By Mary Jessica Woods
He swore to paint the truth. Now he is living a lie.
For the Noxxiin people, tattoos define identity: they commemorate birth, ancestry, accomplishments—even crimes. As a tattoo artist living on an ancient generation ship, Mariikel Serix has sworn to record the truth. So when he becomes an unwilling accomplice in the banishment of an innocent man, he is horrified that he has broken his oath—and his eyes are opened to the misery of the Underbelly, the realm of the outcasts.
Despite the risk to himself, the young markmaker begins secretly helping the ship’s exiles. But more trouble is brewing. The Serix guild, which regulates the ceremonial tattoos, engages in a power struggle with the Ascendance, a domineering political faction—and the conflict threatens to destroy the fragile peace among the Noxxiin clans. Amidst this discord, an enigmatic artist named Haza’ruux singles out Mariikel to be his apprentice, for hidden reasons of his own. As Mariikel ventures deeper into a maze of political strife and ancient clan secrets, he realizes that his pursuit of justice may not only cost his reputation—it may cost him his life.
Plant me a trallak tree, maker of dyes,
Harvest its black bark curling.
Mix me an ink that will sink in the skin,
All for my little soldier.
Kesh alah ke’la, kesh alah ke’la,
Ink for my little soldier.
Carve me a burrik tooth, maker of pens,
Grind out its gray edge gleaming.
Chisel a path for the ink to flow,
All for my little soldier.
Kesh alah ke’la, kesh alah ke’la,
Pens for my little soldier.
Paint me an honor–sign, maker of marks,
Seal its sigils shining,
Trace out a truth in violet and gold,
All for my little soldier.
Kesh alah ke’la, kesh alah ke’la,
Marks for my little soldier.
~ Old Noxxiin Lullaby
My name is Mariikel. I am a son of Clan Serix. I am a markmaker, and a traitor to markmakers.
The workday is ending at Kilmaya’s studio. Our final client, an apprentice deepcraft warrior, lies facedown on the cushioned bench as I trace the last of the verity lines on the back of his neck. Then I set aside my pen and brush the whole tattoo with sealing-glaze. The scarlet sigils, edged with silver, gleam against my client’s jet-black skin. I am careful not to let my brush touch the deepcraft implant, the metallic disk set into his spine, just at the base of his neck. It is not activated, of course, but one can never be too cautious.
“This is a mark of truth. May you never mar or dishonor it.” I replace the brush in the bottle and remove my artist’s gloves.
The young man sits up, stiff from nearly an hour of lying on the bench. He blinks, his four eyes narrowing as he stretches. Then he stands and bows to me deeply, touching two fingers to his neck. “Thank you, markmaker. Honor with you.”
I see him out into the front room, where Kilmaya, the head artist, stands conversing with an elderly but distinguished master deepcrafter—my client’s witness. I hear the clack of polished wood as the man drops several coins into my teacher’s hand. The two of them turn to us as we enter.
“Finished, Mariikel?” Kilmaya’s mouth quirks in a smile. “You took your time.”
“Only the time I needed. I would not want to rush a new van’shor’s mark.”
“He is not a van’shor until tomorrow,” the old deepcrafter says in a stern tone. But his eyes glint with pride as he regards his apprentice. “Here, Khalon. Put this on.”
He hands a dark bundle to the younger man: a hooded cloak. Khalon slips it on, raising the hood to cover the new tattoo on the back of his neck. He may not show his van’shor symbols until the initiation ceremony tomorrow—the bond-kindling—when I will finish his marks in the arena and he will use his deepcraft in public for the first time, with the whole ship watching.
Is he as nervous about it as I am? He does not appear anxious now—but then, Van’shorii never do. With the kind of power they wield, they have little to fear.
Kilmaya opens the door for our clients and bids them farewell. They step out into the corridor, and the door hums closed, leaving me and my teacher alone in the studio. I return to the back room and busy myself at the worktable. One by one I gather the tattooing pens—the broad-blade tip that fills swaths of color, the javelin tip for writing the sigils, and the tiny verity tip for the lines that guard against forgery. I pull the stained tips off their handles and drop them into a bowl of cleansing solution. Ink plumes up through the clear liquid—like smoke, or blood.
Kilmaya joins me in the workroom, wiping down the cushioned bench and capping the ink bottles on the table. Her upper eyes are slightly narrowed with weariness, and she flexes her hands—her fingers ache sometimes, especially at the end of a long festival day like today. But she moves around the table with the brisk energy of a woman half her age.
“Thank you, Mariikel.” Her lower eyes gleam as she glances at me. “I’m sorry I had you cleaning pens for us both all day. You’re past that now.”
