Saturday, December 15, 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:
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


When Yoj arrived at the Lofthall canteen, more than usually red-cheeked, Halling was halfway through her meal and looked up to see Yoj with a mixture of relief and irritation. Yoj gave her a quick kiss and went to get a tray. Upon returning, she tapped on the shoulder of the pilot beside Halling and gave a nod for her to shove over, then squeezed in beside Halling.

"I've got news" she whispered.

"Where were you?" demanded Halling.

"Later. Part of the news" said Yoj with an enigmatic grin.

Halling lingered over her dessert -- nothing came between her and dessert -- while Yoj finished. Grabbing an extra handful of cookies for Yoj, she said "You can eat these when we're alone" and hustled Yoj back toward their shared bed in Yoj's cubicle. Once there, Yoj pulled off her coat and boots, loosened her gilet, and threw herself down across the foot of the bed, leaning against the wall and declaring "I've found our aggie!" She held out her hands for the cookies.

But Halling didn't consider their exchange concluded yet. She sat down at Yoj's desk and said "What? When? How? No, wait -- who?"

Yoj laughed, extremely pleased with herself. "You left out 'Where'? It's Bux, you were right when you mentioned her as a possibility a while back, she is definitely the one."

"Bux? I mentioned about a dozen, Yoj, and you rejected them all" reminded Halling.

"Yeah, well, sometimes I can be dense, Halling, you of all people should know that" Yoj said as if she was imparting new information.

"Tell me what levvin' happened" said Halling.

Yoj began at the library and went through to the goodbye kiss, not leaving out much. She was accustomed to having no secrets with Halling, and she was a good storyteller. When she was done, Halling felt a mixture of possibility and uncertain pain. She heaved herself down beside Yoj and handed her a single cookie, then began eating one herself.

"So..." she said after swallowing, "You've been more or less making love all day?"

"Yeah, but I washed good after" said blunt Yoj. "And Hall, this is no affair, I'm really falling for this woman." She reached for a second cookie, but Halling ignored her.

"Like -- seriously in love?" asked Halling slowly.

"Yep. Maybe a Halling and Xaya kinda love" said Yoj. She put her arm around Halling's shoulders and said "And get this -- she made a list a long time ago, when she was just a kid, of who she'd consider partnering with and you were on that list with me! How perfect is that?"

To Yoj's complete surprise, she discovered Halling was weeping. She pulled Halling into her arms, crumbling some of the cookies, and began kissing her, saying "What's wrong? Is it mentioning Xaya, did I bring up a painful memory?"

Halling choked out "I can't bear the idea of losing you!"

"Losing me? Who said anything about losing me? You mean because I slept with someone else? I've done that since we've been partnered, you've always been okay with it" said Yoj.

"But you've never been in love with somebody" blubbered Halling. Yoj hadn't seen her cry like this since the early days after Xaya died. She was stricken through and through.

"Oh, Hall, you think because I love Bux I might not love you as much? That's just nuts, sweetheart. I am yours forever, I can't bear the idea of losing you, either!" Yoj began kissing Halling's wet cheeks and declaring all the reasons why she loved her. After a few minutes, Halling's fear retreated enough for her to fish out the hand between them holding broken cookies and offer another one to Yoj.

Still more or less in Yoj's lap, they ate the rest of the cookies, looking deep into each other's eyes. Yoj was so transparent, by the last crumb Halling had found solid ground inside herself again.

"Well, Yoj -- she does sound right. And I've thought she was hot for years."

Yoj was surprised again. "You have? Why didn't you ever mention -- oh, right, you did." Yoj was the one now feeling jealousy. Halling could see that, and pushed it just a little, adding "She's got a world-class ass, and she's every bit as smart as us. And I liked her even in first grade, when you were too busy to notice her -- she was never mean to other kids, and all the ones younger than her knew they could come to her with hurt feelings. She was a lot like her emma Qen in that regard. I bet she'll be a superb aggie."

Yoj was still stuck on the 'ass' comment. "So -- you're attracted to her? I mean, before this?"

"Sure" said Halling easily. "What's she like, anyhow?"

Yoj wasn't sure if telling the truth would make Halling cry again or make her want Bux more. But she couldn't dissemble. Finally she said "She's spectacular, Halling. All out in bed, and yet full of fun, not so swept away that she forgets you. It does take her a while, you know...Not like us."

"That'll be a great balance, then" said Halling, a gleam in her eye.

Yoj, now worried, said "But Hall, if you should happen to not like her, then that would be okay, you don't have to pretend -- "

"You mean if she and I don't click, you'll stop being her lover and continue on an aggie search with me?" said Halling, not quite teasing.

Yoj looked her deep in her eyes and, trying to conceal her anguish at the thought, said "Absolutely. You and me first, Halling."

Halling kissed her, then, long and repeatedly. After a couple of minutes, they came up for air and Yoj said, her face in Halling's neck, "You smell like cookies."

"Well, you may have washed but I can still smell her on you" said Halling.

"Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry -- " began Yoj.

"No, it's -- a good smell" said Halling, taking another sniff. "Okay, then. What's the plan?" She rolled off Yoj's lap and stood up to take off her boots and clothes, getting ready for bed.

"Tomorrow she's going to come here in the afternoon and we'll go meet you after your shift. Then, you and her can talk, I guess. And -- we'll go back to her Manage?" said Yoj, also disrobing.

"What about all those emmas?" said Halling, pulling on her schmatta.

"She's talking to them. She doesn't seem fazed by them."

"Well, speaking of which, I have to go piss" laughed Halling.

"I'll come with you" said Yoj.

Back in her cubicle, Yoj locked the door and turned off the overhead, leaving on her desk lamp.

"How was sinning today?" she said, settling down next to Halling, who was lying on her belly.

"Clun and Funa had the far quadrant, and I counted ten different leaps that came within a meter or two of contact with them" said Halling. "They must have empty bowels tonight."

