Aiogas fire burned in the grate. Before it sat two brothers talking. Every now and again, the thin brother would reach out to pat the sturdy one, as the latter told his tale. Odirin Nan Odim, referred to by all his kin as Odo, was a year and six tenners older than Eedap Mun Odim. He much resembled his brother, except in the crucial matter of girth, for the Fat Death had yet to make its dread appearance in Rivenjk.

The two brothers had much to tell each other, and much planning to do. A ship bearing the Oligarch’s soldiery had recently arrived in the port, and the set of regulations against which Odim had fought was beginning to trouble Odo too. However, the Shiveninki were less ready than the Uskuti to take orders. Rivenjk was still a comfortable place in which to live.

The remaining precious porcelain which Odim had brought to his elder brother had been well received.

“Soon such porcelain will become even more precious,” said Odo. “Such fine quality may never be achieved again.”

“Because the weather deteriorates towards winter.”

“What follows from that, brother, is that fuel for firing the kilns will become short, and so increase in price. Also, as people’s lives grow harsher, they will be content with tin plates.”

“What do you plan to do then, brother?” asked Odim.

“My trade links with Bribahr, the neighbouring country, are excellent. I even despatch my goods to Kharnabhar, far north of here. Porcelain and china are not the only goods that need to travel such routes.

We must adapt, deal in other goods. I have ideas for-“

But Odirin Nan Odim was never allowed peace for long. He, like his brother, housed a number of relations. Some of them, voluble and voluminous, rushed to the fireside now, heads full of a quarrel that  only Odo could settle. Some of Redap Mun’s relations, surviving plague and voyage, had been billeted  with their Rivenjk relations, and the old question had arisen of floor space being encroached upon.

“Perhaps you would not mind coming with me to see what is happening,” said Odo.

“I would be pleased. From now on, I shall be your shadow, brother.”

Homesteads in Rivenjk were arranged round a courtyard and protected from the elements by a high wall. The more prosperous the family, the higher the wall. Round this courtyard lived the various branches of the Odim family-very little more enterprisin g here than the relatives in Koriantura had been.

With the families lived their domestic animals, housed in stalls adjoining the human habitations. Some of the animals had been crowded together to permit the newly arrived relatives shelter. This arrangement was the cause of the present quarrel: the resident relations prized their animals above the newly arrived relations-and with some justice.

The sanitary arrangements of most Shiveninki courtyard homesteads depended on a commensalism between animals and humans. All excretions from both house and stall were washed down into a bottle- shaped pit carved in the rock under the courtyard. The pit could be maintained from an inspection flap in the courtyard, through which all vegetable refuse was also thrown. As the refuse rotted underground, it gave off biogas, chiefly methane.

The biogas rising from the pit was trapped and piped into the houses, to be used for cooking and lighting.

This civilised system had been developed throughout Shivenink to cope with the extremes of the Weyr- Winter.

As the Odim brothers inspected the complaints of their relatives, they discovered that two cousins had been housed in a stall where there was a small gas leak. The smell offended the cousins, who had insisted on bundling into the adjoining house, which was already packed with people.

The gas leak was plugged. The cousins, protesting for form’s sake, went back to their appointed stall. Slaves were despatched to see that the biogas tank was not malfunctioning.

Odo took his brother’s arm. “The church is nearby, as you will observe when we take you on a tour of the city. I have arranged this evening for a small service of thanksgiving to be held there. Praise will be offered to God the Azoiaxic for your preservation.”

“You are most kind. But I warn you, brother, I am free of religious belief.”

“This little service is necessary,” said Odo, raising a dismissive finger. “There you will be able to meet all our relatives formally. There is something downcast in your spirit, brother, owing to your multiple bereavements. You must take a good woman, or at least a slave, to make

O you happy. What is the status of that foreign woman in your party, Toress La’hl?”

