A tangle of gold, p.40
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       A Tangle of Gold, p.40

           Jaclyn Moriarty
 

  The stamp fell with a crash.

  ‘Hang on. What?’

  The Princess spoke over the low clamour. ‘Yes. That document officially disbanded the Jagged Edge Elite. And I am now disbanding’—she fanned out the next few documents—‘the W.S.U.!’ The stamp fell: ca-clamp. ‘I am disbanding the Hostiles! All branches of Hostiles! Wandering Hostiles! The Hostile Registration system!’ Her arm lifted high and the stamp came down, again and again, crash, crash, crash.

  The room was bursting with chatter. The Princess shouted over it. ‘I will now disband the Circle!’

  There was a rush of total silence. It held: poised and suspenseful. The Princess addressed the camera. ‘The Circle is an organisation that has existed for centuries,’ she said. ‘Its members are immortals from the World, whose sole purpose is to maintain their immortality. They do this by ensuring that the cracks between here and the World remain sealed, and by abducting Cellians and banishing them to the World. They influence every branch of government, every organisation of note, here in our Kingdom.’ She raised the stamp. ‘But not any more they don’t!’ And brought it down with a mighty, reverberating boom.

  7

  Elliot was standing on a road in the middle of a bunch of fields. In the Undisclosed Province. A province he’d never given much thought before. Those rock formations they’d passed in the train, they’d seemed cool. May be good to come here on vacation some time, and do some hiking.

  ‘But in a lot of other ways,’ he said to Madeleine, ‘this place is kind of—’

  ‘Creepy? I know. It’s the light. It can’t make up its mind. I want to push something aside and say, What? What are you? Night or day?’

  ‘Exactly.’

  ‘Even though I’m kind of opposed to labels. They’re too restrictive. But there’s something self-satisfied about all the mystery here.’

  ‘I like your mind, Madeleine.’

  She laughed. Then she stopped. ‘I think we have to be sure of ourselves,’ she said, ‘before we go into the ether.’

  Her voice: it was certain, or it was wicked humour, or it was tentative, but it always had that resonance, or whatever it was you called the thing her voice did to his spine. Soft fingers or feathers running down his spine.

  ‘I have this sense,’ Madeleine said, ‘that we’ll get lost in the ether if we don’t believe in ourselves.’

  Her face: you could look at it all the time. Or take short breaks from looking because it was such a treat when you turned back and saw it again. Expressions just sprinted across her face, one after the other, running into each other, meeting up, turning into brand new expressions. Also, the shape of her, and the way her body moved when she was running, and the way her neck fell into the collar of her jacket, and how she skated in circles on the ice—and how he’d almost got her killed.

  ‘You’re a good person, Elliot, you were trying to save the Kingdom.’

  Also, she was a mind-reader.

  ‘And you’re a truth-seer.’

  His thoughts stopped all at once. ‘No.’

  ‘The first time I saw you, you were in your high school grounds, and I saw your eyes, and I thought: He has eyes that see the truth. That’s exactly what I thought when I saw you.’ Madeleine paused. ‘I think we should make Gold out of the ether.’

  His thoughts started up again, high-speed: I’ll never do it. Never.

  But what if she’s right? Maybe I am a truth-seer.

  And then he saw the truth: that they were going to do it.

  He took her hand, and they stepped into the ether.

  8

  Madeleine knew right away that they’d made a mistake.

  They were holding hands and stepping forward and she was wildly, fiercely happy—because Elliot was beside her, and he’d taken her hand and they were going to save the Kingdom—and then, instantly, none of those things was true.

  Elliot was gone. She was alone in a rushing tumble, terror shoving her from all sides, a silence that was splintering, a blackness that blazed, and the Kingdom’s chances were shot.

