– Seedcorn –

– Tale of the Ekumen –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

What seemed thy loss will often prove
To be thy truest gain;
And sufferings borne with patient love
A jeweled crown obtain.

— Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471)

Table of Contents so far

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1. A Planet Called Patience

To the Stabiles on Hain from Katsuhiro Tanaka, sub-envoy to the planet Patience/Ushenyu, Hainish Cycle 98, Ekumenical Year 1550 Day 57-157, being a report on the circumstances surrounding the end of the life of the Envoy Vilgalahadennorthremnin Annoreth.


On the world they called Patience, it was the season of Autumn in the land of Abundance, and the dying leaves were gold. It had been Autumn here for forty-five years.

I had been here for decades, and the leaves had always been gold for me.

Nor were there leaves of other hues in other climes. The sole continent of the globe, called Abundance, sprawled in steppe and tundra, champaign and plain from the pole to the temperate zone. The world-ocean was called Emptiness, for no island, no reef, no atoll, interrupted the waves of the topics or equator or southern hemisphere, nor were any fish found the water, nor sea-life larger than plankton.

Three doorways led into the chambers of the Envoy, and the two enemies entered separately, one from either side, together.  Together they both stopped short, seeing each other; together bitter glares appeared on both faces.

The third doorway was too large to be properly called a door, for, with the panels fully retracted, the whole wall opened out onto a balcony, one of the many projecting from the walls of the fortress-granary of Oshenmandrang-Yu.

Up from below came the chants and calls and battle-slogans of the Fall Militia, marching and drilling.

Framed like a portrait through the doors, we could see Mount Ai-Shayan rising to the west.  On the lower slopes winked the watch-fires of the Winter People.  Faint trails of smoke from their encampment rose straight as space-elevators into a windless purple twilight.  Above, there rose a constellation called Herald-of-Bloodshed, which had never before been seen in living memory, not in this half of the world.

Each night over the last ten years more of figure could be seen, and the two lower stars which formed the foot were above the horizon.  Now, the Herald-of-Bloodshed rose with his upraised boot poised over the land.

One of his stars, invisible at this distance, near the heart of that war-god was my own home-star, Sol.  I remembered the terrible people whom I had served there (long before I joined the Ekumen); and I thought how they would have laughed to hear this little turmoil called a war.

The Envoy had been seated, crossed-legged, on a mat the same dark color as his simple robe.  In the gloom, he seemed to be a part of the floor, like a turret of rock carved into the shape of a man.  Now he rose in a graceful flow of motion, and reached out his hands, one toward each guest.

His hair, also dark, fell to his shoulders, surrounded his face like a hood.  His skin was the golden hue of polished wood; the only brightness here was in his eyes, which were smiling as he came to his feet, and in the few white ribbons on the border of his garb.

These ribbons were tied in a meditational Knot-symbology traditional to one school of ascetics from his planet Ve, dating from the Postglacial Restoration period.  The complex flower of loops at his throat was ‘Compassion’; his left shoulder was tied with ‘Discipline’ and ‘Silence’; and three small knots of ‘Tranquility’ held his garment shut along his left side.

“Rejoice!” he said, extending his hands. “It may be that the time for talking will come to us now, if we invite it.”

The two ambassadors stared at him in stony silence.

“Mr. Tanaka –” (This last was directed to me) “Perhaps if the balcony doors were closed, more silence would enter here, and the chill of the wind would be content to wait outside.”

“Certainly, Mr. Envoy,” I turned and began sliding the panels shut.

I was facing the Captain of the Wintermen, a man named Wuyuk (‘Harshness’).  He was young, of course, with a face not unlike my own, round and flat, high-cheeked, with epicanthic eye-folds.  He had thrown back the hood of his parka, and stood, fist on hips, not stepping any further into the chamber.  He said to the Envoy, “Did I misunderstand that we were to be alone?”

The Envoy smiled most sadly. “All of us are alone.  It is the way we are born and the way we die.  It may be that only by speech, and by reaching toward others, that we can, for a time, seem not to be alone.  Shall we now let such speech find us?”

The other ambassador had not come far into the room either, but this was because her steps were slow and feeble.  She was a Summertimer, perhaps the last of her folk alive, and thus was the Eldest Speaker to the Parliament of Harvests.  Her skin was as black as ebony, and she wore the light scarlet silks woven for her in her youth, which now hung loosely on her stooped frame.  And she shivered.

In one shaking hand she held a flower of the kind called Settre-fanu, ‘Undying Rose of Early Summer’.  And her name was also Settre-fanu.  The flower was an heirloom, I had heard, plucked by her grandfather in his youth.  Such flowers were gone from this half of the world, gone for a hundred years or more, so that Summer Rose would not see her namesake bloom again.

Summer Rose looked from Captain Harshness to the Envoy, blinking slowly.  “Who can number the wonders are known to the homeless nomads who have fallen from the stars, coming like wind-blown puffs of seed down on our land?  But are you gods or not gods?  Who, then, shall stop the coming of the war?  Who shall stop the coming of the snow?”

A petal fell from the undying rose in her hand.

I was distracted by the sight of the soldiers below, and had not yet pulled the last door-panel shut.  A swirl of cold wind entered the crack, picked up the petal from the floor, and yanked outside and away.  It passed within an inch of my cheek; the haunting scent of its perfume, for a moment, was with me.  Then it tumbled out over the balcony where, I suppose, it was trampled by soldiers.

I wish I could recall that scent more clearly; but those roses no longer exist.

The Envoy stood without motion, hands still held up and open, but his head was cocked to turn his ear toward Summer Rose.  He was as silent as a stone.  The crack of light from the closing door shined on him, grew narrower, thin as a hair, then vanished.

Among the Envoy Annoreth’s people, the polite way to express incomprehension was not to ask a question, but to wait in silence.  It was clear to me he did not understand her implication. He was too polite to say he did not think this war (or any war) was inevitable.

Unfortunately, the Ushenyu are also a patient people, and, as one might expect from the grim strictness of their oath-law, rather laconic.  And so the three of them stood in the sparse, uncluttered space of the Envoy’s chamber, unspeaking.

