Lost in the thick blanket of fog which filled the valleys of the Archipelago, an exhausted Trader crouched beside a standing stone. He whistled softly to his goats and reached into his pocket for a lump of salt. Twenty-four golden-eyes formed an unblinking ring around him. They stared expectantly through the mist, certain the old man’s failure to pursue his route was a prelude to dinner. His journey back from the Capital was taking longer than he had expected, and the food he’d set aside for his dozen pack animals was running out. Soon they would have to resort to consuming the trade goods.
The Foglands weren’t inherently dangerous. They were haze-locked valleys between geographic “islands” and only seemed like oceans to folks who didn’t know how to navigate across them. But the islands were really just the tops of ridges, and beneath the permanent fogline a system of Traders’ Trails crisscrossed the land below. Maps had been drafted long ago, setting down the relationships of the paths to other geographic features hidden beneath the mist, but whether there had been a time before the fog existed, no one claimed to know.
The Trader had traveled to the Capital from a far away “island,” led by a trained Navigator who’s job it was to carry a map and act as a knowledgeable escort. The trip, though long, had been uneventful and after trading his goods and buying supplies for his return, the Trader had once again signed up for a Navigator to guide him back through the Foglands. For years it had been his routine to pay for the service, but a recent guide tax had rankled him, and in the end he’d refused to pay for someone to escort him along a path he’d traveled so many times before. At the last minute he’d sold the contract to a less experienced man, convincing himself it was a thrifty rather than reckless decision.
Despite the limited visibility in the Foglands, the Traders’ Trails were like handrails, leading him from one useful landmark to the next. Bridges, switchbacks, passes, forests, boulders. Many of the features along the way he even recognized, once he got close enough to see them. As long as he didn’t get turned around and head back the wrong way, he could be assured of reaching his destination. After all, everything was the same every time. Until it wasn’t.
Days into his journey, the well-worn trail had disappeared into a flooded marsh. At first he’d picked his way from one small rise to the next, skirting fallen trees and looking for signs of the swallowed trail. But progress had been slow, with more searching than finding. After another day, and a night, he’d lost the track entirely.
The Trader had known then that he would have to retrace his steps, but how could he turn back when he couldn’t see which way was forward? Everywhere the features of the vast marshland had faded gently into the soft gray ruff of cloud. He’d felt both hidden and exposed.
When he’d seen the sentinel stone, looming out of the mist, he’d gravitated toward it as though to a long lost companion. It had only been a coincidence that he had happened upon a way marker for the trade route. The knoll it stood upon was surrounded by murky water with no sign of the trail, and he knew his only chance for survival lay in the hands of a true Navigator finding him there and guiding him to safety.
The pack train of goats clumped into an unruly mass around the Trader, pushing to get at the salt in his hand. He struggled to keep them from tangling their lines. Suddenly his lead goat drew back and cocked her head to the side. The others followed suit, pricking their ears and stamping their feet at the sound of approaching voices. Two, or four? It was hard to tell through the muffling fog, but they were raised in agitation and they were closing in fast.
“Sylvan! Stop playing games!” Through the clouded glass window of the Inn’s back door, Sylvan could see his sister’s silhouette sway with frustration and indecision. She couldn’t really see him, standing there in the dark hallway. She wouldn’t know if her efforts were in vain. “Come on. You’re wasting time!” she called.
Her features came into focus as she cupped her hands around her face, and peered in through the half window, her nose pressed gently to the glass. He leaned in playfully, positioning his wide eyes just a few inches from her own searching ones, ready to startle her. It might have been like looking in the mirror. But it wasn’t. Tali was his twin sister, but where his features were the rich colors of earth and wood, her skin, so unlike their mother’s, told the story of a father they’d never known: A Navigator who’d come striding into the village long after dark one cool autumn evening.
The stranger had left before dawn, continuing his dubious journey down the backside of the island to Dockville, presumably to deliver an important communique. If there had been an understanding, or a promise to return, their mother never spoke of it. But Tali had told him the story of their encounter again and again as the two of them lay awake in the attic, whispering about their most intimate mystery. Like many of her stories, it had been embellished over time, and Sylvan had to admit that some of the more colorful details had begun to make him feel a little uncomfortable.
