New Warszawa – Uralskey Island
8 Bamx 2228 – 1130 Hours
Ilo missed the noisy birds she discovered during their stop-over in Brasilia, a land where the nights rattled with crickets and frogs.
“This water is anoxic,” said Sofita, her attention set upon the squared pond’s slimy green contents.
Ilo whisked past her, making sure she grazed the uniformed hizak’s thick backside. “Who’s been tending to that gash, Sofita?”
At least the hizak could still smile.
“Do you feel as good as you look, Ilo?”
“I’m juicy again.” She sat on the rickety metal chaise. “Velts isn’t complaining.”
Sofita lifted her hardened face to the sky and closed her eyes. “At least something brings Velto joy.”
“I don’t want to talk about Velto.” Ilo parted her legs and tapped the space between them. “Let’s talk about Fuzo Dox.”
Sofita shook her head. “Off-limits, Ilo,”
“Oh, on limits, ‘Fita,” she said, her mind on that day they’d wheeled Sofita into the birthing room, terrified and pregnant. “I never got my chance to scold you about the other marixidoe you brought into this world.”
Sofita didn’t budge. “You could’ve scolded me at my tribunal.”
“Oh no, now that’s off-limits,” Ilo said. “We are not going to talk about Zixas.”
Dismissed as her kerma’s lackey, the honey-and-sapphire marix had mended things with Velto by supporting her return to Wram Constructs. Zixas had learned to read, she’d enrolled in placement tests for higher rank, and even earned a fighting place in her generation’s Secondary Trial.
Velto had been proud of the change in her sibling, yet when Zixas questioned her about Cloister procedure, that pride became concern. When Zixas had mentioned Sofita Kul’s assignment to her barracks, her sudden maturity began making sense.
Ilo found nothing wrong with Sofita pushing Zixas toward possible Primaryship, but Velto hadn’t liked it one bit. The bizak resented Sofita for pushing Zixas toward what she’d perceived as certain death, and that awful Secondary Trial proved her right.
Sofita had taken to the trial-ice that day, no longer a brilliant and stylish hizak; all that remained of the scholar was her heavy fronts and thick girsuzsch. Orta stacked on definition to what was already defined, turning the former leader of Marixi Administration into a bald thug with lifeless eyes.
The enraged fear on Sofita’s face the day she’d killed Zixas had appeared again to Ilo when wheeled into that birthing room.
“What were you thinking, Fita?”
Chided eyes found her. “She tried to kill me, Ilo.”
“I’m not talking about Zix and that damned fight,” said Ilo. “Your body wasn’t meant for birthing,”
“I erred,” she sighed. “I’d missed two Sealer injections.”
“You used that nasty Banto Sealer?”
“I wouldn’t survive the pregnancy without it,” she said.
Ilo slapped her playfully. “You’re lucky you survived ‘Foos,”
Fusada insisted on joining Ilo in the birthing room, and the labor had been stress-free until Sofita arrived, bleeding and traumatized.
“Why deliver a donat you weren’t keeping?”
“Access to the College required pregnancy.” Sofita’s lips curled at the corners. “Zaxiri deliver donations without keeping them,”
“That’s my design, gurxhole,”
Like all zaxir, Ilo’s drive to procreate existed without a desire to nurture. Her caste couldn’t relax in a newborn’s presence, and though this abhorrence faded after a donat began toddling, many still avoided their offspring.
“Did you ever thank Ozbi Tis?” Ilo stabbed a finger into Sofita’s upper arm. “If she hadn’t been there that day, you’d be dead.”
“If Ozbi hadn’t been there that day, she would’ve missed your confession,” the hizak taunted. “I wasn’t so far gone to miss your blurting out how you and Eppis played her and Velto like posing dolls.”
“You think that’s funny, huh?” Ilo overplayed her anger; seeing Sofita act like her old self brought a strange joy. “You told Hib you were going to raise that marixidoe with some bizak in Utama.”
