A Tale of Ung
The Ghasbi Swamps
The room adjacent to Queen Udi’s office, one of many more or less alike, with one wall paneled in bright tapestries of heroines from Ung’s mythology, was lighted in the evening by sconces on the piers and chandeliers suspended from the ceiling, while in the morning sunshine entered by the lacquered mullions in between the lights of lofty windows that composed the other wall across the room. Half a dozen oaken tables with attendant chairs were there, and one could host a conference or party quite conveniently. This is where the queen had gathered with the Geese—the other Geese, that is—for all those many convivialities that had aroused my curiosity, and this is where the operatives from the university had set up their projectors and their screens. The colored hangings, mostly white, celeste and scarlet, were cheerful, edifying, elevating. A fireplace with a massive limestone mantelpiece overlooked the room, making up one end, while mirrors made the other.
The subject of the girls’ test results lay dormant for a day or two, as if it had quite slipped Queen Udi’s mind. I surely wasn’t eager to remind her. Then one morning Udi said she had a new announcement she would make, inviting Barti, Usha, Mlechi, Vinja, Dhabbi and myself to an informal little luncheon in the later forenoon in that room. The Gangawarian quintet showed up in silver bracelets and bright green little dresses without sleeves, their delightfully displayed brown arms and legs as comely as their lustrous long black hair. Queen Udi wore a dress of ruby velvet with a lace-trimmed décolletage sinuous o’er her swelling bosom, and ruby lipstick beautified her gorgeous smile as she proposed a toast. She said Barti was the guest of honor.
"I am astonished by the scores you girls scored," Queen Udi said to get the party under way, "though it’ll take some time for me to study all the papers as thoroughly as they deserve. Barti’s papers I’ve reviewed. She did marvelously well, especially in civil engineering and Ungi and Qazudi. Her I. Q.’s 200-plus, one in a hundred million. She’s a veritable prodigy. I’m absolutely thrilled. This is not to say you others didn’t do as well. I simply haven’t looked the other papers over yet. By and by, I’ll do it, when there’s time, but for now I want to honor Barti in particular. As doubtless, you all know, the one-time Qazudi province of Alyafilah has united with the former land of Sagha’a to form Memleket Ghasb, or simply Ghasb, a kingdom now made tributary unto Ung. The Ghasbi swamps that dominate Memleket Ghasb are utterly horrendous, full of quicksand and malarial mosquitoes. North of the swamps a thousand miles lies the Karamanta Desert, a sprawling tract of arid dunes. What I have in mind is a canal with water treatment plants and pumping stations all along the way to move the mess from Ghasb to Karamanta. I think our Barti may be equal to the task. I’d like for her to draw up the proposal, the conceptual design, the estimate, the schedule. I’m giving her an office, a bank account and 100 days to put together a portfolio of plans. If she shows it can be done and she can do it, I’ll authorize the Bank of Ung to go ahead, and I’ll name Barti the directress."
"Why Barti? Why not one of us?" asked Mlechi, interrupting.
"Don’t fret," said Udi, "I’ve seen your results as well. Anon I’ll offer you a project too, but for now just carry on with your vacationing. After all, Barti is the eldest."
"‘Eldest’ isn’t ‘brightest’," said Mlechi with a giggle, "You’ll have Barti thinking she’s superior to us."
"Oh, I suppose you’re just a perfect little genius, Mlechi," retorted Barti, "or shall I call you ‘Young Miss Brainpan’?" Of course, this was all good-natured teasing.
"She is a whiz at mathematics," said Dhabbi in defense of Mlechi, "She knows her logarithms back and forth, for one thing. Mlechi, what’s the log of 2.3?"
"2.3? The logarithm is .8329," replied the whiz.
"Oh, I see you two have this all rehearsed and memorized," Barti mocked them.
"Well, you select a number then, Miss Water Treatment," Dhabbi snapped.
"Very well, Mlechi, what’s the log of 1.7?"
"1.7? The logarithm is .5306," Mlechi said triumphantly.
