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another turn of the wheel

Chapter Text

I tried mindspeech with Estraven six or eight times in the month of Thanern. No luck. I could feel his mind present and eager, but my thoughts could not reach it. After a while, he gave up.

“I am deaf as a rock, dumb as a log,” he said one night in frustration.

His frustration was partly due to the temperature of the tent. The chabe stove, on my side of the tent, was turned to eight out of thirteen; rather cozy for me, too hot for him. It had been on ten previously, but I had turned it down.

He was still in kemmer, and had been abstaining to that point, but it was the last day of kemmer. He assured me that the intensity tapered off towards the end. Still, he was too hot, and his undershirt was sticking to his skin as he tried to wriggle out of it.

“We could play Go again,” I suggested.

“No,” he grumbled, cursing at his undershirt.

He asked me, then, to give him a hand. I did, and helped him free himself of the garment. After I had done so, he looked up at me, flushed, from under his thick brows and his curtain of long black hair.

It was an attractive look on him.

“Let’s try something else,” he said.

Estraven leaned closer and pressed his forehead to mine. I thought for a moment he thought it might help with mindspeech, but his thoughts were nowhere near telepathy.

I think it was he who kissed first. We slept very little that night and woke up with our limbs tangled together, but by that time he was in somer, and we continued as usual. 

 

I tried mindspeech with Estraven again during Nimmer, but we made no attempt during the great snowstorm that snowed us in for several days. That storm had managed to coincide with Estraven’s kemmer, and he had no intention of abstinence this month, not anymore. We spent five or six days in blissful physical communion, resting comfortably, making love, sleeping, holding each other close, having long, pleasant conversations, kissing, laughing, and making love again.

Estraven spent much of the day after kemmer quite quietly, mostly sleeping, staring at the ceiling, writing his diary, looking blankly into the distance. His silence was beginning to worry me, because he had been quite talkative the previous days. I asked him whether he was worried about something.

“Perhaps,” he said, and didn’t elaborate.

The next day, while out hauling the sledge, we did what we usually did around midday, and stopped and cut ourselves a small wall of ice to eat our lunch in lee of.

“If I get sick,” he began.

“Are you feeling sick?” I asked.

“No. Let me finish.”

His description of what might happen to him involved blood, which horrified and perplexed me. Scurvy? But not scurvy, since orsh and gichy-michy had plenty of ascorbic acid. Something else? He mentioned the alternative possibility of hunger and fatigue. I did not understand.

“If you get sick, I’ll put you on the sledge and haul you,” I said, “I know you’d do the same for me.”

“I don’t think I’d get that sick,” Estraven said. “I may not get sick at all… I am only telling you so that you are not surprised if I do.”

“Right,” I said, still terribly in the dark.

“I wish I’d brought more rations,” Estraven lamented. “I brought more than I thought we’d need, but this is going to take more days than I had accounted for.”

“It’s all right,” I said, though I too certainly wished he had brought more rations. 

And onward we hauled. 

Chapter Text

When we arrived at Kurkurast, we were in a sorry, half-starved state. I remember passing out, or at least the moment before passing out. Estraven managed to invoke the hospitality of the Domain first, and ask the people who opened the door for us to look after me, and then the strength went out of him. He sat down slowly on the floor and folded forwards into sleep. After that, I must have joined him in unconsciousness, because my next recollection was waking up in a hard but warm bed of furs. 

The last few days on the ice we had been living off melted water, forward momentum, and sheer will;  it was borrowed energy. Now we were safe, and we could rest. Though we were among strangers, we were among strangers who met us with generosity and kindness. Kurkurast was not a rich Domain, nor a large one. It was a poor land that nourished few people. There were no Domain-lords in Kurkurast, but no paupers either, and we would not be paupers among them. They gave us food and hospitality to the extent that they could, welcoming us like long-lost hearthmates.

No questions were asked of us at first, as was the custom, and no business was discussed while we ate. I remember our first dinner at Kurkurast. I don’t remember what we ate, only that it was hot food and that I was grateful that it was neither kadik porridge nor gichy-michy. Estraven sat across from me at one of the long common tables of the Hearth’s dinner hall. A few minutes into the meal, he grew terribly still. His eyes were closed, his breath was slow and shallow, and he gripped the edge of the table so tightly, the ends of his fingers paled. I said something to him, but he did not answer. Instead, he winced, muttered damn , got up to turn from the table, and was sick down the front of his clothes. I got up at once, worried. A young mother who had been seated next to Estraven got up too, passed the baby he had been feeding to someone else, and held out his hand to my partner.

“Are you all right?” he asked Estraven.

“Yes, thank you,” whispered Estraven. “Only queasy. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten properly, you see.”

“I think I do see,” the young mother answered. “May I get you some clean clothes?”

I offered to help but, feeling quite useless, asked the fellow to tell me what to do. I had nothing to give to Estraven, only my concern.

“Lighter fare is easier to keep down,” the young mother informed me, though he gave me a strange look because I had openly asked for advice. “The cook still has dried fruit left over from autumn.”

So I had a job to do, to track down the cook and get Estraven something easier to digest. We reconvened in the bedroom our hosts had lent us, and I turned out my pockets onto Estraven’s bed. The cook had given me four dried breadapples sliced into spirals, a thermos of lukewarm water, and a tiny wooden drinkhammer in case the water’s surface started to freeze. Estraven ate and drank slowly, cautiously. He was reclining on his bed with his shoulders propped up on both of our pillows, shirtless and in a pair of fur trousers given to him by our new ally, the young mother, who happened to be the youngest son in the flesh of this year’s annual chief of Kurkurast. 

Estraven did not look well. Neither of us did, but our hard journey had lost him the softness and roundedness so typical of Gethenian frames, so that the trousers he wore were a perfect fit heightwise but gapped pitifully around the waist. His eyes were closed, and he looked weary, all color drained from his cheeks.

“You said on the ice you might get ill,” I said. I omitted what he had said about perhaps starting to bleed because I didn’t understand it and it frightened me. “Is this what you meant?”

Estraven shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“I meant something else. This will pass,” he said softly. “We must worry about getting to Sassinoth first. That’s where we’ll find the closest transmitter.”

My heart sank at that. Sassinoth was southwest, close to the border, another hundred and fifty miles to travel. I had at no point expected it to be easy, but as the journey unfolded in front of me, I saw that it did not end. First to Sassinoth and then to god knew where, depending on how the king of Karhide reacted to my ship. So much was uncertain. And Estraven, where would he go? I thought of him trudging back to Orgoreyn alone again as he had last spring, and felt a pang of horror.

He must have sensed my distress but misunderstood it, and said,

“We won’t be walking all the way to Sassinoth, my dear. I’ve talked to our young friend about routes. We may catch a lift on a roadpacker or a powersledge. And then you’ll probably want to continue south, to Ehrenrang.”

“I’ll make Argaven revoke your banishment,” I said suddenly, forcefully.

“Make him, Genly?”

“I will,” I insisted. “I’ll set it as a condition. Karhide won’t come into the Ekumen till it’s revoked. We’ll get you home.”

Estraven was quiet for a little.

“That’s your love talking,” he said, “not your diplomacy. I do appreciate it. But I’ve lived twenty years already as an exile from Estre. A little banishment from Karhide, I can handle. I’ll take care of myself. You take care of the Ekumen.”

“I know,” I said, “but not just the Ekumen. You too. I mean it.”

He smiled thinly.

“Well, it’s still too soon to be sure of anything. We can make plans once your ship lands. if I’m in Orgoreyn by then… As long as I’m still proscribed, it’s a crime to speak to me, but I should be able to send word to you through someone else.”

“If you’re in Orgoreyn, and can’t come back,” I said, “I’ll go there.”

Once more, Estraven was quiet for the span of a few long breaths. 

“Genly,” he said at last. “We often talk at cross-purposes, and misunderstand each other. Do you mean you would stay here, on Gethen?”

“Yes.”

“And never return to your world?” Estraven asked, surprised.

I nodded, solemn. 

“No, of course not,” he said. “I should have thought of that. You told me about time dilation. There is no one left on Terra you would know.”

How could he not know how much I loved him?

“Even if I had a hundred mothers and fathers still living, Therem, I would remain here. With you.”

For a third time, he made no answer. In the weak light of the window, I saw him wipe his eyes. I got up and knelt by the side of his bed.

“Therem?”

“That’s a heavy thing to say to a man,” he said, shakily. “It’s heavy as a vow.”

“I don’t know much about how people make vows to each other here,” I said, “but I know it’s a heavy thing to say, and I say it in its full weight. I want to stay with you, if you’ll have me.”

In the dark, he met my eyes.

“I will,” he affirmed. “Of course I will.”

He moved back the blankets from his bed to invite me in, and held on to me tightly when I joined him, cradling my head against his chest.

The beds in the room our hosts had given us were narrow for two people, otherwise we would have shared one as we had shared our sleeping bags zipped together as one. I didn’t think we’d be able to sleep comfortably all night in the same bed, but I did want to be close to him for a while, and was reluctant to leave his arms. When he was asleep, I crept back into my bed.

 

We did not set off for Sassinoth at once. For another two days, we stayed in that little fishing village of Kurkurast. It was small, as I have said, and a place of hard living, on the very edge of the edge of habitability. It was a place that forced its dwellers to rely on each other’s honesty, and Estraven knew our honesty was required too. Gradually our hosts began to ask, indirectly, with regard to shifgrethor, why somebody might decide to spend a winter strolling the glacier. 

“Silence is not what I should choose, yet it suits me better than a lie,” Estraven answered.

He was much recovered by that night, and looked more himself. The food had helped. Our young friend, who had decided that Estraven was as much his responsibility as his own little child was, scarcely let us out of his sight, and hung out quietly in the hot-shop with us. Much of the domain was connected by underground tunnels, so that one needn’t set foot outdoors much  during the worst of winter. It felt like one massive, sprawling anthouse.

“It’s well known that honorable people come to be outlawed, yet their shadow does not shrink,” said the hot-shop cook, who ranked next to the village chief in consequence, and whose shop was a sort of living-room for the whole Domain in winter.

“One person may be outlawed in Karhide, another in Orgoreyn,” said Estraven.

“True; and one by his clan, another by the king of Ehrenrang.”

“The king shortens no man’s shadow, though he may try,” remarked Estraven, and the cook looked satisfied. A clan-exile would have been suspect, but the king’s strictures were unimportant here. I recalled Estraven’s proverb about Karhide. No king had yet managed to truly rule it. As for me, evidently a foreigner and so the one outlawed by Orgoreyn, that was if anything to my credit, and we had passed inspection without endangering our hosts with our names. 

“Nor does one’s clan,” our friend piped up. 

“Well, you might be right,” the cook said, a bit thrown off, “but no one comes to be outlawed by his clan without shortening his own shadow first, through spilling blood or spilling water between blood, both of which are heavy things.”

“Not equally heavy,” the younger one said gently. “Surely it’s not the same to take life as to make it.”

“Herror,” said the cook warningly, for that was the person’s name, “I waive. Are you accusing the guest—?”

“Of course not, no,” Herror said meekly.

“Then it’s strange talk,” the cook said with distaste.

“We’re not strangers to strange talk,” I quipped, “we’ve just been in Orgoreyn.”

The pun worked better in Karhidish, where the words strange and foreign were only a letter off from each other.

“I’ll tell you how we got out of Orgoreyn,” Estraven said, and launched into an account of his rescue of me from the prison farm, and the strange tension passed.

Herror followed us to our room afterwards, apologizing wretchedly.

“I should not have drawn attention to you like that,” he said to Estraven. “I only meant to let you know that I know, and that you are safe here.”

He was a candid person with the awkwardness of youth; in his twenties but not by very much. 

“And what is it that you say you know?” Estraven asked, patient.

“Well, I don’t know for sure,” Herror said, “and I don’t want to pry. A person is entitled to his secrets. I don’t know if you have spilled water, but if it’s true…”

Herror paused, looking for a reaction from Estraven. He gave none, stone-faced, so Herror continued, emboldened.

“If you have, your clan was cruel to cast you out in winter,” he said fiercely, loyally. “The punishment does not fit the crime. They ought to have waited, or sent the other person away instead. It’s good you have a friend with you, but it was not fair the journey should be yours .”

Estraven sighed. Herror interpreted the sigh to fit his thoughts. He placed a hand gingerly on Estraven’s arm and said some well-meaning words of consolation for his loss of Hearth and brother.

“Thank you,” said Estraven, in a strained, wavering voice. He paused for a long moment before continuing. “But I’m from Kerm Land, Herror. That’s almost the other pole. That’s where my clan lives. I have not arrived in your house freshly cast out of mine. I have told the truth in this place. I came here from Orgoreyn across the icecap. Your assumptions are out of place.” He did not add, and out of line , but his tone conveyed that too.

Herror put his face in his hands, and was silent. In the carrier on Herror’s back, little Mivired made his best approximation of speech to fill the silence. Since he was less than a year old, it consisted of cheerful, meaningless syllables.

