Paseia takes care to observe her supplicants before every consultation; a successful interpreter must read and accommodate any mood.
Fortunately, Lady Ouridia Diphan and Lady Biota Leanax descend from their shuttle in high spirits, which gain altitude as Paseia leads their ladyships to the appointed room. They are a pair in their early thirties, fiancées, both of them pretty as puddings straight from the mold. Though tall Lady Biota wears spectacles, and though Lady Ouridia has neglected to powder her freckles, their styles of dress and speech are otherwise nigh identical not only to each other, but to every other wealthy woman whom Paseia has served. Their gowns bell from this or that season’s new waist-line; their hats perch upon the inevitable curls; their lips shape each syllable with gushing precision. The oracles, oh, just look at them!
Paseia, too, could rhapsodize about the parrots, but she will not subject their ladyships to the interpreters’ orisons, most of which are fond insults and complaints.
Most oracles they pass are larger birds: their feet dry bracelets around their interpreters’ forearms, their eyes big cabochons in leathery sockets, their crests raised with the eloquence of an actor’s brow. Charmed-I’m-Sure, a scarlet beauty familiar to Paseia, thrusts her nubbin of a tongue into her interpreter’s nostrils. On another woman’s shoulder, a cockatoo intently cracks its beak into a block of wood; splinters trail the interpreter’s skirts.
The Ladies Ouridia and Biota are enchanted, and Paseia cannot fault them. One does not see animal life except on planetside estates, or natural preserves, or on the zooships of Polukallista—not that Paseia has ever received an invitation to any of these extravagant locations—or on an oracular vessel like the Foreshore.
When a white-robed man and his blue macaw oracle turn a corner, the tall one, Lady Biota, once again grabs her fiancée’s arm. “Doodle, oh! See the colors, such harmony!”
“Oh, I do! What a splendid creature! It would look well atop my new hat, don’t you think?” says Lady Ouridia, gesturing upward.
“La,” says Lady Biota, “very grand—if it did not topple you over!”
If it did not chew your pretty hat to shreds, Paseia thinks.
“But I am sure your little friend is perfectly lovely,” adds Lady Ouridia, turning to Paseia.
“Small birds like Honor are best suited to matters of marriage and courtship,” Paseia explains, lest their ladyships think either her or her oracle inferior, and then offers her customary line: “There is nothing less conducive to matrimony than a mocking cockatoo—we leave them for the politicians.”
Lady Biota unleashes a hooting laugh. “Bless you, beautiful egg!”
Paseia obliges her with a smile, and then pauses at the correct door. She bows the women inside, her hand cupped against her chest. “Do have a seat, ladies.”
The room is small, comfortable, and above all round. Three round, low-lying cushions encompass a round table, above which float two bowls of candied rose petals, one bowl of strawberries, and three glasses of ratafia. Several large, frosted glass spheres, lit from within, bob weightless beneath the ceiling’s curve. A circular window affords them a view of the nebula, stars tossed among pink and golden clouds.
Once the supplicants finish arranging themselves on two of the cushions, Paseia seats herself upon the third. With poise, with grace—with an impossible insensibility to the ladies’ dialogue—she takes the one object truly sitting upon the table, a wooden frame from which hang twelve small bells, and gives each of them an experimental ring.
Lady Biota plucks her ratafia from the air.
“Ah—by all means, my lady, but please mind your drinks,” says Paseia.
“That means you, Beetle,” teases Lady Ouridia. “I suppose we’ll never find them empty.”
“I do adore these small magics,” sighs Lady Biota after a hearty sip.
“Certainly I cannot stop you from imbibing as much as you please,” says Paseia. “I meant only that Honor might try to steal a taste.”
“The dear! I’ll not begrudge him,” says Lady Biota.
“And then he’ll die,” says Lady Ouridia, “which signifies a charming start for our marriage.”
Having unwrapped her scarf, Paseia dips her hand inside her loose collar. There he is: a little bundle of warmth beneath her clavicle. She pries his claws from her chemise and drags him, blinking, into the nebula’s rosy light. The ladies’ gasps gratify her. On-Your-Honor is a handsome fellow, soft as a peach, his yellow plumage fading to white and orange around his face. His eyes are bright as berries, dark as buttons. Still dazed from his nap, he stretches each wing separately, then shrugs both and shudders himself smooth. Paseia kisses his beak.
