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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Lake of the Long Sun

Book of the Long Sun (Volume 2)

Gene Wolfe

Tor Science Fiction

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Lake of the Long Sun

Chapter 1
THEY HAD SCIENTISTS
Silence fell, abrupt as a shouted command, when Patera Silk opened the door of the old, three-sided manse at the slanted intersection where Sun Street met Silver. Horn, the tallest boy in the palaestra, was sitting bolt upright in the least comfortable chair in the musty little sellaria; Silk felt sure he had dropped into it hastily when he heard the rattle of the latch.
The night chough (Silk had stepped inside and shut the door behind him before he remembered that he had named the night chough Oreb) was perched on the high, tapestried back of the stiff "visitor's" chair.
"'Lo, Silk," Oreb croaked. "Good Silk!"
"And good evening to you. A good evening to you both. Tartaros bless you."
Horn had risen as Silk entered; Silk motioned for him to sit again. "I apologize. I'm terribly sorry, Horn. I truly am. Maytera Rose told me she meant to send you to talk to me this evening, but I forgot all about it. So much has been--O Sphigx! Stabbing Sphigx, have pity on me!"
This last had been in response to sudden, lancing pain in his ankle. As he limped to the room's sole comfortable chair, the one in which he sat to read, it occurred to him that its seat was probably still warm; he considered feeling the cushion to make sure, rejected the idea as embarrassing to Horn, then (propping himself with Blood's lioness-headed walking stick) laid his free hand on the seat anyway out of sheer curiosity. It was.
"I sat down there for a minute, Patera. I could see your bird better from there."
"Of course." Silk sat, lifting his injured ankle onto the hassock. "You've been here half the night, no doubt."
"Only a couple hours, Patera. I sweep out for my father while he empties the till and--and--locks the money up."
Silk nodded approvingly. "That's right. You shouldn't tell me where he keeps it." He paused, recalling that he had intended to steal this very manteion from Blood. "I wouldn't steal it, because I'd never steal anything from you or your family; but you never know who may be listening."
Horn grinned. "Your bird might tell, Patera. Sometimes they take shiny things, that's what I've heard. Maybe a ring or a spoon."
"No steal!" Oreb protested.
"I was thinking of a human eavesdropper, actually. I shrove an unhappy young woman today, and I believe there was someone listening outside her window the whole time. There was a gallery out there, and once I felt certain I heard the boards creak when he shifted his weight. I was tempted to get up and look, but crippled as I am at present, he would've been gone before I could have put my head out of the window--and back again, no doubt, the moment I sat down." Silk sighed. "Fortunately she kept her voice quite low."
"Isn't listening like that a major offense against the gods, Patera?"
"Yes. Not that he cares, I'm afraid. The worst part of the whole affair is that I know the man--or at least, I'm beginning to know him--and I've liked what I've seen of him. There's a great deal of good in him, I feel certain, though he tries so hard to conceal it."
Oreb fluttered his sound wing. "Good Crane!"
"I didn't mention his name," Silk told Horn, "nor did you hear any name."
"No, Patera. Half the time I can't make out what that bird's saying."
"Fine. Perhaps it would be even better if you had as much difficulty understanding me."
Horn colored. "I'm sorry, Patera. I didn't want to--It wasn't because--"
"I didn't mean that," Silk explained hastily. "Not at all. We haven't even begun to talk about that yet, though we will. We must. I merely meant that I shouldn't even have mentioned shriving that woman. I'm much too tired to keep a proper watch on my tongue. And now that Patera Pike has left us--well, I still have Maytera Marble to confide in. I'd go mad, I think, if it weren't for her."
He leaned forward in the soft old chair, struggling to concentrate his surging thoughts. "I was going to say that though he's a good man, or at least a man who might be good, he has no faith in the gods; yet I'm going to have to get him to admit he listened, so I can shrive him of the guilt. It's sure to be difficult, but I've been examining the matter from all sides, Horn, and I can see no way to evade my duty."
"Yes, Patera."
"I don't mean this evening. I've been entirely too busy this evening, and this afternoon, too. I saw ... something I can't tell you about, unfortunately. But I've been thinking about this particular man and theproblem he presents ever since I came in. Seeing that blue thing on the bird's wing reminded me."
"I was wondering what that was, Patera."
"A splint, I suppose you'd call it." Silk glanced at the clock. "Your mother and father will be frantic."
