Luterin had recovered. He was free of the mysterious illness. He was allowed out again. The couch by the window, the immobility, the grey schoolmaster who came every day--they were done with. He was alive to fill his lungs with the brisk airs of outdoors.
The cold blew down from Mount Shivenink, sharp enough to peel the bark from the north side of trees.
The fresh wind brought out his defiance. It drew the blood to his cheeks, it made his limbs move with the beast which carried him across his father's land. Letting out a yell, he spurred the hoxney into a gallop. He headed it away from the incarcerating mansion with its tolling bell, away along the avenue traversing the fields they still called the Vineyard. The movement, the air, the uproar of his own blood in his arteries, intoxicated him.
Around him lay his father's territory, a dominion triumphing over latitude, a small world of moor, mountain, valley, plunging stream, cloud, snow, forest, waterfall--but he kept his thought from the waterfall. Endless game roved here, springing up plenteously even as his father hunted it down. Roving phagors. Birds whose migrations darkened the sky.
Soon he would be hunting again, following the example of his father. Life had been somehow stayed, was somehow renewed. He must rejoice and force away the blackness hovering on the edges of his mind.
He galloped past bare-chested slaves who exercised yelk about the Vineyard, clinging to their snaffles. The hoofs of the animals scattered mounds of earth sent up by moles.
Luterin Shokerandit spared a sympathetic thought for the moles. They could ignore the extravagances of the two suns. Moles could hunt and rut in any season. When they died, their bodies were devoured by other moles. For moles, life was an endless tunnel through which the males quested for food and mates. He had forgotten them, lying abed.
"Moledom!" he shouted, bouncing in the saddle, rising up in the stirrups. The spare flesh on his body made its own movements under his arang jacket.
He goaded the hoxney on. Exercise was what was needed to bring him back into fighting shape. The spare fat was falling away from him even on this, his first ride out for more than a small year. His twelfth birthday had been wasted flat on his back. For over four hundred days he had lain like that--for a considerable period unable to move or speak. He had been entombed in his bed, in his room, in his parents' mansion, in the great grave House of the Keeper. Now that episode was finished.
Strength flowed back to his muscles, arriving from the animal beneath him, from the air, from the trunks of trees as they flashed by, from his own inner being. Some destructive force whose nature he did not comprehend had wiped him out of the world; now he was back and determined to make a mark upon that flashing stage.
One of the double entrance gates was opened for him by a slave before he reached it. He galloped through without pause or sideways glance.
The wind yelped in his unaccustomed ear like a hound. He lost the familiar note of the bell of the house behind him. The small bells on his harness jingled as the ground responded to his advance.
Both Batalix and Freyr were low in the southern sky. They flitted among the tree trunks like gongs, the big sun and the small. Luterin turned his back on them as he reached the village road. Year by year, Freyr was sinking lower in the skies of Sibornal. Its sinking called forth fury in the human spirit. The world was about to change.
The sweat that formed on his chest cooled instantly. He was whole again, determined to make up for lost time by rutting and hunting like the moles. The hoxney could carry him to the verge of the trackless caspiarn forests, those forests which fell away and away into the deepest recesses of the mountain ranges. One day soon, he planned to fade into the embrace of those forests, to fade and be lost, relishing his own dangerousness like an animal among animals. But first ne would be lost in the embrace of Insil Esikananzi.
Luterin gave a laugh. "Yes, you have a wild side, boy," his father had once said, staring down at Luterin after some misdemeanour or other--staring down with that friendless look of his, while placing a hand on the boy's shoulder as if estimating the amount of wildness per bone.
And Luterin had gazed downwards, unable to meet that stare. How could his father love him as he loved his father when he was so mute in the great man's presence?
The distant grey roofs of the monasteries showed through the naked trees. Close lay the gates of the Esikananzi estate. He let the brown hoxney slow to a trot, sensing its lack of stamina. The species was preparing for hibernation. Soon all hoxneys would be useless for riding. This was the season for training up the recalcitrant but more powerful yelk. When a slave opened the Esikananzi gate, the hoxney turned in at walking pace. The distinctive Esikananzi bell sounded ahead, chiming randomly as the wind took its vane.
He prayed to God the Azoiaxic that his father knew nothing of his activities with Ondod females, that wickedness he had fallen into shortly before paralysis had overcome him. The Ondods gave what Insil so far refused him.
He must resist those inhuman females now. He was a man. There were sleazy shacks by the edge of the forest where he and his school friends--including Umat Esikananzi--went to meet those shameless eight-fingered bitches. Bitches, witches, who came out of the woods, out of the very roots of the woods ... And it was said that they consorted with male phagors too. Well, that would not happen again. It was in the past, like his brother's death. And like his brother's death, best forgotten.
