This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Into the Heartland................................................................................................. 9 4. Things Get Serious. ............................................................................................... 19 5. A Demonstration of Enhancement..................................................................... 26 6. Preparations and an Interruption....................................................................... 31 7. Things Get even More Serious............................................................................ 35 8. Shaudgel ................................................................................................................. 42 9. A Journey Backward............................................................................................. 51
1 Gentle Fame
‘… remember that our battle is to be accepted in the fullness of our difference and not because we promise to be like everybody else’ — Joan Nestle, from A Restricted country, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, c1987), p118-119.
1. A Journey
The corner of a room slanted in an oval mirror. In the dustless oval of the slanting mirror, a fold of sheet moved. Webs in the window gleamed. A face, girlish and young, turned into the pillow. A quill of sun in the corner of the room tickled Lucian’s lashes. He opened a smudged eyelid. A scrambling on the shingles. Bloody birds. By afternoon he’d be in another city. He clasped his narrow shoulders and yawned. The far side of the bed was empty. He rolled toward his slanting image, brushing together recently waxed calves. The linen sheets were cold too, where he hadn’t been lying. How many were turning over in bed like this, still chilled by wintry breath, lonely yet full of dreams on a summer morning? But he had hundreds of friends, or at least acquaintances, now. Why did he still feel that familiar worthlessness? The slapped child feeling. He’d hardly ever been slapped as a child. He studied his reflection. A self-portrait might be an idea. The turned-up nose, the babyish green eyes … He drew well. He now had a bit of a reputation for it: he’d even begun to believe he was good. Last month, Rion Lingel, famed enhancer and revolutionary, had invited him to exhibit his work in Hazzenton, in return for some unspecified reward (he’d asked what but she’d grown cagey and in his
2 diffidence he hadn’t pressed the matter). In particular she liked the embroidered works he’d done in the revolutionary style — for instance, the famous funeral of Tidiring Naduyn the anarchist with its masses of purple and red Illan flags and the brown bunting of mourning. The next day, she’d even had him to dinner, at her house in the inner suburb of Raxelbrann, and given him a special bangle as a present. His career as an artist was really looking up. He touched a cold spot and recoiled. Life still went on with its normal dreariness, out there. Normality had never become Lucian, if it meant the conformism, indeed redneckery, of his Midlands birthplace in the Miol Hills. He, at least when halfasleep, could show them freedom from the domination of the Midlands clans and their counter-revolutionary White Standard Club. He was sure freedom would come through fame. The clock ticked, to itself, through every permutation of rhythmic accent. The pillow below his head was warm as the crook of an arm. … tick tick tick … tick tick tick … while the kitchen tap dripped just out of time. Fuck this, time to get up. He felt whiskers on his face. He wished he had a woman’s face. Save a heap in razor blades. Well, maybe. His room drew in the sun, like a nest on a bough. The air was fresh and early. Fledglings scratched dust into it, in the eaves. He didn’t want to stir. Through the half-open balcony curtain he had a good view. Its frayed yellow corner (the curtain’s, of course, but he had to blink) wafted tantalisingly. Winter’s remnant, the mist, clung to the landscape, rising at the river mouth to reveal the red-roofed town.
3 Boring. Despite his reclusive nature, he was still young, and he wanted adventure. A rainbow danced in his eyelashes, and a snatch of song raced like a rill through his mind. Up, reluctantly, he sat. Birds chimed, specks on the rim of the sun. He fancied a web glistered over the land, quivering with droplets of silence. The street sloped into a crimson grate; a bell shimmered. A bird alighted on his balcony railing, to fix him with an indignant stare. Get up! He smiled back, running a hand through his finger-length white hair. She launched herself, orange beak parted, at the rising sun. Over the red rooftops, nel-nel, nel-nel, nel-nel. On the town’s far side a second bell echoed, then another, and another. Humming to himself (evading the radio) he slithered out. He stood and looked down at his small waist, wishing his hips were broader. “Getting fat again.” He surveyed his bare body. His myriad friends said he didn’t know what fat was. “I want a car.” he added, self-defeatingly, staring at the day. Beyond his honeysuckle and jasmine-laced balcony the large island of Illantyn — they pronounced it ‘ill-yan-tin’ — stretched, eastwards into a grey hostile sea whose every swell, according to the joke, was tabulated by the Empire. The daisy smell of mayflower touched his nostrils. The clouds and the curtains hung in the window like familiar clothes. Behind them, a vapour trail. He shivered. He stood in the window and stretched, heedless, at this hour, of prying eyes. It’s only an exhibition, he told himself about his forthcoming journey to the east coast. Nothing unbearable could come of it.
4 Idly scraping orange-pith from his mauve nails, he watched paper — a poster, on the wall yesterday — curl round the green lamp-post that stood before the access stairs. There was a harsher peal: earthbound, brass, the town’s first morning bell. The window-webs glowed. Vote Gverin: the other path rustled into obscurity. He couldn’t help admiring the sensuous curves of it as it swam like a stingray in the wind. His drawings for the exhibition had already been reproduced electronically in the city they called Hazzenton; his other works had been sent on by train. All he had to do was get there — and it seemed he’d have to go there alone. He wondered irrationally if he’d end up in the Empire. The pink street remained empty, apart from a padding collarless tabby. Behind most of the doors, some of the occupants dreamed of each other; but others were alone even in sleep.
5 2. Lucian Gets Up
In a short while, to the carilloning of nel birds, the much-loved ‘nellies’, people were up. Eggs were poaching, butter was steaming on rye longbread. Electric milk floats rolled through the well-swept streets. Lucian loaded up his with toast with plum chutney. Enga Runing across the way cranked her bubble car and cursed. Music started up, across the street, plaintive and grieving, the unique Illan blues. It echoed faintly among the red apartment blocks on the Talida Road, and seemed to blow like a rainshower through the town, past the library where he once worked and northward into the high country by the gash of the whiteknuckled river. “Now there’ll be complaints.” He enjoyed watching the streets wake. This morning his enjoyment was marred by a sort of exultant terror. Figures in green shirts were straggling (or struggling) into town: a few militia types who’d been for a 50 runa run. One, a fat-cheeked man, glanced up, but Lucian was listening too intently to notice. And by this time he had his tatty floral housecoat on. He turned off the shriek of steam. The stillness, of the crumpled bed with its green quilt of pentangles, of the sole, re-covered and re-varnished armchair, of the solid treadle sewing machine, older than himself, in the northern corner, of the compact Nelma processor beside it, like a crystal ball, on a ‘recycled’ desk, of his sketches in crayon and 2B pencil on the walls, of the round brown rug, of the plastic-free op shop knickknacks, of the one wall-hanging that hung on, of the mirrors and mirrors and mirrors, gave him the feeling of standing awake in a room in which one still slept.
6 But just for a moment … Someone iconoclastic, yet steeped in a tradition. One, who to some others was no deeper than a mirror. One, till now, habitually or unavoidably alone. He did participate in Tiller meetings, but only over the Nelmanet and usually through his ‘little helper’ or electronic agent. He ran his lower lip reflectively along his teeth. Illans were free as nellies (and about as organised). It’d been a long struggle, begun years before his birth. It wasn’t over yet, any more than his own. It was time to leave Brangathrel, maybe for good this time. Boiling up the kettle again, he poured out a cup of jasmine tea, a little lagoon of warmth in a cold room. A gold line ran round the saucer; he felt he’d never noticed it before. By the balcony, he filled himself with breath and love for their twofold world, militia and all. In Illantyn, a militia was not a ragbag of crazies, not always. He reminded himself to get ginger coffee for a change. He wiped a stain off the coffee percolator with his finger. A chickweedy nature strip lay in green snowdrifts between the aspens on the Talida Road. The white flowers formed lingering starfields. Hens were headjerking out to graze. He looked about for imperial saboteurs but none were in evidence. Full of secondhand images of their scrofulous land — whose Emporer Mevilionid was said to be an enhancer from the Midlands of Illantyn — he went again from the window and into his morning ‘sunroom’, the bathroom in fact. Its window was part-open, the way he’d left it. At the rear of the flats the river-gravel courtyards were crisp with emptiness. “Now, what?” his own voice echoed. Oh God, throw it off for a bit. Get your head together.
