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An Economy of Blood and Bone

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The first duty of a Highborn lady is obedience.

It was a question of economy--a field of study mostly pursued by ladies, and treated with corresponding contempt by scrollsmen and singers. What price wine, and what price wool; when to buy and when to borrow and when to barter; how to make the best use of the little you had, and let nothing go to waste. How to make the coin bought with the blood of the Host, and the grain won from the ground with the sweat of the Kendar closer to home, feed and clothe and shelter the household through the long winters.

What everyone knew: the Kencyr economy was based on the swords of its fighting men. What few would acknowledge: and also on the wombs of its birthing women. And when every Highborn birth had to be accounted for, contracted for, and paid for, then only a very wealthy House could afford to buy more sons without also selling its daughters. Singers earned few coins, and scrollsmen sowed few seeds: the Jaran were not a wealthy house.

In theory, the Jaran cherished the principle of choice. Every son was free to take up the viol or sword at his discretion, and every daughter to choose the Women’s Halls or Mount Alban for her residence. The reality, of course, was rarely that simple.

Trishien’s first love had been mathematics. As a nurseling, before she could speak more than five words, she had driven her caretakers to distraction by refusing to eat until every pea on her plate had been numbered. When she learned to walk, she became fascinated by the way all the tiles on the floor were the same size; she could compare the speeds of rolling toys by counting the seconds it took each one to cross a given number of tiles. She soon discovered scrolls, and geometry, and spent hours doodling circles, triangles, and squares, her mind dazzled by the elegance and inevitability of proofs.

She didn’t realize that another pen was copying those circles as she drew them, adding the same decisive line under the final statement of the proof. But one day, after Trishien had satisfactorily divided a turtle pie among five hungry Jaran youngsters, her great-aunt called her over.

“Trishien,” she said, “I’d like you to come with me to Gothregor this winter.”

Trishien recognized the inevitability in that enigmatic masked face, and bowed to it. “Yes, Matriarch,” she said.

A lady’s second duty is self-restraint.

At Gothregor, Trishien learned to wear a mask and to walk in a narrow underskirt, to stitch a message-scarf and to bear pain gracefully. She discovered new fields of study: economy and breeding, where the inevitability of mathematics had to give way to the chances of weather and harvest and inheritance.

She learned, too, how to negotiate the economy of knowledge in the Women's World. At Valantir, as at Mount Alban--though on a more informal basis--information was bartered. The trouble was that someone just starting out seldom had much of value to trade. At Mount Alban a promising young scholar was often given information on credit, and many never climbed out from under the mountain of acquired debt. The Women’s World had chosen a more traditionally Kencyr solution. Information was given in exchange for kinship, whether born or chosen, for loyalty, for obedience. Never one to resist the lure of knowledge, Trishien soon found herself as enmeshed in the community of sister-kinship as a message-scarf was in knots.

One spring, after returning from a year's contract at Omiroth--a successful stay all around; her lord had been a pleasant enough bedmate, and Trishien had birthed a healthy daughter and begun assembling some fascinating notes on the development of Shanir abilities in children and adolescents--her Randir sister-friend gave Trishien a vow-gift. Rissa had been pursuing her research at home at Wilden while Trishien pursued hers among the Ardeth, and the gift she gave Trishien was a mask, with glass lenses worked into the eyeholes. Trishien put it on, and her world sprung into sudden clarity.

The edges of everything were so sharp, the colors and shapes so distinct, that at first Trishien couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. It was like stepping from a dim room into the sunlight--dazzling.

“This is wonderful!” she said, once her eyes had adjusted. “How is it that no one at Mount Alban knows how to make these?”

Rissa gave a disdainful sniff. “It’s not dusty old scholarship. It’s science.”

“You must explain the principles behind it,” said Trishien. She could follow the flight of a bird in the sky. She could see each leaf on the tree overhead, and the veins in them.

“Sorry, no credit.” The Jaran phrase came easily to Rissa by this point, and Trishien laughed. Rissa twined her arms around Trishien’s waist, brushed her lips with her own. “Arrange me a contract in perpetuity. Then we’ll see.”

She spoke lightly, but Trishien knew it was a matter of real urgency, and the reason behind such an extravagant gift. Rawneth was consolidating her power among the Randir, and she could only see Rissa, with her bright and driven mind, as a potential rival.

Jedrak was willing enough to contract Rissa for one of his grandsons; even, once he saw the mask, to pay the price the Randir demanded for a son from her. But her contract in perpetuity he would not buy.

“Let’s at least see how the boy turns out before we beggar ourselves, Trish,” he said. “Trinity’s sake, there’s no rush.”

Trishien wasn’t yet Matriarch, and her arguments lacked that force. Nor was Jedrak privy to the secrets of the Women’s World. And before her son’s first birthday, Rissa died on the road between Gothregor and Wilden. A spooked horse, a broken litter, a precipitous fall. An accident. A terrible waste.

And even if Trishien could have proven it wasn’t an accident, she had no right to demand Rissa’s blood-price. So she kept her silence, and if the lenses of her mask fogged up sometimes from tears, she gave no other sign of her grief.

Her third duty is endurance.

And then there was Ganth: bright with power, dark with pain. Standing in the shadow of his flashier older brother, most people hardly noticed him, but Trishien, who had spent her adult life studying the Shanir, had never seen another so strong. Living in the same keep, nearly on top of one another, yet kept apart by all the weight of Highborn custom, she still felt the pull of his personality. He was drawn to her, too; to her quiet sympathy, to her calm and her logic, commodities in short supply in the stifling confines of his House.

She might have taught him to understand himself. He might have shared his strength with her. But his grandmother saw his potential as well, and she had other plans for him. Trishien had to stand aside.

