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Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai

 

Overview: There are secrets beneath her skin.
Sorykah Minuit is a scholar, an engineer, and the sole woman aboard an ice-drilling submarine in the frozen land of the Sigue. What no one knows is that she is also a Trader: one who can switch genders suddenly, a rare corporeal deviance universally met with fascination and superstition and all too often punished by harassment or death.
Sorykah’s infant twins, Leander and Ayeda, have inherited their mother’s Trader genes. When a wealthy, reclusive madman known as the Collector abducts the babies to use in his dreadful experiments, Sorykah and her male alter-ego, Soryk, must cross icy wastes and a primeval forest to get them back. Complicating the dangerous journey is the fact that Sorykah and Soryk do not share memories: Each disorienting transformation is like awakening with a jolt from a deep and dreamless sleep.
The world through which the alternating lives of Sorykah and Soryk travel is both familiar and surreal. Environmental degradation and genetic mutation run amok; humans have been distorted into animals and animal bodies cloak a wild humanity. But it is also a world of unexpected beauty and wonder, where kindness and love endure amid the ruins.

 

Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai Book Chapter One

 

THEY TOUCHED THE SIGUE COAST AT DUSK, just as the ice was cracking. Standing on the slippery top deck as the massive ice-drilling submarine churned toward shore, Sorykah Minuit inhaled, taking the cold ocean air deep into her lungs. It felt so good to be outside after weeks below sea, working cheek by jowl with sixty filthy, sweat-stained miners and their collective, tactile reek. The air sang down her throat and pierced her lungs, but she welcomed the discomfort. It helped to clear her head of melancholy and milk-fog. For a moment it seemed that the cold would solidify around her and crack apart her carefully wrought shell, releasing her from the prison of her secrecy—but it did not.

The helmsman sounded the docking horn. A long, low peal vibrated the metal deck beneath her feet. Frigid brine sluiced over the Nimbus’s hull as it rose, its imposing bulk breasting the waves like the body of a sleek black orca. Afternoon light the color of apricots glistened atop the water; heat splayed against an icy sky.

Soon, the color would fade and night emerge, liquid indigo turning the snow to charcoal. Southern sunsets lingered for hours. Siguelanders said the sun bled to death each night; this dazzling show repeated the story of Sun’s grisly murder by his lover Moon, who stabbed him while he slept, jealous of his affection for a mortal woman.

The noise of the ocean penned in by the icy harbor was terrific. Ice groaned, squeaked, and bellowed. Water droplets froze in midair and fell toward the wooden pier, bouncing upon its snowy crust like scattered, shining stones. Nearer the surface, one long sheet of ice groaned deep within its white skin, a sound like a woman birthing, or so it seemed to Sorykah, still sentimental from the memory of her own children’s birth but a lunar skein behind.

The Sigue was the Land of Ice Song, a surreal pole formed from ice that sang, juddered, and moaned. Ice plates ground against one another with subarctic cricket legs, keening shards and frosts that played the most primitive and abstract melodies yet had shaped the culture of this tiny nation. Musicians and singers attempted to capture the eerie, haunting songs but could not repeat the melancholic strains. Sound technicians embedded microphones deep within the ice plates in an effort to record the music, chart the notes, pitch, and timing of the songs, but the recordings replayed a mishmash of disconnected sounds, discordant and chaotic. The melody was lost in translation and the mocking ice refused capture by human whim. Hearing it now—angry, plaintive, sorrowful—Sorykah remembered why she had volunteered for this frigid, outlandish post, for the Sigue song replicated her own bitter tune. Perhaps the ice could sing to drive out the ghosts within her, banish the image of that deceitful Trader as he climbed from her bed, the smug, careless grin he’d offered as he wiped himself clean and slid into his trousers.

Sorykah licked the salt from her lips as she watched the harbormaster signal from the dock, his bright orange flags lost among the colorful clouds. She would live on the Sigue for the next two years, drilling the ice to extract iridescent tubes of microbe-rich frozen seawater. Northern processing stations would melt, distill, and bottle the fossil water for sale in nightclubs and restaurants, to be guzzled by sensation-seeking holidaymakers. The Company claimed that fossil water was the first nonaddictive substance to create recreational altered states. Touted as a panacea, the burgeoning fossil water trade rapidly had become the fastest-growing market segment of free-trade capital. Water had finally replaced gold and oil as the world’s most valuable commodity.

