There were certain things she had to get today, but she carried a little extra currency to buy ingredients for a dish of her own devising—something she could serve at Moons’end—Mama’s gift to Ren for all her hard work this past season.
The feast would be lavish this year, partly to show off for Mama’s most loyal buyers, and partly to hook new ones. Ren’s dish alone wouldn’t stand out in all that Mama had planned, but if she did well, Ren might land some connections of her own. It was time she started making a name for herself.
Ren was piecing together a plan for the items in her satchel—things that sang to her the loudest as she explored the market’s stalls and barrels. So far, she had slender green crescible shoots, plump plutonian plums, her favorite local wine, and a packet of dark, smoky crooktree bark imported from the harbor. She could round it all out with what she had in her spice pantry at home; now, she just needed to settle on a protein.
Ren already knew what she wanted. She just hadn’t figured out how to ask for it. She lingered, relishing the scents and colors and the intoxicating action of the market: the farm Aunties sporting their new shaggy coats, and jaunty him-traders shouting innuendo down from the stockades with their deep, weather-hoarse, come-on voices.
A hook-nosed Auntie caught Ren dawdling over a cage of longrats. “Seven crescents for the litter.”
“Seven?” Ren laughed. “For those?”
“Fecund critters, they is!” The Auntie grabbed one by the bristly tail and yanked it up against the cage so Ren could see its sex, bright red and bulbous. “Double your investment by next Moonrise. Taste real nice, too.”
Ren wasn’t interested in raising longrats, no matter how prolific. The animal’s vibrant black and gray coloring did suggest a silky flavor…it would make a decent pairing with the wine and plums. But…no. Only one meat would do for her coming-out.
It was time to find her mother in the stockades.
She found her still by the him pens, haggling with the Captain of the Atheniaris—an intimidating hulk with daggers sewn into her beard, sharpened teeth, and a bosom so large it was said to knock small moons out of orbit. Lazala stood with her hands in fists on her hips, her black hair a whip in the wind, spitting cusses to make the most hardened Auntie blush until the Captain threw up her hands and turned away, bargaining over. But the two of them had been at this dance for more seasons than Ren could remember. Lazala would get the price she wanted. Later, the Captain would get hers.
Lazala spotted Ren. “I was about to send a rescue party. Did you spend everything? Of course you did.” Lazala smiled and lifted Ren’s long dark braids in her hands. “You are a spoiled girl, Renin. My lovely, spoiled girl.”
Lazala turned away, all business. “We’re taking four today. That one, that one, the squarish one in the back, and the tall brute who wants to eat us all alive.”
Selections made, it was up to Ren to arrange for their transport. Lazala was already walking away, eager to throw down at The Splattered Star with the Captain and maybe another pretty Auntie or two.
“I want a him,” Ren said, in a voice she hoped would get her attention without sounding churlish. She was still chafing over “spoiled.”
Lazala turned back, one dark eyebrow aloft. “A dish,” she said. “You can serve a dish at the feast. That’s what we agreed.” She sighed. “I’ll give you a flank from the short one.”
“A whole him. My choice.”
“Do you have any idea how much a him costs?”
“Of course, I know!” Red cried. “I’ve kept the books for the ranch for the last four cycles. I work harder for you than any of the hands, and they all get a living wage…”
“A living wage, is it? What do you call the roof over your head? Food in your mouth? Ribbons in your hair?” Lazala looked to the Captain as if seeking a witness to her child’s insanity, but the Captain had already fled the scene. “Not to mention that everything I have will be yours someday, which is a far cry from what I received from my mother…”
“I never ask for anything I haven’t earned, Mama. I’ve earned this.”
“Fine,” said Lazala at last, disgusted with her own weakness. She turned and stormed off, muttering, in the direction of the tavern.
Ren spun toward the pens, suppressing a grin. She’d just won more coin for a single dish than some families earned in a lifetime.
There were over forty hims in the stockades, including the lot from the Atheniaris. After staking Lazala’s claims, Ren circled the grounds. She didn’t want to limit herself to her mother’s favorite vendor, but in the end, the Atheniaris really did have the best stock. The Captain’s hims were well-fed, medicated, and exercised in transit. The skin was clear, their linens clean, limbs almost all intact—such extras were expensive, but they made all the difference.
