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another turn of the wheel

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.