They shift and shimmer before her, Bre'n and Senyas, elusively twisting, changing before Rheba's eyes. His gaze - powerful, sensuous, innately Bre'n - flares as gold as that of her akhenet mentor, Kirtn's, as molten as the glittering lines of fire that twine themselves over Rheba's skin in endless patterns. Her gaze - fierce, challenging, powerfully Senyas - meets Rheba's with an intensity of passion, vivid with something Rheba knows and recognises, and yet can't quite comprehend.
Sweat slicks her skin, the stinging reminder that she's lost meditative focus. Furnace-heat is dragged back from the inferno around her, sucked back through her akhenet lines, leaving her shivering.
In spite of the loss of her fire, she's not cold - not in her bunk on the Devalon, holding the carved earring Kirtn gave her when she was ten.
The molten heat in the pit of her belly remains.
A warning whistle through the Devalon intercom is the first news Rheba has of a fight broken out in the ship's hold. She turns from the main display, but Kirtn's already moving in response to Ilfn's whistle, his gold pelt shimmering beneath the downlights as he shoulders his way through the crowds.
Rheba follows him, leaving the Devalon's computer churning with the numbers for the planetary lottery - the next group of former Loo slaves to return home.
She pushes past the spectators, the flaring heat of a Senyas fire dancer clearing a path through the narrow corridors, out into the main hold.
Whatever happened here, it's already over, the combatants forced away from each other by grim J/taals and a gold-furred Bre'n. The crowd is held at bay by snarling J/taal clepts - war-dogs - silver eyed reptiloids that move with a killing grace.
The protest rises in Universal from a small, humanoid male whose stocky frame and developed musculature ripple as he shifts, barely held back by Kirtn's warming hand, light skimming off the iridescent scales of his hide. Even after a month on the Devalon, Rheba doesn't know his name or his race, only his face, now contorted in anger and frustration.
"If you do not notice, this space is small and there are many in it."
His opponent's Universal is clipped and unmusical, coming from an almost ethereal white-skinned creature with long scarlet tattoos up and down his arms - a Jonyn - one of three that escaped from the rebellion on Loo.
"Not so many as there were when we started!" The scaled man doesn't want excuses or apologies. "You had no trouble keeping away then!"
"Or you had more restraint."
The iridescent alien snaps something out in his own language - a set of syllables that has no meaning to a fire dancer who knows only Senyas, Bre'n, and the Universal language of the Yhelle Equality, but whose undertones are clearly understood.
From the hisses of offence, it seems the language is a known one among several. On the Jonyn's arms, tattoos suddenly bulge, standing out off his skin in textured relief. He takes a step forward, and stops as one of the J/taals shifts her weight, and a clept growls a warning.
"That's enough!" The anger in Kirtn's voice needs no translation - a Bre'n rage that would be dangerous even without the backing of the J/taals. With the J/taals and their clepts behind him, Rheba's mentor has the ship's attention.
Since their last visit downside, Kirtn's been terse with everyone. Even Ilfn doesn't escape it. She bears it with a patience that seems uncharacteristic of a Bre'n, but won't explain to Rheba what's causing it - another small thing that nags at her.
They took two more ex-slaves home, observing the formalities of the local politics which required them to be 'returned with ceremony'. The ceremony went without hitch; it was the local politician's attempt to seduce Kirtn that caused the initial anger.
Anger flares at the memory, brightening her akhenet lines with a hot jealousy that confuses her all the more because she doesn't know what to do with it. The things that she might have learned from her Senyas mother about this internal fire were lost in Deva's fiery death, and the only other Senyas she knows of in the Equality is a boy half her age.
At least Rheba knows what to do with Bre'n fury.
She steps out and whistles a soft Bre'n command, Translate me.
It's not a command to Kirtn, though.
Among the fiery strands of her hair, the snake-like translator Fssa shifts, and, as she begins to speak in precise Senyas, translates her words into languages that the array of aliens in the hold and through the ship will understand.
"We have fewer people than we did," she agrees, "but it's still crowded, and going to be that way for a while; we're still over double capacity of the ship. Who started this argument isn't important; it's finished. In the meantime, keep your distances and hold your tempers and you'll all get home."
