An island building was not like a hearth. No hearthdeme asked for rent, for one. But in other ways, it came close. People in the island building knew each other well enough, even if they weren’t kinsfolk, and the children of different apartments played together.
Ashe’s eldest, Reden, was staying with a playmate’s family for the next few days, and had been very excited about packing for a sleepover. They were six and a half, and didn’t let anyone forget about the half.
Ashe’s youngest was staying with the same family. They were just under a year old, and had newly been weaned. They were a fast crawler, but were asleep at the moment Ashe handed them to Bitheren Nerser, the neighbor.
Bitheren was also a mother, the mother of Girry, the seven-year-old who was Reden’s friend, as well as a father, but of an older child who went to school outside the island building. Ashe had never been a father; both of Ashe’s children were of Ashe’s own body.
The neighbor held the sleeping baby in their arms, careful not to wake them.
“So round!” Bitheren cooed. “A round baby is a happy baby.”
“Thank you for offering to watch them,” said Ashe.
“No trouble at all. First kemmer after a baby is a special time. I remember mine.”
Respectful of Ashe’s shadow, they added no particular recommendations of what to do, and Ashe didn’t ask for any.
“My best to Therem Harth,” Bitheren added warmly.
“Will do,” Ashe said, and made their cheerful goodbyes.
Back in their own empty home, Ashe dropped their smile, and turned the radio on to a news channel. Ashe had been in one of the committees in the Lower-Kyorremy before taking parental leave, and still kept up with politics. They had recently discovered that they hated politics bitterly.
They had already heard a version of the same report broadcast on a different news channel, and no matter the channel, the report was the same:
That Prime Minister Rodyr Odhere rem ir Shathesen had been found dead at home, and that there was no evidence of foul play or illness. This was how it was reported by the news stations who had enough shifgrethor not to air a person’s suicide, but suicide was what it had been.
That the King had not yet appointed a successor, but that the successor would likely be a member of the Upper-Kyorremy.
No channel reported what Ashe already knew, which was that the likely replacement would be a member of the Upper-Kyorremy who wasn’t too closely affiliated with Shathesen or with Shathesen’s opponents, and that there were three Upper-Kyorremy members who matched that description, who had managed to stay out of Shathesen’s disastrous Hodomin Ocean Question, and that the most senior of these was Therem, Ashe’s kemmering.
Ashe worried about Therem.
Ashe had no intention of returning to the Kyorremy after their leave ended, and wished Therem would quit too. It was bad work serving under a mad king.
With a click of the dial, Ashe turned the radio from news past theatre to music. It was rhythmic and heavy on woodwinds—mountain music, which Therem would probably like, so Ashe left it on for when Therem got home.
The apartment was not beginning to get any warmer, but Ashe was beginning to feel warmer in a way they recognized and hadn’t felt in over a year, a way that made them wish Therem would get home quickly. Ashe’s cheeks and neck felt hot, so they stripped down to their underleggings and fastener and put their hieb back on over them, to feel the soft fur lining of the hieb on their bare skin. The soft fur always felt pleasant, but the pleasantness felt more vivid now, right before starting kemmer. They left the rest of their clothes on the living room couch where they landed, left the radio on, and moved to the bedroom to catch a nap before starting kemmer. It was always better to start well-fed and well-rested.
Therem arrived before Ashe could fall asleep, and Ashe got up out of the bedroom to greet them.
Therem, too, looked flushed, partly from being close to starting their own kemmer, but mostly from just having gotten in from the cold.
“Today?” was all Therem said as Ashe began to peel them out of all their jackets and coats.
“Yes,” Ashe answered, “the children are with Bith Nerser, like we planned.”
“Oh,” said Therem. “Good.”
Ashe found themselves thinking that Therem’s cheeks would feel cool like balm against their own, but didn’t want to touch directly and bring Therem into kemmer just yet.
“I’ve been looking forward to this,” Ashe said in a low voice, placing a hand on Therem’s shirt. “I’ve missed it.”
“As have I,” Therem said, reaching out to embrace them.
Ashe eluded their grasp.
“Not yet, my love,” said Ashe with a smile, and gestured for Therem to follow them to the bedroom.
Once there, Therem sat on the end of the bed and Ashe opened the top drawer of their dresser, took off and put away their hieb, and pulled out a yellow-green paper bag. Those were pharmacy colors. From the bag, they produced a paper box, and from the box, a small foilskin packet.
“Oh, Ashe,” Therem said, “hormones?”
Ashe tore the packet open anyway. The gel had a pungent, clean scent, like lifewater or disinfectant. Therem’s nose wrinkled at it.
“There’s nothing wrong with hormones,” Ashe said.
“Indeed not,” Therem answered quickly, “but you know it’s an old mothers’ tale—”
“Yes, I know,” replied Ashe. “I’m not trying to ‘rebalance’ my blood. I just want to go in as male because it’s been ages since the last time.”
