Josette had been an orphan left at the palace gates by a troupe of wandering actors. She arrived at a point in her life between childhood and maturity, wondrously lithe and athletic with green eyes and her dark hair cut like a boy’s. I suspect she had been abandoned in hopes that her beauty and intelligence might work to make her a better life than one found on the road. This was back in the days when Ingess had just begun to build his new court from society’s castaways. Upon seeing her, he pronounced she was to be the Lady of the Mirrors, but we all knew that she would some day lose the title to that of Queen. The drama that brought her to this conclusion was ever the court’s favorite spectacle and topic of conversation.
Her hair grew long and entangled us all in her charm and innocence. Ingess married her on a cool day in late summer five years after her arrival, and the Overseer of Situations released a thousand butterflies upon the signal of their kiss. We all loved her as a daughter, and the younger ones among us as a mother. She never put on airs or forced the power of her elevated position, understanding better than anyone the equanimity that was the soul of the Palace Reparata. Her kindness was the perfect match for Ingess’s comic generosity.
With her passing, His Royal, as he had insisted on being called, came apart like light in a prism. I sat four nights in succession with him in the gardens, smoking my pipe and listening to him weep into sunrise. The quantity of tears drained him of his good looks and left him a haggard wreck, like some old crone, albeit with shining, blonde hair.
“See here, Ingess,” I told him but could go no further, the logic of his grief too persuasive.
He’d wave his hand at me and turn his face away.
And so the world he had managed to create with his pirate ancestor’s gold, his kingdom, suddenly lost its meaning. Before Josette had succumbed to the poison of a spider bite, Reparata was a place where a wandering beggar might be taken in at any time and made a Court Accountant or Thursday’s High Astronomer. Every member of the palace had a title bestowed upon them by His Royal. There was no want at Reparata, and this made it an oasis amidst the sea of disappointment and cruelty that we, each in his or her own way, had found the world to be.
Never before had a royal retinue been comprised of so many lowly worms. The Countess Frouch had been a prostitute known as Yams in the nearby seaside town of Gile. His Royal welcomed her warmly, without judgment, as he did Tendon Durst, a round, bespectacled lunatic who believed beyond a doubt that he was joined at a shared eye with a phantom twin. In a single day’s errant wandering, Durst had set out as a confirmed madman and ended the evening at the palace with a room of his own and a title of Philosopher General. We had never before seen someone speak simultaneously from both sides of the mouth, but that night he walked in his sleep and told us twice at once that he would never leave Reparata. We all shared his sentiment.
Even Ringlat the highwayman, hiding from the law, performed his role of Bishop to the Crown righteously. Our lives were transformed by a position in society and whatever bizarre duties His Royal might dream up at his first encounter with us, standing before him at the palace gates, begging for a heel of bread or the eyes from that morning’s marsupial dish. Times were bad everywhere, but Ingess was so wealthy, and Reparata was so far removed from the rest of the world, no one who wandered there and had the courage to ask for something was sent away. We lived long bright days as in a book and then, with a fit of narcolepsy, the reader closed his eyes and fell asleep.
If we ever had intentions of fleecing His Royal, the time of his mourning was the perfect opportunity. Instead, we went about our jobs and titles with even greater dedication, taking turns keeping an eye on our melancholic leader. My full title was High and Mighty of Next Week. Ingess, beneath his eccentric sense of humor, must have known that it was the only position vague enough to tame my impulses. On my own, I, who had never done an honest day’s work in my life, created and performed a series of ritual tasks that gave definition to my importance at court. Gathering bats in order to exterminate the garden’s mosquitos was only one of them. Another was dusting the items in the palace attic.
On Mondays I would usually spend the mornings making proclamations, and on the Monday following the death of Josette, I proclaimed that we should seek some medical help for His Royal. He had begun to see his young wife’s spirit floating everywhere and was trying to do himself in with strong drink, insomnia, and grief.
“I see her next to the Fountain of the Dolphins as we speak, Flam,” he said to me one night in the gardens.
I looked over at the fountain and saw nothing, but, still, the frantic aspect of his gaze sent a shiver through me.
It turned out to be the first proclamation of mine that was ever acted upon. I got high and mighty on the subject and wasn’t waiting until the following week. Carrier pigeons were sent out to all of the surrounding kingdoms, inquiring if there was anyone who could cure the melancholy of loss. A small fortune in gold was the reward. I changed my own title to Conscience of the King and set about to do all in my power to cure Ingess, if not for his own good, then for the good of the state.
While we waited for a reply, His Royal raved and stared, only stopping occasionally to caress the empty air. His mourning reached such a state of hysteria that made me wonder if it was natural. I had the Regal Ascendiary, Chin Mokes, a five-time convicted forger, take over the task of signing the royal notes of purchase in order to keep the palace running smoothly. A plan was hatched in which one of the women, well powdered and bewigged, would dress up like Josette and, standing in the shadows of the gardens, tell Ingess to stop grieving. After the Countess Frouch laughed at us in that tone that could wither a forest, though, we saw the emptiness of our scheme.
Two harrowing months of sodden depression slithered by at a snail’s pace before word finally came that a man from a distant land, a travelling practitioner of medicine, had recently arrived by ship in Gile. Frouch and I went in search of him, travelling through the night in the Royal carriage, driven by none other than Tendon Durst. Though I was wary of the Philosopher’s sense of direction, his invisible brother was usually trustworthy. We arrived at daybreak by the sea and witnessed the gulls swarming as the fishing boats set out. “Do you think it is a good idea that you came back?” I asked her as we left the carriage.
“It’s a test,” she said as she adjusted the position of her tiara atop her spiraling platitudes of hair and stamped out her cigarette. Heels were not the best footwear for the planks and cobblestones of Gile, but she wore them anyway. I thought the mink stole a little much, but who was I to say? To look the Conscience of the King, I wore one of his finer suits, a silk affair with winged collar and matching cape. In addition, I borrowed a large signet ring encrusted with diamonds. We left the Philosopher General in deep meditation and went forth as Royalty, past the heap of fish skeletons, toward the boardwalk that led to the tavern.
