A tangle of gold, p.36
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       A Tangle of Gold, p.36

           Jaclyn Moriarty
 

  ‘Quite. So. I constructed this device and this circle of new friends—we began to call ourselves the Circle at this time—began to use it to take Cellians to the World. It grew into a system. Cellians are taken to the World at regular intervals, and deposited, thus maintaining the Circle’s immortality.’

  ‘I don’t get it,’ Keira said.

  ‘It’s simple,’ Newton insisted. ‘It’s a question of balance. You see—’

  ‘No. I get that part. I don’t get how you can just take Cellians to the World.’

  ‘We take the riffraff, of course—the homeless, the wandering, the criminal underclass—those who only harm Cello, and surely benefit from a new start in life. They suffer memory loss, of course, and I believe there may also be some minor health consequences, but that is a necessary byproduct of the system.’

  ‘You have got to be joking,’ Princess Ko said.

  ‘Where is the humour?’ Newton asked stiffly.

  Madeleine was frowning. ‘Cellians in the World don’t just suffer minor health consequences. They eventually get sick and die. My mother was dying of a brain tumour. My brother died of heart failure. Not to mention that losing your own identity is a kind of death in itself.’

  Newton’s face mirrored her frown. ‘What are you saying, child? Your mother? Your brother?’ and Elliot was staring: ‘Your brother is dead? Prince Chyba died?’

  ‘He tried to come home to Cello but somebody stopped him and then it was too late,’ Madeleine said, and then she swung back towards Newton, ‘Don’t you recognise us? I’m Princess Jupiter. But I call myself Madeleine now. That’s Princess Ko.’

  There was a long pause. Newton narrowed his eyes, looking from one to the other. ‘Of course!’ He leapt to his feet, his dressing gown flying open to reveal his striped pyjamas. He pulled it closed and tightened the cord. ‘Your Highnesses, what an honour to have you in my home! I’ve met you at Royal functions, you know, but you were much younger then, and you both look so different with dark hair. Of course, I’ve heard all about you finding your way back to Cello from the World. It was amusing to me. After all the work that was put into sending you across!’

  Madeleine heard herself sounding like a small child. ‘But why would you want to send my family to the World?’

  ‘Perhaps you know the theory of Royal blood?’ Newton sat down again, pulling on his lower lip thoughtfully. ‘I have read and written on it, and once theorised that the life of a Royal Cellian would be worth, say, fifty regular Cellian lives. It seemed to me that we could guarantee several generations of immortality if the Royal Family were transferred to the World. I shared this theory with key members of the Circle, and they found it enchanting. Not long ago, they learned that some branches of Hostiles had formed an alliance and were endeavouring to open cracks themselves, so as to abduct the Royal Family and exile them to the World—for political purposes, of course. Itstruck us that we could work with the Hostiles to test my theory. Not telling them our reasoning, of course—the idea of Royal superiority is contrary to everything the Hostiles believe. Ironic. That is to say, we provided them with the crack-opening devices. They used these to send the Royals away. Of course, we stipulated that one princess, you, Princess Ko, be left behind.’

  ‘Why?’ Princess Ko demanded.

  ‘To continue the Royal line, of course. If the theory was correct, we’d want more Royals produced, to send to the World.’

  Unexpectedly, Princess Ko giggled. ‘How did you know I’d have children?’

  ‘Good point. I didn’t. But surely that is your plan?’

  ‘No, actually. It’s not.’

  Keira interrupted. ‘How can you believe that Royal blood is superior? No offence to Ko and Madeleine, but they seem like your average people to me. Besides, Royals marry commoners, so their blood would have got diluted over time.’

  ‘Intermarriage may strengthen Royal blood.’ Newton sounded almost dreamy now. ‘Perhaps different races add power to the recipe.’

  ‘I’m not a recipe,’ Madeleine said.

  ‘I beg to differ. We all are.’

  The cat slipped into the room. They watched it study each of them in turn. Elliot offered a hand, and the cat curled against him.

  ‘Ah, here is Patricia.’ Newton pushed himself to standing position. ‘A signal for my Royal guests and their friends to leave, and for I myself to retire again to bed.’

  The room seemed to close in for a moment.

  ‘Just a moment,’ Princess Ko said. ‘Aren’t we missing something?’

