Whoever it was who had been responsible for naming the large room at the centre of the palace the Great Hall could not be accused of misleading the public. In truth they would not have been going too far if they had chosen to call it The Bloody Amazing or The Frankly Quite Spectacular Hall. It was reached via a long flight of brightly coloured steps which led up to a pair of huge, ornately-carved wooden doors. Upon our approach these doors were automatically opened by some invisible force but our way inside was barred by the crossed spears of two especially sturdy-looking members of the Palace Guard. We were left to wait on the threshold whilst news of our arrival was carried forwards by a short steward in flowing robes and matching flowing moustache.
The hall that opened out before us was a long, high-ceilinged chamber. Images of nature – mountains, waterfalls and wild beasts – were painted upon or carved into every surface. Tall narrow windows cut dazzling patterns of light across a floor so highly polished that I was afraid that the moment I set foot upon it I would go shooting across like a hockey puck on an ice rink. All along the sides of the room were stationed members of the Emperor’s retinue, each lavishly dressed and standing stiffly to attention, whilst straight ahead, seated upon a grand throne and surrounded by his council of wise men, was the Emperor himself.
Even from this distance the Emperor cut an impressive figure. It wasn’t necessarily the man himself – though his build, encased in fine silk clothes emblazoned with the same dragon motif I recognised from the dream jar, was large and imposing – but the attitude of those around him which signified that here sat a man of almost infinite power. It was like watching one of those nature documentaries in which a gaggle of lesser primates huddle around the alpha male, hoping for favour whilst fearing his wrath.
I drank in this splendid scene with only one eye however for the other was keeping an anxious watch on Gerel. All the way up from the cells he had spoken barely a word and his face seemed to have taken on a peculiarly green tinge. I feared that our guard was not cut out for a life of deception. It’s not as though we were asking him to perform any particularly elaborate feat of duplicity – he needed only to do his usual duty and keep his mouth shut – but I was seriously concerned about his ability to maintain even this simple charade long enough for us all to get back out of the hall with our heads still attached to our shoulders.
There was neither time nor opportunity though for any bolstering words of encouragement before the small steward with the drooping moustache returned. He led us across the open floor and presented us before the Emperor’s throne. “Your prisoners, Magnificence,” he announced with a practised bow before discreetly melting away. Gerel promptly threw himself into a rather elaborate sequence of genuflections; Michael and I settled for a respectful nod of the head.
A rather tense silence followed, the Emperor regarding us with a heavy-lidded gaze that managed to seem both curious and disdainful at the same time. Behind him were gathered his council of wise men, each of whom seemed to sport their thin bony frame and straggling beard like some kind of uniform. Just to one side was an untidy heap of items which must have been collected during the search of the city that morning. Amongst the jars and containers, tools and instruments I spotted Jules’ camera equipment and our inter-dimensional travel device, which at least appeared mercifully intact.
Finally the Emperor signalled with a tired gesture for proceedings to begin and another small yet elaborately moustachioed steward stepped forward. He banged twice on the floor with a large staff in an entirely redundant call for silence and then proclaimed in a surprisingly powerful voice, “The great and wise council of the Most Sacred Emperor of Khotya, lord of all lands that lie between mountain and sea, has been summoned. Let all who speak before council know that the Great Lord in the Sky, lover of truth, enemy of falsehood, vanquisher of all cheats and tricksters, hears your testimony and will lay bare before his chosen son any and all treachery that lies within your breast. May the tongue shrivel and the heart be cursed of any who would dare to deceive the mighty Emperor or his favoured servants.”
There was another lengthy, rather awe-struck, silence before the Emperor made another weary gesture and the seer who had ordered our arrest all those hours ago at The Twisted Tree stepped forward out of the huddle of grey old men. He reached down and picked up the inter-dimensional travel drive from the pile of bric-a-brac at his feet and held it up for the whole hall to see.
“You!” he began, glaring fiercely at Michael and I, “you are the pilgrims responsible for bringing this instrument into the city, are you not?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I confessed, relieved that I could at least admit that much without risking the wrath of the Great Lord in the Sky.
