A New Beginning
I have paper again, and there is still a lot of ink in the little bottle. Besides, the man who owns the shop would give me more ink if I asked for it, I feel certain. Strange how much a quire of writing paper can mean to a man who has made such quantities of it.
This town is walled. I have never seen a whole town with a wall before. It is not a big wall; I have seen others much higher; but it goes all the way around, except where the river comes in and goes out.
I do not think this is the same river we had in the south. This one flows fast but silently. Or perhaps it is simply that the noises of the town keep me from hearing the river. Its water is dark. It seems angry.
Our lazy southern river always smiled, and sometimes laughed aloud, showing a froth of white lace underskirt where it tumbled over rocks. There were crocodiles in it, or at least what we called crocodiles, sleek and shining emerald lizards with eight legs and jaws like traps. They seemed indolent as Nadi herself when they basked on the banks in the sunlight, but their doubly forked blue tongues flicked in and out like flames. I do not think they are really the same as the crocodiles on the Whorl, although it may be that every animal of the kind is entitled to the name, like "bird."
Which reminds me that I ought to write that Oreb is with me still, perching on my shoulder or the head of my staff, which he likes even better.
I washed my clothes in this river before we reached the town. I saw a few fish, but no crocodiles of either sort.
A woodcutter cut my staff for me. I still remember his name, which was Cugino. I don't believe I ever met a better-intentioned man, or found a stranger more friendly. He was the first human being I had seen in days, so I was very glad to see him. I helped him load his donkey, and asked to borrow his axe long enough to cut myself a staff. (I had already tried using the azoth, although I did not tell him so; it shattered the wood to kindling.)
He would not hear of it. He, Cugino, was the ultimate authority when it came to staffs, and to sticks of every kind. Everybody in the village came to him-and to him alone-whenever they wanted a staff. He would cut me a staff himself. He, personally, would select the wood and trim it in the right way.
"Everything for you! The wood, how high, where you hold it. Everything! You stand up straight for me."
He measured me with his eyes, with his hands, and at last with his axe, so that I know now that I am twice the height of Cugino's axe, and an axe-head over.
"Tall! Tall!" (Although I am not, or at least I am not unusually tall.) He stood with his head to the left, the tip of one big, callused forefinger at the corner of his mouth. I feel certain that my friend in the south never looked a tenth so impressive when he was planning a battle.
"I got it!" He clapped his hands, the sound of a plank slapped against another.
We tied his donkey (still loaded, poor beast) and walked some distance into the forest, to a huge tree embraced by a vine thicker than my wrist. Two mighty blows from the axe severed its stem twice, and a third a thick branch at the top of the severed portion.
"Big vine, " Cugino told me with as much pride as if he had planted it. "Strong like me." He displayed the muscle in his arm, which was indeed impressive. "Not stiff."
He tore the section that he had cut off the tree (which must have been thanking him with all its heartwood) and tried to snap it over his knee, muscles bulging. "He's a bender, see? He's a unbreakable."
I ventured that it looked awfully big.
"I'm not through." His powerful fingers ripped away the corky bark, and in something less than half a minute I had a staff whose right-angled top came to my chin, a staff that was nearly straight and as smooth as glass.
I still have it. The staff itself belongs to me, but its angled top is Oreb's, who chides me now. "Fish heads? Fish heads?"
Pointing to the river, I tell him to fish for himself, as I know he can. I would not object to eating, but I can eat after shadelow, assuming that I can find food. This sunlight is nicely slanted for writing, which is to say that the sun is halfway down the sky. Here beside the river, the air is cool and moves not quite enough to be called a breeze. Not enough to stir a sail, in other words, but enough to dry my ink. What could be better?
Before I forget, I ought to say that what my very good friend Cugino called a vine was what we called a liana on Green. Green is a whorl made for trees, and Green's trees have solved every problem but that one.
One might almost call it a whorl made by trees, which cover every part of it except the bare rock of its mountaintops and cliffs, and its poles (or whatever the regions of ice should be called). And the trees are working on them.
In the Whorl, we had the East Pole and the West Pole, pylons with the Long Sun stretched between them. Thus we speak here (and on Green too) of a fictional West Pole to which the Short Sun travels, and an equally fictitious East Pole where it is imagined to originate. From a lander, one sees that none of this is true. There are no such places. Instead of being cylindrical, as we like to think of them, the colored whorls are spherical; and each might be said to have an equally imaginary "pole" at the top and bottom. That is to say that if some scholar were to build models to illustrate them, he would find it necessary to run little axles up through them so that they would turn properly, and if these axles were permitted to protrude at the top as well as at the bottom they would have the appearance of poles to the people whose whorls they held up.
A man named Inclito sat down next to me while I was writing that last. We fell to talking, as two men will who have nothing better to do than sun themselves like crocodiles of a sunny autumn afternoon, our tongues flicking in our mouths fast enough, if not quite so spectacularly.
