Saturday, November 12, 2005

fiction: The Distant Echo, Heard

   Osimo was tired of hearing his father tell him how his family had faithfully served House Eighth for an ever-increasing number of years that incremented a bit faster than real time. What great honor was there in being emkai, a member of the servant caste? And House Eighth had been created by emkai to begin with. Even though for two hundred years the ancestral kai of the first seven Houses had acknowledged that Eighth's emkai establishers were kai, to Osimo that only meant his family was servants of servants.

   Kai were educated, glib with words, made sentences that suggested much but delivered little. They claimed emkai were their equals and in certain ways were more important than themselves. Yes, if we didn't exist, Osimo thought, who would reap the wheat, pick the fruit, clean the houses and clothes and stables, feed the rulers? Of course we're important. Just not equal. From the age of eight, Osimo had duties: first sweeping and threshing, when his body was small; as he grew older, tending House Eighth's prized horses, harvesting, carpentry, whatever was needed. He'd been schooled to read and write, as had all his family and friends, but none of them had the things kai took for granted: wealth, art, fine clothes, leisure, the ability to choose their occupation.

   Osimo's discontent had begun as a wordless feeling a few years ago, and now he was capable of articulating it. He didn't admit it to anyone, but the start of it was his best mate Jara. The Houses regularly held mixers for children fourteen and up so they could meet potential husbands and wives. Inviting emkai children was necessary because the kai were all in some way related by blood, and they had learned that inbreeding was hazardous. However, because of duties, few servant parents could come along to coach, encourage, and make recommendations to their children. Osimo and Jara were on their own, not sure how to behave except to stand still by the snacks table, trade jokes with their friends, and smile a lot. The girls looked at them, though, and Osimo and Jara looked back. There was nothing intriguing about emkai girls, who, like them, meant to net a kai mate.

   At their second mixer two months later, a small flock of kai girls began speaking with them, drew them into their circle. The competition wasn't overtly confrontational. The kai boys found ways to quote poetry and scientific knowledge, and the emkai boys showed their skills with horses and their practical understanding of a House's productive output. Within a year and a half, Jara and a kai named Iolara were clearly steering toward one another. Their parents met and approved the match, and the wedding was going to take place six weeks from now. Jara had spent the past year being educated to rule House Third, would be moving there after the wedding and take his place among the kai, wear their blue robes. None of the kai had shown much interest in Osimo at all. An emkai girl, Amali, had flirted with him, and it seemed likely they would choose each other, but by now the pressure was off: most of the kai he'd met had paired up.

   Now seventeen, he could attend socials for two more years, waiting for kai to turn fourteen, but it would be increasingly humiliating if he wasn't chosen. It would probably have to be Amali, who, to her credit, seemed to be quite patient with him. Ahead of him were only the dark-red clothes and a life of service. And his father and his naive pride.

   Thus he began to view his people, the Roeda, with a harsher eye. Their social rules seemed ever more rigid to him and their main intention, clearly, was to keep the status quo. Osimo's immediate family lived in a cottage with three tiny bedrooms. His older sister had married and moved out, but his brother Kasimo had brought his bride in, and now Osimo had to share a bedroom with his younger sister. Various uncles and aunts and grandparents had their own cottages, just as small, nearby. The entire family, alongside twenty or so other extended families, served House Eight. Many laws (economically motivated, Osimo now saw) governed the movement of individuals from one House to another. When servants from two Houses married, it was up to the kai to decide at which House the couple would live, and the loss of a servant had to be compensated. Amali belonged to House Second, which was a good reason to marry her if he wanted to get away from his family. If a servant had a dispute with anyone, kai or emkai, and wanted to move, it couldn't simply be done: a Justice had to hear the case. Osimo had never read the law books or case records, but he had no doubt the Justice (who was by definition kai, he thought ominously) would resolve in a way most beneficial to the ruling caste.