  6

  ‘If you are referring to my seeing you out,’ Newton smiled, ‘recall that you let yourselves in. I suggest you do the same in reverse.’

  ‘I mean,’ Ko said, ‘you just told us all about the Circle. Don’t you have to kill us now?’

  ‘Don’t trouble yourself,’ Keira put in, ‘if it’s a bother.’

  Newton raised his eyebrows. ‘You are powerless against the Circle,’ he said. ‘A handful of youngfolk? Nothing but drone flies buzzing. For your own safety, you shouldn’t mention any of what I have just explained, for if you do, they’ll swat you with barely a twitch. Indeed, my sources inform me that the Jagged Edge Elite will declare themselves the rulers of Cello tomorrow, 5 pm, during the Provincial Council meeting in Tek. It is to be broadcast throughout the Kingdom. The King is to be formally deposed.’

  ‘Treason,’ Keira declared, impressed.

  ‘Quite,’ said Newton, ‘but the Circle support the Elite’s proposal, so the Elite will succeed. You will cease to be relevant, young Princesses and friends. And so, as I said, to bed.’ He stepped towards his staircase.

  ‘I have a question,’ Madeleine said.

  ‘No more questions.’

  ‘Why do you call it the Circle?’

  Newton stopped. ‘Consider this. You spin a stone on a string. It whirls around your head. It is drawn to the centre—that’s centripetal force—and also drawn away—centrifugal force. A circle is formed because the two forces hold one another in perfect balance. That is to say, opposites—reflections—form perfection.’

  The four stood, watching Newton’s hand describe a circle in the air.

  ‘I always thought circles were better tangled up, or stretched or squashed,’ Madeleine said softly. ‘Twisted to form a figure eight. Curving and flowing like dancers . . . skaters.’ Her voice drifted.

  Elliot watched Madeleine’s face as she spoke. Abruptly, he turned to Newton.

  ‘If you invented a machine to open cracks to the World,’ he said, ‘why didn’t you go and get your friend, Prince Tobin? You said you were both trapped. You could’ve got him.’

  ‘Yes. I suppose I could have.’

  ‘He was a Royal. Did his Royal blood give you fifty lifetimes of immortality, or whatever? Is that why you left him there?’

  ‘I didn’t have the data at the time to confirm or disprove my theory.’

  ‘What if he wanted to come home?’ Madeleine asked softly.

  ‘Well,’ Newton said, ‘I have learned since that he lived out his life as me admirably, becoming Warden and then Master of the Mint, serving as President of the Royal Society, publishing the thoughts that he and I had once shared on the nature of light and colour, of reflection and refraction, the origins of whiteness, or prisms and rainbows, and being knighted! No doubt, he entirely forgot his own identity, his Kingdom, and me. No doubt, he was happy.’

  ‘Until he died an agonising death from kidney stones,’ Madeleine said.

  Newton turned towards the stairs.

  ‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ Elliot said, his voice clear and courteous. ‘I think this perfect balance idea of yours is a load of trash. Seems to me, you might have been somebody special once—somebody Madeleine admired—somebody who knew how to love the sort of light that your Tobin offered. But then, when he was trapped in the World, you thought you might as well just steal it. You left him in the World so you could take his life. And now that Circle of yours is doing the same.
Over and over, stealing people’s lives to keep on living.’

  Newton scratched a spot on the bannister.

  ‘And I’ll tell you something else.’ Elliot’s face was greyish-white under the light. ‘I’m not well-acquainted with you, Isaac Newton, but I’ve read some of your guidebook. And you know what? I always said you were a tosser.’

  ‘And so to bed,’ Newton said again. Slowly he walked up the stairs.

  1

  By the time they returned to the Jongleur Inn, it was past midnight.

  Samuel and Sergio were waiting up for them. Campbeds were arranged for everyone, so there was almost no floor visible: you had to climb over beds to get around.

  Everyone was drinking cider and talking, except Elliot.

  Elliot sat on his campbed. He leaned against the wall, legs stretched out. He stared at his jeans and their frayed edges, studied the squares of colour patterning the quilt. The sound of the river chattering outside blended with the chat around him.

  In Elliot’s mind, he saw glimpses. A girl skating across a lake, her coat soaring behind her. A woman raising binoculars.

