The Shortest Night

The Shortest Night

by Ian Watson

Illustration by John Stevens

“This is a night as never will be.

“You’ll go back to sea and never see me,

“Not again, oh my dusky mariner…”

Wistfully the tangomeister warbled. The tango combo twanged and plainted away on violin, guitar, and accordion. Cymbals provided a rippling punctuation. Music in a minor key, suitable for public courtship. Courtship, of a sort, was in progress in Momma Rakasta’s establishment as the black sailors and the white hostesses smooched around the dance floor or chatted at tables over barley-beers, blueberry liqueurs, glasses of spirit.

The decor was gilt and plush, the curtaining velvet. The glass shades of the oil lamps were multicolored mosaics. The tubby baritone vocalist and his bandsmen wore matching lace shirts and black breeches, with red ribbon rosettes on their knees. Chum-chum-chum, was the rhythm.

Words and music were maudlin in a deeply affecting way. This tango might have been caressing and gentling the sailors—proclaiming at them to moderate their behavior in case some drunken brawl threatened to trash the establishment or cause abuse to the young ladies.

Young Andrew, whom Bosco was keeping an eye on, had paired off with a willowy lass. Bosco’s own hostess, chosen after some deliberation, was a bit older than most of the girls. This appealed to Bosco since she would have some depth.

Astrid was tall and full figured, in her billowy white linen blouse and bountiful skirt of red and blue stripes. Her blue bodice, unbuttoned, exhibited blouse-clad tits which had form. Her long hair was a flaxen yellow.

“What is a Conga?” she asked Bosco. The Conga was the name of the four-master he sailed on.

“It’s a long file of dancers. Each claspin’ the waist of the one in front.” He mimed clutching her waist, though they were both sitting down. “It kind o’ suggests all the successive positions of our ship on the chart as she skips across the sea from one day to the next. Also, there’s a mighty river in old Africa away on Earth called the Conga.”

“Do you speak African at home down south in Pootara?”

“Naw, my darling. We mostly speak Anglo-lingo, just like the folks at the Earthkeep in Landfall, though we can all talk Kalevan too. Every immigrant imbibes Kalevan in their dreams on the way to this world, whether they’re whites destined for up here with its passions and manias, or blacks bound for the south and the life of sweet reason. Now the Conga, fine ship, she’s what we call a hermaphrodite schooner—meanin’ that she carries fore-and-aft an’ also square-rigged sails to make her fast and lean. I’m no hermaphrodite,” and he winked.

“I’m sure you aren’t.” Astrid played with her hair. “Do you sail to Tumio as well?”

That was the other deep-sea port, six hundred keys westward. Where the mana-bishop dwelled in his palace next to the baroque yellow-brick temple of magic. At Tumio, a major river spilled into a bay. This made commerce with the interior easier than at Portti, from which goods needed to be hauled onward by land and by lake.

“All black newcomers travel via Tumio, to gain passage across the isle-crowded ocean to Pootara where democracy and level-headedness prevail…” Bosco couldn’t resist a little boast.

“It must be lovely there,” she murmured. “In Pootara.”

“You aren’t from hereabouts, are you?” he asked, and she shook her head.

Maybe Bosco was moved by the sentimental tango music.

“I can’t help feeling that you’re a bit of a castaway here in Portti, Astrid. A castaway of the land rather than of the sea.”

“Cast a sway,” she sang softly. She sounded as though she was echoing him, but not really.

“Cast a sway on me,” sang the tangomeister.

“And never set me free

“Till the stars drown in the sea…”

“Shall we go upstairs?” he proposed.

She wasn’t ready yet. “Another glass of blueberry, first?”

“Fine by me.”

“There’s no magic in Pootara at all?”

“No sways, no manias, no proclaimers bespeakin’ people, no shamans, no cuckoo birds. The way I see it, Astrid, we come to Kaleva courtesy of that living asteroid starship-thing that calls itself the Ukko. Now, Earth has built shuttle-ships to load the Ukko an’ unload it, but that Ukko has its own agenda involvin’ compellin’ folks to live out all sorts o’ colorful stories up here in the north for its amusement. I bet cuckoos are communicatin’ with Mother Ukko mentally all the time. Us blacks are in the south by way of ballast an’ stability, so that everyone don’t go nuts on this world. You white folks here in the north are sorta like the pets of the Ukko. As compensation, you get a whole land out here among the stars, wherever here is—and no ’stronomer’s ever been able to say for sure—”

Unaccountably, Astrid shuddered.

