Expectancy glowed up from the dark yard and its ring of colored paper lanterns. The guests would soon arrive for the party to celebrate the day’s earlier marriage Solemnities. Even now they were pulling the festooned groom cart through the restless wheat, carrying their own paper lanterns and singing as they came.
I drew back through the window into the dark bedroom and felt for flint and lantern on the dressing table. The immaculate white curtains snapped and fluttered ghostlike into the room. The wick caught and chased shadows to the comers. I looked at myself in the mirror.
A stranger stared back at me, hand to her hair. Somehow Marda had tamed it into smooth, intertwined curves to frame my face in a sort of halo that swept back into a thick coil behind my head. The full strands of braiding gleamed dark red in the light, glinting with the scented oil she had combed through it. The scar on my cheek was barely visible in the shadowy depth of the mirror.
The woman in there was a Poindran, her slender curves embraced by the soft folds of a dark green satin dress, her pale hand dropping from her hair with unconscious grace as she leaned forward in the mirror. I saw with a little shock how bright green her eyes looked, wider under the arch of brow echoed by the gleaming sweep of hair, the curve of cheek running down to slightly parted lips, a spot of color high at each temple, delicate ears partially hidden by the heavy ropes of braiding. I wondered if Marda realized what she had done, how she had made this young woman look so . . .
So much like Helen. I could almost be looking at Mother.
I jerked in ridiculous panic away from the mirror and yanked up my skirts, striding from the room. I didn’t want to look in that mirror again. I was afraid I’d see Helen’s mysterious serenity smiling back at me.
“Jeez Louise!” David jumped when I appeared on the shadowed porch, thrusting something hastily behind his back. He peered up at me, grinned sheepishly, and plopped himself down on a step, chomping into an iced tart he’d filched. I settled beside him.
“You sure as hell,” he giggled, “don’t look like a spacer, Aunt Ruth! But I guess that’s okay. You still have to tell me more about the weird places you’ve been.”
I settled my skirts carefully onto the step. “Okay, I’ll tell you about a really strange place. The women are so kind and lovely they leave fine threads of light floating behind them. Pretty soon, the threads get woven into a beautiful web, with an intricate pattern that you can hardly see unless the sun hits it just right, and then you see it’s got a Plan. It’s so light and airy the men and children want to be lifted up by it and feel how soft and gently they’re held. And they’re all balanced so carefully, each in the right spot designed to hold his weight, so they won’t tear the web or knock against anyone else, and they’re all smiling . . . And it is lovely, and there’s no reason why anyone should come along and get the urge to shake that web . . .”
David munched and swallowed. “Sounds funny to me. What is it, some sort of force field? But then if they had that, they could probably have some kind of flight thrust, right? Tell me about the flying ships!”
I shook my head, chuckling as he pulled his thin legs up, knees by his ears, hunching on the step with his round spectacles gleaming in the shadow, looking exactly like the brooding night-owl of Targuar. “How about birds? Did you know there are birds kind of like our trotters, only they have real wings and fly?”
“You mean like the transports do? Or more like a mechanical drive? I saw some pictures on the console once, drawings like of flying machines, but they must not of worked, otherwise the console wouldn’t have cleared them that first time, even with—”
“What do you mean, cleared them?”
He licked his lips nervously. “Oh, nothing, I just mean they don’t show us Taboo stuff, you know. Machines and stuff we can’t have in the Plan.” He cleared his throat. “But since Mother and the elders told me it was wrong, I don’t mess around with the console anymore.” He shrugged unconvincingly.
“David!” I lowered my voice. “What are you up to? It sounds like you’re climbing on a thin line. If Marda—”
He shot me another worried look, lenses flashing a colored streak of light. “You’re not gonna—”
“No. I won’t tell. But watch it with the cybers, David. It’s harder to fool them than you think. You break too many Rules, you’re in trouble. I know . . .” I swallowed. “Look, it’s like tower climbing, you know. You have to watch out for the backlash and whip on the fast gusts, or you might get spinning out of control.”
He gave me a puzzled look. “It’s true? You really worked on the towers with Joshua and them?” He shrugged. “But beats me what you’re talking about. I don’t climb those things.”
“What? Here you’re talking about flying machines, can’t wait to get on a transport, and you don’t even use your own wings?”
He gave me an indignant look. “Big deal! So I don’t climb the towers! What’s that got to do with star ships?”
My voice picked up his scornful tone. “You can have it, and you don’t even want it! Listen, you’ve got some big ideas about star ships, and flying to the planets, but it’s not what you think. Here, on the wind sails, you can feel it. It’s real when you get up into the air and you’re part of it. You’d better find out what that’s all about before you start dreaming about the stars. Believe me, they’ve only got more worlds around them, about as ordinary as here.”
