"I'm not sure this is a good idea," I said to Nashada as he pulled me toward the knot of silhouettes gathered near the ruins. "Can't we go home and play jenadha, or find someplace to have tea?"
"We've played jenadha a thousand times beneath these stars, setasha," Nashada said to me. He was far freer with sweet names than I was. "We've drunk so much tea I might weep it next time I cry. I want to do something different. Besides, I've already paid our entrance to the clay. Don't you trust me?"
I eyed my lover warily. After a long day shaping metal and glass beads into dangles, I would have been content to relax outside beneath the trees. Nashada, on the other hand, conducted hunts through the ruins, drank late at night at different cheldzan, and attended parties and clays at any hour he could contrive. I loved him, tail to ear-tip, but trusting him to choose my entertainment was a different matter.
"Oh, come on," Nashada said, pulling me after him.
Beneath crumbled blocks and behind partial walls, deep shadows hid from the light cast by fire bowls. The Jokka waiting with us for admission to the clay were washed in the numinous palette, gold glimmering, purple darkness. I knew I would recognize no one in the morning, and while I could appreciate the artistry, it heightened my discomfort.
"Why is it so dark?"
"It's supposed to be mysterious," Nashada said, grinning. "It's a special clay."
My misgivings doubled. "What do you mean, 'special'?"
"This clay-keeper, everyone calls her Ke Pediná. She writes naughty stories."
Before I could voice the objections that crowded my throat, Nashada dragged me in, handing two claim stones to the eperu at the arch. The seating area was no more than a selection of broken stone benches and fallen columns, artfully draped with veils.
"Naughty stories?" I hissed at Nashada once he'd chosen us a bench. "What are you talking about?"
Nashada's slender fangs shone in his smile. "What more do you need to know? Ke Pediná sets down graphic love stories. I thought it might be fun to come and see just how graphic they were."
My mouth worked, but I had no words. Clay-keepers were among the most honored members of our society, for they guarded our history, our stories, our knowledge. Periodically, they set out pieces of our truths with their collections of painted stones and clay bits: stories spelled out, letter by letter, for people to read. The thought that one of Het Kabbanil's clay-keepers used his precious store of letters to set out graphic love stories explained why he needed a title to hide behind . . . and Ke Pediná, "Honored Tease," only stressed the indecency of the idea.
Then Nashada's choice of pronoun finally registered. My voice rose in horror. "'Her'? The clay-keeper is an anadi?"
"Hush!" Nashada said. He glanced around to ensure we'd disturbed no one before continuing. "I don't know. No one knows. I just choose to think of her as anadi because that would be even more outrageous. Don't you think? An anadi writing graphic love stories?"
I groaned and hid my face in his shoulder. "Nashada!"
He stroked my mane back from my cheek. I could hear the grin in his voice. "There, there, Tañel. We'll cure you of your modesty."
The rustle of feet and whisper of voices stilled behind me, and I lifted my head. Several of the veils fell away, hissing against the stone. Only one gossamer cloth separated us from the clay area, and behind its mist a Jokkad moved.
Illuminated only by the fire, her figure shrouded in diaphanous clothes, she drifted in a nimbus of copper light. I thought of a star come to the World, but the light was too furtive . . . too private. I was immediately taken by her grace, the sweep of the thin cloth as it trailed her body.
Entranced, we watched in silence, the audience united by our reaction to her beauty. She set down the stones of her story one by one, moving in and out of the twilight's blue shadows.
It wasn't until the thin curtain rippled to the ground before us that I realized she hadn't reappeared from the last shadow that had swallowed her. I shook my head, trying to remember where I was. At the clays I'd attended before, the story had always been prepared ahead of time. No one had incorporated their arrangement into a performance like this.
One by one the audience crossed the divide into the viewing area, Nashada and I among them. Hundreds of stones the size of my fist, each painted with a letter, were lined up in a rectangle on swept earth. The clay-keeper had chosen the snake form: there was enough space between each sentence and the next for the readers to walk, and at the end of the line one reversed direction and walked the opposite way to read the next line. The snake form was a favorite for fiction, since reading backwards heightened the suspense.