Since then, Navigators hadn’t come to their village.
Sylvan waited for another moment before finally flicking the lock and cracking the door open. But instead of letting her into the echoing Inn where their mother might hear them, he slipped out onto the back porch. “Aw come on, Tali, is that the best you could do? I mean, you know ducking around the paddocks was obviously too tricky for you. You should have gone...”
“If I was trying to beat you, I would have gone around the road. I was trying to find you!” she cried. “I’ve been looking for you all morning, but it’s too late now for you to...” She glanced back over her shoulder, towards the stables as she caught her breath. “Too late for you...oh...never mind. You ‘obviously’ don’t care, anyway.” Her shoulders sagged as she turned away from him and walked slowly across the short green grass heading, he supposed, back to the students she had abandoned to search for him. But before she disappeared around the corner of the Inn, she turned back for a moment and he could see that the brightness in her eyes was some kind of hurt, different than the mild resentment he’d have expected.
What was with her anyway? She wasn’t normally so sensitive. It must be one of the mysterious “growing into womanhood” things their mother kept referring to. Being twins with Tali used to be instinctual and easy. Each of them understood what the other felt and they played off one-another like friendly rivals. Until recently. Now it seemed he couldn’t always predict what way her mood would swing. The two of them would be in the midst of a prolonged series of bickering jibes when suddenly he would say something that hit a tender spot he didn’t understand. Sometimes she would lash out in anger, but sometimes she just seemed to wilt. These were the frightening times. She would turn off whatever sibling connection they had and retreat into a space inside herself he didn’t know. He was beginning to recognize her triggers: certain young men, the quality of her work, and her veracity. She might tell stories, but she didn’t lie. Ever.
“There you are!” Sylvan turned to see his mother standing in the doorway, staring up at him expectantly. She was a short, woman, with sparkling eyes and a wide mouth framed by vertical creases which suggested there had been a time in her life when she’d spent more time laughing than bossing. Her head was haphazardly tufted with dark hair resembling handfuls of tea-soaked wool. Even her eyebrows were rather like fuzzy caterpillars, and he remembered Tali once saying she liked to pretend they were chasing one another across her forehead. Now they rippled up toward one another in that expression of disappointment only mothers of negligent children can perfect. “Did you turn on the voltaic pump yet?” He shook his head, wondering at the regretful pity which accompanied her normal exasperation. “Sylvan, the potable tanks are almost empty and I know you don’t look forward to making bucket trips to the lake when we run out of water after dark.” Now she was warming up to her lecture and Sylvan actually felt more at ease when she added, “Speaking of the power system, have you ‘made’ time to adjust all of the panel angles on the roof?”
“Yes! Well not yet. I was planning on it.” Sylvan grumbled, carefully stepping backward down the steps and heading toward the neighboring stables to borrow a ladder.
“And don’t forget to wash the tables and re-shelve the books,” she called after him. “We all have work to do, and if it doesn’t get done in the morning, well, it’ll take until sunset!” This was one of his mother’s favorite mantras, and it was hard to argue with her since Sylvan’s work did seem to take all day long. It hung over his head like a bottomless bucket of cold water that just kept on pouring and pouring down over him, making it almost impossible to enjoy his stolen moments of exploration. How he wished he could just step out from under the shadow of her nagging and do his own thing!
Sylvan strode automatically across the back lawn, his feet tracing the path he had traveled a thousand times before. Closing his eyes, he let his muscle memory carry him in a smooth arc around the corner of the building and across the dirt lot toward the stables.
When he was five or six, he’d begun to notice that his ability to know places was something not everyone had. Sure, lots of kids that age could remember how to get around the village, but the forest was another thing altogether. Any place Sylvan went, even once, became part of his known world. As long as it didn’t change, he knew it. And he loved to test himself.
