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For the people who helped me make it
happen and make it better:
Stan and Russ and Owen and Shelly
and Shelley and Tina


YEAR 1186


Sun, stench, racket: market day at Helmand.

The sun was a G-0 star, not much different from Sol. Asked to generate a name for it, the computer called it Bilbeis. It blazed from the blue cloisonne dome of the sky. Beyond the Margush river and the canals that drew its waters for the croplands of Helmand and the other river valley towns, the land was a desert, baked brown and bare.

The stench went with city life. The twelve or fifteen thousand inhabitants of Helmand had no better notion of sanitation than throwing their rubbish, chamber pots and all, into the narrow, winding streets. After a few years, the floors of their dwellings would be thirty or forty centimeters below street level. Then it was time to knock down the whole house and build a new mud-brick structure on the rubble. Helmand perched on a hill of its own making, a good fifteen meters above the Margush.

As for the racket, expect nothing else when large numbers of people gather to trade, as the folk of Helmand did once a nineday. And they were people. Only by such details as hair and skin color, beard pattern, and shape of features could they be told at a glance from Terrans. There were more subtle internal differences, but David Ware and Julian Crouzet had no trouble passing as foreigners from a distant land.

The two Survey Service anthropologists strolled through the marketplace. They paused gratefully in the long shadow of a temple for the time it took to drink a cup of thin, sour wine.

In their boots, denim coveralls, and caps, they attracted some attention from the people swarming around them, but not much. The city dwellers were already typical urban sophisticates, though Helmand and the other towns of the Margush valley represented the first civilization on Bilbeis IV.

Most of the stares came from peasants, in from the fields with produce or livestock to trade for the things they could not make themselves. Here a farmer weighed out grain to pay for a new bronze sickle blade, there another quarreled with a potter over how much dried fruit he would have to give for a large storage jar. The latter man finally threw up his arms in disgust and stomped off to find a better deal.

David Ware had been taping the argument with a camera set in a heavy silver ring. "You think that one's unhappy," Crouzet murmured, "look at the trader over there."

The fellow at whom he nodded was from the Raidan foothills west of the Margush. He let his gray-green mustachios grow barbarously long and wore a knee-length tunic of gaudy green and saffron stripes. "You try to cheat me, you son of a pimp!" he shouted in nasally accented Helmandi, shaking his fist at the fat stonecutter who sat cross-legged in front of his stall.

"I do not," the stonecutter said calmly. "Seventy diktats of grain is all your obsidian is worth—more than you would get from some."

The hillman was frantic with frustration. "You lie! See here—I have three beastloads of prime stone. In my grandfather's day, my animals would have killed themselves hauling back to my village the grain that stone brought. Seventy diktats—faugh! I could carry that myself."

"In your grandfather's day, we would have used the obsidian for sickles and scythes at harvest time, and for edging war swords. Bronze was hard to come by then, and even dearer than stone. Now that we have plenty, we find it more useful. So what good is your obsidian? Oh, I can make some of it into trinkets, I suppose, but it is no precious stone like turquoise or emerald. The jewelry would be cheap and move slowly."

Ware turned away with a half-amused, half-cynical snort. "Even in a Bronze Age society, changing technology throws people out of work."

"That's true at any level of culture," Crouzet said. "I will admit, though, the pace has picked up in Helmand under Queen Sabium."

"I should say so." Ware's craggy face, normally rather dour, was lit now with enthusiasm. "She's one in a million."

His companion nodded. As if summoned by the mention of their ruler, a platoon of musicians marched into the square down the one real thoroughfare Helmand boasted: the road from the palace. They raised seashell trumpets to their lips and blew a discordant blast. The two Terrans winced. The market-day hubbub died away.

"Bow your heads!" a herald cried. "Forth comes Sabium, vicegerent of Illil the goddess of the moons and queen of Helmand." Actually, the word the herald used literally meant "lady king"; Helmandi had no exact equivalent for "queen," as Sabium was the only female ruler the town had ever known.

Fifteen years before, she had been principal wife of the last king. When he died, his firstborn son was a babe in arms, and Sabium administered affairs as regent. The town prospered as never before under her leadership. A few years later, the child-king died, too. Sabium ruled on, now in her own right, and did so well that no one thought to challenge her.

"I wonder what brings her out," Crouzet said, his eyes on the dirt. "She's missed the last couple of market days."