The tavern keeper had known the Countess in her earlier life and was pleased to see her doing so well. We asked if he had beheld the foreign healer and he told us he had.
“A short fellow,” he said, “with a long beard. All he wears is a robe and a pair of boots.” The tavern keeper laughed. “He comes in every day a little after sunrise and has me make him a drink he taught me called Princess Jang’s Tears. It ends with a cloud of froth at the top and a constant green rain falling in a clear sky of gin toward the bottom of the glass. I’d say he knows a thing or two.”
I ordered two of them for us, using gold coin as payment. The tavern keeper was ecstatic. We sat by the large front window of the place that looked out across harbor and bay. Neither of us spoke. I was contemplating my transformation over the past years from unwanted vagrant to the executor of a kingdom, and I am sure by the look in Frouch’s eyes, she was thinking something similar. The strange drink was bittersweet, cool citrus beneath a cloud of sorrow. Then the doorbell rang and our healer entered.
The tavern keeper introduced us, and the healer bowed so low as to show us his star-shaped bald spot. He told us his name was unimportant but that his reputation was legendary even on the remote Island of the Barking Children.
“You are far flung,” the countess said to him, “but can you cure loss?”
“I can cure anything, Countess,” was his reply.
“Death?” I asked.
“Death is not a disease,” he said.
He agreed to accompany us back to the palace if we would have a drink with him. The tavern keeper created a round of Princess Jang’s Tears on the house, and we sat again at the table near the window.
“I feel you have a strong connection to this place, Countess,” said the healer.
“You’re as sharp as a stick of butter,” she said and lit a cigarette.
“Do you regret your days here?” he asked her.
“If I did, I would have to regret life,” she said, turning her face to the window. Princess Jang’s tears were not the only ones to fall that morning.
The healer nodded and took his drink in a way that showed me he might have a regret or two himself. My hope was that these disappointments did not stem from the health of his patients.
We rode back to the palace in perfect silence. The healer sat next to Frouch, and I was across from them. As the carriage bounced over the poorly maintained road from Gile, I studied the man we had hired. His face, though half hidden by a grey beard, showed its age yet still shone with a placid vitality. I knew he was smiling, though his lips did not move. On the palms of each of his hands were tattoos of coiled snakes. The robe he wore did not appear to be some form of foreign dress but in all reality a cheap flannel bathrobe that might be worn by a fisherman’s wife. Around his neck hung an amulet on a piece of stringan outlandish fake ruby orbited by glass diamonds set in a star of tin painted gold. His small burlap sack of belongings squirmed at my feet.
“The young man’s grief will consume him if I don’t take drastic measures,” the healer said to me after he had spent a day studying His Royal. We sat in the dining hall at the western end of that table which was so long and large, we at court called it the island. It was late and most of the palace was asleep. I sipped at coffee and the healer crunched away viciously at a bowl of locusts in wild honey that the palace chef, the Exalted Culinarity, Grenis Saint-Geedon, once a famous assassin, had been so kind as to leave his bed to prepare.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Do you see what I am doing with this bowl of holy sustenance?” said the healer, a locust leg sticking out of the right corner of his mouth. “It will eat out his soul.”
“Will he die?” I asked.
“That’s not the worst part of it,” said the old man.
“What are these drastic measures?”
“Let me just say, once I have begun, you will wish you hadn’t requested I do so,” he said.
“Can you cure him?” I asked.
“That,” he said, lifting the bowl to lick it, “is a certainty that has roots in the very first instant of creation.”
Either this man was an idiot or so great a physician that his method and bearing were informed by some highly advanced foreign culture. His dress and the manner in which he ate did not suggest the latter, but my most recent glimpse of Ingess trudging like a somnambulist along the great hall was enough to convince me that the healer’s diagnosis was correct. His Royal had shriveled miserably and was totally despondent. Even that blonde hair was now disintegrating into salt and floating away in his lethargic wake.
I feared the Countess would lash me with her laughter when she heard of my decision, but I told the healer right then, as he set his bowl back on the table, “Do what you must.”
Then the old man’s lips moved into a wide grin to reveal a shattered set of teeth. He lifted the amulet from his chest and kissed the audacious ruby at its center. “You’ll live to regret this,” he told me.
“I already have,” I said.
The next morning I had to address the assembled royalty of the court of Reparata on the subject of Ingess and his treatment. We met in the palace theater, all fifty-two of us. I took the stage, again dressed in the fine clothes of His Royal as a way of adding authority to my words. Miraculously, Frouch spared me as I apprised them of my decision, but the others were very skeptical. How could they not be they had seen and met the healer.
“He’s a fake,” Chin Mokes cried out, and this got the others going because who better to know a forgery than the Regal Ascendiary?
“Eats insects,” said the Exalted Culinarity, spitting as the stories told he had once done on the foreheads of each of his victims.
The Chancellor of Waste went right for the jugular. “He’s no physician, he’s Grandfather Mess. He couldn’t cure a pain in the ass unless he left the room.”
“He is legendary even on the remote Island of the Barking Children,” I told them.
“Probably for keeping the sidewalks clean,” someone shouted.
All of the jewelry of the assembled members of the court dazzled my eyes, and my head began to swim. Perspiration formed along my brow, and for the first time since coming to Reparata, I had that feeling of abandonment which had haunted my wandering for so many years.
Then the Countess stood up and the others instantly quieted down. “You’ve all had a chance to pass wind. Now its time to get on with the necessity of saving His Royal. Unless another of you has a better plan, we will all follow the healer’s advice and see his treatment through.”
The Chancellor of Waste opened his mouth wide to speak, but Frouch, without even turning to look at him said, “If you don’t want me to laugh at you, you’d better reserve that part of your title that is about to issue from your tongue.”
The Chancellor relented and sunk down in his seat as if to duck a derisive giggle.
Before sunrise the next morning, the treatment was begun.
