... sorry it took so long to write but it's been a bit of a whirl. The school is very pretty here on the bay, and my rooms are fine. I checked on the servants' quarters and food and everything, like you said. Bianca complains about the cooking but that's just because it's Neapolitan, and they all have trouble understanding the Italian around here (so do I) which isn't like Tuscan at all. The school servants can mostly speak English anyway, since they come from all over. A lot of them can read, too. The classes are about like the old school on Elba, but we've got a really tough Unarmed Instructor and I'm learning a lot. You have to or she thumps you, which I suppose is fair.
The other girls are mostly nice and I've made some friends already, especially Myfwany and Muriel and Veronica and Mandy. People are calling us the Fearsome Five, and we're all going to try for pilot training and the space program. Can I invite them up to home for the Novembers?
Anyway, I miss you all the time. Mother, and Pa, too, and Edwina and Dionysia and even John but don't tell him or he'll be even worse than he usually is. And Tantie Rahksan and Deng, too, and the house and everything.
P.S. The stables are pretty good here, so could you send down Foamfoot? The school hacks have all got mouths like saddle leather.
Letter from Yolande Ingolfsson to her parents
Dated: October 21st, 1968
From Contemporary Poets Series
Trackways of the Heart
Archona Press, Archona, 1991
DISTRICT OF CAMPANIA
PROVINCE OF ITALY
DOMIMATIOTI OF THE DRAKA
SEPTEMBER 18, 1968
The classroom was comfortably cool, even though the day was growing sultry in the hours after noon. Half the frosted-glass panels of the inner wall were folded away, leaving gaps between the slender pillars of white-streaked rose marble; beyond was the shade of the inner colonnade, and hot white light on the courtyard's gardens and fountains. Yolande still fought to stifle a yawn; there was a feeling of drowsiness to the hot air. It smelled of cool stone, seawater, and the summer-scent of pine resin baking out under the unmerciful sun. Her eyelids fluttered down, and she brought herself back up with a jerk. It had been like that since her periods started a year before. Wild energy, and then sleepiness in the middle of the day; despair and happiness switching on and off like a light-switch.
And I don't even have breasts yet, she thought resentfully, looking down at a chest still almost as flat as a boy's. She looked over at Mandy, in the next desk. She already looks like a woman and she's tall, too. It isn't fair!
Myfwany hissed at her and she rose as the teacher walked briskly through the colonnade, followed by a serf with a double armful of books and papers.
"Make yo'selfs comfortable, girls," the instructor said. There was a rustle as they sat again. "Just leave it all, Helga," she added to the servant.
How elegant she looks, Yolande thought, watching the teacher as she arranged the materials. Sort of distinguished. Sixtyish, with graying brown curls cropped close to her head; slender, with a scholar's well-kept hands and an athlete's tan, dressed in a long gray robe with a belt of worked silver vine-leaves. And a miniature gold circlet pinned over her heart; the corona aurea, the Archon's highest award. Awed, Yolande wondered what it was for. Usually for bravery-above-and-beyond, or some really important accomplishment for the Race.
"Service to the State," the teacher said formally.
"Glory to the Race," the students murmured in perfunctory unison.
The class was a little over average size, twelve pupils seated at desks of African flame-cedar in irregular clumps across a floor tiled in geometric patterns of blue and green, facing the rear wall and the teacher's station.
"I'm Catherine Harris," she said, sitting with one hip on the edge of the green malachite slab that was her desk.
There was a big display-screen on the wall behind her, one of the new crystal-sandwich types; she touched a control on the desk and it lit with a world map in outline. The smaller screens on the students' desks came alive as well, slaved to the master control. Countries were shown in block colors: black for the Domination, with the Draka firelizard sprawled across it, and shades of green for the nations of the Alliance.
"Well start with a regression. This is the situation today, with more than half the world under the Yoke." All Africa, all Europe, all of mainland Asia except the southern peninsulas running India-Malaysia-Indochina. "Now before the Eurasian War, in 1940." The area of black shrank; now the Domination was mostly Africa, with the Middle East and Central Asia and only a toehold in the eastern Balkans. The names of vanished lands reappeared on the screen: Germany, France, Russia, China.
"Now 1914, before the Great War. Which, difficult as it may be to imagine, infants, I can remember." Muffled laughter, and the screens showed Africa alone in black, with outliers in Crete and Cyprus and Ceylon. "Ten-year intervals back to the beginning." The dark tide receded, from the western bulge of the continent and from the interior. 1800, and Egypt went pale. Two decades more, and there was nothing but a tiny black spot around Cape Town in the extreme south.
