“Allow me to congratulate you,” Plummer said. “For this very remarkable find, and—” He gave me one of his considering looks. “—for the details of your arrival, shall we say. Thu told me what happened, though of course I’ll want to hear your account as well.”
“You know,” I said, “I don’t think I ever would have guessed that he was a friend of yours.”
“Thu? If you mean a member of our guild, no, not at all. We have an arrangement with him, as we do with the priestesses and some others; with his family, I should say, for it was originally made with his great-grandfather. We have him review any book on technology before we put it back into circulation, and he also does occasional work for us, when that’s necessary.”
“As a Sword?”
“Essentially, yes.” He motioned for me to join him, and I climbed up and sat next to him on the antenna housing. Wind whipped sand around us, and the sun sank into haze over in the western sky.
“I’m honored,” I said.
Plummer chuckled at that. “I hope I won’t disappoint you by saying that you weren’t the main reason he was here. No, that was your young prentice—I’m by no means certain what to call him now.”
“Sharl sunna Sheren. I’ll always think of him as Berry, but—”
“Understood. Thu believed he needed protection, and of course he was quite correct—and we were mistaken. Since Cobey Taggart had ample opportunity to kill young Sharl if he’d wished to do so, and since he’d also spared Thu’s life when killing him and throwing the body into Banroo Bay would have been the simplest option, we didn’t treat the rumors about his intentions as seriously as we should have. Things could have ended so badly.”
I thought about that for a while. “I wonder if anyone knows why Cobey didn’t kill Thu.”
“As it happens, yes.” Plummer shook his head, and chuckled again. “It’s quite funny, really. We found out from the Taggart family, who got it from some of the jennel’s servants after his death. He didn’t believe that the man who assaulted you was actually the last king of Yami. He found it highly amusing that some ordinary Memfis street criminal had convinced you of something so very unlikely, and would laugh about it when he’d been drinking.”
I thought about that, too. “And Berry?”
“That was considerably more complicated. Did you ever find out who it was that was following you along the back roads of Tucki, when we first met?”
“If it was the same person who was following us in Inyana, yes.”
Plummer nodded. “Sheren kept watch over her child. If anything had happened to Sharl, and she had any reason to think that Cobey Taggart was involved, he would have died in some very unpleasant manner, and I’m sure that he knew it. He couldn’t act until he was certain she was dying, and not even then unless he was far enough from settled country that he could keep word from getting back to her while she still lived. We failed to take that into account.”
“And I helped the whole thing along,” I said, shaking my head.
Plummer looked at me for a long moment. “He would have come here one way or another, you know,” he said. “With you or without you. Because it was the first of those, and not the second, there won’t be a Fourth Civil War in our lifetimes. The gains of the last hundred years or so have the chance to become the foundation of something lasting, and not just one more of history’s might-have-beens.”
The wind rushed past us on its way to the Suri River and the settled country beyond. “Meriga is healing now,” Plummer said. “Not healed, not by any means, but healing. There’s strength and hope and a sense of possibility that might be turned to good purposes, or bad ones. All things considered, the country could benefit just now from a presden who’s earned his living with his own hands, who has walked from one end of Meriga to the other, who’s learned what it means to be disliked and distrusted for no better reason than the prejudices of the thoughtless. That might spare us some mistakes, and put some high hopes in reach.” He glanced at me. “Or not. There are no guarantees.”
“I suppose there never are,” I said.
Plummer nodded. “At the same time,” he said, “your find here may have quite some impact of its own. Thu told me some of what turned up here; I admit to a great deal of curiosity about the details.”
“I have a copy of everything we printed out. It’s down below, but I can get it for you.”
“Many thanks. And of course that brings up another matter we should discuss.”
“Precisely. Have you considered it?”
“Over and over again.” I drew in a breath. “I’d like to take you up on that—but there’s a problem, or might be.” I swallowed, then, and told him about this notebook, about the account I’d written of my journey here, and where Eleen and Tashel Ban wanted to send it.
He took that in, then: “Are you willing to place yourself under my authority as Cord?”
“Even if that means that I instruct you to destroy the manuscript?”
I’d already thought about that. “Yes.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he said at once. “Can you arrange for it to be hidden once the translation has been made and sent to the Cetans?”
I thought of what Eleen said, when we were discussing the message from Delta Pavonis IV, about hiding everything we’d found for a thousand years, and nodded. “The scholar we have here is a good friend; she’ll do that if I ask her.”
“That will be fine.” He paused, then went on. “Perhaps we can arrange with her to have the manuscript placed in one of our collections, once she’s finished with it. Fifty years from now, anyone could read it without danger; it’s simply the interval between then and now that’s at issue.” With another of his little smiles: “And I confess to a certain degree of vanity. It would be pleasant to know that beings on another planet will have heard of me. More to the point, of the work in which I’m engaged.”
“I wonder what they’ll think about that,” I said. All at once I could imagine a bunch of blobby yellow Cetans sitting in a pool of gasoline in some tilted-bowl building of theirs, under the golden sky of Tau Ceti II, talking to each other in their magnetic-field voices and trying to figure out who this Plummer person was in the strange story they’d gotten by radio from Mam Gaia all those light-years away. I grinned and said, “For all we know, some of them might be doing the same work.”