“I shall devour him whole,” declares Lady Ouridia.
Lady Biota adds, “I shall smash him between my palms.”
Paseia begins to like these women.
Lady Ouridia says, “I don’t suppose we’re showing the gods proper respect, are we?”
“Why should we, when they’re tempting us with this delectable baby?”
“The gods accept any praise for their intercessors,” says Paseia, her smile genuine. She finds it best to let the supplicants set the tone.
Honor gives them all a brief scolding before he turns an expectant look upon Paseia—“Yes, yes,” she replies. Impatient he may be, but Honor is trained well enough that he waits for Paseia to offer him his treat: a strawberry from the floating bowl. He sets upon it immediately.
“Greedy thing,” Lady Biota remarks.
“Simply voracious,” Lady Ouridia echoes.
Paseia hates to interrupt their rhapsodies, but she must ask them the ritual questions. Her earlier joke elided the truth: all oracular visits are political, even the marriage blessings. Lady Biota, for instance, owns a textile manufacturing fleet, and Lady Ouridia’s mother is expected to present her revised Silk Bill within the week. Paseia has done her research. The gods expect their interpreters to translate their messages correctly.
“My good ladies,” she says, “we beg you attend. We beg you answer to your fullest ability; we beg you speak the truth.” Phrased thus so that lies may remain unspoken. “We beg your patience as we proceed.”
“I’m patient,” says Lady Biota. “I don’t know about her.”
Lady Ouridia swats her fiancée’s arm.
“Why,” continues Paseia, “why do you, Lady Biota Leanax and Lady Ouridia Diphan, seek a holy audience on this day?”
“We can’t very well do it after the wedding,” says Lady Ouridia. “It’s in two days, you know. Of course you are invited, and I don’t mind telling you the party will be magnificent, for all that everything has been such short notice. Beetle and I were always going to marry—that is, when we were able, circumstances being what they were with Kadmos and his exclusive contract. Now that his and my divorce has gone through, how could Beets and I give up such an opportunity? Mumsy insisted we have a bird.”
Only oracles can grant the immediate license to marry; without a consultation, partners must wait a month before they can be legally wed.
“I would be glad to join you,” says Paseia, picturing herself at the wedding: tall and alone in her white interpreter’s gown, a paragon of her office, deserving of the best but gently refusing to partake—but then, she must have one drink, so as not to offend her hosts. (Thanks ever so, you are far too kind, and yes, Honor is a splendid little gentleman, but don’t let him hear you, he’s proud enough already.) Though she’ll be on a ship, still, she’ll have the chance to taste a different air, tread a different floor. She will enjoy it while she can.
Visits off the Foreshore require an invitation—she’ll have to get it in writing for the abbess—and then Honor will require a traveling cage, but those may be leased. Abbess Machaira welcomes her interpreters’ reports of the outside; their consultations cannot be effective if they know nothing of the world.
Lady Biota gives Paseia her card, which will do nicely.
“And how long,” says Paseia, giving thanks with a bow of her head, “how long do you intend this marriage to last?”
“As long as we can stand each other!”
“I cannot believe I agreed to ten years with Kadmos,” sighs Lady Ouridia. “Five was quite enough for me! I think I shall keep you rather awhile, pet.”
Honor volunteers either his agreement or his thanks for the fruit.
“In what spirit,” says Paseia, finally, “in what spirit will you, Lady Biota Leanax and Lady Ouridia Diphan, accept the gods’ will?”
“Depends on their answer, doesn’t it?” says Lady Ouridia.
“You think you’re clever! We’ll hear whatever the gods have to say to us,” Lady Biota tells Paseia, her hand upon her partner’s. “We have no fears.”
Ignoring his objections, Paseia prizes the half-devoured strawberry from Honor’s beak. “You’ll have the rest soon,” she tells him as she shifts him from her finger to the wooden frame.
No one but the interpreters can read the symbols etched upon each bell. Though the methods of divination differ for every oracle, the symbols remain constant. The star, the planet, the comet, and the moon; the sea, the shore, the wave, and the whirlpool; the seed, the shoot, the soil, and the fruit.