Sofita’s gaze drifted back to the water.
“When Hibby realized you lied to her,” Ilo continued, “she tracked the number Oligax assigned you and saw that you used it to find Crixal’s marixidoe,”
“Fuzo doesn’t belong to Crixal,” Sofita said.
“She might as well,” Ilo countered. “She had her makodux ripped out for birthing her.”
Sofita’s face hardened.
“Crixal saw a chance to defy Lekada, and she took it.”
Sofita then furrowed her brow.
“Don’t make her my victim, Ilo.”
“You make everyone you encounter, a victim.”
Sofita stared at her. “Does Velto know about citizen Utat?”
“You hizzahs live for whataboutisms,” Ilo said, frowning.
Yulia Utat, her longtime friend and make-up artist, was a rare subak with an aversion to sharing her DNA.
The chubby Yulia had lived in a Pikalit bloom community with a bizak named Riba Nox and their zaxir lover, Rez Polvix. All three desired marixi, a fact that made Yulia a social outcast among subaki.
Ilo adored Yulia enough to sign over her and Velto’s newborn bizakidoe, whom Ilo named Pik.
After Riba got a permanent Orta assignment and relocated there, bloom community administrators evicted Yulia. Rez was still struggling financially, having not yet bore a donation, so Ilo bought them a large bloom home in the Orta Civilian District to tide them over. When Rez got her lifetime credit account for birthing, she’d paid Ilo back and moved in with Yulia and Riba to raise Pik.
It wasn’t long before someone called Donational-Services. The DS had issued three warrants of perceived depraved influence; Ilo’s refusal to rescind Yulia’s rights had sidelined their attempts to remove the bizakidoe.
However, after Ilo admitted to being a waxamist, DS agents attempted to relocate six-year-old Pik. Ilo being a waxamist meant she had no right to sign over a donation, much less birth one. Ultimately, a Civilian District Guardia Committee quashed the custodial relocation order; Donational Services failing to vet a waxamist didn’t retroactively entitle them to make decisions on a donation’s life.
It had taken some considerable effort to keep Velto from learning the details; to this day, Velts knew nothing of her bizak donation, and that’s how Ilo wanted it. “What right do you have to judge my life choices, Sofita Kul?”
“A valid counter in the face of you questioning mine,” said the hizak.
“My life choices don’t get citizens killed.” Ilo regretted saying this when Sofita rose from the chaise. “Velto knows Pik exists. She just doesn’t know Pik is hers.”
After a moment, Ilo reached for her.
“What am I going to do with you, hizzah?”
Sofita allowed Ilo to pull her back down to the chaise.
Ilo hugged her tight. “What are you doing here, ‘Fita?”
Sofita’s breath tickled her neck.
“TermSabo caught the extraction order,”
Ilo gave a start. “Lekada wouldn’t dare kill Velto,”
“It’s not about Velto,” Sofita sat up. “Control is the goal.”
“I know you still got half the shares.” Ilo quickly dismissed Sofita being the target. “But no way Lekada expected your assignment,”
“Banto anticipated it,” said the hizak.
“Since when are you buddies with Eppis Banto?”
“I grew up with her, Ilo,” she said with a grin.
The reality of ascension felt like a heavy veil tightening around Ilo’s face. “Why send TermSabo?” she shuddered at returning to a life of intrigue and caution.
“Control is the goal,” the hizak repeated. “TermSabo won’t come for me. My death complicates things. Disqualifying a member of the Tenth’s incoming committee is the safer play.”
Ilo huffed. “Velto would never get disqualified,”
“She provokes easily,” said Sofita.
Ilo let those words sink in and her mind immediately turned to those she cared about. “Sofita,” she whispered. “I need you to protect Tavo.”
The hizak looked like Ilo just slapped her.
“When she got blacklisted after writing that book, I started paying her rent,” Ilo explained. “She’s smart. She tracked the payments and found me.”
“You revealed her pedigree?” Sofita asked.
