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The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Ursula K. Le Guin

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Book Summary

While on a mission to the planet Gethen — a world whose inhabitants can change their gender — earthling Genly Ai is sent by leaders of the nation of Orgoreyn to a concentration camp. The exiled prime minister of the nation of Karhide tries to rescue him.

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Awards and Recognition

Hugo Award (1970); Nebula Award (1969)

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Left Hand Of Darkness

Chapter One

A Parade in Erhenrang

From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.

I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I wastaught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is amatter of the imagination. The soundest fact mayfail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singularorganic jewel of our seas, which grows brighteras one woman wears it and, worn by another, dullsand goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent,round, and real than pearls are. But both aresensitive.

    The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone.Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judgebetter. But it is all one, and if at moments the factsseem to alter with an altered voice, why then youcan choose the fact you like best; yet none of themare false, and it is all one story.

    It starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491,which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide wasOdharhahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of thethird month of spring in the Year One. It is alwaysthe Year One here. Only the dating of every past andfuture year changes each New Year's Day, as onecounts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now.So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capitalcity of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, anddid not know it.

    I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiworsand just before the king. It was raining.

    Rainclouds over dark towers, rain falling in deepstreets, a dark storm-beaten city of stone, throughwhich one vein of gold winds slowly. First comemerchants, potentates, and artisans of the CityErhenrang, rank after rank, magnificently clothed, advancingthrough the rain as comfortably as fishthrough the sea. Their faces are keen and calm. Theydo not march in step. This is a parade with no soldiers,not even imitation soldiers.

    Next come the lords and mayors and representatives,one person, or five, or forty-five, or four hundred,from each Domain and Co-Domain of Karhide,a vast ornate procession that moves to the music ofmetal horns and hollow blocks of bone and wood andthe dry, pure lilting of electric flutes. The variousbanners of the great Domains tangle in a rain-beatenconfusion of color with the yellow pennants that bedeckthe way, and the various musics of each groupclash and interweave in many rhythms echoing inthe deep stone street.

    Next, a troop of jugglers with polished spheres ofgold which they hurl up high in flashing flights, andcatch, and hurl again, making fountain-jets of brightjugglery. All at once, as if they had literally caughtthe light, the gold spheres blaze bright as glass: thesun is breaking through.

    Next, forty men in yellow, playing gossiwors. Thegossiwor, played only in the king's presence, producesa preposterous disconsolate bellow. Forty of themplayed together shake one's reason, shake the towersof Erhenrang, shake down a last spatter of rain fromthe windy clouds. If this is the Royal Music no wonderthe kings of Karhide are all mad.

    Next, the royal party, guards and functionaries anddignitaries of the city and the court, deputies, senators,chancellors, ambassadors, lords of the Kingdom,none of them keeping step or rank yet walking withgreat dignity; and among them is King Argaven XV,in white tunic and shirt and breeches, with leggingsof saffron leather and a peaked yellow cap. A goldfinger-ring is his only adornment and sign of office.Behind this group eight sturdy fellows bear the royallitter, rough with yellow sapphires, in which no kinghas ridden for centuries, a ceremonial relic of theVery-Long-Ago. By the litter walk eight guards armedwith "foray guns," also relics of a more barbaric pastbut not empty ones, being loaded with pellets of softiron. Death walks behind the king. Behind deathcome the students of the Artisan Schools, the Colleges,the Trades, and the King's Hearths, long linesof children and young people in white and red andgold and green; and finally a number of soft-running,slow, dark cars end the parade.

    The royal party, myself among them, gather on aplatform of new timbers beside the unfinished Arch ofthe River Gate. The occasion of the parade is the completionof that arch, which completes the new Roadand River Port of Erhenrang, a great operation ofdredging and building and roadmaking which hastaken five years, and will distinguish Argaven XV'sreign in the annals of Karhide. We are all squeezedrather tight on the platform in our damp and massivefinery. The rain is gone, the sun shines on us, thesplendid, radiant, traitorous sun of Winter. I remarkto the person on my left, "It's hot. It's really hot."

