1. The Cosmonaut

Outside his window, a yellow sliver of a moon hung upside down over the Gate. It was a dry winter, with patches of summer whenever the fog pulled back. When he was away, he longed for this room with its narrow bed. His life was simpler here and more complicated everywhere else.  

The house had been in his wife's family since the beginning of time, as she liked to remark. She was born into an old property-owning family, which had arranged their marriage. She was still beautiful, with the high cheekbones that marked its women. They had always lived apart, as was the custom once children arrived, but occasionally slept under one roof.

The area was dotted with her properties, a small part of what her family owned. The families ran everything. Like his father and grandfather before him, he served hers as an advisor, a member of the titled class that also included healers, writers, and diplomats. Their power was reflected like the moon, he thought, looking at it again. Members of his class grew up in one or another of these families, their lives arranged by mothers and aunts to thrive within the empire’s complicated networks of relation.

Because epidemics continued to disrupt life, borders were closed and travel was deliberately slowed. The families set up human and cultural exchanges to keep the gene pool from getting stagnant and maintain civilization. To facilitate this, the elite families dealt with each other in a lingua franca that rose above other languages and dialects.

This standard language was his mother tongue, although he spoke the demotic of his childhood and other tongues hed picked up along the way. Others, less obliged to mix with outsiders, learned it at school, if at all. The ambitious learned it well, angling to be absorbed into families that could elevate them and their offspring to a better class.

Like his forefathers, he had gone abroad. It was as a young student that he drew the attention of his wife and her sisters. So while their marriage was arranged, it was at her instigation. This was typical of this island of liberality, but other locales were more political, with greater formality and horse-trading involved. The property-owning classes elsewhere tended to marry their own kind, but her family dated back to the patriarchy, a descent that evoked culture and political power, and made them open to a wider-than-usual range of marriage partners.

The world may be a genetic mélange, but every titled family had its strand and the Vestals kept the rolls. The men lived for and labored at their pleasure. Real power was exercised through congeries of blood ties, a diffused matriarchy. His class moved through its layered world as “relations,” married or adopted into families. There were also serving classes, the untitled, and—beyond the frontier—the tribes and outlaws.

Now that he was back, servers came to stock his larder, make his meals, and clean the house. He wrote notes and left them for the messenger to fetch: one to his wife, one to his daughter, one to a friend, and one to the messenger himself, asking him to spread the word of his return.

The friend was part of a family of scientists and mathematicians. The women often married their collaborators, male and female, but sometimes also took up with the gifted, musicians especially. She was younger than him by half a generation. Life stretched out after the genetic basis of aging and disease was understood. The gender shift followed, with the women first resisting and then overthrowing what the men had run since agrarian days, mixing politics and religion to hold power and make a mess of things. The matriarchal families toppled these hierarchies and took over, their power both local and global—a “loose empire” formed from networks of aristocratic women and their men.

The gifted were the only free men. The titled classes were theoretically meritocratic, but background mattered; the gifted truly were. The untitled could become servers, but being gifted was the only route to a higher station for them and the dispossessed. Among the titled, to be counted as gifted was an ambition and a reward. It reflected talents cultivated by their families and honed by school and experience. Among the untitled and dispossessed, to count as gifted reflected raw talent. It was a shortcut and an apotheosis, but one could fall. The titled had their families, but the untitled only had their gifts. To preserve themselves, they had to make their mark, then find protectors or marry well. Some did neither, burning through their talent and squandering their chances. 

The gifted could direct their time toward their chosen activities. Titled men of working age had to have a profession or a trade. Titled women could have a profession or a vocation if they chose. The gifted alone were free from these impositions. Their only obligation was to perform. 

2. A Visitor 

He wrote the friend in the tongue that he had learned from her. Within elite families, sisters spoke to each other informally, and this was later shared affectionately with selected others. A shift to the standard language meant that the relationship was cooling or had ruptured.

In time, she arrived in her layered clothes, denying that anything but his note itself prompted her visit. Her speech, too, was formal. He breezed through this, talking of this or that until she warmed up, laughing and shifting the conversation bit by bit toward the language of her childhood.

"You are not the only traveler," she said. Her saying it made him realize how much time had passed. She recounted the voyage out and back, and the months with her family in its home city, arranging for her son to find a place there, to be taken in and brought along.

That part of the empire lay close to a dangerous frontier, a place of great lawlessness and patriarchy. If the son were raised there, he would likely have to deal with it. The outlaws coveted the women's wealth, so there were constant incursions. An odd place to land, he thought, but family connections trumped everything else. Without them, he would lead a stunted life in the provinces, thwarting his destiny as they saw it.

The visitor read his thoughts. "It wasn't easy for me, taking him there," she said. "He went willingly, but I worry. They value strangers, but they make them show their worth. It's not like here, insulated by geography."

"I had no choice,” she added. “Boys are hostages to fortune. He has no choice, either, if he wants to serve we intend and earn his place on the Vestals' list." She made a face. "I shouldn't care about it, but pride is my great fault. We share that trait, he and I. I pray it doesn't kill him."

She rose. " I must go. I'm sure you have many, many others to see. I was surprised to get your note, knowing your obligations. Thank you for it" He shook his head. "No, they're only just learning that I'm back, if the messenger has told them yet. If he hasn't, then I'll have a few more days of peace and quiet." She smiled. "I'm sure you're lying," she said.

What was that old Anne Carson poem? "The town of uneven love." He'd thought when he first read it that it was about the feelings between lovers, but perhaps it's about love itself. Her maxim, "We are objects in a wind that stopped," endeared her to the hard men. Would the friend's son become one? A frontier like that made you hard, he thought, no matter how you were when you started out.



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