Four rusty hexagon-head bolts held down the double bed before the ventilation register my astronaut companions had discovered. A makeshift wrench—two butterknives that Olofarxt had tied together with a shoestring—was the only tool that we had. Olofarxt and I grappled with the wrench, while Ojojonia dripped molten butter on the bolts and held the work in place by stepping on the wrench. We worked in utter desperation, and eventually we managed first to loosen just one bolt, and then another, till all four were fingertight. At this juncture, though, we happened to have daylight, and the guards might come at any minute to inspect. We’d have to wait till nightfall, as they never came at night it seemed. We waited what seemed endless hours, in Ufzu’s long, long day, and finally we saw darkness out the plate-glass window high above. We then removed the bolts that held the bed, raised and moved the massive piece a couple yards, then unscrewed the louver on the register. A duct, twelve inches high and two feet wide, went backward from the louver, it appeared to me as I gazed in, but, five feet back, intersected with a larger duct, maybe four by four. Who could even guess where the big duct ended up? But our options at this point were not so very numerous, so we decided to crawl in. As the smallest of our threesome, I volunteered to lead the way, and got down and crept into the smaller duct, slithering fairly easily from there into the large duct. Ojojonia came next, she too without a lot of trouble, but Olofarxt, a human buffalo, barely, barely squeezed himself inside with our assistance, as we tugged upon his clothing and his limbs. Once all three of us were in the big duct, we crawled gingerly along, one at a time with goodly intervals between, because the duct seemed flimsy and moreover made a lot of noise. Apparently, the duct was just suspended from the ceiling of an underground utility room by means of steel hangers spaced fifteen, twenty feet apart. You could tell by how the duct would sag in places and be rigid elsewhere. Of course, we tried not to cluster up, but in one span, longer than the others, there was a splice midway between two hangers, just at the point of maximum deflection. When I got to the splice, Olofarxt and Ojojonia were also in the long span. Though we were lighter here on Mli than we would have been on Nya or Earth, we still weighed just enough to break the duct at the center near the splice. The duct became a chute, and I slid down, plopping on the concrete floor fifteen feet below. Ojojonia and Olofarxt piled up on top of me with a tremendous thud. Luckily, though stunned, I didn’t break a bone, but the crash had made a frightful racket we felt sure would bring the guards. All we could do was crouch and huddle in a closet full of brooms and mops, and keep our mouths shut. We waited apprehensively a good long hour! No one came! We’d made it partway anyway! We left the closet, and in the dim illumination that we had, we found a tunnel with a sluice of dirty flowing water, with an access walk beside. We walked along this catwalk 50 yards, but abruptly it led up to a wall of solid brick. So we got down and waded in dirty water to our waists. But the interior height of the tunnel kept decreasing and our headspace started shrinking, eventually vanishing entirely. We would have to swim underwater heaven knows how far or stop now in our tracks and turn right back around.
"This may be our last," I sighed, woefully, forlornly.
"We’ll make it, Vocno. Don’t you fret," said Ojojonia reassuringly.
"I don’t know," I said, as I plunged in and started swimming. I swam for thirty seconds. Sixty. Ninety. Two full minutes. My lungs would burst. I’d faint and drown. I saw my life race by before my eyes. I’d never prayed till now. Just as I lost hope and pictured the Grim Reaper staring me right in the eyes, I exited the pipe and surfaced on the outside of the building. I breathed fresh air! I was alive! Ojojonia and Olofarxt emerged in just a second. I could see Cnashca, Dwadf, and Pojolfs twinkling in the firmament. Alpha Zhrinx, the superstar, was there. It was a summery, warm, joyful night in Ufzu.
"I told you we would make it," said Ojojonia with a lovely, triumphant smile on her face.
"I’m glad to say that you were absolutely right," I smiled.