Even with modern conveniences, ice mining was rough work; Sorykah eagerly anticipated a reprieve before the sub’s giant bits and rigs were pressed into service on the morrow. To maintain a competitive edge, the Company drove them in recycling, fourteen-hour shifts. They pushed hard; the rig cut ice nonstop to harvest as much as possible during spring thaws, when the polar ice sheets thinned enough to blast through without crumpling their ships in the process. Furloughs were meant to be savored; a vacation day was an oasis promising warm hotel rooms, a soak in the famed Sigue sulfur springs, and perhaps a willing companion, bought for a few hours from one of the dockside bars—a brief respite of heat and haze in the midst of a cold black ocean.

The ice was no more of a challenge for Sorykah than bedrock and granite. She was a miner by trade, an engineer and a doctor of ecology. However, she lived as a woman most of the time and the controlling, misogynist Company culture did not allow women to do anything more mentally taxing than the most rudimentary work aboard the Nimbus. Tucked among the books and data of her dry profession in the progressive city of Dirinda, she could have played the university professor were she brave enough to weather the few prickly questions and stares that sometimes accompanied her public outings. Aboard the Nimbus, she was just a grunt—another core-drilling drone servicing the hive. She should have been navigating the sub from the engine room instead of being buried in one of the tiny miner’s cells, but she had deferred to the omnipotent Company, happy to have a job that paid enough to support her two children and their nanny, Nels.

A burning sensation flared in Sorykah’s heavy breasts and milk dampened her cotton bra. She had a sudden image of her twins curled like commas in her lap, their chubby hands roving over each other’s hair and Sorykah’s gown the morning before she departed to join the mining crew. Drowsy and warm, the three lay in Sorykah’s small bed, cozy within a nest of protective arms and fluffy down duvet. She had fed them one last time, stroked their heads, memorized the whorls of their soft, waving curls and the texture of their skin. She had inhaled their scent; no matter what they ate, they smelled of apples, amaranth flour, and sticky-sweet mother’s milk. Ayeda’s forehead was as smooth as a polished egg while short, almost invisible hairs furred Leander’s. They were small ships seeking the safety of a familiar and welcoming harbor. How was it possible to find such satisfaction, such pleasure in their care?

The pregnancy had destroyed Sorykah’s life but the birth of her children had restored it, breaking open her detachment’s careful faèade and sending her reeling into sensation and wakefulness. At the very beginning, adrift and alone, she had wished them away, or rather wished the experience away, back to less encumbered days. The thought was but a flickering spark, and guttered out as it should.

She missed them very much.

Her breasts ached. She was surprised to find tears welling as she emerged from her reverie. She hated how fragile the babies made her feel, like a teacup balanced atop a precarious, swaying block tower.

That such a rash act had brought her those two! The babies had split her open, leaving her raw and bared to experiences both sensual and deeply emotional, and bullied her into feeling with their incessant demands for acknowledgment and nourishment.

With the funds from her governmental maternity grant, Sorykah had hired a nursemaid. Generous and superficially stern as all good nannies should be, Nels was a plump, blond devotee of the Blessed Jerusha, matron saint of mothers, children, and outcasts. Religious devotion was foreign to secular, math-minded Sorykah, but even as she marveled at Nels’s rigid and unyielding faith, she admired her constancy.

Nels had remained in Dirinda with the children while Sorykah completed her assignment. Now Nels was en route to the Sigue, bringing both children and luggage via the overland train to Ostara. Once established in their new Company-built home, Nels would keep the twins during Sorykah’s tours, teaching them their letters and numbers, how to gauge the thickness of pack ice for walking or skating, or how to tease the occasional egg from the warm underbelly of an island bird.

