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6

The Guessing Game


There are times when enlightenment comes suddenly, as it did on the ball court; I never think of these sudden illuminations without recalling my second night on Green. I had spent most of the broiling day searching for the gifts I had received from the Neighbor, and had thrown up the task as hopeless. I was ready to justify the worst things that Sinew had ever said or thought by leaving him and the men who had been with us in the lander to their fate. I set off down the river, that river of death that was a sewer when it ran under the City of the Inhumi, determined to put as much distance between myself and its horrors as I could.

For half that night I made my way cautiously through the darkness along its banks, somewhat cheered when the flying dot of sapphire that was Blue crossed the sky, but infinitely saddened by the sight of the faint, unsteady spark that was the Whorl. I should have been up there searching out Viron and its calde, when insteadI was going to write something about tramping along the riverbank. The truth (which I have only just recalled) is that for a long time after I caught sight of the Whorl among the crowding stars I did not. I sat sweating on a log instead, swatting insects and watching the reflections of those stars on the smooth, oily flow that had succeeded the foaming flood that had carried me so far from the City. At times it seemed to me that a thousand inhumi must have been lurking beneath the water, and that the points of light I saw were their glittering eyes, softened by ripples; but every few minutes a dark shape would pass among them like a floating log, and I would realize yet again that it was we, not they, who populated the water.

Nor was that all I saw. Great hairless beasts, on two legs and four, and six, came to the river to drink or to course our floating corpses as bears pursue fish, and I recalled the strangely named bear with which He-pen-sheep had exchanged blood, and wondered whether such bears sought carrion beside the rivers of Shadelow.

Most vividly I remember the enormous snake I saw swimming swiftly upriver, a snake whose head was as big as a man's coffin and of the same shape. It held up its head and looked around it as it swam, and its head was higher than mine would have been if I had stood upon the log. I was seated, as I wrote a moment ago; I remained completely motionless, and it passed by me. For a long time after the head was out of sight up the river, I watched the progress of its great body, and listened to the gentle slap of the waves that its long, slow curvings created.

Then there was nothing left to do but to stand up and walk again. As I think back on that night, it seems to me that I cannot have taken a hundred steps before I caught sight of the light, shining forth from the mud at the edge of the water. Incredulous,

I went down the bank to it and picked it up, and squatted to wash it off. I had given it up for good, and now held it in my hand as before. Many strange things have befallen me, in the Long Sun Whorl, on Green, and here upon this smiling whorl of Blue; but none have ever seemed more miraculous than that did at that moment. Once I slid from the prow of the Trivigaunti airship, and had begun the half-league fall to the ground below when Silk seized and saved me. That is the only thing to which I can liken the finding of the light.

While I was washing it in the shallows, I discovered that it floated, and in fact floated as high and buoyantly as a cork, something I surely ought to have anticipated from its sensation of perfect weightlessness. Floating as it did, it had naturally been carried much farther by the flood than I had; with that sudden insight, the illumination of which I spoke, I realized what a fool I had been to search for it for hours near the spot where I myself had been cast up by the water. Furthermore, that my sword, which could not possibly have floated at all, must necessarily be much nearer the point where I had dropped it than the point where I had struggled out of the river and lain panting on the bank, vomiting foul water-that it was quite likely, in fact, that it was still beneath the overarching pavements of the City.

I knelt in the water then and forced the light beneath the surface, reasoning that if it had not been extinguished by the flood it could not be by immersion to the depth of two fingers. I found to my delight that when I pushed it under, it illuminated the bottom.

But I began tonight with the idea of writing about the ways in which we come to knowledge, and am in danger of losing sight of my original purpose, as I frequently do. Without Oreb to remind me, I might very well forget to eat and sleep.

Sudden enlightenment can be wonderful, as wonderful as the sight of the Neighbor's light flashing through the dense foliage of the bank had been to me. But wonderful though it is, it is not the only way in which understanding comes. A full day after that (I still remember how hungry I was by then), when something moved in the bone-littered filth of the river bottom, I jerked my hand away, sure that it was a venomous worm like the one that had risen from the cut I made in the first corpse we saw. The silt it had stirred up darkened the water, blinding me for a minute or two until the current carried it away; then I saw the pommel, and saw too that the sword was struggling to reach my hand; and stretching my arm down I held my breath, but could not keep my eyes open in that vile water, and groped blindly for the grip that was groping blindly for me. And at last I closed my hand about it and felt it grasp me from within.