7 Nothing untoward could happen today. It was hard to believe that he’d do anything this morning but draw, with soft jazz in the background. But — the journey. The journey. He’d already made it in his head. He procrastinated. Yesterday he’d bought a lilac scarf in the craft market outside Maltida’s Art Centre, wherein he’d once hung his night landscapes, and his soft pastel miniatures that were sequential like comic strips. The scarf was one to toss about his slender neck like a sunset cloudlet. Of coarse weave, it was mere cotton from the Republic of Monda, Illantyn’s only friend on earth. Brangathrel, famous for its linen, feared no competition, or contagion. The tap ran nextdoor and he heard, faintly, the radio news. Something about the Empire. The scarf was fine to the touch against the hollow of his neck, soft as brushed hair on his skin. Arranged the right way, it gave him a ‘pierrot’ look. Engagingly pathetic — like spring buds, or the courage of the weak. His thin brows arched. He giggled softly. Oh, for time to play with adornment — though only he was watching. To draw himself anew. One of his favourite pastimes, it drew on an egotism tempered with humility that sat easily with his beliefs. Smoky clouds skittered over the downs, which stretched no doubt halfway across Illantyn, but the downs were barely visible from here. He tossed the cheap scarf out onto a scrofulous chair. The flat was an eyrie, not drab inside, and he felt he could peep into every corner of the big country town, yet remain unseen. It was a morning to melt even a Midlander’s heart. Nude as a fledgling, He weaved about under the shower and luxuriated in hot soap and the fact he could leave the door open, for no one else lived here. He kept the bangle on, for it was linked to the Nelmanet too.
8 Afterward, he fingerpainted Enga on the foggy vanity mirror, humming in his solitary way. He gave her a beehive hairdo, then with three strokes made it a severe hairbun. He used to cartoon them at Cloùdough Art School like that, three years back. Power that undid corruption. An Ailinga steam car hissed by below. The near-pure air quickened; children yelled; the ceiling creaked; the land warmed; his scalp tingled. Two morning bells, the second hour since dawn, rang out from the Town Hall. By the window, he fancied he could hear the roar of the Shevelina river, the River of the Mother Goddess — but it was just the traffic.
9 3. Into the Heartland
“You’ll miss the bloody train!” he said aloud, to the rhythm of his towelling. He always travelled by train. It was not political correctness but the journeys he’d made as a child, the steam train he’d thought was on fire. He powdered himself into a cloud, adoring the perfume of jasmine. The people opposite had Drafa Thorton’s Review of the Republic blaring from the wireless; more clan-inspired troubles in Annabank, the second-dreariest city in the Midlands. He balanced a foot on one toe for no particular reason. He thought of Petra Flexen, a photographer he’d once had a brief liaison with. She said, “you make love like a woman”, which he’d regarded as a compliment. (She’d added, “You stoop, but you’re short.”) She’d encouraged him to go with her to Art School, only to drop him when he began to gain recognition. She lived on a commune of sorts on the edge of town, growing beans. No point in digging that up again. He gave his hair a last brush and slid the window shut. He was sure of one thing: he belonged to the earth, like a marigold in a sun-branched forest. As he headed back toward the kitchenette he noticed his tea on the table, stone-cold. He forced himself to drink it; it was dear. People like Petra grew the flowers in the far south. One day he’d get round to making his own. He ate a quick breakfast, spilling no crumb on the thin carpet he’d had laid earlier that year. Then, he got into the clothes he’d set out on the bed; featuring today were a jumpsuit and a long, ruched jacket both in carmine velvet from Honerryl. He’d wear them with matching pixie boots. Round his neck, instead of the scarf, he hung a necklace made up of halfmoons, each piece of a metal rare in Illantyn: aluminium. Once dressed to his
10 satisfaction, he stuffed a tiny handkerchief up his sleeve, grabbed his two bags and hurried down to catch the train. In sunshine, he skipped past the Ansital Street junction. The warning light winked: car coming. A glinting scooter came into view instead. It banked like a plane and buzzed countrywards. He wondered if that was Petra. He watched it zip along, bouncing over every bump. Reaching the ornate ‘prerevolutionary’ station in town, he saw the dustbrown carriages, and went into the ticket office. No one sat behind the counter. In a back room, they were all having a Tiller Meeting, and it sounded quite heated. He pressed the buzzer. A middle-aged man, looking flushed, burst out. “Passengers!” he was yelling back. He saw Lucian. Lucian thought his face showed disappointment; he began to feel self- conscious, all done up like a pretty pixie. “Only one. Sorry sevlin, we’re arguing about the new fare structure. Nelmanet’s just frozen up.” He took the ticket and punched it. Clearly computerization hadn’t reached that far as yet. Not in this town. “Have a nice trip. But watch out for that stewardess!” The man grinned and disappeared into the meeting again. Before the door shut Lucian heard the word ‘Nelmanet’ yelled several times, and wondered if they were about to chuck the thing out the window. He musingly climbed aboard. This wasn’t the Midlands. But it wasn’t the Illan heartland either.
11 With a finger, he drew on the pollen-stained window. He crossed his legs carefully so as not to crush the velvet, and folded them to one side. He looked about him idly and wondered if anyone else on board would know his name. “Hardly likely.” he muttered. People noticed him muttering sometimes. He didn’t care any more. In Hazzenton, the enhancer and the exhibition waited. The train all too soon hauled itself out of the station, not scattering the tiny grass parrots which hopped in and out of a puddle left last night by the steam engine. The seat next to him was empty, but celloglazed with talc from a previous incumbent. For an instant he was siezed by panic, as if his ability to draw had disappeared. He took out his sketchbook and broke a pencil trying to prove it hadn’t. Variegated, single-bladed windmills, pumping water or making power or turning vast composting drums, flashed by and were gone. He grabbed a new pencil and busily sketched them. They’d been erected by the enhancer movement. His panic dissipated. Soon in his mind the train was crossing the sparse saddle of Lobelia Hill, and then plunging into the Hazzen Valley. Below lay red and white canal boats, like fallen blossoms, and broom-straws of barges; he felt a pang for the midlands. Nel birds rose in great flocks and towed their collective shadow across unmown ridges. He touched the green enhancer’s bangle on his wrist and its crotal bells tinkled over the roar of the train. “Tea or coffee, sevlina?” said a wry-mouthed stewardess with a dark freckly face, appearing as if summoned, and apparently mistaking him for a woman. She grimaced and dabbed at the empty seat with a serviette.
12 “I’ve already had tea.” he said, stretching his velvet legs so the wedge heels of his sandals scraped along the floor. He felt a strange sensation in his chest region. “Is this coffee?” “It ain’t ambrosia, honey.” she said, running an eye over his dainty ankles. “Smells heavenly.” he said. It was ginger coffee. “Mmm, but it looks more like the stuff that runs out of cat’s eyes when they get the flu.” He grimaced and she copied him. She behaved in fact as though she’d known him for years. He hadn’t a clue why he wasn’t offended. “Midlander, aren’t you?” He nodded, surprised. Then a certain look passed between them. She’d realised her mistake, he supposed. Some people never did. “You hang on to your accent.” He reddened. Her own was pure Raxelbrann, and almost unbearable. “And you’re an enhancer!” she told him, and the whole carriage, while decorously depositing the crumpled tissue in a recycling basket. The combination of ‘Midland’ and ‘enhancer’ was known to be hazardous. Lucian imagined people goggling, but when he dared to peep from the corner of his eye he saw nothing but bored passengers keeping themselves to themselves. They ignored them — they’d probably ignore them if they made love on the seat (although not if they had a cigarette afterward). “No, no, I’m not an enhancer.” She prized the bangle away from his wrist with her little finger, which itself glistened with clear polish and outshone the steel teapot. “I bet you will be one day. Turn it into tiravit.” she added, pointing at the pot. “No, it’s too early for alcohol..”