“She’s a slave, belonging to Luterin Shokerandit. Adoctor, very spirited. He is a fine young man, and from Kharnabhar. About Captain Fashnalgid, I am less certain. He’s a deserter, not that I blame him for that. I started out the voyage, before the Fat Death overcame us, with a woman who meant much to my comfort. Alas, she died in the epidemic.”

“Was she from Kuj-Juvec, brother?”

“No, but she became like a dove to the tree of my self. She was faithful and good. Her name, for I must speak it, was Besi Besamitikahl. She was more to me even than my-“

Odim broke off sharply, for up ran Kenigg, with a newfound friend. As Odim smiled and took his son’s hand, his brother said, “Let me help you find another dove for that good tree of your self. You have only one brother, but the air is full of doves waiting for a suitable branch on which to alight.”

Luterin Shokerandit and Harbin Fashnalgid had been given a small room under the roof, thanks to Odo’s generosity. It was lit by one little garret windowoverlooking the courtyard, from which they could  watch the comings and goings of the family and their slaves. In an alcove stood a stove on which their  slave could cook their meals.

Both the men had beds of wood, raised above the floor and covered in rugs. Toress Lahl was supposed to lie on the floor beside Shokerandit’s bed.

Shokerandit took her in with him while Fashnalgid still slept. He lay all night with his arms round her. Only as he was rising did Fashnalgid stir.

“Luterin, why so energetic?” he asked, yawning cavernously. “Didn’t you drink enough of the Odim family’s wine last night? Rest, man, and for the Azoiaxic’s sake, let’s recover from that terrible voyage.”

Shokerandit came and looked down at him, smiling. “I had enough wine. Now I want to be off to Kharnabhar as soon as possible. My status is uncertain. I must see how my father is.” “Damn fathers. May their gossies eat shoe leather.” “I have another anxiety too-one you had better heed. Although the Oligarch is well occupied with the war against Bribahr, he has a ship here in port. More may arrive. They may be watching for us both. The sooner I start for Kharnabhar, the better. Why not come with me? There’d be safety and work with my father.”

“It’s always cold in Kharnabhar. Isn’t that what they say? How far north is it from here?”

“The Kharnabhar road covers over twenty-two degrees of latitude.” Fashnalgid laughed. “You go. I’ll stay here. I’ll find a ship sailing for Campannlat or Hespagorat. Anything rather than your frozen refuge, thanks for all that.”

“Please yourself. We don’t exactly please each other, do we? Men have to get along well, to survive the drive to Kharnabhar.”

Fashnalgid brought an arm up from his furs and held out a hand to Shokerandit. “Well, well, you’re a man for the system, and I’m against it, but never mind that.”

“You like to think I’m a man for the system, butsince my metamorphosis I’ve broken from it.”

“Yes? Yet you long to get back to Father in Kharnabhar.” Fashnalgid laughed. “True conformists don’t know they conform. I like you well enough, Luterin, though I know you think I wrecked your life by capturing you. On the contrary, I saved you from the claws of the Oligarch, so be grateful. Be grateful enough to heave your Toress over to my bed for the morning, will you?”

A flush spread over Shokerandit’s face. “She’ll get you water or food while I’m out. Otherwise, she is mine. Ask Odim’s brother for what you want-he has plenty of slaves for whom he cares nothing.”

They looked each other in the eye. Then Shokerandit turned to leave the room.

“Can I come with you?” Toress Lahl called. “I shall be busy. You can stay here.”

As soon as he was gone, Fashnalgid sat up in bed. The woman was hurriedly dressing. She cast the odd glance across at the captain, who smoothed his moustache and gave a smile.

“Don’t be so hasty, woman. Come over tome. Sweet Besi’s dead and I want comforting.”

When she made no answer, he climbed naked out of bed. Toress Lahl made a run for the door, but he caught her by the wrist and pulled her back.

“Don’t be in such a hurry, I said, didn’t I? Didn’tyou hear me?” He gave her long brown hair a gentle tug. “Women are generally pleased to be attended by Captain Fashnalgid.”

“I belong to Luterin Shokerandit. You heard what he said.”

