Line and Orbit has been out for a month now, and what a month it’s been. I want to once again thank everyone who’s spread the word about it, and again encourage anyone who reads and enjoys it to do the same – you do me and my co-author a truly immeasurable favor when you do so, and we appreciate it so much.
So in honor of its releasiversary, I’m doing two things.
- I’m running a Tumblr giveaway of a free copy of the book. Have a Tumblr account? All you have to do in order to enter is reblog. Monday after next I’ll pick a winner at random.
- I’m posting the entire third chapter below, wherein we introduce our roguish smartass secret-man-pain MC2 Lochlan d’Bideshi, and blind-seer delightfully prickly wisewoman Ixchel. Enjoy.
In space the night went on forever, interrupted by starlight and spirits. They shone against the dark, pouring out beats and pulses that the universe had been dancing to since before it had cooled. Clouds condensed, life bubbled out of dark pools, the dance went on.
And sometimes there was a ship among the lights.
The ship was called Volya. She was painted in hues of red and orange that had faded from their original brightness. The windows and thrusters were mismatched; scratches down one side of her hull spoke of harsh treatment. Through the battered hull, the heavy drumline of a song stretched out toward the stars.
Inside, a hammock swung back and forth across what passed as the cockpit, which was draped in rumpled linens and strewn with scrap paper, light cotton shirts and heavy, many-pocketed pants. Everywhere there were photographs and small paintings, some nailed to the interior, others painted directly on the walls. Wood carvings and brass containers cluttered every available surface, interspersed at random with open circuit boards and leaking containers labeled with worn biohazard sigils.
“Bienentad, Volya.” The voice came from the radio grafted onto the control console. It was new and shining, clearly a more recent grade of technology than the rest of the ship. The serial number along the bottom lip of the casing declared it to be property of the Protectorate, not for sale or civilian distribution. After a moment’s pause, the voice sighed and in a slightly louder tone it said, “Bienentad, Volya.”
A heap of clothes gave a sudden jerk. The rhythm of the song was cresting. It shook the metal filings on the dash and floor, vibrations making the ship itself start to dance. It also made the hail barely audible. Even so, one didn’t live out in the dark this long without learning a few basic skills—among them, knowing when someone was displeased with you and it was better to answer them. Heaving himself out from beneath the clothes, a young man rolled to his feet, jumping into the pilot’s chair with such speed that it spun around a few times before he reached out and stopped himself in front of the radio.
“Bienentad, Ying,” he said, switching off the music. He was young and would probably always look young. There was something about a narrow frame and a quick smile that kept men boyish well into old age. He was shirtless, brown skin zigzagged here and there with black ink. His hair was long and waxed into dreadlocks strung with beads. He folded his hands over the grooves of his belly, smile curving one corner of his mouth.
“To what do I owe the blessing of your call?”
“You’re such a little shit.” Her laughter softened the words. “Lochlan Tomek Finnyfolu Jaabir d’Bideshi, I swear, one of these days the Council will set you adrift with a week’s worth of oxygen and a month’s worth of lovina, just to teach you what’s important in life.”
“I put you to the task of getting together any amount to last me an entire month, Mama.” Lochlan scooped up a pile of printouts and peered at them as he spoke. “Greater fools than you have tried.”
“There aren’t any greater fools than old women duped by idiot boys. You haven’t called me Mama since you were still in your poor mother’s skirts. You must know that you’re in trouble, eh?”
“Nonsense.” Lochlan grinned down at his papers. “If you weren’t my mother’s sisterkin, you know I’d have pursued you, bringing you back crystals from Juno and orchids from Belise. You never would have been able to resist me, if only.”
“If only,” Ying said dryly. “If only, if only. If only you could remember to come home to us for one meeting in twenty.”
Lochlan’s nonchalance collapsed into a groan, and he rubbed a hand down his face. “Oh, khara. Adisa didn’t notice, did he?”
Ying barked a laugh. “He wouldn’t have, except Ixchel pointed it out about five minutes in.”
“That woman is trying to get me strung up by my mesentery at the moot.” He swung around to the ship’s controls, peering as screens lit up.
“Funny,” Ying said. “She said you were trying to do the very same thing to yourself.”
“Mad old bat,” Lochlan muttered.
“By your lines, Tommy. Show some respect.”
“I hear you, Mama.” Lochlan felt the old ship rattle her bones around him. “I’m already locked on home. I take it Adisa is expecting me, then? Sign me up for penance? Make me light a candle?”
“Oh, such troubles. But you should see Ixchel first. Bring her a present. You know how she likes toys.”
“I’ll see if I can find some virgins or unattended infants on my way in.” Lochlan dialed up the music again, softer now, just dancing on the edge of thought.
“Good luck finding either,” Ying said. “By line and orbit, you’re lucky the Old Mother likes whatever she read in your charts.”
“I don’t feel lucky.” In spite of himself, he was grinning, fingers dancing over Volya’s panels. Space felt alive and vibrant. Somewhere, home was a moving city in the night.
