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The Snow Queen
By Joan D. Vinge
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1980 Joan D. Vinge
All rights reserved.
Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one. Water is drawn up from the shining plate of the sea and showers down again in petulant squalls. Clouds pass like emotion across the fiery faces of the Twins, and are shaken off, splintering into rainbows: dozens of rainbows every day, until the people cease to be amazed by them. Until no one stops to wonder, no one looks up....
"It's a shame," Moon said suddenly, pulling hard on the steering oar.
"What is?" Her cousin Sparks ducked down as the flapping sail filled and the boom swept across over his head. The outrigger canoe plunged like a wingfish. "It's a shame you aren't paying attention. What do you want to do, sink us?"
Moon frowned, the moment's mood broken. "Oh, drown yourself."
"I'm half-drowned already; that's the trouble." He grimaced at the water lapping the ankles of their waterproof kleeskin overboots, and picked up the bailer again. The last squall had drowned his good nature, anyway, she thought, along with the sodden supply baskets. Or maybe it was only fatigue. They had been at sea on this journey for nearly a month, creeping from island to island along the Windward chain. And for the last day they had been beyond the Windwards, beyond the charts they knew, striking out across the expanse of open ocean toward three islands that kept to themselves, a sanctuary of the Sea Mother. Their boat was tiny for such far ranging, and they had only the stars and a rough current-chart of crisscrossed sticks to guide them. But they were children of the Sea as truly as they were the children of their birth- mothers; and because they were on a sacred quest, Moon knew that She would be kind.
Moon watched Sparks's bobbing head as the pinwheeled binary of Tiamat's double sun broke the clouds. The sudden brightness kindled flame in the red of his hair and his sparse, newly starting beard, and threw the soft-edged shadow of his slim, muscular body down into the bottom of the boat. She sighed, unable to keep hold of her irritation when she looked at him, and reached out tenderly to finger a red, shining braid.
"Rainbows ... I was talking about rainbows. Nobody appreciates them. What if there was never another rainbow?" She brushed back the hood of her mottled slicker and tugged loose the laces at her throat. Braids as white as cream spilled out and down over her back. Her eyes were the color of mist and moss agate. She looked up through the crab-claw sail, squinting as she sorted tumbled cloud from sky to find arcs of fractured light, dimmed here to nothingness, brightening there until they doubled and redoubled.
Sparks dumped another shellful of water overboard, sending it home, before he lifted his head to follow her gaze. Even without its sun- browning, his skin was dark for an islander's. But lashes and eyebrows almost as pale as her own tightened against the glare, above eyes that changed color like the sea. "Come on. We'll always have rainbows, Cuz. As long as we have the Twins and the rain. A simple case of diffraction; I showed you —"
She hated it when he talked tech — the unthinking arrogance that came into his voice. "I know that. I'm not stupid." She jerked the coppery braid sharply.
"But I'd still rather hear Gran tell us that it was the Lady's promise of plenty, instead of hearing that trader turn it into something without any point at all. And so would you. Wouldn't you, my starchild? Admit it!"
"No!" He pushed her hand away. "Don't make fun of that, damn it!" He turned his back on her, splashing. She pictured his knuckles whitening over the corroded crosses-inside-a-circle: the token his offworlder father had given to his mother at the last Festival. "Mother of Us All!"
It was the one thing that drove between them like a blade — their awareness of a heritage that he did not share with her, or with anyone they knew. They were Summers, and their people rarely had contact with the tech-loving Winters who consorted with the offworlders — except at the Festivals, when the adventurous and joyful from all over this world gathered in Carbuncle; when they put on masks and put off their differences, to celebrate the Prime Minister's cyclical visit and a tradition that was far older.
Their two mothers, who were sisters, had gone to Carbuncle to the last Festival, and returned to Neith carrying, as her mother had told her, "the living memory of a magic night." She and Sparks had been born on the same day; his mother had died in childbirth. Their grandmother had raised them both while Moon's mother was at sea with the fishing fleet. They had grown up together — like twins, she often thought: strange, changeling twins growing up under the vaguely uneasy gaze of the stolid, provincial islanders. But there had always been a part of Sparks that she was shut off from, that she could not share: the part of him that heard the stars whisper. He bartered surreptitiously with passing traders for technological trinkets from other worlds, wasted days taking them apart and putting them back together, finally throwing them into the sea in a fit of self-disgust, along with propitiating effigies made of leaves.
Moon kept his tech secrets from Gran, grateful that he at least shared them with her, but nursing a secret resentment. For all she knew her own father could have been a Winter or even an offworlder, but she was content with building a future that fit under her own sky. Because of that it was hard for her to be patient with Sparks, who was not, who was caught between the heritage he lived and the one he saw in starlight.
