Litany of the Long Sun contains the full texts of Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun, that together make up the first half of The Book of the Long Sun. This great work is set on a huge generation starship in the same future as the classic Book of the New Sun (also available in two volumes from Orb).
About the Author
Gene Wolfe (1931-2019) was the Nebula Award-winning author of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy in the Solar Cycle, as well as the World Fantasy Award winners The Shadow of the Torturer and Soldier of Sidon. He was also a prolific writer of distinguished short fiction, which has been collected in such award-winning volumes as Storeys from the Old Hotel and The Best of Gene Wolfe.
A recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award, and six Locus Awards, among many other honors, Wolfe was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007, and named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2012.
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Litany of the Long SunThe First Half of 'The Book of the Long Sun'
By Wolfe, Gene
Orb BooksCopyright © 2000 Wolfe, Gene
All right reserved.
The Manteion on Sun Street
Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that. When he talked about it afterward, whispering to himself in the silent hours of the night as was his custom--and once when he told Maytera Marble, who was also Maytera Rose--he said that it was as though someone who had always been behind him and standing (as it were) at both his shoulders had, after so many years of pregnant silence, begun to whisper into both his ears. The bigger boys had scored again, Patera Silk recalled, and Horn was reaching for an easy catch when those voices began and all that had been hidden was displayed.
Few of these hidden things made sense, nor did they wait upon one another. He, young Patera Silk (that absurd clockwork figure), watched outside a clockwork show whose works had stopped--tall Horn reaching for the ball, his flashing grin frozen in forever.
--dead Patera Pike mumbling prayers as he slit the throat of a speckled rabbit he himself had bought.
--a dead woman in an alley off Silver Street, and the people of the quarter.
--lights beneath everyone's feet, like cities low in the night sky. (And, oh, the rabbit's warm blood drenching Patera Pike's cold hands.)
--proud houses on the Palatine.
--Maytera Marble playing with the girls, and MayteraMint wishing she dared. (Old Maytera Rose praying alone, praying to Scalding Scylla in her palace under Lake Limna.)
--Feather falling, not so lightly as his name implied, shoved aside by Horn, not yet quite prone on the crumbling shiprock blocks, though shiprock was supposed to last until the end of the whorl.
--Viron and the lake, crops withering in the fields, the dying fig and the open, empty sky. All this and much else besides, lovely and appalling, blood red and living green, yellow, blue, white, and velvet black, with minglings of other colors and of colors he had never known.
* * *
Yet all these were as nothing. It was the voices that mattered, only the paired voices (though there were more, he felt sure, if only he had ears for them) and all the rest an empty show, shown to him so that he might know it for what it was, spread for him so that he might know how precious it was, though its shining clockwork had gone some trifle awry and must be set right by him; for this he had been born.
He forgot the rest at times, though at others all these things would reoccur to him, rough truths cloaked in a new certainty; but he never forgot the voices that were in fact but one voice, and what they (who were one) had said; never forgot the bitter lesson, though once or twice he tried to push it away, those fell words heard as Feather fell, poor little Feather, as the rabbit's hot blood spilled from the altar, as the First Settlers took up the homes prepared for them in this familiar Viron, as the dead woman seemed to stir, rags fluttering in the hot wind born halfway 'round the whorl, a wind that blew ever stronger and wilder as clockwork that had never really stopped began to turn again.
"I will not fail," he told the voices, and felt he lied, yet felt the approbation, too.
His left hand moved, snatching the ball from Horn's very fingers.
Patera Silk spun about. The black ball flew like a black bird, straight through the ring at the opposite end of the ball court. It struck the hellstone with a satisfying thump and an irruption of blue sparks, and threaded the ring a second time as it bounced back.
Horn tried to stop him, but Patera Silk knocked him sprawling, caught the ball again, and smoked it in for a second double. The monitor's chimes sang their three-note paean, and its raddled gray face appeared to announce the final score: thirteen to twelve.
Thirteen to twelve was not a bad score, Patera Silk reflected as he took the ball from Feather and stuffed it into a trousers pocket. The bigger boys would not be too downcast, while the smaller boys would be ecstatic.
This last, at least, was already quite apparent. He repressed the impulse to hush them and lifted two of the most diminutive onto his shoulders. "Back to class," he announced. "Class for all of you. A little arithmetic will do you good. Feather, throw Villus my towel, please."
