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An Agent of Utopia
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An Agent of Utopia

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Author: Andy Duncan
Publisher: Small Beer Press, 2018
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Book Type: Novelette
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

This Nebula Award nominated novelette originally appeared in the collection An Agent of Utopia (2018). It can also be found in the anthology The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Thirteen (2019), edited by Jonathan Strahan.


Excerpt

An Agent of Utopia

CHAPTER 1

To the Prince and Tranibors of our good land, and the offices of the Syphogrants below, and all those families thereof, greetings, from your poor servant in far Albion.

Masters and mistresses, I have failed. All that I append is but paint and chalk 'pon that stark fact. Yet I relate my story in hopes it may be instructive, that any future tools of state be fashioned less rudely than myself.

I will begin as I will end, with her.

Had my intent been to await her, to meet her eye as she emerged into the street, I scarcely could have done better; and yet this was happenstance, as so much else proved to be.

I had no expectation of her; I knew not that she was within; she was not my aim. She was wholly a stranger to me. I would laugh at this now, were I the laughing sort, for of course I learned later that even as I stood there with the crawling river to my back, her name was known to me, as the merest footnote to my researches. So much for researches.

In fact, though I had traveled thousands of leagues, from beyond the reach of the mapmaker's art, to reach this guarded stone archway in a gray-walled keep on a filthy esplanade beside the stinking Thames, I had no reason even for pausing, only feet from my goal. I feared not the guards, resplendent in their red tunics; I doubted not my errand. Yet I had stopped and stood a moment, as one does when about to fulfill a role in a grand design. And so when she emerged from shadows into sun, blinking as if surprised, I found myself looking into her eyes, and that has been the difference in my life: between who I was, and who I am.

Her face was --

No, I dare not, I cannot express't.

To her clothing, then, and her hair. That I'll set down. A frame-work may suggest a portrait, an embankment acknowledge a sea.

In our homeland, all free citizens, being alike in station, therefore dress alike as well; but in the lady's island nation, all are positioned somewhere above or below, so their habits likewise must be sorted: by adornment, by tailoring, by fineness of cloth. These signs are designed to be read.

She was plainly a gentlewoman, but simply clad. Around her neck was a single silver carcanet like a moon-sliver. Her bosom was but gently embusked, and not overmuch displayed. Her farthingale was modest in size; some could not be wedged through the south gate of London Bridge, but hers was just wider than her shoulders. Her hair was plaited at either temple, so that twin dark falls bordered her lustrous --

Ah! But stop there. I am grown old enough.

I add only that her eyes were red-rimmed with weeping, and in that moment -- whatever my obligations to my homeland, to you who sent me -- to dry those tears became my true mission.

A moment only I held her gaze, and how did I merit even that?

Then her manservant just behind, finely attired but sleep-eyed and bristle-jowled, did nudge her toward a carriage. As she passed, I dared not turn my head to watch, lest I not achieve my goal at all.

Rather, I walked forward, into the sweet-smelling space the lady had just vacated, and raised both hands as the warders crossed pikes before me.

"Hold, friends," I said. "The gaoler expects me."

"Ah, does he?" asked the elder warder. "What name does he expect, then?"

"The name of Aliquo," I said, and this truly was the name I had affixed to my letter, for it was not mine but anyone's. From my dun-colored wool cloak, I produced another sealed paper. "My credentials," I said. "For the gaoler only," I quickly added, as the elder warder was making as if to break the seal. He eyed me dolefully, then handed the letter to the younger warder, who in turn barked for a third warder, the youngest yet, who conveyed my letter within -- doubtless to a boy still younger, his equipment not yet dropped.

As I waited, we all amused ourselves, myself by standing on tiptoe atop each consecutive cobble from east to west beneath the portcullis, the warders by glaring at me.

I knew, as they did not, that my credentials were excellent, consisting as they did only of my signature on a sheet of paper wrapped about some street debris from home.

Soon I was escorted through the gate, onto a walkway across an enclosed green. Sheep cropped the grass. Ravens barked down from the battlements. Huddled in a junction of pockmarked walls was a timbered, steeply thatched, two-story house. Though dwarfed by the lichen-crusted stone all around, it was larger than any home in Aircastle. Through its front door I was marched, and into a small room filled by an immense bearded man with a broken nose. He sat in a heap behind a spindly writing-desk that belonged in a playroom. Sunlight through the latticed window further broke his face into panes of diamond.

"Leave us," he told my escort, who bowed and exited, closing the door behind. The gaoler stared at me, saying nothing, and I replied in kind. He leaned forward and made a show of studying my shoes, then my breeches and cloak, then face again. His own displayed neither interest nor impression.

"You don't dress like a rich man," he said.

"I am no rich man," I replied.

Without turning his gaze from mine, he placed one hairy finger on the packet I had sent him and slid it across the desktop toward me: refolded, the seal broken.

"A thief, then," he said. "We have other prisons for thieves. My men will show you."

"I am no thief," I replied.

