What if heterosexuality were a crime?
Betrothed at birth to the daughter of one of the most prominent Houses in the totalitarian theocracy of Bastia, soon-to-be-college-graduate Clissa isn’t sure whether she is ready to undergo the Mar. Once she becomes the Nur, or the submissive partner, to her betrothed, she will have to submit all major decisions of her life to the beautiful Helaine, whom she has met once. She must marry a woman, according to the decrees of Bastian law.
Caught between a desire to “get along” and the growing awareness he is “het” and is attracted to Clissa, her childhood friend, Destral, kisses her one day as they study in their college library. Shocked at the feelings the kiss awakens, Clissa begins to question everything she has been taught. Did Basti, their deity, condemn relationships between a man and a woman? Will her growing feelings for Destral cost her everything her parents have worked hard to give her?
After a mad attempt to subvert Bastian authority, Clissa is assigned to new parents for “reeducation” in the doctrine of Bastia. Her new parents are given one mandate: bring her back to rightness with Basti.
Clissa, lost in a system threatened by her very identity, must make her choice. Will Bastian authority break her, or will she find a way to break free? Can true love overcome a harsh regime?
Prologue: In Front of the Bastil
“Clissa, daughter of Lystel, you may rise.” Altrea, Head Dis of the Bastil, frowned at the gasps and murmurs of the crowd. The Bastil, the high council of twelve respected representatives, six women and six men, oversaw the far-reaching implementation and enforcement of Bastian law.
A small but wiry young woman struggled against the chains shackling her legs and arms, glowering from beneath heavy locks of black hair. The usual glossy tresses fell across her face, partially obscuring her long nose, thickly curving eyebrows, and enormous dark brown eyes ringed with dark lashes. The pale, smooth skin was marred by a myriad of cuts and bruises in various stages of healing.
“Lystel?” One of the seated audience members whispered to another.
“No, that can’t be right,” another responded. “Not the House of Lys.”
“That’s their daughter? The one betrothed to the daughter of Tre?”
Altrea nodded to her assistant, who rose and clanged the heavy, copper bell. Gong, gong, gong. The metallic reverberations swept through the room, deafening all ears. Altrea rose to her feet.
Clissa shuffled in place, the black-coated chains clanking with each movement. Her left eye itched, and her uncombed hair fell every which way. She squinted with her right eye, ducking her head so her straggly hair would fall over the swollen left one. She had been beaten until her back refused to straighten, but if the Head Dis of the Bastil stood, so did everyone else. Even those who rejected her authority.
“Assistant! Read the charges against Clissa, daughter of Lystel.”
Somewhere in the crowd the Dis and Nur of Lys, Lystel and Methra, watched the proceedings. They had forgone their usual seats of honor in favor of anonymity. Although children from a few other well-known Houses had children run afoul of the Bastil, none theirs Dises were as prominent as the House of Lys?or as vocal in their opposition to leniency for criminals. Would Lystel ever be able to overcome her shame? Had Clissa ruined their House forever?
The bell-ringer unrolled an elegant parchment scroll. The Bastil held with tradition. In recent generations, electronic and technological improvements had changed life in everyday Bastia, but not within the walls of the Bastil. Here, court scribes took notes in shorthand while using quill-and-ink pens. In fact, all Bastian children visited the Bastil to learn about their history.
The bell-ringer read from the list. “Fornication. Sodomy. Heterosexuality.”
The hall rocked with outraged gasps.
Clissa recalled, against her will, Destral’s soft, tender lips brushing against her neck. There had been no “vaginal penetration,” but how could she explain what had happened without condemning herself? No one would listen, anyway. They had already made up their minds.
“Sexual crimes against nature and humanity.”
A horrified cry rose from one of the front pews, and several ushers rushed to assist an elderly lady who had fainted. Clissa tossed her head back and squared her shoulders underneath the thick, rough cotton jumpsuit. She stared at one audience member after another, holding her face expressionless until each one turned away. They were used to seeing humble supplication. Even allowing for the arrogance of youth, Clissa’s lack of repentance must have been unnerving in its lack of precedence. She narrowed her eyes at a father who held his son in his lap. The son could not have been older than seven or eight, the age when Clissa had first been allowed to witness Bastil proceedings. How proud she had been! What contempt she had shown the poor prisoner hauled into court. Remembering that day, Clissa’s anger faltered.
