Chapter 10. Conversations in Mishnory

From The Left Hand of Darkness

Next -morning as I finished a late breakfast served to me in my suite in Shusgis’ mansion the house-phone emitted a polite bleat. When I switched it on, the caller spoke in Karhidish: “Therem Harth here. May I come up?”

“Please do.”

I was glad to get the confrontation over with at once. It was plain that no tolerable relationship could exist between Estraven and myself. Even though his disgrace and exile were at least nominally on my account, I could take no responsibility for them, feel no rational guilt; he had made neither his acts nor his motives clear to me in Erhenrang, and I could not trust the fellow. I wished that he was not mixed up with these Orgota who had, as it were, adopted me. His presence was a complication and an embarrassment.

He was shown into the room by one of the many house-employees. I had him sit down in one of the large padded chairs, and offered him breakfast-ale. He refused. His manner was not constrained — he had left shyness a long way behind him if he ever had any — but it was restrained: tentative, aloof.

“The first real snow,” he said, and seeing my glance at the heavily curtained window, “You haven’t looked out yet?”

I did so, and saw snow whirling thick on a light wind down the street, over the whitened roofs; two or three inches had fallen in the night. It was Odarhad Gor, the 17th of the first month of autumn. “It’s early,” I said, caught by the snow-spell for a moment.

“They predict a hard winter this year.”

I left the curtains drawn back. The bleak even light from outside fell on his dark face. He looked older. He had known some hard times since I saw him last in the Corner Red Dwelling of the Palace in Erhenrang by his own fireside.

“I have here what I was asked to bring you,” I said, and gave him the foilskin-wrapped packet of money, which I had set out on a table ready after his call. He took it and thanked me gravely. I had not sat down. After a moment, still holding the packet, he stood up.

My conscience itched a little, but I did not scratch it. I wanted to discourage him from coming to me. That this involved humiliating him was unfortunate.

He looked straight at me. He was shorter than I, of course, short-legged and compact, not as tall even as many women of my race. Yet when he looked at me he did not seem to be looking up at me. I did not meet his eyes. I examined the radio on the table with a show of abstracted interest.

“One can’t believe everything one hears on that radio, here,” he said pleasantly. “Yet it seems to me that here in Mishnory you are going to be in some need of information, and advice.”

“There seem to be a number of people quite ready to supply it.”

“And there’s safety in numbers, eh? Ten are more trustworthy than one. Excuse me, I shouldn’t use Karhidish, I forgot.” He went on in Orgota, “Banished men should never speak their native tongue; it comes bitter from their mouth. And this language suits a traitor better, I think; drips off one’s teeth like sugar-syrup. Mr. Ai, I have the right to thank you. You performed a service both for me and for my old friend and kemmering Ashe Foreth, and in his name and mine I claim my right. My thanks take the form of advice.” He paused; I said nothing. I had never heard him use this sort of harsh, elaborate courtesy, and had no idea what it signified. He went on, “You are, in Mishnory, what you were not, in Erhenrang. There they said you were; here they’ll say you’re not. You are the tool of a faction. I advise you to be careful how you let them use you. I advise you to find out what the enemy faction is, and who they are, and never to let them use you, for they will not use you well.”

He stopped. I was about to demand that he be more specific, but he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Ai,” turned, and left. I stood benumbed. The man was like an electric shock-nothing to hold on to and you don’t know what hit you.

He had certainly spoiled the mood of peaceful self-congratulation in which I had eaten breakfast. I went to the narrow window and looked out. The snow had thinned a little. It was beautiful, drifting in white clots and clusters like a fall of cherry-petals in the orchards of my home, when a spring wind blows down the green slopes of Borland, where I was born: on Earth, warm Earth, where trees bear flowers in spring. All at once I was utterly downcast and homesick. Two years I had spent on this damned planet, and the third winter had begun before autumn was underway — months and months of unrelenting cold, sleet, ice, wind, rain, snow, cold, cold inside, cold outside, cold to the bone and the marrow of the bone. And all that time on my own, alien and isolate, without a soul I could trust. Poor Genly, shall we cry? I saw Estraven come out of the house onto the street below me, a dark foreshortened figure in the even, vague gray-white of the snow. He looked about, adjusting the loose belt of his hieb — he wore no coat. He set off down the street, walking with a deft, definite grace, a quickness of being that made him seem in that minute the only thing alive in all Mishnory.

