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Stories Before Dinner

It is about the middle of the afternoon, I should judge, and I have had an unexpected visitor here at my barrel. I tried to make her as comfortable as I could; she did not complain, and in fact left me a little medallion she says is pure gold. I can still smell her perfume.

But I should not rush ahead of events like this.

I remember the Calde's Palace in Old Viron very vividly, and so I found Inclito's house less impressive than many people must. To set down the truth here (as I must be careful to do in every instance whatsoever) it was less impressive than my own palace in Gaon as well, a palace and a manner of living that I am doing my utmost to forget. The core of the house is the ruin of a building of the Vanished People, and is of stone. The remainder is of brick, of which Inclito is extremely proud. Outside, both stone and brick have been covered with stucco and whitewashed; inside one sees the ancient gray stones and the new red bricks. To give the house its due, all the rooms I saw are large and possess a multitude of big windows; the outer walls are curved, for the most part; the interior walls are generally straight. I got the impression that many had been exterior walls in their time, and that new and bigger rooms had been added as the whim seized the owner, or as funds became available.

Despite hair as white as mine, his mother looked younger than I expected, although she is clearly unwell. None of her son's heavy, coarse features can have come from her. Her face is still smooth, and I would call it almond-shaped if it were not for her hollow cheeks; her nose and mouth are small and delicate, the cheekbones delicate too, high and well defined. It is dominated by her large, dark eyes, which might almost be still-living organs in the face of a corpse.

Her granddaughter, Mora, is clearly her father's daughter, too large and too heavy-limbed and thick-waisted to be called attractive. To be fair, she carries herself well, and seems quiet and intelligent. About fifteen.

Her friend Fava is about half her size, looks blond next to Mora, and is quite pretty. Fava is – or at least appears to be – several years younger. At first I thought her nervous and self-effacing.

Inclito's mother welcomed me graciously, apologized for not rising, warned me that we had an hour or so to wait before dinner, and offered me a glass of wine, which I accepted gratefully, and which her son provided.

"Our own, from my own vines. What do you think?"

I tasted it and pronounced it excellent; and in all honesty it was by no means bad.

The daughter's friend Fava ventured, "You're a dervis? That's what Mora's father told us."

"Then it must be true, " I assured her. "But first of all I'm a stranger here, and unfamiliar with many of your local terms."

The daughter, Mora, offered, "A wandering holy man."

"Wandering, certainly. And a man. Hardly holy."

"But you can tell us thrilling tales of far-off places, " Inclito's mother suggested.

"I could tell your granddaughter and her young friend about the Whorl, which is the only distant place I've ever been to that is genuinely worth knowing about, madam; but you and your son will already have done that, and much better than I ever could."

Mora asked, "Where were you before you came here?" at which her father gave her a severe look.

"In a little village a day's travel south of your town, where a woodcutter and his wife took me in."

"This isn't a law court, " Inclito rumbled.

His mother smiled. "No more questions, we promise. I shall offer a remark, however, if I may. It is not intended to be offensive."

I assured her that I was remarkably difficult to offend before dinner.

"Well, if my Inclito, my famous one, had not told me about you first, I would have thought that you were a male witch when I caught sight of you. A strego, we would have said when I was a girl. That would have made me very happy, because I would have asked you for a charm for health when the moment was ripe. If you were a strego, you'd be a good one, I'm certain, with that face."

"Then I wish I were, madam. I would be very happy to restore you to health, if I could."

"You could pray for her, " Mora suggested.

"I will. I do."

Fava smiled; it was a smile, it seemed to me, at once appealing and malicious-or at least mischievous. "I want to play the game, and I'm company, too. You're older than I am, though, Incanto. Will you play the game if I beg very prettily?"

I smiled in return; I could not help myself, although like Inclito I suspect her. "If it involves running or wrestling, I beg to be excused. Otherwise I will play any game you wish, for as long as you wish it."

"Oh, I can't run!"

