We have the cover reveal for a forthcoming trans fantasy novella (Sept 2020) by R.B. Lemberg, set in the Birdverse universe – “The Four Profound Weaves.” Preorders open now.
Wind: To match one’s body with one’s heart
Sand: To take the bearer where they wish
Song: In praise of the goddess Bird
Bone: To move unheard in the night
The Surun’ nomads do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But aged Uiziya must find her aunt in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.
Among the Khana in the springflower city of Iyar, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter, as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother. As his past catches up, the man must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya – while Uiziya must discover how to challenge the evil Ruler of Iyar, and to weave from deaths that matter.
In this breathtaking debut set in R. B. Lemberg’s beloved Birdverse, The Four Profound Weaves hearkens to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and offers a timeless chronicle of claiming one’s identity ina hostile world.
“I am staggered by the richness and intricacy of R. B. Lemberg’s imagination. The Four Profound Weaves is an intense and emotional story of a journey of change, growth, and courage.” —Kate Elliott, New York Times bestselling author of the Court of Fives series
“R. B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves tells the journey of a pair of aged and appealing wanderers searching for magic, art, identity, and peace. Thought-challenging points-of-view weave together stark violence, intricate powers, and the musings of long and complicated lives. The Four Profound Weaves contains imagery that glows on the page.” —Patricia McKillip, author of the Riddle-Master Trilogy and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
About the Birdverse
The Birdverse is the creation of fantasy author R. B. Lemberg. It is a complex, culturally diverse world, with a range of LGBTQIA characters and different family configurations. Named after its deity, Bird, Birdverse works have been nominated for the Nebula award, longlisted for the Hugo award and the Tiptree award, placed in the Rhysling award, won the Strange Horizons readers’ poll, and more. The Four Profound Weaves is the first full-length work set in the Birdverse.
Uiziya e Lali
Everybody seemed to be in the trading tents, but I dragged my feet—and not just because of the pain from sitting still for so long. The encampment felt empty. The carpet of sand on my shoulder whispered into my ear of the wide-open spaces where I wanted and dreaded to go. It was thin, almost weightless, as if it wanted to fly away from my shoulder. I tried to imagine what I would do next, after I traded the carpet away. Sell my tent and my weavings and move to some other encampment, where nobody knew me and nobody gossiped? Walk out into the desert without any water, and wait for the goddess Bird to come for my soul? Go look for that thing that I dreaded? Go back to my tent and sit once again?
I stepped closer and closer, my resolve liquefying like sweat, when I saw my old acquaintance, the nameless man. He was all but running away from the tents, his lighter brown face a grimace of anger-pain-anger I’d come to recognize in him.
Seeing me, he stopped, and averted his gaze.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
A thin green snake slithered in the dusk between us, as if drawing a boundary I should not cross. I stepped right over it.
“So what is going on?” I had a habit of repeating a question until it was answered.
“Go see for yourself,” he said. “Trading is a woman’s business, I’m told.”
“Is it Aviya again? Telling you to go sit with the men?”
“Yes. But there’s more—they are selling Kimi’s weave.’’ He spoke bitterly. “Like the one you’d all woven for my transformation, but Kimi made it alone, out of joy and wind and—and these butterflies . . .”
I had woven a carpet of change for myself, at the dawn of my life.
“I will teach you to weave from wind,” my aunt had said to me then, “the first mystery of the ever-changing desert. A weave of change: the first of the Four Profound Weaves I will teach you until you are ready to put together my loom.”
The nameless man spoke on, his voice shaking with the speed and vehemence of his feeling. “My grandchild’s first carpet, first trade, to be traded to the Collector, to be held by the Collector’s hands, and they all think it’s nothing. Joyful even. Joyful!” He took a deep breath. Spoke a bit slower. “What joy is there in trading the cloth of change to a man who will never change? The Collector will lock this cloth in his coffers, away from all eyes but his, away from the people who would use it, who need it, themselves, to change.”
I sighed. “Kimi doesn’t want to change yet.”
