The bio-dome stretches over all of us, serf and Rajas alike. We huddle under it like animals under a glass bowl. And like those animals, all we know is fear.
It was the Eternal Queen Sarana who created this bio-dome. She lifted into place its criss-crossing branches. She looked at us, her people—the Saranai—and divided us into Rajas and serf, ruler and ruled.
For eight hundred and seventy years, now, we serfs have so lived on this planet. Ruled by the daughters of the Eternal Queen Sarana. Trapped under her bio-dome. Safe from the sun.
—Excerpt from A Free Serf's History of the Bio-Dome
Written 870 years after the Crash Landing
Half-hidden behind her easel, Mayah paused, paintbrush in hand. She was listening to the princesses on the other side of the studio talk about the festival next week. Their voices rose in excitement. "I heard Queen Pal—or even Queen Jroya—might come!" one of them crooned.
By habit Mayah repeated the words under her breath. I heard Queen Pal—or even Queen Jroya—might come! She tried to capture their intonation, their rhythm. But then she flushed and fell silent when Qat, the princess to her right, began laughing.
"Does the serf princess think if she practices enough she'll be invited to a House festival?"
Mayah wanted to tell Qat to stop calling her a serf princess, but she couldn't muster the courage. Instead, Mayah told herself that Qat knew nothing. Three years ago, when Mayah had first moved to Lost Technology Castle from the serf village, yes, she might have hoped for such an invitation then. But Mayah was thirteen now. She knew better. She was never going to a House festival, and that was fine with her—just fine.
Most princesses and princes were born and raised in castles, as befitted their status. Mayah had been raised in a serf village. Not because she was a serf, though. She wasn't. Mayah was a Rajas too, a descendent of the Eternal Queen Sarana just like every other princess or prince.
Qat didn't care though. "Serf princess wants to go to a House festival," she taunted.
Mayah still didn't want to challenge Qat, but her greater fear that Qat would attract the attention of the other princesses jolted the words out. "Stop it."
"Oh, the serf princess thinks she can tell me what to do?"
Thinking back to what Sukren, her doctor-priest, had taught her, Mayah replied, "You're just jealous because you weren't invited either."
Qat made a face. She jerked away from Mayah. After a few moments, Mayah let out a quiet sigh of relief, and turned her attention back to her canvas.
The assignment was to paint the bio-dome. Draw an ellipse on the page, the teacher had said yesterday. That's the edge of the bio-dome, where the trees that make up the dome's living frame find root in the ground. Next draw a circle, right in the middle of the ellipse. That's the shelterbelt, our tree-wall that protects us from the Cursed.
Mayah followed the instructions. First an ellipse, then a circle in its middle. Like a giant eye, it looked. The holy lake was next—the eye's pupil. Then Mayah turned her attention to the castles that grew around the lake's shore. Five of them, there were, massive tree towers that supported the bio-dome's fragile zenith with their branches.
She decided to hide her message on the trunks of the five castles. Picking up her stencil, Mayah used its sharp end to carve the musical notes into the canvas. Then she coated the trunks with yellow coloring; brown bark brightened and became gold.
Satisfied, Mayah stepped back to admire her work. She had painted it so you could barely see the message with your naked eye. But if you touched the painting, you would feel the notes with your finger.
She was startled when the studio serf bumped into her. "Apologies, Princess," he said, bowing.
Mayah looked away. The last thing she needed was to be seen fraternizing with serfs. She would never escape her nickname then.
"I'm ready to take it home," Mayah told the serf.
The serf moved to unclip her canvas from the easel. To her confusion, he unclipped only one side before pausing and looking at her painting. She adjusted her glasses, waiting for the serf to continue, but he didn't. Instead, he touched his finger to the trunk she had just finished painting.
Fear gripped Mayah. Could he feel the notes she had hidden in the canvas? As a serf he had no clout, but if he told someone higher what he saw, they might send someone to question her, or worse, send someone to question Sukren…
"Is something wrong?" Mayah forced herself to ask.
The serf unclipped the other side of her painting, rolled it up, and handed it to her. Mayah clutched it with both hands.
