Koriantura was a city of wealth and magnificence. The floors of its palaces were paved with gold, the domes of its pleasure houses lined with porcelain.
Its main church of the Formidable Peace, which stood centrally along the quaysides from which much of the city’s wealth came, was furnished with an exuberant luxury quite foreign to the spirit of an austere god. “They’d never allow such beauty in Askitosh,” the Korianturan congregation was fond of saying.
Even in the shabbier quarters of the city, which stretched back into the foothills, there were architectural details to catch the eye. A love of ornamentation defied poverty and broke out in an unexpected archway, an unpremeditated fountain in a narrow court, a flight of wrought-iron balconies, capable of lifting the spirits even of the humdrum.
Undeniably, Koriantura suffered from the same divisions of wealth and outlook to be found elsewhere. This might be observed, if in no other way, from the welcome given to a rash of posters from the presses of the Oligarchy at present flooding the cities of Uskutoshk. In the richer quarters, the latest proclamation might draw forth an “Oh, how wise, what a good idea!”; while, at the other end of town, the same pronouncement would elicit merely an “Eh, look what the biwackers are up to now!”
Most frontier towns are dispiriting places, where the lees of one culture wait upon the dregs of the next. Koriantura was an exception in that respect. Although known at an earlier date in its history as Utoshki, it was never, as the old name implied, a purely Uskutoshk city. Exotic peoples from the east, in particular from Upper Hazziz and from Kuj-Juvec beyond the Gulf of Chalce, had infiltrated it and given it an exuberance which most cities of Sibornal did not possess, stamping that energy into its very architecture and its arts.
“Bread’s so expensive in Koriantura,” went a saying, “because the opera tickets are so cheap.”
Then, too, Koriantura was on an important crossroads. It pointed the way southwards, south to the Savage Continent and-war or no war-its traders sailed easily to such ports as Dorrdal in Pannoval. It also stood at one end of the frequented sea route which led to distant Shivenink and the grainlands of Carcampan and Bribahr.
Then again, Koriantura was ancient and its connections with earlier ages had not been broken. It was still possible to find, in the antiquarian stalls of its back streets, documents and books written in antique languages, detailing lost ways of life. Every lane seemed to lead backwards into time. Koriantura had been spared many of the disasters which afflict frontier towns. Behind it stood, range on range, the foothills of the greater hills which in turn formed a footstool to the Circumpolar Mountains, where the ice cap ground its many teeth in cold fury. Before it lay the sea on one side and, on the other, a steep escarpment up which those must climb who would leave the barren steppes of Chalce and enter the city.
No invading Campannlatian armies, having survived the march across the steppes, had ever stormed that escarpment.
Koriantura was easy to defend against everything but the impending winter.
Although many military personnel were stationed in Koriantura, they had not succeeded in downgrading it into a garrison town. Peaceful trade could prosper, and the arts to which trade paid somewhat grudging homage. Which was why the Odim family lived there.
The Odim business ranged along one of the wharfs on Climent Quay. The family house stood not far away, in an area that was neither the smartest nor the shabbiest in town. The day’s business done, Eedap Mun Odim, chief support of his large family, saw his employees off the premises, checked that the kilns were safe and the windows bolted, and emerged from a side door with his first mistress.
The first mistress was a vivacious lady by name Besi Besamitikahl. She held various packages for Odim as he fussed over locking the door to his premises. When the task was done to his satisfaction, he turned and gave her his gentle smile.
“Now we go our separate ways, and I will see you at home soon.”
“Walk fast. Watch out for soldiers on the way.”
She had only a short walk, round the corner and into Hill Road. He turned in the other direction, towards the local church.
Eedap Mun Odim kept a straight back against middle age. He tucked his beard inside his suede coat. He had a rather grand walk: more of a strut, which he emphasised despite the wind. He turned in at the church in time for service, as he did every evening after business was done. There, like the good Uskuti round him, he humbled himself before God the Azoiaxic. It was only a short service.
Besi Besamitikahl, meanwhile, had reached the Odim house and knocked to be let in by the watchman.
