_After the Apocalyptic War, the decimated remnants of the French huddled in the Loire Valley were gradually squeezed between two new and growing nations. The Colossus to the north was unfriendly and obviously intended to absorb the little New France. The Colossus to the south was friendly and offered to take the weak state into its confederation of republics as a full partner._
_A number of proud and independent French citizens feared that even the latter alternative meant the eventual transmutation of their tongue, religion and nationality into those of their southern neighbor. Seeking a way of salvation, they built six huge space-ships that would hold thirty thousand people, most of whom would be in deep freeze until they reached their destination. The six vessels then set off into interstellar space to find a planet that would be as much like Earth as possible._
_That was in the 22nd Century. Over three hundred and fifty years passed before Earth heard of them again. However, we are not here concerned with the home world but with the story of a man of that pioneer group who wanted to leave the New Gaul and sail again to the stars... _
Rastignac had no Skin. He was, nevertheless, happier than he had been since the age of five.
He was as happy as a man can be who lives deep under the ground. Underground organizations are often under the ground. They are formed into cells. Cell Number One usually contains the leader of the underground.
Jean-Jacques Rastignac, chief of the Legal Underground of the Kingdom of L’Bawpfey, was literally in a cell beneath the surface of the earth. He was in jail.
For a dungeon, it wasn’t bad. He had two cells. One was deep inside the building proper, built into the wall so that he could sit in it when he wanted to retreat from the sun or the rain. The adjoining cell was at the bottom of a well whose top was covered with a grille of thin steel bars. Here he spent most of his waking hours. Forced to look upwards if he wanted to see the sky or the stars, Rastignac suffered from a chronic stiff neck.
Several times during the day he had visitors. They were allowed to bend over the grille and talk down to him. A guard, one of the King’s mucketeers,  stood by as a censor.
[Footnote 1: Mucketeer is the best translation of the 26th century French noun foutriquet, pronounced vfeutwikey.]
When night came, Rastignac ate the meal let down by ropes on a platform. Then another of the King’s mucketeers stood by with drawn épée until he had finished eating. When the tray was pulled back up and the grille lowered and locked, the mucketeer marched off with the turnkey.
Rastignac sharpened his wit by calling a few choice insults to the night guard, then went into the cell inside the wall and lay down to take a nap. Later, he would rise and pace back and forth like a caged tiger. Now and then he would stop and look upwards, scan the stars, hunch his shoulders and resume his savage circuit of the cell. But the time would come when he would stand statue-still. Nothing moved except his head, which turned slowly.
“Some day I’ll ride to the stars with you.”
He said it as he watched the Six Flying Stars speed across the night sky--six glowing stars that moved in a direction opposite to the march of the other stars. Bright as Sirius seen from Earth, strung out one behind the other like jewels on a velvet string, they hurtled across the heavens.
They were the six ships on which the original Loire Valley Frenchmen had sailed out into space, seeking a home on a new planet. They had been put into an orbit around New Gaul and left there while their thirty thousand passengers had descended to the surface in chemical-fuel rockets. Mankind, once on the fair and fresh earth of the new planet, had never again ascended to re-visit the great ships.
For three hundred years the six ships had circled the planet known as New Gaul, nightly beacons and glowing reminders to Man that he was a stranger on this planet.
When the Earthmen landed on the new planet they had called the new land Le Beau Pays, or, as it was now pronounced, L’Bawpfey--The Beautiful Country. They had been delighted, entranced with the fresh new land. After the burned, war-racked Earth they had just left, it was like coming to Heaven.
They found two intelligent species living on the planet, and they found that the species lived in peace and that they had no conception of war or of poverty. And they were quite willing to receive the Terrans into their society.
Provided, that is, they became integrated, or--as they phrased it--natural. The Frenchmen from Earth had been given their choice. They were told:
“You can live with the people of the Beautiful Land on our terms--war with us, or leave to seek another planet.”
The Terrans conferred. Half of them decided to stay; the other half decided to remain only long enough to mine uranium and other chemicals. Then they would voyage onwards.