    The person on my left—a stocky dark Karhiderwith sleek and heavy hair, wearing a heavy overtunicof green leather worked with gold, and a heavy whiteshirt, and heavy breeches, and a neck-chain of heavysilver links a hand broad—this person, sweating heavily,replies, "So it is."

    All about us as we stand jammed on our platformlie the faces of the people of the city, upturned like ashoal of brown, round pebbles, mica-glittering withthousands of watching eyes.

    Now the king ascends a gangplank of raw timbersthat leads from the platform up to the top of thearch whose unjoined piers tower over crown andwharves and river. As he mounts the crowd stirs andspeaks in a vast murmur: "Argaven!" He makes no response.They expect none. Gossiwors blow a thunderousdiscordant blast, cease. Silence. The sun shineson city, river, crowd, and king. Masons below haveset an electric winch going, and as the king mountshigher the keystone of the arch goes up past him inits sling, is raised, settled, and fitted almostsoundlessly, great ton-weight block though it is, into thegap between the two piers, making them one, onething, an arch. A mason with trowel and bucketawaits the king, up on the scaffolding; all the otherworkmen descend by rope ladders, like a swarm offleas. The king and the mason kneel, high between theriver and the sun, on their bit of planking. Taking thetrowel the king begins to mortar the long joints of thekeystone. He does not dab at it and give the trowelback to the mason, but sets to work methodically. Thecement he uses is a pinkish color different from therest of the mortarwork and after five or ten minutesof watching the king-bee work I ask the person onmy left, "Are your keystones always set in a redcement?" For the same color is plain around thekeystone of each arch of the Old Bridge, that soarsbeautifully over the river upstream from the arch.

    Wiping sweat from his dark forehead the man—manI must say, having said he and his—the mananswers, "Very-long-ago a keystone was always set inwith a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood.Human bones, human blood. Without the bloodbondthe arch would fall, you see. We use the blood ofanimals, these days."

    So he often speaks, frank yet cautious, ironic, as ifalways aware that I see and judge as an alien: a singularawareness in one of so isolate a race and sohigh a rank. He is one of the most powerful men inthe country; I am not sure of the proper historicalequivalent of his position, vizier or prime minister orcouncillor; the Karhidish word for it means the King'sEar. He is lord of a Domain and lord of the Kingdom,a mover of great events. His name is TheremHarth rem ir Estraven.

    The king seems to be finished with his masonrywork, and I rejoice; but crossing under the rise of thearch on his spiderweb of planks he starts in on theother side of the keystone, which after all has twosides. It doesn't do to be impatient in Karhide. Theyare anything but a phlegmatic people, yet they areobdurate, they are pertinacious, they finish plasteringjoints. The crowds on the Sess Embankment arecontent to watch the king work, but I am bored, andhot. I have never before been hot, on Winter; I neverwill be again; yet I fail to appreciate the event. I amdressed for the Ice Age and not for the sunshine, inlayers and layers of clothing, woven plant-fiber, artificialfiber, fur, leather, a massive armor against thecold, within which I now wilt like a radish leaf. Fordistraction I look at the crowds and the other paradersdrawn up around the platform, their Domain andClan banners hanging still and bright in sunlight, andidly I ask Estraven what this banner is and that oneand the other. He knows each one I ask about,though there are hundreds, some from remote domains,hearths and tribelets of the Pering Stormborderand Kerm Land.

    "I'm from Kerm Land myself," he says when Iadmire his knowledge. "Anyhow it's my business toknow the Domains. They are Karhide. To governthis land is to govern its lords. Not that it's ever beendone. Do you know the saying, Karhide is not anation but a family quarrel?" I haven't, and I suspectthat Estraven made it up; it has his stamp.