"The castles look good," the serf said, catching her eyes. "But they're too big."
Mayah knew what he meant. She had painted the castles not just as tall structures, but also as unrealistically thick ones. Yes, the castles were hefty—they had to be, to provide structural support to the bio-dome—but they weren't that fat. In an effort to create a painting that would allow her to hide her message, Mayah had taken some artistic liberties.
But shouldn't the serf know better than to comment on how a princess did her painting? Mayah could feel Qat's eyes on her, could sense that the entire studio was watching Mayah the serf princess get criticized by the studio serf. Ducking her head, she avoided his gaze, hoping he would realize that he shouldn't be talking to her.
Finally the serf seemed to understand that he was out of bounds. He bowed, and slipped out of Mayah's sight. Keeping her head down, Mayah hurried around her easel, walking as fast she could to get out of the studio and away from the stares.
Later in her dorm room, when Sukren came to visit her, Mayah told him the story. "Qat wouldn't stop. She's the worst. She's always mean to me."
A sympathetic smile touched Sukren's lips. "And it's not just her, either, is it? The other princesses bother you too, right?"
Mayah bit into the date Sukren had given her. She could feel her spirits lifting already. Sukren always affirmed her whenever any of the other Rajas bullied her. He never made her feel like she was too sensitive.
"Right," she said. "Sometimes I think every princess hates me."
Mayah flung herself into her hanging chair. Golden chains connected the swing seat to the ceiling. Sukren sat on a rug on the floor, his back up against the wall. There was a painted portrait of the Eternal Queen Sarana above his head. Mayah pretended to look at it, while surreptitiously examining Sukren for injuries.
"Zhamat told me that after I get my cycle, and I'm seeded to my senior castle, everything will be fine," she said, as nonchalantly as she could. "He said that junior Rajas are meaner because they don't have anything to do but wait to be seeded."
Good. There were no discolorations. Mayah still remembered the first time Sukren had come back to her dorm with his face and arms bruised. He had refused to explain. "It was an accident," was all he would say. There was nothing Mayah could do to get him to tell her the truth. Sukren was twice her age; he had raised her since she was a baby.
He was also her only friend.
"You don't like meeting with Zhamat, do you?" Sukren replied.
Mayah shook her head. She had to meet with Zhamat once a week for a psych review. She hated every minute she had to spend answering his questions, especially because she suspected Zhamat wasn't keeping what she told him a secret. "He's always asking me how I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, but I don't think he cares about me."
"And it's not like you tell him anything real."
"I don't," she said. "I'm not even going to tell him about what happened today."
"About Qat, you mean?"
"It wasn't just her. The studio serf was mean to me too."
"Sowdi was mean to you?"
"No, not Sowdi. A substitute." Mayah sighed. "I don't know why he picked on me. I'd never even seen him before."
Sukren's eyes narrowed. "How old was he?"
"Maybe a few years older than me."
"What did he look like?"
"I think he was Chenta. At least his eyes made him look Chenta. He could have been Eenta, though. His hair was curly."
"What did he do?"
Mayah relayed how the serf had criticized her painting in front of all the other princesses, and how he had touched her painting as if trying to mess it up. "I was afraid he saw the hidden message, too," she said. "He was staring at the painting so hard."
"Can you show me your painting?"
Mayah fetched it for him. The painted bio-dome stretched like a cupped hand from one end of the canvas to the other. Mayah pointed at Lost Technology, the castle they lived in. "See the notes here in the trunk?" she asked Sukren.
After Sukren nodded, Mayah went on to point out the rest of the musical notes. Once someone sang or played the notes, she would realize it was the start to an old song often ascribed to the Lost Princess. If that person went looking for the Commentaries of the Lost Princess in the library, she would find Mayah's lament against the Rajas stuffed into the Commentaries' last volume.
It was all very cleverly done, if Mayah said so herself.
"And who is this message to?" Sukren asked her.
"People like me," Mayah said. "The instructors will put my painting in the solitude museum, with all the other princesses'. Someday, someone will see it, figure out the code, and find my lament. Then whoever it is won't feel so alone, because she'll know I went through it too."
