I went with the old man because Our Shathra Anna’s foremost minister had bade me watch his every move. For ten days I had been at the old man’s side, and uncomplainingly, though not very congenially (though this was changing), he had accepted my presence. The old man’s name was Gabriel Elk. He was sixty-three years old. He was universally acknowledged a genius, perhaps the only bona fide one in all of Ongladred, indeed on all of our ruthlessly harsh planet, Mansueceria.
And on the night with which this account begins Gabriel Elk and I were going into Lunn, our capital, to buy a dead masker.
The city lay before us as ominously quiescent as an unstruck gong. I had been living—these past ten days—with Gabriel Elk, his wife, Bethel, and his son, Gareth, at Stonelore, the neuro-theatre he had built nearly seven kilometers outside of Lunn. Now we were coming back into the city under the cold light of the Shattered Moons, and I was glad to see Lunn’s majestic squalor again, the unbroken rows of four-story dwellings, the canyonlike alleys, the ever-visible lemon sheen of the dome under which Our Shathra Anna resides and toward which nearly all the dirty alleys lead: the Atarite Palace. As an aide to Chancellor Blaine, as a very minor doer of the sort of work Our Shathra may not sully her hands with, I was going home again—even though Gabriel Elk and I would not set foot within several city squares of the domed palace. We were going among the poor, “the Mansuecerians themselves,” Gabriel Elk would say, and our way was through the torch-lit sidestreets.
We were walking our horses. Their hooves clacked on the stones, their eyes were round with a mute claustrophobia, their nostrils quivered with the pungent smells of packed-in humanity. But we met no one in the streets. It was the time of the Halcyon Panic (hence, my assignment to Elk, whom the Magi feared as a potential demagogue), and at night everyone stayed docilely indoors—everyone but those with state business and, of course, the maddeningly uncoercible Gabriel Elk, who had come on business of his own.
“Do you know where we are?” I asked him, a bite in my voice.
He halted his shaggy animal and looked at me. The old man’s eyes were a pale green, his face as heavy as carven marble, the jowls giving way only slightly to his advancing age. Great white sideburns framed his cheeks, and his hair fell in bearish curls over his forehead and neck. “On Earth my sixty-three years would be seventy-five,” he had told me when I was first assigned to him, but he carried himself with an intractable agelessness. In this alleyway in Lunn he looked like a statue that has willed itself to move, that has broken out of stone into life.
“I know where we are, Ingram. This city was mine long before you entered either the service of Our Shathra or the elitist gangs of Chancellor Blaine. Some say the Chancellor got his roan tooth by sucking blood up through it, and, from what I see, a bit of that blood is yours, Master Marley. You’re as bumptious and ticky as a person of power.”
“I work for persons of power, Sayati Elk.” Against Blaine’s wishes, Our Shathra Anna had given Gabriel Elk the title sayati in his fifty-sixth year, after the construction of Stonelore and the presentation of the first series of neuro-dramas. In the seven succeeding years, Blaine and the Council of the Magi had agitated quietly for the revocation of Elk’s royal dispensation to assemble the people and for the nationalization of the formidable power complex he had built in the upland arena.
“So you do, Ingram, so you do. And in your own way you also are a person of power.”
“I do what I must—to insure that the Halcyon Panic doesn’t break out roaring in the throats of our within-doors maskers.”
“And I do what I must, Ingram, to insure that when the ‘maskers’ come out to Stonelore they perceive an order in things which the universe and the Magi of Ongladred don’t always choose to grant them. The order is there, it inheres, and I’m the man who reveals it to them.”
The Shattered Moons moved in a yellow band beyond the in-leaning rooftops, a monochrome rainbow in the night sky. Only the brightest stars were visible behind it, and it was hard to imagine that Ongladred was an island besieged, that the culture we had twice before built up over six thousand years as colonists on Mansueceria was in danger of collapsing again, collapsing completely.
The street was silent; my voice echoed in it. “And so to give the maskers order, you’ve come tonight to buy a dead man.”
“Not exactly, Ingram. I’ve come to buy a dead woman, a beautiful girl killed by reivers. And the order I try to give the Mansuecerians, the gentles, is a glimpse of the order inhering outside themselves—for inwardly they’re disciplined, Ingram, they’re more serene, more in control of the animal in themselves than you or I. Only artists have to rage, artists and rulers.”
“Our rulers don’t rage, Sayati Elk.”
“No, they simmer, Ingram. The worse for them.” His horse, a woolly beast, lifted its head, whickeringly barked. The old man pulled the horse’s head down and began walking again. The stones rang. Shadows wrapped themselves around us like voluted capes. “My sense of direction never faileth,” he said after a while. “Look there.”
We had come to a side-canyon, a narrow crevice between two rows of maskers’ houses perpendicular to the alley by which, on the city’s southeastern outskirts, we had originally entered Lunn. There was no room for our horses here. But I looked where Elk was pointing and saw a green-gowned figure on a third-story balcony on the lefthand side of the alley, a figure stooping beneath a pair of conical lanterns to see us. But for this solitary revenant and those two lanterns, the “street” was unhaunted, dark, and coldly daunting.
