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Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Fluted Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

“The Fluted Girl” was the first short story that I sold after a long period of writing failed novels. In the original version of the story, I told it from Madame Belari’s point of view– an obvious mistake that took me a long time to figure out.

The fluted girl huddled in the darkness clutching Stephen’s final gift in her small pale hands. Madame Belari would be looking for her. The servants would be sniffing through the castle like feral dogs, looking under beds, in closets, behind the wine racks, all their senses hungry for a whiff of her. Belari never knew the fluted girl’s hiding places. It was the servants who always found her. Belari simply wandered the halls and let the servants search her out. The servants thought they knew all her hiding places.

The fluted girl shifted her body. Her awkward position already strained her fragile skeleton. She stretched as much as the cramped space allowed, then folded herself back into compactness, imagining herself as a rabbit, like the ones Belari kept in cages in the kitchen: small and soft with wet warm eyes, they could sit and wait for hours. The fluted girl summoned patience and ignored the sore protest of her folded body.

Soon she had to show herself, or Madame Belari would get impatient and send for Burson, her head of security. Then Burson would bring his jackals and they would hunt again, crisscrossing every room, spraying pheromone additives across the floors and following her neon tracks to her hidey-hole. She had to leave before Burson came. Madame Belari punished her if the staff wasted time scrubbing out pheromones.

The fluted girl shifted her position again. Her legs were beginning to ache. She wondered if they could snap from the strain. Sometimes she was surprised at what broke her. A gentle bump against a table and she was shattered again, with Belari angry at the careless treatment of her investment.

The fluted girl sighed. In truth, it was already time to leave her hidey-hole, but still she craved the silence, the moment alone. Her sister Nia never understood. Stephen though…he had understood. When the fluted girl told him of her hidey-hole, she thought he forgave because he was kind. Now she knew better. Stephen had bigger secrets than the silly fluted girl. He had secrets bigger than anyone had guessed. The fluted girl turned his tiny vial in her hands, feeling its smooth glass shape, knowing the amber drops it held within. Already, she missed him.

Beyond her hidey-hole, footsteps echoed. Metal scraped heavily across stone. The fluted girl peered out through a crack in her makeshift fortress. Below her, the castle’s pantry lay jumbled with dry goods. Mirriam was looking for her again, poking behind the refrigerated crates of champagne for Belari’s party tonight. They hissed and leaked mist as Mirriam struggled to shove them aside and look deeper into the dark recesses behind. The fluted girl had known Mirriam when they were both children in the town. Now, they were as different as life and death.

Mirriam had grown, her breasts burgeoning, her hips widening, her rosy face smiling and laughing at her fortune. When they both came to Belari, the fluted girl and Mirriam had been the same height. Now, Mirriam was a grown woman, a full two feet taller than the fluted girl, and filled out to please a man. And she was loyal. She was a good servant for Belari. Smiling, happy to serve. They’d all been that way when they came up from the town to the castle: Mirriam, the fluted girl, and her sister Nia. Then Belari decided to make them into fluted girls. Mirriam got to grow, but the fluted girls were going to be stars.

Mirriam spied a stack of cheeses and hams piled carelessly in one corner. She stalked it while the fluted girl watched and smiled at the plump girl’s suspicions. Mirriam hefted a great wheel of Danish cheese and peered into the gap behind. “Lidia? Are you there?”

The fluted girl shook her head. No, she thought. But you guessed well. A year ago, I would have been. I could have moved the cheeses, with effort. The champagne would have been too much, though. I would never have been behind the champagne.

Mirriam stood up. Sweat sheened her face from the effort of moving the bulky goods that fed Belari’s household. Her face looked like a bright shiny apple. She wiped her brow with a sleeve. “Lidia, Madame Belari is getting angry. You’re being a selfish girl. Nia is already waiting for you in the practice room.”

Lidia nodded silently. Yes, Nia would be in the practice room. She was the good sister. Lidia was the bad one. The one they had to search for. Lidia was the reason both fluted girls were punished. Belari had given up on discipline for Lidia directly. She contented herself with punishing both sisters and letting guilt enforce compliance. Sometimes it worked. But not now. Not with Stephen gone. Lidia needed quiet now. A place where no one watched her. A place alone. Her secret place which she showed to Stephen and which he had examined with such surprised sad eyes. Stephen’s eyes had been brown. When he looked at her, she thought that his eyes were almost as soft as Belari’s rabbits. They were safe eyes. You could fall into those safe brown eyes and never worry about breaking a bone.

Mirriam sat heavily on a sack of potatoes and scowled around her, acting for her potential audience. “You’re being a selfish girl. A vicious selfish girl to make us all search this way.”

The fluted girl nodded. Yes, I am a selfish girl, she thought. I am a selfish girl, and you are a woman, and yet we are the same age, and I am smarter than you. You are clever but you don’t know that hidey-holes are best when they are in places no one looks. You look for me under and behind and between, but you don’t look up. I am above you, and I am watching you, just as Stephen watched us all.

Mirriam grimaced and got up. “No matter. Burson will find you.” She brushed the dust from her skirts. “You hear me? Burson will find you.” She left the pantry.

Lidia waited for Mirriam to go away. It galled her that Mirriam was right. Burson would find her. He found her every time, if she waited too long. Silent time could only be stolen for so many minutes. It lasted as long as it took Belari to lose patience and call the jackals. Then another hidey-hole was lost.

Lidia turned Stephen’s tiny blown-glass bottle in her delicate fingers a final time. A parting gift, she understood, now that he was gone, now that he would no longer comfort her when Belari’s depredations became too much. She forced back tears. No more time to cry. Burson would be looking for her.

She pressed the vial into a secure crack, tight against the stone and roughhewn wood of the shelving where she hid, then worked a vacuum jar of red lentils back until she had an opening. She squeezed out from behind the legume wall that lined the pantry’s top shelves.

It had taken weeks for her to clear out the back jars and make a place for herself, but the jars made a good hidey-hole. A place others neglected to search. She had a fortress of jars, full of flat innocent beans, and behind that barrier, if she was patient and bore the strain, she could crouch for hours. She climbed down.

