PodCastle 402: Opals and Clay (Artemis Rising)

Show Notes

Rated PG.

Welcome to Artemis Rising II!

Opals and Clay

by Nino Cipri

“I’ll need you to oversee the shipment coming in today,” Lady Adina told me at her breakfast. “The household finally allocated us a clay serva, and it’ll be arriving with the other goods.”

Adina took her meals in her study, which was the only spacious room in the aquaplex, with tall ceilings and curved walls. My mistress ate by the large, convex window that looked into the water, shaped like a fish’s eye, created by embedding glass into a lattice of metal. It gave a view that only fish—and my dead ancestors—had seen: the forest of kelp that grew amid the crumbled walls and columns of the destroyed city of Tenitha.

“Yes, Lady,” I said. She finished her porridge and pushed the empty bowl towards me. She toyed with a small plate of figs as I collected her empty dishes to take to the kitchen.

“Ola?” Adina called, as I turned to go.

On mornings like this, the room was lit by the cool, diffuse light that filtered down from the surface of the water. It threw Adina’s face into softer, kinder focus: smoothing out the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, the sharp lines of her jaw and nose.

She held out the figs to me. She must have seen me eyeing them; after six years, she knew that I often ate whatever she left on her plate. The servants’ meals only stretched so far.

“Take them,” she said, smiling kindly. “You’ll miss lunch if the shipment is late.”

The D’Amara household was famous for its feats of engineering—they built the floating bridges between the towers of Harapiri’s university, and the aqueducts in the mountain mines. The aquaplex was Lady Adina’s life work; designed to study and excavate the submerged ruins of Tenitha, whose riches had outstripped Harapiri’s before its destruction, before the great sea serpent we were named for toppled us into the water.

From the cliffs above, I could barely see the shimmering white stones of Tenitha beneath the waves. Adina’s aquaplex was easily visible, a squat building of dark steel jutting out from the cliffs and descending into the water, like a monster emerging from the water to attack the land.

Still sweating from the long climb up the slippery limestone stairs, I looked down on it. In a moment of recklessness, I spat over the edge of jagged cliffs, though the wind carried it away before it could reach the black metal of the roof. I watched the waves, feeling that recklessness drain out of me, then sat beneath a gnarled olive tree to wait.

The merchants arrived in the heat of noon, and I heard the braying of their donkeys long before they came into view. I slid the knife and hunk of stone I’d been carving into a fold in my tunic and stood up, shielding my eyes from the sun. The clay serva brought up the rear. It was tall and thin, with a frayed linen robe that covered its terracotta limbs. Like all servae, a burnished metal plate covered the lower half of its face; this one was stamped with the chevrons and spiral of the D’Amara household—the same emblem that was tattooed on the back of my hands. The pale opals in its eyes and fingertips gleamed in the sun.

It seemed to gaze at me, and I bowed my head. It rested a hand on its flat, hollow chest, and bowed back.

The serva watched silently until the merchants climbed up on their donkeys and started their journey back towards Harapiri. As I struggled to get the crates onto the elevator, the serva touched my elbow. I would have dropped the crate on my foot if the serva hadn’t caught it, lifting it onto the elevator with ease.

“Thank you,” I said. It nodded, and grabbed another crate, motioning me away when I tried to help. I ate the figs Adina had given me as I watched it work, though they only made me hungrier.

When the serva finished, I stood and started down the path,

the serva tugged at my sleeve. It pointed at the spot where I’d sat, and I saw that the little stone fish I’d been carving, trying to while away the time, had fallen out of my belt. The serva stopped me from wrapping it back in my belt with my knife, touching it delicately with its opal fingertips, which clacked softly against the limestone.

My father had taught me to pull shapes out of the stones and pieces of wood, though he’d allowed that my mother had always been more talented. I wore a knot of bone that she had carved for him.

“It’s not done yet,” I said, and the serva nodded. It handed the little fish back to me, then pulled down the collar of its robe, where there were blocky Harapirian letters carved into the side of its neck: PENTA.

