At that time we were living in Canton, my daughter and I, in what is said to be the largest port in the world. The Cantoners justify this claim by equating the Harbor with the entire country. Considering the shape of the land and water (mostly water) that makes up Canton, I will give them no argument. We were residing at the medical college, where I was translating manuscripts and she was pretending not to teach, when I read in a newspaper that King Rudof of Velonya was dead.
I remember I was in a coffee shop, and the paper I was reading (I have good vision for my age) was not mine, but belonged to my neighbor to the left. There was some small disagreement about the possession of the paper, which in my astonishment and shock I did not notice. When I became aware of myself again, I was holding the owner of the paper with his hand locked behind his back in violation of both his rights and his dignity. I remedied both of these slights with money, for the Cantoners have a very commercial sense of honor, and I took the paper outside.
I sat on a box, I think, and I am fairly certain there was a ship unloading only a hundred feet away, across the stone paving of Wharf Promenade. There were cries in the air: sailors' or birds', I don't remember.
It was as though this news had ripped me out from the fabric of my life and set me down once more in a place of perfect quiet, perfect misery -- ears ringing, sun too bright. I knew this place well since Arlin's death.
The article itself was short. It said the king had died in the capital, in his bed. In his bed, it said. I could see that bed behind my closed eyes: his father's bed and his father's before that, too narrow and short for a man of Rudof's build and habits. I had been allowed to visit him of a morning in his royal rat's nest, where half the covers were in a ball and the other half on the floor. He was a man who threw darts at the bedposts to punctuate his conversation. Whose feet poked holes in linen sheets.
My king, my fellow student, closer than brother. I felt the back of my head strike the bricks of the wall, for I was rocking in place like a child with fever. Huge man, quick and fiery, he had held my life in his hands, forfeit by law again and again, and he had let me fly free -- he who could never himself be free. Words like these tumbled around my head, but they were only words, not real feeling. Not yet.
Dr. Keighl found me there, I don't know how long after. "I see I can bring you no news," he said.
I answered him. "You can tell me if it's true."
The doctor sat down beside me on the crate, all in his frock coat and gabardine trousers. Even at the time I knew it a great condescension on his part. "In over a year of running argument, Professor Nazhuret, we have not been able to agree upon the nature of truth. What now do you expect of me? I will say I have heard it from sources other than this poor sheet."
He called me "professor" because the university here had deigned to grant me an honorary degree of Master of Arts some years since. I had no say in the matter.
Knowing better, I had to ask, "Then, there is no chance...?"
"There is always a chance."
I had asked for a platitude and had gotten one.
"The news must be two weeks old, at least," I thought aloud, and Keighl answered, "Three, I am told. The Velonyan government concealed the death for over a day, and then the winter winds make shipping slow."
It took some moments for his words to form meaning in my brain. I heard the gulls; they were very loud. "The government concealed the death." I looked into the doctor's eyes, trying to be calm, to see clearly. "Does rumor say who killed him?"
With this, Doctor Keighl's figure seemed to open up, to gain movement and life, as though I had served up for him what was the real meat of the conversation.
"Of course, it is bandied about that the Old Velonyan faction did it."
"How? The paper gave no hint."
"Poison," said the doctor diffidently.
Poison could be a rending agony, or a mere falling asleep. Which had occurred meant a lot to me. I asked him what poison, and the question caused surprise. "I wouldn't know," he said. "But I would bet money that it was the queen's party that did it."
I sighed, thinking that Navvie must be told. I hoped she did not know already, had not heard offhandedly; as I had. "Isn't it curious," I said to the doctor, since he seemed so interested in the matter, "that it should be called the Old Velonyan Party, when the queen is not a Velonyan of any sort, old or new."
Then, with great sobriety, Doctor Keighl asked me what I planned to do in response to this atrocious deed. I glared at him in alarm. "Do! What on earth can I do, my dear doctor? Throw the government of Velonya into prison as a whole? Cut them to ribbons individually? What?"
The look of expectation on his moderate, oval Cantoner face did not fade. "I don't know. But I have heard about you. So much about you."
