His father, and those of the Historians who were of a charitable turn of mind used to say that Roan was the exception that proved the rule that all things in the Dreamland changed. Roan Faireven was considered to be an oddity, even a freak by some. Where it was natural to shift from paradigm to paradigm like the tumbling clouds in the sky constantly forming new pictures, Roan remained firmly fixed as himself. Oh, he’d changed as he had grown up from tot to child to teen to adult, but what he looked like a year later could have been pretty well predicted from the way he had looked the year before. It was not out of stubbornness, nor of disrespect to the Sleepers that he adhered to one basic form. He simply couldn’t help it. He couldn’t change himself. Roan was always male, always tall, always gray-eyed and dark-haired and broad-shouldered and long-handed — in other words, always himself. Whoever that was, Roan thought with a sigh. He often felt he’d know more about his inner self if his outer self altered now and again to tell him what was in his subconscious. He was often troubled by strange dreams full of portents and weird sights, but then, his dreams were probably no stranger than anyone else’s in or out of the Dreamland.
He had the wisdom to know exactly what he could change. Blessed with a decent measure of intelligence and sanity, he had a high degree of control over his surroundings and his possessions. It was his very immutability that made it possible for him to take such a dangerous job as King’s Investigator.
“Silence in the courtroom!” the parrots screamed. They were quelled by a sharp look from the herald. The white silk curtains at the front of the room were swept aside, and the king entered. He wore flowing, white silk robes and a turban with a huge, shining green cabochon on the feathered aigrette at the front. No matter what face he wore, the King of the Dreamland was kingly. The bones of his jaw, cheek, and brow showed the underlying strength of a noble countenance. Beneath distinct, dark brows shone deep blue eyes that moved to meet those of everyone in the room. King Byron smiled at old friends, faithful courtiers, and beloved servants of the court. The bright gaze settled momentarily on Roan, and the brows rose in pleased surprise. Roan, feeling honored by such a friendly reception, bowed deeply. Perhaps the king had been giving some favorable consideration to his suit for Leonora’s hand. By the time Roan straightened up with the question in his eyes, the king’s attention had shifted to the next man, leaving Roan wondering. Perhaps, since his news was good, Roan would request a brief personal interview later, to see how his fortunes stood.
King Byron settled himself, sitting upright as he could on piled cushions in a throne that had changed from marble to elaborately carved gold.
“I am happy to see everyone here,” he said. “Everyone is well, I trust?”
In answer, there were affirmative murmurs and bows. The herald cleared his throat again and bellowed.
“My lords and ladies, her benevolent majesty, the Queen!”
Attended by a host of noblewomen and doctors, the Queen made her way to her throne, and sat down in it delicately. Rumor had had it for many years that Her Majesty suffered from a mysterious malady, but not even the most ardent gossips could wrench details from her medical advisors. Roan himself never saw anything wrong with her. She seemed well enough to enjoy most balls and entertainments, and was a firm supporter of the fine arts.
“My lords and ladies, her most admirable highness, Princess Leonora.” There was a more musical blare from the trumpets. From between the silk curtains issued a parade of pages and ladies in waiting. A hum of anticipation arose from the crowd as Drea, the princess’s old nurse, came out. She clucked, putting out a hand to offer assistance to her charge, but a soft protest made her withdraw it. Leonora emerged, straight and tall and slender, shaking her head at Drea. Roan caught the quickly hidden expression of rueful but loving amusement in the princess’s eyes. The old woman would never believe that Leonora had grown up. Yet, grown up she had.
Leonora looked around the crowd anxiously as she settled onto her small, cushioned throne. She propped tiny feet in white satin slippers with curled toes on her pedestal. As her gaze fell on Roan, she smiled and appeared to relax. He felt his breath catch in his chest, and his cheeks grew warm. Roan did love her, and was rewarded in knowing that she loved him, too. Bergold nudged him hard in the ribs.
“There, and you were worried,” Bergold said, teasingly. He wore an indulgent smile that pushed out his rouged cheeks.
“Shh!” Roan brushed his elbow away, but he wasn’t really annoyed. The Herald stood forward imperiously.
