A Tale of Ung
"Vocno," said Ajinblambia at last, "I think I’ll be able to manage here alone, I mean, of course, with Drisconarv’s assistance. Please call Nuula Airport and book passage for yourself to Jezgroid. As soon as you get back to Eldor Palace, just report to Izmridafia."
"Report to Izmridafia?" I exclaimed in incredulity, "But I was her superior."
"Yes, you were," said Ajinblambia, "but you were present when I named her office manageress, don’t you recall?"
"Yes, I remember, but I thought that her appointment was provisional. I understood that you intended to reorganize your staff as soon as we got back to Eldor Palace."
"Perhaps when I get back I’ll make some changes, but for now let’s just keep things as they are. At any rate, eventually you will resume your duties as prime minister, while Izmridafia remains, so I’ll probably confirm her as the manageress."
"I’m going to discuss this with Queen Udi."
"Queen Udi knows about it and has given her approval. I doubt that you can sway her, she was firm. But if you wish, please do appeal to her. I have no objection. Meanwhile, though, if you have any problems, just address yourself to Izmridafia. She’ll be able to resolve them, I am sure. She’s a capable administrator."
Willy-nilly I was on a plane to Ulucac come nightfall. "Oh well," I thought, "it’ll be easy enough to work for Izmridafia a year or two." She also was much taller and more statuesque than I. Despite myself, I saw some justice in the new appointment, especially in view of her remarkable abilities and skills. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed her potential earlier.
I’d told Ajinblambia I had some matters that I’d like to see about in Ulucac and would like to spend a couple days there, if she didn’t mind, and then continue to Mecnita. She’d given me permission for a two-day stay. My errand was to get some copies of the inscriptions I was hoping to decipher, the runic writing on the rocks, the sacred script upon the statues and the stelae still standing still as stocks upon the isle.
When my flight put down at the airport near the capital, I went at once to the Grand Hotel of Ulucac, where I’d reserved a room. The Grand Hotel turned out to be a building with a colonnade of wooden columns painted white and a long front sidewalk lined with royal palms and hedged with bougainvillea. "Maybe it won’t be a bad idea after all," I mused when I beheld the beautiful hotel, "just to retire gradually from the projects and so have time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, like this little holiday in Ulucac."
The transcripts of the old inscriptions came to 37 photocopies, 9 x 12, with a text of some 10,000 symbols. I also purchased photographs of artifacts and monuments that were the island’s legacy, as well as books and souvenirs, local collectibles and wares, amassing a whole suitcase full of stuff. I rode horseback round the island and saw the menhirs and the dolmens, the megaliths and obelisks for which the island is so justly famed. Though there were little tourist meccas and much-visited exotic hamlets I looked over, I also came on lonely valleys and apparently untrodden haunts. I wondered what had happened there in all those long millennia of yore. Perhaps if I succeeded in deciphering the texts, I’d get an inkling. My curiosity was whetted. The second afternoon and evening of my mini-holiday I spent relaxing at the Grand Hotel and sipping cool drinks, then got ready to depart.
I rose into the heavens aboard one of those 600-meganewton leviathans of the air. The flight got me to Jezgroid in late afternoon, and it seemed I scarcely had deplaned when I found myself detraining from the golden comet that raced me from the airport to the palace. Perhaps upon another planet, a welcoming committee would be waiting at the airport on the home return of a junketing prime minister, and indeed I could have had it so right here on Nya as well. I might have called a palace chauffeur, either Redenorb or someone else, instructing him to come with porters and attendants in a limousine to meet me at the airport. But with Mecnita’s splendid subway, who needs a chauffeur and attendants with their rigmarole and ritual? Just step aboard a train and—presto!—you’ve arrived.
With evening’s first appearance, I found Udi in her study on an upright chair, embroidering a picture of autumn damask roses in a vase of jasperware. "Yes, she’s an artist of the highest rank," again I said unto myself when I saw her at her stitching there.
I embraced her tenderly when she got up to meet me, and she responded most affectionately I’d say. Apparently, that I had been demoted on the projects hadn’t marred our precious love. Rather than renew that subject though, I sat upon my velvet chair as Udi took her needles in her fingers once again.
"Why don’t you try this too, dear Vocno?" she inquired.