Honor dances along the frame, from one side to the other and back again, his beady-bright eyes fixed on the strawberry in Paseia’s hand. She clucks at him, and he repeats the noise. Meanwhile the ladies settle into a hush, glancing at each other, at the bird, at the room, at the glorious nebula. Their fingers twine.
“What say the gods?” Paseia asks Honor and, at the unfortunate expense of the mood, adds: “Kiss kiss.”
Lady Biota stifles a laugh.
Honor deliberates. He cranes his neck, settles his feathers, cleans his foot. Then, finally, he rattles his beak against one of the bells.
Paseia is too experienced an interpreter to frown.
“What say the gods, Honor? We must ask them several times,” she explains to her supplicants. “Our intercessors do have wills of their own.” She dangles the strawberry. “What say the gods?”
Delighted at her cheerful tone, Honor rings the very same bell. The wave.
“What say the gods?”
Paseia breathes. Closes her eyes. Opens them. After rewarding Honor with the rest of his strawberry, she conjures a benevolent smile. “My dear Lady Biota,” she says, “my dear Lady Ouridia. I am pleased to announce that the gods offer you their congratulations. Both they and I wish you a joyous union.”
“There, now! Let the celebration begin!” Lady Biota clinks her glass against Lady Ouridia’s and then, beckoning her to join in, against Paseia’s.
“To your health,” Paseia says, and draws a long sip of ratafia, ever undiminished.
“It was the wave. Every time, the wave. If he knew what it meant, I’d think he only wanted to annoy me. The wave!”
Abbess Machaira watches Paseia pace across her office.
“What do the gods mean by this?” she asks Honor, latched fast to her sleeve. “Why do we even keep the wave? Oh, I know we must say no on occasion, but nobody comes here wanting to hear it, do they?”
That rouses the abbess. “You did not tell them—?”
“I gave them the usual,” says Paseia. Even with her friend the abbess, she must be more measured. “I tried to encourage him towards the sea, but I could not let their ladyships notice. Enough broadsides already accuse us of meddling.”
The abbess remains seated at her reading stand, atop which perches her oracle, I-Beg-Your-Pardon. He is the abbess’s third parrot, a cockatoo some sixty years old and, like his blind predecessor, in need of special care. To prevent him from plucking what feathers remain on his torso, he wears a sort of tight vest, whose knotted fasteners he chews while the abbess herself runs a finger down his neck. Her gloves are golden today, as is her veil; the fabric shimmers over her white hair.
“You want me to confirm that you did the right thing,” the abbess says.
Yes—but she need not have been so plain about it, so knowing, as though Paseia once again wore a novice’s braid. “I would not put you in that position, madam. The fault is mine. We interpreters must uphold our sworn duty. We must correctly communicate the gods’ will.”
“So long as their will is correct.”
The stark truth of it almost hurts. Paseia collects Honor from her arm, kisses his head. He wriggles out of her hand.
“You are not the first interpreter whose oracle gave an unsatisfactory answer. Parrots are capricious beasts,” continues the abbess, stroking Pardon’s cracked beak. He leans into her hand. “As are the gods.”
“What if their ladyships’ marriage should fail? It would reflect poorly on our calling.” And on Paseia in particular. Well can she imagine the caustic notes in the society journals, both her name and the Foreshore’s obscured or perhaps turned into a pun, but obvious nonetheless. She would receive no more wedding invitations, at the very least, and at worst—at worst she would be obliged to resign early. To give up the birds, her chance to train a macaw chick or soothe a cockatoo’s last years. To give up Honor.
“Do you think their marriage will fail?” asks the abbess.
“Lady Ouridia and her husband did divorce early. And the wife before that—”
“Was but a year long agreement, and neither of those marriages received an oracle’s blessing.” She continues: “Do you think Lady Biota and Lady Ouridia will be unhappy?”
“No,” admits Paseia. “They seem well-suited.” Beetle and Doodle. Bless them, they’re nearly the same person.
“Do you know of any other reason why they should not be married?”
“Not at present,” Paseia says. “But may I conduct more research?”
Abbess Machaira’s look is exasperated, fond. “You cannot recant your oracle’s decision.”
“I mean to reassure myself. That is all.”
The abbess records a note and then, reaching into her skirt pocket, withdraws a heavy key. Freed and floating, it gently turns within a coil of silver ribbon, which Paseia ties around her wrist. Honor gives it a nibble.
