Thousands of years ago, even before the age of convents and nuns, our people worshipped our sun, moons and stars, our clouds and winds. A colonnade of 418 lofty columns circled the Nyatic planet, one for each day of the year. Atop the colonnade stretched the highway of heaven, where Dyo, the goddess of the sun, rode in her chariot of gold drawn by the horses of day, whose hoofbeats struck the minutes and the hours.
Each column had a name. The 45th column was Bucent, the 100th column was Varx, the 310th column was Stolbna, and so forth. There was a very large book called the Ristinjiads that had a chapter devoted to each column. If you were born on day 45, you could consult the book and read Chapter 45, which was also called "Bucent". "Bucent", like all the other chapters, was very long, but by selecting at random three brass balls from a raffia basket and reading the numerals inscribed on them, you could find the lines that applied to you at that particular time.
This was the gist of the explanation of ancient Nyatic sun worship that I gave Nunu when she asked about it. She had seen a reference to it on her computer and wondered what it was all about.
"That's very interesting," said Nunu, "So why did they stop reading the Ristinjiads, if they could get helpful information on the future?"
"Because the Ristinjiads were not reliable. Reading them was just a game."
"How do you know?"
"Well, I've tried them and they don't work. What many people did was attempt to distort the meanings of the words and so prove that they were true. But they could do this only after something had happened that they sought to reconcile with the book. They could never come up with an explanation beforehand. One would have had to be a complete moron to keep doing the same thing year after year, but there were many people who did so, and there are people who still do."
"Sought to reconcile? What does that mean?"
"Tried to get to agree. They tried to make the book seem true by changing the meanings of the words to match the facts," I answered, recalling that Nunu was only seven years old.
"What about all these nuns? Do they believe in the Ristinjiads?"
"Oh, no. Oh no, no, no. They despise the Ristinjiads. They have their own book, called Heavenly Wisdom, which is completely different."
"What does their book say?"
"Oh, they believe in invisible people flying around in the sky monitoring the deeds and misdeeds of everyone down below. When you die, they will review your record. If you have been good according to their judgment, you will be rewarded. If you have been bad, you will be punished."
"How will they reward or punish you?"
"They say that they will give you eternal life, either in bliss or in agony, depending on their judgment."
"I know. But I think it's just a hoax."
"How do the nuns think they know about all this if the flying people are invisible?"
"They say that the flying people talk to them silently in the secret recesses of their minds."
"Oh, this sounds so silly! Do you believe in it, Sissy?"
"Of course not, Nunu," I said with an involuntary smile, "What kind of ninny do you take me for?" I addressed her as Nunu, instead of Sissy--a nickname that she shared with me--in order to add a serious note to our discussion.
"So why do the nuns say they believe in it?"
"They either believe because they're daft or they just say they believe it in order to impress their friends and relatives."
"How would this impress their friends and relatives?"
"Their friends and relatives may be daft."
"Do you mind if I look into these things on my own?"
"No, no, not at all, Nunu, but don't waste too much time. It's more important to learn about banking, insurance, commerce, education and so forth. In your hour of need, it will be more helpful to have a bankbook than the book of Heavenly Wisdom. "
"I think you're right, Sissy. But let me do some checking."
A day or two later, Nunu asked me to explain the difference between resurrection and reincarnation.
"If someone dies and rises from death to live again, it is resurrection. If someone dies and is reborn later as someone else, it is reincarnation.
"But such things never happen, right?" asked Nunu.
"Right," I said authoritatively.
"But where do we come from?"
"Nobody knows. Scientists say that our planet is billions of years old. According to them, we are descendants of animals. But no one knows where animals came from. So we still don't know our ultimate origins."
"Where do we go when we die?"
"Nobody knows that either, but I think that we don't go anywhere. We just pass out of existence."
"Why do you think that?"
"I've never seen any tangible evidence of an afterlife. No one has ever made a personal appearance from beyond the grave, as far as I know. All we have is rumors, legends and scripture."
"I've read online that sometimes dead people have spoken to audiences."
