Panties and Bras




A Tale of Ung


Chapter 6








Barti, Vinja, Usha, Dhabbi, Mlechi

And so it came to pass that afternoon at Eldor Palace that Queen Udi gave her fiat for a game of volleyball with Ajinblambia against the Kshaddi Geese, that is, against the five Qazudi girls and me. 

"Queen Udi, it’s not fair," I had remonstrated with her, and what I’d meant of course, was that it wasn’t fair to Ajinblambia to have to play alone against all six of us. 

"Not fair? You have five girls on your team. How many do you need? A dozen?" It annoyed me Udi thought or just pretended that she thought I’d meant it was unfair to us, as only six, to have to play against so formidable an opponent as this supernova Ajinblambia. 

"It’s not fair to Ajinblambia," I’d reworded my objection. 

"Oh, nonsense, Vocno, you’re just scared," Queen Udi had replied. 

"Oh, don’t be silly, Udi, I’m not scared." 

"Well, then, Vocno, play her. If you Geese give her a drubbing, I think she’ll understand." 

"But Udi…" 

"See, I told you! You’re just scared." 

So I’d agreed to play just to prove I wasn’t scared. The damned thing, though, was that I was. What if Ajinblambia should beat us? What a great humiliation that would be! 

It was decided that the Geese would start the service. So we took our positions on one side the net, and Ajinblambia took hers beyond. I personally would serve, as Barti had instructed. Udi, sitting in a wicker chair at courtside, blew a whistle to begin. I served the ball as far from Ajinblambia’s position as I could. I’d have said I served it rather smartly, but Ajinblambia returned it like a bullet to our very corner, where it struck in bounds and then whizzed off the court. One to nothing, Ajinblambia. I served again, the score was two to nothing. Then three, then four, then five. Then Ajinblambia began her service, and we Geese went flying all around trying to beat back the ball, but nothing seemed to work to halt the onslaught. This was a beating, a barrage, a battery, a blitz. Ajinblambia, ten to nothing. A pantheress had pounced upon a gaggle of defenseless geese. Udi, on the sidelines now, was jumping up and down, cheering on her girlfriend. "Hooray for Ajinblambia! Hooray! Hurrah! Hooray! Show them how to do it! Go! Go! Go!" 

Ajinblambia, all flattered and encouraged by the queenly cheerleader, redoubled her enthusiasm and really poured it on. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen! Ajinblambia had annihilated us by a score of fifteen-zero. 

The queen went rushing over to congratulate the victress. "Ajinblambia, you were magnificent!" she said. Then Ajinblambia put her hands round Udi’s waist and lifted her on high, as high as she could reach, and held her up above her head. She lightly tossed the queen straight up about five feet, twirling her to make her pirouette in air. Queen Udi had turned half a revolution by the time she came back down to where her friend could catch her in her upstretched arms again, so that she had her back towards Ajinblambia. Ducking just a bit and leaning slightly forward, Ajiinblambia moved Udi backwards a few inches, as Udi simultaneously spread her legs and landed sitting on her girlfriend’s shoulders, still cheering and elated. 

Triumphant Ajinblambia paraded round the court with Udi on her shoulders like a trophy. The Qazudi girls were full of admiration for the goddess too, and clustered worshipfully around her when finally she lifted Udi from her shoulders, and stood her on the turf again. Udi put her arm around Ajinblambia’s waist and Ajinblambia put hers round Udi’s shoulder. Everyone was radiant. Everyone beamed lovely smiles. Everyone, that is but I. I was much embarrassed and annoyed. The limits of my sportsmanship had been reached if not exceeded. 

But Udi said, "I’d like to have you all join me in my apartment for a little dinner party." She and Ajinblambia led the way, their arms still circling one another. Barti took my right hand and Dhabbi took my left hand, as the six of us, the erstwhile Kshaddi Geese, linked to each other like a chain of paper dolls, followed them to Udi’s suite. 

