Tuesday, December 25, 2007


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


A couple of days later, Bux arrived at Yoj's cubicle shortly after noon, swinging the door open without a knock and severely startling Yoj. Yoj said "I wish you wouldn't do that. Just a single rap would give me time to prepare."

"Why do you need time to prepare?" said Bux challengingly.

Yoj sighed. "What's up? Halling's not off work yet."

"I know. I have some free time this afternoon, and I'd like to do research on your lineage" said Bux. "Yours and Halling's both, although I did work on the mural at Motu Fling after Mwezi died."

"I forgot about that" said Yoj. "Was Halling around for that?"

"No, just Ng. But her memories and photos were rich. Anyhow, I'd like to get started on this, and I may still be at the library when Halling comes in. I'll be home for dinner for sure. So -- " she had a pad in her hand. "What were the names of your abbas?"

Yoj felt a strong emotion inside her chest as she answered "Rosz's aggie was Dodoj, and her other emma was Tawer. Nilma's aggie was Amyr, and she too only had one other emma, Malin. Do you need my habibis?"

"No, that'll be enough. The lineages are indexed. What about Halling's, do you know them?" said Bux.

"Yeah, maybe. I know Mwezi had three emmas -- Lranz, Qalaw, and -- hang on, it started with an M, too -- Meras? No, Maras. Lranz was the aggie" said Yoj.

"And Ng?" prompted Bux.

"Two emmas. Hala, that one's easy, her aggie. And -- Vantu!" finished Yoj proudly.

Bux made a silent vow to memorize all these names by day's end. She looked them over, drawing a rough chart, and said "Some of these are so beautiful. Like Dodoj, and Lranz."

"I remember my abba Dodoj, she used to read to me. She died out at Isola, too" said Yoj.

Bux looked at her. "No more deaths at Isola. You're part of our line here on Riesig now."

"I guess so" said Yoj uncertainly.

Bux stood up, kissed her forehead, and said "I'm going to find out your people all the way back. See where we're connected. And I intend to add you and Halling to our mural in the living room this year."

Yoj was surprised. "Before we die? Can you do that?"

"I'm the wandmaler, I can do whatever I want" laughed Bux. "And yes, it's traditional for wandmalers to do themselves and their partners while they are still living. I don't want anyone else painting you two, only my loving hand." She left, muttering names to herself as she began memorizing.

After dinner, Qen asked to meet with everyone about finalizing plans for the greenhouse and the new coldframes on the roof. "I know it's the warm season, but this way we'll have things in place long before cold weather" she said.

Yoj and Halling kept silent during the first part of the discussion about which trees and plants to select. The four older women were very animated, each with a pad and pencil, roughing out growing seasons, planting rotations and barter options, often seeming to argue but then falling into accord suddenly. Ng held her own, not needing Qen's alliance. Bux jumped in often as well.

After half an hour, however, Qen turned to Yoj and said "You've not expressed a single opinion, is there something bothering you?"

Startled, Yoj said "No. It's just that -- well, I'm ignorant about a lot of it, and also, I think it's up to you four. You make this tillage the work of art is."

Qen's black eyes flashed. "How do you think we learned what we know? By letting our emmas do all the work?"

Halling interjected "We'll do our share of the work, of course, and then some. Whatever you want us to do."

"What I want from you is full involvement" said Qen, turned on Halling. "If you don't know something or have a question about what we're saying, then ask a question. You would if it was about sinning, I bet."

Halling was going to protest, but Ng came in to say "We won't be around forever. Someday this will be your Manage to make all the decisions about, with children and grandchildren looking to you for leadership. How do you plan to acquire that, osmosis?"

Halling met Ng's challenging gaze for several seconds. Taking a breath, she said "All right, then. I hear you saying the dwarf mango will only produce a quarter of what a regular tree would, maybe 400 fruit a year once it reaches maturity, and every time one is harvested, it has to be washed carefully. Even so, I think we should go with that, in addition to a lime tree and the cacao bushes in the greenhouse."

"Why? What's your reasoning?" asked Veida. Her expression was enough like Ng's to be unsettling to Yoj.

But Halling replied staunchly, ticking off points on her fingers, "Because we can, first of all. We have a chance at breaking new territory, and I think this is just the Manage to launch a crop. Second, we may well consume all of that fruit instead of there being enough to barter, but the nutrient composition is impressive and it means we won't be eating as much other fruit that we do have to obtain by barter. Third, the pits have a recycling value -- small, I know, but it's still a contribution back to larger Skene economy. The lime tree I vote for because it's so much more productive than lemons. I like lemons better, but limes will give us more ascorbic acid and that's especially important to me with pregnancies and children in our future. And last, I just plain want the mangos. I want Yerush's version of the chutney in our larder. I want slices of that gorgeous fruit in my porridge. I won't mind the extra work of washing harvests."

Ng crowed in delight, holding out a hand to Veida who slapped it and said "That's your child, right there!" Yerush and Qen laughed as well. Yoj felt the pressure on her increase. A couple of minutes later, when Qen said "Any other ideas for the coldframes?", Yoj cleared her throat and all eyes turned to her.

"Not for the coldframes, but -- there will be small untillable areas right next to the greenhouse, and I think we should set up beehives there" said Yoj. In her peripheral vision, she saw Halling make an excited motion.

