“When I was born,” she said, careful not to look at him. “I was deemed unworthy to live. My father saved me from being exposed, but that only proved something about him. It didn’t say anything about me. All the time I was growing up, I could look around and see people who didn’t think I’d deserved to live.” Including her mother. She wouldn’t mention that to him. It sounded self-pitying, even to herself. And it had nothing to do with what she was saying. Did it? “I worked alongside my father. I gathered just like he did. I did all the work that was expected of me. But it still wasn’t enough to prove that I deserved to live. It was just what was expected of me. What would have been expected of any Rain Wild daughter.” She did look at him then. “Proving I could be ordinary, despite how I looked, wasn’t enough for any of them.”
His hands, tanned brown, worked like separate little animals, stripping the fruit and loading it into his pack. She’d always liked his hands. “Why wasn’t it enough for you?” he asked her.
There was the rub. She wasn’t sure. “It just wasn’t,” she said gruffly. “I wanted to make them admit that I was as good as any of them and better than some.”
“And then what would happen?”
She was quiet for a time, thinking. She stopped her gathering to eat one of the yellow fruit. Her father had had a name for them, but she couldn’t remember it. They didn’t commonly grow near Trehaug. These were fat and sweet. They’d have fetched a good price at the market. She got down to a fuzzy seed and scraped the last of the pulp off with her teeth before she tossed it away. “It would probably make them hate me more than they already did,” she admitted. She nodded to herself and smiled, saying, “But at least then they’d have a good reason for it.”
Tats’s backpack was full. He pulled the drawstring tight. She’d never seen that pack before; probably ship’s gear. He picked another fruit, took a bite of it, and then asked, “So, for you, it wasn’t about proving yourself and then being able to break their rules? Get married, have babies.”
She thought about it. “No. Not really. Just making them admit that I deserved to live might have been enough for me.” She turned her head and added, “I don’t think I really focused on the ‘get married, have babies’ part of it. The rules about us were just the rules about us.”
“Not for Greft,” he said, shaking his head. He’d finished the fruit. He put the whole seed in his mouth, chewed on it for a moment, and then spat it out.
“Greft and his new rules,” she muttered to herself.
“You never wanted to live without the rules they put on you? Just do what you wanted to do?”
“The rules are different for me than for him,” she said slowly.
“Well, he’s male. Women like me…just about as often as we give birth to children who can’t or shouldn’t survive, we don’t survive ourselves. The rules about not having husbands or having children, my father said they were there to protect me as much as anything else.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Greft changes the rules, it’s no risk for him, is it? He’s not the one who’s going to go into labor out here with no midwife. He’s not the one who’ll have to deal with a baby who can’t survive. I don’t think he’s ever wondered what he’s going to do with that baby if Jerd dies and the baby lives.”
“How can you think of such things?” Tats was aghast.
“How can you not think of them?” she retorted. She let go of the vine and settled her carry-sack on her shoulder. She stared out through the leaves at the distant shore. After a time, in a quieter voice she said, “It’s all very well for Greft to talk about new rules. It infuriates me when he says that I ‘must make my choice soon’ as if my only choice is choosing which male. To him, it probably seems so simple. There’s no authority out here to tell him that he can’t do a thing, so he does it. And he never thinks about the reason that rule came to be. To him, it’s just a bar that keeps him from doing what he wants.”
She turned her head to look at him. “Can you see that for me, it’s just another rule that he’s talking about putting on me? His rule is that I have to choose a mate. ‘For the good of all the keepers,’ to keep boys from fighting over me. How is that better than the old rule?”
When he didn’t answer, she glanced back out over the river. “You know, I just now realized something. Jerd and Greft, they think that breaking the rules is the same as proving themselves. To me, breaking an old rule doesn’t mean anything except that they broke a rule. I don’t think Jerd is braver or stronger or more capable because she did it. In fact, right now, with a baby growing in her belly, she’s more vulnerable. More dependent on the rest of us, regardless of how hard that makes it. So. What does that prove about Jerd? Or the boys who slept with her?”