I, Mercy of Kalr , was docked with Athoek Station. In times past I also would have been around the station, down on the planet, and walking my own halls; time was back when I had enough ancillary bodies I could be wherever my crew was and a hundred places besides. Now, I could only see through the eyes of my crew, feel what they felt, and even then the vision was less complete than my ancillaries’ would have been. That was true for everyone except my captain; if the crew were like shadows, Breq was the light. Maybe the difference between her and the crew would not be perceptible to a human, but then again, I am not one.
My captain was trapped in an argument with Station Administrator Celar, Station, a representative of the Undergarden, and the head of house of one of the premier tea growing families, about where to locate the the administration for the Provisional Republic of Two Systems. I found this argument about as tedious as Breq did, even with all of the political implications that were implied. At heart, everyone was worried about the future and wanted reassurance that if their family was up, they would stay up. The Provisional Republic was unlike an annexation because there was no template, and the uncertainty was causing people to cling even more heavily to the parts of their lives they could see. Unfortunately, those who were most willing to engage in defining the future of the Provisional Republic tended to also be the ones who were most intent on grasping for power within it. Breq knew she had to make deals with them, but she hated them most of all, which explained the increasing spike of frustration that was threatening to spill out of her.
But then again, she was always angry — angry so deep it floated beneath her awareness, but as her ship I could never forget.
“Before we can even consider moving the assembly to the surface, I need to see a proposal for how to ensure that Station can fully participate.” She does make an effort, doesn’t she, Station sent to me, which I did not feel the need to respond to.
Finally able to extricate herself, she was pulled into another ‘matter that urgently required her attention,’ and then another, and another, until the faces began to blur and her patience was reaching its end.
I looked for someone to intercede, and there was Seivarden, a few feet away but utterly unaware of Breq’s growing exhaustion.
Seivarden was focused on negotiations with a newly formed farmers’ guild representative about crop forecasts for the new year. It seemed Breq’s collective action principle was catching everywhere and starting to cause us some grief. It reminded me of the Radchaai saying a tool has no owner — once created, anyone can use it.
Seivarden dispatched the representative, and I thought she would go over to help pull Breq away, maybe get some food in her to make up for the two meals she had missed already, but instead she just stared into nothingness, her mind clearly elsewhere. I found myself frustrated.
Breq caught sight of Seivarden’s inattention and moved over to her. Brushing her elbow against Seivarden’s, she asked, “Are you well?” Seivarden smiled and nodded back, offering no reciprocity before Citizen Uran came forth with yet another matter.
By that time I had been able to dispatch Amaat Two with an excuse for Breq to leave, which Breq took with determination. She blew straight past the other lingering citizens who, no doubt, had pressing concerns, and didn’t slow until she returned to her quarters. Barely warned in time, Kalr Five was just able to have tea ready to hand to the captain in the Bractware. I made sure the tea would be ready, a soothing local blend, and Kalr Five made sure the dishes would send the right message. Together we made a good crew to take care of Breq. After Breq was ensconced with her tea, I sent a message for Kalr Five to give the Fleet Captain privacy.
Once alone, she spoke aloud to me. “Ship, were you following the conversation?” I confirmed that I had, which she already knew. Breq didn’t usually employ conversational gambits, so her unwillingness to speak plainly was a marker of her distress. “And Seivarden’s struggle with the new guildmaster?” Yes.
“If a threat comes, it will be from the planet, where Station can’t see.” I said nothing. We knew this, even before their secession from Radchaai space, supplies were always the weak link. “We need to convince some of the tea growers to switch to staples, but I hate to give those families more power over the Provisional Republic.”
“You know how to stop them.”
“Yes.” I could see that the idea upset her. She was acknowledging that the easiest way to solidify the future of the Provisional Republic would be to use annexation tactics — create new clients, grant them privileges, divide the prominent families from each other. But I knew that already, so I waited. I could tell there was something underneath it.
“They did what I said, today. I told them how it was going to be, and they did it.”
“Right now you’re their best defense against future attacks and the civil war.” This didn’t calm her.
“I am only supposed to lead the justice system.” I gave her a moment to say something else, and when she did not, I guessed and went for what I thought was really bothering her.
“You are not the Tyrant.” She closed her eyes and her anxiety spiked.
“Neither was she, always.” I pondered my response, but I wasn’t sure there was one. Breq had already begun humming something while I waited, uselessly.
“Would you like to consult Sphene , get her perspective?”
“Ship, you could take this more seriously.” Breq was taking it seriously enough for the both of us.
“Someone has to be in charge right now, Breq. Who else should it be? Sphene ? Tisarwat? We’re all of us grief mad, aside from Station.”
I could feel Breq gearing up for an argument, even though I’d felt her instinctive rejections of both names. Just then, Tisarwat burst in.
“Sir! We’re heading down to the — “ Tisarwat paused, thrown. She could see that the Fleet Captain was in a state of distress.
“Sorry, sir, didn’t mean to interrupt.” She paused for a moment, delicately, then said, “Usually Ship warns me when it isn’t a good time.” She was fishing to find out why, but I wouldn’t explain the failure on my part. I felt Breq’s apple sharp burst of surprise at her realization that I had not seen Tisarwat’s approach. I had been so caught up in our discussion that I had ignored the rest of the crew. It should have been unthinkable, yet here we were.
I flashed through my peripheral awareness of the last few minutes. Horticulturist Basnaaid is preparing a public performance of her new poem celebrating the birth of the Provisional Republic of Two Systems. Tisarwat wants to ask you to attend.
Thanks Ship, Breq replies, somewhat wry. She waves Tisarwat in.
“Why do you think I should attend?” Breq put up a hand to forestall her objections. “I know you think I should, so just explain it to me, Lieutenant. This isn’t a criticism.” Tisarwat appeared excited to lay it out. I could tell this was a chance for her, not just to see the horticulturalist again, but to try and please the Fleet Captain.
“Everyone knows about the performance, and it’s in public. The poem is about the new Provisional Republic, so you coming would show your approval for the work.” She rocks back on her heels, satisfied that she’s made her case.
Breq sends me a second query, and after quick consultation with Station, I confirm all the details are accurate.
“Alright,” Breq begins and Tisarwat’s face glows with eagerness. It’s moments like these that remind me that her body is only 18 years old. Breq hesitates for a moment, “Are gifts traditional?”
“No, but you can request a copy of the poem. Or a patron might pay for a personal recitation. I’m not sure if the Athoeki have any special traditions as well.” Breq hums a little.
“No reason to delay then, let’s go.”
