Usil could have passed as a pretty girl in a white dress.
For those few seconds the glowing lines all over her body softly darkened, turning into a spiderweb of tattoos, she might have seemed an exotic beauty who had dabbled in some fashionable trend and inked her body all over.
She could play the part: she had been made to look just like her interviewer, a large man with a thin black beard who looked at her with a glimpse of doubt in his eyes. The same black hair. The same dark skin, a rich shade of mahogany. And the same facial features: the thin nose, thick lips, and the same large blue eyes, the color of the sea when the sun shines brighter.
For all intents and purposes, she could pass as a flesh and bone Anthilian.
She hoped she could.
But then the lines brightened once again, and that faint azure light ran everywhere her body was exposed in rivulets of curled and straight lines, like the weirdly-geometric delta of a river.
And the keen observer might have noticed another difference: for every breath of the man’s chest, Usil’s breasts stood still as immortal marble.
The interviewer picked up one of the cards laying on the table between them.
Usil fidgeted, intertwining her dark fingers. Her blue eyes lingered on the edges of the card – it was a tad more consumed than the others, the term-filigree frayed just a tad at the edges. She could pick up such differences, but she had long-since learned not to speak about them.
He turned it to show a brush, etched in black against the white background.
“You pick up a new paintbrush,” the man said in a rich baritone. “Over time, it grows thinner, the strands fall out. You decide to exchange the old head for a new one.” A pause.
“When did it stop being the old brush?”
Yet another trick question. Should she grow tired of them? But she was here to do her best.
She knew the answer, of course. It had been imprinted into her by the Hearthwomb. Since she had crawled out of its gaping maw, covered only in the brood fluids of her gestation sac, she had everything she could ever ask for etched into her synapsids just as keenly as the card the interviewer was showing her now.
Yet they could not believe her.
She did not mind, but why not trust the Hearthwomb?
Maybe because they could not ask it any further questions.
“There never was an old brush,” she replied, modulating her voice to a respectful whisper. “Tools hold their function by the the use we make of them. There ever only was one brush, the one I made use of. If I fail to repair it, it will stop being my own brush. If I take moves to keep the head efficient, it will continue to be so. This relationship is where the brush exists.”
The examiner pulled up the card, turning it, as if the right answer was written on its back side.
He put it in a pile with the others.
By now, it was thick as his thumb.
She kept fidgeting. How long would this go on? She could only infer they were testing her patience. She was not Pulum – she could not just infer the solution by counting the number of sweat drops on the man’s brow or making some guesswork by how tired his posture was.
Neither could she just not care.
That was Thiur’s role.
At least, thinking about them made her feel a little better. her synapsids relaxed, turning down a more bearable hum.
The examiner picked up the other card. It was the second-last. This one depicted two Anthilian women pulling a young pale man by each arm.
“Two women come to you asking for justice. They each demand to be recognized as the slave’s rightful owner. How do you decide which one should get it?”
Usil shifted in her seat. Another trick question. They expected a safe answer: the slave would be lashed until one of the two women cried out for mercy.
The slave would then be given to the one who remained silent.
Such was the rule of the law.
But they could now expect her to follow the rule of the law where they were supposed to go. Upon the farthest shore, she’d be asked to make decisions that went beyond rigid rules.
If she replied like a good, obedient doll, she’d fail this test.
They wanted to make sure they were not merely looking into a mirror.
“Neither of them has a right to the slave. The slave’s function is to serve its master, and as a citizen, their master’s role is to serve the City, and the City’s role is to serve the King. Thus the slave belongs to the King.”
She did not really reply to the question. But she had provided a kind of reasoning on what was truly important for her.
What would be important to her, to all of them once they were put on that vessel aiming for the farthest shore, would be to remember they served the King, even on the other side of the ocean-sea.
The Examiner huffed through his nose and a flash went through his eyes.
The bright lines deeply etched on her skin glowed once more.
Maybe this was her breathing.
He picked up the final card.
It was a simple depiction of the starry sky and the moon.
Usil smiled. She did not need to be as smart as Pulum to understand the question.
“What is this?”
“It’s not a single thing,” she replied confidently, taking the card from his hands and brushing her tetraceramid fingertips over the filigree. She registered every single crevice of the paper. “These are my parts of whole.” She flipped the card, pointing at the moon. “This is my one of threes, Thiur.” Then at the starry sky. “And this is my two of threes, Pulum.”
She put the card down, faced-up, and for the first time since she had started the interview, she set her manufactured eyes into those of the man.
“I would never consider what is whole as made up entirely of parts.”
The Examiner pursed his lips.
Slowly, he stood up.
“I agree. You pass. Now we’ll have to see how the other two are faring.”
Usil replied with a large smile.
Her synapsids ran with wild golden fire all over her body. This was her relief – and she guessed it much, much stronger than they could imagine.
“I have the utmost faith in them,” she said, picking up the card again. She opened her other hand behind it, displaying her fingers like rays. “The sun shines over every soul who’s trying her best.”
Author’s Notes: Well, call me a badger and throw me in an orchard, I feel like this is one of the best pages I have written this year – and I also seem to have identified the reason why I felt down writing Withbound. I love that story, but I was trailing old ground. This is fresh.
These characters are new and ready to explore new shores. Incidentally, I needed to dabble a bit in their background, so consider this the first part of a trio of short stories with Usil, Thiur (that keeps getting auto-corrected to ‘their’) and Pulum.
Thanks for reading.