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Crone's Rite

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When Noe maran-Kaiel sent word by rayvoice of her imminent return from visiting her relatives and constituents on the coast, her six husbands and wives threw a feast. It was a homecoming for the family, as well as for Noe; they had not all been in one place since the wedding, and had never all shared the mansion in Kaiel-hontokae. The Liethe concubine who went by Honey was surprised to be invited. “Tonight is for your family, silly,” she told Hoemei.

“Tonight’s for Noe, and you’re her friend. Aren’t you? You speak of each other like friends.”

Though she knew the function of flattery—who better?—she still could not help being flattered: by the invitation, by Noe’s pleasure at seeing her, and by Hoemei’s refusal to let her serve at table, insisting she sit at his side and stuff herself with the rest of them. In deference to Oelita there was no meat, but the maran had spared no expense for other dainties; there were mead and juices both, rice with dried bees and pollen, bean and nut spreads with profane spices, corn fritters with honey, and rounds of wheat bread stuffed with delicacies prepared from Noenop’s latest experimental crop samples. Oelita, Hoemei murmured, had these last brought over the mountains by skrei-wheel; Hoemei had allocated two dozen young people from the creches to tend and gene-sequence the new crops and naturalize them in the hill country. “And to devise recipes. The better they taste, the more people will want to plant them.”

The dips and salads being tested on the maran that night were certainly successful. Only Kathein ate sparingly, taking small and deliberate portions of only the sacred foods. Noe, she saw, had noticed it too; and once the children had kissed their one-mother and been taken to bed by the Ivieth nursemaid, Noe nodded at her four-wife and said "So you're keeping this one? When's it due?"

Their husbands roared in surprise and delight; they had not known. "You're pregnant?" Gaet gave her a look of appraisal. Kathein's belly was still not much rounded, but her breasts were filling out unmistakably. "Since when?"

Kathein flicked an empty nutshell at Noe in sham annoyance. “I’d think you should know," she said to Gaet. "It’s yours, after all. It's the child of the wedding.” Joesai punched Gaet’s shoulder affectionately. And, to Noe, “Bearing, yes; keeping, no. I’m fostering this one with the Moietra--assuming she’s any good at physics.” The Moietra were Kathein's infant clan of physics dobus. They still lived, six young men and women from the creches and a set of baby twins, in the house by the aqueduct for which Kathein had named them, and continued to work and study at her direction.

“Fostering?” said Hoemei. “Surely that’s a decision for later.” Hoemei had hoped to postpone any judgment about the fate of the Moietra until after the Itraiel question had been settled, but the pregnancy would force him to take action. Kathein looked ready to argue, but the Liethe who was called Honey stretched out an unscarred arm and passed her the sacred breads, and said "One of my sisters should still be in milk when you deliver, if you need a wet-nurse." Oelita, who had kept her milk in once her twins were weaned by nursing Teenae's youngest, made an indignant sound at the suggestion, and Teenae herself sat up and directed a precisely-aimed jet of milk at the smooth-faced clone. She caught it on her tongue, delicately, and the argument was averted. Noe's glance at her friend was amused and grateful.

Honey's role that night was played by the se-Tufi Who Walks In Humility, as it had been every time Hoemei had sent for her since the wedding. Her sisters at the hive had begun to clamor for a chance to serve the new Prime Predictor, but she could not bear to leave him to their ministrations; and since she had revealed herself to the maran-Kaiel as both Honey and Comfort, she thought that Hoemei would have noticed the substitution. She was certain Noe would notice. Sometimes that thought frightened her, but she continued to think it all the same, and to hold the fear close to her heart.

 

The Moietra matter had not previously occupied the councils of the Liethe. Kaiel artisans were of some interest to Hivehome, being Kaiel and priests; a new artisan clan would be out of the Liethe's sphere entirely. The Hive's narrow focus struck her, not for the first time, as dangerous. She retreated into White Mind to consider the consequences, but there she had first to confront the even more dangerous thoughts she had been setting aside all evening: Have I come to favor the maran-Kaiel as part of becoming a crone, who must judge where the Hive's favor falls? Or do I embrace young cronedom to justify my favoritism?

The mead was all drunk and the dishes were scraped nearly clean; Teenae drowsed against Joesai's chest. Humility smiled at up Noe, more Comfort's smile than Honey's. "You are your husbands' guest tonight, but will you allow me to wait on you as well? I would be pleased to brush out your hair, and dress you for bed." She touched Hoemei's cheek fondly. "I know they all three snuck into your room to lay out their favorites of your pillow-clothes."

Noe stood and stretched. "Come and dress me as you like best, then. You can choose who shares my room tonight."

