Tau bit deeper with her paddle, and green water hushed beneath the oka hull. Nhia sat in the bow, as serene as when they had pushed off from Ia that sunrise to a farewell ululation. Her fingertips trailed in the smooth ocean, eyes unfocused on the fins that kept time beneath the oka or searching further forward to their destination five sunrises hence.
Tau fell into a paddling cadence, and Nhia’s sweet harmony twined thoughtlessly around her bark-rough voice. Nhia’s easy joy sang at odds with the impending rise of the Stone Moon.
Death awaited them at the end of their journey.
Tau risked glances at Nhia’s bared breasts. Like many Stone Maidens, Nhia gathered sun to her as she did eyes. Tau reasoned her hands would fit Nhia’s small and pert breasts, though her gourd remained empty when it came to touching a Stone Maiden. She had to be content with looking. Nhia was unashamedly content to let her look, needing little prompting to show off her kiho-nut brown skin, unusual light grey eyes, and virility; she was the only one in a generation born on Ia under a Stone Moon.
Tau resented her own breasts. Her chest ached, and not from exertion. Kah, she sighed to herself, twitching her keenly muscled upper arms in an effort to find a more comfortable position for her heavy breasts; the stiff, new kiho fabric wrap, a gathering gift from chieftess Lau’Ia’Maa, rubbed them tender. At least I will get through the gathering before I am indisposed for this rotation of the great keel.
The Ia-mother’s figure floated in Tau’s mind; her heavy breasts, striped by sun, time and nurturing, and her tattooed lips forming the parting words which had sent Tau off with a grin and roll of the eyes. “Everyone is encouraged to ride their own wave, but you can’t ignore the plethora of enough potential seed mates awaiting you at the gathering, Tau’hene.”
With her gaze straying from the naumu-like water to the figure in the bow, Tau smiled and offered a little kia and curse to virility as she tried to pretend the heat between her thighs had only to do with the sun. She fell into daydream, imagining the child begat from her seed mingled with Nhia’s.
The conceit couldn’t last. If Nhia was allowed to survive the Stone Moon gathering, her rare seed would be in demand. A maiden would never grant a keel-woman, a common carver and moon-gazer, the opportunity to procreate with her, Tau decided with a long kah of regret.
Both women scented the change in the sea before they saw the shoals of the reeflet. Tau chanted off the fifth verse of the travelers From Ia cadence and discovered they had missed a sand bar. She added a lilt to the verse as a way to notate the shifting geography.
Nhia balanced easily and eagerly, an image of Ia On The Mountain, one foot braced against the bow head. “I am starving. I have been looking forward to this all morning.”
Tau grunted as she aimed for the narrow opening in the oblong reef. The Water Moon tide had just turned, and the oka shot between the gap in the subsurface rocks. The reeflet was empty of the usual fisher folk spearing peuru worms and gathering mollusks, in respect for the passing Stone Maidens.
“You prepare that fermented wiro-fruit juice, I will be right back.”
Tau had to look away as Nhia stripped off her wrap and slipped over the edge of the oka, a shining eel.
She returned with two peuru still twisting on the end of her spear and a handful of link-shells. Oblivious to the way Tau’s eyes drank in her ocean-dusted skin and dark ropes of hair that clung to her throat, Nhia carefully manipulated the oozing orange innards out of the peuru with her thigh knife onto a bark shell, expertly avoiding the poison-tipped spines. With a flick of her knife tip, she threw the now-limp worm casings back into the water to be returned to the circle of coral life. The hopeful wind-dancing witi birds knew better than to make a dive for the dangerous husks.
Unable to wait, the women licked the sweet gizzard off their fingers, humming in pleasure.
“Lau’maa believes peuru paste is good for baby making,” Nhia said as they watched their meal turn a deep sun red as it steeped in the wiro juice. Still dangling over the edge of the oka, she kicked her feet in the water. “Maybe I will be lucky this time.”
