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Orson Scott Card


  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card


  Chapter 1 -- Mueller

  I was the last to know what was happening to me. Or at least, I was the last to know that I knew.

  Saranna realized it when her hand glided up my chest and instead of smoothly cresting the pectorals made lean and hard by hours of sword and javelin and archery, her fingers snagged on a looser kind of flesh. Her hands remembered that same discovery on her own body not that many years before, and being a true daughter of Mueller, with a sharp eye and an uncompromising mind, she knew it all at once, knew all my future history, knew all that was now impossible between us. Yet, being a true daughter of Mueller, she said nothing, nor did she grieve; it simply happened that from then until I left Mueller, she never touched me, at least not as she had before, not with the promise of decades of passion in our future. She knew, but I did not yet know.

  Dinte saw it, too. Watching me as he always does, the second son hoping for some accident to befall me so that he can delay any help that might come to me; searching for some hint of congenital idiocy so he can be named regent after father dies; noting any flaws or weaknesses in my fighting or my thinking, so that when, not if, he betrays me, he can gain some advantage over me-- watching me with that kind of eagerness, he had to see the way my shirt moved differently across my chest. Of all the ways that I could be rendered unfit to sit on Father's throne, this had to be the one that he would relish most.

  Being a poor excuse for a son of Mueller, he immediately became cocky, not naming my affliction, but treating me with the arrogance that even cowards have the grace to display only toward the corpse of their enemy. He knew, but I did not yet know.

  Father would not have seen it. There was always too much work for the Mueller to do; he had no time for watching me himself. But he had me watched, by all my tutors and half my friends; especially during the crucial time of puberty, when the greatest danger comes.

  We in whom the Mueller blood runs true, our bodies have a great gift: to heal so quickly that scars form before the blood is dry, and to grow back any part of our body that is lost. It makes us very hard to kill.

  Our enemies say that Muellers feel no pain, but it isn't true. To them it looks that way because in battle we willingly absorb a dangerous blow that any other man would have to parry to save his life, and while our enemy's sword is buried in our own flesh, we can cut the lifeblood out of him and then walk on to find another enemy to engage, our own wound already healing.

  But we feel pain, just like anyone else. Our women faint in childbirth when the flesh is torn. When you put our hand into the fire, the agony burns as hot inside our brain as inside any other man's. We feel pain; what we don't feel is fear. Or rather, we've learned to separate pain and fear.

  To other people, pain means that their life is in danger; to preserve themselves, they must have the reflex to avoid that pain by any means they can. But to a Mueller, pain means that the danger is small. Death comes to us only in ways that are beyond pain-- the crumbling of senility, the cold hard breath of drowning, the loss of all feeling when the body is severed from the head. A mere cut or burn or stab or broken bone means only that some vigor will be taken from us as our body quickly heals; it means well be fed on blood-rare steak and not on radishes when the battle ends.

  And the worst fear that others feel-- the fear of dismemberment, of losing toes or fingers, hands or feet, ears or nose or eyes or genitals-- we laugh at that.

  Why is it their worst fear? Because they've come to think of their present shape as their true self, and if they lose that shape, they lose their self, they become a monster even in their own eyes.

  But we Muellers have long since learned that our present shape is not ourself at all. We can have many different shapes and still be who we always were. It's a lesson we learn during the madness of adolescence. At twelve or fourteen years of age, we also go through the bizarre jumbling of chemicals that cause others to grow hair in strange places, and become machines that can build copies of themselves. With us, though, since our bodies are so powerful, adolescence is also stronger. We bred ourselves to regenerate lost or broken body parts; during the madness of puberty, our bodies forget their proper shape and try to grow parts that are already there. Every young man and woman has waved a third arm tauntingly at friends, danced some complicated step designed to make use of an extra leg or two, winked a superfluous eye, grimaced with three rows of teeth above and four below. I endured having four arms once, an extra nose, and two hearts pumping away before the surgeon took me under his knife to cut away the excess. Our self is not our shape. We can have any shape, and still be who we are. We have no dread of losing limbs. We can't distort or destroy our self through subtraction.

  We have other dreads.

  All during my adolescence, Father had me watched. Even at the age of fifteen, when my body was only a decimeter or two from a man's full height and my sexual changes should have been complete-- complete enough for Saranna to have my child in her already-- even then, I could still feel their eyes on me from dawn to dusk, measuring me body and soul, so they could tell the tale to Father, in those moments when he had the time to think of me. It's impossible that they missed what was happening to me; Father must have known before Dinte, even before Saranna did. They all knew.

  But I didn't know.

  Oh, of course I knew. I knew it well enough to abandon all my tight-fitting clothing and wear only the looser, blousier clothes. I knew it well enough to find excuses rather than go swimming with my friends, well enough not to snap at Dinte for being even snottier than ever, as if I dared not provoke him into naming what it was I had become. I knew it well enough not to wonder why Saranna wasn't touching me, knew it well enough during that last month not to take her into my bed. And yet I never named what had become of me, not even to myself.