    At this point another member of the kyorremy, theupper chamber or parliament which Estraven heads,pushes and squeezes a way up close to him and beginstalking to him. This is the king's cousin PemmerHarge rem ir Tibe. His voice is very low as he speaksto Estraven, his posture faintly insolent, his smilefrequent. Estraven, sweating like ice in the sun, staysslick and cold as ice, answering Tibe's murmurs aloudin a tone whose commonplace politeness makes theother look rather a fool. I listen, as I watch the kinggrouting away, but understand nothing except theanimosity between Tibe and Estraven. It's nothing todo with me, in any case, and I am simply interestedin the behavior of these people who rule a nation, inthe old-fashioned sense, who govern the fortunes oftwenty million other people. Power has become sosubtle and complex a thing in the ways taken by theEkumen that only a subtle mind can watch it work;here it is still limited, still visible. In Estraven, forinstance, one feels the man's power as an augmentationof his character; he cannot make an empty gestureor say a word that is not listened to. He knowsit, and the knowledge gives him more reality thanmost people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality,a human grandeur. Nothing succeeds like success.I don't trust Estraven, whose motives are foreverobscure; I don't like him; yet I feel and respond tohis authority as surely as I do to the warmth ofthe sun.

    Even as I think this the world's sun dims betweenclouds regathering, and soon a flaw of rain runs sparseand hard upriver, spattering the crowds on the Embankment,darkening the sky. As the king comesdown the gangplank the light breaks through a lasttime, and his white figure and the great arch standout a moment vivid and splendid against the stormdarkenedsouth. The clouds close. A cold wind comestearing up Port-and-Palace Street, the river goes gray,the trees on the Embankment shudder. The parade isover. Half an hour later it is snowing.

    As the king's car drove off up Port-and-PalaceStreet and the crowds began to move like a rockyshingle rolled by a slow tide, Estraven turned to meagain and said, "Will you have supper with me tonight,Mr. Ai?" I accepted, with more surprise thanpleasure. Estraven had done a great deal for me inthe last six or eight months, but I did not expect ordesire such a show of personal favor as an invitationto his house. Harge rem ir Tibe was still close to us,overhearing, and I felt that he was meant to overhear.Annoyed by this sense of effeminate intrigueI got off the platform and lost myself in the mob,crouching and slouching somewhat to do so. I'm notmuch taller than the Gethenian norm, but the differenceis most noticeable in a crowd. That's him, look,there's the Envoy. Of course that was part of my job,but it was a part that got harder not easier as timewent on; more and more often I longed for anonymity,for sameness. I craved to be like everybody else.

    A couple of blocks up Breweries Street I turned offtoward my lodgings and suddenly, there where thecrowd thinned out, found Tibe walking beside me.

    "A flawless event," said the king's cousin, smilingat me. His long, clean, yellow teeth appeared anddisappeared in a yellow face all webbed, though hewas not an old man, with fine, soft wrinkles.

    "A good augury for the success of the new Port,"I said.

    "Yes indeed." More teeth.

    "The ceremony of the keystone is most impressive—"

    "Yes indeed. That ceremony descends to us fromvery-long-ago. But no doubt Lord Estraven explainedall that to you."

    "Lord Estraven is most obliging."

    I was trying to speak insipidly, yet everything Isaid to Tibe seemed to take on a double meaning.

    "Oh very much indeed," said Tibe. "Indeed LordEstraven is famous for his kindness to foreigners." Hesmiled again, and every tooth seemed to have a meaning,double, multiple, thirty-two different meanings.

    "Few foreigners are so foreign as I, Lord Tibe. I amvery grateful for kindnesses."

    "Yes indeed, yes indeed! And gratitude's a noble,rare emotion, much praised by the poets. Rare aboveall here in Erhenrang, no doubt because it's impracticable.This is a hard age we live in, an ungratefulage. Things aren't as they were in our grandparents'days, are they?"

    "I scarcely know, sir, but I've heard the samelament on other worlds."