"I’d probably destroy your work. It’s such a masterpiece!"
"Then choose a pattern from the gilt and oxblood book and start your own. Just take this piece of linen and these chalks and copy a design you like."
"Very well," I said as if complying just reluctantly or just to be polite.
"Don’t be coy," said Udi enigmatically, as if she had a window on my heart, while I was spreading out the oblong piece of linen on a little drafting board that Udi kept among her hoops and frames.
I’d always had a decent hand for drawing sketches, not as good as Udi’s, to be sure, but altogether tolerable nonetheless. An hour later, I’d transposed onto the linen a picture of a lady in a long sashed robe of pink and purple, standing underneath a flowering cherry tree, with doves of white perched on its branches. In the distance rose a snow-capped mountain.
"Excellent," said Udi, urging me to start embroidering. I astonished both Queen Udi and myself with the native talent I displayed once I had taken floss and needles in my hand. Inspiration seemed to visit me from heaven as I filled the linen with the most accurately laid stitches. I sewed till after midnight, when large sections of the work were complete already.
"Don’t use your real name when stitching in your signature. It clashes with the spirit of your work. Use your alias instead. It’s so much lovelier," said Udi with a charming smile in which there was a trace of merriment or mischief. I smiled to hide my blush; my alias was ‘Sister Rogizlenia’.
This alias went back to year 386. That was the year I’d come from Motinia to Ung. The Kingdom of Ung was paradise, a land of joy, prosperity and beauty. There was no poverty. There was no crime. There was no war. Or was there? Soon after I discovered Ung, arriving in Mecnita unexpectedly, I met Udi at Ramdonia Circle quite by chance. She was masquerading as a commoner and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine she was queen of Ung. I became her neighbor at her hiding place in Corlamarn, a district of the city. Soon we became the dearest friends, as Udi taught me Ungi and showed me round Mecnita several weeks on end. This was a season of exhilaration and beatitude. Then suddenly a xenophobic group called Plubac made me their quarry as a foreigner, and with me, Udi, as the companion of a foreigner. Actually, as later it turned out, Plubac was the tool of another group called Jilndij, a conspiracy of usurpers plotting to assassinate the queen but totally uninterested in persecuting foreigners. Udi had known all about this Jilndij and so was trying desperately to elude them, but she knew nothing of this Plubac and misunderstood the threat they posed. At any rate, the men of Plubac—Torcbu and his followers—dogged our steps and made every day a danger. Finally, they kidnapped Udi, not even realizing she was queen. Assuming a detective’s role, I found her locked up in a cell in Torcbu’s townhouse and, with police assistance, rescued her therefrom. She and I well understood that we would have to leave Mecnita. Torcbu was in jail but eight or more of his accomplices were still at large. In Ung, long-distance travel is done customarily by plane or train or ship. Intercity highways comparable to the superb expressways within the great metropolises simply don’t exist. This meant that if we sought to flee to Fwascren, Ung’s third city, we’d have to go by air or rail. The accomplices of Torcbu, if they foresaw that we’d depart the city, could institute surveillance at the airports and the terminals. It was unlikely that they’d kidnap or attack us in broad daylight amidst the crowds of travelers, but they might follow us without our knowledge and descend upon us afterwards in Fwascren. Udi too, but I especially, stood out in any crowd of Ungians of course. As we considered ruses and disguises, Udi mentioned that there was a nunnery of some 10,000 nuns called Defdefa Convent near Dwesfesco, a village twenty miles north of Fwascren. Though nowadays most Ungians are not religious, the convent somehow managed to survive. Mecnita is still counted as the See and therefore there’s an embassy or delegation from the convent to the capital almost every day. Udi recommended that we pose as nuns and join a nunnish party returning to Dwesfesco. She secured two habits, one for an elder nun, one with a facial veil for a novice. Posing as a novice nun or postulant, I’d have to keep my silence all the way to Fwascren, as their vows required. Udi said the nuns would pilgrimage from Mubunur Station, at Squingba and Nurushul Boulevards in downtown Fwascren, to the city limits out at Pweshcoir Street, and then would follow Old Bazdunia Road right up to the convent. Old Bazdunia Road lay in the country, which was mostly treeless prairie, where, as we walked along with all the wimpled sisters, we’d be able to observe if we were being stalked or monitored by anyone. Once we felt confident our flight to safety had succeeded, we could slip away from the procession unobtrusively, and, changing back to our own clothes, which Udi’d carry in her bag, make our way to Fwascren unbeknownst to Plubac.