He twisted her arm and grinned down at her. “You’rea slave, so you’re anyone’s. Beside, you hate his guts-I’ve seen the looks you give him. I never forced a woman, Toress, that’s the truth, and you’ll find me a good deal more expert than he, from what I overheard.”

“Please let me go. Or I shall tell him and he’ll kill you.”

“Come on, you’re too pretty to threaten me. Openup. I saved you from death, didn’t I? You and he were riding into a trap. He’s a fatal innocent, your Luterin.”

He put a hand between her legs. She got her right hand free and slapped him across the face.

With a burst of anger, Fashnalgid wrenched her off her feet and threw her down on his bed. He fell on top of her.

“Now you listen to me before you provoke me beyond words, Toress Lahl. You and I are on the same side. Shokerandit is all very well, but he is going home to security and position-all the things you and I have lost. What is more, he plans to drive you countless skerming miles northwards. What’s up there but snow and holiness and that gigantic Wheel?”

“It’s where he lives.”

“Kharnabhar’s fit only for rulers. The rest die in t he cold. Haven’t you heardof the Wheel’s reputation? It used to be a prison, the worst on the planet. Do you want to finish up in the Wheel?

“Throw your lot in with me. I have seen the sort of woman you are. You’ve seenthe sort of man I am. I am an outcast, but I can fend for myself. Before you get taken miles to some fortress in the northern ice from which you will never escape, achieve wisdom, achieve wisdom, woman, and throw in your lot with me. We’ll sail from here to Campannlat and better climes. Maybe we’ll even get back to your precious Borldoran.”

She had gone very pale. His face, close above hers, was a blur, nothing more than eyebrows, those piercing eyes, and that great dead moustache. She was afraid that he would strike her or even kill her- and that Shokerandit would not care. Her will was already ebbing under the burden of captivity.

“He owns me, Captain. Why discuss it? But you may have your way with me if you must. Why not? He has.”

“That’s better,” he said. “I’ll not hurt you. Throw your clothes off.”

Luterin Shokerandit knew the port of Rivenjk well. It had always been the great city, spoken of in Kharnabhar with longing, visited- when visited- with excitement. Now that he had seen more of the world, he recognised that it was rather small.

At least there was pleasure in being ashore again. He could swear he still felt a slight rolling movement underfoot. Walking down to the harbour, he went into one of the inns and drank a measure of yadahl while listening to the talk of the sailors.

“They’re nothing but a nuisance here, these soldiers,” a man nearby was saying to a companion. “You heard, I suppose, that one was knifed last night down Perspicacity Alley, and I don’t wonder at it.”

“They’ll set sail tomorrow,” his friend said. “They’ll be confined aboard ship tonight, you’ll see, and good riddance.” He lowered his voice. “They’re off underOligarch’s orders to fight against the good people of Bribahr. What harm Bribahr have done the rest of us, I don’t know.”

“They may have captured Braijth, but Rattagon is impregnable. The Oligarch is wasting his time.”

“Set in the middle of a lake, I hear.” “That’s Rattagon.” “Well, I’m glad I’m not a soldier.” “You’re too  much of a fool to be anything but a sailor.” As the two men laughed together, Shokerandit fixed his gaze  on a poster on a wall by the door. It announced that henceforth Anyone Entering the State of Pauk committed an Offence. To Enter into Pauk, whether alone or in company, was to Encourage the Spreading of the Plague known as the Fat Death. The Penalty for defying this law was One Hundred Sibs and, for a Second Offence, Life Imprisonment. By Order of the Oligarch.

Although Shokerandit never practised pauk, he disliked the stream of new orders the State was issuing.

Shokerandit thought to himself as he drained his glass that he probably hated the Oligarch. When the Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka had sent him to report to the Oligarchy, he had felt honoured. Then Fashnalgid had stopped him almost at the Sibornalese frontier; and it had taken him some while to believe what the man claimed, that he would have been cold-bloodedly killed with the rest of the returning army. It was even more difficult to realise that all of Asperamanka’s force had been wiped out on the Oligarch’s orders.