Arriving in the queen’s apartment, we proceeded to a little dining room, intimate and plush, in shades of purple, lit by waxen candles in candlesticks of gold and silver. Udi seated Ajinblambia opposite herself, each at one end of the table, and put three Geese on either side. I could see how things were shaping up. 

"Vocno," said Queen Udi, "all the Geese have long black hair, but yours is short and blond. It ruins the effect. Why don’t we have a wig brought up?" Then she pressed a button on her wristphone, instructing Pixidixia, a palace maid, to find and bring a wig. Minutes later, Pixidixia appeared upon the threshold of the door, wig in hand, and Barti took it from her. A second later, Barti came and put the wig upon my head, to the accompaniment of gleeful cries and merriment from all the ladies present. I started to remove it, but Udi pressed me just to leave it on, at least until we’d had our supper. 

We ate wild rice and pheasant with poppyseed egg-twist and soft, sweet butter, followed by wafers dipped in melted chocolate, and cups of tuco, Ung’s great supercoffee. Thereafter came clear sparkling wine and everyone got tipsy. 

At one point, Ajinblambia, the victress of the court, stood up and went to Udi and whispered in her ear. At once, Queen Udi said to Barti, "Why don’t you girls stay in Eldor Palace for a while as my guests? I’ll give you lovely little rooms." 

Four years earlier, that is, before my banishment to Kshaddi, the girls had lived some months in Eldor Palace, engaged to tutor me in the language of Qazudistan, and knew the lavish treatment that they could expect, invited by the queen. So I was not at all surprised when Barti gratefully accepted Udi’s invitation on behalf of all the girls, "Of course, Queen Udi, we’d love to be your guests. This is quite an honor." 

I was very much in favor of the idea of their staying in the palace—who wouldn’t be delighted?—but I was puzzled Ajinblambia should be the one to offer the suggestion. She barely knew the girls. It seemed a bit presumptuous of her to prompt the queen to hostess them in Eldor Palace. "A little odd!" I thought. Then I once more observed the facial similarity of Ajinblambia and Barti, and I wondered for a minute if something lay behind this. "How old is Ajinblambia in any case?" I asked myself, "How very odd!" Of course, we’d all been drinking glasses of champagne. Ajinblambia had finished several. That might be the explanation. I wasn’t sure. Could there be more? But as the dinner party went along, I forgot about these questions. 

"Now that the Kshaddi Geese are all together once again," said Udi, "perhaps we should reactivate the team." 

"That’s a great idea!" Ajinblambia exclaimed. 

So it was done, except we called ourselves the Eldor Geese, and Udi nominated Barti captain. In the months to come, in the evenings and on holidays, we Geese would practice volleyball a lot. Udi would have someone else take over many of my duties as prime minister that were nominal or ceremonial, so I would have more time to concentrate on volleyball. The title of prime minister, of course, I kept. 

The pretty dinner party lasted till just midnight, then we all went home. In my apartment, in my big wall mirror, I saw myself in the leotard and miniskirt and wig. I was shocked at first, but gradually decided that I liked it. It seemed so logical an outfit. 

In the next few days, Ajinblambia visited the Bank of Ung and Mecnita Testing Laboratories. Of course, because of the ongoing abridgment of my powers, I was not invited to attend the meetings, so my insight into what course negotiations took was conjectural or second-hand, but I heard that she had managed to have the mortgaged lands of the provinces of western Ub appraised anew. Whereas, before, the lands had been considered worth about 1500 Nyatic drachmas per square mile—a Nyatic drachma is around $1000—and hence the 4,000,000-talent loan on 2,750,000 square miles of land, they were now appraised at 1875 Nyatic drachmas per square mile, and this enabled Ajinblambia to raise a trillion extra dollars, which she’d use, not directly for the projects, but rather for the maidservant cities of Qizilot, Uvsnaatar and the others, where anticipating an explosion of the population, she envisioned subways, skyscrapers and superhighways instead of yurts along dirt roads. She also prevailed upon the queen to promulgate a special law whereby the mortgage was amended from 30 years at 8% to 100 years at 2%. Of course, with this kind of financial prestidigitation, you might counter, anyone could make the projects a success, but I had had no luck in that direction. I never got the Bank of Ung to reappraise the Ubbic lands. I never got Queen Udi to publish any special laws on my behalf. 