Does Paseia believe in the gods? She pours the daily bowl of water for Kalliphrades, that Xe might bless her with clarity of thought. She lights the candles for Kalliphanotes and watches each one rise with its flame, that He might lift her spirits. She rings her bell for Kalliphronema, the patroness of oracles, that she might understand Her divine word. She murmurs prayers to all three of Them, that They might watch over the Foreshore, Their island in a galaxy so vast.
Islands, seas, oceans: Paseia has read about them. Oceans give rise to all manner of life. One day, if it please the gods, some grateful aristocrat will invite her to their planetside estate, and she’ll see an ecosystem for herself. At least the library has pictures.
Paseia unlocks the Foreshore’s lone connection to the world outside. Each curving window is made of translucent glass, on which the library’s catalogues are displayed; the stars’ glitter backs the faint text. She unscrews the key, pockets its toothy lid, and with the inner stylus signs her name upon the glass. The text deepens in color.
She usually begins her visits with the Beautiful Galaxy, the journal least interested in scandal. She learns what the socialites are wearing, what planets they’re visiting, what they’re saying about the newest plays. (In her ten years as an interpreter, Paseia has been lucky enough to attend three.) Once she has an idea of how her supplicants want to see themselves, she turns to the more satirical publications.
Today she immediately brings up the new edition of The Dowager’s Eye, in which Lady Biota is referred to as the next insect whom Lady Ouridia’s mother means to collect.
The elder Lady Diphan is drawn as a giantess in all her bespoke glory: striped silk, layers of lace, and a hat double the height of her coiffure. Two silk moths flutter out of the open cage at her hip; a third silkworm perches upon her outstretched hand, which overflows with coins. “Milady Fripp woos her newest pets,” reads Paseia. She enlarges the illustration and points to a flock of parrots entranced by the shine of Lady Diphan’s treasure. “That’s us, nugget!”
Honor attempts to steal her stylus.
Paseia tucks him between her chin and scarf, his favorite place. He curls into the warmth as she conducts a new search.
Ten years ago: The Honorable Kadmos Gamet, proprietor of the Tropos planets, and Lady Ouridia Diphan, daughter of Parliament’s Lady Diphan, sure in their affections, signed an exclusive marriage contract. Their friends at the Beautiful Galaxy wish them their full ten years of wedded bliss….
The Dowager’s Eye, two years ago: Our sources tell us that a little bird—or perhaps a large one—has lately whispered in the Hon. G——’s ear; alas, unlike certain of his brethren, he heard nothing fortuitous about the coming Parliamentary session. We understand his temper quite shocked the innocent interpreter who merely relayed to him—and to us all—the gods’ sacred word. The Hon. G—— was last seen at the previous week’s masque unaccompanied by his wife, the incomparable Lady O——, who is said to have taken ill. We wonder whether her indisposition has aught to do with her lady mother’s silks.
Paseia circles the date, then turns from the society columns to the Chronicle’s archives: Yesterday the Lady Diphan presented a bill before Parliament, in which she proposed that a higher tax be levied upon silk harvested from planets outside the Polukratid District. She claims that this will encourage production within the Polukratid’s borders and so reinvigorate the Polukratians’ stagnant economy….
Apart from the usual innuendos about the interpreters’ honesty, Paseia sees nothing relevant—which is to say, nothing that should concern her. That is how the abbess would put it: None of our concern. Let the aristos fight amongst themselves; if they want the legitimacy the gods’ opinion brings, we will be pleased to accept their donations.
“What do you think, Honor? Does this sound like any scandal out of the common way? You’re the one who said their ladyships shouldn’t marry.” She taps him between his closed and twitching eyes. “What are the gods trying to tell me, hm?”
He chirps, but it is only at the sound of her voice.
Does Paseia believe in the gods? Not more than anyone else. Does she believe that parrots alone can communicate Their will? Not particularly. But—she hesitates even to think such heresy, but she believes in the parrots themselves. She puts her faith in the strange spark of their brains: in their curiosity, their humor, their utter amoral confidence that the galaxy revolves around them. Truly, no other satellite enjoys its revolution so much as Paseia. It was for them that she became a novitiate at fifteen, for them that she joined Abbess Machaia’s order. Perhaps they are not oracles, but she believes that these birds are special. If nothing else, the interpreters do good for the parrots, since their species no longer have any planet of their own. They are as alone as anybody else, suns unto themselves, and Paseia believes they deserve a place where they are nurtured, entertained, respected. Loved.
