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We were in Pertz's Tavern, up in the hills above Noupeitau, with the usual people, ostensibly planning to go backpacking in Terraust and actually drinking on Aimeric's tab. With fires due in a few weeks, we thought we might see the first herds of auroc-de-mer migrating to the banks of the Great Polar River, beginning their 1700 km swim to the sea. Aimeric had never seen it and was wild to go. For the rest of us, the pleasure was in watching his excitementlike his bald spot, it was always there to be made fun ofand in the red wine that flowed freely while he bought.
"Perhaps on the last day we can spring to Bo Merce Bay and see the first ones head out to sea. They say that's really a sight. Last chance for twelve stanyears, we shouldn't miss it, m'es vis, companho." Aimeric laughed, looking down into his wine. The bald spot was bigger than ever. I enjoyed pitying him.
Aimeric slid his arm around Bieris, his entendedora of the time, and pulled her closer to him. She raised an eyebrow at me, asking me not to encourage him.
Garsenda, who was my entendedora, squeezed my arm and whispered in my ear, "I think he really means to go. Are you going to?"
"If you wish, midons. My father took me when I was nine. I wouldn't mind seeing it again."
"Giraut's seen it," Garsenda said, very loudly. "Giraut can tell you all about it."
Everyone stopped talking and looked at us. If Garsenda had not had long, thick blue-black hair, bright blue eyes, and big heavy soft breasts over a taut belly, she'd never have been my entendedoraI surely hadn't chosen her on her personality. Sometimes I thought of getting rid of her, but she so impressed my companho that it was worth tolerating her many lapses. I only wished that the laws of finamor did not demand that I think of her as perfect.
She giggled when she realized they were staring, and rubbed my thigh in a long stroke under the table. "I thought we were talking about going backpacking to the South Pole," she said. "You know, to see the aurocs-de-mer turn their legs to flippers or whatever it is they do."
"Yes, we were," Raimbaut said. He was grinning, enjoying watching my entendedora embarrass me.
I grinned back. Since he had none of his own, if he wanted to get insulting, I held trump.
"Have you actually seen it?" Aimeric asked.
Bieris hit him on the shoulder, giving him her don't-encourage-Garsenda glare.
"Ja, my father took me the year before you got here, Aimeric." I took the carafe and helped myself to another glass of wine; Aimeric flagged old Pertz, behind the bar, who started to pour another. I had lost count of glasses, and didn't care. "And what actually happens is that they have these pockets that their legs and flippers fold into. They just disjoint whatever they're not using and tuck it up into the pocket is all. The toszet who designed them must have been a real geniusnot just having the organs, but having the instinct to do that, is really something." I sipped the wine again, and noticed I had everyone's attentionmaybe they really did want to go. "But let's just go and see them get into the river. The going out to sea doesn't look like muchjust a lot of big gray-brown backs in the water. Not nearly as impressive as the levithi you can see from Bisbat Head."
Aimeric said, "Giraut, you could make a dance on the clouds on gossamer wings sound like going down the hall to spring your laundry to the cleaners." Raimbaut and Marcabru both laughed a lot more than it was worththey were as drunk as I was.
Marcabru, who rarely went out of the city if he could help it, said "But I'd like to see the whole thingas Aimeric says, not for another twelve stanyears…"
Raimbaut nodded vigorously and refilled his glass.
Aimeric beamed at them. "Consensus is against you, Olde Woodes Hande." That was the nickname he had given me when I was twelve and he was new to the planet, on the many family trips my father had taken him on. "I think we should stay the extra days."
I shrugged. "It's a little more dangerous. While we're there, I'll show you some of the graveyards. The auroc-de-mer only usually beat the fires to the river. Each year some of themsometimes a lot of themburn to death, piled up in box canyons or at the foot of bluffs. Then after the snowfields form and melt, the charred aurocs-de-mer get swept into streams and piled up along some of the river beaches in meters-thick banks of white bone and black carbon. You shouldn't miss the sightbut I don't want any of us to become a permanent part of it."
Marcabru smiled at me. "Very prudent of you, Giraut. You're getting old. Hey, Garsenda, you want a fresh young toszet when Grandpa Giraut gets tired?"
