Unexpected stories, p.5
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       Unexpected Stories, p.5

           Octavia E. Butler
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  He realized that she could have hit him a little differently and killed him if that had been her purpose. Or she could have knocked him unconscious or crippled him. These last thoughts were chilling. Somehow, he had to prevent her from crippling him or knocking him out and giving him to her people. Only by presenting a solid threat to her could he cause her to stop her training-room defenses and fight to kill.

  He moved warily around her, watching her turn to keep him in view. “It’s good to see that you’ve done something with your years,” he said angrily. “Since you failed to produce a child for your people, you must have been left with much time to improve your fighting ability.”

  “So,” she agreed. And if the cruelty of the words touched her, she did not show it. She stood still now, relaxed, waiting. Then she stopped waiting.

  She advanced in quick, light steps, coming so suddenly that he was startled at first and backed away. She followed more slowly. He struck at her face. As she blocked, he kicked.

  But she danced away from him with the seeming ease of a judge out-speeding a hunter. For a brief instant as she moved by him, she touched his throat lightly, much as she had touched it the night before. Then, he had taken her touch as a gesture of affection. Now, it could be only a sign of derision, contempt. It said, “See how easily I could kill you?” It said, “See what a poor fighter you are compared to me?”

  It was all her speed, her flashing here and there to avoid him. He had not yet landed a real blow—and now this humiliation!

  He kicked again furiously, spurred by his shame. She leaped away and he went after her.

  He hit her. His anger had given him speed. She was off balance. He hit her again, and she fell. Somehow, she caught hold of him, half dragged him to the floor with her. He tore loose, went for her throat.

  She twisted away, pulled her legs up tight against her chest. She shot her feet forward with the force of her body’s weight.

  But for once, she was too slow. He dodged, came to his feet in the same motion. She started up, saw him, swiveled on one hip, kicking. She caught him once solidly in the shin, and he was thrown off balance.

  Instantly, she was back on her feet facing him. “You could have put your foot on my throat just now,” she said.

  He said nothing. They circled each other warily.

  “I could have killed you; you could have killed me.”

  Still he did not speak. Was it true, he wondered. Had he deliberately passed a chance to kill her? He knew without thinking any farther that he had, and his anger turned inward against himself. He hit her a glancing blow to the jaw and she flashed yellow with pain and anger.

  She struck back using her speed. Twice she hit him solid blows to the face. She kicked into the same shin that she had kicked before.

  He fell, his coloring blue-green as the yellow that he could not hold back announced his pain to her. His leg felt as though she had broken it. He had to move it to know that it was not broken.

  “Let this be the end of it, Diut,” she said sharply. “Hear what I have to say to you.”

  She was too confident, standing too near him. Hardly thinking about what he did, he shot out a hand and seized one of her feet, jerking her off balance before she could kick. She fell, twisted, then was abruptly still as she felt his fingers at her throat.

  She waited, her eyes glittering into his. “Well, cousin?”

  He tightened his hold, willing her to make some defensive move. “We aren’t children,” he said harshly. “I challenged. You accepted.”

  “Then kill me. And become accustomed to that position.” He was now kneeling over her.

  He gave her a long look of disgust—though he was more disgusted with himself. He knew he was not going to kill her. Worse, she knew it. He didn’t understand how he could trust her again, give up his advantage when he knew what was in store for him.

  “What is your idea, Tahneh?” he asked tiredly. He had no faith in her ideas, whatever they might be. She had said herself, twice, that the Hao did not control the succession. She had been right.

  She reached up with no special speed or strength and took his hands from her throat. She sat up and seemed to forget the fight.

  “We’ll talk first,” she said. She took a few deep breaths, then asked, “How many Tehkohn do you have at your dwelling?”

  “Almost five thousand. But why …?”

  “So many in spite of your war?”

  “We were more. The Gahrkohn are over ten thousand.”

  She looked concerned. “How have you lived this long with such an imbalance?”

