The air on Earth tastes strange, sits lightly upon Stahma’s tongue but heavily upon her skin, atmospheric pressure and gravity greater than her home. Alak’s feet are pressed so much more firmly to the ground than were hers, as a child. It is the only weight he has ever had to bear up against, and though he and the other Castithans born of this earth will never look their parents in the eye, neither will they wake gasping, lungs reaching for thinner air through the weight upon their chests.
If she were the sort to wonder at these sorts of things – the sort to let herself wonder, or the sort to wonder despite her protestations otherwise – she would be curious if the air tastes strange to the Humans as well, to those who remember a time before the Pale Wars, when all the grass was green. If dust on the breeze always tasted of silver and chlorophyll, or if these things are beyond primitive Human senses.
(Her feet are pressed so much more firmly to the ground than they were when she was a child – because they were all children then, waiting for the world to die, waiting to be tucked in to sleep for thousand of years, while stars died and oceans burned and apes learned to fly and found new ways to kill each other.)
She knew there was something wrong when she woke from hypersleep - cold and shaking, clawing towards the light, full of dreams and space and the screaming echo of unending time - and Datak was not there beside her.
The Indogene who woke her was brusque and distracted, even for one of her kind. Stahma, who had always tilted her head and fought a curl at the corner of her lip at the short-sighted conceit that Indogenes lacked emotion or the capacity for change, was afraid for the first time, because when Indogenes themselves were troubled but providing care they became almost a parody of themselves, of the face they put to other races, except the mask was slanted a quarter turn towards kindness and relaxation; and the Indogene’s caring for her had a manner was perfectly clinical, movements just a hair slower as not to arouse suspicion, face almost a parody of disconnection.
The other women of the shanje liro either felt nothing in their sequester, or did better than she at quieting their curiosity, or had more trust their husbands would share what was necessary. Maybe they were truly so focused on their weaving so as not to see the shape of the silence.
Radio waves she heard whispered while bathing, and felt cold despite the warmth of the water and her liro-sisters’ hands in her hair.
The first house that Datak builds for her, for them, is very fine. She almost collapses when she first steps inside at the beauty of it, at the relief of pure white light. Alak, who is eight, squints and covers his eyes. He is unused to the full spectrum, of the wavelengths of light that the atmosphere refracts and Human lamps don’t put out, overwhelmed by brightness in parts of his vision he wasn’t even sure existed, things visible in white he had never before been able to see. She wonders how many generations it will be before evolution strips these colours from them.
The house is open, long and low, walls an afterthought, windows only between rooms. It is almost as great a relief to not catch constant glimpses of the too-blue sky out the corner of her eye as it is to see fully again. When Meh Yewll makes (infrequent, but well-compensated) house calls, her shoulders relax infinitesimally and her face turns ever so slightly towards the source of the light.
This house, this first house, is nothing so grand as she grew up in, feels in some way like what the humans would call a caricature, a great, rich house designed by someone who has only heard of them second hand, from the help.
When she walks past the place – the shed, the shanty – that they have lived in since they came here, in which Alak spoke his first words and skinned his first knee, in which she and Datak mourned their world and made love so many times, there is nothing but ashes. She does not crouch to run her fingers through them, but she thinks if she did, the charcoal on her fingers would be more than she has left of the place where she grew and bathed and where, she presumes, her parents and grandparents and siblings and cousins died screaming.
This house, this first house, is nothing compared to the ones that will come after, with their Human grandeur.
(Once she is used to the blue of the sky – to its lightness and how it is never quite the indigo she still looks for – she finds herself wishing, sometimes, windows might be one of Datak’s Human affections. This house – these houses – are like the telo, except Datak has tipped it forward instead of back, its never-ending weight resting across the bridge of her nose, the breadth of her cheekbones.)
She learned of the Humans from the Irathient, of all people.
The days in cloister passed with unbearable slowness, and she had been too long without sky. “I’m going for water,” she told the Liberata who looked up as she slipped out the door in the dead of night.
It wasn’t a lie, because it was the water that held her as she stared up through the viewport at the world rotating below them. She had feared – she had feared the worst, that they orbited a dead and burned-out world – but the one above her was blue and green, bracketed by polar caps, and she felt her breath catch with longing. She stopped herself from reaching for it, so far away, an abortive raise of her hands visible only in the way her sleeves swung.
There were voices then, on the walkway below her, low and rough, speaking Irathient, and it was that still-visible swing of her sleeves, the evidence of that useless gesture, that sent her up the stairs to the small viewing platform, close enough to touch.
