He who trusts the wind trusts in Satan’s compassion
—Richard Wagner, The Flying Dutchman
“Hello there,” said the Goddess, gazing at me hungrily. “Have you brought me something nice?”
She had big yellow eyes, the colour of hot iron in the forge just before it’s ready to weld. They were so bright, I almost didn’t notice the crow’s feet. “Yes, my Lady,” I said. I put down the basket and pulled off the cloth I’d covered it with, to keep the flies away. “A few token offerings, to show my—”
“Not too token, I hope.” She reached past me, brushing against my arm, and I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. “Honey-cakes,” She said. “I like honey-cakes.”
I’d also brought dried figs, a cheese, a two-pound wheat loaf, a dozen olives, a bunch of grapes, a slice of honeycomb wrapped in vine leaves, half a dozen dried sausages, and a jar of pickled walnuts. She grabbed the handle of the basket, pulled it toward Her, and began stuffing Her face. She ate quickly, like a slave.
“This is particularly good cheese,” She said, with her mouth full. “So, what can I do for you?”
No beating about the bush. My arm was starting to blister, where She’d touched it. “I want to know the future, my Lady,” I said.
She looked at me. Honey glistened at both corners of Her mouth. “No,” She said, “you don’t, trust me.” She picked up a sausage. “What you want,” She went on, “is happiness, prosperity, honour, and wealth. Am I right or am I right?”
I hesitated. Her temple—bigger than a hut, smaller than a barn—was rendered inside with plaster and painted white. At one time, I’m guessing, it was a tomb, from back when they buried rich men with their chariots and horses and armour. The plaster was beginning to flake just above the doorframe. She filled the place like a hermit crab. “I’d like that,” I admitted, because lying to the gods is a mug’s game. “But that’s not why I—”
“No, of course not.” Her fingernails were gouging into the beeswax that sealed the pickled walnuts. “You’re far too earnest and high-minded for that, of course you are. You want to know if there’s anything the Erymanthians can do about their plague.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
She nodded. “Because they hired you to come here and ask.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Of course,” She said. “And the answer is, no, there isn’t. They’re screwed.” She gave me a dazzling smile. “But they paid you in advance.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“So that’s all right. I do like these walnuts. It’s the quality of the vinegar that makes all the difference.”
I felt like I’d been slapped across the face. “Is there nothing the Erymanthians can do?”
She shook Her head. “Nothing at all,” She said. “It’d be a complete waste of time and effort trying. They brought it on themselves, needless to say. Why do people do that? It’s so silly.” She bit into a fig and spat out the stalk. “Still, that’s mortals for you. Anyway, not your problem. You’ve done what you were hired to do, and you brought me these delicious figs, so everything’s fine.”
I wanted to say: surely there must be something—repentance, prayers, sacrifices, gift offerings, building a temple. She shook Her head. “Waste of time,” She repeated. “Once I’ve made my mind up, that’s that.” Then She grinned. “Unless I choose to change it, of course. But in this case I don’t choose, so that’s that.”
I didn’t want to ask. But since She could read my mind, there didn’t seem much point in staying silent. “What did they do?”
“None of your business,” She said sharply, and I felt my guts twist. She tapped the side of Her nose with Her finger. “Thou shalt not pry,” She said. “But I forgive you, just this once, because of those heavenly walnuts. So instead of smiting you, I’ll let you do a little job for me. How does that sound?”
I bowed my head. “I am yours to command, my Lady.”
“Well of course you are, silly.” She wiped Her mouth on Her wrist and stood up. She was well over six feet tall, maybe nearer seven. I hadn’t appreciated that when She was sitting down. “That’s what you people are for, that and baking.” She smiled. I never saw anyone who could communicate so much diverse and complex information with nothing but a few face muscles. “Now then, what I want you to do for me is this.”
She crossed the room in three strides, lifted a vase off the cedar chest standing against the wall, came back, put it on the little folding table next to where She’d been sitting, frowned at it, shook Her head, went back and replaced it exactly where it had been on the chest. “I want you to sail your ship to Iden Astea,” She said. “It’s on a bay about twelve days’ sail north of here. Know it?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Of course you do. In that case, you know the city?” She laughed. “Call it a city. There’s a hundred and sixteen families living inside the wall, plus another forty-odd scattered about the island. Used to be a lot more of them five hundred years ago, but there you go. Times change,” She said, “or so they tell me.”
“I know the city.”
“Betterer and betterer.” She beamed at me. “I want you to burn it down for me,” She said. “I want you to kill all the men, then round up the women and children and sell them to the Sherden. You can keep whatever you get for them. Oh, and while you’re at it, round up all the sheep and goats on the island and sacrifice them to me, there’s a sweetheart.”
She looked at me. You’re not supposed to look directly at the sun, because it’s bad for you, but what can you do when the sun looks directly at you?
I’d thought it before I could stop myself: or—what did they...?
“They were very naughty,” She said. “And rude. But you don’t need to worry your pretty little head about that. What you need to do is sail your ship to Iden Astea and do as you’re told.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“That’s my brave little soldier. And if you do that, I’ll give you something nice. What would you like?”
Not to have to go to Iden Astea. “I don’t know.”
“Now you’re just being silly,” She said. “I know exactly what you’d like. You’d like to be a landowner. You’d like a place of your own to call home.” She smiled again. “You’d like to be monarch of all you survey. Yes?”
“Well, of course you would. Now run along and see to it, and do try and get a move on. It’s a funny thing, but being immortal doesn’t make you patient. Quite the opposite, actually.”
She was right about one thing. More than anything else in the whole world, I wanted my own place.
I don’t suppose you can really understand what that’s like. I’m assuming you’re like everybody else, except me and a very few others. You were born on the land your family’s owned and worked for generations; it may be four acres or four hundred, that doesn’t really matter, it’s just a question of scale. You have a place of your own.
Everything else about you comes from that. It decides, for example, who you marry, who gets to be the mother or father of your children: one of the neighbours, inevitably, so already the field narrows from half the human race down to maybe eight or ten; and one of them’s the prince’s daughter, so you can forget all about her, and two of them come from those no-good families we don’t talk to, and two of them are already spoken for, and one of them can’t make cheese to save her life— The same sort of process of elimination brought you into the world; simple rural logic. You are where you live; you are what you own. And people and cattle die and barns burn down and trees snap off in the wind and locusts wipe out a whole year’s crops, but the land, the crumbly black soil and the stones (eight generations of your family have picked out every last one and tossed them into the hedge, and still there’s more of them) aren’t ever going anywhere; the most you can do is plough in lime and cowshit, or let it all go back to briars and withies (but someone else will be along sooner or later, your son or your great-grandson, to root them all out, plough in lime and cowshit, then let it all slip back into jungle again...) You have a place of your own, which defines you, and everybody knows exactly who and what you are because of it, from the day you’re born until the day you die. And if you’re wise you know your place, and everything is just fine.
