Dras Dramwyn, the last of the elk train drivers, knows the road better than anyone else. He has friends among the dirt-poor river folk of White River Bridge and among the most powerful Elders in the Subcity, known and welcome everywhere he goes. Rayn Bishlan is the disillusioned head of a bureaucracy in the metropolitan Valley City, but the very nature of the social structure that has evolved makes it impossible to provide assistance to the people the laws are designed to help. In a moment of deep depression, she decides to take a leave of absence and travel the road with Dras the peddler to see what wisdom the world can teach her. She finds some of the lessons unexpected, and difficult.
It was late in the day when they rolled into White River Bridge. Dras had kept his stops brief, delivering orders, keeping gossip to a minimum. He wanted to make White River by dark.
“I remember Jak telling me about this place,” Rayn said. “All the buildings are up on top of posts to protect them from flooding.”
“That’s right,” Dras said. “Ah, here’s the welcoming committee.”
The children of settlement came rushing out, eager for their expected treats. “Here you go!” he called, tossing a handful of candies down to them.
“Free samples?” Rayn asked.
“Bribes,” he replied aside to her. “So the little beggars don’t clean me out when I’m not looking.” He threw down another handful. “Tell Mistress Fay to have a brew ready for me!”
The children ran off, shouting and laughing. They were ragged urchins, sorrier by far than any she had seen in the poorest sections of the Valley. “Oh, my,” Rayn murmured. There must be some way to get aid out to these children. She would have to think of something.
His arrival announced by the screeching fanfare, there were already folks lined up along the public house to welcome him. Dras pulled the wagon to a halt with a flourish. “My friends, my friends! I have everything you requested, but please! Can’t it wait until morning? No? Oh, very well. Tig, where are you, you little river rat?”
“Here, Master Dras!” A young boy came running out from the deepening shadows beneath the raised buildings, out of breath, brushing straw from his clothes.
“Take charge of Pat and Myke, will you? They’ve had a long day on the road. Treat them well, mind you, or you’ll get nothing but a kick in the backside for your trouble!”
“Yes, sir!” the boy replied, stroking the long noses of the two elk affectionately.
“Now,” Dras shouted, jumping down and going over to the freight car, “Which ones of you useless, ungrateful swamp eels can’t wait for a poor peddler to wet his throat and have a bowl of stew before demanding your petty trifles?”
“It’s our coins you’re getting fat off of!” a bearded man with a cap retorted.
“Fat?” Dras cried, “Do I look at all fat?”
The crowd laughed appreciatively.
“Come, come, you’ll have a chance to get your coppers and brass back from me later, at the dice table. Here’s your boot leather, Verge! Where’s Mistress Wyn? Ah! Here’s your package. Trust me, it’s all there.”
“Don’t you trust that thieving weasel!” shouted a woman at the door of the public house. “You check everything in that package, Wyn!”
Rayn looked up at the woman, appalled at the confusion, the insults, the chaos, and now freshly shocked by the large, slovenly creature scowling down at Dras from the top of the ramp, her hands on her wide hips, her hair a rat’s nest pulled back with a filthy piece of cloth.
“Where the hell have you been, Dras? You took Dracomaya’s own time getting back here!” the woman bellowed.
“Fay! Sweet marsh flower! It was outlaws, Fay! They took me captive and held me for ransom. But the thought of seeing your lovely face again sustained me, so that I was able to make a heroic escape and come to you!”
“Liar! You’re nothing but a useless, lazy, gambling scoundrel! Get the hell up here, or there’ll be nothing for you for supper but what you can scrape out of the bottom of the pot!”
“Ah, my precious wood thrush! You are so kind to me!”
Rayn was absolutely baffled. Here was this revolting, backwoods monstrosity heaping abuse on the peddler, and he was positively crooning in response. This entire scene confused her. In some ways, these people seemed little better than outlaws themselves, crude and ignorant, dirty and foul-mouthed. Yet Dras seemed honestly delighted to be here. She waited, hoping for some sort of cue from him as to what to do.
But it was as if he’d forgotten she was there, joking with the rabble, trading insults, no one appearing to take offense. He argued with a man who apparently hadn’t enough to pay for what he had ordered, coming to some sort of agreement which involved dice, and haggled with some others before clapping his hands smartly and declaring the shop closed for business until morning. “Mistress Fay will have my hide if I don’t put on an appearance,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, as usual, I promise!”
The boy Tig had unharnessed the elk and was leading them off. Dras glanced up at Rayn as if suddenly remembering her presence. “Well, this is it. The only public house between here and Old Bridge. Come on in and see what it’s like. The brew is fair, the food is good, although perhaps not up to your standards. But, I must warn you, you’ll have to barter for it.”