  “Our mountains are a wall against our enemies. The Gahrkohn raid our lower game traps, but they don’t raid our dwelling.”

  “So?” she said thoughtfully. Then, “We are only fifteen hundred.” She darkened her blue fatalistically. “Desert tribes are small, and we’re small even for a desert tribe. Perhaps now, though, that’s for the best. Do you have room in your mountains for fifteen hundred more people, Tehkohn Hao?”

  By then, Diut had seen it coming, but somehow it still shocked him. Her use of his title made her request formal and serious. “You’d consider moving your people so far from their traditional homeland?”

  “I won’t consider it. I’ll do it if you tell me they’ll be welcome. The drought will drive us from here soon anyway.”

  Diut thought of his own people—tried to imagine their reaction if he told them he wanted them to move to the coastal desert. “Are you sure you can convince them?”

  She flared luminescent. “You are even younger than I thought, cousin. My people will do what I tell them. Exactly what I tell them.”

  Diut considered that, decided that it was probably true. His people obeyed him even though they had just recently ceased to consider him a child. But he did not think they would leave their mountains for him. Would they be willing, then, to take in a whole tribe of foreigners simply because he ordered them to?

  He visualized himself before his council of judges giving the order, then drew back from the thought. He realized that his upbringing was hampering him again. In a childish way, he was still in awe of his council of judges. But Tahneh was right. He did have to learn to expect, to demand obedience from them. It was true that they might disapprove of his decision out of habit. They had had things their way through the years of his childhood. But now they had acknowledged him, and he would have to teach them to obey. He spoke to Tahneh.

  “There’s room. Will your people return with me when I leave?”

  She whitened. “That would be best. There might be a part for your friends in this too. But first I must know something more about them.”

  “Jeh and Cheah …?” Guiltily, Diut realized that he had hardly thought of his companions since he left them bound on the hill. “Are they all right?” he asked.

  “Yes. They’re under guard where you left them. Has their marriage made them pariahs among your people, Diut?”

  “No. Most people accept them and respect them. The rest fear them and leave them alone.”

  “And they still rank high in their castes?”

  “As high as their coloring permits—and they both have excellent coloring. They do their work well. Cheah’s size may prevent her from becoming a chief, but I expect Jeh to become chief judge in a few years.”

  “I thought you might have plans for them,” she said watching him. “Did you order them to come with you on this trip?”

  “No. They insisted on coming. I should have ordered them to stay behind.”

  “So.” She changed the subject abruptly. “You have my word, Diut, that no further action will be taken against you by me or my people. Do I have your word that my people will be accepted in your mountain dwelling—that they will become Tehkohn?”

  “You have my word,” he said. And he felt as though the weight that he had left home to avoid had not only caught up with him, but had doubled before settling itself solidly on his shoulders. But he could not afford more uncertainty. His de
cision was made and now, however difficult it proved to be, he had to stand by it. Fifteen hundred Rohkohn would give up their homes and trek across desert and mountains to become Tehkohn. And this would happen because he had spoken a few words. He tried to balance his emotions, smooth away the yellow awe he felt, strangely combined with the luminescent blue of power. He could have made a brilliant green iridescence, but he controlled himself.

  Tahneh watched Diut closely, seeing the uncertainty that he probably thought he concealed. He did not inspire confidence. She sighed inwardly, glad that her plans did not depend on any particular ability of his. He would learn. And with her in his mountains with him, his pride would drive him to learn quickly.

  She got up and went to the door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him get up too, his body tense. They had to trust each other personally before they could trust each other in any broader way. She had to be able to turn her back to him without fear of being attacked. He had to be willing to let her call in some of her people without fearing that they were being called to subdue him.

  She opened the door and called in Ehreh and the chiefs of the three other castes. They trailed in, puzzled, and stood well away from Diut. When they were in, Tahneh spoke to another judge waiting with the crowd of fighters outside the door.

