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Chapter One

I was the last to know what was happening to me. Or at least I was the last to know that I knew.

Saranna realized it when her hand glided up my chest and instead of smoothly cresting the pectorals made lean and hard by hours of sword and javelin and archery, her fingers snagged on a looser kind of flesh. Her hands remembered that same discovery on her own body not that many years before, and being a true daughter of Mueller, with a sharp eye and an uncompromising mind, she knew it all at once, knew all my future history, knew all that was now impossible between us. Yet, being a true daughter of Mueller, she said nothing, nor did she grieve; it simply happened that from then until I left Mueller, she never touched me, at least not as she had before, not with the promise of decades of passion in our future. She knew, but I did not yet know.

Dinte saw it, too. Watching me as he always does, the second son hoping for some accident to befall me so that he can delay any help that might come to me; searching for some hint of congenital idiocy so he can be named regent after father dies; noting any flaws or weaknesses in my fighting or my thinking, so that when, not if, he betrays me, he can gain some advantage over me -- watching me with that kind of eagerness, he had to see the way my shirt moved differently across my chest. Of all the ways that I could be rendered unfit to sit on father's throne, this had to be the one that he would relish most. Being a poor excuse for a son of Mueller, he immediately became cocky, not naming my affliction, but treating me with the arrogance that even cowards have the grace to display only toward the corpse of their enemy. He knew, but I did not yet know.

Father would not have seen it. There was always too much work for the Mueller to do; he had no time for watching me himself. But he had me watched, by all my tutors and half my friends; especially during the crucial time of puberty, when the greatest danger comes.

We in whom the Mueller blood runs true, our bodies have a great gift: to heal so quickly that scars form before the blood is dry, and to grow back any part of our body that is lost. It makes us very hard to kill.

Our enemies say that Muellers feel no pain, but it isn't true. To them it looks that way because in battle we willingly absorb a dangerous blow that any other man would have to parry to save his life, and while our enemy's sword is buried in our own flesh, we can cut the lifeblood out of him and then walk on to find another enemy to engage, our own wound already healing.

But we feel pain, just like anyone else. Our women faint in childbirth when the flesh is torn. When you put our hand into the fire, the agony burns as hot inside our brain as inside any other man's. We feel pain; what we don't feel is fear. Or rather, we've learned to separate pain and fear.

To other people, pain means that their life is in danger; to preserve themselves, they must have the reflex to avoid that pain by any means they can. But to a Mueller, pain means that the danger is small. Death comes to us only in ways that are beyond pain -- the crumbling of senility, the cold hard breath of drowning, the loss of all feeling when the body is severed from the head. A mere cut or burn or stab or broken bone means only that some vigor will be taken from us as our body quickly heals; it means we'll be fed on blood-rare steak and not on radishes when the battle ends.

And the worst fear that others feel -- the fear of dismemberment, of losing toes or fingers, hands or feet, ears or nose or eyes or genitals -- we laugh at that.

Why is it their worst fear? Because they've come to think of their present shape as their true self, and if they lose that shape, they lose their self, they become a monster even in their own eyes.

But we Muellers have long since learned that our present shape is not ourself at all. We can have many different shapes and still be who we always were. It's a lesson we learn during the madness of adolescence. At twelve or fourteen years of age, we also go through the bizarre jumbling of chemicals that cause others to grow hair in strange places and become machines that can build copies of themselves; with us, though, since our bodies are so powerful, adolescence is also stronger. We bred ourselves to regenerate lost or broken body parts; during the madness of puberty, our bodies forget their proper shape and try to grow parts that are already there. Every young man and woman has waved a third arm tauntingly at friends, danced some complicated step designed to make use of an extra leg or two, winked a superfluous eye, grimaced with three rows of teeth above and four below. I endured having four arms once, an extra nose, and two hearts pumping away before the surgeon took me under his knife to cut away the excess. Our self is not our shape. We can have any shape, and still be who we are. We have no dread of losing limbs. We can't distort or destroy our self through subtraction.

We have other dreads.

All during my adolescence, Father had me watched. Even at the age of fifteen, when my body was only a decimeter or two from a man's full height and my sexual changes should have been complete -- complete enough for Saranna to have my child in her already -- even then, I could still feel their eyes on me from dawn to dusk, measuring me body and soul, so they could tell the tale to Father in those moments when he had the time to think of me. It's impossible that they missed what was happening to me; Father must have known before Dinte, even before Saranna did. They all knew.

