By Any Other Name
by E. K. Zoole
This is my entry in the October 2015 Labyrinth 3k Writing contest. The challenge this month was to write to the inspiration of one of three quotes. I chose:
"If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." - General Moshe Dayan.
By the time it was done, I found I drew equal inspiration from another quote:
"That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." - Shakespeare.
This story, set in the world of United thousands of years before Humans ever walked the Earth, tells of a small but significant moment in the history of the Homepeople.
"My bitter-root is cold."
Reed Harp takes the mug from my middle hands and fills it from the steaming pot on the hearth. I sip, waiting.
"Your parents approach," she says in her placid heart voice, "and the East Marsh Minister of Accord."
"I will see them."
Of course I will see them; I am the Offering, Daughter of the River Plain, Last of the Westland Clan. I am the Promise of Peace.
Outside my roundhouse window, should I choose to look, I would see the crowds assembled on the riverbanks. I would see the Procession Way smoothed and waiting, and the plank bridge, hastily built, to Midriver Isle. I do not choose to look; it would be unseemly, before the Revelation, even though no bride in this day and age goes to her nest unaware of who she weds.
Rapid Rider knows that she is the last Queen of the Westland Clan, and Gathering Time its last King. Somewhere across the river to the east, Night Wave and Through A High Wind, last rulers of the East Marsh, are entering the chamber of my Betrothed with the Minister of Accord assigned to represent Westland.
"Child, today you will wed."
It is the traditional greeting. My parents must have practiced for hours to meld the disparate tones of their heart voices in that way. I am impressed.
As expected, I shake my upper armsets in mock surprise, but my anticipation is real. This is the Revelation - until now, I have only known my Betrothed as the other Offering, the Son of the River Delta, Last of the East Marsh Clan. Until now, generations have gone by on both sides of the river, here in the lands farthest from the Star Shore, in bitter enmity. Until now, few had hopes that there could ever be peace.
"This one makes the match for you," says my father, his heart voice ponderous and methodical.
"...and we have given our consent." My mother barely waits for him to finish his sentence, as usual. With a gesture bordering on the disrespectful, she waves the East Marsh Minister forward.
He is unfazed, of course. What does the impotent displeasure of the last provincial, barbarian holdouts matter to an Honored One like Composite Picture? When this day is over, when the eggs my Betrothed and I will lay today lie safely in our nest, his duty is complete. He and his counterpart across the river can return to the capital of Homeworld in Star Shore, back to whatever positions they held on the Council before my Betrothed and I reached puberty. Before the news that the heirs of the last two remaining warring clans each bore four egg sacs - four - a happening of great portent and such rarity that those who made the treaty generations ago laughed at the thought that it would ever occur.
Because of that rarity, the Minister's next words vary from tradition. "I represent an Honored One, he who will become a father of four, and fit to sit on the Star Shore Council. If you are a match for him, reveal it to me now."
Dutifully I lift the hem of my smock, lengthened to to the tops of my front feet when my egg sacs began to show. "I, too, am an Honored One, fit for the Star Shore Council. I, too, will become a mother of four."
Composite Picture bows with lowered eyes. He has seen the proof before; it is not shocking to him now. "The words of the last treaty are fulfilled in you, Child. As it reads in the Roles of the Honorable, 'Peace can hatch only when enemies make one nest.' Now," he says, returning to the traditional form, "reveal to me your name."
This is my last moment of choice. I may be called many things as a child, sweet names and silly names, angry names and loving names, names of what I do, what I think, how I seem. My choice today reveals me. It must show honesty and forethought, confidence and humility; it is the name that I will be, now and forever.
"I am Leaves Doubt Behind." I speak in the voice of breath, as I must, to declare it so.
I do not look at my parents. This is my choice, and mine alone. I have chosen a Concept of Implied Action name - non-traditional, with a present tense to the time construct and an undoubted reference to my role.
I can see that the East Marsh Minister approves. He pauses. He is calling to his counterpart, exchanging one name for the other. His lip tightens, his upper armsets shake but are quickly stilled.
"Leaves Doubt Behind," he says in his own rarely used speech of breath, "on this day will you wed Ice On The River. May there be joy in your nest."
My parents' eyes flicker. They speak to each other's hearts alone. Mother is angry, I see it in the swirl of her fantail as she turns. Father pulls himself taller, his sensor strands quivering, but it is too late. The match has been made, and cannot be undone.
"In one hour," they say, voices conjoined, and then they are gone.
Reed Harp scurries in. "Draw the bath," she orders the maids who follow in her wake.
Within moments I am stripped, scrubbed, and dried. The nesting gown of white linen hangs from loops that hook over my shoulder plates, the two halves joined with one simple string tie - the gown is the same design for all, whether pauper or prefect, that in the nest all are equal. My vest, however, is so richly embroidered, so jewel-encrusted, as to be almost embarrassing. The maids busily apply themselves to gilding the toes of all eight of my feet. Reed Harp inspects their work, then hangs jewels from the pierced edges of my carapace from my shoulder plates to the curved brow plate that frames my face.
Ice On The River - a Static Concept name, void of action or time. It is a cold name; brittle, destructive, untrustworthy.
