The baby arrives covered in his caul. The translucent membrane obscures the face of the squirmy little thing. As Head of the House of Aquarius, it’s Lady Banyu’s job to clean him, look into his mouth, and check he’s got the prerequisite number of fingers and toes. She must ensure this one’s fit to be presented to the mighty and volatile House of Sagittarius.
Barely, I dare say.
As tradition mandates, the black velvet curtains are drawn in the birthing room, and we bustle around by the flickering light of the oil lamps. Me, I’m picking up bloody rags for the girls to wash. I think twice before taking Neris’ stained undergarments. There won’t be a thread left after the girls use the wringer on them, but I’m done protecting those two.
Neris’ dimwitted older sister fans herself. Her moon-like face is pearled with sweat. She’s as pale and clammy as if she’d been the one giving birth, but Neris won’t let go of her short-fingered hand, and it wouldn’t do to pull it away and leave. The poor half-wit! The room’s very warm, and the cloying scent of incense fails to disguise the stench of birth. The combined odors are enough to turn anyone’s stomach.
“Here,” I say, handing the silver tray to the midwife. “The inkwell and needles.”
She takes them without even a nod. I’m a good servant, as invisible as the mahogany furniture.
As the purple-faced baby mewls feebly in Lady Banyu’s arms, the midwife paints the sign of Sagittarius on Neris’ left shoulder. Through Neris’ unbuttoned gown I see five concentric circles on her right shoulder, faded with age. The curved V of the Ram on her sternum, marking her as the pond-wife of Aries, stands sharp against her fair skin. And there’s the fresh ink on her left shoulder, an arch and arrow gleaming under the quivering light. Daughter. Wife. Mother.
The infant flails its limbs in a perfunctory way, not at all the mighty kicks of a centaur. I doubt he’ll grow up to be an impressive man, even for a servant. Oh, well. The House of Sagittarius will have to take him anyway. It’s the law. Let’s just hope they aren’t offended by such a meager offering!
Neris first moaned in pain three days ago, but the midwife’s tinctures delayed the birth for long enough that the baby wasn’t born under the sign of Scorpio. That’d have meant Neris’ disgrace, and death for the babe. He who was born with venom inside, must be culled before he stings. It was the agreement among the eleven Houses, after the Scorpios were forced to retreat.
Who’d have carried out the culling, I wonder? Would Lady Banyu, as Head of the House, have taken it upon herself to smother a newborn? Or would the chore have fallen to me, just as I’m ordered to gut basketfuls of stinky fish?
After she’s hastily cleaned and examined him, Lady Banyu clutches the infant against her chest, shielding it from the room. She’s probably aghast that her dear Neris has produced such a runt, and is trying to hide it for as long as she can. One of the midwives approaches, but Lady Banyu raises a hand to stop her.
“Help Krabbe clean out the room. I’ll swaddle the baby myself.”
The midwife is disgruntled that she’s not allowed to do her job, and even more so to be downgraded to my level. Her mother was an indentured servant just like me, but Lady Banyu’s predecessor allowed some new blood to seep through the Aquarius mating pond. The midwife thinks that makes her royalty. She doesn’t dare contradict Lady Banyu, though.
The paintings of late Heads of the House look sternly on us in the gloom. Each Lady was depicted wearing a toga, some plain white cloth, some with intricate embroideries. I can’t imagine what Lady Banyu would look like in a toga. I can only picture her in her usual black silk, buttons trailing up her bosom like water beetles.
In one of the oldest portraits, the Head of the House stands with a map of the island in the background, the twelve-pointed star of the maze covering its surface. Twelve Houses. Twelve mating ponds.
There’s a painting of a grey-haired Lady in front of a half-finished seashell mosaic, a sea urchin in her hand, as if considering where it would fit best in the design. Another Lady holds a twig of belladonna between her fingers, to make the nervous maid feel like she’s flying in her pond-husband’s arms. They all carry an amphora full to the brim with seawater.
“Behold the Heads of the House of the Water-Bearers, my little Krabbe!” Nana used to joke as we scrubbed the birthing room’s floors. “They think themselves so clever, yet don’t realize you and I rule the more ancient House of Fragrant Chamber-pots!” she’d add, cackling.
Not much has changed since Nana’s passing, chamberpot-wise. Only that I’m much lonelier and powerless. The other indentured girls are no use to me. They’re silly, clumsy things. I have to teach them the most basic jobs. They run away as soon as they hear Lady Banyu approaching, spill jam on the white tablecloth, or get caught stealing food.
