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.


Friday, December 14, 2007


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read Chapter One, go here. 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


Logically, it would seem that Flings were the last pieces of Skene soil to be occupied, because ferry commutes were difficult to establish and maintain. Isolation was a fact of life on Flings. But that had always appealed to some people, and although Flings were available only to Manages who raised children, even families could be anti-social.

The first Flings to be settled were those on a necessary ferry line anyhow, where the labor involved in building an underwater reef high and wide enough to forestall leviathan attack at low tide seemed an investment worth making. In the West Tendril, these routes were Bosco to Yagi (with Helle and Oase Flings plus Selva and Ziza Secanos in between), Argile to Seda to Byli (with Motu and Krk Flings along the way). Thus, Motu Fling, Halling's home island, was an ancient Fling which had been in her aggie's family for many generations.

But between Byli in the north and Yagi to the south lay a string of eight Flings, one of them a double, where the waters were deep and the tides strong. Morrie vaseo had been won late and at great expense. Children on those Flings were faced such a long commute to school that most of them were boarded at the dormitory during the week, flown back and forth for the weekends by the school sinner.

In the East Tendril, Juh to Abfall to Chloddia/Exploit (hopscotching Refugio, Inish, Ada and Eyja Flings) was an original passage. Similarly, Faar to Beras/Yanja by way of Escollo and Yanuyanu (double) Fling had been obvious. But in the East, Flings which extended beyond large islands out toward morrie strati territory -- Saari, Ostrov, Insula and Isola Flings -- were only included once the pressure for land had been overwhelming. Isola and Ostrov were the least desirable territory on Skene. Even Abfall, with its large fields of rotting compost, was a better place to raise a family.

Yoj was from Isola Fling.

Because during the Troubles, five centuries earlier, some islands had waged war on others, no island was allowed to develop its own government. Instead, spheres of endeavor elected their particular Sheng Zhang, who managed their details across all islands. When Sheng Zhangs clashed or bigger issues needed resolution, there was an Ethicist who could make a decision for all Skene on a temporary basis, until it could come up for a vote. Ethicists were elected every half year, and Sheng Zhangs were elected every year at the annual Vote which covered all ultimate issues of government. Ethicists who went against the will of Skene were soon out of office.

There was no newspaper, because even kelp paper was rationed. Sigrist radio was limited to community interest and general safety broadcasts. Postings at public kiosks on main islands were the main means of information-sharing. That, and gossip, which spread rapidly to even the most remote Fling. The mail service on Skene ran twice a day, dependent on ferry schedule to reach from one Tendril to the other, and most Skeners were good correspondents.

Likewise, despite the scarcity of books, Skeners were readers. The University library was available to all, and every main island had a local branch with a catalog whereby anyone could order books for delivery by the next post if it was in the stacks. Skene had its share of authors and poets. There was also a vast backlog of works from the past stored on disk, and every month a few of these were printed out and added to the library holdings.

The language of the original settlers required a course at the U to decipher -- bewilderingly, they seemed to have had more than one language, despite being such a small number of people -- so the books retrieved for publication tended to be more modern and accessible. Yoj, however, was most drawn to writings in dead languages, where not just the vobaculary but the attitudes and concepts themselves were often alien in the extreme.

Halling had come back from her work shift, eaten and laid down in Yoj's cubicle for her nap. Yoj went to the library to see if she could find some sort of idiom dictionary for the original settlers' language. She had barely reached the stacks when the tell-tale crackle and breath of a radio announcement froze her in her tracks. Every building in Skene had a live radio feed on during daylight hours. The Sigrist on the highest peak on Skene announced weather and time twice a day, tides several times a day, forecast the next day's weather at 5:00, births and deaths. But she also came on the air suddenly for emergencies.

Everyone else in the library was still, waiting. It wasn't the Sigrist's voice, however. It was a high, desperate jumble: "This is Tche of Krk Fling, oh, help, please, a leviathan has just attacked my partner Zra, she was gathering long xu from the cortices at the gabal -- it's a juvenile -- " There was strangled sobbing and screams, then she said "It's -- she's inside it, and it's jammed on the rocks, not back in the water, please, somebody save her!"

Yoj put her hand against the wall to steady herself. Sigrist said "We hear, Tche, pilots on their way."

Yoj broke into a run for the front door. She intercepted Halling before she reached the Lofthall, Halling's shati outside her ku and her cap forgotten. They raced into the dispatch room together, where a throng of pilots were listening to Qala, the radio operator, talking to the Sigrist on the private Lofthall frequency.

"Sheng Zhang is not here and we're not sure where she is, she's not called in yet -- Hang on, Sigrist, Halling's here, back in half a min -- " Qala turned and said "You willing to take charge?"

"Yeah. We need eight lighters, our most experienced -- " Halling turned and pointed to women in robin-blue uniforms. "Go right now and do a survey, no altitude lower than 30 meters unless you hear different from me or you see a person in direct distress. I'll be in the air shortly." The lighters pushed out of the room, their otos thudding down the hallway.

"I need to see a map of the West Tendril" Halling said, and Qala pulled one from the shelf beside her. Halling spread it on the nearby desk and leaned over it. The rest of the pilots in the room jostled beside her. "Okay, there's a deep right off Krk gabal there, I guess enough for a juvie to make a stupid try, the shitter." Halling looked up at Schla, her wrangler. "Schla, go pull out four sets of cables with loops and four with hooks, at least 40 meters in length. Lmape, help her." Halling looked at the sinners remaining and pointed to a third pilot in mustard-yellow, saying "You, too, Funa. Go distribute the cables between our four sinners. And add a stretcher to my sinner. Warm up, I'll be there in a minute."

