Authors: Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler
A Necessary Being
A Biography of Octavia E. Butler
In a poem I once heard, a lonely young man walking past a desolate alley sees someone, a street denizen, a woman moving in the shadows. She looks familiar and he realizes that this is his mother—dead now for many years.
Reading posthumously published work of an author you loved is like this—shocking, strange, and very sad. And if that work was early on in the author’s career, it’s like seeing your mother as a woman younger and more hopeful than you, than I.
Discovering these lost stories of Octavia Butler is a kind of poetry and revivification: poetry and revivification, the hallmarks of our lost sister. Reading these tales is like looking at a photograph of a child whom you only knew as an adult. In her eyes you can see the woman that you came to know much later—a face, not yet fully formed, that contains the promise of something that is now a part of you: the welcomed surprise of recognition in innocent eyes.
In these stories we find two women faced with war or with peace. Carrying on their backs society’s future or its end. Both women come to us deeply embedded into histories, beliefs, and landscapes that share ghostly traits of our own, stretched and blasted and made strange. We are asked: Imagine a society striated by colors, imbued with a belief about power that isolates and cripples the one who is paradoxically the most important being. Or a teacher, a leader, on the run from the government that now hunts the telepaths it once cultivated as part of a utopian propaganda.
Long before Octavia Butler changed the face of science and speculative fiction, the landscape of the potentials of literature, she was imagining these worlds. She was asking her readers to enter with her into these untried territories with the challenges, the tragedies, the imperatives of being alive and of becoming more. The stories are disturbing. The characters stay on after the reading is finished. Once entered, the premises that made each story its own reality become familiar and this new society no longer seems strange or distant. We find, instead, that our worldview is transformed by an imagination that sees no border between thought and what is
reveals the themes that would become Butler’s lexicon: the complicating mysteries we assign to power, race, and gender. Octavia Butler wrote these two stories, “A Necessary Being” and “Childfinder,” early on in her journey from reader to writer, from fiction to unassailable reality. She is working out in these two very different stories the purpose she would refine with every book, every series, every word she subsequently wrote.
A Necessary Being
The Rohkohn Hao, Tahneh, was sharing her evening meal with her chief judge and discussing the current drought when she first learned of the foreigners who had entered her territory. There were three of them, not traveling north or south over the long strip of coastal desert as she would have expected, but coming from the east through the foothills. Apparently, they were following the narrow dwindling river that had in better times kept Tahneh’s people well supplied with water. The hunter who brought the message described the foreigners as a huntress, a judge, and, startlingly, a young Hao. Tahneh looked sharply at the hunter when he said it.
“You’re certain that it was a Hao and not just a high judge?”
“So the message said, Rohkohn Hao.” And the man quoted. “‘The foreign Hao is male and very young. Perhaps even too young to have been acknowledged by his people. His coloring is unmistakably pure blue and he is much taller and larger than the judge who is with him.’”
Tahneh heard this silently, her face turned away from the hunter. She felt just the beginnings of dread as she began to believe the report. A stupid child-Hao out almost alone on land that belonged to her people! What could his own people have been thinking of to let him wander around so unguarded?
“How far is he from here?” she asked the hunter.
“Two days, perhaps two and a half, Rohkohn Hao. He’s traveling slowly. He had just emerged from the mountains when a group of our hunters saw him and sent word back to us. Since he is coming toward us, our fighters could reach him from here in only a day.”
“Is there any possibility that he saw our hunters—saw them signaling us perhaps?” Tahneh had trouble keeping the hope out of her voice. Even a young Hao would have the sense to take his friends and run if he realized that there were other Kohn in the area. He would not know whether Tahneh’s Rohkohn were hostile or friendly and he would not be foolish enough to wait and find out. If only he had seen her hunters’ light signals.
“He could not have seen them, Rohkohn Hao,” the hunter assured her. “Our hunters made certain that both he and his friends were asleep when they sent their message.” The hunter seemed proud that members of his caste had acted so carefully, so correctly. He added, “Our hunters also ask that we hold our answer until we receive another signal from them—so that we don’t accidently alert the Hao and his party.”