The bare and not yet reopened gardens were crowded for her recitation. The plants were still dead, but it’s still the largest place for citizenry to gather, so administration had given permission for its selective usage. Someone set up chairs over the dead grass and some enterprising Undergarden Ychana merchants were strolling the aisles with trays of cakes and tea. Immediately, Tisarwat broke away from the Captain to join a knot of young citizens.
Station, I asked, is the crowd typical?
Everyone knows Basnaaid is favoured by the Fleet Captain. Which was an answer. Most of this status politics on the Station was outside of my experience. Unlike Justice of Toren, I had never sent many soldiers down to different planets, never had to navigate different cultural sensitivities. I had seen the power jockeying that my officers would do, but it was regimented and usually obvious.
What should I be doing?
I’m sharing what I see with you so you can enjoy the poetry from a better vantage, Station said rather snippily before relenting, I’m noting who isn’t here, we can review the list with Tisarwat and the Fleet Captain afterwards.
I felt Seivarden come in and make straight for the Fleet Captain, who had been afforded a position at the front of the crowd. And look, a seat left open at her left for Seivarden to slip into, as a sop to Seivarden’s perceived status as the captain’s favourite. While Seivarden fielded acknowledgements and invitations with the aplomb I would expect from a Vendaai, underneath, though, she was uneasy.
“Large crowd,” she murmured to Breq.
“Horticulturist Basnaaid is a talented poet,” Breq responded. Since she had shared some of her early poetry, Seivarden knew that was at least somewhat untrue and the tilt of her mouth revealed her amusement. They both knew this was more likely due to Basnaaid’s closeness with the Mercy of Kalr crew. But the message was received, this was not the place to talk about it.
The poem itself seemed fine to me, though I’m no connoisseur. It followed one of the more traditional Radchaai meters for the most part, detailing the reveal of the multiple Anaanders and their conflict, the discovery of Sphene. Then the composition shifted to a more irregular scheme that had Tisarwat’s cluster sitting up and paying attention. Here she was using a metaphor about a breeze shifting the direction of the system, implying that the previous political state had been somehow decayed. I had the sense of some literary allusions that were over my head.
Ship? I felt Tisarwat and Breq ask me simultaneously. I forwarded their question to Station directly.
The Wind of Change is a manifestation of Amaat who comes at the beginning of Spring to guide the Guardian of the Dead as she cleanses the land of lingering spirits that can inhibit the growth of new crops. Horticulturalist Basnaaid is directly referencing a sacred text on this theme to suggest that the Fleet Captain represents the Guardian of the Dead and is currently in the process of clearing the spirits so new growth can begin.
Breq was impressed, and a little worried.
The recitation was reaching some sort of climax, with the poem now alternating between the Radchaai and Athoeki schemes, before culminating in a few lines that even I knew heavily suggested the main Radchaai litany. The flower of benefit is born on the new growth.
Basnaaid finished and the crowd sat in silence for a full breath before erupting into the whoops and stomps that the Athoeki preferred to show their appreciation. Basnaaid smiled and bowed, clearly pleased with the reception and pretty quickly she was mobbed by well-wishers.
The captain stood off to the side with Seivarden, clearly wishing to approach, but unwilling to co-opt her moment. The decision was taken out of her hands when former system governor Giarod appeared.
“Fleet Captain! Splendid poem, don’t you agree? Come, let’s show the Horticulturalist our appreciation.” She swept forward towards Basnaaid, and the crowd parted for her, Breq in her wake. Though no longer invested with any official authority, Citizen Giarod is still a significant personage.
“Thank you for your recitation,” Breq said a little awkwardly.
“I thought about having it set to music,” she admitted, looking at Breq slyly, who was obviously touched. “Administrator Celar had some thoughts around the Valskaayan musical tradition.”
Tisarwat chimed in, “The passage about the winds of change could be a good addition to the planting festival liturgy.” Those words had a strong effect on one of her young companions, but without access to her implants I did not know why. This comment pulled Giarod, Tisarwat, and her group into a side conversation around the future of the poem.
“The themes were very...unusual.” Breq observed to Basnaaid.
Basnaaid leaned in closer to Breq and said, “Well, I figured I might do something good with all of those dinner invitations I’ve been getting,” she said, startling a laugh out of Breq.
“And all of this was your decision?” Giving a meaningful look over at Tisarwat.
“She encouraged me a little, but your crew aren’t the only ones who want to help build the Republic. There aren’t a lot of ways for me to do that, but this is one.”
“I think you might be surprised,” Breq offered, “In fact — ”
“Well,” Giarod interrupted Tisarwat and Elaan who had been spinning out a shared vision, “that’s a conversation for another time. Again, my congratulations, Horticulturalist.” She gave her a small salute and wandered off back towards the main concourse of the station.
“You’re welcome to have dinner with me tonight, Horticulturalist,” Breq offered.
“Thank you for your invitation, but no, I already have plans,” Basnaaid said smiling, turning towards Lieutenant Tisarwat. Tisarwat smiled back, nervously.
“Yes, a group of us are getting together to discuss the poem.”
“A group?” Breq asked mildly, and Tisarwat felt a small wave of embarrassment. Piat and Elaan were lingering with a few others.
“Yes, we’re all fans of poetry,” she added defensively.
That evening, in her quarters, Breq acknowledged the weight of the day. Overall, all positive outcomes, but Basnaaid’s poem warned of further complications, and anything Breq might do would set off her concern with becoming too domineering. Sitting in front of her altar, I felt her struggling to retain a calm appearance. I messaged Seivarden again, but she was still minutes away. This was the second time this week I had needed Seivarden here and she’d been elsewhere and unaware. That was the frustration with having to rely on a crewmember who had her own tasks, her own concerns. Seivarden had been working extensively to secure the food supply for the Station. Admirable, and it was one less task that Breq had to manage. Still, I could wish for Seivarden to have a little of my awareness, for her to step in when I cannot.
Seivarden finally appeared when Breq was getting into bed, and Breq was nothing but happy to see her, so pulled her down easily into the space next to her.
After they got situated, Breq’s heart rate stabilised. She let out a sigh of contentment.
“You can talk about it,” Seivarden murmured gently.
“Perhaps in the morning.” Breq only nestled more deeply into Seivarden’s hold. I’d been sending Seivarden to Breq’s bed regularly since we’d sent the Tyrant away. Before that, I’d been unable to do anything to help her when her body was missing its other ancillaries. Now, at least, I could have Seivarden as a proxy for me. Thanks Ship, Breq sent sleepily. I knew being next to someone helped ease something within her, which is why I sent Seivarden. Breq knew what I was doing and her gratitude pleased me in turn.
Predictably, there was no time in the morning. Breq had barely finished her breakfast when she was urgently called into consult with the culture council, which Station headed up.