The Halcyon Panic had begun to play in me; I wanted no part of Sayati Elk’s sinister purchase of a dead girl.
“Come on, Ingram,” he said. “We’ll tie our horses here.” He wrapped the reins of his animal around a stone gutter-spout; I did likewise. Our footfalls reverberating in the night air, we walked through the alley between the maskers’ houses. There was a balcony across from the one on which the stooping figure stood, and it seemed to me that it would require very little effort to step from the lefthand balcony to the righthand one, three stories’ worth of darkness gaping beneath that step.
“Who’s up there?” I asked.
“Josu Lief, the father of the dead girl. Or so I’d guess.”
The man on the balcony called out. Before he called, I had not been certain that he was a man; the gown had confused me. It was mourning garb. Under him now I could see that the gown and his shaved head—he was newly bald—were his only concessions to “grief.” The Mansuecerians are immune to it, genetically serene, philosophically spartan.
“Sayati Elk?” Gentleman Lief called out. Then: “Please come up, both of you.” A serene, spartan voice.
We entered the bleak doorway. We climbed the corkscrewing stairs. We let Josu Lief usher us into a three-room apartment where the rest of his family, dressed in forest-green mourning gowns and sitting in the candlelit central chamber, awaited us. There were introductions. Lief s wife wore her hair cut short, as did the two female children. Josu and his young son were bald from the razor. They accepted the news that I was a minor official of Our Shathra Anna’s oligarchy with utter blandness; they were maskers, and I was a nouveau Atarite, programmed to rule. Gabriel Elk was of them, but different; a throwback in whom the primeval aggressions still roiled, still threatened eruption. The old man was the bridge between the Lief family and me.
“Where’s Bronwen?” Gabriel Elk asked.
“Through here,” Gentleman Lief said, and led us out of the central chamber into a sleeping room where there were six pallets on the floor. The girl lay on the pallet on which she had undoubtedly slept while alive: Bronwen Lief, eldest daughter of these anonymous maskers. One family amid a city full of similar families, all of them debeasted, shaped in their genes toward a civilizing harmony. On them had been founded the state of Ongladred; only rulers and artists raged, and we Atarites so seldom as to suggest an innate serenity akin to that of the maskers.
“Will you accept my price?” Elk asked Lief.
“I accept it, Sayati Elk.”
“Good. The money has already been credited to you. It’s there for your use. Three days from now, bring your family to Stonelore.”
“And she will perform?”
“A special performance, for the Lief family and some privileged others. Not a neuro-drama, but a kind of reading.”
“Will she later act in the dramas?”
“Such is my hope.”
The three of us looked at the dead Bronwen Lief—her father with an expression predictably neutral, in which there was neither pride nor remorse nor pity nor anything paternal in a strictly Atarite sense; Gabriel Elk with quiet appreciation; and I, the outsider, with an awareness of terrible loss. For Bronwen Lief, arranged on her pallet in her white death-gown, was an image that called up evocative names: Helen, Guinevere, Ligeia. She was beautiful, but there was something in her young face hinting at the ability to betray; in a Mansuecerian, a masker, that look disconcerted, it slept in the corners of her mouth like an incongruous smirk, an anomaly of character. As a dirt-runner I had long ago learned to recognize such telltale glimmerings under men’s false, placid exteriors. But Bronwen Lief was a masker girl, and a corpse, and the candlelight made her flesh resemble porcelain.
Gabriel Elk said: “I’m very pleased, Gentleman Lief. She’s beautiful; she’s what I’d hoped for.”
“Our thanks, Sayati Elk.”
I said: “How did she die, exactly?”
The two older men turned their faces toward me. Josu Lief, I saw, could not have been more than forty; even with a shaved head he was a handsome man, with full lips and dark eyes. “I have told our friends, in a fall. But there’s more, as Sayati Elk knows. Last night she went with a young man, the one selected for her, to see the bonfires by the eastern channel, the bonfires holding off the sloak—”
“You let them go?” I said. “At this time?”
“Bronwen did as she wished. It wasn’t for me to permit or hinder her, either one. She had a good life, Master Marley.”
“And a short one. What happened on the coast with her young man?”
“Laird and she was walking in the rocks, looking toward the Angromain Archipelago where your renegade ancestors kill each other and catch fish, Master Marley. They was thinking on the cycle of the sloak and the barbarians way out to sea there. Bronwen’s young man says they spoke of the bonfires on the beach and of living to oldsters in Lunn, such things as that. Then they saw an empty boat, just a pinnace, beached in a rocky place between two of the bonfires. No sooner had they seen it than they heard voices, men speaking in accents not of Ongladred. The men surprised them, a party of three or four thick-bearded Pelagans on a raid of some sort. The Pelagans ran at them, pushed Bronwen and young Laird from the rocks, and leapt to the sand. It was a short drop, Laird says, but Bronwen must have twisted her neck. Laird fell into a gravelly place and broke his leg. He shouted so the bonfire tenders on both sides come running, you know, but it was too late. Out to sea the Pelagans went, oaring it like madmen or fiends—and Bronwen was dead. And so she came home to us, and we dressed her like you see her. In her death-gown.”