As for Mecnita Testing Laboratories, needless to say, Ajinblambia received their absolute approval, not only for the laboratories out in Qizilot, but also for her trucks, cement and rails. Too, they made her a standing member of their advisory committee, inviting her to collaborate in a variety of studies and reports. 

She also visited the University of Mecnita, Zhlandarc University, Penjugong Institute of Technology and other institutions of higher learning, recruiting engineers and scientists in dozens. 

Finally, she flew back to Tuva with a harvest of certificates and brains and money, to say nothing of athletic glory from her smashing victory in volleyball. 

In the days to come, I kept plodding on at work. Izmridafia, whose opinion was the only reason that I’d been director in the first place was that I was the husband of the queen, was getting sterner and severer day by day, a slave-driver after her own fashion. "Vocno, sit up straight." "Vocno, please uncross your legs." "Vocno, try to do more work." All day long, she’d give a million orders. Sometimes when I was writing in the cinnabar red ink we used for special correspondence, she’d come over to my desk and take my hand between her fingers and her thumb, and guide me in the more exquisite kind of penmanship she liked, teaching me to fashion fairer flourishes and curlicues on the scented vellum and perfumed papyrus she preferred. At other times, she’d see the tea-roses and baby’s-breath in the vase upon my desk were wilting, and tell me to replace them as she tweaked my ear or rapped my knuckles with a little ruler. "Vocno, your nails are too short." "Vocno, why don’t you wear some jewelry?" "Vocno, don’t yawn, don’t sneeze, don’t cough." She was ever after me. I took it up with Udi, but she said she knew that Ajinblambia would not let Izmridafia abuse or tyrannize me, so my grievances were just imaginary. I should accept the status quo for the transitory little eighteen months I still owed the lady of the raven tresses. 

After work each day, I’d join the other Geese for volleyball. Barti had me running, jumping, doing callisthenics. "Vocno, you need to get some muscles," she would tease me, "Look at Dhabbi here. I want you to look like her, all firm and sleek and muscular." She made me do handstands and turn somersaults, do jumping jacks and cartwheels by the hundreds. My waist was getting slender, my thighs more powerful, my limbs smoother and more supple. "Vocno, you’re starting to look like a Goose," she’d laugh, "We’ll have to call you Dipti." ‘Dipti’ was a common name for girls in her native Gangawar. Soon, she said, we would be ready to represent the palace in the interdistrict games, that is, we would be ready to enroll ourselves in the rosters of the league. She said that if my sex proved problematic, she was sure the queen’s authority would enable me to join the league, and that I should consider it an honor to pioneer in girls’ volleyball in Eb. 

