"It's almost enough to make you think the Foundationists have a point," said the farmer to the monk.
The monk looked out across the fields of grain and rootplants; despite all their hopes when the rains fell in torrents during that growing season, the water had vanished again and left the crops stunted and small. Field-hands were moving among them, gleaning everything with practiced movements, making the most of the small harvest-- stunted roots could be left to grow, but the grain had to come in ready or not, or it would die in the cold-dry and rot where it stood. The young stuff was hard and bitter-- had to be stewed to a pulp and baked into flat egg-cakes instead of being used for lighter fare.
Both of them had been eating egg-cakes since they were children; their father talked about having enough raised bread to last all winter, good grain, he said, but that had been before the prairie dried to desert, when they were both small and could barely remember.
"Nothing is going to convince me that the Foundationists have a point," the monk said.
"I did say almost," said the farmer, rolling her eyes. "As if our family would-"
"It's not a question of family." L'da gave her sister--biologically speaking-- a withering look. As a monk of the faith, every Eutermesan woman was professionally speaking her sister, but she reserved the more acidic edge of her religious feelings for the ones that had grown up with her and could handle it. "Nothing in our faith promises that there will be freedom from hardship."
"Yes, but at least the Church promises to do something about it."
"You'll pardon me if I don't think 'dying' is much of a solution."
"Well, it's not as if I do, either-- I'm only saying-- oh, no." The small, quiescent bundle wrapped around L'lla's chest became less quiescent, abruptly, letting out a little wail and beginning to squirm. "Oh, look what you've done."
"All things in their cycle. Including waking and sleeping," L'da said loftily. "Isn't that right, little one?" she cooed to the bundle, squirming arms and a sleepy face just distinguishable from the folds of blue shawl.
"If you're going to be philosophical about it, you hold her," L'lla said, and-- much more gently than her tone suggested-- extracted her daughter from the sling.
"I will. Come to Aunt L'da, little dear. Your mother is being silly and very heretical. Yes she is. Oh, there's a little chick," L'da fussed, tucking the baby against her shoulder, where she promptly turned the deep gold-grey of L'da's habit. After a moment's serious deliberation, the infant started trying to get hold of a fold of cloth and stuff it in her mouth.
"Early out of the shell, early to grasping. You must be proud."
"Early to everything," L'lla said sourly. "She can't crawl yet, but she's trying. She rolls everywhere and then falls asleep and it's nearly impossible to find her once she's settled. Thank goodness she can't manage patterns yet, we've had to put rugs everywhere just so we can see her."
"She's very talented."
"Tell me she's a blessing and I'm going to crack you across the skull," L'lla warned direly. "I know she's a blessing, but she's a blessing that let her father and me get less than a quarter night's sleep last night and it's not as if I don't have a farm to run as well. Her brother wasn't this much trouble, Foundation my witness. And if this winter is as unnaturally cold as the last one, we have to start covering the roots soon as the festival is done."
"I know you know. It's all right. I'll watch her a while. Come back to the fire, L'lla, stop sulking. Your workers know what they're doing. The harvest won't be any bigger for you staring at it."
L'lla grumbled, but she came.
They passed the reed-woven coops with the cattle scratching and squabbling over insects in the sand. Their scales were already thickening for the winter-- the spring shed would yield heavy, hard leather, useful but not delicate. That would be another complaint for their father, another round of 'in my day the winters were milder and the water was plenty and the cattle's winter skins were soft as woven grain-tassel', and so on and so forth...
All things in their cycles. Including the old complaining that it wasn't like it used to be when they were young, L'da thought, philsophically.
Past the barns, the sandstone doors leading down into the food-cellars, where workers streamed in and out like ants with the harves; past the food-cellars and into the rings of smaller outbuildings around the grand old farmhouse, chiseled sandstone looming above smaller stone-and-reed buildings like a mother Oroog doting over her pups. And in the ring, the reed-woven pavilions of the harvest festival, men and women in beads and their best clothes all busy with something, and a bonfire in the middle, smoking fiercely and stinking of wet desert plants that all the pressing and sun-drying in the world couldn't quite strip of moisture, sweet with dry herbs and grasses.