She wondered what had gone wrong with the terraformers to leave the vast plains green, but the planet rotated above her, darkness overtaking, and she saw pinpricks of light spring up, felt her mind soar at the sight of the establishment of so many Votan settlements. It was only when she felt the coolness of her hand pressed to the port that the words spoken by the Irathients penetrated.
They spoke of Humans.
They spoke of Brazil.
They spoke of war.
When he is sixteen, Alak sneaks in to their house with red streaks dyed in his hair. He straightens when he sees her, back straight, as if he had never been moving quiet and low. As if his shoes are not clutched in his hand.
“Oh, darling,” she says, walking easily towards him.
He squares his shoulders to her and firms his jaw, even as his breath stutters. “It’s just hair,” he says. “We all have it.”
“And you were tired of having the same hair as all the other Castithans,” she surmises. “Well.”
“Father always wants me to stand out.” He is looking at the space beside her jaw, as is proper.
“We’d prefer you do it on the basis of your own accomplishments.” Stahma reaches out gently for his shoulder. “What’s her name?”
“What?” Alak’s eyes flick up to meet her eyes.
Stahma smiles, cups his chin. “The girl. Who you are trying to impress. She must be blind indeed if she cannot already see you.”
“There’s not –” Alak closes his eyes, leans into her touch. “I’m not saying there’s not a girl. But this is for me.”
She thinks of the covers of the records he secrets beneath his bed. Maybe. “Your father will be furious.” She smiles. Reaches out to run her fingers through his hair. “Red isn’t your colour,” she tells him, softly. “It looks like you’ve been fighting with Humans, dirtying yourself with their blood.” Beneath her anxious fingers, the red streaks still feel like Castithan hair, soft and smooth, nothing like that of the Irathients. “Come with me.”
She sends one of the servants for the necessary supplies and dyes over it herself, indigo dripping into the bathing pool as she coaxes her son’s hair into the colour of a sunset across skies that have been dead for thousands of years.
(There is a balance here: Both Datak and Alak must believe she holds their heart closest to hers, their needs above the other’s. Datak, who never had a chance to fight a blood duel he would have lost, must never know her actions were for her good and not his.
This new world is both smaller and larger than she could ever have dreamed.)
When Stahma first started watching the newscasts, the television, she didn’t think she would ever understand Humans. She has made study of the Indogenes, the Librata, the Sensoth, the Gulanee, even the Irathients. These Humans, though, were young, so young – when she closed her eyes they were just discovering that they could plant their own food instead of scavenging like animals, learning to work the softest of metals. They couldn’t even write. It took her some time to realize that the broadcasts were what the species thought themselves to be. They were a species defined by their weakness, by their tendency to call blindly into the night.
These Humans, with doors on every part of their home, as if to keep their lives separate even from themselves, who bathe alone but share every emotion and impulse, who cover their bodies but bare their souls and ambitions, some of whom – who like the Irath -- have the gall to speak directly to their god. (As if they have the honour to do so.)
Humans, she thought, were like lonely children who had been shut away in a room their entire lives, unable to tell that there were others, unlike them, outside the door. They raised themselves and created their own tongues, and were completely unprepared for what happened when the door opened. The majority of them will never, ever understand the Votan, because they fail to understand that they are different on a level beyond culture or biology. Because they fail to understand themselves.
Humans turn out to be easier than she thought.
Stahma sees a lot of herself in Christie, in how she chooses to love. She knows – she knows – that Christie will keep her son safe and lead him, teach him to exist in this new world, full of things without name, creatures of old worlds and this new, brave one.
The first thing Alak ever saw the Earth sky (he was being cradled softly by one of her attendants as she recovered from the strain of childbirth, and he looked nowhere but up into the blue, blue sky, and his eyes, his hands, were reaching upwards. They and their children are the first generation that has known nothing but this strangled landscape, caught between Human and Votan.
It is inevitable, she thinks, that Alak would fall in love with a Human, with their rainbow skin and dark eyes, their fragile hearts and bodies; their unregimented social system a reflection of the world unfurling around all eight races. They will be the namers and the founders, and she knows Christie will stand strong, her hand twined with Alak’s.
For this alone she would support their union, but Alak also loves Christie. Because she loves her son, she wants this for him, for him to be able to love better, love the way that Humans do. From the crèche, Castithans are taught that love is a quantifiable thing, that they must love with solemn resolve and calculated dedication, love with respect as they love Reyatso. Alak loves Christie in the full-bodied, deep souled, almost violent way Kenya loves her sister, the Lawkeeper loves the Irathient child he took in and taught to fear her own self. Alak loves Christie in a way that Stahma has never loved anyone (except perhaps Alak himself, and the grandchildren Christie will bear him – even if they are unable to see gyulia or nwumee under white light).
