Asystem of raised dykes covered the marshlands between Koriantura and Chalce like a network of veins. Here and there, the dykes intersected. The intersections were sometimes marked by crude gates, which prevented domestic cattle from wandering. The tops of the dykes were flattened where animals and men had worn paths; the sides of the dykes were covered in rough lush grass that merged into reeds bearding the lips of ditches which ran with black water. The land divided by these features squelched when walked upon. Heavy domestic cattle crossed it with slow deliberation. They paused occasionally to drink from dark open pools.
Luterin Shokerandit and his captive woman were the only human figures to be seen for miles. Their progress occasionally disturbed flocks of birds, which rose up with a clatter, flew low, and suddenly folded up the fan of their winged cloud to sink in unison back to earth.
As the man drew nearer to the sea and the distance between him and the following woman increased, so the little streams which flowed became more subject to the sea and their waters more brackish. The slight babble they made was a pleasant accompaniment to the plod-plod of the yelk’s hoofs.
Shokerandit halted and waited for Toress Lahl to catch up. He intended to shout to her, but something stopped him.
He was certain that the strange Captain Fashnalgid was lying about the reception which awaited Asperamanka on the Koriantura ridge. To believe Fashnalgid was to cast doubt on the integrity of the system by which Shokerandit lived. All the same, a certain sincerity about the man made Shokerandit cautious. Shokerandit’s duty was to bear Aspera-manka’s message to Koriantura, to the army headquarters there. It was therefore his duty also to avoid possible ambush. The wisest course seemed to be to pretend to believe Fashnalgid’s story, and to escape from Chalce by boat.
The light over the marshes was deceptive. Fashnalgid’s figure had disappeared. Shokerandit was not making the progress he wished. Though his mount followed the trail along the top of the dykes, every step seemed sluggish and mired in marsh.
“Keep close to me,” he called to Toress Lahl. His voice sounded thickly in his head. He jerked the yelk forward again.
The brownish rain had threatened earlier to turn into a regular Uskuti up-and-downer, as the old phrase had it. Its shawls had now trailed away to the south, leaving confused light patterns over the marshes. To some, the scene might appear dismal; yet even in this marginal land, processes were at work which were vital to the health of those species which contended for the master}’ of Helliconia, the ancipitals and the humans.
In the tidal waters which fed the pools to either side of the dykes, marine algae flourished. They were similar to laminaria, and concentrated the iodine in the water in their narrow brown fingers. The algae dissipated this chemical into the air in the form of iodine compounds, notably methyl iodine. As the methyl iodine decomposed back into iodine in the atmosphere, the circulation of the winds carried it to every last corner of the globe.
The ancipitals and humans could not live without iodine. Their thyroid glands harvested it in order to regulate their metabolisms with iodine-bearing hormones.
At this time of the Great Year, after the trigger time of the Seven Eclipses, some of those hormones were ensuring that the human species was more susceptible than usual to the depredations of the helico virus.
As if caught in a maze, his thoughts travelled round and round in familiar patterns. Time and again, he recalled his celebrated exploits at Isturiacha-but no longer with pride. His companions had admired him for his courage; each bullet he had fired, each thrust of his sword which had broken an enemy body now had a legendary glamour attached to it. Yet he shrank in horror from what he had done, and from the exultation he had felt while doing it.
And with the woman. On their lonely journey north, he had possessed Toress Lahl. She had lain unresisting while he had his way. He still rejoiced in the feel of her flesh, and in his power over it. Yet he thought with remorse of his intended wife, Insil Esikananzi, waiting back in Kharnabhar. What would she think if she saw him lying with this foreign woman from the heart of the Savage Continent?
These thoughts returned in distorted and fugitive shape until his skull ached. He had a sudden memory of intruding on his mother when a child. He had run thoughtlessly into her chamber. There stood that dim figure, closeted so frequently in her own room (and more so since Favin’s death). She was being dressed by her handmaid, watching the process in her misty silver mirror in which the cluster of her bottles of perfume and unguents was reflected like the spires and domes of a distant city.
His mother had turned to confront him, without reproach, without animation, without-as far as he could remember-a word. She was being helped into her gown in preparation for some special grand reception. The gown was one that learned associations of the Wheel had given her, embroidered all over with a map of Helliconia. The countries and islands were depicted in silver, the sea in a bright blue. His mother’s hair, as yet undressed, hung down darkly, a waterfall that flowed from the Northern Pole to the High Nyktryhk and beyond. The gown buttoned down the back. He noticed as she stood there and the maid stooped to do up the buttons that the city of Oldorando in the Savage Continent marked the site of his mother’s private parts. He had always been ashamed of this observation.
He saw the thick clumps of marsh grass underfoot like coarse body hair. The grass was getting closer in a puzzling way. He saw small amphibians hop away into hair-fringed clefts, heard the tinkle of water travelling, watched tiny pied daisies fall beneath the hoofs of the yelk as if they were stars going into eclipse. The universe came to him. He was slipping from his saddle.