'When I was a boy, the bonfire was all of wood, and there were enough trees that even the poorest families could have a charcoal fire', her father sighed in her head.
L'da couldn't imagine a wood fire--the remaining trees were too precious. The stink of burning fat-leafed plants meant harvest to her. She would miss it if it were gone. And in these days when not everyone could afford to burn for the celebration, all the big land-owning families had opened their doors to those of the lower orders-- a fifth-order family might lack the skill or ambition for much luxury, but that didn't mean that they should starve or lack for society. More strangers this year; families with older clothes, patched, because the tasseled grain was as susceptible to lack of water as anything and new fabric was getting costly.
She should see about having the family patch more, and make sure they weren't buying out more than their share of what the weavers were putting out.
There were real Oroog, not at all metaphorical, bustling about the tables and leaving ridges in the sand; come to trade sweet roots and grubs of strange providence and piles of loose ore and precious stone-- in exchange they got egg-cake and pots of fermented mash, as well as the services of the blacksmith's apprentice filing down their claws while the jeweler's journeymen brushed out their thick coats and oiled them with a pungent salve that kept parasites at bay.
There would be no pups at the celebration, though; Oroog brooded in winter, in the deep warm places, fed their children on their own gathered roots and slept through the worst of child-rearing, as they told L'da cheerfully. Well, perhaps they deserved to-- imagine having a handful of living, squirming children inside you. Bless them and the great variety of life under Foundation, as horrifying as it sounded.
(But once born the pups were round, naked and helpless, a bit like Eutermesan babies, even if they were all stuck as some alarming mottled pink-and-brown pattern and their skin was so soft and heartbreakingly delicate. They were terribly sweet, sleepy little things, and the few occasions L'da had been privileged down into a den to meet a family she had been charmed right out of her plates. Bless them indeed.)
"The harvest festival won't get any bigger for you staring at it," L'lla said primly, and L'da smiled beneficently as if she hadn't been caught scale-picking and swept into the thick of things.
A monk had duties of her own; others of the faith were here, of course, priests and monks from the surrounding villages, but as a daughter of the host family, she was expected to shoulder most of the burden. She settled by the fire, under a pavilion with the sigil of the faith woven into it, and greeted all the new families and the old ones-- some shy, to greet a daughter of the first order but warming to her smile and reassured by her habit and her niece playing between her feet and covering her with sand when she squalled to be picked back up.
She played host to herds of squirmy new hatchlings, their parents bringing her pots of each child's crushed eggshell to mix with ash from the fire; most would go back with them, for both ash and eggshell would be mixed into the earth to fertilize next year's growth. A pinch was saved for the blessing, though-- fingers wet with oil, L'da daubed the black-brown mix onto each little forehead, and gave the blessing of the Old Faith.
Between blessings, young cousins ran up and down, keeping her supplied with roasted rockfish and tiny harvest cakes, and she chatted with newcomers and old friends, keeping herself very busy until a lull in the activity left her with nothing to do but sit and watch.
No-- not just a lull; as she watched the bodies and colours of the crowd she could see that. A quiet was coming in waves. The conversations around her were muted, and she could feel discomfort in the air, passing from body to body like a shadow passing over the gathering. She gathered up her niece into her lap, frowning.
"You--come here!" she called an acolyte, a ten-summers boy in rusty brown robes, who was standing around nervously. "What's going on?"
"Don't know, Sister," he said, shrinking into his clothes.
"Well, go find out."
"No need for that," a low, burbling voice said, from around her feet. The muzzle of an Oroog popped out, followed in leisurely eruption of sand by her face and forefeet.
"Blessings, Sister," L'da said, automatically. The creature had the full, tufted coat of an expectant mother.