“An enticing thought.” Plummer looked at me for a moment, then said, “How soon would it be convenient for you to leave?”
I’d been wondering all along how soon he would ask that question, or one close enough to it that the difference wasn’t worth worrying about “Whenever you like. Well, I’ll need to see to the notebook and get my things packed, but that’s all.”
“Excellent. It would be best if we could leave before nightfall.”
I got off the antenna housing. “So long as you promise not to disappear when I turn my back.”
That got me a broad smile. “I can certainly promise that,” he said. “In fact, one of the first things you need to learn is how that’s done.”
“I’d like to know that,” I told him.
“We can begin as soon as you return,” he said.
There are voices outside in the hallway now, prentices talking with each other as they head for the kitchen and the evening’s chores. In a little while, when they’re gone, I’ll shoulder my bag and head up the stair and leave Star’s Reach behind, and Plummer and I will be on our way—where, I have no idea, and I’m not at all sure it matters to me just at the moment. The note for Eleen is on the bed we’ve shared; I’d be lying if I claimed the note was just about this notebook and what to do with it, but that’s one of the things I wrote about.
I wondered for a while if I should take something from Star’s Reach to carry with me wherever I go next, the way I’ve carried Tam’s yellow metal butterfly, the ring that used to be my mother’s, the star they sent her after my father died, and the few other things I’ve got in my little bag of keepsakes down at the bottom of my pack. Still, I decided against it, and I think that was the best choice. I’ll be carrying plenty with me anyway: the view from Troy Tower, the nights with Eleen and those other nights in Memfis during the rains, the lazy days on the canal boat and the riverboat, the stories I heard when we were camping at night with travelers on a dozen different roads, the slow arc the Spire made as it fell and the expression on Jennel Cobey’s face as he fell, too. It’s more than enough.
I asked Plummer about that, in a way, before I came back down into Star’s Reach. I’d just about turned to go, and then stopped and said, “One other thing,” and reminded him about what he’d said on the road to Sisnaddi, about the one big and nameless story that contains all other stories.
He blinked. “I said that?”
“I think you were drunk just then.”
“That’s certainly possible,” he admitted.
“The thing I’m wondering is this,” I said. “If I’ve finally gotten out of the one big story, what do I do now?”
He thought about that for a moment. “If it’s true,” he said, “that all stories belong to that one story, you can’t leave it, because whatever you do is a story—whatever any of us do is a story, and part of other stories. As long as the end of the story you’re in isn’t the end of you as well, I suppose you find a new story that the rest of your life can tell.”
He leaned forward, then, and the sun flashed on his round glasses. “It occurs to me that that’s what Meriga has been doing for the last four hundred years. The old world had its own favorite story, which said that we owned Mam Gaia and everything else and could make them all do whatever we wanted”—he gave me a look and a little smile—“like animals at an old world sirk. That story didn’t have a happy ending, quite the contrary, and since then, we’ve been looking for another story to tell.”
“Well, most of us,” I said.
“True enough. Cobey Taggart wanted to go back to the old story, and look how his story ended.” He shrugged. “But most people know better now. It might just be possible now for us to find out what our new story should be, and get to work telling it.”
I thought about that as I came down the stair into Star’s Reach, walked down the corridor to this bare little room, turned on the lamp and got out this notebook as I’ve done so many times over the months I spent here, because Plummer’s right, and not just about Meriga. Nuwinga and Genda and the coastal allegiancies are looking for new stories, too, if they haven’t found them already, and I’m sure that other people all over Mam Gaia’s round belly are busy doing one or the other.
I’m sure of it because there are other people on other worlds who’ve already done it. The Cetans might still be figuring out their new story, but the bubble-and-feather things from Delta Pavonis IV figured out theirs back before the first of Mam Gaia’s human children climbed down out of the trees in Affiga, and I don’t even want to think about how long ago some of those other species made—what was it the message said?—the usual mistakes and suffered the usual consequences, picked themselves up again and found some new story to tell with their lives. If they could do it, I’m pretty sure we can.
And you know, I think I probably can, too.
There are three pieces of paper pasted on the inside back cover of the original notebook. The first is a handwritten note, which seems originally to have been pinned to the outside of the front cover:
My dear Lissa,
This is the manuscript I told you about. You may read it if you wish, but please don’t make a copy of it or show it to anyone else in the guild, and give it to (a word or name carefully blotted out with ink) as soon as possible. She’ll see to it that it gets to the place it needs to be.
With all my thanks and gratitude,
Eleen darra Sofee
Below this is a handwritten label:
Received into this collection on 14 Janwer,
24th year of Sharl sunna Sheren’s Presdency
Below this is a printed label:
This manuscript, accession number 2878,
has been placed in the special collections
of the Central Archive of the Guild of Rememberers
on the occasion of its public dedication
on the 22nd day of Toba in the 16th year
of Trey XII, Presden of the Union of Great Meriga
being in the ancient calendar
the year 2821 AD.