“I did not,” she affirmed, then winced. “Then I got a cit-cat notice,”
Sofita closed her eyes and let out a breath.
“I sent her to Ziw Balru,” said Ilo, hugging herself.
Sofita turned from her slowly.
“I need to know about the donux?”
The sudden shift in conversation gave Ilo pause.
“I asked ‘Foos who she mixed her soup with,” she said, uneasy when the hizak didn’t correct her grammar. “She gave me some story about it being blind.”
Sofita regarded her with those cold, calculating eyes.
“Whomever she mixed her patch with, she loved them,” Ilo said. “I gave Fusada a useless subakidoe, but she didn’t care. She saw someone she loved in that face.”
“You keep up with all of your donats, Ilo?”
“I may not want them around, but I keep tabs,” she grasped Sofita’s chin when she saw the anguish cloud her face. “Hey, you turning away from your newborn that day, that’s normal. Brainers aren’t wired to care about their donats until they can talk.”
Sofita’s voice cracked. “Fusada held hers,”
“Barely,” Ilo began laughing. “Foos’ had that little doe by the back of her neck and backswell like she was holding a trophy. The look on poor Ozbi’s face! She was losing her mind thinking that ‘Foos was going to drop her.”
Sofita’s grin seemed forced.
“If it makes you feel any better, you birthed a marixidoe,” Ilo said. “They don’t care if you love them.” After a beat, she inquired of Fuzo. “If that bruise upstairs isn’t Fusada and Crixal’s, then who does she belong to?”
Instead of answering, Sofita moved in for a kiss.
“You’re unbelievable,” Ilo pushed her away, forgetting how she’d mourned the hizzah who came alive when her clothes were off.
Sofita laughed. “You’re quite a distraction today, Ilo.”
“I’m always a distraction.” she bragged, then took hold of Sofita’s ears. “Where’s that marixidoe you gave birth to?”
“Her kerma raised her,” Sofita said.
“Do me a favor,” Ilo pleaded, “leave her with her kerma.”
Sofita grinned. “You’ve been riding like you’re twenty again, haven’t you?”
Ilo took hold of Sofita’s arm to get off the chaise.
“Velto’s not complaining.”
“Has she spoken about your sudden resurgence?”
“She says it’s because of the radiation here,”
“We do thrive in extreme environments.”
Ilo surveyed the area for familiar helovx. “I wonder if Velts is back from meeting the Empress?”
“You mean the emperor?”
“Kasi’s a good kid,” Ilo sighed. “It shouldn’t matter, should it?”
“Kasi’s a Kotko male. There are no good Kotko males.”
“She was born a woman,” Ilo pouted. “Doesn’t that count for something?
“For helovx, the body is a mere host for the brain,” Sofita led her over the poolside tiles, talking like an hizak. “If the brain is male, it doesn’t matter that the body is not.”
“Wait for me, ‘Fita,” she whined. “My legs are too chunky to march.”
“I’m not marching,” said Sofita.
“You march. You always did.”
“You suggest I have a forceful nature?”
“You got Fusada in you,” said Ilo. “And ‘Foos had some of you in her.”
Sofita’s animated eyes went cold. “Why did you carry a donux made with a male’s DNA?”
Ilo’s chest tightened.
“I angered you, saying that about Fusada and you?”
Sofita’s gaze hardened.
“I see Orta didn’t rub all the hizzah out,” Ilo moved into her space, undaunted. “If ‘Foos put me face-to-face with that male, I’d have ridden him and birthed for him. That’s what love is, Sofita.”
The hizak allayed. “I’m sorry, Ilo.”
Ilo softened and took her by the arm.
“Why isn’t House Kul like the nice Kul’s?”
“Nice Kul’s?” repeated Sofita, eyebrow arched.
“The Kul’s in Pikalit aren’t like the ones in Utama,” Ilo said. “Dyb and her sibs are so sweet and charming. You and Fusada are like two sides of the same bad day.”
