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A Secret Garden She Hides

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The table in Administrator Celar's conference room was a massive slab of real wood. Now that I was no longer the focus of the lofty people attending the meeting, I stroked the surface with a fingertip. The grain was impossible to feel through my gloves. Fidgeting, I thought. I made myself stop and immediately felt angry and rebellious. It wasn't Tisarwat who thought the fidgeting should stop. Tisarwat had never cared.

The Lord of the Radch could go fellate herself.

Actually, she could, couldn't she?

I really wanted to laugh. It was hard to stop myself. Propriety, Lieutenant: I could hear Fleet Captain saying it. That reminded me of the report I would have to make. Was I missing anything important?

No, Administrator Celar had been praising Horticulturalist Basnaaid's plans for subterrean garden plots for the Undergarden to be started at the same time as the restoration of the station gardens. Relations with the residents of the Undergarden were still very tense, but some of the people were showing interest in the idea of their own little plots. Light wells from the remodeled station gardens would allow them to grow shade-loving greens, Basnaaid was saying, in addition to the mushroom farming.

Of course I thought it was a wonderful idea. Basnaaid was a wonderful person. And it would be a start toward converting the residents of the Undergarden to productive citizens.

That was what she would say, wouldn't she? When did I ever care about productive citizens on stations? I gritted my teeth and concentrated on the Chief Medical Officer of Atheok Station, who seemed to be talking about a clinic.

"A small clinic of their own would encourage the residents to pursue basic health goals. They would be less wary of using a local facility than they would of going into the station proper. I actually have a couple of idealistic young practitioners who have volunteered to staff the place. I can have others support them in rotation."

"And it would keep the residents from traipsing through station," muttered one of the young under-administrators to her neighbor, who rolled her eyes and agreed.

"A very proper and productive idea," said Celar, who had missed nothing of this exchange. "Aatnian, Teigardis: you will share the liaison duties for both the clinic and the solid waste processing services."

"Administrator … ," one of them began, whining, and then yelped in a way that made me think she'd taken a kick to the ankle.

"Yes, Administrator," said her friend, smartly. Across the table from me, Piat looked up from her note-taking and smiled. Suddenly I recognized Aatnian of the kicked ankle as once of Raughd Denche's close friends.

"I believe that covers everything," Administrator Celar continued. "Unless the Fleet Captain had some other suggestions, Lieutenant Tisarwat?"

No, said Ship, in my ear, surprising me. "None, Administrator," I replied.

"In that case, we are concluded," said Celar. "Until tomorrow, then, citizens."

The officials rose from the table. Some departed the room at once, while others gathered at the far end where a tea service and platters of cakes remained. I sat for a moment and closed my eyes. "Ship, would you give a report to Fleet Captain directly?" I said, quietly.

I will, said Ship, after a moment. But Fleet Captain wants your written report by mid-day tomorrow.

I was surprised and pleased that Ship would communicate with me directly. And disgusted the next minute to think that Anaander Mianaai would have been part of this, if Fleet Captain had not discovered what I was so early in our journey to Athoek.

I looked up to see Administrator Celar looking at me curiously from the doorway. I nodded to her with as much dignity as I could and stood to go. She smiled and nodded back, then swept out of the room with her usual grace, moving lightly for such a large person. Piat trailed in her wake. Basnaaid was already gone. I couldn't believe I'd missed her.

I didn't want to make small talk with the people that remained, especially not Aatnian and Teigardis, so I followed Piat and her mother out. Bo Nine fell in behind me once I was in the hallway. On the way to the elevator, I tried to arrange my thoughts for a formal report to Fleet Captain, but every time I tried to set up a sentence, it seemed more like something that the Lord of the Radch would say. Were my thoughts ever going to be my own again? If I asked Medic, she'd give me stronger medications. I didn't want that either.

"Tisarwat! Tiss!"

The last person to call me that had been my cousin Heskarat — that same cousin I'd never met for tea before shipping out, because Anaander Mianaai had been sticking implants in my brain instead. I whirled around, ready to shout at whomever thought she could treat me like a blood relative, but it was only Piat. Bo Nine, who had instantly flowed into a defensive stance, relaxed into normal watchfulness.

Her face fell, and I felt ashamed of myself. Piat didn't need another friend treating her badly. Of course, Piat also didn't need a friend whose brain was in pieces and half occupied by the Lord of the Radch, but she couldn't be expected to know that. "Piat," I said. "Sorry. I was thinking of something else."