Three more steps and a single perfect hop landed him on the front porch of the stable. He pivoted and felt the familiar sag of the boards beneath his feet. He had to be careful not to get too close to the wall. He wouldn’t want to stumble into the new bales of wool he’d helped line up there last night. The rough wood decking gave way to the firmer grip and resistance of a metal doorway grate. His eyes were still squeezed shut when, guided by his innate sense of spatial relationships, Sylvan turned into the always-open doorway of the stable and slammed into the heavy wooden door.
“Careful there, Sylvan,” boomed a voice close behind him. Sylvan turned to see a man stepping up onto the porch behind him. “You’ll be wanting to turn the knob before you try that again!” The rough, red face of the butcher was laughing down at him over a slump of folded chins. His scarlet stained apron stretched tight over a proud arc of belly, like a banner proclaiming his brutal profession. Yet he was a soft-hearted man with watery eyes which, even in laughter, failed to belie his aversion to killing. Some people said he was tormented by dreams of revenge. Not for himself, but for the animals he dismembered.
In one of her stories, Tali told of his dreams: The butcher was tied to a stake by one foot while goats and hares and cattle circled relentlessly, wielding giant versions of their claws and hooves like knives and clubs, held in huge, bloody, human hands. Sylvan hoped this wasn’t true. He hoped the butcher slept still and quiet in his low attic room. But how could he rest, knowing he was supported by those same creaking beams from which the swinging corpses of his trade hung?
“Hello, Ulrik.” Sylvan heard his own voice over-loud and embarrassed as he stepped back from the closed doorway. “I was just coming to borrow a ladder from Crocket. He doesn’t usually, um, close the door.” He started to reach for the handle. “Do you think it’s okay to just walk in? Or should I knock first?”
“I’d say you already knocked!” laughed the butcher, wiping his drippy eyes with the corner of his red-smudged apron and jabbing Sylvan in his side with his other elbow. “Oh yes, I’d say you already knocked!” His voice too was uncannily loud and clear, like the rest of the village was sleeping or holding its breath.
Sylvan turned the handle and pushed the door in. They were immediately enveloped by the damp, sweet smell of last year’s trampled hay mixed with the feral sweat and onion funk of the goats themselves.
“This must be why he usually keeps the door open,” said Sylvan, waving his hand in front of his face. He waited for the air to clear, by stepping back to let the older man walk in first. Once the butcher’s bulk had moved through the doorway, Sylvan stared at the neat rows of stalls, separated by low plank walls which served little purpose other than to give the goats some way to practice their whimsical acrobatics. But today, they were empty. Only a single, golden nanny strained toward them, her white-socked legs scrabbling in the slippery hay. A tether rope sliced a sharp, dark line into the fur on her neck. Sylvan recognized the cord as one his sister had spun. Thin and supple, yet stronger than it looked.
The goat herself was also familiar. She was the same one Sylvan had extracted from a dense thicket of elderberries two falls ago. He’d suspected at the time that the goat was simply off on an adventure, that she’d probably return when she got hungry, but you never really knew for sure. Sometimes goats did just disappear.
He smiled, remembering Crocket’s astonishment when he heard the story. How Sylvan had tracked the goat halfway down the backside of the ridge, following the sound of her bleats as she gamboled along the rocky, overgrown slopes. The Trader’s real wonder had been at Sylvan’s ability, after two hours and several kilometers of wandering, to retrace his steps once he had finally gotten the goat in hand. That incident was likely what had inspired Crocket with enough confidence to hire him on to help take the pack train to the fogline town of Woolton in the spring. And it was a good thing too, as it was this same goat that had been the one to break free of that train, skip the turn at the top of the switchbacks and wander up the ridge with her cumbersome load. Sylvan had been sent off to procure the reprobate, and again the Trader had seemed to be impressed by his ability to find both the goat and his own way.
This year he and Crocket would leave her behind. She really was more trouble than she was worth.
