I arrived for breakfast the next day to find Kiri and Gelhinda already partly engulfed in the morning meal. One custom we had retained, which might seem odd to you considering that we were now rulers living in a palace full of retainers and support staff, was that the four of us (counting Senaria) continued to take turns making our own breakfasts. It was one of the little ways in which we sought to retain our perspective and preserve the family atmosphere that I had so grown to love during my brief stay on Qozernon. Today Gelhinda had put together a mouth-watering meal of fruit dumplings and fried potatoes. She and Kiri seemed to be deep in earnest conversation when Kiri looked up at my approach.
"Good morning, O Exalted Emperor," Kiri intoned solemnly. "May we serve you with dainties and tit-bits?" I grinned; she appeared to have pretty much returned to her old self.
"And how is Her Majestyness this morning?" I responded in kind as I sat down at the table. "You slipped out a bit early. What are you two up to?" I noticed that Gelhinda had an odd expression on her face. "And where's Senaria today? How's she doing?" My voice trailed off as I saw the two women looking past me.
"G'morning, everyone," came Senaria's hesitant voice from behind me. I turned to greet her and gaped in astonishment. My first impression was that she was wearing a mask, then I realized that it was a dark band of some kind of pigment or paint. It extended across her face from just in front of the ears and across her ice blue eyes, which stood out startlingly against the deep green, almost black color.
I was about to say something when I felt the warning touch of Kiri's knee against mine. Catching my eye, she gave me an almost imperceptible shake of the head. "Good morning, Sen," I said casually. "Your mother's done herself proud this morning." Nodding, she sat down self-consciously and began piling up her plate, and after a slow start we were all chattering along once again almost as though nothing had happened.
Later that morning Kiri explained. "It's a very old Qozernan custom," she said as we prepared for another day of appointments and meetings, "predating contact between the two planets, and not much observed these days. One mourned the loss of a loved one by painting the band you saw across the eyes. It used to be done with an indelible pigment extracted from certain leaves; nowadays, of course, you use synthetics instead. As the outer layer of skin gradually wears away and is replaced the band fades, which symbolizes the fading of one's grief and resumption of normal life. Senaria told me last night that her mother had done this years ago when her husband died, and asked if I would help her with it this morning."
"Maybe it's what she needs," I agreed. "At least she can't hide from it now as long as there are mirrors around." And we turned our attention to the day's agenda.
Lest you gain the impression by this time that Kiri and I were single-handedly planning, supervising, and carrying out the rebuilding of Deshtiris with our own four hands, I should explain that during all this the military engineers had been working around the clock drawing up detailed plans, project time lines, and all the other paraphernalia of huge industrial projects. While we were kept informed of the overall outlines of what was being done, for the most part we were occupied with the renovation of the royal palace and the reconstruction of its bureaucracy, which although a dirty word to the average citizen is nonetheless essential to any large organization.
Visible evidence of this was soon apparent in the way that no sooner was another wing of the palace cleaned up, electrified, and plumbed than crowds of serious-looking men and women of all ages arrived to stake a claim. Within hours, it seemed, the formerly empty rooms would become hives of activity, filled with desks, telecoms, and human beings energetically planning some new corner of the planet's recovery. I was reminded of nothing quite so much as the descriptions I'd read of the opening months of Roosevelt's New Deal, and I suppose that in a way this was the ultimate new deal on a planetary scale.
One of the first additions to our growing palace staff was Holan, the communications officer who had facilitated our last-minute efforts to stop the two belligerent fleets from colliding in a bloody holocaust. About our own age, he had in fact been one of our palace playmates during those long-gone happier days before the advent of the Brizali. Now an efficient, highly capable officer, he proved to be an excellent choice for liaison with the Deshtiran military command and was always welcome at our informal family get-togethers when the work of the day was finally over.
Within a week the number of motor vehicles on the streets had increased significantly. Fortunately, among these were a large number of trucks carrying rails and other materials for the rebuilding of the city's formerly magnificent subway system, and we were assured that within a month the most important lines would again be running. A routine drive out to one of the suburbs also took us over the abandoned roadbed of the main rail line into Deshti: what had been a blank expanse of dirt and a few rotting ties a few weeks earlier now showed serious signs of reconstruction, with bundles of fresh ties and hardware scattered at regular intervals along the right of way, and work on the re-grading already commenced.
