THE SHIPS OF EARTH (Chapter 1:THE LAW OF THE DESERT)
Shedemei was a scientist, not a desert traveler. She had no great need for city comforts--she was as content sleeping on a floor or table as on a bed--but she resented having been dragged away from her laboratory, from her work, from all that gave her life meaning. She had never agreed to join this half-mad expedition. Yet here she was, atop a camel in the dry heat of the desert wind, rocking back and forth as she watched the backside of the camel in front of her sway in another rhythm. It made her faintly sick, the heat and the motion. It gave her a headache.
Several times she almost turned back. She could find the way well enough; all she had to do was get close enough to Basilica and her computer would link up with the city and show her the rest of the way home. Alone, she'd make much better time--perhaps she could even be back before nightfall. And they would surely let her into the city--she wasn't kin by blood or marriage to anyone else in this group. The only reason she had been exiled with them was because she had arranged for the dryboxes full of seeds and embryos that would reestablish some semblance of the old flora and fauna on Earth. She had done a favor for her old teacher, that's all--they could hardly force her into exile for that.
Yet that cargo was the reason she did not turn back. Who else would understand how to revive the myriad species carried on these camels? Who else would know which ones needed to go first, to establish themselves before later species came that would have to feed on them?
It's not fair, thought Shedemei for the thousandth time. I'm the only one in this party who can begin to do this task--but for me, it's not a challenge at all. It's not science, it's agriculture. I'm here, not because the task the Oversoul has chosen me for is so demanding, but because all the others are so deeply ignorant of it.
"You look angry and miserable."
Shedemei turned to see that it was Rasa who had brought her camel up beside Shedemei's on the wide stony path. Rasa, her teacher--almost her mother. But not really her mother, not by blood, not by right.
"Yes," said Shedemei.
"At me?" asked Rasa.
"Partly you," said Shedemei. "You maneuvered us all into this. I have no connection with any of these people, except through you."
"We all have the same connection," said Rasa. "The Oversoul sent you a dream, didn't she?"
"I didn't ask for it."
"Which of us did?" said Rasa. "No, I do understand what you mean, Shedya. The others all made choices that got them into this. Nafai and Luet and Hushidh and I have come willingly ... more or less. And Elemak and Meb, not to mention my daughters, bless their nasty little hearts, are here because they made some stupid and vile decisions. The others are here because they have marriage contracts, though for some of them it's merely compounding the original mistake to come along. But you, Shedemei, all that brings you here is your dream. And your loyalty to me."
The Oversoul had sent her a dream of floating through the air, scattering seeds and watching them grow, turning a desert land into forest and meadow, filled with greenery, abounding with animals. Shedemei looked around at the bleak desert landscape, seeing the few thorny plants that clung to life here and there, knowing that a few lizards lived on the few insects that found water enough to survive. "This is not my dream," said Shedemei.
"But you came," said Rasa. "Partly for the dream, and partly out of love for me."
"There's no hope of succeeding, you know," said Shedemei. "These aren't colonizers here. Only Elemak has the skill to survive."
"He's the one who's most experienced in desert travel. Nyef and Meb are doing well enough, for their part. And the rest of us will learn."
Shedemei fell silent, not wanting to argue.
"I hate it when you back away from a quarrel like that," said Rasa.
"I don't like conflict," said Shedemei.
"But you always back off at exactly the moment when you're about to tell the other person exactly what she needs to hear."
"I don't know what other people need to hear."
"Say what you had on your mind a moment ago," said Rasa. "Tell me why you think our expedition is doomed to failure."
"Basilica," said Shedemei.
"We've left the city. It can't possibly harm us now."
"Basilica will harm us in a thousand ways. It will always be our memory of a gentle, easier life. We'll always be torn with longing to go back."
"It's not homesickness that worries you, though, surely," said Rasa.
"We carry half the city with us," said Shedemei. "All the diseases of the city, but none of its strengths. We have the custom of leisure, but none of the wealth and property that made it possible. We have become used to indulging too many of our appetites, which can never be indulged in a tiny colony like ours will be."
"People have left the city and gone colonizing before."
"Those who want to adapt will adapt, I know," said Shedemei. "But how many want to? How many have the will to set aside their own desires, to sacrifice for the good of us all? I don't even have that degree of commitment. I'm more furious with every kilometer we move farther away from my work."
"Well, then, we're fortunate," said Rasa. "Nobody else here had any work worth mentioning. And those who did have lost everything so they couldn't go back anyway."
"Meb's work is waiting for him there," said Shedemei.