Feather, one of the larger small boys, obliged; Villus, the boy perched upon Silk's right shoulder, managed to catch it, though not deftly.
"Patera," Feather ventured, "you always say there's a lesson in everything."
Silk nodded, mopping his face and rubbing his already disheveled yellow hair. He had been touched by a god! By the Outsider; and although the Outsider was not one of the Nine, he was an undoubted god nevertheless. This, this was enlightenment!
"I'm listening, Feather. What is it you want to ask?" But enlightenment was for theodidacts, and he was no holy theodidact--no gaudily painted gold-crowned figure in the Writings. How could he tell these children that in the middle of their game--
"Then what's the lesson in our winning, Patera?"
"That you must endure to the end," Silk replied, his mind still upon the Outsider's teaching. One of the hinges of the ball-court gate was broken; two boys had to lift the gate to swing it, creaking, backward. The remaining hinge would surely break too, and soon, unless he did something. Many theodidacts never told, or so he had been taught in the schola. Others told only on their deathbeds; for the first time he felt he understood that.
"We endured to the end," Horn reminded him, "but we lost just the same. You're bigger than I am. Bigger than any of us."
Silk nodded and smiled. "I did not say that the only object was to win."
Horn opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again, his eyes thoughtful. Silk took Goldcrest and Villus from his shoulders at the gate and dried his torso, then reclaimed his black tunic from the nail on which he had hung it. Sun Street ran parallel to the sun, as its name indicated, and as usual at this hour it was blazing hot. Regretfully, he pulled his tunic over his head, smelling his own sweat.
"You lost," he remarked to Villus once the stifling tunic was in place, "when Horn got the ball away from you. But you won when everyone on our team did. What have you learned from that?"
When little Villus said nothing, Feather answered, "That winning and losing aren't everything."
The loose black robe followed the tunic, seeming to close about him. "Good enough," he told Feather.
As five boys shut the court gate behind them, the faint and much-diffused shadow of a Flier raced down Sun Street. The boys glared up at him, and a few of the smallest reached for stones, though the Flier was three or four times higher than the loftiest tower in Viron.
Silk halted, raising his head to stare upward with a long-felt envy he struggled to suppress. Had he been shown the Fliers, among his myriad, leaping visions? He felt he had--but he had been shown so much!
The disproportionate, gauzy wings were nearly invisible in the glare of the unshaded sun, so that it seemed that the Flier flew without them, arms outstretched, feet together, an uncanny figure black against the burning gold.
"If the Fliers are human," Silk admonished his charges, "it would surely be evil to stone them. If they are not, you must consider that they may be higher than we are in the spiritual whorl, just as they are in the temporal." As an afterthought he added, "Even if they are spying on us, which I doubt."
Had they, too, achieved enlightenment, and was that why they flew? Did some god or goddess--it would be Hierax, perhaps, or his father, sky-ruling Pas--teach those he favored the art of flight?
The palaestra's warped and weathered door would not open until Horn had wrestled manfully with its latch. As always, Silk delivered the smaller boys to Maytera Marble first. "We won a glorious victory," he told her.
She shook her head in mock dismay, her smooth oval face, polished bright by countless dustings, catching the sunlight from the window. "My poor girls were beaten, alas, Patera. It seems to me that Maytera Mint's big girls grow quicker and stronger with each week that passes. Wouldn't you think our Merciful Molpe would make my smaller ones quicker, too? Yet it doesn't seem she does it."
"By the time they're quicker, they'll be the big girls, perhaps."
"That must be it, Patera. While I'm only a small girl myself, snatching at every chance to put off the minuends and subtrahends for as long as possible, always willing to talk, never willing to work." Maytera Marble paused, her work-worn steel fingers flexing the cubit stick while she studied Silk. "You be careful this afternoon, Patera. You must be tired already, after scrambling around up there all morning and playing with the boys. Don't fall off that roof."
He grinned. "I'm finished with my repairs for today, Maytera. I'm going to sacrifice after manteion--a private sacrifice."
The old sib tilted her gleaming head to one side, thus lifting an eyebrow. "Then I regret that my class will not participate. Will your lamb be more pleasing to the Nine, do you think, without us?"
For an instant Silk was tempted to tell her everything there and then. He drew a deep breath instead, smiled, and closed the door.