His Royal lay completely naked on a bare table in the palace infirmary, rocking slightly side to side and muttering all manner of weirdness. Frouch and I were present to represent the court during the medical procedure. Beside the healer, the young lad Pester, Prince of the Horse Stalls, was in attendance, sitting on a stool in the corner, ever ready to do the physician’s bidding. We also called for Durst, the Philosopher General, to see if he could decipher what might be Ingess’s last message to us. It was a generally held belief in those days that one madman could easily interpret the ravings of another. The healer was anxious to begin, but we forestalled him, explaining how important a message from Ingess might be to his loyal subjects.
Durst came in dragging the invisible weight of his twin, and performing the impossible feat of discussing two different subjects simultaneously from either side of his mouth.
“My dear Philosopher,” said the Countess. “You give sanity a bad name.”
He bowed as far as his stomach would allow, and then stood and listened with something verging on attention to our request. It was heartwarming to see how proud he was to have been of some use in the crisis. He strode with an official bearing over to the table where Ingess lay and leaned down to listen to the feverish stream of words.
While the Philosopher General was performing his duties, Frouch poked me in the side with her elbow and we both had difficulty holding back our laughter at the sight of him. The healer, witnessing the whole thing, merely shook his head and sighed impatiently.
When Durst finally turned around, we asked him what Ingess was saying.
He looked puzzled and told us, “It all sounds like gibberish to me.”
The Countess and I broke out laughing.
“But,” he continued, holding up his right index finger, “my brother says that His Royal is concerned with a stream running under a bridge.”
“Fascinating,” said the healer as he ushered Durst out of the infirmary.
Upon his return, the old man lifted his burlap sack onto the table next to Ingess’s head. From within it, he retrieved a pair of spectacles whose lenses were long black cylinders capped with metal. He fit the arms of these over His Royal’s ears and adjusted the tunnels so that they completely covered the eyes. The moment this strange contraption was in place, Ingess let loose a massive sigh and went completely limp.
“What’s this?” I asked.
The healer undid his bathrobe tie, wrapped the flaps around him more completely and retied it securely. “At the ends of those two tunnels there is a picture that appears, because of the way our sight overlaps, to have a third dimension. It is so endlessly fascinating to behold that the viewer thinks of nothing else. Time, pain, regret, are pushed out of the mind by the intricate beauty of the scene.”
“What does it show?” asked Frouch.
“I can’t explain,” said the healer. “It is too complex.”
“Why is it necessary?” I asked.
“Because,” said the healer, “what I am about to do to your liege would otherwise be so painful that his screams would threaten the sanity of everyone within the confines of the palace.” With this, he reached into that bag of his and pulled forth a wriggling green creature the size of a man’s index finger.
The Countess and I stepped closer to see exactly what it was he was holding. It was a segmented, jade green, centipede-like thing with a lavender head and tiny black horns.
“Sirimon,” he said with a foreign inflection in his voice.
“It looks like a caterpillar,” said Frouch.
“Yes, it does,” said the old man, “but make no mistake, this is Sirimon.”
“He’s not going to eat that, is he?” I asked, swallowing hard the memory of the healer’s midnight snack.
“Perish the thought,” he said, and with great care, he brought his hand down to Ingess’s left ear. He gave a high, piercing whistle, and the diminutive creature marched forward across his palm and into the opening in His Royal’s head.
Frouch laughed at the sight of it in an attempt to control her horror. I turned away feeling as though I would be sick.
“Now we wait,” I heard the healer say. He pulled up a chair and sat down.
Somewhere into our fourth hour of silent waiting, the old man jotted down the ingredients to Princess Jang’s Tears and gave it to Pester.
“Tell the barkeep not to forget the bitters,” he said.
The boy nodded, and before he could leave the room, I called out, “Make that two.”
“Just tell him to keep them coming,” called Frouch.
Pester returned, carrying a tray with three glasses and the largest pitcher in the palace, which contained a veritable monsoon of liquid sorrow. Frouch lit a cigarette and the healer poured. We made small talk, and, in the course of our conversation, the healer regaled us with a tale of his most recent patient, a man who, through the obsessive reading of religious texts had become so simple and crude that he had begun to revert back into the form of an ape.
“His wife had to coax him down from the trees each evening with a trail of bananas.”
“Did you change his reading habits?” asked the Countess.
“No, I shaved his body and then prescribed three moderate taps on the head with a mallet at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
I was about to ask if the poor fellow had come around, but before I could speak, I noticed an irritating, disconcerting little sound that momentarily confused me.
“What is that?” I asked, standing unsteadily.
“Yes, I hear it,” said Frouch. “Like the constant crumpling of paper.”
“That is Sirimon,” said the healer.
I walked over to Ingess and listened. The diminutive noise seemed to be coming from inside his head. Leaning over, I put my ear to his ear. It was with dread that I realized the sound was identical, though quieter because muffled by flesh and skull, to that of the healer working away at his bowl of locust.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I yelled.
The old man smiled. “Sirimon is rearranging, creating new pathways, digesting the melancholy.”
I had fallen asleep and was wrapped in a nightmare memory of childhood when a hand came out of the shadows and smacked me on the back of the head. Coming to, I rubbed my eyes, and standing before me was the healer holding forth his infernal green worm, now bloated and writhing in its obesity.
“Sirimon has finished,” he said.
Frouch was over by the table that held Ingess. Her powdered hair had deflated and now hung to the middle of her back. She stared blankly down at His Royal and was laughing as though she was weeping. The healer’s optical contraption was gone and Ingess’s eyes were rolled back to show only white. His mouth was stretched wide as if trying to release a scream that was too large to fit through the opening.
“Quickly,” said the healer, “to the kitchen.”
Just then Pester came in leading a group of men Chin Mokes, Grenis Saint-Geedon, Ringlat, and Durst. There was a whirl of frantic activity, in which we were told to lift His Royal and carry him to the kitchen. Once there, we were instructed to tie him to the huge rotisserie spit on which the Exalted Culinarity would turn whole hogs at feast time. When His Royal was lashed securely to the long metal rod, the healer told Grenis to turn the handle and set it so that the patient’s left ear was toward the floor. Then the old man called for Pester to bring a large pot and set it down in the ashes where the fire usually burned.