Horn shook his head. "The rest of the sprats'll tell them where I went, Patera. I told them before I left."
"By Sphigx, I hope so." Silk leaned forward and drew up his injured leg, pushed down his stocking, and unwound the chamois-like wrapping. "Have you seen one of these, Horn?"
"A strip of leather, Patera?"
"It's much more than that." Silk tossed it to him. "I want you to do something for me, if you will. Kick it hard, so that it flies against the wall."
Horn gawked.
"If you're afraid you'll break something, throw it down hard three or four times. Not here on the carpet, I think. Over there on the bare boards. Hard, mind."
Horn did as he was told, then returned the wrapping to Silk. "It's getting hot."
"Yes, I thought it would." Silk rewound it about his aching ankle and smiled with satisfaction as it tightened. "It isn't just a strip of leather, you see, although it may be that its exterior actually is leather. Inside there's a mechanism, something as thin as the gold labyrinth in a card. When that mechanism is agitated, it must take up energy. At rest, it excretes a part of it as heat. The remainder emerges as sound, or so I was told. It makes a noise we can't hear, I suppose because it's too soft or perhaps because it's pitched too high. Can you hear it now?"
Horn shook his head.
"Neither can I, yet I could hear sounds that Patera Pike could not--the squeaking of the hinges on the garden gate, for example, until I oiled them."
Silk relaxed, soothed by the wrapping and the softness of his chair. "These wonderful wrappings weremade in the Short-Sun Whorl, I imagine, like glasses and Sacred Windows, and so many other things that we have but can't replace."
"They had scientists there, Patera. That's what Maytera Rose says."
Oreb croaked, "Good Crane!"
Silk laughed. "Did he teach you to say that while he was treating your wing, you silly bird? Very well, Doctor Crane's a scientist of sorts, I suppose; he knows medicine at least, which is more science than most of us know, and he let me borrow this, though I must return it in a few days."
"A thing like that must be worth twenty or thirty cards, Patera."
"More than that. Do you know Auk? A big man who comes to sacrifice on Scylsdays?"
"I think so, Patera."
"Heavy jaw, wide shoulders, big ears. He wears a hanger and boots."
"I don't know him to talk to, Patera, but I know who you mean." Horn paused, his handsome young face serious. "He's trouble, that's what everybody says, the kind who knocks down people who get in his way. He did that to Teasel's father."
Silk had taken out his beads; he drew them through his fingers absently as he spoke. "I'm sorry to hear it. I'll try to speak to him about it."
"You'd better keep away from him, Patera."
Silk shook his head. "I can't, Horn. Not if I'm to do my duty. In fact, Auk's precisely the sort of person I must get close to. I don't believe that even the Outsider--And it's too late for that in any case. I was going to tell you that I showed this wrapping to Auk, and he indicated that it was worth a great deal more. That isn't important, however. Have you ever wondered why so much knowledge was left behind in the Short-Sun Whorl?"
"I guess the ones that knew about those things didn't come to our whorl, Patera."
"Clearly they did not. Or if they did, they can't have settled here in Viron. Yet they knew many things that would be very valuable to us, and certainly they would have had to come if Pas had instructed them to."
"The Fliers know how to fly, Patera, and we don't. We saw one yesterday, remember? Just after the ball game. He was pretty low. That's what I'd like to know. How to fly like they do, like a bird."
"No fly!" Oreb announced.
Silk studied the voided cross dangling from his beads for a moment, then let the beads fall into his lap. "This evening I was introduced to an elderly man who has a really extraordinary artificial leg, Horn. He had to buy up five broken or worn-out legs to build it, but it's an artificial leg such as the first settlers had--a leg that might have been brought from the Short-Sun Whorl. When he showed it to me, I thought how marvelous it would be if we could only make things like that now for Maytera Rose and Maytera Marble, and for all the beggars who are blind or crippled. It would be marvelous to fly, too, of course. I've always wanted to do it myself, and it may be that they are the same secret. If we could build wonderful legs like that for the people who need them, perhaps we could build wonderful wings as well for everyone who wanted to have them."
"That would be great, Patera."
"It may come to pass. It may yet come to pass, Horn. If people in the Short-Sun Whorl could teach themselves to do such things ..." Silk shook himself and yawned, then rose with the help of Blood's stick. "Well, thank you for coming by. It's been a pleasure, but I'd better go up to bed."