Most of the larger boys had already gone into Maytera Rose's room. Silk dismissed the rest with a glance, but Horn lingered. "May I speak with you, Patera? It'll just take a minute."
"If it is only a minute." When the boy said nothing, Silk added, "Go ahead, Horn. Did I foul you? If I did, I apologize--it certainly wasn't intentional."
"Is it..." Horn let the question trail away, staring at the splintering floorboards.
"Speak up, please. Or ask your question when I come back. That would be better."
The tall boy's gaze moved to the whitewashed mud-brick walls. "Patera, is it true that they're going to tear down our palaestra and your manteion? That you're going to have to go someplace else, or noplace? My father heard that yesterday. Is it true?"
Horn looked up with new hope, though the flat negative had left him speechless.
"Our palaestra and our manteion will be here next year, and the year after that, and the year after that as well." Suddenly conscious of his posture, Silk stood straighter, squaring his shoulders. "Does that put your mind at rest? They may become larger and better known, and I hope that they will. Perhaps some god or goddess may speak to us through our Sacred Window again, as Pas once did when Patera Pike was young--I don't know, though I pray for it every day. But when I'm as old as Patera Pike, the people of this quarter will still have a manteion and a palaestra. Never doubt it."
"I was going to say..."
Silk nodded. "Your eyes have said it for you already. Thank you, Horn. Thank you. I know that whenever I'm in need I can call on you, and that you'll do all that you can without counting the cost. But, Horn--"
"I knew all that before."
The tall boy's head bobbed. "And all the other sprats, too, Patera. There are a couple of dozen that I know we can trust. Maybe more."
Horn was standing as straight as a Guardsman on parade now. With a slight shock of insight, Silk realized that this unaccustomed perpendicularity was in imitation of his own, and that Horn's clear, dark eyes were very nearly level with his.
"And after that," Horn continued, "there will be others, new boys. And men."
Silk nodded again, gravely reflecting that Horn was already a grown man in every way that mattered, and a man far better educated than most.
"And I don't want you to think I'm mad about it--knocking me over like that, Patera. You hit me hard, but that's the fun of the game."
Silk shook his head. "That's merely how the game is played. The fun comes when someone small knocks down someone larger."
"You were their best player, Patera. It wouldn't have been fair to them if you hadn't played as well as you can." Horn glanced over his shoulder at Maytera Rose's open door. "I have to go now. Thanks, Patera."
There was a line in the Writings that applied to the game and its lessons--lessons more important, Silk felt, than any Maytera Rose might teach; but Horn was already almost to the doorway. To his back, Silk murmured, "'Men build scales, but the gods blow upon the lighter pan.'"
He sighed at the final word, knowing that the quotation had come a second too late, and that Horn, too, had been too late; that Horn would tell Maytera Rose that he, Patera Silk, had detained him, and that Maytera Rose would punish him nevertheless without bothering to find out whether it was true.
Silk turned away. There was no point in remaining to listen, and Horn would fare that much worse if he tried to intervene. How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? Was it possible that the very gods were ignorant of his weakness and stupidity?
Some of them?
* * *
The manteion's rusty cash box was bare, he knew; yet he must have a victim, and a fine one. The parents of one of the students might lend him five or even ten bits, and the humiliation of having to beg such poor people for a loan would certainly be beneficial. For as long as it took him to close the unwilling door of the palaestra and start for the market, his resolution held; then the only-too-well-imagined tears of small children deprived of their accustomed supper of milk and stale bread washed it away. No. The sellers would have to extend him credit.
The sellers must. When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him, for Patera Pike's sake. That was one way of looking at it, at least. And perhaps that was the best way. Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried. Small wonder, then...
As Silk's thoughts raced, his long legs flashed faster and faster.
The sellers never extended a single bit's credit, true. They gave credit to no augur; and certainly they would not extend it to an augur whose manteion stood in the poorest quarter of the city. Yet the Outsider could not be denied, so they would have to. He would have to be firm with them, extremely firm. Remind them that the Outsider was known to esteem them last among men already--that according to the Writings he had once (having possessed and enlightened a fortunate man) beaten them severely in person. And though the Nine could rightly boast...
A black civilian floater was roaring down Sun Street, scattering men and women on foot and dodging ramshackle carts and patient gray donkeys, its blowers raising a choking cloud of hot yellow dust. Like everyone else, Silk turned his face away, covering his nose and mouth with the edge of his robe.
