Part 4. . ANATHEM

Six weeks after I joined the Edharian order, I became hopelessly stuck on a problem that one of Orolo’s knee-huggers had set for me as a way of letting me know that I didn’t really understand what it meant for two hypersurfaces to be tangent. I went out for a stroll. Without really thinking about it I crossed the frozen river and wandered into the stand of page trees that grew on the rise between the Decade Gate and the Century Gate.

Despite the best efforts of the sequencers who had brought these trees into being, only one leaf in ten was high-grade page material, suitable for a typical quarto-sized book. The most common flaw was smallness or irregularity, such that when placed in the cutting-frame, it would not make a rectangle. That was the case for about four out of ten leaves—more during cold or dry years, fewer if the growing season had been favorable. Holes gnawed by insects, or thick veins that made it difficult to write on the underside, might render a leaf unusable save as compost. These flaws were especially common in leaves that grew near the ground. The best yield was to be found in the middle branches, not too far out from the trunk. The arbortects had given them stout boughs in the midsection, easy for young ones to clamber on. Every autumn when I’d been a fid, I’d spent a week up on those branches, picking the best leaves and skimming them down to older avout who stacked them in baskets. Later in the day we’d tie them by their stems to lines stretched from tree to tree, and let them dry as the weather turned colder. After the first killing frost we would bring them indoors, stack them, and pile on tons of flat rocks. It took about a century for them to age properly. So once we’d gotten the current year’s crop under stone we’d go back and find similar piles that had been made about a hundred years earlier, and, if they seemed ready, take the rocks off and peel the leaves apart. The good ones we stacked in the cutting-frames and made into blank pages for distribution to the concent or for binding into books.

I’d rarely gone into the coppice after harvest time. To walk through it in this season was to be reminded that we only collected a small fraction of its leaves. The rest curled up and fell off. All those blank pages made an uproar as I sloshed through them, searching for one especially grand tree I’d always loved to climb. My memory played me false and I wandered lost for a few minutes. When I finally found it, I couldn’t resist climbing up to its lower boughs. When I’d done this as a boy I’d imagined myself deep in the middle of a vast forest, which was much more romantic than being walled up in a math surrounded by casinos and tire stores. But now, with the branches bare, it was plain that I was close to the eastern limit of the coppice. The ivy-snarled ruin of Shuf’s Dowment was in plain sight. I felt foolish, thinking Arsibalt must have seen me from a window, so I let myself to the ground and began walking that way. Arsibalt now spent most of his days there. He had been pestering me to come out and visit him, and I’d been making excuses. I couldn’t slink away now.

I had to get over a low hedge that bounded the coppice. Shoving the snarled foliage out of my way I felt cold stone against my hand, pain an instant later. This was actually a stone wall that had become a trellis for whatever would grow on it. I vaulted over it and spent some time yanking my bolt and chord free from hedge-plants. I was standing on someone’s tangle, brown and shriveled now. The black earth was gouged where people had been digging up the last potatoes of the season. Going over the wall made me feel as though I were trespassing. To elicit such feelings was probably why Shuf’s Lineage had put it there in the first place. And that explained why those who’d found themselves on the wrong side of that wall had eventually become fed up with it and broken the lineage. Tearing the wall down was too much trouble and so that work had been left to ants and ivy. The Reformed Old Faanians had more recently got in the habit of using this place as a retreat, and when no one had objected, they’d slowly begun to make themselves more comfortable there.

Gardan’s Steelyard: A rule of thumb attributed to Fraa Gardan (?1110 to ?1063), stating that, when one is comparing two hypotheses, they should be placed on the arms of a metaphorical steelyard (a kind of primitive scale, consisting of an arm free to pivot around a central fulcrum) and preference given to the one that “rises higher,” presumably because it weighs less; the upshot being that simpler, more “lightweight” hypotheses are preferable to those that are “heavier,” i.e., more complex. Also referred to as Saunt Gardan’s Steelyard or simply the Steelyard.

— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000

Very comfortable, as I saw when I came up the steps and pushed the door open (again fighting the sense that I was a trespasser). ROF carpenters had been at work furnishing the stone shell with wooden floors and paneled walls. Actually “cabinet-makers” was a fairer description than “carpenters” for avout who chose woodworking as their avocation, and so the place was all fitted and joined to tolerances that Cord might have envied. It was mostly one great cubical room, ten paces square, and lined with books. To my right a fire burned on a hearth, to my left, clear northern sky-light rushed in through a bay window so large that it formed a sort of alcove, as broad, round, and comfortable as Arsibalt, who sat in the middle of it reading a book so ancient he had to handle the pages with tongs. So he had not seen me tree-climbing after all. I could have slunk away. But now I was glad I hadn’t. It was good to see him here.

“You could be Shuf himself,” I said.

“Ssh,” he commanded, and looked about the place. “People will be cross if you talk that way. Oh, all the orders have their special hideaways. Islands of luxury that must make Saunt Cartas roll over in her chalcedony sarcophagus.”

“Pretty luxurious, that, come to think of it—”

“Come off it, it’s cold as hell in the winter.”

“Hence the expression ‘cold as Cartas’s—’”

“Ssh,” he said again.

“You know, Arsibalt, if the Edharian chapter has a luxurious hideaway, they’ve yet to show it to me.”

“They are the odd ones out,” he said, rolling his eyes. He looked me up and down. “Perhaps when you have attained more seniority—”

“Well, what are you, at the age of nineteen? The FAE of the Reformed Old Faanians?”

“The chapter and I have become most comfortable with each other in, yes, a short time. They support my project.”

“What—reconciling us with the Deolaters?”

“Some of the Reformed Old Faanians even believe in God.”

“Do you, Arsibalt? All right, all right,” I added, for he was getting ready to shush me for a third time. He finally began to move. He took me on a little tour, showing me some of the artifacts of the Dowment’s halcyon days: gold drinking-cups and jeweled book-covers now preserved under glass. I accused his order of having more of the same hidden away somewhere for drinking out of, and he blushed.

Then, as all this discussion of utensils had put him in mind of food, he shelved his book. We left Shuf’s Dowment behind us and began walking back for the midday meal. We had both skipped Provener, a luxury that was possible only because some younger fraas had begun to spell us winding the clock a few days a week.

When we gave up altogether on clock-winding, which would happen in two or three years, each of us would have enough free time to settle on an avocation—something practical that one could do to help improve life at the concent. Between now and then, we had the luxury of trying different things just to see how we liked them.

Fraa Orolo, for example, and his ongoing conversation with the library grape. We were too far north. The grapes were not happy. But we did have a south-facing slope, between the page trees and the outer wall of the concent, where they deigned to grow.

“Beekeeping,” Arsibalt said when I asked him what he was interested in.

I laughed at the image of Arsibalt enveloped in a cloud of bees. “I always thought you’d end up doing indoor work,” I said, “on dead things. I thought you’d be a bookbinder.”

“At this time of year, beekeeping is indoor work on dead things,” he pointed out. “Perhaps when the bees come out of hibernation I won’t favor it so much. How about you, Fraa Erasmas?”

Though Arsibalt didn’t know it, this was a sensitive subject. There was another reason you needed an avocation: so that if you turned out to be incapable of doing anything else, you could give up on books and chalk halls and dialog and work as a sort of laborer for the rest of your life. It was called “falling back.” There were plenty of avout like that, making food, brewing beer, and carving stone, and it was no secret who they were.

“You can pick some funny thing like beekeeping,” I pointed out, “and it’ll never be anything more than an eccentric hobby—because you’ll never need to fall back. Not unless the ROF suddenly recruits a whole lot of geniuses. For me the odds of falling back are a little greater and I need to pick something I could actually do for eighty years without going crazy.”

Arsibalt now blew an opportunity to assure me that I was really smart and that this would never happen. I didn’t mind. After my rough conversation with Tulia six weeks ago I was spending less time agonizing and more time trying to get things accomplished. “There are some opportunities,” I told him, “making the instruments on the starhenge work the way they’re supposed to.”

“Those opportunities would be much brighter if you in fact had access to the starhenge,” he pointed out. It was safe for him to talk this way since we were sloshing through leaves and no one was near us, unless Suur Trestanas was hiding in a leaf pile with a hand cupped to her ear.

I stopped and raised my chin.

“Are you expecting an Inquisitor to fall out of a tree?” Arsibalt asked me.

“No, just looking at it,” I said, referring to the starhenge. From here, on this little rise, we had a good view of it. But nestled as we were in the coppice, we’d be difficult to make out from the Mynster and so I felt comfortable taking a long look. The twin telescopes of Saunts Mithra and Mylax were in the same position where they had rested during the three months or so we’d been locked out: slewed around to aim at the northern sky.

“I was thinking that if Orolo was using the M & M to look at something they didn’t want him to see, then we might get some clues from where he pointed it the last day he had access to it. Maybe he even took some pictures that night, yet to be seen.”

“Can you draw any conclusions from where the M & M is pointed now?” Arsibalt asked.

“Only that Orolo wanted to look at something above the pole.”

“And what is above the pole? Other than the pole star?”

“That’s just it,” I said. “Nothing.”

“What do you mean? There must be something.”

“But it messes up my hypothesis.”

“What, pray tell, is that? And can you explain it as we walk toward a place that is warm and has food?”

I started moving my feet again, and talked to the back of Arsibalt’s head as I let him break trail through the leaves. “I had been guessing it was a rock.”

“Meaning an asteroid,” he said.

“Yeah. But rocks don’t come over the pole.”

“How can you say such a thing? Don’t they come from all directions?”

“Yeah, but they mostly have low inclinations—they are in the same plane as the planets. So you’d look near the ecliptic, which is what we call that plane.”

“But that is a statistical argument,” he pointed out. “It could simply be an unusual rock.”

“It fails the Steelyard.”

“Saunt Gardan’s Steelyard is a useful guideline. All sorts of real things fail it,” Arsibalt pointed out, “including you and me.”