Thorough hunters, Tahneh thought bitterly. A tribute to her insistence on training and discipline. Her body whitened and became slightly luminescent. This was a sign of the approval that she should have felt, but did not feel, a sign to the hunter that he and his fellow hunters had done well.
“Is there anything more?” she asked.
“No, Rohkohn Hao.”
Tahneh let the light go out of her coloring, let her normal blue return and the hunter, understanding that he had been dismissed, turned and left her apartment.
She sat still, ignoring the silent chief judge who sat beside her and staring into the fire of her large fireplace. This particular judge was a friend as well as the top official of her government. She had had liaisons with him before his marriage and after the death of his wife; he was a good companion. But she wished beyond expressing that she had not invited him to eat with her this particular night. In another moment he would speak and say the things she did not want to hear.
After a moment the chief judge’s normal blue-green coloring soared to brilliant white luminescence with his joy. “At last, Tahneh, at last!” The words came out in a harsh whisper. “We must send more fighters—judges—to capture him before those hunters frighten him away!”
Tahneh watched him silently, knowing that his elation would soon be shared by the rest of her people. Another Hao at last. A young one to be the successor that her body had
been unable to produce, a child who could probably be captured without the danger and loss of life that would be involved in capturing an experienced adult.
“With his youth,” the chief judge said, “it might even be possible to persuade him to accept the Rohkohn as his people without the usual … coercion.”
“Perhaps,” said Tahneh. She knew that this was a vain hope, that there was no possibility of “persuading” a Hao to betray his people other than by the brutal traditional methods. But she knew too that the words had been meant as a kindness. This judge, more than any other, understood how deeply she hated the traditional ways.
She longed to see the young Hao. She had not seen one of her own kind since the death of her father twenty years before. She had felt her loneliness agonizingly right after his death, but she had been very young herself then—just acknowledged by her people. Her loneliness had passed, or she thought it had. She was surprised at the new loneliness, the desperate need she felt now—need that she knew was in conflict with her fear for the boy, with her hope that he had already fled.
But no matter what she hoped, she had to assume that he had not escaped. For the sake of her people, she had to plan his capture.
She spoke to her chief judge. “We will obey the conventions in this, Ehreh. The Hao and his party are to be brought here unharmed, untouched if possible. They are to be treated as potential friends, not as prisoners. They’re to be convinced that we’re only being cautious with them. If we can make them understand that, then they’ll be careful not to do anything that might make us turn hostile.”
“We can’t be too gentle with them,” Ehreh said. “We can’t take the chance of their escaping.”
“Take a large enough force with you to prevent their escape. Take as many fighters, both judges and hunters, as you think you’ll need. But remember, the point is to give them no reason to risk trying to escape.”
Ehreh stared at her. “You want me to go after them, Tahneh?”
“Would you rather I send someone else—someone with less knowledge of the Hao, someone who’ll lose this boy?”
He considered this, then gave the slight flash of white that indicated agreement. “For that matter,” he said slowly, “you should go yourself.”
“You won’t need me if you do as I’ve ordered!” The words came out more sharply than she had intended and she knew that Ehreh would notice.
He looked at her silently for several seconds. “You’ve been alone for a long time, Tahneh. You should welcome this chance to capture another Hao.”
“The people need him, not me,” she said shortly. “They’ll have him.”
“They will if I can catch him without your help.”
“A moment ago you didn’t even think you were needed to make the capture.”
“A moment ago I hadn’t thought at all. I’m thinking now, though. A Hao … We’ll need you, Tahneh. If he decides to leave his friends, escape alone, we may lose him no matter how many fighters I have.”
“He won’t do that if you don’t give him reason. We Hao don’t particularly like abandoning our friends even when it’s necessary.”
Ehreh laid a hand on her shoulder and she felt the pressure of it heavily. “‘We,’ Tahneh? Already, ‘we’? You must have been more lonely than I thought.”
She said nothing.
“By refusing to go after this boy, you are giving him a chance to escape.”
“I’m giving you a chance to prove that you deserve your high position!” The words stung him as she had intended them to. She saw yellow flicker in his coloring and was pleased. It was better to have him angry and defensive than to have him beginning to doubt that she was acting in the best interests of the people.
“I am not Hao,” he said quietly. “I cannot perform Hao duties.”
“Nor will you define Hao duties.”
