Work Header

The Other Lives

Work Text:

In the month Osme of Year One, the Envoy came finally to our Hearth. We were told he came on foot into Kerm Land and to the Domain of Estre, with no escort save for the travelling supplies he carried with him.

At that time, I had neither shifgrethor nor sense and, I shamefully admit, I demanded of my grandparent, the lord of Estre, that Genly Ai be kept away from the Hearth, that he be placed in one of the many lumber villages elsewhere in the Domain. I was angry that he should come to us now that Therem was gone. Tales of their journey across the Gobrin Ice had reached us, by radio, by official correspondence, by gossip but not by word of the very man that had, in all accounts, seen Therem Harth to their death.

Even as I made the request, I knew it would be denied. I expected my grandparent to be angry with me in turn for suggesting we sully the shifgrethor of our Hearth so readily. I had an abiding habit of allowing my innermost thoughts to run too freely to my mouth and was possessed of an irascible nature that had not faded as I approached adulthood. For these reasons, among others, I knew many in the Hearth despaired of me coming into lordship.

I had been born in the bitter cold during the month of Thern to a traitor and a suicide. They had been neither of those things at the time, but a person's shadow can stretch through time as much as it can through space. We may walk in the direction of the sun not realizing that our shadow grows longer and longer behind us as darkness fast approaches.

"Sorve," the lord of Estre sighed, no spark of temper anywhere in their person, "the Envoy was as much a friend to your mother as he is a stranger to you. Estre has lost a great deal in the process of Karhide's gain and it is not our nature to turn away friend nor stranger."

I was incensed. "A friend!" I said hotly, "He stays in the Round-Tower while my mother is a traitor and remains unburied. Few could be as friendly or as strange." My voice was bitter.

My grandparent looked at me for a long moment. "Come here, Sorve," they said finally. I went to their side, my anger still strong. They took both my hands in theirs. "There is a difference between suicide and sacrifice. One seeks an end while the other wants for a beginning. It is," and here they paused for a long moment, needing to regather their words before continuing, "a great anguish to find balance. But find it we must. Either we stand on frozen water or solid ground for rotten ice will only fall from beneath our feet."

I was cowed by their words, my temper snuffed out as quickly as it had flared, but I was not satisfied. I would demand more than platitudes to soothe the ache of a loss, the full weight of which had been stolen from me.

At my lord's insistence, I was the one who met the Envoy at the door. He was tall, dark, and overdressed for the early summer weather. He looked tired, and not just with the sort of fatigue which accompanies a long journey. It was the same bone deep weariness that my grandparent had carried with them for as long as I could remember.

"I was a friend of Therem of Estre," he told me plainly. There was no shame or pride or expectation in his voice as he spoke that truth; it simply was.

I found my own voice stifled, my truculent words from only days before dying on my tongue under the weight of those weary eyes and the memories they held. I led him through the Clanhearth to where the lord of Estre waited as my young cousins cavorted around us like the gentle snowflakes that dance at the rim of a blizzard.

I had been expecting many things from the Envoy. A sense of satisfaction, perhaps; he had accomplished his mission, after all. The news over the radio had communicated the image of an accomplished, assured diplomat with impeccable shifgrethor, a mysterious alien from the stars who had overcome the petty internal struggles of our single world in order to introduce us to the wider universe.

As he stood in the room with my grandparent, I saw none of those things. I saw a man at the center of a blizzard, balancing on the edge of a ravine as he spoke of my mother with halting words. Even as I responded with asperity, he stayed his course with the perseverance of one who has no choice but to move forward lest they perish in the cold.



In time, I followed the Envoy—Ai, as he was to me by then—to Ehrenrang, not content in my duties as the unwanted heir to a Domain I had never felt was home. He was kind to me in the Karhidish way and I had a room in the Round-Tower, his own home, a gesture of high esteem which with my standing did not compare.

“I have no head for such things,” he demurred when I expressed my concerns, “and the place is too large besides. You would be the one granting me the favor.”

At every possible opportunity, I drew from him stories and memories of the worlds beyond ours, the Hearth in the stars, his Ekumen. As eager as I was to hear of such things, Ai was willing to indulge me. I found his presence to be a refreshing one in a world that, for me, was increasingly fading into dull grayness.

As a matter of course, our talking often turned to the memory of my mother. Indeed I was curious to hear of them as my memories of Therem Harth were fleeting things, cobbled together from glimpses of childhood, letters, and, of course, their written accounts that lay now in my possession. Ai spoke of more intimate things, with an air of heartache and of fondness, of pride and regret.

“It is an uncommon gift to know a person to the very core of their being,” he said once, in a rare mood of unfettered reflection, his face lined with shadows. “I was the worse fool for not accepting Estraven’s gift from the start.” 

On occasion, I would pose him a question or make some declaration and he would look at me with a strange recognition in his eyes. It was the same recognition that my grandparent watched me with. I saw glimpses of it everywhere until I doubted that anyone on the whole of Gethen had looked and only seen me.

I overheard Ai speaking with Ashe Foreth in his rooms one evening. They had begun meeting with more frequency as I continued to show no interest in returning to Estre. They spoke more often in whispers only to abruptly break apart when I made myself known, turning on me that same gaze as if I was a ghost of a memory walking among them.

