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
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
This standard language was
his mother tongue, although he spoke the demotic of his childhood and other
tongues he’d 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
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
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.