But I didn't know.

Oh, of course I knew. I knew it well enough to abandon all my tight-fitting clothing and wear only the looser, blousier clothes. I knew it well enough to find excuses rather than go swimming with my friends, well enough not to snap at Dinte for being even snottier than ever, as if I dared not provoke him into naming what it was I had become. I knew it well enough not to wonder why Saranna wasn't touching me, knew it well enough that last month not to take her into my bed. And yet I never named what had become of me, not even to myself.

I never even let the thought of my terrible new future come into my head. Except once, with the precious steel sword of royalty flashing in my hand, when I vowed, so strongly that I remember the moment even now as if it had happened only this morning -- I vowed never to live without such a sword in my hand or at my side. Even then, I was pretending to myself that my fear was of becoming a commoner, the sort of sluglike semi-soul who never touches iron and who shudders at the slightest cut that bleeds.

"Today," said Homarnoch.

"I haven't time," I said, with that imperious archness that the sons of princes use to remind others of authority they don't yet have.

"The Mueller says."

And that was that. All deceptions were over, all lies that I believed I'd have to unbelieve all at once. Yet still I put him off, told him I was filthy and had to wash, which was true enough; but I managed to bathe without once looking in the silvered glass to see myself. Clothing hung over all the mirrors, or somehow they had all been set aside, so that in my room I never had to see myself. This was just one more sign that I knew without knowing -- until that month I had been as vain as any boy and surrounded myself with glass.

But there was no hiding from the mirror in Homarnoch's sterile surgical den, his place of sharp steel knives and bloody beds, where barbed arrows were cut from soldiers' flesh and gaudy useless body parts were struck from adolescent bodies.

He stood me before the mirror, himself behind me, and cupped both hands under breasts that by now had grown voluptuous. For the first time I was forced to stare at flesh that couldn't possibly be my own. For the first time I was aware of the pressure of someone else's touch. Still, I don't think it was Homarnoch's brusk surgeonly caress that aroused me. That touch was far more strange to me than sexual. I think it was the sight of what had to be someone else's breasts being taken in someone else's hands. I think it was voyeurism. I still didn't believe in what was happening to me.

"Why didn't you come to me at once?" asked Homarnoch. He sounded almost hurt.

"For what? I've grown all kinds of body parts before."

He shook his head. "You're not a fool, Lanik Mueller."

I heard my name, and felt a sick dread. Later I realized that it was the name Mueller that caused me fear -- not because it was my name, but because so soon it would not be.

"It happens even in the Mueller's family, Lanik. Every few generations. No one is immune."

"It's just pubert," I said, willing him to believe it.

He looked at me sadly, and not without affection, I thought. "I hope you're right," he said, but of course he had no hope. "I hope that when I examine you, we find out that you're right."

"There's no need to --"

"Now, Lanik," he said. "The Mueller asks me to give him my answer within the hour."

What my father commanded, I performed. I lay down on the table and willed myself to relax as the knife bit into my abdomen. I had felt worse pain before -- the ragged tearing of the wooden practice swords, for instance, or the time an arrow passed into my temple and out my eye -- but it wasn't the pain. Or not the pain alone. Because for the first time since earliest childhood, pain and fear burned together within me, and I felt what common men feel that so unmans them on the battlefield, that makes them fodder for a Mueller's hungry sword.

When he was finished, he taped the wound. I already felt the giddiness and tingling that told me healing was under way -- these were clean cuts, and all would heal without scars within hours. I didn't have to ask what he had found. I knew from the stooping of his shoulders, the harsh stoicism of his face. I could tell that it was grief and not rejoicing that his dispassionate mask concealed.

"Just cut them off," I said, lightly, jokingly.

He didn't take it as a joke. "It's ovaries, too, Lanik, and if I cut them out, cut out the uterus, they'll just grow back." He faced me then, with the same courage that a man faces his enemy in battle. "You're a radical regenerative, Lanik. It will never end."

There it was. The name for what I had become. Like my beautiful cousin Velinisik, who went mad and pissed all over everyone with the penis whose growth had monstered her. Radical regenerative. Rad. Like everyone else, I had turned away from her, hadn't so much as spoken her name from that day to this. First she ceased to be human. Then she had never been human. Then she had never existed.