A moment after the boy set the pot down, a dollop of viscous white fluid dripped from His Royal’s ear and splattered inside it. The assembled company all took a step back at the sight of this. Then a steady stream of the goo began to fall, like beer from an open tap, filling the pot.
“He said we must let no harm come to this substance, no matter what happens to it,” said Frouch, who had just arrived in the kitchen.
“What in the Devil’s name is it?” asked Ringlat.
I turned to ask the healer the very same question, but he was no longer in the room.
“Nice work, Flam,” said Chin Mokes, “you’ve turned the King into a flagon of goo.”
“Where is that physician?” said Grenis Saint-Geedon, pulling a butcher knife from his rack. He left the room with a murderous look on his face.
Over the course of the next two hours, the pot filled nearly to the brim, and the healer was searched for everywhere but never found. At daybreak, Ingess opened his eyes and yawned.
The palace Reparata rejoiced at the fact that His Royal had been returned to full health. It had been necessary to help him see to his needs for a week or so, but as soon as this period of convalescence had passed, he was up on his feet and performing his royal duties. Much of the hair he had lost had already begun to grow back, and he regained nearly all of his muscular vitality. The deep melancholy was gone, but it had taken some small part of him with it, for now, in his face, there was a series of subtle lines that made him look more mature. No longer did he weep for hours on end. In fact, I did not witness one tear after the ordeal. Neither did he laugh, though, and this small formality was like a pebble in my shoe.
I went one night to the gardens to release the bats and found him, sitting on the bench across from the fountain of the dolphins, staring up at the moon.
“Durst gave a lecture today on the nature of the universe. His belief is that it began with a giant explosion,” I said and laughed too hard, trying to get him to join me.
Ingess merely shook his head. “Poor Durst,” he said. “I never told you, but I once sent for some word about him to the asylum that he wandered away from. It seems he had a twin brother who drowned when he was ten. He might have saved him but he was too afraid of the water.”
“His Royal,” I said, exasperated with his response, “why do you stare at the moon?”
“Don’t call me that anymore, Flam. I’m not a king. Just a pirate’s grandson who was left far too much gold.”
“As you wish,” I said.
He turned then and forced a smile for me. “I want you to have Saint-Geedon prepare a feast. I need to thank everyone for their efforts to save my life.”
I nodded and left him.
Later that night, I sought out Frouch and found her on the terrace that overlooks the reflecting pond. She was sitting in the shadow of a potted mimosa, feeding breadcrumbs to the peacocks.
I pulled up a chair and told her about the feast that would be held in another two days. She brightened at the prospect of this.
“I have a gown I’ve been waiting to wear,” she said.
“How do you feel now that everything is back to normal?” I asked.
“You were brilliant as the Conscience of the King,” she said.
“I’d rather put that entire affair behind me,” I said. “But there is one thing that I still wonder about.”
“The picture at the end of the healer’s strange spectacles?” she said.
I shook my head, “What became of that muddle that dripped from Ingess’s ear?”
She clapped her hands to send the birds scurrying away and sat forward. “You mean you haven’t seen it?” she asked.
“Come now,” she said and stood. “You’ve got to see this.”
She actually took my hand as we walked through hallways, and it made me somewhat nervous to find myself behind the protective field of her dangerous laughter.
We ended our journey in the small chapel at the northern end of the palace. The Ministress of Sleep, old Mrs. Kofnep, was just lighting a last votive candle as we entered. Beyond her, resting on the altar atop a satin pillow of considerable size was a huge ball with fine white hair growing all over it.
“There it is,” said Frouch.
“That thing?” I asked, pointing.
Mrs. Kofnep greeted us and then turned her own gaze on the strange object. “I haven’t decided if it’s an egg or a testicle or a replica of the world,” she said with a self-mocking smile.
“It took that form of a perfect sphere the day after it came from His Royal’s head,” said the Countess.
“The white hair wasn’t there two nights ago,” said Mrs. Kofnep.
“I had it moved here to protect it,” said Frouch.
We stared at it for some time, and then the Ministress of Sleep left us with the usual complaint about her insomnia.
The next day I was busy with preparations for the feast, but before turning in, I went back to the chapel to have another look at the oddity. Changes had obviously taken place, for now it was stretched out and tapered at either end with a large bulge in the middle. The white hair had grown profusely, and wrapped itself around to swaddle whatever was there gently undulating at its core.
The feast was held in the grand ballroom and the Exalted Culinarity had outdone himself with the exotic nature of the dishes served. Crow liver paté on paper thin slices of candied amber was the appetizer. For the main course there was fowl, hog, beef, and even crocodile done up with fruit and vegetables to appear as tropical islands floating in calm seas of gravy. On each table was placed a punch bowl of Princess Jang’s Tears, the drink that had of late become all the rage at Reparata.
Ringlat gave a benediction in which he likened the loss of Josette to highway robbery and our combined efforts to revive Ingess as the true power of the Law. With the exception of Mrs. Kofnep, none of us was overly religious. I looked around as Ringlat finished to see bowed heads and all manner of halfhearted religiously symbolic hand gesturing. When Durst stood, I was relieved, knowing his drivel would cast out the seriousness of the Bishop’s sermon. He did not disappoint. His gift to Ingess, as he put it, was the discovery of the meaning of Time. To represent his tangled ball of musings in a nutshell, he surmised from one side of his mouth that it existed to make eternity pass more quickly, and from the other side that it served to make it pass more slowly. We gave him a standing ovation and then started drinking.
Through the entire gala, His Royal sat on the dais, neither eating nor drinking, but nodding with a mechanical smile to one and all. By my third serving of the Tears, I forgot about my concern for him and stepped out on the dance floor with the Countess. For that evening, she had applied a false beauty mark to her upper lip, and I found it remarkably alluring. At some point in her life, she had been beautiful, and on that evening, dressed in a cream-colored gown, her hair done up in two conical horns and decorated with mimosa blossoms, she approached her former radiance like a clock frozen at only a minute to midnight.