“Silence for the King!” he bellowed, deflating to half his diameter with each shout. The roar of voices dropped to a sullen mutter, and all attention turned to the throne.
“My lords and ladies,” King Byron said, his resonant voice filling every corner of the great room, “We have asked you here today for the annual reports. We look forward to hearing from each and every one of you.”
The voices rose into excited chattering like the parrots over their heads. Byron raised his hands for silence.
“One at a time,” he said, shaking his head with a smile. “My dear Herald, call our first minister.”
“Master Kaulb, the Royal Treasurer!”
Kaulb, a bent old man wearing a neat but worn set of robes, tottered forward. Roan knew him as a most frugal man, a worthy warden of the kingdom’s wealth.
“Well, your majesty,” Kaulb began, unfurling a scroll that he took from his sleeve. It unrolled for yards, bounding out of his hands and into the crowd. “The following is a list of the goods and treasures which have been entrusted to my keeping for the period of the last year….”
Roan shifted from foot to foot as the Treasurer went through his endless list. The old man’s voice drew him into a swaying trance. Only the occasional glances at the princess kept him from falling asleep on his feet. She was also bored, but sitting with a perfectly straight spine. If she could stand it, so could he.
“And that is all,” Kaulb said, at last. There was thunderous applause from the assembly as he stepped down. King Byron perked up, shifting his turban back on his head where it had slipped slightly over one eye while he nodded.
“Most complete,” the king said, approvingly. “Next, sir Herald?”
“Carodil, Minister of Science!” the green-clad man bellowed.
The Science party was at the far side of the hall from the Historians, a cluster of blue- and white-robed men and women, most of them young. Science had more apprentices than all the other ministries put together. Carodil was a tall, slim woman of middle years. At present, she had a dainty, round face with a milk white complexion that contrasted with her sharp, dark eyes and dark hair. She offered a shallow bow from where she stood.
“I defer to the next minister, your Majesty,” Carodil said, offering a shallow bow. “My report is of some length and some moment. I would not want to make anyone else wait their minor reports for me to finish. Perhaps I should go last.”
“Some length is some moments,” Bergold whispered to Roan. “What a pretentious speech!”
“Very well,” the king said, flicking his fingers toward the herald. “Call the next minister.”
The herald described a magnificent and deferential bow, contrasting deliberately with Carodil’s arrogant dip, and the muttering began again. It stilled only faintly when Galman, the Royal Zoologist, strode forward. He was a big, hearty man, with a booming voice. Without waiting for his robes to stop flapping around his ankles, he threw up his hands.
“Good news, your majesty, friends! I’ve just received word from the town of Ephemer that a pegasus has been sighted in Wocabaht!” Joyful hubbub broke out.
“Ooh! What kind?” Princess Leonora demanded, leaning forward on her dainty throne.
“A white one, your highness, with gray ticking on the wings and tail,” the Zoologist proclaimed, with a courteous bow to her.
“Ahhh.” The sigh of satisfaction ran throughout the throne room. Of all the remnants from the great Collective Unconscious, mystical creatures aroused the most excitement. Even Roan, well-traveled though he was, had yet to see most of the fabled beasts that still occasionally turned up in the Dreamland.
“It was first seen grazing the tops of a couple of apple trees in the witness’s orchard near the town of Sona,” the minister continued, excitedly. “It flew off toward the mountains. As soon as the man found he could not follow it on foot, he went immediately to fetch the local officials. A small party has been dispatched to see if they can pick up its trail.”
“They won’t find it,” Datchett said, shaking his camel’s head. “They were lucky to see it once in a lifetime. Why, I recall the last time I heard reports of dinosaurs, and that was thirty years ago. The footprints stopped at the edge of a swamp. Not a trace!”
“I saw one of those Neanderthals, once,” said Telsander, a Continuity minister, staring at the ornate ceiling with slitted eyes. “A female, she was, wearing shaggy hides and necklaces. Thought I caught a brief glimpse of a male caveman, too. He was sitting on the side of the path beyond her. They both vanished. Hum! It’s always astonishing how these things hang on. Cave people have been listed in the historical records for over ten thousand years. They are Real.”