It doesn’t matter that you’re bound to the soil. Legally, a serf can’t go more than five miles from his farmhouse without his lord’s permission. Some people say that that makes him property, like the house and the barns and the fence-posts and the plough and the oxen. You plough when he tells you to, not when you want to or when the time is right. You need the lord’s permission to marry and to breed children. When the lord dies, his son inherits: the land and the fixtures, the live and dead stock, including you. But you still have a place; a place of your own. The lord giveth, but there are constraints on what he can take away. He can’t evict you, unless you neglect to pay your rent and work your allotted time. Maybe you’re property, but you’re not his property. You don’t belong to him, you belong to the land.
And by me, that’s a small price to pay for belonging. Everyone belongs somewhere. A place for everyone, and everyone in his place.
Except for people like me, the very few, too few to matter.
Once, presumably, generations ago, we had a place of our own too. But something must have happened—war, plague, drought, flood, one of those tiresome Acts of God—and we lost it, let it slip through our fingers.
Well, now. The fact that I was born proves that it’s not the end of the world. There’s a place for people like me; all over the place, in fact. We walk from district to district, looking for work; a week here, a month or so there if we’re lucky—and our luck is usually someone else’s misfortune; a broken leg, a fall from a ladder, an old man getting too weak to fulfill his obligations to his lord at ploughing or harvest and too poor to hire regular help. Serfs have a place of their own, even if it’s just a single room you share with the pigs. I don’t.
Neither did my father. But he wasn’t the sort of man who takes it on the chin and gets on with it. So, when he was younger than I am now, he walked down from the hills to the coast and waited till a ship put in for the night. The sea, after all, is different: different rules; freedom. He walked up to the ship and asked the skipper, you wouldn’t happen to need an extra hand? Are you kidding, the skipper said; and my father left the land and went to live on the sea, which proves that people will do anything when they’re desperate.
I bet you shuddered just then at the very thought of it. Actually, it could be worse. Yes, it’s a dangerous life, a great many sailors die. You never know from one day to the next. A storm can come up, faster than a horse galloping, and smash you into the rocks or sweep you out of sight of shore into the vast emptiness, and nobody will ever know what became of you except that you went to sea and never came back. That aside, though, it’s not so bad.
It worked out for my father. He started as an oarsman, and the palms of his hands and the skin on his buttocks rubbed away raw and grew back hard as boot-soles. In return for rowing all day he got his bread and cheese and a pint of wine and his oar-bench to sleep on; and then one day his ship came across a smaller ship, and it was in a remote place, with nobody about to see... He and his pals killed all the men, scuttled the ship, and divided the cargo between them, strictly fair and egalitarian. My father sold his share at the next landfall they came to, and instead of drinking the proceeds he bought a few carefully chosen bits and pieces, small tools, arrowheads and trinkets, which he kept in a jar under his bench and sold at the next place they came to— And ten years later, he bought a third-share in the ship, when one of the owners died.
I take after him, so people tell me. I own a third share in a ship, but not the same one. My ship has fifty oars and carries twenty-five tons. It’s faster than anything except a Sherden cutter, and it has a mast and a sail, though we don’t use them unless we have to, for obvious reasons. I sleep under a roof in the wheelhouse, not on an oar-bench under the stars, and there are times when I can almost kid myself I’ve got a place of my own. But then I wake up in the morning and the view I see isn’t the same as it was yesterday, or the day before, and a gust of wind reminds me that I exist on sufferance, relying every minute of every day on the sea’s compassion... That’s no way to live, people tell me, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But I do it anyway.
“So,” Enki said, as I reached the ship. “What did She say?”
“Don’t ask,” I told him. He pursed his lips. He knows me.
Enki reminds me of me. Actually, he gives me an unpleasantly convincing idea of what I’ll be like in ten years time, if I live that long. His third of the ship belonged to his uncle, and he’s been sailing her since he was nine. He still gets sick in a storm, but we all pretend not to notice. “Fine,” he said. “So, back the way we came.”
“No,” I said. “North.”
He frowned. “But aren’t we supposed to report back to the Erymanthians?”
“No point,” I told him. “Besides, by the time we get there they’ll all be dead.”
He thought about that. Enki thinks like the sun, brilliant but a bit slow-moving. “Fair enough,” he said. “No skin off our noses. So, on to Celeuthoe.”
“Yup,” I said. “And then Iden Astea.”
The name rang a bell. He closed his eyes for a moment until he’d placed it. “What do we want to go there for?”
“She said so.”
He went a colour he usually only goes in very bad weather. “Fair enough,” he said.
That night we put in at Toliethron, which is basically just a beach between two spits. A freshwater spring comes tumbling down the cliff, so you can fill your jars, but otherwise the most you can say for it is that it keeps still in bad weather. “So,” Enki said in the wheelhouse, lowering his voice, “why are we going to Iden Astea?”
That’s Enki. He fondly believes that if we’re fifty miles away and he keeps his voice down, the Goddess won’t hear him.
“She wants us to burn down the city,” I said.
“And kill all the men, and sell the women and children, and slaughter all the sheep and burn them.”
He nodded slowly. “Who gets the money for the women and children?”
He looked at me. He had that look on his face, as though he’d heard his mother coughing in that particular way and knew what it meant. “Not so bad, then,” he said.
“Pretty bad,” I said.
He thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Not if it’s the Lady’s will,” he said firmly. “Thy will be done, remember. We’re covered. And let’s say a couple of hundred women at a drachma a pop—”
“Don’t,” I said.
“I’m just saying, that’s all.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
He shrugged. “Mind you,” he said, “it’s a big ask, storming a city. Like, there’s fifty-five of us and what, a hundred of them, fit to carry a spear, I mean. It’s not going to be like picking an apple off a tree.”
“The Goddess will be with us,” I said.
“Yes, of course.” He nodded. “We’ll have them for breakfast, no doubt about it.” He paused. “Why us, did She say?”
“Did you piss her off or anything?”
“I might have done, I don’t know.”
