Short story: The best is yet to be

For the Rethali, who live for thousands of years, falling in love with a Terrani becomes a matter of patience – and careful timing. By Dave Luckett.

Illustrations: gatsby

I was Listening in the ajan, waiting for wisdom, and also for Thomas to return from the stars. Mostly the latter, which was improper, of course. One Listens, not for something which is to come, but for what is now. Anticipation is the seed of impatience. That is wisdom, as we say on Rethul.

The ajan, the meditation room, of House Lanthai is different from those in other houses. It overlooks a vista, as all ajani do, but House Lanthai is so ancient that the vista has changed. The house stands on a gentle slope overlooking the valley of the Sarail, seeming as if it had simply grown from the Earth. The caress of hands has polished its timbers until their gleam echoes the gleam of water, their colours the colours of the landscape; but the very shape of the land had changed in the time since its building.

It had even changed during the 3,000 years that I had lived here. The Sarail River, which meanders past, had varied its course a dozen times as the house and I have watched it, soothing the green landscape, resetting the composition of tree and earth, pasture and tillage.

Beyond the valley were the hills, blue with distance, changing so slowly that even we, who watch them over thousands of years, see little alteration.

The men’s village peeped into sight now, although when I first saw the valley it was hidden by a swell of the land. Traditionally, the view should not include the men’s small, separated white houses, as they are said to detract from the women’s way, which is to live communally in a house that rambles organically around its core of courtyard, workroom and hall. Nevertheless, I like to see the men’s houses. Their squareness and whiteness gives counterpoint to the gentle fall and rainwashed colours of the valley.

Beyond the valley are the hills, blue with distance, changing so slowly that even we, who watch them over thousands of years, see little alteration. They frame the land, as the sky of Rethul arches over it. The sky changes, but it does not change – a paradox.

I should have been considering the nature of change – that would have been an acceptable, traditional theme. A thousand ajantai, meditations, have been written on it. But I was not considering the nature of the sky, nor seeking its wisdom. I was watching it in a way that could only increase my impatience. Thomas would come from it, when he returned to me from voyaging among the stars. I was calculating the time of his return.

I was also remembering his voice, his words, his stories. So much of it was strange. Consider the art form Thomas calls “animation”. It consists of a series of images of something in motion, but each image is still, a frozen instant. Only if the images are seen rapidly one after the other is the original movement revealed.

A Terrani sees movement where we Rethali see only stillness. That is wisdom, I suppose.

I could wait for wisdom, but waiting for him was harder. I have always been impatient, the worst of Rethalan sins. I comforted myself with the thought that I was even worse when young. Not so much now, for I knew that when he was here I would want time to stretch out endlessly.

He would be back shortly before the Festival of Shelsan, and Shelsan was close – only a little over four years away. A moment, no more. I smiled. Thomas would say four years was almost forever. Fortunately, for him it would be only a few Terran hours, for he was already on his way, blazing towards me at the pace of the starlight. I looked forward to him, in the gradual afternoon of Rethul.

The sun declined and set. House Lanthai creaked once, like a servant’s discreet cough. I rose and joined my House- sisters in preparing the evening meal. We do the work in the kitchen, where there are open fireplaces and benches, with the water piped in from the spring further up the hill, but of course the food is served on the single long table in the hall, where visitors also dine, when we have them.

Illustrations: gatsby

As we worked, my House-sisters were naturally discussing Shelsan – the robes, the chants, the procession. Every breath of nuance must be considered, over years. I said nothing. Saying nothing is always acceptable, I thought. Alas, silence was not to be allowed me. Not this time.

Harani, my eldersister, glanced at me sidelong as I ground sherwa grain. “It is to be considered, your role, Lisi,” she said.

What was this about? I made a show of consideration, looking around the circle of familiar faces. Then I answered as if I had taken her words at surface value. “I imagine I will carry a lantern in the pageant, and sing the antiphon,” I said, my hands pausing.

“Ah,” said Harani. Her gaze slid slowly away, but her hands remained still. That meant the discussion was to continue.