Yolande stirred uneasily at the sight. The sequence was familiar, but showing it in reverse was not. Usually the maps started with the tiny speck, and then it flowed irresistably forward. Doing it this way seemed vaguely... improper, somehow. She glanced at the servant, who was sitting on her heels by the side of the desk, hands folded neatly in her lap and eyes cast down. A wench in her twenties, blond and with a Germanic-looking pallor, very pretty—what Pa would call a hundred-auric item—with the serf-number standing out orange beneath her ear.
I wonder what she thinks of the course, the Draka girl thought suddenly. The wench must have heard it dozens of times. Some people said serfs didn't think at all, except about things like food and sex and their work, but that wasn't true. Serf children played quite freely with the offspring of the Great House when they were young, and Yolande had learned all their gossip; the stories, whose mother yelled and hit, and whose father drank too much smuggled grappa. Deng thought a lot, he was really smart even if he wasn't very talkative. Rakhsan, Mother's Afghan maidservant, she could tell you things about times way back before the War. It was the older fieldhands who kept so quiet, never speaking unless you asked them something, the ones old enough to remember the War and the times right after it, the purges and the camps.
"... Sure yo're quite familiar with it," the teacher was saying. "What I'm goin' to teach is the realities beneath it. Question: how did we get from that,"—she moved her head toward the screen—"to this." A hand indicated the school.
Myfwany raised her palm. "We won, Miz Harris," she said, and there was another muffled giggle.
Harris smiled herself, and reached into the folds of her gown for a gunmetal cigarette case. "Pardon the bad example," she said sardonically at their round-eyed stares. Draka of their generation did not often smoke, at least not tobacco.
"I was raised befo' we knew it was bad for yo'. Yes, Myiwany, we won. But war isn't the explanation, it's the result. We're a warrior people, and our weakness is that we tend to think too much of battles and not enough of the things which lead up to victory. There are problems that don't yield to the butchershop logic of the sword. Yo' can say a man dies because his heart stops, but it doesn't explain. We need to know the why."
She turned slightly, leaning back against the desk and cupping her right elbow in the left hand. "School is trainin', and not just to fight."
"Yo', girl." She pointed at Mandy. "How many Draka are there?"
The tall girl started. "Hum, ah, sixty million? Roughly." Under her breath: "I hope. Moo."
"Fifty-eight million, nine hundred and twenty thousand-odd. How many serfs?"
"Lots, ah, a billion and a half?"
"Correct. So we're about three percent of the total; that's not countin' the billion or so wild ones in the Alliance countries. It's not enough to be strong an' fierce, good fighters. Necessary, but not enough; to use the old cliche', we aren't a numerous people and nobody loves us. We have serfs enough in the Janissary legions for brute force, to carry rifles and die. Yo' are Citizens, and need to be able to think."
A meditative puff. "History is process; like dancin', or an avalanche. Sometimes it's... too ponderous to move, just grinds on regardless. Sometimes it balances delicately, and a minor push can turn it. Other times, yo' can turn even a pretty heavy movement with a small force by findin' the right lever to magnify yo' strength."
"That's how we dominate. Leverage... and this class is goin' to teach yo' how the process works. Look to either side of the screen, now."
Murals flanked the two-meter square of the display panel, a landscape of hills rocky and steep and covered with the olive-green scrub bush of southern Africa. A labor-gang was building a road through it, black men in leg-hobbles swinging picks and sledgehammers; others pushed wheelbarrows full of crushed rock, chipped granite blocks for the curbs, pulled stone rollers beside yoked oxen. Draka worked with surveyor's transepts and spirit levels to mark the course, swung their whips over the bent backs of the serfs, sat mounted and armed to guard.
"Question," the teacher said. "Date this mural and place it."
Yolande blinked at it, dredging at her memory. No powered machinery, just ox-wagons and horses. Probably before the 1820s. Her eyes switched to the right, a close-up of a horseman. Canvas-sided boots, baggy leather pants, a coarse cotton shirt, and a jerkin of zebra-hide; long yellow hair in a twisted braid down his back to the waist. A saber at the belt, and a saw-hilted flintlock pistol in his right hand, double-barreled and clumsy-looking. Two more in holsters at his saddle-bow, and a fourth tucked into the high top of a boot. The long-barreled musket slung across his back was the same as the heirloom antique Mother had brought north from her family's plantation in the far south, a Ferguson breech-loader.
Her hand went up. "1790s?" she said, when the teacher glanced her way. "Uhhh, somewhere north of the Whiteridge? Limpopo valley, I think." Myfwany glanced her way, and Yolande caught the thumb-and-forefinger gesture of approval with a flush of pleasure.