Yoj shuddered. "What was it like, Hall? After a run like that, as a lighter, with your partner? I mean, seeing her almost die every day, did you just get numb to it?"

"Never" said Halling. "It sucks all the adrenaline out of you, but you can't stop it. It's part of why I couldn't keep my hands off her, any time we were walking on the ground."

"I remember" said Yoj affectionately.

"And once we'd eaten and rested, when we woke up, intact and in each other's arms -- well, the lovemaking was -- all out, as you put it."

"Better than me and you?" teased Yoj. As soon as it was out of her mouth, however, she said "Don't answer that, I didn't mean it." She rolled to her side and slid her hand under Halling's schmatta from the bottom, cupping Halling's muscular ass cheeks, then drifting up to trace the irregular dark blue spot at the base of Halling's spine, the way she did almost every night.

After a minute, Halling said "How do you know where to trace, if you're not looking at me?"

"Because I know exactly where it is. I should, after all this time." Yoj leaned up on her elbow and pulled down the quilt to peer at Halling's lower back. "Except it's really faded now. Even four years ago, it was much darker, more defined. It's sad that eventually I won't be able to see it at all."

"Mmmm" said Halling. "My siba Moasi has one, too. Although they say it's not the same shape as mine."

"Yours is like Riesig without the Sigrist Pensinsula" said Yoj, using her fingers to point out what Halling could not see, "and with an extra long bump where the fish docks are."

"Mmmm" said Halling again, her eyes closed.

"Are you going to sleep?" asked Yoj.

"Seems that way" answered Halling drowsily. Then, as she noticed Yoj's lazy hand trailing downward, "Why? -- Don't tell me you're in the mood, after the day you've had?"

Yoj's grin could be heard in her voice. "I know. But I am. I mean, I want you and me to have one last time where it's just us."

"We'll have other times alone" said Halling, rolling over to face Yoj.

"Yeah, but it won't be the same once you've been with her" said Yoj.

"You and me will always be the same" said Halling softly, pulling Yoj on top of her.

After dinner, Bux walked down to her Sheng Zhang's office and caught up on the work she'd neglected that afternoon. She hoped to see a glimpse of Yoj and Halling, maybe, but they were no doubt holed up in Yoj's room at the University. She felt a flicker of jealousy, which she tossed over her shoulder like salt. On her way back, she spied the kiosk where slates were hung. She strode to the kiosk, pulled down the slate Yoj and Halling had posted, and bringing her knee up in a fluid motion, she snapped the slate in two across her knee. Two women walking down the street stared at her, and snickered as she went on home. She thought she'd have trouble sleeping. As she crawled into bed, however, full of the scent of Yoj, she wrapped her arms around herself and dropped off quickly.

The next morning after an early breakfast, she worked hard in the tillage, changing out mulch, adding a new layer to the potatoes, weeding and gathering eggs. She combed out the fur of all six katts, who jostled with each other for their turn. She took a long hot bath and put on clean clothes, then washed her schmatta and other laundry and hung it out to dry. She used the leftover bath water to flush the privy. She helped Qen choose which two capons to kill for dinner, helped Qen scald and pluck them, and set them to rest in the larder. Yerush planned to make a casserole with eggplants and tomato preserves from last summer, and Veida had bought pears the day before for a pie.

Just as Bux was heating up leftover soup for an early lunch, a knock came at the front door. Bux went to answer it, wiping her hands, and there stood Yoj, grinning from ear to ear. She pulled her into the house and kissed her extravagantly.

"What are you doing here, I thought you had a song to finish!" said Bux.

"I do, I have to set the parts but otherwise it's ready, and I thought if I ran here and ran back, it would equal my lunch break, and I just wanted to see you so badly" said Yoj urgently. They kept kissing, wrapped around each other. Qen sawed two thick slices of bread from a loaf of haidan, spread it with bean paste, lettuce and paper-thin red onion, and wrapped it in a napkin with a handful of dried figs.

Bux said "How is Halling?"

"Thrilled to bits" said Yoj joyously.

Relief unlocked Bux's kisses even more. Finally Yoj said "I have to go, I have to run, but come to my room at the University in two hours, we can walk together from there."

Qen called out "Hang on" and handed her bundle to Yoj. "Don't skip meals" she said kindly. "And bring the napkin back." Yoj gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and took the steps to the street two at a time.

When Bux turned around, she saw Veida and Yerush grinning at each other in the kitchen. She fairly skipped back to the stove and ate her lunch with a non-stop smile. She swept her room, then the rest of the house, and asked Veida to bring in her clothes when they were dry, adding "Please dump them in my clothes chest, not on my bed."

"Since when have I ever dumped your clothes anywhere?" said Veida. "I'll fold them like a normal person."

"Will they be here for breakfast?" asked Qen. Yerush snorted at her, and Qen said "I was just making sure."

Bux looked at the clock. It was early, but she couldn't bear to wait here any longer. "I'll see you all later" she said, giving Qen, who was closest, a kiss on the top of her head and hurrying for the door. The door shut, then opened again as Bux dashed to her room to put a drop of honeysuckle oil behind each earlobe. The second time she left, she stayed gone.

"Were we like that?" Yerush said to Qen.

"We were older, but yes, I remember sitting for four hours on the hard stone floor of the University lobby, freezing in the draft, because I knew you'd have to pass by that way to go home" said Qen.

Yerush's face melted, and she suddenly looked just like she had when she was Bux's age. She came to Qen and kissed her lingeringly, whispering "I hope I've warmed you up sufficiently since then". When she was done, she went to Veida and kissed her the same way. "Thank you for that child, in particular" Veida whispered. "Thank us all" said Yerush out loud. They went back to work.