Among my other pastimes and activities, I was trying to decipher the inscriptions from the Poilnarcsian remains. By studying the 37 photocopies that I’d brought from Ulucac, which had 10,000 characters in all, I found that only some 300 different characters appeared. I therefore guessed that these 300 characters formed an alphabet or syllabary rather than a set of ideographs or pictographs or hieroglyphs. So to each of these 300 symbols I assigned a nonsense syllable, like ‘dro’ or ‘ni’ or ‘tsa’. This was all quite arbitrary; I certainly did not suppose I could retrieve the sounds the island’s aborigines had used. It wasn’t even known if the modern Poilnarcsians were descendants of the people who had carved the statues and inscriptions, so referring to their language would be futile. Anyway, I next transcribed the 37 pages of the text into the nonsense syllables I’d chosen, thereby producing a new writing with passages like ‘bla no pu di zna le pfo’ and ‘cro lo li har pan jo gu’. Then I memorized the entire text of all the nonsense syllables in lengthy lucubrations in my apartment in the palace. I’d walk about reciting it aloud—you’d have thought me dotty—till I had it pat. By then I’d noticed some recurrent sequences of two or three or four, like ‘pa na’, ‘do tri’, ‘gu ne ro’ and ‘vla no gu dar’. Drawing upon rules of inference according to the science of statistics, I tentatively joined such sequences and called them words, that is, I now had words like ‘pana’, ‘dotri’, ‘gunero’ and ‘vlanogudar’. Using the computer in my study, I read in the published texts of a great number of already-deciphered writings left by cultures I deemed comparable to the Poilnarcs Island Culture. These texts, of course, were in their Ungi versions, in translations long since made by scholars from Mecnita’s many universities. Next I downloaded a program for editing vocabulary and processed all these texts, producing a really comprehensive word-frequency list, on the assumption that the vocabulary of one primitive people is much like the vocabulary of another. I also produced a word-frequency list for the version of my nonsense sounds where syllables had been agglutinated into ‘words’. Naturally, I knew that no two languages have exactly the same words. To give examples from the languages of Earth, one might compare ‘entraron’ with ‘they entered’, or ‘tu shu guan’ with ‘vivliothiki’, or ‘bolnitsa’ with ‘rumah sakit’. But I took these and other such discrepancies into consideration as I studied all my texts, making corollary annotations in the margins. Comparing my two word-frequency lists, I assumed a one-to-one correspondence to begin with. For example, the fiftieth word on the real-language frequency list became the tentative translation of the fiftieth word on the nonsense list, but, of course, the forty-ninth word and fifty-first word on the real list were nearly equal candidates, and the forty-eighth and fifty-second words just slightly less so, and so forth, all according to the bell-shaped normal distribution. Too, I had to make allowances for gaps, when a single word might correspond to two, as I remarked above, and the whole list was displaced. At any rate, proceeding as I’ve outlined, I obtained a rough first draft. My next step was to read the draft alertly and judge on whether any little glints of meaning were evident therein. My computer couldn’t manage this finer kind of judgment. Much to my delight, and surprisingly indeed, there were a couple passages where I could see a subtle semblance and similitude of sense. In such cases, where, of a sudden, an outrageously unlikely word intruded and derailed the train of thought, I’d go up and down the normal curve, trying words adjacent to the word that didn’t fit. Whenever an adjacent word I’d substituted for the misfit seemed just as bad or worse, I’d scrap it, moving to the next word for another try, but if the substitute fit better, I’d adopt it, entering it in the glossary I kept in memory in my computer. Then I’d print out a new translation, hoping that the word I had adopted, if it was present elsewhere in the text as well, would cast a ray of light in the other place or places too. I’d peruse my new edition, sometimes discarding the adopted word, sometimes retaining it, and in the latter case, examining the newly appearing glints of meaning that had occasioned its retention in the first place. And so I labored in the wee hours, night in, night out, while the queen was sleeping, using the method of successive approximations I was hoping would enable me to decipher the inscriptions and bring me philological renown and glory. 

In addition to this interest in Poilnarcs, I was doing research on the history of Ub. This was in conjunction with a book that I was authoring, The Fall of Qazudistan, in which I sought to trace the etiology of the ailments that spelt the death of the theocracy. I began my book with several chapters constituting a brief Qazudi history, continued with an accurate account of the Qazudi Revolution, and ended with the establishment of Ungistan and its annexation unto Ung. In those first few chapters, I’d divided Qazudi history into half a dozen periods that I’d devised and named: 