I turned back to the warm room. Its comforts were stuffy and cloddish, the heater, the padded chairs, the bed piled with furs, the rugs, drapes, wrappings, muf-flings.

I put on my winter coat and went out for a walk, in a disagreeable mood, in a disagreeable world.

I was to lunch that day with Commensals Obsle and Yegey and others I had met the night before, and to be introduced to some I had not met. Lunch is usually served from a buffet and eaten standing up, perhaps so that one will not feel he has spent the entire day sitting at table. For this formal affair, however, places were set at table, and the buffet was enormous, eighteen or twenty hot and cold dishes, mostly variations on sube-eggs and breadapple. At the sideboard, before the taboo on conversation applied, Obsle remarked to me while loading up his plate with batter-fried sube-eggs, “The fellow named Mersen is a spy from Erhenrang, and Gaum there is an open agent of the Sarf, you know.” He spoke conversationally, laughed as if I had made an amusing reply, and moved off to the pickled blackfish.

I had no idea what the Sarf was.

As people were beginning to sit down a young fellow came in and spoke to the host, Yegey, who then turned to us. “News from Karhide,” he said. “King Argaven’s child was born this morning, and died within the hour.”

There was a pause, and a buzz, and then the handsome man called Gaum laughed and lifted up his beer-tankard. “May all the Kings of Karhide live as long!” he cried. Some drank the toast with him, most did not. “Name of Meshe, to laugh at a child’s death,” said a fat old man in purple sitting heavily down beside me, his leggings bunched around his thighs like skirts, his face heavy with disgust

Discussion arose as to which of his kemmering-sons Argaven might name as his heir — for he was well over forty and would now surely have no child of his flesh — and how long he might leave Tibe as Regent. Some thought the regency would be ended at once, others were dubious. “What do you think, Mr. Ai?” asked the man called Mersen, whom Obsle had identified as a Karhidish agent, and thus presumably one of Tibe’s own men. “You’ve just come from Erhenrang, what are they saying there about these rumors that Argaven has in fact abdicated without announcement, handed the sledge over to his cousin?”

“Well, I’ve heard the rumor, yes.”

“Do you think it’s got any foundation?”

“I have no idea,” I said, and at this point the host intervened with a mention of the weather; for people had begun to eat.

After servants had cleared away the plates and the mountainous wreckage of roasts and pickles from the buffet, we all sat on around the long table; small cups of a fierce liquor were served, lifewater they called it, as men often do; and they asked me questions.

Since my examination by the physicians and scientists of Erhenrang I had not been faced with a group of people who wanted me to answer their questions. Few Karhiders, even the fishermen and farmers with whom I had spent my first months, had been willing to satisfy their curiosity — which was often intense — by simply asking. They were involute, introvert, indirect; they did not like questions and answers. I though of Otherhord Fastness, of what Faxe the Weaver had said concerning answers. . . . Even the experts had limited their questions to strictly physiological subjects, such as the glandular and circulatory functions in which I differed most notably from the Gethenian norm. They had never gone on to ask, for example, how the continuous sexuality of my race influenced its social institutions, how we handled our “permanent kemmer.” They listened, when I told them; the psychologists listened when I told them about mindspeech; but not one of them had brought himself to ask enough general questions to form any adequate picture of Terran or Ekumenical society — except, perhaps, Estraven.

