Flight From Nevèrÿon
Samuel R. Delany
Robert Bravard, Camilla Decarnin,
Mike Elkins, Gregory Frux, Robert
Morales, & Michael Peplow, and,
who printed up file ―i‖
There is no such thing as an absolutely proper meaning of a word, which is not made possible by the very impropriety of metaphorical displacement it seeks to exclude. The impropriety of displaceability of meaning and of infinite openness of syntactic reference beyond that circumscribed by proper meaning is a material force. The imposition of a conclusive, self-identical meaning that transcends the seriality of displacement is therefore metaphysical or idealist. Its political equivalent is the absolute state (be it dictatorial or liberal) that imposes order on the displaceability of power through sedition. The political equivalent of displacement—that force deconstruction foregrounds against absolutist philosophies of identity—is continuous and plural revolutions, the openness of material forces which exceeds the imposition of power.
Marxism and Deconstruction
THE TALE OF FOG AND GRANITE
It can hardly be an accident that the debate proliferates around a crime
story—a robbery and its undoing. Somewhere in each of these texts the
economy of justice cannot be avoided. For in spite of the absence of mastery,
there is no lack of effects of power.
The Critical Difference
Later, the big man slept—peacefully for a dozen breaths. Then, under the moon, a drop, three drops, twenty drops broke on his face. Inside the nostrils loud air snagged. Lashes shook. The head rocked on stone. Dragging a heel back, he raised a hand, first to rub at his cheek, then to drop at his chest. ―Get away! One-eyed beast! Get away, you little…‖ His hand rose again—to beat at something. But the fingers caught
Curled with his back against the big man‘s side, the little man—either because of the big one‘s rocking or the neck chain‘s rattle or the barkings out of sleep like shouts from a full-flooded cistern—rolled over and
was on his knees.
Green eyes beat open.
The little man grabbed the great wrist, while heavy fingers, untangling from brass, caught the small shoulders.
―Calm yourself, master!‖ the little one whispered. ―You are my breath, my light, my—‖
―I was dreaming, Noyeed—‖
―—my love, my lord, and my life!‖
―No, Noyeed! I was only dreaming—‖
―Of what, master? What dream?‖
―I was dreaming of…‖
The little man‘s skull blocked the moon, leaving only the lunar halo by which farmers predict rain in three
days—though one out of five such predictions brings only overcast.
―I was dreaming of you, Noyeed!‖
―But I was where you are, now, leaning above me. And you—a much younger you, a boy, Noyeed, with
your blind eye and your dirty hair—you lay on the ground where I am, like this, terrified. And, with the others, I…‖
―Noyeed—‖ Holding the man, no taller than a boy, up against the night, Gorgik‘s arms relaxed; the small face fell—―either you know something I can never understand and you will not tell me. Or I know
something that, for all my struggles toward freedom, I‘m still terrified to say.‖
―Master…‖ Noyeed turned his forehead against Gorgik‘s chest.
Gorgik‘s fingers slid to the little man‘s neck, touching iron. ―Just a moment.‖ He slipped his forefingers under the collar, centimeters too big for the one-eyed man against him. ―You needn‘t wear this any longer.‖
He pulled open the hinge. ―It‘s time to give it back to me.‖
Noyeed grappled the heavy wrists. ―No!‖ Through thin skin and thick, bone felt bone.
―What is it?‖ Gorgik moved his chin in Noyeed‘s hair. It smelled of dogs and wet leaves.
―Don‘t take it from me!‖
―You told me you or I must wear it… ?‖
―Yes. Here, yes.‖ The night was cool, dry. ―But by day only I need to, as a sign of the oppression
Gorgik looked down, moving Noyeed to the side.
The single eye blinked.
A breeze crossed the moonlit roof, while a crisp leaf beat at the balustrade as if, after an immense delay, it would topple the stone onto someone below, who even now might be gazing up. ―Don‘t what?‖
The little man thought: He looks at me as if he were hearing all the others who have begged him for his collar.