Rasa looked baffled for a moment. "I'm not aware that Meb had any work, unless you mean his sad little career as an actor."
"I meant his lifelong project of coupling with every female in Basilica who wasn't actually blood kin of his, or unspeakably ugly, or dead."
"Oh," said Rasa, smiling wanly. "That work."
"And he's not the only one," said Shedemei.
"Oh, I know," said Rasa. "You're too kind to say it, but my own daughters are no doubt longing to take up where they left off on their own versions of that project."
"I don't mean to offend you," said Shedemei.
"I'm not offended. I know my daughters far too well. They have too much of their father in them for me not to know what to expect from them. But tell me, Shedya, which of these men do you honestly expect them to find attractive?"
"After a few weeks or a few days, all the men will start looking good to them."
Rasa laughed lightly. "I daresay you're right, my dear. But all the men in our little party are married--and you can bet that their wives will be looking out to make sure no one intrudes in their territory."
Shedemei shook her head. "Rasa, you're making a false assumption. Just because you have chosen to stay married to the same man, renewing him year after year since--well, since you gave birth to Nafai--that doesn't mean that any of the other women here are going to feel that possessive and protective of their husbands."
"You think not?" said Rasa. "My darling daughter Kokor almost killed her sister Sevet because she was sleeping with Kokor's husband Obring."
"So ... Obring won't try to sleep with Sevet again. That doesn't stop him from trying for Luet, for instance."
"Luet!" said Rasa. "She's a wonderful girl, Shedya, but she's not beautiful in the way that a man like Obring looks for, and she's also very young, and she's plainly in love with Nafai, and most important of all, she's the waterseer of Basilica and Obring would be scared to death to approach her."
Shedemei shook her head. Didn't Rasa see that all these arguments would fade to unimportance with the passage of time? Didn't she understand that people like Obring and Meb, Kokor and Sevet lived for the hunt, and cared very little who the quarry might be?
"And if you think Obring might try for Eiadh, I'd laugh out loud," said Rasa. "Oh, yes, he might wish, but Eiadh is a girl who loves and admires only strength in a man, and that is one virtue that Obring will never have. No, I think Obring will be quite faithful to Kokor."
"Rasa, my dear teacher and friend," said Shedemei, "before this month is out Obring will even have tried to seduce me."
Rasa looked at Shedemei with a startlement she could not conceal. "Oh, now," she said. "You're not his--"
"His type is whatever woman hasn't told him no recently," said Shedemei. "And I warn you--if there's one thing our group is too small to endure, it's sexual tension. If we were like baboons, and our females were only sexually attractive a few times between pregnancies, we could have the kind of improvised short-term matings that baboons have. We could endure the periodic conflicts between males because they would end very quickly and we'd have peace the rest of the year. But we're human, unfortunately, and we bond differently. Our children need stability and peace. And there are too few of us to take a few murders here and there in stride."
"Murders," said Rasa. "Shedemei, what's got into you?"
"Nafai has already killed one man," said Shedemei. "And he's probably the nicest of this group, except perhaps Vas."
"The Oversoul told him to."
"Yes, so Nafai's the one man in this group who obeys the Oversoul. The others are even more likely to obey their god."
"It dangles between their legs," said Shedemei.
"You biologists have such a cynical view of human beings," said Rasa. "You'd think we were the lowest of animals."
"Oh, not the lowest. Our males don't try to eat their young."
"And our females don't devour their mates," said Rasa.
"Though some have tried."
They both laughed. They had been talking fairly quietly, and their camels were well separated from the others, but their laughter bridged the distance, and others turned to look at them.
"Don't mind us!" called Rasa. "We weren't laughing at you!"
But Elemak did mind them. He had been riding near the front of the caravan. Now he turned his animal and came back along the line until he reached them. His face was coldly angry.
"Try to have a little self-control, Lady Rasa," said Elemak.
"What," said Rasa, "my laughter was too loud?"
"Your laughter--and then your little jest. All at top volume. A woman's voice can be carried on this breeze for miles. This desert isn't thickly populated, but if anybody does hear you, you can find yourself raped, robbed, and killed in a remarkably short time."
Shedemei knew that Elemak was right, of course--he was the one who had led caravans through the desert. But she hated the condescension in his tone, the sarcasm. No man had a right to speak to Lady Rasa that way.
Yet Rasa herself seemed oblivious to the insult implied by Elya's attitude. "A group as large as ours?" asked Rasa innocently. "I thought robbers would stay away."