Some of the hims followed Ren with their eyes. A brave few even tried to speak to her. She didn’t know any of their alien tongues, but she understood the meaning well enough. Anger, bargaining, prayer. All good signs.
She was about to put in a bid on one a bit plumper than Mama usually went for, with nice solid haunches, but something told her to keep looking. Walking to the opposite side of the pen, Ren squatted down near to the dusty earth and peered between the barbed wire.
He was the most unusual specimen Ren had ever seen. The eyes were icy blue, reminiscent of the creek along the border of their ranch. After Moons’end, it would turn to crystal, with delicate veins of just that hue. The hair was a vivid fire-orange, rolled in the blunt queue favored by traders and travelers. The skin was pale—another feature Mama disdained, citing lack of flavor—but not pallid, with artful splotches across the nose and peppered down the long, generous arms. Ren licked her lips, imagining all manner of sweet and earthy spices to match it.
This one had an indescribable… something. He wasn’t particularly meaty, lustrous, or virile-looking—in fact, the way he just sat there, hands limp between the knees, she had doubts. Yet Ren sensed power below the passionless exterior; not unlike the waters of that creek, so prone to drowning cattle and girls who misread the signs.
Ren searched her memory for one of the ancient languages; a legacy of the classical education Lazala had paid for.
“What you call?”
It was probably a wasted gesture. The language had been dead even before the grandmothers settled this world, far from the Source colonies they’d fled. So many generations had passed since then, hidden here by turgid solar currents, later augmented by a web of signal-dampening interference and displacement fields crafted by their best engineers.
Still. Ren had a feeling this him was clever. The tattoos on his forearm were like the ones she used to draw with ink and quills, with her stuffy old tutor.
As usual, her instincts were right. “Warren,” the him replied, in something close enough to that ancient tongue. “I am name Warren.”
Lazala did not approve.
“It has no spirit,” she said the next morning, back on the ranch. The hims were still in holding, waiting their turn with the medic. Lazala circled the fenced enclosure, sipping from a cup of morning brew as if she had not stumbled home wrecked just after sunrises.
“We’ll see,” said Ren. At this stage, none of the hims had much vigor. Most were still sleeping from the long ride back from market; they lay slumped on the ground or tumbled together there, a listless mass.
Only Ren’s him was awake. He sat apart from the others, following Ren’s every movement with those crystalline eyes.
In one swift motion, Lazala jabbed a driving-prod through a slot in the enclosure, nailing the him named Warren under the nipple. He jerked once from the jolt, but otherwise he displayed no pain, no reaction at all. The prod was on the lowest setting—non-lethal—but it was meant to hurt. A lot.
Lazala then poked one of her own hims—the long, muscular one, who had been lying as prone as he could manage within the narrow pen. At the touch of the prod, this him jumped, growled, and began to thrash against the barbed enclosure. Blood from his hands peppered Lazala’s face and tunic.
The other hims were agitated now. They shrunk to the opposite side of the pen, away from the big one’s wrath, but Ren’s him was not afraid. They spoke in a shared language, and the brute soon settled down.
Lazala tapped her thigh with the prod and grinned.
“All that proves is you’ve got a taste for the wild ones,” said Ren.
“Exactly,” said Lazala.
The ranch medic was a taciturn Grannie named Moora; wrinkled, white-haired, and nearsighted, but tough. Lazala insisted on two armed escorts whenever livestock had to be moved, but Moora never needed help. Any greenhorn knew how to wrangle a him by the weak spot—that strange and vulnerable appendage below the underbelly—but Ren had seen Moora bring down the most irascible creatures by an earlobe, a nose, a finger; and with no more effort than it took to swat a blissfly.
Ren hovered in the corner while Moora stripped her him of his wrappings, revealing said appendage and every other speckled bit.
Growing up on the ranch, she’d seen all this before. Still, Ren had a hard time keeping her eyes on this one. Perhaps because it was her own—her first—or because it had a name (Warren) but suddenly it felt… awkward. She kept looking away and back again, while Moora moved around the him, poking, assessing.