To the remaining pilots, she said "Stay here on ready alert, and if Qala needs you for any sort of run, get in the air and radio me afterward. Understood?" They nodded.

She turned to Qala and said "Broadcast on the Sigrist frequency, so Tche hears it, that one of us will be landing at Krk within ten minutes. I'll land either there or Motu Fling, and I'll tell you the plan after we assess the scene."

Qala picked up the mic, but before turning it on, she said "Any chance Zra is still alive?"

"None at all" said Halling grimly, rolling up the map to take with her.

She began heading out the door. Yoj ran after her, and in the hall she grabbed her arm and said "Hall, let me go with you. I can squeeze in behind your seat, I won't get in your way, I promise."

Halling looked at her in astonishment. "You can hear what happens here, with Qala, it's not something you necessarily want to witness -- "

"No, it's not that. It's just -- if you go down, I want to be with you" said Yoj desperately.

There was no way to save a pilot who crashed in the ocean. The levs were too quick and voracious. And Skene had no weapons -- they had been outlawed since the Troubles.

Halling pulled Yoj into a brutally tight hug. "I'm not going down" she said into Yoj's ear. "I'm not leaving you." She kissed her and ran out the front of the Lofthall.

Yoj choked back a sob, then turned with blurry vision and went back to the desk beside Qala's. Qala was beginning the broadcast Halling had requested, her voice calm and steady. Qala was a year older than Halling and Yoj's closest friend, next to Halling. She was wide and a smidge taller than Halling, with pecan-brown skin and black curls that hung to her shoulders.

When Qala was done, the Sigrist reminded people that it was high tide for another few hours, there was no Morrie Vaseo, to stay away from cortices and low shorelines, and that ferries would not being running again until the all-clear was given after Morrie Vaseo.

Qala pulled a second map from her shelf and spread it beside her.

"Where is the levving Sheng Zhang?" burst out Yoj.

"Last I knew, she was going to a meeting with someone connected to lumber hauling from Bosco" said Qala tensely. "She's supposed to tell me if she leaves Riesig, especially if the ferries are about to stop running. Maybe she's in the woods or away from a radio -- "

Pilot voices came over the Lofthall frequency, Schla saying "The West Tendril just beyond Riesig is working alive with leviathans, they must know about the juvie in distress." Her voice sounded a little sick. Two seconds later, Funa said "I'm over Krk, oh, shards, it's completely beached itself and it's not moving."

"They die fast out of water" said Qala almost to herself.

Halling's voice said "Lmape, is the jichang at Krk large enough to hold a sinner plus a lighter?"

"No" said Lmape, "Just a school sinner, that's it's max."

"Then Schla, proceed on to Krk and set down. We can't leave the lev there, dead ones bloat and split open within a day." Yoj closed her eyes at this image.

Halling went on in a toneless voice, "Tche is going to be hysterical, deal with it as best you can. Tell her you have to look at the gabal and try to keep her from following you. They have children, keep the kids away no matter what. I need you to look over the edge and assess the chances of snagging that thing. I'm going to land at Motu but I'll stay in my craft."

"Got it" said Schla.

"The rest of you, do quadrant sweeps and give me concrete numbers of levs spotted. And if you see any idiots on cliff edges or exposed shores, you have my permission to buzz them and use your loudspeakers to tell them to get the lev back to safety. Just stay above leap height."

A chorus of voices gave their assent.

"Thank all that's good, Ng isn't on a ferry right now" said Yoj fervently. Ng was Halling's surviving emma and she worked as a faryaste every day on the ferry route between Krk Fling to Seda. Yoj was sure part of the reason Halling was landing at Motu Fling, her family's Manage, was to reassure herself about Ng's safety and give Ng the reassurance of seeing Halling. Ng and Halling were very close, always had been.

Halling came back on and said "Qala, will you use Sigrist radio to ask the Ethicist to join you there, and that the hospital be on standby?"

"Will do" said Qala. But the Sigrist must have been listening in on the Lofthall frequency as well as her own, because she immediately made the announcement before Qala could do it.

Qala leaned over to Yoj and said in a very low voice, "Did I hear you ask to go with Halling?"

"Yes" whispered Yoj. As Qala looked at her levelly, Yoj said "She's all the family I have."

"You have the Lofthall. You have me" said Qala, not wounded or critical, but emphatic.

Embarrassed, Yoj focused on the map. Immediately around the islands were depth markings, and of course along the ferry routes, but within 8 meters of an island's outline, the chart went blank.

"Why don't we know how deep it is, shit, all over both Tendrils and even here off Riesig?" demanded Yoj.

"Only way to take soundings is to throw a line from the shore" said Qala. "Lowering cables into deeps is like fishing for a lev attack."

"How did we construct the ferry lines, then?" Yoj was tracing them with her finger.

"Dump some rock from a high-hauling sinner, somebody inch out along the new ridge, take another sounding, dump some more. That's why it took over 100 years to link all the islands by ferry" said Qala, her brow furrowed, waiting for Schla or Halling to say something.

"People volunteered for that job?" asked Yoj.

"Not very often. Half died, from what I hear. Still, it was the only way to expand and still have contact with the rest of Skene" said Qala.

Foln, the Ethicist, came in the door. She was authorized to handle emergency decisions. She was a little bit older than Yoj's emmas, but her hair was still crisply black and she was a round, serious, light brown woman. Qala filled her in.

Schla's voice, breathless, suddenly came on line. "It's definitely dead. Its mouth is gaping partway open and the head is facing upward, tail not quite in the water. There's no sign of Zra." Yoj closed her eyes -- she'd been gulped down, then. Macerated along the way by the dentigerous leviathan gullet. "I'm thinking one or two cables looped through the mouth, trying to pull it literally backwards toward the surf, with a third hooked in the tail to help direct. Might work" said cautious Schla.