Smiling a little, I pick one of the tips out of the water. “The apprentices have earned a day at the games. It was good you let them go. I don’t mind cleaning pens.” With my dry hand, I touch two fingers to the mastery-mark on my brow. “I am still learning from you, teacher.”
She laughs. “For how much longer, I wonder.” Shutting three of her eyes, she regards me shrewdly with only one.
Kilmaya’s hands may no longer be perfectly supple, but her vision is still keen. Sometimes I fear that she might see into my mind as easily as she can read the intricate marks on my skin. What would it do to her to know that her best student has broken the markmakers’ oath, to obey the guild and to paint no falsehood in the flesh?
I dry the pen tips and slip them into the soft sheaths of my satchel.
“Taking your tools home again?” she asks.
I merely blink in affirmation as I add a bottle of sealing-glaze to my bag. “I need to practice for tomorrow.”
“You’re never satisfied, are you? Why don’t you go to the arena? There are still a few events this evening. Go enjoy yourself.”
I fasten the buckles of my satchel. “I’ll be seeing enough of the arena tomorrow. I think I’ll go home.”
She smiles, then shakes her head. She pulls off her long markmaking gloves, lays them on the table, and flexes her slim black hands, wincing. “Hakk, perhaps it’s just as well. I’ve heard the sparring matches are decidedly less impressive this year—what with all our best warriors down on the planets. I suppose they’re better off fighting with the half-sights instead of each other.” After a pause, she adds, “How is your cousin, by the way? Isn’t he a hvoss’ka now? Have you heard from him?”
I scoff quietly and sling the satchel over my shoulder. “You should ask my aunt. Askko doesn’t write to me.”
I walk out of the workroom towards the door. Kilmaya follows me, untying her ink-stained apron from her slender frame. “Don’t stay up all night practicing. I’ll need you here in the morning with fresh eyes and rested hands.”
“I know.” I tap the entry pad, and the door slides open. “I don’t need much rest.”
“You are single-minded.” I wonder if she senses my preoccupation, my eagerness to leave.
“Honor with you, teacher.”
“And with you, Mariikel.” She hangs her apron on the wall, and I step out of the studio into Rixarii Street.
It is past the eighth hour, and the corridor lights have dimmed to an evening orange. The street of the markmakers, however, is still bustling. Many studios have their doors open, and clients and artists file in and out. Under the hallway’s arching crossbeams, hung with Van’shorvanii banners, little knots of people gather around the athletes as they show off the new victory tattoos they earned at the games. Children dart past me, shouting, dressed in masks decorated with tufts of fur and feather. The air is heavy with the tang of fresh sealing-glaze and the muted sweet aroma of kiili oil. Yet neither the scents nor the happy commotion excite me. Where I am going tonight, there are no celebrations.
Weaving through the crowd, I leave the Serix studios behind and begin passing the workshops that belong to Clan Trev’ban. There are some athletes here, but not many. No self-respecting warrior goes to a Trev’ban studio if he can afford to get his marks from Clan Serix. We have trained the best artists and governed the guild for generations. Trev’ban artists serve the lower-ranking clans—only a handful of their markmakers are qualified to give tattoos for major festivals like Van’shorvanii.
The clients who still linger in the hallway have come here for more ordinary marks. Ahead of me, a married couple steps out of a Trev’ban studio; the mother carries a sleeping infant. Both parents are bright-eyed, and every now and again they look down to admire the new clan-mark on the baby’s neck. The mother, too, wears a fresh tattoo on her upper arm. I read the sigils briefly as I slip past them. Dakali–dek’ar—the baby is her second child, a daughter.
At last I make my way to the end of Rixarii Street. Just before the sector gate, the corridor opens into a plaza surrounding a pillared, circular building—the clan’s ancestor shrine. The Serix symbol, painted in striking black against a silver background, adorns the shrine’s doorway: a swooping crescent, like a dagger or a burrik tooth, embellished with intertwined sigils that mean “Truth in the Flesh.”
I pause in front of the shrine, then reach up and touch the matching clan-mark on my neck. It is an old habit. I used to stop here often to visit my parents’ ashes and to pray to my forebears. Now, though, the gesture is an empty ritual. I have failed my clan and betrayed my heritage of truth-painting. But no one knows that except me—and my ancestors.
I leave the shrine and pass through the Serix sector gate, coming out into a transport hub. The whirr and clank of the elevators echoes off the low ceiling, piercing the din of the festival throng. I duck my way through the crowd, past the street musicians playing a blood-tingling tune on their raith’aal pipes, past the pair of young laborers engaged in a playful brawl. A ragged ring of spectators surrounds the fighters, cheering and heckling them by turns.