The main building at the University was one of the few buildings on Skene to have a full second story, a choice that involved weighing land conservation against the use of precious wood to create flooring. Faculty offices and a limited number of living quarters (for single gakushas) were on the second floor. Bux knew exactly where Yoj's cubicle was, one corridor over from Yerush's office -- she had walked that corridor countless times going to see Yerush, technically out of her way but she could always use the excuse that she had gone to the water closet. The University had indoor flush toilets instead of privies, another rarity. She'd walked by Yoj's closed door slowly, hoping Yoj would suddenly come out and they could run into each other. It had never happened, though, not in five years of trying.

Yoj's cubicle was not meant to be a living quarter, and to be honest, once graduated she had no longer qualified for a study cubicle at the U, either. Her job as dichter came under the guidance of the Lofthall, and dorm-style living space was plentiful there for all the lighters and sinners who had no Manages. But a canvas screen around a bunk provided no sound barrier, and when writing songs that meant life or death, Yoj needed complete silence to focus. Especially with all the singing that went on among lighters and sinners in general. She had to come up with something completely new every single week.

She had appealed to Igoz, the Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, who negotiated for her to keep her cubicle at the U, so she had downsized her desk and squeezed a small pallet onto the floor beside it, her clothes chest at one end and just enough leftover floor space to open the door. A solid iron door she kept shut against all sound except that which played in her head.

Bux did not knock, now, at that iron door. Five years of fantasy made her lightheaded with fulfillment as she turned the handle and opened it to discover Yoj hunched at her desk, a pencil behind her ear and her short brown hair sticking out in several directions from where she'd run her hands through it in concentration. The bed was unmade and the sheets were past needing changing. Dirty laundry was scattered everywhere, and the desktop was crowded with stacks of paper and printouts. The clerestory window was tightly closed against the late winter chill, and there was a definite funk that hit Bux's nostrils.

Yoj leapt to her feet, ecstasy on her face when she saw Bux, and grabbed her in a hug that quickly led to passionate kissing right there in the doorway of that hall where Bux had imagined such a moment countless times. After a few minutes, Yoj pulled out her watch and said "I lost track of the time. We should go, I like seeing her land." She pulled her jacket from a pile of clothes under her desk.

Bux hesitated, then said "When do you do laundry?"

Yoj looked around her, dismay on her face. "Not often. I'm sorry, I'm not a tidy sort. I get free laundry services at the Lofthall, it's just a question of hauling it over there."

"Then let's take it with us, we're heading for the Lofthall after we meet Halling, yes?" said Bux, embarrassed but determined. She was not going to sleep with Yoj on those sheets as they were, and sleeping with Yoj was high on her planned list of activities.

Yoj was even more embarrassed, but she pulled a large canvas rucksack from the bottom of the pile and began stuffing clothes into it. Bux said "The sheets and pillow case, too." And when she saw there was room, she added "Plus the quilt."

Yoj already had a small pack sitting on the desk with a change of clothes and her notebook in it, and as she slung the now bulging laundry sack over one shoulder, she tried to put the pack over her other shoulder. Bux took it from her, however, and said "I'll carry this one." They walked down the curved stone stairs to the commons and two blocks down, past the Lofthall, to the jichang where a row of lighters were already parked, plus a couple of sinners, while more circled overhead.

"That's Halling" said Yoj, pointing to one of the large silver craft that looked in line to be next to land. Bux examined it closely, comparing it to the other sinners and memorizing its minute differences so she, too, could recognize it instantly. Across the upper nose was a painted a word that, finally, she was able to read as "Xaya". Under the solar panel-encrusted wings, suspended in a glass bubble, she could see the form of Halling, her arms and feet busy with controls. The foils moved in ways she didn't understand, the jetpacks turned downward and seemed to lock, and Halling began slowly drifting toward the ground, elegant and easy, tucking her craft into a spot on the crushed lava tarmac as if putting away a bowl that had just been washed. Yoj had set down her big bundle and stood next to Bux, her arm across Bux's shoulders, and Bux wondered if Yoj could feel how much she was trembling. At the final sigh of the four landing legs onto the solid earth, Bux gave a sigh, too.

The engine went silent, and as Yoj reshouldered her bundle, Halling clicked open her hatch door and slithered out feet-first, stretching tall and grinning, looking their way. She had on the brown wool kalsongers and mustard yellow linen shirt and gilet that was uniform for sinners, with gleaming leather otos hitting the ground solidly under her feet. Her guibba was unfastened, the brown leather jacket with fleece lining that only pilots were allowed to wear. She'd left her cap and gloves in the sinner. They walked toward each other, and Bux felt like she might just pass out from a mixture of fear and anticipation. Mostly fear, right at the moment.

Yoj dropped her bundle and wrapped her arms around Halling in an exuberant hug, crying out with gladness. Halling's eyes were closed tight as she pressed her cheek against Yoj's. "Welcome back" Bux heard Yoj said, and Halling kissed Yoj on the mouth, lightly and sweetly. Then she turned to look at Bux.

Bux set Yoj's little pack down and tried to convince her legs to move, just a few steps more. Before they would listen to her, however, Halling closed the gap and wrapped her arms around Bux. Bux slid her arms around around Halling's waist, under the guibba, noting how warm Halling was under the coat as her face pressed into Halling's shoulder. Halling smelled like a mixture of lilac and ocean, with fresh clean sweat thrown in, and Bux discovered it was delicious to her.

After a few giddy seconds, Halling pulled back to look her directly in the eyes. Bux wasn't sure she was ready to kiss yet, and to her relief, Halling didn't offer. They grinned at each other, and Halling said "Thank you for coming to meet me."

"My pleasure" said Bux, and as she said it, she realized pleasure was definitely what she was feeling.