At the last moment, he managed to pull himself upright and land on two feet. His legs felt unfamiliar.
“What’s the matter with you?” Toress Lahl asked, riding up.
Shokerandit found difficulty in moving his neck to look up at her. Her eyes were shielded by her hat. Mistrusting her, he reached for his gun, then remembered it was stashed in his saddle. He fell forward, burying his face in the wet fur on his yelk’s rump. He sank to the ground and felt himself sliding down the side of the dyke.
A rigidity had seized him. A disconnection between will and ability had taken place. Yet he heard Toress Lahl dismount and come squelching down to where he lay sprawled.
He was conscious of her arm about him, of her voice, anxious, seeking out his sense. She was helping him up. His bones ached. He tried to cry out in pain, but no noise emerged. The bone ache, the limb pain, crept into his skull. His body twisted and contorted. He saw the sky swing on a hinge.
“You’re ill,” Toress Lahl said. She could not bring herself to mention the dread name of the disease.
She dropped him and let him lie in the wet grasses. She stood looking round at the vacancy of the marshes and at the distant bald hills from which they had come. There were still moving banners of rain in the southern sky. Tiny crabs ran in the streamlets at her feet.
She could escape. Her captor lay powerless at her feet. She could shoot him with his own gun as he lay. A return to Campannlat overland would be too perilous, with an army approaching somewhere over the steppe. Koriantura was only a few miles away to the northwest; the escarpment which marked the frontier could be discerned as a smudge on the horizon. But that was enemy territory. The light was fading.
Toress Lahl walked a few paces back and forth in her indecision. Then she returned to the prone figure of Luterin Shokerandit.
“Come on, let’s see what can be done,” she said.
She managed to get him back in the saddle with a struggle, climbing up behind him and kicking the yelk into action. Her yelk followed in fits and starts, as if preferring company to a night alone on the marshes.
Prompted by anxiety, she urged increased speed out of her animal. As dusk closed in, she caught a glimpse of Fashnalgid ahead, his figure silhouetted against the distant sea. Raising Shokerandit’s revolver, she fired it in the air. Birds rose in flocks from the surrounding land, screaming as they escaped.
In another half hour, night or its half-brother lay over the land, although shimmering pools here and there picked up a reflection from the southwestern horizon, just below which Freyr lurked. Fashnalgid could no longer be seen.
She spurred on the yelk, supporting Shokerandit’s body against hers.
Water flooded in on either side of the raised path. Its noise was greater now, which Toress Lahl believed indicated that the tide was rising. She had never seen the sea before, and feared it. In the decep- tive light, she came on a small jetty before she knew it. A boat was moored there.
The sallow sea lapped with a greedy sound on the mud. Glumaceous grasses and sedges set up a ghostly rustle. Small waves slapped against the side of the dinghy. There was no sign of any human being.
Toress Lahl climbed from the yelk and eased Shokerandit down on a bank. Cautiously she ventured onto the creaking jetty to which the dinghy was moored.
“Got you, then! Hold still!”
She gave a small scream as the shout came from beneath her feet. A man jumped out from under the jetty and pointed his gun at her head.
She smelled the spirits on his breath, saw his luxuriant moustache, and recognised Captain Fashnalgid with relief. He gave a grunt of recognition, expressing not so much pleasure or displeasure as an admis- sion that life was full of tiresome incidents, each demanding to be dealt with.
“Why did you follow? Are you leading Gardeterark after you?”
“Shokerandit is ill. Will you help me?”
He turned and called towards the boat.
“Besi! Come out. It’s safe.”
Besi Besamitikahl, wrapped in her furs, emerged from under a tarpaulin where she had been sheltering and came forward. She had listened almost without astonishment as the captain, in one of his ranting moods, had outlined his scheme to snatch Asperamanka from the wrath of the Oligarch-as he dramatically put it. He would go such and such a way to meet the Priest-Militant, and would ride with him to the coast, where Besi would have a boat waiting. This boat would be lent by courtesy of Eedap Mun
Odim. She must not fail him. Life and honour were at stake.
Odim had listened to this plan, as the girl related it, with delight. Once Fashnalgid became involved in an illegal enterprise, he would be in Odim’s power.
By all means he should have a little boat, with a boatman to crew her, and Besi should sail round the bay and meet him and his holy companion.
Even while these arrangements had been made, the laws of the Oligarch were pressing down harder on the population. Day by day, street by street, Koriantura was falling under military control. Odim saw all, said nothing, worried for his herd of relations, and made his own plans.
Besi now helped Toress Lahl to carry the stiff body of Luterin Shokerandit into the boat. “Do we have to take these two?” she asked Fashnalgid, staring down with disfavour at the sick man. “They are probably infectious.”
“We can’t leave them here,” Fashnalgid said.
“I suppose you want us to take the yelks too.”
The captain ignored this remark and motioned to the boatman to cast off. The yelks stood on the shore, watching them depart. One ventured forward into the mud, slipped, and withdrew. They remained staring at the small boat as it faded away over the water in the direction of Koriantura.