It was nothing of coursemere banter between old friendsbut then a big brawny Interstellar, sixteen or seventeen and far-gone drunk, bellowed from the next table, "You're a coward."
Every table in Pertz's went instantly quiet.
Ragging among friends is one thing, but in Nou Occitan enseingnamen is everything. I slid sideways away from Garsenda. "This won't take long, midons."
"You're a coward, Redsleeves," the young lout repeated. From his voice, I guessed he had stood up. I glanced at Marcabru to make sure the young turd wasn't about to rabbit-punch me as I stood, a trick that was very popular among the Interstellars, as anything low, dirty, or ne gens tended to be.
Marcabru raised and slowly lowered an index finger, so I kicked the bench backward hard and spun into the space where it had been. Beside me, Marcabru's epee uncoiled into rigidity with a sharp pop, its neuroducer tip almost in the face of that young clown. Between the flickering glow of the neuroducer in his face, and the slam of the bench against his shins, he took a big leap back, giving us a moment to assess the situation.
It didn't look good. Five young Interstellars, all dressed in the navy-and-black style patterned on Earth bureaucratic uniforms, sneered at the four of us. All of them were big and muscular, and none were hanging back. Probably they were all dosed on a berserker drug.
The smart thing, if possible, would be to avoid a fight.
On the other hand, I detested Interstellarstraitors to their culture, imitators of the worst that came out from the Inner Worlds, bad copies of Earth throwing away all the wealth of their Occitan heritage; their art was sadoporn, their music raw noise, and their courtesy nonexistentand spirit and style were everything. Anyone could be graceful with nothing at stake. Here was a real test of enseingnamen.
Everyone speaks Terstad everywhere you go in the Thousand Cultures, but it doesn't offer the powerful, compressed imagery of Occitan, so it was that in which I insulted him; a few musical, rolling syllables sufficed to point out that his father had dribbled the best part of him onto the bathroom floor and he needed to wash his face of the stench of his cheap-whore sister. It was a fine calling-out for spur of the moment and half-drunk.
Aimeric and Raimbaut rose to their feet, applauding with harsh, ugly laughs to make it clear that it was everyone's fight.
"Talk Terstad. I don't understand school talk."
He was not telling the truth, since all instruction is in Occitan after the fourth year, but it was a point of pride with Interstellars to speak only Terstad, because they were determined to reject everything about their own culture and tradition.
"I should have expected that," I said. "You look stupid. All right, I'll translateplease let me know if I'm going too fast. Your father (that's one of those drunks your mother called 'customers,' though god only knows which one) dribbled the best part of you"
"I don't give a shit what the Octalk meant. I just want to fight you."
His epee banged out into a straight line pointed at me. Mine replied. There was a fast flurry of pops as all those involved extended epees, and crashing and scrambling sounds as everyone else in Pertz's fried to get out of the way.
He grinned at me and glanced at Garsenda. "After we get done with all of you, me and my underboys will share your slut."
It was a dumb adolescent trick, which probably worked pretty well on dumb adolescents. I drew a sharp breath and dropped my point a hairsbreadth, as if he had actually broken my focus. He lungedstraight onto the point of my epee, which tapped his exposed larynx, bending like a flyrod under the force of the collision.
He fell to the floor, bubbling and grasping his throat. The neuroducer had made solid contact, and it would require sedation and several days' slow revival to convince him that he did not have blood gushing from a hole in his throat. We all stood watching him as he quickly hallucinated himself dead and went into a coma.
I sort of hoped I had actually bruised him with the force of the blow, but they'd be able to fix that too. On the other hand, a really good zap with a neuroducer is almost impossible to erase with anything but time, so probably a decade from now his throat would spasm hard enough to choke him every now and then.
The situation was satisfactory as far as I was concerned. "An apology, on behalf of your friend, would settle this," I said.
"I wish we could," the biggest of them said, "but then we'd all have to fight him as soon as he got out of the hospitalwith fists, too. Gwim is strict with his underboys."
Two more things I hated about Interstellarsthey liked to give and take orders from each other, and they contracted fine old Occitan names like Guilhem down to ugly grunts like Gwim. "Then let's get on with it," I said. "The odds are honorable now."