She could tell Sukren felt bad for her. "Mayah…"
She glanced at him. "I can't go through all this for nothing."
Sukren bowed his head and sighed. After a moment, he stood, and handed the painting back to Mayah. "Don't talk about this with anyone else, okay?"
"Why are you getting up?"
"I have to go take care of something."
"I thought this was okay." Mayah didn't like the sound of Sukren's voice. He was speaking the way he always did before one of his accidents. "Please, Sukren, I didn't think the painting and the message was that bad. Otherwise I wouldn't have done it."
"It's fine, Mayah, don't worry."
"Please don't leave."
"I'll be back in time for dinner."
The thought of dinner momentarily distracted Mayah from her fear that she had once more done something to trigger harm to Sukren. She grimaced. It was torture to sit alone in the cafeteria while the other Rajas laughed with each other all around her. But waiting in her room for Sukren to come back from another accident was even worse.
"Please," Mayah begged.
"I'll cook something tonight," he said. "We'll eat here, together. You won't have to go out."
His offer didn't assuage Mayah's fears, but she nodded. She got up from the hanging chair and threw her arms around Sukren's middle. "Come back soon."
"I will," he said. She felt him kiss the top of her head. Then he was out the door, gone.
Mayah looked around the room. The hanging chair was in one corner, her matching golden bedframe and dressers in another. The painting of the Eternal Queen Sarana hung on the wall by the kitchenette. The rug lay rumpled on the floor beneath it.
Mayah smoothed the rug out, then slid down the wall, lowering herself into the exact spot Sukren had been sitting in. She touched her hands to the floor like he had. If I stay right here, she told herself, if I don't move a muscle, then Sukren will come back okay. He'll come back okay. He will. He has to…
Stupid serf, Sukren thought, as he searched for Vek. What had the fool been thinking? That Mayah wouldn't tell Sukren what had happened?
As a castle serf, Vek could be anywhere in the castle. Sukren decided to check the art studio first. Laboriously he climbed two flights of stairs and crossed three hallways. He caught Vek just as the serf was finishing his wipe-down of the studio floor.
"Come with me," Sukren told him.
Vek looked up at him. "What?"
"Come with me."
Vek rose. Sukren motioned him around a corner, then another. As soon as they reached a dead end, he confronted the serf. "Substituting for Sowdi? Really? You've never gone for a studio assignment before."
A grin lit up Vek's face. "Lady Nari had a mission for Sowdi and needed someone to cover for her. I volunteered."
"Of course you did," Sukren muttered.
"Do you really blame me? You get to see her every day. You talk with her, you guide her… the rest of us only get to catch glimpses."
"That's not why I'm here." Sukren glanced over his shoulder, and lowered his voice. "She didn't take your attention earlier today as flattering, Vek. She felt threatened. She's only supposed to feel that the Rajas are marshaled against her. She's not supposed to have any negative interactions with serfs. But today, she did—because of you."
"I didn't mean… I just wanted a chance to talk to her… to know what she was thinking…"
"Why did you touch her painting?"
His face bright with excitement, Vek held up his finger. The faintest hint of yellow filled in the whorls of his fingerprint. "I'm not going to wash it off until I have to."
Sukren took a deep breath. He had to remind himself that Vek was young, that he was one of Lady Nari's child recruits. Fierce and loyal, but lacking prudence.
"I'll have to report this to Lady Nari," he said.
Alarm entered Vek's eyes. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble."
"I'll be fine."
"I'm sorry, Sukren, I—"
Sukren held up his hand. "You better get back to work before someone starts looking for you."
"I really didn't mean—"
"I'll be fine," Sukren said again. "Now go."
Vek left. Watching him go, Sukren wished he felt even half as confident as he had made sure to sound. For what he had told Vek was only part-true. Sukren would be fine—with Lady Nari. The Council, on the other hand, well, they were a different matter entirely.
Sukren returned to his quarters. His roommate, a Council-appointed spy, asked him where he had been. Sukren lied, knowing that his roommate knew he was lying. They exchanged some false pleasantries, and then his roommate left, most likely to file a report on him.
