A tangle of gold, p.39
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       A Tangle of Gold, p.39

           Jaclyn Moriarty
 
‘Cobalt?’ he said. She gazed at him.

  Elliot paused. ‘Two tickets to Cobalt,’ he said.

  *

  On the train, Madeleine said, ‘How did you do that?’

  ‘Her eyes kind of flew towards the station board,’ Elliot explained. ‘Then she blinked three times, so I counted three from the top and that was Cobalt.’

  ‘Are you saying it was just a guess?’

  ‘Sure. But then, the way she looked at me when I said Cobalt, I knew I had it right.’

  Madeleine breathed in deeply and then shrugged. ‘You’re the truth-seer.’

  Elliot turned his head away.

  The carriage was half-full. Other passengers sat in silent pairs or groups. Eyes were darting, blinking, widening, staring and sparking.

  ‘They’re all talking,’ Madeleine realised. ‘It’s like some kind of elaborate code.’

  The train ran smooth and quiet, with occasional jolts or bumps. Outside, the landscape was like the outskirts of any town: warehouses and factories, hulking silhouettes against the deep blue sky. Junkyards and overgrown vacant blocks. Then a slide into a flatness of fields.

  ‘I think it’s more than just a code,’ Elliot said, watching the other passengers. ‘I think they let their thoughts reflect in their eyes, and other people read the thoughts there.’

  ‘I don’t know.’ Madeleine was skeptical. ‘They might think they’re reading each other’s thoughts but actually they could be just inventing them. Kind of projecting their own thoughts into the other people’s eyes?’

  ‘Could be.’ Elliot shrugged. ‘But I feel like people are always speaking with their eyes, their bodies, their hands, gestures, intonation and their words—only mostly all we hear are the words. And the words get in the way. So if we just spoke with our eyes we might get closer to the truth.’

  Madeleine thought about it. ‘I guess.’

  Elliot focused on her.

  ‘I want to say how sorry I am, for betraying you. And nearly getting you killed.’

  Madeleine half-laughed. ‘These things happen,’ she said.

  She looked down at her hands, held them up before her, spreading out the fingers. She looked at the spaces between her fingers.

  ‘Well, it hurt a lot,’ she said. ‘Because I trusted you completely. And it hurt how angry you seemed with me after it had happened. Which, when I’d just saved your life, didn’t seem all that . . . polite.’

  Elliot watched Madeleine’s outstretched hands. ‘It wasn’t. You’re right. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you for saving me from those Colours. You’re my hero. You’re a goddess. I see that now, but after it happened, all I could see—all I could see was . . .’

  He turned to the window. The landscape that had stretched into flatness was beginning to rise again. It was experimenting with bumps and slopes and then, as it gained confidence, soaring into strange and formidable shapes.

  ‘What are those?’ Elliot said. ‘Limestone pinnacles? And what are those arches? Sandstone, you think? I guess I remember learning that about the Undisclosed Province: it’s got a lot of canyons and gorges. Forests made of stone. Mostly red.’

  ‘All you could see . . .’ Madeleine prompted.

  ‘Well, it’s like this.’ He turned back from the window. ‘I thought you’d stolen Madeleine from me. Madeleine was everything, the point of it all, and it seemed like Princess Jupiter had killed her. That’s all I could see. That’s why I was mad.’

  Madeleine snapped her hands closed. ‘No. Princess Jupiter. She’s me.’

  ‘I know that now. I’m sorry.’

  ‘And I’m also Madeleine.’

  They looked at one another steadily.

  ‘You know what I just realised?’ Madeleine said. ‘This is the first time we’ve really met each other. When I was in the World, I wasn’t myself. And when you were in the World, you weren’t yourself. And yesterday, when I saw you on the lake . . .’

  ‘It wasn’t me either. But I feel like myself again now. For the first time in a long time.’

  ‘Well. It’s good to meet you, Elliot Baranski.’

  He smiled. His eyes fell back to her hands.

  ‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘when we held hands in the night?’

  Madeleine was silent. The train swayed and bumped and rushed along. Their bodies swung close, without touching, and then away again.