Orolo sat with us. It was the first time I’d talked to him in ages. He sat where he could gaze out a window at the mountains, in much the same mood as I’d been looking at the starhenge a few minutes earlier. It was a clear day, and the peaks were all standing out, seeming as if they were close enough to throw stones at. “I wonder what the seeing will be like tonight on top of Bly’s Butte,” he sighed. “Better than here, anyway!”

“Is that the one where the slines ate Saunt Bly’s liver?” I asked.

“The same.”

“Is that around here? I thought it was on another continent or something.”

“Oh no. Bly was a Saunt Edhar man! You can look it up in the Chronicle—we have all of his relics salted away somewhere.”

“Do you really mean to suggest that there’s an observatory there? Or are you just pulling my leg?”

Orolo shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Estemard built a telescope there, after he renounced his vow and stormed out the Day Gate.”

“And Estemard is—”

“One of my two teachers.”

“Paphlagon being the other?”

“Yes. They both got fed up with this place at about the same time. Estemard left, Paphlagon went into the upper labyrinth one night after supper and then I didn’t see him for a quarter of a century, until—well—you know.” A thought occurred to him. “What were you doing during Paphlagon’s Evocation? At the time, you were still a guest of Autipete.”

Autipete was a figure of ancient mythology who had crept up on her father as he lay sleeping and put out his eyes. I had never heard Suur Trestanas referred to this way. I bit my lip and shook my head in dismay as Arsibalt blew soup out his nostrils. “That is not fair,” I said, “she’s only following orders.”

Orolo squared off to plane me. “You know, during the Third Harbinger it was quite common for those who had committed terrible crimes to say—”

“That they were just following orders, we all know that.”

“Fraa Erasmas is suffering from Saunt Alvar’s Syndrome,” Arsibalt said.

“Those people during the Third Harbinger were shoving children into furnaces with bulldozers,” I said. “And as far as Saunt Alvar goes—well, he was the sole survivor of his concent in the Third Sack and was held captive for three decades. Locking the door to the telescopes for a few weeks doesn’t really measure up, does it?”

Orolo conceded the point with a wink. “My question stands. What did you do during Voco?”

Of course I’d have loved to tell him. So I did—but I made it into a joke. “While no one was looking, I ran up to the starhenge to make observations. Unfortunately, the sun was out.”

“That damned luminous orb!” Orolo spat. Then something crossed his mind. “But you know that our equipment can see some things during the daytime, if they are very bright.”

Since Orolo had decided to play along with my joke, it would not have been sporting for me to drop it at this point. “Unfortunately the M & M was pointed in the wrong direction,” I said. “I didn’t have time to slew it around.”

“The wrong direction for what?” Orolo asked.

“For looking at anything bright—such as a planet or…” I faltered.

Jesry sat down at an empty table nearby, facing me and Orolo, and remained still, ignoring his food. If he’d been a wolf his ears would have been erect and swiveled toward us.

Orolo said, “Would it be too much trouble for you to bring your sentence to a decent conclusion?”

Arsibalt looked as rattled as I felt. This had started as a joke. Now, Fraa Orolo was trying to get at something serious—but we couldn’t make out what.

“Aside from supernovae, very bright objects tend to be nearby—within the solar system—and things in the solar system are, by and large, confined to the plane of the ecliptic. So, Fraa Orolo, in this absurd fantasy of me running to the starhenge to look at the sky in broad daylight, I’d have to slew the M & M from its current polar orientation to the plane of the ecliptic in order to have a chance of actually seeing anything.”

“I just want your absurd fantasy to be internally consistent,” Fraa Orolo explained.

“Well, are you happy with it now?”

He shrugged. “Your point is well reasoned. But don’t be too dismissive of the poles. Many things converge there.”

“Like what? Lines of longitude?” I scoffed.

Arsibalt, in similar spirit: “Migratory birds?”

Jesry: “Compass needles?”

Then a higher-pitched voice broke in. “Polar orbits.”

We turned and saw Barb coming toward us with a tray of food. He must have been listening with one ear as he stood in line. Now he was giving the answer to the riddle in a pre-adolescent voice that could have been heard from Bly’s Butte. It was such an odd thing to say that it had turned heads all over the Refectory. “By definition,” he continued, in the singsong voice he used when he was rattling off something he had memorized from a book, “a satellite in a polar orbit must cross over each of the poles during each revolution around Arbre.”

Orolo stuffed a piece of gravy-sopped bread into his mouth to hide his amusement. Barb was now standing right next to me with his tray a few inches from my ear, but he made no move to sit down.

I had the feeling I was being watched. I looked over at Fraa Corlandin a few tables distant, just in the act of glancing away. But he could still hear Barb: “A telescope aimed north would have a high probability of detecting—”

I yanked down on a loose fold of his bolt. One arm dropped. All the food slid to that end of his tray and threw it out of balance. He lost control and it all avalanched to the floor.

All heads turned our way. Barb stood amazed. “My arm was acted on by a force of unknown origin!” he stated.

“Terribly sorry, it was my fault,” I said. Barb was fascinated by the mess on the floor. Knowing by now how his mind worked, I rose, squared off in front of him, and put my hands on his shoulders. “Barb, look at me,” I said.

He looked at me.

“This was my fault. I got tangled up with your bolt.”

“You should clean it up, if it was your fault,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I agree and that is what I shall do now,” I said. I went off to fetch a bucket. Behind me I could hear Jesry asking Barb a question about conic sections.

Calca: (1) In Proto- and Old Orth, chalk or any other such substance used to make marks on hard surfaces. (2) In Middle and later Orth, a calculation, esp. one that consumes a large amount of chalk because of its tedious and detailed nature. (3) In Praxic and later Orth, an explanation, definition, or lesson that is instrumental in developing some larger theme, but that, because of its overly technical, long-winded, or recondite nature, has been moved aside from the main body of the dialog and encapsulated in a footnote or appendix so as not to divert attention from the main line of the argument.

—THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000

One form of drudgery led straight into another as Suur Ala helpfully reminded me that it was my day to clean up the kitchen following the midday meal. I hadn’t been at it for long before I noticed that Barb was in there with me, just following me around, making no move to help. Which irked me at first: yet another case of his almost perfect social cluelessness. But once I got over that, I decided it was better that way. Some things were easier to do alone. Communicating and coordinating with others was often more trouble than it was worth. Many tried to help anyway because they thought it was the polite thing to do, or because it was an avenue for social bonding. Barb’s thinking wasn’t muddled by any such considerations. Instead, he talked to me, which in my view was preferable to being “helped.”

“Orbits are about as much fun as what you are doing,” he observed gravely, watching me get down on my knees and reach elbow-deep into a grease-choked drain.

“I gather that Grandsuur Ylma has been teaching you about such things,” I grunted. Drain-cleaning made it easy to hide my chagrin. I hadn’t learned about orbits until my second year. This was Barb’s second month.

“A lot of xs and ys and zs!” he exclaimed, which forced a laugh out of me.

“Yes,” I said, “quite a few.”

“You want to know what’s stupid?”

“Sure, Barb. Lay it on me,” I said, hauling a fistful of vegetable trimmings up out of the drain against the back-pressure of twenty gallons of dammed-up dishwater. The drain gargled and began to empty.

“Any sline could stand out on the meadow at night and see some satellites in polar orbits, and other satellites in orbits around the equator, and know that those were two different kinds of orbits!” he exclaimed. “But if you work out the xs and ys and zs of it, guess what?”


“They just look like a lot of xs and ys and zs, and it is not as obvious that some are polar and some are equatorial as it would be to any old dumb sline looking up into the sky!”

“Worse than that,” I pointed out, “staring at the xs and ys and zs doesn’t even tell you that they are orbits.”

“What do you mean?”

“An orbit is a stationary, stable thing,” I said. “The satellite’s moving all the time, of course, but always in the same way. But that kind of stability is in no way shown by the xs and ys and zs.”

“Yeah! It’s like knowing all of the theorics only makes us stupider!” he laughed excitedly, and cast a theatrical glance over his shoulder, as if we were up to something incredibly mischievous.

“Ylma is having you work it out in the most gruesome way possible,” I said, “using Saunt Lesper’s Coordinates, so that when she teaches you how it’s really done, it’ll seem that much easier.”

Barb was dumbfounded. I went on, “Like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer—it feels so good when you stop.” This was the oldest joke in the world, but Barb hadn’t heard it before, and he became so amused that he got physically excited and had to run back and forth across the kitchen several times to flame off energy. A few weeks ago I would have been alarmed by this and would have tried to calm him down, but now I was used to it, and knew that if I approached him physically things would get much worse.

“What’s the right way to do it?”

“Orbital elements,” I said. “Six numbers that tell you everything that can be known about how a satellite is moving.”

“But I already have those six numbers.”

“What are they?” I asked, testing him.

“The satellite’s position on Saunt Lesper’s x, y, and z axes. That’s three numbers. And its velocity along each one of those axes. That’s three more. Six numbers.”

“But as you pointed out you can look at those six numbers and still not be able to visualize the orbit, or even know that it is an orbit. What I am telling you is that with some more theorics you can turn them into a different list of six numbers, the orbital elements, that are infinitely easier to work with, in that you can glance at them and know right away whether the orbit goes over the poles or around the equator.”

“Why didn’t Grandsuur Ylma tell me that to begin with?”

I couldn’t tell him, because you learn too damned fast. But if I tried to be overly diplomatic, Barb would see through it and plane me.

Then I had an upsight: it was my responsibility, just as much as it was Ylma’s, to teach fids the right stuff at the right time.

“You are now ready to stop working in Saunt Lesper’s Coordinates,” I announced, “and begin working in other kinds of spaces, the way real, grown-up theors do.”

“Is this like parallel dimensions?” said Barb, who apparently had been watching the same kinds of speelies as I had before coming here.