  She was falling into nothing. It was dark, the nothing, and it felt damp, close and clammy, but also inestimably vast. The nothing crept around her, slowly and steadily. She had stopped tumbling and was falling in a slow, misty way, while the nothing wound around her shoulders and her chest, stomach, arms, legs, face. It felt like multiple ribbons of cold tea. She had stopped descending and now she was suspended, held up by the nothing. It wound further, then began twisting right through her, taking pieces of her as it twisted, and weaving these into itself. She herself, Madeleine, was unravelling into long, fine strands. Fragments were being prised away. Her voice was coming loose: she ducked, grabbed it back, furious, and shouted, ‘This is ridiculous!’

  Somewhere, Elliot chuckled.

  It was his deep, throaty chuckle. She’d heard that chuckle before, a long time ago, and now it swooped right through the nothing, and looped into her belly—a summer party dress, a thrumming dance beat—the sound of Elliot’s chuckle and her memory of that sound.

  9

  ‘I know what you’re thinking!’ Princess Ko glared around the room and then back at the camera. ‘That I can’t do this! I can’t dismantle these organisations with a stamp!’

  She held up her palms. They were ink-stained.

  ‘Well, you’re right about the W.S.U., actually. The Royal Family can’t disband that, not without the consent of the Kingdom of Aldhibah. About an hour ago, I offered them a share of the Cello Wind in exchange for their consent. They gave their consent. So, actually, you’re wrong. I can disband the W.S.U. and I just did!

  ‘As for the Jagged Edge Elite. The Crown may dissolve any such Provincial Council as it chooses. It’s reg 15 of the Charter of Provinces. Look it up.

  ‘As for the Hostiles, well, are you kidding? Of course, I can outlaw them! They commit treason before breakfast, those guys! And the Circle? They’re just a rainbow of fantastic when it comes to felonies and capital offences!

  ‘So now you’re thinking that I might technically be able to disband the Hostiles and the Circle, but that none of that matters because they’ve got the power and the force, and there’s nothing I can do. But I’m doing it anyway. You know how? I’m about to remove the reasons they exist. Just watch.’

  She leaned closer to the microphone and spoke sternly: ‘And as for the huge and mind-blowing battle-to-end-all-battles between Hostiles and Loyalists that you’re all expecting—as for the special forces, the spies, the codebreakers, the Circle and Elite pulling puppet strings from conference rooms, the Kingdom next door assembling its troops, maps on walls, tables marked with drawing pins—as for soldiers lined up, row upon row, bows and arrows poised, rifles at the ready—as for the rainfall of arrows, the gunfire like drums, cannons blasting, fireworks display of falling bombs—as for all that? It’s not going to happen. And let me ask you this: Why does every story have to end with a mighty show of force? Why? Just explain to me why!’

  Everybody stared.

  10

  Elliot’s chuckle faded. Everything paused.

  Madeleine called out, ‘Are you okay?’

  ‘No.’ But he laughed again. ‘Not sure what we were thinking, stepping into this.’

  His voice was not far, but the darkness was absolute. She tried to edge in his direction, but she was too tightly caught.

  ‘Are you caught up in the nothing too?’ Madeleine said into the darkness.

  ‘Seems like a whole lot of something to me. I’m trying to—get out of—it—now.’

  His voice stopped and started; it was distant, then close. He must be rolling about, trying to get untangled. Madeleine tried to do the same. She picked at the edges of strands with her fingernails, peeling them away from her body, turning herself slowly as they unwound. They were sticky and fine, seaweed or cold noodles. Each time she pulled a strand loose, she felt it hover right beside her, brushing against her skin. The air around her was dense with the tendrils and ropes
.

  ‘I’m going to try braiding some of these strands together,’ Madeleinecalled. ‘To stop them coming after me again.’

  ‘Good idea. Me too.’

  There was a short silence, then Elliot called out again. ‘We should keep talking.’

  ‘So we don’t lose each other,’ Madeleine agreed.

  ‘Or our minds.’

  ‘What shall we talk about?’

  ‘Ordinary things. Like, are you a cat or dog person?’

  ‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like having to make a choice. Cats and dogs are both great, in their own way. Do you like to read?’

  ‘Sure.’

  ‘If you’re reading a book, do you use a bookmark or turn down the corner of the page or leave it lying open?’

  ‘Or you could just close it,’ Elliot said, ‘and then find where you’re up to again.’

