Around day 200 of year '402, Zevanardia and I had Shvampronx chauffeur us to Pongdoir Field in suburban Pongdoir, northeast of the Frifna District. We were to fly to Mli, the moon, aboard Photon XIII, one of the series of spaceships that Ajinblambia had designed and put in motion. I was very nervous about flying the 480,000 miles through the cosmos at 80,000 miles an hour, but I was eager to see the
We arrived at Pongdoir Field early, so we had coffee across the way, where there was a refreshment stand in a little park. Shvampronx, our old friend, joined us. We considered him not so much a mere servitor as a generous benefactor. We don't really like to treat people as if they were just hirelings, even if they are male.
Finally, the hour was nigh, and Zevanardia and I crossed to the gates of the field, waving good-bye to Shvampronx as he drove off, on his way back to Eldor Palace. We presented identification cards to the lady guard on duty and then entered. Another lady led us to the point where we would ascend to the passenger module of the ship, climbing a long, narrow, scary ladder. Charily, warily, I crept up the ladder to the module near the nose, like a human caterpillar. Zevanardia's bold assurances and encouragements made it easier. But for that, I wondered whether I'd have had the nerve at all.
Once we got in and seated, it was easy, no more difficult than flying in a plane. Pressure kept the atmosphere inside the craft comfortable. A slight sense of weightlessness overtook us, but it was immaterial, as we were strapped to our seats with crisscrossed safety belts. Even before we got used to the sense of flying, we were told by the crew that we were circling Mli, and soon the module would be detached for the descent. Attitude-controlling rockets guided the module smoothly to the ground, where we landed without incident. It took a few minutes to get used to the difference in gravity, but it didn't create any big problems. Feeling lighter, we enjoyed a rush of personal energy, as we walked about on the ground. We saw the crew unloading the crates of baggage.
Queen Shandra had told us we would not enjoy conveniences and luxuries of the kind we were accustomed to in Mecnita. This was immediately obvious too, when a vehicle that resembled a motorized chariot with an awning overhead pulled over to pick us up. The driver, who said his name was Ogopno, helped us board, and away we went, bumping along a hard dirt road. Ahead we could see a white cylinder of a building about 1000 feet tall, with a symbolic flame, worked in bronze or goldleaf, mounted on top. The building was called
Ogopno told us that Queen Shandra's predecessor, the evil Queen Oa, had dwelt in
Queen Shandra had someone watching for Ogopno to return with her guests from Nya. When she saw that we were approaching, she came out on the landing before the solitary pedestrian entrance to Candle Tower, which had an avenue of stairs, like those of a museum or city hall, leading up to it. She was wearing a gown of white satin with a full skirt to the floor, and on her head she had a simple silver circlet. She was the personification of beauty and grace, smiling broadly at us as we climbed the stairs, led by Ogopno. She put her arms around Zevanardia and hugged her, brushing her cheek against Zevanardia's. Then she embraced me, and gave me a delightful, almost passionate, kiss on the mouth, so that I could feel a flow of estrogen within me. I suppose I got a more romantic greeting than Zevanardia got because I was an adoptive Vrikshaya. Whatever the reason, I almost swooned with pleasure to be kissed so voluptuously.
Queen Shandra led us into the main hall of Candle Tower, which had a circular floor plan that extended practically to the circumference of the tower itself. It was very lofty, with high narrow windows spaced equidistantly around. They were not clear, but rather, translucent, letting in mellowed daylight. The hall was full of flowers, and many lovely ladies were present, walking and talking. Later, Shandra invited us to dinner, which verged on being a banquet. I felt no need to be regaled as if I had been visiting royalty. Simple fare would have been fine with me. But surely I did not object to the lavish hospitality either.
