“This time we’re going to get everything back on track,” Allegra tells me. “This place, it just sounds more your speed, something cerebral. I really do see it being a good fit for you. Time to dust yourself off and try again.”
She’s surely right. Of course she is. You can’t give up on hope, especially when there’s so little else to keep you going on.
This time, of all times, will be the time that something changes.
It’s just another day in Eskew; and I have been found another job to occupy myself with.
A friend at the city planner’s office knows a friend who has contacts at the Royal Society, and they’re in need of someone to help them transcribe their medieval collection into other languages, in the hope of luring in tourists.
For twelve weeks, I will be amongst books, instead of people.
In another life, it’d be everything I’ve dreamt of.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful.
I also don’t want to be here any longer.
My wife is clattering about at the sink, and the longer I watch the more it seems clear that she isn’t actually doing anything, that her arms are simply rattling pans and mugs and plates back and forth from one side to the other, in some desperate pattern of motion and business designed to summon up an atmosphere of antiquated domesticity.
I ask her if she’ll be going to work soon and she just calls back and says she’ll be leaving a little after I do.
Beneath the table, my son is crawling in a gentle, figure-of-eight recurring path around my legs, his long fingerless limbs wrapping themselves tightly against the denim, his pale inhuman face smiling up at me with folded-over, fleshy eye sockets.
“I’ll eat my toast when I get to the office,” I announce to the kitchen, rising from my chair and pocketing the marmalade jar.
Instantly, Allegra is at my throat; she kisses me, and straightens my tie.
I don’t remember putting on a tie, but it’s there now all the same.
When I enter the hallway, I note that the walls have been filled with framed photographs portraying tender familial moments I do not remember; my wife, my son, and me.
The wedding portrait is quite a sight. I stand stiffly to attention in a pressed suit, my hands by my side, like I’m propped up in an invisible coffin.
The bride is mostly veil, her bulbous, shapeless head lowered in devotion. I don’t even think it’s really her.
From underneath her skirts, my son’s horrid white face peers curiously out upon its extended black neck.
I feel like I’m sinking.
The Royal Society is on the Red Saint’s Boulevard in the old part of town, where the streets grow wild and the cobblestones crack beneath the pressure of fresh things forcing themselves up from the depths of the earth.
The boulevards are broad and stately here, the kind of place where you could imagine carriages once rollicking back and forth. Wagons laden with vegetables and drawn by rail-thin white horses. Marching men with halberds and pointy beards.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Eskew really did exist back then, four hundred or five hundred years ago. I’m not sure I can believe in it having a stable history any more than it has a stable geography.
But it’s quaint and entertaining to think of it as some medieval burg, or even a rickety hamlet, a squalid shambles of confusing alleyways that might have made peasants and druids splutter and shake and think themselves quite insane.
Or even earlier still, a network of caves, some blank-faced fur-skinned homo sapiens returning from a long mammoth hunt to discover that the warrens of their home were longer that they remembered, twisting in unnatural directions, leading to places that conjured up their own limited nightmares of teeth and noise and dark.
In the cave paintings that went wrong, the experimental daubings where the brush slipped and the faces came out warped, the buffalo twisted and savage, the sky melting into the obscene land...that’s where you might find the first imaginings of something like Eskew.
Perhaps it isn’t so quaint or entertaining.
I stop before the gates of the Society.
And they are gates, a pair of great wooden gates studded with iron and only semi-ajar, as if this great square four-storey building had defended itself against an invasion not so long ago.
There’s no hint of modernity here. Great blue-and-yellow banners hang alternately between the tall corniced windows, and a pair of cannons have been neatly arranged in the central courtyard to welcome guests.
There’s even a coat-of-arms over the entrance, for God’s sake, a detail so charming and reassuring that I deliberately keep myself from looking too closely at the half-man, half-animal creatures rearing up upon it, in case I see something there that makes me feel less charmed or reassured.
Inside is just as delightful.
I gaze up and across the grand central hall, scored by free-hanging staircases from north to south, from east to west, leading dizzyingly up and down from the various mezzanine floors, leading away into the exhibition spaces with intriguing names (The Sallow War. The King of Rust and Ruin. The Harvestman’s Reckoning.)
There are armoured knights, grim and overbearing statues, and tapestries that portray noble jousts or wild hunts through brambles forest.
