(Written in Australian English)
“That life is transient is part of its liveliness.”
The poets, when speaking of the transience of the world, always find their best poetry.
“These, our finished days, reverberate like playground after dark.
We wake from this dream and return to what was known before birth.
With all the dramatics and clamour and conviction in which we toiled,
Now realised as game, with amusement at our own naiveté.
Our sack of meat and bones, through which the universe did peer,
Returns to tree and sky and sea, and countless other things.
And such folly did the game arouse, that we choose to play again,
In an endless wheel of hide and seek.”
OSCAR leant against palace balustrade and looked across the bay as evening fell and day died a beautiful golden death.
He’d seen many beautiful things here.
Towering edifices along a coast of thundering sea and thick forests upon high cliffs. Dark cloud upon luminous horizon. Terracotta skies, turquoise waters and mountains of mauve.
If imagist verse arose anywhere, it was here.
He turned to see Lydia step onto the balcony.
“Are you ready now?”
He looked back at the view. He wanted to watch sun disappear behind an island in the bay. “Not really,” he said. “You can continue without me.”
She wavered, before arriving beside him and looked out over the sea. “You’ve been out here too long. They’re starting to wonder why.”
“So am I.”
Her fur was golden in the afternoon light. “They’ve seen and heard enough,” she said. “As have we. It’s time to sort this out. Mironaelk has nearly finished.”
“I don’t think Mironaelk ever finishes.”
“Come on, Oscar. It’s time.” Her voice was gentle like the breeze. “There are buns, you know. With icing. Flumpt’s even made you a hot-fin to have with them.”
Oscar said nothing, suspecting it would probably blow his head off.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “but he assures me its lumps aren’t remotely explosive. He threw several at a wall to prove it.”
It had been three days since the palace was de-cornered by a massive fire-breathing beast, and the amount of confusion that had erupted in its wake was almost on par with his own. Bisarah’s bewildered populous had come to the consensus that what had fallen from the sky was, in fact, an enormous prototype hot air balloon, thanks to the front page of The Daily Spoon, which described it as “very badly flown by someone who really ought to know better.” When, in the newspaper’s Letters to the Editor, someone had understandably asked how a prototype balloon could possibly be flown by someone who didn’t know enough, the newspaper pointed out that this was the very reason it was news-worthy, alongside the fact that its landing had decimated a royal pavilion and ruined a remarkable quantity of laundry.
Following its unconventional landing, residents of Bisarah who weren’t on fire tried coming to terms with the trauma by making curries, which they’d slopped into a modest lake in the palace’s gardens, turning it into a huge vat of communal soup. Spoons had been distributed by palace guards who hadn’t been singed by bits of falling palace, and a great night was had by all—until someone pointed out that despite their therapeutic watery gruel, it didn’t alter the fact that the thing still lay smouldering amidst what was left of the west wing. Concerned for residents’ sanity, Flumpt, in a brilliant piece of public dissertation, convinced a Daily Spoon reporter that not only had it been a prototype balloon, but an amphibious one, which resulted in a concerted effort of nearly three hundred animals to prise the thing off what little remained of third-storey flooring, and roll it down the hill and into the sea, where an entourage of boats towed it out into the middle of the bay.
Oscar watched the sun descend over it.
His prior resolve for retaliation after having witnessed a poet knitted into the thing had quickly waned after realising that the palatial entourage currently waiting for him inside expected him to prevent more of this sort of thing from happening. Considering what he’d endured over the previous books, he was no longer certain of his own innocence in their horrors and was begginning to wonder whether trouble was not only stalking him, but who he could officially complain to if it was. To avoid any further involved in proceedings he’d suggested that the palace could consider instigating an official ‘prototype-balloon-flying safety program’, which could, ironically, be celebrated with lots of little ones. Despite this being met with considerable enthusiasm from officials, it had been immediately quelled by Mironaelk, along with a stern look of disapproval. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm he’d generated meant that he could counter Mironaelk and Lydia’s insistence that he pull his weight by cultivating conviviality from any proposition he might conjure, provided it involved pleasant pastimes: a standing ovation of palatial entourage said far more than a stern talking to from Mironaelk and a punch in the face from Lydia.
Despite this, he was increasingly despondent about the whole affair. And although he hadn’t confessed his growing reservations to Lydia, he knew that brooding from balconies would go some way to imply it.
He was not only fed up with heroics, but determined to establish a small theatre group and perform some imagist poetry before the world ended.
Unfortunately, everyone else mistook this brooding for strategising.
No one considered it might be surrender.
He looked at Lydia, who watched the sun sink over a massive beast carcass in the bay. Having met the Ar’dath-Irr already, only she truly understood what they were up against, and he no longer shared any of her determination to fight it.
The Ar’dath-Irr could not be fought.
Even Mironaelk, despite knowing what the Ar’dath-Irr had once been, had no idea what he had become.
“Are you ready now?”
He wouldn’t tell her yet. He might not tell her at all. He’d go along with things and continue offering advice to the Echelon, but it wouldn’t be advice that Lydia, Flumpt or Mironaelk would expect. That didn’t matter, however, as this whole situation was unprecedented, and the great thing about unprecedented things is their tendency to be surprising.
“You can’t be out here forever.” Lydia said. It was a difficult balance between impatience and sympathy.
