A man born into a woman’s body, and a follower unexpectedly thrust into supreme leadership, discover that even when our species takes new directions, human nature takes strangely familiar twists and turns.

Oct 302013

Read me the story:
SyllaMost of the young people and savants had left the schola. Many had been drafted to help with preparations for the shallahee at the House, others were enjoying the opportunity to engage in their own projects.

Daveth was taking advantage of the quiet to potter in the garden outside the K’arett Pavilion. He’d put in some kilissi plants M’daina had started; it was the perfect exposure for them here by the Pavilion wall, a bit sheltered from the wind and with plenty of reflected warmth in the cool evenings. They’d settled in well, but the clawgrass from the side of the path was encroaching their space. He settled in for a nice meditative session of coaxing the clawgrass rootlings out without disturbing the young seedlings.

As usual, he lost track of time, fingers in the warm soil, the scent of earth soothing and refreshing at the same time. But he couldn’t have been at it that long, when he was conscious of someone behind him. A glance over his shoulder, and he sat back on his heels, dusted his hands, and turned, tucking feet and knees under him, to face the stormy-eyed 10-year-old seated on one of the benches beside the path.


“Daveth, they’re sending me away!” She was exerting great control not to weep, he could tell.

“Tell me,” he ordered calmly. “But first, breathe.”

She nodded, and took a breath, almost gulping, then let it out. He watched, motionless, while she did “five breaths to calmness.” The lines smoothed from her face, but the storm remained in her eyes.

She was a remarkably attractive child—mature for her age. She was just on the edge of puberty, but there was no awkwardness in her body, and the smooth planes of her face might have been a young woman of 15 or so. Fair hair and blue-green eyes to match—her father’s cherith ran to blondes, he knew—were offset by a clear, light-honey complexion.

“It’s your fault,” she said, with a hint of sullen anger still in her voice. “You told us we should explore nirao.”

He said nothing, tipped his head slightly, watching her steadily.

She took another breath, let it out. “No, it isn’t, and you didn’t.”

“Try again,” he prompted gently.

The corners of her lips tucked in, slightly, but she took another breath, nodded, looked away for a moment, then back at him.

“You told us we could explore nirao.”

He nodded. “You, and all of the youngsters who received the ni’alas. And why not? You know how your body works, now. You know what to expect of it. You know how to protect yourself and a partner with daraiyesh. Almost all of you have been practicing zarya for some years, now. It is expected you will explore nirao with one another.”

“Then why is it wrong? Why am I being sent away?” she challenged.

Daveth considered carefully, before he answered. “You did very well in k’arettas, Sy’nda. Perhaps it is your understanding of ev’attas that has betrayed you. What is the ethical basis for gratification?”

She frowned a little, as though she did not like where this was going. “Proportion, and context,” she said, a little unwillingly.

“Yes. Proportion— with how many partners have you shared nirao, in the ten market cycles since your ni’alas?”

Sy’nda shrugged. “Who’s counting?” she said, a little defiantly.

“And have all of them been ni’alas?” he asked.

Sy’nda looked down. “If you looked, you could still see Sanni’s. And Jirylin’s.”

“And what about Lerannan? Who is a savant under word-bond?”

“But we didn’t! There was no nirao! He told me…” her cheeks had reddened, slightly, and her eyes and voice were fierce, “…he told me he would not. Would not have me!”

“And why?”

The girl hunched a shoulder defensively. “I forgot.”

Daveth remained silent, watching her steadily.

She sighed, and looked away. “I did not forget. I just wanted him. I wanted to see what it would be like, with someone… bigger. Older. Experienced.”

“And what of Yradna, and Pe’vrin? What kind of stunt was that, for them to sneak into the challenge-ground, and engage unseconded, unsanctioned, and only be prevented from damaging each other because Wollas heard the commotion, and stopped it?” he went on, mercilessly.

She was red now, and biting her lip. “That wasn’t my idea.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“Well, I didn’t suggest it.”

“You watched. What did you plan to do, if one of them damaged the other? Were you going to share nirao with the victor? Or the vanquished?” he did not allow any scorn or chiding to temper his voice, but it was not necessary. The words themselves were a lash.

Now there were tears trembling in her eyes, but she dashed them away with a hand, and again took the five breaths. “All right, I transgressed. But enough to send me away? Sorja said…” she bit her lip again, and then went on “Sorja said she can’t Sort me. I didn’t want to be Sorted, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just a transgression. I’ll… I offered… I said I would accept a judgment. Make restitution.” She took another deep breath, this one with a sob in it, looking down at her hands in her lap. “There’s nothing wrong with me…!” In spite of all her attempts at control, her voice rose. “I don’t need to be Sorted.”