I introduce myself at reception, and am led up the first and second of those perilous staircases, towards a discreet door which is swiped open by a keycard, and into an office that’s insalubrious and, yes, dingy, lit only by the great window looking out onto the Red Saint’s Boulevard, but none of this matters because the walls are lined with books.
The work is explained to me; I will work to the themes of the Royal Society’s fourteen upcoming exhibitions, leafing through the reams of archival documents on a given topic and editing them down into a series of concise, accessible statements that can then be placed on placards for the museum’s visitors to huddle around.
It all sounds rather marvellous.
It does seem strange that we will be writing in longhand, rather than typing, in great oversized ledgers and with fountain pens that are rather elegantly attached to the desks with long golden chains, but I am content for now to take it as a sign of pleasingly old-fashioned impracticality rather than anything sinister.
The only potential fly in the ointment is my writing partner.
He’s a short man, wiry and grey-bearded, perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, and when the supervisor introduces him, she does it with the words, “This is Palatnik. Play nice with David, Palatnik,” which seems like a red flag…
...and Palatnik does not look up in answer to that but only smirks at his own open ledger and continues to scribble, which seems like a worse one.
I’m left alone with him, to get settled in.
I pick up the nearest ledger, the one entitled ‘The Festival of the Crying Duchess’, and begin to make myself busy.
Over the course of the next seven hours, Palatnik says almost nothing to me.
I ask him to pass me a ruler. He ignores me.
I mention that I wouldn’t mind opening a window. He says nothing, just keeps on writing, his pen darting back and forth across the ledger’s pages.
Outside, the faint muffled chatter of the Society’s visitors persists throughout the day. It makes the silence inside the office seem all the more lonely.
It’s not that I enjoy conversation particularly, I simply like it when other people can give me reassurance that I exist.
I’m almost startled, at around a quarter to four, when he suddenly leans back in his chair, tilting his own thick ledger - which appears to be for an exhibition called ‘Ritual Punishments of the Old Eskovian Families’, and reads out loud,
“...one particular invention of the ruling class at this time was the Sleeper’s Mask: an iron box placed over the head of the prisoner, and secured in place. The crowd would then holler and bang pans and hold lit torches close to the Sleeper’s head, disorienting them, and creating the sensation that they had somehow descended into the underworld…’
He says it proudly, like he’s impressed by his own turn of phase and expects me to comment.
“Very good,” I say, politely. “Nice rhythm. I’d want to learn more.”
Palatnik stares at his ledger for a moment longer, ignoring me entirely, with that same little contemptuous half-smile upon his face - then returns to work.
At ten past five, he closes his book with a thump, returns the lid to his fountain pen, and leaves in silence.
I wait just long enough to avoid bumping into him on the stairs, then pick up my satchel and follow after.
Somewhere on the first floor of the Society, I lose my bearings; find myself walking amongst exhibits behind glass that I do not recognise.
From behind me, there’s a clunk.
I turn around, and find myself staring at a riveted, square iron box, fastened over the head of a pinioned mannequin.
The dummy is tilted unnaturally from behind the glass, its shoulder leaning against the surface and wobbling, ever so slightly, as if it’s only just stopped moving.
The box is rusted and dilapidated after long centuries of neglect, but it’s clear enough what it’s supposed to be.
The Sleeper’s Mask is exactly as Palatnik described it.
I give the exhibit a suspicious look, but it remains quite still, and after a moment I turn and stalk away down the staircase.
I am having trouble with the Festival of the Crying Duchess.
There’s iconography of wailing or sobbing faces throughout the historical texts and exhibition photography, but none of it seems to offer any explanation, and when I do spot a reference that seems to name a specific duchess or duke, I inevitably find myself reading back to discover that I was mistaken, and there is no such reference, only a paragraph about crop rotation or viaducts that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything else.
Whenever I think I’ve found something relevant in the photography indexes, it proves that the page itself has been ripped out, or the image has been scrawled over by spiraling, grotesque cartoon pictography, making it impossible to see what lies beneath.
After nearly three full days of work, I don’t have much more than a few introductory sentences.
It’s like I’m being asked to write about something that does not exist.
Opposite me, Palatnik scribbles away, only occasionally stopping to consult a text or album for a split second before regaining momentum.