  I never even let the thought of my terrible new future come into my head. Except once, with the precious steel sword of royalty flashing in my hand, when I vowed, so strongly that I remember the moment even now as if it had happened only this moming-- I vowed never to live without such a sword in my hand or at my side. Even then, I was pretending to myself that my fear was of becoming a commoner, the sort of sluglike semi-soul who never touches iron and who shudders at the slightest cut that bleeds.

  "Today," said Homarnoch.

  "I haven't time," I said, with that imperious archness that the sons of princes use to remind others of authority they don't yet have.

  "The Mueller says."

  And that was that. All deceptions were over; all lies that I believed, I'd have to unbelieve all at once. Yet still I put him off, told him I was filthy and had to wash, which wastrue enough; but I managed to bathe without once looking in the silvered glass to see myself. Clothing hung over all the mirrors, or somehow they had all been set aside, so that in my room I never had to see myself. This was just one more sign that I knew without knowing-- until that month I had been as vain as any boy and surrounded myself with glass.

  But there was no hiding from the rumor in Homarnoch's sterile surgical den, his place of sharp steel knives and bloody beds, where barbed arrows were cut from soldiers' flesh and gaudy useless body parts were struck from adolescent bodies.

  He stood me before the mirror, himself behind me, and cupped both hands under breasts that by now had grown voluptuous. For the first time I was forced to stare at flesh that couldn't possibly be my own. For the first time I was aware of the pressure of someone else's touch. Still, I don't think it was Homarnoch's brusk surgeonly caress that aroused me. That touch was far more strange to me than sexual. I think it was the sight of what had to be someone else's breasts being taken in someone else's hands. I think it was voyeur
ism. I still didn't believe in what was happening to me.

  "Why didn't you come to me at once?" asked Homarnoch. He sounded almost hurt.

  "For what? I've grown all kinds of body parts before."

  He shook his head. "You're not a fool, Lanik Mueller."

  I heard my name, and felt a sick dread. Later I realized that it was the name Mueller that caused me fear-- not because it was my name, but because so soon it would not be.

  "It happens even in the Mueller's family, Lanik. Every few generations. No one is immune."

  "It's just puberty," I said, willing him to believe it.

  He looked at me sadly, and not without affection, I thought. "I hope you're right, " he said, but of course he had no hope. "I hope that when I examine you, we find out that you're right."

  "There's no need to--"

  "Now, Lanik," he said. "The Mueller asks me to give him my answer, within the hour."

  What my father commanded, I performed. I lay down on the table and willed myself to relax as the knife bit into my abdomen. I had felt worse pain before-- the ragged tearing of the wooden practice swords, for instance, or the time an arrow passed into my temple and out my eye-- but it wasn't the pain. Or not the pain alone. Because for the first time since earliest childhood, pain and fear burned together within me, and I felt what common men feel that so unmans them on the battlefield, that makes them fodder for a Mueller's hungry sword.

  When he was finished, he taped the wound. I already felt ihe giddiness and tingling that told me healing was under way-- these were clean cuts, and all would heal without scars within hours. I didn't have to ask what he had found. I knew from the stooping of his shoulders, the harsh stoicism of his face. I could tell that it was grief and not rejoicing that his dispassionate mask concealed.

  "Just cut them off," I said, lightly, jokingly.

  He didn't take it as a joke. "It's ovaries, too, Lanik, and if I cut them out, cut out the uterus, they'll just grow back." He faced me then, with the same courage with which a man faces his enemy in battle. "You're a radical regenerative, Lanik. It will never end."

  There it was. The name for what I had become. Like my beautiful cousin Velinisik, who went mad and pissed all over everyone with the penis whose growth had monstered her. Radical regenerative. Rad. Like everyone else, I had turned away from her, hadn't so much as spoken her name from that day to this. First she ceased to be human. Then she had never been human. Then she had never existed.

  At the end of puberty, most Muellers settled into their adult form, and only regrew those parts of their bodies that had been lost. But a certain small number of us never got back under control. Adolescence went on forever, with new body parts growing at random. In such cases the body forgot what its natural shape ought to be; it thought of itself as an endless wound, forever to be healed; as a perpetually dismembered body, with parts forever to be renewed.

  It was the worst way to die, because there was no funeral; you ceased to be a person, but they refused to let you become a corpse.

  "Say that, Homarnoch," I told him, "and you might as well also say that I'm dead."

  "I'm sorry," he said simply. "But I must tell your father immediately."

  And he left.

  I looked again in the large mirror on the wall, where my clothing hung on a hook. My shoulders were still broad from hours and days, and weeks with sword, staff, spear, and bow, and more recently with the bellows at the forge. My hips still slim from running and riding. My stomach ridged with muscle, hard and solid and virile. And then, ridiculously soft and inviting, my breasts--

  I took my knife from the belt hanging on the wall and pressed its sharp silver edge against my breast. It hurt too badly-- I cut only an inch deep and had to stop. There was a sound at the door. I turned.

  A little black Cramer bowed her head so she would not see me. I remembered that she had been taken in the last war (which Father won), and so belonged to us for life; I spoke gently to her because she was a slave.

  "You're all right, don't worry," I said to her, but she didn't relax.

  "My lord Ensel wants to see his son Lanik. He says immediately."

