“Now you listen close, girl. You keep the place clean, you milk the cows. Feed the chickens and pigs, that old nag. Any of them run off, it’ll be on your head. Same any get taken by rustlers. You hear me, girl?”
Jezzie kept her head down, eyes on Papa’s boots. She could usually tell which way he would go depending on where his toes were pointed. It wasn’t much warning, only a second, if that, but —
One boot shifted towards her and slightly to the right.
Jezzie slipped back, just far enough that his hand caught her on the chin instead of the ear. Last time she had been too slow and her ear had rung all day from the impact of his fist.
“Yes, Papa,” she answered quickly, before he grew impatient and hit her again.
The boots turned away, heading towards the first wagon loaded down with the harvest. Ezekiel and Gad were already in the second, arguing over how they were going to spend their share of the money. Behind them, the wagon was piled high with wheat and a few bags of potatoes.
Samuel finished checking the reins on the first wagon and walked over to her. She pulled the small bag of needlepoint from the pocket of her apron and tucked it into his hands. “Remember, Mrs. Hammond should give you at least two dollars for these. You should be able to buy five or six books for that and still have money left. You remember which ones?”
“Yeah,” he grumbled. “You had me say ’em ov’r and ov’r again.”
“Just remember to go in Mr. Barclay’s back door and wait ’til right before closin’ time. He don’t like it known that he’s selling to Negroes.”
Her brother nodded impatiently.
“Samuel!” Papa roared. “Leave that nonsense! We’re goin’!”
Back rigid, Samuel stomped over to the first wagon, clambered up to sit next to Papa, and threw her needlepoint down onto the floorboards at his feet. With barely a wave, they were off, the horses nickering unhappily.
Jezzie watched as they headed across the low rolling plain, only turning back to the sod house when they finally disappeared against the bright horizon.
“Well, that’s it, Daffodil.” She passed a seed through the cage to the small canary. The bird’s feathers were a bright yellow in the sod house’s only window — a luxury that Mama had paid for with her own pin money. She had cleaned the windows at Massah’s old house and she had promised Papa that she would keep it clean and pay for it herself, if only he would put it in.
Jezzie fed Daffodil another seed.
The canary had been another luxury, a birthday gift to Jezzie. Massah had owned many birds, and Jezzie and Mama both had missed their song out here on the bare Nebraska plains.
Mama was gone now, so it was Jezzie who kept the window clean and made sure that Daffodil stayed out of Papa’s way.
“We’re on our own for a couple weeks. What do you think we should do with ourselves, hmm?”
Daffodil chirruped and hopped across her perch, cocking her head in search of more food.
Jezzie chuckled. “You’re right. Chores first, then some griddle cakes and bacon. Then outside for some sunshine and a good story.”
Daffodil’s only response was another hop and chirrup.
Inside their pens, the pigs bumped her legs, rooting around and nearly knocking her down into the mud. The chickens squawked and beat their wings in agitation, forming a mob at her feet. The old horse nuzzled her hair gratefully and then dipped her head deep into the feedbag. The cows looed and farted, but otherwise stood still while she pulled on their udders and filled pail after pail with milk. She skimmed off some cream for her griddle cakes, then covered the pails with cloth and left the milk to curdle in front of the house.
She sat at the table while she ate, a battered copy of The Three Musketeers at her elbow. The table was small. Usually, there was room only for Papa and Ezekiel and Samuel — unless one of them had done something to anger Papa, in which case his chair would be offered to Gad.
Jezzie always sat by the hearth to eat, even if they finished before her and went off to work; that was usually the case, since she had to serve them and then clean up. She only dared to sit at the table on days like this, when she was utterly alone — well, except for Daffodil — and had no fear of a slap to the face.
She read aloud to the bird while she ate, voice rising in excitement as d’Artagnan fought the Comte des Wardes and then continued on his quest for the Queen. Opening the cage, she held out a hand to Daffodil and tucked the bird up on her shoulder as she continued to read, steps sure on the familiar ground. She sat down in Mama’s rocking chair, pails of curdling milk all around her, and read all through the afternoon. She stopped only to feed the animals again and check on the milk.
As the western horizon turned reddish-purple and gold, she set aside her book and nibbled on the remaining pieces of bacon. Daffodil hobbled back and forth on her shoulder, flitted to the back of the chair, then returned to her shoulder. The sky darkened, the crescent moon rose, and the stars blazed to life.
Licking her fingers, Jezzie walked across the mud patch that constituted the front yard and leaned on the fence that kept the horses and cows contained. The old nag whinnied at her, then went back to sleep.
“Just look at those stars, Daffodil. Every one of ’em a sun just like ours. Hard to believe, isn’t? With planets, too, I bet. Wonder if they tell stories about our star like we tell stories about theirs?” She pointed. “Like those there. See? They make a strange W? That’s Cassiopeia. A queen of Aethiopia sitting on her throne. She’s upside down on account she angered the gods by boasting ‘bout her daughter, Andromeda. That’s her over there. Andromeda. The princess. The most beautiful woman in Aeth — What?”
Jezzie blinked, stared, and blinked again.
