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Two days later it’s Senko’s Day. Aiah has the day off, since Mengene’s moved the plasm search to a lower priority. Aiah dresses in blacklight colors, fluorescent red and green and gold, and carefully arranges her hair in the ideal long ringlets that are too much of a bother the rest of the time. She wears the bracelet with the little etched ivory disk that Gil gave her, and the metal lucky charm under her blouse. Then she hoists her tote on her shoulder and heads for the trackline station. If she can mix her holiday with business, so much the better.

Aiah drags her heavy tote up from the underground and discovers the streets already full. The weather is fine, with only a few light clouds beneath the Shield. Women in bright, flowing gowns pose artfully on balconies. Bellowing men in tufted headgear, bare chests striped with paint, swagger down the street carrying containers of beer and wine. Apartment dwellers have turned their sound systems onto windows and balconies, and the amped sound ricochets along brick and concrete, rattles windows, jumps inside the skins of the revelers. Bass rhythms rock the pavement beneath Aiah’s feet. Aiah finds a grin breaking out on her face, and her steps are lighter despite the tote’s strap digging into her shoulder.

The street is closed to traffic and already strewn with litter. Aiah bobs a zigzag course through people dancing on the pavement, then past a group of stiltwalkers, all dressed as fabulous animals with horns and sweeping tails made of soft plastic foam.

A series of booms overhead, accompanied by dazzling flashes, heralds an advertisement for Lord of the New City. Kherzaki’s huge, determined face scowls down out the sky.

Aiah’s cousin Elda has an apartment overlooking the parade route, one where the inevitable scaffolding has been turned into regular balconies with scalloped wrought-iron rails — a nice place, because her husband Nikov was a member of the Operation who got assassinated, and the Operation has an excellent insurance plan that’s been taking care of Elda and her kids ever since.

Aiah and many of the family wrote off Elda when she married. After what had happened to Henley, Aiah couldn’t believe Elda could marry someone like Nikov. But now that Nikov’s ashes are safe in their little cement cubicle far underground, certain elements of the past can be buried with him. If Henley could forgive, Aiah supposed that she could as well.

Aiah can hear the high pitch of conversation and the throb of music as soon as she steps off the elevator. She enters through Elda’s open door and is swept up in a whirlwind of embraces. Small children clasp her knees. She greets them all and manages to drop the heavy tote behind the sofa where it won’t attract attention.

And then she encounters Gurrah, her mother, the only person who greets her with a frown. “You didn’t come see me the other day,” Gurrah says in her thick-tongued Barkazil accent; and then she makes a show of reluctantly embracing her daughter.

“Mother,” Aiah says, “I was working. I wasn’t up here for a social call.”

Gurrah sniffs. “Landro told me what you were working at. Looking for ways to put your people in prison.”

“I was looking for ways to keep someone from blowing up Bursary Street again.”

“Were you there when it happened?” asks her sister Henley, and Aiah gratefully turns to her. Henley is as tall as Aiah, a year older, and carries herself with an uncommon grace of movement that Aiah has always envied. Henley is pregnant again, Aiah knows. At least, she thinks, Henley’s husband is a reliable sort.

“Yes,” Aiah says, “the flamer blew out the window of the room I was in.”

Henley gasps, puts a hand to her throat. The hand is swollen and deformed with arthritis.

The keen edge of a useless anger touches Aiah’s throat at the sight. “I had my hair pinned up,” she says, “and it burned the back of my neck. Got a few glass cuts, too.”

She lifts her hair to demonstrate. Suddenly Gurrah is a model of concern.

“You didn’t tell me,” she complains, and insists on Aiah bending over so that the neck can be examined. The last thing Aiah sees, before she bends over, is the amusement in Henley’s eyes.

Aiah can’t remember ever taking Gurrah seriously. Aiah is the fifth of seven children, and followed the older sibs in treating her mother lightly. Gurrah is an expert on dramatics, alternately devastated or exalted according to circumstance; but none of the drama ever seems to be about anything in particular, though it revolves round the necessity of Gurrah being the center of attention at all times.

