Unexpected stories, p.2
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       Unexpected Stories, p.2

           Octavia E. Butler
 
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  He thought about it. Would his escape provide enough of a diversion to give Jeh and Cheah their opening? It would if their captors were too startled to move in at once and kill them. But that seemed unlikely.

  The fighters of the circle were moving along easily with Diut’s party now, subtly guiding it but never closing in or being obvious. This was a form of courtesy extended to captives whose status had not yet been decided—captives who had not yet been judged dangerous. Perhaps the desert people considered Diut’s party too small to be actively hostile. But if Diut broke through their circle, killed one or two of their fighters, they would change their minds quickly. And they would do their best to make Jeh and Cheah pay for the deaths Diut had caused. They looked far too efficient to lose all three of their captives. Diut decided to wait. The desert people were obeying the conventions meticulously, when with their superior numbers they certainly did not have to. He would suspend judgment on them as they apparently had on him.

  He kept his party moving as slowly as it had before he became aware of his captors. The desert people did not hurry him, did not prod him at all as long as he continued to follow the river. If he strayed, however—and he did, testing—the fighters toward whom he strayed ceased to move, became more visible, quietly threatening. He allowed himself to be intimidated and spent the rest of the long night going where they wanted him to go.

  He had ceased to think about the ruins that he had come so far to see. He was not watching for them at all but he was not surprised when early during the second night of his captivity, he found himself approaching them. He had already decided that his captors must he heading toward them, that their people must have moved into the desert ruin as, generations before, Diut’s people had moved into an ancient mountain ruin.

  The desert people had made their city’s main entrances too visible, Diut thought as he looked down the hillside at them. The ruin itself began on the hillside—or rather, within the hill—just above where the river cut through the last of the hills to flow across flatter lands toward the sea. It seemed to Diut that the desert tribe had cut away too much of the vegetation over and around their dwelling and planted their crops too openly at the base of the hill in the wide spread of soil that the river had deposited. But perhaps desert customs were different. Perhaps this vast treeless land made the kind of camouflage that Diut was used to too difficult. Or perhaps these desert people had simply not had a war, as Diut’s people had, to make them cautious.

  As Diut and his party started down the hill, their escort became visible. Other people were also visible around the ill-concealed entrances. Several nonfighters—farmers and artisans—stood in scattered bunches watching Diut in particular. The nonfighters were shy quiet green or yellow-green people who would not have been out if they had expected trouble. Diut noted, though, that there were no children visible. The desert people were not that certain of his party’s docility then.

  Diut brought to mind the model of this dwelling that existed in vast detail back at his mountain home. Long ago, a highly skilled imperial artisan had been traded from his home in the desert city to the mountain city that Diut’s people now occupied. Nonfighters had been more harshly treated in those days, and fighters commonly regarded them as property—trade goods. But this artisan had apparently loved his city too much to face the prospect of never seeing it again. Thus he had built a model of it, the desert city in miniature. It filled an entire room and was nothing to be carried about, but Diut had used it to memorize the floor plan of the desert dwelling. Now he used that memory to decide which of the entrances to approach.

  No one stopped him or spoke to him. He was pleased to see that some of the desert people did look surprised, however. His body glowed luminescent blue. Let them wonder how he knew which public entrance led most directly to the apartment of their Hao—or of their chief judge if they were unlucky enough to be without a Hao.

  Diut stopped in front of that entrance, feeling tense with anticipation in spite of himself. He had not seen another of his own kind since war took the lives of his mother and his uncle. And the training, the discipline that these people had shown bespoke the presence of a Hao.

  Finally, the desert Hao came out. She was a woman of middle years, her coloring still deep blue, not yet touched with the flecks of yellow that foretold advanced age. Her body was straight and lean and she was the first person Diut had seen since he had attained his full growth who could match him in height. Her coloring attracted him, held his attention as though he had never seen another Hao. He realized that he had, on seeing her, automatically dimmed his own brilliance and let his coloring return to normal. To continue his blinding luminescence now that she was present seemed challenging somehow. And Diut could think of nothing he wanted from this desert town to warrant his challenging an older, more experienced Hao.