But nobody from that group of Earthmen ever again stepped into the ferry-rockets and soared up to the six ion-beam ships circling about Le Beau Pays. All succumbed to the Philosophy of the Natural. Within a few generations a stranger landing upon the planet would not have known without previous information that the Terrans were not aboriginal.
He would have found three species. Two were warm-blooded egglayers who had evolved directly from reptiles without becoming mammals--the Ssassarors and the Amphibs. Somewhere in their dim past--like all happy nations, they had no history--they had set up their society and been very satisfied with it since.
It was a peaceful quiet world, largely peasant, where nobody had to scratch for a living and where a superb manipulation of biological forces ensured very long lives, no disease, and a social lubrication that left little to desire--from their viewpoint, anyway.
The government was, nominally, a monarchy. The Kings were elected by the people and were a different species than the group each ruled. Ssassaror ruled Human, and vice versa, each assisted by foster-brothers and sisters of the race over which they reigned. These were the so-called Dukes and Duchesses.
The Chamber of Deputies--L’Syawp t’ Tapfuti--was half Human and half Ssassaror. The so-called Kings took turns presiding over the Chamber for forty day intervals. The Deputies were elected for ten-year terms by constituents who could not be deceived about their representatives’ purposes because of the sensitive Skins which allowed them to determine their true feelings and worth.
In one custom alone did the ex-Terrans differ from their neighbors. This was in carrying arms. In the beginning, the Ssassaror had allowed the Men to wear their short rapiers, so they would feel safe even though in the midst of aliens.
As time went on, only the King’s mucketeers--and members of the official underground--were allowed to carry épées. These men, it might be noticed, were the congenital adventurers, men who needed to swashbuckle and revel in the name of individualist.
Like the egg-stealers, they needed an institution in which they could work off anti-social steam.
From the beginning the Amphibians had been a little separate from the Ssassaror and when the Earthmen came they did not get any more neighborly. Nevertheless, they preserved excellent relations and they, too, participated in the Changeling-custom.
This Changeling-custom was another social device set up millennia ago to keep a mutual understanding between all species on the planet. It was a peculiar institution, one that the Earthmen had found hard to understand and ever more difficult to adopt. Nevertheless, once the Skins had been accepted they had changed their attitude, forgot their speculations about its origin and threw themselves into the custom of stealing babies--or eggs--from another race and raising the children as their own.
You rob my cradle; I’ll rob yours. Such was their motto, and it worked.
A Guild of Egg Stealers was formed. The Human branch of it guaranteed, for a price, to bring you a Ssassaror child to replace the one that had been stolen from you. Or, if you lived on the sea-shore, and an Amphibian had crept into your nursery and taken your baby--always under two years old, according to the rules--then the Guildsman would bring you an Amphib or, perhaps, the child of a Human Changeling reared by the Seafolk.
You raised it and loved it as your own. How could you help loving it?
Your Skin told you that it was small and helpless and needed you and was, despite appearances, as Human as any of your babies. Nor did you need to worry about the one that had been abducted. It was getting just as good care as you were giving this one.
It had never occurred to anyone to quit the stealing and voluntary exchange of babies. Perhaps that was because it would strain even the loving nature of the Skin-wearers to give away their own flesh and blood. But once the transfer had taken place, they could adapt.
Or perhaps the custom was kept because tradition is stronger than law in a peasant-monarchy society and also because egg-and-baby stealing gave the more naturally aggressive and daring citizens a chance to work off anti-social behavior.
Nobody but a historian would have known, and there were no historians in The Beautiful Land.
Long ago the Ssassaror had discovered that if they lived meatless, they had a much easier time curbing their belligerency, obeying the Skins and remaining cooperative. So they induced the Earthmen to put a taboo on eating flesh. The only drawback to the meatless diet was that both Ssassaror and Man became as stunted in stature as they did in aggressiveness, the former so much so that they barely came to the chins of the Humans. These, in turn, would have seemed short to a Western European.
