too little, but she thought she better stop fussing before they took it back.

"But if you didn't know about the honorarium, that's probably not why you came?"

"Oh no! I um wanted to look over the records of the Tree's justice? If those are available? An acquaintance of mine went to the justice, and I was hoping to find out what became of her." The fancy speech was trying to come back, but she stifled it. She'd already gaped and sputtered; trying to sound like a courtier now would just be affected.

The clerk regained some of his professionalism. "How long ago was this, freewoman?"

"About a week."

"Oh, I can tell you that; we haven't had anyone in about half a year except that batty old woman who keeps showing up and being acquitted." Belatedly, he corrected, "I meant eccentric!"

Miyun giggled. "Batty is about right. But she never fails the trial? How many times has she been tried?"

"Half a dozen times a year, about. I don't know why they even bother anymore; it's obvious she knows where sun is."

"That's good! Um, do you know where I could find her?"

"Sorry, no idea. We escort her to the front steps, and after that she's on her own. I can check, but I don't think she's ever given an address or a message code. Not a real one, anyway."

"She does make things up, sometimes. But could you check?" She only widened her eyes slightly, but he sprang to the task eagerly.

"Just wait here, please, freewoman." He disappeared into a back room.

She picked up the broadsheet and looked it over while the clerk bustled. It had a lot of words and not many pictures, but one of the pictures was of a naked couple embracing and kissing passionately. With a sinking feeling she looked closer and saw that it really was her and Calido on the steps in the temple. The article beside it used a lot of words that were much longer than they needed to be, but she puzzled out that it was speculating on whether she and Calido were sweethearts, with some snarky comments about how this time he was apparently waiting until after the Procession and sarcastic hopes that he wasn't straining himself by showing such restraint. On the other hand, it also praised her beauty and made a big deal of her being both bustier than Kasis and ahead of her in the Procession. She got the impression that the writer didn't think much of the Anjut clan.

"Freewoman? Agk!" The clerk grabbed for the broadsheet, but she stepped back. "Don't pay any attention to Lashkur Ginnet, she just hates the Anjuts because the maiden that seduced Calido was her niece!"

"Oh, that explains it. At least she says nice things about me." She handed the paper back. "Did you find anything?"

"Sorry, but all the residence information she gave is obviously false. Branches that don't exist, message codes with too many or too few letters, that sort of thing."

"I shouldn't have expected it to be that easy. Thank you anyway!" She smiled again and he blushed, but smiled back.

"Freewoman-- Miyun? Are you-- are you doing anything this evening? There's a new show opening tonight, and my cousin works at the theater so he can probably--"

"You're very nice," Miyun interrupted after she recovered from being asked to step out instead of to lie down, "but my actual sweetheart, not the one people imagine I have--" she gestured at the broadsheet "--is expecting me back."

"Oh well. I was pretty sure no one as beautiful as you would be available, but it doesn't seem to have hurt to try." He smiled weakly.

She blushed and retreated.

* * *

"She doesn't live in the dorms," Millim reported. "I just asked one person in each if they knew her, though, so there might still be someone who's seen her in the corridors."

"A lot of the people I talked to know who she is, but none of them know where she nests," said Yarumin. "It must be someplace pretty obscure, if labor pool haven't been there."

"I went to the guardhouse and talked to that one guard that's sweet on Miyun, but they just have her marked down as 'no permanent residence' and no message code," said Shisan.

Millim sighed. "I was afraid that this is what we'd find."

"That sounds like you have an idea," said Yarumin.

"She might be in the Fissures," Millim admitted. When no one seemed to know what she was talking about, she explained, "The sky tree has cracks in it, just like any tree or wood. They're miniscule compared to the tree, but a lot of them are big compared to people. Wider than this room, some of them."

"How big is the whole place?" Yarumin asked.

"They probably run throughout the whole trunk -- there aren't many in the branches -- but since this woman we're looking for shows up in the port a lot, she probably doesn't live very far down."

"That would be nice." Yarumin thought. "The tree is alive and growing, so wouldn't these fissures change?"

"Over years or centuries, sure. Not over days."

"Well, that's something. The only thing worse than a huge maze would be a huge, ever-changing maze. Without a native guide."

"Um. I've only ever been in far enough to say I did it." Millim's voice was apologetic, but her nails dug into Miyun's hand. The Fissures would be ideal for necromancers, it was true.

"Five gods in a bucket. Miyun, are you sure this won't blow over?"

"Pretty sure," she said in a small voice. This did sound bad, but she suspected that if she didn't go into the Fissures to find Elestrol now, she'd find herself there as Lanchu's toy. Permanently.

"Is there anyone we can trust who knows this place?"

Millim thought. "I don't know anyone who would."

"Would Calido?" Miyun asked. "The upper parts of the Fissures seem like the sort of place you'd go to meet someone whose parents hated you."

Millim hugged her. "He might! And even if he doesn't, he knows a lot of people, so he's likely to know someone who does! You're brilliant!"

"Of course she is; I taught her. Oof! Hey! No beating your captain with oof! pillows!"

* * *

"TO ANJUTSU CALIDO VIA ASSHIDO - PLEASE MEET ME AT FOUNTAIN ON BLVD 1 AT 120 DESC," she carefully lettered on the scrap of paper, then squinted at it doubtfully. It wasn't the neatest she'd ever seen, but at least it was legible, and there wasn't time to practice her handwriting. She double-checked the spelling of the name of the god of Calido's house against the book chained to the shrine, and it still looked right, so she folded the paper and fed it to the fire with a murmured prayer. It blazed up with a strange greenish flame and was gone.

"You done yet?" demanded a heavyset man with bizarre ridges across his brow and cheeks and showing through his undertunic.

"Sorry. Just waiting for a response."

"Anything that comes in gets put over there." He pointed at a stack of papers. "So move your pretty little ass."

Miyun slunk out of the way, resisting the urge to punch him, and sat by the message stack.

He scowled at her as he left. She glared back.

Not more than a degree after that, she noticed that one of the blank, folded papers set before Manakut's portrait bore her name in soot-black writing. She snatched it up and started to tear it open, but paused with one finger hooked behind the flap. "Uh, sorry, O Manakut. And thank you." The aura of the shrine was amused tolerance, so she finished opening the message. "Miyun - I come and go at your com, mand, O beauti--beauteous mistress," she sounded out. That was Calido, all right.

* * *

For lack of anything intermediate between her labor pool uniform and the beautiful ball outfit from the Portmaster's household, she wore the former, and worried about when someone would came to demand the latter back. For whatever reason, Calido was dressed equally informally, although his white tunic and heavy black hose fit much better. It didn't take much imagination to remember how he had looked in the Procession, and then how he had felt and tasted and smelt. Blushing, she folded her arms across her chest in what she hoped was a casual way; various comments over the past few days had made it clear that even halter and tunic together didn't disguise her body's excitement.

"Good evening, my lady." He bowed as he drew close, so she tried a curtsey. It didn't work nearly as well in trousers, unfortunately, but he seemed unoffended. "How may I serve you tonight?"

Miyun blushed even more. She hadn't even said anything and already this wasn't going right. Maybe she should just leg-sweep him so she could stop thinking about it! "I need your help," she mumbled. "Or, well, I need help that I glim you can give."

"All my strength, skill, and stamina are at your disposal!"

Bright red, she quashed the imagined sensations. "Please stop that! This is serious, and I need to think with my brain."

"Sorry." His posture changed subtly and his clothes no longer seemed quite as tight, or his eyes as merry. "Hope springs eternal, and all that."

"I'm not saying you shouldn't hope--" The sparkle returned to his eyes and she put her face in her hands. "Just not now, okay?"

"Okay. What can I do for you?"

"We need someone who knows the Fissures, and, well, your name came up."

"Because you figured I had to have somewhere to take Processional maidens to ravish them?"

"I wouldn't have made it an insult, but that's the right general idea."

"Hm. Well, as it happens, I know a few comfy nooks large enough for a body or three to wriggle around, but you've made it plain you aren't interested in that sort of thing. So what do you want in the Fissures?"

"Argh!" She grabbed his face, pulling it down to her level, and when his mouth opened in surprise, she kissed him hard. She pushed her tongue in eagerly, scraping it a little on his teeth and not minding. His mouth was just as soft, strong, and hot as it had been on before the temple pillar, and had just the same effect on her. With all her willpower, she broke off the kiss just as he started to respond; any longer and she wouldn't have been able to stop before the guard caged them for public lewdness. She looked at him from less than a hand's width, panting, fever-hot, and completely ready, as she could see he was. "Now will you stop saying that and listen to me?" she demanded?

"Uh." He wavered a little unsteadily and sat down on the rim of the fountain with a thump. "Okay. You don't think I'm repulsive. Right." His hands fell into his lap, but didn't quite hide how his hose strained to contain him.

She tried to avoid thinking about how uncomfortable that must be, and how he really should take his hose off, but not very successfully. More than a little dizzy herself, she plopped down beside him, carefully not so close that their hips touched. She could still feel the heat of his body, though, and suspected she would even if she sat on the other side of the fountain. "Right. Will you listen to me now?"

"I'll try, but if you want intelligent answers you may want to wait until I've had a cold bath."

She grabbed the wallet slung over his shoulder with one hand and shoved him over backwards into the fountain with the other. His startled yell was lost in the tremendous splash, much of which landed on her.

He surfaced sputtering. "I asked for that, didn't I? Thanks for saving my wallet, at least." Then he looked at her, sopping clothes clinging to the entire front of her body. "Maybe a bit counterproductive..."

She turned away and sat down again, arms folded over her chest. "Fissures."

"Right, the Fissures. Why?"

"We need to find someone, and she doesn't seem to be anywhere else."

"Who?"

"I don't know her real name. I've heard her called Gorji and Elestrol, but I glim those are both aliases. She's about up to the bottom of your ribs, wears about fifty layers of old clothes, goes to the Tree's justice about half a dozen times a year, and can curse someone to death for stealing her second helping of breakfast."

"Grandmother Ten Thousand."

She turned to look at him in surprise. "Is that what she's called?"

He nodded. "I don't think she's really ten thousand years old, but I was doing research for a historical essay and found her mentioned in broadsheets from four hundred years ago."

"Oh." Miyun couldn't imagine keeping broadsheets for four hundred days, let alone four hundred years. She guessed it must be on the principle that anything might come in handy, someday.

"And she doesn't curse people to death," he added after a bit. "She just gives them the chance to destroy themselves with their own sins. All the person you mentioned had to do was stop being a thief or a glutton."

"Oh," she said again, feeling pretty stupid. "What else do you know about her? Does she really live in the Fissures?"

"Not a lot. She might, I guess; I certainly don't know where she lives. If she does live anyplace in particular; she might just wander around trusting to people to feed her, sleeping in a different place every night."

The port was kept at a comfortable temperature, changing only slightly for day and night, winter and summer, but with her clothes soaked, Miyun was starting to shiver. So was Calido, but he handed the thin black doublet he pulled out of his wallet to her. "I'll be okay," she protested, embarrassed by his actual kindness. "You're a lot wetter than I am."

"You're wet enough, and it seems to embarrass you a lot more than it does me." Blushing, she put it on, and let him lead her by the hand to a nearby shop. The young woman at the door looked a little surprised at their condition, and more than a little admiring of Calido in his skin-tight, nearly transparent tunic, but showed them to a table readily enough and brought them mugs of steaming, spicy tea.

"I can't afford--"

"Don't worry about. It was my fault you got soaked; I really was asking for it. And if I let you catch cold, Millim will hunt me down and rip the soul from my body."

Miyun started at his phrasing; was he exaggerating, or did he mean it? "You make it sound like she's a necromancer!"

He shrugged. "She used to follow one around, back before she got all curvy and gorgeous. I have no idea if she's still connected."

Her face burned, but she had to ask. "Did you and Millim...?"

"Once. Like some maidens, she started making up for lost time right after the Procession, and she tried out a lot of men, including me. It was lots of fun, but no... emotional attachment, so we both moved on and didn't look back." He put his finger under her chin and tilted her face up so he could see it. "Does that bother you?"

Automatically she answered "No," but then thought about it. Calido, strong and dark, pinning Millim down, narrow hips pushing at where those beautiful splayed legs met, black hair falling down around their faces to mingle with chestnut on the pillow-- she quickly stopped thinking about that and tried to slow her breathing, but she could tell that he had seen her reaction on her face. "Bothered isn't the word," she admitted. "But what does that have to do with Grandmother Ten Thousand?"

"Exactly as much as your question." He sipped at his tea.

Well, mockery was the price of curiosity. She held the mug before her face, gazing at him through the steam, in hopes of being a little less transparent. "Yah, yah. Do you know how to get in touch with Grandmother Ten Thousand? Is there any way to summon her or send her a message or anything?"

"I don't know. I've never heard of anyone calling her up; she seems to just show up when she thinks she's needed."

"I was afraid of that. If she does live in the Fissures, do you have any idea where? Is there any place people don't go?"

"The Fissures go all the way down to the ground, probably into the roots. I doubt anyone's visited even one thousandth of them."

She sighed and took another drink. If nothing else, she was getting good tea out of this trip. "But there isn't anyplace close that has a bad reputation, or stories, or anything?"

"When people say monsters or necromancers or secret military shrines are hidden in the Fissures, they're never more specific than that. Sorry."

"It's not your fault. I was just hoping..." that this would be easy, or at least that she could skip straight to the exciting parts. "Oh well."

He finished his tea and set the mug aside, looking at her over his folded hands. "This is important to you, isn't it?"

She nodded.

"Important enough to risk the Tree's justice?"

She yelped as hot tea sloshed onto her hand. "What?!"

"I can tell you how to get into the fane's library. If anyone knows how to call up Grandmother Ten Thousand, it'll be written there. But no one except priests is allowed to open those books. It's sacrilege in the second degree."

She thought about that. Even if she got caught, even if she failed, it would probably be better than whatever Lanchu wanted her for. But then who would stand between him and Millim?

"I glim it's not that desperate. Yet. But thank you."

"What, for offering you a particularly complicated way to commit suicide?"

"But in a good cause!" She set down her tea and folded her hands around his. "And if that's what it turned out to be, I glim the Tree wouldn't be entirely happy with the person who told me how."

He shrugged. "Compared to seducing a Processional maiden, it's not much of a weight on my soul." But he looked away when he said it.

"Too bad. I appreciate your help, and there's nothing you can do about it. So there!"

"Okay, okay. I'm a great guy. Was there anything else you wanted?"

She thought about that for a bit. "Yes. To apologize again. You are a good guy, and I shouldn't have insulted you like I did."

He looked down at their hands. "You already apologized."

"And I'll keep doing it until you believe me."

"I believe you're sorry."

It was her turn to lift his gaze to meet hers. "I meant until you believe you didn't deserve it."

He threw off her hands and stalked out. At the door, he paused to fling a handful of coins at her, hard enough to make her flinch, and then he was gone.

As a matter of course, she gathered up the money and piled on the table before her. It was far more than the price of two mugs of tea, according to the sign above the counter, but still probably nothing to someone like Calido.

"Well," she said to her tea. "That could have gone better." Her reflection, trembling in the dark liquid, didn't disagree.

* * *

Millim winced and squeezed Miyun's hand when she reported how her meeting had gone. "That was two years ago. You'd think he'd have forgiven himself by now."

Miyun sighed and gathered Millim into her embrace, grateful for just the warmth of her body and the scent of her hair. "Probably not until he makes another mistake that big."

"No, then it'll just be proof that he is that horrible."

"Which is stupid, because the Tree obviously doesn't hold it against him!"

Millim shrugged, the curves of her body moving pleasantly against Miyun's. "Boys. What can you do?"

"Quite a lot, people tell me."

"Hah! You do still want him!"

Miyun, who had left minor details like the kiss out of her story, blushed. "He's still gorgeous, anyway. But seducing him won't get us closer to Grandmother Ten Thousand."

Nosanis bounced up and tapped her on the shoulder. "Miyun! There you are! You have some mail. It looks important!"

"Oh, probably the honorarium. Thanks, Nosanis." Not even ten talents free and clear made up for her failure with Calido, though.

* * *

Yarumin and Shisan were both in the front room as well, perched on the circle of hassocks with half a dozen other adolescents in labor pool uniforms. Shisan jumped up when she saw Miyun come in and ran over to her. "Mi'! I glim we have something! This boy--" she waved behind her "--says we're looking for Granny Thousands, and he knows a rhyme to call her!"

The thick, official-looking envelope fell to the floor. "He what?!"

An obsidian-skinned boy only a little older than Mishki, but already taller than Miyun and broad-shouldered, wandered up. "Well, I know, a rhyme about her. I don't know if it really calls her; I only tried it once and it wasn't with a very good sacrifice. Some guy my brother's girlfriend's sister bedded said it works, but..." He shrugged. "Anyway, I can say it for you, if you meet my price."

Miyun narrowed her eyes. "What's your price?"

He grinned. "Just a kiss! Don't look at me like that!"

Miyun grabbed him around the neck, making him squawk with surprise, dragged his face down, and gave him a quick peck, keeping her mouth chastely closed.

"That wasn't much of a kiss..."

"Half up front, the rest after. Now say it!"

"Okay, okay!" He took a deep breath, and recited,

Granny, Granny, of the thousands
Her endless way she always wends.

Granny, Granny, of the hundred
Ate the monster 'neath your bed.

Granny, Granny, of the scores
Saved the goddess from her chores.

Granny, Granny, of the dozen
Holds the door 'twixt now and then.

Granny, Granny, of the braces
Dealt a king and seven aces.

Granny, Granny, of the one
Take this now from the sun!

Granny, Granny, of the braces
We call your name in secret places.

Granny, Granny, of the dozen
Your ancient ear we hope to bend.

Granny, Granny, of the score
Keep our gift forever more.

Granny, Granny, of the hundred
Here's a pillow to rest your head.

Granny, Granny, of the thousands
Tell us how our story ends!

Behind him, Yarumin's lips moved silently as she recited the rhyme. When she stopped and her eyes focused, Miyun said hopefully, "Say it one more time?"

"Sure." He repeated it, and Yarumin whispered it along with him. She nodded.

"Thank you!" Miyun felt a little apprehensive, but if this was at all good, he'd earned his kiss. She tilted her face up to his and closed her eyes.

He had clearly heard a lot more about kissing than done it himself, but he was careful despite his obvious enthusiasm. His hands were gentle on her back, and she let him pull her to him, not flinching despite the way he pressed her chest to his and the hardness against her lower belly. His tongue emerged tentatively, retreated when she nibbled at the tip, then rubbed softly against her lips. She stroked it with her own, enjoying flesh slippery against sensitive flesh, and the warmth it produced in her.

When he broke off the kiss to adjust his angle of approach, she took the excuse to lean back. His eyes were closed too, and though his skin couldn't show a flush, his breath was coming quickly. "A kiss," she said, maybe a little teasingly.

