02/07/2019 | 44:26
PodCastle 580: I Am Not I — Part 2
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Author : G. V. Anderson
Narrator : Tatiana Grey
Host : Setsu Uzume
Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
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Previously published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Rated: R, for human parts sundered and sold.
I Am Not I by G. V. Anderson [Note: This is part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read part 1.]
“You don’t look well, Miss Strohm-Waxxog.”
I shook the bees from my jacket; they’d got cosy in my pockets and inside the lining. “I’m quite well, I assure you,” I said. I didn’t feel well. The walls and furniture around me seemed to move although I stood still, and small noises crashed in my ears.
The honey man had come to fetch Madame hunting, as promised. The days were turning colder, the sun hardly breaking through the early-morning mist. “The perfect conditions. They’ll be sluggish,” said the honey man.
But faced with the sobering light of day and the reality of chasing down real, living Saps, Madame refused. The honey man insisted on a partner, so I found myself stepping out into Tanners Row in her place, keeping pace with the only Varian who’d ever made me feel truly uneasy. At least he wore his veil so I didn’t have to look at his awful face.
“We’re after a full specimen today,” the honey man said. I sent up silent thanks; a full specimen could fetch an excellent price. Perhaps the whole one hundred and fifty guineas, if I did my best negotiating. As we walked farther down the Row, past boarded-up shops and walls of graffiti, he handed me a dartgun.
I turned it over in my palm. “Why don’t your bees just sting them?”
“I asked them to, on my first hunts, but it caused too much swelling,” he replied. “Madame will want to pickle and jar immediately, which leaves insufficient time for the bumps to recede.”
“Asked?” His bees flew around us, perhaps an entire colony. Some of them had landed contentedly on my shoulders, and I’d given up trying to shrug them away. “I thought you and they . . . Do you not control them?”
The honey man laughed. “They do as they like. We have a mutually beneficial arrangement, nothing more: my body provides a strong home; they collect information. They’re spliced, like Varians,” he said with pride. He raised a hand and they danced around it. “They’re clever little creatures, unnaturally strong with an excellent sense of direction. My bees know all the quickest routes through Vak-Ambrah, from the Auxxib district to the harbour and into the heart of the slums. Keep them in your sights and you’ll never be lost.
“And they certainly seem to like you,” he said, his head tipping towards the ones on my shoulders. “Perhaps they have a mind to burrow in and make a new honey girl.”
I swallowed a surge of bile.
The bees led us deeper into Tanners Row. The honey man and I followed close behind, my toes catching on the path. The alleys we took were narrow, the buildings bowed together like lovers’ foreheads, sharing secrets. When I looked up between them, the sky was a distant slash of iron.
We stalked through the slums for much of the day. They appeared abandoned, but energy rippled through every building as though they’d been occupied a moment before and swiftly vacated — dust, stirred by phantom feet, settled in the fibres of my coat; doors in nearby rooms creaked; even as I watched it, a spoon relaxed into a bowl of congealed gruel. The bees, which appeared to my feverish mind like will-o’-wisps drifting just out of reach, guided me through broken doorways slick with mould, past corners piled high with stained mattresses. It reminded me acutely of the squats I’d lived in since my extensions were implanted, those hellish rooms I’d endured with strangers in similar predicaments. Not quite Saps in a slum — which was all that mattered to me, at first — but close enough. The memory nauseated me.
In one room, the honey man pointed out a stash of homemade weapons under a loose floorboard. The largest wall was covered in writing I didn’t understand.
“A call to arms,” the honey man said with his hands in his pockets.
I frowned. “You can read this?”
With a shrug, he replied, “A little. It’s valuable, in my line of work, to know what the humans are writing about.”
A clang from behind made us both whip round. Across the room, a Sap girl with matted brown hair had knocked over a bucket. She froze in the doorway, clutching the frame for balance. Her wasted face curdled in my brain. A ghost of my younger self before my extra eyes and wings were implanted. We might have been perfect doppelgängers.
One hundred and fifty guineas.
I clenched my fists and ran.