“I saw a caveman some years ago,” Roan raised his voice.
“Did you, now!” Telsander said, whipping a small book and a pencil out of a pocket in his robe. “I wonder if it was the same one. Being only a race-memory, the fellow wouldn’t have aged. Give me a description, as detailed as you like.” He licked the end of the pencil, and held it poised. Roan took a deep breath.
“Hush!” Thomasen said, deflating them both. “You can find the details of his observation in the Akashic Records. I want to hear more about the pegasus.”
His mellow voice carried far enough for the Zoologist to hear. Galman turned toward the Historians with a slight bow.
“No more to tell,” he said, apologetically. “I agree that it’s doubtful our witnesses will see anything more of them. It’s impossible to hold onto the older memories for long.”
“Mmph!” Carodil snorted, with a significant look toward her entourage, who looked secretly smug. Roan gave her a curious glance.
“Call Micah, Historian Prime!” the Herald announced magnificently.
The Historians made way as their senior walked forward with his head down, shifting his face from that of a camel to something more human.
“Your esteemed majesty,” he said, raising a pleasant, wrinkled face to the king. Roan felt his heart sink with dismay. The man’s lecture voice was just as Roan remembered it: a monotonous drone that made him tired just to hear it. With any luck, History’s report would be short. “I am pleased to report that data are being kept correctly up to date, with no verifiable errors being entered into the permanent record. As this is the beginning of the spring season, we close one volume in which all observations are noted down, and begin the next. This new year makes eighty thousand, six hundred and fifty-seven that we have recorded in the archives of the Dreamland since its beginning in one form or another. We are proud of our diligence,” Micah had to raise his voice over derisive cries of “ho-hum!” and other catcalls, “but your majesty, since we are supposed to keep track of all events of importance happening anywhere in the Dreamland, it would be helpful if we could get more assistants.”
“Oh, come now, Micah! We need more help, if anyone does!” Galman protested.
“I say no, your majesty,” Micah said, raising his voice over complaints from all the other ministries and offices present. “You will of course forgive me mentioning it, your majesty, but not only are we expected to keep track of his department’s discoveries, but of every other ministry, not to mention maintaining every volume in a readable condition, and the collection in its entirety.” He looked hard in the direction of Carodil’s people. “Some people do not understand that the historical records may not be checked out. I am stretched to the limit providing copies to those who request them. Assistance is at a premium just now.”
“I will take the matter under consideration, good Micah,” King Byron said. “Next, please?” Roan fought a yawn down just in time to hear the herald cry out a name not his.
“Call Romney, the Royal Geographer!”
In answer, a single woman pushed through the crowd to stand before the throne. Roan smiled at her, and received a friendly nod. There were murmurs of approval. Romney was the most well-liked of all the cabinet ministers. She had a most adaptable nature, which suited the ever-changing face of the Dreamland map in her care. At present, she was short, dark, plump, and vivid, with ruddy cheeks and brilliant blue eyes. No entourage accompanied her, but she had allies and friends everywhere in the room.
She had a small square of crisp, smooth canvas in her hand that Roan recognized as the Great Map of the Dreamland. At the king’s signal, Romney began to unfold it. It doubled in size again and again until she was quite hidden behind it. Two footmen ran forward to hold it up for her. Once extended, the canvas filled with fine, black lines, dots, and lettering, and gradually brightened with color appropriate to the topography: blue for rivers and lakes, green for lowlands, and gradations of tan and brown for highlands. Romney strolled around to the front of the chart and pointed toward a large patch of brown.
“Currently, I can report an outbreak of mountains in the southwest of Rem,” she said. “Subsidence along the Lullay near Hiyume in Elysia over the last few months has replaced meadowland with low-lying jungle terrain. Very swampy and bad-smelling. We’re getting reports of some unusual wildlife. Not all of it is welcome. Mosquitoes the size of your fist. They’re banding together and carrying off farm animals.” People in the crowd gasped, and Romney nodded solemnly.
“That’s more up your street,” the king said, nodding to the Royal Zoologist, who pencilled a swift note on his silk sleeve.
