Ventus – Day 50 of 135


Megan had never seen so many books. They crowded on high shelves around all the walls of a large room on the third floor of the palace. All the shelves had diamond-patterned glass doors. She watched as Armiger walked from cabinet to cabinet, opening them in turn and gazing at their contents. This was their second day here, but as yet the queen had not found the time to speak to them. Armiger was getting restless.

The books didn’t interest Megan, but the room itself was sumptuous. It contained a number of couches and leather-bound armchairs, with side-tables and many tall oil lamps. The entire floor was covered with overlapping carpets that glowed in the shafts of morning light falling from tall windows along one wall. She curled up in one of the armchairs, feet under her, to watch as Armiger prowled.

This room and the others in the queen’s apartments provided a shocking contrast to the other parts of the palace she had seen. Below this tower, the palace grounds were crowded with the tents of refugees; children and the wounded cried everywhere, there was talk of cholera. The lower corridors and outbuildings bristled with armed men, and conversation there was strained and infrequent. Here, though, it was like another world–luxurious and calm.

Megan knew she would always remember their entry into these walls. Her first glimpse of the interior of the Summer Palace had been of torchlight gleaming off the helmets of a sea of men. Ragged banners hung from the facades of buildings half-ruined by Parliament’s steam-cannon. The place reeked of fear and human waste. She had shrunk back on Armiger’s arm as they were led along cordoned avenues between the tents, and into the vast tower that held Galas’ audience chambers. And the moment they were inside its walls, they were in a minor paradise.

This contrast had disturbed her more than the misery itself. It still disturbed her, the more so since she found herself responding to the comfort of this armchair, the warmth of the nearby fire.

“Amazing,” said Armiger.

She smiled. “You? Amazed? I doubt it.”

He reached up to take down a very large, heavy and scrofulous looking volume. “I’ve been looking for this one since I arrived,” he said. He waggled it at her as he went to perch on the edge of a desk. “Early histories relating some of the events immediately post-landing.”

“Really?” She didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was good to see him enthusiastic about something–something other than this queen Galas, anyway.

Armiger flipped through the pages quickly. “Hmm. Ah. There are major distortions, as one would expect from such a large passage of time.”

“How large?”

“A thousand years. Not really very long; living memory for me, most of it. And on Earth there are complete daily records of practically everything that went on there from before that time… but Earth never Fell the way Ventus did. Miraculous.” He shut the book; it made a satisfying thud and a waft of dust rose before his face.

“I take it you are glad we came,” she said. “Despite the army outside?”

He waved his hand, dismissing either the dust or the besieging force. “Yes. I’m most likely to find out what I want to know here. In case they burn this library down, I’m going to read it.”

“Read it? The whole thing? Tonight?” She didn’t hide her disbelief.

“Well… maybe not all. Most, anyway.” He smiled, an increasingly common thing lately.

“But why? This queen, she is important to you for what she can tell you. I see that now. But why is she so special? You want to talk to her. Her people want to kill her. What has she done?”

Armiger inspected another shelf. “Of course you wouldn’t get much news living alone in the country as you did. Where to start, though? Galas has always been different, apparently.

“She was installed on the throne at a young age by the Winds. No one knows why. Whatever they wanted, she apparently didn’t provide it, because they haven’t lifted a finger to stop Parliament marching on her. But she’s done extraordinary things.”

He came to sit on the arm of a couch near her. “Galas is the sort of philosopher-monarch who arises once in a millenium,” he said. “She may rank with Earthly rulers like Mao in terms of the scope of her accomplishments. People like her aren’t content to merely rule a nation–they want to reinvent both it and the people who live in it.”

Megan was puzzled, but interested now. “What do you mean, reinvent?”

“New beliefs. New religions. New economics, new science. And not just as a process of reform or nation-building. Rather as a single artistic whole. During her reign Galas has viewed her nation as an artistic medium to be shaped.”

She shifted uncomfortably. “That’s… horrible.”

Armiger seemed surprised. “Why? Her impulse has been to improve things. And she’s almost never used force, certainly not against the common people. Her actions are reminiscent of those of the Amarna rulers of ancient Egypt… sorry, I keep referring to things you can’t know.

“Anyway, what she did was give her people a completely new, and all-encompassing, vision of the world. Nothing has been left unchanged–art, commerce, she has even tried to reform the language itself.”

Megan laughed. “That’s silly.”

Armiger shrugged. “She’s failed at a lot of things. In terms of language, she tried to ban the use of possessives when speaking of emotional states, motives and people. So that you could not say, ‘he is my husband’ for instance.”

She glowered. “That is evil.”

“But you could also not say that something is his fault, or her fault. She wanted to remove assignments of blame from speech and writing, and refocus expression on contexts of behavior. To eliminate victimless crimes, crimes of ostracization, for instance the ‘crime’ of being a homosexual. Also to move the emphasis of Justice away from blame and punishment to behavior management. Far too ambitious for a single generation. So it didn’t work.

