"So, what do we do if we see one of these spirits?" I ask.
"Well, I've got a plan," Adalla says, slipping her knife back into her satchel and pulling out a small ley light, some candles, a jar of brown grease, a length of twine soaked in something that smells sickly sweet, and a shiny copper disk, just like the one she keeps next to her bed. Or maybe it's one and the same. Adalla shakes the ley light, the chemical solution inside filling the space between us with a warm red glow. She starts explaining how each of her spirit wards work, but my mind gets lost, just enjoying the cadence of her words, as I think about all the adventures we'd had on the old beast. But when the light hits Adalla just right, and those old memories fizzle out of my head, I notice how she's filling out her beastworker's suit; where she used to be long and lean, now she's got muscles straining the fabric.
I could kick myself when I realize why. She's been training hard in hopes of getting promoted from the ichor vats. Ideally, to the beast's primary heart, but any major organ would do. Or so she said. The heart is the only place Adalla belongs, and we both know it.
But just as I open my mouth to ask her how her training is going, we hear the steadfast footsteps of an accountancy guard echoing through the hold. Adalla stuffs her spirit wards in her satchel, grabs the ley light, then nudges me behind a pile of flattened stasis pods, our bodies caught between it and the wall.
My lips are upon Adalla's ear. "Maybe she won't notice the rip," I murmur.
"You must have already taken a sip of mad vapors, Seske. You know lash counters notice everything."
I do know. The members of the Accountancy Guard, or lash counters as the beastworkers call them, are renowned for their heightened senses, which have landed me in trouble more times than I'd like to admit. They'd noticed the mere sip of blood wine I snuck from Matris's bone chalice during the first inhumation ceremony I'd attended. They'd noticed the faintest bruise I'd left upon Sisterkin's arm the time we'd fought—really fought—over whom Matris loved most. And most recently, they'd tattled to Pai, my head-father, that I hadn't actually memorized the Lines of Matriarchy but instead had written all 118 names in the teeniest of scripts up and down my arm with brown ink a half shade darker than my skin, which maybe was true, but that accountancy guard should have had the decency to bring my shame upon Matris and not my poor trodden pai, who'd wept for a straight month.
This would be much worse.
Folklore has it that back in the day, under Matris Otoasa's rule, every gram mattered during exodus...when our whole clan crams into our original ship, leaving behind the exhausted carcass of our beast in search of a new one. They say space aboard the ship was so precious that Matris Otoasa's accountancy guards could count the exact number of lashes on your eyelids within a fraction of a second, and if you had too many, you were pulled out of line to receive a proper grooming. I don't know if it's entirely true, but it's true enough. So we're as good as caught. For me, I'm used to dealing with Matris's wrath. She'll scold me and tell me how disappointed she is. Tell me how I should behave more like a matriarch in training. How I should be more like Sisterkin.
But Adalla...she's got much more to lose. A demotion to boneworks, if she's lucky. A thumb hanging, if she's not. I can't let either happen.
"Stay here. Stay quiet," I say, wriggling my body back out into the openness of the hold.
"Where are you going?"
"Turning myself in. No use in both of us being caught."
"My hero." Adalla giggles, then catches herself. "You don't have to do that. I'll stand by you. Proudly. Besides, I've got strong thumbs. I could hang for days."
My stomach cramps up at the thought of Adalla suffering through that punishment. I mean really cramps up, worse than it ever has before. A moan escapes my lips.
"Are you okay?" Adalla asks. "Please, allow me to come with you."
Finally, the ache subsides. "No—stay here," I tell her. "Consider that an order from your future matriarch."
She sighs, rolling her eyes at me as I gather myself and prepare to face the bane of my existence. The accountancy guard's footsteps are already headed my way, and when I turn to face her, my jaw drops.
It's worse than I feared. Way worse.