I opened the drape over the Envoy’s framed ivory thought-scape hanging on the back wall.  It was dark at first, but then, reacting to the mental activity of living beings in the room, the calligraphy began to flicker and flow with light.  It was a living light, such as a candle-flame might make, if flame could be made of moonlight silvery-white.

The panel, at the fringes, fluttered with an agitated glints, no doubt reflecting the tension and anxiety in the Winter Captain, or in Summer Rose. Or perhaps in me. But this was almost washed out by the pure steady glow the presence of the Envoy imparted; and the chamber was filled with illumination.

I wondered that the Envoy used this rather than lanterns or native electric bulbs.  We had spent so much time, in the early days, convincing them that we were not magicians or gods.  Both Captain Harshness and Speaker Summer Rose were staring sidelong at the panel; I saw flickers of their doubt pulse at the edges of the frame.

It was I who broke the silence. “Speaker Summer Rose, you are shaking.  Could I bring a heater, or something to warm you?  We have a Chakbe stove..?”

The Winter Captain answered, saying to me sharply: “Stand away, Earthman!  Haven’t we had enough of your attempts to make our world comfortable; and with what result?  Miscegeny, races born out of season, corruption, luxury?  Life-stealing?!” By this he meant grain-stealing.  The word ‘varya’ meant both ‘life’ and ‘grain’.

He shouted: “Will you comfort us and comfort us till the world is destroyed?”

Meanwhile the Speaker touched her thin silk garb with shivering fingers, her face haunted.  It was a look I have seen on widow’s faces when they think of lovers long lost.  She was thinking of the warmth of the summer sun.

But all she said was: “Should I not be patient with the cold, despite that I could be easily be warm?  Won’t it show the young to be patient with hunger despite that they could so easily be fed?” (Her gaze rested on Harshness as she said this.)  Then she sighed. “It is the Withholding.  I am content.”

‘Withholding’ was their term for the intergenerational practice of self-discipline which requires Spring Children to plant arbors and fields which they shall never see harvested; and the Autumn People to reap the golden grain, but not to consume the bounty.

Likewise, the Winter Folk had to resist the temptation to eat the seedcorn which was stored against the hope of a spring; for if the seedcorn were consumed, there would be no planting next Spring, and the race would die.

The Withholding required strict population controls.  The fortunate Summer People were required to expand their numbers to produce workers for harvest; but the Autumn People had to practice abstinence, that the Winter Folk be few enough to survive the famines of Winter.  No one was supposed to outlive his proper time.

The folk-wisdom held that, if it still was warm enough for a Summertimer to survive in the garbs of youth, lighting no fires and wearing no coat, then, obviously, the proper time had not yet come.

I had seen proper time enforced much more cruelly in the outer provinces and other lands, particularly where the old Grain-Mother system of government was still in force, but it always struck me as a type of slow torture to force Summer Rose, who must have been more than one hundred years old, to go in the rainy mists of Autumn and frosty gusts without a coat.

“I thought it might help the talks,” I said, “If none of us were in discomfort…”

“Talk?  Why talk?” Now Captain Harshness took a fat money-scarf from his belt, and, with an angry lash of his wrist, flung it open.  A shower of rings fell out, scattering, chiming, and clattering on the floor, a bright clash of chimes and echoes.

“Behold!  Are not these the oaths of our parents, minted in gold?  Where is the promised grain for which these rings stand?  Am I not now come to redeem them? Is that not my right?” He glared at me, and then at Summer Rose. “Where are the lives of my people?”

The Envoy looked at me and glanced toward the door, nodding, a silent signal for me to leave.  He must have concluded that I was creating difficulties here.  I bowed to hide the humiliation on my face.

I spent the next few hours working out in the gymnasium — perhaps the only one on the planet — in the basement, kicking and punching helpless bags of leather filled with sand until all my anger was gone.  Never let it be said that my early training on Earth was entirely wasted; I could always use the exercises to exhaust myself…

Back then, before the Envoy passed away, I took it as important to be doing something, when there was nothing one could do.

*** *** ***


2. A Second First Beginning

Ing Tot Ouyang now finds it necessary to criticize the transcript. Her finger is long and slim, and she leans over my shoulder to point at my opening sentence.

“One doubts whether this can be called accurate,” she says.


“One wonders how it can be Autumn for many ‘years’?  Autumn is not more than a quarter of the year, surely?”

“I mean standard years, of course.  The years of my people on Earth…” the words are out before I know what I am saying, and I turn away my head to hide what I know my face shows. I taste gall.

My people on Earth.  My people are dead.  They died in my sleep.  When the NAFAL ship carried me here, everyone I knew on Earth, all my friends and family, and all their children, the authors of the books I’d read, everyone, had died of old age.  Ushenyu was 92 light-years from Earth.  It should not still be bothering me.  I had thought I had made my peace with those deaths long before, even when I had left for the stars.  But why do I feel now as if my father somehow has perished twice?

“One ought not to dwell on trivia, lest it allow the most significant of things escape.  It here translates  Summer Rose’s comment as ‘nomad’.  But the only word for a person without land and without ancestral fields in Ushenyu is ‘urgarratek’, ‘hunger-criminal’.”

“Not everyone is interested in linguistics.”

“One should be interested in the important elements hidden in the language.  For example: It is said here ‘Ushenyu’ means ‘Patience’.”

“But that is what it means.”

“Ah.  But one can guess so much of a world from what it is called!  ‘Ushenyu’ actually means ‘Longsuffering’.”

“I am using the translation provided by the Investigator.”

“The word ‘Ushenyu’ also means ‘Enduring Fortress’; and their word for Fortress also means ‘Storehouse-of-Grain’.  And yet all this is also the word for Patience. Note the core word: yu. A word of one syllable.  It is also the root of their word ‘Ainyu’, which means ‘ritual starvation’.  One can see, yes?  Here is the soul of these people.”

I do not reply.  I did not want to think about ritual starvation, not now.