He looked at me. Relieved, I think, rather than angry; if it was my fault, then it couldn’t be his. “Easy done,” he said. “You’ve really got to watch your mouth, talking to—-” Quick skyward glance, then eyes back on his sandals before anyone noticed— “Them.”
“I don’t remember saying anything bad,” I told him. “I think She was just looking for an excuse.”
“She doesn’t need an excuse,” he said.
I remembered the way She’d gobbled the cheese, and the olives. “I’m not sure about this,” I said.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But there are other gods.”
He looked at me, that don’t-do-anything-stupid look I know so well. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “But there’s fifty-five of us, and we live on a ship.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”
Why would anyone deliberately piss off a god? They’re stronger than us. They control our lives. To them, we’re just property. Unlike mortal lords, they can kill us at will, or (worse) displace us, pull us up by the roots and leave us in the sun. I am the Lady’s, to use as she commands, on the strict understanding that what I do in her service is her fault, not mine.
Even so. There are limits.
For me—and you can see how stupid and flaky I am—the line gets drawn when it comes to enslaving my fellow man. A slave isn’t like a serf. A slave gets pulled up by the roots and taken from his place and put forcibly where he doesn’t belong. That’s not right.
People say I’m idiotic for making such distinctions. Slave or serf, they say, what’s the big deal? And slaves get treated well, because they’re an investment. You spend good money on plant and equipment, naturally you take good care of it. You’d be crazy not to.
I can’t argue with that. Correction: I won’t argue with that, because it’s not my place to do so. But I’m outside all of that. My privilege, on account of not having a place of my own. I draw my own lines, even if it means annoying the almighty. I can do no other, gods help me.
I knew what I was doing all right. I was telling a lie.
But what the hell. There are other gods, ever so many of Them, and if the poets are to be believed They spend Their everlasting lives fighting like cats. And our next stop but one was Choris Seautou.
Everybody knows the white temple on the promontory at Choris, even if they’ve never seen it, never left home in their lives. Choris is where the Archer God lives. Getting in to see Him costs you a sheep, but in this case I reckoned it’d be a sheep well spent. So I bought one in the market at Celeuthoe and we rigged up a pen for it on the aft deck. “What do we want a sheep for?” Nijah asked. I tapped the side of my nose with my finger, and he shrugged and got on with his work.
Getting from Celeuthoe to Choris can be a breeze, or it can be several days of sheer misery. I had a bad feeling about it, because unlike Enki I don’t believe you can get past the Goddess by whispering. But instead we got a nice brisk north-westlerly wind. Bani said we could raise the sail, but I gave him a look and he dropped the subject. A sail, after all, can take you to all sorts of places in no time flat, including places you hadn’t intended to go. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid unintended destinations, and look where it’s got me.
I was standing up in the prow, searching the skyline for the first gleam of the white temple, when Enki suddenly appeared next to me. I hadn’t heard him, but it’s noisy up the front end of a ship.
“We should raise the sail,” he said.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said. “We’re making seven knots. That’s plenty fast enough.”
“I want you to raise the sail.”
I turned to face him. His eyes were the colour of hot iron, just before it’s ready to weld. “Oh,” I said.
“It’s all right,” She said. “I’m here, aren’t I? What could possibly go wrong if I’m here?”
You can’t lie to the gods, everybody knows that; nor can you keep anything from them. I’d thought it, so I might as well say it. “Why are you here?”
“To make sure you get a move on,” She said. “Otherwise you’d just dawdle. You people are great dawdlers, which is odd, when you come to think of it. Bearing in mind that you’ve got so little time, I’m amazed at how willing you are to waste it.”
A white flash, at the edge of my peripheral vision. I tried really hard not to think what it meant. “Nijah,” I called out. “Raise the mast.”
Nijah was amidships, messing about with a coil of rope. “Seriously?”
“Do as you’re damn well told.”
I didn’t look at him, so I didn’t see the expression on his face. “All right,” I heard him call out, “you heard the man. All stop.” Everyone stopped rowing, and the ship began to slow down.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I have to go and see to the mast.”
“Of course you do.” She smiled at me. It wasn’t quite the same, on Enki’s face, but the meaning was clear nevertheless. “Remember, no dawdling.”
Enki’s face went blank, and a seagull that hadn’t been there a moment ago spread its wings and launched off the rail into the air. I tried very hard to keep my mind from thinking. She might be flying away, but She was still listening.
I turned my head. Just because you mustn’t think doesn’t mean you can’t use your eyes. I’d been right. The white flash I’d seen was the sun on the walls of the white temple.
“Are you all right?” Enki asked me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I was miles away.”
He looked at me. “What are we raising the mast for? I thought you wanted to stop at Celeuthoe.”
“I do.” I made a colossal effort and got a grip on myself. “Sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking of. All right,” I called past him, to Nijah and the others, “forget about the mast, we’re closer than I thought we were. Carry on rowing.”
Nijah gave me a look, but I couldn’t be bothered with him. I was too busy trying to figure out where I was. I could see the white temple, and the Goddess had left in a hurry. That meant, surely, that we’d entered the jurisdiction of the Archer God—
On whom, I reflected unhappily, everything now depended. Not a pleasant thought.
The drill is, you lead your sheep on a bit of string up the hill to the gatehouse of His temple, where a porter takes it from you and tells you to wait. My sheep didn’t want to be led, which meant I ended up back on the beach with rope-burns on both hands. We tried again; me leading the sheep, Nijah and Bani behind it, pushing. “That’s a really bad omen,” Nijah told me, “the sheep not wanting to go.”
“Shut up, Nijah,” I said. “You’re not helping.”
We got there in the end, and I handed the bit of string to the porter. The sheep grabbed its chance and made a dash for it, ripping the string out of his hand. He yelled, two of his pals chased after the sheep and flipped it onto its back.
“I know,” I told him. “Bad omen.”
He took a deep breath. “You’d better go straight in,” he said.
“What, no waiting about?”
“I got a feeling He wants to see you right away.”
The Archer God isn’t like the Goddess. For a start, He comes originally from the other side of the Friendly Sea, where most of His temples are. He has a reputation for being fair and sensible, at least compared to other gods. He’ll listen to you, they say, instead of just barking out orders and smiting. Also—well, He’s a man or at least a “He”. I know where I am with men.
