AFTER THE DAY
It was a much more pleasant journey home; and seemed much quicker. Perhaps because it grew increasingly pleasurable. The tough part, the fearful part, was the first part, the journey back through the City of the Plain.
Neither Ni-Ghee nor Hi-Thaw knew exactly what to expect as a reaction from the Earth to the destruction of the Marquis. Perhaps, naïvely, they had expected it to exalt at its liberation as though the Marquis was the essential cause of its enslavement, and not primarily a symptom. They had perhaps expected the buildings to collapse around them, the ground to heave and overthrow the horror that had been perpetuated on it. And while it is true there was uncertainty, disquiet and minor riots, no great change occurred that they could see. The seeds were there; but who could say if they would sprout and flourish and set themselves?
Yet though – to their initial sight – it seemed that their blow at slaying the Marquis made little immediate or obvious change, they had to believe that there was incipient and nascent change there, which they had set back that one driving force to consume all from expanding at its previous rate. Time, maybe, for there to be a change of direction.
As the friends made their return journey through the Metromegaopolis they could see more clearly its nature. It was not that it was a less irksome passage than their one into its heart on their way to confront the Marquis, but they were less assailed by its toilsome power and could take more in. The City of the Plain was not all skyscrapers, steel and concrete and glass, with no non-commercial adornments or nature, but that was the essential of the City of the Plain’s heart; and it was indeed of such a size that it took days to cross before they moved beyond buildings that loomed inhumanly large.
During this time they hid when necessary, waiting till the worst of the immediate ructions were over (they did not last long), before making their way out of the City to the hinterland beyond, where they could begin to stride out.
Here were the areas of the more modest buildings that straggled around the towering heart of the world-city, blocks of houses and blocks of industrial works, with even a few open spaces where well-ordered pitches and wired dog-parks and factory farms marched. Further outwards lay much mono-cultured farmland, then a blasted seashore, and an oily sea. And then the friends moved through storms and across the great chasm to the gentler world of Kolchin. Their spirits – which had dived after the relief of the Marquis’s destruction – lifted again, as their surroundings passing from the stressful to the beautiful. Beauty makes us feel so much better.
They did not hurry across the eastern fastland, but still made decent progress. And across the Forest River and into the Greater Forest. And up onto the semi-circular plateau of Albin Nhue. Home. To trees and lakes and clean air. To subtlety and transience: worlds flexible and translucent.
Although few had expected their return, news of it preceded them as they approach Bok Heliox Trhyon, even though no tale of their exploits was yet known. Then, when their boat was closing in on the northern shore of the deep lake of Send Ehros, a flotilla of canoes and barges and sailboats of all sorts came and gave them a warm accompaniment into harbour.
After a quick spruce up they were taken for an audience before King My-Phor. Just once. One did not need to be a great reader of people to know that Ni-Ghee would hate continued honouring and the limelight almost as much as he did the City of the Plain.
They were again led into the oval hall in the Winter Palace by a scribe, though neither could remember if it was the same one as before, but this time there was no waiting and they walked calmly through the oval hall to stand before the Forest King sitting on his carved throne.
Si-Kell, the chamberlain, was there still, but he only bowed, saying nothing. Ghee was not sure what emotions he could read in the portly man’s face, but there did not seem to be any hostility.
“Welcome Hi-Thaw: Ni-Ghee.“ Then the King leant forward and said in a voice that was not really quiet enough for no one else to hear: “There does seem to need to be a formal bit here, but I won’t keep you for long.” Then he straightened up again and bellowed down the hall:
“Beyond hope we welcome back the venturers who have attempted what most of you thought was impossible. But they have succeeded; and I would like to hear their tale.”
He beckoned for two chairs to be brought and set on either side of his throne, facing slightly inwards. Ghee and Thaw were invited to sit.
It was Thaw who told of what they had achieved, and how Ghee had finally struck down the Marquis. And the Forest King showed his true wisdom by only fleetingly praising him and then briefly welcoming others to join in and show their appreciation as well.
And Ghee, who had not thought about the Forest King other than as a titular head, found himself with respect for someone whom he had thought was more show than reality. Albeit benign.
Afterwards, Hi-Thaw set down what they had accomplished, what they had learnt, and especially their knowledge covering the increase and differences between the cities of mankind in the earlier stages of irrigation and religion, and later with their vast increase in numbers and industrial use of technology. Marking it clearly as a warning of what could befall Kolchin. Before he sought his final rest.
Ghee returned to his barge on the lake and spent the first summer restoring it to its former glory, the intricate decorations repainted, the piles of books and papers ordered and (mostly) donated to the Forest King’s achieves to sit beside Thaw’s account. He even refurnished the interior, removing the partition between his bed and the rest, for he usually slept on deck now – except in the deepest winters.
He took to voyaging all along the waterways of Albin Nhue; carefree, as far as anyone who cares is able.