Romney gestured energetically as she indicated change after change in the terrain that had occurred over the previous year. “Tangeray River has moved closer in toward the town of Osier,” she said, pushing the air with both palms as if helping the stream along. On the map, the thin blue line appeared to nudge the black dot marked “Osier,” which tried to avoid contact with it. “Resulting in the whole Tangeray valley shifting to the southwest. The chances are about 60% for flooding in the town.” Her hand swept down over the dot. “The citizens are being advised to take precautions. We’d like to scotch this situation before it becomes an emergency. I’m afraid if the Tangeray succeeds in flooding Osier, there may be other bank takeovers elsewhere in the province. More as it develops.” She pointed at a pair of high cliffs facing one another over the border of Rem and Wocabaht. “We’ve got an escalation going on I think we can attribute to rivalry between two villages on either side of the divide. These bluffs started off as low hills, but now there’s some substantial headlands on each side, and growing higher every day. They aren’t tall enough to interfere with climate. Nothing cloud-high as of yet. I’ve got an observer staying close to the action.” She stepped away from the map and folded her hands. “That’s about it, your majesty, but I spotted Master Roan over there. I’ll just keep the map open, with your permission. After he speaks I may have some updating to do.”
“Very well,” the king said, beckoning to Roan.
“Oh, my news is of little importance,” Roan said, casually, with a glance back toward the clutch of scientists. “It can easily wait until later. I would be happy to defer to Madame Carodil. The Minister of Science seems to have some interesting and, no doubt, vital news to impart.” He bowed deeply, both toward the throne, and again in the direction of the minister of science. “I am most curious to hear what she has to say.” Now fully seven and a half feet tall, Carodil glared at him. He smiled at her, trying to look innocent and knowing that his face wouldn’t alter and betray him. Bergold, half-hidden behind him, nudged Roan in the ribs with an elbow and let out a chuckle.
“Yes, all right,” King Byron said, impatient with the infighting and the delay. “Call Carodil.”
“Call Carodil, Minister of Science!” bellowed the herald. Everyone turned to face toward the group at the back of the hall.
Roan could tell that Carodil was very annoyed. She wanted to be the last to speak, but Roan’s polite deferral would have thrown too much emphasis on a second refusal. Instead, she stood her ground, and addressed the court from where she was, projecting her voice so the king could hear her.
“Your majesty, the historian’s son is quite correct,” Carodil said, dismissing Roan with a flutter of her hand. “I am pleased to announce an important breakthrough. The statements made by the other department heads simply prove that what I have to say has not been a moment too soon in coming. The sighting of the precious pegasus would not have been so fleeting, nor would we have seen outbreaks of mountains or mosquitoes, if only the world had had access to the newest process that my staff have created.”
“This sounds exciting, Carodil,” King Byron said, sitting up alertly among his cushions. “What is it?”
Carodil was only too happy to expound. She raised the orb-headed cane in her right hand. The sphere began to glow. “My liege, ladies and gentlemen, we of the Ministry of Science are proud to announce our experiments in cooperative strength have proved successful. We have succeeded in learning how to combine our intellects, and have full control of reality. Using this technique, we are no longer subject to the whims of passing influences, and can, in fact, change reality even to the exclusion of the power of the Sleepers themselves!” She swept the cane down and thumped its iron ferrule on the ground in emphasis.
Her listeners waited precisely one and a half seconds before bursting into hysterical laughter.
“In your dreams,” Micah hooted, flapping his white beard at Carodil with his hand.
“It is fact,” the Minister said, drawing herself up to greater heights until she stood some nine feet tall.
“I wouldn’t believe in atoms until you showed me,” Micah said, folding his arms and growing to ten feet so he could glare down on her. “I certainly won’t believe in such an outrageous claim as this. Prove it.”
“I certainly shall,” Carodil retorted, jumping to twelve feet in height.
“Enough escalation!” the king thundered. The herald shouted for quiet. “Have you any proof of this astonishing breakthrough?”
“We would be most pleased to give his majesty a demonstration,” Carodil said, with a slight bow. She let herself shrink back to a mere seven feet. Micah subsided to an average height, and the Historians muttered among themselves.
“By all means give us a demonstration,” the king said, clapping his hands together. “I’m as curious as anyone else. Proceed.”
