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The Crystal City

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The Crystal City

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Author: Orson Scott Card
Publisher: Tor, 2003
Series: The Tales of Alvin Maker: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (Fantasy)
Avg Member Rating:
(59 reads / 21 ratings)


Using the lore and the folk-magic of the men and women who settled North America, Orson Scott Card has created an alternate world where magic works, and where that magic has colored the entire history of the colonies. Charms and beseechings, hexes and potions, all have a place in the lives of the people of this world. Dowsers find water, the second sight warns of dangers to come, and a torch can read a person's future---or their heart.

In this world where "knacks" abound, Alvin, the seventh son of a seventh son, is a very special man indeed. He's a Maker; he has the knack of understanding how things are put together, how to create them, repair them, keep them whole, or tear them down. He can heal hearts as well as bones, he build a house, he can calm the waters or blow up a storm. And he can teach his knack to others, to the measure of their own talent.

Alvin has been trying to avert the terrible war that his wife, Peggy, a torch of extraordinary power, has seen down the life-lines of every American. Now she has sent him down the Mizzippy to the city of New Orleans, or Nueva Barcelona as they call it under Spanish occupation. Alvin doesn't know exactly why he's there, but when he and his brother-in-law, Arthur Stuart, find lodgings with a family of abolitionists who know Peggy, he suspects he'll find out soon.

But Nueva Barcelona is about to experience a plague, and Alvin's efforts to protect his friends by keeping them healthy will create more danger than he could ever have suspected. And in saving the poor people of the city, Alvin will be put to the greatest test of his life---a test that will draw on all his power. For the time has come for him to turn to his old friend Tenskwa-Tawa, the Red Prophet who controls the lands to the west of the Mizzippy. Now Alvin must take the first steps on the road to the Crystal City that was shown to him in a vision so long ago.



Nueva Barcelona

It seemed like everybody and his brother was in Nueva Barcelona these days. It was steamboats, mostly, that brought them. Even though the fog on the Mizzippy made it so a white man couldn't cross the river to the west bank, the steamboats could make the trip up and down the channel, carrying goods and passengers-which was the same as saying they carried money and laid it into the laps of whoever happened to be running things at the river's mouth.

These days that meant the Spanish, officially, anyway. They owned Nueva Barcelona and it had their troops all over it.

But the very presence of those troops said something. One thing it said was that the Spanish weren't so sure they could hold on to the city. Wasn't that many years since the place was called New Orleans and there was still plenty of places in the city where you better speak French or you couldn't find a bite to eat or a place to sleep—and if you spoke Spanish there, you might just wake up with your throat slit.

It didn't surprise Alvin much to hear Spanish and French mingling on the docks. What surprised him was that practically everybody was talking English—usually with heavy accents, but it was English, all the same.

"Guess you learnt all that Spanish for nothing, Arthur Stuart," said Alvin to the half-black boy who was pretending to be his slave.

"Maybe so, maybe not," said Arthur Stuart. "Not like it cost me nothing to learn it."

Which was true. It had been disconcerting to Alvin to realize how easily the boy had picked up Spanish from a Cuban slave on the steamboat that brought them downriver. It was a good knack to have, and Alvin didn't have it himself, not a lick. Being a maker was good, but it wasn't everything. Not that Alvin needed reminding of that. There were days when he thought being a maker wasn't worth a wad of chawn to-backey on the parlor floor. With all his power, he hadn't been able to save the life of his baby, had he? Oh, he tried, but when it was born a couple of months too soon, he couldn't figure out how to fix its lungs from the inside so it could breathe. Turned blue and died without ever drawing air into it. No, being a maker wasn't worth that much.

Now Margaret was pregnant again, but neither she nor Alvin saw much of each other these days. Her so busy trying to prevent a bloody war over slavery. Him so busy trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with his life. Nothing he'd ever tried to do had worked out too well. And this trip to Nueva Barcelona was gonna end up just as pointless, he was sure of it.

Only good thing about it was running into Abe and Coz on the journey. But now they were in Barcy, he'd lose track of them and it'd just be him and Arthur Stuart, continuing in their long term project of showing that you can have all the power in the world, but it wasn't worth much if you was too dumb to figure out what to do with it or how to share it with anybody else.

"You got that look again, Alvin," said Arthur Stuart.

"What look is that?"

"Like you need to piss but you're afraid it's gonna come out in chunks."

Alvin slapped him lightly upside his head. "You can't talk that way to me in this town."

"Nobody heard me."

"They don't have to hear you to see your attitude," said Alvin. "Cocky as a squirrel. Look around you—you see any black folks actin' like that?"

"I'm only half black."

"You only got to be one-sixteenth black to be black in this town."