“Surely, one sees this must be the center of your report…”

“Please be quiet, Ing Ouyang..!”  I close my eyes.

Ouyang, by the way, is the linguist on our embassy staff.

She says: “One might also explain why the Ushenyu speak in rhetorical questions; how they cannot be called on to live up to statements not phrased as statements.  If one does not note how strict and serious their law of oath-taking is, the Envoy’s actions will make no sense.”

“None of it makes any sense…” I whispered.

“One thinks you should perhaps use your first beginning…” she offers.

“I just couldn’t continue with it…”  I say.

“It starts with the heart of the matter.  That it is painful to you shows how it was pulled along by the truth, yes?  Look at it once again.”

I tap the transcriber in my hands. A different draft comes to the surface, and calligraphy fades into view.

* * *

I still recall my last view of the Envoy.

He was seated in a tall amber chair at the banquet table, with the feast laid out before him, in the middle of the main store-chamber of Oshenmandrang-Yu.

Autumn People in their long brown coats stood to either side of him, watching in silence, and a delegation of angry young Winter Folk as well, fur hoods thrown back.  To every side were bins and endless bins all filled with golden grain.

The Envoy’s dark robe lay loose about him, like a wide shroud covering a skeleton.  Often his eyes were closed.  If he slept during those last hours, he slept upright, unbowing.  Sometimes he spoke.  Sometimes he was lucid.  The fasting had tuned his handsome face into a skull, covering with a thin parchment of skin.  But the parchment was still gold.  The pangs of starvation had long since passed, I was sure, as had the pangs of madness.

When he opened his eyes, there was still a light in them.  They were brighter than I had seen before.  He did not seem unhappy at the end.

I remember how he had looked from face to face there, and how no one could meet his gaze.  I knew I could not; my eyes were filled with tears of anger.

His voice was very soft, as if he spoke from a far world. “If the Ekumen were a government, we could help you by invading with deadly troops to rule you and force you to do right actions.  Happily, we are not a government.  Force is not our Way.  Nor have we tools or resources to ship food across the void to sustain even one millionth part of the famine you have let frighten you.  Rescue is not our Way.  What is our Way?  Allow yourselves to see…”

After a time he spoke again.  But this time he used the mind-speech, of which he was a practitioner, so that all of us gathered there, hearing the voice inside of us, could not misunderstand him.

Mind-speech cannot lie.

“But the Ekumen does allow a Way, or many Ways, which may consent to guide our steps.  Will you now let in the lore which other men on other worlds, men no different than yourselves, have allowed as the answers which came to them for all these same problems and disasters to which you pay homage?” 

The people of Autumn and youths of Winter stirred and looked from eye to eye.  Many of them, more than I would have supposed, could hear the Mind-Speech.  The mental discipline which they call Withholding, I suspected, rendered them able to hear and understand.

No answer is false; but no answer is the full answer.”

The Envoy had stopped moving: his eyes were closed.  I thought, at last, that his suffering had passed, or, at least, he had slipped into a coma.  But then the Mind-Speech came again, silent, all around us.

“You have much to teach us.  But you must give us the gift of allowing us to teach you what we have learned.” 

A long silence.

Then: “We have learned long ago how to be so very much ashamed of war.

His eyes opened again for the last time.  His voice was so very soft, I could not tell if this were mind-speech, or if he whispered aloud.

We all heard. Even in large numbers, the folk of Patience can stand in deep silence, and never fidget, so the chamber was completely quiet.

“Who, without shame, can tell me now, that this war is inevitable, is necessary, is unavoidable?  Can any of you speak?  Look into my eyes.  Speak into my mind.  I will know if you speak truth.  Who says you are helpless to avoid this war?”

The young Captain of the Wintermen, Harshness, turned away with a brusque motion, and angrily drew his hood before his face.  Men stepped out of his way as he strode toward the exit, his long parka flapping at each heavy boot-step.

It was outside, halfway down the stairs which led from the fortress to the groves and arbors of Forever Fruit Trees, when I overtook him.

“Will you release his Oath and let him eat now?”  I called loudly toward his retreating back.

He turned.  His face was disfigured by a snarl; I saw a look of guilt in his eye. “Is that the trick your trickster is relying on, eh?  But being ready to die is not the same as dying, is it?  Is it?”

“You challenged him.  You said no one could withstand to starve in the midst of plenty.” I stepped to the step he was on, so that our eyes were level.  “He has shown you the way,” I said, “Admit you now have learned it is so.”

“Hah!  But to fast is not to starve, is it?  To starve is to die.  You strange people fall from the sky with your new ways and new learnings; electric lights and electric pistols and railways and telegraphs came; all strange and all new.  But what else came?  Unnatural things.  Electro-solar heat.  Wintergardens and hothouses.  Cities lights to make short Autumn days last as long as High Summer’s.  Was this why the Autumn Folk were born late?  Why were they born so many?”

There was some evidence that the industrial revolution which has so raised the standard of living for the Ushenyu after their admission to the Ekumen had had bad side-effects.  Whatever genetic cues the Hainishmen Experimenters from two hundred thousand years ago had put into the Ushenyu gene-plasm in order to have parents of one phenotype give birth to children of another, each according to its proper season, these cues may have been confused by the warmer houses and the better supplies of food and safe water and medical care the technological improvements provided.

Many Autumn Folk were born late, and lived to older ages as medicine advanced.  The population grew as the death rate fell.

He said: “And who is to blame if the old system of the Matriarchy now has vanished, replaced by a lazy democracy?  The Autumn Folk outnumber us.  Our unborn children have no votes.  Who voted themselves the greater share of all our grain?  Does the Envoy admit his blame in this, at least?”

“The Ushenyu are not children.  They were warned about the dangers which others systems of governments, used on other planets, might create.  Every system has its flaws.  But don’t be certain your generation would have prospered under the Matriarchs. The Grain-Mothers were cruel, and they allowed not one hint of freedom to their folk.”

“They spoke harshly. They spoke death. But were they false? Or were the Mothers single-tongued?”