It made sense to take rational measures to keep the plague from spreading. But to suppress pauk was a sign that authoritarianism was spreading. He wiped his mouth with his hand.

As a result of circumstance, Shokerandit was no hero but a fugitive. He could not imagine what his fate would be if he was arrested for desertion.

“What did Harbin mean, I’m a man of the system?” he muttered. “I’m a rebel, an outcast-like him.”

It behoved him to get home to Kharnabhar and remain under his father’s powerful protection. At least in distant Kharnabhar the forces of the Oligarch would not reach him. Thought of Insil could be left for later.

With this reflection came another. He owed Fashnalgid something. He must take him on the arduous journey north if Fashnalgid could be persuaded to come. Fashnalgid would be useful in Kharnabhar: there he could help bear witness to the massacre of thousands of young Shiveninki by their own side.

He said to himself, I had courage in battle. I must have courage to fight against the Oligarchy if necessary. There will be others at home who feel as I do when they hear the truth.

He paid his coin and left the inn.

Along the waterfront stood a grand avenue of rajabarals. As temperatures dropped, the trees prepared for the long winter. Instead of shedding their leaves, they drew in their branches, pulling them into the tops of their vast trunks. Shokerandit had seen pictures in natural history books of how branches and leaves would dissolve to form a solid resin plug, protecting the featureless and undecaying tree until it released its seed in the following Great Spring.

Under the rajabarals, soldiers from a ship which flew the flags of Sibornal and the Oligarchy were parading. Shokerandit had a momentary fear that someone might recognize him; but his metamorphosed shape was protection. He turned inland, towards the marketplace, where there were agents who handled  the affairs of travellers intending to visit Kharnabhar.

The cold winds from the mountains made him turn up his collar and lower his head. But at the agent’s door, pilgrims eager to visit the shrines of the Great Wheel were gathered, many poor and scantily clad.

It took him a while to arrange matters to his liking. He could travel to Kharnabhar with the pilgrims. Or he could travel independently, hiring a sledge, a team, a driver, and a jack-of-all-trades. The former way was safer, slower, and less expensive. Shokerandit decided on the latter as more befitting the son of the Keeper of the Wheel.

All he needed was cash or a letter of credit.

There were friends of his father’sat hand, some men of influence in the town’s affairs. He hesitated, and eventually chose a simple man called Hernisarath, who ran a farm and a hostel for pilgrims on the edge of town. Hernisarath welcomed Shokerandit in, immediately supplied a letter of credit for the agent, and insisted that Shokerandit join him and his wife for a midday meal.

He embraced Shokerandit on the doorstep when it was time to take leave.

“You’re a good and innocent young man, Luterin, and I’m happy to help. Every day as Weyr-Winter approaches, farming becomes more diEcult. But let’s hope we shall meet again.”

His wife said, “It’s so nice to meet a young man with good manners. Our respects to your father.”

Shokerandit glowed as he left them, pleased to have made a good impression; whereas Harbin was probably drunk by now. But why did Hernisarath call him “innocent”?

Snow began to fall from the heights, whirling as it came, like fine white sugar dissolving in a stirred glass of water. It thickened, muffling the sound of his boots on the cobbles. The streets cleared of people. Long grey shadows sprouted penumbras, dark for Freyr, lighter for Batalix, until the cloud extended over the bay and enveloped all Rivenjk in murk.

Shokerandit halted suddenly behind a rajabaral.

Another man came on from behind, clutching his collar to his throat. He walked past the tree, glanced back, shuffled his feet, and hurried into a side street. Shokerandit saw with some amusement that it was called Perspicacity Alley.

With uncharacteristic forethought, he had not told his fellow travellers that on the head of the Hero guarding entry to Rivenjk harbour was a heliograph signalling station. Warning of the deserters aboard the New Season could have reached the port long before the brig docked. . . .