"That’s a splendid pastime, memorizing logarithms! Really very handy!" Barti said sarcastically, "If I find I need an authority on logarithms, I’ll put Mlechi on my project. Memorizing logarithms indeed! Can you believe it?"
"Memorizing logarithms? Who mentioned memorizing? There’s a formula, you know. Don’t tell me Miss I. Q. doesn’t know the formula."
"Of course I know the formula, you silly goose. Here give me a pencil," Barti said, as the queen looked on bewildered but amused to see the girls quarreling.
On the paper she was given, Barti wrote: And she said aloud, "Sum, with ‘n’ equaling zero to infinity, of the quantity ‘x’ to the ‘nth’ power over ‘n’ factorial, end quantity."
"Is this the kind of goose that treats our water? O Barti dear, that’s not the logarithmic formula, it’s the antilogarithmic formula. Here’s the formula for the logarithm of the sum of unity and a number ‘n’," said Mlechi, with another triumphant little smirk, as she wrote on the paper:
"I knew that," Barti said, "I just made a slip of the tongue."
"You know what they say about slips of the tongue," Vinja interrupted, "There’s a deep-seated desire within you clamoring for expression."
"Be quiet, Vinja," Usha said, "Who told you you’re a psychoanalyst?"
"So you know the formula. That doesn’t tell you what the logarithm is," said Barti, just ignoring Vinja’s psychoanalytic observation.
"Of course it does. You just apply the formula. That’s what formulas are for."
"Oh, I see, you sum up an infinite number of terms right in your pretty head."
"Of course not, silly goose. As soon as the series converges to four decimal places, I stop summing."
And we all set down our glasses of champagne in open-mouthed amazement as Mlechi demonstrated her procedure for us, uttering her mental calculations all aloud as she produced logarithm after logarithm out of thinnest air. Even Barti, with her phenomenal I. Q., could barely do a couple of the easier logarithms in her head, while Mlechi turned out answers like a human calculator.
"I’m really quite impressed," said Udi to the whiz, "but please do wait a while for me to place you. We certainly won’t let you away."
"I was only teasing Barti anyway," said Mlechi as she smiled adorably, "We’re all quite proud of her and regard her as our leader. I’m happy that she’s won your favor."
We partied until afternoon and then we went our sundry ways. I was quite upset to realize that in intelligence I lagged so far behind the girls. I wasn’t fully cognizant, I didn’t really grasp the meaning of the scores until that very afternoon. No amount of rationalization could convince me I remained their equal. No amount of intellectualization could mitigate the blow my ego had sustained. Still, geniuses or no, can girls of Barti’s age take on such onerous responsibilities? Did she have the requisite maturity as well as adequate experience?
"Udi, this is madness," I entreated, when she and I were in her study and she’d set free her long, white parakeet to fly his daily circles, towering and stooping round the northern oval of the palace. "The girl is only 23 years old, untried, perhaps frivolous and flighty…"
"Frivolous and flighty? Because she’s young and female, do you mean?"
"Be realistic, Udi dear. You yourself could see how silly they can be. Do you really think they’re ready to assume responsibilities like the drainage of the Ghasbi Swamps?"
"Vocno, you’re so ponderous and pompous of a sudden, as if you were some staid and stable statesman, stiff and stodgy to a fault. Do you remember when you interrupted your affairs of state in Gangawar to join the girls in volleyball against the Cranes and how you got your picture in the paper in Ujjama? Where were all your lecturing and sermonizing then? Weren’t you being just a little frivolous and flighty too?"
We talked it over time and time again, but Udi wouldn’t yield. She was queen and justly so, according to her own opinion of the matter. Who was I, myself her creature, to school her on how to be a queen, when she reigned as the descendant of as thousand-century dynastic house?
So Barti kept her office on the regal corridor, and I could see her when her door was open, reading books and correspondence, writing, typing, drafting, keying her computer. At the very least, you’d have to say she was assiduous and zealous, ready to work for many hours every day. How competent her work was was a question I myself was scarcely qualified to answer, though I had my gravest doubts.