“No. These spaces I’m talking about aren’t like physical spaces that you can measure with a ruler and move around in. They are abstract theorical spaces that follow different rules, called action principles. The space that cosmographers like to use has six dimensions: one for each of the orbital elements. But that’s a special-purpose tool, only used in that discipline. A more general one was developed early in the Praxic Age by Saunt Hemn…” And I went on to give Barb a calca* about Hemn spaces, or configuration spaces, which Hemn had invented when he, like Barb, had become sick of xs and ys and zs.

to go Hundred: (Derogatory slang) To lose one’s mind, to become mentally unsound, to stray irredeemably from the path of theorics. The expression can be traced to the Third Centennial Apert, when the gates of several Hundreder maths opened to reveal startling outcomes, e.g.: at Saunt Rambalf’s, a mass suicide that had taken place only moments earlier. At Saunt Terramore’s, nothing at all—not even human remains. At Saunt Byadin’s, a previously unheard-of religious sect calling themselves the Matarrhites (still in existence). At Saunt Lesper’s, no humans, but a previously undiscovered species of tree-dwelling higher primates. At Saunt Phendra’s, a crude nuclear reactor in a system of subterranean catacombs. These and other mishaps prompted the creation of the Inquisition and the institution of hierarchs in their modern forms, including Wardens Regulant with power to inspect and impose discipline in all maths.

— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000

I caught up with Fraa Orolo late in the afternoon as he was coming out of a chalk hall, and we stood among page-stuffed pigeonholes and chatted. I knew better than to ask him what he had been getting at earlier with his weird discussion of daytime cosmography. Once he had made up his mind to teach us in that mode, there was no way to get him to say the answer straight out. Anyway, I was more worried about the things he had been referring to earlier. “Listen, you’re not thinking of leaving, are you?”

He got a slightly amused look but said nothing.

“I always worried you were going to go into the labyrinth and become a Hundreder. That would be bad enough. But the way you were talking I got the idea you were going to go become a Feral like Estemard.”

This was Orolo’s idea of an answer: “What does it mean that you worry so much?”

I sighed.

“Describe worrying,” he went on.


“Pretend I’m someone who has never worried. I’m mystified. I don’t get it. Tell me how to worry.”

“Well…I guess the first step is to envision a sequence of events as they might play out in the future.”

“But I do that all the time. And yet I don’t worry.”

“It is a sequence of events with a bad end.”

“So, you’re worried that a pink dragon will fly over the concent and fart nerve gas on us?”

“No,” I said with a nervous chuckle.

“I don’t get it,” Orolo claimed, deadpan. “That is a sequence of events with a bad end.”

“But it’s nonsensical. There are no nerve-gas-farting pink dragons.”

“Fine,” he said, “a blue one, then.”

Jesry had wandered by and noticed that Orolo and I were in dialog, so he approached, but not too close, and took up a spectator’s position: hands folded in his bolt, chin down, not making eye contact.

“It has nothing to do with the dragon’s color,” I protested. “Nerve-gas-farting dragons don’t exist.”

“How do you know?”

“One has never been seen.”

“But I have never been seen to leave the concent—yet you worry about that.”

“All right. Correction: the whole idea of such a dragon is incoherent. There are no evolutionary precedents. Probably no metabolic pathways anywhere in nature that could generate nerve gas. Animals that large can’t fly because of basic scaling laws. And so on.”

“Hmm, all sorts of reasons from biology, chemistry, theorics…I suppose then that the slines, who know nothing of such matters, must worry about pink nerve-gas-farting dragons all the time?”

“You could probably talk them into worrying about it. But no, there’s a…there’s some kind of filter that kicks in…” I pondered it for a moment, and shot a glance at Jesry, inviting him to join us. After a few moments he took his hands out of his cloak and stepped forward. “If you worried about pink ones,” he pointed out, “you’d have to worry about blue, green, black, spotted, and striped ones. And not just nerve-gas farters but bomb droppers and fire belchers.”

“Not just dragons but worms, giant turtles, lizards…” I added.

“And not just physical entities but gods, spirits, and so on,” Jesry said. “As soon as you open the door wide enough to admit pink nerve-gas-farting dragons, you have let in all of those other possibilities as well.”

“Why not worry about all of them, then?” asked Fraa Orolo.

“I do!” claimed Arsibalt, who had seen us talking, and come over to find out what was going on.

“Fraa Erasmas,” said Orolo, “you said a minute ago that it would be possible to talk slines into worrying about a pink nerve-gas-farting dragon. How would you go about it?”

“Well, I’m not a Procian. But if I were, I suppose I’d tell the slines some sort of convincing story that explained where the dragons had come from. And at the end of it, they’d be plenty worried. But if Jesry burst in warning them about a striped, fire-belching turtle, why, they’d cart him off to the loony bin!”

Everyone laughed—even Jesry, who as a rule didn’t like jokes made at his expense.

“What would make your story convincing?” Orolo asked.

“Well, it’d have to be internally consistent. And it would also have to be consistent with what every sline already knew of the real world.”

“How so?”

Lio and Tulia were on their way to the Refectory kitchen, where it was their turn to prepare dinner. Lio, having heard the last few lines, chimed in: “You could claim that shooting stars were dragon farts that had been lit on fire!”

“Very good,” said Orolo. “Then, whenever a sline looked up and saw a shooting star, he’d think it was corroboration for the pink dragon myth.”

“And he could refute Jesry,” Lio said, “by saying ‘you idiot, what do striped fire-belching turtles have to do with shooting stars?’” Everyone laughed again.

“This is straight from the later writings of Saunt Evenedric,” Arsibalt said.

Everyone got quiet. We’d thought we were just being playful, until now. “Fraa Arsibalt is jumping ahead,” Orolo said, in a tone of mild protest.

“Evenedric was a theor,” Jesry pointed out. “This isn’t the kind of stuff he would have written about.”

“On the contrary,” Arsibalt said, squaring off, “later in his life, after the Reconstitution, he—”

“If you don’t mind,” Orolo said.

“Of course not,” said Arsibalt.

“Restricting ourselves to nerve-gas-farting dragons, how many colors do you think we could distinguish?”

Opinions varied between eight and a hundred. Tulia thought she could distinguish more, Lio fewer.

“Say ten,” Orolo said. “Now, let us allow for striped dragons with alternating colors.”

“Then there would be a hundred combinations,” I said.

“Ninety,” Jesry corrected me. “You can’t count red/red and so on.”

“Allowing for different stripe widths, could we get it up to a thousand distinguishable combinations?” Orolo asked. There was general agreement that we could. “Now move on to spots. Plaids. Combinations of spots, plaids, and stripes.”

“Hundreds of thousands! Millions!” different people were guessing.

“And we are only considering nerve-gas-farting dragons, so far!” Orolo reminded us. “What of lizards, turtles, gods—”

“Hey!” Jesry exclaimed, and shot a glance at Arsibalt. “This is becoming the kind of argument that a theor would make.”

“How so, Fraa Jesry? Where is the theorical content?”

“In the numbers,” Jesry said, “in the profusion of different scenarios.”

“Please explain.”

“Once you have opened the door to these hypotheticals that don’t have to make internal sense, you quickly find yourself looking at a range of possibilities that might as well be infinitely numerous,” Jesry said. “So the mind rejects them as being equally invalid, and doesn’t worry about them.”

“And this is true of slines as well as of Saunt Evenedric?” Arsibalt asked.

“It has to be,” Jesry said.

“So it is an intrinsic feature of human consciousness—this filtering ability.”

As Arsibalt grew more confident, Jesry—sensing he was being drawn into a trap—became more cautious. “Filtering ability?” he asked.

“Don’t play stupid, Jesry!” called Suur Ala, who was also reporting for kitchen duty. “You just said yourself that the mind rejects and doesn’t worry about the overwhelming majority of hypothetical scenarios. If that’s not a ‘filtering ability’ I don’t know what is!”

“Sorry!” Jesry snapped back, and looked around at me, Lio, and Arsibalt, as if he’d just been mugged, and needed witnesses.

“What then is the criterion that the mind uses to select an infinitesimal minority of possible outcomes to worry about?” Orolo asked.

“Plausibility.” “Possibility,” people were murmuring, but no one seemed to feel confident enough to stake a claim.

“Earlier, Fraa Erasmas mentioned that it had something to do with being able to tell a coherent story.”

“It is a Hemn space—a configuration space—argument,” I blurted, before I’d even thought about it. “That’s the connection to Evenedric the theor.”

“Can you please explain?” Orolo requested.

I wouldn’t have been able to if not for the fact that I’d just been talking to Barb about it. “There’s no way to get from the point in Hemn space where we are now, to one that includes pink nerve-gas-farting dragons, following any plausible action principle. Which is really just a technical term for there being a coherent story joining one moment to the next. If you simply throw action principles out the window, you’re granting the world the freedom to wander anywhere in Hemn space, to any outcome, without constraint. It becomes pretty meaningless. The mind—even the sline mind—knows that there is an action principle that governs how the world evolves from one moment to the next—that restricts our world’s path to points that tell an internally consistent story. So it focuses its worrying on outcomes that are more plausible, such as you leaving.”

“You’re leaving!?” Tulia exclaimed, utterly horrified. Others who’d joined the dialog late reacted similarly. Orolo laughed and I explained how the dialog had gotten started—and I did it hastily, before anyone could run off and start rumors.

“I don’t think you’re wrong, Fraa Erasmas,” said Jesry, when everyone had settled down, “but I think you have a Steelyard problem. Bringing in Hemn space and action principles seems like an unnecessarily heavyweight way of explaining the fact that the mind has an instinctive nose for which outcomes are plausible enough to worry about.”

“The point is conceded,” I said.

But Arsibalt was crestfallen—disappointed in me for having backed down without a fight. “Remember that this came up in connection with Saunt Evenedric,” Arsibalt said, “a theor who spent the first half of his life working rigorous calculations having to do with principles of action in various kinds of configuration spaces. I don’t think he was merely speaking poetically when he suggested that human consciousness is capable of—”

“Don’t go Hundred on us now!” Jesry snorted.