Tau prodded Nhia with a glance as sharp as the tip of her spear. “This is only your second Stone Moon of fertility. You were too young the last time.”
“Other islands would disagree.” Nhia’s kicking turned the oka in a circle around the rock anchor Tau had thrown in.
“Ia is not other islands, nor any other mother,” Tau growled, cracking a link-shell with the handle of her hip knife and slurping at its waiting treasure.
“Do you remember the last Stone Moon?” Nhia asked, discarding an empty link-shell into the water.
“Of course,” Tau replied. “I may have been young and a little preoccupied with lesser things, but one never forgets their first Stone moonrise.”
Nhia uttered a non-committal grunt and swung back into the oka, enfolding herself in her brightly painted wrap. She then pointed at the freshest carvings along the inner bulwarks of their vessel. “Lesser things? Do you count your sisters and cousins and cadences lesser than moon-gazing now?”
Tau’s face tightened beneath its already fine crust of salt. She scooped up a finger-full of peuru paste, indicating its readiness. “That is not what I meant.”
Nhia laughed and punched her lightly in the bicep. “I fathom, you tide-washed fool. You have always been an easy tease.”
“I wish you would refrain.”
“We all wish for many things, but some are not destined to come to us in any good time.”
Startled by the wistfulness of Nhia’s tone, Tau’s glance was not quick enough to catch her out. Nhia’s interest had been captured by a darting school of coral fish.
They passed the rest of the afternoon in polite but taut snatches of conversation before putting in for the night at an uninhabited islet. They made camp above the tide lines near the smattering of kiho trees, Tau coal-roasting the moon fish Nhia had deftly speared from the shallows.
After sucking the husk of a spicy wiro-fruit dry, the quiet tension washed away with the tide as they laughed and pointed out stray pips and scales around each others mouths.
“Why did you volunteer to be my keel-woman?” Nhia asked, running her sinuous tongue around her lips to capture the leftovers before stretching her long neck to stare up at the rising Blood Moon as it kissed shoulders with the setting Water Moon.
Tau had to look away. Choosing an empty hardwood slate and a sharp, shaved naumu stone, she judged the angles of the celestials and made quick, deft cuts. “One does not volunteer to be a keel-woman at a gathering. It is an honor to be chosen.”
“Do not take me for some storm-tossed flotsam,” Nhia growled, more teasing than angry. “A chieftess’s daughter comes with privileges.”
“We are all daughters of the chieftess—”
Nhia’s inelegant snort cut off Tau’s protest. “You in more ways than one. I fathom you try very hard not to be, but you are her favorite.”
Tau frowned at her slate; the simple pictographic of the moons, she had cut accurate and neat. Koro would be pleased. “You seem to fathom more about me than I do. I am neither the oldest nor the youngest, nor the most intelligent, hard-working, nor fecund.”
“Why speak so ill of yourself?” Nhia scolded, sounding much like Lau’maa in that moment, and Tau bit her lips to hide her own smile. “Gazer Koro would disagree. At least the intelligent and hard-working part.”
Nhia made a crude gesture, and they giggled in unison at the thought of the elderly gazer working on the fecundity part. When Nhia gasped out, complete with funny faces and more hand gestures, that she’d seen Koro sneaking into old kiho-weaver Maka’s wari, they fell about in further fits.
When they sobered, Nhia hugged her knees and stared at Tau until Tau gusted a sigh that set sparks flying from the banked fire.
“Perhaps I did suggest to Koro that it would be an excellent chance to document the rising of the first Stone Moon in twelve storm seasons by traveling further to the south and west,” Tau explained.
“And even if that had not made enough of an impression on Lau’maa, it would have given you the chance to show off your superior carving skills. You would gain your very own vessel, even if you were not chosen from the five keel-women candidates.” Nhia’s teeth glinted gold in the firelight.