We did as Udi had proposed, donning habits of luxurious black cashmere and joining some 200 nuns in Forgsha Station in Mecnita. We boarded a Mecnita-Psebol train and the 200 of us filled five ninety-foot-long cars, with security provided by guards in livery of blue and gold. We arrived in Fwascren in a day—it’s around 6000 miles—and joined the ritual pilgrimage of eight or ten earth-hours. We walked almost the entire twenty miles, till we descried the high gray walls that ringed the convent just beyond a hillock a quarter-mile before us. No one had been following us; we’d made a clean escape. It was time to drop out of the procession of pilgrimaging nuns. Udi took the lead and slipped away discreetly, secreting herself behind a barn that stood nearby. As I turned to slip away myself, I kicked a pebble inadvertently, making a slight noise. This caused a tall, athletic-looking nun to turn around. Seeing me as I stole to the roadside, she hurried over, grabbed me by the wrist and said, "Come this way." Then another nun just like her took me by the other wrist. Apparently they thought I was a real novice nun experiencing last-minute fears and doubts and reservations. They consoled and comforted me kindly, but they didn’t let me go. Two other towering sisters joined them, one before me, one behind me, clutching at my sash. Thus did we continue walking to the convent. Minutes later they escorted me into the gate and I was cloistered under lock and key. The nuns began to call me Sister Rogizlenia. Whence came that name I do not venture to divine. The morning after this unhappy accident, when Udi, learning my new name, paid me a visit in the atrium of the convent, she notified me that, in Ung, it was a grave offense to trespass in a sacred place, according to an olden statute still in force, and warned me I should not disclose my true identity in any circumstances. So I pretended that I was a pious novice, under the oversight of Sister Olezconia, the abbess, who tyrannized me absolutely. Then one night, three months thereafter, I succeeded in escaping through a transom in the scullery.
Despite the woeful origin of ‘Rogizlenia’ as my pseudonym, I did acknowledge that it was more euphonious than ‘Vocno’ and decided to use it as the signature on my embroidery. Udi smiled gleefully at this, but kissing her sweet lips, I led her to her platinum and sapphire bed.
In the morning, following the instructions that Ajinblambia had given me in Qizilot, I reported with considerable embarrassment to Izmridafia, the raven-haired tall beauty now managing my office. Izmridafia had always been obliging and compliant in the past, in the days of my directorate. I’d taken her for granted, just supposing that she was delighted to serve as my assistant. I’d never dreamt that pride or envy rankled in her shapely bosom. I’d always seen her as a willing helper and a capable amanuensis. Now the wheel of fortune had turned half a revolution and she was my chief and supervisor. At once, I realized I’d underestimated her somewhat. She had assumed a much severer, more commanding manner, businesslike, efficient, dictatorial.
"Vocno, please report to me on your inspection of the site," she said in an imperious tone that few would disobey, "Here, bring your chair and sit beside my desk." Her voice was rich and mellow, full of power and authority. Insubordination was unthinkable, contumacy idle.
I gave the beauteous new manageress a full account of everything that had occurred and was occurring in Qizilot and the vicinity. She then called Ajinblambia upon her scrollphone, a pencil-sized device that lengthens like a telescope into a scepter two feet long, which then unrolls into a yard-long screen whereon the callee’s image is displayed, with the callee’s voice resounding in midair. Smiling Ajinblambia, still ponytailed but hatless, appeared upon the screen, Turfant-Tuva #7’s containment buildings towering behind her. The ladies talked about construction rather lengthily, while I sat listening, expecting futilely to be consulted when the limits of their expertise had been exceeded. Apparently they felt that they were equal to the task without my sound advice. My name did come up, however, as they were finishing. Ajinblambia instructed Izmridafia on what I was to do and how I was to do it, while Izmridafia told Ajinblambia she’d see to it I did it. I saw it with my very eyes and heard it with my very ears. Then the ladies said goodbye.
