You can skip Chapter 11 without losing the plot.
Sefton knew at least twenty games that you could play with three people, but the one he chose had simple base rules, numerous complicate variations, and used the alternate cards that all decks had but most games didn’t utilize.
It was not the best game to play when one was exhausted, worn out, and playing with new people, but it had some variations he thought Hothyan and Pherishhe would find interesting, and the complexities of it would keep him awake, hopefully.
He was dealing the Fisherman and the Soldier to Pherishhe when Jaco came back.
“What’s this? Nine-pocket?”
“No, it’s called Efferghine. My middle-father taught it to me.”
“Elephant’s-Ear,” Jaco translated. “Is your middle-father from Fesharon?”
“He is. He was always… well. I like him.” Sefton shrugged uncomfortably. Father Gerilon, his Fesharoni father, had always had the most interesting ideas, and he’d been more willing than anyone else to talk out against The Way Things Were. It had made things tense sometimes, in the husband-quarters, but Sefton had still paid wide-eyed attention.
Gerilon had been the only one to speak out against Sefton’s marriage to Taisiya. He had been outvoted by all the other fathers, and of course Sefton’s mother had the final say, but it had been nice that someone was in Sefton’s corner, looking out for what he wanted.
Sefton found he’d ducked his head and curled his lip up in guilt. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Taisiya, he assured the back of his mind. It was just…
“I know that look.” Jaco patted his shoulder heavily. “It’s fine.” He sat down and looked at Hothyan pointedly. “Sometimes you don’t want to get married. Lots of sons don’t. I didn’t. Everyone knows that. It’s nothing to do with your new wife. You don’t know her, might have never even seen her.”
“Like Isham,” Hothyan muttered.
“Exactly like Isham. And I know you’ve been thinking it too, eggling, when your turn is going to come. You’ve got your friendships and your special-friends and that lovely young lady a couple years older than you at school – of course I know it, Hoth, don’t look at me like that.”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Pherishhe put in. “Father Feltian, show me how this deal works again?”
Sefton grinned at the girl and walked her through the deal again. It gave Hoth a minute to get his expression under control and Jaco a minute to consider whether he wanted to keep on teasing the boy or move on to something else. Sefton spoke slowly and carefully, and Pherishhe paid very close attention, and Jaco, in turn, decided, it seemed, to move on to something else.
“What about you?” he asked Sefton, just as Sefton finished explaining the complicated dealing procedure to Pherishhe. “Any special-friends you left behind? Girls you had your eye on?”
“What about you?” Sefton countered. “You’ve been here a while, sure, but did you leave anyone behind?”
“There was someone,” Jaco admitted, looking unhappy to have been put on the spot. Well, it served him right. “I mean, I guess everyone has a friend or two.”
Pherishhe looked back and forth between them and Hothyan. “I get the feeling you don’t mean like Meliodane and I.”
“Well, that — no. Probably not.” Jaco’s cheeks colored and he ducked his head. Sefton watched, fascinated by the sudden change in demeanor. “I don’t know if girls really have that sort of, ah, that is.”
“They do,” Sefton assured him, feeling a little bit unkind, “but not nearly as much, as far as I can tell, as boys do. At least, that’s what my sister told me. They know so many less other girls than we know boys, for one.”
“But do they… ah.”
“You had sisters, didn’t you?” Sefton peered at Jaco. A family line that had no girls at all was considered a little aberrant. Then again, a family line that had too many girls was almost as strange.
“They were all younger. Too young for special friends, at least when I was at home.” Jaco glowered at Sefton.
Sefton acknowledged — to himself — that he probably deserved the glare. He’d gotten nearly as uncomfortable when Taisiya asked him about his.
Then again… but that was a different matter.
“As far as I can tell, when they do, it’s much the same as it is with guys. But that’s their secret between girls, like the other is a secret between boys.”
Pherisshe looked back and forth between them. Hothyan was staring pointedly at his cards.
“So,” she asked, as if trying to answer a classroom question. “There are things that are secrets but everyone knows them?”
“That’s pretty accurate. It’s.” Sefton shifted so he was looking at her straight-on. “So, when we grow up, men and women, we have different lives, right?”
“HUsbands’ territory and wife’s territory.” Pherisshe nodded.
“But when we’re kids, we all go to school, we all live in the nursery.”
“But girls get treated differently,” Hothyan pointed out. “Better food, safer hiding places.”
“They do,” Sefton agreed. “But we’re treated a lot more similarly as kids than we are as adults. I think you can agree with that?”
Hothyan’s eyes fell to the chains on Sefton’s wrists. “Yeah. As adults there’s a lot more difference.”
“So, I — um. What my shell-father would say is ‘your sister is your shell-mate, the same as your brother. You wife is from another shell, and you must always remember that.’” He held up his hand. “You have to think of a metaphorical shell here, because it’s very very rare that two people are actually shell-mates, and then they’re always boys. But the point stands. We have our shell-family and our second-house family, and they will always be different.”
“But then you come here and you’ll be shell-father for babies and then aren’t they your shell-family?” Pherisshe frowned. “So you go from your shell-mates to your shell-children? And I would, too. Because women are always the shell-mother.”
“That’s true.” Sefton was in way over his head here, and he couldn’t expect any rescue from Jaco when he’d thrown him in the deep end already. “It’s, well, it wasn’t my saying?” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I always took from it that my relationship with my second-home and the women there would always be different than the one I had with my sister or even my mother.”
Pherisshe looked at him long enough that he thought he might start to sweat. Her expression was far too piercing and far too thoughtful. After a long time, a time in which Hothyan started shuffling the cards over and over again and Jaco started whistling, she nodded. “All right. I understand. Your brothers are almost your sisters. You don’t have to pretend anything with them. But once you’re grown up, then you have to fit the rules that you’re given, with everyone.”
“Shell-family is about learning who you are?” Hothyan tried on. “And then Second-house is about being part of the greater whole.”
“Hey.” Pherisshe grinned. “That makes a lot of sense. I don’t think — I think it’s silly we have to pretend, when we’re grown-up, that we don’t know how boys and girls work. But it makes sense.”
“Good.” Hothyan was smiling at the praise. “I’m glad something does.”
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