“Yes, yes. Poor little Columbine.” The butcher’s voice oozed a wistful compassion for the wide-eyed nanny goat tied to the near end of the stalls. Sylvan cringed as Ulrik advanced on the goat, reaching out one hand in an almost shy gesture of sympathetic longing. The goat lifted her muzzle expectantly, her enormous velvet ears flopping back and forth as she nibbled gingerly at his stubby, outstretched fingers. “Here you are, all alone. But at least you have the smell of the others to keep you company.” He chuckled and sniffed. “Cheer up, now,” he went on. “It’s not so bad, you won’t even have to wait for them to come home. Come with me and I’ve got a nice shed just waiting for you...”
Come back? Sylvan looked again at the empty stalls. Back from where?
He staggered back out onto the empty porch. No. It couldn’t be. But, it was. The bales of wool he’d helped to sheer and stack no longer crowded the porch of the stables like a herd of patient sheep. “But...but they can’t be gone...Crocket...he wouldn’t just...”
Sylvan wasn’t even sure he’d spoken out loud until the watery-eyed butcher smacked a heavy hand on his shoulder. “I’d have thought you’d go with him again this year,” the man said wistfully. “He said you’d done him a world of good last year.” Ulrik turned to shoot a rather disappointed look at the goat which he now clamped tightly under one hairy armpit. Columbine stared back up at him with eyes as round and trusting as yellow eyes with rectangular pupils can be. “Yes, indeed,” Ulrik continued ponderously, “why, I remember him saying once, while we were fishing in the tarn after work, you know...Oh, what were his words?” He shifted the goat to his other side and absentmindedly scratched at the cowlick on the peak of her head as he thought, scowling slightly in an effort to remember. “He said you ‘were more good than trouble’ and, well, that’s more than he says about most folks.”
Sylvan barely heard the kind words. He was too busy racking his brain for concrete reasons why the Trader would have left him behind. True, once they’d gotten to Woolton, Crocket had sent him back to the village alone. He’d said he could devote his own time to managing the goats, and would pick up an experienced Navigator to guide him through the Foglands to Industry Island. But even that gesture had showed that the Trader had faith in his ability to find his way home, even alone. Even in the dark.
“I guess he just didn’t need any help this year, what with the goats being grown and all.”
“Need help?! Oh, he needed help alright, but which one of us can take the day off to traipse down to the town with him? And who wants to trudge all the way back up here along that toilsome path? Not me, I can tell you! Not me.” He shook his head vigorously, flinging the accordion of flesh beneath his chin.
“Me. I would have helped,” murmured Sylvan digging his toes into the straw and flaring his nostrils to stave off the uncomfortable prickling inside of them. It was so unfair! His chance to really go somewhere, to do what he wanted, gone. “Why didn’t Crocket wait for me? He knew I wanted to go. That I was planning on it.”
“Why should he wait for you? The goats were ready. He was ready. I heard him ask your mother where you were and she sent your sister off to look for you. But who knew how long you’d stay away? Only you could know that.”
“I was just...just...well, I was coming right back. Obviously!” Sylvan’s disappointment was growing into self righteous defense. There wasn’t anywhere to go, after all. There was never anywhere to go!
“Obvious?” The butcher shook his head mournfully. “No. Not so obvious, was it Columbine?” The goat let out a faint and rather squashed sounding bleat in reply. “You weren’t at home. You weren’t at school. You weren’t doing the chores for your mother.”
“Chores.” His indignation leaked slowly out of him like the pulp of a trampled brown pear. He thought of the list of tasks he hadn’t done. The endless busywork of a practically defunct inn. “She probably wouldn’t have let me go anyway.” The words were less comfort than he had hoped they would be. “Not without sorting the books and sweeping the floors and washing down a bunch of unused tables at the Inn.” His voice began to slide into a sour mimicry of his mother. “Set up those voltaic pumps, Sylvan! Fill the potable tanks, Sylvan! Adjust the panel angles, Sylvan!” He kicked at the side of an empty crate, cracking the bottom board. “Oh great! Add that to the list of chores.” He spat the final word out like poison. “It’s all just a bunch of thankless work which has to get done all over again, and again, and again!”
