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Chapter One

Ranyana slipped inside the door and closed it quietly. She didn’t need to wait for her eyes to adjust before sliding along the curving wall to a rounded corner. The sweet scent of flowers permeated the space. Wrapping her arms around her knees, she laid her cheek on her knee and looked. A faint gleam of starlight drifted through a far window. The nillips whuffed quietly, seeking and catching her scent. They were old, and familiar, these beasts. They wouldn’t mind the silent tears that tracked down her face. For a while, she let them flow, caught only by the rough sleeve of her dress.

The whisper of boot steps outside startled her, and she froze, eyes fixed on the door. Slowly – so slowly – it opened. Her stomach dropped when the figure entered. She’d know his shape anywhere.

“Ranyana?” The voice was low, and soft. He knew better than to scare the nillips with a shout. She held her breath. But he still found her.

The man slid down to sit next to her, while Ranyana pulled further back into the shadow. “Hey.”

She turned her face away from him, but did not resist when he wrapped an arm around her. Nor did her tears stop – they increased. He stroked her arm, kissed her hair. She ignored him. So he settled in, and eventually she felt him relax, asleep in the darkness. Sooner than she expected, she cried herself to sleep.

* * *

Dawn found her at home in her mother’s house, scrubbing her skin raw in the brief shower. The desperate scream inside her chest wouldn’t let up – and neither would her tears. This was no way to live. No way to hurt the man she loved most. She got out and dried. She couldn’t bear to see him. Not any more. No matter how much I long to.

Morning found Ranyana on the plain, astride the swift orange and brown nillip. Her mount’s feet beat the earth; the pattern of sound had given nillips their name when humans first came to the planet Markin. She stretched out her limbs and galloped, eating ground with every footfall. Too soon they had reached the rocky area signaling the beginning of a long descent to the river.

“Whoa, Chrysanthemum.” Ranyana dismounted, and the nillip reached for the headband she always wore, nibbling the flowers out of it. She stroked the animal’s smooth, scaly skin, the play of muscle beneath it shifting with her weight. Chrysanthemum finished the flowers in Ranyana’s headband and sniffed for more. Ranyana laughed and rubbed her long nose, then ruffled the furry stripe down her back. It hid a row of bumpy protrusions along her spine, fortuitously protecting her human riders. The stripe was a brilliant orange, starting from just above her nose and continuing to the tip of the tail that easily made up half of Chrysanthemum’s body length. Her long tail twitched with pleasure as Ranyana found an itch and scratched it, crooning to the beast. Her scales were a shimmery mix of browns, coppers and oranges, shading to lighter, almost yellow on her belly. In the sunrise Ranyana caught her breath at the beauty of her mount. Chrysanthemum seemed to understand this, and gave a little hop, twitching in pleasure. Her long tongue snaked out and tasted Ranyana’s headband again, as if to reassure herself she really had eaten all the treats.

Ranyana adjusted one of the straps over her mount’s nose, then straightened the light saddle. “No, silly. No more now. More at the stable.” The word was known to the animal, and her head twitched in recognition. “Stable? Yes, you want to go back to the stable, don’t you?” Ranyana pet her one more time, and remounted. Without being asked, Chrysanthemum headed back the way she’d come. It took far too short a time to get there, but fortunately, no one was up yet. And luckily, Braedon had disappeared during the ride. She removed, cleaned and returned the tack, then put an armload of flowers in Chrysanthemum’s trough. With a last pat, she started for the door.

* * *

Work the next morning went as usual. Ranyana washed beakers, straightened shelves of research materials, ran to and fro with supplies for her employers, and finally slipped into the break room to eat a late lunch. Katali was there already. Her tone was perpetually chirpy, and reminded Ranyana unpleasantly of the kirds – metallic-scaled avian reptiles.

“Hi Ranyana!” She half smiled. Katali didn’t notice the lack of enthusiasm, as usual. “Braedon stopped by this morning, before you got here. He seemed unhappy.”

Ranyana paused, her hand halfway out of the cubby with her lunch in it. She closed her eyes. “I know.”

This time Katali noticed, and came around to peer shortsightedly at Ranyana’s face. “You’re not having trouble, are you?”

Ranyana’s mouth tightened. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But you two are so perfect for each other! In school everyone thought you’d be married by now.”

“We’re not.”

“I know, but if you do decide, you know, to get married, I have a cousin who makes the most beautiful dresses—”

Ranyana snapped at her, eyes still closed. “We are not getting married.” Silence reigned so long Ranyana opened an eye. Katali was still there, just staring in shock, her mouth open on whatever chirpy thing she had been going to say next.

