Incense smoke curls and wafts about the small ritual chamber. The woman in grey, whose skin is still wet under her thin, tight robes, touches her bare feet together, puts her hands to her heart, and inclines her head as the shipwright enters. A mane of long white hair drifts behind sim, spreading and whirling in the air as ser pitch-black form blots out the candlelight.
“Your path among the stars carry you ever to beauty and light, honored Maranqura of Derosdesha,” murmurs the shipwright, returning the gesture.
“And eternity relinquish to you her dearest secrets, beautiful Nsarathme of Itoroshqa,” Maranqura replies, looking up and offering her hands. The shipwright smiles and cups them in ser own.
“The planets have danced long since last you graced my presence,” says Nsarathme, squeezing her hands gently. “The sight of you fills my heart with warmth overdue.”
“It’s been too long, oshqa mo mparisea,” says Maranqura. “I’ve lost myself in these past cycles. I surfaced little until your summons.”
“I worry for you, Maran,” says Nsarathme tenderly, drawing closer and placing ser hands on Maranqura’s waist. “You have always been a sorrowful soul. It does you ill to forsake companionship.”
“My… solitude is best for all,” murmurs Maranqura, her eyes shifting to the sun far above the chamber. “Come, Nsara, let’s not speak of sorrowful things. This was to be a glad day.”
Nsarathme gives her a sad smile. “I won’t press you, Maran. But in the cycles I’ve come to know you, I’ve grown to cherish your company. I am here for you, whenever you need me.”
“You humble me with your kindness.”
“Truly.” Nsarathme squeezes her waist gently and withdraws. “But you are right. This not a day to dwell on sorrow. Have you meditated upon the blessings?”
Maranqura tents her fingers before her waist, bows. “I have.”
“And have you found a name?”
“Have you washed yourself in the water of the Sacred World?”
“Then let’s tarry not here.” Nsarathme takes an unlit white candle from the wall and holds it out to Maranqura. “Let us light her first candle.”
Maranqura spreads her hand over the candle. “To beginnings,” she said.
“To discovery,” said Nsarathme.
“To a newfound home.”
Orange light blossoms, and the candle is alight, and Nsarathme is smiling. Se turns, and places it at the end of a long row of candles, most alight, but a number withered and dark.
“You have a strong spirit, Maranqura,” se says. “I’ve sat vigil with many a soul to study the light in them, but yours is brighter than any I have ever been privileged to embrace. Rarely has my art flowed so naturally and so confidently, and I think you will find your light reflected in her.”
Maranqura blushes, the deep black of her cheeks taking on the faintest hint of rose. “I’m graced by the love you’ve shown me.”
“May I guide you?”
Maranqura tents her fingers again, and drops her defenses.
Nsarathme spread ser hands and little filaments of light slip under ser sleeves, into ser robes, winding about ser body. Maran feels the little bands encircle her limbs too, and gentle pressure as they began to move. She closes her eyes for a moment, smiles at her brief freedom from choice, the warmth of trust, enjoys the wind in her face and the sensations besides.
When she opens her eyes again they are gone from the ritual room. A foundry, vast as a small moon, stretches out before them, gleaming with strand-lights that twist through the air like blood vessels through a limb, darting out of their way as they draw near. Little strips of hardglass let in a view of the starfield beyond through the great foundry’s hull. Enormous half-built craft hang silently around them, lit only by the strings that crawl through the air and caress their hulls, a different color for each craft.
“How many…?” Maranqura breathes.
“One hundred and six,” says Nsarathme. “Some of them I make for myself, to refine my art. Those are many dozens, some even hundreds of cycles old. I seek perfection among diverse forms. But most are for others.”
“I didn’t realize you worked on so many at a time.”
“None of us labor alike. My master had only a small studio; she chose to devote all her energies to a single vessel at a time.” Nsarathme smiles modestly. “My mind is not as ordered as hers was. I cannot compel my art to take on a desired form; I can only follow where it leads.”
“I… oh… oh, heaven…” Maranqura trails off as they move past a hull concealed beneath of a mess of scaffolding, into view of another, one lit with pink strands and already fully whole. She’s small, maybe only a third of a kilometer long. She’s slender and sleek, elegant curves meeting and parting and flowing into each other like water, meeting in a sharp point at her prow. Her hull is cut lightly, engraved with fine patterns and little flecks of color. The hullmetal is… sublime, reflecting and refracting the strand-lights, seeming to glow beneath them.
Maranqura already knows, but she asks anyway. “Is that…?”
Maranqura takes back control of her trembling body and pulls closer to Nsarathme, hesitantly touching sim on the shoulder. “Thank you," she murmurs, a tear floating away from her eye. “Thank you. Nsara… only you could possibly be more beautiful than her. I have never seen a ship her equal, never in all my cycles. I am not worthy—”
“Maran, Maran!” Nsarathme laughs, gently taking her hand. “You haven’t even seen inside her yet!”