The Odim mansion was the last in the street leading down to Climent Quay. From its upper windows, good views were obtained of the harbour, with the Pannoval Sea beyond. The house had been built two centuries earlier by prosperous merchants of Kuj-Juveci descent. To avoid high Korianturan ground rents, each floor of the five-storey house was larger than the one below. There was ample room under the roof, where the best views were, and little room on the ground floor for anything but the entrance hall and a lair for a surly watchman with his hound. A narrow staircase twisted up through the building. In the many stuffy rooms of the second, third, and fourth floors, many stuffy Odim relations were housed. The top floor belonged to Odim and his wife and children alone. Eedap Mun Odim was a Kuj-Juveci, despite the fact that he had been born in this very house. About Besi it was more difficult to say.
Besi was an orphan who remembered neither of her parents, although rumour had it that she was the daughter of a slave woman from far Dimariam. Some claimed that this slave woman had been accompanying her master on a pilgrimage to Holy Kharnabhar; he had kicked her out on the streets on discovering that she was about to give birth. Whether true or not (Besi would say cheerfully), the story had a ring of truth. Such things happened.
Besi had survived her childhood by dancing in those same streets into which her mother had been kicked. By that dancing, she had come to the notice of a dignitary on his way to the Oligarch’s court in Askitosh. After undergoing a variety of abuses at the hands of this man, Besi managed to escape from the house in which she was imprisoned with other women by hiding in an empty walrus-oil vat.
She was rescued from the vat by a nephew of Eedap Mun Odim’s, who traded on his uncle’s behalf in Askitosh. She so charmed this im pressionable young man, particularly when she played her trump card and danced for him, that he took her in marriage. Their joy, however, was brief. Four tenners after their wedding day, the nephew fell from the loft of one of his uncle’s warehouses and broke his neck.
As orphan, ex-dancing girl, slave, other dubious things, and now widow, Besi Besamitikahl had no standing in any respectable Uskuti community.
Odim, however, was a Kuj-fuveci, and a mere trader. He protected Besi-not least from the scorn of her relations by marriage-and so discovered that the girl could think as well as employ her more obvious talents. Since she still had her beauty, he adopted her as first mistress.
Besi was grateful. She became rather plump, tried to look less flighty, and assisted Odim in the countinghouse; in time, she could supervise the complex business of ordering his cargoes and scrutinising bills of lading. The days of the Oligarch’s court and the walrus oil were now far behind her.
After a brief exchange with the watchman, she climbed the winding stair to her own room.
She paused at one of the tiny kitchens on the second floor, where an old grandmother was busy preparing supper with a maidservant. The old woman gave Besi a greeting, then turned back to the business of making pastry savrilas.
Lamplight gleamed on pale and honey-coloured forms, the simple shapes of bowls and jugs, plates, spoons and sieves, and on dumpy bags of flour. The pastry was being rolled wafer-thin, as mottled old hands moved above its irregular shape. The young maidservant leaned against a wall, looking on vacantly, pulling at her lower lip. Water in a skillet hissed over a charcoal fire. A pecubea sang in its cage.
What Odim said could not be true: that everyday life in Koriantura was threatened-not while the grandmother’s capable hands continued to turn out t hose perfect half-moon shapes, each with a dimpled straight edge and a twist of pastry at one end. Those little pillows of pleasure spoke of a domestic contentment which could not be shattered. Odim worried too much. Odim always worried. Nothing would happen.
Besides, tonight Besi had someone other than Odim on her mind. There was a mysterious soldier in the house, and she had glimpsed him that morning.
All the lower and less favoured rooms were occupied by Odim’s many relatives. They constituted almost a small township. Besi held little communication with any of them except the old grandmother, resenting the way they sponged off Odim’s good nature. She patrolled through their rooms with her nose in the air, tilting that organ at an angle which enabled her to see what was happening in those enervating abodes.
Here basked remote female Odims of great age, grown monstrous on sloth; younger female Odims, their figures flowing like loose garments under the impact of bearing multitudinous small Odims; adolescent female Odims, willowy, reeking of zaldal perfume, frugal in all but the spots and pallors of indoor life; and the multitudinous small Odims themselves, clad in bright frocks or frocklets, so that boy could scarcely be distinguished from girl, should anyone wish to do so, scurrying, sicking, scuttling, squabbling, suckling, screaming, sulking, or sleeping.