Thomas calls it “waiting for the shoe to drop”. We Rethali wait – for shoes, for wisdom, for everything.

“Sherra announces her second,” said Mela, after the necessary pause, speaking as though to the air.

Ah. Now I understood. Two, and Sherra nearly a thousand Terran years younger than I. It would mean another birth-gift – an increase to our flocks, probably. But Sherra’s first was barely adult. She’d announced twice in only 70 years. One more, and Sherra would join Mela as an honoured tam, a three, a word that also means “enough”.

“And the birth will come shortly before Shelsan. This must be considered,” said Harani.

“It will be a great happiness, a new child in the House at Shelsan,” I remarked – an attempt at distraction, but of course they would see that. The pace of Rethalan conversation makes subterfuge very difficult. I was never subtle enough, anyway.

“A great happiness,” said Harani. “Although it brings a necessary consideration ...” She trailed off, as though words had evaded her.

So there we had it. The consideration was, to put it brutally, of fecundity. Sherra’s second announcement was a little beforehand. The men’s village might stint on another birth-gift so soon after the last. To placate them, it would be in good taste for another House-sister to take the pei. The mark of childlessness. Of being barren.

Mela chimed in. “We will have only four peir for the pageant as it is. Possibly...”

“Possibly only three,” I agreed, gratuitously. Our senior peiri, Varata, was in declining health. She had seen 10,000 years, Thomas would say, with awe in his voice, and 10,000 is aged, even for a Rethali.

The silence that followed my remark was disapproving. I had been gauche. Again. But it allowed me to return to my task, as if the discussion were concluded.

Harani’s hands remained still. “The House should have at least four peir,” she said, eyeing me.

That was direct. I tried ignoring it, but Harani simply became more so.

“Lisi, you are now ...”

“Nearly 4,000,” I replied, leaving no pause at all. There was a subliminal collective gasp at my hastiness. “I have only four or five chances to announce now, and Sherra has many more. Yes, I know.” I turned my head and looked Sherra in the eyes. “But what I have is still mine to use.”

“Among the things you have is a sole visitor – a Terrani – who is not here now,” snapped Sherra.

“Why, yes, he is rarely here, and it is true he is my sole visitor. Unlike the three visitors you had last month, little sister, whose exclamations could be heard from across the courtyard. As could yours. You are as impatient as I, sometimes, it seems. But at least I am not so loud.”

No, I am not subtle. But I wanted to silence them, and now I had succeeded. I returned to grinding the grain.

It was a starship’s engine, braking, bleeding off energy, a great disk of fire that is seen as a streak of light from the planet’s surface.

We ate in seemly silence. A stranger would not have observed anything amiss. Sherra had a visitor, but she dismissed him. I almost smiled.

After the meal I quit the House, on my usual pretext of considering the stars. Solitary contemplation is always seemly, thank Retha.

Thus I saw the starblaze.

One cannot mistake it. It was a starship’s engine, braking, bleeding off energy, a great disk of fire that is seen as a streak of light from the planet’s surface. Violet, paling to blue, then white. No comet, no falling rock ever displayed those colours, standing out even against the bright glowing starband. It was a starship, and starships come rarely to Rethul. It must be Thomas.

I felt my heart race and leap, and then a moment later realisation washed over me, cold dismay following joy as winter follows summer. He was here. He was early. Too early. All my calculations were wrong.

It took him nearly a day to arrive. Before he could come to the House he had to visit the men’s village, to trade whatever he had brought from the ship for visitor’s gifts – cloth, food, livestock. I found myself hoping that he had brought valuables, enough for many gifts, many visits. I bespoke one of the visiting rooms, marshalling myself to the necessary calm, ignoring the eyes that slid away from me, the oblique cloudy politeness.

I welcomed him. We shared the meal with my sisters. It was late before I asked, “Shall we retire?” so that I could not be accused of eagerness, even though my pulse was beating in my throat. It had been six years, after all. He cast a single glance around the silent table and nodded thoughtfully, in an almost Rethalan way. Then he rose and followed me out.