Eventually I slip past the crush and into one of the descending elevators. As I enter, my eyes are drawn to the large gold-and-scarlet symbol painted on the back wall of the chamber: Akkano’dath, the name of our home, the great flagship of the Noxxiin Fleet. The sigil, like the ship, is ancient. Serix archivists still debate whether to translate the name as akkano dath—“ancestors’ will”—or akkano kodath—“ancestors’ peril.” I suspect both interpretations might be equally appropriate.
As the elevator moves down through the levels of the ship, more people file in, pushing me towards the back. I find myself standing next to an older man, a mechanic from Clan Tizzan. The mastery-mark on his forehead tells me that he gained his profession many years ago, but he bears few tattoos of achievement; his arms are nearly bare. He glances at me once, and seeing my face, inclines his head in a submissive gesture.
“Markmaker.” He tries to move deferentially aside, even though there is little room to do so.
My palms tingle with a surge of shame. I wish I were wearing my disguise already, but I cannot put it on yet—not here.
At the next stop, a pair of pilots, still wearing their battle helmets, saunter into the chamber. I am unsurprised to see the mark of the Ascendance printed on their helmets, the violet double-trident embellished with the sigils of the faction motto: Noxxiin Aurorii Chi’ar, Children of the Stars Rising. Kilmaya and I have had droves of clients asking to receive the tattoo of the ruling party, especially in the past year and a half, since the beginning of the war against the half-sights.
A rowdy group of warriors-in-training crowds into the elevator. “Kol–dawra’s on me tonight if Tobiax loses the match!” one declares.
“Tobiax won’t even draw blood,” someone scoffs. “Why don’t you buy us drinks now and get it over with?”
Laughter ensues. Some of the young men are bare-chested, showing off their Ascendance marks, and some have fresh tattoos of adoption into Clan Trechik. It is so easy now to join a warrior clan. Kilmaya dislikes it; it is reckless, she says, for a clan to accept so many non-blood members all at once. But war calls, and battle-glory, and the chance to stand on the surface of a real planet, to breathe air that has not been recycled through the ship’s filters for hundreds of years. I admit the attraction. It will be a long time before anyone who is not a soldier will have a chance to see a planet’s surface.
The elevator has reached the arena level. The crowd files out—the warriors-in-training harassing the pilots for battle stories, the pilots pretending to ignore them but clearly enjoying themselves. By the time the doors close, the Tizzan mechanic and I are the only people left in the chamber. He glances at me again, and this time I avoid his gaze. Is he surprised that I have not followed the crowd?
I tell myself there is no way this old mechanic could guess where I am going. If I can keep my secret from my own family, I am safe from a stranger.
At last, the elevator stops at the atrium level, and I step out, glad to be alone.
A wash of moist air hits my face; I breathe in the scent of leaves and loam. Overhead, the long oval ceiling of the atrium hangs above the thickly forested walkways of the public garden. The droning of insects among the dim trees does not quite drown out the hum of the hidden vents, pumping the atrium’s oxygen-rich air to other parts of the ship.
I pause and peer past the broad leaves of the stately karu trees, letting my gaze linger on the murals that adorn the ceiling—huge, faded paintings of landscapes and battle scenes bordered by sigils so ancient and complex that their meaning has been forgotten. When I was a child, I used to spend hours trying to decipher those beautiful, archaic marks. Serix artists painted them—my ancestors.
Lowering my eyes, I hurry through the gardens, glancing about to make sure I am not being followed. Fortunately, the walkways are deserted except for two or three wild ech’taanin—pale-furred, sinuous little creatures that dart back into the brush at the sight of me. But I encounter no fellow Noxxiin. Everyone is at the games tonight.
I slip into a grove of black-barked trallak trees, where the dark, triple-lobed leaves hang thick enough to hide me. I sit down in the soft loam and unstrap my sandals, then rummage in my satchel and take out a long-sleeved, hooded tunic—the kind that a laborer might wear while working in the ship’s chilly maintenance shafts—and quickly change into it. Then I reach into my bag again for the most important part of my disguise.
My false skin is made from the same synthetic fabric as the markmaking gloves that I use in the studio—but the material serves equally well as a disguise. One by one, I pull on the mask, the elbow-length gloves, the long stockings that reach past my hocks and knees. The elastic material conforms perfectly to my face, hands, and bare feet. Besides my tattoos, I have to hide my pale gray skin; it is an uncommon color, too easy to identify. My false skin is an ordinary dull black adorned with a handful of unremarkable sigils. The idle passerby would take me for a low-ranking mechanic, like the man who stood next to me in the elevator.
