Words are worth something in Karhide, since the bureaucracy there is more honest and less complex than the endless paper trails that define the states of Orgoreyn. So here in Karhide her politicians learn better how to take a truth and weave it a multitude of ways, which frustrates her young but pleases her old, the ranks of which are used to the absolute nature of the world to be ambiguous. So there are always people who will go backwards over where they came to look for newly fallen snow, and with every new ignorance they find a new way. And that is as much as can be hoped for in the world when its stories must be told at the fire, changing a little each time but always staying the same.
Erhenrang, being the capital, attracted every kind of man: the captains of boats and the captains of people, the captains of assassins and the captains of guards. They came to Erhenrang to search its paved streets for gold, and many of them went home disappointed at finding nothing but black tar and treachery. Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, since he had come out westwards neither searching nor seeking, was glad. In the city they looked more to titles than to names; here Therem Harth was invisible, and only Estraven, the sole living child of the flesh of Estre, remained.
There in Erhenrang Estraven was not asked questions: among men of ambition he seemed just another man, sitting low in the kyoremmy where all political careers begin. He did not offend others and was not easily offended; the only thing left for his opponents to hate was the negative space he left behind him. It was not easy for them to play shifgrethor with a man who seemed to have no shadow: Estraven's temper was obsolete, and his patience absolute. So, no questions: who would ask why a man like that had come into the capital? Karhidish kings were made for rule, but Estraven was born for it.
There was one man who asked, but he was older by some years than Estraven, and not much concerned with the vagaries of power. Ashe Foreth rem ir Osborth was not the first child of the flesh of the old parent of his clan, but he was notable for coming from an Erhenrang house. Osborths were closer to the King than the ambitious rural clanhearths, and they were always also closer to the king's insanity. Logical things were paid little mind, so Ashe Foreth asked of Therem Harth: 'Why, Lord Estraven, are you come so young out of Kerm Land?'
'Young?' Estraven asked, surprised, since he had not felt young since he last saw his brother.
'You are not yet many years past your first kemmer, I guess,' said Osborth, gentle. 'Though I am not saying that you are not wise.'
'I am not very wise at all,' Estraven disagreed, shaking his head. 'Which may answer part of your question, Lord Osborth: I am not many years old, and not very wise, and so I am here in Erhenrang.'
Osborth laughed, and touched Estraven on the shoulder. 'Come drink some beer with me,' he said. 'Whatever you may say, Lord Estraven, your tongue is very clever.'
'Do you laugh at me, Lord Osborth?' Estraven asked with a faint smile.
'With great joy,' Osborth admitted, which made Estraven laugh as well. Laughter in Erhenrang was warmer than laughter anywhere else in Karhide: the capital kept its halls cold and full of drafts so that pleasure, when it was found, came like a sudden bright flame.
'I will drink with you,' Estraven said. 'My name is Therem Harth.'
'And mine is Ashe Foreth,' said the Osborth.
Do you know, Obsle told Estraven, their third seating together on the panel of the inter-continental Trade Committee, why you are so much saner than your king? (That is not precisely difficult, Estraven interjected. We breed insanity into our Karhidish royalty.) It is because you see in the world all the mirrors of your nation, Estraven. Everywhere you go you are thinking, what in this is Karhide? What in this is truth, or better yet, what in this is Untruth, like in your Handdara, until – by Meshe! – you see the reality of everything, and must suffer to hold it up on those shoulders and stiff neck of yours. My dear, you are one of a kind, and sometimes I am afraid I do not know if that is a good thing or bad. Now, use some of that power you have over the mysteries of shifgrethor and tell me: what do you think of the Sarf? No, no, I mean...
The forging of alliances was a game carefully played by the Karhidish nobility, of which Ashe and Therem were both members. Like any spectator sport, their closeness drew a host of commentators, all of them eager to bet and quicker to talk.
'Do you know,' Ashe asked Therem one day, when he visited his friend in his kyoremmy offices, 'that they think we take kemmer together?'