Now it was Tau’s opportunity to snort. “Superior? Hardly.”
Nhia paused, as if marshalling another of her peuru-sting retorts, but instead she lowered her voice and said, “Your oka is very beautiful. You gave a whole new life and meaning to that wiro-leaf trunk. You must chant me a cadence of its carving some time soon.”
A whisper of impending death raised a ripple on Tau’s skin. She fumbled for another dismissal but finally mumbled her thanks.
It was only after she had settled down in a sun-warmed, grass-lined sand hollow to silently track the path of stars did she ponder what had gone unsaid. Had Nhia guessed at Tau’s feelings, or had she accepted her effect on everyone as a given? Stone Maidens were allowed some arrogance, Tau thought; they had little choice in so many other things.
The two of them played a game with quick glances, Nhia poking at the fire. Tau pondered whether she saw an invitation in the crinkle of Nhia’s eyes. But then it was gone as Nhia hummed a bawdy drinking song and looked away.
Tau attacked her star carvings. Nhia, her Ia-sister, her friend, did not suffer pity gladly.
“You do not believe in the sacrifice.”
Tau’s head jerked up as she snapped out of a light doze. She rubbed her eyes against the mid-afternoon glare off the water and tested her thoughts before her thick tongue got the best of her.
Nhia paddled on, face impassive despite the sure-growing ache in her shoulders. Tau had seen her five year-old blood sister Mai’a with a better technique, but Nhia had insisted on learning something from the experience, even if it was about the formation of blisters.
Tau washed the sleep fuzz from her mouth with a swill of fresh water from Nhia’s handmade gourd set to double as a gathering gift. “What makes you say that?”
“You have not asked me to turn around and save myself,” Nhia replied, matter-of-fact. “It is traditional, you fathom.”
“I fathom.” Tau splashed some ocean water on her hot face and looked off to the horizon, as if searching for the small atoll that would be their evening camp.
The second day of their journey had been going well until that point. With only a little prompting, Nhia had helped Tau create her oka-building chant. Nhia’s sweet voice and her ability to choose just the right words made the felling, hollowing, and carving of the single wiro-leaf trunk over a span of two seasons sound quite the epic feat.
Now she had gone and spoiled what had been a pleasant day on the water by bringing up politics.
“Are you going to ask me turn around? To plead for my life, like all good keel-women are supposed to do?” Nhia stopped paddling and flashed a grin over her shoulder to take the salt-sting out of her words.
Tau made a face and gestured at the paddle, though in truth she did not mind the slower pace Nhia’s efforts set. They were making excellent time and still had three days before the gathering began. Nhia set her face with a patient squint—another gesture eerily reminiscent of Lau’maa, though she was not a blood daughter of the chieftess—as she waited for Tau’s answer.
“Then I must not be a good keel-woman.” Tau busied her eyes and hands by searching amongst the food sacks for a strap of dried eel.
“On the contrary,” Nhia argued, dipping her paddle; the boat slipped through the water more or less smoothly. “You fathom the sea like no-one on Ia, and can chant the traveling cadence word-perfect. You can smell bad weather coming before I even see the clouds on the horizon. You paddle all day without complaint. And you are very pleasant company.”
Tau snorted at the last as she handed over a hunk of eel. “The sun must be cooking your brains under all that hair,” she teased. “Perhaps you should put a hat on.”
Nhia swotted away the favorite childhood insult like she would a salt-fly. “Answer the question.”
Tau stretched eel skin from her teeth until it snapped. “I have forgotten.”
Now it was Nhia’s turn to kah. “You are treating me like flotsam again, sister.” The emphasis on endearment was not entirely affectionate. “I see how you simply mouth the oldest of the cadences at island gatherings and flush red when the elders praise Ia’s exploits. I hear the words you substitute during Blood or Water or Stone tellings when you think no one notices.”
Tau’s flushed, her cheeks and ears as hot as bad sunburn cut with salt crust.