Scattered here and there like cushions, overwhelmed by the preponderance of femininity, were a few Odim males. Castrated by their dependence on Eedap Mun Odim, they were vainly growing beards or smoking veronikanes or bellowing orders never to be complied with, in an effort to assert the ascendancy of their sex. And all these relations and interrelations, of whatever generation, bore, in their sallow skin colour, their listless eye, their heaviness of jowl, their tendency-if an avalanche may be so termed- towards corpulence, flatulence, and somnolence, such a family resemblance that only loathing prompted Besi to distinguish one odious Odim from the next.
Yet the Odims themselves made clear distinctions. Despite their superabundance, they kept each to their own portion of whatever room they occupied, squabbling luxuriously in corners or lounging on clearly defined patches of carpet. Narrow trails were traced out across each crowded chamber, so that any child venturing onto the territory of a rival, even that of a mother’s sister,might expect a clout straight off, no questions asked. At night, brothers slept in perfect and jealously guarded privacy within two feet of their voluptuous sisters-in-law. Their tiny portions of real estate were marked off by ribbons or rugs, or draperies hung from lines of string. Every square yard was guarded with the ferocity normally lavished on kingdoms.
These arrangements Besi viewed with jaundiced eye. She saw how the murals on the walls were becoming besmirched by her master’s vast family; the sheer fattiness of the Odims was steaming the delicate tones from the plaster. The murals depicted lands of plenty, ruled over by two golden suns, where deer sported amid tall green trees, and young men and women lay by bushes full of doves, dallying or blowing suggestively on flutes. Those idylls had been painted two centuries ago, when the house was new; they reflected a bygone world, the vanished valleys of Kuj-Juvec in autumn.
Both the paintings and their pending destruction fed Besi’s mood of discontent; but what she was chiefly seeking was a place where she could enjoy a little privacy away from her master’s eye. As she completed her tour in increasing disgust, she heard the outside door slam and the watchdog give its sharp bark.
She ran to the stairwell and looked down.
Her master, Eedap Mun Odim, was returning from worship, and setting his foot on the lowest stair. She saw his fur hat, his suede coat, the shine of his neat boots, all foreshortened. She caught glimpses of his long nose and his long beard. Unlike all his relations, Eedap Mun Odim was a slender man, a morsel; work and money worries had contained his waistline. The sole pleasures he allowed himself were those of the bedchamber, where-as Besi knew-he kept a caut ious mercantile tally of them and entered them in a little book.
Uncertain what to do, she stood where she was. Odim drew level and glanced at her. He nodded and gave a slight smile.
“Don’t disturb me,” he said, as he passed. “I shall not want you tonight.”
“As you please,” she said, employing one of her well-worn phrases. She knew what was worrying him. Eedap Mun Odim was a leading light in the porcelain trade, and the porcelain trade was in difficulties.
Odim climbed to the top of the house and closed his door. His wife had a meal prepared; its aromas filtered through the house and down to those quarters where food was less easily come by.
Besi remained on the landing, in the dusk among the odours of crowded lives, half-listening to the noises all round her. She could hear, too, the sound of military boots outside, as soldiers marched along the Climent Quay. Her fingers, still slender, played a silent tune on the bannister rail.
So it was that she stood concealed from anyone on the floors below her. So it was that she saw the old watchman creep from his lair, look furtively about, and slink out the door. Perhaps he was going to find out what the Oligarch’s soldiery were doing. Although Besi had taken care to befriend him long ago, she knew the watchman would never dare let her out of the house without Odim’s permission.
After a moment, the door opened again. In came a man of military bearing, whose wide bar of moustache neatly divided his face along its horizontal axis. This was the man who had provided the secret motive for Besi’s inspection of her domain. It was Captain Harbin Fashnalgid, their new lodger.
The watchdog came rushing out of the watchman’s lair and began to bark. But Besi was already moving swiftly down the stairs, as nimbly as a plump little doe down a steep cliff.
“Hush, hush!” she called. The dog turned to her, swinging its black jowls around and making a mock charge to the bottom of the stairs. It thrust out a length of tongue and spread saliva across Besi’s hand without in any way relaxing its menacing scowl. “Down,” she said. “Good boy.”