At the end of puberty, most Muellers settled into their adult form, and only regrew those part of their bodies that had been lost. But a certain small number of us never got back under control. Adolescence went on forever, with new body parts growing at random. In such cases the body forgot what its natural shape ought to be; it thought of itself as an endless wound, forever to be healed; as a perpetually dismembered body, with parts forever to be renewed.

It was the worst way to die, because there was no funeral; you ceased to be a person, but they refused to let you become a corpse.

"Say that, Homarnoch," I told him, "and you might as well also say that I'm dead."

"I'm sorry," he said simply. "But I must tell your father immediately."

And he left.

I looked again in the large mirror on the wall, where my clothing hung on a hook. My shoulders were still broad from hours and days and weeks with sword, staff, spear, and bow; and more recently with the bellows at the forge. My hips still slim from running and riding. My stomach ridged with muscle, hard and solid and virile. And then, ridiculously soft and inviting, my breasts --

I took my knife from the belt hanging on the wall and pressed its sharp silver edge against my breast. It hurt too badly -- I cut only an inch deep and had to stop. There was a sound at the door. I turned.

A little black Cramer bowed her head so she would not see me. I remembered that she had been taken in the last war (which Father won), and so belonged to us for life; I spoke gently to her because she was a slave.

"You're all right, don't worry," I said to her, but she didn't relax.

"My lord Ensel wants to see his son Lanik. He says immediately,."

"Damn!" I said, and she knelt to receive my anger. I didn't hit her, though, only touched her head as I walked to my clothing and put it on. I couldn't help but see my reflection as I left -- my chest heaving up and down as I strode out of the room. The little Cramer murmured her thanks as I left.

I started to run down the stairs to Father's chambers. I hadn't learned yet to walk like a woman, smoothing my steps and rolling my hips to avoid needless jostling. After three steps I stopped and leaned on the banister until the pain and fear subsided. When I turned around to go down more slowly, I saw my brother Dinte at the bottom of the stairs He was smirking, as fine a specimen of budding asshood as the Family had ever produced.

"I see you've heard the news," I said, walking carefully downstairs.

"May I suggest you acquire a halter?" he offered blandly. "I'd loan you one of Mannoah's but hers are far too small."

I put my hand on my knife and he retreated a few steps. I had cut off his fingers and put out his eyes so many times in childhood quarrels that I knew the futility of it -- but the knife felt necessary in my hands when I was angry.

"You mustn't do any more of that, Lanik," Dinte said, still smirking. "I'll be heir now, and head of the Family soon enough, and I'll remember."

I tried to think of some answer. Some scornful reply, to let him know that nothing he could ever do to me would compare in agony to what had just happened, to what was about to happen.

But to confess that much fear and pain is what you do with your most trusted friend, and perhaps not even then. So I said nothing and walked past him toward Father's private room. As I passed he hummed in the back of his throat, as one does to call the prostitutes on Hivvel Street. I did not kill him, however.

"Hello, my son," said Father when I came into his chamber.

"You might advise your second son," I answered, "That I still know how to kill."

"I'm sure you meant to say hello. Greet your mother."

I looked over to where he glanced and saw the Turd, as we children of Daddy's first wife less-than-affectionately called Number Two, who had moved up into my mother's position when she died of a strange and sudden heart attack. Father didn't think it was strange and sudden, but I did. The Turd's official name was Ruva; she was from Schmidt and had been part of a package deal that included an alliance, two forts, and about three million acres. She was only supposed to be a concubine, but chance and Father's inexplicable passion had moved her up in the world. We were compelled by custom, law, and Father's wrath to call her mother.

"Hello, Mother," I said coldly. She only smiled her sweet, gentle, murderous smile.

Father didn't waste time with gentleness or sympathy. "Homarnoch tells me that you're a radical regenerative."

"I'll kill anyone who tries to put me in the pens," I said. "Even you."

"Someday I'll take your treasonous statements seriously, boy, and have you strangled. But you can remove that fear, at least. I'd never put one of my own sons in the pens, even if he's a rad."

"It's been done before," I pointed out. "I've studied a little Family history."

"Then you'll know what's happening now. Come in, Dinte," Father said, and I turned to see my little brother walking in. It was then that I lost control for the first time.