A search that we had set underway very early on was for an individual by the name of Elikan Valkar. Valkar had been the major-domo of the palace for some forty-five years at the time of the Brizal uprising, and was said to know every last square inch of the place, as well as every scrap of associated history, better than anyone else alive. Our worry, though, was whether someone of his position had been able to survive thirty years of Brizal rule.
To our delight, about ten days after our return he was found and while not entirely well (he had indeed been ill-used by the Brizali) he was definitely alive. Unlike virtually everyone else on the planet he had no telecom, apparently preferring to live in solitude out in the countryside. Rather than send a squad to summon him to the palace, an act that would have been rife with evil resonances for anyone who had lived under the Brizali, Kiri and I made the pilgrimage to his home.
Along the way I had asked Kiri if the data she'd input into the Futaba before our near-fatal adventure was still loaded, particularly the simulation data for the Brizal vehicle we had used. Somewhat mystified, she responded that it was; she hadn't purged any files in quite a while. Satisfied, I ignored her curious inquiries as to why I needed to know. I chuckled inwardly as we landed the ever-useful Futaba on his front yard just over a stunning polychromatic flower bed.
Any concerns I might have had about his health were set at ease when he came storming out onto his front porch, vigorously cursing these crazy lunatics trying to ruin an old man's flowers. His ire was quickly quenched when he recognized first me and then Kiri (an unusual sequence, which didn't happen often). I had to grin when I saw him, for as a child growing up in the palace I had caused him more unintentional anguish with my practical jokes than I had any right to; in fact, his was the first really familiar face I had encountered since returning to Deshtiris.
"Hello, Valkar," I said as we stepped off the Futaba's exit ramp. "Take it easy; we're parked at least a foot above your precious garden." For a Deshtiran he looked considerably older than the norm, which was understandable, as unfounded speculation placed his age at well over a hundred and ninety. Bald as an egg, he would have passed for seventy on Earth, but he was certainly spry (and voluble) for his age.
We quickly got down to the point of our visit, asking him if he'd be willing to return to Deshti as palace major-domo. To our surprise he demurred, protesting that he couldn't leave his garden behind, to which he had virtually devoted his life since his release some years ago from Brizal confinement.
Ruthlessly I decided that more severe tactics were in order. Turning to the ship, I shouted "Futaba: freeze Y coordinate!" Then the clincher, "Futaba transform: truck!" Valkar's eyes nearly popped from their sockets as the Futaba neatly repoured itself into the shape of a Brizal utility truck. Because of the first command, the truck remained hovering about a foot above the cowering blossoms.
"Now," I said triumphantly, turning back to face Valkar, "as I see it, you have two choices. You can agree to our terms, or I can drop a three-ton motor vehicle onto your petunias." Kiri gurgled unintelligibly; if she had ever doubted that I had indeed regained my memories of our childhood I imagine that this decisively clinched the issue.
"You wouldn't dare," gasped Valkar.
"No," I agreed amiably, "I wouldn't. But I can arrange to have a military earthmover scoop up your garden in one piece and transplant it intact onto the palace grounds if you'd like. Now, how about it?" At that he broke into a cackle of laughter, until tears were running down his face.
"Prince Wilorian, you always were a little hellion," he wheezed.
"That's Emperor Wilorian," I corrected him.
"Very well," he amended, "Emperor Wilorian, you always were a little hellion." Kiri finally collapsed completely, pounding the ground with her fists as she choked out peals of laughter.
"You know as well as I that I can't possibly refuse an Imperial request," Valkar finally acquiesced, though with mock reluctance. "Is she all right?" he added, gesturing towards Kiri.
"She's fine," I reassured him. "She gets these little spells now and then. It seems to have something to do with me."
We left after making arrangements to send a truck and moving crew around the next day to pick up him and his garden. We offered to bring the house as well, but he snorted in response that it was a decaying hovel that had been all he could manage at the time; he was only too glad to be rid of it.
Within a few days of his return he'd settled back into the job as though he'd never left, bullying Kiri and me unmercifully as he set about restoring what he considered the proper decorum for the planet's center of leadership. Of course we bullied him just as ruthlessly in turn, and the result was that he rapidly became a part of our close little family. He proved to be a superb administrator, and tolerated no sloppiness in palace staff work. Very quickly the place began to display the little touches that cumulatively had given it such an atmosphere of splendor in the past.
I have to confess that he was right on the mark about my being a mischief maker. Once, a few weeks later, he came dashing into our breakfast nook babbling something incoherent about a giant raven hovering over his newest freshly planted garden. Putting on the necessary alarmed faces, we all dashed outside. It was, of course, the Futaba; at my instigation Kiri had spent several hours the previous day entering the necessary data, right down to the texture of the feathers. Except that this "bird" was thirty feet long and weighed several tons...