We were standing about 500 yards from Candle Tower, on the side that’s opposite the side where we’d approached the day we came with Nrip and Vmic and Vabg from Shwea. We circled wide around the tower, skulking in the shadows, until we came upon the very street whereby we’d come originally. Stealing and slinking, thankfully under cover of night, we walked back along that street a distance of about three miles before we felt a feeling of relief and safety. It was quite impossible to tell whether the residents of the unwindowed houses were up and about or sleeping at this hour, but we decided to hazard an attempt to rustle three great ibex from a pen adjacent to one of the houses that we passed. Approaching the large, handsome goats with handfuls of greenery we abstracted from a garden, we were pleased to find them tame and friendly, nuzzling and snuffling like oxen or like horses. There were saddles on the fence, and we purloined them, untethering the goats as well, and leading them away. Once we were at a distance, we girt the goats in the lightweight saddles we had stolen. We walked them several hundred yards before we mounted them, lest any commotion we should make reach their owners’ ears. Our best guess was that we had some 15 earthly hours of darkness remaining us that night and maybe as much as 100 miles to cover before we reached the ridges and the rivers. There, of course, our ibex would be useless, and we’d have to conjure up some other mode of transport or walk 500 miles. We had no food or water. So we just got on our goats and rode. When we had ridden several hours, we found a brook, and drank, and watered the big caprids. We rested briefly, then continued, traveling all night. At daybreak, we were in the purple cane on the surrealistic-looking trail with all the windrow and obstructions. There we robbed a driver with a wagon full of fruit and vegetables, and ate, and fed the beasts. Nowhere did we see a sign of trouble. By midmorning, we were on the banks of the first river in our way.
Noting what appeared to be a wooden pier and a ferry moored beside it, we rode over, dismounted and began gesticulating to the ferryman as soon as we discovered he didn’t speak a word of any language that we knew. He seemed to be agreeing to transport us, so we unsaddled and set free the ibexes and climbed aboard the ferry. The ferryman kept saying, "Zhilhag," a completely enigmatic word so far as we three were concerned. We just assumed, of course, he’d only ferry us across the river, which, at this point, was all we needed to feel we’d made a clean escape. You can well imagine our delight, then, when the ferry started sailing downstream, putting us, as we supposed, farther and farther from the long arm of Queen Oa. Two hours later, we put in at a jetty of some kind on the waterfront of a sizable municipality somewhat similar to Qabjang, with scattered stony buildings set upon a prairie. The ferryman made a sweeping gesture towards the town, and uttered, "Zhilhag." We gave him Ojojonia’s gold bracelet, which he accepted avidly, and then we went ashore.
Suddenly a dozen guards in horned helmets and black jumpsuits, Queen Oa’s owlheads, appeared as if from nowhere, and arrested us. They put us in a motorized conveyance, a coach of sorts, and locked the doors. From the conversation of the guards, we gathered that the city where Queen Oa reigned was Vavlu, and that there was a road from Zhilhag right to Vavlu. Soon we were on the road, on our way to Vavlu. Come nightfall, we were in our suite of rooms in the dome of Candle Tower once again. An iron plate had been welded on the ventilation register, and the bed was in its place again, with the bolts we had removed back where they had been, but now tackwelded to the metal lugs through which passed. We would not get out so easily a second time.
"Well, now what?" I sighed futilely, resignedly.
No one replied to my rhetorical inquiry.
Even though I’d told Queen Udi not to acquiesce in paying the huge ransom Queen Oa was attempting to extort from her, and I sincerely believed she shouldn’t condescend to pay it or be a party to such nefarious schemes, still, in my heart of hearts, I was hoping she’d ignore me altogether and redeem us. Otherwise our prospects were very bleak indeed, and our days were numbered. Eighty was the number.
The days went by so slowly! We’d try a game of chess or bridge, but what fun was there in winning? We’d read or write half-heartedly, or tell stories, or quiz each other on geography or history, but the only question interesting any of the three of us was never asked, and no one could have answered it at any rate. Another interminably long day would pass. Come evening, we would eat the supper that they brought us, bathe, change clothes, mechanically, without relish or enthusiasm. Eventually, we’d sleep a little.
Another day would come and waste away. And then another and another. Seventy-three to go. Seventy-two. Seventy-one. Another day. Another and another. Fifty-five to go. Fifty-four. Then fifty-three.
Now we were down to thirty-eight. Thirty-seven. Thirty-six. Now nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen. Surely we would die. Might I never see my Udi and my Oji? Might I never see Mecnita, the superb metropolis? Might I nevermore be proud and free, a great prime minister and valued citizen? Might I never sit among my books and dabble with my needles? Might I never see my friends again? Oh well, worse fates than mine have been endured. Still I shed a tear or two, vain and idle though they may have been.
Six days to go and not a word, indifferent or good or bad. Five days, four days, three days.