And thus it went, day in, day out, as in Mecnita everything resumed its rhythmic pace, promotions and demotions notwithstanding. Izmridafia proved very satisfactory at her new post. She was able to continue the precise, efficient operation of the office Ajinblambia had introduced. The contrast with the chaos and confusion that had reigned when I’d administrated was obvious to all. So I just faded from the fabric of authority around the office and on the site in Qizilot, settling down to a routine of writing letters and digesting data of a secondary kind. My hours were shorter, my duties lighter, my problems much less urgent. Now I had time and energy to enjoy myself at Udi’s.
Come eventide each day, I’d go to Udi’s study, to hear her at her harpsichord or harp, or watch her at her needlework, or just to read, relax and look at her collections. Of course, there always was light-hearted conversation. Usually near midnight, she and I would go into her fragrant chamber of violet, cerulean and white, but now and then, for one reason or another, I’d go instead to my apartment. My self-esteem had not declined as seriously as I’d have supposed if you’d foretold me Ajinblambia would supplant me on the projects. "Let her, if she’s such a prodigy! Who needs that thankless burden anyway?" I rationalized unto myself.
When I completed the lady and the cherry tree, Queen Udi prompted me to start another picture. This new embroidery, however, I didn’t copy from the gilt and oxblood book. It was my own original design. A lovely damsel riding on a filly with a swansdown hide and a honeysuckle halter had paused upon the edge of a lagoon wherein a great white heron waded in a labyrinth of banyans emerald with sunshine. I put the scene on crisp white silk in a spectrum full of delicate and subtle colors with threads of gossamer and needles fine as butterflies’ antennae.
"Why, Vocno, you’re a genius!" said Queen Udi. My image of myself was changing. From a titan of technology, I’d changed into a master of embroidery. This change did not upset me terribly however. I quickly reconciled myself to my new station in the scheme of things.
This new routine and regimen became consolidated as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, to use an earthly turn of phrase.
The fall of 103,390 passed away and 103,391 was in. Our winter, the first quarter of the year was over; its days are some 105 in number. Here in Mecnita, an equatorial metropolis, the seasons are alike, eighty fahrenheit at night, ninety in the day, cloudless skies, only minor breezes, just a gentle rain one day in twenty. In other latitudes, winter and summer keep up an endless quarrel, with icy mockery and hothead wrath taking turns in heaven, while spring and autumn referee the duel.
In Qizilot, to judge from letters and reports, articles in periodicals and interviews upon the scrollphone, the work had started to progress at a much more rapid tempo. Turfant-Tuva #7 was now 99% complete, on the very threshold of its long walk through the history of Ub. A single highway joining all the stations in both projects had been laid. The railroad that paralleled the highway, the supertrack with the gauge of fifteen feet, likewise ran the full 6000 miles along the coast. Docks and harbor cranes had multiplied like eels and shorebirds opposite the station. Gargantuan excavation, dredging, pumping and removal operations were readying the access to the docks, notching out the continental shelf and deepening the waters of the ocean. Geothermal wells were being drilled with lightning-swift address. From where I sat, this was entirely incomprehensible. Deadlines that had been preset for year 396 had been met by Ajinblambia in year 391. A staff of tens of thousands had grown to several hundred thousand but productivity had multiplied by an even more astounding ratio. I tried to understand, to visualize, to picture everything that had been happening since my departure from the site, but I was at a loss. "Is this really possible?" I wondered.
Dzegnent of the Bank of Qizilot, who was monitoring both the budget and the schedule, was overjoyed. At last, construction of the projects matched the dates that Udi and her counselors had originally set. Indeed it looked as if the latter stages would be completed early. For once, the Bank of Qizilot didn’t have to grant advances greater than the budget stipulated. Dzegnent could predict with confidence that costs would soon begin to underrun the figures Udi had allotted for the projects. Ajinblambia was finding ways to get work done with more efficiency for less. Dzegnent was delighted.
Furthermore, though during my direction I’d fostered research and hired botanists to study wheat, I hadn’t shown the breadth of vision Ajinblambia displayed in founding Qizilot Academy of Agriculture and staffing it with experts in a dozen disciplines. She provided the academy’s departments with all the finest instruments available. Not restricting her coastal railroad and highway to serving just the projects’ needs, she earned extra sums of money by haulage for outsiders and tolls collected from outsiders, spending it to bankroll the academy without imposing further burdens on the budget.
