It was summer in the northern hemisphere of Earth in a year that would once have been called 7583. A group of lovers was travelling in a slowly moving room. Other rooms were moving nearby, also at a leisurely pace. They perambulated before a mountainous geonaut. The geonaut perambulated in the tropics.
Sometimes, one of the lovers would climb down from the room and cross to another room. Seventy rooms clustered round the geonaut. Soon it would replicate.
A man called Trockern was talking, as he liked to do in the afternoons, when the morning’s rethinking session was over. Like the others present, male and female, Trockern wore nothing but a light gauze veil over his head.
He was a lightly built olive-skinned man, with good features and an irrepressible smile which broke forth even when he was speaking seriously.
“If I’ve got the fruits of this morning’s rethink ri ght, then the bizarre peoples who lived in the ages before the nuclear war failed to realise one fact which now seems obvious to us. They had not developed sufficiently to escape from the same sort of territorial possessiveness which still governs birds and animals.”
He was addressing two sisters, Shoyshal and Ermine, who were currently sharing his room with him. The sisters looked much alike; but there was a greater clarity about Shoyshal, and she was the leader of the pair.
“At least part of the old race denounced the evils of landownership,” Ermine said.
“They were regarded as cranks,” Trockern said. “Listen, my theory, which I hope we can explore, is that possession was everything for the old race. Love- for them, even love was a political act.”
“That’s far too sweeping,” Shoyshalsaid. “Admittedly, over most of the globe in those times one sex dominated the other-“
“Possessed them as slaves.”
“Well, dominated them, you argumentative hunk. But there were also societies where sex became just good clean fun, without any spiritual or possessive connotations, where ‘liberation was the watchword, and-“
Trockern shook his head. “Darling, you prove my point. That minority was rebelling against the predominant ethos, so they too treated - were forced to treat- love as a political act. ‘Liberation or ‘free love’ was a statement, therefore political.”
“I don’t suppose they thought like that.”
“They didn’t see clearly enough to think like that. Hence their perpetual unease. My belief is that even their wars were welcome as an escape from their personal predicaments. . . .” Seeing that Shoyshal was about to argue, he went on hastily, “Yes, I know war was also linked to territory. That sense of territorially extended from the land to the individual. You were supposed to be proud of your native land and to fight for it, and equally you were supposed to be proud of and fight for your lover. Or wife, as they then called it. Do you imagine I am proud of you or would fight for you?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?” Ermine asked, smiling.
“Look, take an example. This obsession the old race had with ownership. Slavery was a common condition on Earth up to and including the Industrial Revolution. Long after that, in many places. It was just as bad as we witness it on Helliconia. It gave you power to possess another person- an idea now almost past belief to us. It would bring us only misery. But we can see how the slave owner also becomes enslaved.”
As Trockern raised both his left hand and his voice for emphasis, the old man sleeping away the afternoon on a nearby bunk muttered irritably, snorted, and rolled over onto his other side.
“Again, darling, there were plenty of societies without slaves,” Shoyshal said. “And plenty of societies which abhorred the idea.”
“They said they abhorred it, but they kept servants when they could possessed them as far as possible. Later they em ployed androids. Officially nonslave societies went in for multiple possessions instead. Possessions, possessions ... It was a form of madness.”
“They were not mad,” Shoyshal said. “Just different from us. They’d probably find us pretty strange. Besides, it was the adolescence of mankind. I’ve listened to your preaching often enough, Trockern, and can’t deny I’ve enjoyed it-more or less. Now listen to what I am going to say.
“We’re here because of astonishing luck. Forget about the Hand of God, about which the Helliconians are always agonising. There’s just luck. I don’t meanonly luck that a few humans survived the nuclear winter-though that’s a part of it. I mean by luck the series of Earth’s cosmic accidents. Think of the way plantlike bacteria released oxygen into an otherwise unbreathable atmosphere. Think of the accident of fish developing backbones. Think of the accident of mammals developing placenta-so much cleverer than eggs- though eggs, too, were winners in their day. Think of the accident of the bombardment which altered conditions so sharply that the dinosaurs failed, to give mammals their chance. I could go on.”
“You always could,” said her sister half-admiringly.
“Our old adolescent ancestors feared accident. They feared luck. Hence gods and fences and marriage and nuclear arms and all the rest. Not your possessiveness, but the fear of accident. Which eventually befell them. Perhaps such prophecies are self-fulfilling.”
“Plausible. Yes. I’ll agree, if you will allow that possessiveness itself might have been a symptom of that fear of accidents.”
“Oh, well, Trockern, if you’re going to agree, let’s get back to the subject of sex.” They all laughed. Outside their windows, the mobile city could be seen trundling on its inelegant way, drinking egonicity from the white polyhedrons.
Ermine put an arm about her sister’s shoulder and stroked her hair.
“You talk about one person possessing another- I suppose you would say that the old institution of marriage was like that. Yet marriage still sounds rather romantic to me.”
“Most squalid things are romantic if you get far enough away from them” Shoyshal said. “Anything seen through a haze . . . But marriage is the supreme example of love as a political act. The love was just a pretence, or at best an illusion.”
“I don’t see what you mean. Men and women did not have to marry, did they?”
“It was voluntary in a way, yes, but there was the pressure of society to marry. Sometimes moral pressure, sometimes economic pressure. The man got someone to work for him and have sex with. The woman got someone to earn money for her. They pooled their cupidities.”