Maranqura draws back slightly, wiping tears out of her eyes, and letting Nsarathme retake control of their course. “You are a true friend among mpariseata. No one has ever shown me such love.”
“You cannot know how sad that makes me.” Nsarathme touches Maranqura’s cheek, caressing her chin with a thumb. Maranqura flinches slightly at the touch. “You deserve the same companionship and joy you bring to others.” Se extends a hand towards the craft. “She is my finest work yet. And I could not have given her form without you. Without your beautiful mind, your passionate, hungry soul. So thank you, Maran, for being a muse without equal. You deserve the finest craft I can create.”
Maranqura says nothing more, but gives Nsarathme a fragile smile. Nsarathme squeezes her hand, and holds on tight.
Now the hull of the craft is close enough to touch. An airlock, open, unused, rushes past, and now they are aboard. Nsarathme’s strand-lights stretch through, lighting their way. A living hall opens up before them, bathed in pink light, filled with tapestries and censers, passages peeling off from the room away into more intimate dwellings. They pass through that too, and emerge in the Hall of Stars, with its great hardglass windows unsealed to show the foundry beyond, and there they stop.
“Are you ready?” asks Nsarathme gently.
“I am,” Maranqura whispers.
They lock hands, Nsarathme’s glowing bands curling out and around Maranqura’s arms, binding them together. Their eyes meet. Around them the strands turn a greenish-yellow — Nsarathme’s color.
“I give you this, Maranqura Derosdeshai Safannai, you who are beloved, for a home among the stars.”
Maranqura takes a deep breath. “May she bring comfort and hope where before there was none.”
Nsarathme squeezes her hands. “May she soothe a weary soul in need of healing.”
“May she never know the fires of war,” Maranqura murmures.
“May she carry you to places of beauty and to the comfort of friends.”
“May she be a home to the homeless.”
“May fortune ever favor she who stands at her rudder.”
“May she be a blessing to the lost and wounded.”
Then, together, they speak the final blessing, the one laid upon every craft born since the end of the Great War.
“May she live eternal.”
“Name her now,” whispers Nsarathme. “Claim what is yours, Maranqura.”
Maranqura takes a deep, shaking breath, and then she says, voice quavering, “Ashtaia.”
Nsarathme closes her eyes, and around her, Maranqura feels Ashtaia come to life. She reaches out and takes hold of her.
The rush she feels next is unlike anything she’s felt in centuries. She is suddenly immersed in a sea of power, of awareness, of knowledge. She gasps, reeling. Nsarathme squeezes her arms tight, leans in, and kisses her on the lips.
A shudder rides through Maranqura’s body. She would let go, drift if not for Nsarathme’s grip and the tight bonds holding them together. Nsarathme waits, smiling tenderly as Maranqura regains control over herself, and fix her eyes back on sim.
“I feel like a goddess again,” she murmurs.
“Ashtaia is part of you now,” Nsarathme tells her. “You can think with her power now. You can move with it. You can build with it.” Her eyes darken. “And you can destroy with it.”
I know all too well. Maranqura nods, focusing on the Hall of Stars, on herself and Nsarathme, who she can see now from any angle, even all of them at once, in colors she has not designed her own eyes to see. Ashtaia’s own strand-lights grow out from the walls, their pink glow twisting in the air and intertwining with Nsarathme’s. Glowing bands form in their midst and coil around their arms, binding them all the tighter.
“Ashtaia,” she says, “to you who were born of loving labor, to you who are a gift to the Free, I vow my care and stewardship, to guard you and keep you that your beauty never fade.”
“Ashtaia,” says Nsarathme, “to you who are our child, I vow my service, to tend your wounds always and to seek you where you are lost.”
“Ashtaia,” they say together, eyes locking again, “we are yours as you are ours.”
Nsarathme’s muscles relax, and the green light begins to drain out, fractal arms dimming and drawing away, out of Ashtaia and back into the foundry. Ser coils slip out of her robes and dissipate into the retracting strands. Maranqura closes her eyes to blot out the extraneous sense, and begins to fill the empty ship. Trees with black, metallic bark grow out from the bulkheads, leaves and needles a luminous pink, more and more strand-lights pouring out and threading between them, arcing over the open ways.
Nsarathme watches transfixed as the scene evolves before her eyes. Abstract butterflies take shape out of the unfolding cells, and take flight among the glittering branches. Deep, ethereal music rises up, mixed with the sounds of water and wind.
Finally, Maranqura opens her eyes. She smiles at Nsarathme. “What do you think, Nsara?”
“Maran…” Nsarathme shakes ser head. “It’s beautiful. You have a beautiful soul.”
The ritual is finished. The last bands binding them flutter away, their cells splitting apart and joining with the bodies of the trees. Arms free, the two humans embrace, and stay there for a moment in the air, basking in the serenity around them.
“I made a place like this once,” says Maranqura after a while. “Long, long ago. I didn’t think I could ever stand to see it again, but now… now it’s right. More than it ever was before.”