“Banto blood.” Sofita aimed a proud smile. “It makes us Utamaxi Kul’s cruel.”
Ilo giggled like a zaxiridoe. “Best make sure that Utama bruise you birthed doesn’t end up with any of Eppis’s donats!”
“That’s improbable,” Sofita said, pushing at the back door of the Divozen. “I forgot to mention, the Banto-Tol tav’zikoltil remembrance occurred last night.”
Ilo blinked. “Is that supposed to make me feel guilty?”
“I don’t think you’re capable of guilt,”
“Look at that,” Ilo cooed. “We have something in common.”
Kasi studied the farc Ambassador and her attractive soldat through a sliver in the stone. Standing beside one another in the waiting hall, they spoke in their strange polar tongue; some words he understood, but others were too alien to decipher.
“How long have you been in divisional?”
The bald Ensign snapped to attention. “Seven months, Ambassador Wram.”
“Your Final Trial tactic impressed me.”
“Tactic?” asked the Ensign.
“Laying low until the fiercest got worn down,”
“I didn’t play dead,” the bald farc sounded insulted.
“That’s a shame. I’d have more respect for you if you’d planned it. Now what I would’ve done, no, scratch that.” Wram the Younger shook her head. “I wouldn’t have been out there in the first place.”
“With all due respect, Ambassador,” said the Ensign. “Hizaki invented the Final Trial.”
The Ambassador glared up at her.
“I’m not hizak,” she hissed, and the young marix winced. “That’s beside the point. If I got offered a job that required me to get my head kicked in, I wouldn’t take the job.”
The Ensign said nothing to this.
“Oh, and spare me the ‘Citizen, You Should Appreciate My Brutality Because I Ensure Your Quality of Life,’ crap,” Wram said. “You’re more than compensated for putting your life on the line.”
“As are bizaki,” spat the Ensign, proud of herself.
“You sound like your Komad,” Wram the Younger accused, and when she noticed the Ensign’s smirk, she said, “That’s not a compliment, toob-shit.”
When Lady Karel entered the hall to collect them, Kasi emerged from behind the tapestry covering his hiding place. Reviewing his reflection in the hall mirror, he found his chest pleasingly flat thanks to his binder.
The brothers Kotko awaited him in the audience chamber, each flanking his mother’s throne, no, his throne. Kasi had removed all vestiges of his mother, covering her gaudy golden columns with sleek black lacquer and swapping her furniture’s faded chintz for upholstered leather. Cast iron sconces had replaced glass votives, but they still cast a steady light upon his family’s many silver wall medallions.
Once seated, Kasi tugged at the collar of his kosovorotka.
“All is well, Emperor?” asked Boris.
Kasi looked into the lumbering man’s light blue eyes and felt safe.
“All is well, Duke Kotko.”
Lady Karel entered with the two farcs.
The young soldat, trim yet muscled, trailed behind Wram the Younger. Lady Ilo had said farc warriors wore binding-shirts, but this brute’s modest breasts were visible beneath her tight gray uniform.
“Emperor Kasimir,” the pony-tailed Ambassador bowed while the gray-skinned Ensign observed the room.
Kasi straightened his back respectfully when the bald farcs coal-black eyes fell upon him. “Thank you for respecting my identity, Ambassador.”
“How you identify yourself concerns only my government,” said Wram. “Removing the SR-I, now that concerns me.”
Kasi swallowed. “You’ve been kept from this task for some time,”
“Some time is what you’d call an understatement,” Wram the Younger’s voice gained an edge, yet she remained civil. “None of the components presented to me are part of the operational hardware, and yet breakfast arrived on time.”
“My mother’s passing is unfortunate.” Kasi rose from his chair and approached Wram. “No doubt, your committee will insist on removing our processor,”
“I’m certain, Emperor, my committee will remove my processor.”
Kasi stood before the farc and found them equal in height.