“I can. The view is spectacular.”
“It won’t stay spectacular if we delay much longer. It will all end very badly, to say the least.”
“Rather like the last book then.”
“Something like that, yes.”
Breeze rose in agreement.
“I mentioned hot-fin, you know,” she said.
“And Flumpt. And both in the same sentence. That’s not exactly encouraging.”
“Yes, but the wall he threw it at is still intact.”
“It’s lumps are probably on a delayed timer.”
“A bit like you then.”
“A bit like me, yes.” He sighed and turned from the view. The palace’s sandstone had become luminescent gold. “All right. We might as well get this over with.”
Despite her impatience, she didn’t move. “I do understand, you know,” she said, still watching the sea. “Your reluctance to be in this situation, I mean. Your frustration at being here at all.” She gestured at the view. “I understand the irony of this place: it’s beautiful, but also utterly unfamiliar and completely ludicrous. And not just this place, but everyone in it. All those ridiculous animals down there, and those even more ridiculous ones waiting for us inside.” She turned to him. “And I also remember what you said in the hotel room. In Liebe, To your Loud Puff—”
“Whatever. I haven’t forgotten. I’m not completely blindsided by all the madness and violence we’ve endured. I still remember what you said to Bingle-thingy—”
“Yes. That your survival had been chance and luck alone—and that your luck had run out. But that was two books ago, Oscar. Two!”
It seemed far more.
“And yet you’re still here—we’re both still here—despite having endured so much. I mean, you wouldn’t fluffing read about it.” She moved closer. “And I also remember something else.”
He wasn’t interested and folded his paws.
She unfolded them and squeezed both. “You described yourself as a farce. A fraud. That you were neither Velvet Paw or poet. And you insisted that wasn’t being defeatist, but was being realist. Well, I happen to think that in the light of everything that we’ve been through, we can ignore anything that includes the word real—”
“Lydia, all you’re doing is emphasising that as luck goes, we’re now officially bankrupt.”
Her conviction rose to the fore. “This has nothing to do with luck, Oscar. None of it. I wasn’t lucky to meet you, nor to arrive here and stay this time. It happened for a reason: one I’ve been searching for my entire life. I won’t let it go. I can’t. My purpose to help these animals. To protect them. To teach them. To be useful.”
It was nothing he didn’t already know, and it wouldn’t help him escape being part of it. “Shall we get on with this?”
She squeezed harder. “I’m not a fool, Oscar. Nor am I delusional. At least, not in this place. Mironaelk has given me the sort of perspective that horizons were fluffing-well invented for.”
Indignation grew. “That phrase belongs in the narrative, not dialogue.”
Another squeeze. “Look, this isn’t going to be easy for any of us, I know that. I mean, have you seen the length of this book? But we have no choice but to be involved. Those living here have no choice. They need our help. It’s down to us. And Mironaelk. And Flumpt and Letherin, and the Boeviss: all of them. The Echelon have gathered for a reason, Oscar: to stand together so we don’t fall apart.”
When she squeezed harder, he looked away, annoyed she overlooked the fact that he’d already swung precariously beneath Kilerete’s gondola like a fluffy pendulum.
“I need you to stand with me, Oscar.”
He didn’t say anything, knowing she needed no such bolstering. If anything, she’d be propping him up. “I’m not a wonky table leg, you know.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that I don’t need stabilising. I’m not going to fall over. I can stand up by myself.”
She released him. “I didn’t mean—”
“Look, I’m thrilled that you’ve finally found purpose, Lydia. Really, I am. After your social pariahism, I can understand your determination not to let this go. And I would imagine that getting torn to pieces by insanely violent creatures with breath like the aftermath of Flumpt’s culinary experiments borders on something you’d like to scribble on the back of a postcard and send to your parole officer. However, regardless of how much you preach, I don’t share your enthusiasm and I never will.”
She tried again. “Oscar, you’re braver than anyone I’ve ever met.”
He marched back toward the palace with a scoff. “You have no idea.”
She hurried after him. “I do, actually. I was there, remember? I’ve seen you. I’ve been with you. I know you!”
He stopped and turned to glare. “Know me?” He scoffed. “We only met a week ago!”
She frowned. “Why are you being so horrid?”
Her fur was a halo highlighted by descending sun. Everything was gold and vine and old stone. He had no right to be horrid. It might have been a week, but they’d been through more than most animals battle in a lifetime. Perhaps he was envious that she’d found purpose and courage. He, however, was frightened. Being dragged into the serrated pages that followed meant he wouldn’t be able to form a theatre group and experience what it was really like to be a celebrated poet.
He took a deep breath and looked past her at a shining bronzed sea, knowing he’d prefer one night as a famous poet than a lifetime as a Velvet Paw, not least because the life expectancy was considerably longer.
Regardless of how inadequate his imagist poetry might be, here, in a world where everyone loved everyone else, his efforts would be revered.
He couldn’t refuse such an opportunity.
It was a risk he would never dare take back home.
Here, he could be a bard even greater than D’dôdô-Sette.
This wasn’t his fight. He’d done enough of that sort of thing. He would pretend involvement in whatever she and Mironaelk might insist upon, but would not become embroiled again.
This trilogy’s cast had become large enough to fight on its own.
Thank you for reading!
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