"You looked so serious."

"I have to make a report on the meeting for Fleet Captain."

"Oh!" That was something she could understand, for sure. "She's very … sharp, isn't she? Mother says she's briliiant."

"Yes." Sharp, brilliant … unnerving: all those things. "I need to go back to our rooms to get that done." Piat's mother had allotted us a set of rooms only a level up from the Undergarden, convenient for our work there.

She looked sideways at me, unhappy. "So maybe you won't be able to come to supper with me?"

"I'd love to!" I was surprised at how much I wanted to do that. It was the kind of thing I'd done back home, all the time, and I missed it. "I just need to finish the report and request leave for the evening. I've been on duty for six days, so I should be due some time off."

"Oh, good," Piat said, clearly relieved. "When can you meet me?"

"An hour before station evening? Where should I go?"

"At the entrance to the market concourse on level 3. You know it?"

I'd find it. Station would help. "I'll see you, then."

I went on my way feeling much happier, despite the fact that some of my thoughts were calculating the advantages of moving my relationship with the Administrator's daughter to another level. At our apartments, I greeted the rest of my Bos and shut myself up in the small room that had been arranged as an office. The desk surface transformed itself for manual data entry at a touch. and I buckled down to set my impressions in good order. It was soothingly like schoolwork, and of course it matched Anaander Mianaai's ideas of what I should be doing, so I actually made my way through the job with plenty of time left.

"Station," I said. "A secure connection to Mercy of Kalr, please."

"Connecting," said Station, in my ear. There was a brief pause, while the data crossed the distance to Ship.

"Lieutenant Tisarwat, Lieutenant Seivarden is on duty," said Ship.

"Lieutenant," I said. "I have the full report that Fleet Captain requested."

"I'll take it," said Seivarden, in her elegant voice. She always sounded like the hero's mother in an old drama recording. "Fleet Captain is resting."

"Sir?"

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Might … might I have the rest of the evening off, sir?"

"You've been on for six days, I see. This looks like a complete report, too. Certainly, take your leave. Stay in communication with Station. Going to see some Athoeki nightlife? Or is it another party?"

"A supper invitation, sir. The Administrator's daughter, Piat."

"Oh ho. Well, if you decide to spend the night, have Station notify Ship so your decade won't come looking for you. That's all, Lieutenant. Enjoy yourself."

My face was hot. I had no idea whether that was what Piat had in mind, after all. But it was the obvious assumption for a senior officer to make about a youth like myself. Shut up, I ordered myself sternly. That was not something I would have thought. That was the Lord of the Radch stirring the pot again.

The apartment suite had two actual washrooms, a complete luxury after our rooms in the Undergarden. I cleaned up and put on a fresh uniform. It was early yet, but I hadn't really had a chance to look at the level 3 market, so I could waste time more enjoyably there. I told Bo Nine what I was doing and that I would send word if I wasn't going to be back by station midnight.

Walking down the corridor to the lifts and then out again on Concourse Level 3 was both familiar and unfamiliar. Omaugh Palace was sleek and over-civilized in comparison with Athoek Station. At home I had been happy to wear my uniform to all sorts of events, proud of my commission, secure in my knowledge that hundreds of other Fleet officers were wearing the same honorable thing but here, I found myself wishing that I had some excuse to put on some Atheoki clothes, to be seen in brightly colored trousers and a floating, embroidered coat like the others I saw on their way to supper or to an evening of other entertainment, music or theater or gambling. I would want violet, I decided, and perhaps a pale blue sash.

The market was well stocked. There were temporary stalls that could be folded away for the night, and proper shops along the walls. I saw jewelry, sweets, miniature tanks with brightly colored ornamental fish, pastries stuffed with spiced eggs and smoked fish, playthings for children. One of the shops had a display window filled with just the sort of clothing I had been admiring. There was no violet, but there was a tawny jacket of brocaded fabric that made me think of Fleet Captain, and a severely elegant black and dark blue ensemble that would suit Lieutenant Seivarden very well, if she would ever wish to be seen in such a get-up. I admired a red-and-orange coat very much, but I could imagine what my mother would say to such a garment: uncivilized, and that was just for a start.

I turned away to look back toward the entrance of the market, and there was Piat. She had shed her green Horticulture uniform and was wearing a soft rose coat over dark grey trousers. Her face brightened when she saw me walking toward her. "Were you shopping?" she said.