“Do you recall,” Ai was asking, “what you told me when we first met?” I was unable to see his face, but his voice conveyed consternation. “That to betray my personal loyalties in the name of my end goal would be immoral?”

Foreth sighed. “This is nothing of the sort, Genry,” they said, gentle but firm, “there are many ways to repay a debt. I, for one, would say you have already done so.”

“But allowing Therem’s own child of the flesh into the very arena that killed them? I—I don’t know if I can bear it, Ashe.” There was agony in Ai’s voice, the depth of which I had never heard before. “I cannot help but wish Sorve would be content to stay in Estre, although I know it is not my place to say.”

There was a drawn out silence. “I feel the same way,” Foreth admitted, “I see much of Therem in Sorve. Though they are much more…”

“Temperamental?” Ai suggested at Foreth’s hesitance.

Foreth laughed. “Just so. But it is for that reason that they be allowed the space of their own path.”

“I’m not sure I know how to do so,” Ai admitted.

 Foreth made an approving noise. “I believe that you have already pulled half the distance.”

Ai groaned “No more Handdara mysticism from you, Ashe. I cannot comprehend it.” There was no bite to his teasing, however.

I crept away then, taking my thoughts with me and keeping counsel with them long into the night. The conversation only confirmed what I had already guessed at. But what did I do with such a confirmation? It was these moments I felt the absence of my mother most keenly. From what I knew, they could have advised me candidly, even if only by letter. It was difficult to feel anything but an abstract loss of the parents I had hardly known, but it was a pain sharpened by the knowledge that I would always be seen through the lens of Estraven, the ex-traitor Prime Minister who had died for humankind’s destiny in the stars.

A week passed and I informed Ai of my plans. I couldn’t discard my mother’s legacy but I could continue it. But not in Ehrenrang or in the Domain of Estre or, indeed, on Gethen at all. I would join the Ekumen and go to the stars.



Ai, despite the misgivings I knew he held, supported my decision without a single word of dissuasion. Our sessions of storytelling turned to instructional meetings. Perhaps it was his way of encouraging me to change my mind by making me intimately aware of the realities of the Ekumen, but it was knowledge and experience genuinely given.

“Perhaps the most jarring incongruity is that of gender,” Ai informed me in his familiar forthright manner. “There are no other ambisexual species on the whole of the Ekumen of Known Worlds. I’m afraid you will find yourself the odd one out among many cultural notions deeply entangled with binary gender—”

“I am not unaware,” I interrupted him then. I had grown accustomed to the candid nature of his speech and was steadily learning how to respond in kind. “My mother recorded you saying as much in her account.”

As he oft did when the subject of my mother’s writings arose, Ai looked pained. “Ah, yes, well,” he cleared his throat, “I mean to speak in more general terms.” Terrans, I had learned, were frank in most matters with significant exception, discussions of a sexual nature being among the taboo. I gathered that the proximity of our discussion to his own sexuality was discomfiting.

“More than sexual role is attached to gender,” he continued hastily, “There are standards of behavior, reputation, interaction attached to men and women. Gethen has, naturally, eschewed these distinctions, but the worlds beyond have not.”

I attempted to picture what he described. Such a notion was not unfamiliar; similar to shifgrethor, there would be a complex web of ill-defined rules. That I would be unable to follow, I realized. “How does one act on such a world?”

There was a long silence as Ai visibly considered and then discarded several lines of response. “Sorve,” he said finally, looking at me directly, “it is no simple task to stand apart, as an alien. Neither I nor the Ekumen can account for such a choice. Some questions cannot be answered until the time for their answering has come and gone.”

His navigation of shifgrethor was much improved even in the few years since we had met. I took his meaning and his advice well. “Your experience in such matters is unparalleled,” I said and he nodded, satisfied.



The weeks before my departure were a blur that I still don’t remember fully, even now. I must have had meetings with every member of the kyorremy twice in the span of days, answering the same methodically probing questions time and time again. Every attention of the court of Ehrenrang was honed on me, intent on shaping me into some manner of cosmic diplomat. I left conversations not remembering a single word I had spoken and found myself in rooms with people I didn’t recognize, with little recollection of how I had gotten there.

With the clarity of hindsight, I can now say I was in a state of unmitigated terror. Never once did I truly consider abandoning the course I had set, but the sheer uncertainty of the future crept up and left me paralyzed. I had never been surer of my direction, but my destination was shrouded in darkness. What I wouldn’t give to leap through time in the blink of an eye and already be there! But Gethen lingered on me yet like a haze of fog over Icefoot Lake on a summer morning.

I was kept from Genly beyond a passing greeting by sheer volume of activity, he being engaged in mediations between Gethenian sensibilities and Ekumenical influence and myself being molded into an acceptable representative of Gethen to the aliens in the stars. In his absence, I found myself relating my worries to a...woman named Tulier, finding her a gentle and attentive soul.