As for quality control, I’d adhered to it in principle, but lacked systematic policies and regular procedures that would put the principle in practice. Ajinblambia, however, organized the Tuva Testing Laboratories, likewise located in Qizilot, authoring a book of clear-cut rules and regulations to be followed in all testing and inspection, and supervising compilation of a variety of manuals to be used upon the site. Some of these were new editions of older Ungi manuals, others newly written. But all appeared in Oiradi, the language of the erstwhile nomads of the region. Ajinblambia had had to fashion Oiradi equivalents of such concepts as derivative, impedance, tractive effort, hysteresis, entropy, momentum, convection, contraflexure, resistivity, conductance and a thousand others, capsuling her new vocabulary in a lexicon she published at the projects’ press in Mata Ara, another city in the west of Ub where a station was abuilding. Ajinblambia herself of course had quite a thorough understanding of how to test materials and honestly accredit workmanship, but she submitted to approval of the laboratories that she’d herself established nonetheless, as she sought thereby to set a precedent for others. She staffed the laboratories with carefully selected experts from within the region and without, and met the payroll by revamping the design of the engine for some 50,000 trucks that had been ordered but hadn’t yet been built. Streamlining made for considerable reduction in the cost of manufacture.
As for the Qizilot-Bihaka railroad, Ajinblambia had in mind a number of improvements. A new rail section could be rolled, she argued, that would add strength while saving money. She was developing a new cement, impregnated with polymers, that could be mixed into a concrete with a compressive strength of 40,000 p. s. i., five to fifteen times as strong as all the other concretes. This she’d use for crossties as well as other applications on and off the railroad.
Qizilot had had approximately 20,000 souls before. Now it had 200,000 as people started pouring in. Demographers anticipated five to twenty million in the further future. Work was there in plenty, along with money, though Ajinblambia was holding wages down to a fixed scale, adequate but not excessive. Therefore, to accommodate the population trends in western Ub, she was hoping to confer with bankers on the possibility of refinancing the whole project to secure development capital for Qizilot, Uvsnaatar, Chida, Mata Ara and the other coastal cities.
Ajinblambia had remained in Qizilot almost throughout the period of her directorate. Now she had in mind a visit to Mecnita, where Izmridafia oversaw on her behalf. Mecnita Testing Laboratories, whose seal of approval is the hallmark of the world, would critique her laboratories out in Tuva. They’d also check the rails, trucks and concrete Ajinblambia had been developing. Too, she wanted to recruit researchers and technicians in the capital. And she wanted to negotiate with Dzemlavang and other officers in the hierarchy of the Bank of Ung about the refinancing she envisioned. Thus she had a number of most important errands to look after round the city.
So on the 115th, the directress of the projects, Ajinblambia of Bihaka, Qizilot and Psebol, as now we sometimes styled her, arrived in cosmopolitan Mecnita, the hundred-mile-by-hundred-mile city that overawes the world, on business for the ruler of that city and that world, Queen Udi, Queen of Ung.
As ever, Dyo, our billion-exawatt-bright sun, had blued the vault of heaven and rode its golden chariot drawn by the horses of the day, whose hoofbeats are the minutes and the hours. A vagrant lambkin cloudlet here and there fleeced the azure sky.
"Ajinblambia! How are you?" exclaimed the queen when Ajinblambia appeared before her in the doorway of her office in the palace. "We’ve been getting excellent reports from Qizilot. We’re all indeed impressed."
I certainly agreed and spoke to second Udi’s praise, although I winced as I thought back, trying vainly to recall a time when Udi had displayed a like enthusiasm as I came home from Qizilot on business. The very fact of Ajinblambia’s fulfilment of the budget and the schedule I had claimed impossible was embarrassing to me, but I tried to seem to admire her achievement instead of showing envy or resentment.
"Why don’t you and I take one of our long strolls around the grounds? You can tell me all about the projects. Vocno probably has things to do, so let’s just you and me go."
Ajinblambia went out but she returned in fifteen minutes. She had on a short-sleeved sky-blue leotard and sheeny shorts of jet-black spandex, with white gymshoes and white bobby sox. Udi had put on a brilliant tight white sweater with red satin shorts and black leather sandals tied crisscross several times around her calves. She met Ajinblambia at the door and off they went, arm in arm, smiling and laughing merrily. They were loveliness incarnate.