More often than not, I’ll be chastised for not keeping a closer look on them. Particularly if Lamm hears about it. I’m quite certain Lamm herself broke that vase I was flogged for. She’s only second generation Aquarian, but since she became a pond-wife she’s worse than ever. Now Nana is not here to stare Lamm down, a thick shell of silence is my only protection.
Oh, Nana. How I miss you.
The midwife hands me dirty rags, careful not to look me in the eye. Neris’ older sister points at a rag half-hidden in a corner and smiles at me. I smile back.
“Some would do well to remember their position,” mutters the midwife.
As I pile blood-stained underwear and dirty rags, I think of Lady Banyu’s dead son. That grunting, sweet-natured man-child everyone pretended didn’t exist. The only eighth generation Aquarian in centuries −not that it was any use to him.
In any event, he’s the reason I’m half-fond of Neris’ sweaty older sister: she was the only one to show him any kindness, maybe because she’s nearly as thick-skulled as he was. She cried when his heart gave out. Snotty, heartfelt sobs Lady Banyu found most distasteful.
Under Lady Banyu’s severe clothes there are seven concentric circles inked on her right shoulder. Seven generations. Seven rungs up the ladder on which she’ll never allow me a toehold. I know the pureness of her breeding is supposed to make me envious, but it only feels as if there’s grout slurrying through her veins.
At any rate, it’s because of those seven circles that her portrait will hang in the birthing room after her death. I suddenly realize one of the marble columns will stand right before the painting, and the thought of old vinegar-face squinting for eternity makes me smirk. I lower my face so no one will notice, and wipe my hands on my apron as I stifle a laugh.
Lady Banyu’s portrait will hang next to her round-spectacled predecessor who, according to Nana, wasn’t half as bad as our current Head of House. She even allowed a handful of outstanding servants to enter the mating cycle: the midwife’s mother, strong as an ox and never one day of illness; intelligent Nana, who refused the offer.
“I’d rather be respected as a senior servant than looked down on as a minor wife,” she once told me.
Neris’ likeness may one day hang on the other side of Lady Banyu’s portrait. We’ve all seen Lady Banyu grooming her to be her successor, slowly and relentlessly squeezing any drop of kindness out of Neris.
“You, girl,” the midwife calls me. “Empty the water in that bassinet, will you?”
She smiles faintly. She’s managed to reassert the natural order of things. Girl. You, girl. I’m as old as Neris, but to the midwife I’m not Krabbe. I’m just Girl, and will always be. I was born under the sign of Aquarius, just like Lady Banyu, the midwife, and everyone around me. I was born under the sign of Aquarius, but I wasn’t born in the House of Aquarius. My mother was Cancer. Nana’s mother was Libra. We were delivered to our rightful House, just as Neris’ baby will be taken to the Centaurs (if he survives the night, premature and feeble as he is). That the son of haughty Neris will spend his life cleaning horse muck from the Centaurs’ stables shouldn’t cheer me up, but I confess it does.
Lady Banyu’s still squashing the unfortunate child against her chest. I steal a look at the babe. The bits I see through the white blanket remind me of a half-baked pie. The Aquarians called me Krabbe because it’s water-related but it won’t let me forget I’m an intruder. What will the Centaurs call Neris’ son?
Seahorse! I think to myself. Seahorse! Red and lumpy, raised by the Centaurs, born of an Aquarian mother? What better name to chide him for the rest of his days!
“Hurry, girl! That bassinet won’t empty itself!” calls Lady Banyu. “And come back as fast as you can.”
As level-headed Nana used to say: when the lion pounces, the crab recoils.
I take the bassinet and as I rush through the double doors, I stumble into Aiwe and Lamm who are waiting outside.
“Oh, sorry!” I mutter, because I’ve spilled bloodied water onto their white gowns, and although it’s their fault for hiding behind closed doors, I know who’ll take the blame.
“Never mind,” retorts Lamm. “We’ve heard crying. The baby’s Sagittarius, then?”
I nod. When I nearly collided with them, I righted the bassinet so the worst of the spill would fall on me. I’m drenched, but for Nana’s sake I try and keep my composure. Nana believed there should be dignity even in servitude.
“The baby arrived just after the Sun moved from Scorpio to Sagittarius.”
“Has Lady Banyu called out for the maids, yet?” Aiwe asks eagerly.