   He wondered if it was possible to get a copy of the law book as he rose and took a new whack at a stubborn weed root. It was his day off by the kai schedule, but it was no vacation: that morning, his father had told him to finish tilling the little plot his extended family owned so they could put in vegetables. He'd tried to push it off, citing two strenuous weeks with ewes who believed three a.m. was the best time to drop lambs. Three emkai and kai Bernek had dozed in the stables the entire time, waiting for a distressed sound, occasionally patrolling with a lamp for the silent births. After a particularly nasty rotted lamb that necessitated the death of the ewe, Bernek had trotted back to the House and returned with four mugs and a jar of hot spek, red wine with a shot of spiced vodka and a little sugar. The drink didn't settle Osimo at all. Since that night, flashes of the bloody straw and mud and stink of death had disturbed his sleep. His father relented and told him to put four hours into it today, and to tell Kasimo to finish. "Why not have Uncle Var find someone else?"

   "I see you don't want to be shouted at, so you volunteer me to ask," his father said drily, poking a finger at Osimo's ribs to show he wasn't annoyed. "You should know better. Your uncle's household provides water. We turn the soil. Each of our households has a duty to this acre. It's unfair to ask another to take up our part."

   "But what if we were all sick?"

   "We aren't, Osimo. Should that day come, we will decide it then," a crinkle under his eyes. He bowed goodbye and went off to work.

   That was his father: hypothetical situations were simply beyond him. He had no wonder about the future. And why should he? He had food and shelter, family and friends. Osimo wanted something more.

   He put away his tools and hitched a ride on a cart heading for the House, taking a seat on boxes of potatoes, leeks and broccoli. The three men and two women were gossiping about when the foreign merchants were due to arrive, and the higher price of potatoes – both good things for Eight, which had a surplus to sell to the other Houses and the neighboring kingdoms. Houses were, by design of the ancients, not self-sufficient; each had its specialties and had to trade with other Houses. Osimo, absorbed in his idea of reading a law book, said little.

   He spent a few minutes helping unload the boxes, the expected payment for a ride, then headed for the Bernek villa, one of the ten villas that comprised House Eight. Originally four villas surrounded a garden, but over time, the rest were built around them, laid out haphazardly. Kai wanted a tree near the entrance, and had placed and oriented each villa accordingly – very peculiar, as they usually loved order and neatness. Compared to his dull green cottage, the villas were huge and shiningly beautiful, each two stories, with handsome columns in the front of the first floor, an open-air court on the second floor, and a little observation deck on the roof. Blue-robed people walked in and out, talking and laughing. Osimo suddenly became self-conscious of the dirt on his hands from tilling and hefting potatoes, and wiped them on the bottom hem of his pants.

   Someone wearing blue walked past, stopped and gave a quick bow of greeting. "Are you looking for someone?"

   He returned the greeting. "Kai Bernek."

   "Please follow," the woman said.

   "I know which one it is. I don't need to be escorted." Each had the family's name on it, anyway.

   "Very well," she said impeccably, bowed and went on her way.

   Inside the entrance hall, he took in the paintings and floral arrangements, the rich furnishings in wood, leather and stone. He heard a step and recognized the maid who came out. Some of Osimo's relatives had married into a neighboring family, of which Talya was a member. Greeting her, he asked to speak with kai Bernek.

   "Which one?"

   "The husband."

   "Osimo Trasat, isn't it? Emkai Trasat, there are at least twenty male kai Berneks living here, about half of whom are married," she said with an amused, annoying smile. "You'll have to be a bit more specific."

   It hadn't occurred to him. The kai gave orders to the older men and women, who in turn managed the younger ones. He had only met the one, was only told his last name. "We were birthing lambs the last two weeks. He stayed in the stable with us."

   "That's kai Ingal Bernek," she clarified. "He's over at House Second today. You may speak with his wife, if your request is short – she has company. Or if you just have a message, I'll take it up."

   He followed her down a hall, passing the kitchen and salons of varying sizes: a few empty, many with one or two people reading at desks. One was full of children learning geometry, another of children learning letters. Their clothes were a mix of blue and red, and he recalled he'd been here before, long ago. Or might it have been another villa? Talya tapped on a door, waited for a reply, then stepped in and requested pardon for the interruption. "emkai Trasat says he has a short request." She makes it sound like I might be a liar, Osimo thought. kai talk. She backed out, nudged him into the room, and left.