The sub plowed inland through the frozen, slushy sea. Solid ground loomed behind crackling ribbons of ice churned up by the sub’s advancing nose. Her back firm against the Nimbus’s conning tower, Sorykah clutched the railing in excitement as she strained toward shore, attempting to view the town through obfuscating swirls of blowing snow and vapor. Ramshackle tin sheds and concrete block storefronts lined Ostara’s harbor, their weather-ravaged faèades slumping against each other like tired old men huddled together against the cold.

Ostara was a dirty little place thrown together by a steady surge of transient workers on get-rich-quick missions. Hunters, poachers, and pirates on the lam populated its rough fringes. Bars, brothels, and hotels of questionable virtue crowded the harbor, jostling for space and patrons. Crude wood-framed houses, their walls stuffed with insulating hay and dung, and aluminum Quonset huts spread inland away from the sea, forming concentric rings of increasing squalor. A few small families from the decimated indigenous population clung tenaciously to their ancestral homes, the last stragglers of the ice-dwelling tribe that had ruled the Sigue for a thousand years. Their igloos dotted Ostara’s perimeter, small snowy mounds lost against the vastness of the frozen wastes. The town offered few comforts but it was land, steady and beloved after the rigors of drilling far below on the ocean floor.

The quay tightened into view. Sailors, miners, and soldiers appeared as dark clumps moving through sparkling clouds of airborne snow, a city populated by shadows and ghosts. A few lights glowed in the frost-etched windows. Locals slogged over wooden walkways slippery with packed snow and crenellations of ice. Walking upright in their bundles of fur and padding, they resembled well-fed bears lumbering along on some private errand, a stark contrast to the sleekly outfitted Company men in their expensive long-coats and insulated blue thermosuits. The sub shuddered, engines throbbing as it inched into port. Icy seawater foamed and crackled around the ship and Sorykah’s anticipation peaked. She could taste freedom, hers to savor if just for a few hours.

She didn’t want to leave the children for so long at this early age, but Sorykah had to accept this assignment if she meant to keep her job. The Company was ruthless in its firing tactics; it was all policies, percentages, and rules with no deviation from the hard line; productivity and profit was its sole concern. Mining was all she had. Sealing herself in a floating metal coffin with a load of gruff, self-absorbed laborers was flimsy insurance against discovery. It was a matter of containing the danger of exposure. Controlling the circle around her minimized the chance of a surprise encounter with some psychotic hunter or Trader fetishist. She’d repelled plenty of their advances over the years, learning how to protect and cloak herself from those with eyes trained to see the little details that distinguished her kind. Working with the same crew for months on the sub, she learned who to trust and who to avoid; keeping her secret meant keeping away from those who might reveal her. She was always careful, yet a steady undercurrent of fear pulsed behind everything she did; a cool and constant stream of caution tempered her every word and deed, leaving her numbed and exhausted.

Cold stabbed her sinuses and she pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth. Her heart was as light as a little bird, restless inside the cage of her ribs. Somewhere on shore, her two babies waited. They wouldn’t have forgotten their mother after a single month’s absence from their lives, would they?

Her babies. A girl and boy when last she saw them, Ayeda the light and Leander the dark. Her coin, her treasure. Ayeda got her coloring from her father; rich olive skin, wispy honey-colored hair and eyes like polished nickels or threatening rain clouds. Leander took after somber Sorykah, seal dark and slender with eyes like inky black wells. Two average Trader babies, one of each and each in one, it was said. So it was with her twins, little shifters they were, inconstant and fluid, taking the change with an astonishing ease that impressed her. She couldn’t remember ever having been that way. For her the change was always slow and arduous, an intensely painful and deliberate event that left her breathless upon awakening. Sometimes she envied them; if she could have weathered her own change with more ease, she might not have had such knotted feelings about being a Trader, might even take pride and pleasure in her ability the way some did. A few brave (or foolish) Traders made their living with their bodies, charging by the poke, but it was a perilous road to walk. Sorykah shunned admiration, preferring instead to curl head-down in dark corners. Safe, she hoped—unseen and unnoticed.

