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another turn of the wheel

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.