He gives no indication that he is taking his research seriously, or as anything more than infrequent inspiration.
Well, I think, screw it, then.
I uncap my pen, and begin to write.
‘Like many European fetes, Eskew’s Festival of the Crying Duchess is celebrated with a parade, led by giant-headed figures representing various folk archetypes: the Duchess herself, of course, but also the Cowardly Knight, the Old Man of Green Hedgerows, the Two-Faced Bear, the Unpredictable Fishwife…’
It just comes to me.
It feels good. Creativity can be its own escape, I suppose.
There’s a section at the bottom of the page for listing the academic references, and this makes me worry that I’ve gone too far, that at some point I’ll be called to account for this...but half of the records on the shelves are coated in decades of dust, and there’s no computer catalogue anywhere that I can see.
So my sources are texts such as,
The Collective Rituals of Mainland Europe, ed. Klandinsky (1994)
Paganism in Parade and Pageantry, ed. Forth (2001)
Duel of the Fetes, ed. Grumberlin (1981)
At the end of the sentence I glance up guiltily, half-expecting to be caught in the act, but Palatnik is still calmly writing in his own ledger.
Even his obvious scorn for me feels distant now, a quiet and background loathing that doesn’t really interrupt my state of enthusiasm.
I have too much to do to let him affect me.
I press on.
The Festival of the Crying Duchess, as it turns out, is a genuinely remarkable event, far richer in folklore and action than you could have anticipated.
The ceremonial bonfire in the town square, where parade-goers congregate to light their torches and toss their effigies of the Alabaster King, who the Crying Duchess chases through the streets, wailing his name. The colossal inflated pig, wafting in the air and hung from a thousand hooked strings above the heads of the crowd, which may represent the Pope or perhaps just monastic gluttony, I haven’t made up my mind yet.
And the Festival’s founding myth which scholars believe underlies the symbolism of the occasion - a beautiful thing, mythic and tragic, replete with memorable characters. I’m proud to have invented it.
At five o’clock, Palatnik shuts his ledger, dumps it onto the desk, and makes his exit.
I stay there for a while longer, taking the time to read back through my day’s work, marvelling at how fresh and thoughtful and real the entire thing sounds, making adjustments where necessary.
The noise of the visitors outside ebbs, and dies. The light outside the open window dims into dusk. And finally, I decide that it’s time to go home, snatching up my satchel, locking the little office behind me.
I can’t pretend that what happens next is entirely a surprise - and certainly not an unwelcome one.
Because as I step out onto the Society’s central mezzanine, I catch a glimpse of a row of tall glass cases on the far side of the bridge, newly polished and installed.
Carefully, trying not to look down, I cross the bridge and make my approach.
Five giant plaster heads are hanging in their cases, strung from wires, powdered with white and red paint, lovingly restored but still clearly artifacts from some bygone age.
The Crying Duchess hangs in the centre, her mouth agape, two thick lines of black tears rolling from her eyes.
They’re all there, all of them, just as I wrote them. Horrible, but mine.
And the thought of that makes a shiver of excitement run up my spine.
They came when they were called.
Palatnik and I sit in silence, composing.
The scratching of our pens on paper is the only sound.
Neither of us stop to get a drink of water, or visit the bathroom. Neither of us bother to check the records.
We just keep writing, more and more furiously, until it seems as if his pen’s scratch is actively competing with mine, and I speed up, sketching a maniacal path across the ledger’s page, turning back, writing, writing, until my fingers slip and the fountain pen goes skidding up into the air before it’s unceremoniously hooked and drops on the end of its little golden chain.
Palatnik stops writing. He smirks, with the air of a man who has won without even trying, and lays his own pen aside.
“Saw your handiwork this morning,” he says. “Festival of the Crying Duchess. Not bad.”
He looks up at me with knowing, sly eyes, and my expression is surely all too guilty and my manner far too halting when I reply with something like,
“You read my notes in the ledger?”
“I saw your handiwork, I mean,” he says, with emphasis, and then jerks his head out towards the doorway. “Out there.”
“I didn’t do that,” I tell him.
“You’ve got a knack for it,” he says, ignoring me entirely. “Same as me. I’ve seen new fish like you come and go, come and go. But you know what the Society wants, that’s the difference. You know what it wants from you.”