Nhia continued, “So you are not a traditionalist. That is fine by me. We can not let our future daughters and sisters drown beneath the tides of the future.”
Tau choked on something between a cough and a laugh. “Storm-washed sky, what do you mean?”
“Do you listen to anything your sisters talk about around the fires late at night?” Nhia kah’d, which became quick grunts as she pushed the oka forward by the power of her anger. “Or is your head forever up in the sky?”
“The heat of the fire pit makes me sleepy,” Tau said cryptically, shading her eyes. Another oka had shimmered out of the haze ahead of them.
Nhia sunk her paddle deeper in the water. Tau picked up the spare paddle and joined in the effort.
“Then embers will be lost in the dark, and the ash will be scattered on cold ground,” Nhia replied just as cryptically between grunts.
The other oka contained travelers heading for the gather: a Stone Maiden named Kai’Lei and her keel-woman Keke, from a closely grouped set of islands to sunsetward called Lai’Lei. Tau enjoyed the distraction of throwing chants back and forth between the boats. By the end of the day, five more okas had joined the procession. As sunset cast its wine-colored net, the travelers lashed their boats together and made the best of a night in the doldrums.
Everyone shared the tasks all travelers had had drummed into them from the moment they could chant: someone brought out a large clay brazier, for cooking and cheer; another produced a seven-string luuk, fingering clever chants for each of the evening’s activities; someone else set up a fresh water still, weighting a polished piece of kiho fabric between a folding frame.
Tau, as she erected their sleeping frame in their oka, stretching a large piece battered fabric to shape, bent a surreptitious whisper into Nhia’s ear. “There’s something strange about that keel-woman from Lai’Lei.”
“Who, Keke?” Nhia had always been better with names. “Of course. He is a man.”
Tau knocked her head on a post as she shot up straight. She rubbed her head and stared open mouthed. “Fathom that!”
Nhia chuckled low in her throat as she gathered her spear, sighting down its length. “Has the wind swept your brains? You fathom what men look like.”
“Koro is different. He is, well, old. He is one of us. I do not think of him as male.”
Nhia rolled her wrap into a kawat around her hips and upper thighs before sliding into the water. Tau hitched up her own skirts and followed, squinting at the new sister-friend limned by the brazier he was setting.
“But how do I chant in front of him?” Tau asked, stroking in place. “What is he doing as a keel-woman?”
“How do you chant in front of your moon master?” Nhia sucked in air deeply, readying her lungs for a dive. “And I suspect he is more than just a keel-woman.”
Tau stared at Nhia as the dying light swallowed her. It was not like her to sound so bitter. Refreshingly sarcastic yes, but never as twisted as a loka root. “What do you mean?”
“Fathom, no? Have you not seen they only carry the essentials in their oka? Their island must be seed-rich. He is Kai’Lei’s gathering gift.”
Nhia dived to supply the repast, showing off by swimming deep and long, bursting from the water with a wriggling catch ensnared on her spear. The firelight glinted off her thick-as-night hair, and water ran rivulets along her nut-colored skin as she delivered each fish with a grinning flourish.
Tau’s worrying became boredom as the night wore on. There were no rules about not making friends with the maidens—this was the way many inter-island trade and seed-partnerships were formed—but there was an intricate weave to the relationships that Tau struggled to fathom.
Tau watched Keke across the brazier as they shared their travelers’ banquet gleaned from ocean and varying delicacies from each oka, including gourds of fermented wiro-fruit juice. She tried to make herself feel attracted to him. Male seed was often welcome in some of the more distant communities. She fuzzily tried to recall Lau’s words about men, remembering her fond tone. She still had not decided whether to go back with her gourd filled.
Keke laughed at everyone’s stories and sang sweetly, performing a nice moon-welcome hand dance as the two Sisters shimmered toward each other.