But Rastignac, an Earthman, and his good friend, Mapfarity, the Ssassaror Giant, became taboo-breakers when they were children and played together on the beach where they first ate seafood out of curiosity, then continued because they liked it. And due to their protein diet the Terran had grown well over six feet in height and the Ssassaror seemed to have touched off a rocket of expansion in his body with his protein-eating. Those Ssassarors who shared his guilt--became meat-eaters--became ostracized and eventually moved off to live by themselves. They were called Ssassaror-Giants and were pointed to as an object lesson to the young of the normal Ssassarors and Humans on the land.
If a stranger had landed shortly before Rastignac was born, however, he would have noticed that all was not as serene as it was supposed to be among the different species. The cause for the flaw in the former Eden might have puzzled him if he had not known the previous history of L’Bawfey and the fact that the situation had not changed for the worst until the introduction of Human Changelings among the Amphibians.
Then it had been that blood-drinking began among them, that Amphibians began seducing Humans to come live with them by their tales of easy immortality, and that they started the system of leaving savage little carnivores in the Human nurseries.
When the Land-dwellers protested, the Amphibs replied that these things were carried out by unnaturals or outlaws, and that the Sea-King could not be held responsible. Permission was given to Chalice those caught in such behavior.
Nevertheless, the suspicion remained that the Amphib monarch had, in accordance with age-old procedure, given his unofficial official blessing and that he was preparing even more disgusting and outrageous and unnatural moves. Through his control of the populace by the Master Skin, he would be able to do as he pleased with their minds.
It was the Skins that had made the universal peace possible on the planet of New Gaul. And it would be the custom of the Skins that would make possible the change from peace to conflict among the populace.
Through the artificial Skins that were put on all babies at birth--and which grew with them, attached to their body, feeding from their bloodstreams, their nervous systems--the Skins, controlled by a huge Master Skin that floated in a chemical vat in the palace of the rulers, fed, indoctrinated and attended day and night by a crew of the most brilliant scientists of the planet, gave the Kings complete control of the minds and emotions of the inhabitants of the planet.
Originally the rulers of New Gaul had desired only that the populace live in peace and enjoy the good things of their planet equally. But the change that had been coming gradually--the growth of conflict between the Kings of the different species for control of the whole populace--was beginning to be generally felt. Uneasiness, distrust of each other was growing among the people. Hence the legalizing of the Underground, the Philosophy of Violence by the government, an effort to control the revolt that was brewing.
Yet, the Land-dwellers had managed to take no action at all and to ignore the growing number of vicious acts.
But not all were content to drowse. One man was aroused. He was Rastignac.
They were Rastignac’s hope, those Six Stars, the gods to which he prayed. When they passed quickly out of his sight he would continue his pacing, meditating for the twenty-thousandth time on a means for reaching one of those ships and using it to visit the stars. The end of his fantasies was always a curse because of the futility of such hopes. He was doomed! Mankind was doomed!
And it was all the more maddening because Man would not admit that he was through. Ended, that is, as a human being.
Man was changing into something not quite homo sapiens. It might be a desirable change, but it would mean the finish of his climb upwards. So it seemed to Rastignac. And he, being the man he was, had decided to do something about it even if it meant violence.
That was why he was now in the well-dungeon. He was an advocator of violence against the status quo.
There was another cell next to his. It was also at the bottom of a well and was separated from his by a thin wall of cement. A window had been set into it so that the prisoners could talk to each other. Rastignac did not care for the woman who had been let down into the adjoining cell, but she was somebody to talk to.
“Amphib-changelings” was the name given to those human beings who had been stolen from their cradles and raised among the non-humanoid Amphibians as their own. The girl in the adjoining cell, Lusine, was such a person. It was not her fault that she was a blood-drinking Amphib. Yet he could not help disliking her for what she had done and for the things she stood for.
She was in prison because she had been caught in the act of stealing a Man child from its cradle. This was no crime, but she had left in the cradle, under the covers, a savage and blood-thirsty little monster that had leaped up and slashed the throat of the unsuspecting baby’s mother.