  He and the woman gazed at each other for a long moment without speaking, each appraising the other. Was she as hungry for the sight of another of her kind as he had been, Diut wondered. She spoke finally.

  “You’re welcome here, cousin—you and those with you. I am Tahneh.” She looked past him at her people, who had gathered around at a respectful distance. “We are Rohkohn.”

  Thus, for the first time, Diut learned the name of his host-captors. Tahneh had a dry, somehow ironic voice that made Diut wonder if she found him and his party amusing. There was no white in her coloring, but still he felt that her manner was slightly mocking. She spoke in the old imperial language—the language of conversing with strangers and of writing. And in the old language, she had the right to call him cousin since according to tradition, all Hao were related. They could come “out of the air,” born inexplicably to families of judges, or they could descend from long lines of their own kind. But the blue related them regardless. It deified them and made them members of the Hao family—the highest and best fighters that the people could produce. Diut answered in his own flawless imperial.

  “I am Diut. My companions are Jeh and Cheah.” He gestured toward each one of them in turn. “We are Tehkohn.”

  The woman glanced toward the distant wall of mountains. “Tehkohn—Mountain People.” She translated the word into her own tribe’s dialect with a change of stress that made it almost unrecognizable. Then in the old language again, “You’re a long way from home, Tehkohn Hao.”

  Diut found himself impressed with her use of his title. Since his acknowledgement, his own people had begun addressing him by title instead of by name, of course, but somehow it meant more coming from another Hao. He answered Tahneh’s implied question without resentment.

  “We trace the ways of our ancestors. Our map told us there were ruins here. We didn’t know that the Rohkohn had occupied them.” As he spoke the woman watched him in a way that made him glad he had no reason to lie to her.

  “You have one of the old maps with you, then?” she asked.

  He reached back to the pouch strapped across his shoulders, found the map by touch, and handed it to her. She unrolled it and looked at it, felt the smooth, tough clear coating that covered the fine paper and made it flexible but nearly indestructible. The art of making such permanent records had been lost to most of the Kohn tribes since the splintering of the empire because the main ingredient for the coating came from trees far down the wild eastern slopes of the mountains. The map seemed to impress Tahneh.

  She handed it back and, with a slight now proper whitening of her coloring to emphasize the positive spirit in which she spoke, she said, “Eat with us, Tehkohn Hao, and rest. When you’re ready, I’ll show you the ruins myself. We Rohkohn occupy only a small part of them.”

  Tahneh saw to it that the young mountain Hao was treated as an honored guest. She had a special meal prepared for him—a meal that would permit him to sample the fish and bird delicacies of the coast but that would also let him return, if he chose, to the more familiar meats that her hunters brought back from the game traps of the foothills. She kept the affair small, however, inviting
only the chiefs of each of her four castes and their mates. The drought had not left enough food for real feasting. She had the meal served in the main chamber of her own apartment, and before it was served, she found time to speak privately with Ehreh.

  “I want no special watch kept on Diut,” she told him. “Do nothing to frighten him or make him suspicious and we’ll have no trouble with him.”

  “I’ll see that no one bothers him,” Ehreh promised. “He’ll be safe as long as he’s with you anyway.”

  Tahneh looked at him sharply. He was too quick. Another time, his speed in understanding her would have been amusing—another time, but not now.

  His eyes seemed to hold no expression at all as he spoke again. “Later, Tahneh, when you give him to us, he’ll see you as his betrayer.”

  “So?” His words angered her and her tone was bitter. “And to avoid that, you would rather I give him to you now.”

  “I would. But I know you won’t. In your place, I probably wouldn’t either.” Ehreh sighed. “He would hate you anyway because you symbolize us. But he’s young. Perhaps he’ll get over his hatred.”