He began our conversation, naturally enough, by asking what I was writing; and I confessed that it was foolishness, which this certainly is.
"Wisdom, " he corrected me. "You are a wise man. Everyone sees it. Such a wise man would not write foolishness."
"Would a wise man write at all?" I asked him. To tell the truth, I simply wanted to ask him an inoffensive question to keep him talking, and hit upon that one.
Without batting an eye, he returned it to me. "Would one, Master?"
I had not expected to be addressed in such a fashion, but it seems to be the custom here. At home it usually meant a teacher such as Master Xiphias, the owner of a dog, or the leader of a band of musicians. I said, "A wise man might write, but he wouldn't write as I do. That is to say, he wouldn't record the events of his life. He would consider that they might be read by some innocent person who would laugh himself into fits. A wise man never harms another unless he intends to harm."
"That is well said." Inclito drew himself up. "I am an old trooper myself."
I told him respectfully that it was a most honorable occupation, but had never been mine.
"You have a wound."
I glanced down, afraid that the wound in my side was bleeding again and staining my robe.
"There too? I meant your eye." (I must get a rag to wear over that, as Pig did.) Seeing my expression, Inclito continued, "I'm sorry. It's not good to be reminded."
His own wide, square face is disfigured too, but by some skin disorder. It is not the sort of face that appeals to women; but courage, honesty, strength, and intelligence show in it very plainly. As I sit here waiting for him to take me to dinner, I know very lit tie about him; but from what I saw and heard I think it likely that he is a man who has borne heavy responsibilities for a long time, and has driven himself harder than he drives others.
We talked for an hour or more, each of us trying to draw the other out. I doubt that there is any point in giving all of that here. I said as little as possible about myself because I did not want him to know what a hash I have made of my task. Inclito was at least as reticent, I would guess because he has a horror of boasting.
"As long as you're here, " he told me smiling, "you got to think about me when you pass water. Our sewers? They're mine."
"You designed them?"
"I made some sketches. We built them, but they didn't work." He chuckled. "So we tore up my sketches and did them over."
He seems to have been a military officer as well.
"You walked here." (I had told him that I had.)
"Where you going to have dinner tonight?"
"I doubt that I will-Oreb, be quiet!-I certainly hadn't planned on eating anywhere."
"You think I want you to eat in my sewers." He chuckled again. "In my house. All right? Seven. You can come at seven?"
I said that I would come at seven gladly, if he would tell me where it was.
"It's a long way. I bring you myself. Where you staying?"
Staying was vague enough for me to stretch its meaning a trifle, and I told him that I was "staying" at the shop where I was given this paper, and supplied the name of the little street.
"I know the place. Atteno, he's putting you up?"
"I hope, at least, that he won't drive me away."
Inclito laughed; he has a good, loud, booming laugh. "I show you my sewers if he does. One I got never gets wet. Would make a good place to sleep. I pick you up at six, all right? Where you're staying."
So here I am. It is not six yet; but I have nothing better to do, and the shopkeeper, who is very obliging, lets me sit in his window and scribble away. I suppose I am a sort of living advertisement. I have swept his floors again, as I did for my quire of paper, dusted off everything, and rearranged a few little items on his shelves that were in some disorder-the tasks of my boyhood. I would like to tie his bundles of quills for him, as I did for my father; but he has already tied them all himself.
I wish I could charge as much for our paper as he charges for his. Nettle and I would be rich.
What Inclito said about his sewers here reminded me most unpleasantly of the great sewer on Green, underneath the City of the Inhumi. If I am going to chronicle my misadventures (which is what I seem to have been doing) I ought to include that one, the most horrible.
Sinew and the rest were asleep. I was sitting up and thinking over Krait's brief visit when the Neighbor came. He opened the door and left it standing open behind him, and I was so busy wondering whether I should wake the others and urge them to escape while they could that I found it hard to answer him sensibly.
"You are a friend of ours?" He smiled and pointed to Sea wrack's ring. His voice was thrilling in a way I cannot describe: no matter what he said, it was as though he were telling me that all the bad things that had ever befallen me had been tricks.
"Yes," I said. "I mean, I would like to be."
He smiled again. Although his face was shadowed by the brim of his hat, I could see his teeth flash. "Then will you open a sewer for us? We ask your help."
With every fiber of my being I wanted to say that I would, that I would gladly toil in his sewer for the remainder of my life if that was what he wanted. What I said instead was "I can't. We're prisoners here." Since I could see the open door beyond (and to some extent, through) him, it was an extraordinarily stupid remark.
He glanced at it. "It is true that your captors may be angry with you."
"I hope… Well, it really doesn't matter, but I don't like leaving my friends here. Can we take them with us?"
He shook his head.
"I didn't think so. My son?"
By that time we were out the door, which he slammed noisily behind us. "That will wake them up, " I muttered. Privately, I was afraid that it would bring an inhumu.