The captain came across the hall and clutched her arm. They stared into each other’s eyes, hers a deep deep brown, his a startling grey. He was tall and slim, a true pure Uskuti, and unlike the proliferating Odims in every way. Thanks to the Oligarch’stroop movements, the captain had been billeted on Odim the previous day, and Odim had reluctantly made room for him among his family on the top floor. When the captain and Besi clapped eyes on each other, Besi-whose survival through a hazardous life had had something to do with her impressionability-had fallen in love with him straight away.
A plan came immediately into her mind.
“Let’s have a walk outside,” she said. “The watchman’s not here.”
He held her even more tightly.
“It’s cold outside.”
All he needed was her slight imperious shake of the head, and then they moved together to the door, looking up furtively into the shadows of the staircase. But Odim was closeted in his room and one woman or another would be playing a binnaduria and singing him songs of forsaken fortresses in Kuj-Juvec, where maidens were betrayed and white gloves, dropped one fateful dimday, were forever treasured.
Captain Fashnalgid put his heavy boot to the chest of the hound- which had shown every sign of following them away from captivity-and whisked Besi Besamitikahl into the outside world. He was a man of decision in the realm of love. Grasping her arm firmly, he led her across the courtyard and out of the gate where the oil lamp burned.
As one they turned to the right, heading up the cobbled street.
“The church,” she said. Neither said another word, for the cold wind blew in their faces, coming from the Circumpolar Mountains with ice on its breath.
In the street, winding upwards with it, went a line of pale dogthrush trees, wan between the two enclosing stone cliffs of houses. Their leaves flapped in the wind. A file of soldiers, muffled, heads down, walked on the other side of the road, their boots setting up echoes. The sky was a sludgy grey which spread to everything beneath it.
In the church, lights burned. A congregation cried its evensong. Since the church had a slightly bohemian reputation, Odim never came here. Outside its walls, tall man-high stones stood in rows, more correct than soldiers, commemorating those whose days beneath the sky were done. The furtive lovers
picked their way among the memorials and hid against a shadowy sheltered wall. Besi put her arms round the captain’s neck.
After they whispered to each other for some while, he slid a hand inside her furs and her dress. She gasped at the cold of his touch. When she reciprocated, he grunted at the chill of her hand. Their flesh seemed ice and fire alternately, as they worked closer together. Besi noticed with approval that the captain was enjoying himself and in no great hurry. Loving was so easy, she thought, and whispered in his ear, “It’s so simple . . .” He only burrowed deeper.
When they were united, he held her firmly against the wall. She let her head roll back against the rough stone and gasped his name, so newly learned.
Afterwards, they leaned together against the wall, and Fashnalgid said matter-of-factly, “It was good. Are you happy with your master?”
“Why ask me that?”
“I hope one day to make something of myself. Maybe I could buy you, once this present trouble’s over.”
She snuggled against him, saying nothing. Life in the army was uncertain. To be a captain’s chattel was a steep step down from her present security.
He brought a flask from his pocket and drank deeply. She smelt the tang of spirits and thought, Thank God Odim doesn’t booze. Captains are all drinkers . . .
Fashnalgid gasped. “I’m not much catch, I know that.The fact is, girl, I’m worried about this errand I’m on. They’ve landed me with a real sherber this ti me, my scab-devouring regiment here. I reckon I’m going mad.”
“You’re not from Koriantura, are you?”
“I’m from Askitosh. Are you listening to me?”
“It’s freezing. We’d better get back.”
Grudgingly, he came along, taking her arm in the street, which made her feel like a free woman.
“Have you heard the name of Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka?”
With the wind about her head, she gave him only a nod. He wasn’t as romantic as she had hoped. But she had been to listen to the Priest-Militant just a tenner earlier, when he had held an outdoor service in one of the city squares. He had spoken so eloquently. His gestures had been pleasing and she had enjoyed watching. Asperamanka!-what a gift of the gab! Later, she and Odim had watched him lead his army through the city and out by the East Gate. The guns had shaken the ground as they passed. And all those young men marching off ...