“All those romantic postures,” continued Shoyshal, enjoying herself. “Those raptures, those love songs, that sticky music, that literature they so prized, the suicide pacts, the tears, the vows-all just social mating displays, the baiting of the trap they couldn’t see they were setting or falling into.”
“You make it sound awful.”
“Oh, it was worse than that, Ermine, I assure you. No wonder so many women chose prostitution. I mean, marriage was another version of the power struggle, with both husband and wife battling for supremacy over the other. The man had the bludgeon of the purse strings, the woman the secret weapon between her legs.”
They all burst out in laughter. The old man on the other bunk, Sartorilrvrash by name, began to snore in self-defence.
“It’s a long while since yours was secret,” Trockern said.
When a city became too crowded for someone’s liking, it was not difficult to change to another geonaut and head off in a new direction. There were many other cities, other alternatives. Some people liked to follow the long light days; others travelled to enjoy spectacular scenery; others developed longings to view the sea or the desert. Every environment offered a different kind of experience.
And those kinds of experience were of a different order from the kinds that once had been. No longer did the people cry out. Their agile brains had at last led their emotions to accept a role of modesty, subor- dinate but never acquiescent to Gaia, spirit of Earth. Gaia did not seek to possess them, as their imagined gods had once done. They were themselves part of that spirit. They had a vision.
In consequence, death ceased to play the leading role of Inquisitor in human affairs, as once it had done. Now it was no more than an item in the homely accounting which included mankind: Gaia was a common grave from which fresh increment continually blossomed.
There was also the dimension of a real involvement with Helliconia. From watchers, men and women had graduated to participators. As the images failed to arrive from the Avernus, as the mere pictures died in the shell-like auditoria, so the empathic link was forged ever more strongly. In a sense, humankind- humanmind- leaped across space to become the eye of the Original Beholder, to lend strength to their distant fellows on the other planet.
What the future might bring to that spiritual extension of being was a matter for expectation.
By accepting a role proper and comfortable to them, the terrestrials had again entered the magic circle of being. They had forsworn their old greeds. Theirs was the world, as they were the world’s.
When it was growing dark, Ermine said, “Talking about love as a political act. It takes a little getting used to. But what was that legalistic arrangement the old race suffered when a marriage broke up? Jandol-Anganol had one? Oh, a divorce. That was a quarrel over possessions, wasn’t it?”
“And over who possessed the children,” Shoyshal said. “That’s an example of love all entangled in economics and politics. They didn’t understand hat the random cannot be escaped. It’s one of the caprices by which Gaia keeps herself up to date.”
Trockern glanced out the window and gestured at the geonaut. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaia hasn’t sent that object to supersede us,” he said, with an air of mock gloom. “After all, geonauts are more beautiful and more functional than we are-present company excepted.”
As the stars came out, the three climbed down onto the earth and walked by the side of their slow- trundling room. Ermine linked arms with the other two.
“We can judge from the example of Helliconia how many lives of the old race were ruined by territoriality and the lust to possess those who were loved. No matter that it killed love. At least the nuclear winter freed our race from that sort of territoriality. We have risen to a better kind of life.”
“I wonder what else is wrong with us that we don’t know about?” Trockern said, and laughed.
“In your case we know,” said Ermine, teasingly. He bit her ear. Inside the room, Sartorilrvrash stirred on his bunk and grunted, as if in approval, as if he would have relished biting that pink lobe himself. It was about the hour when he generally decided to wake and enjoy the hours of tropical darkness.
“That reminds me,” Shoyshal said, looking up at the stars. “If my randomness theory is in any way correct, it might account for why the old race never found any other life forms out there, except on Helli- conia. Helliconia and Earth were lucky. We were accident-prone. On the other planets, everything went according to some geophysical plan. As a result, nothing ever happened. There was no story to tell.”
They stood looking up into the infinite distances of the sky.
A sigh escaped Trockern. “I always experience intense happiness when I look up at the galaxy. Always. On the one hand, the stars remind me that the whole marvellous complexity of the organic and inorganic universe resolves itself down to a few physical laws awesome in their simplicity-“
“And of course you are happy that the stars provide a text for a speech. . . .” She imitated his posturing.
“And on the other hand, darling, and on the other hand . . . Oh, you know, I’m happy that I’m more complex than a worm or bluebottle, and thus able to read beauty into those few awesome physical laws.”
“All those age-old rumours about God,” Shoyshal said. “You can’t help wondering if there isn’t something in them. Perhaps the truth is that God’s areal old bore you wouldn’t want to be seen dead with. . . .”
“. . . Sitting brooding for ever over planets piled with nothing but sand . . .”
“. . . And counting every grain,” finished Ermine. Laughing, they had to run to catch up with their room.
The years went by. It was simple. All one had to do was haul on the chains, and the years passed. And the Wheel moved through the starry firmament.
Despair gave way to resignation. Long after resignation came hope, flooding in without fanfares, like dawn.
The nature of the graffiti on the encompassing outer wall changed. There were representations of nude women, hopes and boasts about grandchildren, fears about wives. There were calendars counting down the final years, the figures growing larger as the tenners shrank.