It was the day after Valkar arrived that Senaria approached Kiri and me wearing an uncharacteristically anxious expression and asked to speak to us privately. Although our days were quite crowded with meetings (not to mention our increasing hours in the sun with the volunteer crews) we arranged a rendezvous for a half-hour hence. As the two of us hurried off to our next conclave we spied her across the courtyard speaking to someone that appeared to be Rann, but even from a distance I could see that something was wrong. "Was that Rann?" Kiri demanded as we raced down the hallway. "Something about him didn't look quite right."
"I guess so," I answered. "I didn't even know he was back."
When we met with Senaria later that afternoon the mystery was cleared up. Rann was indeed back, and with a black eye and swollen jaw, she explained in dismay. "And he won't tell me what happened. He just showed up at the main gate and told the guard he needed to see me. When I got there I found him limping and his face half-purple. All he would say was that his father wouldn't talk to him and he had nowhere else to go."
"Well, he is our responsibility because of the terms of his release," I said. "I think that gives us enough justification to ask what happened. Senaria, would you bring him here? Let's clear this up as soon as we can." Kiri nodded agreement, and Senaria darted down the hall, returning a few minutes later. With her was a limping, battered young man that was a far cry from the buoyant youth that had departed a few days ago. He looked back at the two of us in what appeared to be embarrassment as I motioned for him to sit down.
"Welcome back, Rann," I said gently. "Before we ask you what happened, do you need any medical attention? You've looked better, you know."
He swallowed as Senaria interrupted, "I already took care of that. Nothing's broken, just a lot of bruises and some sprains." The boy appeared to be on the verge of tears.
"My mom's gone," he said finally, "and my dad doesn't want anything to do with me. I guess you're--" He turned away for a few minutes, wiping his eyes. "You're all I've got," he blurted out.
We eventually managed to pry the dismal story from him. When he had returned to the shabby workers' apartment his parents had been assigned in one of the Brizali's industrial towns, his father had first stared at him in disbelief, then in a rage had inflicted the ugly bruises we saw before us. Rann had made no effort to resist, being too stunned to even consider defending himself. "My father has never hit me before, not once, not for as long as I can remember," he stammered, clearly still in shock. Before throwing him back out into the street his father had shouted something about his mother's fate being on his head.
When he had recovered enough self-control to ask a neighbor what had happened, he had discovered what his father had been too enraged to tell him: that six months earlier a squad of Brizal secret police had arrived in the middle of the night, given his mother a half-hour to gather a few belongings and some clothing, and taken her away. There had been no word of any kind from her since.
A few minutes after hearing that bit of news, the military police had appeared and promptly arrested him as an ex-Brizal, nor had they been any too gentle with him (which was where the limp originated). Ignoring the youth's feeble protests, they had thrown him into a cell where he had remained for the next two days, until someone finally got around to calling up his computer record and discovered to their consternation that he had already been released into the custody of the Emperor and Empress of Deshtiris. Muttering a few insincere apologies, they had turned him into the street from where he had managed to find his way back to Deshti.
"My mother's gone," Rann repeated in disbelief, staring at the floor. "Nobody knows where or why. She's been gone for six months and I never heard about it. My father must be frantic. I know how much they love each other. We were always a close family. And now it's all fallen apart."
"Rann, you know you can stay with us," I reassured him. "There's plenty for you to do here. I'll ask Holan to assign someone to make inquiries about your mother, and I'm sure we can find out what happened to her. She may be fine, sitting somewhere in a refugee camp trying to get home."
"Rann, give your father some time," Kiri added earnestly. "All he knows is that you joined the Brizali. He doesn't know what you did or didn't do for them, and he's probably afraid to find out. And he doesn't know what you did at--Tar Deshta. Eventually he'll come around. It's just too soon. Now why don't you try get some sleep? You really do look terrible." He looked at her with evident gratitude, then stood up and bowed awkwardly.
"I guess you're right," he said. "I don't know what to say. I can't believe you're the Emperor and Empress and you're still able to worry about someone like me."
Senaria whispered something in his ear, and he reddened slightly through the bruises. "Thanks," he said, turning back to us. "Thanks so much."
The two of us watched somberly as Senaria took him in tow and steered him down the corridor towards his room. "I wonder how many times that story's going to be repeated over the next few months," I said grimly.
"This planet has a lot of healing to do," agreed Kiri.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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