"I was supposed--Maytera said--"
"That's right." Silk put away his beads. "I'm supposed to punish you. Or lecture you, or something.What was it you did that made Maytera Rose so angry?"
Horn swallowed. "I was just trying to talk like you do, Patera. Like in manteion. It wasn't even today, and I won't do it again."
"Of course." Silk settled back into his chair. "But it was today, Horn. Or at least, today was one of several such days. I heard you before I opened the door. I sat down on the step for a minute to listen, in fact. You imitated me so well that for a while I actually thought that your voice was my own; it was like hearing myself. You're very good at it."
"Good boy," Oreb croaked. "No hit."
"I won't," Silk told the bird, and it lurched through the air to his lap, then hopped from his lap to the arm of the chair, and from the arm to his shoulder.
"Maytera Rose hits us sometimes, Patera."
"Yes, I know. It's very courageous of her, but I'm not at all certain it's wise. Let's hear you again, Horn. Out on the step, I couldn't hear everything you said."
Horn muttered, and Silk laughed. "I couldn't hear you that time, either. Surely I don't sound like that. When I'm at the ambion, I can hear my bray echo from the walls."
"No, Patera."
"Then say it again, just as I would. I won't be angry, I promise you."
"I was only ... You know. Like the things you say."
"No talk?" Oreb inquired.
Silk ignored him. "Fine. Let me hear it. That's what you came to talk about, and I feel sure it will be a valuable corrective for me. I tend to get above myself, I'm afraid."
Horn shook his head and stared at the carpet.
"Oh, come now! What sorts of things do I say?"
"To always live with the gods, and you do it any time you're happy with the life they've given you. Think about who's wise and act like he does."
"That was well said, Horn, but you didn't sound in the least like me. It's my own voice I want to hear, just as I heard it on the step. Won't you do that?"
"I guess I've got to stand up, Patera."
"Then stand, by all means."
"Don't look at me. All right?"
Silk shut his eyes.
For half a minute or more there was silence. Through his eyelids, Silk could detect the fading of the light (the best in the manse) behind his chair. He welcomed it. His right forearm, torn by the hooked beak of the white-headed one the night before, felt hot and swollen now; and he was so tired that his entire body ached.
"Live with the gods," his own voice directed, "and he does live with the gods who consistently shows them that his spirit is satisfied with what has been assigned to him, and that it obeys all that the gods will--the spirit that Pas has given every man as his guardian and guide, the best part of himself, his understanding and his reason. As you intend to live hereafter, it is in your power to live here. But if men do not permit you, ..."
Silk stepped on something that slid beneath his foot, and fell with a start to the red clay tiles.
" ... think of wisdom only as great wisdom, the wisdom of a prolocutor or a councillor. That itself is unwise. If you could talk this very day with a councillor or His Cognizance, either would tell you that wisdom may be small, a thing quite suited to the smallest children here, as well as great. What is a wise child? It is a child who seeks out wise teachers, and hears them."
Silk opened his eyes. "What you said first was from the Writings, Horn. Did you know it?"
"No, Patera. It's just something I've heard you say."
"I was quoting. It's good that you've got that passageby heart, even if you learned it only to make fun of me. Sit down. You were talking about wisdom. Well, no doubt I must have spouted all that foolishness, but you deserve to learn better. Who are the wise, Horn? Have you really considered that question? If not, do so now. Who are they?"
"Well ... you, Patera."
"NO!" Silk rose so abruptly that the bird squawked. He strode to the window and stood staring out through the bars at the ruts of Sun Street, black now under a flood of uncanny skylight. "No, I'm not wise, Horn. Or at least, I've been wise for a moment only--one moment out of my whole life."
He limped across the room to Horn's chair and crouched before it, one knee on the carpet. "Allow me to tell you how foolish I have been. Do you know what I believed when I was your age? That nothing but thought, nothing except wisdom, mattered. You're good at games, Horn. You can run and jump, and you can climb. So was I and so did I, but I had nothing but contempt for those abilities. Climbing was nothing to boast of, when I couldn't climb nearly as well as a monkey. But I could think better than a monkey--better than anyone else in my class, in fact." He smiled bitterly, shaking his head. "And that was how I thought! Pride in nonsense."
"Isn't thinking good, Patera?"
Silk stood. "Only when we think rightly. Action, you see, is the end that thought achieves. Action is its only purpose. What else is it good for? If we don't act, it's worthless. If we can't act, useless."