"You there! Augur!"
The floater had stopped, its roar fading to a plaintive whine as it settled onto the rutted street. A big, beefy, prosperous-looking man standing in its passenger compartment flourished a walking stick.
Silk called, "I take it you are addressing me, sir. Is that correct?"
The prosperous-looking man gestured impatiently. "Come over here."
"I intend to," Silk told him. A dead dog rotting in the gutter required a long stride that roused a cloud of fat blue-backed flies. "Patera would be better mannered, sir; but I'll overlook it. You may call me 'angur' if you like. I have need of you, you see. Great need. A god has sent you to me."
The prosperous-looking man looked at least as surprised as Horn had when Silk had knocked him down.
"I require two--no, three cards," Silk continued. "Three cards or more. I require them at once, for a sacred purpose. You can provide them easily, and the gods will smile on you. Please do so."
The prosperous-looking man mopped his streaming brow with a large peach-colored handkerchief that sent a cloying fragrance to war with the stenches of the street. "I didn't think that the Chapter let you augurs do this sort of thing, Patera."
"Beg? Why, no. You're perfectly correct, sir. It's absolutely forbidden. But there's a beggar on every corner--you must know the kinds of things they say, and that's not what I'm telling you at all. I'm not hungry, and I have no starving children. I don't want your money for myself, but for a god, for the Outsider. It's a major error to restrict one's worship to the Nine, as I--Never mind. The Outsider must have a suitable offering from me before shadedown. It's absolutely imperative. You'll be certain to gain his favor by supplying it."
"I wanted--" the prosperous--looking man began.
Silk raised his hand. "No! The money--three cards at least, at once. I've offered you a splendid opportunity to gain his favor. You've lost that now, but you may still escape his displeasure, if only you'll act without further delay. For your own sake, give me three cards immediately!" Silk stepped closer, scrutinizing the prosperous-looking man's ruddy, perspiring face. "Terrible things may befall you. Horrible things!"
Reaching for the card case at his waist, the prosperous-looking man said, "A respectable citizen shouldn't even stop his floater in this quarter. I simply--"
"If you own this floater, you can afford three cards easily. And I'll offer a prayer for you--many prayers that you may eventually attain to..." Silk shivered.
The driver rasped, "Shut your shaggy mouth and let Blood talk, you butcher." Then to Blood, "You want me to bring him along, Jefe?"
Blood shook his head. He had counted out three cards, and now held them in a fan; half a dozen ragged men stopped to gawk at the gleaming gold. "Three cards you say you want, Patera. Here they are. Enlightenment? Was that what you were going to ask the gods to give me? You augurs are always squeaking about it. Well, I don't care about that. I want a little information instead. Tell me everything I want to know, and I'll hand over all three. See 'em? Then you can offer this wonderful sacrifice for yourself if you want to, or do whatever you want with the money. How about it?"
"You don't know what you're risking. If you did--"
Blood snorted. "I know that no god's come to any Window in this city since I was a young man, Patera, no matter how you butchers howl. And that's all I need to know. There's a manteion on this street, isn't there? Where Silver Street meets it at an angle? I've never been in that part of this quarter, but I asked, and that's what I was told."
Silk nodded. "I'm augur there."
"The old cull's dead, then?"
"Patera Pike?" Silk traced the sign of addition in the air. "Yes. Patera Pike has been with the gods for almost a year. Did you know him?"
Ignoring the question, Blood nodded to himself. "Gone to Mainframe, eh? All right, Patera. I'm not a religious man, and I don't pretend to be. But I promised my--well, I promised a certain person--that I'd go to this manteion of yours and say a few prayers for her. I'm going to make an offering, too, understand? Because I know she'll ask if I did. That's besides these cards here. So is there somebody there who'll let me in?"
Silk nodded again. "Maytera Marble or Maytera Mint would be delighted to, I'm sure. You'll find them both in the palaestra, on the other side of our ball court." Silk paused, thinking. "Maytera Mint's rather shy, though she's wonderful with the children. Perhaps you'd better ask for Maytera Marble, in the first room to your right. She could leave one of the older girls in charge of her class for an hour or so, I would think."
Blood closed his fan of cards as if about to hand them over to Silk. "I'm not too crazy about chemical people, Patera. Somebody told me you've got a Maytera Rose. Maybe I could get her, or isn't she there any more?"
