I’m laying on my side, my head resting on Soshi’s soft chest and our legs entwined. She has one hand on my cheek and neck, and with the other is slowly stroking my back. We’ve been here so long the sun is just a red crescent on the horizon, and still she hasn’t made any moves, given me any sign what’s next.
“I, um.” I hesitate. “Do… do I take my robe off now, or…?”
“Oh!” Soshi sounds surprised. “I didn’t think that was what you wanted, but… I can do that too.”
I blink. “But what about what you want?”
“What I want to is give you what you need. That’s all, Kess.”
“You… didn’t come here to seduce me?”
“I…” I shake my head. “Sorry, I’m… confused. I thought you wanted sex.”
Soshi looks baffled. “You thought I came to your room to try and… wear you down for a fuck? Someone you’ve just met?”
“It’s. Not uncommon, among my people.”
“You believed… I was trying to manipulate you for my own benefit, and yet you allowed me to stay?” Soshi sounds appalled.
“I needed the comfort. If sex was the price, I could handle that.”
“This… you thought this was a transaction?”
“Kess!” Soshi sounds wounded. “You needed comfort. I was able to offer it. I had no ulterior motive.”
“But… what are you getting out of it?”
“What am I…? It’s not about me. Can’t I be glad just to have brought you comfort?”
I snuggle closer to her and lay there silently for a while. She holds me tightly.
“What is this, then?” I murmur after a while.
“I wanted to be a…” Soshi hesitates. “Friend? No, that’s not right. I don’t know, they never taught us your word for shensurin.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Someone who… cares about you? And gives you strength when you falter, I guess? Someone who holds you when you’re hurting and keeps you warm when you’re cold. You seemed like you needed one.”
“But you didn’t want to fuck me?”
“What does that have to do with shensur?”
“I’m too tired for this,” I mumble, pulling the sheets up. “Nothing makes sense right now.”
“…do your people only comfort each other for sex?”
“This kind of comfort… you only usually get that from lovers.”
“And you haven’t had one for years?”
“Oh, Kess.” Soshi squeezes the back of my neck gently. “You poor broken thing.”
I close my eyes.
Light is streaming in through the window. I blink a few times, disoriented, my heart pounding while my brain races to take stock.
No screams. No rattle of gunfire. Enclosed space around me. Warm sheets under me. I’m—
…no gun under my pillow.
The next thing I know I’m sitting up, panting, eyes wide, my hand around someone’s throat and my fist drawn back. The woman under me looks startled for a moment, then—
“Ow!” Before I can tell what’s happening I’m on my knees, my arms wrenched behind my back. Pain sparks through my shoulder and I grit my teeth. I try to struggle but her grip is unbreakable.
“Kess.” A gentle voice from behind me. “It’s okay. You’re in the Embassy. Remember? Remember me?”
Belatedly, memories begin to filter in. The Victory Gala. Meetings in courtyards. A green-eyed ambassador. And—
Soshi releases me and pushes me down on my back. “Way to get my adrenaline going, Kess. You’re better than a fresh glass of turios in the morning.”
“Wh—what—” I shake my head, trying to piece things together. “Oh God. Oh God, I attacked you—”
“Hey. It’s okay. You’ve had a lot of rough mornings, haven’t you?”
Soshi lays back down, props herself up on one arm, lays a hand on my side. “It’s okay. You’re safe. Nobody can hurt you. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.”
Tears are streaming down my cheek. “God, I could have hurt you. You’ve been so good to me and I could have hurt you—”
Soshi smirks. “Trust me, you don’t have to worry about that. You’re good for a uassurin but you are absolutely no threat to me, hon.”
I shake my head. “I’ve— God, I’ve hurt so many people—”
“And I’m six times as strong as you, with better reflexes, and a silver sash in sovran. And I’m not going to let you hurt me, and I’m not going to let anyone else hurt you. Kess. Look at me.”