He returned to his chair, but did not sit down. "How many times have you heard me talk about enlightenment, Horn? Twenty or thirty times, surely, and you remember very well. Tell me what I said."
Horn glanced miserably at Oreb as though for guidance, but the bird merely cocked his head and fidgeted on Silk's shoulder as if eager to hear what Horn hadto say. At last he managed, "It--it's wisdom a god sort of pours into you. That doesn't come from a book or anything. And--and--"
"Perhaps you'd do better if you employed my voice," Silk suggested. "Stand up again and try it. I won't watch you if it makes you nervous."
Horn rose, lifting his head, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling, and drawing down the corners of his mouth. "Divine enlightenment means you know without thinking, and that isn't because thinking's bad but because enlightenment is better. Enlightenment is sharing in the thinking of the god."
He added in his normal voice, "That's as close as I can come, Patera, without more time to remember."
"Your choice of words might be improved upon," Silk told him judiciously, "but your intonation is excellent, and you have my speech mannerisms almost pat. What is of much, much more importance, nothing that you said was untrue. But who gets it, Horn? Who receives enlightenment?"
"People who've tried to live good lives for a long time. Sometimes they do."
"Not always?"
"No, Patera. Not always."
"Would you believe me, Horn--credit me fully without reservation--if I told you that I myself have received it? Yes or no."
"Yes, Patera. If you say so."
"That I received it only yesterday?"
Oreb whistled softly.
"Yes, Patera."
Silk nodded, mostly to himself it seemed. "I did, Horn, and not through any merit of mine. I was about to say that you were with me, but it wouldn't be true. Not really."
"Was it before manteion, Patera? Yesterday you said you wanted to make a private sacrifice. Was it for that?"
"Yes. I've never made it, and perhaps I never will--"
"No cut!"
"If I do, it won't be you," Silk told Oreb. "Probably it won't be a live animal at all, although I'm going to have to sacrifice a lot of them tomorrow, and buy them as well."
"Pet bird?"
"Yes, indeed." Silk lifted Blood's lioness-headed stick to shoulder height; Oreb hopped onto it, turning his head to watch Silk from each eye.
Horn said, "He wouldn't let me touch him, Patera."
"You had no reason to touch him, and he didn't know you. All animals hate the touch of a stranger. Have you ever kept a bird?"
"No, Patera. I had a dog, but she died."
"I was hoping to get some advice. I wouldn't want Oreb to die--although I'd imagine that night choughs are hardy creatures. Hold out your wrist."
Horn did, and Oreb hopped onto it. "Good boy!"
"I wouldn't try to hold him," Silk said. "Let him hold you. You can't have had many toys as a child, Horn."
"Not many. We were--" Suddenly, Horn smiled. "There was one. My grandfather made it, a wooden man with a blue coat. It had strings, and if you did them right, you could make him walk and bow."
"Yes!" Silk's eyes flashed, and the tip of the lioness-headed stick thumped the floor. "That's exactly the sort of toy I mean. May I tell you about one of mine? You may think I'm straying from the topic, but I won't be, I promise you."
"Sure, Patera. Go ahead."
"There were two dancers, a man and a woman, very neatly painted. They danced on a little stage, and when I wound it up, music played. And they danced, the little woman quite gracefully, and the little man somersaulting and spinning and cutting all sorts ofcapers. There were three tunes--you moved a lever to choose the one you wanted--and I used to play with it for hours, singing songs I'd made up for myself and imagining things for him to say to her, and for her to say to him. Silly things, most of them, I'm afraid."
"I understand, Patera."
"My mother died during my last year at the schola, Horn. Possibly I've already told you that. I'd been cramming for an examination, but the Prelate called me into his chambers again and told me that after her last sacrifice I would have to go home and remove my personal belongings. Our house--her whole estate, but it was mostly the house--went to the Chapter, you understand. One signs an agreement before one enters the schola."
"Poor Silk!"
He smiled at the bird. "Perhaps, though I didn't think so at the time. I was miserable on account of my mother's death, but I don't believe that I ever felt sorry for myself. I had books to read, and friends, and enough to eat. But now I really am wandering from the subject.