"Just wishing I could, but there's not much room in a Mercy for personal items," I said, truthfully. "Where are we going to eat?"

"Well …," she looked looked at me, and then away. "I thought I could make you supper, myself. It's been a while since you've had a home-cooked meal, hasn't it?"

I almost blurted out that I had eaten leftovers from Citizen Fosyf's dinner for the fleet captain, and for once I welcomed the intrusion of Anaander Mianaai's worldly notions. "I haven't eaten in a home for almost a year," I said, instead. The last time had been the celebration for my first assignment, before I left for Omaugh. "I'd love to try your cooking."

Piat beamed. "Let's go to the produce market and see what looks good," she said, and we walked back the way I had come. The shops along both sides of the concourse abruptly gave way to a wider space, filled with all sorts of booths and tables, and a smell of fresh fruit bloomed around us. I saw Radch favorites like dredgefruit, but mostly I had no idea what I was looking at. Piat produced a couple of market bags and bought some sort of pale orange-pink melon, long green vegetables and round russet ones, a bottle of wine, a bag of grain groats, mushrooms, a loaf of bread, and some little sugar-topped cakes that smelled deliciously spicy.

We lugged the heavy bags back to the lifts and went up two levels to a residential zone. Piat apparently had her own apartment: this was not the high-class neighborhood where Administrator Celar and Citizen Fosyf Denche lived. She palmed the door open and waved me inside. The apartment seemed to be one reasonable-sized room. Woven grass matting covered the floor past the tiled entry space, and a bed made up with a striped coverlet and colorful pillows did duty as a settee. There was one deep, comfortable chair that Piat probably used when she was viewing entertainments or reading, and the wall behind it had several little box-like shelves, each bearing a different kind of vine plant in a ceramic pot, the tendrils and leaves cascading out down the wall. Bright lights shone down on them, probably optimized with the proper spectrum to let the plants thrive. The only other furniture was a small table with two elegant but plain chairs.

Everything was very clean and new. I wondered where the kitchen was: the only door out of the room clearly led to the washroom. Piat took my market bag. "Have a seat and rest. Do you like music?"

I had to smile, thinking of Fleet Commander and her humming. "I don't mind it. But can't I help you cook?"

Piat had walked over to a section of wall near the washroom door. She pressed something, and the whole section of wall slid over, revealing a tiny, tidy kitchen, not unlike the one in our decade room on Bo deck. There was a cooler, a fold-out worktable, a tiny cooker with two elements and a doll-sized multimode oven, a washbowl with a dish rack above it, bottles of spices and condiments, some small pots and pans, stacks of dishes, and a row of blue-striped containers that probably held staple foods of some sort. Piat pulled out a chopping board of real wood and a sharp knife. "Can you chop vegetables?"

"Of course." It had been years, but I had gone on holidays with my aunts and cousins, some of whom had liked to cook. "You'll have to tell me what size bits you want, though."

Piat started vegetables and then left me to follow her examples: rounds of the green stalks, thin wedges of the russet-skinned golden-fleshed roots, slices of the trimmed mushrooms. She measured out groats and water into an automatic cooker, set it going, and then got eggs out of the cooler and broke them into a bowl. The vegetables were stirred into aromatic oil heated in the largest pan, there to soften and begin to give off a very appetizing smell. Piat beat the eggs vigorously and then pour them into the pan bit by bit. After the mass cooked for a while, she flipped it up and over so that the other side could cook too. I stared, then applauded her. "Piat, you're amazing!"

She laughed softly, her eyes on her cooking. "Mother's never sure what to think of the fact that I like to cook. I think she's relieved that I also like horticulture." She finished the dish with several spoonfuls of sauces of some sort. The automatic cooker chimed softly, announcing that the groats were done. Piat handed me glasses, utensils, napkins, and violet-striped whites plates for the table. "Can you open the wine, Tiss?"

"Sure." I was glad that she seemed at ease with the nickname. She set the food on the table, made sure everything was secure and turned off, and joined me.

The food tasted every bit as good as it smelled. Piat took her duties as host seriously and told me amusing stories and bits of gossip about the important folks of the station. When we had finished what was on the table, she took the plates to the washbowl and then sliced the melon, which was an surprising ruby color inside. It was delicious, and even better with the crispy spice cakes.