You reach Him by walking through the main room of the temple, which is this big square building with nothing in it. Round the back of the high altar there’s a door, and then you go down a long, scary spiral stair, with no light except the stupid little rush taper the porter gives you; and just when the darkness and the dizziness from winding round and round and round is about to get too much to bear, you find yourself in this sort of cellar. The walls are covered floor to roof with weird frescoes, but you can only see little patches of them by the light of your pathetic little taper; wrists and ankles and ears and noses of huge, incredibly lifelike painted men and women, and the tails of horses and the claws of lions. Then there’s a sudden sharp draught, which blows your taper out.
But that doesn’t matter, because He’s arrived, and He glows in the dark. “You’ve got a nerve,” He said.
“There are two commandments,” He said, “and thereby hang all the law and the prophets. One: Thou shalt not go over the head of the Lady thy Goddess. Two: Thou shalt not drag the Lord thy God into a row with His kid sister. Got that?”
He sighed. “Oh for pity’s sake, stop looking at me like that and sit down.” The light of His countenance revealed a three-legged stool. I sat on it. He closed His eyes and rubbed them with His thumb and forefinger. “I know what you’re thinking,” He said. “You’re thinking, that’s a piss-poor return on a perfectly good sheep, and yes, I agree with you. But there you go,” He said. “My hands are tied.”
I looked at Him. “To the gods,” I quoted, “all things are possible.”
He scowled at me. “Well of course they are,” He said, “in theory. I mean, yes, if I really wanted to, I could cast my mantle over you and protect you, and not a hair of your head would be harmed. Only that’d mean a flaming row with my sister, who between you and me and the bedpost isn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with, and to be perfectly frank with you, I don’t think you’re worth it. Which isn’t anything about you personally,” He added. “You strike me as a decent enough sort, and not wanting to kill a bunch of strangers who never did you any harm is definitely to your credit.”
“Don’t mention it. But what you’ve got to remember is, I’ve got to live with my sister. For ever and bloody ever.”
“There you go again,” He said, “looking at me with those great big puppy-dog eyes. And I know what you’re thinking. I’ve got a conscience, you’re saying to yourself, I can’t go doing something I know is wrong. Well, bully for you.”
“You can afford to have a conscience,” He said. “It’s one of the benefits of being here-today-gone-tomorrow—you can allow yourself to think in terms of right and wrong and all that nonsense. I can’t.”
“To the gods, all things are—”
“Yes, I know,” He snapped. “Except for that.” He turned His head, almost as if He didn’t want to look me in the face. “You don’t understand,” He said, “how could you? No, sorry, I feel for you, but there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re just going to have to do as she tells you or face the consequences. Which won’t,” He added, “be pretty.”
“Sorry about that,” He said. “I’ve got half a mind to let you have your sheep back, except it might set a precedent, and we don’t want that.”
“I’m not worried about the sheep, Lord.”
“Good man. All right, then, off you go.”
I turned away from His light, trying to remember where the stairs were. I found the wall with the tip of my nose. “Just one thing.”
I turned back. “Yes, Lord?”
He gave me a solemn look, as though I was costing him money. “I can’t help you,” He said, “because I’m on land. Nobody on land is free, not even me.” He paused, then added, “Do you understand?”
“Then try thinking about it,” He snapped. “Now get out.”
Enki thought it was a terrible idea, but I decided to tell the crew what we were going to do next, and why. They took it well, all things considered. I told them that if anyone wanted to jump ship at Antecyrene or Moas they were welcome to do so, but nobody showed any interest. They knew that the Goddess had her eye on them, and she didn’t suffer men of conscience gladly; besides, there was money to be made, and opportunities like that don’t come along every day. My father had gotten his lucky break by robbing and murdering strangers and it never bothered him. And in this case they had a rock solid assurance that they were doing the Goddess’s will; what more can you possibly ask for?
Try thinking about it, the Archer God had said, so I did.
To a certain extent, He was simply stating the obvious. Everybody on land—everybody with a home—is a serf, to a greater or lesser extent; we’re all bondsmen of each other, in a circle, like the snake that eats its own tail. The bought-for-money slaves serve the serfs, who serve the princes, who serve the king, who serves the Great King, and even he isn’t at liberty to do whatever he likes. He has responsibilities, like all other landsmen; he has borders to protect, people to save from drought, earthquake, and famine, gods to answer to; we’re his bondsmen, and he’s ours. The Great King could no more marry for love than you could, he eats what’s put in front of him (after it’s been tasted for poison, naturally), and his clothes are laid out for him each morning by the chamberlain, in strict order according to ritual and precedent; wearing a white shirt when there’s an R in the month would be unthinkable. It goes with the territory. It goes with having a place.
The sea, on the other hand— The sea is a remarkable thing, when you come to think of it. Nobody owns it. It’ll kill you if you give it half a chance, but it’ll take you anywhere you want to go, it’ll even carry your luggage for you. It can turn a nobody like my father into a person of consequence, owner of a third of a ship— Think about that. The third third of our ship is owned by a prince, and it’s one of his most prized possessions. You can’t bring the sea up in front of the magistrate if it murders your entire family, but if you come from the sea you can’t be held accountable either. You can rob other ships, murder people and throw them over the side, swoop down on cities and steal and slaughter to your heart’s content, and nobody will come after you, because of jurisdictional issues. The sea isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind. The sea is freedom.
The Archer God couldn’t help me because He was on land. Oh, I thought.
I was letting these issues develop and mature in the compost-heap of my mind when Enki came and leant on the rail next to me. He doesn’t do that. “I hope you’re not planning anything stupid,” She said.
In the liturgy we say; Almighty Goddess, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden... We say it like it’s a good thing, because we’ve never actually had one of Them up close and breathing in our ear. “You know what I’m thinking,” I said. “So why ask?”
“No my Lady this morning,” She said. “I ought to smite you for that.”
“You won’t, though,” I said. “You want me to do a job for you.”
“Oh, there’s plenty of other people.”
“But you chose me,” I said. “Why was that?”
The smile didn’t look nearly so fetching on Enki. “I have my reasons. Partly because you annoyed me.”
She laughed. “Partly because you’re the right man for the job,” She said. “You’re smart, and your crew love you—”
News to me. “You’re kidding.”
“Oh yes. It’s amazing who you can get attached to. They’d do anything for you.” She grinned; what fools these mortals be. “I knew your father, you know. You’re quite like him.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Thou shalt not contradict. You’re quite like him in some ways.”
“But not in others. For instance, he didn’t answer back.”
A thought struck me. “Is that how he got his lucky break?” I asked. “Was that you?”