I was looking at my hands, which were clasped in front of me. Smaller hands than average, with skin slightly loosened by fifty-five years of life. I showed him those hands, as though they would communicate something to the man, and then I gave up on self composure and ran off to find my daughter.
Canton is an easy town to run in, as all the streets are even and wide. There is poverty here, but not as much as elsewhere. There is aristocracy here, but it does not get in the burghers' way. Most notably, Canton is clean. Though the colors of its flag stand for water, its true banner should represent a windowbox of flowers. When its citizens curse (as they cursed me smashing through them along the streets), they do it with moderation and without originality. I passed along Provot Street, which was all warehouses, and across the Mariner's Park and the Old Mariner's Shelter, where one fellow passed a witty comment concerning the sight of a man my age pumping his short legs so energetically. (He, like me, a foreigner.)
The university has a large brick gate with no wall but only a short hedge surrounding it. Because the gate was clogged with dons in uniform, I did not attempt it but leaped the roses. Here the response was more outraged and less witty, because university instructors tend to regard their institution with the sobriety others reserve for cemeteries. I seem to be making this whole incident into a joke, and I cannot say why. By this time I was in pain enough.
The lecture halls were closed for the midday meal, so I ran on to the herb museum, where Nahvah had employment "arranging" the exhibits. In truth, her job was to take a large library of specimens, which over the years had been labeled and glassed by the methods of superstition and pure chance, and to match the correct plant to its Allec and vernacular names. Among my daughter's gifts is a power of memory.
She was not in the display hall; few students were.
I found her in the less impressive but more useful drying houses on the building's flat roof. She was seated on a simple wooden chair, her hands in her lap and her feet folded under her skirts. I had not succeeded in finding her first.
"I am so sorry, Papa," she said. By her voice she had been crying. She was not crying now. "I know how you must hurt."
The smell of the fresh herbs around us was intoxicating. There was anise and coriander seed, giving a festive, sweet-biscuit note to the air, and beneath that odor something of the feeling of the forest floor in autumn. I knelt beside the chair to look at her closely. "But you, little academician. You are all right?"
Navvie's hair is black and thick and her eyelashes so profuse as to make her eyes seem smudged. Set within these ovals of darkness are eyes of a blue as pale as my own. Her glance is like clear sky glimpsed through black weather. My own mother I saw only once that I remember, and that time was in a dream of some sort. Yet Nahvah looks remarkably like that dream-image, even to her littleness.
"I am reasonably all right," she said. "But -- though he was your friend, Papa, he was my own godfather. I knew him all my life."
Godfathers can be important relations, or trivial ones. Rudof took his godfatherhood very seriously. We had many arguments over the matter of gifts. Sometimes I won, but there was a closet of rich dresses at the statehouse in Velonya that Navvie wore only to visit the king. They embarrassed her. She would not have to wear them again.
I sat at her feet, my chin on my knees, slightly faint from the odor of the herbs and the exhaustion of sorrow. From this level I could see that Navvie was wearing her pistol in her waistband. Usually she stuffed it in her purse.
"He told me to call him 'uncle.' I was six years old, but already I knew that was dangerous, because the other children in the court grew jealous."
"Children were not exactly the problem, but you were right, dear. It was dangerous."
"So I never called him that when there were other people in the room, and he didn't correct me. So he must have known, too. That it wasn't a good idea. After a year or so, I pretended to forget."
"So did he," I answered her, though Rudof had never told me of this. "But he would have liked to have a daughter. Or a son that loved him."
Navvie sighed and her hand sought out the pistol's butt. "I think he was easier to love as a godfather than he would have been as a father. So. What are we to do now?"
It was Arlin's gift to change mood so smoothly from the painful to the practical that my mind would stumble, trying to keep up. Navvie has taken on a lot of her mother's traits, now that she is grown. I still stumble to keep up.
I pointed at the pistol. "Do you think Rudof's death affects our security, girl? Down here in Canton?"
"There is no security," she replied, quoting Powl, whom she can barely remember. "Not anywhere on this earth. But I am carrying this because the new barrel is promised for today. I am to be at the smith's this afternoon."
As I stood up I slipped the pistol away from her and looked it over. "Were you planning to exchange the barrels with a shot in the chamber?"