Then one spring night, all of Kinzie’s plans came to nothing. The Knorth women massacred, Ganth run mad and dragging the Host along with him, then retreating into bitter exile. Trishien wasn’t the only one who suspected Rawneth’s hand in these events, too, but if Adiraina was prepared to set aside her grief for Kinzie for the sake of preserving the Kencyrath, who would dare challenge her?

It was a disaster, in a way more complete than the Fall: the Kencyrath had never before been without a Knorth Highlord. A disaster greater than any of the lords guessed, for they had only lost the Highlord, but the Matriarch’s Council had been reduced by a third. Knorth extinguished, Randir and Caineron withdrawn to their own keeps and rarely speaking with the other Matriarchs except through proxies. Rawneth, because she was constitutionally incapable of working with anyone, and Cattila, because without Kinzie to provide a moderating influence, her differences with Adiraina grew too deep to bridge.

(“Await the three, seek the four, the God-Voice said,” said Cattila. “The Old Blood will look after itself. What we need is new blood.”

It was an interesting argument, but even if the Powers of Rathillien were more than curiosities, there was no evidence that Cattila’s attempts to breed Kencyr who would be attuned to them the way that Shanir were attuned to aspects of the Kencyrath’s own God were in any way successful.)

A disaster compassed by Rawneth’s spendthrift ambition--and perhaps also by Adiraina’s inflexible adherence to the customs she believed were proper and necessary, and by Trishien’s reluctance to act rather than simply observe. But it was done, and there was nothing left but to hold fast to what they had, and to wait.

The fourth duty of a lady is to be silent.

Trishien was sitting in her study at Gothregor, writing up her observations of the newest crop of girls in the Women’s Halls, when something happened that hadn’t happened since her great-aunt’s death, many years before. Her pen began writing of its own accord, in a handwriting not her own. An uncertain, childish scrawl. An abecedary, the simplest exercise for a child just learning their letters.

It had to wait for Trishien’s return to Valantir that summer for her to discover whose letters they were. When she did, it came as no surprise: Kirien, Rissa’s granddaughter.

Trishien said nothing, only watched Kirien when she could in the years afterwards. Where Trishien had loved mathematics, Kirien was fascinated by stories, the older and gorier the better. But she had the same knack for managing her age-mates, Highborn and Kendar both: You be the king of Bashti, and I’ll be Ganth Highlord . . .

It wasn’t like that, Trishien might have told her. Not noble and tragic, just a Perimal-damned waste. But Kirien had not yet earned that knowledge. Instead, Trishien called her over.

“Kirien,” she said, “I’d like you to come with me to Gothregor this winter.”

Kirien ducked her head and crossed her wrists in front of her. “With respect, Matriarch,” she said, “no. The curriculum sounds like a dead bore.”

According to Kencyr law and custom both, bone-kinship was a trivial thing when weighed against blood-kinship. As one of the ancient scrolls put it: What determines what a plant is, the soil it is planted in, or the seed it grows from? As a point of scientific fact, Trishien knew that view was false. By the reckoning of the Women’s World, Kirien was more than half Randir. And in the moment, that was all Trishien saw in her: the hawk-nose and heavy-lidded eyes, Rissa’s intelligence and drive, and Rawneth’s selfish will, which brooked no opposition.

The lords and the more traditional Matriarchs agreed: a Highborn girl’s will was a dangerous thing, a thing to be broken, that she might serve better purposes--though on the question of what those purposes were, the lords and Matriarchs might differ. But the inevitable logic of economy taught: use what you have. Don’t waste it, in trying to pretend it is something else.

“Mount Alban, then,” said Trishien. “You must study something.

Trishien was nearly toppled by a flying hug from a small, strong body that wasn’t hampered by a double skirt. “Thank you, Aunt Trishien!” Kirien squealed.

That self-possession bordering on arrogance had been a pose. She hadn’t really believed she’d be allowed to go.

“Thank me by studying hard,” said Trishien. “Do our house proud.”

They rarely saw each other as Kirien grew from a child to an adolescent, almost a woman, but they corresponded often. Kirien began to specialize in the stories of the Fall, tracing their effects on the laws and customs of the Kencyrath. They shared the results of their research freely, and Trishien became something of a legal scholar in her old age, to the vast annoyance of the other Matriarchs. Kirien, in her turn, was able to unravel some of the more obscure passages in old songs with the help of Trishien’s meticulously-collected observations of blood-binders, berserkers, and soul-snares in their natural habitat.

I’ve discovered something interesting, Kirien wrote one day. Did you know that there’s no legal bar to a Lady ruling a house, instead of--or in addition to--a Lord?

Trishien laughed, startling the young Kendar girl tidying her room. Ambitious?

Trinity, no, Kirien wrote. I just want to be left alone to pursue my studies.

You’re a scholar of songs, dear, not a singer, Trishien wrote. You haven’t earned the right to the Lawful Lie.

She had clearly flustered Kirien--something she managed less and less often these days. When a minute went by without a reply, Trishien added, You know, I once wanted you for my successor. I would be glad to have you for my partner instead.

Kirien wrote back hesitantly, Well--Grandfather isn’t as sharp as he once was. (She elided the greats in front of the title as most Jaran youngsters did.) I do feel that--perhaps things could be managed better.

When Kirien began attending the councils of the lords as part of Jedrak’s retinue, it was done with remarkably little fuss. The Jaran knew who she was, but few of them cared to speak of house business to outsiders, and fewer wanted to make themselves a target for the thankless job of administration. And the Women’s World knew, but their custom of silence would serve Trishien’s purposes for once.

It was a question of economy. And watching Kirien ride out in the train of Ganth’s son, returned from exile, Trishien dared to hope that she had seen her household through the long winter at last.