    Tibe stared at me for some while as if establishinglunacy. Then he brought out the long yellow teeth."Ah yes! Yes indeed! I keep forgetting that you comefrom another planet. But of course that's not a matteryou ever forget. Though no doubt life would be muchsounder and simpler and safer for you here in Erhenrangif you could forget it, eh? Yes indeed! Here'smy car, I had it wait here out of the way. I'd liketo offer to drive you to your island, but must foregothe privilege, as I'm due at the King's House veryshortly and poor relations must be in good time, asthe saying is, eh? Yes indeed!" said the king's cousin,climbing into his little black electric car, teeth baredacross his shoulder at me, eyes veiled by a net ofwrinkles.

    I walked on home to my island. Its front gardenwas revealed now that the last of the winter's snowhad melted and the winter-doors, ten feet aboveground,were sealed off for a few months, till theautumn and the deep snow should return. Around atthe side of the building in the mud and the ice andthe quick, soft, rank spring growth of the garden, ayoung couple stood talking. Their right hands wereclasped. They were in the first phase of kemmer.The large, soft snow danced about them as they stoodbarefoot in the icy mud, hands clasped, eyes all foreach other. Spring on Winter.

    I had dinner at my island and at Fourth Hour strikingon the gongs of Remmy Tower I was at the Palaceready for supper. Karhiders eat four solid meals aday, breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, along with a lotof adventitious nibbling and gobbling in between.There are no large meat-animals on Winter, and nomammalian products, milk, butter or cheese; the onlyhigh-protein, high-carbohydrate foods are the variouskinds of eggs, fish, nuts, and the Hainish grains. Alowgrade diet for a bitter climate, and one must refueloften. I had got used to eating, as it seemed, everyfew minutes. It wasn't until later in that year that Idiscovered the Gethenians have perfected thetechnique not only of perpetually stuffing, but also ofindefinitely starving.

    The snow still fell, a mild spring blizzard, muchpleasanter than the relentless rain of the Thaw justpast. I made my way to and through the Palace inthe quiet and pale darkness of snowfall, losing myway only once. The Palace of Erhenrang is an innercity, a walled wilderness of palaces, towers, gardens,courtyards, cloisters, roofed bridgeways, roofless tunnel-walks,small forests and dungeon-keeps, the productof centuries of paranoia on a grand scale. Over itall rise the grim, red, elaborate walls of the RoyalHouse, which though in perpetual use is inhabited byno one beside the king himself. Everyone else, servants,staff, lords, ministers, parliamentarians, guardsor whatever, sleeps in another palace or fort or keep orbarracks or house inside the walls. Estraven's house,sign of the king's high favor, was the Corner RedDwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, belovedkemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated,and who was abducted, mutilated, and renderedimbecile by hirelings of the Innerland Faction.Emran III died forty years after, still wreaking vengeanceon his unhappy country: Emran the Illfated.The tragedy is so old that its horror has leached awayand only a certain air of faithlessness and melancholyclings to the stones and shadows of the house. Thegarden was small and walled; serem-trees leaned overa rocky pool. In dim shafts of light from the windowsof the house I saw snowflakes and the threadlike whitesporecases of the trees falling softly together onto thedark water. Estraven stood waiting for me, bareheadedand coatless in the cold, watching that smallsecret ceaseless descent of snow and seeds in thenight. He greeted me quietly and brought me intothe house. There were no other guests.

    I wondered at this, but we went to table at once,and one does not talk business while eating; besides,my wonder was diverted to the meal, which wassuperb, even the eternal breadapples transmuted by acook whose art I heartily praised. After supper, by thefire, we drank hot beer. On a world where a commontable implement is a little device with which youcrack the ice that has formed on your drink betweendrafts, hot beer is a thing you come to appreciate.

    Estraven had conversed amiably at table; now, sittingacross the hearth from me, he was quiet. ThoughI had been nearly two years on Winter I was still farfrom being able to see the people of the planet throughtheir own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took theform of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as aman, then as a woman, forcing him into those categoriesso irrelevant to his nature and so essential tomy own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer Ithought that at table Estraven's performance hadbeen womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance,specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhapsthis soft supple femininity that I disliked anddistrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of himas a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence nearme in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thoughtof him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture:in him, or in my own attitude towards him?His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep,scarcely a man's voice, but scarcely a woman's voiceeither ... but what was it saying?