“What do you mean?” Rayn asked. “Why can’t I pay with my card?”
“No terminal. You’re credit isn’t any good, I’m afraid. I expect Mistress Fay will put you to work in the scullery.”
“But, Dras! Can’t you arrange something?” she asked desperately, “You know I can pay for it!”
“My dear lady, you wanted experience. You wanted understanding. You wanted to travel in different circles. Well, here you are. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”
Rayn was horrified. She grabbed his arm. “Dras, please!”
“Come on, then, I’ll introduce you. Keep in mind that for all her bluster and curds, Fay actually is a very kindhearted soul.”
Taking a deep breath and summoning her courage, Rayn went along. He’s right, she told herself, I wanted to see what it was like. Here I am. I’ve bought my ticket, I’d best enjoy the ride.
“Who’s this?” Fay demanded as Dras conducted Rayn into the common room of the public house.
“My rider this time around. May I present Mistress Rayn. Rayn, this is Mistress Fay, the queen of this fine establishment.”
“What happened to your box-plucker? That hay-pitch from Galamander?”
“Master Jak is now amazing audiences in the Valley with his musical expertise,” Dras replied.
Fay snorted. “Hm! Probably starving in the streets in that hive of snobs. Should’ve stayed here, where his music would be appreciated.”
“He got tired of scrubbing pots,” Dras replied.
“So, what do you do?” Fay demanded of Rayn. “You’re dressed pretty fine. Bet you never scrubbed out a pot in your life.”
“I am not afraid of doing work,” Rayn replied righteously.
“Really, now? What’re you doing riding with this ugly swindler, eh?”
“That is my own affair.”
“Suit yourself. Just don’t try peddling your fine airs around here, dearie. You want anything under this roof, you work for it.”
“I’ll do whatever is fair,” Rayn said.
“Fair!” Fay hooted. “Ain’t nothing fair in this life! But it’s obvious to me you aren’t going to be hauling any wood. Wouldn’t make a scat-hole’s worth of sense to ask you. But if you aren’t too fine to dip those pretty hands of yours in wash water, you can have room and board for the task of cleaning up the kitchen after supper. And seeing as you’ve had the bad luck of suffering the company of this black-legged jerky-trader, I’ll even let you eat first before you work.”
“Fay,” Dras said, “you are the very soul of sweetness and generosity!”
“Hm!” she snorted. “Go sit down and I’ll bring you a bowl.”
Rayn stayed as close to Dras as she could, acutely aware of the stares she was drawing from the rough crew seated at the tables around the room. She slid onto a bench next to the peddler, careful not to pick up any splinters.
“She’s impressed by you,” Dras murmured to her.
“Fay. You may not appreciate this, but she’s cutting you quite a bit of slack. Your type isn’t particularly welcome here–”
“My type?” she interrupted.
He paused. “High-credit. Try to remember, these are folks who survive by the sweat off their backs. They aren’t impressed by wealth. Quite the opposite. If they thought you had anything of value that they could take, they wouldn’t hesitate.”
“But, why?” Rayn whispered incredulously. “I don’t mean them any harm! I have only the greatest sympathy for them–”
“They don’t want that, either. To them, you are a soft, useless parasite, sucking your luxury off the blood of low-credit labor.”
“But that’s ridiculous! A horrible caricature! I’ve worked hard all my life to try to help people–”
He hissed for her to be quiet. Fay was coming with two bowls and two brews on a tray.
“It’s probably not what you’re used to, dearie,” Fay said, setting the bowl down in front of Rayn, “but it’s all we’ve got.”
“I’m sure it will be delicious,” Rayn said. “Master Dras and young Jak both have spoken very highly of your cooking.”
“Have they, now? I suppose you want a brew, too?”
“Please. I’m eager to sample the local fare.”
Fay hooted. “She’s a fine talker this one is! Well, we’ll see how you like it at the other end. Don’t forget, I’m expecting you in the kitchen when you’re done.”
“I’ll be there,” Rayn replied firmly.
“That’s the spirit,” Dras said. “Now, enjoy the fine local cuisine.”
Rayn sampled the stew. It was too greasy, too heavy on the seasoning, and the meat was tough. She ate it anyway.
When Rayn had finished the stew, including a chunk of the coarse, hard-crusted bread served with it, she raised the bottle, intending to polish it off. Dras put a hand on her arm. “Leave the last of it,” he advised.
She looked at him curiously. “Is it customary?”
He shook his head, grinning. “No. The dregs from brewing settle to the bottom.”
“Oh.” She set the bottle down.
“Don’t worry, it isn’t wasted,” Dras said with a wink. “At the end of the night all the dregs are gathered into a bucket and boiled down to flavor the next batch of stew.”
