The Crystal City

The Tales of Alvin Maker, Volume VI

Alvin Maker (Volume 6)

Orson Scott Card

Tor Fantasy

THE CRYSTAL CITY (Chapter 1)

It seemed like everybody and his brother was in Nueva Barcelona these days. It was steamboats, mostly, that brought them. Even though the fog on the Mizzippy made it so a white man couldn't cross the river to the west bank, the steamboats could make the trip up and down the channel, carrying goods and passengers--which was the same as saying they carried money and laid it into the laps of whoever happened to be running things at the river's mouth.

These days that meant the Spanish, officially, anyway. They owned Nueva Barcelona and it had their troops all over it.

But the very presence of those troops said something. One thing it said was that the Spanish weren't so sure they could hold on to the city. Wasn't that many years since the place was called New Orleans and there was still plenty of places in the city where you better speak French or you couldn't find a bite to eat or a place to sleep--and if you spoke Spanish there, you might just wake up with your throat slit.

It didn't surprise Alvin much to hear Spanish and French mingling on the docks. What surprised him was that practically everybody was talking English--usually with heavy accents, but it was English, all the same.

"Guess you learnt all that Spanish for nothing, Arthur Stuart," said Alvin to the half-black boy who was pretending to be his slave.

"Maybe so, maybe not," said Arthur Stuart. "Not like it cost me nothing to learn it."

Which was true. It had been disconcerting to Alvin to realize how easily the boy had picked up Spanish from a Cuban slave on the steamboat that brought them downriver. It was a good knack to have, and Alvin didn't have it himself, not a lick. Being a maker was good, but it wasn't everything. Not that Alvin needed reminding of that. There were days when he thought being a maker wasn't worth a wad of chawn tobackey on the parlor floor. With all his power, he hadn't been able to save the life of his baby, had he? Oh, he tried, but when it was born a couple of months too soon, he couldn't figure out how to fix its lungs from the inside so it could breathe. Turned blue and died without ever drawing air into it. No, being a maker wasn't worth that much.

Now Margaret was pregnant again, but neither she nor Alvin saw much of each other these days. Her so busy trying to prevent a bloody war over slavery. Him so busy trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with his life. Nothing he'd ever tried to do had worked out too well. And this trip to Nueva Barcelona was gonna end up just as pointless, he was sure of it.

Only good thing about it was running into Abe and Coz on the journey. But now they were in Barcy, he'd lose track of them and it'd just be him and Arthur Stuart, continuing in their long term project of showing that you can have all the power in the world, but it wasn't worth much if you was too dumb to figure out what to do with it or how to share it with anybody else.

"You got that look again, Alvin," said Arthur Stuart.

"What look is that?"

"Like you need to piss but you're afraid it's gonna come out in chunks."

Alvin slapped him lightly upside his head. "You can't talk that way to me in this town."

"Nobody heard me."

"They don't have to hear you to see your attitude," said Alvin. "Cocky as a squirrel. Look around you--you see any black folks actin' like that?"

"I'm only half black."

"You only got to be one-sixteenth black to be black in this town."

"Dang it, Alvin, how do any of these folks know they ain't one-sixteenth black? Nobody knows their great-great-grandparents."

"What do you want to bet all the white folks in Barcy can recite their ancestry back all the way?"

"What do you want to bet they made up most of it?"

"Act like you're afraid I'll whip you, Arthur Stuart."

"Why should I, when you never act like you're gonna?"

Now, that was a challenge, and Alvin took it up. He meant just to pretend to be mad, just a kind of roar and raise up his hand and that's that. Only when he did it, there was more in that roar than he meant to put there. And the anger was real and strong and he had to force himself not to lash out at the boy.

It was all so real that Arthur Stuart get a look of genuine fear in his eyes, and he really did cower under the threatened blow.

But Alvin got control of himself and the blow didn't fall.

"You did a pretty good job of looking scared," said Alvin, laughing nervously.

"I wasn't acting," said Arthur Stuart softly. "Were you?"

"Am I that good at it you have to ask?"

"No. You're a pretty bad liar, most times. You was mad."

"Yep, I was. But not at you, Arthur Stuart."

"At who, then?"

"Tell you the truth, I don't know. Didn't even know I was mad, till I started trying to mime it."