"More than one, you mean?" said Yerush.

"Why not? They'll thrive in our tillage, which is always full of bees from the tillage two doors down. The warmth from the greenhouse will keep them alive through the winter, if we set it up right. And we'll have all that honey." Yoj waited for the argument.

But none came. Veida looked at Qen and said "It's a great idea. Can you get new swarms from the botaniste?"

"Either her or she'll know who can supply us. We'll have to learn something about beekeeping" said Qen.

"I'll volunteer for that" said Yoj. "I'm not afraid of being stung. I know you all think I'm a coward about shu -- "

"We do not" said Bux vehemently.

"But I'm actually very courageous about new experiences" finished Yoj.

Qen leaned over and kissed her cheek. "One of the first things I ever knew about you" she said softly.

Yoj looked at her. "What do you mean?"

"I remember your first day at school" said Qen. "Rosz brought you, with Myrd in a yameen and a crate of something to barter, all that horrible long commute beginning before dawn I'm sure, but she insisted on being there your first day instead of just putting you on the school sinner on Yanja. She had to sit around Riesig all day with a baby, until you got out and then you had all those ferries back home. And you -- I don't think you'd been off Isola often, at all. You kept staring around you with hungry eyes."

"I remember" said Yoj, her chest thickening.

"When Rosz left, you stood at the edge of all the children playing, and your leraar had three others your age, one of whom was crying pitifully, so nobody noticed you at the edge there."

"You did" whispered Yoj.

"I surely did, because you had such an intelligent face, with beautiful curls framing it. You seemed intrigued by the circle game some of the seven and eight-year-old were playing, the skip-dance game. So, when I had a moment to spare, I came to you and bent down, asked you your name and told you mine. You spoke right up."

Yoj said again "I remember. You had on a dark green shati that looked amazing with your red hair."

Yerush exclaimed "I loved that shati on you, Qen! Fancy her remembering that!"

Yoj looked at Halling. Halling had heard Yoj talk about that first day, what hope Qen had brought into her life. Of course she remembered it vividly.

Qen took Yoj's hand tenderly and continued "I asked you if you wanted to play any of the games on the playground, and your eyes turned to the skip-dances, but then you said you were too short. Not too little, but too short. I was struck by your precision of language. So -- "

Yoj interrupted "You offered to carry me so the other kids didn't trample me. You picked me up, and I smelled the lavender on you, and we joined the game. And after that, the older kids treated me like I was fun to play with. Because you gave me a head start." Her eyes were full of tears.

Qen squeezed her hand and said "They liked to play with you because you were fun, Yoj, all by yourself. Not because of me. Even at three, you thought up new moves and ideas that were interesting. It was lovely to be around you."

"She's right about that" said Halling with emphasis.

"A month later, Bux was born and I had worlds at home to grab my attention, but I still noticed you every day and looked forward to when you'd be in my grade" said Qen.

"I wish I'd been born earlier, so we started school at the same time" Bux said with yearning.

Yoj turned to her and answered "You were coming along as fast as you could. You caught up with me, my precious."

After a short silence, Yerush said "Thus, your courage has been established for a very long time, Yoj. And your brilliance. So, beehives it is. I like the idea of having our own comb to melt down and make candles for special occasions." Everyone's face showed excitement.

"All right, this will mean more construction mess, and since we now have neighbors in the tillage next door, we'll have to not start the garlic bed or put in ducks and geese until the work is done" said Veida.

"I can arrange for the glass and frame delivery by sinner at no cost, once we have the specs from the contractor" said Halling. They plunged back into planning.

Over the next two weeks, the greenhouse was installed and connected to geothermal heating. Neighbors dropped by from all over that part of Riesig to nose through their tillage's renovation, offering heavy-handed advice. Ng's ceramics were selling out at the consignment shop, and she began to get special commissions. Three afternoons in a row, Veida met Qen at school after work and went with her to the ejida, carrying back a lime tree, a dwarf mango, and two small cacao bushes to plant in waiting holes in the greenhouse. They left the door open during the day, because it was a sunny spell, and all of the katts fought over which of them would be able to claim the greenhouse for their own choice territory.

The following Moja, Yoj spent an afternoon with the ejida beekeeper, learning how to smoke cranky bees, arrange supers and harvest honey. The next afternoon, she and Bux carried back a tightly closed hive whose walls thrummed against their hands with furious bees inside. Yoj let it sit for a while before opening it and bolting for the house. They repeated this process four days later, on the opposite side of the greenhouse, and Yoj heaved a sigh of relief when the two hives focused on exploring the newly blossoming tillage instead of waging war on one another. Katts swiftly learned to give the hives a wide birth.

In the evenings, Qen often worked on traditional silk outfits for Halling, Bux and Yoj to wear at their partnership ceremony, now only six weeks off. When Bux wasn't helping her, she was painting the faces and relationships of Halling, Yoj and Ng into their living room mural, often with Ng's company and sometimes her help. Yerush was swamped with end of term papers to grade. Halling and Yoj picked up the slack, cooking, cleaning, planting and watering, as the warm weather crops went in.

Veida had two birthings in a row. The second was on Escollo Fling, which was only a short ferry ride away from Beras. She told them before she left that she was going to visit Paha, Tlochin, and her other family on Beras for a couple of days after the birth, and use that time to select ducklings and goslings to bring back home with her. Halling arranged to pick her up in a passenger sinner in four days.