The big man thought: I could leap up, seize that leaf from the wind, and wrest it from its endless, minuscule damages.
Noyeed said: ―Don‘t encumber yourself with such ornaments, master.‖ (The leaf turned, blew back, then up and over the wall.) ―Let me wear your collar! Let me be your lieutenant and the bearer of your standard! And this… ?‖ Noyeed reached across Gorgik‘s chest to rattle the chain on which hung a verdigris astrolabe. ―You go to meet with Lord Krodar tomorrow at the High Court. Why wear something like this?‖ He reached down to touch the knife at the Gorgik‘s side. ―Or this. Go naked, master. Your bare body will serve
much better than armor or ornament to speak of who you are.‖
―Why do you say—?‖
―Look, master!‖ The little man rolled to his belly. ―Look!‖
Turning to his side, Gorgik pushed up on an elbow.
Part of the crenelation near their heads had fallen. Between broken stones, by craning, they could see down into the yard. Near an outbuilding armed and unarmed figures stood at a small, flapping fire. ―Here we are on the roof of your headquarters. There are your supporters. You are only a shadow away
from being the most powerful man in all Nevèrÿon.‖
―No, Noyeed.‖ Gorgik chuckled. ―No. My power is nothing in Kolhari, in Nevèrÿon. I would be the most unfortunate of rebels if I let such delusion take hold.‖
―But you may become the most powerful man in all Nevèrÿon. And if you would, to further your cause,
someone—perhaps me—must think it possible. Go naked, master. Let your fearlessness be your protection. In the meantime, let me carry your—no, let me be your sign!‖
―Noyeed, I don‘t understand.‖
―Look, master.‖ The little man elbowed forward, staring through the break. ―Just look!‖ He pointed, not at the milling people below but at the horizon‘s hills black under moon-dusted dark. ―Already you can see fog
gathering in the mountain peaks outside the city. By dawn it will roll down over all Kolhari, where it will lie till sunlight burns it off. Naked, you will ascend into that fog, meet it, become one with it. Abandon the
signs by which men and women know you, and you will become invisible—or at least as insubstantial to
them as that mist. Your power—now small, but growing—will, at whatever degree, be marked at no limit.
Without clear site, it will seem everywhere at once. That‘s what such invisibility can gain you. That‘s what you can win if you shrug off all signs. You will be able to move into, out of, and through the cities of empire like fog, without hindrance, while I—‖
―What nonsense, Noyeed!‖ Gorgik laughed. ―Has your harried childhood and hunted youth wounded you to
where you can only babble—‖
―Not babble, master! Listen! Unencumbered, you can be as the all-pervasive fog. And if you need now or
again to be at a specific place and time, use me! Wearing your collar as the mark of your anger and authority,
I can stand on the city‘s stones wherever you would place me, leaving you free for greater movement, while I serve you, visible to all, your incorporated will. Oh, among slaves the collar will make me invisible to their masters as it has already made you. Among nobles, it will make me at least as much a reminder of injustice as you were. And among the good men and women who do their daily work it will transform me into that oddity and outrage intruding on them the reality of evils they would rather forget. Though, master—‖ and
Noyeed laughed—―with my missing eye and skulking ways have I ever been anything else? You wear the collar because you were once a slave. Well, so was I. You require the collar to motivate the engines of desire. Well, as you have seen, for me it‘s the same. We are much alike, master. Why not let me stand in
your place? Why not move me as you would move a piece in the game of power and time, sending me here and there, your servant and marked spy? Let me be your manifestation in the granite streets of the cities, leaving you free for all unencumbered missions. I will be your mark. You will be my meaning. I will be your sign. You will be my signification. You will be the freer, relieved of the mark I carry, to move more fully, further, faster.‖
―Noyeed, I‘m afraid to—because I know what I know, and you are in ignorance of it. Or because you know what you know—and I am the deceived.‖
―Oh, master, I will always be your finger and your foot, your belt and your blade, your word and your wisdom, made real in the open avenue and the closed courtyard. Only I beg you, let me do it wearing your sign—‖
―I say no, Noyeed! I say nonsense!‖
―As you have seen how I love your body, master, your hand, your mouth, your ear, your eye, your knee, your foot, what I speak is a bandit‘s, a wanderer‘s, a one-eyed murderer‘s long-thought wisdom—‖
―You babble! And yet… as I visit the court tomorrow, perhaps there‘s something in what you say about the way I should go. Perhaps for just a little I might…‖
And still later, when the big man and the one-eyed man came from the dark mansion into the yard among the men and women at the fire, Noyeed still wore the collar, while Gorgik no longer wore either the chain with the astrolabe, nor any sword, nor clout, nor dagger—as if all had been discarded or given away during
the descent through the empty building.
