Minya took a deep chug. She was thirsty. The tea wasn’t hot. The tea wasn’t tea. Their tea never was. They’d run out of leaves years ago. They drank brewed herbs and called it tea, but this wasn’t even that. It was just water at room temperature with a sour aftertaste.

She looked at Ruby, critical but unsuspicious, and said, “That’s the worst tea I’ve ever had.”

And then her eyes lost focus. Her knees lost strength. She staggered, looked bewildered, dropped her teacup with a smash.

And then she fell.

Time seemed to slow as Minya, monster and savior, sister and tormentor, lost consciousness and collapsed on the long mesarthium table.

Part II

astral (as·truhl)

adjective: Of, or relating to, or coming from, the stars.

noun: A rare category of Mesarthim gift; one whose soul or consciousness can leave the body and travel independently of it.

Chapter 16

Of the Stars

The punishment for unauthorized contact with godsmetal was death. Everyone knew that. The village children, sidling closer to the wasp ship, knew it. They would never dream of touching it, but were only daring one another nearer, at least to touch its shadow, bold now that the Servants had disappeared inside with Kora and Nova.

Some in the village thought it right that Nyoka’s girls should be tested first. Others grumbled. The men who’d been eyeing them of late—including old Shergesh, though the sisters did not know it— burned with the injustice of it, that outsiders could come down from the sky and carry off their girls. It would be a tremendous honor, of course, if another Rievan were made Servant, but better it be a young man. There were too many of them in the village, beginning to sniff after wives of their own, and the older men wouldn’t have minded a culling of that herd. The loss of one girl, though, let alone two, would be deeply felt. Life on Rieva was hard, especially for the women. Wives were often in need of replenishing.

The gathered crowd kept avid eyes on the ship, even as they milled about, gossiping. They knew that testing took time, and so it came as a surprise when, after only a few minutes, the door on the wasp’s thorax opened.

Skoyë, watching through slit eyes, felt a surge of triumph that her stepdaughters should be rejected so swiftly. It could only be rejection. A strong gift would take time to gauge. But the girls did not emerge. It was the Servant with the ropes of white hair. Stiff-armed, he was holding out two uul-hide anoraks, his face curdled with revulsion. He pitched them out like garbage, then followed them with fur chamets and breeches, balled-up woolen longskins, and, finally, the girls’ hide boots.

The door closed again and the villagers were left eyeing the pile. What were Kora and Nova wearing, if their clothes were all lying there?

“There’s a woman in there with them,” said their father, Zyak, lest the specter of indecency bring their bride prices down.

Shergesh spat and crossed his arms. Zyak’s price was uncomfortable; he smelled an opportunity. “And that matters how? They’re from Aqa. You’ve heard the stories.”

The stories of depravity, yes. The fishing boats brought them, and they were as salt to the islanders’ bland fare: Rievan gossip could not compare to what went on—allegedly—in the capital.

“They’re good girls,” said Zyak, and Kora and Nova would have been surprised to hear him say so, at least until he followed it up with, “They have all their teeth and toes. You should be so lucky, old man.”

And the old man in question harrumphed but said no more. He had to be careful, he knew. Zyak was proud, and not above taking some other man’s offer, though it be lower, simply to spite him.

“Anyway,” said Zyak. “If the Mesarthim want them, it’s as well for me. They don’t haggle.” He should know. He had bought a new sledge and oven with what they paid him for his wife, and two skins of spirit besides.

. . .

“Names,” said the female Servant, Solvay, who hailed from a desert continent as desolate in its own way as Rieva. She had been found on a search much like this one, and plucked from the middle of nowhere.

Kora and Nova stood mute, covering themselves with their arms. They were wearing only their smallclothes and socks, the rest all stripped away. The reek of uul was less easy to be rid of; it was an entity in the enclosed space of the ship, and disgust showed on all the Servants’ faces. Nova answered first. “Novali,” she said, and paused. Her full name was Novali Zyak-vasa, or Novali Zyak-daughter. Upon marriage, a Rievan girl would exchange -vasa for -ikai, wife, and take her husband’s name. Nova wanted none of it. “Nyoka-vasa,” she said instead. She wished to be nothing more than her mother’s daughter, especially today.

Solvay wrote it down and looked at Kora.

“Korako...Nyoka-vasa,” said Kora with a sideward glance at her sister. She liked the feeling of the small act of defiance that would keep her father’s name from being written down and made permanent on an imperial document.

“Nyoka,” said Solvay. “That was your mother’s name, who was a Servant?”