After she left, at dinner that night Halling expressed her wish for a bad weather day off so she could meet up with Veida on Beras and meet her sibs. Ng said "Have you heard about them, then?"

"She talks about them often. She misses them a lot. I mean, she's glad to have her life here, but there's not a lot of crossover" said Halling unconsciously. Yerush looked at her sharply but saw no criticism. A silent communication occurred between her and Qen. After dinner, they had a quiet conversation in the living room as the younger women cleaned up the kitchen. A while later, Yerush came to tell them she was going to leave for Beras following week on Ot, visiting family with Veida for the weekend, and asked Halling if there would be room in the sinner for her as well as the cages of birds on return. Halling grinned and said "Sure." Yerush added if Halling did get off work, she should come as well. Halling paused, then answered "I'll have another chance. I think you oughta rent a private room at the hostel for you and Veida." Yerush's cheeks went faintly pink, but she said crisply "That's an excellent idea."

Yoj used the better part of a day scouting around Verzin surplus stores for suitable housing and feeders for their new flock, as well as a small metal tank for paddling. While she was in town, she stopped by the mattress store and made another barter with Jua's partner for their loft bed. Then, to reward herself, she visited the cartagen, dropping off three library books to be copied. This was mildly illegal, but the cartagen was an avid reader and kept an extra copy for herself of everything Yoj brought in. They conducted their transactions in the cartagen's office, away from prying eyes, and the cartagen did the copying herself after work hours. Yoj arranged for Halling to pick up the contraband later in the week when she went to bring home the mattress.

Veida and Yerush returned home in high spirits and full of stories. Everyone gathered at the new pen to release the fuzzy baby ducks and geese. A new compost pail was set in the kitchen for scraps that might be appealing to them, and another set of daily chores was added to the routine.

A week later, Veida had yet another birthing -- "I can tell it's spring" she remarked -- and left for Helle Fling. On Sju, what began as a light drizzle in the morning eventually turned to sheets of water by noon, and all pilots were called in from even local hauling. Yoj had finished next week's song the day before and posted it at the Lofthall before she went to teach songs at the school, but that rainy morning she had awoken with a new lyric already in her head. After breakfast, she put on otos and burzaka and slogged to the library to look up what it reminded her of. Then she went to her cubicle to work on it. She was about to head home for lunch when Bux showed up, saying "Let's go meet Halling, she's bound to be landing in all this mess, and we can eat with her at the canteen."

They didn't have long to stand in the blowing gusts. Halling decided washing down her sinner was a joke in this kind of weather, so they dashed for the canteen and had roasted chicken with bacon, broccoli and rice stuffing at a table full of raucous pilots. Afterward, Yoj decided to go home with her partners rather than continue working on her song; Bux had promised her a haircut.

When they came in the front door, damp and a little chilled, the entire house was quiet and dark. "Where's emma?" said Halling, almost to herself. She stepped over to Ng's bedroom room, gave a perfunctory knock but opened it without waiting. Bux and Yoj heard her gasp, then slam the door shut again and turn to them with a face that was literally grey.

"What's wrong, is she all right?" cried Bux, stepping toward the door. But Halling intercepted her and said "Don't go in there."

Bux was now even more concerned, and tried to get around her, saying "If something's wrong, we have to help her!" Halling literally wrapped her arms around Bux and pushed her toward the kitchen, saying quietly but urgently "She's fine, she's just -- naked."

Bux stopped struggling with her and laughed, a little confused. "Oh. But you've seen her naked before, right?"

Yoj came to look into Halling's face and say "What is going on with you?"

Halling whispered "She's not alone in there."

"Oh!' said Bux again, and Yoj echoed her after a second. They were grinning a little rudely at Halling, who still looked stunned and did not grin back.

Yoj whispered "Who is it? I mean, someone she used to know from Argile or Seda?"

Halling gulped, then, staring at Bux, mouthed "It's -- Qen."

After a moment's hesitation, Bux again tried to break for the bedroom door, and this time it took both Halling and Yoj to stop her. "No!" hissed Halling, "Trust me, you do NOT want to see what I saw."

"But that's my emma" said Bux in horror. "With YOUR emma. I don't understand how this can have happened."

Yoj began giggling and couldn't stop. After a few seconds, Halling joined her. Yoj said "Well -- they're still in their prime, and -- "

"Shut up!" said Bux, wheeling on her. "They're related now!"

"No, they're not" said Halling slowly. "We're related to each of them, but they are just -- two women of a certain sui."

"Well, what do you think Yerush is going to say?" demanded Bux. "I mean, Qen has never done anything like this!"

Yoj giggled even harder. "No, it's been Yerush doing all the katting around. I guess it was Qen's turn. And, yowza, what IS Yerush going to say?"

Halling had her hands over her mouth to stifle what was becoming belly laughs. Bux snorted, then began chuckling. Finally she said "I don't want to be here to find out. Or to see them when they come out that door."

Yoj stopped giggling. "Oh, lev, me either." She began walking quickly to the front door. Halling and Bux were right behind her. Out on the rainswept street, they looked at each other with blank faces.

"I need to get warm and dry" said Bux.

"My cubicle" offered Yoj.