“Flam, your dancing leads me to believe I will have to guide you to your room later with a trail of bananas,” she said and whisper-giggled into my left ear. The sound of that laughter did not frighten me, but instead made my head spin as though it were Sirimon opening a new pathway to that portion of the brain that houses desire.
Chin Mokes walked on his hands. Pester spun like a dervish. The Illustrious Shepherd of Dust sang an aria about the unrequited love of a giant. The Majestic Seventh did impressions of farm animals until she passed out beneath the table which held the island of roasted hog. The ballroom was a swirling storm of goodwill and high spirits while at its center sat Ingess as though asleep with his eyes open. Not once did his smile disappear, not once did he miss a chance to shake hands or give a thank-you kiss, not once did he laugh.
Then, sometime well after the dessert of chocolate balloons, there was a shrill cry of distress and the room went absolutely silent. I looked up from my drink to see what had hushed the crowd and saw the Ministress of Sleep, Mrs. Kofnep, standing just inside the northern entrance to the ballroom, working madly to catch her breath.
“Come quickly,” she cried, “something is happening in the chapel.” She turned and left in great haste and we all followed.
The small chapel was just large enough to accommodate all of us as long as Pester sat atop Durst’s shoulders. We crowded in, panting and perspiring from our dash through the Hall of Light and Shadow, across the rotunda of the Royal Museum, and then down the steps just past the observatory. Up on the altar the white entity, which I now knew was a cocoon, was rippling wildly, rocking and emitting sharp cries high and thin enough to pass through the eye of a needle.
There was an awed silence among the members of the court, and only Ingess had the wherewithal to draw his long dagger in case the expectant birth came forth a terror. People clutched each other as the white fabric of the thing began to tear with a sound like a fat man splitting his trousers. Ingess audibly groaned and his sword clanked to the floor as the thing began to unfurl itself. An explosion of fine white powder was released at the moment of birth and then immediately blown away by some phantom breeze. When that cleared, I saw it above the altar, hovering in the air, a huge, diaphanous moth with wings as big as bed sheets. It looked only a hair more substantial than a ghost, glimmering in the light from the flickering votives.
The crowd became a chorus and voiced a gasp and then a sigh as the thing flapped its huge wings and flew above our heads toward the entrance. Pester, his face a mask of wonder, reached up toward it from where he sat on Durst’s shoulders. His index finger ran along its underside as it passed into the hallway, and then his finger, like a flame going out, disappeared from his hand. The boy’s mask of wonder became one of horror and he screamed. We meant to help him but by then the powder that had fallen from the Moth reached our eyes. It caused in me a feeling of sorrow more deep than the one I experienced upon my mother’s death when I was five. The entire court was reduced to tears. Only Ingess had not been affected. I saw him retrieve his dagger from the floor with the same stoic look he had worn at the feast.
When the effects of the moth’s powder had worn off, we gathered round Pester to inspect his hand.
“There was no pain,” he said. “Only inside, a sadness.”
Some touched the spot where the digit had been, still unable to believe it was gone. Ringlat, knowing that as the Bishop he should do something profound at this point but having no clue as to what, took the boy’s hand in his and kissed the nub. Mokes actually turned to Tendon Durst for an explanation, and the Philosopher General mumbled something about insect fear and the ringed planet. Chin nodded as if he understood. The strange powder that had fallen now covered Frouch’s beauty mark and somewhat disintegrated her power of enchantment. All jabbered like magpies, and the one thing that was finally decided upon was that strong drink was required. Before we left the chapel, Ingess apologized to us, especially Pester, since it had been his royal mind that had been responsible for the moth.
The evening ended with everyone, including the King, drinking themselves into oblivion. We wondered where the creature had wafted off to, but no one wanted to go in search of it. Sometime near daybreak, I and the others trudged like the walking dead to our sleeping chambers to feast on bad dreams. My last thought as I dozed off was of Frouch and her fleeting beauty.
Three days passed without a sign of the moth, and the court began to breathe easier, thinking that it was now time to put aside the tragic saga of Josette’s death. I know that Ingess was approached by Saint-Geedon and some of the others about perhaps starting a project that might recapture the old spirit of Reparata, but His Royal very kindly put them off with promises that he would consider the suggestions.
On the night of the third day, I was sitting in the garden with my cage of bats when I spotted the moth. It lifted slowly up like a dispossessed thought of ingenious proportion from behind a row of hedges, causing me to drop my pipe into my lap. I considered running, but its fluid grace as it moved along the wall of green hypnotized me. When I finally adjusted to the shock of its arrival, I noticed that same sound Sirimon had made when cavorting in Ingess’s head. In less than a minute it had left a good span of hedge completely devoid of vegetation. What remained was a mere skeleton of branches. I nervously lifted the latch on the bat cage, thinking that their presence might frighten it away. As always they swarmed frantically out and around the garden, but none of them would dare go near the moth. Before I moved from my seat, I saw it consume an entire rose bush, a veritable mile of trailing vine, all of Josette’s tiger lilies, and the foliage of an immense weeping willow.
The next morning, the moth having disappeared again, the court gathered in the garden, or I should say where the garden had been. Its destruction was so complete that I could count on my hands the number of leaves still clinging to their branches. There was a certain sadness about the destruction of that special place, but for the time being it was blanketed by a stronger sense of amazement at the enormity of the thing’s appetite and its efficiency in satisfying it.
“Do we have a large net?” asked the Chancellor of Waste.
“Why, do you want to be the one to wrestle with it?” asked Pester, holding up his hand for all to see.
“It must be destroyed,” said Ringlat. “It’s far too dangerous.”
“But it is beautiful,” said the Illustrious Seventh.
“The garden was beautiful,” countered the Bishop. “This thing is evil.”
Ingess stepped into the middle of the crowd and turned to look at each of us. “The moth is not to be harmed,” he said.
“But it is not righteous,” said Ringlat.