“—and mebbe it’s never-never-space the Ukko brings us to, not in the same universe as Earth at all.”

She nibbled at her lip. “What about the Isi snakes and their Juttie slaves? The snakes use their own Ukkos to reach here. They seem to know more than us.”

“Seem to; so people say. Mebbe the Ukkos use them alien snakes as different sorts of toys, to add spice to the pudding. Have you ever seen a Jut-tahat?”

“Yes…” She wouldn’t enlarge on this.

Astrid’s breasts did indeed have form. Her left breast also possessed something else.

Upstairs in one of the boudoirs, after transacting the first bout of business—over which we’ll draw a discreet blanket or silken sheet—Bosco reclined, studying her tattoo.

It was an elaborate one: of a cuckoo bird with a white milkcup flower in its beak.

Being situated within an inch of a nipple, which was just like a pink bub-berry, the milkcup bloom seemed well suited to its location. But a cuckoo? Plumes of verdigris and rust. Big snoopy yellow eyes. Eavesdropping feline ears.

One of the bird’s feet was crippled and twisted. This had to be an illustration of a specific cuckoo, not just a picture of cuckoos in general.

Northerners used cuckoos to send a message or brag about some great deed, after feeding a bird a dollop of offal and calling out to it, “Ukko-ukkoo, hark to the story and tell the tale!” Since all cuckoos (except for this one) looked much the same, you couldn’t be sure that the bird that harked was the same one that subsequently repeated the words, twenty or fifty keys away, next day or ten days later.

And you couldn’t ask the birds if they communicated telepathically, because they didn’t ever confide anything about themselves. As for coercing a bird to answer—or trapping one to fix an identity ring round its scrawny ankle—that was totally taboo. Captive cuckoo in a cage, puts all Kaleva in a rage. Awful woe would follow. The bird on Astrid’s left tit couldn’t have gotten its injury from any act of human pique or meddling.

“I’m thinkin’ there’s a strange story inscribed on your bosom, Astrid. Right next to your heart, you might say—”

He was aware that his hooded eyes lent him a drowsy look, inspiring confidence. Yet she drew away.

“It’s past and best forgotten.”

“How can you forget, when it’s pictured on your own skin?”

She wouldn’t answer.

Bosco had paid for a full night in the boudoir. He had advised Andrew likewise, lending him some silver marks and a golden or with the mad Queen’s head on it.

He dozed, as one does when sated; and woke around midnight. Astrid wasn’t abed. Silhouetted naked on a stool, she was gazing out of the little half-open window at the grey gloaming of the shortest night, which was still clear of clouds.

He watched her for a while, admiring and anticipating yet also aware that this nightwatch she was keeping held some deep meaning for her.

Presently, he slid himself out of bed. Softly he padded over to her. He could tell by Astrid’s breathing that she hoped he wouldn’t overwhelm this moment with hanky-panky. So he just hunkered down beside her. Out in town, bonfire lights were flickering. Distant noises of revelry drifted. Very likely some people would be settling old scores. Fueled by booze, the murder rate soared on this briefest night of the year.

The window faced north, away from the sky-sickle that spanned the southern horizon. From Portti, on account of the cliffs of its fjord, only the very top of that silver bridge was visible—that ring of debris from a long-since disintegrated moon that had come too close to the planet. From this window, the sickle wasn’t visible at all. Few stars pricked the luminous gloom where night and day were joining hands. The brightest body was the gas-giant world, like a tiny masthead lantern far away.

“There’s Otso,” he murmured.

Essentially the sky looked empty.

“All the stars have drowned in the sea,” he joked gently. “Us mariners like to see a few constellations.”

“I don’t.” Even though it was warm, Astrid shivered.

“The Archer and the Cow, the Harp… and the Cuckoo,” he hinted, “the Cuckoo.”

Of a sudden, she began to talk hauntedly. It was as if her tattoo was compelling her to tell the tale.

“I was at Castle Cammon, enthralled by Tycho the tyrant, when he commissioned a young astronomer called Jon Kelpo to redraw ...

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