I lick my lips.
“And what does it want?” I ask.
Palatnik closes his ledger meaningfully with a hard thick slap.
“It wants to be real,” he says. He speaks in a low, careful tone. No drama in his voice. “How long have you been here now...Ward, wasn’t it?”
“David,” I reply. “It’s been three years now-“
I halt, because it’s suddenly occurred to me that it was three years ago this time last year, that I’ve been saying three years for some time now and I cannot remember when I started saying it.
Palatnik nods meaningfully and says, “I’ve been here for seventeen years that I can count. More that I can’t. You don’t survive that long on luck, Ward. You do it by knowing what the city wants. And you feed it. Once you know what it wants, you feed it and you don’t stop until there’s nothing left in you and it may as well feed on you next.”
He pats the heavy ledger.
“The Society likes it when we feed it history,” he says. “That’s what I’ve learned. Because there isn’t enough of the real stuff lying around. And because without history to fill it, the Society can’t justify its existence as a museum, right?
“And when you have a museum that can’t possibly exist, shelves of books that can’t be possibly filled, well...that’s when things start to go wrong. I’ve seen things go horribly wrong. I’ve seen holes open up, both here and elsewhere. You telling me you haven’t seen the same yourself, Ward?”
“Go on,” I tell him, a little hoarsely.
“History,” Palatnik says triumphantly, “fills in the gaps, makes sense of the present. Offers explanations for the way things are. Makes everything around us a little more real, a little more stable.”
“Thanks,” I tell him. “I know what history is.”
He snorts with laughter and adds, half to himself,
“I don’t think I can keep track of everything I’ve written for it by now. There’s one royal dynasty back in the fifteenth century that is all mine, but you wouldn’t know that if you strayed onto the fourth floor and found yourself staring up at their paintings. Half of this bloody building is mine.”
“Let me get this straight,” I reply. “You’re saying that you can make up Eskovian history. Will it into existence. By writing about it.”
It isn’t that I find the idea impossible, it’s just that I don’t like the expression on his face or the way he talks to me and I don’t particularly want him to be right.
Palatnik raises a single finger, as if to shush me. He says,
“No, no, no. I suggest. Within these four walls, all I do is suggest. Like a humble servant. And once it’s written down in an authoritative tone, with footnotes and citations, and it feels just a little more real, the Society decides whether or not to create. It has the raw material and I don’t, after all.”
“It doesn’t always accept what I write. And that’s okay. Perhaps it turns out that a scholar got their facts wrong, or an old text was misinterpreted. It can always be corrected. And believe me, if it really doesn’t like something you’ve suggested, you’ll know about it. Like I say, Ward, the Society’s been through a few like you before. If you aren’t feeding it...well, then you’re just grist for the mill. Just a friendly warning.”
He looks into my eyes and laughs when he says that, then lapses back into his own comfortable silence - and begins to write again, turning the leathery pages of the ledger back and forward as he checks his own notes.
Well, then, there’s nothing to do but create.
I pick up one ledger after the other - and frankly there doesn’t seem to be any end to them - each bearing some new title, the wellspring of my inspiration.
The Cloth-Faced Horse. Eyelid-Thieves of the Stranger’s Quarter. Rituals of the Argent Basilica.
I have not been able to control a single aspect of my life since I arrived in Eskew, and now I have power over the centuries.
I invent - and then destroy entire families. I concoct noble scholars and honourable politicians who are then laid low by a bout of smallpox or stabbed in a back alley. I build up villains whose inexorable rise ends only in a final bloody mistake, at the height of their powers.
I am fickle, for such is the nature of good drama. I am merciless, for such is the nature of history.
And as I invent the city’s past, the Society’s collections expand to realise my vision. New halls and new artifacts. Fresh glass cases appearing out of nowhere to accommodate them. Objects that have always existed in this world, since I took the time to imagine them.
I understand that I am not fully in control here, that this is only some trick of Eskew, and it’s dangerous to get carried away, but it does occur to me that, technically, this power is godlike.
I mean, within the standard definitions.
One afternoon, I even get a little over-excited and begin to wonder what might happen if I put my pen to paper and write the words, “The city of Eskew was pulled underground in the earthquakes of 1864, killing its inhabitants, and has not been seen since.”