“Adijan, Ying. I owe you one.”
“Maybe one of those virgins,” Ying said, laughing as she signed off. “Adijan. Safe home.”
Within the Bideshi homeship Ashwina, an old-growth forest stretched toward the stars. The trees had been old when they’d been taken from Terra, transported into the heart of the ship with hundreds of men and weeks of labor, and they’d been planted there with their topmost branches separated from space by the distant joints of a glass ceiling, welded overhead like facets of a jewel. They were ancient now. From the darkest part of the forest, flowering trees peppered the trails as they gave way to acres of meadow. From chaos there came a kind of order.
But the oldest part of the forest remained, growing denser and more isolated with each turn of the season. The roots went a very long way back, and they remembered when the sky wasn’t always just an endless stream of stars.
There, the ancient branches and roots and trunks met each other. They formed a complex latticework, twined around one another to make soaring, peaked halls, boughs and leaves forming older, simpler versions of stained glass windows. Everywhere was the smell of dirt and growing, sweet smoke and incense.
The Arched Halls. There was little light here, but votives flickered. They weren’t meant to cast more light than what the spirits needed, and the spirits saw everything, regardless of light.
Before a fire, an old woman bent over her work, a spindle of fine twine and a basket of charms beside her. Her gnarled fingers moved quickly. Occasionally she snaked a hand out, hovering over the basket for a moment before snatching one charm or another up, slipping it into the braid. Her people called her Ixchel, but that was just another borrowed word. The universe called them thieves and pirates, but the Bideshi had been borrowing from the very dawn of space travel.
“Lochlan,” she called, and grinned. “Oh, child. I suppose it was your mother’s sister that sent you here to me.”
Lochlan was sure he had been silent enough to have avoided detection by just about anything in the woods, save Ixchel. When he was a child, they had told him she was a ghost and he’d believed them. She was skinny but built with wiry muscle and fast hands; her hair was always worn long and braided. She smiled and she had a bawdy laugh, and she knew when you were behind her, and that was because of what she was and what had been done to her. Lochlan coughed and came forward.
“Hello, Old Mother.” He dropped down in front of her. “How did you know it was me?”
She laughed as she fished out another charm. “No one smells as strongly of sex and cheap lovina as you do, my dear one, most prized.”
Lochlan rolled back onto his heels and cursed himself for a coward, digging his hand into his linen bag for what he had brought her.
“I missed the meeting,” he started, trying to keep his eyes away from the knots. Half-made, exposed, the sight of it dizzied him. “And…I want you to understand that I meant no disrespect. I was on a mission given to me by—”
Ixchel sighed and stowed the bracelet in a pocket. “You were on a mission more important, more impressive or just more fun, boy, I don’t care. Now, give me your trinket before you go see the old bastard. God knows he’ll have you peeling toad eyes for two months, and I’ll not see hide nor hair of you.”
Mouth twisting uncertainly, Lochlan dropped the polished wooden box into her hand. “It’s—”
“Hush. Don’t tell me. I’ll know in my own way.”
Ixchel traced the lines of the thing, and Lochlan knew that the nanocircuitry in her bones was singing as it picked up vibrations and fed them into the core of her. Her gaze drifted over it, but only out of habit. Life was a bargain—none understood it more than the Aalim, the scholar and wisewoman—and there was a give and a take. There was magic in the dark, in the dancing, but you only touched it in between the stars. To live it, to be part of it, you had to go irreparably into the dark.
Which was why Ixchel’s eyes were white and sightless. When the old Aalim had died, Ixchel had gone into the Arched Halls with the Council, and there they had put out her eyes and opened her up to all the dark and all the dancing.
“It’s Klashorg,” she said, a grin turning up the corners of her mouth. “A puzzle box, isn’t it? Their artisans are…very dedicated individuals.” She scraped her nails over the carved wood. “Their masterpieces take generations, you know. You stole it?”
“I…no. I won several of them. In a dice game.”
“In which you cheated.” Out of her dress she dug a whistle the color of old ivory. On its sides, small birds and vines chased each other up the barrel. “No one believes you play fair, Lochlan, my prize. Not even you, and certainly not me.”
Lochlan laughed, the sound of it a little short and a little high. “Are you— Will you open it?” It was a bit smaller than his closed fist, carved from one piece of knotted wood, inlaid metal moving like streams over its surface. It was enchanting to look at, and endlessly frustrating.
Ixchel chuckled and made the puzzle box disappear within her robes. “And satisfy you? You’re passing it along only because the toy’s too difficult for you, and don’t deny it, child. I’ll pop its secret some other time.
“As for now,” she went on, putting the whistle to her lips and blowing a short, melodious call. “I’ve got more interesting mysteries to sort through.”
Lochlan’s face twisted, and he craned his neck upwards as the note echoed through the forest’s synthetic evening. It was autumn. Environmental programs had been written in his great, great, great grandfathers’ time and kept the ship forever spinning through four temperate seasons. Now, acres away in the meadows, the leaves were turning the color of fire and blood.