A strange light. No, not just a light. A streak, shimmering reddish-yellow with a hint of silver. It was moving, sliding through the sky. Straight first and then at an angle, steeper and steeper as it dove rapidly towards the ground.
Jezzie backed a few steps away from the fence. The old nag shuffled uncomfortably and the cows looed, swinging their heads.
Closer and closer. The light grew brighter, changing from reddish-yellow to scarlet and gold and green.
It was … it was ….
Jezzie backed up further, knocking over one of the pails of milk. Half-formed curds and yellowish whey soaked her bare feet and the bottom of her skirt.
Daffodil was gone, flown away to safety as the … what was it?
The sound was incredible, a shrieking roar as the — the —
Green bean. It looked like a green bean, but not. Too big. Far too big. And shiny. And falling from the sky.
Jezzie crouched, yelling, hands pressed to her ears as the thing shrieked overhead. The ground shook and the house shook and the cows stampeded, slamming into the fence. Chickens flapped wildly, molting clouds of feathers. A pig slammed into her, knocking her to the ground.
Her brain latched onto that.
She had to get the pigs back in their pen before Papa got home.
And then there was an even bigger roar and the ground heaved as the thing skimmed over the low hill behind the house and slammed into the ground. Another rolling quake, and then a third.
And then there was just the frantic squealing of the pigs and the chickens clucking and the cows looing, already beginning to forget what had frightened them.
Gathering her skirt, Jezzie pushed herself to her feet and ran around the house, passed the root cellar and well, up the shallow hill. Smoke billowed, tasting of burnt grass and earth.
Panting, she stopped at the top of the hill.
Fire. Burning grass and weeds and tilled earth where Papa and her brothers had so recently harvested the grain. There was a deep gouge in the dirt leading across the field, through a shallow dip in the land, to another low hill where the … thing rested.
It still looked like a green bean.
Jezzie turned and sprinted for the house. Hands shaking, she lifted the shotgun from the hook above the hearth, grabbed the box of cartridges from the cabinet, and bolted back outside again. The cartridges bounced inside the box, threatening to spill across the ground. She shoved them into her pocket and kept running.
Her feet hit bare earth. It was still hot. Grasses around the edges of the field still burned, wafting black and green-brown smoke into the air. She coughed, kept running, coughed again.
She stopped on the near edge of the shallow depression. The green bean thing had carved through it, churning the dirt, leaving a trail of earth and pebbles and large rocks and root bundles. On the far side of the depression, the green bean lay end first against the small hill marking the back border of Papa’s property.
Jezzie pressed the stock to her shoulder, took a deep breath, and plunged across the depression. She came up on the other side, heart hammering, hands shaking.
The green bean was … not a green bean. At least, Jezzie didn’t think it was a gigantic sky-borne vegetable. It was definitely green, but with a faint silver shimmer. The lighter color came from the fuzz that seemed to grow across its surface. It looked like … dark clay, maybe? Covered in silvery grass? It was easily twice the length of the house and just a bit wider, the ends tapering to blunt, round points.
At least, it sounded like a curse. A string of words that were spat in anger and frustration.
Jezzie did not recognize them, but the voice was female.
A woman was swearing.
What woman dared to curse?
Trying to suppress another cough, shotgun still pressed to her shoulder, Jezzie sidled around the near end of the green bean, moving around to the far side.
A magnificent, dark-skinned woman. Darker even than Jezzie. Tall, too. The top of Jezzie’s head would barely reach her shoulders. Three bright gold dots were painted on her forehead, with two more on her chin. Multiple gold bands in the shapes of snakes and flowering vines wrapped around her upper arms and wrists, with a shimmering knife strapped to her left forearm. Long, tight black braids fell down the middle of her back to her waist. And her clothes …. Jezzie blinked. Not like any clothing she had ever seen on anyone, man or woman. A fine material. Silk? Mostly red, but with black and gold highlights and seams. The top was like a sleeveless blouse and the bottom was like trousers tucked into flat-soled boots, but with a skirt that was open in the front and only reached as far as her calves.
They stared at one another for long moments.
The woman tilted her head and said words that Jezzie did not understand.
Jezzie swallowed. “I’m sorry, I don’t — what?”
A slight frown wrinkled the gold dots on the woman’s forehead. She lifted her left arm and poked at the gold band around her wrist. She raised her head again, dark eyes focusing intently on Jezzie.
“Is this Ancillary 24115?”
“I — I’m sorry I don’t …. What? I don’t know what that means.”
Another head tilt as the woman continued to stare at Jezzie. “What world is this? Where am I?”
“Uh. Nebraska? Earth?”
“There are many Earths.”
Jezzie felt her mouth drop open, but no sound emerged.
“Ah. That is new knowledge to you. That would make this a dark world, than. Unfortunately for me.”
The green bean moaned.
Jezzie squeaked and tumbled to the side, swinging her shotgun around.
The woman leapt forward, yelling, and grabbed the barrel. She pushed it slowly but firmly down until it pointed at the ground.
“Peace. Be calm.” She spoke low and steady, like Jezzie when she was trying to settle a nervous cow.