Of course not, you idiot, I think. You’re hiding right outside the room and no one has come looking for you, have they?
But I don’t say it, because although her sternum and left shoulder are as bare as mine, Aiwe’s got five circles on her right shoulder. Just as her older sister Neris.
Aiwe, pretty as she is, is quite thick. Thick in a good-natured way, just like her eldest sister, who’s been forced to stand for hours in the birthing room out of propriety and tradition, not because she was any real comfort for Neris. Young Aiwe is so dim she believes Lamm’s her friend, instead of a scheming witch who only fawns upon her because of her position.
Lamm’s a pond-wife, and wife trumps daughter. But mother trumps wife, and despite her exertions in the waters of our mating pond, Lamm has failed to upgrade her rank for three years. If she hasn’t become pregnant by now, it’s likely she never will. If she was anyone else, I’d pity her.
“Neris’ baby was very premature,” I tell them. “Maybe Lady Banyu will wait a few days before deciding who’ll take him to the Centaurs. If he’s to be taken at all.”
“Oh!” Aiwe looks crestfallen. Everyone has seen her stealing glances at her second cousin.
Lamm seems unhappy with this information, and when Lamm is unhappy she looks for reasons to become unhappier. I owe most of the scars on my back to Lamm’s mean streak, and therefore I try and make myself scarce whenever she’s in a mood.
I’m saved by Lady Banyu’s booming voice from behind the locked doors.
“Leave me alone with Neris, will you, ladies? I’ll speak to the new mother before the maids are ushered in.”
Aiwe beams. She’s as transparent as shallow water. I can almost hear her think: Yes! Now Neris will intercede for me. Everyone knows Lady Banyu never says no to Neris!
Spoilt Aiwe will get to take the baby to the House of Sagittarius, even if there are older candidates. And when she comes back from the Centaurs, she’ll be allowed to mate with her second cousin. She may even come back with child, and what could give her a greater boost within the House than being the pond-wife of Sagittarius and an expecting mother to boot? She’ll reach the top of the ladder well before Neris becomes Head of the House.
The double doors open and the women flow out of the birthing room. Aiwe rushes to her clammy eldest sister, who seems about to faint. The poor cow doesn’t even know why Aiwe is hugging her. I take the chance to retreat into the servant’s quarters.
There’s much clanging and banging of copper pots in the kitchen. An old fisherman, an octopus in each hand, speaks with the cook. He’s a funny one, that fisherman. He taught me to tie knots when I was little, each step of the knot a part of a saucy story I was too young to understand:
“The pond-bride must go through the maze,” the end of the twine went through several small loops, “and step into the foreign pond,” big loop, “before she’s allowed in the Aquarius pond,” second big loop, “to meet her lover.” With that he’d grab both ends together, pull, and wink at me.
I nod at the fisherman. He smiles back and raises his hand in salute, still clutching the dead octopus. Its legs dangle like the strings on an apron.
One of my girls is scraping barnacles and seaweed from the mussels, as the other watches over the bubbling stew. Her hands are covered in fish scales from the filleted haddocks and mullets on the table.
“Wash your hands before you smear your uniform, will you? Or you’d rather have Lady Banyu tell you again that you’re as dirty as a worm-riddled cod?”
The girl blushes at the memory.
“No, Krabbe! Sorry, Krabbe!”
She scurries away. I stare at the careless girl’s back and think of Nana.
“If it weren’t for us, servants… We’re the new blood circulating between the Houses. Our movements are as intricate as those of the stars in the sky. We’re the ones keeping the Houses alive.” She’d become quite the philosopher, my Nana, when she’d had too much seaweed liquor.
I wonder what she’d make of my apprentices. It’s hard to think of them as graceful stars travelling across the night sky, let alone the saviors of anything. Lady Banyu won’t allow them anywhere near the mating pond either, unless it’s to feed the coal fire that warms the water. Or to take a babe brought in from another House into the servants’ quarters, just as I took my apprentices from the pond-brides who brought them from Taurus and Capricorn.
If the indentured men were caught leaving the fishing boats for a tryst with one of the Aquarian women, even one of us servants, they’d be tangled in their nets and thrown to the merciless sea. No, us servants are not stars. We aren’t going anywhere.
I guess I’m partly to blame for my charges’ poor discernment. Nana taught herself to read with stolen books from the House’s library, and when I became her apprentice she taught me in turn. I owe her so much! But I’m too afraid of discovery to pass on her wisdom.