Hesitantly, I turn my gaze upwards, look her in the eye. “I’m. I’m sorry. God, this is the second time I’ve tried to hit you—”
“And it won’t be the last. And I’ll catch you next time too. As many times as I need to.” Soshi tousles my hair. “You can’t control your automatic reactions. And I’m glad you learned them. You wouldn’t still be alive if you hadn’t. Okay? You are not a bad person.”
“It takes time to get used to not being in a warzone. Time and help. And you’ve barely had either.” She touches my face. “You’re so kind to everyone else. Be kind to yourself for once.”
“How can I?”
“Figure it out, because that was an order.” Soshi pats my cheek. “And you’re required to obey all orders from citizens while in the Embassy, remember?”
“Say elen vinesh.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, ‘yes, Soshi, I will obey you.’” Soshi lays flat and pulls me close again, wrapping an arm around my neck. I can’t help but give an embarassed little giggle. Soshi smiles at the sound, petting me gently.
“That word. Elen. I keep hearing you say it. What does it mean?”
“It’s one way to talk about yourself. Elen vine, ‘I obey;’ elen pele, ‘I’m happy,’ elena shad talo ve, ‘I don’t know.’ Things like that.”
“Elen. Elen pele,” I murmur, feeling out the shape of the word on my tongue. “You mean there’s more than one way to talk about yourself? Zia Ţ— I mean, Pioņ Ţai just has wèi.”
“Yeah, I still can’t get used to that. It feels…” Soshi shrugs. “It feels so gray and bureaucratic. There’s so much meaning I still don’t know how to communicate.”
I smile, running a hand down her leg. “You should teach me, then. Show me how to see the color.”
Soshi kisses me on the forehead. “You have such a beautiful way with words. You make the trade language sound so poetic and it’s like you don’t even have to try. And I’m still struggling just to get the simplest ideas across.”
I nuzzle her and she makes a quiet, happy sound. “Then let’s teach each other.”
“Oh, Kess.” Soshi squeezes my hand. “That’s a beautiful idea. Let’s.”
“Tell me about the words for wèi. What’s so special about elen?”
“It’s…” Soshten tilts her head, thinks for a moment. “It’s sort of a very deferential way of talking about yourself. Like, the opposite of making yourself seem big and important and arrogant.”
“Oh, we don’t have a special word for that. You’d say things like, I don’t know. ‘Your humble servant.’” I smirk. “People talking to the Empress are supposed to call themselves things like ‘most humble and abject slave to the font of all beauty and righteousness,’ or ‘wilted petal drifting before the radiant visage of God in Haven.’”
“‘Wilted pe—?’ You’re kidding.”
“Oh no. Not at all.” I kiss her neck gently. “We intercepted a lot of letters from peers to the Court during the war. It was like they were competing to be the most poetically self-effacing. One of these days I’ll have to ask the State Secrets Panel to declassify them. They’re a pretty funny read.”
“Elen doesn’t mean—” Soshten gives an exasperated sigh. “Of course the Empress forces people to… debase themselves. That sounds exactly like her.”
“I thought you said it was deferential?”
“It is! It’s not for… catering to people’s delusions of grandeur.”
I hesitate. “I guess I don’t understand the difference.”
Soshten blinks. “What is deference about to your people?”
“Acknowledging that someone else is more important, I guess? Saying, ‘I respect your power, recognize that I am subject to it, and I am not going to challenge it.’”
“It’s about power? Novas above…”
“Isn’t elen? When would you use it, then?”
“Maybe ‘deference’ is the wrong word. I can’t figure out how to translate sel.”
“It’s… When you’re in someone else’s charge, you’re their selin and they’re your varin. You grant them authority over yourself with the trust that they’ll use it to benefit the People and look out for your wellbeing.”
“So like, superior and subordinate?”
“Maybe. Are you the President’s subordinate?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then it’s definitely not the right translation.”
“I’ve heard how you talk about her. You don’t even seem to like her.”
I shrug. “She believes in the cause and that’s the nicest thing I’ll say about her.”
“Would you call her a comrade?”
I purse my lips. “I’d call her a uassurin, maybe.”
Soshi giggles. “You do pick things up fast.”