It won’t work. I know it won’t work.
But perhaps if I just-
I rest my pen against the paper, and write ‘The’.
I could swear for a moment that I can feel the ground trembling faintly beneath my feet, the first tell-tale tremors of some great cataclysm rising from below.
“The city of-“
My pen nib snaps, suddenly and violently, squirting black ink out across the back of my hand.
Often, I admit, my vision comes out changed.
I’ll stumble onto a painting of an ancient noble that is more crabbed than I intended, his expression more feral and malevolent.
Sometimes the suits of armour have the faces of crying children moulded in metal over the visor, which I never specified.
And Old King Four-Legs, which was a typo on my part, disturbs me every time I pass by his funeral casket.
But it’s all mine. I brought it to life. I don’t think I can explain how good that feels.
As the days pass, Palatnik does not seem any more inclined to get along with me, no matter how much history I conjure up.
In fact, he seems less smug and more sour. He no longer shares his scraps of prose with me. He’s begun to bring his lunch into the office and eats it there, stinking out the little room with pot noodles or tuna. More than once, we have fallen into a protracted, silent battle over whether the window should be open or closed. He likes it open. I don’t want the rain getting in.
I can understand why he’s jealous of me. We are in competition, after all.
He’s a small, limited man, a craftsman rather than an artist, most comfortable imagining torture devices or weaponry, unable to summon the empathy necessary to really create a life from scratch.
One morning I even catch him wandering in the museum, glowering suspiciously around at the glass cases, searching in vain for something, as if he’s written something he’s truly proud of which the Society has nevertheless refused to bring into existence.
His nasty eyes fix on mine, and he looks not just spiteful but humiliated, to have been spotted like this.
I meet his gaze, shrug, and continue on up the staircase to our office, to get on with my own work.
Clearly it just likes me better.
I continue to write.
And then one morning, things come to a head, because I am strolling up into work beneath my umbrella when I see that enormous banners have been erected along the Red Saint’s Boulevard.
A single plaster eye and cheek. An artfully-drawn black tear.
The Festival of the Crying Duchess. Join the Royal Historical Society in celebration. April 14.
Tourists are gathered around the entrance. A hawker is selling cheap-looking souvenir heads and sparklers and roasted chestnuts.
I suppose today must be April 14, now that I come to think of it, although who the hell knows when it was April 13, but the point is that I most certainly did not let the Festival take place on April 14, it’s a harvest festival, it’s about loss and fear and the human spirit asserting itself in spite of these things, April 14, it completely messes with the symbolism, it’s not right.
I pound up the Society stairs, past an out-of-work actor in a giant plaster head of the Old Man of Green Hedgerows, who greets me with something like, ‘Forsooth, m’lord-‘
I don’t hear the rest.
Palatnik is sitting in his chair, in our little shared office, facing the doorway.
He isn’t writing, but the Festival ledger rests open on his knees.
‘Morning, Ward,” he says cheerfully.
“You’ve been screwing with my Festival,” I tell him. “What, what, what the hell, Palatnik? You’re ruining it.”
“Oh,” he says, with a spiteful innocence. “Oh, that was a few weeks ago now. I didn’t realise you were still working on that. I thought you’d left it behind, you were taking on so many new projects. And it seemed as if you’d never bothered to write down the date when the festival actually took place. So I made some improvements-“
“Improvements?” I snap. I’m quaking. “The Festival is mine. I made it-“
Palatnik folds his arms.
“Oh,” he says. “I rather think that the Festival belongs to all of us. Don’t you agree, Ward? Still…” He licks his lips. “If the Festival did belong to you...that would explain the ceaseless gloom, the weird-for-the-sake-of-weird flourishes and inability to write convincing plot mechanics, the lack of any relatable historical characters. I’ve done what I can to fix that.”
So I take my seat, and lift a ledger from the side, and begin to write.
The clock upon the wall ticks away, filling the silence between us.
“Your Eskovian civil war,” I say quite suddenly, “was a clear rip-off of the American Revolution, speeches and all. I’m amazed the Society accepted it.”
“And your exhibition on the cycles of post-medieval fashion,” he tells me sweetly, “was as mannered and as senseless as you are.”