   The mistress looked around thirty, as did the couple sitting on the sofa across from her. From their neutrally-frozen faces, Osimo knew he'd interrupted something important. They all rose and bowed, Bernek a little awkwardly because of the one-year-old wiggling in her arms. Osimo managed one step forward, and suddenly his tongue shriveled. "I am kai Bernek. What is your need?" she prompted, setting the baby on a large cushion beside her. In her tone was that weary temper that young children cause in mothers.

   Finding his voice, he stumbled out, "I'm looking for the book about – with our laws in it."

   "Your family should have a copy. Did you ask your elder?"

   He'd simply assumed they didn't have such things. "I'm sorry. No, I didn't."

   "All the emkai clans have a set of the Five Books. Your elder will know where." She started a bow to end the conversation, but the man with her held up a finger.

   "Pardon, triyura," he said to her, and turned to Osimo. "May I learn why you seek the law book?"

   Osimo couldn't tell if the twist to his mouth was pleased or mocking. He has a wicked eye, the eye of a snake, he thought. "I wish to read it," he said cautiously.

   "A specific law, or the whole of it?"

   "All of it."

   The man lifted his chin slightly. "Interesting. So one might assume you wish to understand it as well."

   Osimo colored slightly, now sure he was being mocked. "I'm not a parrot."

   The man was smiling quite broadly now. "I mean no insult, young emkai. For most things, to read is to understand. But when it comes to law, to read means one has read it, no more. After all, kai wrote it, so it must be terribly convoluted," he laughed.

   Osimo was too surprised to laugh, but heard kai Bernek comment dryly, "To hear you say that, triyur Adest, is very frightening."

   "Fear not. My mind is convoluted to match." He dug in a satchel and pulled out a book and a pencil. Scribbling his name and house on the back page, he said, "I'll save you the trouble, emkai Trasat. You may borrow this until your elders give you their copy. Just return it to me within four weeks." He put the book into Osimo's hands and, his eyes suddenly commanding, every inch of his stance a kai, added, "Return it to me personally."

   During this interruption, Adest's wife had crossed over to the cushion to admire the baby. Under Adest's glare, Osimo barely noticed the women turn to give a goodbye when Adest did. He could only feel his body bowing, his mouth repeating thanks, then the next moment he was back in the hallway, the door now closed.


   The words blurred and Osimo fell asleep over his grandfather's copy of the book for the second time that week. The kai had been right: it was hard. Most laws were straightforward and worded clearly, but many skirted around the issue, defied a clean interpretation. It seemed they were all confusing in the areas that interested Osimo: the laws governing judgement itself, and those governing the emkai. There were laws about things he didn't know existed, but when he put it together with what he knew about the structure of Roedan society, it made sense. The king and queen must have a scepter of office; they must have a record of what Roeda had accomplished during their reign. Of course the Houses would keep a book of births and deaths. emkai did the same, but he had no idea who of House Eight's emkai did this, where they were kept, or to whom they were given at the end of each year. It all seemed terribly formal in comparison to his own life, which presently involved gabbling with his girlfriend Amali about his newfound interest, pulling leeks and, after two weeks away from the stable, bringing more smelly sheep into the world.

   Amali was pleased: "It's a good ambition, Osimo, to learn the law. It's a power."

   Tomorrow's journey to see kai Iat Adest of the Fourth House would take much of Osimo's day off: two hours to get to Fourth on his borrowed horse, whatever time it took for Adest to talk, then two hours back. Osimo's father, passing by, noticed the lamp on, jostled Osimo awake just enough to get him into bed, and turned the light off.


   "Thank you for being available this day."

   Iat Adest took the carefully wrapped book and set it on his desk. "An emkai's schedule is always tighter than that of a kai. Nonetheless, thank you for letting me know what day you would come." He turned around, surprised that Osimo was still standing, and waved the teenager to one of the chairs. Osimo sat gingerly. "So, what is bigger: what you've learned, or what you don't understand?" he asked, pouring each of them a cup of tea.

   What an opening question, he thought. "They seem to be about the same right now. I learn, but the amount I know seems to shrink."