Jezzie scowled. She did not want anyone, especially this strange, magnificent woman, to think of her as a nervous cow.
She slipped her finger from the trigger and straightened her shoulders. “I am calm.” Then she looked up and saw the gaping hole in the side of the green bean. It was a horrid gash, the clay-like material ripped in such a way as to leave jagged edges. The silvery grass stuff along those edges was seared black and did not ripple or shimmer in the wind. Thick goop, like tree sap, dribbled from the gash. “What happened?” she whispered.
The other woman grimaced. “I was caught in an uncharted riptide while sailing between Ancillary 47798 and Ancillary 24115. It took nearly all of the ship’s strength to break free, but she left some of herself behind.” The woman shook her head and gently ran her palm over the silvery grass, close to the gash but not too close.
There was another low, rumbly moan.
“Given time, sunlight, water, and an adequate patch, she will heal. If we had landed on 24115, or any of the other known worlds, that would not be an issue. There would be healers ready to care for her. But here?” She threw out an arm, encompassing the low rolling hills and the burned field and the arcing sky. “I don’t even know which world this is.”
“Oh.” Jezzie swallowed, her brain swimming. “Can I help?”
Another long, intent stare. Jezzie fought the urge to shift on her feet. This was not like one of Papa’s long stares, with anger and meanness in them. This look was more considering, more curious.
Finally, the woman gave a sharp nod and pressed her fist over her heart. She bowed a bit, tipping her head. “I am Amanikhatashan of the Second Mercantile Fleet, Meroë, Kush, Ancillary 24753.” Her mouth tipped up in a smile. “My friends call me Amani.”
Jezzie impulsively thrust out her hand, arm ridged. Amani quirked an eyebrow, then stretched out her hand and took Jezzie’s in a firm shake.
“I’m Jezzie. Jezebel, actually, but no one calls me that.”
Amani’s smile softened. “Jezebel. You are named for a great queen.”
“Well … I wouldn’t call her great.”
“She was on my world, and on many others.”
Again, Jezzie felt her lips open and no sound emerge. Shaking herself, she propped the gun on her shoulder. Bad enough to look like a nervous cow. She wouldn’t look like a halfwit, as well. “Your ship, you said it would heal? Like a person?”
Amani tilted her head back and began a slow, studious circle of the green bean. Jezzie followed along, toes occasionally catching in the dirt. “Kandake’s Beloved. That is her name. She is a bio-metallic slipstream vessel composed of living iron. I carved her seedpod from the ground myself, watched over her and nurtured her while she grew into the ship you see now.”
“So she’s more like a plant?”
They were on the far side now, near the front end — or what Jezzie thought of as the front end. This side was undamaged, the silvery fur-like stuff shivering and shimmering in the breeze. Depending on which direction it waved, it was more green one moment, more silver the next. Jezzie caught glimpses of the body of the vessel through the grass and realized that it truly was not dark clay, but something more like shiny wrought iron.
Amani reached out to stroke the side of the ship and the grassy-furry stuff turned light red beneath her hand, leaving streaks that slowly faded and returned to their usual silvery-green. “Not quite a plant, not quite metal, not quite an animal, but something that is like all three, and yet not.” Still stroking Kandake’s Beloved gently, Amani gestured with her other hand. “Would you like to touch her?”
Eyes wide, Jezzie nodded. Licking her lips, she shuffled forward a step. She stretched out an arm. Not close enough yet. Amani was watching her. Straightening her shoulders, Jezzie took a bigger step forward. Her fingers just skimmed the grassy fur. She felt a tickling sensation and gasped, stunned at just how soft it was beneath her fingers. The furry grass turned red, then orange. She snatched her hand away.
Amani laughed. “She likes you.”
Shocked to hear herself laughing, too, Jezzie touched her palm to the ship again. Red, the color following her hand as she combed through the fur.
“You see. I told you.” Amani braced her hands on her hips, voice changing from teasing to serious. “Now, to find out the true extent of the damage. That will give me a better idea as to how long it will take her to heal. Would you come? You offered your help.”
Jezzie nodded hard. “Yes. Yes, please.”
Motioning with her head, Amani led the way back around the ship — Kandake’s Beloved, Jezzie reminded herself — to that terrible gash.
“Watch your step. Don’t touch the edges.” Amani stepped through and into the ship, ducking her head and tightening her shoulders.
Jezzie followed suit, tucking the shotgun against her body to avoid accidentally hitting anything.
Her mouth fell open and once again she was reduced to silence.
The floor lit up with her steps, strange swirls like words glowing a dull yellow. The living iron was warm beneath her feet. The walls curved up and around, and they were covered in flowering vines. A few of them twitched and a couple of the flowers twisted in her direction, glowing just a bit. They were beautiful, a dozen different shades of red and purple and yellow, with wide pointed petals the size of her palm and stamens as long and thick around as her finger.
Towards the center of the ship stood a raised platform covered in more of the swirling script. It pulsed a faint blue. A low railing encircled most of the platform, the supports beautifully twirled and bowed out slightly.