Inclito's mother said, "It's a silly game, really. But we do it because we used to at home. Fava likes it because she always wins."

"I don't! You won yourself last night."

"All of you voted for me out of kindness, " the older woman said.

"They tell stories, " Fava explained to me. "And at the end everybody votes, only you can't vote for your own. The person who wanted to play has to go last."

"Then I invite all of you to play with me, " I said. "I'll need to hear your stories so that I'll know what sort of story I ought to tell."

Fava began to argue, but Inclito's mother silenced her with a trembling finger. "You must go first. I think it's by going last that you win so much."

To me she added, "We mustn't interrupt. That's the chief rule we have in this. If you interrupt, you'll have to pay her a forfeit."

Fava's Adventure: The Washed Child.

This happened two years ago, when a little group of us went to Soldo to visit our relatives there. They had a large farm. It wasn't as large as this one or as rich as this one either, but it was bigger and richer than most of the farms in that part of the whorl. Bigger and richer than most of the farms here, for all of that.

Now the farthest field of that farm was the last plowed land to the east. It was at the foot of a mountain, and beyond it the slope was too steep for plowing. They grazed sheep and goats up there, and the young men went there sometimes to hunt. They wouldn't take me with them, so one fine day I decided I'd go by myself. I didn't have a slug gun or a bow or anything of that sort, because I didn't really want to kill an animal, no matter how fine it was. I have a horror of blood, as most of you know. I can't bear to watch a pig slaughtered or even see ducks killed.

Everybody got up early there just as we do here, but I got up earlier than anybody. I was up and dressed and crossing the fields before shadeup, and as the old people say. I remember that I was afraid it wouldn't be daylight when I went under the trees, but I needn't have worried. It had started getting light before I reached them, and by the time I was in the high forest there was real daylight so that things had shadows. It was a perfectly lovely forest, too. The sheep and goats had cleared out most of the underbrush and left the big trees, so that it seemed to me that I was walking in a huge building like the cappellas of the gods back in the old whorl. Of course I've never seen those, but Salica has told me a lot about them since I got here, and that forest was like the buildings she was describing. Mora will be wondering if I wasn't afraid of getting lost, because she always is in a strange place. But I wasn't. I was climbing all the time, and I knew that all I would have to do to get back to the farm where I was staying was to follow the slope back down. I was very confident, you see, and so I went on for quite a long way.

After climbing like that half the morning, I came upon a little stream. It was icy cold, as I learned by drinking from it, snowmelt from the mountaintop. The way in which it had carved a path for itself through the rock looked interesting, and I decided to follow it awhile before I went back.

I hadn't gone very far before I heard a child crying. My first thought was that it was lost, naturally, and I hurried on up the stream to rescue it, scrambling over the rocks. But after a minute or two of that, I decided that it was probably very frightened, and if I burst in on it I might frighten it more, and it would run away. So I slowed down, and sort of crept along, though I was still going pretty fast. By good luck, the stream was making enough noise to cover up the sounds I made when I kicked a stone by accident or had to walk across gravel.

Pretty soon I came upon a very dirty woman holding a very dirty and very naked little boy so that the water came up to his knees while she scrubbed him with a very dirty rag. I dashed over to her and asked her what in the whorl she thought she was doing. The poor child was already red as beet and trembling in a way that made my heart ache for him, freezing and terrified.

The woman looked up at me quite calmly and said that he was her son and not mine, and that if she chose to wash him there that was her affair.

Well, I'm not as strong as Mora and I doubt that I'm as strong as that woman was, but I didn't think about any of that then. I shook my fist under her nose and told her that when a child is being mistreated it's the business of anyone who happens along to stop it. I said that I would never dream of interfering with a mother who was spanking her child for misbehaving or bathing him in the ordinary way, but that water was like ice and would be the death of him, and if I had to stop her by throwing stones at her or beating her with a stick, that was what I would do. I picked up a stone, finally, and she lifted him out and hugged him.