“But... you and Braedon... I mean, that’s, like, not possible. Don’t you love him? I know he loves you.”

Unbidden, her eyes prickled. Her voice was soft. “Of course I do.”

“Then why?”

Ranyana shook her head savagely, swiping at her eyes. “Just leave me alone! I don’t want to talk about it!” Mercifully, Katali left, and she sat at the table and stared at her pita sandwich morosely.

Veronica entered the room. Ranyana could feel her presence even before she looked up. Veronica was the lead scientist in this lab. Not only that, but also elegant, and professional. Always. At one time, Ranyana had wanted to be just like her. Now – now, I can’t wait to get out of here.

“I read your resignation letter.”

Ranyana didn’t look up. “I’ll do whatever I can to train the new person you hire, so it’s as seamless as possible. Thank you, very much, for the opportunity to work here.”

Veronica sat down opposite Ranyana. “You’re welcome. I’ll include a reference letter for you, for future employers.”

Ranyana glanced up. “Oh, thank you!”

Veronica nodded, serene. She laid a thick magazine on the table. Ranyana stared, transfixed by the beautiful nillip on the cover. In a world where paper was scarce, magazines and books were only available at the library, in the scientists’ halls, the councils, the various guilds offices, or sometimes, the homes of the very wealthy. She reached a trembling finger out and traced the outline of the maroon and pink animal.

“Take it.”

Ranyana looked up, startled.

“Take it. The library has a copy, but I doubt it will be available before you go in two weeks. This is the copy this lab received, from the science hall. I thought the article on page 23 would be most interesting to you.”

“I can’t. Thank you though.”

Veronica nodded, once, as if that was what she expected. “Then return it on your last day. But go ahead and take it for now. No one here will miss it for the next two weeks.” Ranyana couldn’t take her eyes off the nillip. Starflower, it said her name was. The winner of the Great Desert Race a year ago. Ridden by Stella Nortennek, the best distance rider in the world.

“Thank you, so very much. I will.” And before Veronica left, Ranyana had flipped the pages to the article.

* * *

The week had crawled by. Work was a blur. Veronica was interviewing people to take over the position for the lab. She’d requested Ranyana to write up the details of what she did – but that only took an hour. Markin time was divided into ten equal segments, the beginning of the first of which coincided with dawn on the summer equinox, each hour was a little more than twice an old earth hour. After that, there was nothing special to do but work as much as she could while trying to avoid everyone.

Some were just confused, like Katali, who mostly annoyed Ranyana. Others, like the exquisitely handsome new journeyman scientist from Eri, made her belly clench on forbidden arousal. Most of them were unhappy to see her go, and spent the entire time offering unwanted advice. Only a very few seemed to understand that her life was in upheaval, with no signs of settling yet. 

Evenings were hollow and empty. A week ago, two weeks ago, a year ago, two years ago – she would have met Braedon at the foundry or the forge, wherever he was working that day. They would have spent the whole of the evening together. Talking. Walking beside the thorn forest, or along the trails inside. Eating at her mother’s house, his family’s house, or a picnic supper on the rocks overlooking the plain. She missed making love to him, the pure pleasure in his firm touch. She missed kissing him. She missed his hands on her waist, holding hers, or pulling her close. She missed having someone to talk to that understood everything about her. He was more than her lover – he was her best friend. Which is why she preferred to hurt herself rather than him, if she could help it.

The walk to and from work became excruciating. Such a small town – everyone knew everything, and no one hesitated to remind her of it.

“Good day, missi. Have you seen Braedon yet? He was asking after you at the market yesterday.”

“No, please excuse me, missir. I have to get home now.”

Most of the time she spent curled on her bed, staring at the nillip books, the paintings and statues of nillips she’d collected over the years. Her eyes fell on the one that Braedon had made her – crude, but one of the first things he’d made as an apprentice at the forge. He’d been so proud to have learned the skills to make it stand on four legs. She grinned, in spite of her tears. She would always love him.

Some nights she packed – but there wasn’t much to pack, so most of the time it was just rearranging what had already been packed. She’d sent out dozens of applications to stables in the big city, Pom, and by the end of the week she had one reply – a rejection. She took to cornering the mail carrier whenever she saw him, just to double check that he hadn’t missed one of the reply cards in his cavernous bag. He grumbled at her and started making sure to get to her house during the day, when she was at work.

* * *

The weekend, over breakfast with her sister, was the first time her mother acknowledged she was moving to the city. “Ranyana, you can’t be serious.”

“I am, Ammi. I can’t stay here. I can’t keep avoiding Braedon.”