    "I'm sorry," he was saying, "that I've had to forestallfor so long this pleasure of having you in myhouse; and to that extent at least I'm glad there is nolonger any question of patronage between us."

    I puzzled at this a while. He had certainly been mypatron in court until now. Did he mean that the audiencehe had arranged for me with the king tomorrowhad raised me to an equality with himself? "I don'tthink I follow you," I said.

    At that, he was silent, evidently also puzzled. "Well,you understand," he said at last, "being here ... youunderstand that I am no longer acting on your behalfwith the king of course."

    He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself.Clearly there was a significance in his invitation andmy acceptance of it which I had missed. But my blunderwas in manners, his in morals. All I thought atfirst was that I had been right all along not to trustEstraven. He was not merely adroit and not merelypowerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrangit had been he who listened to me, who answeredmy questions, sent physicians and engineers to verifythe alienness of my physique and my ship, introducedme to people I needed to know, and gradually elevatedme from my first year's status as a highly imaginativemonster to my present recognition as themysterious Envoy, about to be received by the king.Now, having got me up on that dangerous eminence,he suddenly and coolly announced he was withdrawinghis support.

    "You've led me to rely on you—"

    "It was ill done."

    "Do you mean that, having arranged this audience,you haven't spoken in favor of my mission to theking, as you—" I had the sense to stop short of"promised."

    "I can't."

    I was very angry, but I met neither anger norapology in him.

    "Will you tell me why?"

    After a while he said, "Yes," and then paused again.During the pause I began to think that an inept andundefended alien should not demand reasons from theprime minister of a kingdom, above all when he doesnot and perhaps never will understand the foundationsof power and the workings of government in thatkingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor—prestige,face, place, the pride-relationship,the untranslatable and all-important principle of socialauthority in Karhide and all civilizations ofGethen. And if it was I would not understand it.

    "Did you hear what the king said to me at theceremony today?"


    Estraven leaned forward across the hearth, liftedthe beer-jug out of the hot ashes, and refilled mytankard. He said nothing more, so I amplified, "Theking didn't speak to you in my hearing."

    "Nor in mine," said he.

    I saw at last that I was missing another signal.Damning his effeminate deviousness, I said, "Are youtrying to tell me, Lord Estraven, that you're out offavor with the king?"

    I think he was angry then, but he said nothing thatshowed it, only, "I'm not trying to tell you anything,Mr. Ai."

    "By God, I wish you would!"

    He looked at me curiously. "Well, then, put it thisway. There are some persons in court who are, inyour phrase, in favor with the king, but who do notfavor your presence or your mission here."

    And so you're hurrying to join them, selling me outto save your skin, I thought, but there was no pointin saying it. Estraven was a courtier, a politician, andI a fool to have trusted him. Even in a bisexual societythe politician is very often something less thanan integral man. His inviting me to dinner showedthat he thought I would accept his betrayal as easilyas he committed it. Clearly face-saving was more importantthan honesty. So I brought myself to say,"I'm sorry that your kindness to me has made troublefor you." Coals of fire. I enjoyed a flitting sense ofmoral superiority, but not for long; he was tooincalculable.

    He sat back so that the firelight lay ruddy on hisknees and his fine, strong, small hands and the silvertankard he held, but left his face in shadow: a darkface always shadowed by the thick lowgrowing hairand heavy brows and lashes, and by a somber blandnessof expression. Can one read a cat's face, a seal's,an otter's? Some Gethenians, I thought, are like suchanimals, with deep bright eyes that do not changeexpression when you speak.