“That’d be telling. Actually, yes, it was. You see, I had my eye on you before you were even born.”
That made me shiver.
She laughed again. “Oh come on,” She said. “That’s a good thing. It means that nothing you ever did was your fault, it was all me. Now isn’t that a comfort?”
I thought of all the horrible things I’ve done, the ones I’m truly ashamed of. “No,” I said, “not really.”
“Oh you,” She said. “You worry too much. That’s probably why I like you so much.”
Cold fingers closed around my heart. It’s scary when a goddess likes you. It means She’ll be back to play with you, again and again. “Is that right?”
“Oh yes. I like men of principle. They’re so sweet.”
A seagull erupted off the rail in a flurry of wingbeats. It hadn’t been there a moment before, and it scared the life out of me. Then Enki looked at me, as if to say: why am I standing here leaning against this rail?
We put in at Leucopolis, which is as far north as we usually go. Any farther and you run into the nasty currents in the bay, which can suddenly whisk you away, far out of sight of land, and that’s the last anyone ever hears of you.
Actually, it’s not that bad. I’ve been out of sight of land six times and I’m still alive. It was, of course, utterly terrifying, a cross between drowning and falling off a cliff—neither of which I’ve ever done, needless to say, but I’ve been underwater and I’ve fallen out of trees, and I can extrapolate. I can extrapolate because I have something in my experience to extrapolate from; which is a way of saying that I can still see land on the horizon even though I’m out on the water. But when you’re completely surrounded by the stuff, there’s no seamarks, nothing to orient yourself by, unless you count the sun. But the Sun’s one of Them, a god, and I’ve learnt (from the sad histories of others and my own bitter experience) that if you try and navigate by gods, you’re liable to come to a bad end.
We had a buyer at Leucopolis for the hundred and sixty ingots of copper of questionable purity that we’d got stuck with the year before, the consequence of doing business with dishonest people. In exchange we got three hundred jars of dates, stamped with what looked very much like the royal seal of Heddo but in fact wasn’t. But down south no one would know the difference, so that was all right. Just to make sure, though, I bought a jar of genuine Heddo dates, emptied out one of the dubious jars, refilled the dubious jar with the good stuff, and carefully repaired the seal with a brooch-pin heated in a charcoal stove. We tried eating the replaced dates ourselves, but they were horrible, so we chucked them over the side.
That night, when everybody else was asleep on the beach, I went back on board the ship, knelt down beside the socket the mast fits into, and prayed, a thing I don’t usually do as a rule. I said, Seafather, can you hear me? or words to that effect.
There was no sound except the lapping of the water round the hull. Ah well, I said to myself. It was a pretty terrible idea anyway.
Then I looked up, and there He was, sitting on an oar-bench. He looked like—
“Dad?” I said.
He shook his head. “Though I knew him quite well,” Seafather said, “back in the day. You’re like him, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said.
“Yes, so you have. Oh, and the answer is yes.”
“But I haven’t asked the—”
He looked at me. All desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden. “You want to find a way of not doing what my niece told you to. My nephew couldn’t help you, but He hinted I could. Well, call it a hint; it was a bit obscure if you ask me. But you’re a smart boy and you figured it out. And the answer is yes.”
“You can help me?”
“Sure I can.”
“And will you?”
“If you want me to.”
I waited for a moment. Some details would be nice, I thought.
“You want details,” He said. “Fine. Close your eyes.”
So I did that; and at once I saw a black sky and felt rain and spray stinging my face, wind ripping at my skin, and the deck under my feet heaving. The mast had been up but had snapped off. Then a wave came up out of nowhere and everything turned upside down, and I fell, a short way, and my nose was full of water and I couldn’t—
I opened my eyes and looked at Him. “Really?” I said.
“Sure,” he replied. “Freedom.”
I gazed at him. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“And you were doing so well.” He smiled. It was a kind smile, compassionate, fatherly. Everyone who comes from the sea lives every moment of his life by Seafather’s compassion. We stand on the palm of his open hand; he forbears to close his fingers and crush us. “You want to get out of doing the job my niece gave you.”
“In other words, you want to be free.”
“Very well, then,” He said, and for a moment I could feel the water in my nose and throat, killing me. “You want to be free of the evil task, and the guilt. I can do that for you, easy as falling off the rigging.”
Then I understood. “But I’d be dead,” I said.
“Exactly,” He said. “You’d be free.” He clicked his tongue, as though I was being deliberately obtuse. “And you know what, I envy you people sometimes. Really, I do. You have a freedom I can never share. You can choose for it all to be over, where nobody can hurt you ever again. You can opt out. I can’t do that.”
“Yes,” I said. “But I’d be dead.”
He laughed. “There’s worse things, trust me. There’s living in pain. Did you ever see a sick person die slowly? Yes, of course you did.”
“But at least she died eventually, didn’t she? It was long and horrible, but eventually she was free. And of course there’s other sorts of pain. There’s prison. And living with things you’ve done.” He frowned, then went on: “Pain is a prison. Guilt is worse. The only true freedom is death.”
I must’ve pulled a sad face or made a sad noise or something, because he nodded again. “No,” he said, “trust me, it is. Everyone living is a prisoner, except for us. Well, us too, actually, but I’m not supposed to say that. Mostly, chained to duty, or love. Basically the same thing.”
“Understand? Yes you do. Your life is wretched, nothing but misery and pain, but you can’t just run away, because you have obligations. You’re chained to the people who depend on you, the people who love you. You can’t escape, because of the pain they’d endure if you weren’t there any more. The only way out is when death sets you free.”
“Yes,” I said, “but like you said, I won’t be there any more.” I hesitated. “I like being there,” I said.
“You enjoy pain and suffering? There’s a word for that.”
“Yes, but if I’m not there, surely that’s missing the point. What good is freedom if you’re not even there?”
There was such deep compassion in His eyes, as deep as the sea. “You want to be free and still be there? How charmingly naïve.” He looked away for a moment, then looked back. “Actually, it’s possible, but only for us. That’s our privilege.” I felt the weight of his presence on me, as though I was at the bottom of the sea with all that water pressing down on me. “Listen carefully,” He said, “because this is gospel truth and divine revelation. People would pay good money for what I’m about to tell you.”