I read. And I blushed white at the ears and cheeks, until I thought all the blood in my head would make it too heavy for my body to carry. "Graphic" didn't begin to describe the story, a tale about two emodo discovering their new love -- lust -- for one another, discovering and sating themselves. Some words were so frequently used they merited their own stones. I glanced at the other readers. There were eperu, neuters, here. How many of them had been emodo -- male -- before Turning? Was it titillating for those who'd never been emodo to know how males consummated their relationships?
I left halfway through the story, exiting at the end of a line and trotting through the arch into the unlit ruins. Nashada didn't call after me -- it would have been impolite to disturb the others -- but I knew he would look for me later. I tried to get lost, ducking beneath several columns and hiding at last in the shadow of a fallen doorway.
I had crouched there long enough to regain my composure when the light of the stars glided over a figure in gossamer. My breath caught in my mouth.
When the shadows released the last of the figure, I found myself staring into the solemn face of an eperu dressed in pants, long-cloth, and a diaphanous mantle. It held the cloth closed at its throat.
"You're her? Ke Pediná?" I exclaimed.
It grinned. "I won't tell if you don't."
"Okay," I said, still too shocked to think.
It offered me a hand and its name. "Ekkuli Molan-emodo."
"Molan-emodo?" I glanced at its feet, sought and found the evidence that it had been born male in the elegance of its feet-hands . . . but that did not explain the delicacy of its shoulders, the slim fangs, whispers of a female shape it did not wear.
Without prompting, it knew what I wanted to know, or perhaps I hadn't been subtle enough in my examination. "I'm ethilik."
Elithik -- every-sexed, we would say. So Ekkuli had been born emodo, Turned anadi at first puberty, and finally settled at eperu, the sex it would remain for the balance of its life. "I . . . I'm not sure what to say," I said.
"Tell me your name?" Ekkuli said.
"Tañel. Tañel Ithera-emodo." I came out from under the doorway, my footsteps uncertain.
"You left early," Ekkuli said. "You didn't like my story?"
"It was . . ." I warred with myself. What could I say? Obscene? Not to my taste? Different? Well-written? It had been all those things. I realized that the eperu was watching my struggle with amusement and chose honesty. "No. I don't know."
"Ah," Ekkuli said. "Rare that, and appreciated. A clay-keeper rarely hears truth, even though truth is our deepest calling."
"You call that truth?" I asked.
Ekkuli grinned. "Was it not accurate?"
I blushed and looked away.
"Was it not tender? Did it not touch off ripples in your heart?" A pause. "You needn't answer, ke emodo. But I suspect you know something of what I speak. I saw your companion . . . he was more than a friend."
"You saw me leave, you saw me come in . . . were you watching me in particular?" I asked, unnerved.
It shook its head. "No. No more than I watch everything. It is part of my work . . . observing how things are."
I snorted. "And that's how you find your truths, ah?"
"Yes." Ekkuli grinned.
I shook my head. "Anyone could find truth that way."
"Ah! But would they be brave enough to set it down?"
I wrinkled my nose. "There's a difference between bravery and brazenness."
Ekkuli laughed then, and startled me by it, for its laugh was low and intimate. I felt as if it had shone a light into its soul for my eyes.
"You cut me, ke emodo. Will you give me another chance to tell you a truth? Perhaps one you will think less brazenly graphic?"
I was intrigued despite my better judgement. "Maybe."
"If 'maybe' becomes 'yes,' return in a few hours and read what I set out. Maybe then you will change your mind." One tufted ear flicked outward, just visible beneath the mantle. "Your lover seeks you. I'll leave him to you."
But Ekkuli was gone, and there was Nashada tramping through the dust and rubble of the ruins. "Setasha! You left just before the best part! And now they're closing the whole thing and you won't be able to read the rest."
I turned to him, strangely reticent to mention Ekkuli's visit. "I'm sorry, Nashada. I know you paid for me. Maybe you can tell me the rest?"
"Not with the same flair as Ke Pediná! But since you asked so nicely . . . ."
