A pleasant but persistent chime echoed across the slum
quarter of Alda Mexa. Idenion stirred, turned instinctively toward the other
half of the bed, then sighed as he found it empty. Of course, he was no longer
Arnalta's partner. Strange that his body could still miss her after his mind
had lost interest. Resolutely, he pushed back the oddly‑assorted covers
and went to wash and dress. Then, yawning, he went into the kitchen, spooned
two tiny helpings of cereal into unmatching bowls, and poured out two measures
As usual, Dena had not woken. Idenion went quietly
into her room and shook her gently. "Dena? Dena, wake up. You'll be
"I'm so tired, Idenion," she murmured.
The chime sounded again, more rapidly.
"Do hurry, Dena," Idenion pleaded, but her
reply, whatever it was, went unheard. A relayist had contacted him, saying
simply: +Idenion, First Poet, you are excused from work today. Your presence is
required at the akron.
A flitter is on its way to you+
+Who originated this message?+ Idenion asked. Dena sat
+Tralvar+ came the reply after a few moments. +He's
there already. The Narvellans want you to attend the resignation of their
"Curious," Idenion remarked to his sister.
"Still, I suppose anything's better than factory work, even their
"Could I come with you?" asked Dena.
"Better not." He patted her shoulder
apologetically. "You weren't invited. Where's my decent tunic ‑ the
white one? I'd better make myself presentable."
Dena found it for him. He had scarcely changed out of
his overall and finished his meagre breakfast when the flitter arrived.
"At least you have an excuse for being late
today," he said lightly. "Make the most of it."
She smiled, but her eyes remained troubled.
"Idenion... don't quarrel with anyone, will you?"
"Don't worry," he reassured her.
"Tralvar will keep me in order."
The Narvellan pilot was not in the mood for
conversation, but Narvellans seldom were. Idly, Idenion wondered why Governor
Grevin was leaving so suddenly, and so early. Then, as the flitter neared the
plaza adjoining the akron,
he began to realise that all was far from well. Tension and disquiet assailed
his acute perception.
"What's going on?" he demanded of his silent
companion as they came to land.
The latter deliberated for a moment, then said:
"Do you know Isylla?"
"Grevin's wife?" said Idenion, carefully
respectful as one always had to be when speaking of high‑born Narvellan
women. But his mind, caught off guard, was more precise. +Grevin's beautiful
young wife+ he elaborated.
"So you're familiar with her?" said the
Narvellan. "I wonder how familiar?
No matter; such details are irrelevant. Ah, I see your First Citizen in
conversation with our new Governor. They will explain everything to you, poet.
Now be on your way ‑ I have other duties."
Idenion disembarked hastily. Tralvar was standing
outside the main portal, looking worried and self-conscious. The Narvellans,
finding that the First Citizen of Celestra had no distinctive costume, had
insisted on providing him with one ‑ a tunic and leggings of pale blue
with a contrasting indigo belt. His status, in Narvellan script, was embossed
on each sleeve above the elbow. As Idenion approached, Tralvar surreptitiously
signalled him to be cautious. Idenion wasn't in the mood to obey.
"What in chaos is happening? Where are the
Governor and Isylla?"
"I am your Governor now," said the gaunt
Narvellan beside Tralvar. Idenion found himself looking into a pair of mesmeric
green eyes, and flinched a little. "My name is Axmiol tyl Thuuvin,"
the Narvellan continued.† "Tralvar
knows me already, and he will verify that I am a far less indulgent person than
Grevin tal Prelix. You will address all questions to me."
"What's happening?" repeated Idenion more
"You have been brought here as an observer,"
Axmiol stated. "You, the First Poet ‑ defender of the wrongdoer and
champion of free love. You have steadfastly maintained that we Narvellans live
by one set of rules and seek to impose another. Today you will see this is not
the case. Isylla has abused her position and disgraced her husband, and will be
"Please be more specific," Idenion
requested. How he hated Narvellan rhetoric!
"She gave birth to a hybrid son," said
Tralvar. Axmiol glared at him.