She stared at him in horror, not sure if he were joking or not. Closing her eyes, she repeated resolutely to herself, I will survive this. The experience will make me stronger and wiser. This is all part of what I’m supposed to be doing.
“All right,” she said with determination, “I’m going to go pay for my meal.”
“You sure you can handle it?” Dras asked her.
She glared back at him. “I have changed diapers and cleaned up after three children! My stomach is far stronger than you give me credit for!” She glanced down at her hands and decided she had better not subject her jewelry to the unpleasant experience. “Here, you’d better take charge of these,” she said, slipping off her rings and handing them to Dras. “I might get my pocket picked in here.”
“As you wish,” he said with a nod, taking the rings and tucking them into his vest.
She rose from the bench and strode with dauntless courage towards the kitchen, ready to face whatever challenge awaited her there, pointedly ignoring the smirks and stares of the natives.
“Where’d you pick that bird up?” asked an old trader, sliding onto the bench at Dras’s elbow.
“It’s a bit of a tale,” the peddler replied. “But I’ll be interested to find out if the wealth of credit due her goes deeper than her purse.” He waved his hand. “Fay! My lovely lass! Can I trouble you for another brew?”
Rayn stood in the kitchen, her heart sinking with helpless horror. It was far worse than she could have imagined. She wouldn’t have had the first idea where to begin had the boy Tig not shown up and got her going. Water had to be pumped and heated, bowls had to be scraped into the slops bucket and scrubbed with hard soap and a brush. It was made all the more nauseating by the knowledge that she had eaten food prepared in this unsanitary, primitive nightmare. By the time she was done she felt ill. At times she wanted to just sit down and weep, but she kept at it until the job was finished. Damn it, she would show them!
Exhausted and somewhat nauseous, she went back into the common room where things were reaching a jolly pitch. The tables and benches had been rearranged, attention being focused on a lively dice game going on at the largest. The air was thick with smoke from the crude, tallow-burning lamps and a pipe being passed around. Music of a sort was being performed by an unshaven, cadaverous old man playing a flute and a squat, thick-necked dwarf thumping a drum. Dras was in the midst of it, beer in hand, Mistress Fay draped over his shoulders. The rabble cheered him as he threw the dice.
“I’ll stay with that, my lads. Ah! Fresh air!” He took the pipe passed to him and drew on it deeply.
Rayn had no desire to try to merge into that scene. She felt miserably out of place, defeated. Glancing around, she managed to locate Tig. Catching his attention, she asked, “Where are the guest beds?”
He looked up. “You finished in the kitchen, Ma’am?”
“I am, and I expect it will pass muster,” Rayn replied.
“It’s just got to satisfy Mistress Fay.”
At that point Rayn didn’t give a bloody damn about Mistress Fay and just wanted to collapse. She repeated her inquiry.
“Just go up the ladder and down the hall,” Tig replied. “The bunks are on the left.”
“Bunks?” she repeated. “How do I know which one I am to use?”
“If there isn’t somebody in it, it’s yours,” the boy replied.
That did not give her much encouragement. But she climbed the ladder and went down the hall, by a rickety washstand with a pitcher and basin, to the room on the left. She stood staring at the row of bunks. Filthy straw mattresses with thin blankets. Tears filled her eyes. This was really too much. This was what she had earned?
She went back down to the common room and went through, going out the door without stopping, ignoring the stares, chuckles and snide comments directed her way. She would find her sleeping bag. She would sleep on the floor of Dras’s wagon if she had to, but she was not going to subject herself to the torture of attempting to sleep in one of those miserable bunks.
As she was struggling to pull the bag free from the cargo rack where it was stored, a movement next to her startled her.
“Dras!” she gasped, and leaned against the car. “I thought I was about to be mugged!”
“Just came out to relieve myself and noticed somebody skulking around my wagon. Thought I’d better check it out.”
“I’m not skulking, I’m getting my sleeping bag, as you can plainly see!” she snapped.
“Don’t care for the accommodations you worked so hard for?” he inquired pleasantly.
“No, I do not!” she stormed back. “And I think it was thoroughly despicable of you to set me up this way!”
“Now, now. Tell you what, why don’t you settle yourself in the wagon for the night? You’re welcome to use my bunk. I won’t be needing it.”
“Don’t tell me you prefer sleeping on one of those horrible straw mattresses!” Rayn cried.
“Goodness, no!” he laughed. “No, I have other arrangements.” He winked at her. “Got to go now, the dice are calling. Have a good night!” He strolled away into the darkness, whistling gaily.
“Blessed stars,” Rayn murmured in shock, realizing the implications of his announcement.
She did not pass a good night at all.
For several miles down the road, Rayn did not speak to him at all. She merely sat on the seat beside him, fuming. Then she happened to glance down at her hands, and remembered. She held out her hand, demanding sharply, “My rings, please.”