Gurrah’s fingers pinch vertebrae. “You need to eat more,” she says. “You’re all bones.”

“I eat plenty.” Aiah straightens and tosses back her hair.

“Aiah!” It’s one of her cousins, age six or so, waving from the scaffolding overlooking the street. “Come see! It’s the Lynxoid Brothers!”

Aiah gratefully steps out onto the scaffolding and watches the orange-skinned Lynxoids dance along the street below, passing out packets of candy to the children. Plasm displays sweep the sky overhead, hyping liquor, tobacco, entertainment. A leaf drops onto her cousin’s hair, and Aiah brushes it off. The roof of this building is covered with mulberry trees because the landlord raises silkworms.

The first parade goes by, the Warriors, ranks of marchers in paint and sequins and nodding foam plastic plumes, some in marching bands, others carrying toy weapons made from the iron that, in the Barkazil tradition, Karlo gave to Senko in order to defeat the Lord of the Trees.

Aiah leans on the metal rail and scans her relatives discreetly as they watch the Warriors below. Some of them would know of a place to sell her plasm — the question is who, and how discreetly? She likes Elda — now that she’s a widow, anyway — but any contacts she’d have would be in the Operation, and that’s unacceptable. Aside from family history, if they found out about her source, they’d own her.

Landro? He had the contacts once, but so far as she knows he’s been on the safe side of the law since his term in Chonmas. Any of his knowledge might be years out of date.

Her brother Stonn? He’s been in and out of jail all his life and might know people, but he’s a minor criminal at best and she has no regard for his intelligence or discretion.

The Warriors Parade passes and the people below surge into the street. The family drifts off the balcony in search of refreshments. Aiah takes a glass of beer, drifts and chats and watches the others carefully.

Aiah’s grandmother enters, with Aiah’s cousins Esmon and Spano and a woman Aiah doesn’t know. Esmon looks fabulous, with billowy, immaculate lace and a coat glittering with green and gold sequins. His buttons are expensive, polished ivory.

“You should be in the Warriors Parade,” Aiah says as she kisses his cheek.

“After the new year I’m joining the Griffins,” he says. He introduces Aiah to the stranger, a small, sturdy woman in a red turban decorated with gemstones in expensive settings. Aiah recognizes the Trigram, the Mirror Twins, and other geomantic foci. She’s Esmon’s girlfriend, and her name is Khorsa.

It’s pretty clear, Aiah figures, who’s dressing Esmon these days.

She clasps Khorsa’s many-ringed hand and gazes down into lively, interested eyes rimmed dramatically with kohl. The eyes narrow a bit at Aiah’s touch.

You’ve been somewhere interesting, ne?” she says. Aiah prefers not to pursue this. She moves toward her grandmother and gives the old lady a hug.

“Would you like a seat out on the scaffold, Nana?” she asks. “I’ll get you one.”
“I’d rather have a glass of wine.”

Aiah gets her grandmother Galaiah a large tumbler of red and a folding chair overlooking the street. The old woman takes a drink of wine and gazes fiercely out over the revelers. A couple of great-grandchildren venture onto her lap and snatch at her cheap holiday beads. As she dangles the beads in front of them, Galaiah looks at Aiah and cocks an eyebrow.

“You have that passu of yours with you?”

“He’s still in Gerad.”

Galaiah sniffs. “At least he works.”

Aiah’s hand strays to the ivory disk on her bracelet. “He works hard, Nana.”

Galaiah shakes her head. “Pushing paper isn’t work.”

Nor is going out and getting drunk with Geradi executives, Aiah thinks, though the job seemed to require that as much as anything else.

“Esmon seems to be doing well,” Aiah says.

“It’s his woman,” dismissively. “She’s a witch and makes good money.”

“Does she work for the Operation?” A lot of witches do.