The Nimbus eased itself into a deep slip ringed with waiting Company men, stamping their boots against the ice and puffing great frozen blasts of impatience into the air. Sorykah stood alone, clutching her duffel bag. None of the other miners was eager or foolhardy enough to brave the slippery deck. They sensibly waited below, playing a final round of cards to earn a little more drinking money before storming Ostara’s bars. As soon as a red-nosed docker extended the gangway, she was off the sub, her boots soon thumping solid ground. She was glad she had covered her face. Between her black wool hat, the thick scarf over her mouth, and the bulky black long-coat, thermosuit and magnet boots she wore, she was almost indistinguishable from the tide of miners that would soon surge from the ship, similarly dressed in regulation gear. Few would pay much attention to her. Pushing through crowds of Company men, she kept her head down as if watching her footing. New people made her antsy; never could tell who was who, who might want what. Better to mind her own. Miners’ rusty but cheerful voices began to fill the air behind her as the sub disgorged its crew.

Sorykah walked along Port Street, skirting roguish clumps of uniformed men, fur-swaddled locals with narrowed, crinkle-skinned eyes, and a pair of dirty-faced women in patchwork parkas towing a two-handled sledge over the ice. Frozen ropes clattered against their flapping tarp and seeping, red-splattered slabs of thick white animal fat dripped as the women dragged the sledge away. Flickering streetlights cast tepid blotches of waxy yellow light on the wooden walkway, lonely pools of optimism that bobbed over the hard ground in a fruitless attempt to drive away the cold and gloom.

The train station was a half mile from the end of Port, a lonesome walk across tamped-down snow. A battered Quonset crouched beside frost-laced tracks, outlined in gathering flurries. A few caged bulbs dangled from wooden poles and capered wildly overhead, pinning white shards of snow in their glare. The tracks ran parallel to Sorykah’s path. Then, steaming up out of the grayness in a cloud of charcoal exhaust, came the train. Hissing and squealing, its brakes bore down with the ear splitting shriek of metal on metal and Sorykah began to run, crunching over the snow, subarctic air stinging her eyes as the train, at last, arrived.

“Hey-oooooh!” called the conductor, leaning from the open door as the train slowed alongside the platform. Sorykah urged herself forward over the packed snow. A few motley passengers disembarked clutching bags and parcels, shoving one another in their rush to obtain the station’s scant warmth. The train’s open belly spilled swollen canvas mailbags, metal traveling trunks, and wooden crates filled with upland supplies for the few general stores and diners that served Ostara’s transient population of ice miners and land workers.

Sorykah searched the crowd for Nels and the children. Nearing the train, she was filled with a growing sense of urgency and disquiet. She pushed past three smartly dressed Company men carrying medical cases. They eyed her as she passed and one pursed his lips as if he were trying to recall some elusive detail before the crowd and the blowing snow swallowed her up. The other two conferred and tugged their companion away. He shook his head and wiped melting flurries from his face, leaving Sorykah behind. Had she noticed the quick exchange, felt the intensity of the man’s gaze upon her retreating back, she would have vanished into the crowd or ducked between train compartments, willing herself to invisibility. She was wary not so much of being watched in the casual way that people in a crowd eyed those around them, but being seen by those who might be sharp enough to decipher her careful camouflage and mark her as a Trader, a freak. Rare were the moments when she could elude the dogged sensation of being someone’s prey and the desperate need to avoid capture and sexual slavery.

Swirling eddies of snow cluttered the air, making it hard to see. The passengers were misshapen and lumpy beneath heavy clothing; eyes were narrowed against the cold; red noses caked with frozen snot and swatches of mottled skin peeked between hats and scarves. It was hard to recognize anyone. Sorykah tried without success to quell her mounting anxiety. Emptied of its load, the train sat idle for a few minutes as the conductor checked the tickets of a few outbound passengers and ushered them aboard.

Sorykah accosted him just as he swung up into the train and prepared to close the door.

“Wait! Please!” Her voice wavered and she willed her nerves to steady. Grasping the railing beside the door, Sorykah mounted the step and reached through the open window to tug the conductor’s sleeve.

“What do you want?” His weary voice was rough, grown tired from use.

“I’m looking for my family. They were supposed to arrive on this train, a woman with two children. Have you seen them?” She could feel the desperation radiating from her eyes, her skin. A simple mistake, that’s all. There would be an explanation, a solution.