“Old Mother, an honor, really, but not one that I’m worthy of. Don’t trouble—”
“Hush,” said Ixchel. “Do not propose to tell me where I should and shouldn’t trouble, child. I knew you when you were a spark in your mother’s eye. Here. Now.”
Lochlan produced his left hand for her inspection, hissing when she pricked his finger with a long, thin blade, the same color and workmanship as the whistle. He hadn’t seen her slide it into her hand. He fought the urge to jerk the hand back, blood beading up and running down his index finger. Ixchel wasn’t paying attention; she was peering sightlessly at the branches overhead.
A small brown bird landed on a low branch, tipping a curious head at them. Letting his hand go, Ixchel put the whistle to her lips again and blew. The bird chittered in response and hopped from the branch down onto Ixchel’s extended finger. Lochlan held back a soft noise as the tiny bird regarded Ixchel as if she were its mother, returned to the nest with food.
“Tch, you hate this part, don’t you? The young ones always do, you know. It’s saved lives in past years. It’s not just a thing for petty fortunes, Lochlan.”
“I know.” He lifted his bleeding hand over the bird’s head and let a few drops of blood spatter down onto its beak and the top of its head. The bird didn’t seem to notice, staring entranced at Ixchel’s sightless eyes.
It was a thing that she had done many times before, to animals larger and less charmed and then, on those occasions, there had been more blood and more noise, and she had read the signs by the tingling in herself. They’d taken her sight, but in its place they’d given her something else. They called her a medicine woman, sometimes, but medicine had always and ever been deeply braided with death.
In a well-practiced motion, Ixchel slid the bird into the palm of her hand, belly up. It went peacefully, trusting her. At some point, she had spread a bright white handkerchief on the ground between her knees, and so it was that when she slid the blade into its groin and tore up through the bird’s belly, to the sternum, the fine bones of its chest and all the way to its throat, the entrails fell in a tangle onto bright, unstained cotton.
It was done. With a flick of her wrist, Ixchel sent the animal into the flames, feathers crackling. By then, Ixchel had forgotten it, peering down at the bloody mess on the handkerchief, but Lochlan went on staring for a long time, eyes stinging with smoke or something else.
Ixchel grunted, fingers hovering inches above the guts. Practice and experience meant her hands were entirely clean, the blade laid carefully on the edge of the cloth. The tiny heart twitched a few times. There wasn’t even that much blood.
Ixchel worked. Lochlan had watched her do similar things at feasts and on altars, but this was for him. It was his blood that had stained the fine feathers of the bird’s head.
So he watched her, and he waited. He stuck his left index finger in his mouth until the bleeding stopped.
Something was wrong.
Ixchel’s mouth was twisted as if she’d seen something gruesome, and her fingers were twitching as if they were sifting through piles of unwanted clutter. A bead of sweat moved slowly down her face, tracing over crow’s feet and laugh lines. With a sudden, violent jerk she gasped aloud, her mouth tense and wide.
He scrambled to her side; she stared with an expression that looked alien on her face. For once, the old woman actually looked frail.
“Ixchel. What is it? What did you see?”
In a flash, the frailty was gone, leaving nothing but familiar impatience in its place. She shoved him away, reaching down and snatching up the handkerchief, tossing it into the fire and wiping her hands on her skirts.
“You’re a disrespectful slut,” she said after a moment.
Lochlan swallowed. “I… That’s all?”
“That’s all. The things you get up to, my prize. What you did with that Junoan clanswoman. And her brother! On a feast day too. Blasphemous things.”
“It was a fertility feast,” Lochlan said petulantly, his pulse only just starting to slow. “Is that what you saw in the reading?”
Ixchel rumbled a laugh. “Even blind old women don’t need tricks to expect that much of you, Lock.” She retrieved the half-finished bracelet from a pocket. “You will live long and father many children and break the hearts of half the galaxy and die in the throes of passion with someone much too young and sweet for you,” she recited, as if from a script. “You will be well loved and poorly understood and the whole of the universe will mourn you as you pass out through its doors.”
“That’s exactly what you said the last time I was here.”
“Futures don’t change.” Ixchel wrapped the bracelet around his wrist and laced it to itself, closing the loop.
“What’s it for?”
“Good fortune. Protection. They’re all for the same thing, in the end. Now. Get on with you.” She stared up at him, looking tired.
Lochlan swallowed hard, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yes, Old Mother,” he said, rising. Already the strangeness of his reading was fading, bullied out by his own desire to not look at it too closely. “Thank you for honoring me with—”
“Oh, get gone, boy, get gone. I have no stomach for formalities from you.”
He left her. For a long time Ixchel sat alone in the Arched Halls, surrounded by the flicker of the votives and the breathing of the trees, and she stared down at her fire and what was burning there.
“Luck and laughter,” she said, and murmured Lochlan’s name. She made a complicated gesture with three fingers of her left hand and spat into the flames.
“You’ll need it, child.”