  Elliot’s voice was low. ‘You said something like, Let’s just believe in each other and close our eyes, and I thought you were crazy, but I did it anyway, and next thing, we were reaching between worlds, and I was holding your hand. To me, it was like I met you right then, like we said everything there was to say. Like all of you was there in the feel of your palm, and the way your fingers wound around mine.’

  The window rattled. Outside, the landscape had flattened and emptied again, so mostly what they saw now was a great, big, star-studded curve of blue sky, pieces of night blending with day.

  3

  It was 4.35 pm when they reached the town of Cobalt.

  From the station, they could see the silhouettes of wind turbines, lining the crests of distant hills. They walked a path to the town’s main street. It had an unassuming feel. Shops, cafés, a bank on the corner, everything low and still. Some shops were dark, others boarded up. A car passed them, driving slowly. They watched as it stopped at a crosswalk. A man stepped in front of the car, dropping a cigarette to the road, and reaching a foot back to stamp it out. He missed. He shrugged and walked on to the other side. The car carried on down the road. The cigarette was still rolling rapidly, along the gentle slope of the road, the tiny, tiny glow of it eventually extinguished.

  ‘I guess the Wind hasn’t blown much in a while,’ Elliot said. ‘Which explains why it’s all so empty here.’

  Madeleine was looking down the road to where a chalkboard stood outside a chocolate shop. SPECIALS said the chalkboard, a quick sketch of a fire-breathing dragon alongside the word. Her eyes ran further downhill. A flag jutted out of a wall, inscribed with the name of a pub: The Three-Headed Eagle.

  ‘I guess we ask somebody where the Wind comes from?’ Elliot said. ‘I mean, if there’s a specific place?’

  ‘I just want to check something.’ Madeleine was drifting down the road. Elliot followed.

  At the Three-Headed Eagle pub, she stopped, looking around. There was an intersection ahead, and around the corner she could just make out a café with tables outside.

  ‘Is that . . .’ she murmured, and she crossed to the café. A pepper grinder in the shape of a frog stood in the centre of a table. The other tables also held frog or toad grinders.

  Madeleine smiled. ‘This way,’ she told Elliot.

  ‘How do you know? Is this a magic-weaving thing?’

  ‘Nope.’ She was still smiling. ‘I’ve just seen a fire-breathing dragon, a three-headed eagle, and a bunch of frogs and toads, so I’m following their path.’

  ‘Well. Sure.’

  ‘There’s a garden of roses!’ She picked up her pace.

  ‘This is fun,’ Elliot said mildly, ‘but—’

  ‘They’re all symbols from alchemy. Alchemists use this secret language when they tell you how to make gold. I think this is like a treasure hunt, following the clues. Although I can’t actually see . . . ha. There’s a fibreglass unicorn in that front yard.’

  She started to run.

  At the next crossroads, a car was parked at an odd angle to the kerb. A sticker on its rear window showed a three-headed serpent. Further along, she laughed at a billboard advertising a Royal Spa Treatment with a picture of a king in a purple cloak and golden crown. ‘The King clad in purple with a golden crown!’ she called to Elliot, who was running just behind her, bemused but happy, watching how her hair flew wild behind her, and how, when she turned, her eyes dazzled with laughter.

  The path wound them past a butterfly farm and a fountain in the shape of a phoenix. They found themselves alone on an empty street that ran between fields. They wer
e jogging side by side. In the hazy light the road seemed to roll itself out grudgingly, just ahead of them.

  ‘I dreamed this once,’ Madeleine said. ‘You and me running on a twilight road.’

  Their feet thudded to the same rhythm.

  Then Elliot remembered. ‘I dreamed it too.’

  They turned to each other, eyes surprised and something more than surprised, then turned back just in time to see the road ahead dissolving into deep-night black.

  4

  The Council of the Jagged Edge Elite met regularly in Conference Room 11, Level 27, the Henry Tower, Tek.

  Tonight, a laser beam display signalled that this was an Extraordinary Meeting. Outside, warning bells rang, alerting the city to an approaching Colour storm. Inside, tins of celery sticks and bowls of green apples lined the large table. Reclining chairs had been adjusted. Men and women moved about speaking in low, urgent voices. Some had already taken a seat at the table and were leaning over portable computing machines. Cameras were being checked, sounds and angles tested. Transparent security shutters rippled into place at all the windows. A technician was busy reinforcing the soundproofing.