He tilted his head. "A Jew?"

"I am but a visitor, and I seek only an audience."

"That you have achieved," he said. "Our audience being concluded, my men will take you now."

"An audience," I said, "with one of your ... guests."

Without moving, he spat onto the floor and my shoe, as placid as a toad. "And which guest would that be, Sir Jew, Sir Thief?"

I was near him already, the room being so small, and now I stepped closer. Arms at my sides, I leaned across the desk, closing the distance toward the gaoler's motionless, ugly face. I could smell layers of sweat and Southwark dirt, the Scotch egg that had broken his fast, and, all intermixed, the acrid scent of fear, a fear of such long abiding that it marked him, better than any wax-sealed writ of passage, as a resident of this benighted land. When I was close enough for my lips to brush the pig-bristles of his ear, I whispered a single syllable: a lover's plea, a beggar's motto, a word with no counterpart in my native tongue, though one of the commonest words in London, where satisfaction is unknown.

Upon hearing my word, the gaoler jerked as though serpent-bit, but recovered on the instant, so that as I stepped back he assumed once again calm and authority. Only his eyes danced in terror and anticipation.

"Worth my life, Sir Thief, were I caught admitting you to him."

I made no reply. No question had been posed, nor information offered that was new or in any way remarkable. He had but stated an irrelevant fact.

He lifted the packet I had delivered and poured the pebbles into his palm. He studied their sparkle, then let them slide back into the paper. His palm remained in place, cupping the air, and he raised his eyebrows at me, like a scarred and shaggy courtesan.

These English. Every clerk, every driver, every drayman and barrelmaker and ale-pourer has his hand out for coins, and doubtless every gaoler and prince, courtier and headsman, as well. They conceive of no superior system, indeed no alternative, anywhere in this world. And so I freely handed them my trash. Some were as grateful as children, while others betrayed no emotion at all, merely pocketing the payment as their due, a gift of nature like birdshit and rain.

I pulled from my pocket a thumb-sized paving stone. I dropped it into the gaoler's palm, where it reflected the sunlight in a dozen directions. His nostrils flared as he drew in a breath.

"God's mercy," he said.

The English routinely invoke their God when startled, or provoked, or overwhelmed by their own natures. They pray without cease, without thought, without result.

"The ninth hour," he told the stone, "at Traitors' Gate."

Traitors' Gate was a floating wooden barrier tapping mindlessly in the night tide across a submerged arch, set low in the fort's Thames-side wall. No two public clocks in England quite chime together, but somewhere during the ninth-hour cacophony, the gate swung open without visible human hand, and an empty punt slid from the shadows, tapping to a halt at my feet. I stepped down and in, half expecting the punt to slide from under me and make its return voyage without my assistance. Instead, after a respectful pause, I picked up the pole that lay in the bottom of the boat and did the work myself, nudge by nudge into the shadows, ducking as I glided beneath the arch. The soggy gate creaked shut behind.

Just inside the fortress, the stone marched upward in steep and narrow steps, at the top of which stood, all in red, my hulking friend the gaoler. He was alone. He silently waited as I climbed the slimy stairs to face him, or more precisely to face the teats that strained his tunic. He reached out both ham-sized hands and kneaded my arms, legs and torso. He found neither what he sought nor what he did not seek, and was quickly satisfied. He stooped, with a grunt, and picked up something from the cobbles.

"You're the ratcatcher, if anyone asks," he said. He handed me a long-handled fork and a pendulous sack. "And there's the rats to prove it," he added. "Wait here. When I cough twice, enter behind me, and keep to the right. Follow my taper, but not too close. If I meet anyone, keep back and flatten yourself against the wall like the damp. You might even kill a rat or two, if you've a mind."

I held the heavy fork loose at my side, where I could drop it on the instant if I needed to kill someone, and watched the gaoler lumber into the wall and vanish, through a previously invisible slot perhaps an inch wider than his shoulders. Finally I heard the double cough, fainter and from much farther away than I expected. I slipped into the door-shaped darkness.

We encountered no one, quickly left any trafficked levels of the vast and ancient keep. The dark corridors and archways we passed through and the stairs we climbed were broad and well-made and perhaps once were grand, but time's ravages were not being repaired. In spots we crunched through fallen mortar and stone. Even the rats were elsewhere. The walls were windowless, save for the occasional slitted cross that traded no light for no view.

Finally we passed through a series of large chambers, in the fourth of which the serpent-fire before me guttered as in a draft. My guide stood before an iron-banded oaken door, its single barred window the size of my head. He gestured me close, relieved me of the rat-sticker and sack, and whispered, as urgently as a lover.

"I'll be watching. You leave in a quarter-hour, and whether you walk or I drag you is no concern of mine. Keep your treasonous voices low. Take nothing he offers, leave no marks on his person, and for the love of God, give him no ink or paper; that's powder and shot to the likes of him." He inserted into the lock an iron key fully as long as the rat-sticker. The gears clanked and ground, and he hauled back the door. "Company for you, sir! Oh, Christ, not again. Whyn't he just pull his gentles, like the others do?"