Carefully, carefully, she thought. We don’t want to break a bone. We have to be careful of the bones. She hung from the shelves as she gently worked the fat jar of red lentils back into place then slipped down the last shelves to the pantry floor.

Barefoot on cold stone flagging, Lidia studied her hidey-hole. Yes, it looked good still. Stephen’s final gift was safe up there. No one looked able to fit in that few feet of space, not even a delicate fluted girl. No one would suspect she folded herself so perfectly into such a place. She was slight as a mouse, and sometimes fit into surprising places. For that, she could thank Belari. She turned and hurried from the pantry, determined to let the servants catch her far away from her last surviving hidey-hole.

* * *

By the time Lidia reached the dining hall, she believed she might gain the practice rooms without discovery. There might be no punishments. Belari was kind to those she loved, but uncompromising when they disappointed her. Though Lidia was too delicate to strike, there were other punishments. Lidia thought of Stephen. A small part of her was happy that he was beyond Belari’s tortures.

Lidia slipped along the dining hall’s edge, shielded by ferns and blooming orchids. Between the lush leaves and flowers, she caught glimpses of the dining table’s long ebony expanse, polished mirror-bright each day by the servants and perpetually set with gleaming silver. She studied the room for observers. It was empty.

The rich warm smell of greenery reminded her of summer, despite the winter season that slashed the mountains around the castle. When she and Nia had been younger, before their surgeries, they had run in the mountains, amongst the pines. Lidia slipped through the orchids: one from Singapore; another from Chennai; another, striped like a tiger, engineered by Belari. She touched the delicate tiger blossom, admiring its lurid color.

We are beautiful prisoners, she thought. Just like you.

The ferns shuddered. A man exploded from the greenery, springing on her like a wolf. His hands wrenched her shoulders. His fingers plunged into her pale flesh and Lidia gasped as they stabbed her nerves into paralysis. She collapsed to the slate flagstones, a butterfly folding as Burson pressed her down.

She whimpered against the stone, her heart hammering inside her chest at the shock of Burson’s ambush. She moaned, trembling under his weight, her face hard against the castle’s smooth gray slate. On the stone beside her, a pink and white orchid lay beheaded by Burson’s attack.

Slowly, when he was sure of her compliance, Burson allowed her to move. His great weight lessened, lifting away from her like a tank rolling off a crushed hovel. Lidia forced herself to sit up. Finally she stood, an unsteady pale fairy dwarfed by the looming monster that was Belari’s head of security.

Burson’s mountainous body was a cragged landscape of muscle and scars, all juts of strength and angry puckered furrows of combat. Mirriam gossiped that he had previously been a gladiator, but she was romantic and Lidia suspected his scars came from training handlers, much as her own punishments came from Belari.

Burson held her wrist, penning it in a rock-like grasp. For all its unyielding strength, his grip was gentle. After an initial disastrous breakage, he had learned what strain her skeleton could bear before it shattered.

Lidia struggled, testing his hold on her wrist, then accepted her capture. Burson knelt, bringing his height to match hers. Red-rimed eyes studied her. Augmented irises bloodshot with enhancements scanned her skin’s infrared pulse.

Burson’s slashed face slowly lost the green blush of camouflage, abandoning stone and foliage colors now that he stood in open air. Where his hand touched her though, his skin paled, as though powdered by flour, matching the white of her own flesh.

“Where have you been hiding?” he rumbled.

“Nowhere.”

Burson’s red eyes narrowed, his brows furrowing over deep pits of interrogation. He sniffed at her clothing, hunting for clues. He brought his nose close to her face, her hair, snuffled at her hands. “The kitchens,” he murmured.

Lidia flinched. His red eyes studied her closely, hunting for more details, watching the unintentional reactions of her skin, the blush of discovery she could not hide from his prying eyes. Burson smiled. He hunted with the wild fierce joy of his bloodhound genetics. It was difficult to tell where the jackal, dog, and human blended in the man. His joys were hunting, capture, and slaughter.

Burson straightened, smiling. He took a steel bracelet from a pouch. “I have something for you, Lidia.” He slapped the jewelry onto Lidia’s wrist. It writhed around her thin arm, snakelike, chiming as it locked. “No more hiding for you.”

A current charged up Lidia’s arm and she cried out, shivering as electricity rooted through her body. Burson supported her as the current cut off. He said, “I’m tired of searching for Belari’s property.”

He smiled, tight-lipped, and pushed her toward the practice rooms. Lidia allowed herself to be herded.

* * *

Belari was in the performance hall when Burson brought Lidia before her. Servants bustled around her, arranging tables, setting up the round stage, installing the lighting. The walls were hung in pale muslin shot through with electric charges, a billowing sheath of charged air that crackled and sparked whenever a servant walked near.

Belari seemed unaware of the fanciful world building around her as she tossed orders at her events coordinator. Her black body armor was open at the collar, in deference to the warmth of human activity. She spared Burson and Lidia a quick glance, then turned her attention back to her servant, still furiously scribbling on a digital pad. “I want everything to be perfect tonight, Tania. Nothing out of place. Nothing amiss. Perfect.”

“Yes, Madame.”

Belari smiled. Her face was mathematically sculpted into beauty, structured by focus-groups and cosmetic traditions that stretched back generations. Cocktails of disease prophylaxis, cell-scouring cancer inhibitors, and Revitia kept Belari’s physical appearance at twenty-eight, much as Lidia’s own Revitia treatments kept her frozen in the first throes of adolescence. “And I want Vernon taken care of.”

“Will he want a companion?”

Belari shook her head. “No. He’ll confine himself to harassing me, I’m sure.” She shivered. “Disgusting man.”

Tania tittered. Belari’s chill gaze quieted her. Belari surveyed the performance hall. “I want everything in here. The food, the champagne, everything. I want them packed together so that they feel each other when the girls perform. I want it very tight. Very intimate.”