  “Go to the surface and get the Tehkohn huntress and judge. Take enough fighters with you to ensure your being able to bring them to me unhurt.”

  The judge, a young female, flashed white assent and Tahneh closed the door. She turned to face her four caste chiefs, knowing already the outcry they would make as soon as she said what she had to say to them.

  “The Tehkohn Hao and I have made our peace,” she said. “This is what we are going to do.” She told them quietly, her voice even, her coloring muted as though in shadow. Muting made her blue less intimidating and freed people to speak their minds more easily.

  When she finished speaking, the two nonfighters, a male farmer and a female artisan, were a shade yellower than they had been when she began. Ehreh and the chief hunter controlled their coloring but not their voices.

  “You can’t do this, Rohkohn Hao,” Ehreh said at once.

  Tahneh ignored him. She answered questions and paid no attention to outbursts. The caste chiefs were the eyes, the ears, and the mouths of their respective castes. They brought Tahneh the views and the large problems of their castes and took back her decisions and pronouncements. Of course, any person could speak with Tahneh regardless of caste, but most people preferred to go through their caste chiefs. The blue made them secure, but when it came too close, it also frightened them.

  There was no similarity of coloring among the chiefs, thus there could be no challenging, no fighting no matter what offenses were committed. Tahneh had to keep order in a way that was not necessary in the more homogeneous council of judges. Her one rule was that an insult to another chief was an insult to herself. Her fairness in punishing offenders, fighter and nonfighter alike, enforced unusual equality in a society where normally, no person was equal. Now Tahneh waited while her chiefs, under this protection, asked their questions.

  “This is our home, Rohkohn Hao,” the artisan said. “While there’s still water, we should stay. The river might begin to fill again the day after we leave.”

  “And it might not fill again at all,” said Tahneh. “We all know of dry places that were once riverbeds.”

  “But our river isn’t dry. No one is dying of thirst.”

  “No one is dying of thirst yet,” said Tahneh. “But how long will it be before we are? Or will we die of hunger?” She looked at the farmer. She had spoken with him privately several times on this matter and knew exactly how bad the crop situation was.

  “We’re harvesting now,” the farmer said bitterly. “What there is to harvest. What the sun didn’t kill, and what we had water enough to irrigate.” He let his bright green fade to yellow. “There isn’t enough to get us through the next year.”

  Tahneh let them all absorb that, then said, “Much of the game has migrated too.”

  Everyone looked at the chief hunter, who was also beginning to yellow.

  “Fish has always been a delicacy with us,” Tahneh went on. “There has never been enough of it.”

  “There could be more,” said Ehreh, “if both hunters and judges concentrate on it. And perhaps our methods of fishing need improvement.”

  “The methods work,” defended the chief hunter. “It is not our fault that the sea here is less productive than the land. Send your judges. They’ll learn.”

  “There is no fault,” said Tahneh. “We have a drought and we have to move. That’s all.”

  “But we’re desert people,” said the chief hunter in a different tone. “Since the empire broke apart, our ancestors have lived on the desert. We should find another home here, where we belong.”

  All three of the others flashed white agreement at once.

  “This is our home,” asserted the artisan again. “It may be that we must leave this dwelling for a while, but why should we leave the desert? What do we know about living in the mountains?”

  “What we don’t know, we’ll learn,” said Tahneh. “We have an offer of sanctuary in the mountains. Which desert tribe would make us such an offer?” The drought was extensive and her chiefs knew it. No desert tribe would be likely to welcome refugees now.

  “We’re not hungry yet,” said the hunter. “We’re not weak. We don’t have to go begging for what we need. We can take it.”

  “So.” Tahneh looked at Ehreh. This was something that she had discussed with him and all but decided to do—until now. “If we had to take from others to survive, we would do it. But now it’s not necessary, and the fighters we would have lost need not die.”

  The farmer spoke up. “But with two Hao, we wouldn’t lose many. Our luck would change.”

  Again there was general agreement.