“This is embarrassing,” muttered Herror. “I did assume. I’m sorry I—”

“Nusuth,” Estraven said, without much sincerity.

“I’m a fool,” Herror lamented. “Nothing happens here. No one ever comes here and the first person that comes here, I accuse of spilling water.”

“But like you said, not as bad as spilling blood,” said Estraven, not brusquely but not particularly warm.

“No, I suppose not,” said Herror mirthlessly. “I am so sorry.”

The young fellow saw himself out of the room.

 

 

I had begun to understand something that night, but I wasn’t sure what. We were side by side in separate beds, and our room was lit only by the fire at our feet and by weak moonlight from the vertical slit windows to my back. It was late, and we had already wished each other good night, but my thoughts were whirring, so I spoke across that dark gulf, ruining the silence.

“The ‘spilling water between blood’ talk… that’s about the prohibition on brothers having children, isn’t it? And the water in the metaphor is the… that liquid when a person’s pregnant, that stuff that the, you know, that it all floats in?”

I didn’t know the word for amniotic fluid in Karhidish. It hadn’t ever come up. I didn’t at the time know the word in my native language either. I had not studied anatomy, nor did I know much about babies.

Estraven lay with his back turned to me, striped by the faint light from the window slits. He did not move or answer for so long that I thought he must be asleep. When he spoke, it startled me. 

“It is,” he said.

Siblings keeping kemmer was not forbidden on Gethen, but if they conceived, they had to part ways and one of them, either the getter or the bearer, would leave home. Herror’s assumption was bizarre in ordinary circumstances. Why assume that any given unknown traveller was cast out of Hearth and law for conceiving with a sibling? But in one circumstance, the assumption was more plausible, albeit still extreme.

“Therem,” I said, “does Herror think you’re pregnant?”

“It seems he does. It also seems...I’d tell you if I was certain,” he said after a pause. I had always heard him speak as someone who knew exactly what he was going to say. He spoke haltingly now, in a nervous way I had never heard him use before. 

“I don’t know if it is possible, us being aliens,” he continued. “But it’s more than halfway through Anner and I haven’t been in kemmer yet, and it’s not because we’ve been eating poorly, because I’m still stuck in the shape I took with you in Nimmer. Herror saw me by mistake when I was changing into the clothes he gave me. Being stuck in this shape without being in kemmer usually means one thing. What it might mean if not that, I can’t say. I’m sure I haven’t suddenly become a halfdea— a permanent. Not at my age. But, if I am carrying something, and I think I am, I don’t know if it will stay. It is half of this world and half not. There is much still uncertain. I worried it might come loose while we were hauling several hard miles a day and eating terrible rations. When I nearly fell into that blue crevasse—”

He flinched a bit, as if recalling the vertigo.

“I was afraid I had gotten hurt, and it might have—it might have come loose and might make me start bleeding.”

“You told me that, too,” I said distantly. “I remember.” 

I was still stunned. I had accepted that my friend, my love, was and was not a man, and was and was not a woman, but I had believed that our bodies were too different for anything but mutual enjoyment to come of our union. Estraven had believed the same. We had been perfectly wrong.

“I should have told you everything,” Estraven said.

“Yes, you should have told me,” I answered, not angry but perplexed. “Why didn’t you? You wanted me to tell you when I was sick. What happened, Therem?”

He turned then to look at me, eyes dark, piercing, and direct.

“Fear,” he admitted. “My own. And I didn’t want to add to yours, not till you got to Sassinoth. So I had to bear the knowledge alone, for a while.”

My mind turned to an ancient anecdote of earth history, perhaps apocryphal, of the Laconian youth who hid a fox under his cloak and let it bite him to death rather than cry out.

“You are pregnant, then.”

“Probably,” he said, hesitating. Then, after a pause he added, “No, certainly. Yes, I am. A month and a half.”

“Oh my god,” I said, for I could think little else.

“This doesn’t change the plans,” he insisted. “We’re still headed to the transmitter, and then I’ll get back to Orgoreyn. The rest, I will figure out afterwards.”

“But...will you...will you be all right, in Orgoreyn, alone?”

“I managed for the better part of last year,” Estraven said. “Though...I’d rather stay in Karhide.”

He sounded so yearning and so wounded when he said it, that he’d rather stay in Karhide, in his home country that he so loved and that had rejected him.

“We can figure things out together, for now,” I said. I did not know what that meant. I had nothing to offer him but empty hands. But I wanted him to know that I was with him, that I wanted to help with whatever he needed to do, that my loyalty to him was absolute.

“Thank you, Genly,” he said.

 

We left for Sassinoth the following morning. We meant to say goodbye to foolish, generous young Herror after breakfast, but he was either too embarrassed to come out, or was sleeping in. A friend of his agreed to pass on my farewell and Estraven’s thanks for the new clothes.

Chapter Text

Sordny Irrem. 

It would have taken eight or nine days to Sassinoth in regular circumstances, but we made the journey slower than I had planned. It looks like it will take us a whole week: thirteen days between Kurkurast and Sassinoth. I had not guessed how ill the roadpackers and the powersledges and every kind of moving vehicle and even simple walking and skiing would make me. It’s infuriating. I have never been carsick or seasick in my life, and now I have the most loathsome, stupid nausea and can only stand to travel a few hours a day. I tried to stay up late nights so that I would be forced to sleep while in transit, and not suffer so much, but the only effect it had was to make me tired as a surplus to my sickness. My stomach tries to empty itself at the slightest provocation. More fool it, since there is so little to empty. 

Eating is difficult. I can manage some bread in small chunks, or a couple spoonfuls of the most insipid kadik porridge, or water in small sips throughout the day, but not much more. My head hurts often. My chest hurts sometimes. My heart runs fast. My mind fogs and my patience is gone. 

Since we are traveling slowly, I have the time to write. I would write more, but I am weary and in ill humors.

Genly is patient, and insists we should not push ourselves to travel too fast. By “we,” he plainly means me. I remind myself people in his culture are not offended by advice. He says it out of concern, after all.

At times I fear I may lose control over the tight coil of frustration I hold within myself. At other times I feel I lack enough energy to truly snap.

My voice comes out of my throat and I scarcely recognize it. Riding on the back of a roadpacker a few miles outside Sassinoth, I tell Genly,

“I didn’t get nausea last time,” and I sound pitiful, like I’m about to cry. 

I close my eyes and do not cry, because the windows of the packer are down so I can get fresh air but it’s so cold, and snot freezing to my face is another thing I don’t need.

Next to me on the bench, he puts his arms around me and I rest my head on his shoulder.

“You’ve done this before, then?” he asks.

I nod.

“I guess I didn’t think...but I should have. Foreth rem ir Osborth did say to tell you the children were well. I didn’t realize…”

“No, they’re both Ashe’s. He bore them. I’m only the father.”

I do not say, these days, I have been missing them as though they were my own. 

“My child—my son, I should say; He’s not a child, he’ll be twenty come spring. He lives in Estre.”

I do not wish to turn my thoughts towards my Hearth and son, but lately, I cannot help thinking of Sorve. I don’t know what he looks like now, as a young adult, so in all my recent dreams he has been a baby at my breast, or smaller still and hidden within me. In my dreams, I do not know whether I am nineteen again or forty. It is an appalling state, to be unhitched from time, and to have your wounds unstitched. My mind does not dare do this to me while I am awake, and so waits till I am asleep and guardless, like a coward. Genly does not ask about my Hearth and family. The subject is a difficult one for me to speak of. I think he knows this, but I am certain he does not know why. There is much I have not told him.

“We can stop at the next stop and get off the road packer,” he says, (with an endearing space in the middle as if it were two words; he speaks Karhidish well but it is not his native tongue), “if you’re feeling bad.”

I answer the same thing I’ve answered every time for the past few days.

“It’s not practical to stop whenever I feel bad. I’m only feeling bad because we’re moving forward. We must push through a little longer.”

This was the opposite of what I had told him when he had a panic attack on the all-white unshadow of the glacier. I had stopped then, and pitched the tent. I do not follow my own advice now. I am desperate to be done with vehicles and to have his ship’s landing secured. 

“All right,” he says, hesitantly. “You know your limits.”

But in the afternoon, perhaps to spare my pride, Genly claims he needs to stretch his legs and eat, so we stop in the tiny Hearth of Pinth by the roadside, where we spend the night. I manage to eat a watery cup of bean and fish skin soup. It stays eaten, praise creation unfinished.

It is a mercy, I suppose, that if I had to get ill, I got ill now and not while we were crossing the ice. It is altogether too easy to imagine that if we had slowed our journey, we would have died. I will not dwell on that. We are but a day or two from Sassinoth at our current pace. I expect to be there by Netherhad Irrem. Afterwards,

I cannot bring myself to keep writing about plans and the future. At Rotherer fastness, as a youth, I was taught to live with uncertainty, even to love it. It is as necessary for life as water and like water, an excess will stop your heart and froth your lungs. My only gift, foresight, wanes again. I do not know what comes next.

I tell Genly that I will return to Orgoreyn and that the Orgota have no quarrel with me, but this is only partly true, and only true if I can pass my forged papers off as legitimate and if I can disguise my Karhidish accent. (I can do a passable Sekeve District accent by doing an impression of Obsle, dear old coward, though I can’t keep it up for long periods of time.) They have no quarrel with the invented fur trapper Thener Benth. But even then, he did desert his post at Pulefen Voluntary. He may find himself in some trouble. Therem Harth, on the other hand, is no friend of the Sarf’s. He will find himself in considerably more trouble if discovered. 

I must think of something. But it does not follow that I will . I have become like a hunted animal. All I can think to do is hide.

Chapter Text

We came to Sassinoth at last. A town of several thousand, perched up on hills above the frozen Ey: roofs white, walls gray, hills spotted black with forest and rock outcropping, fields and river white; across the river the disputed Sinoth Valley, all white. . . . 

We came there all but empty-handed. Most of what remained of our travel-equipment we had given away to various kindly hosts, and by now we had nothing but the Chabe stove, our skis, and the clothes we wore. Thus unburdened we made our way, asking directions a couple of times, not into the town but to an outlying farm. It was a meager farm, not part of a Domain but a single-farm under the Sinoth Valley Administration. When Estraven was a young secretary in that Administration he had been a friend of the owner, and in fact had bought this farm for him, a year or two ago, when he was helping people resettle east of the Ey in hopes of obviating dispute over the ownership of the Sinoth Valley. The farmer himself opened his door to us, a stocky soft-spoken man of about Estraven’s age. His name was Thessicher. 

Estraven had come through this region with his hood pulled up and forward to hide his face. He feared recognition, here. He hardly needed to; it took a keen eye to recognize him as a thin weatherworn refugee. Thessicher kept staring at him covertly, unable to believe that he was who he said he was.

And I for my part, kept staring at Thessicher. By this time, I was no longer doing the mental process of imagining every person I met as a man, then as a woman, and then trying to overlay the two images like in a stereoscope. Instead, the stereoscope pictures I made in my mind were of everyone we met first as a danger, then as a friend. I lived afraid of harm coming to Estraven. 

Estraven had impressed on me the risk of recognition. He had done so quite forcefully. The days between Kurkurast and Sassinoth were the hardest part of our journey, harder still than the Gobrin Ice. He had insisted, with all the force he could muster while sitting with his head between his knees in sweats and shivers, that the closer we got to Sassinoth, the higher the risk was that he would be recognized, and that therefore the closer we got to Sassinoth, the quicker we had to travel. I heeded him as best I could, because my life was in his hands, and because I loved him and did not want to insult him, but I also slowed down as much as I thought was safe, because he looked like his life was draining slowly out of him every time we set foot in a moving vehicle.

I thought to myself more than once, I have killed him. I have killed my beloved Therem, my only friend Therem. Not by relying on his help on my mission, which he had made his mission as well, but by becoming his lover. But he would have hated to hear me say that aloud, so I kept the horrible thought to myself.

Thessicher also became concerned for him. He took us in, once his alarm had passed. His hospitality was up to standard though his means were small and his winter stores were running low. He was anxious. It was understandable; he risked the confiscation of his property by allowing us to stay with him. But he owed that property to Estraven, without whose help he would have likely been as destitute as we were. It seemed fair to ask him to take the risk. 

Estraven asked his help, however, not as a matter of repayment but as a matter of friendship, counting not on Thessicher’s obligation but his affection. And Thessicher’s fear thawed once the two of them got to talking, and to reminiscing by the fire about old days and old acquaintances. But while Thessicher was loud, lively, and demonstrative, Estraven was weary and subdued, and Thessicher took note of that.

“What the devil did they do to you in Orgoreyn? Put you through one of their work camps?” he exclaimed. 

“It’s him they did that to,” Estraven answered, gesturing towards me. “I only got him out.”

“He looks like he’s having a better time of it,” Thessicher answered, clucking his tongue.