Ware nodded. "I didn't think she looked well, either, when she was here."

The royal bodyguard preceded the queen into the square. The troopers carried bronze-headed spears and maces with wicked spikes. They used their big leather shields to push people out of the way and clear a path to the raised brick platform in the center of the marketplace.

A retinue of Helmand's nobles followed. The hems of their long woolen robes dragged in the dust; their wide sleeves flapped languidly as they walked. Not for them the bright colors that delighted the semisavage obsidian seller: like the bodyguards and most Helmandis, they preferred white or sober shades of brown, gray, and blue. But gold and silver gleamed on their arms, around their necks, and in ear and nose rings.

A sedan chair borne by twelve husky servants brought up the rear of the procession. David Ware whistled softly when he saw it from the corner of his eye. "I'll bet she is sick, then!" he exclaimed. "She always walked here before."

"We'll know soon enough," Crouzet said calmly. He was a big moon-faced man; his phlegmatic nature made him a good foil for Ware, who sometimes went off half-cocked.

Skillfully keeping the sedan chair level, the porters carried it to the top of the platform, set it down, and scurried down the stairs. The white-robed priest of Illil who had accompanied them stayed behind. The shell-trumpets blared again. The priest drew back the silk curtain that screened the interior of the sedan chair from view.

"Behold the queen!" the herald shouted.

The crowd in the marketplace raised their heads. Ware lifted his arm as if to scratch, so he could record Sabium's emergence.

When he saw her, he tried to suppress his involuntary gasp of surprise and dismay but could not. It hardly mattered. The same sound came from Crouzet beside him and from the throats of everyone close enough to Sabium to see how ill she truly was.

A month before, Ware thought, she had been a handsome woman, even without making allowances for the differences between Terran and Helmandi standards of good looks. Her grayish-pink skin, light blue hair that receded at the temples, and downy cheeks seemed no more strange, after one was used to them, than Crouzet's blackness or his own knobby-kneed, gangly build. Even the false mustache she wore to appear more fully a king somehow lent her face dignity instead of making her ridiculous.

Her strength of character was responsible for that, of course. It shone through her violet eyes like sun through stained glass, animating her aquiline features. One could hear it in her clear contralto, see it in the brisk pace with which her stocky body moved. No wonder the whole city loved her.

Now she got out of the sedan chair with infinite care, as if every motion hurt. She had to lean on the priest's arm for a moment. Her body seemed shrunken within the heavy, elaborately fringed robe of state, shot all through with golden thread. She held the royal crown—a massy silver circlet encrusted with river pearls and other stones that glowed softly, like moonlight—in her hands instead of wearing it. Her face was more gray than pink.

"My God, she's dying!" Ware blurted.

"Yes, and heaven help Helmand after she goes," Crouzet agreed. The one thing Sabium had not done was provide for a successor. Probably, Ware thought, she was too proud to admit to herself that her body had betrayed her.

She could still force it to obey her for a time, though, and she carried on with the ceremony as if nothing were wrong. Her voice rang through the square: "Shumukin, son of Galzu, ascend to join me!"

A small, lithe man climbed the steps and went on his knees in front of the queen. Sabium declared, "For the beauty of your new hymn to Illil, I reward you with half a diktat of refined gold and the title of ludlul." The rank was of the lesser nobility; Shumukin went down on his belly in gratitude. The trumpeters at the edge of the square struck up a new tune, presumably Shumukin's hymn. The crowd applauded. Shumukin rose, smiling shyly, and stepped to one side.

There was a visible pause while Sabium gathered herself. The priest spoke to her, too softly for the Terrans to hear. She waved him aside and called out, "M'gishen, son of Nadin, ascend and join me!"

This time the Helmandi was old and stout. He leaned on a stick going up the stairs. The priest held the cane as he clumsily got to his knees. Sabium said, "For sharing with all of Helmand what you have learned, I reward you with three diktats of refined gold and the rank of shaushludlul." That was a higher title than the one Shumukin had earned. M'gishen prostrated himself before the queen.

Sabium bent to bid him rise and could not hide a wince of pain. "Tell the people of what you found."

Shifting from foot to foot like a nervous schoolboy, M'gishen obeyed. His thin, reedy voice did not carry well. He had to start over two or three times before the calls of "Louder!" stopped coming from the back of the marketplace.

