Read me the story:
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?”
She returned the nod. “They would, indeed.”
“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.”