“Hard to believe such a funny little thing could cause so much suffering,” Ren mused. “The stories, I mean. The wars and all.”
Moora stabbed her fingers in the him’s mouth, flicked a specimen swab into a jar. “They’re not always little.”
“No, I know.”
“Oh, yes. And do you know what it’s for?”
“I—I do,” stammered Ren. “I just…it’s so…silly looking, is all.”
Moora looked at Ren over her spectacles, then at the two hired hands standing in the doorway, making crude jokes with their driving-prods. “Gods, but you’re all just children,” she sighed.
The him had endured the exam without complaint, but his eyes grew wide as Moora picked up a large, gleaming needle. He made no effort to fight (again, clever), but neither was he cowardly. He looked right at Ren as if daring her not to flinch.
Ren wondered how her mother’s brute had handled this part.
“It’s a focal organ,” Moora said, observing the object in question. “Everything in a him serves it—see? The lifeforce, the will, the mind, all of it, with one singular intent. That is what drives them to pillage. Conquer. Inflict. It’s in their nature. ‘Stories,’ she says,” Moora scoffed. “Histories, child. Hisssstory.”
Moora deployed her needle to the weak spot, eliciting—to her clear satisfaction—a prodigious yelp.
The Aunties in the doorway laughed. “At least you know it ain’t dead, eh Rennie?”
It was another three days before the hims were ready to be handled. Once the blood was screened and the prionic stabilizers given time to do their work, Ren went to fetch her him, more than eager to get started.
The same two hands stood by with prods at the ready as Ren opened the pen. Her him jumped up as soon as he saw her, far more animated than when they’d first brought him home.
“Food!” the him pleaded, shackles rattling.
He’d been receiving nutritionally enhanced air and hydrates, but hims were always ravenous after quarantine. Ren tossed him a loaf of whole grains, seeds, and fruit hardened with gleam nectar. This was not at all how Lazala would handle her stock, but that was the point. Ren had ideas of her own.
Most of Lazala’s competitors were long-term operations. Some higher-end ranchers housed hims for up to four seasons, fed and fluffed to (what was popularly considered) prime ripeness. But although Lazala kept a few in reserve for special customers with such tastes, she preferred leaner stock—hims with spirit in them, a natural zest that she could highlight with her proprietary techniques and the unique flavor profiles she was famous for.
All four of Lazala’s new stock were destined for this process. In fact, as Ren herded her him from the quarantine pens to her personal quarters, she could already hear shrieking coming from the flavor house.
Warren heard the sound, too. He stopped walking, a lump of the sweetened loaf still filling his cheek.
The bald, tattooed Auntie gave him a poke that dropped him to the ground.
“Stop it!” Ren scolded. “He’ll choke!”
The Auntie snorted through her pierced nose, but hauled the him to his feet and pounded his back. “Sorry, Rennie.”
“Just get him to my rooms in one piece.”
Ren had lived in her own quarters for several seasons now. Upon her coming-of-age, Lazala commissioned a private suite of rooms for her on the north side of the property, complete with a fully equipped kitchen where Ren could conduct her culinary experiments.
“Fix him there,” Ren said, as the hands marched Warren inside. She’d arranged a bed for him in the alcove where she dried her herbs—warm from its proximity to the ovens, but out of the way. Ren showed them where to thread the chains, allowing the him range to sit or lie down, eat, and use the facilities that she’d brought in for his personal use.
“You should keep this,” said the Auntie with the tattoos, thrusting a driving-prod at Ren.
The other hand, a maternal-looking Auntie with tight, silvery-pink braids, lingered in the doorway. “Don’t be shy about using it,” she warned. “Them hims crave the discipline.” She leaned closer and winked. “Plumps ’em right up, too, don’t it, whether they like it or not.”
Ren shut the door on their laughing faces.
She turned to the him. “Good?” she asked, gesturing.
He glanced at the last bit of loaf in his cuffed hands. “Water.”
Ren gave him a flask. She watched the muscles in this throat as he drank. When he was done, she refilled it at the tap and handed it back, trying not to blush as their fingers grazed.
“Free me. Free…dom.”
Ren wasn’t sure of those words, but she got the idea as he pantomimed breaking the shackles. “No, no,” she said, laughing. She pointed to him, then to herself, smiling.