Nana instructed me in matters well beyond the contents of musty old books:
“As the saying goes, the Centaurs’ arrows pierce every side,” Nana would say. “They only fought against the Scorpions because they’re mortal enemies. They’d be happy to skewer us if we annoyed them in the slightest. Don’t you see the Houses dancing carefully around them? They’re terrified!”
Nana liked to talk as if she’d lived through the war with the Scorpions, although that was her great-grandmother’s time. At most, Nana’d heard handed-down stories from the servants who’d apprenticed her as a child.
But Nana was right about how short-tempered the Centaurs can be. They must be far more temperamental than I ever imagined, seeing how shaken Lady Banyu looked as she inspected the baby.
I stir the bubbling stew lest it burns while my apprentice scrubs her hands clean. The other girl is done with the mussels and is cooking the fish, which sizzles like an angry cat.
“Keep an eye on the stew, will you? I must change before going back to the birthing room.”
The House of Sagittarius has ears everywhere. They must know Neris was carrying an infant for them, I think as I rush to the room behind the kitchen’s stove I share with the cook. Not handing the child over would be an even bigger affront, and may unleash an unprecedented attack. No, the baby’s going to the Centaurs’ all right.
I’ve barely had time to change out of my wet uniform when I’m called back into the birthing room. I was afraid of intruding in Neris’ haggling on behalf of Aiwe, but it seems Lady Banyu is in a hurry to see the baby out of the House.
I open the double doors just enough to squeeze through. Neris is still lying on the birthing table and Lady Banyu stands a few feet from her.
“Oh, Krabbe, at last,” says Lady Banyu in a mellifluous voice most unlike her. “Please, help Neris wash her face before I call in the maids.”
I wipe Neris’ face. There are tears mixed with the sweat. Exhaustion has caught up with her. She seems so out of it I don’t know if the tears are from happiness, and because Aiwe will take Seahorse to the Centaurs, or if Neris is crying at having her sister’s wishes squashed.
I put a wet towel on Neris’ forehead.
“Krabbe… Oh, Krabbe,” mutters Neris. She looks at me as if from a great distance. Tears keep streaming down her cheeks.
“There, there. You’ll recover in no time. You’ll see,” I reply.
I doubt she even hears me. For three days Neris and the midwife have fought to prevent the baby from being born under the sign of Scorpio. She’s got reasons to be tired.
It’s ironic. The Houses deprive the Scorpions of new blood because it’s the worst they can inflict on them, and yet treat the bearers of new blood (like me, like Nana, like the food-stealing child servants) as dirt. I caress Neris’ forehead. None of this is her fault, I tell myself.
“Krabbe, Krabbe…” Neris keeps mumbling, her voice growing fainter. She opens her eyes a slit and stretches her arm towards me, as if with great effort.
“You need anything, Neris?” I say. “Can I bring you some water?”
“Don’t mind her, Krabbe. The midwife gave Neris something to help her rest,” Lady Banyu says, almost annoyed. Then she turns her head like a cat listening for scurrying mice. “Here they are,” says Lady Banyu. “Hold the baby for me, will you, Krabbe?”
I rush to Lady Banyu’s side and take Seahorse. As I’m about to leave, she orders me to stand beside her with a curt nod from her greying head.
The maids in their finery scuttle giddily through the double doors. One beside the other in their white dresses, they ripple and foam like waves crashing on the shore. I look from Seahorse to the maids standing along the wall. They seem ready to wrench the babe from my arms. Judging from the convoluted hair-dos and the layers of gauze and silk, they started dressing well before Seahorse was born. Aiwe, who’s spent the morning hiding outside the birthing room, looks plain by comparison. Lamm, of course, was chosen last time, and is not allowed in the ceremony. She’ll miss Aiwe’s moment of glory.
“Maidens of the House of Aquarius,” Lady Banyu lowers her voice so the maids are forced to shut up and strain to hear. “I’ve been conferring with the new mother about who should take her son to the House of Sagittarius, and we both agree…”
Aiwe beams and takes a step towards me. The rest look unsurprised but disappointed.
“… that the House of Aquarius requires new blood,” Lady Banyu raises her voice: “Krabbe will take the baby to the Centaurs, so she can bear children for us in the coming years.”
“Krabbe?” Aiwe yells, halting mid-step, her arms outstretched. “But you promised!” she screams hoarsely at Neris.