Murmurs rise and die as her akhenet lines flare across her fingertips and up her shoulders. Filigree fire skims across her skin in patterns of power, and her gold hair crackles in a fiery wave, an unsubtle reminder of who the former slaves owe their lives and freedom to - and who is taking them home.
Not all the former slaves on the Devalon saw the start of the inferno that Rheba drew down to kill the Lords of Loo, but the story has been passed among them - how the air caught fire, and the shield came down, and the ferocious power of a Senyas fire-dancer was unleashed upon the amphitheatre in the Hour Between Years.
The murmurings fall soft, although Rheba is no mind-dancer to read the mood of the aliens around her, she feels the tension subside.
Liquid syllables of Bre'n slice through the air of the hold, as she calls the Devalon's computer to project the next number in the lottery above her head.
The crowd murmurs, mostly disappointed. Then, in the corner of Rheba's eye, someone steps forward - a female alien with long pale braids swinging short around her jaw. On her shoulder rests a creature whose short black pelt seems to drag at the light, barely reflecting any sheen at all.
"Dhavi's your home?"
In Rheba's hair, the Fssireeme translates her words into a series of soft clicks, irregular and almost rhythmic. Rheba doesn't recognise the language any more than she recognises the woman.
"Yes," comes the reply in Universal - but it's not the woman speaking. The creature on her shoulder is small, squat, and with eyes of liquid ebony from lid to lash. Those eyes stare at Rheba now. "We are going home. How long?"
Rheba glances over at the disrupted fight, at Kirtn, who looms over the iridescent humanoid. "Is it over?"
"It seems to be." Even in crisp Senyas, she can hear his tension, although it has none of the emotional range of a Bre'n whistle. "I'm going to see Ilfn and Lheket."
Then he's gone down another passage towards the bunk where Ilfn and Lheket - the Bre'n woman and her Senyas protégé - are keeping.
Bre'n fury, Rheba knows. She's seen glimpses of this in Kirtn before - training for the Concatenation Act on Loo, during the journey to Daemen, and as the Texar politics wound their intricate tendrils around them, entangling them in delicate and difficult situations. She's felt him in rez - the self-destructive state of Bre'n rage that she channelled for him once before, and came close to killing both of them.
Once again, she can feel the tension building in him, without release, without relent, inexorably heading for rez.
Rheba doesn't want to lose Kirtn to rez again; she just doesn't know how to stop it.
The heat of her meditations disturbs her, the rituals and ceremonies that marked her akhenet life before Deva died are gone, and now Rheba's not only searching for Senyas and Bre'n in a vast Equality, she's also navigating her adult relationship with her Bre'n.
She turns back to the control room, and the Dhavi woman-and-creature duo follow her. It's the woman who speaks first in that flowing rhythm of clicks and chitters that underlies Fssa's translation into Senyas.
"You are bound to him in life and death?"
"We are akhenet." She uses the term, even knowing that there's probably no corresponding concept in the Dhavi culture and trusting to Fssa to come up with an appropriate translation that might mean something to the creature and the woman.
"Soul-bound, then." The control room is busy with those curious about the Devalon's technology, poking and prodding, safe in the knowledge that the ship will not respond to them, and so, bold. Rheba strides past them, followed by the Dhavi woman and her shoulder-sage. "You are kind but not kin to the other two, yes? The furred woman in childbearing and the blind boy?"
The questions are intrusive, difficult to answer in her own uncertainty but she answers it all the same.
"Ilfn carries Kirtn's children," she says, terse, but tempering her emotions before whistling an instruction to the Devalon's navtrix to display the location of Dhavi and map a route there. "Two replacements and a changeover. You'll be home soon."
This time, the series of clicks from woman to shoulder-sage isn't translated by Fssa - a private conversation, not meant for her ears?
Rheba commands the ship into replacement and slips into the pilot mesh of the ship. The recorded warning rings out and, around her, people brace for the transition.
It's a moment's shiver, and then they're through. It's only a short replacement - less than a day. Time enough for Rheba to think.
"And when we are all sent home...what of you? You have no home."