"Everybody knows what a taper is, of course," he said. "You take a wick and dip it in hot tallow. Well, if you dip it again and again and again, more and more tallow clings, y' see. When you light it then, it gives off a real glow like an oil lamp, not just a tiny little flame. Lasts as long as a lamp, too, maybe longer. Eh, well, that's what my new thing is." He reclaimed his stick and limped down the steps.

"Rewards await anyone who learns something new and useful and passes on his knowledge or who shows himself a worthy poet or sculptor or painter," Sabium said. "I set aside the first morning of every nineday to judge such things, and hope to see many of you then."

"Amazingly sophisticated attitude to find in such a primitive society," Crouzet remarked.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" David Ware had been watching the priest of Illil help Sabium back into the sedan chair. The process was slow and agonizing; he saw her bite down hard on her lower lip to distract herself from the other, greater torment. It was a relief when the silk draperies gave her back her privacy.

Crouzet repeated himself. "Oh, yes, absolutely," Ware agreed. "For this sort of culture it's better than a patent system; the bureaucracy to run anything like that won't exist here for hundreds of years. But the up-front reward encourages people to put ideas into the public domain instead of hanging on to them as family secrets."

"To say nothing of spurring invention." Crouzet's eyes followed the servitors bearing Sabium back to the palace. "What do you think the odds are of whoever comes after her keeping up what she's started?"

Ware laughed without humor. "What's the old saying? Two chances—slim and none."

"I'm afraid you're right. Sometimes the rule of noninterference is a shame." Survey Service personnel on worlds without spaceflight were observers only, doing nothing to meddle in local affairs.

When Ware did not reply at once, Crouzet turned to look at him. His colleague's face was a mask of furious concentration. Crouzet was no telepath, but he did not need to be to know what the other Terran was thinking. Alarm replaced the black man's usual amused detachment. "For God's sake, David! There's never justification for breaking the noninterference rule!"

"The hell there isn't," David Ware said.

* * *

Lucrezia Spini played the tape of Queen Sabium in the marketplace for the fourth time. "Yes, it might be a malignancy," the biologist said. "If I had to make a guess just from seeing this and from the speed of the illness's advance, I'd say it could well be. But making a real diagnosis on this kind of evidence is pure guesswork. There are so many ways to fall sick, and on a world like this we'll only learn a tiny fraction of them."

"What can you do to pin it down more closely?" Ware asked. A flier had brought him and Crouzet back to the Leeuwenhoek the night before. They had summoned the machine to a field several kilometers outside Helmand. It was silent; the local fear of demons who dwelt in darkness made the chance of being observed vanishingly small. The Leeuwenhoek itself had landed in the northern desert, safe from detection.

Spini rubbed her chin as she thought; had she been a man, she would have been the type to grow a beard for the sake of plucking at it. At last she said, "I suppose I could sneak a small infrared sensor onto the roof of the queen's bedchamber and do a body scan. If there are tumors, they'll show up warmer than the surrounding normal body areas."

"Would you?" Ware tried to hold the eagerness from his voice. He had kept quiet about his gut reaction back in the marketplace. If Sabium was suffering from some exotic local disease, she would die, and that was all there was to it. If, on the other hand, she had cancer . . . Time enough to worry about that when he knew.

"Why not? Either way, I'll learn something." When the anthropologist kept hovering over her, she laughed at him. "I don't have the answers yet, you know. I have to program the sensor, camouflage it, and send it out. Come back in three days and I may be able to give you something."

Ware had plenty to keep him busy while he waited but could not help fretting. What if Sabium died while they were investigating? She had seemed so feeble. Ware also noticed Julian Crouzet giving him suspicious looks every so often. He pretended not to.

When the appointed day came, he fairly pounced on Lucrezia Spini, barking, "Well?"

She put a hand on his arm. "Easy, David, easy. Anyone would think you were in love with her."

He blinked. That had not occurred to him. He was honest enough with himself to take a long look at the idea. After a few seconds he said, "You know, I might be, if she came from a civilization comparable to ours. As is, I admire her tremendously. She's kindly but firm enough to rule, she boosts this culture in ways it couldn't expect for centuries yet, she's three times as smart as any of the local kings—and she carries on like a trouper in spite of what she's got. Whatever it is, she deserves better."