Tania nodded and scribbled more notes on her pad. She tapped the screen authoritatively, sending orders to the staff. Already, servants would be receiving messages in their earbuds, reacting to their mistress’s demands.

Belari said, “I want Tingle available. With the champagne. It will whet their appetites.”

“You’ll have an orgy if you do.”

Belari laughed. “That’s fine. I want them to remember tonight. I want them to remember our fluted girls. Vernon particularly.” Her laughter quieted, replaced by a hard-edged smile, brittle with emotion. “He’ll be angry when he finds out about them. But he’ll want them, anyway. And he’ll bid like the rest.”

Lidia watched Belari’s face. She wondered if the woman knew how clearly she broadcast her feelings about the Pendant Entertainment executive. Lidia had seen him once, from behind a curtain. She and Stephen had watched Vernon Weir touch Belari, and watched Belari first shy from his touch and then give in, summoning the reserves of her acting skill to play the part of a seduced woman.

Vernon Weir had made Belari famous. He’d paid the expense of her body sculpting and made her a star, much as Belari now invested in Lidia and her sister. But Master Weir extracted a price for his aid, Faustian devil that he was. Stephen and Lidia had watched as Weir took his pleasure from Belari, and Stephen had whispered to her that when Weir was gone, Belari would summon Stephen and reenact the scene, but with Stephen as the victim, and then he would pretend, as she did, that he was happy to submit.

Lidia’s thoughts broke off. Belari had turned to her. The angry welt from Stephen’s attack was still visible on her throat, despite the cell-knitters she popped like candy. Lidia thought it must gall her to have a scar out of place. She was careful of her image. Belari seemed to catch the focus of Lidia’s gaze. Her lips pursed and she pulled the collar of her body armor close, hiding the damage. Her green eyes narrowed. “We’ve been looking for you.”

Lidia ducked her head. “I’m sorry, Mistress.”

Belari ran a finger under the fluted girl’s jaw, lifting her downcast face until they were eye to eye. “I should punish you for wasting my time.”

“Yes, Mistress. I’m sorry.” The fluted girl lowered her eyes. Belari wouldn’t hit her. She was too expensive to fix. She wondered if Belari would use electricity, or isolation, or some other humiliation cleverly devised.

Instead, Belari pointed to the steel bracelet. “What’s this?”

Burson didn’t flinch at her question. He had no fear. He was the only servant who had no fear. Lidia admired him for that, if nothing else. “To track her. And shock her.” He smiled, pleased with himself. “It causes no physical destruction.”

Belari shook her head. “I need her without jewelry tonight. Take it off.”

“She will hide.”

“No. She wants to be star. She’ll be good now, won’t you, Lidia?”

Lidia nodded.

Burson shrugged and removed the bracelet, unperturbed. He leaned his great scarred face close to Lidia’s ear. “Don’t hide in the kitchens the next time. I will find you.” He stood away, smiling his satisfaction. Lidia narrowed her eyes at Burson and told herself she had won a victory that Burson didn’t know her hidey-hole yet. But then Burson smiled at her and she wondered if he did know already, if he was playing with her the way a cat played with a maimed mouse.

Belari said, “Thank you, Burson,” then paused, eyeing the great creature who looked so man-like yet moved with the feral quickness of the wilds. “Have you tightened our security?”

Burson nodded. “Your fief is safe. We are checking the rest of the staff, for background irregularities.”

“Have you found anything?”

Burson shook his head. “Your staff love you.”

Belari’s voice sharpened. “That’s what we thought about Stephen. And now I wear body armor in my own fief. I can’t afford the appearance of lost popularity. It affects my share price too much.”

“I’ve been thorough.”

“If my stock falls, Vernon will have me wired for TouchSense. I won’t have it.”

“I understand. There will be no more failures.”

Belari frowned at the monster looming over her. “Good. Well, come on then.” She motioned for Lidia to join her. “Your sister has been waiting for you.” She took the fluted girl by the hand and led her out of the performance hall.

Lidia spared a glance back. Burson was gone. The servants bustled, placing orchid cuttings on tables, but Burson had disappeared, either blended into the walls or sped away on his errands of security.

Belari tugged Lidia’s hand. “You led us on a merry search. I thought we would have to spray the pheromones again.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No harm. This time.” Belari smiled down at her. “Are you nervous about tonight?”

Lidia shook her head. “No.”

“No?”

Lidia shrugged. “Will Master Weir purchase our stock?”

“If he pays enough.”

“Will he?”

Belari smiled. “I think he will, yes. You are unique. Like me. Vernon likes to collect rare beauty.”

“What is he like?”

Belari’s smile stiffened. She looked up, concentrating on their path through the castle. “When I was a girl, very young, much younger than you, long before I became famous, I used to go to a playground. A man came to watch me on the swings. He wanted to be my friend. I didn’t like him, but being near him made me dizzy. Whatever he said made perfect sense. He smelled bad, but I couldn’t pull away from him.” Belari shook her head. “Someone’s mother chased him away.” She looked down at Lidia. “He had a chemical cologne, you understand?”

“Contraband?”

“Yes. From Asia. Not legal here. Vernon is like that. Your skin crawls but he draws you to him.”

“He touches you.”

Belari looked down at Lidia sadly. “He likes my old crone experience in my young girl body. But he hardly discriminates. He touches everyone.” She smiled slightly. “But not you, perhaps. You are too valuable to touch.”

“Too delicate.”

“Don’t sound so bitter. You’re unique. We’re going to make you a star.” Belari looked down at her protégé hungrily. “Your stock will rise, and you will be a star.”

* * *

Lidia watched from her windows as Belari’s guests began to arrive. Aircars snaked in under security escort, sliding low over the pines, green and red running lights blinking in the darkness.

Nia came to stand behind Lidia. “They’re here.”

“Yes.”