Arsibalt froze, mouth open, face turning red.

“It is sufficient for now to have broached this topic,” Orolo decreed. “We’ll not settle it here—not on empty stomachs, anyway!” Taking the hint, Lio, Tulia, and Ala took their leave, headed for the kitchen. Ala shot a frosty look over her shoulder at Jesry, then leaned in close to Tulia to make some remark. I knew exactly what she was complaining about: Jesry had been the one who had brought up the profusion-of-outcomes argument in the first place—but when Arsibalt had tried to develop it, he had gotten cold feet and backed out—even mocked Arsibalt. I tried to throw Ala a grin, but she didn’t notice. There was too much else going on. I ended up standing there grinning into empty space, like an idiot.

Arsibalt began to pursue Jesry across the cloister, disputing the point.

“Back to where we were,” Orolo continued. “Why do you worry so much, Erasmas? Are you doing nothing more productive than imagining pink nerve-gas-farting dragons? Or do you have a particular gift for tracing possible futures through Hemn space—tracing them, it seems, to disturbing conclusions?”

“You could help me answer that question,” I pointed out, “by telling me whether you are thinking of leaving.”

“I spent almost all of Apert extramuros,” Orolo said with a sigh, as if he had finally been run to ground. “I was expecting that it would be a wasteland. A cultural and intellectual charnel house. But that’s not exactly what I found. I went to speelys. I enjoyed them! I went to bars and got into some reasonably interesting conversations with people. Slines. I liked them. Some were quite interesting. And I don’t mean that in a bug-under-a-microscope way. They have stuck in my mind—characters I’ll always remember. For a while I was quite seduced by it. Then one evening I had an especially lively discussion with a sline who was as bright as anyone within this concent. And somehow, toward the end, it came out that he believed that the sun revolved around Arbre. I was flabbergasted, you know. I tried to disabuse him of this. He scoffed at my arguments. It made me remember just how much careful observation and theorical work is necessary to prove something as basic as that Arbre goes around the sun. How indebted we are to those who went before us. And this got me to thinking that I’d been living on the right side of the gate after all.”

He paused for a moment, squinting off toward the mountains, as if judging whether he should go on to tell me the next part. Finally he caught me giving him an expectant look, and made a little gesture of surrender. “When I got back, I found a packet of old letters from Estemard,” he said.


“He’d been posting them from Bly’s Butte once every year or so. Of course he knew that they’d be impounded until the next Apert. He told me of some observations he’d made, using a telescope he’d built up there, grinding the mirror by hand and so forth. Good ideas. Interesting reading. Certainly not the quality of work he’d produced here, though.”

“But he was allowed to go up there,” I said, gesturing toward the starhenge.

Orolo thought that was funny. “Of course. And I trust that we shall be re-admitted to it one day before too long.”

“Why? How? What basis do you have for that?” I had to ask, though I knew he wouldn’t answer.

“Let us say I too am gifted with the faculty that you have, for envisioning how things might play out.”

“Thanks a lot!”

“Oh, and I can also put that faculty to work imagining what it would be like to be a Feral,” he said. “Estemard’s letters make it plain that this is a hard way to live.”

“Do you think he made the right choice?”

“I don’t know,” Orolo said without hesitation. “These are big questions. What does the human organism seek? Beyond food, water, shelter, and reproduction, I mean.”

“Happiness, I guess.”

“Which is something you can get, in a shallow way, simply by eating the food that they eat out there,” Orolo pointed out. “And yet still the people extramuros yearn for things. They join different kinds of arks all the time. What’s the point in that?”

I thought about Jesry’s family and mine. “I guess people like to think that they are not only living but propagating their way of life.”

“That’s right. People have a need to feel that they are part of some sustainable project. Something that will go on without them. It creates a feeling of stability. I believe that the need for that kind of stability is as basic and as desperate as some of the other, more obvious needs. But there’s more than one way to get it. We may not think much of the sline subculture, but you have to admit it’s stable! Then the burgers have a completely different kind of stability.”

“As do we.”

“As do we. And yet it didn’t work for Estemard. Perhaps he felt that living by himself on a butte would fill that need better.”

“Or maybe he just didn’t need it as much as some of us,” I suggested.

The clock chimed the hour. “You’re going to miss a fascinating talk by Suur Fretta,” Orolo said.

“That sounded kind of like changing the subject,” I pointed out.

Orolo shrugged. Subjects change. You’d best adapt.

“Well,” I said, “all right. I’ll go to her talk. But if you’re going to leave, don’t just walk out of this place without letting me know, please?”

“I promise to give you as much advance knowledge as I can if such a thing is going to happen,” he said, in an indulgent tone, as if talking to a mentally unhinged person.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then I went to Saunt Grod’s chalk hall and took a seat in the large empty space that, as usual, surrounded Barb.

Technically, we were supposed to call him Fraa Tavener now, for that was the name he had adopted when he had taken his vow. But some people took longer than others to grow into their avout names. Arsibalt had been Arsibalt from day one; no one even remembered his extramuros name any more. But people were going to be addressing Barb as Barb for a long time.

Whatever his name, that boy was going to save me. There was a lot he didn’t know, but nothing he was afraid to ask about, and ask about, and ask about, until he understood it perfectly. I decided to make him my fid. People would think I was doing it to be charitable. Maybe some would even think I was getting ready to fall back, and was making the care of Barb my avocation. Let them think so! In truth it was mostly self-interest. I had learned more theorics in six weeks, simply by being willing to sit next to Barb, than I had in six months before Apert. I saw now that in my desire to know theorics I had taken shortcuts that, just like shortcuts on a map, turned out to be longcuts. Whenever I’d seen Jesry get it quicker than me, I had misread equations in a way that had seemed easier at the time but made things harder—no, impossible—later. Barb didn’t have that fear that others were getting it faster; because of how his brain was set up, he couldn’t read that in their faces. And he did not have the same desire to reach a distant goal. He was altogether self-centered and short-sighted. He wanted only to understand this one problem or equation chalked on the slate before him now, today, whether or not it was convenient for the others around him. And he was willing to stand there asking questions about it through supper and past curfew.

Come to think of it, Ala and Tulia had come up with a similar way of learning a long time ago. The creature with two backs was a term Jesry had coined for those two girls when they stood together outside of a chalk hall discussing—endlessly—what they had just heard. It wasn’t enough for one of them to understand something. Nor for both of them to understand it in different ways. They both had to understand it in the same way. The sound of them furiously explaining things to each other gave the rest of us headaches. Especially when we’d been younger, we’d always clap our hands over our ears and run away when we spotted the creature with two backs. But it worked for them.

Barb’s willingness to do things the hard way in the near term was making his advancement toward the long goal—even though he didn’t have one—swifter and surer than mine had ever been. And now I was advancing in step with him.

As a possible avocation, I had been teaching the new crop how to sing. Extramuros, everyone heard music but only a few actually knew how to make it. These new fids had to be taught everything. It was excruciating. I already knew this wasn’t going to be my avocation. We met three afternoons a week in an alcove in what passed for our nave.

One day as I was leaving one of these practices I happened to run into Fraa Lio, who was coming in to do whatever he did at the Warden Fendant’s court. “Come up with me,” he offered, “I want to show you something.”

“A new nerve pinch?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“You know I’m not supposed to look out from the high levels.”

“Well, I haven’t gone through hierarch training—yet—so neither am I,” he said. “That’s not what I want to show you.”

So I began to follow him up the stair. As we climbed, I became nervous that he was going to carry out a plot to raid the starhenge. Then I recalled what Orolo had said the other day about worrying too much, and tried to put this out of my mind.

“You’re not supposed to look out beyond the walls,” he reminded me, as we were getting closer to the top of the southwest tower, “but you are allowed to remember what you saw there during Apert, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well, did you notice anything?”

“Say again?”

“Extramuros, did you notice anything?”

“What kind of a question is that? I noticed a ton of stuff,” I sputtered. Lio turned around and gave me a brilliant smile, letting me know this was just his goofy sense of humor at work. Humor vlor.

“All right,” I said, “what was I supposed to notice?”

“Do you think the city’s getting bigger or smaller?”

“Smaller. No question about it.”

“Why are you so sure? Did you look up the census data?” Another smile.

“Of course not. I don’t know. Just a feeling. Something about how the place looked.”

“How did it look?”

“Sort of…weedy. Overgrown.”

He turned around and held up his index finger like a statue of Thelenes declaiming on the Periklyne. “Hold that idea,” he said, “while we pass through enemy territory.”

We looked at the closed and locked portcullis, but didn’t say anything. We crossed the bridge into the Regulant court and followed its inner walkway round to the stair that led up. When we had reached safe ground above—the statue of Amnectrus—he said, “I was thinking of making gardening my avocation.”

“Well, considering all of the weeds you’ve pulled over the years doing penance for beating me up, you are well qualified,” I said. “But why on earth would you want to?”

“Let me show you what has been going on in the meadow,” he said, and led me out to the Fendant’s ledge. A couple of sentinels were making the rounds, swathed in bulky winter-bolts, their feet swallowed up in furry mukluks. Lio and I were hot from climbing the stairs and so the cold didn’t bother us much. We took a moment to hood ourselves. This was a way of showing respect for the Discipline. Our bolts, drawn far out in front of our faces, gave us tunnel vision. When we walked to the parapet and leaned forward, we could see down into the concent but not up and out to the world beyond.

Lio pointed down at the back fringe of the meadow. Shuf’s Dowment rose up just on the other side of the river. With the exception of a few evergreen shrubs, everything down there was dead and brown. It was easy to see that, near the riverbank, the clover that carpeted most of the meadow became thin and patchy, and blotched with darker, coarser stuff: colonies of weeds that favored the sandy soil near the bank. Nearer the river I could see a distinct front where the clover gave way altogether to a snarl of woody trash: slashberry and the like. Behind that front I could see splats and rambling trails of green; some of the stuff back there was so tough that not even hard frost could kill it.

