Read an Excerpt
Twenty-six months before her second birthday, Maia learned the true difference between winter and summer.
It wasn’t simply the weather, or the way hot-season lightning storms used to crackle amid tall ships anchored in the harbor. Nor even the eye-tingling stab of Wengel—so distinct from other stars.
The real difference was much more personal.
“I can’t play with you no more,” her half sister, Sylvina, taunted one day. “ ’Cause you had a father!”
“Did n-not!” Maia stammered, rocked by the slur, knowing that the word was vaguely nasty. Sylvie’s rebuff stung, as if a bitter glacier wind blew through the crèche.
“Did so! Had a father, dirty var!”
“Well … then you’re a var, too!”
The other girl laughed harshly. “Ha! I’m pure Lamai, just like my sisters, mothers an’ grandmas. But you’re a summer kid. That makes you U-neek. Var!”
Dismayed, too choked to speak, Maia could only watch Sylvina toss her tawny locks and flounce away, joining a cluster of children varied in age but interchangeable in appearance. Some unspoken ritual of separation had taken place, dividing the room. In the better half, over near the glowing hearth, each girl was a miniature, perfect rendition of a Lamai mother. The same pale hair and strong jaw. The same trademark stance with chin defiantly upraised.
Here on this side, the two boys were being tutored in their corner as usual, unaware of any changes that would scarcely affect them, anyway. That left eight little girls like Maia, scattered near the icy panes. Some were light or dark, taller or thinner. One had freckles, another, curly hair. What they had in common were their differences.
Maia wondered, Was this what it meant to have a father? Everyone knew summer kids were rarer than winterlings, a fact that once made her proud, till it dawned on her that being “special” wasn’t so lucky, after all.
She dimly recalled summertime’s storms, the smell of static electricity and the drumbeat of heavy rain on Port Sanger’s corbeled roofs. Whenever the clouds parted, shimmering sky-curtains used to dance like gauzy giants across distant tundra slopes, far beyond the locked city gates. Now, winter constellations replaced summer’s gaudy show, glittering over a placid, frost-decked sea. Maia already knew these seasonal changes had to do with movements of Stratos round its sun. But she still hadn’t figured out what that had to do with kids being born different, or the same.
Wait a minute!
Struck by a thought, Maia hurried to the cupboard where playthings were stacked. She grabbed a chipped hand mirror in both hands, and carried it to where another dark-haired girl her own age sat with several toy soldiers, arranging their swords and brushing their long hair. Maia held out the mirror, comparing her face to that of the other child.
“I look just like you!” she announced. Turning, she called to Sylvina. “I can’t be a var! See? Leie looks like me!”
Triumph melted as the others laughed, not just the light-haired crowd, but all over the crèche. Maia frowned at Leie. “B-but you are like me. Look!”
Oblivious to chants of “Var! Var!” which made Maia’s ears burn, Leie ignored the mirror and yanked Maia’s arm, causing her to land hard nearby. Leie put one of the toy soldiers in Maia’s lap, then leaned over and whispered. “Don’t act so dumb! You an’ me had the same father. We’ll go on his boat, someday. We’ll sail, an’ see a whale, an’ ride its tail. That’s what summer kids do when they grow up.”
With that surprising revelation, Leie returned contentedly to brushing a wooden warrior’s flaxen hair.
Maia let the second doll lay in her open hand, the mirror in the other, pondering what she’d learned. Despite Leie’s air of assurance, her story sounded easily as dumb as anything Maia herself had said. Yet, there was something appealing about the other girl’s attitude … her way of making bad news sound good.
It seemed reason enough to become friends. Even better than the fact that they looked as alike as two stars in the sky.
Never understate the voyage we’re embarked on, or what we knowingly forsake. Admit from the start, my sisters, that these partners cleaved to us by nature had their uses, their moments. Male strength and intensity have, on occasion, accomplished things both noble and fine.
Yet, even at best, wasn’t that strength mostly spent defending us, and our children, against others of their kind? Are their better moments worth the cost?
Mother Nature works by a logic, a harsh code, that served when we were beasts, but no more. Now we grasp her tools, her art, down to its warp and weft. And with skill comes a call for change. Women—some women—are demanding a better way.
Thus we comrades sought this world, far beyond the hampering moderation of Hominid Phylum. It is the challenge of this founding generation to improve the blueprint of humanity.