But Tau could not do it. His chest and shoulders were too wide, his hips too narrow, and he had the breasts of a man. He would not be a good handful, she mused with a little kah.
At least he was as polite as Koro, keeping his genitals tucked behind a pretty hip wrap. She knew what to do with them, but she just could not work up the mental image of doing that with him. Every time she tried to put Keke in the picture, he kept turning into Nhia. Tau finally gave up, slugged back juice, and held out her shell for more.
During the repast, Nhia’s face remained as stony as the impending moon, and her usually enthusiastic voice stayed silent.
Let her sulk, Tau mused. Perhaps a little competition for the gathering altar will rattle her wits.
With her mind tossed like a small storm-tossed oka by the wiro-juice, another thought gripped Tau which she struggled to throw off like a wet mantle: she did not want to go back to Ia alone.
Blinking away the effects of the juice and firelight, she settled into her oka’s bow for her nightly observations, comforted by the gentle slap of water and the creak and scrape of hull.
“Any sign, sky-gazer?” came a low voice, startling her once again with its strangeness. She eked out a smile as Keke clambered across rocking okas. He maintained a respectful distance.
“Look there, on the sunrise horizon.” Tau pointed her sharpened naumu. “Do you see that faint glow?”
Keke’s vigorous nod rocked the boats. “Yes! I have seen that the last few nights.”
“It is she, preparing to sail our skies and stir the seas to rapid fecundity.” Tau had to look away and make another mark on her current slate.
Tau cheeks warmed beneath the salt crust. Lau’maa laughed in her head and whispered that men were just the same as women. Koro smiled down from the Water Moon, his face as seamed as its shimmering surface.
Keke continued, his voice entwining her thoughts. “Do you still believe that Ia fished the first Stone Moon from the ocean, seeding our waters with the bounty that we enjoy today?”
“That is a strange thing to ask a gazer.” Tau chuckled. She made another mark on the inside of her hull, marking the position of a star as it winked into being.
“You fathom so many of the older chants, and you have such a nice turn of phrase,” Keke replied. “You must make a good storyteller.”
Tau grimaced. “I prefer to be as far as possible from fire-light on clear nights.”
Keke’s chuckle demanded nothing. “So it seems.”
Tau decided to take a dive. “Are you here to try and fathom me out? Find out something about Nhia?”
Keke’s full laugh was as deep and booming as a coral roller. “Prickly as a peuru, and just as to the point. I like that. Yes, I fathom I am.”
“She sings well.” Tau scratched absent-minded at the flaking salt crust on her skin.
“I can hear that.” Keke’s chuckle kept moving with the tide.
Tau paused, and then, prompted by the memory of the looks Nhia sent Keke’s way when he was not looking, she barreled on. “Nhia is fertile now.”
Keke’s mouth snapped shut like an uglyfish out of water. Ah, so he did not smell the spiciness of the wiro-leaf she chewed and the peuru coming out in her skin, Tau thought. Perhaps Koro’s anecdotes had some merit—men were not as attuned to a woman’s ripeness.
“Do not fret the knots that tie us all together under Ia’s soft gaze,” Tau assured him. “The others are not long off. Most of them will be ripe by the time the final selection of the gathering is made.”
Keke was silent for a moment. Tau thought him restrained for not questioning who of the maidens she thought would not be ready in time.
He finally looked up, his pretty dawn-green eyes lost beneath the tumble of sun lightened locks. His undemanding gaze unnerved her. “Do you ever wonder if the gathering is—”
He broke off as he slipped over the side of his oka, barely making a sound as his skin met water. “Forgive me, sister-friend, I speak out of turn.”
He finished with a kah, then pushed off in a smooth breast stroke.
“Yes, I do often wonder,” Tau said, too softly for him to hear. “More and more, these days.”