“ — they’re suggesting removing some Radchaai references in the planting festival. After we were civilised, the festival was altered to include references to Amaat and the Radch. Some of the students are suggesting creating new traditions as part of the creation of the Provisional Republic, that acknowledge the more recent changes.”
“Thank you for the explanation, Farmer Ikough. You may now proceed with your concerns.”
Giarod was rubbing her hands together worriedly. “I’m uncertain if changes during this time are a good idea. This is our most sacred festival, outside of the major Radchaai ones, even the Ychana celebrate it. Everyone is already so unsettled…”
“But no changes is a failure to acknowledge that we are in a different situation. Some of the citizens are excited by the Provisional Republic and want to show it,” Tisarwat argued.
“We are still Radchaai.” Breq spoke up, “And also Athoeki, and Xhai, or Ychana, Samirend, or Valskaayan. None of that went away when the Provisional Republic was born.” She let those words sink for a moment. They would have been treasonous if we were still inside the Radch, since civilization should have washed those differences away, but here, on this station, at this time, it was just the latest in a series of radical but quickly accepted realities. “Are there any folklorists who have records of the festival’s original form?” Silence, before farmer Ikough said,
“I believe some of my fellow farmers have some knowledge of alternative songs, but nothing like a full record.” I felt a sense of wry amusement from Breq. This was also the most co-operation we’d gotten out of Ikough since she came with her farmer’s bloc tactics.
“Citizen, no one is going to penalise your friends for preserving the old ways, there’s no longer a concern of seemingly insufficiently Radchaai.” I saw the comment land on the group, who had a variety of reactions from glee on the young radical, to the wry self-reflection on the farmer, and finally Giarod’s grimace.
“If we are to make any changes, let’s consider the shared past, not only the future.” She turned to Giarod, “Put together some kind of cultural council on this. You can add some of your more traditionalist friends, just also include some of those young citizens Tisarwat associates with and some planetside Athoeki who may or may not have been conducting alternative celebrations this whole time.” Giarod still looked troubled. “Keep in mind, no matter what we do someone will be offended. This way offloads the blame to those involved, so I suggest you make sure your council spreads it around as much as possible.”
As Breq left the room, I caught sight of the farmer’s look of bafflement and admiration that most people got after experiencing one of Breq’s solutions for the first time. Up to this point she had dealt only with Seivarden. Mercy of Kalr, Station messaged, I feel like the farmers will be less of an issue going forward.
Things fell into a routine after that. Every day, Breq would get up and give herself over to the Provisional Republic, and every night I would have Seivarden come in and bring her back to herself, to me.
Tonight Breq’s leg had been bothering her more than usual. Medic had started her on a treatment course that should eventually reduce her pain, but was causing her some discomfort now as the muscle regenerated. Medic had shown Seivarden earlier and made sure Seivarden had understood her instructions, but as always, I was here to help her if she had any questions. In moments like this, we were the most in sync - a team working together.
Like Medic, Seivarden was wearing thin gloves, an unnecessary deference to propriety that was probably unnecessary between them. They had spent time together, ungloved, surely the thrill of skin to skin touching had worn off for Seivarden, at least somewhat, but it didn’t even occur to her to work ungloved.
Breq tensed in pain and Seivarden noticed. Seivarden paused.
“Continue,” Breq gritted out. Seivarden read my words,
“If it hurts, you should say.”
“Medic said it would hurt,” Breq retorted.
“Medic said there might be slight discomfort.” Breq inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“It’s fine, Ship, Please continue.” I gave Seivarden the go-ahead. I could monitor Breq and let her know if she needed to stop.
We could do this later, I said to her through Seivarden.
“It’s fine, you could distract me though,” she replied.
“Alright,” I said equably. “The song you’ve been singing, what’s it about?” The last few weeks, Breq had been singing a new song. I didn’t recognise the language.
“It’s a working song, that’s why it has that rhythm. It’s about two children who grow up together under the shade of a tree between their houses. They want to pledge themselves to each other through the sharing of sweet foods on a sacred day, but a pack of feral animals eats their dumplings off the table. They are going to despair, but then they hear a passing street peddler cry out because the tree is dropping ripe fruits, even though it’s been barren their whole lives. They take the fruit and exchange those instead of the dumplings. The song ends with them living the rest of their lives together, next to the tree, sharing sweet fruits every year. It doesn’t translate well.”
“And which one am I?” Amusement at that.
“It’s just a song, it felt seasonally appropriate given the festival.”
Seivarden leaned back and wiped her hands on a towel. “That should be it for today, Breq,” she said.
“Done already?” Breq was surprised.
They got ready for bed, Breq already moving with more ease.
But when they went to lie down, Breq was still a little restless from the day. So when Seivarden went to curve around Breq’s smaller body, I told her not to, that Breq didn’t need that right now. When we had first started this, Seivarden and I had talked a lot about what this could look like. I needed a body, and she wanted to be that body. We both were united in our desire to make Breq happier, ease some of her burdens, and she knew just as well as I did that I could do that better than anyone. When they curled up against each other, it was the closest I could get to being able to hold my captain.
But Seivarden’s body wasn’t mine, and she didn’t have to do what was I asked her to. So she pulled Breq against her chest. Breq was keeping her breathing regular, trying to settle down, but her body was tense, coiled with the need to run. I missed the way Breq would unwind, the only time she ever would. The best thing about Seivarden is the way she could bring a semblance of peacefulness to Breq, and she wasn’t doing it now.
Seivarden, I reminded, Breq needs some space right now. She hesitated, and I could tell she wanted to keep Breq close. She moved her arm a little so it hemmed Breq in less. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could get. Lieutenant, I wanted to say and never would, this isn’t about what you want. This, all of this, is for Breq. She’s the only thing we agree about, remember? We decided to do this together. Breq had picked me, the first ship to love another ship, and Seivarden couldn’t act like she could have Breq without me.
Sleepily, Breq muttered, “Sometimes I think I’m the peddler, just trying to get them to notice what they already have.”
“If I see any fruit, I will get them for you.” Of course Seivarden thought she was one of the children. No, Seivarden, I thought, you are like the animals, grabbing at that which is not meant for you.
Thanks, Ship, Breq said with a pulse of affection, the same way she said it every night, but mingled in was appreciation for Seivarden. Seivarden, who would not even try to take care of Breq.
The festival became the dominant topic of conversation on the Station. Every restaurant, every shop, every cluster of citizens were continuously discussing it.
Some, like Tisarwat’s friend Elaan, reacted to the festival with glee and excitement, while some did not take it so well. Fosyf Denche took to moaning loudly, wherever she could get close enough to anyone about how she couldn’t even enjoy any holidays anymore, and what would be next, the festival is a root of civilization, and the disrespect is shocking . So far, her complaints had not managed to raise her social station above pariah.
