What could be more commonplace than grass or a world covered over all its surface with a wind-whipped ocean of grass? But the planet Grass conceals horrifying secrets within its endless pastures. And as an incurable plague attacks all inhabited planets but this one, the prairie-like Grass begins to reveal these secrets - and nothing will ever be the same again.
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Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses—some high, some low, some feathered, some straight—making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.
Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-colored highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy green trees which are grass again. Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanted lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent.
Orange highlands burning against the sunsets. Apricot ranges glowing in the dawns. Seed plumes sparkling like sequin stars. Blossom heads like the fragile lace old women take out of trunks to show their granddaughters.
“Lace made by nuns in the long-ago time.”
“What are nuns, Grandma?”
Here, there, wide-scattered across the limitless veldts, are the villages, walled about to keep the grass at bay, with small, thick-walled houses, each with its stout doors and heavy shutters. The minuscule fields and tiny orchards are full of homely crops and familiar fruits, while outside the walls the grass hovers like some enormous planet-wide bird, ready to swoop across the wall and eat it all, every apple and every turnip and every old woman at the well, too, along with her grandchildren.
“This is a parsnip, child. From long ago.”
“When was long ago, Grandma?”
Here, there, as wide-scattered as the villages, the estancias of the aristocrats: bon Damfels’ place, bon Maukerden’s place, all the places of the other bons, tall thatched houses set in gardens of grass among grass fountains and grass courtyards, with their own high walls—these pierced with gates for the hunters to go out of and for the hunters to return through again. Those who return.
And here, there, nosing among the grass roots, will come the hounds, muzzles wrinkling, ears dangling, one foot before another in a slow pace to find it, the inevitable it, the nighttime horror, the eater of young. And look, there behind them on the tall mounts, there will come the riders in their red coats, silent as shadows they will come riding, riding over the grass: the Huntsman with his horn; the whippers-in with their whips; the field, some with red coats and some with black, their round hats pressed hard upon their heads, eyes fixed forward toward the hounds—riding, riding.
Among them today will be Diamante bon Damfels—young daughter Dimity—eyes tight shut to keep out the sight of the hounds, hands clenched pale upon the reins, neck as fragile as a flower stem in the high, white cylinder of the hunting tie, black boots glistening with polish, black coat well brushed, black hat tight on the little head, riding, riding, for the first time ever, riding to the hounds.
And there, somewhere, in the direction they are going, high in a tree perhaps, for there are copses of trees here and there upon the vast prairies, will be the fox. The mighty fox. The implacable fox. The fox who knows they are coming.
It was said among the bon Damfels that whenever the Hunt was hosted by the bon Damfels estancia the weather was perfect. The family took credit for this personally, though it could as properly have been ascribed to the Hunt rotation, which brought the Hunt to the bon Damfels early in the fall. The weather was usually perfect at that time of the year. And early in the spring, of course, when the rotation brought the Hunt back again.
Stavenger, Obermun bon Damfels, had once been informed by a dignitary from Semling—one who fancied himself an authority on a wide variety of irrelevant topics—that historically speaking, riding to the hounds was a winter sport.
Stavenger’s reply was completely typical of himself and of the Grassian aristocracy in general. “Here on Grass,” he had said, “we do it properly. In spring and fall.”
The visitor had had better sense than to comment further upon the sport as practiced on Grass. He had taken copious notes, however, and after returning to Semling he had written a scholarly monograph contrasting Grassian and historic customs regarding blood sports. Of the dozen copies printed, only one survived, buried in the files of the Department of Comparative Anthropology, University of Semling at Semling Prime.
That had been half a long lifetime ago. By now the author had almost forgotten about the subject, and Stavenger bon Damfels had never thought of it again. What foreigners did or said was both incomprehensible and contemptible so far as Stavenger was concerned, and no one should have allowed the fellow to observe the Hunt in the first place. This was the bon Damfels’ entire opinion on the matter.
The bon Damfels estancia was called Klive after a revered ancestor on the maternal side. It was said among the bon Damfels that the gardens had been written of as one of the seventy wonders of the allwhere. Snipopean—the great Snipopean—had written so, and his book was in the library of the estancia, that vast and towering hall smelling of leather and paper and the chemicals the librarians used to prevent the one from parting company with the other. No one among the current bon Damfels had read the account or could have found the book among all those volumes, most of them unopened since they had been delivered. Why should they read of the grass gardens of Klive when those gardens were all around them?
It was in that part of all grass gardens known as the first surface that the Hunt always assembled. As host, Stavenger bon Damfels was Master of the Hunt. Before this first Hunt of the fall season—as before the first Hunt of each spring and fall—he had picked three members of the vast and ramified family as Huntsman and first and second whippers-in. To the Huntsman he had entrusted the bon Damfels horn, an elaborately curled and engraved instrument capable only of muted though silvery sounds. To the whippers-in he had given the whips—tiny, fragile things one had to take care not to break, ornaments really, like medals for valor, having no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. No one would have dared to use a whip on a hound or a mount; and as for sounding a horn near a mount’s ear or even within hearing except for the ritual summons and when the Hunt had ended, no one would have thought of it. No one asked how it had been done elsewhere all that time ago or even currently. Quite frankly, no one of the bons cared in the least how it was done elsewhere. Elsewhere, so far as the bons were concerned, had stopped existing when their ancestors had left it.
On this first day of the fall hunt, Diamante bon Damfels, Stavenger’s youngest daughter, stood among those slowly gathering on the first surface, all murmurous and sleepy-eyed, as though they had lain wakeful in the night listening for a sound that had not come. Among the still figures of the hunters, servant women from the nearby village skimmed, seemingly legless under the long white bells of their skirts, hair hidden beneath the complicated folds of their brightly embroidered headdresses, bearing bright trays covered with glasses no larger than thimbles.
Close between Emeraude and Amethyste (called Emmy and Amy by the family and “the Mistresses bon Damfels” by everyone else), Dimity was polished and brushed to a fare-thee-well, immaculately turned out in her hunting garb, and with a headache already from hair drawn back severely to fit beneath the round black cap. The older girls had red lapels on their coats, showing they had ridden long enough to become members of the Hunt. Dimity’s collar was black, as black as the shadows lying at the back of her eyes, shadows her sisters saw well enough but pretended not to notice. One couldn’t indulge oneself. One couldn’t allow malingering or cowardice in oneself or in members of the family.
“Don’t worry,” drawled Emeraude, the best advice she could offer. “You’ll get your Hunt colors very soon. Just remember what the riding master told you.” At the corner of her jaw a little muscle leapt and leapt again, like a shackled frog.
Dimity shivered, the shadows writhing, not wanting to say and yet unable to keep from saying, “Emmy, Mummy said I didn’t have to….”
Amethyste laughed, a tiny shiver of unamusement, emotionless as glass. “Well of course you don’t have to, silly. None of us had to. Even Sylvan and Shevlok didn’t have to.”
Sylvan bon Damfels, hearing his name, turned to look across the first surface at his sisters, his face darkening perceptibly as he saw that Dimity was with the older girls. With a word of excuse to his companions, he turned to come swiftly over the circle of pale gray turf, skirting the scarlet and amber fountaingrasses at its center. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, glaring at the girl.
“The riding master told Mummy …”
“You’re not nearly ready. Not nearly!” This was Sylvan, who spoke his mind even when it was unpopular—some said because it was unpopular—somewhat enjoying the attention this attracted, though if challenged he would have denied it. To Sylvan truth was truth and all else was black heresy, though on occasion he had the very human difficulty of deciding which was which.