I instinctively clutch Seahorse against my chest. Aiwe sees it and runs out of the room, wailing.
“I shall bathe in the mating pond,” I murmur in disbelief.
My heart is racing and my whole body trembles. I’m afraid if I move one inch I’ll drop Seahorse. The maids are struck dumb. The oldest ones smirk. Aiwe wanted to jump the queue and she’s been put down. Serves her right! Slowly, though, the ends of their lips turn south. They’ve realized if I’m to become a pond-wife I’ll be higher than them in the hierarchy, and they are dismayed.
“Well,” Lady Banyu says. “What are you all waiting for? Go tell the wives. They’ll need to prepare the pond-bride.”
The maids leave.
I look back to Neris one last time and I see her lips moving. Krabbe, she’s mouthing, but she doesn’t look angry. Just lost.
I look down at Seahorse, asleep in my arms.
“What did you do to her, you devil?” I whisper, stroking his cheek.
I feel as feeble as Neris, but without the benefit of a birthing table to lie on. Now Seahorse’s not as red, he looks nicer, although he’s by no means a beautiful baby. I kiss his forehead with trembling lips.
He’s put an end to my indenture. Let it not be said I’m ungrateful.
The following day is a blur.
I go down to the kitchen to say goodbye, and leave Seahorse with my girls for the day.
“Only the nursemaid is allowed to unswaddle him. Lady Banyu’s concerned he’ll catch a cold. Come on! Don’t dawdle!”
“Yes, Krabbe,” they reply, and as I hurry back to the main rooms they shout, “Have fun tonight!”
I hear them snigger.
I’d only ever been in the bathing room to scrub the walls, tiled with row after row of scallops, like the scales on a great white fish. Today, women whose bedpans I’ve emptied daily bathe and perfume me. A dozen wives chatter cheerfully around my brass tub. There isn’t a single quip about my calloused hands or the whip scars on my back, and that, more than anything else, tells me that my serving days are truly over.
Wafts of steam and lavender sail across the room. As soon as I get undressed, one of the wives inks an arch and arrow at the center of my chest, and they all clap.
They tease me and offer advice:
“When you’re picking which of those Centaurs should be your pond-husband, Krabbe, remember the maiden prefers a frisky fish to a raging bull.”
They all laugh.
It’s not all happiness, though. Lamm, who as a younger wife is charged with soaping me and making me beautiful, looks as if she’d like to strangle me. I’m about to overtake her and she can’t bear it.
“Just don’t let them put a fish in all your vessels,” Lamm says with forced joviality, as she pours neroli oil in my bath.
“You’re a fine one to talk, Lamm,” I snap back, and the women roar in laughter.
I hope I’m red enough from the hot water they won’t notice I’m blushing. My piercing dart was no more than a lucky guess. To be honest, while I have a general idea of what goes on in the mating pond, I’m not too clear on the details. I see Lamm is about to say something nasty and I cut in. I clutch my belly and say:
“I’m going to get pregnant. I can feel it!”
The women go, “Uuuuh!” and clap excitedly.
Lamm spits in my bathwater and storms out of the room. The wives howl. It seems Lamm is not too popular among them either.
“Don’t mind her,” a woman whispers to me. “If you’re feeling terribly nervous, there’s always the belladonna libation beside the pond. Just remember to take only one sip. One sip will make you feel as if you’re flying. Two will make you sleep. Three and you’ll never wake up. Take care, will you?”
Once I’m bathed, dressed and coiffed, Lady Banyu calls me into the birthing room. Seahorse sleeps in a crib next to her.
“Welcome, Krabbe.” She greets me as if the person entering the room was not the same as the one picking bloodied rags the day before.
Which is precisely how I feel, in my embroidered white gown and with my cheeks covered in crushed mother-of-pearl.
She points at the portraits of the Heads of the House.
“We all serve the House of Aquarius. You. Me. All of us,” she says, as if scrubbing floors and posing for portraits were one and the same. “You’ve done us a great service all these years, and from tonight, you’ll serve the House in another fashion.”
Lady Banyu stops in front of the portrait with the Lady holding a sea urchin.
“To find the center of the labyrinth, Krabbe, you must follow the walls with urchins in the mosaic. Once at the center, the Centaurs will make it easy for you to reach their pond. They’re expecting you, and fear nothing from the other Houses. Your path will be clearly marked.”
She hands me Seahorse.