“Penta,” I said, sounding it out. “My name is Ola.”

We passed others in the cramped hallways of the aquaplex. Everyone stared at us—the Tenithans gave Penta quick, curtailed bows, while the Harapirians gawked.

I knocked at Adina’s door, two quick raps, before entering with Penta. Adina sat at the same wrought-iron table I’d left her at that morning, in front of the window.

“Lady,” I said, dropping a quick curtsy.

She hardly saw me, eyes immediately going over my shoulder to gaze at Penta.

“Finally,” she sighed. She stood up and waved us inside. “Close the door behind you.”

The serva’s face turned towards the window as it walked inside, and I wondered if it recognized the remains of its old home.

“Look at her, Ola,” Adina said. She circled Penta, prodding and examining the serva as if it were one of the pumps she’d designed to keep the aquaplex from flooding. “She’s gorgeous.”

I watched Adina pick up one of Penta’s hands, examining the joints of its fingers. “She?” I asked.

“Why not?” Adina said. “I prefer the company of women. I’m sure she doesn’t mind. Even if she did, it’s not like she can complain.”

Adina grasped the serva by its jaw and pulled it down, until it was eye-level. She examined Penta’s face, turning it this way and that, then put her fingers in Penta’s eyesocket, latching her nails onto the opal and pulling it out. I winced, though the servae supposedly felt no pain. I wondered if they could feel anything at all.

Adina held out Penta’s eye to me. It was a round globe, as large as one of the famous pearls that had supposedly decorated the jewelry of Tenithan kings and queens. The front half was milky and pearlescent, but the back half was dark grey.

“Touch it,” she instructed.

I glanced up at Penta. The serva’s face was turned away, towards the window that looked out onto the sea. I touched the stone, and it felt slick, almost oily, and warm.

“We’ve studied the servae since Tenitha fell, and these stones that power them. You know the fairytale, I assume? Of Istan and Elia?”

I nodded, trying to discretely wipe my finger on my tunic. “It’s a scale from Teni’s hide.”

She snorted. “Sure. And Harapiri’s winds are caused by Hara’s snoring,” she dismissed the legend of her city’s foundation as if it were a fly she could shoo away. “I told the household that aquaplex would be able to find Tenitha’s royal treasury. But this is what I really hope to find. More of these stones, to build more clay servae. Maybe if we find them in their raw state, we can understand how they work. And we’ll be able to build new servae. A whole army of them, perhaps. Workers that never have to sleep, and clay soldiers that can feel no pain.”

She rubbed the eye between her fingers, then handed it back to Penta. Penta clumsily tried to put it back in her eye socket, bumping her fingers against her brow.

“Would you like me to do it?” I asked.

Penta nodded and dropped the orb into my palm. I rested a hand on her shoulder—Adina’s decision to make Penta female had infected my mind, it seemed—and slid the opal back into its socket until something caught.

“Better?” I asked. Penta nodded, putting a hand to her face.

Adina snorted. “Hara’s claws, girl, she’s just mud and magic. You needn’t be so polite.”

Lady Adina sent Penta out walking in the sea for the first time that afternoon.

“Noon would have better light, but I want her to start exploring as soon as possible,” Adina said. She liked to chat at me as if I were an equal, though I knew better than to answer in the same way.

We stood in what Adina called the moongate, a low-ceilinged chamber with a hatchway that led to a small room, the size of a pantry or closet. The door was small, made of thick metal, with a wheel attached to the outside. It had only been finished a few months ago, and the room still smelt sharply of the sea and metal, each breath carrying the subtle taste of blood.

“You know what to look for, Penta,” Adina said. “Valuables of any kind, obviously. But also the opals make more servae. Or anything that might have more information about them, how they work. Understand?”

Penta nodded.

“Good. Come back in an hour. No. Come back when it’s dark.”