“Must you play with it, darling?” Lazala appeared in the doorway. “It’s just cruel.”
Warren seemed to draw back into himself in Lazala’s presence; he sank onto the bedding and resumed the same posture as before, hunched and limp. Ren had to bite her lip to keep from snapping at her mother in frustration. “I’ll do what I like, Mama. It’s mine.”
“Fine. Here.” Lazala swept into the room, with a platter which she placed under Ren’s nose. Her hair was tied back, her smock smeared crimson and reeking of smoke.
Ren selected one small pinkish-gray square. “Is this the brute?”
“No, the stout. Try it with the au jus.”
Ren swiped up some of the reddish-brown swirl on the platter and popped the morsel into her mouth. It was a smidge rare for her taste, but juicy and well-paired with the pungent-sweet notes and creamy texture of the pit-glaze. “It’s nice. But should you have done fresh belly so early? The feast isn’t for another couple of days…”
“I needed to start the tougher cuts for the jerky and the stew. But I only did this plate to taste—the rest is in stasis vac. It’ll be fine.” Lazala licked sauce from her fingers and pushed the platter at Ren. “Finish these for me, will you? I’ve got to start on the next batch.” Lazala frowned, her eyes raking over Ren’s him again with distaste. “I wish you’d tell me what you’re planning. If this goes poorly, Renin, it will reflect poorly on me.”
Ren nudged her toward the door. “You’ll just have to trust me.”
“Please,” the him said, just as soon as Lazala had gone. “Where men? My men? Please?”
Ren liked the sound of his voice. She liked the novelty of speaking with him at all. She liked how the tiny brown specks on his creamy brow coalesced into a single dark crust, furrowed in concentration, dispersing when he begged. She picked up the platter of belly. “Him,” she said, brightly. “Him. Men?” She didn’t know that word, but assumed it meant the same thing.
Warren shook his head. “Where men?”
Ren raised and lowered the platter. “Mennnn.” She picked up another morsel, brought it to her mouth, slowly chewed. “Mmm. Men, good.”
Suddenly there it was—the intensity Ren had sensed in the market. The him began to struggle violently with the shackles. When they didn’t break, he kicked out at anything he could—his bedding, the water flask, the little window (unbreakable, with its panoramic view of the prairie beyond the big house), the latrine. That earned him a sore foot, as it was bolted down, and he was wearing only the thin slippers they gave livestock to stave off parasites.
Ren glanced at the driving-prod, which she’d left on her cooking island. She didn’t want to use it. Pain was part of her mother’s brand, exactly what Ren didn’t want. But this frenzy wouldn’t serve, either. The him was weeping and shouting in his native tongue, spittle frothing from his mouth.
Seizing on an idea, Ren ran to her pantry and came back with a slim cobalt bottle, which she used to spray a fine mist into the him’s face. Soon he grew quiet, staggered, and sank onto the floor.
“Good,” said Ren. “Good him.”
She hadn’t intended to start the process quite so soon, but the narcotic she’d used was very expensive. She didn’t want to waste it. Coming quickly to a decision, Ren locked all the doors, so she wouldn’t be disturbed by anyone.
Next, she pushed Warren’s bedding back in place and nudged him onto it. The him offered no resistance, but he did protest, if weakly, as she removed his trousers.
“Pleasure,” Ren said; but after several moments with no response, she frowned. Why was this not working?
The him’s head lolled from side to side. “Please.”
She’d been very thorough in her research. Her tutors—mystified though they were by the request—had supplied her with every treatise on the subject available in print, and all the verbal lore they could scrounge. She even had diagrams.
The him was struggling. “Free me,” he said, half-delirious. Then he fell back again, hands limp at his sides.
Perhaps Lazala was right in calling this one a dud. The flaccid organ seemed proof of that. But Ren had invested so much already. There was too much at stake to give up—most of all her pride.
Leaving the him to sleep, Ren picked through her cupboards. She knew plenty of aphrodisiacs, but would they work on a him? She thought so…after all, according to her tutors, they’d originated from the same species. Generations ago, in the dark ages of the Source worlds, it was the differences between hims and Aunties that made life possible—not the marriage of science and midwives they looked to now.