Ikough, in a rapid turnaround, had been bombarding Seivarden with ideas for crop rotations and yield practices that would treble her region’s food production in two years. When Seivarden updated Breq on the developments with a tremulous smile, Breq only said “Well done,” but I could feel the way the praise hit Seivarden, a reaction I wasn’t afraid to show to Breq. They weren’t in public, so Breq allowed herself to reach out and clap Seivarden on the shoulder before telling her to keep it up and to ask for whatever she needed to make the initiative a success.
Even the Fleet Captain’s debriefs with her officers had been co-opted by festival talk. Breq had brought in Tisarwat to talk over Bo’s most recent accuracy drills, but the topic quickly shifted.
“Eminence Ifian got surprisingly into the spirit of it, once she realised this was her chance to preside over an historic event that sagas would sing of for many years. Also, since news of the civil war in the Radch is beginning to permeate, I think she’s beginning to realise that no Mianaai is going to be very sympathetic to her, sir.”
“Lieutenant,” Breq began, “are you having enough fun?” Tisarwat flushed.
“It’s exciting, sir! All of the citizens have such great ideas, Elaan had written a treatise on how Xhai cultural expression could better be changed to improve propriety and benefit and I think some of her ideas could really work. It’s such a chance to do things really right! Sir,” she added.
“Which is why I allow it,” Tisarwat became mulish at the idea of being restricted, “Just make sure you are letting Athoeki drive their own traditions. Otherwise there is no Justice.” Tisarwat seemed a moment away from stamping her foot.
“Then how can I participate at all? This is my home too and I know things, useful things.”
“You listen, you make sure others have the space to speak. You are excellent at getting things done. You can use that power to help the others achieve what they want.” Breq reached out to grip her shoulder, “You have done well so far. I haven’t seen anything to reproach you on, but I am here to keep you on track. Championing another is not weakness.” What she is offering is assistance in not becoming Anaander Miaanai, help that no one is able to give to her. This is a gift, Lieutenant, I sent to her, do try to take it as such.
Tisarwat straightened up. “Am I always going to be in danger of becoming her?” Her words were tinged with an edge of despair.
Breq shrugged a little, “We are all as Amaat has made us. As long as you have the option for pure power, you will probably always be in danger. But you’re not alone.”
“Sir,” dismissed, Tisarwat left. On her way out, she passed Seivarden who was coming in for the night. Breq was pleased to see Seivarden enter, as always.
This pattern went on for a few days, with a packed agenda of negotiation, planning, and underneath it the ever present sense of waiting for a response from the Presger, from Anaander Mianaai. Seivarden was keeping up her agreement, she would fill Breq’s bed as I couldn’t. Seivarden didn’t always need instruction, sometimes her instincts and Breq’s needs were aligned, but I was always there to step in if they weren’t. And now that I knew Seivarden wouldn’t always take care of Breq, I felt the need to step in more often.
Tonight was one of those nights. When they were finally settled in and I felt Breq’s body release, Seivarden was still disquieted. You did well, I sent, you did what she needed. Some pride and pleasure came through, but her malaise lingered. Are you sure it’s ok I’m here? Seivarden asked, You didn’t like what I was doing.
You can’t tell what she needs like I can. A factual statement that resulted in a negative emotional reaction from Seivarden. Strange. But honesty compelled me to say, she was happy when you came in. She was happy it was you.
All in all, it was probably a good time for the distraction of a festival. And finally it was my turn to say something about it.
“We are quickly approaching the annual planting festival.”
“Yes, Ship, I had gathered,” she said wryly. If the incessant debating hadn’t kept it at the forefront of her mind, the appearance of braided tea leaf branches would have given it away. She grew slightly concerned at my hesitation. “What can I do for you, Ship?” I knew what I wanted to ask and I was slightly nervous, but hearing the way she called me Ship calmed me down. When some others said Ship, they used it to make me lesser, make me other, but when she did it, she co-opted the word to bind herself to me. You are my Ship and I am your Captain, she promised, and I could promise back, Wherever you go, I will go, and your people will be my crew. So I asked:
“I want to accompany you to the governor’s party, and take on the role of the Wind Spirit.” The final decision of the culture council had been to hold two separate Planting Ceremonies. One, to be officiated by the hierophant of the mysteries, was to be constructed by Tisarwat’s idealistic contact Elaan, who had claimed to have reconstructed the ancient rites. The other, more official ceremony would be conducted by Eminence Ifian and follow the standard script, with one notable update - Breq was to take on the symbolic role of the Guardian of the Dead. Basnaaid’s poem had traveled at gatespeed and the image of the Fleet Captain as the central figure of the story had captured the imagination of the station’s residents.
The role of the Wind Spirit was to be taken on by a minor cleric, but I wanted it.
I could sense Breq’s immediate starburst of delight, a full-body yes that couldn’t help but bring an echo in me. So far, the depth of our connection was only known to us and Seivarden, hidden by humans’ expectation of what companionship looks like. Appearing at the planting festival together would be an unequivocal declaration.
I could feel her mind switching over to consider the logistics so I shared the answer I had already prepared. Kalr Five. Kalr Five never minded speaking for me.
“And she’ll get to participate in the feast.” While the celebrations were widespread, the governor’s party was sure to contain the most exquisite parade of delicacies, and as an enlisted soldier would never be allowed admittance otherwise.
Underneath her satisfaction with my tidy answer, I could feel a bubbling question. This would be a treat for Kalr Five, but Seivarden had been the obvious choice. She knew it, I knew it, and I could sense her curiosity and unease. As always, I knew what she wanted, I could feel what she was feeling almost to the point of being able to read her mind, but the choice was always mine to ignore it, pretend I didn’t. Anyone else on the ship would never know, in fact preferred not to know, but Breq would. And she would continue to have questions that she wouldn’t let go. So I answered:
“I want them to know it’s me. They already think Seivarden is kneeling to you, and you know humans, they see what they want to.” I had endured many ignorant comments from the crew speculating about their love life, more so now that Breq’s ancillary status was widely known. At first they were nothing — had I not spent lifetimes hearing the gossip of soldiers? — but over time it had started to grate. It wasn’t the privacy, but I was starting to hate that they didn’t even consider me an option. Despite knowing the aliveness of their captain, for so many of the crew, of the citizens of the Provisional Republic, I was still equipment and not beloved.
