Her little chambers drip with flower-like red
Her girdles, and the chaplets of her head
Her armlets and her anklets; with her feet
She tramples all that winepress of the dead
-Swinburne, "Laus Veneris"
Their hands bound in tacky black spidersilk, the crew of the Moonbat came down the Thanan throat-tunnel which grav-twisted into the chest cavity chamber, its great rib bones like the arches of a dark cathedral, its vertebrae rendered in mosaic as a bright promenade.
Before the altar stood a girl even younger than Cataria, firmly plump in black full-body stretchfiber with her true skeleton rendered subtly in silver threads. Her mask was a real human skull — her own, which she now lifted to reveal her living face, red-lipped and smirking like a wicked child.
"I am Princess-Captain Kunigunda Angst. You are my prisoners. You have three choices.
"Your first choice: Death! Sudden, awakening from your homeworld savepods, with perhaps eventually some memory of this humiliation." She licked her lips.
"Your second choice: Death! Perpetual, to join the Thanan chain, renouncing your homepods and seeding new pods on this ship or any Thanan ground, from which you will emerge fresh each day to feast on the roasted flesh of your yesterdays. Or if you prefer, raw.
"Your third choice: Death! Delayed, to remain our prisoners while we seduce you into death perpetual.
"What do you choose?"
The Glimmer captain stepped forward. "All but one of us choose death, delayed."
Captain Angst had already been drawing her blade, anticipating the slaughter of the customary first death. She turned to her top Prognosticator, young-bodied like all Thanans, but mentally agèd and frowning like a dyspeptic owl.
"That was unexpected," she said. "Do they know something we don't?"
"Impossible. They have simply been overtaken by whimsy."
She turned back to the Glimmer captain and drew her blade, tickling the hilt. "And your one exception?"
Cataria stepped forward. "I choose death, perpetual."
The blade clattered to the bony tesserae. "Never in our annals has not one member of a captured crew chosen the first death." Again she turned to the Prog. "Who is this?"
"She is insignificant."
"Well, she doesn't look insignificant." Kunigunda circled this strange creature, yellow-haired and stern-faced, her dilated pupils seemingly searching infinity. Her ill-fitting suit was standard Glimmer crew, with the insignia of an apprentice ethertech.
"Tell me," she said, "what does it mean when the bubbles are foamy?"
It was an easy question, begging for a pass. "It means I lack focus."
The girl reached out her finger and barely skimmed the invisible hairs on Cataria's cheek. The bone structure was hard but exquisite, the ear like a sand-polished cockle shell. And too hot to touch, every Thanan's secret dream, that scar!
She whispered, "I want to see your skull."
The Princess-Captain's chamber was a spotless white ovule smelling of savepod chems and old blood. Kunigunda led Cataria inside and the door glid shut.
"Take off your suit."
Under the rumply spacegear she wore a standard-issue utility suit, neutral grey, perfectly fit and stained with dry sweat that smelled like rank honeysuckle.
Kunigunda drank it with her eyes and almost stammered. "To seed the pod, you will have to strip completely."
"You have committed." She drew her blade. "Switching to first death now will no longer be sudden, or painless."
"I have a challenge."
She snorted. "Make it then!"
"We fight to risk of death, here and now, you with the blade and I with my own body. If I win, you release me. If you win, you may have your way with me."
"I already have my way. You are merely asking for an unruly first death."
"I have no savepod."
Kunigunda's red mouth hung open.
"Look at me. I am Scrollkin. We do not save."
How had she missed it? The small wild ears, the flowery scent, and obvious now in the bright room, the vertical pupils. She trembled. "You are offering me your eternal death."
"Or to own me as podslave. Or I win, and you lose nothing but my binding."
"And if I refuse?"
Cataria shrugged. "I will violate chainlaw and fight you anyway."
Instantly the blade lashed at Cataria's forehead, trying to draw blood into her eyes, but she snapped her head back. A few golden eyebrow hairs drifted down.
They circled each other like dancers.
"Taste my pain, rogue!" Kunigunda cried, and slashed deeper. Cataria ducked and closed, and with the startled face at her mercy, she gave it a slap and backed away.
"Bitch! Don't toy with me." Captain Angst came in a flurry, slashing, thrusting, leaping, spinning, kicking. Her off-hand grazed Cataria's throat with a fingernail and a red welt rose.
"I draw first blood!" she exulted. "Yield to me now and I will be merciful. Continue to resist, and I shall make you watch, elf, as I dissect your vestigal rectum!"
Cataria spat in her eye. From three paces back it was hard enough to sting. While she stood blinking in shock, Cataria spat in her other eye. Half blind, and all blind with rage, she plunged shrieking into the fray.
It was like fighting the air. Chasing her about the room, flailing sloppily and panting like a dog, Kunigunda finally slipped in a floor-splatter of her own sweat and sprawled. Cataria pinned her and snatched away the blade.
"I beg you," the Thanan gasped. "Before you go free, may I ask a favor?"
"It would be my greatest pleasure if you would gut me like a squealing pig. I want to feel the front of my spine rattle with my own blade."
"I do not serve your pleasure."
The Princess-Captain pouted, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
"But I might, if..."
"I will serve your pleasure for one hour, for every crew member of the Moonbat that you free, and their ship."
"All of them! Attention!" she cried. "Ship and crew of the Paisley Bonedrake, the ex-prisoner and I have made an arrangement, which by long custom weighs the ecstacy of one over the comfort of many. Release all the Glimmer and their ship, and quarantine my chamber for hours equal to their number, whatever that is."
The Blip answered with a voice like a stone slab sliding in a tomb. "It is done."
"Now." The Princess-Captain squirmed. "As it serves my pleasure, do as you will."
Cataria tore the micromesh down to Kunigunda's waist. High on her chest, with a touch so delicate that it tickled, she cut a circle with an open top, like an inverse Omega, and then down from the points she cut two curves flattening under each arm.
Blood oozed and the Thanan's body shuddered. "What have you done?"
"My name is Princess Cataria Meerschaum, that is my family crest, and you will wear its scar for the rest of your days, should you live a thousand years."
"Don't be silly. I'll have a new body tomorrow, and another the day after that."
"And have only a ghostly memory of today? Jettison your savepod, you will not be using it. While your people live in future dreams and the pleasures of now, you will raise a palace of hard memories on this foundation: you will not want to forget one moment of this."
The knife hovered like an updrafting falcon.