Daveth took a slow breath, himself, silently asking the Presence for guidance. Hard truths, sometimes, in Westmarch, where the harmony of the House was a fragile veneer over the contentious maneuverings of half-a-dozen cheriths for control of resources and influence.

There were some truths Prenya had clearly not shared with her daughter. It was always a difficult balance to strike, for a savant, between the judgment of the parent, and the well-being of the child. There was no doubt, too, that Prenya could make things difficult for a mere savant, in the House schola.

Even so.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with you, Sy’nda,” he said quietly. “Nothing that requires advanced Sorting, at the Aurora Chancel.”

“You know?” she looked up.

He nodded. “It was mooted with your usallo. I was asked to speak.”

“What did they say? Why am I being sent away?”

“Two questions. Which do you want answered?”

He could see the girl’s palpable effort, pulling herself back into discipline, thinking, setting aside the emotions that had been racking her, and the effort warmed his heart again to her.

She licked her lips, looked steadily at him. “Why am I being sent away?”

Now he knew why, too. He took some moments to arrange the things that must be said, while she continued to watch him.

“You know you are an heir-designate.”

She nodded. “With… what, seven others? Including the Lady’s own daughters?” She clearly didn’t think much of the status.

“Your cherith controls three seats on the Council of Masters, and your mother is all but an Elder of the Chancel.”

She nodded again, and he could see the wheels beginning to turn.

“You know there is contention between Westmarch and Ha’Arichet, and that the Cham’ai have been raiding heavily in alliance with them.”

A single short, sharp nod.

“And you know that the Sunset Chancel, and the Targali Chancel are not agreeing about the directions for the Balance Moot, and the Council of Elders not in unity.”

“My mother will be confirmed as an Elder of the Sunset Chancel. But… she’s spent a lot of time at Targali lately.”

“So I have heard. The net balance is that not everyone who holds influence within the Westmarch karil, or within the House, is in agreement with the decisions that are made, and how they are being made. And the alliances between cheriths, and the lines of amitria, are shifting. So it matters that an heir-designate, even one of seven, is becoming noticed.”

He waited, and she nodded, again. “It’s not just ‘noticed,’ though. My mother’s sister doesn’t like me, does she?”

He shrugged. “I do not know if liking enters into it. But I think it makes things easier for her here, if you are gone.”

He smiled. “But only here, of course.”

Aug 252013

Read me the story:
Tenli looked out over the Dawnwood with carefully detached appreciation. It was hardly possible to look at such a view without appreciation. It lay spread before him vast and perfect, a dream, a tapestry, something too big and deep and glorious for words. A wide sweep of sky, with overlapping layers of clouds painted in colors ranging from vividly savage to unbearably delicate. The endless cloak of the wood itself, draped over the undulating foothills in a thousand shades of green and blue and gray, textures playing with the light, absorbing it and flinging it back with gleaming reflections. A smoky line of foothills barely defined the most distant horizon, a hieroglyphic charcoal stroke joining sky and land.

It was a fine view, he thought. You could see a lot, from just over seventy meters up. Something splendid like this was easeful, as a last view. It had been a horrible life and it would be an honorless passage, but a last view of such immensity gave the ending some worth. He looked down, over the tower’s parapet. On this side, there was only the white stone of a little-used path, a strip of jaifryl bushes, the Cloister wall. The stones of the path beckoned him. Quick, sure, final.

To be sure, it would be better to simply leave—still the heart, empty the lungs, shut down, flow by flow, each thread of nihal and zhohar, and step forth, free of the disgusting, useless, misshapen, malformed body, into the final Light. But he was no Adept, yet—nor ever would be, it must be clear even to the Elders by now. And… he was not sure that even the most advanced Adepts could go unbidden into the Presence.

Still, it would be bad enough, going unreleased, via a quick flight and a hard landing. They would never take his name into the Song of Ra’anir.

But what did that matter? They never would have taken Tenli into the Song, anyway. Her they would Sing. The cruelest thought yet; leaving Tenli breathless with the pain of it. She— the one who had never existed at all— she would take his place in the Song, have that much of life, anyway. And he would be the one never to have existed.

Would it matter? He looked out over the Dawnwood again. If you choose oblivion, you’ll never know, and never care. You escape the pain, and everything else.

