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A gentle breeze disturbed the blue folds of her diaphanous gown. With eyes half open, she listened to the splashing of the fountain and the intermittent whirring of the hummingbirds, feeding among the orchids hanging in great clusters from the trees. She was bored and restless. Every day was a perfect day, the sky was always fine, or decorated with a few idealised clouds. The rain, when it came, was warm and gentle and refreshed the garden without disturbing its ordered calm. Her food and wine were the finest that could be devised. Her companions, if she needed them, were ladies like herself, pure, untouched: ignorant of the world beyond the Royal Gardens. But not quite like her; not destined to be a Queen, subject only to the Goddess, ruler of all. That’s what the priests said, anyway. The peristylum had been designed to give the illusion of an unlimited open space. Beyond the artificial jungle of the seemingly elevated garden, rolling fields were populated with bucolic figures and animals, carrying on their fictional lives. Occasionally she had seen a half naked hunter, seeking the deer that roamed the imaginary forest. Once he had swum naked in the river. She thought of him often, and wished he were real, and that he would come into her garden one day. A shadow fell across her face. She sat upright and saw the scowling mask of Sacerdos, her eunuch priest. “Stand out of my light,” she said, sitting upright. “Don’t creep about like that. You’re always creeping about.” “Forgive me Noble Silvana,” the priest said, stepping back hastily, “I wondered if you would like to study today. The initiation ceremony isn’t far off.” “Please don’t use my cognomen; I don’t like to hear it on your lips.” Sacerdos lowered his head. “I’m sorry Noble One, I forgot.” “I’m sorry I forgot, I’m sorry I forgot. Hummidy, himmidy hoo-oo, I don’t know what to do-oo, I’m such a silly poo-oo.” A crooked figure danced out from behind the fountain, where he had been hiding. Flaccus Verrucus, her fool, had been a gift from the Herzog on her 16th birthday. “No need to be rude to Sacerdos, he’s only doing his duty,” she said. “Principessy, must we put up with his holy creepiness? He spies on you, you know; runs and tells tales to the Pontifex, makes up all sorts of lies.”
“My Lady, please ask him to leave. I’ve been specifically asked by His Holiness to make sure you are properly prepared for your initiation.” “He does, he makes up stories. I’ve seen him secretly watching you when the hunter comes, standing in the bushes with his hand under his robe.” Silvana stood up suddenly, towering over the priest and the diminutive fool. “Be silent, both of you. Verrucus, stand well away, while I listen to what Sacerdos has to say.” The fool walked backwards out of her sight, until he stumbled against the coping of the fountain. Regaining his balance he lifted his right hand to display his animated glove puppet. The manikin morphed into a caricature of Sacerdos, with tight mouth and straight back. “My Lady, there is a great deal of ritual to cover,” Sacerdos began. “…ritual to cover,” the doll squeaked quietly, one arm raised plaintively in imitation of the priest. “I suggest we go over the Vows to the City; it’s quite a short prayer.” “…short prayer,” the doll squeaked, a little louder. Sacerdos continued doggedly, “If you would grant me a few hours, I think we could make good progress.” “… make a big mess,” the doll fluted. “Verrucus!” Silvana shouted, without turning her head. The dolls features morphed into the fool’s, tears running down its face. “Thank you Sacerdos,” she said. “I promise to allow you some time, maybe tomorrow. I just can’t concentrate today, I need some time to myself.” “Yes Lady, I understand,” he said, withdrawing backwards with his head lowered. Silvana waited for Verrucus to commit some further folly, but he just stood by the fountain looking dejected. “I was good, wasn’t I?” he said, addressing the doll. “You were very good, not tripping his creepiness up from behind. You were so good the beautiful Lady might give you a kiss and turn you into a Prince.” “Didn’t you hear me say I wish to be alone,” Silvana said, returning to her couch.
