Ritheren spent most of the year in Ehrenrang, save for the great holidays. In summer, they would go with their mother and their father up to Orgny Fastness for the Handdara midsummer chant and run around underfoot with their halfsibs, whom their mother had fathered, while the adepts and adults sang as one voice. In the winter, which was their favorite, they would go down to Estre for a whole month to visit their mother’s kinspeople and celebrate New Year’s. New Year’s was not a Handdara holiday, but a Hearth holiday, and all the little clay ancestors would get brought out of storage and put into their niches in the domed round room, and they would have miniature scalebug wax or grease candles burned in front of them, casting a warm glow from all around and lifting their smoke through the open ceiling window. One year, Rith’s tadde had brought marble-sized alien biolumes as a gift, and the Hearth had tried them instead, making the room look like a dark sky dotted with tiny suns. But someone’s baby had eaten a handful of biolumes, and though nothing had happened to them besides glowing shits for two days, it was still Hearth consensus that real fire was safer.
At New Year’s, Sorve could usually be persuaded to give them a sip of sweet spicy mulled beer— but only a sip or your tadde will be mad at me —or tell them a story, or carry them on their shoulders, or take them into the silent, ice-covered woods at dawn to look at fat pesthry snoozing in their dens. Sorve was Rith’s eldest sib, older by at least twenty years, possibly more. Their mother had borne Sorve rather early and Rith rather late. Because Sorve was so much older than them, and because Rith only saw them when visiting Estre, they felt more like a cool younger sibling of a parent to Rith than like their own sibling.
The winter Rith was nine, though, Sorve was only going to be around for part of Rith’s visit. Sorve would be there for the holiday and then immediately return to Horden Island for bio fieldwork.
“Can we go to Horden Island too, mabbe?” Rith begged.
“Your sibling’s a busy person,” Rith’s mabbe answered. “They’re a professor. We might get in the way of their work.”
Sorve would have been flattered to be called professor. They were an upper-level postgrad student who also taught lower-level biology classes. Their mother knew the distinction, but never made it. If you taught, you were a teacher, and if you taught at a college, you might as well be a professor.
“It would have to be a camping trip, too,” Rith’s tadde said. “Horden’s mostly nature. Not a lot of towns. Not a lot of people.”
“People are nature, Genly, we’re all—” Rith’s mother began, but could not finish because Genly’s warning about camping had had the opposite of the intended effect on their child.
“We should go camping!” said Rith.
Rith had their heart set on going camping, and kept bringing it up with a frequency that might be called pestering by the ungenerous. After a week of their reminding, their mother acquiesced, and called Sorve, who agreed to the plan at once.
“Horden Island is gorgeous this time of year,” Sorve said over the phone. “It’s unwalkable, muddy, and tick-ridden in the summer, but when it’s frozen over and flat? There’s nothing quite like it. I have a friend who’s a fisher there, who’s done the trail. Absolutely beautiful view off the north coast. Port to tip,”—for the northernmost point of the east peninsula was where Sorve did their research—“it’s two days’ lesiurely walking and sledging, then another two back. I wouldn’t be coming on the way back. I’d be staying at the research outpost. It’s a much shorter trip if we rent powersledges, but you sounds like Rith wants to camp. Are they sure they’re up for it? ”
Estraven held the phone against their chest and looked at Rith, who was clinging to their side and listening.
“You heard them,” Estraven said. “Are you up for it?”
“Yeah,” said Rith. “Tell them I’m not a baby.”
“Of course,” said Estraven, ruffling Rith’s fluffy black curls.
A couple of says before they left for Estre, Rith’s tadde found his old digital camera. A piece of alien technology, it did not charge well from any of the power banks on this world, and had to charge from the sun. It charged miserably slow in winter, when the sun was dimmer, but you could get around that by charging it indoors directly under a lightbulb. Six years ago, Rith’s tadde had mislaid it in some bin or drawer, and it was only while looking for his camping stove that he found it.