On one hand, I wished Barti well. I loved her dearly and rejoiced whenever she did well or got the recognition she deserved. On the other hand, the realm’s well-being was my legitimate concern in my capacity as Ung’s prime minister. Not only that, but having aired my doubts and reservations, I was jealous of my reputation as a judge of character, and, perhaps despite my nobler side, I wanted to be proven right in my assessment of the girl’s capabilities. Moreover, I’d be disingenuous denying I was envious. So I watched carefully each day to see what I could see.
The hundred days prescribed by Udi came and went, one at a time, my mixed emotions notwithstanding, till at last, on day 284, a huge portfolio of documents and drawings lay on Udi’s 6 x 30 walnut desk. Barti had completed her assignment in a timely manner, if nothing else. Surveys, calculations, plans, computer printouts, written texts, specifications, tables, charts and graphs made a sheaf of documents three inches thick.
The queen and Dzemlavang and Yarlomenx reviewed the huge portfolio at length, then consulted engineers, developers and planners as concerns the technicalities and complications involved in dredging, draining, clearing, digging, building, pumping, treating and distributing. Did Barti’s concept of the work make sense? Was the project as she planned it feasible? Had due regard been paid economy? Were her estimates defensible and her schedule realistic? Should the Bank of Ung provide the capital? Would the installation have a lifetime adequate to justify the cost? Could a profit be derived? Among the queen and all her experts and advisors, the consensus of opinion was that the project as proposed by Barti was a masterpiece of engineering. Nothing needed to be changed, removed or added. Everything was perfect. Finance, as the ultimate criterion, stood squarely on the firmest ground. An ad hoc commission studied the proposal independently. They agreed. The project was a masterpiece. No engineer in Ung could have produced superior designs. So, at last, after some ten days of consultation and deliberation, the queen impressed her seal on the title page of the proposal and signed her name upon the line within the seal, with verification sworn by a score of witnesses. So be it! Fiat! Nihil obstat!
Back in ’387, when I’d been banished by the queen to Kshaddi, Gangawar, and was playing for the Geese, my height had been a little more than theirs. They’d been physically immature and, furthermore, Qazudis are not as tall as Ungis on the whole. Now in year 391, I noticed they had grown somewhat and all outtopped by an inch or more.
When Udi had repealed the order of my banishment, later in ’387, when I’d been reinstated as prime minister of Ung and Udi had at last befriended the five girls, so that I had dealings with them periodically, I’d considered it a point of honor not to act superior or treat the girls condescendingly. Inwardly I knew that I enjoyed high rank, while they were ordinary citizens. It wasn’t necessary for me to make a spectacle of this, that is, be overbearing, smug or patronizing. Instead let me be gracious and treat the girls like friends or sisters, I reasoned to myself.
Now things had changed. First, they’d passed me up in height, Barti in particular. Secondly, I knew they were endowed with marvelous intelligence far surpassing mine and knew I knew it. Thirdly, at a time when I was just recovering from my dismissal from the directorate of projects in the west of Ub, Barti was on the point of launching major projects in the east of Ub. Now who was superior? I didn’t know. Or rather, to be honest, I did know but didn’t want to say.
One evening Barti called me on my wristphone, "Come over to my office right away." Didn’t she appreciate I was prime minister of Ung, not a man to be commanded, "Come," or, "Go away."? Wouldn’t she observe the rules, petitioning me to grant an interview, not just ordering me to come? After all, volleyball was one thing, official business quite another. Still, she was a dear, dear friend and such as charming girl. I’d never made a fuss about my station in the past. I’d never stood on ceremony. Why should I start now? Wouldn’t I be childish to be renitent just because she used a verb in the imperative? Of course I would, I finally decided. I rose and hurried to her office. She was in the doorway. She was dressed more stylishly than usual—a braided silver chaplet round her head, a floorlength, off-the-shoulder navy velvet gown upon her figure. I noticed also she was even taller than I’d thought at first on seeing her out at the courts that day, maybe 6’-3 or so. Her skin was of the color of polished sandalwood or coffee with cream, sleek and glossy. Her scent was that of perfume made of otto. Where was the silly girl in her miniskirt that I’d once known? This was a lovely lady, nay, a queen. I could scarce believe my eyes. She took me by the wrists in her right hand—she must have seen it done by Ajinblambia—and led me to her desk. I was swept off my feet, stunned, enchanted, captivated. Now who was first and who was second?