“I guess your theme today is weeds. But I don’t see where you’re going with it,” I said.

“Down there, come spring, I am going to stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Trantae,” he announced.

“Negative 1472,” I answered in a robotic voice, that being one of the dates drilled into the head of every fid. “And I suppose you want me to play the role of a hoplite who gets a Sarthian arrow in the ear? No, thanks!”

He shook his head patiently. “Not with people,” he said, “with plants.”

“Say again?”

“I got the idea during Apert from seeing how weeds and even trees are invading the town. Taking it back from humans so slowly that the humans don’t notice. The meadow is going to represent the fertile Plains of Thrania, the breadbasket of the Bazian Empire,” Lio said. “The river represents the river Chontus separating it from the northern provinces. By Negative 1474 those have long since been lost to the Horse Archers. Only a few fortified outposts hold out against the barbarian tide.”

“Can we imagine that Shuf’s Dowment is one of those?”

“If you like. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, during the cold winter of Negative 1473, the steppe hordes, led by the Sarthian clan, cross the frozen river and establish bridgeheads on the Thranian bank. By the time the campaigning season has opened, they’ve got three whole armies ready to break out. General Oxas deposes the Bazian Imperator in a military coup and marches forth promising to drive the Sarthians into the river and drown them like rats. After weeks of maneuver, the legions of Oxas finally meet the Sarthians in the flat countryside near Trantae. The Sarthians stage a false retreat. Oxas falls for it like a total dumbass and charges into a pincer. He’s surrounded—”

“And three months later Baz is on fire. But how are you going to do all of that with weeds?”

“We’ll allow the invasive species from the riverbank to make inroads into the clover. The starblossom vines run along the ground like light cavalry—it’s incredible how fast they advance. The slashberry is slower, but better at holding ground—like infantry. Finally the trees come along and make it permanent. With a little weeding and pruning, we can make it all work out just like Trantae, except it’ll take six months or so to play out.”

“That is the craziest idea I have ever heard,” I said. “You are some kind of a nut.”

“Would you rather help me, or go on trying to teach those brats down there how to carry a tune?”

“Is this a trick to get me to pull weeds?”

“No. We’re going to let the weeds grow—remember?”

“What’s going to happen after the weeds win? We can’t set fire to the Cloister. Maybe we could sack the apiary and drink all the mead?”

“Someone already did that, during Apert,” he reminded me gravely. “No, we’ll probably have to clean it all up. Though if people like it we could let nature take its course and let a grove of trees grow on the conquered territory.”

“One of the things I like about this is that, come summer, it will put me in a good position to watch Arsibalt being chased around by angry swarms of bees,” I said.

Lio laughed. I thought to myself that his plan had another advantage as well: it was flagrantly silly. Until now, I had been dabbling in avocations, such as looking after Barb and teaching fids how to sing, that were sensible and virtuous. Typical behavior for someone who was getting ready to fall back. To spend the summer doing something absolutely ridiculous would flaunt the fact that I had no such intentions. Those members of the Edharian chapter who hadn’t wanted me would be furious.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “But I guess we have to wait a few more weeks before anything starts to grow.”

“You’re pretty good at drawing, aren’t you?” Lio asked.

“Better than you—but that’s not saying much. I can make technical illustrations. Barb is freakishly good at it. Why?”

“I was thinking we should make a record of it. Draw pictures of how it looks as the battle goes on. This would be an excellent vantage point.”

“Should I ask Barb if he’s interested?”

Lio looked a little uneasy at that. Maybe because Barb could be so obnoxious; probably because Barb was a new fid and shouldn’t have an avocation yet. “Never mind, I’ll do it myself,” I said.

“Great,” Lio said, “when can you start?”

Lio and I read some histories of the Battle of Trantae during the next week, and pounded stakes into the ground to mark important sites, such as where General Oxas, pierced by eight arrows, had fallen on his sword. I constructed a rectangular frame, about the size of a dinner tray, with a grid of strings stretched across it. The idea was that I’d set this up on the parapet and look through it like a windowframe as I sketched; if I continued to use it in the same way throughout the summer, then each illustration would tally with the next. One day we’d be able to line them up in a row and then people would walk down the line and see the weed-war unfold like a speely.

Lio spent a lot of time thrashing around in the brush along the riverbank looking for particularly aggressive specimens of various kinds of weeds. Yellow starblossom was going to represent the Sarthian cavalry, red and white their allies.

We were both waiting for the moment when we would get in trouble.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks into the project, I looked up during supper to see Fraa Spelikon come into the Refectory, accompanied by a younger hierarch of the Regulant staff. Conversation dimmed for a moment—sort of like when the power threatens to go out and the room becomes brown. Spelikon looked around the Refectory until he found my face. Then, satisfied, he snatched up a tray and demanded some food. Hierarchs were allowed to dine with us, but they rarely did. They had to concentrate pretty fiercely not to let S?cular information slip out and so this was no way to have a relaxing meal.

Everyone had noticed the way Spelikon had looked at me and so, following the brownout, there was a brief jovial uproar at my expense. For once in my life I wasn’t worried. What could they accuse me of? Conspiring to let weeds grow? Probably they had misinterpreted what Lio and I were up to. The only hard part was going to be explaining it to a man like Spelikon.

The younger hierarch—Rotha was her name—ate quickly, then rose and walked out of the Refectory hugging a fat wallet of papers that swiveled as her hips moved. Spelikon ate more heartily but refused offers of beer and wine. After a few minutes he pushed back, wiped his lips, stood up, and came over to me. “I wonder if I might have a word with you in Saunt Zenla’s,” he said.

“Certainly,” I said, then glanced across the room at Lio, who was dining at another table. “Would you like Fraa Lio to join us or—”

“That will not be necessary,” Spelikon said. Which struck me as odd, and left me with physical symptoms of anxiety—pounding heart, moist palms—as I followed Spelikon around the Cloister to Saunt Zenla’s.

This was one of the smallest and oldest chalk halls, traditionally used by the most senior Edharian theoricians to collaborate or to teach their senior students. I’d only been in the room a couple of times my whole life, and would never have dared to barge in there and claim it like this. It had one small table, large enough for at most four people to sit around it on their spheres. Rotha had already covered the table with stuff: a constellation of glow-buds whose pools of soft light merged to illuminate a stack of blank leaves and a few manuscripts, or excerpts of them. Several pens lay in a neat row next to an uncapped ink-bottle.

“Interview with Fraa Erasmas of the Edharian chapter of the Decenarian math of the Concent of Saunt Edhar,” Spelikon said. Rotha scribbled out a row of marks on a blank leaf—not the customary Bazian characters, but a kind of shorthand that hierarchs were trained to use when taking down transcripts. Spelikon went on to tell the date and the time. I was mesmerized by Rotha’s skill with the pen—her hand swept across the whole width of the leaf in as little time as it took to draw breath, leaving in its wake a row of simple one-stroke glyphs that, it seemed to me, couldn’t possibly convey as much meaning as the words we were speaking.

My eyes wandered to the other manuscripts that Rotha had set out on the table. Most of them were also written in that same shorthand. But at least one was in traditional script. My script. Bending closer, I was able to make out several words. I recognized it as the journal I had started keeping when I’d been in the penance cell in the Mynster. I saw the names Flec and Quin, and Orolo.

My movements had gone all jerky. Some primitive threat-response mechanism had taken over. “Hey, that’s mine!”

Spelikon saw to it that this was written down. “The subject admits that Document Eleven is his.”

“Where did you get that?” I demanded, now sounding no older than Barb. Rotha’s hand flitted across the leaf and immortalized it.

“From where it was,” Spelikon answered, amused. “You do know the whereabouts of your own journal, don’t you?”

“I thought I did.” One of the niches outside of Saunt Grod’s chalk hall, up high where only a few people could reach it. But to take someone else’s leaves out of a niche was just about the rudest thing an avout could do. It was only acceptable when someone had died or been Thrown Back. “But,” I went on, “but you’re not supposed to—”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of what we are and are not supposed to do,” Spelikon said. As he spoke these words he made a gesture with his hand that stilled Rotha’s hand, so none of it was written down. Then he made a different gesture that undid the spell, and she began to write again. “This inquiry does not concern you directly and, in fact, need not take up very much of your time. You have already supplied most of what we wish to know in the leaves of your journal. Clarification and confirmation are all that we require. On the day before Apert, did you serve as amanuensis during an interview conducted in the New Library between Fraa Orolo and an artisan from extramuros named Quin?”


“Document Three, please,” Spelikon said. Rotha drew out another manuscript, also written in my hand: my transcript of Orolo’s interview with Quin. I didn’t bother asking where they’d gotten it. Obviously they’d been rooting around in Fraa Orolo’s niches too. Outrageous! But for all that, I was beginning to relax. There was nothing wrong with the conversations Orolo had had with those artisans. Even if the Warden Regulant wouldn’t take my word for it, well, others had been in the library the whole time and could vouch that it had all been harmless. This must be some petty and misguided harassment of Fraa Orolo that would come to nothing, and—I hoped—make Fraa Spelikon look like an idiot.

Spelikon had me confirm that Document Three was mine before going on: “There are discrepancies between the account of the Orolo—Quin conversation as you transcribed it at the time, and the version you later set down in your journal.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not like her.” I nodded at Rotha. “I can’t take shorthand. I only wrote down what was germane to the research that Orolo was doing.”

“Which research do you mean?” Spelikon asked.

I’d thought that was obvious, but I explained, “His study of the political climate extramuros—part of normal preparations for Apert.”

“Thank you. There are several such discrepancies, but I’d like to draw your attention to one, late in the Quin interview, concerning the technical capabilities of speelycaptors.”

This was so unexpected it blanked my mind. “Uh, I vaguely remember that topic coming up.”