"Excellent," Harris said. She looked down and tapped again at the controls set in the stone, and a map of Africa appeared on the screens. It jumped as the focus shifted, narrowing down to the southeastern corner of the continent, and a red dot appeared. "1798, in the Northmark." That was the province north of the Limpopo. "Not far from where I was born, just south of the Cherangani mountains. A wild place and time."
Yolande looked at the man in the picture again. There was a trick she knew, of getting inside someone's head. You had to think really hard, and imagine you were wearing their skin, feeling what they felt. Sometimes it worked; sometimes you could even put it down in words, and that was the most magical feeling there was. She fixed her eyes on the face in the picture, made herself forget that it was pigments on a flat surface.
There was pale stubble on his cheeks, and she could see the sheen of sweat on it; the hand that held the pistol was tight-clenched, with half-moons of black under cracked nails. He would stink, of sweat and leather and gun-oil and sulfury black powder, and his hands would have the sweet-sour pungent smell of brass from the hilt of his sword. It was a good picture... no, not a picture, that's how he looked.
Eyes slitted, they would be flickering ceaselessly back and forth. At the laborers, there were hundreds of them, big muscular men with heavy hammers and picks in their hands. Captured warriors, not meek born-serfs. At the dense bush all around; rough stumps and edges where it had been cut back from both sides of the road, but it rose dense enough to block sight within javelin-cast. She felt the unseen hating black eyes on her back, and pink-palmed hands gripping the hafts of iron-bladed spears. Trapped in close thornbush country, eight shots and then hand-to-hand with cold steel...
"Ah, I see yo' understand," Harris said softly as she blinked the present back into her eyes and met the teacher's.
Yolande's mouth was dry, and she drank from the glass of lemonade beside her screen. "No radios or tanks, no helicopter gunboats or automatic weapons. Tell me, how did you place it?"
Yolande willed the sour taste of fear to leave her mouth. The feelings lingered just below the surface of her mind, an adrenaline-hopping intensity of focus, of anger and ferocity. "Ahh... it couldn't be earlier. The way they're wearing their hair, and the zebra-skin. But that's an early-model Ferguson, my Mother's got one just like it, see how the trigger-guard has only a little knob to turn it and open the breech? Later on they made them with a bigger handle sticking down from the buttstock."
"To increase the rate of fire," Harris said. "We were the first to adopt the breech-loader, because it shot further an' faster. Gatling came to the Domination, because we'd use his invention... because we were always outnumbered, and had to be able to kill them faster than they could charge. Right, now someone else. Which is the richest continent? Yo', Veronica."
Harris grinned. "Sorry, trick question. Wealth is a subjective quantity. Fo' example, the Congo river generates as much hydropower as the whole of North America... if yo' can get at it, through jungles crawling with diseases."
Her hand reached to the screen controls again. "This is a disease map of Africa, before we cleaned it up. Sleeping sickness. Ngana. Malaria. Yellow fever. Dengue fever, river blindness, bilharzia. Now well overlay it on the political sequence-map I showed befo'. Muriel, what do you see? Patterns, remember. Process."
A frown and a long pause from the student whose parents followed the proscribed faith. "The south's healthiest, the areas south of Capricorn. Then the high country all the way north and east to the Ethiopian provinces, then the far north."
"Right. Now the sequence again."
"They... they overlap. Not always, but the conquest starts in the south, then leaps 'way north to Egypt, then it goes across North Africa and in both directions down the rift highlands. For a long time, anyway."
"Good, Muriel. Most of this part,"—Harris' finger indicated the western coast of Africa—"is a deathtrap for Caucasians without modem medicine. It ate them alive. Now, when was the first European settlement at the Cape?"
Yolande raised her hand again. "1654, Miz Harris. The Dutch."
"Right, the Dutch East India Company. Feeble little colony, and after a hundred and fifty years there were only ten thousand of them. Why?"
"They weren't interested in it?"
"Right again, they never sent mo' than a few hundred colonists; it was so healthy that they multiplied fast. Some of us are descended from them, though they got swamped pretty quick. Next significant date."
"1779," Myfwany said. "The British annexed the Cape."
"Conquered. The formal annexation was in 1783 after the Peace of Paris. But our ancestors were already arrivin'."
The screen flashed a montage: American Loyalists being driven from their homes by revolutionary mobs, Loyalist regiments and their families boarding sailing ships as the British evacuated Charleston and Savannah and New York, Hessian mercenaries sitting idle in camp as the war for which they had been hired wound down.
"Question: with about twenty thousand fightin' men—it was all men in those days—our forebearers conquered a half-million square miles of southern Africa in about a decade. We've seen it was possible partly because the environment didn't loll them; but two generations later, it took a hundred thousand men two decades to conquer North Africa for us... with better weapons an' organization, too. There were two million strong an' warlike blacks in the southern provinces. Why were they relatively easy to break to the Yoke? Yes, Berenice."