It would be worth it! The voice inside him raged, screamed. No more! He found his hands balling into tight, tight fists, his body weight leaning, pressing onto them against the rough stone of the parapet. No more shame, no more dreary contemplation of day after day, stretching out ahead of him and never, ever, never feeling right. Never feeling like himself. An endless procession of days, each a dreary ordeal of being… Not-Tenli. Stuck, crying, bleeding, lost…

It would just… be… over. Blessed, blessed, peace. Nothingness. Oblivion. Everything someone else’s problem. No more problems at all.

The stones below seemed to rush up to meet him, suddenly, and instinctively he pulled back, took a deep breath. The last breath? Filling his lungs, feeling his chest—detestable chest!—expand with air. Blood drumming in his ears. He could feel his spirit loosen within his consciousness. Poised, ready, wings spread. As though the stars were calling him. Leaning forward again, slowly, balancing.

Except… if he did this—now—with the disgusting, appalling blood in him—that would not be him, either. He heard Chenaru’s voice in his inner ear: “If you do not take charge of her nihal, it will take charge of you.” Then… this was all that Not-Tenli nihal twisting his mind, distorting him even further. That “last” breath escaped him, with a sob. Was followed by another.

The colors in the sky had shifted, muted. From far below floated up a three-beat chime from the Cloister’s ghanala, signaling the watchturn. Time seemed to pause, perfectly balanced between day and evening.

It felt like a defeat.

So did many victories, though. That, at least, Tenli had already learned. He just had to hold to that knowledge: “Feeling” alone is unreliable, incomplete. He watched the sky colors continue to shift. Motion rippled in the distance—wind coming up over the Dawnwood, sweeping down from the foothills. An almost horizontal ray of sunlight suddenly fell across the treetops, illuminating a swath of verdant brilliance, and then slowly faded. His pulse slowed.

Chenaru heard her novice’s footsteps coming down the stairs from the tower’s upper level, measured, unhurried. Her eyes closed, momentarily, with an unbreathed prayer of thanks to the Power, then she opened them.

He paused, in the doorway: Lithe, well-knit youthful frame; scraped, bleeding knuckles; eyes shuttered over with discipline. He drew in a breath in the manner of one about to speak, but then let it slowly out again, without a word.

She nodded to him: Payndi to novice. “You will do well to care for your hands before you begin assisting with meal preparation.”

There was nothing in her tone but calm observation, but Tenli suddenly felt the roiling chaos within recede further, and a light warmth, like a cloak against those internal winds, fold itself around his heart.

Nov 092012

Read me the story:
Brilliant red fungi growing in bright green mossy surrounding.It was a four-day journey from Dev’rash Cloister to the Ra’anir Chancel. A younger woman might have made it in two, but L’anriyl was over ninety, and she chose to take her time. Besides, it gave her the opportunity to observe the terrain, and think about the upcoming Moot.

The first two days were easy- a bantan brought them down the lakes to Mirdenay on the southeast shore of Rath Lake. A night’s rest at the Lakewarden’s Station restored her wonderfully. They made an early start the next day, L’anriyl disdaining the folding hoverchair they’d packed, but prudently perching the solar charger atop her kilay’s bundle. She set out with long, easy strides that matched the younger ones without apparent effort.

They crested the low rise that lipped the Bright Valley, behind the eastern shore slopes of Rath Lake, shortly after mid-day. Before them, the valley unrolled lush and vivid, copses of upland forest, punctuated with the open spaces of meadow and the unraveling skein of riparian lowlands. Here and there, just discernible at this distance, the network of roads and hamlets delineated a human presence. Conscious of the others’ assessing looks—she’d been noticeably slowing, the last hour or so, and the uphill slope had definitely taxed her—L’anriyl called a halt.

“Let’s eat here. And Ne’khat, you can go ahead and break out the chair, if you’d be so kind.” She tacitly admitted that she’d reached the point where she would slow them down more by trying to walk, than by using the air-cushion chair.

It was the down side of being an Elder in chronology as well as rank. L’anriyl perched on the slight bank that defined the road margin, and enjoyed the upside, watching serenely as the others went about the business of preparing a daymeal, unpacking and unfolding the chair, and attaching the powercell and charger.

Cenna brought her a napkin with two journeyrolls of mixed grains, seeds, and nuts bound in soft herb-flavored kounne and wrapped with flat, chewy journeybread. Sunairi brought cold pavi to drink, and a crunchy, sweet biscuit with a filling of mellot preserves, and they all seated themselves. Her kilay looked at her expectantly. Ne’khat was fedranh, born and raised in the high Vallars, and a devout believer.