"No need to preach. I'm convinced." Spini laughed, but Ware could tell his earnestness had impressed her. She fed a cassette into the monitor in front of her. "This will interest you."

The screen lit in an abstract pattern of greens, blues, reds, and yellows: an infrared portrait of Sabium's boudoir. "Ignore these," Spini said, pointing to several brilliant spots of light. "They're lamps, so of course they show up brightly. Here, now—"

Yes, the pattern at the bottom might have been a reclining figure. "Lucky the Helmandis sleep nude," the biologist remarked. "In this climate it's no wonder, I suppose. Clothes would have confused the picture, though. Look here, and here, and especially here—" Her finger moved to one area after another that glowed yellow or even orange. "Hot spots."

"That's her belly?" Ware asked harshly.

Spini nodded. "Full of tumor. A classical diagnosis. Too bad, if what you say about her is true. If she were a Terran, I wouldn't give her more than another month, tops, with that much metastatic cancer in there."

"Just how different biologically are the locals, Lucrezia?" Ware hoped he sounded casual.

He must have, for she answered readily. "Not very. When you were in Helmand, you ate the food, drank the beer. Some of the desert herbs here synthesize chemicals that look promising as pharmaceuticals."

"How interesting," the anthropologist said.

* * *

"No," Senior Coordinator Chunder Sen said flatly. With his round brown face and fringe of white hair, he usually reminded David Ware of a kindly grandfather. Now he sounded downright stern—something Ware would not have imagined possible—as he declared, "The rule of noninterference must be inviolable."

Heads nodded in agreement all around the table in the Leeuwenhoek's mess, which doubled as the assembly chamber. It was the only compartment that could hold the ship's twenty-person complement at once. Julian Crouzet had taken pains to sit as far from Ware as he could, as if to avoid any association with what his colleague was proposing.

"So this is what you were leading up to," Lucrezia Spini exclaimed. It sounded like an accusation.

The anthropologist nodded impatiently. "Of course it is. We ought to cure Queen Sabium, as I said when I asked for this meeting. It could be done, couldn't it?"

"Technically speaking, I don't see why not. I already told you that the natives' metabolism isn't much different from ours. With the interferons and other immunological amplifiers we have, we could stimulate her body to throw off the malignancy. But I don't think we should. Noninterference has been Federacy policy from the word go, and rightly. Where would we be if more advanced races had tinkered with Terra when we were just a single primitive world?"

"Maybe better off; who knows?" Ware saw at once he had been too flip. He backed off. "What's the reasoning behind the rule of noninterference, anyway?"

"Oh, really now, David," Jemala Gürsel snorted. The meteorologist went on: "There's no point to treating us like so many children. Everyone knows that." She shook a finger at Ware in annoyance.

"Let's get it out in the open and look at it," he persisted.

"Very well." That was Chunder Sen, sounding resigned. As a bureaucrat, he was vulnerable to proper procedure. "Julian, do the honors, will you?"

"Gladly," the other anthropologist said, "since a chance comment of mine seems to have touched David off in the first place. There are many sound reasons behind noninterference, but the most telling one is the one Lucrezia gave—less advanced cultures deserve to develop in their own ways. We have no right to meddle with them."

"That's exactly what I thought you'd say," Ware told him, "and it sounds very noble, but it doesn't bear much relation to reality. Truth is, we interfere every time we come into contact with a local."

"Nonsense!" Crouzet snapped, and that was one of the milder reactions. Coordinator Chunder Sen, a devout Hindu, could not have looked more pained if he had suddenly discovered he'd been eating beef the last six weeks.

Ware did not mind. He felt filled with a sudden crazy confidence, like a gambler who knows the next card will make his straight, the next roll will be a seven. "It isn't nonsense," he insisted. "The physicists have known for a couple of thousand years that the act of observation affects what's being observed."

"Don't throw old Heisenberg at us out of context," said Moshe Sharett, the chief engineer. "He's only relevant at the atomic level. For large-scale phenomena, the observer effect is negligible."

"Who says Helmand's a large-scale phenomenon? Fifteen thousand people or so strikes me as being awfully different from the sextillions of atoms chemists and physicists play with."

Sharett scratched at an ear. Several other people frowned thoughtfully. Julian Crouzet, though, said, "I defy you to show me how walking through the streets of Helmand could twist the culture out of shape."