"That sort of thing is called a seance," I explained to Nunu. Then I told her about how I had caused the dissolution of the Miervin Society, a gang of impostors who staged "seances". For this, Ajinblambia had given Glasterhadd, their building, to me as a reward. Glasterhadd was now producing lovely lingerie.
"It's sad that we just pass away."
"Very sad, I know, but if that's the way it is, there's no use in pretending otherwise. The best way to deal with these subjects is to forget them, and think more about banking, insurance and the rest. Ajinblambia, who is one of the most intelligent people on our planet, never thinks about such things."
"One of the most intelligent people? Who are some of the others?"
"Well, there are Udi, Barti, Vinja and Nunu."
"Nunu?" she exclaimed, "Me?"
"Yes, you," I said as I pinched her cheek to make it seem that I was joking, but of course I was telling the truth, and in that moment, I think Nunu understood.
The allusions to banking and insurance that I made had to do with Nunu's program of studies at Eldor Palace, where Firanza was tutoring her in finance and Segura in insurance matters. Duma was teaching her government. Nunu had not been entirely excused from her studies of science and mathematics either. The questions about religion arose just as Nunu was getting back to her classes at the beginning of year '407. I didn't want her to become embroiled in a lot of nonsense when she had more meaningful material to master. So she and I dismissed this topic quickly.
Nunu went to school at Eldor Palace every day from day 0 to day 7, but she was off the 8th and the 9th. She did play some volleyball with a few of her little girlfriends, with Jina watching and instructing, but mostly she busied herself in her own room or in my alcove. She liked my quaint little alcove, with its bookshelves, maps and pen-and-ink drawings. because it was cozy and lent itself to study and concentration.
As for our lovely archipelagian colleague, Queen Kolomena, when she had had her fun at A Bit of Ungonesia, Zevanardia and I invited her for a whirlwind tour of Mecnita. That very afternoon, we ascended Mount Ajinblambia-and-Udi in the cable car. We visited Comargash See, where Kolomena had to don a nun's habit in order to be allowed to visit the grounds of the convent. She was as beautiful in her habit as any of the nuns, and we teased her about leaving her cloistered. I think she was more interested in her intimate-apparel distributorship than in any potential nunhood, so after a two-hour visit to the beautiful nunnery, we proceeded to Jilmzbra Bakery, so she could see the gigantic kneading pots and ovens that baked 600,000,000 loaves a day. After that, we visited Ulmactab Mills, went again to Cissi's in New Ozgingd, and then drove across the Umzid to Cormozhna's Cabin to eat.
We continued our sightseeing on day 14, with a visit to Anjmanj Park among other things. Anjmanj Park, in the Anjmanj District, is noted for its dolphin lagoon. We all rode on dolphins that afternoon in one fashion or another, but Queen Kolomena outdid us all. She rode a big dolphin named Cobimhsha, which I render as Whopper, though it really means Great Little Whale.
On day 15, it was de rigueur to present ourselves in Gvagma Village to celebrate the 17th anniversary of Udi's worldwide queenship. Queen Udi rode into the village, mounted on her magnificent white mare, leading a procession of 10,000 beautiful girls in rose red gowns from Eldor Palace, six miles north. The flying ladies of Vingolilo flew the skies above the village, and the Vunu Vunu singers held a concert in their bandshell.
.. ...a gorgeous white silk tricot peignoir...
On day 17, Kolomena, Zevanardia and I appeared in Ajinblambia's office pursuant to a request for an interview that we had submitted. Ajinblambia was only remotely aware of the activities of Cissi's in Ungonesia, but we had brought documents, photographs and videos. In one of the videos, Queen Kolomena was selling a gorgeous white silk tricot peignoir with a neckline trimmed with generous lapels of handmade white lace. Nikinani, the lady making the purchase, tried it on in the lavishly decorated superstructure of RUS Gvagma II, one of our lingerie yachts. The gown was expensive, at one drachma, or about $1000 in earth-money, but Nikinani paid in polyvinyl acetate Ungian banknotes, and when her purchase had been boxed, she descended to the quay, a handrail having been installed at the edge of the gangplank so ladies in heels could disembark more securely.