"They pray for groups like ours," said Elemak. "More women than men. Traveling slowly. Heavily burdened. Talking carelessly aloud. Two women drifting back and separating from the rest of the group."
Only then did Shedemei realize how vulnerable she and Rasa had been. It frightened her. She wasn't used to thinking this way--thinking about how to avoid getting attacked. In Basilica she had always been safe. Women had always been safe in Basilica.
"And you might take another look at the men of our caravan," said Elemak. "Which of them do you expect can fight for you and save you from a band of even three or four robbers, let alone a dozen?"
"You can," said Rasa.
Elemak regarded her steadily for a moment or two. "Here in the open, where they'd have to show themselves for some distance, I suppose I could. But I'd rather not have to. So keep up and shut up. Please."
The please at the end did little to ameliorate the sternness of his tone, but that did not keep Shedemei from deciding wholeheartedly to obey him. She did not have Rasa's confidence that Elemak could single-handedly protect them from even small numbers of marauders.
Elemak glanced briefly at Shedemei, but his expression carried no meaning that she could interpret. Then he wheeled his camel and it lurched on ahead toward the front of the little caravan.
"It'll be interesting to see whether it's your husband or Elemak who rules once we reach Wetchik's camp," said Shedemei.
"Pay no attention to Elya's bluster," said Rasa. "It will be my husband who rules."
"I wouldn't be too sure. Elemak takes to authority quite naturally."
"Oh, he likes the feel of it," said Rasa. "But he doesn't know how to maintain it except through fear. Doesn't he realize that the Oversoul is protecting this expedition? If any marauders so much as think of passing this way, the Oversoul will make them forget the idea. We're as safe as if we were home in bed."
Shedemei did not remind her that only a few days ago they had felt quite unsafe in their beds. Nor did she mention that Rasa had just proved Shedemei's own point--when Rasa thought of home and safety, it was Basilica she had in mind. The ghost of their old life in the city was going to haunt them for a long time to come.
Now it was Kokor's turn to stop her beast and wait for Rasa to catch up. "You were bad, weren't you, Mama?" she said. "Did nasty old Elemak have to come and tell you off?"
Shedemei was disgusted at Kokor's little-girl silliness--but then, Kokor usually disgusted her. Her attitude always seemed false and manipulative; to Shedemei the wonder of it was that these pathetically obvious ploys must work on people fairly often, or Kokor would have found new ones.
Well, whoever Kokor's little-girl act worked on, it wasn't her own mother. Rasa simply fixed Koya with an icy stare and said, "Shedya and I were having a private conversation, my dear. I'm sorry if you misunderstood and thought we had invited you to join us."
It took just a moment for Kokor to understand; when she did, her face darkened for a moment--with anger? Then she gave a prim little smile to Shedemei and said, "Mother is perpetually disappointed that I didn't turn out like you Shedya. But I'm afraid neither my brain nor my body had enough inner beauty." Then, awkwardly, Kokor got her camel moving fester and soon she was ahead of them again.
Shedemei knew that Kokor had meant to insult her by reminding her that the only kind of beauty she would ever have was the inner kind. But Shedemei had long since grown out of her adolescent jealousy of pulchritudinous girls.
Rasa must have been thinking the same thoughts. "Odd, isn't it, that physically plain people are perfectly able to see physical beauty in others, while people who are morally maimed are blind to goodness and decency. They honestly think it doesn't exist."
"Oh, they know it exists, all right," said Shedemei. "They just never know which people have it. Not that my feelings at this moment would prove me to be a moral beauty."
"Having thoughts of murder, were you?" said Rasa.
"Oh, nothing so direct or final," said Shedemei. "I was just wishing for her to develop truly awful saddle sores."
"And Elemak? Did you wish some uncomfortable curse on him?"
"Not at all," said Shedemei. "Perhaps, as you say, he didn't need to try to frighten us into obedience. But I think he was right. After all, the Oversoul hasn't had exactly a perfect record in keeping us out of danger. No, I harbor no resentment toward Elya."
"I wish I were as mature as you, then. I found myself resenting the way he spoke to me. So condescending. I know why, of course--he feels my status in the city is a threat to his authority out here, so he has to put me in my place. But he should realize that I'm wise enough to follow his leadership without his having to humiliate me first."
"It isn't a question of what you need," said Shedemei. "It never is. It's a question of what he needs. He needs to feel superior to you. For that matter, so do I, you silly old woman."
For a moment Rasa looked at her in horror. Then, just as Shedemei was about to explain that she was joking--why didn't anybody ever understand her humor?--Rasa grinned at her. "I'd rather be a silly old woman than a silly young one," she said. "Silly old women don't make such spectacular mistakes."
