West of the Sun
Chapter 2

Public Domain

“The city is a desolation.” Miniaan slipped out of shadow into the clearing, where the others waited for her without a fire; she was shaken, short of breath. No longer young, she had hurried on the ten-mile return journey from Vestoia through high-noon heat of jungle. “I could not even find the house where I was born. Oh, Pakriaa--Paul--of every ten houses, seven are empty. The streets are dirt and rubbish. No one knew me. Well, that’s not strange. Those I met supposed I was a stranger, probably from the east. But the ones who were suspicious did not challenge me--they slipped into their sorry houses and stared at me through the cracks.” She sat down in weariness, wiping sweat from her scarred head and shoulder. “Word of what I said will travel quickly. But not one followed me here. I made sure of that.”

Arek asked, “Have you had anything to eat?”

“No, I--only walked through the streets ... Doc, some had English words--a few, badly spoken. No one could pronounce d at the beginning of a word, and they had absurd turns of speech I don’t understand. One woman said to me, ‘One fella goddamn skirt belong you what name?’ I thought she was asking about this skirt I made in the old fashion, but then we spoke in the old tongue: I found she only wanted to know who I was and where I came from. It seems that now, under Spearman-abron-Ismar, they indicate--what word do I want?--social--social levels----”

“Castes?”

“Castes, that is it, Paul--they indicate castes by the color of a skirt. In the old days there were only two castes--soldiers and voluntary laborers, not considering the family of Lantis or the slaves at the bottom. Now there are--oh, ten, twenty, I don’t know. Those who work at the dye pots must never do anything else, and they can look down on the workers in hides; this woman was a maker of arrowheads and despised both ... I told her (and some others) that I was a stranger from a distant village, and I said I had heard by rumor of other gods and giants, who would come one day soon to talk with Spearman-abron-Ismar--yes, they call him that, Spearman-male-issue-of-Ismar. It frightened her: she made excuses and ran away. I told it to another, an old woman, who broke out cursing and weeping. She said, Oh, no more of them! No more----’ And sat down in the street and scattered dust on her head.”

“Did you see--him?”

“No, Paul. I saw the palace--changed, with new tall doors. There were soldiers at the entrance, so I did not dare go near. They wore a headdress--it was the old bark fabric, I think, but a shape I never saw. I saw the great stockade--always the biggest thing on the shore of North Lake--still in repair; there was the same sluice, to wash away the blood of the meat slaves. There is still a ferry near it, where the crossing is narrow at the lake’s inlet; I could see across--streets and tree-sheltered houses. And outside the city I saw a mound, very foul. Once the city was clean. There was a boy playing near it--ran when he saw me, but I caught him and asked him about that mound. I could hardly understand his gabble. It seems that nowadays in Vestoia children have reason to be afraid of grown women. When we could talk he told me the mound was the grave of the False Empress, the Wicked One--everyone who passes is required to defile it. A law.”

Pakriaa laced her wrinkled hands at her throat, smiling at Christopher Wright, quoting a few of his own words: “‘The laws are living things: let men guard them against crippling and disease.’”

Nisana asked, “What is next to do?”

“We sleep on it,” Wright said. “Long journey. We’re tired. We’ll go there in the morning. With our weapons of course, but...”

Mijok said softly, “First-light is a good time.”

“I think there won’t be any fighting,” Miniaan said, and she relaxed and leaned happily against Muson’s plump knee and ate the meal Arek had ready for her in fastidious birdlike bites. “If they’re troubled by the rumors I scattered they’ll slip away and hide, not fight. They’re weary, bewildered, disillusioned people--at least that is the temper of the city as I felt it.”

Nisana murmured, “With Spearman’s bodyguard it could be different.”

“Why,” said Wright, “he’d never turn them against us. Not if he’s the man I used to know, or anything like that man. He came a long way with us once.” But Paul had to wonder: Was he ever with us?

