We came to Sassinoth at last. A town of several thousand, perched up on hills above the frozen Ey: roofs white, walls gray, hills spotted black with forest and rock outcropping, fields and river white; across the river the disputed Sinoth Valley, all white. . . .
We came there all but empty-handed. Most of what remained of our travel-equipment we had given away to various kindly hosts, and by now we had nothing but the Chabe stove, our skis, and the clothes we wore. Thus unburdened we made our way, asking directions a couple of times, not into the town but to an outlying farm. It was a meager farm, not part of a Domain but a single-farm under the Sinoth Valley Administration. When Estraven was a young secretary in that Administration he had been a friend of the owner, and in fact had bought this farm for him, a year or two ago, when he was helping people resettle east of the Ey in hopes of obviating dispute over the ownership of the Sinoth Valley. The farmer himself opened his door to us, a stocky soft-spoken man of about Estraven’s age. His name was Thessicher.
Estraven had come through this region with his hood pulled up and forward to hide his face. He feared recognition, here. He hardly needed to; it took a keen eye to recognize him as a thin weatherworn refugee. Thessicher kept staring at him covertly, unable to believe that he was who he said he was.
And I for my part, kept staring at Thessicher. By this time, I was no longer doing the mental process of imagining every person I met as a man, then as a woman, and then trying to overlay the two images like in a stereoscope. Instead, the stereoscope pictures I made in my mind were of everyone we met first as a danger, then as a friend. I lived afraid of harm coming to Estraven.
Estraven had impressed on me the risk of recognition. He had done so quite forcefully. The days between Kurkurast and Sassinoth were the hardest part of our journey, harder still than the Gobrin Ice. He had insisted, with all the force he could muster while sitting with his head between his knees in sweats and shivers, that the closer we got to Sassinoth, the higher the risk was that he would be recognized, and that therefore the closer we got to Sassinoth, the quicker we had to travel. I heeded him as best I could, because my life was in his hands, and because I loved him and did not want to insult him, but I also slowed down as much as I thought was safe, because he looked like his life was draining slowly out of him every time we set foot in a moving vehicle.
I thought to myself more than once, I have killed him. I have killed my beloved Therem, my only friend Therem. Not by relying on his help on my mission, which he had made his mission as well, but by becoming his lover. But he would have hated to hear me say that aloud, so I kept the horrible thought to myself.
Thessicher also became concerned for him. He took us in, once his alarm had passed. His hospitality was up to standard though his means were small and his winter stores were running low. He was anxious. It was understandable; he risked the confiscation of his property by allowing us to stay with him. But he owed that property to Estraven, without whose help he would have likely been as destitute as we were. It seemed fair to ask him to take the risk.
Estraven asked his help, however, not as a matter of repayment but as a matter of friendship, counting not on Thessicher’s obligation but his affection. And Thessicher’s fear thawed once the two of them got to talking, and to reminiscing by the fire about old days and old acquaintances. But while Thessicher was loud, lively, and demonstrative, Estraven was weary and subdued, and Thessicher took note of that.
“What the devil did they do to you in Orgoreyn? Put you through one of their work camps?” he exclaimed.
“It’s him they did that to,” Estraven answered, gesturing towards me. “I only got him out.”
“He looks like he’s having a better time of it,” Thessicher answered, clucking his tongue.
I did not tell him what the matter with Estraven was, because Estraven had not brought it up. He didn’t talk about it. I did not want to betray his trust.
“Yes, he is,” Estraven answered, and didn’t elaborate. Thessicher did not press.
“Well, it would be an awful thing to go back to Orgoreyn,” Thessicher declared.
Cautiously, Estraven asked if he had any idea of a hiding place, a deserted farm or something like that where a banished man might lie low for a couple of months in hope of the revocation of his exile. At once, Thessicher answered,
“Stay with me.”
Estraven’s eyes lit up at that, but he demurred. It was not safe so close to town, Thessicher agreed, and he promised to find him a hideout still further out. A cousin of his lived a few miles south, he said, and Estraven might be able to take on a false name and find work around there as a cook or a farmhand, though he said “farmhand” with some delay, likely because Estraven was not looking much up to heavy outdoor work.
Thessicher had already had his own dinner, but he offered to make us spiced scrambled pesthry eggs. He had a reserve of them in his larder, preserved from last year’s foraging unshelled and frozen in cube trays. Estraven refused politely and urged him not to trouble himself. He could cook up some kadik rice on his own.
“What, plain?” said Thessicher. “Ah, got used to Orgota cooking, didn’t you?”
Estraven said nothing, and smiled mildly at his joke.
I offered to cook instead, but Estraven wouldn’t let me, so I got to talking with Thessicher instead and fielded the usual questions one gets when one is an immigrant from another world. Mercifully, he was not interested in alien physical differences, and did not fixate on my dark skin as Argaven did. Thessicher was a farmer, and liked being one, and was good at it. He was curious about what farming looked like on worlds where the ground was not frozen most of the year. Wasn’t it too hot for the plants? And were there really animals that you could domesticate? What kept them from simply laying down and dying in captivity, like all normal creatures did?
“Except fish, of course,” he added judiciously. “You can breed fish.”
I didn’t have all the answers but knew enough about other worlds to make conversation. After a few minutes, we went to check on Estraven. We found him sitting in a chair by the stove. He got up for a moment to stir the pot and then sat back down immediately, a little short of breath.