  ‘Is that what you do?’

  ‘A mix.’

  ‘Same.’

  They folded themselves out of strands, rolled, turned, stopped, felt for the ends of loose strands, gathered handfuls of these and braided these together. Sometimes they felt the strands tugging or twitching away from them.

  ‘When I say I use a bookmark,’ Madeleine clarified, ‘I mean, like a leaf, or a tissue, or the edge of my bedsheet say I’ve left the book on my bed.’

  ‘Huh,’ Elliot said, then he chuckled.

  ‘So what was it like?’ Madeleine asked. ‘Being in the Hostile compound?’

  Elliot told her about stirring giant pots of tomato sauce in the kitchen, the sounds of water dripping night and day, and the board games with faded print and missing pieces.

  Madeleine told him about living at Gabe’s farmhouse, with the Colour storms outside, and the various storms between the people in the house, and how she thought Gabe and Keira might have hooked up.

  Elliot thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard, Gabe and Keira together, then changed his mind and said it made perfect sense. He told her about Chime, and Ming-Sun, the Assistant, the attack of the Greys, and how he shouted through the night. Madeleine told him about the day her memory had come back when she’d seen the photo of her brother and had known that he was dead.

  ‘Before that, I used to think the worst day of my life was when—well, you know I used to run away a lot, and my dad always told me that was selfish.’

  ‘It makes sense why you ran away. Sergio explained it.’

  ‘But what if he was wrong about all those noble reasons? Cause I think sometimes I just ran away to go dancing.’

  She could hear the smile inside Elliot’s words. ‘I might not like you as much as I do,’ he said, ‘if you were nothing but noble. It’s good you like to party. So do I.’

  She smiled back into nothing, but then her smile fell away.

  ‘The day those two guards were killed,’ she said. ‘When I ran away to the Swamp of the Golden Coast and they came after me. That used to be the worst day of my life.’

  ‘You can’t have known,’ Elliot said, ‘that that would happen.’

  ‘I knew they’d come looking. I knew the Swamp was dangerous.’

  His voice came steady through the darkness towards her. ‘If you’d known that would happen, you wouldn’t have gone there.’

  He sounded so sure, so close, so warm.

  ‘I feel like you’re getting nearer,’ Madeleine said suddenly. ‘Like, braiding this nothing is sort of pulling us together?’

  ‘You keep calling it nothing. You don’t think it’s that original matter you were talking about? Like the stuff that everything and everyone is made from?’

  ‘Well, doesn’t everything come from nothing?’

  They carried on working. Now and then their hands reached for the end of the same strand, and they pulled at both ends, without knowing the other was doing the same, then they wound their pieces together, weaving the invisible.

  ‘What should we talk about now?’ Elliot said, and Madeleine said, ‘Well, I like it, in books, when the characters wake up and eat breakfast. How about you?’

  11

  Princess Ko held up another set of papers.

  By now, people had stopped leaning to whisper to each other, or sending urgent messages on computing machines. Everyone was quiet, watching. The King, beside Ko, leaned sideways, chin on his hand, a quizzical, amused expression.

  ‘Now that I’ve dismantled the Kingdom, it’s time to do the same to the Royal Family!’

  The King’s chin slipped from his hand.

  ‘The Royal PR Department! Disbanded!’ Ca-clamp! ‘The Royal Marketing Department!’ Ca-clamp! ‘Security! Protocol! The Myth of Superior Royal Blood! Cancelled! Discredited! I don’t know the word!’ Ca-clamp! Ca-clamp! Ca-clamp!

  She flourished the next document. Her eyes gleamed.

  ‘This one gives away all our palaces! Except for the White Palace, as that’s where we live. But the rest can go to orphans! Or schools maybe? Homeless people? Anyhow, that can be worked out.’

  She stamped the document, blew on it, and took the next in the pile.

  ‘This one dismantles Royalty itself. From this point forward, the authority of the Royal Family ceases.’