“Your memory was not vague at all when you wrote this,” he said, and reached down over Rotha’s shoulder and picked up the journal. “According to this, Artisan Quin said, at one point, and I quote, ‘Flec didn’t make a speely.’ Does that make your memory any less vague?”

“Yes. The day before, at Provener, we had sent Artisan Flec to see the Ita so that they could show him to the north nave. Flec wanted to make a speely. But later Quin told us that it hadn’t gone as planned. The Ita didn’t allow Flec to operate his speelycaptor in the Mynster.”

“Why not?”

“The image quality was too good.”

“Too good in what way?” Spelikon asked.

“Quin rattled off some commercial bulshytt that I tried to capture in the journal,” I said.

“When you say you tried to capture it, are you saying that what you wrote in the journal is only a guess at what it said? Here it reads—quoting again—‘the Eagle-Rez, the SteadiHand, the DynaZoom—put those all together, and it could have seen straight across into the other parts of your Mynster, even through the screens.’ Did Quin actually use those words?”

“I don’t know. It’s partly my recollection and partly an educated guess.”

“Explain what you mean by an educated guess in this case.”

“Well, the point of the story—the basic technical reason that the Ita wouldn’t allow Flec to use the speelycaptor—was that from where he was going to be sitting, behind the north screen, he would have been able to take pictures of the Thousanders and Hundreders by pointing his speelycaptor across the chancel. With our naked eyes, we can’t see through the screens into the other naves because of the contrast between the screen, which is light-colored—cosmographers would say it has high albedo—and the dark space beyond. Also because of distance and other factors. The gist of it was that the Ita had looked up the specifications on Flec’s speelycaptor and figured out that it had some combination of features that would make it possible to see things that the naked eye couldn’t. Now, it’s a fool’s game trying to make sense of the commercial bulshytt that the makers of speelycaptors use to describe those features. But from my experience with cosmography, I have a pretty good idea what it would entail: some kind of zoom or magnification feature, a way of detecting faint images against a noisy background, and image stabilization, to correct for shaking of the hands.”

“And that is what you mean by an educated guess,” Spelikon said. “Educated, in the sense that anyone with a knowledge of cosmographical instruments would be able to infer what you inferred about the capabilities of Flec’s speelycaptor.”


“It says in your journal,” Spelikon continued, “that Fraa Orolo’s hand came down on your wrist just after that, and stopped you from writing. Why?”

“Being older and wiser,” I said, “Orolo saw where the conversation was headed. Quin was about to go off chattering about S?cular stuff, and about what had happened between Flec and the Ita, which obviously is not the kind of information we ought to be exposed to.”

“But if your ears were going to be exposed to it anyway, why did Orolo stop your hand? Why did he not plug your ears?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t the most logical thing for him to do. People don’t always think clearly at such moments.”

“Except when they do,” Spelikon said. “Well, at any rate, that is all I have for you concerning the Orolo—Quin interview. There is only one other question.”


“Where were you on the ninth night of Apert?”

I thought for a minute, and frowned. “That’s one of those simple-sounding questions that is hard for a normal person to answer.”

Spelikon was almost too quick to agree with me. “If by ‘normal person’ you mean ‘non-hierarch,’ then let me assure you I have no specific memories of what I did that evening.”

“Well, I was scheduled to give a tour the next morning, so I didn’t stay up late. I had supper. Then I’m pretty sure I went to bed. I was doing a lot of thinking.”

“Really?” Spelikon asked. “About what?”

I must have gotten a very strange look on my face. He chuckled and said, “I’m just curious. I don’t think it matters.” He drew up another leaf. “According to the Chronicle, on that night you were assigned to share a cell with Fraa Branch and Fraa Ostabon. If I were to ask them, they’d both say you were in the cell with them that night?”

“I can’t imagine why they’d say anything else.”

“Very well,” Spelikon said, “that will be all. Thank you for your time, Fraa Erasmas.”

Spelikon opened the door for me. I stepped through it to discover Fraa Branch and Fraa Ostabon waiting in the gallery.

My talent for envisioning things, and spinning yarns in my head, failed me that evening, as if it had gone on vacation. I could make no sense of my interview with Spelikon. I put it down as further evidence that Suur Trestanas was cracking, and would soon be sent to Physicians’ Commons to get better—hopefully very slowly.

The next day I was up early to help serve breakfast. I spent the morning in a chalk hall with Barb, working on some fundamentals of exterior calculus that I should have understood years earlier but was only now getting a real grip on. As I was reaching the point where my brain couldn’t take any more, and noticed myself making dumb mistakes, Provener rang.

This was one of the days that my old team was supposed to wind the clock, so I went to the Mynster. It was sparsely attended, with few hierarchs in evidence. I didn’t see Fraa Orolo or any of his senior students, and Jesry didn’t show up, so Lio and Arsibalt and I had to do it without his help.

Between that and the long morning in the chalk hall, I was famished, and ate like a dog in the Refectory. When I was almost finished, Orolo came in, fetched himself a light lunch, and sat down alone in what had become his favorite spot: the table from which he could look out the window and down the mountains when the weather was clear. Today, it wasn’t; but it felt as though the clouds might later be rinsed away by a cold clear river of wind. When I had finished eating, I went over and sat with him. I guessed that Spelikon must have been pestering him with questions too. But I didn’t want to bring it up. He must be sick of it.

He gave me a little smile. “Thanks to the hierarchs,” he said, “I shall soon be making observations again.”

“They’re going to open the starhenge? That’s great news!” I exclaimed. Orolo smiled again. Things were beginning to make sense. Something had spooked the hierarchs. They had misinterpreted Orolo’s pre-Apert activities in a way I still didn’t understand. Now finally they were coming to see that they’d been mistaken, and things were about to go back to normal.

“I must admit, I have a tablet up in the M & M that I’ve been dying to get my hands on,” he said.

“When are they going to open it?”

“I don’t know,” Orolo said.

“What are you going to look at first?”

“Oh, I’d rather not say just now. Nothing that requires the power of the M & M. A smaller telescope would suffice, or even a commercial speelycaptor.”

“Spelikon was asking me all kinds of questions about those—”

He put his finger to his lips. “I know,” he said, “and it is good that you answered his questions as you did.”

I was distracted for a few moments, working through the implications. The news was good. But when people began going up to the starhenge again, they might find the tablet I’d left in Clesthyra’s Eye, which could get me in a lot of trouble. I felt stupid now for having put it there. How was I going to fetch it back?

Orolo looked out a different window, reading the time from the clock. “I saw Tulia a few minutes ago. She and Ala were rounding up the team. She asked me to give you a message.”


“She won’t be turning up for this meal. She’ll see you at supper.”

“That’s the message?”

“Yes. The team have got some unusual changes to ring—it’s going to require their full attention. They’ll be starting in half an hour or so. She seemed to think that you of all people would find this especially important. I’ve no idea why.”


It had to be another Voco. So I was going to get my chance to sneak up to the starhenge again—that was the real message that Tulia was trying to send me.

Did Orolo understand all of this? Did he know what was going on?

But once the changes began to ring, I couldn’t very well go charging up the Mynster stairs against the traffic of Regulant and Fendant staff coming down to attend the aut. This was only going to work if I ascended first, before the bells sounded, and hid myself up there.

And I had a perfect excuse for doing so, thanks to Lio.

I stood up. “See you in the Mynster,” I said to Orolo.

“Yes,” he said, and then winked. “Or perhaps not.”

I was frozen for a moment, again wondering how much he knew. This made him smile broadly. “All I meant,” Orolo said, “was that one never knows who will remain in the Mynster after one of these auts, and who will depart.”

“You think you might be called up at Voco?”

“It is most unlikely!” Orolo said. “But just in case you are called—”

I snorted. Now he was just having fun with me.

“Just in case you are called,” he said, “know that I have seen the progress you have been making in recent months. I am proud of you. Proud, but not surprised. Do keep at it.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll keep at it. In fact, I have some questions for you later. But I have to run.”

“Run then,” he said. “Mind your step on those stairs.”

I turned around and forced myself to saunter, not sprint, out of the Refectory. I fetched my drawing-frame and sketches from the niche where I’d been stashing them, and walked as quickly as I could, without looking like I was in a hurry, to the Mynster. When I had ascended to the triforium, I looked over to the bell-ringers’ balcony and saw Ala and Tulia and their team there, going through the motions of the changes they were about to ring without actually pulling on the ropes. Tulia saw me. I looked away, not wanting to be obvious, then went the other way and climbed the southwest tower stairs as briskly as I could.

The Regulant court was as crowded as I had ever seen it, but quiet, as everyone seemed intent on something. Which made sense, just before a Voco. I actually saw Suur Trestanas for a moment as she was passing from one office to another. She looked a little surprised, but then her gaze dropped to take in my drawing equipment, and she saw me attacking the next flight of stairs. Something clicked into place in her mind and she forgot about it.

Lio was waiting for me by the statue of Amnectrus, looking a little flushed himself from climbing the stairs. He fell in step beside me. “Don’t go to the ledge,” he said, “too conspicuous. Come with me.”

I hooded myself as I followed him around the inner walkway. Neither of us spoke, as we always seemed to be in earshot of someone. Finally he dodged into a chamber that was lined with heavy wooden doors all around—a muster room, they called it, where a squad might gather to brief and equip before a mission.

“You planned this whole thing, didn’t you?” I whispered.

“I created opportunities, in case we might need them.” Lio slid one of the doors open to reveal a storage chamber lined with metal boxes, neatly stacked. Then he grabbed my bolt in front of my chest, yanked me forward, and shoved me into the locker. By the time I’d got my balance back, he’d slid the door shut behind me. It was dark. I was hidden.

No more than a minute later, the bells began to ring strange changes.