“So don’t! Why are you avoiding him in the first place? He’s done nothing wrong. His mother is worried too – I don’t know what is going on in that head of yours, Ranyana, but it needs to stop.”

Pennip put down her tea and shifted the tiny child on her lap. The older two were at home with their father, giving their mother a short break. “I agree, Ranyana. This is no way to treat a man who loves you.”

“I can’t help it! I am trying to hurt him as little as possible!” Ranyana stood up, pacing the tiny kitchen.

Her mother crossed her arms. “You can help it. Just stop avoiding him. You’re putting a lot of effort into making this difficult, and it’s hurting Braedon and it’s hurting you.”

“You don’t understand! I want nothing more than for him to stop hurting.” There it was, that prickle in her eyes again. Ranyana tried to pour herself another mug of tea, but stopped when she realized she was just going to spill it.

Her sister hmphed. “What would stop him from hurting is for you to GO to him. Tell him whatever stupid drama is on your mind, and he’ll take care of it.” Ranyana looked at her elder sister, wondering if she’d ever seen her – really seen her – before.

Pennip was very quiet. She was not antisocial, but she had few friends, and rarely was found outside of the little sphere of comfort consisting of her own home, her mother’s home, her husband’s family home, and the garden club. She kept their home, she worshiped the gods and goddesses politely, and raised her children with a quiet joy. It was unbearable for Ranyana to imagine, but Pennip had never once seemed discontent with her life. Her quiet, boring, subservient life.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Their mother was shocked. “Ranyana! Your sister has been married to Jerobi for the last eight years. You could have been married for the last two, but no. You didn’t think Braedon was good enough for you, did you? You kept putting him off. And now – now you’re trying to throw away a man who’s stood by you through all of your tantrums, your drama—”

Ranyana’s hand tightened on the pitcher handle, and she lifted it, unthinking. “You have NO IDEA, what in the name of MINARI you are talking about!” The pitcher in her hand slammed into the table and cracked, spilling hot tea across the surface.

Pennip jumped up, a startled yell on her lips and she clutched the baby close to her, checking for spills or splashes on the child’s skin. “And you! No WONDER you aren’t married yet! With a temper like that! Jerobi would have taken down a strop from the workshop. Planik, spanking, every day.” She looked at their mother. “I have to get home. I will not put up with this.” And their mother nodded, weary, as Pennip left for her own home.

Ranyana busied herself picking up the pieces, sopping the liquid up with a rag.

“You’re too strong for planik from me,” Chari said, using the older Markin word for corporal punishment. “I know you wouldn’t take it peaceably. I just wish you’d get married to Braedon and settle down.” She stood, putting her own mug in the sink. “There’s no reason not to – he loves you, and you love him.” And then she retired to her room, effectively ending the conversation.

Ranyana stared at the closed door, the rag dripping from her hand. Her voice was a whisper. “There’s every reason, Ammi. Maybe you wouldn’t be able to understand. Maybe Pennip and Jerobi can’t understand either. Maybe Braedon can’t understand. But there’s a reason.”

She stayed in the house until the mail carrier came. Opening the door with a breathless question on her lips, the old man shoved a small stack of tiny cards into her hand. Finally!

“Thank you!”

He shook his head and wandered back down the walk. She took the stack of reply cards to the table and quickly flipped through them.

No.

No.

Maybe next year.

No.

Not until you have two years experience in a stable of this size.

No.

No.

Her heart fell, and she leaned over the table, crushing the handful in a sweaty fist. It was wholly unexpected. She counted off the names of the stables on the list of ones she’d sent applications to. There were still about half left. Her breathing came easier. There was still time. There was still hope.

 There was nothing left to do at home. And the nillips would be out, working for their keep. Nowhere to go that she hadn’t been with Braedon. Anywhere she went, he could show up. Probably would show up – everyone in the town seemed ready for them to reconcile. Except – maybe that one meadow in the woods. They’d only been there once. She got up.

The thorny trees caught at her clothes and she couldn’t help but whimper when they raked her skin. Still, it was nice to be alone. Nice to know that no one would see her here, no one would lecture her about why it was better for her to just get married and be done with it.

All her life that had been expected. Grow up, pick one man, get married, have babies. Her mother had done it, and her grandmother. Of course, her mother and her father were no longer together, but she knew Chari thought it a failing. There was no room for variety. No room for loving more than one person. And certainly, absolutely, no room for straying from the one man you picked. Not in this village. Not in the village she was born in. The thought just didn’t cross one’s mind. And if it did, in a flight of fancy, one laughed it off as so much fantasy, or ruthlessly censored it. I must be broken. What could possibly be wrong with me? I already have a wonderful man. And yet... I don’t trust myself not to stray.