I helped her clean up, and then we were both at loose ends. I didn't want to go yet, and I didn't think Piat wanted me to go. "Do you want to play a game?" she said, at last. "I have a chashra set."

"I'm rubbish at chashra."

"So am I! How about an entertainment? I've been following a series called 'Legends of Tomaanai.' It's very exciting."

"Guess I have to see it, then."

She smiled sideways at me. "We can sit on the bed." She moved the wine and the glasses to a built-in shelf that we could reach while we watched, and dimmed the lights. "Do you want to use the projector?"

"No need." I didn't mind using my communications implants for entertainments.

She told Station to pay the latest episode. It was exciting, all right, real blood and thunder stuff, with disowned heirs and long lost sisters and mothers who were tyrants. We ended up leaning against each other, muttering comments at the characters and laughing at each other's tipsy wit as the level in the bottle went down. It wasn't until the lead's mother was delivering an icy speech about how disappointed she was in her daughter that I remembered who I was, and what I had been. The Lord of the Radch might have said the same of me.

I shivered, and Piat put her arm around me. "It'll be all right," she said. "Kasrid Belun always come back to the top at the end of the arc."

I closed my eyes and leaned against Piat's shoulder. It was easy enough to follow the story to the end by listening alone. When it was over, the silence built up again. "Did … Raughd Denche like that series?"

It was a stupid thing to ask, but Piat wasn't offended at the question. "No. She used to make fun of it. And not like she was enjoying it."

I wondered whether she'd sat here, leaning against Piat, like this. A little drunk, like this. I opened my eyes again, "This is a nice apartment," I said.

"Thank you. You're my first guest."

I sat up at that. "Really?"

"I've only had it a week. And … I really didn't care to invite any of the usual crowd over. Not while I was still setting it up."

But she had invited me over. The wine was making my head muzzy. "Why me, then?"

"Tisarwat, you made me think I could do this. That day in the gardens. And I thought, she's a Fleet lieutenant. She isn't laughing at me. She thinks what I'm doing is important. Why am I still hiding? I mean, Mother said things like that, but she's my mother."

"What did she say when you said you were moving out?"

"She was happy. She said she thought I could use a change."

"I think I like your mother."

"She's wonderful, isn't she?" Piat still sounded a bit wistful.

"You're wonderful too," I said firmly. That day in the garden, when Piat had called me on my mooning over Horticulturalist Basnaaid. Piat deserved someone with a whole heart, I thought. She looked down at the coverlet and traced one of the stripes with her fingertip.

"What did you think of the idea about the light wells?" she said, at last.

"It was brilliant. Horticulturalist Basnaaid … oh!" The realization was like a blow to the head. "That was your idea, wasn't it! Not hers!"

"Well, she never said whose it was." Piat's voice shook a little, but she looked directly at me. "We're going to wait and see how it goes, but — you remember Vitnei? With the blue-streaked hair? She works with one of the station architects, and they were doing a project with a glasscrafter: not someone who makes wineglasses and vases, but walls to divide rooms and decorative windows. I went to see one of the projects, and the client had a whole wall of glass so that she could have an indoor garden of her own. And I thought of the Undergarden and how cramped and dark everything had been. So I drew up a rough plan and showed Horticulturalist Basnaaid. And that was it."

"I'll say it again: you're wonderful." I winced. That sounded a little bit more like Anaander Mianaai than Tisarwat.

Piat poured the rest of the wine into our glasses. "Tirsarwat, do you want to spend the night?"

"Did you mean …"?

"Only if you want. We can just sleep. We've both been working hard. But I'd like the company, either way." She was looking at her glass now, as though she were seeing something other than the green-yellow wine.

"I think I would too," I said, at last.

She smiled, downed the rest of her wine, and set the glass on the shelf. "Good." Then she put both arms around me and hugged me fiercely.

"Hey, you're spilling my wine!"

"Drink it up, then," she said, muffled against my neck, and her breath was warm. I did as she said, and when I put my glass down, we both toppled over onto the bed, my head pillowed against her chest. I could hear her heart beating, feel her warm skin and the softness of the coverlet. The sweetness of the wine was still on my tongue, and the apartment smelled of our meal, and the green vines. There was no room in me anywhere for anything else, and I was so happy about that that I thought my own heart would explode.

"I like that smile," said Piat, and kissed the top of my head.