“The Priest-Militant took my oath of fealty to the Oligarchy when I was made captain. That’s a while ago.” He smoothed his heavy moustache. “Now I’m really in trouble. Abro Hakmo Astab!”
Besi was deeply disgusted to hear this curse spoken in her presence. Only the lowest and most desperate would use it. She tugged her arm from his and quickened her pace down the street.
“That man has won a great victory for us against Pannoval. We heard about it in the mess at Askitosh. But it’s being kept secret. Secrets . . . Sibornal lives on sherbing secrets. Why do you think they should do that?”
“Can you tip our watchman so that he doesn’t makea fuss to Odim?” She paused as they got to the outer gate. A new poster had been pasted up there. She could not read it in the dark, and did not wish to.
As Fashnalgid felt in his pocket for money as she requested, he said, in a flat way that seemed characteristic, “I have been posted to Koriantura to help organise a force which will ambush the Priest- Militant’s army when it returns from Chalce. Our orders are to kill every last man, including Asperamanka. What do you make of that?”
“It sounds awful,” Besi said. “I’d better go in first in case there’s trouble.”
Next morning, the wind had dropped, and Koriantura was enveloped in a soft brown fog, through which the two suns gleamed intermittently. Besi watched the thin, parched form of Eedap Mun Odim as he ate breakfast. She was allowed to eat only when he had finished. He did not speak, but she knew that he was in his usual resigned good humour. Even while she recollected the pleasures that Captain Fashnalgid could offer, she knew that she was, despite everything, fond of Odim.
As if to test out his humour, he allowed upstairs one of his distant relations, a second cousin who professed to be a poet, to speak to him.
“I have a new poem, cousin, an Ode to History,” said the man, bowing, and began to declaim.
“Whose is my life? Is history
To be considered property
Only of those who make it?
May not my finer fancy take it
Into my heart’s morality
And shape it just as it shapes me?”
There was more of the same. “Very good,” said Odim, rising and wiping his bearded lips on a silken napkin. “Fine sentiments, well displayed. Now I must get down to the office, if you will excuse me- refreshed by your ornamental thoughts.”
“Your praise overwhelms me,” said the distant cousin, and withdrew.
Odim took another sip of his tea. He never touched alcohol.
He summoned Besi to his side as a servant came forward to help him into his outdoor coat. His progress down the stairs, Besi obediently following, was slow, as he underwent the barrage of his relations, those Odims who squawked like starlings on every stair, cajoling but not quite begging, jostling but not quite pushing, touching but not quite impacting, calling but not quite shrieking, lifting tiny befrocked Odims for inspection but not exactly thrusting them in his face, as he performed his daily spiral downwards.
“Uncle, little Ghufla can do his arithmetic so well . . .”
“Uncle, I am so shamed that I must tell you of yet another infidelity when we are private together.”
“Darling Unky, stop a while while I tell you of my terrifying dream in which some terrible shining creature like a dragon came and devoured us all.”
“Do you admire my new dress? I could dance in it for you?”
“Have you news from my creditor yet, please?”
“Despite your orders, Kenigg kicks me and pulls my hair and makes my life a misery, Unky. Please let me be your servant and escape him.”
“You forget those who love you, darling Eedap. Save us from our poverty, as we have pleaded so often.”
“How noble and handsome you look today, Unk Eedap . . .”
The merchant showed neither impatience at the constant supplications nor pleasure at the forced compliments.
He pushed slowly through the thickets of Odim flesh, the odours of Odim sweat and perfume, saying a word here and there, smiling, permitting himself once to squeeze the mangolike breasts proffered by a young great-niece, sometimes even going so far as to press a silver coin into a particularly protruding hand. It was as if he considered-and indeed he did-t hat life could be got through only by sufferance, dispensing as few advantages to others as possible but nevertheless retaining a general humanity for the sake of one’s self-respect.
Only when he was outside, as Besi closed the gate after him, did Odim display emotion. There, pasted to his wall, were two posters. He made a convulsive clutch at his beard.
The first poster warned that the PLAGUE was threatening the lives of the citizens of Uskutoshk. The
PLAGUE was particularly active in ports, and most especially in THE RENOWNED AND ANCIENT CITY OF
KORIANTURA. Citizens were warned that public meetings were henceforth banned. More than four people gathering together in public places would be subject to severe punishment.
