When I woke again bright sunshine was flooding into the room in narrow shafts through the slats in the window shutters and I finally felt refreshed and alert. It was undoubtedly a shame about missing the lantern show but I had to conclude that ultimately a good night’s sleep had been more important. Now all that was required was a hearty breakfast and I felt I could approach the trek back across the mountains with something perilously close to enthusiasm.
Michael must have been feeling the same way for it seemed that he was already up and about – the mattress on his side of the room was empty with the blanket folded neatly on top. Muffled sounds from the direction of the courtyard indicated that the tavern was humming with activity so I swiftly completed the necessary precautions required to make myself just about presentable enough to face the world and headed out.
It took no more than a couple of minutes out in the open before I realised that the activity occurring within the courtyard of The Twisted Tree that morning was something more than just the usual bustle of festival-goers readying for departure. For a start it seemed that pretty much every guest of the tavern was present at once, some fully-clothed, others looking like they were straight out of bed. And none of them seemed to be engaged in the customary pre-departure activities of packing or ordering breakfast. Instead they all stood around in small groups talking in high nervous voices. An overall atmosphere of suppressed hysteria seemed to have settled over the place as though an enormous sleeping dragon had curled itself around the inn in the middle of the night and now everyone was trying to figure out a way of persuading it to move off without actually waking it.
I was wandering uncertainly through the throng, trying to piece together some idea of what was going on from various snatches of conversation, when I spotted Michael entering the courtyard from the direction of the street. I called out to him and he hurried across to meet me.
“Thank heavens you’re awake!” he exclaimed as we came together in the shadow of the cherry tree. “I thought you were going to sleep through the whole thing! I didn’t like to leave you on your own but I just had to take a quick trip around the block to try and find out if it was really true.”
“Find out if what was true?” I replied with a puzzled frown. “What exactly is going on here?”
“They’ve closed the city gates,” announced Michael. “Sometime just before dawn it seems. Khotya is packed full of pilgrims and nobody is allowed to leave.”
“Word is that something has been stolen from the Palace,” explained Michael. “Apparently the Emperor has decreed that no-one will be allowed to leave until the item is recovered and the thieves have been apprehended.”
Sudden memories of last night’s bathroom excursion flooded into my mind and I looked around anxiously. Only now did it occur to me that I had seen neither Amak nor Zia anywhere about the courtyard this morning. “Do they say what’s been stolen?” I asked Michael, continuing to scour the people standing around for any sign of them.
Michael shook his head. “Nobody seems quite sure. But it must be something pretty valuable because the Palace Guard are out on the streets. There are soldiers everywhere.”
Right on cue a tramp of heavy footsteps heralded the arrival of a troop of about a dozen or so soldiers, heavily armoured in gleaming black and gold and carrying long spears that glinted menacingly in the sun. The buzz of anxious chatter ceased abruptly as the soldiers marched unflinchingly through the gaggle of guests, skittling them out of their way like pins in a bowling alley. They came to a halt a few feet from where Michael and I stood, fanning out into a diamond formation and from within their midst emerged a thin, greying man in a long patterned robe and wispy silver beard. He let his gaze wander slowly around the courtyard with an expression that seemed to combine a hearty dollop of disdain for his surroundings with a faint surprise at finding himself among them.
There was a brief uncertain silence. Then the soldier at the tip of the formation, who was distinguished by a fine red plume on the top of his black helmet, suddenly bellowed, “Who is in charge here?”
The question provoked some anxious murmuring and shuffling amongst the guests as they looked to one another for an answer. Finally the dense throng parted and Amak stepped forward, seemingly out of nowhere. In the brief second before the crowd closed in behind him again I caught a glimpse of Zia hovering in the kitchen doorway, her face a picture of barely smothered anxiety.
Amak bowed deeply to both the red-plumed soldier and his grey-bearded companion. “Greetings,” he began in a voice that started a trifle high before recovering its natural tone. “My name is Amak and I offer you every welcome. How may I be of assistance?”
“We are here on the authority of the Emperor to search these premises,” replied the red-plumed soldier briskly. “Are your guests and household all present?”
“Why yes but…”
“Good, then we can begin,” the soldier continued. “Have everyone lined up here in the courtyard, if you please. We’ll have your guests here on the right, household on the left.”
“Of course, as always I bow to the Emperor’s command,” replied Amak with the appropriate gesture to back up his words, “but might I possibly be permitted to know the reason for this intrusion? I tremble to think that I, or anyone beneath my roof, may have done something to offend His Magnificence.”