Yet still there were religious sayings, sometimes repeated obsessively on every few metres of wall until, after many tenners, the writer grew tired. One such which Luterin read musingly was ALL THE
WISDOM HAS ALWAYS EXISTED: DRINK DEEP OF IT THAT IT MAY INCREASE.
Once, as he hauled on his chains with the rest of the unseen host, as trumpets blew and the whole structure shrieked on its pinions, Luterin Shokerandit was aware of a faint luminosity in his cell. He worked. Every hour hauled the mass of the Wheel under 10 centimetres forward, but every hour increased the luminosity. An halosis of yellow twilight crept in.
He thought himself in paradise. Throwing off his furs, he tugged at the ten-link chain with extra vigour, shouting for his unhearing fellows to do the same. Near the end of the twelve-and-a-half-hour work period, the cell’s leading wall slipped forward to reveal the merest slit of light. The cell became filled with a holy substance which flickered and flowed into the least corner of the cell. Luterin fell down on his knees and covered his eyes, crying and laughing.
Before the work period ceased, all of the slit was contained within his outer wall space. It was 240 millimetres wide-and there was now half a small year to go before Luterin had hauled his cell once more to the exit under Bambekk Monastery. Concisely engraved lettering in the granite read: YE HAVE BUT HALF A
YEAR LEFT AWAY FROM THE WORLD:
SEE YE BENEFIT FROM IT.
The window was cut deep into the rock. It was difficult to see how far it extended before it became a window to the outside. Bars were secured over it at the far end. Through the bars a distant tree could be seen, a caspiarn blowing before a storm wind.
Luterin stared out for a long while before going to sit on his bunk to contemplate the beauty about him. The cleft by which the daylight entered was silted with rubble. Through it filtered a precious quality which brimmed the entire volume of the cell with transforming fluids of beauty. All the light in the world seemed to him to be pouring blessing on his head. Before him lay both the brightest of illuminations, as well as exquisite shadows which painted the corners of the modest room with such gradations of tone as he had never observed in the world of freedom. He drank the ecstasy of being a living biological creature again.
“Insil!” he cried into the twilight. “I shall be back!” He did not work the next day, but watched the life- giving window being moved by others across the outer wall. On the following day, when again he refused to work, the window moved again and all but disappeared. Even the crack remaining was sufficient to spill an exquisite pearly luminosity into his confinement. When, on the fourth workday, even that vanished- presumably to charm the inmate of the following cell-he was disconsolate.
Now began a period of self-doubt. His longing to be free changed to a fear of what he would find. What would Insil have done with herself? Would she have left the place she hated?
And his mother. Perhaps she was dead by now. He resisted the impulse to sink into pauk and find out.
And Toress Lahl. Well, he had set her free. Perhaps she had made her way back to Borldoran.
And what of the political situation? Was the new Oligarch carrying out the old Oligarch’s edicts? Were phagors still being slain? What of the quarrel between Church and State?
He wondered how he would himself be treated when he emerged into the world. Perhaps a party of execution would await him. It was the old question, still unanswered over almost ten small years: was he saint or sinner? A hero or a criminal? Certainly he had forfeited any claim to the position of Keeper of the Wheel.
He began talking to an imagined woman, achieving an eloquence that was never his when he was face to face with anyone else.
“What a maze life is to humans! It must be so much simpler to be a phagor. They aren’t tormented by doubt or hope. When you are young, you enjoy a sustained illusion that sooner or later something marvellous is going to happen, that you are going to transcend your parents’ limitations, meet a wonderful woman, and be capable of being wonderful to her.
“At the same time, you feel sure that in all the wilderness of possibility, in all the forests of conflicting opinion, there is a vital something that can be known-known and grasped. That we will eventually know it, and convert the whole mystery into a coherent narrative. So that then one’s true life-the point of everything-will emerge from the mist into a pure light, into total comprehension.
“But it isn’t like that at all. Butif it isn’t, where did the idea come from, to torture and unsettle us? All the years I’ve spent here-all the thought that’s gone by . . .”
He tugged mightily at each heavy chain that presented itself in that endless succession of chains. The days on the stone calendar dwindled. That impossible day would be upon him when he would be free again to move among other human beings. Whatever happened, he prayed to the Azoiaxic that he might make love to a woman again. In his imagination, Insil was no longer remote.
The wind blew from the north, carrying with it the taint of the permanent ice cap. Very few things could live within its breath. Even the tough leaves of the caspiarns furled themselves like sails against the trunks of the trees when the wind blew.
The valleys were filling with snow. The snow was packing down. Year by small year, the light grew less.
There was now a covered way to the small chapel of King Jandol-Anganol. It was roughly built of fallen branches, but it served to keep a path clear to the sunken door.
For the first time in many centuries, someone lived in the chapel. A woman and a small boy crouched over a stove in one corner. The woman kept the door locked, and screened the stove so that its light could not be seen from outside. She had no right to be here.
All round the chapel she had set traps which she found rusting in the vestry of the chapel. Small animals were caught in her traps, providing food enough. Only rarely did she dare show herself in the village of Kharnabhar, although she had a kind friend there who had established a store to sell fish brought up from the coast-for the old route she had on ce travelled was kept open, whatever the weather.
She taught her son to read. She drew the letters of the alphabet in the dust, or carried him to see the letters painted on the walls in various texts. She told him that the letters and words were pictures of ideal things, some of which existed or could exist, some of which should not exist. She tried to instil morality with his reading, but she also invented silly stones for him which made them both laugh.