“Yes, I remember them. Two boys, with their mother.”

“Two boys?” It was possible. Ayeda could have changed but it was always hard to tell with babies anyway. A rush of absurd gratitude filled her stomach. “Where are they?”

“Got off in Colchester, stop before this one. The boys had a dogsled waiting. Mum dropped them off. She’s still aboard, going all the way to Finn Town.” He tapped his gloved hand against the scratched glass, eager to close the window and be on his way.

Why would Nels leave the children? Sorykah choked back panic and scanned the conductor’s face, hoping that he’d made some sort of mistake.

“She left the boys alone? That can’t be right.”

“Them was big strapping lads. I’m sure they can handle themselves.” He tapped the glass again. “Boarding?”

“No, I suppose not.” Sorykah slid down, releasing her hold on the train. Steam and smoke plumed from the engine car; dirty orange sparks exploded into the air as the coal handler stoked the train’s fiery heart. The whistle blew, reverberating in Sorykah’s ears. Sorykah watched the train pull away as if in a dream, silent and ethereal as it glided away into another dimension.

She fought her tears, a swelling, anguished tide that threatened to sweep her away. Calm yourself, breathe, breathe, she intoned, but paranoia took hold, whipping her thoughts into a maelstrom of suspicion. There was no organized police force in Ostara. Colchester, a hundred miles northeast, had an all-purpose officiate who oversaw municipal matters in the Sigue capital and handled the occasional complaint from the outlying districts, of which Ostara was one. This was a Company town, run with the express purpose of housing core miners on furlough and by proxy supplementing the meager living earned by the scruffy locals. A tribal leader mediated the occasional disagreement but he held no sway with the Company. Unrecognized by the Sigue government, his authority was minimal, and lacking financial resources, he would be unable to help her locate her children.

Sorykah realized that she was shaking. She looked down at her gloved hands, watching them tremble against a grainy white backdrop of blowing snow. The few passengers had departed the station and thickening snowfall had swallowed up the train. She was alone. Although Sigue sunsets lasted hours instead of the usual northern minutes, darkness was fast descending, reducing visibility and stealing the last faint lavender threads of light from the sky. Fat clumps of wet snow beat against the shell of her long-coat. The temperature fell at a rate of one degree every three minutes. Even her thermosuit wouldn’t protect her against the night air; she’d freeze to death in a matter of minutes once the sun went down. There would be no train until the following day. She must wait out the night and hope to find them before the submarine left port and she would be at sea for a fortnight with no means of tracking them.

Nels was imminently trustworthy. This was nothing more than a missed connection; she oughtn’t jump to any rash conclusions. She began the long slog back to town. The walk seemed to take forever. Her feet were heavy, her soul, just moments before light and winged, had grown leaden with fear that left a taste of metal in her mouth. Her knees knocked together, from effort or cold she couldn’t tell. Sorykah dragged her duffel bag, not caring that her possessions might freeze solid. She plodded along, fixated on finding some solace in a hot meal, a night of rest in a proper bed, the quiet of her own home before she awoke to aching emptiness and the long hours of waiting.

The new house, a small Quonset with a main room, kitchen, bath, and upper half story divided into three cramped bedrooms, was in the second outer tier. She’d ordered the oil tanks filled but there would be no food there, no warmth to welcome her. As she neared the fringes of town, Sorykah decided to spend the night at an inn rather than struggle through the dark streets to the new house. Ostara had emptied with the coming of night. Waves of slurry laughter and raucous, good-natured arguments rolled from the bawdy houses along hotel row.

Sorykah selected a weathered wooden building where a strip of red light gleamed in the window through a split in the faded, ancient drapery. A metal sign riddled with bullet nicks swung above the closed door, announcing in the indigenous language the presence of what she could only surmise to be the “Stuck Tongue,” judging from the crude painting of a disembodied tongue frozen to a pole. This was a bar for Siguelanders and somatics, a place for the wayward, cast-out, and marginalized. She might be safe here; miners and Company men would avoid it out of fear, ignorance, or some misguided sense of xenophobia.