Finally, our penultimate day had come. On the morrow we would die. Farewell, O world! Farewell, O hope!
Late in the afternoon on the very eve of our day of execution, at an unaccustomed hour, there was someone at the door. They’re coming now to get us, I thought in terror. I heard a jingling of keys and a clicking of the lock. The door opened. I looked on in uttermost astonishment and horror. I could not believe my eyes. In the doorway, towering, magisterial, stood Ajinblambia! My worst suspicions were confirmed. Ajinblambia and Oa were in league to conquer Ung. Somehow Ajinblambia had gotten free. Udi now was captive if not dead. Qazudistan, under the aegis of the Vrikshayas, had triumphed over Ung. All was lost. Soon we’d be put to death.
"Let’s go!" said Ajinblambia, "You’re free."
"Free!" I said ironically, sardonically, "Free to go where? To the gallows?"
"No, no," she smiled, "We’re going to Mecnita."
"Mecnita!" I said even more sardonically, "Where is Udi? Is she dead?"
"Dead? Of course not. She’s just fine, at Eldor Palace."
"I thought that she arrested you. How did you escape?"
"Udi did arrest us, right after you took off from Pongdoir Field. Later though, she released me, but she still held the others."
"Released you? Udi released you to come conspire with Oa to undo her? You surely don’t imagine I believe you?"
"I’m not conspiring with Queen Oa. Queen Oa’s been deposed."
"Deposed! You’re lying! Who deposed her?"
"I deposed Queen Oa. I’ll tell you all about it later, when we have time. Ufzu has a new queen, Queen Shandra. You’ll just love her. You’ll be meeting her in a few minutes. Ojojonia! Olofarxt! Are you two ready? Come on, let’s go. You’re free!"
"Free!" I said sarcastically, "If we’re free, may we just go wherever we well please?"
"Yes, yes, of course. But first, at least, come meet Queen Shandra, if you will. She’s a very lovely lady. And also, we’ll be able to straighten out this whole complicated matter. Relax, dear Vocno, all is well."
Ajinblambia led us briskly along in the direction of the flame room. Queen Oa was nowhere to be seen. Instead a very comely lady, quite as tall and quite as beautiful as Ajinblambia, came over as we approached, and greeted us congenially. She had Queen Oa’s golden crown upon her head, towering above us like a goddess.
"Queen Shandra, please meet Vocno, Ojojonia and Olofarxt."
"First let me offer my heartfelt apologies for the inhuman treatment that you suffered at the hands of Oa. She is our kinswoman, a Vrikshaya, I regret to say. She’s a deep embarrassment to all of us. Thankfully, our Ajinblambia has deposed her and installed me on the throne of Ufzu, with Queen Udi’s approval and encouragement. Oa will be escorted to Mecnita and confined in Slanchgav Prison. Will you all be my guests here in the flame room at a banquet in your honor?"
Shandra was such a lovely, charming lady I could not imagine there was duplicity or guile in her apology or invitation. Still it was with some chariness and trepidation I accepted, and then only after getting the permission of Ojojonia and Olofarxt. We were led to a long low table clad in ivory lace with regal china and utensils. Later, Shandra’s waiters brought us a selection of cuts of beef and pork, venison and woodcock, with rice, bread, chestnuts, melons and baked apples. Of course, wine and brandy flowed abundantly. I drank but little, still suspicious, as if I half-expected that this dinner was a trap.
When we had eaten almost all we would eat, and could converse more freely, pausing only briefly now and then for one more little bite, Queen Shandra volunteered, in the diction of a news-reporter, "Queen Oa ascended Ufzu’s throne amid a chorus of objections due to questions of her legitimacy, for one thing, and her cruel nature, for another. But once she’d grasped the scepter, everyone just acquiesced. We Ufzuans are often easily manipulated, that’s one of our worst weaknesses. We just drift along with the current of the times. Anyway, Queen Oa proved to be a tyrant and a psychopath. No one liked her, no one trusted her, save maybe half a dozen of her favorites, like Moko, Truxi and the rest. But everyone just submitted docilely, as if it had been mandated by heaven that Oa be our queen. It took just an incident like this to tumble her from power."
"I don’t understand exactly what you’re saying," I said modestly.