When the child was asleep, she read to herself.
It was a perpetual source of wonder to her that the presiding presence in this building was a man from her own city of Oldorando. Their lives were united in a curious way, across miles and centuries. He had retreated to this place to be in seclusion and to do penance for his sins. Late in life, he had been joined by a strange woman from Dimariam, a distant country of Hespagorat. Both had left documents, through which she wandered by the hour. Sometimes she felt the king’s restless spirit by her side.
As the years passed, she told the story to her growing son.
“This naughty King JandolAnganol did a great wrong in the country where your mother was born. He was a religious man, yet he killed his religion. It was a terrible paradox under which he found it hard to live.
So he came to Kharnabhar and served in the Wheel for the full ten small years, as now does the one who is your father.
“JandolAnganol left two queens behind him to come here. He must have been very wicked, though the Sibornalese think him holy.
“After he emerged from the Wheel, he was joined by the Dimariam woman I told you about. Like me, she was a doctor. Well, she seems to have been other things besides, including a trader of some sort. Her name was Immya Muntras, and she, feeling the call of religion, sought out the king. Perhaps she comforted his old age. She stood by him. That’s no ill thing.
“Muntras possessed learning which she thought precious. See, here is where she wrote it all down, long ago, during the Great Summer, when people thought the world was going to end, just as they do now.
“This lady Muntras had some information from a man who arrived in Oldorando from another world. It sounds strange, but I have seen so many amazing things in my life that I believe anything. Lady Muntras’s bones now lie in the antechapel, beside those of the king. Here are her papers.
“What she learned from the man from another world concerned the nature of the plague. She was told by the strange man that the Fat Death was necessary, that it brought to those who survived a meta- morphosis, a change in bodily metabolism which would enable them best to survive the winter. Without that metamorphosis, humans cannot hope to live through the heart of the Weyr-Winter.
“The plague is carried by ticks which live on phagors and transfer to men and women. The bite of the tick gives you plague. The plague brings metamorphosis. So you see that man cannot survive the Weyr- Winter without phagors.
“This knowledge the lady Muntras tried to teach in Kharnabhar, centuries past. Yet still they are killing phagors, and the State does everything in its power to keep the plague at bay. It would be better to improve medicine, so that more people who caught the plague could survive.”
So she used to talk, scanning her boy’s face in the semidarkness.
The boy listened. Then he went to play among the treasures left in the chests which had once belonged to the wicked king.
One evening, as he was playing and his mother reading by the firelight, there came a knocking at the door of the chapel.
Like the slow seasons, the Great Wheel of Kharnabhar always completed its revolutions.
For Luterin Shokerandit, the Wheel at last came full circle. The cell that had been his habitation returned to the opening. Only a wall 0.64 metres thick separated it from the cell ahead, into which a volunteer was even then stepping, to commence ten years in the darkness, rowing Helliconia towards the light.
There were guards waiting in the gloom. They helped him from his place of confinement. Instead of releasing him, they took him slowly up a winding side stair. The light grew steadily brighter; he closed his eyes and gasped.
They took him into a small room in the monastery of Bambekk. For a while he was left alone.
Two female slaves came, regarding him out of the corner of their eyes. They were followed by male slaves, bearing a bath and hot water, a silver looking glass, towels and shaving equipment, fresh clothes.
“These are by courtesy of the Keeper of the Wheel,” said one of the women. “ ‘Tisn’t every wheeler gets this treatment, be sure of that.”
As the scent of hot water and herbs reached him, Luterin realised how he stank, how the methaney odours of the Wheel clung to him. He allowed the women to strip off his ragged furs. They led him to the bath. He lay glorying in the sensation as they washed his limbs. Every smallest event threatened to overwhelm him. He had been as if dead.
He was powdered and dried and dressed in the thick new clothes.
They led him to the window to peer out, although the light at first almost blinded him.
He was looking down on the village of Kharnabhar from a great height. He could see houses buried up to their roofs in snow. The only things that moved were a sledge pulled by three yelk and two birds circling in the sky overhead, creating that eternal spectre of the wheel.
Visibility was good. A snowstorm was dying, and clouds blew away to the south, leaving pockets of undiluted blue sky. It was all too brilliant. He had to turn away, covering his eyes.
“What’s the date?” he asked one of the women.
“Why, ‘tis 1319, and tomorrow’s Myrkwyr. Now, how about having that beard cut off and looking a few thousand years younger?”
His beard had grown like a fungus in the dark. It was streaked with grey and hung to his navel.
“Cut it off,” he said. “I’m not yet twenty-four. I’m still young, aren’t
“I’ve certainly heard of people being older,”said the woman, advancing with the scissors.
He was then to be taken before the Keeper of the Wheel.
“This will be merely a formal audience,” said the usher who escorted him through the labyrinth of the monastery. Luterin had little to say. The new impressions crowding in were almost more than he could receive; he could not help thinking how he had once regarded himself as destined to be Keeper.
He made no response when eventually he was left at one end of what seemed to him an immense chamber. The Keeper sat at the far end on a wooden throne, flanked by two boys in ecclesiastical garb. The dignitary beckoned Luterin to approach.