Some years later, at the ear of his ox, ahead of his half-empty provisions cart, a young smuggler walked through the outer streets of Kolhari.
A gibbous moon still showne.
Call him stocky rather than thin. At some angles he looked even loutish: there‘d been little enough in his life to refine him since he‘d first run away from the farm for the city. At others, however, he was passably handsome, if you ignored the healed-over pockmarks from an acne that, though now long finished with, had been more severe than most and whose traces still roughened his forehead and marred his cheeks above the thinner hairs edging his beard. Peasant or prince could have had that face as easily, but the hard hands, the cracked feet, and the cloth bound low on a belly already showing its beer were unstable signs, in those days, he was not the latter.
The cart wheels rumbled onto the road generally considered the division between Sallese, a neighborhood of wealthy merchants and successful importers, lucky businessmen and skillful entrepreneurs, and Neveryóna, a neighborhood of titled estates and hereditary nobles with settled connections—though lately
the boundary had become blurred. Today there were any number of business families who‘d dwelt in the
same mansion for three generations, some of whom had even acquired a title or two by deft marriage of this youngest daughter to that eldest son; and more than one noble family had been forced by the times to involve itself in entrepreneurial speculation.
The young smuggler squinted.
Moonlight leached all green from the leaves, all brown from the trunks.
Was it two hours till dawn?
Something moved by an estate wall‘s turning, way along the crossroad. Something pale, something slow,
something huge as a dragon coiled the suburban avenue.
Overspilling the hills above the city, fog had crawled down through wide streets and narrow alleys, till, across the whole town, it kissed the sea with an autumn kiss.
The cart rolled; the smuggler looked left.
Certainly the last time he‘d come to Neveryóna by moonlight, he‘d been able to see three times as many mansion roofs, even to the High Court of Eagles. Ordinarily such a moon would light the black peaks, which till an hour ago had held back the mist. But now both mansions and mountains were over-pearled, moon-dusted, veiled.
The cart rolled; the smuggler looked right.
More fog had moved in, as if, rippling up from the waterfront to the road‘s end there, a phantom ocean collapsed toward him.
He looked over his shoulder. The young smuggler had traveled many roads, you understand, and had often looked back at the way winding to the horizon, while he‘d thought: Is it possible I’ve come so far? both
fearful at, and proud with, his ignorance of the distance a moment before. Behind him, however, the pavement looked less like a road than like a yard—say one from the inner city with a neighborhood cistern
sunk in it and closed round by haze. As fog cut away the distance ahead and behind, so it cut away pride and fear, or any other feeling of accomplishment in his journey. What was left him was dull, small, and isolate. His bare foot squashed damp leaves.
He looked forward.
Visible above the wall, its crenelations irregular in moon-mist, the mansion he neared now slowed his gait. Not his destination, it was, he knew, deserted—as were several walled estates near here. But there was a
story to this one, and he angled away to see better where tiles had fallen from the facade, and terra-cotta castings had dropped from the cornice to crash—how many years before?—onto the lawns, behind silent
The mansion had once been a lesser town house of a southern baron, Lord Aldamir, who, as his power had eroded in the south, had leased this home in the north to a series of minor nobles. They had not treated it well, had finally abandoned it. And the political upstart, Gorgik the Liberator, had rented the building as headquarters for his campaign to abolish slavery throughout Nevèrÿon. The Liberator‘s armed men had
patrolled its roof and stood guard at its deep-set gate. Horses had cantered to the studded entrance, their riders bawling messages for the leader within.