“Your gun!” the honey man shouted after me, but my blood was churning and I couldn’t think straight. I chased her into a squalid stairwell and slugged every last inch of her, our breathing laboured and echoing, our hands and fingers bumping as we struggled wordlessly, desperately. One wallop broke her nose — I heard the satisfying crunch — but then the honey man pulled me away. “Not her face, damn it,” he said.
We returned to the emporium with the dazed Sap slung over the honey man’s shoulder. A waist-high jar stood waiting for her in a corner of the kitchenette. Together, the honey man and Madame lowered her in — and as I sidled along the wall, my legs barely bearing my weight, Madame let out a diabolical laugh such as I’d never heard before. She pinned the Sap down without mercy, two hands to every limb, while the honey man poured in buckets of preservative chemicals.
The Sap screamed; liquid slushed against glass. I slid down the wall and folded myself inwards, hands over my ears and my extensions burning, unable to take my eyes off the jar. The Sap’s palms beat and pressed against the glass, her face scrunched in terror. Above it all, filling my vision, was Madame: terrifyingly strong, her little tongue sticking out between her teeth with effort and relish.
The Sap slowly grew still, her forehead resting against the glass as if in repose, and Madame withdrew her hands. As she washed them at the sink and mopped her face, the honey man bent down to me. “Madame’s made some tea.”
I hadn’t noticed the spread on the tiny table; Madame had kept herself busy while we were gone: a pot of tea, a dozen mouldy finger sandwiches, a slab of cake. I didn’t have the stomach for any of it.
“Bit of a treat, watching a master acristologist work, isn’t it?” Madame said slyly when she joined us. Her usual airheaded manner soon slid back into place, however, like the tide coming in. “Look at her, bless — she’s at sixes and sevens. But won’t it fetch a good sum! I haven’t seen a specimen like this in circulation for, oh, decades? And a Sapling, too — rare!” She grinned and giggled her way through most of the meal, steadily slurring her words until her head lolled back and she began to snore. I watched her mouth flap open. Her uvula wiggled like a lure on a line. The honey man tutted.
Dozens of furry bees had climbed all over my arms. I twitched and they rose like a flock of birds, only to settle again.
The honey man sat opposite me. The table was so small our knees touched. “Do the bees frighten you? Don’t worry.” He plucked one out of the air and held it up for me to see the stinger. “They’re like me. They don’t sting unless they really have to.”
His forefinger and thumb snapped open and the bee drifted away in a daze. “Your methods are a little crude, but you did well today. You surprised me. I almost thought you wouldn’t have it in you, hunting your own kind.”
I stiffened in my seat, glancing at Madame.
“She’ll not hear a thing,” he said, pointing to her teacup stained with lipstick and the multiple rings inside where her tea had sat too long. “It’s not peppermint, after all. Peppermint only masks the true smell.” Three bees emerged from Madame’s internal breast pocket, carrying between them a small bronze flask scabbed with verdigris. They deposited it before me and I took a cautious sniff. The smell was syrup-sweet and heady. No wonder she slept so much, I thought.
“How did you know?” I said.
The honey man smiled. “An addiction to liquor is hard to hide.”
“No.” I lowered my voice. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Ahh.” His chair creaked as he settled. “My bees can recognise a human quite easily, much easier than a drunk old Varian, and I’ve seen many illegal extensions in my life. None of them quite so fine nor resilient as yours, but they — and symptoms of rejection — are easy to spot for someone who knows, hmm?”
Shakily, my fingertips brushed my brow. Three of my eyes had begun to harden now, and the electrical impulses that controlled their fake eyelids were fading. The first one to get infected had stopped blinking altogether. Instead of pulling my wings through the usual slits so that they hung proudly outside my clothes, I didn’t risk the pain and covered them instead.
Even Madame, stupid as she was, had started to notice these changes. Some days, her great respect for my name seemed my only shield and protection.
“Well.” The honey man tapped the flask of liquor. “This will dull the pain for now. I have connections. Perhaps I’ll find someone who can help.”
I scoffed. “Help? What are you helping me for? Are you some kind of Sap sympathiser?”
“I neither like nor dislike humans.” He raised his chin, considering me. “If you were just some girl from the slums, slaving away for a few coins, I would have told Madame the moment I met you — we would have pickled you there and then. A pretty penny with little effort. But.”