At that moment, a large hand took a hold of Alvin's shoulder--not a harsh grip, but a strong one all the same. Not many men had hands so big they could hold a blacksmith's shoulder afore and behind.

"Abe," said Alvin.

"I was just wonderin' what I just saw here," said Abe. "I look over at my two friends pretendin' to be master and slave, and what do I see?"

"Oh, he beats me all the time," said Arthur Stuart, "when no one's looking."

"I reckon I might have to start," said Alvin, "just so's you won't be such a liar."

"So it was playacting?" asked Abe.

It shamed Alvin to have this good man even wonder, specially after spending a week together going down the Mizzippy. And maybe some of that pent-up anger was still close to the surface, because he found himself answering right sharp. "Not only was it playacting," said Alvin, "but it was also our business."

"And none of mine?" said Abe. "Reckon so. None of my business when one of my friends reaches out to strike another. Guess a good man's gotta just stand by and watch."

"Didn't hit him," said Alvin. "Wasn't going to."

"But now you want to hit me," said Abe.

"No," said Alvin. "Now I want to go find me a cheap inn and put up my poke afore we find something to eat. I hear Barcy's a good town for eatin', as long as you don't mind having fish that looks like bugs."

"Was that an invitation to a meal?" said Abe. "Or an invitation to go away and let you get about your business?"

"Mostly it was an invitation to change the subject," said Alvin. "Though I'd be glad to have you and Coz dine with us at whatever fine establishment we locate."

"Oh, Coz won't be joinin' us. Coz just found the love of his life, a-waitin' for him right on the pier."

"You mean that trashy lady he was a-talkin' to?" asked Arthur Stuart.

"I suggested to him that he might hold out for a cleaner grade of whore," said Abe, "but he denied that she was one, and she agreed that she had plain fallen in love with him the moment she saw him. So I figger I'll see Coz sometime tomorrow morning, drunk and robbed."

"Glad to know he's got you to look out for him, Abe," said Alvin.

"But I did," said Abe. He held up a wallet. "I picked his pocket first, so he's got no more than three dollars left on him for her to rob."

Alvin and Arthur both laughed at that.

"Is that your knack?" asked Arthur Stuart. "Pickin' pockets?"

"No sir," said Lincoln. "It don't take no knack to rob Coz. He wouldn't notice if you picked his nose. Not if there was a girl making big-eyes at him."

"But the girl would notice," said Alvin.

"Mebbe, but she didn't say nothing."

"And since she was planning on getting what was in that wallet herself," said Alvin, "seeing as how you two already sold your whole cargo and she no doubt saw you get the money and divvy it up, don't you think she would have said something?"

"So I reckon she didn't see me."

"Or she did but didn't care."

Abe thought about that for a second. "I reckon what you're saying is I oughta look inside this-here wallet."

"You could do that," said Alvin.

Abe opened it up. "I'm jiggered," he said. Of course it was empty.

"You're jug-eared, too," said Alvin, "but your real friends would never point that out."

"So she already got him."

"Oh, I don't suppose she ever laid a hand on him," said Alvin. "But a girl like that, she probably doesn't work alone. She makes big-eyes..."

"And her partner goes for the pockets," said Arthur Stuart.

"You sound experienced," said Abe.

"We watch for it," said Arthur Stuart. "We both kind of like to catch 'em at it, iffen we can."

"So why didn't you catch them robbin' Coz?"

"We didn't know you needed lookin' after," said Arthur Stuart.

Abe looked at him with calculated indignation. "Next time you go to beatin' this boy, Al Smith, would you be so kind as to lay down one extra wallop on my behalf?"

"Get your own half-black adopted brother-in-law to beat," said Alvin.

"Besides," said Arthur Stuart, "you do need lookin' after."

"What makes you think so?"

"Because you still haven't thought about how Coz wasn't the only one distracted by her big fluttery eyes."

Abe slapped at his jacket pocket. For a moment he was relieved to find his wallet still there. But then he realized that Coz's wallet had been there, too. It took only a moment to discover that he and Coz had both been robbed.

"And they had the sass to put the wallets back," said Abe, sounding awestruck.

"Well, don't feel bad," said Arthur Stuart. "It was probably the pickpocket's knack, so what could you do about it?"