"I gotta tie down" said Halling, and she turned back to Xaya. She fished retractable hooks from the gravel that Bux had not noticed before, sunk into the ground, and clipped steel cables around each of the landing legs with these hooks. Another pocket in the tarmac held a coiled cord that Halling pulled out and plugged into an outlet on the chassis. Then Halling walked over to a large tank nearby which had solar heating panels on it as well as a thermal valve connecting it to ground energy, and came back dragging a canvas hose fitted with a brass nozzle. Yoj stepped backward, carrying her laundry, and Bux followed suit.

Halling hosed down her craft, using water so hot it steamed in the air, starting at the top and aiming the jet into each crevice. As she worked, the rest of the sinners landed, and occasionally Halling would have to stop spraying or change directions to keep from splashing another pilot. When she was done, she handed her hose to the next sinner in line and rejoined them, putting her arms over both their shoulders as they headed for the Lofthall. Bux noticed Halling was matching her stride to hers, and it felt to her as if they were dancing together. Yoj grilled Halling about how the day's catch had gone, if there were any tough moments, and visibly relaxed when she heard it was an easy run.

On their way into the sprawling building, Yoj handed in her bundle at the laundry and retrieved her pack from Bux. Halling said quietly to Bux, with a smile, "You behind the washing?" and when Bux nodded, uncertain of Halling's reaction, Halling whispered "Way to go".

Once inside, the rafters rung with shouts, singing, and wild laughter. Yoj said "Shower or food?", and Halling replied "Food!" They turned right into the canteen, where the ambient noise was heightened with the clash of plates and silverware. As Halling got into line at the food counter, she offered Bux "You hungry?" Bux shook her head. Halling took an outsized bowl of fish stew, another bowl of steamed squash with cabbage, and two slices of haidan. When Yoj got only a cup of tea, Halling raised her eyebows and Yoj said "One of the emmas made me a kickin' lunch." Halling grinned at Bux again, and Bux began to feel an appetite for that grin, wide and unrestrained under Halling's flashing black eyes.

As they looked for a spot at the long tables that would accommodate the three of them, a lighter stepped in front of Yoj. She was wearing the lighter uniform of royal blue kalsongers with robin's blue linen shirt and gilet, and Bux recognized her as Clun, someone who had been in her grade at school and who also, rumor had it, was a one-time lover of Yoj. Clun said "What's with the visitor?", tilting her head at Bux. There was an arrogance to her gesture that went way beyond the usual unconscious lighter and sinner clannishness.

Yoj's grin didn't actually diminish, but its character shifted perceptibly. She said "This is Bux, no visitor. We're partnering, I'm falling in love with her, and get used to her being here."

Bux thought she might just hop up onto the nearest table and scream, she was so delirously happy with this reply. She was rocked a second time when Halling said evenly "She's offered to be our aggie."

Somehow, over all the racket, their statements seemed to penetrate every corner of the room. The younger lighters, some of them just 16, openly stared at Bux. Most of the stares were appreciative, or longing, in fact. Clun's face was shocked, which Bux also enjoyed. Halling pointed to a far table with her bowl of squash, and they went to sit down in the sudden silence.

But then women began pounding Halling and Yoj on their backs, yelling congratulations and causing Halling to slosh some of her soup onto the floor. Several of the sinners also shook Bux's hand and welcomed her to the Lofthall. Once they were seated, Bux between the two of them at Halling's insistence, a cluster of pilots, in both blue and brown, jostled around Yoj's bench and demanded "You done?"

Yoj reached into her unbuttoned kabat and pulled out a roll of coarse kelp paper, saying "I got it right here." A cheer went up, and voices began demanding "Sing it!" Halling, shoveling food into her mouth, joined the hue, speaking around a wedge of bread.

Yoj stood up on her bench and unrolled the paper. The room went completely silent. Even the food servers stopped. Yoj began singing in a strong, clear contralto. Halling swallowed what was in her mouth and did not take another bite. This was the first time anyone in the world had ever heard this song, except for where it had grown inside Yoj's head over the past week. It was gorgeous, with a tight, hard rhythm perfectly wedded to lyrics. When Yoj was done, the shout that went up seemed to make the stone walls rattle.

Yoj sat back down, and Halling resumed eating. Bux found she had been holding her breath. More lighters crowded in behind Yoj, two of them leaning heavily against Bux's back to read the paper in Yoj's hand. Halling rested her thigh warmly against Bux's, and Yoj gave Bux a quick, glad kiss on her cheek before starting the song over again, this time joined by all of the lighters and many of the sinners, behind them and across the table from them. The odor of ocean and sweat came from all the other pilots as well, though only Halling also smelled of lilacs.

As the lighters sang, suddenly very serious for such young women, their hands and feet moved in motions that Bux realized must be imaginary aircraft controls in their hands. The motions were in unison, somehow coded to notes and musical shifts that every pilot learned as she learned how to fly. They were all in the air, in their heads, trying out the maneuvers that Yoj's song directed, synchronized movements that would befuddle the leviathans trying to snatch them from the sky to watery oblivion below. It was life or death, this song, and Bux was moved to tears. She understood, with emotion transmitted to her directly from all the young bodies pressed in tight around her, how important was the work that her Yoj did. And on her left hand was Halling, now her Halling, who joined these women out over the ocean, far away from home, every single day to face monsters who longed to kill her. She took Yoj's hand and then, after a second, Halling's as well.

By the second time through, Bux knew the words and music. It was a song about how after the long grey cold every year, without fail, green spears began to poke up through the mud and trees began to fuzz out in catkins. The shaggy, wild fleece of sheep were adroitly sheared from their suddenly limber bodies, and the promise of new woolen clothes, fresh greens, and slowly increasing daylight made everyone glad to get up in the morning. The lighters were now singing with gusto and certainty, a weaving throng of young vigor who had just been handed the keys to surviving another week.

When Halling was full, they all stood. As Halling bussed her dishes, Yoj pinned her song to a board in the large hall next door and fought her way back through the pack to Bux's side. "They'll work on it all the rest of the day, with the flight instructor" she told Bux. "Tomorrow they may have to go out sinning -- pilots don't automatically get Shmonah as a day of rest -- and on the day after, Moja, it will be time to use it in action. But they're quick studies, they'll be ready."