I shouted: "You're going to let that half-assed moron ruin Mueller, you bastard, when you know I'm the only one who can hope to hold this flimsy empire together when you've had the courtesy to die! I hope you live long enough to see it all crumble!" Later I would remember those words bitterly, but how could I have known at the time that this hot-hearted curse would someday come true?

Father leaped to his feet and strode around his table to where I stood. I expected a blow, and braced for it. Instead he put his hands at my throat and I felt a sickening momentary fear that he was at last going to carry out his threat to strangle me. Then he ripped open my tunic, put his hands on my breasts, and pushed them together brutally. I gasped in pain and pulled away.

"You're weak now, Lanik!" he shouted. "You're soft and womanly, and no man of Mueller would follow you anywhere!"

"Except to bed," Dinte added lewdly. Father turned and slapped his ear.

When he turned away I covered my chest with my arms like a virgin girl and spun around, coming face to face with the Turd. She was still smiling, and I watched her eyes move from my face down to my bosom --

Not my breasts! I cried out silently. Not mine, not a part of me, and I felt an overwhelming desire to retreat, to back out of my body completely, let it stay there while I went elsewhere, still a man, still an heir with the expectation of power, still a man, still myself.

"Put on a cloak," Father ordered.

"Yes, my lord Ensel," I murmured, and instead of fading from my body I covered it, and felt the rough fabric of the cloak harsh against my tender nipples. I stood there and watched as Father went through the ritual of declaring me a bastard and my brother Dinte the heir. My brother looked tall and blond and strong and clever, though I knew better than anyone that his cleverness was merely a tendency to be sly; his strength was not equaled by any quickness or skill. When the ceremony was over, Dinte sat naturally in the chair that had for so many years been mine.

I stood before them then, and Father commanded me to swear allegiance to my younger brother.

"I would rather die," I said.

"That's the choice," Father said, and Dinte smiled.

I swore eternal allegiance to Dinte Mueller, heir to the Mueller Family holdings, which included the Mueller estate and the lands my father had conquered: Cramer, Helper, Wizer, and the island of Huntington. I made the pledge because Dinte so obviously wanted me to refuse and die. Now, with me alive, he would have to worry constantly; I wondered idly how many guards he would post around his bed tonight.

But I knew I wouldn't try to kill him. Removing Dinte wouldn't put me in his place; it would only mean a savage dispute over the succession -- or worse: Ruva might be allowed to spawn some hideous offspring with half my father's genes in it to take his place. No matter what, a rad like me could never hope to govern in Mueller. Besides, rads rarely lived into their thirties, and it was illegal for them -- no, for me -- to interbreed with ubermen. I felt a sudden pang as I realized what this would do to poor Saranna. The women would take the child out of her now, and destroy it. She would find herself now the former concubine of a monster instead of the potential first wife of the father of the Family. On the day the Women chose me to be her breeding-partner she had set her foot on the road of glory; now the road was crumbling under her feet. Not just my future was destroyed, but hers also.

"Do I see the thoughts of a strangler in your eyes, Lanik?" Father asked. He thought I was still thinking about Dinte.

"Never, Father," I assured him.

"Poison, then. Or deep water. I think my heir is not safe with you here in Mueller."

I glared at him. "Dinte's worst enemy is himself. He needs no help from me to end in disaster."

"I've read Family history, too," Father said. "Every Mueller who was too sentimental to send his radical regenerative offspring to the pens regretted it soon after."

"Then have me killed with dignity, Father." It was as close as I would come to pleading. Yet silently I begged him: Don't let them feed and harvest me, reaping limbs and organs from me the way wool is sheared from a lamb, or milk pulled down from a cow, or silk spun out of a spider.

"I'm too affectionate," said Father. "I don't want to kill you. So I'm sending you on an embassy, a long one and far away, so that I have a reasonable hope of keeping Dinte alive."

"I'm not afraid of him," Dinte said scornfully.

"Then you are a fool," Father said sharply. "Teats or no teats, Lanik is more than a match for you, boy, and I won't trust you with my empire until you show me that you're at least half as clever as your brother."

Dinte was silent then, but I knew that my father had written my death sentence in Dinte's mind. Deliberately? I hoped not. But it occurred to me that Father might have decided that the best test for Dinte's fitness to rule was seeing how well he managed my murder.