“Turier, was the process so laborious when you left your homeworld to join the Ekumen?” I asked. “It’s only...I feel my mind will be scrubbed clean before I’m allowed to set a toe on a starship! And I’ll be forced to drone on before the whole Known Worlds in the same manner Berdon rem ir Chenewich does in the Forestry Committees.”

“I quite like listening to those committees on the radio,” Tulier said mildly. Her voice had an unusually light timbre that could set even the most obstinate personage at ease.

I shook my head in disbelief, certain I must be on the verge of sharing King Argaven’s madness. “Come again?”

She nodded seriously. “When I am plagued with sleeplessness, I find them to be a great boon.”

Unable to restrain myself, I let out a bark of laughter, only to hastily smother my outburst when I felt inquiring eyes of the court turn my way. Tulier looked amused to elicit such a strong reaction from me. Truly, it had been too long since I had been in such agreeable company.

“But, in response to your query,” she continued, “my experience with the Ekumen was not similar to yours at all, I’m afraid. My world has been a part of the Ekumen for many years and it is not uncommon for us to travel to the stars. My brother joined alongside me and we had no other family to miss us when we left.”

My expression must have fallen for her face grew soft and she reached out to place a comforting hand over mine. “You are doing nothing wrong, Sorve. It’s perfectly alright, whatever you are feeling. We all face unique challenges in the course of our pursuits and how you face these challenges is your choice alone. But know that there are many of us who are available to you, should you need anything.”

At that point, her companion, a frightfully tall and stern man, approached us. “Tulier, our audience.”

“Ah, of course, thank you, Ke’sta.” She gave my hand a last firm squeeze. “Have you spoken to Genly recently? I am certain he will have some insight for you. After all, he is more familiar with this world than any of us. And he was always so very thoughtful when we were in School together.”

I resolved to put effort towards her suggestion. It took me the better part of the week and adamantly cancelling a meeting with a handful of foreign affairs ministers to find the time. They were disapproving, but how could they possibly enlighten me on affairs this foreign anyhow?

When I burst into his office, flushed with frustration and triumph, Genly looked up, startled.

“Sorve!” He immediately set aside a recorder he had been listening to, a genuine smile on his face. “It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it? Please—” he indicated for me to take a seat.

I didn’t. At seeing his face, the overwhelming events of the past weeks and the ones to come crashed over me like cold water.

“I’m—” I remembered shifgrethor at the last moment, “considering...the—the preparations that, ah, still need to be made before my departure and…” I struggled for each word.

Genly stood, coming around his desk to stand before me. “Sorve, I waive shifgrethor, only please tell me what’s wrong. You know you may always speak freely with me.”

He was right. I had never before felt unwelcome with him. “I’m scared,” I admitted, feeling an unknown weight lift off me from just speaking my fear. “To leave. That it will never be the same after I do.”

Genly looked at me so kindly then that I thought my chest might fall in on itself. “Oh, Sorve,” he sighed. He took both my hands and held them as he spoke. “I know exactly what you mean. It is no small decision you have made.”

My hands trembled in his. “I do not mean to reverse my decision, not at all. But how can I know what I will find when I reach the Ekumen? What I might see? Everything will be so different.”

“It will,” Genly said, “but that is what we embrace. I am simply unable to tell you the way things will happen. Even the Foretellers have no such gift.”

I said, “They may offer some certainty, at the very least.”

“You know well that is untrue.”

I could not respond, knowing he spoke sense.

He drew our clasped hands close together, a soothing gesture. “A friend once told me,” he said thoughtfully, “What makes life possible is not knowing what comes next. This is something I had not fully accepted when I was first sent to Gethen. And I was worse off for it. You do not know what comes next. The ministers do not know what comes next. But the difference is they will not be the ones that will leave Gethen. Trust your own instinct, Sorve.”

“And should my instinct tell me I cannot possibly prepare for what is ahead?” My trembling had stopped, but I made no motion to pull away from Genly.

“Then it is correct.” A whisper of nostalgia crossed Genly’s face. “One can hear of the stars all their life. But there is no story that prepares us for the Creation unfinished.”



I joined the Ekumen officially in Year One, though they told me the Ekumenical year was 1502. It was only then, even before reaching the Prime World of Hain, that I fully understood the advice that Genly had given me in Ehrenrang. On my world, he was an alien, an oddity, a perversion. And I abruptly found myself to be the same on Ollul, but I was one alien among many.

Upon my arrival, I realized what Genly had been telling me with his years of tales and stories. He was fond of repeating a particular aphorism from Terra: truth is a matter of the imagination. When the worlds in his stories were still just far off places, ideas at a distance, I had taken his adages as the reasoning of the outsider to the native. I now knew that, in the Ekumen, there existed no such juxtaposition. Or maybe there existed so many that distinction was simply a matter of course. Together in the stars, we were all of us outsiders.

In the Terran language, I had to be described by what I was not. Not ‘man’ nor ‘woman,’ and there existed no word for both. After a lifetime of fluid sameness, I encountered absolute divisions. But for all that I may have despaired in my difference, I reveled in the variety just as heartily. I had never known such extremes of experience to be possible and now I lived among them. I was a part of them. Ecstasy and misery were no more than two points in space. What were two when I now knew millions?

Praise then Creation unfinished!