That, too, is how understanding comes at times. I told Mora something about my sword on the first night I spent here at Inclitor's farm, but I will try to give that in the proper order.

We three rode out from Blanko together, Mora and Fava and me; and the coachman, too, although I do not believe he was listening to our talk, or that he made a part of our company to a much greater degree than his horses did.

"It's a treat to have you with us, " Fava declared. "Mora and I take this ride twice a day, and we play games and act silly just to pass the time. Besides, it was nice of you to talk to Mora the way you did. She told me all about it."

Mora's expression said plainly that she had not told Fava everything.

"I want to talk with you, too, " I told Fava, "when we can speak privately."

An airy gesture with her open parasol indicated the open coach in which we rode. I shook my head.

"Mora won't tell. She knows everything you do."

"In that case, " I said, "you don't have to talk to me. You can talk to Mora instead."

"Wouldn't you like to play a game with us? I mentioned them because I hoped you'd ask to."

"Bad thing, " Oreb croaked. "Watch out."

"Incanto?" Mora cleared her throat. "I don't want to play. You and Fava can, if you like. I'd like to talk to your bird. Can you get him to come over here?" She and Fava were side by side in the seat facing mine.

Oreb fluttered nervously. "No, no!"

"Give him some time to get used to you, " Fava advised. "He might peck."

I told Mora, "He doesn't like the company you keep."

Fava ignored it. "I want to play the guessing game, and I'll make the first guess. I guess that Mora isn't going to play, though she could if she wanted to. Now I have a point and I get to ask you a question, Incanto. I know the answer and I don't think you do, but if you guess it right you score a point. Most points when we get to Mora's house wins."

I nodded; Oreb repeated, "Watch out!"

"Why do you think that Mora and I were more popular today than we have been since I came?"

For a few seconds I pretended to consider my answer, rolling up my eyes and stroking my beard. "Because you brought your most beautiful parasols today."

Fava looked disgusted. "Are you hinting that you want more shade? Mora can lend you hers, she's not using it."

"Bird shade, " Oreb announced, and hopping onto my head, spread his wings.

"Another guess, " Fava demanded. "I won't tell you unless you guess seriously."

"Very well. It must have been because Mora had talked to me this morning."

"They didn't know that, " Mora said. "I didn't tell them."

Fava simpered. "That gives me a wonderful question, but you get to ask next, Incanto, after I give you the answer. It was because everybody knew you'd been to Mora's for dinner."

"How could they know that?"

"Is that your question?" Fava asked.

I nodded.

"Humm… Your bird's been telling?"

"I don't believe so."

For a few seconds, Fava hid her face behind her ruffled pink parasol. "You think I told. Well, I didn't!

I hardly speak to any of them. Ask Mora." The parasol went up until its fringe was above her face again, and Fava gave me a wicked smile.

I pretended to misunderstand. "She heard the question and may answer, if she wants to."

"Then I've got one point, " Mora said. "My father's been telling everybody. He said you were staying with us before I wrote to ask you to, even."

"Perhaps he has, but that wasn't my answer. Do you know the shopkeeper I was staying with? His name is Atteno. I told him where I was going before your father came to get me."

"Mora has half a point, " Fava ruled. "Now here's my wonderful question. Mora said she didn't tell the others. Who did she tell, besides me?"

"I have no idea."

"The teachers. Wasn't that brave of her? And silly?"

"She's a brave girl, though I doubt she's a silly one. Do I get a point for that?"

"No. That wasn't a question in the game. It was just something I do when I'm talking."

"A rhetorical device."

"Thank you. You're so wise that I'd think you could win easily."

"I'm wise enough to know I can't, " I told her. "Is it my turn now? Why are you staying with Mora?"

"Because I like it and she said I could. Isn't that a good enough reason?"

Indicating the coachman, who could not have seen her, Mora said, "Her mother's dead, just like mine, and her father's a trader. He's away a lot."

"I have two points, " Fava declared. "Mora has a half point, and you don't have any. My turn. Mora and I didn't have to go outside and play games today. Why was that?"

"You never do, Fava."

