by Morokoshi Katsura (唐 桂)
For the first few weeks on Alba Venne dressed in layers: woolen stockings and quilted silk jackets and rivers of sable fur, long gloves and tall boots. The attire was necessary, as much for form and semiotics as the function of the outdoor ceremonies that marked his arrival, but he could not get comfortable. The least physical effort while bundled up caused him to overheat, which caused him to sweat and itch maddeningly in public, but remove any of his bulky outer garments and straightaway he was chilled. He had to show his face to the crowds, and the bitter air chapped his lips and made his eyes water. It was as well he did not care to appear lordly; charisma was difficult to achieve with a perennial runny nose.
“I don’t know how I managed to survive here as a child,” he remarked to Aramaki. “No wonder Lenore left on the first ship after her Contract expired.” Aramaki only sighed and said something about thickness of blood, or perhaps the stark poesy of the landscape.
“Turn up the heat,” Venne ordered him. “I’m rich enough to afford it.”
“The populace will see it as wasteful, Your Grace.”
“I don’t care if they see me as mad,” said Venne.
In fact he rather suspected they did, and it pleased him.
He spent most of his day in the artificial light of the greenhouse dome, tending Lenore’s parting gifts, or reading a book while reclining in a deck chair set amongst the foliage. All the plants were Terrans, and back home on Cleia (he persisted in thinking of Cleia as home) they bore brightly coloured flowers or bracts or fruit during the winter festive season: poinsettias and zygocacti near the equator, holly and mistletoe in the temperate zones. Of course, on Alba the point was moot.
The poinsettias Lenore gave him were from her own gardens in Bel Kanthys and over eight feet tall, shipping and handling not included. It was very much like his mother to make a sweeping gesture of impractical sentiment and expect him to pay for it.
He deliberately left the juggling of political appointments to Aramaki, but could not worm his way out of everything. Trade union leaders had to be wined and dined, and the vast complex of mines and foundries inspected. He laid a Cartesian grid over a map of the Central Economic Region and worked his way through the sectors, at a rate of one per solar week. It was the only time he ever went outside.
It was on one of these inspection tours that he saw Noeids. They crested the lip of the mine in clumps of two or three, seemingly out of nowhere: perhaps half a dozen individuals in all. Most of them were dressed haphazardly in human cast-offs, but all of them were barefoot, and though Venne knew they were physically unaffected by the cold he still shivered in sympathy.
“Drive them off,” said Count Yunel, who owned the mine in question. One of the greatcoated soldiers flanking their group shouldered his gun and fired into the air several times. The Noeids fled, although one of them lingered near the ultrasound fence, looking back. It appeared to be a young boy, near the same physiological age as Venne himself, and Venne fancied he was the one being watched.
“Damned pests,” said Yunel. “That fence needs to be checked. If we’re not careful they’ll bring the dragons down on us.”
“They’re an endangered species,” Venne said, “protected by Galactic convention.” There was an embarrassed silence.
“So are snow dragons, Your Grace,” Yunel said at length. “All the more reason to keep them from nesting in the CER – no way to get rid of one of those, short of putting it down.”
That night Venne had the first of several dreams. In it he was barefoot, walking through the snow. Strangely he didn’t feel cold, but he was tired and afraid. There was a sharp pain in his side that worsened as he moved – he had to keep his hand pressed against the spot – and when he looked down he saw that black blood was seeping between his fingers.
There were no domes as far as he could see, no plumes of smoke marking the entrances of mines, no roads. In the distance the mountains rose, as forbidding as ever, but they seemed taller than usual.
On the morning of the third day he asked Aramaki, abruptly, “Did my father hunt Noeids?” Aramaki set down the abstract he was marking over and blinked.
“They’re an endangered species,” he said.
“That wasn’t my question,” said Venne. Aramaki ran a hand through his thinning hair and sighed.
“He was something of an eccentric,” he said, “your father. And the Alban oligarchy is not generally possessed of a high degree of ecological awareness, as I’m certain Your Grace has noticed.”
He paused, frowning.
“Actually… you accompanied him once or twice, I believe. With your mother and older brother. But the Lady Lenore found the sport distasteful.”
“I see,” said Venne. He got up from his desk and approached the window. Outside it was as dark as always; the decorative birches surrounding the compound stood straight across his vision like ghostly sentinels.
“You know,” he said, “if it weren’t for the Slowing I would remember all this for myself. I’m beginning to understand why the people here are so set against it.”