He returned to Odo’s house by as devious a route as he could contrive. By then, the worst of the snow shower was over.

“How fortunate that you arrive in time,” Odo said, as Shokerandit entered the door. “My brother and I and the rest of the family are about to go to church to give thanks for the New Season’ssurvival. You will come along, please?”

“Oh . . . yes, of course. A private ceremony?”

“Absolutely private. Only the priest and the family.”

Shokerandit looked at Odim, who nodded encouragingly. “You are about to embark on another journey, Luterin. We who have known each other such a short while must part. The ceremony seems appropriate, even if you don’t believe in prayer.”

“I will see if Fashnalgid will come too.”

He hastened up the winding wooden stair to the room Odo had lent them. Toress Lahl was there, lying under her skins on his bed.

“You’re meant to be working, not lying about,”he said. “You’re not still mourning your husband? Where’s the captain?”

“I don’t know.”

“Find him, will you? He’ll be drinking somewhere.”

He ran back downstairs. As soon as he was gone, Fashnalgid climbed out from under his bed and laughed. Toress Lahl refused to smile.

“I want food, not prayer,” he said, peering cautiously out of the window. “And that drink your friend mentioned would be welcome.. . .”

The Odim clan was gathering in the courtyard, where slaves were still meddling inefficiently with long rods, climbing in and out of the biogas inspection pit, despite the sleet in the air. The place was filled with excited talk.

Shokerandit appeared. Some of the ladies who had been on the New Season ran up and embraced him, in a manner more reminiscent of Kuj-Juvec than of the rest of Sibornal. Shokerandit no longer contrasted such free behaviour with his own formal upbringing.

“Oh, this is such a good place, this Rivenjk,” said one well-wrapped grand-aunt, taking his arm. “There are many fine buildings, and much statuary. I shall be happy here, and mean to set up a press to print poetry. Do you think your countrymen like poetry?”

But before Shokerandit could reply, the lady had turned in the other direction to grasp Eedap Mun Odim by the sleeve. “You are our little hero, cousin, bringing us safe from oppression. Let me be in the church next to you. Walk there with me and make me proud.”

“I shall be proud to walk with you, auntie,” said Odim, smiling kindly at her. And the whole jostling crowd began to move out of the courtyard gate and along the street to the church.

“And we are proud to have you with us, too, Luterin,” said Odim, anxious that Shokerandit should not feel left out of the party. He looked round with pleasure at so many Odims gathered together. Although their ranks had been culled by the Fat Death, the bulk of the survivors was a compensation of sorts.

When they filed into the high-roofed church, Odim ranged himself against his brother, elbows touching.

He wondered if Odo, like him, had no belief in God the Azoiaxic. He was far too polite to put such a personal question; secrecy was for men, as the saying went. If his brother wished to confess one evening, over a little wine, that was another matter. For now, it was enough that they were together and that the  service allowed them to mourn for those who had died, including his wife and children and the beloved

Besi Besamitikahl, and to rejoice in the fact that their own lives were spared.

A treble voice, disembodied, sexless, free of lust, traced a thread of theatrical penitence which rose from the well of the church to its interlaced roof beams.

Odim smiled as he sang and felt his soul lifted towards the rafters. Belief would have been good. But even the wish to believe was consolatory.

As the voices of the congregation were raised in song inside, ten beefy soldiers marched down the street outside accompanied by an officer, and halted outside Odirin Nan Odim’s gate. The watchman opened up to them, bowing. The soldiers brushed him aside and marched into the centre of the courtyard, trampling the already trodden carpet of snow.

The officer barked orders to his men. Four men to search the houses set at each point of the compass, remainder to stand where they were and be alert for escapees.

“Abro Hakmo Astab!” Fashnalgid shouted, jumping up from his bed. He had been sitting half-dressed, watching both the window and Toress Lahl, to whom he occasionally read lines of poetry from a small book She was obeying his orders to prepare a meal, and was carrying a flaming brand obtained from a slave downstairs to light their stove.