Saying this, Ashe squeezed the packet out over their hand. Ashe had always privately suspected that the old mothers’ tale was made up by old mothers who missed male kemmer, and considered it a good enough reason to make up tales. They weren’t convinced anyone had ever believed children unbalanced the blood.
They rubbed the gel methodically into their own hands, and over their arms and chest, then stopped for a second.
“There’s enough, I think,” they said. “There’s enough in case...you know, if you...I know you prefer not to kemmer as female when I’m male.”
By the turn of their voice, this was a question, not a statement.
“I do like to kemmer as female when you’re male,” Therem said.
There was an unspoken “but” in the air, Ashe thought. Therem always seemed to have a better time when not worrying about barriers, and when there was no possibility of Ashe getting them pregnant. It was not something the two of them had ever discussed, but Ashe was under the impression that Therem had at least a mild dread of bearing children. Ashe also knew that Therem had a child who lived in Estre, from before they had met, but whether sired or of the flesh, and whether this fact had anything to do with that apprehension, they hadn’t dared ask. Ashe never thought it an odd apprehension. It was natural for anyone to be uneasy about doing a difficult thing. Ashe had been a mother twice, and understood well that it wasn’t for everyone.
“I think one of the best times we shared was when we both brushed past Medran in the corridor and both went in the same. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember,” Therem said fondly.
Ashe paused for a moment recalling both the sweet, intimate moments between bouts of lovemaking and the more explicit sweetness of Therem’s fingers inside them. Their body was reacting to both the hormones and the memories, changing fast from neutral to something sparking, warm, and needy for touch. But they would not hurry.
“How do you want to go in this time?” Ashe asked gently, patiently.
Therem said, raising their dark eyes to Ashe’s,
“Let whatever happens happen.”
What happened was that Ashe began to kiss them and stroke their hair and shoulders and Therem felt themselves transform fast, their skin buzzing wherever it made contact with Ashe’s.
“Wait,” said Therem, breathing hard, “before I get distracted. There’s something I ought to tell you about.”
“Is it to do with anything inside this room?” Ashe asked, drumming a few fingers on Therem’s bare hip.
Ashe was kneeling at the foot of the bed now, color high, eyes bright, and Therem’s love didn’t let them keep Ashe waiting.
“No,” Therem said. “It’s work. It can wait.”
Laying back and basking in the hazy glow of pleasure after orgasm, it took a while for Therem to realize it was odd Ashe had wanted them to go first.
“It’s your first kemmer since last autumn,” Therem said, stroking the short hair on Ashe’s head, which now lay on their stomach and had just been between their thighs. “Why are you pampering me?”
“You pulled out all the stops.”
“Your delight is my delight,” Ashe said, looking up at them earnestly. “And you’re so beautiful when I’m eating you out.”
Beautiful was true, but what Ashe meant was present, open, wholly here and wholly trusting.
“Come up here,” Therem said, “I adore you,” and kissed Ashe’s still-filthy mouth and took Ashe’s cock in their hands tender and slow till Ashe was babbling words of endearment and half-choked pleas.
Later, they slept. Later, they made love again. Later, they made their way to the kitchen and sat down on bath towels draped over the chairs, because they couldn’t be bothered to put on clothes, and fed each other fruit and smoked fish.
It was an absurd, undignified, perfect, private moment when Therem caught Ashe’s fruit-smirched hand and kissed the knuckles and drew Ashe close, onto their lap.
“I keep thinking about quitting our jobs and running away,” Ashe confessed.
“I see,” Therem said playfully. “Where are you thinking about this time? The plains of Osborth?”
“No,” said Ashe, poking them lightly on the chest, “no, because it’s Osboth with no r , and because you wouldn’t like living with my mother. See, this time, I’m serious.”
“Of course,” said Therem, gentle, amused, “so where to, then?”
“Orgny. The fastness up in the hills.”
Therem began to stroke Ashe’s back in a way that made them melt against their hand.
“Very pious today, Ashe,” Therem said. “Are you going to become a Celibate? A Weaver?”
Ashe laughed, bright and clear.
“No, no, they have Lay Siblings too, keeping the grounds, welcoming guests, instructing in the schools—why a Celibate? They have an opening for two, right now. It’s genuine work. It’s not a pastoral fantasy.”
“Not even a little bit?”
“No,” Ashe replied, playing a bit with Therem’s long hair. “I’ve never dreamed of making jams, my love, and if I wanted to make jams, I would do it here, in my own home, in the city. Look, I’ve thought about it. The pay in Orgny is lower than in Ehrenrang, but so is the cost of living, and I think it would be a good environment for the children.”
Therem kept a thoughtful silence while Ashe reached out and grabbed themselves a slice of sweet potato from a plate on the table.
“Ashe–” Therem began, and Ashe answered them with a kiss on the nose.
“Are you considering my proposal?”
“I really ought to tell you,” Therem began again, and Ashe, who knew what they had to tell them, kissed them again, this time on the mouth, deeply, hoping to delay it.
