Sunday, September 13, 2015

4: The Man Who Made His Mark

            Ben watched through the window of his residence above the apothecary as Jason emerged into the morning light.  The young man stretched, hoisted a quiver of arrows and a longbow onto his shoulder, fixed his harpoon across his back, and jogged off down the muddy path towards the outskirts of town and his day’s labors.
            There is loyalty, Ben thought, watching him go.  There is the vigor of youth and the shining light of honor.  There is the absence of guile and the presence of courage.  There is all that is best in men.  There is all that is best in Haven.
            I do not deserve to have him in my care.  I do not deserve to have him in my life.
            He had been cruel, unthinkingly cruel, to Jason the previous evening.  The boy had been going on and on about the intricacies of the day’s hunt.  Babbling, as was his wont.  Rosemary, sweet Rosemary, kind and honorable as always, had been attentive, asking intelligent questions, expressing admiration and sympathy at all the appropriate moments.  He, meanwhile, had been the same pompous ass as ever, barely listening, absorbed in the latest reports of activity by the hillmen.  There were rumors, terrible rumors, of a swelling power to the north, of a gathering together of warring tribes; more immediately, there were threats of renewed activity on the very outskirts of Haven itself.  No doubt it was the Mencks again, probing at their defenses, seeking to exploit whatever information Imre and Delia had uncovered prior to their discovery.  That episode had been a black eye for him, and no mistake.  His own fault, of course, and he could scarcely blame his one great political enemy, the most dangerous man in Haven, for moving into the gap his neglect had created…and then, suddenly, Jason and Rosemary had both been staring at him, awaiting his response to some remark.  “Well, what, boy?” he had blurted.  “Yes, yes, you failed to kill a deer!  A great tragedy!  My condolences!”
            Jason had, of course, slunk away like a beaten dog, and Ben had endured a withering glare from his beloved as she had moved to comfort the boy.  Later, Jason had returned, an eager puppy, as if Ben’s words had never cut him.  Ben had not apologized.  Apologies were the business of the weak.  A strong man did not attempt to excuse his misbehavior, he sought to correct it.  But Ben was an old, old man―centuries old, one of the oldest still living in Haven―and he had begun to suspect that his nature was too deeply ingrained in him to be changed now.
            The worse for Haven if that is true.  And the worse for my immortal soul.  By God, I have to be a better man than I was.  I MUST get it right this time around.
            Turning from the window to his washbasin, Ben stared at his reflection in the mirrored glass.  The glass was a rare item in their primitive community; there were no glazeries within the city limits, or indeed any nearer than Himmelgarten, and the hillmen were so eager to swoop down upon any caravan between towns that trade goods were obscenely expensive.  The figure looking back out of the glass at him bore three days’ beard growth.  It had an impressive hawk’s beak of a nose, a strong jaw, short dark hair thinning out on top, pale grey eyes.  It was the face of a man perhaps forty years old, and even fourteen years after the fact, he still couldn’t get used to how new it looked.  How young it looked.
            My face is a lie.  My life is a lie.
            Ben rolled up his sleeves, revealing muscular forearms, darkly tanned, the left laced with tiny scars.  Reaching into the basin, he did his feeble best to make lather out of a crude cake of soap and the water therein, and spread the thin foam over his cheeks and chin with a horsehair brush.  He reached for his razor, an item still rarer than the mirror-glass…not mere iron, but steel, or a reasonable approximation thereof.  Few of the blades stored in the Redoubt or elsewhere in town held as keen an edgeForged with great effort at the hottest of Haven’s smithies and bestowed upon him by a collection of grateful citizens.    If they had known me better, they would have cut my throat with it.
Ben scraped away at the dark bristles, and reflected on the events that had brought him to Elysium, and to the town which he had helped build, which he had helped name.  Departure and exile from Earth.  My second exile, he thought ruefully.  Rejection of The Light, a blessing of which he was so manifestly unworthy.  The discovery of soulflight, the requisite period of wandering, in space and up and down the Axis of Eternity.  The eventual discovery of the planet Elysium and the small cluster of rickety shacks by the river, which he’d named the Quinnipiac.  Returning to the material world under Penelope’s guidance; that first group of friends, Anders and Greta and Bald Will and Xibal, the seed stock of what would become, in time, a thriving community.  All of those first friends were gone now, gone to The Light.  All but him.
            The hardest part, of course, had been piecing together the tiny fragments of their memories.  The bare scraps of knowledge that had been all they had brought with them into the postmortal world.  So much had been lost; so much had to be rediscovered.  He knew that his own Earthly era had been one of musketry and gunpowder, of workhouses and manufactories, but who knew how to recreate them?  And no doubt life on Earth had come further still in the intervening centuries.  Newcomers to Haven now told wondrous tales of powered flight and recorded music and electrified imagery, but the new arrivals seemed to know less than ever about how the devices that ran their lives actually worked.  Haven’s level of technology was late medieval at the very best.
            So much of Earthly life had been forgotten.  Not by his enemy, of course.  Ammerman remembered everything, it seemed, including the one bit of information that Ben most wanted forgotten.  And, in truth, Ben remembered more of Earthly life than most.  Far more, in fact, than he let on.
            Ben remembered the whiff of grapeshot and the pounding of cannon.  Ben remembered his cowardly superior, who’d skulked in his tent while he himself taken command, leading their forces to victory, and leaving him with a wound that left him limping for the rest of his life on Earth.  He remembered the coward’s surrogates croaking at one another in the halls of power, undermining him at every turn, denying him every scrap of credit for the victory his courage had won them.  And Ben remembered what he’d done in response, and what it had cost him.
            So now Ben strove every moment of every day to build a new community.  To protect it from all enemies without and within―from the hillmen, and from the one man who could, by speaking two words, bring Ben’s whole world crashing down.  And to facilitate his efforts, Ben had adopted the identity of another, better man.  One of the greatest men of Ben’s day, in fact―a scientist and philosopher, a wit and a statesman, and above all, a patriot.  He’d done it in the hope that, if anyone ever did come to Haven with the requisite memories, his true name would remain unknown.  And oh, how well it had worked.  He hadn’t fooled Ammerman, of course―nothing seemed to fool Ammerman―but in a cruel twist, he had fooled Rosemary.  He had made a fool of the most wonderful woman on two worlds.  She loved him for the man he pretended to be―but if she ever knew his true name, she would revile him as the worst of traitors.
            Staring into the mirror-glass, Ben saw a clean face, and a tarnished soul.  He lowered the razor to the back of his own left forearm.  He gritted his teeth.  Slowly, agonizingly, he drew it across lengthwise, leaving a small, shallow cut.  The very least of what he deserved.
            And then he stopped up the slowly welling blood with a cloth until it coagulated, and he drew down his sleeve over the mark.  Because Haven―brawling, riotous, madcap Haven―had to be led.  Had to be dragged forward into the future.  Had to be protected from itself, and from the designs of its enemies, and from Ammerman most of all.  It was not an easy job at the best of times; he had only the most tenuous grasp of the reins.  But there was no one else.  So he would maintain appearances.  And he would fight a new war, on a new world, against the enemies of his community.  But he was under no illusions.  He could fool the world as to his nature.  But he could never fool himself.

Ben stared into the mirror-glass and hated.  Because no matter how long he stared, no matter what face he wore, the man staring back at him would always be a traitor.  And no matter whom he pretended to be, no matter what name he took, his true name would forever be synonymous with treason.

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