Ufzu has many ranges of hills afforested with pine, fir, juniper, larch and yew, and there are game birds galore--partridge, francolins, grouse, capercaillies, pheasants, quail and others nameless in the avian taxonomy of the Ungi language. There was also a wide variety of sheep, goats, deer and bison. Shandra said that a tentative volleyball association of 40 teams had been organized in Ufzu. The team associated with her palace was named the Tower Pheasants. Others around town included the Jugzma Junipers, the Oconto Quails, the
In the next few days, Shandra and Iljidia, her secretary and assistant, led Zevanardia and me around Vavlu, and we saw some of the places chosen for the new sport from Nya. I recall one lovely spot in particular, a clearing in a pine forest where an outdoor court had been set up. The reddish, clayey earth at that location was practically devoid of vegetation, and had been tamped with hydraulic tamper-rammers or soil-compactors, so that it was almost as smooth and hard as brick. The fresh, clean smell of pine was in the air, and the coolness was invigorating. Asked what she would do if rain fell, Shandra said any game in progress would be postponed and large canvas tarpaulins, stored in a shed, would be unrolled over the court. There was a rude log cabin next the court, where players could sit it out till rain ceased. Otherwise, they would merely go home, rescheduling their game for another day. On the day of our visit, the Tower Pheasants were playing the Gorkhna Argalis. The court in the pinery was the home court of the Argalis. Gorkhna was a small town west of Vavlu.
The next day, we watched a game between the
In the next few days, we visited a number of volleyball courts, and also toured some of the sights of the city of
One evening, Queen Shandra asked, "Well, are you ready to go to Emshcro?"
"Emshcro?" I asked, apparently sounding as if I had never heard of Emshcro.
"Yes, Emshcro. Surely you remember that Queen Mer and I mentioned Emshcro. That's the capital of Vrandz, where Mer reigns."
"Yes, of course I remember. But you said we would have to go to Emshcro down the
"No, I didn't say that we would have to go by rapid yacht. I said that Queen Mer had come from Emshcro to Vavlu in a rapid yacht. There are river clippers in service too."
"River clippers?" I asked quizzically.
"Yes, river clippers. River clippers are beautiful sailing ships that navigate the Narni, the Vloshca and other rivers around here."
"Sailing ships? They must be much slower than the rapid yachts."
"Oh, yes, they are. But they are very scenic and quaint. It would take five or six days to sail to Emshcro, since we'd be going downstream. We can return by rapid yacht."
"Let's do it then. It does sound like fun."
"Said is done! Shall we plan on sailing first thing in the morning?"
"As the Queen prefers."
"Very well, fine. Have your baggage ready at 3 Ungi," said Shandra, translating the appointed time of day into the language we Nyatics understood. Time-telling is somewhat erratic on Mli, because of the ellipticity and perturbations of its orbit, but let me pass over that in silence, or I'll be setting down differentials and integrals instead of concentrating on the elegant monarchess of Ufzu.
Zevanardia and I slept in each other's embraces, and so felt as if we had been right at home, instead of half a million miles away. We rose early the next morning, put on our volleyball uniforms, which we always wore everywhere. We did have some two-piece bathing suits in case sunny weather betided us. We would then do some sun-bathing on the deck of the clipper on futons that the queen said were kept aboard. We took blankets and shawls too in case of cool, gray skies and drizzle. The queen and a couple of her ladies boarded with Zevanardia and me, and before we knew it, the crew was unmooring the ship. We sailed with a brisk tailwind blowing, and a beautiful, mostly sunny sky, with only a few cumulus clouds, masses of white fleece, drifting by.
We watched forests of juniper pass backwards, starboard and port. We couldn't really smell the trees, but felt as if we could, so close they stood and so fresh and wholesome they looked. In the morning, after breakfast, Shandra, Zevanardia and I strolled the deck. Shandra gave us a travelog of the region, naming tributaries, islands and anabranches. In a few places we saw tiny hamlets, each of five or six huts or houses, apparently lacking electrical power lines, water running in pipes, and roads. The hamlet dwellers paddled around in canoes, subsisting mostly on fish. Shandra seemed to know the names of these tiny settlements. I recall that she mentioned Tarbungga, Odolanc, Pantab and a few others. In some places, the banks had been cleared of timber, and farming and ranching were being carried on.