My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. I took the minor risk of making my sphere give off a faint glow. The boxes stacked around me were stenciled with incomprehensible words and numbers, but I was growing certain that they contained ammunition. I had heard stories. The lifetime of this stuff was a few decades. Then it had to be flung off the Mynster and shoveled into wagons to be carted off for disposal. The whole concent would then queue up on the stairs and convey the fresh ammunition up to this level by passing the boxes from hand to hand. This hadn’t been done in a while, but some of the older avout remembered it clearly.

Anyway it gave me something to think of while I waited through the ringing of the changes and the half-hour of assembly time that followed. No one up here needed half an hour. They could go on about their business for fifteen or twenty minutes and then hustle down at the last minute. So it took a while for the place to empty out. At some point Fraa Delrakhones himself made a sweep, commanding everyone to leave now. He wanted to be the last one down, and he didn’t want to have to run.

After that, I felt it was safe to go out into the muster room. I cracked the door of the locker and paused to let my eyes adjust, then crept out and squatted behind the exit door for a minute, just listening. But there was nothing to hear—not even from the Chancel and the naves, which sounded as if they had been abandoned.

I was afraid that Delrakhones might still be hunting for stragglers, and there was no particular reason to hurry, so I waited until the voice of Statho resonated up the well, intoning the Convocation. Then I bolted from cover, charged around to the stairs, and raced into the space above. Statho went on at some length, pausing from time to time as though sifting through hastily assembled notes, or gathering strength.

I was about halfway to the starhenge, high up behind the face of the clock, when I first heard the word Anathem.

My knees collapsed, like those of a beast when something unexpectedly touches its back. I lost my stride and had to stop myself and crouch down lest I bang into something.

It couldn’t be real. The aut of Anathem had not been celebrated in this place for two hundred years.

And yet I had to admit that the changes Tulia had rung had sounded new to my ears—different from Voco. The crowd in the Mynster had been dead quiet before the aut. Now they were muttering, producing a gravelly sound the likes of which I’d never heard.

Everything that had happened since Apert now made sense in a new way, as if a pile of shattered fragments had been thrown up in the air and reassembled itself into a mirror.

Some part of me said that I must keep moving. That this was my only chance to fetch that tablet. Not that the images stored on it mattered any more. But Orolo had gone out of his way to tell me, a few minutes ago, that he wanted the tablet from the M & M. I had to get both of them. If I blew it, I’d get in huge trouble—perhaps be Thrown Back. Worse, I’d fail Orolo.

How long had I been crouched on this catwalk not moving? Wasted time! Wasted time! I made myself move.

Whose name would they call? Perhaps mine? What would happen then if I failed to step out? There was some dark humor in that. It got darker as I imagined one way to answer the call: by jumping down the center of the well. With luck I’d land on Suur Trestanas. Now that would be a story that would live on forever in the lore of Saunt Edhar and the mathic world beyond. Perhaps it would even make the local newspapers.

But it would not get that tablet from Clesthyra’s Eye, nor the one that Orolo wanted from the M & M. That was a prize worth taking risks for.

I climbed as Statho read some ancient prattle about the Discipline and how it must be enforced. Maybe I didn’t climb as quickly as I might have, for I could tell he was leading up to the moment when he would call out the name of the one who was to be Thrown Back, and I wanted to hear it. I reached the top, and put my hand on the door that led to the starhenge, and actually killed time for a minute.

Finally he said “Orolo.” Not “Fraa Orolo,” for in that instant he had ceased to be a fraa.

How could I be surprised? From the moment I had heard “Anathem” I had known that it would be Orolo. Still I said “No!” out loud. No one heard me, because everyone else was saying it in the same moment; it came up the well like the beat of a drum. As it died away, a very weird sound replaced it, something I’d never heard the likes of before: people were screaming down there.

Why did I cry out “No!” when I’d known it all along? Not out of disbelief. It was an objection. A refusal. A declaration of war.

Orolo was ready. He emerged through the door in our screen immediately, and closed it firmly behind him before his former brothers and sisters could begin to say goodbye, for that would have taken a year. Better to just be gone, like one who is killed by a falling tree. He walked out into the chancel and tossed his sphere to the floor, then began to untie his chord. This dropped around his ankles. He stepped out of it and then reached down, grabbed the lower fringes of his bolt, and shrugged it off over his shoulders. For a moment, then, he was standing there naked, holding a wad of bolt in his arms, and gazing straight up the well, just as Fraa Paphlagon had done at Voco.

I opened the door to the starhenge and let the light flood in. Orolo saw it and bowed his head like a Deolater praying to his god. Then I passed through and closed the door behind me. The entire, terrible scene in the Mynster was eclipsed, and replaced by the lonely vista of the starhenge.

In the same moment I began sobbing out loud. My face drew back from my skull as if I were vomiting and tears ran from my eyes like blood from gashes. I was sad—rather than surprised—because I had known that this was coming from the moment Fraa Spelikon had begun asking about speelycaptors. I hadn’t foreseen it only because it was too dreadful to think about until I could not escape it any more—until it had happened. Until now. So I didn’t have to waste any time being astonished, like those fraas and suurs down below me; I went straight to the most intense and saturating grief I had ever known.

I found my way to the Pinnacle more by groping than by sight, as I could perceive little more than light and dark. By the time I’d reached the top, I’d moved on to hysterical blubbering, but I wiped my face a couple of times with my bolt, took some deep breaths, and settled myself long enough to get the dust cover open and withdraw the tablet from Clesthyra’s Eye. This I wrapped in my bolt, which called to mind the memory of Orolo stripping his off.

He would stand there naked while the avout sang a wrathful song to Anathematize him. They were probably singing it now. You were supposed to sing it like you meant it. Maybe that would be easy for the Thousanders and the Hundreders who had never known him. But I suspected that little coherent sound was coming from behind the Tenners’ screen.

I went into the control chamber of the M & M and looked for the tablet that Orolo had placed in its objective when he and I had been here just before the whole place had been locked down. But it was empty. Someone had been here before me and confiscated it. Just as they would now go through the niches that he had used and take all of his writings.

Then I did something that might have been foolish, but that was necessary: I went to the same place where I’d watched Fraa Paphlagon and the Inquisitors take off in their aerocraft. I crouched at the base of the same megalith, and waited until Orolo walked out of the Day Gate. Once he had passed out of the chancel, and out of sight of the avout, they had given him a sort of gunny sack to cover his body, and an emergency blanket made of crinkly orange foil, which he pulled around his shoulders as he got out into the plaza and the wind hit him. His skinny white ankles were lost in a pair of old black work boots and he had to shuffle lest they fall off. He moved away from the concent without once gazing back over his shoulder. After a few moments he disappeared behind the spray of one of the fountains. I chose that time to turn my back on him and head back down.

As I passed back into the chronochasm and heard the aut of Anathem concluding, I thought it was a small mercy for me that I’d had this last sight of Orolo extramuros. Those in the Mynster merely saw him be swallowed by the unknowable beyond, which was (and was meant to be) terrifying. But I had at least seen him making his way out there. Which didn’t make things any less horrible and sad. But to glimpse him still alive and moving under his own power in the S?culum was to have hope that someone would help him out there—that maybe, before dark, he’d be sitting in hand-me-down clothes in one of those bars he had frequented during Apert, having a beer and looking for a job.

The remainder of the service was a reaffirmation of vows and a rededication to the Discipline. I was happy to miss it. I wrapped up the tablet in a leaf of drawing paper and stashed it behind a can of ammunition; Lio could always retrieve it later.

The one question was: would my absence have been marked by any of the Tenners? But in a group of three hundred, it was easy for such a thing to go unnoticed.

In case anyone asked, I concocted a story that Orolo had dropped a hint of what was going to happen (which—come to think of it—he had, though I’d been too dense to get it) and that I had skipped the aut because I was afraid I couldn’t bear it. This would still get me in trouble. I didn’t much care. Let them Throw me Back; I’d figure out where Orolo had gone—probably to Bly’s Butte—and join him there.

But as it came out, I never had to tell anyone that lie. No one had noticed I was missing; or if they had, they didn’t care.

The story of how Orolo had come to be Thrown Back had to be reconstructed over the next few weeks, like a skull in an archaeological dig being fitted together one shard at a time. We would get lost for days as rumor or convincingly wrong data sent us up some promising path that only later proved a logical cul-de-sac. It didn’t help that all of us had suffered the psychic equivalent of third-degree burns.

He had somehow known, days before Apert, that there would be trouble related to the starhenge. He’d put Jesry to work doing some computations. He had not allowed Jesry to see the photomnemonic tablets from which the givens had been extracted; indeed, he’d gone to a lot of effort to obscure the nature of the work from Jesry and his other students, perhaps to shield them from any consequences.

When Artisan Quin had spoken of the technical capabilities of Flec’s speelycaptor, the idea had come into Orolo’s head that he might use such a device to make cosmographical observations. On the ninth night of Apert, after the starhenge had been locked, Orolo had gone to the apiary and stolen several crates of mead. He put on clothes that made him look like a visitor from extramuros and went out the Decade Gate with a large wheeled beer cooler in which he hid the loot. He made a rendezvous with a shady character of some description whom he had presumably met while hanging around in bars extramuros. Indeed, his entire motive for having frequented such places during Apert might have been to recruit such a person. In exchange for the mead, Orolo had taken delivery of a speelycaptor.

The little vineyard where Orolo pursued his avocation was difficult to see from the Mynster. During the winter, he sometimes went there to mend trellises and prune vines. In the weeks following Apert he devised a rudimentary observatory there, consisting of a vertical pole somewhat taller than a man, free to rotate, with a crosspiece lashed athwart it at eye level that could be swiveled up and down. Into this crosspiece he’d whittled a niche to fit the speelycaptor. The pole and crosspiece enabled him to hold the speelycaptor steady for long periods as he tracked his target across the sky. The device’s image-stabilization, zoom, and low-light enhancement features enabled him to get a decent look at whatever he was so curious about.