“This instrument!” cried the seer dramatically, brandishing the device once again. “This instrument, designed for the harvesting of dreams…”
“Er no, I’m afraid that’s not correct,” Michael interrupted deferentially.
“Not correct at all,” I added for emphasis.
The seer glared furiously. “Then what, tell me, is the function of this instrument?” he demanded. “Remember that the Great Lord in the Sky hears all that you say.”
Michael and I shared a nervous glance, aware that this was the part where things might get a bit tricky. “Well…” began Michael slowly.
But that was quite as far as either of us got. For the air was suddenly torn with a tremendous wail and without warning Gerel threw himself at the Emperor’s feet. “It was me! I did it!” he cried. “I cannot lie before the Great Lord in the Sky, may He have mercy on my wretched soul! I didn’t mean to… but I did it!”
Everyone gawped at the prostate figure of the guard. The interrogating seer, somewhat perturbed that his line of questioning had been so unexpectedly interrupted, asked irritably, “Did what exactly?”
“I broke the Emperor’s jar and allowed his dream to escape!” cried Gerel. A genuine gasp of astonishment rippled around the room. “They had the jar in their cell,” Gerel continued, waving an anguished hand at Michael and I. “I saw it and I… It was an accident… I didn’t know what it was… Believe me, I would never…” The rest of Gerel’s confession was drowned within a flood of sobs. After a full minute of unintelligible wailing he managed to recover just enough to look up and mournfully declare, “I thought it was their dinner,” before burying his face in his hands once again.
For a moment it seemed that nobody knew quite what to say. Then the Emperor, gazing down at the sobbing figure at his feet, said quietly, “My dream is gone?”
No matter how hard he tried Gerel seemed quite incapable of getting out any words in reply to this but a change in the pitch of his sobs seemed sufficient to indicate that this was indeed the case.
The Emperor looked up towards the back of the hall and gave another signal. The doors of the Great Hall were swung open and the sound of feet hurrying away down the steps echoed around the hall. The Emperor said nothing but fixed his fierce gaze intently upon Michael and me. And with it I could feel the eyes of every person in the room bearing down upon us.
This was obviously the moment for us to provide some kind of explanation. What was required right now was some quick thinking, a bit of verbal dexterity, a dazzling display of ingenuity that would cleverly smooth things over and set everything right before the full weight of Khotyan justice could fall upon us.
After a painfully awkward bout of humming and hawing Michael attempted to kick things off. “Can I just start by saying how sorry we are about the way things have turned out,” he began in his most conciliatory tone.
“You have to believe that we would never intentionally offend your, erm, highness,” I continued, stumbling rather clumsily over the correct form of address.
“Certainly not,” said Michael. “That would be the very last thing on our minds.”
“First and foremost, I think we ought to point out that we are not the ones who stole your dream in the first place,” I threw in.
“That’s quite right,” agreed Michael hurriedly. “I promise you we did not steal anything.”
“Cross our hearts and hope to die…”
“It’s just that it sort of fell into our lap at rather an awkward moment…”
“We were going to return it to you…”
“Oh yes. We would definitely have returned it to you…”
“Only it was a bit awkward, what with us being locked up in your dungeons…”
“And then we were summoned up here before the council…”
“And we didn’t know quite what to do with it…”
“We thought perhaps we had better just put it to one side for the moment…”
“Just for the moment you understand…”
“But then Gerel saw it and thought it was just another cooking pot…”
“It was all just a silly misunderstanding really…”
“Almost comical when you think about it…”
I’m quite sure that neither of us had intended to continue quite so long or so meanderingly. Certainly the more we spoke the more the look on the Emperor’s face indicated that our words were hindering rather than helping our cause. But we seemed to have got ourselves stuck into a rhythm it was hard to break out of. And perhaps unconsciously we were thinking that the longer we kept talking the longer we might at least postpone whatever terrible retribution must surely strike the moment we finally shut up.
