I recall that early on the question of formal dress arose. Our role, after all, was partly ceremonial, and considering the morale problems being faced by the populace it was not at all a minor one. It would hardly do for us to preside over palace events in T-shirts and jeans. Unfortunately, the existing royal wardrobe was not only sadly deteriorated (what little had been salvaged from the looting thirty years ago), but also impossibly heavy. We would have passed out from heat stroke within minutes had we attempted to wear the thick robes from those calmer (and cooler) days.
The palace managers, with Valkar at the head of the pack, insisted that we had to have something appropriate for our office and that something would have to be done. We finally agreed, but only after Kiri specified that the costs would come out of her own pocket, for she refused to spend public funds on what she considered a personal extravagance.
And so it was that Valkar summoned the best clothing designer left on Deshtiris to create outfits both appropriate to the office and suitable for the climate. Thrilled to be practicing his art once again (he had spent the past seven years unhappily working in a Brizal locomotive assembly plant), he had consumed an hour taking detailed measurements of us both, and then we heard nothing more from him for the time being.
Three weeks elapsed. Work on the palace was proceeding apace. Although some of the initial enthusiasm had worn off, most of our volunteers remained hard at work, and we with them. Word of the project had spread, thanks not only to word of mouth but also to the reviving Deshtiran news media, and I was gradually becoming aware that the endeavor had caught the imagination of the planet.
To our astonishment gifts began to pour in, ranging from craftsy items of the worst sort (but proudly placed on display nonetheless), to priceless artifacts that had been salvaged from the palace in the darkest days of the Brizal uprising and successfully hidden away for three decades. From one of the small towns in the far north, famous for its fine lumber and hand-crafted woodworking, came a magnificent set of majestic wooden doors for the main entrance. The existing centuries-old ones had been rotted by the corrosive atmosphere into scraps of fungus-ridden wood barely held together by the disintegrating remains of the original metal bands, and had been regretfully hauled away.
The best was yet to come.
I was helping a crew scrub clean the intricate decorative stonework that festooned the front of the main building when a well-dressed party of six pulled up in one of the newly operating public vehicles and started looking around. Since I was closer than any of the palace officials I nonchalantly approached them and asked innocently if I could assist them with anything.
Their leader, a middle-aged woman obviously used to dealing with more important people than common laborers, looked me over dubiously and explained that they were hoping to arrange an appointment with whoever was in charge of the palace restoration. Just about then a vivid explosion of profanity in an all-too-familiar voice reached my ears.
"That would be her," I said.
Looking around, I spotted Kiri sitting on her rear end a few dozen feet away, part of a group busily planting new trees to replace the many dead ones we had lost, holding a rope that had apparently been prematurely released. For a few seconds she rained language upon the unfortunate perpetrator that would have brought tears of joy to a longshoreman's eyes, then regained her feet and, after giving him a big grin, motioned to try again. I also noticed one of the news cameramen that had become a regular fixture during the project, and caught his eye. I was gratified to see him begin discreetly preparing his equipment.
"Kiri," I shouted over the customary din, "some people here to see us," and she reluctantly dropped the rope and set off in our direction. Due to the sweltering heat she was wearing only gloves, work cap, boots and cutoffs, like most of the other volunteers of both sexes, and was so covered with dust and sweat that her normally crimson hair appeared dark brown where it straggled out from under her cap. Secretly watching our guests' expressions out of the corner of my eye I was not disappointed, as they glanced at one another in evident consternation. I suspected they were about to make their excuses and go looking for someone respectable when she joined us and turned her giant emerald-green eyes full on them for the first time.
"Empress," the middle-aged woman gasped.
"That's me," she acknowledged with an innocent grin, and turned to me. "And this is Emperor Wilorian. He's always forgetting to introduce himself. Now what can we do for you?" The weeks of work in the sun had done wonders for her; there was little sign remaining of her near-fatal ordeal except for a thin scar directly over her heart.
Apparently someone on the palace staff had finally noticed the arrival of visitors, because at about this time our major-domo came puffing up, looking thoroughly official (and very hot) in his formal uniform. "Your Majesties," Valkar panted, "nobody informed me that we would be having visitors."
The spokeswoman, finally convinced that she really was in the company of the planetary leadership, however disreputable they might appear, apologetically explained that at the spaceport she had been advised that communications were temporarily down for several hours for an upgrade installation. "We've been sent by the Qozernan government to inform you of a modest gift towards your restoration project," she added, finally managing to rerail herself somewhat.
"That's great," I said. "Valkar, why don't you take our guests inside and make them comfortable, and we'll get cleaned up and join them shortly." Making our apologies to the rest of our work teams, we headed inside for much-needed showers. I covertly glanced over at the cameraman, who was still in place, and received the Deshtiran equivalent of a thumbs-up from him.
Later that afternoon, sitting comfortably in one of the few rooms in the palace so far blessed with air-conditioning, our guests revealed their mission. The spokeswoman proudly reached into her briefcase and pulled out a large, heavy book and laid it on the table before us. For some reason it looked oddly familiar. They're giving us a book? I thought skeptically. Then she carefully opened the book, which was quite an old one, to a spot where a brilliant color photograph spread itself across two pages, and I suddenly remembered where I had seen that volume before. It was one Kiri had shown me on our first trip from Earth, and the 3D photo before us was of the original stained-glass skylight of the royal palace.
"The government of Qozernon has authorized me to inform you that the Qozernan people, in gratitude for your efforts, have voted to fund the reconstruction of this ceiling, regardless of cost. In addition, any facilities or skilled workers you might need are to be placed at your disposal." Her voice softened for a moment. "I believe I might have some idea of what this means to the two of you," she said. "You both grew up here, didn't you?"
Kiri nodded; her eyes were glistening. I could tell she didn't trust herself to speak. It was one of the few occasions when I've ever seen her at a loss for words. "I can speak for both of us when I say that this is an extraordinary gift," I said. "Please convey our heartfelt thanks." Kiri nodded again silently. It was truly a day to remember.
In more ways than one, for when later that evening Kiri and I were watching the evening news we were suddenly presented with a brief report on the palace restoration project. As a voice-over happily provided details of the marvelous Qozernan gesture, we were treated to clips of our initial encounter with the Qozernan representatives, grime and all. Kiri looked appalled. "This is a disaster," she muttered, pink with embarrassment. It might be routine here for people to discard shirts in the stifling heat and humidity, she remonstrated, but the Empress of Deshtiris did not customarily appear topless on the evening news. "We're going to be crucified for this," she concluded with an apprehensive sigh.
"I don't think so," I said with a grin, as Senaria burst into the room.
"Did you see--" she began, and then realized we were watching the same news program she'd been. "Kiri, you were great!" she continued gleefully. "Right in there planting trees with all the other volunteers. People are going to talk about that for months!" Sure enough, that scene eventually became one of the most popular images on Deshtiris. Once, several years later, I even found it on a poster in a novelty store. If anything, it only increased Kiri's already huge popularity on the planet (and Qozernon as well, I heard later).
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or
otherwise, without written permission from the author,
except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|