Somatics were human hybrids with scrambled genetics and bizarre deformities. Fodder for urban legends, they were a secret sect of throwaways, and Ostara was their quiet, underground haven. The heavy clothing required for warmth efficiently hid almost every body part but the eyes; one might never see another person unclothed except in the safety of a private home.

During Sorykah’s childhood, her imagination had steeped in the sad and lurid tales of the Great Change, a mythical event heralding the beginning of the Split, the first identifiable mutation that manifested when people began to revert to animals and the long, linear branch of human DNA forked in two, twelve, and twenty. Oman was first. Oman-Noman, the Lost Man. He had led a charmed life, blessed in the cradle they said, and his world was rosy and perfect until he changed.

One morning, Oman awoke with stiff spines protruding from his shoulders, the tops of his arms, and his blackened fingertips. The spines twisted free of his skin, revealing themselves to be rigid-quilled feathers as black and shiny as an oil slick upon the tarmac. He developed a full set of wings, useless because he didn’t have the proper bone structure and musculature necessary for flight, but still, it was a gorgeous, rustling pair of feathered ebony veils that whispered as he walked. Oman the Terrified. When he could no longer wear clothes to disguise his deformity, he quit going into the office. His wife left him. His mistress left him. Not because of his wings (the feathers that draped his hands making it impossible to caress a woman, hold a fork or pen, button a suit coat) but because of the hysterical fear that seemed to ooze from him and the helpless apathy with which he succumbed to his fate.

The change reduced Oman to a shuffling apparition of his former self. A gang of unscrupulous geneticists captured him and subjected him to horrible tests, plucking out his feathers in the most excruciating manner possible to see if pain would affect their rate of regrowth. After enduring several years of torture, Oman battered his doctor to death, liberated himself from the institute that housed his pain, and escaped on the back of a wild horse (whose only odd feature was human dentition) to vanish forever into the forgotten wilds of the Erun Forest.

Like any rational city dweller, Sorykah put little stock in the sad story of Oman and his man-molared wild horse. It was a magician’s tale—a metaphor for the human condition. She considered it nothing more than an entertaining fiction until it happened to her. The change was the shattering quake that splintered solid ground and opened a gaping, fathomless chasm beneath her feet, tumbling her headlong into its unappeasable throat. Sorykah disappeared. Rather, the simple solidity of her unchanging form disappeared. What remained was something terrifying and surreal that stripped her of the safety and anonymity guaranteed by her old physiology. She now viewed that period of her life as though from a great distance.

The Sigue was a pole, and thus a magnet for the mainland’s ostracized somatics who sought refuge in a severe and frigid environment that treated them less harshly than did the humans to the north. A change meant inclusion in a cloistered society so clandestine that its own members avoided contact. Conducted in silence and secrecy, the outcasts traded in the currency of the alienated.

Although the other miners had yet to meet a somatic, fear and suspicion spread like a miasma, leaking into closed spaces and closed minds, fouling the atmosphere aboard the Nimbus. As they neared port, casual speculation blossomed into wild fantasizing about the terrifying, deformed monsters awaiting them. They feared an encounter with one of the sea creatures that worked the ports, crawling out of the vast, black water, its mouth and tentacles hung with bladder wrack and awash in strings of golden morab beads plucked from the slender green necks of mermaids. Sorykah wasn’t afraid. She rather liked to think that she might have something in common with these somatics—children with cat’s tails, babies that grew in a human woman’s pouch instead of her womb, five-fingered card-playing dogs, and human divers with webbed feet. Sorykah didn’t think she’d mind them; she might like their quiet ways, the sibilant voices she imagined would burble like rock-ringed springs.

Distant planks of song ice heaved and sobbed while a chorus of leopard seals barked a gruff warning. Turning into the Stuck Tongue, she hoped to find a place to escape the noise, a sound reminiscent of an unhappy woman crying from a far shore. Sorykah tugged open the corrugated tin door, entering a narrow room of hazy crimson darkness. Dull red globes glimmered above the hammered metal bar and the air was thick with smells of burnt sugar and the tarry black tobacco smoke curling from the bartender’s ivory pipe. Sorykah maneuvered between rickety chairs toward the bar, leaving a trail of melting slush in her wake. Except for the faint outline of a figure in the farthest corner and the squat, snowy-haired bartender, the room was empty.