She flinched at the obscenity of his oath, although she was used to the swearing of soldiers.

“How I love the sound of a military voice! ‘No song like yours under spring skies . . .’ “ Fashnalgid said. “And the clump of army boots. Yes, there they are. Look at that young fool of a lieutenant, uniform gleam- ing. All I once was . . .”

He glared down at the scene in the courtyard, where, in front of the soldiers, slaves still worked, rodding out the biogas drains, glancing mistrustingly at the invaders.

A pair of boots started to clump up the stairs to the attic room. Fashnalgid snarled, showing white teeth under the wave of his moustache. He rushed for his sword and glared round the room like a cornered beast. Toress Lahl stood petrified, one hand to her mouth, the other holding the flaming brand at arm’s length.

“Haaa . . .” He dashed forward and snatched the brand from her, trailing the smoke across the room as he ran for the window. Pushing it open, he forced his head and shoulders out and hurled the brand with all his strength.

He had not lost his military skills. No grenade could have flown truer. The flame drew a parabola down the darkened air and disappeared into the open trap of the biogas chamber. For a second, silence. Then the whole place exploded. Slabs of the courtyard went flying. A great flame rose in the midst of everything, burning blue at its core.

With a roar of satisfaction, Fashnalgid crossed to the door and flung it wide. A young soldier stood there, hesitating, looking back the way-he had come. Without thought, Fashnalgid ran him through. As the man doubled, Fashnalgid kicked out, sending him head first down the stairs.

“Now we’ve got to run for our lives, woman,” he said, taking hold of Toress Lahl’s hand.

“Luterin-“ she said, but she was too frightened to do anything but follow him. They ran downstairs. The courtyard was a scene of panic. The gas still burned. Odims too old, too young, or too voluminous to attend the church service, together with their animals, were running about among the soldiers. The smart lieutenant aimed a bullet or two at the clouds. Slaves were screaming. One of the houses had caught fire.

It was an easy matter to skirt the melee and leave by the gate.

Once they were in the street, Fashnalgid dropped to an easier pace and sheathed his sword, so as to be less conspicuous.

They hurried into the churchyard. He pulled the woman against a buttress, panting. Inside, hymns rose to God the Azoiaxic. In his excitement, he gripped her painfully by the upper arm.

“Those sherbs, they’re after us. Even in this piddling dump . . .”

“Oh, do let me go. You’re hurting me.”

“I’ll let you go. You’re going to go inside this church and get Shokerandit. Tell him that the military have caught up with us. There’ll be no escaping by boat now. If he has arranged a sledge, then we all start for Kharnabhar as soon as we can. Go in and tell him.” He gave her a push to encourage her. “Tell him they want to hang him.”

By the time Toress Lahl reappeared with Shokerandit, many people were about in the street-and not only innocent bystanders. As the Odims ran shouting with distress, Fashnalgid said, “Luterin, have you got a sledge? Can we get out of here right away?”

“Need you have wrecked the Odim home after all they have done for us?” Shokerandit said, regarding the other’s disarray.

“Don’t trust Odim. He’s a tradesman. We have to leave. The army’s woken up. Don’t forget your lovely Toress Lahl is officially a runaway-slave. You know the penalty for that. Where’s the sledge?”

“We can get it when the stables open at Batalix-dawn. You have changed your mind suddenly, haven’t you?”

“Where do we hide till dawn?”

Shokerandit thought. “There’s a family friend, by nameHernisarath. He and his wife will give us shelter until the morning. . . . But I must go and say good-bye to Odim.”Fashnalgid pointed a thick finger at him. “You’ll do no such thing. He’ll hand you over. Soldiers are swarming everywhere. You are an innocent, aren’t you?” “All right, and you’re an eccentric. Insults apart, why the change of plan? Only this morning you were going to sail for Campannlat.”

Fashnalgid smiled. “Suppose it occurred to me that I ought to be nearer to God? I’ve decided to come with you and your lady slave to Holy Kharnabhar.”