Part 1: Mr. Sarnath
A man had been arrested at the port of Caladon. His disembarkation papers had been smudged with sweat. Further investigation had revealed a false bottom to his suitcase.
Sulky, unimpassioned, he stood on the veranda of the customs shed, where the deputy administrator sat behind his desk. Around them the dark night was full of noises. Insects buzzed around the lamppost in the yard.
The deputy administrator leaned forward in his chair. He balanced one pointed elbow on the blotter of his desk, and with the fingers of one hand he combed delicately through a pile of small copper medallions. Each one was stamped with the image of the shining sun.
Under the desktop light they seemed to glow. The deputy administrator rubbed his eyes. It was the fourth hour after sunset; behind him in the shed, the senior deputy director was already drunk, asleep and snoring. At intervals his liquid grunts would seep out past the curtained doorway, mixing with more subtle forest sounds.
?Please sit down," said the deputy administrator. He indicated a wooden stool and the smuggler sank onto it, his knees spread apart. His fat face held no expression. His hair, plentiful upon his neck and hands, was thin on top. His scalp was slick with perspiration.
Next to the pile of medallions a small statue was lying on its side. It was the second part of the smuggler's consignment; the deputy administrator lifted it in both hands and set it upright underneath the lamp. Though only nine inches tall it weighed several pounds, a copper statue of St. Abu Starbridge standing erect, his hand held out in front of him. The tattoo on his palm was inlaid with a plug of solid gold.
The deputy administrator was a judge of craftsmanship. He ran his fingers over the folds of the saint's copper cloak, admiring the work. "Jon Blox," he said. With his left hand he turned over the pages of the smuggler's passport.
The man nodded. A mosquito had landed on the crown of his head. The deputy administrator watched it drink, and swell with blood, and drift away.
?Do you have anything to tell me?" he asked. "You must admit you're in an intricate position."
The smuggler stared at him briefly and then turned his head. He looked out over the wooden balustrade. Something was scrabbling in the bush on the other side of the yard. After a moment a badger waddled onto the perimeter and pressed its naked face against the fence.
The deputy administrator rubbed his eyes. These devotees were hard to break, for they were buttressed in their faith by the example of their saint, who never spoke to his tormentors even when the fire was around his feet. "You could make this simpler for yourself," he said. "Simpler and more complex. But as it is, you have neglected to fill out any of the proper forms. These items, though proscribed for the general public, nevertheless may have legitimate artistic and educational uses. I have seen a statuette just like this in the cultural museum in Charn."
A tremor of interest passed over the smuggler's face. He turned back toward the light. His voice was low??What do you mean??
?I mean that there's no reason for despair. This case may be more complicated than you understand."
He had the man's attention now. The soft pucker of a frown appeared between the smuggler's brows. "What do you mean?" he asked again.
The deputy administrator took a paper from his desk. He read a few lines from the back of it and then looked up. "You are accused of smuggling these items of religious contraband," he said, indicating the pile of medallions and the statue of the saint. "But perhaps we might consider entering a lesser charge, under the right circumstances. For example," he continued "Customs Regulation 412ao forbids the export of all artifacts without a license from the Bureau of Antiquities. If you prefer, Regulation 6161j forbids the use of precious metals in the decorative arts. It is a question of a modest fine."
The smuggler shook his head. "I know the penalty for what I've done."
?I'm suggesting you may not. Your offense may be more trivial than you suppose."
Five wooden steps descended to the yard from the veranda of the customs shed. Two soldiers slouched on these, their backs to the administrator. Occasionally as they turned their heads, he could see the glow of their marijuana cigarettes and catch flickers of their conversation. Now one got up. He ambled over to the perimeter and knelt down by the fence.
?What do you want from me?" demanded the smuggler, his face suddenly alive, contorted with disgust. "Aach, I know your kind. Bureaucratic parasites!" He brought some saliva into his mouth as if to spit, then paused, then swallowed it again. He leaned forward on his stool, placing his fat fist upon the desk. "Let me tell you now, I have no information. No addresses. Not even a name."
At the fence, the soldier reached into his pocket and brought out part of a candy bar. The badger stood opposite him on its hind legs.
The deputy administrator shrugged. "You misunderstand me. But I appreciate your fears. Perhaps you are familiar with certain worst-case scenarios. Perhaps involving relatives or personal friends." He smiled?a wasted gesture, for the lower part of his emaciated face was covered by a veil.
?Let me explain," he said. "Some members of my department do what they can to discourage certain activities, which they interpret to be linked to superstition and idolatry. They feel the truth of man's condition can be better understood through reason than through faith."
Again the smuggler's face seemed to have shut down, and settled into stolid impassivity. The deputy administrator tried again: ?Let me explain. Our function here is not only to prosecute. It is to inform. These objects??here he waved his hand dismissively at the pile of medallions??these objects have no meaning. They are the relics of a bankrupt church."
On the steps, the remaining soldier slapped his neck and swore. And at the fence across the yard, his comrade got up from his knees. He was looking up into the sky.
The lights from the compound overwhelmed all but the brightest stars. But now the moon was rising, its pale edge gleaming among the tallest trees. The smuggler studied it in silence until the arc of its great rim rose unimpeded over the forest canopy. Then he bowed his head and stared down at the floor between his knees. "I guess I'll never leave this place alive," he said. The new light gave his face a new composure.
The deputy administrator rubbed his eyes. "Your position is more favorable than you suspect. You have not begun to think about your options."
The smuggler made no reply, only stared at the floorboards underneath his boots. No man is so stupid that he cannot learn, reflected the administrator. But it takes time; he clapped his hands. "We are both tired," he said. "And I am explaining myself badly. Even so, please think about what I have said. And I will speak to my superiors." He looked down at the appointment book upon his desk. "In the meantime," he said "I have you scheduled tentatively for next Friday. That's the thirty-fourth."