I did not tell him what the matter with Estraven was, because Estraven had not brought it up. He didn’t talk about it. I did not want to betray his trust.

“Yes, he is,” Estraven answered, and didn’t elaborate. Thessicher did not press.

“Well, it would be an awful thing to go back to Orgoreyn,” Thessicher declared.

Cautiously, Estraven asked if he had any idea of a hiding place, a deserted farm or something like that where a banished man might lie low for a couple of months in hope of the revocation of his exile. At once, Thessicher answered,

“Stay with me.”

Estraven’s eyes lit up at that, but he demurred. It was not safe so close to town, Thessicher agreed, and he promised to find him a hideout still further out. A cousin of his lived a few miles south, he said, and Estraven might be able to take on a false name and find work around there as a cook or a farmhand, though he said “farmhand” with some delay, likely because Estraven was not looking much up to heavy outdoor work.

Thessicher had already had his own dinner, but he offered to make us spiced scrambled pesthry eggs. He had a reserve of them in his larder, preserved from last year’s foraging unshelled and frozen in cube trays. Estraven refused politely and urged him not to trouble himself. He could cook up some kadik rice on his own.

“What, plain?” said Thessicher. “Ah, got used to Orgota cooking, didn’t you?”

Estraven said nothing, and smiled mildly at his joke. 

I offered to cook instead, but Estraven wouldn’t let me, so I got to talking with Thessicher instead and fielded the usual questions one gets when one is an immigrant from another world. Mercifully, he was not interested in alien physical differences, and did not fixate on my dark skin as Argaven did. Thessicher was a farmer, and liked being one, and was good at it. He was curious about what farming looked like on worlds where the ground was not frozen most of the year. Wasn’t it too hot for the plants? And were there really animals that you could domesticate? What kept them from simply laying down and dying in captivity, like all normal creatures did?

“Except fish, of course,” he added judiciously. “You can breed fish.”

I didn’t have all the answers but knew enough about other worlds to make conversation. After a few minutes, we went to check on Estraven. We found him sitting in a chair by the stove. He got up for a moment to stir the pot and then sat back down immediately, a little short of breath. 

“Harth,” Thessicher said gently, “a man can’t stand up to stir a pot, something’s wrong with him.”

“True. Tired and hungry are the names of my afflictions,” Estraven answered.

“No, tired and hungry are the names of your friend’s afflictions. You’ve left your coat and gloves on indoors, and you look like death. What have you got, anemia?”

Estraven looked pensive for a long while.

“That’s possible,” he said.

I was greatly relieved. Ill with something treatable was a far better state than dying.

“Let me make you a warm bath,” Thessicher said. “Won’t fix anything, but you’ll feel better.” 

Estraven agreed to it, and Thessicher got down an enamelled galvanized tub from a peg on the wall and dragged it in front of the hearthfire. Then, following his lead, I helped him fill up big stock pots with water and set them on the stove to heat. Estraven had moved his chair from the stove to give us space and ate his kadik slowly while we worked.

For a while, the only thing to do was wait for the water to warm, so I sat in a different chair by the fire. It was soft enough and I was weary enough that I fell asleep without noticing. The next I saw was a damp Estraven, wrapped in a towel, with considerably more color in his cheeks. He was nudging me awake. The fire had also grown lower, and Thessicher sat silently, staring directly at it, perturbed. He didn’t look at us once. 

“Come, Genly, let’s go to bed,” Estraven said, and took my hand.

 

As we lay together under the thick fur blankets, I felt a strong mental connection. I could sense his mind, warm and drowsy, slipping off to sleep and nearly mindspoke him at once, but held back. There would be time to figure out mindspeech later. Let him rest, Genly, I thought.

Early in the morning while Estraven was still sleeping, I left for town on skis, with the Chabe stove in hand. We had discussed the plan beforehand, so I knew what to do. I sold the stove, the last thing of value we had, at the Town Commerce, then took the solid sum of money it had fetched up the hill to the little College of the Trades, where the radio station was housed, and bought ten minutes of “private transmission to private reception.”

My ten minutes were to be early in the Third Hour, late afternoon. It would not be worthwhile to make the trip to Thessicher’s and back, so I hung around Sassinoth and got a large, good, cheap lunch at one of the hot-shops there. Karhidish cooking was better than Orgota, no doubt. As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that in the tent, when I asked him if he hated Orgoreyn; I remembered his voice that night in Kurkurast, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather stay in Karhide.” I wondered what love of country was, and how it comes to be, for I had never felt it for any of my homes, and wondered how such a pure thing as my friend’s love of his country could be, in other people, so easily perverted into hatred of the other. What made it go wrong?

Mostly, I sat in the hot-shop missing Estraven. It felt unnatural not to be at his side, like I was naked in front of all these people going about their lives; like I was missing a hand or an eye. It was not just because I loved him and worried about him. I think I would have felt this way also if I hadn’t been in love with him, or worried for him. I had not yet come altogether out of our solitude on the ice.

People were strange to me. They walked up and down the lively streets of the town, going into shops, markets, businesses. I walked around the town too, after lunch, despite the snow flurries and the freezing temperatures, trying to feel like a person in the world again. In the afternoon, I climbed back up the steep snow-packed hill to the Trades College, and was admitted and shown how to operate the public-use transmitter. When the time came, I sent the wake signal to the relay satellite, which was in stationary orbit 300 miles over South Karhide. It in turn would send the signal to the ship, but was not equipped to send a response to me, so there was nothing I could do but send the message. I could not know if I had done right to send it. I had come to accept such uncertainties with a quiet heart.

 

It was snowing hard and growing dark when I came out, and it would have been easy and sensible to find an inn or any hospitable place and stay in town overnight, but I wanted to get back to Thessicher’s farm as soon as possible. I sped back home on my skis in the gloaming.

There was a closed sledgecar, a vehicle sort of like a small car with snowmobile legs, parked outside Thessicher’s house. I did not recognize it. There was official-looking writing down the side, which I could not make out in the dark and at a distance, and it chilled me with fear.

The lights were on, but I could not approach the house from the front, so I crept around the side. Through a vertical slit window, I saw Estraven sitting by a fire, sipping something hot from a ceramic cup. He looked well and seemed unperturbed. There was no one else in that room. I rapped on the window to get his attention, and rapped again harder, because the storm outside had picked up and was blowing loudly. He startled, though without spilling his drink, and relaxed when he saw me. Rising to his feet, he came across the room, and opened the window a crack.

“What’s up?” Estraven asked.

Urgently, I warned him about the powersledge parked outside. He gave a hmmph of displeasure in agreement, but showed no sign of alarm, and let me into the house through a side door.

“I thought it was the king’s guards, or...I don’t know,” I confessed breathlessly, while Estraven helped me out of my heavy outer coat. “Maybe something worse, if there is something worse. I was terrified. I thought maybe it turned out Thessicher wasn’t trustworthy.”

“Oh, he’s not,” Estraven said, quite drily. “But he’s merely stupid, not treacherous. The doctor already gave him an earful for it. Very vindicating to listen to. They’re in the dining-room if you want to eavesdrop, but I’m afraid they’re not arguing anymore.”

“Sorry,” I said, “ what?”

“It’s all right,” he said. “Our luck has bettered.” 

He explained the gist of it to me, and then offered to introduce me to the doctor.

Chapter Text

Orny Irrem

Told Thessicher everything last night out of desperation. I saw no recourse but to court his pity and conscience; it worked.

He was filling the tub and telling me that I ought to be careful, that Tibe had a price on my head. I brought my chair a little closer to where he worked and listened. The sum he named was seventeen hundred and fifty sarregy, and my first thought was to be insulted. I should have fetched more. Tibe had access to the royal reserves, and this was a stingy figure from the palace administration, as grand as it was for an individual recipient. My second thought was unease that Thessicher could list the figure so quickly, though I didn’t think he would trade me for personal gain. But when he mentioned that there was a fine of just as much for assisting me, in addition to the confiscation of property, the unease turned to fear. Seventeen hundred and fifty sarregy is enough for one person to live, not particularly well but at least without fear of starvation, for eight months. To lose as much money in one swoop would destroy a man, property confiscation or no. 

We were both afraid of each other, then. It was not a tolerable situation.

“That’s an unjust punishment,” I said haltingly.

“It is,” Thessicher agreed. “Tibe is quite vindictive.”

I told him my situation, then, slyly. I did not tell a lie, but I felt an unpleasant shade of doubleness in my voice when I expressed some note of worry for myself and “the baby,” as if not trying to draw attention to it, as if I assumed that Thessicher already knew I was pregnant, as if I were not telling him quite deliberately while laying my hands over my still-flat middle. It was the first time I had called it a baby, even to myself. I had not been in the habit of thinking more than a couple weeks into the future for a while now, and so many concerns pressed on my mind that I could not devote much time to a single one. I could not conceive of deciding for or against bearing him, or what either path would look like. Even if Genly’s mission went right, even if my proscription were lifted, what would come after? A dreadful thing, to live with no future in mind. I sounded dreadful too, like someone pitifully cornered on a sheer mountainside, pathless, ropeless.

“Meshe, Harth!” Thessicher muttered. He was not Yomeshta, but it was a pretty good exclamation nonetheless. “You’re—really? I can’t imagine breaking into prison and crossing a glacier while pregnant. Meshe’s tits! Not at our age. You and I must be made of different stuff! Perhaps you do have at least one ally in Orgoreyn, then,” he added. 

I shook my head.

“I can’t imagine you’re so friendless,” Thessicher said, “unless maybe, if some kemmerhouse acquaintance, and only in passing...”

I shook my head again, and Thessicher peered at me, puzzled, waiting for me to explain.

“I didn’t get pregnant in Orgoreyn,” I said. “It was while crossing the glacier.”

Thessicher looked at me and then at Genly asleep in his chair by the fire.

“No… Him?” said Thessicher. “With an alien? Would it work?”

“As it turns out, yes.”

“But surely,” Thessicher insisted, “surely…”

He had some confusion about how people of other worlds reproduced. The radio broadcasts about the envoy, before they had been stopped and dismissed as fabrications by the palace last spring, had described people of other worlds as comparable to but not precisely like half-sex Gethenians, “perverts,” in that they were permanents; and comparable to but not precisely like animals, in that they were permanents without being sterile, except they were people. But no animal in our world save man gives live birth, save some few marine mammals, so Thessicher had become convinced, despite my assurances to the contrary, that I was in danger of shredding myself from within with eggshell shards, or if it did not work like that, then some other gruesome incompatibility. He insisted it only stood to reason. I assured him it was unlikely. 

“But how can you know?” he kept saying. “I mean, how can you really know?”

He would not budge from this conviction, so I simply gave up, stripped, and got into the now-ready bath. The warm water did me good, and it was a relief to have a real wash, a proper wash, instead of wiping down with a towel in a tent.

Thessicher made no further conversation that night, and stayed lost in his own thoughts. I woke Genly and took him to bed, and fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down. He was already in town when I awoke, and since for the first time in a while I had a real bed and nowhere else to be, I went back to sleep. I thought that morning I might sleep only a few minutes more, but did not wake up till well into the afternoon, to the creak of the bedroom door opening. 

A young voice I did not recognize spoke. Confusion struck, then utter panic, then the desperate need to hide (impossible, in this room), then an unexpected stillness and calmness as I resigned myself to my death, and then confusion again.

“This isn’t your cousin Resh Ossihar,” the voice said.

“No, of course it’s not,” said Thessicher, “I said it was Sorhad Ossihar.”

“It’s not him either,” the voice continued. “Do you want to continue listing cousins? Because I’ve met Resh and Sorhad. Resh moved east to avoid gambling debts, and Sorhad has a teaching post down in Passerer.”

“Either could have been in town to visit,” Thessicher protested.

“Yes, but I’ve met them and I know what they look like, is my point. I don’t know all your cousins, but I know this person is not your cousin. You could have picked a cousin who doesn’t owe me money. Sorry to wake you, dear guest, by the way,” he added to me.

My startled heart was still thumping hard when I addressed the newcomer. I asked him who he was, and he asked me who I was, and we stayed at an impasse till I said,

“Well, I’m not Renid Thessicher’s cousin, and never asked to be.”

The visitor softened a bit.

“I’m Oderith Kusme ner Sinoth,” he said, entrusting me his entire name, perhaps in the hopes that I would entrust him mine. I would not. “I’m a physician.”

“And you’re here for...?”

“He’s not here for me,” Thessicher said.

Though Thessicher had been presumptuous in calling a doctor for me, I could still recognize I needed one. Without giving him identifying details about myself, I told Dr. Kusme that I suspected I was malnourished and that my problems were likely malnutrition compounded with being in the first quarter of pregnancy. He agreed it was likely, ran some portable tests, took some samples for less portable tests, and wrote down some recommendations for foods and vitamins. He also gave me the remaining half of a bottle of an anti-nausea drug that he carried in his purse—his personal one, not his doctor’s bag. I took a capful of it and soon felt slightly more normal. 