The Liberator was a giant of a man, so people said, and had once been a slave himself in the empress‘s
obsidian mines at the foot of the Faltha Mountains. Gaining his freedom, he‘d continued to wear his slave collar, declaring it would stay round his neck till, whether by armed force or political mandate, slavery itself was obliterated from the land.
Later, people noted that it was not the radicalness of his program that had so upset the country, for, in truth, slavery as an economic reality had been falling away from Nevèrÿon ever since the Dragon had been
expelled from the High Court twenty-five years before, when the Eagle—or her manifestation in the Child
Empress Ynelgo—had commenced her just and generous reign. Rather it was the radicalness of his appearance that had bothered the nobles, merchants, and their conservative employees—not the Liberator‘s
practice so much as his potential; for appearances are signs of possibilities, at least when one remembers that what appears may be a sign by masking as easily as by manifesting.
Several armed and surprise attacks on the Liberator had been financed from various sources. Gorgik had repelled them. But once a rabble of unemployed and impoverished workers, supplemented by soldiers from the private guard of nobles close to the court (despite their aid, the contributors had managed to remain as nameless as the gods), gathered on a misty night in the month of the Weasel, when the fog lapped late over the mountains and rolled down through the moonlight to obscure the city‘s corners and crevices.
They‘d stormed the Liberator‘s house.
Here, however, the story crumbled into conflicting versions. Some said that, on hearing the approaching horde, the Liberator had fled with his supporters to the hills around Kolhari and up into the Falthas. Others said, no, that was impossible. The gang had been too stealthy, too quick. It was far more likely that, in the fog, they had simply raided the wrong mansion and the Liberator, hearing of it a mansion or two away, had had time to escape. Still others claimed they‘d got the proper house all right—the very building that rose
behind the wall before the smuggler now—but the information that this was the Liberator‘s headquarters
had been, itself, misdirection. The home here had never belonged to the Liberator at all; the true headquarters were a close and careful secret.
But one thing all agreed on: the building they‘d broken into that night was empty. No guards stood at the gate. No soldiers strolled the roof. No furniture stood in the rooms. No garbage moldered in the great pots, three broken, behind the kitchen midden. Oh, perhaps a vagrant now and again had climbed the wall to build a brief fire by one or another outbuilding—but the charred sticks in the makeshift rings of stone were
as likely to be years as months or weeks old. How could a powerful political leader, and his secretaries, and his courtiers, and his armed garrisons, and his plans, and his records, and his recruiting forces, and his provisions, aides and officers vanish from a walled estate with, at most, an hour‘s warning (more likely minutes‘), leaving no certain sign?
Not that the story ended here. But now the various versions multiplied more. The Liberator was still at work thoughout Nevèrÿon, now in the south, claimed some, now in the north. The Liberator was no more, claimed others—indeed had never been. Or at least had never been other than an eccentric freeman, wearing a slave collar for his own eccentric purposes, wandering the Old Market of the Spur and talking too much in the taverns about fanciful political schemes. Now some said not only was this the false headquarters of the Liberator, but, though all had thought him that fabled man, the collared giant himself was only a ruse or, indeed, a lieutenant, or one of many lieutenants to the true Liberator, who was actually a wiry, one-eyed man, once a cunning bandit (who may or may not have been a former slave) and who was, for perverse and powerful reasons (that is, sexual), the true wearer of the collar. No, said others, it was the giant who was the Liberator, and the one-eyed man was his lieutenant. Each wore the collar, declared others who said they‘d
seen them. Both wore the collar at different times for different reasons, reasoned others who claimed such reason was only common sense, given the confusion among those who ought to know. There was no
one-eyed man, the smuggler heard from a drunken soldier who‘d declared he‘d fought under Gorgik when, collarless, the Liberator had spent time as an officer in the empress‘s Imperial Army: ―That was just a
dream he sometimes had. I remember it as clearly as I remember my mother‘s hearth. We‘d be standing
night guard outside his tent and hear him within, mumbling in his sleep over such a one-eyed apparition. It was only bad dreams.‖ There was no scarred giant, he heard from a crippled cutpurse who swore he‘d run
with the one-eyed man when his gang had holed up in the Makalata Caves. ―One time at night as we all squatted by the fire, he talked of a great foreman with a scar down his face who‘d been kind to him when, for a few months as a boy, he told us, he‘d been taken by slavers. But that was only campfire talk.‖ Still,
whatever the version, or whatever the various versions‘ relation to the ineluctable truth they mirrored, masked, manifested, or distorted, all agreed, as they agreed the mansion ravaged that foggy night had been empty, that it was on such nights as this, when all boundary lines and limits were thrown into question, that the Liberator could be counted on to do his most pointed work—if, indeed, there was, or had ever been,
such a man.