“Haven’t got them,” Dras replied.
“What?” she exclaimed. “What happened to them?”
“Lost them at dice,” he explained simply, and apparently with no remorse.
“And so who has got them now?” she cried.
“Mistress Fay,” he answered cheerfully. “She’s very good at dice.”
Rayn was speechless with fury, but only for a moment. Then it all came flooding out.
“Why, you rotten, heartless son of a midden cur! How could you? You are nothing but a con artist and a swindler! Here you had me believing in you–had me completely fooled! You’re a liar and an utter hypocrite, lacking the morals of a tom cat in heat! I realized it last night when I observed you in your true element, among those ignorant, filthy river rats, drinking, smoking and gambling, your foul-mouthed mistress hanging on you–oh! To think I actually felt a measure of respect for you! Admiration! I thought you could teach me something! Well, you taught me something all right!”
“Are you quite finished?” he inquired.
“No, I am not! You’ve taken me for all I’m worth, and I’m done with you! Do you hear? Oh, what I fool I was to trust you! I demand that you let me off at the very next settlement where I can send for a transport to take me back to the Valley! I’ll not be made a fool of any longer!”
He nodded. “Now, are you finished?”
“I’d say a great deal more, but it’s clear you haven’t even the conscience to care!”
“So you won’t. Good. It’s best you stop at that. I think you’ll see why in a moment. Rayn, you are a very well-intentioned but incredibly naïve woman–”
“Which you took full advantage of, you inutterable cad!”
He held up a warning finger. “You weren’t going to say anymore, remember? Now then, where was I? Oh, yes, you are woefully ignorant–yes, ignorant–of a vast number of things, but you are also perceptive enough to know it. In your wisdom, you decided to educate yourself, not even knowing what you intended to learn. I admire that. And I have done my best to accommodate you. You came to White River Bridge without the faintest idea how those people actually live. Now you know. You’ve gotten a real, first-hand eyeful.”
“You bet I have, and I am disgusted! I can’t imagine the sort of person who would live that way! Like animals!”
“They’re folks who make do, Rayn, not unlike the great and legendary Freefolk who settled the Valley all those centuries ago, and lived not much better. And these folks don’t have the benefit of a mighty Elder Lord and Lady to look after them. They’re on their own. They hang together and they survive. It’s not glamorous and it’s not noble, but it’s real.”
“I suppose,” she grumbled, “but–”
“Before you say it,” he interrupted, “think about it. How would you like to live under those conditions, every day, all your life? How would you like to be Mistress Fay, facing that kitchen, feeding that crew and some even more colorful and cutthroat characters who stumble in out of the mountains every few months?”
“She chooses to live there,” Rayn replied coldly, “Nothing is stopping any of them from leaving that rat hole and moving to decent living conditions in the Valley.”
“That so?” he replied. “Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they look at the Valley as far worse. Sure, they’d have indoor plumbing, central heating, but none of it would be theirs. Just another mass-produced chunk of assembly-line charity handed to them in exchange for them surrendering their independence. They would just be a few more faceless, meaningless numbers in the Valley Administration’s data base.”
“And what are they now? What have they got out here, in this nowhere backwater?”
“Pay attention, Rayn, and maybe you’ll be able to figure it out. I know Fay from a long way back. She came out to White River Bridge with her husband years ago, like a lot of others, eager to get away from the city into the free country, to make a new settlement and build a new life. It was hard. She lost her husband in a flood, her children one by one gone to accidents and disease. But Fay stuck it out. You got to give credit to people like that, people who fight to hang on to what they have in spite of all the scat life throws at them, and they don’t lose their souls in the process. All she’s got is that dirt poor, rough-board public house, catering to mountain and river folk who can barely afford to pay for what she’s offering, but by the gods, it’s hers! She’s the queen of White River Bridge, providing a roof for the folk to gather under, making decent meals out of damn little, looking after the flotsam that gets washed in there by the grey tides. She cusses them out and makes them work for it, but she’ll never turn anyone away. I come into town, and for a few days, life is a carnival. She gets flattered and appreciated and treated with affection, has a bit of fun, and folks come from all around to spend what little they have in her place. I give her the attention of a man, let her win at dice. In return, I get a good bed, hot bath, and three excellent meals. She’s a fine cook, especially considering the meager fare she has to work with. She’s not my mistress, Rayn, but I do care about her, and I admire her a lot.”
“All right, so perhaps I misjudged the situation somewhat,” Rayn admitted grudgingly, “But you still had absolutely no right to gamble away my property!”