Humility dressed her in a short, sheer robe embroidered with small mirrors and sent her to bed with Joesai, who had no opinion on the Moietra so long as they continued to build increasingly large astronomical instruments for him, and whose opinions on the Itraiel matter had long since been set down in print, not only in the clan Archives but as a broadsheet. Noe embraced him happily, then peered around his great shoulder and said "You always know just what to get me. Stay and have breakfast with me in the morning?" Touched, Humility agreed, and closed the door on Noe and her giant three-husband.

Downstairs, Oelita sat alone in the atrium. "The others have gone to bed," she said.

"They shouldn't have left you alone!"

"It was my choice. I wanted to talk with you."

"Me?"

"I’m still learning my way around being Kaiel, but it seems to me you are a part of this family, too, in your own way." Oelita patted the seat beside her in invitation. "I was a lonepriest and the daughter of a lonepriest. I know what it is to look on happy marriages from the outside—by choice, or by circumstance. I never took a vow," she said, "but I think in many ways my old life was much like yours."

"Do you have sisters? No? Then our lives are nothing alike." She took a seat at Oelita's feet and rested her head on the bench beside her hand. "Also, you are gentle and kind with everyone, and I only wish that I could be."

Oelita stroked her dark hair. "I tried to be. I still try to be. God was not gentle with me, and neither were the Kaiel; but I have moved a few Kaiel hearts. I hope I may have moved God's, too, but I'll never know."

"I read your book," Humility said. "The new one. You may believe in God now but I think you are still a heretic. I hoped you were."

"I don't know what I am anymore." Oelita sighed, and Humility felt her touch change, from giving comfort to seeking it. She caught the Gentle Heretic's hands and pressed them.

"Whatever I am, I am still Liethe. Come to bed."

 

Kathein returned to her workshop at dawn, to breakfast with her proteges, a clear statement that she meant to do as she had said. "As though we needed one!" Joesai said. "Kathein will do as she will."

"This isn't the time to foster out a child." Gaet poured broth for Joesai and Noe. They were not the last to table; Hoemei and Teenae were still abed. Humility sat with the family again by Oelita’s request; she patted the vacant seat beside her and Noe took it. "Jokain is the oldest of ours and he's barely four. Close siblings are a strength--look at us and Hoemei! Kathein's child should stay here with us; and, Noe, if you got pregnant, that would make seven, for the seven of us." He dipped toasted bread in his broth thoughtfully. "With Joesai's child first, since Jokain's his only so far. With his height and your beauty, you and Joesai would have splendid children—like statues!"

Noe was unswayed by the flattery. "I will have a child when I'm quite ready. If you want to raise up another generation of maran overachievers in your image, you can do that with six. Or with five. More are superfluous, unless you actually plan to send any of ours to the soup pot."

"He wouldn't," Oelita said, calmly. "That's why I fell in love with him first."

She squeezed Humility’s hand as she said it. Noe noticed, and raised an eyebrow at her, but to Gaet she said "I'm the only one in this marriage who grew up in a proper family, except for Teenae and she was reared for the auction block. It's not like a creche, in a creche you have so many children you don't notice one more or less--"

"That's not so." Hoemei came down the stairs with Teenae under his arm. "You know about Sanan, how we all remember him. Do you think we don't remember the others?"

"Of course not, but--how to say it? Teenae, you know what I mean."

Teenae sank into a cushioned chair and the nurse brought her the baby. "You mean that the number of connections possible between members of a group increases asymptotically to the square of the group size."

"Exactly; and past a certain size no one can keep track of that many connections; not even you, Gaet. Our family is well below that size, and adding any child to it will hugely increase its complexity. If Kathein wants to foster this one out, I'll support her; and whether she does or not, I think we should call a halt to childbearing for a few years. What makes this family special can’t be force-grown like seedlings in a hothouse.”

"And yet that's exactly what Kathein is trying," Hoemei said, "with her new clan. It can't work." He nodded good-morning to Humility. "Even cloning wouldn’t help her; the minds she hopes to breed want to be in conversations with other minds, with new insights, not with their own mirror images." Gaet passed him the bread basket and he broke a roll in two and considered the parts.

"There is more variation among my sisters' minds than you would guess to look at us," the Liethe said demurely. “And more differences of opinion.”

"You're all arguing about the wrong thing," Teenae said. "I want my four-wife, and my four-wife's child is not a substitute for her because my four-wife is unique. Even Kathein's clone would not be the same person as Kathein. And if I'm not satisfied by an unequal exchange, why should the Moietra be? They want their clan head, and she can't be that while being part of our family, not and perform either role as she would want. So we should stop talking about fosterage as though it solves that problem, because it doesn't."