“You sound like Mother!” he hissed, hurt and angry. “You think I’m gonna swallow all that stuff about how great it is here?”
“But I was a girl, David. I had no other choice.” I sighed. “Well, I guess it takes all kinds.”
“You ask me, you’ve gotta be really crazy to get up there. All I do is get dizzy, all upside-down and sideways. So they just let me help with the tower electronics. I’m really good,” he added proudly, “way better than even the older guys in repair-shop class. But that’s just kid stuff, anyway. What I really want to know about is the high-tech stuff the console’s not supposed to . . . I mean, like the transports and all. I figure they must use some kind of energy-flux modification, right? But I can’t work out how they’d do that. I gotta go somewhere I can find out all that stuff, Aunt Ruth! Why don’t you take me back to space with you? Please?”
I looked down at his eager face, at the ridiculous, freckled nose, the outlandish glasses, and the absurdly wiry hair, but I didn’t feel like laughing. I touched his shoulder and made my voice as gentle as I could. “David, you don’t understand. It’s not just Poindros. It’s everywhere. The cybers don’t tell us those kinds of things. They’re Taboo on the other worlds, too. And it’s dangerous to try to find out.”
“But . . . dangerous, what do you mean? You’re crazy!” He jerked away from me. “You’re lying, just like the rest of them. You just don’t want me to go! But you’ll see. I’ll find out. I’m gonna be a spacer!” He flung himself off the steps and ran away into the night.
A bright chain of colored lights winked out of the darkness from the direction he’d gone, following the route of the monorail. They curved and snaked toward me, a submerged glow flowing through the dark field, but all I could hear was the restless breeze.
“Just about time. Give me a hand with this rope, Ruth?” It was Joshua leaning over the porch rail.
“Oh. Sure.” I straightened and stepped down into the light from the bobbing lantern, turning to look up at him.
“Marda wants this—Ruth?” He broke off, his mouth hanging open. “Blazes! For a second there, I thought . . .” He shook his head and grinned. “Hit me with a heat wind if you don’t look like a gal tonight, Ruthie! Come on.”
I helped him spread the plaited straw rope Marda had interwoven with papery blue wildflowers into a loose circle around the largest fan tree. He stepped back to admire it. “There! Looks real pretty. Just like she did for our binding party.”
“That was only four years ago, wasn’t it?”
“Yep. Glad Peter’s binding in, I missed him.” Peter was one of Joshua’s childhood friends. “And we can sure use the help in the fields.”
I picked up the traditional copper lantern to hand him. “Then you don’t mind having a little less of Marda already?” I spoke without thinking.
He paused in the act of hanging the unlit lantern from the lowest bough, giving me the old look of incomprehension. “You always did say the darnedest things, Ruth.”
He grinned and waved as Marda and Thomas appeared with the children. There was a faint murmur of voices beneath the wind as the lights flowed toward us through the field. David came pelting out of the dark, taking his place with us in the family circle and proclaiming breathlessly, “They’re coming!”
Then in a swirl of wind and bobbing lanterns and music they burst out of the night. The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after. Amongst them were the maidens playing with timbrels.
The Book of Words came alive in a riot of voices, ringing bells, and swirling skirts as the women, singing and playing their instruments, scattered into the yard. Horns and flutes took up the tune of the binding song, and the rich voices of the matrons followed them. Children swarmed into the yard and formed a circle, hands clasped as they turned and joined the song in a merry round. Deep bass tones filled in as the children spun faster in their bright colors, and the men broke out of the night, bellowing their song and pulling the flower-and-bell-laden wagon to a stop at the edge of the lights.
The dark-haired young man sitting on top grinned sheepishly and stood. A cry of welcome rose from the throng.
Bells and horns and tambourines tumbled into the racket, and the dancing circle exploded into a rush of bodies to surround the wagon. A cheer went up as the men hoisted the groom onto their shoulders and carried him once around the yard, trailing the excited crowd of children. They set him on his feet before the family circle, and everyone fell back in an expectant hush.
Peter, the white groom sash tied in its complicated knot around his waist, touched his hands to his heart and then held them out to Marda. He remained silently standing, his eyes sparking as they fixed on her.
She smiled, and I understood his ardent look. She was the perfection of Poindran womanhood as she stood poised in her pale-blue gown among the excited crowd, small and delicate and rounded, smooth porcelain tinted with soft hues beneath a dark crown of hair interwoven with a blue ribbon.
“Welcome, Peter.” Her low voice fell into the hush. Thomas and Joshua echoed her.