It was not beautiful, the mansion of the Esikananzis. Brutality was the predominant feature of its architecture; it was constructed to withstand the brutal onslaughts of a northern climate. A row of blind arches formed the base of it. Narrow windows, heavily shuttered, began only on the second floor. The whole structure resembled a decapitated pyramid. The bell in its belfry made a slatey sound, as if ringing from the adamantine heart of the building.
Luterin dismounted, climbed the steps, and pulled the doorbell.
He was a broad-shouldered youth, already lofty in the Sibornalese manner, with a round face seemingly built naturally for merriment: although, at this moment, awaiting sight of Insil, his brows were knit, his lips compressed. The tension of his expression caused him to resemble his father, but his eyes were of a clear grey, very different from his father's dark, in-dwelling pupils.
His hair, curling riotously about his head and the nape of his neck, was light brown, and formed a contrast to the neat dark head of the girl into whose presence he was ushered.
Insil Esikananzi had the airs of one born into a powerful family. She could be sharp and dismissive. She teased. She lied. She cultivated a helpless manner; or, if it suited her better, a look of command. Her smiles were wintery, more a concession to politeness than an expression of her spirit. Her violet eyes looked out of a face she kept as blank as possible.
She was carrying a jug of water through the hall, clasped in both hands. As she came towards Luterin she lifted her chin slightly into the air, in a kind of mute exasperated enquiry. To Luterin, Insil was intensely desirable, and no less desirable for her capriciousness.
This was the girl he was to marry, according to the arrangement drawn up between his father and hers at Insil's birth, to cement the accord between the two most powerful men of the district.
Directly he was in her presence, Luterin was caught up once more into their old conspiracy, into that intricate teasing web of complaint which she wove about herself.
"I see, Luterin, you are on your two feet again. How excellent. And like a dutiful husband-to-be, you have perfumed yourself with sweat and hoxney before presuming to call and present your compliments. You have certainly grown while in bed--at least in the region of your waistline."
She fended off an embrace with the jug of water. He put an arm about her slender waist as she led him up the immense staircase, made more gloomy by dark portraits from which dead Esikananzis stared as if in tether, shrunken by art and time.
"Don't be provoking, Sil. I'll soon be slim again. It's wonderful to have my health back."
Her personal bell uttered its light clap on every stair.
"My mother's so sickly. Always sickly. My slimness is illness, not health. You are lucky to call when my tedious parents and my equally tedious brothers, including your friend Umat, are all attending a boring ceremony elsewhere. So you can expect to take advantage of me, can't you? Of course, you suspect that I have been had by stable boys while you were in your year's hibernation. Giving myself in the hay to sons of slaves."
She guided him along a corridor where the boards creaked under their worn Madi carpets. She was close, phantasmal in the little light that filtered here through shuttered windows.
"Why do you punish my heart, Insil, when it is yours?"
"It's not your heart I want, but your soul." She laughed. "Have more spirit. Hit me, as my father does. Why not? Isn't punishment the essence of things?"
He said heatedly, "Punishment? Listen, we'll be married and I'll make you happy. You can hunt with me. We'll never be apart. We'll explore the forests--"
"You know I'm more interested in rooms than forests." She paused with a hand on a door latch, smiling provocatively, projecting her shallow breasts toward him under their linens and laces.
"People are better outside, Sil. Don't grin. Why pretend I'm a fool? I know as much about suffering as you. That whole small year spent prostrate--wasn't that about the worst punishment anyone could imagine?"
Insil put a finger on his chin and slid it up to his lip. "That clever paralysis allowed you to escape from a greater punishment--having to live here under our repressive parents, in this repressive community--where you for instance were driven to cohabit with non-humans for relief..."
She smiled as he blushed, but continued in her sweetest voice. "Have you no insight into your own suffering? You often accused me of not loving you, and that may be so, but don't I pay you better attention than you pay yourself?"
"What do you mean, Insil?" How her conversation tormented him.
"Is your father at home or away on the hunt?"
"He's at home."
"As I recall, he had returned from the hunt not more than two days before your brother committed suicide. Why did Favin commit suicide? I suspect that he knew something you refuse to know."
Without taking her dark gaze from his eyes, she opened the door behind her, pushing it so that it opened to allow sunshine to bathe them as they stood, conspiratorial yet opposed, on the threshold. He clutched her, tremulous to discover that she was as necessary to him as ever, and as ever full of riddles.