The baby gurgled, and Teenae gave him her other breast. "That said, I think the Moietra should be formally recognized. If they leave the Kaiel, they can swell our constituencies; if they stay, they can never be our followers. And Kathein can wield a better influence as a dedicated holder of Moietra pledges than she could as an absent clan chief."

 

Hoemei let the matter stay there, that morning, but when the se-Tufi Who Walks In Humility next visited his chambers at the palace he had clearly been thinking of little else. "Not even of me?" she said, for it was Honey's line, though more and more, Hoemei required Sieen's counsel and attention, and sometimes even Cairnem’s distractions. How foolish they had all been, in hindsight, letting her woo Hoemei in only one persona!

He would definitely notice, Humility was sure, if one of her sisters replaced her; but letting on how many women had been Honey was not the same as letting on how many women his Honey had been, could be.

"It's this business with the Moietra. I should call them the moietra-Kaiel; as a family, they're an asset to the Kaiel, but as a clan, they can easily become a threat."

“How could an artisan clan threaten the Kaiel?"

Hoemei reached for her indulgently. "You're trying to flatter me into telling you my predictions. You could ask me, you know. I want your opinions; I know you counseled Aesoe, more than you or he let on.

“An artisan clan has control of its creations; the roads belong to the Ivieth, even in the heart of Kaiel-hontokae. An independent Moietra clan could supply any priestly clan with the best sky-eyes, the strongest rayvoice, the most powerful electron pumps— they've begun making rockets, did you know that?"

"I understand. This is really about the Itraiel.”

Hoemei sighed deeply. “If we exchange the Itraiel's priesthood for weapons, they'll put those weapons at the service of the other priest-clans, or in time turn them on the Kaiel themselves, and then on the rest of Geta. But if we refuse that bargain, in effect we ask them to trade priesthood for nothing. The underclans are already deserting them. They've failed as priests and they know it, but with an independent source of weapons and tools such as the Moietra could supply, they might become a serious threat."

"You Kaiel have made architects of the Stgal," Humility said, "and sailors of the Mnankrei. What would you make of the Itraiel, if not priests or warriors?"

"Oh, no. That prediction isn't ready, even for your ears."

 

The rayvoice at the hivehouse was more forthcoming. A Liethe sister had accompanied the Itraiel ambassadors on their return journey to the deserts; her small transmitter could not send all the way to Kaiel-hontokae, but the messages were relayed from hive to hive. "Our sister has seen a dobu of the kembri wearing the wheat-ear scar of the Gentle Heretic," Humility reported to the crone-mother. "And other Itraiel so decorated, all of high kalothi."

"Is this surprising?" the se-Tufi Who Finds Pebbles said. "The Itraiel are gentle because they are harsh. They do not assume the blind or the crippled lack kalothi, nor that the strong possess it, but test all equally in their games. If the tribe is rich enough for the high in kalothi to spare the low at the games' end, it is no shame upon them, though it may be an insult for the losers who have been cheated of making their Contribution."

"And how come they to feel so rich, when the underclans continue to desert them for the Kaiel? The se-Tufi Who Sits On Bees reports that they all eat well, even though the settled families who used to tend their sacred crops have dwindled or departed."

The crone shrugged. "Good years come, just as bad years do. Let the Itraiel enjoy their heresy while they may."

"Good years come, but perhaps they do not come unaided. If the Itraiel's bounty comes from some other clan's stores, perhaps they have found another priestly protector."

"Who? The Mnankrei are broken. To bring in stores by land would require a massive commitment of Ivieth, and they do not do such work in secret." For this Humility had no answer.

 

As Kathein's pregnancy progressed she fell deep into her work, and spent more and more nights in the rooms at the Moietra house. Her spouses followed her there, one or two at a time, and often stayed the night. The morning after one such night, Kathein and Teenae came down to the workshop to find Humility in the anteroom.

"Good morning, sister almost-wife," said Teenae. "It is you, isn't it? Not the one who watches the street from the balcony opposite."

The observation of the Moietra was assigned to all the younger se-Tufi in turn; six, at present. The crone would be pleased to know they all played their role so well.

"You had beautiful work done in Soebo," Humility said, in Honey's inflections.

"Didn't I just? I flatter myself that I have the best-decorated skin in Kaiel-hontokae."

Kathein did not nod, or even smile, but her face gleamed with possessive pride. Humility turned to her. "You know your two-wife's cicatrices, better than any; and I know the Moietra sigils are your design and your work. Will you decorate me with the wheat-ear?"