Leviathans had fins but they were placed in a spiral around their bodies, nothing snaggable. And their tails were not like regular fish, just came to an elongated point.

"All right. Lmape, you hear that?" said Halling.

"Yes" answered Lmape.

Qala jumped in to say, "Halling, the Ethicist's here."

"Good" said Halling. "Here's the plan I want to try: It'll be us three. Schla, you do the first loop, because that needs to go furthest down on the -- trunk. Lmape, you snag the tail, and I mean it, no altitude below 30 meters. I'll take the second loop." Halling, of course, was leaving the most difficult and potentially dangerous part for herself. She went on, "At the first sign of a lev connecting with cable, release your grapples and we'll start over. No heroics. Funa, you stand sentry."

The trio agreed. Halling said, "Nan Foln, as Ethicist, can you give us leave to jettison a leviathan from the cortice of Krk Fling, knowing there's a body inside?"

Foln said bleakly "I so give leave. I'll write a death report to that effect and get it cleared through the coroner. We'll need your signature, though."

"You'll have it" said Halling. "Qala, Tche's siba lives on Ikrus Fling. Will you please send the school sinner to pick her up and land her on Krk as soon as Schla's in the air? Once it becomes apparent we're gonna dump the lev, Tche's going to fall apart, kids or no kids" said Halling. "Her siba can help get them packed up and take them home with her until she figures out how to go on."

Qala pointed to a pilot already standing at attention across the room and jerked her thumb toward the door, calling out "Clun, tell her there's no hope, but be kind about it".

The next half-hour was nerve-wracking, as Schla and Halling improvised lassoing a massive, slimy, ovoid creature. Halling's voice was non-stop, giving encouragement, issuing patient instructions, expressing no fear or haste. Finally she said "That's 8 meters from the edge, at high tide that's enough, release your grapples!" There was a clank, and a hoarse cheer from all the pilots.

"Sunk like a stone" said Halling. Then, "Look at 'em, watch out, they're so worked up they're gonna jump no matter how high we are. Listen, everybody besides Clun, go back to the jichang, stay collected, no rush. Good work. Clun, you at the radio?"

"Yeah. Tche's siba has just gone in the Manage" answered Clun.

"You lift off and go wait at Motu, it's nearest. I know Tche, I'll land there and help deal with -- the news. When they're ready to go back to Ikrus, I'll call you. Get my emma to give you some of her spearmint tea and a soy bar" said Halling.

Qala asked, "All right if we release this to the Sigrist, to let everyone else know it's over?"

"Wait ten minutes until I can get inside and with Tche, she should hear it from me first and -- we'll need to turn off their radio inside, maybe, so the children don't have to listen to it."

Two minutes later, Igoz, Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, bustled in the door and said "Give me a status report immediately!" Igoz was the same basic build and coloring as Qala, though a generation older and somehow on her, Yoj thought, the skin was dull, the set of her shoulders guilty.

Qala, managing to keep her tone completely neutral, gave a succinct reporting of the events. The first thing out of Igoz's mouth was "That stupid woman, what was she doing gathering long xu at high tide next to a known deep?"

"I guess she's learned her lesson" said Yoj, not holding back her venom. Igoz recoiled as if stung, and said "Of course, I didn't mean to speak ill of the -- " She halted, and Yoj, unable to control herself, said "Not yet digested?"

Igoz sucked in her breath. Qala looked at her and said "You're spent, Yoj. Go to the canteen, drink some tea yourself. You can lie down on Halling's bunk until she's on her way back, I'll come get you before she lands."

Yoj accepted this suggestion and left the room. Two hours later, Halling was back, looking ashen from exhaustion. They ate dinner in silence at a table of subdued pilots, and Halling consented to lean on Yoj as they trudged back to their cubicle.

"How was Ng?" said Yoj, as they undressed.

"Glad to see me. Horrified about Zra -- she and I rode emma's ferry to school together every day, you know" said Halling.

"No, I didn't know that. Oh, Halling, I'm so sorry" said Yoj.

"And emma -- she's given up her cane in favor of forearm crutches. Shiny new metal ones. Says it's much easier on her hips, and she did seem to be moving faster on them" said Halling. But her face showed grave concern.

"Lie down here and let it all out" said Yoj, pressing against the wall so Halling would have as much room as she could spare. Halling cried herself to sleep, and Yoj dropped off right after.

A week later, Halling got a letter from Ng, saying that Tche and her two children had returned to Krk Fling, joined by an unpartnered cousin who had offered to stay with them indefinitely. Halling and Yoj both went to the memorial service on Seda for Zra. There was no funeral because there was no body to bury.

A couple of months later, Halling had, as usual, left for work just before dawn. Yoj always woke up in her cubicle bed long enough to kiss her goodbye, then went back to sleep. This morning she woke up again at 7:00, went to the Lofthall for tea, toast and a shower, and got to the University library by 7:45. She was usually the first one there, but this morning someone else was seated at a table near the stacks, bent over a notebook. When she walked by, she saw it was Bux, now noticeably grown up. Her womanly ass was clearly visible through the back of the chair. She looked up and saw Yoj, and Yoj gave her a nod as she passed by to the stacks. Bux's notebook page gave a tantalizing glimpse of a genealogy, and a sketch of a face that Yoj thought she recognized from Skene history.

Yoj found herself repeatedly distracted while she was scouring the shelves for what she needed. Finally locating a couple of books, she returned by the same path, hoping to get another glimpse of that sketch. She slowed down behind Bux, enough to tell that, yes, it was a drawing of Pearl Goldfarb. Now, why would Bux be drawing the face of a woman dead nearly 500 years?