“She’s on her own. Works with her sister, some kind of priestess.” Galaiah takes another drink and deftly prevents a descendant from toppling off her lap. “If she was working for the Operation, she wouldn't be able to support Esmon like that, eh?”

“I suppose not.”

Galaiah grins with coffee-stained false teeth. “Esmon better not step out on her, I’ll tell you that. Witches have ways, ne?”

Aiah hesitates, casts a glance inward, “Is she reliable?”

Galaiah gives Aiah a sharp look, one the children on her lap promptly imitate.

“Why? You need a love conjuring to bring your longnose home?”

“Nothing like that. But everyone needs—” Aiah hesitates again. “Needs something from time to time. And I’d rather get it from someone who isn’t a pascol.” Which is a Barkazil term for a confidence player or someone who makes her living by her wits. The word is usually meant to be admiring, and is etymologically related to passu, the person from whom the pascol gains her living.

Galaiah looks at Aiah as if she were a simpleton. “Khorsa’s a witch. She runs a place called the Wisdom Fortune Temple, takes money from unhappy and desperate people and promises them miracles. How much more pascol can you get?”

Aiah nods. During the course of Aiah’s girlhood her mother must have belonged to half a dozen tabernacles, all of them more or less the same. Somewhere along the way Aiah figured out why Gurrah was here, Gurrah and most of the others. They were people who were failures or bewildered or maybe just unhappy, and they didn’t understand life all that well, or reality; and they needed to feel magical, special somehow, because if they weren’t magical they weren’t anything. And being Barkazil made it worse, because Karlo’s children were supposed to be magical, supposed to be better than everyone else. The Cunning People. And if you were supposed to be cunning and weren’t, and brilliant and weren’t, and magical and weren’t, where did you go?

The Wisdom Fortune Temple. Or something just like it.

Aiah looks down at the street. How much more pascol can you get? Galaiah is, as usual, to the point.

Galaiah is a survivor. When the old Metropolitan Fasta died and Barkazi went smash, Galaiah brought her children out of the wreckage and to Jaspeer while her husband was fighting street by street as a member of the Holy League of Karlo. While her husband spent six years in a Fastani prison; Galaiah brought up her children alone, in a strange metropolis. And when Aiah’s grandfather had finally been released on the collapse of the Fastani and the occupation of Barkazi by the Regional Federation, she nursed him painstakingly back to health, only to have him drop dead of influenza a few years later.

Elda, indoors, sets down a tray of pastry, and Galaiah’s grandchildren begin to squirm. Galaiah lets them down and they dash for the sweets. Galaiah takes a long drink of wine and looks up at Aiah.

“You in some kind of trouble?” she asks.

Aiah blinks. “No,” she lies.

“Those longnoses treating you all right at the Authority?”

“As well as can be expected.”

“You’re not pregnant, are you?”

Aiah is surprised. “No,” she says. “ I haven’t even . . . it’s been months, Nana.”

“Good. Plenty of time for babies later, when you’ve got a man from your own people.”

Aiah smiles. “Yes,” she says, “of course.” Somehow even Galaiah’s bigotry seems so much more acceptable than that of other people, possibly because she never pretends to be anything other than bigoted.

There’s a crash of drums from down the street, the amplified cry of the Barkazi fiddle. Children begin to shriek.

The Transvestites Parade is next, men wearing giant false breasts and enormously wide flounced skirts, women with absurdly padded shoulders and yard-long phalloi. The scaffold balcony sways with the weight of the onlookers’ good spirits. Alcohol swirls in Aiah’s head. Maybe she should have eaten something before drinking.

After the Transvestites come the Tree Spirits with their elaborate green hairstyles and giant satirical balloons, portraying all human endeavor as absurd, pointless or crazy. The balloons sway past, vast and round, just tantalizingly out of reach of the little children. Aiah finds herself looking at Khorsa, at the jeweled charms on her turban. The tiny woman has worked her way to the front of the balcony, and has propped one of Elda’s children on her hip so he can see better. Her eyes glitter with delight as the balloons parade by.