"Very succinctly put, First Citizen. Never let it
be said that Celestrians waste words, whatever else they waste. You look
distressed, poet. Could it be that you actually comprehend her
Idenion was indeed shaken by Tralvar's pronouncement.
He could acknowledge the social misdemeanour, if not the moral one. "Why
do you wish to involve me?" he
"You are to narrate this morning's events on the
radio," Axmiol explained. "Here, as they happen. Your participation
will ensure a good audience."
"I could refuse," Idenion said tentatively.
"Then you would have your work quota
doubled," Axmiol said coldly. "But somehow I think you'll find plenty
to say. Remain in this exact location: a microphone will be brought to you. The
First Citizen will keep you company." Then he turned swiftly and stalked
into the akron,
leaving Idenion to stare resentfully after him.
"I'm sorry I couldn't forewarn you," Tralvar
said apologetically. "I'd no idea he was going to
be running things. Axmiol's contingent has been trying to oust the tal Prelix
family for years, and poor Isylla's played right into their hands."
"Who's the father of her child?" Idenion
"Her personal relayist," Tralvar replied.
"And as far as I can gather they're not interested in him, even though he
owned up. They say Isylla has to take all of the blame."
"What will they do to her?" Idenion said,
almost to himself.
"Whatever it is, they've taken three octals to
arrange it," said Tralvar. "I was with Grevin the night she went into
"Do they intend any harm to the baby?"
"No; I have their word on that. But they'll
stigmatise him, of course, as only they can."
The sky was becoming overcast, as if in sympathy with
the city's mood. Idenion could discern the thoughts of various relayists
announcing that he was to speak. Presently, a Narvellan youth came dutifully
toward him and handed him a tiny instrument no bigger than a writing stylus.
"Remain facing the akron,
or you will block the signal," he†
said. "My lord Axmiol will notify you when to start."
Very soon afterward, a small procession began to
emerge from the akron
in single file. At the same time, Axmiol commanded Idenion to begin. The new
Governor's thoughts were as chilly as his gaze, and twice as implacable. It was
like being showered with icewater.
"This is possibly the strangest broadcast I've
ever made," Idenion commenced. "I'm outside the akron, with the First Citizen next to me, and
we're here to witness the ritual judgement of Isylla, wife to Governor Grevin.
Her firstborn child is, so I've been told, half Celestrian - and if I may be
allowed to comment on this - "† He
braced himself for another blast of ice. Nothing happened.
"Consider Isylla's isolation," he continued.
"Most of her friends have been sent home, her husband is often busy, and
she's forbidden to seek contact with Celestrian minds. Every message, whim, or
request must be vocalised to her relayist. Is it any wonder, then, that she
turned to him in her loneliness? The Narvellans find this behaviour untenable.
Perhaps they should try to be more realistic.
"While I've been speaking, six of the Narvellan
elite have formed a line nearby. They wear the regulation grey, plus sleeveless
over‑tunics and gauntlets. And in the square, to either side of me,
groups of black‑clad Moderators have appeared. I see there are a number
of children about: would anyone who's close enough please take them to
Just then the main doors of the akron opened again, and Isylla stumbled out
as if she'd been pushed. She wore a voluminous grey gown with a cloak over it,
but no shoes. Idenion duly reported her presence, adding that she looked dazed
or drugged. He had forgotten how unusual her eyes were ‑ not the
brilliant Narvellan green, but pale greenish‑blue like the sea. Today, as
she'd been crying, they resembled the sea after rain. He repressed a foolish
urge to run to her side and comfort her. Instead, he spoke his reflections
aloud, sadly and slowly. He'd once written a poem
called Isylla's Eyes, and he wondered if Rinyi, the young relayist, had ever
Two of the six men remained guarding the doors,
possibly to prevent Isylla running back inside. The other four suddenly
surrounded her and wrenched off her cloak and gown. The seams tore so easily
that Idenion guessed they had been loosened in advance. And, as he also
guessed, the intention was not to strip her naked, but to destroy the symbols
of her respectability. She still wore an opaque shift which covered her from
shoulder to ankle; and thus, as Idenion was quick to point out, was fully
clothed by Celestrian standards.