"What did Favin know? What am I supposed to know?" The mark of her power over him was that he was always questioning her.
"Whatever your brother knew, it was that which sent you escaping into your paralysis--not his actual death, as everyone pretends." She was twelve years and a tenner, not much more than a child: yet a tension in her gestures made her seem much older. She raised an eyebrow at his puzzlement.
He followed her into the room, wishing to ask her more, yet tongue-tied. "How do you know these things, Insil? You invent them to make yourself mysterious. Always locked in these rooms..."
She set the jug of water down on a table beside a bunch of white flowers which she had picked earlier. The flowers lay scattered on the polished surface, their faces reflected as in a misted mirror.
As though to herself, she said, "I try to train you not to grow up like the rest of the men here..."
She walked over to the window, framed in heavy brown curtains which hung from ceiling to floor. Although she stood with her back to him, he sensed that she was not looking out. The dual sunlight, shining in from two different directions, dissolved her as if it were liquid, so that her shadow on the tiled floor appeared more substantial than she. Insil was demonstrating once more her elusive nature.
It was a room he had not entered before, a typical Esikananzi room, loaded with heavy furniture. It held a tantalising scent, in part repugnant. Perhaps its only purpose was to hoard furniture, most of it wooden, against the day when the Weyr-Winter came and no more furniture would be made. There was a green couch with carved scrollwork, and a massive wardrobe which dominated the chamber. All the furniture had been imported; he saw that by its style.
He shut the door, remaining there contemplating her. As if he did not exist, she began arranging her flowers in a vase, pouring water from the jug into the vase, shuffling the stems peremptorily with her long fingers.
He sighed. "My mother is always sickly, too, poor thing. Every day of her life she goes into pauk and communes with her dead parents."
Insil looked up sharply at him. "And you--while you were lying flat on your back--I suppose you've fallen into the habit of pauk too?"
"No. You're mistaken. My father forbad me ... besides, it's not just that..."
Insil put fingers to her temples. "Pauk is what the common people do. It's so superstitious. To go into a trance and descend into that awful underworld, where bodies rot and those ghastly corpses are still spitting the dregs of life ... oh, it's disgusting. You're sure you don't do it?"
"Never. I imagine my mother's sickness comes from pauk."
"Well, sherb you, I do it every day. I kiss my grandmother's corpse-lips and taste the maggots..." Then she burst into laughter. "Don't look so silly. I'm joking. I hate the thought of those things underground and I'm glad you don't go near them."
She lowered her gaze to the flowers.
"These snowflowers are tokens of the world's death, don't you think? There are only white flowers now, to go with the snow. Once, so the histories say, brightly coloured flowers bloomed in Kharnabhar."
She pushed the vase resignedly from her. Down in the throats of the pale blossoms, a touch of gold remained, turning to a speck of intense red at the ovary, like an emblem of the vanishing sun.
He sauntered across to her, over the patterned tiles. "Come and sit on the couch with me and talk of happier things."
"You must be referring to the climate--declining so rapidly that our grandchildren, if we live to have any, will spend their lives in near darkness, wrapped in animal skins. Probably making animal noises ... That sounds a promising topic."
"What nonsense you talk!" Laughing, he jumped forward and grasped her. She let him drag her down on the couch as he uttered fevered endearments.
"Of course you can't make love to me, Luterin. You may feel me as you have before, but no lovemaking. I don't think I shall ever take kindly to lovemaking--but in any case, were I to permit it, you would lose your interest in me, your lust being satisfied."
"It's a lie, a lie."
"It had best stand as the truth, if we are to have any marital happiness at all. I am not marrying a sated man."
"I could never have enough of you." As he spoke, his hand was foraging up her clothes.
"The invading armies..." Insil sighed, but she kissed him and put the point of her tongue in his mouth.
At which moment, the door of the wardrobe burst open. Out jumped a young man of Insil's dark colouration, but as frenzied as his sister was passive. It was Umat, brandishing a sword, shouting.
"Sister, sister! Help is at hand! Here's your brave rescuer, to save you and the family from dishonour! Who's this beast? Isn't a year in bed enough for him, that he must rise immediately to seek the nearest couch? Varlet! Rapist!"
"You rat in the skirting!" Luterin shouted. He rushed at Umat in a rage, the wooden sword fell to the floor, and they wrestled furiously. After his long confinement, Luterin had lost some of his strength. His friend threw him to the floor. As he picked himself up, he saw that Insil had flitted away.
He ran to the door. She had vanished into the dark recesses of the house. In the scuffle, her flowers had been spilt and the jug broken on the tiled floor.