"Well, when Udi had arrested Ajinblambia, and you’d come to Ufzu and been detained by Oa, Ajinblambia, hearing from Queen Udi of your plight and feeling perhaps responsible in part, persuaded Udi to let her come to Ufzu and attempt to rescue you and Ojojonia and Olofarxt by deposing Oa. She knew how unpopular Queen Oa was and she knew also she herself had many friends and sympathizers here. She was confident that she could come to Ufzu, raise a force, beleaguer Candle Tower and take Queen Oa captive. She laid her plan before Queen Udi while she was still confined in Eldor Palace. Eventually, Queen Udi was persuaded to let her come attempt the rescue. So, Ajinblambia went to Pongdoir Field with a bodyguard of two or three, and then boarded Ungi Star V, flying straight to Vavlu. When she arrived, she immediately roused the local populace, already simmering with resentment against the evil queen. With their loyal backing, she laid siege to Candle Tower, encircling it with improvised machines and engines.
"It took 50 days to take the tower, which was defended by the host of owlhead guards Queen Oa had around her. Finally, though, when it was obvious that Oa’s forces didn’t have a chance, Oa tried to flee to safety mounted on an ibex, abandoning the tower to its fate. But Ajinblambia saw Oa taking flight, rode after her and caught her. They fought hand to hand an hour, but our Ajinblambia at last subdued Queen Oa. It was a horrendous battle. Fortunately, someone filmed the duel, and you’ll be able to see yourself what lengths our Ajinblambia went to, to rescue you from Oa. You’re blessed to have a friend like Ajinblambia, and lucky Oa had you safely in detention all the while, ever mindful of the ransom."
"Hmm," I said, feeling humiliated and ashamed.
"All’s well that ends well, though," philosophized Queen Shandra.
"It looks as if I’ve caused a lot of trouble," I admitted.
"But it took just this kind of incident to rouse Ufzuans to dethrone the evil queen. Otherwise, we might have continued in inertia and complacency. So you have done us a great service, even if it wasn’t quite intentional," said Ufzu’s beautiful new queen, a broad smile animating her full carmine lips.
"I owe you an apology," I said to Ajinblambia, "I came to Ufzu just to spy on you and got myself in so much trouble you had to talk your way out of the arrest I’d caused you so you could come and rescue me. However can I compensate?"
"Oh, you won’t have to compensate. But henceforth, I’ll just see to it that you’re safe, secure and sound," said the victress of the siege of Vavlu.
"That I’m safe, secure and sound? What do you mean? I don’t understand exactly what you’re saying, Ajinblambia."
"You’ll understand when comes the time," said Ajinblambia most cryptically, "My chief concern is Udi’s safety and your own, and I’m prepared to take all necessary steps. I’ll remind you of this conversation one fine day."
Deeply ashamed, I apologized to Shandra and to Ajinblambia time and time again, all the while looking guiltily back and forth between them and my companions, Olofarxt and Ojojonia, who sat silently with downcast eyes, as if, by avoiding thus my gaze, they might conceal the accusation and reproach their expressions elsewise would reveal. What would I tell Udi?
After dinner, all of us repaired to a mini-auditorium off the flameroom, where projectionists would show the film of Ajinblambia’s fight with Oa.
The action started when Ajinblambia rode up beside Queen Oa. The ladies both were mounted on the giant ibexes, Capra ufzuensis. Ajinblambia caught Oa by the big black hooded gown she wore and ripped it off her body, leaving her dressed just in briefs and halter of black kidskin and knee-high riding boots. Oa was lithe and sinewy, her magnificent body the color of mahogany. She was an amazon, a lioness, a goddess. She held a two-edged steel axe in her right hand and wore a dagger in a scabbard on the sash of her black briefs. As Ajinblambia was throwing down the gown she’d torn off Oa’s back, Oa sprang away on her huge goat, but Ajinblambia caught up with her again. Oa swung her axe ferociously ever and anon, and with such force a single blow would have decapitated Ajinblambia, who fended, dodged and parried with desperate address in this life-and-death encounter. At last, after half an hour’s struggle, Ajinblambia seized Oa by the wrist, wrenching and wreaking fury of her own. She hurled the deadly axe into a nearby creek, so if Oa tried retrieving it by wading in, she’d be able to pounce on her and throw her in the water. Instead, Oa drew her dagger of damask steel, stabbing and striking, slashing and thrashing savagely. But Ajinblambia pitched a lariat over Oa’s flailing arms and caught her by the waist, pulling her from off the saddle on the goat. As Oa, landing awkwardly, strove to gain her balance, she staggered a split second, and Ajinblambia, still mounted, had just time enough to seize her wrist again, twisting it so hard that Oa dropped the dagger with a shriek. Ajinblambia leapt from her saddle, still holding tight the lariat around Queen Oa’s waist. Oa, now disarmed and helpless, started madly, first in one direction, then another, but each time she bolted, Ajinblambia jerked her back by tugging at the lariat, which she kept drawing in, inch by inch, till Oa was practically in her arms. Then she hurled herself upon the evil queen, wrestled her to the ground, rolled her over, bound her wrists behind her back and tied her ankles tight together. Oa was still writhing horridly when reinforcements came from Ajinblambia’s partisans at Candle Tower. It took three soldiers to hold still the mighty queen and raise her into the military van that took her back to Vavlu.