“How much were those rings really worth to you? How easily can you replace them? Think of Fay, think of what they might mean to her, to someone who has never had anything as lovely as that in her entire life? Think of what she felt when she won them, when she slid them onto her fingers, when she saw herself wearing something so fine, so beautiful? I watched, Rayn, and I saw, and I do apologize for the imposition, but I would do it again in a heartbeat because I know what good it did.”
“All right,” Rayn said quietly. “But please, Dras, promise me you won’t gamble away any more of my things without telling me first?”
He laughed. “Very well. I promise. Do you accept the word of a lying, heartless swindler like myself, completely lacking in morals?” He grinned at her, his green eyes twinkling.
“Of course, and I apologize for what I said.”
“No offense taken,” he said pleasantly. “But one thing I feel I’ve got to make clear. I’m no hypocrite. I am what I am, and who I was when we were sitting together having dinner in that fancy restaurant of yours was as true and real as who I was hunkered over a plank at the public house at White River Bridge, a brew in one hand and dice in the other. It all adds up to me. More than you can ever know. I’m not a hero, and I’m not a cad, either. Like most of us, I’m a full bag of mixed goods. Don’t try to hang a label on me. You’ll never get it to stretch far enough.”
Rayn looked at him, feeling humbled. “I am dreadfully sorry, Dras.”
“Never mind. There’s nothing you could call me that I haven’t heard before, likely from Fay. She actually means quite the opposite, and you don’t really mean it at all, so I don’t take offense from either of you.” He glanced upwards. “It looks like we’re in for a bit of a shower, my dear lady. We’d best dig out the rain gear. Would you be so kind as to reach my cloak and hat for me while you fetch yours?”
“I’d be delighted,” she replied.
As the gentle rain began to fall, she sat trying to remember where she had bought those rings and how much she had paid for them. Finally, she gave it up.
Well-meaning friends of Rayn’s from the Valley have conspired with more treacherous elements to separate Rayn and Dras. A serious breach of security in the Subcity nearly catches Dras in its dragnet when he stops briefly to conduct some business there. Now he is on his way back up the River Road to the Valley in search of Rayn.
Dras was looking for a place to pull over for the night. Thanks to the fiasco in the Subcity, he wasn’t going to make it to Yasgar Farm before dark. He hated dealing with Subcity Elders as much as he hated dealing with outlaws. Well, at least he’d made it out of there without having the entire contents of his wagon dumped all over the cargo bay to be pawed over by Subcity Security. Be grateful for small blessings. He had the fuelcohol and carbon oil he owed to Kahn, his accounts had been fattened a bit thanks to dear old Passaconamus, and he was on his way to the north. This was going to mess up his schedule something fierce. Maybe he ought to—
There was a crash and a thud in the back of the wagon, and a loud female yip.
“What the hell–?” Dras turned around in the seat, nearly dropping the reins. There was a low moan. Leaning back to push open the door, he could see a pile of boxes and clothes tumbled over in his wagon, but not much of anything else.
“Jigger it,” he muttered, “Whoa!” He cut the power assist and put on the brake, securing the reins and jumping up through the door into the wagon. Behind the pile of boxes, scattered books and winter clothes, tangled up in a torn blanket he’d been meaning to repair, was a young woman.
“Excuse me,” he said, “Would you mind not ripping that blanket any more than it already is?”
The woman looked up at him and cringed slightly. “Don’t give me away,” she pleaded, struggling to get up. It seemed her legs weren’t behaving the way she wanted them to.”
“So I can guess you’re what the fuss was all about back there in the Subcity,” Dras said, helping her to the bunk. He reached over to light the lantern.
“Are you Dras the peddler?” she asked.
“Isn’t my mother supposed to be traveling with you?”
His hand froze for a moment on the lantern. Then he flicked the igniter and adjusted the wick. “Your mother?” he asked.
“Yes, Rayn Bishlan. She wrote to me a while ago and said she was going to be traveling with an elk train peddler named Dras Dramwyn.”
He turned to look at her in the yellow light. The woman—really not much mare than a girl—was rubbing her legs trying to get the circulation going in them again. She looked up at him. The resemblance was there, so strong it made his heart flutter. Rayn’s daughter, looking just like she must have looked when she was that age. Pretty girl. Really pretty. But strong. You could see it in her face.
“Well, now, that’s true. We had a bit of miscommunication and ended up going in opposite directions. I’m headed back to find her.”
“Where are you going?,” Gem said. “What direction?”
“North, towards the Valley. Hell of a mess you made of my wagon, young lady,” he said, picking up several shirts which had been neatly hung up until a few moments ago.
“Sorry about that. I had to hide so they wouldn’t find me.”
“Don’t know how you managed it. Not much spare room in here.”
“I got down in behind those boxes under the bookcase in back of the clothes. I’m sorry if I wrecked anything. But I had to get out of the Subcity. You’ve got to get me to the Valley. It’s critically important.”