The girls nodded. “Do you know her?” Nova blurted. Solvay shook her head, and Nova swallowed her disappointment. She and Kora were trying to act calm, but their hearts were racing. They were more dazzled, even, than the children outside, prancing around in the wasp ship’s shadow. No one had dreamed of this moment more than they, and no one else truly believed, as they did, that it was their destiny come at last to retrieve them. With their eyes they traced the thin bands of godsmetal the Mesarthim wore at their brows—the Servants’ diadem, as it was called. It was what kept them in contact with the godsmetal that activated their gifts, and simple though it was, it was the most potent symbol of power in the world of Mesaret. All their lives, Kora and Nova had dreamed of wearing them themselves.

The smith, they noted, wore vambraces instead, covering his forearms and etched in intricate designs. It seemed a profligate quantity of godsmetal, and showed his importance. Smiths accrued gods-metal by imperial reward—for service, and victory in battle. With each success, their ships grew larger. The bigger the ship, the more glorious the captain. The wasp ship was small, which would suggest the smith was either not glorious, or simply young and at the beginning of his career.

“And what was your mother’s gift?” asked the tall, shaved-pate telepath, whose name was Ren.

“Shock waves,” answered Nova.

“Magnitude sixteen,” added Kora, proud, and the girls were gratified to see the Servants’ eyes widen. They were impressed. How could they not be? How many of them were sixteens? The scale of magnitude went to twenty, but gifts of a strength eighteen and above had been recorded only a handful of times in history. In practical reality, sixteen was about as good as it got. Moreover, magnitude was heritable, which meant...

“This should be interesting,” said the white-haired Mesarthim, Antal, still trying to wipe the stench of their clothing off his hands. The girls were curious about his hair—so much of it, and so white. He didn’t seem old, but then, Mesarthim didn’t age. Longevity, perhaps even immortality, was a side effect of the godsmetal, so it was impossible to tell.

“Let’s see what you can do,” Solvay said to the girls, and then she turned to the smith.

He had not yet spoken, but only leaned against the wall, watching. His posture was lazy but his eyes were sharp. He alone of the four showed an interest in what was no longer hidden by the sisters’ stinking clothes. As Kora and Nova stood there, abashed, his gaze took a leisurely journey over their bare white legs and shoulders, their thinly veiled young breasts and bellies, as if their smallclothes and crossed arms hid nothing from him.

“Skathis?” prompted Solvay when he didn’t respond but only continued his brazen perusal. He turned to her, eyebrows cinching together, as though unaware that they were all waiting for him. “Shall we begin?” she prompted, and there was something brittle about her tone, something cautious.

“By all means.” He turned back to the sisters. “Let’s see how you look blue.”

And those words, which heralded the girls’ lifelong dream, were dirtied by Skathis’s mouth, which seemed to leave a film on them, making Kora and Nova all the more anxious to hide themselves from his gaze.

He tossed something to Kora. It was an easy underhand lob, and gave her time to start in surprise and reach for it. It was as small as a packed snowball—the icy kind that hurt—and she registered that it was godsmetal just before she caught it. She thought it would be hard, but it hit her hand like jelly and burst, splashing up her arm and clinging, so that it seemed to have caught her, and not she it.

There was nothing haphazard in the way it pooled and flowed over her skin. It didn’t drip, but spread out smoothly, thinning itself like leaf and gilding her—not gold, but blue—from the tips of her fingers, up her wrist, and over her forearm, so that she seemed to be wearing a glove made of mirror. She stared at it in wonder, turning her hand over, flexing her fingers, her wrist. The metal moved with her like a second skin.

And then she felt it: a low hum, a vibration.

At first, it was only her hand and forearm where the metal touched her, but it spread. All thoughts of modesty were forgotten as the thrum moved up her arm, even beyond the shining glove. As she watched, her skin began to change color. It grayed, like storm clouds or uul meat, flushing upward from the edge of the glove, rising toward her shoulder, carrying the thrum and the gray with it. She felt the buzz in her lips, in her teeth.

Nova saw the change come over her sister, her skin darkening to gray, then finally to Mesarthim blue. It was perfect. She’d imagined it so many times: the pair of them blue and free and empowered, and far away from here. And now it was happening. Tears pricked her eyes. It was finally happening.

They had always believed, deep in their hearts, that their gifts would be strong like their mother’s. As to what they would be, it was hard to decide what to hope for: elemental, empath, telepath, shape-shifter, seer, healer, weather-witch, warrior? They changed their minds all the time. Nova, especially, had always been gift-greedy, never able to settle on one. Smith, of course, was the emperor of gifts (and the emperor himself was, of course, a smith), but Kora and Nova knew how rare it was, and had never gotten their hopes up. Lately, with the village men eyeing them like livestock, invisibility had begun to seem appealing to Kora.

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