It was cold on the water. While the boatman sat by the tiller, the triers crouched below the tarpaulin, out of the wind. Toress Lahl was isinclined to talk, but Besi plied her with questions.
“Where are you from? I can tell by your accent that you’re not from.ere. Is this man your husband?”
Reluctantly, Toress Lahl admitted that she was Shokerandit’s slave.
“Well, there are ways out of slavery,” said Besi feelingly. “Not many. ;’m sorry for you. You could be worse off if your master dies.”
“Perhaps I could find a boat in Koriantura which would take me back to Campannlat-once Lieutenant Shokerandit is safe, I mean. Would you help me?”
Fashnalgid said, “Lady, there will be trouble enough for us when we get back to Koriantura, without helping a slave to escape. You’re a good-looking woman-you should find a good billet.”
Ignoring this last remark, Toress Lahl said, “What kind of trouble?”
“Ah . . . That is up to God, the Oligarch, and a certain Major Gardeterark to devise,” said Fashnalgid. He brought out his flask and took a long swig at its contents.
With some reluctance, he offered it round to the women.
From under the tarpaulin, Shokerandit said, slowly but distinctly, ‘”I don’t want to go through this again .
Toress Lahl rested a hand on his burning head.
Fashnalgid said, “You’ll find that life is essentially aseries of repeat performances, my fine lieutenant.”
The population of Sibornal was less than forty percent that of its neighbour Campannlat. Yet communications between distant national capitals was generally better than in Campannlat. Roads were good, except in backward areas like Kuj-Juvec; since few centres of population were at a great distance from the coast, seas acted as thoroughfares. It was not a difficult continent to govern, given a strong will in the strongest city, Askitosh.
A street plan of Askitosh revealed a semicircular design, the centre point of which was the gigantic church perched on the waterfront. The light on the spire of this church could be seen for some miles down the coast. But at the rear of the semicircle, a mile or more from the sea, was Icen Hill, upon which granite mound stood a castle housing the strongest will in Askitosh and all Sibornal.
This Will saw to it that the land and sea roads of the continent were busy-busy with military preparation and with that forerunner of military preparation, the poster. Posters appeared in towns and in the smallest hamlets, announcing one new restriction after another. Often the announcements these posters bore came in the guise of concern for the population: they were for the Prevention of the Spread of Fat Death, or they were for the Limitation of Famine, or for the Arrest of Dangerous Elements. But what they all boiled down to was the Curtailment of Individual Liberty.
It was generally supposed by those who worked for the Oligarchy that the Will behind these edicts regulating the lives of the inhabitants of the northern continent was that of the Supreme Oligarch, Torkerkanz-lag II. No one had ever seen Torkerkanzlag. If he existed, Torkerkanz-lag confined himself to a set of chambers within Icen Hill Castle. But such edicts as were currently being issued were felt to be consistent with the nature of someone who had so little love for his own liberty that he locked himself up in a suite of windowless rooms.
Those higher up the scale had their doubts about the Supreme Oligarch, and often maintained that the title was an empty one, and that government was in the hands of the Inner Chamber of the Oligarchy itself.
It was a paradoxical situation. At the core of the State was an entity almost as nebulous as the Azoiaxic One, the entity at the heart of the Church. Torkerkanzlag was understood to be a name adopted on election, and possibly used by more than one person.
Then there were the obiter dicta supposed to filter down from the very lips-the beak, some claimed- of the Oligarch himself.
“We may debate here in council. But remember that the world is not a debating chamber. It more closely resembles a torture chamber.”
“Do not mind being called wicked. It is the fate of rulers. That the people want nothing but wickedness you can ascertain by listening at any street corner.”
“Use treachery where possible. It costs less than armies.”
“Church and State are brother and sister. One day we will decide which shall inherit the family fortune.”
Such morsels of wisdom passed through the oesophagus of the Inner Chamber and into the body politic.
As for that Inner Chamber, it might be expected that those who belonged to it would know the nature of the Will. Such was not the case. The Members of the Inner Chamber-they were now in session and came masked-were collectively even less sure of the nature of the Will than the ignorant citizens living in the damp streets below the hill. So close to that formidable Will were they that they had to fence it about with pretence. The masks they wore were but an outer cover for a barrier of deviousness; these men of power trusted each other so little that each had developed a posture with regard to the nature of the Oligarch by which truth could not be distinguished-much like insects which, if predatory, disguise themselves as something innocuous whereby to deceive their prey, or, if innocuous, as a poisonous species to deceive their predators.
Thus it might be that the Member from Braijth, the capital city of Bribahr, was a man who knew the truth about the Will that dominated them. He might admit to his cronies the truth of the matter; or he might tell a guarded half-truth; or he might lie about the matter in one way or another, according to what best suited him.
And in the case of that Member from Braijth, in actual fact, the degree of his deceitfulness could scarcely be judged, since, beneath the imposed continental unity, guaranteed by many a solemn pact, Usku-toshk was at war with Bribahr, and a force from Askitosh was besieging Rattagon (as far as it was possible to besiege that island fortress).