He stepped gingerly through the lighted space, awed by the number of paces it required to reach the dais.
The Keeper was an enormous man who had draped himself in a purple gown. His face seemed about to burst. Like his gown, it was purple, and mottled with veins climbing the cheeks and nose like vines. His eyes were watery, his mouth moist. Luterin had forgotten there were such faces, and studied it as an object of curiosity while it studied him.
“Bow,” hissed one of the attendant children, so he bowed.
The Keeper spoke in a throttled kind of voice. “You are back among us, Luterin Shokerandit. Throughout the last ten years, you have been under the Church’s care-otherwise you would probably have been poisoned by your enemies, in revenge for your act of patricide.”
“Who are my enemies?”
The watery eyes were squeezed between folds of lid. “Oh, the slayer of the Oligarch has enemies everywhere, official and unofficial. But they were mainly the Church’s enemies t oo. We shall continue to do what we can for you. There is a private feeling that ... we owe you something.” He laughed. “We could help you to leave Kharnabhar.”
“I have no wish to leave Kharnabhar. It’s my home.
“ The watery eyes watched his mouth rather than his eyes when he spoke.
“You may change your mind. Now, you must report to the Master of Kharnabhar. Once, if you remember, the offices of Master and Keeper of the Wheel were combined. With the schism between Church and State, the two offices are separate.”
“Sir, may I ask a question?”
“There’s much to understand . . . Does the Church hold me to be saint or sinner?”
The Keeper endeavoured to clear his throat. “The Church cannot condone patricide, so I suppose that officially you are a sinner. How could it be otherwise? You might have worked that out, I would have thought, during your ten years below. . . . However, personally, speaking ex officio ... I’d say you rid the world of a villain, and I regard you “ as a saint.” He laughed.
So this must be an unofficial enemy, thought Luterin. He bowed and turned to walk away when the Keeper called him back.
The Keeper heaved himself to his feet. “You don’t recognise me? I’m Wheel-Keeper Ebstok Esikananzi. Ebstok-an old friend. You once had hopes of marrying my daughter, Insil. As you see, I have risen to a post of distinction.”
“If my father had lived, you would never have become Keeper.”
“Who’s to blame for that? You begrateful that I’m grateful.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Luterin, and left the august presence, preoccupied by the remark regarding Insil.
He had no idea where he was supposed to go to report to the Master of Kharnabhar. But Keeper Esikananzi had arranged everything. A liveried slave awaited Luterin with a sledge, with furs to protect him from the cold.
The speed of the sledge overwhelmed him, and the jingle of the animals’ harness bells. As soon as the vehicle started to move, he closed his eyes and held tight. There were voices like birds crying, and the song of the runners on the ice, reminding him of something-he knew not what.
The air smelt brittle. From what little he glimpsed of Kharnabhar the pilgrims had all gone. The houses were shuttered. Everything looked drabber and smaller than he remembered it. Lights gleamed here and there in upper windows or in trading stores which remained open. The light was still painful to his eyes. He slumped back, marshalling his memories of Ebstok Esikananzi. He had known this crony of his father’s since childhood, and had never taken to the man; it was Ebstok who should be called to account for his daughter Insil’s bitterness.
The sledge rattled and jolted, its bells merrily jingling. Above their tinny sound came the tongue of a heavier bell.
He forced himself to look about.
They were sweeping through massive gates. He recognised the gates and the gatehouse beside them. He had been born here. Cliffs of snow three metres high towered on either side of the drive. They were driving through-yes-the Vineyard. A head, roofs of a familiar house showed. The bell of unforgettable voice sounded even louder.
Shokerandit was visited by a warming memory of himself as a small boy, pulling a little toboggan, running towards the front steps. His father was standing there, at home for once, smiling, arms extended to him.
There was an armed sentry on the door now. The door was three parts enclosed in a small hut for the sentry’s protection. The sentry kicked on the panels of the front door until a slave opened up and took charge of Luterin.
In the windowless hall, gas jets burned against the wall, their nimbuses reflected in the polished marble. He saw immediately that the great vacant chair had gone.
“Is my mother here?” he asked the slave. The man merely gaped at him and led him up the stairs. Without emotional tone, he told himself that he should be the Master of Kharnabhar, as well as Keeper.
At the slave’s knock, a voice bade him enter. He stepped into his father’s old study, the room that had so often been locked against him during earlier years.
An old grey hound lay sprawled by the fire, vvoofing pettishly at Luterin’s arrival. Green logs hissed and smouldered in the grate. The room smelt of smoke, dog’s piss, and something resembling face powder. Beyond the thick-paned window lay snow and the infinite wordless universe.
A white-haired secretary, the hinges of whose lumbar region had rusted to force on him a resemblance to a crooked walking stick, approached. He munched his lips by way of greeting and offered Luterin a chair without any needless display of cordiality.
Luterin sat down. His gaze travelled round the room, which was still crammed with his father’s belongings. He took in the flintlocks and matchlocks of earlier days, the pictures and plate, the mullions and soffits, the orreries and oudenardes. Silverfish and woodworm went about their tasks in the room. The sliver of crumbling cake on the secretary’s desk was presumably of recent date.
The secretary had seated himself with an elbow by the cake. “The master is busy at present, with the Myrkwyr ceremony to come. He should not be long,” said the secretary. After a pause, he added, regarding Luterin slyly, “I suppose you don’trecognise me?” “It’s rather bright in here.”
