Leoshine reveled in the warm embrace of her bathwater, submerging her chin and drawing it up until the surface tension broke and set her free.
She drew a deep breath. The water molded to her lithe form and allowed her ribs to expand to their fullest. Steam swirled in little eddies and moisture collected on the fine hairs of her upper lip and eyebrows.
Father, the builder of the bathhouse just outside the women’s compound, had disappeared late in her childhood, no one knew where. Mother was just finishing her widowhood rites when Father reappeared one day, reclaiming his position as Mayor of the only town under the Dome of Myxolidia.
He implemented all manner of new ideas. Leoshine glanced at the rigid chest brace that lay on top of her clothes. She had worn the hard plate strapped to her chest since the day after he returned. She inhaled again, dreading leaving her warm womb and strapping that “new idea” to her breast.
While he was away, all her aunts’ daughters had been initiated into their men’s houses. Even Gorphiline, the Rellogat slave who waited outside to bind Leoshine up again, had recently birthed a live child to prove her womanhood. Mother railed almost every day at Father. “Curtstas, what are you doing to your daughter?” Leoshine glanced down at her chest. She didn’t think she’d have trouble nursing babies if she ever had to.
The walls of the bathhouse exhaled steam, enough to muffle the voice of Giffshine, her oldest sister. “Leoshine, Leoshine!”
Leoshine rolled her eyes to the dripping struts of the roof and sank up to her earlobes.
“Where is that vagrant?”
Wol, their brother answered. “She’s in Father’s water tub again. ”
Hillashine, the middle sister sneered. “Bent on destruction.”
Wol raised his voice. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll get a bucket of worms …”
Leoshine jumped when Giffshine banged on the bathhouse door. “Leoshine. Mother wants you. Now!”
Gorphiline slipped into the moist bath chamber and placed her baby on the floor. Without a word she held a towel with her arms stretched out straight and jerked her head at the door.
The water cascaded off Leoshine as she left the bath. As the water music lapped at the tub walls, and the ripples interlaced and grew quiet, she toweled herself and dressed her long golden-brown hair.
Gorphiline held the brace. “Turn around.”
“Why do I have to?” Leoshine asked for the first time in a long time. “You lost your teeth at the same time as me.” She turned her back to her personal attendant and lifted her arms. Losing teeth was a mark of age, like hair length. Gorphiline used to be the same as her. Now she wore the woman’s more ornate robe, an infant on her hip, and one in her belly.
The servant wrapped the brace and pulled. “Your father said so.”
Leoshine groaned. The ties at the back drew the structure in until her breath caught. Since he returned, Father kept telling her she was special. He allowed her to see where he and the other men worked. He told her secrets about Aeok’n, the Dome Dsxano’i.
“Not so tight!”
The servant grunted, threw a simple tunic at her, scooped up the baby, and left.
Leoshine wriggled into the dress that was plain, undecorated, and perfect for an uninitiated girl. She peeked out the door, and listened. More than once she had emerged from the bathhouse to be pelted by rocks, mudcakes, and eggs.
Her soft soled boots hardly bruised the grass as she trotted across the lawn toward the women’s compound in her father’s low-built, rambling palace. The spring that bubbled up beneath the kitchen made it the most important land under the drought-stricken Dome.
Wol’s rabble, bullies of anyone who followed Father’s “new ideas,” rounded the corner. Leoshine slammed the women’s gate behind her.
The rhythm of looms welcomed her to her mother’s workroom.
“Leotjie!” Mother exhaled in a gust. In one gesture she swept her daughter onto a stool and threw an avalanche of wool challis dyed with orpher berries over her head. “Stand still.”
Leoshine poked her head through the neck hole and gazed out over the vegetable garden. The Rellogat girl picking peas plucked a weed by the roots and flung it at the girl picking beans. A chicken pecked at the new dirt.
When Father had returned from his mysterious journey, he had turned all his Rachnorgat slaves into Rellogats who lived in the compound and ate the same food as the family.
In the orchard, planted in the shadow of the town wall, the men would be harvesting apples while the women put the flax stalks into tubs for retting. Behind Leoshine, five strong women shuttled and cocked new stretches of Mother’s fine linen on five clacking looms.
Leoshine’s shoulders sagged under the weight of her new gown. She tipped her head back. Mother had hung tapestries over the roughhewn walls to block the draft. Not so the rafters. Blood pooled in Leoshine’s lax fingertips. Mother muttered below, buried in the folds.
Footsteps hammered down the hall. Hillashine stormed in. “Leoshine! Where’s my lace collar?”
Mother fought her way free of the hem, and Leoshine turned toward the doorway.
“I said, where is it? I gave it to you to wash.”
“Why didn’t you give it to Reanour?” Mother cocked a questioning eye at Leoshine.
“On the window sill. Drying in the kitchen.” Leoshine frowned. Mother chose too often to ignore Hillashine’s petty rivalry with the Rellogat.
“You slow batraworsk hog! You only just did it, didn’t you? You lazy …”
Leoshine’s fingertips curled and her shoulders gathered up to her ears.
Hillashine stomped away. Mother sighed amid her work in the folds.
“She didn’t need to talk that way,” Leoshine complained.
“You could have done it sooner.” As she disappeared under the hem, Mother muttered, “Everything’s changing again.”
Leoshine closed her eyes. The clack of the looms droned on. The girls finished their harvesting and left the garden to tend to Mother’s bees.
The moment Mother set Leoshine free, she ran all the way to the top of Father’s palace, the highest watchtower under the Dome. She looked out over the tree tops and inhaled their breath as her own. Aeok’n, the royal atmosphere figure, Dxsano’i, stretched above her, uniformly gray and predictable.
Father claimed town and forest as his kingdom. Myxolidia, he called it. The compound lay at her feet, the women’s quarters separated by a wall from the men’s chambers, where Father ruled the council. Surrounding the palace, she saw the rooftops of the citizens who remembered and honored Father’s ideas.
Leoshine shivered. Outside the protective wooden barricade, throughout the forest, lived the Oxikobh, people who rejected Father’s authority. She had heard her older siblings’ stories about the horrors the savages did to each other and town folk.
Once a cycle Father braved the threat to take care of Aeok’n. He ventured to the barrier lands, sacrificed at what he called “engines” and showed strange markings on parchment to her when he returned. She understood a little more each time. As his daughter she was supposed to stay within the women’s quarters. She certainly wasn’t supposed to venture into the wilderness.
Leoshine smiled to herself. She was different. High above the squabbles and laws, far from prying eyes, she gazed upon Myxolidia and wondered, Where shall I explore? And what are those changes Mother talked about?
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