Will drifted away, against the current of the crowd, towards the river instead of back towards town. He had a long day of not-work ahead of him and the dynamics of the town meeting had given him a lot to think about.
During their tour of the community, Ben had been very clear about his frustrations as a “leader” in Haven. In a sense, the meeting had demonstrated his point. When he (and Rosemary, by proxy) had signaled for silence, they’d gotten it, eventually. But there had also been moments when they’d been perilously close to losing their grip on the crowd, and at the very end, their audience had deserted them entirely in order to sing a silly song. Moreover, when Ben had been confronted with a security threat, he hadn’t issued orders. He’d called for volunteers. Will found himself wondering who’d answer his call. Jason, surely; but Jason already was a part of every organized hunting expedition and every security patrol he could wedge himself into. Who else?
Will drifted into a thick grove of cottonwoods, floating idly around some trunks and straight through others. What about Ammerman? Ammerman had never really been a factor in town politics, so far as Will could see. Ammerman’s crew pretty much kept to themselves, in their workshop, muttering under their collective breath and armed to the teeth. Outside of that tiny circle, nobody really liked Ammerman, so far as Will could tell. If popularity were the issue, Ben could have squashed him like a bug.
And yet…Ammerman’s opinions clearly had weight, of a sort. If Ben could have simply refused his offer of a job for Emily, he plainly would have. Yet he hadn’t. And even the crowd―lone hecklers aside―afforded Ammerman a sort of respect. They didn’t much like what he had to say, or how he said it. But nobody had presumed to talk over him.
People give up their own freedom when they’re afraid of what other people might do with theirs, Will thought. People agree to rules when they’re afraid of the consequences of not doing so. But when even death isn’t a lasting consequence, what’s left to be afraid of? With no offices and no real laws, how is authority exercised? In a place like Haven, where does ‘power’ come from?
Will’s reverie was interrupted by the sight of a flickering light ahead. Slowing his progress, he came upon a small clearing, directly abutting the river. By the water’s edge a small campfire had been built―and sitting on a log by the fire with his back to Will was a squat figure. Ben. What’s he doing on his own out here? And then came the rustling noise from the trees to Will’s left. Ben said he’d discuss things with Ammerman later. It seems later has arrived.
And I have to see…
Seeking cover, Will drifted down into the underbrush at the edge of the clearing, but quickly abandoned that strategy; his position would leave him at least ten yards from the fire, too far to overhear. A quick look around confirmed that no other point on the tree line was closer. And he was running out of time. Within seconds, one of two things would happen―either the approaching figure would spot his heartlight on his way to the fire, or Ben would turn to greet his guest and spot his heartlight in the trees. Wonderful. I’m invisible and I still stick out like a sore thumb.
A sudden thought struck him. Will looked again at the campfire. He judged the distance, then slipped away, outwards towards The Light, down the Axis of Eternity. Elysium faded away behind him, and he found himself drifting in the void. He edged forward about thirty feet, angling slightly downwards, turning backwards and rotating his body into a prone position. Then he pushed back inwards…and found himself back on Elysium, face down in the middle of the campfire, his heartlight invisible in the flames.
It tickled a bit.
Power is an odd thing, thought Ben, poking idly at the fire with a stick.
He had come to Haven with no intention of ever assuming power again, in any form. He remembered the man he’d been; he was not to be trusted with power. But the town―if it could even have been called that―had been in dire straits. He’d acted in the service of others, and as he did so, he found that power accumulated in his hands of its own accord. And as he made use of that power, as the community grew under his stewardship, it seems its inhabitants resented him more and more for being powerful.
He had come to think of power as a useful but finite resource, a think that, like liberty, had to be carefully husbanded to be kept. He had thought of it as almost impossible to win, and of the citizens of Haven as being fatally allergic to it. And then, tonight, a pale, reed-thin girl had stood before the same citizens who so zealously guarded their sovereignty against him. And in exchange for a story and a song, they had surrendered themselves to her utterly.