Penta nodded again and undid the clasp that held her robe. The fabric fell off her shoulders and puddled on the floor at her feet. I gathered it up as soon as she stepped away.

Penta just barely fit through the door to the moongate. Adina sealed the door shut after her, then went to the controls. “Watch through the porthole, Ola. Tell me if anything goes wrong.”

“Yes, Lady,” I said. Penta stood in the small chamber, stooped beneath its low ceiling. She looked back over one shoulder and saw me through the window. She raised one of her hands, giving me a quick salute. I smiled thinly.

Adina yanked on a lever, and there was a screech of metal, then a thunderous roar as seawater burst into the tiny room.

“Did it work?” she yelled. “Is the room flooding?”

The water swirled around Penta’s ankles, climbing towards her knees, and she staggered.

“Yes,” I answered.

Penta braced herself as the water swirled around her thighs, then her hips. She couldn’t drown, I knew—or at least, the servae in the stories couldn’t.

“Move,” Adina said, pushing me out of the way and peering through the porthole. “I want to see if she can open the outer door after the room is flooded.”

I clutched Penta’s robe to my stomach, feeling it press against the little stone fish I’d carved while waiting for her. Adina watched with interest, and not a shred of the anxiety I felt. Water splashed against the tiny window, then covered it.

After a moment, Adina turned and grinned at me. “She did it,” she said. “She opened the door. Didn’t even strain against its weight. By the Bear, they’re strong.”

She turned away, walking back towards the controls. “You can fetch dinner now. I need to write letters to the rest of the household.”

“Yes, Lady,” I said, dropping a curtsy. I glanced through the porthole as I turned away: through the water, I could see the door set ajar, and the vague outlines of the seascape beyond it.

My grandmother liked to tell the story about the first clay serva, about how it came to be. A pearl diver named Istan, who was beloved by the sea, found a scale from the hide of Teni—the sea serpent after whom our city was named—on the ocean floor. Istan’s father was a stone carver who had been commissioned to sculpt the ancient warrior-king Elia, and he had made a scale model out of clay. Istan decided to ornament the clay manikin with slivers of Tenitha’s scale. She carved two eyes for Elia, eyes that glinted with green and blue and red flames, fingertips, a mouth. The clay manikin came alive, and they fell in love.

It ended in tragedy, of course. Most of Tabor’s stories


Istan’s father was enraged that his daughter had fallen in love with the clay king, and threw them both into the sea. Teni transformed Istan into one of the pale, whiskered sea serpents that stalk the coast, the ones we called Teni’s daughters. Elia walked out of the water, bearing more of the scales from the seafloor.

They were not called servae in Tenitha; we called the clay people sophae, the wise ones. They only became slaves after Tenitha fell. In exchange for granting us refuge, the servae went to the wealthiest Harapirian households. The council of households tore off their mouths and stole their voices, turning the sophae into slaves.

Penta came back after sunset. Adina was pacing the length of the moongate’s chamber by then, notes and letters and designs abandoned on the table where she’d taken her dinner. I waited against one of the walls, fingering the half-finished carving in my pocket.

“What’s the time now?” Adina asked.

I looked at the small clock on the moongate’s controls. “Just past seven,” I said.

“Sunset was nearly half an hour ago,” she said, glancing again at the moongate.

It was closer to a quarter-hour, if that, but I didn’t answer.

A few minutes later, there was a dull thud from inside the moongate. Adina darted over to the small porthole. “She’s come back,” she said, grinning at me. “And there’s something in her hands.”

She ran back to the controls, and I peeked in through the porthole. Penta stood inside the moongate, and there was indeed something cupped in her hands, though I couldn’t tell what.

“Ola, is the door closed?” Adina said, waiting at the controls.

“Yes,” I answered.

I heard a series of clanks, then a roar of machinery. Vents in the walls of the moongate suddenly slid open, sucking water out amid clouds of bubbles. In a few minutes, the room was mostly clear of water.