Moreover, other Members feigned to trust the Member from Braijth according to their secret sympathies with his country’s policy in daring to challenge the leadership of Uskutoshk. Feigning was all. Their very sincerity was feigned.
No one was secure in his understanding. With this they were collectively content, finding security in believing that their fellow Members were even more deluded than they were themselves.
Thus the soul of the most powerful city on the planet had at its core a profound obfuscation and confusion. It was with this confusion that they chose to meet the challenge of the changing seasons.
The Members were currently discussing the latest edict to descend from the unseen hand of the Oligarch for their ratification. This was the most challenging edict yet. The edict would prohibit the practice of pauk, as being against the principles of the Church.
If the required legislation was passed, it would entail in practice the stationing of soldiery in every hamlet throughout the continent in order to enforce the prohibition. Since the Members considered themselves learned, they approached the subject by leisurely discourse. Their lips moved thinly under their masks.
“The edict brings under consideration our very nature,” said the Member for the city of Juthir, the capital of Kuj-Juvec. “We are speaking here of an age-old custom. But what is age-old is not necessarily sacrosanct. On the one hand, we have our irreplaceable Church, the very basis of Sibornalese unity, with its cornerstone God the Azoiaxic. On the other hand, unrecognised by the Church, we have the custom of pauk, by which living persons can sink their selves down into a trance state to commune with their ancestral spirits. Those spirits, as we know, are supposed to be descending to as well as being descended from the Original Beholder, that inscrutable mother figure. On the one hand is our religion, pure, intellectual, scientific; on the other hand is this hazy notion of a female principle.
“It is necessary for us to prepare for the harsher, colder times to come. For that, we must arm ourselves against the female principle in ourselves, and eradicate it from the population. We must strike at this pernicious cult of the Original Beholder. We must banish pauk. I trust that what I say merely elucidates the wisdom behind this fresh and inspired edict of the Will.
“Furthermore, I would go so far as to claim-“
Most of the Members were old, were accustomed to being old, had persisted in being old for a long while. They met in an ancient room in which all items, whether iron or wood, had been polished over the centuries by a host of slaves until they shone. The iron table at which they propped themselves, the bare floor beneath their slippered feet, the elaborately wrought chairs on which they sat, all gleamed at them. The austere iron panelling on the walls threw back distorted reflections of themselves. A fire glowed in the prison of its grate, sending more smoke than flame through the bars; because it did little to remove the chill of the chamber, the Members were well shrouded in felts, like mummers in an ancient play. The one furnishing to relieve this gloomy brightness was a large tapestry which decked one wall. Against a scarlet background, a great wheel was depicted being rowed through the heavens by oarsmen in pale blue garments; each oarsman smiled towards an astonishing maternal figure from whose nostrils, mouth, and breasts spurted the stars in the sky. This ancient fabric lent a touch of grandeur to the room.
While one or other of their number held forth, the Members sipped at pellamountain cordial and stared down at their fingernails or out through the slit windows, which provided glimpses of an Askitosh sliced into small vertical sections.
“Some claim that the myth of the Original Beholder is a poetical image of the self,” said the Member from the distant province of Carcampan. “But it has yet to be established whether such an entity as the self exists. If it does, it may not even be, if I may coin a phrase, master in its own house. It may exist outside our selves. That is to say, the self may be a component of Helliconia itself, since our atoms are Helliconia’s. In which case, there may be some danger attendant on destroying contact with the Beholder. That I must point out to the Honourable Members.”
“Danger or not, the people must bend to the will of the Oligarch, or the Weyr-Winter will destroy them. We must be cured of our self. Only obedience will see us through three and a half centuries of ice. . . .” This platitude came from the other end of the iron table, where reflections and shadows merged.
The view of Askitosh was executed in sepia monochrome. The city was enfolded in one of the famous “silt mists,” a thin curtain of cold dry air which descended on the city from the plateaux ranged behind it.
To this was added the smoke rising from thousands of chimneys, as the Uskuti endeavoured to keep themselves warm. The city faded under a shadow partly of its own making.
“On the other hand, communication with our ancestors in the pauk state does much to fortify our selves,” said one greybeard. “Particularly when in adversity. I mean, I imagine that few of us here have not derived comfort from communication with the gossies.”
In a querulous voice, a Member from the Lorajan port of Ijivibir said, “By the by, why have our scientists not discovered how it is that gossies and fessups are now friendly to our souls, whereas-as well- authenticated testaments tell-they were once always hostile? Could it be a seasonal change, do you think-friendly in winter and summer, hostile in spring?”
“The question will be rendered immaterial if we abandon the gossies and fessups to their own devices by promulgating the edict before us,” replied the Member from Juthir.