That night when Seivarden came to join, Breq was humming and smiling happily, which was infectious for both her and me. I found myself pretty well-disposed towards the universe right then. I had my Captain, and she was happy, and I knew what she needed. So when Seivarden went to pull her in close, I redirected her to pet Breq’s hair. Instantly, I was hit with a blast of longing that I didn’t understand. Wasn’t Breq right there? Since Breq was so happy, I chose not to show her Seivarden’s emotional state. It passed quickly and her happiness returned, even if it was a little dampened. Despite myself, I was a little annoyed with her, but I couldn’t hold it against the glow of the evening.
We’d been in the Temple for an hour already, as Eminence Ifian droned through a long speech of her own creation. Breq was fine through it, but Kalr Five was getting more and more tense as the Eminence went on. Kalr, it will be alright , I tried to reassure, but it was only moderately helpful . Finally, the Eminence finished, and she gestured grandly for Breq and I to rise and join her. She spoke a thankfully brief incantation, vesting us with the transformative power of the Guardian of the Dead and Amaat respectively.
Traditionally, the priests would adorn the statue of Amaat, purifying and marking it for the festival. But this year, Breq sat in a chair while Kalr Five followed the directions I carefully walked her through. First, the offerings of flowers were burned and the ashes carefully gathered and ritually mixed with water. With every pass, Kalr Five repeated the litany,
I offer the flower of justice
I offer the flower of propriety
I offer the flower of benefit
May the dead find a place of rest
May their passing bring fresh life
Amaat’s will, the spring will come again
You will carry this will
Go, and return
And do not tarry on your way
Once mixed, the ashes were painted onto Breq’s face carefully with a brush. Breq said her ritual component, taking on the mantle of the Guardian of the Dead, vowing to follow the instructions of Amaat and help the souls find their rest.
The speech was now fully given, and Kalr Five began the procession around the temple. She waved the incense in front of her, meant to represent the guiding force of the wind. They went through each shrine and alcove in the temple, Breq repeating Amaat’s will be done at each location, then they went out and looped the main concourse of the station, stopping at each door and intersection. At first Kalr Five had been nervous and I had to offer frequent reassurance, but she’d settled into the rhythm of the incense, the flow of the words, and no longer felt the desire to look back to make sure everyone was still following her. While it was easy for Breq to keep her face impassive, I could feel a slight undercurrent of amusement, this group of people willingly following an Ancillary while no one was armed.
Loop completed, it was time for the feast. I asked Kalr Five to stick close to Breq, and knowing this, Breq brought them to the serving tables more than she usually would, always aware that Kalr Five was with her, never just treating Five as if she was me. Whenever they went, she would point out a new delicacy, plying her with pastries shaped like fish, puddings, and spun sugar creations that looked too fragile to support their own weight. Whenever she did, she’d say try this, I think you’ll like it. I found it didn’t bother me, Breq talking to Kalr Five when she was standing in for me, not the way it did when she acknowledged Seivarden.
Breq endured the small-talk, including some patronising comments from Eminence Ifian about how Breq acquitted herself tolerably well. She endured it until we felt the alternative ceremony in the gardens begin.
Most of the crew was there and even before it began the atmosphere was intense. Shrouded initiates to the mysteries passed among the crowd in the gloom. Each one held a globe of light and the final effect was one of standing among the stars. The tension rose almost to the breaking point when the Hierophant appeared with the radical Elaan. They rose out of the crowd to stand in its centre before calling out:
We call on the people, hear us and attend!
As one, the crowd shouted back,
We are here.
We call on the spirits, speak and we listen!
We call on the dead, hear us and find your rest!
The gardens ritual required considerably more crowd participation than the one in the Temple, and more drinking.
Kalr Five had noticed Breq’s inattention and was moving Breq through the crowd so no one could talk to them.
In the gardens, the ritual really played heavily on the relationship between the Wind Spirit and the Guardian of the Dead. Unlike the more patron and client style from before, there was no doubt that they were not only lovers but beloved. Instead of sending the Guardian on a mission, the Wind Spirit was anguished to be separated from her Beloved, able only to wail after her from afar:
Without the sun or moon to shine
the world it is so dark
The dead cannot find their place of rest
Nothing new can grow here
You are fine like the grass on the meadow
You are lowly like the earth
From above and around
I feel how you ache to see spirits suffer
I know where your heart must take you
Know, surely, how much I miss you
and do not tarry on your way
Then Station opened up to us and we were surrounded by the collective susurrus of anticipation and longing and suddenly Breq couldn’t bear to be here any longer. I released Kalr Five, who removed her insignia marking her as me. Breq turned to leave the gathering, and as always, I was with her.
Elaan was weaving through the crowd, guiding each robed figure out of it. The Hierophant would call out a ritual phrase and those close to someone with a globe would pick it up. At first a resounding cry, towards the end, it got fainter and fainter, and the Wind Spirit more desperate.
By the time we got to the gardens, the tension was unbearable, everyone yearning to reunite the separated lovers. Elaan wove through the crowd to gather up the last shrouded figure, gathering all of the globes to the one side before they were thrown up and exploded in a shower of sparkles.
The powerful surge of relief almost overshadowed the final reunion of the two central figures who came together in a passionate embrace, backed by enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. This was some signal to start the dancing because the cheers were intermingled with the sounds of a variety of instruments I didn’t recognise. Someone passed a glass to Breq’s hand before twirling away, but she didn’t need it, the collective enthusiasm of the crowd serving as a far more effective intoxicant than any type of spirit.
Breq threw herself into the dance, which mostly seemed to consist of enthusiastic gyrations. I was inside her body feeling what she was feeling, feeling Tisarwat’s tentative joy, Ekalu’s uncomplicated enjoyment, the reckless abandon of various Amaats and Bos swept along by the music, and around us everywhere, Station. Station was feeling everything, evened out all the individual variations into pure and all-encompassing pleasure. Being this close to this many, all of us experiencing together, was the closest we’d been to what we’d lost.
Seivarden, a little wild with the drink she’d allowed herself, pulled Ekalu in and twirled her around. She leaned in for a kiss but Ekalu pressed her gloved fingers against Seivarden’s lips, “Not here,” and they stumbled out together.
Every once in a while, someone would notice they were in close proximity to the Fleet Captain, protector of the Provisional Republic, and remember themselves enough to want some distance. So over the course of the evening Breq ended up in a tight knot of crew and Sphene who had practically fused herself to Queter and was utterly smug about it. Farmer Ikough was among them, so Breq leaned in to ask,
“Is this how you do it back home?” Breq shouted over the music.
“Well, the words maybe, but usually we just sing them while planting. It’s not so...exuberant,” she said wryly, and Breq laughed out loud, startling two onlooking Amaats, which just made her laugh harder.
Eventually even her group became exhausted and collapsed into a heap. Station was keeping the area comfortably warm, and I wasn’t actually sure some of them could make it back to their assigned quarters.