"An embassy to what nation?" I asked.

"Nkumai," he answered.

"A kingdom of tree-dwelling savage blacks far to the east," I said, remembering my geography lessons. "Why should we send emissaries to animals?"

"Not animals," Father said. "They've lately been using steel swords in battle. They conquered Drew two years ago. Allison is falling easily while we're talking here."

I felt my anger rise to think of tree-dwelling blacks conquering the proud stonecarvers of Drew or the backwater religious folk of Allison. Hadn't we just conquered Cramer, and taught them the true place of blacks in the world by enslaving them? "Why are we sending embassies instead of armies?" I asked angrily.

"Am I a fool?" Father asked in return. "If I wanted mindless bigotry I could call a moot and listen to the nobility."

I found it at once encouraging and painful that he expected me to think like the Mueller and not like some common soldier who had no responsibility. So I answered him truly now. "If they have hard metal, it means that they've found something that the Offworld will buy. We don't know how much metal they have; we don't know what they're selling. Therefore my embassy is not to make a treaty, but rather to find out what they have to sell and what the Ambassador is paying for it."

"Very good," Father said. "Dinte, you may go."

"If these are affairs of the kingdom," Dinte said, "shouldn't I be here to hear them?"

Father didn't answer. Dinte got up and left. And then Father waved a hand at the Turd, who also left the room, waggling her hips insolently.

"Lanik," Father said when we were alone, "Lanik, I wish to God there were something I could do." His eyes filled with tears and I realized with some surprise that Father cared enough to grieve for me. But not really for me, I thought. For his precious empire, which Dinte could not possibly hold together.

"Lanik, never in the three thousand years of Mueller has there been a mind like yours, in a body like yours, a man truly fit to lead men. And now the body is ruined. Will the mind still serve me? Will the man still love his father?"

"Man? If you saw me on the street you'd want to take me to your bed."

"Lanik!" he cried out. "Can't you believe my grief?" He pulled out his golden dagger, raised it high, and jabbed it through his left hand, pinning it to the table. When he pulled out the weapon the blood spouted and pulsed from the wound, and he rubbed the hand across his forehead, covering his face with blood. Then he wept, while the bleeding stopped and scar tissue formed across the wound.

I sat and watched him in the ritual of grief. We were silent except for his heavy breathing until his hand was healed. Then he looked at me from heavy eyes.

"Even if this hadn't happened," he said, "I would have sent you to Nkumai. For forty years we've been the only ones in the world, the only ones we knew about, who had enough hard metals to make a difference in war. Nkumai is now our only rival, and we know nothing about that Family. You have to go secretly; if they know you're from Mueller they'll kill you. Even if you lived they'd be sure you saw nothing of importance."

I laughed bitterly. "And now I have the perfect disguise. No one would ever believe Mueller would send a woman to do a man's work."

There, I said it, gave myself the name that might keep me from ceasing to exist. But I knew that this was just as impossible; Mueller would no more accept a rad as a woman than as a man. Only outside Mueller could I be taken as human. Father might call it an embassy, or even spying, but we both knew that the true name for it was exile.

He smiled back at me. Then his eyes filled with tears again and I wondered if, after all, his love might be for me.

The interview was over and I left.

I saw to arrangements, setting the grooms to tending my horses and shoeing them for the journey; instructing the scullers to preparing packs for my journey; getting the scholars to make me a map. When the work was in motion, I left the castle proper and walked through the covered corridors to the Genetics Laboratories.

The news had spread quickly -- all the high-ranking officers avoided me, and only the students were there to open doors and lead me to the place I wanted to see.

The pens were kept brightly lit day and night, and I looked through the high observation window at the bodies endlessly scattered across the soft lawns. Here and there dust rose from the wallows. All the flesh was nude, and I watched as the noon food was spread into the feeders. Some of them looked like any other men. Others had small growths here and there on their bodies, or defects barely noticeable from a distance -- three breasts, or two noses, or extra toes and fingers.

And then there were those that were ready for harvest. I watched one creature as it lumbered toward the troughs. Its five legs didn't move well together, and it flailed its four arms awkwardly, to keep a balance. An extra head dangled uselessly from its back; a second spine curved away from the body like a sucking snake clinging rigidly to its victim.