Through the narrow windows could be seen the roofs of the government printing press where, after only a day or two of further discussion, the edict of the Supreme Oligarch Torkerkanzlag II was turned into print. The posters that fell in their thousands from the flatbed presses announced in bold type that hereafter it would be an Offence to Go into Pauk, whether Secretly or in Company with Others. This was explained as another precaution against the Encroaching Plague. Penalty for contravening the law, One Hundred Sibs and, for a Second Offence, Life Imprisonment.
Within Askitosh itself was a rail transport system worked by steam cars which pulled carriages at the rate of ten or twelve miles an hour. The cars were dirty but dependable, and the system was being ex- tended outside the city. These cars took bundles of the posters to distribution points on the fringes of the city, and to the harbour, whence they were distributed by ship to all points of the compass.
Thus bundles soon arrived at Koriantura. Bill stickers ran about the town, pasting up the terms of the new law. One of those posters was stuck to the wall of the house where Eedap Mun Odim’s family had lived for two hundred years.
But that house was now empty, abandoned to the mice and rats. The front door had slammed for the last time.
Eedap Mun Odim left the family house behind him with his usual stiff little walk. He had his pride: his face betrayed nothing of the griefs he felt.
On this special morning, he took a circuitous route to
Quay, going by way of
Rungobandryaskosh Street and South Court. His slave Gagrim followed, carrying his bag.
He was conscious with every step that this was the last time in his life that he would walk the streets of Koriantura. Throughout all the long past years, his Kuj-fuveci background had led him to think of it as a place of exile; only now did he realise how much it had been home.
His preparations for departure had been made to the best of his ability; fortunately, he still had one or two Uskuti friends, fellow merchants, who had helped him.
Rungobandryaskosh Street branched off to the left, the street steep. Odim paused at the turning just before the churchyard and looked back down the road. His old house stood there, narrow at the base, wide at the top, its boxed-in wooden balcony clinging to it like the nest of some exotic bird, the eaves of its steep roof curving outwards until they nearly touched the eaves of the house opposite. Inside, no plentiful Odim family: only light, shadow, emptiness, and the old-fashioned murals on the walls, depicting life as it had once been in a now almost imaginary Kuj-Juvec. He tucked his beard more firmly inside his coat and marched briskly on.
This was an area of small craftsmen - silversmiths, watchmakers, bo okbinders, and artists of various kinds. To one side of the street stood a small theatre where extraordinary plays were produced, plays which could not fill the theatres in the centre of town: plays trafficking in magic and science, fantasies dealing with both possible and impossible things (for both sorts were much alike), tragedies dealing with broken teacups, comedies dealing with wholesale slaughter. Also satires. Irony and satire were things the authorities could neither understand nor abide. So the theatre was often closed. It was closed at present, and the street looked the drabber for it.
In South Court lived an old painter who had painted scenery for the theatre and porcelain for the factory whose wares Odim exported. Jheserabhay was old now, but he still had a sure hand with plates and tureens; equally important, he had often given work to the ample Odim family. Odim valued him, despite his sharp tongue, and had brought him a farewell present.
A phagor let Odim into the house. There were many phagors in South Court. Uskuti in general had a marked aversion to the ancipital kind, whereas artistic people seemed to delight in them, perversely enjoying the immobility and sudden movements of the creatures. Odim himself disliked their sickly milky stench, and passed as quickly as possible into the presence of Jheserabhay.
Jheserabhay sat wrapped in an old-fashioned heedrant, feet up on a sofa, close to a portable iron stove. Beside him rested a picture album. He rose slowly to welcome Odim. Odim sat on a velvet chair facing him, and Gagrim stood behind the chair, clutching the bag.
The old painter shook his head gloomily when he heard Odim’s news.
“Well, it’s a bad time for Koriantura and no mistake.
I’ve never known worse. It’s a poor thing, Odim, that you should be forced to leave because things are so difficult. But then, you never really belonged here, did you - you and your family.”
Odim made no gesture. He said slowly, without thinking, “Yes, I do belong here, and your words amaze me. I was born here, within this very mile, and my father before me. This is my home as much as yours, Jhessie.”
“I thought you were from Kuj-Juvec?”
“Originally my family was from Kuj-Juvec, yes, and proud of it. But I am both a Sibornalese and a Korianturan, first and foremost.”
“Why are you leaving then? Where are you going? Don’t look so offended. Have a cup of tea. A veronikane?”
Odim soothed his beard. “The new edicts make it impossible to stay. I have a large family, and I must do the best I possibly can for them.”
“Oh, yes, yes, so you must. You have a very large family, don’t you? I’m against that sort of thing myself. Never married. No relations. Always stuck to my art. I’ve been my own master.”
Narrowing his eyes, Odim said, “It’s not only Kuj-Juveci families which get large. We’re not primitive, you know.”
“My dear old friend, you are sensitive today. I was levelling no accusations. Live and let live. Where are you going?”
“That I would rather not say. News gets about, whispers become shouts.”
The artist grunted. “I suppose you’re going back to Kuj-Juvec.”
“Since I have never in my life been there, I cannot go back there.”