“You wouldn’t have found the Chabe anyway,” Estraven reassured him. “We sold it, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” Genly said, while rifling through another storage bin on his knees. “I wrote that part in our memoir. Only, I’m sure we bought another one later.”
“Did we? We haven’t been camping since then.”
“As a space heater for the old apartment.”
“Oh! I remember.”
“I don’t,” proclaimed Rith.
“That was before your time, love,” Estraven said. “Anyway, we gave that stove to my mother. I’m sure they’d let us borrow it, though.”
“Can I borrow the camera?” Rith asked.
“Sure,” said Rith’s tadde.
Rith quickly got fascinated with the machine. It was sturdy, built to last, and still worked after all these years. They took pictures out the window all the aircar trip to Estre, but avoided taking pictures of their mother.
“I don’t think mabbe particularly wants this moment immortalized,” Genly warned them.
Air travel did not have a good effect on Estraven. They had pulled the hood of their coat all the way over their head and had drawn their legs up to their chest and were staying very, very still.
In Estre, Rith took pictures of people making jellied sweetroot and fried dough in the kitchen, and of people lighting candles, and of their lord grandmother Esvans asleep in their chair. Once the holiday was over, they ran around the wooded hills of Estre taking pictures of particularly gnarled trees with Karrem Ench rem ir Estraven and Osusth Harth rem ir Estraven, third cousins of theirs. The pair were full siblings, but Osusth’s mother Detres was Karrem’s father, and Karrem’s mother Sesher was Osusth’s father.
Karrem had been disappointed that the photos didn’t print, like from a regular camera.
“Selfish machine,” they’d said. “Keeping all the photos to itself.”
“You can get at them, I’m sure,” Rith insisted. “They’re stored somewhere. Otherwise, there’s no point.”
“Rith,” called their mother from downhill, “if we don’t leave now, we won’t make the ferry.”
“Gotta go,” Rith said, dashing off.
The ferry departed from Thather port, not too far from Estre. On the ferry over to Horden island, Rith paced about on deck, restless, while the camera charged indoors from artificial light. Having little better to do, they started bothering Sorve. An older sibling is perfect for bothering, the older the better, and Sorve was certainly older. Despite this, Sorve was rather difficult to bother, and kept rolling with whatever Rith said. No, their job wasn’t to count stinkbugs all summer. No, waterhoppers weren’t stinky, they had checked. No, biologists weren’t stinky either, not that Sorve had noticed, but they could check again next summer and publish the findings. There was a paper to be had there, if Rith wrote the grant. No, they were quite sure they didn’t stink, since they had washed this morning, which was more recently than Rith had last washed. Yes, it was with soap and not bugs.
“Aren’t you two getting cold out there on deck?” Genly called from inside.
“Terrans,” Rith declared to Sorve, sounding so much like Estraven that Sorve guffawed.
Few people got out when the ferry stopped at Horden’s East port. Most of the passengers were travelling further up the mainland coast, to Kuseben or Birse. Those who did disembark at Horden, Sorve recognized as residents they had met before, and wished them a good year.
The family stopped at an alehouse before setting off on their trek. The alehouse consisted of a private residence with an extra room and a sign over the door that read “Fried Smelts .80 Sarreg. Hot Ale 2 Sarregy/1.5 Sarreg Small.”
The house was owned by three kemmerings, two of whom fished, and the third of whom brewed. The brewer was a tall, bespectacled person, with three prosthetic fingers on their right hand. They set down three mugs of piping hot beer for the adults, and for Rith, a warm beer in a little cup with sugar on the side.
Seeing the glance Genly and Estraven exchanged, the brewer downed Rith’s cup themselves, and replaced it with a cup of hot orsh.
“I could have a little beer,” said Rith.
“You can have a little beer when you’re older,” said Genly.
“You wouldn’t like this,” Estraven added, “it’s very sour.”
