Queen Shandra came in person to receive me at Ofanglu Field outside of Vavlu, Ufzu’s capital. She was in one of those motor-driven carriages I’d seen about the streets, only hers was regal and more stylish. Still we had to stand as she drove back, with the conveyance bouncing and bobbing on the rugged streets. At length we came to Candle Tower, where the 40 guards in iron armor still formed a living balustrade on either side the stairs that fetched the door of bronze. Soon we were in the flickering, shimmering flame and shadow, the chameleon chiaroscuro of the central hall. Everyone seemed ready to salute a personage of stature, surely not myself I figured. Who blows a bugle when a bungler comes to town? But no, I was wrong. I was the guest of honor I could see. Also I could hear the strains of the majestic overture, The Siege of the Rajassi, composed by the Ungi symphonist named Panjclef and dedicated to myself.
After many an introduction to the notables and nobles, the hierarchs and holy men of Ufzu, Shandra led me to the selfsame dome of glass cambered o’er the floor of colored marble that we had crossed before, during our captivity, and put me in a room just like the one we’d had. Tired from my journey, I lay at once upon the bed to take my ease. Shandra sat beside me for a chat, running her fingers through my hair from time to time and tickling me with titillating little touches. Eventually, as if we two were cousins—actually Ajinblambia had officially adopted Udi, Oji and myself into the House of Vrikshaya—Shandra hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, then left me to my slumbers.
In the morning, after Mli’s interminable night, Queen Shandra came again and sat upon my bed. When I was wide awake and fully dressed, she led me to a little room and had a girl bring breakfast—cold chicken, melted cheese, toasted buns, fresh milk and coffee. From the window I could see the sun, a dazzling daffodil of light in a heavenly blue morning-glory sky, as merry and as cheery as the lovely lady, my companion at the table.
"What would you like to do today, dear Vocno?" she inquired.
"You know I’m writing a biography of Ajinblambia, and, of course, I’d like to include a history of the House of Vrikshaya, with notes on Ufzu too. Maybe you’d be kind enough to take me to the Royal Archives, where I can do the research I require."
"Of course I could and gladly would, but there are tons and tons of documents and records. I’m afraid you’d probably get lost trying to sort through it all. Why don’t you let me let you read a resumé of the history of Ufzu—and the Vrikshayas of course—and a little sketch of recent happenings and personalities within our royal ruling house? Then, if you see some episodes or epochs engaging your attention, you and I can go together to the archives and access the materials you need. We have a good long day ahead of us. I’ll go fetch the books for you, then leave you to your own devices 6 or 7 hours. After that, if you’re agreeable, I’ll come back and we’ll spend the afternoon together." On Mli, daylight lasts upwards of 20 earthly hours.
"Splendid!" I agreed.
Shandra left the room but presently returned. With her she had two thick books in maroon morocco bindings and a folder in soft avocado kidskin stitched in waxed black cord. "These books are Ufzu’s geography and history, and this looseleaf avocado binder is full of notes and clippings on recent happenings in Vavlu. Just take them to your room or sit right here, as you prefer, and look them over. I’ll be back to help you later," she smiled so sweetly as she ran her fingers through my hair again.
Even the maroon morocco manuals were much too much for me to master in the time I had before the queen returned. She said I shouldn’t worry. I had time. We could see the archives whenever I was ready. I requested that she give me two or three more days, and she agreed to this. So we postponed the outing she had planned that afternoon. Later on, Queen Shandra joined me to eat dinner, then I retired to my room and read the whole night long. And I continued my researches a couple of ultra-lengthy Mlian days, recessing only for my meals with Queen Shandra.