His long lashes fluttered open and he smiled down at her. "I got a bargain."

* * *

Millim scowled, although not with real anger. "I suppose if it was only one kiss, I can't object. Much."

Miyun kissed her as pliantly as she had the boy with the rhyme -- whose name she had never gotten, she realized. Soon she'd be as much of a nymphomaniac as Millim! She giggled against her sweetheart's lips.

"Captain?" she said when Millim finally let her go. Yarumin recited the rhyme while Millim stared off into nothing, or at some structure that was only in her mind's eye.

"It's not very good poetry," Millim said dubiously when Yarumin finished.

"I know," said Shisan, "but didn't it seem like Granny Thousands would like honesty more than fancy words?"

"Maybe... Yarumin, say it again?" She listened carefully again. "We need three sacrifices it sounds like. Something 'from the sun', something soft, and something enduring."

"'From the sun' could mean a plant, or part of one," suggested Yarumin. "The other two seem pretty obvious, which probably means they aren't."

Miyun let her footlocker taste her finger for a moment, then opened it and lifted out the fruit the Tree had given her. "It's a plant, and it's mana, which is sort of enduring." She prodded it with a finger. "And it's getting kind of soft."

Millim bit her lip. "That meets the conditions, but if the fruit symbolizes your prosperity, I don't know if sacrificing it is a good idea."

Miyun shrugged. "I'd rather be alive and intact than rich. Anyway, I'm not giving up the flower."

"Good," said Millim, and kissed her.

Yarumin looked around the dormitory, which was mostly empty but would fill up again soon. "Then all we need is a secret place, but this isn't the place to talk about that."

"I know someplace," said Miyun. "I'll show you later."

* * *

Yarumin opened the fireglobe's case a crack, not enough for Miyun to see, but enough for Shisan to move some boxes in front of the door, piling them up at the sides to block any light from leaking through. "Okay," she whispered, "Close the light and let me check."

With the light shut, the storeroom was the darkest place Miyun had ever been in, or at least tied with the sewer she and Shisan had crawled through to infiltrate that merchant's counting-house. That had been only two months ago, or a bit less, but in another world. At least this one smelled better.

"All good," whispered Shisan, and Yarumin opened the light again so the four of them could make their way to the far corner where Miyun and Millim had sat and worried the night before.

Millim spread out a white tablecloth, pilfered from the laundry, for Miyun to set the fruit on. "I wish I knew what other symbols to use," she fretted. "Just a sacrifice and a rhyme doesn't seem very powerful. And how do we perform the sacrifice?"

Yarumin deposited some rolled tapestries beside the tablecloth, for chairs. "I don't think we do anything with the fruit. The rhyme is about gifts, and we hope to meet Granny Thousands in person, so we don't need to remove it from the world."

The dim light from below made Millim's dubious twist of mouth into a gargoyle's face. "I suppose. Well, shall we do it? Yarumin, you lead and we'll chant along with you." She sat down and pulled Miyun down beside her, clinging to her hand.

"Granny, Granny, of the thousands," began Yarumin, and the other three echoed her just a fraction behind.

When they finished reciting, nothing seemed to have changed. Millim raised an eyebrow at Yarumin, who shrugged and opened her mouth to begin again.

Three times through, and there was still no result. Three was only the first of the significant numbers, though, so they kept going.

Five was no better, nor seven, nor nine.

As they began the tenth recital, a fleck of dust lodged in Miyun's throat. She tried to ignore it and chant on, but the itch became unbearable. She made it as far as "We call your name in secret places," before she had to cough, but once she started she couldn't stop until her throat was raw and her eyes streaming. "I'm sorry," she choked out between the fits.

"Mi', are you all right?" She nodded, but Millim didn't seem convinced. "Let's get you some water and we can try again."

"I don't think we need to," said Yarumin. "If thrice three didn't do it, I'm not sure what will."

"Twelve, maybe?" said Shisan.

Millim helped Miyun to her feet. "I don't know. Twelve is an orderly number, and we're trying to call someone who cuts through the structures of society when they get in the way. I think the captain is right."

Shisan snorted, and Millim blushed. "Sorry, spending too much time with Miyun."

Miyun doubled over coughing. "I get the point!" she gasped, but that didn't help. Every hack wrenched her ribs painfully, and flecks of light and darkness swirled in her vision.

"We'll vote on the matter of your admission later," said Yarumin. "Let's get Miyun to some water."

* * *

The icy water did sooth her throat, although she coughed a few mouthfuls onto the refectory table before it started doing any good. Millim held her while Shisan mopped up. Finally, she leaned sideways against Millim, limp and breathless. "I glim that meant 'Shut up, I hear you already'!"

"You might be right," said Yarumin. "Anyway, we need to get some sleep so Jurlilo doesn't run us into the ground-- well, floor, tomorrow."

"Would you care to explain what you are doing wandering around the quarters in the dead of night?" Madame Kentrit didn't sound as though she would believe anything they said, so Miyun wasn't surprised when Millim piped up.

"We were having an orgy," she said brightly. "We just wanted to wash our mouths out before going back to the dormitory." The other three girls choked and stared.

"Ah, youth," said Madame Kentrit dryly. "Well, now that you're satisfied, I trust you'll be returning to your own beds forthwith?"

"Yes, Madame," they chorused.

Chapter 12

5th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

"Put some muscle into it!" Jurlilo swatted at Miyun's shoulder. "You get paid to work, not to breathe deeply!"

Miyun glared after him. "Doesn't he ever look at anything besides my tits?"

"Well, he is a man," said Shisan. "But somehow I don't feel that sorry for you." Miyun stuck out her tongue, and Shisan giggled. "Thanks, but I'm saving it for Mishki!"

"What, he's not scarred for life after the other night?"

"I just won't bring him near the dorm." She sighed. "He has a lot of schoolwork to do, though, so I don't know when I'll see him again."

Miyun shook her head. "Of us all, you're the one I least expected to fall for a boy. Experimenting, sure, but you sound like you really like him."

"I do. I know he's not anything like me, and he's just a kid, but I like him anyway."

"What do his parents--" She spotted Jurlilo coming back down the line and quickly turned her attention to the stained wall until he had passed. "What do his parents glim?"

"I don't know for sure, but I glim we made a pretty good impression at the Planting Eve party. Or at least everyone was too distracted by your chest to notice Yar' and I making idiots of ourselves!"

"Good morning, Miss Not-a-Crow! How have you been, dear?"

Shisan whirled around and her eyes bugged out. "Granny Thousands?"

The brown cap and mustard-colored scarf had been traded for a broad-brimmed hat with a pointed crown and the high collars of at least three overlapping coats, but the bright eyes between them were the same, and the speech and the strange way of moving. Miyun stepped forward and curtseyed. "Grandmother Ten Thousand. We weren't sure you had received our message."

"Oh, it's little Miss Sun-and-Moon! No need to stand on ceremony, dear; being caged together is just as good as a formal introduction with the trumpets and all."

"Um. But we didn't know who you were, then."

"It's not as though you do now, dear. You know what some people have said about me, but that's not the same thing at all, is it?"

"I guess not," Miyun admitted. "But now we know there's more to you than we see."

"And who isn't that true of, dear?"

"Hey! Didn't I just tell you to get back to work?"

"Leave off the growling, Master Oakstump, there's a good boy. I just need to borrow Miss Sun-and-Moon and Miss Not-a-Crow for a few degrees. The work will still be here when they come back, won't it? Now come along, dears," she continued without waiting for a response. "There's a nice cranny just over here. Or is it a nook? One or the other, I'm sure!" She led them away, leaving Jurlilo sputtering behind them. Miyun was sure he would take it out on them later, but now that she'd found Grandmother Ten Thousand, there would be a later.

* * *

Miyun eyed the splintery crack in the back of the narrow corridor. "I glim that's a cranny."

"What's the difference?" Shisan wanted to know.

"A nook is more... squared off. Has someplace to sit."

"In you go, Miss Sun-and-Moon!" Grandmother Ten Thousand pushed on Miyun's rump. "And mind your hands!"

Miyun stumbled forward, off-balance, but found relatively safe places to put her hands and then her hooves. "Hey! And could you stop calling me that?" Then she flinched; that was hardly the smartest way to address someone so powerful, even if she wasn't asking a favor. Had she already ruined her chances?

"Of course, Miss Fruit-and-Flower!" Miyun glanced back, and saw the eyes glittering even more brightly, although she still couldn't see anything of the face. She relaxed slightly. "Move along, dear, and make room for Miss Not-a-Crow!"

There wasn't anything like a path, and she couldn't even really say there were handholds, but somehow she managed to work her way in without picking up any splinters, despite Shisan blocking the light from the corridor. "How much further?"

"Just a little ways, dearie," Grandmother Ten Thousand replied from the mouth of the crevice. Miyun couldn't see anything ahead but more of the same, only narrow, but obediently kept on edging into the darkness.

The smooth spot she put her hand on turned out to be empty air. With a squawk, she overbalanced and, muscles tightened against the ragged barbs of wood, slammed chest-first into a smooth floor. "Ow! Five gods in a pig-felch--" Shisan sprawled on top of her, squashing her against the hard floor again. "OW!"

"Sorry, Mi'!" Shisan rolled off and up to her feet, and helped Miyun rise. "Maybe this is a nook after all."

Grandmother Ten Thousand did her strange not-quite-walking thing again, moving down the crack as smoothly as Lanchu had across the polished dance floor. "Make yourselves at home, dears!"

Miyun thought that any home of hers would be better lit, but shuffled farther into the nook. Twenty short paces in, she felt the close confines open out, although not too much, and her probing hoof encountered something light that slid a bit. Her hands confirmed that it was a chair, so she moved it to one side and sat down.

Faint orangish light grew from behind her; Grandmother Ten Thousand had produced a stub of candle from somewhere and lit it. The nook was only a little larger than her armspan, but had a chair, a bench, and a table piled with books. "Is this where you live?"

"Oh, no, dear! I'm just borrowing it. A borrowed nook for borrowed friends, doesn't that seem fitting?"

"I guess..." Miyun squeezed out of the way so Shisan and Grandmother Ten Thousand could get past. Grandmother Ten Thousand plopped down on the bench, and after a moment Shisan perched on the far end of it. The candle was stuck on the brim of Grandmother Ten Thousand's had, but Miyun could still see the gleam of her eyes.

"Now, what is it you called me for, dears? And such a loud call it was, too!"

"Um. Sorry."

"Oh, that's quite all right!" The ancient clothing rustled expectantly and settled again.

Miyun took a deep breath. "When we met before, you seemed like someone who... has a high regard for right and wrong. You try to do the right thing even when the guards and the Portmaster don't want you to."

"It's not their fault, the poor dears. Ninety-nine hundred and ninety-nine times, their method works perfectly well, so of course they think it should always work."

"But the ten thousandth time it doesn't."

"Grandmother Ten Thousand," breathed Shisan.

A withered hand emerged from an enormous sleeve and patted the girl's hand. "As you say, dearie."

"I glim this is one of those times."

* * *

Grandmother Ten Thousand rocked back and forth on the bench, producing a rhythmic creaking as she thought. "But you don't know that this Master Bonycrown is a necromancer, do you, dear?"

"I have the word of someone I trust that he once was, and..." Miyun recalled that moment of paralysis, and the taste of ashes, and shuddered violently. "He's bad. Horrible. I don't know if he's still a necromancer, exactly, but whatever he is, no one should be." She looked Grandmother Ten Thousand in the eye. "And if he isn't, why do you call him Bonycrown?"

One of the glitters vanished momentarily. "You're finally seeing something else in yourself, I hope! But be that as it may, dear, the question is this: Will you give up your life to be rid of him?"

Miyun opened her mouth to protest; she wanted to get rid of Lanchu so that she wouldn't have to give up her life! But then she thought of Millim shaking in her arms. Millim, Lanchu's true target. "Not to be rid of him," she said slowly. "But to protect Millim, yes."

"But you'd much rather stay alive to be with her, right?" Shisan asked worriedly.

"Yes! But if I don't get that choice..." She bowed her head, and with that motion a narrow lock of hair fell forward over her shoulder, a gleaming line in the candlelight, and she remembered. "But I glim I do. The tree showed me..." She couldn't describe the visions; they were too personal, even if nothing of her heart had been obvious in them. "Things I haven't done yet. I glim one of them was how I'm going to die, and it wasn't here. And Lanchu wasn't in it." Neither was Millim, nor anyone else, and she felt tears overflowing her eyes. Not for dying, because everyone had to do that, and not for the pain, because there weren't many pleasant ways to die, but for the loneliness. But if she could buy Millim another degree of life, or Yarumin or Shisan or even Calido, she'd pay.

The wrinkled hand grasped hers. "That's a terrible thing to have to know, dearie," Grandmother Ten Thousand said sympathetically. "But when they lead you to the gallows, it's a comfort to know you were born to be drowned."

Miyun wiped tears away with the edge of her hand. "So all we need to do is figure out how I escape the gallows; I can worry about avoiding boats later."

"Just so, dearie! Just so!" Grandmother Ten Thousand settled back and looked up expectantly at her. "How will you escape?"

"Um. I was hoping you might have some ideas."

* * *

"Well, what kills people?" Shisan didn't look up from the graffiti she was removing with some horrible alchemical solution; she knew better than to be obviously conspiring shortly before someone was due to drop dead. "Bleeding, broken neck or skull, busting them up inside, no water, no food, poison, soul busted up..."

"Too cold, too hot, disease, ..." Miyun added, working diligently on the next bench in line. "Heart failure, infection..."

Yarumin frowned. "Maybe this is the wrong angle. Think about what you can do, not what happens to him."

Miyun thought about that. "Like stabbing, shooting, poison, falling, crushing, drowning?"

Yarumin nodded, and Shisan put in, "Strangling, smothering, broken neck, fire, spirit hounds, poisoned food, poison gas, curses that do something we didn't already glim--"

"It doesn't help if we don't think of it!" Millim snapped. Jurlilo looked over at the four of them, but she had the sense to scowl at him instead of looking guilty, and he went off to harrass Nosanis for cleaning out the fountain the wrong way.

"Best of all is nothing at all, though," said Yarumin, slowly. "Don't yourself do anything to the mark himself."

Miyun's scalp tightened with her hair trying to stand on end, and she looked up at the diamond stars, only a pane of glass and endless emptiness away. "Oh. Oh, leaves."

* * *

Miyun managed to not yell, but whispered harshly, "He's horrible, not stupid! After what he did at the Ball -- what I did, anyway -- he's never going to believe I want to bed down with him! I might as well just write him saying 'Come stand on the big bullseye so I can murder you'!"

Millim hugged her close, pulling her half into her lap. "Now, yes, but I bet he'll keep after you. If he thinks he's getting somewhere, he won't do anything worse, and eventually he'll think he's won." She'd taken advantage of the dark of the storeroom to put her hands places that would get them catcalls if Shisan and Yarumin could see, but now they slid up to Miyun's shoulders, rubbing them reassuringly.

Miyun cringed at the thought of kissing that ash-tainted mouth again. Some things were easier to bear if you knew they were coming, but that wasn't one of them. She wasn't sure she could stand it again, even if it meant her life. But it wasn't just her life on the table. "I guess..."

"No, do that. Send him a note saying, 'Meet me here so I can kill you'." The three other girls stared at Yarumin. "Bedding's not the only thing those scenery bubbles are used for," she pointed out. "And I don't think he's scared you could beat him in a fair fight, no matter what you use."

"But would he glim I glim I can?" she asked dubiously. "I'd have to be an idiot to try to just beat the shit out of him."

"But he does think everyone else is stupid!" Millim said excitedly. "Or at least too, too narrow to do anything that isn't obvious! It could work!"

"And think about the chance he'd have if you fought him and he won. He probably can't risk a murder investigation, so it'd have to be bare hands or something close, and wouldn't he love to have you at his mercy?"

Miyun curled in on herself, huddling around the sudden knot of nausea in her belly. "Then if this doesn't work..."

"It'll work," said Yarumin. "We just need to put a new coat of paint on it."

Millim curled around Miyun. "It better. I can't let-- If it looks like he's not falling for it, I'm going to turn myself in before he can get his hands on Miyun." Her tears dripped warm down Miyun's neck.

"But--" But how could Miyun sacrifice herself for Millim, if Millim was sacrificing herself for Miyun?

"At worst I'll get penal servitude for life, but I'll be alive, and so will you." Millim was quiet for a moment. "I know you're stronger than I am, but if it was me... and Lanchu... won..." She shivered around Miyun. "I couldn't live with it."

Barely visible in the faint glow leaking from the fireglobe's case, Yarumin squirmed in her seat, the way she did when she was impatient with someone, and Miyun's teeth clenched. Yarumin hadn't tasted those ashes in her mouth; how could she understand what Miyun was facing? She started to say just that, but something stopped her -- trust in Yarumin's judgement, or realization that the only way this had even a chance of working was if they stuck together; hopefully not agreement that Millim was being overdramatic! But the physician had diagnosed her with a severe case of runaway imagination... How much evidence was there really for any of what they were supposing about Lanchu's intentions? Grandmother Ten Thousand had confirmed that Lanchu was a necromancer, or something just as bad, but she hadn't really said anything beyond that, just asked leading questions.

She realized that everyone else was waiting for her to say something. "Um. I don't know," she waffled. "Let's sleep on it and see if we have any better ideas tomorrow? If we're right about what Lanchu wants, his next step won't be anything drastic, and if we're wrong, this plan is junk anyway so it's better we find out right away."

"Yah, yah. But you two don't go off anywhere alone until we fix this. At least get me or Shi' or someone to stand guard outside the door, if you have to."

Miyun felt Millim's chin rub against her nape in a nod, and blushed at what Yarumin was implying. She couldn't say it was a bad idea, though. "Right."

Yarumin rose and stretched, an attenuated but unmistakably female silhouette against the fireglobe's orange light. "Bedtime, then. I hear Jurlilo's going to have us cleaning up warehouses tomorrow."

Shisan giggled as Miyun and Millim groaned in unison. "Soft!"

"I just prefer to save my strength for other things," Millim said with great dignity. Miyun blushed.

Chapter 13

6th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

Lanchu's next move wasn't drastic, but it was dramatic. Miyun stared at the pile of red, white, and black flowers spilling over the edges of the lobby desk. The corner of a golden box, engraved with more flowers, was barely visible beneath them. In the center of the mound, a gold foil envelope shimmered with iridescence in a frame of dark blossoms, with lettering so ornate she could barely recognize her name.

"And I glimmed Kasis was extravagant," she breathed. Even though the color scheme gave away who it was from, it was an amazing display.