His yellow flickering stopped, and to her surprise his coloring faded toward gray. Gray was for the most private and deeply felt grief. “This is an ordeal that both you and the boy must bear, Tahneh.” Ehreh spoke very softly. “We are close, you and I, and I can see the pain that you think your harsh words hide. I understand your sentiment, but the people can’t afford it.”
Tahneh let some of her own gray come through bleakly. “All right, Ehreh, we’ll stop snarling at each other. It’s meaningless anyway; I’ve already made my decision. Gather your judges and hunters and go capture the young Hao.”
come with us!”
Her blue returned at that—returned harshly metallic, a cold threatening color. She said nothing to Ehreh. She only looked at him. He understood that he had gone too far. He rose silently and left her.
When he was gone, she sat still for a long moment, then bent over slowly, very
slowly, until her head touched her knees. She rocked back and forth, still moving with agonizing slowness, and her body became a deep gray. Once she spoke the name of her father loudly, sharply as though she were asking a question. But the dead were dead; death was an end. She neither expected nor received guidance. But she did call to mind the memory of her father, sitting on his mat, lying on his pallet, sitting in the litter that the people had used to carry him. She had never seen him standing. He had been old when she was born, and his legs had been useless for two-thirds of his life. The Rohkohn had had to follow the tradition when they captured him. He had refused to renounce his former people—the people from whom the Rohkohn had stolen him—as a Hao was duty bound to refuse, and the Rohkohn had had to cripple him to prevent his ever returning to them. They had burned him with hot irons behind his knees until his lower legs were permanently useless. He had been bitterly vengeful at first, and his agony until his burns healed had helped him make the lives of those who had chosen to serve him hard.
Finally though, as both his physical pain and his emotional anguish receded, as he saw that those he abused and tormented never struck back, he had begun to make the adjustment that some captive Hao never made. He had admitted to himself that the Rohkohn had not acted out of cruelty but out of severe need. They had been without a Hao and that had made them desperate. A Kohn tribe without a Hao was a tribe in the process of dying. Even a captive Hao who might remain forever hostile was a symbol around which the people could gather, and thus was better than no Hao at all. Without a Hao, people had no purpose, no direction, no unity. It was remarkable that the Rohkohn had even been able to work together across the lines of caste to capture him. He had finally accepted their need as sufficient excuse for what they had done to him and he had ceased to fight them. He had accepted liaisons with women of their judge caste, and one of these women had borne him a Hao daughter, Tahneh. He had given advice that had proven good and valuable to the council of judges. Finally, the people, seeing that he had accepted them, acknowledged him as their leader instead of merely a symbol of their unity. He had given them years of good government. He had been a better leader than any tribe had a right to expect of a captive Hao. Only Tahneh’s memory of his legs marred her picture of him. She remembered the way he had propelled himself with short hand-held sticks in the wheeled cart that he had had his artisans build. Sometimes, however, within the privacy of his apartment, the cart had been too awkward and he, not wanting to ask for help, had dragged himself on his hands and knees, unwittingly embittering his young daughter, turning her against the tradition that had so disabled him. Even now, it was painful for Tahneh to remember him crawling.
The Tehkohn Hao, Diut, and his party had followed a narrow river down from the mountains, detouring only when sheer drops made it necessary. They watched the land beyond the river grow dryer and more barren as they descended, while the river itself grew narrower. Vegetation, except in the vicinity of the river, became tough and spiny and Diut had to show Jeh and Cheah the ancient map he carried so that they would be certain they were still on the old trade route—still on a trail that would support life. Once they saw, however, that the trail was outlined in green, a pro-life color, they did not complain about the poor hunting or the increasing heat. They did begin traveling at night, though, at Jeh’s suggestion, and their hunting improved.
By the time they reached the foothills, Diut knew that he was close to the ancient ruins that had been his excuse for traveling so far from his mountain home, his people, and his new Hao responsibilities. He knew too that in spite of the map he carried he could pass by the ruins without seeing them if he was not careful. Even when the desert dwelling was new it must have been well camouflaged. By now, unless it had begun to cave in, it would probably be almost indistinguishable from the various hills and mounds that were normal to this area.