“Do you accuse the Envoy of hypocrisy?  He risks his life to show you his Way.”

“Does his way have meaning for us?  Perhaps guilt urges him toward death.  Perhaps it has no meaning.”

I said loudly: “It means that you, or any man, can do as he has done!  And can, and must!  Otherwise there is war.  Do you think fewer men will die in battle than will die of starvation?  Do you think the stores of flammable grain will survive the fire of war of any war fought here?”

“At least those who fall in battle will not die vile deaths…” I noticed this was not phrased as a question. He was making a declaration.

His voice fell silent, choked.  He had been about to say something more rash, but he checked himself. Captain Harshness began to step away.

I seized his arm in a grip.  “Oh?” I said coldly. “Do you think the Envoy’s death is so undignified, then?  So, unworthy?  And he only does what your ancestors used to do; this practice, this ceremony, comes from them.  Are your ancestors also so unworthy?”

“You shall unhand me.”

Instead, I tightened my grip.

*** *** ***

3. The End of the Envoy

Ing Tot Ouyang is from the East-West Gulf Stream group of floating islands in the central oceans of Chiffewar.  She is lithe and graceful as a dancer as she walks, as if she were still under Chiffewar’s lighter-than-standard gravity.  Her people have no hair, so her lack of eyebrows makes her face seem always to be a flower of surprise.  She paces, smiling down at the transcript, reading the other version.

She reaches as far as I’d written, and looks up and says:

“One wonders why you mention this flower petal at such length.”

I say: “Its the image I think of when I think of Envoy Annoreth’s passing away.  The door closing.  The last sliver of light in the gloom.  A flower they pretend could live forever withering, blown.  That’s all.”

“One would like to know…”


“What it was that distracted you.  Below you; it says you were staring over the balcony…”

“Oh, that.  I saw a squadron of Fall Militiamen. They were all middle-aged, of course, blond and tall.  They were doing a step-thrust-step-block, a move intended to disarm a torch-man without starting a fire.  They were armed with sickles and long-handled scythes, and clumsy electric pistols, and their shields were large transparent slabs pressed from the resin of Eternity Trees.  I remember how the shields glittered red in the sunset light, as if already drenched in blood.”

“The sight made one sad, then?”

“No.  It made me laugh.  The looks on their faces under those dumb acorn-cap-shaped helmets were so grim and so determined.  And their moves were so awkward.  A gang of drug-children from the New York Crater Ring-town, where I grew up, could have trashed them.”

” ‘Trashed’..?”

“Uh.  Defeated in combat.  The Autumn People have no veterans to train them.  No one has fought in a hundred years here.  I suppose late Summer and early Autumn are not a good season for war.”

“Is any season good for war, one wonders?”

They don’t have wars on her home world.

I wonder what it would take to make the world I was born on more like hers, what sacrifice, what price.  Is there a sacrifice too great to ask for this?

Were the Envoy alive, he could tell me the answer.

* * *

I caught the arm of the Winter Captain.

“Wait!” I demanded.  There were falling leaves from the Forever Fruit Trees in the air around us, red and gold and shining brown, like scarlet rain.

“You shall unhand me.”

Instead, I tightened my grip.

“Release the Envoy from his oath.  Declare the terms of his vow fulfilled.  Disband your army.  You have promised!  You people have such pride in oaths!  The foundation of the world, you call them!  Abide now by yours.  Do not break the world’s foundation!  Go back inside; release the Envoy; allow him to live.”

“Disband my army, and let my people die?”

“Many more will die if you do not.”

“Do you threaten me, Star-Dropped Man?”

“It is your conscience which threatens you!”

He made as is to yank his arm away and to draw his shock-pistol.  But I am an Earthman.  His move was quick, and an old reflex responded in me; I threw him over my hip in such a way as to twist his arm behind his back, and, before I could stop myself, snap-kicked the gun out from his hand.

He was not trained; he was slow and ungainly, and could do nothing.

Tiger technique, as I had learned it, left my fingers curled near his face so that one sharp movement could gouge out his eyes.

Now I was ashamed.  I let him go and stepped back.  I remember I was thinking that the Ekumen had trusted me to be an ambassador; they had tried to be sure that my old life, my old training, would not rise again in me.

That trust had been betrayed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, bowing. “I’m very sorry, captain Wuyuk.  Please forgive me.  Don’t let this come between us…”

He climbed to his feet and stood, clutching his throat and breathing heavily.  But since he did not know what the curl of my grip had meant, he did not know what danger he had been in. He drew his whip-blade from his belt and slashed at me.

Perhaps I was more angry than I knew, for I did not stand and let him strike me, as I should have. Instead, I leaned, stepped, leaned again, as one blow passed me to my right and another to my left, metal blade-segments whispering past my ear.  I lunged, gripped, twisted, and pulled the weapon from his hand.

He fell down several stairs, landing on his knees.

From the way he clutched his sword-hand to him, I realized his little finger must have broken. “Please forgive me…” I started to say.

“The army will only disband when I and my officers are dead!” he shouted.

It was not phrased as a question.  It was a binding oath.

I turned.  Several people, Wintertimers and Fall people both, had come from the door, no doubt brought by our noise, and stood watching the two of us with silent eyes.  They had heard the Oath spoken.

The pressure of many eyes was upon me.  I realized that I still held a whip-sword in my hand, I, an officer of the Ekumen, with a weapon.

With a sudden shudder of distaste I dropped the deadly thing.  I turned again to call the Captain back; but he was away down the stairs.

In another moment he was almost out of sight, a small, stern figure stalking through leaf-litter and barren arbors. And so I could say nothing more.

With heavy step, I turned to climb back toward the fortress.  Frightened Autumn People backed silently away from me, eyes wide.  Then I heard the wailing ululation of the Fall Evocators.  It was a death-chant.

This stabbed my heart.  The Envoy had died while I fought;  while I had dishonored every principle for which he had lived; while I had driven away the one man whose word could have saved him;  while I had …

* * *

I touch my brush to the surface of the screen.  The screen can sense the pressure and motion of the calligraphy brush, and can perfectly mimic the ideogram my gesture would have painted, were I to use real ink and rice-paper.