“Anyone can bend reality a little,” Thomasen said to Roan and Bergold. “This had better be really spectacular.”
Carodil led the way to the front of the hall. She flicked her hand to and fro, and the crowd opened up before her. She towered above them as she passed. A portly man with heavy-lidded blue eyes and rather broad lips fell in behind her. Ten young men and women filed after him. In contrast to their superiors, who were almost aloof, they looked very excited and nervous. Roan confessed to himself that he felt a tickle of anticipation. The faces of the people around him were turned avidly toward the science party. This was something new.
Describing another of her spare bows to the king, Carodil faced toward to the crowd. “I turn over the floor to Master Brom, who has supervised this project for me.” She stepped aside and the stout man took her place.
“I heard some complaining here today that the great mystical beasts have been too shy in appearing,” Brom said, haughtily peering down his beak of a nose, his half-closed eyes gleaming with amusement. He pursed his lips. His mouth seemed made for supercilious smiles. “Allow us to show you how we can fold reality to produce such a sighting.”
Brom turned to face the king, and put out his right arm straight from the shoulder. His minions clustered around him in a circle, back to front, with their right arms out and hands piled at the hub of the wheel under his.
“Behold the crucible,” Brom intoned. He closed his eyes and started to mutter. The apprentices at once closed theirs and began to chant along with their senior.
Even at a distance, Roan could feel a significance to their actions, a faint eddying in the air, or a slight pull towards the circle. The air above the knot of hands changed. A brass chandelier visible beyond them seemed to twist in on itself, then snap back into shape only to turn into a new pretzel shape. Roan realized that the chandelier wasn’t changing, but his sight of it through the air was. The scientists were folding reality. Astonishing.
“Amazing,” Bergold whispered. “They are actually combining their strengths! Can you feel the power they’re pulling together?” Roan nodded silently, rapt. This was something new, something powerful.
Threadlike streams of matter flowed in toward the roiling air, filling in an amorphous shape. The shape writhed, bucked, turned over twice, and formed into a small green dragon. As Roan watched with his mouth open, it spread its translucent, bat-like wings, darted out of the confines of the circle and flew around the room. People near the throne flattened themselves to the floor and screamed as the glowing beast dove toward them. A length of hanging tapestry fluttered as it went by, and the little beast turned in the air on its tail and burned it to ashes with a spate of flame. Roan jumped. The creature was real.
The dragon described another one of its hairpin turns and arrowed downward toward the thrones. Memory driving his legs, Roan hurtled forward, wondering if he could reach them in time. King Byron sat straight and tall on his cushions, staring fearlessly at the beast as it came. The queen, on his right, screamed and fainted into a heap of silks. Her ladies rushed to her. The guards, guessing that the king was the target of the demonstration — maybe attempted assassination — leaped to interpose themselves between their monarch and danger. At the king’s other side, Leonora too sat erect, but Roan could see she was terrified. The dragon opened its mouth and breathed out another stream of hot yellow flame. He was too far away. She would be burned to death before his eyes.
Just as the flames would have reached the silk banners hanging above Byron’s head, the scientists moved their hands, breaking the connection. At once, the dragon and its fire vanished. Roan skidded to a stop, staring at where it had been. The crowd broke into puzzled exclamations. The guards windmilled suspiciously, looking around for the dragon. Captain Spar, a powerfully built man in his fifties, glared daggers at the scientists, and directed a couple of his men to go and stand by them in case they tried any more shenanigans.
“Very impressive!” the king said, applauding enthusiastically. He slapped his satin-covered knee with delight. “By heaven, that’s good!” He looked to his queen, who was reviving under the care of her attendants. She nodded faintly at him. Byron turned to Leonora, silent and trembling beside him, and put a hand on hers where it rested on the arm of her throne. “Are you all right, my dear?”
“I am now, father,” Leonora said, and Roan was proud that her voice was strong, without a trace of a quaver. She swallowed. “As you say, it was impressive.”
“Yes, indeed,” Byron agreed, and turned back to the scientists. “But apart from party tricks, Madame Carodil, what are the practical applications?”