It was because Diut was watching so carefully for the ruins that he spotted his captors before Jeh and Cheah saw them. He was alarmed but he gave no sign to his friends until he had looked around very carefully and seen that the three of them had walked into a wide, remarkably well camouflaged circle of fighters—a circle that was now beginning to move with them.
Diut’s immediate reaction was humiliation.
had been quietly, efficiently captured by a group of hunters and judges. He could see them as though they were uncamouflaged now that he had been alerted to their presence. But he should have seen them before he walked into their midst. He should have seen them before he led Jeh and Cheah into their midst.
He looked at Jeh, saw that the young judge was just discovering his captivity. Jeh’s coloring had not changed. He did not look around wildly to give notice to his captors that he had become aware of them. But in his eyes, in his movements now there was an animal wariness that had not been there before, and Diut knew that he was looking for a break, a flaw in the circle—an escape route.
The wariness was even more pronounced in Cheah. She was a high huntress, and using her speed and camouflage to escape predators too powerful to kill was second nature to her. Diut spoke to them both very softly, knowing that he might not only be overheard by his captors, but also understood by them. The Tehkohn dialect was very close to the ancient imperial language that all Kohn tribes knew. Diut had seen for himself that strangers picked up his language very easily.
“Jeh,” he whispered. “Cheah! Be still. Don’t resist.”
The two relaxed cautiously, then glanced at him,
perhaps wondering how sure he could be of himself in a situation that he had faced before only in training. Diut thought he saw doubt in their eyes and he turned his own gaze bitterly forward. Jeh and Cheah were young, but still they were several years older than he was; they had had more experience. But he was Hao. His eyes and ears were sharper than theirs. He could see that there was no flaw in this circle. More, he could see that this circle contained twice as many people as it should have needed to make it secure, and that those people were a well-disciplined force. The foreign fighters had spaced themselves evenly and now moved together in spite of their numbers.
They did not get in each other’s way as they would have, had they been less well trained. They left no holes big enough for an alert hunter or judge to go through. There was no way out for Jeh and Cheah. But Diut saw that he alone, using the greater strength and speed that was part of his Hao heritage—and perhaps breaking a neck or two—might be able to get free.
He thought about it. Would his escape provide enough of a diversion to give Jeh and Cheah their opening? It would if their captors were too startled to move in at once and kill them. But that seemed unlikely.
The fighters of the circle were moving along easily with Diut’s party now, subtly guiding it but never closing in or being obvious. This was a form of courtesy extended to captives whose status had not yet been decided—captives who had not yet been judged dangerous. Perhaps the desert people considered Diut’s party too small to be actively hostile. But if Diut broke through their circle, killed one or two of their fighters, they would change their minds quickly. And they would do their best to make Jeh and Cheah pay for the deaths Diut had caused. They looked far too efficient to lose all three of their captives. Diut decided to wait. The desert people were obeying the conventions meticulously, when with their superior numbers they certainly did not have to. He would suspend judgment on them as they apparently had on him.
He kept his party moving as slowly as it had before he became aware of his captors. The desert people did not hurry him, did not prod him at all as long as he continued to follow the river. If he strayed, however—and he did, testing—the fighters toward whom he strayed ceased to move, became more visible, quietly threatening. He allowed himself to be intimidated and spent the rest of the long night going where they wanted him to go.
He had ceased to think about the ruins that he had come so far to see. He was not watching for them at all but he was not surprised when early during the second night of his captivity, he found himself approaching them. He had already decided that his captors must he heading toward them, that their people must have moved into the desert ruin as, generations before, Diut’s people had moved into an ancient mountain ruin.
The desert people had made their city’s main entrances too visible, Diut thought as he looked down the hillside at them. The ruin itself began on the hillside—or rather, within the hill—just above where the river cut through the last of the hills to flow across flatter lands toward the sea. It seemed to Diut that the desert tribe had cut away too much of the vegetation over and around their dwelling and planted their crops too openly at the base of the hill in the wide spread of soil that the river had deposited. But perhaps desert customs were different. Perhaps this vast treeless land made the kind of camouflage that Diut was used to too difficult. Or perhaps these desert people had simply not had a war, as Diut’s people had, to make them cautious.