I left Nashada wearing a smile in his sleep and crept through the silent halls until I found a little-used ramp to the top. Het Kabbanil was our largest city, or so I'd heard from the caravan traders who stop here. Hundreds of buildings of baked clay huddled in the shadows of the extensive stone sites left from some distant age. Some Houses built their steadings among those ruins, incorporating some of the remaining walls and floors.
My House, Ithera, was more sensible. Of the ancient sites that comprised old Het Kabbanil we had chosen to live where our ancestors had dug: a selection of rooms hollowed out of the earth, where the cool air was kind to our anadi and kept our food from spoiling quickly. I loved the solitude and the temperature, but sneaking out of Ithera would have been easier had our windows been on the walls instead of the ceilings.
Once I slid outside, a chill took me. It was later than I'd imagined, close enough to truedark to make me think twice about Ekkuli's offer. I could make it there before the black wiped the World from my sight, but how would I read the story?
I ran, trusting the evening's cool to keep me safe. Every emodo has to carefully experiment to determine his physical limits; beyond that, danger waits, the same mind-death that hunts the anadi but with less success. I had never experienced the dizziness that warned of a mind-wound, but I didn't want this to be the first time. Thus I wasn't surprised when truedark swept toward me even as I stumbled into the ruins.
No Jokkad travels during truedark. Breeders sleep through this dangerous hour; eperu doze-dream in it, weaving nightmarish visions from the absolute black. We are a people of great clarity of sight, and to lose that facility is powerfully affecting. I froze on the edge of the ruins, unsure of my footing, unsure even of the World beneath my feet. I flexed my toes, fighting panic.
A shimmer of light streamed past me, and then another. I recognized the firebrights from stories -- an insect attracted by the honey of the black yew tree's flowers. A knot of them tangled a little ways before me, and their glow gave just enough light for me to crawl forward. I barked my knees and shins several times on the way, but before long I found myself standing at the viewing area.
Three large rocks had been arranged in a triangle, each smeared with sap. The firebrights dancing above them gave more than enough light to see the story set between the stones. This one had been arranged in a stanza form with baked clay letters not even as long as my smallest claw. I had to kneel and lean onto my hands to read them.
It was a very short tale, in three stanzas.
An eperu, a dancer, with flashing eye,
like bright stars and
Each step a song, each gesture a joy.
Lucky in love, luckily loved
by an eperu in dusk --
Turned anadi, the last choice,
Nature's irony and
lover's dismay. But the House
thought to keep her, to breed her.
Dusk's eperu did too.
Their love sweet between them --
And sticky -- and long -- and gentle,
A love without names, without
rules. No one knew.
No one asked. No one learned.
They loved until mind-death
took her away: sweet setasha.
I reared back, shuddering, and pressed my hand to my mouth. For fear of what, I wasn't sure: that I would scream, or weep, or tear out my own wrists . . . to keep my hands from sweeping the abomination away.
I stumbled away into the utter dark, and regarded not at all the bruises I collected on my way home.
I woke before Nashada and went to my bath, fighting nausea. I had already dressed and was braiding dangles into my hair when Nashada propped himself up. His yawn displayed needle-sharp fangs, a maneuver he'd perfected when he discovered how attractive I found them.
"You're up early," he said. "It's not even time for work yet."
"I just wanted to meet the day," I said. I didn't want to tell Nashada about the errand I was planning, the one I'd been mulling while I tossed and turned the remainder of the night.
"Before the field-workers?" His tone of voice held notes of skepticism and affection. A few moments later, he joined me at the table and looped his arms around my waist from behind. "You're not a great fan of the dawning hour, setasha. Are you sure there's not something I can help you with?"
For the briefest of instants, I considered it, considered sharing the depth of my shame, my outrage, my horror with him. But even wild Nashada would shun me for the truth I hid in my heart, even if I could force myself to repeat Ekkuli's appalling story. I said nothing, bowing my head.
"If that's how you want it," Nashada said. He nuzzled the top of my head before pulling away. "I'll see you at break?"
"Of course," I said.
Nashada left for the bathing chambers, and I rested my hands on the table. He loved me so much, and so freely.