The offworlder with them had already indicated he had no particular beliefs and was offended by none, and the others were at least moderately devout, so a blessing would not come amiss, she supposed.

“We offer gratitude that Veran feeds us, and we bless our company by the Power that sustains us, the Presence that inspires us, and the Light that guides our steps. May we never want for discernment of the Balance.”

Long prayer before meals was a nuisance. She nodded for the others to dig in, and set the example by taking a bite of journeyroll.

The offworlder was seated next to her. He’d been visiting the Cloister for nearly a year, but she’d had little contact with him. Then he’d asked the privilege of observing the Balance-Moot, and the Canon had seen no reason to deny it. He’d been a pleasant companion, speaking little and taking a cheerful part in the various journey-tasks. She smiled at him.

“I have never met an offworlder before you,” she told him. “Tell me, Sain El-..Ellgradis,” she stumbled slightly over the unfamiliar phonemes, “how this journey finds you?”

He smiled “It finds me well, Elder. It was my first opportunity to journey by bantan, and see so much of the Lakes. And I am looking forward to seeing a Balance-Moot. Though I have been seven yearturns among the Chancels and Cloisters, this will be my first opportunity to see a Balance taken.”

L’anriyl calculated mentally. “This will be my eleventh Balance, sixth as Scalemistress. The Presence be with us! It will not be an easy Balance to strike, I fear.”

“Why is that?”

The others had been listening, now L’anriyl nodded to her kilay to respond.

“The last Balance, more than ten years past, was a difficult one. A good many of the Holders Minor along the northern shore were disappointed of their hopes for greater investment-rights. Some blamed the Gatherers’ Guilds, some blamed each other. There was a series of ugly bloodfeuds, for several years after.” Ne’khat’s tone was curt, not quite to the border of discourtesy. Nearly twenty years in lowland Chancels and Cloisters had won from the fedranhi a reluctant concession of humanity for the rest of Veran, but the mountain insularity remained when it came to offworlders. L’anriyl suspected there was another source of tension, as well. The off-worlder was a good-looking fellow, in an exotic way.

A faint line appeared between Ellgradis’ brows. “I don’t understand. I thought that a Balance under the Great Law has no jurisdiction in Constitutional management?”

Cenna chuckled. She seemed to like the offworlder. “Well, I’m as fond of Ra’nethi shallon as the next person, but if it comes to a choice of where to expand investment shares, Lord Ra’anir can hardly be blamed for allocating the rights to Guilds and small-holders.”

Ellgradis’s brows drew together a little more as he digested this, then offered, “So… the Holders Minor were hoping for larger investment right in agricultural production for the shal crop. But the right went to gathering and smallholding? Aren’t those normally lower in the zhahir?” He referred to the measure used to calculate the value of investment shares.

L’anriyl gestured to the Dev’rytaran Herald. “Sunairi? It’s a Herald’s calculation.”

He shrugged. “It’s a Lord’s calculation, in the final analysis. But, look— the zhahir is basically an arbitrary monetary value, a legal fiction. Lord Ra’anir had the choice of righting half a dozen Holders Minor to increase shal production, or righting the Gatherers’ Guilds. Guildfolk generally cluster in small holdings or hamlets, and although they’re denser in cluster population impact, they’re strung out to have a much lower cahrrhan cost in any one niche. So they support a larger karil-right— greater population. Ra’anir Valley had two bad waves of barren-fever seventeen and eighteen years ago. Work it out.”

The offworlder nodded. “So, Lord Ra’anir opted for population. But why were the Bloodfeuds focused on the Guilds? Wasn’t the Holders’ Minor’s issue with Lord Ra’anir?”

Ne’khat’s jaw dropped. “Call challenge on their liege Lord?” The unspoken “only an outlander would think of something that stupid” hung tangibly in the air. L’anriyl judged it was time to move on. She shook her napkin, and asked Cenna for the waste-kit. The others took the hint, and started packing up.

When she rejoined the groups, Ne’khat had started the chair. It hovered at about forty centimeters, the aircushion generator humming gently. It was a costly item, and L’anriyl still felt a flare of resentment at the debt-balance, but she knew she wasn’t up to a long march, and if they were to reach the shelter of Blessingcopse Wayhouse for the night’s halt, she couldn’t slow them any more than necessary. With a little sigh, she climbed into the chair. It sank slightly, but the road from Mirdanay to Varantar was dressed, so she didn’t bother to adjust it.