“The moth is not to be harmed on pain of death,” said Ingess without anger and then turned and strode away toward the palace.
The members of the court said nothing, but each looked at his or her shoes like scolded children. A death threat from Ingess was like an arrow through the heart of Reparata. In that moment, we felt its spirit dissolve.
“Death?” said Chin Mokes when His Royal was out of earshot. He shook his head sadly. The others did the same as they wandered aimlessly away from the missing garden.
I called to Frouch to wait up for me, but to my surprise, she turned and continued on toward the palace.
As we soon learned, the garden was only the beginning. On the next evening it invaded the closets of the Southern wing and, moving from room to room, devoured all of the linens and finery of those who resided there. All that remained by way of clothing was the outfits those court members had arrived at Reparata in, which had long ago been stored away in trunks. The next day, I met the Chancellor of Waste at breakfast, and he was wearing the clown outfit that, in his previous life, had been his uniform. The shoes were enormous, the tie too short, the jacket striped and the pants checkered. In a loud voice, he desperately tried to explain and his embarrassment was contagious. It was a disarming sight to see half the royalty of court traipsing about in threadbare attire.
Ingess assigned the Royal Accountant to bring gold so that new fashions could be sent for immediately, but when the doors of the counting house were opened, allowing the sunlight access, the moth was startled into flight and brushed past the Accountant. When he was finally able to clear his eyes of the insect’s powder and his mind of its resultant depression, he discovered that the creature had a taste for more than just leaves and clothing. A good half of all of that immense trove of gold was gone.
All were skeptical of the story the Accountant told, suspecting him of theft, since he had actually been a pickpocket earlier in his life. A few nights later, though, when the moth returned, more than one witnessed its consumption of jewelry, and Saint-Geedon vouched that it had, in minutes, done away with every place setting of the royal silverware. Ingess had even lost his crown to it, but still, in the face of strident requests that it be exterminated, he refused to relent on his command that it not be harmed.
I went to visit Frouch in her rooms the morning after it dined in our quadrant of the palace. My own wardrobe had vanished through the night along with just about everything else I owned. When I knocked on the Countess’s door I was wearing my old jacket missing an arm and the trousers I had wandered a thousand miles in, whose gaping knee holes made the bottom half of each leg almost superfluous. Putting these things on again was very difficult, and for a moment I considered simply going about in my bathrobe as the healer had.
There was no answer from the Countess, and I was about to leave when I heard something from beyond the door that I at first mistook for the sound of Sirimon. I listened more closely and it came to me that it was Frouch, weeping. In a moment of madness, I opened the door and entered anyway.
“Countess,” I called.
“Go away, Flam,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, though I already had a good idea. I proceeded down the hallway.
“Don’t come in here,” she said, but I had to make sure she was all right.
She stood in the middle of her room, wearing the short, revealing dress she had worn ten years earlier when walking the streets of Gile. Her hair was down and unpowdered to show its true mousy brown and grey.
“The dream is finished, Flam,” she said, looking up at me with a face that showed every hard moment she had ever lived.
I wanted to comfort her, but I did not know how.
“Countess,” I said and took a step forward.
“Countess,” she said and laughed in a way that drilled my heart more thoroughly than Sirimon could have.
“Come walk with me,” I said. “Let’s get some air.”
“Get away from me,” she said.
Her response angered me greatly. I left her there and went to walk the corridors, talking to myself as if I was Durst. Passing the large oval mirror outside of the library, I caught a glimpse of a fool, jawing away, dressed in my old rags, his hair undone and wild. I knew now what I had looked like years earlier to the inhabitants of those towns I had visited and been evicted from. I needed to get a hold on reality, and so decided to go to the palace attic and do some dusting. I trudged up the long flight of steps, assuring myself that work was the cure for my woes.
I threw back the door of that hidden sanctuary, and saw instantly that the moth had visited. The creature had cleaned the place out completely, leaving not one candelabra, not the slightest feather from the eagle decoration that had been made for the holidays five years earlier. All of the old objects I had so scrupulously cared for over the years were gone.
“No,” I said, and the word echoed out to the far reaches of the empty expanse. Then it struck me that the moth had devoured my very title. The gardens no longer needed bats, the things in the attic did not require dusting, and as for my Monday proclamations, I had been making them long before I ever came to Reparata. At least when I was the High and Mighty of Next Week, the promise of the future always loomed ahead, calling me on. Now, all that was left was the past.
When the moth began devouring the very marble structure of the palace, Ringlat, Chin Mokes and the Chancellor of Waste hatched a conspiracy to do away with it. Many of the others had agreed to help them. As it was put to me when they attempted to conscript me into their plot, “Ingess is not in his right mind. We have to save him again.” I was told that Saint-Geedon had been chosen, because of his skills as an assassin, to form a plan to strike the insect down. What was I to do but agree?
I had often wondered what the link was between the professions of hired killer and chef, because Grenis had made the transition from one to the other almost overnight when he chose Reparata as his home. After I watched him create the bomb, though, I no longer had any questions. The outer casing of the device was made from a thick crusted peasant bread called latcha, which was a main staple of the farmers in the surrounding countryside. Through a small hole he cut in the top of the loaf, he dug out the dough, leaving it as hollow as a jack-o-lantern. Next came a strange mixture of chemicals and cooking powders, each of which he measured out in exact amounts. To this, he added boxes of nails and pieces of sharp metal. For the finishing touch, he asked Pester to bring him the vanilla.
“What does that do?” I asked.
“For sweetness,” he said.
To create the fuse, he pan-fried over a low fire a long piece of string in some of the same ingredients that were used in the main course. When the string had cooled, he inserted the end into the bread, replaced the cap of crust he had cut and then garnished the outside with radishes cut into florets. We gave him a round of applause to which he clicked his heels and nodded sharply.
The moon couldn’t have been brighter the night we put our plan into action. It had been decided that we would lay the trap outside the walls of the palace so as not to chance destroying any more of the quickly diminishing structure. Just beyond the gates, there was a deep moat that ran the circumference of Reparata. We crept cautiously out across the drawbridge, which, since there was little threat of invasion in those times, was always left down.