This is what I learned: The history of Ufzu went back half a million years, five times as ancient as the history of Ung. The oldest hitherto unearthed inscription is one attributed to King Pebtushonk, the smiter of Nemgatto and the treader on the necks of the men of Unharari. Historians disagree upon the question of whether Nemgatto and Unharari were men or countries. Uranium-lead dating techniques do seem to support the early date deducible from the inscriptions though, so the historicity of Pebtushonk is considered well-established. Then there was a silence of 2000 centuries until we hear of one Dvadcashcu, who wreaked wide devastation in the land of Uswia. Some scholars hold that Uswia is Shwea, which the recovered coinage seems to second. Somewhat later, about 150,000 years ago, King Ramda I appears upon the scene. He was the first king ever actually to call himself master of the House of Vrikshaya. From the time of Ramda I, the inscriptions and the documents begin emitting light in the visible wavelengths and we can discern the physiognomy of real history in Ufzu. The present Vrikshayas trace their beginnings to King Pebtushonk, but this is problematic. It seems to me that they should start instead with King Ramda I, but this would tinge the hoariness of their antiquity. So I decided to accept King Pebtushonk as the atavus of the House of Vrikshaya lest I offend the gorgeous Ajinblambia and lovely Shandra.
Some 7000 kings and queens populate the pedigree of Ufzu’s royal house, that is, since Ramda’s time. Most are merely names on lengthy lists. A few have semi-legendary chronicles that celebrate their victories and works. One need only mention names like Metredetes, Furush, Deryosh, Oranzep and Nodor to bring to mind past glories of the house. Because the genealogies are often riddled with contradictory or ambiguous material, one can hardly now adjudicate with justice the suits of rival claimants. However, the illegitimacy of the succession of Queen Oa is most glaring, and one can make an excellent defense of the lawfulness of Shandra’s queenship. I’d make sure to portray Ajinblambia as the vindicatress of Queen Shandra in my book.
I made page on page of notes from the maroon morocco books and the avocado kidskin folder, and a list of documents and deeds I’d look for in the Royal Archives. Finally, I told Queen Shandra I was ready, and we went the mile to the archives in her carriage. Inside, among the various departments, I got duplicates of vital and scholastic records on Ajinblambia, including transcripts, birth certificates, copies of dissertations, theses and diplomas, as well as records on her parents and her nearest relatives, with marriage certificates and death certificates, biographies, patents, distinctions and the like. It all made a bundle of a cubic foot or so that I’d take back to Nya. As an added precaution, I’d astrofax it right from Candle Tower to my suite in Eldor Palace.
"Now, my very dear little Vocno Vrikshaya," said the beauteous seven-foot-tall goddess, with a merry allusion to my recent adoption into the royal clan, "have you done, and are you ready to go see the sights of Vavlu and the countryside adjacent? I’ll go get Cappi. He can carry both of us." Cappi was Queen Shandra’s giant ibex, larger than a horse, more like a bison or a buffalo.
"Do you hunt? Can you shoot?" she asked a little later, when I met her outside the dome of glass, on the grassy plains that led to Konnolonga, just nearby, Ufzu’s highest peak, which rises from almost level ground to the uttermost empyrean. By ‘shooting’ she meant ‘archery’, I gathered from the goat’s-horn bow she had impalmed to show me.
"It’s been some time," I lied, not wishing to admit I’d never shot an arrow and never hunted any animals in my entire life.
"I’ll help you," said Queen Shandra, with a trace of some delighted little mischief in her riant look. I couldn’t guess if she was devising any prank or not.
We mounted Cappi, I in front, Shandra in the back, both sitting in the double saddle she’d girt around the ibex. In her right hand, she held the reins. Her left arm she just put around my waist, seeing that I was a novice at this sort of thing. As we rode off, the agile goat bounded and vaulted over rocks and brooks. Beside me, nearly clasping me, Queen Shandra’s two sleek, shapely legs, beautiful to look at, voluptuous to touch, guided me and guarded me, keeping me in place. Her long, scented tresses blew first one way, then another, now and then caressing my temples and my cheeks, and sometimes flapping in my face and enveloping my head, intoxicating me with their erotic fragrance. I was enraptured, borne on a breeze of wild desire, drugged with pleasure. She teased me with sweet whisperings and pulled me tight against her bosom, lap and midriff.