"Mmmm, blacks are stupid an' backward?"
Harris laughed. "A comfortin' lie that was obsolete when I was yo' age girl." She called up the world map again. "Whats the most relevent fact about that area, all things considered? Think about it Berenice."
"It's... far away from everywhere?"
"Correct. As far as yo' can get , failin' Austrailia. Societies grow and develop by compitition, same as species, only the process is Lamarckian not Darwinian.The inhabitants of this area are barely neolithic, cept' for havin' iron spears and hoes. No political unit larger than a few villages, no written language, no horses, no wagons, an' a magical-ritual world view. Four thousand kilometers of mountain, jungle, and fever-bush protection; than three millennia of progress arrived overnight by ship, with the result that they became our cattle."
She glanced at her wrist. "Class over. Fo' the next, I want a short essay, outlinin' why plantations became the standard rural unit." A hard look. "I do not want a rehash of chapter 7," she added, tapping the brown jacketed text before her. The Domination: A Historical Survey. "Yo' own thoughts. Give yo' a hint: look at where the most of the Loyalists came from. Then look at the figures in the appendix on soil fertility an' erosion in the far-southern provinces, and the demographics chapter. See yo' Thursday, girls. Service to the State."
"Glory to the Race," they answered. The desks hummed and began to spit printouts of the maps the
teacher had summoned into the receiver trays.
Wheeee! Yolande thought, slowing to a handstand on the parallel bars. Her body was straight as a plumbline, toes pointed to the ceiling and arms a rigid Y on the hardwood poles. Then she let her weight fall back, a long swoop that accelerated like a sling's circuit into speed that pulled the blood out of her head, flung her up and her hands came off the bars and she twisted in midair, body whirling like a top. Slap and her hands were back on the bar, almost in the same position but facing the opposite direction.
Five, she thought. That was enough; her arms were starting to tire. There was no sense in risking an injury. Instead she spread her legs in the air and lowered her feet, placing them neatly just behind her hands. The damp skin touched oak; she took a deep breath and sprang, backflipping in the air and landing on the balls of her feet, knees bending slightly to take the shock as she touched down on the hard rubbery synthetic of the palaestra's floor.
There was applause. Startled, Yolande looked up as she reached for a towel. Several of the other girls had stopped and were clapping, halting for a moment the stick-fighting or free weights or exercise machines that their individual programs prescribed. She blushed and bent her head to dry herself off; she was slick-wet with sweat from face to feet, a familiar enough sensation and rather agreeable. The embarrassment was not, and she was glad that the exertion-glow would hide it. She finished and drew on the rough cotton trousers and singlet, pulling the drawstring of the pants tight with fingers that trembled slightly. Half irritation, half a pleasure that was almost painful...
I am good at the bars, she thought. I just wish... it's nice to be good, but I wish it didn't make you stand out. Why can't I ever just fit in...
"Not bad," Margrave said. The instructor was dressed in pankration practice-armor, shiny black leather and synthetic, and a padded helmet with protective bars across the face. "Ever thought of trying for the Games?"
"Yes, Miz Margrave," Yolande said. The Domination had little in the way of professional sports, but amateur athletics had high prestige. She had daydreamed it, standing on the rebuilt plinth at Olympia with the golden olive-wreath resting on her hair... but that would mean giving up all her spare time, and... "There are too many other things to do."
Margrave nodded, and jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the rack of pankration equipment on the far wall. "Such as that. Suit up, I'd bettah check yo' style."
Yolande swallowed dryly and trotted to obey; that was one of the rules, you ran everywhere. This palaestra was a severly plain box two stories high and open on one end to face a turf running-track and a long vista of fields and woods; the interior was finished in white tile, with mirrors and stretching-rails around most of the perimeter, climbing-ropes and rings dangling from the ceiling. "Thanks," she muttered to Myfwany, as the other girl helped her on with the armor.
"Level?" she asked the instructor as they faced off.
"Full contact far as yo' concerned," Margrave said. "Startin'... now."
Yolande dropped into fighting position, feet at right angles and knees bent. Breath in through the nose, out through the mouth. Muscles relaxed; you could make yourself faint with exhaustion in minutes if you tensed. The weight of armor, boots, and gloves was familiar; you never practiced without them, for protection's sake and because real-world fighting wasn't done in gym clothes. The teacher quartered, and Yolande responded with a pivot on her front foot. Don't let the opponent push you back, she reminded herself.