Halling had gone on to the showers. Yoj walked, arm in arm, with Bux to the dormitory where women in various stages of dress were coming and going to the showers. Bux did her best not to look at anyone -- mostly, towels were at least draped around middles, covering genitals, which meant she caught no glimpse of Y's. She had never seen an adult naked Y, although she knew there must be some among this crowd.

When Halling emerged from the showers, still damp and glistening, she had a towel tucked around her torso covering her from armpit to upper thigh. Bux was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. What if Halling was a Y? Well, she'd find out soon enough. But as Halling walked down the corridor of canvas-walled bunks toward them, an arm snaked out from one doorway and snatched her towel away. Halling was suddenly exposed. She grabbed half-heartedly for the towel, which was tossed over her head with shouts of laughter to one woman, then another, and she gave up, turning to walk toward Bux and Yoj again without embarassment.

She was stunning. The long bones of her arms and legs were heavily muscled, and her stomach showed ripples of muscle when she took a step. Her breasts were full and bouncing, her hips round, her thatch thick. She was definitely an X. Her skin was blue-black, with charcoal nipples and no blemishes anywhere. She was still visibly wet. As she reached them, Bux pulled a towel draped over a nearby wall and said "Let me finish drying you off."

Halling stood, motionless, as again the room went quiet around them. Bux used the borrowed towel to carefully, lovingly, remove all the moisture from Halling's back, chest, stomach, thighs, and arms. She could not quite believe the new desire that was dripping into her bloodstream, a desire different from the firestorm she'd just unleashed in her life with Yoj. How could she want two women at once? But she did. She left the area between Halling's legs untouched, for now, and, smiling to herself, hung the towel back where she had found it.

A whoop went up. All the eyes watching them, from the corridor and from gaps in the canvas well, gave voice to how lucky Halling and Yoj were. Halling's face was serious, a little turbid. She took Bux's hand and pulled her gently into the canvas bunk area that was her own, saying to Yoj "Please block that door." Yoj, with a lightly bruised grin, stood solidly in the way of any onlookers as Bux tilted her body up to put her mouth full on Halling's and Halling responded, at first exploring each other, then clutching together in headlong passion.

After a few minutes of kissing, Halling stopped to catch her breath. Bux had her face full against the hollow of Halling's throat, her arms clamped around the small of Halling's back. The ocean and sweat smell were gone, but Halling still gave off the aroma of lilacs.

"Shall we go home?" asked Bux.

Halling laughed in delight and said "I'd like to dress first." Bux let go of her, and Halling opened her clothes chest. Bux melted against Yoj, who kissed her gratefully. Halling said "All I've got clean are more uniforms or extremely dressy stuff."

"You look gorgeous in your sinner color" said Bux, "I'd be thrilled to have you wear that to meet the emmas."

Halling sat down to pull on bright white knickers and maillot of thin wool. Her sokken were also mustard yellow, and after putting on a clean uniform, Halling polished her otos with a clean sock before she pulled them on over her feet. Halling fussed with her hair briefly in a pocket mirror, using a pick comb to reshape the nap at the back of her head into the aerodynamic outward V favored by pilots.

When she was done, she eyed Yoj's pack and said "You got room for my schmatta, toothbrush, a change of undergarments?"

Yoj held out her pack and Halling rolled up some items to put in it. They strolled back down the corridor together, to catcalls and admonitions to "Have fun!" Once outside, Halling buckled her guibba and again made sure Bux walked between them, arms linked, as they went through the merchant area beyond the fish docks.

They weren't talking. Bux found herself wondering how it was possible to make love with two women at once, the actual mechanics of it, and also wondering how Yoj and Halling made love to each other. As they came level with an alley with a small windbreak at the entrance, Halling abruptly tugged them into the alley and pushed Bux up against the stone wall, out of view from the street. Halling pressed herself against Bux with an urgent sound, placing her feet between Bux's and parting her thighs with her own loins as she began kissing her, bending her knees a little so her face was level with Bux's and her loins pushed full against Bux's.

Bux moaned and lifted one thigh over Halling's hip. Halling whispered urgently "I didn't know I'd want you this much" and Bux answered "Me, neither." After a few more kisses, Halling half turned toward Yoj and pulled her into a triangle with them. As Halling and Yoj began kissing, hungry and yet extremely familiar with each other, Bux watched them, Halling still pressed against her between her legs, rocking in motion to her kisses with Yoj. Yoj slid her hand under Bux's jacket and shirt and cupped her breast in her palm. Bux shivered.

Back on the street, they walked rapidly toward Bux's Manage. In the kitchen, Veida stood at the window that gave her a view down the lane. When she said suddenly "Here they come", Qen and Yerush dropped their tasks and bolted for the back door, causing a minor stampede of startled katts who were hanging about hoping for some of the marinating chicken. Laughing, Veida followed her partners outside where they found things to do at the back of the tillage until enough time had passed that they felt it was safe to return to the kitchen. Yerush stayed outside to clean the chicken run. When Qen and Veida went back in, Bux's bedroom door was firmly shut. They talked loudly as they cooked and did other things about the house.

As soon as the door was shut, Yoj pulled Bux into her arms and began kissing her. She had one hand on the small of Bux's back, spread wide. She slid her other hand between them and untied the flap of Bux's kaidang ku, the pants favored by field workers because it was easy to open the flap and take a piss while squatting on the ground. With Bux's crotch now accessible, Yoj slid her fingers between Bux's drenched thatch and moved them back and forth confidently. Bux gave a loud moan into Yoj's neck.

"Wait!" Bux whispered. "I mean, yes, I want what you're doing, but let's get -- let's all get -- "

Halling was laughing as she unbuttoned her kalsongers.