When we’d exchanged our greetings and got situated comfortably, Barti never letting go my wrists, I gathered she had called me over mainly to show off, and, yes, I was impressed, indeed bowled over, not to say enamored. We sat and talked an hour. Gradually her manner and aplomb, as well as the rhyme and reason of her words, persuaded me that she was equal to the task the queen had set before her. I confess I hadn’t recognized a jewel in the rough. I succumbed to a kind of worship overpowering and extinguishing the sense of rivalry that theretofore I’d felt. At any rate, from that day on, whenever Barti wanted me, she’d call me and I’d come. The ‘prime’ in the ‘prime minister’ appended to my name seemed wholly unimportant in those days.
When I got to my suite, having found Queen Udi fast asleep in hers, I lay upon my bed and thought about the meaning of all these recent happenings. Another lovely lady had appeared as if from nowhere and rocketed into the firmament of Eldor Palace. Was this a mere coincidence? Ajinblambia and Barti did resemble one another. Was this just happenstance? Wasn’t Ajinblambia from Psebol and Barti from Qazudistan? But Ajinblambia spoke excellent Qazudi. Then what about the difference between the presumptive age and the apparent age of Ajinblambia? This too was odd. I tossed and turned. I pondered and I wondered. At last I fell asleep, determined to forget my weird ideas and suspicions and forebodings. There was nothing otherworldly or supernatural herein. I was dealing with remarkable coincidences, nothing more.
Meanwhile, Izmridafia had been getting worse. Picayune and petty, domineering and authoritarian, she found fault with me continually and made me work long hours. I took it up with Ajinblambia. I took it up with Udi. I questioned whether Izmridafia’s expertise and talent indeed surpassed my own. They tested her and me, and she outscored me soundly. I claimed she was despotic and oppressive. They sent someone to monitor and judge the policies and the procedures Izmridafia observed around the office. The findings were that Izmridafia, if anything, was lenient. I argued I should have a different post within the structure of the staff. Counselors were sent to interview me and review my record. They found my placement perfect. There was no way out of my predicament. Queen Udi wouldn’t listen.
Also, during those 100 days and afterwards as well, I labored in my efforts to decipher the inscriptions on the stones of Poilnarcs Island with the 37 photocopies I had brought from Ulucac. On the computer in my study, a thousand times I’d keyboarded new guesses at the meanings of the words I had agglutinated to denote the symbols that the ancient islanders had carved, renumbering my frequencies and editing my lexicon. I recall, as an example, a tantalizing little passage in one of my translations, and this passage was, "The chief received a very every ocean." Reviewing this, I speculated that ‘very’ and ‘ocean’ were quite wrong, while all the other words were probably correct. So I tried, instead of ‘very every ocean’, phrases such as ‘dream every night’, ‘gift every day’, ‘guest every evening’, ‘delegation every year’. Each time I made a try, every ‘very’ and every ‘ocean’ in the text would change in unison with the selfsame sentence I was struggling to decipher, and I hoped the changes would elucidate some other passages as well, without obscuring any passages already lucid. If, on the whole, the text improved, I’d adopt the trial word, otherwise discard it. In this case, in the final version, as I recall it, I had ‘gift every day’. I could recite many another such example too. All these many months, late, late at night, I’d been punching keys to solve my noble cryptogram. I aimed to write a book, win kudos from the archeologists of Ung. I hadn’t really anticipated more.
So you can well imagine my surprise, when, as my attempts to translate the inscriptions started bearing fruit, it looked as if one of the subjects of the writings was a mass of buried gold. Gold! Gold and jewels! To be sure, the translation I had made had numerous lacunae and hiatuses galore. Doubtless there were also errors, careless guesses and miswordings. Yet I’d begun to see a ray of light. Apparently, a massive treasure—gold and jewels—had been secreted on Poilnarcs in olden days, if indeed these writings were a real record and not a tale of adventure. Gold and jewels! What I didn’t know was when—how many centuries ago—the gold and jewels had been interred, and whether or not the treasure still remained intact under the massif of the mountain where they’d buried it. Too, I recognized the possibility that all my handiwork was but a splendid piece of self-deception. Maybe my rendition of the writings was just a heap of rubbish, all my programming and keypunching a flirting with mirages.