"This is for you?" the woman behind the desk demanded, obviously startled to see Miyun's drab labor pool uniform next to such magnificence. Then she looked Miyun over more carefully, and scowled enviously. "I guess some people get all the luck," she sniffed, and turned away to some task she pretended was terribly important.

Miyun shrugged and started looking for something to use to carry the whole mess back to the dorm. Did flowers from a necromancer need water? Or blood? Or nothing at all?

"Fuck me blind and bowlegged." Elsuris, the lios with the lazy eye from dorm five, stared at the flowers as boggled as Miyun had. "Is that real gold under there? If you get shit like that from guys, what are you still doing here?"

"He's just trying to make someone else jealous," Miyun protested. "It's not like I want him or anything!"

"Oh, right, you're going to the storeroom with that necromancer groupie." Elsuris fell back before Miyun's sudden glare. "Well, she was! Maybe she was just young and stupid or something!"

Miyun couldn't say it wasn't true, but at least Millim had learned better. Probably. She sighed. "Probably, yah. Help me carry this?"

Between the two of them, they managed to load the flowers onto a dinner tray and cart them back to cover Miyun's bed and drop the jaws of the few girls loitering about the dorm. Elsuris went off about her about own business, leaving Miyun watching the flowers dubiously and weighing the box -- which did appear to be real gold, and not just foil or leaf, either -- and envelope in her hand. She didn't really expect the flowers to come to life and attack her, at least not before midnight, but she didn't want to open the note and gift at all. She was still standing there, indecisive, when Millim came in.

"What-- Oh. Well, he doesn't do things by half measures, does he?" She joined Miyun by the bed. "I wonder if these things need blood, and if so, if they find it on their own."

Miyun laughed, not entirely forced but not entirely sincere either. "I was just wondering that. Probably not; it would give entirely the wrong impression."

"And he's gone to such lengths to seem likeable."

Miyun had been thinking about that too. "I'm not sure he knows how I reacted when he kissed me at the ball. All he saw was that I ran off; maybe he glims I was just embarrassed, or upset because he didn't give me a choice, or something. If he knew I know what he is, I glim he wouldn't be doing this." She waved the box at the flowers; something inside it slid and clunked.

"Well, he still might, but then the flowers or the present or the card would have a curse."

"That's why I've been standing here not opening them."

"Five gods in a bucket! Your admirer doesn't do things halfway, does he?"

"Captain!"

"What's in the box?"

"I don't know! Maybe a disembodied hand that will leap out and strangle me?"

"Ewww!" said Millim.

"Not very romantic... Did he send it under his own name?"

Miyun saw where Yarumin was going, and blushed. "I forgot to ask."

"Well, I guess this is enough vegetation to turn any girl's head," Yarumin allowed. Miyun blushed even more, and batted at Millim's mock-jealous gasp. "I'll be right back."

She was as good as her word. "He did, and used a regular carrier company. So whatever's in there might be upsetting, but it won't be criminal." She paused. "Well, not a serious crime."

"You're so comforting," Miyun sighed. But actually, Yarumin was. And how horrible could Lanchu be, without actually touching her?

She opened the envelope and pulled out the card before she could think too much about that. It was written in the same overly-decorated hand as the envelope, so she had only deciphered the first line by the time Millim got impatient and started reading over her shoulder.

"'Most admirable lady, I fear that overcome as I was by your beauty, I may have behaved somewhat improperly at our last meeting. Please accept my most heartfelt apologies and permit me to make recompense. I shall arrive outside your residence when the sun has descended 115 degrees, or such other place and time as you command. Lanchu of no clan, summoned and bound by your beauty.' And a message code."

"Not bad," Yarumin said approvingly. "If we didn't know what we know, we might even believe it. What's in the box?"

Miyun sighed with relief. It looked like Lanchu was going to pursue her straightforwardly, so as long as she could resist trying to knife him over the wine, they'd have some time. Much less nervously, she pried open the box at a corner seam, and then almost dropped it when it unfolded completely. The inside was gold too, a bright frame for the folded pile of faintly shimmering dark red fabric.

"Leaves and twigs!" Millim brushed the cloth with one fingertip. "This is nice!"

Miyun set the present down on her footlocker and picked up the top piece: a dress that didn't look any longer than the ones Kasis wore, and had no more back than her own purple one; the front was held up by straps that would cross at the base of the throat and fasten at the back of the neck. Under the dress were hose, a very short jacket, several ribbons, and a hairclip like a velvet rose -- that must have been what clunked -- all in the same dark red with matching gold leaf-veins at the edges. "At least he doesn't want me to wear that purple dress."

"I like the purple!" protested Millim. "But this is almost as good."

"Are you going to wear it? Hard to challenge a man to a duel when you're wearing a fancy outfit he gave you."

Miyun laid the dress out on the footlocker's top, letting the smooth fabric slide over her fingers. It even felt shimmery; if not for who it came from, she'd already be trying it on. "Can we be ready for that in two days? If not, I'd better string him along until he gives me another excuse to pick a fight."

"I have some ideas, but I guess not."

Miyun looked over at Millim, who was staring at the dress, or at least towards it, shoulders tense with fear or jealousy. "Mi'? Do you mind? We can find some other way..."

Millim shook her head. "If I had a better plan, I'd have told you already. I don't like it, but it's what you have to do. Just..." She sighed. "Whatever happens, just come back to me?"

Miyun pulled her into her arms. "Always," she promised in a whisper, and kissed her.

* * *

"I hope these things don't come out at night hungering for blood," Shisan said. "I don't need the competition!" She put the last bundle of necromancer's roses into the last pitcher she'd stolen from the refectory. "There, just enough."

"We probably shouldn't make that joke," said Millim. "So far as anyone knows, Lanchu is just a rising young military officer with a taste for exotically beautiful young women and the means to indulge it."

"Sorry." Shisan stepped back to admire the effect of the tricolored flowers atop the chest-high sets of shelves that separated the last two beds on each side from the rest of the dormitory. "Maybe they only attack people who bother you in the night?" she suggested hopefully. "That would be pretty handy!"

"Hey!" Millim looked offended until Shisan, laughing, poked her in the ribs.

Miyun watched the horseplay without pleasure, even when Millim's tunic got rucked up to expose lacy cloth tight over round flesh. Neither of them had to go play not-quite-too-hard-to-get with a necromancer the night after tomorrow. Maybe being beautiful wasn't all she had thought.

Yarumin dropped down beside her on the bed. "Don't look like that; girls who get expensive presents from handsome young men are supposed to giggle and sigh, not scowl."

"Shi's doing enough giggling for both of us."

Yarumin raised an eyebrow at Shisan and Millim rolling around. "Oh, the earrings? Mishki has pretty good taste."

The simple hoops of metal just slightly darker than the pink of Shisan's hair did suit her, although only a couple of weeks ago she would have disdained them as something for an enemy to grab hold of in a brawl. "I guess."

Yarumin hugged her. "Don't worry, I'm working on it."

It was Miyun's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Those bubbles are made of adamantine."

"But the frames aren't. I said, don't worry! He's not even going to take you to one this time, since he's trying to be apologetic and not slimy. Just smile, breathe a lot, and look impressed by his stories. You know how to do it."

"He wasn't all that impressed by my breathing at the ball. He's not some empty-headed lech who just wants to bed me.

"But he's acting like one for now, and I don't think he's going to change unless he thinks it's not working."

"Or until he gets me alone somewhere."

"If he thinks he can steal you from Millim by acting the way he did in his letter, he will. She's the one he has a grudge against, remember."

"You seem awfully certain."

"He wants to hurt Millim, but if he does anything too bad to you, he'll be investigated for it, and he can't want that. I think he's angling to steal you from Millim in such an obnoxious way that she'll try to kill you herself."

She hadn't thought of it, but that did seem like something a necromancer would do. Was it something a former necromancer would fall for? Millim could be sadistic, but didn't seem to be jealous enough to kill someone for dumping her. Miyun shuddered at a horrible thought. What if Lanchu was planning to make her his disciple in necromancy? She wasn't sure what that would do to Millim, but wouldn't be surprised if it was enough to make her kill either Miyun or herself. Or both.

Miyun sighed. "I hope you're right, and he doesn't just want to... steal my luck."

Yarumin was quiet for a bit. "There's a way to avoid that, you know."

"I know." According to Millim, she might even enjoy it; Calido had certainly had lots of practice.

* * *

Millim stepped back to get the full effect. "Mi', you're gorgeous!"

Miyun twirled, arms out, feeling the jacket flare around her and the shimmering fabric of the skirt caress her upper thighs. Only a hand's length of her hair flew out, though; the rest was pinned up in a crown of beribboned braids like it had been at the ball. "I feel beautiful," she admitted. "Lanchu may be evil, but he has taste."

Millim's smile faded. "Just remember that first part."

The remembered taste of ashes so thick on her tongue she reflexively scraped it against her teeth to try to clear it, she shook her head. "I won't ever forget."

"Good. But don't let on you know it."

"I know, I know!" She wasn't really exasperated, though. It made her feel better to know someone was worrying about her, even as it frightened her that someone was depending on her. "I have to act like he's a little bit creepy, though, after the ball."

Millim nodded. "But... Never mind. You know what to do as well as I do, and you're the one who will be in the front rank." She pulled Miyun close and held her, cheek to cheek. "Just come back safe. To me."

"I will." Miyun hugged her tight. "I better go," she said, but couldn't bring herself to pull away from Millim's living warmth.

"Mi', it's time," Yarumin announced from the door, but she crossed the room to hug Miyun from behind, arms wrapped through the space beneath the two bosoms squashed together. "It'll be okay," she murmured. "Just keep him on the trail for five or six days."

Miyun nodded mutely, and with a sigh of resignation disentangled herself from her friends and left them behind.

In the hall, a boy of about Shisan's age nearly tripped over his own tongue at the sight of Miyun sashaying down the hallway. A couple of lios girls from one of the other dorms raised their eyebrows; questions were written on their faces, primarily, "How much are you making?" A Hulyu-lander man two or three times her age followed her at ideal viewing range for half a dozen corners, before finally veering into the cafeteria.

Miyun smiled politely at everyone she passed, but she wasn't thinking about them, or even really about herself. In her mind was something the old scout Adolo had told Shisan, about how the best fighters went into battle without a plan, without preconceptions to blind them to the enemy's maneuvers, but with their minds full of the raw materials of plans. She wasn't sure she believed him, but she was sure she couldn't predict Lanchu's actions, and so she tried consciously to suppress any imaginings of what might happen when she encountered Lanchu, or afterward.

Mind empty and open, or as much as she could make it, she stepped into the lobby and stopped dead.

Unlike the other two times she'd seen him, Lanchu was in civilian clothes: a tight but loose-sleeved jacket elaborately pierced over white linen, and leggings as tight as hose but more substantial, both the yellow-brown of fall leaves. The edges of the piercings in the jacket were sewn with copper, and bands of copper clung to his wrists above gloves of white leather and to his ankles above shoes that were little more than slippers. He still wore the peaked red cap, but its dark color went well with the rest of his outfit: just a leaf from a different tree, fallen with the rest. His long blue eyes were wide as she approached, and the stars in them shone brilliantly as he looked her over from braided hair to lacquered hooves.

"Exquisite as always, Freewoman," he breathed. "I hope you'll forgive me for not thinking of the lacquer myself."

Miyun was terribly conscious of his shape in the tight clothes, and the outlines of muscle revealed by the glimpses of linen, in a way that went right down to her groin. If she hadn't seen him before, she would have suspected his appearance was enhanced by a glamour, but he looked just the same as he always had, only less concealed by a uniform. Perhaps it was that his mana was far more muted than it had been before: just a thrill of danger, not an avalanche looming overhead.

"As you can see, I was able to improvise," she smiled. It was much too easy to smile at him; for a moment, she thought it might be easier not shaking him from the trail than not letting him reach the end, but then she remembered the taste of ashes.

"To excellent effect," he assured her, and offered his arm. She took it, wavering over whether to hold it to her and finally deciding not; let him think he was making progress when she did so later.

"Thank you, Captain. And may I say your own dress suits you well?" Fancy speech creeping in again, but that was probably for the best.

The corner of his mouth turned up. "As often as you please."

"Perhaps a bit later; I wouldn't want you to take it for granted."

His smiled widened slightly. "Ah, the time-honored technique of intermittent positive reinforcement. But I assure you, Freewoman, you need no such strategems to make any man your willing slave."

She blushed, and then felt embarrassed for it. Men had flattered her before, lots of men, and ones who weren't murderers and cannibals, so why was she getting all flushed over Lanchu? Maybe there was a glamour involved.

Outside, Lanchu raised his hand and a golem-palanquin came striding over on its six wooden legs and sank down before them. He drew aside the hangings of figured silk and handed her in; though she tried to perch on the edge of the seat, she sank deep into soft spicy-scented cushions. She was afraid he was going to snuggle up while she was trapped by the upholstery, but he sat decorously not touching her, though close enough she could feel his warmth. Shouldn't necromancers be cold?

She expected him to give instructions to the palanquin, but he only tapped on the frame that supported the coverings and it started off without a jar or sway. He must have instructed it ahead of time, but she didn't know whether that was for appearances, or so she wouldn't know where they were going. She could glimpse their route where the hangings parted at the corner of the palanquin, though, and so far they seemed to be heading toward the main part of the port, which suggested he wasn't taking her somewhere private to dispose of her.

The silence stretched, Lanchu apparently not feeling the need for conversation. Finally, to distract herself from thoughts of what could happen, what would probably happen, what she wanted to happen, she asked, "How does the palanquin walk so smoothly?" Not a very deep question, but she didn't think she wanted to know too much about Lanchu's inner thoughts.

He might have been in his own thoughts, but he certainly wasn't lost in them, because he answered immediately. "The six legs form two triangles, each with two legs on one side and one on the other, and one triangle supports the seat while the other moves a bit ahead and finds its footing, so the seat is always stable on a tripod."

"Oh." She tried to picture that in her head; she hadn't actually cared when she asked, but was kind of interesting. "That's clever."

"It's a very old idea; it's how six-legged insects walk. A great deal of mechanics is drawn from nature, it turns out. 'Studying in the college of the gods,' it was once called."

The idea appealed to her: not learning from the gods by waiting patiently for their revelations, but through sharp eyes and clever minds, as fast as those could pilfer the secrets left lying about by the gods in their careless superiority.

Lanchu smiled, very nearly for real. "I like the idea too. I've often thought that men are too dependent upon the guardianship of the gods; if they found some new entertainment and abandoned us to our devices, could we survive?"

She thought about that, and glanced upward, but the thin layer of adamantine between her and airless death was hidden by the silken draperies of the palanquin. "I don't know if we could, if the Tree stopped bothering to support us, but I'm sure someone would, at least for a while. But we need ship-gods to travel between worlds, so we'd be split up, and if one world is too small to keep going..."

"There is at least one other way to travel between stars, so it might not be as grim as you suggest."

"There is?" She'd never heard of any such thing, and couldn't imagine what it might be.

"On the far side of Cradle, by the Carbuncle Waste, there are people who travel in cities built into the skins of giant worms, dozens of leagues long, that move by devouring space before and excreting it behind. They may no longer be human, in the strictest sense, but they were once, and they have adapted and thrived without ship-gods. Perhaps with no gods at all."

She stared at his face, but no deceit was visible there. Of course, of all the people she'd met in her life, he seemed most likely to be able to lie undetectably, but he'd seemed serious in his distrust of dependence on the gods. He might have been deceived by someone else, but she was pretty sure he believed what he was telling her.

He smiled again. "It does sound like an old shipman's tale, doesn't it? But it's quite true. Not of great importance here, so far away, so not well-known, but true nonetheless." Struck by a sudden though, he twitched the palanquin-hangings aside to see where they were -- Miyun was relieved to recognize a dressmaker's shop that she and Millim had fantasized about while cleaning the walkway before it -- and rapped on the frame. "Next left," he directed the palanquin.

"Where are we going?" It had seemed rude to ask before, but apparently he'd changed his mind because of their conversation, so asking after his thoughts seemed reasonable. Not that the sort of people who travelled by palanquin and held army commissions were always reasonable.

"To get you some proof, so that you need not rely on my unsupported word." This was his real smile, and it made her heart pound, nearly as much as Millim's.

Blushing, she looked away. Her lowered eyes caught sight of how her hooves and Lanchu's shoes hung below the front curtain, and embarrassment prompted her to pull her legs up so that she wouldn't be visible, but a vision of where her hooves would be assumed to be if they weren't visible turned her even redder. She sat up straight, knees together and hands in her lap, and tried to not think about whether there was even room for that in the palanquin. Remember he's evil, she reminded herself.

"Freewoman? Are you all right?"

She told herself firmly that he was only feigning concern, or at most worried that his plan would fall through if something was wrong with her, and that damped most of the heat. "Yes, I'm fine," she answered with her best smile.

"I'm glad. Ah, but we've arrived!" He tapped twice on the palanquin's frame, bringing it to a halt. "If you would be so kind as to wait, I will return with the proof I promised you in just a moment."

She was immensely curious, but thought that time away from his allure would be more useful. She could hardly pull off her part of the plan if she couldn't think straight!

He hadn't moved, and she realized he was waiting for permission. From her. "Certainly!" she said quickly. He smiled again, and made his escape while she was still dazed.

With some effort, she got her body's responses under control again, although her nipples were still embarrassingly visible through the thin fabric of her dress. It was easier without him there, though, enough so that she became fairly certain he was using some sort of glamour. An expensive sort, judging by the results that quite a number of boys with street-vendor charms had failed to produce. Unfortunately, that didn't prove he was a necromancer: both the Portmaster and the guildsman she'd met at the ball were probably upstanding members of society, but she was sure that either of them would have happily used a lust charm on her if they'd had the means and opportunity.

Could a necromancer even use a lust charm? It seemed like his death aspect should ruin something so rooted in life, but she supposed that if a necromancer could successfully feign interest in a girl with a nice set of fertility symbols, he could probably fool a charm. He'd have to keep his true nature hidden most of the time anyway, or surely he'd be found out.

The curtains bellied out as though on a stiff breeze, and he flowed into the seat next to her, this time close enough that their thighs pressed together. She could feel hard muscle through the two thin layers of hosiery, but forced down the heat that tried to kindle in her skin and concentrated on the parcel he had in his lap.

"I tried to tell them they didn't need to wrap it, but apparently they have standards they must maintain." He shrugged and pressed on the complicated paper of flower where the corners of the wrapping met, and it fell away.

Miyun ignored his shoulders too. "Books?" The top one was decorated with pictures of planets, most blue and white but some more green, or brown, or all white, or rust-red. "The worlds of maink-- mankind, a brief sur...vee?" she sounded out, then winced at showing her stupidity. In front of an enemy and someone she wanted to bed, both; at least she was being efficient.