The room was larger than I expected, and more finely appointed. The chairs, tables, washbasin, and chamber-pot were old but finely made; the twin windows were grated but high, deep-set and arched; a river breeze stirred faded tapestries that covered the walls with the rose that was the sigil of the ruling house. In the far corner was a makeshift altar, a cross of two bound candlesticks atop a stool, and before it, in a pool of shadow, knelt a naked man with a bloody back, who slowly gave himself one, two, three fresh strokes across the shoulders with a knotted rope. Judging from the fresh wounds amid the scarring, he had been at this for some time.

As I walked forward, the door thudded shut behind. "My good sir," I said.

The kneeling figure paused a few seconds before flogging himself again, and again, and a sixth time, each impact a dull wet smack. As I drew close enough to smell him, I saw the shadow on the flagstones was in fact a broad spatter of blood.

The prisoner spoke without turning. "You've made me lose count. Well, no matter. I can start over from One, as must we all, each day." He flexed the rope, as if to resume.

"Good sir, please. My time is short."

His laugh, as he turned, was a joyless bark. "Your time?" The engravings I had studied were good likenesses. The Roman features were intact on his blunt, handsome face, but his jawline was hidden by a fresh grey curtain of beard that ill became him. "May I assume, sir, given your evident longing for conversation, that you are not here to murder me?"

"No, indeed."

"Ah," he said. He brought one foot beneath him and stood, slowly but with no evident need for support. "One can imagine worse fates, my good Sir Interruptus, than to be murdered in the act of prayer." Something passed over his eyes then, perhaps only the sting of the wounds as he donned, without flinching, the robe that hung on the bedpost. "Ay, much worse. The killers of Thomas Becket, even as they hacked away, did the work of God in making the saint's most heartfelt desire manifest. They delivered him sinless unto his Maker." He glanced at his blood on the floor as he cinched his belt. "I fear for his shrine at Canterbury, and for his relics. In these fell days, it is not only the living who suffer. A good even to you, Master Jenkins!"

After a long pause, the shadow beyond the window in the door replied, "And a good even to you, sir."

"As for you," the prisoner said, smiling, "we reach an even footing. You impeded my task; I impeded yours. State your business, please, sir, and your name. I have not so many visitors that they grow interchangeable to me."

"I call myself Aliquo," I replied, "and I bring greetings to you, Thomas More, from your old friend Raphael Hythlodaye, and from my homeland of Utopia."

I bowed low before him.

"Please give my Utopian friends my best regards," More said, "and tell them my answer is no."

The next afternoon, moments after I stepped from the inn where I had broken my fast, a man planted himself before me on the street, so that I would have to go around him, or stop. I chose to stop.

"You have seen me before, I believe," said the man.

I peered into his bearded face. "I have," I said. "You were outside the Tower yesterday. You were with ... the lady."

"I was," he said, "and I am, and I am here on her account only. I am to bring you to her."

"That is quite impossible," I said. "Who is this lady, who makes such demands of strangers?"

"You are a stranger to her, but not to her father, I believe. Her name is Margaret Roper, born Margaret More." He studied my face. "This changes your resolve, I believe."

"Yes," I said, though I had resolved to accompany him the moment I recognized him, in hopes I might see his mistress again -- even if he led me straight to the chopping-block on Tower Hill.

Where he led me, instead, without further speech, was to the city's largest temple, dedicated to the name of a first-century persecutor of the enemies of Rome, who reversed himself to aid those enemies, but remained, throughout his life, in the service of a more perfect, more organized world. A thousand years later, his temple's interior was scarcely less crowded than the streets outside.

At home, upon entering a temple, all men would proceed to the right, all women to the left, and all would maintain their proper places until departing. Here, all was confusion.

"There," said the manservant, stepping aside. "Go to her, and if you speak falsely, then God help you."

Far ahead, across the echoing marble, a line of supplicants, in all modes of clothing, shuffled step by step into an airy chapel, and past a chest-high marble tomb minded by a droning guide. Toward the back of this line was she who had summoned me, she who already had claimed dominion over me with a single glance, though I had yet to realize it.

I went to her.

She watched me approach. She was nearly my height. Her eyes! ... I dare not describe them. She looked into mine, and then, without moving her head or glancing away, she refocused, and looked at me again. I knew in that moment she had seen me more clearly than her father had, than the gaoler had, than anyone had since home. I held my breath, sure she would turn away. Instead she gravely bowed her head, reached for my arm, and guided me into the line at her side. The stooped crone behind her hissed at my insertion, but a steely glance from Madame shushed her.

"Do you speak Latin?" Madame asked me, in that tongue.

"I do, Madame," I replied in kind.

"Do so, in this public place. Here, in this procession, we are pilgrims only, and will draw no attention. You know who I am."

(Continues...)

Copyright © 2018 by Andy Duncan


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An Agent of Utopia

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