She looked at the charge indicator. The reservoir was full, but the intermittent sunlight promised only a moderate offset. Debt take it. She’d use the directionals; if the charge failed she’d just have to put up with being pushed the rest of the way.

Ne’khat was already behind the chair, though, fiddling with the handle. “Leave that,” she ordered. “I’ll use the directionals.”

“Yes, Elder.” He collapsed the handle without comment, and she allowed him to help maneuver the chair up the slope and onto the road crown.

By mid-afternoon, she was fidgeting a bit. If they stopped to collapse the cursed chair, it would delay them. Or, someone would have to push the empty chair just to give her a chance to walk the fidgets out. She sighed. If she stayed put and allowed her kilay to push the chair, she could at least withdraw her attention inward.

On the other hand, she’d already observed several anomalies that would need regarding in the Moot. Cenna and Ne’khat were good, but you could never have too many angles of perception.

Marin Ellgradis was walking beside her chair, matching his steps to her pace. She glanced at him, curiously. “Sain Ellgradis?”

He nodded, gravely. “Debt-favor, Elder?”

She considered. “Speak.”

“Favor me, can you tell me more of the Balance Moot, as we travel?”

Here was a solution. “No debt, Sain, if you will push this cursed chair for a bit, and allow me to walk beside you.”

Ellgradis sent a flicker of a glance at her kilay, but nodded politely. “Mine still the debt, Elder, but thanks.”

She disengaged the directional control on the aircushion and let the chair hover. The offworlder steadied it unobtrusively as she climbed out, and then engaged the handle, turning the chair on its cushion so that he was pulling it along with his right hand. He knew better than to offer her his left arm, and did not even flicker a glance over his shoulder when he felt Ne’khan looming up behind them.

Oh, that was better! She felt her senses sharpening as the walking increased her bloodflow. “What is it you wish to know, Sain Ellgradis?”

“Marin, favor me, Elder.”

“Marin, then. You have seen the Little Balances, have you not?”

“Yes. Although “Little” seems an inexact description. At the Midwinter Estimate there were nine hundred and seventy-two Reckonings considered.”

“And that but a tithe of the kaaril-lore,” she was amused. “You found it over-comprehensive?”

He shook his head. “No! No, I realize it was only a survey—but—” he hesitated.

She glanced at his face, sideways and upwards. A person wore such an expression when trying to formulate a question without giving insult. Interesting. She could almost see him abandon the query, and her curiosity got the better of her. She prompted him. “But?”

He let out a little explosive breath. “Well— you could have done the whole thing in a few minutes with just one lociridium processor. I know you have them—I saw them in the labs at Vaathir Chancel. I know they’re used at Holla Fari, at the Observatory.” He glanced at her, to see the degree of offense he might have given, but she was smiling.

“You think machines would make our jobs easier, is that it?”

He nodded.

She returned the nod. “They would, indeed.”

He waited.

“Many of the things we do could be done more quickly with machines, it is true. But think further along.” It was a favorite saying among the Savants of Veran.

“I have thought, but I have not seen,” he said, humbly. If they used just a few computing arrays, they could do all they did and more, with fewer people, faster.

“If we did these things with machines, we would become good at using machines,” L’anriyl said. “It is true, we have some. Not many. But it forces a choice. We can cultivate the ability to make a machine, and to make that machine do a job, or we can cultivate the human abilities required for the job.” She canted her head. “I know that these machines can do things of amazing complexity, with amazing speed. That they can be taught to make choices based on millions of factors, more factors even than the conscious human brain can begin to encompass.”


“Yes, ‘ah.’ Just so. I heard you, at last Midwinter, ask the Canon if these are “paranormal” abilities. I believe you were referring to some of the Games?”

He remembered the feats of biocontrol, the virtuosic displays of memory, ability, seemingly preternatural reflex and anticipation, and nodded.

“Yes. I see. I think I see, anyway. You do have your own science.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Science is a very misleading word. You’ve looked at our Great Law, if I recall. Do you remember the opening words?”

“‘Veran is the evolution of humanity to our world.’”

“Just so. Machines can ‘adapt.’ Machines can identify the causes in a causation chain. But only humans can ask ‘why?’”

Her steps were slowing. “And that is perhaps the best short explanation I can give you of a Balance Moot. It is where we ask ‘why?’” She glanced over her shoulder, lifted an eyebrow at her kilay. “And now it is time for me to resume my chair, Marin.”


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