“But I’m your father’s old secretary, Secretary Evanporil. I serve the new Master now.”
“Do you miss my father?”
“That’s hardly for me to say. I simply carry out t he administration.” He became busy with the papers on his desk. “Is my mother still here?”
The secretary looked up quickly. “She’s still here, yes.” “And Toress Lahl?” “I don’t know that name, sir.”
The silence of the rooms was filled with the dry rustle of paper. Luterin contained himself, rousing when the door opened. A tall thin man with a narrow face and peppery whiskers came in, bell clanking at waist.
He stood there, wrapped in a black-and-brown heedrant, looking down at Luterin. Luterin stared back, trying to assess whether this was an official or an unofficial enemy.
“Well . . . you are back at last in the world in which you have caused a great deal of havoc. Welcome. The Oligarchy has appointed me Master here-as distinct from any ecclesiastical duties. I’m the voice of
the State in Kharnabhar. With the worsening weather, communications with Askitosh are more difficult than they were. We see to it that we get good food supplies from Rivenjk, otherwise military links are ... rather weaker. . . .”
This was drawn out sentence by sentence, as Luterin made no response.
“Well, we will try to look after you, though I hardly think you can live in this house.”
“This is my house.”
“No. You have no house. This is the house of the Master and always has been.”
“Then you have greatly profited by my act.”
“There is profit in the world, yes. That’s true.”
Silence fell. The secretary came and proffered two glasses of yadahl. Luterin accepted one, blinded by the beauty of its ruby gleam, but could not drink it.
The Master remained standing rather stiffly, betraying some nervousness as he gulped his yadahl. He said, “Of course, you have been away from the world for a long time. Do I take it that you don’t recognise me?”
Luterin said nothing.
With a small burst of irritation, the Master said, “Beholder, you are silent, aren’t you? I was once your army commander, Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka. I thought soldiers never forgot their commanders in battle!”
Then Luterin spoke. “Ah, Asperamanka . . . ‘Let them bleed a little’ . . . Yes, now I remember you.”
“It’s hard to forget how the Oligarchy, when yourfather controlled it, destroyed my army in order to keep the plague from Sibornal. You and I were among the few to escape death.”
He took a considered sip at his yadahl and paced about the room. Now Luterin recognised him by the anger lines incised into his brow.
Luterin rose. “I’d like to ask you a question. Howdoes the State regard me-as a saint or a sinner?”
The Master’s fingernails tapped against his glass. “After your father . . .died, there followed a period of unrest in the various nations of Sibornal. They’re used to harsh lawsby now-the laws that will see us safe through the Weyr-Winter-but t hen it was otherwise. There was, frankly, some bad feeling about Oligarch Torkerkanzlag II. His edicts weren’t popular. . . .
“So the Oligarchy circulated the rumor-and th is was my idea-that they had trained you to assassinate your father, whom they could no longer control. They put out the idea that you had been spared at the massacre at Koriantura only because you were the Oligarchy’s man. The rumour increased our popularity and brought us through a difficult time.”
“You wrapped up my crime in a lie.”
“We just made use of your useless act. One outcome of it was that the State recognised you officially as a-why do you say ‘saint’?-as a hero. You’ve become part of legend. Though I have to say that per- sonally I regard you as a sinner of the first water. I still keep my religious convictions in such matters.”
“And is it religious conviction that has installed you in Kharnabhar?”
Asperamanka smiled and tugged at his beard. “I greatly miss Askitosh. But there was an opportunity open to govern this province, so I took it. ... As a legend, a figure in the history books, you must accept my hospitality for the night. A guest, not a captive.”
“We have her here. She’s ill. She’s no more likely to recognise you than you were to recognise me. Since you are something of a hero in Kharnabhar, I want you to accompany me to the public Myrkwyr ceremony tomorrow, with the Keeper. Then people can see we haven’t harmedyou. It will be the day of your rehabilitation. There’ll be a feast.”
“You’ll let mefeed a little . . .”
“I don’t understand you. After the ceremony, we will make what arrangements you wish. You might consider it best to leave Kharnabhar and live somewhere less remote.”
“That’s what the Keeper also hoped I might consider.”
He went to see his mother. Lourna Shokerandit lay in bed, frail and unmoving. As Asperamanka had anticipated, she did not recognise him. That night, he dreamed he was back in the Wheel.
The following day began with a great bustle and ringing of bells. Strange smells of food drifted up to where Luterin lay. He recognised the savoury odours as rising from dishes he would once have desired. Now he longed for the simple fare he had reviled, the rations that came rolling down the chutes of the Wheel.
Slaves came to wash and dress him. He did as was required of him, passively.
Many people he did not know assembled in the great hall. He looked down over the bannisters and could not bring himself to join them. The excitement was overpowering. Master Asperamanka came up the stairs to him and said, taking his arm, “You are unhappy. What can I do for you? It is important that I am seen to please you today.”
The personages in the hall were flocking outside, where sleighbells rattled. Luterin did not speak. He could hear the wind roar as it had done in the Wheel.
“Very well, then at least we will ride together and people will see us and think us friends. We are going to the monastery, where we shall meet the Keeper, and my wife, and many of Kharnabhar’s dignitaries.” He talked animatedly and Luterin did not listen, concentrating on the exacting performance of descending a flight of stairs. Only as they went through the front door and a sleigh drew up for them, did the Master say sharply, “You’ve no weapon on you?”