"You say this water will kill him, " she said to me, "and that is truer than you can have guessed. I brought him here to drown him, and I am going to do it as soon as you go."

Bit by bit I got her story out of her. Her husband had died, leaving her with six children. For the past few years she had been living with a man whom she hoped would eventually marry her. He was the father of the child she had been washing. He had left her now, and she could not provide for so many. She had determined to lighten her responsibilities by one at least, and had settled upon this little boy, her seventh child and her youngest son, because he was the least able to resist. When they reached the water, however, she had been seized by a twisted sort of pride, and had decided to make him as presentable as she could so that his body would not disgrace the family when it was found.

When she finished, I asked whether she had changed her mind while she had been speaking. She said she had not, that the boy was clean enough now, and she firmly intended to drown him as soon as I was out of sight, adding that he looked more like his father every day. When I heard that, I knew there was only one thing to do. I got her to give me the child, and promised her that if she would come to the house where I was staying that evening, I'd see to it that she got food for herself and her other children.

It was embarrassing to go back to the house in which I was a guest, and to tell the truth something of a poor relation, with a ragged boy of about three in tow. But I did it, and they were good kind people there and fed him and contrived a little bed for him in the room they had me use. I talked it over with the lady of the house that evening before his mother came, and we agreed that the best thing would be for me to bring him home with me, and try to find a good family here that would take him in. You mustn't think, because there's some trouble between our town and theirs, that they're all bad people around Soldo. So that was what we decided, and when the boy's mother came around she gave her two nice fat geese.

Everyone agreed that he was a very nice little boy, even though he wasn't terribly bright and became rather sickly from the terrible washing he'd had, or because he had been so badly frightened when he thought his mother was going to drown him. He didn't know his name, or if he did he wouldn't tell it; we called him Bricco, because he'd been so black when I brought him there.

His mother was the problem. She came to the back door on the first night, as I said, and got the two geese. The next night she was back wanting something else, and got it, and the next night the same, and the night after that, and the night after that. On the next-to-last night they gave her two turnips, I believe, and on the last night nothing at all.

Then she went to the law and said I'd stolen her child, and the judge sent a couple of troopers to get him back. This judge wasn't the Duko, you understand, just somebody he had appointed to try minor cases.

It ended up, as I ought to have known it would, with the boy and his mother and me in court, and the relatives I was traveling with there too to back me up, and the relatives we'd been staying with on hand as well. I told the judge what had happened, just as I've told you tonight, and the mother said it was all a lie: she and her son had gone out berry picking, and I'd stolen her son the moment she took her eyes off him.

That's what she said at first, anyway. A few sharp questions from the judge showed how matters actually stood, and the woman we'd been staying with testified that she'd never once asked for Bricco back, just for food to take home to her other children.

Then the judge did a very intelligent thing. He put Bricco himself on the little platform next to him, and talked to him for a bit, and asked whether he wanted to go back home with his mother or stay with me. Bricco said he wanted to stay with me, and that ended it.

After that we set off for home right away. We'd had to stay almost a month more than we had meant to because of the trial, and everyone was mad to go. On the first night we slept on the road, as the saying is, but on the second night we put up at an inn, having found a good one that wouldn't charge us too much. Well, you never know. When I woke up the next morning, no Bricco.

I wanted to go back to look for him, I really did, but the others wouldn't hear of it, and I didn't want to go back alone. You know how dangerous the roads are for somebody like me traveling alone. It was obvious what had happened, or anyway we thought it was. He'd gotten homesick and flown. We speculated a little on whether he'd get back there all right, and a couple of the men rode back for an hour or two looking for him. But they didn't find him, and the rest of us decided that he'd probably get home eventually, or stop off if he found someplace better.

"Right here, " Fava said, "I want to stop and ask all of you what you think of my story so far. I know the rule is that nobody can interrupt, so we'll call that the end. But there's a little bit more I'll add to it when we've talked about it."