Navvie put out her hand and I gave the thing back to her. "I'm not saying you're wrong, Navvie. If the day feels like that to you, keep the pistol loaded. My own feelings are too discorded for use."
We took our midday at one of Canton's coffee and pastry shops, which are far superior to the inns of my home, except that they serve a bad beer. Until Navvie mentioned the fact, I did not notice I had not eaten my dinner at all. I remember being amazed at this, and wondering whether somehow the waiter had changed my plate for a joke. I wrapped the pie in a clean handkerchief, and if I recall correctly, threw it out two days later when I encountered it in my coat pocket.
The day's inertia took us to the smithy afterward. Gunsmithery is another aspect in which Canton leaves the North behind.
I am old enough to have no feeling for guns. The two-man harquebus of my youth was as like to blow off the head of the wielder as that of his opponent. And also, back at Sordaling School, we were taught a gun was no weapon for an officer, let alone gentry or knight. But the rough tools of my youth bear little resemblance to Navvie's pistols.
She has had always an affinity for powder-weapons, which she got neither from Arlin nor myself. Perhaps it is her slightness and lack of reach that makes a pistol more appealing to Navvie than a sword, or brawling hand-to-hand. Perhaps the noise, speed, and violence of the things make a balance with the labor and compassion she exerts in her medical work. She herself says it is only the future catching up with us, and I try to catch up with Navvie as she studies with one gunmaker after another. Four countries' worth, so far.
The state of the craft in Canton was formidable. From J. Sninden of the Parade Wharf came the first pistols of standardized bore caliber, and the first presses that created leads that would fit them.
It was to Sninden's we went now, but what Navvie had in mind was a few steps in advance of the common pistol.
She had seen a weapon in Bologhini that could be loaded, like a fine cannon, from the rear of the barrel. This would add rapidity to the firing and make it possible for the user to see his packing directly, we were told. It did not work; in fact, the barrelslide flew farther than the bullet and in a very different direction. Nonetheless, the idea stole my daughter's fancy, and she had been thinking about it for two years. In an attempt to prolong her life, so had I.
The workshop smelled so of burned powder that it reminded me of a battlefield, and the tragedy of the day made that association more vivid. Navvie had never seen a battlefield, though, and she had the resilience of youth, so she strode across the room with anticipation, kicking her long skirts with every step.
"Jonshen, did you do it? Is it ready?"
Jonshen Sninden is half-deaf, for obvious reasons, but like many another he could hear what he wanted to hear. He came out of the back room, his hands blackened and his leather apron brightened with shavings of steel.
"I didn't know if you'd be here, little girl," he said, and then he saw me and bowed, touching his forehead as though I were somebody. "Yes, I have a barrel to try, and it fits your daddy's slug-casket. No more than that can I say."
My "slug-casket" was simply a barrel within the barrel to direct the explosion forward and away from the opening on the top and back, so near to the shooter's (my daughter's) face. It held the powder and the wad and was topped with the pellet. It was to be made of steel, but I had no tools that would bore steel and no fire to melt steel, so the experimental type was of brass. Despite the fact that the presence of the casing meant the volume of powder and weight of shot had to be small, my own handiwork terrified me, and I was glad to see that Sninden had set up a vise to hold the butt of the pistol, and a target backed by a sandbox to receive the pellet. At my encouragement, he added bags of sand around the barrel and a string, the latter to pull the trigger at a distance. I think both Sninden and Navvie thought me a spoilsport.
We stood in the doorway to the room behind, and had I my way, we would have closed the door and run the string through the keyhole.
Sninden offered the pull to Navvie, as she was instigator of this experiment, but she told him she was not attached to the moment, and I heard footsteps coming up the stairs behind us as he pulled the string.
The reverberation was sharper than I expected, and accompanied by the thunk of the lead into the target and a short screech from the tall, well-dressed man behind us. He recovered himself. "Doctor Nazhuret?"
The gunsmith and my daughter deserted me.
"Mr. Kavenen," I said, to be difficult. "The doctorate is honorary."
He had recovered himself. He sniffed around appreciatively as he crossed the room to me. "Powder. What a masculine smell. Well, need we be strangers to honor, Mister Doctor Nazhuret Kavenen?" He was very tall, and enjoyed standing close.