Abe sat himself right down on the dock, which was quite an operation, seeing how he was so tall and bony that just getting himself into a sitting position involved nearly knocking three or four people into the water.

"Well, ain't this a grand holiday," said Abe. "Ain't I just the biggest rube you ever saw. First I made a raft that can't be steered, so you had to save me. And then when I sell my cargo and make the money I came for, I let somebody take it away from us first thing."

"So," said Alvin, "let's go eat."

"How?" said Abe. "I haven't got a penny. I haven't even got a return passage."

"Oh, we'll treat you to supper," said Alvin.

"I can't let you do that," said Abe.

"Why not?"

"Because then I'd be in your debt."

"We saved your stupid life on the river, Abe Lincoln," said Alvin. "You're already so far in my debt that you owe me interest on your breath."

Abe thought about that for a moment. "Well, then, I reckon it's in for a penny, in for a pound."

"The American version of that is 'in for a dime, in for a dollar,'" said Arthur Stuart helpfully.

"But my mama's version was the one I said," retorted Abe. "And since I got exactly as many pennies and pounds as I got dimes and dollars, I reckon I can please myself which ones to cuss with."

"You mean that wascussin'?" said Arthur Stuart.

"Inside me there was cussin' so bad it'd make a sailor poke sticks in his own ears to keep from hearin' it," said Abe. "Pennies and pounds was just the part I let out."

All this while, of course, Alvin had been using his doodlebug to go in search of the thieves. First thing was to find Coz, partly because the woman might still be with him, and partly to make sure he hadn't been harmed. Alvin found his heartfire just as he was getting clubbed in the head in a back alley. It wasn't no hard thing to make it so the club didn't do him much harm. Put him down on the ground convincingly enough, so they wouldn't feel no need to give him another lick with it, but Coz'd wake up without so much as a headache.

Meanwhile, though, the woman and the man was strolling off as easy as you please. So Alvin searched them with his doodlebug and found the money fast enough. It was no great difficulty to make the man's pocket and the woman's bag unweave themselves a little, and it wasn't much harder to make the gold coins all slippery. Nor was it so hard to keep them from making a single sound when they hit the wharf. The tricky thing was to keep the coins from slipping through the cracks between the planks and falling into the slack water under the dock.

Arthur Stuart, of course, had enough experience and training now that he was able to follow pretty much what Alvin was doing. That was why he was stringing out the conversation long enough to give Alvin time to get the job done.

In a way, thought Alvin, we're just like that pair of thieves. Arthur Stuart's the stall, keeping Abe busy so he doesn't have a clue what's going on, and I'm the cutpurse and pickpocket. Only difference is, we're sort ofunstealing what was already stolen.

"Let's go eat, then," said Arthur Stuart, "instead of talking about eatin'."

"Where shall we go to find food that we can stand to eat?" said Alvin.

"This way, I think," said Arthur Stuart, heading directly toward the alleyway where the coins had all been spilled.

"Oh, that doesn't look too promising," said Abe.

"Trust me," said Arthur Stuart. "I got a nose for good food."

"He does," said Alvin. "And I got the tongue and lips and teeth for it."

"I'll happily provide the belly," offered Abe.

They had him lead the way down the alley. And blamed if he didn't just walk right past the money.

"Abe," said Alvin. "Didn't you see them gold coins a-lyin' there?"

"They ain't mine," said Abe.

"Finders keepers, losers weepers," said Arthur Stuart.

"I may be a loser," said Abe, "but I ain't weepin'."

"But you're a finder now," said Arthur Stuart, "and I don't see you doin' no keepin'."

Abe looked at them a bit askance. "I reckon we ought to pick up these coins and search out their proper owner. No doubt somebody's going to be right sorry for a hole in his pocket."

"Reckon so," said Alvin, bending over to pick up a few coins. Arthur Stuart was doing the same, and pretty soon they had them all. It was quite a bit of money, when you had it all together.

"Gotta carry it somewhere," said Alvin. "Why don't you put it into those empty wallets you got?"

Alvin fully expected that Abe would realize, when he started loading it in, that it was exactly the amount that had been stolen.

But he didn't. Because the money didn't fit. There was too blamed much of it.

Arthur Stuart started laughing and kept laughing till he had tears running down his cheeks.

"So now who's the weeper?" said Abe.

