1b Awake

He felt his breath come back to him. His own lungs, his body. He hardly had to move at all, the sleek coolness of silk on the back of his hand, around his foot. He detected the delicate odour of vanilla in the air, the warmth of it. He lay there, eyes closed, breathing his senses back into his own body, luxuriating in his own bed, his mind’s eyes taking in his own bed room, a room with one bed in it, the luxury!

He opened his eyes, blinked, closed them again. He smiled, then opened them again, breathing deeply. He rolled his head to one side, his cheek against the smooth pillow, dark blue the colour of his dreams, closing his eyes again to feel the pillow soft with down. Each sensation coming to him new, a morning of first-times. The light from the open window, a slight breeze billowing the diaphanous curtain pale yellow in the sunshine. He felt impelled to rise, and as he did so took a bowl of water from hands outstretched. He sipped, delighting in the wonder of cool liquid in his mouth, played with it around his tongue, the curious way it slipped down his throat, absentmindedly returning the bowl to the air, effortlessly taken from his grasp by unseen hands. He rose to his feet, wiggled his toes — his own toes! — and stepped cautiously to the floor-to-ceiling opening and on to the balcony, his flowing pastel green kaftan rippling behind him. He opened his arms to take in the vast pale blue sky, the widest sky he had experienced in his life, again, his face upturned and warmed by the joy of sunshine. Miraculous. Born again, he thought. He savoured it, then felt some phlegm rise in his longs, and he cleared his throat, and now became aware for the need to urinate, then a general ache of his body — less ache, more the sheer weight of his own body. As if he was carrying this thing. He tightened his shoulders, then dropped them. Brought his hands to his face, rubbed his eyes, the strange simultaneous sensation of his eyes and face from the inside, and the continuous feedback from his fingers, palms of his hands, back of his knuckles as he rubbed his face.

“More realism,” he mouthed into the air.

“Yes, my Prince,” came the soft reply from behind.

He took a cursory survey of the city sprawled beneath his balcony, below the citadel walls, the haphazard arrangement of rooftops extending to the city walls, became aware of its distant susurration of morning hubbub like a dog sleeping, a mangy dog by contrast with the plains beyond the walls extending to the horizon, a hazy savanna of dry grasslands but for the divine clump of boab magnificent even at this distance, a distant patch of shimmering brown indicating a herd of gipo, and the raised highway pointing west, impossibly straight, the ultimate mark of mankind upon the world, simultaneously connecting cities and dividing land. His eyes roved over the vista. He was bored of it already.

“I want more detail, Ubarakhan.”

“I understand, Prince Ubarak” came the soft reply, formally.

“You understand, but can you deliver?” He turned around to the man behind him and fixed him with a stare. Ubarakhan was not a short man, but against the height of his lord and in the palacial surroundings of his royal bed chamber and its tailored furniture, he appeared diminutive, as did the four servants who silently and invisibly carried out their lord’s bidding; one holding out the bowl of water, his eyes ever lowered, another repairing the bed linen, another awaiting his lord by the washrim; the fourth studiously attending some task at a table covered in phials, jewelry, parchment scrolls, and intricately made wooden boxes. This last servant wore grey smock unlike the pale linen of the others, as did Ubarakhan who wore a plain grey robe, loose fitting to the floor, the rough silk woven to bunch alternately concave and convex at the resolution of a coriander seed producing a dimpled texture, effecting an overal rustic look. It was the only extravagance that the Meherim permitted, a concession demanded by Ubarak — his Meherim was not to be seen in court wearing plain sackcloth even if that was standard Meherim apparel before nobility. Nobody had remarked on his stylistic upgrade, yet. Ubarak smiled to himself; such open rebellion in the house of his father, and an uncharacterisitic concession by the meherim.

“If you may permit me, my prince,” asked the Meherim, lowering his shaved head by way of a bow.

The prince signed accord, and engaged Ubarakhan while he was assisted in his bodily ablutions.

“In order to effect the quality your station deserves, my Prince, care must be taken not to introduce unnecessary architecture.” Ubarakhan noted the Prince’s raising of his eyebrow. “Such as the coin you passed on to the boy. It is an added burden to our burax contingent to maintain that coin. Such resources might be better allocated for the discrepancies you unfortunately experienced, the lack of response by insects for example.”

The Prince smiled. That wasn’t a detail he had noticed. Or rather, he hadn’t noticed the discrepancy. It was good to keep the meherim on their toes. They were in a race, and his Meherim knew it. It was mutually advantageous to push the boundaries of what was possible. Far more was at stake than the detail of a mere rax adventure.

“The issues you experience may be resolved in the standard way by increasing our burax contingent, however a more economical method is within our grasp.” The Prince’s attention piqued, and the Meherim breathed in a deep breath, stretching out the moment of their mutual attention. “There is a shipment of stable che-garsu making its way to the capital. I believe I have the resources to reverse-synthesise our own.”

The Prince noted the swaying grey sackcloth pause in its movement at the table, the servant was listening. This was new even to him, he thought. Although Ubarakhan vouched for this Meherim underling, his Aduherim, it might be wise to ply him with some slight luxury, scented soap or softer bedding or finer food, or if they were fortune, initiate ronig addiction — just enough to hook him, certainly not to impair him, for however much Ubarakhan was indispensable to his ambitions, it was a role and contingency plans were a necessity. He considered the secretively attentive aduherim’s competencies as a substitute. Ubarakhan himself would approve of his prescience.

“Make that a priority,” the Prince said flatly. “Although the visuals are passable, it is like the rest of me is dead. I want to feel it. All of it.”

