Methven - Day Twenty-one - Part Four
"I thank you for this opportunity, Grandmother."
She spread her hands wide in a motion that included all nine of the Mothers sitting above her.
"The Mothers of Clan Khasim are widely known for their wisdom--and for their fairness."
Eyes flashing, Atanami immediately interrupted her.
"Do not thank us for fulfilling an obligation upon which you have insisted, Læ of Centra! The Mothers of Clan Khasim may well be known for wisdom and fairness--but we are not known for our susceptibility to flattery."
Læ rewarded Atanami with her sweetest, least sincere smile.
"Are you not also widely known for courtesy toward your guests, Mother Atanami?"
Akavasi allowed herself a small smile as Atanami gestured dismissively and retreated into the depths of her chair.
"Proceed, Mistress Læ."
"Thank you, Grandmother."
Læ placed her hand on Mantami's shoulder.
"According to the customs of the Vomisa people, this child has sinned. Has he attempted to conceal his sin or to evade responsibility for it? No. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. In fact, it is by his sole choice that you sit in Judgement on him here tonight, for you, his own family, had forgotten him during the years that he was absent--an absence that was not of his own choosing."
She smiled fondly at Mantami.
"He is a good boy, Mothers. A conscientious boy. A dutiful boy."
She turned her attention back to the Mothers.
"Just as he has fearlessly and faithfully executed his duty toward his Clan--even though, for him, the exercise of that duty held only the prospect of punishment--so, too, must you be dutiful to Mantami. In duty to his Clan, he told you the simple, honest truth about his sin--and placed his trust in the wisdom and fairness of your Judgement. In turn, you must now do your duty to him by rendering the wisest and fairest Judgement of which you are capable."
She paused and her eyes turned to Mantami for a long moment before she raised her gaze to the attentive Mothers.
"In fairness, then, you must consider not just the child's sin, but the circumstances under which that sin took place--and the first and foremost of those is that his sin was unintentional. In fact, he neither desired it nor sought it out. Instead, his sin was forced on him--against his will and without his cooperation."
Atanami eagerly pounced on Læ's assertion.
"Child, when the stranger, Anais, first touched you, could you not have objected?"
Mantami nodded soberly.
"Yes, Mother Atanami."
Læ took him by the chin, turning him to face her.
"Did you understand what Anais intended when she touched you, child?"
Mantami shook his head.
"No, Mother Læ, I did not."
She released Mantami and turned back to face the Mothers.
"Mothers, no matter what he could have done had he understood what was happening to him, this child was tricked into sinning. That fact is undeniable."
She held up a hand to forestall Atanami's objection.
"Even if he were not as much a victim as he is a sinner, there are other important circumstances that you must consider, if you are to render a fair and wise Judgement."
She ticked them off on her fingers.
"Firstly, the stranger, Anais, with whom Mantami sinned was not of your race. Indeed, she was not even of your world. Thus, their mating could not have produced children--and is it not the case that the root of your prohibition against children mating before they survive their Ordeal is to prevent the weak and unfit from passing on their blood to their children?"
From the tone of its reaction, the crowd apparently thought Læ had made a good point.
"Secondly, the way in which Mantami mated with Anais could not have produced children, even if she had been a Vomisa woman."
Bad move. The audience definitely didn't cotton to that argument and--from the disgusted looks that passed between them--neither did the Mothers.
Læ ignored their disapproval and raised a third finger.
"Thirdly, in the strangers' world, Mantami was subject to the strangers' laws--and their laws did not prohibit him from mating."
I'd never heard the Vomisa equivalent of hisses and catcalls before--but I heard them then.
Akavasi motioned a visibly angry Atanami back into her chair.
"The strangers' laws do not concern us. It is our Judgement that the child faces."
Læ's tone was innocence itself.
"Of course you are correct, Grandmother. Yet--are not my companions and I also subject to your laws while we are here as guests of your Clan?"
She pointed at us Earthlings.
"Even though the laws of these strangers' home world forbid public mating, have they not not honored your hospitality by frolicking in your Pools of Pleasure?"
Frowning, Akavasi nodded.
"Then, just as we are bound by your laws while we are here in your Clanhome, was Mantami not obligated to abide by the strangers' laws while he was in the strangers' world?"
Behind us, the Vomisa assembly murmured grudging approval of Læ's argument.
Atanami slapped the table in front of her with a noise like a pistol shot.
"Did those laws compel you to mate with the stranger, Anais, child?"
Mantami shook his head.
"No, Mother Atanami."
Atanami leaned forward to gaze, in turn, at the Mothers seated to each side of her.
"And do our laws compel these strangers to disport in our Pools?"
If I had any doubt, the round of head wagging and sidelong glances at Læ that followed her question made it clear that they didn't.
"This stranger would have us ignore our most sacred traditions, simply because she weaves a clever spell of words to make us doubt what we know to be right. Well, she may convince you that Summer is Winter, that death is life and that blackest sin is really virtue disguised--but she will never convince me, even if she speaks from now until the Blue Men return!"
Again she pounded the table.
"The child has sinned! There must be a Reckoning! Mothers, do not listen to this stranger's evil words! Do what you know in your hearts to be right!"