It is, of course, for the best that the people of Haven not trust me. He idly stoked the fire. And yet…consider the alternative. I am not a good man. But they could do far worse.
He glanced down at the flames. There was something odd about them, a wrongness in the color. But a then twig snapped in the distance, and he looked up, and far worse was emerging from the treeline, hands in his pockets. Ben guarded his expression, turned his back to the approaching figure, stared at the river.
Him, of course. Always him. The only man in this town less trustworthy than myself. The man who would undo centuries of progress for the tiniest increment of personal freedom. And the one man―the only man―against whom I can offer Haven no defense.
The man, as he says, who remembers.
Ammerman strolled to the fallen log and took a seat beside him. Neither man made eye contact with the other. A tense silence prevailed. Ben was the first to break it.
“The girl is seventeen years old, John.”
“Won’t always be.”
Revulsion filled Ben’s soul. He truly has no shame. “No. No she won’t.” Ben turned to regard Ammerman with a jaundiced eye. “But her body always will be, won’t it, John?”
There was no change in Ammerman’s expression. His voice, on the other hand, dropped a solid octave, took on a chill. “Might ought walk that insinuation right back,” he said slowly. He turned to face Ben, his gaze equally cold. “There’s such a thing as a man’s honor, an’ yer a man on ‘is last life, as I recall.”
But you wouldn’t dare, of course. And we both know why. “If my body is found by the riverside directly following a public confrontation with you, it won’t be terribly difficult for the community to figure out what happened.” He returned Ammerman’s stare. “The alibis provided by your rogue’s gallery won’t make one whit of difference. You’ll be hunted, cornered, and sent on your way, either to The Light or to a new life somewhere outside of Haven. I think I might trade my own presence here for the opportunity to eliminate yours.” And we both know that’s a lie. We both know I can’t walk away from what I’ve spent so much effort to build. We both know I can’t leave her.
Ammerman’s eyes narrowed. “Jesus, Ben, what’d I ever do t’you? Piss in yer Cheerios or summ’n? I got the same damn right as ever’ other man ta offer employment to a new arrival. Hell, that’s a service t’ yer ‘community,’ ain’t it?” He as much sneered the word as said it. “You’d think a man’d be grateful.”
Ben scoffed audibly. “Don’t try to sell me on your commitment to Haven, Ammerman. Don’t even begin to try. You’ve done nothing but sow chaos since you came here, and since this business of the Seraphim, it’s been even worse. You’d sell out every man and woman in this town for a scrap of information about them. We both know it; why pretend otherwise?” He turned fully towards Ammerman and raised a finger. “If this is about our other guest, if you think the girl is the key to accessing him or her, you might think again. Rosemary tells me that there’s been not even a hint of progress towards incarnation. It’s very possible that the other one lacks the capacity to inhabit a body, or prefers not to―and if that proves true, and you take out your frustrations on the girl―”
“Who th’ hell d’you think ya are?” For the first time, there was a crack in Ammerman’s composure. “I ain’t done nothin’, not one damn thing t’ justify these goddamn…sc’narios! ‘Take out my frustrations on the girl.’ Whaddya take me for?” Ammerman’s complexion was florid, his eyes blazed. “Answer me a question. Ye ever heard one damn word of complaint about me fr’m any man what works fer me?”
“That’s hardly the―”
“Answer the damn question! Ye heard one word?”
A long pause. “No, John,” Ben said, with an air of resigned patience. “None of your lackeys has ever complained to me of mistreatment on your part.”
“I don’t keep no lackeys! I work with free men. If it’s lackeys yer lookin’ for, might ought be you should look at that big black hound dog you got leashed up.” His voice dropped. “Brainwashed, is what it is. Turned a free-minded young man inta yer pet. S’a goddamn disgrace.”