Here they weren’t quite so tied up by considerations of everybody’s prestige and pride, and questions evidently were not insulting either to the asker or the one questioned. However I soon saw that some of the questioners were out to catch me, to prove me a fraud. That threw me off balance a minute. I had of course met with incredulity in Karhide, but seldom with a will to incredulity. Tibe had put on an elaborate show of going-along-with-the-hoax, the day of the parade in Erhenrang, but as I now knew that was part of the game he had played to discredit Estraven, and I guessed that Tibe did in fact believe me. He had seen my ship, after all, the little lander that had brought me down onplanet; he had free access along with anyone else to the engineers’ reports on the ship and the ansible. None of these Orgota had seen the ship. I could show them the ansible, but it didn’t make a very convincing Alien Artifact, being so incomprehensible as to fit in with hoax as well as with reality. The old Law of Cultural Embargo stood against the importation of analyzable, imitable artifacts at this stage, and so I had nothing with me except the ship and ansible, my box of pictures, the indubitable peculiarity of my body, and the unprovable singularity of my mind. The pictures passed around the table, and were examined with the noncommittal expression you see on the faces of people looking at pictures of somebody else’s family. The questioning continued. What, asked Obsle, was the Ekumen — a world, a league of worlds, a place, a government?

“Well, all of those and none. Ekumen is our Terran word; in the common tongue it’s called the Household; in Karhidish it would be the Hearth. In Orgota I’m not sure, I don’t know the language well enough yet. Not the Commensality, I think, though there are undoubtedly similarities between the Commensal Government and the Ekumen. But the Ekumen is not essentially a government at all. It is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political, and as such is of course mostly a failure; but its failure has done more good for humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors. It is a society and it has, at least potentially, a culture. It is a form of education; in one aspect it’s a sort of very large school — very large indeed. The motives of communication and cooperation are of its essence, and therefore in another aspect it’s a league or union of worlds, possessing some degree of centralized conventional organization. It’s this aspect, the League, that I now represent. The Ekumen as a political entity functions through coordination, not by rule. It does not enforce laws; decisions are reached by council and consent, not by consensus or command. As an economic entity it is immensely active, looking after interworld communication, keeping the balance of trade among the Eighty Worlds. Eighty-four, to be precise, if Gethen enters the Ekumen. . . .”

“What do you mean, it doesn’t enforce its laws?” said Slose.

“It hasn’t any. Member states follow their own laws; when they clash the Ekumen mediates, attempts to make a legal or ethical adjustment or collation or choice. Now if the Ekumen, as an experiment in the superorganic, does eventually fail, it will have to become a peace-keeping force, develop a police, and so on. But at this point there’s no need. All the central worlds are still recovering from a disastrous era a couple of centuries ago, reviving lost skills and lost ideas, learning how to talk again. . . .” How could I explain the Age of the Enemy, and its aftereffects, to a people who had no word for war?

“This is absolutely fascinating, Mr. Ai,” said the host, Commensal Yegey, a delicate, dapper, drawling fellow with keen eyes. “But I can’t see what they’d want with us. I mean to say, what particular good is an eighty-fourth world to them? And not, I take it, a very clever world, for we don’t have Star Ships and so on, as they all do.”

“None of us did, until the Hainish and the Cetians arrived. And some worlds still weren’t allowed to, for centuries, until the Ekumen established the canons for what I think you here call Open Trade.” That got a laugh all around, for it was the name of Yegey’s party or faction within the Commensality. “Open trade is really what I’m here to try to set up. Trade not only in goods, of course, but in knowledge, technologies, ideas, philosophies, art, medicine, science, theory ... I doubt that Gethen would ever do much physical coming-and-going to the other worlds. We are seventeen light-years here from the nearest Ekumenical World, Ollul, a planet of the star you call Asyomse; the farthest is two hundred and fifty light-years away and you cannot even see its star. With the ansible communicator, you could talk with that world as if by radio with the next town. But I doubt you’d ever meet any people from it. ... The kind of trade I speak of can be highly profitable, but it consists largely of simple communication rather than of transportation. My job here is, really, to find out if you’re willing to communicate with the rest of mankind.”

“‘You,’” Slose repeated, leaning forward intensely: “Does that mean Orgoreyn? or does it mean Gethen as a whole?”

I hesitated a moment, for it was not the question I had expected.

“Here and now, it means Orgoreyn. But the contract cannot be exclusive. If Sith, or the Island Nations, or Karhide decide to enter the Ekumen, they may. It’s a matter of individual choice each time. Then what generally happens, on a planet as highly developed as Gethen, is that the various anthrotypes or regions or nations end up by establishing a set of representatives to function as coordinator on the planet and with the other planets — a local Stability, in our terms. A lot of time is saved by beginning this way; and money, by sharing the expense. If you decided to set up a starship of your own, for instance.”