“And Laird?” Gabriel Elk asked.
“He’s on the mend, I’ll wager.”
We went back into the apartment’s central chamber. The women sat on straightbacked chairs, doing something to the patterned quilts in their laps. Lief s son, his bald head shining, was on the floor marking a piece of paper with a stylus; he was about six.
“At least your boy won’t be called up,” Elk said. When the Halcyon Panic broke, military service for men between the ages of fifteen and fifty would be obligatory. Unless one were an Atarite (and in many cases, even then). I knew that inductions had already begun. Josu Lief confirmed me in my knowledge.
“They tapped me two days ago,” he said. “I go in five days.” And he would, too. Docilely, he would take off his mourning gown, don a warrior’s breeches, and cover his shaved head with a leather cap. Then off to the Lunn garrison for his assignment. The masker, the gentle, would become a soldier—pacific in his innermost soul, but ruthlessly obedient in war.
“Then Gareth will be touched soon, too,” Elk said. Genius or no, he could not keep the regret out of his huge, corrugated brow. Unlike the serene Gentleman Lief’s, his feelings toward his children—his child rather, now his only son— ran deeper than stoic affection. After all, Gabriel Elk was a mistake, an artist; in all things he raged, he harkened to a gong inaudible to maskers and Atarites alike.
We sat down. Gentlewoman Lief left her chair, went to a cabinet in the apartment’s kitchen, and returned with three cups of haoma. This is a mildly intoxicating drink distilled from the bullcap fungus and banned at court; the maskers believe that it induces righteousness and piety rather than drunkenness. Curious, I sipped what was given me. Simultaneously sweet and tart, the haoma seemed to transfuse warmth through the lining of my stomach, into my veins and marrow, like a flow of heated blood. While Gabriel Elk and Gendeman Lief talked, I nodded and tried to heed their words.
“When will the Halcyon Panic break?” the old man asked.
“Not yet, Sayati Elk, not yet.”
“They continue calm. There’s talk of the sloak, and of the Pelagans, and even of the rupturing of the sun—but no one screams in his sleep, no one’s yammering of Ongladred’s death. Our Shathra Anna watches over us. She’s a wise-eyed lady, wise in her watching.”
Gendewoman Lief smiled at her husband. The girls continued sewing. The boy colored his scrap of paper without heeding his father’s visitors at all. At court, a young official’s death would have kept us from secular activity for at least a day or two; here, it required all my haoma-ridden powers to remember that Bronwen Lief lay dead in the next room. Haoma. No doubt Josu Lief had had the examining physician administer an undiluted extract of the principal drug in this beverage to his daughter’s corpse, as a temporary preservative. And here I was, embalming myself in a maskers’ drink. Bronwen’s face, her ambiguously smiling face, floated into my mind, into my sight. I gripped my chair.
Unaffected, Gabriel Elk was standing. The other people in the room began rising, too. I heard Josu Lief say, “Do you want me to bring her out to Stonelore tomorrow, Sayati Elk?”
“Have you a blanket you can spare?”
“I’ve finished this quilt,” Lief s wife said. “You may take it, if you like. For Bronwen.”
“Good. I’ll wrap her in it, and Marley and I will take her with us now. There’s no need in your carrying her out there tomorrow, Josu.”
I was standing now. Someone took the cup out of my hands. Josu left the room. He came back with his daughter wrapped in the quilt. I noticed that the silken quilt, a series of cream-colored squares, was embroidered around its hem with blue flowers, the kind that grow on the cliffs above the Angromain Channel. Bronwen’s face was not covered; her black hair fell over Josu Lief’s supporting forearm. Even though by rights I should have carried her, I watched as the father gave her into the arms of Gabriel Elk.
“Remember,” the old man said. “Come three days from now.” Then, turning to me: “Ingram, let’s go.” I managed to get to the door, and to open it for the burdened-down old codger. The stairwell yawned beneath us. The family, but for Lief’s son, crowded into the opening. I stood with my back pressed against the open door, cold seeping up to me from the street.
“The Light stay with you,” Gentlewoman Lief told Elk, “and the Lie die.” That was their religion, the whole of it, conveyed in two gently spoken imperatives. The woman said nothing at all to her dead child, though I half expected her to. The girl had gone to the Abode of Song—despite the fact that maskers never sing during their lifetimes. Singing is an activity that lies outside their stoic code; indeed, outside their very natures.
Gabriel Elk was on the stairs. I looked back into the Liefs’ main sitting room and saw the six-year-old boy standing there with a piece of paper dangling from his hand. He raised his blond, boyishly thin eyebrows a little.
“Goodbye, Bronwen,” he said.
I reeled toward the stairwell, grabbed the railing there, and clumped groggily down the steps behind the old man and the dead girl he carried. In the cold street we found our horses and rode toward Stonelore and Elk’s rock-capped residence. Bronwen Lief, wrapped in a quilt embroidered with blue flowers, lay doubled over the old philosopher/playwright’s saddle, wedged between the pommel and his paunch, deprived of dignity. Lunn faded behind us, and the Shattered Moons danced. Our horses climbed powerfully into the dark of the countryside. Immersed in wind, my head began to clear.