There were six giants in the party: Mijok, Arek, Muson, Elis, Sears-Danik, Dunin. Elis was the year’s Governor at Adelphi, but Dorothy had held that position the year before and would assume its simple duties in his absence. Nisana’s eldest twin daughters had wanted to come, but Nisana had not allowed it, requiring them to stay in school under Brodaa’s temperate discipline; the only pygmies here were herself, Pakriaa, and Miniaan. The group had come 120 miles overland, after Argo IV set them on a beach north of the coastal range: this had seemed better than taking the sloop south, where harbor would be uncertain and the winds and currents unknown. The first twenty miles ashore had been a retracing of Abara’s long-ago journey with the olifants, through swampy and treacherous jungle. After rounding the range they could follow the eastern edge of the grassland that spread on its lee side, traveling in the open only at night, to avoid omasha. For all of one day they were bedeviled by a swarm of biting flies, and since there were brown wings circling they could not escape into full sunlight, where the flies would not follow. Eventually Pakriaa found an evil-smelling plant and remembered its use from old times. The juice of the root was a protection; the smell was almost as distressing as the bites but less dangerous. Miniaan of Vestoia had never heard of the plant’s use: perhaps that explained why Vestoia had never exploited the otherwise pleasant region due west of Lake Argo.

There was fitful sleep in the daylight following Miniaan’s return, and then an evening meal. Arek and Muson and the two young giants seemed untroubled by tomorrow, full of speculative curiosity. Mijok was uneasy, though he would not put it in words; Elis, too, would be remembering. Wright said again, “He came a long way with us ... Jensen chose him--remember that: chose him from among seven hundred other physically fine youths who had the same training, the same kind of courage, who wanted the--privilege, as he did.”

“I can always wonder what Jensen himself would have made of Lucifer.”

Wright said, almost with reproach, “Jensen was a great engineer, Paul, but he was also a student of history. Compared with what his leadership would have been, mine has been weak, vacillating, academic--it was bound to be. I take credit for some achievements. I’ve said give protoplasm a chance. We have done that. We’ve established the climate of liberty under law (for our very small group) and proved that a human mind can by-pass twenty thousand years of blundering, with no other help than a flexible language and the few basic rules of civilized action--as the so-called savages of Earth always proved it whenever they had a chance to secure a genuine education and fair treatment. But--in our material development there must have been a thousand lost opportunities--things Jensen (and probably Ed Spearman) would have seen at once.”

Paul laughed. “Ed could have designed a better sloop.”

Wright dismissed that with a chuckle. “Ach--she floats, boy. She sails ... When I get angry or impatient or discouraged--when I stick too tight to a plan of my own and fail to hear the opposing argument--then I remember that Jensen had a charity, a patience, a kindliness, almost as great as Sears had--”

“Tocwright,” said Pakriaa, half amused, “why do you search yourself? Must you always be sitting in judgment on your own mind?”

“Why, yes, dear, I must.” His fingers played in his white beard. “Cod-and-baked-beans origin ... Remember my fussy little _History of the Americas_, the first book Dorothy and Nisana copied out for me when we found how to make good paper from the marsh grass... ? But self-searching is a vice-and-virtue not limited to the Charin tribe, Pakriaa--ask yourself. And ask Elis.” The black giant smiled. “So--I’ll go on with it just a little. Paul, is it weakness in me to ask that when we find Ed Spearman, you do most of the talking? I want to be--merely friendly if I can, not say much. At least until we know what sort of man he’s become. Nine years ago, I don’t think he ever had much resentment against you. You hear both sides--usually the surest way to make an extremist hate you bitterly, but somehow people don’t. You’re a--kindly listener; I only try to be, pushing down a big part of my natural temperament to do it ... Why, I think I never even appreciated the full nastiness of sarcasm until one time (it’s not such a small matter)--one time on the space ship, when Sears reproached me for it: something that went against his own nature, by the way, because he was always too afraid of finding fault with others.”

“I’ll talk with him first, Doc, if you want me to. But I wonder what I can say. I keep seeing Ann. The things she told us--he things Miniaan has told us today.”

“A city that never was,” said Miniaan sleepily, “never was even in the old times. Maybe I dreamed it. If you are quiet, maybe I will allow us to wake up in a moment on the island of Adelphi...”