Rheba stiffens, an ache in her heart. Deva is a barren fireball orbiting an unstable sun; its people are either dead or scattered through the Equality, seeking survivors like she and her Bre'n. Maybe elsewhere, another akhenet pair has survived - gene dancers, mind dancers, engineers...Senyas to dance, Bre'n to guide them, protect them...
Unerringly, her head turns towards the door, where Kirtn has just walked in. Strength wrapped in unbearable beauty, sensuality wrapped in unparalleled will, power wrapped in unyielding discipline - at some level, her Bre'n has always been beyond her understanding.
The gold eyes meet hers, and she feels again the rush of heat, akhenet lines smouldering in untrammelled fire, her breath caught hot in her throat as though sucked from her lungs. Carefully, Rheba reins in the heat, knowing that her Bre'n will advocate control.
He whistles a question in Bre'n, the delicate nuances holding hints of tenderness, even as the edge of the melodic whistle betrays the frustration that seems to haunt him constantly these days.
"I'm fine," she says, using the lilting upper range to indicate lightheartedness. "Answering questions."
He pauses by the pilot's web, and his fingers tangle in the wealth of her shifting, shimmering hair, caressing both the strands and the Fssireeme among them. Rheba tilts her head, the better to rub her cheek against his wrist in reassurance.
The Dhavi are watching her - two sets of black, blank eyes turned towards Bre'n and Senyas.
"We'll find a home," she says shortly, answering the question that was asked. "After we find others of our kind."
"You destroyed the Loo-Chim," says the woman softly. "Where would you be welcome?"
It's a question that's risen in the back of Rheba's mind - not just how to rebuild the culture of Senyas and Bre'n, but how to find a planet where they can start anew.
"We'll find somewhere."
"Perhaps. But if you will accept a suggestion?" When no response is forthcoming, the woman shrugs. "We have a distant moon that orbits our planet. It is fertile enough, but has lain empty for several Cycles - our races do not expand as do most of the Fourth Peoples. If you seek somewhere to be apart, it might be yours."
"What would you want in return?" Kirtn speaks bluntly, his fingers still sliding through Rheba's hair.
Eyes as black as volcanic glass-stone stare back at her, no whites, only the unending darkness. "Your fire to seed ours."
This time, when Rheba meditates on her Bre'n Face, she holds herself in careful control.
Beneath her eyes, the carving of the Bre'n face shifts, bright shadows on incandescent clouds forming the profile of a Senyas woman. She blooms like a flower from the shadows of the male Bre'n face. An inner light glows across her features, like the fire that glimmers across Rheba's akhenet lines, yet infinitely more subtle.
Once again, Rheba's struck by the woman's resemblance to herself - the Senyas face both hers and not-hers, even as the Bre'n face resembles Kirtn's fierce beauty. Then the woman's face turns, Senyas to Bre'n in acceptance and offering, and as mouth meets mouth, their blaze of fire and passion shudders through Rheba like the echoes of rez.
She wants Kirtn. She wants to feel his fur beneath her hands, his hands stroking her bare skin with Bre'n sensuality - not as a Bre'n mentor comforting his Senyas akhenet, but as he must have touched Ilfn when they conceived the children Ilfn now carries.
He needs you, child and woman, he needs you.
Ilfn's words echo in her mind, spoken the first time they conversed. They made no sense to Rheba then.
They make only a little more now.
Back in the Fourteenth Cycle, the Fire of the Dhavi went out.
"Ran down, wore down - they don't know," Fssa says from in Rheba's hair. "What they do know is that their engineers worked on it for three Cycles before they worked out how to fix it."
Kirtn arches a brow as he looks up at the criss-crossing arches of metal that span the silvery pillars spread through the room. "If they didn't know how it wore down, how did they know what needed to be fixed?"
Fssa whistles a shrug in Bre'n, while Rheba looks at the nearest pillar, at the gold inlays that stripe it in fine detail. There's no pattern to it that she can determine, just an oddly sinuous flow to the lines that run, sometimes parallel, sometimes at right angles, sometimes in a series of rows, sometimes ending in fat square terminals.