When Luterin shook his head, they climbed into the sleigh, and slaves bundled furs round them. They set off into the gale among cliSs of snow.
When they turned north, the wind bit into their faces. To the twenty degrees of frost, a considerable chill factor had to be added.
But the sky was clear and, as they drove through the shuttered village, a great irregular mass appeared through its veils to loom over Mount Kharnabhar.
“Shivenink, the third highest peak on the planet,” said Asperamanka, pointing it out. “What a place!” He made a moue of distaste.
Just for a minute the mountain’s naked ribbed walls were visible; then it was gone again, the ghost that dominated the village.
The passengers were driven up a winding track to the gates of Bam-bekk Monastery. They entered and dismounted. Slaves assisted them into the vaulted halls, where a number of official-looking people had already gathered.
At a sign, they proceeded up several staircases. Luterin took no interest in their progress. He was listening to a rumble far below, which carried through the monastery. Obsessively, he tried to imagine every corner of his cell, every scratch on its enclosing walls.
The party came at last to a hall high in the monastery. It was circular in shape. Two carpets covered the floor, one white, one black. They were separated by an iron band which ran across the floor, dividing the chamber in half. Biogas shed a dim light. There was one window, facing south, but it was covered by a heavy curtain.
Embroidered on the curtain was a representation of the Great Wheel being rowed across the heavens, each oarsman sitting in a small cell in its perimeter, wearing cerulean garments, each smiling blissfully.
Now at last I understand those blissful smiles, thought Luterin.
A group of musicians was playing solemn and harmonious music at the far side of the room. Lackeys with trays were dispensing drinks to all and sundry.
Keeper of the Wheel Esikananzi appeared, raising his hand graciously in greeting. Smiling, half-bowing to all, he made his portly way towards where the Master of Kharnabhar and Luterin stood.
When they had greeted each other, Esikananzi asked Asperamanka, “Is our friend any more sociable this morning?” On receiving a negative, he said to Luterin, with an attempt at geniality, “Well, the sight you are about to witness may loosen your tongue.”
The two men became surrounded by hangers-on, and Luterin gradually edged his way out of the centre of the group. A hand touched his sleeve. He turned to meet the scrutiny of a pair of wide eyes. A thin woman of guarded mien had approached, to observe him with a look of real or feigned astonishment. She was dressed in a sober russet gown, the hem of which touched the floor, the collar of which rioted in lace. Although she was near middle age and her face was gaunter than in bygone times, Luterin recognised her immediately.
He uttered her name.
Insil nodded as if her suspicions were confirmed and said, “They claimed that you were being difficult and refusing to recognise people. What a habit this lying is! And you, Luterin, how unpleasant to be recalled from the dead to mingle with the same mendacious crowd- older, greedier . . . more frightened. How do I appear to you, Luterin?”
In truth, he found her voice harsh and her mouth grim. He was surprised by the amount of jewellery she wore, in her ears, on her arms, on her fingers.
What most impressed him were her eyes. They had changed. The pupils seemed enormous-a sign of her attention, he believed. He could not see the whites in her eyes and thought, admiringly, Those irises show the depth of Insil’s soul.
But he said tenderly, “Two profiles in search of a face?”
“I’d forgotten that. Existence in Kharnabhar has grown narrower over the years-dirtier, grimmer, more artificial. As might be expected. Everything narrows. Souls included.” She rubbed her hands together in a gesture he did not recall.
“You still survive, Insil. You are more beautiful than I remembered.” He forced the insincerity from him, conscious of pressures on him to be a social being again. While it remained difficult to enter into a conver- sation, he was aware of old reflexes awakening-including his habit of being polite to women.
“Don’t lie to me, Luterin. The Wheel is supposed to turn men into saints, isn’t it? Notice I refrain from asking you about that experience.”
“And you never married, Sil?”
Her glare intensified. She lowered her voice to say with venom, “Of course I am married, you fool! The Esikananzis treat their slaves better than their spinsters. What woman could survive in this heap without selling herself off to the highest bidder?”
She stamped her foot. “We had our discussion of that glorious topic when you were one of the candidates.”
The dialogue was running too fast for him. “Selling yourself off, Sil! What do you intend to mean?”
“You put yourself completely out of the running when you stuck your knife into that pa you so revered. . . . Not that I blame you, seeing that he killed the man who took away my cherished virginity-your brother Favin.”
Her words, delivered with a false brightness as she smiled at those around them, opened up an ancient wound in Luterin. As so often during his incarceration in the Wheel, he thought of the waterfall and his brother’s death. Always thereremained the question of why Favin, a promising young army officer, should have made the fatal jump; the words of his father’s gossie on that subject had never satisfied him. Always he had shied away from a possible answer.
Not caring who was looking on among the pale-lipped crowd, he grasped Insil’s arm. “What are you saying about Favin? It’s known that he committed suicide.”
She pulled away angrily, saying, “For Azoiaxic’ssake, do not touch me. My husband is here, and watching. There can be nothing between us now, Luterin. Go away! It hurts to look at you.”
He stared about, his gaze darting over the crowd. Halfway across the chamber, a pair of eyes set in a long face regarded him in open hostility.