13 “Not on this train, darling. We’re freer than nellies. You can even smoke.” “I think I’d prefer tea, in a cup with a gold line round the edge.” “Oh, aren’t you swish. Well, dear, we haven’t got any Midland tea, mind. This is weak and perfumed.” “Like me.” he giggled ruefully. She pouted and fixed him with a sidelong stare — deliberately, he thought, like a nellie. “Others would like a cup of tea as well!” bellowed a man behind him, stubbing out maveluthra joint and swatting the back of the seat with his copy of the Brangathrel Star. Lucian jumped out of his skin. She rolled her eyes. “Or turn him into a turd.” “I heard that! Is this the Empire that decent working-men can be insulted by insolent young girls? I suppose you think work is all about having Meetings and shoving our fares up?” “I’ll shove them up your — ” “— he sounds like one already.” whispered Lucian belatedly, a bit rattled. “I’m not as young as I look, either.” she bent over and confided. “I’m 39 tomorrow.” She showed her teeth. He thought she was going to invite him to count them. “See, patched up like a Hazzenton bus.” “Stop whispering you two! There’s no way some — ‘enhancer’ — is coming between me and my civil rights.” “I’d say he’s a Midlander as well.” she said to Lucian. “Ugh.” She pirouetted, holding the tray on one palm without spilling a drop. “Lucky man.” he went, very weakly, as she moved down the carriage. “That’s right, lad. Meet Lechid — ” Lucian turned and smiled. The man, clad in a thick black coat, had a superficially ‘jolly’ sort of face, something to do with
14 the jowls. He looked away briefly, confusingly, since he didn’t appear shy, then managed to grin back. Lucian faced the engine again, patting down his hair. Was it his clothing, mascara, or the bangle? Maybe neither slight had been intentional. He was so sensitive to nuances of the moment that he sometimes caught them when they weren’t there at all. Other people ignored each other really. The man lost interest once he’d got his cuppa. He never actually found out when she realised her mistake (or had she?), but he knew now that he still had a midlands accent, and resolved to disguise it further. Fiddling with the valuable half-moons of the necklace, he sipped at the tea. Not too bad. He felt warm again, and sang still in his mind, without (as far as he knew) moving his lips. It was easy to believe the sea had once covered this landscape. It was so smooth, apart from brackeny gorges here and there. It looked about to roll. The passengers went quiet, feeling the moment too, perhaps. As the train steamed on, the sevlina with the crooked smile loped by with a tray of late breakfast, which he ended up spilling everywhere, along with his soft-spoken wisecracks. He said he hoped they never had bullet trains in Brangathrel. “If they do I’ll get fat in no time.” “I’m sure you got a spell for that.” He found himself glad to see her. She gave the tight jumpsuit an envious once-over which made him feel the train might be about to turn back into a pumpkin. “No, nor a broomstick either.” he tried to quip.
15 “You never been on this train before? Not recently? I’m the star attraction.” She twirled. She sat next to him. She slumped in the seat and her patched teeth flashed. “But I’m sick of the job. It’s my last day today.” she said. She pulled her skirt tightly over her knee. “Do you need a travelling companion? I love your taste in nail polish.” “Er — well, yes!” He couldn’t believe his ears. He wished he had worn a skirt — he could have pulled it tightly over his knee too. It was a way of expressing a common identity and sense of purpose, he felt. “Good. That’s it then. Oh, Stella … ” she called out to the person who’d replaced her. “Cup of tea, please, and make it strong. None of this weak perfumed rubbish. Give that to him.” She jabbed her thumb behind her. The man fumed silently. “Why don’t you stay on?” said the other woman, pouring it out and nodding at Lucian. He turned shyly to watch the birch trees passing. “No way. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.” At that point Lucian realised he didn’t even know her name yet. Unfortunately Stella went off without uttering it. He tried to wangle the subject into the conversation. “And— where was I? Just a sec., you’re trying to ask me something. Sorry? What is it?” Embarrassed yet liberated by such directness, he said, “I don’t even know your name.” That really set her off laughing. “I don’t even know yours. Maybe names don’t even matter as much as we think, eh? Well, who goes first?”
16 “I’m Lucian Rai Nin.” Her small eyes widened. “Are you? Good grief.” He faltered. She thought he was lying. His work was well-known, his face not — that was his idea of ‘gentle’ fame. And while he craved fame, such recognition always took him by surprise. “No I really am.” He showed her his driver’s licence. “I like art, believe it or not.” she said, a bit nervously. “I loved your night landscapes in Maltida’s.” He was very surprised. No one liked them. “I’m Nelly Snell. The most famous traveller in all Illantyn.” she said, and he felt guilty that he hadn’t heard that name at all. They shook hands, clinking rings and bangles together.
Through the grimed glass of the window, he saw they’d reached a drab village called Mautigall, or Middle o’ the Valley, and were surrounded by rice paddies which spread alongside the Hazzen River. People weren’t working in them at present, but a group had gathered by the edges, having a Meeting no doubt. With a wheeee the engine stopped for water and he took the air, rather apart from the others. Nelly had nelmagrams to send to friends in the city. The sun skimmed across the sluggish green ripples and brought out the amber colour of his cheeks. It was 11 o’clock. He sat decorously, but not obediently, on an iron bench beneath a squat evergreen oak (more typical of the Miol), and stared into the water.
17 “You’re a donzetta.” said Nelly, falling heavily beside him. “Of course you’re sensitive. “ “But I’m no good at exhibitions. Hate ‘em .” “Aren’t you an exhibitionist?” she asked, and roared with laughter. She gave him a hug. She was an Illan ‘gypsy’, a wandering people who were treated harshly in the Midlands but revered elsewhere. He swung his legs. “But you want to succeed …” ‘Of course! But Rion — she has other concerns. Political ones. I don’t know what I might get myself into.” ‘Sounds great.” “What?” Nelly laughed. “And she’s got something for me.” “What?” The enhancers supported the arts, of course, and Lucian hoped it was about giving him a studio or something. “Come with me and find out.” he said. “She wouldn’t mind?” “Why should she? I’m not sworn to secrecy or anything.” They walked around the village, looking into touristy shop windows and buying nothing. They were peering through the lead-paned houselike windows of a very old store when Nelly said, “There’s that philistine Lechid. Let’s go in!” They stood inside a dark and dusty room chocabloc with stuffed toys. A small double-chinned man leaned over the counter and smirked at them.
18 “Welcome to the Mautigall Co-op.” said he. “We sell everything here from longbread to tractor engines.” “I hope you don’t get the parts mixed up.” smiled Nelly. “This isn’t the Empire.” said the man gruffly. Lechid came in behind them, but he ignored them and they him.
19 4. Things Get Serious.
Nelly, he would find later, made love like a woman too. But for now they just wanted to talk. Back on the train, though, he fell asleep. When he next opened his eyes the scenery had changed; they were leaving the downs and heading into very core of the Illan heartland. His apprehension deepened. The Hazzen river ran beside them, lined with myrtles, alive with sailboats and dinghies. People were diving in, some of them naked. A dartshaped jet whined overhead, the Carial flight to Hazzenton, he imagined. There were fields beyond the river, dairy farms that shone as though dusted with emerald powder, checquered with black-and-white cattle. He saw a village with a temple dome like a saucer and thought of Rindaling. That was where he’d been born, where his family still lived, and where a recurring dream first told him he would meet the Emporer for the final struggle. The old obsessive and ridiculous premonition. He normally did something mundane to get rid of it. But at present he feared the mundane more than his own imagination. It was odd to be so far from the Brangathrel countryside. He said so to his new companion. “The country’s close as the air you breathe.” she said. He didn’t agree; it smelt of ozone and methylated spirit and food scraps. An hour passed in near-silence. Then, on her prompting, he opened the window and, risking a cinder in his eye, looked out. He felt a sudden exhilaration. The largest city of the Republic (with a population that fluctuated around the 850 000 mark) spread west from the ‘meeting pool’ of the Hyne and the Hazzen rivers, to the cold Sea of Ashes — which itself stretched to the hostile Empire and beyond, into the green mist. Its ancient site upon a confluence recalled home, but a home transfigured.