Yoj didn't realize she had stopped until Bux turned around in her chair and looked at her quizzically. Yoj stammered "Oh, hi. You're Bux, aren't you?"

"Yes, Yoj" said Bux with a voice that was now very grown up, too. She continued to level her bright blue eyes on Yoj. Yoj realized Bux had eyes exactly like her emma Yerush.

Yoj got to the point. "I see you're drawing Pearl Goldfarb, and I can't help wondering why" she said.

Bux looked surprised. "We'll, I can't help wondering how on in the world you are able to recognize her" she replied. She patted the chair beside her, and Yoj sat down without hesitation.

Bux pushed her notebook toward Yoj. "I'm commissioned to re-do a mural in a Manage that's moved. Their lineage goes all the way back to Pearl, and I'm here to make sure I do at least as good a representation as the original artist. That's my story, what's yours?"

"I'm fascinated with her, with the three of them who created our first Archives -- you know about that, right?" said Yoj. When Bux nodded, Yoj said "Well, of course you do, I learned about it from Nan Yerush in one of her classes, you must have heard about it at the dinner table growing up."

"They taught us in school, too, Yoj -- at least, I got it in second grade from my emma Qen. But yes, I did hear about it at home, too. Those three -- Pearl, Kenneth Chen, and Elaine Yoshimura, who carried the temperature-controlled cases of irreplaceable records and seedstock, plus the 51 Contributions that keep us able to have children, and hid them in the caverns on Seda until the Troubles were over. Emma says we, too, are descended from Pearl."

"Really?" said Yoj, very impressed. "Is she on your mural?"

"Yes, although the painting of her is poor, if this photograph is any judge. I think I'll have to re-do our mural as well" said Bux, pointing to the history text open in front of her.

"Is that what I see you in here doing, studying history books for murals?" asked Yoj.

Bux was thrilled to the core to hear that Yoj had actually been noticing her. "Yes. And you -- do you come here to study history for your songs?"

"Partly" said Yoj, also making the connection that Bux had registered her presence in the library. She couldn't quite stop looking at Bux's blue eyes. "I also need to study meter and past poetic usages. I have to come up with something really different each week."

"To keep Halling alive" said Bux. This simple comprehension moved Yoj deeply. After a minute, she said "Is it okay if I sit here with you?"

Bux laughed and said "I invited you, remember? Seems to me like we already covered this ground."

Yoj was a little flustered, and didn't understand why. But she was extremely glad to be near Bux. She open her books and pulled out her own notes, trying to focus. Within a minute, however, she had begun talking to Bux again, pointing out that Pearl's blue eyes were very like her own, did Bux think this was an indicator of the lineage? Bux was all too glad to converse, and they got so engrossed in talking history that the librarian at her desk cleared her throat loudly, reminding them to keep their voices down.

"Even though we're the only ones here so far" whispered Yoj, leaning over near Bux, close enough to smell lavender in her hair.

Bux continued whispering in return, asking "So, Yoj la Rosz, what illustrious ancestors appear in your mural?"

Yoj closed her eyes momentarily at the mention of her aggie's name and the fact that Bux knew it. An unknown ache came over her. She answered, with this emotion naked in her voice, "I don't know. We don't -- didn't have a mural at our Manage. On Isola Fling."

She was somehow not surprised to see that Bux knew which Fling she came from. Bux leaned her mouth very close to Yoj's ear to say "I could research your lineage for you, if you like. It would be interesting to know, I think."

"I'd love it" said Yoj. "I'd -- like to see yours, too."

"There's a copy here, as far as Yerush's aggie, on the ancestry shelves" said Bux.

"I'll get it" said Yoj, scrambling to her feet and walking swiftly into the stacks. It felt almost as if she were fleeing something. Her body felt strange. Once in the ancestry section, however, she realized she hadn't gotten the name of the book from Bux. She stood for a minute, leaning against the end of a shelf, her eyes closed, trying to figure out if she were coming down with something.

Bux's voice right beside her make her jump. "Are you all right?" she asked with concern. Yoj looked deep into those wide blue eyes and said "I don't know. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Do you need to lie down? Or drink some tea?" asked Bux. "Where's Halling, at work?"

The mention of Halling helped ground Yoj a little. "Yes, she won't be back for hours." Then, for no reason she could have named, she asked Bux "What about you? Are you partnered? Or -- seeing some one?"

Bux's face went slowly red, and when she didn't answer immediately, Yoj began "Oh, lev, I'm so sorry, I have no idea why I thought I could pry like that -- "

Bux put her hand on Yoj's arm, effectively stopping Yoj's ability to speak, and said softly "I'm not partnered. I'm not dating. But I do have someone who is my heart's desire."

Yoj had to close her eyes again, and this time she definitely thought she might pass out. She felt cold all over. Bux slid her arm underneath Yoj's and said "Let's go sit down, you've gone completely pale."

Yoj resisted, however. She opened her eyes and, looking away from those blue eyes, said "'re being very kind, Bux. Your heart's desire is an extremely lucky woman."

"She doesn't know, yet, she is my heart's desire" whispered Bux. Something in her tone made Yoj risk looking at her.

"Why not?" said Yoj. "I mean, why don't you tell her? She'll want to know, believe me."

"Well, then" said Bux, with an extraordinary smile lighting up her face, "I suppose I just did let her know."

It took Yoj several long, confused seconds to understand. By the time she did, Bux was leaning the last few inches toward her. When Bux's mouth met hers, Yoj gasped and pulled back briefly from the intensity. This wasn't like any kiss she had ever felt. The hunger in her was not like any desire she had ever felt. Then she pulled Bux to her and kissed her with abandon, making wild sounds and clutching Bux for whatever stability she could grab.