“You’re not an artist,” I say, “you’re a hack. Your work’s only successful when it mimics existing cliches so exactly as to attain some semblance of comforting familiarity.”
“Your work isn’t successful at all,” Palatnik replies.
Some hours pass in silence.
Neither of us takes our lunch. We continue to write, in silence and in hatred.
The working day ends, and the night watchmen come around to check the doors and hurry out the final guests, but we both continue to write, ignoring the outside world, ignoring each other, our pens scratching, endlessly scratching.
I will not leave him alone to spoil our history for the rest of us. He will not leave me, because he fears that I’ll wipe out all traces of his work. This is a duel of wills.
The sun is beginning to set. The museum is quiet.
Finally, Palatnik tosses his pen down and goes to open the window.
He heaves, his muscles straining. It seems to be stuck.
Triumphantly, I flick back a couple of pages in my ledger.
“Since the firebombing of the Red Saint’s Boulevard,” I read aloud, “all windows along procession routes have been double-reinforced and kept locked tightly shut.”
He turns and glares at me.
“Seems pretty successful to me,” I say, corking my pen.
“Change it back,” he snaps.
“I don’t think I can,” I tell him. “It’s pretty unequivocal. The firebombing took place forty years ago, and look, there are five separate references.”
“Right,” Palatnik says. He settles in his chair again. “Right, we’ll see about this…”
He furrows his brow for a moment, then puts the Festival ledger to one side.
He reaches over the desks and takes another. I’m not quick enough to stop him.
Palatnik licks his fingers. Selects a page. Gives me a quiet happy smile as he lifts his pen and begins to write.
“The so-called Rituals of the Argent Basilica,” he begins, “were proven in 1986 to be the work of a forger and a charlatan, and the ermine masks themselves made from catskin. As a result, the entire collection was removed from the Royal Society in 1987, and burnt.”
I almost launch myself from my chair.
“That’s my exhibition,” I hiss. “You can’t...it won’t let you…”
But history has no master, I know that, and so I stumble to my feet, and out into the mezzanine, and my gut churns at the sight of the empty brick wall that now stands on the opposite side of the great hall, a dead blank space that was once hung with banners and signposts, the entrance into the gallery that commemorated my invention, my Argent Basilica-
I stand there for a time, my fists unclenching and clenching in anguish and loss-
And then I go back into the little office, and I don’t sit in my chair, but I go over to stand by Palatnik’s chair, breathing down his neck as he pretends to ignore me, and then my hand clenches over his hand, causing history to run out in a sudden violent scribble into pure nonsense, and as I squeeze down with all of my strength the fountain pen bursts and ink gushes forth across the page, flooding that which was written.
He gives me an indulgent look. Glances up at me, then back down at the swimming pages.
Then he drops the book, and goes for my throat.
I’m on the floor, tripping back over my own feet, and Palatnik is punching and throttling me as I kick back up at him, and it’s fortunate in a way that I am lying upwards, because the ceiling of our office is pooling with ink, a great purple-black stain spreading outwards from the centre.
I gasp, “Look! Look!” and when he turns to look I lift the ruined ledger from the floor and smack him in the face with it, once, twice, until he staggers back against the desk.
Palatnik raises his hand. Feels the blood gathering at the corner of his mouth.
“You’re nothing,” he says, almost in disbelief. “Not here. You’re just...grist for the mill. You never should have come here.”
And then he snatches the Festival ledger up from the desk beside him, tears my fountain pen loose from its chain, and dashes out into the darkness of the museum.
Slowly, feeling at my throat, I get up off the floor.
At first I’m not certain if I’ve won or not.
Then I hear Palatnik’s voice, sing-song, floating down the staircase towards me.
“The Festival of the Crying Duchess has begun since the beginning of the twentieth century to incorporate an older tradition. That of the ritual sacrifice.”
I go to the doorway.
He’s standing at the balustrade on the mezzanine right over on the other side of the great hallway, grinning wildly, the ledger perched in his arms as he writes.
“Every year, the Alabaster King is represented by a living participant, a foreigner of lowly standing, who works in the Royal Society, a man whose name…”
I start towards him, already dreading whatever he’s about to do, and he capers nimbly away from me, rattling up the staircase onto the next floor above, still laughing to himself,
“...whose name is David Ward…”
And this is when I begin to hear the great hubbub of voices from the street, the rising clamour of the crowd.