“I’ll bet it is.” He began poking through the boxes, assessing the damage. “What did you do to get Savonarolius and that crowd so riled up at you?”
“I broke into the lower level, me and some friends. The four of us figured out how to do it. But we couldn’t access the computer system. So I grabbed three data cubes. I’m sure they’ve got important technological data on them. I’ve got to get them to the Valley!”
Dras turned over a box, wincing at the sound the contents made. “How come you went and did a fool thing like that?” he asked Gem.
“I didn’t mean to break anything,” she said impatiently, “I said I was sorry. Didn’t you understand what I said? I’ve managed to get hold of clues to the ultra-secret advanced technology of the Elders, and I’ve got to get them to the Valley!”
“I heard you,” Dras replied. “And you hid out in my wagon, and now I’m in this foolishness up to my eyeballs. As if I didn’t have problems enough.”
“Don’t you realize what this means?” Gem cried. “This could be the breakthrough of the century! It could mean an end to our dependence on the Subcity! This could be the means to our making whatever we want and need for ourselves!”
He peered into the box, shifting the contents. “Looks like the kit is okay. Couple of bottles got broke, but nothing I can’t replace.”
“Damn it, aren’t you listening?” Gem exclaimed in exasperation.
“I’m listening,” Dras said patiently. “I heard it all. You’re in a deep scat pit of trouble, because you took something what doesn’t belong to you, and you want me to help you out. Young lady—you know, you haven’t told me your name yet.”
“Gem. Gem Pennrayn.”
“Okay, Gem Pennrayn, what exactly do you think is going to happen?”
“What do you mean?” she demanded. “Subcity security is going to be after me as soon as they figure out I’ve gotten away, so I’ve got to get to the Valley as fast as possible—“
“I mean after that. Assuming you get away with this, and get to the Valley.”
“Well, I suppose I’ll go to the Valley Academy first. to the Research Center. I’ll give the cubes to some scientists who might be able to figure out what they have on them and how we can use it—“
Dras sighed, shaking his head. “Gem, if you weren’t Rayn’s daughter, I’d turn you in right now. You got no idea the bag of hornets you’re about to let loose. But out of respect to your mother, I’m going to see if I can talk some sense into you. Now, stay put while I get my elk seen to. And don’t try to run off, ‘cause if you do I’m going to get on that messenger and call every hound from here to the Arctic onto your trail. Got that?”
She stared after him in disbelief as he shambled out of the wagon with unhurried resignation.
The fire flickered and crackled. Gem sat scowling furiously, her legs pulled up and her arms wrapped around them. She hadn’t tried to escape. She was afraid the damn fool of a peddler would make good on his threat to call the hounds on her. She couldn’t make him see how important it was for her to get to the Valley. The old man didn’t care about what she had, about what it could do for their people. He was a hopeless Retro, like her father. Well, what more could she expect from some idiot who would still drive an elk train?
“You ready to talk?” he asked her.
“What’s the point?” she retorted. “You won’t listen.”
Dras smiled at her shaking his head. She was stubborn, full of fire and sure of herself. Reminded him a bit of himself at her age. He studied her face in the firelight. So much like her mother, a real beauty, smart, fearless and proud. But she didn’t have her mother’s wisdom, tempered by age and experience. The girl was ready to change the world, on a quest to save her people from domination by the evil Elders.
“Gem,” he said, “I can’t let you get away with this. I got to make sure you know that.”
Her eyes flashed. “You would betray your own people to the Elders,” she said with contempt.
“My people,” he echoed thoughtfully. “You know, on the one hand, I don’t really have any people. I move around, live on the road. I’m closer to my elk than to anybody else. On the other hand, they’re all my people. The folks at White River Bridge, Galamander, Elder and human alike, I got friends all over, from the Valley to Sea Village. I care about them all.”
“A friend to all and allied to nobody,” she mocked him. “All you really care about is almighty credit. How much do you think they’ll pay you for turning me in?”
“Don’t know, don’t care. Doesn’t much matter. I’m not going to do it if I can avoid it. You’ve got to do it yourself.”
“What? You’re crazy!”
He nodded, rubbing his chin. “Yeah, I’ve been accused of that.”
“So, what do you expect me to do? Go back to the Subcity and hand over the cubes, sorry about that, I won’t do it again?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“After all I went through to get them and to escape? Why?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t belong to you, Gem. And stealing them is going to cause more trouble and grief that you can begin to imagine.”
“We have a right to the information on those cubes!” Gem shot back. “The Elders have been keeping us oppressed and dependent on them for centuries, and it’s got to stop! We don’t need them! They need us!”