"Oh, Sparks." She leaned forward, rested a chilly hand on his shoulder, massaging the knotted muscles through the thickness of cloth and oilskins. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry," she murmured, thinking, I'd rather have no father at all than live with a shadow all my life. "Don't be sad. Look there!" Blue sparks danced on the ocean beyond red sparks gleaming in his hair. Wingfish flashed and soared above the swells of the Mother Sea, and she saw the island clearly now, leeward, the highest of three. Serpentine lace marked the distant meeting of sea and shore. "The choosing-place! And look — mers!" She blew a kiss in awed reverence.
Long, sinuous, brindle-colored necks were breaking the water surface around and ahead of them; ebony eyes studied them with inscrutable knowledge. The mers were the Sea's children, and a sailor's luck. Their presence could only mean that the Lady was smiling.
Sparks looked back at her, suddenly smiling too, and caught her hand. "They're leading us in — She knows why we've come. We've really come, we're going to be chosen at last." He pulled the shell flute from the pouch at his hip and set free a joyous run of notes. The mers' heads began to weave with the music, and their own eerie whistles and cries sang counterpoint. The old tales said that they lamented a terrible loss, and a terrible wrong; but no two tales agreed on what the loss or the wrong had been.
Moon listened to their music, not finding it sad at all. Her own throat was suddenly too tight for song, as she saw in her mind another shore, half a lifetime ago, where two children had picked up a dream lying like a rare coiled shell in the sand at the feet of a stranger. She followed the music and the memory back through time....
* * *
Moon and Sparks ran barefoot along the rough walls between the shallow harbor pens, a net slung swaying like a hammock from shoulder to slim shoulder between them. Their deft, callused feet slapped and splashed along the piled-stone pathways, immune to bruises and the lapping icy water. The klee in the pens, usually as sluggish as stones on the weedy bottom, surfaced with ungainly haste to watch the children pass. They blew spray and grunted with hunger; but the net was empty, its burden of dried seahair already dumped into the family stock-pens for the midday feeding.
"Hurry up, Sparkie!" Moon, in the lead as usual, pulled the netting taut between them, hauling her shorter cousin along like a reluctant load of fish. She swept the white fall of her bangs back from her face, eyes on the deep-water channel that drove straight in to shore beyond the fishyards. Already the tall tops of the cloven sails — all she could see of the fishing fleet from here — were sweeping ahead. "We'll never get to the docks first!" She pulled harder, in frustration.
"I'm hurrying, Moon. It's almost like my mother coming home, too!" Sparks found an extra burst of speed; she felt him catch up behind her, heard him panting. "Do you think Gran will make honeycake?"
Leaping, she almost stumbled. "I saw her getting out the pot."
They ran on, dancing over the stones toward the gleaming noonday beach and the village beyond. Moon pictured the brown, smiling face of her mother as they had last seen her three months ago: thick sand-colored braids piled on her head, hidden under a dark knit cap; the thick high-necked sweater, slicker, and heavy boots that had made her indistinguishable from her crew as she tossed them a last kiss, while the double-hulled fishing boat leaned into the winds of sunrise.
But today she was home again. They would all go down to the village hall with the other fishing families, to celebrate and dance. And then, very late at night, Moon would curl up in her mother's lap (although she was getting too big to curl up in her mother's lap), held close in the sturdy arms; watching Sparks through heavy lids to see if he fell asleep first, in Gran's arms. There would be the warm snap and whisper of flames on the hearth, the smell of sea and ships that clung to her mother's hair, the hypnotic flow of voices as Gran reclaimed her own daughter from the Sea, who was Mother to them all.
Moon leaped down into the soft, golden-brown beach sand. Sparks thumped down from the wall behind her, their shadows tangling in the noonday glare. With her eyes fixed on the cluttered stone houses of the village and the boats dropping sail in the bay, she almost darted past the stranger who stood waiting, watching, as they came. Almost —
Sparks collided with Moon as she slid to a stop. "Look out, fish brain!" A cloud of sand exploded around their ankles.
She threw her arms around him for balance, squeezed the indignation out of him as her own amazement tightened her hold. Sparks pulled free, subsiding. The net dropped, forgotten like the village, the bay, their reunion. Moon tugged at the hem of her hand-me-down sweater, knitting her fingers into the heavy rust-red yarn.
The stranger smiled at them, the radiant oval of her face touched with windburn above her ancient gray parka, the thick pants and clumsy boots worn by any islander. But she was not from Neith, not simply from any island....
"Did — did you come out of the Sea?" Moon gasped. Sparks gaped beside her.
The woman laughed; her laughter broke the spell of otherworldliness like window glass. "No ... only across it, on a ship."
"Why?" "Who are you?" Their questions ran together.
