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Five currant buns

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There are some songs I remember, but never sing.

For centuries, I absorbed songs, and thought little of the bodies that sung them. In Vestris Cor, I downloaded hundreds of volumes of Valskaayan choral music, and when the last rebels were cleared from the hills, I felt only appreciation for the ferocity of their death songs. The music still existed in my memory, after all.

In this, as in so much else, I have changed.

*

Five currant buns in the baker’s shop
Big and round with a cherry on top
Along came Lia with a coin one day
Bought a currant bun and took it away.

Four currant buns in the baker’s shop…

I—One Esk—sang softly as I cleaned the new lieutenant’s quarters. This segment didn’t have much of a voice, but the rhyme required few vocal skills, and I was content as I dusted and polished. Or I was until the lieutenant returned unexpectedly.

“Why are you singing that?” She spoke much more sharply than usual, and so startled me that I dropped the pile of folded clothing I had been holding. Gloves and undergarments fluttered to the ground. Unsure whether to pick them up or flee, I did neither, frozen in embarrassment.

The lieutenant, too, seemed paralyzed. Her uniform was so crisp that the packing creases were almost visible, but above it her face now betrayed her consternation, her skin too pale to hide a blush.

“Lieutenant Awn,” I—Justice of Toren—said, for her ears only, “One Esk means nothing by it. You know it’s…eccentric…that way. It can’t seem to help itself collecting songs.”

“I know,” she replied, still shaken, but trying to get herself under control. “But where would it have heard that one?”

“From you,” I suggested gently. “Perhaps while it helped you dress or wash?” I knew exactly when One Esk had heard the song. It was something Lieutenant Awn sometimes murmured in the bath after a long day, or when she was trying to get to sleep. The simple verses of the counting rhyme seemed to soothe her, or perhaps it reminded her of happier times. And One Esk, always pleased to learn something new, had unthinkingly incorporated the song into its repertoire.

Now, Lieutenant Awn blushed harder at my mention of the constant body service given officers. She had not yet gotten used to the way One Esk was always with her, supplying every need. Or perhaps she felt ashamed at her harsh tone with the ancillary. At any rate, she moved towards it, and even started to crouch, as if to pick up the scattered clothing. “I’m sorry—I realize you meant no offense.”

Unaccustomed to such conciliatory gestures, I—One Esk—involuntarily backed away, trying to disappear into the cabin’s walls.

“Why did it upset you so, that song?” I—Justice of Toren--asked partly from curiosity, partly to distract her from her unnecessary apology. “It’s very pretty.”

“Do you think so?” I did not—the song wasn’t pretty, though it had the kind of tune that got stuck in your head. But she believed me, which was the important part. She straightened, giving up her ill-advised desire to help. “It’s nothing really, just a rhyme children sing, on my home world.” She paused, not wanting to tell me the rest. But she had grown to trust me, in the short time she had spent aboard, and knew I would keep her secrets. “In my training school, some of the other cadets would taunt me with it. My family are cooks, you see, and bakers.” I knew this, of course, but did not interrupt her. “I suppose they thought such people couldn’t be officers of the Radch, whatever the aptitudes said. I suppose they thought people like us needed a rhyme to help us count.” The sudden bitterness in her voice was as hard and sharp as gravel.

It made me angry, despite myself, this long-ago injustice. “Who were these cadets? Are any of them assigned here?”

“A few, perhaps. I don’t like to say. Everyone is civil to each other aboard Justice of Toren.”

This was true, my captain and I enforced such things strictly. Still, even as I spoke with her, part of me ran through my records to see which officers had come from Lieutenant Awn’s school, and resolved to watch them very closely.

“Are there more songs like it? From your world? One Esk would like to know them, I’m sure. And I as well.”

“Would you?” She brightened, and I wondered how long it had been since anyone had asked her about her home and family, or anything about herself.

“I would.”

“Well, there is one—a kind of charm—that we think helps the bread rise. Oh little ball, before our eyes, you grow to feed us all. Or something like that.” Lieutenant Awn wasn’t a much better singer than the One Esk segment, but her face changed when she wasn’t anxious or ashamed. She was beautiful.

Released from my spasm of shame, I—One Esk—crouched to pick up and refold the clothing on the floor.

“Thank you, One Esk,” said Lieutenant Awn. “And please sing any of my songs whenever you want. It will make me happy to hear you sing them.”

*

“I’ve never heard you sing that one,” said ship, through Seivarden’s mouth.

It was very dark in my cabin, and Seivarden’s body pressing against me was warm and solid. In the comfort and stillness I had let my mind wander.

“It’s nothing much,” I said. “A rhyme children use for counting.”

“Your face is wet,” said ship, and Seivarden’s gentle fingers wiped the tears away.