After a few minutes, Yoj sucked in air and pulled back so she could look at Bux again. "Really, you really love me?" she said.

"I do, Yoj" said Bux.

"I think I must love you, too. I mean, I don't know what else this could be. I've never felt this" babbled Yoj. Bux shushed her and whispered "I want you, Yoj. I want to be partnered with you."

Yoj stared at her. "Me and Halling, you mean. Because I'm already -- "

Bux interrupted. "Yes, both of you. I want to be with you always."

"Oh, Bux, I do too. I mean, this is crazy, how can I be saying this? But I feel it, I do." They began kissing again.

They were interrupted by the outraged librarian, who said loudly "Of all people, Yoj, I can't believe you're using the stacks as a place to grope someone -- "

"Forgive me" said Yoj, mortified. "It just happened. We'll go sit down now."

She and Bux scurried back to their table, not able to resist touching each other the entire way. Once seated next to each other, Bux began giggling and had to clamp both hands over her mouth to keep from making an unseemly racket. Yoj leaned against her, whispering things in her ear, which didn't help. Finally Bux looked around, didn't see the librarian, and kissed Yoj again, cutting it off before they lost control.

Yoj had trouble catching her breath. When she did, she whispered "I haven't been with anyone but Halling in ages, Bux. This is -- I can't have an affair with you, what I'm feeling is not an affair kind of thing."

"Good" said Bux. "Me, neither."

Yoj looked at her, now allowing herself to wallow in those blue eyes. "Me and Halling, we put up a slate, we're looking -- "

"I saw it" said Bux, noticeably cooler. "I didn't feel like being advertised for."

"What levving idiots we were" whispered Yoj.

"Agreed" said Bux.

"So -- oh, Bux, if you don't want to aggie, then one of us will, I don't care, I just want you" said Yoj in a torrent.

"Good" said Bux. "But as it happens, I've wanted to aggie all my life, and your babies are the ones I want to have."

Yoj was lightheaded again. "Listen, Bux, could we go someplace else? I have a cubicle at the U, we could be private there -- "

"I have a bedroom. All to myself" said Bux.

"Okay" said Yoj, standing up.

"Get your notebook, darling" said Bux with a laugh.

"Oh, right. Oh, I've got books out -- "

"The librarian will put them away this once" said Bux, tugging Yoj toward the door.

Bux's Manage was within a ten-minute walk from the University, along a lane of Manages above the main shop street in Riesig Pliss. Behind her home were another two or maybe three lanes of Manages, it looked to be, and then the rongyan wall which meant cliff and beyond that Bohaira Lagoon. The lane to her house was slightly uphill, and at the crest of the hill was the school where Yoj had gone for 13 years without taking the kind of notice of Bux she now felt setting her body alight. Partway up the hill, once past the view of shopkeepers, Bux had reached out to take her hand. Bux's hand was wide and strong, though not calloused like Halling's. Yoj began walking more quickly, wanting the privacy of walls to kiss Bux again, a kiss that didn't have to end.

Bux's copper front door, ancient with patina, was carved with mythological creatures such as caos and horses. They tumbled down the two steps into the front room and in the sudden warmth, Bux turned and slid into her arms. But over Bux's shoulder, Yoj saw three middle-aged women, one still in her schmatta, sitting at the broad polished stone table in the adjoining room. They were staring at Bux and Yoj, and one of them blinked twice, then said "You're back early."

Bux wheeled in Yoj's arms and gave an exasperated sigh. She snaked one arm behind her and took Yoj's hand again, squeezing it hard. She said "Emmas, this is Yoj." She led Yoj into the kitchen.

Yoj put on her best manners. She'd never come to a Manage at this time of morning on Market Day and found all the elder half of the household at home like this. She'd seldom been introduced to the emmas of any of her sweethearts, except for Halling. She suddenly wished she'd washed her hair this morning. "Hello" she said as confidently as she could, taking in the three formidable looking women who were not standing up, but waiting for her and Bux to come to them.

Two she knew well. The one who'd spoken was Yerush, Bux's aggie and a gakusha, scholar, at the University in history and texts. Yoj had taken as many courses with Yerush as she could when she was in University, because while Yerush could be severe and demanding as an instructor, her knowledge seemed limitless. She was light brown, the same shade as Bux, with short iron grey hair and those astonishingly blue eyes. She wore a stark white linen gilet over another plain linen blouse and the ubiquitous ku, thick linen breeches of a faded brown. A pair of grey wool sokken disappeared into pantuflas, the split-toed greeny-brown canvas slippers favored by scholars and all sedentary types of occupations. Yoj tried to squelch her sudden memory of how she and the other students would listen for the measured slap-slap of Nan Yerush's plastic soles down the corridor toward the lecture hall, and their nickname for her drab style of dress -- "The Brown Frown." Well, with those rare blue eyes, all other adornment was tangential.

Yoj stepped forward now and, extricating her hand from Bux's and wiping it quickly on her own ku, she extended it to Yerush, saying "Nice to see you, Nan Yerush."

Yerush took her hand coolly, saying "Seems like this time of day I always see you in the library, reading books on an unpredictable array of subjects."

Yoj was startled, both by the notion that Nan Yerush paid enough attention to her to track her movements and also by the implied question in her comment -- "Why are you here, now, with my youngest child?"

Before Yoj could answer, Bux said, with a hint of triumph, "That's where we just ran into each other and began talking." She put her hand on the small of Yoj's back, and Yoj felt a flame begin there, wanting to spread down to her ass. She clenched her muscles unobtrusively: Not in front of the emmas.