In the afternoon, Zevanardia and I lay on futons side by side. We had donned two-piece bathing suits, hoping to tan a little. This scantiness of apparel led to tickling and massaging, spanking and fondling. I had to tell Zevanardia time and time again not to be be so frolicsome and frivolous. The dignified ladies of Shandra's suite might not approve of such a wanton display of affection. I did like it, though, in spite of my cautions. Before sunset, we dined with Shandra and her two companions, Monatta and Trisquina. Our fare was walleye pike, fished up from the Narni, cleaned, bathed in a mixture of eggs, milk and garlic, dredged in flour, and fried in mellowed rapeseed oil in skillets in the ship's kitchen. With it, we had tartar suace and vinegar, with a side of well-fried potatoes and some little pieces of crisp-crusted white bread broken from a loaf the size of a lady's forearm. We had malt beer to drink. My dear companion and I had watched the fish fry with interest. This might be something we could add at our Rose Verandahs back in
Zevanardia and I were completely worn out from lying around in the sun all afternoon. So we slept soundly, stirring with the first light. The second day was just like the first, and we ate more fish in the evening. Very gradually, we could see the terrain and the flora changing. From hills and woods, our scenery changed to plains and grasslands, with only occasional stands of trees to punctuate them. After a couple of days, both Zevanardia and I were getting brown, and her wide smile flashed whiter than ever. It was so good to see her happy! My heart throbbed with deep satisfaction to know that the one that I loved was radiant with joy. Another day passed, and another, and finally Shandra told us one evening that we would be putting in at Emshcro in the morning, so we should have all our belongings gathered and packed, ready to be carried down the gangplank to a wharf in an inlet where we'd moor the ship.
From the port of Emshcro to Ibsho Villa, where Queen Mer Elicsi reigned, was only a matter of 300 or 400 yards, according to Shandra, and most of that distance lay inside the royal grounds, which were filled with calla lilies, red roses, yellow and blue iris, and a hundred varieties of tulips. We surely would not want to miss seeing them, so we should walk, instead of riding, according to the Ufzuan Queen. And that is what we did. Porters loaded the baggage on a wagon drawn by oxen and they pulled it away.
Queen Mer Elicsi understood quite well that she had been a girls' volleyball supernova back in Mecnita, when she had taken my place on the Eldor Geese for several games during her stay on the mother planet. Suddenly, the Eldor Geese, who had long lagged in volleyball standings in the capital and were prone to long slumps, because of my membership on the team, skyrocketed in a blaze of outstanding victories. The other Geese--Mlechi, Dhabbi, Usha, Vinja and Barti--were all excellent players, but the flash of their excellence had been dulled by me. So Mer Elicsi got a great deal of publicity in the media, almost as if she had been due all the credit. Our loving team members had not begrudged the beauteous lunar queen her hour of glory.
Her sense of her own achievement was evident as she stood at the entrance to Ibsho Villa. She almost shone with pride, and we were delighted to see her in such good spirits. Even Monatta and Trisquina, Shandra's companions, who had seen only a few frames of televised newsreels about Mer's fine showing, smiled benevolently. It is always a pleasure to be the friend or acquaintance of such a charming lady, especially if she is also a queen.
Mer Elicsi, like Shandra, spread a lavish feast before us, with venison and pork, baked yams, and salad of olives, mushrooms, pimentos, green onions and pecans, on lettuce and sliced tomato. The lace and crochet tablecloths spread on the tables and the silver candelabra standing upon the tablecloths were impressive. For dessert we had frosted cookies made of cashews and almonds. Then we had red wine at room temperature. I'm not certain what gourmets would say of such a dinner, but I loved it. Later Shandra and Mer Elicsi played table tennis, while Zevanardia gave me a piggyback ride around the main hall of Ibsho Villa. Monatta and Trisquina just smiled curiously to see my favorite prankster capering about. As I said, I had cautioned the irrepressible Zevanardia before, and here she went again. Oh, well, I knew I was among friends.
Emshcro had gotten together only about twenty girls' volleyball teams, and Queen Mer was apologetic about this, but I assured her that a viable league of twenty teams was perfectly possible. All they would have to do is play each other more frequently than teams in the larger associations do, and when they had produced a championship team for the season, they could play in Vavlu, and even in Mecnita, at least in exhibition games.
We toured the city and environs, saw a few games, and then took our leave of Mer Elicsi, embarking on the rapid yacht to sail upstream along the Narni back to Vavlu. Among other things, we had left the Vrandzian Queen a solid color astrofax unit, so we would be able to transmit small objects back and forth between Mecnita and Emshcro. Of course Vrandz was electrified, with even gigawatt power stations. They did not compare with Ung's Thlipso Station, on the River Zvan, which is rated at one terawatt, transmitting electricity at 10,000,000-volt potential, but they were certainly adequate for the needs of the small lunar kingdom.