1.) The Chieftaincy Year 85,300 to Year 92,750 

2.) The Kingdom Year 92,750 to Year 98,161 

3.) The Republic Year 98,161 to Year 102,251 

4.) The Empire Year 102,251 to Year 102,721 

5,) The Despotat Year 102,721 to Year 103,249 

6.) The Theocracy Year 103,249 to Year 103,389 

The Theocracy, the period during which the Jvashnas, 300 turbaned hierarchs, had ruled, began with the construction of the Rajassi, their great hall opposite Jhibilli Place, in Bihaka, one-time capital of Jhibilli and Qazudistan. Ungistan, embracing both Qazudistan and 105 once-independent little countries, has Dilfatty, not Bihaka, as its capital. It was the Jvashnas whom the revolution had brought down. I was present at the siege of the Rajassi and its final storming, when the hierarchs were seized and trucked to Osh, then in Sagha’a, now in Ghasb. From Osh they were escorted in a minijet to Mwalgoic Island, east of Ub, and lastly in a jumbo jet to Jezgroid in Mecnita, where they went to Slanchgav Prison. As I’ve said, it was the sheerest luck that put the triumph in my hands, despite my errors and miscalculations. Nonetheless, I witnessed a great deal and felt competent to chronicle the saga. 

Anyway, from the beginning of the Kingdom till the conclusion of the Despotat, about 10,500 years, there’d been a mighty family behind the scenes, influencing events. They were the Vrikshayas, who ruled kings and consuls, emperors and despots, from the shadows. To be sure, in all those long millennia, there’d been a king or two, perhaps a couple of emperors, who’d stood up to the Vrikshayas, seizing power and ruling in their own right, but by and large the Vrikshayas ran everything, telling tyrants what to do and giving autocrats their orders. They were thought to be endowed with superhuman minds. Some rumored they were of another, higher species. Others said they’d come from Mli, Nya’s lone populated satellite. Many were the legends and romances surrounding the great family. Then, suddenly, at the beginning of the Theocracy, just when the Jvashnas took the reins of power in Qazudistan, the Vrikshayas all simply vanished from the land. Had they died off? Had they just lost their majesty and so assimilated into the population? Had they returned to Mli? Were they in hiding, waiting to regain their power? No one knew whether and how numerously they still existed. These were the fascinating puzzles I was trying to resolve. I was contriving masterly hypotheses I hoped would help distinguish me as a historian of the very highest rank, giving me a reputation I myself had earned, and not just one for being husband of the queen. 

Then there were the hours of embroidery. I’d settle in the big plum chair while Udi played her harpsichord or harp, with Toto, Udi’s long white parakeet, warbling in accompaniment. I’d take up my needles and work on The Coronation of Queen Udi. This was a picture of the queen on the 15th day of year 390, during the procession along the Avenue of Ung, from the thousand-story towers of Ramdonia to the great gates of Eldor Palace. Ten thousand lovely girls in gowns of rose-red organdy, ten abreast, had filed down the middle of three carriageways that alternated with four promenades to form the septenary avenue, six of the seven thronged with golden multitudes come to see the crowning. After this magnificent red myriad of maidens came 1000 cars of flowers—orchids, roses, lilies, tulips and gardenias—a train from paradise. Eight gorgeous Ungi ladies, tall and grand, came next, carrying a litter of silver filigree and tufted violet velvet, whereon the queenly crown of platinum and sapphire was borne. 

Mounted sidesaddle on an elegant white mare, caparisoned, like the litter, in silver filigree and violet velvet, rode Queen Udi, gowned in lustrous snow-white satin and cloaked in azure velvet trimmed with miniver. Her countenance was radiant as noon, her gaze sublime, her mouth the kiss of heaven. Clad in breeches and a doublet blue as evening, with whitest cuffs and collars, and buskins of black suede, I trode behind Queen Udi and held high her velvet train. It was Ung’s finest hour. Now I was committing with gossamer of silk that coronation to a ground of extra-fine penelope. 