I rush back into the little office and press my face against the window.
People are marching, in the dusklight, along the Red Saint’s Boulevard.
They are thronged, men and women with children perched upon their shoulders, chattering happily to themselves, waving their sparklers and their flags and their scalding-hot torches.
Amongst them walk the figures of the parade, clad in ermine or perhaps catskin robes, colossal plaster heads with vast round eyes perched where their real heads should be.
They turn to the crowd, their giant heads bobbing merrily, and wave their hands silently and meaningfully, conducting the march.
A small crowd, but meaningful. Dozens, not hundreds.
All the Society could muster at such short notice.
Far above them floats the great balloon hog, hideous in proportion, its flanks set with little wiry hairs, its trotters flailing helplessly in the wind.
It has a human face, I realise.
It has my face.
I can hear Palatnik’s crowing voice floating down towards me from the staircase, just scraps of dreadful meaning,
“...catch the Alabaster King, drag him out into the public square, and enact his punishment…”
“...take him by the arms and legs and head…”
“...and pull in every direction, singing as they go…”
At the intersection of the boulevard, the parade halts. The people and tourists shuffle awkwardly, some of those at the back unable to see what has happened. There’s the occasional flash of cameras.
At its head, I can see the Crying Duchess, her vast tottering head still bleeding with black tears.
She turns, slowly, up and around, until her painted black eyes are staring up at me.
And then the crowd begins to roar its approval, and slowly the parade shifts about, and they are walking up towards the Royal Society, they are marching along the boulevard towards the gates, they will stream through the courtyard, they will make their way up here and drag me down into the street and pull me apart in every direction, as it is written.
The chant is audible now.
“Catch the King,
Tear his flesh,
Make him cry.
Catch the King,
Tear his flesh,
Make him cry.”
A few of them must have seen me at the window, because they’re waving cheerfully up, pointing their fingers at me, placing their David Ward masks over their ghastly human faces.
This isn’t fair. It isn’t fair.
I dash out onto the mezzanine, staring down at the empty lobby below, the revolving double doors that in just a few moments will be entirely blocked off.
I cannot get out that way.
I turn back, a brilliant idea coming to my mind, and at that moment a voice calls out from above me,
“Tradition states that several of the parade-goers will go around to the trade exits, to cut off the Alabaster King’s escape, and ensure that he is properly torn to pieces.”
I look up at Palatnik, who is cross-legged on the third floor above me, smiling cheerfully down at the spectacle.
“You don’t have to do this,” I hazard. “I’m sorry I criticised you. I probably need to learn to be less defensive about my own work, that’s all. You were here first, and I need to respect that.”
He just calls back down,
“Grist for the mill, Ward. You’re about to find out.”
He puts his fists together and then extends them, rapidly, in a snapping motion.
I take a step towards him, and he lunges to his feet, ready to dart away again, along the mezzanine and up the darkened staircase on the other side of the gap between us.
He’s spry. Quick on his feet.
I could end up chasing him around in here for days.
I don’t have days.
There are people pouring into the central courtyard, towards the great revolving doors of the Society, chanting and whooping. Celebrating everything that’s going to happen to me.
I dash back into the office.
There’s power here. I just need to remember that. There are the ledgers. I’m still in control.
I need to think.
Perhaps I could write in a secret passage, or some kind of new exhibit. Perhaps there could be a mace on display, and the glass case could be unlocked, for reasons that are ceremonial and important and might just make enough sense if they aren’t examined too closely.
...what the hell would I do with a mace?
I snatch up ledgers from the shelf, and begin to stack them, hurriedly. Agriculture Gods of the Seventh Century. The Coronation of the Grub Queen. The Endless Furrow Of Swelter Street.
All of human history, all of my invention, and there’s nothing here that can save my life?
The pile topples out of my hands.
I can hear them reaching the revolving doors.
I seize one of the fallen ledgers - the one that reads, Plagues and Disasters of Old Eskew - and that’s when the idea hits me.
I lunge for a pen.
“Palatnik,” I yell. “I’m coming up after me, you hear me? I’m coming up!”
He just cackles, his grin widening - and then I hear him as he turns and begins to run further up the stairs towards the floor above, his footsteps quickly receding as he climbs higher and higher away from me.