Snow clotted thickly on the trees, like heavy cream. The occasional blue sweeps of search beams highlighted the snow and the dark silhouettes of the forest; Burson’s ski patrols, hoping to spy out the telltale red exhalations of intruders crouched amongst pine shadows. Their beams swept over the ancient hulk of a ski lift that climbed up from the town. It was rusting, silent except when the wind caught its chairs and sent its cables swaying. The empty seats swung lethargically in the freezing air, another victim of Belari’s influence. Belari hated competition. Now, she was the only patron of the town that sparkled in the deep of the valley far below.

“You should get dressed,” Nia said.

Lidia turned to study her twin. Black eyes like pits watched her from between elfin lids. Her skin was pale, stripped of pigment, and she was thin, accenting the delicacy of her bone structure. That was one true thing about her, about both of them: their bones were theirs. It was what had attracted Belari to them in the first place, when they were just eleven. Just old enough for Belari to strip them from their parents.

Lidia’s gaze returned to the view. Deep in the tight crease of the mountain valley, the town shimmered with amber lights.

“Do you miss it?” she asked.

Nia slipped closer. “Miss what?”

Lidia nodded down at the shimmering jewel. “The town.”

Their parents had been glassblowers, practicing the old arts abandoned in the face of efficient manufacturing, breathing delicate works into existence, sand running liquid under their supervision. They had moved to Belari’s fief for patronage, like all the town’s artisans: the potters, the blacksmiths, the painters. Sometimes Belari’s peers noticed an artist and his influence grew. Niels Kinkaid had made his fortune from Belari’s favor, turning iron to her will, outfitting her fortress with its great hand-wrought gates and her gardens with crouching sculptural surprises: foxes and children peering from amongst lupine and monkshood in the summers and deep drifted snow in the winters. Now he was almost famous enough to float his own stock.

Lidia’s parents had come for patronage, but Belari’s evaluating eye had not fallen on their artistry. Instead, she selected the biological accident of their twin daughters: delicate and blond with cornflower eyes that watched the world blinkless as they absorbed the fief’s mountain wonders. Their trade flourished now thanks to the donation of their children.

Nia jostled Lidia gently, her ghostly face serious. “Hurry and dress. You mustn’t be late.”

Lidia turned away from her black-eyed sister. Of their original features, little remained. Belari had watched them grow in the castle for two years and then the pills began. Revitia treatments at thirteen froze their features in the matrix of youth. Then had come the eyes, drawn from twins in some far foreign land. Lidia sometimes wondered if in India, two dusky girl children looked out at the world from cornflower eyes, or if they walked the mud streets of their village guided only by the sound of echoes on cow-dung walls and the scrape of their canes on the dirt before them.

Lidia studied the night beyond the windows with her stolen black eyes. More aircars dropped guests on the landing pads then spread gossamer wings and let the mountain winds bear them away.

More treatments had followed: pigment drugs drained color from their skins, leaving them Kabuki pale, ethereal shadows of their former mountain sun-blushed selves, and then the surgeries began. She remembered waking after each successive surgery, crippled, unable to move for weeks despite the wide-bore needles full of cell-knitters and nutrient fluids the doctor flushed through her slight body. The doctor would hold her hand after the surgeries, wipe the sweat from her pale brow and whisper, “Poor girl. Poor poor girl.” Then Belari would come and smile at the progress and say that Lidia and Nia would soon be stars.

Gusts of wind tore snow from the pines and sent it swirling in great tornado clouds around the arriving aristocracy. The guests hurried through the driving snow while the blue search beams of Burson’s ski patrols carved across the forests. Lidia sighed and turned from the windows, obedient finally to Nia’s anxious hope that she would dress.

* * *

Stephen and Lidia went on picnics together when Belari was away from the fief. They would leave the great gray construct of Belari’s castle and walk carefully across the mountain meadows, Stephen always helping her, guiding her fragile steps through fields of daisies, columbine, and lupine until they peered down over sheer granite cliffs to the town far below. All about them glacier-sculpted peaks ringed the valley like giants squatting in council, their faces adorned with snow even in summer, like beards of wisdom. At the edge of the precipice, they ate a picnic lunch and Stephen told stories of the world before the fiefs, before Revitia made stars immortal.

He said the country had been democratic. That people once voted for their lieges. That they had been free to travel between any fief they liked. Everyone, he said, not just stars. Lidia knew there were places on the coasts where this occurred. She had heard of them. But it seemed difficult to credit. She was a child of a fief.

“It’s true,” Stephen said. “On the coasts, the people choose their own leader. It’s only here, in the mountains, that it’s different.” He grinned at her. His soft brown eyes crinkled slightly, showing his humor, showing that he already saw the skepticism on her face.

Lidia laughed. “But who would pay for everything? Without Belari who would pay to fix the roads and make the schools?” She picked an aster and twirled it between her fingers, watching the purple spokes blur around the yellow center of the flower.

“The people do.”

Lidia laughed again. “They can’t afford to do that. They hardly have enough to feed themselves. And how would they know what to do? Without Belari, no one would even know what needs fixing, or improving.” She tossed the flower away, aiming to send it over the cliff. Instead, the wind caught it, and it fell near her.

Stephen picked up the flower and flicked it over the edge easily. “It’s true. They don’t have to be rich, they just work together. You think Belari knows everything? She hires advisors. People can do that as well as she.”

Lidia shook her head. “People like Mirriam? Ruling a fief? It sounds like madness. No one would respect her.”

Stephen scowled. “It’s true,” he said stubbornly, and because Lidia liked him and didn’t want him to be unhappy, she agreed that it might be true, but in her heart, she thought that Stephen was a dreamer. It made him sweet, even if he didn’t understand the true ways of the world.

“Do you like Belari?” Stephen asked suddenly.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you like her?”

Lidia gave him a puzzled look. Stephen’s brown eyes studied her intensely. She shrugged. “She’s a good liege. Everyone is fed and cared for. It’s not like Master Weir’s fief.”

Stephen made a face of disgust. “Nothing is like Weir’s fief. He’s barbaric. He put one of his servants on a spit.” He paused. “But still, look at what Belari has done to you.”

Lidia frowned. “What about me?”