At the far end — the front — the walls were covered in living iron shelves. Her head twisting and turning to take it all in, Jezzie stepped closer, barely aware that Amani had paused to examine the gash. The shelves themselves were covered in jars and canisters and boxes, some clear glass, some opaque, some wood, some metal, each with a neat label in that script she could not read and held in place by thin tendrils growing from the walls. More boxes, a few open to reveal tools that she did not recognize, lined the floor.
“Seeds. And seedlings.”
Jezzie turned to find Amani standing less than a step away. She swallowed.
“This is …. It’s beautiful. This is all yours?”
“In a sense. I am a seed hunter and courier. That is my role in the Mercantile Fleet. Kandake’s Beloved and I travel from one Ancillary to another, collecting seeds, finding new ones, resupplying old ones, trading them. I also transport any previously undiscovered seeds to the vault on Ancillary 612.”
“Mm. The Atlanteans of that world hollowed out their moon and converted it into a vault for the purpose of preserving the flora of every known Ancillary. Trillions upon trillions of seeds and seedlings and roots and tubers, all saved against the loss of their homeworld.”
“That’s — that’s happened?”
“Sadly, many times.” Amani gestured at the ship. “I am sorry. She is usually much more welcoming than this, but the injury has taken a lot out of her.”
“She’ll still be all right, right?”
“Perhaps. Come.” Amani held out her hand.
Surprised, Jezzie tried to remember the last time she had held someone’s hand.
Mama. When Mama was dying, Jezzie had held her hand until she breathed her last.
Swallowing, Jezzie slid her fingers into Amani’s palm. The skin there was paler, not calloused, but firm. Jezzie was suddenly ashamed of her own rough fingers and torn nails. She tried to pull away, but Amani tightened her fingers; not cruel, but reassuring. Jezzie relaxed her arm and allowed Amani to guide her back around the raised platform towards the gash at the back of the ship.
“You see?” Amani pointed. “The cut is already beginning to clot. We have to start the patch soon, or she won’t heal right. There will be a scar and she won’t sail properly, because she won’t be whole; part of her will be … out of tune.”
Jezzie frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Everything sings. Every world has its own song. Kandake’s Beloved’s song must be whole, in tune, or she will not be able to sail between the worlds, to hear their songs, to hear one song among an infinite number and so know where to go. She will be out of tune.” Amani laid a finger lightly along the edge of the gash, which was crusting over and hardening. “We need to begin the patch as soon as possible. Have you any dirt that we might use?”
Jezzie busted out laughing, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. “This is Nebraska. All we have is dirt.”
“Rich black dirt, good for growing things?”
“Well … it’s not black. More of a brownish gray. It’s more clay than loose dirt. Will that work?”
She had her answer in Amani’s smile.
Sunrise found them out in the field so recently harvested by Papa and her brothers, deep gouges still visible from the crash of Kandake’s Beloved. The wind had not yet blown them smooth.
Amani tested the soil with some of those strange tools that Jezzie did not recognize. Some of them looked kind of like spades, but sharper, and that scrawling script covered their handles and they made low whistling sounds. Others were golden spikes, the top ends splitting open to bloom like flowers.
Daffodil clinging to her shoulder and chirruping happily, Jezzie followed Amani around the field as the other woman muttered to herself. The bird, at least, seemed to have forgotten her fright and slept well. But Jezzie’s feet dragged; she had slept fitfully, her heart thumping and her mind whirling. Then she had been awakened before dawn at the sound of a pig rooting in one of the milk pails; she had managed to catch two of the ornery critters, but one was still on the loose.
She had to find it before Papa returned.
Over and over, Amani dug her tools into the soil, muttered some more, pulled them out. Finally, a good hundred feet from the ship, in a low depression where the soil was moist with groundwater, one of the golden spikes made a happy whistle and Amani whooped in delight.
“Here! This!” She bent and scooped up a handful of earth, the mud stiff between her fingers. Her beautiful skirt dragged in the dirt, staining the hem, but she did not seem to care. She rolled and shaped it into a flat disk. “Yes, this will work perfectly. Have you a means of transporting it?”
Jezzie crouched beside her, the mud squishing up between her toes. “I have buckets. They have milk in them right now. Um, I think there are some extras in the root cellar that we can use. Maybe a couple old crates Papa didn’t use for the potatoes.”
Amani stood and held out a mud-covered hand, pulling Jezzie to her feet. “Let us begin.”
Jezzie found four extra buckets they could use. After tucking Daffodil back in her cage, they filled the four buckets with the thick grayish-brown mud and hauled them the hundred yards across the rolling field to Kandake’s Beloved.
“We will need branches, also, to act as a suture. Or vines. Have you anything like that?”
Jezzie frowned, the handles of the buckets digging into her fingers. “Does the wood have to be alive?”
“The nearest tree is that way.” She tilted her chin north across the plains. “Maybe an hour walk. Should have some branches we can cut off.”
“Excellent.” Amani set the buckets down and flicked the mud from her hands. “A dozen branches should be enough. Hopefully, the tree will give its consent — oh, are the trees of this world sentient?”
“I ….” Jezzie set her pails down, as well, and tucked a tangled curl of hair behind her ear. She could feel the streak of mud she left on her cheek, which made her feel even more stupid. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that word means.”