Sorykah approached the bar and pulled off her gloves and scarf, kneading frozen fingers as she watched the bartender tamp down his pipe and set it aside to await his return. He mustered an air of careful detachment as he approached, taking in her fancy Company-issued digs, the black hair pasted to her forehead in wet spikes, the worried dark eyes and thin, grim lips set in the weariness of her cold-flushed face.

“Help you,” he grumbled, searching the woman for something that would tell him not to be afraid. Finding nothing, he busied himself with a stack of glasses, wiping away faint smears.

“Coffee?” Sorykah queried. A coffee with a shot of whiskey would do her nicely. Put the blood back in her limbs, ignite the embers in her belly. She forced a pleading smile.

“No coffee. Supply train’s run late this month. Try again next week.” He harrumphed to himself, dwelling on the unreliability of overland shipping.

“Any food? Anything hot?” This too was a stab in the dark; she smelled nothing that suggested anything more edible than mold. A place like this probably had mushrooms growing beneath the floorboards and lemmings nesting in the rafters.

“Nothing to drink but moonshine and tea. Hot tea’ll warm you but the ’shine will put a smile on that sad face. If you’re hungry, there’s the pipe, in the corner.” He jerked his head toward the lone customer, unmoving amid concentric smoke rings drifting in lazy spirals toward the ceiling.

“Tea then.” Sorykah watched the bartender tip spoonfuls of a gray-green herb into a glass mug with an inch of sticky, honey brown granules in the bottom. Lifting the steaming kettle from a hot plate, he filled the mug, nodding as the granules melted and color rose in amber swirls.

“Stir it up before you drink. Don’t leave anything in the glass; it’s bad luck.” He winked and retreated to his pipe.

Sorykah was surprised to discover that she was hungry. She’d been so preoccupied by worries about her missing children that for once she was able to stop thinking about her stomach. The walk to and from the train station had burned up her reserves. Fishing in her pocket for the half-eaten butter bar—an abysmal fatty concoction of seal meat, bone meal, pulverized nuts, and dried berries in sweetened butter—that she’d stashed there, she took her tea glass and spoon and headed toward the back, where a woman curled beneath a fur rug. Tubing streamed from an enormous hookah and wound about her like a serpent goddess’s deadly arms. She did not stir when Sorykah took the seat across from her and peeled off her heavy coat, nor when she sampled the pipe and coughed in surprise, finding that it contained opium, not tobacco. Sorykah sucked sticky butter from her teeth as she held the smoke in her lungs, waiting to see what would happen.

Sorykah inhaled again, uncaring. Weren’t the other miners indulging themselves tonight with drink and sex? Would it matter if she sat with the white dragon and let it deaden her apprehension for a while? She needed something to quell her nervousness, to extinguish the flames of her barely controlled panic. Anxiety would prey on her mind throughout the night, tormenting her with visions of catastrophic train wrecks and fanatical nannies who feigned normalcy in order to steal children to populate their religious cults.

Soft, sweet fumes condensed in her head, leaving an ochre tinge of caramelized sugar on the back of her tongue. She drank more of the bitter, warming tea and smoked, rolling the vapors against her palate, sifting them through her sinuses. Openly intrigued, she studied the hookah, following the twisting hose from the intricate, painted glass bowl to the metal mouthpiece clasped between the stranger’s fingers. Enraptured by a private dream, the blanketed woman rocked herself, the faintest wisp of a smile playing over the corners of her mouth.

Sorykah inhaled and noticed that the woman mimicked her, and when she let the breath swish out of her, the other’s nostrils flared with rising smoke. They were companionable for a long time, finding their rhythm, the woman’s outgoing breath tailing Sorykah’s ingoing one. Sorykah watched the other woman’s eyes, shifting beneath closed lids, and took the opportunity to study her. With its domed forehead and delicate, pointed chin, her face resembled an upside-down teardrop. Her eyes cracked open and closed again, fiery amber drops beneath sleepy lids. She wore a heavy, embroidered tunic trimmed in luxurious fur, and her lank, russet hair slithered over her shoulders with each subtle movement. The hookah’s mouthpiece trembled between pointed, mauve-tinged fingertips at the ends of skinny arms. A fur blanketed her lower half, obscuring her legs and feet. She reclined against the cushions; the occasional flash of light beneath her lowered lids betrayed her watchfulness.