“You’re not natural. Look at your eyes, your skin and…,” he turned his eyes away, his voice lowering, “your bones. Look what she did to your bones.”

“What’s wrong with my bones?”

“You can barely walk!” he cried suddenly. “You should be able to walk!”

Lidia glanced around nervously. Stephen was talking critically. Someone might be listening. They seemed alone, but people were always around: security on the hillsides, others out for walks. Burson might be there, blended with the scenery, a stony man hidden amongst the rocks. Stephen had a hard time understanding about Burson. “I can walk,” she whispered fiercely.

“How many times have you broken a leg or an arm or a rib?”

“Not in a year.” She was proud of it. She had learned to be careful.

Stephen laughed incredulously. “Do you know how many bones I’ve broken in my life?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “None. Not a single bone. Never. Do you even remember what it’s like to walk without worrying that you’ll trip, or bump into someone? You’re like glass.”

Lidia shook her head and looked away. “I’m going to be star. Belari will float us on the markets.”

“But you can’t walk,” Stephen said. His eyes had a pitying quality that made Lidia angry.

“I can too. And it’s enough.”

“But — ”

“No!” Lidia shook her head. “Who are you to say what I do? Look what Belari does to you, but still you are loyal! I may have had surgeries, but at least I’m not her toy.”

It was the only time Stephen became angry. For a moment the rage in his face made Lidia think he would strike her and break her bones. A part of her hoped he would, that he would release the terrible frustration brewing between them, two servants each calling the other slave.

Instead, Stephen mastered himself and gave up the argument. He apologized and held her hand and they were quiet as the Sun set, but it was already too late and their quiet time was ruined. Lidia’s mind had gone back to the days before the surgeries, when she ran without care, and though she would not admit it to Stephen, it felt as though he had ripped away a scab and revealed an aching bitter wound.

* * *

The performance hall trembled with anticipation, a room full of people high on Tingle and champagne. The muslin on the walls flickered like lightning as Belari’s guests, swathed in brilliant silks and sparkling gold, swirled through the room in colorful clouds of revelry, clumping together with conversation, then breaking apart with laughter as they made their social rounds.

Lidia slipped carefully amongst the guests, her pale skin and diaphanous shift a spot of simplicity amongst the gaudy colors and wealth. Some of the guests eyed her curiously, the strange girl threading through their pleasure. They quickly dismissed her. She was merely another creature of Belari’s, intriguing to look at, perhaps, but of no account. Their attention always returned to the more important patterns of gossip and association swirling around them. Lidia smiled. Soon, she thought, you will recognize me. She slipped up against a wall, near a table piled high with finger sandwiches, small cuts of meat and plates of plump strawberries.

Lidia scanned the crowds. Her sister was there, across the room, dressed in an identical diaphanous shift. Belari stood surrounded by mediascape names and fief lieges, her green gown matching her eyes, smiling, apparently at ease, even without her newfound habit of body armor.

Vernon Weir slipped up behind Belari, stroking her shoulder. Lidia saw Belari shiver and steel herself against Weir’s touch. She wondered how he could not notice. Perhaps he was one of those who took pleasure in the repulsion he inflicted. Belari smiled at him, her emotions under control once again.

Lidia took a small plate of meats from the table. The meat was drizzled with raspberry reduction and was sweet. Belari liked sweet things, like the strawberries she was eating now with the Pendant Entertainment executive at the far end of the table. The sweet addiction was another side effect of the Tingle.

Belari caught sight of Lidia and led Vernon Weir toward her. “Do you like the meat?” she asked, smiling slightly.

Lidia nodded, finishing carefully.

Belari’s smile sharpened. “I’m not surprised. You have a taste for good ingredients.” Her face was flushed with Tingle. Lidia was glad they were in public. When Belari took too much Tingle she hungered and became erratic. Once, Belari had crushed strawberries against her skin, making her pale flesh blush with the juice, and then, high with the erotic charge of overdose, she had forced Lidia’s tongue to Nia’s juice-stained flesh and Nia’s tongue to hers, while Belari watched, pleased with the decadent performance.

Belari selected a strawberry and offered it to Lidia. “Here. Have one, but don’t stain yourself. I want you perfect.” Her eyes glistened with excitement. Lidia steeled herself against memory and accepted the berry.

Vernon studied Lidia. “She’s yours?”

Belari smiled fondly. “One of my fluted girls.”

Vernon knelt and studied Lidia more closely. “What unusual eyes you have.”

Lidia ducked her head shyly.

Belari said, “I had them replaced.”

“Replaced?” Vernon glanced up at her. “Not altered?”

Belari smiled. “We both know nothing that beautiful comes artificially.” She reached down and stroked Lidia’s pale blond hair, smiling with satisfaction at her creation. “When I got her, she had the most beautiful blue eyes. The color of the flowers you find here in the mountains in the summer.” She shook her head. “I had them replaced. They were beautiful, but not the look I wished for.”

Vernon stood up again. “She is striking. But not as beautiful as you.”

Belari smiled cynically at Vernon. “Is that why you want me wired for TouchSense?”

Vernon shrugged. “It’s a new market, Belari. With your response, you could be a star.”

“I’m already a star.”

Vernon smiled. “But Revitia is expensive.”

“We always come back to that, don’t we, Vernon?”

Vernon gave her a hard look. “I don’t want to be at odds with you, Belari. You’ve been wonderful for us. Worth every penny of your reconstruction. I’ve never seen a finer actress. But this is Pendant, after all. You could have bought your stock a long time ago if you weren’t so attached to immortality.” He eyed Belari coldly. “If you want to be immortal, you will wire TouchSense. Already we’re seeing massive acceptance in the marketplace. It’s the future of entertainment.”

“I’m an actress, not a marionette. I don’t crave people inside my skin.”

Vernon shrugged. “We all pay a price for our celebrity. Where the markets move, we must follow. None of us is truly free.” He looked at Belari meaningfully. “Certainly not if we want to live forever.”

Belari smiled slyly. “Perhaps.” She nodded at Lidia. “Run along. It’s almost time.” She turned back to Vernon. “There’s something I’d like you to see.”