"Why have they let this one go so long unharvested?" I asked the student who was near me.

"Because of the head," he said. "Complete heads are very rare, and we didn't dare interfere with the regeneration until it was complete."

"Do we get a good price for heads?" I asked.

"I'm not in merchandising," he answered, which meant that the price was very high indeed.

I looked at the monster as it struggled to bring food to its mouth with unresponsive arms. Could it be Velinisik? I shuddered.

"Are you cold?" asked the student, over-solicitously.

"Very," I answered. "My curiosity is satisfied. I'll go now."

I wondered why I wasn't even slightly grateful that my exile at least saved me from the pens. Perhaps because I knew that if I were sentenced to live there, supplying extra parts for the Offworld, I would kill myself. As it was I was still this side of suicide, and so had no retreat from the terrible knowledge of my loss.

Saranna met me in the greeting room of the Genetics Laboratories. I couldn't avoid her.

"I thought I would find you here," she said, "being morbid."

I knew she was trying to cheer me up, trying to pretend that all was still well between us. Under the circumstances, such a pretense was grotesque. Rather I wanted her to grieve for me, to speak to me as if I were only a memory of one who was dead, for that's what I felt then that I was.

I tried to walk past her. She caught my arm, clung to me and wouldn't let me pull away.

""Do you think it makes any difference to me?" she cried out.

"You're being indecorous," I hissed. Several people were looking at the floor in embarrassment, and the servants were already kneeling. "You're causing us shame."

"Come with me then," she said. To avoid causing any more awkwardness for the others in the room I went with her. As we left I could hear the rods being whipped across the servants' backs because they had seen the highborn acting in a low manner. I felt the blows as if they fell on me.

"How could you do that?" I asked her.

"And how could you stay away from me for all these days?"

"Not that long."

"Longer! Lanik, do you think I didn't know? Do you think my love for you was just because you were the Mueller's heir?"

"What do you plan to do?" I demanded. "Go in there with me? Let yourself be harvested, too?"

She pushed herself away from me, horror in her eyes.

"Next time be luckier," I said. "Next time love a human being."

"Lanik!" she cried, and then put her arms around me and pressed her head to my chest. When she leaned against soft breasts instead of hard muscle, she pulled her head away for a moment, then resolutely held to me even tighter.

With her head on my bosom I found myself wondering if I should feel motherly. Didn't she realize that her touch was no comfort to me now, only a reminder of all that I had lost? I pushed her away and ran. I stopped at a turn in the corridor and looked back. She was already slitting her wrists and crying out, the blood dripping onto the stone floor. The cuts were savage -- the loss of blood would make her sick for hours, with that many lacerations. I went quickly to my room.

I lay on my bed, looking up at the delicate gold inlay on the ceiling. Set in the middle of the gold was a single pearl of iron, black and angry and beautiful. For iron, I said silently. For iron we have bred ourselves into monsters; the "normal" Muellers able to heal from any wound, and the rads serving as domesticated animals, selling their extra parts to the Offworld for more iron. Iron is power in a world with no hard metals. With our arms and legs and hearts and bowels we buy that power.

Put an arm in the Ambassador, and in a half hour a pound of iron appears in the cube of dancing light. Put living frozen sex organs in the cube and five pounds of iron replace it. An entire head? Who knows the price.

At that rate, how many arms and legs and eyes and livers must we give before we have enough iron to make one starship?

The walls pressed in on me and I felt myself trapped on Treason, our planet forming high walls of poverty that tied us down, that kept us from the Offworld, that made us prisoners as surely as the creatures in the pens. And like them, we lived under watching eyes, Family competing madly against Family in order to produce something, anything that the Offworld would buy, paying us in precious metals like iron, aluminum, copper, tin, zinc.

We Muellers had been first. The Nkumai were second, perhaps. A battle for supremacy, sooner or later. And whoever the victor, the pyrrhic prize would be a few tons of iron. Could a technology be built on that?

I slept like a prisoner, tied to my bed by the immense manacles of gravity on our poor prison planet; bound to despair by two full and lovely breasts that rose and fell regularly. I slept.

I woke to darkness in the room, and the rasping sound of labored breath. The breath was mine, and in sudden panic I felt liquid in my lungs and began to cough violently. I threw myself to the edge of the bed, coughing a dark liquid out of my throat, each cough an exquisite pain. My gasping brought the breath in coldly at my throat, not through my mouth.

