The Blue Star
Chapter 16: The Eastern Sea: Systole

Public Domain

The queasiness had gone from Rodvard’s stomach and the illness from his head, but all his senses were more alive than jets of flame. Every rut gave him agony in the jolting mule-cart, he could not draw away from pain long enough for anger or fear. Yet shortly the very keenness of his hurt anaesthetized all down to no more than an aching tooth; and now the senses, oversharpened by witchery, began to report the world around him. They were passing two people afoot, then another cart, to none of which the driver made salutation.

They must be out of the village, for right overhead, branches began to go past against a sky where horses’ tails slid across tender blue. A bird lit on one of the branches and tipped its head to look down. It seemed to Rodvard as he gazed into the single revealed eye that he could, with his Blue Star, read the avian thought—of food and sex, confused, and not unlike a human’s. This might only be another effect of the witchery, but it set him thinking about his own confusion of mind and what the butler Tuolén had said about Star-bearers and their women; so he considered what species of joy or completeness was to be had from these skirted creatures, who for a spiritless complaisance would exact a slave’s devotion.

Lalette. He wondered whether her witchcraft would give her knowledge of his infidelity of thought with the Countess Aiella, and of deed with the maid Damaris; and if so, what penalty would be demanded of him. Ah, no; why should penalty be due? This was not marriage, he had taken no oath nor meant any. Give back the Blue Star, let us pronounce a bill of farewell, and be damned to Mathurin and his menaces, or even to Remigorius and the cause for which all was done.

The mule’s feet klopped on a bridge, the clouds were thickening toward grey above and birds chirping as they will when a storm is toward. No, no, friend Rodvard, he answered himself; be honorable as you hope to receive honor. Acquiescence she gave you, aye, beneath the trees; but you half forced her then. The night in the widow Domijaiek’s bed was no unwilling gift, but for both of them the end of life and its beginning. A new life with Lalette the witch, holding the sweetness of peril, not that of repose, something beyond any connection that might have been formed with Maritzl of Stojenrosek. Had she laid some witchery upon him to make it so, not being herself affected? Seek her out, anywhere; discover if that enchantment were forever.

Could such things be? Witchery was something which, like death, he had no more than heard of from the world beyond his world. When he was a lad in the village among the spurs of the Shining Mountains, there was the fat old woman who had grown so dreadfully thin, all in a week, and people saying it was witchery on her. The priest came with his oils, but it was too late, and she died the next day, and no one ever found the witch, if there were one. Oh, aye, there were prosecutions of witchery in town, and now the mule-driver’s wife, Lalette, the Blue Star, and he himself caught into something he did not understand and which made him afraid ... and because he had done no more than cherish high ideals and obey orders.

The pains were less, but all his muscles so immobile that they afforded no yielding to the throw of the cart, and thus piled bruise on bruise. A long ride; it must be after the meridian of the sun, though even heightened perception would not tell him if this were so, since he had lost all sense of direction in the intricacy of the turnings. The mule’s feet and cart’s tires struck paving stones, the movement became uneven, voices were audible and they were entering a town, so that Rodvard began to hope of a rescue—and with that hope, a fear of what would happen if there were no rescue. What did the man mean to do with him? He found no visible answer, for though it was evident that though the repulsive spouses were minded for murders, and himself not the first to fall into their clutches, it hardly seemed they would have fixed the mechanician’s badge on his breast in mere anticipation of disposing of a body.

Droll to think of oneself as a body—an idea he did not remember having held before, ever. His mind achieved a wedding between this line of thought and the earlier one, or how it was when that urge toward the Countess Aiella had slipped out of merely playing a part into deep desire, it was the voice of body speaking to body. But it was not that way on the widow’s bed; that night it was as though a flame sprang up, to which their bodies responded last of all. Ah, Maritzl (he thought), with you also there might have been such a union of flames, to last forever and ever, only I did not know, I did not dare, before the Blue Star had bound me to this other.