"Survey," he corrected matter-of-factly, and that lack of condescension stabbed through her carefully-maintained armor of hatred. If he wasn't evil, she might even be able to like him. "The part we want is in the back..." He flipped past pages of dense text interspersed with pictures of far worlds, giving her just a glimpse of a row of sky trees across an entire continent, a desert of rust with rivulets and pools of shiny black, a chasm that dwarfed the palaces and temples on its rim. "Here we are." The page he stopped on was completely filled by a picture of stars in darkness, with some sort of enlongated object floating in the middle. For a moment it was just a blob, then she sorted out the light and shadow and saw a rough cylinder, about the proportions of a finger, blazingly lit on one side and in almost impenetrable shadow on the other. Rows of tiny yellow lights showed on the dark side in clusters that matched the divisions marked by rings of smoother, scraped-looking crust around the thing. The near end was occupied by a huge hole, neither circular nor any other regular shape, but somehow symmetric nonetheless, lined with fine-grooved structures that showed pale against a darkness deeper than that behind the stars.

Red letters arched over the thing: "Without Worlds," she read.

He turned the page, to pictures of vaulted halls with ceilings corrugated like ribs and people bright with jewels and skin paint.

* * *

Millim grabbed Miyun as she passed through the lobby door and pulled her into a tight embrace. "Are you all right? Did he do anything to you?"

Miyun's body responded so enthusiastically to finally being touched that she could hardly breathe, and couldn't think at all. She pinned Millim against the wall, rubbing frantically against her, tongue plunging deep into her mouth and hands delving into her clothing. Millim stiffened with surprise, but only for a moment before melting into Miyun's arms and against her mouth, clutching her close.

Millim finally broke free, gasping, but the heaving of her bosom that rubbed the shimmery fabric of Miyun's dress against unbearably sensitive nipples ensured that the respite was only momentary. She put her hands on Miyun's shoulders to fend her off, but then questing fingers found wet folds and with a stifled cry she gave up resisting.

Miyun moaned into her lover's mouth as cold air brushed the suddenly-exposed wet skin of her thighs and between, and she clamped her legs together on Millim's hand. Rough fingers made her writhe not entirely with pleasure, but the idea of pulling away never occurred to her, and in moments the unbearable stimulus blossomed to fill her entire body, burning away her skin and shape in an overwhelming, all-consuming rush.

The universe of sensation slowly dwindled into a warm body wrapped around hers, an ache of sensitive flesh roughly handled between her legs, a hammering in her chest, and air rasping in her throat. She and Millim were sprawled on the carpeted floor of the lobby, entangled in each other and half-removed clothing, liberally coated with female juices from the waist down.

"Leaves and fruit! Mi', what got into you?"

Miyun tried to remember what thoughts were, so she could gather them to reply, but was interrupted by a glare of firelight and a surprised curse. She looked up into the wide eyes of a uniformed lios man carrying a fireglobe.

Fortunately Millim was still able to think, and in a dizzying whirl Miyun found herself divested of the pulled-down hose binding her legs, almost decently covered by her skirt, and dragged bodily away.

She didn't get her feet properly under her until they were in some back hall of high-stacked boxes and fading firetubes. "Mi', hold up!"

Millim reluctantly stopped, watching over Miyun's shoulder for approaching light. "What on the Tree has gotten into you?" she repeated.

Heart still racing and skin still heated, Miyun slumped against a pile of crates. "I've been sitting next to a lust charm all night," she explained, and then the image of the watchman's huge eyes staring down at her where she lay with her skirt up around her waist and her hose down around her knees appeared in her mind. With a groan, she slid down until her rear thumped on the floor and buried her face in her hands. "I glimmed it hadn't rotted my brain that much, though."

"Well, if you were still like that when I got hold of you, Lanchu didn't do anything to you?"

"He never even touched me. Except to help me in and out of the palanquin. But he had gloves."

"No skin contact at all, and he still made you rip my clothes off and scream at the top of your lungs in the lobby? That's quite a charm."

Miyun curled up even more, wishing she could stay in this deserted hallway forever. "It didn't feel that strong," she protested. "It made me horny and made me glim how good-looking he is, but I didn't have to do anything!"

She felt Millim sit down next to her and put an arm across her shoulders. "You must have remembered that he's evil."

"He didn't act evil. He was perfectly nice, except for the charm, and if I wasn't already suspicious, I would probably have glimmed I really wanted him."

"He wouldn't be so successful if he were obviously a necromancer."

Miyun nodded and huddled against Millim's side.

"What did you do? Anything helpful?"

"No, he acted perfectly nice. He bought me some books, and read one of them to me -- some of it, anyway -- and we had dinner sitting on the floor in a restaurant, and he read to me some more, and then a bug crawled into his ear and he said he had to go, so the palanquin brought me back, and..." And then she put on a show for the whole of the indigent quarters. She put her face back in her hands and tried to not sniffle. It was too late to do anything about it, including cry.

Millim tightened her grasp on Miyun's shoulders. "Don't worry about it, Mi'. A night watchman here has seen lots more. Not as high quality, though," she added, which made Miyun curl up again. "He read books to you? Like to a child?"

Miyun winced. A slut and an idiot.

"It's okay, Mi', I know you never got to go to school. What kind of books?"

"About other worlds, and the people there, and people who don't live on any world at all." Miyun suddenly sat up straight. "Shit! I dropped the books!" The thought of going back where the watchman might see her made her stomach twist, but she didn't want to lose the only books she'd ever owned. Even if they were gifts from a necromancer.

"It's all right, Mi'," Millim soothed her. "He'll just put them at the front desk and I'll go collect them later. Everyone knows I have no shame."

Miyun hugged her tight. "Thanks, Mi'. I'm... I'm glad I have you."

Millim kissed her on the mouth. "Speaking of having me..." she mumbled.

Miyun felt the flush spread from her face all the way down to her hooves, tightening and wetting things as it went. "I was distracted!"

Chapter 14

7th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

The sun followed them the length of the park, slowly traversing an arc that passed directly overhead no matter where they stood. It wasn't a particularly good sun, being sort of squarish and streaky, and the sky behind it was whitish, as with high haze, instead of the clear blue that would have completed the scene, but it was a pretty good imitation for something buried inside the branch of a giant tree a thousand leagues above the world.

The park itself was about as wide as the temple, and three or four times that long, but with a solid ceiling instead of that terrible fragile dome, it wasn't nearly as impressive. Miyun guessed it was more interesting to people born on the Tree, who might otherwise never have seen so much green stuff in one place outside of a dream; even she, who'd been sitting eating berries in a tree in a park on solid earth only a couple of weeks ago, found it a pleasant change from the sometimes pretty but always artifical surroundings of the port.

Millim, beaming, squeezed her hand. "I'm glad we got this assignment. I used to come here all the time, before..."

Before necromancy ruined her life, but Miyun didn't want to dwell on that at the moment. "It's pretty," she agreed. "I like the fountains." Nearby, water jetted white from the top of a small grassy hill and spiraled around as it fell back, like it was flowing around an invisible cone that covered the hill.

"Admire the scenery later, Sun-and-Moon." She was too used to him coming up behind people to jump, which seemed to disappoint him. "You want to get that bonus or not?"

"Stop calling me that." Then she flinched inwardly; of all the people she didn't want mad at her, her supervisor had to be at the top of the list. Jurlilo didn't respond to well to grovelling, though, she'd notice. "And stop worrying about the bonus."

He shrugged, but seemed a little embarrassed. "It's not right to call you by your personal name, and you don't have a clan. You rather be 'Hey you' or 'Whatserface'?"

Miyun hadn't expected Jurlilo to have any motivation for nicknaming her other than being a man, and certainly not courtesy! Feeling rather ashamed of herself, she offered, "Granny Thousands calls me Fruit-and-Flower."

"I can't say better. But with a name like that, you better be good at gardening."

Millim waved the two wire-stemmed flags that remained of the fifty they'd been given at the start of the morning. "Good enough?"

"More flags with Kirkut, at the big fountain." He jerked his head to indicate direction and went off to bother someone else.

"Now I feel bad about snapping at him," Miyun sighed. "But if he's going to give people nicknames, you'd glim he could pick something better."

"Maybe he heard Shisan call you that and thought you liked it, or at least didn't mind?"

"I guess. Should we head back?"

"We might as well; this thing is almost full." Millim lifted the canvas sack of fallen branches and dead leaves onto her shoulder with a grunt.

Something feathery and yellow-crested skittered across their path and under the roots of a tree, provoking an outburst of enraged squawks from whatever lived there. Moments later, the yellow-crested skitterer shot back out, almost between Miyun's hooves, and took refuge beneath the mossy bridge that crossed the fountain's moat.

Miyun laughed, and looked around more happily. The park wasn't so bad after all, even if it needed a real sky with weather. The whole tree might be alive, but it wasn't the sort of life a person could feel, not like this. "I'm surprised you came here, before. It doesn't seem like that sort of place that would appeal to-- Um. I guess Calido hasn't taught me to keep my hooves out of my mouth."

"Behind your ears, more like!" But Millim looked around and smiled a little sadly. "I suppose that's how you know I've reformed."

Miyun stopped and hugged her, somewhat awkward with all the sacks and flags and whatnot they were carrying but pulling her close. "I already knew."

Millim's free hand clasped the back of her neck, holding her in place for a prolonged kiss. "That's how I know I've reformed."

Miyun tried snuggle closer, but only ended up jabbing herself in the ribs with the flags. "Ow!" She disentangled herself. "No point in giving Jurlilo more of a reason to yell at us, I guess."

"I can wait if we really must," Millim admitted, and tried to shift her various burdens to be more easily carried. Miyun helped without really paying attention, until Millim poked her in the belly with a finger. "You look like you're having an idea."

"How much would being in someplace like this bother Lanchu?"

Millim looked around. "I don't know. It wouldn't weaken him, if that's what you mean, or at least not much. But it might interfere with his judgement; make him nervous, or just... hungry." She paused. "The plants or animals might show what he is, but if he's that powerful-- I don't think he is, though."

"But if he's that powerful, we've lost anyway?"

Millim nodded. "If he's that powerful, there's no chance the army doesn't know what he is, and they wouldn't be happy about losing their pet necromancer. Most likely, whatever he does will be hushed up, and the army will try to make sure no one except Lanchu can find out what we know."

"Why haven't they already killed you, then?"

"Either he's not that powerful, so they don't know what they're saluting, or they didn't want a suspicious cluster of deaths, and figured I was safe because I would have to incriminate myself to make any sort of case against him."

Miyun nodded slowly. "That makes sense. I hope it's the first thing, though, and not the last."

Millim's hands were full trying to keep the flags and rake from escaping, but she rubbed her shoulder and hip against Miyun's in place of a hug. "You're not the only one."

Together they lugged the heavy bag of garden waste up a flight of wooden stairs set into a ridge. Millim stopped dead as her head came level with the top, though, and Miyun's efforts to lift the bag knocked her over onto the stairs with a yelp. Miyun caught the bag before it slid too far or spilled too much, but only at the price of whacking her knee agonizingly on the edge of a step. "Ow! OW! Shit! Ow!" She rolled off onto the grass, clutching her injury, and then forgot all about it.

With her head craned backward to see up the slope, she saw him upside-down, but Lanchu was instantly recognizable. He was in his army uniform again, and had a black canvas satchel slung opposite his vacuum sword. Next to him was the little boy he had been escorting at the Portmaster's ball, now wearing a simple, brightly colored tunic and trousers, with only the white bandage across his eyes to distinguish him from any other child.

One corner of Lanchu's mouth turned up, and Miyun realized both what a ridiculous position she was in and what arching her back to see above and behind her was doing to the front of her tunic. Blushing, she whirled around to face Lanchu properly, slipped on the damp grass, overbalanced-- and he grabbed her hands before she could tumble backwards down the slope. "Careful, Freewoman. Even in this gravity, that would be a dangerous fall." It seemed like his mana should be pushing her over backwards, but the pressure was only in her imagination.

He was gloved again, of course -- she didn't think she'd ever seen his bare hands -- but the leather felt thin as tissue over his strong hands. Trying not to think about anything under any part of his clothing, she pulled herself upright again, not shifting him at all even when her full weight was hanging from his hands. "Um. Thank you, Captain." He was still holding her hands, and she didn't really mind. Did he still have the lust charm, or was she just that easily impressed by strength and speed and courtesy?

Millim, apparently having recovered on her own, came up beside her, pale but polite. "Captain Lanchu. I hardly expected to see you here." Miyun yanked her hands from his, though it was hardly as though Millim hadn't seen what had happened.

He smiled with both corners of his mouth. "It's not my favorite part of the port, but when duty calls, I can but answer."

"Lanchu!" the boy called imperiously. "Come back here!"

"I'm afraid I will be denied the pleasure of your company just now, Freewoman Miyun, but I do hope you haven't changed your mind about completing what we began the other night?"

"Not at all, Captain. Please write to me as soon as you know your schedule."

"Of course." He bowed, perfectly steady on the treacherous slope. "I shall be counting the degrees. Until then, Freewoman Miyun. Freewoman Hokashut." With that frightening speed, he was at the hilltop again, taking the boy's hand and turning away.

Millim collapsed on the grass, as though a force she had been leaning into had suddenly vanished. "Well, that answers that question."

"But not the one I really wish we were certain about. Lots of people don't like plants, I bet. Maybe he has allergies."

Millim eyed her sharply. "Grandmother Ten Thousand confirmed what he is. Don't forget that just because he's good at feigning beauty and kindness."

Miyun looked at the ground. Granny Thousands had almost said that Lanchu was a necromancer, and Millim had said it straight out. If she wasn't going to trust one, she shouldn't have called her, and if she didn't trust the other, why was she doing any of this? But nothing since that horrible kiss at the ball seemed like what a necromancer would do.

Millim took her hands. "Mi', if that lust-charm is getting to you, we can think of a better plan. I don't want to get hurt, that's why we're doing this, but I don't want you to get hurt even more. Not even by regrets."

"It'll be okay. When I have to choose between him and you, I'll know what to do. And if it's easy to act like I want him until then, that's good, right?"

"If you say so..." Millim still looked worried, but bent to gather up the gardening tools. "Let's get back to work, then, before Jurlilo shows up again."

Miyun nodded. "I wonder who that boy is, though. He was at the ball, too. Who uses an army captain for a babysitter?"

"Some oracle, probab--." Their eyes met. "Leaves and branches!"

Miyun's mind spun. If the boy was an oracle, and told Lanchu what the future might hold -- and who wouldn't ask, given the chance? -- then their plan was doomed. Any plan was, if Lanchu questioned the oracle between the time being made and being executed. In a dream, the heroines would have laid a plan with no way out, no matter what the enemy foresaw, but Miyun knew she wasn't that much smarter than Lanchu; probably even Yarumin wasn't. Lanchu had everything else on his side, so if they didn't even have surprise, he could block whatever they did easily. That was why he was going ahead so straightforwardly--

Miyun took a deep breath and emptied her mind, breaking the cycle of confusion. Panicking wasn't helping, couldn't help. There was still one thing they could do, even though it hurt them almost as much as it did him. It wasn't foolproof, but it was simple: shoot their arrow, and wait to see where it landed.

"Mana."

Miyun jumped, shocked out of her own thoughts. "What?"

Millim beamed. "Mana is power to change the world. Foresight can only tell you what will happen if no mana is involved."

Miyun let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "And with mana like that, Lanchu can't find out anything about his future! Thanks to the Tree!"

Millim looked at her oddly. "That too, I suppose."

"What?"

"What do you mean, 'What?', Miss One-in-a-Hundred-Survivor? Miss First-in-Line? Miss Fruit-and-Flower? Miss Drinks-Tea-with-Grandmother-Ten-Thousand?" Millim sounded exasperated, almost bitter.

"Oh."

* * *

"Really bad allergies can kill you, but obviously he doesn't mind plants that much," Yarumin said. "We could try grinding up some leaves and throwing them at him, but that wouldn't be worse than walking around in the park."

"You could put leaves in your breechclout to keep him out," suggested Shisan.

Miyun wrinkled her nose. "Scratchy. And if he's getting anywhere near my breechclout, I'm already in trouble."

Shisan grinned. "Then you better be ready, because I heard what that lust-charm of his did!"

"Hey!" Miyun swung at her with a pillow, but Shisan rolled backwards off the bed and stood up well out of range, still grinning.

"Keep practicing! Maybe when I get back from Mishki's, I'll be tired enough that will actually work!"

"Oh, sure, gloat about you have a boy who still has a pulse," Miyun muttered. She didn't think she meant it, but must have sounded like she did, because Shishan knelt down before her and put her arms around her.

"It'll be okay, Mi'. Even if whatever Millim ran off to do doesn't work, we'll think of something that does. We always do."

Miyun sighed. "I know. I just wish I knew what it was going to be." Shisan hugged her again, and she squeezed the smaller girl back. "We'll keep thinking about it. You go, or Mishki will glim you don't like him anymore."

"Okay." Shisan kissed her gently and departed.

Miyun flopped backward on the bed, arms outstretched. "There's got to be something we're missing. I hope there's something we're missing."

"Yah, yah. It's probably something really obvious, too." Yarumin wrapped her arms around her knees. "But we're sort of facing him on his home ground."

Miyun stared up at the firetubes. It did seem like a necromancer would have the advantage in matters of death, but an army captain definitely had the advantage in anything involving the chains or any other authority. He might have weaknesses in other areas, but that didn't help get rid of him. Being in the army gave him obligations as well as privileges, but she didn't have any way to invoke those. She didn't think going to Lanchu's superior and offering to bed him if he stationed Lanchu someplace far away would help, although it would be a good deal so far as she was concerned. She needed to give her virginity to someone other than Lanchu anyway.

Nosanis bounced up. "Yarumin! Your sweetheart's here!"

The bed shook as Yarumin sprang to her feet. "Kasis? Where?"

Nosanis giggled. "What would you do if I didn't tell you?"

"Pin you down and have Miyun run rosethorns over the soles of your feet."

"Yeep!" Nosanis scrambled backward, blue eyes wide. "She's in the lobby! The lobby!" There was an almost perceptible woosh as Yarumin sprinted away.

Nosanis plopped down beside Miyun and squirmed around until her rump was nestled into the curve of Miyun's waist. "You think she's happy to see her?"

Miyun laughed and draped her hand across Nosanis's lap. "Maybe just a little."

Nosanis scowled down at her. "Hey! Watch the hands! Just because your girlfriend isn't here...! Where is she, anyway? I almost never see you two apart." One hand went theatrically to her mouth. "You didn't have a fight, did you?"

"No, no, she just had something she wanted to do."

"Without you? Maybe she's getting you a present!"

"That would be nice." Miyun closed her eyes again and tried to not worry.

Nosanis picked up Miyun's hand and hugged it to her barely-padded chest. "I'll leave you alone. Try to get some sleep. You don't look as good as usual."