In Udi’s study, on her oaken shelves edged with egg-and-dart of gold, I found another quarto book bound in leather dyed with indigo. This book contained 500 pictures of comely ladies stylishly attired in beautiful apparel, gowns and dresses for all functions and occasions. I was spellbound. I was rapt. I was enchanted. "Do you want to make some dresses?" Udi asked. Of course I did I realized that very moment for the first time in my life, and, as if by clairvoyance, I saw Defdefa Convent. This made me apprehensive, for some uncanny reason, and almost prevented me from saying, "Yes." Apparently I’d found a new pursuit and passion—haute couture. 

All the while, in these days and weeks since Ajinblambia’s return to Tuva, since for the most part, Izmridafia kept me busy all day long inditing cinnabaric letters and doing other suchlike little deeds and duties, Queen Udi entertained the damsels from Qazudistan, my teammates in the newly chartered Eldor Geese. In the regal corridor each day, as for one reason or another I passed by the open doorway to the room next Udi’s office, I could see the royal lady and her guests as they laughed and smiled, gesturing and talking. It was a very pretty picture. I was pleased. My only reservation, aside from my exclusion, which I really couldn’t blame on Udi, was the great amount of time they spent together there. Sometimes, too, they’d close the door and silence would ensue. What was going on? Surely, exchanging pleasantries and making merry couldn’t fill so many afternoons and mornings. It really wasn’t my affair, I know, but I was highly curious. Knowing Udi as I did, I understood it would be useless to inquire though. I’d have to bide my time. 

Then one evening, when the queen and I were in her study, suddenly she looked up from the watercolor landscape she was painting on white vellum, and addressed me, "Vocno, why is it that you never mentioned how intelligent the girls from Kshaddi are? You’ve spent good amounts of time with them. Surely you were cognizant of this. Why didn’t you speak up?" 

"Oh, didn’t I?" I answered nonchalantly, "Of course they’re bright young ladies. I thought it was self-evident." 

"They’re more than bright young ladies, Vocno, they’re truly gifted girls." 

"Truly gifted girls?" I was utterly astonished. "They’re normal, wholesome and alert young ladies, that I know, but truly gifted girls, Udi?" 

"Don’t say you didn’t notice, dearest Vocno. You lived with them in Kshaddi and they tutored you in Eldor Palace here as well. Didn’t you appreciate their extraordinary qualities of mind?" 

"But, Udi, they’re just village girls from rural Gangawar. Kshaddi has 2000 people and just a tiny school." 

"Well, Vocno, your Motinia is just as backward." 

"Have I ever claimed to be a pundit? 

"You’re prime minister of Ung." 

"At any rate, your highness, no, I didn’t know the girls are geniuses, if indeed they are, as you believe. Why do you think so? When came the revelation?" said I, with a trace of mockery or irony. 

"These little gatherings have taught me quite a bit. I’m going to have the university conduct examinations." 

"What? Again? Just like Ajinblambia?" 

"Well, that depends upon their scores in preliminary tests I’ll have the school give. If they do well, perhaps we’ll go a little further. We want to measure their intelligence and character exhaustively, if there are signs of promise there." 

I clucked in cynicism when I heard this, but there’s no arguing with Udi once her mind’s made up. Beginning the next day, the proctors and examiners were at the palace every morning, lugging all their gear—computers and projectors, screens and blackboards, books and pads of paper. The tests went on for several days. 