"Oh, yes." Silk hoped his voice did not reflect the dismay he felt whenever he thought of Maytera Rose. "But she's quite elderly, sir, and we try to spare her poor legs whenever we can. I feel sure that Maytera Marble would prove completely satisfactory."
"No doubt she will." Blood counted his cards again, his lips moving, his fat, beringed fingers reluctant to part from each wafer-thin, shining rectangle. "You were going to tell me about enlightenment a minute ago, Patera. You said you'd pray for me."
"Yes," Silk confirmed eagerly, "and I meant it. I will."
Blood laughed. "Don't bother. But I'm curious, and I've never had such a good chance to ask one of you about it before. Isn't enlightenment really pretty much the same as possession?"
"Not exactly, sir." Silk gnawed his lower lip. "You know, sir, at the schola they taught us simple, satisfying answers to all of these questions. We had to recite them to pass the examination, and I'm tempted to recite them again for you now. But the actualities--enlightenment, I mean, and possession--aren't really simple things at all. Or at least enlightenment isn't. I don't know a great deal about possession, and some of the most respected hierologists are of the opinion that it exists potentially but not actually."
"A god's supposed to pull on a man just like a tunic--that's what they say. Well, some people can, so why not a god?" Watching Silk's expression, Blood laughed again. "You don't believe me, do you, Patera?"
Silk said, "I've never heard of such people, sir. I won't say they don't exist, since you assert that they do, although it seems impossible."
"You're young yet, Patera. If you want to dodge a lot of mistakes, don't you forget that." Blood glanced sidelong at his driver. "Get on these putts, Grison. Make them keep their paws off my floater."
"Enlightenment..." Silk stroked his cheek, remembering.
"That ought to be easy, it seems to me. Don't you just know a lot of things you didn't know before?" Blood paused, his eyes upon Silk's face. "Things that you can't explain, or aren't allowed to?"
A patrol of Guardsmen passed, their slug guns slung and their left hands resting on the hilts of their swords. One touched the bill of his jaunty green cap to Blood.
"It's difficult to explain," Silk said. "In possession there's always some teaching, for good or ill. Or at any rate that's what we're taught, though I don't believe--In enlightenment, there's much more. As much as the theodidact can bear, I would say."
"It happened to you," Blood said softly. "Lots of you say it did, but from you it's lily. You were enlightened, or you think you were. You think it's real."
Silk took a step backward, bumping against one of the onlookers. "I didn't call myself enlightened, sir."
"You didn't have to. I've been listening to you. Now you listen to me. I'm not giving you these cards, not for your holy sacrifice or for anything else. I'm paying you to answer my questions, and this is the last one. I want you to tell me--right now--what enlightenment is, when you got it, and why you got it. Here they are." He held them up again. "Tell me, Patera, and they're yours."
Silk considered, then plucked them from Blood's hand. "As you say. Enlightenment means understanding everything as the god who gives it understands it. Who you are and who everyone else is, really. Everything you used to think you understood, you see with complete clarity in that instant, and know that you didn't really understand it at all."
The onlookers murmured, each to his neighbor. Several pointed toward Silk. One waved over the drawer of a passing handcart.
"Only for an instant," Blood said.
"Yes, only for an instant. But the memory remains, so that you know that you knew." The three cards were still in Silk's hand; suddenly afraid that they would be snatched away by one of the ragged throng around him, he slipped them into his pocket.
"And when did this happen to you? Last week? Last year?"
Silk shook his head, glancing up at the sun. The thin black line of the shade touched it as he watched. "Today. Not an hour ago. A ball--I was playing a game with the boys...
Blood waved the game away.
"And it happened. Everything seemed to stand still. I really can't say whether it was for an instant, or a day, or a year, or any other period of time--and I seriously doubt that any such period could be correct. Perhaps that's why we call him the Outsider: because he stands outside of time, all the time."
"Uh-huh." Blood favored Silk with a grudging smile. "I'm sure it's all smoke. Just some sort of daydream. But I've got to admit it's interesting smoke, the way you tell it. I've never heard of anything like this before."
"It's not exactly what they teach you in the schola," Silk conceded, "but I feel in my heart that it's the truth." He hesitated. "By which I mean that it's what I was shown by him--or rather, that it's one of an endless panorama of things. Somehow he's outside our whorl in every way, and inside it with us at the same time. The other gods are only inside, I think, however great they may appear inside."