20 A town of tiled roofs, and mainly of brick — a fraction of it medieval, a hidden substratum of it older still — that did not crumble. What he saw of Hazzenton seemed afloat on its handbuilt mound, against a streaked carnation of sky. She said “You’re impressed, I can tell.” “Not at all. Hasn’t got half the character of Rindaling.” “We say, ‘this is Hazzenton, where the small hand rules’.” She twirled on the platform, not caring if anyone stared, and nobody did, or not disapprovingly. She dragged him down toward the square. He saw plenty of toyshops but had no chance to duck in. Instead he dodged the traffic as she crossed. There were only a few cars, but dozens of bicycles and tricycles and quadricycles and mopeds and scooters and trishaws squealed by. And there, crossing the street and dodging green trolley buses was the goddess Illana. She was about 18, with red-black hair and a turned-up nose like most Illans, and eyes that were almond and green. She was dressed in peasant purple. Her skin was an amber shade. If she’d been wearing red lipstick she’d have looked like an ornamental traffic light. They took a trolley-bus and soon were wandering near the water, assailed by a stink of fish that inland-dwelling Lucian marvelled at. Some people stared at him but he ignored them as usual. Nelly kept dragging him across to market stalls or shop windows. She was electric. It was wonderful. Finally, they arrived at the gallery. “Everything’s gone well.” she said. “So far.” he replied, and they went in.
Rion, ancient and bejewelled, embraced him and embraced Nelly too, even though they couldn’t have set eyes upon each other till then. She smelt of port.
21 “I’m getting fat.” interposed Nelly, patting her stomach where her skirt was tightest. “Nelly the belly.” “I thought of it but you said it.” he smiled, in embarrassment. His paintings were all around them. Rion touched his bangle, then looked oddly at Nelly. “Now, there’s something to be done with that.” she said. Nelly broke into a fit of laughter. “I’m sorry. I can’t keep it in any longer. We’ve both been having you on, Lucian.” He stared, hurt, at her and at Rion. The old woman spoke. “Nelly is one of us. An enhancer. We had to protect you.” “Lechid?” he said, quick off the mark. “Possibly.” “I couldn’t say anything out there.” apologised Nelly. “Too dangerous. The Empire’s spies are not really everywhere — we’re no threat to them, except morally — but the few that are here know an enhancer’s bangle when they see one.” “So …” Lucian was too overwhelmed to speak. He sank into a chestnut chair and sighed. “So … why …?” He began to feel very frightened. Rion remained standing as Nelly sat beside him. “Feel no fear, Lucian.” she said in her brittle voice. “What we are about to ask of you is for you to accept or reject as you see fit.” Lucian looked up, and went cold. “Don’t fear me. I am old — older than I seem, indeed — but I am not poison! But I am like a snake protecting her eggs.”
22 It was said of Illantyn itself that it was small, but so is a spider. “She’s o.k.” went Nelly. “Yes, I am well in possession of my sanity! As you know, any one of us can become an enhancer. But first you must look into yourself. It helps to be an artist. And you are one of the best in the land. We have asked many other artists the favour we are about to ask of you, and all have declined. You are our last hope.” “After which we’ll have to draft someone.” said Nelly. Rion Lingel gave a snort of contempt. “An enhancer cannot be compelled to do anything. An enhancer acts out of ethical conviction. Enhancement is power, but it undoes corruption.” “It was a joke, Rion.” said Nelly weakly. “Your last hope …?” Lucian was saying. “The Empire has sought to destroy us since the Revolution. That we all know. Yet we have strengths they do not possess. Our social cohesion, our democracy, our solidarity — and the protection of enhancement. We wish to ask you to join us.” “But — I’m no enhancer!” “We’re not asking you to become a spy or anything. We let the government deal with all that nonsense. The fact is, though, that the Emporer was originally an enhancer from this country. The only way he can break our power — the ‘moral’ power of the enhancers, as Nelly calls it — is by reclaiming his own in Shaudgel Forest. Near your birthplace, in fact.” The great and dark Shaudgel pine forest had terrified Lucian as a child. He had never been into it. “But how… ?”
23 “He’s coming here — secretly, of course! Incognito, as they say. There’s no way we can stop him, given our relative openness as a nation, our rustbucket navy and the fact that we have thousands of kilometres of coastline. He has to enter the forest in order to restore his enhancement skills. And if he does he will become a threat to Illantyn, and maybe to the entire earth.” Lucian stood up, swaying. Then he began to laugh. “But that’s all ridiculous! That’s just a tale. And why should he wait so long to come back here? We’ve been a thorn in his side — as you said — since the Revolution.” Rion raised her eyebrows. “Lucian, listen to me. It isn’t just a tale. The Emporer has for years misused his enhancement power to destroy the freedom of his people. This misuse has gradually sapped that power. By now, his only strength is political. The economy has collapsed. And he is old and roundly hated and may soon be overthrown. So he is impelled to return to the source of his own enhancement, in Shaudgel.” She strode up and down majestically as she spoke. “Now enhancers don’t constitute some sort of secret society. As I said, we leave that sort of drivel up to the Council. What we need is a person who can confront Mevilionid in the act of renewing his energies. That is all. There will be no danger — at least, not of a physical sort. Once confronted, he will die, or perhaps return to his country in a weakened state.” Lucian was about to tell her she was crazy when Nelly intervened. “Honey, you’ve got the bangle, but it needs to be activated. Mevilionid carries a wand. He’s got to thrust that deep into the earth of Shaudgel forest in order to revive it.” Rion, a little annoyed at the interruption, went on:
24 “All you have to do is approach him in the forest, wearing the bangle. You possess creativity. In that encounter, you must retain your sense of childlike wonder. You must retain your compassion. He will attempt to take the bangle off you. He can do it only by persuasion, for it protects you from physical attack.” “He’ll be alone?” Lucian had grown up in the shadow of the White Standard Club and its mafia-like control of Midlander society. Rion reclaimed the floor. “He has to be, or just about. Enhancement tools are normally designed to work for their owner alone, and despite his dictum — when magic fails, force avails — the real enemy of enhancement is greed or lust for power, a scourge he has spread across the earth, reducing people to ciphers, downsizing all in the Empire’s path. Were he too surround himself with his thugs or his Midlander bandits the attempt at reclamation would fail.” “But if he is motivated by greed anyway …?” “He is a great enhancer. There are ways — involving self-deception and casuistry — to get around these inherent limitations for a time. But no more of this chatter — please give us your reply. Do you agree to take on this task?” Lucian’s tongue was stilled. “I — I don’t know.” he said in the end. His head was reeling — his recurring dream was unbelievably coming true. And he felt angry with her for putting him on the spot in this way. Yet something else — the desire for adventure, for greater fame and recognition, quickened in him. “What — is the alternative?” Rion looked grave. “We are not sure. Possibly we can find someone else. But there are not many people around whose creativity is developed as much as yours, yet who are so untainted by egotism!”
25 Lucian once again felt embarrassed, then suddenly ashamed. “I have to confront — the Emporer?” He could barely believe such words had come out of his own mouth. “Bah!” went Rion. “He’s just a man! A pompous, number-crunching economist. I went to university with him in this very town.” “He lived here?” “He was an Illan. But that is long ago.” She rounded on him. “So what is your answer?” Lucian jumped, but then he saw the smile playing at the corner of her lips. “Y-yes.” he said.
26 5. A Demonstration of Enhancement
The exhibition was a success. But Lucian naturally wondered what he’d got himself into. Here in her office above the Gallery, Rion had taken the bangle from him briefly, and passed it over what appeared to be a large silver bell in the middle of the desk. Both had glowed a dazzling green. Then she returned it to him. It tingled a bit, but felt much the same. “There. It is done.” she said. “Why did you give me this, if I was in danger wearing it?” he suddenly thought to ask. “Nell exaggerates! There is little danger — yet. And if you had not wanted to wear it — Lucian, enhancement is a very complex subject and indeed we’re not unaquainted with contention, either. For we are dealing with a power that is of the earth, one we are far from fully understanding. But enhancement is also of the mind — the fact that you wore it all the time — ah, so you did, even in the shower, I’ll bet — ” he reddened “ — shows you are the right person, indeed the only person, for the job. Once you accepted that, subconsciously if you like, you had accepted the task before even knowing of it. You had accepted the mantle, so to speak, of an enhancer. Nelly was just there to make absolutely sure you were not, er, harassed.” “And all that about working on the train …” Nelly grabbed his arms gently. “All true. We enhancers have to work like anyone else.” “But if I’d known from the beginning I wouldn’t have come.” “You can still change your mind.” Rion assured him. “At any time. Enhancement can’t be forced, as I told you. But you will not.” she smiled.