With a sigh, I let myself out of the house and headed for the major thoroughfare through Het Kabbanil. I was a jeweler, a position that did not require me to wake with the sun like Nashada's did -- he was a beast-master who sold his services to the farming Houses -- but my elders became uncomfortable if I did not begin my work by the third hour after dawn. I had to complete my errand by then.
Half an hour later I found myself in the town proper. I had to ask a few passersby after my destination, and I needed the greater part of an hour to find it.
I spared a moment's gladness for the finery I'd donned, for House Molan was more prosperous than I'd expected. They'd cleaned and retouched the remaining ruins of their chosen site, and had used the freestanding columns and unexpected walls as accent pieces around the buildings they'd constructed for their families. Crawling vines with large cream blossoms curled in almost skin-like patterns across the modern buildings, certainly maintained by a skilled staff. I had no sooner passed through the stone arch when an eperu dressed in elegant vest, long-cloths, and pants appeared from behind a column.
"May I help you, ke emodo?" it asked.
"I've come to speak with the Head of House Molan."
The eperu canted its head. "On what matter?"
"It is about the activities of one of your members," I said.
The eperu gestured assent. "If you will follow me? The Head may not be free, but one of his auxiliaries should be available."
"My thanks," I said, and followed. I trembled as I walked, the disgust rising again. I could taste it, sour and hot, on the back of my throat. With it came fear . . . fear for myself, fear for others. Stories can be dangerous. What if I was not the only Jokkad Ekkuli had subjected to its truedark tales?
The eperu showed me to a fine room in one of the larger buildings. I sat on a bench shrouded in soft pillows, unaware of time's passage as I stared out the window, mesmerized by the droop and sway of the blossoms in the breeze.
The male who entered surprised me thus. I jerked upright.
"My pardon!" I exclaimed, rising, horrified that he'd found me half-asleep.
The emodo touched his head in the male's greeting. I returned it as I struggled to take him in, for his piercing regard trapped my eyes to his. He had beast eyes, yellow-green . . . but where most hide such eyes, aware of their ugliness, he used them to intimidate. I could find no emotion in his predator's gaze.
"May I help you?" he asked, and the curtness of the words implied how little help he felt obliged to give.
"I came . . . about one of your House," I said.
"An eperu," I said, gathering my convictions. I remembered my outrage at the sight of the story, my disgust, my horror. "Ekkuli. Your clay-keeper. It is writing unusual stories--"
"Something other than its sexual stories?" the emodo asked.
"You know?" I asked, barely suppressing my surprise.
"Of course," he said. "Ekkuli's stories bring us a great deal of shell. More than it would have had it been a traditional clay-keeper. Did its stories offend unduly?"
"They're not just sexual stories," I said, thinking of the horrible poem. Trying not to think about love across genders. "Love stories. Unseemly ones."
The faintest of frowns creased the emodo's brow. His unwavering stare grew cold and intense, but no longer focused. I imagined him seeking Ekkuli's image in his mind and directing that spear-point regard on the eperu, and suddenly dismay clouded out the disgust in my heart.
"You are not the first to say this," he said. "Unseemly in what way?"
"As all love stories are," I said, mentally backpedaling. "Private matters are no fit subject for a clay reading."
He focused again on me, and though his eyes had lost their sharpness my unease remained. "Ah, I see. I apologize for your poor experience. Your shell will be refunded and someone will speak with Ekkuli."
"That's not really necessary," I began.
"You were distressed. It is not our business to distress those who pay us," the emodo interrupted. "Your escort will return shortly with your money. Good day."
I did not have time to reply before he left. As he'd promised, the eperu who'd led me in returned with a soft bag full of shells. It handed the bag over and led me out.
Shame makes a poor companion. I accomplished little work that day, none of it inspired. I retired early and slept until evening, and deeply at that. When I woke, Nashada's dirty clothing had been tossed into the corner basket and his jewels were gone. Somehow I'd slept through his return, his typically noisy preparations for the evening and his departure. I looked into his stone bowl and found a red ball of clay: he had gone to the cheldzan beside the stream, for tea; I was welcome to come or not as I desired.
Paper is very expensive, even in Het Kabbanil. Most Jokka use stone tablets or wooden plates treated with wax so they can be wiped and re-used. Nashada and I use bowls: a blue-gray one for him, after his skin tone, and a darker gray one for me. We tell one another where we are and whether we want company with different tokens.