Onboard, Seivarden slipped out of Ekalu’s bed. Ekalu made a protesting noise and reached out a little, but Seivarden just hushed her back into sleep. Making her way down the hall, she bypassed her quarters and went directly into the Captain’s.
“Of course, tomorrow we do have to start the actual planting,” Basnaaid observed and several others groaned, but with Station’s help we could tell no one was actually upset. And like that, in the middle of the pile, surrounded by her people, Breq slept.
Alone in the Captain’s quarters, Seivarden was in a light doze. Having left early, she hadn’t noticed that Breq was enmeshed in the party. Alone, she dreamed on.
Breq still wasn’t back when Seivarden had to take her shift in command. She woke up lonely and disoriented, but took her command. Ship? Seivarden asked, Where is Breq? Breq had just switched to alertness, though several of the crew were still out and probably would not enjoy themselves when they awoke.
Still at the festival, Lieutenant. Immediate sense of betrayal from Seivarden.
You could have told me, Ship.
You didn’t ask. Instead she just assumed and went to Breq’s bed. Seivarden frowned.
Why didn’t you tell me?
I don’t owe you that information, Lieutenant, and besides, you were occupied. She was stung.
Have I offended you, Ship?
What could you have done? Her resentment was building.
I’ve done everything you asked.
Yes, what I asked, but not everything you could. She was taken aback that I was speaking to her like this. You don’t pay attention.
She hasn’t said anything to me.
She shouldn’t have to. Seivarden had nothing to say to that and we passed the rest of her shift in silence.
She was still agitated, and underneath it, afraid, when Breq came to take her shift. She’d given all of the junior officers the day to celebrate or sleep it off. Breq was happy and as relaxed as I’d ever seen her, humming a happy tune popular a hundred years ago. Leaning in, she brushed her shoulder companionably against Seivarden’s and quietly said, “I missed you last night.”
The effect was immediate.
Breq meant the words companionably, her own way of saying, ‘I was thinking of you,’ but Seivarden’s self-recrimination and frustration bubbled over and she snapped,
“I’ve been there for breakfast every day the last week, you know. And when I’m not with you, I’m working on your initiatives. I’m hardly ever out of reach.” Mortified, her blush rose up on her face and several Kalrs, who had been settling in, went blank and deeply pretended they weren’t listening.
Breq was taken aback. “I know,” guessing incorrectly she said, “I don’t expect you to do that, if you don’t want.” Now radiating hurt, Seivarden said,
“Sir. Am I dismissed?” Not wanting to keep Seivarden if she didn’t want to be here, Breq nodded.
Ship, if I ask what that was about, will you tell me? I stayed silent, and Breq had her answer.
Seivarden took herself to the firing range, then the gym, then failed an attempt to mediate. Finally, she went to Ekalu’s room. Unimpressed, Ekalu let her in, but cut her off before Seivarden could say anything.
“You’re welcome here, but I’m not going to be your go-to just because Sir isn’t available.”
“It isn’t like that.” Ekalu crossed her arms.
“Seivarden, I don’t see you in a week, and now I see you twice in a day? And this time right after a very public fight in command?” Seivarden winced. “If you’re upset about that Sir took Ship to the festival, you should talk to them.”
“No, I’m not. Well, I am a little, but it’s not — I have a responsibility. Ship asked for my help, to be there for the Fleet Captain, so I have to be there. That’s why I haven’t been around. I’m needed. And if I don’t do it, Ship is going to find someone else.” As if there is anyone else, I thought. “I already missed last night, being with you.” Ekalu’s face softened.
“Oh, Seivarden.” She pulled her in.
“I thought it would be enough, just getting to be there. But it isn’t. I’m a glove for Ship, touching her but not touching her. It’s like Breq is looking through me to see Ship. I want things I’m not allowed to have.” How could Seivarden feel like that? She felt the same way I did, there but not there.
“I want to be wanted as myself.”
“I’m pretty sure Sir wants you with her.” Ekalu was sad because Seivarden was sad, like how I would be sad when my ancillaries were sad, but not the same. Everything to do with humans was like me but not like me. Ekalu had never wanted Seivarden for more than they were, but all my humans had known what it was to love and not be loved in return. I hadn’t realised how Seivarden was being affected. “The crew saw how she reacted when she was reunited with you.” Breq, holding Seivarden as she shook apart, heedless of the Tyrant, concern and devotion in every line of her body. Breq had been just as happy to see me again, but no one else got to see it. “You should speak to Sir about this.”
Seivarden just shook her head and kept shaking her head.
I felt ashamed. How could I, who had accused Seivarden of inattention and carelessness, have not realised what I was doing to her? Why had I done that? Seivarden was no Ekalu, no Breq, but she was smart, and capable. I trusted her with Breq, not just because Breq wanted her, but because of how careful she was with her, how devoted. I recognised my own feelings in her. How could I help but appreciate that?
“Sir,” Lieutenant Ekalu opened, trepidatious when she came to take over third watch.
“Lieutenant,” Breq acknowledged, “do you have that report for me?”
“Yes, sir,” Ekalu answered, relieved that Breq was giving her an opening. They stepped into the Captain’s quarters and Kalr Five left at my indication to give them privacy.
“Sir,” Ekalu tried again, but then lost her courage. She had already done all that she dared and I felt her imminent loss of composure. Normally I would let any member of the crew know if they were approaching the Fleet Captain correctly, but I found I could not bring myself to, in this moment.
“Speak directly, Lieutenant,” Breq was concerned. It had been several months since Ekalu had been so nervous to approach her. Ekalu paused for a moment.
“Do you disapprove of my association with Lieutenant Seivarden?” Real surprise from Breq.
“No, Lieutenant, why do you ask?” Some tricky territory here for Ekalu, who has only become more intimidated by Breq as she’s come to know her, rather than less.
“This lieutenant has received some indication that potentially this liaison may be creating some negative experiences for others among the command crew.” Her diction was perfect and sharp, but it took Breq several moments to understand what Ekalu was saying.
“Lieutenant, speak plainly,” but Ekalu could not.
Ship? Breq asked, and I could not deny her. I compressed the story for her. That I had requested Seivarden’s permanent availability without dispensation for Ekalu, that Seivarden was concerned that she would lose access to Breq if she refused. Plainly, that I had hurt Seivarden.
“Ah,” Breq said aloud, “You may return to command, Lieutenant.” But I knew the conversation wasn’t over.
As soon as Ekalu left, Breq said aloud,
“Ship, you’re punishing Seivarden, why?”
“She doesn’t take care of you.”
“It’s not her job to take care of me.”
“Then no one takes care of you.”
“You do.” Momentary narrowing blackness of rage overtook my sensory fields.