  He saw Ming-Sun on a low chair, hands fluttering.

  He saw Chime sitting on the kitchen counter, heels thudding; he saw tomato sauce.

  He saw himself, long ago, in an empty high school ground, stamping against the cold, waiting for the Girl-in-the-World.

  Across the room, somebody asked what a jongleur was. Samuel was prattling an answer, but Elliot could not make the sounds form words. Now the kid was gathering objects—a clock, a balled-up sock, a cider mug—and he was tossing these into the air. ‘In Olde Quainte, we all must learn to juggle! But I was the best in my class!’

  The others were laughing and shouting at him. Sergio whistled. There was a pounding on the wall and a shout: ‘Enough noise!’

  Samuel murmured, ‘As to a sausage in a windmill.’

  Elliot found himself smiling. His forehead felt heavy over the smile, but there were Samuel’s weird phrases, and Sergio’s dance-bouncing, Princess Ko’s blazing eyes, and Keira’s sardonic eyebrow lift. This was the Royal Youth Alliance, together again, and in its own, strange way it had been good. Even if Madeleine, his Girl-in-the-World—she was sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching the others, silent now, like Elliot—even if she had turned out to be a lie, well, at least the R.Y.A. had been real and true, at least . . .

  The ridge across Elliot’s chest lit up suddenly. The heat burned his throat. Because the R.Y.A. had also been a lie. He kept letting that truth slip, but there it was. There’d been a traitor.

  He felt his bed bounce as Sergio landed on it. ‘I am on my way to the bathroom!’

  ‘Okay,’ Elliot said, and then, ‘Wait.’

  Sergio stopped mid-stride.

  ‘Do you think someone on the R.Y.A. was a traitor?’ Elliot asked.

  Sergio nodded slowly. ‘It must have been so.’ He raised two fingers and stepped these through the air. ‘Somebody was always a step ahead of us.’

  ‘That doesn’t . . . bother you?’

  ‘Of course! We were betrayed! You, in particular, were thrown to the wolves.’

  ‘Who do you think it was?’

  Sergio considered. ‘I know it was not this person.’ He pointed to himself. ‘Neither was it Princess Ko. So?’

  They both glanced across at Samuel, now juggling a fountain pen, a cake of soap, a sneaker, then looked back at each other and smiled.

  ‘Perhaps those two security agents?’ Sergio ventured.

  Elliot shrugged. ‘Maybe. But I’ve been told it wasn’t them.’

  ‘The only other is Keira,’ said Sergio, lowering his voice. ‘There is the issue of her mother. It could be that Keira tries to unravel herself from her past, but sometimes gets caught again?’

  Elliot nodded slowly. He thought about Mischka Tegan, her hands on the steering wheel, the soft insistence of her voice, the way she wound pieces of her hair around her fingers. He thought how easily he himself had fallen for her spell. Imagine if she were your mother?

  ‘I also think,’ Sergio went on, ‘that she has perhaps finally set herself free now . . .’

  Across the room, Keira was speaking animatedly, her eyes bright.

  ‘She does look different. You’re right. So, you think we should let her alone? Not call her on it, I mean?’

  ‘You were the person most betrayed,’ Sergio said. ‘So that is not for me to say. But my father used to tell me, we forgive our friends their darkness, and focus on their light. Assuming the light returns. If it doesn’t, well, the friend must want to sleep, so shut the door and leave them to it. He also used to say that we allow our friends to continue on their paths to the bathroom. Well, no, he did not ever say that, but do you mind?’

  Elliot half-chuckled, or not quite half, more a quarter, and the bed lurched as Sergio sprang from it to the floor.

  The bathroom door closed. Elliot sat back again. He closed his eyes. The others continued their loud conversation.

  He heard the toilet flushing, the bathroom door opening. He felt the bed shift as Sergio climbed over him again, back to the others. The noise of laughter and talk blurred, becoming static.

  He fell asleep.

  2

  He woke again.

  Nothing had changed.

  The room was still bright. The others still babbled. He was still on the campbed.

  But now he was turning. His body was turning. He was rising to his knees, the bed shaking beneath him.

  ‘It’s you,’ he said. ‘You’re the traitor.’