Inclito said, "It shows what a bad time poor people have in Soldo. In sixteen years, this family's lost whatever land it got. It's almost starving. We try not to let that happen here." He looked around at us, challenging us to dispute with him, but no one did.

His mother asked, "This was two years ago? You can't have been more than a child yourself, Fava."

Fava nodded and looked at Mora, inviting her comment; I could not help contrasting the two then, Mora larger already than most men, almost freakish in her blue gown and paint, and Fava half her size, and if not actually beautiful, attractive at least with her piercing eyes and blooming cheeks.

In her heavy, slow voice, Mora said, "I think you acted well throughout it all, Fava. The others won't, I know, but I do."

Smiling, Fava invited me to speak, too. "You're probably the oldest person here, Incanto, and my present host says you're very wise. May we have your opinion now?"

"If I were wise, " I told her, "I wouldn't offer any opinion until I'd heard the whole story. Because I am not, I will admit that it interested me. The bit about the trial particularly. It reminded me of a similar case I once heard of, in which a certain woman claimed that a servant girl was her daughter, although the girl herself denied it. Now let us hear the rest."

"As you wish. All this was two years ago, when I was, just as Salica says, much younger. Last year I had a chance to go back to Soldo. I jumped at it as you can imagine, and as soon as I got there I set out to find what had become of Bricco.

"It took me two days to locate the hovel in which the family lived, and as you can imagine I wasn't in the least anxious to be confronted by his mother. I talked to some of the neighborhood children instead and described Bricco to them, saying that he had been the youngest child in the house. Would any of you care to guess what they told me?"

I shook my head; so did Inclito.

"They said that the Vanished People had taken him. That a highborn woman of the Vanished People had taken a fancy to him and stolen him away. That once in a rare while they would see him still, thin and pale and looking as though he was very unhappy. But he would soon vanish like a ghost."

Inclito's mother sighed. "Honestly now, Fava. Is that a true story? You didn't make it up?"

"I don't say that he really appeared to those children, " Fava protested. "I said that was what they said. And it was."

Inclito himself grunted, "Sprats tell all sorts of wild tales. Your turn, Mora. Let's hear what you can do."

Mora's History: The Giant's Daughter.

This will be the shortest story told tonight, and the simplest. It will also be the best, though I don't hope to win, or even wish to. Fava will win, as she usually does, and as she should. I wouldn't have it otherwise.

Once when the whorl was young, which was not very long ago at all, there was a certain snug and quiet town that was different from the others around it only in that it belonged to the best of giants. This giant lived in a big white castle outside the town he owned, and seldom troubled the townsfolk. The truth is that though he was very large and very strong, and rather homely, he was so kind and generous and wise and good and brave that the townsfolk could not have asked for a better owner. Nor could they have governed themselves half so well as he governed them.

You would have thought that they would be happy with this arrangement, and to give them their due most of them were. But many others were not.

"What right has he got to be bigger than we are?" they asked each other.

"What right has he got to make us look like fools by his wisdom?"

"What right has he got to be richer?" they said.

And, "He's so cheerful he makes me sick. What right has he got to smile and whistle when things are at their worst?"

"If I were as rich as he is, I'd be cheerful, too, and brave, " they told each other when he couldn't hear them, and never considered that the giant had been wise and cheerful and brave when he had nothing but his daughter.

This daughter was large and strong just as he was, which meant that she was much too big to be pretty. She was also, I'm sorry to say, much too young to be wise. She went to the academy in the town with the town girls, but she stood out among them like a cow in a hen-yard. The town girls made fun of her, until one day she knocked down half her class. After that there were two parties at the academy, just as you often see in the corpo. In one was the giant's daughter. In the other was everyone else in the academy, even the teachers.

That went on for a year, until a new girl came, a new girl who was prettier than the prettiest girl in the whole academy and smarter than the smartest. Everyone in the whole place wanted to be her best friend. How surprised they were when she chose the giant's daughter! And how angry!