"That's right, but she does. Answer the question. I was trying to make it easy for you."

"Your teacher wanted to talk to Mora, I suppose."

"Not nearly good enough. It was all the teachers, and they talked to me more than they did to her. They wanted to know everything about you, and since I told them the most I got the most questions."

"What was it they were most interested in?"

"You can't ask unless you know the answer. Do you?"

I shook my head.

"Then it isn't a fair question."

I looked out at the fields of crisp stubble and the maples and sycamores waving in the wind like so many pillars of flame, and I thought of the green-uniformed men who had saluted me. "Let me revise it. Did they ask you what I was going to do to help Blanko against Duko Rigoglio?"

Mora's eyes widened. "Yes, they did."

"That's another point for you, Mora. You have a point and a half."

Fava nodded above the high lace collar that concealed her neck. "Incanto, you really are discerning. I've met stregas and stregos before, or people who said they were, and it was all tricks and lies. You're the real thing. Whose turn is it?"

"Mora's, " I said.

"I suppose I'm playing after all." Mora sighed. "All right, this one's only for you, Incanto. What does your name mean?"

"A great many things, including a drinking vessel and a container for ink."

"Wrong. Papa's still trying to borrow back that book he read last year, so I don't know what your name was before you came. But here, your name's Incanto. Papa's name means 'the famous. ' Did you know that?"

"Your grandmother mentioned it."

"Yours means 'the enchanter. ' " Mora adjusted her position on the deep leather seat to talk to Fava. "Each of you has asked two or three already. Shouldn't I get one more?"

"If Incanto doesn't object."

"I don't think he will. Incanto, I could be wrong about this, but I think that Papa probably suggested your name before the two of you got to our house. If I'm right, why did he tell you to call yourself Incanto?"

"Because it was the name of his brother, who died in infancy."

"Wrong again. I have three and a half. It was because he wanted to brace up the ideas so many people here have about you. He wants them to think we've got a powerful witch on our side, so they'll fight Soldo instead of giving in. They're afraid. I think even Papa is, a little."

I said, "He and they have good reason to be afraid. I've seen war."

Fava put in, "We told the teachers you were the most powerful strego in the whole whorl, but very good and a very good friend of Inclito's. Didn't we, Mora? And then I said Inclito gave a secret signal to bring you here in our hour of need. Mora didn't approve, but they thought it was because I wasn't supposed to say anything about the secret signal. If I knew the answer, I'd ask you right now exactly how you plan to destroy Soldo without firing a shot."

Oreb bobbed on my head. "Good man!"

Fava smirked. "He'd better be."

"I haven't the least intention of destroying Soldo, " I told her. "I'm sure there must be many innocent people living there. Many and perhaps most of them must be poor people, too, bled white by their Duko and the inhumi. Can't we agree that they have sorrows enough without the death and destruction of war?"

"You'd better ask a game question instead, or Mora will."

"Bad thing!" Oreb eyed Fava with disfavor.

I told her that I had no objection to Mora's asking game questions, and added, "You know, I've just realized why it is that the inhumi attack the poorest people so often."

Mora snapped, "Because they're stupid!"

"They aren't, and in fact they can't afford to be. I grew up among very poor people, Mora. My own family was poor, though not in comparison to many others. There was enough money to send me, and my brothers and sisters, to the palaestra-but only just."

Fava said sweetly, " We call it the academy."

I shook my head. "Mora and her father and grandmother do, I suppose. You wanted another question for your game, so tell me-why did Mora's grandmother call her first child Incanto?"

"Not fair! You've got to know the answer."

"I do. Do you?"

Oreb dropped to my staff to bob up and down. "Silk win!"

Mora asked, "Is that your real name?"

"No." I tried to explain. "Silk has never really been my name. But when I first acquired Oreb I used to ask him questions about a man named Silk, and he picked it up."

I waited for one of them to speak. When neither did, I said, "My question wasn't for Fava alone. You may answer it if you can, Mora."

Her speech is always slow; this time it seemed slower than ever. "I want to think about the inhumi and the poor people first. We're not poor."

"It isn't an invariable rule; but I've traveled a bit, and in every place I've been it's the poor whom they attack most."

That is everything of any importance that was said. Not long after that, we were admitted by the sullen chambermaid.

And now I have other things to write.



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