“That’s exactly right,” Dras said. “And they know the knowledge they possess is the only defense they have against us. They’re scared of us, Gem. Scared to death. And we need to teach them they don’t need to be scared of us. Breaking their laws and stealing from them doesn’t help.”
“What are you talking about? Why should they be scared of us? With all their power?”
“All their power. It’s considerable, to be sure. But how many of them are there? A few thousand? And there aren’t going to be any more. Something happened to them a couple hundred years ago. They stopped reproducing. No matter what they do, they can’t figure out what went wrong, why they can’t have children. All that power, and they can’t do what the simplest animal can do. They see the human population growing, taking over, spreading all through the world. And they barely have enough people to keep their own city going.”
“Yes, but they’re immortal!”
“Immortal. Yes, they are. They remember the Bloody Revolution. A few of them lived through it. They remember that humans once tried to wipe out their race completely. One of them tried to return the favor. So now we got a powerful lot of mistrust and fear between us. It’s never quite gone away. In some ways, it’s gotten worse. Some folks, like in Galamander, have found ways to get past it. They’ve found a way to live together, peaceful. It’s a beautiful thing. But the rest of the world hasn’t followed Galamander’s example. Folks like you talk like Hon Jermal, going on about the oppression of humans by Elders. Talk about freedom and liberation.”
“Who’s Hon Jermal?”
Dras raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know much about history, do you?”
“I don’t care about history!” Gem snapped. “The past is dead, gone. It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the present, and the future. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future, and that’s what I want to do!”
The peddler chuckled, shaking his head. “That might very well be the dumbest thing anybody ever said! How are you going to know what to do to make the future you want when you got no idea what worked in the past? Or didn’t work. Folks who don’t recall the past just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”
The kettle perched on the tripod over the fire began to boil. Dras hooked it by the handle and took it off, tipping it to pour steaming water into a tea pot. “I’ll make enough for two. It’ll do you good.”
“What’s in it? Some kind of rattle-shaker’s herbs?” she sneered.
“So, you got no use for the shaman folk either, eh?”
Gem sighed and rolled her eyes. “What they do is all in the mind. The healing depends on the patient’s belief. Oh, sure, some of the herbs they use do have some medical efficacy, but modern medicines are far stronger and more effective. So, why bother?”
“Tea is a lot more pleasant to take,” Dras said, poking the leaves in the brewing basket, pressing the water through them.
“And there is absolutely no empirical evidence that these ‘powers’ and ‘waters’ they talk about have any real existence at all beyond the merely metaphorical.”
Dras whistled softly. “With all you know, I can’t help wondering why you need to attend the Academy.”
“I don’t imagine you’ve ever been to an academy at all,” she shot back.
“No, I haven’t. Quit school when I was thirteen. Had no patience for it. Thought I knew it all already.” He winked at her. “’Course, I’ve read a lot. And I’ve learned a lot over the years just by watching, by paying attention, by talking to people. I’ve figured out a few things. Like what really makes folks happy. What really matters. What they need to get by, and what they’re better off without.”
“Okay, I know where you’re going with this, and you’re wasting your time. I’ve already had this argument with my father more than once. There’s no way the Valley is going to go back to some idyllic past with everybody giving up their cars and terminals and conveniences and living like Galamander farmers.”
“No, you’re probably right about that. Pity.”
“Just what is it that you Retros have against progress?” Gem demanded.
Dras set two heavy ceramic mugs on the ground and poured the tea into them. “Depends on how you define ‘progress’ I guess. You Valley folks, back when you called yourselves ‘Freefolk,’ used to have a saying. You lived by it. ‘Does it make our lives better? Or merely different?’ Well, your lives sure are different now than they used to be. But better? I don’t know. A lot of folks don’t think so. Your mother didn’t think so. She saw a lot of things going wrong and getting worse. That’s how come she decided to travel with me. She was looking for answers, to try to figure out what went wrong and why.”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong in the Valley,” Gem said with conviction. “We’re being held back from making the things we need. If the Elders would share their technology with us, instead of trying to hold us down, we’d be a whole lot better off! There would be enough of everything for everybody! The advances we could make would improve everyone’s life! That’s why you’ve got to get me to the Valley so I can deliver the cubes to the people who can use them!”
Dras offered her a cup. “Have some tea, Gem.”
“No thank you, I don’t want any.” She glared into the fire.
Dras shrugged, setting the mug down. “You know, you’re a bright kid. Your heart’s in the right place, but you’re not thinking this through. Now, I don’t expect I can turn your head around just like that. You’re going to have to find your own answers, and you’re going to have to do it in your own time. But I got to make you understand just what a mistake you’re making with these data cubes. You think the Elders are just going to shrug it off when they find out this information has gotten into human hands?”