Two small boys came forward from the crowd, walking with nervous care as if afraid they might drop the thin sheaf of grain and the lighted lamp they gave into Peter’s hands. He walked slowly toward us.
As Marda reached out her hand to guide him over the plaited rope, Joshua took the sheaf and Thomas reached up to light the copper lantern from the flame of Peter’s lamp. The underside of the rustling leaves lit up in a bright green canopy overhead.
Marda and Peter turned outward to the guests, raising their clasped hands, and a roar of approval met them.
A young man burst from the throng in a series of handsprings across the dirt yard. A tumbling knot of his friends followed, tossing and catching each other as their strong bodies flashed in arcs above the ground, honed by their work high in the windtowers. I caught an eager breath as I watched their play, the springing forms launched by quick arms and caught by others, the exuberant leaps through windy air. Around the lithe figures a great spinning wheel seemed to take shape, tower arms rising into the wind and sun, catching a gleam of holding lines as Joshua and I counted out the rhythm of the cycle and launched ourselves from the arm into a flying leap for the next rising spoke.
Freedom in the high air . . . I sighed as the young men took their last springs backward and the crowd rushed in to engulf us.
The night was a blur of laughing faces, music, bobbing lights and shadow, and skirts swirling in the dust of the rowdy festival dances. I took my proper place behind the refreshment table, cutting cakes and pouring juice for the matrons who came in curious flocks. I pretended not to notice their shifting glances, the whispered conferences, the slight hesitations before they accepted food from the hands of a spacer.
I tried to imitate Marda’s gracious smile and not see the young bachelors gathered by the mead barrel, laughing and throwing looks my way and daring each other to talk to me.
“Go on, Luke, you—” A brown-haired young man was pushed away from the laughing group.
“Hey! Blast you!” He whirled in a cloud of dust to grapple the arms that had pushed him. Amid shouts and jeering, a wrestling, struggling knot of sun-browned bachelors writhed across the dirt and knocked over the mead barrel, sending it rolling toward the dancers and leaving a moist, pungent trail behind it.
“By the Founder—!”
“Merciful cybers, what’s gotten into them?”
The matrons fluttered back in shock and the music rattled to a stop, the dancers turning in bewilderment. As the dust settled, Joshua and Thomas strode through the silence to disentangle the contentious young men.
“Here, now, you young pups!” Thomas took two by the back of their unembroidered bachelor vests. “What’s got into you?”
Joshua separated two more who were rolling and thrashing through the dust. “If’n you can’t handle your mead, then don’t drink with the men!”
A pale flutter of blue drifted through the milling crowd, and behind it the music rose again into the night. The dancers resumed their circular patterns. Marda moved gracefully from matron to matron, drawing them away to help her unwrap and display the gifts brought by the guests. But I still stood isolated by a circle as plain as the family’s flowered rope. The matrons shook their heads as they moved off, and even above the wind and music I caught snatches of words. “Whatever are they thinking?”
“Inviting a spacer to bring more trouble! As if we haven’t had enough! You know what they say about them.”
“It’s not fitting. Why, just look at her face, and you can see what sort she is! Probably one of those . . .”
I busied myself tidying the table and helping Joshua and Thomas put the cups to rights near the rescued barrel.
“You’re not going to get away with it, you know.”
Startled, I looked up, and then up the husky height of the stranger into the snap of very blue eyes. “What?” Had they found me out already?
He winked, and a humorous smile animated his pleasantly homely face. “Prettiest gal here, and not dancing! Would you do me the honor, Mistress?” He held out his arm.
“Oh!” I hesitated, seeing the faces still staring at me across the yard. I raised my chin. “Thank you, I will.” The stares followed as he walked me across the yard and the music announced a festival dance. I held my back straight, my lips in a careful smile.
But my partner grinned and winked as the music swelled, and I couldn’t help joining his laughter as his large hands caught me around the waist and swung me into the opening twirl. His exuberance was irresistible, and all the dancers smiled, jumping with one will into the flowing circular patterns. I dove recklessly into the passing line, weaving and brushing the twisting bodies, laughing and peering through the gold-lighted haze of rising dust, slapping the palm of my returning partner, spinning, then away again, gasping into the quickening beat of drums. Then he was back, that great grin, and up! My head swept the night air and my skirts flared in a gleaming circle around and around in a bright blur of light and laughter.
His big hands guided me gently through the settling dust, and he smiled. “I thank you, Mistress.” He glanced up at the night sky and back to me, winking again. “Give my regards to the stars next time you’re out that way.”
I stood watching after the broad back of his embroidered vest, then slowly smiled. I nodded and threaded my way through the noisy flock to the deserted house.
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