* * *

Stephen gave her the vial the day before he died. Lidia had asked what it was, a few amber drops in a vial no larger than her pinky. She had smiled at the gift, feeling playful, but Stephen had been serious.

“It’s freedom,” he said.

She shook her head, uncomprehending.

“If you ever choose, you control your life. You don’t have to be Belari’s pet.”

“I’m not her pet.”

He shook his head. “If you ever want escape,” he held up the vial, “it’s here.” He handed it to her and closed her pale hand around the tiny bottle. It was handblown. Briefly, she wondered if it came from her parents’ workshop. Stephen said, “We’re small people here. Only people like Belari have control. In other places, other parts of the world, it’s different. Little people still matter. But here,” he smiled sadly, “all we have is our lives.”

Comprehension dawned. She tried to pull away but Stephen held her firmly. “I’m not saying you want it now, but someday, perhaps you will. Perhaps you’ll decide you don’t want to cooperate with Belari anymore. No matter how many gifts she showers on you.” He squeezed her hand gently. “It’s quick. Almost painless.” He looked into her eyes with the soft brown kindness that had always been there.

It was a gift of love, however misguided, and because she knew it would make him happy, she nodded and agreed to keep the vial and put it in her hidey-hole, just in case. She couldn’t have known that he had already chosen his own death, that he would hunt Belari with a knife, and almost succeed.

* * *

No one noticed when the fluted girls took their places on the center dais. They were merely oddities, pale angels, entwined. Lidia put her mouth to her sister’s throat, feeling her pulse threading rapidly under her white, white skin. It throbbed against her tongue as she sought out the tiny bore hole in her sister’s body. She felt the wet touch of Nia’s tongue on her own throat, nestling into her flesh like a small mouse seeking comfort.

Lidia stilled herself, waiting for the attention of the people, patient and focused on her performance. She felt Nia breathe, her lungs expanding inside the frail cage of her chest. Lidia took her own breath. They began to play, first her own notes, running out through unstopped keys in her flesh, and then Nia’s notes beginning as well. The open sound, haunting moments of breath, pressed through their bodies.

The melancholy tones trailed off. Lidia moved her head, breathing in, mirroring Nia as she pressed her lips again to her sister’s flesh. This time, Lidia kissed her sister’s hand. Nia’s mouth sought the delicate hollow of her clavicle. Music, mournful, as hollow as they were, breathed out from their bodies. Nia breathed into Lidia and the exhalation of her lungs slipped out through Lidia’s bones, tinged with emotion, as though the warm air of her sister came to life within her body.

Around the girls, the guests fell quiet. The silence spread, like ripples from a stone thrown into a placid pool, speeding outward from their epicenter to lap at the farthest edges of the room. All eyes turned to the pale girls on stage. Lidia could feel their eyes, hungry, yearning, almost physical as their gazes pressed against her. She moved her hands beneath her sister’s shift, clasping her close. Her sister’s hands touched her hips, closing stops in her fluted body. At their new embrace a sigh of yearning came from the crowd, a whisper of their own hungers made musical.

Lidia’s hands found the keys to her sister, her tongue touching Nia’s throat once more. Her fingers ran along the knuckles of Nia’s spine, finding the clarinet within her, stroking keys. She pressed the warm breath of herself into her sister and she felt Nia breathing into her. Nia’s sound was dark and melancholy, her own tones, brighter, higher, ran in counterpoint, a slowly developing story of forbidden touch.

They stood embraced. Their body music built, notes intertwining seductively as their hands stroked one another’s bodies, bringing forth a complex rising tide of sound. Suddenly, Nia wrenched at Lidia’s shift and Lidia’s fingers tore away Nia’s own. They stood revealed, pale elfin creatures of music. The guests around them gasped as the notes poured out brighter now, unmuffled by clinging clothes. The girls’ musical graftings shone: cobalt boreholes in their spines, glinting stops and keys made of brass and ivory that ran along their fluted frames and contained a hundred possible instruments within the structure of their bodies.

Nia’s mouth crept up Lidia’s arm. Notes spilled out of Lidia as bright as water jewels. Laments of desire and sin flowed from Nia’s pores. Their embraces became more frenzied, a choreography of lust. The spectators pressed closer, incited by the spectacle of naked youth and music intertwined.

Around her, Lidia was vaguely aware of their watching eyes and flushed expressions. The Tingle and the performance were doing their work on the guests. She could feel the heat rising in the room. She and Nia sank slowly to the floor, their embraces becoming more erotic and elaborate, the sexual tension of their musical conflict increasing as they entwined. Years of training had come to this moment, this carefully constructed weave of harmonizing flesh.

We perform pornography, Lidia thought. Pornography for the profit of Belari. She caught a glimpse of her patron’s gleaming pleasure, Vernon Weir dumbstruck beside her. Yes, she thought, look at us, Master Weir, look and see what pornography we perform, and then it was her turn to play upon her sister, and her tongue and hands stroked Nia’s keys.

It was a dance of seduction and acquiescence. They had other dances, solos and duets, some chaste, others obscene, but for their debut, Belari had chosen this one. The energy of their music increased, violent, climactic, until at last she and Nia lay upon the floor, expended, sheathed in sweat, bare twins tangled in musical lasciviousness. Their body music fell silent.

Around them, no one moved. Lidia tasted salt on her sister’s skin as they held their pose. The lights dimmed, signaling completion.

Applause exploded around them. The lights brightened. Nia drew herself upright. Her lips quirked in a smile of satisfaction as she helped Lidia to her feet. You see? Nia’s eyes seemed to say. We will be stars. Lidia found herself smiling with her sister. Despite the loss of Stephen, despite Belari’s depredations, she was smiling. The audience’s adoration washed over her, a balm of pleasure.

They curtsied to Belari as they had been trained, making obeisance first to their patron, the mother goddess who had created them. Belari smiled at the gesture, however scripted it was, and joined the applause of her guests. The people’s applause increased again at the girls’ good grace, then Nia and Lidia were curtseying to the corners of the compass, gathering their shifts and leaving the stage, guided by Burson’s hulking presence to their patron.