"To hurry back to it, I found that toy in the back of my closet. I had been at the schola for six years, and I doubt that I'd so much as laid eyes on the toy for years before I left. Now here it was again! I wound it up, and the dancers danced once more, and the music played exactly as it had when I was a little boy. The tune was 'First Romance,' and I'll never forget that song now."
Horn coughed. "Nettle and me talk about that sometimes, Patera. You know, when we're older."
"Nettle and I," Silk corrected him absently. "That's good, Horn. It's very good, and you'll both be older much sooner than you imagine. I'll pray for you both.
"But I had intended to say that I cried then. I hadn't at her rites; I hadn't been able to, not even when her casket was put into the ground. But I did then, becauseit seemed to me that for the dancers no time at all had passed. That they couldn't know that the man who wound them now was the boy who had wound them the last time, or that the woman who had bought them on Clock Street was dead. Do you follow what I'm saying, Horn?"
"I think so, Patera."
"Enlightenment is like that for the whole whorl. Time has stopped for everyone else. For you, there is something outside it--a peritime in which the god speaks to you. For me, that god was the Outsider. I don't think I've said much about him when I've talked to the palaestra, but I will be saying a great deal about him in the future. Maytera Mint said something to me this afternoon that has remained with me ever since. She said that he was unlike the other gods, who take council with one another in Mainframe; that no one save himself knew his mind. Maytera Mint has great humility, but she has wisdom, too. I must remember not to let the first blind me to the second."
"Good girl!"
"Yes, and great goodness, too. Humility and purity."
Horn said, "About enlightenment, Patera. Yours, I mean. Is that why somebody's writing things about you getting to be caldé?"
Silk snapped his fingers. "I'm glad you mentioned that--I had intended to ask you about it. I knew I'd forgotten something. Someone had chalked, 'Silk for caldé,' on a wall; I saw it on the way home. Did you do that?"
Horn shook his head.
"Or one of the other boys?"
"I don't think it was one of us sprats at all, Patera. It's on two places. There on the slop shop, and then over on Hat Street, on that building Gosseyplum lives in. I've looked at them both, and they're pretty highup. I could do it without standing on anything and I think maybe Locust could, but he says he didn't."
Silk nodded to himself. "Then I believe you're correct, Horn. It was because I've been enlightened. Or rather it's happened because I told someone about it, and was overheard. I've told several persons now, yourself included, and perhaps I shouldn't have."
"What was it like, Patera? Besides everything stopped, like you said?"
For several tickings of the clock on the mantel, Silk sat silent, contemplating for the hundredth time the experience he had by this time revolved in his mind so often that it was like a water-smoothed stone, polished and opaque. At last he said, "In that moment I understood all that I'll ever truly need to know. It's erroneous, really, for me to call it a moment, when it was actually outside time. But I, Horn,"--he smiled--"I am inside time, just as you are. And I find that it takes time for me to comprehend everything that I was told in that moment that was not a moment. It takes time for me to assimilate it. Am I making myself clear?"
Poor Horn nodded hesitantly. "I think so, Patera."
"That may be good enough." Silk paused again, lost in thought. "One of the things I learned was that I'm to be a teacher. There's only one thing that the Outsider wishes me to do--I am to save our manteion. But it is as a teacher that he wishes me to do it.
"There are many callings, Horn, the highest being pure worship. That isn't mine; mine is to teach, and a teacher has to act as well as think. The old man I met this evening--the man with the wonderful leg--was a teacher, too; and yet he's all action, all activity, as old as he is, and one-legged, too. He teaches swordfighting. Why do you think he is as he is? All action?"
Horn's eyes shone. "I don't know, Patera. Why?"
"Because a fight with swords--still more, with azoths--affords no time for reflection; thus to be all action is a part of what he has to teach. Listen carefullynow. He has thought about that. Do you understand ? Even though fighting with a sword must be all action, teaching others that kind of fighting requires thought. The old man had to think not only about what he was to teach, but about how he could best teach it."
Horn nodded. "I think I understand, Patera."
"In the same way, Horn, you must think about imitating me. Not merely about how I can be imitated, but about what to imitate. And when to do it. Now go home."
Oreb flapped his sound wing. "Wise man!"
"Thank you. Go, Horn. If Oreb wishes to go with you, you may keep him."
"Patera?"
Silk rose as Horn did. "Yes. What is it?"
"Are you going to study swordfighting?"
For a moment Silk considered his reply. "There are more important things to learn than swordfighting, Horn. Whom to fight, for example. One of them is to keep secrets. Someone who holds in confidence only those secrets he has been told not to reveal can never be trusted. Surely you understand that."