“Ann is not changed,” Muson reflected, “even though the baby died.”

Mijok said, “I’m not sure. I think she is. In what way I can’t define. But she’s not the same sad little thing I watched when she was sleeping in that fever. Well now, that was truly long ago. She puzzled me more than the rest of you, and you were all a great mystery--and I with a dozen words and the old terrors crawling on my skin like lice. Maybe it was her seeming weakness, her secret look of listening--which I thought I began to understand when she taught me the Earth music, but I don’t suppose I ever did understand it.” Mijok laughed and looked away. “Doc, it was very difficult for me to grasp that you were not begotten out of the west wind by a thunderbolt. You’ll never know how difficult, because you were never a savage. You were born to be articulate. Those twenty thousand years of blundering--bad I don’t doubt they were, but they gave you something. I am as if the forest had generated me, with no past.”

Miniaan murmured and rolled over on her back to look up into the leaves. “I too. I was never born. Someone with no father nor mother looked at that filthy mound they say is the grave of the Queen of the World. The mind of a white-furred Charin is my father and my mother.”

Elis suggested: “Ann has come neater to the immediate present.”

“Why, Elis--” Pakriaa was surprised. “She said something like that to me herself, a short while before we came away. She said, ‘My yesterdays became tomorrows before I lived them. I want to find today, Pakriaa. Where is today?’”

Miniann pursued the dark stream of her own thought, which now seemed to be giving her pleasure and not pain: “This morning I found how yesterday can bury itself with only the smallest scattering of years. There will be other cities. Never again Vestoia.”

Wright asked gently, “But you can remember good and pleasant things of the old city, the way it was when you were young there?”

“Oh, I can, I can. But I’ll have today, too. I think I found it first when I bore my little sons, at Adelphi.” She sat up, leaning on Pakriaa’s shoulder. “I’ve had good todays at Adelphi. I don’t understand how it could have been abandoned by this Spearman I’ve never seen.”

“In a way,” Paul said, “you did see him. You were one of those who came on the canoes up Lake Argo. You saw the boat set your fleet afire.”

“Yes. That was war ... And before I was wounded I killed, I think, seven of your people, Pakriaa. One with a blue skirt. I wounded her in the throat, and I have heard she died in the forest, looking north.”

“Yes, Tamisraa. My sister Tamisraa was a bitter woman,” Pakriaa said, “and quite brave. Miniaan, all that was over long ago, in a forgotten country. Now we pull weeds in the same garden.”

Night came tranquilly. Elis, who kept the last quarter of the watch, waked them before first-light. There was the help of a full red moon, and they followed the sound of a swift river which flowed into North Lake through the palace district of Vestoia.

For more than a mile outside the city the jungle was like a park, undergrowth removed, vines cut away. But the vines were coming back. Greedy purple fingers curled to recapture and reclaim...

In the outskirts no one halted or questioned them. They saw no armed women; here and there a man crouched in a weedy doorway with staring children half hidden behind him. Mijok, Elis, Sears-Danik and Arek walked on the outside, with shields upheld against a possible arrow or thrown spear. Rifles and pistols were now history, all ammunition spent; they lay in a closet off Wright’s room at Adelphi which he called the Terrestrial Museum. Paul, Wright, and Elis had Earth-made hunting knives, still keen. Miniaan, leading them, held a spear, but there was a blue-flower garland below its blade, symbol of peace. Pakriaa and Nisana preferred to carry no weapons; Muson and young Dunin had never handled one in their lives. Miniaan said over her shoulder, “There is the old stockade. Here we turn right, toward the palace.”

There was scurrying and disturbance now. Beyond Mijok’s shield Paul saw a few lean women running; one of them halted at Miniaan’s call and approached uneasily. There were questions, dubious replies. At the far end of the shaded avenue was a growing cluster of red bodies before a thatched building with one tall doorway. Miniaan explained: “I told her that we come peacefully and want to talk with Spearman-abron-Ismar. And she says she thinks he would be asleep at this hour.”

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