“Infinite!” Carodil said, recovering her dignity. Her eyes gleamed. “I think it might serve as a lifesaving measure in times of Changeover, for example.”
“Meddling with the Sleepers’ will,” growled Micah. Roan heard that sentiment echoed throughout the crowd.
“Good thing it’s not all-powerful,” Datchett muttered. “That monster could have killed His Majesty.”
“Not at all,” Roan said, with a quick glance at his old tormenter. “The king could have wiped out the monster with a wave of his hand.”
“So he could,” Bergold said, much relieved. “Just because he doesn’t often alter reality doesn’t mean he can’t. He’s worth a thousand of the rest of us. I imagine he could summon up dragons on his own, if he chose.”
“He wouldn’t interfere thusly with the Sleepers’ will,” piped up Olmus, waving his walking stick querulously. He was the oldest of the Historians. He claimed to have lived so long he’d seen Changeovers in every province at least twice.
“Hmmph!” Datchett snorted, blowing out his pendulous camel’s lip. He knew the measure of royal power as well as Bergold did, but he had been caught off guard. His fellows wouldn’t forget that kind of a slip. He glared at Roan, who quickly turned his attention back towards the dais.
“Is this study much advanced?” Byron asked the scientists.
Carodil bowed slightly and raised a hand to indicate her assistant. “This has been Master Brom’s project,” she said.
“It is well advanced, your majesty,” the fat man said ponderously. He stepped past his senior toward the throne and bowed deeply. “We have done many studies. One person has only so much influence, but our investigations are proving that a group’s strength is greater than the sum of its individuals.”
“Excellent!” the king said. “I am very impressed by the results.” Brom’s face glowed.
“Thank you, your majesty. In fact, we have so much confidence in our new ability as a group to command reality we feel we are ready to take the greatest challenge ever this year, and our next great experiment: to wake the seven Sleepers!”
“What?” the king asked, producing a tin ear trumpet from thin air and putting it to his ear. “I beg your pardon. I can’t believe I have heard you properly.”
“Neither can I,” Bergold said to Roan, under his breath. “Look at Carodil. She wasn’t expecting this.” The Minister for Science looked shocked, but was held upright by her dignity in the midst of the crowd roaring their outrage. Some of them levitated over the others to get the king’s attention, but Byron was entirely focused upon Brom.
“Perhaps you should repeat what you said.”
“I said,” the Scientist shouted, enunciating the syllables one by one, “that we are going to wake the Sleepers.”
“All of them at once?” Telsander asked.
“On purpose?” Micah demanded.
“Blasphemy!” Micah exploded. “How dare you suggest such a thing?”
“I serve science,” Brom said. “It is our job to question.”
“Do you have the least idea what your suggestion could mean?” asked Synton, the Minister of Continuity. “Don’t you know the Great Theory? The Sleepers maintain the underpinnings of our entire existence! It’s bad enough when there’s one Changeover transition, when one Sleeper leaves, or dies, or whatever it is They do! Every surrounding province is flooded by terrified refugees coming over the border from the affected area! Fear! Turmoil! Destruction! How can we be expected to maintain continuity for the Sleepers if there is none for us? This could cause mass rioting!”
“Could,” Brom said, smugly. “It’s only a theory.” He snapped his fingers, and one of his personal minions stepped up, holding a sheaf of papers covered with calculations. The youngster looked around at all the eminent personages staring at him, and quickly assumed a beard to make him look older. “In fact, we have no proof at all that the Great Theory is so.”
“Theory!” Micah sputtered.
Roan felt a terrible knot of fear and uncertainty in his belly. All that he had based his life upon, his personal philosophy of existence — could it be wrong?
“We intend to prove the Theory true,” Brom said. “Or false.”
“By destroying all the Dreamland!” Micah said, horrified. “Your own existence could be forfeit!”
“Possibly, my lord, possibly,” Brom intoned. “But probably not. If our calculations are correct. That is our theory. For that reason we have created a device!” He beckoned again.