“But I have to take orders from her.” I hesitate. “To… some extent, anyway. We haven’t really… explored the boundaries yet. Her power is still very fragile. The Senate’s a fractious mess. The presidency was meant for Sunfury. Someone with strength and charisma. Someone for the people to rally behind. Silverdawn’s a bureaucrat. I’m, well. You know.”
Soshi raises her eyebrows. “So… you don’t actually know who has power? Who submits to the other?”
“This whole planet knows my name and my face has been plastered on so many propaganda posters every child for the next two generations will recognize me on sight. After Sunfury killed herse—” I trip over my words, blanching suddenly. “Shit.”
Soshi stares at me. “Sunfury killed herself?”
“They told us she was assassinated—”
I take a deep breath. My heart is pounding. “I shouldn’t— oh, fuck, I forgot who I was talking to, I—”
“Kess? What happened?”
I stare at her for a moment, unable to focus on her face. “We…” I begin slowly. “Soshi, I… this is a state secret. This is about as secret as state secrets get. Nobody was supposed to know. The Society was never supposed to know.”
Soshi touches my face. “I am not a spy, Kestrel-surin. There are strict boundaries between the public and the private. What you tell me now, vulnerable in my arms, I will keep in the utmost confidence. It is a matter of honor and trust that every rantash understands.”
“You… wouldn’t tell your superiors?”
“There are some things they do not have the authority to compel.”
“In that case… well, you already know the worst of it. It’s not like telling you the rest can do much more damage.” I look down, taking a deep breath. “You know how Sunfury started making less and less public appearances as the war wore on?”
“Oh. Well. She did. Nobody outside her inner circle knew why. We told a lot of lies to keep people calm. But…” I close my eyes, nestle my head closer to Soshi. “Cormorant Sunfury was a broken woman. The public never saw the extent of it, she hid her pain very well, but she had… episodes. Not like ours, but they were still so painful to see. Because there was nothing we could do. She was supposed to be our mighty, fearless leader, and seeing her curled up in the corner on the floor of the situation room, clutching her legs and sobbing uncontrollably…” I shake my head. “She was a hero to me. To millions and millions of people. The revolution could never have happened without her. There’s no justice. She didn’t deserve to hurt like that.”
Soshi strokes me softly. “How did she hurt? What was wrong?”
“She started out… sad. And you could see it in her speeches, but she channeled it well. It made her feel genuine, like she was one of us, not like a smug, supercilious noble parading around and giving people orders. But she never felt right here. She’d talk a lot about what a cruel and empty place the universe was, when she was with friends. I think she started the revolution because it was the only way she could live with herself. And she had a death wish from the beginning.”
“Did something push her over the edge?”
“Just the war, I think. There was s-so much death and pain. Entire cities were bombed into rubble from orbit. She lost friends.” I can’t keep my voice from quavering anymore. “Sh-she would have the casualty lists sent to her quarters every night. She’d tape them up on the wall. Once I caught her… undressed. She had a knife. All these scars we’d never seen. And… new fresh cuts.”
“‘One for every battallion we lose,’ she told me.”
“…that poor woman.”
“She tortured herself. And one day she couldn’t live with the guilt anymore. We were smart enough to keep guns away from her but she found a sidearm somewhere. We heard a gunshot from her quarters and that was it.”
“How many knew?”
“Just the Inner Circle. Me, Silverdawn, a couple of others. I told Bear eventually. I couldn’t stand lying to him any longer.”
“And the public never knew?”
“I hated lying to them too. But if they knew the truth… we all knew morale would collapse overnight. She was the heart and soul of the revolution. So we made up a lie about den tsuang assassins. We had to make her a martyr. It was the only way to salvage her movement.” My voice is shaking uncontrollably now. “I had to get on the radio and tell everyone a lie. They beamed that lie across the planet, from every station under our control. Everyone heard me lying to them about the woman who inspired them to fight for a better world. Because I was the only other person who had anything like Cormorant’s… trust and respect. They took up Silverdawn as their new leader because I told them to.”