She threw herself on the dry grass and picked at the sandy soil. It was warm, dappled by the brilliant sunlight. It reminded her of Braedon.

He was always warm. Short, solidly built, he even looked like a blacksmith. His skin a shiny silver tone, he was always handsome, even creased with black soot from the fires. His hair was dark and short, his eyes sweet and clear blue. Ranyana clutched at the grass and tears started to leak again. She’d envisioned what their children would look like – would they have his silver complexion, or her light bronze one? Maybe a pale copper? She remembered when she met him. New at school, her mother having moved from the town she grew up in, seeking a new life without her father. He was three grades older, but at his height, didn’t look it. When the other children tittered about her unusual clothes, he’d marched up and held out a thick hand.

“Welcome to Saq,” he’d said. And because he did it, the others did too. “Welcome,” they’d said. Or muttered, or murmured. It didn’t matter; she did eventually find friends. But he was the one she’d looked up to, the one she’d learned to adore for his transparent opinions and gentle nature.

“That dress looks like a bit of nillip blanket, Yana,” he’d said, years later when they were considered most likely to marry, the most stable of the student body’s romantic pairings.

She’d frowned at him. “I like nillips.”

He’d smiled. “I know. But not everyone will appreciate how pretty you are if you wear that to the dance. Wear something else, and then I’ll take you out wearing that another day.”

She’d pouted. But she couldn’t maintain it for long. He’d spun her around and smacked her bottom a few times, his smile her reward for ending her pout and turning back to him for a kiss. And he had done as he promised; they went on more dates with her wearing the ‘nillip blanket’ dress, than the conventional one her mother had sewn for her, but there was no fight with her mother, because she wore the conventional one to the dance.

When Braedon graduated school, he advanced to journeyman status at the blacksmith hall. A number of other boys had asked her out, especially when he was away with the travel required of a journeyman, but she resisted the temptation. Determined to be loyal and dedicated to Braedon, by the time she’d graduated and he’d finished up his journeyman years, it was assumed she’d marry him straightaway.

It didn’t happen. The restlessness she’d always felt became far more pronounced once she was an adult, free to do as she pleased. As she pleased, unless, of course, it broke the law, in which case the Warrior class would have taken issue with her. Or it upset her mother, something Ranyana tried to avoid, but didn’t feel like she did a good job of it. Or it went against something Braedon had asked her to do, in which case he blistered her bottom. In the first year out of school it happened often.

“Why did you quit the job at the market?”

It had been her first job. She’d shaken her head, stymied and uncertain. “I didn’t like it. It was stifling!”

He shook his head, eyes serious. “We discussed this, Ranyana. I told you to get another job if you didn’t like this one. Not just walk out in a huff. It’s a bad reference, Yana.”

She’d dropped her head. “I know. I’m sorry.”

He’d sighed. “I know you’re sorry, Yana. But you need to learn to think before you act. Come here.”

She’d gone, of course. She loved him with all her heart, and knew in her bones that he felt the same about her.

He sat on the edge of his bed, a thick pad a quarter meter off the floor. His family was all out of the house for the day with a wink and a nod at his quiet declaration of other plans. She reached for his outstretched hand and he pulled her over his lap. Face buried in his quilt she turned her head back to watch him.

His face was so serious! She trusted him, adored him even. She loved that he cared enough to discipline her. But his spankings hurt. Always. It started as it usually did; hard and fast with no respite until she whined and cried and begged. And he stopped. Pushed her back onto her knees in front of him and asked her why she was being spanked.

“I quit the job without getting another first, and without giving notice.”

“Why is that bad?”

“Because I’ll have no income while I find another, and because they’ll give a bad reference.”

“Why is that bad?”

“Because... because it looks badly on me. And on you. I’m sorry, Braedon.”

He’d tipped her head back up, wanting to see her eyes. “What will you do in the future?”

“I’ll give notice. And I’ll look for another job in the mean time.”

He’d nodded, satisfied. “Good girl, Yana. Now come here for the real spanking.” She’d squeaked, whimpering as always. The first was just to settle her down, ground her in submission. The second, after he was sure she understood why and what he expected in the future, was the real punishment. The second spanking was always on the bare bottom, or had been since he’d started seriously disciplining her, since she’d been out of school. His palm was work-roughened and tough, calloused and broad.

In minutes he’d taken her bronze skin from a light blush to a deep red. Ranyana wiggled, and cried, and wailed; but it was no use. It never is. She never intended to escape, really; she just voiced her pain and contrition until he was satisfied that she was firmly recommitted to obedience. And when he was satisfied, he lay back on the bed and tucked her against his side, comforting her with the same hands that disciplined her.