Adina pushed me aside. “Help me with the hatch,” she said, and slowly, we turned the wheel until the seal popped open. My nostrils filled with the sharp smell of seawater and mud.

“Welcome back,” she told Penta. “I see you brought me gifts?”

She held out her hands, and Penta dropped her burdens into them. Adina moved back to her table, and I helped Penta out. Her clay skin was freezing, and I quickly became soaked along one side.

“That’s disappointing,” Adina said.

“What is, Lady?” I asked, looking to her.

“No opals,” she said. She gestured at the items she’d dropped in a heap on the table. I saw gold coins, platinum ingots, pearls as big as grapes, and what looked like a carved turtle, made of some clear red stone.

“It’s only her first time out,” I said.

“I expected better than this.” She flicked at one of the pearls, and it rolled along the table. I caught it before it could fall off.

“Maybe next time,” I said.

“Maybe,” she echoed. “I’ll call the bursar to collect these. Scrub out the moongate while you’re waiting for him.”

“Yes, Lady.” I curtseyed, and Adina swept out of the room.

I sent Penta to fetch some water while I grabbed brushes and brooms from a cupboard. I pulled back my hair, and undid the belt over my tunic, shucking it off and wearing just my shift. When Penta returned, she immediately took one of the brushes that I’d taken from a cupboard.

“You can rest,” I said.

She looked at the chair Adina had sat in, at the table with its collection of abandoned Tenithan treasures. She pointed at me, then at the chair.

“I’m not the one who went walking in the sea,” I said.

She gestured to the space between us, then shrugged. She’d rest when I did, I thought she meant.

“If you insist,” I said.

The bursar came while we were still cleaning, and he clucked happily over the coins and ingots and pearls. We finished with the moongate quickly—I didn’t like knowing that the sea was all around us, waiting to rush in through the vents.

When we were through, I shut the door behind us. When I turned around, I saw Penta standing at the table, examining something.

It was the small turtle, carved from red stone stone. The bursar must not have bothered to pick it up. It probably wasn’t as valuable, not to the D’Amara household, at least.

“It’s lovely,” I said. I thought about it sitting in the water for nearly a century, down amongst the Tenithan dead, far away from the light and air.

Penta dropped the turtle into my hands. I tucked it into the pocket on my tunic, next to the limestone fish. “Shh,” I said. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

Penta brought a single, opal-tipped finger to where her mouth had been, tapping it softly against the metal, and sighed, echoing my noise as best she could.

A few days later, after Penta’s fourth trip into Tenitha—still unsuccessful in her search for one of Teni’s scales—Adina declared that the serva smelled like bilgewater and was stinking up the aquaplex. I took her to the servants’ bath. It was warm in there, close to the boilers, and far from the sea.

She reached for the stiff-bristled brush and soap I carried, but I held them away from her. “Let me,” I said, then added, “It’ll be easier.”

She stared at me for a moment, then nodded.

I had to stand on a stool to reach the tops of her shoulders and the back of her head, brushing away the bits of seaweed that still clung to her. The smell of her skin slowly changed as the seawater was washed away, from the tang of salt to the metallic pungency of earth. Her skin slowly warmed as well, from the cold of the ocean to the slightly feverish warmth that I took to be her natural temperature.

“Do you mind that Adina calls you female?” I asked, though I really wanted to know for myself.

Penta glanced over her shoulder at me, where I was still perched on the stool. She shook her head.

“Do you like it?” I asked, smiling when she nodded.

I wondered what Penta saw through her opal eyes: was the world slightly opaque, with light refracted into dull flames of color? Or was it plainer? I could ask her, but she had no way to tell me.

“Can you feel things?” I asked her. I had so many questions for her, but I’d never had a chance to ask them. “When you touch them, I mean, the same as I do?”

In answer, Penta held out her hands, waggling her fingers. Each long digit was tipped with the same opals as her eyes.

“You can feel things where Tenitha’s scales are on your body?” I guessed.