“Then she should—he should—they should—” The nameless man waved his hand in exasperation. “Kimi should keep the cloth and transform already!”
“Your grandchild hasn’t chosen whether to transform,” I said patiently, as I had many times before. “It may never matter to them to go through the change in the body. It is enough that they would weave.” I was a good listener, if nothing else; but this I have listened to over and over. The nameless man’s people, the Khana, did not recognize in-betweeners. The nameless man’s people did not recognize people like him, either; instead, they insisted that the shape of one’s body determined one’s fate. “The Khana are not the only people in the world who make up these rules and these freedoms.”
The nameless man waved his hand in the air again, as if to shoo a stray butterfly. Then he eyed me with a bit more attentiveness. “You, too, bring a carpet to the tent?”
“As you see.” I wanted him to ask me about the carpet. I wanted him to ask me why. I wanted to tell him then of my endless waiting, and how I wanted it to be over. I was a good listener, but now I wanted him to listen as I told him about Aunt Benesret. After he came back to us after forty years away, he kept asking about Benesret, and everybody shushed him, because in our encampment we did not say her name.
But he asked me nothing. Just squinted at my carpet and said, “You shouldn’t sell it, either.”
“How like a man, to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do.” Half-exasperation, half-compliment in acknowledgment of his change, the words flew out of my mouth before I knew it.
He grimaced bitterly. “That’s right. I’ll just go sit with the men, then.”
Then he walked past me, head drawn into his shoulders.
the nameless man
I walked where my feet took me, to the outskirts of the encampment. I thought Uiziya might follow me, but she didn’t. I was on my own, and perhaps that was best.
After my transformation, I tried sitting with the Surun’ men. They had showed me how to speak Surun’ like a man and how to move, how to shave my face Surun’-style. They were friends and good people, but I did not want to go much deeper into their ways. I was no warrior. I could fight when I needed, but that was not what being a man meant to me. I wasn’t Surun’. I was Khana.
Our people lived in Iyar, but we weren’t Iyari. Behind the walls of our quarter, walled off from the rest of the city by royal decrees, the Khana lived separate lives, and in the Khana quarter, women and men lived separate lives yet again, divided from each other by an inner wall.
Our men were scholars, not warriors. Scholars and makers of magical automata for the utter glory of Bird and her hidden brother, the singer Kimri. As a child I would wake up in darkness to stand under the white walls of the men’s inner quarter, where I wasn’t allowed—waiting—waiting for our men to sing the dawnsong to bring the sibling gods closer, and with them, the dawn.
But now I was here, far east and away from Iyar, in the great Burri desert. It was here, at this very place, in this dust, on the outskirts of the snake-Surun’ encampment, I had stood in my cloth made of winds, the weave of transformation my friends and my grandchildren had woven for me out of love. I’d lifted my arms to the sky and the sandbirds had come to me, sent to me by the goddess Bird and summoned by the cloth of winds. They were birds of bright fire that fell from the sky and cocooned me, until I could see and hear nothing except the warmth and the feathers enveloping me and the threads of the wind singing each to each until my whole skin was ignited by the sun, my body changing and changed by the malleable flame. And when it was done, I sang.
I sang as the wind and the feathers dissolved into sand under my feet; I sang because my transformation was complete. I sang the dawnsong—the sacred melody that the men of my people sing, standing on the roof of the men’s quarter every morning.
Since then, I had not sung again. As it had for the decades before, the sacred melody sat like a lump in my throat, and I could neither voice it nor swallow it.
I did not know how much time passed, but when I lifted my gaze from the sand where I knelt, I saw Uiziya, the dun-colored carpet still over her shoulder.
Uiziya was a friend from earlier days, when I was young and full of hope still, but now I did not know her that well. She was always at gatherings, weaving with the others—weaving even my own cloth of winds preparing for my transformation, but she did not say much. She was Benesret’s niece, and I asked about Benesret, but the others were wary of Uiziya speaking. Every time she opened her mouth to speak of her aunt, she was shushed.