Soshi pulls me on top of her and hugs me tightly for a while. I lay my head on her chest, my eyes closed, trying to focus on her warmth and the softness of her body.
“You really hate yourself, don’t you?” asks Soshi, putting a hand behind my neck and holding tightly.
Soshi kisses me. Her kisses are powerful, enveloping, irresistible. The way she touches me as she holds my lips to hers makes me feel so… secure and safe. Like I can just let go and lose myself.
I want to lose myself forever.
“Do you hate me?” Soshi asks, drawing back slightly.
“W-what? No!” I cry out. “Why would you— you’re the most kind and generous woman I’ve ever met. You’re beautiful and strong and caring. I admire you so much. I— I adore you.”
Soshi sits up, pulling me with her, looking deep into my eyes. “And you know what, Kess?” She takes my hands in hers, entwining her fingers with mine. “I adore you. If you can’t respect yourself, then at least respect me.”
“Do you really think an evil woman could make me feel the things I feel about you?”
“I… don’t know. I guess not?”
“Then take peace in that. Someone you admire admires you too. The real you. Not Kestrel-commander the Hero of Sapphire. Not Kestrel-ambassador the intrepid diplomat. Kestrel Winterblossom, the fragile, beautiful, fascinating, and brilliant woman who has been through so much hardship and never once stopped believing and never once stopped trying to do what’s right. The Kestrel who can’t rest until the galaxy is rid of suffering.” She squeezes my hands. “You belong with us. You belong among the People.” She reaches up, takes me gently by the throat. “And right now, you belong to me.”
I stare at her, unable to speak, unable to think. The confidence, the firmness, the affection in her voice is overwhelming. All I can do is stare into her beatiful green eyes and wait for what happens next.
“Kestrel,” Soshi says softly. “You can speak now.”
I blink, feeling something shift in my mind as my voice suddenly returns to me. “I… how… what did you…”
“Something I’ve never been able to do to a foreigner before.” She continues stroking my arm, squeezing my neck. “You wanted to know what sel is, Kess? This is it. Where you are right now.”
“I… I’ve never felt… felt like this before…”
“I can tell. You have no idea how sad that makes me. Lay down, girl.”
The possibility of not immediately obeying doesn’t even occur to me as I rest my head against the pillows. Soshi sits over me, her hands pinning mine at my sides. She smiles tenderly at me.
“Remember this feeling, Kess. Because I know you want to understand us. And you need this to be able to. Here in this moment, you are my selin and I am your varin.” She squeezes my wrists. “You’re not even fighting back. All those battle instincts you spend years honing and just like that, they’re turned off.” She releases my wrists, sits back. “Can you move?”
I can feel my body, at once intensely and distantly, like I’m watching a vid in a theater. I can’t remember how to move my arms, how to send the right signals. My fingers and muscles twitch as I try.
Soshi smiles down at me. “If I told you to take off your clothes, would you?”
“I…” My head is swimming. I can’t think. The idea is too complex to fit in.
“Take off your robe, Kess.”
With shaking hands, I unfold the robe, pulling it away. Soshi takes it and sets it aside, straddling my naked body, still fully clothed.
“You really are a wonder,” she murmurs, running a hand along my abdomen. I shiver. She makes a happy sound at the movement. “You really are.”
She lays back down, patting the bed next to her. “Come here, girl.”
I curl up in her arms, my head again on her chest. We lay there for what feels like an eternity, her hands caressing my bare body. Slowly, control begins to come back to me, like my brain has finally found the battle plans it mislaid. I’m shivering so much I almost bite my tongue. Pins and needles everywhere. Soshi squeezes me tightly.
“What…” I manage at last. “What was that?”
“What do you feel about me, Kess?”
“I feel…” I stare at the wall as I try to sort out a complex tangle of thoughts and emotions. “I feel… safe.”
“Why did you obey me? Were you afraid I would hurt you if you didn’t?”
I shake my head. “I just… I just wanted to. I wanted to so badly.”