"And your engineers think that all this needs is fire to start it?" She turns to look at the Dhavi duo, who gave their names as Sardis and Betis - the humanoid woman and the vadhi on her shoulder.
"Our histories state that it took the explosion of a thousand suns to bring the chamber alive." Sardis' head tilts up to look at the arches overhead.
"You think I can wield the power of a thousand suns?"
"You destroyed the Loo-chim," says Betis. Rheba knows it's the vadhi speaking because Fssa has even changed the timbre of Betis' tone in translation to make it clear which Dhavi is saying what.
"One of the last of the Loo slaves to come on board said that you left the Loo in ashes and smoke."
"With good reason." Rheba glances at Kirtn, sees the memory of hatred and fire in his gaze. "And the help of the weather shield."
"Is not a home a good enough reason?"
Kirtn's hand closes about her arm, and she feels his mind dancing in hers. The question - is it enough of a reason? Could the moon they saw earlier be enough of a home to them?
She looks up at him, towering copper with the mask of amber around his eyes. "It could be." Her whistle carries both grief for what was lost in Deva's destruction, and hope for their peoples' future once they find others, once Ilfn bears Bre'n children, once Lheket's old enough to give Rheba Senyas children.
His palm slides up her arm, across the fine, tingling traceries that limn her shoulders like filigreed lace. For a moment, she revels in the texture of him against her skin, her hair flowing to wrap around his hand in a fire dancer's caress; then he takes his hand from her and steps back.
"Your choice, dancer."
Rheba frowns. After the fluidity of Bre'n, the precise Senyas seems strangely cold. She keeps to the melodic tones of Bre'n. "You'll be living there, too."
"It's still your choice."
With the future of Bre'n and Senyas in her hands, Rheba hesitates. There are still slaves to take home in the Devalon, still an Equality to search for any surviving Senyas or Bre'n, but it would give strength to know that there was somewhere waiting for them; a place to come home to.
It would give them hope.
Rheba turns to Sardis, and sees her own fire reflected in ebony eyes. "It's enough."
The starter chamber is a ceramic room empty of everything but a single pillar, whose silver arches vanish up into the concrete ceiling. According to the Dhavi engineers, it needs to be heated to the point where the core fuses together, after which the whole installation will begin to run on its own steam, generating a series of reactions that make it self-continuing.
Rheba circles the pillar - wider than she and Kirtn standing shoulder to shoulder - and her Bre'n is by no means small. The two coppery discs on the side are unique to this one, flat and burnished, with no markings on them at all.
"Contact points," Rheba murmurs as she touches them, sensing the lines and terminals beneath the discs. She feels Fssa shift in her hair, the Fssireeme shaping itself the better to 'see' what's behind the two discs.
"There's something behind here," he whistles, intrigued.
Kirtn turns from his contemplation of one of the pillar sides, his yellow eyes narrow. "Alive?"
The question is asked of Fssa, but he's busy 'sensing' behind the copper discs, twisting his flexible body into the fascinating shapes of a Fssireeme translator, the better to emit the wavelengths that will give him back the information he needs.
It's Rheba who answers after a moment's hesitation. "No. At least...I don't think so. But it's cold. It feels like it's been cold for a long time." She shivers - Senyas don't survive the cold very long, and what's beneath these discs feels vast and chilling - a cold that echoes.
"I wonder how they started it the first time," Rheba murmurs, wondering if she can do it. Doubt sucks at the natural energies flowing through her, an inhibition she doesn't need. A soft caress turns her head, and she angles her jaw into Kirtn's touch.
"You can do this, dancer. You will." And in his whistle, she hears his pride in her, even as his mind dances in hers at the physical contact between them. She sees his memories of other power-sources she used and transformed for her purposes - the amphitheatre shield on Loo, the Zaarain core on Daemen, the veils on Yhelle...the self-destructive rez that should have killed them in the prison on Loo, and yet found them freedom.
"Those times were for destruction," she whistles, back, letting fear seep into her voice. "This is harder. More delicate."
"It's just control," he says, and his belief in her is ferocious as her own fire can be.
"You can do this."