I draw the word for ‘murdered’.

My hand trembles.  Next, I draw the word for ‘him’. The sentence now read ‘while I had murdered him’.  Now my hand trembles too much to continue, and so I put down the brush.

* * *

One of my last conversations with the Envoy had been that evening, after the consultation with Speaker Summer Rose and Winter Captain Harshness.

We were sitting on the roof after midnight, with shallow bowels of tea in our fingers, and watching the ‘moonrise’.  Actually, Ushenyu is the moon; we were watching the titanic Gas Giant, called Men-Un-Daro, lumber up over the horizon.

It was a vast oblate ball, tabby-cat colored, striped red and orange with storm-clouds, made even more red and more flat by the atmospheric distortion at our horizon.

Our clouds, black, but red-lit by monster-world, were heaped and knotted like insubstantial mountains to either side, and when they parted, we could glimpse shimmering rainbow streaks from the ring-systems, or tiny jewel-like motes and crescents, fellow moons, brothers and sisters of Ushenyu. Though we were far from the sea, I could hear the roar and thunder of the massive tides battering the tide-locks at Pendaren-Yu.  This world has a single ocean to cover the tropics and the southern hemisphere; and one tidal wave called Yahad-Daro endlessly rolled around the equator of the planet.

The radiations from Men-Un-Daro’s huge magnetosphere drew a curtain of Aurora Borealis across the north, reminding me of the dangerous glow one can see at night, some nights, among the craters of ruined cities, back home.

“Loves comes to you for any people into whom you grow and make your own, in time.” He said. “But love does not always bring understanding in her train; nor does understanding bring love.”

Since I thought that I, at times, understood these proud and violent people better than anyone from the Envoy’s ancient and peaceful world could do, I said nothing.

At one time, the Envoy and I had been the same age.  But he had won the coin toss and had gone down to the surface when we first had arrived, as the First Mobile, alone, while we others slept the years away, unageing, in orbit.

Because he was landless, a wanderer, with no grain set aside in any fortress for him, he entered the world as a beggar or criminal might enter.  He was without friends, and armed only with the truth of his word.

He was placed in a mad-house and beaten.  But he cured the other inmates there, for the Mind Speech enabled him to know the secret thoughts of the mentally ill in a fashion the unskilled psychiatrists of this world could but blindly guess at.

The proctors of the mad-house, jealous and frightened, accused him of crime in order that he be sent to prison, and a starvation-house.  But several of those he had cured had been aristocrats or the daughters of aristocrats, and these madwomen, now cured, had been convinced by the Envoy.

At their intervention, the Envoy was brought before the Grain-Matriarch, where he endured their trial-by-fasting, Ainyu-uru. He survived and was elevated to citizenship in the Noble Class, whereupon it was no longer legal to publicly question his word.

The Ushenyu sense of honor required them to pretend that they believed him, and believed the Ekumen existed, and to invite the sky-flying-ship to land. The pretense became real when we did land.

He said: “Perhaps you wonder why I asked the chamber to exclude you, and let privacy come to join the Winter Captain, the Speaker, and me?”

“Certainly, Mr. Envoy.” Actually I had been wondering nothing of the kind.  Envoy Annoreth no doubt concluded that I was curious because I had not asked any question.

“The silence in our chamber was not an awkwardness, nor impolite, nor uncomfortable, you see.  It was a test of patience.  It was Ainyu-uru.” A contest of wills; each had been daring the other to speak.

I had not been unaware of that.  But sometimes the Envoy’s policy of letting natural problems take their course until a solution presented itself, needed some help from a slightly more, shall we say, active philosophy.

I had broken the tension in the chamber and set the dialogue in motion, even if I had to irk the Winter Captain and embarrass myself to do it.

What I said was: “The Ushenyu hate long-winded-ness.  They don’t talk much.  That tends to make things tough for we diplomats to solve problems here.  All we do is talk.”

He saluted the huge planet on the horizon with his drinking bowel, and sipped.  He said thoughtfully: “When you become Envoy yourself, you must take care not to try so hard to solve problems.”

“What?  When I what?”

“You must take care.  Try to let problems solves themselves.  Other people besides yourself are wise; and, even if they are not, they are free.  Listen: if the world were a broken machine, then it could be fixed, and its problems would be like problems in geometry, problems with one right answer.  But if the world is a living thing, ill and ailing but alive, then its problems ought not be ‘solved’; its problems should be tended.  A medicine man is not a mechanic.”

“Sir, on my world, we believe problems have solutions.  Earthmen are optimistic that way, I suppose.”

“Aha.  And I was taught, on my world, or, at least on the that small part of it were I was raised, that problems were living things, not unlike ourselves.  Some problems camouflage themselves with protective mimicry, pretending to be quick solutions when they are not; others are metamorphic, merely changing shape when attacked, or bearing children newly adapted to the changes we make. Sometimes they fight each other.  Sometimes they strangle each other; sometimes they starve themselves away without a hand being raised against them.  Which view is the more optimistic, I wonder?”

Envoy Annoreth’s home world was Ve, the next planet out from her Sun from Hain.  Hain was the original homeworld, the place from which the ancestors of humans, and of most life on most worlds, had come.  The civilizations on the younger planets had histories reaching back only 2.5 million years.

Paleo-archeologists have estimated that it was in the fortieth century of the Second Colonial Recession Movement that they (whatever nameless Empire or forgotten Republic ‘they’ were) allowed to lapse, for the second time, the extensive terraforming of Ve, and let the planet to fall back into the colder, drier, and more rugged landscape of her natural state.

During the Third Era of Simplifications, Ve did not embrace the retreat into small-town, energy-ecology balanced, non-centralized econo-political philosophy to the same degree as had the various nations and peoples of their mother world of Hain.  There were still cities on Ve; not large, perhaps, by Terran standards, but cities nonetheless, in valleys by tideless black lakes, or in crevasses on glacier-swept mountains.