While the tests were still in progress, Ajinblambia appeared at Eldor Palace once again, flown in from Qizilot. Apparently, according to her calculations, Nya’s uranium reserves sufficed to fuel the stations in the west of Ub but for a century or so. However, previous Nyatic missions into space had demonstrated sizable deposits of that radioactive element existed on Dlivandor, another planet in the Dyotic solar system. But theretofore, building cargo-carrying spaceships in quantity sufficient to equip a mine in space would have been unsound economy. Costs would have by far exceeded revenues inuring to defray them. All this had been discussed even in Queen Yuni’s reign, next before Queen Udi’s. But Ajinblambia, reviewing records of those previous Nyatic missions and believing that their estimates were understated, said her own calculations showed 5000 or 10,000 years’ reserves were readily exploitable upon that planet, and that she wanted to renew discussions abandoned since the days of Yuni. Her plan consisted in construction of an aerospace facility in Dorgdid, Ung’s second largest city, with auxiliary cement works, steel mill and power station to supply it. She also had in mind new concepts to apply to the design of Ungi Stars, Ung’s most technologically sophisticated spaceships. Her improvements included use of atlantite-12, an alloy she was working on, reduction of the number of rockets from five to one, and elimination of stages. She was hoping to prove to Udi and her counselors the feasibility of the facility and the spaceships it would build. So, interrupting her direction of the reclamation projects, she left Drisconarv in charge and flew into Mecnita for a few-day stay. 

When she arrived in Udi’s office, I was there. Queen Udi rose and hurried to the door to greet her friend and put her arms around her waist. Ajinblambia hugged Udi tight and kissed her honey tresses just above the forehead. Then she took the nape of Udi’s neck in her two hands and drew her near and held her to her bosom. A twinge of jealousy arose within me. They were getting very sweet. So when Ajinblambia at last let Udi go and the ladies separated, I stepped over and took Udi by the wrist, trying to look casual. Apparently, however, my manner was abrupt enough that it revealed my jealousy. 

"Vocno, I find it rather rude of you to hurry over to Udi with that possessive attitude, as if somehow I’ve infringed your rights by greeting her with an embrace," said Ajinblambia with visible annoyance, "Please don’t offend me with your jealousy. Queen Udi’s my dear friend and sovereign." 

"I wasn’t acting out of jealousy," I answered meekly. 

"Vocno, please don’t contradict me and don’t suppose I can’t see through your little action. At any rate, displaying marital affection publicly is not polite. Queen Udi and I hugged each other only out of comradeship, just feelings of sorority. And now you’ve gotten jealous." 

"I didn’t mean the least offense," I answered still more meekly than before, caught unawares by Ajinblambia’s aggressive manner. 

"In the future, Vocno, whenever I am present, please stay away from Udi. Don’t touch her or get nearer than five feet. Is that quite clear?" Ajinblambia was furious. I could scarce believe my ears. 

"But Ajinblambia, Udi is my wife." 

At this, Ajinblambia came over, put her hands beneath my shoulders in my armpits and picked me up, as if I’d been a feather, till she had my face right underneath her own, as she leant forward to glare down at me. "When I tell you what to do, you’ll do it, do you understand?" 

"But…" 

"Do you understand?" 

"Yes, Ajinblambia," I answered with a whimper. 

Queen Udi interceded. She came over and put her arms around her friend. "Ajinblambia, you’re so severe! Don’t be angry with dear Vocno. He means well." 

Ajinblambia reacted as if she’d been caught in a spontaneous faux pas that she herself would not have taken if she’d given it some thought. "You’re quite right, Queen Udi, I apologize. I’m in the wrong. Vocno, please forgive me. I didn’t mean to scare you. But please maintain decorum and stay away from Udi when I’m present." She took Udi in her arms again and kissed her cheek, "Will you forgive me too, dear Udi?" 

"Of course," said Udi, "we all act hastily sometimes." She hugged Ajinblambia again. I stood watching but didn’t dare approach. 

Subsequently, Ajinblambia, apologizing handsomely time and time again, relaxed her rule entirely, but I continued to observe it nonetheless. 

In the days that followed, Udi and Ajinblambia appointed a commission at the Bank of Ung to study the proposal for the aerospace facility. Then, finally, considering her errand in the capital accomplished, Ajinblambia flew back to Tuva, having said she hoped to start in Dorgdid in a year or so, presumably leaving Drisconarv or someone else in charge in Ub when came the day. 