A kick. Straight hop-kick forward, toward her stomach. She moved into it, parrying with her left hand and swiping upward with her left elbow towards the chin... No, that was a mistake, Margrave was too tall...
The teacher's kicking leg had come down aside, leaving her in a wide horse-straddle stance. Her hands clamped down on Yolande's arm, elbow and shoulder; she hip-twisted to leave her right leg as a trip-bar and threw the student forward and down. That was simple enough, so simple that she could think while reflex ingrained since her fifth year rucked her head down and made her throw herself with the motion. Time slowed as she fell. Impact on the shoulders. Rolling to break the hold, rolling forward curled into a ball to preserve momentum.
"Can't get up fast enough," she muttered, vocal cords following thought without conscious intervention. She was watching between her own feet as she rolled, watching the teacher's machine-fluid rush after her. Slap, and her forearms went down on the mat in a neat V; her body curled on top of them, its own weight coiling it back like a spring. A hunnh of effort, and she drove both legs back, toes curled towards her shins and heels together.
They struck, heelbones driving into the teacher's solar plexus. That hurt, she thought; it was like kicking a concrete-block wall, and it jarred every bone in her body down to the small of her back. Move, move. Margrave was folding backwards bending at the middle, moving like a stone dropped into thick honey. Yolande let the impact stop her own body in mid air, curled her knees towards her chest and roll-bounced upright. The teacher was just straightening; the girl swung forward in a flying scissor, pumping the left knee up for momentum and then down as the right foot whipped around in a torquing circle, aimed for—
"She's all right," a voice was saying. Yolande blinked and started to shake her head. That was a mistake, and she was barely able to contain the surge of nausea that followed. Flecks of glitter drifted past her retinas, and her vision quivered as hands undid the helmet and slid her head free.
A finger peeled back one eyelid, while a hand clamped her head steady. "Good—even dilation. No concussion."
A cool cloth touched brow and cheeks: Myfwany. "Yo' were just out fo' a sec," she said, her voice anxious. Margrave removed her own practice helmet and threw it to one side, leaning forward again to probe at Yolande's neck and shoulders with expert fingers.
"Nice work. Iff'n I hadn't had the breastplate yo' might have put me out with that back-kick. "
"Sorry," Yolande mumbled, squinting against the multiple images. Margrave grinned.
"Nevah say sorry fo' doin' it right." She looked up to the circle of students. "That was the right move. 'Specially against superior weight an' strength. The follow-up was the problem; those-there high-jumpin' kicks don't do it, 'less'n the other side's immobilized anyways. Don't get fancy." Margrave came up on one knee, leaned over with elbow on thigh.
"Good work, Ingolfsson," she continued. "Yo' really pushed me a little. Rest easy fo' a while." To the others: "Right, pick partners an' face off. No contact."
It was full dark now on the beach, and the driftwood fire crackled, sending sparks flying up with sharp popping sounds. The flames were blue and red and orange, a white-crimson over the bed of coals below; the smell was dry and hot. Inland the trees and shrubs rustled, shadows dark and moving against the lesser dark of the sky. The waves were breaking in a foam of cream, glittering in starlight and moonlight, surge and retreat. The sound of them was like heartbeat in her ears, like lying beside some huge and friendly beast. Out beyond her friends were still diving and playing, flashes of white bodies otter-sleek among the water. Their voices dropped into the warm dark, no louder than the cicadas and nightbirds.
Yolande laid her head on her knees and wiggled her toes over the edge of the blanket. The powdery white clung to them like frosting; she tapped her feet together and felt the grains trickle down her insteps, tickling or clinging where the skin was still damp from her swim. Looking up, the moonpath lay on the water like silver, almost painfully bright. The stars were sparse around the moon, abundant elsewhere; the lights of men were far too few to dim them. A faint glow west across the bay was Naples, and she could make out the long curve of the coast by the wide-scattered jewels that marked the towns and manors of her people. Elsewhere the shore was quiet and lightless, fields and groves and orchards.
She lay back on the striped wool and smiled, stretching her arms above her head. Stars... there was a trick to that. A mental effort, and the velvet backdrop with its glowing colored lights vanished; instead there was depth, an endless dark where great fires hung burning forever amid the slow-fading hydrogen roar of creation. Her lips parted, and she felt a sensation that might have been delight, or a loneliness too great to bear; she forced herself to hold the wordless moment, mind suspended in pure experience. Moisture gathered slowly around her eyes, trickling in warm salt streaks down the wind-cooled skin of her temples.
"Woof!" Mandy's voice. "I'm turnin' into a prune. Come on!"