Verrucus took a few tentative steps forward, the doll raised defensively in front of his face. Its features became that of a greybeard. “You must beware of the priest,” it said in a croaky voice. “I am the great oracle of the Prophet Herzog. I see the creeping eunuch now, telling the Pontifex that you have no desire to become Queen.” “What do you want, Verrucus?” the Princess said wearily. “I could have you sent to Lord Cornutus’s court; he would know how to deal with you.” Verrucus scuttled forward, throwing himself down before the dais. “There are those who truly love you, Lady; none more than I.” “So you keep saying, but unless you stop annoying me I’ll have you fed to the carnivorous plants.” “Lady, I do have serious business for your ears only. I could not speak in front of you-know-who. There is one who would speak with you, a Royal Prince who may not approach you directly.” “My brother Virbius, you mean?” “I have been sworn to secrecy, My Lady, I dare not utter his name.” “Well, you have some kind of message? Deliver it then.” “No message that can be passed by my lips, Highness. I was asked to give you this crystal for your communications centre.” Silvana sat up excitedly and took the small box proffered by Verrucus. “Very good, Verrucus, you’ve done well to keep this secret. You may leave me now.” The fool got slowly to his feet and backed respectfully out of the peristylum. ***** Silvana left the box untouched until she had spent some time studying the religious texts required for her initiation. The process was a long and arduous one that would culminate in her nuptials with Virbius. But first they both had to confirm their willingness to proceed. There was little choice, since expulsion and banishment from the City was the price of refusal. For her, such a choice was unthinkable. The artificial sky was pink with the light of evening, and the slim crescent of the Lesser Eye could be faintly seen. Soon it would be dark, and no one would dare to disturb her. She opened the box that Verrucus had brought and looked inside. It contained an amber, egg shaped stone, designed to fit snugly into one of the slots in her couch. She placed it in position and lay back,
gently gripping the palm communicator. She let her eyelids droop, gazing calmly at the darkening landscape, with its woods and trees. Gentle currents of excitement ebbed and flowed through her body as the dream began to unfold. There was a flurry of movement among the distant trees. A flock of pigeons flew up, disturbed by some swift, but hidden action. Her eyes were open wide now; she strained to see the cause. A white deer, a male, with large antlers broke into a clearing and stood poised to flee. She wondered how well she could control the drama, remembering too late the deadly purpose of the hunter. Before she could take control, the stag reared up and began to run. It had barely reached the edge of the clearing before it was struck by another unseen blow. Falling to its knees, it lay dying, the blood pumping from the darts embedded in its neck. She had longed for the hunter, but not for the death of his prey. When he came running from the trees, she felt a mixture of desire and repulsion at what she knew must follow. With powerful arms, he seized the dying beast round the neck and despatched it with a single blow of his knife. The actors were distant, but she could hear the scream of the stag before it slumped to the ground, its blood ebbing into the soil. The hunter tied the fore and hind legs of his quarry and slung it over his shoulders with ease. Silvana knew that he would visit her at last, unless she removed her hand from the silver palm control. She watched while the hunter made his way towards her, now obscured by scrub and now by the slope of the hill beyond the garden. Still she did not remove her hand. She was suddenly afraid. Who had sent the message? Virbius she had thought, but it could be from the Pontifex, or even the Herzog. She had been a fool, it could be a test, intended to destroy her. Still she did not remover her hand. The hunter could never reach her; he was an illusion, a distant dream of love that could not be. The sky was dark now, but for a strip of pale green that lay along the horizon, behind the darkness of the distant hills. The sound of birds had ceased, only the fountain continued with its soothing song. Stars sparkled faintly, rolling along invisible lines above her head. Silvana felt cold, which was not permitted, the temperature was maintained for her comfort. Something moved in the darkness, below the trees, something not native to the garden. She wished the hunter would come quickly and set her free from this tiresome dream. Let go, she told herself, but her hand was frozen, no longer under her control. A dark shape, heavy, formless slid out of the undergrowth and over the terrace towards where she lay. She could not sit up but could see the dark mass writhing below her. With a great effort she tore her hand free and struggled to rise. Too late: the weight of the beast was pinning her legs, and