The hubbub that ensued drowned any possible response. Læ rode it out and, when it died back enough for her to be heard, calmly addressed Akavasi.
"Grandmother, may I continue?"
Akavasi pounded the butt of her staff on the stage until she got the crowd's attention.
"Thank you, Grandmother."
Læ held up three fingers, then raised her pinky to join them.
"Fourthly, it was only because of my own carelessness that Mantami was exposed to the conditions that led him to sin. Had I not been in so much of a hurry, I might have realized that he was following me. Had I concealed the entrance to the Portal, or merely set Wards, I could easily have barred him from following me. Had I taken even the simple precaution of placing myself so as to keep the Portal's entrance in view, he could not have crept up from behind me at the single most critical moment."
She turned to face the crowd.
"Your Kinsmen are angry, Mothers--and rightly so. They do not wish to hear that the Vomisa Way is not an absolute--that a Vomisa child trapped in an alien world might have to violate your most sacred customs simply to survive. Such ideas are foreign to them. They demand simple justice, instead."
Læ turned back to face the Khasim Mothers.
"That is why I speak to you and not to them. You who are the wisest women of your Clan are capable of understanding--as they are not--that true justice is not always so simple. Should Mantami be punished for an accidental sin--even though he was tricked into sinning? Is it not my fault, rather than his--and can it be fair or right or just to punish him for my mistakes?
"Mothers, I submit that it is not fair, not right, not just to punish this child for my shortcomings. If you must punish someone for his sinning, let that someone be me. If you must send someone into exile, let it be me that you expel. I beg of you--do not further punish this unfortunate child. He has already endured four bitter Winters of exile--not just from his Clan, but from his world. Is that not more than punishment enough for a sin he did not mean to commit?
"I implore you to make the wise decision, Mothers, rather than the simple one. In fairness, please, permit Mantami to stay here with you, his family, until Midwinter comes and he can undergo the Ordeal that I, through my carelessness, have denied him for so long."
And with that, Læ sat down.
Behind the dais, a few heads nodded at the points she'd made. Too few to make a difference, from what I could tell.
"Has anyone else evidence to offer before we render Judgement on this child?"
Not sure of what I was going to say, I started to stand.
Bruno put a seemingly friendly hand on my shoulder, firmly pinning me in my seat.
"You're not helping, Drewski."
The bench behind us creaked as it was relieved of a massive weight.
"May I thpeak, Grandmother?"
"Have you evidence to offer that bears on this case, Ambassador Grrawth-h?"
"I do, Grandmother."
Grrawth-h is a good seven feet tall, but I could barely hear his footsteps on the flagstones as he padded forward to stand before the Mothers' dais.
"Motherth of Clan Khathim, you have heard thith thranger, thith outworlder, thith Læ of Thentra claim rethponthibility for thith child's thin--and beg you to punith her for it. It ith no thecret that we ecthchanged angry wordth earlier thith evening, tho it may thuprithe you to learn that I agree with her. Indeed, I would go tho far ath to thay that, whatever you may dethide to do to the boy, you mutht altho find her rethponthible and you mutht altho punith her."
His facial tentacles writhed, lashing around like so many blind, hungry mouths. However calm and measured his words, to me, those frantic, wormlike whiskers pegged Grrawth-h as one lousy poker player.
"Thith Portal of which thee thpeakth tho offhandedly ith nothing leth than a hole in the world which thee and her kind have arrogantly forthed on you and your people--and on me and my people, ath well--without firtht theeking our permithion, or even conthulting with us."
Grrawth-h waved his free hand dismissively.
"You may well athk, 'Ith that tho bad? After all, what harm hath it done?'"
Pointedly imitating Læ's rhetorical device, he held up a cucumber-sized finger. As he spoke, he let the glittering claw spring out of its tip like a scythe-shaped switchblade.
"I thay, if there were no Portal, thith child would never have been lotht to hith family for four long Winterth--and he would never have been forthed to thin."
The S'lynth diplomat made a throwaway gesture.
"Frankly, if a mere child'th thin were the only conthequenth of that unwanted hole in our world, it would not even be worth dithcuthing--and I would not have come so far to thand here before you tonight. Nor, I venture to thay, would tho many other dithtinguithed guethtth have come from tho many other Vomitha Clanth thpread acroth theth mountainth your people have tho long thared with mine."
He shook his head.
"No, the reathon I have come tho far--the reathon tho many of uth have come tho far--to thpeak to you ith that thith hole in our world hath brought dethpoilerth to our mutual home. Not mere travelerth or huntherth who thlay our game for meat or for warmth or to thave themthelveth from danger, but barbarianth, who kill for mere trophieth! For headth to mount on the wallth of their denth! For THPORT!"
He held that single, deadly digit aloft again, as his voice dropped to a confidential stage whisper.
"And that ith not the wortht of it, good Motherth. For theth wanton thlaughtererth do not bother to dithinguith between animalth and people in choothing their prey. They hunt my people for their trophieth--and they hunt yourth, too."
Every eye in that hall was focused on Læ, as she rose to stand again beside Mantami.
"Grandmother, may I speak?"
"The ambassador is..mistaken."
"Am I? Then, tell me, Læ of Thentra, how do you exthplain thith?"
And with that, he spread open the fur he'd been carrying draped over his left arm.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)