Once I was in better humors, I decided I liked him. Kusme’s manner was simple, uninvasive. He did not pry. He did not presume.

“There are screenings people generally do, if they’re having babies,” Kusme said. “You might want to come into town to the hospital in a week or two. And if you’re pregnant but not having a baby, you might still come into town for someone to write you a recette for expulsion meds.”

I told him I could not come into town under any circumstance, and that I could not tell him why. He was not pleased with my caginess, but was prepared to accept it, until Thessicher quipped that he would get his child looked at if he were having an alien child. I hoped that Kusme would not catch that, or that he would think Thessicher was joking or crazy. But Kusme stilled, glanced at me, and glared at Thessicher reproachfully.

“Not that you’re wrong, but a man puts his life in your hands, he expects you not to have eely fingers,” Kusme said.

“I don’t have eely fingers,” Thessicher snapped.

“No?” Kusme asked. “If it had not been me, if someone else had come, Thessicher... Well! What do you think, Lord Estraven?”

It chilled me, but I made no reply, no reaction to the sound of my landname, and played the fool. So did Thessicher.

“What, the old King’s Ear?” Thessicher said, laughing convincingly. “At my farm? That’s a joke. Didn’t he die?”

“Did he?” I asked.

“I’m positive I heard something about it on the radio last Tuwa.”

Kusme seemed unamused.

“Has the envoy got very many other friends who need to hide from the public, do you think?” he asked. “Have a whole lot of proscribed friends, did he?”

“Don’t know! I’ll ask him if I meet him,” my brash host answered.

Kusme said nothing to him, but addressed me instead. 

“I never considered you a traitor,” he said earnestly. “Many of us here do not. You did what was necessary to stop the fighting in the valley. It was a noble thing, and the king did not understand it. He thought himself insulted when his people were kept safe from harm. Many of us here would defend you, myself included.”

His words moved me, but I could not bring myself to acknowledge that I was who he said I was, nor could I bring myself to deny it. Kusme was not so rude as to force the subject, content to accept my non-denial as an admission of my identity. We discussed other matters, conversing pleasantly for a couple hours. Thessicher joined us at the table too, with three mugs of hot juice brewed with beer-spices and sweetbeet.

Kusme was good company. He had nowhere else to be today, it turned out, for work was slow, so he could stay a little while longer. The busiest month for him was usually at the start of spring, he told us, when allergies flared up and ice got weak and slippery. He discussed his work as a general practitioner in broad terms and never spoke about any patients in particular, which struck me as trustworthy. He asked, with genuine interest, how I had crossed the Gobrin in winter, and by the time I finished talking, a snowstorm had picked up outside. I thought that because of the poor weather, Genly might stay in town till tomorrow morning. Kusme could not drive back in such low visibility, and he was stranded at the farm with us. He was embarrassed to be imposing on Thessicher’s hospitality and offered to cook for him at his own place sometime.

A sudden wave of tiredness overtook me while they chatted and I felt I could no longer be sociable and converse with people, so I withdrew to the fireside in another room. 

There by the fireside I was sitting when Genly found me and started rapping at the window. He was in a state of considerable alarm about the doctor’s parked sledgecar. Once he came in from the storm, I tried to put him at ease. I told him the doctor was an ally and offered to introduce him.

Genly still looked shaken once he had calmed down.

“Let me warm myself first,” he said.

After he had gotten warm and collected by the fire, I led him on my arm to the other room. Kusme rose to his feet upon seeing Genly and looked up at him with reverence. The doctor was, like me, a short person, and his eyes came to about the height of Genly’s collarbone.

“Genly,” I said, “This is Doctor Kusme.”

“Lord Envoy,” Kusme said solemnly. “It is a pleasure to meet a visitor from another world.”

“Ai will do, Doctor,” Genly said. “But the pleasure is mine, that we should meet a man of medicine in our time of need.”

Kusme’s chest puffed up at that.

Chapter Text

The young doctor who had newly befriended Estraven took pains to assure me that he deserved my trust. He, Kusme, took both my hands in that Karhidish gesture of friendship and in a soft but impassioned voice, told me about his family, and about people he knew. The border fighting had been terrible, he told me.

“People whipped themselves up into a frenzy where they would actually kill a stranger,” he said. “People on both sides. Two people I knew went off to fight on the other side of the valley, and got killed. And people in my family had their fields razed. My father’s mother’s Hearth was too close to the Orgota side. Somebody set fire to it. It was with Lord Estraven’s border cessions the fighting stopped and with his relocation funds the survivors were able to move and rebuild closer to town. I don’t know what would have been done otherwise. But now with Lord Tibe, the fighting’s back again, and our morgue at the hospital is filling back up.”

“If only the Palace could see as you see,” Estraven answered wryly.

“Damn the Palace,” I muttered, not knowing any ruder words in Karhidish.

Estraven gave me a sharp look.

“We still need them. It’s best not to nurse grudges. Enmity is dangerous to maintain.”

Assembled around Thessicher’s old, sturdy table, we began to make plans. By Estraven’s reasoning, I should wait till the king summoned me; to march down to Ehrenrang right away would be the height of presumption. Kusme and Thessicher agreed. Once again, I had to rely on others’ perceptions of feudal decorum, having only a novice’s sense of majesty. That I should have to develop it for capricious, volatile, paranoid Argaven, of all people, rankled, but my annoyance did not master me. 

I would stay in Sassinoth, in town, so as not to impose on Thessicher any longer. Kusme had suggested I work for Thessicher for lodging, but there was not so much work to be done this late in winter so as to justify an assistant. Planting season was in two months, and the ground had not yet thawed. Thessicher made assurances that it would be no trouble to house me, but Estraven and I had seen the inside of his winter stores, and Estraven urged me with looks and subtle gestures not to accept. The man had provisioned for himself alone and I ate rather more than a Gethenian. It was not right or possible to ask indefinite hospitality of him. I turned the offer down as best I could, with regard to shifgrethor. 

So I would stay in town, in one of the lodging houses. Kusme helpfully hinted that the student residence sometimes let people work maintenance for keep. If that didn’t pan out, I could try somewhere else in town for a job as a clerk or strong pair of hands, for a few days until Argaven sent his people to fetch me. Karhide was one of the few places in the universe where one could simply walk into a business, offer one’s work, and be accepted, like in one of the serials of Old Earth. I am told in some parts of Hain and O, this is also sometimes done, though I have never been there to confirm it for myself.

Estraven could not stay in town with me, for plain reasons; for those same reasons, his plans were significantly harder to make.

“What if,” Kusme mused, “you couldn’t be sent back to Orgoreyn because you’re receiving medical treatment here? I’ve made this case before for patients. Orgota patients, but it’s not so clear-cut up here, so close to the border. And you do need treatment. I can’t let you stay anemic, especially not while in a state that's working your blood harder. They wouldn’t send a sick man back to Orgoreyn.”

I watched Estraven, wondering if he found it convincing. He had listened quietly and patiently to Kusme while he spoke, and his face revealed nothing. When Estraven spoke, he said,

“It’s not to Orgoreyn that they want to return me, Doctor, but to the bowels of the earth. I’m not only exiled, I’m proscribed.”

“Right,” Kusme said, crestfallen.

“And it was widely known that you helped me,” I tried, “that you too were responsible for the ship’s arrival, would Argaven be pressured to pardon you?”

“Possibly,” Estraven said, sighing, “but would he do it? That, I don’t know. I do know he won’t respond well to ultimatums.”

“I wasn’t going to give him an ultimatum,” I answered, a touch defensive. I’d already promised not to force the king to choose between upholding Estraven’s exile and joining the Ekumen, and intended to keep that promise.

“Why not?” Thessicher asked. “It sounds like an idea to me.”

Eye-rolling is not so universal a gesture as many Terrans believe, but I’d gotten used to Karhidish gestures of quiet disdain, and in particular Estraven’s. There was a face he would pull that was an exaggerated version of the face he made while deep in contemplation. Estraven was sitting across from me. He caught my eye and pulled that face while our generous host who may well have saved his life spoke. I raised an eyebrow back. Sheepishly, Estraven let the expression slide off his face.

“It could backfire,” Kusme ventured, “leaving Lord Estraven still exiled.”

“And leaving us out of the Ekumen,” Estraven finished glumly.

“Ah yes,” Kusme said, “there is that too, in the second place.”

“In the first place,” said Estraven.

Doctor Kusme looked puzzled. He thought for a while, drumming his fingers silently on Thessicher’s heavy old table, before finally waiving shifgrethor and asking for an explanation. Estraven supplied it gladly. 

“Lord Tibe has been trying to make us into a nation, by stirring up Karhiders towards a massive foray against Orgoreyn. But if we become members of this common Hearth of worlds, then Orgoreyn will also join it…”

“And with an ally in common, neighbor will not raid and fight against neighbor?” Kusme guessed.

“Yes, there is also that,” Estraven continued. “But as one world within a league of worlds, it won’t matter that we are Karhiders, or Orgota, or Peruntreans, or Archipelagans, or anything else—we will be, at last, Gethenians. And to give up that chance by irritating the King is far too great a risk. I would rather stay an exile than cost us that.”

Estraven spoke in a serious, impassioned way. He was bright and confident, as though lit from within. I wish I could have seen him in his Kyorremy days, among the other councillors. Even Thessicher was nodding. Kusme, on the other hand, looked hesitant.

“But you can’t go back to exile, can you?” Kusme asked softly. “They keep the Orgota border pretty tightly closed. Do you have anywhere to hide?”

Estraven sighed and seemed to collapse inward. 

“I only ask,” Kusme added, “because I have an idea.”

His plan was to hide out at a fastness. Kusme had Indweller contacts. He was friends with several of the Celibates and Time-Dividers at a particular fastness, which he didn’t name. Many other Indwellers there were also sympathetic to Estraven. Kusme proposed that Estraven travel with him in disguise, and lie low till they found out what the King intended to do. It would be kept secret that Estraven was dwelling at this fastness, but just in case, both the steep mountainside and the holiness of the place would keep anyone from trying an arrest or assassination, Kusme argued. The roads to the fastness Kusme had in mind were closed during the freeze, but there was a climber’s pass where they could get up, where they were unlikely to be followed.

I could see his point. Estraven was waryer.

“Did not the Lord of Shorth want his question’s answer so badly, he stormed Mt. Asen to get it?”

“So the Yomeshta say, but that was two thousand years ago. You truly don’t think you’ll be safe in the fastness?” asked Kusme.

“I only wonder whether your fastness will be safe with me in it.”

“Didn’t think people wanted you dead bad enough to go mountain climbing about it,” Thessicher sniffed. “Well, any other ideas?”

Estraven put his head in his hands for a long moment. When he raised his head, his eyes were wet.

“I entrust myself to your plan, Kusme,” he said evenly. “You have earned my trust even if I cannot muster hope. Whichever way our luck turns, I know I will have nothing to regret. Good night, gentlemen.”

 

I hadn’t seen Estraven in such a low mood before. He was no longer teary by the time we curled up between the furs in Thessicher’s guest bed, but his manner was distant and heartsick.

“Therem.”

He opened his eyes and looked at me dully.

“You’re troubled. What’s on your mind?” I said. “Beyond exile, I mean. I can’t read it. I have an old habit of misjudging your thoughts.”

That, at least, got a wry smile. Estraven drew me close, but said nothing.

“You didn’t sound sure about the fastness,” I added.

“Would that I were sure about the fastness,” Estraven sighed. “But it’s a feasible enough idea, and I know he means me well. I’m sure about him, at least. He was sincere about what he said, about his grandmother’s Hearth. Perhaps not all of my actions leave a litter of repercussions and enemies in their wake.”

“Do you think–?”

“I am much too tired to think at all,   my hesarho ,” he said, wearily but affectionately, curled up with his forehead against my chest. “You can rest too. I am worrying enough for us all.”

‘All’, not ‘both.’ It made me count, for a split second: himself, me, and our accomplices? Or was he counting it too, that little new thing, as a third man on our journey, traveling with us infinitesimal, unseen? And how was I going to ask him?

 

That night, I dreamt of my parents, both long dead. 

And I was living, for some reason, in the conservatory of the new Ekumenical school in Leetousa, on Ollul, or perhaps my parents were, because in my dream, they were alive, and I was the same age I was now, but they looked about as young as they had looked when I was fourteen.

“When are we going to meet your friend?” my father asked.

We were speaking English. I had not heard it spoken aloud in years, yet it came back naturally.

“We have to pick my friend up from the airport first,” I said.

So the three of us walked through a city I had never seen before, with signs written in that script of dreams that dissolves as soon as you look at it, and arrived at the ancient Borland air travel museum. All the while we walked through the museum, my parents asked me questions about Estraven, and I tried to answer them as best I could while avoiding pronouns in English. My ellipses were noticeable enough that my mother said something about it. In her lightly-accented voice, clear and dark as a cloudless starry night, she said,

“Doux-doux, I won’t mind if it’s a man, see?” She gestured from herself to my father, playful. “I married one of them. Won’t break my own house throwing stones.”