“By the milk of Meshe!” said fat Humery beside me. “You want us to go shooting off into the Void? Ugh!” He wheezed, like the high notes of an accordion, in disgust and amusement.

Gaum spoke: “Where is your ship, Mr. Ai?” He put the question softly, half-smiling, as if it were extremely subtle and he wished the subtlety to be noticed. He was a most extraordinarily handsome human being, by any standards and as either sex, and I couldn’t help staring at him as I answered, and also wondered again what the Sarf was. “Why, that’s no secret; it was talked about a good bit on the Karhidish radio. The rocket that landed me on Horden Island is now in the Royal Workshop Foundry in the Artisan School; most of it, anyway; I think various experts went off with various bits of it after they’d examined it.”

“Rocket?” inquired Humery, for I had used the Orgota word for firecracker.

“It succinctly describes the method of propulsion of the landingboat, sir.”

Humery wheezed some more. Gaum merely smiled, saying, “Then you have no means of returning to ... well, wherever you came from?”

“Oh, yes. I could speak to Ollul by ansible and ask them to send a NAFAL ship to pick me up. It would get here in seventeen years. Or I could radio to the starship that brought me into your solar system. It’s in orbit around your sun now. It would get here in a matter of days.”

The sensation that caused was visible and audible, and even Gaum couldn’t hide his surprise. There was some discrepancy here. This was the one major fact I had kept concealed in Karhide, even from Estraven. If, as I had been given to understand, the Orgota knew about me only what Karhide had chosen to tell them, then this should have been only one among many surprises. But it wasn’t. It was the big one.

“Where is this ship, sir?” Yegey demanded.

“Orbiting the sun, somewhere between Gethen and Kuhurn.”

“How did you get from it to here?”

“By the firecracker,” said old Humery.

“Precisely. We don’t land an interstellar ship on a populated planet until open communication or alliance is established. So I came in on a little rocket-boat, and landed on Horden Island.”

“And you can get in touch with the — with the big ship by ordinary radio, Mr. Ai?” That was Obsle.

“Yes,” I omitted mention for the present of my little relay satellite, set into orbit from the rocket; I did not want to give them the impression that their sky was full of my junk. “It would take a fairly powerful transmitter, but you have plenty of those.”

“Then we could radio your ship?”

“Yes, if you had the proper signal. The people aboard are in a condition we call stasis, hibernation you might say, so that they won’t lose out of their lives the years they spend waiting for me to get my business done down here. The proper signal on the proper wavelength will set machinery in motion which will bring them out of stasis; after which they’ll consult with me by radio, or by ansible using Ollul as relay-center.”

Someone asked uneasily, “How many of them?”


That brought a little sound of relief, a laugh. The tension relaxed a little.

“What if you never signaled?” Obsle asked.

“They’ll come out of stasis automatically, about four years from now.”

“Would they come here after you, then?”

“Not unless they’d heard from me. They’d consult with the Stabiles on Ollul and Ham, by ansible. Most likely they’d decide to try again — send down another person as Envoy. The Second Envoy often finds things easier than the First. He has less explaining to do, and people are likelier to believe him....”

Obsle grinned. Most of the others still looked thoughtful and guarded. Gaum gave me an airy little nod, as if applauding my quickness to reply: a conspirator’s nod. Slose was staring bright-eyed and tense at some inner vision, from which he turned abruptly to me. “Why,” he said, “Mr. Envoy, did you never speak of this other ship, during your two years in Karhide?”

“How do we know that he didn’t?” said Gaum, smiling.

“We know damned well that he didn’t, Mr. Gaum,” said Yegey, also smiling.

“I didn’t,” I said. “This is why. The idea of that ship, waiting out there, can be an alarming one. I think some of you find it so. In Karhide, I never advanced to a point of confidence with those I dealt with that allowed me to take the risk of speaking of the ship. Here, you’ve had longer to think about me; you’re willing to listen to me out in the open, in public; you’re not so much ruled by fear. I took the risk because I think the time has come to take it, and that Orgoreyn is the place.”

