1 Readiness

“I had hoped to play baladde with you.”

She knew her voice emerged wistful, and did not dwell on the likelihood that he only found her pitiful.

Her public presence was a formal occasion in the Marn, so she wore the leather helm of her office. In her narrowed vision she observed the opaque red lenses, the mouthless ventilator, and his fine gloves, all the masks that separated him from her. Of course he needed the goggles to filter the solar light, he needed the ventilator to supplement the richer radon content he was adapted to, the gloves because his skin dried out so easily here in the open wind. All this Gar knew, all this had been explained to her, and yet for her every piece of his mask was a symbol of the distance between them. She couldn’t even smell him because of the ever-present trail of lightning-strike that hung around him from his ventilator. He occupied the only seat around the small outdoor table, and had not called for another when she approached, so she stood, looking down at him.

He was her spouse of eight years, and she had never seen his face. She had touched him once, which had insured she never touched him again.

Thirteen was a stupid age. Fearless and thoughtless.

“I must beg your forgiveness, ilish,” he said, his voice filtering mechanically through the ventilator. She hated the way he called her ‘ilish’ with a sickened weariness. “I have correspondence with the Tier trade that cannot be delayed.”

There was always something.

The intense desire to demand a real reply clutched in her chest. But the almost mathematical intricacy of dramma protocol did not allow for it in this relationship. And she had not allowed herself any excess of protocol with this particular person since she was thirteen. It was her penance. It never seemed to matter.

“My apologies, lemal. I saw on your schedule that you had an open block. I did not realize you were already occupied.”

The observation was perfectly within the casual ritual of protocol, by no means an accusation, and rather pointed all the same.

“It emerged unexpectedly. I have not had the opportunity to update my schedule.”

Of course.

She did not say it, because too much would have come through.

“Perhaps tomorrow,” Gar said lightly, and knew tomorrow there would be more unexpected business.

“Yes. Perhaps.”

It didn’t matter. She would be gone soon. The choppy burr of an engine reached her, and then a plane crested the tree line over the Marn. She craned her head back to watch it.

“I will be travelling to Dyo to arbitrate a mercantile matter,” she told him. She considered saying that she would perform a bahm for his health, but feared it would be received as self-righteous, though she did, every evening. “I will return to the Marn in a few weeks, if all goes well. I would enjoy meeting with you again.”

“I will be taking the circuit for the short season,” he told her with a metallic frisson.

“Ah.” A second and third plane soared over the treeline, heading south before veering west. “Then I wish for your safe travels. I enjoy the circuit in the short season.” He gave no response, his gloved fingers still holding the place in the documents he had been reviewing when she approached. “Farewell, lemal.”

“As to you, ilish,” he said, returning to his perusal before she turned away.

~~~

Walking into the business room, Gar took off her helm and shook out her green hair. Uio looked up from where she sat on a stool, and lowered a folder to her lap.

Setting her helm on a writing desk, Gar plopped on a stool and hooked her feet behind the bottom rung, slumping like a drarsa.

“Luck did not fly into my hands.” Uio’s very white eyes considered her evenly, and she said nothing. “Beedaj, I’ve had more profound conversations with ink-shippers.”

“He needs time,” Uio said.

“He’s had eleven years.”

“It is not fair to him to count those years.”

“Eight, then.” Gar waved a hand.

“Talame grow more slowly. He might not be sexually mature yet. You can’t know everything that goes into his choices.” It had been a while since Uio had brought that one out. Gar snapped a hand again.

“I’ve lived with lamdra all my life, and they’re never more than a few years behind.”

Uio didn’t respond, though she had before.

“Traveling will help,” Gar continued, almost compulsively, transferring from the stool to behind the writing desk. “I’ll be busy with new routine.” She kept her face even, kept herself in business and did not descend any lower into her feelings. She knew Uio felt it, though she could pretend to herself that she did not.

“Gar.”

She waved, sifting through reams of boundary reviews.

“I’m resigned, Uio. I’ll die with my tie unconsummated. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

~~~

Settling into his hammock, he stripped off the ventilator and filled his lungs, the air suddenly fresh and alive. Tand could remember a time when he’d barely been able to breathe without it; now, some days it was stifling.

One of his masked Weraq, Jemer, stepped forward to hand him a bowl of water, and he accepted it gratefully, touching his lips in thanks. The ventilator stripped the air of moisture, and he was always thirsty after wearing it. He let himself feel the roll of the water in his mouth, the crisp coolness and faintly nutty aftertaste that said it had been gathered from the sunrise spring. His ever-present honor guard cum attendants hovered unobtrusively around the edges of his courtyard, masked from head to foot in untailored black.

The Weraq had at first frightened him, made his sanctuary a place of razor discomfort; now their presence was almost comforting, the relationship subtly intimate though he had never heard them speak except for their names, or seen their faces. They were some of the only people in the Marn who had ever seen his, and that was intimacy too. Outside his courtyard they had other names, and families and ties and lives and children, but those were not his to know.

“Rombar,” he said, closing his eyes briefly. Even the goggles didn’t entirely compensate for the harsh radiance of ultraviolet light. One of his Weraq stepped forward in a gentle sway of black, undoubtedly a drarse by her size and the way she moved. “Please find Dombas and ask him if he’s ready to meet with me after my bahm.” Rombar touched her hidden navel with a gloved hand, and disappeared from the courtyard.

Having escaped from his ever-persistent ilish, Tand was free to move on with his day. He was grateful for whatever merchant squabble had arisen in Dyo that would call her away from the Marn, and more importantly, away from his destination.