Her cell was lit by a cageful of glowworms. Rastignac, peering through the grille, could see her shadowy shape in the inner cell inside the wall. She rose langorously and stepped into the circle of dim orange light cast by the insects.
“B’zhu, m’fweh,” she greeted him.
It annoyed him that she called him her brother, and it annoyed him even more to know that she knew it. It was true that she had some excuse for thus addressing him. She did resemble him. Like him, she had straight glossy blue-black hair, thick bracket-shaped eyebrows, brown eyes, a straight nose and a prominent chin. And where his build was superbly masculine, hers was magnificently feminine.
Nevertheless, this was not her reason for so speaking to him. She knew the disgust the Land-walker had for the Amphib-changeling, and she took a perverted delight in baiting him.
He was proud that he seldom allowed her to see that she annoyed him. “B’zhu, fam tey zafeep,” he said. “Good evening, woman of the Amphibians.”
Mockingly she said, “Have you been watching the Six Flying Stars, Jean-Jacques?”
“Vi. I do so every time they come over.”
“Why do you eat your heart out because you cannot fly up to them and then voyage among the stars on one of them?”
He refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing his real reason. He did not want her to realize how little he thought of Mankind and its chances for surviving--as humanity--upon the face of this planet, L’Bawpfey.
“I look at them because they remind me that Man was once captain of his soul.”
“Then you admit that the Land-walker is weak?”
“I think he is on the way to becoming non-human, which is to say that he is weak, yes. But what I say about Landman goes for Seaman, too. You Changelings are becoming more Amphibian every day and less Human. Through the Skins the Amphibs are gradually changing you completely. Soon you will be completely sea-people.”
She laughed scornfully, exposing perfect white teeth as she did so.
“The Sea will win out against the Land. It launches itself against the shore and shakes it with the crash of its body. It eats away the rock and the dirt and absorbs it into its own self. It can’t be worn away nor caught and held in a net. It is elusive and all-powerful and never-tiring.”
Lusine paused for breath. He said, “That is a very pretty analogy, but it doesn’t apply. You Seafolk are as much flesh and blood as we Landfolk. What hurts us hurts you.”
She put a hand around one bar. The glow-light fell upon it in such a way that it showed plainly the webbing of skin between her fingers. He glanced at it with a faint repulsion under which was a counter-current of attraction. This was the hand that had, indirectly, shed blood.
She glanced at him sidewise, challenged him in trembling tones. “You are not one to throw stones, Jean-Jacques. I have heard that you eat meat.”
“Fish, not meat. That is part of my Philosophy of Violence,” he retorted. “I maintain that one of the reasons man is losing his power and strength is that he has so long been upon a vegetable diet. He is as cowed and submissive as the grass-eating beast of the fields.”
Lusine put her face against the bars.
“That is interesting,” she said. “But how did you happen to begin eating fish? I thought we Amphibs alone did that.”
What Lusine had just said angered him. He had no reply.
Rastignac knew he should not be talking to a Sea-changeling. They were glib and seductive and always searching for ways to twist your thoughts. But being Rastignac, he had to talk. Moreover, it was so difficult to find anybody who would listen to his ideas that he could not resist the temptation.
“I was given fish by the Ssassaror, Mapfarity, when I was a child. We lived along the sea-shore. Mapfarity was a child, too, and we played together. Don’t eat fish!’ my parents said. To me that meant ‘Eat it!’ So, despite my distaste at the idea, and my squeamish stomach, I did eat fish. And I liked it. And as I grew to manhood I adopted the Philosophy of Violence and I continued to eat fish although I am not a Changeling.”
“What did your Skin do when it detected you?” Lusine asked. Her eyes were wide and luminous with wonder and a sort of glee as if she relished the confession of his sins. Also, he knew, she was taunting him about the futility of his ideas of violence so long as he was a prisoner of the Skin.
He frowned in annoyance at the reminder of the Skin. Much thought had he given, in a weak way, to the possibility of life without the Skin.
Ashamed now of his weak resistance to the Skin, he blustered a bit in front of the teasing Amphib girl.