The Vehain still thought of themselves as a frontier people, in some ways, filled with ruggedness and energy, at least, compared to their Older Brother planet, Hain.  Most of the Historians, and much of the New Stellar Effort throughout the Ekumen — “new” meaning over the last four thousand years — came from Ve.

It was thinking of this, that I said, “Should we do nothing to stop this, ah, turmoil?  Oh, how passive!  You sound like a Hainishmen.”

And he smiled at that.  He pretended to dislike being mistaken for a Hainishman.

” ‘Turmoil’?  You do not call it a war?”

“A fight between two squads of poorly-equipped militiamen is hardly a war, Mr. Envoy.  These so-called armies would not even make a good-sized police-force, back home.”

“Since we did not, when I left it, have either police forces or armies on Ve, I would not venture to guess, Mr. Tanaka.  On this world, a single arsonist with a torch can burn down a granary, and destroy a hundred lifetimes of the world, and kill the coming generations.  That is magnitude enough.”

“So what should we do?  How should we solve the problem?”

“Do?” he spread his hands. “On which side does the fault lie?  With the railroads we taught them how to build, with factories and tidal-energy derricks, they needed a part of their population to serve permanently in their cities, away from the old feudal Householder system, and away from the rural Grain-Mothers who had controlled their populations before.  Was this wicked?  Without those improvements, thousands would have died, or hundreds of thousands.”

“But that’s not what caused the problem, sir.” I said. “The Parliament of Harvests began to promise larger and larger shares from the public grain supply to the poor.”

“Is this wicked either?  The poor must be fed.”

“They didn’t do it to feed the poor; they did it to buy votes.  And, to buy more votes, they started giving grain to the not-so-poor and then to the not-poor-at-all.  And to the sick.  And to the elderly.  And then to scholars, artists, teachers, or anyone else whom the Parliament wished to reward or to control.  And then they began taking grain from storehouses set aside for the unborn to pay off all the debts they had promised.  During the generation when there were still active harvests going on, and more grain was being poured into the system than was coming out, yes, the system could be maintained.  But he days are getting colder, and nothing is left to harvest except for some late-season crops on the Peninsula, in Yosh-Yu and Medehen-Yu province.”

“Are the Winter Folk free from blame, then? They are the ones who first threatened violence; they took up arms; they marched on the capital here.”

“With respect, sir, if the Ekumen only served those who were blameless, well, there might be so few of them, that I would be out of a job.”

He laughed.

Then he spoke: “We who serve perhaps do much more good merely by trying to be blameless ourselves, than any force of arms or power of wealth could do.  No man can long exist once his conscience convicts him. This is true of leaders and their nations as well.  The power of the conscience is forever underestimated, merely because it is slow and silent in its operation.  But it is the only power the Ekumen has.”

“Do the wicked have consciences, I wonder?”

“Starved consciences, perhaps, fed only a diet of self-blindness, vainglory, hypocrisy and lies.  But who can continue to eat such food, when a more honest diet, virtue and truth, can be offered?  Who would starve in the midst of plenty?  I can only do what I can do; whomever serves as Envoy after me, must judge if I have done well or badly.”

“Why — sir, what do you mean…?” I asked, alarmed.

*** *** ***

4. Starving in Abundance

I wish I could report that there was some dramatic or marked change after the Envoy’s death.  By and large, there was not.

Perhaps I should have waited. The news-speakers all praised his noble example, but in such terms as made it clear that ordinary people could not be expected to make similar sacrifices, nor even to submit to restraints on sex or reproduction, which their system required to bring their anticipated population in line with their fixed food supply.

But perhaps there were signs.  Perhaps I should have waited longer before I acted.  Perhaps I should have trusted the Envoy.

And yet now it was I who was the Envoy.

And there were so few of them; the divisions of the ‘armies’ consisted of twenty or forty militiamen, armed with reaping-tools.

And I thought I saw a solution; a quick and simple solution.

There would be no war, I thought, if whomever wanted to strike the first blow were prevented.  Simple. I remember how I sat before the framed ivory thought-scape which Annoreth had brought from his mountain-home on Ve.

Of course I suspected my own motives; guilt, and love of violence, and desire for fame, these things prompt many men to acts which they claim are altruistic.  But I stared into the light and beyond the light, and I saw the silver colors in my soul, burning calmly and without agitation; I waited until they were perfectly calm, so that I knew beyond doubt it was not anger or hate which prompted me…

The pinnace boat we still had in orbit could photograph and analyze the movements of individuals on the surface, both by day and night, and, with specialized instruments, through cloud cover.  Therefore I was aware of the march of the Autumn Militia through the pass between the split peak of Mount Ai Shayan, toward the Winter Army’s new encampment, many hours in advance.

War is a hateful business, for war turns logic into illogic.  War turns the better road into the worse road.

The Winter Men were waiting on the broad, straight way that ran around the foot of the mountain.  Ehenshandu pass was crooked and dangerous, impassible in rain, and poorly maintained, and therefore the Wintermen — who did not have any men to spare — did not spare any men to guard it.

I waited in the road alone. There was a place cut through two frowning walls of rock, looming at either side, with ancient brick-work placed by long-dead Springmen masons forming  retaining walls.

Four men could not walk abreast here.  Here I was patient.

I do not know who was more surprised to see whom.  The men toiling up the slope, lugging their clumsy shields and carrying scythes across their shoulders, did not even look up until they were fairly close, and when they did, I doubt if they recognized me as a human.

I was dressed in the hateful Vigilante costume of my youth, from the Westchester County Anticannibal Bivouac.  It had not taken me long to grow the suit from the creator-box we had back at the Embassy; and it was not as if I had forgotten the chemical compounds or stress designs of Vigilante shock-armor.

A thick jacket of impact-proof graphite-composite fibers fell to my knees, and special thick segments, a gorget and epaulettes, protected my shoulder and neck.  I had stained my face and hands with a mirrored anti-laser pigment which should serve just as well to ground any shocks from their induction pistols; and a pair of black goggles protected my eyes.