A treasure-trove of wood littered the half moon bay, but this was no mere storm debris. The finely carved hulls of many oka knocked a symphonic counterpoint to the hush of waves, pierce of ululations, and hoarse wail of shell horns. Hands fluttered with the voices and breeze. Smoke from numerous cooking fires and ceremonial braziers promised scents of mystery and delight. Skin of brown, burnished gold, ebony and copper flashed against a myriad of colored wraps and lush greenery.
The days of the gathering had been spectacle enough to warrant a hundred new chants, but the nights had truly been a wonder. As a keel-woman, Tau had little time to enjoy the pleasures of the evening. Any time left her after primping, oiling, dressing, accompanying, introducing and ego-stroking Nhia was given over to the Stone Moon.
Having escaped the fourth evening banquet and dance, Tau watched the almost-moon’s sliver shiver on the horizon. Her nightly observations were an in-held breath, shared with like-minds. This close to moon-rise, many were torn between their duties to their sisters and their gazing; for this moment she had the beach to herself.
The moment the moon breached its ocean womb—surely only two or three nights away, Tau had calculated by celestial angles—someone would die.
“There you are.”
A pair of legs as familiar as her coral-etched shins whisked out of the bushes. “The Blood Moon wanes. You should be getting your rest.”
Nhia gave an inelegant snort and plopped to the sand with the ease of the long limbed, which Tau envied. “The activities in the next wari made it a little difficult to sing to the Stone Mother.”
Tau choked off her chuckle. “If Kai’Lei is caught—”
Nhia flipped a hand. “No need to dip your oar too deep. Kai’Lei has, shall we say, been going for many long walks. I suspect she might even be sleeping on the sunriseward beach some nights.”
“He is a very popular person.”
Tau grunted and dug her naumu into the wood, skewering a star into place with more force than its luminosity required.
“He has eyes for you, you fathom?”
Tau’s chin shot up and she stared at her sister-friend defiantly.
“I can smell it on you,” Nhia said, the light from the kissing moons casting hard shadows across the usually pretty angles of her face. “You are close to your Moon. If you so wished, you could beget a welcome seed together.”
Tau used the same shadows to hide her blush. Nhia’s own fertile scent had become hard to shake. Tau’s late-night gazing excursions were also an excuse to avoid the infused air of the snug-thatched wari they shared. She often caught herself bending her face close to Nhia’s hair as she weaved in flowers, tiny shells or beach beads, prettying her for her next test.
Their closeness in fertility made Tau’s belly twinge, as if in sympathy or need. She had not decided which.
Tau could not stop a shudder, and a mischievous smile drove a dark slash across the harsh planes of Nhia’s face. “Ah, the tide is coming in now. You do not desire him.”
“Yes. No. I—” Tau heaved a great sigh and gently put down her shell and naumu. “You are leaning into the wrong wind, sister.”
“Then tell me which way it blows.”
Tau made a show of brushing sand off her newly carved shells, cutting a look at her sister-friend. Tonight, there was a layer of weariness tripping over wariness, an edge of fear along the usual knife edge of her teasing. Tau wondered if the irrelevancy of the tests imposed by the gathering elders were getting to Nhia.
During each evening’s eliminations, the elders eyes slid off Nhia just a shade too fast. She had made it this far, and yet...
No one liked to see the knife lifted the knife above someone they truly care for.
Tau crossed her arms across breasts that protested the harsh treatment. “I do not deny he would be a worthy contributor of seed to Ia’s children. However, I—” She kah’d, unable finish the thought out loud.
“You are too fertile of mind at this point in your life to carry a parasite,” Nhia finished.
Tau could not help but laugh. “There is no need to put it so crudely!”
“You get the drift.” Nhia’s teeth flashed blue white in the whispering dark.
“Lau’maa will be disappointed if I do not return fecund.” Tau’s laughter drifted with the tide that crept on dark feet up the sand.
“She will not.” The forcefulness of Nhia’s tone made Tau peer again at her sister-friend, noting the strain around her dancing eyes. “If you think that, then you fathom your mother not at all.”