"I haven't showered yet" said Halling.

Bux kissed her and said "Silly. Let's go find out how we can all fit into that tiny bed."

Four hours later, they woke up stiff and crowded. Yoj got up to sit in her chair and said "Well, I guess we can't stay away any longer. We need to go help make dinner."

"Let's sneak by Yerush's office and see if she's there. If she's not, then maybe she's gone home and the explosion has already happened" suggested Bux. After they dressed, they found that Yerush's office was locked and dark. They walked home slowly, stopping outside the front door to look at each other and take a big breath before going in.

Ng was sitting at the kitchen table chopping vegetables. She looked up at them with a defiant grin. Yoj didn't think she'd seen Ng look this good in years. Yerush emerged from the larder, stony-faced, with a jar of summer tomatoes in her hand. Qen stepped sideways from the aga, but when she saw it was them, she flushed and stepped out of view again.

Halling walked over to kiss Ng, then said "We'll take over dinner preparation, sorry we're late."

"That's all right" mumbled Qen, "We've got it under way."

Bux went into the kitchen to feed the katts, observing the silence that now seemed to be the rule. Yoj, unsure of what to do, finally went into her study to put away her notebook. Once there, she thought about hiding out until dinner. But that wouldn't be fair to Bux and Halling. As she emerged again, Veida came in the front door, smiling broadly and saying "Easy birth! And a huge baby, almost nine pounds!"

She was immediately puzzled by the lukewarm response she got. She set four liters of zayit and vinegar on the table, pulled a handful of small change from her pocket and dropped it into the household accounts jar, and said "What have you all been up to?"

This met a profound silence. Yoj, coming in behind her, said nervously "I already have a new idea of this week's song, got a head start on it."

"Wonderful" said Veida, turning to her with relief.

"And I have a wandmaler call for Juh in two days" said Bux. "They've offered to pay me in either mutton or wool, which would you all prefer?"

Qen didn't look up from her stirring. Halling cleared her throat to answer, but Yerush turned from the sink to face Veida and said in an icy voice "Our partner has decided to have an affair with Ng."

Veida dropped her coat on the floor and gaped at Yerush. She slowly turned to look at Qen. Qen set down her spoon and said in a clear voice "It's not an affair. I love her."

Ng's abrupt laugh didn't help the atmosphere any. Halling moved to stand behind her protectively. Yoj wasn't sure what to do, but nobody else even seemed to remember she and Bux were in the room.

Veida wheeled on Ng. Her expression was terrifying, as was her voice: "You don't get to have her. She's ours, she's mine, and you can't have her!"

Everybody was shocked, even Yerush. Veida took a step toward Ng and continued "I don't care what you've heard about how Yerush forced me on Qen, it's not true. I mean, I was the third wing, added on late after Yerush was already pregnant with Paha. And I was adrift, I didn't think I'd ever love again after Maszon. And I did fall for Yerush, I didn't listen to sense, I knew like everyone else that she had a new flame every year and none of them lasted, she was Qen's even though she cheated on her relentlessly. And I would have been just another one of them, no matter how desperately I wanted her. But it was Qen who came to me, Qen who set aside her own heartache and told me she thought Yerush really did love me, or could love me, and asked me to join them permanently. And -- I fell in love with Qen, just as much, just as terribly. I may not show it, but I need her, I am so lucky to have her -- " Veida finally stalled out in this ragged rant and the next second she was crying, leaning over the back of a kitchen chair and gasping one cry after another.

Yerush was thunderstruck. Halling put one hand on Ng's shoulder and Ng gripped it tightly. Her face was lined with empathy. Qen came to Veida and pulled her into her arms, saying "I'm not leaving you, I'm not leaving anybody. I am yours, Veida, but I have lots of love to give, you know that about me."

"Promise me you've not grown tired of me" babbled Veida, "I know I'm not like Yerush but I do my best to make you happy -- "

"Oh, Veida, how can you doubt yourself this way" said Qen, her voice breaking. "I adore you, I adore everything about you." She kissed Veida's mouth until Veida finally kissed her back. Then Yerush joined them, putting her arms around Veida from behind and murmuring "I didn't know, you should have told us, sweetheart."

Ng's voice came from the table. "I'm so sorry" she said. "We didn't plan it this way, and we would have told you in advance except -- it just happened today. I mean you no disrespect, Veida, I have no intention of ever coming between Qen and her partners."

Yoj suddenly felt 20 years older. These women, so much her senior, were just as tender-hearted and prone to mistakes as she and her lovers were. It was hard to take in.

After another long minute, Veida finally turned and sat down at the table across from Ng. Yerush stood behind her, looking at Ng defiantly. Bux went to stand with Qen, but Qen, after a brief hug, set her shoulders and walked around the table to sit down next to Ng, sliding her hand into Ng's. Her eyes on Veida were luminous and tender, however.

Veida's words were halting at first. "I -- I didn't mean to blow up at you. Any of you. It's just -- I've been gone two days, and tomorrow -- tomorrow is the anniversary of Maszon's death, and I was thinking about it all the way home, I couldn't wait to get home, to this home, this lifeline, this love which kept me alive -- " She began crying again. Yoj couldn't bear it any more. She came to sit next to Veida and hold her. Veida wept on her shoulder for a bit, then sat up again and wiped her cheeks.