"Dang it, Alvin, how do any of these folks know they ain't one-sixteenth black? Nobody knows their great-great-grandparents."

"What do you want to bet all the white folks in Barcy can recite their ancestry back all the way?"

"What do you want to bet they made up most of it?"

"Act like you're afraid I'll whip you, Arthur Stuart."

"Why should I, when you never act like you're gonna?"

Now, that was a challenge, and Alvin took it up. He meant just to pretend to be mad, just a kind of roar and raise up his hand and that's that. Only when he did it, there was more in that roar than he meant to put there. And the anger was real and strong and he had to force himself not to lash out at the boy.

It was all so real that Arthur Stuart get a look of genuine fear in his eyes, and he really did cower under the threatened blow.

But Alvin got control of himself and the blow didn't fall.

"You did a pretty good job of looking scared," said Alvin, laughing nervously.

"I wasn't acting," said Arthur Stuart softly. "Were you?"

"Am I that good at it you have to ask?"

"No. You're a pretty bad liar, most times. You was mad."

"Yep, I was. But not at you, Arthur Stuart."

"At who, then?"

"Tell you the truth, I don't know. Didn't even know I was mad, till I started trying to mime it."

At that moment, a large hand took a hold of Alvin's shoulder—not a harsh grip, but a strong one all the same. Not many men had hands so big they could hold a blacksmith's shoulder afore and behind.

"Abe," said Alvin.

"I was just wonderin' what I just saw here," said Abe. "I look over at my two friends pretendin' to be master and slave, and what do I see?"

"Oh, he beats me all the time," said Arthur Stuart, "when no one's looking."

"I reckon I might have to start," said Alvin, "just so's you won't be such a liar."

"So it was playacting?" asked Abe.

It shamed Alvin to have this good man even wonder, specially after spending a week together going down the Mizzippy. And maybe some of that pent-up anger was still close to the surface, because he found himself answering right sharp. "Not only was it playacting," said Alvin, "but it was also our business."

"And none of mine?" said Abe. "Reckon so. None of my business when one of my friends reaches out to strike another. Guess a good man's gotta just stand by and watch."

"Didn't hit him," said Alvin. "Wasn't going to."

"But now you want to hit me," said Abe.

"No," said Alvin. "Now I want to go find me a cheap inn and put up my poke afore we find something to eat. I hear Barcy's a good town for eatin', as long as you don't mind having fish that looks like bugs."

"Was that an invitation to a meal?" said Abe. "Or an invitation to go away and let you get about your business?"

"Mostly it was an invitation to change the subject," said Alvin. "Though I'd be glad to have you and Coz dine with us at whatever fine establishment we locate."

"Oh, Coz won't be joinin' us. Coz just found the love of his life, a-waitin' for him right on the pier."

"You mean that trashy lady he was a-talkin' to?" asked Arthur Stuart.

"I suggested to him that he might hold out for a cleaner grade of whore," said Abe, "but he denied that she was one, and she agreed that she had plain fallen in love with him the moment she saw him. So I figger I'll see Coz sometime tomorrow morning, drunk and robbed."

"Glad to know he's got you to look out for him, Abe," said Alvin.

"But I did," said Abe. He held up a wallet. "I picked his pocket first, so he's got no more than three dollars left on him for her to rob."

Alvin and Arthur both laughed at that.

"Is that your knack?" asked Arthur Stuart. "Pickin' pockets?"

"No sir," said Lincoln. "It don't take no knack to rob Coz. He wouldn't notice if you picked his nose. Not if there was a girl making big-eyes at him."

"But the girl would notice," said Alvin.

"Mebbe, but she didn't say nothing."

"And since she was planning on getting what was in that wallet herself," said Alvin, "seeing as how you two already sold your whole cargo and she no doubt saw you get the money and divvy it up, don't you think she would have said something?"

"So I reckon she didn't see me."

"Or she did but didn't care."

Abe thought about that for a second. "I reckon what you're saying is I oughta look inside this-here wallet."

"You could do that," said Alvin.

Abe opened it up. "I'm jiggered," he said. Of course it was empty.

"You're jug-eared, too," said Alvin, "but your real friends would never point that out."

"So she already got him.".

"Oh, I don't suppose she ever laid a hand on him," said Alvin. "But a girl like that, she probably doesn't work alone. She makes big-eyes…"

"And her partner goes for the pockets," said Arthur Stuart.

"You sound experienced," said Abe.

"We watch for it," said Arthur Stuart. "We both kind of like to catch 'em at it, iffen we can."

"So why didn't you catch them robbin' Coz?"

"We didn't know you needed lookin' after," said Arthur Stuart.

Abe looked at him with calculated indignation. "Next time you go to beatin' this boy, Al Smith, would you be so kind as to lay down one extra wallop on my behalf?"

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card


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