Well, at least she’s good-humored, not like the slit-eyed, mask-faced members of the Operation, all merciless calculation, or the outrageously dramatic witches who offer to remove curses and intervene with the ancestors’ spirits for a few hundred dalders, and all without plasm.

After the parade passes Aiah approaches Esmon, but he’s surrounded by admiring relatives and in no position to talk privately, and she sees Khorsa drifting toward a freezer chest of beer. Aiah approaches, takes another beer for herself. Khorsa fills her glass and smiles at her.

“Esmon seems happy,” Aiah offers.

“I hope so.”

“You’re a — what is it? — a priestess?”

“My sister’s a priestess. I’m a geomaterga. I do magic, she talks to the gods.”

“Do you go to school for that?”

Khorsa puts her hand on Aiah’s arm and smiles.

“No. It sort of runs in the family. My mother founded our teaching, and my sister and I have inherited it.”

“Does the Operation bother you much?”

It’s as if a mask drops into place — Khorsa’s smile is still there, but the amusement behind it is gone, and the eyes are like a wall of glass.

“Why do you ask?”

Warning sirens sound in Aiah’s mind. “I don’t know,” she says. “Just making conversation.”

She will not, she thinks, sell plasm to this woman. Maybe Khorsa isn’t the Operation, but there’s some other angle that Aiah doesn’t know about and doesn’t want to get messed up in.

Khorsa looks at her keenly, frowns, shakes her head. “We’ve kept them out,” she says. “Once you buy their unmetered plasm, they’re into you forever.” She sips beer, looks serious. “A lot of our clients come from among their victims. They always want us to soften the street captains’ hearts. But,” shaking her head, “of course the Operation has no heart.”

“No,” Aiah says, thinking of Henley. “It doesn’t.”

Khorsa gives her a shrewd look. “Why are you asking? You’re not interested in religious teaching, are you?”

Aiah shakes her head, smiles. “Perhaps not today.”

A drum rattles outside. There’s a subdued cheer.

“Strange,” Khorsa says. “All this celebration and joy, and what we’re celebrating is really the greatest tragedy in human history.”


Khorsa lifts her head, a bit defiantly. “Well, Senko failed, didn’t he? He beat the Lord of the Trees and the Prince of Oceans, but when he challenged the Ascended Ones they destroyed him, and they put the Shield over our heads to keep humanity from ever challenging them again, so ...” She waves her arms. “Why do we celebrate? Why aren’t we all weeping?”

Aiah looks at her. “Because we get the day off ?”

Khorsa laughs. “Maybe so.”

“Perhaps I should contribute to party supplies. Excuse me.”


The little elevator passes the landing four times, each time jammed too full for Aiah to get on board, so Aiah walks down the twelve flights to the ground floor and steps out. There’s a liquor and cigaret store on the far corner, and Aiah crosses the street to reach it. The sky overhead sizzles with plasm displays. A stiltwalker strides past roaring and pounding his chest, his foam-plastic tail floating out behind him. A group of twisted people dance on the corner to music booming down from the scaffold above— they’re short and gray, with hairless, glabrous skins. A cold finger slides up Aiah’s spine at the sight. She hasn’t seen this variety of genetically tampered before.

Aiah buys a case of beer at a marked-up holiday price, and a large plastic bag of salty krill wafers. While she stands in the long cashier line behind some local groover girls, she hears the booms and thumps of the Assassins Parade marching this way.

She follows the groovers out of the store. Police are clearing the street, so Aiah crosses at the corner and glances up to see old Charduq the Hermit up on his fluted pillar at the old Barkazi Savings Institute. A warm memory rises in Aiah at the sight. She’d assumed Charduq had died years ago. She waves at him and calls out.

“Hi, Charduq! Remember me?”