It was a horrendous fight. I shuddered just to watch it on the screen, realizing how easily it might have ended quite another way, with Ajinblambia dead and Oa still in power as queen of Ufzu, burning with rekindled vengefulness and spite.
When we had watched the film, Ajinblambia and Shandra, the two great Vrikshayas, took me and my two comrades to show us Oa imprisoned in a wheeled iron cage. Oa glared at me with boundless malice, as if I alone had precipitated her unthroning and uncrowning. Her look was so fierce and frightful that I trembled just to see her. She looked if she’d tear me limb from limb if she had gotten loose even for a minute.
The next day, Ojojonia and Olofarxt ascended in the landing module, which had been brought from Qabjang some days earlier, and rendezvoused with Ungi Star III, whose crew had been confined in the geostationary ship more than 150 Nyatic days. Our 90 Mlian days of detention were 144 days back on Nya. It had been decided I’d return with Ajinblambia in Ungi Star V the next day, with caged Queen Oa in our custody.
During our swift voyage, Ajinblambia explained that Ufzu had become an Ungian dominion. Udi was now empress of an interworld empire, entitled to be styled Empress Udi or Queen Udi equally appositely. She said also that, though Ufzu lagged considerably behind the rest of Ung both technologically and economically for the most part, its aerospace program was far ahead of Ung’s. Ufzuan astronauts had journeyed to Qazudistan many times over the past 10 or 11 thousand years, which accounted for the presence of the Vrikshayas in Ub. Even now, the spaceships built by Ufzu were more sophisticated than those of Ungian construction. She revealed that as a condition of the treaty that added Ufzu to the empire of Ung and made Queen Shandra the special subject and protegee of Udi, Ufzu’s aerospace technology would be made accessible to scientists and engineers from Ung. Indeed it would merge with Ung’s own space program. Ajinblambia said excitedly that this would be a perfect time for her to start the aerospace facility in Dorgdid, Ung’s second largest city. Having Ufzu’s blueprints at her disposal and with improvements she’d been contemplating, she could help Ung take a giant step in outer space. Udi would be able to take advantage of Dlivandor’s plentiful uranium reserves to power all the irrigation and reclamation projects that she needed to prosper all four corners of her world. Ajinblambia was exhilarated, breathless, dizzy, as if the very Nyatic planet were rolling in her palm.
We entered the atmosphere of Nya with a pitch-attitude of only 5° , because the special alloy, atlantite-10, was subject to combustion otherwise. At length, though, having projected wings and slowed tremendously, Ungi Star V sliced through a field of cirrus clouds spread high, and prepared to land. It would land exactly like an airplane, but needed quite a runway, miles long.
Once we’d landed and the craft had taxied to the point of disembarking, Ajinblambia and the members of the crew and I climbed down. At once, Ajinblambia arranged to have a special scissors-lift brought over, and ordered men to lower Oa in her cage, which was draped in a huge tent or awning of green canvas.
Ajinblambia had on a royal blue cheongsam with silk embroidery of flowers on the bosom, and, beneath, flowing pants of glossy jet-black satin to the ankles. On her head, she wore a coronet of platinum and diamonds, with matching bracelets on her wrists. In her thick-soled, high-heeled shoes, she seemed infinitely tall, towering over me almost half a yard. She was the very picture of victory and glory, majesty and triumph. I ran along beside her, embarrassed, foolish, silly.