"Mm-hm." Nosanis went away, and Miyun lay there, mind drifting but never straying very far from the vortex of her problems.

Lanchu was creepy, but except for Millim's word and that one kiss, there wasn't any evidence that he was a necromancer. Well, and Granny Thousands' hint, but it was clear that she didn't think the way mortals did, so what seemed to Miyun to mean one thing might have been meant as something else entirely. But she'd already decided to trust Millim, so these doubts must just be the lust spell getting to her. She thought about that ashen mouth going where Millim's had been, and shuddered. That was worth killing to avoid! If he didn't force it, though, could she justify killing him? Trusting her life to Millim's judgement was different than trusting someone else's, even someone she didn't like much.

"AAAAUUGHH!" She rolled over and buried her face in the covers, ignoring the startled looks of the other girls in the dorm. This wasn't getting her anywhere, and wouldn't even if she had a way to kill Lanchu, which she didn't. She wasn't convinced Yarumin did either, even though she tried to sound like she did. Shouldn't Millim know how to kill necromancers? But they probably didn't teach their disciples that, at least not until they had the same weaknesses.

The bed was hard enough that she had to roll over after a moment to take the pressure off her breasts. Getting attention was nice, but sometimes she wouldn't mind being built like Shisan, or at least like Yarumin. Would Lanchu being trying to get at Millim this way if Millim didn't have such a top-heavy girlfriend? If he was really plotting against Millim and not just trying to find someplace to stick it in. But necromancers probably didn't like that sort of thing, so it was back to the original question.

She opened her eyes in amazement at her own cleverness. If they knew something that hurt necromancers but not normal people, the two problems were really only one! Still not one she could solve, but one was better than two.

Someone must know what hurt necromancers; the chains, maybe? But they wouldn't go around telling people about necromancy, and if she asked, they'd want to know why. Porfiros seemed to like her, but she couldn't ask without him figuring out what was going on.

Did she know anything about necromancers? Salt broke their spells like anyone else's, at least temporarily. She didn't know if it hurt them; Lanchu had avoided the salt-crisped pork when they had dinner together, but she had only had a bite or two herself, so maybe he just didn't like it. The rest of the food hadn't been completely salt-free, anyway. Iron probably hurt them as much as anyone else too, even if she knew where to get some.

If a park would make him grouchy, being surrounded by life probably wasn't good for him, but she didn't see how she could get enough life near him to really hurt him. Some things had more life energy, like babies or sprouting seeds, but even that probably wouldn't do it. To have even a chance would take some super-concentrated source of life and growth--

Very slowly she sat up and looked at her footlocker. Was it that simple?

Elsuris knelt down by the bed. "Miyun? Are you okay? You've been acting fucked-up all night."

Miyun turned to her with a grin that stretched her cheeks. "I'm not just okay, I'm a genius! Do you know how to cook?"

* * *

"Five gods in Yarumin's tin-plated bucket! What are you doing?"

Miyun whirled from the stove and threw her arms around Millim. "Making concentrated fruit of the Tree!" Then she saw the tall form behind Millim and clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oops!"

"Okay, but why?" asked Calido, fanning the air in front of his face.

"It's a secret," Miyun told him happily, and went back to stirring the thickening purple glop. The chunks were slowly dissolving, just like Elsuris had said they would.

"Mi', are you drunk?"

She had to think about that, but finally concluded, "No, just clever!" Shaking her head made her dizzy, though, so she leaned on Millim.

"You've been breathing this stuff all night? No wonder you're dizzy." Calido lifter her by the elbows and deposited her on the other side of the doorway. "Get some fresh air, so I don't feel like I'm taking advantage of you."

"I like how it smells," she protested, but he obdurately blocked the doorway. Then what he'd said got through, and she blinked. "Taking advantage of me? Mi', you did bring me a present!" She beamed at Millim under Calido's arm.

Millim blushed. "You were acting like that lust charm was getting to you, and we're already in enough trouble without facing the luck of a Processional Maiden, and I know you like..." She trailed off because Miyun wasn't listening.

Miyun grabbed Calido by the neck and drew his face down for a kiss. His mouth was just as soft as before, but much gentler, and stayed closed to her tongue. A little hurt at his lack of response, she pressed herself against him, and felt him respond, but then he pulled away. "I said, I don't want to take advantage of you. Sober up, and when I'm convinced you know what you're getting into, we can try that kiss again."

"But I have to keep stirring the pot!"

"You don't have to do it personally, you know." Millim took a breath and ducked into the kitchen long enough to get something metal and many-bladed from of a drawer and drop it into the pot. "There, that should do it. Now come over here." She took Miyun firmly by the arm and dragged her over to the far side of the refectory. "Sit down and take deep breaths."

Miyun did as she was told, breathing with her chest because of the way it made Calido fidget and clasp his hands behind his back.

Millim rolled her eyes. "Maybe I should have just locked the two of you in there with the fumes."

Calido scowled. "Which part of 'only if she really wants to' wasn't clear?" Then he jumped as Miyun slid down the bench to nestle against his side. "Hey! Keep breathing!"

Miyun ignored his half-hearted attempts to fend her off and snuggled closer. He was warm and strong, and smelled faintly of cinnamon and sweat. Finally he gave up and put his arm around her, letting her rest her head on his chest while Millim leaned against her other side.

It took a while, but the fresher air in the refectory did clear her head, at least enough for her to realize how fuzzy her thinking had been before. Throwing herself at Calido was embarrassing, but not having realized what the vapors from the boiling fruit were doing to her was much worse. "Um. Sorry," she said without opening her eyes.

"It's okay," Calido said. "That's pretty powerful stuff. Whoever you use it on isn't going to know what hit him."

Miyun and Millim exchanged a glance and a smirk. "That's the idea," they didn't have to say.

"But if you have someone to use that on," he continued, "what do you need with me?"

"Um," said Miyun.

"Er," said Millim. "It's complicated."

He sat up, pushing Miyun away. "But your plan needs a convenient hard cock, so you thought of me."

"I thought of you because I know you and Miyun like each other," Millim retorted. "If all we needed was a man with a working heart, I'd only have to walk out into the hallway and ask the first male I met if he wanted to sleep with the gorgeous girl from the Procession!"

"Or," said Miyun, "you could have trusted me to keep my legs together when it comes to it. You didn't even ask me!"

"You know as well as I do how that lust charm affected you! Everyone in indigent housing knows!"

"I lasted until I got back to you, didn't I?"

"The first time you were exposed. What if he takes off his gloves next time?"

Miyun opened her mouth, but closed it again with the protest unsaid. Millim was right. She was right about what would happen if she gave her virginity to Lanchu too, but more importantly, if Miyun deceived herself, how could she hope to win? "You should have asked," she muttered.

"Would someone care to explain what's going, or should I leave? There may not be any other girl as good-looking on the Tree, but there are some who are close, and they're a whole lot less annoying."

Miyun looked at Millim. She wanted to bed Calido, she felt guilty for having mistreated him, and she might even like him, but none of those was a good reason to let him close to what wasn't even her own dark secret. Millim looked back worriedly, but Miyun just shrugged.

Calido stood up. "Goodbye, then."

Miyun leapt up and caught his arm. "I'm sorry, Calido! It's not mine to tell!"

Millim sighed. "Will you swear to not tell anyone else what we're about to tell you?"

He wavered. Miyun weighed self-respect against the potential for rape, murder, and life imprisonment. Eyes big and serious, she looked up to him. "Please?"

"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"

* * *

"What in the name of the Tree do you think you're doing?" snapped Madame Kentrit.

Before Miyun could do more than feel frustration at how difficult it was to do anything without people wanted to know what was going on, Calido interposed himself smoothly. "We're condensing the essence of the fruit Miyun got when we were in the Procession. Fruit, even fruit of the tree, goes bad, but properly bottled it can last forever, or next best thing." The smile he showed Madame Kentrit wasn't the one he'd used on Miyun when they met, but it was nearly as bright. "It's something I learned from my cousin who works in the fane."

Madame Kentrit was still frowning, but she at least paused to consider the situation. "I see. How much longer do you expect this to take?"

Miyun risked a peek into the pot from which the intoxicating vapors rose. She was instantly light-headed and felt a little feverish, but could tell that the churning goop was maybe a third down from its original level. "Fifty or sixty more degrees?" she guessed.

Calido turned back to the supervisor, all apology. "I'm sorry, it's not going as fast as we thought it would. If Miyun and Millim have to turn in, I could stay here and watch it? It shouldn't be left unattended."

"While that might be best for Freewoman Hokashut and Freewoman Miyun, who are both expected to fulfill their duties in the labor pool tomorrow, these facilities are for the use of residents, not of any young man who happens to wander in. No matter how charming and plausible," she added dryly.

"I'll stay with him," said Miyun. "It's my fruit, so if anyone should miss out on sleep, it's me."

"Very well, but do try to avoid making me regret my generosity. Back to your domitory, Freewoman Hokashut." Millim kissed Miyun quickly and scampered out, but Madame Kentrit paused in the doorway. "And do clean up after yourselves. If this kitchen is not suitable for the cooks to prepare breakfast in tomorrow, you will spend the next month cleaning it daily, in addition to your other duties."

"We will," Miyun promised fervently.

"Thank you," added Calido, to Kentrit's back.

Miyun's shoulders slumped when she heard the door at the end of the corridor thump closed. "I can't believe that worked! You're amazing!"

He regarded his fingernails modestly. "I know." He caught her hand when she raised it to bop him, and grinned. "Actually, it's the shirt. Special mesmeric patterns."

She eyed the black-and-white spirals visible where his doublet gapped. The pattern obscured the lineaments of his body, but not completely, and the vapors from the fruit were still heating her skin. "What are your orders, Great Master?" she said in a monotone.

His eyebrows went up, but he bit back whatever he was going to say. "Come sit over here and talk to me," he said instead, and perched on the edge of a counter.

"Okay!" She jumped up on the counter to sit crosslegged. "What do you want to talk about?"

He waved his hand airily. "Oh, anything. Tell me about yourself. I know you're new here, but how did you get here?"

Should she tell him? They were already paying the penalty for it, so it wasn't like she would be incriminating anyone. "We stowed away on a cargo barge coming from Hamvin-town."

He raised his eyebrows again. "So those are actually air reserves?"

She blushed and folded her arms across her chest. "We had airmasks! We're not stupid!"

"Obviously not, since you're alive. They told you how many people aren't smart enough?"

She nodded. "I guess people from the ground don't usually worry about air."

"Or the cold."

"We were lucky there. I glim our clothes wouldn't have been warm enough -- we didn't have much -- but we picked a barge with a pile of fish-silk to hide under. That's why we're in here, mostly; paying for the silk we messed up." The impossibly dense scent of the reducing fruit made it much too easy to remember how they had ruined the silk, and she squirmed on her seat.

"'Messed up.'" From his expression, he knew exactly what she meant.

"It's a long trip! There wasn't anything better to do! We were cold!" She put her face in her hands so she wouldn't have to see his smirk.

"The inspectors must have had a laugh about that one."

"Probably. But the counting-man was lios, so we got to watch him turn purple."

Calido burst out laughing. "I bet!"

Miyun giggled too, remembering the way the veins had throbbed in the counting-man's temples. "It's a good thing Guardsman Porfiros is honest, though. The counting-man wanted us flogged or thrown into space or something. I'm surprised he didn't have a stroke!"

Calido got his laughter under control. "I'm glad, too. Although it's too bad you ended up in the labor pool."

"I don't mind it. The work's boring, but it's not too hard, and we're guaranteed to get fed and have a real bed to sleep in no matter how it goes. No one's trying to drag us off to a harem, and people don't look away when they pass us on the street. In the corridor."

"Hamvin-town doesn't have indigent housing?"

"Only for the labor pool, and Censor Kirabu would have had us on 'special assignment' faster than you can say 'flat on your back and spread'."

Calido didn't respond, so after a moment she lifted her face and found him gazing at her, eyes huge and violet as dusk in the dim light of the kitchen. "I can't fault his taste," he said softly.

Pulse beating in her ears, Miyun leaned forward and kissed him. He responded immediately, not as rough as in the temple, but not at all tentative. His mouth tasted of spice and mint, and the fruit of the Tree.

His arms went around her waist and pulled her into his lap, somewhat awkwardly but at least it was the side of her thigh squashed against the hard bulge at his groin, not her knee. She clutched his neck to stabilize herself while she wriggled into a more comfortable position, but only succeeded in overbalancing him so that they tumbled to the floor with a thump. By chance or intent, he took most of the impact, but was able to keep his head from striking the hard floor. Miyun raised her face from his neck to look into his eyes. "So you finally admit I'm willing?"

His fingers tangled in her hair and pulled her face down for another kiss. She straddled his belly, bent double so their mouths could meet within the fall of her hair, and rucked his shirt up, not sparing the fingernails. He writhed gratifyingly beneath her.

There was too much of her body that wasn't touching him. She flattened to him, sliding her hips back until she could feel the hard protrusion at the crotch of his trousers against the inside of her thigh. Her breasts squashed against his hard chest, and the smooth fabric of her halter seemed unpleasantly coarse where it pressed against her nipples. Getting rid of it would mean parting from him, though, and at the moment she wanted nothing less.

He moved his hands to her shoulders, pushing her down the length of his body but bending his neck to keep from breaking the kiss, until that protrusion pressed over where it wanted to go, layers of cloth keeping it from intruding but not from rubbing just there, where she wanted it. The pleasure and urgency was just as great as from any girl's fingers, and she moaned into his mouth.

His hands continued down her back, smoothing her to him, until they slid under the waistband of her trousers and breechclout. She shuddered at the cool air on her heated skin, but the hands that cupped her buttocks were warm and just strong enough. She pushed up against them, her tail lashing even more energetically, but he pulled her back down as he thrust, grinding against her until she gasped out and dug her fingers into his chest.

The pressure slackened, but only briefly, and then he had found a rhythm that drew a gasp from her with each stroke. Already heated almost beyond bearing, she took only a few moments more to reach climax. Somehow she managed to keep her mouth fastened on his while the waves of pleasure forced ecstatic cries from her.

Her orgasm hadn't yet faded when he groaned and clutched her with desperate strength. Even through the multiple layers of cloth, she could feel the twitching of his erection, and moments later that already-damp cloth was soaked with another sort of warm fluid.

Still dizzy, and gasping like she'd almost been drowned, she nuzzled his cheek. "I guess men are good for something after all," she panted.

He laughed, breathless too. "You flatter me. But if you want to make sure no one steals your luck, that won't do it."

The reference to Lanchu sobered her up enough to worry about that next step again. It wasn't as frightening now, though; arbitrary rules of magic aside, she and Calido were lovers now, and doing something new and different with a lover was a lot less scary than with someone she'd only kissed a few times. "Well, at least I won't be too dry," she said after a moment. "And... Even if it hurts..." She couldn't think of a way to say that didn't sound sappy, so she stopped trying. "I've got something nice to remember from tonight, now."

He kissed her hair. "I'm glad. I mean, it's not very romantic to assume that it won't be even more wonderful that what we just did, but practically speaking..."

She nodded and kissed the side of his neck. "I know. But... the first time I did it with a girl, it wasn't like that. It didn't hurt, but it felt weird. But I still wanted it -- I guess like when you're hungry, you don't care so much about the taste -- and pretty soon we figured out how to enjoy it."

"Yah. I don't know for sure, but I think you'll have an easier time than someone who's never learned to enjoy any kind of sex."

"I hope so!" She squirmed uncomfortably at the wetness soaking between them. "But I'm also going to enjoy getting out of these trousers. Bleah."

He laughed and rolled onto his side, depositing her on the floor. "Sorry. But I don't think it's entirely my fault."

"I didn't say it was!" She wriggled out of her trousers and breechclout, shivering at the sudden chill on damp skin. "Is there anything here that would get these clean? I guess dry is more important, since we can rinse stuff out in the basin." She looked around at the kitchen equipment, but most of it she didn't recognize, or at least didn't know how to use.

He shucked out of his own lower garments and stood up. His shirt only came down his waist, leaving his male parts bare. It wasn't anything she hadn't seen many times before, but it looked a lot different half-erect and shiny with moisture. Even when he'd been rock-hard, after kissing her in the temple, she'd only known intellectually what it was for, but now that it looked and smelled like sex, the whole idea was a lot more real. Scarier, but also more interesting. Something she could really imagine doing.

"Um, Miyun?" She jumped and looked up at his face. If he'd been smirking, she would have been embarrassed, but he was blushing. He repeated, "If we put them in the warmer and leave it open, they should be dry by the time this stuff cooks down."

"Oh! Yah, yah." She grabbed his hand and let him pull her upright. "Sorry. It's just..." The tails of her tunic, at least, hung down to the tops of her thighs, although she could feel the breeze behind where her tail parted them.

He was close enough to take her in his arms, although only their hands actually touched. "Not what you're used to seeing in this situation?"

Now she felt embarrassed, although her lack of experience with men was an objective fact that had even done her quite a lot of good, not a character flaw. "Um."

"Don't worry about it. Everything you ever do, you'll have to do for a first time at least once." He took her clothes with the hand that already held his and crossed to the basin, towing her behind. His rear didn't move even slightly like a girl's, but the flex of muscle was just as appealing, and she was already losing the satiated feeling that had overridden her desire for a bit.

Rinsing out clothes with only one hand was awkward, but he didn't seem at all inclined to let go of her, and she didn't mind. It was nice to know that, despite all the gossip she'd heard over her life, not all men rejected or discarded women once they'd gotten that one satisfaction. He pulled a pair of towels from a cabinet to use for wiping themselves off, which was sort of embarrassing, but did help make his male organ seem like just a part of her friend's body, not some mysterious danger or treasure.

But it was a part with a very specific purpose, and one she'd agreed to. Carefully she reached out, and stroked it with her towel, feeling it rise and harden at the touch. "You missed a bit," she said, although he hadn't.

His eyebrows went up again, but his face flushed and his lips parted a little. "Already?"

"We should do it while I'm still wet inside, right?" And before I lose my nerve, she didn't think she had to say. "Anyway, if I enjoy it, the sooner the better, and if I don't, the sooner we finish it, the sooner we can go back to something I do like."

"Why are women always so much more practical about sex?"

"It's just that being horny doesn't rot our brains." She immediately felt stupid -- would she ever refrain from chewing on her own foot in front of Calido? -- but he laughed.

"I don't know, I've seen girls make amazingly stupid decisions because they thought it would help get whatever boy they were after. But I guess it is more specific for women, who tend to want one particular man, than for men, who just want sex. Anyway, stop that--" He swatted her towel away from a second approach. "--until we finish with these clothes."

She wasn't sure if she was more disappointed at having to wait, or relieved at not having to do it quite yet, but it didn't matter, since it took only a fraction of a degree to get the clothes and towels wrung out and spread on the racks inside the warmer.