The old man’s eyes twinkle from deep within wrinkled sockets. He’s bald except for a long beard that reaches to his lap. His naked skin is deep brown from constant exposure to Shieldlight, and he lives entirely off what people drop into the plastic bucket he lowers on a rope for offerings. He’s been sitting on one of the Savings Institute’s ornamental pillars for as long as Aiah can remember.

“Hai-ee, Miss Aiah!” the old man calls. “You haven’t visited your old friend for years! Where have you been keeping yourself ?”

“I graduated and got a job with the Plasm Authority,” Aiah calls up.

“You live with a longnose lover, I hear. Is he rich?”

Aiah smiles. Everyone in the neighborhood passes the time of day with Charduq, and he learns everything sooner or later. The hermit is supposed to be contemplating the All, but instead he’s become the most perfect gossip in the world.

“No,” Aiah says, “he’s not rich.”

“Then what good is he?” Charduq pats the pillar next to him. “Come up here, dearie, take off your clothes and live with me. I’ve been preserving my potency for years. I can make you happier than any passu Jaspeeri!”

The hermit giggles and makes the penis-and-vulva sign with his fingers. Aiah bursts into laughter. She takes a beer and puts it in the old man’s offering bucket.

“You’ve been up on that pillar too long,” she says. “You want a girl, you’d better cut that beard and get a nice job.”

“You’d be surprised how many girls want to stroke my beard,” Charduq winks. He hauls in the rope and the bucket zooms upward. He’s got another bucket for waste which he lowers twice a day; whoever’s the junior clerk at the Savings Institute gets to empty it for him to keep it from stinking up the sidewalk.

Aiah waves goodbye and heads through the crowd. The Assassins are marching past, shadowed by fat, satisfied-looking balloons — all prominent celebrities or political figures — and all stuck with balloon daggers, arrows or hatchets. Tuphar, Aiah recognizes, Gullimath the footballer, Gargelius Enchuk, and Constantine, who looks surprised at the number of daggers buried in his back .

Constantine, she thinks, stopping dead in mid-stride, and then, of course.

She dances through the dense crowd, then, after the elevator fails to turn up, and up the stairs to Elda’s flat. By the end of the trip she’s dripping sweat and her lungs are pumping like a bellows. She takes one of the cold beers and holds it against her forehead and tries to absorb the welcome chill. Then she drinks it down.

She steps out onto the scaffold balcony and finds herself standing behind her mother. The Assassins Parade is about half over. One of the balloons is sagging, losing hydrogen; it looks as if its phony dagger has actually punctured it.

Gurrah turns, looks at Aiah over her shoulder. “You sell that plasm to the witch lady?” she asks.

Aiah feels herself flush as other relatives turn to gaze at her. “You looked in my bag?” she says.

Gurrah’s voice is loud in justification. “I thought there might be food in there. I didn’t want it to spoil.”

“Yeah,” Aiah says. “I always put my food behind the couch.”

“You sold the goods to Khorsa, ne?”

“No. I’m not selling anything.”

“Where’d you get it? You take it from work?

Aiah tries to glare. “No,” she says. “I didn’t.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, working a chonah like that. You get caught, bad things happen when you steal from the passu government.” Her mother’s voice is rising, carrying to everyone on the balcony. Aiah lowers her voice almost to a whisper and hopes her mother will follow her example.

“It’s not a chonah. I’m just doing someone a favor. Don’t make a fuss.”

Gurrah’s voice rises above the sound of the parade. “I shouldn’t make a fuss?” she demands. “My daughter finds out how to gimmick meters and starts selling plasm and I shouldn’t wonder about it? I—”

Thank you,” Aiah rages, “for making everyone here think I’m a thief!”

She turns, stalks away, drops onto the empty sofa. Her pulse throbs in her head like a runaway engine. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Gurrah draw herself up and look mortally offended, and then Aiah sees a trace of doubt enter her expression. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to her that her daughter wasn’t a thief. She begins to look anxious, perhaps wondering if she’s missed something.

Too late, Aiah thinks. Too damn late.

