Under the Influence (64/141)

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“At midnight, the feast was still going strong. Stephen was very drunk and relating his favorite story about repelling pirates in rather bad Vandese — neither of us were fluent at this point, though we’d both been making an effort. Several Vandese had taken an interest despite the language difficulties. I was talking to Kyriel Aunles — that’s the Kyr’s wife. One of Stephen’s new friends asked Stephen to show him the constellations they use for navigation. So he and Stephen stepped outside, and I remember thinking ‘Should I go with him? Does that count as ‘unaccompanied’?’ I asked the kyriel if it it would be a problem, and she told me no, it was fine.

“Some minutes passed, then there were shouts and a commotion outside. A few of the Kyr’s honor guard rushed to see what it was. A few moments later, two of them hauled in my brother, who struggled and cursed them in Newlantian. A third was helping the Vandese man who’d accompanied Stephen outside. He wore, I noticed now, a gold torc with a tigereye amber set in it: that’s the Vandese equivalent of your chain, my lord.” She gestured to the seldom-worn chain that signified Nik’s Blessing. “It meant he was a healer of flesh. I also noticed that his nose was bleeding and looked disjointed, and he had a few other marks about the face. I thought that strange — why wouldn’t he heal his own injuries?

“I started to make my way over to see what had happened, but the guards reached their kyr first. The Kyr asked something on the lines of ‘What’s going on here?’ The local healer drew himself up and accused my brother of attacking him. The whole room went quiet at that; all the murmuring and jostling stopped. Stephen was, perhaps, too drunk to recognize the seriousness of this charge, because he said in Vandese, ”course I did!’ And then he used some rude Newlantian words I shan’t repeat, and ‘– kissed me! What was I supposed to do?'”

Nik stared, shocked. “This Vandese man kissed him?”

“He did, my lord. The healer responded with something I didn’t understand, followed by ‘he agreed!’

“The Kyr turned about to me and asked, ‘Do you take responsibility for this man?’

“Of course I replied, ‘Yes, kyr imen, I do.’

“Stephen, who was perhaps starting to pick up on the gravity of the situation but remained the greater part drunk, said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Wisteria. I’m resp — ‘ at which point I clapped my hand over his mouth, which startled him into silence.

“Our translator had scrambled forward to join the tableau, so I told him to translate and switched to Newlantian. And remembered to look at the Kyr as I said, ‘My brother is not a wild animal that must be put down. He is within my influence. If he has erred, the fault is mine for giving poor guidance.'”

Nik cleared his throat. “I am unclear on how any part of this could be construed as your fault, Miss Vasilver.”

The slender woman paused in her narrative. “As a practical matter, in a Newlant context, perhaps not. But as a legal matter in Southern Vandu, I not only was responsible for my brother’s actions but had to be. If I disavowed him, or if he denied my influence, then Vandese law is clear: even as a blameless foreigner he would need to be expelled. As a violent criminal — one who assaulted a healer — he would be executed.”

Executed? You’re never serious? For striking a man who’d insulted him?”

“I am entirely serious, my lord. By their custom Stephen had not been insulted, but it would not matter if he had: the Vandese have no tolerance for violence in private life at all. They are as peaceable as greatcats. One may not duel a man for an insult, or cuff a servant for slovenliness, or smack a child for backtalking, or anything of the sort. It is all criminalized. Only a soldier in battle or an officer of law may use brute force legally, and even officers exercise this authority with great care. A violent man who asserts that his female relations have no moral authority over him has declared himself both uncontrollable and unreformable. From the Vandese perspective, the only recourse is to put him to death.”

“But — he — ” Nik tried to wrap his mind around this concept. “That is insane. But if you take responsibility, doesn’t that mean they’d — ?”

“Oh, no, not at all. The Vandese regard all women as trainable. If I claim the fault, then I merely need to be educated to ensure the men within my influence behave appropriately in the future.”

Nik stared forward, blinking. “These people are exceedingly strange.”

“They are, my lord.”

“Do they apply all this nonsense to their own people? I thought you said it was only foreign men they were terrified of?”

“Foreign men frighten them more, yes, and are under far more strictures. But the general theory that men need to be influenced by women to keep their bestial nature in check is also applied to themselves. However, they trust their own men to have internalized these lessons and therefore not need, for instance, a constant escort to remind them.” After a moment, Miss Vasilver added, “It’s all so condescending and degrading, my lord, the whole idea that men, especially our men, cannot control themselves. It infuriates me still.” Her condemnatory words made a strange contrast with the even, nonjudgemental tone of her voice. “The worst of it was to have Stephen perpetuate their myth, of all things. Maddening to have my own brother’s actions reinforce this mass delusion of theirs.

“In any event, we settled the matter that night. We could have requested formal legal proceedings, but our information on the Vandese legal system suggested that would not improve the outcome and would publicize the mess further. The Kyr removed us to a private council room. The Vandese Blessed, it turned out, had requested — um — certain intimacies of Stephen in a traditional Vandese manner. Which used language that we’d not covered in our lessons or heard during negotiations, and had flowery comparisons to stars and meteorites and the privacy of night. Stephen had not understood half of it and so went with the default of ‘smile and nod’,” Miss Vasilver said. Nik winced. “But that was not seen as exculpatory: the misunderstanding would have perhaps excused Stephen if he’d shoved him away or caused accidental injury, but Stephen had already admitted to hitting him with deliberate intent to harm. Kyriel Aunles told her husband how I’d asked if I should go with them and that she had deterred me, and that was counted in our favor, however. Ultimately, the Kyr decided that Stephen must be deported at once, and that I must remain to be educated in appropriate behavior. So that I might prevent other male relations from doing this sort of thing.”

“But they had to know that their customs would not matter outside their borders?” Nik asked, amazed by the whole wild tale. “Why didn’t they just have you leave as well?”

“It didn’t matter to them. They know that other countries are full of what they regard as barbaric practices, and they see themselves as having a duty to improve those with whom they come into contact. I was in their nation, I had demonstrated imperfect understanding and influence, I was female and therefore capable of improvement, and accordingly I needed to be corrected. That was the legal reasoning as I understood it, more or less. There was more to it than law, however. The Kyr wished to open Southern Vandu to more nations, and expelling our entire expedition would only entrench their isolation. He and his wife thought keeping me would expose more of their people to foreigners and show that we were teachable people capable of being civilized. I had no notion of this at the time, of course — Kyriel Aunles explained it to me months later.

“But you mustn’t imagine that I spent two years locked in some dungeon cell and subsisting on gruel and water. I spent much of my time in the house of the Kyr and kyriel, and they treated me as an honored guest. There were mandatory lessons, but they were by no means onerous. It was fascinating, if perplexing and at times outright insulting. But I fear I am giving altogether the wrong impression of the Vandese. All of these things I’ve said, about women being accorded moral superiority and men considered innately violent and in some ways inferior — it’s not that they don’t believe this true, but it has little impact on their day-to-day lives. It’s not as if you see men constantly seeking the advice of a woman or submitting to one’s opinions generally. Most positions of political power are held by men and most business is conducted by men, just as in Newlant. They are by no means subservient. The character of interactions between sexes is different in certain ways, of course, and in some rare cases one does see shocking occurrences. I did witness a man, a Vandese man, executed because his mother and sisters declared him uncontrollable and no other female relation would step forward to take responsibility for him. But it is not as if Vandese men live in fear of repudiation — it’s almost as rare as a Newlant duel ending in death.”

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