“Someone was telling me that your house is full of murals of that part of the world. I hear they are rather fine.”
“Yes, yes, old but fine. By a great artist who never made a name for himself. But it is my house no more. I had to sell it, lock, stock, and barrel.”
“Well then ... I hope you got a good price?”
Odim had been forced to accept a miserable price, but he rationed himself to one word: “Tolerable.”
“I suppose I shall miss you, though I’ve got out of the habit of seeing people. I hardly ever go over to the theatre now. This north wind gets into my old bones.”
“Jhessie, I have enjoyed your friendship over twenty-five years, give or take a tenner. I have also much appreciated your work; maybe I never paid you enough. Although I am only a merchant, nevertheless I appreciate artistry in others, and no one in all Sibornal has depicted birds on porcelain so finely as you. I wish to give you a parting present, something too delicate to travel, which I think you will appreciate. I could have sold it in the auctions but I thought you made a worthy recipient.”
Jheserabhay struggled into a sitting position and looked expectant. Odim motioned to his slave to open the bag. Gagrim lifted out an article which he handed to Odim. Odim raised the article and held it temptingly before the artist’s eyes.
The clock was of the shape and size of a goose’s egg.
Its dial showed the twenty-five hours of the day round the outer circle, with the forty minutes of the hour inside, in the traditional way. But on the hour,
when striking-and the mechanism could be made to st rike at any time by pressing a button-the clock revolved, so that a second, rear, face was briefly revealed. The rear face also had two hands, the outer indicating the week, tenner, and season of the small year, and the inner the season of the Great Year.
The faces were enamel. The egg was of gold. It was clutched, top and bottom, by a figure in jade, the ample figure of the Original Beholder, seated on a bank which formed the base of the clock. To one side of her, wheat grew; to the other, glaciers. The finish of the whole was exquisite, the detail perfect: the toes which peeped from the Beholder’ssandals had discernible nails.
Reaching out his old seamed hands, Jheserabhay took the clock and examined it for a long time without speaking. Tears came to his eyes.
“It’s a thing of beauty, no less. The workmanship iswonderful. And I can’t recognise its provenance. Is it from Kuj-Juvec?”
Odim bridled up immediately. “We barbarians are excellent craftsmen. Didn’t y ou know we live in sherb but spend our life killing people and turning out exquisite artwork? Isn’t that the idea you proud Uskuti have of us?”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Odim.”
“Well, it is from Juthir, if you must know, our capital city. Take it. It will cause you to remember me for five minutes.” As he said this, he turned away and looked out the window. A file of soldiers under a noncommissioned officer were searching a house opposite. As Odim watched, two of them brought a man out into the square. The man hung his head, as if ashamed to be seen in such company.
“I’m really sorry you are going, Odim,” said the artist, placatingly.
“Evil is loose in the world. I have to go.”
“I don’t believe in evil. Mistakes, yes. Not evil.”
“Then perhaps you are afraid to believe it exists. It exists wherever men are. It’s in this very room. Good-bye, Jhessie.”
He left the old man clutching the clock and trying to rise from his dusty chair.
Odim looked round warily before leaving the shelter of the house where Jheserabhar had his apartment. The file of soldiers had disappeared with their prisoner. He stepped briskly in the Court, dismissing the encounter with the artist from his mind. These Uskuti were always hard to deal with, after all. It would be a relief to get away from them.
He was all prepared to go. Everything had been done legally, if hastily. Since Besi Besamitikahl had collected the deserter Captain Fashnalgid in the dinghy, two days earlier, Odim had concentrated on getting his affairs in order. He had sold his house to an unfriendly relation and his export business to a friendly rival. He had purchased a ship with Fashnalgid’s aid. He would join his brother in distant Shive- nink. It would be a pleasure to see Odirin again; they could help each other now that they were not as young as they had been. . . .
Struggle is the true guise of hope, Odim said to himself, straightening his back and walking a little faster. Don’t give up. Life will be easier, winter orno winter. You must cease to think only of money. Your mind is dominated by the mighty sib. This adversity will be good for you. In Shivenink, with Odirin’s help,
I’ll work less hard. I will paint pictures like Jheserabhay. Perhaps I will become famous.
Nourishing similar warming thoughts, he turned onto the quay. His soliloquy was shattered by a steam gun trundling slowly by. It was heading eastwards. Word had spread that a great battle was soon to com- mence; it was another reason for leaving the city as fast as possible. The gi-.n was so heavy that it shook the ground as it rattled over the cobbles. Its fiendish engine, pistons pumping, belched out smoke. Small boys ran beside it, shouting in delight.
The steam gun followed Odim along Climent Quay, its heavy barrel pointing in his general direction. With a sense of relief, he turned in at ODIM FINEST EXPORT PORCELAINS, Gagrim pressing hard at his heels.
The showroom and warehouse were in confusion, mainly because nobody was doing any work. Hired workers and slaves alike had seized on the opportunity’ to do nothing. Many of them hung about the door, watching the gun go by. In their reluctance to step aside, they revealed a lack of respect for their ex-boss.