It was my day off. In Ung, we work six days in ten, that is, in those selected years when we do any work at all, but often I worked seven, eight or even nine or ten, depending on instructions Izmridafia had given me. I decided, when the ladies had gone walking, just to go sit underneath the chestnut tree beside the green-and-white cabanas of the courts. I’d have sandwiches and juleps delivered by the robot waitress, perhaps read a book or write some letters. Half an hour later, I was at the courts, seated in my customary chair, with the wheeled chest beside me at the table.
Momentarily, I’d receive an unexpected visit from some friends I’d had for several years. Late in year 387, during the Qazudi Revolution, I’d been sent by Udi to the smallish city of Ujjama, the capital of Gangawar, one of the provinces Qazudistan comprised. There I’d negotiate with Agbar, the local revolutionary leader who was the architect of the secession of that province, and his comrades. Of course, I was posing as one Abilai Kabarkaev, with the title of Lord Governor of Ungistan. Ungistan was the confederation of revolted provinces and countries that sought Gangawar’s enrolment too. Early of an evening, when I’d been in Ujjama several days, when the negotiations of the day had been adjourned, as I went walking round the pretty city, I heard a girl’s voice call, "Vocno! Vocno!" I looked around and, much to my surprise, I saw Barti, a beautiful Qazudi girl who lived in Kshaddi, a village fifty miles southeast. I’d met this splendid girl and her friends the year before, that is, in year 386, when a train I was aboard had engine trouble and stalled in Kshaddi. At that time, I hadn’t yet assumed the pseudonym of Abilai. My train was at the time returning to Bihaka from Dilulabad, whither I had gone on a mission of reconnaissance preparatory for the revolution. Now Barti had appeared, as if from nowhere, in Ujjama, with her friends, Vinja, Usha, Mlechi, Dhabbi. The five were lovely lookalike young ladies, black-haired, brown-skinned, full-busted, narrow-waisted and broad-hipped. They were five of six young women who formed the Kshaddi Geese, a team slated to play volleyball that night with the Ujjama Cranes. They were wearing crimson uniforms of a gorgeous silky satin. On each bosom a white anserine embroidered emblem had been sewn. In the back a numeral appeared. They were all so charming and adorable that when they coaxed me and cajoled me to promise them a favor, I yielded without the slightest hesitation. Then they revealed that Meruert, the other member of the team, had missed the train from Kshaddi to Ujjama, and so the Geese would forfeit victory unless they found a substitute. Would I substitute for Meruert? It was supposedly a mixed league, I could play. Had I guessed what they would ask, I’d never have agreed, of course. But the fact remained I had agreed and felt honor-bound to do as I had promised. The Volleyball Association of Central Gangawar may quite well have been a mixed league, but the Ujjama Cranes just happened to be girls. I was annoyed. I was embarrassed. Even more, I dreaded that Queen Udi would find out about the game. Nonetheless, I took my place with those eleven lasses on the court, according to my promise and played as best I could. Next day, in the Roznama of Ujjama, the capital’s gazette, appeared a half-page newsphoto of the Ujjama-Kshaddi game. In the newsphoto, you could see me in the midst of all eleven girls, looking at the camera head on, close up. I was at the net, in the very act of blundering what might have been the easiest return imaginable. The picture bore the caption, "WILD GOOSE LAYS A GOOSE EGG." The article that accompanied the picture wittily reported that a wild goose had flown in to join the regular domestic flock, but even so, the geese were not a match for the almighty Cranes, who beat them 15-0, the implication being that my inanity had helped the Cranes administer the shutout.
