Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Circle & The Stork

The Circle & The Stork
By Michael Evans

Ishmael ascended his fourteenth marble staircase of the day. This, he thought, was getting ridiculous. His frustration effervesced from him as he pulled himself up along the oaken banister, before being dispersed by a light breeze of satisfaction blowing down the stairway. The palace was very protective of its reputation. Ishmael had snorted derisively at the opulence of the first staircase he encountered; silver leaf all over the banisters and a deep blue carpet embroidered with abstract depictions of famous storied romances from across the River-States. Since then, the palace had been presenting him with increasingly more grandiose, not to mention taller, sets of stairs to climb. The last one literally had diamond-encrusted steps, clearly a pointed remark upon Ishmael's outrageous bare-footedness.

Ignoring the pain and trying very hard to concentrate upon his destination, Ishmael continued to climb. The palace was very tall, but not as tall as it thought it was, which was what really counted here. Being constructed from raw desire in the Dreaming, it was a creature of whim and caprice, always insisting upon positive attention. It didn't have any fixed topology and, whenever anyone within was travelling from room to room, it would invent a route of a believable length with a few interesting features on it, before presenting the traveller with wherever they had been trying to reach. It enjoyed including upward climbs, just to give the impression that ones destination was a place of great importance, and to generally add to the gravity of the situation. It would also occasionally do this to get back at raggedy storks that had irritated its sensibilities. Ishmael thought that, by focusing very hard upon his desire to finish his journey, and perhaps whistling a tune about it as he climbed, he could make the place conform to his wishes.

At the fifteenth staircase, he tossed a black scarf of pure resignation across his shoulder, giving up the battle of wills entirely.

Satisfied with its victory, the palace erected exquisitely engraved, jewel-studded, solid silver doors before him, an ostentatious prize for his efforts. The stork raised a single, thick black eyebrow.

“You're trying a little too hard now, you know?”

Ishmael nearly tripped over a final step up to the doors, which he swore he hadn't noticed before. Scowling, he put a hand to the handle before him.

“Excuse me, sir!”

Ishmael snapped his head around to face the speaker. A short, white-feathered duck in a very expensive-looking black suit waddled towards him in a stately fashion. Ishmael noticed threads of distilled emotion woven into his jacket, which presumably accounted for the sombre and official feeling radiating from the bird.

A very specific sort of desire, Ishmael thought. The desire to have ones authority recognised, and taken seriously.

“Sir!” the duck called again. “Ishmael Carrick?” The stork turned around fully.

“Yes, that's me,” he answered, before adding. “Who are you?” Leaving a moment for an appropriately shocked silence, the duck responded.

“Now really, this really isn't the season for that sort of attitude you know!” Pushing against the urge in his mind to defer to the duck, Ishmael spoke again.

“I was invited here by your lady, personally and by name. You can either choose to treat me appropriately as a guest of honour in this palace, or you may watch me leave and explain to your lady how your ill manners were to blame.”

The wide grin the duck gave in response was far from heartfelt.

“Of course sir,” he responded with ironic obsequiousness. “Her highness will see...” The duck sniffed the air, casting his eyes suddenly over the stork's eclectic apparel, before alighting them upon his scarf. “Where did you get that... garment sir?” Following his gaze, Ishmael took a hold of one end of the scarf and explained.

“It's a corvid thing; a strand of despair. Fell off the back of one of their ridiculous black coaches. I find it... suitable for certain situations.”

“Well it's certainly not suitable for meeting her highness!” the duck declared, seeming happy to have something to be properly cross about. The stork merely nodded, and folded the scarf away into one of his various pockets. The duck coughed conspicuously, then went on from where he had left off previously. “Her highness will see you now.”

“Right,” Ishmael turned and pushed at the doors. Despite their apparently metallic nature, they swung open with little effort and the stork soon found himself gazing into the royal chamber.

Light fell abundantly from the high-vaulted, transparent glass ceiling, as did strings of pearls which dangled from the roof to almost touch the polished marble floor. Drapes of fine, light blue silk hung between the strings, softly rippled by gentle gusts of wind with no obvious source, all arranged such that no side of the room was visible from any other. Moving through the pattern of illumination and shade created by this furnishing, Ishmael breathed in deep to announce his presence, before being cut off.

“Good day Mister Carrick.”

The voice chased a shiver though all of Ishmael's hollow bones. It seemed to emanate from the walls, resonating through the very essence of the room itself to reach him. It spoke with all the authority of the chamber, and yet its beauty was undeniable.

“I am very pleased you that decided to come,” the speaker continued. “This matter is of the utmost gravity, and I trust only your counsel.”

Each consonant had a solidity and a potency all of its own, each vowel was effortlessly lyrical. Ishmael had no will to resist her.

“It was no decision at all, my Lady. You ask, I come.”