My father smiled, surprisingly calm at the notion of his son with a man.

“Well, sort of, but they’re not, not really,” I answered. “It works differently here. On Gethen, I mean. All both and neither.”

Both my parents accepted this without question, far quicker than I ever did.

“Mama, I forgot to tell you,” I added. “We’re having a baby.”

“Oh!” she cried, clapping her hands together. The bangles on her wrists tinkled, like they always had. I thought I had forgotten the sound. “Genly, that’s wonderful. When’s the due date?”

“I don’t remember,” I said, searching my mind. “Therem had to go into hiding for… for some time. But everything’s all right now.”

“It’s gotta be near Feastgiving,” my mother pronounced decisively. 

Oh,” I said. She surely knew what she was talking about. “Of course. Yeah. It’s gonna be near Feastgiving. I’ll bring the baby to dinner.”

“There’s your friend,” my father pointed out.

Kusme was there with us, and I didn’t know how I hadn’t noticed him before.

“That’s not Therem,” I said.

“Then your friend’s not here,” my father said.

He took both my hands in greeting. I asked him how his flight was and he looked at me oddly.

“I climbed here,” he said.

Of course, I thought, nothing flew on Gethen. No birds, and all the bugs hopped or crawled. As I looked at him, I realized what my father said was true. Therem was nowhere to be seen.

“What happened?” I asked.

I thought for a second that maybe Therem had arrived earlier and we had somehow missed him, but Kusme’s face fell. He answered something gravely, but I couldn’t make it out. It chilled me.

I tried to say that I couldn’t hear him, and could he please repeat himself? But no words came out and I tried again, and I concentrated so hard on speaking that I woke myself up crying out, with the word “please” on my lips.

 

“It’s all right,” Estraven was whispering to me, stroking my small hairs away from my forehead, “it’s all right. It was a nightmare, wasn’t it?”

I nodded.

“There’s no shame in that,” he said. “You dreamed of the farm, I suppose.”

“Yes,” I lied. It was easier than explaining.

Estraven nodded.

“A prison is a terrible thing,” he declared darkly. “Not even criminals deserve it.”

I let him complain against prisons. I had told my mother’s shade in my dream that we were having a baby. What had I done that for? It troubled me that I was growing attached to the idea, before I even knew his plan. I did not know if I had the right to want him to do it. We could not have picked a worse time. Depending on how you looked at it, we had gotten together both very quickly and a little late, but the fact remained that we had barely figured out what our relationship was like, and we had no idea what our lives would look like even a few months into the future.

 

It wasn’t quite morning yet, but the light was beginning to come out. I heard the revving of the sledge-car outside the window, and panicked. Kusme was leaving. Kusme had not told us he was leaving. Estraven looked startled too. I assumed the worst.

We slipped into our coats and boots, stole the rifle that hung above Thessicher’s pantry, and fled the house. We ran silently across the south field in the bitter morning air. Estraven slipped on a patch of ice and hit his knee with a loud smack against the frozen ground. I didn’t wait to see whether he was all right, but picked him up and kept running with him in my arms.

There was a woodshed at the edge of the field. I hid us in it and began to barricade the door, but Estraven shook his head.

“Our skis. Better to run away. We’ve got to go back for our skis.”

He got to his feet, wincing a bit, and tested his knee. It worked just fine, but he hissed when he moved it.

“I’ll go,” I insisted. “Stay here.”

 

I took the rifle, and walked quietly back into Thessicher’s house. Our skis were in the back of the house, in the kitchen. No lights were on yet, which was a good sign. As noiselessly as I could, I crept through the door we’d left through, and made my way across the old, creaky floor towards the kitchen.

“Whoa there,” said a voice by the fireplace. It was Thessicher, sipping water in the dark.

His eyes flitted to my face, then to his rifle in my hands.

“You’d better not.”

“Kusme,” I said. I could hardly breathe and my blood was pounding in my ears. “He drove off. We don’t know where.”

“To town,” Thessicher said. “Had to pick some things up. He’s coming back.”

“Who’s he coming back with?”

“Nobody!”

“He drove off before we were fully up.”

“He didn’t want to wake you!” Thessicher protested. “You looked tired!”

I sat down opposite him with the rifle in my hands.

“If Kusme comes back with reinforcements…” I warned.

I wasn’t sure what I was warning against. How many people could I really make a stand against? I didn’t know how to shoot. Could I use Thessicher as a hostage, somehow?

“If he comes back with reinforcements, we say Estraven’s dead,” Thessicher yelped. “Tell them he fell in the river. I don’t know! He said he was going to pack some bags at home, for the road trip. You don’t need to threaten me!”

“You won't be in any danger,” I said, but kept the rifle close and kept Thessicher where I could see him.

 

When Kusme returned, he saw the two of us by the empty fireplace.

“Where’s Estraven?'' he asked. “Still sleeping?”

“Dead in the river, leave us alone!” Thessicher snapped.

Kusme peered at him, then at me, still in my boots and coat, then at the rifle. His expression changed into one of bafflement. Then he looked past me.

“No he’s not,” Kusme said, and waved.

I turned, but the window behind me was already empty. Kusme set his bags down on the table, and sat down facing the door, which he had left open.

After a short while, Estraven stepped in behind him.

“Renid, old friend,” Estraven said sheepishly to Thessicher. “I’m very sorry about this, but I’ve been sick in your woodshed. It should scrape off fine when it freezes. Genly, give him back his gun.”

Hot shame pricked my face and embarrassment writhed in my gut. I returned his firearm to him slowly, apologetically, trying to prove I meant him no harm. Thessicher snorted.

 

At the table, Estraven and Kusme talked, both quite apologetic to each other, while Thessicher and I sat in silence, drinking strong, dark orsh. He had grown the grain himself. Occasionally, Thessicher glowerered at me with what I assumed was not goodwill. That was fair. I had earned it.

“Are you packed?” Kusme asked.

“More or less,” answered Estraven. “I can be completely packed in a few minutes.”

“Then we can go whenever you’re ready.”

“So soon?” I asked.

“We have to move quickly,” Estraven explained. “I don’t know how soon the Palace will come for you. We’ve got to put a lot of miles between us, regrettably.”

He was right, but it pained me to be parted from him so soon, and after such a scare.

 

Estraven washed up quickly, and I packed up the rest of his things in the guest bedroom, still cringing about my behavior with our host.

“Better to feel foolish after a false alarm than a true one,” he said encouragingly.

“But best not to feel foolish at all,” I added glumly.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said very solemnly, and then laughed softly. 

I smiled, in spite of myself. He took my face in his hands and kissed me.

“I hope I see you again soon,” I said, when I broke for breath.

“I also hope I see you again,” said Estraven.

“You will.”

“I can hope,” he said. “I can hope and not trouble myself with unanswerable questions.”

I sighed, and sat down on the bed. Estraven sat beside me.

“I wish I could tell you I knew your exile would be revoked, and when. I hate this. Damn the king.”

“I don’t hate Argaven, Genly. And I feel sorry for what he’s gone through. He’s lost his child, his own physical child. Don’t be angry at him. It’s Tibe who’s to blame for our misfortunes.”

“It’s Tibe, yes, but Argaven is insane.”

“I don’t think being king does anyone’s health any favors,” Estraven said mildly. “I worked with Argaven closely, you know. We worked together well. Argaven isn’t a wicked person. Only misled.”

“You were angry at him last year. You said he didn’t know how to think properly.”

“I was. He didn’t. Perhaps he never will. It was last year. Right now, I think if he pardons me, I’ll forgive him.”

“He should declare you were never a traitor in the first place, not pardon you.”

“Thank you, Genly. But there’s too much shifgrethor involved. A pardon will do. If I can see my friends and kin again and walk throughout Karhide without the fear of my life making me as jumpy and witless as I was this morning, I’ll be happy.”

“Your name’s still muddied.”

“My name is not my self. And I know I’m clean, at least of treason. And if I’m not, then I stand by my treason. Let it go. For my sake.”

“All right.”

 

After Estraven and Kusme left in the sledge-car, I apologized profusely to Thessicher.

“Outside the shadow?” he requested.

I waived shifgrethor.

“Don’t pull this on anyone again,” Thessicher answered coldly. “Suppose I’d had a second rifle. Then you’d be in a right mess, maybe gotten shot.”

“Do you have a second rifle?” I asked, curious about firearm habits in rural Karhide. He lived alone in the off season, but perhaps the second was a spare.

Thessicher tsk-ed at me.

“No, but suppose, Ai.”

 

Despite his irritation with me, he was kind enough to drop me off in town. I walked around the main street for a while, before trying my luck at finding lodging among the students.

Chapter Text

Yrny Irrem.

I am with Kusme. We are headed east, further into northern Karhide. You’ve gone through all this trouble, Therem, to get south from north, and now you’re headed north again, I joke to myself. It’s not very funny, since we’re not headed back to the ice, though it would be very funny, in a miserable way, to quit the Orgota Gobrin ice for the Karhidish Pering ice and consider it an improvement, since all glaciers are, if never the same, still rather alike in their glacial quality. But we are headed no further north than Orsnoriner, and have been spared that irony. A little south of Orsnoriner, sits Kusme’s promised fastness, Kirremen fastness, atop Mt. Gyrste, the northernmost of the Kargav Mountains. A long time ago, when I was in school, I pictured the Kargav mountains as a backbone, and Horden Island as the person’s rump, falling off. Mt. Gyrste would be at the back of his neck.

Kusme assures me that Mt. Gyrste is no more than a very sheer hill, and despite the roads being closed, the climb up won’t be too steep. It is not called Gyrste Hill, but I must still trust him.

The nausea medicine we both take, he for his carsickness and I for my own reasons, is quite effective. I have had no complaints. A couple times, Kusme has suggested that soon I won't need it, since my first quarter is over and I am entering into the second one. I have no intention of testing his guess on the road, and have limited faith in my body’s ability to know what calendar day it is.  I'm also taking iron, which is helping my health but isn't exactly settling my stomach.

I have also tried a drug for allergies I don’t have, likewise to prevent nausea. It seems to operate on the principle that sleeping men don’t sneeze, for it renders me sluggish and insensible across the backseat. The first and only time I took it, I woke up in the evening as we were entering Ovord Domain to reprovision. In my confusion, I saw a road sign behind us, which announced how many miles it was to Passerer, and misunderstood it as a sign saying we had entered Passerer. 

It gave me a violent start. I thought, he has taken me south instead of north. I am already dead. I have misjudged him, or perhaps it’s true what they say, that even one who habitually does good must never be given the occasion to do otherwise. Half-asleep and in a dumb panic, I opened the window—perhaps hoping to climb out of it? I don’t recall my reasoning. It would have made more sense to open the door—and recognized the lights and Hearths of Ovord ahead of us. Then, satisfied as to my safety and with the window still open , I went directly back to sleep. I have not tried that drug again.

I regret distrusting Kusme again after that scene we made at Thessicher’s, even if privately, even if for a moment. Fear has its purposes, but I don’t want to be jumpy like this, like a creature afraid of the sound of its own feet. And here was a person going to the trouble of driving eight hundred and fifty miles because he believed in my innocence, and I had not yet fully accepted that we were on the same side. Perhaps this is how Genly felt at first, after I fished him out of the farm. This is, after all, a journey of a similar length, though I must note that it is far easier to take such a trip inside a vehicle, sheltered from the wind, and sitting down.

Ovord is a third of the way from Sassinoth to Orsnoriner, and took us only a day and some hours of driving. Our Kirremen can only be reached from Orsnoriner. We are taking the Sassinoth-Charuthe road. I say “we” since I am also driving, by turns. I am out of practice, but I have not made Kusme fear for his life once yet, and count that as a point of pride. It helps, also, that we are nearly alone on the road. Some landboats have passed us, but not more than six, and they did not seem to take an interest in us. We have stopped as little as possible, and have not yet had to change batteries.

During quiet stretches of the road, Kusme asks me, 

“What are you thinking?”

I am thinking far too many things to explain. I am thinking that I may remain exiled, that Argaven may be too proud to eat the words of his decree. I am thinking, what in the world am I going to do with a baby? And then, what am I going to do, alone? What if I never see anyone I know again? What if I can never write to Sorve again? Perhaps I shall live out the rest of my days at Kirremen. Perhaps I shall become a fastness celibate as my former kemmering did when he left me, and have the child, and raise him among the Handdarata. Perhaps I will shed my shadow and name but tell him who we really are. How folkloric. I do not share any of these thoughts with Kusme. He is a cheerful person; I cannot bear to depress him.

“I miss Ai,” I admit instead. Not false, but not the greatest of my worries.

“A fine young person,” Kusme pronounces seriously. It nearly makes me laugh. Genly must be a few years older than him, at least. “I can tell you care for each other. He’ll be all right. It will all work out all right.”