Never mind, he said to himself. We will sail on the afternoon’s tide, and then these people can do what they like.
A messenger came up and told him that the new owner of the prenv ises was upstairs and would like to see him. A hint of danger ran through Odim’s mind. It seemed unlikely that the new owner should be here, since the hand-over was not officially operative until midnight, according to the terms of the contract. But he told himself not to be anxious, and mounted the stairs with determination. Gagrim followed behind.
The reception room was an elegantly furnished gallery with windows overlooking the harbour. On the walls hung tapestries and a series of miniatures which had belonged to Odim’s grandfather. Examples of Odim porcelain services lay about on polished tables. This was where special customers were brought and the firm’s most important business transacted.
This morning, only one special customer stood in the low room, and his uniform indicated that his business was unlikely to be pleasurable.
Major Gardeterark stood with his back to the window, head thrust forward, heavy protruding mouth and lips swivelling in the direction of Eedap Mun Odim. Behind him stood a pale Besi Besamitikahl.
“Come in,” he said. “Close the door.”
Odim stopped so abruptly on the threshold that Gagrim bumped into him. Major Gardeterark was contained within his huge greatcoat, a garment of coarse texture with buttons like flambreg eyes positioned on it at intervals as if on metallic sentry go, and pockets which stuck out like boxes. It was in every way a coat that might go about its master’s business if its master were ever posted out of it. Gardeterark, however, was very much on duty, and watched from among his buttons as Odim closed the door as instructed.
What most frightened Odim was not so much the major as the sight of Besi beside him. One look at the girl’s pale face told Odim that she had been forced togive away his secrets. His mind flew immediately to the secrets he had been prevailed upon to hide on these premises: Harbin Fashnalgid, officially posted as a deserter; a lieutenant from the army of the enemy, now suffering from the Fat Death; and a Borldoranian girl, a slave, who was nursing the lieutenant. He knew that what to him was simple humanity in Gardeterark’s bulging eyes was a fatal list of crimes.
Anger burned in Odim’s slender frame. He wasfrightened but the anger overcame the fear. He had loathed this odious, cold officer ever since the moment when he had found him downstairs, bloated with his own power. The creature could not be allowed to interfere with Odim’s plans to take everyone away to safety.
Nodding his head towards Besi, Gardeterark said, “This slave woman tells me that you are harbouring an army deserter, by name Fashnalgid.”
“He was here waiting. He forced me-“ Besi beg an. Gardeterark brought up his gloved hand, which featured several buttons, and struck her across the face.
“You are hiding this deserter on the premises,” he said. He took a step towards Odim, at no time glancing at the girl, who had subsided against the wall, clutching her mouth.
Gardeterark produced from one of his boxes a pistol, and pointed it at Odim’s stomach. “You are under arrest, Odim, you foreign sherb. Take me to where you are concealing Fashnalgid.”
Odim clutched his beard. Although the sight of Besi being struck had frightened him with its violence, it had also stiffened his resolve. He gave the major a blank stare.
“I don’t know who you mean.”
Prominent yellow teeth came into view, framed between lips which immediately squeezed shut again. It was the major’s patent way of smiling.
“You know who I mean. He lodged with you. He went on an expedition into Chalce with this woman of yours, no doubt with your connivance. He is to be arrested for desertion. A wharf hand witnessed him come in here. Lead me to him or I’ll have you taken to headquarters for questioning.”
Odim stepped back.
“I’ll take you to him.”
At the far end of the gallery was a door into the rear areas of the building. As Gardeterark followed Odim, he pushed aside one of the tables obstructing his easy passage. The chinaware fell to the floor and shattered.
Odim made no sign. He signalled Gagrim forward. “Unlock this door.”
“Your slave can stay behind,” Gardeterark said.
“He carries the keys during the day.”
The keys were in Gagrim’s pocket, secured by a chain to his belt. He unlocked the door with trembling hand, letting the two men through.
They were in a passage leading to the rear offices. Odim led the way. They went down the passage and turned left, where four steps led up to a metal door. Odim gestured to the slave to unlock it. An especially large key was needed.
Once through it, they emerged on a balcony overlooking a yard. Most of the yard was occupied by cartloads of wood and two old-fashioned kilns. The kilns were generally unused; one was at present being fired to meet an emergency order from the local garrison, for whom no great finesse was needed. Otherwise, most of the Odim porcelain came from companies situated elsewhere in Koriantura. Four company phagors stood about, tending the active kiln. It was old and inefficiently insulated, and the heat and smoke from it filled the yard.
“Well?” Gardeterark prompted as Odim hesitated.
“He’s in a loft over there,” Odim said, pointing across the yard. Their balcony was connected to the loft he indicated by a catwalk which spanned the yard. It was almost as ancient as the kilns below; its single wooden railing was rickety and sooted up by smoke from below.