"Oh, I don't know about that," said Shedemei. "Coming on this expedition, for instance ..."
"For me it certainly is. My life is genetics, but the closest I'm going to come to it for the rest of my life is if I manage to reproduce my own genes."
"You sound so despairing. Having children isn't all that awful. They aren't all Kokor, and even she may grow up to be human someday."
"Yes, but you loved your husbands," said Shedemei. "Whom will I end up with, Aunt Rasa? Your crippled son? Or Gaballufix's librarian?"
"I think Hushidh plans to marry Issib," said Rasa. Her voice was cold, but Shedemei didn't care.
"Oh, I know how you've got us sorted out. But tell me, Aunt Rasa, if Nafai hadn't happened to drag the librarian along with him when he was stealing the Index ... would you have arranged to bring me?"
Rasa's face was positively stony. She didn't answer for a long time.
"Come now, Aunt Rasa. I'm not a fool, and I'd rather you not try to fool me."
"We needed your skills, Shedya. The Oversoul chose you, not me."
"You're sure it wasn't you, counting up males and females and making sure we came out even?"
"The Oversoul sent you that dream."
"The sad thing is," said Shedemei, "that except for you there's not a one of us that's a proven reproducer. For all you know, you've set up one of these men with a sterile wife. Or perhaps you've put one of us women with a sterile husband."
Rasa's anger was beginning to turn from cold to hot now. "I told you, it wasn't my choice ... Luet had a vision, too, and--"
"Are you going to set the example? Are you going to have more children, Aunt Rasa?"
Rasa seemed completely nonplussed. "Me? At my age?"
"You've still got a few good eggs in you. I know you haven't reached menopause, because you're flowing now."
Rasa looked at her in consternation. "Why don't I just lie down under one of your microscopes?"
"You'd never fit. I'd have to slice you razor thin."
"Sometimes I feel as if you already had."
"Rasa, you make us stop several times a day. I know you have better bladder control than that. We all know you're shedding the tears of the moon."
Rasa raised her eyebrows briefly, a sort of facial shrug. "More children indeed."
"I think you must. To set an example for all of us," said Shedemei. "Don't you understand that we're not just taking a trip? We're a colony. The first priority of colonists is reproduction. Anyone who isn't having babies is next to worthless. And no matter how envious Elemak is of your authority, you are the leader of the women here. You must set the pattern for us all. If you are willing to get pregnant during this trip, the others will fall into line, particularly since their husbands will feel the need to demonstrate that they can get a woman just as pregnant as old Wetchik can."
"He's not Wetchik anymore," said Rasa irrelevantly. "He's Volemak."
"He can still perform, can't he?"
"Really, Shedemei, is there anything you won't ask? Would you like us to provide stool samples for you next?"
"Before this journey is over I imagine I'll be looking at samples of almost everything. I'm the closest thing to a physician we have."
Rasa suddenly chuckled. "I can just see Elemak bringing you a semen sample."
Shedemei had to laugh, too, at the very idea of asking him. Such an assault on his dignity as leader of the caravan!
They rode together in silence for a few minutes. Then Rasa spoke. "Will you do it?" she asked.
"The librarian, Zdorab."
"Marry him," sighed Shedemei. "I never meant to marry anyone."
"Marry him and have his babies."
"Oh, I suppose I will," said Shedemei. "But not if we live under baboon law."
"Like Basilica--with a competition for new mates every year. I'll take this middle-aged man that I've never seen, I'll let him bed me, I'll bear his children, I'll raise them with him--but not if I have to fight to keep him. Not if I have to watch him court Eiadh or Hushidh or Dolya or--or Kokor--every time our marriage contract is about to expire, and then come crawling back to me and ask me to renew his contract for another year only because none of the truly desirable women would have him."
Rasa nodded. "I see now what you were trying to say before. It wasn't about Kokor's infidelity, it was about the customs we all grew up with."
"Exactly," said Shedemei. "We're too small a group to keep the old marriage customs of Basilica."
"It's really just a matter of scale, isn't it," said Rasa. "In the city when a woman doesn't renew a man, or when he doesn't ask, you can avoid each other for a while until the pain wears off. You can find someone else, because there are so many thousands to choose from. But we'll have exactly sixteen people. Eight men, eight women. It would be unbearable."
"Some would want to kill, the way Kokor tried to do," said Shedemei. "And others would wish to die."