It was after one such spanking that she’d lost her virginity, singlemindedly desiring only to please him, only to give him everything of herself. He touched her, and loved her, and awkward as they were, there was beauty, and pleasure, and joy; afterward, contentment.

Now there was nothing. Ranyana stared at the sky, willing herself to look at the sun and strike herself blind, but her eyes watered too much and she couldn’t do it. Sollina 3, their sun, was far too bright to endure for even a fraction of a direct glance. It burned human skin easily, far too easily unless the diet held an adequate volume of kird meat, or the skin was slathered with a lotion made from their scales. Somehow the reptiles’ metallic adaption reacted with the melanin in human bodies, rendering their skin also shiny and metallic looking, keeping them safe in the sunlight.

Her arms wrapped around herself and she lost track of time in sobbing for what she’d broken.

* * *

The article in the magazine fascinated Ranyana. While she had heard about the Great Desert Race, and the fabulously high prize, she had not known that it was entered every year by the greatest stables, that it carried a high honor in the nillip breeding circles. Her home stable was obviously no longer in tune with the rest of the nillip world.

A team of three people, with three nillips. Carrying all the supplies and gear they need. Trek across the desert – a week to the checkpoint on the coast; and a week to the finish line. Ordinarily, the journey takes twice the time, and travelers who stay a night at each oasis along the path can take a month crossing the desert once. She touched the picture of the winning three nillips beside the article. The second on the team was a beautiful midnight blue nillip, and the third was grey and green. “Oh, to ride one of you,” she whispered to the photo. “Starflower. Eveningrose. Seafoam.” Her heart hurt. One of the stables she’d applied at was their home stable, Starrise Stables, in the center of Pom. Besides being the closest city in her Tribe’s holdings – Lopomon Tribe – it was the home of Starrise Stables. Owned by the brilliant rider Stella Nortennek. Ranyana closed her eyes and said a prayer to Aurora, Illala, Nukote, Minari and Lexox, the Markin gods and goddesses, that she would get a yes from Starrise Stables.

* * *

There was no mail the next day. And the day after was the first day of the week again, and she went to work. No mail when she came home. She couldn’t stand the waiting any longer, and took off for the meadow again.

It was just as she entered the swath of thorny trees that she saw him, hurrying towards her. She started to run, but inevitably, haste tripped her up and she found herself stumbling into the meadow, only a meter or so ahead of him.

She whirled on him. “Go away! I don’t want to talk to you!”

He looked hurt, and determined. “That’s too bad, Yana. I want to talk to you.”

She shook her head and turned away, arms wrapped around herself. “Please, Braedon, don’t make this any harder than it is.”

He spread his hands. “Make what harder, Yana? You’re the one running away from me. You’re the one who’s avoiding me. I love you, Ranyana. I want to marry you!”

Ranyana fell to her knees, facing away from him, tears beginning to fall. “Please don’t, Braedon! Please! I-I can’t! Please understand that I would if I could. I love you so much! But I don’t want to hurt you! I can’t – I just can’t. I couldn’t bear it.”

He dropped into a crouch beside her, touching her back gently. “You are already hurting me, Yana. I don’t know what I did wrong, for you to pull away from me like this. Please tell me why, Ranyana.”

She shook her head, resolutely staring away from him. “I can’t.”

“You can’t, or you won’t? Come on, Yana. You’ve never kept secrets from me before. Remember the dreams? You told me, when you were too embarrassed to tell anyone the dream about the flying nillip and the clouds? Remember your Appi’s letters? How upset you were? I was the one you talked to about it, not Pennip, not your mother, not your friends. Me. You can tell me anything. You know you can.” His voice had turned to coaxing and his touch to comforting.

“I can’t tell you this.”

“Yes, you can.” She shook her head. “You will tell me. You can’t keep a secret from me.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Do it anyway.” She turned to stare at him, her face wet with tears. “Do it anyway. I need to know, Ranyana. What did I do to make you pull away?”

She shook her head. “You didn’t do anything, Braedon. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I’m broken.”

“Did I break you?”

“No. I’ve always been this way.”

He scoffed. “You’re not broken, Yana, you’re stronger than any woman I know.”

She shook her head. “I’m not strong enough to be loyal to you.”

His stroking hand paused, and even though he recovered quickly, she noticed. “Loyal to me how, Yana?”

She hung her head. “I can’t tell you.”

He sighed, settled back on the grass. “All right then. We’ll have to do this the hard way.”

 

 


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