He paused for a moment, then went on: “There are only two ways to be free, death and not giving a damn. We chose the latter option, leaving you people the former. That’s how we survive, by not giving a damn—about what we do, or what happens to anyone else, about anything. Giving a damn is binding yourself in chains that even we can’t loose.” He grinned. “Which is why we’re incapable of it, simply a matter of survival. If we cared about anything, we wouldn’t last five minutes. How you people can endure it I have absolutely no idea. You’re tough little buggers, I’ll say that for you.”
I took a deep breath. “What She wants me to do,” I said. “It isn’t right.”
He rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s right,” He said, “it’s the divine will. That’s the definition of right, you halfwit. She’s a goddess, and where the hell were you when She laid the foundations of the Earth? But if you refuse to let Her set you free, that’s your own stupid wilfulness and I have absolutely no sympathy.”
“But what She wants is murder. That’s wrong. It’s a crime.”
“What’s a crime?” He was being patient, trying to keep his temper. “The definition of a crime is something that’s against the law. Who makes the law? She does. We do.”
“It’s wrong,” I said.
“Says who? All right, try this. Would it be wrong to kill and eat your firstborn child?”
Here we go, I thought.
“In Tidor it’s the law that you sacrifice your firstborn to the Good Goddess and eat the body. You invite all the neighbours and make a party of it. People look forward to it, it’s a sacrament. And if you don’t do it, they drench you in tar and set fire to you in the marketplace, as an awful warning to other sinners. Anyway, that’s what they think in Tidor, and they’re advanced. They have plumbing and indoor sanitation. You don’t even know that that is.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t.”
“Well then, there you go. You’re ignorant.” He breathed out slowly, then breathed in again. “Laws and rules are just arbitrary things. We invent them, and on top of that you think up even more of them, as if you hadn’t got enough chains already. You know, you people really enjoy making life difficult for yourselves.” He shrugged. “The point is, they’re just conventions, like fashion. They don’t actually mean anything, any more than a side parting or a floor-length hemline means anything. They’re just whims, really. Whims of iron.”
I thought for a moment. I think he had the decency to look the other way while I was doing it. “So,” I said, “what am I supposed to do?”
“What we tell you.” Then suddenly He grinned again.
“And since there’s a hell of a lot of us and we all want different things, all you need to do is shop around till you find one of us who wants the same things you do, and put yourself under his protection. Easy as falling off the rigging. You know what the difference is, between gods and men?”
“Gods are stronger. That’s it.” He paused. “I’d have thought you’d have known that by now.”
“But what if what you want is wrong?”
“Oh for crying out loud,” He said, and vanished in a clap of thunder.
All the next day I had this sort of buzzing in my ears. It drove me mad. It eased off at nightfall. She knew that if she pushed me too far, I’d be no use to Her.
Enki said; “How are we going to do this?”
I hadn’t given it much thought. “Piece of cake,” I told him. “The Goddess is on our side, remember? She’ll think of something. Which means we don’t have to.”
While I was saying it, my poor worm-eaten brain was whirring. How precisely do you capture a walled town when outnumbered three to one? It’s happened, because I’ve seen it. At least, I’ve sailed past places where there was a city last time I passed that way but now there’s just a heap of stones and some ash; and I ask, what happened? And people tell me it was just one or two ships; usually also, it happened so quickly, they came charging in before anyone had a chance to shut the gates... Usually unspoken; it must have been the will of the gods, or how could such a thing happen?
Fine; quite reassuring, in its way, if you happen to be the Hand of God. But even so, there’s such a thing as practicalities. We had weapons; you don’t entrust your life to the freedom of the seas without a bare minimum of either a spear or a bow and two dozen arrows. In addition I have a sword and a helmet, taken off the body of a rich bastard I’d killed, and so did Enki and three or four of the others. Now, the recipe for a soldier is weapons plus experience... I guess we had plenty of that, too, between us. One aspect of the freedom of the sea is that people are free to take the valuable things in the hold of your ship, if you let them; by the same token, you’re at perfect liberty to stop them, if you can, by any means necessary. We knew about as much about fighting as the average landsman knows about hedging and ditching—enough to get the job done.
Storming a city, on the other hand... One time, when I was much younger, we got caught up by the wind and blown right the way down to Coelesyra, the furthest south any of us had ever been. While we were there, we thought we might as well see the sights—outstanding among which is the temple the Great King built to commemorate his victory over some unfortunate enemy or other; the walls are floor-to-roof carvings, life-size and amazingly realistic, of the King’s army storming cities. An amazing thing, and truly one of the wonders of the world, so three cheers for the King in his aspect as patron of the arts, and as good as a seven year apprenticeship in the craft of storming cities.
According to the King, you pile up a huge mountain of earth against the city wall so your soldiers can walk straight from the top of the mound onto the ramparts; or you build wooden towers on wheels; or you knock holes in the walls with massive rams mounted on carriages; or you dig tunnels under the walls and get in that way. Thanks to the Great King I know all about it, including the ridiculous amount of time and manpower and wealth it takes to turn a few buildings into rubble...
Either that, or a god helps you.
I had eight days to think about it, as we worked our way up the coast towards Iden Astea. It was one of those trips where everything seemed to work out perfectly. You arrive in A with a cargo of bleached linen cloth; people in A are desperate for bleached linen and in return they give you lemons, of which they have so many that the town stinks of lemons squashed under cart wheels because nobody can be bothered to pick them up. So onwards to B, where early frosts buggered up the lemon harvest that year but the walnuts more than made up for it... So you carry walnuts to C, where walnut trees don’t grow and where they mine copper, and on to D, where they have no copper and are at war with C, so they can’t get any but need the stuff desperately to make arrowheads to shoot at C’s invading army. Everywhere we went on that trip, we supplied deficiencies and were amply rewarded out of surpluses and people were genuinely pleased to see us, which was by no means always the case. “It’s because the Goddess is with us,” said the intellectuals in my crew, and I had a horrible feeling they were right.
Your first sight of Iden Astea is when you sail up the coast from Nöon Egno and come round the headland into the bay. The first time I went there was when I was eleven years old; the first time I was allowed to go out with my father on a run. I was standing next to him in the prow—that was the old ship, not the one I have now—and he pointed, and I saw a hill on the far side of the bay with something black on it. “That’s Iden,” he told me. “We always do well in Iden.”
This time, we got there early, just as the sun was rising. That meant we had to round the headland in the dark, a bloody stupid thing to do. “It’ll be fine,” Enki said, “the Goddess will see us right,” and evidently She did, because we had no trouble at all. We’d done it like that with a view to hitting the city while they were still asleep, but it didn’t work out that way; a current held us back, and by the time we got close it was nearly light, and people would already be up and about and making their way to the fields.