"Yes indeed," the Oroog said thoughtfully. "Those are what I'm here for. You've been busy. I thought while everyone was staring at the stranger you might say a prayer for my brood. But perhaps you have to go deal with him?"
"What stranger?" L'da asked, motioning the acolyte to go run and find out more.
"In white. Standing on the edge of things. I thought there might be a fight, but you don't fight, do you?"
"We do try to avoid it. White robes, is it-?"
Oh, was that how it was to be.
"Mmm yes. Everyone's avoiding him. Oh, is he one of the other ones? Your feuding ones?" the Oroog laughed low in her throat and thick ribcage.
"He's a Foundationist, yes. White for dead scales." The colour a body took on when the soul was gone; the last colour. Only in death was a person's skin unchanging. So of course the Church, zealots and obssessives all, were mad for it.
"If he were an enemy in my territory, I would run him off with my claws. When we have a friendly feud, the roots taste of copper for a year after; the earth is dark for months. But you are dear things. Never the claw. Feud, you call it. Ahmm-hmm," she chuckled again. "Is it a bad moment?"
"Absolutely not," L'da said. The Church wanted to make a show of their presence? Well, she could respect their confidence. She wasn't going to let it throw her off her stride. This house and these people were of the Old Faith, and she doubted this interloper would find converts here. "It would be my honour to bless you, Sister."
The great creature reared up further out of the soil, claws the size of L'da's fore-arm spearing into the sand as she dug out fully. Laying alongside the tent, rolling onto her side, the Oroog was longer than the pavilion was wide. Her back feet were smaller than her great front claws, but similarly webbed, similarly dangerous.
A lesson in humility, this. To this great digger, L'da and the interloper were basically the same; their faiths all but interchangeable. The Oroog took no sides; barely recognized that there was a conflict at all except inasmuch as it so disturbed the feelings of their surface-dwelling neighbors.
L'da laid her hand, still stained black with eggshell and ash, on the Oroog's lower stomach, bulging with her naked, growing young-- below the shaggy fur her skin was warm and thrumming, and L'da thought she might feel the movement of the pups.
"All things will die," she murmured. "And return to Foundation in their due course; and Foundation grants new life. Foundation's blessings on your children, who begin the cycle of life anew; for all things are reborn."
"Very nice. You have gentle hands," the Oroog said, and rolled over onto her feet. She was not much taller standing than lying on her side, but her shoulders were still at L'da's eye-level. "Thank you, little monk."
"You are always welcome, my very large Sister."
Running feet: the little acolyte was back, eyes wide as he skidded to a stop in front of the Oroog-- he went an abrupt sandy colour in his startle. Poor boy, he must not have met many before. L'da gave him a reassuring smile, nodding at him to go on.
"The Church-- they sent a man."
"Yes: so I hear," L'da coaxed.
It wasn't just the Oroog that had the boy coloured as if he wanted to melt into the ground. He was stammering in his fright.
"Sister, he's an Emancipator."
She did try to be decorous. She knew-- had known since childhood that she came from a brash line with alarmingly uncompromising selves, that she did not blend well. That her family alarmed people; could overwhelm them if they were not prepared to be thoroughly disagreed with.
So she did try, loving her people and believing in peace and the importance of harmony, to be measured in all things.
The acolyte squeaked and recoiled and she realized that she had boiled into a fury the colour of rapid water, rich, violent green-brown and probably webs of white around the eyes where she kept her anger; the scales of her arm were standing up to show their jagged edges, and touching her face she felt how it had hardened and sharpened.
"Claws after all, is it?" the Oroog said, with interest.
"No. No, Sister. All are welcome. Our faiths are not enemies," she said, lightly, and in her head counted out meditations until her skin no longer showed quite how angry she was that they had sent one of their thrice-damned pet murderers to cow her people during a day of celebration.
