"Wheytt," I say with a pained exhale as my eyes stick to the sculpted flesh beneath the sensory-dampening layers of his uniform. Matris's new male accountancy guard—mothers' mercy—looks down upon me through bone-rimmed goggles. I cannot see his eyes through the darkened lenses, but his scowl line is more than obvious. Accountancy guards are bad in general, but Wheytt is the worst, out to prove to himself and to Matris that he's more than capable of working outside the family unit. Because of his insecurities, he tattles like his livelihood depends on it. And that means that there's no talking my way out of this one. Matris already knows.
"Matriling Kaleigh," Wheytt says to me with due respects, though it is a sloppy wave of obligation and not the stiff salute of reverence he gives to my head-mother.
"Call me Seske," I grate at him. "Better yet, don't call me anything at all."
"Mmm," he says dismissively. "Matris wishes to speak to you. And your beastworker friend can come along too."
My gut shifts yet again. "There's no one else here. I escaped on my own," I say, willing my eyes not to dart in the direction of Adalla's hiding spot.
"I smell ichor," Wheytt says.
"Perhaps one of your fellow accountancy guards tracked it through here, too busy prying into everyone else's business to watch where they're stepping." I cross my arms over my chest.
"Perhaps," he says, unconvinced. "But I heard whispers. A conversation."
"I like to talk to myself. Is that a crime?"
"We can keep playing these games if you like, Matriling Kaleigh—on our way to see Matris Paletoba." Wheytt lays one of his pristine white gloves around my wrist, the finest beast hide I have felt upon my skin, even more luxurious than Matris's raiment. We both look at his hand upon me, and he snatches it away but does not apologize for the offense. "Beastworker Adalla," he shouts into the hold. "In the name of Matris Paletoba, reveal yourself."
Adalla slinks out and stands beside me, fingers clasped, tumbling her thumbs over and over each other.
I cringe, admitting defeat. "How did you know it was her?" Best to know my enemy's strengths, so maybe next time we won't get caught.
"Your naxshi," Wheytt says. "They always brighten two and a half shades when you share her company."
I touch my cheeks, feeling the warmth budding where my ancestral tattoos sit. The heat-sensitive pigments in the naxshi ink have betrayed me. "You think you know me so well?" I hiss, though I can feel my tattoos brighten even further from a new kind of heat brewing within me.
"I know that you have ripened and you are ready for womanhood. I have sent word of this ahead to Your Matris as well." Wheytt bends down on one knee, wipes his gloved index finger upon the floor, then turns it up so I can see. A small dollop of blood stains the tip of the glove, and the undeniable smirk of menses envy sits upon his lips.
The cramping. The taste of iron in our sleep balm. All at once, my emotions cram up into my throat. The pride I should feel for finally catching up to my peers is squelched cold by the fact that Wheytt had discovered my first menses before I'd even known myself. As if I needed one more reason to hate him.
From a pocket in his uniform, he pulls out the little black ledger that has haunted me since my early childhood and apparently will follow me right into womanhood. He presses the blood drop upon the ledger's sensor, then types something onto the keypad.
"Take me to my mother!" I yell at him, the archaic term more of a cuss than generic maternal designation, though there's definitely no need for me to specify which mother.
We're done for.
Wheytt leads the way as the three of us file through the belly of the beast. I leave footprints upon the ground where it's soft and still moist, not the paved walkways I am used to. I'd wanted to see excavation, and I'm seeing it. The beast's stomach is still a wide expanse of wild frontier, full of the untamed life native to the beast's gut, an ecosystem that nourishes the beast during its journey through the void. Soon it will nourish us. This is where we will live, big, beautiful ceiling of flesh lofting over us. Incisions are cut here and there as workers pull resources from other parts of the beast. Slivers of rib are used for scaffolding and building materials, harvested and carved up by boneworkers. The hide is thick and is cut for work leathers and boots, while silks are harvested from gall worms—big lumbering beasts the size of two full-grown women. It'll take a ton of work to get this place habitable, but unlike our cramped ship that now clings to the beast's hide like a wart, there is room for us to expand here, to live here. To thrive. But right now, it feels so cavernous and empty without structures climbing up the walls, and so hollow without the wild calls of vendors, the laughter of my cohort, and all the scents and textures of the meticulously manicured gardens in which I often find myself lost, both in thought and body.
My stomach still cramps, but it's from dread now and not my menses. What I thought would be a ten-minute journey upon walkways cobbled with pearlescent stones has turned into a thirty-minute slog through a hostile, overgrown marsh—and we are only halfway to Matris's throne room.