The woman next to Yerush was Qen, who had been Yoj's leraar in second grade, from ages 9 to 11. Qen was overtly caretaking, the same ample build as Yerush but somehow it seemed soft on her. By the time Skene children finished first grade, from ages 3 to 8, they felt they were ready to be treated with a maturity which marked their transition into the upper grades. But after a week or two of second grade, Qen's kindness and welcoming lap always proved a haven against the unexpected bumps of getting older. Qen was toast brown, with sweet black eyes and still-red hair cut the width of a finger all over her head. Her nose was enormous. She was dressed also in ku, but these had been dyed mulberry, and her pulled-out blouse was pale blue embroidered with horizontal vines of flowers. She took Yoj's offered hand in both of hers and grinned hugely into Yoj's face, saying "I've been wanting to tell you, that hopping song you came and shared with the school last week was the most popular ever, they haven't stopped singing it."

Yoj couldn't help but relax. Every Ot after lunch she went to the school and taught retired lighter songs to the assembled grades. She began with exuberant ditties, such as the "hopping from wave to wave" song Qen was referring to, then wound her way into increasingly slower and more complicated melodies. This helped the younger children prepare for their midday nap, and it enabled her to search the older children and teenagers for the kind of response that might mean a future dichter.

It now occurred to her that Qen's status as a leraar might be part of the reason she'd not noticed Bux when they were both at school. Leraars' kids had the reputation of being either hellions or prissy, and she'd thought Bux was the latter because of her quiet attention to studies. Although Yoj herself had been just as studious. Still, she'd unconsciously put Bux into a "do not touch" box.

Until now. Now all she wanted to do was touch Bux. Every way she could imagine.

Yoj turned to the third woman, sitting across the table from Qen in her schmatta, her long white hair still unkempt from bed. Yoj knew her name was Veida, and that she was a comadrona, but she had not known she was Bux's emma. Veida was almost as dark as Halling, with large brown eyes that at the moment looked tired. Her face was wide and serious, and her frame was lean and tall. She shook Yoj's hand -- with only one hand, kept the other wrapped around her mug of tea --and said "Please excuse the schmatta, I'm just getting up. Had a 30 hour labor that ended in the wee hours."

Bux said "Who? Did it come out alright?"

Veida said "Amba, on Chloddia. And yes, aggie and baby are fine. Beautiful child, with a thick head of hair already. They named her Cholt."

Yoj had lost all the ease she'd found temporarily with Qen. She knew Amba, had had a passionate affair with her several years ago, and was certain Veida was aware of this fact, from a subtle change in her expression. She was afraid to look at Bux's face.

How unnerving, to find that Bux had grown up with this trio of highly-educated, community-oriented emmas, each of them impressive in her own right. It occurred to her that, once again, she'd not known what she was getting into.

Yerush said, with a dry brush of humor in her voice, "Shall I make you two some tea? Are you interested in something to eat, Yoj?"

Yoj's face, which had never stopped showing flaming cheeks, went red all over as she looked back at Yerush, unable to answer. But Bux was used to this family, adept in its maneuverings, and not inclined to wait any longer. She took Yoj's hand back firmly into her own and answered "No, thanks, we're fine. I'm just going to show Yoj my room now." She pulled Yoj into the front room, Yoj giving only a backward glance at her possible future emma-in-laws. Bux said "This is the living room, as you can see. That door is the bath room, and this door is my room."

She pushed Yoj through into a room which held a double bed and a clothing chest, nothing more. The bed was neatly spread with a vibrant quilt. The clerestory windows on two sides let in angled light. Bux clicked the door shut and said "I'm so sorry, I never thought they'd all be here on Market Day, they must have waited for Veida to get up."

"Oceans, Bux, I feel like an egg that's just been candled" said Yoj. "How soundproof is this room?"

Bux pulled her gilet and undershirt off in a single motion, revealing the most magnificent pair of breasts Yoj had ever seen. Where had those been hiding all these years? Bux said "Take off your boots." Yoj sat down on the edge of the bed and began stripping.

Back in the kitchen, the emmas looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Veida said "Well."

"Indeed" replied Yerush.

"I've never seen Bux look so determined" said Qen. "When did this come up, out of the blue?"

"Oh, she's always been like that" said Veida. "Remember how she didn't say a word until she was one, and just as we were beginning to worry she was slow, suddenly she's speaking in full sentences?"

"This is quite a declarative sentence" said Yerush.

"Yoj has been partnered with Halling for four years" said Qen with growing dismay. "I thought she was done with all her katting around."

Yerush gazed at her with mild amusement. "I don't think this is one of her adventures" she said. "I can't see Bux saying yes to that."

Veida pointed out "They've had that slate up two years, Yoj and Halling. Looking for an aggie."

They all stared at each other, pieces falling into place. "Our Bux" whispered Qen.

A sharp moan from the front bedroom broke their reverie. "Okay, then " said Yerush briskly. "It's Market Day, I need to get there before nothing's left." She stood up and grabbed a large basket from a nearby shelf.

"I'm going with you" said Qen hurriedly, standing also. She looked around at Veida. "Do you want us to wait for you?"

"No, I'm still knackered" said Veida. "I'm going back to bed for a bit. With a pillow over my head."

They all giggled. "Wake me when you return" said Veida. "Amba's Manage paid me in salt, soda and washing powder, a good fee, so we don't need any of that. And, oh, get distilling oil if they have it."

Qen pulled a basket of eggs and long dark eggplants from the larder, their barter offering at market. Giving Veida a quick kiss, she followed Yerush out the back door, both of them choosing to walk around through the side yard rather than pass by the bedroom next to the front door. Veida finished her tea with a gulp and began climbing the ladder to their loft bed.

A couple of hours later, Bux and Yoj were lying entwined, drifting for the moment in bliss, and talking with a hunger that matched their prior physical appetite.

"You're who've I've wanted, you know" Bux said.