Kathein sat down heavily, her propriety deeply shocked. "You can't wear Teenae's art!"

"The Liethe don't decorate!" Teenae said, at the same time.

"Which is why I can hardly go to your artist," said Humility. "He would talk—oh, the scandal! Oh, the fame—such great artistry even the naked Liethe come to beg for his designs." She moved to Kathein's side and sank to her knees. "Not a copy. Your own work. You can hardly fail to be inspired by Teenae's beauty." She bowed her head deeply, exposing the nape of her neck. "Just here, above the hairline. Tiny. No one will see. But your three-wife's books speak to me, and I wish to wear her symbol."

Kathein relented, as Humility had known she must, and sent for her tools. While she worked she talked. "It was vanity to give the Moietra my sigil. I wanted everyone to know that whatever these brilliant children create, I created them. But Hoemei sighs whenever he sees it between my breasts, and Gaet touches my belly and talks about how our child will be the pet of its siblings. Only Joesai seems to trust that I am still his wife. I was willing to give up the Moietra to be maran! Why can they not remember that, and let me be? When they have as much need of my time, my genes, as the Moietra do now, they have only to ask."

Humility listened in White Mind, where there was no pain.

 

She stayed away while the cicatrice healed, taking a trip over the mountains to the north with the Ivieth and listening to their stories, and then, veiled and painted, visiting the palace Archives. When she returned, she slipped into the maran mansion with a party of Gaet's constituents and up to the roof, where Joesai kept his sky-eyes. He found her there after dark, trying to follow the transit of God.

"Ho! It's you. I'm having the og'Sieth make me an escapement to hold the tube steady while it follows God, or anything you like. Try looking at Stgi; it has a companion you can see through this one, a tiny two-wife for Toe."

"You've been supplying the Itraiel with profane hybrids from the coasts," she said. "The Ivieth have carried seeds and cuttings all the way from Noenop's farm."

Joesai shrugged. "If we break the Itraiel like we did the Mnankrei, what use will they be in a hundred years, or two hundred, when the Riethe come and we need soldiers? But what use are soldiers until we have a foe to use them on? The priest-clans would find a use for them—like handing an og'Sieth child a spanner!

"But the Itraiel know every acre of their lands and every plant that grows on them, profane and sacred. They sweep through the whole territory every year, planting and harvesting and moving on, leaving only the smallest outposts to tend their fields and gardens. You never saw Oelita's hermitage in the wilderness. I got the idea from her—her tiny wheat field, her flowers.

"The Itraiel are already priests of the land, as the Mnankrei are of the sea; they just don't know it yet. But if Noenop's seeds let them start building up surpluses and stores, the underclans will flood in to learn how they did it. They'll still be dobus of fighting, because of their games, but they won't be looking for a fight with the rest of Geta; they'll be looking to sweep in and feed it."

"The Kaiel will be hard-pressed at their northern borders."

"Good. The Kaiel have already swallowed a big meal on the coast; let them digest for a few generations. When they're ready to take on the deserts, the Itraiel will be ready to deal—a better deal."

"You haven't put that prediction in the Archives yet. I checked."

"I'm still building a constituency in Itraiel lands."

"So is Oelita. She voted to recognize the Moietra—her first Kaiel vote. If the Itraiel become land-priests, the Moietra are neutralized as a threat."

"Oelita knows more than she lets on. If the Itraiel take her words to heart, they will spread philosophy with their crops."

"She doesn't know about this yet.” Humility took Joesai's huge hand and pressed it to the curve of her skull. “You're the first."

"What's this! A decorated Liethe? We do live in strange times." He took her to his rooms and kissed the new scars with delight, but after their lovemaking he left her drowsing on the pillows and returned to his observations. She woke to lamplight, and to Noe curled beside her.

Noe reached out a hand. "May I?" Humility bowed her head and let Noe touch the scar. "Kathein's work? It's lovely. And Oelita will be glad to know her work spoke to you. But that's not the only reason, is it?"

"I told you," Humility said. "The crones raise the children; the crones direct the sisters, as Kathein steers her little clan."

Noe thought for a moment. "I know you're at least two people. You may have played all three of Aesoe's concubines." Humility offered no correction. "And I think your sisters played the role of Hoemei's lover, too, at least until Aesoe's death. But that's a game for the young—clones won't age identically, no matter how perfectly alike they begin. Sooner or later your faces and bodies will become distinct enough for anyone to tell apart. So you step out of public life." She traced the wheat-ear. "What will you do, as a crone?"

Humility smiled, neither Honey's smile nor Comfort's nor any other role she had played with the maran-Kaiel. "Whatever I choose."