If I had a fraction of Kusme’s confidence that it would all turn out right...

Kusme is correct about Genly being a fine person, and a young one. I think Genly meant every word he said to me that night in Kurkurast, when I let him all but vow kemmer to me. I think all that he said was true. But he is rather young, and people his age can be intense and swiftly changing. I do not know how long it will be true, but at least it is true now, and that matters most.

In the meantime, skies are clear, and we shall have a smooth drive to Orsnoriner.

 

Posthe Irrem.

“How are you feeling about being pregnant?” Kusme asks.

“Hmm,” I say. “Better now I’ve been able to eat properly. But also rather cold, cold all the time.” This is how Genly must feel, I think. Always cold.

“That’s not exactly what I’m asking,” says Kusme. “What are your plans? Medical question, you know, I’m not nosy.”

“You are, but nusuth,” I say. “If you must know, I’ve been very lonely for the past year.”

Kusme thinks about this.

“And are babies good company? I’ve never had one.”

“Oh sure. Great conversationalists too.”

Kusme laughs.

So far, I have decided to keep carrying it. My reasoning is impossible to explain. I only know that it distresses me to let it go. I am sentimental in the same way I was twenty years ago. 

I did not plan on Sorve and did not have to bear him. Indeed, it would have been no shame to me not to bear him. It is no shame to anyone to wish not to bear a child in regular circumstances, let alone mine twenty years ago. But I chose him, despite the circumstances, because he was mine and I wanted him. Arek and I would have had to separate whether Sorve had been born or not. It was already unlawful to conceive him, so why shouldn’t we keep him? Why shouldn’t Arek have the joy of our son to comfort him for losing me?

Perhaps I am foolish in my choice now, but I know I was not foolish in my choice then.

I have, of course, no child yet, only the beginnings of one, and it is still too soon to say whether he will stay long enough to be born. But if he does, he’s something to plan for and hope for, a bridge into the future to stop me from going staring mad. I know this is all a gamble, but the higher the stakes the better the gamble. It is like trying to ski past a fusillade; a fearsome risk, but ah, what sweet reward to any that survive. This gamble is at least less deadly.

 

Odgetheny Irrem.

Awful news! I’m not surprised. Nor am I happy, but I’m in elevated spirits nonetheless. A paradox. Kusme is wretched about this. He keeps apologizing. It is not his fault. We arrived at the foot of Mt. Gyrste only to find all the paths up it were closed. It was a hard winter, and the footpaths got too dangerous, as did the climbing paths. They are usually open by the end of Irrem, but they do not anticipate them being open till later into spring this year.

This was what we read on an entry-sign posted at the bottom of one of the paths up to Kirremen fastness.

“I’ve made a mistake,” Kusme said, sitting on a snowbank next to the car.

“Cheer up,” I told him, half singing. “I’ve made far many more mistakes.” 

In fact, I was thinking, with sick glee, I have done nothing right, ever, in my life. I have been making mistakes since the day before I was born. Being born was the first one.

“I suppose by that, you mean to tell me that life goes on,” he sniffed, “that one grows past one’s errors.”

This returned me to my senses more than any rebuke could. I couldn’t say that to him, that I have done nothing right. He admires me and what I did. Stopping the forays, however temporarily, was not a mistake, and I could not call it one just because it got me exiled. It would have been a betrayal and an immature tantrum to take back what good I have done. 

“Yes,” I answered soberly, “of course.”

Still, I cannot help but feel that if our plan has fallen through, then anything may happen, and may happen for the better. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but I feel alive again, like my luck will turn for the better. Perhaps I have indeed gone mad. 

We are staying in Orsnoriner tonight.

 

Odarhad Irrem.

I am writing this at the singular inn in Orsnoriner, which consists of the attic of a small hearth-hold. Kusme is staying in the kemmerhouse. He said his kemmers don’t tend to run long, so I should be seeing him in less than three days. 

I have introduced myself with a new name. I hate to lie about my name, but I am finding that avoiding telling one’s name draws far more attention than giving a false one. The truth is out of the question. I will not put a helpless stranger in the terrible position of having to weigh his skin against mine.

In the meantime, while I wait for Kusme, I am helping rescue beans. Thavy have gotten into the cellar of this home, and have been getting at the dried food, so the members of the hearth have been tidying the cellar to find where the thavy dug in. Part of the tidying has entailed taking intact bags of beans from the cellar to the kitchen. No one has given me anything too heavy to carry, because they know exactly why I must be careful and exactly why I am liable to get tired fast. 

It is still far too early to be showing around my middle, but my chest has begun to show, albeit subtly, and it aches to cross my arms. I did not want to come off as furtive, so I have told a couple of the hearthdwellers that I am in my second quarter rather than let them guess it for themselves. I have started wearing my hieb belt high, rather than around my waist, so it's no mystery to those I haven't told either.

“Oh, he’ll be a summer baby!” says one of the hearth cooks. I’m always inclined to like hearth cooks, since my father was one. This person’s hair is all white, wound in frizzy white braids like two long clouds, and one of his eyes is also white and clouded. He is called Mebur or Mevur, depending on who says it. Northerners don’t distinguish b and v. He thinks I am called Pesh. 

“With any luck, yes,” I answer.

“Your first?” Mebur asks.

“Not exactly.”

“Been a father, then,” Mebur guesses. “But now this is one of your own.”

“Been a father, yes.”

“Well, it’s pretty much the same, Pesh, except your back’ll hurt more,” he says, laughing a wheezy laugh under his breath. “Though I reckon you already know.”

I do. I remember from carrying Sorve, and I remember Ashe’s backaches both times, and how difficult it was for him to sleep once they got big enough to start elbowing and kicking. I wonder if Ashe hates me yet. I haven’t seen him since last Tuwa, nearly a year ago. I was harsh with him, to stop him from following me, and yet he still sent me the money that I used to buy our tent, sledge, and stove. God knows why; I did nothing to earn that kindness. 

 

Onnetherhad Irrem

Music! Music to my ears. Listening to the radio this morning in the hearth kitchen, news came on about the alien envoy: Not a hoax after all! Found alive in Karhide, in Sassinoth, after crossing the Gobrin in winter! We will soon meet eleven others! No news to me, but it was a relief to hear it become public knowledge. A soundbite of Argaven has been played a couple times, in which he says, “we welcome the visitors from other worlds with open arms.” 

Not a word from Harge rem ir Tibe, nor any mention of him. This interests me. Does he feel too disgraced to speak about the Envoy after spending a year declaring him a hoax? Probable. Disgraced enough to step down? Oh, I hope so. I hope he resigns. I do not think my exile was wholly Argaven’s idea. He trusted me, long ago. Someone else slipped the notion of treason into his thoughts, I am sure of it. 

The reaction to the alien news, at least among this small Orsnoriner hearth, has been mixed. I’ve heard:

“Men from other worlds! And to think we’ve lived to see this.”

And,

“Isn’t this old news? We already heard a couple years ago there were aliens.”

Mebur has asked my opinion, and I answered honestly:

“I’d like to meet them.”

Mebur nodded in approval.

“Aye, they must have seen all sorts of things, have a lot to tell.”

 

Still Onnetherhad Irrem, second entry

Got some time alone after sunset and, emboldened, called Ashe on the telephone here. 

I am grateful I did not return to Orgoreyn. Karhide is not an organized nation, and the King’s City Guard does not have the means to surveill calls made so far from Ehrenrang. To call Ashe before I fled Karhide would have been to implicate him in my treason. To call Ashe from Orgoreyn would have been to put him into the Sarf’s sights. But now I am a non-person, and my name is not my name, and no one knows where I am, and where I am, no one knows me.

I nearly called the number of our old apartment in Ehrenrang, where neither of us has lived for the past four years. I had to call the operator instead, and ask to be put through to Orgny Fastness. To the indweller at Orgny Fastness that manned the telephone, I gave my name as Pesh, again (no need to invent more names), and asked to speak with Foreth rem ir Osboth.

He was astonished and relieved to hear from me, but kept calm on the telephone until he knew for sure he was in private. My trust in him was well-placed; he would not give me away. 

I am not sure what I called Ashe for. I think to thank him and tell him I was alive. I think I wanted to hear a familiar voice. It is so lonely being Pesh instead of myself. It makes me more homesick than I ever was in another country.

Ashe said he figured I was involved in the Envoy’s return, but assumed I’d returned to Orgoreyn at best, and at worst feared I was dead. No one expected me to be in Karhide. Ashe said that as soon as he heard it announced that the Envoy was found alive in Sassinoth, he wondered how a person from a much warmer world had come to cross the Gobrin Ice for three whole months and survive.

“It’s impressive for someone of this world, let alone for an alien,” Ashe said.

“Thanks.”

“Risky, though, Therem,” he added, with a note of reproach, as if my shadow were still joined to his.

“It was, yes. There was nothing else for it, and no one else who would have helped me.”

“Come down to Orgny, won’t you?” he said softly, invitingly. “The Indwellers here like you. They would be glad to hide you. And I’ll ask my siblings to bring Ippe and Reden up from Osboth and we’ll all see each other again.”

It is a terrible thing to receive love like this and be unable to return it. I did not call to ask for Ashe’s help, and I did not want to use him, but I must have known somewhere in my heart that he would offer, and his offer tempted me. I missed him and I missed our children. To see the three of them again was more than I had dared wish for in months. But Ashe sounded nostalgic for our bygone times, and it would be far crueler to let him grow the hope of returning to our old ways, only to cut himself on it, than to uproot the hope before it took hold. 

I told him I was pregnant. He went quiet on the line.

“It shouldn’t be a problem!” he said at last. “I meant— You’ve been here before. Mt. Orgny’s not too steep. You wouldn’t be walking up a mountain, just a small hill. I don’t see why it would be a problem.”

“I’m not that far along yet. Just starting the second quarter.”

“Okay! Good, that’s good, that’s better for walking, yes...”

Once more, he went quiet on the line.

“Ah,” he said at last. “Two months. The Envoy.”

“Yes.”

“This is all so strange...”

I was sure could get his honest opinion now, bare of nostalgia, so I asked,

“Are you really sure I should come to Orgny? Outside the shadow, Ashe. You can tell me.”

Ashe sucked air through his teeth.

“I can’t tell for sure, but everyone here is favorable to you, and I think the situation does look better now. Argaven’s likelier to act right without that cousin of his pouring poison in his ear.”

Without that cousin of his pouring poison in his ear. Yes! Yes!

“Oh, that bodes well . Resigned or dismissed?”

“Only resigned, I’m afraid,” Ashe said cheerfully. 

I smiled. “Oh only resigned, of course.”

“Yes! Small mercies, Therem, we take them where they fall.”

“This is wonderful!” I exclaimed. “How did you find out? It hasn’t been announced yet.”

“His successor is a cousin of mine on the Geger side, from Rer.” He sounded like he was grinning, pleased to be the one to tell me. 

“That bodes very well. Do I know him?”

“Not sure. Maybe you’ve met in passing. A Weaver from Otherhord. He's been a councilor for some months now. He hasn’t gotten appointed yet, but people from the urban Fastness say it looks like it'll be him. You know how Indwellers talk.”

News travels rather quickly from fastness to fastness. Only those perched aloof on great, inaccessible heights are above gossip. Between all the other fastnesses, though, talk seeps with no direction, no orders. It is good that the Handdara are spread like mushroom colonies, with no single head. A faith in the hands of a state could be used for ill, like the Yomeshta in Orgoreyn, and I comfort myself in knowing it is far more difficult to nationalize a headless root network than a hierarchy, and we will never have (eugh) state temples.

So a councilor who was a Weaver is due to replace Tibe, but his appointment has not yet been publicly announced, and they know already in Orgny, and I know as well. I’ve sworn Ashe to secrecy about me until further notice. I don’t need every Adept alive to know my location. When I am ready, I will tell him, and he will convene a meeting among the Orgny Indwellers. I will not join him at Orgny unless the vote comes out unanimously for it, but I will travel south. 

I am relieved beyond words, but still waiting on the news of my pardon, of the ship’s landing, and of our entry into the Ekumen. Only then will I exhale with complete ease. 

If this does not happen, I can keep my head down and avoid bigger towns, and I might get to Stok, where I have old friends. This can be done. I think I’m going to make it. I will gamble on these stakes.

 

Obberny Irrem

Kusme is back from the kemmerhouse, but all tuckered out. He came back to the “inn” at noon and immediately went to sleep. There was no waking him for dinner or supper. The members of this hearth-hold cracked jokes about his exhaustion, exaggerating how long he’ll have to sleep. There’s not a single adult among us who hasn’t been there at some point, too. If he had paced himself in the kemmerhouse, we’d be ready to get back on the road now, but I don’t blame him. He is under tremendous stress. 