Ren settled on thrushweed and minnic root, two herbs that had a powerful effect on the libido but would be flushed from the system well before feast day. After preparing the tonic, she massaged it down the befuddled him’s throat.
Ren had seen the phenomenon now and then among the hims in the pens, but she’d never been this close to one. Swollen and straight, the him’s organ had grown to roughly the length of her hand—when she touched it, it twitched and grew even more. Ren moved to examine it closer.
Before she knew what was happening, Ren was on her back with the him on top of her, his shackled hands pinning her wrists, the length of chain stretched across her throat.
He was much heavier than Ren imagined. She couldn’t move under his weight, could barely fill her lungs. She could see the driving-prod on the counter above her—close, but utterly out of reach.
Stupid girl. It was Moora’s voice she heard in her head. Moora would be able to get herself out of this. Moora would never have gotten herself into such a position in the first place, nor her mother. Oh, Lazala…
Just as Ren’s thoughts began to spin away from lack of air, the him released the pressure on her neck. “You hear? Yes? You hear me?”
Ren nodded, wincing at the pain. She could feel his heart pounding against her ribcage. She was aware, too, of the hard length of him pushing against her thigh. It drives them to pillage, conquer, inflict. Ren decided she did not like this, after all. Not one bit.
Warren’s hot breath mingled with Ren’s, reeking of spice. “You die, I die,” he said. “I die…” He shrugged, his meaning clear. They were going to kill him either way.
“You give freedom, you live. Yes?”
Once more, Ren nodded.
The him sat back. He held out his hands, bloodied raw in their restraints. Ren hesitated for just a moment, then ran her thumbs over the interface on his wrist, entering the release code.
The shackles snapped open.
They would wait until sundowns—that’s all the him would say. They sat in silence, Warren barely moving except to drink from the flask, the driving-prod stretched across his knee. But as the evening reeled toward full darkness, he seemed to lose some inner battle with himself.
“Why?” Warren pointed to the plate of cooled belly on the countertop. “Why… men? E-at men?”
Ren refused to look at him. “Hungry,” she whispered.
The him kicked the bedding she was resting on. The whites of his eyes had become pink, his breathing irregular and raspy; and yet, he was grasping for the right words of that near-forgotten language, just as eager to communicate as Ren had been.
“Why?” He made an expression of disgust. “Evil.”
“Evil?” Ren was hunched on the floor, trying to make herself as small as possible, as if he might take less notice of her that way. She hated herself for it, for being afraid, for losing control to an animal, but the word roused her. That word, she knew. “Me evil?”
“Why… eat… men?”
Ren turned to the window so as to not see his face, which seemed much less interesting and exotic to her now. “Grandmothers,” she said. “Grandmothers, grandmothers make this world.” She found she could parse the ancient tongue more easily now that she was angry. “Woe men. Refugees. Flee ‘evil.’ Flee men. Things done.” Ren touched her throat, still raw where he’d choked her. She gestured angrily, indicating both the driving-prod in his lap and the one now hidden under his tunic.
“Now, we hide,” she said. “The…soup? Of suns’ shields. Sound…webs…” Ren shook her head, giving up on trying to explain technology she didn’t quite understand herself. She was just a rancher’s daughter. The point was, “No war, here. We make… daughters.” Ren lifted her chin in pride.
Warren shook his head. “Why. Eat. Men?” he growled.
Ren could see in his eyes how he wanted to hurt her. His stink was sharp and rank. She had never been so afraid.
“Men… tastes good,” she answered. Then she laughed. “Revenge taste good? Yes?”
The him closed his eyes. Sweat dripped from his brow. “Not my men” he said.
“Your ships come heavy with things of war,” Ren said. “Come heavy with… chains? Yes?”
“No.” The him pressed his lips together, breathing roughly through his nose. “We know you are here,” he said after a long silence. “Men lost. Ships lost. Here.” He pointed at the ground. For a moment, his icy blue eyes rolled back in his head. Then he gestured toward the sky. “Men find you,” he promised, with a wry laugh. “All this,” he gestured broadly, “we take.”