Further regulations designed to restrict the spread of THE FAT DEATH would be introduced shortly. BY
ORDER OF THE OLIGARCH.
Odim read this notice through twice, very seriously. Then he turned to the second poster.
THE RESTRICTIONS OF PERSONS IN ABODES ACT. After several clauses in obscurantist language, a bolder clause stood out:
THESE LIMITATIONS as regards houses, demesnes, lodgings, rooms, and other Dwellings apply in particular to any household where the Householder is not of Uskuti blood. Such Persons are shown to be particularly liable to conduct the Spread of the Plague. Their numbers will henceforth be limited to One Person per Two Square Metres floorspace. BY ORDER OF THE OLIGARCH.
The announcement was not unexpected. It was aimed at doing away with the more bohemian quarters of the city, where the Oligarchy found no favour. Odim’s friends on the local council had warned him of its coming.
Once more, the Uskuti were demonstrating their racial prejudices-prejudices of which the Oligarchy was quick to take advantage. Phagors had been banned from walking untended in Sibornalese cities long ago.
It made no difference that Odim and his forebears had lived in this city for centuries. The Restrictions of Persons in Abodes Act rendered it impossible for him to protect his family any longer.
Looking quickly about him, Odim tore the poster from the wall, screwed it up, and thrust it under his suede coat.
This action alarmed Besi almost as much as the captain’s oath had done the previous evening. She had never seen Odim step outside the law before. His unswerving obedience to what was legal was well- known. She gasped and stared at him with her mouth open.
“The winter is coming,” was all he said. His face was drawn into bitter lines.
“Take my arm, girl,” he said huskily. “We shall have to do something . . .”
The fog rendered the quayside a place of beauty where a copse of swaying masts floated in the sepia glow. The sea lay entranced. Even the customary slap of rigging against mast was silent.
Odim wasted no time admiring the view, turning in at the substantial arcade above which a sign bore the words ODIM FINEST EXPORT PORCELAINS. Besi followed him past bowing clerks into his inner sanctum.
Odim stopped abruptly.
His ofEce had been invaded. An army officer stood there, warming himself before the lignite fire and picking his teeth with a match. Two armed private soldiers stood close, their faces impervious in usual bodyguard fashion.
By way of greeting, the major spat the match on the floor and tucked his hands behind his back. He was a tall man in a lumpy coat. He had grey in his hair and a lumpish protruding mouth, as if his teeth, imbued with true military spirit, were waiting to burst through his lips and bite a civilian.
“What can I do for you?” asked Odim.
Without answering the question, the major announced himself in a way that exercised his teeth prominently.
“I am Major Gardeterark of the Oligarch’s First Guard. Well-known,not liked. From you I will have a list of all times of sailing for ships in which you have an interest. Today and coming week.” He spoke in a deep voice, giving each syllable an equal weight, as if words were feet to be firmly planted on a long march.
“I can do that, yes. Will you sit and take some tea?”
The major’s teeth moved a little further forward.
“I want that list, nothing else.”
“Certainly, sir. Please make yourself comfortable while I get my chief clerk-“
“I am comfortable. Don’t delay me. I have waited six minutes for your arrival as it is. The list.”
Whatever its disadvantages, the northern continent of Sibornal had reserves of minerals and seams of lignite unmatched elsewhere. It also boasted a variety of clays.
Both china and glass drinking vessels had been in regular use in Koriantura while the little lords of the Savage Continent were still quaffing their rathel from wooden bowls. As early as the spring of the Great Year, potteries as far afield as Carcampan and Uskutoshk were producing porcelains fired in lignite-fuelled kilns at temperatures of 1400° C. Through the centuries, these fine wares were increasingly sought after and collected.
Eedap Mun Odim took little part in porcelain manufacture, though there were auxiliary kilns on his premises. He exported fine china. He exported the local, prized Korianturan porcelain to Shivenink and Bribahr, but mainly to ports in Campannlat, where, as a man of Kuj-Juveci descent, he was more welcome than his Sibornalese competitors. He did not own the ships which carried his wares. He made his business from the entrepreneurial trade, and from banking and financing; he even lent money to his rivals and made a profit.