27 He knew she spoke the truth. He wouldn’t miss this for the world. Thoughts of the accolades he would receive were already teeming in his brain. Later, with Nelly, having a late lunch in an outdoor café on Tiernelva Square, he told her about the recurring dream. “That is significant. You’re Illana!” she said jokingly. Illana was the goddess who returned in times of crisis, usually to be sacrificed. In the middle ages, they had a great sacred bell in Hazzenton and an Illana — a local peasant girl who’d been captured from a rival faction — was tied to the clapper of it. “I’m not even a woman.” He swallowed his glass of iced green tea languidly, crushing a bitter Isabella grape in it, to suit his mood. “Well, Illanas were usually told of their status in recurring dreams.” said Nelly with a ribald wink. “I know.” “Well, then.” “Nelly, we’re a modern people. We might live in the ‘Magic Republic’ but we don’t believe in all that religious stuff.” “You believe in enhancement.” “But that’s — like science, isn’t it?” “No. It’s a moral force. That’s what Tilishcanen said.” The Sage of the medieval period whose gender was unknown, though older, patriarchal historians used ‘he’. The Sage who swam with the dolphins and cast the great bell. “But you work with scientists.” “Yes, and they’re beginning to see that there’s more to the world than brute matter.” “As an artist, I’m rather glad to hear it.”
28 “Since we all come from the earth. Morality is not a human construction, it is found in the very heart of matter. Human beings can pervert it but it is of the earth.” He was quite surprised at this side of the irreverent Nelly Snell. “You don’t believe in God and all do you?” “God? The Mother Goddess? Illana? I don’t know. I do believe there is goodness in people, that it is inherent in the universe. We can build a better world.” Such hopeless idealism was in contrast to the picture the Empire painted of Illantyn — grim, poor and isolated, a victim of totalitarian ideology and poor economics. “You sound like Rion Lingel. A revolutionary of the old school.” “And so do you — or rather, some of your paintings remind me of the revolutionary art of the time.” “They were even meant to. Funny that Rion doesn’t consider it plagiarism.” “She’s not a painter. She knew Naduyn, did you know that honey? They lived together.” “Really?” He still hadn’t got used to talking about such legendary figures as if they were someone’s relative or lover. Then a sudden feeling of compassion for the old woman swept over him. He felt a bit teary for an instant. Then another thought struck him. “So, she’s really no judge of art?” Nelly raised her upper lip so her snaggly teeth showed. “She knows what she likes! No, she is cultivated enough. But your art is acclaimed by the critics.” He didn’t trust them.
29 “And art is important. Enhancement is an art. We haven’t been able to make it totally predictable or controllable, like we can more or less with a Nelma. Every time you practice it it’s like painting a picture or writing a story. Different every time.” He was beginning to wonder exactly what he could do with the bangle. “See the salt cellar? Hold your hand over it — no, the hand with the bangle, dimwit.” “Now what?” ‘Imagine that the salt, spraying out of the cellar like a fountain.” He did so; the bangle tingled his wrist, but nothing happened. He tried to concentrate very hard and screwed up his eyes. She laughed. “Is that how you paint?” “No! I — ” He swiftly saw what she meant. He visualised the salt spraying out of the salt cellar like a beautiful, miniature white fountain. The bangle tingled again and glowed a dull green. A grain or two escaped, so he thought. But they may have been glinting dust-motes. “Keep going — just as when you paint. Visualise it, let your mind freely conjure up images, feel your way into them.” Another fleck or two of white. No, they were not dust-motes, for the afternoon sun was not shining on the table now. The bangle glowed brighter. “It’s working. It’s working!” Isolated grains of salt began shooting up through the holes in the salt cellar and landing on the table. “Of course.”
30 The upward cascade grew denser. Soon the salt was flying out exactly like water from a fountain, showering the tablecloth and causing nearby patrons to stare. “Magicians!” he heard someone mutter, perhaps to their children. “I saw one down at the Hazzen Theatre last week. Clever stuff, but all trickery.” It was not, he knew, a form of trickery. He imagined the salt catching fire. Immediately it burst into eerie green flame. “Hey, the tablecloth!” cried a waiter. “You bloody enhancers go and practice your black arts elsewhere!” Lucian imagined him with the ears and nose of a pig. The flames went out and the bangle was dull. “We’re leaving.” Nelly assured the man. She paid the bill and they left. Now he really wondered what he was getting into.
31 6. Preparations and an Interruption
“You see what happened. As soon as you thought something unkind, the bangle ceased to work.” He’d heard of enhancement tools being used during the revolution. “In self-defence, yes. But their fire as we say ‘burns backwards’ — it’s better used for building than tearing down. And for that you need to be observant.” Lucian was certainly that. He’d notice the dent in a once-pierced, ringless ear, the partial loss of three-dimensionality when one closed an eye (which Petra the photographer hadn’t been able to detect), the obscure crack in soil where the shoot would surface. Even Rindaling school taught him to love that world his people were enhancing for their sisters and brothers and other shevelbrann (or androgynous) siblings everywhere. Not only ‘nature’, which they nurtured well: a simple, well-made factory bottle, or its mould, its idea, was a grail. To see was to be part of, yet apart from, as shevel was to brann. Impossible, for the purely verbal mind. Scribble, though, in that special state of calm alertness, and it happened, like their remarkable unburning history since the fire of revolution. “So what’s next?” he said as they walked to his hotel. “Secret flight to Shaudgel? When is the bloody Emporer coming anyway?” “Ah — maybe we should wait till we’re inside. Well,” she whispered, “we believe he’s already here. The government thinks so.” He trembled a bit. “But we must prepare. You’re not quite ready. It will take a while.” “But he’ll have been and gone by then, surely?”
32 “Don’t get too hopeful! No, he must prepare as well. Remember, he has little to lose. There’s been mass-rioting in the Empire, even in the capital. It could be that he won’t have a country to go back too.” “Unless — he recovers his power of enhancement?” “Precisely. Then he’ll have the world, including us.” Fired by the thought, they rushed up the steps and into the lobby.
Over the next few weeks, Lucian learned the art of the bangle. Within the first week, he was able to paint with it — the colours flying to the canvas and forming themselves into whatever shape he imagined. The purpose of all this was to hone his enhancement skills so he could use it for the far more difficult task of combatting the Emporer’s terrible will. The confrontation was planned on Tilishcanen Day, the day Mevilionid was rumoured to have acquired his powers. Meanwhile, an uprising occurred in the Daanglazid, capital of the Empire. It was ruthlessly put down, but the newspapers, including those from Monda, were saying it was the beginning of the end. And no one really knew what was coming next. As the day to leave approached — his sister had come down from the Midlands to look after his flat in Brangathrel — he became increasingly edgy, convinced he could never go through with the mission. Rion Lingel had disappeared to Carial on urgent business with the government, matters she couldn’t speak about, and Nelly alone would accompany him on the road north. “It’s partly that I just don’t want to go back to the Midlands.” he told her. “I hated it there. My family are ok, but they aren’t donzettas, not one is shevelbrann.” The clans hated such people and blamed them and the ‘gypsies’ for all ills, and especially for the revolution.
33 “I can’t say I blame you! I’m not fond of the place myself. But then I’m from the south. Sunny Cloùdough.” “With that accent?” he said incredulously. “Ah. Well, I left when I was eight and moved here. But the snowdrop meadows along the Leimeth river …” she sang “are in my blood. So to speak!” “Let’s hope they don’t engage in snow-dropping.” he quipped. “I’ll do the jokes, sevlina.” she grinned. “Maybe I should do the singing then.” He finished the line in his high voice, “ … are most beautiful when the sun shines from the east. ” They sat in her apartment on Carmon Street. She was now working parttime in a ‘legume mutuality’ or collective bean-farm just outside the city, and drawing what Illans called the ‘minimum’, a basic income which everyone received if they were out of a fulltime job. Enhancers refused to take payment for their own services. “I still can’t believe I’m involved in all this.” he said. She touched his hand — they’d grown quite intimate of late. “Honey, we’ve had our eye on you for quite a while. You’re better-known than you think.” “But — you’re not an artist, are you? What made you — how did you become an enhancer?” “Oh, well, that’s a fine question!” She rummaged behind the sofa and produced a temen — a bowed lyre or crwth. She replayed the folk-song, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. “The Emporer is rumoured to hate music.” she told him. “All art, but especially music.” Lucian, rather musical himself, sighed. “Will you help me confront him, Nelly Snell?”