“Idolatry. Destruction of our covenant with Basti.”
At the word “Basti,” all except for Clissa raised their right hands to their forehead and genuflected. The guard standing to Clissa’s right struck the backs of her knees with his rubber baton. “On your knees, prisoner,” he spat. Drops of spittle landed on Clissa’s cheek as she fell into a praying position. Outward obedience trumped true devotion.
“You may rise,” intoned Altrea. She nodded for the assistant to ring the bell once more.
Gong, gong, gong.
The congregation rose again, and two guards hauled Clissa to her feet. The chains got caught in her pants leg, and she pitched forward. At a blow from the rubber baton, she jerked the chain with such force that it tore her pants up to the knee. A bead of dark blood welled up, burst, and trickled down her leg in a fine, cobwebby line.
Altrea turned her back to the crowd, lifting a scarlet surplice over her head and throwing her head back. “Basti,” she called out. “We have sinned, and we are not worthy. Grant us your wisdom in order to bring judgment on your lost child, the sinner Clissa, daughter of Lystel. Show us how we must bring her back to rightness with you.”
Clissa forced her eyes open while everyone else murmured entreaties with closed eyes and bent heads. She wondered what her Dis and Nur prayed or whether their public shame dwarfed their ability to pray. Did they want her sent away to serve a sentence, out of reach of judgment and ridicule?
“Clissa, daughter of Lystel,” Altrea commanded. “You are young, and this is your first offense. If you confess your sins to us, your punishment will be light. If you obstruct justice, we will teach you a terrible lesson about what it means to violate the Commandments of Basti.”
Love, the principal Commandment Clissa had recited every year of religious instruction. Or did love not apply to people who had broken the law? Hadn’t Basti taught the first principle, love for all?
“Did you commit the sin of fornication?”
Another cry rose from the crowd, and two more ushers escorted a limp man from the room.
Clissa raised her chin. She did not want to answer, but she did not want to be beaten until she fell onto the floor. The dignity of remaining standing mattered more than small, useless acts of resistance. “No,” she declared before either guard could raise a baton. “I did not.”
Altrea frowned at her. “Basti punishes all liars,” she chastised.
“I did not,” Clissa repeated, “fornicate.” She paused before emphasizing the clinical, distasteful word Altrea used to describe what had been beautiful. The guard on her left whacked the back of Clissa’s head so hard her ears rang. She lurched forward, heaving, and gave thanks because she had no food in her stomach.
“Show some respect!” he hissed.
“Did you commit the sin of sodomy?” Altrea demanded.
Clissa hesitated. Truth be told, she didn’t know what “sodomy” meant, except it represented the root of evil and Basti had proclaimed it unforgivable. “No,” she said, but her voice wavered in a way it had not the first time.
?“Did you commit the sin of vaginal penetration?”
The lurid, titillating detail sent several Assembly members into a whispering frenzy. Clissa threw her head back, refusing to let Altrea and the Bastil intimidate her. Altrea preached love every Sunday. Didn’t she see the hypocrisy? Where was the love in the eyes of the Assembly who had gathered today to judge her? They wanted to turn what happened with Destral into something ugly? She would show them ugly.
“I did not commit the sin of vaginal penetration. Since Destral has no vagina, unlike you, he had nothing for me to penetrate.”
Clissa fell to the ground from the blows of her guards’ batons, and she passed into darkness as the shrieks rose to a fever pitch. She did not hear Altrea’s decree after the crowd had been brought back to silence.
“We, the Bastil, are appalled at your crimes as well as your lack of remorse. Although we intended to show you leniency as a first-time offender and the daughter of the House of Lys, we have no choice but to save your soul. You will finish the remainder of your prison sentence and be sent for reeducation.”
Part One: Forbidden Love
When it began
Several months earlier
The library had one good point. No one disturbed the students inside, unless the students did the disturbing. Other, newer colleges had shifted to fluorescent lighting, multimedia centers, and textbooks available online. Bastia College, as the first and foremost institution of higher learning, revered its damp, musty paper textbooks as if Bastia had delivered them herself. Perhaps she had.