The applause continued as they crossed the distance to Belari. Finally, at Belari’s wave, the clapping gave way to respectful silence. She smiled at her assembled guests, placing her arms around the slight shoulders of the girls and said, “My lords and ladies, our Fluted Girls,” and applause burst over them again, one final explosion of adulation before the guests fell to talking, fanning themselves, and feeling the flush of their own skins which the girls had inspired.

Belari held the fluted girls closely and whispered in their ears, “You did well.” She hugged them carefully.

Vernon Weir’s eyes roved over Lidia and Nia’s exposed bodies. “You outdo yourself, Belari,” he said.

Belari inclined her head slightly at the compliment. Her grip on Lidia’s shoulder became proprietary. Belari’s voice didn’t betray her tension. She kept it light, comfortably satisfied with her position, but her fingers dug into Lidia’s skin. “They are my finest.”

“Such an extraordinary crafting.”

“It’s expensive when they break a bone. They’re terribly fragile.” Belari smiled down at the girls affectionately. “They hardly remember what it’s like to walk without care.”

“All the most beautiful things are fragile.” Vernon touched Lidia’s cheek. She forced herself not to flinch. “It must have been complex to build them.”

Belari nodded. “They are intricate.” She traced a finger along the boreholes in Nia’s arm. “Each note isn’t simply affected by the placement of fingers on keys; but also by how they press against one another, or the floor; if an arm is bent or if it is straightened. We froze their hormone levels so that they wouldn’t grow, and then we began designing their instruments. It takes an enormous amount of skill for them to play and to dance.”

“How long have you been training them?”

“Five years. Seven if you count the surgeries that began the process.”

Vernon shook his head. “And we never heard of them.”

“You would have ruined them. I’m going to make them stars.”

“We made you a star.”

“And you’ll unmake me as well, if I falter.”

“So you’ll float them on the markets?”

Belari smiled at him. “Of course. I’ll retain a controlling interest, but the rest, I will sell.”

“You’ll be rich.”

Belari smiled, “More than that, I’ll be independent.”

Vernon mimed elaborate disappointment. “I suppose this means we won’t be wiring you for TouchSense.”

“I suppose not.”

The tension between them was palpable. Vernon, calculating, looking for an opening while Belari gripped her property and faced him. Vernon’s eyes narrowed.

As though sensing his thoughts, Belari said, “I’ve insured them.”

Vernon shook his head ruefully. “Belari, you do me a disservice.” He sighed. “I suppose I should congratulate you. To have such loyal subjects, and such wealth, you’ve achieved more than I would have thought possible when we first met.”

“My servants are loyal because I treat them well. They are happy to serve.”

“Would your Stephen agree?” Vernon waved at the sweetmeats in the center of the refreshment table, drizzled with raspberry and garnished with bright green leaves of mint.

Belari smiled. “Oh yes, even him. Do you know that just as Michael and Renee were preparing to cook him, he looked at me and said ‘Thank you’?” She shrugged. “He tried to kill me, but he did have the most eager urge to please, even so. At the very end, he told me he was sorry, and that the best years of his life had been in service to me.” She wiped at a theatrical tear. “I don’t know how it is, that he could love me so, and still so desire to have me dead.” She looked away from Vernon, watching the other guests. “For that, though, I thought I would serve him, rather than simply stake him out as a warning. We loved each other, even if he was a traitor.”

Vernon shrugged sympathetically. “So many people dislike the fief structure. You try to tell them that you provide far more security than what existed before, and yet still they protest, and,” he glanced meaningfully at Belari, “sometimes more.”

Belari shrugged. “Well, my subjects don’t protest. At least not until Stephen. They love me.”

Vernon smiled. “As we all do. In any case, serving him chilled this way.” He lifted a plate from the table. “Your taste is impeccable.”

Lidia’s face stiffened as she followed the conversation. She looked at the array of finely sliced meats and then at Vernon as he forked a bite into his mouth. Her stomach turned. Only her training let her remain still. Vernon and Belari’s conversation continued, but all Lidia could think was that she had consumed her friend, the one who had been kind to her.

Anger trickled through her, filling her porous body with rebellion. She longed to attack her smug patron, but her rage was impotent. She was too weak to hurt Belari. Her bones were too fragile, her physique too delicate. Belari was strong in all things as she was weak. Lidia stood trembling with frustration, and then Stephen’s voice whispered comforting wisdom inside her head. She could defeat Belari. Her pale skin flushed with pleasure at the thought.

As though sensing her, Belari looked down. “Lidia, go put on clothes and come back. I’ll want to introduce you and your sister to everyone before we take you public.”

* * *

Lidia crept toward her hidey-hole. The vial was still there, if Burson had not found it. Her heart hammered at the thought: that the vial might be missing, that Stephen’s final gift had been destroyed by the monster. She slipped through dimly lit servant’s tunnels to the kitchen, anxiety pulsing at every step.

The kitchen was busy, full of staff preparing new platters for the guests. Lidia’s stomach turned. She wondered if more trays bore Stephen’s remains. The stoves flared and the ovens roared as Lidia slipped through the confusion, a ghostly waif sliding along the walls. No one paid her attention. They were too busy laboring for Belari, doing her bidding without thought or conscience: slaves, truly. Obedience was all Belari cared for.

Lidia smiled grimly to herself. If obedience was what Belari loved, she was happy to provide a true betrayal. She would collapse on the floor, amongst her mistress’s guests, destroying Belari’s perfect moment, shaming her and foiling her hopes of independence.

The pantry was silent when Lidia slipped through its archway. Everyone was busy serving, running like dogs to feed Belari’s brood. Lidia wandered amongst the stores, past casks of oil and sacks of onions, past the great humming freezers that held whole sides of beef within their steel bowels. She reached the broad tall shelves at the pantry’s end and climbed past preserved peaches, tomatoes, and olives to the high-stored legumes. She pushed aside a vacuum jar of lentils and felt within.