His complacency didn't last long. Steel blades flashed
in the air, and several people cried out, including Tralvar. But the Narvellans
were wielding shears, not knives.
"They're cutting her hair!" Idenion
whispered disbelievingly. "All of it! Her lovely long hair..."
+Speak up, poet+ Axmiol prompted. +This is the
"They're cutting off her hair," Idenion
repeated, furious and helpless. "Fistfuls, in chunks, as clumsily as they
can. Throwing it at her feet. She doesn't even look down, but stares at the
horizon. Now Grevin's been sent out to join her: she doesn't look at him
either. They've finished with her now; she's just standing patiently, arms at
her sides. One of the officials goes back indoors and the remaining three start
on Grevin, pulling the epaulettes and ribbons off his tunic and throwing them on
the ground with Isylla's hair. He has tears in his eyes as he looks at her.
Tears ... and a great love." Idenion paused, frowning. "The fourth
man has reappeared, carrying something metallic and circular. He's putting it
round Isylla's neck..." Idenion's voice trailed off in fresh outrage.
+Well done, versifier. Prolong the suspense+† Axmiol's thoughts tweaked maliciously at his
consciousness. +But don't wait too long, will you?+
"In harmony's name, must I go on with this?"
Idenion cried. Tralvar gripped his shoulder sympathetically. He too was lost
Before Axmiol could reply, there was a scream from
behind Idenion and a distraught young man rushed past him. It was Rinyi, the
relayist. "Don't hurt her any more!" he sobbed. "Punish me
instead! Punish me!" He had addressed
Isylla's captors, but it was Isylla herself who answered.
"I'm not worth it, Rinyi," she said
tonelessly. "Go away."
Startled, he fell back. Idenion, turning to see how
far he would retreat, remained looking anxiously across the plaza. There were
too many bystanders ‑ students, retired people, a few archivists, and
many workers who'd ignored the call to duty. Just the sort of gathering the
Narvellans hated, without the addition of Rinyi, who was trying to muster some
At Axmiol's wrathful prompting, Idenion shakily
resumed his narrative.† "Forgive the
delay, citizens. I was ... still am ... very grieved by what I've been forced
to witness. Before Rinyi tried to intervene, an iron collar was fastened around
Isylla's neck and locked in place. The key was handed to Grevin. Attached to
the collar is a short chain; attached to the chain is a heavy lump of stone.
Isylla must hold on to that stone or risk injury. And at last, an attendant is
bringing the baby to her. She accepts it with difficulty. It seems to be asleep
‑ conveniently perhaps ‑ and is dressed like any infant of ours
would be. To give a better description I'd have to go closer, which I've
already been forbidden to do; but from here I can see its pale skin, and that
confirms the truth of its parentage. It's obvious to me now that the stone
symbolises the burden of the child, and that only Grevin can free Isylla from
A flitter came to land halfway across the plaza and,
flanked by three officials on either side, Isylla and Grevin slowly walked
toward it. Isylla struggled to balance the child and the stone, unable to lower
her head enough to see either. Idenion was about to elaborate on her
difficulties when a tiny click came from the microphone. Axmiol had cut the
+No more sentiment+ he instructed. +You've said all
Idenion turned angrily and hurled the microphone into
"Don't let him provoke you," said Tralvar at
his elbow. "It won't help."
"You were pretty
quiet through all that," accused Idenion.
"With good reason. You're allowed to be outspoken
at times: just the First Poet plying his trade. If I did it, they'd call it
insurrection. I make my complaints privately."† His attention abruptly switched to the centre
of the square. "That young fool ‑ what does he think he's
Rinyi and his supporters were blocking the way to the
flitter. The air was volatile with their anger. Idenion wasn't surprised to see
two heavy stun‑cannon being towed out of the akron and aligned in their direction. But as
Tralvar had sensed, the demonstrators had no clear objective, and the situation
might have been defused if Isylla hadn't tripped. She trod on the hem of her
shift, kept hold of the baby, but let go the stone. It swung free, dragging her
forward. As she fell, she managed to twist her body so that the child was
uppermost, but her left arm was trapped painfully beneath her. The child began
to cry. Her escorts paused and watched silently as she struggled on the ground.