Yolande started as the others dashed out of the ocean, wiping away the not-quite-tears with the back of her wrist. They ran past her to the freshwater fountain at the edge of the beach, laughing and splashing each other around the stone basin as they sluiced off the salt. The darkness closed around as they threw themselves down on the blankets about the fire; now it was a hearth, the tribe's fortress against the night. Myfwany sat cross-legged beside her, leaning back on braced palms. She was still breathing deeply from the swim; from Yolande's position her face was shadowed against the backlit dark-red curtain of her hair. The drops of water that ran down her flanks glistened with the rise and fall of her chest, changing from blood-crimson to lemon-yellow.
"You're quiet, 'Landa," she said. "Head still troublin'?"
"Mmmmm... no. Hammerin' great headache yesterday, couldn't hardly move this mornin'. Now it's just a bit stiff all ovah. No, I's just lookin' at the stars and thinkin'."
Myfwany probed at her neck, tracing the cords down to her shoulders; she shivered slightly at the touch, still cold and wet." 'S right, stiff," Myfwany said definitely. "Maybe swimmin' wasn't such a good idea. Muriel, give me a hand? Roll ovah, 'Landa."
Yolande turned onto her stomach and laid her cheek on her crossed hands, feeling a painful warmth in her stomach. "Thanks," she muttered. Massage was usually serfs work, although everybody learned it; it was something you did for close friends, a sign that status was put aside. Two pairs of hands began to work on her, one starting on the soles of her feet, the other where the neck-muscles anchored on the base of her skull. She felt uncomfortable for an instant, as the pressure made her aware of soreness she had been ignoring, then surrendered to the sensation.
"Y'all bein' mighty nice," she said sincerely. Myfwany snorted, and Muriel laughed and slapped her lightly on the calf.
"Yo' the one bruised the Bruiser," Mandy said. She was kneeling by a basket across the fire, rummaging within. "Never seen her move so fast; mean of her to thump yo' head, though."
"No, that's the point," Myfwany said. "Bruiser had to move fast, an' react automatic-like."
"Jus' so—Veronica, watch where yo' puttin' that dirt! I's got scallops in heah!"
The stocky girl had been raising the fine sand in double handfuls, letting it trickle down over her body. She laughed and bent backward from her kneeling position until her head touched the blanket behind her, a perfect bow, stretching.
" 'Salright," she said as she rose. A sigh. "Ah jus' love this time of year. Perfect, just cool enough fo' a fire, but not cold. Look! There it is!"
She raised a hand. They followed the gesture, and saw a moving star crawling slowly across the southern horizon.
"That our'n or their'n?" Mandy asked. The Domination and the Alliance had both put up another dozen orbital platforms in the last few years; the rivalry was pushing development hard.
"Ours," Myfwany said, sinking back on her elbows. "Oh, ours." Her voice became dreamy. "I wonder... How do the stars look from there?" To Yolande: "What were yo' thinkin' of, starwatcher?"
"Lots of things," Yolande said abstractedly. "How we can't see the stars, jus' the light they sent long ago. Like readin' a book, hey? An'... how far away, an' how perfect."
"There's no right or wrong with them," Yolande continued, almost singsong, whispering. "No lovin' or hatin'; they just... are."
They were silent for long minutes, each staring upward past the fire-glow and the dancing sparks.
"Well," Mandy said, her hands moving again in the basket. "Who's fo' lemonade, and who's fo' wine?"
"Mmmm, I'll take the wine," Yolande said.
"Lemonade first, I'm too thirsty fo' drinkin'," Myfwany said. "That enough, 'Landa?"
"Feels nice," she replied.
Veronica and Mandy were making skewers from a pile of willow-switches, sharpening the ends and threading on pieces of scallop and shrimp wrapped in bacon; they handed the limber sticks around, with wicker platters of soft flat Arab bread, and glasses. The five girls drew closer to the fire. Yolande sat up, watching the flames. The breeze had picked up slightly, and gusts of it blew the tongues ofcolored flame toward her. She sipped at the wine as the bacon sizzled and dropped fat to pop and flare on the white coals; it was cool from the earthenware jug, rather light, slightly acidic. A southern vintage, she thought, probably from Latium.
"Strange," Muriel said, hugging her knees and leaning back, letting her head fall against Veronicas ' shoulder.
"What?" Mandy asked.
"I was thinkin'... Here we are. In twenty-odd years our own daughters will be here, or someplace like here. Maybeso raaht here; maybeso doin' and thinkin' just what we are. Strange."
"What brought that on?" Myfwany said. She brought the skewer close, examined the seafood critically, and used a piece of the flatbread to pull it off. "Mmm, these are good."