Outside, the ice fractured with a sound of shipwrecks and broken teeth gnashing. Sorykah inhaled water vapor; their pipe was dry. The woman shrugged her shoulders, abandoning mouthpiece and tubing on the pillows. Sorykah sighed and wrapped her scarf around her neck and shoulder in preparation for the oncoming night, trying to hold the memory of the smoke inside her like a flame. She took a finishing swig of tepid, grassy tea, realizing that her anxiety, like her appetite, had fled.

There was a commotion at the door. Four men flooded the bar, their low, harsh voices revealing a dangerous undertone of suppressed violence. The peaceful little bartender feigned confidence, but Sorykah saw that he would be easily overpowered. She first thought that they were belligerent drunks hassling for liquor, women, or food, but the arrogant quality of their brutal speech implied a darker design. A starburst of ugly realization dispelled Sorykah’s pleasant, pink fog. She was in a somatic bar and these men were trophy seekers. Suddenly queasy, Sorykah recalled the thick, white hair (fur, she realized with dread) peeking out around the edges of the bartender’s sweater, a glossy, three-inch long pelt sprouting around his collar and creeping from beneath his cuffs.

The bartender shook his head resolutely as one of the men tried to bully him out from behind the bar. The men swarmed the room like flies drawn to the odor of carrion. Sorykah’s companion roused herself with ill-concealed terror. There was a flurry of movement beneath the skin rug, an odd rippling of frantic snakes trapped amidst the white heat of the furs, her gown wide with the sensual rustle of… legs? But too many of them and no shoes, no feet, just the hint of something alive beneath her skirt.

With surprising speed, the woman unfolded a wheelchair collapsed against the wall behind her and threw back the skin rug, dragging herself up into the chair. Shaking with effort, she snatched the fur and furiously tucked it around her legs (or whatever they were, Sorykah grimaced). Once in the chair, she was agile, overcoming her gracelessness as she pushed past Sorykah to the door and the loud, boisterous men—headhunters of the dark Sigue sea. There was a fracas; the men wouldn’t let her pass. Sorykah watched her arms strike out, saw an angry flash of skin and something long and fluid uncoil and retreat, a whiplash of white-suckered vermilion flesh that struck one of the men against the side of his face, knocking him off balance. The struck man clapped his face in surprise, rubbing the welt that bloomed across his cheekbone and eye. Shouting in a garbled mishmash that Sorykah couldn’t understand, two of the four argued with each other, gesturing at the woman in their midst. The injured man pulled a spear gun from inside his coat and aimed for the woman’s head as the fourth man reclined against the bar, shooting a salacious grin at the anxious bartender.

Sorykah shot through the bar like a sprung arrow. Knife in hand she charged, her curved Magar blade gleaming silver and true. The men fell back distracted and the red-haired woman used the opportunity to wheel herself onto the street.

One of the men lunged, grabbing Sorykah’s free hand and reaching for the knife in the other. She slashed his forearm and he yelped in pain. The grinning man snatched the spear gun from his friend and fired. A projectile whizzed past Sorykah’s ear, slicing away a chunk of hair and a scrap of flesh, and imbedding them in the wooden post beside her. Fighting with a cornered animal’s wild and heedless ferocity, Sorykah cut him across the shoulder, his coat splitting beneath the blade to reveal layers of severed clothing and a shallow red wound. The men pinned Sorykah’s arms as they attempted to wrestle the knife from her grasp.

Fear soured her mouth and hijacked each of her senses. Every cell and emotional impulse perfectly aligned into a single, vibrating wave of naked horror. Even the change couldn’t help her now. She thought of her children and hoped they would never discover how weak she had been in the last few minutes of her life.
 

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