"You're right, you're right, you're right," murmured Rasa, thinking aloud now, it seemed. "But we can't tell them now. Some of them would turn back--desert or no desert, bandits or no bandits. lifelong monogamy--why, I doubt that Sevet and Kokor have ever been faithful for a whole week. And Meb hadn't married till now for the good reason that he has no intention of being faithful but lacks my daughters' ability to behave with complete dishonesty. And now we're going to tell them that they must remain faithful. No one-year contracts, no chance to change."
"They're not going to like it."
"So we won't tell them until we're at Volemak's camp. When it's far too late for them to turn back."
Shedemei could hardly believe she had heard Rasa say such a thing. Still, she answered mildly. "Except it occurs to me," she said, "that if they want to turn back, perhaps we should let them. They're free people, aren't they?"
Rasa turned fiercely to her. "No, they aren't," she said. "They were free until they made the choices that brought them here, but now they're not free because our colony, our journey can't succeed without them."
"You're so certain you can hold people to their commitments," murmured Shedemei. "No one's ever made them do that before. Can you now?"
"It's not just for the sake of the expedition," said Rasa. "It's for their own good. The Oversoul has made it clear that Basilica is going to be destroyed--and them with it, if they're still there when the time comes. We're saving their lives. But the ones most likely to turn back are also the ones least likely to believe in the visions the Oversoul has shown us. So to save their lives we must--"
"Withhold some explanations until later."
"Because you know so much better than they do what's good for them?"
"Yes," said Rasa. "Yes, I do."
It infuriated Shedemei. All that Rasa had said was true enough, but it didn't change Shedemei's conviction that people had the right to choose even their own destruction, if they wanted. Maybe that was another luxury of living in Basilica, having the right to destroy yourself through your own stupidity or shortsightedness, but if so it was a luxury that Shedemei was not yet ready to give up. It was one thing to tell people that faithful monogamy was one of the conditions of staying with the group. Then they could choose whether to stay and obey or leave and live by another rule. But to lie to them until it was too late to choose ... it was freedom that was at stake here, and it was freedom that made survival worthwhile. "Aunt Rasa," said Shedemei, "you are not the Oversoul."
And with that remark, Shedemei urged her camel to move faster, leaving Rasa behind her. Not that Shedemei had nothing more she could have said. But she was too angry to stay there; the idea of quarreling with Aunt Rasa was unbearable. Shedemei hated to argue with anyone. It always set her to brooding for days. And she had enough to brood about as it was.
Zdorab. What kind of man becomes an archivist for a power-hungry killer like Gaballufix? What kind of man lets a boy like Nafai manipulate him into betraying his trust, giving up the precious Index, and then follows the thief right out of the city? What kind of man then lets Nafai wrestle him into submission and extract an oath from him to go out into the desert and never see Basilica again?
Shedemei knew exactly what kind of man: a tedious stupid weakling. A shy dull-witted coward who will formally ask my permission before each of his studious attempts to impregnate me. A man who will neither take nor give joy in our marriage. A man who will wish he had married any one of the other women here rather than me, but who will stay with me only because he knows that none of them would have him.
Zdorab, my husband-to-be. I can't wait to meet you.
The tents went up more smoothly their third night in the desert. Everyone knew well now which jobs they had to do--and which they could avoid. Rasa noticed with contempt that both Meb and Obring managed to spend more than half their time "helping" their wives do jobs that were already childishly easy--they had to be, or neither Dolya nor Kokor would have done them. Not that Dol wasn't willing to work sometimes, but as long as Kokor and Sevet weren't doing much that was worthwhile, she would not put herself beneath them. After all, Dol had been a starring actress when Kokor and Sevet were still chirping out their little children's songs. Rasa knew how Dol's mind worked. Status first, then human decency.
But at least decency was on her list! Who are these people I have raised and taught? The ones who are too selfish to endure threaten our peace, and yet some of the others are so compliant with the Oversoul that I fear even more for them.
I am not in charge of their lives now, Rasa reminded herself. I am in charge of getting the tent lines taut enough that it won't collapse in the first wind.
"It will collapse in a bad wind, no matter what you do," said Elemak. "So you don't have to make it strong enough to withstand a hurricane."
"Just a sandstorm?" Rasa felt a drop of sweat slip into her eye and sting, just as he spoke. She tried to wipe it away with her sleeve, but her arm was sweatier than her face, even under the light muslin.
"It's sweaty close work, no matter what the weather outside," said Elemak. "Let me."