Ulrik frowned, bobbing his head up and down thoughtfully while the boy ranted. Then, when Sylvan seemed to have worn himself down, he said, “Perhaps it is thankless. But, it’s work that must get done. You might as well complete it with pride and efficiency. Then you’ll have time to do what you think you would like to do.” He squeezed the boy’s shoulder a little too hard before turning to leave, with the goat still tucked quietly under one arm, its back legs kicking uselessly against thin air.
“Ah, me. Work to do. Work to do.” A glint of light flashed from his apron pocket when he reached the doorway, and as the butcher made his slow and waddling way back to the hanging house, his voice trailed off like the bright red line of Columbine’s blood.
It was long after dark by the time Sylvan had completed his chores for the day. He slumped down in front of the cold plate of food his mother had left for him on one of the common room tables. His back hurt and his arms felt heavy and awkward from the work of carrying twenty four sloshing buckets of water up from the lake to fill the potable tanks. Once he’d finally gotten the panels adjusted and the ladder put away, dusk was creeping across the village. He could have just waited until the next day’s sun began to generate enough power to use the photo-voltaic water pumps, but he didn’t want his mother to know he hadn’t managed to turn them on in time. He hated to prove her right, and if she woke in the night to get a drink of water and found the tap dry, she would know he’d failed again.
For the most part, however, the chores had not been unenjoyable. Once he got started, he could appreciate the process of making a set plan and ticking off accomplishments as he went along. The ladder hadn’t been hard to find, and maneuvering it’s awkward length through the doorway of the stables and around the staggered corners between the houses was just the kind of spatial puzzle he really enjoyed and was good at. Plus, being on top of the Inn’s roof as he readjusted the seasonal angle of the solar panels had provided him with an even better lookout than the willow tree. Again and again, he’d shaded his eyes to peer out across the southern Foglands, wondering where Crocket was. Whether he’d stayed the night in Woolton, or already found a Navigator and slipped beneath the gray blanket of mist, heading for the shores of Industry Island.
Sylvan shoveled his food automatically, lost in the reverie of revisualizing the distant landscape. He didn’t notice the creaking of footsteps on the front porch. Suddenly, the door swung open. He jumped out of his seat and whirled around guiltily, as though he’d been caught off task again.
“Yes, I know...” But it wasn’t his mother.
“Do you, indeed?” The stranger’s eyes widened momentarily and then shifted from side to side, as though he were searching for a different, more likely, proprietor. After he seemed to satisfy himself that the scale of the room and proliferation of tables and benches did indeed confirm that the establishment was a public inn and not some private home he’d stumbled into, his eyes came to rest on Sylvan’s plate. “I don’t suppose there’s any more of that,” he asked. “perhaps hiding in your kitchen?”
“What?" Sylvan shook himself to attention. “Oh, yeah. Just a minute.” He fled through the side door to the kitchen. It had been ages since the Inn actually had a guest. No wonder he’d been caught off guard. And this man didn’t look like a typical Trader, staggering in, covered with dust and smelling of goats. His beard was trim and his long hair hung down his back in a neat braid. A small satchel, slung crosswise over his shoulder, seemed to be his only baggage. Perhaps he was some villager’s long lost relative, or an old university friend of the doctors’. Or perhaps he was lost.
To his relief, a pot of stew still sat on the stove, kept warm by the company of its own mass and the residual heat of the cooling oven. Sylvan filled a wide bowl with chunks of meat and aromatic sauce. Then he slabbed off a piece of fresh brown bread and propped it across the rim of the bowl.
He’d expected the stranger to be seated by the time he came back in, but to his surprise he was still standing by the doorway, just looking around the room, like he was soaking it in, or memorizing it. His thin suit of silk was simple in design and dyed in shades of the earth as seen through fog. A gentle movement in the hem of his pants betrayed a slight sway as he balanced from one foot to the other.
“Don’t you want to sit down?” Sylvan set the plate of food at the far end of his table and gestured for the stranger to join him.
The man glided across the room and onto the bench, wrapped a graceful hand around the bowl, and slid it, and himself, sideways until he sat directly across from Sylvan. Then he began to eat with a careful precision which reminded him of the way his sister spun thread from wool.