Soshi brushes a hand across my clit, setting me shivering anew. “And why is that?”
“I don’t… I don’t know.”
“Strength is sacred to the People. It is a gift a few are endowed with, one to be shared with the selinar. The weak, the lost, the frightened, the confused. The broken. You do not deserve to wander alone through the world. You deserve a hand to steady you and a shoulder to cry on.” She wraps a fold of my robe around my eyes, blocking my vision and catching my hand as I reach up to pull it away. “You have shared your strength with so many. You spent years giving it away to everyone you could reach. You have given more than you have. And you need to recharge. For once in your life, you need someone to be strong for you. You need a varin. You have led for so long. Now you need someone to lead you.”
Tears stream down my cheeks as I bury my face in her robe. Soshi slips a leg between my thighs, pressing up against me. The pressure doesn’t even feel sexual, just… comforting.
“Sunfury inspired you, didn’t she?”
I nod wretchedly.
“And ever since then, you’ve been… jockeying for power with her successor?”
I nod again.
“You haven’t had a leader in years. Just someone who demands your obedience.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Can you defy Silverdawn?”
I laugh bitterly. “I… could probably even depose her. But it would destroy the state’s legitimacy for good. And she knows how to do things I don’t. We need her.”
“Could you defy me?”
Slowly, I shake my head.
“I don’t want to.”
“That’s the difference, Kess. You followed Sunfury because you wanted to. Because you knew she had a sense of direction and faith that your people needed, that you needed. Just as your people followed you.” She pulls the cloth away, lifting up my head, smiling. “As they still follow you.”
I look up at her, unable to keep the total adoration out of my eyes. “I’ve never known anyone like you.”
“And I’ve never known anyone like you. You’re an amazing and precious woman, and I admire the fuck out of you.” She strokes my back, taking me by the chin and making me blush again. “So the next time you start thinking about how much you hate yourself, think about me instead. Think about how special you are to me.”
“Linit val tare.”
“Val? Does that mean the same thing as linit elen tare?”
“Yes and no.” Soshi looks at me thoughtfully for a moment. “It’s like… well. You use elen to signal vulnerability. To say, ‘I look up to you and I put myself in your charge.’ To say, ‘I need help; I need guidance; I trust you to give it to me.’ Val is sort of the opposite. It’s reassuring, controlling. It says ‘I’m going to look after you; you can trust me; you will obey me.’ It’s a promise and an order all at once.”
“So if linit elen tare means ‘thank you…’ and val is the opposite of elen… is linit val tare ‘you’re welcome?’”
“No, it’s. Um.” Soshi hesitates. “I think… I think it doesn’t really work to think about elen tare as ‘thank you.’ It’s not that it means the same thing, exactly. We just use it in some of the places you’d say ‘thank you.’ If that makes any sense.” She laughs awkwardly. “Sorry, I’ve never really thought much about this before. I’m trying to remember how our Zia Ţai instructor explained things and it’s hard.”
“No, it makes sense.” I rest my hand on her breast. “Like, in Khmaira, they don’t have one single thing that means, ‘I am grateful to you.’ I mean, you can say, like, javira mo gokha la’u, or something, but that just sounds weird and stilted. Instead, when you’re grateful, you’re supposed to show it with a blessing. Like ‘may you bear strong daughters’ or ‘may your fields never taste the fires of war.’”
“Oh, that’s kind of sweet.” Soshi smiles. “Yeah, that’s… sort of similar? Like gratitude is supposed to be something you show, not something you just talk about.”
“So what does linit elen tare really mean?”
“It means, like… well. Tar means like, humility, knowing and accepting your place, wherever it might be. Tare means to know where you belong. And if you say elen tare, that pretty clearly communicates you belong under the person you’re talking to.” She shrugs. “There really just isn’t a good way to translate it.”
“I think I get the picture, though. So val tare is more… accepting or taking a place over someone?”
She nods. “You can use it in a lot of different circumstances. Anything from trying to comfort a frightened lover to… demanding combat with a friend to figure out who’s supposed to be on top.”