After the meal, the four of them set out walking. They got seven or eight miles before stopping to pitch the tent. Rith was exhausted and chilly, but had insisted on the trip in the first place, and tried not to let on.
When the tent was pitched, they slipped into one of the fur sleeping bags and fell asleep instantly. Genly woke them up a few minutes later with dinner. He had cooked kadik to go with the dried pesthry meat. Rith ate and went back to sleep at once. Sorve sat up in their own bag, reading silently by the glow of the stove.
“It doesn’t feel like those times,” Genly said quietly to Estraven. “I thought it might, but it’s different.”
“You could go to prison again and I could fish you out,” Estraven offered, laying their head down on his shoulder.
Genly stroked their hair. It was beginning to grey, and had already gone white at the temples.
“Thank you for the offer, Therem, but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on prison.”
“And I’ll pass on running out of food, and bad maps.”
“And I’ll pass on being convinced you’re plotting against me.”
Estraven looked back up at him with a sleepy, half-lidded grin.
“I am plotting against you, my love.”
“Is that so?”
“It is. I wasn’t then, but I am now. I plot against you every day of your life.”
“Oh, of course,” said Genly. “What are you plotting?”
“I don’t know yet,” they yawned. “I haven’t finished plotting.”
In the morning, it was blizzarding. You couldn’t walk well through low visibility, Genly explained while he ate breakfast. It was better to wait it out.
“But it’s not so bad, waiting it out,” Genly added. “You can play games, draw, tell stories—”
“Explain what women are,” Estraven added, deadpan.
“Well, that one was your idea, Therem.”
“True. But do you want another try?”
“Definitely not! You’ve met women now. My work here is done. They can explain themselves.”
Estraven shrugged, and then stretched out to lay their head on Genly’s thigh
“We can sit at opposite ends of the tent and avoid each other,” they said.
“Amha,” Sorve called from their corner of the tent.
“Hmm?” said Estraven.
“How old is this camera of yours?”
“I’m not sure. Genly’s had it since their crewmates landed. I don’t know if it was new then, or not.”
“It was probably new-ish then, though of course it was made a hundred years ago,” Genly answered, “because of—”
“Time dilation,” Estraven finished for him. “How long have we had it?”
“Eight years. No, more than nine years. Maybe ten, maybe eleven. I lost it six years ago. Can I see it?”
Sorve handed it to him carefully. Genly began pressing buttons, and then went quiet.
“Oh wow,” he whispered. “These pictures go way back.”
“Let me see, let me see!” cried Rith.
The first picture was of Estraven in a hospital bed, in a room tiled with white and green.
“This must be when I was born,” Rith said, “because I had to be born in a hospital instead of at home because I had to be cut out.”
“Because your head was so big,” Sorve said.
“Because it was going to be full of good thoughts.”
“Is it? When?” asked Sorve. “Soon, I hope. Let me see the picture.”
Rith stuck their tongue out at them, but handed them the camera.
“You were smaller, Sorve, and much more punctual,” Estraven said, “but I didn’t get out of that one without stitches either.”
Sorve winced in sympathy and looked at the picture.
“No, this is some other time, Rith,” Sorve said. “Look at the writing on the corner of the bed. It’s in Orgota, and you weren’t born in Orgoreyn.”
“Also, amha isn’t pregnant in this picture.”
“And this minor detail is secondary to the Orgota text, of course,” said Estraven. “Let me see, too.”
Saying that, they inched closer to the camera. Genly thought the three of them crowding over it would have made a good picture, if he had a second camera.
“Ah, this was after I was shot,” Estraven said. “I had to have surgery on my lung, and physical therapy for months. The recovery was worse than the shooting. And all these people kept visiting me.”
“Estraven, goldfish, you can’t keep arriving in Orgoreyn by hospital,” Genly said in Orgota.
“Ha! That’s a good Obsle. Goodness, I was thin in this picture. Yech. No wonder I was cold the whole time I was there. Really, the best parts of that stay were the week I was unconscious and your visit.”