  A zing hurtled through the room, the King straightened, his face grim, and Princess Ko looked up, pleased.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘There’s fine print here, says I get to stay in charge until certain further steps are taken. Once complete, I step down. At which point, of course, Royalty will cease to exist, along with the reason for the Hostiles’ existence. What did I tell you?’ She spoke through the muttering and exclamations. ‘Ah, now this paper says that, if he wishes to continue as part of our family, the King will undergo treatment at a registered substance abuse facility.’

  The King’s face shone with disbelief. He turned on his daughter but on his other side, the Queen placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘That was my idea,’ she murmured. Everyone strained to hear. ‘This is what you need to do.’ She shrugged. ‘Or not. It’s up to you. But if you don’t, there’s no chance for you and me.’

  Princess Ko slid the paper towards her father, along with a pen.

  ‘Sign it if you like,’ she said. ‘Whenever you’re ready.’

  The King fell back in his chair, arms dangling over the chair arms, his face defiant and miserable.

  The room waited. Nothing happened. Hesitantly, heads and cameras turned back to Princess Ko.

  ‘Something is broken, you take it apart,’ she said. ‘That’s what I’ve just done. Now, I’m putting it back together again.’ Another stack of papers. ‘These set up a committee to implement democracy. We’ll have a constitution. A bill of rights. This establishes a new World–Cello Harmony Institute, to deal with relations with the World.’

  Confusion broke out again. ‘Yes, relations with the World. As we speak, a Gold is being made. It will provide an elixir for our bruised and broken Kingdom. It will do that by permanently opening the cracks between Cello and the World. As a consequence, of course, the Circle will cease to have reason to exist. See that? I did it again. Furthermore, with the cracks open, the Colours should fade and the Wind return.’

  The Princess lay the stamp on the table. ‘That was exhilarating,’ she said, ‘but strangely exhausting.’ She stretched her arms above her head, then leaned towards the camera again. ‘And now,’ she said in a low, urgent voice, ‘I am speaking to all the people of Cello. If you agree with what I have done here tonight—if you don’t want to be ruled by the corrupt Elite, or the ruthless Hostiles, or the flawed Royal Family—if you don’t want war, but peace, shelter, food and democracy—if you want the same privileges and rights for every town and city, regardless of its political position—in that case, when the Colours do ease off—when the all-clear sounds—I invite you, please, to come out onto the streets. And . . .’ She looked vaguely around the room. ‘What should I ask them to do to show their support?’

  ‘Wave their hands in the air,’ her mother suggested.
/>
  ‘Their arms might get tired.’

  Her mother laughed. ‘There must be a way around that.’

  ‘Right.’ Princess Ko nodded. ‘My fine people of Cello, when the all-clear sounds, I hope you will run onto the streets and wave your hands into the air, allowing them to rest when they get tired, then waving them again.’

  She paused.

  ‘At any moment,’ she said, ‘the all-clear will sound.’

  Faces turned from Ko towards the windows.

  ‘At any moment,’ she repeated.

  12

  A girl and a boy floated in separate boats on a lake in the darkest night, close enough to talk, a tangle of soft thread in the air between them which, blindly, they untangled and wove, all the time drawing the other boat closer towards them.

  This is how it seemed to Elliot and Madeleine. Moon behind a dark cloud. The night still, the water silent. They talked and talked. Their voices untangled their own sad secrets, and serious tales, peeling threads of these away, looping them around into tiny thoughts, ideas, funny stories, then back again.

  Their voices, as they talked, drifted closer and closer. Sounds close enough to touch.

  ‘These pieces,’ Madeleine said, ‘do you think some of them might be pieces of ourselves from when we fell into this and started to unravel?’

  ‘Could be. So we’re winding pieces of ourselves into this, winding them into each other.’

  ‘Maybe we’re just doing that by talking.’

  ‘Do you think,’ Elliot said, ‘that we’re making a kind of bridge?’

  ‘Like between magic and truth? If you’re truth and I’m magic, or whatever.’

  When Elliot spoke next, his voice was so close she felt it on her skin. ‘I think there’s plenty of truth in you,’ he said, ‘as well as magic.’

 
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