“Plan B,” I told them. “We hang about here until everyone’s gone out to work and there’s only women and children in the city.”
Nijah didn’t like that. “That means we’ll have to go out and get them, in open country.”
“No,” said Rami, “because as soon as we set the city on fire, they’ll see the smoke out in the fields and come running, and then we’ll be trapped inside the city and burnt to death—”
“Fine,” Enki said. “So we don’t set fire to anything. We round up the women and children, and when the men come home at night—”
“We’ll be inside and they’ll be outside,” Nijah said, “and they’ll outnumber us three to one. Sort of like, oh, I don’t know, a siege—”
“Screw Plan B,” I said. “We’ll go now. The Goddess got us into this, She can get us out of it.”
That actually seemed to make sense to the rest of them. By that point, I was past caring.
So we took a line on our usual seamarks and went straight in, the way we always did when we came to Iden. I noticed that there were more fishing boats drawn up on the beach than usual. At that time of day they should be at sea. Still, no matter. We pressed on. When we got there, we all jumped out with the ropes and hauled the ship up out of the water. I was looking over my shoulder, watching for people coming down from the town to see who we were and find out if we’d brought them anything nice. No sign of anyone.
“Nijah,” I said, “run up the beach and see if the gates are open.”
They were. If they’d seen us and suspected trouble, they’d have shut them. So why was there no-one about? “I don’t like it,” Bani said. Neither did I. “Shut up,” I told him.
Enki wanted us to run up the beach, but it’s a long way and uphill and you don’t fight so well when you’re gasping for breath, so we walked. Of course, I’d never been inside Iden before. They always bring their stuff down to the beach and take back what they get from us. No big deal, it was just the way we’d always done it; and there’s nothing to see in Iden, so why walk a mile uphill when you don’t have to?
“Is there more than one gate?” I asked Enki.
He looked at me. “I don’t know, do I?”
City gateways are special places, of course. At that time of the morning, you know what you’d expect to find there. People and carts on their way to the fields; traders setting up stalls; a priest sacrificing or a magistrate getting ready to hear cases. When we got there, the gateway was deserted. We went inside, feeling like idiots with our spears in our hands and arrows nocked on the bowstring. Nobody to be seen anywhere.
It took a while before we figured it out. Actually it was Nijah, not usually the sharpest arrow in the quiver, who guessed the reason, or at least said it out loud. “There’s nobody here,” he said, and then, “they’re all dead.” As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. And then, when we tentatively poked our heads into a few houses, we found them.
“Fuck,” said Bani, who doesn’t usually swear. “Plague.”
He backed out again, dropping his spear and pulling his tunic up over his face. I didn’t doubt he was right, but I decided I had to make sure. So I pushed past him and went inside, and there was a whole family; man, woman, old woman, three children, all dead. Their faces were grey and shrunken, like a desiccated rat you find on the floor of the barn. The room stank of shit, and flies were buzzing. I decided I’d done my duty and seen enough.
We ran through the gate and down the beach to the ship. When we got there I stopped to catch my breath. Enki came up beside me. His eyes were yellow.
“You idiot,” She said.
My nose was still full of the smell, and I felt as though there were flies crawling in my hair. “What happened?” I asked.
“You didn’t get here fast enough, is what happened,” She said. “While you were dawdling your way up the coast buying and selling, they all died. Before you could kill them for me. I have to say, I’m not happy.”
“Plague,” I said.
She shot me a don’t-give-me-that look. “Of course it’s plague, you fool. And you know who sent it?”
“No I didn’t.” She remembered she was a lady and lowered her voice. “Why would I do that, when I’d already sent you to deal with them? No, this is all my sainted brother. They did something to piss him off, and while you were lazing around sunning yourselves down south, he nipped in first with his poison arrows and wiped them all out.”
I tried to meet Her gaze, but it hurt my eyes. “Well,” I said, “they’re all dead. Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters, you clown!” She was yelling again. “How do you think this makes me look? They offend me and nothing happens to them. They offend my wretched brother and two minutes later they’re all dead. I’ll be a laughing stock. And it’s all your fault.”
I closed my eyes. “Yes, my Lady,” I said.
“Oh shut up,” She said. “No, it wasn’t your fault, strictly speaking, but that’s not doing me any good, now is it? It still makes me look like I’m soft and weak and He’s strong and powerful, and I’ll never hear the last of it.”
I realised I was shaking. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t. She must have noticed me thinking about it. “Oh don’t be such a child,” She said. “You haven’t caught it.”
So that was all right. “What about—?”
“Oh for pity’s sake.” She paused for a moment. “All of your men are fine, apart from Adonijah.”
“He’s got it.”
“Not any more. I just cured him.”
“Thank you, my Lady.”
She looked at me. “You care about him, don’t you? That’s so sweet. Anyway, he’s fine now. The point is, what are we going to do about this appalling mess you’ve made of everything?”
“I don’t know, my Lady.”
“No, of course you don’t. Now shut up and let me think.”
“How would it be,” I said, “if you brought them back to life? And then we could kill all the men and—”
She scowled at me. “Half-wit,” She said. “You know I can’t raise the dead. Well, I can, of course I can, but uncle Death would be livid.” She stopped and peered at me, as though She’d just found me floating in her drink. “Oh, I see. That way, at least the women and children wouldn’t die. That’s extraordinary,” She said. “You tried to trick me. You don’t even know these people, but you’d risk annoying me to save them.” She sighed. “You’re the sort of man who goes around rescuing flies from cobwebs. Don’t you realise, there’s no point? You’re all going to die sooner or later, so what does it matter?”
I forced myself to look at Her. “What does matter, my Lady?”
“I do,” she said. “Now then, where were we? Right, I’ve solved it. When the plague hit, there was one fishing boat. It was blown out to sea by uncle Seafather, almost as far as Aelia, and it’s on its way back and it’ll be here this afternoon. All of its crew were drowned except one man, so he’s the last surviving Idenite. Kill him and we’re all square. Now I can’t say fairer than that, can I?”
“Don’t even think,” She said, “of refusing. Because if you do, I’ll sink your ship and drown the lot of you. I mean it.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
She rolled those terrible golden eyes, so monstrously out of place in Enki’s eye-sockets. “All right,” she said, “I don’t know why I’m pandering to you, but here goes. You can fight him honourably in single combat, if you feel any better. A fair fight, and may the best man win.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“You’ll win, of course, but it’ll be a fair fight. Oh come on, be reasonable. Even your wire-thin sensibilities can’t object to that.”