“You never told me you were unconscious for a week ,” Sorve said.
“I don’t remember any of it,” Estraven said. “What would I have told? Look, there’s that blanket you brought me, Genly.”
Estraven pointed at the picture. In it, was a thick, white fur blanket. The younger Estraven in the picture had it drawn around their shoulders. Rith looked attentively.
“Your father came to tell me the news themselves, when my exile was revoked. I had already heard of it, but it meant a lot to me that they came to see me. It took a lot of negotiation. When they were finally able to see me, they did not want to leave my side. I didn’t want them to either.”
“I remember,” Genly said. “There were seven other empty beds, but you asked me to share yours.”
“I didn’t want you getting cold,” Estraven said.
“And you wanted to hold me.”
“Yes, of course. We weren’t together before that, but we wanted to be. When you survive getting shot, you learn to do the things you wanted to instead of holding back.”
“I took this one,” Sorve said, showing off a different picture.
There stood Genly and Estraven wearing bands of woven ribbons around their necks, over their hiebs. Estraven had a healthier glow in this one, and no longer looked like someone who had nearly starved. Genly’s hair was finely braided, and the braids were threaded with gold. Behind them was a symbol of the Ekumen.
“You were very proud,” Estraven said fondly.
“Yes, I was,” Sorve said, their voice slightly shaking. “After hearing you called a traitor on the radio for a year, to see you honored like this..."
Estraven placed a hand on Sorve’s hand.
“I know you don’t believe in heroes or heroism,” Sorve continued, “but I thought it meant a lot.”
“It did,” Estraven said. “It matters.”
The next picture was a sunny day on Icefoot Lake near the Ebos shore. It was summer, since most of the snow around the lake had melted, except for a few clumps near the bases of trees. The photo was taken inside a rowboat. Genly and Sorve were in the picture, along with three others.
“I took that one,” Estraven said.
“Why’s tadde wearing so many clothes?” Rith asked. All of the other people in the picture were shirtless and in shorts, wearing floater belts in case they fell in the water. Genly was wearing a high-necked wetsuit.
“Because I’m not a crazy person,” Genly said.
“Icefoot Lake is pretty warm in the summer,” Sorve said.
“The banks are,” Genly countered, “and the parts you can wade into are. But it’s not called Pretty-warm-foot Lake. Further in it’s cold, and that’s where the eels are. This was my first time eeling.”
“This eel was the mother of all eels, Rith,” Sorve said. “It was about as long as you are tall. You should have seen it.”
“You should have heard me scream,” Genly said.
“It kept flopping around on the boat, trying to get back into the water, slapping everyone who tried to pick it up,” Estraven said. “And it was so slimy, we couldn’t pick it up anyway. It knocked Sesher Ench rem ir Stokven clean off the boat, backwards into the water.”
“Isn’t that Karrem’s mabbe?” Rith asked.
“I can’t wait to tell Karrem an eel beat their mabbe in a fight!”
“Perhaps,” Estraven cautioned, “it would not be wise to do so.”
“The same eel also beat your mabbe in a fight,” Genly said, laughing. “Therem, you came out of that water looking like a wet cat,”
Estraven’s brow furrowed.
“I’ve only seen pictures and holos of dry cats,” they said. “Are they very different when wet?”
“They’re pretty much the same, but five times grumpier,” Genly said.
“Ah. I see.”
“This one looks cosy,” Sorve said.
The picture was of Estraven either asleep or drifting off to sleep in a low bed by a fire, under a pile of thick blankets. Their hair was all disarrayed. One of their arms lay over their very round middle.
Estraven smiled to themselves. Genly looked a little abashed.
“This was a fine evening,” Estraven remarked. “A couple days before Rith was born.”
“Uh, it looks like the storm’s letting up,” Genly said, looking elsewhere.
“What’s the story?” Rith asked.
