On Blue's Waters is the start of a major new work by Gene Wolfe, the first of three volumes that comprise The Book of the Short Sun, which takes place in the years after Wolfe's four-volume Book of the Long Sun. Horn, the narrator of the earlier work, now tells his own story. Though life is hard on the newly settled planet of Blue, Horn and his family have made a decent life for themselves. But Horn is the only one who can locate the great leader Silk, and convince him to return to Blue and lead them all to prosperity. So Horn sets sail in a small boat, on a long and difficult quest across the planet Blue in search of the now legendary Patera Silk. The story continues in In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl.
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Gene Wolfe is perhaps the most repected literary writer of SF in the world today. He lives in Barrington, Illinois.
It is worthless, this old pen case I brought from Viron. It is nothing. You might go around the market all day and never find a single spirit who would trade you a fresh egg for it. Yet it holds...
Yes, enough. I am sick of fancies.
* * *
At present it holds two quills, for I have taken the third one out. Two were in it when I found it in the ashes of our shop. The third, with which I am writing, was dropped by Oreb not so long ago. I picked it up, put it in this pen case, and forgot both Oreb and his feather.
It also holds a knife for pointing pens and the small bottle of black ink (more than half full) into which I dip mine. See how much darker my writing has become.
* * *
It is facts I need--facts I starve for. To Green with fancies!
My name is Horn.
This is such a pen case as students use in Viron, the city in which I was born, and no doubt in many others--a case of black leather glued over pressboard; it has a brass hinge with a steel spring, and a little brass clamp to keep it shut. We sold them in our shop and asked six cardbits; but my father would accept four if the purchaser bargained awhile, and such purchasers always did.
Three, if they bought something else, a quire of writing paper, say.
* * *
The leather is badly scuffed. More facts later, when I have more time. Rajya Mantri wants to lecture me.
* * *
Reviewing what I wrote yesterday, I see that I have begun without plan or foresight, and in fact without the least notion of what I was trying to do or why I was trying to do it. That is how I have begun everything in life. Perhaps I need to begin before I can think clearly about the task. The chief thing is to begin, after all--after which the chief thing is to finish. I have finished worse than I began, for the most part.
It is all in the pen case. You have to take out the ink and string it together into the right shapes. That is all.
* * *
If I had not picked up this old pen case where my father's shop once stood, it is possible that I might still be searching for Silk.
For the phantom who has eluded me on three whorls.
* * *
Silk may be here on Blue already, after all. I have dispatched letters to Han and some other towns, and we will see. It is convenient, I find, to have messengers at one's beck and call.
So I am searching here, although I am the only person here in Gaon who could not tell you where to find him. Searching does not necessarily imply movement. Thinking it does, or rather assuming it without thought, may have been my first and worst mistake.
Thus I continue to search, true to my oath. I question travelers, and I write new letters subtracting some facts and adding others, composing flatteries and threats I hope will bring this town and that to my assistance; no doubt my scribe thinks I am penning another such letter at this moment, a letter that he, poor fellow, will have to copy out with broad, fair flourishes upon sheepskins scraped thin.
We need a paper mill here, and it is the only thing that I am competent to do.
* * *
I wish Oreb were here.
* * *
Now that I know what I mean to do, I can begin. But not at the beginning. To begin at the beginning would consume far too much time and paper, to say nothing of ink. I am going to begin, when I do, just a day or two before the moment at which I put to sea in the sloop.
Tomorrow then, when I have had time to decide how best to tell the convoluted tale of my long, vain search for Patera Silk--for Silk my ideal, who was the augur of our manteion in the Sun Street Quarter of Our Sacred City of Viron in the belly of the Whorl.
When I was young.
* * *
The mainshaft had split--I remember that. I was taking it out of the journals when one of the twins ran in. I believe it was Hide. "A boat's coming! A big boat's coming!"
I told him that they probably wanted to buy a few bales, and that his mother could sell it to them as well as I could.
"Sinew's here, too."
Just to get rid of Hide, I told him to tell his mother about it. When he had gone, I got my needler from its hiding place and stuck it in my waistband under my greasy tunic.
Sinew was stamping up and down the beach, lovely shells of purple, rose, and purest white snapping beneath his boots. He looked surly when he saw me, so I told him to bring the good telescope out of the sloop. He would have defied me if he had possessed the courage. For half a minute we stood eye to eye; then he turned and went. I thought he was leaving, that he would put out for the mainland in his coracle and stay there for a week or a month, which to tell the truth I wanted much more than my telescope.