When she tells Christie about her man of great honour, she feels something stir deep within her she has never allowed to move before, because she could have loved him. Her family was liberal by Casti standards, indulged her poetry for far longer than any other would have, and the husband they chose for her would have cherished her in a way uncommon even amongst their liro. He was kind, and the war would have eaten him alive.
He wasn’t the man she needed.
Later, much later, when she is teaching Christie Kastithanu, and they sit without touching on the white couch, Christie, with her dark skin and darker eyes, look at her. “What was his name?” Christie asks, in passable Kastihanu. “Your man of great honour.”
“I do not recall,” Stahma replies in English. “It’s been so many years, so many miles.”
(Rhaya. His name was Rhaya.)
The first time Stahma saw her husband in five thousand years was as everything started to fall apart – strange to say, since everyone and everything she knew had been dust for millennia. He had been woken several years before she herself had, a no-name member of the early settlements and missions to Earth.
When she stepped off the shuttle from the arcs, she almost cried out at the feeling of a breeze on her skin. Her eyes felt strange, vision missing colours. The air tasted like home, because the teraformers had converted this miserable scrap of land they’d been bequeathed into something of beauty.
There was only the smallest of welcoming parties, something the other Castithan women complained about, but Stahma counted the weapons held by the guards and the way the Indogenes so carefully loosened up, and she knew something was very wrong.
Datak’s first words to her after half a galaxy has passed them by, were “The shtako assassinated our ambassador.”
Kenya. Kenya is something more like the Castithans in her easy sexuality, not like the Humans who hide their sex and bodies, as if they were things of shame, not given by Reyatso.
Kenya is nothing at all like a Castithan. She burns too brightly, wants and takes and builds and meets everyone’s eyes. She is clever without being smart about it, smooth and polished but without a hint of subtlety or restraint. She demands and expects the world to fall into line. She makes Stahma – she makes Stahma want.
And her husband – she loves her husband, loves his strength and his assertion, but Datak is such a waste, because he has the potential to be so much more, so much greater. He is all intelligence and grand ideas; his aspirations hobbled not by only by himself, by his own ambition and desire to dominate a world that no longer exists. Datak could rule this world, but he is too busy trying to dominate one that's gone, that he never lived in and never truly existed as he thought it did, a liro he saw only from a distance. He could yet be brilliant if he would but bend to her hand…
The gutter has never been bred out of him, and he sprawls atop his blue cast throne in the Hollows with a sneer unique to someone looking down upon those who were once their betters. She wishes he would understand that she loved him just as well when he had nothing.
Kenya is making her own world with her own rules, but she cannot seem to weave her pieces amongst the existing thread.
Stahma could sing poems about her.
(Kenya is good at knowing exactly what people need. She makes Stahma wonder if she herself is as astute in that way as she has always thought.)
If there is one thing that Stahma truly dislikes about Christie – other than the Human scent of her – it is her father.
Rafe is a loose gyanshi, all schemes and emotions without a shred of cunning to temper his rage or ignorance, a racist of the worst kind, who refuses to acknowledge even the best of the other races, tactically or dispassionately, to learn to understand them for his own benefit. He sets himself up as a pillar of the community but his violence is unpredictable, sometimes used as a lesson, but oftentimes its own end. He would be a tool to be used, but she fears he would turn in her hands to strike her, as he so often turns on even those closest to him.
She wonders, sometimes, if he helped hasten his wife’s descent. Not on purpose, of course – the medication her husband procured for Pilar stopped working, but she knows he had utilized Pilar’s growing instability to hide his own affairs when she found something left carelessly out of place.
She thinks she might respect him more if that were the case.
(Like the metallic, acrid scent of her, Rafe is not Christie’s fault.
Like the scent, he still clings to her.)
“Sometimes, as I fall asleep,” she whispers into the curve of Kenya’s ribs, the wing of her shoulder blade. “I hear the hum of the ships, feel the triostia of hypersleep, and I think that this has been the dream.”
Kenya drags her pink hands down Stahma’s sides, bites at the bone of her hip. “Does this feel like a dream?” she asks, tailing kisses.
“I do not think,” Stahma gasps, “I – I do not think –” fingers clench, “I would have dared.”
Later, when Kenya is carding her fingers through Stahma’s hair in a gesture she cannot know the intimacy of, other hand resting where on Stahma’s chest where her own heart would be, Stahma feels her heart settle deep in her chest.
