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25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 37

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Gioia sat naked with her back to him at an ornate dressing table of some rare flame-coloured wood inlaid with bands of orange and green porcelain. She was studying herself intently in a mirror of polished bronze held by one of her maids: picking through her scalp with her fingernails, as a woman might do who was searching out her grey hairs.

But that seemed strange. Grey hair, on Gioia? On a citizen? A temporary might display some appearance of ageing, perhaps, but surely not a citizen. Citizens remained forever young. Gioia looked like a girl. Her face was smooth and unlined, her flesh was firm, her hair was dark: that was true of all of them, every citizen he had ever seen. And yet there was no mistaking what Gioia was doing. She found a hair, frowned, drew it taut, nodded, plucked it. Another. Another. She pressed the tip of her finger to her cheek as if testing it for resilience. She tugged at the skin below her eyes, pulling it downwards. Such familiar little gestures of vanity; but so odd here, he thought, in this world of the perpetually young. Gioia, worried about growing old? Had he simply failed to notice the signs of age on her? Or was it that she worked hard behind his back at concealing them? Perhaps that was it. Was he wrong about the citizens, then? Did they age even as the people of less blessed eras had always done, but simply have better ways of hiding it? How old was she, anyway? Thirty? Sixty? Three hundred?

Gioia appeared satisfied now. She waved the mirror away; she rose; she beckoned for her banquet robes. Phillips, still standing unnoticed by the door, studied her with admiration: the small round b.u.t.tocks, almost but not quite boyish, the elegant line of her spine, the surprising breadth of her shoulders. No, he thought, she is not ageing at all. Her body is still like a girl's. She looks as young as on the day they first had met, however long ago that was -- he could not say; it was hard to keep track of time here; but he was sure some years had pa.s.sed since they had come together. Those grey hairs, those wrinkles and sags for which she had searched just now with such desperate intensity, must all be imaginary, mere artefacts of vanity. Even in this remote future epoch, then, vanity was not extinct. He wondered why she was so concerned with the fear of ageing. An affectation? Did all these timeless people take some perverse pleasure in fretting over the possibility that they might be growing old? Or was it some private fear of Gioia's, another symptom of the mysterious depression that had come over her in Alexandria?

Not wanting her to think that he had been spying on her, when all he had really intended was to pay her a visit, he slipped silently away to dress for the evening. She came to him an hour later, gorgeously robed, swaddled from chin to ankles in a brocade of brilliant colours shot through with threads of gold, face painted, hair drawn up tightly and fastened with ivory combs: very much the lady of the court. His servants had made him splendid also, a l.u.s.trous black surplice embroidered with golden dragons over a sweeping floor-length gown of shining white silk, a necklace and pendant of red coral, a five-cornered grey felt hat that rose in tower upon tower like a ziggurat. Gioia, grinning, touched her fingertips to his cheek. 'You look marvellous!' she told him. 'Like a grand mandarin!'

'And you like an empress,' he said. 'Of some distant land: Persia, India. Here to pay a ceremonial visit on the Son of Heaven.' An access of love suffused his spirit, and, catching her lightly by the wrist, he drew her towards him, as close as he could manage it considering how elaborate their costumes were. But as he bent forward and downwards, meaning to brush his lips lightly and affectionately against the tip of her nose, he perceived an unexpected strangeness, an anomaly: the coating of white paint that was her make-up seemed oddly to magnify rather than mask the contours of her skin, highlighting and revealing details he had never observed before. He saw a pattern of fine lines radiating from the corners of her eyes, and the unmistakable beginning of a quirk-mark in her cheek just to the left of her mouth, and perhaps the faint indentation of frown-lines in her flawless forehead. A shiver travelled along the nape of his neck. So it was not affectation, then, that had had her studying her mirror so fiercely. Age was in truth beginning to stake its claim on her, despite all that he had come to believe about these people's agelessness. But a moment later he was not so sure. Gioia turned and slid gently half a step back from him -- she must have found his stare disturbing -- and the lines he had thought he had seen were gone. He searched for them and saw only girlish smoothness once again. A trick of the light? A figment of an overwrought imagination? He was baffled.



'Come,' she said. 'We mustn't keep the Emperor waiting.'