Ten yards off the bridge, and twenty yards to the surrounding tree line, we heaped up a pile of whatever belongings still remained to us. Those who had nothing to give, removed curtains from the few rooms that had not been visited yet by the moth. Within this hill of things, we planted the bomb, and then ran the long fuse over to the tree line where we took up positions, hiding in the shadows at the edge of the woods.
There were more than twenty of us in the group. Because I was nervous that Ingess might discover our treachery or that we might fail, I didn’t notice that the Countess was among the conspirators until we stood beneath the trees. She had somewhere gotten a set of men’s clothing and her hair was tied back.
“Frouch,” I whispered, “I didn’t know you were part of this.”
“I hope that bomb blows the damned bug to tatters, the same way it did to my life,” she said. There was an edge to her voice I had never heard before.
I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and lit a cigarette. I meant to ask her what I had done to make her cross with me, but just then the Philosopher General whispered a duet of, “Behold, the floating hunger.”
It flew slowly out past the open gates of Reparata, its wings quietly beating the air. The powder it threw off caught the moonlight and created a misty aura around it. Its antennas twitched at the scent of curtain silk, gown muslin, old shoes, strings of pearls, and the deadly loaf at their center. When it landed with the lightness of a dream feather and began to dine, Saint-Geedon turned to Frouch and nodded. She flicked the ash off her cigarette, puffed it hard three times and then put the burning end to the tip of the fuse. The tiny spark was away in an instant, eating the treated string faster than even the creature could.
Frouch licked her lips, Ringlat rubbed his hands together, and the Chancellor of Waste wheezed excitedly as that dot of fizzling orange raced toward explosion. When it was exactly halfway to the heap where the moth was busy vanishing an old topcoat, who should appear at the palace gates but Ingess dressed in full battle armor and mounted on Drith, his nag of a war horse. The moment we saw him there, it was obvious he had finally come to his senses and decided to slay the creature as his subjects had begged him. He drew his long sword, pointed it at the moth and then spurred the old horse in the flanks.
As His Royal reached the middle of the drawbridge, the spark reached the loaf. We braced ourselves for apocalypse but all that followed was a miserable little pop, weaker than a champagne cork, and the issuance of a slight stream of smoke. The moth flapped upward in a panic, unharmed, but this sudden motion frightened Drith and he reared to his hind legs, throwing Ingess from his back and into the deep waters of the moat.
The ridiculous course of events left me standing with my mouth open wide. Everyone was stunned by the misadventure.
Then Frouch yelled, “He’ll drown in that armor.”
She took two steps past me, but I saw that someone else had already begun sprinting toward the moat. It was Durst, and I had never seen his lumpen form move with such speed in all the years I had known him. He did not hesitate at the edge, but awkwardly formed his hands together into an arrowhead in front of him, kicked up his heels in the back, and dove into the water. At the sight of this, we all started running.
I don’t know how he found him in the dark at the bottom of that moat, nor do I know how he lifted him to the surface and brought him to the bank. Ringlat and I reached down and pulled His Royal up onto dry land. Pester and Chin Mokes did the same with Durst. In seconds we had Ingess’s helmet off, and much to my relief found that he was still faintly breathing.
“He’s alive,” yelled Ringlat and the assembled company shouted.
Frouch helped us remove the rest of the armor as the others gathered round Durst, patting his head and slapping him on the back. I stole a look at him in the middle of my work and saw that he had lost his spectacles. When I noticed he was no longer bent by the weight of his twin, I had a feeling he would not be needing them.
Whereas the night had brought a miraculous opportunity to the Philosopher General, His Royal had not fared half so well. We freed him of his armor, but no manner of nudging, tapping, or massage could wake him from unconsciousness. My fear that he had been too long underwater without air seemed now to be a fact. Still, we gathered him up and brought him back inside the palace. The structures of the buildings were no longer sound because of the work of the moth, so we carried one of the last remaining beds out into the courtyard and laid him on that. Then we gathered around him like dwarfs around a poisoned princess in a fairy tale and waited with far too much hope than could reasonably be expected.
The other members of the court who were not part of our ill-fated plot now came out of the palace to join us, bringing reports of what little remained in the wake of the moth. Ingess’s fortune was now completely gone, the food stores, with the exception of an old pot of mouldy cremat, were thoroughly decimated.
“The place is as empty as my heart,” said the Illustrious Seventh, who in her ripped tunic from yesteryear was looking none too illustrious.
We stayed in that courtyard through the remainder of the night and the following day, standing around, watching His Royal’s every faint breath. From off in the distance came the occasional sounds of some piece of the architecture crumbling and falling with a thunderous crash, having been undermined by the moth’s earlier dining. I witnessed with my own eyes the fall of the eastern parapet. It slouched and fell, tons of marble, like a sand castle in the surf.
When the young ones began to complain of hunger there was nothing to give them. None of us had been at Reparata long enough to forget that feeling of utter need. Frouch and some of the others discussed possibilities of where to find food, but nothing came readily to mind. Then Ringlat removed his Bishop’s robe, throwing it to the ground. Beneath, he was dressed in the black costume of the highwayman. He borrowed a scarf from one of the ladies and tied it around his face just beneath his eyes.
“Flam,” he said, “if I’m not back by nightfall, you will have to think of something else.” We watched him run across the courtyard to where Drith stood drinking from a small fountain. With one leap, he went up over the back of the horse and landed in its saddle. Grabbing the reins, he spun the mount to the left, whipped it and gave it his heels. The old nag responded and together they were off like a shot through the gates of Reparata.