Presently, we left the city altogether, and the broad, graded street we’d ridden on turned into a trail through a thicket of scrub pine. Hills and dales started to replace the level ground we’d left behind us, and eventually we found ourselves in woodlands afforested with juniper and spruce and larch, clean and aromatic. In these parts, Shandra said, we’d perhaps find pheasants, francolins and partridge, quail and capercaillies, grouse and woodcocks. Too, she said, if we were lucky, we’d encounter elks and wisents, goats and sheep and lynx.
We came to a little clearing in the wood, where we saw a party of young Ufzuans, in dark blue smocks and trousers, trimmed with silver braid, and boots and sashes of black suede, apparently young princes on a hunt. Each of the seven lads would take his turn, discharging a long arrow at some gallinaceous quarry winging by. They’d wagered several silver pieces and the prize was piled in a little heap upon a tree stump. Again and again, the bulky game birds came flapping overhead, and just as often a wayward arrow, missing its mark, traced an idle parabolic arc in air and fell to ground inanely. But finally a handsome youth of some nineteen or twenty brought down a hazel grouse. With great elation, he slaughtered and trussed up the bird, gathered up the silver coins and hopped upon his ibex, riding off in merriment and pride. The six remaining youths renewed the game, but of course the jackpot dwindled. Queen Shandra and I watched the little contest for a while, till finally she said, "Would you like to try your hand? Come on. Let’s go find our own spot." We rode off, found a smaller, more secluded place, dismounting from the mighty goat.
Queen Shandra put a birch-bark quiver full of birchen arrows on my shoulder, handing me a six-foot goat’s-horn bow with a bowstring of ox sinews, so inelastic I could barely flex it. I let fly some practice arrows, but they were wide of the mark, as wild as can be. I tried for what seemed hours but got only negligibly more proficient. I could see I’d never be an archer of distinction. Eventually, with Shandra helping me by standing right behind me with her arms around my body and steadying my aim, I did impale a quail. Shandra bagged a brace of woodcock with dexterity and deftness, and without assistance from myself or any other person. We slung our birds on Cappi’s rump, got on ourselves, and off we rode. The poor beast was bearing quite a burden, but Shandra said he’d have no problem. He’d done it all before.
Riding onward a few miles, we came to a hamlet of perhaps 100 houses, windowless white limestone prisms clad in purple ivy, just like the ones in Vavlu. Shandra brought the ibex to a stop right before one of the houses and tethered it to a wooden hitching-post. She said the people living there were friends of hers and that they’d roast our birds and be delighted to join us in the feast. She and I went to a single door of bronze, and Shandra rapped quite sharply. A typical Ufzuan responded, a young man not unlike the princes we’d seen hunting earlier. He wore indigo and silver.
"Tsekhan, this is Vocno, a Vrikshaya from Ung on Nya. Vocno, please meet Tsekhan, a member of the family that lives here." Tsekhan greeted us most cheerfully, and led us to a spacious atrium. The house consisted of two stories—a main floor and a mezzanine—each with 10 or 12 small rooms. As we entered and word went round that guests had come, about two dozen souls appeared from inside the small rooms to see what kind of people we might be.
Recognizing goddesslike Queen Shandra, elders and adults, youths and children all alike came down to pay respects, receiving from her appreciatively, mirthfully the gift of three plump birds. Already on a spit, a whole young sheep was hanging fire, dripping juicy fat into the crackling flames. I could see a large black iron kettle simmering beside it.
Tsekhan introduced me as a Vrikshaya, which redounded to my credit. I could see that all the household were impressed with this honorary designation I felt uncomfortable assuming. But my embarrassment wore off as everybody gathered round chattering and jabbering, smiling, laughing, making merry. Someone dressed the birds and pierced them on a second spit over the very fire where the sheep was roasting. A keg of mead was soon rolled out and broached, and a posset made of airag, a local specialty, was put before us. We all drank cheers and toasts and got to feeling very mellow.