"We'll -- work this out" she said. She looked at Qen and said "I want you to be happy, to have what you want. You do that for everyone else, you deserve it."

Qen leaned her other hand across the table and grabbed Veida's. "I will never move even an inch away from you, my honey custard" she said. The use of this nickname, which none of the others had ever heard, was shockingly intimate. Yoj had no doubt that it was something they said to one another in bed.

Bux abruptly went to the stove and stirred the simmering pot Qen had left. Yerush hugged Veida from behind and whispered "We'll talk about it together tonight, all right? Until it's all better, I promise." Veida turned and kissed her. Qen, her cheeks high with color, kissed Ng on her mouth and then got up to resume making dinner.

Eventually, familiar routine enabled them to all chat again, sharing bits of gossip or ideas they'd had since last night. When it was time to eat, Halling casually inserted herself between Veida and Ng, moving Ng down a seat to the corner next to Bux. Bux squeezed Ng's hand affectionately, as Yoj did with Qen next to her.

After dinner, Ng said she'd like to soak in a hot tub, did anyone else want to bathe first? Halling offered to help her get in and out of the tub, but Qen said "No, I'll do that". The younger women cleaned the kitchen vigorously as Ng and Qen went into the bath room. After a few minutes, Veida went outside to put away the flocks, and Yerush joined her. When they came back in, they brushed their teeth at the kitchen sink and Yerush said "We're going on to bed."

"So will we, then" said Bux, kissing them both sweetly. After they were up in their loft, Halling stripped down and took a hasty sponge bath at the sink. She sprinted, naked, for their bedroom and Bux followed. Yoj went to the door of the bath room and knocked gently, then said through the metal "We're all going to bed. Sweet dreams, you two. I love you."

She heard Qen, then Ng, call out a good night to her. She went to her own bedroom and shut the door with a sense of relief.

Halling had on a schmatta and was sitting in bed already. Bux was on the edge of the bed, looking worn. She said "I never knew that's how they got together -- that Yerush and Qen were already starting their family. I always thought Veida was part of the planning."

"Well, likely she was for you and Culisa" said Yoj.

"And I can guess that how Yerush got to know her was because Veida was going to be her comadrona" said Halling. This startled Bux anew.

"So -- do you think Qen is going to sleep with Ng tonight?" she asked.

Halling snorted. "I'd say that looks pretty obvious."

"But -- I think she should go be with Veida at least for tonight" said Bux. "I mean, Veida's hurting so much."

"Veida has Yerush" said Halling. "What, you think Qen should leave Ng to be alone tonight?"

A slight edge was creeping into both their voices. Yoj, now in her schmatta, sat down on the foot of the bed and said "It's theirs to sort out. Yes, you both have emmas involved in this, and frankly, so do I. But they do things differently than us, and we should not be choosing sides, here."

Halling and Bux looked at her, then at each other and laughed nervously. "We've got a partnership ceremony in less than a month to plan" said Bux, in a near whisper. "They better all work this out before that day arrives."

"Emma will, I can say that for her" replied Halling.

"They all will" declared Yoj. "Listen, I'd like the middle tonight. Except, I'm not really sleepy. Would you mind if I read in here?"

"I'm tired, I'll be dropping off, you won't bother me" said Halling, lying down. Bux got up and began undressing. Yoj went to get her new book from her study. She noticed the bath room door was now open and Ng's bedroom door was shut. She reported this to the others when she crawled back into bed.

"I don't want to think about it any more" said Halling sleepily. Yoj gave her a kiss and curled away from her. As Bux slid in beside Yoj, she said "Can we read together?"

Yoj was delighted. They turned the bedside lamp shade away from Halling and opened the book.

Three weeks later, on Sju, a special passenger sinner run arranged by Halling traveled almost the breadth of Skene, picking up Nilma on Yanja, Paha and Tlochin on Beras, out to Byli to retrieve Lawa, and finally Moasi, Ktiva and Tu from Seda. Yoj and Bux were at the jichang to meet them. Nilma balked at the notion of staying in a manage with groups of in-laws and Yoj had gotten her a single room at the hostel. Myrd, Owera and Culisa all insisted they could not get off work for a day. Everyone else was staying at the Manage -- Ng had given up her room for Moasi and Ktiva and was sleeping on a cot in the living room, Tu and Lawa were taking the loft over her head, and Bux had given their bedroom to Paha and Tlochin.

Bux, Yoj and Halling stored their wedding clothes and bags for the weekend after in Halling's bunk at the Lofthall the day before. Halling, as could have been predicted, wound up having to work the day of her wedding, as did a large number of the pilots who were guests, so the ceremony was planned for 5:00, followed by dinner, then live music and dancing until dawn when the ferries would begun running again. The main room at the Lofthall had been augmented with outside canopies outside to the jichang, in case it rained. The canteen would serve as banquet room, with additional tables and buffet in the main Lofthall.

Yoj had not been able to decide on a single band for the music, so they invited the Kinusanders, the 11-piece band from their first dance together, and the small violin combo who was Yoj's favorite. The violinists were going to play during the actual ceremony. Yoj teared up every time she imagined it.