The two in the back gulped hard, but to give them credit, they all nodded. Maybe there was a little enseingnamen left in them despite the clothes.
"Let's do this in the street," I added. "Pertz doesn't need any more furniture broken up, and a stray hit with a neuroducer can wipe a vu."
I glanced at the Wall of Honor, memorializing Pertz's dead patrons, and all the vus were smiling and nodding as if they'd heard me. It was an eerie effect, but in a moment they were all out of unison again.
When I looked back, the Interstellars were nodding, and so were my seconds. Aimeric had that lazy, bored look he got just before some intense pleasure. Marcabru, best of our fighters after me, was solidly ready and balanced, his face almost blankhe was already in that state where thought and action are identical, a state I could feel myself settling comfortably into with each breath.
Raimbaut had a crazy gleam in his eye and was rocking back and forth on his feet, almost bouncingI never knew anyone who loved a brawl or a wild adventure better. His face was distorted in a dozen places, and his left shoulder and right ankle were stiff, where muscles could not be convinced they weren't scarred, and there must have been internal effects as well.
If I had been thinking I might not have let things go the way they did, but of course he and I were both twenty-two stanyears old. Everyone seems immortal then. Besides, Raimbaut would tell me later that he wasn't unhappy about how he died, only about when.
With a fierce little nod, he signalled for me to get on with it. I said, "Well, then, gentlemen, the street. Will it be to first yield, to first death, or without limit?"
"First death?" one of the ones behind squeaked, and the brawny blond boy who now seemed to be their leader nodded.
"I think we'll have to, to satisfy Gwim."
"All right then, to the street, atz dos," I said.
We walked out to the street in side-by-side pairs, one of them with each of usit's the position for honorable people, and given that they were Interstellars it might have been some risk, but they had shown real enseingnamen since their vulgarian leader's dispatch, and so I extended them the courtesy.
The street was emptyeveryone was down at Festival Night in Noupeitau. From far below, we could hear the clash of a dozen brass bands playing in different parts of the city, mixed together by distance.
The redbrick villas up here were the color of heartsblood in the warm glow of the sunset; the little red dot of Arcturus, a bloody period, was sinking into Totzmare in the west, and the surf was running fast and big. The skimmers riding them in (on the western coast of Nou Occitan, waves are ridable as much as two hundred km out to sea) were just putting on running lights, and a few were tacking and putting on sail to work their way back out to sea so that they could start another run next morning. Those last few weeks before a Dark, when the sky was still deep purple and the long evenings still warm, always seemed to hurry by too fast.
It was a good night to be alive, and a fine setting for a brawl.
"Let's get on with it." It was my responsibility to say that, for though I had challenged originally, the boys' taking up their friend's quarrel had made me the challenged, so timing and protocol were mine to decide. I might have chosen the issue fought to as well, but, under an imputation of cowardice, I preferred to defy them by letting them choose. When I saw how young and scared their faces looked in the sharp black-edged shadows of the red street, I thought of softening it to first yieldbut no, their ne gens behavior had begun it.
Let them bear the consequences.
I spoke the traditional words then: "Atz fis prim. Non que malvolensa, que per ilh tensa sola." It meant "to the first death"that to remind everyone when we were to stopand "not from rancor, but merely for the sake of the quarrel"to remind us that this was not a blood feud and would not become one, that this fight would settle whatever question mere was for good and forever.
Then I flicked my epee upward in salute, the boy facing me did the same, and all the seconds saluted in unison. Their epees had barely returned to ready when the boy was on me.
Our epees had clashed no more man ten timesI had not yet formed any impression of himwhen Aimeric cried "Patz marves!" to end the fight
All the safety locks clicked, and the epees coiled back into their hilts, the guards folding in last I dropped mine unconsciously into my pocket, looking to see who had died. Raimbaut was on the ground, not moving.
At first it was nothing we hadn't seen beforewe were getting ready to move him to the back room (at Pertz's with the young clown who had started all the trouble, for pickup the next morning. And it even made sense mat it was Raimbaut; much as he loved a fight, he was slow and easily fooled. I had seen him dead three times before, and there had been other times as well, when I hadn't been there.
Then the banshee cry of the ambulance froze our blood. Raimbaut's medsponder had triggered.