My disguise complete, I put on my sandals, step out of the trees, and hurry over to the raised fountain in the center of the garden. The sound of rushing water fills the air; mist flecks my eyelids. As I approach a maintenance door in the side of the fountain, I activate the mark-scanner on the wall, which is meant to keep out everyone except authorized workers. But it is not designed to detect forgeries as good as mine. The scanner blinks its approval, and the door unlocks. I glance over my shoulder one last time, then slip inside.
The maintenance shaft is dim, lit only by a faint light-border along the wall. Somewhere down here there is a transport hub with elevators and vehicles that the workers use to haul supplies throughout the ship. But I am too likely to meet other laborers if I ride the elevators. So I take the long way. I walk.
The tunnels become narrower and more dingy. Gaps in the walls expose vents and pipes. I can hear the hiss of air and water and the thrum of gravity generators. The air grows dank and cold. When the light-border on the wall eventually gives out, I pull a lamp from my bag and continue.
Even before I begin to hear the Underbelly, I can smell it. A reek of decay mixed with the tang of rusting metal thickens the air around me. I round a final corner and stand in front of a dilapidated doorway that bears a crude depiction of a Noxxiin face: the four eyes black and staring, the mouth agape in a snarl, the skin stark white and devoid of marks. The face of the Deep Sleep—a fitting symbol to mark the barrier between the upper world and the realm of the exiles.
I have sometimes wondered why this door is not guarded or kept locked. Perhaps it is because, in truth, no physical barrier is needed. The inhabitants of the Underbelly know that escape is impossible—not because they cannot reach the upper levels, but because they would be helpless there. Everyone knows to shun a man with an exile-mark. No family would invite him into their house. No merchant would sell him food. No pilot would ferry him to another ship. He would be spat on, driven away like a sick animal. No one dares to help an outcast escape—for that, in itself, is a crime punishable by exile.
If the markmakers’ guild knew what I have been doing here, I would be exiled fifty times over. But like a disease, this place has infected my brain and my bones. I cannot stop myself from coming.
I breathe deeply and lay my palm against the grimy painting, covering the savage face and the dead black eyes. I push through the creaking doorway and pass into the Underbelly.
I find myself on a long, dimly lit walkway above a vast network of piping. The choking stench of sewage fills my nostrils—all the waste of the ship’s million or so inhabitants ends up here, eventually. The thought that all the water I drink also comes from this place, albeit after being purified, is enough to make me gag.
Holding my breath, I hurry forward until I reach an open hatch in the floor. A ladder descends from the hatch into the stinking darkness, and I step down onto the rungs. Whenever I make this journey, I always feel as if I am climbing down into Axdraa’dah, the pit of the Deep Sleep. I would pray to my ancestors for courage, but I do not think they would aid me. Not in this.
As I descend through the levels of the Underbelly, a vast network of platforms, walkways, and support beams opens around me. A hot wind from a vent tugs at my clothes; the roar of machinery becomes palpable. On the platforms below, in the uncertain red light of the forges and recycling vats, I catch glimpses of the exiles bent over their workstations. The shouting of a taskmaster echoes between the pillars.
All the clans depend upon the work that takes place here, in the bowels of the ship: the cleansing of our air and water, the recycling of scrap and refuse to conserve precious raw materials. The labor is filthy, backbreaking, and crucial for our survival, yet most of the people who work here do not even have the dignity of a clan name.
I continue to descend through the thrumming, windy space. I am halfway down another ladder when I hear someone below me clambering up the rungs. Before I can move, the laborer swings to the opposite side of the ladder and continues climbing. When he reaches my level, he glances at me, taking in my face, my hood, and my satchel. Then he pauses for an instant and inclines his head.
He scrambles up the rungs and disappears.
Rethurax. Skin-changer. In the upper world, that word is a label of dishonor. It is strange to hear it spoken in a tone of gratitude. Still, I hate the name. I am not a mercenary. I do not counterfeit tattoos, and I never ask any payment for the marks I give to the exiles.
At long last, the ladders end. I set foot on the true floor of the Underbelly.
The roar of the machinery above has faded to a rumble at the edge of hearing. The air is cold, the floor slick with condensation under my feet. In the shadows between the support beams, scrap metal and tattered sheets mark off partitions—the houses of the unclanned.
Cries echo between the miserable shacks: an infant screaming, women quarrelling. A laborer shuffles through the alley, clutching his day’s rations. At the base of a pillar nearby, a sick man sprawls, motionless. Two or three children—unmarked children, without so much as a clan tattoo—shriek and scramble through the squalor, chasing a mangy dog. I step aside to let them pass.
As I make my way through the maze of shacks, I reach a thick support pillar, larger than the others around it. In the nook of this buttress, I take off my satchel. My lamp I place on a ledge to illuminate my workspace. My pens and inks I set out on the floor. Then I sit, my legs crossed, my hood drawn up, and I wait.