  "Damn!" I said, and she knelt to receive my anger. I didn't hit her, though, only touched her head as I walked to my clothing and put it on. I couldn't help but see my reflection as I left-- my chest heaving up and down as I strode out of the room. The little Cramer murmured her thanks as I left.

  I started to run down the stairs to Father's chambers. I hadn't learned yet to walk like a woman, smoothing my steps and rolling my hips to avoid needless jostling. After three steps I stopped and leaned on the banister until the pain and fear subsided. When I turned around to go down more slowly, I saw my brother Dinte at the bottom of the stairs. He was smirking, as fine a specimen of budding asshood as the Family had ever produced.

  "I see you've heard the news," I said, walking carefully downstairs.

  "May I suggest you acquire a halter?" he offered blandly. "I'd loan you one of Mannoah's but hers are far too small."

  I put my hand on my knife and he retreated a few steps. I had cut off his fingers and put out his eyes so many times in childhood quarrels that I knew the futility of it-- but the knife felt necessary in my hands when I was angry.

  "You mustn't hurt me anymore, Lanik," Dinte said, still smirking. "I'll be heir now, and head of the Family soon enough, and I'll remember."

  I tried to think of some answer. Some scornful reply, to let him know that nothing he could ever do to me would compare in agony to what had just happened, to what was about to happen.

  But to confess that much fear and pain is what you do with your most trusted friend, and perhaps not even then. So I said nothing and walked past him toward Father's private room. As I passed he hummed in the back of his throat, as one does to call the prostitutes on Hivvel Street. I did not kill him, however.

  "Hello, my son," said Father when I came into his chamber.

  "You might advise your second son," I answered, "that I still know how to kill."

  "I'm sure you meant to say hello. Greet your mother."

  I looked over to where he glanced and saw the Turd, as we children of Daddy's first wife less-than-affectionately called Number Two, who had moved up into my mother's position when she died of a strange and sudden heart attack. Father didn't think it was strange and sudden, but I did. The Turd's official name was Ruva; she was from Schmidt and had been part of a package deal that included an alliance, two forts, and about three million acres. She was only supposed to be a concubine, but chance and Father's inexplicable passion had moved her up in the world. We were compelled by custom, law, and Father's wrath to call her mother.

  "Hello, Mother," I said coldly. She only smiled her sweet, gentle, murderous smile.

  Father didn't waste time with gentleness or sympathy. "Homarnoch tells me that you're a radical regenerative."

  "I'll kill anyone who tries to put me in the pens," I said. "Even you."

  "Someday I'll take your treasonous statements seriously, boy, and have you strangled. But you can remove that fear, at least. I'd never put one of my own sons in the pens, even if he's a rad."

  "It's been done before," I pointed out. "I've studied a little Family history."

  "Then you'll know what's happening now. Come in, Dinte," father said, and I turned to see my little brother walking in. It was then that I lost control for the first time.

  I shouted: "You're going to let that half-assed moron ruin Mueller, you bastard, when you know I'm the only one who can hope to hold this flimsy empire together when you've had the courtesy to die! I hope you live long enough to see it all crumble!" Later I would remember those words bitterly, but how could I have known at the time that this hot-hearted curse would someday come true?

  Father leaped to his feet and strode around his table to where I stood. I expected a blow, and braced for it. Instead he put his hands at my throat and I felt a sickening momentary fear that he was at last going to carry out his threa
t to strangle me. Then he ripped open my tunic, put his hands on my breasts, and pushed them together brutally. I gasped in pain and pulled away.

  "You're weak now, Lanik!" he shouted. "You're soft and womanly, and no man of Mueller would follow you anywhere!"

  "Except to bed," Dinte added lewdly. Father turned and slapped his ear.

  When he turned away I covered my chest with my arms like a virgin girl and spun around, coming face to face with the Turd. She was still smiling, and I watched her eyes move from my face down to my bosom.

  Not my breasts! I cried out silently. Not mine, not a part of me, and I felt an overwhelming desire to retreat, to back out of my body completely, let it stay there while I went elsewhere, still a man, still an heir with the expectation of power, still a man, still myself.

  "Put on a cloak," Father ordered.

  "Yes, my lord Ensel," I murmured, and instead of fading from my body I covered it, and felt the rough fabric of the cloak harsh against my tender nipples. I stood there and watched as Father went through the ritual of declaring me a bastard and my brother Dinte the heir. My brother looked tall and blond and strong and clever, though I knew better than anyone that his cleverness was merely a tendency to be sly; his strength was not equaled by any quickness or skill. When the ceremony was over, Dinte sat naturally in the chair that had for so many years been mine.

  I stood before them then, and Father commanded me to swear allegiance to my younger brother.

  "I would rather die," I said.

  "That's the choice," Father said, and Dinte smiled.

  I swore eternal allegiance to Dinte Mueller, heir to the Mueller Family holdings, which included the Mueller estate and the lands my father had conquered: Cramer, Helper, Wizer, and the island of Huntington. I made the pledge because Dinte so obviously wanted me to refuse and die. Now, with me alive, he would have to worry constantly. I wondered idly how many guards he would post around his bed tonight.