"Even that might. Suppose we bumped into someone and made him late for an important meeting, so a decision was taken that he would have changed if he'd been there. But walking about isn't all we do, you know. Remember that scrawny vendor we bought wine from? The grain we gave him could well have kept him and his whole family from starving. We might have changed a thousand years of bloodlines if a child that would have died grows up to breed."

"Oh, come now," Courzet said. "If we hadn't bought from him, someone else would."

"Would they? Not many people did, or his ribs wouldn't have shown so clearly. Julian, I'm afraid we did him a good turn, whether we wanted to or not. Let's give ourselves up."

Crouzet threw his hands in the air. "Spare me your sarcasm. What if we did? It's a long way from going in and healing Queen Sabium."

"Of course it is," Ware said at once, "but the difference is one of degree, not of kind—that's the point I'm trying to make. It's interference either way. For once, let it have a purpose. Here; I'm going to show two tapes and then I'm done."

He walked over to the big vision screen that took up most of one wall. The first tape was the one he and Crouzet had made of Sabium in the marketplace. "Give us a running translation for those who don't know Helmandi, will you, Jorge?" he said. "You're smoother than I am."

Jorge Morales, the ship's linguist, was a self-important little man. He jumped a bit but did as Ware asked him. The anthropologist nodded to himself. After two minutes of translating, Morales would think any attack on the tape was an attack on him personally.

But there were no attacks. Sabium's courage impressed the company of the Leeuwenhoek even more than her wisdom. In the dead silence that filled the mess hall, Ware inserted the other tape. "This has two parts," he said. "The first one is from a spy camera I had planted in the palace bedroom the other day."

Seen from above, attendants bustled around Sabium. One offered food and drink, most of which she declined. Others helped her take off the stifling royal robes; she accepted that attention with relief, as she did the cloth soaked in cool water that a serving maid pressed to her forehead.

Some of the water ran down her face and got into her false mustaches, which began to come off. She said something that made her attendants laugh. "What was that?" Moshe Sharett asked.

"Something to the effect that that was one thing her husband hadn't had to put up with," Morales replied. Several of the people watching the screen grinned; not all of them were those Ware expected to back him.

After a while the servants bowed their way out, leaving Sabium alone in the chamber, a small, tired woman wearing only a thin shift that covered her to midthigh. Much of the flesh had melted from her legs and arms, but the fabric of the shift stretched tight across her swollen belly, as if she were pregnant.

If she had not known how ill she was that day in the marketplace, she did now. She pressed herself here and there and flinched more than once in the self-examination. When she was done, she shrugged and spoke, though she did not think anyone was there to hear her. This time, Ware did the translating himself: " 'Another day gone. Now to do the best I can with the ones I have left.' "

Sabium rose, stripped off the shift with an involuntary grunt of pain, and blew out the lamps. The leather thongs supporting the mattress creaked as the bedchamber went dark.

The second piece of tape was the infrared sequence Lucrezia Spini had taken: a death sentence in bright, cheerful false colors.

"Which is the greater distortion?" Ware asked softly. "To let such a queen as that die before her time, knowing that nothing she had worked for would survive her, or for her to live out her natural span? That's the choice before us now." He sat down.

Had Coordinator Chunder Sen been a military man instead of an administrator, he would never have let it come to a vote. But he was confident of the outcome. The rule of interference was as much an article of faith to him as his belief in Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. He could not imagine anyone else having a different opinion.

To his amazement, he lost, twelve votes to eight.

* * *

Ware turned curiously to Julian Crouzet as they walked through the streets of Helmand toward the palace. "Just why are you coming along if you disagree so strongly with what I'm doing?"

"Frankly, to keep an eye on you."

"I'm not going to give Sabium the secret of the stardrive, Julian. For one thing, I don't know it myself."

"Thank God for small favors."

Ware glared at him but let it go; they were coming up to the entrance of the palace.

The arched doorway was twice the height of a man. Most of the palace was built of the same sun-dried mud brick as the rest of Helmand, but in the wall that held the doorway expensive fired bricks had been used lavishly for show. Their fronts were enameled in bright colors, like giant mosaic tesserae. Here a predator was shown leaping on a herd animal, there a hunter's arrow brought down a flying creature. The entrance itself was flanked by a pair of apotropaic gods.