Now she came closer. Her shadow, broad and round, fell over me, sheltering me from the glare of the sky. The carpet she carried over her shoulder stirred, whispering in a language I did not understand.
“Why did you come back here?” she asked.
I looked away. “You would not understand.”
Uiziya shrugged. “I think I do. It is not hard to be a changer among my people. I know that it is not true everywhere, but in the great Burri desert, changing your body to match your heart is not a thing to bleed your eyes over.”
“It is for me.” Of course, she would say this. She grew up here, the vast Burri desert ruled by the Old Royal, who was a changer themself, and welcomed all changers. I was from Iyar.
“I know it is hard for you, heart.” Uiziya stretched out a hand, but I made no motion or word to welcome her touch, and she pulled back.
“If I was from the desert,” I said, “Benesret would weave my cloth of transformation then and there, when I saw her first when I was twenty-four and she was forty and wise and splendid under the ancient discolored weavings in her tent.”
“If you were from the desert,” echoed Uiziya, “you would not need Benesret. You would have the cloth woven for you by family, if any were gifted enough. Or you would travel southeast to the Old Royal’s capital, and transform at the Sandbird Festival. You would make the transformation as a youth, and go sit with the men and go speak with the men and go guard with the men, and sire children as a man, and raise children as a man, and think no more these noisy, agitated thoughts of yours.”
I did not want to think my noisy, agitated thoughts, but they sat better with me than the matter-of-fact, “everything is perfectly commonplace about a swarm of sandbirds cocooning your body and helping you transform, and then you just go sit with the men” conversation I’d had with so many Surun’ people. I was not Surun’. I was not from the desert at all. As a Khana person from Iyar, I did not fit, among women, among men. Even far away from home, with only myself for company, I did not fit.
I did not want to wound her, but I did not know how to talk to anyone anymore.
“Forgive me. I think you would understand better if you were a changer.”
She lowered herself down slowly, as if the movements pained her, until she sat by my side. “I, too, am a changer.”
“Oh?” I frowned, uncomfortable. I had always assumed—I shouldn’t have assumed—how could I have assumed? “Forgive me.”
Uiziya shrugged. “I made my own cloth of transformation when I was a child.”
I did not know that she was a changer, like me. I never thought anyone was. I had never met others who went through the change in Iyar. They were banished or imprisoned or hiding or dead. But here, in the desert, changing one’s shape was a matter of ritual, of love, not of desperate secrets.
Uiziya kept speaking. “The first weave is the weave of change, the first mystery of the everchanging desert, the first of the Four Profound Weaves that Aunt Benesret taught me. I wove my cloth of winds, and sandbirds came to me, like they did to you. They cocooned me and burned without burning, and when they were done, I was myself in my body.”
“I did not know,” I said again. “I’m sorry.”
“Nobody remembers anymore. I do not think about it too much. It was a relief. I’d always been a little girl.”
We were face to face, Uiziya crouching, me kneeling, and between us the finest threads of sand whispered each to each in a language I did not understand. No longer dun, the carpet of sand undulated with every shade of yellow and brown and gold, and between these strands I saw glimpses of sunset and shadow, and bones—always bones—bones of strange, beguiled animals that had once roamed the desert before the goddess Bird brought our people here, and our stars.
“Why did you return to this place?” Uiziya asked again. She had a habit of asking the same question over and over until she was satisfied.
Because I was running away. No, that wasn’t it. “Looking for something.”
My song. I had it for the brief moment after my transformation, but now it felt farther away from me than ever before. My people. Except they were far, in Iyar, behind layers of walls, and I did not want to go back.
“My name,” I said at last. “I always thought Benesret would give it to me when I came back here, came back to her, ready at last to transform. But when I came back, she was gone.”
“They exiled her,” said Uiziya.
“Why?” I asked. “Why did they exile her?”
“Because they were afraid.”
R. B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, and many other venues. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. You can find more of their work on their Patreon (patreon.com/rblemberg) and a full bio at rblemberg.nets.