“I’m Sylvan,” he said. He was used to Tali and his mother running whatever bantering conversation needed to occur with strangers, and really didn’t want to sound stupid, or worse, ignorant.
“Krumholz,” the man said, after chewing and swallowing what must have been a very gristly spoonful of meat. “Bernhardt Krumholz.”
Obviously Sylvan was going to have to try harder if he was going to find out anything about the man. “So, um…” he paused, unsure whether “Bernhardt” or “Krumholz” or “Bernhardt Krumholz” would be the proper way to address the man. He knew that some places had different rules for the way people talked between generations, and he didn’t want to presume too much. In the end, he just skipped over the name completely. “What brings you up here to our village? I mean, believe it or not, we don’t get a lot of visitors this way and, well, you don’t really look like a typical Trader.”
“Good,” the man said before taking another bite and chewing methodically at it. After finally swallowing the morsel, he went on, “I certainly don’t aspire to look like, much less be a Trader.” He continued to eat in an unhurried manner, obviously hungry from whatever his day’s exertion had been, but aware and in control of his actions. Sylvan had never seen someone with so much focus on a seemingly simple task. At last the stranger wiped his lips and leaned back to look again at Sylvan. “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you aspire to be a Trader?”
Sylvan was taken off guard by the question. Nobody had ever asked him what he aspired to be before. People tended to tell him what he ought to do or ask him why he hadn’t done it. But doing and being were, after all, different things. If the question had come just a half an hour earlier, and from someone he knew, like Tali, he might well have come up with, “Yes, I aspire to be a Trader!” But, the more he thought about it, the less sure he became. Crocket, even though he did get to travel to far off places, wasn’t exactly the most savory of role models. He lived alone, dressed in a mismatch of unwashed clothes and spent his days, much as Sylvan did, now that he came to think of it, hauling water, running to the blacksmith’s shop, and cleaning up messes. And the other Traders he’d met, uncouth men who had stayed from time to time at the Inn, exuded neither intelligence nor curiosity so much as a lumpy mixture of guile and gruffness. No, Sylvan didn’t aspire to be that at all.
“No,” he said, “I’m going to be a Navigator.” He surprised himself with the confidence of his words, and he even believed them for a moment.
“A Navigator. Really?” Krumholz’ eyes sparkled as he looked across the table. Sylvan raised his eyebrows and nodded, like he’d seen Crocket do when he was trying to convince someone of something even he himself wasn’t sure of. “And how are you planning to do that?”
“I’ve got a job with a Trader already,” Sylvan offered. He wasn’t exactly lying, although it was probably stretching the truth more than his sister would have been comfortable with. But what did it matter? This man would be gone in the morning and never think twice about a kid from Wool Island. “I’ve already worked with him on the island routes. He’s going to take me with him to the Capital next time he goes. Under the fog. I’ll get trained up, and then I’ll get a job with a big merchant company. It’ll take a few months, but I’m well on my way.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “I obviously don’t aspire to be an Innkeeper.”
“Obviously,” the stranger reiterated, pursing his lips slightly as though to hold back a smile. Sylvan dropped his eyes. Tali had been after him for weeks about his unnecessary insertion of the word “obviously” into his conversations with her.
“It makes you sound so arrogant,” she’d said, “like you think you already know everything.”
“Which I do. Obviously!” he had retorted. The twins had glowered at each other as long as they could before breaking into grins. Maybe she had a point, though. After all, now he was being mocked by a stranger.
“What makes you think you would be a good Navigator?” the man asked, stretching his neck thoughtfully from side to side.
“Well, I’m a fast runner. I’m good at finding my way around. And I always remember exactly where I’ve been. And,” he added, “my father was a Navigator.”
“Was he?” Krumholz narrowed his eyes, as though searching Sylvan’s features for a hint of familiarity, but he didn’t ask for a name. Fortunately. Instead, he rapped his fingers rhythmically on the table as he scanned the room, coming to rest at last on the keg in the corner.
Following his gaze, Sylvan hopped up to fetch a large ceramic mug and began to fill it from the wooden tap. “So,” he said in a voice he imagined to be offhand and mature, “what do you aspire to be?”