For a moment, as she slid her hand around the cramped hiding place, she thought the vial was missing, but then her grasp closed on the tiny blown-glass bulb.

She climbed down, careful not to break any bones, laughing at herself as she did, thinking that it hardly mattered now, and hurried back through the kitchen, past the busy, obedient servants, and then down the servants’ tunnels, intent on self-destruction.

As she sped through the darkened tunnels, she smiled, glad that she would never again steal through dim halls hidden from the view of aristocracy. Freedom was in her hands. For the first time in years she controlled her own fate.

Burson lunged from the shadows, his skin shifting from black to flesh as he materialized. He seized her and jerked her to a halt. Lidia’s body strained at the abrupt capture. She gasped, her joints creaking. Burson gathered her wrists into a single massive fist. With his other hand, he turned her chin upward, subjecting her black eyes to the interrogation of his red-rimmed orbs. “Where are you going?”

His size could make you mistake him for stupid, she thought. His slow rumbling voice. His great animal-like gaze. But he was observant where Belari was not. Lidia trembled and cursed herself for foolishness. Burson studied her, his nostrils flaring at the scent of fear. His eyes watched the blush of her skin. “Where are you going?” he asked again. Warning laced his tone.

“Back to the party,” Lidia whispered.

“Where have you been?”

Lidia tried to shrug. “Nowhere. Changing.”

“Nia is already there. You are late. Belari wondered about you.”

Lidia said nothing. There was nothing she could say to make Burson lose his suspicions. She was terrified that he would pry open her clenched hands and discover the glass vial. The servants said it was impossible to lie to Burson. He discovered everything.

Burson eyed her silently, letting her betray herself. Finally he said, “You went to your hidey-hole.” He sniffed at her. “Not in the kitchen, though. The pantry.” He smiled, revealing hard sharp teeth. “High up.”

Lidia held her breath. Burson couldn’t let go of a problem until it was solved. It was bred into him. His eyes swept over her skin. “You’re nervous.” He sniffed. “Sweating. Fear.”

Lidia shook her head stubbornly. The tiny vial in her hands was slick, she was afraid she would drop it, or move her hands and call attention to it. Burson’s great strength pulled her until they were nose to nose. His fist squeezed her wrists until she thought they would shatter. He studied her eyes. “So afraid.”

“No.” Lidia shook her head again.

Burson laughed, contempt and pity in the sound. “It must be terrifying to know you can be broken, at any time.” His stone grip relaxed. Blood rushed back into her wrists. “Have your hidey-hole, then. Your secret is safe with me.”

For a moment, Lidia wasn’t sure what he meant. She stood before the giant security officer, frozen still, but then Burson waved his hand irritably and slipped back into the shadows, his skin darkening as he disappeared. “Go.”

Lidia stumbled away, her legs wavering, threatening to give out. She forced herself to keep moving, imagining Burson’s eyes burning into her pale back. She wondered if he still watched her or if he had already lost interest in the harmless spindly fluted girl, Belari’s animal who hid in the closets and made the staff hunt high and low for the selfish mite.

Lidia shook her head in wonderment. Burson had not seen. Burson, for all his enhancements, was blind, so accustomed to inspiring terror that he could no longer distinguish fear from guilt.

* * *

A new gaggle of admirers swarmed around Belari, people who knew she was soon to be independent. Once the fluted girls floated on the market, Belari would be nearly as powerful as Vernon Weir, valuable not only for her own performances, but also for her stable of talent. Lidia moved to join her, the vial of liberation hidden in her fist.

Nia stood near Belari, talking to Claire Paranovis from SK Net. Nia nodded graciously at whatever the woman was saying, acting as Belari had trained them: always polite, never ruffled, always happy to talk, nothing to hide, but stories to tell. That was how you handled the media. If you kept them full, they never looked deeper. Nia looked comfortable in her role.

For a moment, Lidia felt a pang of regret at what she was about to do, then she was beside Belari, and Belari was smiling and introducing her to the men and women who surrounded her with fanatic affection. Mgumi Story. Kim Song Lee. Maria Blyst. Takashi Ghandi. More and more names, the global fraternity of media elites.

Lidia smiled and bowed while Belari fended off their proffered hands of congratulation, protecting her delicate investment. Lidia performed as she had been trained, but in her hand the vial lay sweaty, a small jewel of power and destiny. Stephen had been right. The small only controlled their own termination, sometimes not even that. Lidia watched the guests take slices of Stephen, commenting on his sweetness. Sometimes, not even that.

She turned from the crowd of admirers and drew a strawberry from the pyramids of fruit on the refreshment table. She dipped it in cream and rolled it in sugar, tasting the mingled flavors. She selected another strawberry, red and tender between her spidery fingers, a sweet medium for a bitter freedom earned.

With her thumb, she popped the tiny cork out of the vial and sprinkled amber jewels on the lush berry. She wondered if it would hurt, or if it would be quick. It hardly mattered, soon she would be free. She would cry out and fall to the floor and the guests would step back, stunned at Belari’s loss. Belari would be humiliated, and more important, would lose the value of the fluted twins. Vernon Weir’s lecherous hands would hold her once again.

Lidia gazed at the tainted strawberry. Sweet, Lidia thought. Death should be sweet. She saw Belari watching her, smiling fondly, no doubt happy to see another as addicted to sweets as she. Lidia smiled inwardly, pleased that Belari would see the moment of her rebellion. She raised the strawberry to her lips.

Suddenly a new inspiration whispered in her ear.

An inch from death, Lidia paused, then turned and held out the strawberry to her patron.

She offered the berry as obeisance, with the humility of a creature utterly owned. She bowed her head and proffered the strawberry in the palm of her pale hand, bringing forth all her skill, playing the loyal servant desperately eager to please. She held her breath, no longer aware of the room around her. The guests and conversations all had disappeared. Everything had gone silent.

There was only Belari and the strawberry and the frozen moment of delicious possibility.

END

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© 2003 Paolo Bacigalupi. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003.