  Nobody heard him.

  His voice sounded a low, escalating roar like a theme park ride setting off up a slope. ‘It was you, Samuel. You’re the traitor.’

  There was a tumble of soft thuds as Samuel’s juggling objects fell.

  ‘The Locator Spell,’ Elliot said. ‘You dropped it. Why would you have done that if you were the best juggler in your class?’

  The room, which had paused, broke into murmurs.

  ‘Ah, but now . . .’ Sergio began.

  ‘As to a . . .’ Samuel breathed.

  ‘Elliot,’ Princess Ko said.

  ‘You achieved nothing on the R.Y.A.,’ Elliot continued. ‘Sure, you got all the archives for us, but you wrote them out so we wouldn’t see the vital parts.’

  ‘The vital bits were blocked!’ Samuel protested.

  ‘Who blocked them? I think it was you. I think you gave them to us figuring we’d never see through it.’

  ‘As to a . . .’ Samuel repeated.

  ‘You’re from one of the most Hostile towns in all of Olde Quainte,’ Elliot went on. ‘You pretend to be helpless, and pretend to regret your mistakes, but all the time you’re passing information to the Hostiles.’

  He turned to Princess Ko. ‘Who was the first Royal you guys got across after I was gone?’

  ‘My little brother. Tippett.’

  ‘And what did Samuel do when that happened? Did he leave the room? Go warn somebody maybe?’

  Sergio frowned. ‘I think he did leave the room, Elliot. But this was because he was ill. The Olde Quainte magic, you see.’

  ‘He’s making it up. He hasn’t got poisoning at all. Nobody suspects him because we think he poisoned himself for the cause, but he’s faking it. He must be. He’s still alive. After all this time, why is he still alive?’

  ‘Indeed,’ Samuel said softly, and Madeleine rose up with a face like a snarl.

  ‘He was nervous,’ she hissed at Elliot. ‘Samuel dropped the Spell and made mistakes because he was nervous. He told me he used to be anxious. He’s calmer now because he’s almost dead. Not everyone is born smooth and gorgeous like you, Elliot. Not everyone can be the local hero who’s never dropped a ball in his life. And not everyone’s a traitor like you are.’

  Elliot let her words pound him. It felt good.

  He felt himself pounding right back. ‘Me, a traitor? Who are you? You pretend to be a Girl-in-the-World. You pretend to b
e my friend. Night after night I’m standing in the high school telling you my secrets. I baked you freakin cookies, I held onto the sound of your voice, I thought you were the point to everything, and turns out you’re just a selfish, spoilt princess and the opposite of everything good!’

  The thumping on the wall started up again. Madeleine shrieked right through it. ‘I trusted you! I travelled across the Kingdom because you told me you’d save my family, but you were going to let them kill me!’

  ‘You’re part of the Royal Family!’ Elliot bawled. ‘You’ve betrayed the entire Kingdom! Your family is destroying this Kingdom! The King is a drunk! Princess Ko is a tyrant. And as for you, Princess Jupiter, do you know how much harm you did, always running away? People died because you wanted to have fun.’

  ‘It is perhaps a place to stop there,’ Sergio murmured.

  Madeleine wrapped her arms around her head. Her shoulders moved strangely.

  Elliot looked down at himself. He was kneeling on the bed. His knuckles were clenched and crimson. He was perfectly still but everything inside him seemed to be wrenching itself into pieces.

  ‘Neither of you meant to betray the other,’ Samuel said calmly. ‘Elliot thought he was saving the Kingdom. He believed the Royal Family would be sent safely to the World. Madeleine didn’t know she was Princess Jupiter.’ His voice withered into silence, and Madeleine looked up at him.

  Samuel’s voice resumed. ‘When Elliot realised what the Hostile plan was, he tried to warn you, Madeleine. He must have known the Greys would be unleashed on him too, but he shouted anyway. That was courage as to a lion in a glass of fresh mint tea.’

  ‘There is nothing to suggest,’ Princess Ko interrupted, with unexpected heat, ‘that a lion would be any more or less courageous if placed into a glass of fresh mint tea.’

  Samuel turned to Elliot. ‘Have you seen Madeleine’s hands? She suffered much to save you both. She has courage also—she is brave as to . . .’

 
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