Small rectangular tables dotted the interior of the library, arranged to take best advantage of the natural lighting from the windows overlooking the grounds below. The prim, serviceable wood-and-black-metal chairs discouraged slouching, fraternizing, and sleeping. Still, students of Bastia College managed to accomplish all three.
Two upperclass students sat on opposite sides of two tables pushed together. Destral had slung his backpack across the seat of an empty chair, while Clissa had lined up her green plaid schoolbag against the side of the table closest to the brick wall. She poked a faded, artificial red rose in a plastic vase cut to resemble glass.
“With all the money the Bastil spends on our college, you’d think they could afford real flowers,” she complained.
“It’s not too much money to have real flowers?it’s too much work,” Destral corrected. “Fake flowers don’t get messy or die. They do what they’re supposed to do. Since when do you care about flowers, anyway?”
Clissa stirred the waterless vase with the end of the silk flower stem. “Anything’s better than these awful exams,” she pointed out. “We’ve been studying for hours.”
Destral pushed back his textbooks and yawned. “This stuff is brutal,” he agreed. “Who cares that a bunch of people established the Bastil centuries ago, and they argued over every single word in the Orthodoxy?”
Clissa studied the dense page of text. Part of her enjoyed finding out the reasons for all the rules governing her life, but another part resented the heavy-handedness of their education. She would never be chosen to be a priestess on the Bastil, so why did she have to learn all the details?
The lengthy pledge of faith Bastian children learned at their parents’ knee and recited every day until they died, the Orthodoxy served as the cornerstone of all Bastian life.
I believe in Basti, the giver of life,
who created an orthodox order for all living beings.
I believe in the natural order of man to man, woman to woman,
to preserve the stability and integrity of our life as Basti decreed.
I believe that Basti walked among us, true deity and true human,
to experience the frailties of human life and restore us to rightness with her.
I believe that Basti loves all equally, regardless of their place in life,
in accordance with the divine order of nature.
I believe that interfering with Bastian law
is the root of all evil and must be punished ruthlessly.
Basti created Nur and Dis, to create a society perfect
in its balance of nurturing and discipline,
and in forming partnerships of Nur and Dis
we honor Basti in our daily lives.
Basti will come again to judge the living and the dead,
and she will punish
those who have not lived according to Bastian law.
One of the worst punishments Clissa could remember from childhood involved Lystel taking a switch to the backs of her calves.
“You will not make up new words and substitute them for the Orthodoxy!” Lystel had shouted at her, whipping the switch until Clissa screamed in agony. “To do so disrespects the Bastil, all of Bastia, Basti, your House, and yourself.”
Clissa had not understood the meaning of “ruthlessly” or “orthodoxy”, and she had instead said “ruthfully” and “orthodontics”. “Ruthfully” sounded better than “ruthlessly.” If interfering with Bastian law should be punished, why without ruth? Didn’t “ruth” mean something that would make the punishment more severe? When she received orthodontic braces on her teeth, she thought orthodontics must be a kind of brace that helped people to grow straight, like the braces and her teeth. It couldn’t be true that things never changed, because orthodontics had not been available when her parents were young. Even in Clissa’s childhood, such modern concessions remained limited to the upper-class, with permission from the Bastil. It was one of the few times her Nur had won an argument with her Dis. Lystel’s insistence on tradition had yielded when Methra pointed out that good teeth would make Clissa more attractive and therefore more valuable to her future mate and House.?
Clissa had been unable to explain her confusion about the words to Lystel, however, and her legs had swollen from the switching until she couldn’t sit cross-legged for days. Methra had cried as she applied an antiseptic to the wounds, but Clissa clenched her teeth without making a sound.
“I didn’t mean to be bad,” she had muttered. “Why does Dis hate me so much?”
Methra fluttered and soothed and cried some more. “She doesn’t hate you,” she had said. “She knows you didn’t mean it, but to make light of the Orthodoxy is one of the worst things you can do. I’ll tell her not to be so hard on you next time.”
After Clissa had gone to bed that night, she heard muffled cries coming from her parents’ room. On the pretext of having to go to the bathroom, she had crept closer to listen.
“You will not?THWACK?question my decisions in front of Clie!”
Methra’s sobs carried through the door, but her words were harder to pick out. “She sounded so miserable,” Clissa thought she heard. Or did she hear her own wishful thinking? “I wanted to make her feel better.”
