As I mentioned last week, Strefer Quants is from the United Guilds of Altreria, what’s commonly referred to as the Guildlands. The Guilders (as they’re known in The Water Road universe) live in a society that’s arranged completely differently from everywhere else in their world, even the Neldathi. Where family and kin create bonds in most places, Guild society is organized around the Guilds to which people belong. There are no families, as we traditionally think about it.
Here’s Strefer explaining to Rurek, her companion through The Water Road, a little bit of how that works:
“You talk about your mother and father, your siblings? We don’t really have concepts like that in the Guildlands. Sure, some woman gave birth to me and some man did his part so that I was conceived, but neither one of them raised me.”
Rurek shook his head. “You don’t even know who your parents are?”
“I told you, the concept of ‘parents’ really doesn’t exist where I come from. But to answer your question, yes, I do know who the two people who produced me were. I’ve met who you would call my mother once or twice. She is in the Guild of Musicians. I met her after seeing her sing at a concert once. She has a beautiful voice. Shame I didn’t inherit it,” Strefer said with a laugh. “The one you would call my father was from the Guild of Soldiers. He was killed fighting the Azkiri, from what I learned, before I could meet him.”
“I’m so sorry,” Rurek said with genuine compassion.
Strefer shook her head. “You still don’t get it. I’m not talking about someone like your father, who helped raise you, taught you things, protected you. To me he was never more than a name, and may have always been that way. I’m just answering your question about whether I knew who my biological ancestors were.”
“All right, then. No more sympathy from me,” Rurek said jokingly.
“I’ll take sympathy, thank you, but at the appropriate time and place.”
“Duly noted,” he said. “So, with that bridge crossed, who did raise you, then?”
“Not surprisingly,” Strefer said, starting on the final side of the pocket in which the pages had been hidden, “there’s a Guild for that. It’s called the Guild of Midwives, but it really includes a lot more people than that. Men and women, both, you know. Midwives, wet nurses, caregivers, you name it. They’re the ones that do the hard work of actually raising children.”
“But there’s more to it than that, surely,” Rurek said. “Parenting is more than just making sure your daughter gets fed and has a roof over her head at night.”
“It does in Kerkondala, because your society is structured around individual family units. Families just don’t exist like that in the Guildlands. Have you ever wondered about my last name?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I know it sounds a lot like the city where you’re from, but that’s not uncommon in the Arbor or Telebria.”
“Except that, in the Arbor or Telebria, a similarity between a name and place is probably due to that person’s ancestors naming the town. Quants isn’t a family name, Rurek. It’s a short way of telling people I was born in Quantstown. My actual full, official name, as it appears on the rolls now, is Strefer of Quantstown of the Guild of Writers. Quite a mouthful, huh?”
He nodded. “I guess it is.”
“That Alban who got his head bashed in? His last name was Ventris, because that’s where he was from. Nothing more. My point is there is nothing about me that reaches back to some long line of ancestors, like you have.”
“Who named you, then?” Rurek asked.
Strefer stopped sewing for a moment, looked out over the water, and said, “You know, I’m not sure. Never occurred to me to ask. From as young as I can remember, I was Strefer. I could change it if I wanted to, but it works just as well as any other name, doesn’t it?”
“No argument here,” he said. “Rurek is an old family name, goes back generations. I hate it.”
“Why don’t you change it, then?” Strefer asked, returning to her task.
“Because,” Rurek said, stopping for a second to think about it, “it’s just not done where I come from. Like it or not, I do have some connection to my distant ancestors to worry about. Besides, we were talking about you and your childhood. So the Guild of Midwives did the care and feeding part, right? Then who taught you to read and write and how the world works and all that?”
“The Guild of Teachers,” she said. “I don’t know about Arborians, but I’ve heard Telebrians talk about the limited role teachers play in the education of their children. Makes no sense to me. The Guild of Teachers is where the experts are, in everything from how to cook a meal to how to mend your clothes to how to read and write.”
“So you went to school, then?”
“Of course,” she said. “But that’s not the only place you learn things. You know that. The members of the Guild of Teachers work in schools, but also in the dormitories where children live and all over. They teach adults, too, if they want or need to learn about something new.”
Rurek did not ask any more questions and they sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, he said, “It just all seems so strange.”
“That’s because it’s not what you grew up with,” Strefer said, finishing her sewing and handing the coat back to Rurek. “We are most comfortable with what we know. That’s doubly true when you talk about things like how we grew up. To me, it sounds strange to hear people talking about their families and how much they despise a brother or cousin or whatnot, but will then turn around and defend them from attack by outsiders. It makes no sense to me.” She stood up and slung her satchel over her shoulder.
Guilders form bonds, but on their own terms and for their own reasons, rather than out of a sense of societal inertia. It’s a good example of how they interact with the world – rationally and practically, without an overlay of tradition or concerns about doing things differently. It’s a world view that others in the universe of The Water Road have a hard time grasping.