And she believes in being prepared. In this Paseia is not alone; her brethren are fastidious by nature. Many are the hours she’s spent transcribing mageumaphone recordings, that no divine message should be lost.
She finds the transcript of Gamet’s last visit, two years ago.
Interpreter: My good sir, we beg you attend. We beg you answer to your fullest ability. We beg you speak the truth. We beg your patience as we proceed.
Gamet: Suppose you can’t rush the gods. Who’s a good bird, then? [clucking noise] Who’s a pretty parrot? Daresay the fellow could bite off my finger—well! [angry squawk] There’s a lunge! Magnificent animal, quite the crest on him. There he goes again! [hiss] Pity about the shirt.
Interpreter: We do respectfully request, sir, that you allow the oracle to remain undisturbed while he deliberates; we should hate for you to receive a tainted message.
Gamet: Ah, the fellow likes me well enough—don’t you, boy?
Parrot: [aggressive chatter]
Gamet: As you say, ma’am, as you say. We’ll leave him to it.
Interpreter: Why do you, the Honorable Kadmos Gamet, seek a holy audience on this day?
Gamet: She’s got something up her frilly sleeve, doesn’t she? Doodle’s daft as a duck, and even she knows there’s something wrong. The woman won’t shut up about her Mumsy, and now that Parliament’s about to convene it’s ‘I’m not hungry, dear’ and ‘I think I shall retire early, dear’ and ‘So sorry, dear, I already have an appointment with Beetle.’ She won’t tell me a [expletive] thing.
Interpreter: Your question concerns Lady Ouridia’s mother?
Gamet: They’re in it together, and Beetle too. Don’t bother about her and Doodle being lovers—that’s nothing to me—I mean the business end of it.
Interpreter: Might you rephrase your question, sir? I fear it is too imprecise for my oracle.
Gamet: Very well, ma’am, very well. The gods know my heart, but I suppose you can only do so much with a few carved blocks. How’s this for you? I want to know whether dear old Mumsy’s about to toss me out the airlock.
Interpreter: You are seeking reassurance that your arrangement with Lady Diphan remains intact.
Gamet: There! That wasn’t so hard.
Interpreter: In what spirit will you, the Honorable Kadmos Gamet, accept the gods’ will?
Gamet: She’d do well to remember I’ve got my own friends in Parliament.
Interpreter: You will hear the gods’ will and act accordingly?
Gamet: I’ll certainly take action.
Interpreter: What say the gods? [squawk; parrot footsteps; clatter] I see. What say the gods? [parrot footsteps; clatter] I ask again, what say the gods? [parrot footsteps; clatter]
Gamet: Now what does that mean?
Interpreter: [sighing] I am afraid, sir, that you will not like what I have to say. The wave here indicates that you—
Gamet: That [expletive]! I [expletive] knew it!
Interpreter: Sir, please—you will disturb the other supplicants—
Gamet: Let ‘em be disturbed! Treacherous [expletive], that’s what this is, an [expletive] con. I didn’t [expletive] pay you for this [expletive]!
Interpreter: Sir, I must remind you that donations are voluntary. You did come to us for the gods’ opinion—
Gamet: You’re in league with her, aren’t you?
Interpreter: The gods are impartial, sir. Even if they were not, I do not see how this would help Lady Diphan. She is, of course, free to come in supplication herself.
Gamet: The [expletive]! You [expletive]! All of you!
Parrot: [expletive, repeated]
Interpreter: I must ask you to leave, sir; you are upsetting my bird.
The transcription not unsurprisingly ends with the slamming of a door.
Pasiea is of a mind with the interpreter; it would be foolish of Lady Diphan to pay off an oracle only to tell Kadmos Gamet that she meant to betray him. Then, too, Gamet seemed to expect bad news. Why should he throw a fit when his suspicions were confirmed?—unless he secretly hoped for the opposite.
On her second reading, as she frowns at Gamet’s behavior towards that poor bird (and gives Honor a swift crush beneath her chin), a certain detail catches her eye: the parrot was wearing a shirt. Several oracles are pluckers, but now Paseia recognizes this pair. The abbess herself conducted the session.