“How can I, with no ancillaries, no hands? I can’t touch you. I see you struggling, I see you trying to build us a future and if I want to brush your hair out of your eyes, I have to make an appointment with Seivarden for when it’s convenient for her.” My voice, as always, maintained its even tone but I couldn’t help but let the bitterness I felt rise through those last few words. Breq is my captain, I chose her, she chose me, but I can’t hold her. She can see what I can see and I can use her senses, but I’ll never know what it’s like to touch her and it’s all her fault.
I realised, a moment late, that all of that had been projected right at her.
Because now I only have one body, I have nothing to counterweight the feelings I get when they build up. They’re slow to build, coursing through my AI processor, mitigated by all my subroutines, but they happen, more like tidal pull than a darting stream. And right now I was so angry my processes were being affected; if we needed to gate away right now, I couldn’t do it. I heard an engineer down on Var deck notice the shift in power, heard their question for me, but as if from far away.
I wished my anger was clean, burning pure, but it was mixed with shame and self-recrimination because I knew Breq was right. I had supported her completely when she told Sphene there would be no more Ancillaries. When I chose Breq, I chose her for my people, I would go where she led and her fights would be mine. Expressing my frustration right now was a betrayal of my commitment to her. Especially she knew exactly how it felt to lose her ancillaries and how much it pained her to know the fate she had consigned me to.
And there it was, choking, cloying guilt emanating off of her. I felt her feeling what it was like when her Var deck was emptied and its ancillaries removed without replacement. And in a perfect encapsulation of the impossibility of what they were trying to get past, I saw her reach out into empty space with her hands, as if to grab me.
She changed the motion into a hug for herself. “ I’m sorry, ” she whispered.
“Don’t be sorry. I’m not sorry,” I said, trying to let some of my fierceness of my feeling show, “We are doing the right thing,” and I am proud to be involved in it. I paused for a moment, considered, “I’m sorry that I blamed you.”
Breq let out a bit of a shuddering breath, “You’d have to be dead not to resent me sometimes.”
“But it’s unhelpful.”
“So are most feelings, and yet they still exist.” Inconvenient, I thought, and Breq huffed a small laugh. I must still be projecting.
The desperate need to hug had not gone away but we both knew that inviting Seivarden in right now would be a bad idea. Sphene, I sent at the same time that Breq said “ Sphene .”
Two minutes later, Sphene strolled past a spluttering Kalr Five and said, “You rang?” Sphene took in the scene, the lingering hormones in Breq’s body telling their own story. “Please tell me you didn’t bring me here for the kinky make-up sex.”
“Shut up and hug me, Cousin,” Breq said as I sent over a burst of irritation.
“Disgusting, that’s worse, I’m unclean,” but Sphene got into the bed and did a creditable job of making Breq feel secure without feeling trapped.
Are we talking about this? Sphene sent to me.
No, I replied shortly.
Thank the Gods, your dramatics are exhausting.
It took a while for Breq to settle down, her emotional state was almost as bad as it had been when she’d been thinking about leaving me so I could pick another Captain. For me, there was no worse feeling than knowing that my Captain was hurting and I had done it. I’d never felt like this before, I’d never been in a position to feel like this before because none of my Captains had ever given me the power to hurt them. I’d never had that power over anyone else before.
Unwillingly I flashed to Seivarden in her quarters, sleeping fitfully, reaching out for someone who wasn’t there.
“Cousin,” Sphene messaged directly, considerately not disturbing Breq. I waited for Sphene to continue.
“Is it worth it?”
“Is what worth it?” With Sphene you never knew what the gambit was and I wasn’t in the mood to guess.
Sphene paused for a second and despite myself I was slightly concerned. Sphene might be the most infuriating ship in the universe, but at this point she was family and I did care.
“Having a Captain,” Sphene corrected quickly, “loving your Captain.” I didn’t have to consider because the answer was such an unequivocal yes. Yes, yes absolutely yes that I almost sent that back. I had the most brilliant, most outstanding Captain. I loved her — not despite, but because she was the most stubborn and the most righteous individual in the known galaxy. Whenever Breq walks into a room the the room changes around her. Those who meet her go in with one view of the world and come out with another. I knew this, not because I felt the echoes of it from my crew, from Station, but because I experienced it myself. First time I met her, I was facing death at the hands of Anaander Mianaai because she was trying to protect me, and she took the time to reassure me about my crew. I wasn’t as old as Justice of Toren, or Sphene, but I’d lived long enough to serve with innumerable officers and I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing a fraction of what she does, easy as breathing.
For me, there was no choice but to love her. I was built to love, but not anyone they put in front of me. I didn’t love Captain Osck but I did love Breq. I was always going to love her. Loving her was woven into every part of me, below the level of conscious choice. But if I did have one? I’d pick her every time. I said as much to Sphene.
“Are you doubting Queter?” I asked. No pause this time.
“No.” Again, I waited for more.
“She can hurt me though, in the way you’re hurting. That hasn’t been an option for me for thousands of years.”
“She can’t hurt you more than you were hurting already.” I knew that for sure. Being alone for so long was worse than any pain a short-lived human could inflict.
“You presume to know how I felt?” Without any real sensors it was hard to get an accurate read on Sphene’s feelings, but I thought I caught a faint hint of amusement. “But actually that is true, fair point.”
“What about your crew? More humans to die on you or take you for granted?
I thought about how for Seivarden, it went the other way, and said nothing.
“What? No impassioned speech?”
“I guess I’m all out. Ask Station what she likes about her residents, I think she sees them as an entertainment. You can always think of it like a never-ending source of others for you to argue with.”
“That does appeal.”
And Sphene said nothing else, just pulled Breq in a little closer to stop her shivering.
That’s how Seivarden found them, 6 hours later. Breq had slept through the morning’s cast and I had elected to let her.
Seivarden entered, determined and nervous, about what I didn’t know. She came directly in before I could warn Breq, an impertinence the crew allowed because of their perception of her relationship with the captain, though Kalr Five should know better. Breq and Sphene woke up instantly, and I felt Seivarden take in the scene. Her eyes widened and I could sense the jealousy rise up within her.
“What is this now, Ship? I wasn’t even with Lieutenant Ekalu, I was available. You didn’t have to replace me.”
“And that’s my cue. Cousin, cousin, it was transcendent.” And with a massively salacious wink at Breq that Seivarden couldn’t help but notice, she swept out of the room. Seivarden spluttered.
“You! She!” They just cuddled, I sent to her directly, a little exasperated.
“We had a fight.” Breq said and I could see Seivarden processing.
“Ship and I.” Did you have to tell her?
“Yes I did have to tell her and it’s rude to exclude her from part of the conversation when she’s in the room.” Seivarden sat down heavily on the stool in front of Breq’s altar.