“I read a story once,” Kenya says. Her eyes are fixed across Stahma’s collarbone, towards the shifting sheer drapes that filter the light. “During the war. Amanda was always picking up these stupid, useless books that did nothing but weigh us down, slow us down, and usually when I found them I’d leave them or trade them or if I was angry I’d burn them, but sometimes, sometimes I’d hold on to them and read them secretly. I think now that was her plan.” She laughs, and her fingers tighten almost imperceptibly.
“It was an old story. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Written more than a century before your ships came. There was a man, and he was being hung – being put to death – for some war or another that probably seemed important at the time. He escapes, somehow, and he runs home to his family, through fields that have never seen as vivid. They’re there, in front of him, and just as he reaches out for them –”
“His neck snaps,” Stahma says. Kenya’s breath ghosts over her skin. Her fingers continue to stroke her hair.
“Yeah,” Kenya says. “His neck snaps.” They are quiet then, listening the drapes flutter, the sounds of others in the rooms around them. “He wasn’t even a soldier.”
Kenya smells like iron and sweat and Human sex and Stahma.
Stahma lets herself run her fingers through Kenya’s hair.
(Stahma would not have dared dream this dream.)
What Stahma didn’t tell Christie about the telo was this: it wasn’t just sight you lose. When Stahma walked the isle, all she could hear was her own heartbeat, her own breath. She knows there was singing, that someone was playing the chotalla but the only thing she could hear was the rush of her breath along the metal, uneven as it rushed through the arch of her nose, along the breadth of her cheekbones, the orbits of her eyes and ridge of her bows, warming slowly.
When Datak tipped it up from her face, it was as if the entire world had been reborn in her absence. When she thinks of her wedding, she thinks of the relief she felt as her eyes and ears were opened up and the world came rushing in. She thinks with gratitude of how Datak had revealed the world to her, the world that had been there all along.
(There is resentment there, as well, for her mother – her mother who is dead, who, had she lived, would have bound Stahma’s eyes shut, kissed her cheek as she wiped the world away.
She does not push Christie to wear the telo.)
What Datak demands of her, when he learns of her betrayal, her irat selfishness, is nothing that is not his due. Despite his Human affections, his suits and cars and stories houses, he is still Castithan, and he clings to his liro with the violence that only one who has taken it by force can.
She waits in Edmund field for Kenya, stands so very still, hands clasped together and back straight, and wants to scream. She wants to open her lungs to the too-blue sky and the too-thick air that always tastes like the blood at the back of her throat, and it’s only when the trees swing around her and her throat hurts that she realizes she’s doing it, arms wide and violence from her throat that she has never, ever let herself voice. The pitch shakes the needles in the trees, and she collapses to her knees in the earth and shtako, neck bowed and fingers digging deep into the soil of a world that is all she has, all that any of them who are left have.
“Stahma?” Kenya asks, and Stahma slowly raises her head.
Her eyes must be red, sheen of her skin dulled, chin dotted with spittle. “I’ve ruined my gloves,” she says, voice dead, as she looks back down at her fingers in decaying organic matter. She wonders if maybe the leaves are like the liros, if they need to break down into shtako before something can grow. Or maybe that’s her own weakness and fear, the devil on her shoulder telling her she can abandon what little she has left of her world.
“They’re just gloves,” Kenya says.
Stahma shakes her head, shakes her head and thinks she’s going to start screaming again, but Kenya is kneeling gingerly before her and carefully reaching out to twine their fingers together in the dirt. One hand remains out of sight. “I’m afraid,” Stahma says. Whispers. Admits it’s actually true for the first time to herself. “For the first time, I don’t – I don’t know – I love my husband, I do, I –”
Kenya presses her forehead to Stahma’s, releases her other hand to hold Stahma’s. “I know,” she says.
She wants to love someone like Alak loves Christie. She thinks of her parents, her family, her siblings, and what they must think of her. That they can’t think of her. That maybe if they were here, they would understand. “I don’t know any other way,” Stahma says.
Kenya’s fingers tighten around hers, nails digging into the dirt. “You crossed half the galaxy to get here, built a criminal empire, and you’re going to give up now?”
Stahma laughs at that, a high, wet noise, detangling their fingers as she rises, and Kenya starts a little, like she’s never heard a Castithan laugh like that. “The coat’s a loss, too,” she says as she turns her back on Defiance and starts to walk. She throws the flask, carefully wrapped with cloth, into a stream as she passes it.
Kenya falls into step beside her.
“I didn’t hire a coach,” Stahma says, hands in her pockets and face to the sky. Her feet are pressed so much more firmly to the ground than when she was a child.
“It’s okay,” Kenya says. “We can walk.”