He dropped his glass. “Oh, Beholder . . . not Asperamanka, that opportunist!” The red liquid soaked into the white carpet.
As she waved to Asperamanka, she said, “We’re agood match, the Master and I. He wanted to marry into a proud family. I wanted to survive. We make each other equally happy.” When Asperamanka turned with a sign back to his colleagues, she said in venomous tones, “All these leather-clad men going off with their animals into the forests . . . why do they so love each other’s stink? Close under the trees, doing secret things, blood brothers. Your father, my father, Asperamanka . . . Favin was not like that.”
“I’m glad if you loved him. Can’t we escape from these others and talk?”
She deflected his offer of consolation. “What misery that brief happiness inherited . . . Favin was not one to ride into the caspiarns with his heavy males. He rode there with me.”
“You say my father killed him. Are you drunk?” There was something like madness in her manner. To be with her, to enter into these ancient agonies-it was as if time stopped. It was as if a fusty old drawer was being unlocked; its banal contents had become hallowed by their secret nature.
Insil scarcely bothered to shake her head. “Favin had everything to live for . . . me, for instance.”
“Not so loud!”
“Favin!” she shouted, so that heads turned in her direction. She began to pace through the crowd, and Luterin followed. “Favin discovered that your father’s
‘hunts’ were really journeys to Askitosh and that he was the Oligarch. Favin was all integrity. He challenged your father. Your father shot him down and threw him over the cliff by the waterfall.”
They were interrupted by officious women acting hostess, and separated. Luterin accepted another glass of yadahl, but had to set it down, so violently was his hand shaking. In a moment, he found his chance to speak to Insil again, breaking in on an ecclesiastic who was addressing her.
“Insil-this terrible knowledge! How did you discove r about my father and Favin? Were you there? Are you lying?”
“Of course not. I found out later-when you were in your fit of prostration-by my customary method, eavesdropping. My father knew everything. He was glad- because Favin’s death punished me. ... I could not believe I had heard aright. When he was telling my mother she was laughing. I doubted my senses. Unlike you, however, I did not fall into a year-long swoon.”
“And I suspected nothing ... I was fatally innocent.”
She gave him one of her supercilious looks. Her irises appeared larger than ever.
“And you still are fatally innocent. Oh, I can tell . . .”
“Insil, resist the temptation to make everyone your enemy!”
But her look hardened and she burst out again. “You were never any help to me. My belief is that children always know intuitively the real natures of their parents, rather than the dissembled ones which they show the world. You knew your father’s nature intuitively, and feigned dead to avoid his vengeance.
But I am the truly dead.”
Asperamanka was approaching. “Meet me in the corridor in five minutes,” she said hastily, as she turned, smiling and gaily raising a hand.
Luterin moved away. He leaned against a wall, struggling with his feelings. “Oh, Beholder . . .” he groaned.
“I expect you find the crowds overpowering after your solitude,” someone who passed by said pleasantly.
His whole inner life was undergoing revolution. Things had not been, he had not been, as he had pretended to himself. Even his gallantry on the field of battle-had that not been powered by ancient angers released, rather than by courage? Were all battles releases from frustration, rather than deeds of deliberate violence? He saw he knew nothing.
Nothing. He had clung to innocence, fearing knowledge.
Now he remembered that he had experienced the actual moment when his brother died. He and Favin had been close. He had felt the psychic shock of Favin’s death one evening: yet his father had announced the death as occurring on the following day. That tiny discrepancy had lodged in his young consciousness, poisoning it. Eventually-he could foresee-joy could co me that he was delivered from that poison. But deliver)’ was not yet.
His limbs trembled.
In the turmoil of his thoughts, he had almost forgotten Insil. He feared for her in her strange mood. Now he hurried towards the corridor she had indicated-reluctant though he was to hear more from her.
His way was barred by bedizened dignitaries, who spoke to him and to each other roundly of the solemnity of this occasion, and of how much more appalling conditions would be henceforth. As they talked, they devoured little meat-filled pastries in the shape of birds. It occurred to Luterin that he neither knew nor cared about the ceremony in which he had become involved.
Their conversation paused as all eyes focussed on the other side of the chamber.
Ebstok Esikananzi and Asperamanka were leaving by a spiral stair which wound to an upper gallery.
Luterin took the opportunity to slip into the corridor. Insil joined him in a minute, her narrow body leaning forward in the haste of her walk. She held her skirt up from the floor in one pale hand, her jewellery glittering like frost.
“I must be brief,” she said, without introduction. “They watch me continually, except when they are in drink, or holding their ridiculous ceremonies-as now. Who cares if the world is plunged into darkness? Listen, when we are free to leave here, you must proceed to the fish seller in the village. It stands at the far end of Sanctity Street. Understand? Tell no one. ‘Chastity’s for women, secrecy’s for men,’ as they say. Be secret.”
“What then, Insil?” Again he was asking her questions.
“My dear father and my dear husband plan to kick you out. They will not kill you, as I understand-that might look bad for them, and that much they owe you for your timely disposal of the Oligarch. Simply evade them after the ceremony and go down Sanctity Street.”
He stared impatiently into her hypnotic eyes.
“And this secret meeting-what is it about?”
“I am playing the role of messenger, Luterin. You still remember the name of Toress Lahl, I suppose?”