I did not go. I did not want to see other Jokka. My unease about having gone to House Molan had only heightened with the passing day. What Jokkad walked abroad at truedark, anyway? Who would see the story? Who could it harm?
Why had Ekkuli done it?
Why did I feel that trouble already hunted Ke Pediná?
My evening walk took me to the clay-keeper's ruins, but I did not pay to read the story. I sat outside and waited, and after the last of the audience had dispersed Ekkuli came out to meet me. Still shrouded in its mantle, it sat beside me, so close I could feel the edges of the cloth tickling my bare arm.
"Did you glimpse the braided tail of truth then, ke emodo?" it asked.
My ears flattened. "There are truths that are best kept hidden. Thoughts that should remain edloña, unspoken, unthought," I said. I handed it the bag of shell House Molan had returned me.
"Ah, no! Such a wound, that a word even exists for that which should not be said! Ke emodo, there are no truths so shabby, vile, or perilous that they don't merit the gaze of a Jokkad." It took the bag, and I noticed the delicacy of its fingers, a stark reminder of its birth sex. Usually only emodo have such nimble hands. "What's this?" it asked.
Had Molan not reprimanded it? Had my ill-considered visit wreaked no damage -- no further damage? The relief that flooded me at the thought startled. I cared, then, for this speaker of unspeakable truths.
"It belongs to you," I said of the pouch.
"You confuse me," Ekkuli said, though it sounded intrigued. "You tell me there are truths that need hiding, and yet you give me shell . . . as compensation for the story?"
"Perhaps I am the one who's confused," I said. "But keep the shell."
Its fingers massaged the bag. "This is more than wonted. Payment for more than one story. Perhaps I should set out another for you later."
"Perhaps you should," I said, before I knew what I said. "Or perhaps you shouldn't. To speak edloña is dangerous."
Ekkuli laughed again, that delightful, low, intimate sound. "So it is, ke emodo."
"Tañel," I interrupted.
It grinned at me. "Tañel, then. The risks are worth taking, to find those who will meet your heart halfway. Come tonight, if it pleases you, and see how little the word edloña means to a true clay-keeper."
I came back that night and read about an anadi who lived a long and wondrous life, having borne many children and never lost her intelligence to the mind-death that preys so readily on females. I wept at the end of that one, licking tears from my fangs at the thought of a mother who could still speak with her children after they'd become adults. Who would have thought of such a thing? Only Ekkuli, fearless Ekkuli.
The eperu signed that one with a single e, a hooked and dotted loop with an extra claw-dot; a joke it shared with me, for on the rare occasions someone was found edloña, they were marked with such a letter before they were cast out. I ran my finger over the extra mark, shivering at the passage from rough stone to slick paint. I picked up the rock and tucked it in my pocket, reacting to the sense of unease that had plagued me all day. I had no shell with me to compensate for the stone, so I pulled one of the rings off a foot-finger and left it there. The night engulfed its brass sheen.
I returned every night that followed. Ekkuli and I did not have to meet; the eperu set out a new truedark truth, assuming I would arrive. We evolved our own method of communication. A story that touched me would be rewarded by shells or smaller semi-precious stones. I stole the signatures from stories that disquieted me. Over time, the eperu began to answer some of my more oblique or enigmatic responses with stories that addressed them. It also played with its signature, putting out the double-marked e only when it thought a story would particularly perturb me, as if daring me to steal the stone. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn't.
I read them all, and dreamed, and shivered in my blankets beside Nashada's warm body. None of them were comfortable tales, and most of them were edloña, unspeakable, unthinkable. Why I returned, I could not say.
One night, I entered my room and turned to the bed to find Nashada leaning on an elbow, watching me in the dark. I stopped moving, my breath caught in my throat.
"Did you think I wasn't noticing?" he asked softly.
"I had hoped," I started, then realized the futility of it. I sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.
"If you've found another, you can tell me," Nashada said. "I want you to be happy."
"It's not that!" I exclaimed, then lowered my voice, conscious of the darkness pressing in above us. Truedark is not only the time of fantasies, but also of confidences; even so, it was hard to begin. "It's the clay-keeper you took me to. I've been reading stories by it."