"Your heart's desire, you said. For how long?" said Yoj, pulling back so she could see Bux's blue eyes.

"Long as I can remember. When you were in the last year of first grade, I remember trying to catch up to you in reading level so we'd maybe share a book. But I was always behind you, until finally you graduated and went to University. And began sleeping with every woman in your sui." Bux's voice was not bitter, not when she had Yoj in her arms now.

Yoj rolled halfway onto Bux and kissed her thoroughly, then said "I'll have to catch up with you, I guess. In the wanting department."

"Silly, you can't want what you've already got" said Bux, delighted.

"Then how come I feel so raw in my heart, like suddenly I'm at risk of losing a love I've never known?" Yoj's voice was a little ragged.

"You're not at risk" Bux whispered. She added, "A love you've never known?" She knew she was asking something she shouldn't ask, but she couldn't help herself.

Yoj stared at her for a while. "Don't ever tell anyone. Especially Halling. Hall and I are -- forever, you know? I'm crazy about her. But -- this, with you -- I think it must be what she had with Xaya. I'm falling for you, Bux. Like I never have."

Bux wriggled in happiness, coaxing Yoj all the way on top of her. "Well, you're my first, too. Not just feeling this way, but..."

Yoj was startled. "You haven't made love before? Surely that can't be true."

"No, I've made love. But I haven't -- come. It takes me a while, you know" said Bux, trying not to be apologetic.

"I noticed, and so what? You mean someone didn't feel like doing whatever it took?" Yoj's brown eyes flashed in indignation. "The rockwits! Well, their levvin' loss, is what I say." She kissed Bux again.

Bux said "Is Halling going to -- like me, d'ya think?"

Yoj laughed. "She's going to flip over you. She and I are more alike than people realize. And you, my shooting star, are the catch of Skene." Her face grew serious, and Bux asked "What?"

"I just realized...I'm going to have some difficulty in -- well, sharing you. Even with Halling" confessed Yoj. She wanted Bux to say something like "I'll be yours" or an equally impossible promise.

But Bux didn't. Bux had found a way to open the final doors in her life, and she was not about to shut one again. She wanted Halling, too. Instead, she said "I promise to keep you satisfied, 'cause I want you as much as you want me."

Which was a good place to start up again.

An hour or so later, at a stopping point and a little breathless, Yoj said "I need to piss."

"I'll show you where the privy is" said Bux, sitting up.

"I don't have a schmatta to wear" said Yoj. "And I cannot parade around naked in front of your emmas, I just can't."

"Put on your shati, it'll cover your ass. I'll put mine on, too" said Bux. When they went out into the house, no one was present. Bux pointed to the privy through the kitchen window and said "I'll wait for you here, it's cold out there."

Yoj bolted for the privy and relieved herself. As she came back out, she was startled to see Veida standing on the flat roof of the extension that held Bux's room. Veida said "Are you up for good?"

Yoj pulled her shati down as far as it would go, her cheeks going red, and said "Uh, not really. What are you doing up there?" She walked toward the ladder leaned against the house.

Veida said "We've got coldframes up here. The heat from the roof keeps 'em going all year. We grow eggplants, strawberries and peppers even in winter."

"Wonderful!" said Yoj.

"You wanna come up and get the tour?" offered Veida with a grin.

"No, I -- don't have underwear on" said Yoj.

"Or shoes, I see" said Veida. "You better scoot back in, your feet will go blue."

Yoj backed away toward the door, not willing to risk flashing her ass at Veida. She could hear Veida chuckling as she bent back over the coldframes.

In the kitchen, Bux had dipped water from the always simmering cistern on the aga and started tea brewing. She had sliced thick haidan bread and placed it on the rack to toast. She was now grating carrots into a bowl which already held dried apples and a ginger dressing. Yoj came to her and put her arms around Bux's middle.

"Veida is on the roof of your bedroom" said Yoj.

"Your hands are like ice through my shati!" said Bux. "Don't worry, Veida's not nosy. None of them are, really. Would you rather have bean paste or butter on your toast?"

"Butter" said Yoj, warming her hands at the aga. "I'm so hungry I can hardly think."

"Grab us plates and chopsticks" said Bux. She set their hasty lunch on the table as Yoj located plates on the open shelves beside her.

They ate in big bites. Her mouth full of food, Yoj said "I usually go meet Halling at the jichang when she lands after her shift. But that's right about now, so I'm not going to make it today, I guess."

"Are you going to leave soon?" asked Bux, stricken.

"No, that's what I'm saying. I can't bear to go yet. Halling always eats and showers after her shift, then takes a nap. She gets up in time for dinner, if not before. So I think I can stay until dinner. I'll have to go, then. And talk with her tonight, just me and her" said Yoj, putting her hand over Bux's to soften the blow.

"I can understand that" said Bux. "Can I see you tomorrow, though? Or do you need a lot of time with her, to, I guess, talk her into it?"

Yoj laughed. "I won't need to talk her into anything. This is what we've wanted. And yes, tomorrow you can see both of us. You and she can -- start getting to know each other. If it's sunny, she'll have to work, but you and I can go together to meet her at the jichang -- she'll show you her sinner."

Bux was both excited and apprehensive. She scraped the last of her carrot salad into her mouth, considering Halling.

"Where are your sibs?" asked Yoj suddenly. "I mean, I know Paha is partnered and living on Beras, right? But what about Culisa?"

"She's apprenticing as a capriste, up in the hills of Yagi" said Bux. "I thought she was never going to move out -- I was determined to be the one who got the Manage -- and finally she got sweet on someone up there, decided to milk goats and stand out in the weather all day for the sake of love. I don't think she'll be back. So this place is all ours."

"You want to live here, for sure?" asked Yoj.