Blood shrugged, his eyes wandering toward the ragged listeners. "Well, they believe you, anyhow. But as long as we're in here too, it doesn't make a bad bit's difference to us, does it, Patera?"
"Perhaps it does, or may in the future. I don't know, really. I haven't even begun to think about that yet." Silk glanced up again; the sun's golden road across the sky was markedly narrower already. "Perhaps it will make all the difference in the whorl," he said. "I think it will."
"I don't see how."
"You'll have to wait and see, my son--and so shall I." Silk shivered, as he had before. "You wanted to know why I received this blessing, didn't you? That was your last question: why something as tremendous as this should happen to someone as insignificant as I am. Wasn't that it?"
"Yes, if this god of yours will let you tell anybody."
Blood grinned, showing crooked, discolored teeth; and Silk, suddenly and without in the least willing it, saw more vividly than he had ever seen the man before him the hungry, frightened, scheming youth who had been Blood a generation before.
"And if you don't gibbe yourself, Patera."
"If you've got no objections. Don't feel like you're stepping over his line."
"I see." Silk cleared his throat. "I've no objection, but no very satisfactory answer for you, either. That's why I snatched my three cards from your hand, and it's why I need them, too--or a part of it. It may be only that he has a task for me. He does, I know, and I hope that that's all it is. Or, as I've thought since, perhaps it's because he means to destroy me, and felt he owed this to me before he struck. I don't know."
Blood dropped to his seat in the passenger compartment, mopping his face and neck with his scented handkerchief, as he had before. "Thanks, Patera. We're quits. You're going to the market?"
"Yes, to buy him a fine victim with these cards you've given me."
"Paid you. I'll have left your manteion before you get back, Patera. Or anyhow I hope I will." Sweat dropped onto the floater's velvet upholstery. "Get the canopy up, Grison."
Silk called, "Wait!"
Blood stood again, surprised. "What is it, Patera? No hard feelings, I hope."
"I lied to you, my son--misled you at least, although I didn't intend to. He--the Outsider--told me why, and I remembered it a few minutes ago when I was talking with a boy named Horn, a student at our palaestra." Silk stepped closer, until he was peering at Blood over the edge of the half-raised canopy. "It was because of the augur who had our manteion when I came, Patera Pike. A very good and very holy man."
"He's dead, you said."
"Yes. Yes, he is. But before he dime, and now I owe it to you, because it was part of our bargain."
"Then I may as well have it explained to me, too. But make it as quick as you can."
"He prayed for help." Silk ran his fingers through his careless thatch of straw-colored hair. "When we--when you pray for his help, to the Outsider, he sends it."
"Nice of him."
"But not always--no, not often--of the sort we want or expect. Patera Pike, that good old man, prayed devoutly. And I'm the help--"
"Let's go, Grison."
The blowers roared back to life. Blood's black floater heaved uneasily, rising stern first and rocking alarmingly.
"--the Outsider sent to him, to save the manteion and its palaestra," Silk concluded. He stepped back, coughing in the billowing dust. Half to himself and half to the shabby crowd kneeling around him, he added. "I am to expect no help from him. I am help."
If any of them understood, it was not apparent. Still coughing, he traced the sign of addition and muttered a brief formula of blessing, begun with the Most Sacred Name of Pas, Father of the Gods, and concluded with that of his eldest child, Scylla, Patroness of this, Our Holy City of Viron.
* * *
As he neared the market, Silk reflected on his chance encounter with the prosperous-looking man in the floater. Blood, his driver had called him. Three cards was far, far too much to pay for answers to a few simple questions, and in any case one did not pay augurs for their answers; one made a donation, perhaps, if one was particularly grateful. Three full cards, but were they still there?
He thrust a hand into his pocket; the smooth, elastic surface of the ball met his fingers. He pulled it out, and one of the cards came with it, flashing in the sunlight as it fell at his feet.
As swiftly as he had snatched the ball from Horn, he scooped it up. This was a bad quarter, he reminded himself, though there were so many good people in it. Without law, even good people stole: their own property vanished, and their only recourse was to steal in turn from someone else. What would his mother have thought, if she had lived to learn where the Chapter had assigned him? She had died during his final year at the schola, still believing that he would be sent to one of the rich manteions on the Palatine and someday become Prolocutor.