The door closed behind us. He took me in his arms and we kissed. I reached up to undo my lacing, but his hand closed gently on mine, then rose to stroke my hair.

“What’s the matter? What’s happened?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I replied, setting myself to read the Terrani quicksilver of his face. “You said yourself that nothing ever happens here.”

“So I did, once. But I was young and stupid, back then. Now I’m well over 2,000 years old. Says so on my birth certificate. We all learn, given time. Even Terrani.”

He was teasing me, gently. “I am older still,” I said. “And that is real time.”

“Time? Real? You forget what I do, love. How real do you think time is, to someone in my job?” He smiled. “Only my time with you is real.”

It was ridiculous to feel the flush mounting in my cheeks, the flutter of pleasure at my heart. “Time is real enough,” I said, covering it.

“Well, yes, it’s real, I suppose. Things happen while I’m not, so to speak, in it.” He stooped, picked me up in an easy surge, and carried me to the bed, where he sat me on his knee. Of themselves, my arms went around his neck. “Now tell. What’s happened?”

“Nothing.” I leaned my forehead against his.

“Nothing, my foot. Harani was looking queenly and sour. Mela was carefully not looking at anything at all. Sherra was looking thunderous, has another pleat in her pinny, and from what I hear in the men’s village, a great reputation for hospitality. But it would never do if the House became known for how-you-say fecundity. A scandal, just as bad as having no children at all.”

I didn’t answer. He considered me, much as a Rethali might. “And you with no pleats. Clearly, you aren’t hospitable enough.”

“I am not hospitable at all,” I said, with dignity.

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m certainly not complaining about your hospitality. But, true, you don’t entertain, I’m told.” He affected a guttural Terrani accent far worse than his real one. “Ah-hah! I heff it! Dere iss a sayink amonk my peoples. Ve are sayink, ‘Use it or lose it’.”

I had unlaced my robe andnow I opened it. Partly it was because I wished to distract him, but only partly.

I closed my eyes. It was a flicker, no more, but he saw it, of course. To a Terrani it would have been obvious. “It’s true on Rethul as well, isn’t it? Your very low birthrate balances your very long life span, but those who don’t contribute at all have to allow their House-sisters to do it, or you wouldn’t reach replacement value. And Sherra is eager to contribute. She wants to be a tam, like Mela.”

“I will not contribute, as you put it.” As I whispered it, I realised that I was close to tears. “I have four or five more chances, but I will not take them. I will take the pei instead.” I said no more. House matters should not be spoken of before a visitor. Even with Thomas. I was still Rethalan.

“So you’d become officially childless. I wondered about that. But you could have taken the pei any time. You didn’t.”

“We have discussed this before, and agreed.”

“That was then. This is now.” I frowned and shook my head, not understanding. He saw it, and supplied an explanation. “A Terrani expression meaning that circumstances change.”

Very Terrani indeed, for it made no sense. “What circumstances?” I asked. “We are now as we were then.
If it was wise then, it is wise now.”

I did not wish to speak further of it, anyway, not then. I had unlaced my robe and now I opened it. Partly it was because I wished to distract him, but only partly. I was, I admit, impatient.

In fact I hoped, later, that I had not been heard across the courtyard. That would have been embarrassing, after my words to Sherra.

“You seem to be pleased that I returned ahead of schedule,” he remarked, afterwards. I lay beside him, my head on his shoulder. I didn’t reply. “The second leg of the run was cancelled, you see. Machead said there wasn’t enough money in it. We only went out to Mandulak and back. Three lights, no more.”

Money, that odd Terrani idea, could be ignored, as always. I was calculating other matters. He had been gone six years. Perhaps, perhaps, if it were only the short run to San’s Star next, he might be back again in time ...

“And now?” I asked.

“We’re loading jewelwood for Ihrana. Rare earths for Surret. Out in three weeks, maybe.”