"Yes. Why, don't you?"

"No, it's great. It's an ideal location, and it's a beautiful Manage. But what will your emmas have to say about that?" worried Yoj. "I mean, two of us at once..."

"I'll talk to them tonight while you're talking with Halling" said Bux confidently. "They'll be happy for me, for us. Qen was always talking about you when you were her student, how brilliant you were -- Halling, too, actually. And Yerush told us all kinds of stories about you when you were at University. Good stories, I mean" she added hastily. Yerush had also occasionally passed on the gossip of Yoj's shenanigans, but she didn't need to say that at the moment.

Yoj was extremely pleased. "I've always been in awe of them both, you know."

Bux made a dismissive sound. "They piss yellow just like anyone else. And Veida -- well, she hasn't said much about you, but she's kept close track of Halling's career, can't say enough good about her. And they all want children in the house again, they've made that clear. Which is another reason I should get the Manage, because all my life I've intended to aggie at least four children."

Yoj laughed. "That means you had to have a three-partnership, then, to get Leave to have four. Good thing we were available."

Bux looked at her seriously. "It was always going to be you, Yoj, haven't you heard me? I had a jolt when you got serious with Halling, but then I realized I liked her too, so it would work out just fine. As long as we can get Leave to aggie, of course."

Yoj picked up toast crumbs with her thumb and looked at Bux tenderly. "Thanks for waking me up, Bux. And getting Leave will be no problem. Halling, as a sinner, is almost automatically granted Leave -- because she can't aggie herself, you know, pilots are prohibited -- and I'm high up on the list, too, being a dichter. They'll jump at the chance to give us Leave."

Bux looked speculative. "Well, you think your special status will extend to something extra?"


"Five children. Honestly, I've secretly wanted to have five."

Yoj sat back in her chair, grinning.

"Waves and ripples, Bux -- five!"

"I'm young" said Bux earnestly, "And healthy. And Yerush only had three, I know, but she was almost 40 when she had me, she was pushing it, so I think I'm going to be very fertile. And the curtilage that goes with this Manage is not that big, but we farm it brilliantly, we eat well here. Qen makes 25 eks a year as a teacher, and Yerush makes 15, and I get 5 right now as secretary to the Sheng Zhang of Rahat. If Yerush ever decides to run for Ethicist again and gets re-elected, which she will, she'll make another 10 eks a year there. I don't get paid for my murals -- "

Yoj interrupted this torrent, exclaiming "Wandmaler is not a paid position?"

"No, but I get barter and it's fair. Plus Veida gets about 10 eks a year currency in birthing fees plus really stupendous barter, so all in all, I think we could afford five more mouths. Besides you and Halling, I mean" finished Bux.

"You've had time to think this over" grinned Yoj. "Well, honeycomb, I've wanted a Manage full of kids all my life, too. And so has Halling. We have incomes, too. I'm shocked that Yerush only gets 15 -- they pay me 25 eks a year. Halling gets 50."

"You save lives every single day" said Bux. "Halling feeds the world. You earn it."

"We all earn it" said Yoj. "Anyhow, I'll tell Halling, unless you want to bring it up yourself."

"No, you do it" said Bux, standing up. "Let's do the dishes before emmas come back."

At dusk, they emerged from Bux's room, Yoj fully clothed and Bux in her schmatta. The emmas were in the kitchen, making dinner or doing chores. Yoj went to the bath room and scrubbed her face and hands, then went to each emma and took her leave. Both she and Bux had flushed faces and sensual movement of their bodies. Bux walked her to the front door and gave her a long kiss goodbye. They whispered a minute, then Yoj scrambled up the steps and out into the cold air.

Bux returned to the kitchen, looking smug and radiant. She sat down at the table, studying her hands. She didn't seem to know what to say. Qen, chopping vegetables beside her at the table, set down her knife and put her hand on Bux's, saying "I don't think I've ever seen you look so happy."

Bux met her gaze then, and her eyes were full of tears as she said with thick passion "I love her." The raw vulnerability on her face made up the mind of each emma on the spot, if Bux had only known.

Veida and Yerush joined them at the table. Bux noticed with all of them here, there were still two empty seats. The thrill of filling those chairs gave her courage to speak:

"She's gone to talk with Halling. Tomorrow we're going to meet her after she's done sinning, and we'll come back here. And -- I'd like for us all to have dinner together tomorrow night, here, if that's all right with you."

"Sounds good to me" said Veida, and Yerush just nodded.

"Does she -- love you back?" asked Qen. She had to ask.

Bux's face lit up even more. "She does, oh, she does, emma! And Halling will too, she swears she will."

"Of course she will" said Veida loyally.

Yerush, her tone less effusive, said "It is to be presumed, then, that you are the aggie?"

Bux looked at her a little defiantly. "Yes. And if Halling agrees, which again Yoj says she will, we want to have five children." She had the satisfaction of seeing this shock Yerush.

"Five?" gasped Qen.

Veida said "You'll have to get special Le---"

"We know" interrupted Bux. "But they have pull, and they make good money, and you three wanted four, I know, so just imagine one more here running around between us."

Qen began crying. "I can't think of anything better" she said. She squeezed Bux's hand.

Bux looked at Veida, who was grinning, thank heavens. She looked at Yerush last.

"If you can pull it off" Yerush said, "I know what joy it will bring you." Which for Yerush was a ringing endorsement. She added "But we'll have to think about space issues here. When it comes to that." She stood up and went back to the aga.

Bux stood and went to Yerush, hugging her. "Thanks" she whispered.

"We're very proud of you" Qen said from behind her. Bux turned to give her a hug as well, then Veida.

"The soup is ready" said Yerush. "Somebody get the fishcakes from the oven, and we can eat."