  Tahneh had been waiting for this. It was an expression of the kind of belief, the kind of faith that made the people consider the Hao so essential. The Hao were supposed to possess some special ability to bring good to their people. It was not just that they tried to give good government, promote unity. Their mere presence was supposed to assure the people of good luck, fulfillment of their needs. Why else would a captive Hao, a bitter cripple, be better than no Hao at all?

  “Our luck has changed,” said Tahneh smoothly. “Because of the Tehkohn Hao, we’ll have a new home with game, water, fertile land. You’ll have two Hao working together for you willingly. And the toll that a captive Hao would have taken on his captors needs never be paid. There will be no more fighting, no more deaths.”

  “No more deaths until we reach Diut’s mountains,” said Ehreh. “Until his people can overwhelm us.”

  Tahneh had to look at him to understand that although he faced her, he was actually speaking to Diut, testing the young Hao as well as expressing his doubts.

  Diut spoke up at once. “I have already given my word that my people will accept you peacefully.” He came over to stand beside Tahneh and face the chief judge. “You’ll take your places among the Tehkohn and rise as high as your ability and your coloring will take you. Or you will remain as low as your judgment can keep you.” Diut had not missed Ehreh’s too-familiar use of his name rather than his title. And Ehreh could not have missed the warning in Diut’s response. Tahneh watched silently, curious, as Ehreh was curious to see how Diut handled people who were not blue—how far they could push him. She would prevent fighting, if necessary, though she did not think it would be necessary. Diut knew that he was on trial before her chiefs. He might even realize that Ehreh was testing him. At any rate, he would not be eager to kill the Rohkohn chief judge if such a thing could be avoided. Ehreh would advance as far as Diut permitted, then with equal ease, retreat back as far as Diut pressed him. It was no dishonor for a non-Hao to give ground before a Hao. And Ehreh would find out what he wanted to know.

  Ehreh looked at Diut with resp
ect but without fear. “Tehkohn Hao,” he said quietly. “I don’t question your word. I only wonder … if you can be certain that your people will be as willing as you are to keep the promise that you’ve made.”

  Tahneh watched Ehreh now, remembering how little confidence Diut had inspired in her earlier. It was important that her chiefs not feel what she felt. Diut had to be able to display Hao superiority whether he believed in it or not. He spoke mildly.

  “I’m an acknowledged Hao, chief judge. Why do you question my ability to govern?”

  Just right, Tahneh thought. Retreat was the only escape from such a question.

  “I … spoke too quickly, Tehkohn Hao.” Ehreh’s voice was lower. “I did question and I had no right. I meant no offense.”

  “A chief judge should be less careless,” said Diut. “Speak carelessly again and I’ll accept your words as challenge.”

  Ehreh flashed white assent. Then, as his coloring darkened back to normal, the door opened and several judges carried Jeh and Cheah into the room. The two were still securely tied. Their judge captors placed them on the floor before Tahneh and left silently. When they were gone, Tahneh spoke again to her chiefs.

  “You’ve all heard my decision. We’re going. You will inform the people.”

  The four accepted this, understood that the meeting was over. When Tahneh, by her silence and muted coloring, had encouraged questions and argument, the chiefs had questioned and argued. Now, however, her tone told them that she had made her decision and their protests ended. Three of them filed out at once. Even Ehreh stopped only long enough to ask if he could speak with her later. At her “Yes,” he turned and followed the others.

  As they left, Tahneh went to one of the looms and from beside it took a weaver’s knife. Handling the knife, she remembered that nonfighters had occasionally been known to use such tools on each other in anger. Being nonfighters, they had no standards of combat, no moral obligation to restrict themselves to only the body’s natural weapons. Thus it would have been possible for a nonfighter to try to use such a tool on Diut. It would have been an act of suicidal desperation, but it would have been possible. Tahneh was glad it had not happened. She would have found it much harder to bargain with a Hao who had just killed one of the weakest of her tribe. She handed the knife to Diut.

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