“The welfare of my people is important to me,”
Duke Kotko interjected. “We cannot let you have access to—”
“-Until we know what your committee decides,” Kasi spoke over him, never taking his eyes off Wram as the bald Ensign stared hard at the duke. “The Commander and this Ensign, they’re here to collect you, yes Ambassador Wram?”
Wram exhaled as if releasing the tension from her body. “Emperor, I’m going to be blunt. When these two soldiers remove me, many more will take their place.”
Kasi nodded before returning to his throne.
“I will speak to your committee,” he said, comforted by the leathery scent of Yuri’s buckled vest.
“That’s what I thought,” Wram mumbled before bowing. “It was an honor, Emperor Kasimir—”
“-It has been an honor to host you, Ambass—”
“-You didn’t let me finish,” she interrupted. “It was an honor to know you, Emperor. You seem sensible, and that’s a shame. My committee will never speak to you, and I’m sorry your life will be cut so short.”
Kasi’s stomach rolled as Wram the Younger bowed one last time. Then, the short farc turned on her heel and walked out, the Ensign regarding Kasi sadly before presenting her back to them and following Wram out.
Kasi stood as the doors closed after them.
“What did she mean by that?”
“The Committee will send troops,” said Boris.
Yuri huffed, “Let’s see them climb our wall.”
“They don’t need to climb,” Kasi’s temper flared. “They can fly right over it.”
“They’ll not invade us,” Boris offered calmly.
“How can you be certain of that?” Kasi demanded, then stared at the Duke. “You plan to keep Wram the Younger,”
Boris grinned, folding his arms over his broad chest.
“And her fat wife,” Yuri uttered.
“We’re keeping them as collateral,” Boris raised a reassuring hand. “Unharmed, this will ensure Ramaxia never attacks.”
“Wait,” Yuri said. “They killed one of their own when destroying Australia,”
“Idiota,” Kasi snapped. “That farc wasn’t popular like Miss Ilo and the Ambassador.”
“That’s right. Allowing us to kill Ilo Cux will not be seen well in the eyes of the farc populace,” Boris explained. “Also, their committee is hereditary. Wram the Younger’s death will jeopardize Fusa Kul’s administration.”
“That’s clever, brother,” Yuri said, his beady eyes aglow.
Kasi slumped back into his throne. “Why has it come to this?”
“Because of you and your,” Yuri stopped when the Duke jabbed his head with pointed fingers.
Kasi jumped up. “Let him say what he’s thinking!”
Boris glared at Yuri, a warning.
“Let him say what he’s thinking, father,” he demanded, and after a beat, Yuri eyed the well-cowed Duke.
“Because of you and your strength,” said Yuri. “You’re a man, and they fear men.”
Kasi stepped to him. “You’d better start fearing my strength.”
“Yes, Emperor,” he said, head bowed.
“I don’t want Lady Ilo hurt,” Kasi turned to Boris. “She’s always been respectful to me and was greatly favored by my mother.”
“Of course, my Emperor,” Boris bowed.
Kasi pulled at his cloying collar.
“That silver beast now sits on our western wall?”
“It does, Emperor,” said Boris.
“Learn from it as we have the food replicator,” he said.
Boris grasped his younger brother’s shoulder. “While Wram the Younger conspires with her protectors, Yuri will find out what he can of the silver flier.”
Taking the directive, the young Duke set off after a bow.
“Yuri?” Kasi called to him. “I didn’t mean to be so cross.”
The younger Kotko stared back without a response.
Kasi’s choice to live as he felt had been most challenging on his lover. They’d consummated their lust days before the Empress’s demise. Yet, since Kasi refused to wear dresses and cut his hair, Yuri had become cold.
“Since we’re all still awake,” he added. “Will you dine with me when you return?”
Yuri delivered a subservient nod before exiting.
“You mustn’t show your passion for him,” Boris admonished.
“I’m Emperor,” he faced the man he knew to be his father. “My passions are no one’s business but my own.”
Boris softened his gaze. “At this moment, you are your mother.”