“Keep him protected from the cold till you’ve reached the Sagittarius pond. Once there, you’ll need to remove both your garments. They’re very particular about that.”
I nod. Everyone’s heard about the Scorpio pond-bride who smuggled a dagger under a baby’s swaddle.
“Then the Centaurs will show themselves, and you’ll get to pick your pond-husband. Is everything clear?”
I nod again.
“Good luck, then.”
As soon as the first stars show up in the sky, I leave the House behind. The briny smell of the sea hangs in the air. The high walls of the maze are covered in intricate seashell mosaics. I twist and turn through the maze’s corridors, always following the trail of sea urchins under the moonlight. I carry Seahorse with my left arm, and when a cloud covers the moon, I caress the damp walls to feel the spiky carapaces. There’s velvety moss growing in the interstices between the shells, and I’m careful not to get any dirt on my embroidered gown.
I think of Lamm, moving through these twisting corridors not so long ago, and how she’d never thought I would be the next maid to travel them, baby in tow and looking for the telltale sea urchins on the walls.
When I last saw her, she was crying on another wife’s shoulder.
“What did you expect Krabbe to do?” The wife had her back to me, but her whisper carried quite clearly. “You know what they say: when the ram steps back, you must move forward. Krabbe saw her chance to become a wife and took it. Why shouldn’t she?”
In that instant I thought of Nana who, ever the optimist, had believed that saying meant something else entirely.
“A ram only steps back when it’s about to charge. Stepping forward yourself is the one way to prevent it from charging, although it’s unlikely to stop it for long.”
I smirk. I’d much rather face Lamm’s charges as a wife and future mother than as a servant, I think as I quicken my pace along the maze’s corridors. I can’t stop smiling. Even as I press forward, I twirl once or twice, and my billowy skirts rise like meringue. Seahorse takes all the running and the gyrating in his stride. I encounter some of the Aquarian sentinels. They know I’m coming back and will soon be granting my favors in the Aquarian mating pond, and they puff out their chests when they hear me approach.
“Men are such silly creatures,” I whisper to Seahorse, who squeals in assent.
I wonder what Nana would think of my giddiness at becoming a pond-bride, and I remember her refusal to become one herself out of pride and misplaced loyalty.
Oh, Nana. You were so wrong!
After a while I don’t meet any more guards. But then, if we had a strong army, we wouldn’t depend on the Centaurs’ goodwill.
Seahorse protests. He misses the nursemaid.
“Shush,” I say. “We’ll get to your new House soon.”
We reach the center of the maze, formed by eleven arches and a vandalized stone wall where Scorpio’s entrance used to be. Two burning torches flank the entrance to the Centaurs’ portion of the maze.
“Look, Seahorse,” I whisper, awestruck.
My heart pounds. For the first time since I was brought in as a baby, I’m out of the House of Aquarius. I’ll go back a pond-wife, maybe even pregnant. The only life I’ve known is over. I’m so happy I could weep.
“Goodbye, House of Fragrant Chamber-Pots!” I yell, and punch the air with my free arm.
Seahorse wails, startled.
“Shush. I know. I know.”
I inspect the circle closely. I want to remember every detail of this night for the rest of my life. The bronze insets on Libra’s portal. The bull horns adorning Taurus’.
The Scorpions walled-off entrance is covered in crude drawings, not of men but of scorpions with human heads, riddled with arrows. I shudder. In the biggest drawing, the scorpion’s human face is contorted in pain. Its mouth is open in a silent scream, as the centaur that’s stepping on his back pulls one of his pincers out of its socket.
I don’t want to think about the brutal past on my wedding night, and so I turn towards the torches beckoning me into my pond-husband’s House.
Seahorse starts crying as soon as we cross into Sagittarius’ territory. I don’t scold him because I’m nervous too. I feel beautiful and reckless and free. The Centaurs’ corridors are wider. Their bare granite walls, far thicker and taller than ours. My heart gallops in my chest as I rush through the twists and turns. It’s so easy! They’ve lit torches every few steps, knowing no one could breach their protections. How it must feel to move through life so confidently!
There’s a musky scent in the air: a mixture of smoke, straw and manure. The bare granite walls are imposing in their austerity. All of a sudden, our portion of the maze seems as shabby and overdecorated as an old spinster wearing all her finery at the same time. I don’t see any guards, but I hear them. The wives said that on nights like this, men from the House of Sagittarius don special shoes. To make themselves taller and more fearsome. So their steps sound like hooves. The clippity-clops I hear are my suitors a-wooing me.