Stripping and folding his clothes precisely, Tand paced to the smooth stone circle that broke up the carefully cultivated grass and wildflowers. He sank cross-legged onto the sun-warmed stone, the light heating his skin, the breeze cooling. Leaving thought behind, he moved his consciousness through his body, beginning at his head, moving down through his shoulders, to his core, the bowl of his pelvis, then out through his limbs to the tips of his fingers and toes. Then he swept back up, as if pulling the breeze into himself, breathing it in until his lungs couldn’t expand anymore.

What he had done with his consciousness, he mirrored with his hands, lightly with palms and fingers moving over his face, his ears, his neck, through his cropped hair, down his ribs, profoundly erotic but not arousing. He laced his fingers between his toes, feeling every part of himself, no matter how small.
The irara was a traditional bahm for dre. Though he didn’t think of himself as dre, the rest of the dramma did, so it fit neatly into their expectations. Uio had taught it to him, a calm he could grasp when his world had been reeling, his body failing, his mind unable to catch up.

A handful of the bahm were some of the only aspects of dramma culture he had truly internalized. Their ritual steadiness centered him, gave him something distinct and real to channel himself into.

The water he had boiled with birch leaves had been given the last part of the morning to cool. Reaching over, Tand filled his dakali, a ritual bowl, feeling the heat of the water seeping through the clay into his hands. Holding it above his head in the sunlight, he tipped it slowly, letting the water spill in a heated wash through his hair, running down his face and shoulders and chest, breathing deeply through his mouth.

He continued until the water barrel was empty, and let the morning coolness dry his skin. He got up when he was ready, no specific time or cue, and found that fruit and seeds and olives had been spread over a low table.

“Thank you,” he said to his Weraq in general, seating himself on a cushion on the ground. A black-draped figure slipped out. As Tand was sipping juice, the black-draped figure returned with a slight lamdra, ushering him in to the courtyard. The lamdra touched his lips in thanks to Rombar, and his eyes lit with a smile as he approached the table.

“Bannon,” he said in greeting, using one of Tand’s general names, folding himself across the table, and they clasped fingers briefly. His brows tightened, worry etched around his eyes. “Any news?”

“None,” Tand said, shaking his head. “There’s no sign. We’re moving forward. Do you feel ready?”

Dombas was Tand’s mirror. He was another first generation lamdra, of the same height and slender build, almost the same balance of dramma and Talame features, the same black-blue Talame hair. The rest would be hidden behind red goggles and a ventilator, and tight gloves. Dombas was also a diplomat in his own right, and fully capable of playing Uli to the ritual circuit through the eastern dramma territories.

Dombas gave him a long consideration, a dramma behavior. His eyes were big for a lamdra, slightly favoring the dramma part of his heritage. He had played Uli before, and Tand thought his silence was not a hesitation, but giving the circumstance the weight it deserved.

“I’m ready,” he said slowly. “There was still some question about the best way to deal with her…” He trailed off. ‘Her’ could only be one person. Dombas was typically nervous about discussing sensitive matters around his Weraq. He tended to be circumspect, especially in reference to his ilish and her ignorance about many of their plans. But Tand had learned early that his Weraq did not spy, would not, not even if asked by their Coyi. Their sacred duty was to him, and they held it.

“I learned this morning she has been called away to Dyo,” Tand told him, offhandedly, not naming her only for Dombas’ comfort. Dombas relaxed slightly.

“Ah. Fortunate.”

As his ilish was Coyi to the dramma, Tand was Uli. Part figurehead, part paragon, arbitrator, symbolic and real all at once. Of course, she had been chosen and groomed for the title since she was young; he had been sold into it.

He doubted she would approve of how he chose to use his titular privileges. The warmth of satisfaction gripped him, almost fiercely. She would never know.

~~~

He invited Uio to the study room off the north corner of his courtyard at sunset. It was more private than the open yard; one of his Weraq stood by the outside door, but not inside.

“I’ll be back within a quarter of the next fierce moon,” Tand told her, making his mark as Uli on the thick parchment of the last of the contingency documents Dombas might need.

“The colors are spectacular on the circuit in the short season,” Uio said, deadpan. Tand smiled reflexively, hidden because his face turned from her. She knew he wasn’t going on the circuit. She never remarked that the lamdra in goggles and ventilator and gloves was not always him. She knew his face, though she was one of the few besides his Weraq who could have identified him by his gait alone. She was exquisitely careful to never ask where he was instead.

Rounding the desk, he felt more than saw his way across the dim intimacy of the small room to the small bench where she sat, hands folded in her lap. Without his goggles, the setting light of the Ddro’s primary star through the west window always smudged and grayed the outlines of all the carved wood furniture, turning his depth perception flat. But the room was long-familiar, and Tand squatted in front of her, taking her brown hands in his, strong and soft and old.

“I always miss your counsel when I’m gone so long.”

It was not an admission. But he didn’t play games with Uio.

“You could say goodbye to your ilish.”

The sclera of Uio’s large dramma eyes were white with age, the giant gold rings of her irises steady on him. Tand smiled faintly again, and squeezed her hands. He wouldn’t argue with her.

“She already approached me today. We said our farewells.”

Uio let out a breath, only a sigh because it was actually noticeable, closing her eyes.

“I feel so vexed, with both of you.” It had taken eight years for her to even admit that much frustration to him.

“I never mean to vex you, Uio.”

Tand kissed her eyelids, a dramma affection to elders, a physical intimacy he had learned to cherish with her. Her scent was unmistakably drarse, but somehow he never thought of her as one exept intellectually. She was somehow different, a laison from an alien world.

“Be safe.” Her hands tighted on his.

It was not an admission. But Uio didn’t play games with him either.

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