After only a few minutes, two figures approach me. One seems to hang back, while the other urges her on. When they finally step into the circle of my light, I see they are both women. The older one wears the tattoo of a healer on her brow and a pale, faded exile-mark on her neck, which contains the sigils for poison and murder.
Mazatii. I recognize her, and trust her. She has brought people to me before.
The younger woman carries a fretting child in her arms—a tiny infant, only days old. She holds it awkwardly, blinking in the lamplight, her lips pulled back in a grimace. On her neck, the stark, white tendrils of the exile-mark display the sigil of a smuggler.
I wonder what she did. Nothing, perhaps. It is not unknown, especially since the Ascendance took power, for whole families to be outcast for the crime of a single member. This woman is younger than I am. I cannot imagine that she has committed any crime worthy of exile.
The old healer bows her head. “Honor with you, markmaker.” She tugs her companion forward another step. “We ask for your service.”
I look up at the younger woman. The dirt that clings to her face cannot hide the four sunken hollows of her eyes. She looks ill, exhausted. “I don’t need anything,” she says. But even her voice lacks strength. She does not try to free herself from Mazatii’s grip.
“What is your name?” I pick up a pen and affix the javelin tip. I suspect what the requested mark will be.
“Lakkia,” she whispers. In her rigid arms, the infant squirms and whimpers.
“How can I serve you, Lakkia?”
She does not respond. Squeezing her arm, Mazatii rasps, “She needs a clan-mark for her child.”
“Are you her witness?”
“Yes. I helped to deliver him. By the blood of my ancestors, I swear he is truly her child.”
“Very good. Please, sit.” With the same formality that I would use towards a great athlete or a wealthy councilor, I gesture for them to sit on the grimy floor. Mazatii crouches down, and the young mother follows, still glassy-eyed and dazed. The baby—a tiny, maroon-skinned thing, wrapped in a dirty rag—winces at the light and wails.
I reach into my satchel and pull out a vial of sleeping-powder. “Give him this.”
Lakkia does not seem to understand. “Here,” says the healer. She takes the baby from the mother’s arms, then accepts the powder and begins feeding it to him on her finger. The child sucks at it greedily. Lakkia stares at her hands.
“What is his name?” I ask.
For a moment, Lakkia does not answer. Then, in a barely audible mutter: “He doesn’t have one.”
“No?” I pause and send an inquiring glance towards Mazatii. She scowls, her upper eyes narrowing, but says nothing.
With a twinge in my belly, I begin to understand. “Well, no matter. I only need to know the clan name.” I hesitate. “What is his father’s clan?”
Lakkia’s face contorts. She stares past me and does not speak.
“Markmaker,” Mazatii breaks in. In her lap, the baby is already quieting. “She does not know.”
It is the answer I suspected. I have heard it often since starting my work here. As I gaze at Lakkia’s clenched jaw and trembling eyelids, I wonder whether she chose to give her body away—for an extra scrap of food, or a mouthful of clean water—or whether she was forced. My palms grow hot, and my fingers close tightly around my pen.
“I understand.” I do not meet Lakkia’s gaze, do not try to comfort her. A respectable markmaker would turn these women away. How can an artist inscribe the truth if the truth is unknowable?
But I am not a respectable markmaker.
“I will give him your clan-mark, then.” In the lamplight, I glance at Lakkia’s neck. Under the four swirling arms of the exile-mark, I can still read the clan tattoo. “You are Penthar.”
Lakkia shudders. Something changes in her face—some spark of awareness flaring up in her gaunt, rigid body. I have seen that expression before, the mingled anguish and astonishment. The exiles often stare at me that way when I address them by their clan. They are supposed to be clanless now; their ancestors will not help them or speak for them when they face the trials after death, the great battle before the Long Dream. They will meet the Deep Sleep alone. I am committing a crime every time I speak the exiles’ ancestral names. Yet I speak their names regardless because it kindles light in their eyes.
I turn towards the child. My pen is ready, and I uncap my bottle of green ink. “Is he asleep?”
“Almost,” Mazatii replies.
“Unwrap him for me.”
The old woman pulls the rag away from the baby’s neck. The infant stirs and moans, but his four lids are heavy now. The healer holds the thin, gangly body on her lap as I lean over and wipe the grime from the child’s neck with a cloth. By the time I have finished, the baby is soundly asleep. Then, as I dip my pen into the ink, Lakkia stirs.
“I want to hold him,” she whispers.
Without a word, Mazatii hands the sleeping child into the mother’s arms. Then the older woman slumps as if relieved, her eyes closed, her thin shoulders quivering.
I position the baby’s head so that the right side of his neck is exposed and well-lit. “Don’t move him,” I tell Lakkia.