"Now, where were we?" He pulled her to him by their linked hands, until she felt him prodding at her stomach. "Or have you changed your mind?"

"Not yet." She reached up and pulled his face down for a kiss. His mouth was gentle, but he wrapped his arms tight around her, and the hardness against her belly grew a bit more. She certainly knew how he felt; she wasn't nearly scared enough to overcome what his kiss was doing for her, and she bit at his mouth until he kissed her like he meant it.

"I guess not!" he gasped when they came up for air. "You're ready?"

She nodded and kissed him again, until he scooped her off her feet. "Hey!" His feet slid out from the warmer behind him and his back slid down it, until with a thump she was in his lap again. His erection bobbed a little against her hip, and she giggled. It looked ridiculous, although she knew better than to say so. She took it in her hand, and was surprised at the softness of the skin overlying whatever made it hard. She didn't actually know how it worked, but Calido's gasp when her finger brushed his swollen purple tip distracted her from asking. "You like that?" He nodded, so she did it again, and he jerked, almost spilling her out of his lap. "Sorry!"

He took a deep breath. "It's okay. Just be careful, like you would with a girl."

She nodded. That made sense. "Okay. How do you want to do-- Fallen leaves! We don't have any, anything so I won't--"

"In my wallet." He gestured somewhere behind her.

"You really do know what you're doing!" She hopped up to grab, although every bit of skin touching his complained at leaving him, and plopped back down straddling his thighs as quick as she could. "These?" The long package was red and had big words, but the tablets inside looked sort of like the ones in the back room."

"Those. You know how to use them?"

"I know they go up inside, but-- Here, you do it." She handed him and package and straightened up, kneeling over his lap.

"Are you sure?"

"It's not like I'm not already trusting you with a lot. And not like you don't know I'll castrate you and throw you out into the void if you betray me."

He grinned. "True! Okay, but tell me if I hurt you." He steadied her with one hand and carefully worked the open end package into her. She squeaked at the cold, and he stopped until she motioned him to go on, but otherwise it wasn't too different from a finger except that it went so far in. She shivered at the smooth sliding and clutched at the wrist of the hand on her hip.

"Ow!" Whatever the tablet hit when he pushed it out was awfully sensitive. "I hope it doesn't feel like that when you--"

"Sorry! No, I'm not that long. See?" He held the package next to his erection, and it was almost a hand-span longer. "There are some positions where it could be a problem, but this isn't one of them." He pulled her back down, and forward until their loins pressed together, trapping his organ between. "Are you ready?"

This was her last chance to back out. "Um." At least dealing with the tablets had broken the mood enough that she could decide for herself, instead of her sex drive deciding for her. "Um," she said again.

He put his hand to her cheek. "It's okay if you don't want to. There are other things we can do."

Lanchu with her Processional luck. No. "I'm ready."

"Okay. I'll guide you, but if it hurts, you can back off." He guided her with a hand on her hip, the other hand steadying the shaft that was about to enter her. She sank slowly down.

It actually didn't hurt too much, just an ache like a muscle stretched a bit too far, which she guessed was pretty much what it was. As promised, he didn't reach too far into her even when she was down as far as she could go, although that was probably the position, which seemed kind of awkward. After all the worry, it seemed anticlimactic. She refrained from saying, "Is that all?" though.

"You okay?"

She nodded. "It's not bad."

He looked offended. "Only 'not bad'?"

She giggled and kissed him. "Hey, that's a lot more than I was expecting!"

He grinned. "That's fair. Do you want to try moving?"

Just sitting there with him inside her didn't seem to be moving either of them closer to a climax, but sliding off was definitely the right sort of feeling, and seemed to be for him too. Caught up in the sensation, she lifted too far, though, and he slipped out. "Leaves! I'm sorry!"

"It's okay!" He adjusted her position so his tip was just at the entrance and pulled her down again.

"Ow!" Somehow she had the angle wrong, so he jabbed against the side instead of going straight in, and that hurt a lot more.

"Sorry! Sorry!" He let her take care of settling herself again. "Are you okay?"

"Yah. We just need to be more careful." This time she only moved up halfway (as best she could tell), and with him still partly inside, the rest slid in smoothly as she sank back down. "Ah! Much better!"

He gasped and kissed her hard, hands urging her back up and down again. She clung to his neck and rode him, slowly at first but soon faster as she got used to it. He seemed to be getting a lot more out of it than her, though, if his closed eyes and arched back meant anything, so she grabbed one of his hands and guided it to her breast. He took the hint, and slid his other hand up, rucking her tunic up above her breasts and deftly unfastening her halter to let them swing free.

Just being freed from the confinement of clothing was wonderful, but when he cupped and gently kneaded her breasts, pressing the tender nipples between his fingers, she cried out. What was happening down below might not be enough to satisfy her by itself, but now her body knew what to do, and she felt the heat and tension building up.

He covered her face with kisses as he panted and squirmed beneath her, and she caught some of them on her lips when she could. Then he threw his head back and groaned, and she felt him jerk hard inside her, flooding her insides with heat. His climax made her long for her own, and she wrapped her arms around him, squashing his hands between her bobbing breasts and his own chest. "Calido..."

As soon as his eyes uncrossed, he moved his hands down from her chest, letting the motion of their torsos do the work there, and applied his fingers between her parted folds. His feather-soft touch wasn't nearly what she wanted, but when she grabbed his hand and pressed it to her, he got the idea.

"Ahhh!" On the edge, she clutched at him, and then the next stroke released the built-up energy to overwhelm her. "AHHH!" She lost track of everything except the strong body against her and the hardness resisting her inner clenching. "AHHHHHH!"

As the tide ebbed, she slumped against him, dizzy and panting, but far more satisfied than she'd expected to be. "Mmm, Calido...," she purred, and kissed the damp salty skin of his shoulder.

He hugged her close. "Not as bad as you were expecting?"

"Not as bad, and much better." As she cooled down, she was starting to feel the ache of accomodating him again, but he was already shrinking and slipping out of her. "What was happening down there wasn't enough, but it was nice, and you knew enough to use your hands..." She looked up into his glowing violet eyes. "Thank you. You were really nice. Not like--"

"Not like you thought a man would be?" He bent to kiss her forehead. "Some are pretty inconsiderate, but..." He looked embarrassed, although any blush was lost in the flush of exertion. "I lust after you, just about everyone does, but I like you too, even though you really piss me off sometimes, and I know how special this is for girls. I really wanted to make sure I gave you pleasure, and I'm glad I could."

"I don't mean to piss you off! I'm just... bad with people. Or maybe just with men. I've never really had a friend who was a guy. But I do like you, even if I'm too stupid to show it." She buried her face against his shoulder and mumbled, "And I'm glad you like me."

He didn't answer, just gently massaged her shoulders and back while she nestled against him. She didn't fall asleep, quite, but her thoughts drifted languidly. She really had never had any good male friends; even before she'd grown breasts, too many men were only interested in one part of her, or too interested in it even if they did also want to be friends. Were men on the tree different, or was it just Calido? She couldn't imagine too many men being as kind as Calido, but then most women were pretty bitchy too. Even if only a few men were worth her time, in bed or out of it, she wouldn't mind having more friends. It was nice to be someplace where it didn't always have to be just her and Shisan and Yarumin against the world; she envied the people who got to grow up this way, making dozens of friends. Was that the difference between men here and back in Hamvin? Before, she'd mostly only known other children of the streets; maybe they didn't know how to be friends.

"Miyun?" Calido kissed her cheek. "We should check on the fruit. And get cleaned up."

"Oh. Yah." With some effort, she levered herself up, rediscovering how those muscles that Calido had strained were connected to everything between waist and knee, and also that men were much messier than women. "Ew."

Calido looked at the puddle of congealing fluids in his lap. "Yah. I hope there are more towels." There were, though, and pretty soon they were both clean and another rack in the warmer was full.

The violet goo roiling in the pot was giving off much less vapor, and was getting quite thick; it was still a liquid, but not by much.

"I'm surprised no one walked in on us," Calido mused. "Do they still have night watchmen?"

"Ack! I can't believe I didn't glim that! It must have been the fumes!"

Calido feigned dismay. "You weren't overcome by my manly charms?"

"I was, but normally I would have had enough sense to drag you into the pantry or something. I've already been caught going at it in the middle of the floor too many times!" She put her face in her hands.

"Oh? How many?"

"Twice, unless someone did see us this time. Well, one of those was on a bench, but it was in a public lavatory."

"And you've only been here what, a couple of weeks? You'll make a legend for yourself yet!"

"I don't want that sort of legend!"

"Then you better put something on, because I hear someone."

Miyun yelped and grabbed the towel Calido was holding, ignoring his protest. Fortunately it was big enough to wrap around her hips as a sort of skirt, although she had to hold it in place with one hand while fumbling through drawers for something to use as a pin with the other.

Calido passed her a piece of string and she frantically tied two corners of the towel together, just in time to lean nonchalantly against the counter as the night watchman appeared.

The lios took in their lack of proper clothing with a glance, and Calido's sleek legs with a second and third. "You again," he smirked at Miyun.

"We just spilled vinegar on ourselves!" she protested. "We had to rinse our trousers out and they're drying in the warmer!"

"Uh huh. Whyn't you go back to your room?"

"I don't have any other clothes except fancy ones, and anyway, we have to watch the... stuff." She tilted her head toward the pot, which obligingly belched.

"Is that what's making that reek?" He peered dubiously into the pot. "What is that stuff?"

"It's a secret?"

"Uh huh. Well, you better be done and have the place aired out by breakfast." He left, muttering about Madame Kentrit's poor judgement.

Miyun slumped. "That was close!"

"Mi'-- Um. Can I call you Mi'?" He suddenly looked far more uncertain than she'd ever seen him.

She stood up on tiptoe to kiss him. "If that didn't entitle you to, I don't know what would!"

He kissed back with considerable energy. "I can show you some things..."

She winced at the thought of any touch anywhere near her abused insides. "Maybe later. Anyway, what?"

"What does this stuff smell like to you?"

"Fruit. Really strong fruit, but fruit." She took another sniff. "Maybe like brandy or something?"

"The watchman seemed to think it smelled bad. I wonder if that's why he didn't come in until the smell started going away."

Miyun thought about that, and bowed toward the pot. "Thank you, great Tree, for keeping me from being embarrassed in public yet again." Calido laughed and wrapped his arms around her from behind, hands gently cupping her breasts.

Chapter 15

8th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

"What do you glim?" Miyun tilted the spoon and let the purple-black blob slowly ooze off and fall back into the pot.

"It looks concentrated to me. Maybe too strong, but you can always thin it with water or wine or something."

"I glim we're done, then." The original fruit had been as big as her head, or even larger; the thick glop she scraped into a glass jar would have barely filled a water glass. "Ow!" She scraped the stray droplet off on the edge of the jar and raised her hand to lick off what remained on her skin. She stared at the purple stain on the back of her hand and slowly lowered it. "I really want to know what it tastes like, but I have the terrible feeling that if I find out, I'll be even sorer than I am now." She paused again. "Not that I feel too bad right now." She was still a bit sore inside, but nowhere near as tired as she had been a few moments ago.

Calido leaned over interested to inspect the stain. "Is it like the tea?"

"Tea? Oh, from before the Procession. You heard about that from Kasis?"

"From Allil's sister, actually. Kasis doesn't talk to me much; I think she suspects me of having designs on her maidenly body."

Miyun remembered his reaction to Kasis when they had stripped down for Procession rehearsal, and giggled. "I can't imagine why!"

He shrugged, looking a little irritated. "She's sexy, sure, but I know she doesn't want me, or any man, so why would I bother her about it?"

She put her arm around his shoulders and squeezed. "Because she doesn't have the sense to trust you."

He kissed her on the cheek. "See, you can be nice if you try!"

She stuck her tongue out, but sucked it back in with a squeak when he kissed the tip. "Hmph. It is like the tea, although not as strong. Or maybe I wasn't as tired."

"Can I try it? I didn't get much sleep last night, and I wasn't expecting to stay up late tonight too."

She thought about that. Calido had been in the Procession too, so he should be in the Tree's favor, even if he wasn't wearing some of it as makeup, and he now had the luck of a Processional ex-virgin as well. If it was safe for her, she couldn't see how it would be less so for him. "Sure." She spooned up a bit and held it out for him.

She read his intent from his smile, but not in time to stop him. "Calido! You--" She broke off as she felt the power radiating from him, strong enough to push her back but so... sweet? Whatever quality it had, it made her force her way toward him. It felt like her hair should be blowing back, and she was mildly surprised that it wasn't.

He stood up straight, in more than one sense, and his eyes were brilliant. "Wow!" He licked his lips. "It's... wow!" Blurringly fast but still careful, he took her in his arms and kissed her deeply. His tongue tasted of strange fruit and crackling power. Even that second-hand exposure made her lightheaded, or maybe it was the kiss that set her blood pounding; either way, she kissed back eagerly, not caring where it might lead. His hand ran up under her shirt again, and she pressed herself to him.

Panting, he broke off the kiss and held her a bit away from him. "We better stop, or I'm going to... hurt you."

He was right, but it was still a disappointment. She forced herself to move away from him, so only their hands touched, which helped a bit. "Maybe if I took some?"

Her gaze followed his to the jar she still held, but she didn't need to be looking to feel his aura gutter and fade. Her hot skin turned cold in an instant, but fear didn't stop her from catching Calido as he crumpled. She couldn't hold him up, but kept him from hurting himself as he collapsed to the floor. "Calido! Calido! Are you--?"

His eyes opened, though they didn't focus. "And that's the descending side of the wow. Oof." He gasped for air as though he'd just run a race and won.

She threw herself onto him and buried her face in the juncture of his neck and shoulder, letting his shirt soak up her tears. "Thank the ten thousand gods! I was afraid you--"

He hugged her close. "Not even close, although I might be if I'd eaten the whole thing. I'm just not used to... burning that bright. Hey, are you crying?"

Embarrassed, she swiped at her face with a forearm and scowled. "Don't do that again!"

"Sorry!" He lifted himself to a sitting position, though he still slouched forward. "I didn't expect it to be so strong." Slowly his breathing quieted.

"You're sure you'll be okay? I can call a doctor..."

He smiled with something like his usual brightness. "I just need sleep, I think. And then food."

"Don't sleep here, or you'll get a stiff neck!"

His grin widened. "You know any beds around here?"

"I'd like to take you back to my bed, but there would be a riot, and then I'd get in trouble with Kentrit. We'll have to settle for the storeroom. Can you walk?"

"Maybe? Let me recover while you clean up?"

"Oh, sure, make the girl do all the cleaning," she muttered, but she didn't really mind; she still felt guilty for not stopping him from ending up exhausted. More importantly, it looked like her plan had worked, if not necessarily exactly like she'd expected. She was sure Calido's aura had been as strong as Lanchu's for those few moments; how strong would someone who ate the entire jar be? And would she survive? Maybe this was what Granny Thousands meant by giving up her life for her friends.

Lost in her worries, she didn't realize that she was washing the last bits of goop down the drain until it was too late. "Oops. I hope that doesn't hurt anything."

"It shouldn't; it came from the Tree to begin with, after all. But you don't have to clean those yourself; that door with the green trim is a washer."

"Oh!" She quickly put the pot and mixer in to be washed and bent to help Calido up. "I hope you can walk, because I can't carry you!"

* * *

Yarumin held the jar up to the light, eyeing the purple goo inside dubiously. "Are you sure this was a good idea?" She shook the jar, and the condensed fruit wobbled sludgily.

"You're not the only one who can think!"

"Yah, yah. It just seems that way a lot of the time, so I get in the habit." She tossed the jar back to Miyun, who caught it with a stifled squeak. "Anything that keeps you from getting killed or having your luck stolen has got to be good, I guess."

Miyun looked at the floor. "Um."

"Miyun! When did you have time? Five gods in a bucket, I go out for one night, and you start doing all kinds of crazy stuff!"

"Calido talked Madame Kentrit into letting him help me watch the fruit," she mumbled, "But it didn't really need a lot of watching."

"Well, if you have to bed a boy, I guess a handsome and experienced one is least awful."

Miyun looked up and scowled. "I didn't have to, I wanted to! And it wasn't awful! He wasn't awful!"

Yarumin put her hands up defensively. "Yah, yah! Leaves and fruit, you're in a mood this morning!" After a moment, she asked quietly, "So are you going to break up with Millim?"

"Hey! You already have Kasis! You can't have Miyun too!" Millim, still wrapped in a towel from the bath, draped herself over Miyun. "Mine!"

Miyun grinned and hugged Millim's arms around herself. "Yours," she agreed. "But is it okay if I keep Calido on the side? You did bring him to me as a present."

Millim tilted her head consideringly. "Will you share?"

"Sure!"

"Okay, then!" Millim kissed Miyun on the cheek and nibbled along her cheekbone, elicting a purr.

"You two have fun. I'm going to take a bath now, 'cause I'm sure not going to get one tonight. Pig-felching extra cleaning duty."

Miyun eyed the switch of Yarumin's hips as she departed and giggled. "Sounds like she didn't stay out all night for nothing!"

Millim grinned. "I suppose not, although Kasis is so dignified, it's hard to imagine her--" She waved her hand.

Naked and sweaty, Miyun thought, head between Yarumin's thighs and vice versa. And how can someone who spent last night having hot sex with a gorgeous guy and losing her virginity still think about things like that? Maybe it's not Millim who's the split-tail.

Millim giggled. "I know what you're thinking!"

Miyun blushed. "And you weren't?"

She waggled her eyebrows at Miyun. "Of course I was!"

Miyun rose with as much dignity as she could muster. "I'm going to take a bath."

"Don't wash your mind by accident!" Millim called after her.

Walking still wasn't much fun, and she had to be careful washing, but being immersed in hot water helped a lot, and anyway, it wasn't much compared to other hurts she'd suffered in her life. And it had definitely been in a good cause. Lost in memories of Calido's strong arms holding her close and his blissful smile, she sank until the water lapped just below her nose.

"Mi'?" She felt motion in the water next to her, and opened her eyes to see Yarumin settling in for a soak. "I'm sorry I was nasty. It's just... we spent so long fighting men off, but then first Shisan and now you..." Yarumin sighed. "We used to be able to handle anything, but give us three meals a day and a real bed, and suddenly change is frightening again."

Miyun sat up a little and leaned against Yarumin's side. "I glim it's just that we have something to lose now, but haven't had it long enough to trust it."

"Yah, yah. Well, it's not like I want to give up the food and the bed and the hot bath, but I still miss what we had before."

"That's not all you don't want to give up, I bet!"

Beet-red, Yarumin disappeared beneath the surface. Miyun giggled.