I am already writing.
“In 1806, the fourth floor was destroyed in the Great Eskew Royal Society fire, and since then the building has been limited to three floors-“
I drop the ledger and dash out into the mezzanine.
Just silence, and the darkness above me does not move or change.
I’ve gone too far, I think. Asked for too much. I need to think of something else-
And then, silently, something drops from above.
It’s Palatnik’s legs, neatly severed just below the stomach, still clad in blue jeans and running shoes, and the foot catches on the balustrade before me, bouncing once before continuing its descent into the midst of the crowd below.
There’s no sign of the rest of him. Presumably it’s encased in concrete and wires high above me, locked in the grip of a third-floor ceiling which has been there for over two hundred years.
A second later, the ledger comes drifting down, its pages fluttering madly.
I drop the book I’m holding and dive forwards, reaching over the balustrade to try and catch it, but it’s just out of my grasp and it continues to fall, impossibly slowly, landing with a thunk upon the carpet beside Palatnik’s severed legs.
Amongst the marchers who are even now thronging through the revolving doors and up the stairs towards me, their faces alive with merriment and spectacle as they wave and shout my name, taking photographs as they go.
“Catch the King,
Tear his flesh,
Make him cry.
Catch the King,
Tear his flesh,
Make him cry.”
They’re carrying a crown for me. It’s just paper, but the gold glints like something real.
There’s something else glinting, too.
The bookshelves and archways are lit with flickering embers that did not rise from the torches of the parade-goers, a torrent of fire converging from the Society’s exhibitions in towards the centre.
And, yes, I must concede, the limitations of my creativity have been caught out again, because I did not specify when the great fire of the Eskovian Royal Society ended, so why should it not be still eating away at the walls and the carpet? Why shouldn’t the flames be furrowing inwards from every direction, converging on the centre?
I turn, and run up the stairs, my feet clattering on the metal steps, onto the third floor, the final floor, my last place of refuge.
I can already feel the heat on my face from far beneath.
It’s all burning. The ledgers will burn, too, in a matter of minutes.
If I don’t die horribly, this might just save my life.
Far below, the crowd is walking through the fire.
They don’t even seem to notice what’s happening to them.
They’re just staring intently up at me, smiling and chanting, keeping the mood lively as the golden flames catch on their skin and they begin to burn, smiling and chanting, their flesh charring around the edges, held hands melting into one another as they advance further into the fire, finding their way to the staircase and marching on upwards, smiling and chanting, deeper into the inferno, snapping away on their liquefying smartphones and cameras as plastic merges with their arms, smiling and chanting, as happy as I made them, as happy as I imagined them on the day of this sacred Festival, until they’re just faint chalk-white figures drifting through the heat as if in slow-motion, until their heads and limbs crumble and the chant is a meaningless, tongueless rattle of scorched lungs, and the second rank collapses into the ash of the first rank, and there is only fire in here with me.
No, not quite.
One figure endures.
I can see its great dreadful head bobbing through the flames.
And suddenly my Crying Duchess is tottering up the staircase towards me. Her colossal plaster head is melting, losing its shape and solidity, and the black tears are liquid now as they pool from her hideous round eyes, her mouth still open in a twisted grimace. Her arms are outstretched.
I turn to run, but the smoke is choking me now, pooling in the air, making it impossible to see, and I stumble down onto the carpet.
I shuffle helplessly back, pressing myself against the balustrade, wondering if I have the courage to leap up and throw myself over-
As she looms over me, her expression suddenly seems to change, resolving itself into the happy smile of someone who has finally, at long last, been satisfied, who’s found the one she’s looking for-
-and then there’s a loud smack of thunder and her head explodes.
Just fragments of hot plaster, scattering in all directions, rattling over the floor and over my chest.
There doesn’t seem to be anything where her real head should be.
Her outstretched hands flap out towards me for a moment as her headless body falls, deflating solemnly across the stairs.
I look up - and there’s someone standing there amongst the flames.
Slowly, I lower my rifle - and then carefully loosen the scarf that’s pressed against my nose and mouth.
The man cowering at the top of the staircase seems to focus on me.
I extend a hand to him.
“Hi,” I tell him. “I’m looking for a map…”