“Efficient.” the man said seriously, and then he added, “A Navigator should be, above all things, efficient.”
Sylvan spun to look at the stranger, sloshing beer down the front of his pants and onto the floor. “You’re a Navigator?!” That would go a long way toward explaining the stranger’s searching eyes and fluid movements, the peculiar clothing and... Then he remembered himself and felt a rush of heat flood his face. Thank goodness he didn’t really blush like his sister. She’d be as red as a radish. But then, Tali never would have stretched the truth so far as to get caught in a lie. How could he have gone on lecturing this man about his made-up career path? Surely Krumholz was laughing at him, an ignorant kid from the outskirts of nowhere with unrealistic dreams of being a…
But a quick glance up showed that he wasn’t actually laughing at all. “Really?” Sylvan tried to sound collected. There was no point in apologizing now. He might as well swallow his pride and learn what he could. “That’s really what you do?”
“That’s what I am,” Krumholz said. He paused for a moment, seeming to calculate how much he wanted to divulge. “I deliver messages for a merchant in the Capital.”
“Seriously? You’re an actual Fogrunner!” Fogrunners were the most elite division of the Navigators, the only ones who ran solo, darting between the islands delivering urgent messages, vying with one another for record traverse times. Sylvan’s interest overcame any embarrassment he felt. He slid back in across from the stranger and pushed the mug of beer over to him. “You are so lucky! You have the most amazing job in the whole Archipelago.” His voice deepened as though in recitation. “The adventure of running beneath the fog. The opportunity to travel to any community on any island and, enough money once you get there to buy everything you want!”
“I believe ‘anything’ is the more commonly used word for our purchasing power, but you nonetheless sound like a rather convincing Nav Recruiter. I suppose even here, on the distant edge of nowhere, you can still read advertisements from the back of Archipelago Magazine.” He glanced sideways at the stacks of unshelved books by the wall. “I would, however, hardly characterize my work as just adventure running.” He seemed to study Sylvan for signs of understanding. “All Navigators have to be able to process visual information quickly and respond constantly to changing circumstances. Goods, money, information, and even lives are entrusted to us. Navigators aren’t just athletes, they have to be highly trained map readers and decision makers.”
“You use maps?” He’d always assumed Navigators just knew where they were going. Crocket had referred to the Trader’s Trails which stretched across the vast Foglands as being like handrails. Besides, Navigators ran between the same islands all of the time, he’d figured they would know the route like the back of their hand.
“Of course. Maps are the tools that enable us–any of us-to navigate our environment with intention and precision.”
“I just didn’t think real Navigators would need them to remember where to go.”
“Why, without a proper map, no rational Navigator in the world would set so much as a foot beneath the fog, much less traverse the web of valleys between the islands.”
Sylvan thought seriously about this assertion. It seemed to him that he did all kinds of navigating without the help of some picture. Once he’d been somewhere, he knew all of the features along its path as readily as he knew his own home. He was incredulous that a real Navigator would have to be constantly looking at a cheat-sheet to find his way around. “But, after doing it a couple of times you must know some of it by heart.” He tried to think what the most commonly used trade line would be. “How about he route between the Capital and Arbor Island?”
“The route. You think I would have memorized the route?” Krumholz looked quizzically at Sylvan and shook his head. “Do you even know what a route is?”
“Obviously, it’s the way to get from one place to another.”
“Obviously? Hmmph!” Krumholz shifted his hand to the flap of his satchel, started to lift it, and then seemed to change his mind. Instead, he raised the hand up between them, showing his left palm to Sylvan. “Here,” he pointed his right index finger at the base of his thumb, “is where we are now. Let’s pretend we walk this way.” He traced a line up to the base of his index finger and then sideways, coming to rest just at the base of his small finger. “We’ll stop here.” He looked sharply at Sylvan. “What is the route back?”
Sylvan lifted his hand and then paused, unsure whether he should actually touch the man’s hand. “Go on, show me the route,” Krumholz prompted.
Sylvan put his finger at the “resting place” and traced a perfect reversal of the other man’s finger journey.