He held the guyline tight while she cinched the knot into place. She well knew that he could just as easily have done the knot himself, without help holding the line. She saw at once what he was doing, making sure she learned her job, showing confidence in her, and letting her feel a sense of accomplishment when the tent held up. "You're good at this," she said.
"There's nothing hard about tying knots, once you learn them."
She smiled. "Ah, yes, knots. Is that what you're tying together here?"
He smiled back--and she could see that he did appreciate her praise. "Among other things, Lady Rasa."
"You are a leader of men," said Rasa. "I say this not as your stepmother, or even as your sister-in-law, but as a woman who has had some occasion of leadership herself. Even the lazy ones are ashamed to be too obvious about it." She did not mention that so far he had only succeeded in centering authority in himself--that no one had internalized anything yet, so that when he wasn't around, nothing happened. Perhaps that was all he had ever needed to learn about leadership during his years leading caravans. But if he meant to rule over this expedition (and Rasa was not such a fool as to think Elemak had any intention of allowing his father to have more than titular authority) he would have to learn how to do much more than make people dependent on him. The essence of leadership, my dear young ruler, is to make people independent and yet persuade them to follow you freely. Then they will obey the principles you've taught them even when your back is turned. But she could not say this to him aloud; he wasn't able yet to hear such counsel. So instead she continued to praise him, hoping to build his confidence until he could hear wise counsel. "And I've heard less argument and complaint from my daughters than I ever heard back when their lives were easy."
Elemak grimaced. "You know as well as I do that half of them would rather head back to Basilica this moment. I'm not sure that I'm not one of them."
"But we're not going back," said Rasa.
"I imagine it would be rather anticlimactic, returning to Moozh's city after he sent us away in such glory."
"Anticlimactic and dangerous," said Rasa.
"Well, Nafai has been cleared of the charge of killing my beloved half-brother Gaballufix."
"He's been cleared of nothing," said Rasa. "Nor, for that matter, have you, son of my husband."
"Me!" His face became hard and a little flushed. Not good, that he showed his emotion so easily. Not what a leader needed.
"I just want you to realize that returning to Basilica is out of the question."
"Be assured, Lady Rasa, that if I wanted to return to Basilica before seeing my father again, I would do so. And may yet do so after I see him."
She nodded slightly. "I'm glad that it cools off in the desert at night. So that we can bear the brutal heat of day, knowing the night will be gentle."
Elemak smiled. "I arranged it just for you, Lady Rasa."
"Shedemei and I were talking today," said Rasa.
"About a very serious matter," said Rasa. "Something that could easily tear our colony apart. Sex, of course."
Elemak was instantly alert. "Yes?" he asked--but his voice was calm.
"In particular," said Rasa, "the matter of marriage."
"Everyone is paired up well enough for now," said Elemak. "None of the men are sleeping unsatisfied, which is better than the way it is with most of my caravans. As for you and Hushidh and Shedemei, you'll soon be with your husbands, or the men who will be their husbands."
"But for some it is not the coupling itself they desire, but rather the chase."
"I know," said Elemak. "But the choices are limited."
"And yet some are still choosing, even though their choice seems to be made."
She could see how he stiffened his back and his neck, pretending to be calm, refusing to lean toward her and ask her the question in his heart. He worries about Eiadh, his bride, his beloved. She had not realized he was so perceptive about her, that he would already worry.
"They must be held faithful to their spouses," said Rasa.
Elemak nodded. "I can't say that I've had the problem--on my caravans, the men are alone until we reach cities, and then it's whores for most of them."
"And for you?" said Rasa.
"I'm married now," said Elemak. "To a young wife. A good wife."
"A good wife for a young man," said Rasa.
A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth. "No one is young forever," he said.
"But will she be a good wife in five years? In ten?"
He looked at her strangely. "How should I know?"
"But you must think about it, Elya. What kind of wife will she be in fifty years?"
He looked dumbfounded. He had not thought ahead on this issue, and did not even know how to pretend he had thought ahead, it took him so much by surprise.
"Because what Shedemei was pointing out--confirming my own thoughts on the matter--is that there's no chance that we can continue the marriage customs of Basilica out here in the desert. Basilica was very large, and we will be but sixteen souls. Eight couples. When you abandon Eiadh for another, whom will she marry then?" Of course, Rasa knew--and knew that Elemak also knew--that it was far more likely that it would be Eiadh deciding not to renew her marriage contract with Elemak, and not the other way around. But the question was still the same--whom would Eiadh marry?
"And children," said Rasa. "There'll be children--but no schools to send them to. They'll stay with their mothers, and another man--other men--will rear them."