This garb may not seem so very odd; but they had never seen anyone dressed who did not conform to their sumptuary laws, wearing the traditional costumes for their age and rank.  And they certainly had never seen goggles.

Perhaps they thought I was an insect. I was frankly shocked to see Speaker Summer Rose accompanying the expedition, but there she was: a thin, dark, shivering old woman, dressed in light silk, amid the hardship and wind of the mountain.  She was being carried in a sedan chair by two of the burlier troopers, just like a Grain-Mother or Battle-Queen from the Thaw Wars of old.

Perhaps these modern Ushenyu were not as removed from the traditions of the Matriarchy as they would like to pretend.  She even had the life-tally wand from the Obyennushu Cathedral in her hands, so that, like the queens of old, she could grant rewards on the spot, marriage-licenses or extra rations.  Her thin voice could not carry to where I was.

The trooper next to her shouted: “The Speaker asks why the Envoy breaks his sworn word, the foundation of the world, and takes sides in this conflict?”

“My small crime here is to prevent a greater crime.  I take no side; but I shall stop whomever first strikes.  Go back!  You are innocent!  You know nothing of the horrors of war!”

“She asks, did not the Wintermen strike first when they took up arms?  They still refuse the law; only the deaths of their officers will release the oath and allow them to disband; so ran their oath.”

“Meet them in speech.  It is not too late to negotiate.  Do not give up hope of peace!”

I counted. There were forty-five of them. They could only come at me three or four at a time. Usually, it takes two unwounded soldiers to carry one wounded back from the line; crippling five or six might occupy an additional ten or twelve, nearly cutting their force in half.

Perhaps she would not continue with her force at half-strength.  But, on the other hand, to maim or to wound is more difficult than to kill, and requires more precise strokes.

The trooper shouted again: “She asks whether Parliament should tolerate the insult of negotiating with criminals who have taken up arms?”

“The Wintermen perceive the grain you are spending is their own, and their children’s.  They say there will be no Spring planting if the seedcorn is consumed.  Anger and fear drove them to arms.  May they not protect what is theirs?”

“Those who toiled at the Harvests shall say which portion is their own!  Stand aside!”

At his, she handed the tally-wand to the trooper who spoke for her.  He swung it as if he were cracking a whip.

A gold ring left the end of the wand and sailed over my head, ringing against the pathway behind me. The Ushenyu are not a talkative people. The reward of the ring, and the grain it represented, would go to the first militiaman to walk through me.

Sometimes a gesture is enough.  I drew my calligraphy pen with a flourish, and dialed it to bright red, and saluted them with it.

They charged.

When closing with multiple foes, the traditional wisdom is to attack to your right, so that they will have their left hands toward you, and must take a second to turn to bring their weapon-hand to bear.  So I jumped toward the trooper at the right wall with a blood-chilling cry, but I grabbed the to edge of the shield of the middle trooper as I ran by.

The middle trooper’s left arm was caught, twisted in his own shield-straps, and he hopped, trying to reach around his own shield to strike at me.

Meanwhile I parried the blow from the right trooper on my fore-arm; the blades of their sickles were made of pressed amber; it shattered like glass.  I straightened my arm and drew line of red across his throat with my brush, and struck him in the nose with my elbow.

I yanked the middle trooper’s tall shield toward me.  The lower edge cracked his shins.  He fell toward me, and I threw him over my hip into the righthand trooper, and wiped my brush across his throat as he flew awkwardly by.

Now the lefthand trooper had a clear blow, and the next two behind were stepping forward, crowding each other.

The left trooper whirled his scythe overhead, shouting; I broke the shaft of his weapon with the heel of my palm, lightly leapt sideways; he was off-balance, his mouth wide with astonishment; I touched his shoulder as he went by, and he fell heavily.

I ducked two more blows and swept my leg in a circle, catching their ankles and sending them tumbling.

Now the men trying to rise to their feet where getting in the way of those behind who were eager to close with me.  This gave me a moment to skip back away up the path a few yards.  I turned, drew myself up, and pointed at them with the brush.

The soldiers in the front rank, five of them I had painted, now looked sidelong at each other, hesitating.  One of them cried out.

I hoped they knew enough to know that all the wounds I drew on them were mortal ones.

Dropping the brush, I drew out a rod of iron and a silk scarf which I had brought for this purpose.  I threw them both into the air.  I drew my kodachi, her two-foot-long mirrored blade flashing in the sunlight, an alloy unknown, unimagined, on this world; struck; and saluted; and sheathed her again.

Ringing with echoes, the two halves of the iron rod thudded to the ground to either side of me, raising small puffs of dust.

All were silent. The men of Patience can be deeply silent when they wish.

The two halves of the silk scarf slowly fluttered down.  I stood upright, staring at the militiamen, with my hand on the hilt of my shortsword.

Sometimes a gesture is enough.

And sometimes a gesture is not enough.

The trooper standing near Spring Rose called out: “The Speaker says you cannot defeat us with your greater skill.  We have greater numbers, and we have our Oaths to carry us; we stand on the foundation of the world.  There is no foundation under you. You have neither heart nor will.”

“I do not need to defeat you!” I called.

My heart was pounding and my face was hot with the thrill of combat.  I had forgotten the feeling.  It was like lust.

“You have already defeated yourselves!  You steal grain from your children; you steal lives and steal the future!  You know yourselves to be in the wrong!  Your own hearts are my allies, for they gnaw you until you are hollow.  Go home!”

“No, Envoy.  The Speaker says it is you who are hollow.  It is you who betray your oath to the Ekumen.  It is you who break your vow of peace.  It is you who shames the memory of the dead Envoy, whom you pretended to befriend.”

The lust of combat withered and shrank under the cold rain of his words. My shouldered slumped and hands trembled like a Summertimer, clad in silk, in the chilly mist of Fall.

The cold rain continued.

“Perhaps you say to yourself that it is not quite wrong to strike at us with an ink-brush.  But if you had the heart to use that knife, you would have used it first.  She says: Defenders, forward!  She says: Recall I hold the tallies of your lives within my hand! She says: do not shame me again!”