Queen Udi, who’d been waiting for us eagerly, ran up and put her arms around the waist of Ajinblambia, laying the temple of her head on Ajinblambia’s shapely bosom. Ajinblambia embraced Queen Udi too and kissed her on the crown of her fair head. Then Udi looked up into the eyes of Ajinblambia, who leant down and kissed her on the forehead. Udi put her arms around the neck of Ajinblambia and kissed her on the mouth. This was a long, long kiss. The women were in love, it seemed. At length, though, Udi disengaged herself, came over, kissed me on the cheek, and said, "Vocno, I’m so glad you’re safe and sound." Then she went back and put her arms around her friend. Their exchange of greetings and attentions lasted 10 or 15 minutes.
Ajinblambia then instructed men to wheel over Oa’s cage, unveiling the spoils of her victory. Oa was seated inside upon a stool, gagged with a stick between her teeth, and bound hand and foot with rawhide straps. She loured satanically at me. Heaven help me if she ever escapes! Porters rolled her off, overseen by marshals who’d escort her down to Slanchgav Prison, in suburban Slanchgav, next to Queshganc Heights.
Ezvlando, the new chauffeur, brought a white V30 limousine to drive the two great ladies and myself to Eldor Palace, where, of course, the story of the siege of Vavlu was told time and time again.
As soon as Udi heard the duel between Queen Oa and Ajinblambia had been filmed, she had attendants come and operate projectors in her office. She and Ajinblambia and I, along with six or seven people from the palace staff, were present at the showing. When Udi saw Ajinblambia snare Oa in the lariat and wring the damask dagger from her hand, she sighed and put her hand upon her heart. Ajinblambia put her finger in the waistband of Udi’s light gray wool flannel skirt, moving it backward and forward playfully, and fingering the button in the back. All the while she looked me in the eye.
Of course, I didn’t say a word. Who was I to tell her what to do?
Even before the successful conclusion of the siege of Vavlu, Udi had recognized that her misgivings over the Qazudi girls were groundless and she’d released them, but they’d remained at Eldor Palace at the queen’s request. During the campaign in Ufzu, Drisconarv had run the Turfant-Tuva Project, with Exmofraf in charge of Oirad. One Jelbolalp, an Ungi engineer, was standing in for Barti on the Ghasbi Project. This was an unusual occasion, with all the Vrikshayas of Qazudistan, as well as Udi and myself, present in the capital Mecnita.
The queen invited everyone to dinner in her apartment, offering turbot and red snapper, crabs and lobsters, asparagus and rice, white bread, tuco the supercoffee, and sparkling wine.
"Why is it," I put the question to Ajinblambia when a few glasses of champagne had drowned my inhibitions, "that you assumed fictitious names instead of merely letting it be known you were the Vrikshayas?"
"We were afraid that our association with the Qazudi ruling house would prejudice you both against us. Actually, we planned and staged the encounters where we first met you, Vocno."
"The train-failure in Kshaddi was a mere charade, dear Vocno," Barti interjected, as if duping such a booby as myself were child’s play, "and all the little episodes in Gangawar were worked out beforehand."
"So was our meeting in Bihaka," added Ajinblambia.
"No, no, that was purely accidental, " I objected.
"Not so! I made it happen," said Ajinblambia.
"I see," I said, stalling just a little, as I tried to recollect exactly how the original acquaintance had transpired. "How many Vrikshayas are there anyway?"
"Just eight. Shandra, Oa and we six. But we’re adopting Udi, Oji and yourself, so now we make eleven."
"Hmm," I said, flattered, but suspicious if not scared, "You know I’ve been writing a book, The Fall of Qazudistan, with chapters on the Vrikshayas. I wonder if you’d read it before you finalize adoption, and answer all my questions." Of course, I knew, if Ajinblambia wanted to adopt me, she’d adopt me, regardless of my opinion on the subject.
"I’d be honored and delighted," said the Nyatic Nike. So I went to fetch the manuscript, returning in a moment. Ajinblambia thumbed through it cursorily, promising to read it on the following day.
"Now that we’re all together once again," said Udi merrily, as if to lighten the heaviness of the occasion, "why don’t we have a volleyball match tomorrow evening? I’ll call the Chanzli Tits."
"The Chanzli Tits? What’s that?" I asked.
"A volleyball team," came Udi’s answer.
"That’s a funny name."