I realized today that I forgot to take the nausea medicine. I didn’t realize till late in the evening because I have been feeling fine all day. Perhaps it is because I haven’t been in the car, or perhaps Kusme was right about the second quarter being gentler. It may also be because I’ve been eating better. Mebur, winking his clouded eye at me, has been slipping extra servings of meat and fried kyossatha root into my stew. I’ve also found three hot rolls of sweet pink shorynut bread tucked into my front hieb pocket, presumably by sleight of hand. When I thanked him for the kind gift, he feigned ignorance.

I’m glad, as glad as possible, that I stayed in Karhide.

I shall miss Mebur. He’s a storyteller too, and has been telling me about funny things that happened to friends of his, and telling older hearthtales, some of which I recognize, about people turning into animals and back again. The innovative part is that he tells the latter as though they were the former and the former in the register of the latter. So I hear, (and I’m paraphrasing,)

“And when Nisseren of Orsnoriner beheld his carrybag/ he hearkened back to that very dawn/ when in the faint golden glow of morning/ he packed the wrong set of keys./ And thus came he once more to be locked out of his tractor.”

As well as,

“So there’s Agut walking on the frozen edge of the pond the other day, yes? And he’s starting to feel the ice under his feet. So he says to himself, he says, must’ve worn through my soles, and he goes to check, and what do you know, it’s not feet anymore he’s looking at. They’re fins, they are, and so’re the hands now. So he knows right away he’s got to get into the water…”

Mebur insists his tellings are just an elaborate joke. I think he should record some of them on tape, but he claims to have no patience for tape recorders, and he doubts tape recorders will have any patience for his “crazy old man ramblings.”

The other people here don’t seem to pay attention to Mebur, except his kemmering-son, who is devoted to his father and visits when he can, but lives in another hearth-hold and is outdoors most of the time running Orsnoriner’s singular roadpacker. Mebur’s own physical son doesn’t care for his mother’s company. When this son was in the kitchens with us, taking inventory of what we all were able to rescue from the thavy-infested cellar (almost everything, and the entry-holes were found and sealed up), he dodged all of Mebur’s attempts to make conversation.

“Look,” he said, exasperated, tapping his pen on the table and peering over the rim of his bifocals, “will you just tell me how many pounds of dry fruit we still have?”

I understand wanting to get the work done, but I don’t understand the haste. 

When I am pardoned by the king, if I am pardoned by the king , I shall send a letter and a gift of thanks to this hearth-hold under my real name, and I shall address it to Mebur’s son and have him read it to him.

It is a big if, but it is looking more probable... 

 

Odorny Irrem

Kusme back on his feet, praise be creation unfinished. We are once again on the road, and the car’s batteries are fully recharged. I was too quick to say that the nausea was over, and had to take medicine again. Kusme has now started saying that it’s the third quarter, not the second, that’s the easiest. I’m sure he read this in a book. He means well.

We are not headed back to Sassinoth, since I expect people from the palace will have come to fetch Genly, and may still be around. Kusme worries his superiors at the hospital will be upset with his extended absence. I have joked that I will write him a note. (In Orgoreyn, workers must provide a note from a physician to prove that they are taking a day off due to illness. Appalling.)

I owe him far more than a note. He planned for a much shorter drive.

“I am grateful to you, you know,” I told him. “I bear a deep debt to you that may well never be repaid.”

We spoke then, at length, about what he wanted, about what his dreams were. He'd like to meet the aliens too, he said. Not to study them like odd fish, but to speak and listen to them. It’s an important distinction. That can be arranged, I told him. Yes. I believe it can be arranged.

Chapter Text

I managed to get lodging in the student residences my last few days in Sassinoth. The leaders of the town did not know what to do with me. Someone had suggested the prison, to keep the strange Envoy safe from curious crowds, but that threat didn’t have enough time to manifest itself. I don’t know how many days I spent in Sassinoth, since I spent so much of my time sleeping, but it didn’t feel like long. Once Argaven was fully informed, he sent me a summons, a request to come at once to Erhenrang, and along with it a liberal allowance for expenses.

The king’s people were far quicker to arrive for me than I expected. It had not been a full twenty-three Terran hours (for that is the length of the Gethenian day) after the King’s summons when two black power-sledges pulled into downtown Sassinoth and guards in yellow and ochre uniform stepped out. The uniform was a new development, Tibe’s idea. At the time of the keystone ceremony last Tuwa, there was no uniform of the royal guard, and no flag of Karhide. By the time I was first headed into Orgoreyn late last summer, there was a uniform, and more guards in the street, and a flag of yellow and ochre stripes surrounded by blazing yellow five-pointed suns. Nationalism can rally around any symbol, but always chooses the ugliest flags.

I was tired in those days, always tired. Something in me had crumpled as soon as my anxiety for my mission and for Estraven were kicked out from under me. I was thoroughly exhausted, and had been running on fumes for months. 

I was in the student residences when I found out about the guards’ presence. I was sitting half-asleep with my head over the edge of the open-top washing machine full of my few clothes and linens. I had been hanging them to dry when I sat down for a break, but had been zoned out from exhaustion long enough that the sheets still in the washer were getting stiff from the cold. 

Arrem, a muscular, girlish fellow who lived with me, was the one to alert me to the presence of the guards. His manner was urgent, anxious.

“The Palace is here after you, Envoy,” he said.

“They’re not here to arrest me.”

Arrem opened his mouth as if to say something, and then shut it, and left me there by the half-frozen sheets, alone with my uneasiness.

 

The King’s guards did not treat me in any way I could object to. They barely treated me at all. The long drive back to Ehrenrang was largely silent. They did not interrogate me. I had rehearsed speeches and evasions in my head in response to questions they might ask me, but they did not even strike up a conversation. We made the trip in power-sledges. I remember only parts of it; it was smooth and unhurried, with long halts waiting for packers to clear the road, and long nights spent at inns. It could only have taken two or three days, but it seemed a long trip and I can’t recall much.

I never met the guards of the other black power-sledge that drove ahead of us, and only saw them in passing, but I spent days with the guards of the car I was in. 

There were only two of them, one at least sixty with close-cropped hair, and one about my own age who wore his hair in a tight, black bun. They took turns driving the car I was in. Once, when the older one was recharging the car at a power station, the younger one turned to me, and said, “It’s true, then.”

“What is?”

“Aliens.”

“Yes,” I answered.

The young guard nodded, impassive.

“Why Gethen?”

“Because there are people on it,” I answered simply, “and the Ekumen wanted to meet you.”

“I see,” he said. “And why Karhide first?”

“That, I don’t know,” I said. “Though they usually pick drawing lots.”

“I see,” he said again, and his face fell the smallest amount.

His country was not exceptional, it just happened to be one of the several on this world, which was one of hundreds and hundreds of worlds. Many people new to this fact cannot help but feel small. Of course, no country is simply one of many, and no world is simply just some world. Every single place is the center of the universe, to someone, and insignificance does not exist. I wanted to tell him that, but didn't know how, so I kept silent. The guard said nothing more and turned to face forward in his seat.

 

Later, when we stopped at an inn for the night, we were led to the long tables in the dinner hall right away, since we had arrived just as the evening meal was being set out. It was a simple meal, requiring no plate: small, sour preserved fish over a hot crust of sweet, glutinous fruitbread. How convenient, I thought, that we were arriving just in time.

And then, with a jolt, it occurred to me: how convenient that the guards arrived in Sassinoth just in time.

And then: they must have already been on their way, before the king sent them.

I was in no danger now, since my presence in Karhide was public knowledge and I had the king’s protection, but I spent the rest of the night on edge, awake, wondering why the guards had already been on their way.

I did not chat much with my guards on the rest of my journey.

 

We came through the Northern Gates of Erhenrang into the deep streets full of snow and shadow. It was a relief to be in Ehrenrang again. Here at last was a place I knew, a city I had lived in, worked in, for over a year. I knew the streets, the towers, the somber courts and ways and façades of the Palace. Home at last, it felt like, and this feeling startled me. It was a long time since I had thought of myself as the sort of person who was attached enough to a place to call it home.

At the Palace gates the order was for me to proceed to one of the guest-houses within the Palace walls. It was the Round-Tower Dwelling, which signaled a high degree of shifgrethor in the court: not so much the king’s favor, as his recognition of a status already high. Ambassadors from friendly powers were usually lodged there. It was a good sign. To get to it, however, we had to pass by the Corner Red Dwelling, and I looked in the narrow arched gateway at the bare tree over the pool, gray with ice, and Estraven’s house, still standing empty.

I would not find him there, and probably could not find him anywhere. Kusme had mentioned a Fastness before we parted, but had never stated which. This was for the best, perhaps. Neither Thessicher nor I could let it slip by mistake. Poor Estraven, still an exile...

A shiver went through me, and not because of the cold. He was almost certainly what the guards had been up north for. No one had seen him in town, but I recalled what Estraven had told me. Before rescuing me from prison, he had called Karhide to let Argaven know the Envoy was alive and on his way back. Perhaps my very presence had given him away, or perhaps someone at the radio transmitter had tipped the guards off, or perhaps, or perhaps... Endless possibilities, none of them I liked.

If it was Tibe who had sent the guards, I was safe, but if it was Argaven, it was difficult to know where Estraven and I actually stood with him, public symbols be damned.

Lost in these thoughts, it took me a while to recognize the figure in the white hieb and crimson shirt at the door of the Round-Tower. Faxe, the Weaver of Otherhord, smiling at me with his kind, handsome face. He greeted me warmly, with both hands, in the Karhidish gesture of friendship, and I returned the warmth. At last, a familiar face, someone to whom I could give my trust.

He had been sent to the kyorremy from his district, South Rer, early in the autumn. Election of council-members from the Indwellers of Handdara Fastnesses is not uncommon; it is however not common for a Weaver to accept office, and I believe Faxe would have refused if he had not been much concerned by Tibe’s government and the direction in which it was leading the country. So he had taken off the Weaver’s gold chain and put on the councillor’s silver one; and he had not spent long in making his mark, for he had been since Thern a member of the Hes-kyorremy or Inner Council, which serves as counter-weight to the prime minister, and it was the king who had named him to that position. He was perhaps on his way up to the eminence from which Estraven, less than a year ago, had fallen. Political careers in Karhide are abrupt, precipitous.

In the Round-Tower, a cold pompous little house, Faxe and I talked at some length before I had to see anyone else or make any formal statement or appearance. He said with his clear gaze on me, “we have a friend in common, Genly.”

When I made no answer but to stare, he added, “I mean a cousin of mine. You’ve met him. Ashe.”

“Ashe Foreth?”

“Yes, from Osboth. He sends greetings and hopes you’re well.”

“I… I hope he’s well too.”

“He is,” said Faxe, “and, more to the point, another friend of ours, his former kemmering, is safe as well, he says.”

I hugged Faxe at once, thanking him again and again. This knowledge was dear to me. I had not known how much I needed it to be at peace.

“We are the only two souls in Ehrenrang who know this, of course,” Faxe added in a low voice. “I wanted this to reach you before you heard rumors that he drowned, or was in prison in Orgoreyn.”

“You’ve heard these rumors?”

“Oh yes,” said Faxe, “I’ve even passed them along. Not as truth, but as ‘just something I’ve heard.’ It brings me no joy to let other people’s lies thrive, but right now —nusuth— it may be called for. For me, that is. You, who were with Estraven, are expected to know the truth. Argaven may even ask you.”

“I don’t know where he is,” I answered. “That’s the truth of it. Of course, I have a very good guess of where he is or at least where he’s headed from what you’ve told me, but I can still answer with all honesty and no directness: I don’t know where he is.”

“Good,” declared Faxe, clearing his throat and straightening his back. “On to business…”

“Wait,” I added. “Will you tell me who sent the guards to Sassinoth, if you know?”

“I do know,” Faxe said. “It wasn’t Argaven, if that’s what you’re asking. Soon after you contacted your ship, your people broadcasted a message to Sassinoth in reply, but we all heard it, everywhere. I was already among the Hes-Kyorremy by then, and I remember discussing with the other councilors what to do. Our previous King’s Ear still insisted it was a hoax, though I don’t think he truly believed it a hoax. He sent guards to the long-range transmitters closest to the border, ostensibly to ‘investigate.’ And then he stepped down.”

There were dozens of questions I wanted to ask Faxe, but he gave me no time. He cleared his throat, straightened up again, and spoke to me as one of the king’s councillors again, not as my friend and confidante. 

“Your ship is coming down to earth, then: a larger ship than you came to Horden Island on, three years ago. Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“When will it come?”

When I realized I did not even know what day of the month it was, I began to realize how badly off I had in fact been, lately. I had thought of Estraven as the one who was sick, and of myself as the haler, stronger one. But no, we had both been starving, we had both been exhausted by our journey across the ice. I had nearly died in prison before we even began. It was always strange, remembering that. Those memories felt clouded, like they belonged to someone else, perhaps because of whatever drugs I’d been dosed with against my will in that grim place. When I counted back the days since I’d sent my signal to the ship, I had another jolt. If they had been at minimum distance then, they’d already be in planetary orbit by now, awaiting some word from me.