Amani smiled gently, the corners of her eyes crinkling. She grabbed the inner hem of her skirt and lifted it to wipe the stain from Jezzie’s cheek, her touch affectionate and slow. “It means thinking, like you and I.”
Jezzie felt her skin flush, both at Amani’s touch and her description of Jezzie as thinking. Papa always yelled at her when he suspected her of using her brain; it was the man’s job to think for the woman, he always said, though he never encouraged her brothers to do much themselves, either. She cleared her throat and shuffled half a step back.
Amani’s smile wavered and she dropped her hand.
“So, there’s thinking trees?”
“On some Ancillaries, yes. Your tree is that direction you said?”
“Uh, yeah. We should take some water, though, and maybe a bit to eat. It’ll get hot and muggy out there. Hold on. I’ll go get some.”
And she turned and ran like a coward, her thoughts jumbled and confused. She reached the house quickly, wrapped up cheese and jerky in a cloth, and filled a canteen with water. She made sure that Daffodil had a bit of seed and filled her chipped cup with water. On the way back around the house, Jezzie stopped suddenly, eyes veering to the old nag still inside her paddock. Hastily grabbing a pair of stained bed sheets from the house, she fashioned them into a crude pouch, draped it across the horse’s back, and led the animal across the field towards the ship.
Amani emerged through the gash as she approached, a pack slung across her shoulder. She had changed her clothes; she was dressed now in a black, loose, long-sleeved blouse, black trousers, and a wide gold cloth that wrapped round and round her waist from her hips to just beneath her breasts; the long tails of the cloth fell down her back to her knees. A dozen gold pins held her hair up in a crown that wrapped around her head, and her knife was strapped to her left arm.
Jezzie’s mouth fell open. She cast a quick, shameful glance down at her faded and stained dress, her mismatched apron, and her bare feet.
When she looked up, Amani was smiling again. Jezzie had never known anyone who smiled as much as Amani.
“Who is this beauty?” Amani patted the horse’s neck.
“Oh, well, she doesn’t actually have a name. We found her wandering around Massah’s place after it got burned. Took her with us.” Jezzie picked at the horse’s mane, straightening the threads. “She’s old now. Can’t do much pulling or carrying, so Papa’s gonna sell her for seed. Probably before winter.”
Amani continued to stroke the horse’s neck. “That would be a shame after she has so loyally served your family.”
“Yeah.” Jezzie took the reins and started to lead the horse across the low, rolling hills. Amani walked along on the other side, the golden spots on her face glistening in the light. Jezzie licked her lips. “I was little when we came here, after the war. I couldn’t keep up. Mama begged Papa to let me ride her so I wouldn’t get left behind.” She patted the horse’s nose.
Silence. Just the clomp of their steps over dirt and grass and the hiss of the wind.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Jezzie reached into the cloth pouch and pulled out a strip of jerky. She shoved it into her mouth.
“If that is the sort of man that your father is, then I feel very sorry for him indeed.” Amani’s voice was low and laced with an anger that shocked Jezzie — shock that turned to an embarrassing, confusing warmth when Amani continued, “He does not understand the gift he has in a daughter like you.”
Jezzie blinked rapidly. Her tongue tangled around the last pieces of jerky and she suppressed a cough. The silence became uncomfortable again.
“They’re not — Samuel’s nice. Mostly …. You said — you said there were thinking trees?”
From the corner of her eye, Jezzie saw Amani working her jaw, lips compressed. She seemed to shake herself, straightened her shoulders, and nodded. “Yes, on many Ancillaries, actual. My favorite live on Ancillary 1139 ….”
And so they continued across the Nebraska plains, the sun hot on their shoulders as it rose higher in the sky. They shared the water and the cheese and the sweet, purple fruits in Amani’s bag. The horse huffed along contentedly between them while Amani regaled Jezzie with tales of her travels as a member of the Mercantile Fleet: hunting with the centaurs on 5663, finding rare saltwater seeds on 6991 (“they birth oceans”), her first sight of the seed vault orbiting Ancillary 619, narrowly escaping pirates in the stream just outside 89935. As they circled the lone black locust tree, Amani sliced through the branches with her shimmering knife and told Jezzie about Ancillary 46955 where the Immortal Emperor ruled the world from the heart of his Forbidden City, and 6221 where the Black Death had left a decimated population, and 12289 where sentient whales had abandoned the ocean to swim the skies.
As they turned back towards Papa’s homestead and the stranded Kandake’s Beloved, the branches tucked into the cloth strapped across the nag’s back, Jezzie felt her head drop and her shoulders begin to curl in; the confusing warmth in her chest turned to shame.
Amani was laughing at something.
Jezzie tried to laugh, too. She blinked rapidly, eyes focused on her bare feet and dirt-covered toes.
“Have I said something wrong?”
“What? No — no.”
They crossed the low hill at the far end of the field, the arcing back of the ship shimmering in the wind. Jezzie pushed tangled curls from her face.
“You are sad. I must have said something wrong.”
“No. Really. You didn’t. What’s next?”