I shifted my knee away from his.
“Profits and clientele have improved since you were employed. Stock is being sold. The ledger looks healthier than I’ve seen it in years. You’re not slaving away mindlessly, trying to get by. You’re clawing this emporium out of the gutter at great risk to yourself. Why?”
He had me cornered — it seemed pitiful to lie. Perhaps the truth would serve me better here. “My extensions fail a little more every day,” I said, keeping my voice low. “The man who gave them to me can fix them, but he wants a lot of money for his trouble — and I can’t even get payment to him because she won’t let me leave her side for five minutes at a time.” I turned away from his honeycomb face. Madame’s liquor stank; how hadn’t I noticed it before?
He sighed. “She wasn’t always so clingy. She was the best acristologist in Vak-Ambrah — until eight years ago. A human got in through an open window and nearly killed her. Avenging some brother she’d pickled, I believe. I can tell from the look on your face that she didn’t tell you. She’s convinced he’ll come back one day to finish her off.”
Apart from her snores, the room fell silent.
“So,” I said, glancing at the jarred Sap in the corner. I struggled to keep the fear from my voice. “You’ll turn me in now, I suppose.”
“Didn’t you listen to me before? I’ve no issue with humans. My interest is in the emporium’s success, and if a human can do that better than . . . well. So be it.”
I bristled. “What are you suggesting?”
He spoke in earnest: “I’m suggesting we work together as partners. The company account will have to be transferred to another name, to take away any control she has over the finances. I’ve seen the papers you presented to her — your forging skills are superb.”
I didn’t react to his compliment; it had brought back memories of the old con who’d taught me. Conditions in the squats had forced us together into a strange alliance, for I was — still am — a prickly creature, and he hated the Strohm-Waxxogs almost as much as I hated myself. Somehow, we agreed to help one another — I needed passable papers that I could produce autonomously, and he wanted dirt on my family, such as I could provide. He used to wipe his arse with old newspapers, but he always remembered to fling me the society pages first, so that I could read about my family. My mother.
My eyes burned with tears unexpectedly, farcically.
“Now, if you create a power of attorney and take it to the bank, we’ll sell the new product as soon as possible and pay off the creditors.”
In such an enclosed space, with my murderous employer’s snores rattling in my ears and the Sapling’s damning gaze at my back and old memories tangling my mind, I could hardly think. “I need that money for Heechi! My extensions — without them, the clients —”
He grabbed my wrist. Squeezed. “Forget your extensions! They are easily fixed. Control yourself and think of the long game. The emporium. Financial security. That’s worth more than a few false eyes and wings, I assure you.”
“You’re only useful to me as long as you can work.”
I reluctantly met his gaze. Think how much a collector might pay for a human Strohm-Waxxog. I remembered him saying that, the first time I met him. Not a joke. A threat. “I can work,” I said, keeping my voice steady. “I can work.”
“I’m glad we understand each other,” he said, letting go of my wrist. “Madame told me about the mail-order service. There’s no need to bother with postage costs: my bees are strong enough to handle the deliveries. Send me copies of all statements, receipts, invoices — everything.”
He left soon after that. I gave the kitchenette a cursory clean, stepping around Madame to pile up the plates and cups. To bed, I took Madame’s half-empty flask, which I drained, gagging. I hoped to lessen the pain in my back and sleep like the dead until morning, but the liquor combined with an already burning fever gave way to hallucinations: the Sapling leaning over me, her wet hair dripping formaldehyde in my eyes — which gave up their roots and rolled like marbles across the floor; I tried calling them back, but my mouth was full of droning bees — while the replica skeleton scratched the inside of my wardrobe door, begging for freedom — and the whole building creaked around me, as if the hate of a thousand Saps rested on it.
I’d only delivered half of Heechi’s list by then, and I was now under closer observation than ever, but as I considered the piles of wrapped parcels on my bed one early morning, an idea occurred to me. The clutch of bees on my windowsill quivered, eager and attentive. I looked at them. “You’ve . . . always liked me, haven’t you?” I said, feeling a bit stupid. “Do you think . . . Could you deliver some extra things for me, and not tell him?” They buzzed gently. I placed a finger amongst them and they nuzzled it.