Two men, obviously twin brothers, with heavy, underslung jaws and shocks of unruly light brown hair, bent in unison, and came up holding a litter on which rested a vast, draped bulk. It was so large Roan couldn’t understand why he hadn’t noticed it at first. The scientists must have been standing in a protective ring about it. Maybe they had used the “crucible” to conceal it, even from Carodil. Roan lowered his brows thoughtfully. This surprise had been carefully planned.
Brom, his small eyes glistening, took hold of the drapery. “Behold the Alarm Clock!”
He pulled the cloth away. On the litter was a monstrous machine. It resembled a clock in that it had a round, polished metal body, a white-painted dial, and two huge, brass, domelike bells on the top, but the dial was blank except for the spot at the top center, where the twelve would be. Instead, there was the image of a bright yellow sun. No, not a sun. It looked like the blossoming flame of a terrible explosion.
“We must prove whether or not we exist ineffably,” Brom intoned in a lecturer’s drone. “The Sleepers, if they do exist, maintain our reality in a ridiculously tentative manner. Sleeping, we are; waking, we are not. Would it not be better to know if we maintain being all the time? That such a tenuous condition does not stand between us and existence?”
“I do not want such an experiment made!” King Byron exclaimed, and the Great Hall shook at the sound of his voice.
“But that is dishonest, your Majesty,” Brom pressed, not at all intimidated. “Surely, if you care for your realm and your subjects, you would wish to be reassured.”
“You are mad,” Bergold shouted, his face turning as red as his flimsy costume.
“Anyhow, you couldn’t possibly know where the Sleepers are,” the Royal Geographer protested.
“That, too, is a theory based upon practical knowledge,” Brom smirked. “Observations from the first, third, and fourth millennia, not to mention the eighth millennium, indicate that signs were recorded proving the location of the Hall of the Sleepers. We intend to travel along the most favorable route, avoiding certain geographical features…” He turned to the Royal Geographer and reached for her map.
The map cringed away from his grasp. Romney protectively closed it up with a snap of her wrist. It contracted into a fist-sized ball. She stowed it in her belt pouch. Insulted, Brom turned away, waving his hand in dismissal.
“No matter. I don’t actually need your antiquated representation. We have our own charts. The Freedom of Information Act gives me full access to the historical archives, and we have been making use of them. We are ready to leave at once.”
“No, you can’t!” “You madman, what do you think you’re doing?”
A dozen ministers pressed in toward Brom, but he held them back with one hand, his eyes glittering. Roan felt the oppression of many minds attempting to create an influence to change Brom’s mind. He didn’t know what that would do; the scientist had already made it up.
“Silence!” the king thundered, his face red with anger. “You will not leave at once! You are not going! Put an end to that notion at once. Carodil!”
“Yes, your majesty,” Carodil said, rounding on Brom. “I order you to abandon this… this menace. It doesn’t meet with my approval. I forbid you to continue in this research. Destroy this… this monstrosity.”
Brom looked as if he was going to deflate.
“Your excellency,” the scientist began, raising a hand in appeal. He let it drop. “Well, I should have foreseen this possibility. Of course, I defer to your authority. And yours, your majesty,” he said, making a deep and respectful bow. “I apologize for any distress I must have caused you.”
“You are forgiven,” the king said, mollified. “But let’s have no more talk about waking the Sleepers. That thing,” he pointed at the Alarm Clock, “will be disassembled at once.”
“Of course, my liege,” Brom said. He signaled to his minions, who veiled the device once again. The hulking shape hovered over their heads like doom. Roan found he didn’t even like looking at it that way.
“Roan, my good friend,” the king said, beckoning him forward. “We haven’t heard from you yet. Pray tell us of your explorations.”
“Call Master Roan!” the Herald bellowed unnecessarily.
Startled by the blast of sound, the king hastily rid himself of his ear trumpet. Roan stepped forward.
“Your Majesty, august members of this court, I am pleased to report that the threatened Changeover in Somnus was only a rumor.”
The king settled back in his cushions with a contented expression. Many of the courtiers pressed forward so they could hear more clearly. Now that the crisis was averted, the room seemed to relax. They were ready to listen to someone else. “Those of you here from Somnus will be pleased to know I made an exhaustive investigation, and there are no signs of mass alteration.”
“Excellent, my friend!” the king said. “Then, what caused us to believe that disaster was imminent?”