Odim started cautiously across the catwalk. Halfway across, as the smoke billowed up, he paused, steadying himself with one hand on the rail. “I’m feeling ill ... I’d better go back,” he said, turning towards the major. “Look at the kiln.”
Eedap Mun Odim was not a violent man. All his life, he had hated force. Even signs of anger disgusted him-his own anger not least. He had schooled hims elf to politeness and obedience, following the ex- ample of his parents. Now he threw away his training. He brought his arms round with a wide swinging movement, hands clasped together, and as Gardeterark glanced down, caught him on the back of his neck.
“Gagrim!” Odim called. His slave never moved.
Gardeterark staggered with his side against the rail and tried to bring up the gun. Odim kicked him on the knee and butted him in the chest. The officer seemed twice his size, the greatcoat impenetrable.
He heard the rail crack, heard the revolver explode, felt Gardeterark begin to fall, dropped to the catwalk on hands and knees to save himself from going too.
Gardeterark gave a terrible cry as he fell.
Odim watched him go, arms flailing, his animal mouth open. It was not far to fall. He hit the middle of the dual-chamber kiln which was being fired. The roof of the kiln was strewn with loose brick and rubble. Cracks ran across it, widening, flaring red. As the heat came up, Odim pulled himself flat on the catwalk to avoid burning.
Screaming, the major made an attempt to get to his feet. The greatcoat smouldered like an old shed. His leg plunged into one of the cracks in the roof. The arch collapsed. Fire spewed upwards like splashing liquid. The temperature inside the kiln was over eleven hundred degrees. Gardeterark, already burning, plunged down into it.
Afterwards, Odim had no idea how long he lay on the catwalk. It was Besi, with her split mouth, who ventured along the walk and helped him return to the gallery. Gagrim had fled.
She was hugging him and wiping his burnt face with a cloth. He realised that he was saying to her over and over, “I killed a man.”
“You saved us all,” she said. “You were very brave, my darling. Now we must get into the ship and sail as soon as possible, before anyone discovers what has happened.”
“I killed a man, Besi.”
“Say rather that he fell, Eedap.” She kissed him with her burst lips and began to cry. He clutched her as he never had before in daylight, and she felt his thin, hard body tremble.
So ended the well-organised part of Eedap Mun Odim’slife. From now on, existence would be a series of improvisations. Like his father before him, he had attempted to control his small world by keeping accurate accounts, by balancing ledgers, by cheating no one, by being friendly, by conforming in every way he could. At one stroke, all that was gone. The system had collapsed.
Besi Besamitikahl had to assist him across the quayside to the waiting ship. With them went two others, whose lives had been equally disrupted.
Captain Harbin Fashnalgid had seen his own face crudely portrayed on a red poster as he stepped ashore with Besi, after they had sailed the twenty miles from the jetty in the marshlands. The poster was newly arrived from the local printing works commandeered by the army, and still glistened with the bill sticker’s glue. For Fashnalgid,
Odim’s ship served the purpose, not only of escaping from Uskutoshk, but of staying close to Besi. Fashnalgid had decided that if he were to reform his life, then he needed a courageous, constant woman to look after him. He stepped up the gangplank briskly, longing to be free of the army and its shadow.
Behind him followed Toress Lahl, widow of the great Bandal Eith Lahl, recently killed in battle. Since her husband’s death and her capture by Luterin Shokerandit, her life had become quite as disoriented as Odim’s or Fashnalgid’s. She now found herself in a foreign port, about to sail for another foreign port. And her captor lay already in the ship, tied down while he underwent the agony of the Fat Death. She might elude him; but Toress Lahl knew of no way in which a woman of Oldorando could return home safely from Sibornal. So she remained to tend Shokerandit, hoping to earn his gratitude thereby if he survived the plague.
Of the plague, she had less fear than the others. Back home in Oldorando, she had worked as a doctor. The word that inspired fear and curiosity in her was the name of Shokerandit’s homeland, Kharnab-har, a word which embodied legend and romance when spoken from the distance of Borldoran.
To acquire his ship, Odim had worked through intermediaries, local friends who knew useful people in the Priest-Sailors Guild. The money from the sale of his house and company had all gone to purchase the New Season. It now lay moored alongside Climent Quay, a two-masted brig of 639 tons, square-rigged on fore- and mainmasts. The vessel had been built twenty years earlier, in Askitosh shipyards.
Loading was complete. The New Season contained, besides such provisions as Odim could lay his hands on at short notice, a herd of arang, fine Odim porcelain services, and a sick man bearing the plague, with a slave woman to tend him.
Odim had managed to get clearance from the quay-master, an old acquaintance of his who had been paid liberally across Odim cargoes for many years. The captain of the vessel was persuaded to compress into the shortest possible time all the ceremonies recommended by deuteroscopists and hieromancers for an auspicious voyage. A cannon was fired to mark the departure of a ship from Sibornal.
A brief hymn was sung on deck to God the Azoiaxic. With tide and wind set fair, a gap widened between ship and Climent Quay. The New Season began its voyage for distant Shivenink.