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A Profound Hurt

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A biting wind from the south carried a trace of sove-snow. The cold, clear weather was excellent for traveling. My pack was light, the snow crisp beneath my skis, and the moon shone bright above the trail, so I pushed the pace and traveled a few hours into the night to arrive at the clanhearth a full day earlier than expected.

This was my sixth journey back to Osborth in the years since I joined the Farseers. Even as a sworn Celibate, I was determined to give my children no reason to doubt their place in my heart. My visits were more important now than ever before. Niman and Alli were accustomed to two parents whose life work took us to distant places; they had come to expect our voice recordings and small gifts with each caravan. Now I was the only one left to cherish them beyond the care that was every child’s clan-right.

My breath showed white in the moonlight. I stowed my skis under the stairs and approached the front door, reaching for the handle, then stopped. This was my children’s home, not mine. I rang the iron guest bell and counted under my breath as I always had, waiting to see if the vibration would cause any of the icicles under the eaves to fall.

Old Jerin opened the door. They bowed and greeted me formally as a Celibate of the Orgny Fastness before taking both my hands in theirs and murmuring, “I know what it’s like, to lose the father of your child. You will always be welcome here, Foreth.”

I hadn’t expected to be turned away at the door—not really. No matter what accusations had been made against Therem, the clan had no reason to exile me. Still, the warm welcome was a relief.

Jerin let go with a gentle nod. They rejoined the crowd in the great hall, voice raised in a complaint about the lack of common courtesy these days, leaving an elder to answer the guest bell. As if they didn’t always take the bench closest to the door, so as to be the one to greet every clan member and guest.

The hieb and boot racks of the entryway were full. I placed mine along the inner wall, secure in the knowledge that, even if the snow on them melted, this time I would be staying long enough for them to dry. I heard music and the dull roar of a full hearth-hall. I’d forgotten that Eps Thanern was a holiday in Osborth.

I dropped my pack in the guest dormitory and ducked into the kitchen to scavenge a quick, solitary meal of leftovers. I was pleased to find a bowl of ousa in the cold room; it had long been a comfort food of mine. The bread-apples were mashed, mixed with fermented maas, and then baked. The result was a pungent, tangy crumble with enough spice to warm me after a long day's travel. Therem had tried the local delicacy once—and then wordlessly scraped their portion onto my plate. I finished my dinner, cleaned up and put away the remains of the meal along with the memories it inspired, and went looking for my children.

Niman was already asleep, but Alli was old enough to take part in the celebration. I waited through two songs, a children’s dance, and a ceremony recognizing the kemmering-vow of a new pairing until it was Alli’s turn. They took their place on the stage with assurance and quieted the crowd with a well-trained look. Alli’s eyes brightened as they spotted me. They had memorized the tale of the Domain's founder and performed it with great heart, stumbling only a few times to be corrected by their teacher.

At the end of the tale Alli bowed and held the pose for the space of three breaths to show respect for those gone before, those still alive, and those yet to come. Then they bounded across the hall to me. They had grown in the past year, but climbed up into my lap in a way they’d scorned as too babyish during my last visit, and clutched me tightly.

Alli nuzzled into my shoulder, hiding their face from the rest of our clan for a few minutes as a drum group followed, loud enough to cover the murmured comments of the clan members who turned to observe us. I stroked their back and stared blindly across the dim, fire-lit hall at the performers. Once the drum group ceded the stage to a puppeteer, Alli sighed, their breath warm on my neck, and sat back to inspect me.

“You’re early,” they said quietly. “Niman will be sorry to have missed greeting you.” They paused, studied me with dark, solemn eyes and asked, “Was the story too sad for you, mamma?”

As if the story were the reason our emotions ran high tonight. “It’s meant to be sad, sweet one, when told well. You’ve a gift for it, much like your father. Harth was a magnificent story-teller.”

Alli stiffened at the mention of their father. It must not have been an easy year for the kemmering-child of ‘Estraven the Traitor’. Yet they would not speak of the rumors, or of their father. My child was young to play at shifgrethor, but we all must learn what lessons life teaches us. Nusuth.

“Would you like to hear how Harth and I first met?” I asked Alli.