Ajinblambia smiled at the picturesque little episode, and I could see that this video and some of the others combined to win her heart. She liked our plan to purchase five more yachts in the coming year, at a total cost of ten talents, about $10 million in earth-money, but agreed with me that we should buy the yachts quarterly. We would buy RUS Gvagma VI right away, but VII, VIII, IX and X would have to await their due time. Kolomena was a little disappointed in this, as she was eager to expand immediately, but she accepted the recommendation of the Vrikshaya, as it seconded my own opinion. On parting, Ajinblambia outstretched her arms to Kolomena, who responded with a smile. Then she embraced her and kissed her sweetly on the mouth. It was obvious that she was captivated with the charming islander. Did I notice an affectionate pat on the derriere? The following day Kolomena flew back to Kralatimu.
A couple of days later, Nunu asked me, "Who wrote Heavenly Wisdom anyway?" She was back on the topic of religion.
"No one knows exactly who wrote it. Several names appear in the titles of the chapters of the book, but many people are skeptical."
"Because the book is filled with miracle stories and other silly legends, and can be dismissed as untrustworthy without further ado. As long as we understand that it is largely or wholly false, we shouldn't care who wrote them."
"How do you know they are false?"
"They say that, if you believe them, you can cure the ailing, revive the dead and walk the lame, but I think that this is a just a lie. No one can do these things, as far as I know. They just talk, talk, talk. They never do, do, do. But please, Nunu, let's drop this subject altogether."
"Very well, Sissy. Maybe some other time, I'll have a question or two."
And that was the end of our religious dialogue, at least for a while.
Nunu, in spite of all her studies, was beginning to display real talent at dressmaking and fashion design. During Kolomena's visits to Bo House, Nunu had interrogated the gorgeous Ungonesian relentlessly about her lingerie commerce. She wanted to go with Kolomena to Kralatimu and accompany her on an excursion of one of her yachts. I had refused to consent for the time being because of Nunu's studies, but promised to leave open the possibility of an insular outing during her summer break.
On day 48 of the year, Queens Shandra, Mer Elicsi, Marcatarc and Zipsi arrived aboard Photon X in Pongdoir Field. Two Ungian attendants had been sent to Mli to help the royal ladies on their flight. They were Sevelia and Thumsi, attractive girls in their twenties who worked as hostesses on lunar flights. Ajinblambia, the Geese and I were at the field to receive everybody. Fstambolc and Mbaliderv had driven us out in Udi's white V30 limousine, which was still brand new at that time, as the queen got her annual replacement on day 10 of each year. You could still see, feel and smell the freshness of the interior. The hinges of the doors turned as smoothly as sophisticated machinery and the windshield was so clear and clean that you had to look twice to make sure it was there at all.
We dined in one of Ajinblambia's chambers, without fanfare or ceremony, as the four lunar ladies were tired after their long flight. As soon as we had eaten, Grishcanca and Isfaranza led each of the queens to the suite that had been reserved for her. It was agreed that on day 49, the ladies would relax or perhaps go out for a walk or ride about the palace grounds. On day 50, we would begin our discussions.
Queen Shandra had compiled an atlas of the known regions of the moon, including all ten of the kingdoms in which Ajinblambia had shown an interest. Through information provided by exploration and aerial surveillance, Shandra's cartographers had managed to draw preliminary maps, with boundaries and conurbations at tentative locations. Some of the cities' names were still unknown, and questions about mineral resources and ethnicities had not been answered. Still the maps served as a basis to which further data could be added later.
On the 50th, the Council of Lunar Queens was formally organized as a tier in the Ungian Family of Nations, and a constitution, drawn up in advance, was signed. By a unanimous vote, Queen Shandra was elected Senior Queen. She agreed to set aside quarters in Candle Tower, in Vavlu, where the queens could meet, with provisions to lodge them comfortably as well when they met. Though Vavlu was not quite central, the three other capitals--Vornda, Emshcro and Qabjang--were equidistant from it. The quarters that Shandra provided would also accommodate a delegation of Ungian scholars and explorers who would assist Shandra and the other queens in researching the peripheral realms. To repeat, these were Zavoi, Limanit, Uvankafer, Cfampa, Idazwo, Twi, Zanfanting, Olotuts, Admino and Pedgu. These ten plus the four member kingdoms of the council--Ufzu, Shwea, Vrandz and Liscarn--all lay within a circle of four steradians, less than a hemisphere. Even more mysterious were the ulterior regions, which had not even been discussed at this time.