"I can’t believe it," Udi said the next day after Ajinblambia’s departure, when she’d received the Qazudi girls’ test results. She was holding five thick folders in her hands. "Let me take these one by one and see just how they’ve done." I was in the russet leather chair right by the globe of Nya on brazen gimbals in her office. I could tell by her elation that the girls had scored tremendous scores, but apparently the queen had not reviewed the papers thoroughly just yet. This she’d do, or start to do, perhaps while I was there. "Look, Barti’s I. Q. is way above 200. I told you she’s a genius." 

"Way above 200? Surely you’re just joking, Udi?" 

"No, no, not at all. Here, take a look." 

I took the folder she had opened and started paging through it. It was true. Almost every page had been marked ‘100’ by the grader. Not only had the eldest of the five Qazudi girls, Barti Presed, now age 23, scored 100 on nearly all the tests, with an intelligence almost at the 100th percentile, but her writing was of calligraphic quality, absolutely legible, esthetically well-formed. You could have put the papers on the wall. "Impressive," I agreed, "I’d never have supposed our Barti was so brilliant." 

"That’s your problem, Vocno," said the queen, "Sometimes your judgment’s not as keen as a prime minister’s should be. You mustn’t just assume that talent’s absent when a town is small. Didn’t you allow that the Qazudi girls might be capable young ladies, potentially an asset to the realm?" 

"Udi dear, I think you’ve gone too far. I’m glad, genuinely delighted even, that the Geese have superior intelligence, but they’re an asset to the realm? Come, come, dear Udi, please be realistic." 

"Vocno, I think you’re just a male chauvinist." 

"I’m a male chauvinist who works for Udi, Ajinblambia and Izmridafia? Surely you’re just jesting, highness?" 

Queen Udi was no feminist at all. She made appointments strictly on the basis of ability. If you were a lady of high rank in Udi’s Ung, you could rest assured you’d risen on you merit, not just to fill a quota. Certainly, many a lady had attained high standing and enjoyed prestige in Ung, but no one ever said that this was due to patronage or favoritism on Queen Udi’s part. But Ajinblambia was somewhat different. I think she was a feminist. Of course, she definitely would not pervert the method of selection based on merit; she was far too sensible. But I suspect that secretly she wanted women in the highest places, rejoicing when they outscored men on qualifying examinations. As for male chauvinism, there really was none anywhere in Ung; it was not the fashion. Quite the contrary, the personification of the realm was, if anything, a lovely lady. At any rate, no chauvinist was I. 

"Well, Vocno, how explain your oversight if that is true?" asked the queen rhetorically, as if she’d been concluding a convincing proof. "But before I further say a word to praise these girls from Gangawar, perhaps I should go over these five folders just a little better. Here, relax a while, while I page through them. Or better yet, let me review them later on this evening or in the morning. Tomorrow you and I can talk it over." 

She set the five thick folders on her desk, and rose and stretched her hand towards me. I took her by her wrist and led her to her study. She had on a dress of black-and-gold brocade, the bodice fitted and the skirt full as a bell, very regal, very costly. Adjacent to her study was a little mirrored dressing room she called her boudoir, and she stepped in. A minute later, she stepped out, attired in a rose chemise beneath a wine peignoir with little sprigs of point duchesse. She ran her graceful fingers over the various lengths of strings drawn in her harp, as if she pulled a shuttle through a warp, then took a seat to play. The melodious music-making lasted half an Ungi hour. As I sat listening, I leafed through the book of indigo concerning ladies’ fashions. Had I been blind these many years to think of art as pictures depicting only saints and warriors—ragged saints and bloody warriors—in the throes of crucifixion and the agonies of battle? Show me a charming girl in a stylish gown, I said unto myself, as I turned the pages of the dark blue volume. Queen Udi’s variations vanished as the evening ripened. She stood and stretched. I took her round her midriff with my arm and led her to her platinum and sapphire bed. The test results would have to wait.



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**********A TALE OF UNG**********


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