Off they went, hauling mail-order parcels and a few smuggled goods for Heechi. I marvelled at the skill of their splicing, that they could bear so much weight with such fragile bodies. They returned an hour later with a pot of cream from the extensioneer. I rubbed it into my forehead and back as directed, grateful to have the pain alleviated.
Before lunch, I went to the bank and closed the emporium’s account with a forged power of attorney. My handiwork passed muster. “It’s been such a downward spiral.” I sighed at the bank manager. “Such a shame.”
That, at least, was as agreed. But my extensions had been a cherished part of my body for ten years and fixing them was all I could think about — selling the Sapling and paying Heechi took precedence over whatever the honey man had planned. I began calling in on clients to tout our newest stock without his knowledge. Many of them were aggrieved when I explained Madame’s fall from grace, and they showed great interest in the Sapling. An old Aujox matriarch suggested I take the prize piece to auction. That was impossible, of course: a full specimen at auction would attract a crowd. And the honey man’s attention. But auctions are perfect places for finding prospective customers with their chequebooks already primed, and the matriarch gladly gave me the address for one taking place that week.
While Madame slept off a double-dose of peppermint tea, I found the address — a bombastic townhouse with stone columns and guards flanking the door. I showed them the Aujox matriarch’s card and they ushered me, unchallenged, into the grandest entrance hall I’d ever imagined.
I’d worn my cleanest boots, my most fashionable hat and jacket, but I was still hopelessly underdressed. The marble floor was threaded with gold and silver; the chandelier dripped splendour; and all around me were Varians in silks and velvets, showing off their plumage and shimmering scales and teeth. A few of them sneered at me in my dowdy clothes. I raised my chin and slipped carefully into the crowd, wincing whenever someone bumped against my wings which I’d suffered to pull through my clothes to hang in full view.
The items on sale that night terrified me: a severed head, its eyes pinned open; a torso, separated into slices as thin as ham and suspended in clear resin; a full specimen that had been preserved without the usual fluids by some unfamiliar art and laid, as wrinkled and brown as a prune, in a glass-topped casket. The lots were displayed around the hall and the rooms alongside, to give the bidders a chance to browse. A few eyes glanced my way — perhaps they simply expected me to place an opening bid, but the looks unnerved me all the same.
A few of my best clients were present and I gratefully joined them when they called me over. They introduced me to their parties and enquired as to my business. “Have you entered your Sapling into the auction?” they asked me.
“We’re considering it,” I replied.
Someone leaned into the conversation. “Did you say a Sapling? A full Sapling? Do you have a photogram?”
An image of the Sap — not serenely floating, but thrashing against Madame and crying for mercy — invaded my mind, and I faltered. “It’s . . . it’s such a new specimen, there’s been no time to arrange anything like that. But you can be sure she’s a fine collector’s item.” And when pushed for description, I gave one: a description that, I realised with dismay, held a disturbing resemblance to my own relatively plain face. Feeling exposed, I excused myself and moved away into the crowd.
“Miss Strohm-Waxxog!” I felt someone grab my arm and swing me round, a short young dandy to whom I’d sold a cane made from femurs the week before. “What luck, that you should be here as well! I was just telling your esteemed relations —”
I should have known this would happen, should have taken better care . . . He’d spun me, the stupid idiot, into his own party of high-class Varians — and I found myself staring into the face of my tall, arthropodan mother.
She stood with poise, her chin jutting proudly, her abdominal segments lacquered to a high shine. Long gone was the lonely creature from my childhood, unsure of her new marriage; here, she was transformed. I recognised the male at her side from the society pages: her fourth husband. It was not unreasonable to assume her first, my father, was also present, as well as the siblings I’d never met.
Her eyes travelled over my face and widened. The long palps that sprouted from either side of her mouthparts twitched.
We stared at each other for a long minute. I was here under my Strohm-Waxxog name; it would only take a word from her to discredit me and reveal all, and at my back was a crowd of Varians, ready to barter for my body.