“Your Grace,” said Aramaki, sounding scandalised. Venne turned and smiled at him indulgently.
“Merely a thought. But it is ironic, isn’t it? When I heard accounts of this place I was always thankful Lenore took me with her to Cleia. And yet here I am again.”
The Year’s End Ball was a grand affair, the stuff of dreams, that incurred in a single night of celebration the same expenditure as annual heating for his greenhouse. This of course was not considered wasteful by the populace, who loved a good show. Venne stuck around long enough to open the festivities and lead the first dance, then retired for the night.
“Your Grace,” Aramaki said reprovingly when informed of this.
“Fine,” he said, “fine. Give me two hours of quiet.”
He spent them on his deck chair, with a glass of sweet wine and a comprehensive history of the Godard-Ebb Process. It made for dry reading, but the thought of his personal stake in the matter amused him. Ironic that mssrs Godard and Ebb had arrived at their critical breakthrough right here, on frozen Alba where the process named for them was employed the least. There were members of the ruling class rich enough to afford the Slowing for themselves or their children, but he had yet to encounter one who would so much as countenance the idea. Venne perceived it as less practicality than a combination of ingrained pride and superstition. They were afraid of him, deep down inside, and unless a revolution in attitudes took place the passing years would do little to change the fact.
There was a thought. Did he really intend to stay? Better to produce an heir quickly, bound by Contract as he was by Lenore’s and unmarred by Godard-Ebb, and abdicate in favour of his own offspring. Perhaps there would even be a spare he could take with him off-planet, and as long as there were no more accidental falls before the main dynastic line could perpetuate itself—
He fell asleep to the enumeration of his descendants and their compounded assets, and when he woke it was with a disoriented start. Had Aramaki called him? But the greenhouse dome was silent. He turned his head. Outside it had begun to snow again, and he fancied he could hear each snowflake land.
There was a patch of white at eye level, half hidden by poinsettia leaves. He focussed on it absently, not knowing what he was looking at. Then it shifted, and he suddenly recognized it for what it was.
A hand pressed against the glass. Part of a face.
Venne fell off his deck chair.
The hand moved again, sliding downward in mirror of his movement. Bright, human eyes blinked at him – no, not human. Venne picked himself up off the ground, mechanically dusting off his knees. His heart was pounding fit to burst.
It was a Noeid. It was the Noeid boy he’d seen that time, before. It was… it was… He approached the wall at a half-crouch. The molecule-thick thermal barrier sandwiched within the sheet glass allowed for unimpeded vision at a distance, but closer up it clouded over his view like reflective steam. The other boy was a dim, wavering outline, mere centimetres away. He laid his hand over the glass, where the other’s ought to be. Alien sensations bubbled up within him like an uncovered spring.
“You,” he said. “I know you. Don’t I?” Happiness, he thought. A bright, disbelieving, unbearable happiness. Relief. Longing. A flash of greenery. A little boy standing in the snow. Images and emotions came and went too fast for him to grasp, fish darting between stones. “Wait. Don’t go anywhere, wait there—”
He felt the other boy’s assent and broke away, dashing through the door of the greenhouse. Up the stairs, back to his own apartments – he threw open the wardrobe and snatched the first warm item of clothing at hand, ignoring the exclamations of the privy staff – down different stairs and through a servants’ door they didn’t know he knew, a corridor, another door.
He stumbled out into ankle-deep snow. The frigid air hit him full-on; for a second he forgot how to breathe. His lungs burned, and his legs ached sharply with disuse.
Before him the other boy straightened from the glass, and smiled.
Despite Aramaki’s protests he refused to unlock the suite door. Something of his state of mind must have filtered through his voice, for Aramaki’s tone shifted from reproachful to alarmed.
“I’m all right,” he said. “Please. We can talk about it tomorrow.”
He turned, back pressed against the door. The other occupant of the room lifted his head, gazing at Venne from where he knelt on the fur rug near the fireplace. He wore only a shift, and his hair fell untidily over his shoulders, blue shadows on snow. His dark eyes seemed to swallow the flickering light.
Venne felt happiness surge within him again, and shook his head to clear it. “No,” he said, “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t… I don’t remember. I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are.”