Yarumin came up across the pool, floating on her back, silver hair haloing her head. With slight motions of her hands and feet, she drifted back over to Miyun, until her head bumped against Miyun's breasts. "Well, maybe," she allowed. "But I'm more worried about you. Even if your luck's safe, you could end up with a lot more than a metaphorically broken heart."

Miyun caressed the soft skin under Yarumin's chin. "I know. I glim my idea is right -- the fruit is what we figured the sacrifice should be -- but I'm not sure how to use it. Maybe just carry it, to keep off his spells?" She didn't want to say anything about the idea she'd gotten from seeing its effects on Calido; she was pretty sure eating the whole would be fatal, and didn't want Yarumin to have a fit about it.

"BREAKFAST!" yelled Elsuris. "Move, or we eat yours!"

Yarumin sprang from the pool, water falling from her like a momentary gown, and bent to offer Miyun a hand up. "Don't we already have an expert on this? And I want to meet this Grandmother Ten Thousand. There are some things I want to ask her."

* * *

"...tell us how our story ends," Miyun mumbled. The labor pool, or at least her part of it, wasn't working anywhere near where she and Shisan had met Granny Thousands before, so she couldn't try finding the nook again. Instead, she'd been reciting the rhyme under her breath all day, especially whenever she was off by herself, but it didn't seem to be doing any good. By now, only a couple of dozen degrees before quitting time, it was just habit, and so she was completely surprised to walk out of the women's lavatory and see a familiar rag-bag figure wandering around a corner far down the service corridor. She closed her mouth on a yell and ran.

Granny Thousands turned in her peculiar way as Miyun rounded the corner after her. "If it isn't Miss Fruit-and-Flowers! How are you doing this afternoon, dear?"

Miyun forced her breathing to slow, although it made her a little dizzy. "Pretty well, thank you," she said politely. "How are you?"

"Oh, very well, very well indeed! Miss Elephant's-Foot just gave me a bit of jam tart; would you like some?" She fished a fold of paper out of her hat and offered it to Miyun.

"Just a little bit. Thank you!" The scrap of pastry filled with anonymous red fruit paste had clearly seen better days, but it didn't seem like a good idea to turn down Granny Thousands' hospitality. Anyway, it had been quite a while since lunch.

The taste of the fruit brought the taste and feel of Calido's mouth to mind with startling intensity. She folded her arms embarrassedly over her chest in case anything was showing, and quickly found a new subject. "Granny Thousands, I need your help again."

"That doesn't seem very likely, now does it, dearie? You're a very capable young lady."

"I don't need you to do anything, I'm just not sure how to, to use what I have."

A wrinkled hand, glittering with a dozen cheap rings, patted hers. "Just do what needs doing, dear. People will try to tell you what that is, but don't let that stop you."

Miyun felt her hair trying to stand on end, and her tail lashed involuntarily. Slowly, she said, "That sounds a lot like 'Gluttony can't possibly be healthy,' doesn't it?"

One of the glitters beneath the tassled hat-brim vanished and reappeared, but what Granny Thousands said was, "I don't think you've been singing that song quite right, dear. You have the last line backwards."

Miyun blinked. Backwards? "Granny, Granny of the Thousands, tell us how our story ends," she repeated to herself. Too bad Yarumin wasn't here; she was good at riddles, and wanted to talk Granny Thousands anyway. But she wasn't.

Miyun blinked again. Was it that easy? She looked up and said, "Granny, Granny of the Thousands, we'll tell you how our story ends?"

The corridor was empty.

* * *

Miyun eyed the gold-foil envelope tucked among the red, white, and black roses. "It's a good thing that idea didn't wait another day," she muttered.

"Fuck," said Elsuris. "Did you put out already? You want the good stuff, you have to keep them on the trail. I shouldn't have to fuckin' tell you that."

"Hey!" Miyun felt her face burning. "I did not!"

"Huh. Then how come so much less, this time?" The lios girl raised one eyebrow.

"Last time was spec-- He was trying to--" Deep breath. "He pissed me off at the Portmaster's Ball, so he was extra-generous to apologize."

Elsuris smirked. "You gotta be touchier, then."

Miyun stuck out her tongue. "Weren't you just telling me not to>?" She opened the envelope and struggled through the message. Fortunately the script wasn't as fancy this time -- because the whole thing wasn't as fancy, or because he knew she had trouble reading? -- and she was able to get through it on her own. "Tonight, 105 descending, dinner, performance of Cro, Crown of Wis..dom? What's that?"

Elsuris tried to read over her shoulder, but Miyun clutched the note to her chest and the lios relented. "New phantom-play, about the first guys who went to Halo and how they fucked it up."

"Sounds depressing. And not very romantic."

"Nah, see, after watchin' a tragedy, you'll be all sad and need comforting. Anyway, I hear there's lots of doomed romance in it."

How did Elsuris know so much about letting rich people chase you for money? Miyun couldn't imagine the painfully thin, stub-eared lios getting much attention even without the eye. But she wasn't going to repay Elsuris's help by bringing it up. "I see. Well, I better be sure I don't get put on extra cleaning like Yarumin."

"No shit. So what's in the box?"

Miyun tucked the flowers and card in the crook of her elbow and used a fingernail to pry open one corner of the box until it unfolded itself to reveal intricately-figured fabric of a violet almost black. In fact, with a touch of red, it would have been the same color as the condensed fruit, but she was pretty sure that was a coincidence. She ran her fingers over it and discovered that it was actually pierced as well as figured; with a sinking feeling she lifted up the top layer and was unsurprised to see that it was closer to holes stitched together with bits of fabric than whole pieces of cloth pierced with a few holes.

Elsuris whistled. "Fuck me sideways. You're gonna cause a fucking riot in that thing!"

Miyun blushed. Even finding the matching skirt and top to go under the gown of holes didn't help much: the skirt was barely long enough to cover her rump and elastic enough to not hide anything, and the top was little more than a strapless halter, though at least it was reinforced enough that she probably wouldn't fall out of it the first time she went down stairs. "I'm not sure I can stand to wear this!"

"You fucked in the head? You'll be gorgeous!"

"And naked!"

"The whole port's seen what you got."

"FRUIT-AND-FLOWERS! GET YOUR ASS IN LINE!" Jurlilo yelled.

Miyun jumped. "Sorry! Just let me put this away!" Gathering up the embarrassing dress and the flowers, she fled.

* * *

Miyun fidgeted with the handbag Nosanis had lent her. "Are you sure this is a good idea, Yar'?"

"Sure, you look great!"

Miyun had to admit it was true: the pierced fabric wrapped around her and draped down her arms like some lios dresses she'd seen, flowing and swirling with her movements. On the other hand, the strapless halter and tiny skirt beneath made it look like she was naked beneath it and the holes just happened to not show anything good. (Although quite a few people between dorm five and the lobby had admired what did show.) "I feel naked!"

"Like I said-- OW!" Yarumin ducked a second punch. "You treat all your admirers this way?"

"She only beats me when I ask specially," Millim assured her seriously.

Yarumin rolled her eyes. "Nymphos. No, I'm not sure it's a good idea, but I can't have a good idea until I know something about what this stuff does, and we don't have any other necromancers to try it out on."

"Yah." Miyun sighed. "I wish Granny Thousands had told me something useful."

"Me too, but we have to do our own thinking here. Anyway, I think the worst likely outcome is that he smells it, realizes we're on to him, and leaves," said Millim. "He might come back later, but we'd have more time to prepare."

Miyun nodded. "I guess." She must not have looked convinced, though, because Millim went up and hugged her, stroking the skin of her back through the numerous convenient holes in the overdress.

"It's 103," Yarumin said. "Ready?"

"As much as I'll ever be." She stood up straight and squared her shoulders, to fool herself into feeling confident. From Millim's bright glance, though, she suspected that what she mostly looked was top-heavy. Well, maybe her fertility symbols would distract Lanchu.

He appeared on the stroke of 105, to the squeaks and widened eyes of the girls who had heard Miyun had a handsome admirer but hadn't believed just how handsome. This time he wore an open, three-tiered robe of dark red, made from some fabric that crinkled in on itself at hem and cuffs, over light doublet and hose of brown-black. His gloves and knee-high boots were of black suede, and his sash was black velvet.

His face lit when he spotted Miyun, and if Yarumin hadn't grabbed her elbow, she would have run to him. As it was, she winced inwardly at her weakness, but outwardly smiled and held out her hand.

He passed the sealed bottle of fruit that Yarumin had hidden by the outer door while cleaning without any sign of noticing, but as he approached the inner door where Miyun stood, he slowed. Had his expression dimmed slightly? Was his aura even weaker than before? But perhaps he was just taking time to admire her more thoroughly, and dampening his aura to keep from driving the audience completely mad. When he took her hand, the sensation didn't seem as great as that of touching Calido the night before, but he was wearing gloves.

Was he really bothered by the fruit, or was it just wishful thinking? Not only her life, but possibly Millim's and gods knew how many others, depended on this, and she had no idea. She hadn't thought her shoulders could get any more tense, but at least she managed to keep from grinding her teeth as she tucked Lanchu's hand against the side of her breast. At least the tingle of arousal from the lust charm distracted her a bit.

Yarumin's smile was faintly worried as she said, "Have fun, you two, but learn from my mistakes and come back before curfew," but probably only Miyun noticed.

* * *

The waiter, resplendent in his blue coat of geometric brocade, bowed himself out through the gold-mesh curtains, leaving Miyun and Lanchu alone in the light of the scented candles.

Lanchu smiled and put his hand on hers. "Don't worry; the advantage of ordering so many small dishes is that you're almost certain to find something you like."

Miyun's breath quickened a bit at nearness of his skin to hers, or rather at the nearness of his lust-charm to her skin, but mostly she was glad he had misinterpreted her nervousness. But was the lust-charm weaker tonight? She had no idea if it was the bottle of concentrated fruit in her handbag protecting her, her knowledge of what it was like to bed a man removing a little of the glamour, or just that she was getting used to the effects, but at least it helped her keep a level head had to be good. "I'm sure you wouldn't lead me completely astray," she smiled as she leaned forward to put her other hand on his.

"Only in certain respects," he agreed, with a flattering light in his eyes. And had he glanced downward? She only had her natural attributes, but maybe they were having an effect on him after all. Or maybe the fruit was weakening his self-control? "But," he continued, "I fear you may have been leading me from the path of wisdom."

Her heart seized like a clockwork with a crowbar thrust through its spokes. Surely he was just flattering her more? "I beg your pardon?" she said, mostly steadily.

With his free hand, he brought out a fist-sized statue of veined blue stone, carved in such a strange blocky style that it took her a moment to recognize it as a cloaked and cowled person. By then, he had pulled his glove off with his teeth, revealing a perfectly ordinary, if well-shaped, hand. She flinched back, afraid he meant to apply his lust-charm directly to her skin, but the hand resting atop hers suddenly held her like a claw on iron.

"Hey!" Her free hand went to her handbag, and her only possible weapon -- which she had just revealed the existence of. Idiot!

His bare finger went into the shadows of the statuette's hood, though, not onto her skin, and came out with two red dots of blood on the tip. The statuette darkened until it was black as the roses he'd given her, which she doubted was a good sign. "What are you doing?" she asked, more desperately than she wanted.

"Assuring us of a little privacy," he said, with that one-corner-of-the-mouth smile, and she realized that the noise of the other diners and waiters had faded along with the statuette's color. He continued, "The entire restaurant doesn't need to hear your explanation."

Dread crawled up her spine and coiled in her shoulders. She gave her hand another yank, but she would have had better luck pulling it out of set concrete. "Explanation of what?" she demanded.

He tilted his head consideringly, and she knew her feigned confusion had been too late to be convincing. "Of why you want to kill me, of course."

It was obvious he knew something was up, but she hadn't expected him to say that!

His smile widened a condescending fraction. "Surely you didn't think someone in my profession would be unaware of murder aimed at him?"

His profession? Was he admitting-- Oh, he meant the army. She'd never heard of soldiers having that ability, but certainly they'd want it, and having it from his necromancy might explain how he'd reached his rank so young. Why hadn't Millim mentioned it, though? "Um," she said, stalling for time to think.

The other corner of his mouth turned up. "Admittedly, it helped that your sweetheart told me."

Miyun's heart slammed to a halt again. Distantly, she thought that this night wasn't doing her health any good at all; frivolous, but better than thinking about what he had said.

"If my observations are any guide, necromancers have a profound weakness for lies and betrayal, one nearly as strong as the addiction to necromancy itself. I suppose one could even argue that they are the same thing."

He was lying. Necromancers lived for lies, he'd just said it, that's why it didn't show on his face or in his body, but he was lying. Wasn't he? Millim wouldn't have trusted her with her secrets--

"You needn't blame yourself. Freewoman Hokashut has become somewhat of an expert at providing me with what I desire, just as I arrange for certain of her needs to be met. New to the port as you are, cut adrift from everything you knew, there was no chance for you to resist."

--unless she knew Miyun was so smitten, so distrusting of the chains, so determined to not break faith, that she would keep any secret just for the sake of keeping it.

A vast emptiness filled Miyun's heart, and her vision blurred and wavered. Not blame herself? No one had ever pulled a con this big on her, no one had conned her at all in years, because she hadn't let them. Nothing but her own lust and pride and willing stupidity could have brought her to this. If anything had.

She forced her chest to move, a deep breath and then another. Her vision cleared, and the despair faded too, as though flushed out with the stale air from her lungs. Thinking felt almost like climbing up from clinging muck, but she held to the question, "Who is lying to me?"

Lanchu was right in front of her, so she considered the possibility that he was lying first. Why was he lying, or rather, why then? Maybe he could feel murder coming, it seemed necromantic. But calling her on it was to stop her, or at least make her too hurried or scared to do it right. Even though everything she knew about him might be a lie, she was certain he wouldn't stop her from trying to kill him if he knew she would fail; he'd let her fail, and then rub her nose in it. So he didn't know she couldn't hurt him. If Millim had told him -- just thinking that felt like being stabbed in the heart, but she forced herself to continue -- then he knew about the fruit and feared it, at least a little. If she hadn't, either he'd figured out about the fruit himself, or he didn't know what she planned.

Was her position stronger if he did know what was in her handbag? No, because knowing the threat gave him some idea how to defend. Surprise was always good, and she needed all the help she could get.

He'd more or less denied being a necromancer himself, although he'd said Millim still was one. Was it just covering his ass, or was he really not a necromancer? If he wasn't, then the fruit wouldn't hurt him directly, or at least there was no reason to think it would, so why would he be trying to pre-empt her? Because he didn't know what her weapon was. If he did know, then he was a necromancer, because if he wasn't, then he wouldn't mind being gooped. But did he know? And if he did, was it because Millim had told him? Pure logic didn't tell her.

Still, just knowing that there was an answer, even if she didn't have it, pushed away the despair. She raised her eyes to his, and saw the faintest of changes in his expression.

"Such strength in such beauty," he murmured, and lowered his bare fingers towards her trapped hand.

With an involuntary shriek, she yanked the bottle from her bag, but Lanchu caught her hand as it came level with the tabletop. There was lust in the touch of skin on skin, a wave of heat that swept over her and burned from her skin inward to her groin, leaving her dizzy and panting with arousal even though she expected it, but despair too. Of course she was wet and ready to take him; what else was she good for? What else had anyone ever thought, looking at the heavenly orbs, and why should they look past them? She might as well let Lanchu do what he wanted. With his lust-charm, she'd probably even enjoy it, and it wasn't like he'd be getting her luck.

But she'd be just as good a lay after trying and failing to use her secret weapon, wouldn't she?

When it came down to it, she didn't even need to think. Grandmother Ten Thousand had said she'd know right from wrong, and she did. Granny Thousands had also said she'd know the price of both, but the price was the same, so there was nothing to make her choose to believe Lanchu.

She couldn't move her hand, but she could bend her thumb and squeeze, and that was enough to squirt a ragged stream of purple-black across the table. Swift as always, Lanchu slid aside, but a drop must have struck his thighs, because he gasped and his grip slackened a fraction. It wasn't enough for her to get either hand free, but it was enough to make sure the last dribble of concentrated fruit landed on his wrist, and with an uncharacteristic yelp he jerked his hand back.

They looked at each other across the table for what seemed a very long time, long enough for her to read the message in his glare of hate and rage and for him to see the despair drop from her face, but even his blurringly-fast hand hadn't reached the weapon under his robe when she smiled and squirted almost the whole bottle right into his face.

She must have spent longer moping than it seemed, because although Lanchu had clearly indicated he wanted some time alone with his date, the waiter pulled aside the curtain just as Lanchu doubled over violently, slamming his face into the puddle of tarry black he was vomiting up. The waiter, silent on the other side of the privacy screen, lost his snootiness and goggled openly.

Lanchu raised a face made monstrous by pain and smears of black and snarled at Miyun, but his lunge across the table was interrupted by another fit of retching. The blackness covered the table, and he was visibly diminished.

Miyun was afraid to touch the privacy statuette, but a splurt of fruit cracked it into a dozen purple-stained pieces, and the noise of the restaurant burst in at her. She almost didn't recognize the loudest of the voices, though, because it was so unexpected.

"MIYUN!" Millim's scream echoed audibly from the restaurant's dome, but she was still somewhere behind Shisan, who grabbed Miyun's wrist and hauled her bodily from the booth. As Miyun struggled for balance, Lanchu toppled from his seat, spattering black muck across the beautiful carpets, and the screaming started in earnest.

Lanchu heaved himself up with his arms, a skeletal figure in ruined finery, but could rise no further. "Damnation take you, and misery follow you all of your--" His head snapped to the side and he collapsed again, twitching and gurgling.

Shisan scraped the toe of her shoe on the carpet. "What is this shit?"

Millim finally gathered Miyun into her arms and covered her face with kisses. "Mi', Mi', you're all right! You are, right? Oh, Mi'!"

Utterly confused, Miyun looked around at the cluster of girls. Millim, Shisan, Mimanid, Kasis -- No, not all girls: the tall figure between Ishin and Yarumin was Calido, and the short one behind Shisan was Mishki. "What are you all doing here?" she asked weakly, and fainted.

Chapter 16

9th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

A heavy weight pressed on her heart, stifling its beating. She struggled against despair, but it was drowning her, sticky tarry black stuff crawling up her legs and pulling her down. It reached her crotch and kept going both outside and in, and she flinched violently as it burned her insides.

"Freewoman!" The face before her was pale and a little plump over fine bones, and the improbably vivid green eyes wide with worry. The horror of the dream followed her into waking, but as it faded, she saw that the faintly pearlescent pink lips associated with the eyes were extremely kissable. Her movement towards the other girl was restrained by some soft force, though, and then the pretty face retreated. "Freewoman? Miyun?"

She was lying in a soft bed, beneath a thick quilt, with something hard and heavy resting between her breasts, and the woman leaning over her wore a blue smock with red-and-white braid at the collar. She'd just tried to kiss the physician taking care of her? Her face burned and she dragged the quilt up over her head, but a firm hand pulled it back down.