The oxcart halted beside the smuggler, who turned now to slap the beast‘s red haunch.
Ox and man walked again through the fog, the cart trundling.
The smuggler knew, yes, more of these conflicting stories than might be expected of someone with either his past history or present position. Had he been able to write and read of what he knew, we might even call him a student of such tales—though he was an illiterate in a largely illiterate age.
A youth quick to smile, easy of gesture, and slow in speech, his usual talk stayed with genial anecdotes dramatizing (exaggerations, to be sure) his comic incompetence at all callings. Passing acquaintances found him easy to enjoy and easier to forget, and few remembered the way his questions could grow quiet, intelligent, continuous, and committed. Fewer still would have marked him, thick-wristed, beer-bellied, and haft-fingered as he was, as a young man obsessed.
But many times, in the taverns and markets of Kolhari and other towns, in back-country inns and desert oases, he‘d listened for mention of the Liberator; and when a story touching on Gorgik began at the counter of some winter‘s mountain inn or around some summer‘s seaside beach-fire, he was ready with measured,
attentive questions, based on his own assessments, collations, and orderings of the tales he‘d heard so far.
On three occasions now, he‘d found himself having to argue hotly that he was not a spy for the High Court,
seeking to traduce an Imperial usurper. One night he‘d actually had to run from a much louder and less
rational argument that started at a forest resting place in the eastern Avila with a dough-bellied man, who, it turned out, had once sold slaves himself and had lost a brother and a friend to the swords of a huge, city-voiced bandit and his barbarian accomplice. (―A yellow-haired dog of a boy with—I tell you, by all the
gods of craft—both his eyes! They certainly called themselves Liberators—though they were nothing but
the scum of all slave stealers!‖) Another than our smuggler might have let such violences dissuade him
from his research. His dubious profession led him, however, to expect trouble anyway, though time had proved him not prone to it: these inconveniences were not too great a price for information. The situations that resulted in troubles had only impressed on him, finally, that the object of his obsession was not some innocent and indifferent fable, but rather a system of hugely conflicting possibilities and immensely turbulent values. And whether the Liberator was actually that great a concern to the High Court itself, as some maintained, the smuggler had, by now, as much evidence to refute as to confirm. The origin of his interest had been, as least as far as he could reconstruct it, the most innocent of happenstance. Perhaps that innocence was what justified the intensity of his pursuit. There had been a girl.
A lively little partridge, she‘d come on one of his early trips to the south, with him and a friend—a walleyed
city boy, born in the gutters of the Spur, a raucous Kolhari twang in his crude and constant chatter the young smuggler had, at times, found comic in its licentiousness and, at others, comforting on those vastly still, ponderously deserted back forest trails, just for the noise. The two youths had been paid by a Kolhari market vendor to run a shipment of magical implements to a merchant in the Garth who knew of certain southerners who would pay handsomely for the marvelously empowered trinkets—but not as handsomely
as the price you‘d have to charge if you absorbed the exorbitant tax the Child Empress‘s customs inspectors would impose.