But the siren call of gold and jewels made it worth my while to go to Poilnarcs Island to investigate. I’d just reschedule my vacation, with Izmridafia’s approval naturally, take a jumbo jet to Ulucac and put up at the Grand Hotel. Then I’d rent a horse and, with a saddlebag of tools, ride out to the site, that is, to the location I’d deduced by poring over the inscriptions. I was feverishly enthusiastic, as excited as a fire. Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t prevail on Izmridafia to change the schedule. I asked on day 295 of year 391. My next vacation was scheduled for the 30th of year 392—nearly five earth-months away. I called Ajinblambia by videophone, appealing Izmridafia’s denial. She told me to ask Udi. I talked to Udi. She told me it was up to Izmridafia. I was angry. I said, "Damn!" I said, "Blazes!" I said, "Drat!’ But I didn’t leave Mecnita, you can bet, because Izmridafia’s validation was required on my passport for me to book a flight. Some prime minister was I!
So till winter of ’392, I’d have to wait and work. Poilnarcs Island is near Nya’s equator and enjoys unending summer, so weather didn’t pose a problem. But I was wildly eager to go find the treasure, like a mustang champing at the bit. Almost every hour, every day my new obsession held me rapt. I was captive to the lure of treasure and adventure. I was spellbound, hypnotized, entranced.
During those long months—to use the Earth’s chronometry—in order to distract myself as best I could, I spent some time researching for my book, The Fall of Qazudistan. The aspect that intrigued me most was the question of the Vrikshayas. Who were that dark mysterious old family that governed all the governors for ten millennia? Why had they disappeared? Where had they gone? Had they returned to Mli? Or were they quite extinct? In addition to these questions was the question of cosmology. In scientific circles here in Ung, we have our own cosmology. This includes a zoological taxonomy, a binomial nomenclature for naming animals, including men. In our taxonomy, we call humans Macs ogashta. ‘Macs’ means ‘men’. ‘Ogashta’ is an olden word for ‘wise’ or ‘sapient’. Many Ungians believe phylogeny is everywhere the same, general throughout the universe, like chemistry and physics. In any galaxy, given certain elements and suitable amounts of heat and light, life will necessarily arise, assuming forms prescribed by nature’s laws. If you have oxygen and hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon, with ample sunshine, you’ll find Macs ogashta wherever you may go. There are no girls or boys of silicon or antimatter. They’re always flesh and blood from one end of creation to the other. However, there was that persistent legend that the Vrikshayas constituted yet another, higher species. Was there a species called Macs vrikshaya alongside Macs ogashta? This would refute the fashionable cosmology of Ung, upset our worldview at its foundations.
I contrived hypotheses and formulated theses hoping to explain that old, elusive family, the Vrikshayas. Mostly I would lie in bed or on the sofa in my study, thinking, musing, groping for an answer. Or I’d consult the library of books I’d purchased in Bihaka, reading through the literature existing on the subject, tales and rumors written and rewritten by a host of authors. Then I’d say sometimes, "Oh well, the subject isn’t really all so terribly important." And I’d drop it till the next time I took up my pen and paper, usually a day or two thereafter, rarely three or four. In the interim, I’d be back at my computer, lusting after all that gold and all those jewels.
Barti had jetted off to Osh, the capital of Ghasb, of course by way of Mwalgoic Island, with its runways long as highways. In Ghasb, she’d buy up land and let out contracts, talk to officers of banks and tour the swamps and desert she’d been chosen to transform. Of course, she had expert advisors as companions. She knew that she was new. From time to time, she’d be back in Mecnita, commuting between the continents of Eb and Ub. Of course, out volleyball would be sporadic now. When she flew in, we’d play a game or two. Otherwise, we’d be inactive. Important was her business in the swamps. Less so were our games.