No. That was much too far. He’d be gone 12 years or more. Far too long. The coming chance was lost, and probably the next one as well.

My face had betrayed me. His hand caressed my cheek. “Tell me that you really wish to take the pei.”

Brutal. Direct. Terrani. “We have discussed this. The alternative is impossible.”

“No. Only difficult. It’s possible that the child would not inherit your immortality ...”

“Rethali are not immortal.”

“... and in that case would need to ship with me, once it was old enough. But that could be managed. Many crew bring their families.” He watched me. “Or you could accept another visitor, when your chance arrives, if I’m away.”

I stiffened in his arms, an automatic rejection so instant as to be unseemly. He said nothing, waiting for me to speak.

Even the unthinkable must be considered. But not that. My mind shied away from it, refused to think about it.

What else was there? I thought furiously. Perhaps ... “There are medicines ... procedures ...” I knew of them from the books Thomas had brought me, although I also knew no Rethalan shama would use them. “Your ship has a doctor.”

“A doctor, love. Not a stargoing fertility clinic.” His lips quirked as he smoothed my hair. “And now you have told me.”

I stared back, appalled. So I had. His quickness, so stimulating, so exhilarating, had exposed me. My mind, like my face, like my body, had betrayed me. I groped after a reply. “Those are all the options. All are unacceptable. So it is impossible.”

Illustrations: gatsby

“Nope. Timing, love. It’s only timing. We just haven’t, um, coincided. Not surprising, considering. But we can. When’s the next – ah – chance?”

I let out a half-pant, the faint ghost of a laugh. “Oh, soon. Very soon. It will come in only three years and 10 months. Or thereabouts. But who’s counting?”

The last words were his own, said many cycles before. Who, indeed, was counting? Not us. Not then.

He chuckled, but the chuckle died. “And I would have been back at about that time, if the second leg hadn’t been cancelled. Ah. Yes. Yes, I see.”

“I would have discussed it with you first...” I began.

He drew me close. “But I wrecked it for you. I’m so sorry, love. No wonder. No wonder. You must have been cruelly disappointed.”

“Disappointed? To see you sooner?” I found myself actually in tears. “Never. Never.”

For a moment – a Rethalan moment – we could only hold each other. Then I felt him smile. “Well, there’s an obvious solution. I can stay over.”

I blinked, wiping my eyes. “No.”

“It’s only four years.”

“No. It might be many more. It might be your lifetime. Your ship must leave, and you’d be replaced. Other ships touch here rarely, and any that come might not have another berth, or might never return. You might be marooned here, and I’d watch you grow old while I stayed ...” I could not go on. “No. We made our minds up about that long ago, though we did not speak of it. We will grow old together. Nothing has happened to change that.”

There. I had said it. We will grow old together.

“Love, there has to be a way ...”

It was too much. Did he think I had not been seeking wisdom about this, awaiting it these many years? I cut him off, and my words tumbled over one another, hasty, improper. “No. There does not have to be a way. Why do you Terrani always think that? This is as it is. Thus is the Universe made. We live in the way it allows. Let it be as it must be.” For that moment, I was only Rethalan.

He made to speak, realised that it, too, would be hasty, and held his peace. I was already regretting my outburst. We waited for wisdom. It did not come. We slept. We spoke of it no more.

This is as it is. Thus is the Universe made. We live in the way it allows. Let it be as it must be.

So passed the weeks. An eyeblink, far too short for wisdom. What did I expect?

On the night of his departure, I watched the stars, knowing what I would see: a streak that first glowed brilliant white, then yellow, orange, scarlet, ruby, deepening to a dull smoky crimson like the sullen heart of a dying fire before it winked out against the white glow of the starband. I stared after it for a time. He was gone.

He would return in 12 years or so. Hardly long enough to grow accustomed to his absence, but too late for me. Four or five chances, I had said. Yes. But the last three chances are ... better not taken. That night was bad.