"Yes, Patera."
"And there is more to be learned from any good teacher than the subject taught. Tell your father and mother that I didn't keep you so late in order to punish you, but through carelessness, for which I apologize ."
"No go!" Fluttering frenziedly, Oreb half flew and half fell from Horn's shoulder to the lofty back of the tapestried chair. "Bird stay!"
Horn's hand was already on the latch. "I'll tell them we were just talking, Patera. I'll say you were teaching me about the Outsider and a lot of other things. It'll be the truth."
Oreb croaked, "Good-bye! Bye, boy!"
"You foolish bird," Silk said as the door closedbehind Horn, "what have you learned from all this? A few new words, perhaps, which you will misapply."
"Gods' ways!"
"Oh, yes. You're very wise now." Although it was still warm, Silk unwound the wrapping. After beating the hassock with it, he wrapped it around his forearm over the bandage.
"Man god. My god."
"Shut up," his god told him wearily.


He had thrust his arm into the glass, where Kypris was kissing it. Her lips were as chill as death, but it was a death he welcomed at first. In time he grew frightened and struggled to withdraw it, but Kypris would not release it. When he shouted for Horn, no sound issued from his mouth. Orchid's sellaria was in the manse, which did not seem odd at all; a wild wind moaned in the chimney. He remembered that Auk had foretold such a wind, and tried to recall what Auk had said would happen when it blew.
Without relinquishing her grip on his arm, the goddess revolved, her own arms upraised; she wore a clinging gown of liquid spring. He was acutely conscious of the roundness of her thighs, the double globosity of her hips. As he stared, Blood's orchestra played "First Romance" and Kypris became Hyacinth (though Kypris still) and lovelier than ever. He kicked and tumbled, his feet above his head, but his hand clasped hers and would not be torn from it.


He woke gasping for breath. The lights had extinguished themselves. In the faint skylight from a curtained window, he saw Oreb hop out and flap away. Mucor stood beside his bed, naked in the darkness and skeletally thin; he blinked; she faded to mist and was gone.
He rubbed his eyes.
A warm wind moaned as it had in his dream, dancingwith his ragged, pale curtains. The wrapping on his arm was pale too, white with frost that melted at a touch. He unwound it and whipped the damp sheet with it, then wound it about his newly painful ankle, telling himself that he should not have climbed the stairs without it. What would Doctor Crane say when he told him?
The whipping had evoked a spectral glow from the lights, enough for him to distinguish the hands of the busy little clock beside his triptych. It was after midnight.
Leaving his bed, he lowered the sash. Not until it was down did he realize that he could not have seen Oreb fly out--Oreb had a dislocated wing.
Downstairs, he found Oreb poking about the kitchen in search of something to eat. He put out the last slice of bread and refilled the bird's cup with clean water.
"Meat?" Oreb cocked his head and clacked his beak.
"You'll have to find some for yourself if you want it," Silk told him. "I haven't any." After a moment's thought he added, "Perhaps I'll buy a little tomorrow, if Maytera cashed Orchid's draft, or I can myself. Or at least a fish--a live one I could keep in the washtub until whatever's left over from the sacrifices runs out, and then share with Maytera Rose. And Maytera Mint, of course. Wouldn't you like some nice, fresh fish, Oreb?"
"Like fish!"
"All right, I'll see what I can do. But you have to be forthcoming with me now. No fish if you're not. Were you in my bedroom?"
"No steal!"
"I didn't say that you stole," Silk explained patiently. "Were you there?"
"Where?"
"Up there." Silk pointed. "I know you were. I woke up and saw you."
"No, no!"
"Of course you were, Oreb. I saw you myself. I watched you fly out the window."
"No fly!"
"I'm not going to punish you. I simply want to know one thing. Listen carefully now. When you were upstairs, did you see a woman? Or a girl? A thin young woman, unclothed, in my bedroom?"
"No fly," the bird repeated stubbornly. "Wing hurt."
Silk ran his fingers through his strawstack hair. "All right, you can't fly. I concede that. Were you upstairs ?"
"No steal." Oreb clacked his beak again.
"Nor did you steal. That is understood as well."
"Fish heads?"
Silk threw caution to the winds. "Yes, several. Big ones, I promise you."
Oreb hopped onto the window ledge. "No see."