   Adest looked at him appraisingly. "Then you have wisdom. You can see your place within this compendium of centuries. I myself feel quite ignorant on a regular basis. Not something you'd expect a Justice to say, hm?" Osimo's eyes flashed around the desk and there, he saw it: a silver cube embossed with a picture of scales, irreverently being used as a paperweight rather than a symbol of office. He'd read about it, but hadn't realized Adest was a Justice. The older man was chuckling. "emkai, the first thing one should learn is: the law is not enough. One must research beyond the words, to the people who wrote them and the people affected by them. Oh, don't look so frightened, I'm only a floating Justice. I represent not House Fourth, but the emkai. For the most part, at least. I may represent a House if their Justice is indisposed."

   Osimo's bumped pride turned hopeful. "Then you are on our side."

   Adest paused. "That is my work. But are you sure of this?"

   Osimo couldn't tell if there was a right answer to this question, but from Adest's open, interested expression, he guessed honesty wouldn't hurt. "Less than completely. If you had to decide on something very balanced between the castes, or it didn't matter which way you chose, I could not predict your decision would unfailingly match the emkai's preference."

   "Because what kai want is different from what emkai want."

   "Yes." The older man's tone worried him, and he realized he'd just suggested the Justice was biased. That inviting look had been no more than bait. Osimo was in over his head, and fought the urge to leap for the door, which would be unpardonably rude.

   Adest folded his hands under his chin, thinking, then stated, "This is a tricky assertion, emkai Trasat. Tricky and hazardous. I observe you tend to jump your horse without knowing what you're jumping over, or if there's even a need to jump at all. When we met at House Eight, you assumed only we kai possess the law books. Now you assert that there are sides, and that they are at odds such that their goals differ."

   "We work, and the kai benefit from it. Aren't those goals different?"

   "Work is not a goal in itself; this argument is invalid," Adest dismissed.

   Unexpectedly, a sound blasted frighteningly, jolting Osimo's spine straight. The kai had smacked the book with his hand. "Emkai Osimo Trasat, I don't know why you're angry, but here is my anger. Look at yourself: I see a healthy young man with a curious mind. Look round, at your family, your neighbors: is there disease? Is anyone starving, or wearing rags? Do people freeze to death en masse in winter? Look wider, now: the Roeda want a stable society, and it takes constant effort to create and maintain that. We've been at peace with our neighbors for hundreds of years, there is space to expand eastward, we trade with each other and the foreigners, we create wealth. It's not all rosy, of course. I invite you to read the history, or if you don't believe books written by kai, ask your elders. You will learn that in lean times the kai have always tightened their belts alongside the emkai. Do you understand?"

   Osimo, hands protectively clutched around the teacup, mumbled, "Yes, sir."

   "I frighten you. And I don't regret it so long as it keeps you from starting a civil war."

   "I never said anything like that!"

   "No. But the idea that there are sides with different goals leads to the idea that they might benefit by tearing each other down – and snap like that, you have a war. It might be physical or economic or political, but it is still war. No, there are no sides. We are one thing: the Roeda."

   Adest sat down sedately and sipped his tea, waiting for Osimo to say something. The boy's mind was churning, cursing his assumptions, wondering if what Adest had said was true, trying to formulate something to say. He admitted to himself that kai Bernek had dozed in the icy stable, risen and stumbled around in the dark with him. If only he could escape this room! Osimo glanced around, and the surviving part of him realized he was looking at a room, a villa. "Why is it, then, that the kai have these fine houses, these leather chairs, the sculptures, and the emkai do not?" Gathering steam, he added, "Kai work, but as you said, their schedule is flexible compared to ours. Why do they have so much free time?"

   Adest leaned back, looking immensely pleased, raised his teacup in a mock toast. "Bravo. You have asked me two excellent questions. I was about to stop taking you seriously. Wait here," he said. He took both teacups, flung the contents out the window, and left. When he returned he had a bottle of wine under his arm. "This is decent stuff. Pinot noir, eight years old. Eighth House doesn't know a thing about wine – you have any mates from House Second? Did he or she ever educate you on wine?" Osimo shook his head.