Her husband, the young dandy at my arm, and the rest of her party were waiting expectantly, teetering on the brink of discomfort. “Well,” she said. She gracefully extended her hand; she had her own reputation to protect. My eyebrows rose. “Well, I don’t believe we’ve met. But then, it’s impossible to keep track of all the Strohm-Waxxogs when they breed so quickly.”
I took her hand and shook it, and the Varians around us chuckled and relaxed. The conversation soon bubbled up again to fill the gap. I disentangled my arm from the dandy and she stepped away from her husband.
“What’s your business here, may I ask?” Her smile was polite but the words came through gritted teeth.
“I’m representing Madame Qlym,” I replied, avoiding her eye. “We’ve just acquired a full Sapling and are looking to sell.”
She inhaled sharply at this. No doubt she’d expected me to crawl into a gutter somewhere and never come out, getting by with the bare minimum that her parting gift allowed, instead of intentionally putting myself at risk and drawing attention — not only to myself, but to her. “I can’t believe you would dare to come here, use that name,” she muttered.
“It’s my name to use, isn’t it?”
She worked her mouthparts, her eyes flicking around the room. I thought she was nervous of being seen with me, or perhaps looking to catch the eye of friends who would back up her accusation. I tensed to run for the door. But she placed a hand on the small of my back and guided me towards an elderly male Slin I’d never met. “You’re not to enter the general auction,” my mother whispered in my ear. “Mr Slin has a liking for Saplings; I expect he’ll be very interested in your piece.”
With my mother there to make the introduction, the scaly Mr Slin was more inclined to oblige me — and Madame’s name appeared to rouse a real deference in his manner. Clearly, he was one of the few in the city to whom Madame’s name still meant something. I eventually persuaded him to purchase the Sapling for one hundred and twenty guineas. I trembled as he made out the cheque.
Just as I slipped it into my pocket, a bell rang to signal the start of the bidding. The crowd flowed towards a room set for the purpose, and my mother and I stood in the midst of it like two rocks in a stream. I supposed I ought to thank her for smoothing the way. The words caught in my throat. I unstuck my tongue from my palate to try again, but she spoke first: “Scurry back to Tanners Row, Miss Strohm-Waxxog.” Her voice and her eyes were hard, but she turned to join her people and let me go free — with a cheque I would never have obtained without her help.
I didn’t know how heavy a guinea is; I’d never touched one, let alone one hundred and twenty of them. I tried to cash the cheque, but when the clerk emerged from the vault, hauling a case around the counter, straining and sweating and asking me where my carriage was parked, I imagined trying to hide it from Madame and swiftly reconsidered my plan. I deposited the funds into our existing account instead.
The honey man had demanded to see all bank statements, to better understand the cash flow. He would notice this deposit and allocate it to the emporium before I could blink. So I swiped a few sheets of vellum from the bank clerk’s station while he was busy with the case and spent all night tracing the looping script until I could create a passing copy of the statement without the offending transaction.
When deliverymen came to acquire the jar, Madame was confused. I reassured her: “We agreed to place it in storage, Madame, don’t you remember? We really don’t have space for it here.” She nodded warily. I might have noticed her suspicion had I not been so stressed covering my tracks. I was forced over the next few days to withdraw the money in concealable dribs and drabs, all the while recreating statements to keep the honey man away from the money I felt I’d wholly earned.
A week after the auction, I returned to the shop one afternoon with the last of it in my pockets. Counting all the coins in my collection box, I had one hundred and fifty-three guineas. One hundred and fifty-three! I’d really done it! I planned to haul it across Vak-Ambrah and be on the operating table by sundown. I clenched the cold coins in my fist, their edges biting my palm, and grinned. I’d slipped Madame a strong dose in her morning tea and expected her to still be in bed. I went through to the kitchenette, tugging off my coat.
She was sitting at the table. One hand cradled a glass of water. The other clutched a crumpled piece of paper. My grin faded.
At the sight of me, she sniffed. “You want to better yourself. You want to be important. I was the same once.”
I kept quite still.