In truth we might have prattled on in this fashion for several hours if it weren’t for the sudden arrival of two guards, carrying the sack we had left in our cell. They marched smartly up to the Emperor, bowed deeply and tipped up the sack, scattering the remnants of the Emperor’s dream jar at his feet. At which point both Michael and I faded into an embarrassed silence.
Slowly, deliberately, like a venerable old battleship putting out to sea, the Emperor rose from his throne. He gazed down at the broken jar for some time before reaching down and plucking out from among the remains the large shard that bore his painted dragon. “My dream is gone,” he murmured mournfully.
Nobody seemed to know quite what to say. There was almost a collective intake of breath, as though everyone in the hall took a mental step backwards, waiting for some kind of outburst from the Emperor. But when he spoke again it was in a low controlled voice, ominous rather than outright terrifying.
“So the Great Lord in the Sky has spoken,” he announced sadly. “For so long he has been whispering to me that my days are over. Now I must finally heed his voice.”
There was an uncertain shuffling amongst the council of wise men before one of them, a little older and greyer perhaps than the others, stepped hesitantly forward. “Surely His Magnificence does not mean what he says. The Emperor is in the prime of life,” he obsequiously insisted.
“I am old and fat and I have no dreams left to me,” proclaimed the Emperor. “I am no longer fit to rule.”
A ripple of consternation, mixed perhaps with a certain degree of suppressed excitement, spread around the room.
“Does His Magnificence mean finally to pronounce on the succession?” the old grey seer hesitantly suggested.
There was a long expectant pause during which the Emperor gazed down at the broken fragments of pottery on the floor. “Let them fight it out amongst themselves,” he bitterly declared. “It does not matter which of them wins, Khotya is doomed. That is the message from the Great Lord in the Sky. Let them squabble and quarrel until only one of them remains and he shall be crowned Emperor of the Dust and Ashes that remain.”
“But My Lord…” began the old seer.
The Emperor turned sharply. “Tell them to begin preparing my funeral pyre in the main square. I shall be ready to lay on it by dusk.”
There was a strange choking noise across the hall, the sound of a hundred throats trying and failing to find some appropriate words in response to this. Finally the old seer managed to ask, “What of the prisoners Magnificence?”
The Emperor threw us a weary glance. “The usual torture and execution will do,” he casually remarked before adding, “Then see that that their heads are nailed up above the city gates so that their sightless eyes may gaze for all eternity upon the destruction they have wrought.”
Then he turned and began to walk casually away. Several Palace Guard automatically moved in towards Michael and me. This was quite clearly it. We had perhaps half a minute before we were swept hurriedly away to a peculiarly unpleasant end. As I felt firm hands tightening their grip around my arms I impulsively called out, “Wait a minute!”
A gasp of astonishment rang around the hall. The Emperor stopped in his tracks and fixed me with a glare beneath which granite might have melted. But hearing a sentence of death pronounced upon oneself can lend a kind of desperate courage. And so, still not entirely sure exactly what it was that I intended to say, I took a deep breath and carried on. “Look, I can see why you’d be upset about the loss of your dream,” I told the Emperor, “but don’t you think you’re overreacting just a touch?”
A further gasp of horror rippled around the hall. The Emperor, clearly not used to being addressed in such a fashion, clenched his fists and emitted a low growling noise from the back of his throat. I caught Michael flinging me a frantic ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing’ look but there was no going back now. Affecting the most casual tone I could muster, I continued. “You see, what surprises me is that a man like you should still be bothering to make his own dreams in the first place,” I remarked.
The Emperor’s glare subsided momentarily into a puzzled frown. “A man must make his own dreams,” he said, with just enough of a hint of doubt in his tone to suggest that I might just have hit on something.
“Not necessarily,” I cheerfully replied. “I mean, it’s nice to dream your own dreams, of course it is, but it’s no surprise that a man with all your worries and cares might need a little help from time to time. And I would have thought a man of your status would have employed a professional dream-maker long ago.”