Ajinblambia allocated a sum of five talents to bankroll the council but she also required that the member kingdoms contribute--token amounts for the time being and more significant amounts later, if the operation should show signs of being profitable.
Discussions ended at 6.25 Ungi. Ajinblambia invited Zipsi and Marcatarc, whom she did not know very well, to join her in Udi's study, where they'd all get acquainted. She winked at me and made a gesture behind the backs of the two other queens for me to see to their entertainment that afternoon and evening. So I suggested to Shandra and Mer Elicsi that the three of us go riding around the palace grounds.
Later, when we had met in the stables, Queen Shandra said playfully, "Sissy, I won't go unless you ride with me." She was wearing a white ribbed form-fitting long-sleeved turtleneck sweater or leotard and bright red stretch riding breeches with high boots. Her breeches, wide-hipped and snug at the waist, were very tantalizing, and she had the scent of peaches and almonds.
"Oh, no, no! Please, Shandra..." I said in mock reluctance, in a tone of voice that made it clear that I was very excited about the prospect of sitting before her on her stallion, with her arm around my waist and her perfumed hair sweeping my cheeks once and again. Despite my protestations, Shandra lifted me onto the double saddle as if I had been a mere child, then mounted herself. I was afraid that she would smell the estrogen rushing about within me.
"How do you rate?" asked Queen Mer Elicsi, "When do I get my turn?"
"Your turn at what?" asked Shandra.
"My turn at being Sissy's protectress."
"Oh, do you want Sissy with you on your horse? When we go as far as we will go and turn around to head back, I'll let you have Sissy," said Shandra with a big, beautiful smile. Mer had on yellow jodhpurs with stirrups and dark brown jodhpur boots with a coffee-colored crepe scoop-neck blouse and a matching scarf about her head. I could almost feel the crisp and crimpy fabric of her blouse from where I was standing at the moment, five feet away. So I had a second treat in store, and then I'd let that bosom brush against my cheek, transporting me into a little swoon of delight. Perhaps I'd also win a kiss from those full lips with their deep, rich burgundy or plum lipstick.
We rode to a pool filled continuously by a small rocky waterfall half-hidden amid willows and mimosas. Swans swam and tall white herons waded in this shady little retreat. We stopped and dismounted, tethering our horses and sitting on weather-bleached wooden chairs for a few minutes. Half a dozen peafowl wandered from out of the wood, as if curious to see who or what had come into their abode. Apparently concluding that we intruders were harmless, they withdrew again.
We chatted a few more minutes, and then rose lackadaisically to return. I heard a rustle in the leaves of the thicket on the opposite bank of the pool, supposing that the birds were still moving around. I turned and saw the foliage shaking a little. I could see that Shandra and Mer noticed it too, but showed no concern.
Suddenly a man appeared, a wild-looking man, brawny as a gorilla, but low in height. He was unkempt, dirty and ragged. You would have thought that he lived in a cave and killed wild animals with his bare hands. I shrieked hysterically, but my companions, though visibly frightened, did not cry out. We all moved swiftly away, fearful lest the wildman attack us. Shandra and Mer were both much taller than the gorillian and were themselves fit and smart, but the three of us together could not have subdued this beast.
He saw us but gave no indication that he was contemplating a rape, robbery or murder. Rather, he had a guilty, apprehensive expression on his face, as if he had just been caught in a crime or sin. He merely retired into the thicket, and we were greatly relieved. When we had led the horses to a safe distance, I called Ajinblambia and reported the incident. I suggested that she send four police cars and a van, with ten policewomen to Quixma Falls. There was a dirt road leading right to the spot where we had been sitting.