She says nothing, but sits still and breathless, as if the smallest twitch of her body would shatter this moment.
In the studio, on a busy day, Kilmaya usually makes me use a stencil when giving an infant its first tattoo. There are no special sigils to add to the clan symbol, and the pre-made pattern makes the process faster. But I have always resented using stencils. I do not need them; my memory is clear and my hand steady. Few things make me happier than to paint unhindered, on the fragile skin of a child, his or her first tattoo. Now, with each stroke of my pen, I murmur the lawful words of marking—the words I always speak over a newborn, whether in Kilmaya’s studio or here, in the pit of the Underbelly.
“Son of Lakkia Penthar. You are born weak in body, feeble in mind, and bare of marks. By this ink, I commit you to your ancestors.”
I complete the outline of the sigil and turn to replenish my ink. As I fill the pen, I can hear Lakkia’s breath hissing through her teeth. Again I touch the tip to the baby’s skin.
“Let this mark be for your pondering and striving. Let it guide your thinking and your walking. Let it be your pride when you are strong, and your chiding when you waver.Let it be your memory that you will never merit the gift of your blood and your breath. You owe your life to your forebears and to Ka the All-Watcher. By this mark, I bind you to this debt.”
Lakkia trembles. Her movement disturbs my hand, but I pull away before it mars my final stroke. Rather than scold her, I take my time to change pens and prepare the verity tip. Only once do I glance up. Her eyes are squeezed shut, and grief spasms through her thin face. But she holds the child closer now, like a part of her own body—as if he had not been truly alive until this moment.
No doubt it is wrong of me to give her this false taste of hope. But it is all I can give.
When Lakkia has calmed a little, I add the verity lines between the swirling, vine-like sigils. Then, finally, I brush the whole tattoo with sealing-glaze. “This is a mark of truth. May you never mar or dishonor it.”
I lift the brush. The new tattoo glows a vivid emerald on the baby’s dark red skin. Lakkia reaches towards it as if she cannot believe it is real. Gently I pull her hand away.
“Leave it alone for a few hours.” I wrap a soft bandage around the child’s neck so that he will not touch the fresh mark when he wakes. Then I pick up my pen again. “It’s your turn.”
“My turn?” Lakkia’s eyes widen, and her face freezes in terror.
“He is your son.” Mazatii speaks sharply. “You must have a mark, too.”
Lakkia shrinks away. “I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” A keening cry bursts from her throat, and she bends over, weeping. The healer lays a hand on her shoulder.
I watch with pain swelling in my chest. Softly I say, “I’m not going to give you a shame-mark.”
Lifting her head, the young woman chokes back her sobs. Her eyes glitter, large and dark with pain, and her mouth twists in a snarl. Bitterly, she cries, “Don’t you want to paint the truth?”
The healer grips her shoulder. “Kesh, Lakkia.”
Lakkia ignores her. “What are you doing here?” Her gaze is fixed on mine with a burning intensity. “What do you get out of this?”
In silence I regard her while ink drips slowly from my pen. It is not the first time an incredulous outcast has asked me such a question. But how can I answer? How can I explain to this woman what I hardly understand myself?
“Lakkia,” the healer urges. “Let him do this. Who else will?”
The young woman glares at Mazatii, then at me. She bows her head, staring down at the sleeping infant in her lap. Then, without saying a word, she extends her left arm towards me.
She shivers a little as I pull back the sleeve, exposing her shoulder. Her upper arm is bare of tattoos. “Is this your firstborn?”
Her face contorts again. “Yes.”
I guessed as much, but I had to ask. If she had borne any other children in the Underbelly, she would not have received marks for them. As I clean her dark skin with my cloth, grief and anger seize my throat.
My craft is so inadequate. I cannot change the past; I can only record it.
“Lakkia Penthar.” I place my pen on the warm, smooth skin of her shoulder. “You have honored your ancestors by bringing this son into the world. Let this mark be your pride when you are near him, your memory when you are apart, and your consolation if he should die in honor.” With a few slow, curving strokes, I draw the two intertwined symbols. Dako–chi’ar—firstborn son. “By this mark, I bind you to this child.”
Lakkia weeps silently. I seal the tattoo, wrap a bandage around it, and pull her sleeve down to cover it. She clutches her own shoulder, as if at a wound. Then, after a moment, she gathers her baby into her arms and hugs him fiercely. The infant wakes with a muffled cry.
“Ancestors bless you, markmaker.” Mazatii’s voice cracks as she stands up and bows her head. “Thank you.”
Lakkia rises with the older woman. Before she steps out of the lamplight, she turns an awestruck gaze on me. “You’re not safe. You’re in great danger, coming here.” I meet her eyes. The baby wails again in her arms. “Don’t worry about me. Go home and name your child.”
