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Bone-White and Brilliantine

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Mahit had cleansed herself as much as possible in Nineteen Adze's shower, after a very trying day. But she had not expected to get dressed, and then half-undressed, in quite this way on the night of her arrival.

Precisely two minutes after Mahit had put away the last of the infofiche sticks that she had so painstakingly sealed, Nineteen Adze came into the temporary office. Sheathed in white, once more armored in that asymmetrical jacket, she drew the eye like a naked blade. Perhaps more so, highlighted as she was by the interior lights. Her reflection split the bay window, perfect and upright, an effect she couldn't be unaware of.

"Your Excellency," Mahit said, rising. Her mouth was dry; her back creaked after the hours she'd spent sorting through her messages. "What brings you here?"

"What brings me here indeed, Mahit?" Nineteen Adze pronounced Mahit's given name with exactly the same intonation she'd used when she'd said of the funeral customs Mahit had invented, Yskandr never mentioned such a thing. It was that precise assumption of intimacy. "No matter how much you are out of date, certain sympathies remain, do they not?"

Mahit was certain of what Nineteen Adze meant by that, and afraid to be correct. She smiled Teixcalaanlitzlim-style at Nineteen Adze, restrained and proper and altogether off-balance. I should say something, she thought; would have liked Yskandr to suggest something, instead of that unsettling static of the imago's nerves flushing adrenaline into her system without granting her his voice as well.

"You claim," Nineteen Adze said, exactly as polite as she had to be and no more, "not to be my Yskandr. Prove it."'

"Are you spurning my word?" Mahit inquired, with the particular word for spurn that referred to the epic of a certain Seven Gale and her tumultuous relationship to her general. The reference wasn't subtle. She was too rattled to reach for a better one. And perhaps–though the thought tasted sour–her lack of polish would, paradoxically, persuade Nineteen Adze to relinquish her perverse understanding of how imagos worked, and go away.

Do I really want her to go away?

Mahit was grappling with the unwelcome sentiment when Nineteen Adze crossed the threshold. "I propose a test," she said, the word for test falling from her lips at the exact moment her foot landed inside the room. She crossed to where Mahit was standing, still intimidated and resenting it, in three swift strides.

"A test?" Mahit repeated as Nineteen Adze grabbed her chin and pulled her entire head down.

"Or do you not share certain predilections?" Nineteen Adze demanded just before she curled her fingers painfully in Mahit's hair and dragged her in for a kiss that was mostly bite.

Desire blossomed in Mahit's groin, memory at the endocrine level. She liked it; liked assertive lovers, another point of compatibility. Lsel Station left nothing to chance, least of all matters as fundamental to most people as sexual expression or its absence.

Mahit kissed back, committing herself to this course of action. Course of action, what a thoroughly bloodless way to describe foreplay. Nineteen Adze's tongue met hers. She tasted of honey and spices, and Mahit had enough time to wonder if she could be poisoned this way before drowning in sensation.

Nineteen Adze bore her toward the nearest wall. Despite her deceptive slightness, she had strength at the core of her. Mahit could have fought. She pushed back, not unwilling, but not willing to go easily; bore down on Nineteen Adze with the length of her body. When that didn't work–too gentle–she broke the kiss. Grabbed Nineteen Adze's shoulder. Used her considerable barbarian strength and shoved, causing the other woman to stumble backwards.

That didn't faze Nineteen Adze. "You always did like to put up a fight, Yskandr," she said, each syllable precise, her eyes hot-cold with challenge. "You did that our first time–but of course you can't remember, isn't that so?"

"It's endocrine-memory," Mahit ground out, except Nineteen Adze was circling her, as fluid as a predator. Nineteen Adze came around behind her and grabbed not her breasts, although Mahit's nipples ached to be pinched and sucked, but her thigh, fingers digging in.

"You're mine," Nineteen Adze said right into her shoulder, grazing Mahit's skin with her teeth before biting again. "You're mine." And again, and again, except each time she used a different poetic device, as though she were teaching a foreigner the barest rudiments of Teixcalaanli. She was being insulting.