The red-plumed soldier brushed away his concerns with the slightly bored gesture of a man who was just doing his job. “Don’t trouble yourself friend, it’s merely a matter of routine. The Emperor has ordered that the whole city be searched. We will be done soon enough.”
Amak, quite naturally, looked none too reassured. “Of course, the Emperor’s will is my own,” he began again. “But perhaps if you were to tell me what it is that you are looking for I could save you some trouble.” Sensing another dismissive gesture from the red-plumed soldier he hurriedly added, “It’s just that the tavern is old and full of junk. I would hate for you to overlook something.”
The red-plumed soldier responded with a light chuckle. “Fear not my friend, that is precisely why we have the seer with us,” he said with a nod to the grey-bearded man by his side. “He knows precisely what he is looking for. If our quarry lies within these walls, he will know of it.”
Amak looked at the seer and, turning rather green in the face, quickly swept himself into another bow to hide his discomfort.
“Now then, we had better get started,” announced the red-plumed soldier. He let out a mighty roar of command and his troop of soldiers sprang into action. Most of them promptly darted off to begin searching various corners of the building, leaving just a couple behind to begin cajoling, corralling and, where necessary, downright man-handling the guests and residents into the two rows desired by their red-plumed leader. There were one or two murmurs of discontent from the patrons of the tavern but the brisk force of the soldiers’ actions and the glint of their spears were sufficient to persuade everyone to fall into line soon enough.
As the search commenced the red-plumed soldier and the grey-bearded seer stood impassively in the centre of the courtyard, slightly detached from the bustle of activity. If, as the soldier said, the seer knew exactly what he was looking for then it seemed that he had failed to adequately convey that knowledge to the troop detailed to do the actual searching. Every now and then one of them would run up with an odd item found, a suspicious jar or container for example. The seer, standing with arms folded, examined each proffered object for just a moment before curtly dismissing it with a faintly exasperated shake of his head.
As I took my place beside Michael in the line of guests waiting to be searched I found myself almost exactly opposite Zia who stood at one end of the much shorter row of tavern personnel. She was doing her very best to maintain a neutral expression but each thump and bang caused by the searching soldiers brought a nervous shudder to her shoulders. It wasn’t difficult to figure that the stolen dream jar she’d received last night was still somewhere on the premises and from the frequency with which Zia’s eyes flew in the direction of the kitchens it seemed safe to conclude that it was stowed somewhere in that direction.
A particularly loud clatter of pots caused her to jump higher than ever. Making a particularly valiant effort to fix her gaze dead ahead her eyes met mine and I watched a fresh wave of alarm cross her face as she remembered my sleepy presence at the conference with her niece the night before. I offered up a sympathetic smile in an effort to convey that I had no intention of giving her away but it seemed only a matter of time before the guards would stumble over the item they were looking for and the game would be up.
I was busy wondering what had become of their glossy-haired niece, Talia, when a soldier suddenly loomed up before me, signalling that it was my turn to be searched. I submitted to his brusque pushings and proddings with as much grace as I could manage but with just a faint flicker of anxiety. Of course I was quite certain that I had nothing personally to hide but it was a bit like walking through customs at the airport. No matter how squeaky clean you are it takes only one sideways glance from a customs official to have you sweating like a drug mule in a sauna.
The faint flicker swelled into a knot of tension in the pit of my stomach when the soldier, digging listlessly amongst the possessions in my bag, pulled out the inter-dimensional travel drive. He gazed at it from several angles with a distinctly puzzled expression and then turned around and held it up for inspection by the seer. For the first time since he had entered the tavern a glimmer of interest flashed across the seer’s face and the knot in my stomach tightened.
He slowly unfolded his arms and, taking hold of the inter-dimensional travel drive, followed the soldier’s example in gazing at it closely from every angle. Then he looked directly at me. “What do we have here?” he asked, breaking his silence for the first time. His voice was so sharp it cut the air like a knife.
“Er…” I said. My mind raced through what seemed like countless explanations for the strange item of equipment, both plausible and implausible, but none of them seemed likely to assuage the seer’s evident curiosity. Eventually I simply replied, “It’s an inter-dimensional travel drive,” and hoped the seer would leave it at that.
Of course, he did no such thing. “And what precisely is an inter-dimensional travel drive?” the seer demanded.
Seeing me begin to flounder yet again, Michael stepped in. “It might look quite strange but really it’s nothing to get excited about,” he smoothly insisted. “I suppose you might say it’s a device designed to help you get from one place to another although, to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t really work in that way anymore.”