By the end of year 391, ground was being broken for canals and reservoirs, treatment plants and pumping stations. Thousands had been hired. Cash had been put up for gear. Excavation was getting under way. Earth was being hauled. I didn’t go myself out to the site just then. I merely looked at photographs and films. All the signs gave evidence that the engine that would be was ready to be fitted and assembled. I was impressed. I marveled. Whence came the lass’s talent?
The projects in the Ubbic west were going great guns too. One upon another, the installations billowed upward towards completion, as if the very bowels of Nya upheaved them. From an Ungi superhelicopter, the power stations looked like light gray mushrooms in a yellowish or reddish soil lapped over by successive ribbons of white seafoam driven inland by the aquamarine infinity of the Eastern Ocean, under a celestial canopy of lapis lazuli illumined by the sun. Vadose and phreatic water, replenished by light rain in scattered coastal regions, was already being pumped, with no depression of the water table, into the long gray tubes—the concrete pipelines—that networked every quarter of the desert. This was but a trickle is comparison with the quantity of water that would fill those arteries and be extravasated on the fields in aftertime, when all the stations started streaming. Still, even then, one could descry some patches of green wheat.
You could almost see the towns of Tuva grow. Likewise was it in Jongaria and Kazgar, Oirad, Turfant and Qidan, Gergez, Tensan and Kokan. Qizilot and Elenot, Huhehot and Urumuj, Mata Ara and Horgosh, Uvsnaatar and Erkux, Chida and Zilort—these were just a decade of the century of cities that were booming when ’392 arrived.
Ajinblambia was way ahead of schedule and saving money right and left by her astute revisions of the plan. She could optimize design or simplify procedure at every turn, and save a florin or a drachma—$100 or $1000—every minute of the day. What extenuation could I now adduce to gloss over the extravagance and tardiness that had been chronic during my administration of the projects? Ajinblambia was proving it was possible, even making it look easy, to meet and beat the schedule and the budget Udi had insisted on. She said desalinated water would begin to flow in year 393. By ’400 she would have the projects done. The schedule had targeted completion in ’410. Ajinblambia had chopped twenty years in half. Zhwem’s Psebol Project had dragged on 100 years—not at all a criticism or disparagement of his great pioneering effort. In the age of Zhwem, technology did not permit. "Nor did he have an Ajinblambia," said both I and others, though he had many a famous engineer no doubt. One need just recall such names as Farjelub and Quandox, Undoleps and Dwaftoir, Alvicfania and Ejmibebidonia, and Reoclazdia and Elbinglornia to convince himself or herself that Zhwem had engineers of note.
My astonishment was growing. How could all this be? What miracle or marvel was unfolding? Did something lie behind this unparalleled occurrence? I couldn’t even hazard a conjecture. Apparently, mine was to accept it. I should be delighted and rejoiceful. This was good for Udi and her Ung. This surely was a bounty and a boon. If I wasn’t the bestower of this bounty and the bringer of this boon, at least I’d introduced the benefactress to the queen. But quite frankly, that didn’t compensate at all. I admit it. I was envious: I’d been upstaged. I was jealous: Ajinblambia had awed Queen Udi.
The months had been elapsing at a turtle’s pace, but finally the 30th of year 392 had come. The better part of half a year I’d waited to get out from under Izmridafia’s overbearingness. At last my regular vacation was beginning, and I’d be able to fly to Poilnarcs Island to try to find the gold and jewels that lay buried there according to the writing I’d deciphered. My rendition of the texts described in detail the location of the crypt wherein the treasure once had lain. By following these instructions, I would detect that place I hoped. With luck, the gold and jewels still remained intact. Let me go see how much.
I was up and on a plane to Poilnarcs early in the morning, all excitement, eagerness, enthusiasm. In early afternoon, we put down at the airport outside Ulucac. I had reserved a room at the Grand Hotel by videophone that morning. Within minutes of my arrival at the airport, I first glimpsed from the window of a taxicab the colonnade and royal palms in front of the hotel. Without ado I hurried to my room and called a nearby stable to have a horse brought over. I slung my saddlebags of gear upon the haunches of the horse, stepped into the stirrup and sat upon the saddle, all swiftly as the wind.