As Diut and his party started down the hill, their escort became visible. Other people were also visible around the ill-concealed entrances. Several nonfighters—farmers and artisans—stood in scattered bunches watching Diut in particular. The nonfighters were shy quiet green or yellow-green people who would not have been out if they had expected trouble. Diut noted, though, that there were no children visible. The desert people were not that certain of his party’s docility then.
Diut brought to mind the model of this dwelling that existed in vast detail back at his mountain home. Long ago, a highly skilled imperial artisan had been traded from his home in the desert city to the mountain city that Diut’s people now occupied. Nonfighters had been more harshly treated in those days, and fighters commonly regarded them as property—trade goods. But this artisan had apparently loved his city too much to face the prospect of never seeing it again. Thus he had built a model of it, the desert city in miniature. It filled an entire room and was nothing to be carried about, but Diut had used it to memorize the floor plan of the desert dwelling. Now he used that memory to decide which of the entrances to approach.
No one stopped him or spoke to him. He was pleased to see that some of the desert people did look surprised, however. His body glowed luminescent blue. Let them wonder how he knew which public entrance led most directly to the apartment of their Hao—or of their chief judge if they were unlucky enough to be without a Hao.
Diut stopped in front of that entrance, feeling tense with anticipation in spite of himself. He had not seen another of his own kind since war took the lives of his mother and his uncle. And the training, the discipline that these people had shown bespoke the presence of a Hao.
Finally, the desert Hao came out. She was a woman of middle years, her coloring still deep blue, not yet touched with the flecks of yellow that foretold advanced age. Her body was straight and lean and she was the first person Diut had seen since he had attained his full growth who could match him in height. Her coloring attracted him, held his attention as though he had never seen another Hao. He realized that he had, on seeing her, automatically dimmed his own brilliance and let his coloring return to normal. To continue his blinding luminescence now that she was present seemed challenging somehow. And Diut could think of nothing he wanted from this desert town to warrant his challenging an older, more experienced Hao.
He and the woman gazed at each other for a long moment without speaking, each appraising the other. Was she as hungry for the sight of another of her kind as he had been, Diut wondered. She spoke finally.
“You’re welcome here, cousin—you and those with you. I am Tahneh.” She looked past him at her people, who had gathered around at a respectful distance. “We are Rohkohn.”
Thus, for the first time, Diut learned the name of his host-captors. Tahneh had a dry, somehow ironic voice that made Diut wonder if she found him
and his party amusing. There was no white in her coloring, but still he felt that her manner was slightly mocking. She spoke in the old imperial language—the language of conversing with strangers and of writing. And in the old language, she had the right to call him cousin since according to tradition, all Hao were related. They could come “out of the air,” born inexplicably to families of judges, or they could descend from long lines of their own kind. But the blue related them regardless. It deified them and made them members of the Hao family—the highest and best fighters that the people could produce. Diut answered in his own flawless imperial.
“I am Diut. My companions are Jeh and Cheah.” He gestured toward each one of them in turn. “We are Tehkohn.”
The woman glanced toward the distant wall of mountains. “Tehkohn—Mountain People.” She translated the word into her own tribe’s dialect with a change of stress that made it almost unrecognizable. Then in the old language again, “You’re a long way from home, Tehkohn Hao.”
Diut found himself impressed with her use of his title. Since his acknowledgement, his own people had begun addressing him by title instead of by name, of course, but somehow it meant more coming from another Hao. He answered Tahneh’s implied question without resentment.
“We trace the ways of our ancestors. Our map told us there were ruins here. We didn’t know that the Rohkohn had occupied them.” As he spoke the woman watched him in a way that made him glad he had no reason to lie to her.
“You have one of the old maps with you, then?” she asked.
He reached back to the pouch strapped across his shoulders, found the map by touch, and handed it to her. She unrolled it and looked at it, felt the smooth, tough clear coating that covered the fine paper and made it flexible but nearly indestructible. The art of making such permanent records had been lost to most of the Kohn tribes since the splintering of the empire because the main ingredient for the coating came from trees far down the wild eastern slopes of the mountains. The map seemed to impress Tahneh.
She handed it back and, with a slight now proper whitening of her coloring to emphasize the positive spirit in which she spoke, she said, “Eat with us, Tehkohn Hao, and rest. When you’re ready, I’ll show you the ruins myself. We Rohkohn occupy only a small part of them.”