Ren said nothing. She watched the him drain his flask, eying the tremor in his hand.
With the driving-prod wedged in her back, Ren lead Warren across the dusty yard, struggling not to think about what death by prod would feel like.
There was almost no light aside from the occasional sensate lamps left burning along the walkways. The last moon hung low in the sky, a mere sliver of its former glory. Frost covered the ground, crunching underfoot.
Ren half-expected to find Lazala still awake in the flavor house, worrying over her menu, but the building appeared to be empty save for one carcass stretched over a low-burning fire and, in the last cell, the wild one—the brute—strapped to the injection table. Dozens of tiny rods protruded from the him’s body, slowly pumping marinade into his fatty layer, while a measured flow of blood dripped from the wounds into a collection vat below, where it would simmer for days.
Warren gagged. He pushed Ren against the wall, menacing with the prod.
Ren did as she was told. She rushed to the table and began to pull out the hoses and rods at random, weeping softly as juices pumped across her hands, her clothes. If these hims didn’t kill her, she thought, Lazala would, for the sheer waste of it all.
Once the last rod was removed, the him bucked from the table. Ren could only gape up at him, stunned that he had any strength left at all. He couldn’t have been in the flavor process long—but long enough. And yet he lifted Ren into the air as if she were weightless, his massive hands crushing around her waist as she watched the floor spin far below.
Warren shouted at the him. Spittle and blood flew from the large man’s lips as he raged at Ren in his own language, clearly bent on his own taste of revenge. He slammed Ren onto the bloody table where he had just been lying, knocking the wind out of her.
Ren thought for sure she was about to die. The big man dragged her off the table again, her feet sloshing for purchase on the ground as she fought to stand.
Suddenly Ren felt herself thrown forward into Warren’s arms just as something flashed through the air by her head. Warren pulled her tight against his body, whipping around in time to see the big man go down, Lazala’s favorite cleaver wedged deep in his skull.
From the look of her kerchief and smock, Lazala had been butchering all night. She must have stolen a moment to nap on one of the benches in the back. Now she regarded Warren coolly, her second-best cleaver murder-sharp and poised to throw.
But Warren had Ren.
Sensing his advantage, Warren dragged Ren to the flavor house door. She regretted that she hadn’t gone for a longer him, after all, if he’d been a head taller, Lazala might have risked taking the shot.
Running with Ren as a shield proved too awkward, so Warren carried her.
As they passed the border of Lazala’s property, they were plunged into darkness, slowed by Ren’s weight and the dry, uneven ground. Warren used the meager green light from the prod to illuminate their steps, but it wasn’t enough. More than once he stumbled, smashing Ren into the dirt. He was shaking uncontrollably now, also coughing up blood, and he could no longer walk a straight line. As the wail of a search siren swelled behind them, Ren began to feel better about her chances.
Still, they made it to the edge of the canyon. In fact, Warren would have taken them right over it if Ren hadn’t shouted a warning. The him stared down the deep, dark drop, his shoulders slumped. He’d begun to realize what Ren knew already—that he didn’t have the strength to escape. If he tried to scale the canyon with Ren, he’d only kill them both.
Ren made herself very still, trapped in the him’s arms. A breeze came up from the canyon, across her cheek. She felt like a baby fizzant, high in a nest of a tree about to be felled.
Warren lowered Ren to the ground. He took a step, swooned, and dropped like a sack.
Ren picked up the driving-prod. She shined its pale green glow on the dying him’s face. All the capillaries in his eyes had burst. His lips were shrunken husks. “What… things done, woman?”
Ren took a step back, thanking all her gods that she’d overestimated her measurements. This wasn’t supposed to happen until feast day.
“Salt,” she said, having no words to explain the microscopic oceanic bacteria—her own special blend—that had been coursing through his cells since she’d fed him that nutrition-loaf that morning; microbes now thriving, proliferating, and excreting throughout his body at an exponential rate. “Oh!” she said, remembering the word—though by then, the he was too far gone to hear it, convulsing at her feet.
Ren smiled, pleased with herself, and more than a bit giddy with the rush of survival. “It’s called brine,” she told the unconscious him, already salivating at the thought.
Copyright © 2023 Shannon Connor Winward