Penta nodded again.

“And when you all still had mouths, and could speak—What’s wrong?”

Penta had gone tense beneath my hands, the plates of her shoulders tightening.

Penta raised her hand and brushed at the flat metal plate that covered the lower half of her face. The opals scratched against the burnished metal. She did not nod or shake her head, just stood there with her hand where her mouth had been.

According my grandmother, all the clay servae—the sophae, rather, as they’d been at the time—had had their jaws torn away in a great public ceremony in the main square of Harapiri. They had lined up, one by one, and waited patiently as Harapiri’s council of households took hammers and chisels and hacked off lips, cut out tongues, and sealed the wholes with metal plates.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

Penta dropped her hand, and shrugged.

I spoke very softly then, wary that even in our solitude, someone could overhear. “It’s not fair. None of it.”

Penta touched my hand where it rested on her shoulder, and shook her head.

Adina’s mood became worse as the days passed, and Penta still brought in no opals. Even the treasures that she did bring in—pearls, gold, bright gemstones—did nothing to appease Adina’s temper.

“He returned empty-handed again,” Adina fumed. She’d started referring to Penta as male when she was angry. “I’m beginning to suspect that he’s sabotaging me.”

“Penta still brings you—”

“He brings me nothing,” Adina said. She slumped back in her chair, pushing away her half-empty breakfast plate. “Trinkets and baubles. A pearl diver could do as much.”

“Is the household displeased?”

“When aren’t they?” Adina said. “I’m swelling the D’Amara coffers, sure, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the money we spent building the aquaplex.”

We were in her window room, and the blue light made her tattoos stand out, stark lines against her pale skin. She walked until she stood in front of the honeycombed window, with its view of the kelp forest. “It’s never enough for a place to just be beautiful. It must also serve its purpose and pay its debts. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise, what?” I asked.

She glanced over her shoulder at me. “Otherwise, it has no reason to exist.”

Harapirians had many laws about debts and burdens; I’d been born into indentureship because my great-grandparents had the bad luck to become refugees here. Any children I had, or grandchildren, could expect the same. Yet, what else was there for us Tenithans? Where else could we, as a people, go?

I said, “It’s only been a week—”

“Nine days,” Adina corrected me.

“Nine days,” I repeated. “But Lady, the servae were never great in number. No new ones had been made in—”

“In how long?” Adina snapped. “Were you there, Ola? Or are you just repeating the stories your granny told you?”

My grandmother—the storyteller in our family—had often pondered what great sins we Tenithans committed to earn Teni’s terrible wrath. She believed that it was the trading we’d done with the Harapirians, who had built their city in the curves and folds of Hara, the giant bear who’d hibernated for so long that she’d become a mountain. My grandmother loved to tell of the old enmity between Hara and Teni, the earth and the sea.

“Tenithans are all the same,” Adina muttered. “You act like your great city was there just yesterday. Like Teni will be back any moment to forgive you. Or avenge you.” She glared at me. “Is that what you want? Vengeance on the people that took you in when your city fell into the sea?”

“No, Lady,” I said. My heart was pumping wildly in my chest, like one of Adina’s machines. “It’s not. We’re all grateful. I’m grateful.”

We stared at each other. “Are you,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

I swallowed all the words that bubbled up in my throat, both lies and truths. I asked softly, “Will there be anything else, Lady?”

“No,” Adina said. “Get out.”

Dreaming of the dead is common among Tenithans. It’s a shared madness we all have, or so the Harapiri like to say.

Every night since Penta had come, I’d walked through the drowned streets of Tenitha, avenues laid out by ruined masonry and the bones of the dead. I’d wake gasping, soaked through with sweat, as if I really had gone out walking in the sea.

It was on one of these nights that Penta came to me. I was still sucking in lungfuls of the cold, damp air, crouched over my thin bedroll, when she knocked.