"Okay" breathed Yoj, stepping back and pulling off her shati. Within a minute, she and Halling were stripped and lying on the bed, a space left between them.

"You're both awfully fast at getting naked" commented Bux, feeling suddenly shy as she removed her maillot. She crawled into the space left for her, facing Yoj as Yoj pulled the covers over them all. She could feel Halling's nipples pressing against her shoulderbladers when Halling rolled to face her. Then Halling's thighs tucked up behind her own as Yoj resumed kissing her, and a wave of desire washed away all shyness. After a minute, Bux rolled onto her back and looked at Halling, whose eyes were heavy-lidded as she put her mouth on Bux's. Yoj's hands began gently stroking Bux's ribs and underarm on her side, and then Halling's were doing the same on her side. Bux found she had trouble taking a deep breath.

When Yoj moved her mouth down to lick underneath Bux's breast, suck at her underarm hair, and finally close over Bux's extremely alert nipple, while Halling was kissing her thorougly, the sensation going through Bux's body was complicated and seemed complete. Until Halling also moved her mouth down to Bux's breast, and the intensity went up another notch.

Then Halling and Yoj, sucking earnestly at Bux, allowed their hands to lazily trace down her sides, over her hips down to almost her knees, coming back up her inner thighs. She couldn't have said which one of them was the first to part her lips and begin moving several fingers in an unpredictable pattern -- it felt like both of them at once, and maybe it was. Her cries were now urgent and loud. They were unhurried, however.

After several minutes, Yoj turned around so her head hovered over the crease at Bux's upper thigh, her own loins within reach of Bux's hand. Bux dove into Yoj's ginny, first with her hands, then with her face, as Yoj lowered her open mouth onto Bux. Halling slid down Bux's body and, with both she and Yoj using strong arms to push Bux's knees far apart and hold them apart, Halling found room for her mouth as well, coming from the opposite direction, between Bux's legs. Bux was now shrieking, though it was muffled by her lips being clamped against Yoj's ginny.

The sounds Bux was making, traveling up through her body, plus the frantic heaving of Bux underneath her, pushed Yoj over the edge quickly. Bux clamped her arms around Yoj's waist and tried to hold her down, reluctant to let Yoj pull away, but finally she relented and Yoj came back up to kiss her weepily. Halling was reclaiming Yoj's abandoned territory with vigor, so Bux had trouble concentrating enough to kiss Yoj back.

Yoj whispered "I left her for the last because her fingers are much longer and thicker than mine." As Bux's fevered brain took in this meaning, Halling lifted herself on her elbows and knees over Bux's body, still widely spread beneath her, and began kissing the breast she had left earlier. Yoj also returned to the breast on her side. Halling let her full weight rest on Bux's chest and belly so her hands were free to return to the nexus of heat between them. With the fingers of one hand, she spread Bux's lips and thumbed up and down her entire cleft slowly. She wet the fingers of her other hand thoroughly in Bux's juices, then slid the tips of two fingers into the opening of Bux's vagina. She waited there, as Bux gave a series of breathy cries and tried to imagine what was about to come. She waited until Bux pushed against her slightly.

Halling pushed all the way into Bux. She stretched Bux as far open as Bux had ever experienced, and Bux gasped, arching her back. Everything else continued at the same pace, and Halling just rested inside her, letting Bux get used to the fullness. When Bux once again found the will to move against Halling, Halling slid gently out of her and started the process all over again.

The third time she entered Bux, Bux was ready for the ache and commensurate relief of Halling's fingers. Halling could tell, and instead of staying still, she began moving slowly in and out, almost all the way out, then back into the depth her fingers could go, never rushed. Bux began to feel lightheaded. The sounds coming out of her were complete gibberish. She could tell that both Halling and Yoj were grinning widely as they sucked her breasts. After a minute, she gasped "More" and Halling responded by suddenly pushing against her, between her legs, with a hard rhythm while her hand explored Bux's inner grooves in a side-to-side motion.

By the time Bux came, Halling's thrusts were almost continuous and her cheek was pressed against Bux's, their bodies melded together. Yoj had moved down a little in the bed so she could put her hand between Halling's legs from behind, and she knew Halling well enough to keep her from coming until Bux did, the two of them screaming and bucking against each other together.

Once Halling could draw a full breath again, she began laughing, huge belly laughs that Bux felt the entire length of her body. Bux and Yoj joined her. Halling slid to the side and Yoj laid her head on Bux's shoulder again. Bux lifted one of Halling's hands and spread it against her own, comparing finger size. They were closely matched.

Yoj chortled at the sight. "You see why I'm the luckiest woman on Skene?" she said earnestly.

"You ain't seen nothin' yet" said Bux, her eyes dancing.

Yoj and Halling dropped off not long after Bux did, the three of them tangled together and extremely pleased with themselves. Bux woke up to the smell of roasting chicken. She was between her two new lovers, and shook them each gently awake with an accelerating pulse. "Dinner's ready, I think. And I need to piss." After a little inevitable making out, she slid from the bed over Yoj, pulled on clothes, and said "I'll meet you out there."

Once she had shut the door behind her, Halling said fervently "It's a good thing there's two of us."

Yoj giggled. "We are going to have such a great life here."

"If we can get through the next hour" said Halling. "You go out there first, you've already done this meeting the emmas business."

"What, the leviathan confronter wants to hide under the covers?" teased Yoj. She sat up and looked for her clothes scattered around the bed. "C'mon, we'll go together. But you can cower behind me, if you need to."

"Yoj..." said Halling seriously. Yoj turned to look at her. "I love her already."

"I know" said Yoj. "Listen, you've got a mark on your neck, you might want to button up your collar."

Halling smiled in memory.