No‑one, not even Grevin, made any move to help her up.
Rinyi suddenly sprang forward, shrieking something
incoherent. Idenion heard 'parasites' and 'barbarians' before his voice was
lost in the general uproar. The relayist and his friends were soon grappling
with Isylla's captors, while the Celestrian onlookers reacted with verbal and
non-vocal encouragement. The Moderators began to move purposefully forward.
Tralvar kept a wary eye on the stun‑cannon.
There were plenty of† Narvellans in the
line of fire, but he wasn't sure that would stop Axmiol. A more pertinent
consideration was the time it took for the weapons to recharge themselves after
firing: almost a day, or so he understood. The current unrest probably didn't
warrant their use. The Moderators, accustomed to a homeworld driven frantic by
famine and natural disaster, would make short work of a few inept young
Then the scuffles came to an abrupt and premature
halt. Tralvar, peering through the shifting crowd, saw that Grevin had taken
charge of events. Quietly and deliberately he raised Isylla to her feet,
embraced her gently, and took the baby from her.
"She has endured her punishment bravely," he
declared. "She has erred, but she is still my wife. And this is my
firstborn son, whom I acknowledge." Then he resumed his progress toward
the flitter, Isylla stumbling by his side.
The group of six divided again. The quartet who had
chastised Isylla went with her, and the other two stood guard over Rinyi. He
knelt dazedly on the ground, blood trickling from a cut lip. Three Moderators
and two Narvellan civilians, acting on instructions from their unseen
superiors, paced solemnly forward to encircle the hapless young man. The two
officials moved away.
"We are the appointed Five," announced one
of the Moderators. "Rinyi, you are guilty of incitement to riot. We ask
your forgiveness for what we must do."
Rinyi shrank from them in sudden awareness of his own
"Tralvar, stop them!" cried Idenion.
"I cannot," he replied bleakly.
"Forgive us," repeated the Narvellan.
Idenion, anguished, made a sudden dash forward. He
never reached the† circle. One of the
remaining elite swung his gloved fist and felled the interloper with an
efficient, almost casual blow to the head.
Everything became very quiet. Tralvar felt lost,
ineffectual, and in desperate need of a strong drink. The flitter was departing
with its passengers. Most of the spectators had run off. Rinyi, smiling
vacantly, was led away by the appointed Five.
"We were only carrying out our duty, First
Citizen," said their spokesman.
Tralvar didn't trust himself to answer. Once again
he'd been left to face the Narvellans alone. There had been other such
confrontations, and each time his people had lacked the strength or resolve to
finish what they'd started. Wearily he turned and walked towards Idenion, who
lay unconscious. His attacker was standing over him and, to Tralvar's surprise,
seemed rather dismayed.
"I'm Administrator Narad zyl Pereth," he
said as Tralvar drew close. "I'm sorry I hit him so hard, but there was no
time to do anything else. The Five's concentration was already building, and if
he'd got any closer we'd have had a First Poet with only half an intellect. I
couldn't let that happen."
"I'll have to take him home," Tralvar said
uncomfortably.† He wasn't used to
apologetic Narvellans, and suspected an oblique form of sarcasm.
"Some of us admire his work," said Narad,
obviously aware that Tralvar did not. "My quarters are close by. Will you
permit me to give him healing?"
"Very well, just enough to bring him round,"
Tralvar replied. "Leave his bruises alone. He needs some reminder of his
stupidity, and a black eye will do nicely."
"That's just the type of answer I'd expect from
you, First Citizen," said Narad with the merest hint of a smile. He lifted
Idenion with ease and carried him into one of the apartment buildings which
bordered the square. "This Isylla business makes me ashamed," he said
to Tralvar once they were inside. "Grevin would have taken her away
quietly, but Axmiol wouldn't hear of it."
"I can imagine," Tralvar said, carefully
Narad settled Idenion onto a low couch and placed a
cushion under his head, gently brushing aside the poet's long fair hair.