34 “That’s the idea. We’re not letting you go there alone — ” She broke off and he wondered what she was staring at. Lucian was sitting opposite her, facing the apartment’s large clear window. Nelly was facing the door. Her eyes were wide, almost popping, as though with fear. Instantly he turned around. How the man had entered the locked apartment he could not guess. But he was undeniably there, standing before them in all his black-coated, be-jowled horror, a heavy militia revolver pointed at Lucian’s forehead.
35 7. Things Get even More Serious
“Lechid!” was all he could manage to croak, heart racing. “Yes, my fine young donzetta. Which is it to be, the White Standard Club or a trip to the Empire?” Nelly had a bangle of her own. A blue flame sizzled across the room and knocked the gun from his grasp. Lucian had been too terrified to move; now he ran for the door. But the awareness of his own cowardice pulled him up short. Lechid was scrambling for the gun, and Lucian turned and raised his arm. A shaft of green fire washed the weapon away like water from a hose. He pictured it as very hot. The man grabbed for it again but screamed with pain as he burnt his fingers on it. “You scum!” ranted Lechid. “You child-corrupting, child-stealing scum, both of you!” He lunged at Lucian and with one blow knocked him flying. Nelly grabbed his throat but he threw her off, panting and red-faced. Lucian passed into unconsciousness.
He awoke in a cellar of some kind. Nelly was not there — he knew this by instinct. He felt like a cat left abandoned in a cage, the sick sense of powerlessness felt by any prisoner. And he felt very cold. The cellar was dark, but he fumbled till he came to a trap-door. Through a crack he could see what appeared to be a farmyard in daylight. He lunged at the trap-door but it wouldn’t budge. Why had he agreed to that madwoman Lingel? He was an artist, not an insurrectionary. Then he realised the bangle was still on his wrist. Nelly had told him that no one could remove it without his consent — unless he was dead. He placed his wrist near the door. But he was shaking too
36 much to concentrate. Slowly, though, the image of the door bursting asunder came into his mind. And sure enough, in time it flew open. But as he scrambled out, thanking the Shevelina and all her daughters, he came face to face with Lechid. The man pulled aside his coat to reveal the gun. “Don’t try your swiller tricks again, son. You’re in the Midlands and you know what we think of your kind up here. You didn’t believe all that rot Rion Lingel told you, do you? The old bag is senile. Lives in a dreamworld, reliving the revolution and consumed with the notion of overthrowing Mevilionid. As if he’d come here! In person! Besides, he’s got troubles of his own at the moment. They’ve just burned down the Ministry of Justice so I hear.” Desperate, Lucian raised his bangle. “Listen to me, boy. You don’t think we’d dare harm an enhancer, do you? Whole country’d be up in arms, worse than the Empire. Your friend Nelly is in the farmhouse. She’s quite safe. But we’ll be damned if we’ll let you participate in a stunt whereby you ‘confront the Emporer’. That’s our government, the swiller scum, playing on the rumour that he was an enhancer in order to make propaganda against the Empire. Even the Mondans are saying it. It’s got Sevlina Lingel in a bag, it has.” “What are you talking about?” Lucian demanded, somewhat relieved that Nelly was ok and that he wasn’t about to be shot. “They’re playing on her obsessions. Told her that he’s coming back. Talked her into this whole charade.” “But she knew him!” “Maybe — yes, he was an Illan, that much is true. But an enhancer — I doubt it. And even if he was, he’s not returning to Illantyn, and certainly not alone! The swillers’d arrest him on the spot.”
37 “But —” “You’re on White Standard Club territory, son. Now I’m a Midlander, and I don’t care much for what your sort represent. But I’m no murderer. I can’t say the same for some of the other hotheads round here, and even if they can’t or daren’t kill an enhancer, I can’t say the same for your family. So just go along with me for a while. I’ll take you to the farmhouse. We’ll keep you here till Tilishcanen Day has passed.” Not knowing whether to believe his adversary, Lucian followed him meekly to the farmhouse. Any attempt at escape seemed futile. It would be good to see Nelly again; maybe they could work something between them. Nelly was sitting in the corner, watched over by a big woman with a pitchfork. Her bangle was still in place too. But she wasn’t using it; she was slumped in the chair in the attitude of someone in a state of profound depression. She brightened when she saw him; she leapt up and embraced him, then turned to the woman and uttered, “You people have no idea what you are helping to accomplish.” The woman grunted and turned away. “He’s saying it’s all a hoax.” blurted out Lucian. “That Rion’s senile.” “It’s no hoax.” insisted Nelly. “Delude yourselves as much as you like. You won’t get away from here in a hurry.” He gestured toward a window; through it they could see the farm gate. A truckload of militiamen, all of them WSC members judging by their white armbands, were lounging around, smoking maveluthra cigarettes and toying with their sub-machineguns. “The whole area’s surrounded. You can’t fight them all off. Now, I suppose you’d like something to eat.”
38 Lucian suddenly realised he was acutely hungry.
They sat at the table eating kidneys with dumplings, a strange meal for one brought up on rice and barley. The WSC made the eating of meat mandatory as it was in the Empire. Fortunately for Lucian, he’d never sworn himself to vegetarianism. Nelly ate slowly, used to rice and fish and no doubt feeling as upset inside as he. Lechid grew quite genial as the woman served them with a stony face. “Thank you, Mrs Flexen.” he belched. Lucian suddenly thought of Petra. Lechid turned on the radio. When the news came on, their disappearance was reported. Rion Lingel was said to be heading north. “She’ll find us.” said Nelly defiantly. “Oh, she will, but not till after Tilishcanen Day. Two days away. By then the, er, psychological moment will have been lost and the whole shabby swiller plot exposed.” “You want Mevilionid to go on oppressing the — ” “ — I don’t give two pins for those black bastards. I mean, it’d be different if they were Illans. But I do care that swillery is removed from this country, and kept out of the Midlands forever. We’re a proud, independent people, and we don’t care for high taxes and collectivism. If this hoax is perpetrated the government’ll use it as an excuse for invading our province and imposing direct rule.” The only reason it hadn’t already, as all Illans knew, was the danger of civil war. The last one, before the revolution, had almost destroyed the country. “I don’t believe that.” said Lucian firmly. The meal had perked him up quite a bit.
39 “Shut up and drink your tea.” said the woman, who didn’t appear to be joining them. “I’ve got better things to do than be waiting hand and foot on a faggot and a gypsy.” Lucian looked up at her then. “Have you got a daughter called Petra?” She did a double-take. “Yes I have. How did you know that?” “Oh, simple — I slept with her once.” She became enraged with such rapidity that he was struck dumb. “You people make me sick! The sooner you’re out of our territory the better.” She stormed out. “Oh, now you’ve gone and annoyed Mrs Flexen. That wasn’t wise. You won’t get any more home-cooked meals. You’ll have to put up with my cooking, and I learnt in the Army. We used to say that my rabbit stew was too bad to feed even to the enemy!” “Honey, we’ll do our own cooking.” said Nelly, and her bangle glowed. The phone rang. Lechid answered it. He spoke for a while in a soft murmur. Then he turned to Lucian and said, “It’s for you.” “What?” “Auntie Rion. She rang the WSC and was put through. Go on — you can say whatever you like. You don’t know where you are. And I’m not so stupid as to respond to provocation.” Lucian took the receiver from him. “Are you both all right?” said the frightened, brittle voice at the other end. It sounded like Rion all right. “I think so. But he says it’s a hoax …” The old woman took a little while to reply.