Clissa tiptoed back to her bedroom, distraught with guilt. Why couldn’t she ask questions? If her parents wanted her to follow the rules, why wouldn’t they explain the importance of the rules? Censure without explanation led to confusion, guilt, anger, and a determination never to be punished that way again. From then on, even though she didn’t understand, she made sure to say the Orthodoxy with the approved words.
Clissa put down her pencil and stretched her arms above her head. She massaged her sore neck muscles, yawning. Studying would be easier if it didn’t bring up so many complicated memories. “Remember how people died because they refused to change a word? We take the Orthodoxy for granted now, but creating it meant a lot of arguments.”
Destral shrugged. “So? It’s not now. We do what we do, and who cares?”
Clissa rubbed her tired eyes. She wanted to agree with Destral, but Lystel would kill her if she didn’t ace the exam. “What’s the name of the first council?” she asked. “I bet there’s a question on that.”
“The Council of Snakes.” Destral kicked his chair away from the table and stood up, standing behind his chair. He walked over to the window and gazed outside at an intramural team playing soccer. “In the town called Nathair, which means snakes, so it became the Council of Nathair. That I do remember, praise Basti.”
Clissa made a memo in her notebook. “And they argued about the first three articles, right? Whether to say ‘natural’ order instead of ‘divine’ or ‘biological’.”
“Clissa,” Destral complained. He stomped back to the table and snapped his textbook shut. “We’ve studied enough for now. Let’s take a break.”
Clissa ignored him. “If I don’t get every question right on this test, my Dis is going to beat me. Now sit down and help me study, the way you promised.”
Destral sighed and returned to his chair. “Thank Basti she isn’t my Dis. Okay, I’ll help you. But only if you’ll go to Festival with me on Saturday.”
Clissa made an impatient noise. “Whatever. Even if are getting too old to go. Come on, what’s the council that comes after Nathair?”
Destral put a hand over Clissa’s, preventing her from writing in her notebook. “Clie,” he scolded, “Lystel won’t kill you. Take a break and have some fun. The Festival has a new ride this year where you can go on a swing, and…”
Clissa wrenched her arm away, annoyed at the tingling from his touch. Or if she were honest with herself, annoyed at the jolt of pleasure accompanying his touch. She scowled, rubbing her knuckles. “Dis will kill me, as you know very well. She said either I get my grades up, or she puts me on home restrictions.”
Destral scoffed. “She wouldn’t.”
Clissa sighed at the luck of having a Dis who would never do more than lecture.
“Would she?” Destral insisted.
Clissa turned her head away, trying not to hear his words. If she focused on the Bastian history exam questions, she could ignore the unwanted changes in her heart rate. She and Destral had shared a crib as babies when their parents got together. They were like brother and sister. Weren’t they?
Destral wrapped his fingers around hers, patting the soft, fleshy underside of her palm. Each meeting of skin against skin blazed an unforgettable imprint. She tried to shove him away, but he lifted their linked hands and touched his lips to the inside of her wrist. She shivered with a delicious, forbidden pleasure before balling her curled-up hands in her lap. She glared at him.
“Stop the funny business. You’re just as bad as a girl, and you know Dis won’t let me have study dates with a girl. Don’t get all weird on me.”
In answer, he took her fingertips for a third time. Raised it to his cheek and caressed her as she caressed him. “Is this weird?” he asked. “How can you not feel it?”
Clissa stared at him, her mouth parting open. “We can’t,” she whispered. She told herself to pick up her backpack and walk out of the library, but she didn’t listen. “Someone will see.”
“They will think we are school friends having some fun. But you know that’s not the case. Don’t you, Clie?”
Before Clissa could answer, Destral leaned across the table and kissed her on the lips. Explosions set off throughout every muscle in her body, and she gasped. “Des,” she protested, but he had already settled back to his books.
“The Council of Nathair agreed to use ‘orthodox’ in the first article because it emphasized the orthodoxical, rather than natural, quality of living within Bastian law. Sin is natural,” he said. He could doze off in class, wake up five minutes before the end, and recall every single lecture point. It drove Clissa crazy.
“You,” she stammered, wondering if she had imagined the kiss. “You didn’t?”
“I’ll see you at the Festival,” he answered. “Don’t keep me waiting.”