The seer’s piercing gaze slid deftly over to Michael. “Then in which way does it work?” he said. “It must still be of some use to you or else why would you have brought it all the way to Khotya?”
“Well, it’s rather hard to explain,” Michael began awkwardly. “I’m not sure you’d understand.”
From the haughty look which filled the seer’s features it was immediately clear that this was not a good thing to suggest to him. Before he could reply though the red-plumed soldier, who had been following these proceedings with an expression that wavered between boredom and puzzlement, stepped forward. “Is any of this strictly relevant?” he murmured. “I thought we were looking for a jar.”
The seer turned his icy glare on the soldier. “If it were merely a case of looking for a jar then my presence would hardly have been necessary, would it?” he told him. “Those responsible will have their own ways and means of handling their ill-gotten gains. We must expect them to come equipped with powerful magic of their own.”
“There’s really nothing magical about that device,” insisted Michael. “It’s very scientific.”
“Scientific?” repeated the seer, spitting the word out as though he were afraid it might be toxic.
“Look,” I said, feeling that perhaps now was the time for me to step in and calm matters. “I can see what you might be thinking but I promise you that this device has nothing to do with dreams, stolen or otherwise,” I patiently explained.
The seer turned to me with a sly smile. “And who told you that the stolen item we are looking for is a dream?”
I could have kicked myself. “Well, I, er…” As I glanced around in search of an explanation my eyes fixed for a moment on Zia’s face, filled with such a look of silent pleading that words for a moment failed me.
“Seize them!” the seer cried out in his shrill voice. “They must be taken to the palace at once!”
The red-plumed soldier looked uncertainly at the seer. “Shouldn’t we finish our search of the building first?” he asked.
The seer smiled another icy smile. “There is no need. Our work here is done.”
“Now, just hang on a minute,” I began by way of protest. “You’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick…”
But my words were drowned out by a roar of command from the red-plumed commander which instantly brought all his soldiers running from every corner of the tavern. Before either Michael or I could provide any cogent objection we found ourselves with our arms pinned by our sides, being marched swiftly and firmly out of the courtyard in the midst of the full troop. The seer followed behind, our inter-dimensional travel device nestled carefully in his arms. As we were swept helplessly along I had a brief opportunity to meet Zia’s eyes for one last time. Her expression was not easy to read but somewhere amongst the swirl of emotions on her face I was sure I could pick out astonishment, regret and, most clearly of all, a huge sense of relief.
Since my arrival in the landscape of the imagination I have become rather better acquainted with such places than I might otherwise have liked, so I feel it is with some authority that I can state that the dungeons beneath the Royal Palace of Khotya were not nearly so bad as they might have been. Granted, the facilities were rather limited and the décor quite minimal but the bare stone walls were not particularly damp and the earth floor was in fact quite warm and swept fairly clean. All in all, I would be prepared to mark them as a fairly solid seven out of ten in the guest book when, or indeed if, we ever got out.
Being located so far underground, anything like a view was quite naturally out of the question but the bars of our cell looked out onto a long broad corridor so there was at least the opportunity to keep yourself occupied observing some of the comings and goings of the dungeons. And this morning there were certainly plenty of comings and goings to observe. The Emperor’s impressive team of seers, shamans and wise men had accompanied the Palace Guard on their searches all over the city and it turned out that ‘our’ seer (as I couldn’t help but think of him) hadn’t been the only one with the bright idea that the thieves might be in possession of something other than the standard-issue Palace dream jar. It seemed that anyone caught with any kind of unexplained object or special package had been summarily locked up, pending further enquiries. And, as you can imagine, in a city full of pilgrims all packed up and ready for home after a three-day holiday that made for a fairly full prison.
There was at least a certain consolation in this for even the Palace Guard would have to recognise sooner or later that we could not all be guilty. It may take a little while to sort out the chaos but once our case had been properly looked into then the seers must surely realise that neither we nor the inter-dimensional travel drive had any connection to the Emperor’s stolen dream and we would almost certainly be released. I said as much to Michael once I had finished explaining exactly how it was that my unfortunate comment about dreams had helped to land us in such hot water in the first place.
There was a distinct pause whilst Michael suppressed the obvious urge to tell me precisely what an idiot I had been for letting slip the remark. Then he responded, “Well, I only hope you’re right. Though I have a feeling neither the seers nor the palace guard are likely to give up until the dream is safely back in the Emperor’s possession.”
“Perhaps Zia and Amak will decide to simply turn the thing in,” I suggested hopefully. “After all this I’m sure they’ll figure that the rewards just aren’t worth the trouble.”