40 “He’s lying. Mevilionid’s on an aircraft carrier somewhere off the coast. He’s due tomorrow, just before Tilishcanen Day. Any later than than Tilishcanen Day and his chance of renewing his power is gone forever. That’s what I’ve been discussing in Carial. We weren’t sure before or I would have told you.” “Can’t you get us out of here?” “Where are you?” Lucian had to admit he didn’t know and Lechid smirked a bit. “He’s right, they won’t kill an enhancer. So I think you’re safe.” she said. “But no, I’m not senile — do I sound it?” “N-no.” “Good. Now, I’m sure they’re listening into this, but believe me what I say is true. Don’t forget that for an instant. Now please put Nelly on — ” The connection was suddenly cut off. “That’s quite enough to satisfy them that you’re ok.” said Lechid, thumb on the phone-hook. Nelly was fast when she wanted to be. She shot a bolt of blue fire into the man’s face. It did not burn but dazzled him, rendering him temporarily blind. Lucian copied her. They were able to get out of the farmhouse and across to the barn, but were spotted by some of the militiamen. “Hey, it’s the vermin!” A fusillade of shots whiplashed around them and the dived into the barn. They realised then that the greencoats were drunk or stoned, or both. “Let’s set fire to the fuckin’ barn!” one of them yelled. A cheer went up. “Can we do anything?” winced Lucian, having barked his shin on something.
41 “Not much.” gasped Nelly. “The bangles will keep them back for a time. They’ll stop some bullets too. But not fire.” Already the militiamen were hurling lighted brands at the building. Together, they set up an enhancement field. “Blue and green should not be seen.” said Lucian, amazed he could joke in such circumstances. The roof had taken fire. They crawled to the other and of the barn and snashed a hole in the thin wooden wall with an axe they found hanging from a nail. Then they were running, running, the roars of the WSC-men in their ears and nothing ahead of them but Shaudgel Forest itself. Into it they disappeared as the less-intoxicated soldiers jumped onto their motorbikes and pursued them while firing from the hip. At the edge of the forest the soldiers stopped; they were farm boys and superstitious. “Better tell Lechie.” said one of them, a Corporal called Carn Merkin. “They’ll never get out of there alive.” He spun his motorcycle and sped back to the farmhouse with his men in tow.
42 8. Shaudgel
It was so dark in Shaudgel Forest that they could not see each other’s faces even though they could feel each other’s breath. “Mevilionid’ll be here tomorrow.” said Lucian. “I don’t fancy that.” “If Rion’s right.” said Nelly. “Of course she is. You believe that, don’t you?” “I only know what she’s told me.” Nelly replied. They wandered on, squeezing between the rough, sticky bark of the tall, spindly pine trees, looking up to see only faint glimmers of sun. They were lost, of course, but it seemed sensible to get as far away as possible from the farmhouse. It was then Nelly got the idea of lighting their way with her bangle. “Now that’s a good idea.” agreed Lucian, doing the same himself. They could see only a few trees in, which ever way they turned. Too afraid to climb up to reconnoitre lest they be seen, they moved slowly into the forest, not knowing that they were heading for the very centre, some hundred kilometres distant. “We could have a lovely romantic interlude here,” said Lucian, “if we hadn’t already had one.” “I’m in no mood for romance.” said Nelly, her sandals in shreds. Lucian himself was still wearing the pixie boots. They stopped and sat on the red pine needles. “Nor me. You know, I think we’ve got everything wrong. I think Lechid and Rion are wrong.” “Why?”
43 “What Lechid said about Mevilionid not coming makes sense, but not the bit about the government making civil war on the strength of the rumour that he’s here. No one would believe it, no one would dare start a war.” Nelly leant against him and continued the thread. “Rion is wrong too — he wouldn’t dare come here while his regime is threatened. As soon as he was out of the country there’d likely be a coup.” “So — ” “He’d send somebody else.” “But no one else can use his wand.” “Not so. Remember that silver bell in Rion’s office. It’s used to sensitise the bangles and make them specific to the wearer. It can be used to desensitise them as well. Ther same applies to any enhancement tool.” “Rion could desensitise the wand — ” “And resensitise it for herself!” “So she could restore its power. Then she resensitises it for his use. And sends it back to him.” “She’s a traitor ?” “She was in love with Tidiring Naduyn all those years ago. He was murdered, some say, by Mevilionid himself. But she knew the Emporer pretty well too. Maybe he has some hold over her. Maybe — maybe she’s even in love with him. She’s a woman of immense passion, you know.” “She wouldn’t betray Illantyn like that.” “Maybe she really has gone over the waterfall. But this is all speculation.” “If only we had one of those imperial mobile phones.” “I doubt if it’d work here.” “Can’t we use the bangles somehow?”
44 “If there’s an enhancer within range, maybe, the emanation might find sympathy. Send a shaft in that direction and see what happens.” Lucian sent the green shaft through the trees. It bounced from one to another like a stream of water under high pressure, with a vague hissing sound accompanying each impact. But they saw no sympathy interference in the shaft. As they trudged on the both kept trying. Winter was coming on and a few flakes of light snow floated down between the trees. What they could feel of wind in the forest was chilly, and their resolve was flagging.
After a miserable night spent huddled together in the forest of Shaudgel, the two, grubby and footsore, woke the next morning (as they supposed) and little knowing what else to do struggled on. It was about and hour into their waking time when they came to a clearing. It was quite a large clearing, one that looked hand-made. To cut the pines of Shaudgel was seen as sacrilege even by atheist Illans. “Who could have done this?” said Lucian. “And why?” “I think the answer to that is fairly obvious.” was Nelly’s response. “What do you mean?” “The Emporer is due today.” He heard the sound of a helicopter and automatically charged back into the forest. When he looked about him Nelly was nowhere to be seen. Swivelling round, he peered back out again. The helicopter, black as the carapace of a female red-back, was landing in the middle of the clearing. Nelly was standing before it, waving. We’re rescued!, he thought at first, though still marvelling that the Illan government would dare to commit such an act of outrage. The Midlanders would raise hell. But then the latter would also conduct any search and rescue operation. He decided not to break out from the trees just
45 yet. As the helicopter landed the door swung open and out stepped a young man in a brown uniform. No Illan soldier would wear the colour of death. He wondered what harebrained scheme of bravery Nellie had concocted. This was clearly the Emporer’s flight, and she was prepared to battle with him singlehanded. Now, in fact, he did come out of the trees, bangle raised, ready to confront the Emporer and his entourage, ready to fulfil his bargain. At once he felt acutely conspicuous, aware that he was the target for the two security guards who had leapt out, not in uniform but bearing automatic weapons. When magic fails, force avails. His first reaction was to dash back to the trees but recalling how he’d nearly run out on Nelly before and how much he loathed his old, antisocial self he stood his ground, calves and shoulders shaking uncontrollably. Then a most horrible event occurred. From the still-open door of the helicopter emerged a long, emaciated leg, clad in purple tights that were wrinkled and covered in fluff. Then another leg, similarly garbed (save that the hose were a shade lighter). Then a thin, shaking hand, and finally a torso, head and shoulders, each one shuddering more violently than the other. It was the Emporer Mevilionid, clad in his robes of office. To his horror, Nelly Snell, his dear companion, fell down upon one knee and kissed the ring on that tremulous hand. He raised the bangle once more. The guards, knowing perhaps that it was futile to fire at him now, since the green light had bathed the clearing, stared menacingly at where he stood but made no move. Mevilionid looked in his direction, and to his consternation gave a hideous, sweet and wrinkled smile. Then he himself fell to the ground, and drew from his robes the Wand of Power.
46 “No!” Lucian found himself yelling, and the sounded rebounded from tree to tree to tree. The bangle still bathed the Emporer in green light, but that seemed to bother him not a jot. He even looked up and smiled again, as if he were doing no more than turning a first ceremonial sod with a gold spade or planting a tree for the birth of a new project. Lucian was terribly confused. How was he to ‘confront’ this man? He remembered how Rion had described him as ‘pompous, number-crunching economist’, and how even that statement had diminished him from his mythical status as the world’s most evil, indeed only, dictator. Lucian felt strangely empowered. He walked confidently toward him, smiling for he came in peace, holding the lighted bangled aloft as if it were an olive branch. The guards still made no move. He came up behind Nelly, who was still bizarrely kneeling, lowered his left arm, and stopped.