Then someone asked for music, and a dark, black-haired young mother, soft and pretty, sang a beautiful, sad, plaintive ballad to the accompaniment of a horsehead viol played by a silver-headed ancient, probably her grandfather. She was followed by three youths who sang a lively trio and danced vivaciously, kicking high with right and left legs alternately, their arms akimbo, according to tradition. Next, another elder, apparently the family’s storyteller, began his declamation of an epic poem called Curuclu, a tale of the feats of the eponymous protagonist, an olden knight who’d saved the land of Ufzu from its foes. Among Curuclu’s deeds, according to the tale, was a victory in single combat with one Laohu, a ferocious tiger of a man who fought for Washa, an inimical domain. After days of fighting on land and in a lake, with swords and daggers, clubs and maces, Laohu died at last at Curuclu’s hands. Washa’s army, all affrighted, withdrew in clamor and confusion, and Ufzu dwelt 1000 years in peace, so terrible the memory of their wrath and vengeance. As the storyteller paused, obviously to improvise a passage, a youth would strike a few well-chosen chords upon his zither to punctuate the narrative. After narrating Curuclu’s triumph over Laohu, the rhapsodist fell silent. Shandra said the legend had many other episodes, and they’d be sung on other days. But the zither played on a few more minutes, scattering harmony on harmony about the house.
At length, the eye of day began to close and cool night fell upon us like a blue-black mantle jeweled with twinkling stars. We all partook of the hearty feast of fowl and mutton, and a girl ladled from the iron kettle a tasty gruel of some unknown foodstuff, seasoned with paprika, garlic, marjoram and thyme apparently. It was really satisfying.
"What is this?" I asked Queen Shandra.
"This is a porridge made of yams and spices."
"Yams? What are yams?" I asked. On Nya, there were no yams, so my ignorance wasn’t really as deplorable as one might think.
"Oh, yams. They’re the edible roots of a plant we cultivate in Ufzu. Don’t tell me you don’t know what yams are. Tomorrow, if you like, we can go to market in West Vavlu, and you’ll be able to see our yams and all our other fruits and vegetables."
"Fine! Fine! That’s great! Let’s go! I’d love the little outing."
After accepting Shandra’s invitation, I ate another generous hunk of roasted mutton with another bowlful of yam gruel, chasing it with koumiss and some ice-cold mead. I was full and tipsy, and it seemed the queen was too. "How shall we get home?" I asked.
"We’ll stay here tonight. Let’s go feed Cappi and reassure him that all’s well." And we went out with chard and cress.
Tsekhan showed us to a little bedroom on the second floor with a sturdy bed of rough-hewn wood that had a feather mattress and a colorfully woven woolen blanket. I’ve heard it said that in many a galaxy, it’s generally forbidden for a woman and man not married to her to sleep together in a single bed. There’s no taboo like this in the Dyotic solar system, so it was nothing at all reprehensible for us to do so. Queen Shandra lay on her side beneath the blanket and beckoned me with open arms. I joined her with my head against her bosom, and we hugged and teased each other, snuggling for a while in just a playful way. Of course, this was all just friendship and affection. After all, she was my elder cousin now, practically a sister. Eventually, feeling all the mead we’d drunk, we fell asleep.
I woke up at midnight suddenly, saw the last few embers glowing, slipped downstairs, and had a piece of fowl, a spoon of gruel, another cup of mead. I checked on Cappi, offering greens as he nuzzled me with recognition. Then returning to the room, I climbed in bed, using Shandra’s arm as a place to lay my head. I woke up again at daybreak and her fragrant hair was all about me. I let her sleep, just reveling in her silent company. Finally, she woke up too, we bathed, bade our hosts good-bye and rode off on Cappi’s back, heading straight for the suburban city of West Vavlu.