Within five minutes, four police cars and a van came in a slow procession down the trail and parked haphazardly around the pool. Each of the ten lady police officers had a Potentia. A Potentia is a selective electroshock device that enables a woman to knock out a man, but not vice versa. It looks like a police baton. Potentia is a trade name.
The policewomen entered the wood intrepidly and I could see and hear much commotion. Then I heard a female voice screaming. Next I heard a male voice bellowing and roaring. Finally, I heard a thud. The policewomen came out of the thicket. Savonda, who had been seized by the wildman, was frightened and shaken, but not visibly injured. Rutinza, another of the lady officers, had rushed to Savonda’s defense and knocked out the wildman with her Potentia, felling him with an audible crash.
Though there were projecting roots in the thicket, they managed to bring the van right up to the spot where the man lay unconscious. They could never have managed to lift his bulk by hand, but, fortunately, the van was equipped with a liftgate. Five or six policewomen managed to roll him onto the platform and into the van, raising him with the pneumatic device. Then they locked the doors and drove him to Eldor Palace. He was confined in a cell on the lower level, the same level that was used for parking.
With the consent of our four royal guests, we continued the adjournment of our meetings for two more days, so that we could investigate the unprecedented intrusion into the palace grounds. We had seamstresses at the palace produce some makeshift garments—pants and a smock—for our prisoner. We had nothing on hand that would fit him, with his huge torso and limbs. Once he was conscious again, we allowed him to bathe and dress, and gave him food to eat. He spoke perfect Ungi, but with a foreign accent. He refused to identify himself or explain his actions at first. When the investigators harshened their interrogation methods though, he admitted that he was Kohono, who had been king of Kralatimu until he was deposed in year ’401 by Kolomena, now Queen Kolomena. He had spent five years wandering about Ungonesia, but had just come to Mecnita, where he was hoping to find a way of forcing his reinstatement as king of Kralatimu. Now, his prospects did not bid fair to return him his throne.
Ajinblambia asked me to see to the disposition of Kohono's case on her behalf, inasmuch as I had rapport with Kolomena. Kolomena had had Kohono on her list of wanted criminals for five years, but Kralatimu’s scant resources would not have allowed her to appoint deputies or detectives to hunt down the villainous king. All those years she had worried about the possibility that Kohono would return to Monopeo, the capital, to seek reinstatement on his throne or to avenge himself on her. So when I called her to break the glad news that we had captured Kohono and had him in custody, she was overjoyed. I invited her to fly back to Mecnita posthaste with two or three other island women who had been victimized by Kohono, so that they could make positive identification. Late the following morning, Mbaliderv picked the ladies up at Jezgroid Airport and brought them to the palace. I used one of Ajinblambia’s office rooms to conduct the interview.
Kolomena and her two companions, Tapulana and Loloa, identified Kohono the minute they saw him, and it was obvious that he recognized them as well, but there were no recriminations or other comments exchanged. The three ladies and I went back to my ad hoc office. After lengthy discussions, it was agreed that Monopeo was the best venue for Kohono’s trial, because that was where the witnesses and evidence were. However, Monopeo had no place of detention secure enough to imprison Kohono there for a years-long term, if he should be found guilty of all or most of the charges. So we fixed a trial date of day 110, at which time Kohono would be taken from Mecnita to Monopeo under heavy escort, which would stand guard for the duration of the trial. When he had been sentenced, he would be brought back to Mecnita to serve his time in Slanchgav Prison. He was charged with various counts of slavery, rape, battery and other crimes, but, luckily for him, no one suggested that he had committed homicide or manslaughter. The chances of acquittal were nil, given the producibility of 2000 witnesses. Despite Ajinblambia’s leaving the matter to my discretion, I outlined our plans to her, in her office, and got her approving nod. In the late afternoon, the ladies flew back to Kralatimu.