Pilots had insisted they would handle set-up and cleaning afterward. This left the main work to the Manage of cooking. Halling hired the canteen staff to do as much as they could, especially of the last-minute menu items. Yoj and Veida spent three days before Sju making desserts and breads. Yerush and Qen had been in a frenzy of bartering and buying food items from all over Skene, and since the guest list was not certain -- the invitation had gone out on Sigrist radio, as usual -- quantities had to be voluminous. Anything leftover would be fed to pilots, overnight guests, and eventually schoolchildren on Moja.

Bux insisted that everyone in the Manage name their favorite dishes for the banquet, and these all went on the initial list. When she read this possible menu out at dinner two weeks before the wedding, Qen had blanched and said it was far too excessive, and even Halling had remarked maybe they could cut back on desserts. But Bux argued this was a one-time event, a gift to their community, and Yoj stepped in on her side: "We can afford it" she said, "and I wouldn't mind giving them a meal they're still talking about when our children get partnered." Which settled it for everyone else.

The final menu, then, excluding drinks was: Goose liver pate; roast duck with cranberry sauce; mutton stew; lamb with mint jelly; dogefish filets; oysters with hot sauce; gammon with orange glaze; crab cakes with egg dressing; hamsa with lime slices; grilled samaki; fried chicken; fried tofu with black bean sauce; potatoes roasted in goose fat; sticky riceballs; stuffed mushrooms; stuffed peppers; stuffed tomatoes; steamed asparagus; glazed carrots; broccoli in mustard butter; steamed cabbage with vinegar; mixed greens with bacon; green beans in hot sauce; avocado salad; sweet and sour kale; mashed yams; squash with hot peppers; roasted beets and sour cream; new onions in cream sauce; roasted garlic; five different kinds of bread; lemon custard; raspberry torte; peach cobbler; cherry pie; honeycakes; apple squares; almond rice cookies; and apricot flan.

After buying out much of the market on Roku, everyone in the Manage except Ng had gone to the canteen kitchen and used their large stoves and storage areas to begin making the meal. Yoj had plotted it, step by step. Once all the sauces were made, vegetables prepped and meat set to marinate, the final cooking and assembly could be done by the canteen cooks, they had insisted. After-work fare for the pilots that day would be sandwiches and fruit, but they wouldn't complain. Yoj was paying the canteen cooks handsomely for the work. It would free up their families for visiting on the day of the wedding.

That night, Bux and Yoj took a bath together, and after they'd been in the tub a couple of minutes, Halling knocked on the door and said with a grin "Could I squeeze in?" They had a hilarious time of it, washing each other's hair and getting the floor quite drenched. Bux remarked "Tomorrow, after your shift, I guess you'll shower at the Lofthall and then we'll all get dressed together there."

"We'll all shower there together, too" said Halling. "It's our wedding day, we're going to take over one of the shower stalls."

Bux looked flustered. "What if someone looks at me -- I mean, us?"

"You're dazzling" said Yoj. "And it will make them envy us all even more."

"But no posing for Schla" said Halling, not quite joking.

"Well, then, no posing either for -- is it just Clun, or is there anyone else in the Lofthall you've been lovers with?" Bux asked Yoj. Yoj pretended to have to think, counting silently on her fingers, and Bux hit her in the face with her sponge.

Yoj and Bux had arranged for an extended family lunch on the day of the wedding at their favorite restaurant, in the main street of Riesig. Lawa and Tu carried Ng between them, and Yoj was radiant walking arm-in-arm with Nilma, who looked a little overwhelmed at first. During the meal, however, Bux sat on one side of Nilma, Yerush on the other, and plied her with questions about her work (Yerush) and Yoj's childhood (Bux). Nilma unwound under the attention, the double gaze of blue eyes and welcome curiosity. She told stories about Yoj that Yoj didn't remember. Bux ordered cherry brandy with the meal, which was roast pork, and once again everyone except Yoj got tipsy, although Bux kept herself in check.

They lingered at lunch until it was almost time to go meet Halling. Paha and Tlochin offered to carry Ng back to the Manage so Halling's sibs could go see her land. Nilma unexpectedly said she wanted to go to the jichang. Halling jumped from her hatch with yells of joy, hugging her sibs with abandon, then grabbing Nilma in a giant hug as well. Lawa insisted on washing down the sinner while Nilma explained the details of how water jets worked, all the way down into the underground chambers where it originated.

At the end of the jichang field, canopies were already erected and clusters of tables and chairs were being set up. The Kinusanders walked in from the ferry, laden with instruments, and suddenly Yoj couldn't bear waiting any longer. "Let's go -- let's start getting dressed" she urged her partners. They took their leave of family and strode to the Lofthall, where the musicians had begun tuning instruments. The great hall was festooned with silk banners and masses of flowers, decorating still ongoing under the direction of Veida and Qen. When Qen saw the young women, she yelled "You're not supposed to be in here yet! Get out, you'll spoil the surprise!" Laughing, they went on the dorm area.

Halling walked into the dressing alcove off the showers and began pulled off her clothes. When Yoj joined her, Bux whispered to her "We just strip right here?"

"Right here" said Yoj. "Fold your clothes up on a bench. There's towels on that shelf there, and Halling's shampoo and soap are in one of the stalls."

"Oh, so we have separate stalls" said Bux in relief, unlacing her gilet. Yoj laughed and didn't answer.