Later, they did it there up against the kitchen wall, Ashe wearing a barrier for Therem’s sake and Therem standing on their toes for Ashe’s sake, so that Ashe would not have to bend so much while thrusting up into them, for Ashe was a little taller. They both wanted this. Therem relished the feeling of the cool wall behind them, Ashe’s warm body in front, and Ashe’s hands pressing Therem’s against the wall.
Therem was the sort of person to remain taciturn during the act, but Ashe was not, and in between declarations of love, kept whispering, “you’re all right, I’ve got you,” and Therem didn’t know why, but didn’t ask or stop them.
Later, they both slept again, curled up together under heavy quilts, long past sunrise. What woke them was the telephone bell going off in the study. Blearily, Therem covered themselves in one of Ashe’s long shirts, and got up to answer it. Ashe covered themselves in a blanket and trailed after them.
“Honored,” Therem was saying into the receiver, “first and foremost, I am deeply honored. But I need time to think before I accept.”
A pause. Ashe gestured, with their head to the side, what? Therem gestured back, holding up one finger, I will tell you in a minute.
“I am in kemmer now,” Therem said. “I will call back when I am in somer.”
They hung up after appropriate goodbyes.
“And all that was...?” Ashe asked in a casual voice, despite the cool dread pooling in their stomach.
Therem sat down in one of the study’s chairs, but Ashe remained standing, wrapped in their blanket, motionless.
“I thought this would happen. How caught up on the news are you?” Therem asked.
Ashe, who often stayed informed to the very hour, answered, distantly,
“There has been an unfortunate and sudden opening in an important office,” Therem began calmly, “and the King’s clerk has called to tell me that King Argaven wishes to appoint me to fill it.”
Ashe asked, voice flat and empty,
“Well,” Therem answered, “it happens to be the Prime Minister’s seat. Rodyr Odhere rem ir Shathesen has passed away.”
At this, Ashe grew angry.
“You call it ‘passed away,’ Therem? Is it not a bad omen? Is that how you think about suicide?”
Therem stared at them hard and rose to their feet.
“You know I never think lightly about suicide,” Therem said.
If Ashe had wanted to fight, they would have answered, don’t change the subject. If Ashe had wanted to strike to hurt, to rot and sever everything between them, they would have answered, I forgot your sibling, the rhetorical device . But Ashe did not want to win or wound, only to protect the one they held dear.
“Sorry,” they muttered.
Therem sighed, and sat back down.
“You don’t think I should accept it, then?” they asked. “I waive shifgrethor.”
“I accept your waiving. My answer is no,” Ashe said firmly. “The king is mad and has driven many good councillors to ruin. That’s what I think.”
Therem rested their chin on their wrist.
“That’s true, of course,” they said, without rancor. “That's an observable fact.”
“Yes,” said Ashe, finding some hope, “yes, it is.”
“But in that case,” said Therem slowly, “is it not one’s duty to the rest of Karhide to reduce the harm a mad king may do?”
Ashe drew the blanket more tightly around themselves.
“But is it yours?”
“It’s something I think I could do.”
“Therem, you are wise,” Ashe said, desperately, holding their gaze, “but what good is a wise hand on a broken tiller? What good is a wise hand on a broken tiller when a ship is dashing itself open on the rocks?”
“One must at least try,” Therem insisted, “to save as much as one can for as long as it can be saved.”
And like that, the hope froze and cracked to shards. Ashe buried their face in their own arms and shuddered.
“You already knew about Shathesen,” observed Therem. “You also knew I’d be asked.”
It was not an accusation. How could it be an accusation, thought Ashe, when everything they had done was done right, and out of love?
“Of course I knew,” Ashe said, trying to keep their voice from quavering.
Therem remained quiet. When Ashe raised their head from their arms, Therem was staring them down directly.
“Is that why you brought up all that talk of plans in Orgny?” they said, their voice low and even in a way Ashe recognized as restrained anger. “Is that why you were trying to use our love as a tool to sway me?”
“My plans were in good faith. I see now they were different from yours. But one must at least try,” Ashe said, throwing their words back at them.
That got them no answer.
The sound that Ashe let out was somewhere between a sob and a scream. Therem got up, put their arms around them, and held them for a moment, breathing deeply together, rocking slightly. Finally, Ashe grew still again.
“You’re too protective,” Therem said. “I won’t destroy myself. I’m all right.”
“Ah,” Ashe answered, bitter, releasing themselves from their kemmering’s grasp, “but you will. It doesn’t bother you, though. You don’t think it’s too high a cost. I do. I cannot be a witness to it.”
Therem let their arms fall and said,
“Then don’t be.”
Though they were both still in kemmer, neither of them felt the inclination to couple again after that. Therem got dressed, cleaned the bedroom, and practiced the un-trance while Ashe sat down perfectly still on the shower floor with lukewarm water running over their head, and they didn’t get out or move even when the water began to run ice cold.
On the third day, Therem called back to accept the King’s appointment, and Ashe took the children to their family hearth back in Osboth.