“You are right, Mr. Ai, you are right!” Slose said violently. “Within a month you will send for that ship, and it will be made welcome in Orgoreyn as the visible sign and seal of the new epoch. Their eyes will be opened who will not see now!”

It went on, right on till dinner was served to us where we sat. We ate and drank and went home, I for one worn out, but pleased all in all with the way things had gone. There were warnings and obscurities, of course. Slose wanted to make a religion of me. Gaum wanted to make a sham of me. Mersen seemed to want to prove that he was not a Karhidish agent by proving that I was. But Obsle, Yegey, and some others were working on a higher level. They wanted to communicate with the Stabiles, and to bring the NAFAL ship down on Orgota ground, in order to persuade or coerce the Commensality of Orgoreyn to ally itself with the Ekumen. They believed that in doing so Orgoreyn would gain a large and lasting prestige-victory over Karhide, and that the Commensals who engineered this victory would gain according prestige and power in their government. Their Open Trade faction, a minority in the Thirty-Three, opposed the continuation of the Sinoth Valley dispute, and in general represented a conservative, unaggressive, non-nationalistic policy. They had been out of power for a long time and were calculating that their way back to power might, with some risks taken, lie on the road I pointed out. That they saw no farther than that, that my mission was a means to them and not an end, was no great harm. Once they were on the road, they might begin to get some sense of where it could take them. Meanwhile, if shortsighted, they were at least realistic.

Obsle, speaking to persuade others, had said, “Either Karhide will fear the strength this alliance will give us — and Karhide is always afraid of new ways and new ideas, remember — and so will hang back and be left behind. Or else the Erhenrang Government will get up their courage and come and ask to join, after us, in second place. In either case the shifgrethor of Karhide will be diminished; and in either case, we drive the sledge. If we have the wits to take this advantage now, it will be a permanent advantage and a certain one!” Then turning to me, “But the Ekumen must be willing to help us, Mr. Ai. We have got to have more to show our people than you alone, one man, already known in Erhenrang.”

“I see that, Commensal. You’d like a good, showy proof, and I’d like to offer one. But I cannot bring down the ship until its safety and your integrity are reasonably secure. I need the consent and the guarantee of your government, which I take it would mean the whole board of Commensals — publicly announced.”

Obsle looked dour, but said, “Fair enough.”

Driving home with Shusgis, who had contributed nothing but his jovial laugh to the afternoon’s business, I asked, “Mr. Shusgis, what is the Sarf?”

“One of the Permanent Bureaus of the Internal Administration. Looks out after false registries, unauthorized travel, job-substitutions, forgeries, that sort of thing — trash. That’s what sarf means in gutter-Orgota, trash, it’s a nickname.”

“Then the Inspectors are agents of the Sarf?”

“Well, some are.”

“And the police, I suppose they come under its authority to some extent?” I put the question cautiously and was answered in kind. “I suppose so. I’m in the External Administration, of course, and I can’t keep all the offices straight, over in Internal.”

“They certainly are confusing; now what’s the Waters Office, for instance?” So I backed off as best I could from the subject of the Sarf. What Shusgis had not said on the subject might have meant nothing at all to a man from Hain, say, or lucky Chiffewar; but I was born on Earth. It is not altogether a bad thing to have criminal ancestors. An arsonist grandfather may bequeath one a nose for smelling smoke.

It had been entertaining and fascinating to find here on Gethen governments so similar to those in the ancient histories of Terra: a monarchy, and a genuine fullblown bureaucracy. This new development was also fascinating, but less entertaining. It was odd that in the less primitive society, the more sinister note was struck.

So Gaum, who wanted me to be a liar, was an agent of the secret police of Orgoreyn. Did he know that Obsle knew him as such? No doubt he did. Was he then the agent provocateur? Was he nominally working with, or against, Obsle’s faction? Which of the factions within the Government of Thirty-Three controlled, or was controlled by, the Sarf? I had better get these matters straight, but it might not be easy to do so. My course, which for a while had looked so clear and hopeful, seemed likely to become as tortuous and beset with secrets as it had been in Erhenrang. Everything had gone all right, I thought, until Estraven had appeared shadowlike at my side last night.