By now he‘d forgotten the girl‘s name among the names of several such girls he‘d taken on several such trips. (At what friend‘s house had he met her? She‘d been in some kind of trouble and had wanted to leave
the city. But the details were gone from memory.) Once they‘d begun, there‘d been bad feelings between her and his foulmouthed friend. Eventually one morning, somewhere south of Enoch, while he lay dozing in the blankets beside their burnt-out fire, she‘d bent over him to tell him she was off for water. (Though he‘d been half asleep, he remembered that.) His friend had found the empty water pot, a dozen steps from the campsite, set carefully on a stump. They‘d looked for her a bit, waited a bit more, had speculated on
accident, on passing slavers. But then, she‘d run off from them once already, his friend had pointed out.
They‘d do better with her gone.
They‘d gone on.
He never saw her again.
Indeed, today, had he run into her on the streets of Able-ani or Ka‘hesh, he might not have recognized her.
What he remembered, however, was something she had said.
On the first day of their journey they‘d halted the cart just beyond the Kolhari gates. Sitting on a fallen log, the girl had toyed with a chain around her neck from which hung some odd piece of jewelry, chased round its rim with barbaric markings. (Though he could not recall her face, he could bring back her brown fingers on the bronze pendant fixed to its neck chain. That was jaw-clenchingly clear.) And she had said: ―I met a man, while I was in the city—a wonderful man! His friends called him the Liberator. He walked
with me for an afternoon in the Old Market—he knew all about the market, all about Kolhari, all about the
world! I mustn‘t tell you too much of him. That would be dangerous. But I went to visit him again, in his headquarters—a big old mansion he‘d rented out in Neveryóna. Oh, you’d think he was wonderful, too. I
know you would. He was brave, gentle, and handsome—like you! Though he had a scar down one side of
his face. He gave me…‖
But here recollection blurred. Thinking about it since, he‘d completed her statement many ways. Did she say he‘d given her the knife she always wore in her sash, hidden under her bloused out shift? Or the shift
itself? Or the necklace? Or the tiny cache of iron coins, which, like the parsimonious mountain girl she was, she‘d always been so chary of spending? But she‘d talked a lot, and he‘d seldom listened, as she‘d soon
grown used to not getting back much in the line of answers. (His friend and the girl, both had loved to chatter. Silly to have expected them to get along. It took a quiet person, like himself, to go so easily with such. He hadn‘t seen his friend in a year.) Months later, when the girl was gone and the storming of the
Liberator‘s mansion was discussed from Ellamon to Adami, the smuggler‘s numberless encounters with the name Gorgik the Liberator had brought back the girl‘s memory and made her words from that morning the core of an obsession. (―… wonderful!… He was brave, gentle, and handsome—like you!… He gave me…‖ But how could he have listened more when he‘d been so surprised she‘d felt that way about him at all?) And whenever, later, the Liberator was discussed, her chance mention seemed to have given him a tad more knowledge than the others had. (―… He walked with me for an afternoon in the Old Market… his headquarters, a big old mansion he rented out in Neveryóna…‖) Though he seldom spilled much of it into words, that extra knowledge was supremely pleasurable; and he cherished that pleasure, nourishing it with continued inquiry. Sometimes while considering less likely versions, he had to relegate the girl‘s remarks temporarily to the same dubious order as other conflicting accounts. (―… a scar down one side of his
face…‖ Well, some said he was scarred; some said he was one-eyed; some mentioned both. And some
mentioned neither.) But because hers had come first, most of the time it was easy enough to let her statements stand as the fixed truth around which he organized the other narrative bits into their several narrative systems, thence to organize the systems themselves as to most probable likelihood—while
another part of his mind, the acquisitive part, the part that went poking and prodding in other people‘s
memories for any and all fragments, no matter how preposterous (memories failing with time and boredom or inflated with imagination and self-aggrandizement), that part could claim, just as truthfully as the part that privileged a forgotten girl‘s chance remark, to be equally interested, or as passionately disinterested, in them all.