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The evening passes. In twos and threes, the exiles come out of the darkness, and I give out marks until my fingers are stiff and my back aches. But I do not mind the discomfort. Instead I focus on the tattoos: a memory-mark for an old man whose son died falling from a ladder; honor-marks for a group of laborers who saved the life of an injured comrade; marriage-marks for a couple who have already had three children together but have never been united by law.
Many of the outcasts walk away weeping. Others cannot stop touching my hands and feet in their gratitude. The only reason I can keep my own composure is because they expect me, as a markmaker, to be impartial and detached. And it is just as well. If I allowed myself to share in the sorrow of these clanless people, I would exhaust myself.
At last my eyes grow strained and my stomach taut with hunger. It is time to leave. My aunt and uncle are accustomed to my irregular hours—even in my apprentice days, I frequently stayed late at Kilmaya’s studio, practicing. But if I were to be out all night, they would probably send someone to look for me.
The mere thought of their concern fills me with guilt. If they knew where I go to practice my craft now, would they still acknowledge me as their adopted son?
Briefly I wipe down my pen tips and cap my inks. I settle my satchel over my shoulder and stand up with a grimace. Just as I am about to take down my lamp from the ledge, a lone figure stalks out of the shadows.
“Rethurax. Don’t go yet.”
I glance at his clan-mark. My breath hitches, and I clutch at the ledge.
The angular violet mark of Clan Tarriks is strangled by the ugly, swirling tendrils of exile. The mark that haunts both my waking thoughts and my nightmares.
The mark that I gave to Talorak.
I blink and collect myself. The tattoo is not the same, only similar. This man is not Talorak. He is a Tarriks soldier, certainly, but he is much younger than the old warrior I knew.
“I’m sorry.” Turning away to hide my agitation, I take my lamp down from the ledge. “I must go. You are welcome to find me another day, if you come a little earlier.”
“What I want you to do cannot be done in the open.” His upper eyes narrow, and he clenches his hands. His clothes are relatively intact, not yet reduced to rags. I can tell—both from the health of his muscular body and the way that he looks me in the eye, without shame—that he has not been exiled long.
“What do you mean?”
The young outcast shoots a glance into the darkness, then draws nearer to me. “I’ve heard you can get people out of this filthy pit.”
I inhale sharply. “No. Whoever told you that—”
“I’ve seen the marks you give. They’re as good as real. You’re no ordinary skin-changer.”
“I’m not a skin-changer. I only paint the truth.”
He laughs harshly. “What are you doing down here, then?”
I regard him in silence. The exiles call me skin-changer because it is the only word for an artist who works outside the law. But I have only ever given one tattoo that I considered false, and my blood still burns with shame at that memory. This outcast would not understand that. He only considers me a fellow criminal.
I bare my teeth, trying to look scornful. “You have no idea what you’re asking for. It’s too dangerous. And what would I get out of it?”
“You don’t take payment,” he retorts. “You never do.”
I say nothing. The Tarriks exile glares at me, breathing heavily. When he shifts his stance, I find myself glancing down at his feet. The spurs protruding from his ankles are curved and sharp—far more deadly than my own short, blunted spurs. This man is a trained fighter from a renowned warrior clan; he could kill me with his bare hands and feet.
But the exile does not attack me. Instead he drops his eyes, and when he speaks, the words sound as if they have been wrenched from his body. “If you are asking for payment, rethurax—I have nothing.”
“I don’t need payment. It’s you I’m thinking of. You don’t want to do this.”
“Yes.” His tone is harsh, but I can see him trembling. “I do.”
“You want to be mark-stripped?” My voice rises, cracking slightly. “You want to wear a lie for the rest of your life? Your ancestors—”
“My ancestors are dead. And if I stay here, I will die in disgrace and never see them. I will never enter the Long Dream. Rethurax—” He stares at me and takes a breath. “Markmaker. I’ve thought about this. I know what it means. But if I could only get out of this place—if I had a chance to live honorably—I could make up for the shame of a few false marks.” He gives a short, bitter laugh. “Or at least I could try.”
I should rebuke him for those words. I should tell him no and walk away. But I don’t.
“I know it’s dangerous,” he resumes. “I’m not afraid. If they catch me before I get off the ship—so be it. But the world’s not as small as it once was.” His eyes glint. “The planets are within reach.”
He says that word, planets, with the heartbreaking breathlessness of hope.
“I’ll go where no one knows me,” he says. “The marks will not matter. I’ll even live among the half-sights, if I have to. They will not know the difference. Markmaker.” His voice breaks. “Look around you. Do you see this place?”