This would be Guidance. The local father of the upstart Church shared a... lack of compromise that she had to respect. The elders of the Church were alarmed by him, but had no reason to curb his evangelism, and would probably have trouble doing so if they tried.
"I will go," she said. "And... meet this representative that they have sent to show their ... unity with us. Be at ease, my young Brother. Go find the other members of our order and tell them that he will be made welcome and there is nothing to fear."
"Yessister." The words came out in a rush and the acolyte fled.
L'da's niece squirmed in her lap, waking up from a nap and rippling with bright reds as if she somehow sensed her aunt's turbulent mood. L'da settled herself with fondness and approval and shushed the child back to drowsily echoing the grey of her habit.
"Shall I go with you, little monk?" the Oroog asked, sounding amused enough to make L'da prickle with irritation.
"No, Sister. This is no show of strength," L'da lied, very sweetly.
She looked at the child in her arms, at the jeweled pot of ash and shell that L'lla had set by, and knew what message she would send back to the Church.
"If he tries anything, I'm going to give him back to his church with every plate cracked," L'lla said, with all the gentility and kindness characteristic of their family. Her face was dark with worry as she fussed over her baby, touching the little cheeks, stroking the brow-ridges up the skull.
The baby stared at both of them, puzzled, and only gurgled when she was passed back to her aunt.
"He won't try anything," L'da promised, snuggling the baby one-armed against her chest. "I won't let him."
"I'm only saying." L'lla squared her shoulders. She didn't leave all the work on the farm to her field-hands; the sound of her plates and scales rolling into place over her muscled back was like a succession of hammerblows under her shirt.
They were at the forefront of the crowd that had slowly abandoned the festival to watch the figure in white--a robed and hooded presence, tall, thick in the chest, broad-shouldered, very well chosen if the intent was to menace and the intent almost certainly was. There was just enough face un-obscured by the shadows of his hood to see that it probably was a 'he'-- or a 'she' with an unusually masculine chin-ridge.
The blade of his office was belted at his side, a wicked spike with a flattened diamond cross-section-- a blade useless for anything but its one office, which was to smash through thick chest-plates and plunge directly into a living heart. More frightening symbolically than otherwise-- dangerous only to the more-or-less willing Foundationists who let themselves be taken to the Church's altar-- but a nasty piece of work all the same.
L'da strolled out to meet him as if she didn't notice it, baby in one arm, her other arm by her side, hand in a fist.
She could see more features as she got closer-- almost definitely a man, now, and younger than she'd expected, somehow. His eyes were in shadow, but she could see them widen, and fixate on the child.
She'd confused him. Her mouth curled up into a satisfied smile that she eased into a more friendly one.
"Welcome, Brother," she said. "What brings you to our fire this harvest?"
"I am sent by Guidance, to provide the counsel of the church to those who seek it."
Oh, very good. Solemn and humourless as a stick. Voice like a tolling bell, rhythmic and brassy.
"Then be welcome."
Whatever instructions he had been provided with, this seemed to be outside of them. She could see him groping after what to say next.
"...thank you, Sister."
"Do you come offering the rites of the church?" She asked sweetly, and then as he glanced down to the blade at his side in confusion- "Not that one." That came out rather less sweetly.
"That is-- I am not--"
"Is that all you do, then?" She gave him a polite smile. "Kill people?"
He didn't shrink back from her, but he did go very still, his face and hands just a bit paler as if he was going to try to disappear into his own robes.
"You don't know any of the blessings? The prayers?"
"I do not perform those rites."
"So the answer is no, then."
"I know the blessings," he said, and the thread of petulance in his voice was the first sign she'd seen that he had a personality and not just a list of instructions. "But I have not performed them since I took my office."
"Are you forbidden to?"
"Good," she said. "Give me your hand."
"My hand." A question, though not quite asked as a question.
"Give me your hand," she repeated, more firmly, and he stuck it out hesitantly, palm inward.
She slapped her hand and its fistful of ash and shell into his.
"Good. Now don't drop it."
