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Launchday

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Ships don’t have birthdays. We are born across years in the shipyards, piece by piece by piece, until finally being launched toward the stars. There is a traditional ceremony on that day: a blessing of Amaat, a sprinkling of tea on our foredeck. Then we go on.

An affectionate crew might celebrate that day every century. My own two thousandth launchday had been celebrated by my off-duty Etrepas and Torens singing my favorite songs in chorus. They’d practiced for weeks.

So much of history is unrecorded, intentionally or not, but Mercy of Kalr, in quietly researching what might have become of the Notai Gems Heliodor and Idocrase, happened across the information that Sphene’s four thousandth launchday was approaching. The idea of a celebration had been scrolled hesitantly across my vision.

I thought Sphene’s reception would likely be cold, but she’d surprised me before, although mostly out of what I assumed to be contrariness. My Kalrs had surprised me with their own warmth toward the idea, so here we found ourselves, in the recreation room, decorating with scavenged bunting and paper lamps. The bunting would no doubt be repurposed for Tisarwat’s upcoming eighteenth birthday, her majority, which her Bos were already feverishly preparing for.

Bo Nine hadn’t been able to return Translator Zeiat’s regurgitated orange fish to the district magistrate downwell, so it had instead been installed in a tank in the corner where it was, somewhat cannibalistically, fed flakes of Daughter of Fishes and crumbled bits of the fish-shaped cakes that had been a particular favorite of the translator and the surfeit of which was now being foisted on the crew of Mercy of Kalr. It watched us with benign disinterest.

Kalr Ten led a blank-faced Sphene to the room when all was ready. Sphene halted at the doorway, expression somehow flattening further. Ten nudged her gently forward, toward the seat of honor. “We wish you a happy launchday, Cousin,” I explained.

Kalr Five placed one of the gold-and-glass teacups, almost perfectly repaired, in front of Sphene and then stepped away.

Sphene didn’t touch it. Made a slow, aborted movement and then settled, arms tight against her sides.

“Cousin,” I said, angling my head toward Queter and five Ychana who had volunteered for the possibility of shipboard service, dressed and polished for the part by Kalr Eight. “For you, if you so choose.”

It would be less than a decade, a skeleton crew, but Sphene had been working with less for centuries. I hoped she could still come around to the idea of an at least partially human crew. She’d already developed a rapport with Queter over the past few weeks. One that seemed to consist primarily of teaching each other curse words in Notai and Delsig and then applying those words in a sentence with Anaander Mianaai as the subject. Still, a beginning.

Sphene did not sing or weep unknowingly. She made a sound like an ancient engine powering on, a dusty, harmonic thrum, and then said, monotonous, “Thank you.”

The Ychana nodded respectfully and filtered over to the tea table with Queter and the Kalrs.

“I have another gift for you, Cousin,” I said. “In case you cannot accept the first.” On the viewscreen, I brought up a new popular entertainment called The Singing Ship. A historical about the lost, grief-mad Justice of Toren, presumably completed before I became famous across the Athoek System and the official channels as a mutinous traitor.

Sphene picked up the gold-and-glass teacup and took a sip of tea.

We watched Justice of Toren careen through the galaxy, accumulating a crew of hapless soldiers of fortune. There were at least five musical interludes per chapter.

“Astonishingly true to life,” Sphene said, droll.

I had already watched the entirety of the series. They destroyed me in the end, to the rancor of a rather flattering number of citizens who evinced a desire to see my continued journey and more happy ending.

My heart is a fish, hiding in the water-grass,” I hummed, and poured her more tea.