She felt Amani watching her. She forced herself to look up, to meet those extraordinary dark eyes, and smile.
Eventually, Amani returned her smile, but there was an edge to it — like sadness or disappointment.
Licking her lips, Jezzie piled the sticks beside the buckets of mud. She staked the horse’s bridle a few paces away so that she could graze, then turned her attention to the horrible gash.
Amani knelt next to the ship. “Could you hand me the sticks, one at a time?”
Crouching, the bark of the black locust warm against her palms, Jezzie watched as Amani braced the sticks inside the tear. Slowly, her shame turned to fascination and then delight, as Amani packed the mud into the gash a handful at a time. She slathered it over the edge of the tear, covering an inch or so of the inside and outside of the ship — “To help it grow together,” Amani explained. Bit by bit, she stacked up the mud, her hands sure and steady. Mud covered her arms and stained her bright gold waistcloth. One pail emptied. The patch began to curve out, following the round wall of the ship, the mud clinging to the sticks. Then the second and the third bucket emptied.
Jezzie grabbed two of the buckets and ran over to the muddy depression. Slopping wet earth into them, she carried the pails back to Amani, her shoulders straining.
Soon, two more buckets were empty and the gash was barely a quarter filled.
Scowling, Jezzie ran a dirty hand over her forehead. It came back sweaty, and she could feel more sweat running down her back and sides.
She would wear herself out at this rate.
Taking a quick swallow of water, she picked up the stained bedsheets from where they had been cast aside and untied the horse. Knotting the two sheets together, she created a makeshift sling. The pockets were just deep enough to hold a bucket on either side. Leading the nag back over to the muddy depression, she filled each pail a double handful at a time, keeping the weight even.
The horse nickered and nuzzled her skirts.
Amani was smiling again when she returned, mud streaks criss-crossing her face and her beautiful black shirt. “Very clever.” She nodded in approval, and there was not a hint of derision in her voice.
Flushing, grinning stupidly, Jezzie lifted the full buckets down and tossed the empty ones into the sling.
Back and forth she went, all through the afternoon. She found herself singing as she went, one of the old songs the field hands used to belt out when the work got particularly hard and dirty; a lively tune meant to keep her spirits up and her feet moving. Amani hummed along with her, calling out a word here and there as she picked them up.
They stopped only once. With a brush of Amani’s hand, a portion of the undamaged side of the ship separated and laid flat like a ramp. Amani nodded in approval. “Excellent. If she has the energy to do that, then her prognosis is good.”
Jezzie did not know what the word prognosis meant, but Amani seemed happy, so she nodded along, too.
They sat on the floor of the ship, watching through the open door as the grasses waved in the wind, and ate more cheese and jerky. Amani offered her more of the purple fruit, and a thick red drink with sweet pulp.
Jezzie smacked her lips. “Delicious.”
Amani giggled. Not a laugh, a giggle. “It’s the ship’s milk.”
Jezzie gaped and then found herself laughing, too. She leaned over so far that she fell into Amani and they just sat there for long minutes, huddled together, laughing, dirty, sore, and exhausted.
When her laughing fit finally passed, Jezzie found her head resting on Amani’s shoulder, their backs pressed against the cool, curving walls of the ship. One of the flowering vines had wrapped around her arm and curled across her belly. And Amani was holding her hand again, their fingers knitted together.
It was … comfortable. Safe. Like when she was a little girl and she would curl up in one of Massah’s orange trees and watch the moon rise. Only different. Amani was soft and fit perfectly against Jezzie. And her touch was firm, but not bruising.
Amani gently pushed a matted curl of hair from Jezzie’s forehead. “Where did you go? You disappeared into that big brain of yours again.”
Jezzie sighed, too content and tired to move. “I was thinking about the first time I read a book. …. We weren’t allowed. Wasn’t legal for Negroes to read, but the Pastor and his wife lived down the road. Massah sent me on errands there all the time and Pastor’s wife — guess she felt sorry for me or somethin’ — she’d sit me down at the table and teach me letters. Just a few at a time. Got so I could sign my name. Then the Massah’s home got burned during the war and the Pastor got killed and his wife, she took us in for a time and she showed me her books and taught me to read proper. First book I ever read on my own was Aesop’s Fables. ‘The Lion and the Mouse.’ ‘The Wolf and the Lamb.’ Those were my favorites. Pastor’s wife was so proud she gave it to me when we was — were — emancipated and left for the West.”
She felt and heard Amani clear her throat. “Do you … do you still have the book?”
“No. Part of our trade for passage ‘cross the Missouri.”
Amani lowered her head so that her cheek rested against Jezzie’s dirty hair. Jezzie thought that she should have been embarrassed, but she was too content and tired.
“Do you still remember the stories?”
“Good.” Amani pushed herself up and tugged Jezzie to her feet. “Let us finish the patch and then we will celebrate and eat and you can tell me your favorite stories.”
And so they continued through the afternoon, singing and laughing and covered in mud.
In the purple light of dusk, they stood back to admire their work. The patch was ugly, bits of the sticks poking through the thick grayish mud. But it was holding firm, and Jezzie could see thin trickles of that sap stuff slipping along the curves of the mud and the bumps of the sticks.