“Harth,” Thessicher said gently, “a man can’t stand up to stir a pot, something’s wrong with him.”
“True. Tired and hungry are the names of my afflictions,” Estraven answered.
“No, tired and hungry are the names of your friend’s afflictions. You’ve left your coat and gloves on indoors, and you look like death. What have you got, anemia?”
Estraven looked pensive for a long while.
“That’s possible,” he said.
I was greatly relieved. Ill with something treatable was a far better state than dying.
“Let me make you a warm bath,” Thessicher said. “Won’t fix anything, but you’ll feel better.”
Estraven agreed to it, and Thessicher got down an enamelled galvanized tub from a peg on the wall and dragged it in front of the hearthfire. Then, following his lead, I helped him fill up big stock pots with water and set them on the stove to heat. Estraven had moved his chair from the stove to give us space and ate his kadik slowly while we worked.
For a while, the only thing to do was wait for the water to warm, so I sat in a different chair by the fire. It was soft enough and I was weary enough that I fell asleep without noticing. The next I saw was a damp Estraven, wrapped in a towel, with considerably more color in his cheeks. He was nudging me awake. The fire had also grown lower, and Thessicher sat silently, staring directly at it, perturbed. He didn’t look at us once.
“Come, Genly, let’s go to bed,” Estraven said, and took my hand.
As we lay together under the thick fur blankets, I felt a strong mental connection. I could sense his mind, warm and drowsy, slipping off to sleep and nearly mindspoke him at once, but held back. There would be time to figure out mindspeech later. Let him rest, Genly, I thought.
Early in the morning while Estraven was still sleeping, I left for town on skis, with the Chabe stove in hand. We had discussed the plan beforehand, so I knew what to do. I sold the stove, the last thing of value we had, at the Town Commerce, then took the solid sum of money it had fetched up the hill to the little College of the Trades, where the radio station was housed, and bought ten minutes of “private transmission to private reception.”
My ten minutes were to be early in the Third Hour, late afternoon. It would not be worthwhile to make the trip to Thessicher’s and back, so I hung around Sassinoth and got a large, good, cheap lunch at one of the hot-shops there. Karhidish cooking was better than Orgota, no doubt. As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that in the tent, when I asked him if he hated Orgoreyn; I remembered his voice that night in Kurkurast, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather stay in Karhide.” I wondered what love of country was, and how it comes to be, for I had never felt it for any of my homes, and wondered how such a pure thing as my friend’s love of his country could be, in other people, so easily perverted into hatred of the other. What made it go wrong?
Mostly, I sat in the hot-shop missing Estraven. It felt unnatural not to be at his side, like I was naked in front of all these people going about their lives; like I was missing a hand or an eye. It was not just because I loved him and worried about him. I think I would have felt this way also if I hadn’t been in love with him, or worried for him. I had not yet come altogether out of our solitude on the ice.
People were strange to me. They walked up and down the lively streets of the town, going into shops, markets, businesses. I walked around the town too, after lunch, despite the snow flurries and the freezing temperatures, trying to feel like a person in the world again. In the afternoon, I climbed back up the steep snow-packed hill to the Trades College, and was admitted and shown how to operate the public-use transmitter. When the time came, I sent the wake signal to the relay satellite, which was in stationary orbit 300 miles over South Karhide. It in turn would send the signal to the ship, but was not equipped to send a response to me, so there was nothing I could do but send the message. I could not know if I had done right to send it. I had come to accept such uncertainties with a quiet heart.
It was snowing hard and growing dark when I came out, and it would have been easy and sensible to find an inn or any hospitable place and stay in town overnight, but I wanted to get back to Thessicher’s farm as soon as possible. I sped back home on my skis in the gloaming.
There was a closed sledgecar, a vehicle sort of like a small car with snowmobile legs, parked outside Thessicher’s house. I did not recognize it. There was official-looking writing down the side, which I could not make out in the dark and at a distance, and it chilled me with fear.
The lights were on, but I could not approach the house from the front, so I crept around the side. Through a vertical slit window, I saw Estraven sitting by a fire, sipping something hot from a ceramic cup. He looked well and seemed unperturbed. There was no one else in that room. I rapped on the window to get his attention, and rapped again harder, because the storm outside had picked up and was blowing loudly. He startled, though without spilling his drink, and relaxed when he saw me. Rising to his feet, he came across the room, and opened the window a crack.
“What’s up?” Estraven asked.
Urgently, I warned him about the powersledge parked outside. He gave a hmmph of displeasure in agreement, but showed no sign of alarm, and let me into the house through a side door.
“I thought it was the king’s guards, or...I don’t know,” I confessed breathlessly, while Estraven helped me out of my heavy outer coat. “Maybe something worse, if there is something worse. I was terrified. I thought maybe it turned out Thessicher wasn’t trustworthy.”
“Oh, he’s not,” Estraven said, quite drily. “But he’s merely stupid, not treacherous. The doctor already gave him an earful for it. Very vindicating to listen to. They’re in the dining-room if you want to eavesdrop, but I’m afraid they’re not arguing anymore.”
“Sorry,” I said, “ what?”
“It’s all right,” he said. “Our luck has bettered.”
He explained the gist of it to me, and then offered to introduce me to the doctor.