"I was... I was thinkin' about history class. An' about the things Ma and Pa used to tell me, yo' know, those religion things." Muriel stuck the butt-end of her skewer into the sand and rolled the wine-cup between her hands. "I mean... if yo' believes all that, the God stuff, then,"—she frowned—"then it would all look different. It would be comin from somewheres, and goin to somewheres. Like-so a story, hey? An' if yo' don't believe it, then it's... all sort of, well, it just happens."
"Iff'n yo' believes it, we're all goin' straight to hell," Veronica laughed, giving a light tug on Muriel's brown curls.
"Pass the wine, will yo', hey?" Yolande said. There was a clink of stoneware. "Thanks, Mandy. Well, the way Harris says it, it's the story of the Race; where we came from an' where we're goin'."
Muriel rested her chin on the edge of the cup. "That sort of depends, don't it? I mean, the Race didn't have to happen; Harris says so herself. History's a story leadin' up to us, but only on account we happened. If the Yankees killed us all off, then it'd be a story about them, an' we'd just be part of history,"."
"But we did happen, an' the Yankees aren't goin' to win; we are," Myfwany said definitely.
Yolande chuckled. "So the story has an endin' and a meanin', because we're tellin' it." A pause. "Us here, too. It's... true because we make it true, eh? So we tell history like ouah own story, like we was writin' it. Like God."
The others looked at her. "Say, that's really pretty clever," Myfwany said.
Yolande flushed and looked down into her wine cup, continuing hastily. "Speakin' of which, what are we goin' to do once we've conquered the Yankees?"
Myfwany laughed. "My brothah, Billy? He likes the Yankee movies; says the girls look nice. Says he's goin' buy a dozen when we put the Yoke on them."
"Euuu, yuk, boys," Mandy said. "Ooops, this is overdone..."
"Ah thought yo' liked boys," Veronica said. She bent her head to whisper something in Muriel's ear, and the other girl giggled and worked her eyebrows.
Yolande looked at Veronica and flushed again; the Alexandrian girl was no older, but she had definite breasts, and the dark-brown hair between her legs was thick and abundant. It made her conscious of her own undeveloped form again. And... strange about sex and things, she mused. When yo' young, yo' know about it an it isn't all that interesting and all of a sudden it's scary and important. She shook her head; at least there was a while before she had to worry about that sort of thing. Freya's Curse, I hate being shy!
"I do like boys," Mandy said. "At least, I sort of like the idea of 'em. But they still sort of yucky, too. Yo' know, my brothah Manfred, he only a year older than me, an' he's got ouah cook pregnant? Ma found him ridin' her in the pantry, an' cook's thirty, with a bottom a meter across an' a mustache. I mean, we're not planters, we've only got a dozen houseserfs, but Pa bought him a regular concubine when he turned thirteen, and still he goes an' does things like that." She brooded for a moment. "Yucky."
"My Ma," Yolande began, "says it's on account of they don't have enough blood." She grinned at their blank looks and held out a hand, palm-up, then slowly curled up her index finger. "Yo' know, all the blood rushes to they crotch, their brains shut down fo' lack of oxygen, an' they stop thinkin'?"
There was a moment of silence, and Yolande felt a flash of fear that her joke had fallen flat. Then the laughter began and ran for a full half-minute, before trailing off into teary giggles.
"Aü, that's a good one," Muriel said. She glanced up at the stars again. "When we've beaten the Yankees, we'll put up mo' of those power-satellites my Pa's workin' on."
"Build cities on the moon!"
"Turn Venus into anothah Earth!"
"Give Mars an atmosphere!"
"Hollow out asteroids an' fly 'em to Alpha Centauri!" The comments flew faster and faster, more and more outrageous, until everyone collapsed into giggles again. Myfwany rose, and pulled out a velvet case from their bundles.
"This is your'n, isn't it,Landa?"
"Yes—careful!" Yolanda took the long shape in her hands; they moved toward it with unconscious gentleness. "It's a mandolin."
Muriel whistled between her teeth. "An' Archona's a city. Old one, hey?"
"My great grandma's," Yolande said. She put the pick between her teeth while she arranged the case across her lap, then settled the instrument and slipped it onto her hand. "On my Ma's side; she Confederate-born. Had it fancied up some..." She tuned it quickly; the strings sounded, plangent under the fire-crackle and shhhhh of the waves. The wood was smooth as satin under her fingers, the running leopards inlaid in ivory around the soundbox as familiar as her own hands.
"Well, give's a song, then," Myfwany said.
"I don't sing all that well—"
"C'mon," Mandy said. "Well all join in."
"Oh, all right." Yolande bent her head, then tossed it as the long pale ripple of her hair fell across the strings. She swept through the opening bars, a rapid flourish, and began to sing: an alto, pure but not especially strong.