“I think it’s one we’ll keep to ourselves,” Estraven added tactfully.
It was late in the morning when they set out again, but it was still morning. They had the whole day ahead of them to hike. The snow was fresh and suitable for flat skiing, so they skied. Rith enjoyed it at first, but the novelty wore off around noon, when they stopped for lunch. It got cold when they stopped moving and had to take off their masks. The hot orsh that Genly had brewed in the morning and put into thermoses had oversteeped and soured a bit.
“This is where you can usually see across the water to the mainland,” Sorve announced, “when it’s not so cloudy out.”
The ground was white, the sky was white, and the strait in between them was a strip of grey. Rith wondered what the point was, but they refused to complain. The trip had been their idea, after all.
After lunch, the hike continued, and Rith began to lag behind. Their family would stop to wait for them to catch up, and then keep going once Rith was with them. Rith wished they would stay stopped for a bit longer before going, so that Rith could take a break too. Their legs ached and their back itched and their head felt a little tight.
Midway through the afternoon, Genly offered to let Rith ride on the sledge.
“You look a bit worn out, little guy,” he said. “Let me haul you along.”
“I’m not a little guy,” Rith shouted, “and I’m not a baby and I don’t have to ride on the sledge!”
Genly gave them a curious look.
“You don’t have to ride on the sledge. Are you tired?”
“I am not tired! I am not tired!”
“Genly, Sorve, pitch the tent,” Estraven said firmly. “We’re stopping here.”
Estraven picked Rith up and walked with them some paces away before putting them down again.
“We know you aren’t a baby, Ritheren,” they said. “We all know. But we’ve been hiking all day. It’s not shameful if it’s taking a toll on you. You’re not a baby, but you’re not as old as us either, and we haven’t asked you to be.”
“Tadde would never tell Sorve to sit on the sledge and be hauled along,” Rith insisted.
“I know,” answered Estraven. “He wouldn’t. It would be poor shifgrethor, and Sorve is an adult with shifgrethor. But if Sorve felt much too tired or if they got hurt or sick, then they would let themselves be hauled. They wouldn’t try to prove how grown-up they are by not riding the sledge.”
“That’s because they are grown-up,” protested Rith. “They don’t need to prove it.”
“Well, yes,” said Estraven. “That’s exactly why. Don’t you see? You don’t have to be what you’re not.”
“I don’t like lagging behind when this trip was my idea in the first place. I thought it would be less difficult, more interesting.”
“It may have been your idea, but we all chose to do it. We chose as a group. We can choose to do it differently. We can slow our pace, and stop for longer. We aren’t in a rush.”
Estraven pulled out the map from a pocket inside their coat. In their thick gloves, it took a bit more time to unfold the paper. Rith watched them carefully.
“We’re here, almost at the frozen lake. Look how much we’ve travelled today. We’re more than on track to get to the research center where Sorve has to go by early next afternoon.”
“We were supposed to be arriving today,” Rith sniffed. “It was supposed to be ‘two days leisurely hiking,’ not three.”
“Correct,” said Estraven. “But it snowed this morning. It’s not because you’ve kept us back. These things happen. We have food for more than a week—your father insisted. We can skate for a little bit on the lake when we pass it. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. We don’t have to make things harder than they are. Now let’s warm up and have dinner.”
Back in the tent, Genly had just finished cooking breadapples in hot syrupwater and spices, and Sorve was mixing ground kadik into a porridge.
“M’sorry I yelled at you,” Rith said to Genly.
“Forgiven,” he said, and passed them a steaming bowl of sweet breadapples and a spoon.
The four ate in silence, quickly, hungrily. After dinner, Sorve returned to their book, Estraven stretched out face-up by the stovelamp and closed their eyes, and Rith curled up with their back to Genly’s warm chest while Genly looked through more of the old pictures.
“Are the rest of these all baby pictures of me?”
“I’m sure there’s other ones,” Genly said, “if you keep clicking through. God, you were tiny. You’ve grown so much.”