“Mapfarity and I discovered something that most people don’t know,” he answered boastfully. “We found that if you can stand the shocks your Skin gives you when you do something wrong, the Skin gets tired and quits after a while. Of course your Skin recharges itself and the next time you eat fish it shocks you again. But after very many shocks it becomes accustomed, forgets its conditioning, and leaves you alone.”
Lusine laughed and said in a low conspirational tone, “So your Ssassaror pal and you adopted the Philosophy of Violence because you remained fish and meat eaters?”
“Yes, we did. When Mapfarity reached puberty he became a Giant and went off to live in a castle in the forest. But we have remained friends through our connection in the underground.”
“Your parents must have suspected that you were a fish eater when you first proposed your Philosophy of Violence?” she said.
“Suspicion isn’t proof,” he answered. “But I shouldn’t be telling you all this, Lusine. I feel it is safe for me to do so only because you will never have a chance to tell on me. You will soon be taken to Chalice and there you will stay until you have been cured.”
She shivered and said, “This Chalice? What is it?”
“It is a place far to the north where both Terrans and Ssassarors send their incorrigibles. It is an extinct volcano whose steep-sided interior makes an inescapable prison. There those who have persisted in unnatural behavior are given special treatment.”
“They are bled?” she asked, her eyes widening as her tongue flicked over her lips again hungrily.
“No. A special breed of Skin is given them to wear. These Skins shock them more powerfully than the ordinary ones, and the shocks are associated with the habit they are trying to cure. The shocks effect a cure. Also, these special Skins are used to detect hidden unnatural emotions. They re-condition the deviate. The result is that when the Chaliced Man is judged able to go out and take his place in society again, he is thoroughly re-conditioned. Then his regular Skin is given back to him and it has no trouble keeping him in line from then on. The Chaliced Man is a very good citizen.”
“And what if a revolter doesn’t become Chaliced?”
“Then he stays in Chalice until he decides to become so.”
Her voice rose sharply as she said, “But if I go there, and I am not fed the diet of the Amphibs, I will grow old and die!”
“No. The government will feed you the diet you need until you are re-conditioned. Except...” He paused.
“Except I won’t get blood,” she wailed. Then, realizing she was acting undignified before a Landman, she firmed her voice.
“The King of the Amphibians will not allow them to do this to me,” she said. “When he hears of it he will demand my return. And if the King of Men refuses, my King will use violence to get me back.”
Rastignac smiled and said, “I hope he does. Then perhaps my people will wake up and get rid of their Skins and make war upon your people.”
“So that is what you Philosophers of Violence want, is it? Well, you will not get it. My father, the Amphib King, will not be so stupid as to declare a war.”
“I suppose not,” replied Rastignac. “He will send a band to rescue you. If they’re caught they’ll claim to be criminals and say they are not under the King’s orders.”
Lusine looked upwards to see if a guard was hanging over the well’s mouth listening. Perceiving no one, she nodded and said, “You have guessed it correctly. And that is why we laugh so much at you stupid Humans. You know as well as we do what’s going on, but you are afraid to tell us so. You keep clinging to the idea that your turn-the-other-cheek policy will soften us and insure peace.”
“Not I,” said Rastignac. “I know perfectly well there is only one solution to man’s problems. That is--”
“That is Violence,” she finished for him. “That is what you have been preaching. And that is why you are in this cell, waiting for trial.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Men are not put into the Chalice for proposing new philosophies. As long as they behave naturally they may say what they wish. They may even petition the King that the new philosophy be made a law. The King passes it on to the Chamber of Deputies. They consider it and put it up to the people. If the people like it, it becomes a law. The only trouble with that procedure is that it may take ten years before the law is considered by the Chamber of Deputies.”
“And in those ten years,” she mocked him, “the Amphibs and the Amphibian-changelings will have won the planet.”
“That is true,” he said.