A steward—a low-ranking one, from his unadorned robe and plain white conical hat—approached the two Terrans, asking, "What do you foreigners wish?"

With Crouzet standing by in silent disapproval, Ware launched into the cover story that had been hammered out aboard the Leeuwenhoek: "As you can see, we are from a far country. We have done well for ourselves here in Helmand, and we would like to give your splendid city a gift in return. Forgive me if I speak now of intimate matters, but is it not true that your queen is unwell?"

The steward's eyes narrowed. "What if it is?"

"We saw her on her last trip to the marketplace, I and my friend," Ware said, including Crouzet whether he liked it or not. "If her illness is as it appears, it is one for which our people have a cure."

"As what charlatan does not?" the steward said scornfully. "And for your so-called cure, no doubt, you will want all the silver and half the grain in the city—payable in advance."

The Helmandis were very human indeed, Ware thought. He said, "No, it is a gift, as I told you. We will heal your queen if we can, and ask nothing for it. Indeed, we will refuse whatever you may offer."

The toplofty steward clearly was taken aback. "Come with me," he said after a few seconds, and led the Terrans into the palace. Away from the entrance, only torches lit the rush-strewn narrow halls, which smelled of burning fat, stale sweat, and ordure.

Several functionaries, each more important than the one before, grilled the anthropologists. The last barrier before Sabium was the priest of Illil who had helped her on the platform. "Do you swear by all your gods that your remedy will cure?" he demanded.

"No," Ware said at once. The natives' metabolism was almost identical to Terrans', but not quite—and there were always individual idiosyncrasies. "If it fails, it will not harm her," he added.

"Well, what is there to lose?" the priest muttered under his breath. Ware did not think he was supposed to hear. Then the local did speak directly to him. "Stay here. I shall take your words to the queen, to let her decide." Spearmen stood aside to let the priest pass but never stopped watching the Terrans.

The wait could not have been more than ten minutes, but it stretched till it seemed like hours. At last the priest of Illil returned. "This way," he said brusquely. Ware gave a sigh of relief and followed, Crouzet at his side.

Something small and nasty buzzed down onto Ware's neck, bit him, and flew away before he could swat it. Lucrezia Spini said the local pests weren't exactly insects. Close enough for government work, though, Ware thought, rubbing.

Braziers of incense smoked in the small chamber where Sabium received the Terrans, but the sweet, resinous smoke could not quite cover the sickroom odor of the place. The queen reclined on a low couch with a headrest; a rug embroidered with river flowers covered her legs. The walls of the chamber were whitewashed to help reflect torchlight.

Sabium had grown even thinner, Ware thought as he and Crouzet went on their knees before her. Only her eyes, smudged below with great dark circles, showed life. They glowed, enormous, in a face now skeletally lean.

"Rise," Sabium said. She studied the Terrans with an interest still undimmed by illness, commenting, "I remember noticing the two of you in the marketplace once or twice. What distant land do you come from that grows men of your colors?"

"It is near the great western ocean, Your Majesty," Ware replied. The Helmandis knew nothing about that part of the continent.

Sabium asked more questions; a scribe took down the answers the anthropologists gave. Only when a spasm of pain wracked her so that her hands twisted and her lips went white beneath her false mustache did she say, "Tupsharru"—she nodded toward the priest of Illil—"tells me your city is skilled in medicine." For all the emotion that showed in her voice, she might have been speaking of the weather.

"Yes, Your Majesty," Ware said eagerly. He drew a stout syringe from the pouch he wore on his belt. He showed her the point, warning, "I will have to prick your arm to give you the medicine. It may hurt you some."

She astonished him by laughing. "What is the sting of a needle against the beast of fire in my middle? Come forward, and fear not; if I were to harm the physicians who failed to cure me, none would be left in Helmand."

She did not flinch when he made the injection, and held her arm motionless until the entire dose had been administered. As she watched the medicine enter her, he could see her grasping the principle of the syringe. "Ah, the needle is hollow, like the sting of the gurash," she murmured. "That idea might prove valuable in other ways as well."

Ware could feel the weight of Crouzet's sardonic glance on his back but did not turn around.

"That's all?" Sabium asked when he put away the hypodermic. He knew what was puzzling her: in Helmand, witchcraft and medicine were hard to tell apart, and drugs and elaborate charms went hand in hand.