Feeling even more difficult now, I wanted to tell him that only the name Timet went with the name Kavenen, whereas "Nazhuret" was fitted with the suffix "aid'Nahvah: aminsanaur." I escaped making myself such a fool, for I recognized the gentleman. He was Lord Damish: aristocrat functionary of the burgher-driven Cantoner Council. I had hung over that council in the visitor's gallery, where every human being had the right to watch proceedings, and heard the seventy-six councilors in their flat, Cantoner voices debate their infinite question of tariffs. The house of Damish is like the skin of the totemic lion: powerless but kept around to flourish when real authority lacks color.
"My lord, what can I do for you?" I asked, to cut through the politesse. I wanted to be left alone today. I wanted to see what the explosion had done. I feared Sninden and my daughter would be carried away by enthusiasm and do it again, this time without me.
He bowed, leaning over my head. "I come to offer you the sympathies of the state, sir. In your loss."
I almost laughed at the idea of a state having sympathies. Most nations seem to have only the most selfish of emotions, and Canton had none at all, only rates and tariffs. I asked the man how he had chosen me for his condolences, and he said, "It's common knowledge you were one of King Rudof's closest friends. That you knew him from school."
"No, I didn't," I answered, and I crooked a finger for him to follow me into the dim, armored room where Sninden and Nahvah were bent over the barrel of the breechloader.
"It worked splendidly," said the gunsmith.
"We can't get the casing out now," added Navvie, who has no more courtesy than I have. "I'm working on it with a pry."
I approached the steel barrel and felt it. I put my hand on the flange of brass at the bottom of the slugcasket.
"Watch, Papa. It's still hot," she said, and I returned that I believed her. I blew down the barrel, forcefully, getting a faceful of stink and oily dirt, and I heard her say the thing was coming out.
The little casing looked sound, except for the discoloration where the primer had struck powder and the smears of brightness where it had been forced from the barrel.
Sninden was magnificent at ignoring the lordship in his gallery. "The idea is sound, girl. Only the slugcasket needs to be reduced in size a trifle."
"Then it won't block the backfire, and we'll be where we started, with blown breeches and split barrels."
The council lord plucked my sleeve and I was led again into the display room. "You subject your daughter to that stench and noise, sir?" He was ready to make a joke about it. A friendly joke.
"No, I abhor guns. She subjects me," I answered, and once again I asked the state's man -- the stately man -- what he wanted of me.
Lord Damish stared at me a long moment and then asked very plainly what I was planning to do about the death of King Rudof.
I had resented the man's artificiality, but I resented more his pointed honesty. "He is dead, I'm told," I answered, "and it's too late to do anything at all about it."
Dead. "If it is dead, then it had better pass out," had said Arlin, about a miscarriage. Arlin, too, was dead. Could one word stop so much?
"Are you planning to return home?"
I told him I had no plans. That was true enough. I might have as perfectly told him that I had no home.
"I ask because Canton is concerned. Canton is concerned because Lowcanton is concerned. It's not vulgar curiosity on my part."
I shrugged. "I'm sure it is nothing vulgar, on anyone's part but, my lord, I still have no plans."
The tall lord sighed. "I obviously came too soon. Please send for me when you have thought." He stalked the length of the room and then bowed. "Duke Timet." Then he bowed again. "Aminsanaur." I heard him going down the stairs.
Navvie was at my back, as was Sninden. "Papa, you have more sets of names than anyone I know."
"He certainly put me in my place with them," I said, and Sninden dropped the cooled brass casing in my hand.
That evening the port of Canton was more beautiful than I had ever seen it. The quiet water, deep enough not to be muddied by traffic, lapped at the multitude of piers. The wavelets were bright and the piers were black, in a pattern like winter branches against the sky. The real sky was washed in flesh colors: pink, ivory, and sallow, and someone hidden was playing a reed box with tinny, lonely sounds. I sat on the upper floor balcony of our little house, halfway between grief and sulking, for there was nothing in this landscape to remind me of my dead friend and king, and it seemed unfair to have no tools for my mourning.
Lights came on in the streets below, because Canton is too busy to close down at sunset; its commerce goes daily until exhaustion.