"He's laughing at me," said Alvin.

"Why?"

"Because I clean forgot that you and Coz probably wasn't the first folks they robbed today."

Abe looked down at the full wallets and the coins that Alvin and Arthur Stuart were still holding and it finally dawned on him. "You robbed the robbers."

Alvin shook his head. "You was supposed to think they just dropped your money and ran or something," he said. "But I can't pretendthat when you go finding more money than they took."

Abe shook his head. "Well, I'm beginning to get the idea that you got you some kind of knack, Mr. Smith."

"I just know how to work with metals some," said Alvin.

"Including metal that's in somebody else's pocket or purse some six rods off."

"Let's go find Coz," said Alvin. "Since I reckon he's due to wake up soon."

"He's sleeping?" asked Abe.

"He had some encouragement," said Alvin. "But he'll be fine."

Abe gave him a look but said nothing.

"What about all this extra money?" asked Arthur Stuart.

"I'm not taking it," said Abe. "I'll keep what's rightfully mine and Coz's, but the rest you can just leave there on the planks. Let the thieves come back and find it."

"But it wasn't theirs, neither," said Arthur Stuart.

"That's between them and their maker on Judgment Day," said Abe. "I ain't gettin' involved. I don't want to have any money I can't account for."

"To the Lord?" asked Alvin.

"Or to the magistrate," said Abe. "I gave a receipt for this amount, and it can be proved that it's mine. Just drop the rest of that. Or keep it, if you don't mind being thieves yourselves."

Alvin couldn't believe that the man whose money he had just saved was calling him a thief. But after he thought about it for a moment, he realized that he couldn't very well pretend that he simplyhappened to find the money. Nor that it belonged to him by any stretch of the imagination.

"I expect if you rob a robber," said Alvin, "it doesn't make you any less of a robber."

"I expect not," said Abe.

Alvin and Arthur Stuart let the money dribble out of their hands and back down onto the planks. Once again, Alvin made sure that none of it fell through the cracks. Money wouldn't do no good to anybody down in the water.

"You always this honest?" said Alvin.

"About money, yes sir," said Abe.

"But not about everything."

"I have to admit that there's parts of some stories I tell that aren't strictly speaking the absolute God's-own truth."

"Well, no, of course not," said Alvin, "but you can't tell a good story without improving it here and there."

"Well, youcan," said Abe. "But then what do you do when you need to tell the same story to the same people? You gotta change it then, so it'll still be entertaining."

"So it's really for their benefit to fiddle with the truth."

"Pure Christian charity."

Coz was still asleep when they found him, but it wasn't the sleep of the newly knocked-upside-the-head, it was a snorish sleep of a weary man. So Abe paused a moment to put a finger to his lips, to let Alvin and Arthur Stuart know that they should let him do the talking. Only when they nodded did he start nudging Coz with his toe.

Coz sputtered and awoke. "Oh, man," he said. "What am I doing here?"

"Waking up," said Abe. "But a minute ago, you was sleeping."

"I was? Why was I sleeping here?"

"I was going to ask you the same question," said Abe. "Did you have a good time with that lady you fell so much in love with?"

Coz started to brag. "Oh, you bet I did." Only they could all see from his face that he actually had no memory of what might have happened. "It was amazing. She was--only maybe I shouldn't tell you all about it in front of the boy."

"No, best not," said Abe. "You must have got powerful drunk last night."

"Last night?" asked Coz, looking around.

"It's been a whole night and a day since you took off with her. I reckon you probably spent every dime of your half of the money. But I'm a-tellin' you, Coz, I'm not giving you any of my half, I'm just not."

Coz patted himself and realized his wallet was missing. "Oh, that snickety-pickle. That blimmety-blam."

"Coz has him a knack for swearing in front of children," said Abe.

"My wallet's gone," he said.

"I reckon that includes the money in it," said Abe.

"Well she wouldn't steal the wallet andleave the money, would she?" said Coz.

"So you're sure she stole it?" said Abe.

"Well how else would my wallet turn up missing?" said Coz.

"You spent a whole night and day carousing. How do you know you didn't spend it all? Or give it to her as a present? Or make sixmore friends and buythem drinks till you ran out of money, and then you traded the wallet for one last drink?"