Morning came, and the round of the nursery, the sherwa fields, the pens and byre. The Listening in the ajan. I could consider only the ashes of my hopes, and Listen to my emptiness, schooled to an acceptance that went no deeper than my face. Wisdom did not come. The day ended, as days always must end. The evening meal.

My sisters expected a formal announcement. I said nothing. Mela spoke obliquely of Verata’s infirmity, and their eyes slid to me, waiting. Waiting. We Rethali are always waiting. They were far better at it than I. They would wait me out. Twice I almost rose, once I cleared my throat. They simply waited.

The visitor’s bell rang. One of Sherra’s, no doubt. Well, I could hardly sneer at her. I had been using the visitor’s rooms a great deal myself lately. Footsteps sounded in the entry. Something about them ...

I looked up. Thomas appeared in the doorway. The porteress had admitted him without question. Why not?
He was a familiar sight.

They expected me to say the formal words. I could not. I could only stare. He stood in the doorway and returned the stare, but he was smiling, a faint, crooked smile.

I rose, not knowing I was doing it. I made to walk out, but the walk became a hasty shamble. I brushed past him, fumbled the door open and went running out into the night. What I would say to him I did not want my sisters to hear. He followed, pacing me as if without effort, until I rounded on him.

“What have you done?” I asked. Demanded, rather. Hasty, peremptory, strident. Unseemly. The trees sighed in the night wind.

He was still smiling, faintly. “I haven’t jumped ship, if that’s what you’re thinking. They owe me money.”

I gestured furiously. “What do I care about your ship? What is Terrani money to me? What have you done to us?”

“Well, I hope I’ve promoted you a pleat to your pinny, and me the same, if I wore one. I bought myself out, all proper. But Gone Goose will be back in only eight years, and Machead’s promised me my berth again. Signed a contract, in fact.”

“Eight years!” I calculated, horrified. I shook my head, furiously. Other thoughts were crowding in, one on top of another, brawling, demanding attention. It was unseemly, confusing. “You said he was loading for Ihrana and Serret. That’s twice that distance.”

“He changed his mind. Taglus is almost as good, and much closer.”

“Changed his mind! Why... ? Who ... ?”

“Who changes his mind? Terrani do. We also change manifests, destinations and plans. Money changes things, you see. It changes minds when it changes hands, so to speak.”

I stood uncomprehending. Money?

He was watching me, waiting. For wisdom, perhaps. Very Rethalan. But I had no wisdom. “I don’t understand,” I said, at last.

Money changes things, you see. It changes minds when it changes hands, so to speak.

“Well, I haven’t spent much of my pay. I was always hurrying back to Rethul, and you don’t use money. So some of mine has been sort of sitting around for a thousand years, out there. There’s this thing we call ‘compound interest’, you see. Even starship pursers listen to a millennium’s worth of it.”

I still didn’t understand. “But eight years!”

“I must be becoming Rethalan. It doesn’t seem very long at all to me. It’s barely enough time to see things on their way, in fact. To see my kid’s first steps.”

I covered my face with my hands. “No. No. You will be getting old. Pouring out your life. I want you for all of mine. It is too great a sacrifice for both of us.”

“Not that old. Not that quickly. Love, you underestimate Terrani. We’re not such mayflies as you think. And there’s new ... medicines, as well. I saw something about it, last time I was on Tikala. Starcrew usually don’t bother until they retire, for obvious reasons, but I could take a long hop into a hub star next time, and see.”

I stared at him. The stars wheeled above me. Constant. But constantly changing as well.

He was anticipating change. I could not. I was Rethali. But he was Terrani. He could see movement between the moments of stillness.

Wisdom had come to me at last. One must wait, but it does come. I could hardly see movement. I had, for example, hardly noticed that he had moved, and I had moved, and we were now in each other’s arms.

“You must go on a long journey, anyway. To make the time up,” I said to him, a long, long time afterwards, after the whole Universe had changed. Or perhaps it was just a moment later. Some moments last forever. That is wisdom, too.

“If you insist.” He kissed me. “We’ll grow old together, love.”

Yes. Eventually, so we will.

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