For a few days thereafter, I was anxious lest the revolutionary leaders I was dealing with see the newsphoto and recognize me as the ‘wild goose’, but apparently they didn’t, and gradually I regained my confidence. Suddenly, however, I received a call from Udi instructing me to report to her at once in the city of Dilfatty, in Namjala, where she herself would also fly forthwith halfway round the world. At the provisional seat of the government of Ungistan at 11 Jipak Joli in that city, I found a furious Queen Udi awaiting my arrival. She’d seen the picture and was not only full of wrath and jealousy, but also felt I’d made a mockery of the important mission of diplomacy she had entrusted to my hands. She banished me, in perpetuity she said, to Kshaddi, Gangawar, appointing me to take the place of Meruert, who was returning home to Kara Darya, as a permanent and full-time member of the Kshaddi Geese, divesting me of the dignities of both prime minister and lord governor. Barti thus became my captain, guardian and supervisor. I thought I’d have to spend my life playing volleyball with girls in a village of 2000 somewhere along the Bihaka, Dilulabad and Central Railroad in the backwoods of the continent of Ub. Three months later, though, the queen rescinded the order of my banishment. With great relief, I learnt that Udi had been only teaching me a lesson. She restored me to my dignities and, having interviewed the five Qazudi girls in person, came to understand there were no real grounds for jealousy or anger. Even her embarrassment about my antics on the court would vanish, as she forgave the girls and they became our friends. Thus, I can’t deny that I was once upon a time a Kshaddi Goose.
Now, as I sat there at the courts near the green-and-white cabanas, expecting Ajinblambia and Udi to come strolling by at length, I heard that voice again. "Vocno! Vocno!" It was Barti in Mecnita, on the grounds of Eldor Palace. With her were the other four, Vinja, Usha, Mlechi, Dhabbi. All had on identical red miniskirted dresses, with golden earrings in their ears and golden bangles on their wrists. They had come on holiday to the royal city; they still had money from the pay they’d earned by tutoring me Qazudi before the incident in Gangawar. They’d bought palace passes to come visit me and Udi, and here they were, now in their early twenties and noticeably taller than before.
"Set your bags right here, on this big table, and sit down. What a great delight to see you! You’re all so tall and beautiful these days! Here, here, just sit on any of these chairs," I greeted them excitedly. I also told the robot waitress to fetch more food and drinks.
Ten minutes later, amidst merriment and giggling, I spread a table with tall glasses of limeade, along with sandwiches and cakes and fruit. The girls told me all about their trip and briefed me on the goings-on in Kshaddi.
Hardly had we gotten settled in our chairs near the cabanas and exchanged these pleasantries and salutations, when Ajinblambia and Udi appeared from out the chestnut grove and came walking over arm in arm.
"Look!" cried Udi mirthfully, "It’s the Kshaddi Geese! It’s a reunion of the Kshaddi Geese! All hail, ye mighty Geese! Ajinblambia, you’re an athlete, aren’t you? You swim and ski, hike and ride, climb mountains and lift weights, play volleyball and tennis, didn’t you say? You and Vocno have a thing or two in common. He’s an athlete too. He plays volleyball." Udi was in raptures with her teasing and her eyes were merest slits.
"Oh, do you play volleyball too, Vocno?" Ajinblambia asked very delicately, smiling hesitantly, as if she sensed but didn’t fathom Udi’s joke.
"Of course he does," said Udi for me, "He was in the Volleyball Association of Central Gangawar, on a team known as the Kshaddi Geese. These girls are his teammates, aren’t they, Vocno? Barti here was captain, wasn’t she, dear Vocno?"
I didn’t answer any of these questions the queen rhetorically had asked, but watched instead as Ajinblambia came up and put her arm around the girl’s shoulder. "Barti really is a fine-looking young lady," she exclaimed, "No wonder she’s the captain!" It was a shining moment. Everyone was smiling lovely smiles, everyone, that is, but I, and I was not at all annoyed at being teased by Udi for playing volleyball on a team of girls. That wasn’t it at all. It was the fact that Ajinblambia and Barti looked so much alike, despite the difference in their height. The Qazudi girls all looked alike. I’d never given it a second thought. They were all from Gangawar, all from the selfsame little village, all of the same ethnicity, maybe even distantly related, all in identical attire. But Ajinblambia had said she was from Ung. Psebol and Kshaddi are on different continents, thousands of miles from one another, with an ocean in between. How could Ajinblambia and Barti look so much alike? How very odd! Then suddenly I recalled the mystery of the age of Ajinblambia. That too was singular. Was there something here amiss? "No, no, of course not," I concluded to myself, "just a pure coincidence." None of the others seemed to notice the resemblance, much less treat it with suspicion or surprise. Why should I?
"Let’s have a game," said Udi, full of fun and laughter, "I’ve never seen the Geese in action. Do you girls have your uniforms?"