They came out of the bedroom together, diffident and not sure what to do with their hands. They said hello, Yoj making unnecessary introductions. Bux was setting the table, languid and flushed. Yoj and Halling moved awkwardly to the bath room to wash up. When they returned, everyone else was sitting down, Yerush at her usual place at the head of the table, Qen on one side and Veida on the other. But Bux had given up her spot beside Qen in favor of claiming the other end of the table, and she waved Yoj to sit next to Qen, Halling next to Veida. As they walked to the table, Yoj murmured inaudibly to Halling "Uh-oh, dueling aggies."

The meal was spectacular. Halling and Yoj were adorably solicitous of Bux, which warmed up everyone but Yerush. Halling went wild over the pie -- she had a serious sweet tooth -- and once the last bite was down them, both Halling and Yoj stood abruptly to clear the table and do dishes. But Yerush motioned them to sit back down. "We should talk" she said firmly.

"Yes, let's" said Bux airily. Yoj suppressed a giggle.

"As I understand it" began Yerush, "The two of you wish to move into this Manage and partner with my child and heir, who will be your aggie."

"Yes, Nan" said Yoj, sounding like a student again.

"With your consent" added Halling.

This was getting too formal for Qen. She jumped in with "Well, I'm all for it. We've already discussed it, the three of us, and nobody raised any objections." Which got her a glare from Yerush, but Veida nodded.

Yerush was not easily derailed. "How long has it been since either of you lived in a Manage?" she asked.

"Not since I graduated school" answered Halling. Yoj nodded, a little miserable.

"Manages are a great deal of work" said Yerush. "Especially for the adults in them. And even more so for emmas. Both of you seem to have full-time jobs."

Bux was looking stormy, but Halling was unperturbed.

"I work every day the weather is clear" answered Halling, "And I can't plan ahead. I get up before dawn and I go to bed early. I have no intention of retiring any time soon." Her calm pride sank in on Yoj, who cleared her throat and also spoke.

"I'm the youngest dichter I think there's ever been" said Yoj. "I don't have an apprentice yet, although I'm looking high and low for one. I never get a vacation. It usually takes me all week to meet my obligation, although most weeks I do get Shmonah off. Despite the pressure, I love what I do. I've thought about applying to become a gakusha as well -- in ancient history and linguistics, if such as field could be created -- but my first priority, aside from my songwriting, will be as an emma."

Bux's face was glowing again. See, her expression said, see who wants to partner with me?

"However, I also have no intention of shirking my responsibility to this Manage" said Halling. "I'm good at tillage, I'm tidy, and I'll help make dinner every night. Breakfast and lunch, I eat at the Lofthall with the other pilots."

"They descend on that canteen like seabeaks on a colony of baby crabs" said Yoj, painting a word picture that was a tad disquieting.

Yoj continued "Same for me, with the Manage. I mean, I'll do whatever is needed. I'm a good cook, I make great bread, and I adore children." Bux noticed she did not say she was tidy. "I need quiet and space to put words on paper, but the rest of my work I do around other people and I have flexible hours."

She lifted herself from her seat far enough to pull her wallet from her back pocket. Opening it, she extracted two small account books, handing them both to Bux. "I receive 25 eks a year in pay, but I don't spend more than 10 and I have 50 eks in savings. I have a room at the University and up to this point have mostly eaten at the Lofthall. I'd like to start eating here for breakfast and dinner. I receive a full allotment each year as well. Except for sometimes taking things home to my emmas' Manage, and necessary clothes and paper of course, I haven't drawn my full allotment in four years. Wherever we have a surplus in next year's nian cheng, I can ask for my back allotment to bring home to the Manage. My savings and credit are in one of those books, my allotment record is in the other." She had altogether stopped seeming like a clumsy teenager. This was the dichter of Skene speaking.

After a pause, Halling likewise pulled out her account books. "I earn 50 eks a year, and I spend even less than Yoj because I don't need to buy paper." She grinned at Yoj. Bux noticed the shock on both Yerush and Qen's faces at the 50 eks figure. Halling went on, "I have 335 eks in savings." Even Bux reacted at this sum. "I also receive a full allotment, and I give half of it to my home Manage, which is all they will take from me. My uniforms are provided by the Lofthall, so the only fabric allotment I've used is for dress clothes and underwear. I have eight years' worth of back allotments available." She also handed her books to Bux. Bux took them reverently, and could not resist a glance down at Yerush.

Yerush was stony, and didn't think before she spoke. "And do you have insurance?"

Qen gasped. Veida turned to scowl at Yerush, who was instantly sorry but not willing to show it. Yoj reached out one hand across the table to Halling, who ignored it. Instead, Bux put her hand in Yoj's.

Halling was hard to rile. "I do have insurance" she answered neutrally. "Right now Yoj is my beneficiary, but once Bux and I are officially partnered as well, I'll add her to the policy. In addition, as a sinner my children will receive full allotments until they are grown if I should die. Even more to the point, I'm head of the Safety and Design Committee at the Lofthall, and I never take chances. Never. I know that's no guarantee, but it does make a difference."

Bux was not going to follow Halling's lead. She burst out "How dare you throw that into her face, into my face! She risks her life to feed you every day so you can sit on your pompous ass -- "

"That's enough" said Yerush. She looked directly at Halling. "I apologize if what I said was offensive."

Yoj could tell Bux had more to say. She squeezed her hand, painfully, and Bux caught herself.

After a long moment, Halling said, just as calmly, "I accept your apology."

Well, if Bux wasn't in love with Halling already, that will do it, thought Yoj.

Veida managed not to smile. Instead, she said "Thank you for coming to us with frankness and such extraordinary responsibility. Now it's our turn. My schedule is very erratic. I can be gone for two or three days at a time, if it's a difficult birth and a long commute. I can likewise be home for days on end. When I'm home, I try to make up for my absence. My income -- "

Bux interrupted. "I already told them how much each of you makes, in currency and barter."

Yerush was really having a bad night of it. Bux sitting at the other head of the table was definitely not empty symbolism.