He said, "We want to wake all of you up."
"To our danger, you mean? It's much too late for that. We know it now." I explained to him how we had taken the lander, and how the inhumi had recaptured us when we landed.
"To your safety, " he said when I had finished. Now that I understand Krait's secret, I understand his remark as well; but at the time I had no notion of what he meant.
We went out a narrow door into an empty courtyard, and from the courtyard into the street. There were two luminous bodies in the night sky that were too large for stars; they seemed to engender shadows (vague and diffuse for the most part but occasionally deep) without actually giving light. I mean, of course, that they conveyed that impression.
"Are you afraid of enclosed places, or of underground places? Many of you are."
"I don't know. I haven't been in one for a long time." As soon as I spoke I recalled the pit from which Krait had saved me; and I said, "Except for one, and I was afraid of that one because I couldn't get out of it."
He looked at me thoughtfully. Written down as I have just now written it, it sounds silly; I could not see his face well enough to read its expression. I should say only that he turned his face toward me, and appeared to study me for several seconds. "You can get out of this sewer, " he told me, "provided you do not drown."
"If you are frightened, there will be nothing to prevent you from leaving before the sewer is open again. Will you do that?"
"I suppose I might. I'll try not to. Aren't you coming with me?"
"No, " he told me.
After that we walked in silence for a long time, a time in which we passed several streets-four or five at least. This was in the City of the Inhumi, and although it was late at night, it is at night that they are most active, on Green as here. It seemed strange to me then that we did not see more of them, and that they did not see us; but I know now that those who were active were seeking blood, and expected to find none in their city.
"I could go with you, " the Neighbor told me. "I could open the sewer myself, without your help. It is only fair that I tell you that."
I said, "In that case, I'm doubly grateful to you for freeing me."
"If I were to help you, it would become clogged again."
He was waiting for me to speak, so I nodded.
"So it seems to me, though I may be mistaken. It will almost certainly become clogged again, even if you do as we ask. That is the most probable outcome, unfortunately."
"But not for years, perhaps, " I suggested.
"That is correct, and does not matter. What does matter is that it may never be clogged again if you open it."
I believe I smiled, and I am afraid I smiled bitterly. "Do you think I've got miraculous powers?"
"If you do not know, " he told me solemnly, "I do not know."
We turned in to a building even less whole than most of the buildings in that ruinous city, a roofless shell whose floors were littered everywhere with broken stones, and I asked whether we could get into the sewer from there.
"No. We could have entered the sewer from the underground room in which you were confined, and the point at which you will enter it is a long way from here. Would you object if I were to touch your face? I consider it advisable." I consented, and he anointed both sides of it with a sweet-smelling oil whose perfume seemed to me to come from a whorl more distant than the three I knew of. It suggested strange thoughts, thoughts so overpowering at the time as to be waking dreams. That may have been its purpose.
I have been talking with the stationer. His name is Atteno, as Inclito said. I asked whether it would be all right for me to sleep here in his shop tonight, and promised I would take nothing without his permission. He says he will make up a little bed for me, by which I assume he means he will loan me blankets. Quite a change! Still, I am not sorry that I left our blankets with the girl from Han, although I have been sleeping in my robe ever since. I tore it in two places going through the forest, but that good woman mended it for me.
Atteno says that Inclito is a very important man. He was terribly impressed when I told him that Inclito was coming for me. He asked whether I could "do things." I was not sure what he meant by it, and told him I could do a few, at which he looked wise and went away. "Good man!" says Oreb.
Here I feel the way that the Neighbors must feel around us. We are ready to believe that they are practically minor gods-that they know everything and possess all manner of mysterious powers; but they must seem perfectly ordinary to themselves. The one I have been writing about (he never told me his name) said to me at one point, "You think that I know everything about you and your son."
I denied it. "I thought the Neighbors I spoke with on Blue might have told you about me, that's all."
"You seemed the most likely, " he said, and did not say what it was I was most likely to do or to be.
When the bronze tablet opened and I saw the swords, I hesitated to touch them.
"Will you choose, " he asked me, "or should I choose for you?"
I said that it would better for him to choose, since I did not know who or what I was going to fight.
"I hope you won't have to fight at all. I don't think that you will. Do you want me to choose for you anyway?"
"I'm sure you must know more about these than I do."
He nodded and selected one. It would be easy to sketch, but I do not believe it will prove easy to describe. Let me try.
The blade was black, I suppose with age. I do not think the designs on it were writing, but I cannot guess what they were. It was widest toward the point, and sharply pointed. It narrowed toward the hilt in a concave curve, which gave it something of the appearance of a sickle in spite of its straight back.
But I have described it as I saw it when I drew it. I ought to have written first that it was in a black sheath of some hard, warm material I did not recognize, to which was attached a sword belt of many thin straps.
"Do you like it?"
I had unsheathed it before he spoke and was looking at the blade. I said, "It feels like a piece of my arm."