    "I've made trouble for myself," he answered, "by anact that had nothing to do with you, Mr. Ai. Youknow that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerninga stretch of our border in the high North Fallnear Sassinoth. Argaven's grandfather claimed theSinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensalshave never recognized the claim. A lot of snow outof one cloud, and it grows thicker, I've been helpingsome Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley tomove back east across the old border, thinking theargument might settle itself if the Valley weresimply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for severalthousand years. I was in the Administration of theNorth Fall some years ago, and got to know some ofthose farmers. I dislike the thought of their beingkilled in forays, or sent to Voluntary Farms in Orgoreyn.Why not obviate the subject of dispute? ...But that's not a patriotic idea. In fact it's a cowardlyone, and impugns the shifgrethor of the king himself."

    His ironies, and these ins and outs of a border-disputewith Orgoreyn, were of no interest to me. Ireturned to the matter that lay between us. Trusthim or not, I might still get some use out of him."I'm sorry," I said, "but it seems a pity that thisquestion of a few farmers may be allowed to spoil thechances of my mission with the king. There's more atstake than a few miles of national boundary."

    "Yes. Much more. But perhaps the Ekumen, whichis a hundred light-years from border to border, willbe patient with us a while."

    "The Stabiles of the Ekumen are very patient men,sir. They'll wait a hundred years or five hundred forKarhide and the rest of Gethen to deliberate andconsider whether or not to join the rest of mankind. Ispeak merely out of personal hope. And personal disappointment.I own that I thought that with yoursupport—"

    "I too. Well, the Glaciers didn't freeze overnight...." Cliché came ready to his lips, but hismind was elsewhere. He brooded. I imagined him movingme around with the other pawns in his power-game."You came to my country," he said at last,"at a strange time. Things are changing; we are takinga new turning. No, not so much that, as followingtoo far on the way we've been going. I thought thatyour presence, your mission, might prevent our goingwrong, give us a new option entirely. But at the rightmoment—in the right place. It is all exceedinglychancy, Mr. Ai."

    Impatient with his generalities, I said, "You implythat this isn't the right moment. Would you adviseme to cancel my audience?"

    My gaffe was even worse in Karhidish, but Estravendid not smile, or wince. "I'm afraid only the kinghas that privilege," he said mildly.

    "Oh God, yes. I didn't mean that." I put my headin my hands a moment. Brought up in the wide-open,free-wheeling society of Earth, I would never masterthe protocol, or the impassivity, so valued by Karhiders.I know what a king was, Earth's own history isfull of them, but I had no experiential feel for privilege—notact. I picked up my tankard and drank ahot and violent draft. "Well, I'll say less to the kingthan I intended to say, when I could count on you."


    "Why good?" I demanded.

    "Well, Mr. Ai, you're not insane. I'm not insane.But then neither of us is a king, you see ... I supposethat you intended to tell Argaven, rationally, thatyour mission here is to attempt to bring about analliance between Gethen and the Ekumen. And, rationally,he knows that already; because, as youknow, I told him. I urged your case with him, triedto interest him in you. It was ill done, ill timed. Iforgot, being too interested myself, that he's a king,and does not see things rationally, but as a king.All I've told him means to him simply that his poweris threatened, his kingdom is a dustmote in space,his kingship is a joke to men who rule a hundredworlds."

    "But the Ekumen doesn't rule, it co-ordinates. Itspower is precisely the power of its member states andworlds. In alliance with the Ekumen, Karhide will becomeinfinitely less threatened and more importantthan it's ever been."

    Estraven did not answer for a while. He sat gazingat the fire, whose flames winked, reflected, from histankard and from the broad bright silver chain ofoffice over his shoulders. The old house was silentaround us. There had been a servant to attend ourmeal, but Karhiders, having no institutions of slaveryor personal bondage, hire services not people, and theservants had all gone off to their own homes bynow. Such a man as Estraven must have guards abouthim somewhere, for assassination is a lively institutionin Karhide, but I had seen no guard, heard none. Wewere alone.

    I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of adark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in theheart of the Ice Age of an alien world.