"Yes, we do," said Barti, nodding toward the heap of totebags they had just deposited upon the wicker table right nearby, "we each have three or four, just in case we get a chance to play while we’re in town."
"Vocno," said Queen Udi, "go back to your apartment in the palace and put on you old Goose uniform. I’d like to organize a game."
"Actually, your highness," I replied, "I threw the uniform away a couple years ago. I didn’t think I’d need it any longer."
"No problem. Just borrow one of Barti’s. She has three or four."
"But hers are girls’ uniforms, Queen Udi dear," I reasoned.
"What’s the difference, dear Vocno? We’re on the palace grounds, in privacy. We’re all good friends. So don’t be so old-fashioned. Ask Barti if she’ll lend you one of hers. I’m sure that she’ll agree."
"Oh, very well, you highness," I answered with obvious reluctance in my voice. Then turning, I asked Barti, "May I borrow one of yours?"
"Of course," said Barti with a giggle as she handed me a crimson satin bundle in a crimson grosgrain ribbon. A second afterwards, I disappeared into a green-and-white cabana, the Qazudi girls doing likewise. There were twenty-five cabanas in neat rows, like a nomad camp. I undid the little package I’d been given by the captain. The uniform consisted of a crimson leotard with a goose sewn on the bosom and a ‘7’ on the back, a crimson miniskirt, with crimson knee-length stockings and pink-and-white striped sneakers. I’d always been somewhat self-conscious as regards my body, which was thin above and plump below, and I’d always chosen garments with a view to the concealment of my figure. Now I found myself in clothes that emphasized instead of hiding my proportions.
When I stepped out of the cabana in my outfit, Ajinblambia came over and walked me all around and looked me up and down. "Turn around, dear Vocno. Let’s see what you look like from the back." Sheepishly, I turned around, as she and all the others watched. "Look at Vocno’s tail!" she squealed with delight, "He looks just like Barti from behind. However will we tell them both apart?"
"Easily," said Udi, "I’m sure that Barti plays much better volleyball than Vocno."
I was taken quite aback. I was terribly embarrassed. Now I’d be ashamed to play the uninhibited variety of volleyball that makes for victory, and Udi’s teasing would prove justified.
Udi tried to call Oznetsirunia, the captain of the Onjmo Rubythroats. Onjmo was one of the 400 five-mile-by-five-mile districts of Mecnita, adjacent to the Eldor District, and the Rubythroats its team. But Udi couldn’t reach Oznetsirunia, so she tried Ellennamandia of the Piljandar Swans. She was unavailable as well. Udi then called up the Queshganc Quails, but Zevanardia was nowhere to be found. She tried a score of other teams, but fared no better than with these. "Oh blazes!" said the Queen, "I was really hoping we would get to see the Geese." She said this to herself, or perhaps to Ajinblambia, who was standing right beside her fifteen feet from where the girls and I had sat to continue with our sandwiches and drinks.
"I’ll play the Geese," said Ajinblambia, "if you like."
"You’ll play the Geese?" asked Udi with astonishment, "What? All by yourself? You’ll play the Geese all by yourself?"
"Sure, why not? I’m really very good at volleyball if I say as much myself."
"Still," said Udi, "just one against all six? You wouldn’t have a chance."
"I think I’d have a chance. At any rate the worst thing that could happen is they’d beat me. So I’d lose the game. So what? Come on, Queen Udi, let me play them. If you don’t like the game, you can always call it off."
"Well, I suppose," said Udi pensively. Then after just a moment, she continued, "Very well, let’s do it. It should be a lark in any case." She turned in our direction, calling out, "Barti, come on over." Barti rose and joined the queen and Ajinblambia. "Barti, will you girls play a game of volleyball?"
"We girls? Isn’t Vocno playing?"
"Well, Vocno, too, of course. I just said ‘you girls’, I meant ‘you Geese’. Will you play?"
"We’ll be too many for her to vie with, I am sure. After all, we’re six against her one, but if she doesn’t mind, I guess we don’t mind either. Anyway, we’ll have a lot of fun." Barti answered Udi in the most congenial way.
Then she came back to where we five were sitting. "Come on, team. We’re playing Ajinblambia." I was absolutely all aghast, embarrassed half to death and utterly annoyed.
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