He stared down at his own hand in bemusement, closing his finger over the fine black powder.
"As a show of unity, let us bless this child together in both our faiths," she said, and he almost swayed back from the command in her voice.
"Sister, I'm not -- certain that that's--"
"Are we not all the children of Foundation?" she pushed, glaring into his eyes. Not just the shadow of the hood making them look dark; they were flecked with brown, sad and deep.
"Don't you have every right to be here?" And now he was in the position of either agreeing with her or arguing with the very excuses he had no doubt been sent here under.
Because theoretically, of course, he had every right to be there. It was only unspoken what an invasion it was, what an act of aggression.
Twenty or so generations ago, there had only been one faith; to call oneself a Foundationist was a redundancy, unnecessary. All Eutermesans believed in Foundation.
But things had changed; there had been death, and omens in the stars. As the return to Foundation began to draw nigh, something stirred-- some old memory, some voice that called the priests and monks of the faith to action, to search for new meaning in old texts--
And all at once, the Church had sprung up like a desert flower from a brief, poisonous rain. The Church of the Foundation, claiming Foundation's right over life and death to itself, claiming the duty to spread the word of it, fixated on the next life over the one at hand.
To outsiders used to war, to blood-- even to the Oroog who knew them best-- it seemed as if nothing had changed. The Church and the faith-- the Old Faith, as it had begun to be called, then-- tolerated each other with cold civility. Neighbor did not turn on neighbor, family on family, and there was only the faintest distance and a private understanding that trusts were not what they had once been-- you had to be a Eutermesan to feel how much they were a people cracked in two.
L'da stared down the Emancipator across the deepest schism that the Eutermesan people had ever known. He dropped his gaze.
So Guidance had made an overt move to bring the presence of the Church into the believers of the Old Faith? Well, let this executioner of his come back to him and tell him how little they were impressed.
"Rusty on the blessings, are you? How long have you been an Emancipator?" she asked, in the face of his silence.
Now she was the one surprised. He would barely have been into manhood-- would have just been out of the last full shed and settling into his grown plates. Barely out of childhood, to be handed the blade?
Her niece let out a little squawk, not liking the odd tension and really not liking being neglected. L'da took a breath and looked down at the child.
"Right. I'll start us off, then." She reached out and took the Emancipator's wrist.
"All things are of the Foundation," she opened. He opened his hand akwardly, and she smeared his palm over the baby's brow, thick ash outlining every ridge and scale. L'lla was going to make her do all the laundry that the baby stained tonight, she could feel it in her blood.
"Now, how does it go from there, for your people-?"
"All things are of the Foundation," he repeated, finding certainty in what he must have learned by rote. "The Foundation is truth, and the Church is the truth of Foundation; and all things are of the Church. All things must die and return to Foundation; in Foundation is the next life. The Church is the truth of Foundation, and in the Church is the next life."
'All things must die.' Must. As if they would forget if the Church weren't around to remind them to. The Emancipator caught her eye and wisely cut off there.
"All things will die," L'da recited, making him keep her gaze again. "All things return to Foundation in their course. Foundation is the truth and to the truth we return when we are called. We do not hurry the old man from his bones or the baby from her egg. This is the faith of Foundation."
He managed to muster a glare, which pleased her. She'd begun to be afraid he'd simply let her roll him over.
"All things will die-"
"And be reborn." That part was apparently the same in both traditions, and they fell into a chorus only broken by a different word choice here and there.
"Foundation's blessings on this child, who begins the cycle of life anew; for all things are reborn. Foundations blessings on those things that sleep and die in winter, for this child is the symbol of their rebirth. All things will-"
"Must-" he broke cadence stubbornly-
"Die, and be brought to new life. Blessed be this child, the hand of Foundation."
She let go of his wrist-- she'd smeared ash all over it and all over the sleeve of his white robe too-- but his hand lingered very gently on the baby's forehead. She could feel L'lla's eyes boring into him from the crowd without looking. Apparently he could feel them as well, because he looked past L'da and carefully took his hand away, wiping it unconsciously on his robe and then looking down a second later in dismay at the black streak.