On central Poilnarcs, rise a pair of snowy peaks, 7000 meters tall. Nowadays the locals call them Mount Efua and Mount Kela’a. The inscriptions make it clear that the gold and jewels were hid in their vicinity. Near the foothills of those snowy peaks, there was supposed to be a lake. I rode out and found it just where I thought I’d find it. Today it’s called Lake Kahanala. Close to the lake I found some cliffs. My writings spoke of cliffs—Keototo Cliffs today. I was delighted I was able to make this kind of progress. My doubts were being swept away. But by now the sun was setting, so I decided to make camp. I built a fire, roasted sausages I’d brought and drank cold cider from my styrofoam canteen. Shortly after that, I spread out a polyester sleeping bag of a special Ungian design—it makes a roll no bigger than a loaf of bread—and got a good night’s sleep.
At daybreak, I sprang up with greatest expectations. I ate a hearty little breakfast and gathered up my gear. I saddled my bay stallion and rode off to find the crypt. Supposedly, there was a massive rock set in the side of Mount Kela’a and it had a very special shape, recognizable at once if only you had read the writings. I looked near and far, high and low, and finally I found it. This heavy boulder had been carved to pivot easily if you knew where you must apply the force, that is, if you had accurate instructions you could follow. I prised it with a fan palm tree trunk I’d sawn down. The rock did move somewhat, and there appeared a slit like an embrasure I could intrude myself into. Despite my fear of getting trapped inside, I managed to slip in, and ended up within some sort of hollow, standing on my feet.
My Ungi superflashlight—150 volts—illuminated a large cavern squared to form a chamber 10 yards long and 10 yards wide. But it was absolutely empty. I hadn’t otherwise expected, since the ancient texts did mention that there was an anteroom to cross. I looked around with curiosity and caution, at length discovering a hatch. From there, a flight of stairs descended, almost covered up with dirt. The stench was overpowering. At the bottom of the stairs, I found a door, an iron door. Everything was dusty, rusty, musty. I felt nauseous. I nearly vomited. An iron padlock fashioned by some ancient blacksmith held the door. I beat it with a steel hammer. It fell apart in flakes of rust. I used a crowbar to make the door swing open. I entered what turned out to be another chamber. I almost fainted in cold terror when my flashlight shone upon a giant—a seven-foot-tall man—standing in my way with an axe of stone held high above his head, as if he’d strike my cranium and shatter it. I tried to scream. No voice proceeded from my throat. My time had come. I froze in cervine fear. Then I saw the giant was a statue made of stone moldering in the darkness of the centuries. How great was my relief! I yet lived! Behind the statue was a tunnel, two feet wide, eighteen inches high. Did I dare crawl in, slithering on my stomach? I put on a plastic jumpsuit and lay prone, creeping like a lizard or a snake. This was a horrifying interlude. If the tunnel was a cul de sac, I wondered whether I’d be able to crawl backwards to get out or if I’d suffocate and die. Finally though—was it after 50 or 100 feet?—I reached the end and rose in yet another chamber.
I laid my eyes upon the richest treasure ever found in the thousand centuries of the history of Ung! Masses and masses of gold! Heaps and heaps of jewels! I saw chalices and goblets, icons, figurines and statues, tiaras, diadems and crowns, scepters, orbs and monds, monstrances and candelabra, medallions and insignia, all wrought of gold and encrusted with rare jewels. There were diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls in veritable throngs.
It was a massive hoard! I guessed perhaps 1000 cubic feet of gold, around five billion dollars worth, along with five more billion worth of jewels, not to mention value added by exquisite craftsmanship and the historic character of the artifacts I’d rescued from oblivion.
I crawled back out the tunnel I’d crawled in, exited the door I’d entered, smoothed the dust to hide my footprints, slipped back out the slit that I’d slipped in, rocked the rock back to its place and sealed the entrance quite completely. I stepped into my stallion’s stirrup, sat upon the saddle and galloped back to Ulucac.