Tau pulled back from the blustery force of Nhia’s new boldness.
“And besides,” Nhia continued, “you have six older sisters, all of whom have willingly shared their seed with Ia, mother bless their wombs.”
She inscribed the air with a quick circular blessing of her fingers. As Tau followed her hand-dance, Nhia grabbed Tau’s fingers and held them against her chest. Tau swallowed her sharp intake of breath.
“And there is something else, I fathom,” Nhia said, voice as rich as koca-bean soup. “Perhaps someone else.”
“I—” Tau tried to snatch away her hand, but Nhia tightened her grip and pulled her closer.
This close, Nhia’s pupils were dark moons against her golden skin. Her quickened breath smelled of sugared vilas, the rare aphrodisiac delicacy presented at dinner that evening.
“You can tell me,” Nhia whispered. “I am your sister-friend after all, am I not?”
“Yes.” Tau’s whisper faltered again.
Sand-spackled fingers brushed her cheek, and Tau closed her eyes. Words lodged in her chest as if she had been punched too hard in the fighting dance.
A heart-beat. Two.
A sweet pressure on her lips, raising the pressure in her chest to almost intolerable levels. Tau tasted salt, sand, and sugar; an embodiment of the ripe smell of her torments.
Then Nhia was gone, a slap of bushes, the rustle of sand on skin.
A beat: the hush of water.
Another: sandals on grass.
Tau looked up, hoping Nhia had returned; to apologize, to make good, to continue even though it would risk everything.
A smaller figure. Bathed in the shadows of the trees, only her moue of disappointment visible.
She turned and fled. Tau, not fathoming or caring to who she ran, gave a little kah and closed her eyes to the silvered horizon. Death, rebirth; it was life to Stone Maidens, and some would seek out their eternal glory any which way they could, even if it meant betrayal.
A Stone Maiden’s sacrifice was theirs to make; to live and die by.
Tau angled the oka stormward, her paddle biting deep as the rising sun cut naumu slivers off the water into her eyes.
She did not resist the headache. The uncountable cups of fermented wiro-fruit juice the previous night had helped dull the memory of the knife dashing across the throat of the figure positioned in ecstatic adulation across the great round stone.
The carefully carved representation of the great mother-moon had not resisted the chosen’s stain. Neither had it broken beneath the weight of portent; change simmered in the blood of the next generation of Stone Maidens, but the change had not come swift enough to belay one more needless death.
Tau glanced at the figure in the bow, crouched against the impending storm, the first of the end season, a break in the perfection that had held its breath over the gathering. With face edged with resignation but not regret, Nhia had been silent since they had cast off that morning, not even calling or chanting out to the other okas pushing for home. Tau’s heart fell as heavy and low as an anchor stone, meeting and warring with the cool ache of relief in her belly.
Kai’Lei had been the maiden to gladly meet the bite of the mother’s blade. Her final chant, the perfect combination of sweet traditional sentimentality. There had been no whisper of Nhia’s impropriety.
“I can hear your thoughts from here.”
Startled, Tau lost her grip. Before she had the chance to reform her thoughts, she had to quickly strip off and dive in to retrieve her paddle.
A smile a shade more cynical than expected greeted Tau as she heaved herself back over the edge of the oka, spluttering and cursing. Nhia quit her rearward rescue-paddling and held her own dripping paddle firmly in her lap.
“And just what do you fathom about my thoughts?” Tau pushed her hair out of her face, muttered another curse, and squeezed water out of her wrap.
“A little moon-broody there, fathom?”
“Stop pushing, or you will be swimming home.”
“That would please you.” Nhia chuckled, and Tau bit her bottom lip to arrest a smile.
“You can not fathom what would please me.” Tau straightened her back and dipped her paddle.
Instead of turning back to her contemplation of the dark horizon, Nhia displayed her teeth and throat in a laugh. “You would be surprised.”