“Higher society was all I wanted when I started; I couldn’t wait to know everyone worth knowing. But you — you’re a Strohm-Waxxog. You’re already in higher society. I d-don’t understand why you need to push me out of things.” She wiped her cheeks, smearing powder and rouge. “I took you in and taught you everything I know, and this is the thanks I get?” She limply rattled the paper in my direction.
My eyes snagged on the wax Slin seal, the proud letterhead. A bill of receipt for the sale, opened by Madame. I sucked in my breath, laying my coat gingerly on the table as if she might lunge for me.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset,” I said. “I made the sale on your behalf —”
“Don’t lie to me.” She wobbled to her feet, wiping her nose with her sleeve. “I called the bank as soon as I opened this, and the clerk explained, oh so gently, that I no longer have authority to speak to them about the account.”
She suddenly slammed the paper down on the table. “I think I’d remember going doolally and signing a power of attorney! Not to mention the fact that stock has been disappearing lately, and the little stash of coins in your room — oh yes, I found it! Now you listen here,” she cried, eyes bulging. “I’ve been in this business for decades; you’ve been here less than a year. Think you can pull out the rug, eh? Think you can swindle me out of everything I’ve worked for?”
I retreated into the front shop, Madame stumbling towards me, unfurling her spindly arms. Her hands gripped the shelves, disturbing a lone bee that lurked there. She started to climb.
“Think I’m a silly old drunk, do you? Some old has-been? Well, I’ll tell you something: you pickle Saps for fifty years and we’ll see how well you sleep, shall we?” Her voice cracked. “I’ve given everything to this business — everything! — and you think you can just walk in here with your fancy name and take it all for yourself? Here, you can have it!” She snatched up a jar with one hand and threw it at my feet. Sour chemicals and thousands of curved fingernails spattered my shoes. I kicked them away, but Madame was climbing higher and more jars came hurtling down, more broken glass as fine as sea-spray, more Sap parts at my feet.
I backed up against the front window with my hand clapped across my mouth. The stench from the chemicals sizzled in my nose and throat.
The front door flung open. The honey man whipped off his hat and veil, glanced at me and the mess on the floor, and jumped to the worst conclusion. I raised my hand to stop him, to explain — She saw a receipt, that’s all! Just a receipt! — but my mouth was so inflamed by the fumes I could barely croak.
She was climbing the highest shelves now, her arms bridging the void between the walls. She turned to face him. Her eyes shone with fresh tears. “You! Rushing to protect her, eh, your little investment? We’ve been partners all this time, as good as friends, and you betray me —”
“It may be hard to stomach,” he said, waving a hand towards me, “but there’s no reason why we can’t work with a human.”
“What are you talking about?” she snarled from the corner, almost angry enough to overlook his slip, but her beady eyes traced his gesture and fell on me. They flicked between us. Her face went slack. “What is he saying?”
I lowered my hand and wheezed, “She didn’t know. I tried to tell you.”
Madame scuttled closer to us, her dumpy legs hanging limp. I had to crane my neck to meet her wide eyes. She said, “A Sap? But . . .”
For a moment, I imagined Madame in her youth, the jewel of acristological society. Her steady decline to this shabby, bygone shop, trapped on all sides by Saps she knew hated her. My connections, a new source of hope. A tenuous link back to her heyday. I pursed my lips, as much of an admission as I could manage.
She sobbed in uncontrolled rage, scrabbling higher as if I had something contagious. “So that’s it, is it? A Sap finally conspired to come in here and finish the job?” A new thought crossed her mind and her face turned nasty. “And she told me she was a Strohm-Waxxog, too!”
“I am a Strohm-Waxxog!” I yelled up at her.
“Dirty liar!” she yelled back. “What name did your mother give you? Not the one on your papers, I’ll wager!”
She dropped on top of me, crushed me belly-down against the slimy floor with her bulk. She was holding me, I realised with panic, the same way she’d held down the Sap in the jar: two hands to every limb. I couldn’t move at all. She said, with a terrible smile to her voice, “It takes more than a pair of stick-on wings to make a Varian.” Two hands released my ankles and grasped my wings instead. I felt a sudden splintering at my shoulder blades, pain that blacked my vision and took me back to a dark room, a scalpel . . . Old sutures sprang loose and nerves sparked like electric wires. I screamed. Nearby, a sodden bee struggled in a puddle of preservative fluid and blood.