Coz looked like he'd been kicked in the belly, he was so stunned and forlorn. "Do you think I did, Abe? I got to admit, I have no memory of what I did last night."

Then he reached up and touched his head. "I must have slept my way clear past the hangover."

"You don't look too steady," said Abe. "Maybe you don't have a hangover cause you're still drunk."

"Iam a little wobbly," said Coz. "Tell me, the three of you, am I talking slurry? Do I sound drunk?"

Alvin shrugged. "Maybe you sound like a man as just woke up."

"Kind of a frog in your throat," said Arthur Stuart.

"I've seen you drunker," said Abe.

"Oh, I'm never gonna live down the shame of this, Abe," said Coz. "You warned me not to go off with her. And whether she robbed me or somebody else did or I spent it all or I clean lost it from being so stupid drunk, I'm going home empty-handed and Ma'll kill me, she'll just ream me out a new ear, she'll cuss me up so bad."

"Oh, Coz, you know I won't leave you in such a bad way," said Abe.

"Won't you? You mean it? You'll give me a share of your half?"

"Enough to be respectable," said Abe. "We'll just say you...invested the rest of it, on speculation, kind of, but it went bad. They'll believe that, right? That's better than getting robbed or spending it on likker."

"Oh, it is, Abe. You're a saint. You're my best friend. And you won't have to lie for me, Abe. I know you hate to lie, so you just tell folks to askme and I'll do all the lyin'."

Abe reached into his pocket and took out Coz's own wallet and handed it to him. "You just take from that wallet as much as you think you'll need to make your story stick."

Coz started counting out the twenty-dollar gold pieces, but it only took a few before his conscience started getting to him. "Every coin I take is taken from you, Abe. I can't do this. You decide how much you can spare for me."

"No, you do the calculatin'," said Abe. "You know I'm no good at accounts, or my store wouldn't have gone bust the way it did last year."

"But I feel like I'm robbing you, taking money out of your wallet like this."

"Oh, that ain't my wallet," said Abe.

Coz looked at him like he was crazy. "You took it out of your own pocket," he said. "And if it ain't yours, then whose is it?"

When Abe didn't answer, Coz looked at the wallet again.

"It's mine," he said.

"It does look like yours," said Abe.

"You took it out of my own pocket when I was sleeping!" said Coz, outraged.

"I can tell you honestly that I did not," said Abe. "And these gentlemen can affirm that I did not touch you with more than the toe of my boot as you laid there snoring like a choir of angels."

"Then how'd you get it?"

"I stole it from you before you even went off with that girl," said Abe.

"You...but then...then how could I have done all those things last night?"

"Last night?" said Abe. "As I recall, last night you were on the boat with us."

"What're you..." And then it all came clear. "You dad-blasted gummer-huggit! You flim-jiggy swip-swapp!"

Abe put a hand to his ear. "Hark! The song of the chuckleheaded Coz-bird!"

"It's the same day! I wasn't asleep half an hour!"

"Twenty minutes," offered Alvin. "At least that's my guess."

"And this is all my own money!" Coz said.

Abe nodded gravely. "It is, my friend, at least until another girl makes big-eyes at you."

Coz looked up and down the little alleyway. "But what happened to Fannie? One minute I was walking down this alleyway with my hand on her...hand, and the next minute you're pokin' me with your toe."

"You know something, Coz?" said Abe. "You don't have much of a love life."

"Look who's talkin'," said Coz sullenly.

But that seemed to be something of a sore spot with Abe, for though the smile didn't leave his face, the mirth did, and instead of coming back with some jest or jape, he sort of seemed to wander off inside himself somewhere.

"Come on, let's eat," said Arthur Stuart. "All this talkin' don't fill me up much."

And that being the most honest and sensible thing that had been said that half hour, they all agreed to it and followed their noses till they found a place that sold food that was mostly dead, didn't have too many legs, wasn't poisonous when alive, and seemed cooked enough to eat. Not an easy search in Barcy.

After dinner, Coz got him out a pipe which he proceeded to stuff with manure, or so it smelled when he got the thing alight. Alvin toyed with putting out the fire, but he knew he wasn't given his makery gift just to spare himself the occasional stink.