“Nelly Snell.” She did not respond. The Emporer Mevilionid looked up and smiled again, as if he were at work in his garden and about to plant a tomato seedling. He was digging resourcefully in the exposed soil, which Lucian now noticed had been wetted and cleared of pine litter for the purpose. Lucian quailed. He went to raise his bangle, but then that appeared gauche. The guards stared, but did nothing. Maybe a physical confrontation really were pointless. “Emporer,” he found himself saying with a dry mouth, and he realised he didn’t know how to address an emporer, which should not have been a problem for a ‘swiller’ or socialist. “I am Lucian Rai Nin, and I am here to prevent you continuing your reign of evil. Go to your homeland, and live out the life that has
47 been granted you by the enhancing power of the earth.” The words of the dream. Mevilionid smiled again, but then he spoke, in a cracked voice a little like Rion’s. “I am only digging, my son — if ‘son’ you are. Digging for water.” He thrust the wand into the soil again like a rapier. “Water?” “My country has no water. Only vitriol.” Lucian faltered. “Nelly?” Nelly did not move. “I have the wand,” said Mevilionid, “that will make my country free. My wand is called Illana. But — give me the bangle, donzetta. You cannot help my people. I know what our newspapers and television say, that Illantyn is from hell. But my people are starving. I do not want that. Give me the bangle.” Lucian stood his ground. “Nelly Snell?” he said again, for she appeared to be in a trance. “You do not understand the situation. I have been a bad ruler, I grant, but the forces of opposition include parties which are totally evil — there is one in particular which seeks my imperium. It too craves to misuse the life force, the force that is inherent in all matter, but in ways that in no way gurantee cohesion of our society. It seeks to impose another ruler from Illantyn, a midlander of course. If that happens a disastrous war of all against all may take place, killing millions, and affecting Illantyn itself — indeed, the world — in who knows what way. For that I need this power. No Illan enhancer is in a position to help me.” Lucian was very confused. Instead of appealing to his sympathy, let alone his compassion, the man was appealing to his logic. He wished that Rion was there.
48 But why was Nelly — clearly the traitor all along — so inert? He tapped her on the shoulder but she did not stir. Meanwhile Mevilionid continued to stab at the ground with the wand, as if waiting for some cataclysmic event to occur. Then Nelly did stir, though she did not turn to look at him. “Lucian Rai Nin, you have been witness to the most extraordinary event in history. The Emporer has renewed his wand.” And Lucian saw that it glowed a glossy black, the colour of frozen crude oil. it was too late. You can still change your mind. Enhancement can’t be forced, as I told you. But you will not. He dived at the Emporer. When magic fails, force avails. He felt the burn of the single bullet in his ankle, a bullet only slowed by the bangle. But the guards were cautious and did not fire again. Then Nelly Snell raised her own bangle and the forest echoed into silence. Lucian was swatting at his ankle, gingerly, as if it was on fire. He had not succeeded in touching His Majesty, that frail and faintly ludicrous figure who stood gazing benignly down at him. The young man in the brown uniform, clearly distressed, took a step toward him. “En-han-cer,” he said to Lucian in halting Illan, “I am Aangla his son.” Enhancement cannot be forced. Had Mevilionid succeeded in recharging his wand? There was only one way to tell. Flinching at the pain in his ankle, he raised his arm again and the Emporer was bathed in green. The security guards found their weapons swept out of their grasp. The wand began to coruscate, waves of brown light rushing to meet and struggle with the green. The Emporer’s son placed himself between Lucian and the old man. “No, you will kill him!” he cried.
49 Lucian relented. He dropped his arm and his unburning fire went out. At that, Nelly slumped forward. The brown aura enveloped him and he felt at once a numbing sickness, a chill worse than he had felt in the cellar. The Emporer was peering over his son’s shoulder and grinning like one possessed. Lucian felt himself plummeting into unconsciousness; it was a sensation that he had experienced before, when many years ago, as a child in fact, he had nearly electrocuted himself. He wasn’t frightened of death, only the way of dying, and this felt almost pleasant. He was falling into a void, and the world seemed to be flickering on and off, and ever more rapidly. Childish notions of an afterlife passed through him. Or were they childish? He gave into the sensation, and everything went black.
Much later, it seemed, someone wakened him. He stared up wonderingly into Nelly’s face. “The Emporer is dead.” she said. “His wand — well, it sort of exploded. Rion warned me of that possibility.” “You betrayed us.” came his hoarse accusation. “No! No, Lucian, my love. They did something to me in the farmhouse. The Emporer was there. I don’t know … what Rion calls ‘reducing’ or ‘downsizing’. It puts you in a sort of hypnotic stupor. They tried it on you too but you’re young, you’re an artist — you were stronger.” Lucian lay still for a bit, remembering the chill. “So — he’s dead!” he went, as his strength flowed back to him. “Thank Illana! Thank ourselves!” He struggled up; his ankle, though only grazed, ached terribly, and his head felt like it was full of gravel. “We won!” he yelled, when he could manage it. The old forest echoed. He embraced Nelly and the two of them danced feebly in a circle.
50 “We won! We won!” they both chanted, Nelly wishing she had her temen upon her. “We won! We won!” they sang, laughing and pointing to the mangled corpse of the former Emporer, now rotting back into Illan soil. “We won! We won!” Then they stopped, and were awed, as they noticed now a figure kneeling beside the body, head bent, peaked cap removed, and brown uniform unbuttoned. It was the young man Aangla, the Emporer’s son, softly weeping.
51 9. A Journey Backward
The grizzled enhancer Rion Lingel sat solemn and tightlipped as the Emporer’s coffin was lowered into the grave. Lucian, another successful art exhibition behind him, sat beside her; Nelly sat on her other side. Brown bunting bedecked Tiernelva Square. Lucian thought of painting this funeral too, but then dismissed the notion as unworthy. The Premier of the elected Nelma or Council made a long, impassioned speech. The revolution in the Empire, she said, the revolution that had broken out on news of the Emporer’s death, had been crushed. The Emporer’s son had been given permission by the government of Illantyn to return, but instead elected to stay in the country of his father’s birth. A new Emporer, much younger and more rapacious than the former, had siezed power: his name was Carn Merkin. The people of the Empire were presently too depleted to resist. An atmosphere of depression had spread across Illantyn, and indeed over the whole world. “Was it worth it?” asked Nelly after the funeral. Rion insisted yes. “Without your actions he would have become virtually immortal, at least once he got Illantyn in his grasp. But it is true, our understanding is limited. We cannot be absolutely certain.” Lucian was a hero for a time. But his fame was no longer gentle. Indeed, to escape it he became even more isolated and brooding than before. Nelly tried to drag him out of it but finally gave up and took to travelling once again. Three months later, Rion Lingel suffered a stroke, slipped into a coma and died herself.
52 The whole adventure seemed to Lucian a complete waste of time, and he drew less and less. His powers of observation declined and his career faded. Enhancement was something he now cared nothing for; even though Nelly informed him that the Emporer died because he had taken control of her mind, and that that outrage above all was the cause of the deadly disintegration of his wand, the young artist felt like a murderer, something even Lechid had not been. Slowly the years passed by, as Lucian was consumed by guilt. He had lost track of Nelly though it was rumoured she now had assumed Rion’s position. Perhaps he should travel again to Hazzenton … well, one day.
In the dustless oval of the slanting mirror, a fold of sheet moved. Webs in the window gleamed. A face, still girlish but not so young, turned into the grimy pillow. A quill of sun in the corner of the room tickled Lucian’s lashes. He opened an eyelid. A scrambling on the shingles. Fucking birds. He lit a maveluthra cigarette and coughed his lungs out. By afternoon he’d be legless. He clasped his narrow shoulders and yawned. The far side of the bed was empty. He rolled toward his slanting image, brushing together hairy calves. The unwashed linen sheets were cold too, where he hadn’t been lying. He crawled out of bed, stepped on the forgotten enhancer’s bangle, cursed, and opened the first tiravit of the day. It was famous too, but not so gentle. And then he thought again of Nelly Snell, of the train ride to Hazzenton, of the city by the grey rolling waters of the Sea of Ashes. And of the myrtles along
53 the confluence of the rivers, and the handbuilt mound floating above Tiernelva Square, and the small hand that ruled. And he slipped the bangle onto his wrist, and he watched, and he wondered.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.