"This late?" Nashada canted his head.
"It sets out special ones after everyone else goes home. For me." I bowed my head, unwilling to show off the white blush that stained my cheeks and ears. I might as well have been spending time with another male. "It's a complicated story."
"I see!" Nashada said, and incredibly he laughed. "So Ke Pediná is an eperu, and you are taken with it! I knew you would like the clay-keeper more than you were willing."
"It's not that!" I said. "It doesn't set out love stories for me, not the kind that we saw. They're . . . they're different."
"Different how?" Nashada asked, cheerful.
"They're edloña," I said, and held my breath. I hadn't realized how much I trusted Nashada until this moment, and then--
"No wonder it puts them out late at night," Nashada mused. "I would do the same, were I the clay-keeper. Are they good?"
I looked into his dark green eyes and saw only interest, love, and curiosity. My breath escaped in a shuddering sigh, and Nashada wrapped his arms around my waist.
"It's that hard for you, isn't it," he murmured. "But still, you try. I am proud of you, setasha."
I leaned into his arms, relieved.
"But it's not particularly safe for you to be seen leaving the House every night. It's too unusual. Someone might wonder what you were doing and follow you."
"But the stories!"
Nashada grinned. "How's this. I'll go out every other night, come back and tell you what it says. Then you do the same for me. And I'll teach you how to be more discreet about your night wandering."
I paused. For an instant, I hated the idea of sharing Ekkuli with anyone, of sharing our code, our communication. But the stories . . . the stories were worth sharing. And Nashada didn't have to know about the system; he could develop his own.
"Okay," I said.
"Why don't you start with tonight's?" Nashada said, pulling me into the blankets and helping me discard my clothing. "A little lulling tale to help us sleep?"
"I doubt it qualifies," I said, but I told him anyway about the House that prospered with an eperu lore-knower as its Head of Household. Not the stuff of nightmares, but only breeders are allowed to be Heads of Household. Neither of us slept well.
One evening I arrived to find no story between the rocks. Nor did Nashada find one the next night.
"It's not giving its regular clays either," Nashada said the third night, tossing his vest into the basket. He sat on the bed and looked up at me. "Something's wrong."
I nodded, hugging myself. My unease had fledged into true worry. "Maybe this is my fault."
He frowned. "How so?"
Truth is a weed. Once it has its roots in you, it is difficult to ignore. "I went to House Molan about Ekkuli the night after you took me to see it."
"What did you tell them?" Nashada asked. His voice remained even, but I could see the sudden tension that gripped his body.
"I wasn't specific . . . but perhaps it was enough to give them cause to investigate. They made it sound like they'd heard disquieting things about Ekkuli before."
He considered, then gestured his rejection of the idea. "I'd say it was unlikely -- you went weeks ago, didn't you? -- save for the thought that you might not have been the only one. Still, we shouldn't assume the worst. Maybe it has fallen ill."
"I'll ask in the morning," I said. "I've been to Molan before, I can go again. I might even be able to make up for my complaint by saying something complimentary."
I could not sleep that night, and envied Nashada's easy drop into dreams; he was working earlier now that the season had advanced. In lieu of pretending to rest, I removed myself to my work room and returned to the piece I'd been working on. I'd taken the ancient symbols for eperu, anadi, and emodo and worked them into a single silver medallion, a circle pierced from below with a mark, sprouting another above, and with a single dot in the middle. I wondered who would buy it, given its meaning. I wondered why I'd made it.
My head drooped toward my work table until it rested among the metal shavings and thin blades. I had never suspected until my great error that I harbored the seeds of horror in my heart. Since then I'd struggled to bury them too deeply to ever sprout.
Ekkuli . . . Ekkuli was sunlight. Its stories were water for my parched spirit. My danger had never been more acute than here, this moment, when the thought of living without Ke Pediná's edloña stories left me weak in the grip of despair. Were I wise, were I enamored with my life as a good Jokkad, a productive member of House Ithera and a respectable craftsman in Het Kabbanil . . . were I wise and good, I would call Ekkuli's disappearance a windfall and leave it be.