A breeze flew all around the chamber as Ishmael pushed aside another veil, trying to reach the throne. He could feel her smiling at his comment, the rippling silk smiling with her.

“As much pleasure as I take in your flattery Mister Carrick, there is too little time for it now. We shall, therefore, make a presumption of your deference and speak straightforwardly of this business.” Ishmael gave a low nod, even though he didn't think the Queen could see him.

“Of course, why have you brought me here?”

A brief pause followed, the air stopped blowing and the silk was stilled. The Queen responded, her words suddenly overflowing with tragedy.

“Gabriel is dead!”

The echoes from the walls sounded like a thousand whispers repeating the news, as though each figure in each mural was informing its neighbour. Waiting a moment for the clamour to die down Ishmael spoke hesitantly.

“And, um, who was he again?”

The air shuddered with the Queen's next intake of breath.

“He was my questing knight, my champion in foreign parts of the Dreaming. Always he would venture, always he would bring back something for me.”

“Ah, yes,” said Ishmael, remembering, and awkwardly continuing. “The crane. You have my condolences, Lady.”

“Thank you, Mister Carrick,” the Queen released a little of a grief from her voice, letting it disperse across the room. “He was brought here this morning, just having bled all he could from wounds sustained on his last journey. He spoke no words, but his passing has left me with a number of... important questions.”

“I thought it wasn't the season for that, my Lady.”

“It is not justice that I seek,” the Queen continued. “He always would bring something back for me, and his last journey was no exception. It has given me a desire for something far greater than simple retribution.”

“What did he bring you?” As Ishmael asked this question, a sheet of paper fluttered down from behind a silk curtain, landing in his left hand. Upon it was a drawing of a simple geometric shape.

“A... circle m'lady?”

“Not a mere circle Mister Carrick,” the Queen corrected as she ever did; benevolently, but with no doubt as to the correctness of her antithesis. “A perfect circle. It is not a shape, you see, but a symbol.”

“A symbol of what my Lady?” As Ishmael asked this question, he pushed aside another veil. Suddenly, he found himself gazing upon the form of the Queen; Argenta the swan, both familiar and marvellous. Her feet and lower legs were encased in tall-heeled boots of crushed glass, wrapped in intricately patterned threads of silver lace. Her skirt was silken and purest white, and her thick, feathered robe extended a metre or so on either side of her, falling across the wide marble eyrie of a throne upon which she sat. She wore a corset wrought of silver, covered in flowing patterns modelled from the gentle ripples of intention that travel across the River of Consciousness, the whole thing a monument to her patron. Her long white hair was draped over her shoulders, and she had obscured her face with a large fan of black feathers.

“It is not my wish that you look upon me!” she yelled savagely, and her admonishment echoed mercilessly through the chamber. Ishmael hurriedly replaced the veil and stepped backwards, lowering his eyes.

“I'm very sorry m'lady!” he pleaded. He waited for a few, silent seconds, relieved to hear no more shouting, before continuing hesitantly. “What, my Lady, what does the symbol mean?” A few more seconds passed. The answer the Queen gave was cold and simple.

“It is one of the Forms.”

“What?” Ishmael uttered, disbelieving. “The Forms? The perfect versions of all ideas?”

“Yes Mister Carrick, those Forms. The ones which can grant any who possesses them absolute power over the world of the Dreaming. Gabriel the wanderer sought a legendary thing, and a legend it shall make of him. He found that elusive place in the Dreaming where the Forms are kept. Think of it, no longer would we be forced to compete with the remainder of the City-States. No longer would we have to negotiate with the Parliament upon the fate of dreams. All things of concept, of meaning and of imagination would be my possessions Mister Carrick, mine and no-one else's. You understand now why I desire this?”

The stork blinked. He certainly did understand.

“And you got all of this from a picture of a circle, my Lady?” he hardly dared to question her, but felt he needed to be certain about the idea, before it swept them both away.

“Gabriel was ever cryptic, but I always could understand his meaning. I am not mistaken.”

“Fair enough my Lady,” Ishmael blinked, allowing himself a moment for the idea to settle in, to feel the possibilities writhe beneath his feathers, to the taste of his desire for the Forms on his tongue.

“I can tell easily how much you want to be a part of this Mister Carrick, and it is most fortunate for you that I happen to need your services. Only the storks know the River well enough to be able to trace his passage back to where he found these... treasures, and the only stork I trust is you.”

“I think it is you who is flattering me now, m'lady, I steal and cheat and rip off a good mark when I have to... or want to.”

“Naturally, but when it comes to me, I have no doubts about your integrity, or your loyalties.” The Queen permitted a little warmth and familiarity to slip into her hypnotically superior tones. “What do you need Mister Carrick? I wish to commence our venture without delay.”

“Well,” Ishmael began, musing for a moment. “As well as a boat and a crew, seeing as I, well, lost my last one, I'll need to see the corpse...”

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