The boat they came in was indeed large. I know I counted at least a dozen sails. It carried a couple of jibs, three sails on each of its big masts, and staysails. I had never seen a boat big enough to set staysails between its masts before, so I am sure of those.
Sinew came back with the telescope. I asked whether he wanted the first look, and he sneered at me. It was always a mistake to try to treat him with any courtesy in those days, and I could have kicked myself for it. I put the telescope to my eye, wondering what Sinew was doing the second I could no longer watch him.
It was a good instrument, made in Dorp they said, where they are good sailors and grind good lenses. (We were good sailors in New Viron, too--or thought we were--but did not grind lenses at all.) Through it I could see the faces at the gunwale, all looking toward Tail Bay, for which their boat was plainly making. Its hull was white above and black below--I recall that, too. Here on Blue the sea is silver where it is not so dark a blue that it seems it might dye cloth, not at all like Lake Limna at home where the waves were nearly always green.
I had become used to Blue's blue and silver sea long ago, of course. Perhaps I only think of it now because we are so far from it here in Gaon; but it seems to me, as I sit here to write at this beautifully inlaid table the Gaonese have provided for me, that I saw it then through the glass as though it were new, that there was some magic carried in the big black and white boat that made Blue new to me again. Perhaps there was, for boats are magic--living things that ordinary men like me can shape from wood and iron.
"Probably pirates," Sinew snarled.
I took my eye from the telescope and saw that he had his long, steel-hilted hunting knife out and was testing its edge with his thumb. Sinew could never sharpen a knife properly (Nettle did it for him in those days), although he pretended he could; but for a moment before I returned to my study of the boat, I wondered whether he would not stab me and try to join them if pirates in fact came again. Then I put my eye back to the telescope, and saw that the faces at the gunwale included a woman's, and that one of the men was old Patera Remora. I should make it clear here that he and Marrow were the only ones I knew well.
There were five besides Gyrfalcon's sailors, who had been brought along to work the boat. Perhaps I ought to list all five now and describe them, since Nettle may want to show this to others. You would do everything much better, darling, I know, working in the descriptions cleverly as you did when we wrote The Book of Silk; but it is a skill I have never possessed to the same degree.
No doubt you remember them better than I, as well.
* * *
Gyrfalcon is fat, with busy eyes, a noble face, and a mop of sinknut-brown hair just starting to turn gray. It was his boat, and he let us know that the moment that he came ashore. Do you remember?
* * *
Eschar is tall and stooped, with a long, sad face, slow to speak until his passions are roused. He was on our lander, of course, just as Marrow and Remora were.
* * *
The woman came later, perhaps on Gyrfalcon's lander. Her name is Blazingstar. She has humor, as you do, a rare thing in a woman. I know you liked her, and so did I. She talked about her farms, so she must own at least two in addition to her trading company.
* * *
Marrow is large and solid, not so fat as he was at home, but balder even than I was then. When we were children, he owned a greengrocery as well as his fruit stall in the market. He still deals in vegetables and fruits mostly, I believe. I have never known him to cheat anyone, and he can be generous; but I would like to meet the man who can best him in a bargain. Marrow was the only one of the five who helped me after I was robbed in New Viron.
* * *
His Cognizance Patera Remora is of course the head of the Vironese Faith--quite tall but not muscular, with lank gray hair he wears too long. He was at one time coadjutor in Old Viron (as we say it here). A good and a kind man, not as shrewd as he believes, prone to be too careful.
* * *
They were too many for our little house. Hoof and Hide and I made a rude table on the beach, laying planks across boxes and barrels and bales of paper. Sinew carried out all the chairs, I brought the high and low stools I use in the mill, and you spread the planks with cloths and set what little cheer we had before our uninvited guests. And so we managed to entertain all five, and even Gyrfalcon's sailors, with some show of decency.
Marrow rapped the makeshift table, calling us to order. Our sons and the sailors were sitting on the beach, nudging one another, whispering, and tossing shells and pebbles into the silver waves. I would have sent them all away if I could. It did not seem to be my place to do so, and Marrow let them stay.
"First let me thank you both for your hospitality," he began. "You owe us no favors, since we have come to ask you for a big one--"
Gyrfalcon interrupted, saying, "To grant you a privilege." From the way he spoke, I felt sure that they had argued about this already.
Marrow shrugged. "I should have begun by explaining who we are. You know our names now, and even though you live so far from town, it's likely that you also know we're its five richest citizens."
Remora cleared his throat. "Not, um, so. No--ah--intent to, um, contradict, but not, er, I."
"Your Chapter's got more gelt than any of us," Eschar remarked dryly.