Instead he took his leave, hoisted his poke onto his shoulder, made sure Arthur Stuart unwound himself from his chair before standing up, and the two lit out in search of a place to stay. None of the miserable fleabitten overpriced understaffed crowded smelly firetraps near the river. Alvin had no idea how long he'd be staying and he only had limited funds, so he'd want a room in a boarding house somewhere in the part of Barcy where decent people lived who aimed to stay a spell. Where a journeyman smith might stay, for instance, while he searched for a shop as needed an extra pair of arms.

He wasn't thirty steps out of the tavern where they'd dined afore he realized that Abe Lincoln was a-following, and even though Abe had even longer legs than Alvin's, there was no point in making him hasten to catch them up. He stopped, he turned, and only then did he realize that Arthur Stuart wasn't walking withhim, he was with Abe.

It was disconcerting, how Arthur had learnt a way to keep Alvin from noticing his heartfire. Not that Alvin ever failed to find Arthur when he was looking for him. But it used to be Alvin always knew where Arthur Stuart was without even thinking, but ever since Arthur had figured out a bit of real makering--how to het up iron or soften it, which was no mean trick--it seemed he'd also figured out how to make Alvin not notice when he sort of drifted away and went off on his own.

But now wasn't the time for remonstration, not with Abe a-lookin' on.

"You decided Coz could be trusted with his own money tonight after all?" asked Alvin.

"Coz can't be trusted with his own elbows," said Abe, "but it occurred to me that you and Arthur Stuart here have become right good friends, and I'd be sorry to lose track of you."

"Well, it's bound to happen," said Alvin, "since the only way to get your profits back north is to buy passage and get aboard afore Coz falls in love again."

"You seem to be a wandering man," said Abe, "and not likely to have a place where a man can send you a letter. Me, though, I'm rooted. I don't make much money doing much of anything yet, but I know where I want to do it. You write to Abraham Lincoln, town of Springfield, state of Noisy River, that'll reach me right enough."

Alvin had no shortage of friends in his life, but never had a man he liked so well upon such short acquaintance made it so plain that he liked him back. "Abe, I won't forget that address, and indeed I expect I'll use it. Not only that, but I do have a way that a fellow can write to me. Any letter posted to Alvin Junior in the care of Alvin Miller in the town of Vigor Church would reach me in due time."

"Your folks, I reckon."

"I grew up there and we're still on speaking terms," said Alvin with a smile.

But Abe didn't smile back. "I know the name of Vigor Church, and a dark story attached to the place."

"The story's dark enough, and also true," said Alvin. "But if you know the tale, you know there was some as didn't take part in the massacre of Prophet's Town, and didn't have no curse upon them."

"I never thought about it, but I reckon there had to be some as had clean hands."

Alvin held his hands up. "But that doesn't mean as much as it once did, because the curse has been lifted and the sin forgiven."

"I hadn't heard that."

"It isn't much spoken of," said Alvin. "If you want to learn the whole of the tale, you're welcome to visit my family there at any time. It's a welcoming house, with many a visitor, and if you tell them you're a friend of me and a certain stepbrother-in-law of mine, they'll serve you extra helpings and perhaps tell you a tale or two that you haven't heard afore."

"You can be sure I'll go there," said Abe. "And I'm glad to think tonight won't be the last I'll hear of you."

"You can't be any gladder than me," said Alvin.

With a handshake they parted yet again, and soon Abe's long legs were carrying him back toward the tavern with a stride that parted the flow of the crowd in the street like an upriver steamboat.

"I like that man," said Arthur Stuart.

"Me too," said Alvin. "Though I think there's more to him than making folks laugh."

"Not to mention being the best-looking ugly man or the ugliest handsome man I ever seen," said Arthur Stuart.

"Speaking of nothing much," said Alvin, "I wish you wouldn't do that trick of hiding your heartfire from me."

Arthur Stuart looked at him without blinking an eye and answered just as Alvin supposed he would. "Now that we're away from company, Al, ain't it about time you told me what our business is here in Barcy?"

Alvin sighed. "I'll tell you now what I told you back in Carthage when we set out on this journey. I'm going because my Peggy sent me here to Barcy, and a good husband does what his wife insists."

"She didn't send you to Carthage, that's for sure. She thinks you're gonna die there."

"When I die, I'll be dead everywhere, all at once," said Alvin, a little peeved. "She can send me to the end of the world, and I'll go, but at least I get to choose my own route."