“What’s Lord Estraven’s position, here in Mishnory?” I asked Shusgis, who had settled back as if half asleep in the corner of the smooth-running car.

“Estraven? Harth, he’s called here, you know. We don’t have titles in Orgoreyn, dropped all that with the New Epoch. Well, he’s a dependent of Commensal Yegey’s, I understand.”

“He lives there?”

“I believe so.”

I was about to say that it was odd that he had been at Slose’s last night and not at Yegey’s today, when I saw that in the light of our brief morning interview it wasn’t very odd. Yet even the idea that he was intentionally keeping away made me uncomfortable.

“They found him,” said Shusgis, resettling his broad hips on the cushioned seat, “over in the Southside in a glue factory or a fish cannery or some such place, and gave him a hand out of the gutter. Some of the Open Trade crowd, I mean. Of course he was useful to them when he was in the kyorremy and Prime Minister, so they stand by him now. Mainly they do it to annoy Mersen, I think. Ha, ha! Mersen’s a spy for Tibe, and of course he thinks nobody knows it but everybody does, and he can’t stand the sight of Harth — thinks he’s either a traitor or a double agent and doesn’t know which, and can’t risk shifgrethor in finding out. Ha, ha!”

“Which do you think Harth is, Mr. Shusgis?”

“A traitor, Mr. Ai. Pure and simple. Sold out his country’s claims in the Sinoth Valley in order to prevent Tibe’s rise to power, but didn’t manage it cleverly enough. He’d have met with worse punishment than exile, here. By Meshe’s tits! If you play against your own side you’ll lose the whole game. That’s what these fellows with no patriotism, only self-love, can’t see. Though I don’t suppose Harth much cares where he is so long as he can keep on wriggling towards some kind of power. He hasn’t done so badly here, in five months, as you see.”

“Not so badly.”

“You don’t trust him either, eh?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Ai. I don’t see why Yegey and Obsle hang on to the fellow. He’s a proven traitor, out for his own profit, and trying to hang onto your sledge, Mr. Ai, until he can keep himself going. That’s how I see it. Well, I don’t know that I’d give him any free rides, if he came asking me for one!” Shusgis puffed and nodded vigorously in approval of his own opinion, and smiled at me, the smile of one virtuous man to another. The car ran softly through the wide, well-lit streets. The morning’s snow was melted except for dingy heaps along the gutters; it was raining now, a cold, small rain.

The great buildings of central Mishnory, government offices, schools, Yomesh temples, were so blurred by rain in the liquid glare of the high streetlights that they looked as if they were melting. Their corners were vague, their facades streaked, dewed, smeared. There was something fluid, insubstantial, in the very heaviness of this city built of monoliths, this monolithic state which called the part and the whole by the same name. And Shusgis, my jovial host, a heavy man, a substantial man, he too was somehow, around the corners and edges, a little vague, a little, just a little bit unreal.

Ever since I had set off by car through the wide golden fields of Orgoreyn four days ago, beginning my successful progress towards the inner sanctums of Mishnory, I had been missing something. But what? I felt insulated. I had not felt the cold, lately. They kept rooms decently warm, here. I had not eaten with pleasure, lately. Orgota cooking was insipid; no harm in that. But why did the people I met, whether well or ill disposed towards me, also seem insipid? There were vivid personalities among them — Obsle, Slose, the handsome and detestable Gaum — and yet each of them lacked some quality, some dimension of being; and they failed to convince. They were not quite solid.

It was, I thought, as if they did not cast shadows.

This kind of rather highflown speculation is an essential part of my job. Without some capacity for it I could not have qualified as a Mobile, and I received formal training in it on Hain, where they dignify it with the title of Farfetching. What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor. I was never an outstanding farfetcher, and this night I distrusted my own intuitions, being very tired. When I was back in my apartment I took refuge in a hot shower. But even there I felt a vague unease, as if the hot water was not altogether real and reliable, and could not be counted on.