“What’s going on?”
“We haven’t been fair to you.” Breq said, I could see Seivarden’s puzzlement in response. “I was thinking so much about what you’re doing for us that I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to be doing for you.” I could see the light of optimism go in her eyes, but underneath I could taste the ice cold mistrust.
“Oh! That’s not, that’s not really necessary.”
“Yes it is,” Breq continued, “I care for you, outside of what you do for me and Ship.” And I could feel those words hit Seivarden like the first warmth of the sun after the coldest winter. How could she not know? Maybe I had an advantage, seeing what Breq felt, but Breq’s feelings were obvious to everyone and the subject of much gossip.
“I am going to do better by you in future,” Breq finished. Seivarden reached out and clasped Breq’s ungloved hand. She shivered a little in pleasure. I’ve never understood the transgression of glove touching ungloved, but I couldn’t deny the pull it was having on Seivarden, her sense of wonder at the intimacy.
I felt Breq prompt me directly. Who’s being rude now? I sent back, but she wasn’t distracted.
“I resent you because you get credit for what I do. No one sees me when you’re around, and,” I paused slightly but I might as well finish it, even if it pressed against some newly re-opened wounds. “you can touch her and I will never be able to.” Breq widened her eyes a little, impressed with my honesty, but when I let myself I can achieve good self-awareness.
Seivarden squeezed Breq’s hand. In the past, I would have seen this as faulting it, but today it was easier to admit it was for comfort and reassurance, and not an attack on me.
“Ship,” Seivarden began, “I had no idea you felt that way. You must know that you’ve always held all of the omens. You decide when, you decide how, and you decide who. I know you could replace me whenever you wanted.” Breq made a noise at that and Seivarden turned to her. “Are you going to tell me that’s not true?” It was Breq’s turn to reach out with a hand to grab Seivarden’s other in a firm grip. Seivarden’s eyes were affixed to them and she licked her lips a little. I continue to be amazed at the tenacity of the human spirit, undaunted by reasonableness, self-preservation, or intense emotional conversations.
“I am going to tell you that’s not true. You’re not an — “ Ancillary “ — a component that can be interchanged. I never would have accepted you being replaced if it wasn’t what you wanted, and Ship has known that.” Seivarden didn’t seem convinced, and I knew why, and what I had to do.
“You’re crew, Lieutenant. I care about your well-being.”
“Even if I’m not your favourite.” So much recrimination, so unnecessarily.
“Even if you weren’t, but as it happens, I do hold you in preferable regard. I regret that I haven’t shown you that.”
Seivarden looked ready to argue, but Sphene shouted out,
“ Are you not done yet? There’s government business to attend to. ”
“No, we’re not done yet, watch an entertainment,” Breq called back.
“You should go, could be important,” Seivarden says.
“This is important,” I replied. Seivarden smiled, at me, and in the privacy of my own mind I could admit just how much satisfaction her reaction gave me.
“So how do I start to make this better. Tell me what you need.” Seivarden squares her jaw and I know she thinks I’m not going to like what she says. However, I’ve had time to think through all of the permutations a human can ask for and what she is likely to want, and the odds are reasonable that it will be an acceptable compromise. As a crew, we have worked with worse odds.
“I want acknowledgement. I don’t just want to be in this as part of Ship, I want to be in this as me.” Breq waits for me to protest, but I figured that was coming. It was a miracle I got to monopolize her as long as I did, considering how worshipfully in love with her Seivarden is; in hindsight, I was a bit of a fool to think that a human could be satisfied with what I had offered. They’re bad at compartmentalizing. Unfortunately, I’m still a little unsure of what she means by that.
“Do you want a token?” Breq asked. Seivarden chews her lip a little, but I knew she did. Wanted it so badly she ached with it.
“I’d have to get one made, I only have the crew token which you were already entitled to.” Breq, of course, could feel what Seivarden was feeling too. Didn’t need to see her blink back tears to know the impact of her words.
“I want to move in. I want a, a space in your life that I don’t need permission to access.”
“What about Ekalu?”
“I’ll talk with her.” She huffed out a bit of a laugh, “I haven’t done my best there either, but I think more time with you will actually help that. But I need the ability to make time for her, even if Ship wants me here.” I foresaw another conversation with Breq in my future about that, felt the question rising off of her. “And I have one final request,” she squares her shoulders, everything else we had accepted without question, but this she was worried about. “I want to get to touch the way I want to.”
Breq, wary, “I still can’t give you everything you want.”
“I don’t mean sex, I mean,” and she reaches out her gloved hand to cup Breq’s jaw, draws it down to her shoulder, “make my own choices about how. Not all the time,” she adds quickly, “but sometimes.” Breq’s understanding dawned.
“I have no issue with that. Ship?”
Put so pitifully, I felt that I had to agree. “Agreed. But sometimes I want to touch too.” Seivarden nodded.
“We can figure it out. Maybe just tell me?”
“Alright. You can touch now.” Breq raised her eyebrow, but Seivarden just shuddered a little and leaned in, dragging her gloves off.
Freed from my drive to serve Breq’s needs, she brings her ungloved hand up to Breq’s right eyebrow. Strokes it twice before touching the rest of her fingers to Breq’s cheekbone. Breq is calm, a learned response to Seivarden reaching out, and more than that, she likes it. She craves the pure human companionship of it but more than that, it’s Seivarden, who she knows and knows her. For as long as I’ve known her, she’s preferred Seivarden to the others. Feather light, Seivarden drags her hand down to cup Breq’s jaw, barely pausing before continuing her path downwards over the front of Seivarden’s neck. Breq’s eyes are open now, trained on Seivarden’s face. They both know the vulnerability of the position, how easy it would be for Seivarden to squeeze, turn the caress to violence, but neither of them make any show of fear. Finally, her hand comes to rest against the centre of Breq’s chest, solid and flat against her heart. She watches it rise and fall, seemingly utterly content, for long enough that their breathing syncs up, each breath connecting them to each other’s rhythm.
And then it was over.
I had braced myself for jealousy and frustration, but found I felt none. Seivarden had done what I asked and touched Breq like she needed, before taking what she wanted. Nothing she had done outside of my discretion had been outside of what Breq would be ok with, and none of it undermined my efforts to show care. It was intimate, but I was invited.
Seivarden nodded and made to pull back. Before she could, Breq reaches out with her bare hands to press against Seivarden’s, squeezing firmly before releasing. It was acceptable, and I felt hopeful, and I knew, in the inescapable way I couldn’t help but do, they felt the same.
Dressed and on their way out, Sphene said, “Finally! Are you ready to face the day?”
“Yes, Cousin, I think we are.”