Only as he made his way disconsolately back to the village road, letting the hoxney carry him at walking pace, did it occur to Luterin that possibly Insil had staged Umat's interruption. Instead of going home, he turned right at the Esikananzi gate, and rode into the village to drink at the Icen Inn.
Batalix was close to setting when he followed the mournful Shokerandit bell home. Snow was falling. No one was about in the grey world. At the inn, the talk consisted mainly of jokes and complaints concerning the new regulations being introduced by the Oligarch, such as curfew. The regulations were intended to strengthen communities throughout Sibornal for ordeals to come.
Most of the talk was cheap, and Luterin despised it. His father would never speak of such things--or not in his one remaining son's hearing.
The gaslights were burning in the long hall of his home. As Luterin was unbuckling his personal bell, a slave came up, bowed, and announced that his father's secretary wished to see him. "Where is my father?" Luterin demanded. "Keeper Shokerandit has left, sir."
Angrily Luterin ran up the stairs and threw open the door into the secretary's room. The secretary was a permanent member of the Shokerandit household. With his beaklike nose, his straight line of eyebrow, his shallow forehead, and the quiff of hair which protruded over that forehead, the secretary resembled a crow. This narrow wooden room, its pigeonholes stuffed with secret documents, was the crow's nest. From here, it surveyed many secret prospects beyond Luterin's ken.
"Your father is off on a hunt, Master Luterin," announced this wily bird now, in a tone mingling deference with reproach. "Since you were nowhere to be found, he had to leave without bidding you farewell."
"Why didn't he let me accompany him? He knows I love the hunt. Perhaps I can catch him up. Which way did his entourage go?"
"He entrusted me with this epistle for you. You would perhaps be advised to read it before dashing off."
The secretary handed over a large envelope. Luterin snatched it from his talons. He ripped open the cover and read what was set down on the enclosed sheet in his father's large and careful hand:
There is a prospect in the days to come that you will be appointed Keeper of the Wheel in my place. That role, as you are aware, combines both secular and religious duties.
When you were born, you were taken to Rivenjk to be blessed by the Priest-Supreme of the Church of the Formidable Peace. I believe this to have fortified the godly side of your nature. You have proved a submissive son in whom I am satisfied.
Now it is time to fortify the secular side of your nature. Your late brother was commissioned to the army, as is the tradition with elder sons. It is fitting that you should take up a similar office, especially as in the wider world (of which you so far know nothing), Sibornal's affairs are moving towards a point of decision.
Accordingly, I have left a sum of money with my secretary. He will hand it over to you. You will proceed to Askitosh, chief city of our proud continent, and there enroll yourself as a soldier, with a commissioned rank of lieutenant ensign. Report to Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka, who will be familiar with your situation.
I have instructed that a masque shall be held in your honour, to celebrate your departure.
You are to leave without delay and gather esteem to the family name.
A blush spread over Luterin's face as he read his father's rare word of praise. That his father should be satisfied with him despite all his failings!--satisfied enough to declare a masque in his honour!
His glow of happiness faded when he realised that his father would himself not be present at the masque. No matter. He would become a soldier and do anything asked of him. He would make his father proud of him.
Perhaps even Insil would warm to the name of glory....
The masque was performed in the banqueting hall of the Shokerandit mansion on the eve of Luterin's departure south.
Stately personages in grand costume enacted preordained roles. A solemn music played. A familiar story was performed telling of innocence and villainy, of the lust to possess, and of the convoluted role of faith in the lives of men. To some characters harm was allotted, to some good. All came under a law greater than their own jurisdiction. The musicians, bent over their strings, emphasised the mathematics which prevailed over relationships.
The harmonies evoked by the musicians suggested a cadence of stern compassion, inviting a view of human affairs far beyond the normal acceptances of optimism or pessimism. In the leitmotifs for the woman forced to give herself to a ruler she hated and for the man unable to control his baser passions, musical members of the audience could detect a fatality, a sense that even the most individual characters were indissolubly functions of their environment, just as individual notes formed part of the greater harmony. The stylised acting of the performers reinforced this interpretation.
Some entrances were politely applauded by the audience, others observed without especial pleasure. The actors were well rehearsed in their roles, but not all by any means commanded the same presence as the principals.
Figures of state, figures of noble families, figures of the church, allegorical figures representing phagors and monsters, together with the various humours of Love, Hatred, Evil, Passion, Fear, and Purity, played their parts on the boards and were gone.
The stage emptied. Darkness fell. The music died.
But Luterin Shokerandit's drama was just beginning.