—from the Landing Day Address, by Lysos
Sharply angled sunlight splashed across the table by Maia’s bed, illuminating a meter-long braid of lustrous brown hair. Freshly cut. Draped across the rickety night-stand and tied off at both ends with blue ribbons.
Stellar-shell blue, color of departure. And next to the braid, a pair of gleaming scissors stood like a dancer balancing on toe, one point stabbed into the rough tabletop. Blinking past sleep muzziness, Maia stared at these objects—illumined by a trapezoid of slanting dawn light—struggling to separate them from fey emblems of her recent dream.
At once, their meaning struck.
“Lysos,” Maia gasped, throwing off the covers. “Leie really did it!”
Sudden shivers drew a second realization. Her sister had also left the window open! Zephyrs off Stern Glacier blew the tiny room’s dun curtains, driving dust balls across the plank floor to fetch against her bulging duffel. Rushing to slam the shutters, Maia glimpsed ruddy sunrise coloring the slate roofs of Port Sanger’s castlelike clan houses. The breeze carried warbling gull cries and scents of distant icebergs, but appreciating mornings was one vice she had never shared with her early-rising twin.
“Ugh.” Maia put a hand to her head. “Was it really my idea to work last night?”
It had seemed logical at the time. “We’ll want the latest news before heading out,” Maia had urged, signing them both for one last stint waiting tables in the clan guesthouse. “We might overhear something useful, and an extra coin or two won’t hurt.”
The men of the timber ship, Gallant Tern, had been full of gossip all right, and sweet Lamatian wine. But the sailors had no eye for two adolescent summerlings—two variant brats—when there were plump winter Lamais about, all attractively identical, well-dressed and well-mannered. Spoiling and flattering the officers, the young Lamais had snapped their fingers till past midnight, sending Maia and Leie to fetch more pitchers of heady ale.
The open window must have been Leie’s way of getting even.
Oh, well, Maia thought defensively. She’s had her share of bad ideas, too. What mattered was that they had a plan, the two of them, worked out year after patient year in this attic room. All their lives, they had known this day would come. No telling how many dreary jobs we’ll have to put our backs to, before we find our niche.
Just as Maia was thinking about slipping back between the covers, the North Tower bell clanged, rattling this shabby corner of the sprawling Lamai compound. In higher-class precincts, winter folk would not stir for another hour, but summer kids got used to rising in bitter cold—such was the irony of their name. Maia sighed, and began slipping into her new traveling clothes. Black tights of stretchy web-cloth, a white blouse and halter, plus boots and a jacket of strong, oiled leather. The outfit was more than many clans provided their departing var-daughters, as the mothers diligently pointed out. Maia tried hard to feel fortunate.
While dressing, she pondered the severed braid. It was longer than an outstretched arm, glossy, yet lacking those rich highlights each full-blooded Lamai wore as a birthright. It looked so out of place, Maia felt a brief chill, as if she were regarding Leie’s detached hand, or head. She caught herself making a hand-sign to avert ill luck, and laughed nervously at the bad habit. Country superstitions would betray her as a bumpkin in the big cities of Landing Continent.
Leie hadn’t even laced her braid very well, given the occasion. At this moment, in other rooms nearby, Mirri, Kirstin, and the other summer fivers would be fixing their tresses for today’s Parting Ceremony. The twins had argued over whether to attend, but now Leie had typically and impulsively acted on her own. Leie probably thinks this gives her seniority as an adult, even though Granny Modine says I was first out of our birth-momma’s womb.
Fully dressed, Maia turned to encompass the attic room where they had grown up through five long Stratoin years—fifteen by the old calendar—summer children spinning dreams of winter glory, whispering a scheme so long forming, neither recalled who had thought it first. Now … today … the ship Grim Bird would take them away toward far western lands where opportunities were said to lay just waiting for bright youths like them.
That was also the direction their father-ship had last been seen, some years ago. “It can’t hurt to keep our eyes open,” Leie had proposed, though Maia had wondered, skeptical, If we ever did meet our gene-father, what would there be to talk about?
Tepid water still flowed from the corner tap, which Maia took as a friendly omen. Breakfast is included, too, she thought while washing her face. If I make it to kitchen before the winter smugs arrive.