He shrugged. "Yes, Your Majesty. To us, that our remedies work is more important than the spectacle involved in using them." She dipped her head thoughtfully, then returned to her questions about the Terrans' fictive homeland.

Before long, yawns began punctuating the interrogation. Lucrezia Spini had warned that drowsiness was a common side effect of the drugs, and so Ware was more encouraged than not to see Sabium sleepy—it was a first sign she was reacting as Terrans did. Tupsharru, though, started up in alarm when his queen dozed off in the middle of a sentence.

The priest searched Ware with his eyes as the anthropologist explained that there was no danger. "Then no doubt you will not object to staying here in the palace until Her Majesty returns to herself," Tupsharru said coldly.

"No doubt," Ware replied, and hoped he meant it.

Although it only had a slit window and was therefore very stuffy, the room in which the Terrans were confined was well appointed, and their evening meal fit for a noble: bread, salt fish, boiled leguminous plants, candied fruit, and a wine hardly less sweet. The squad of soldiers outside the barred door, however, did nothing to improve the appetite.

Most of a day went by before the door opened again; Crouzet beat Ware out of a week's pay at dice. They were still crouched over the plastic cubes when Tupsharru burst into the chamber, half a dozen spearmen at his back.

Ware grabbed for the stunner by his belt pouch, but there was no need. The priest of Illil went to one knee before him, as if in salute to a great lord. "She wakes without torment, for the first time in the gods know how many ninedays!" he said exultantly. "And she is hungry, as she has not been for even longer!"

"Well, David, you seem to have pulled it off," Julian Crouzet said, his voice sober. "I hope you're pleased."

Ware hardly heard him; he was too busy trying to be polite declining the gifts Tupsharru wanted to shower on him. At last he did take a couple of fine small bronzes, one a statuette of Illil with a moon in either hand, the other a portrait bust of Sabium that managed to capture something of her character in spite of being almost as rigidly formulaic as the image of the god.

"It would have been out of character for traders to turn down everything," he told Crouzet a little defensively as the two Terrans made their way back to the city gate. They had had to argue Tupsharru out of an honor guard.

"No doubt you're right," Crouzet said, and lapsed back into silence.

"You still think I was wrong, don't you?"

"Yes," Crouzet answered promptly. Ware thought he was going to leave it at that, but he went on with a sigh, "For better or worse, it's over, and there's nothing I can do about it anymore. Maybe it will all turn out for the best in the long run; who knows?"

"Julian, listen to me: in the long run, it won't matter at all. No matter what we say, noninterference just isn't that important on a preindustrial world, except as a policy to prevent exploitation. The same discoveries always get made, if not now, then in a few centuries."

"That's not what you were claiming back at the ship," Crouzet remarked.

"You're right, but I wouldn't have got anywhere taking that tack. Think about it, though. By the time the next survey ship comes to Bilbeis IV, in fifteen hundred years or so, who'll remember anything about Queen Sabium? The crew will, sure, because they'll have copies of the tapes we made here, but what about the locals? Maybe a priest or two will know of her name, if the Margush valley civilization survives—maybe not, too. So what, either way?"

Crouzet looked him in the eye. "You, my friend, are talking through your hat. What's more, you know it. You don't have the slightest idea what the effect of this interference is going to be, any more than anyone else does."

"Don't I?" Ware snapped. He sounded very tired. "Whatever it is, it won't be much. This society is as tradition-bound as any other early civilization. If Sabium gets too far out in front of her people, they won't follow her any more, and that'll be that. Or the priests will say her changes offend the gods, and overthrow her. That'll solve your problem, too. You tell me, damn it—am I right or not?"

Crouzet considered. "Maybe," was all he would let himself say.

To Ware, it was like a concession. "There, you see? What I set out to do was to save a good woman from a lot of anguish and a nasty death, and that's what I did—that's all I did. Where's the evil in it? That's what I want to know."

They walked on a while in silence, but it was not an angry silence anymore. Then Crouzet sadly said, "Oh, David, David, David," and put his arm around the other anthropologist's shoulder. "Justify it any way you like. When we get home, the review board will crucify you all the same, not least for playing on everyone's emotions so shamelessly."

"Let them," Ware said. "For my money, it's worth it." The walls of Helmand loomed ahead, close now. He began to whistle.







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