This time Veida did smile, and said "All right, then. I'll just add, I have a great deal of expertise with herbs, and although I'm not a curandera, I can help with minor problems. Feel free to ask. And, Halling -- I get up before anyone else, I'll make you tea to send you out the door each day."

"You don't have to do that" began Halling.

"It would be my honor" said Veida. The look on Halling's face suddenly made tears come to Yoj's eyes. Up to this point, Yoj had been the only person in the world looking after Halling, since Xaya died. Bux was bringing them much, much more than her extraordinary love.

Qen looked at Yerush, as if to ask "Do you want to go next?" Yerush didn't look back at her, so Qen said "You both know my schedule, you've been my students. Except I of course have duties after school, many afternoons and evenings. Sometimes I'll need to bring children home with me for dinner, if they can't get a ferry home right away. I also do most of the sewing for the Manage. And -- " she put a hand on Yoj's arm " -- I would love to make bread with you."

Yerush proved once again why she wielded so much power in her realms. She abruptly smiled, a beautiful, welcoming smile, and adopted a tone of affectionate intimacy. "Yoj, you know my schedule, too. My summer holidays don't completely coincide with the public school's, but it's close enough that I can do a giant's share of work in the tillage during the warm months. That's when I preserve as much as I can of what we grow. Halling, my office at the University is on the same floor at Yoj's cubicle, you are free to stop by any time, for any reason. And Yoj, as a gakusha I have unlimited access to paper -- you don't need to spend a single ek on that any more."

She stood up, in charge again. "So, move in as soon as you can. If we need to get you three a larger bed, let's see if we can make a swap somewhere. Ask your emmas to come for dinner whenever is convenient for them, and we'll have a partnering celebration for you, of course." She began putting away leftovers.

Veida grinned at her back. She pushed the pie plate, with a single piece left, over to Halling and said, "Finish that, will you?" Halling picked up her fork with an answering grin.

"I'll do the dishes, leave them to me" said Yoj, standing up and heading for the sink.

"I accept your offer" said Yerush. The echo of this answer to Halling's earlier remark was suspicious to Yoj, but Yerush had gone into the larder, her face not available for scrutiny.

Bux came to Yoj and pulled her into a very passionate, public kiss. "It was always you, Yoj" she whispered. Yoj melted. When she came out of their clinch, Halling was starting to run hot water into the sink.

"You inhaled that piece of pie" said Yoj, joining her.

"I could live on pie" said Halling.

Yoj whispered in her ear "What was she thinking? I mean, you face down leviathans."

Bux, on the other side of Halling, must have overhead because she began giggling. Suddenly Yoj noticed Qen behind them, smiling hugely.

"Do you eat lunch at the Lofthall?" Qen asked Yoj.

"No, I often forget to eat, or I grab something at one of the stalls near the U" said Yoj.

"Those stalls sell sewage" declared Qen. "You can't work on an empty stomach. I'm making you a sandwich each day, you take it with you."

Halling nudged Yoj. "Tell her thank you."

"Thank you, Nan Qen" said Yoj, laughing.

"None of that Nan nonsense" said Qen. "Call me emma."

When the dishes were done, Yoj and Halling went out to the privy together. Veida turned to Bux and said "Halling needs to go to bed. To sleep. She can never afford to miss sleep. You should follow Yoj's lead when it comes to looking out for Halling."

Bux's cheeks turned pink but she nodded.

After Yoj and Halling came back in, Halling asked the emmas "I missed the 5:00 weather report forecast, did any of you hear it?"

"Clear" said Qen.

Veida added knowingly, "Massing in the east".

"Lev" swore Yoj, almost under her breath.

Bux looked startled. "What does that mean, storm clouds coming from the east?"

Halling looked at Yoj. But it was Veida who answered "No, Bux, massing refers to where the fish are thickest."

Yoj finished "And in the east is -- the most dangerous."

Bux went very pale. "That's what that means every day on the radio, them telling you what you'll be facing tomorrow?"

Halling explained, "There's a scout lighter goes out, if the sky permits, and checks the currents, the run. That gets compared to the weather report from the astronomer's office. It could always change, of course. Though usually it doesn't."

Yoj knew what Bux was feeling. You had to learn to simply accept it. Bux said "Brush your teeth, you two, it's time for us to go to bed."

Halling raised her eyebrows at Yoj, who chuckled but went to get her toothbrush.

When the bedroom door closed behind them, the emmas sat at the table in silence for a minute, having one last cup of tea.

Qen whispered "I hope our Bux doesn't get -- bruised -- in between those two big, hungry women".

Veida replied "What makes you think she won't be the one doing the bruising?"

Which made Qen laugh appreciatively, but not Yerush.

Behind her closed bedroom door, Bux was exultant, throwing herself onto her bed and spreading her arms wide to welcome both Yoj and Halling.

"I knew I wanted you, no matter what" she whispered in delight, "But you two are the foam that caps breakers!"

"Whew" said Halling. "Is Yerush always that -- tightly netted?"

"When she can get away with it" said Bux.

"Even when you were little?" asked Yoj.

"Oh, she's wonderful with babies, just can't get enough of 'em. You'll see. It's when they get up to an age when they can start talking back to her or walk away from her that she gets crabby. But it didn't matter, because I had Qen and Veida. And I wasn't like my older sisters, who seemed desperate to get Yerush's approval. I knew I was all right without it."

"You're more than all right" murmured Yoj, unbuttoning Bux's bukser.

"My darling, I want you more than words can say, but Halling needs to sleep."

Halling burst out laughing. "Do I get a say in that?"

"Yes, of course, but you have to get up so early -- " began Bux.

"I do. And I can either lie here for an hour yearning for you and dropping off into achy sleep or you can send me off into my dreams with gusto" said Halling.

"Oh" said Bux. "In that case, you get the middle."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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