After that there were still two parties in the academy, and the second was still much, much bigger than the first. But the first had the girl who won every game and contest that had to do with running or jumping, and also the girl who shone the brightest in arithmetic and composition and every other subject. Then many of the other girls tried to join it. Some were let in halfway, but after a few days it was made clear to them that they were not really members at all.

Some of you may not think that was a happy ending, but if you don't you've never been in a place like that academy, where everybody who looked at the giant's daughter wore a frown.

"That was a very good story, " Fava told Mora. "I'll vote for it, and I think you might win."

Mora shook her head.

"The giant won't say anything, " Inclito told his daughter. "He's got troubles of his own, and maybe he hasn't paid enough attention to the troubles others have. Just the same, I'd like to hear what our guest has to say. Incanto?"

Thinking of my own account of Patera Silk's career in Viron, I said, "I believe that the best stories are those that are true, and those that the teller feels most deeply. Thus yours was one of the best I have heard, Mora."

Nodding sagely, Inclito turned to his mother. "You want to go next? Or me?"

"You, " she told him.

Inclito's Witness: The Sentry and His Brother.

This was ten years ago, when we fought Heleno. I had a hundred men in that, and in my hundred were two brothers. The names were Volto and Mano, and they hated each other. When I found out how much I tried to keep them apart, but with only a hundred you can only separate two men so much.

Volto was tall and skinny, with a ugly, sour face. Not ugly like me, this is the face Pas gave me. Ugly because he's got ugly thoughts. He was one of them that it's more work to get them to work than the work that they do is, but he was a good fighter.

The young one, Mano, he's like day instead of night. Always happy, works hard, everybody likes him, and he's brave, too. A brave young man. Just the same it makes no difference. He hates Volto as much as Volto hates him. Once he tells me that when he was a little sprat Volto would beat him every time the mother and father got busy someplace else, and three, four times Volto about kills him.

We beat Heleno and for a while we stayed in their town trying to take back all they stole. There's a curfew, none of the people can go outside after dark, and I got troopers all over to keep them in, on every corner, almost, one man. Then it is like with my daughter, I think too much about my own troubles. Mano is on a corner and somebody is sick, so my sergeant has Volto take his place. He's got to take Mano's corner at the end of Mano's watch.

There's a shot and everybody comes running to see what the trouble is, and Volto's dead, too far gone to talk when I got to him. Everybody thinks Mano waits until he comes to take his place, and then he shoots him. Everybody but me thinks that. They don't blame Mano much, but it's murder just the same.

They bring in a new officer that doesn't know either of them to be the judge, a major. Now I would say it's fair, but then I thought the other way. I go to see Mano where we got him locked up, and I say, "Why did you do this thing? They're going to hang you. What can I tell them?"

It takes a long time to get the story out.

"He wanted to kill me, " Mano says, "and he told me he was going to do it so our whole family would pretend afterward that I'd never been alive. 'No stone for your grave' is what he said. I'll never forget that. I thought it was just more lying, more bluff. Lying was something you had to expect if you were going to talk to Volto, just like you got to know that a horse doesn't ever forget a thing that hurt it if you're going to train horses. With Volto it was that he'd rather lie than tell the truth. If he didn't have to, he'd lie anyway. It made him feel like he was smarter than you."

"He was going to shoot you?" I said. "You had to shoot first?"

He wouldn't answer, just shook his head.

"I'll tell this major that's going to be the judge, " I say. "Everybody likes you, everybody knows you're a good trooper. They're talking to him already. He's heard about you and your brother, too. He says he hasn't, but he's bound to have heard something. This town we got down here, it's too small for that. Everybody hears something."

"No, " Mano says.

"Sure, " I tell him. "You're tired, you just want to get back to your cantonment and go to sleep. The new man comes, and it's him. You see his face, his eyes. He's raising his slug gun to shoot you, so you shoot him."

"No, " Mano says. "It would be a lie. The gods would know, Captain, and the judge would, too."