"You're so good-looking," she had said, raising herself upon her toes to smooth his rebellious hair. "So tall! Oh, Silk, my son! My dear, dear son!"
(And he had stooped to let her kiss him.)
My son was what he had been taught to call laymen, even those three times his own age, unless they were very highly placed indeed; then there was generally some title that could be gracefully employed instead, Colonel or Commissioner, or even Councillor, although he had never met any of the three and in this quarter never would--though here was a poster with the handsome features of Councillor Loris, the secretary of the Ayuntamiento: features somewhat scarred now by the knife of some vandal, who had slashed his poster once and stabbed it several times. Silk felt suddenly glad that he was in the Chapter and not in politics, though politics had been his mother's first choice for him. No one would slash or stab the pictured face of His Cognizance the Prolocutor, surely.
He tossed the ball into his right hand and thrust his left into his pocket. The cards were still there: one, two, three. Many men in this quarter who worked from shadeup to dark--carrying bricks or stacking boxes, slaughtering, hauling like oxen or trotting beneath the weighty litters of the rich, sweeping and mopping--would be fortunate to make three cards a year. His mother had received six, enough for a woman and a child to live decently, from some fund at the fisc that she had never explained, a fund that had vanished with her life. She would be unhappy now to see him in this quarter, walking its streets as poor as many of its people. She had never been a happy woman in any case, her large dark eyes so often bright with tears from sources more mysterious than the fisc, her tiny body shaken with sobs that he could do nothing to alleviate.
("Oh, Silk! My poor boy! My son!")
He had at first called Blood sir, and afterward, my son, himself scarcely conscious of the change. But why? Sir because Blood had been riding in a floater, of course; only the richest of men could afford to own floaters. My son afterward. "The old cull's dead, then?...It doesn't make a bad bit's difference to us, does it, Patera?...Nice of him." Blood's choice of word and phrase, and his almost open contempt for the gods, had not accorded with the floater; he had spoken better--far better--than most people in this quarter; but not at all like the privileged, well-bred man whom Silk would have expected to find riding in a private floater.
He shrugged, and extracted the three cards from his pocket.
There was always a good chance that a card (still more, a cardbit) would be false. There was even a chance, as Silk admitted to himself, that the prosperous-looking man in the floater--that this odd man Blood--kept false cards in a special location in his card case. Nevertheless all three of these appeared completely genuine, sharp-edged rectangles two thumbs by three, their complex laby-rinths of gold encysted in some remarkable substance that was almost indestructible, yet nearly invisible. It was said that when two of the intricate golden patterns were exactly alike, one at least was false. Silk paused to compare them, then shook his head and hurried off again in the direction of the market. If these cards were good enough to fool the sellers of animals, that was all that mattered, though he would be a thief. A prayer, in that case, to Tenebrous Tartaros, Pas's elder son, the terrifying god of night and thieves.
* * *
Maytera Marble sat watching, at the back of her class. There had been a time, long ago, when she would have stood, just as there had been a time when her students had labored over keyboards instead of slates. Today, now--in whatever year this might be...Might be...
Her chronological function could not be called; she tried to remember when it had happened before.
Maytera Marble could call a list of her nonfunctioning or defective components whenever she chose, though it had been five years or fifty since she had so chosen. What was the use? Why should she--why ever should anyone--make herself more miserable than the gods had chosen to make her? Weren't the gods cruel enough, deaf to her prayers through so many years, so many decades and days and languid, half-stopped hours? Pas, Great Pas, was god of mechanisms, as of so much else. Perhaps he was too busy to notice.
She pictured him as he stood in the manteion, as tall as a talus, his smooth limbs carved of some white stone finer grained than shiprock--his grave, unseeing eyes, his noble brows. Have pity on me, Pas, she prayed. Have pity on me, a mortal maid who calls upon you now, but will soon stop forever.
Her right leg had been getting stiffer and stiffer for years, and at times it seemed that even when she sat so still--
A boy to a girl: "She's asleep!"
--that when she sat as still as she was sitting here, watching the children take nineteen from twenty-nine and get nine, add seven and seventeen and arrive at twenty-three--that when she sat so still as this, her vision no longer as acute as it once had been, although she could still see the straying, chalky numerals on their slates when the children wrote large, and all children their age wrote large, though their eyes were better than her own.