Twas in the merry month of May
When green buds all were swellin',
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
Fo' love of Bar'bra Allen—
The ancient words echoed out along the lonely beach; everyone knew that one, at least. They all had well-trained voices as well, of course; that was part of schooling. Myfwany's sounded as if it would be a soprano, rich and rather husky. Muriel's was a bit reedy, and Veronica's had an alarming tendency to quaver; Mandy's was like her own, but with more volume. They finished, gaining confidence, and swung into "Lord Randal" and "The Wester Witch."
"What next?" Veronica said. "How about something modern?"
"Alison Ghoze?" Muriel said.
Mandy made a face.
"Oh, moo. Call that modern? It's a hundred years old; modern iff'n yo' count anythin' after the land-takin'."
"I—" Yolande strummed, forced the stammer out of her voice. "I've got somethin' new, care to hear it?"
The others nodded, leaning back. Calm. Breathe deep. Out slow. She began the opening bars, and felt the silence deepen; a few seconds later and she was conscious of nothing at all but the music and the strings.
It ended, and there was a long sigh.
"Now, that was good," Myfwany said. She half-sang the last verse to herself again:
"An we are scatterings of Dragon seed
On a journey to the stars!
Far below we leave—fo'ever
All dreams of what we were."
"Who wrote that, anyways?"
"I—" Yolande coughed. "I did."
They clapped, and she grinned back at them. Mandy laughed and jumped to her feet.
"C'mon, let's dance—Muriel, get yo' flute out!"
The silver-bound bamboo sounded, a wild trilling, cold and plangent and sweet. Yolande cased her mandolin and joined the others in a clap-and-hum accompaniment. The tall girl danced around the outer circle of the firelight, whirling, the colored driftwood flames painting streaks of green and blue across the even matte tan of her skin and the long wheatblond hair. She spun, cartwheeled, backflipped, leaped high in an impossible pirouette, feet seeming to barely touch the sand.
"C C'mon, yo' slugs, dance!" she cried.
... as we dance beneath the moon
As we dance beneath the moon!"
Myfwany came to her feet and seized Yolande's hand in her right, Muriel's in her left. "Ring dance!" she said. "Let's dance the moon to sleep!"
"Oh, wake up, Pietro," Veronica said, kicking the serf lightly in the side. He started up from the grass beside the little electric runabout and loaded the parcels as they pulled on their tunics and found seats.
"Do y' know," Mandy said, tying off her belt, "that the Yankees wear clothes to go swimmin'?"
Veronica made a rude noise. "And fo' takin' baths, too. "
"No, it's true, darlin'," Muriel said. "My Pa visited there, an' they do." She outlined the shape of a bikini. "Like underwear."
"Strange," Myfwany said. They settled in for the kilometer ride back to the main buildings; nothing else moved on the narrow asphalt ribbon of the road, save once an antelope caught in the headlights for an instant with mirror-shining eyes. It was much darker now after moonset, and they rode with an air of satisfied quiet.
"Go into Naples tomorrow?" Veronica said. Tomorrow was a Sunday, their only completely free day.
"Fine with me," Mandy said; Muriel nodded agreement, and Myfwany nudged Yolande with an elbow.
"How bout' it?" she said casually.
"Why—" Yolande smiled shyly; this was acceptance, no longer tentative. "Why, sho'ly."
The runabout ghosted to a silent halt by the eastside entrance. They made their farewells and scattered; Yolande blinked as she walked into the brighter lights of the halls and colonnades. It was after twelve and there were not many about; twice she had to skirt areas where the houseserfs were at their nightly scrubbing and polishing. Her own door, looking more familiar now somehow.
"Missy?" That was Bianca, yawning and blinking up from a mat by the entrance, tousled in her nightgown. Machiavelli yowled and circled until she picked him up; the cat settled in to purr as she rubbed behind his ears, sniffing with interest at the shrimp scent on her fingers.
"Jus' turn down the bed, put this stuff away, then go to sleep," Yolande said, padding through to her bedroom. How do I feel? she asked herself, with relaxed curiosity. Tingly from the swim, tired from that and the dancing. Relaxed.... Happy, she decided. Maybe that's part of growin'. When you were a child happiness was part of the day, like sadness over a skinned knee or sunlight on your face. Then one day you knew you were happy, and that it would pass.
"Tomorrow's also a day," she muttered to herself, setting the cat down on the coverlet. She yawned hugely, enjoying the ready-to-sleep sensation; that was odd, how it felt good when you knew you could rest, and hurt if you had to stay up. The bed was soft and warm; she nuzzled into the pillow, and felt the cat arranging itself against the back of her knees. "Tomorrow.".
Copyright © 1990 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>