After we got back to Vavlu, it was only two days until we were in outer space again. We had decided to postpone visits to Shwea and Liscarn till later in the year. Photon XIII had been orbiting all the while we were on Mli, but our module had remained on the ground. So all we had to do was board the module and let the crew manage the rendezvous with the spacecraft. The sinking feeling in my stomach did not pass entirely away until, hours later, I had descended a scary though shorter ladder, and was strolling with great relief through Pongdoir Field. We had called Clixbong, another palace chauffeur, since Shvampronx had said he would be on an errand for Queen Udi, and Clixbong was waiting in the dazzling vermilion bullet of a sports car just outside the gates. Tooling the lightning-swift machine onto Pongdoir Expressway, we made
It is really a wonderful thing when downtrodden peoples can rise against dictators, depose them and install wise preceptors, generous and humane. One can only admire the devotion, loyalty, courage and sacrifice that bind people together in the time of such crises. It is even more wonderful, however, when a generous and humane preceptress is already overseeing the fortunes of a state and there is no need for civil disobedience or revolution. This was the situation in Ebbic Ung. Peace had been in effect for centuries. Very early in the history of our continent, there had been bloodshed and war, strife and genocide, tyranny and oppression. That was thousands of years ago. Now Eb had entered an age of gold, so to speak, under the benign gaze of Ajinblambia and Udi. In Ungonesia, an outlying part of the Kingdom of Ung, the situation had not been so rosy, and only recently had the women of Kralatimu expelled the lustful, avaricious King Kohono.
We had glowing reports from Queen Kolomena, who was superintending Cissi's on Kralatimu, a store we had opened for the purpose of selling swimwear to the maritime ladies, now enjoying the same kind of liberties as we Ebbic Ungians do. This was a first step in the process of introducing the culture of Mecnita. The Kralatimuans had responded by inventing water volleyball, which we had adopted on the mainland and which had become all the rage in no time.
Twelve other small islands in the vicinity of Kralatimu--namely Enimeka, Mi'ikini, Kralamaku, Pumuna, Aoringga, Wipi, Ponamoa, Kunga, Kona, Malahari, Okibaka and Wulua--had been following developments on Kralatimu with interest. They had watched water volleyball games on television and had seen televised advertisements about Cissi's intimate apparel, dancewear, volleyball uniforms and swimwear. They were very intrigued. The populations of these islands ranged from, oh, ten thousand to a hundred thousand. It wouldn't have made sense for me even to contemplate opening a Cissi's outlet on each island. The start-up funds needed would be great and the chances of success slender.
So I now seriously considered the possibility of some kind of seagoing vessel. Consulting Cissi's accountants and economic advisors, I learned that leasing a small cargo craft, with an option to buy, was not as preposterous a notion as it might seem prima facie. I was thinking of a showroom right on board the ship. Customers might come aboard to shop and buy. The islands were close enough that we could have maritime market every day on a different island. We would open, say, at 4 Ungi (9:36 AM) and close early enough to allow us time to sail to the next island, completing a circuit in thirteen days. We could set up a small godown on Kralatimu and replenish the inventory each time we returned. As always, I would bring this up with Ajinblambia at our next bathing and dressing session. I would give her a really delectable bath to put her in the right mood. Zevanardia had asked me several times about what went on in these sessions, but I felt that a detailed account would perhaps unsettle her slightly, so I didn't tell her everything.
I gave Ajinblambia a first-rate bath and skin treatment a couple of days later, massaging her labially and lingually with a blend of lanolin, glycerin, palm oil, soap and attar of violets. I brushed her hair till it tingled with electricity. I did her makeup in the most luscious carmine I could find. Then I dressed her in dark red silk chiffon and put shiny black pumps on her feet. She seemed almost to be purring with contentment when I broached the subject of a small intimates argosy to sail the thirteen aforesaid islands, and it was an easy matter to get her approval. I didn't really need her approval. I had the funds and the permissions, but she liked to be kept advised on everything I was doing, as if my activities had been some sort of pet project at a remove from her more serious business of ruling the kingdom.
"Still," she said, "let's discuss it in council tonight." She was referring to a regular meeting of the Royal Council of Ung that was scheduled for that evening. "Perhaps one of the Geese will have an interesting opinion or recommendation. It won't be anything binding, you know, just a friendly chat."
Let me note at this juncture that we use an acronym to denote that the next word is the name of a ship. We might put this in English as RUS for Royal Ungian Ship, though in Nuu it is actually SR. So we might have RUS Petrel or RUS Albatross as recognizably referring to ships.