Tralvar, now that he had a chance to observe his friend more closely, realised
he looked concussed ‑ probably due to striking his head on the
"What happens to people you donít
like?" he asked Narad.
"I dealt with him as if he were Narvellan,"
Narad said unhappily. "But I think I can undo most of the damage."
Removing his gloves, he knelt and placed his fingertips on Idenion's forehead.
Tralvar said nothing, but continued to watch narrowly. He mistrusted
psychokinesis almost as much as he mistrusted Narvellans in general ‑
possibly because, to a Celestrian, it was indiscernible save for the effects.
Narad himself became still as he concentrated exclusively on his task. "So
fragile," Tralvar heard him say wonderingly. The comment did little to
Idenion's return to consciousness, when it happened,
was sudden. He shuddered away from Narad, putting up his arm as if to deflect
Narad stood up regretfully. "Without his co‑operation,
I can do no more," he stated.
"I can take over from here," Tralvar said
levelly. "I'll require a flitter, of course."
Narad gave him a cold stare. "Shouldn't you be at
the investiture?" he inquired. Idenion, behind him, looked imploringly at
"Now listen, Adjudicator, Minister, whatever you
are," Tralvar said,† dragging the
injured poet to his feet and looking rather surprised when he stayed on them.
"Idenion was coerced into making that broadcast. He was given no warning
and no time to prepare. It's Axmiol's fault he over‑reacted and it's
Axmiol's fault he's hurt. He's coming home with me, this instant, and you'll
have to explain that any way you can."
In a trice, Narad was his former conciliatory self.
"Very well, First Citizen," he said quietly. "You already know
my views on our new Governor. If, at any time in the future, there is anything
I can do to smooth the way ‑ anything that's within my jurisdiction ‑
I'll be willing to oblige." Tralvar thanked him formally, then led Idenion
outside. The latter stood swaying and drawing deep breaths like a drowning man
regaining the air.
"What became of Rinyi?" he asked hoarsely.
"He was reduced," said Tralvar. "And
you almost joined him, you cretin. Don't you realise I
need you with all your faculties intact?"
"Everyone needs me today," said Idenion, and
began to laugh painfully. Tralvar put out an anxious hand to steady him.
Narad, who had followed them out, watched Idenion
intently. His look was wistful, almost envious.†
Tralvar, uncomprehending, filed the strange expression in his memory for
Then the expected flitter arrived and whirled the two
Celestrians away from the plaza. They passed low over the spot where Isylla's
black tresses still lay; and Idenion, glancing at Tralvar, suddenly regretted
accusing him of indifference. Out of the public gaze, his whole demeanour
changed alarmingly. He buried his face in his hands and his shoulders began to
"Don't you think I'd have given anything ‑ anything ‑ to save Rinyi?" he cried. "He was
just a boy. I'd have sacrificed my own reason if I'd thought they wouldn't take
his as well. We can't fight them ‑ don't you understand? None of us can,
so don't try."† When the little
craft touched down outside his villa, he said more quietly to the pilot:
"Wait here. I'll be back in a few moments."† Then he propelled Idenion indoors and went
straight to the study, where he systematically downed three glasses of resnay.
Idenion, who normally didn't touch the potent drink, sipped cautiously at a
"Do you think I convinced him?" Tralvar said
"You were acting!" Idenion marvelled.
"Well, you certainly convinced me. Why the
"Because I don't want anyone guessing I'm up to
something." Tralvar took one more drink, then straightened his tunic and
brushed his lank hair. "I've decided to go back to the investiture. No
sense in starting off on the wrong foot. Rest up, bathe your eye, and get some
food inside you. There isn't much here, but it'll be more than you've seen for
a while. When I come back, I want to see you recovered, alert, and ready to commit
a treasonable act."
"And what might that be?" Idenion asked.
"I want you to fetch Laura," Tralvar
answered calmly. "No, don't ask questions. I'll explain later."
"But I've begged and begged - "
"I know. It wasn't an easy decision, just an
inevitable one. So take comfort, First Poet, in the knowledge that you'll see
her again soon."