"Um. Sorry," she mumbled. The physician's pale skin showed her blush excellently, and Miyun looked away in embarrassment, only to find her eyes following that blush down the open neck of the smock into cleavage as plump and appealing as the face above and decorated more than covered by a few bits of lace. The lovely pink deepened, and Miyun squinched her eyes shut. "Uh."

The blush didn't show in her voice. "If you're well enough to look down my top, you're well enough to sit up. Let me--" A small hand snaked down under the covers and paused. "Um". Well, the blush hadn't shown at first, anyway.

Miyun could feel her own blush deepening. "It's okay. I was just, just half asleep. I won't jump you or anything."

"Good, because that sort of thing is considered highly unethical," the physician said primly as she removed a block of soapstone as big as both Calido's fists together from Miyun's chest. "How do you feel otherwise?"

Miyun tried sitting up, and found it surprisingly easy, even dragging the quilt with her. Not that she felt bad, she just didn't expect to have a physician hovering over her unless she was badly beat up. "Fine. Mostly, anyway."

"Good, good." The physician knelt down, to test the stone rods strung about her neck against Miyun's wrist without showing off anything. "Sodalite, jacinth, amethyst," she murmured. "Garnet, no surprise there, hematite..."

Feathery white curls brushing an elegant curve of neck-- No! Hurriedly, Miyun looked away.

They were in a small room with plain white-painted walls and floor, pleasant enough except for the way the firetubes were recessed deep into the ceiling behind heavy grilles and the lack of handle on this side of the door. The bed, a table in the opposite corner, the stool in front of it, and a low partition that probably concealed a lavatory were all seamless parts of the walls and floor. Well, she hadn't expected to end up both alive and free, and of the two fates, she definitely liked this one better. They might even let her out someday.

The physician rose gracefully and crossed to the table where her bag sat. Miyun had a good view of the sway of her softly-padded hips, but barely noticed; the reason she had a good view was that the hem of the physician's smock was held up by the base of a long, gently tapering tail tipped with a cluster of green and orange ribbons, and the clacking came not from hard-soled shoes but from cloven hooves enameled green and orange.

"What are you?!"

"Hm? I'm Lilaoran Vatiyu Sorati, a physician-intern, if that's what you mean."

"No, I mean your tail! And you have hooves!

"Well, yes, we all-- Oh, not just no clan, but no parents?"

Miyun nodded, and tried to not anticipate, but it was impossible. She'd never seen anyone else with tail and hooves like hers; was this beautiful, educated, kind, wealthy woman a relative of hers? On the other side of the blanket, of course, but--!

"The official name is Monstrous Guardians of the Thrice-Blessed Peak, but mostly people call us mountain goblins, or sometimes sacred goblins if they're kissing up." She saw Miyun's confusion and added, "The Peak is on Phoraecya, but we've spread to a lot of worlds in the Desolation Border. I'm from Willifis, myself."

The books Lanchu bought her had showed where the Desolation Border was, so she understood why there were so few sacred goblins here, but that made meeting one even more precious. She opened her mouth, and realized she had no idea what to ask first.

Lilaoran's smile didn't compare of Millim's, but Miyun found the delicate double fangs at each corner uncomfortably fetching. "I'll be glad to tell you all about what you are--"

"Half of what I am, anyway," Miyun interrupted.

"There aren't any mountain goblin half-breeds; either you inherit tail, hooves, and all, or nothing."

"But, but I'm so dark! And I don't have--" Miyun's fingers went to her mouth.

"Oh, we get coloration and maybe a bit of the features of other peoples we intermarry with, but there really is no such thing as a half-mountain goblin. And the first fangs grow in when you lose your virginity; the second when you give birth."

Miyun stared. Lilaoran didn't look more than a couple of years older than her, and she knew you didn't get to be even a physician-intern without a lot of full-time work. "You have kids?"

Lilaoran smiled brighter and held out her wrist, which was encircled with a green tattoo of vines and leaves. On the underside were two flowers, one red and one violet. "Twins," she admitted proudly. "But," she continued before Miyun could say anything else, "as I was saying, there are people who need to see you as soon as you're able, and you seem entirely conscious and lucid to me, so I have to let them in. Once they're done with you, we can talk."

"But-- Okay. It's a date." Moments too late, she realized her unintented innuendo, and blushed.

Lilaoran blushed too, but her smile widened a bit as she turned away. "I can see I'll have to bring my husband to protect my virtue," she teased as she packed up her equipment. Miyun turned a brighter red and pulled the quilt up over her face again.

"Oh, stop that." Lilaoran pulled the blanket down to Miyun's shoulders. "I'm not mad at you." Miyun blinked in surprise as the physician kissed her on the brow. "However, I think I'll leave the room while you get into your nightgown, just in case." She tilted her head toward a pile of lavender satin and lace on the foot of the bed, winked, and went to the door, which opened as soon as she knocked on it, letting in an insectile buzzing. "I'll give you two or three degrees," she called back as it closed behind her.

Miyun couldn't imagine where the nightgown had come from, and despite the fancy clothes she'd been wearing lately, it scared her, but although everyone on the Tree had seen all there was to see of her, she still didn't want to meet chain interrogators or fane inquisitors with nothing but a blanket to cover her. She managed to get into the gown without tearing it -- it was sturdier than it looked -- and sighed in bliss as the satin flowed over her skin. It was big on her, and the neckline was awfully low, but she didn't mind.

She was still twirling back and forth in the middle of the floor to feel the skirt swirl around her legs when the door opened.

"I see you're feeling better," said Guardsman Second Porfiros. Through the closing door, she saw a scatter of golden insects drifting in a white hallway. "That nightgown looks good on you. How does it fit?"

"Uh? Oh, did you get it for me?"

He nodded. "It's my daughter's, but she's off at school on Vidram. The clothes you were wearing were a complete loss, and I didn't think Martis would mind."

"Oh." She flailed about for words. "It's very nice. Thank you. And thank Martis for me?"

He looked a little relieved. "I will. And I'll bring some more clothes by next time I visit. I didn't bother this time because the physician didn't expect you to be up and about so quickly."

"You don't have to," she protested. "My clothes from the dorm are fine."

"In a situation like this, it never hurts to look good."

"Oh. Well, thank you. But exactly what sort of situation is this?"

"One that surpasses any trouble I could have imagined you three would get into." He shook his head. "Army necromancers, jam made from the fruit of the Tree, secret plots involving the two most beautiful girls in the whole port... If you weren't in here, you'd have broadsheet writers piled three deep around you right now."

"So instead they're waiting until the magistrates make an announcement?" The idea was appalling. "I don't suppose there's a back way out of here? If they let me out, that is. Wait, if I'm so interesting, why weren't they chasing me after the Procession?"

"You haven't reached the age of majority, so it's up to your guardian whether they can interview you. In your case, the staff of indigent housing serves as your guardian, and Madame Kentrit is notorious in certain circles for never allowing one of her wards to be interviewed. 'Puffed-up, long-nosed ghouls,' I think she once called the writers."

That wasn't something she would have expected from the dorm supervisor at all, but it did make a certain amount of sense. At least as much as Kentrit leaving her alone with Calido. "Now I feel bad for not liking her."

"She doesn't expect to be liked, although I don't think she'd mind. She just does the best she can for her wards, whether they like it or not. Almost all of the people who work at indigent housing do; there's not much in the way of pay or prestige, so only people who feel strongly about helping the indigent are likely to say in those jobs."

She'd never thought about it that way before; she'd just seen Madame Kentrit, Jurlilo, and the rest as obstacles to overcome, without wondering why they restrained her. But of course no one (except maybe necromancers) deliberately did evil: even if they disagreed with her, they were probably trying to do the best they could, as they saw it. She suspected she owed a lot of apologies, but then so did everyone else her age. That wasn't important at the moment anyway.

"What do the chai- I mean, guards glim my situation?"

"It's not our job to think, there are magistrates for that." His grin faded. "But I have to say, it doesn't look good. No one saw exactly what you did in the closed booth, and Lanchu is still unconscious--"

"He's STILL ALIVE?!"

Porfiros winced. "Please, have pity on my aging ears! Yes, Captain Lanchu is still alive, through the hard work of several physicians. His condition is new to them, but the standard techniques for maintaining life seem to be working."

All that, all this, and he wasn't even dead! She couldn't think of a curse vile enough, but after a moment realized she shouldn't be expressing how much she wanted Lanchu dead in front of a chain, even a sympathetic one. "Oh," she said.

"As I was saying, someone certainly did him woeful injury, and there aren't many other suspects. If he never wakes up, they can't be as certain what happened, but it could be considered as murder instead of mere deadly assault. If he does wake up... it's his word against yours, and although the magistrates aren't supposed to take such things into account, he's a well-respected army officer, and you're a petty criminal living in indigent housing while you work off your debts."

"What about my friends?"

"Most of them have been released to their clans. Freewomen Shisan and Hokashut are still in custody of the guard."

"What!? Why?"

He was all guardsman now. "Freewoman Shisan was observed by many witnesses to assault Captain Lanchu, so is presumed to be your accomplice. Freewoman Hokashut is known to have been associated with necromancers in the past, and is reported to be your closest friend, so the magistrate's office has asked us to keep hold of her."

"Pig-felching gods." Millim had escaped charges of necromancy before, but would she again, now that the army was investigating too? And Shisan had kicked Lanchu in the face in front of the whole restaurant; she didn't think the magistrates would care that he had been trying to curse her.

She'd got Shisan and Millim into this by following Granny Thousands' advice, so she'd get them out the same way. "I'd like the god's justice."

Porfiros nodded, unsurprised. "I thought you might. Is there any chance I can talk you out of it? The penalties of secular law are pretty severe, but at least we'd keep you alive."

Echoing void, and iron wire slowly cutting her apart... "I'll be okay."

He sighed. "Everyone says that, but I suppose you did survive the trip up here. Can you wait ten or fifteen degrees, while I fetch you some clothes?"

"I wouldn't want to get Martis's clothes messed up."

"They won't be, but you probably don't want to walk to the fane in a nightgown."

"Does the Tree have some thing about getting me naked?" She looked down. "I guess they're fertility symbols, but--!"

Porfiros laughed. "I'm not a theologian, but maybe you can ask at the fane. Anyway, I'll be back soon."

"Wait!" she called as he opened the door. "What are those bugs in the hallway?"

"They sting anyone they find in their territory, but avoid guardsmen. Even if you made it through this door, you wouldn't get more than a dozen steps down the hall."

She shuddered. "Do they kill people?"

"Not usually, but it's not pleasant, and if you get left with them for too long, you could die."

"Good thing I'm not going to escape, then."

* * *

The blue dress Porfiros brought her was awfully frilly, but it belted at the waist so it didn't matter that it was a bit big, and it was certainly prettier than her labor pool uniform. "Um, thank you."

"You're quite welcome. Now if you'll sign here, we can go." He offered her a pen and a sheet of paper.

She trusted Porfiros, but she read the paper first. It took a while to work through the complicated words, and the guardsman waiting in the doorway started fidgeting, but Porfiros didn't push her. Finally she was satisfied that it didn't say anything it shouldn't. Fortunately the pen was sharp, and almost painless as it drew the blood from her arm.

"Let's go," she said, handing back the signed document. The guardsman by the door preceded her out and Porfiros followed, then they moved to her sides. At first she thought they crowded kind of close, but the buzzing insects, some of them as long as her finger, came close enough that she realized it wouldn't take much space between the guardsmen to let the insects at her. Normally she didn't mind bugs, but there was a menace to the lazy way these ones drifted in the air that made her keep looking behind her and squirming her shoulders. She was very glad when they entered the main area of the guardhouse and left them behind.

The guards turned to watch her as Porfiros escorted her through the maze of desks, and she didn't think it was because she'd belted the dress too tight. Passing between the silent faces, she finally felt she could be walking to her own death.

Letting the magistrates do with her as they pleased suddenly seemed like an immensely clever idea, but she'd already signed, and anyway, the Tree had already shown her her death. She kept reminding herself of that, the whole way to the fane, but it didn't help much. She just hoped that this would help her friends.

The priest waiting at the side door of the fane seemed used to this sort of thing; he greeted Miyun and Porfiros politely, checked over the paperwork, and summoned an acolyte to escort Miyun to the Garden of Justice, as though he did those things every day. He did raise his eyebrows when Miyun turned to Porfiros and hugged him tight. "Whether I make it or not... Thanks for giving me a chance."

"You're entirely welcome. And if it comes to it, I'll keep an eye on your friends."

She sniffed back tears. "Thank you."

The acolyte responsible for showing her the way to her fate was the shaven-headed girl whose friend had given Miyun the twigs from the Tree. She regarded Miyun with such poorly-disguised scorn that as soon as they were out of sight of Porfiros, Miyun asked, "What are you mad at me for?"

The girl scowled. "Are there any men who don't like you?"

"At least one," Miyun assured her seriously.

"Hnh. Just because you have huge breasts," she muttered.

"They aren't that big," Miyun protested, folding her arms embarrassedly across her chest.

"Hnh. Okay, in here." A blank wall suddenly grew a hole big enough to walk through, and dazzling sunlight poured out into the corridor. The acolyte walked through without hesitation, leaving Miyun squinting and shielding her eyes.

The Garden of Justice was an actual garden, about the size of the refectory back in indigent housing but seeming smaller from all the vegetation. Ivy covered the walls to well above head-height, and a tree just tall enough to walk under occupied each corner. Round stone planters held smaller trees or unruly masses of shrubbery, and between them was alternately stone flagging or slightly raised lawn. The plants weren't trimmed or at all neat, but most of them were bright with flowers, and the ground beneath them was clean of twigs and fallen leaves. The sunlight fell from something like the false sun in the park, but the walls and ceiling (if there was one) were the translucent blue of clear sky. Down on Hoshadu, it would have been pleasant, or pretty; inside the Tree, it was amazing.

"Come in," called a familiar voice, and Miyun finally spotted Inestimable Jurnga, standing next to a freshly-dug hole and a sod-topped pile of dirt.

Trying not to think about how the hole was exactly the size of a grave, she stepped forward into the light.

The acolyte was waiting just inside, looking even less respectful of Miyun. "Don't turn yellow now! And don't think the Inestimable will go easy on you."

"Just because he doesn't like you doesn't mean he doesn't like girls," Miyun retorted, but she immediately felt bad. This wasn't the place for bickering. "Sorry," she muttered.

The acolyte took her hand and led her toward the Inestimable. "It's okay, lots of people get twitchy about now."

"Yah." The contact was comforting, though, and she was able to face Inestimable Jurnga and curtsey with what she thought was reasonable grace.

Jurnga looked her over carefully, but she couldn't tell if there was lust in his eyes or if he was just admiring the works of the gods, or even if there was a difference between the two. "Good afternoon, Miss Fruit-and-Flowers," he said with a slight smile. "Or so I hope it will prove to be."

She returned the appraisal openly. Without the tumult of a worshipping crowd, Jurnga's mana was much more perceptible, but still smooth despite its power. In fact, it was hard to see what he really looked like, perhaps because his appearance was unimpressive to the eyes: somewhere between middle age and old age, between average and plump, between average and tall, with long hair of a color between blonde and grey. Even his robes, although of fine cloth, were an undecorated dark green. Was it that color that made the grass at his feet look lusher? "I hope so too."

"Shall we begin?"

"I guess. Um. I didn't know you handled this personally."

"It's not every day that a Processional maiden, who received both a flower and a three-leaved fruit, comes to the god's justice."

"Oh." She studied his face, but he didn't seem to think that she was a disgrace to the Tree. "Okay. Tell me what to do."

"First, state the act you wish the Tree to judge."

"Killing the necromancer, Captain Lanchu of no clan." Not that he was actually dead, yet, but that was what she'd tried to do, and what she wanted the Tree to approve of.

"Very good. Now we must cleanse you."

The acolyte, whose name she still hadn't learned, helped her undress and washed her twice with water that the Inestimable had blessed, first freezing cold and then steaming hot. The Inestimable himself poured the clear, scented oil over her as she knelt and recited prayers to the soil below and the solar blaze overhead. At first, the acolyte prompted her with the responses she was to give when Jurnga paused, but after a bit she got the trick of following her instincts and the girl faded back.

Jurnga spoke a final word, and the oil coating Miyun's skin burst into wavery blue flame.

She yelped, but the heat was no more than that of Millim's hand on her skin. It made the air shimmer before her eyes, though, so that the Garden seemed suddenly unreal, a mirage or even just the lights inside tightly-shut eyelids. Jurnga extended a hand toward the hole, and she obediently lay down on the soft black soil.

The sides of the hole slumped, covering her legs and then her torso. She saw that the sod, robbed of support by the dirt collapsing from beneath it, was falling back into place, and then had to shut her eyes and mouth as clods rained onto her face.

It was perfectly dark, and once the hole finished filling in, perfectly silent. No, not perfectly: she could hear, or feel, the vast slow pulse of the Tree's life.

She realized that she was holding her breath, and that she wouldn't be able to do it for an entire day and night, so she exhaled through her nose and then cautiously inhaled. After all, she had seen how she was going to die, and it didn't involve being buried alive.

Dirt tickled her nose, and she sneezed convulsively. The earth above her held her firm, but that below gave way and she plummeted.

The wires that sliced into her shoulders and buttocks, and the backs of her legs and arms, were cold at first but warmed quickly as her blood soaked them and dripped away into the darkness.

Chapter 17

10th Growing Day of the Month of the Shield, Year 417 of Settlement

The earth heaved, squashing her breasts but sliding away from her face, and the fake sun of the Garden of Justice stabbed right through her closed lids. "Ow! Leaves and twigs!" Her attempt to bring a hand up to shade her eyes was smothered by the weight of dirt, but her arm did move some, and as she squirmed away from the light, the dirt fell from her.

"MIYUN!" Eager arms embraced her, dragging her from what wasn't a grave after all, and hot tears and hotter kisses covered her face while more pairs of arms clasped her. Still dazed, she hugged whoever was in the circle of her arms, and looked around. Of course it was Millim, Yarumin, and Shisan on her, but Calido, Kasis, Mimanid, Ishin, Mishki, their parents, Guardsman Porfiros and his wife, Physician-Intern Lilaoran and her husband, and even Madame Kentrit were right behind them, all beaming bright as the sunlight.

Those smiles faded to puzzlement as Miyun, after planting a kiss on each of her three best friends, stomped over to the nearest wall and kicked it as hard as she could. "YOU PIG-FELCHER! YOU THOUGHT THAT WAS FUNNY!" she yelled.

She turned to see everyone staring at her, and shrugged embarrassedly. "Gods," she said by way of explanation.


This file was last modified at 1723 on 08Jun04 by trip@idiom.com.