“You hear them too, Seahorse?” I smile at the angry baby.
Clip. Clop. There’s more of them. They’re drawing nearer. The wives told me I’d hear dozens on my way, but there’d be only six or eight to choose from at the pond. That I shouldn’t become too flustered. Clip. Clop. My body tingles with anticipation, and I rush through the corridors. They’re giving me a head start so I’m ready when they reach the pond. I take a turn and see steam floating above water at the end of the corridor.
“We’re here, Seahorse!”
The Sagittarius mating pond is square and unadorned, and there’s a ceramic jug of belladonna wine I don’t believe I’ll need. I’m feverish with nerves but I intend to enjoy myself. Why shouldn’t I?
I see a servant girl coming, and I raise a hand in salute. From where I’m standing I can see her frown. I realize she and I aren’t equals anymore, and it makes me sad. She mimes unswaddling a baby. I nod. I hear hooves slowly approaching. I should be naked myself by the time the men arrive.
I plant one last kiss on Seahorse’s forehead. Clip. Clop. He continues to weep as I lay him on the stone, next to the libation jug, and unpin his clothes. He protests and kicks his legs when he feels the cold against his skin. Then I see the birthmark on his tiny chest, and the air is knocked out of my lungs.
A scorpion-shaped birthmark, to prove the stars won’t be denied by some meddling women. My heart races. No wonder Lady Banyu was shocked. I can’t breathe.
I’m a sacrifice.
The servant girl looks at me, ready to raise the alarm if she sees anything suspicious. The hooves sound nearer.
Sacrificed. To spare Aiwe, to spare the House. Lady Banyu sent me and Seahorse to our deaths, in hopes the Centaurs will take their rage out on us. I think of pincers torn out of their sockets, of rams getting ready to charge. That sometimes, when faced with grave danger, the only option is to step forward.
I look at the servant girl and sense I have but an instant before she screams for help. I understand there’s nothing I can do for Seahorse or myself, and I can’t turn the Centaurs against the House of Aquarius without condemning the servants. I’ve failed my girls in so many ways, but I won’t have them savaged. And then I remember Neris, muttering my name and crying, as Lady Banyu disposed of me as if I were a dirty rag or a heap of fish bones.
I take the jug and with my fingers I pry Seahorse’s lips open. I pour belladonna in his mouth.
“Hey!” the servant girl yells, running towards me. “Hey! What you doing?”
I pour the jug’s contents down my throat. Half goes down my gown, but I already feel the inside of my mouth going numb. I grab Seahorse’s stiff little body and raise him, the better to display him. So they’ll understand when they inspect our bodies.
“Lady Banyu sent us to taunt you!” I yell. A distant roar. A couple of men start running and the rest follow them. I must get the words out before my throat swells shut or they reach me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the servant girl fleeing. “She tried to turn the House of Aquarius and the rest of Houses against you, but no one listened, not even in our House!”
An arrow pierces my shoulder and I fight not to drop Seahorse, I’m going as numb as wood, my right leg flinches.
“Don’t fall into her tr…”
An arrow to the stomach. I don’t feel pain, but it pushes me backwards into the pond with a great splash.
“Stop!” “Don’t shoot!” I hear as we plunge into the water.
I press Seahorse’s limp body against my chest and we sink. I hear muffled screams and distorted words above the pond’s surface. Chaos. Someone heard my message and wants me alive to extract Lady Banyu’s plans, but thankfully I’ll die well before. Arrows pierce the water and I see red, but don’t feel much. We flee we fly we float in the warm, warm water inside a halo of white gauze. My legs start kicking like a baby’s, my bridal dress tangles around my head. I’ll die inside a cloud.
My arms flail and I lose Seahorse. As he sinks I think of Nana and my apprentices and Neris’ tears. I think that if Seahorse and I have been robbed of our future, I hope we’ve made a mark, even a small one, on the future of others. I don’t feel as much like I’m flying, but as if I’m falling upwards. As I slide into unconsciousness, I see the maze from above, and a grown Seahorse taking a sledgehammer against its walls, and my clumsy, silly, funny girls, Nana, the cook, the fishermen, the servant girl in the Sagittarius mating pond, all dancing happily amid the rubble.
|Emma Culla is a Catalan writer who lives in Barcelona. Her stories have appeared in the Future SF Digest and Curiosities among others, under the name I. Punti.|