Sylvan pulled his hand away. “And that’s it. That’s exactly what you did. In reverse. That’s the route.”
“That’s one route,” Krumholz corrected. “Show me another.”
Sylvan felt foolish as he stared at the man’s smooth open palm. What did he want? Was it some kind of trick? Suddenly he was conscious of his own stick brown finger left hovering in the air, and the halo of dirt around its nail. He started to draw back, but Krumholz caught his hand before he could retreat and gently used the outstretched finger to trace a line from the “finish” point, down the outside of his hand across the wrist and back to the starting spot. Sylvan’s eyes widened then with comprehension.
“Now,” the man’s voice was low and soft, filled with expectation, “show me the shortest route between the two points.”
Without hesitating Sylvan drew a line from finish to start, straight across the older man’s palm. It had taken a firm nudge to roust him out of his fixed mindset, but suddenly he was exploding with the possibilities. What about around the backside of the hand? Up between the thumb and forefinger along three knuckles and cutting back between the fingers to the finish? If, the hand were opened to its furthest extent, the palm would actually elongate and the back of the hand contract, making a route around the backside just possibly...Sylvan’s eyes darted up to meet those of the stranger. His train of thought was broken just long enough to make him feel self-conscious and he yanked his hand back to his side, suddenly aware that his finger had been pressed into the man’s hand too long.
He collected himself and managed a cool smile. “That works great for your hand. I can see the whole landscape of it laid out in front of me. I can make different choices based on the information I have. But, in the real world, when you are running your messages around between the same old places, wouldn’t you always just take the shortest route to get between two places?”
Sylvan started to say, “yes!” but he held back for a moment and thought about his response. Running back from the willow tree this morning, he had actually made choices about which specific route to take. Based on the farmer’s new wall, on his own desire not to be seen, and on the imminent threat of Tali beating him back to the Inn, he had altered and adjusted his course. He had evaluated the route around the goat pen based on knowledge he had of the cut-through spaces. Without having almost perfect recollection of all of those areas, he wouldn’t have been able to make those minute adjustments to his route. “Maybe not,” he admitted.
“That’s the difference between Traders and Navigators. Traders are dependent on something to lead them along to their destination. Without a reliable trail or knowledgeable guide, they’ll just wander aimlessly, perhaps until they meet their demise. We Navigators, on the other hand, use our brains, our critical thinking skills and, yes, our maps to choose routes which can allow us to adapt when circumstances change. Plus, we don’t deal directly with pack animals.” He gave a tiny shudder as though in recollection.
“But what do you mean about circumstances changing?”
“Well, the world, even under the fog, isn’t static. Rock falls, floods, blown down trees. Why, there’s a score of reasons I might choose to change my route from one trip to the next.”
“So, what brings you to our village? I mean, we practically never get Navigators through here. And you don’t even have a Trader with you.”
“Perhaps you’ve read about the Merchant I work for, Turbid Vale?” When Sylvan didn’t react to the name, Krumholz continued, “He’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer, if you know what I mean. He has his fingers in practically every commercial deal of consequence in the Archipelago, and as his top correspondence Navigator, his Fogrunner if you will, I generally run his letters of business back and forth between his partners and allies. I have traveled to nearly every island in the Archipelago, but this is my first time here, to Wool Island.”
“That’s not surprising.” Sylvan hoped the man would go on to tell him about his mission. It was hard to believe anyone in his own village was the recipient of a vital bit of correspondence from a top merchant in the Capital but why else would he be there?
Bernhardt Krumholz stretched his arms over his head, yawning like a cat. He scanned the room again, as though he was searching for a plan of action or an escape route. Then he froze, eyes transfixed by something at the top of the stairs. Sylvan turned to see Tali sitting on the top step, barefoot and long-legged, dressed in a white nightshirt that didn’t quite cover her pale bent knees. Her blonde hair hung loose across one shoulder. At their notice, she stood and melted back out of the lamp light. It was strange of her to just watch them like that. Completely uncharacteristic for the twin who was generally the more social of the two. Sylvan wondered how long she’d been listening.