West Vavlu boasted many a store and many an emporium, an open-air bazaar, a marketplace. Shandra led me to the place where they sold produce. It was a great cucurbitaceous, solanaceous and dioscoreaceous cornucopia covering what seemed acres with heaps and piles, tents and stalls, carts and barrows. Cucumbers like salamis, zucchini big as clubs, melons large as hogs, were everywhere about in great profusion. You could make a washtub from an Ufzu pumpkin and a little schooner from an Ufzu squash. Wax gourds as big as hassocks rolled in conic heaps, and sweet potatoes the size of loaves of bread were stacked up like stones. "We don’t sell pieces of potatoes," they would say if you tried to buy a kilo in West Vavlu. Their beets were purple volleyballs and the radishes red baseballs.
"What is this?" I queried Shandra when I saw a root larger than an ox’s leg, "I’ve never seen this sort of thing on Nya."
"That’s our yam, Dioscorea vavlica. Some weigh 50 pounds. We harvest 15,000 tons per square mile." I’ve anglicized her figures just for clarity.
"Fifteen thousand tons! I’d like to carry specimens and slips of these and all the other giant roots you have when I go back to Nya. Maybe we can grow them there." I was all excited and elated, as I pictured sprawling yam plantations back in Ung. This was my greatest triumph since I’d unearthed the gold on Poilnarcs Island.
"Well, of course, you may take some back to Nya. I’d never have imagined that our homely gourds and tubers would so please an Ungian prime minister. Just go ahead and make your choice, and I’ll have someone see to delivering it all to Candle Tower."
We spent several hours in West Vavlu’s teeming market district. Wares of every kind were selling—blankets, purses, statues, earrings, shells, brooms and mops, kites and tops, herbs and spices, rabbits, kittens, birds, horses, sheep and oxen, poles and logs, peat and coal, books and posters, bolts of linen. The smells and sounds and colors made you dizzy.
Finally, however, afternoon was aging, and the queen and I rode back to Candle Tower. A masked ball was scheduled for the evening, to accompany a play that was to be performed by a celebrated company of actors. According to a local legend, the Ufzuans had come from Orobux, the brightest star in Zhrinx, Nya’s circumpolar constellation. This was reminiscent of an olden tale told in Ungia. Anyway, the legend had it that Zhnihanta, an Orobuctic planet with a highly sophisticated civilization, had once been the theater of an internecine war. Some refugees had fled in spaceships and made their way to Mli over a span of generations. They’d founded Ufzu, and, subsequently, parties of Ufzuan explorers had established all the other Mlian countries. The whole saga of the flight from far Zhnihanta and the settlement of Mli was the subject of the annually staged play. The professional thespians portrayed the major figures in the saga, while the masked audience would impersonate the incidental personages. As Shandra told me all about it, I kept wondering about those other countries she’d alluded to.
"What are Mli’s other kingdoms?" I asked her when she paused.
"Oh, there are quite a few. Shwea, Admino, Liscarn, Olotuts, Zanfanting and Pedgu are the big ones. Then there are a couple dozen smaller states, like Zavoi, Limanit, Uvankafer, Cfampa and Idazwo. If you like, I’ll show you an atlas and an almanac that’ll give you all the facts and figures."
"Are any of these countries powerful and modern?" I inquired, "And how far are they anyway?"
"Liscarn is a relatively modern country. Vornda, the capital, is about 500 miles from Vavlu."
"Can we go? Is there transport? Are we welcome?"
"Yes, yes, of course. We can sail down the either the Vloshca River or the Nulca River, from Vavlu right to Vornda. Would you like to visit Vornda? Why do you want to go?"
"Queen Udi would be greatly pleased to learn of any new terrains or regions here on Mli. I’d be doing her a service. What kind of people are the Liscarnese? What do they have there?"
"Well, one of the most interesting sights in Liscarn is the shrine of the great oracle of Vornda. They say a goddess there reveals the future."