The day was as long as any I have ever witnessed. The afternoon dragged on as our expectations of His Royal’s recovery grew more faint than his breathing. When things become almost intolerable and some of the very young had begun to cry, The Chancellor of Waste gathered them all together and, borrowing some small objects from the crowd (my pipe, a pocket watch, a knife), he began juggling. Occasionally, he would allow one of the things to hit him on the head before he caught it and sent it back into the cycle. This drew some laughter from the children. For we who were older, the transformation of the Chancellor, himself, from fatuous ass to merry buffoon was marvelous enough to bring a smile in spite of the predicament our king was in. He juggled, acted idiotic, and performed pratfalls for hours, until he finally slumped down onto the ground in exhaustion. The children ran to him and, climbing on his back, used him as a boat while he slept.
“What are we going to do?” Frouch asked as we stood together at twilight, staring down at Ingess, whose condition hadn’t changed all day.
I shook my head. “I’m lost,” I said.
“We can’t stay here any longer,” she told me and I wasn’t sure by the tone of her voice if she was talking about the entire court or just she and I.
There was no time to question her about this, because just then, Ringlat came charging across the drawbridge on Drith. With one hand he clutched the horse’s reins and with the other he held tightly to a bulging cloth gathered up at one end and thrown over his shoulder.
“Dinner,” he called as he leaped down from his mount. When he spread the cloth out at our feet, we saw it was filled with all manner of food.
“It seems the Lord provides, Bishop,” I said to him as everyone crowded around to take something.
“In this case, the Lord taketh away. Righteous robbery, Flam,” he said. “That road to Enginstan always was a favorite of mine.”
“In broad daylight?” I said.
He shrugged, “I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but it seems my reputation still lives. When all I demanded was food, they were more than happy to comply. How many do you know who can claim to have been robbed by Ringlat and lived to tell of it? Something to pass down to their grandchildren.”
“You’re a generous man,” I told him as he searched around for where he had dropped his bishop’s robe.
There was just enough to eat in that sack to quiet the children and calm the adults. The last crumb of the last loaf was finished just as night settled in. We knew the moth was about, because as soon as it got dark we could hear pieces of the palace coming down. I called for everyone to gather in close to Ingess in case any of the surrounding facade might give way. It was cold and we huddled together on the ground there, a human knot around His Royal. The answer to the question I never got to ask Frouch earlier was answered when she took a place beside me and leaned against my shoulder. I put my arm around her and she closed her eyes.
Some slept but I stared numbly into the dark and listened to the destruction of Reparata. It was just after I was sure I heard the southern colonnade drop into the reflecting pond that Pester stood up.
“It’s coming for us,” he screamed in a shrill voice, pointing up above with his missing finger.
I looked up at what I at first mistook for the moon, but soon saw was the moth, slowly descending from a great height. The powder was falling toward us, and I roused everyone as quickly as possible so as to have them escape its ill effects. Groggy and scared, the company moved quickly back away from Ingess, since it appeared precisely there that the moth would land.
“Will it eat him?” asked Frouch as we looked on in horror, totally powerless to stop it.
“It took Pester’s finger with no problem. It devoured solid marble,” I said.
The others around us started to yell and wave their arms in an attempt to frighten it away, but the moth, as lovely as a delicate blossom on the breeze, continued in its descent, showering him with its powder. Frouch turned away as it came to rest, laying its body upon the length of Ingess’s. A groan went up from the assembled court, as it wrapped its wings around him like a pale winding sheet. I watched through tears, expecting at any moment to see the huge insect lift off and leave behind an empty bed. Instead, it gave a long mournful cry and before our eyes, like magic, dissipated into a light fog that continued to hang about the body. Then Ingess roused, filling his lungs with an enormous gasp, and the airy remains of the moth entered him through his mouth and nostrils. He opened his eyes and sat up, and when he finally exhaled, it came as a blast of laughter.
As I approached him, he held his hand out to me, and I could see in his eyes that mischievous look from before the tragedy. He told us that while he was unconscious, he had been with Josette in the garden. She told him to stop grieving or she would never be happy. “We must slough off the cocoon of Reparata,” he said.
“That won’t be difficult,” said Chin Mokes. “There’s nothing left.”
At this, Ingess laughed again as he had on the day when he bestowed upon me the title of High and Mighty of Next Week. We gathered around him for the last time, penniless, homeless, facing an uncertain future.
The next day, after tearful goodbyes, we left the broken shell of Reparata and scattered out across the countryside like a brood of newborn insects. Without a word between us, Frouch and I decided to travel together. Life on the road was hard, but we had each other to rely on. For no good reason, we made our way to the coast and ended our journey in, of all places, Gile. I became a fisherman on one of the boats and Frouch took a job serving drinks in the tavern. It was a funny thing, but no one ever recognized her from her earlier days. The only one who remembered was the tavern keeper, and he told the customers who asked that she was royalty in disguise.
I heard that Ingess eventually married again and took up farming. He became famous far and wide for the prodigious nature of his crops and the generous prices at which he sold them. It became known by all of those who might have fallen on hard times that his home was a place of refuge. Although I think of them often, I cannot say what became of the rest of the royal court of Reparata. All I know is that years later, when an evil tyrant arose in the north and threatened war on the entire territory, he was found one morning with his throat slit, a gob of spit on his forehead, and smelling strangely of vanilla.
As for that healer, Frouch overheard, at the tavern one evening, a visiting merchant speak of an old man in a bathrobe he had encountered in a drinking establishment in the distant port of Mekshalan. “It seems the old man had arrived with a flea circus that he was sure would cure the Great Pasha’s crippling disease of exquisite boredom,” said the merchant. “He showed me the circus and I saw nothing but meagre black specks hopping about. When I asked him if he thought they were so entertaining they would lift the great one out of his boredom, he shook his head and said, ‘Of course not, but when they get loose in his beard and turban, he’ll have plenty to do’.”
In the evenings when I come in off the bay, Frouch is waiting for me at the table by the window of the tavern with plates of food and two glasses of Princess Jang’s Tears. As night falls, we head home to our little shack in the dunes, light a fire and lie together, conversing and watching the play of shadows on the ceiling. In those shifting projections, I have had glimpses of Reparata, and Ingess and Josette. An image of the moth also frequently appears there, but the persistent beating of its wings no longer frightens me now that I have learned there are some things in this world that can never be devoured.