She could see that her account of the future was getting to him. She knew exactly what would worry him most, and Lady Rasa wasn't ashamed to use that knowledge. After all, the things she was warning him about were true.
"So you see, Elemak, that as long as we're just sixteen souls who must stay together in order to survive in the desert, marriage must be permanent."
Elemak did not look at her. But his thoughts were visible on his face as he sank down on the carpet that had been spread to make a floor for the tent, covering the sandy soil.
"We can't survive the quarreling," she said, "the hurt feelings--we'll be too close to each other all the time. They must be told. Your spouse now is your spouse forever."
Elemak lay back on the carpet. "Why would they listen to me on such a subject?" he said. "They'll think I'm saying that in order to try to keep Eiadh for myself. I happen to know that others have already looked with longing, expecting to court her when we've had our few years of marriage."
"So you must persuade them to accept the reasons for lifelong monogamous marriage--so they'll understand that it isn't a self-serving plan on your part."
"Persuade them?" Elemak hooted once, a single bitter laugh. "I doubt I could persuade Eiadh."
She could see that he regretted at once having said that last remark. It confessed too much. "Perhaps then persuasion isn't the term I want. They must be helped to understand that this is a law we must obey in order to keep this family from coming apart in an emotional and physical bloodbath, as surely as we must keep quiet during each traveling day."
Elemak sat up and leaned toward her, his eyes alight with--what, anger? Fear? Hurt? Is there something more to this than I understand? Rasa wondered.
"Lady Rasa," said Elemak, "is this law you want important enough to kill for?"
"Kill? Killing is the very thing that I most fear. It's what we must avoid."
"This is the desert, and when we reach Father's encampment it will still be the desert, and in the desert there is only one punishment for crime of any kind. Death."
"Don't be absurd," said Rasa.
"Whether you cut off his head or abandon him in the desert, it's all the same--out here exile is death."
"But I wouldn't dream of having a penalty so severe as that."
"Think about it, Lady Rasa. Where would we imprison somebody as we journey day to day? Who could spare the time to keep someone under guard? There's always flogging, of course, but then we would have to deal with an injured person and we couldn't travel safely anymore."
"What about withdrawing a privilege? Taking something away? Like a fine, the way they did it in Basilica."
"What do you take away, Lady Rasa? What privileges do any of us have? If we take away something the lawbreaker really needs--his shoes? his camel?--then we injure him anyway, and have to travel slower and put the whole group at risk. And if it isn't something he needs, but merely treasures, then you fill him with resentment and you have one more person you have to deal with but can't trust. No, Lady Rasa, if shame isn't strong enough to keep a man from breaking a law, then the only punishment that means anything is death. The lawbreaker will never break the law again, and everybody else knows you're serious. And any punishment short of death has the opposite result--the lawbreaker will simply do it again, and no one else will respect the law. That's why I say, before you decide that this should be the law during our travels, perhaps you ought to consider, is it worth killing for?"
"But no one will believe you'd kill anyway, would they?"
"You think not?" said Elemak. "I can tell you from experience that the hardest thing about punishing a man on a journey like that is telling his widow and his orphaned children why you didn't bring him home."
"Oh, Elemak, I never dreamed ..."
"No one does. But the men of the desert know. And when you abandon a man instead of killing him outright, you don't give him any chance, either--no camel, no horse, not even any water. In fact, you tie him up so he can't even move, so the animals will get him quickly--because if he lives long enough, bandits might find him, and then he'll die far more cruelly, and in the process of dying, he'll tell the bandits where you are, and how many you are, and how many you leave on watch, and where all your valuables are stored. He'll tell other things, too--the pet name he calls his woman, the nicknames of the guards, so the bandits'll know what to say in the darkness to confuse your party, to put them off their guard. He'll tell them--"
"Stop it!" cried Rasa. "You're doing this on purpose."
"You think that life in the desert is a matter of heat and cold, of camels and tents, of voiding your bowel in the sand and sleeping on rugs instead of on a bed. But I tell you that what Father and you and Nafai, bless his heart, what you've all chosen for us--"
"What the Oversoul has chosen!"
"--is the hardest life imaginable, a dangerous and brutal world where death is breathing into the hair on the back of your head, and where you have to be ready to kill in order to maintain order."
"I'll think of something else," said Rasa. "Some other way of handling marriages ..."
"But you won't," said Elemak. "You'll think and think, and in the end you'll come to the only conclusion. If this insane colony is to succeed, it must succeed in the desert and by desert law. That means that women will be faithful to their men, or they will die."