“The King of the Humans is a Ssassaror and the King of the Ssassaror is a Man,” said Lusine. “Our King can’t see any reason for changing the status quo. After all, it is the Ssassaror who are responsible for the Skins and for Man’s position in the sentient society of this planet. Why should he be favorable to a policy of Violence? The Ssassarors loathe violence.”
“And so you have preached Violence without waiting for it to become a law? And for that you are now in this cell?”
“Not exactly. The Ssassarors have long known that to suppress too much of Man’s naturally belligerent nature only results in an explosion. So they have legalized illegality--up to a point. Thus the King officially made me the Chief of the Underground and gave me a state license to preach--but not practice--Violence. I am even allowed to advocate overthrow of the present system of government--as long as I take no action that is too productive of results.
“I am in jail now because the Minister of Ill-Will put me here. He had my Skin examined, and it was found to be ‘unhealthy.’ He thought I’d be better off locked up until I became ‘healthy’ again. But the King...”
Lusine’s laughter was like the call of a silverbell bird. Whatever her unhuman appetites, she had a beautiful voice. She said, “How comical! And how do you, with your brave ideas, like being regarded as a harmless figure of fun, or as a sick man?”
“I like it as well as you would,” he growled.
She gripped the bars of her window until the tendons on the back of her long thin hands stood out and the membranes between her fingers stretched like wind-blown tents. Face twisted, she spat at him, “Coward! Why don’t you kill somebody and break out of this ridiculous mold--that Skin that the Ssassarors have poured you into?”
Rastignac was silent. That was a good question. Why didn’t he? Killing was the logical result of his philosophy. But the Skin kept him docile. Yes, he could vaguely see that he had purposely shut his eyes to the destination towards which his ideas were slowly but inevitably traveling.
And there was another facet to the answer to her question--if he had to kill, he would not kill a Man. His philosophy was directed towards the Amphibians and the Sea-changelings.
He said, “Violence doesn’t necessarily mean the shedding of blood, Lusine. My philosophy urges that we take a more vigorous action, that we overthrow some of the bio-social institutions which have imprisoned Man and stripped him of his dignity as an individual.”
“Yes, I have heard that you want Man to stop wearing the Skin. That is what has horrified your people, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. “And I understand it has had the same effect among the Amphibians.”
She bridled, her brown eyes flashing in the feeble glowworms’ light. “Why shouldn’t it? What would we be without our Skins?”
“What, indeed?” he said, laughing derisively afterwards.
Earnestly she said, “You don’t understand. We Amphibians--our Skins are not like yours. We do not wear them for the same reason you do. You are imprisoned by your Skins--they tell you how to feel, what to think. Above all, they keep you from getting ideas about non-cooperation or non-integration with Nature as a whole.
“That, to us individualistic Amphibians, is false. The purpose of our Skins is to make sure that our King’s subjects understand what he wants so that we may all act as one unit and thus further the progress of the Seafolk.”
The first time Rastignac had heard this statement he had howled with laughter. Now, however, knowing that she could not see the fallacy, he did not try to argue the point. The Amphibs were, in their way, as hidebound--no pun intended--as the Land-walkers.
“Look, Lusine,” he said, “there are only three places where a Man may take off his Skin. One is in his own home, when he may hang it upon the halltree. Two is when he is, like us, in jail and therefore may not harm anybody. The third is when a man is King. Now you and I have been without our Skins for a week. We have gone longer without them than anybody, except the King. Tell me true, don’t you feel free for the first time in your life?
“Don’t you feel as if you belong to nobody but yourself, that you are accountable to no one but yourself, and that you love that feeling? And don’t you dread the day we will be let out of prison and made to wear our Skins again? That day which, curiously enough, will be the very day that we will lose our freedom.”
Lusine looked as if she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You’ll see what I mean when we are freed and the Skins are put back upon us,” he said. Immediately after, he was embarrassed. He remembered that she would go to the Chalice where one of the heavy and powerful Skins used for unnaturals would be fastened to her shoulders.
Lusine did not notice. She was considering the last but most telling point in her argument “You cannot win against us,” she said, watching him narrowly for the effect of her words. “We have a weapon that is irresistible. We have immortality.”
