It was a few days later that I stumbled across the photograph. I was digging through Rokun's bookcases, the industrial kind without a back, looking for one particular paper he'd asked to have retranslated. After awkwardly juggling an especially slithery stack of journals, and finally seeing half of them end up on the floor, I picked up the remainder of the pile in disgust and set them on a desk to sort through. When I glanced back at the shelf I noticed a photo hanging on the wall behind the bookcase.
A motley crew of workers was posing for the camera, distinctly unwashed and wearing well-worn work clothes. One of them, off to one side, I recognized as Rokun. On the other side was a young woman wearing a sweat band and what looked like a dark mask over her eyes. In the background was part of the palace, half-hidden behind a web of scaffolding.
"I didn't know you helped with the palace reconstruction," I said, pointing to the photo. "Rann told me it was done entirely by volunteers."
Rokun stared at the photo in astonishment. "So that's where that went," he said. "I haven't seen that picture for a long time." I wondered what else was buried in the archaeological dig he called an office.
"Why's one of them wearing a mask?" I asked absently, picking up stray journals off the floor.
"It's not a mask. It's painted on," he said. Surprised, I looked more closely.
"Some kind of festival?" I suggested. Something about the mask sounded very familiar, although I couldn't quite place it. Not getting a response, I glanced over at him. For a moment he stared into space, then abruptly looked embarrassed and cleared his throat.
"Oh, it's a long story," he said reluctantly.
"I'd love to hear it," I said, adopting my most ingratiating persona. "After all, it would be part of my cultural education, right?"
I actually expected him to refuse, but to my surprise he leaned back in his chair, the same distant look still in his eyes. "It's not as though I played an important part, but it was exciting for all that. Thirty years under the Brizali was a very long time, and it's still hard to believe that it's all in the past now. As for the girl with the face paint, her name was Senaria."
"What?" I choked. Looking at the picture more closely, I confirmed that it was indeed one and the same person as that hanging on Brinkman's wall, though between the dark band over the eyes, the dirt streaked across her face, and the tangled sweat-darkened hair it was easy to miss at first. A mental bell finally rang, as I remembered the tale Rann had translated for me few days earlier. There'd been something in there about face-painting to grieve for a lost loved one.
"I was teaching at one of the universities when the Brizali took over," Rokun said. "For a while they left us alone, except for arresting some of the more vocal opponents of the regime, but then they started reorganizing the university curricula. Apparently the powers that be didn't see any need for researchers in neurophysiology, and for the next three decades I went from one factory to another, doing routine electronic control development."
"Couldn't you have refused?" I asked.
He gave me a sorrowful look. "I know enough about your history to understand what you're thinking," he said. "Collaborating with an immoral regime, and so forth. But for us it wasn't really like that. Remember, we had never experienced anything like this. And except for throwing out one set of rulers and putting in another, they didn't seem to be persecuting any particular set of enemies. We didn't find out until much later that they'd been systematically liquidating the ruling class ever since taking power. And there was never any hint of war with Qozernon until the last minute."
"Of course things did gradually get worse and worse. Even with the news as controlled as it was, there was no way not to see what was happening to the planet, especially when the greenhouse effect started taking hold and entire regions began desertifying. But by then the Liquidators had made their appearance, and they were far more terrifying than any Brizal could be. It was as if something from our nightmares had acquired tangible form, and the Brizali had allied themselves with them. Now that we know they were just biological machines they do not seem quite as fearsome, but at the time--well, I cannot really describe the impact they made."
"I was working in one of the industrial cities when the news came. I was staying in an apartment for workers, sharing a room with three others. One of my friends was shaking me awake, and I remember him being utterly incoherent. 'It's over,' he was saying again and again. 'Rokun, wake up. It's all over. They're out. It's actually on the telecom.' "
" 'Who is out?' I remember mumbling. 'What are you talking about?' "
" 'The Brizali,' he babbled. 'Teyn's dead. The military's taken over. And the Liquidators are dead. All of them. It's over, Rokun.' " Somewhere in the background I heard a telecom blaring.
"After that I wasted no time getting dressed. For a while I watched the telecom, but it soon became obvious that the near-hysterical announcers did not know much more than we did. There were several military communiqués confirming that the dreaded Liquidators were dead, as was Krigghin Teyn, and ordering all Brizali to submit to local military authorities."
"I decided to take a walk, and found the streets filled with fellow workers having the same idea. Everywhere the mood was a combination of relief and uncertainty. We were all glad it had happened, but totally in the dark as to how, and what it really meant."
"It was shortly after I returned to my apartment that the telecom announced a broadcast by the head of the Deshtiran military, requesting the attention of all citizens. Of course we were all dying of curiosity so I don't think you could have pried us away in any case. We were expecting some surprises, but nothing compared to what we heard."
" 'Fellow citizens of Deshtiris,' he began, 'thirty years of Brizal rule ended early this morning with the destruction of the administrative city of Tar Deshta and the death of Krigghin Teyn. Several other Brizal installations were destroyed at the same time. Without them the Liquidators, which we have all feared, could not survive. The Deshtiran military has taken control and is in the process of occupying Brizal facilities. As of today all Brizal authority to issue orders to any citizen is hereby abrogated.' "
" 'My fellow citizens,' he continued, 'we in the Deshtiran military are ashamed to say that we did not accomplish this feat. You owe your freedom today to the bravery of just four individuals. They are Prince Nendor Wilorian, Princess Romikor Mikiria, Princess Nendor Zyanita, and Amkor Senaria, daughter of the former Ambassador from Qozernon. Princess Zyanita lost her life in this struggle, and Princess Mikiria is currently receiving emergency medical care.' As he spoke pictures of the four appeared onscreen, and I remember that we sat utterly stunned, for we were all old enough to remember the Royal family, although Senaria's was a new face to us. Even then I found myself thinking, She's only a girl. What courage it must have taken."
"The commander's speech was followed by a news report, possibly the first uncensored news report we had seen in thirty years. There were satellite images of what was left of Tar Deshta, now only a giant smoking crater. We also saw the unconscious Princess Mikiria being carried through an air lock on a stretcher, with Prince Wilorian and Senaria hovering around her and the medics like guardian angels. Her condition was reported as serious but not critical, and for hours afterwards we exchanged stories about her and her remarkable accomplishments as a child, still remembered from so long ago."
"For us it was a very uncertain time. We were all glad to see the Brizali out, but the military did not have a particularly good reputation either, although for the most part they had managed to avoid doing the Brizali's dirty work. There had been much loose talk about the coming war being a sign that the military was gaining dominance over the civilian authorities. We did not know anything about Tenako or his master plan at the time, of course; in fact even his existence was just a rumor."
"It was two days later when the news came through that Wilorian and Mikiria were going to rule Deshtiris, which only muddied things further. We were all thrilled to hear that they would be heading the civilian government, but we were also very uneasy, not knowing if they were just going to be figureheads, with the military the real power behind them."
"Their first telecom appearance took place a few days later and was probably the most-watched broadcast in Deshtiran history. I do not remember a lot of what they actually said; it is in all the history books now anyway. But we were stunned when they announced that the military was being reconverted back to its traditional role as a disaster relief force, and that anyone who chose to would be mustered out and sent home. That was when we finally realized that the long nightmare was over. I think all three of us were crying by that time, and for all I know half of Deshtiris as well."
"And then at the end the Princess--Empress now, actually, and she looked every inch the part--asked for volunteers to rebuild the royal palace, and it hit the three of us like a lightning bolt, as it did thousands of others, and we decided that no matter what it took we were going to be there."
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|