There turned out to be only two stalls, facing each other and open to all view. A set of metal shelves held clusters of personal items. When they entered, a knot of pilots in each stall slowly fell silent, and three from the left-hand stall grabbed soap and moved hastily to the right hand side, making room for the newcomers. Schla, thank goodness, was nowhere to be seen. Clun and Funa were busy soaping each other up, as were a few other couples. Halling stepped into one of the jets with a sigh of pleasure, then motioned to Bux, who was trying to hide behind Yoj without being obvious about it.

"Will you scrub my back?" Halling said. Her cheeks flaming, Bux walked calmly to her and took the bar of lilac soap Halling handed her. Yoj moved behind Bux and began soaping Bux's back at the same time.

Bux had never before been naked in front of anyone except her family and lovers.

After a minute, conversation and laughter started again. The air of normalcy lasted until Halling turned to lather Bux's chest while Yoj was washing her hair. Once again, there was a long silence in the room, punctuated only by the rush of water and the occasional squeak of a foot on tile. Then Yoj washed Halling's chest, and Bux washed Yoj's. By this time, Bux was grinning from ear to ear, and she said loudly "If you bend over, sweetheart, and part your cheeks, I can clean your love valley, too."

There was a frozen moment of shock, then Halling burst into guffaws, followed by Bux and Yoj, and finally the entire room as they realized they'd been had. Someone threw a soapy cloth at Bux but it hit Yoj in the face, and the water fight was on. By the time it was over, Yoj was flat on the floor, with Bux sitting on her belly and Halling sliding down the wall in the other stall, everybody in hysterics. Calling truce, they took a final rinse and walked back into the dorm area without bothering to drape towels around themselves, joking and dripping.

They dried off and put on underwear. Sitting in a row on Halling's bunk to allow their hair to dry, they chatted with pilots stopping by. Their ceremony attire hung on the canvas wall opposite, and Yoj could not stop looking at the stunning patterns in silk which had been woven, likely in loneliness, by her aggie. It created a confusing mix of emotions inside her.

All three silks were in the same deep red, the traditional color for partnering ceremonies, but Bux's pattern incorporated silver, Halling's used gold, and Yoj's had a thread of ivory. Her pants were balloon celana, with matching puff sleeves and a high collar decorated in ivory braid. Halling's were form-fitting dubikun, with high gaiters in matching silk, a sleek hanshan pullover underneath a jirekinu with blossom-shaped buttons. Bux wore pleated calças, tucked in by a short-waisted hanshan with a plunging neckline to reveal Bux's amazing cleavage. They all had new black patent leather zaoxue for the occasion, which they had worn around the house several times to break them in for dancing.

Qala appeared and informed them that Qen had sent word, they were now allowed into the main hall. With a grin, they stood up and, in the crowded space, helped each other get dressed. They were rather overwhelmed by how dazzling they looked, and Halling whispered "We could just slip out the back and go hide in our bedroom. That door locks, you know."

"After walking into that shower room, this is going to be a breeze" answered Bux, and she led the way.

The main hall had lit candles everywhere, impossibly hard-to-come-by candles with rare open flames. The flickering light was magical, glinting off the silk, the glasses and china on tables, the brass instruments of the band, and the eyes of their dressed-up emmas standing in a row at the end of the room: Five women swollen with pride. Bux, Halling, and Yoj crossed to them in a hush and asked each of their partner's emmas for leave to blend their families, pausing formally for the reply. When Yoj asked Qen, Qen answered "Yes yes yes!", making everyone in the room laugh.

They turned and faced the Ethicist, who stood before them, held up their certificate for all to see, and declared them suitable for partnering. She handed the certificate to each of the emmas in turn for her to sign it, and left it in the hands of Veida at the end. As she looked on, Bux, Halling and Yoj turned to one another, took each other's hand, and said simply "I join my life to yours." The vows completed, the Ethicist asked if they had anything more to say.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, Yoj had written a song for the three of them, with lyrics which celebrated the treasures of their life thus far, using a melody she had held in her head since she was a teenager, a haunting complicated refrain. They had practiced it quietly in their bedroom, but never had a chance to sit it out loud and strong until now.

It rang through the room, sparking an initial gasp. By the second verse, the two violinists had joined in. At the end, the trio threw their arms up into the air, the usual signal that the partnering was now completed, and everyone rushed to hug them in a crushed circle.

Qala announced the banquet and led the family to a long table in the canteen, which had also been beautifully decorated with candles. The meal was long and ecstatic. Bux turned down anything to drink but water -- "It's a long night, and I don't want to miss a second", she said. Finally returning to the Lofthall when music started up, the candles and most of the tables were gone, replaced by overhead lights illuminating the empty dance floor in the middle of the room.

Making love with two others is much more easily managed than dancing as a trio, unless you simply join hands and prance around in a circle. Instead, Yoj and Halling lifted Qen between them, her arms gripping their shoulders. Their other four emmas interspersed between them and Bux, and they formed a large circle, laughing and moving one direction, then the other. After a few minutes, sibs and friends joined them and it eventually became a double spiral, weaving in and out of each other. Their first dance as partners lasted 20 minutes and included everyone in their community. When the music finally came to an end, they were soaked in sweat and deliriously happy, sitting down breathlessly to gulp cold water and giggle every time their eyes met.