'Who is to blame them?' Therem replied, writing at his desk. 'Everyone here looks to mix landnames together to see what the most interesting combination might be.'
'It matters very little to me, Therem,' Ashe said, using his first name. Estraven looked up, and when Ashe had his eye Ashe said, 'What do you leave back there on the Eastern ice? Every time I come here to visit you, Estraven, you are caught up in writing. Yet you never use your official seal.'
Therem put down his pen, and did not bother to find a truthful way of lying. Ashe could always see through him. 'It is a letter to my brother,' Estraven told him. 'That is what I left back there on the Eastern ice.'
Ashe unfolded himself from his chair, and walked around the table to stand next to his friend. 'Therem Harth,' he said, as Estraven reached out to fold the letter in half, hiding its contents. 'I do not want to read what you write.'
'Forgive me, Ashe,' said Therem, heavily.
'If I write to my brother, then I am writing to a ghost,' Therem confessed. 'He is a year dead, but I cannot go back to see him.'
'You could take leave from office,' Ashe said. 'I know Heddir rem ir Foborth – he could keep your position safe, if you hurry back when your duties are done.'
'My duties are to stay here,' Therem said, with some harshness. 'And if I went back East, Ashe, it would be of little use. I'd find no grave.'
Ashe was silent; no matter the hearth, anywhere in Gethen they fail only to bury suicides. Therem looked up at his friend. 'I am not very wise,' he said. 'I only have very pithy phrases: I am no good at oaths and promises.'
'It matters very little to me, Therem,' said Ashe, again using his first name as he reached out to touch the lines at the corners of Therem's eyes. They were slowly etching themselves there. 'Your tongue is too clever, Estraven. Let me take kemmer with you.'
Therem Harth said yes, and they kept kemmer together for many cycles, using contraceptives each time so as to tie the tongues of gossips. But finally Ashe Foreth asked for them to swear kemmering together, and then Therem bowed his head before he set out his conditions.
'That is giving me a role that should be nature's alone to give me, Therem,' Ashe said afterwards. 'Not once every other moon, but always for a lifetime? That is not kemmer – that is slavery.' But then he smiled, saying: 'And yet I will do this for you.'
They kept that false vow for seven years.
Dear Therem Harth, writes Sorve, who was not the child of that man's flesh, but something close enough. How are you now in Erhenrang? Esvans Harth is perhaps not proud enough of your achievements; everyone else in Estre, though, tries hard enough to make up for his lack. You are Prime Minister now! My friends from Stok are in a rage – but do not say, as you always do, that it is a burden you place on me: no, parent, it is not. For I love you, and such is my prerogative to say so, then when I was a child and now that I am an adult. So cold is Kerm Land with its loud, hollering winds. Is the weather fairer where you are? I look forward, now that you are who you are, to hearing your voice over the radio broadcast, telling all of Karhide how to be wise! You are very wise, and I respect you tremendously.
Though, will you not come home again?
Sorve Harth, age 16.
It was too long for Estraven, too short for Osborth.
'I do not want to see you again,' Therem said at their parting. 'My reasons are selfish.'
'What are those reasons, young lord Estraven?' Ashe asked, years prepared and so unsurprised. 'I waive shifgrethor, so tell me. I ask only that of you.'
'I cannot,' Therem replied, touching Ashe's long fingered hands, which were more dexterous, and more delicate, and different from his own. 'My shadow follows me always, whether I want it to or not.'
'As should be the case with the world,' Ashe told Therem, with great sadness. 'You have brought me some honour these years.'
'I have brought you more shame.'
'Is not shame the left hand of honour?' Ashe asked, with the gentle cruelty that allowed him to love Therem, and that allowed Therem to love him.
'We are no longer kemmerings,' Therem said.
'As we were seven years ago,' Ashe said.
'As we were seven years ago,' Therem agrees.
Afterwards, when their children – all born Osborth, as sure as a kept favour – were sufficiently grown, Ashe went to the houses of the Handdara, where being a Celibate he kept his vow.