"Look at me, please. Did you see her?"
"No see."
"You were frightened by something," Silk mused, "though it may have been my waking. Perhaps you were afraid that I'd punish you for looking around my bedroom. Was that it?"
"No, no!"
"This window is just below that one. I thought I saw you fly, but I really saw you hop out the window and drop down into the blackberries. From there it would have been easy for you to get back here into the kitchen through the window. Isn't that what happened ?"
"No hop!"
"I don't believe you, because--" Silk paused. Faintly, he had heard the creak of Patera Pike's bed; he felt a pang of guilt at having awakened the old man,who always labored so hard and slept so badly--although he had dreamed (only dreamed, he told himself firmly) that Pike was dead, as he had dreamed, also, that Hyacinth had kissed his arm, that he had talked to Kypris in an old yellow house on Lamp Street: to Lady Kypris, the Goddess of Love, the whores' goddess.
Shaken by doubt, he went back to the pump and worked its handle again until clear icy water gushed into the stoppered sink, splashed his sweating face again and again, and soaked and resoaked his untidy hair until he was actually shivering despite the heat of the night.
"Patera Pike is dead," he told Oreb, who cocked his head sympathetically.
Silk filled the kettle and set it on the stove, starting the fire with an extravagant expenditure of wastepaper ; when flames licked the sides of the kettle, he seated himself in the unsteady wooden chair in which he sat to eat and pointed a finger at Oreb. "Patera Pike left us last spring; that's practically a year ago. I performed his rites myself, and even without a headstone, his grave cost more than we could scrape together. So what I heard was the wind or something of that sort. Rats, perhaps. Am I making myself clear?"
"Eat now?"
"No." Silk shook his head. "There's nothing left but a little mate and a very small lump of sugar. I plan to brew myself a cup of mate and drink it, and go back to bed. If you can sleep too, I advise it."
Overhead (above the sellaria, Silk felt quite certain) Patera Pike's old bed creaked again.
He rose. Hyacinth's engraved needler was still in his pocket, and before he had entered the manse that evening he had charged it with needles from the packet Auk had bought for him. He pulled back the loading knob to assure himself that there was a needle ready to fire, and pressed down the safety catch. Crossing thekitchen to the stair, he called, "Mucor? Is that you?"
There was no reply.
"If it is, cover yourself. I'm coming up to talk to you."
The first step brought a twinge of pain from his ankle. He wished for Blood's stick, but it was leaning against the head of his bed.
Another step, and the floor above creaked. He mounted three more steps, then stopped to listen. The night wind still sighed about the manse, moaning in the chimney as it had in his dream. It had been that wind, surely, that had made the old structure groan, that had caused him--fool that he was--to think that he had heard the old augur's bed creak, squeak, and readjust its old sticks and straps as Patera rolled his old body, sitting up for a moment to pray or peer out through the empty, open windows before lying down again on his back, on his side.
A door shut softly upstairs.
It had been his own, surely--the door to his bedroom. He had paid it no attention when he had put on his trousers and hurried downstairs to look for Oreb. All the doors in the manse swung of their own accord unless they were kept latched, opening or shutting in walls that were no longer plumb, cracked old doors in warped frames that had perhaps never been quite right, and certainly were not square now.
His finger was closing on the trigger of the needler; recalling Auk's warning, he put his fingertip on the trigger guard. "Mucor? I don't want to hurt you. I just want to talk to you. Are you up there?"
No voice, no footfall, from the upper floor. He went up a few more steps. He had shown Auk the azoth, and that had been most imprudent; an azoth was worth thousands of cards. Auk broke into larger and better defended houses than this whenever he chose. Now Auk had come for the azoth or sent an accomplice,seen his opportunity when the kitchen lights kindled.
"Auk? It's me, Patera Silk."
There came no answering voice.
"I've got a needler, but I don't want to have to shoot. If you raise your hands and offer no resistance, I won't. I won't turn you over to the Guard, either."
His voice had energized the single dim light above the landing. Ten steps remained, and Silk climbed them slowly, his progress retarded by fear as much as pain, seeing first the black-clad legs in the doorway of his bedroom, then the hem of the black robe, and at last the aged augur's smiling face.
Patera Pike waved and melted into silver mist; his blue-trimmed black calot dropping softly onto the uneven boards of the landing.
Copyright © 1994 by Gene Wolfe