They silently gestured agreement and glanced up at the stage as a meaningful pause in the music and dialogue of the puppet show called our attention. The words, '- Orgoreyn agent,' broke the silence.

I turned to stare at the young clan member who had displayed such poor manners and held their eyes until they looked away, flustered by the unexpected loss of face. I realized that, as much as I wanted to speak to Alli about their father, I couldn't do it in front of others.

“Go get ready for bed, and I’ll tell you the tale to send you to sleep,” I told Alli quietly, once the puppet show had moved into the next scene.

Their face twisted in frustration—the festival would continue through the night, and children of this age often competed to see who could stay awake until dawn. Yet, after a moment’s thought, they agreed. This was our old bedtime tradition, and I was glad to see the eagerness for stories that had always been a part of their character still outran this new need to measure their own shadow against others’.

I thought hard as they went through their night-time ablutions. Our meeting was no easy tale of sweet, care-free love for Alli to enjoy. But they would have heard the worst of Therem, this past year. I had nothing to counter that but my own truth. And I had no one else to remember Therem with me. Alli slipped into bed, breath sweet from cleaning their teeth, and I began my tale.

“Ten years ago I was studying in Erhenrang. Harth worked as an aide to a member of the kyoremmy,” I told Alli as they snuggled up under the blankets beside me. “We lived in the same area, so I had seen them coming and going. But the first time we really met was when I took shelter from a sudden spring blizzard in a rather disreputable neighborhood performance hall. Harth was telling ‘The Place Inside the Blizzard’. Their version of the story was different than any I had ever heard.”

Therem was just entering kemmer, and was flush with it, voice rich with passion, anger, and bone-deep sorrow. I was near kemmer myself and felt my body begin to respond to her dawning femininity, even as my heart ached for the real pain beneath the tragedy of her tale.

“There was something compelling about Harth, in that first blush of kemmer. She was utterly present, in the moment, as only a Haddartha adept can be. I could feel her shadow cast across the room, across the world, sharp-edged and dark, throwing my perceptions into high contrast. I was half in love with her by the end of that story. So I pushed my way through the crowd to introduce myself, and offered to share kemmer with her.”

‘I choose to abstain,’ she said, turning away.

I wanted to catch her by the hand, but rather than touch one in kemmer uninvited I spoke up once more, bold with desire and a flash of intuition. ‘Your sibling would not begrudge you this comfort,’ I told her.

Therem was an accomplished politician, even then. Her body betrayed no reaction, but my words were enough to stop her retreat. She turned to face me. ‘Perhaps it isn’t commonly told in your Domain,’ Therem said, cheeks still wet with tears from her telling of a beloved sibling’s suicide, ‘but ‘The Place Inside the Blizzard’ is a traditional tale, hundreds of years old.’

‘It is an old story,’ I agreed, ‘And there’s good reason it is still told around the hearthfire. You’ve been touched by death, but you still breathe, you still feel the fever of kemmer. ‘Life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.’”

Something about the ancient poem broke through her reserve. Therem took a hard, shuddering breath, then closed her eyes and took a more controlled one, applying the disciplines. Once she had settled down to a fine tremble of kemmer hormones and restraint she reached out to me and tipped my chin up, looking me searchingly in the eye.

“‘I won’t be able to give you what you want,’ your father warned me.

‘Give me what you can,’ I told her. ‘And that will be enough.’”

Alli threw their arms around me and hugged me tight. “Harth gave me to you, me and Niman,” they said fiercely.

I held them close under the blankets. “That took another year. But yes, once we vowed kemmering, Harth gave you to me. And then they gave the greatest gift of all to you.”

“To me?” Alli asked, full of the caution and curiosity inspired by an infamous father whose face they hardly remembered, that they knew through Therem’s voice recordings, my stories, and vicious rumor.

“Harth put their hand upon the great wheel and brought down the people of the stars,” I whispered, this truth too new and fragile to be spoken aloud. “They gave their life to bring you all the people whose suns shine in the night sky.”

At that, Alli wept, finally, for the father they had lost. I rocked them to sleep, blew out the candle, and blessed the darkness before lifting my chin high and heading back into the hall to face my clan.