“I must communicate with the ship. They’ll want instructions. Where does the king want them to come down? It should be an uninhabited area, fairly large. I must get to a transmitter—”

Faxe took one of my hands to still me.

“It will be arranged,” he answered, in his clear voice, calm as the unrippled surface of a reflecting pool.

As he was leaving, he turned to me and said in an undertone, “Congratulations. I wish you well, Genly.”

I choked out some word of thanks and returned to my chambers to lie down, dazed, my mind racing with thoughts of my ship, of my old friends, of Estraven.

Chapter Text

Getheny Moth

I’ve bid goodbye to Kusme. He’s to be staying in Ehrenrang in a karhosh run by an old acquaintance of mine, who is a terrible gossip, but Kusme is naturally discreet and moreover goes in forewarned. The convenience of this arrangement is that I know the building’s phone number by heart, so Kusme and I can contact each other in an emergency. We will not contact each other unless in an emergency. I’ll miss him.

Kusme left me at the base of Orgny hill, since the roads were closed and only the footpaths were open. Orgny Fastness at least kept their footpaths in walking conditions all through the winter, no doubt because they’re shorter than the paths up Mt. Kirremen.

 

Because it was late and the sun was well past set when I arrived at the Fastness, I thought I would have to knock on cabin windows till I found someone to guide me to the guest house. No such luck. I came up the main footpath, and Ashe was waiting for me at the top of it, in heavy overcoat and mittens, with his hood up. Tiny piles of snow on his shoulders told me he had been waiting there some time. 

The children were both with him. I hadn’t expected Ashe would really bring them. The younger, Ippe, was six now, and had gotten bigger since I had last seen him. Ippe slipped out from behind his mother’s night-blue overcoat and came barrelling at me to throw his arms around my middle. He pushed himself up on his tiptoes for me to pick him up. I started to do so, but he was heavier now than I recalled.

“Be gentle, Ibby,” Ashe chided him. “He’s been sick, remember?”

“Oh,” said Ippe, looking up at me. “Sorry, baba.”

“It’s all right,” I said.

It startled me that Ashe knew I’d been unwell. I hadn’t told him, and hadn’t sounded so bad on the phone. Did it follow logically from the fact of a long journey that we’d been starving at the end? Or perhaps Ashe had figured it was easier to tell the children I was sick than to tell them I was pregnant. It was mine to tell after all, not his.

Reden, the elder, stood beside Ashe. He did not run at me, but waited till I was closer up the road to approach me. Reden embraced me tightly, quickly, and then stepped back to allow Ashe to do the same. Ashe did not, and offered me his arm to link mine in, because he said the road was slippery in parts. Thus linked, we walked back to his quarters.

His cabin was slightly bigger than a solitary indweller’s cabin, having a room for the children’s visits. They did not live here. The children usually lived with the Foreth clan in Osborth, with Ashe’s parents, Ashe’s nine older siblings, and all the children of those siblings, as well as with the two other families who dwelled in that hearth. It was clearly a visitors’ room, narrow and sparsely furnished. Another bed had been pushed into the children’s already small room, between their beds, for me.

“It’s not much,” Ashe lamented.

“I owe you my life twice over,” I answered.

Ashe blushed. “It’s nothing, Therem. I’m only doing what’s necessary.”

He had not changed one bit. He was still possessed of that dear and warped sense of duty that considered loyalty in the extraordinary form to be the minimum due. It was a heavy thing to accept the invitation to stay at his house, and I knew it when I accepted it as I knew it when I arrived. Yet I could not shake the feeling I was getting myself into something .

Adjoining Ippe and Reden’s room was the main room of the cabin, which functioned both as a small kitchen and as Ashe’s bedroom. The shelves were bare and held some photographs, a few notebooks, some audiotapes; no more. We sat at a small table with four chairs, one of which had a wooden block with a cushion atop the seat, no doubt Ippe’s, and another of which didn’t match the other two, no doubt one from one of the common halls, brought in for me. There was a great blue-tiled hearthstove too, and the wide, deep top of the hearthstove was flat with a few ceramic steps leading up to it. A mattress could have been placed there for an old person or someone exceedingly sensitive to cold, but it would have gotten too hot on an early spring night for anyone else, even for me, even with my chills. Instead, Ashe used the warm ledge to store the washtub. He had also placed a bowl of soup up there on the tiles to keep warm.

“Scallions, offal, and spicy tendon,” he said. “They served it at the Long Table today. I thought you’d be hungry.”

He had never forgotten what I liked to eat. I took a seat at his table and partook of his food, grateful for his kindness and embarrassed by it. 

Reden sat on Ashe’s bed with a book, apart from us but watching cautiously. Ippe placed his small hands on my leg. 

“Can I sit with you, or will it be bad for you?” Ippe whispered.

“Ibby,” warned Ashe.

“It should be fine,” I said. “Come here.”

Ippe climbed up onto my lap and lay against my chest while I ate. The last time he had sat on my lap during a meal, his head did not come up to my chin, and now his head was at the same height as mine. Six years old. When else do these things happen but during the blink of an eye?

“Before you keep eating, let’s talk. The whole fastness has consented to hide you,” Ashe informed me. “We put it to a vote. It was unanimous, and we took an oath of secrecy.”

“I know,” I said. No one survives alone. 

He gave me a firm and unmistakable look that said listen .

“But visitors wouldn’t know. We’re a long day’s drive from Ehrenrang. We thought about the risk you’d meet old acquaintances who could recognize you by sight.”

“I understand. I’ll lie low. I won’t go near visitors, and I’ll keep clear of the entrances. I won’t endanger anyone here by making my presence known.”

“No,” Ashe said. “You’ll have freedom to move around. We’re closing the mountain to visitors and we’re going to block all the footpaths. But there’s still a trail through the west woods that leads to the Ey river. There’s a boathouse there with a canoe, if it comes to that. I don’t think you’ll have to cross the river over to Orgoreyn, though. My real worry is that it may get dull for you, being confined here.”

“You’re worried I’ll be bored?”

“Yes,” said Ashe. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“That’s thoughtful of you,” I said. “But with these two for company, I’d have to try very hard to get bored. You don’t need to worry about that.”

I was letting Ippe play with my braid. He was sticking pink hemmen needles in it. His pockets were full of them. I usually didn’t like hands in my hair, but now I was happy to be close to him. I had missed the children very much, and was only beginning to understand how much. 

“No, I suppose not,” said Ashe with a warm smile. 

I must have looked amusing with hemmen bits sticking out of my head. I smiled back at Ashe. We sat there gazing at each other while Ippe made my braid look like a quillrat and Reden came shyly to join us at the table. I had missed Ashe too. But after a long breath, his soft, hazy expression dissolved into something more pensive and heavy. I didn’t think my presence was easy for him.

“Could I talk to your father alone?” Ashe asked the children. “It’s about time for you two to sleep anyway.”

Ippe looked disappointed, but Reden yawned and told him he would brush his hair for him and they could listen to something on the tape player, and Ippe consented to follow him into their room. 

 

It was late at night. After a while, the crack of light under the door went out. When he was sure the children were asleep, Ashe asked me, sincerely, “are you going to be all right?”

“I think the king might pardon me, and like you said, I can get out of Karhide fast if he doesn’t.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“What, then?”

“I mean, Therem, do you know what you are doing?”

“Evidently not,” I said coldly. “Pray tell me what it is that I am doing.”

“I don’t know,” Ashe protested, so woundedly that I winced at my words at once. “That’s why I’m asking. What is your intention? What are you feeling? What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know either. I’m rowing up the Marga without a map.”

“Guided by nothing but the winds of your hunch,” he mused.

“That’s right.”

Ashe sighed. “I used to find that charming.”

I said nothing to that. 

“I still don’t want to see you run yourself aground, you know. Will you answer me truly if I ask if you’ll be all right? I don’t mean politics and I don’t mean safety. I’m asking about your mind and heart. Forgive my being direct.” 

“Nusuth. Go on.”

“I’m only remembering that time—it was years ago, before either of the kids, before our vows, but I’m sure you remember too. You were too upset to have forgotten.”

I looked at him, waiting for context.

“We’d lost track of the calendar together while keeping kemmer in the old apartment,” Ashe said, squeezing his hands absently while he spoke, “I came out of it early and you came out late, two full days apart, but… you thought yours was supposed to be over too, that you were… that I’d gotten you stuck as female. I’ve never seen you so distraught since then, so anxious, and—”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I remember now.”

“You couldn’t breathe normally,” Ashe continued fervently. “You kept sobbing that you’d betrayed somebody. And then you told me the whole story of your life. You weren’t yourself those two days, till we realized the scare had been a false alarm, and—”

“Yes, all right.”

“I worry,” Ashe said. “That’s all.”

His concern was overbearing, but genuine. It distressed him that I might be distressed. Ashe played shifgrethor with a delicate, masterful touch, but only with others; never with me. On me, his blind spot, he cast his shadow coarsely, but clean of any malice or disdain. He worried. That was all. 

It is a terrible thing that when you have been someone’s kemmering for seven years, they come to know you thoroughly and see every part of you, and that even when you part ways, no matter how long it has been since, they do not forget. 

“None of that happened this time,” I said, “I’m not an overweepy twenty-something anymore. I was on a glacier, and got a real sense of perspective. When getting off the glacier in one piece is at the forefront of your mind, you have fewer thoughts to spare on silly nonsense.”

“It wasn’t silly and you were never overweepy. Therem, do you say these things about yourself because you believe them, or do you just like to hear me contradict you?”

“I am trying to set you at ease!”

“That’s not how you set me at ease. That’s not how you convince me you’re fine.”

My answer was a heavy sigh.

“Ashe, I will not try to convince you. You must either believe it or doubt it of your own accord.”

“All right,” said Ashe, “I believe it.”

“Thank you. You do?”

“Not a whit, but I’ll act as though I do, since that seems to be what you want, and arguing with you is worth no one’s trouble.”

I had not missed this. In fact, it stung.

“I’m glad we’ve come to a resolution,” I answered shakily, standing up.

Ashe sighed.

“I’m sorry. Good night.”

I spoke the same words back to him and turned around, thinking to myself with dark irony, “Well done, Therem Harth, well done. New bitterness with your old kemmering, in his house, and it hasn’t been a full day! There’s a new low.”

I joined the children in the little side room to sleep and my foul mood began to dissipate. It was a curious thing, lying down in an unfamiliar house with my most familiar people, both still in exile and back in my own country. This, at least, was a comfort.

The extra bed had been pushed flush in between Ippe and Reden’s guest beds, making that side of the narrow room all one mattress, wall to wall. I was, for the first time in a long time, completely calm. The cold sheets and dense knitfur blankets weighed down on me pleasantly, and though the mattress was not good, I was glad to let myself sink into it. 

Half awake and half asleep, Ippe inched closer to me, and tucked his cold little feet between my calves. I felt Reden stir too. He curled up against my chest, and I lay my arm across his back. He was, like his sibling, so much bigger than he’d been since we last lived all together, under the roof of that apartment in Ehrenrang. I had seen them since then, of course, but not sleeping. I had missed holding them close. Older children are much better company than very young ones, but they rarely fall asleep in your arms, and there’s something restful and meditative about holding your sleeping child. I fell asleep listening to them both breathe. 

I was the last of us to wake up the next morning. I am not an early riser nor a quick one. Once I take stock of the fact I am conscious, I very rarely have much enthusiasm for getting up, and then I fall asleep again, unless some jolt keeps me awake. That morning, the jolt was being in Ashe’s house, and all the gratitude and shame that came of it.

The blankets on the three beds had been shoved around in the night, and were arranged like a pesthry nest when I woke up. I straightened the covers out a bit and came out of the bedroom to find a note from Ashe. He was out and had gone to attend to his duties at dawn. Reden was sitting at the table, drawing with colored pencils, and Ippe was crouched in front of the fire, animatedly doing the voices of two dolls in a boat (one of Ashe’s slippers), who were having what sounded like a miserable time on the open sea. He looked up when he saw me.

“Hello!” said Ippe.

“Good morning! Have you two had breakfast?”

“Sort of,” said Reden.

“We had some fruit. But I can still eat!”

I could as well. For once, I had woken up not queasy, but ravenously hungry, so I found some sottle in Ashe’s cold box, and fried them up with the fins and tails still on, since that was the way Reden liked them. 

It did me good to cook for us. I hate very much to reflect on my own life. It is far better for me to be occupied with thoughts of the greater world, to pull away from the scale of the small world and see how infinitesimal and petty my own worries really are. But now, I had no occupation. I no longer had to attend to the work of nations and planets and survival and escape. The journey has ended and my part in the mission was done and I was no longer on the run. Yet most things do not end after endings. The small vital signs keep going. So my occupation now was to take care of myself and these two, and I could do that well, and I could find it satisfying.