"And men, if they're unfaithful," said Rasa, sure that he couldn't possibly mean that only women would be punished.
"Oh, I see. If two people break this marriage law, you want them both to die, is that it? Who's the bloodthirsty one now? We can spare a woman more easily than a man. Unless you propose that I train Kokor and Sevet to fight. Unless you think Dol and Shedemei can really handle lifting the tents onto the camels' backs."
"So in your man-ruled world the woman bears the brunt of ..."
"We're not in Basilica now, Lady Rasa. Women thrive where civilization is strong. Not here. No, if you think about it, you'll see that punishing the woman alone is the surer way to keep the law. Because which man can whisper, 'I love you,' when they both know that what he really means is, 'I want to tup you so badly that I don't care if you die.' How much success will his seduction have then? And if he tries to force his way, she'll scream--because she'll know that it's her life at stake. And if he's taken for raping her, as she screams, why, then it is the man who dies. You see? It takes so much of the romance out of flirting."
Elemak almost laughed aloud at the stricken look on Rasa's face when he turned and left her tent. Oh, yes, she still fancied herself a leader, even out here in the desert where she knew less than nothing about survival, where she was a constant danger to everyone, with her chat, with her supposed wisdom that she was always so willing to share, with her air of command. She could bring off the illusion of power in Basilica, where women had men so fenced around with custom and manners that she could make decisions and people would comply. But here she would soon find--was already finding--that she lacked the true will to power. She wanted to rule, but didn't want to do the hard things that rule required.
Permanent marriage indeed. What woman could possibly satisfy a man of any strength for more than a year or two? He had never intended Eiadh to be anything more than a first wife. She would have been a great success at that role--she'd adorn him in his first Basilican household, bear him his firstborn, and then they'd both move on. Elemak even planned that Rasa herself would be his children's teacher--she did a fine job of schooling youngsters; Elemak knew what her true value was. But now to think that he would be willing to endure having Eiadh clinging to him when she was fat and old ...
Except that in his heart he knew that he was lying to himself. He could pretend that he didn't want Eiadh forever, but in fact the only thing he felt for her was desire. A powerful, possessive desire that showed no signs of slackening. It was Eiadh, not Elemak, who was changeable. She was the one who had so admired Nafai when he stood against Moozh and refused the warlord's offer of the consulship. So pathetic, that she would admire Nyef more for refusing power than she admired her own new husband for having and using it. But Eiadh was a woman, after all, and had been raised with the same mystical dependence on the Oversoul, and since the Oversoul had so clearly "chosen" Nafai, it made him all the more attractive in her eyes.
As for Nafai ... Elemak had known for many months that Nafai had his eye on Eiadh. That was part of what had made Eiadh so attractive to Elemak from the start--that marrying her would put his snotty little brother in his place. Let him marry her later, when she had already had Elemak's first child or two. That would let Nafai know where he stood. But now Eiadh was casting an eye toward the boy--damn him for being the one who killed Gaballufix! That's what was seducing her! She loved the delusion that Nafai was strong. Well, Eiadh, my darling, Edhya my pet, I have killed before, and not a drunkard lying in the street, either. I killed a bandit who was charging my caravan, bent on murder and robbery. And I can kill again.
I can kill again, and Rasa has already consented to the justification. The law of the desert, yes, that is what will bring Nafai's interference to an end. Rasa is so sure that her dear sweet youngest boy would never break the law that she'll agree--they'll all agree--that the penalty for disobedience is death. And then Nafai will disobey. It will be so simple, so symmetrical, and I can then kill him on exactly the same pretext Nyef himself used for killing Gabya--I'm doing it for the good of all!
That night, when the cold supper was heavy in their bellies, when the chill night breeze had driven them all inside their tents, Elemak set Nafai to keep the first watch. He knew that Nafai, poor fellow, was keenly aware of who was waiting for Elemak inside his tent. He knew that Nafai was sitting there in the cold starlight imagining how Elya gathered Eiadh's naked body into his arms, how hot and humid they made their tent. He knew that Nafai heard, or imagined that he heard, the soft low cries that Eiadh made. And when Elemak emerged from his tent, the sweat and smell of love still on him, he knew that Nafai could taste the bitterness of going to his own tent, where the awkward shapeless body of Luet the waterseer was the only solace the poor boy would find. It was almost tempting to take Rasa's law and make it real, for then it would be Nafai who would grow old watching Eiadh always and knowing that she was Elemak's, and he could never, never, never have her for his own.
THE SHIPS OF EARTH Copyright © 1994 by Orson Scott Card