It seemed to her that she was always on the point of overheating any more, in hot weather anyway. Pas, Great Pas, God of Sky and Sun and Storm, bring the snow! Bring the cold wind!
This endless summer, without snow, with no autumn rains and the season for them practically past now, the season for snow nearly upon us, and no snow. Heat and dust and clouds that were all empty, yellow haze. What could Pas, Lord Pas, Husband of Grain-bearing Echidna and Father of the Seven, be thinking of?
A girl: "Look--she's asleep!"
Another: "I didn't think they slept."
A knock at the Sun Street door of the palaestra.
"I'll get it!" That was Asphodella's voice.
This was Ratel's. "No, I will!"
Fragrant white blossoms and sharp white teeth. Maytera Marble meditated upon names. Flowers--or plants of some kind, at least--for bio girls; animals or animal products for bio boys. Metals or stones for us.
Both together: "Let me!"
Her old name had been--
Her old name had been...
A crash, as a chair fell. Maytera Marble rose stiffly, one hand gripping the windowsill. "Stop that this instant!"
She could bring up a list of her nonfunctioning and defective parts whenever she chose. She had not chosen to do so for close to a century; but from time to time, most often when the cenoby lay on the night side of the long sun, that list came up of itself.
"Aquifolia! Separate those two before I lose my temper."
Maytera Marble could remember the short sun, a disk of orange fire; and it seemed to her that the chief virtue of that old sun had been that no list, no menu, ever appeared unbidden beneath its rays.
Both together: "Sib, I wanted--"
"Well, neither of you are going to," Maytera Marble told them.
Another knock, too loud for knuckles of bone and skin. She must hurry or Maytera Rose might go, might answer that knock herself, an occasion for complaint that would outlast the snow. If the snow ever arrived.
"I am going to go myself. Teasel, you're in charge of the class until I return. Keep them at their work, every one of them." To give her final words more weight, Maytera Marble paused as long as she dared. "I shall expect you to name those who misbehaved."
A good step toward the door. There was an actuator in her right leg that occasionally jammed when it had been idle for an hour or so, but it appeared to be functioning almost acceptably. Another step, and another. Good, good! Praise to you, Great Pas.
She stopped just beyond the doorway, to listen for an immediate disturbance, then limped down the corridor to the door.
A beefy, prosperous-looking man nearly as tall as Patera Silk had been pounding the panels with the carved handle of his walking stick.
"May every god favor you this morning," Maytera Marble said. "How may I serve you?"
"My name's Blood," he announced. "I'm looking at the property. I've already seen the garden and so on, but the other buildings are locked. I'd like you to take me through them, and show me this one."
"I couldn't possibly admit you to our cenoby," Maytera Marble said firmly. "Nor could I permit you to enter the manse alone. I'll be happy to show you through our manteion and this palaestra--provided that you have a valid reason for wishing to see them."
Blood's red face became redder still. "I'm checking the condition of the buildings. All of them need a lot of work, from what I've seen outside."
Maytera Marble nodded. "That's quite true, I'm afraid, although we do everything that we can. Patera Silk's been repairing the roof of the manteion. That was most urgent. Is it true--"
Blood interrupted her. "The cenoby--is that the little house on Silver Street?"
"The manse is the one where Silver Street and Sun come together? The little three-cornered house at the west end of the garden?"
"That's correct. Is it true, then, that this entire property is to be sold? That's what some of the children have been saying."
Blood eyed her quizzically. "Has Maytera Rose heard about it?"
"I suppose she's heard the rumor, if that's what you mean. I haven't discussed it with her."
Blood nodded, a minute inclination of his head that probably escaped his own notice. "I didn't tell that tow-headed butcher of yours. He looked like the sort to make trouble. But you tell Maytera Rose that the rumor's true, you hear me? Tell her it's been sold already, sib. Sold to me."
We'll be gone before the snow flies, Maytera Marble thought, hearing her future and all their futures in Blood's tone. Gone before winter and living somewhere else, where Sun Street will be just a memory.
Blessed snow to cool her thighs; she pictured herself sitting at peace, with her lap full of new-fallen snow.
Blood added, "Tell her my name."
This is an omnibus edition comprising the novels Nightside the Long Sun, copyright 1993 by Gene Wolfee
Excerpted from Litany of the Long Sun by Wolfe, Gene Copyright © 2000 by Wolfe, Gene. Excerpted by permission.
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