Tahneh saw to it that the young mountain Hao was treated as an honored guest. She had a special meal prepared for him—a meal that would permit him to sample the fish and bird delicacies of the coast but that would also let him return, if he chose, to the more familiar meats that her hunters brought back from the game traps of the foothills. She kept the affair small, however, inviting only the chiefs of each of her four castes and their mates. The drought had not left enough food for real feasting. She had the meal served in the main chamber of her own apartment, and
before it was served, she found time to speak privately with Ehreh.
“I want no special watch kept on Diut,” she told him. “Do nothing to frighten him or make him suspicious and we’ll have no trouble with him.”
“I’ll see that no one bothers him,” Ehreh promised. “He’ll be safe as long as he’s with you anyway.”
Tahneh looked at him sharply. He was too quick. Another time, his speed in understanding her would have been amusing—another time, but not now.
His eyes seemed to hold no expression at all as he spoke again. “Later, Tahneh, when you give him to us, he’ll see you as his betrayer.”
“So?” His words angered her and her tone was bitter. “And to avoid that, you would rather I give him to you now.”
“I would. But I know you won’t. In your place, I probably wouldn’t either.” Ehreh sighed. “He would hate you anyway because you symbolize us. But he’s young. Perhaps he’ll get over his hatred.”
Tahneh looked past him at a dimly glowing patch of wall. She could speak more freely to Ehreh than she could to others. She could talk to him—as much as she could talk to anyone. “I surprised myself,” she said softly. “I looked at Diut and I decided that I had been alone long enough. That I would have him, tonight, while he was still whole and free. I gave no consideration at all to what he might feel later. I didn’t care.”
“And now you do care,” said Ehreh. “But not enough to stop.”
She refocused her eyes to look at him. “No. Not enough to stop. I tell myself that I’m giving him a few more hours of … freedom.”
She flashed yellow denial, disgust.
He laid a hand on her shoulder with the familiarity of a close friend. “You yourself feel that you’re betraying him. I didn’t realize that. You’re not, of course.”
She said nothing.
“This is the succession, Tahneh!” His voice became hard. “You have responsibilities, but for once you have no rights. You’re duty bound to help us, or at least not to interfere with us. You didn’t catch him for us, and you can’t release him. So how can you be his betrayer?”
She took his hand from her shoulder, held it for a moment, then let it go. “Not all feelings are reasonable, Ehreh. It doesn’t matter.”
“It will matter. If you go to him feeling as you do now, you’ll have the bones of a liaison. He’s Hao, and yet your guilt could cause you to find less with him than you could with some hunter.” Ehreh’s blue-green body glowed with the intensity of his feeling. “Make yourself two people, Tahneh; you know how. You need not to be tonight the person that you must become tomorrow.”
Later, as she ate, surrounded by the best of her fighter and nonfighter castes with Diut beside her, she struggled to follow Ehreh’s advice. She knew he was right. And it would not be the first time that she had had to split herself in two. She was no stranger to unpleasant duties. It was just that none of them had ever touched her so deeply before. None of them had ever concerned another Hao.
The two companions of the Tehkohn Hao provided her with an unexpected diversion when they mentioned that they were married.
Intercaste marriages were so rare among the Rohkohn that Tahneh would have had to go to the tribal records to find out when the last one had taken place. She looked at the huntress and the judge with more interest now and saw by their coloring that both were high in their respective castes. Jeh was a deep quiet blue-green no more than a shade or two yellower than Ehreh. It was possible that if the young judge lived up to the promise of his coloring he could become a chief himself someday. And Cheah, his wife. Although she was unusually small for a huntress, she was almost exactly the same dark green as Tahneh’s chief hunter. It was possible that Diut had plans for them both … Tahneh refused to think further in that direction. She questioned Cheah curiously.
“Didn’t you have trouble in your liaison? Weren’t there challengers?” People who joined in intercaste liaisons were nearly always challenged by members of their own caste—members who chose to be insulted that one of their own had turned away from them.
Cheah whitened, remembering. “I had three challengers, Rohkohn Hao. Only three.” The number was unusually small, probably due to Cheah’s high coloring. The little huntress was boasting. It was not necessary for her to say what had happened to her challengers. She was still alive; therefore they must be dead. She looked at her husband.