I speak to Reed Harp's heart alone. "I had hoped for better."
"Perhaps his name is merely a personal reference - a story name, or - or perhaps there is a cultural connotation..."
We will not speak of this again, she knows, for I have made my choice; I am Leaves Doubt Behind.
In one hour I leave my roundhouse for the last time. It is the house of my unwed days, barely two moons old, for that is how swiftly the Star Shore moved to enforce the treaty after my Betrothed and I came of age and were sent back to our clans from our respective schools. Still, it was mine and mine alone, every stone piled with my own eight hands, and it is the last place that will be mine alone until I leave my shell to dry on the shore and rise to join my ancestors in the stars.
I pull the house beam from the lintel, and let the stones tumble to the ground. Children scurry to pick them up, for luck.
I had hoped for better. Oh, how I had hoped for better.
The Procession Way is clear, smooth with river stones, washed clean and gleaming in the sunlight. Drums and bells presage my arrival at the bridge.
I should not be surprised, but I am. Midriver Isle is crowded with all the Honored Ones of the Star Shore Council, even ancient Present Tense herself, she who is a mother of five. I no longer feel vaguely overdressed.
The stones brought for our new roundhouse are gifts to celebrate peace. Enormous chunks of rock crystal, jasper, amethyst, and hematite, polished and gleaming, are piled with studied nonchalance about the nesting ground between bundles of thatch for the roof and copper plating for the hearth.
But house building is a job for tomorrow. Pitching his heart voice to reach all assembled, the East Marsh Minister of Accord calls to the crowd.
"Comes this child-no-more, Ice On The River, Honored One of the East Marsh, to be wed!"
There is a stirring from my side of the river. I can hear the tone of guarded confusion and am careful not to react.
"Comes this child-no-more, Leaves Doubt Behind, Honored One of the Westland, to be wed!" echoes our own representative to the Star Shore.
I had hoped, oh, I had hoped.
Ice On The River, as I see him for the first time...
His carapace is gray, a deep gray, the edges of the plates striped in silver like a fish. It is a true East Marsh phenotype, rare in any other part of the Homeworld. He is a good height, arched and broad, dripping with silver and rock crystal from every plate. The skin of his long-bladed fingers is a cool coral, almost mauve, his face a shade darker. With my mottled black and gold shell and amber skin, I wonder briefly what our children will look like. Our four children.
He waits while his attendants shovel heated stones into the empty nest. Mine add armloads of the fresh green mint reeds reserved for weddings. They steam. The scent is intoxicating. I am drawn to it with an unbearable stirring in my belly, and I am barely aware of the moment that Reed Harp removes my vest.
No words attend this ceremony, no vows, no friendly jests; even the embarrassment of knowing I shall be seen breathing, plastron to plastron with my mate before thousands of witnesses, ceases to matter.
I am no schoolgirl. In the two moons past I have enjoyed my freedom. I have eaten wild, fermented fruits and clasped many other unweds to my belly, sharing breath with an erotic abandon born of the knowledge that my time of free partnering would be over all too soon. I know intellectually that nest-mating is different; it is not the same as experiencing it.
I step onto the steaming green mass, and the once crisp linen of my nest robe wilts, clinging to my plastron. I can feel my airways expanding, pushing down into my belly. I pull the ties of the nest robe, tearing the fabric away from my vents. I see his revealed - I feel him draw breath, sharply, deeply, remembering that I must do the same and then we are joined - breathing each other's breath, our fantails flailing as we struggle to draw each other closer and it is unbearable, unbearable, I must I must I must oh I must -
In this moment it is revealed to me, and I know the reasons for his choice. Ice On The River - it is a Deeper Meaning name, not a Static Concept. My esteem for my new mate grows. He has made a careful selection, designed to let the elders who still shake their spears and stare balefully at each other from the banks save face, but sure in the knowledge that, in the coldest of times, ice has always formed a bridge from one side to the other.
I had hoped, oh, I had hoped. Now I rejoice.
I am of Ice On The River, and he is of me. There is no other with whom I can breathe, and no matter the reasons for the name he chooses we are breathlocked. The pressure grows until the lowest vents burst open, for the first and last time. Our egg sacs fill the hollow we have trampled down.
Still clutched belly to belly, the eggs below us rush together, fusing within seconds. The Ministers peer tactfully but deliberately into the reeds and confirm four conceptions. The treaty is fulfilled.
Now the guests leave, eager to breathe with their mates. Tonight they will feast with their hosts in their home compounds. I know this, for I have been to many weddings, even if I have no awareness beyond the scope of my nest at the moment. For now, my mate and I will stand, locked together, protecting our eggs as one being throughout the long night until the shells harden. In the morning we become house builders, waiting for the scent of hatching that brings forth that last, deep, exquisite breath, closing off the mating vents, allowing us to go forward into the world forever united.
We will build our roundhouse on Midriver Isle. It will be beautiful, with an enormous hearth, high roof, and a children's yard. We will send for more rock crystal from the Star Shore to build bridges from each bank, straight, open-sided arches that offer a clear view forward and behind, gleaming like ice on the river.