Tau kah’d. “Stop dancing around the issue.”
Tau’s paddle clonked against wood, and she squinted at her sister-friend. Ropes of hair slapped her cheeks as Tau shook her head. “That was some final chant you sang, quite the turn-around. Nhia, I cannot fathom even where to begin.”
“Then I will make it easy.” Nhia rushed ahead like the rising wind. “I failed at the gathering, so I must return home with some set to my sails.”
Nhia cut off Tau’s placating noises with a swift flourish of her paddle.
“Let me finish. I did not come with my face entirely turned to the Stone Moon. I knew what I was singing about. The Stone mother should smile upon life, not death.”
Her jaw worked, a spasm and a swallow before she continued. “Most Maidens do not want to die. No matter what you have been led to believe. I want to do something with my time, before I take my final dive beneath the waves. I pushed Lau’maa to choosing you as my keel-woman, someone because I knew you would hold me up against a stiff wind. In your sand rough way, you are far more adept at navigating the shifting tides of fireside talk and story telling chants than I.
“Do not look at me like that. Your mother is shrewder than you fathom.” Nhia’s smile turned softer. “I also had another reason: you.”
Tau had to look away. She pretended to search the threatening horizon though she knew by smell alone how long they had to reach shelter.
“I revere life,” Nhia continued. “We are both fertile. We are ready. We are right. Let us create a child together, while we have this chance.”
Tau rubbed the calluses of one hand against the scars of the other; she could not fathom her hands being gentle enough for such a task as guiding the life of her own seed.
“I will carry the child, as I fathom you dislike the idea.”
“Sister, I cannot ask that of you.” Tau stared straight ahead, mindful of the black clouds stacking up.
“Why not? The child of our mingled seed will be intelligent, inquisitive, and beautiful.”
“But you are my friend,” Tau protested, her biceps quivering with more than physical effort.
“But you fathom I would make a terrible parent.”
Nhia kah’d and rolled her eyes. “And where is it writ that you have to parent? You have many wonderful sisters, mothers and aunties who make light work of it, in the Ia way.”
Tau tasted the bitter and spice of the idea, like fine wiro-leaf, as Nhia mouthed silently, counting, Tau realized, the heartbeats between the far-off lightning and thunder.
“I went searching for the right person to share seed,” Nhia said “but they all came up wanting compared to you. I need to take something back to Ia, to show my worth to my sisters. To them, I must make restitution for my failure.”
“You did not fail,” Tau said, paddle digging deep in her vehemence. “I will stand face to face across the fire with anyone who disagrees. You represented Ia superbly. Your trade negotiations will keep us well-prepared for many storm seasons. They will be proud of you. I am proud of you.”
“And I am proud of you.” Nhia favored Tau with a look as rich and thrilling to the senses as unpeeled koca-bean. “You go back to Koro a full prentice, your work welcomed with open hands at the great library. At least you have found your calling.”
Tau stopped paddling and uttered a soft kah. She took a deep whiff of the storm, squinting against the spitting rain, and quickly ran through the current verse of the travelers’ return chant. “Take up your paddle, woman,” she commanded gruffly. “We can make the next islet before the storm hits, if we push hard.”
Nhia’s hands flexed around the wood. “And there we can make a baby while we wait for the storm to pass?”
“We will discuss it.”
“Will we discuss how much you love me too?”
Despite the quickly dropping temperature, Nhia shucked out of her wrap. She threw back her shoulders and peeked at Tau from beneath dripping lashes. Her skin darkened with each large drop of rain.
“You have ideas as big as Ia’s Search For the Ends of the Ocean.”
Nhia chanted the first few notes of the cadence, adding a wistful lilt that sung of unseen coastlines and faces. “Some ideas, and dreams, are best when shared.”
“Ia preserve me from baby-foolish sisters!” With a wry shake of her head, Tau set her shoulders straining against the rising waves and wind.