My room had been a closet before Adina decided that she wanted me close at hand. It stood just across a narrow hallway from her quarters, close enough that she could shout for me during the night. It was an honor to have my own bedroom—all the other Tenithans in the aquaplex were housed in a single room, far closer to the noisy pumps that kept the halls from flooding.

I opened the door, blinking in the dim light. “Sorry,” I said to Penta. “Did I call out?”

Penta nodded. We’d worked out a rough language of gestures, and now she pointed at me and cocked her head.

“I’m all right. It was just a dream.” I wiped the sweat from my face. “I should wash.”

I pulled one of my dry blankets around my shoulders and we crept over to Adina’s bath—she’d never know that I’d used it, and it was far closer than the servants’. I filled the basin and splashed at my face, Penta watching me from the door. The water was brackish on my lips. I missed the taste of the mountain streams I remembered from my childhood.

But I lived and slept surrounded by saltwater. Even the air tasted like tears. I wiped at my face with the rough wool blanket, and caught sight of Penta gazing at me in the mirror.

“What is it like?” I asked Penta. “To go out walking in Tenitha?”

Penta didn’t answer—not that she could, not that I’d expected her to. She looked up at the ceiling, which was only a few inches from her face. Penta had obviously been built for places with open air and high ceilings.

“I’ve been dreaming of it,” I told her. “And it’s always so lonely. But maybe it’s like going home for you.”

Penta turned up one of her palms in a shrug, and looked away.

“Do you remember it? The way it was?”

Penta took a breath and let it out a low whistle, and nodded.

I wet a corner of the blanket and started scrubbing at the back of my neck and under my arms. “I wish you could tell me what it was like. I wish you could tell all of us what we’ve lost. Maybe we’d try to build it again, if we knew what we were missing.”

Penta lay her hand on my shoulder, and when I turned, her opal fingertips ghosted over my lips. I flushed, and my mouth tingled. We stood like that for a long breath.

I touched Penta’s cheek, mirroring the gesture. The metal was cold, unlike her clay skin, which felt as if it had been warmed by the sun. “If you brought me one of Teni’s scales, I’d carve a mouth for you. So you could tell us everything we’ve forgotten.”

Penta’s stone eyes gazed into mine, and then she withdrew her hand.

“What are you—”

She pulled something from her robe: the stone fish that I’d carved. But it had changed. Where its eyes before had been smooth white, they were now chips of gleaming, milky opal.

“Where…?” I whispered.

Penta held up her right hand. There were two chips taken out from the third finger.

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

Penta stepped forward, and dropped the fish into the half-filled basin. The stone fish twitched and came awake when it hit the water, swimming in circles.

I looked up at Penta, whose opal eyes were studying me with, I thought, a trace of nervousness. I took her hand, unfolding her fingers to make them lay flat, and then I kissed her fingertips.

The next night, Penta brought me one of Teni’s scales.

The stories had exaggerated its size, though not its beauty. It was the size of my fist, brilliantly colored, with blue and yellow flames dancing across its surface. I wondered when she had brought it up from the sea, and how she had possibly hidden it from Adina.

Penta brushed her hand across the flat, metal plate that covered the bottom of her face, and I knew what she was asking. I began carving her a jaw and mouth: a mouth I could kiss, that would speak to me, tell me all the lost songs and poems and histories of Tenitha. But more than that, I wanted to hear all the small thoughts that were trapped in Penta’s mind. I wanted her voice in my ear: joking, sighing, laughing, whispering. Free.

I worked on it in secret every night in my room. I saved each shard that I carved away, knowing that I would be able to attach it elsewhere to Penta, give her a nose and—I didn’t have quite enough material to give her one sex or another, but maybe someday, I would. If there was one scale, there had to be more. My mind was full of parts that I would be able to touch, places where she could feel my skin against hers.

Three days after Penta brought me the scale, Adina summoned me. She was in an odd mood, subdued and sullen. “Come with me to the moongate,” she said. “There’s some cleaning in there that I need you do.”