Rheba swallows. Nods. This close, she can see the Face in her earring in his expression, and a different kind of fire burns her lobe with the memory of Bre'n-Senyasi passion. Yet if the touch on her cheek is sensual, it's also controlled. If Kirtn feels what she feels, no hint of emotion comes through from him.
To distract herself, she shakes out her hair, a living wave of gold strands floating through the air - with a snake-like Fssireeme in the midst of them. "Are you ready, Fssa?"
Fssa is their protection if things go wrong, being capable of absorbing heat from all living things, but particularly Rheba's fierce akhenet energies.
"Yes," he whistles, pleasure resonating through the trilled affirmative. "It will be so nice to stretch again..."
"We're spoiling you, snake," Kirtn whistles with teasing amusement.
Fssa droops a little, his hide becoming dense and dark, and Rheba laughs and caresses him with her fingertips, watching him brighten as she reassures him in caressing Bre'n. "You're beautiful, snake. And we're glad to have you here."
Dhavi's Elders approved Sardis' exchange - the moon is too warm for their physiology. They have no interest in it. Rheba, on the other hand...
They both saw the speculative looks in the expressions of some of the Elders when Sardis and Beti related the fate of the Loo. Humanoid and vadhi alike eyed Rheba with an avarice that sparked her memories of the female polarity of the Imperial Loo-Chim watching Kirtn with hungry eyes. Her lines flared briefly in anger and warning before she damped them down in response to Kirtn's whistle.
But if the Dhavi's curiosity is strong, their desire for this Fire's start is stronger.
"Ready?" Kirtn asks.
Ilfn knows what they're doing and why. The Bre'n woman listened to the descriptions of the planetoid moon and seemed accepting of their choice and their decision. A home and hope, she whistled, with a longing that stung Rheba's throat.
She's doing this for all their futures.
They set up in the centre of the room, Rheba standing in the middle of the room with Kirtn at her back, his fingers resting on her shoulders, poised at the points of greatest energy flow.
As he touches her, her lines pulse, a hot hunger for the augmenting anchorage of Bre'n will, of Bre'n energy. Generations ago, Senyas and Bre'n learned to live together, developed their power - Bre'n mentors refining the raw Senyas power, finding release from their own energy-hungry emotions through Senyas dancers.
Rheba's never learned just how her body uses the currents, directs them, she only knows they come to her call. It's easiest to produce heat, but the energy is like a current, a tide in her bloodstream that rises at her will and her wish. She can sense energy flows, manipulate them - this is just something a little more - a little extra.
A lot more difficult to control, even with her Bre'n.
At her back, Kirtn channels energy to her, the heat of his hands entirely different from the fire that pours through her body. She is both vessel and source; he is control and channel. Together they are akhenet - united in mind and will and power.
Something shifts within Rheba, interrupting the liquid flows of energy - a trembling sense of the verge of a cliff, a quivering shudder of raw power barely held back. She reaches for Kirtn, even as she stitches power through the terminals of the starter pillar and feels the machine's answering hunger - molecules gaining energy from the heat she pours into them, starting up the processes of the generator, but sluggishly.
It's not enough.
She needs more power.
Kirtn gives her more.
But Rheba feels the struggle, the discordant energies that clash within him. And her breath catches in her throat when she realises what this is.
In rez an enraged Bre'n mind turns on its own body, cannibalising it cell by cell in ferocious rage. Yet it's more than just anger - more than mere fury or outrage. There's another component to rez - another aspect she's seen in the corner of her mind but never quite known...
He's holding back, but she can feel the inferno of rez just beyond the impenetrable discipline of Bre'n will. She doesn't know why she can feel it when all she should be sensing is the power he keeps feeding her. Maybe it's because she's felt it once before; channelled that terrible, terrifying power to survive and keep her mentor alive.
Carefully, with skill born of desperation, Rheba begins to drain Kirtn's energy, trying not to inadvertently send him into rez. She increases the power she's feeding to the pillar, and with that increase feels the energies shifting within it, stirring out of their long cold sleep to the warmth she's pouring into them.
It's difficult - so difficult to be controlled rather than to let loose in fury, to dance with care amidst the raging power coming from her Bre'n.
