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The Flinx was an ethical thief in that he stole only from the crooked. And at that, only when it was absolutely necessary. Well, perhaps not absolutely. But he tried to. Due to his environment his morals were of necessity of a highly adaptable nature. And when one is living alone and has not yet reached one’s seventeenth summer, certain allowances in such matters must be made.
It could be argued, if the Flinx were willing to listen (a most unlikely happenstance), that the ultimate decision as to who qualified as crooked and who did not was an awfully totalitarian one to have to make. A philosopher would nod knowingly in agreement. Flinx could not afford that luxury. His ethics were dictated by survival and not abstracts. It was to his great credit that he had managed to remain on the accepted side of current temporal morality as much as he had so far. Then again, chance was also due a fair share of the credit.
As a rule, though, he came by his modest income mostly honestly. This was made necessary as much by reason of common sense as by choice. A too-successful thief always attracts unwanted attention. Eventually, a criminal “law of diminishing returns” takes over.
And anyway, the jails of Drallar were notoriously inhospitable.
Good locations in the city for traveling jongleurs, minstrels, and such to display their talents were limited. Some were far better than others. That he at his comparatively slight age had managed to secure one of the best was a tribute to luck and the tenacity of old Mother Mastiff. From his infancy she had reserved the small raised platform next to her shop for him, driving off other entrepreneurs with shout or shot, as the occasion and vehemence of the interloper required. Mother Mastiff was not her real name, of course, but that was what everyone called her. Flinx included. Real names were of little use in Drallar’s marketplaces. They served poorly for identification and too well for the tax-gatherers. So more appropriate ones were rapidly bestowed upon each new inhabitant. Mother Mastiff, for example, bore a striking resemblance to the Terran canine of the same name. It was given in humor and accepted with poor grace, but accepted, nevertheless. Her caustic personality only tended to compliment the physical similarity.
The man-child had been an orphan. Probably involuntary, as most of his ilk were. Still, who could tell? Had she not been passing the slave coops at that time and glanced casually in a certain direction, she would never have noticed it. For reasons she had never fully understood she had bought it, raised it, and set it to learning a trade as soon as it was old enough. Fortunately his theatrical proclivities had manifested themselves at quite an early stage, along with his peculiar talents. So the problem of choosing a trade solved itself. He proved to be a keen if somewhat solemn observer, and so his own best apprentice. Fine and well, because the older performers always became more nervous in his presence than they cared to admit. Rather than admit it, they pronounced him unteachable, and left him to his own devices.
She had also taught him as early as was practical that in Drallar independence was ever so much more than an intangible thought. It was a possession, even if it would not fit into one’s pocket or pouch, and to be valued as such. Still, when he had taken to her word and moved out to live on his own, the sadness lingered with her as a new coat of paint. But she never revealed it to him for fear of communicating weakness. Not in her words nor in her face. Urged on affectionately but firmly he was, much as the young birds of the Poles. Also she knew that for her the Moment might come at any time, and she wanted it to brush his life as lightly as possible.
Flinx felt the cottony pain of a sugar-coated probe again in his mind; the knowledge that Mother Mastiff was his mother by dint of sympathy and not birth. Coincidence was his father and luck his inheritance. Of his true parents he knew nothing, nor had the auctioneer. His card had been even more than usually blank, carrying not even the most elementary pedigree. A mongrel. It showed in his long orange-red hair and olive complexion. The reason for his orphan-hood would remain forever as obscure as their faces. He let the life flood of the city enter his mind and submerge the unpleasant thoughts.
A tourist with more insight than most had once remarked that strolling through the great central marketplace of Drallar was like standing in a low surf and letting the geometrically patient waves lap unceasingly against one. Flinx had never seen the sea, so the reference remained obscure. There were few seas on Moth anyway, and no oceans. Only the uncounted, innumerable lakes of The-Blue-That-Blinded and shamed azure as a pale intonation.
The planet had moved with unusual rapidity out of its last ice age. The fast-dwindling ice sheets had left its surface pockmarked with a glittering lapis-lazuli embroidery of lakes, turns, and great ponds. An almost daily rainfall maintained the water levels initially set by the retreating glaciers. Drallar happened to be situated in an exceptionally dry valley, good drainage and the lack of rainfall (more specifically, of mud) being one of the principal reasons for the city’s growth. Here merchants could come to trade their goods and craftsmen to set up shop without fear of being washed out every third-month.
The evaporation-precipitation water cycle on Moth also differed from that of many otherwise similar humanx-type planets. Deserts were precluded by the lack of any real mountain ranges to block off moisture-laden air. The corresponding lack of oceanic basins and the general unevenness of the terrain never gave a major drainage system a chance to get started. The rivers of Moth were as uncountable as the lakes, but for the most part small in both length and volume. So the water of the planet was distributed fairly evenly over its surface, with the exception of the two great ice caps at the poles and the hemispheric remnants of the great glacial systems. Moth was the Terran Great Plains with conifers instead of corn.
The polyrhythmic chanting of barkers hawking the goods of a thousand worlds formed a nervous and jarring counterpoint to the comparatively even susurrations and murmurings of the crowd. Flinx passed a haberdashery he knew and in passing exchanged a brief, secret smile with its owner. That worthy, a husky blond middle-aged human, had just finished selling a pair of durfarq-skin coats to two outlandishly clad outworlders . . . for three times what they were worth. Another saying trickled lazily through his mind.
“Those who come unprepared to Drallar to buy skin, inevitably get.”
It did not offend Flinx’s well-considered set of ethics. This was not stealing. Caveat emptor. Fur and fibers, wood and water, were Moth. Can one steal seeds from a tomato? The seller was happy with his sale, the purchasers were pleased with their purchase, and the difference would go to support the city in the form of welfares and grafts anyway. Besides, any outworlder who could afford to come to Moth could damn well afford to pay its prices. The merchants of Drallar were not to any extent rapacious. Only devious.
It was a fairly open planet, mostwise. The government was a monarchy, a throwback to the planet’s earlier days. Historians found it quaint and studied it, tourists found it picturesque and frozepixed it, and it was only nominally terrifying to its citizens. Moth had been yanked abruptly and unprepared into the vortex of interstellar life and had taken the difficult transition rather well. As would-be planetbaggers rapidly found out. But on a planet where the bulk of the native population was composed of nomadic tribes following equally nomadic fur-bearing animals who exhibited unwonted bellicosity toward the losing of said furs, a representative government would have proved awkward in the extreme. And naturally the Church would not interfere. The Counselors did not even think of themselves as constituting a government, therefore they could not think of imposing one on others. Democracy on Moth would have to wait until the nomads would let themselves be counted, indexed, labeled, and cross-filed, and that seemed a long, long way off. It was well known that the Bureau of the King’s Census annually published figures more complementary than accurate.
Wood products, furs, and tourism were the planet’s principal industries. Those and trade. Fur-bearing creatures of every conceivable type (and a few inconceivable ones) abounded in the planet’s endless forests. Even the insects wore fur, to shed the omnipresent water. Most known varieties of hard and soft woods thrived in the Barklands, including a number of unique and unclassifiable types, such as a certain deciduous fungus. When one refered to “grain” on Moth, it had nothing to do with flour. The giant lakes harbored fish that had to be caught from modified barges equipped with cyborg-backed fishing lines. It was widely quoted that of all the planets in the galaxy, only on Moth did an honest-to-goodness pisces have an even chance of going home with the fisherman, instead of vice-versa. And hunters were only beginning to tap that aspect of the planet’s potentialities . . . mostly because those who went into the great forests unprepared kept an unquieting silence.