Idenion, left alone, expected to feel elation or
apprehension. Instead, he merely felt hungry. In the larder he found liman,
cakes and dried fruit; taking exactly half of everything he returned to the
study, ensconced himself in Tralvar's favourite tattered armchair and switched
on the radio receiver. Axmiol, or someone very much like him, was pontificating
about the role of the Celestrian in Narvellan society.†
"You work for Narvella: we have endowed your
lives with purpose and virtue.† It does
not matter what kind of work you do, but how you go about it. Work is not
degrading, but ennobling, irrespective of whether it is accomplished with the
mind or with the hands..."
Lulled by the monotonous voice, and more replete than
he'd felt all year, Idenion slept.
Three ilden or so later, the slam of the front door
woke him. The daylight in the room was subtly altered and the radio hissed
quietly to itself. He stretched, and immediately wished he hadn't.
"Oh, discords, I ache all over," he groaned
as Tralvar came in.
"You'll survive," said Tralvar with scant
sympathy. "Ah, good, the eye's turned an interesting colour."
"There's no need to sound so pleased,"
"Oh, but there is," Tralvar contradicted,
"for two reasons. Firstly, no‑one will think it strange if you don't
go to work tomorrow.† Be ashamed of your
appearance, hide from everyone. It's a rare chance to get off the planet. And
secondly, what was Laura's very first reaction to you?"
"She wanted to protect me," Idenion said
"And so she will again, when she sees you looking
Idenion was suddenly dubious. Tralvar, seeing him
waver, decided to challenge rather than reassure.
"Can you handle it, Idenion? It's been ten Earth
years. You'll have to find her, convince her she's needed, lie to the
Narvellans and harbour her under your roof. If you get caught, I won't be able
"I know. I won't let you down."
"Just make sure you don't. Your role will be
crucial, and that means no more hot‑headed behaviour."
"Since you're not making flowery speeches, I
believe you do understand," said Tralvar,
smiling. The smile was totally unexpected, like a brief glimpse of the sun
Idenion, emboldened, asked only one question.
"Tralvar ‑ why did you relent?"
"I made a promise," Tralvar said solemnly.
"When I was inaugurated, I vowed I would defend Celestra always. And I
haven't done it. That outburst on the flitter was credible because it was a
half‑truth. I can't free my people single‑handed, and I don't
command enough loyalty to recruit help other than yours. And with respect,
Idenion, poets aren't much use in the current climate. I need
scientists."† He located his half‑empty
resnay bottle, took a lengthy swig, and continued:† "Look at what happened today. Rinyi's
friends ran off and left him as soon as things got rough, and no‑one
seemed too bothered about you either.††
We need someone who can inspire, motivate, lend cohesion. That someone
is Laura. And if I seem less than happy at the prospect of her return, it's
because I don't like admitting failure." He stared moodily out of the
window. "The plans will still be mine, but the leadership will be
"What about Earth's defence network?"
Idenion asked, but then realised Tralvar wasn't listening. Of course, even
thinking of bringing back Laura would resurrect some painful memories: the
poisoning of Tristell, the death of little Tioni, the torments inflicted by
Alendis. As always when stressed, Tralvar hadn't merely shielded his thoughts,
but barricaded them. The message was unequivocal: keep out, or else. This man,
thought Idenion pensively, is like theridolyte; strong but inflexible. He'll
break sooner than bend. Always he falls back on his own resource rather than
seeking comfort from others.†
Patiently, he waited.
"Don't worry about Earth's defences,"
Tralvar said suddenly as if no time had elapsed. "I've written a new
programme with added safeguards. It's here, ready and waiting. Now all we have
to do is decide the best way of getting you to Treva."
"That could take a whole day," Idenion
objected. "There are always spheres at Communications. Why can't I use one
Tralvar's expression became as icy as anything Axmiol
could produce. "Because," he snapped, "you'd get caught before
you could set foot on the spacefield. Discords, Idenion, how could you even
consider anything so stupid? Sit down, featherbrain ‑ I see I shall have
to take you through your movements step by step."