"No, it isn’t. It’s not funny. It’s a pretty name. Chanzli is a district of Mecnita, just like Eldor. And tits are birds, just as geese are. So what’s odd about the Chanzli Tits that’s not odd about the Eldor Geese?"
"Well, tits are tiny little passerines, and geese are big majestic anserines."
"It’s just a nickname, Vocno. The mere fact that geese are bulkier than tits doesn’t mean you’ll beat them in a game."
"We’ll win," I said decisively.
"That remains to be seen. Shall I arrange it for tomorrow night?"
"Go ahead. Yes, do it."
"Also I want you all to come tomorrow morning to my office. I have important matters to announce."
Once I had had more sparkling wine, I recovered from my earlier embarrassment, and everything returned to normal, even though I knew no one could possibly take me seriously any longer, if anyone had done so in the first place. Nonetheless, we drank and talked and laughed till midnight, and the party then broke up. Udi and I went to her platinum and sapphire bed, where we lay in fond embraces till the morning. Maybe she’s just humoring me, I speculated.
Midmorning found me at the royal office, where Udi notified us she was planning to reorganize the government of Ung. First, she said, Ajinblambia would thenceforth be called Vice Queen and would share the royal power with herself. Secondly, she authorized commencement of the aerospace facility in Dorgdid. Mezquinc Aerospace Facility would be organized and funded, with Ajinblambia serving as its president. We six, Barti, Usha, Vinja, Dhabbi, Mlechi and myself, would be members of Ajinblambia’s new cabinet. Barti, remaining in charge of the Ghasbi Project, would serve as ministress of resources. Vinja, elevated to ministress of transportation and communication, would, however, in the meantime, run the Turfant-Tuva Project and the Oirad Project, under the tutelage of Ajinblambia, who’d be personally involved instead in the Mezquaco Project. Usha would continue as ministress of finance and directress of the Bank of Ung. Mlechi would become our ministress of education and chairwoman of the University of Mecnita’s board of regents. Dhabbi would be ministress of exploration. I would remain prime minister, but I wouldn’t actually be in charge of any of the others; ‘prime’ would merely be an honorary adjunct to my title. I wouldn’t be in charge of any major public sectors or great projects either. Udi and Ajinblambia had a special assignment for me they’d explain privately in a little three-way conversation afterwards. We six would all report to Ajinblambia, who would enjoy full royal powers in the absence of Queen Udi or at any other time Queen Udi should direct.
So now I was coequal with the Geese and a member of Ajinblambia’s new cabinet. In days to come, I felt I had to genuflect whenever I came face to face with Ajinblambia. She obviously approved and it became a part of protocol around the palace. Again my prestige had reached a nadir, apparently for good this time.
When Udi closed the meeting, she and Ajinblambia called me alone, and told me to remain. Ajinblambia had read the manuscript—the draft of The Fall of Qazudistan—and pronounced that, while on the whole the factual material was well researched and accurate, the work tended to be biased against the Vrikshayas. From the very start, falling under the spell of popular slanders and unfounded rumors, I had regarded the influence of the Vrikshayas as sinister or evil. It seemed never to have occurred to me that the Vrikshayas might constitute a force for good or a catalyst facilitating economic growth. This attitude of mine was a fatal flaw, a foible and a fallacy. As my book stood, it definitely could not be published. It was at best a misapprehension of real Qazudi history, at worst a witting libel.
"Vocno," said Queen Udi, "You’re to discontinue The Fall of Qazudistan. Just retire it altogether and turn over all the copies that you have. Instead you’re to write a comprehensive biography of Ajinblambia. You’ll work on it exclusively. This will be your regular activity."
Later in the day, the Chanzli Tits showed up. These were buxom, well-built, athletic-looking girls, the cream of the crop around Mecnita. We Geese looked pale by comparison. It was as if six little honeybees had been playing tag among the roses, and of a sudden, six wicked black-and-orange tarantula hawk wasps appeared. They beat us handily, 15 to 11. This did not diminish my esprit de corps, however. If we weren’t Mecnita’s foremost athletes, we still ran the planet on behalf of Ajinblambia and Udi.
Queen Ajinblambia—we usually just dropped the prefix ‘Vice’—did not return to Qizilot. Vinja went instead. Drisconarv would help her orient herself. Ajinblambia would stay in Eldor Palace till the end of year 392, drawing up the blueprints for the aerospace facility.
Queen Shandra, Ufzu's New Queen:
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