“I’ve seen it.” I turn away from him. My pulse hammers in my throat, and I am afraid—not of him, but of myself.
“I don’t want to die like this. I want to live. Kin’s heart—” Abruptly he reaches out and clutches my wrists. He sinks to his knees and presses his bowed head against my hands. “I beg you. Let me live.”
I stand in his grip as if paralyzed. My eyes are drawn to his clan-mark again. And a voice speaks in the silence of my own mind.
If this were Talorak kneeling at your feet—would you refuse him?
I know the answer. But it terrifies me.
Roughly I pull my hands out of the warrior’s grasp. Then I take my lamp and shine it close to his face. He winces at the sudden light but does not move. I study the tattoo on his neck. The sigils, nestled between the four sweeping arms of the exile-mark, tell me that he was cast out of Clan Tarriks barely a month ago on the charges of treason and unpardonable cowardice in battle.
“You have dishonored yourself. What makes you think you deserve a life on the planets?”
“It’s a false charge,” he replies. “A false mark.”
“That is quite an accusation. Any good markmaker would contest a false charge.” But I shake as I say it.
“My warband was raiding a half-sight station among the asteroids. We won easily—the half-sights weren’t warriors. They barely had weapons between them for ten men. My valk’taro, my commander, told us to slaughter them anyway. Unarmed prisoners.” He snarls. “A breach of the honor-code. I would not do it. And for this—for this I was branded a coward. I am already wearing a lie, markmaker.”
I glare down at him, my teeth bared. But I feel like I am suffocating. “Why should I believe you?”
“I swear it.” He presses two fingers against his clan-mark. “It’s the truth.”
For a moment I cannot say a word. His story is too much like Talorak’s—almost as if he were a younger version of that old warrior come to expose me for the lie that I wrote on his skin.
Well. The soft voice echoes in my mind again. Let this be your reparation.
“It’s…a slow process.”
He stiffens. “You’ll do it?”
“I have to think.” I hardly know what I am saying. “I must study first.”
He throws himself at my feet. I untangle myself and step away. “Not now. I have to go.”
“When will you come again?”
“Tomorrow—no.” Tomorrow night I will be at the arena for the festival. “Give me two days.”
“Thank you… Thank you.”
He stands up. His eyes fix on me with a strange, almost wild reverence. “I’ll be here.” As if seized by sudden terror, he turns and darts back into the shadows of the slum.
His footsteps fade. I exhale and turn off my lamp. In the darkness, I lean against the pillar and place my hands over my eyes.
What have I done?
This is madness. Serving the exiles is bad enough, but their tattoos, if illegal, are at least true. If I am caught, I will be banned from the studios and most likely outcast from my clan. But to paint a false mark—a whole set of false marks, to help a criminal escape his sentence—I could face execution for that. Maybe even death by mark-stripping.
But the memory of Talorak and his unjust punishment torments me. I am sick of doing no real good. I am sick of giving marks to children like Lakkia’s, knowing that despite everything I am risking, they will live and die here in the filth of the Underbelly, and there will be no honor for them. If my marks could change a man’s fate—
In a daze, I stumble back through the labyrinth of pillars and shacks. I reach the ladder and begin pulling myself up, hand over hand. As I climb, I barely notice the hot and choking winds that buffet me, or the workers who brush by me on the walkways. I am thinking. I am thinking what it will take to create a new man out of nothing—nothing but ink and the skill of my hands.
By the time I haul myself out of the Underbelly and make my way back up the maintenance shafts, I have already begun crafting the Tarriks warrior’s new identity in my mind. Only then do I realize that I never asked for his name.
I emerge at last from the maintenance door and step into the dark atrium. Silence and the aroma of soil and sap envelop me—the gardens, at this late hour, are deserted. I duck into the trees, take off my disguise, and change back into my clean white tunic. Then I return to the fountain, sit on its edge, and rinse my gloves and mask from the dirt of the Underbelly. I wash my sandals, plunge my hands in the water and splash my face, scrubbing fiercely at the hollows of my eyes.
When I raise my head, still dripping, I watch the disturbed water settle until I can see the silvery image of my own face. Above me, reflected in the water, the ancient clan murals glow and flicker in the ripples.
Are my Serix ancestors, who made those paintings, watching me now from their place in the Long Dream? Where were they when I stood before Talorak with the order of exile in my hands and the Ascendance soldiers at my back, waiting with their blades and their hard, expectant eyes?
“What was I supposed to do?” I whisper it aloud. The water glistens darkly, lapping against the edge of the fountain. No one answers.
Let the ancestors judge which deed is worse; I have made my decision. For Talorak’s sake, I will help this young exile.
I rise, strap on my sandals, and walk home.
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