And, at her command, the troopers in front sheathed or slung their weapons.  This time, they walked forward slowly, one at a time.  When I grabbed the first trooper by the arm, he did not defend himself, but merely looked at me, his gaze filled with a cold contempt, until I unhanded him.

I did nothing.  I could do nothing.

I watched with sinking heart as they filed past me, one at a time.  Most ignored me, as if I were a bit of rubbish by the roadside.  One or two of them spit on me.  I don’t know which one of them picked up the ring.

But, long after they had gone, I looked up, and began to trudge slowly back down the mountainside.  I did not bother to pick up my brush; some trooper had stepped on it and snapped it in two.

* * *

Sometimes, in war, offers of peace are taken as signs of weakness, and they lead, not to peace, but to renewed fighting.  Sometimes shows of strength, or threats, frighten and cow the foe; but at other times, threats are met with counter-threats, and enflame the enemy’s courage with despair.  Neither peaceful acts nor warlike acts necessarily lead to peace or to war; because there is no logic to war.

* * *

When Ing Ouyang learned what I had done, she laughed and clapped her hands, and asked me if I were a fool.  She is a woman from peaceful Chiffewar, and I do not think she understood the gravity of the situation.

“I just thought I could scare them into seeing reason…”

“Aha.  But scared men are the very ones least likely to see reason.”

When I told her I wished to resign as Envoy, she laughed again, “One does not expect that I will take the burdens!  One must clean up one’s own messes, yes?!  Go, husband; if you wish to be excused, then ask the Stabiles on Hain.”

Therefore, from you, I formally request that I be relieved of my command here for gross incompetence.

* * *

After the events described above, the Speaker would not recognize nor receive me, and did not return my messages.

Meanwhile, a rumor started that the Ekumen was supporting the side of the Wintermen, and that I was personally training his soldiers in supernatural battle-techniques.  Perhaps because of this, or perhaps for some other reason, the Winter Captain became so extravagant in his demands, that what little hope there might have been for negotiations soon died.

* * *

Let me conclude this report by contrasting my efforts with those of my predecessor.  Human events are complex, and it is not clear how much influence the self-sacrifice of Envoy Annoreth had over the imaginations of the Ushenyu.

Perhaps he intended his example, not for this generation, but for those to come.  Perhaps he only planted a seed.  I cannot say.

Nonetheless, the news-tellers on the radio reported that, after the battle at Kanabas, there was fighting at Yosh-Yu, where the outer battlements of the great granary caught fire.

Both sides dropped their weapons and cooperated to extinguish the blaze. When the last of the late-season crops were to be harvested along the peninsula, the farmers sent no grain, but, instead, sent the worthless promissory rings, minted to stand in the place of the grain, which the Parliament had once given to the Wintermen.

The grain from the peninsula was given to the Wintermen. Taxes were not collected in Memnashen-Yu or Thratat-Yu; many taxpayers, and some tax-gatherers, simply ignored the orders and threats of the Parliament.

A group led by the daughters of some of the still surviving Grain Matriarchs opened the food-stores at Urutrammang-Yu and carried the grain by hand in sacks to the Winter Folk supply depots at Veresheh and Doel.

The Militiamen were unwilling to open fire on the women, among whom were their wives and mothers. And the women marched carrying the life-tally wands and sacred scrolls and icons brought out from a local cathedral.

The Wintermen began receiving gifts and donatives from some poor people’s combines, mostly from the rural combines, and from older folk who voluntarily went into Ainyu-uru.  These were purely symbolic gestures, of course; merely a few tons of grain here and there.

But sometimes gestures are enough. Parliament was embarrassed into declaring half-rations and fasting days, in order to try to supply the Winter Folk out of their exhausted treasury.

This caused riots among the poor and the not-so-poor, who had come to expect and depend on the Harvest Parliament to feed them, and had made no other provision for supply from other stores.

The militia put down the riots with much loss of life; and the Speakers, including Summer Rose, lost a vote of no-confidence, and the government was changed.

The new Speaker, Speaker Golden Wheat of the Open Hand Party, publicly implied that she would support the claims of the Winter Folk until the debts incurred by the Summer Rose Parliament were fulfilled.

She implied, but did not vow it. It was spoken as a rhetorical question.

And there is, unfortunately, good reason to doubt her sincerity.  None of the payments of the Winter People’s grain to the poor in the cities have been stopped or even slowed.

On the one hand, the Winterman army had not disbanded.  On the other hand, they have not attempted any further raids on any granaries or strongholds.  And yet, they have blockaded the roads to Nurshurvan-Yu and Yosh-Yu, where they enjoy strong support from the deaconesses and from remnants of the old matriarchy, and the blockaders will not let the Parliamentarians withdraw grain from those storehouses.

And yet again, a most hopeful sign is that both Winter Captain Harshness, and Speaker Golden Wheat, have publicly entered Ainyu-uru fasting, each vowing not to eat until a mutual compromise is reached.

They have both appeared here at the embassy, thin and famished, wild-eyed, weakened with hunger, and have spent many hours already in negotiation. Between the Ushenyu love of brevity, and the tradition of fasting until the talks are concluded, negotiations here surely the among the briefest of any world in the Ekumen. It is entirely possible some uneasy peace will be preserved.

Captain Harshness almost certainly intends suicide; but whether he intends to be a martyr to stiffen the resolve of his men, or whether he feels he must die to fulfill his oath and allow his men to disband and go home, I cannot guess.

I simply wish Annoreth were here.  He understood these people so much better than I.

But at least, in the meantime, they are still speaking.

* * *

From the Stabile Hezhvendenurago at Strethe on Hain, to the Envoy Katsuhiro Tanaka, on the planet Patience/Ushenyu, Hainish Cycle 98, Ekumenical Year 1550-49, Greetings.  Your request to be excused from your duties is met with gracious smiles.  We cannot impose upon you beyond the reach of your conscience. 

But, before you retreat from our service, reflect that, if the Ekumen only were served by those who were blameless, we should have very few servants indeed.


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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!