“But where will that leave their niece?” asked Michael. “There are bound to be questions asked about how the dream got out of the palace in the first place.”
“They’ll think of something,” I said with rather more optimism than I felt.
Michael shrugged uncertainly and the conversation faded into a slightly gloomy silence. There was nothing to do but sit back and watch the spectacle of various guards shoving a diverse array of prisoners back and forth before our cell. It was diverting enough to start with but the show was starting to grow a touch monotonous when my interest was suddenly perked up by the sound of a familiar voice that appeared to be complaining loudly in a strange language somewhere down the corridor. As the voice drew closer it was superseded by another, softer, tone endeavouring to translate. “El Maestro says that this unwarranted attack on his artistic freedom is an absolute outrage. He insists that…”
“Hello there!” I called out as El Maestro and Jules rounded the corner, chivvied along by a beefy palace guard. Michael gave them a cheery wave.
“Oh, it’s you! Hello,” exclaimed Jules, coming to a sharp halt in front of our cell. “Well, I must say it’s nice to see a friendly face or two. How on earth did you end up down here?”
Before either Michael or I could answer, the guard, taking exception to this deviation from the standard routine, grunted unhappily and gave each of his charges a hefty shove to encourage them to move along. El Maestro responded with another explosion of outraged vowels but Jules turned to the guard with an expression of entreaty. “Please, just a moment. We mean no harm.”
The guard eyed all four of us narrowly for a moment but then, with the weary expression of the man who has been on his feet all morning, shrugged and leaned back against the wall. “Two minutes, no more,” he grunted.
Jules smiled gratefully and turned back towards me and Michael. “Do you have any idea what is going on here?” he asked us eagerly. “The whole city seems to have gone mad. We were dragged from our beds this morning by a bunch of soldiers and some strange bearded fellow and brought here. They’ve taken all our equipment, our cameras, film stock, projector, everything!”
“Somebody stole a dream from the Emperor’s Palace last night,” I told him. “The guards have been tasked with finding the thieves and returning the stolen property.”
“A dream?” repeated Jules uncertainly.
There was an insulted speech from El Maestro.
“El Maestro says it is an outrage that he should be suspected of this crime,” translated Jules. “He says that everyone knows that all his work is entirely original.”
“I wouldn’t take it personally,” said Michael soothingly. “I think they’ve hauled in half the city as suspects.”
“Including you?” said Jules in surprise. “Why would they suspect you of taking their dreams?”
“It’s a long story,” I sheepishly replied.
“I hope you enjoyed the festival at least,” said Michael. “Did you have any luck in locating your heroine?”
“It’s really been quite an exhausting process,” conceded Jules. He threw a sideways glance at his boss. “We’ve seen quite an extraordinary number of candidates.”
El Maestro treated us to a particularly elaborate and flowery announcement.
“But El Maestro is quite certain that this last girl is most definitely the one,” said Jules. “I’ll confess, after the troubles we had, I had almost given up and was focused only on finding a bed for the night but there’s luck for you – in the end we found room and heroine together. El Maestro says he knew the moment he saw her that she was his star.”
“Well, I don’t know about the girl but I’d say you were damned lucky to find a room in Khotya,” remarked Michael. “They were like gold dust wherever we looked.”
“It was a little awkward because they normally only charge by the hour,” conceded Jules. “But the madam was prepared to let us stay the night on consideration of an extra fee and El Maestro felt it was worth the expense to spend some quality time with his character.”
“You mean you found your peasant girl heroine working in a brothel?” I remarked with a raised eyebrow.
El Maestro offered a sharply defensive response.
“El Maestro says he has always favoured characters who are not constrained by petty bourgeois moral standards,” translated Jules. “He prefers his heroines to be free spirits.”
“I’m sure he does,” I noted wryly.
At that moment the sounds of more prisoners arriving down the corridor suddenly reminded the guard of his duty. He peeled himself away from the wall and, with a few stern grunts, swiftly conveyed that our time was up.
“Well, it was nice to see you again,” said Jules hurriedly. “I wish you luck with… well, with everything.”
“You too!” I returned.
“Goodbye,” called out Michael as Jules and El Maestro were chivvied away down the corridor.
A coercive shove from the guard brought a stream of virulent words from El Maestro. As the procession disappeared out of sight we were treated to the fading words of Jules’ translation. “El Maestro respectfully requests that you refrain from these acts of physical intimidation. They serve no useful purpose…”
To be continued…