To soften the blow he approached and crouched down again before the other boy, taking him by the shoulders. The fire had warmed his skin; it was difficult to believe he was the inhuman creature he was. But Venne had never heard a Noeid could—
The boy lifted his hands to Venne’s face, their gazes still locked. His fingers brushed Venne’s mouth. Venne inhaled sharply as time opened beneath and between them, dizzying. Loneliness. Questioning. Aching want. Years upon years upon years…
Venne closed his eyes. The boy leant forward and kissed him, on the lips he had just touched. Softly, then more forcefully, as Venne tilted his head to return the kiss. His hands slid down the other boy’s back.
Such a long time, he thought, as the sense of it unfurled within him. Play and travel and the slow accumulation of wealth, long enough for a man to grow old and die. Did Noeids live so very long? But of course, Godard and Ebb knew, scientists and madmen that they were…
He pulled the other boy closer, fitting their bodies against each other in a way that seemed painfully familiar. The images came faster until they were a torrent, nearly indecipherable. Bleeding, so tired – dying – but there you were. Yours. Waiting for you. Green leaves against bare stone, a splash of red. Hands pressed against glass. Himself, younger, smiling, mouthing a word—
He tumbled the boy back against the fur, held him down and kissed him again. Came up for air and said, “Leis. I named you. Leis.”
The boy smiled up at him, his eyes like deep shining pools. He placed his hand on Venne’s chest, above his heart.
Leis did everything he asked, before he could think to ask it. Venne thought his heart would break.
“I’m sorry,” he said again later, as they lay in bed, folded around each other. “I… shouldn’t have left you behind. I know that much.”
Leis shook his head, his face buried in the curve of Venne’s throat. Not like that, he said in Venne’s mind, and Venne was startled at the clarity of the thought. It felt like stretching limbs he had forgotten he possessed.
“What then?” he said aloud. Leis untwined their fingers and sat up.
I’ll show you.
He leant down and kissed Venne’s mouth, the edge of his jaw, his earlobe. His lips trailed down Venne’s throat to his collarbone, following his quickening pulse, then further down. His hair trailed like silk floss over Venne’s chest. Venne sighed and arched up into the touch.
Leis moved to straddle him, reaching behind to stroke him to readiness. When Venne was hard he took his weight on his knees and lowered himself slowly, impaling himself on Venne’s shaft. Warmth echoed through their connection, magnifying the sensation. Leis’s lips were parted slightly, his eyes closed in concentration. Venne watched him, the words caught in his throat.
No one told me about you, he thought. No one knew, or no one bothered: a spoilt child’s lost pet, that’s all.
He thought, I’m someone else now. Oh, Leis—
Leis smiled, and shook his head again. He bit his lip, and began to move.
Then the memories came.
They sat just outside the circle of new earth, hand in hand. The ground here was thawed by the nearby hot springs, not permafrost, and the tiny white LEDs at the base of the glass bespoke the dome’s operation (hydraulically powered by the same groundswell). But it was not warm. It was not the season, even within the dome’s artificial settings. Venne still sweated with the exertion of the dig, but if he didn’t stand up and move around he would be shivering again before long.
He knew it. He kept sitting, fingers tangled around Leis’s. He said finally, “I have to go.”
Assent. Duty. Regret. He pushed against Leis in his mind, suddenly sullen faced with the other’s understanding. Aloud he said, “Come with me.”
Family. The sense of something large and silver-grey-blue, unfolding pinions wide as mountains; other bonds that could not be broken.
“Yes, I know. You’re the same as me.” A pause. “It’s not fair.”
Leis smiled. It was one of the first human gestures he had learnt. His inner voice said: I will wait for you.
“I don’t even know when I’ll be able to come back. Leis—”
Leis got to his feet, leant forward to brush his fingers against the sprig they’d just planted. There were two; there wouldn’t be any berries otherwise. Venne had explained how to care for them, how to maintain the dome with its arbitrary Terran seasons so they would prosper.
These will remind me of you, he said. While you are gone.
Aramaki arrived the next morning at his usual hour – down to the second – to find Venne nearly dressed and examining himself critically in the full-length mirror.
“Ah, there you are, Aramaki,” he said, over the head of the valet doing up the clasps of his coat. “Just in time, we’re heading out. A lovely day for a little expedition into the mountains. I built something interesting up there when I was younger, I’ll show it to you if you like.”
“Your Grace, I must—” said Aramaki. A movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. Leis had stepped out of bed, sheets gathered around him like drapery. Aramaki closed his mouth with a snap.
“Come now, good man, make yourself useful,” said Venne. He glanced over his shoulder at Leis and smiled. “It’s time for some fresh air.”