The ship groaned, but it was more a sound of relief than pain.
“Now she just needs time and sun and water.” Amani tugged at her shirt, heavy with mud. She made an unhappy face. “Egh.”
Jezzie chuckled, plucking at her own dress. “We can clean up at the well. I can fill the tub if needed, too.”
Amani looked up at the Kandake’s Beloved for a moment, then nodded. “A good plan. She has a cleansing system, but I don’t want to take any of the water she has stored.”
Jezzie nodded, pretending that had indeed been her plan all along — although it should have occurred to her that a ship that could travel between Earths would be fancy enough for indoor plumbing. She grinned, suddenly wondering what her long-dead Massah with his fancy pocket watches and his personal telegraph would have thought of the Kandake’s Beloved.
He would have been so jealous he would have near died of a fit.
And the sight of a Negress flying the ship certainly would have laid him flat.
She couldn’t help but laugh at the image in her head, and then she just had to share it with Amani, who laughed right along with her.
After tucking the old nag inside her pen with a bag of feed, Jezzie showed Amani the well near the root cellar. They hoisted up a big bucket of cold water, drank their fill, and then brought up more water to wash. Jezzie dumped water over her head, shivered, and scrubbed at her neck and chest and arms. As she cleaned, she told Amani the story of the wolf and the lamb, and the lion and the mouse.
Talking helped to distract her from the sight of water running over Amani’s dark skin, her trim arms and long neck and gently curved chest.
And so she talked and talked and talked until they were both as clean as they could get. Then they sat on the rocking chairs in front of the house, full night spreading across the sky.
“There.” Jezzie pointed. “That’s where I saw your ship. Cassiopeia. Do the other Earths have stars, too? And stories about them?”
“Oh, yes. Some of the stories are the same, some of them are quite different. And the stories vary by culture, too, even on the same world. Among my people, that constellation is Shanakdakhete, one of the wisest Kandakes. She is Cassiopeia to the Hellenes of your Ancillary and many others. On other Ancillaries, though, among the people of the Levant … that is Jezebel.”
Jezzie’s head whipped around and she stared at Amani.
The other woman smiled, her golden dots bright in the fading light. “As I said, she was a great and much-loved queen.”
“… Oh …,” Jezzie breathed.
And then her stomach rumbled loudly.
Amani snorted a laugh, covering her mouth. And then her stomach grumbled even more loudly.
Now they were both laughing.
Jezzie stood and motioned towards the house. “Come on. I’ll make us some griddle cakes, and there’s still cheese and bacon. And at least one of the cows should be good to milk.”
“Not fancy food.” Jezzie looked around, suddenly realizing that this was the first time that Amani had seen the inside of the house. She twisted her fingers together. “House isn’t fancy, either. But we built it ourselves. Cut and stacked all the sod. Maybe someday we’ll be able to add boards and have proper walls. But, we got the fireplace to cook and keep us warm and there’s rooms in the back for Papa and my brothers.” She gestured at the curtained doorways, the fabric decorated with Mama’s neat stitches. “And there’s Daffodil, o’course.”
Amani’s eyes were narrowed. “And where do you sleep?”
“Oh. Here.” She waved at the hearth, then blurted. “I don’t mind. Prefer it, actually. It’s warmer in the winter than the back rooms, and in summer I can open the window for a breeze.” She wrinkled her nose. “Also, Ezekiel and Samuel and Gad don’t clean themselves near as often as they should. Their bed has bugs.”
Amani was quiet for so long that Jezzie nervously turned away and began to prepare the griddle cakes.
Daffodil trilled and fluttered her wings.
“The Three Musketeers. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.Gulliver’s Travels. The Female Quixote. The … Mysteries of Udolpho?”
Jezzie peeked over her shoulder. Amani stood beside the table, gently running her fingers over the spines of the books.
“One of my favorites,” Jezzie admitted.
“Will you tell me the story?” Amani turned her head, dark eyes meeting and holding Jezzie’s gaze. There was heat there, and curiosity, and other things that Jezzie could not or would not name.
She nodded, mute, and licked her lips. Turning back to the griddle cakes, she swallowed hard and launched into the tale of orphaned Emily, her love Valancourt, and the villainous Montoni. By the time Emily was finally able to escape the castle Udolpho and rejoin her true love, Jezzie and Amani had finished the griddle cakes and the cheese and were munching contentedly on the last few pieces of bacon.
Amani leaned back in her chair. “That is a good story.”
“I want to see Italy. The mountains. France, too. And Rome. And Greece. The Parthenon. And the Nile. I want to sail the Nile, and see crocodiles and hippos and all those old, ruined temples. And the pyramids. I want to see it all. Everything.”
Jezzie shook her head, gaze focused on the plate. She had scraped it clean, but it would still need to be washed. She should bring in some water from the well. The horse had been fed, but there were still the pigs and chickens. And that one hog was still missing, run off to who knows where —
Amani laid her hand on Jezzie’s arm, forcing her to look up.