There is no more comforting sound than the raucous gossip of parrots at play, although Paseia’s ears do ring after an hour or two inside the aviary. The paint is dimmed, the glass scratched, all the decorative nibs and knobbles gnawed. Here the birds climb the enormous gym, its perches built to suit every possible foot; here they destroy the week’s offerings, bright blocks and lush tassels and floating wicker balls, so satisfying to crunch apart; here their interpreters learn their favorite toys so as to adapt these blocks or tassels or balls—or bells—into an oracular device.
Paseia joins Abbess Machaia upon her bench. Its knotty wooden arms stretch and spread into branches overhead; and Pardon trundles across them with that reptilian clumsiness particular to large birds. He ventures a croak when with a flash of wings he’s joined by Honor, the smallest of acrobats.
“Clown,” Paseia calls him, reaching upward. He disdains her finger. “Gremlin.”
The abbess laughs as Pardon edges away from the tiny interloper. Then she turns to Paseia and lightly remarks, “You were a long while in the library, yesterday. There must have been new planetside pictures.”
“Yes,” Paseia says. It is reflexive, this need to smooth everybody’s feathers. She breathes. “But I wasn’t only looking at planets. I did find something, an old transcript from when Lady Ouridia’s ex-husband…and you….”
After waiting in vain for Paseia to continue, the abbess shakes her head. “You can understand why Lady Ouridia divorced him.”
“I think I do.”
The air thickens with laughter both avian and human. Paseia closes her eyes, opens them. Curls her fingers into her dress.
“Because of what he heard from the oracle, his people in Parliament killed the previous version of Lady Diphan’s bill. She used that as an excuse to initiate divorce proceedings—and he was horrible to Lady Ouridia, besides—and then she encouraged Lady Biota’s suit. Which,” Paseia adds, with a society journal’s self-conscious politesse, “I am sure has nothing to do with Lady Biota’s planets and their fleet.”
“Though I hate to belittle your efforts, this is common knowledge.”
“In the outside world, perhaps.”
“But you have reassured yourself,” says the abbess. When no reply comes, she rests her hand on Paseia’s elbow. “You care about your supplicants, that I understand. You want the best for them, but an interpreter and their oracle can only do so much. We are the gods’ voice; theirs is the choice to act. The aristos’ games shouldn’t be any of your concern.”
“With respect, madam,” says Paseia, “they should not be any of yours, either.”
During their long silence—oh, it stretches far too long—the abbess removes her hand and settles herself against the bench. A quarrel breaks out among several of the larger birds; they whirl heavily through the air and then return to their places as though nothing were amiss. They blink their lizard eyes at each other; they preen. As Pardon yanks at the fastenings on his vest, Honor dangles upside-down from a branch.
Finally: “What do you want me to say?”
Paseia’s throat constricts. “I would not dictate your speech.”
“Come, girl—you’ve made your elegant insinuations. Have the decency to back them up with plain speech.”
Honor drops onto Paseia’s head. “Hello, there,” she murmurs.
The abbess waits.
“The donations,” Paseia says. It is enough.
“Take a look around yourself,” replies the abbess. “The gods are generous with their wisdom, but wisdom alone cannot keep a vessel in space. Wisdom alone cannot keep oracles in good health. Every day there are repairs, every day new toys. Every day there must be water, food—and that is just the parrots. Since you are so diligent a researcher, might I suggest that, instead of your pretty planets, you pull up the Foreshore’s accounts?”
“The planets I saw weren’t so pretty.” Her voice stings. “Too much of one crop ruins an ecosystem.”
Take a look at them, she’d say. Just one look at the entire worlds given over to the trees on which the best silkworms feed. To cotton, to flax. Oceans sucked dry, forests uprooted, deserts watered, biodiversity become so much compost. How many hundreds of years, how many thousands until the planets recover, if ever? Or will Lady Diphan sweep in after a mere decade and terraform them anew?
And that, Paseia might say, is just the plants. Exploitation never stops there.
“Lady Diphan threw over Kadmos Gamet because she’d exhausted his properties,” she continues. “And after this new bill, Lady Biota’s are next.”
“I see you’re still wearing those Diphan silks,” the abbess says.
“Were they part of Milady’s bribe?”