“I had five challengers,” said Jeh. He showed no white in his coloring but in his eyes there was a look of cold satisfaction.
“You would have had more here,” Ehreh said quietly from his place at Tahneh’s left. Ehreh’s prejudice against hunters and against hunter-judge intermarriage was at least one of the reasons why there had been no such intermarriage in recent Rohkohn history.
Jeh let his dark eyes travel over the chief judge silently, almost insolently, measuring. “I think not,” he said softly. “I would have had more at home, but I made certain that many people saw each of the five. By the end of the fifth, all disapproval had vanished.” His coloring had brightened with his intensity, and his tone had been one of confident challenge.
Tahneh was surprised at how easily the situation amused
her. “Peace, young one,” she said quickly. They were still savage young animals, these two. But then, that was why they were still alive. “Your people accept your union now?”
“Some said first that we were a bad example to the children,” said Cheah. “But by the time our son was born to make our liaison a marriage, most had accepted us.”
Tahneh turned to look at Diut, who had ignored the conversation around him and concentrated silently on his food. “Tehkohn Hao, what did you think of your friends’ marriage?”
“I was too young for my thoughts on the subject to matter,” he said. He shifted uncomfortably. “I hadn’t yet been acknowledged.”
He was acknowledged now, then. That answered one question no one had gotten around to asking him. He continued eating as though he expected his answer to satisfy her.
“What the Hao thinks is always important,” she said. “I
don’t believe they would have dared anything as lengthy as a marriage if you had objected to it.”
“No … I didn’t object, Rohkohn Hao.” He did not look at her.
He seemed ill-at-ease, she thought. As though the gathering that she had arranged to honor him had only made him nervous. But no, that wasn’t likely. He would be used to dealing with people of high rank. It wasn’t the presence of her chiefs that was bothering him. It was her own presence.
Deliberately, Tahneh continued to look at him as though she expected him to say more, as though she might even disapprove of his liberal attitude.
He became defensive. “There was no reason for them not to marry. Not after they had defeated their challengers.”
“So,” Tahneh said noncommittally. She looked away from him and took a bite of fish. She could almost feel his relief. He could not have been around Hao before, she decided. Of course, neither had she for some time, but she had at least had her father to guide her while she was growing up. Diut acted as though he had had no Hao example at all to follow. Also, there was the matter of his youth. Tahneh could remember what it was like to be a newly acknowledged uncertain young Hao, afraid of a misstep, afraid of shaming oneself, afraid even of the Hao responsibilities. It occurred to her that such fears might have been the reason for his leaving home.
Others had begun carrying on their own quiet conversations when she spoke to him again.
“You were acknowledged just before you left home, Tehkohn Hao?”
He glanced at her. “Yes,” he said quietly.
Tahneh whitened in spite of herself. “And when you insisted on traveling away from home, your council of judges and your chiefs became angry enough to take back their acknowledgement if they could have.”
Diut’s coloring became faintly blue-green as it took on a small amount of yellow. Then he caught himself, restored his normal blue, and looked at her angrily.
She realized that he had misread her. He thought she was trying to humiliate him. She deliberately kept amusement in her voice and coloring as she continued.
“After my acknowledgement, I explored the ruins here myself. I found a place where one of our passageways connected with a network of natural caverns, and I followed the caverns through the northern hills until I emerged on a cliff overlooking the sea. I was gone for days. My people were frantic.”
The memory was surprisingly pleasant. She had all but forgotten it—her own assertion of independence. She glanced at him and found him watching her. He turned away, a little too quickly, and picked up a piece of fruit. But at least he had lost his anger.
He was far too sensitive, she thought. But Hao, especially Hao raised by judges, were never treated as roughly as they should be. They were too valuable, and as they grew past puberty, too dangerous.