Mahit cried out and had a moment's disorientation reminiscent of the first days with her imago–too high, that's not my voice. A moment later she realized she was leaning back against Nineteen Adze, off-balance, her hips flung forward as she attempted to thrust with the cock she didn't have. Her clit throbbed. She wanted Nineteen Adze's mouth on it; wasn't going to get it, not unless she begged. And she had no intention of yielding that easily, no matter what her body craved.

"Do you think we didn't learn each other's pleasure, you and I?" Nineteen Adze said, this time from the other side. She was busily unfastening Mahit's pants, one-handed and so dextrous that Mahit felt herself wet/hard with need. The fastening gave way, and the pants slid down Mahit's legs, exposing her pale skin.

Now she'll know I refused to put on the panties she provided, Mahit thought with a surge of hysterical amusement.

"This time I'll teach you mine all over again. You always were a fast learner."

Mahit cursed her pulse for accelerating, the heat that bloomed everywhere that Nineteen Adze touched her. This was a terrible idea, this was terrible judgment, and the hell of it was that she liked it, she liked it, she wanted to surrender herself to this terrifying woman and her threats, her promises; Mahit was already losing track of the difference between the two.

"I'm not your possession," Mahit said through gritted teeth, because she was trying to hold back a gasp.

"On the contrary," Nineteen Adze said, "you belong to the City now." The you she used here connoted you and your people, and Mahit was not so addled yet that she didn't register the implications of that. "That means you are mine to use."

On that last word, Nineteen Adze hooked her finger inside Mahit. Mahit thrust toward her touch, instantly desperate for it. Her hard clit rubbed against Nineteen Adze's fingertip. A shocking arrow of pleasure started there, and did not stop.

"You were so good," Nineteen Adze said, her voice lowering to a croon. "A barbarian who learned our ways. Tell me, Yskandr, can you still play the game–" And she recited a brilliantly symmetrical quatrain, either a reference Mahit had never had the opportunity to learn, or something she'd made up on the spot.

Mahit was suddenly, wretchedly aware that as much as she'd trained for this–as much as she dreamed in the language–she hadn't grown up steeped in the culture, and nothing but the culture. She'd always be an outsider. A barbarian.

And yet she couldn't help attempting the challenge, as difficult as it was to think against the desire to rut against Nineteen Adze's finger, that exquisite point of sensation. Mahit gasped out a response, shifting the form to emphasize alliteration, something she'd excelled at in her classes.

Nineteen Adze laughed; her breath was hot against Mahit's back. "Very good," and Mahit felt herself flush with mixed gratitude and resentment. "Try this, then–"

They went back and forth with stanzas while Nineteen Adze pleasured her, stroking here, teasing there, using her teeth to puncutate her recitations. Mahit expected that she'd have marks all over her back and neck and shoulders tomorrow. Nineteen Adze could read her distressingly well, damn Yskandr for his entanglements: she withheld her touch whenever Mahit needed to think of a proper couplet, resumed when Mahit's yearning threatened to overtake her and she was tempted to beg. In a way, Nineteen Adze's thorough mastery of her was its own punishment, and its own reward.

At the end–"Such talent," Nineteen Adze said with a depth of warmth that made Mahit suspicious of mockery even as she craved more. She wanted to be told she was fitting in, that she was shedding Lsel and becoming a simulacrum of a Teixcalaanlitzlim, by this exquisite gleaming woman.

Mahit caught a whimper between her teeth and forced it back, only to lose control and moan openly when Nineteen Adze flicked her clit, so exquisitely painful that Mahit came, sinking bonelessly into Nineteen Adze's arms. She was scarcely aware of Nineteen Adze lowering her to the floor. All Mahit could think of was that tantalizing, controlled voice, how badly she hungered for Nineteen Adze's regard.

Edgeshine, edgeshine. If this was what Nineteen Adze did to her lovers, Mahit didn't want to know what became of her enemies. And abruptly remembered that whatever Nineteen Adze and Yskandr had, in the end, meant to each other, Yskandr was dead.