Sukren waited until he was sure the man was gone before he pulled on a long hooded robe that doctor-priests like himself wore during official ceremonies. Big as Sukren was, the robe was bigger still. He tried not to trip on its folds as he made his way to the dumbwaiter at the end of his hallway.
A serf he knew was powering the dumbwaiter's ropes. Sukren gave him a nod. After a few minutes, the dumbwaiter opened up to one of the many balconies that clung to the outer face of the castle. The main attractions of this balcony were its colorful faux springs: blue, green, purple, red. Sukren went to the green water fountain. "I'm here," he said. "I have news."
Lady Nari emerged from the other side of the fountain. The sun was setting behind her; it outlined her impassive face. Her hard jawline was like Sukren's own, as were her sloping eyes and dark skin. They were all features typical of the Chenta.
Almost everybody in the Free Serf movement—or at least those that Sukren knew of, anyway—was Chenta. That wasn't a coincidence. Although they were part of the same serf caste, Eenta were favored over Chenta in ways large and small. Most Chenta were shuttled into service work if they left the villages, while Eenta were given soldier positions. As a result, the Eenta looked down on the Chenta.
"What is it?" Lady Nari said.
Sukren summarized quickly and efficiently, as Lady Nari had trained him to. "Vek scared her today during her painting class. She came back to me with a story about how a serf had been mean to her."
"Tell me the details."
He relayed to her everything that Mayah had told him, and added, "I'll find a way to explain it to her."
"Good. I trust you to handle it."
Sukren bowed his head. Lady Nari's trust could be a burden sometimes. "Shall I give you my regular report now, or next time?"
"For the last several weeks she's withdrawn from the Rajas. She no longer tries to get invited to their House festivals. She spends all her time either with me or reading in the library. She goes to class only when she has to. I believe she's given up on being accepted by the Rajas."
"So you think she's ready for the next stage?"
"And you're sure you're not being motivated by your personal emotions?"
Sukren looked at the ground. "I believe she's ready to join the serfs."
Lady Nari said nothing.
Even in her silence, she was impossible to resist. "I don't deny that I would be glad to see her leave the Rajas," Sukren whispered. "I don't deny that I'd rather not lie to her anymore."
"But you understand that we must follow the prophecy."
Sukren hesitated. He met Lady Nari's eyes.
"Or do you no longer care about victory?" Her voice turned cold. "Do you want to live like this always, under the rule of the Rajas? You didn't when I first met you."
Silence swept through the darkening balcony garden. Sukren closed his eyes, remembering despite his best efforts. Do you want to be free? Lady Nari had asked him, tenderly, almost lovingly. He had cried then, fourteen-year-old boy tears, searching fearfully over his shoulder for the doctor-priest he was apprenticed to, terrified that the man's fingers would close down on his arm in a grip made strong by his appetite for his young trainee.
Lady Nari had touched Sukren's face. Even after thirteen years Sukren could still feel it, the press of her fingers against the curve of his cheek, as she promised him, I will rescue you.
She had placed him in a Chenta village with a three-week old princess, and told him to keep the girl safe. That next decade had been the best of Sukren's life. Sometimes when Sukren thought about Mayah's laughing baby eyes and the way she had always run up to greet him, bare feet kicking up the dust, his chest ached with a sweet strong pain that blotted out every sacrifice—the hiding, the years of poverty, the endless recriminations that as a handler he was getting too attached to this precious little girl who was his entire world.
And really, that was probably why the Council had ordered Sukren to move from the serf village to a castle. All the better to keep an eye on his contact with Mayah. But if only they hadn't! If only Sukren and Mayah had been permitted to stay in the village forever. If only the Council and the Free Serfs would agree on how he should deal with Mayah now. Sukren's past three years had been nothing but a series of tortuous attempts to defy the Council without revealing his status as a Free Serf agent—and then a series of parallel attempts to lie to Mayah about the consequences of the Council's wrath. If only Sukren could find a way out!
"We need her," Lady Nari continued. Her voice softened. "And we need you to take care of her. Be patient, Sukren, and do your duty. Sooner than you think, it'll be time."
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