She continued to watch him, enjoying beauty that he probably did not realize he possessed. That was another attribute of the Hao, although Tahneh did not see that she herself possessed it to any unusual degree. He was well-muscled and deep-chested in the way of mountain people. His eyes were mountain-narrow and his face was angular and lean with none of the roundness of her own. This would have made him seem older, grimmer, had he not been so obviously unable to cope with another Hao on equal terms. His age made no difference now though. Only his blue was important. The color drew Tahneh’s eyes as her blue had always drawn the eyes of her people. And now that he understood that her mocking had not been malicious, she could see that her blue was affecting him too. He could not help turning now and then to look at her. She chose one of these stolen glances to meet his eyes with a look of quiet invitation. In his eyes then, just for a moment, she saw hunger as intense as her own. She made herself look away and continue eating, but the food was abruptly tasteless.
She waited impatiently until the meal was over. Only then, after her people had gone home and his friends had been taken to their nearby guest apartment, did she permit her body to express the joy she felt in blinding luminescence. He was more hesitant. Perhaps he found her overwhelming—not that it mattered. She drew his hard flat young body to her and immediately gave the caress that directly preceded coupling. She lowered her head and gently bit the tender flesh of his throat.
Her suddenness seemed both to startle and to excite him, as she had intended. As she pulled him down to the pallet of furs before her fireplace, the uncertain iridescence of his coloring resolved itself and became, like her own, a blinding blue-white.
Later, it was as though they had been liaison mates for a full season. They lay content, close together, without the tension that had earlier separated them, and Tahneh asked the questions that had drawn her curiosity. Was Diut alone among his people, a Hao born of judge parents?
“I’m alone now,” he told her quietly. “But my parents were both Hao. And I had a Hao uncle. My people have always produced an abundance of the blue.”
“They must also lose it in abundance if only you are left.”
“So,” he agreed. “We had a war. My father was captured and … given poison. He died writhing in the dust instead of honorably in combat. That was before I was even old enough to know him. My mother and uncle fought to avenge him but finally, they were killed too.”
“Who were your enemies?”
“Gahrkohn. People who live in one of the mountain valleys.”
The name meant nothing to Tahneh. “You grew up with no Hao teacher then.”
He moved slightly beside her. “I did, although it didn’t mean much to me until I was nearly ready to be acknowledged. Then I realized that on the day of my acknowledgement I would have a problem that my upbringing had not prepared me to handle.” He looked at her to make sure that she was listening. Seeing that she was, he went on.
“In the war, my people hurt the Gahrkohn, but not decisively. Their Hao was injured, but not killed, and though they lost more fighters than we did, they had many more to begin with. Their losses didn’t begin to bring them even with us. My people were afraid to continue fighting with no Hao to lead them. They agreed to a humiliating peace with the Gahrkohn and ignored most of the raids that the Gahrkohn
made in violation of that peace. They would have accepted a tie with the Gahrkohn and become Gahrkohn themselves if there had not been so much hatred on both sides.”
He stopped, and Tahneh looked at him questioningly. “The Gahrkohn are still raiding?”
“And now that you’re acknowledged, your people want you to renew the war against them.”
His body flared yellow. “They want it, yes. They expect it.”
“And you don’t want it.”
He let his coloring darken back to a cold metallic blue. “I want to stop the raiding. I will stop it. But to begin the war again would be utter foolishness. Even if we could win it wouldn’t gain us anything. We don’t want the Gahrkohn valley or their people—not even their children!” He made a sound of disgust. “But that’s meaningless; we couldn’t win. I’m not even sure we could survive this time. The Gahrkohn still outnumber us vastly. And they seem to be making none of the mistakes that they so obligingly made for my family.” He paused for a moment. “But in spite of all that, cousin, do you know why my otherwise sensible people still believe we should fight?”
“I can guess,” Tahneh said softly. “The Gahrkohn—they’ve lost their Hao?”
Diut yellowed once more, spoke harshly. “That is our whole advantage.
am our whole advantage! The Gahrkohn Hao died while I was growing up. Perhaps the injuries my people gave him helped him along, I don’t know. Anyway, he left no successor. That alone is supposed to weaken the Gahrkohn enough for us to defeat them.”
“Diut, that’s no small thing. It may very well weaken them enough.”
“So?” said Diut bitterly. “For the lack of only one fighter, they become vulnerable to a tribe half their size—a tribe led by a Hao whose only knowledge of war has come from reading and listening to others? My chief judge is more fit to lead in such a war than I am.”
“But he didn’t. He waited and gave the problem to you—because he’s only a judge, and you’re Hao.”