His face did not lose its imperturbability.
She continued, “And what is more, we can give immortality to anyone who casts off his Skin and adopts ours. Don’t think that your people don’t know this. For instance, during the last year more than two thousand Humans living along the beaches deserted and went over to us, the Amphibs.”
He was a little shocked to hear this, but he did not doubt her. He remembered the mysterious case of the schooner Le Pauvre Pierre which had been found drifting and crewless, and he remembered a conversation he had had with a fisherman in his home port of Marrec.
He put his hands behind his back and began pacing. Lusine continued staring at him through the bars. Despite the fact that her face was in the shadows, he could see--or feel--her smile. He had humiliated her, but she had won in the end.
Rastignac quit his limited roving and called up to the guard.
“Shoo l’footyay, kal u ay tee?“
The guard leaned over the grille. His large hat with its tall wings sticking from the peak was green in the daytime. But now, illuminated only by a far off torchlight and by a glowworm coiled around the band, it was black.
“Ah, shoo Zhaw-Zhawk W’stenyek,” he said, loudly. “What time is it? What do you care what time it is?” And he concluded with the stock phrase of the jailer, unchanged through millenia and over light-years. “You’re not going any place, are you?”
Rastignac threw his head back to howl at the guard but stopped to wince at the sudden pain in his neck. After uttering, “Sek Ploo!“ and “S’pweestee!“ both of which were close enough to the old Terran French so that a language specialist might have recognized them, he said, more calmly, “If you would let me out on the ground, _monsieur le foutriquet_, and give me a good épée, I would show you where I am going. Or, at least, where my sword is going. I am thinking of a nice sheath for it.”
Tonight he had a special reason for keeping the attention of the King’s mucketeer directed towards himself. So, when the guard grew tired of returning insults--mainly because his limited imagination could invent no new ones--Rastignac began telling jokes. They were broad and aimed at the mucketeer’s narrow intellect.
“Then,” said Rastignac, “there was the itinerant salesman whose s’fel threw a shoe. He knocked on the door of the hut of the nearest peasant and said...” What was said by the salesman was never known.
A strangled gasp had come from above.
Rastignac saw something enormous blot out the smaller shadow of the guard. Then both figures disappeared. A moment later a silhouette cut across the lines of the grille. Unoiled hinges screeched; the bars lifted. A rope uncoiled from above to fall at Rastignac’s feet. He seized it and felt himself being drawn powerfully upwards.
When he came over the edge of the well, he saw that his rescuer was a giant Ssassaror. The light from the glowworm on the guard’s hat lit up feebly his face, which was orthagnathous and had quite humanoid eyes and lips. Large canine teeth stuck out from the mouth, and its huge ears were tipped with feathery tufts. The forehead down to the eyebrows looked as if it needed a shave, but Rastignac knew that more light would show the blue-black shade came from many small feathers, not stubbled hair.
“Mapfarity!” Rastignac said. “It’s good to see you after all these years!”
The Ssassaror giant put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Clenched, it was almost as big as Rastignac’s head. He spoke with a voice like a lion coughing at the bottom of a deep well.
“It is good to see you again, my friend.”
“What are you doing here?” said Rastignac, tears running down his face as he stroked the great fingers on his shoulder.
Mapfarity’s huge ears quivered like the wings of a bat tied to a rock and unable to fly off. The tufts of feathers at their ends grew stiff and suddenly crackled with tiny sparks.
The electrical display was his equivalent of the human’s weeping. Both creatures discharged emotion; their bodies chose different avenues and manifestations. Nevertheless, the sight of the other’s joy affected each deeply.
“I have come to rescue you,” said Mapfarity. “I caught Archambaud here,”--he indicated the other man--”stealing eggs from my golden goose. And...”
Raoul Archambaud--pronounced Wawl Shebvo--interrupted excitedly, “I showed him my license to steal eggs from Giants who were raising counterfeit geese, but he was going to lock me up anyway. He was going to take my Skin off and feed me on meat...”