“But no one on Ventus has ever thought of these things before. Galas is entirely original in her thinking.”

“So why are they out there?” She pointed to the windows.

“Oh, the usual reasons. She started threatening the stability of the ruling classes, at least in their own eyes. No ruler who does that ever stands for long. She’d built experimental towns recently, out in the desert. Each operated on some one of the new principles she espoused. Naturally most of them flew in the face of orthodox mores. Of course the salt barons will revolt if you display an interest in eliminating money from commerce!”

You make me sound like a fool.

Galas stood in the doorway, in a blue morning-dress, her hair bound up by golden pins. Megan hurried to her feet and curtsied. Armiger languidly bowed, shaking his head.

“It is merely the voice of experience, your majesty. Humans become violent when they feel their interests are threatened.”

Galas scowled. “They were never threatened! Parliament is a rumor-mill staffed by trough-fed clods who abuse the tongue of their birth every time they open their mouths. They all gabble at once and confuse one another mightily, and when this confusion is committed to paper they refer to it as ‘policy’.”

“I won’t dispute that, having never attended,” Armiger said.

The queen swept into the room. Two members of the royal guard followed, to take positions on either side of the doorway. “I had to try,” Galas said bitterly. “For centuries no one has tried anything new! So what would be one more life in dumb service to tradition? Where would it get us, except back where we started when the wheel of this life had come around again? Someone had to ask questions men have been afraid to ask all that time. It has always been obvious to me that no one else would do it, either now or in the future. I had to do it all, even the things you call foolish. Else how could we know anything? Anything at all?”

Armiger said nothing, but he nodded in acquiescence.

“Sometimes one’s responsibility goes beyond one’s own generation,” Galas said. She sat in the chair next to Megan’s, and smiled at her warmly. “I trust you slept well, lady?”

“Yes, thank you, your highness.”

“And you, Sir Maut? Do you even sleep?” Her voice held a teasing note.

He inclined his head. “When it suits me.” Then he frowned. “I hope you don’t view us a pair of jesters, here to distract you from what’s waiting outside your gates. My purpose is quite serious–as serious as your own situation.”

Galas’ eyes flashed, but she only said, “I remain to be convinced. That is all.”

“Fair enough.” Armiger moved from his perch on the arm of the couch, to sit down properly. “So, who am I, and what do I want of you? That is what you would like to know.”

Galas nodded. Megan saw that the moth-note Armiger had written her was stuck, folded, through the belt of her dress. Perhaps she had been rereading it over breakfast. For reassurance?

Megan couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like for her, with those men camped outside, waiting permission to brutalize and destroy everything. Servants killed, treasured possessions robbed… but Galas was outwardly cool.

She must be crying inside. It’s cruel of Armiger to give her any hope now.

“Ask me anything,” said Armiger. “Ask me something to test my knowledge, if you wish.”

“Were all my mistakes obvious?” blurted the queen. “Is what I’ve fought for all my life trivially simple anywhere else? Am I a primitive, next to the people who live on other stars?”

“They might think so,” said Armiger. “I do not.”

“If you are what you say you are, then it makes all the pain I’ve suffered–and inflicted–pointless.” Galas was not looking at them, but off into the middle distance. “I’ve been so busy since you arrived, making final preparations… the assault will come soon. But there hasn’t been an instant when I didn’t wonder why I was bothering. If everything I’ve tried to discover was learned millenia ago… I feel like the gods are laughing at me. I feel like an ant all puffed up with pride over having laboriously mapped out the boundaries of a garden. I don’t think you can tell me anything to change that impression.”

Armiger smiled. “I must be the fool, then, to waste my time talking to an ant.”

“Don’t make light of this!” She rose and went to stand over him. Megan was amazed at how Galas seemed to tower over Armiger, though the difference in their heights was such that even with him sitting, they were almost eye to eye.

Armiger was unfazed. “I was not. It is you who are belittling yourself.”

Galas whirled and walked to the windows. “Then tell me I’m wrong! Tell me about the heavens–who lives there, what are they like? Have you walked on other planets? Talked to their people? Are they all-knowing, all-wise–or are they fools like us?”

Armiger’s smiled grew wider. “They are all-knowing, but no wiser than anyone else. In fact, since they know everything they believe they possess the wisdom of the ages. Hence, I’d have to say, they are bigger fools than you.”

“But I don’t want to hear that either,” said the queen. “Because it means there is no progress. If I educate my people and yet they remain fools, why have I bothered?”

Armiger crossed his arms, shrugged at Megan, but said nothing.

“All right,” said Galas. She turned around and leaned on the windowsill. “Tell me about the heavens, please. I do want to know.”

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)