  Tahneh looked past him at a dimly glowing patch of wall. She could speak more freely to Ehreh than she could to others. She could talk to him—as much as she could talk to anyone. “I surprised myself,” she said softly. “I looked at Diut and I decided that I had been alone long enough. That I would have him, tonight, while he was still whole and free. I gave no consideration at all to what he might feel later. I didn’t care.”

  “And now you do care,” said Ehreh. “But not enough to stop.”

  She refocused her eyes to look at him. “No. Not enough to stop. I tell myself that I’m giving him a few more hours of … freedom.”

  “You are.”

  She flashed yellow denial, disgust.

  He laid a hand on her shoulder with the familiarity of a close friend. “You yourself feel that you’re betraying him. I didn’t realize that. You’re not, of course.”

  She said nothing.

  “This is the succession, Tahneh!” His voice became hard. “You have responsibilities, but for once you have no rights. You’re duty bound to help us, or at least not to interfere with us. You didn’t catch him for us, and you can’t release him. So how can you be his betrayer?”

  She took his hand from her shoulder, held it for a moment, then let it go. “Not all feelings are reasonable, Ehreh. It doesn’t matter.”

  “It will matter. If you go to him feeling as you do now, you’ll have the bones of a liaison. He’s Hao, and yet your guilt could cause you to find less with him than you could with some hunter.” Ehreh’s blue-green body glowed with the intensity of his feeling. “Make yourself two people, Tahneh; you know how. You need not to be tonight the person that you must become tomorrow.”

  Later, as she ate, surrounded by the best of her fighter and nonfighter castes with Diut beside her, she struggled to follow Ehreh’s advice. She knew he was right. And it would not be the first time that she had had to split herself in two. She was no stranger to unpleasant duties. It was just that none of them had ever touched her so deeply before. None of them had ever concerned another Hao.

  The two companions of the Tehkohn Hao provided her with an unexpected diversion when they mentioned that they were married.

  Intercaste marriages were so rare among the Rohkohn that Tahneh would have had to go to the tribal records to find out when the last one had taken place. She looked at the huntress and the judge with more interest now and saw by their coloring that both were high in their respective castes. Jeh was a deep quiet blue-green no more than a shade or two yellower than Ehreh. It was possible that if the young judge lived up to the promise of his coloring he could become a chief himself someday. And Cheah, his wife. Although she was unusually small for a huntress, she was almost exactly the same dark green as Tahneh’s chief hunter. It was possible that Diut had plans for them both … Tahneh refused to think further in that direction. She questioned Cheah curiously.

  “Didn’t you have trouble in your liaison? Weren’t there challengers?” People who joined in intercaste liaisons were nearly always challenged by members of their own caste—members who chose to be insulted that one of their own had turned away from them.

  Cheah whitened, remembering. “I had three challengers, Rohkohn Hao. Only three.” The number was unusually small, probably due to Cheah’s high coloring. The little huntress was boasting. It was not necessary for her to say what had happened to her challengers. She was still alive; therefore they must be dead. She looked at her husband.

  “I had five challengers,” said Jeh. He showed no white in his coloring but in his eyes there was a look of cold satisfaction.

  “You would have had more here,” Ehreh said quietly from his place at Tahneh’s left. Ehreh’s prejudice against hunters and against hunter-judge intermarriage was at least one of the reasons why there had been no such intermarriage in recent Rohkohn history.

  Jeh let his dark eyes travel over the chief judge silently, almost insolently, measuring. “I think not,” he said softly. “I would have had more at home, but I made certain that many people saw each of the five. By the end of the fifth, all disapproval had vanished.” His coloring had brightened with his intensity, and his tone had been one of confident challenge.

  Tahneh was surprised at how easily the situation amused her. “Peace, young one,” she said quickly. They were still savage young animals, these two. But then, that was why they were still alive. “Your people accept your union now?”