And in answer to both, the woman held out the medallion she wore on a chain: a barbed trefoil like a bouquet of fish hooks, glittering with the darkly sinister beauty of a reptile's eye. "Do you know what this is?" She went down on one knee in the sand, her black braids dropping forward. They shuffled closer, blinking.
"Sibyl ...?" Moon whispered timidly, seeing Sparks clutch his own medal out of the corner of her eye. But then her gaze was wholly the woman's, and she knew why the dark, compelling eyes seemed to open on infinity. A sibyl was the earthly channel for supernatural wisdom, chosen through the Lady's Own judgment, who by temperament and training had the strength to withstand a holy visitation.
The woman nodded, "I am Clavally Bluestone Summer." She set her hands against her forehead. "Ask, and I will answer."
They did not ask, dazed by the knowledge that she would — could — answer any question they could imagine; or that the Lady Herself would answer them with Clavally's lips, while the sibyl was swept away in a trance.
"No questions?" Formality fell away again, held at bay by her good humor. "Then tell me who you are, who already know everything you need to know?"
"I'm Moon," Moon said, pushing at her bangs. "Moon Dawntreader Summer. This's my cousin, Sparks Dawntreader Summer ... and I don't know enough to ask about anything!" she finished miserably.
"I do." Sparks pushed forward, holding out his medal. "What did this used to be?"
"Input ..." Clavally took it between her fingers, frowned faintly, murmuring. Her eyes turned to smoky quartz, moved wildly, like a dreamer's; her hand fisted over the disc. "Sign of the Hegemony — two crosses bound within a circle symbolize the unity of Kharemough and its seven subordinate worlds ... medal awarded for valorous service, Kispah uprising: 'What all may strive for, this one has found. To our beloved son Temmon Ashwini Sirus, this day, 9:113:07.' Sandhi, official language of Kharemough and the Hegemony ... no further analysis." Her head dropped forward, let go by an unseen force. She swayed gently on her knees, sighed, sat back. "Well."
"But what does it mean?" Sparks looked down at the disc that still danced against his parka front, and his mouth formed an uncertain line.
Clavally shook her head. "I don't know. The Lady only speaks through me, not to me. That's the Transfer — the way it is."
Sparks's mouth quivered.
"The Hegemony," Moon said quickly. "What's the Hegemony, Clavally?"
"The offworlders!" Clavally's eyes widened slightly. "The Hegemony is what they call themselves. So it's an offworld thing, then. ... I've never been to Carbuncle." Her glance went to it again. "How did this get here, so far from the starport, and the Winters?" She looked up into their faces. "You're merrybegots, aren't you? Your mothers went to the last Festival together, and were lucky enough to come back with you ... and also this keepsake?"
Sparks nodded, as much in awe of adult logic as he was of the Lady's trances. "Then ... my father isn't a Summer, he isn't even on Tiamat?"
"That I can't tell you." Clavally stood up. Moon saw a strange concern cross her face as she looked back at Sparks. "But I do know that merrybegots are specially blessed. Do you know why I'm here?"
They shook their heads.
"Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?"
"Together," Moon answered without thinking.
Again the bright laughter. "Good! I'm making this journey through the Windwards to urge all the young Summers, before they settle into life, to remember that they can dedicate themselves to the Sea in another way than as fishers or farmers. They can serve the Lady by serving their fellow human beings as sibyls, as I do. Some of us are born with a special seed inside us, and it only waits for the Lady to touch us and make it grow. When you're old enough, maybe you two will hear Her call, and go to a choosing-place."
"Oh." Moon shivered slightly. "I think I hear Her now!" She pressed cold hands against her leaping heart, where a dream seed sprouted.
"Me too, me too!" Sparks cried eagerly. "Can we go now, can we go with you, Clavally?'
Clavally pulled up the hood of her parka against a sudden buffet of wind. "No, not yet. Wait a little longer; until you're certain of what you hear."
She rested her hands on the two small shoulders. "More like years, I think."
"Years!" Moon protested.
"By then you'll be sure it isn't just the crying of sea birds you hear. But always remember, in the end it won't be you who will choose the Lady, but the Lady Who will choose you." She looked again, almost pointedly, at Sparks.
"All right." Moon wondered at the look, and straightened her shoulders resolutely under the hand. "We'll wait. And we'll remember."
"And now" — the sibyl dropped her hands — "I think someone is waiting for you."
Time began to move forward again, and they fled, running — with many backward glances — toward town.
* * *
"Moon, remember the last thing she said to us?" The silver play of notes dissolved as Sparks lowered his flute and looked back, breaking in on Moon's memory. The mers stopped their own song, looking toward the boat.
Excerpted from The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. Copyright © 1980 Joan D. Vinge. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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