Among the relatives Aiah can see little knowing glances being exchanged. She hates being the subject of scrutiny, or pity, or speculation— whatever it is. She bolts up from the sofa, goes to the cooler, takes another beer. Maybe it’s time to go.

She takes her tote and wanders out into the hall, finds the elevator miraculously standing empty, and takes it to the ground floor. The last of the Assassins have just marched past and the crowd is pouring out into the street, and Aiah goes with them. She buys a sandwich from a vendor, bread filled with vat shrimp spiced to perfection and hot from the fryer; and by the time she’s finished eating, the Dolphins Parade is starting, led by the huge red fiberglass float of King Crab waving his pincers over the crowd. People dressed as fish and crustaceans prance past. Some minor video actor is the Lord of the Dolphins this year, one Aiah knows is supposed to be famous; he stands on his float and tosses presents to the crowd: cheap plastic puzzles, whistles, crackers, toy drums.

Aiah finishes her beer and drifts with the crowd. A stilt-walker offers her a drink from his wine flask. The Griffins and the Jaspeeris march past — the last are a burlesque, Barkazils mocking Jaspeeri over-seriousness and manners. The briefcase beaters leave her in stitches, people in suits with great gouts of lace pouring out of the sequined collars and sleeves, who chase each other and whack each other with briefcases. Overhead, the sky sizzles with patriotic displays and bright advertisements.

She wanders into a bar, eats some bread chips and lets people buy her drinks. Video screens show extravagant parades from all over the world. A procession marches past outside while she’s in the bar enjoying herself. She feels more relaxed than she’s been in years — hell, she’s probably going to prison, she might as well have a good time while she still can.

Aiah pushes out of the bar onto sidewalks ankle-deep in rubbish. Her shoes stick to the concrete as she walks. Music rackets out of a basement club, and the line is fairly short; Aiah joins it. There’s a special on some fashionably new cocktail, two for one, so she orders a pair of them and, while she’s waiting, cruises the dance floor.

The band is solid in its grove, glorious, the musicians sweating harder than the concrete wall of the old cellar-turned-club. Aiah returns to her table after two dances and finds her drinks waiting for her. She sips one, gets an invitation to dance, says yes.

There are a lot of men in the club. The one who interests her is Fredho — he’s utterly skilled on the dance floor, and when they spin to the music he makes her feel like a much better dancer than she is. If he can’t find a partner he dances by himself, spectacular spins and high kicks, handstands and splits. He wears an expensive white raw silk jacket over his bare chest, and the jacket’s got to be a gift because he doesn’t give a damn what happens to it; it’s smeared with dirt from the floor and the satin lining is coming to pieces as he thrashes around inside it. His skin is the fine brown color of burnt sugar, and his chest is smooth — lucky, because Aiah doesn’t want to be reminded of Gil’s hairy chest, not when she’s thinking what she’s thinking. And Fredho is nice—arrogant enough, but not demanding. At one point, ending a slow dance, he asks if she’ll take him home. She leans back in his arms, looks at him through slitted eyes, tries to make up her mind. “Maybe later,” she says, and leans forward to lick a trail of sweat off his chest— something she’s been thinking about for several minutes now.

He shrugs, lets her go back to her table, dances alone for a while. Aiah wonders why he wants to go to her place, if he’s got a woman waiting at his own, and then she decides it doesn’t matter. Anyone living with someone like Fredho knows well enough what to expect.

Later comes soon enough. She and Fredho take the trackline to the Loeno, and in the seat they’re all over each other, kissing, nibbling, teasing. The other passengers don’t know where to look.

Aiah takes Fredho up into her black-walled tower and fucks him three times.

Next day, after the alarm jolts her from sleep, she finds that Fredho has gone. Gone along with him is all her money, the plasm batteries, and the ivory bracelet that Gil gave her.

Head pounding, she looks at the picture of Gil on the wall and promises him that, real soon now, she’s going to get smarter about all this.

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