I was just in time to catch a flight back to Mecnita. The jumbo jet leapt up smartly into the blue dominions of the sun, vaulting o’er the flocks of clouds with boundless energy. I reached Jezgroid faster than a hurricane, stepped into a golden comet that bulleted to Eldor Palace in a trice and in late evening found Queen Udi in her study.
"Oh Vocno, you’re still here," said the queen, as if delighted and surprised. "I thought that you were going to go to Poilnarcs Island. What has happened?"
Not answering her question, I said quite pointedly, "Queen Udi, I’m dissatisfied with the situation that I’m in. I was named prime minister and the director of the projects at the start, but now I’m just a functionary, fourth in command, a cam in the great machine of state."
"Just have a little patience, Vocno dear. Soon your two-year tour of duty under Izmridafia will be done, and then we’ll see about arrangements more acceptable to you. At Eldor Palace, all is always in a state of flux," the queen ended philosophically, as she ran her fingers through my hair.
"But Udi, my prestige has sunk."
"Prestige is not so terribly important. Other things in life may be more meaningful—like love and self-esteem, security and health, wisdom and contentment. We don’t have to be prestigious to be happy," continued Udi, the philosopher.
"Still, Udi dear, I’d like to be restored to all my honors."
"Vocno, no, let’s not rehearse this play again. How many times must we discuss this matter?"
"Might I buy my honors back?"
"Buy them back? Whatever in the world are you jabbering about?"\
"What if I brought a present of ten thousand talents to the treasury of Ung? Would it make a difference? Would it change your mind?" Ten thousand talents is ten billion dollars, more or less, but on Nya, of course, we don’t think or talk in dollars. In fact, even ‘talent’ is an English word I’ve picked to translate Ungi ‘thlend’, primarily because they have a faint resemblance.
"Vocno, that’s an idle question, moot and bootless," said Queen Udi, "You don’t have ten thousand talents to present."
"Even if my question is an idle question, Udi, please give me an answer."
"Vocno, you’re impossible sometimes. What’s the question once again?"
"If I brought ten thousand talents to the treasury, would you consider rehabilitating me with greater rank and honors?"
"Yes, I would, if it makes you happy for me to say so, but since you’re impecunious, I fail to see your point. Are you quite sure you’re feeling well?"
"Would you make me full prime minister again, I mean, not merely titular prime minister? Would you seat me in all conferences, like the ones you held for Ajinblambia and Barti?"
"If you really want to know, yes, yes, of course. But I can’t see why you keep pressing me with all these silly questions."
"I have the money, Udi."
"Oh Vocno, I declare! You’re such a madcap! What’s this all about?"
"I’ve discovered gold on Poilnarcs Island. Listen for a minute."
Then I told her all about my lucubrations and decipherments, my trip to Ulucac and my detection of the treasure. At first, Queen Udi thought that I was making up a tale or a joke, but by degrees, she understood that I was serious, and her mouth hung open in amazement.
Next morning we were on a flight with archeologists and engineers awakened in the middle of the night. With them they had instruments and tools. We arrived in Ulucac a little after noon. A party at the airport awaited us with horses, mules, vans and pickups. By nightfall I had led them to the cache.
I rocked the rock and slipped into the slit with my Ungi superflashlight, and everyone—some 30 people—slipped in after me in quick succession. I hurried cross the anteroom and down the stairs, and started creeping through the tunnel, the 30 following my lead. Even Udi donned a plastic jumpsuit and slithered in the dust of centuries into the room of gold. There she saw the massive treasure trove that would make history in Ung.
Once everyone had had a chance to gawk and gape, then clamber back outside, technicians introduced an accordion hose from a truck-mounted vacuum pump to suck away the dust, then went to work accessioning the golden implements and instruments, weighing, measuring, recording. Within days, all would be transported to Mecnita by a team of hundreds, who began arriving at the site almost immediately.
The queen and I stayed right nearby all night, under the cool, starry canopy of heaven, with a campfire and big cups of tuco, talking to the crew. With daybreak though, we rode to Ulucac and caught a flight back to Mecnita.
The Ghasbi Swamps:
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