Abbess Machaia’s look lands on Paseia’s cheek like a slap. Even for the abbess, that was too plain.
Everyone knows that the interpreters can nudge their oracles towards one answer or another. Everyone knows that the chance of a favorable answer increases with the amount of one’s donation. Everyone knows. Nobody has proof.
With quiet fury the abbess stands, clucks: “Pardon, to me.” He lumbers onto her shoulder. “Good boy.”
Paseia clutches Honor until the abbess is gone. Then she lifts him face-to-face, looks into those eyes like shiny black seeds, and whispers: “What say the gods?”
One day later, the Lady Ouridia Diphan and the Lady Biota Leanax are married on the luxury vessel Archipelago.
By now Paseia has read so many society columns that she can almost write this one herself: Lady Ouridia wore a magnificent sun-colored silk with a blue riband trim, and Lady Biota wore moonlight blue with yellow stripes. As the ceremony drew to its close, the elder Lady Diphan looked on from behind her golden spider-silk veil, where there were said to glimmer a few happy tears….
If there were tears, Paseia wasn’t close enough to see them. She stood at the base of the main dais with several dozen other ‘esteemed guests,’ including their ladyships’ dressmakers, their milliners, their bakers, their decorators and their domestic magicians.
Thousands of floating, fireless candles illuminate the ballroom; their reflections outshine the stars. Though like everyone else Paseia dips her glass in the pool of champagne, she is too apprehensive to drink it. She can hardly believe she is here—but what could Abbess Machaia have done? She dared not refuse Lady Diphan’s daughter the distinction of an oracle at her wedding. The ceremony itself blessed by the gods! And when Paseia returns, she will be obliged to make her report.
Already she sees that the wide skirts are thinning, and rather than bouquets of lace, hothouse orchids, almost violent in their color, decorate not only every column but half the socialites’ hats. This season they’re wearing feathers, too, and Paseia worries about their provenance; with any luck, they’re from an ordinary molt.
Honor rides in a buoyant traveling cage, its slim chain affixed to Paseia’s wrist. “Only a little longer,” she tells him when he rattles his beak against the bars. “Oh, hush.”
His loud objections draw the brides themselves.
“The dear animal!” cries Lady Ouridia.
“He seems even smaller than the last time I saw him,” says Lady Biota. “I could snap him up!” She raises her hands, demonstrating.
“I often do,” says Paseia.
While Lady Biota continues her chirping conversation with Honor, Lady Ouridia clasps Paseia’s hand and thanks her for coming. “You do us a great honor—ha! That was an easy joke, wasn’t it? But I am entirely in earnest. Beetle was so worried you know—”
“I was,” croons Lady Biota, still at the bird.
“—Only I promised her that I would not let Mumsy come between us. She’s my girl. Isn’t that so, Beets?”
“I’m his now; sorry.”
“Anything you need,” says Lady Ouridia. Her fingers tighten around Paseia’s. “You just ask us. Anything. Oh! Beetle, look, there’s the person who did our hats. We must say hello!”
After Lady Biota gives Paseia a final, fragrant kiss on the cheek, she allows Lady Ouridia to drag her into the crowd.
“They’re still aristos,” Paseia reminds Honor.
Certain now that nobody is watching her, she removes herself to the ship’s stargazing deck, where the merrymaking thins, where lovers stroll, where the tides of space stretch beyond sight. Where Paseia will meet a columnist from The Dowager’s Eye, and at last put their insinuations into plain speech.
“This sort of thing,” Paseia says to herself, rehearsing. “It simply will not do.”
How easy it would have been, how natural, to imply that she expected a reward. With the money she could have leased a shuttle—perhaps even immediately, from the Archipelago itself—and left for one of the remaining natural preserves. She could have seen an ocean for herself, felt its spray on her cheek and its subtle roar in her bones. She could have smuggled Honor with her, a bundle of warmth between her chin and scarf.
Paseia could have and still can, but she won’t. She’ll return to the Foreshore and shudder beneath Abbess Machaia’s cold eye. She’ll stay and endure whatever punishment awaits her; she knows it will not be for long. If there are any further consequences—and there will be, the oracles and interpreters will suffer a blow—she’ll have brought them on her own damned self, but she’ll stay. Someone has to take care of the birds.