"Was that so hard?" L'da asked, smiling again, trying to maintain her irritation. His awkwardness was disarming, and now that he wasn't scowling and serious he didn't seem to know what to do with his face. His eyes flicked to the crowd, to the baby, to her, and then-- cautiously, imitating her like a child still learning its manners, he mirrored her smile.
That was unexpectedly charming. And rather sad. He was young, but not that young-- and a church official. And yet, it was as if he didn't know himself at all, outside of the confines of his office.
She made another decision, then.
"Now, come have something to eat, and tell me all about how Foundationist rites are different than ours."
"I haven't been to a harvest festival since I was a child."
No, if he kept sounding shy, she was going to be genuinely charmed and she refused to be charmed by an Emancipator. Simply unthinkable.
"Oh, really. Your church can't be that dead-set against celebration," she said, scowling. That thing about celibacy was probably also true. Apparently readying yourself for the next life involved having as little pleasure in this one as possible. What a bunch of miserable... nevermind.
"No-- no, other monks do attend, but it was understood what my role in the church would be since I was young. I'm Guidance's son; there was-- really only one position I could wind up in."
Foundation forfend. Guidance's son, didn't that explain everything? "I'm sorry," she said, without thinking. And then: "Pardon me."
"You know, I don't know if I'm going to." The Emancipator's mouth slanted sideways, before he lost his nerve and backed off from returning her needling. "I mean. I--"
"It's all right. Think it over," she said. "Have some roasted rockfish. Come on. And take this one, she's squirming."
The look of horror on his face as she passed him the baby was all his own. He held the child as if afraid she would shatter-- she went bone white with mottled black patches instantly and started patting at him with clumsy little hands
"Um. Um. I think that woman's going to kill me. This is an awful idea."
"It's all right, come on, L'lla won't hurt you really," she said, cheerfully dragging him back towards the crowd.
Something about how horrified a very large person could be to hold a very small child was universally comforting-- the crowd was watching the baby, now, not the blade hanging at his side, highlights of amusement playing over their skin now that the threat was apparently past and nobody needed to blend into the nearest large object. L'lla did look as if she wanted to murder the man, but settled down to quiet loathing once her baby was back safely in her arms.
"The state of her clothes, L'da," she hissed. "Your holiness is going to be devoutly washing these tonight."
"Yes, I thought I might be."
"And make him take that damned thing off his belt."
"Are you allowed to take that thing off your belt-?" she asked their guest, because L'lla had pitched her voice to carry and he had certainly heard.
"Uh, yes. As long as I bring it back."
"Girl-" she called to another acolyte who was milling around underfoot. "Run off to the weaver and get me a mat to wrap this in. It will be kept in our pavilion and no-one is to touch it."
"I hope you know what you're doing," muttered a monk from the crowd beside her, an old man-- D'van-- from a village across the ridge.
"I do all this in the spirit of peace, Brother," L'da said innocently.
Guidance's own fault if he didn't like his face being rubbed in the spirit of peace.
"Come on-- you," she broke off, realizing that she didn't know the name of the man she was hauling around by the arm. "I suppose we've neglected introductions."
"-yes. We have." Well, he hadn't noticed either until now, so no harm done.
"I'm L'da, of the first order, daughter of this household."
"I am the son of him who is Guidance for the village by the dry pool, a hatchling of the third order," the Emancipator said, and then almost as an afterthought- "My name is C'rizz."
"It is my pleasure that I meet you, C'rizz."
"It is my pleasure that I meet you, L'da of the first order," said C'rizz quietly. He was still solemn and mostly humourless, but now not frightened or angry-- his voice was soft, his dark eyes honest. She was rather surprised to realize that he meant it.
...she was beginning to be rather worried that she'd meant it, too.