"You mean youreally don't know what you're supposed to do here? When you said that before I thought you were just telling me it was none of my business."

"It might well be none of your business," said Alvin, "but so far it's apparently none of my business, either. Back on the steamboat, I thought maybe our trip here had something to do with Steve Austin and Jim Bowie and the expedition to Mexico they tried to recruit me for. But then we left them behind and--"

"And freed two dozen black men as didn't want to be slaves."

"That was more you than me, and not a thing to be bragging on here in the streets of Barcy," said Alvin.

"And you still have yet to figger out what Peggy has in mind," said Arthur Stuart.

"We don't talk like we used to," said Alvin. "And there's times I think she tells me of an urgent errand in one place, just so I won't be in a different place where she saw some awful thing happening to me."

"It's been known to happen."

"Well, I don't like it. But I also know she wants our baby to have a living father, and so I go along, though I remind her from time to time that a grown man likes to knowwhy he's doing a thing. And in this case, what the thing is I'm supposed to be doing."

"Isthat what a grown man likes?" said Arthur Stuart, with a grin that was way too wide.

"You'll find out when you're growed," said Alvin.

But the truth was, Arthur Stuart might be full grown already. Alvin didn't know whether his father was a tall man, and his mother was so young she might not have been full grown. No matter how tall he might get, at age fifteen it was time for Alvin to stop treating him like a little brother and start treating him like a man who had the right to go his own way, if he so chose.

Which was probably why Arthur Stuart had gone to the trouble to learn how to hide his heartfire from Alvin. Not hide it completely--he'd never be able to do that. But he could make it so Alvin didn't notice him unless he was particularly looking, and that was more hidden than Alvin ever thought he'd be able to do.

Alvin did his share of hiding from folks, too, so he couldn't rightly begrudge the boy his privacy. For instance, there was no one who knew that Alvin not only didn't know what errand Margaret had in mind for him, he didn't much care, either. Or about anything else.

Because at the ripe old age of twenty-six, Alvin Miller, who had become Alvin Smith, and whose secret name was Alvin Maker; this Alvin, whose birth had been surrounded by such portents, who had been so watched over by good and evil as he was growing up; this same Alvin who had thought he had a great mission and work in his life, had long since come to realize that all those portents came to nothing, that all that watching had been wasted, because the power of makery had been given to the wrong man. In Alvin's hands it had all come to nothing. Whatever he made got unmade just as fast or faster. There was no overtaking the Unmaker in his dire work of unraveling the world. He couldn't teach more than scraps of the power to anyone else, so it's not as though his plan of surrounding himself with other makers was ever going to work.

He couldn't even save the life of his own baby, or learn languages the way Arthur Stuart could, or see the paths of the future like Margaret, or any of the other practical gifts. He was just a journeyman smith who by sheerest accident got himself a golden plow which he'd been carrying around in a poke for five years now, and for what?

Alvin had no idea why God had singled him out to be the seventh son of a seventh son, but whatever God's plan might have been at first, Alvin must have muffed it by now, because even the Unmaker seemed to be leaving him alone. Once he had been so formidable that he was surrounded by enemies. Now even his enemies had lost interest in him. What clearer sign of failure could you find than that?

It was this dark mood that rode in his heart all the way into Barcy proper, and perhaps it was the cloud that it put in his visage that made the first two houses turn them away.

He was so darkhearted by the time they come to the third house that he didn't even try to be personable. "I'm a journeyman smith from up north," he said, "and this boy is passing as my slave but he's not, he's free, and I'm blamed if I'm going to make him sleep down with the servants. I want a room with two good beds, and I'll pay faithful but I won't have anybody treating this young fellow like a servant."

The woman at the door looked from him to Arthur Stuart and back again. "If you make that speech at every door, I'm surprised you ain't got you a mob of men with clubs and a rope followin' behind."

"Mostly I just ask for a room," said Alvin, "but I'm in a bad mood."

"Well, control your tongue in future," said the woman. "It happens you chose the right door forthat speech, by sheer luck or perversity. I have the room you want, with the two beds, and this being a house where slavery is hated as an offense against God, you'll find no one quarrels with you for treating this young man as an equal."

THE CRYSTAL CITY.Copyright 2003 by Orson Scott Card