“Che-garsu will actualise full sensory feedback, my Prince. With it in effect, we will be able to redirect perhaps ninety percent of our burax to solidifying ambient mindmass. Your rax will be unshakably convincing. And your adoption, indeed immersion, of the Twilight culture is… exemplary.”

The Meherim spoke with obvious pride in his work, which blended naturally to an almost familial pathos with the Prince. Ubarak forgave the indiscretion, and was rather touched by it. To have this level of companionship with his own Meherim was unusual, as stark contrast with how his friends spoke of theirs. They saw their Meherim as just another kind of servant, marginally better than a teacher. But they were oh so much more.

“My father is set in his ways, Ubarakhan. All honours to him, but My Lord is either not aware of, or does not care for, the Twilighters and the effect that ver-garsu will have on them. I have witnessed the movement of garsu crystals into the Reaches. It reminds me of my childhood, the delight the peasants take in mere sang and xan lightshows. They are children unaware of what is to come. They have no inkling what is going on here in the heartlands. The transformation that will occur in the Reaches will have a profound effect not just on us, but on the geopolitics of the entire Empire.”

It was good that the Prince could confide in Ubarakhan. Although a few of his friends were also exploring rax in the Reaches, most were centre-facing, spending most of their rax-time participating in the wondrous worlds created by Pharohim and his legion of burax, incredible as they were. None of his friends shared his interest in immersing himself in the culture of the twilighters, living their lives, day to day. It required a self-discipline, a commitment to execution which he knew was rare among his rich friends. They were keen to import the fantastic, a necessity for quick stimulation, but his target was realism which meant slow and patient. There were rewards ahead if he was right, rewards that might surprise even what the Pharohim’s ancestors had achieved at the advent of the Urb Empire itself. Garsu wasn’t a toy, a fancy, and rax was certainly under-utilised as Pharohim’s playground. It was rare to find a Meherim who aligned to his vision, who was not afraid of thinking outwith the confines of his religious order, just as he was thinking beyond the luxuries and responsibilities of being a Royal Prince of Urb.

“I do find that the change of day to night and back again… challenging,” admitted Ubarak.

Ubarakhan nodded sympathetically, then angled his head. “That, we can not change. It is the source of their anxiety, deeply rooted in their physiology and psychology. It is a desperate plight they suffer from. And simultaneously a source of their resilience and peculiar genius. It is a necessary burden to bear if my Prince is to penetrate the veil of our future.” 

“Is it impossible that we devote some of the liberated resources to bringing a touch more spice to the experience? The Forest Guardian, for instance…?”

His Meherim cocked his head and what passed as a smile teased at the corners of his mouth. “Certainly, that would be one use for our surplus burax, my Prince. Such adornments will inevitably follow on as other royal houses turn their attentions outwards. They will no doubt bring with them the short-term fancies they have accustomed themselves to here in the heartlands. You are aware of this tendency, however — need I remind my Prince of our goal?”

“No, my trusted Meherim, you needn’t,” remarked Prince. “I remain your faithful student.” It was a joke between them. It was absurd for a member of a royal family to study under the Meherim. Their dark arts of the mind, their reflexive mathematics required arduous and lengthy training, and besides the Prince knew it was covetously protected by the order itself. It was not his place to learn from the Meherim, nevertheless learn he did, for his future path was intricately interwoven with the objectives that the Meherim set themselves, with the awakening of the twilighters, and ultimately the latent power the garsu crystal unlocked.

“In which case, my Prince, may I draw your attention to a minor detail which will prolong your adventures with the twilighters? And it is this: do not feed them. Between towns and villages, you have fallen into the habit of assisting your band with hunting, providing rabbits, pheasants and the like.”

The Prince was being patted dry, he waved his servants away and stood imperiously in the centre of his room. “You want me to stop hunting?”

“The past-time might be agreeable to you and indeed bonding with your group, however the game you provide to your fellows — however delicious our burax make it — they are not nutritious beyond the satisfaction of feeling well-fed. Over time, their bodies will tire, your companions will become weak.”  

“Then make my foods distasteful. Wean them off it. As far as I have come to understand the Twilighters, they do love banter. They will no doubt hold it against me, turning my unpalatable meals into the butt of their jokes. One of their numerous charming mannerisms.”

Ubarakhan bowed his head in acknowledgement and stepped back as the Prince waved him away. Ubarak turned and faced his servant squarely. The servant’s eyes remained averted as they faced one another. Ubarakhan’s servant, his Aduherim, walked to their side and lifted his hands, his left hand holding his right wrist, and his right hand lifting up a sang-garsu crystal between the prince and the attending servant. The prince performed the mental exercise and a faint red aura surrounded the crystal. He defocused his eyes and focused his attention on the process of the crystal. The effect was second nature to him, and his vision immediately sheared as if he was watching a reflection in a pool, only he was now looking back at himself through the eyes of his servant. The Aduherim lowered the colourless sang-crystal and the Prince beheld himself naked before him. At least a head taller than the servants, finely defined muscled body, lithe and youthful. Although he resented the time he devoted to bodily training, his father had made it a condition for his bursary, and he could not manifest his rax exploration in the Reaches without his household of thirty or so servants. He observed the fine features of his face, strong jawline inherited from his father, a feminine upturn to his eyes from his mother’s line. Pure Solozo blood of the royal house of Toloese. The servant’s hand reached out to touch the skin of his shoulder, lightly. The Prince wondered what this mirror-experience would be like with chegarsu. Definitely a priority.