At council that evening, Ajinblambia opened by saying, "Before we get to the more ponderous matters of state, let us pause for a moment to discuss a new idea that our Sissy has. She wants to launch a vessel as an argosy for intimate apparel and so forth. It would make the rounds of thirteen small islands in Ungonesia in order to give the ladies there a chance to come on board, where a store would do business. It's not feasible at present to build thirteen stores, one on each island, but the merchant vessel might work. How do all of you opine?"
"Have you named the ship, Sissy?" Barti asked, with a big grin on her face, so I knew they were going to tease me mercilessly.
"Well, no, of course not. First things first. I don't even have the ship yet."
"Why don't you call it RUS Sissy?"
"I think RUS Ruffles and Lace would be better."
"What about RUS Panties and Bras?"
"I like RUS Petticoats."
The five girls from Gangawar were whooping with merriment at my expense. I winced a little. They were always making me the butt of their little jokes. I knew it was good-natured fun they were poking at me. But once, just once, I wished they would treat me as a little leader or heroine.
Ajinblambia must have noticed my discomfiture, for she intervened, "Please don't tease Sissy like this. Can't you see she's about to cry?" But this was said only tongue in cheek, as if she had been paving the way to make her little joke too. "Why don't we call it RUS Gosling?" she quipped, alluding to the former Eldor Junior Geese, a clone of the Eldor Geese for little girls, among whom I had been demoted to play for part of a season.
Eventually, they stopped making fun of me, and it turned out that they were all in agreement that my proposal was a good idea, not so much because I might earn more money, but because they saw the Ungianization of Ungonesia as an end in itself. So I decided to proceed with the project, Ajinblambia assuring me she'd underwrite the whole venture. I wouldn't have to go to Ung Insurance Company. Of course, the insurance company must follow rules, whereas Ajinblambia was free to use her personal judgment, which was always dependable.
I bought a boat for about two talents ($2,000,000 more or less) and had the superstructure remodelled to serve as a store. Showcases and counters were moved in, shelves and racks installed, and a couple of dressing rooms were built. The ship could make 25 to 35 knots, which sufficed for the distances involved. On our first runs, we would carry only intimate apparel and swimwear. Conventional volleyball uniforms of the kind worn by the girls of Gvagma were not included in the cargo, since the Ungonesian ladies had shown a preference for water volleyball. We took no dancewear either. Ballet was virtually unknown in Ungonesia. Dance did exist, to be sure, but often partook of the nature of primitive rituals. There was nothing wrong with dancing of this kind, of course, but it is not usually performed by ladies in tights, leotards and tutus. Whether we could or should try to take ballet to the archipelago was a question that didn't interest me for the time being. Perhaps later I would think about it.
Despite all the merry jesting at my expense in the meeting of the Royal Council, I did consider RUS Cissi's as a possible name of my ship, but I finally settled on RUS Gvagma, since Gvagma was the larger and more prestigious organization. I had a miniature of my ship crafted and put it on display in Gvagma Tower, on the ground floor, centrally located, so that it would be the first thing you saw as you entered. I was pleased and proud.
Year '402 was past the halfway point. The Oriflamme Games had been played. The Ramdonia Floribundas, Ramdonia's team in the New Chiliad, had been the municipal champions. Now the New Chiliad were into their next season already. Nunu was progressing nicely. Procedures accomplished at the Department of Neurosciences had enabled her to start secreting her own glycoserotonin, which meant that her genius would no longer depend on injections, but the Department of Child Development was still monitoring her linguistic precocity and conducting tests. Ezmeraudia usually took the baby to the university but I went a few times too.
By the beginning of year '403, I was expecting RUS Gvagma to be making a good profit. On its maiden voyage, I made Zevanardia the skipper so that she could acquint Queen Kolomena with Gvagma's and Cissi's way of doing business. If she showed that she had the aptitude for the job, which after all was not terribly complicated, Zevanardia would come right home. Otherwise she might make a second circuit. She was looking forward to this cruise as great fun, but I was a little dismayed that I would be mateless 13 or 26 days. Naturally, I would get in bed with Ezmeraudia, so that we could snuggle and cuddle in an affectionate way, but I surely did not want there to be any erotic activity. She was still so young that it would have seemed almost sinful to take advantage of her. But there was nothing naughty about hugging each other and talking a little before we dozed off. Nunu would be in her crib at bedside.