At one time, I’d been very skeptical of prophecy and oracles, divination and clairvoyance, the so-called mantic arts. My skepticism came about when I’d tried unsuccessfully for quite a while to become an adept in these mystic powers. I’d consulted soothsayers and sibyls, fortune-tellers and astrologers, hoping to learn the secret of their art. But invariably I’d found them to be mountebanks and swindlers. Even sacred testaments and famous poems I’d rejected as pure rubbish in the end. The prophecies were always ambiguous and enigmatic, and their fulfilment ever a matter of straining the imagination. Sometimes, twenty-five centuries after some divine had prophesied, people still believed his prophecy would come true some day. Yes, I’d said, this is all just abracadabra, hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo. Then when Udi and I had visited Moon Park on the island of Ulunono in Ungonesia in ’385 or ’386, we had met the lovely Tufiatani. She was a black-haired, dark-skinned beauty in a parchment-colored caftan with silver bracelets on her wrists. She was also a genuine clairvoyant, she had claimed, and could tell exactly what I’d done anywhere I’d been, if I’d just write the toponym upon a special piece of paper and put it in her hand. Not only did she accurately describe my highly secret deeds in Fwascren when I wrote ‘Fwascren’ on the paper, but also she informed me about Dleodaz and Pangsba, unknown conspirators of the xenophobic gang called Plubac, which was persecuting me and Udi. Tufiatani’s second-sight enabled us to anticipate and overcome those malefactors. We delivered them to the Fulus in Lobilaka, just across the strait from Ulunono. Since that encounter, my skepticism on the occult had abated.
So when Shandra told me of the oracle of Liscarn, I was not so quick to scoff and scorn as earlier I might have been. Still I had my reservations. "Very interesting," I allowed, "What’s your opinion of the oracles?"
"They’re supposed to be entirely veridical. That’s what everybody says," said Shandra with a smile, "but I personally have never consulted a divine. What is your opinion, Vocno dear?"
"There may be something to it, a grain of truth perhaps."
"Shall we go then?"
"Yes, let’s go tomorrow, please, Queen Shandra."
"You’re the guest. If tomorrow’s what you want, tomorrow it will be."
The masquerade was ready to begin. I put a jet-black domino around my temples and my eyes, just letting visitors believe I was a man from outer space. I danced several times with Shandra. I danced with several other ladies too, none quite so tall, none quite so captivating as Queen Shandra though. Finally, at midnight, we took off our masks, and everyone saluted me and smiled, as if I’d really revealed a secret of some consequence.
With daybreak, the queen and I were up and on the wharf, arranging passage on a riverboat called ‘Zwaku’—Liscarnese for ‘Festive’. It would take a Mlian day—40 hours—to sail to Vornda. Shandra and I lay on adjacent deck chairs, chatting about both Ung and Ufzu. Above us, a peerless heaven of celeste had been unfurled, with just an innocent, wee cloudlet scudding by from time to time. She said she’d like to visit Ung someday, and I invited her to come with me when I returned, but she replied she had to stay in Ufzu till the situation stabilized a little. In midyear she’d come she promised; she really wanted to meet Udi. I told her I myself would show her all around when finally she got there. All day long we visited and drank cool drinks, but as night descended, we went to our cabin, which was warm and cozy.
Despite the longish night, before we knew it, morning had crept up and sprung into the sky, and Zwaku was mooring at the pier in Vornda. Vornda’s gold and silver domes and minarets, resplendent towers and shining spires were more impressive at first sight than Vavlu’s. Shandra, reading what I thought, seemed embarrassed and apologetic, but, of course, I had no mind to compare the realms with one another. We hadn’t come on official business and wouldn’t have necessarily to meet the rulers of the country. We might just lionize the city, see the temples and cathedrals, the casinos and the spas, the conservatories and the colleges, the theaters and galleries.
Vornda had a metro and a monorail, and in them we were able to dash all about the town. Automobiles and limousines, as we know them back in Ung, were altogether absent, but equestrians, pedestrians and cyclists all were numerous in the lanes and aisles pervading every district. Shandra and I lunched at a choice café with tables on a sidewalk of mint and emerald tiles cloisonné. We shopped a mall of smart boutiques, rode a ferris wheel in a field of white-and-purple tulips that was the central park of Vornda, visited a zoo with ten-foot wild sheep and dwarf rhinoceros, bathed in the tepid waters of a million colors at the foot of Mount Ivangbo, saw a show of giant puppets manipulated from the booms of cranes. We had a splendid holiday. I was happy. I was merry.