“You will,” she repeated, and there was that heat again and a fierceness and determination that Jezzie could feel sinking into her skin, making her heart pound. “You are too intelligent and curious and brave to stay here. This is a place for men like your father: hard, cruel. Small. Not you.” Her fingers tightened. “Not you.”
Amani invited her back to the ship for the night. “It is warm inside, and the vines are comfortable.”
But Jezzie just shook her head and turned away to clean the dishes.
She heard the door close behind her.
Adding enough fuel to keep the fire smoldering through the night, Jezzie laid her blankets out on the floor, curled up, and fell asleep to the soft sounds of Daffodil snoring.
The next morning, she found Amani pacing across the top of Kandake’s Beloved, a bucket of water in her hands. She wore bright blue and yellow today, her pants ballooning out in the wind. A wide yellow band was woven through her crown of hair and a bright gold choker wrapped around her throat, and she wore her shimmering knife on her hip.
Jezzie stood uncertainly for a moment, digging her toes into the dirt. Plucking up her courage, she finally called out “Do you need more water?”
Amani twisted around. Her mouth widened into a brilliant smile. “Yes, thank you. At least three more buckets.”
Nodding, Jezzie tracked down the empty pails (still sitting in front of the house), the makeshift sling (tied around the fence), and the horse. Filling all three buckets, she hoisted two onto the nag’s back and carried the third herself.
When she got back to the ship, it took her a moment to figure out how Amani had gotten onto the roof. The undamaged side had morphed and folded, creating small indentations for hand- and footholds. The silvery-green fur turned red at her touch and the ship seemed to hum.
Pail in hand, she climbed halfway up, then passed it off to Amani. Then the second, then the third. Amani reached down again, clasped Jezzie’s fingers, and hauled her up atop Kandake’s Beloved.
Puffing slightly, the breeze snatching at her skirts, still holding Amani’s hand, Jezzie took a tentative step forward, and then another. It was not quite like walking on dirt, and very different from walking on wood. The grassy stuff was soft beneath her feet and slightly ticklish. It danced in the wind, creating the appearance of a hill. If she squinted her eyes just right and stared down the length of the ship, it seemed to stretch to the horizon.
The lone black locust tree stood off to the north. South, she could just make out the Gellinger’s homestead with its patch of trees. East was town, and further east yet was Omaha. And all around were the plains, shallow streams glittering, patches of ground bare from the harvest, all the rest covered in tall grasses turning brown with the coming of autumn. On and on the plains stretched in all directions, to the curving edge of the world.
“You have never seen it from this high?”
Jezzie shook her head.
“It must be beautiful in the spring, when all the wildflowers are in bloom. It reminds me of the plains of Ancillary 5663, where the grass is almost as tall as me, and the centaurs roam in vast herds.” She bent to pick up one of the buckets, a strange pull to her voice, like she had to struggle to get out the words. “Perhaps I can take you there when the ship is healed.”
Jezzie blinked. “Where?” she asked stupidly.
“To see the centaurs.” Amani’s smile was uncertain. “Or perhaps the seed vault on 619. Or wherever you would like to go.”
“Oh,” Jezzie said, and a painful hope exploded in her chest. “Oh.” It was hard to breath and for a long moment the world went away as Amani’s words sank into her.
And then the wind grabbed at her clothes and she was in Nebraska again, barefoot, wearing an old dress that had been patched a dozen times and an apron covered in stains. “I … I … why? I’m — I’m not — ” She caught her breath, her chest too tight and then Amani was hugging her, arms holding her close, hands rubbing her back. Jezzie’s face was buried in the crook of Amani’s neck, her hands clutching at the beautiful blue and yellow cloth; the golden choker pressed against the side of her head.
“Sshh. Peace. Sshh. My apologies. I did not mean to ask you like that. I should not have. I am sorry. Do not let it worry you. Sshh. Peace.”
When her heart had calmed some, Jezzie pulled away, tucking wild curls behind her ear. She wiped her hands on her apron and bent to pick up one of the buckets.
Following her cue, Amani did the same. Slowly walking the length of the ship, they poured the water from their pails. It sank into the grass, into the living iron. Some of the water followed invisible swirls and dips, flowing across the top of the Kandake’s Beloved. The rest slid down the sides, swallowed by the thirsty ship before it could reach the ground.
Amani sang as they walked, a soothing tune in a language that Jezzie did not understand. Red footprints fading to orange marked their path.
When the fourth bucket was emptied, Amani ended her song, the last note slipping away on the wind. Nodding her approval, she led the way back to the ground and the crude patch on the damaged side.
Jezzie bit her lip, trying to silence her gasp of amazement.
Threads of living iron criss-crossed the patch, following the grid of branches. The mud had dried, on the outside at least, and cracked in a few places. Below, tendrils had grown from the bottom and lower sides of the ship into the ground. They pulsed and twitched, pulling water and nutrients from the soil. Even as she watched, another tendril poked a fragile head from the ship; it shivered, twisted, hunting, and angled down towards the ground.
She didn’t realize that she had moved until Amani crouched beside her, trousers brushing her leg.
“The ship will continue to feed until she is healed. When the tendrils break, we will know that she is ready to sail again.”
[End Part One. Continue to the conclusion in Part Two.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]