Now a certain brightening of the diffused light reflected into the cart told him they were passing houses with snow-white walls; by this, with the time and distance, they must be in Sedad Vix city. Odors floated to him—salt water, fish, the spicy products of the south, not unpleasantly blended. The docks. Was the man going to make him a body by heaving him into the sea? To his futile angers was added that of not being able to see the old rascal’s eye—now the Blue Star had recovered its virtue under the witch-wife’s ministration—but there was time for little more of thinking, for the cart drew up with a cry to the mule, the driver got down heavily, his feet sounding on stones and then on plank.

He was gone briefly; Rodvard felt the covering taken from him, and with a grunt, he was hoisted to a shoulder, stiff as a log. A whirling view of pallid dockside houses, the masts of a tall ship with her sails hanging in disorderly loops; he came down with a jar that shook every bone onto what appeared to be some structure projecting from the deck, where a red face surrounded by whisker looked into his own. One eye in the face was only a globule of spoiled milk; (the cold Blue Star on Rodvard’s heart told him the good eye held both cruelty and greed).

“Yah,” said Redface. “The fish is cold.”

“I tell you now, live as an eel. Fetch a mirror.”

Redface reached out a dirty-nailed hand and pinched Rodvard’s cheek, hard. “Mmmmb. A spada’s worth of life. To save argument, I’ll give you two.”

“Ey, look at him, a proved mechanician with a badge and all. I say to you, my old woman she has done with him so he’ll work like a clock, pick, pick, never mind time nor nothing. A gold scuderius; you should give me two.”

They chaffered horribly over his body, while Rodvard lay moveless as a statue (thinking of how he was one, alas not cradled in light and speed like the Wingèd Man to whom he had compared Count Cleudi when Cleudi marked the resemblance between them; not upborne by spirit like the figure of the archer-hero; but a stiff corpse, subject of a sale, a carcass, a beef). He heard the chink of money passing; the one-eyed man gave an order that Rodvard was to be taken below, and someone carried him awkwardly with many bumpings down a ladder to a tight room smelling of dirty humans. He was tossed high onto a kind of shelf and left alone for a long time (thinking all the while of what the mule-driver had said about his being witched to work like a clock, and wondering whether it were true).

After a while, a doze came upon him, for which there was no emergence till the round hole in the ship’s wall had ceased to give light. The place filled suddenly then with feet and words, many of the latter with a Kjermanash accent, or in that language itself. One of these persons pointed to him and there was a laugh. Rodvard tried to turn his head, and to his surprise found it would move a tiny arc, though by an effort that redoubled the agony throughout the bruised mass of his body. Yet the stirring was a joy as great as any he had ever experienced, and he lay repeating it, as the assemblage below—garrulous as all Kjermanash—came and went with pannikins from which floated an appetizing perfume of stew. Rodvard found other movements beside his head, and lay repeating them through the twinge of pain. A whistle blew, some of the men went out and up, while the others undressed noisily, put out the light and composed themselves for sleep on shelves like that which bore the young man.

For him there was little sleep, and as life flowed along ankylosed muscles, he was invaded by a sense of irrevocable disgrace, so poignant that it drowned fear. Damaris the maid ... he had sold his soul for a copper there ... not that he felt to the girl any profound debt as to Lalette, or that such a debt were just—but whether from the priests’ teaching at the academy, or the words of Remigorius, he had somehow grown into a pattern of life which, being violated, one was cast down into a sea of life by merest impulse ... ah, no, should it not be rather that each event must be judged by itself? ... and no, again—for by what standard shall one judge? Impulse or an absolute, there is no third choice.

So thinking, so seeking to find a clue to conduct (or to justify his own, merely, Rodvard told himself in a moment of bitterness), he lay on his comfortless couch, aware that the ship had begun to move with uneasy tremors; and presently dawn began to flower. At the room’s entrance a lantern showed a bearded face, into which a whistle was thrust to blow piercingly. All the men leaped from their shelves with a gabble like a common growl and began dressing in the greatest haste. The bearded man shoved through them and shook Rodvard so rudely that he was jerked from his shelf, coming down thump on the deck, with feet that would not hold him.

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