Madame’s voice was muffled. I lifted my head. She’d turned back to the honey man, was saying something to him. “I’ll show you I can still make a penny! We’ll be rich; you said so yourself! Fetch me a jar!” Her fists clenched the wrinkled remains of my wings.
The honey man wasn’t watching or listening to either of us. He was reading the receipt that Madame had left on the kitchenette table. I knew his decision before he did. I’d been selfish. Short-sighted. I was more profitable floating in a jar.
A few bees that had drifted anxiously towards me began to fall back, their tiny bodies trembling.
“Move!” she shouted. “A jar, damn you!”
The honey man turned to obey.
The bees veered in midair, bottoms thrust forward to drive their stingers straight into Madame’s rouged cheek. She let go of me, clapping all eight hands to her face. Buoyed by their comrades’ sacrifice, more bees popped from the honey man’s skin and dove at her, the buzzing so furious I could hardly hear her screams. I looked for him. I foolishly hoped that, at that moment, despite my betrayal, he was pushing past her to find me; but he cared only for his own hide. I saw him reach for the kitchenette window and the slums beyond, quitting us both with ease, his jaw clenched in disgust.
I got to my feet and curled my hands behind the huge shelving unit on my nearest side, pulled with all my strength so that the whole structure fell forwards. Hundreds of jars from floor to ceiling slid off their perches and shattered, covering the floor with slime. As the shelves crushed the bees and Madame with them, I staggered towards the front door, but the slime gave me no purchase. I slid out onto cold cobbles instead, the interior of the emporium collapsing behind me with an ever-quietening buzz.
When I stopped coughing and looked up, I saw — you. The Saps from the slums, emerging from the dark windows and doors of Tanners Row to watch the destruction of the emporium. I might have hunted one of your daughters and drunk tea while she bobbed in the corner. I might have sold and smuggled pieces of your friends. But it didn’t matter. You saw the emporium in chaos and what, from all accounts, looked to be one of your own crawling from the wreckage.
And you helped.
My voice fails.
I’m in a dark room, clutching my eyes — they’ve hardened to glass and fallen from their sockets, leaving ugly little craters behind. A male Sap with coffee-coloured hair sits opposite, his hands clasped beneath his chin. Sometimes, it’s a whole group of them at once — the variety in their faces and bodies is a shock to me — but today it’s just him. He’s the only one whose tongue can manage the strange clicks and bends of Varian.
“I know you have confusion and anger,” he says carefully. “But please have strength also. We are all human. We will help you.”
“Saps don’t help each other,” I whisper, my mouth chalk dry.
He smiles sadly. “I wish you would not use that word.”
Most days, when my words have run dry, he stays with me for hours saying strange, incomprehensible things like revolution and rehabilitation and rights. He saves newspaper cuttings for me, like Madame’s obituary and articles about the unrest in Tanners Row. He slips them under the door just like Ms Gishak and her pamphlets, as if I’m right back where I started. Today, though, now that my story is finally told, he leaves.
I sleep for a while. Buzzing wakes me. I glance up to my only window. A bee lingers there, hesitant to come closer.
Memories flick across my mind: humans, not Saps; his comprehension of their language; the need to hide his unusual mutation even in public. Perhaps they have a mind to burrow in and make a new honey girl. Perhaps the honey man and his ilk don’t breed like normal Varians — perhaps they can be made. Perhaps he’d been trying to help me, one human helping another, in his own way.
Perhaps he still is.
I imagine raising my hand to this bee, beckoning it. Swallowing it. The vibration as it works its way to my heart. A new queen at my core. The squirm of larvæ in my breast and the slow disintegration as they carve their way through my body. I clench the front of my shirt; I can practically feel them. An infallible extension in which to hide . . .
But I don’t have the energy for hiding any more.
I turn away from the bee and its plaintive noise, tears running down my cheeks — they plop into my palm, where the cluster of cold, dead eyes that once made me Varian lies. My hand unfurls. I let them roll away across the dark floor.
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