The molecules behind the discs shiver, waking to heat and comprehension.
The quivering awakening reflects a memory amidst the cacophony of energies being passed through the room - the memory of another awakening to heat and warmth and possibility as she listened to the alluring, aching notes of a Bre'n seduction.
When last she heard that song, she was a slave on Loo, facing the Imperial Loo-Chim with her Bre'n, wondering as her Bre'n sang to seduce the female polarity of the Imperial Loo-Chim in an attempt to keep them out of the Pit.
Nothing you can do with your Bre'n is wrong.
Kirtn's words, back on Onan.
Kirtn's tension after what happened on Texar.
Kirtn's features in the Bre'n Face hanging from her ear.
Kirtn kissing her deeply, his body moulded against hers, her fire building a cage around them, his hands sliding across her skin with Bre'n sensuality...
As the starter pillar reaches the critical mass; so do her thoughts, sparking a different kind of fire..
Rheba can feel the twisting ripple of the energy as it builds within the chamber, as the reaction starts to move on its own steam. One glance up shows her the first thin crackle of ozonic lightning twines along the silvery arches that vanish into the ceiling, swiftly building into a plasma glow over the metal connectors.
Tired, but not exhausted, Rheba turns to Kirtn.
Tension laces his body, tension in his eyes, the insanity of rez fighting to break through the unyielding will of a Bre'n. Will he succeed, or will he flash into Bre'n destruction?
Fear leaps high, clutching hard at her innards before she takes his wrists in her hands and calls him, sliding her palms up his arms. He's not frozen in place, she can feel his muscles straining, can sense the turmoil in him, the pent frustration, the need...
She dances at the edge of his mind, and can feel him trying to push her away, trying to save her from the rez that could swallow them both. In just such a way did Deva die.
Rheba couldn't help Deva - not all the Senyas dancers nor all their Bre'n mentors could stop their sun from destroying their world.
They lost Deva. Rheba can't lose Kirtn.
You're not allowed to leave me, mentor!
Fear lends her the strength to fist her hands in his hair, to drag his mouth down to hers. And this time when their mouths touch, she's not a Senyas child, confused by the sensuality of her Bre'n, but a Senyas woman who knows what she wants - who she wants.
She pours all her need and hunger into the link, and wonders if a Senyas dancer's passion might be capable of changing the destructive rage of rez to...something else.
For one moment, Kirtn is still beneath her.
Then his hands come up to her shoulders and put her away from him.
"Rheba." His whistle is tender and careful. "You're too young."
She's hot and cold all at once. "You said that on Onan, too. To Satin." Satin, who'd propositioned Kirtn and been reluctantly rejected. Frustration laces her whistle, and the fiery strands of her hair snake over her shoulder to wrap around his hands in a questioning caress. "How old is old enough, mentor? Old enough to fight for my Bre'n? Old enough to know what I want? How old must I be to make my own choices?"
Kirtn stills and the yellow eyes flare with sudden amber tints - not the dark shadows of rez, but something else - something as deep and encompassing as rez but not as destructive.
"If you choose this, Rheba, we can't go back."
She never imagined they could.
Then his phrasing reaches her. Not, Don't do that, but You're too young. Not because he doesn't want this, but because he wants to be sure she does.
Rheba whistles the opening notes of a Bre'n love song, the knowing female invitation that woos a lover into the duet. A single step ducks her out from beneath his hands, closes the distance he's put between them - not touching him, not yet. She lifts her face up to his as the song's note quivers on the edge of the entry point for the male.
"You're still too young," Kirtn says, and in his tone she hears regret and tenderness, desire and restraint, and a vast turmoil.
Despair damps her lines, akhenet fire guttering.
Then his voice picks up the male thread of the song - one line sung of intent and promise - and his mouth comes down on hers in an inferno of Bre'n sensuality that brings a fire in her loins and spreads out along her akhenet lines.
Her fingers wind into the waves of his hair, his hands mould her against him. The song of seduction is lost in a greater song, of mouths and bodies and a Senyas dancer's fire arching up around them.
Together, they create a new kind of fire.