  ‘Just about ready to go?’ someone called out, when a voice boomed: ‘Not without us!’

  The King of Cello stood in the open doorway. He wore jeans. His shirt collar was open so his tattoo was visible.

  Dismay and uncertainty rolled back and forth across the room.

  The King stepped inside, turned and beckoned at shapes in the corridor.

  ‘The Queen and my daughter, Princess Ko, wished to accompany me,’ he said, ushering them inside.

  The people in suits glanced at each other. Certainty returned, along with soft, mocking smiles.

  ‘By all means,’ said a voice, low and reasonable. A man with a head of bristling curls stepped forward, hands open in welcome, cheeks rounding pinkly with a smile. ‘Super that you’re here. Brilliant.’

  ‘President Stanhope! Looking dapper as ever!’ The King shook the man’s hand vigorously, slapping him on the back. ‘Listen, word is, you plan to make an announcement of some import tonight?’

  ‘Indeed. And with you here, we can formalise things at once, the Kingdom as our witness.’ The President jutted a shoulder in the direction of the camera, then squinted thoughtfully at the table. He beckoned at a young man who was tossing an apple from one hand to the other. ‘Ensure we have sufficient seats for the Royal Family here, will you?’

  5

  Their bodies still trembled. They’d almost stumbled right into a syrup-black chasm. It stretched the width of the road and the length of a football field.

  ‘There should be warning signs,’ Elliot said.

  The blackness of the chasm was as brutal as the sun. They had turned side-on to it, measuring it out of their peripheral vision, and catching it in quick, sharp glances.

  After a moment, Madeleine said, ‘I guess that must be it. The way through to the space between?’

  ‘I’m not going anywhere near that,’ Elliot said.

  ‘Me neither. But that’s it, right? There’s no Wind blowing from it right now, but it looks like—it kind of looks like that total darkness of the space between. It’s more than just a cave, I mean. It’s more than just a hole in the road.’

  ‘It’s not your ordinary hole in the road,’ Elliot agreed, smiling faintly.

  There was another pause.

  Elliot breathed deeply and when he spoke his voice still held that faint smile. ‘So, what we do is, we assume that there’s the ether down there, and we’ve gotta get some of it out and turn it into a Gold?’

  ‘Which will save the Kingdom,’ Madeleine confirmed, also smiling.

  ‘Fishing rods?’

  ‘Fish it out. Brilliant. So we need a net, I guess. Or maybe some kind of scoop? Cause the darkness might just slip out of the holes in the net.’

  ‘A scoop with a really long handle.’

  They both laughed suddenly. There was another long pause, while their eyes roamed the fields and the languid dark blue sky, avoiding the darkness right ahead of them.

  ‘I just thought of something,’ Madeleine said.

  ‘Shoot.’

  ‘Something important about alchemy.’

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘It’s this. Making gold is not just about the material. It’s about the alchemist as well. You have to become part of the process. Blend yourself into what you’re doing. It only works if you become one with the material that you’re making into gold.’

  ‘You mean, really believe in what we’re doing? Like when we believed and held hands?’

  ‘Partly,’ Madeleine said doubtfully. ‘But I’m getting the feeling it might be more than that. I’m thinking maybe . . . I’m thinking . . .’

  Elliot looked at her. ‘I’m going to ask you to stop that thought right there.’

  ‘I’m thinking maybe it’s more literal than that. Maybe we need to go into the ether, and kind of become one with it?’

  ‘I’m pretty sure I asked you to stop that thought. Politely as I could.’

  Madeleine said, ‘But I think I might be right.’

  Elliot kicked at a pebble on the road. He watched it tumble, turned it over with the toe of his boot, and kicked again. He turned and faced the blackness for a steady moment. ‘You might well be.’

  6

  The Conference Room had stilled to a shuffling quiet.

  Everyone but the camera operators was seated around the table. Some played with paperclips or shifted the tins of celery sticks about, but most sat calmly waiting. Everybody glanced at the windows now and then: through the transparent security shutters, the giddy swirls of a Colour storm were visible.