When that matter had been settled for the time being and Queens Shandra and Mer Elicsi had recovered from the mild shock, the discussions of the Council of Lunar Queens were resumed. In addition to the exploration of the peripheral kingdoms, Ajinblambia wanted each of the member queens to prepare a country study of her own kingdom. This would be an outline of the geography, demography, economy and government of each of the realms. Topics of keen interest were natural resources and infrastructures. Sonce Ajinblambia was herself from Ufzu, she knew something of the country, but wanted a more exhaustive, up-to-date picture. Agreeing that it would be convenient if the country studies were executed in the same format, the ladies spent several days going over the particulars of the presentation they would use. Finally, after brief discussions of Gvagma and Cissi’s, the meetings were closed. Within two days the ladies had flown home aboard Photon X.
A few days later, I peeked in on Nunu in her bedroom, which also had a table and a chair. There were folders, binders and sheet protectors in little stacks upon the table, with blank, handwritten and typed pages spread about. Nunu was sitting in the chair, poring over the papers very intently.
“What are you doing, Nunu? Is that your homework?”
“Not exactly. I’m drawing up a business plan. Firanza has been teaching me all about it, but this is not just an assignment. I am planning a real business.”
“A real business? What kind of business?”
“Oh, I’m planning to organize The Three Sissies as a music company that will give recitals before paying audiences and publish recordings for sale in music shops.”
“Are you talking about Zevanardia and you and me?”
“Of course. Will she and you agree to join my company?”
“I am flattered that you think so highly of us, and I will be delighted to be a member of your company. I think you can count on Zevanardia too. She loves you so, and is such a beautiful, gracious lady. But tell me more about your plans.”
“Well, for the time being, we would be just an informal group. I would be the directress and oversee everything. In our recitals, I would play harpsichord, Zevanardia would play soprano recorder and you would sing, as before. If we show signs of success, we can organize formally and register at the archives.”
“Where do you think you will hold the recitals?”
“King Ajinblambia’s private auditorium, Queen Udi’s study and the auditorium at the School of Dance all are suitable facilities.”
“You would have to get their permission,,,”
“Please, Sissy, I know that. I’ll ask for appointments to discuss it. There may be other locations that we could use too. I’ll have to ask about.”
“If we are performing before paying audiences, we may have to pay a percentage of the proceeds to the proprietress of each auditorium.”
“I have already figured that factor into my business plan. Firanza explained all of that to me already, and, once my plan is complete, I am going to ask her to review it.”
Every evening for a few days, I saw Nunu through the crack of her partly open door, still leaning over her “business plan”. Naturally, I was proud of her initiative but thought patronizingly that this would prove to be little more than a game. Then one morning she had a large zipped satchel made of black duck with a strap slung over her shoulder as she opened the front door at Bo House to go to classes. This was her business plan, she said, all ready to be looked over by Firanza. I simply beamed as I watched her walking towards the metro station at 7 Ramdonia Circle.
In mid-afternoon, Firanza called me on the phone. She had received and read Nunu’s business plan and was utterly amazed. She wondered whether I had given Nunu a big assist in drafting it, and, of course, I hadn’t. I didn’t even know what was in it. Firanza was very enthusiastic and urged me to let Nunu go ahead with it. I told her that I accepted her judgment and would take her advice. I also thanked her for all her kind efforts in tutoring Nunu so thoroughly that she could even conceive of such a thing.
When Nunu came home that evening, I took her satchel and put it momentarily on an easy chair by the door. Then I picked her up and hugged her and kissed her again and again. She wondered what this sudden burst of affection was all about, so I told her about Firanza’s call. Nunu looked at me in a way that seemed to say, “See? See? You didn’t believe me, did you?” Taking her satchel, she disappeared into her room.
Zevandardia could hardly believe that all this was happening. Of course, Nunu was her daughter too, and she knew quite well that Nunu was a prodigy, but this surpassed everything. The latest development, with Firanza pressing us to let Nunu organize The Three Sissies, really bowled her over. So it was agreed: we would form a trio and give recitals as a starter.
I asked Nunu if she would like me to take her to visit Ajinblambia, Udi and Zhvizhvi to see about using their facilities to stage our concerts.
“No, no, dear Sissy,” she said dismissively, “I want to do this all by myself. I will call them to ask for appointments and present myself before them to make the requests. The worst thing that can happen is that they decline. But that’s business."
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