moving slowly over her body. She wanted to scream and break free, but a terrible curiosity and desire held her in thrall. She lay still, breathing jerkily, while the weight of the dark being pressed on her abdomen and chest. Finally its head blocked the fading light from the sky and brushed gently against her cheek. “Silvana,” it breathed into her ear, “I have come to claim you.” ***** When Silvana awoke it was morning. There was no hunter or dark beast. The Eye had returned and the garden appeared quite normal. She saw her companion Camilla bending over her with a concerned look. “My Lady, have you been here all night? We wondered why you did not dine.” “I was studying and fell asleep,” Silvana replied, getting to her feet. “What’s that,” Camilla said, pointing to the stone. “Just a message from my brother; keeping in touch about the ceremony.” She didn’t like lying to Camilla but it was no concern of hers. There were too many eyes spying on her day and night. “This box is strangely decorated; that’s not your brother’s crest is it?” Camilla said, picking up the carelessly discarded container. “Thank you,” Silvana said, holding her hand out. She quickly removed the stone from its slot and secured it in the box. “I would like to eat now, if you would lead the way.” ***** When evening came, Silvana gave orders that she was not to be disturbed and went back to the garden. She had allowed Sacerdos some time to coach her in the mysteries, but had impatiently dismissed him before they had got very far. All she wanted to do was relive the strange experience of the night before. She lay on the couch and watched the Eye setting over the hills, holding the egg shaped stone in her hand. She scanned the woods and fields below but could see no sign of the hunter. Some small boats from the ancient past were loading on the river and setting sail for the sea, which lay beyond the gap in the hills, travelling to some long destroyed city. Eventually desire overcame fear. Silvana inserted the stone and clasped the palm control. Nothing happened. Straining to detect the slightest sign, the
sights and sounds of the garden became intensified. The fountain sounded oppressively loud and the scent of the orchids became strong and sweet. The flowers and foliage assumed an unnatural crystalline perfection, as if some supreme artist had taken over her senses. In the distance, the estuary seemed to have broadened. Strange rocks appeared along the shore, from which crystalline towers rose. The ships had assumed weird, organic shapes, more living than inanimate. The evening remained light, as if the Eye had slowed. Silvana knew the landscape beyond the garden was just a simulation, but had long since accepted it as real. It seemed that the crystal was interfering with the diurnal passage. In the middle distance, a large clearing with a lake appeared. Many kinds of animals moved anticlockwise round the water, some ridden by naked figures, some terman, some human and some hybrids. Naked females with long hair swam and bathed in the lake. The sky was filled with winged figures, rising and falling as if in play. In the garden, the vegetation seemed more dense, and a light wind moved through the dark foliage. The trees seemed unfamiliar; their leaves heavy and thick, the branches weighed down with overripe fruit. Bright birds darted in and out, feeding on the fruit, and those on the wing swooped on the insects that filled the evening air. Her world had suddenly been transformed from a calm haven to an alien landscape that teemed with life and new possibilities. A dark figure moved beneath the trees, half hidden in shadow. Silvana felt excited and afraid as the gentle sounds of a flute wafted on the breeze. The musician swayed to the music but did not emerge. “Who’s there?” she called out. Only women were allowed to play music. “Camilla, is that you?” The eye had resumed its course, and time flowed again, deepening the shadows and painting the sky with warmer tones. When the figure advanced towards her, Silvana could see the flautist was very tall. No males other than the priests were allowed into the garden, on pain of death, but this creature was very real. Dark and tall, he was neither the hunter she had seen yesterday nor her brother, Virbius, but a strong and powerful lord. The orange ball of the setting sun rested on his shoulder as he loomed over her, continuing to play the sinuous theme. She felt drowsy and contented lying in his shadow, drained of all will. She felt but a vague anxiety when he laid aside his instrument and bent over her. She felt his breath on her cheek and the powerful emanation of his body. She did not resist when she felt his touch, warmer than the creature from the night before, more solid and demanding. At last the being spoke. “Silvana, I have come to claim you as my Queen” ****
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