“Demanding combat with a friend— is that a thing you do?”
“Sure. What’s so odd about that?”
“I… do arguments often get violent on your worlds?”
“What do you do to resolve… tension? Disharmony?”
Soshi purses her lips. “It’s another one of those words I’m having a hard time with. In Ranuir it’s lah. Like in lahi narit elena risesh. It’s what you get when there isn’t a clear order, a clear hierarchy. Nobody knows who they’re supposed to turn to for support, who’s responsible for what.” She smiles sadly. “Like your government right now.”
“Okay but friends aren’t soldiers on the battlefield. There’s no hierarchy!”
Soshi tilts her head. “No… hierarchy? You don’t even have one?”
“Of course not!”
“How do you solve disagreements? Like if one person in the group wants to relax in the park and the other one wants to practice together at the sovrad?”
“I don’t know, we argue about it, I guess.”
“You just… stand there arguing until someone gives in?”
“Or just go do things separately.”
“Doesn’t that hurt people’s feelings?”
“Sure. But if it happens a lot, they shouldn’t be friends in the first place.”
“You just… discard people because they aren’t enough like you?”
I glare at her. “What do you do instead?”
“There is always a clear hierarchy. Being friends means understanding the others’ skills and weaknesses. Building a dynamic that addresses everyone’s needs and leaves nobody alone.”
“So everyone just does whatever the Friend-in-Chief wants?”
“Did you make your decisions on the battlefield according to your own whim?”
“I made decisions I thought would keep people alive,” I snap. “Decisions that would help us win.”
“Would you do any differently with friends who trust you?” Soshi runs a hand through my hair.
“I— of course not—”
“It would be about what they wanted, what they needed, not what you wanted, wouldn’t it?”
“Of course! That’s what a good leader always does.”
“Your social groups sound… anarchic and unstable. The People don’t abandon those close to them.”
I stare at her. “That really works? Having a hierarchy everywhere really works out that way?”
“It’s worked for us for the past millennium and a half.”
“People are happy? Comfortable and stable?”
“And fighting each other helps with that?”
“It doesn’t usually come to that. But sometimes it’s not clear who should lead. So we find a way to pick someone. It’s better for everyone that way.”
“It doesn’t hurt people to… be led around by someone who beat their ass?”
“Were you hurt by how I restrained you to keep you from doing something you would have regretted? How I took charge of you and gave you space to rest and relax? Showed you it’s safe for you to give up control around me?”
“I… no, I guess…”
“It’s like you think the whole galaxy is Silverdawns and Empresses. That nobody else is like Sunfury or me. Or you, hon. That we’re special, the only people who look out for those who follow us.” She turns on her side, letting her chest rest against my bare breasts and putting a firm hand on my rear. “We’re not alone, Kess. You know how I keep saying you belong with the People?”
“It’s because there’s a whole world out there filled with people who give just as much of a shit as you do.”
A screen on the wall lights up suddenly, chirping loudly. Soshi makes a face. “That’s my wake up call. I need to get to work, hon.”
I look away. “Oh. I’m—”
She takes me by the cheek, turns me back to look at her. “See you again tonight?”
I smile faintly. “I’d like that.”
“Good. Because there’s so much more I want to learn from you. And before I go…” She clambers out of bed, takes my hand, helps me to my feet. “Let me help you dress.”
I lift my arms as she expertly wraps the robe around me, securing it snugly around my thighs. She takes every opportunity to stroke and pet my aching body, and as she finishes, reaches out to take my hands.
“You know how I said I knew what it’s like to meet someone and instantly feel like you’ve loved them all your life?”
“Thank you for showing me.”
A thought occurs to me as the door closes behind her, and I search through the drawers of the desk. I find a small box of notepaper and what looks like some kind of pen. It takes a bit to figure out how to work it, but when I do, I pull out a clean sheet of paper. Familiar Khmai letters begin to take form under the pen’s point.
I sit back, and hold the paper up to the light. In front of the warm morning glow is a name I can never go a day without thinking about.
Sparrow, it reads.