“Your father was quite funny when you were born,” Estraven said, their eyes still closed. “It was sweet, actually. I don’t think they had ever seen a baby up close before. They were in awe. You were a wonder and a peerless marvel and I was some sort of brilliant inventor who had invented babies.”
“You are. I still think you’re brilliant, Therem, and not just for inventing babies. Even when you’re making fun of me.”
Estraven sat up a little and opened their eyes.
“Am I making fun of you?”
“Yes, dear, and plotting against me.”
Estraven laughed silently, and sat up the rest of the way.
“Well, I’d better stop doing that. Let’s see the rest of the old pictures.”
“Here’s one of me and tadde,” Rith said. The picture showed Genly on his hands and knees and Rith, some five months old, in pink socks and a blue Terran-style onesie, sitting on the floor in front of him, wiggling their arms in delight.
“I think Tadde was trying to teach you how to crawl,” Estraven said.
“Is that how I learned to crawl?”
“No,” said Genly. “You see, the thing about babies is they figure that out on their own. But you did find it entertaining. You learned to crawl later."
"We would make towers of paperboard blocks,” Estraven added, "and you would crawl over to knock them down."
He paged through more pictures, and stopped at one of Rith in a strange hat, blowing out a tall taper candle that was perched precariously on a fishcake.
“What is this ?” they asked. “Some sort of game?”
“We... tried,” Genly said.
“ You , said cake, not dessert loaf,” said Estraven.
“And Rith loved that cake. I had to clean it out of their hair afterwards. But yes, it was supposed to be a different kind of cake. For Terran birthdays, in the part of Terra I was from, the birthday person gets a cake and candles.”
“A dessert loaf and shrinelights. Not a full-on candle.”
“Shrinelights?” asked Rith, laughing. “Like a fastness founder?”
“Well, it means different things,” Genly said. “For us, tiny candles are just pretty lights, and cake is dessert loaf. When I came back from the store with a box of sugar and said it was for cake, your mother thought I was paying a joke on them.”
Estraven kissed him on the corner of the mouth.
“For what it’s worth, I thought it was a very good joke.”
Rith pulled a face as if to say, these silly, silly people, and Estraven kissed them on the top of the head .
There was something on Rith’s mind that they wanted to know the answer to, They had been pondering it and realized if they didn’t ask tonight, they might forget to ask at all.
“Do you miss when I was a baby?”
“I don’t know,” Estraven said. “There are many things that were different that I remember fondly, but there are many things that are better now. You and I can have conversations now, and I know you better every year. And when you are Sorve’s age, there will be things from now that I remember fondly, and new things that I will appreciate.”
“And when you are my age and your mother and I are old, old men like grandmother, we will have even more things to remember, and we will have all the same love.”
Outside, the wind blew fiercely. Inside, sealed from the elements and bathed in the warm glow of the stovelamp, all was well.
“Sorve, I remember when you were a baby too,” Estraven said.
Sorve looked up from their book. It was rare for Estraven to talk about those times. They had not been good ones.
“What was I like?”
“When I would feed you, I would hold you like this,” they said, cradling an imaginary weight in front of their chest. “And you would take your hand and stick it in my underarm,” they continued, “like this .”
But instead of putting their hand in their own underarm, they reached across the tent and poked Sorve under the arm. Sorve yelped, and then started laughing.
“Amha, you clown.”
Later, in the gloaming, they ventured out of the tent again, and walked north for a few minutes towards the cliffs.
“You can see the mainland better now,” Sorve said. “The sky’s cleared up.”
Across the cold black water rose the Kargav mountains, old and powerful. To the left, the sun was setting, and to the right the moon was rising, red and huge.
They watched it for as long as they could bear to stay still in the winter wind, and then huddled together back in the tent for the night, to sleep and praise the darkness.
“I am glad you came out here with me,” Sorve said.
“Me too,” said Rith, and meant it.