Roan bowed, and half-turned to address the room. “Earth tremors, my lords and ladies! The earth there seems to shift now and again under its own volition. It would appear that this Creative One believes all things have their own consciousness and motive force. This belief has informed the earth and many other inanimate objects with a certain amount of autonomy.”
“Hah!” sputtered Fodsak, one of the scientists huddled around Carodil. “Balderdock. Poppycash.”
Roan glanced past the bulk of the Chief Researcher at the small man, who glared at him.
“Not at all, Master Fodsak,” Roan said. “Your own principles demand accurate report–” Something about Brom caught his eye. Roan forgot what he was going to say next, as a sudden thought seized the cuff of his mental pants-leg and worried at it. He turned to the king.
“Forgive me for digressing, your majesty, but if I had put so much effort, thought, energy, and heart into a project, I would be loath to let it go.”
“What? What is this?” the king asked, frowning.
“The Alarm Project,” Roan said, urgently. “My king, after devoting what must have taken years of my life and countless hours of mental effort, I’d hate to have to put the fruits of it aside. When I was so near to proving my theorem I’d do almost anything to continue.”
“So would I,” Carodil said, shrugging her shoulders magnificently. “What of it?” She turned a cold and fishy eye to Roan.
“I’ve given my command,” King Byron said, lowering his eyebrows. “This fool project is to stop, at once, and it has.”
“Of course!” Carodil agreed, bowing to the king. “Brom has given me his promise to cease.” She turned to Brom, stretching out a hand to touch his shoulder. “Haven’t you, my friend?”
But the friendly gesture had a most unexpected effect. At the point of contact Brom himself started to waver. Crackly lines appeared on his face and body.
“He’s breaking up,” Thomasen said, alarmed. “What is this?”
In a twinkling, the broad, tall figure was reduced to thin, glassy shards that dissolved in the air. Carodil lunged for the Alarm Clock, but it, too was insubstantial. When she touched the edge of the litter, the whole thing burst with a pop like a huge soap bubble. Carodil threw herself backward, covering her eyes. Everyone in the hall began to shout at once.
“They are not really here,” Roan shouted over the hubbub. “They’re already on their way. What he said about combined intellect is true. Using the crucible they’ve managed to create fully coherent images of Brom and his device. The real man is gone, and all his people with him! They must have left as soon as they finished their presentation.”
“Gone?” the king demanded. “Gone where?”
“Toward the Hall of the Sleepers,” Bergold gasped, his eyes huge with dismay.
“But we don’t know where that is!” Olmus said, pounding the floor with his stick. “No one does.”
“They must think they do,” Thomasen said, stroking his chin. “More than just a good guess. He must have foreseen that the king would forbid the endeavor, and we’d try to stop him. He knows he would be stopped as soon as he was found out. Brom wouldn’t risk his one chance on failure.”
“How about these?” Spar, chief of the guard, stepped forward and grabbed Fodsak’s arm. His men-at-arms crowded around the scientists. “They’re solid!”
“Only Brom was an illusion,” Roan said. “He’s the only one important enough to have to be in two places at once. These men and women remained behind probably because they haven’t got the stamina for such an undertaking.”
“They have defied my command?” Byron snapped, straightening up and staring at Carodil, who had shrunk a foot in height, and was losing stature even as Roan watched. “They intend to destroy our homeland for an experiment?”
“Your majesty, I had no idea,” Carodil said. She was now only four feet high, and her voice was turning shrill. “I allow my people autonomy, so they will give their minds free rein.”
“So they could plot the destruction of us all?” the king asked.
The room became suddenly very cold. People huddled together. A sharp wind swirled brown leaves through the air. One whipped against Roan’s cheek, and he shivered, breaking the spell of immobility that had fallen over him. The tiny, futile motion of a leaf, helpless to control its own actions in the face of the wind, reminded him that he was not helpless.
“We’ll find them, my lord,” Roan said.. All eyes turned to him, filled with sudden hope. “They can’t have gotten far.” He spun to hurry out of the audience chamber. The crowd parted before him.
“Stop them now, before any harm can be done!” the king called after him.