I go away, and my sergeant comes to me. He's looked at their guns, Volto's has been fired, there's still a empty in the chamber, and he can smell the powder smoke. Mano's wasn't fired. He says, "Do I tell the major?" and I tell him he's got to, because what if it comes out later?

Then I go back to Mano like before and I say, "Why did you change the guns? It looks so bad."

"I didn't, " he says, and that's when he tells me. His brother gets close enough that he can see him, and points his slug gun up against his own chest. "He's got those long arms, " Mano says. "I didn't think he could do it, I didn't think he could reach the trigger. I started to laugh. I'll never forgive myself. I laughed at him, and that gave him the nerve to push on the trigger."

We hadn't buried Volto yet, and he's been dead long enough that he wasn't stiff anymore. I got his slug gun and held it to his chest and stretched out his dead arm. It was short-barreled gun, and he was a tall man with long arms. Holding his hand out real straight-look here. Like this he could have done it.

Mano told the judge at his trial, and I spoke for him. Against us, a dozen said the brothers had been enemies. Many times, each had threatened to kill the other one. They liked him and didn't like saying it, but it was the truth and they'd taken the oath. The major thought it was a simple case and told me to hang Mano.

The next day was the one when we learned that war wasn't over. Poliso hit us soon as the shade's up. I put off the hanging, not because I was hoping to save Mano but because I couldn't spare the men. For two days they got us surrounded. It was the worst time for me since my Zitta died. We thought we'd all get killed, but we're going to fight to the end. But it's better if you fight to somebody else's end. We needed to send a message back to Blanko and ask for help, but they were strangling us, shoulder- to-shoulder around our position. Nobody could see how it could be done.

I went to the major. "That man that shot his brother I still got locked up, " I told him. It never does to argue with people like that once they have made up their minds. "Let me turn him loose and send him back with a letter. If they kill him, they'll have done a dirty job for us. If he gets through, he'll deserve a pardon."

The major makes all kinds of objections the way I'd expected. "All right, " I say, "if you won't send him, let me turn him loose and give back his slug gun. I need every man, and he's a good one."

That did it like I knew it would. We sent him and he got through, but he took a slug in the guts. By the time I got home he was dying. I went to see him, and if I'd been a day later that would've been too late. I told him he was a hero, he saved us all, and his family's going to brag about him till Molpe married. "Till Molpe gets married and a year past that." Those were my words exactly. I still remember them. And I tell him, "Twenty years, and I'll be bragging to my Mora's children that I was your officer."

The pardon came while I sat beside his bed, a big white envelope from the corpo with a white silk ribbon and a big, thick red seal that Mano was too weak to break. I opened it for him and read it to him, and he smiled. Already his face was yellow like butter in a churn, but that smile, it was a knife in my heart.

"Anybody could've got through, sir, " he whispers to me. "It wasn't anything."

It was not nothing. It was as brave as I'd ever seen, and I told him.

"But to shoot a brother, " he whispers, "and get let off for it afterward… How many have done that?"

"That's a terrible story, my son, " Inclito's mother told him. "Incanto will think we're beasts here."

"Some are." He sipped his wine. "There's beasts in every town."

"So there are. So there are." The old woman nodded, her face somber, and patted her hair with a hand so white and thin that I felt I could almost see through it. "I'm glad that you mentioned it, Inclito my son. I've been racking my brain for a story that you and Mora haven't heard over and over, and it reminded me of one."

She spoke to me. "This will be a story of the old time in Grandecitta. These young people think we lie when we talk about those days, but you, Incanto, you will know better. I was a year older than Mora and Fava are now, I think. Perhaps two, but no more than that. This you will disbelieve, too, just as they do. But I was quite good-looking then."

"You are good-looking now, " I told her truthfully. "At your granddaughter's age you must have been ravishing."

* * * | In Green`s Jungles | 3 The Mothers reminiscence: From the Grave