I touched the gaping wound under my chin. My larynx had been cut out, and I could feel the veins and arteries that were covered with scar tissue as they tried to heal, sending blood into my brain whatever the cost. The wound went from ear to ear. But finally my lungs were clear of blood, and I lay on the bed and tried to ignore the pain as my body's vigor surged to heal the gash.

But it wouldn't do it quickly enough, I realized. Whoever had tried so clumsily to kill me would be back to make sure of his work (or her work -- Ruva?) and they wouldn't be so careless next time. So I stood, not waiting to be healed, breath still hissing in and out of the open wound at my throat. At least the bleeding had stopped, and if I moved carefully the scar tissue working gradually inward from the edges of the wound would eventually close it.

I stepped out into the corridor, faint from loss of blood. No one; but the packs I had ordered were stacked outside my room, awaiting inspection. I dragged them in. The strain caused a little bleeding, so I rested a moment while the blood vessels healed again. Then I sorted through the packs and combined the most essential items into one bundle. My bow and the glass-tipped arrows were the only things I took with me from my room; carrying the single pack, I made my way carefully down the corridors and stairways to the stable.

When I passed the sentry stall I was relieved to see that no one was there to challenge me. A few steps later on I realized what that meant and whirled around, drawing my dagger as I turned.

But it was not an enemy who stood there. Saranna gasped when she saw the wound in my throat.

"What happened to you!" she cried out.

I tried to answer, but my body had not yet rebuilt the larynx I had lost, and so all I could do was shake my head slowly and put a finger to her lips, to silence her.

"I heard that you were leaving, Lanik. Take me with you."

I turned my back and went to my horses, which were standing new-shod at the woodsmith's bar. Their wooden shoes clumped softly on the stone floor as they moved. I threw the pack over Himmler's back and saddled the stallion, Hitler, to ride.

"Take me with you," Saranna pleaded. I turned to her. Even if I could have spoken, what would I have said? So I said nothing, only kissed her and then, because I had to leave in silence and could not hope to persuade her to let me go alone, I struck her sharply with the hilt of my dagger on the back of her head, and she fell softly into the hay and straw on the stable floor. If she hadn't been a Mueller, the blow might well have killed her. As it was, I'd be lucky if she stayed unconscious for five minutes.

The horses were quiet as I led them out of the stable, and there was no further incident as I led them to the gate. The high collar of my cloak hid the wound in my throat as I passed the guards. I half expected to be challenged there, but no. And I wondered why it made so much difference to Dinte whether I was dead or left Mueller. Either way I would not be there to plot against him; and I knew that if I ever tried to return a hundred hired assassins would wait for me behind every corner. Why had he bothered trying to kill me?

As I mounted Hitler and led Himmler along in the faint light of Dissent, the quick moon, I almost laughed. Only Dinte could have botched the attempt to kill me so badly. But in the moonlight I soon forgot Dinte, and remembered only Saranna, white with loss of blood in grief for me as she lay on the floor of the stable. I let the reins fall and plunged my hands into my tunic to touch my breasts and so remember hers.

Then the slow moon, Freedom, rose in the east, casting a bright light over the plain. I took the reins again, and urged the horses on, so that daylight would find me far from the castle.

Nkumai. What would I find there? And did I even care?

But I was a dutiful son of Ensel Mueller. I would go, I would see, so that Mueller might, with luck, conquer.

Behind me I saw lights come on in the castle; torches ran along the walls. They had discovered I was gone. I could not count on Dinte being bright enough even now to realize that killing me would be pointless. I dug my heels into Hitler's flanks. He galloped off, and I clung to the reins with one hand as with the other I tried to ease the pain of the horse's violent footfalls, each one jarring my chest until I realized that I felt no pain in my breasts. Nor in the wound in my throat. The pain was deeper in my chest, and in the back of my throat, and I wept as I sped eastward -- not toward the highway as they would surely, knowing my mission, suppose; not toward the surrounding enemies who would be glad to give shelter to a possible tool in their struggle against Mueller imperialism. I went eastward, to the forest of Ku Kuei, where no man went, and so where no man would think to look for me.

Copyright © 1979, 1988 Orson Scott Card

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