“No, I expect they’re going to be pretty furious. But what can they do? Once we’ve got it, they can’t take it back.”
“No, they can’t, that’s true.”
“So, they’re just going to have to live with it. They’ll have to accept the fact that they can’t dominate us anymore.”
Dras shook his head. “I don’t think they’re going to do that.”
“What other choice will they have?”
“The Elders?” He chuckled. “Plenty. And you can bet that if they get nervous enough about what humans are doing, they are going to do something about it. One thing folks forget, we humans are alive at all because the Elders decided to let us live.”
“They need us,” Gem said. “They can’t survive without us.”
“Well, now, they’d have a pretty hard time of it without us, that’s true. And up to this point they’ve figured it was better to try to make peace with us than to try to get rid of us. But if we get to be too much of a threat to them, they may just decide it isn’t worth it anymore.”
Gem stared at him. “They wouldn’t consider that.”
“They wouldn’t dare!” she exclaimed.
“You want to take that risk?”
Gem blinked, a whole new train of thought chilling her.
“Have some tea,” Dras said, offering her the mug again. This time she took it.
“You know about the Plague,” Dras said.
“I’ve heard about it,” she murmured.
“They made that during the Bloody Revolution when humans turned on them and tried to wipe them out. You know why the humans did that? They resented the fact that the Elders were trying to control them, only allowing them certain freedoms and access to limited technology. Sound familiar? It’s going to sound familiar to the Elder folk, too. Now, back then, Tristramacus, Brinnalamaya and Galamandria were all still around. They argued that it wouldn’t be moral to exterminate all humans because some were bad. There were a lot of humans loyal to the Elders, who defended them, fighting against the rebels. So they didn’t release the Plague. They left the City to the rebels and went off and founded Galamander. But they never forgot. All that fear and hatred from what humans had done to them lived on in their memory. It’s still there. Except Tristramacus and Brinnalamaya aren’t around anymore. Galamandria has pretty much gotten out of dealing in human affairs, living up on her cliff above Sea Village. And Alexandrik minds his own business in Galamander. Folks like Nicodamien and Savonarolius are in control of the Subcity. They control all that technology, all those weapons, all that know-how.”
“But there are moderates on the Council,” Gem insisted. “Powatanduk is the Prime of the Council, and there’s Passaconamus and Dr. Apollodoria. They wouldn’t let them do anything that drastic!”
“You know who the real power is. Nicodamien. Savonarolius can get his allies on the Council to propose war, Powatanduk can oppose it, and it will go to arbitration.”
Gem shivered, holding the tea mug close to her. “Would they do that over this?”
“Think about it, Gem. You know better than I what the information on those cubes means. You could be triggering an information revolution as threatening to the Elders as the one Hon Jermal started.”
She sipped her tea, saying nothing for a long time. None of this had occurred to her before. She’d always taken for granted the Subcity’s isolation and dependence on the Outside. But what the old peddler said was true. She had felt that sense of awe when she had gone down to the lower level and seen the vast hidden power that the Elders possessed—and that wasn’t all of it. There was more, untapped, held in reserve. The Subcity Elders hated humans. How much provocation would it take for them to lash out? How much excuse would they need to fight back against the race they feared and mistrusted so? The technological breakthrough that the information on the cubes might bring would be a long time in coming. It would require a lot of work to take the clues and build the devices to use them. They might never have a chance. The Subcity might unleash another plague, or use who could guess what sorts of weapons, to destroy humanity, or reduce their numbers to a pitiful handful which the Elders would then enslave. What was to stop them?
“Why do they hate us so?” Gem whispered.
“Because we keep giving them all sorts of reasons to,” Dras replied.
Gem closed her eyes feeling sick. She had given them one reason more. She thought she was doing something brave and heroic, but she had made a terrible mistake.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Dras smiled at her gently. “I think you do,” he said.
“I can’t go back!” she cried. “I—“
They both froze, listening. It was an air transport, and it was coming closer.
Gem jumped to her feet, scanning the sky. They could see its lights coming towards them fast, scanning the road. Gem fumbled franticly with her shoulder bag, pulling it open and groping inside. She pulled out a small pouch and ran over to Dras. “Give this to them,” she said quickly, “Tell them it was a terrible mistake. I shouldn’t have done it.” She shoved the pouch into his hand.
“Wait a minute,” Dras protested.
“I can’t let them catch me!” she cried, turning and bolting for the woods.
“Damn it, Gem, come back here!” he shouted after her. But she went rabbiting into the bushes without a backwards glance. The lights flooded the campsite and Dras squinted against the glare. He couldn’t throw the pouch away without them seeing it. He heart sank as the air transport came down, landing in the field next to his train.
“I’m jiggered now for sure,” he murmured, and tucked the pouch into his jacket.