There‘d been other women in his life more recently, three of them actually (and not that recent—), one
younger and two older than he. Only the youngest had been able to pretend any tolerance at all to his speculations on the Liberator; and even her pretense had lasted only awhile. Could that be, finally, why it had been so easy to leave them?
Would that long-vanished mountain girl have been able to sustain her interest in the Liberator, he wondered, in the face of what his had become?
He turned by another wall.
Behind him the house that may or may not have once been the Liberator‘s moved into mist.
Minutes later, off through fog, the smuggler made out a gate. Odd, he thought, as his cart rolled by mortared
stones, for all these moonlight visits he was still not sure which lord‘s estate he went to—but then, he was
not working for the lord.
He squinted to see if he could make out guards, only decorative in any case here in the city. Ahead he saw what might be a spear leaning from a far niche—
―Pssst!‖ from the door beside him.
He halted his ox.
Through a view hole in the planks, a lamp glimmered with butter-colored light.
―Well!‖ came through muffling boards. ―You‘re here, then. Good!‖
Wick flickering in its snout, the clay tub slid onto the small shelf, its base scraping sandy wood. The small moon, instead of holding a halo to the door, cleared the near air.
Metal scraped plank. Plank scraped stone. A board beside the one with the hole moved back in the rock. He grunted at his stopped ox, as if to stop her again.
The old woman said: ―Uhhh! This fog, I don‘t like it one bit!‖ She pulled away another board and set it back by the first. Tied up, the daytime leather hangings were bunched above. ―Bad things happen in such weather.
I‘ve seen enough of this mist, and I know. Though it‘s all the better for the likes of you, isn‘t it? Well, I hope it follows you south and leaves some clear suns and moons with us here in the city. Boy!‖ she called back by
her hip. ―You could at least lend a hand with these. No, never mind. I‘ve done them already. Bring that bag here. Be quiet! Do you want to wake the new kitchen girl we hired yesterday? She doesn‘t need to know of our doings. Oh, no. Not her, yet.‖ Someone behind her scrambled over something (―Quiet!‖ the woman hissed), picked it up, moved with it. She reached behind, then swung forward a cloth sack. ―Here, take it, now. And go on. Go on, I say! You have your instructions. They‘re the same as last time. You‘ve done it before. Do the same again. Deliver it to the same place. You‘ll get the same reward when you arrive. And the same when you return. Now be off—‖
―I go out now, grandma?‖ a boy shrilled behind her in a heavy barbarian accent. ―I go out?‖
The servant woman swayed into the glow, her hood putting a shadow on her deeply seamed cheek, which, in the haze, was the darkest thing about. The accent meant there was no possibility of blood between them. The smuggler looked at her brown, creviced, northern face.
―No one see me,‖ the little barbarian went on behind her. ―I hide in the fog and be back before—‖
―Not on your life!‖ the woman shot back. ―You think I‘d let you go off in this miasma? Bad men are out in the city on nights like this, believe me: thieves, smugglers, murderers, and worse—like this one here!‖ She
gestured at the smuggler, and her face wrinkled more—yes, smiling, he realized now. ―Here, I say. Take it.‖
He took the bag from fingers almost as large-knuckled as his own. ―Yes, ma‘am.‖ What she‘d lugged in one
hand was heavy enough for him to hold in two. ―I‘ve got it.‖ He hefted the sack against his chest, turned to the cart, and dropped it, clanking and changing shape, as it slid over what was already there. He pushed it under a cluster of old-fashioned three-legged pots, bound together by their handles and only a month back declared, by official edict from the High Court, incapable of holding magic as long as they were unsealed, and therefore—when unsealed—untaxable. Behind him he heard one board and another scrape into place;
then the bar.
―Come away, now, boy.‖ The voice was muffled again. ―Give me your hand I say…‖
He looked back to see the luminous hemisphere this side of the opening shrink, then vanish. The buttery flame wavered behind the hole, grew small, was gone.
Where the haloed moon had hung was a pearly smear. Holding the canvas cover in blunt fists, the young smuggler yanked its edge down more firmly. Stepping to the ox‘s cheek, he grasped the harness, clicked his
tongue against his mouth‘s roof with an indrawn breath, and tugged the heavy-shouldered beast around on
the return road.