"Not mine, hey? Custodian--um-solely." The sweet salt wind ruffled his hair, making him look at once foolish and blessed.
Blazingstar spoke first to you, Nettle; then to me. "We are the five people who have jockeyed most successfully for money and power, that's all. We wanted them, we five, and we got them. Now here we are, begging you two to keep us from cutting our own throats."
"He'll deny it," she told us, "but it's the gods' own truth just the same. Our money belongs to us, mine to me, Gyrfalcon's to him, and so on. Patera here is going to insist that his isn't really his, that it belongs to the Chapter and he only takes care of it."
"Brava! Quite--um--ah...Precisely the case."
"But he's got it, and as Eschar said he's probably got more than any of us. He's got bravos, too, buckos to break heads for him whenever he wants."
Stubbornly, Remora shook his own. "There are many men of--ah--high heart amongst the faithful. That I, um, concede. However, we--ah--none--"
"He doesn't have to pay his," Blazingstar explained. "We pay ours."
Eschar asked Remora, "If it isn't so, what are you doing here?"
Marrow rapped the table again. "That's who we are. Do you understand now?"
You looked at me then, Nettle darling, inviting me to speak; but all I could think of to say was. "I don't think so."
Marrow said, "You don't know why we're here, naturally. We haven't told you. That will come soon enough."
Gyrfalcon snapped, "New Viron needs a caldé. Anybody can see it."
You nodded then, Nettle darling. "It's become a terrible place."
"Exactly. We came here to escape the Sun Street Quarter, didn't we? The Sun Street Quarter and the Orilla." Gyrfalcon chuckled. "But we carried them with us."
"It isn't just crime," Blazingstar declared, "though there's much too much of that. The wells are polluted and there's filth everywhere."
Gyrfalcon chuckled again. "Just like home."
"Worse. Filth and flies. Rats. It isn't just that the people want a caldé, though they do. We do. We're businesspeople at base, all of us. Traders and merchants. Sharpers, if you like."
"I must--ah," Remora began.
"All right, all except His Cognizance, who never hedges the truth even a finger's width. Or so he says." Blazingstar gave Remora a scornful smile. "But the rest of us need to carry on our businesses, and it's become almost impossible to do that in New Viron."
Marrow added, "And getting worse."
"Getting worse. Exactly."
You asked, "Can't one of you be caldé?"
Gyrfalcon laughed aloud at that; he has a good, booming laugh. "Suppose one of us became caldé tomorrow. How about old Marrow there? He wants it."
"I feel sure it would be a wonderful improvement."
Marrow thanked you. "For you and your family it would be, Nettle. What do think it would be for them?" He glanced around at Gyrfalcon, Remora, Eschar, and Blazingstar.
"An improvement, too, I think."
"Not a bit of it." Marrow had rapped the table before; now he struck it with his fist, rattling our mugs and plates. "I would take everything I could get. I would do my best to ruin them, and if you ask me I would succeed." He smiled, and glanced around at the woman and the three men I had believed were his friends. "They know it well, my dear. And, Nettle, they would do the same to me."
Eschar told you, "We need Caldé Silk here. I was the first to suggest it."
"He's still in the Whorl, isn't he? And...I don't like to say this."
"Then I will." Blazingstar reached across the table we had made to cover your hand with her own. "He may be dead. I left sixteen years ago, and by this time it's certainly possible."
"Hem!" Remora cleared his throat. "Theocracy, hey? I have suggested it, but they will, er, won't. Not if--ah--me. But, um, Patera Silk, eh? Yes. Yes, to that. Third party. Still an augur, eh? Indelible--ah--consecration. So, um. Modified? A mitigated theocracy. We, um, two in concert. I concur."
Gryfalcon summed up, "It's that or we fight, and a fight would destroy the town, and all of us, too, in all probability. Show them the letter, Marrow."
* * *
Hari Mau and I have formalized the court. Up until now, it seems, litigants have simply done whatever they could to come before the rajan (as their ruler was called at home) and made their cases. Witnesses were or were not called, and so forth. We have set up a system--tentative, of course, but it is a system--in a situation in which any system at all will surely be an improvement. Unless they choose otherwise, Nauvan will represent all the plaintiffs, and Somvar all the defendants. It will be their duty to see that evidence, witnesses, and so forth are present when I hear the case. In criminal cases, I will assign one or the other to prosecute, depending.
I feel like Vulpes.
They will have to be paid, of course; but demanding fees from both parties should encourage them to come to agreement, so that may work out well. Besides, there will be fines. I wish I knew more about our Vironese law--these people don't seem to have had any.
Back to it.
* * *
I swore an oath, adm...
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