You dare… At the mention of Jason, Ben felt his ire rise. Whatever his faults, however fearsome his temper, he has TWICE your honor… Ben half stood, his teeth clenched; his felt his face going white. There was a moment in which Ben lost track of the stakes, in which he forgot what two words from Ammerman’s mouth would mean for him, a moment in which he might have traded it all for the chance to wrap his hands around that scrawny, mangy throat. But before he could, Ammerman spoke again. “Answer me this: you heard one word about me initiatin’ force or perp’tratin’ fraud ‘gainst any man in Haven? Seventeen years, Ben. You heard one word? Answer me!”
Another pause. “No, John,” Ben said quietly. “I have never heard of you, or your followers, assaulting or defrauding any resident of Haven.”
“Then git off yer damn high horse. You bein’ pop’lar don’t have spit t’do with what’s right.”
And at the end of the day, that was surely the crux of the matter. One of us may be celebrated, one reviled. One of us may be a leader, the other a near-pariah. One of us may hold power, the other may hold none. But it doesn’t matter. He knows who I really am. And we both know that, where honor is concerned, we haven’t enough between us to fill a thimble.
A long silence, full of mutual loathing.
After a time, Ben spoke. “This is not bringing us any closer to a resolution of the issue. Why do you want the girl, John?”
“It…ain’t…none…of…yer…concern.” Ammerman spoke as if he were explaining to an unusually slow child. “Jesus God almighty. A man’d think ya had some actual authority here, the way you talk.”
“No authority, save that which others willingly grant me. But a responsibility, John,” Ben said doggedly, “a responsibility to Haven, and to every person in it. For all your incessant talk of ‘rights’, the word ‘responsibility’ never seems to pass your lips.”
Ammerman leaned back, his eyes calculating. “All right, Ben,” he said. “Let’s talk about ‘responsibilities’, then. Let’s say, fer th’ sake o’ it, that yer supposition was right. Let’s say I was after th’ girl ‘cuz I had wrongful designs on ‘er. Who was it, what gave you th’ ‘responsibility’ t’ tell folks who they could love?”
Ben’s face wrinkled in disgust. “That question doesn’t even arise, Ammerman. A man who would use a young girl for immoral purposes is a stench in the nostrils of God. The responsibility to deny him falls upon every man of honor.”
Ammerman nodded. “So happens I agree. A kid oughta be protected from ‘er mistakes. Difference between you and me is, I know th’ difference b’tween a child an’ adult. Seems to me I’ve heard you use that phrase ‘stench in the nostrils o’ God’ before, in reference t’ someone else. Oscar an’ Troy, as I recall. Were they children?”
Ben turned back to the fire. Shameless. Despicable. Vile. “Their relationship was criminal in the sight of both God and men. It was not I who cast them out.”
“No. Ye didn’. You just riled up everybody about ‘em, stampeded all o’ Haven against ‘em, an’ then stood aside an’ let it happen. All on account o’ they loved each other in a way Big Man Ben didn’t deem proper. Those two were citizens o’ Haven, same as any other man. Y’ figure y’ fulfilled your ‘responsibility’ to ‘em?”
“This is your defense, John? You cite, as evidence of the fine moral example you will present to this child, your willingness to countenance perversion? You truly are a godless man.”
Ammerman nodded immediately. “In case you ain’t noticed, Ben, we’re already in the afterlife, and God ain’t here. Like it or not, we’re all godless men.” Ben eyed Ammerman as if he were a cockroach, but Ammerman continued, undeterred. “Might ought be we’re gonna have to find us some new rules to live by. The Code O’ Ben ain’t gonna cut it for me an’ mine.”
“The standards you repudiate were not chosen by me alone, John. They are the standards decided upon by the community in its entirety. You would extend infinite license to each man to do what he willed. If you wish to see what society looks like under such conditions, look to the hillmen. Why not live among them, if you crave infinite freedom?”