It seemed to me I had never given Rudof half enough in recompense for all he had done for me. I remembered all the times I had paraded my refusal of the simplest duties a subject owes his king. I would not war for him; I would not accept his authority over me nor the authority he wished me to take up over others. What was it I had said to my king, on our first meeting, on the southern marches of Zaquashlon? "Let us not stop here like fools discussing my accent..."
Why was I still alive and free after all that? He had been known as a touchy man. A redhead.
His only surviving son was a redhead also, and the boy had never appreciated my qualities. The boy was now a man: the king of Velonya. I was not entirely unhappy to be away from Velonya as he ascended the throne.
Navvie was standing at the balcony with me. Her hands gripped the balustrade and she allowed her feet to swing between the uprights. There were green stains on her fingers and she bore a smell of crushed grass. "I don't know if the railing is safe," I said.
"It will hold my weight," she answered, with the complacency of the very small. "Or do you think I should be acting my age?"
This was so ridiculous I didn't respond. Nothing I have taught Nahvah has had anything to do with acting one's age.
"By my age," she continued dreamily, looking at the thirty-foot drop beneath her, "I am really a hopeless old spinster."
My daughter is twenty-seven, though she looks fourteen. I asked her if she even knew how to spin, with the idea she would turn a toe-pirouette on the wooden slats and then laugh, and maybe then I could laugh, too. But Navvie did not give me that laugh. She just shook her head. "No. Mother did not remember how, so she could not teach me. Unless you mean spinning a blade."
"Still, that's a form of spinning. I suppose you qualify as a spinster -- and will even if you marry."
"Marriage doesn't run in my family," Navvie said calmly. "Neither my mother nor my father ever married.
"That was just a joke," she added, after staring at my face. "Please, Papa. Just a joke."
There was very little light outdoors by now, and I left the piers and the ocean for lamp-lit rooms and dinner.
I was thinking of young Jeram as much as I was Rudof that evening, wondering what effect the political turmoil would have on his troublesome little philosophy, which the boy called a religion and which he blamed on me. Ofttimes I have wanted to hang Jeram, for his enthusiasm was only matched by his ability to miss the essence of things. I did not want anyone else to hang Jeram, though. What a miserable shame it would be if he died for a teaching he didn't even understand.
Navvie opened a bottle of wine. I did not know when she had purchased this luxury; I was too depressed at the moment to ask. In retrospect I guess she had the bottle ready to celebrate the success of her breech pistol, and instead it went to help us drown the sorrow of Rudof's death.
Navvie's mother used to while away the time putting dagger holes in rented furniture. Navvie herself always leaves things in better condition than when she found them. Our souls come out of a grab bag, I think, and our parents have limited power to endow or influence. Tonight Navvie seemed to be mending and freshening clothes. I watched her, scarcely seeing. "The church, Papa? Is that what's bothering you? Your expression is more peeved than grieved."
"Rudof has certainly peeved me as well as grieved me, child. But you're right. I am wondering whether your friend Jeram's silliness has gotten him into final trouble."
Navvie sighed at me as I often have sighed at her. Or her mother at both of us. "It isn't fair to blame Jeram on me, Zhurrie, just because we are both of an age. It's you he reveres. Besides" -- she stacked three folded blouses and pounded the pile flat --"'The Belly of the Wolf'" is not entirely silly. If he hasn't understood your practice very well, you haven't spent much time teaching him."
I protested that I hadn't wanted to teach him at all. It had not seemed appropriate. "But he refused to understand that. He broadcasts his own lessons like grass seed come stone or soil. And he did not hesitate to set himself up as a teacher before anyone complimented him on his wisdom."
Navvie finally gave me the giggle I wanted. "Oh, poor man, if he had to wait for compliments, he'd be tripping on his beard before he could start to lecture. He waited so long to be taken seriously. Especially by you."
The wine was bright and rough, probably produce of Canton itself. "I fear that the Norwess Provincial Assembly will be taking him more seriously than he'd like, from now on...
"... If the crown party leans on them," I concluded, and for a moment the wine was like blood in my throat.
Copyright © 1994 by R.A. MacAvoy