My thoughts were still full of Penta’s mouth, and how it was coming together beneath my blade, night by night. The night before, Penta had sat across from me on my bedroll and watched as I carved. I’d felt the weight of her gaze as I worked, like a caress down my arms.

In the antechamber of the moongate, Adina pointed towards the small and round door, which was slightly ajar. “Some seaweed is caught in the vents. I need you to clean it out.”

I moved to the closet, and she stopped me with a hand on my chest.

“I need the bucket and brushes,” I said.

Adina pushed me back towards the moongate. “I have them in there already. Go.”

I stepped back. “Yes, Lady.”

She watched me, her face blank and cold as I stooped and pushed the door open.

Adina must have used one of the coalmen’s shovels from the boiler room when she attacked Penta. I can think of nothing else that could have sheared through the clay skin with such force. She had been chopped into pieces, with her torso missing one of its arms, her legs cut off at the knees.

My horror froze me. Adina shoved me through the door and slammed it shut behind me. I hadn’t realized it before, but there was no wheel on the other side of the door. It could only be opened from the control room.

I screamed, and the sound echoed and bounced in the chamber. I put my face up to the tiny window, hoping this was a terrible joke, a fit of temper.

Adina held the scale I’d spent days carving in one hand, the brilliant colors catching the light, reflecting like flames. Adina glared at me, and walked slowly over to the panel with the levers and dials I’d seen her use to flood the chamber. I pled, screamed my apologies, begged for her to let me out. If she heard me, she gave no sign. She just placed her hand on the lever and slowly thrust it forward.

The water was freezing as it swirled around my ankles, and I shrieked even louder, clawing at the door. The water climbed higher, to my calves and then my hips, pushing and pulling me with such violence that I didn’t, at first, notice the tug on my tunic.

I had forgotten about Penta. She grabbed my hand, pushing something into it. It nearly slid out of my fingers; a sphere of milky white stone. I looked up: one of her eyes was missing from her face.

Penta pushed my hand towards my mouth, forcing her eye between my lips. I swallowed it by reflex, and nearly choked as it slid down my throat.

I asked my grandmother once, the great storyteller and authority of my childhood, how Teni had turned Istan into a serpent to save her from drowning.

“Who knows?” she’d said. “The sophae could have told us, maybe. They were her children, and she spoke through them. But those days have long since passed.”

I wonder what Adina saw, if she looked into the chamber after filling it with water. I wouldn’t have put it past her to watch me thrash and scream as the water flooded in. Did she see a woman twisting in agony, her limbs shrinking and melting together, her skin paling until it was milky and smooth, rippling with irridescent scales? Did she see my eyes grow round and opaque as black pearls? Did she see my hair curl into tendrils, and whiskers spring from my cheeks?

All I had eyes for, when I remembered to open them, was for Penta, my love. Penta, my sister. Penta, who used the single arm still attached to her body to open the second door and hold it open for me.

If I could have spoken, I would have promised her that I’d seek out Teni in the cliffs where she slept, to tell her of what had befallen the people that worshipped her. To beg her forgiveness. To demand her vengeance.

But I could say nothing. Both of us had been rendered mute.

I wound my long, scaled body around Penta’s opal fingertips instead, just for a moment before I darted out. And then I fled the aquaplex, swimming out into the ruined streets of Tenitha, the city of the drowned and the dead.


About the Author

Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago. Their writing has been published in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and other fine publications. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has also written plays, essays, and radio features, and has performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer. They currently work as a bicycle mechanic, freelance writer, and occasional rabblerouser.

More of their writing can be found on my website: ninocipri.com. You can support them on my patreon page: www.patreon.com/ninocipri. You can also check for updates by following them on twitter (@ninocipri) or on Facebook.

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About the Narrator

The Word Whore

The Word Whore runs Air Out My Shorts with Preston Buttons. This is an intermittent humor podcast which includes a not insignificant amount of booze and fiction of dubious quality.

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