  “Some said first that we were a bad example to the children,” said Cheah. “But by the time our son was born to make our liaison a marriage, most had accepted us.”

  Tahneh turned to look at Diut, who had ignored the conversation around him and concentrated silently on his food. “Tehkohn Hao, what did you think of your friends’ marriage?”

  “I was too young for my thoughts on the subject to matter,” he said. He shifted uncomfortably. “I hadn’t yet been acknowledged.”

  He was acknowledged now, then. That answered one question no one had gotten around to asking him. He continued eating as though he expected his answer to satisfy her.

  “What the Hao thinks is always important,” she said. “I don’t believe they would have dared anything as lengthy as a marriage if you had objected to it.”

  “No … I didn’t object, Rohkohn Hao.” He did not look at her.

  He seemed ill-at-ease, she thought. As though the gathering that she had arranged to honor him had only made him nervous. But no, that wasn’t likely. He would be used to dealing with people of high rank. It wasn’t the presence of her chiefs that was bothering him. It was her own presence.

  Deliberately, Tahneh continued to look at him as though she expected him to say more, as though she might even disapprove of his liberal attitude.

  He became defensive. “There was no reason for them not to marry. Not after they had defeated their challengers.”

  “So,” Tahneh said noncommittally. She looked away from him and took a bite of fish. She could almost feel his relief. He could not have been around Hao before, she decided. Of course, neither had she for some time, but she had at least had her father to guide her while she was growing up. Diut acted as though he had had no Hao example at all to follow. Also, there was the matter of his youth. Tahneh could remember what it was like to be a newly acknowledged uncertain young Hao, afraid of a misstep, afraid of shaming oneself, afraid even of the Hao responsibilities. It occurred to her that such fears might have been the reason for his leaving home.

  Others had begun carrying on their own quiet conversations when she spoke to him again.

  “You were acknowledged just before you left home, Tehkohn Hao?”

  He glanced at her. “Yes,” he said quietly.

  Tahneh whitened in spite of herself. “And when you insisted on traveling away from home, your council of judges and your chiefs became angry enough to take back their acknowledgeme
nt if they could have.”

  Diut’s coloring became faintly blue-green as it took on a small amount of yellow. Then he caught himself, restored his normal blue, and looked at her angrily.

  She realized that he had misread her. He thought she was trying to humiliate him. She deliberately kept amusement in her voice and coloring as she continued.

  “After my acknowledgement, I explored the ruins here myself. I found a place where one of our passageways connected with a network of natural caverns, and I followed the caverns through the northern hills until I emerged on a cliff overlooking the sea. I was gone for days. My people were frantic.”

  The memory was surprisingly pleasant. She had all but forgotten it—her own assertion of independence. She glanced at him and found him watching her. He turned away, a little too quickly, and picked up a piece of fruit. But at least he had lost his anger.

  He was far too sensitive, she thought. But Hao, especially Hao raised by judges, were never treated as roughly as they should be. They were too valuable, and as they grew past puberty, too dangerous.

  She continued to watch him, enjoying beauty that he probably did not realize he possessed. That was another attribute of the Hao, although Tahneh did not see that she herself possessed it to any unusual degree. He was well-muscled and deep-chested in the way of mountain people. His eyes were mountain-narrow and his face was angular and lean with none of the roundness of her own. This would have made him seem older, grimmer, had he not been so obviously unable to cope with another Hao on equal terms. His age made no difference now though. Only his blue was important. The color drew Tahneh’s eyes as her blue had always drawn the eyes of her people. And now that he understood that her mocking had not been malicious, she could see that her blue was affecting him too. He could not help turning now and then to look at her. She chose one of these stolen glances to meet his eyes with a look of quiet invitation. In his eyes then, just for a moment, she saw hunger as intense as her own. She made herself look away and continue eating, but the food was abruptly tasteless.

 
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