By 10 p.m., most of the pilots had trailed away to their dorm at the back of the Lofthall, where Yoj hoped the soundproofing was adequate to allow them sleep. They had to work the following day, and one anxious young sinner was going to be moved up to fill in for Halling, with Lmape taking temporary head of the crew.

Yoj had found it unsettling to watch her emma dancing happily and light on her feet, sometimes with her new emmas-in-law. She realized she had never seen Nilma and Rosz dance, even at home. Presumably they had before beginning their family, when they were getting to know each other -- but Yoj wasn't sure how they had met or gotten close. Or why such a closeness had cooled, as it must have for Rosz to become so isolated and bitter. Thinking about it slowly dimmed her joy this night.

She eventually wandered outside, to a bench near the tillage, to let the sweat dry on her and pet a steady visitation of katts. The Lofthall katts knew Yoj was always good for patiently scratching the right spots on their thick fur. One moon was nearly full, one was crescent, and the stars were unobstructed this night. She lay her head back on her shoulders and wondered which direction humans had traveled from to come here. Likely the Astronomer knew, and a few of the scholars. But maybe in another 500 years, no one would know. Skene and humans would be inseparable, even in memory.

She heard a scuff on the gravel path and turned to see Qala, walking with her hands in her kalsongers and a quizzical look on her face. "Needing privacy, or can I join you?" she asked.

Yoj patted the bench beside her, and Qala settled down, their shoulders and thighs companionably touching. Qala said "That katt in your lap must be Bumper. She sleeps in the lemon verbena during the day, and her fur always smells of it. You smell of it, too."

"Good nose" commented Yoj. "And shouldn't you be in bed, by now? I worry about you and your sleep, I don't think you ever get enough."

"My work never stops being interesting and keeps me awake" said Qala. "Not the least of which is your music, a new score every week."

"Plus the adrenaline of responsibility" said Yoj.

"Yes, plus that. How does Halling handle it?" asked Qala.

"When she lies down, it's usually like turning off a light. She's been different since -- Bux joined us, but already she's starting to slow down. I admire her ability to set it all aside and just rest" said Yoj.

After a few seconds, Qala said quietly "I can remember when that wasn't available to her."

Yoj remembered, too. Qala continued "You gave her that. Brought it back to her: peace."

"I hope so" said Yoj almost unaudibly.

"What do you mean? How can you doubt it?" asked Qala, puzzled.

"I guess I mean -- I hope it continues." Yoj took a long breath and said "I hope I can fulfill the promises I made tonight. I don't think anyone in my lineage ever has. I'm not sure I'm who Halling and Bux think they love."

Qala laughed, a peal that startled Bumper in Yoj's lap. Bumper decided she needed to go check out a nearby rustling, and Mallie was glad to take her place. Qala said "Both of those two are extremely sharp and sure of what they deserve. They chose well. And they are as lucky as they feel they are."

"You say the best things to me" said Yoj, her voice still a little shaky. She put left hand in Qala's and kept tracing Mallie's vertebrae with her right.

"Well, here's one more" said Qala. "I was remembering, earlier, Halling and Xaya's partnering ceremony, there in that same room. Only the crowd wasn't as huge. And I have to say, Halling looks just as happy now as she did then."

Yoj fought back tears. After a few more minutes, she said "C'mon, I'm going to walk you to your room and tuck you into bed. Morning is too nearby."

"Privy first" said Qala. They strolled to the eight-hole privy and sat together in the dark. Walking back into the Lofthall office, the light seemed painfully bright. Yoj folded Qala's clothes for her as she disrobed and slid into a schmatta. "Who makes your clothes for you?" she asked, looking at the threadbare schmatta. "I mean, not the uniforms, I know the Lofthall provides those."

"Oh, there used to be someone on Bosco but she retired two years ago" said Qala.

"I'm setting Bux and Qen loose on you, then" said Yoj. "We'll draw out some of your linen allotment and make you some lovely nightwear. Plus a dress shati from Isola Fling silk, you can choose the pattern."

Qala was embarrassed, but said only "All right." Yoj kissed her forehead after she was in bed and said "Do I leave any lights on, or the door open?"

"All dark, and yes, the door open a crack" said Qala. "Yoj -- I'm really happy for you. For you all."

"You are definitely part of our life's goodness" said Yoj. "Carynn bye."

When she returned to the Lofthall, the dancing was still energetic. Bux and Halling leaped up from their table and rushed her, saying "Where were you?"

"Communing with katts, and then Qala" said Yoj. "She's gone to sleep now, but gives us her entire blessing."

"The only way I'm going to be able to make it to dawn is to keep moving" said Bux. "Come on, finish this dance with me."

"I've got the next one" called Halling as her partners swirled into the middle of the floor.

As blue-black dark outside the Lofthall windows gave way to grey, the musicians finally began putting away their instruments. The newly-partnered trio and their emmas stacked stray dishes and carried them to the canteen, where breakfast preparation was under way. They drank a quick cup of tea, but when Halling picked up a broom, Veida took it from her hands and said "Go. Your bags are at the end of the hall. Go catch the ferry to Pomar, we'll handle this."

Halling's sibs assured her they'd get Qen home. There was an extended round of kissing goodbye and faintly suggestive remarks about "having fun with each other" before the three of them walked out the front door into the strong hint of a new day, heading in the direction of the ferry landing.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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