I knew I wouldn't. Truth is an impertinent plant.
I approached House Molan with trepidation. It looked no different than it had a few weeks past, but something had changed. Something in me. I stood outside its arch, ignoring the sun's brilliant regard. I had not yet prepared myself to enter when the eperu door-warden appeared.
"May I help you, ke emodo?" it asked politely.
"I'd like to ask after one of your members," I said.
Its ears flattened. "My apologies, ke emodo, but most of House Molan is in Trial."
I stiffened. "I . . . see," I said. "Is it a public matter?"
"The decision will be public if appropriate," the eperu said. "A matter of discipline within the House, you understand. They should be done this evening."
"Of course," I said. "Thank you for your time."
It smiled. "My pleasure is to serve."
I trailed home, my worry become dread. Surely no coincidence saw Ekkuli vanish just before its House sat Trial on one of its members.
When I arrived, Nashada grabbed me and pulled me into our room. "It's all over the field," he said. "They're going to Break Ke Pediná from Molan."
"How can you be sure?" I answered, stricken still with horror. "To exile it just for naughty stories?"
"If they caught it at its truedark tales, they're more than naughty stories, setasha, and you know it well. To speak or perform edloña is more than enough reason to Break a person's contract."
I tried to think through my panic. Breaking someone's contract was more than an escort out of a House . . . it required leaving the city entirely and never returning. A Broken contract was a matter of public record, stored in Transactions to forever haunt its owner. Such a crime is not forgiven among the Jokka. The only reprieve is to flee, and if the sentence is immediate, without more than the clothes on one's body.
With summer approaching, exile was death.
"Was it my fault?" I asked hoarsely.
"What word there is indicates Ekkuli's behavior with us was a pattern. It made a habit of dancing along the edge of what was acceptable," Nashada said. He took a deep breath. "The field-hands could be wrong. Everything may work out as it should."
"Maybe. We'll know this evening," I said.
It was the longest evening of my life. I picked up the tools in my workshop and did not employ them. The tips of my fingers had grown numb; the strength in my hands had drained away. I could only roll one of the tiny stones with its double-dotted e in my hands, chafing my palms, chafing my soul.
Nashada joined me a few hours later, resting his hands on my shoulders.
I remained silent a few minutes longer, then said, "I did not take up with you out of desire for you."
Ah, but the seed of truth can unfurl in such unexpected ways. I glanced up at him, startled. "You knew?"
"Of course I did," he said. "You never offered your heart and mind to any Jokkad, and I didn't fool myself into thinking I was the special one. It was some other reason, wasn't it."
I nodded, unwilling to say more.
"But you learned to love me, didn't you?"
I stared at the stone cupped in my palm, then smiled and slid my free hand over his. "You are irresistible," I said.
Nashada grinned. "I was counting on it. I wanted to unlock your mystery myself . . . but I know better now. I needed an eperu's help for that, didn't I."
"It told true stories," I murmured.
"And which one touched your heart so deeply you ran in fear to Molan's doorstep?" Nashada asked, and I was surprised by the gentleness of his voice.
I remained silent, eyes closing. I imagined Ekkuli's presence, a shadow clothed in white gossamer, a creature of demanding contrasts and unyielding sight. "I loved an emodo. Even after he Turned anadi."
Nashada's hands gripped me harder.
"The House kept her, but sold her breeding contract. I loved her until her mind dissolved in the harness. And then I found out why love should remain within sexes." I gulped in a small breath. "To ask someone to love without understanding the risk of being another sex . . . who could encompass it?" I clamped down on my itching fangs, willing the tears back into them. When that didn't work, I resorted to quickly licking my teeth. "And I miss him -- her -- so much, still. I love her still."
"So you came to Ithera with a broken heart and a fearful mind, thinking someone would know you'd done the unspeakable," Nashada said. He crouched next to me, taking my hands. "And decided for propriety's sake you should take up with an emodo lover immediately, so that no one would question you. Am I right?"
I bowed my head.
"And yet you still allowed yourself to go to Ekkuli. I dare say you love it, even."
"I do not!" I exclaimed, terrified.