The idea of Orolo stealing from the concent, conspiring with a criminal during Apert, and making forbidden observations in the vineyard was shocking to everyone, but the story did make sense, and it was just the kind of logical plan that Orolo would have come up with. Sooner or later we all came to terms with it.

My role in the story led some Edharians to view me as a traitor—as the guy who had sold Orolo out to the Warden Regulant. This was the kind of thing that, before Anathem, would have kept me up all night, every night, feeling bad. On even-numbered nights I’d have felt guilty about what I had divulged to Spelikon and on odd-numbered nights I’d have seethed with impotent rage at those in my chapter who so misunderstood me. But against the backdrop of all that had been going on, being worried about these things was a little bit like attempting to see distant stars against the daytime sky. Even though Orolo was not my father, and even though he was still alive, I felt about Fraa Spelikon as I would have about a man who had murdered my father before my eyes. And my feelings toward Suur Trestanas were even darker since I suspected that, in some sneaky way, she was behind it.

What had Orolo seen? We might have been able to get some clues from the computations Jesry had been doing before Apert. But the Warden Regulant had confiscated these from their niche and so all we had to go on were Jesry’s recollections. He was fairly certain that Orolo had been trying to calculate the orbital parameters of an object or objects in the solar system. Normally this would imply an asteroid moving in a heliocentric (sun-centered) orbit that happened to be similar to the orbit of Arbre. A Big Nugget type of scenario, in other words. But Jesry had a hunch, based on certain of the numbers he remembered seeing, that the object in question was orbiting, not the sun, but Arbre. This was extremely unusual. In all the millenia that humans had been observing the heavens, only one permanent moon of Arbre had been found. It was possible for an asteroid in a sun-centered orbit to pass near a libration point and be captured into an Arbre-centered orbit, but all such orbits were unstable, and ended with the rock striking Arbre or the moon, or being ejected from the Arbre—moon system.

It might have been that Orolo was looking at the triangular libration points of the Arbre—moon system, which harbored concentrations of rocks and dust that were visible as faint clouds chasing or being chased by the moon in its orbit about Arbre. But it was not clear why such a project would create so much hostility in the Warden Regulant. And as Barb had pointed out, the orientation of the M & M suggested that Orolo had been using it to take pictures of an object in a polar orbit, which was unlikely in a natural object.

Of our group, it was Jesry who first had the courage to give voice to what was implied by all of this: “It is not a natural object. It was made and put there by humans.”

It was not exactly spring. Winter was over, but frost still threatened; bulbs were thrusting green spears up through crystalline mud-ice. Several of us had spent the afternoon chopping down the dead stalks and vines of our tangles. We left these up through most of the winter to prevent soil erosion and provide a habitat for small animals, but the time of year had come when we had to take it all down and burn it so that the ashes could fertilize the soil. Now, following supper, we had gone out into the dark and set fire to the slash we’d heaped up during the day, creating a huge gaseous fire that would not last for very long. Jesry had found a bottle of the peculiar wine that Orolo used to make and we were passing it around.

“It could also have been made by some other praxic civilization,” said Barb. Technically, of course, he was right. Socially, he was annoying us. By putting forth his suggestion, Jesry had stuck his neck out—had exposed himself to the risk of ridicule. By agreeing with him, silently or not, we were accepting the same risk. The last thing we needed was Barb speculating about bug-eyed space monsters.

Another thing about Barb: he was the son of Quin, who in a sense had instigated all of this by making indiscreet remarks about the excellence of modern speelycaptors. This was hardly Barb’s fault but it did create a negative association in one’s mind that bobbed to the surface at awkward moments—and Barb was a copious source of awkward moments.

“That would explain the closure of the starhenge,” Arsibalt said. “Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the S?cular Power has divided into two or more factions—perhaps arming for war. One may have launched a reconnaissance satellite into a polar orbit.”

“Or several of them,” Jesry said, “since I got the impression I was making calculations for more than just one object.”

“Could it have been one object that changed its orbit from time to time?” Tulia asked.

“Unlikely. It takes a lot of energy to change an orbit from one plane to another—almost as much energy as launching the satellite in the first place,” Lio said.

Everyone looked at him.

“Spy satellite vlor,” he said sheepishly, “from a Praxic Age book on space warfare. Plane change maneuvers are expensive!”

“A satellite in a polar orbit doesn’t need to change its plane!” Barb snorted. “It can see all parts of Arbre by waiting long enough.”

“There’s one big reason why I like Jesry’s hypothesis,” I said. Everyone turned and looked at me. I hadn’t been talking much. But in the weeks since Anathem, I had come to be seen as an authority on all things Orolo. “Orolo’s behavior in the days just before Apert suggests that he knew there was going to be trouble. Whatever it was that he had seen, he knew that it was a S?cular event and that the hierarchs would make him stop looking at it as soon as they found out. That wouldn’t have been true if it was just a rock.”

I was only agreeing with the consensus. Most of the others nodded. But Arsibalt of all people seemed to take what I’d said as a challenge. He cleared his throat and came back at me as if we were in dialog. “Fraa Erasmas, what you have said makes sense as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Since Anathem was rung down on Orolo, it’s easy for us to fall in the habit of thinking of him as a malcontent. But would you have identified him as such before Apert?”

“Your point is well taken, Fraa Arsibalt. Let’s not waste time taking a poll of everyone standing around this fire. Orolo was as happy to abide under the Discipline as any avout who ever lived.”

“But the launching of a new reconaissance satellite is clearly a S?cular event, is it not?”


“And, moreover, since that kind of praxis has been around for millenia—long enough that Fraa Lio here can read of it in ancient books—there is nothing new that Orolo could have learned by making observations of such a satellite, is there?”

“Presumably not—unless it embodied some newly developed praxis.”

“But such a new praxis would also be a S?cular event, would it not?” Tulia put in.

“Yes, Suur Tulia. And therefore no concern of the avout.”

“So,” said Arsibalt, “if we accept the premise that Fraa Orolo was a true avout who respected the Discipline, we cannot at the same time believe that the thing he saw in the sky was a satellite recently launched from the surface of Arbre.”

“Because,” said Lio, completing the thought, “he’d have identified any such thing as being of no interest to us.”

All of which made sense; but it left us with nowhere to go. Or at least, nowhere we were willing to go.

Except for Barb. “Therefore it must be an alien ship.”

Jesry inhaled deeply and let out a big sigh. “Fraa Tavener,” he said, using Barb’s avout name, “remind me to show you some research, back in the Library, showing just how unlikely that is.”

“Unlikely but not impossible?” Fraa Tavener shot back. Jesry sighed again.

“Fraa Jesry,” I said, and managed to catch his eye and throw him a wry look—exactly the kind of signal to which Barb was oblivious. “Fraa Tavener seems very keen on the topic. The fire’s dying fast. We only have a few more minutes here. Why don’t you go on ahead of us and show him that research. We’ll put out the fire and tidy up.”

Everyone was quiet for a while, because every one of us—including I—was startled by what had just happened: I had bossed Jesry around. Unprecedented! But I didn’t care. I was too busy caring about other things.

“Right,” Jesry said, and stomped off into the dark with Barb in tow. The rest of us stood there silently until the sound of Barb’s questions had been drowned out by the seething of the fire and the burble of the river over ice-shoals.

“You want to talk about the tablet,” Lio predicted.

“It’s time to bring that thing down and look at it,” I said.

“I’m surprised you haven’t been in more of a hurry,” Tulia said. “I’ve been dying to see that thing.”

“Remember what happened to Orolo,” I said. “He was incautious. Or maybe he just didn’t care whether he got caught.”

“Do you care?” Tulia asked. It was a blunt question that made the others uneasy. But no one edged away. They all looked at me, keen to hear my answer. The grief that had hit me at the moment Statho had called Orolo’s name was still with me all the time, but I had learned that it could transform in a flash to anger. Not jumping-up-and-down anger but cold implacable fury that settled in my viscera and made me think some most unpleasant thoughts. It was distorting my face; I knew this because younger fids who had used to give me a pleasant greeting when I encountered them in a gallery or on the meadow now averted their eyes.

“Frankly no,” I said. This was a lie, but it felt good. “I don’t care whether I get Thrown Back. But you guys are all involved in it too, and so I’m going to be careful for your sakes. Remember, this tablet might have no useful information whatsoever. Even if it does, we might have to stare into the thing for months or even years before we see anything. So we are talking about a lengthy and secret campaign.”

“Well, it seems to me that we owe it to Orolo to try,” Tulia said.

“I can bring it down whenever you like,” Lio said.

“I know of a dark room beneath Shuf’s Dowment where we could view it,” Arsibalt said.

“Very well,” I said. “I only need a little bit of help from you guys. I’ll do the rest myself. If I get caught, I’ll say you knew nothing and I’ll take responsibility for whatever happens. They’ll give me Chapter Six, or worse. And then I’ll walk out of here and try to find Orolo.”

These words made Tulia and Lio quite emotional in different ways. She looked ready to weep and he looked ready to fight. But Arsibalt was merely impatient with me for being so slow. “There is a larger matter at stake than getting in trouble,” he said. “You are avout, Fraa Erasmas. You swore a vow to keep the Discipline. It’s the most solemn and important thing in your life. That is what you are putting into play. Whether or not you get caught and punished is a detail.”

Arsibalt’s words had a strong effect on me because they were true. I had an answer ready-made, but it wasn’t one that I could speak aloud: I no longer respected that oath. Or at least, I no longer trusted those who were charged with enforcing the Discipline to which I had sworn. But I couldn’t very well say as much to these friends of mine who did still respect it. My mind worked for a while, looking for a way to answer Arsibalt’s challenge, and the others were content to stand there and poke at the dying fire and wait for me to speak.

“I trust Orolo,” I finally said. “I trust that, in his mind, he was in no way violating the Discipline. That he was punished by lesser minds who don’t understand what is really going on. I think he is—that he will be—a—”

“Say it!” Tulia snapped.

“Saunt,” I said. “I will do this for Saunt Orolo.”