“It’s that or I drown your crew. And when you’ve done it, I’ll reward you. Everything you always wanted, on a silver platter.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but Enki’s eyes had gone from golden to their usual turd brown.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he said.
“Why?” asked the fisherman, after we’d dumped him on the beach. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Doesn’t matter why,” I snarled back. “Fight me or die where you stand.”
Most of my fighting’s been done on beaches, in the disputed area between land and sea. Some of the time it’s land and belongs to the Archer God or Her Ladyship; some of the time it’s sea and belongs to Seafather. It’s a shifting jurisdiction, so conflict goes with the territory, like a serf.
“This is stupid,” the fisherman said, as I tossed two spears at his feet and took a long step backward. “I don’t want to fight anybody. I just want to go home and see my wife and my kids.”
“They’re dead,” I said.
He stared at me. “You what? They can’t be. What—?”
“The god sent plague.”
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. At which moment, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder. Plague had wiped out his entire city and Seafather had drowned all his crew, but he was still alive. Therefore— I was a moron not to see it earlier—
He himself was under the protection of a god. In which case, I couldn’t hurt him. Or at the very least, his god and my goddess would cancel each other out and it’d be a fair fight. I might lose. Or if I won, it wouldn’t be cold-blooded murder...
He said it twice before I realised he’d been talking to me.
“Does it matter?” I said. “Your people offended a god, so naturally you had to be punished. You’re the last survivor, so you’ve got to be killed. Now defend yourself or I’ll cut your throat.”
He looked at me long and hard, then stooped and picked up the two spears. “The hell with you,” he said.
“That’s the spirit,” I said, and backed off ten paces.
He knew the rules too, and backed off another ten. I was the challenger, so he got the first throw. He shifted his back foot, lining himself up; clearly, he knew what he was doing, which comforted me. I settled my weight equally on both feet, standing square on to give him the best possible target. It occurred to me that I was preparing to give my life for a perfect stranger, a man I’d never met before and owed nothing to. It was so silly I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t see that I had any choice.
He threw. He missed.
With hindsight, I know exactly why he missed. He was anticipating me moving out of the way at the last moment, which is of course what everybody does in a formal duel. He’d seen I was left-handed when I dropped the spears at his feet, so he knew I’d instinctively dodge left. He’d allowed for that when he threw. But of course I stayed perfectly still, to make it easier for him to hit me.
We looked at each other. It was my throw.
Now then, I thought, how can I be absolutely sure I’ll miss? Because if I missed, we’d close with our second spears and slug it out; I’m no great shakes at the hand-to-hand stuff, whereas I’m probably the best spear-thrower I’ve ever come across. He’d thrown right handed, so he’d flinch right—or he might be really clever and stay put, like I’d done, expecting me to aim left into his flinch. So, I figured, if I threw a whole pace wide to my right, that ought to do the trick.
I threw. He flinched left. I hit him in the hollow between the collar-bones, and he was dead before he hit the sand.
I walked over to get my spear. His dead eyes lit up yellow. “You clown,” She said.
“You got what you wanted, didn’t you?”
“Don’t talk to me like that. And you do realise, you were being horribly irresponsible.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Don’t yes-my-Lady me, you idiot. If he’d killed you, I’d have had to drown your entire crew. Don’t you care about them?”
I looked right back. “To be honest,” I said, “I don’t think I care about anything any more.”
That got me a foul look; then the eyes went cold again. A fly landed on one of them and started bustling about, like flies do. I couldn’t be bothered to shoo it away.
I walked back to the others. Nobody spoke.
“What are you standing about for?” I said. “Get on and loot the city.”
Nijah looked at me. “Do you think we should?”
“Why the hell not? Nobody owns it any more.”
“It’s crawling with plague.”
Valid point. Still, I wanted them to get something out of the whole ridiculous affair, so we traipsed round the countryside looking for anything worth having. There wasn’t much. The figs were ripe and ready to pick, but you could hardly give figs away at that time of year in any of the places we were going. We ended up with a few hoes and brush-hooks, worth their scrap value but not much more, and the dead fisherman’s nets. I’ve never had much luck with piracy, though my father did well at it, as I think I mentioned.
Before we left we set fire to the city. Not because She’d told me to do it, but because fire stops the spread of plague. And yes, because She’d told me to do it. She was perfectly right; I had my crew to think about. Even on the sea, there’s no freedom, not from the chains of responsibility and love.
Halfway to Anticonessus, a storm struck. It was all very quick. One moment we were rowing steadily across a placid wine-dark sea. The next, the ship was at forty-five degrees and my friends were hurtling into the water like windfalls from an apple tree. I wrapped both arms round an oar-bench and hung on, eyes shut, screaming prayers to Seafather, and then there was an almighty crash and the sound of wood splintering, and something hit my head and I went to sleep—
And in my sleep I dreamed that I saw Seafather, and he gave me a look of deep compassion. “Not your fault,” He said.
He nodded. “The fisherman was under my protection,” He said. “So you weren’t at liberty to kill him.”
“You weren’t to know,” Seafather said generously. “And you’re under my niece’s protection, so you’ll be all right. The rest of your crew—well, that’s how it goes. No hard feelings,” He added, and then I woke up.
...on a beach.
Lying next to me on the sand were a spear, a cloth bag, a brush-hook and a hoe. The tools were from a hut just outside Iden Astea. The spear was the one I’d killed the fisherman with.
She was standing over me. She reached out a hand and helped me up. Touching Her was like touching fire. “Don’t say I don’t ever do anything for you,” She said.
“You spared me,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Oh, I wasn’t talking about that,” She said. “If I’d let my stupid uncle drown you, how would that make me look? No, I mean giving you your heart’s desire. What you always wanted.”
“A brush-hook and a hoe. Thank you.”
“Funny man.” She spread her arms wide. “All this,” She said.
“All of it.”
I was, I realised, on an island.
It’s not a bad island, as islands go. It’s about half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. I found a stream of fresh water, and a small flock of wild goats, and grapevines and a couple of fig trees. I looked in the cloth bag she’d given me; seed corn. I walked all round the island looking out to sea, but there was no land in any direction.
I’ve been here twenty years. It’s not so bad. I have a place of my own. I am monarch of all I survey. And, in spite of all that, I guess you could say I’m free.