Walking ahead of his loud cart, he smiled. Now, he thought, I‘m a smuggler again. A bad man about in the streets. (Whatever was in the bag had been metal and in many flat pieces. He‘d felt their round edges.
Which was odd, though not remarkable.) Once again he was taking a contraband load to the south, carrying from people he didn‘t know to other people he didn‘t know. Nor, save for the metal makeup and disk-like
shapes that had come to him over a few moments through the canvas, was he sure what he carried. Years back when the smuggler had begun smuggling, at one point or another he‘d look to find out what was in his sack: salt, silver, jewelry, magic fetishes, or sometimes even the sealed bullae in which clinked the mysterious contract tokens that signed, in those primitive times, a certain level of commerce. But it was common lore among smuggling men and women that the less one knew of what one carried, the better things were both for the client and, finally, for oneself. He‘d accommodated such lore by putting off his look each trip till nearer and nearer its end. Finally, somehow, three, then seven, then numberless trips had passed when he‘d forgotten to look at all. Now the thought only returned to him as the memory of a juvenile risk he‘d used to take. (And am I really that young anymore? the smuggler wondered. Now and again it seemed to him he‘d been smuggling an awfully long time.) Perhaps his meticulous inquisitiveness over
anything and everything concerning the Liberator came from having to deflect natural curiosity from where, naturally, it was wanted. He‘d thought that often. But this was the third time now he‘d gone south at the
behest of the old woman at the estate wall‘s secondary door. He‘d first gotten the commission from another thief (―… Follow these turnings. Be there with your cart at this time…‖) and could honestly say he did not know her name, nor the name of the family she was servant to, nor whether she worked for her own gain, her master‘s, or someone else‘s. I know nothing of you; but then (he spoke along to himself, on the road back into the city) you know nothing of me, old woman. You have no notion you‘re talking to a man with a
passion and a purpose. Only a small stone‘s heave from here is the Liberator‘s house, but you‘ve no idea that I may know more tales of that fabled home and hero than any else save probably his one-eyed lieutenant—more, possibly, than anyone in Nevèrÿon, if some of my conjectures are true.
And why should that be anything to me? laughed the seamed servant of the mind he carried with him. (Her words were as clear as if she sat atop his cart.) Will that help you finish your job the faster? Will it make you braver, quicker, more cautious, more clever in carrying out your task?
To which the smuggler laughed back, answering: Ah, grandma, how much you and your kind miss, who judge the rest of us only by how well we can do your work. But you‘re one of those who thinks there‘s no more to life than that, aren‘t you?
His lips moved in the mist.
As the old woman began to defend her position and denigrate his, he ambled along the damp avenue, now posing one argument, now posing another, now revising his own polemic, now revising hers, this time toward anger, that time toward submission, now with the barbarian boy adding his comment, now with the long-vanished mountain girl giving hers.
… a man with a passion and a purpose as great, in its way, I‘d guess, as the Liberator‘s, or perhaps even greater, for it covers all the Liberator does and has done, yet has none of the emotions that drive him now to error, that trip him now in defeat, a passion and purpose that, for all its committed disinterest, has nothing to do with this scheming and scuffling, this cheating and wheedling that make up the daily lives of you and me.
But here he was, already turning onto the Sallese road.
Neveryóna was behind.
He looked back for the Liberator‘s mansion. But while he‘d been wrangling with his imaginary companions
about the worth of his commitment to this bit of myth and history, he‘d managed to wander, without noticing, past the myth‘s major historical manifestation. Perhaps the fog had grown so thick it had swallowed the empty house?
No. He‘d been too busy talking to himself.
Momentarily he considered going back to scale the wall and, tonight, exploring it, adding some firsthand knowledge to all his hearsay, seeing for himself the floors and windows and empty chambers that may (or may not) have been the Liberator‘s.
… make you braver, quicker, more cautious, more clever in carrying out your task? (Believe it, she was still