“A professional dream-maker?” repeated the Emperor uncertainly. His puzzled frown deepened and he turned automatically to his council of wise men. For the most part they were looking every bit as confused as he was. A series of uncertain glances and bemused looks were exchanged before the elder seer finally turned to me and said, “You claim the power to make dreams?”
“Well, not me personally,” I replied with a growing confidence. “But in exchange for forgetting the whole torture and execution business I am perfectly willing to introduce you to just the man for the job.”
There was a minute or two of muttered conferring amongst the council of wise men. I’m quite certain that they would have preferred to dismiss all this as nonsense and hurry both Michael and I off to the execution block but the Emperor’s face was now lit by an intense spark of curiosity and they still took their cue from the Emperor.
“And by what witchcraft, young woman, does this man of yours claim to be able to make dreams?” the elder seer finally demanded.
I let my eyes slide along the stage and fall pointedly upon Jules’ movie camera poking out of the pile of confiscated possessions. “Oh, there’s no witchcraft involved,” I said with a relaxed smile. “It’s just a case of having the right equipment and knowing how to use it.”
I won’t say it was entirely plain sailing from there but once the Emperor had agreed to give the order for El Maestro and Jules to be summoned up from the palace dungeons the prospect of our severed heads being obliged to gaze over the ruins of Khotya for all eternity began to recede pretty swiftly. There was a certain amount of confusion as I tried to explain to the film-makers the reason for the summons but on the back of spending the larger part of the day locked away in a dank airless cell they were at least amenable to the idea of putting on a brief show in preference to being summarily sent back from whence they had come.
So, under the curious gaze of the Emperor, his council and the assembled guards and servants, Jules set up his small portable projector and screened a selection of recently shot footage onto a large white bedsheet hung between two pillars.
I’ll admit the footage wasn’t entirely all that I had hoped for. I had envisaged wowing His Magnificence with the majesty of cinema, picturing something along the lines of Kurosawa crossed with David Lean. What we got instead were a succession of wobbly tracking shots meandering aimlessly across the mountains interspersed with a number of interminably long close-ups of various young women gazing off into the middle distance. Fortunately the newness of the medium meant that our gathered audience had yet to develop much of a critical faculty as far as cinema was concerned. The whole hall was utterly entranced. The council of wise men immediately began bickering eagerly about the most propitious dream scenarios that might be put forward to be created for His Magnificence and The Emperor promptly decreed that Jules and El Maestro be taken into his retinue at once as ‘Dream-Makers in Chief’.
There was a slight hiccup at this point for while Jules seemed quite taken by the offer of riches and status that came with such an appointment El Maestro broke into a long and indignant speech proclaiming himself an independent artiste who would never stoop to such hack-work. Of course, fortunately nobody but Jules understood a word of this speech and he quite wisely chose to keep it from the audience at large, instead passing on the gist of it to Michael and myself in a nervous undertone.
It was Michael who was quick enough to point out that El Maestro’s part in the whole enterprise was far from essential. Jules was the one who knew the workings of the camera and other equipment inside out and so was really the only one needed. If the situation were explained to the Emperor, Michael theorised aloud, he was quite sure that he would be happy for Jules to shoulder the responsibilities of the role alone, enabling El Maestro to continue his tour of the landscape alone. Whereupon, after due consideration, El Maestro declared that he could see where his talents were most needed and that, provided certain artistic guarantees were made, he would gladly put himself at the service of the Emperor.
And that, pretty much, was that. The palace dungeons were emptied, the city gates thrown open and, with the Festival of the Golden Moon finally declared over for another year, the city of Khotya slowly resumed its general business. Michael and I picked up the last of our provisions and set off on our weary way over the mountains with the inter-dimensional travel device tucked safely back inside my bag and with a vow never again to allow ourselves to be seduced into staying longer than absolutely necessary at any one spot in the landscape. I am sorry to say this was not a vow we managed to keep for very long.
Travels Through an Imaginary Landscape will return…