“Meat!” said Rastignac, astonished and revolted despite himself. “Mapfarity, what have you been doing in that castle of yours?”
Mapfarity lowered his voice to match the distant roar of a cataract. “I haven’t been very active these last few years,” he said, “because I am so big that it hurts my feet if I walk very much. So I’ve had much time to think. And I, being logical, decided that the next step after eating fish was eating meat. It couldn’t make me any larger. So, I ate meat. And while doing so, I came to the same conclusion that you, apparently, have done independently. That is, the Philosophy of...”
“Of Violence,” interrupted Archambaud. “Ah, Jean-Jacques, there must be some mystic bond that brings two Humans of such different backgrounds as yours and the Ssassaror together, giving you both the same philosophy. When I explained what you had been doing and that you were in jail because you had advocated getting rid of the Skins, Mapfarity petitioned...”
“The King to make an official jail-break,” said Mapfarity with an impatient glance at the rolypoly egg-stealer. “And...”
“The King agreed,” broke in Archambaud, “provided Mapfarity would turn in his counterfeit goose and provided you would agree to say no more about abandoning Skins, but...”
The Giant’s basso profundo-redundo pushed the egg-stealer’s high pitch aside. “If this squeaker will quit interrupting, perhaps we can get on with the rescue. We’ll talk later, if you don’t mind.”
At that moment Lusine’s voice floated up from the bottom of her cell. “Jean-Jacques, my love, my brave, my own, would you abandon me to the Chalice? Please take me with you! You will need somebody to hide you when the Minister of Ill-Will sends his mucketeers after you. I can hide you where no one will ever find you.” Her voice was mocking, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety to it.
Mapfarity muttered, “She will hide us, yes, at the bottom of a sea-cave where we will eat strange food and suffer a change. Never...”
“Trust an Amphib,” finished Archambaud for him.
Mapfarity forgot to whisper. “Bey-t’cul, vu nu fez yey! Fe’m sa!“ he roared.
A shocked hush covered the courtyard. Only Mapfarity’s wrathful breathing could be heard. Then, disembodied, Lusine’s voice floated from the well.
“Jean-Jacques, do not forget that I am the foster-daughter of the King of the Amphibians! If you were to take me with you, I could assure you of safety and a warm welcome in the halls of the Sea-King’s Palace!”
“Pah!” said Mapfarity. “That web-footed witch!”
Rastignac did not reply to her. He took the broad silk belt and the sheathed épée from Archambaud and buckled them around his waist. Mapfarity handed him a mucketeer’s hat; he clapped that on firmly. Last of all, he took the Skin that the fat egg-stealer had been holding out to him.
For the first time he hesitated. It was his Skin, the one he had been wearing since he was six. It had grown with him, fed off his blood for twenty-two years, clung to him as clothing, censor, and castigator, and parted from him only when he was inside the walls of his own house, went swimming, or, as during the last seven days, when he laid in jail.
A week ago, after they had removed his second Skin, he had felt naked and helpless and cut off from his fellow creatures. But that was a week ago. Since then, as he had remarked to Lusine, he had experienced the birth of a strange feeling. It was, at first, frightening. It made him cling to the bars as if they were the only stable thing in the center of a whirling universe.
Later, when that first giddiness had passed, it was succeeded by another intoxication--the joy of being an individual, the knowledge that he was separate, not a part of a multitude. Without the Skin he could think as he pleased. He did not have a censor.
Now, he was on level ground again, out of the cell. But as soon as he had put that prison-shaft behind him he was faced with the old second Skin.
Archambaud held it out like a cloak in his hands. It looked much like a ragged garment. It was pale and limp and roughly rectangular with four extensions at each corner. When Rastignac put it on his back, it would sink four tiny hollow teeth into his veins and the suckers on the inner surface of its flat body would cling to him. Its long upper extensions would wrap themselves around his shoulders and over his chest; the lower, around his loins and thighs. Soon it would lose its paleness and flaccidity, become pink and slightly convex, pulsing with Rastignac’s blood.