For a tiny, fleeting moment, Ben thought he saw a hint of surprise in Ammerman’s face. But no, the man was iron; he had surely imagined it. “On account o’ I choose ta live here.”
“Indeed. You willingly accept the protection of the community from outsiders, such as the hillmen. You accept our protection in terms of your business practices—it is Haven, as a whole, which keeps any interested gang from raiding your shop and seizing its inventory. Yet here you are asserting that the broad liberties we have extended you are insufficient, that your own will must be indulged in all things.” Ben shook his head. “It’s preposterous. I will not turn over this girl to the care of a parasite such as yourself.”
Ammerman had his composure back. “Then might ought be it’s time for me to fulfill m’ obligations t’ th’ community, Ben. My ‘responsibilities’, if’n y’ like. I’m a man what remembers things. Might ought be it’s time for me t’ share with Haven what I remember.” A deadly pause. “All o’ what I remember.”
And here we are. In the end, it always comes to this.
“Reckon my responsibility to my community,” Ammerman contined, “if’n I chose to exercise it, might well be t’ let th’ community know what manner o’ man’s leadin’ it. Don’t you agree, Ben?” The name twisted in his mouth as he said it. “Reckon lotsa folks might see things diff’rent, ‘round here, they knew what I remember.” Another pause. “Rosemary among ‘em.” Yet another pause. “Rosemary first among ‘em.”
Ben’s voice was quiet, devoid of all expression. “If you insist on playing this card on every occasion, John Ammerman, it will redound to your sorrow.”
“Might be, Ben. Might be.” Ammerman sat with his knees together, hands folded atop them. “So might be that, rather than fightin’ an’ threatenin’, you an’ I ought reach a compromise, eh? ‘S a very community kinda thing, a compromise.” Slowly, Ammerman rose to his feet. “Never thought I owned th’ girl. Far from it. Way I see it, you don’t own ‘er either. What say she makes up ‘er own mind? All I ever asked for, really. You let ‘er make ‘er own decision, like a free woman ought. Community don’t push either direction. She turns me down, I won’t complain.”
Ben stood, feeling every one of his three hundred years. God help me, he thought, I am going to betray the girl. Not my first betrayal. Nor my last, I am sure. “You may be assured,” he intoned wearily, “that I will have very strong advice for her on the subject.”
“Wouldn’t dream o’ denyin’ ye. Every man’s gotta right t’ be heard.” Ammerman spit in his palm and extended his arm. Ben stared, regarding the outstretched hand as if it were a weasel’s paw; then, finally, slowly, he extended his own, grasped it, and shook hands.
The two men contemplated one other. Ben’s expression was drawn, his mouth a tight line. In exchange, Ammerman offered up a broad, toothy grin. “Y’know what, Ben? Just this once, I’m gonna let a deal stand without insistin’ on a receipt. Honest fella like you? Reckon I don’t need one.” He turned and strode off into the woods, a spring in his step. “Glad we had us a chance to chat.”
Ben stared after him. God damn you to Hell. As He will surely damn me. Who knows? Perhaps He already has. Perhaps John Ammerman and I are one another’s eternal reward.
Striding back towards town, Ammerman shoved his hands back into the pockets of his tunic and whistled a tune he’d heard for the first time only an hour prior. Smug, sanctimonious prick, that one, he thought. But easily handled. Just needs to be reminded of who he really is, and he turns right to putty.
Hell of a thing, power. Any man who thinks he’s fit to wield it doesn’t deserve to. But the crowd will always give it to those men anyway. They’ll toss garlands at the man on horseback, every time. And they’ll spit in the face of the man who insists they should run their own lives.
So a free man keeps his conscience clean, but keeps his eyes open for dirt. A free man learns what he can, and does what he must. And when he has to, a free man acts, exercising power through others. Not to build up power, but to break up power. To give it back to those who so eagerly gave it away. To reward those who, if they knew, would curse him for the gift.
Hell of a thing, power.
Hell of a thing.