Had I but known my happiness would end!
Shandra said I might consult the oracle of Vornda if I liked. I accepted eagerly, mostly out of curiosity, but also hoping maybe to foresee the future. The queen and I went to a temple right in the center of the city. The temple had a dome of marble green as turquoise, and inside, beneath it, in a solemn chamber, stood the altar of the prophetess, laden with her various utensils. The prophetess herself, whose name was Hennamarn, was a darkly beautiful young lady, with a retiring manner and a furtive or evasive look. She wore a velvet cloak as black as night, its hemline almost touching the carpet on the floor. She received us quietly and led us slowly into an inner sanctum, eery and macabre, lit by points of fire like eyes of jack-o’-lanterns sewn into the plush black drapes. She took her seat upon a high-backed throne with human skulls on either armrest. Before her stood a brazen tripod kettle full of glowing embers. Hennamarn bade us sit opposite her throne upon a carven bench of ebony scrolled on the ends and padded with dark tapestry-upholstered cushions. She sprinkled incense on the embers and a rich, intoxicating, aromatic smoke rose copiously and wafted all about the sanctum.
"What wilt thou know?" she asked me in archaic Ufzuan.
"What canst thou prophesy of the future and the fate of Ung?" I asked, attempting to adopt the diction appropriate to the occasion.
Hennamarn leant forward, breathed deeply of the aromatic smoke and seemed to be entranced, wailing, chanting, speaking in strange tongues neither Ufzuan nor Liscarnese. She opened several ponderous old volumes, took up and listened to some conchs and whelks from a nearby table, moved about some figurines similar to chessmen, then fell silent for over half an hour.
Finally, she said, "Next year a king, Ung’s greatest king, shall ascend the throne of Ung in Eldor Palace and rule one hundred years. Nor man nor brute shall countermand the edicts I proclaim."
"What?" I cried, "Impossible!"
"It shall come to pass. I have spoken."
These latest words, Queen Shandra had told me beforehand, were the formula that Hennamarn always used to close a consultation. We were expected to take our leave upon her utterance of them.
Hennamarn’s sad oracle filled me with a feeling of impending doom. King? What king? Who? What would happen to Queen Udi and to Oji, the heiress to her throne? Ung’s greatest king? Indeed! This was folly! This was madness! This was nonsense! Hennamarn was just a charlatan! Hennamarn was an imposter! Still, within me, turmoil reigned, and holy dread beset me. In spite of everything, I couldn’t help believing that her words were wise, fatidic words. Hennamarn had vaticinated with sooth and truth, an inner voice kept telling me.
At once the holiday was ended. Shandra and I hurried back to Vavlu. I was quite upset when we left Vornda, but by the time we’d got to Candle Tower, I’d more or less convinced myself that Hennamarn was just another fortune-teller, a commonplace divine with a flair for the theatrical—merely that and nothing more. Perhaps a tiny doubt still lingered in my mind, so to assuage that mild anxiety, I decided to go to Ulunono, as soon as I was back on Nya, and there consult the lovely Tufiatani, a proven seer and beloved friend.
"How absurd!" I thought, "Years ago I was a hard-boiled realist and atheist. Now I’m hurrying from one mystic to another in a frenzy, letting tarot-readers frighten me to death."
In Vavlu, with the help of porters, I loaded all my specimens and cuttings, seeds and slips, and the gifts Queen Shandra’d lavished on me, in the landing module. Ascending, I soon rendezvoused with Ungi Star III, where a crew of two had awaited me for several days.
Hours later, we tore through a brilliant sea of shining cloud, and dove onto Pongdoir Field’s special runway. Screeching miraculously to a halt, the spaceship opened several hatches, and we three climbed down.
One of Ufzu's Pheasants:
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