Most of his wealth came from the Savage Continent, from ports along its northern coastline, from Vaynnwosh, Dorrdal, Dowwel, and from even farther afield, Powachet and Popevin, where his competitors would not trade. It was precisely this adventurous element of Odim’s business which made his hand tremble slightly as he handed his sailing timetable over to the major. He knew without being told that foreign names would be bad for the soldier’s liver.
The gaze of the major, as brown and foggy as the air outside, travelled down the printed page.
“Your trade goes mainly to alien ports,” he said at last, in the leathery voice. “Those ports are all thick with the plague. Our great Oligarch, whom the Azoiaxic preserve, fights to save his peoples from the plague, which has its source in the Savage Continent. There will be no more sailings for any Campannlat port from now on.”
“No more sailings? But you can’t-“
“I can, and I say no more sailings. Until further notice.”
“But my trade, my business, good sir . . .”
“Lives of women and children are more important than your trade. You are a foreigner, aren’t you?”
“No. I am not a foreigner. I and my family have lived in Uskutoshk for three generations.”
“You’re no Uskutoshi. Your looks, your name, tell me that.”
“Sir! I am Kuj-Juveci only by distant origins.”
“From today, this city is under military law. You obey orders, understand? If you don’t, if one of your cargoes leaves this port for foreign parts, you are liable to be tried by military court and sentenced . . .”
The major let the words hang in the air before adding two further words in his best leather: “. . . to death.”
“It will mean ruin to me and my family,” Odim said, trying to wrench a smile out of himself.
The major beckoned to one of the privates, who produced a document from his tunic.
The major flung it on the table.
“It’s all down there. Sign it to prove you’ve understood.” He let hiseeth air while Odim blindly signed, before adding, “Yes, as a foreigner, you report every morning in future to my under officer in charge of this whole area. He has just established an office in the warehouse next door, so you’ve not far to go.”
“Sir, let me repeat, I am not a foreigner. I was born round the corner. I am chairman of the local trades committee. Ask them.”
As he made a supplicatory gesture, the wadded-up poster fell from under his coat. Besi stepped forward and put it carefully on the fire. The major ignored her, as he had all along. He merely stuck his tongue between teeth and upper lip, as if considering Odim’s impertinence, and then said, “You report every morning in future to my under officer, as I just said. He’s Captain Fashnalgid and he is next door.” At the mention of this name, Besi leant over the fire. It must have been the flames from the burning poster which caused a brief ruddiness in her cheeks.
When Major Gardeterark and his escort had left, Odim shut the door into the packinghouse and sat down by the fire. Very slowly he leaned forward, picked a chewed match from the carpet, and tossed it to the back of the grate. Besi knelt beside him and held his hand. Neither spoke for a long while.
At last Odim said, with an attempt at brightness, “Well, my dear little Besi, we are in difficulty. How can we meet it? Where can we all live? Here, possibly. Perhaps we could do away with that kiln we scarcely use and house some relations in there. The room could be made nice . . . But if I am not allowed to trade, then . . . well, ruin faces us all. They know that, the scoundrels. These Uskuti would have us all for slaves . . .”
“Wasn’t he horrible, that man? Hiseyes, his teeth . . . like a crab.”
Odim sat up in his chair and clicked his fingers. “One stroke of luck, though. First, we start work with this Fashnalgid in the next warehouse. By good fortune, that very captain is at present billeted with me- you may have caught a glimpse of him. He reads books and perhaps he’s civilised. And my wife feeds him well. Perhaps we could persuade him to help us.”
He lifted up Besi’s chin so that she was forced to look him in the eye.
“Always something can be done, my chick. Go round to this nice Captain Fashnalgid and invite him here. Say I have a present for him. He’ll bend the regulations for us, for sure. And, Besi . . . he’s as ugly as a mountain devil, but never mind. Very very sweet to him, eh, chick? As sweet as you can be, and that’s very sweet. Even a little tempting- you know? Even if you have to go to the limit. Our lives depend on such things . . .”
He tapped his long nose and smiled coaxingly.
“Run along, my dove. And remember-stop at nothing to win him over.”