   Adest opened the bottle to let it breathe a little, sniffed it, nodded, and sat again. With a dissembling grin, he admitted, "I had to create a delay in order to formulate an answer to your questions. They're hard questions."


   "Really." He answered the second question first. The kai do work that simply isn't seen by the servants. That is to say, sitting at a desk looking at paper isn't viewed or interpreted as work by the emkai, who consider work to consist of cleaning and cutting and lifting. The kai are mostly accountants, buying and selling, recording costs, and they manage the emkai. But they are also teachers and lawmakers; they are engineers, designing everything from hay carts to windmills to houses; they forecast the weather and earthquakes, heal people and animals, study the foreigners and estimate profit, investigate and judge crimes, mediate disputes between anyone. "I could go on, but I see you get the idea, plus this is almost ready to drink." He poured wine into the teacups, lifted his and said, "To your future understanding."

   Osimo, keeping his manners, returned with, "You are teaching me, so I toast your knowledge." They drank. It was strong, but in it he could sense all sorts of flavors that he hadn't noticed in other wines. A whiff of clover flowers, a little blackberry, almond underneath, and something else he couldn't name.

   Adest was pleased by the compliment, suggested ginger as the something else, and recommended he make some friends in House Second. "For the other question, I make an analogy. We have Queen Iridan and King Iqal, who are of the First House. Originally, our king and queen were members of the First House by ancestral right. Later, economic power became the driving force. For two generations, House Third ruled; for four generations, House Second ruled; and for one generation, House Sixth. These short reigns are due partly to the fact that House First is a very wealthy house, and only a few times has their income flagged so much that another could bid for rule. However, a more significant reason is one of knowledge: the First is accustomed to ruling us. They have knowledge, which they pass down to each other (certainly not to upstart, usurping Houses!), on how to cunningly manipulate and manage these selfish, ridiculously self-assured kai egomaniacs so they actually do work together.

   "It took those tries by three Houses before we realized none of us was ever going to keep the crown for very long before First got it back. No one House could hold it long enough to develop those skills. So, now that you have this analogy, tell me how you interpret it as relating to the castes."

   Osimo took a deep breath. "It sounds like House First is the kai, and the other Houses the emkai. The kai have knowledge and understanding of the, the whole, the Roeda, that the emkai lack. They wouldn't give us that information, but even if we had it, we would take a long time learning how to run things. Right?"

   "Very good. Continue."

   "And in doing so, the emkai might not be able to maintain peace among themselves." Osimo could see it. He knew Uncle Var had a temper of a bull. He thought of his father, taking and carrying out orders day after day, and couldn't imagine him in charge of fifty or a hundred people. He had enough trouble with Osimo already. And yet that pride in his family's lengthy service – was part of it also pride in keeping the unbroken stability?

   "My congratulations. Excellent."

   "But that still doesn't answer why we don't have villas and nice furniture."

   "It does. You could have a villa and nice furniture if you chose to put your wealth in that direction. But first it requires a vision; next, huge cooperation and effort from all your extended family and all your neighbors; and next, strength to keep your people focused on that vision. It takes a very long time: you, emkai, will not live to enjoy your villa. And yet, knowing this, you must still press on with your vision, passing it on to your children that they will do their part to implement it. Do you think your House Eight simply fell from the sky one day?"

   Osimo's jaw dropped.


   Three weeks later, attending Jara's wedding, Osimo mysteriously found himself having a lot of fun, not envious at all about seeing his best mate elevated to be a master. Just the opposite: the law book had quite a long section on emkai marrying into a House, and he was actually worried Jara didn't realize what kind of a cage of rules he was locking himself into.

   Of late his emkai duties troubled him less. Amali had told him learning the law was a power, but he hadn't realized power became tangible through this outlet for his mind. Adest had helped him see it. Satisfied that the young man had a drive to learn, and willingness to see the Roeda's larger goal, the kai gave him an open invitation to ask any questions, by message or in person. "I'll try not to be so harsh next time, but I intend to keep you on your toes," Adest had smiled, and hinted at more: "You never know, one day I might need an assistant who can help me better understand the opinions of the emkai."

   At a quiet moment in the party, Osimo lifted a glass and, to himself, toasted the future House Ninth.

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