Nashada shook his head. "Oh, setasha. Do you see how our society twists us? It only tries to keep us from harm, but in doing so it destroys us. You do love Ekkuli, and why not? It knows your secret heart." He stood, pulling me with him. "Come on."
"Where -- where are we going?" I tried to get a hand free to wipe away the tears leaking from my mouth, but Nashada wouldn't release me.
"To go get Ekkuli, of course." He paused. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
I tried to compose myself. "Y-yes. But where will we go? We can't stay in Het Kabbanil."
"No, we can't," Nashada agreed.
"We'll have to go somewhere else," I mused. "Sign with another House."
"Or start a new one," Nashada said cheerfully.
I eyed him.
"We do have the requisites," he said. "At least two people, and one of them a breeder to be Head of Household. We'll even have a clay-keeper, if Ekkuli agrees to go with us."
I stared at him, unable to fathom what motivated that grin. "You want to go with me? Leave the city for the unknown? Help me take up with an eperu?"
"I'm sure Ekkuli won't mind sharing," Nashada said, unperturbed. "And of course I want to go with you. Haven't you noticed that I love you? Now stop gawking and let's go get some rikka. We don't want to leave Ekkuli too long without water."
I followed, bemused.
We found Ekkuli at the last well beyond Het Kabbanil's fields. The eperu had been stripped of its clothes and its diaphanous mantle and in the purple dusk wore only a long-cloth. It was draped over the lip of the well; I could read its despondency from a distance, could shiver with empathy for its slumped shoulders and drooping ears. The eperu did not even lift its head when the clawed toes of our rikka shuffled up to the well's perimeter.
Nashada glanced at me, waiting. I cleared my throat and said, "Ke Ekkuli."
It looked up, eyes wide. I could trace the track of tears across its chin. "Tañel?"
I smiled. "The same. I missed your stories."
Bitterness darkened Ekkuli's eyes. "Well, there will be no more of the stories, I'm afraid."
"So House Molan and Het Kabbanil would have it," I said. "But not I."
Ekkuli's ears splayed and it stared at my rikka's feet. "I'm not sure you understand," it said. "I did it once too often, told the truth one too many times. They've Broken my contract. They sent me away!"
"I know," I said. "You remember Nashada, my companion?"
It lifted its head, confusion plain on its face. "Yes?"
"We thought a great deal of your truth-telling. The other Jokka might not want to hear or read your stories, but we would be honored to have such a brave and powerful clay-keeper in our new House."
"New . . . House? You've Broken with Ithera?"
"Not officially," Nashada said, speaking for the first time, "But I don't think there'll be any question when they discover we've vanished and taken three rikka with us." At Ekkuli's expression, he managed a rueful grin. "We left enough shell to pay for them! But I don't think that will matter much to the House elders."
"Ekkuli," I said. "Come with us. We'll find some het that will welcome us, or start one of our own if need be. Say you will."
The eperu pushed itself to its feet and walked to my rikka. It smoothed its hands over the beast's slender neck and looked up at me, revealing a sudden brass gleam. I saw then what darkness and the curve of its body had hidden from me: my toe-ring, hanging from a leather cord around Ekkuli's neck.
"If you want me, I'll go with you," it said.
"I do," I said, my breath caught in my throat for entirely different reasons. Its mane unveiled was a soft, glowing red-gold not even the starlight could sully.
Ekkuli mounted the rikka we'd brought for it.
"Which way?" Nashada asked.
"South," I said.
"Why that way?"
"Why not?" I said, amused.
Half an hour later, Nashada said, "I suppose we can't have a truedark tale tonight."
I glanced in my pouch. "Not unless Ekkuli knows one that can be performed solely with words composed of the letter e."
Ekkuli laughed. "You brought them?"
"Of course. Consider it the beginning of your next collection."
And another hour later, "Ekkuli, you don't mind sharing Tañel with me, right?"
"I think we could work something out."
"Don't I get any vote in this?"
"Hush, Tañel. You'll get more than enough voting in when you become Head of Household. Let your lovers have their chance."
Edloña, © 2002 M. C. A. Hogarth
Copyright © 2002 M. C. A. Hogarth