We set him down in the street, backed away, and got no more than a dozen paces before the ambulance dove in from directly overhead in a thunder of reversed impellers, lowered the springer box over him, and sprang him to the emergency room. The impellers flipped to forward with a click and a whine, and the little robot, for all the world like a cylindrical tank on top of a coffin, lifted slowly and flew away. In the pavement where it had been there was a rectangular depression, two meters long by one wide, a centimeter deep.
By the time we got inside and commed the hospital's infocess, they knew. At the bottom of the report, beneath all the aintellect's terse notes about liver and kidney damage, and hysterical distortion of the heart, someone human had noted "one shock too many."
• • •
The burial took forever. His parents didn't show for it, and that was the best thing that happened.
Raimbaut babbled all the way through his funeral, too. His will named me as recipient, so I had struggled through carrying his body up the mountain, along with Marcabru, Aimeric, David, Johanne, and Rufeu, with the added difficulty of pain from the fresh scar where his psypyx had been implanted in the back of my neck.
Raimbaut watched through my eyes as we lowered his naked corpse onto its bed of roses at the bottom of the grave the nanos had shaped in the raw granite of Montanha Valor.
Each donzelha present climbed down and kissed the corpse, rubbing her face on his to anoint him with their tears. There were a lot of donzelhaswhich surprised Raimbaut so much that he couldn't stop talking about it in my head.
Garsenda made a truly spectacular show of her grief, though she'd known Raimbaut only through me, and not well. Raimbaut appreciated it, but I was embarrassed.
Bieris, who had known him longest of any donzelha, was oddly quiet and restrained in the grave, but when she climbed out her face was drenched with weeping.
Then, as each of the jovents nicked a thumb to drop blood on Raimbaut's body, Aimeric sang the Canso de Fis de Jovent, perhaps the great masterpiece of Nou Occitan verse. Written by Guilhem-Arnaud Montanier in 2611, first sung at his funeral a year later, for two centuries it has been what we buried our young, brave, and beautiful tounder normal circumstances it brought tears to my eyes, and now it tore my heart like a claw.
Guilhem-Arnaut himself had said that all four possible meanings (fis means either death or end, and jovent either a young man or the time of first manhood) were equally intended, and there is nothing in the song to make one choose between them; my mind skipped wildly from one idea to the next, while Raimbaut marvelled at the quantities of roses and girls.
At last, when it was over, we walked the six kilometers back in silence. Even Raimbaut was quiet.
It had been hard and heavy going up with the body, but this was worse.
"Are you still there?" I subvoked to Raimbaut.
"Still here." His voice was more tired and mechanical than it had been, and my heart sank with what that portended, but he did say, "Burial was nice. You're all very kind. Thank you."
"Raimbaut thanks you all," I said. Everyone turned and bowed gravely toward me, so he could see through my eyes.
"Where am I? I must be dead!" his voice cried in my head. "Deu, deu, this is Montanha Valor, but I can't remember the funeral! Giraut, were we there?"
"Ja, ja, yes, Raimbaut, we were there." I subvoked so hard that Garsenda, beside me, heard the grunts in my throat and stared at me until Bieris drew her away. "Reach for the emblok, try to feel it through me," I told him. "Your memory will be in the emblok."
It was no use, then or any time later. Only a rare mind can continue after losing its body. Like most, he could not maintain contact with the emblok that would give him short-term memory, or the geeblok that would allow him his emotions, though each was a scant centimeter away from where he crouched in his psypyx at the base of my skull.
Days passed and he forgot his death, and then that we had ever been at Pertz's Tavern, for he could not recover what he downloaded.
And as my emotions separated again from his, and he was increasingly unable to reach his geeblok, he felt colder and colder in my mind. His liquid helium whisper raved on endlessly, trying to remember itself, trying to wake up from the bad dream it thought it was in.
After two more weeksabout eleven and a half standays- -they said there was no hope, and took the psypyx, emblok, and geeblok off me. Raimbaut sleeps now in Eternity Hall in Nou Occitan, like so many others, waiting for some advance of technology to bring his consciousness, memories, and emotions together again.
The good-bye had taken so long, and so little of him was left at the end of it, that I felt nothing when they removed him.
Copyright © 1992 by John Barnes