Today's Reading

She shrugs. "You slept two days too long." Adalla looks around the cargo hold.

She approaches along the wall, slipping in and out of shadows until she's upon me. She frowns at the seam rip and the steady burble of sleep balm wasting over the edges. Then, with a beastworker's strength and grace, she hoists me up and out of the pod like my bones are made from mad vapors.

"Why didn't you wake me?" I ask Adalla.

"This beast has spirit. Your Matris called all hands to steady it. But it'll last us fourteen years, the Senate agrees already, and you know how often they agree."

"Great," I grumble. That's two extra years I have to wait to see the next first letting.

"Don't be mad."

Adalla pulls a stiff roll of fabric from her pack, the iridescent blue of a beastworker's suit. The natural creases of beast hide still run through it. She hands it to me, and I slip out of my nakedness and into my disguise.

"We've got two hours before we need to get this back. And you back. Lash counters are on edge. My amas say they've never seen them so flighty, especially during excavation."

I bite my lip. Adalla's amas—may the ancestors soothe their sweet little hearts—are older than anyone I know and have been through seven beast cycles. Two of her amas had begun their courtship as teens but didn't take on their third until they were well past their childbearing years. They bucked convention, and some had even dared to call them a "couple," though they fervently denied it, claiming they were just taking their time searching for the exact right woman. They were every bit as sharp as they were eccentric, though, and if the amas say something is amiss, then something is amiss.

"Don't pout," says Adalla, tugging me forth. "I've got something even more exciting to show you." She offers me her re-breather, but I push it away. The air is still thin, but they're boiling ichor as we speak, filling the beast's insides with breathable atmosphere and all the scents of home. I'll be fine.

"What is it?" I ask, pressing my hand in hers, and in an instant, I've forgotten all about the late wake-up call. "Are we going to the gills?"

"Seske, are you crazy? Do you know what Your Matris would do to me if she found out I'd gotten you gaffed on mad vapors? She'd have it out on my hide, and my mothers would be sure to tear up any pieces she overlooked! This is way better anyway." Adalla reaches into her work satchel and retrieves her knife—sharp, long, and metal. A family heirloom, three hundred years old, or so Adalla claims.

"Beastwork?" I grunt. This had better be good. I didn't risk being raised from my stasis pod early to get stuck boring holes in the beast's body. I want to see something exciting. The more reckless, the better.

"Nuh-uh. This," she says, raising her knife, "is for protection."

I perk up. "Protection? From what?"

"Some of the workers think this beast is full of spirits," Adalla whispers.

"Of course it is. Matris took great care to bring the spirit wall—"

"No, not those kinds of spirits. The kind that torment people. Like Quiet Medla. She'll steal your voice if you skip your prayers. Or Halli the Mangler, who'll turn a girl babe into a boy if you don't braid her hair before she cuts her first tooth. Or Ol' Baxi Batzi, who'll smother you in your sleep, unless you..." Her brow tightens. "What?" she asks me.

I must be making a face. "Nothing," I say. "Go on..."

"You don't believe in them," she says, not a question.

"I...uh...I don't not believe in them. It's just a lot to take in all at once."

"And how many times has your family dragged you to the spirit wall? How many times have you left offerings for your ancestors?"

Too many times. And I see her point. Who am I to say whose spirits are real and whose aren't?

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