    Everything I had said, tonight and ever since Icame to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as bothstupid and incredible. How could I expect this manor any other to believe my tales about other worlds,other races, a vague benevolent government somewhereoff in outer space? It was all nonsense. I had appearedin Karhide in a queer kind of ship, and I differed physicallyfrom Gethenians in some respects; that wantedexplaining. But my own explanations were preposterous.I did not, in that moment, believe themmyself.

    "I believe you," said the stranger, the alien alonewith me, and so strong had my access of self-alienationbeen that I looked up at him bewildered. "I'mafraid that Argaven also believes you. But he doesnot trust you. In part because he no longer trusts me.I have made mistakes, been careless. I cannot ask foryour trust any longer, either, having put you injeopardy. I forgot what a king is, forgot that the kingin his own eyes is Karhide, forgot what patriotism isand that he is, of necessity, the perfect patriot. Letme ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your ownexperience, what patriotism is?"

    "No," I said, shaken by the force of that intensepersonality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me."I don't think I do. If by patriotism you don't meanthe love of one's homeland, for that I do know."

    "No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. Imean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressionsare political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.We've followed our road too far. And you, who comefrom a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, whohardly know what I'm talking about, who show us thenew road—" He broke off. After a while he went on,in control again, cool and polite: "It's because of fearthat I refuse to urge your cause with the king, now.But not fear for myself, Mr. Ai. I'm not acting patriotically.There are, after all, other nations on Gethen."

    I had no idea what he was driving at, but was surethat he did not mean what he seemed to mean. Ofall the dark, obstructive, enigmatic souls I had met inthis bleak city, his was the darkest. I would not playhis labyrinthine game. I made no reply. After a whilehe went on, rather cautiously, "If I've understood you,your Ekumen is devoted essentially to the generalinterest of mankind. Now, for instance, the Orgotahave experience in subordinating local interests to ageneral interest, while Karhide has almost none. Andthe Commensals of Orgoreyn are mostly sane men, ifunintelligent, while the king of Karhide is not onlyinsane but rather stupid."

    It was clear that Estraven had no loyalties at all. Isaid in faint disgust, "It must be difficult to servehim, if that's the case."

    "I'm not sure I've ever served the king," said theking's prime minister. "Or ever intended to. I'mnot anyone's servant. A man must cast his ownshadow...."

    The gongs in Remny Tower were striking SixthHour, midnight, and I took them as my excuse to go.As I was putting on my coat in the hallway he said,"I've lost my chance for the present, for I supposeyou'll be leaving Ehrenrang—" why did he supposeso?—"but I trust a day will come when I can ask youquestions again. There's so much I want to know.About your mind-speech, in particular; you'd scarcelybegun to try to explain it to me."

    His curiosity seemed perfectly genuine. He had theeffrontery of the powerful. His promise to help mehad seemed genuine, too. I said yes, of course, wheneverhe liked, and that was the evening's end. Heshowed me out through the garden, where snow laythin in the light of Gethen's big, dull, rufous moon.I shivered as we went out, for it was well belowfreezing, and he said with polite surprise, "You'recold?" To him of course it was a mild spring night.

    I was tired and downcast. I said, "I've been coldever since I came to this world."

    "What do you call it, this world, in your language?"


    "You gave it no name of your own?"

    "Yes, the First Investigators did. They called itWinter."

    We had stopped in the gateway of the walled garden.Outside, the Palace grounds and roofs loomed ina dark snowy jumble lit here and there at variousheights by the faint gold slits of windows. Standingunder the narrow arch I glanced up, wondering if thatkeystone too was mortared with bone and blood.Estraven took leave of me and turned away; he wasnever fulsome in his greetings and farewells. I wentoff through the silent courts and alleys of the Palace,my boots crunching on the thin moonlit snow, andhomeward through the deep streets of the city. I wascold, unconfident, obsessed by perfidy, and solitude,and fear.

Copyright © 1969 Ursula K. Le Guin. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-441-47812-3