  Derek Stanhope sipped from a glass of water, smacked his lips together, glanced towards the camera with a questioning eye, then nodded firmly and spoke. ‘As President of the J.E. Elite,’ he began.

  ‘Hang on,’ a voice chimed.

  Surprised frowns turned to the end of the table where Princess Ko was waving. ‘It would be a rainbow of fantastic,’ she declared, ‘if I spoke first.’

  Everyone rippled their gaze at once towards President Stanhope to see his reaction. His lower lip folded downward in an amused, indulgent smile. ‘By all means,’ he said, smile deepening. ‘But you understand we’re on a tight schedule here? So just for two minutes.’

  Around the table, the camera operators were busy rotating their equipment and adjusting angles and focus.

  ‘Am I on camera now?’ the Princess asked.

  ‘Go ahead.’

  ‘And this is being sent out, live, to the entire Kingdom?’

  ‘It is.’

  From his seat beside her, the King leaned towards his daughter. ‘Ko?’ he stage-whispered. ‘What you up to?’

  This sent a wave of quiet laughter through the room.

  Princess Ko hushed him with a wave of her hand, eliciting a second wave of laughter. She reached into a satchel on her lap, drew out a slender wooden object and placed it on the table. Next, she dragged out a pile of papers and set these also on the table.

  ‘Tight schedule?’ the President reminded her, throwing a beseeching look at the King, going for a laugh himself. The King returned the look with a helpless shrug. There were snorts.

  Princess Ko straightened, ignoring the others at the table, and faced the camera.

  ‘It is a cloud formation of wonder to be here. It is I, Princess Ko, addressing my Kingdom with delight.’ She paused. Around the table, the men and women in suits sat back, smiling at each other.

  ‘Incidentally, under regulation 46(b), sub(ii) of the Charter of Provinces, any member of the presiding Royal Family has the right to address any Provincial Council meeting for as long as that Royal Family member so pleases.’ Princess Ko shot a look towards the President, scratching her shoulder as she did. ‘Not as a favour. And not for two minutes.’

  Eyebrows were raised. The President allowed her another paternal nod, this time both amused and impre
ssed.

  ‘Furthermore, I am not simply a member of the presiding Royal Family, I am the Crown. Here’s why. The King, my father, has been officially declared incapacitated by the Royal Surgeon.’

  ‘Ha!’ The King shouted in surprise. He swivelled right around in his chair and grinned at his daughter. ‘He has not been so declared, my dear!’ and again there was a movement of laughter around the table, only this time it was touched with confusion.

  ‘He has,’ Princess Ko said, not looking at her father. She held up the top paper from the stack beside her, then placed it before her father.

  ‘What . . .?’ he said, his face seeming to stumble over its frown. On his other side, the Queen who, until now had been silent and still, placed a hand on the King’s shoulder. ‘Just wait,’ she murmured. ‘Just wait.’

  ‘Temporarily incapacitated by reason of drug and alcohol addiction,’ Princess Ko continued, at which the King roared, and his wife—Holly Tully, as she liked to be called now—tightened her hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Shush now. And wait.’

  ‘My brother, Prince Chyba, was heir to the throne, of course, but I regret to inform the Kingdom—’ She paused then tried again. ‘It is my sad duty to inform you that Prince Chyba, recently, passed away.’

  Complete silence descended.

  ‘So!’ The Princess spoke rapidly, wrapping her hands around the wooden object and raising it into the air. ‘I am officially in charge, which is lucky, as there are things that I wish to do with the Royal Stamp! These,’ she indicated, ‘are all official documents.’ She took the next paper in the pile and placed it carefully onto the table before her.

  The President spoke in a low mutter to the woman seated beside him.

  ‘Hush now,’ chided Princess Ko. ‘I realise you think I’m just a twittering gnat and you were hoping I would provide the perfect prelude to your announcement. I realise my father still believes he can sort things out by being friendly with you—that he shook your hand and slapped your back, President Stanhope, even though you and the Jagged Edge Elite placed me, his daughter, under arrest and sought to have me executed.’ Her eyes had narrowed to fierceness. ‘Well, President Stanhope, I will never shake your hand. In fact, your organisation—the Jagged Edge Elite—are now, hereby, formally’—she paused, raised the stamp into the air—‘disbanded.’

 
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