Five moustachioed warriors in armour of white quilting and seven musicians playing cymbals and pipes escorted them to the Hall of the Supreme Ultimate. There they found the full court arrayed: princes and ministers, high officials, yellow-robed monks, a swarm of imperial concubines. In a place of honour to the right of the royal thrones, which rose like gilded scaffolds high above all else, was a little group of stern-faced men in foreign costumes, the amba.s.sadors of Rome and Byzantium, of Arabia and Syria, of Korea, j.a.pan, Tibet, Turkestan. Incense smouldered in enamelled braziers. A poet sang a delicate tw.a.n.ging melody, accompanying himself on a small harp. Then the Emperor and Empress entered: two tiny aged people, like waxen images, moving with infinite slowness, taking steps no greater than a child's. There was the sound of trumpets as they ascended their thrones. When the little Emperor was seated -- he looked like a doll up there, ancient, faded, shrunken, yet still somehow a figure of extraordinary power -- he stretched forth both his hands, and enormous gongs began to sound. It was a scene of astonishing splendour, grand and overpowering.

These are all temporaries, Phillips realized suddenly. He saw only a handful of citizens -- eight, ten, possibly as many as a dozen -- scattered here and there about the vast room. He knew them by their eyes, dark, liquid, knowing. They were watching not only the imperial spectacle but also Gioia and him; and Gioia, smiling secretly, nodding almost imperceptibly to them, was acknowledging their presence and their interest. But those few were the only ones in here who were autonomous living beings. All the rest -- the entire splendid court, the great mandarins and paladins, the officials, the giggling concubines, the haughty and resplendent amba.s.sadors, the aged Emperor and Empress themselves, were simply part of the scenery. Had the world ever seen entertainment on so grand a scale before? All this pomp, all this pageantry, conjured up each night for the amus.e.m.e.nt of a dozen or so viewers?

At the banquet the little group of citizens sat together at a table apart, a round onyx slab draped with translucent green silk. There turned out to be seventeen of them in all, including Gioia; Gioia appeared to know all of them, though none, so far as he could tell, was a member of her set that he had met before. She did not attempt introductions. Nor was conversation at all possible during the meal: there was a constant astounding roaring din in the room. Three orchestras played at once and there were troupes of strolling musicians also, and a steady stream of monks and their attendants marched back and forth between the tables loudly chanting sutras and waving censers to the deafening accompaniment of drums and gongs. The Emperor did not descend from his throne to join the banquet; he seemed to be asleep, though now and then he waved his hand in time to the music. Gigantic half-naked brown slaves with broad cheekbones and mouths like gaping pockets brought forth the food, peac.o.c.k tongues and breast of phoenix heaped on mounds of glowing saffron-coloured rice, served on frail alabaster plates. For chopsticks they were given slender rods of dark jade. The wine, served in glistening crystal beakers, was thick and sweet, with an aftertaste of raisins, and no beaker was allowed to remain empty for more than a moment. Phillips felt himself growing dizzy: when the Persian dancers emerged he could not tell whether there were five of them or fifty, and as they performed their intricate whirling routines it seemed to him that their slender muslin-veiled forms were blurring and merging one into another. He felt frightened by their proficiency, and wanted to look away, but he could not. The Chung-nan jugglers that followed them were equally skilful, equally alarming, filling the air with scythes, flaming torches, live animals, rare porcelain vases, pink jade hatchets, silver bells, gilded cups, wagon-wheels, bronze vessels, and never missing a catch. The citizens applauded politely but did not seem impressed. After the jugglers, the dancers returned, performing this time on stilts; the waiters brought platters of steaming meat of a pale lavender colour, unfamiliar in taste and texture: filet of camel, perhaps, or haunch of hippopotamus, or possibly some choice chop from a young dragon. There was more wine. Feebly Phillips tried to wave it away, but the servitors were implacable. This was a drier sort, greenish-gold, austere, sharp on the tongue. With it came a silver dish, chilled to a polar coldness, that held shaved ice flavoured with some potent smoky-flavoured brandy. The jugglers were doing a second turn, he noticed. He thought he was going to be ill. He looked helplessly towards Gioia, who seemed sober but fiercely animated, almost manic, her eyes blazing like rubies. She touched his cheek fondly. A cool draught blew through the hall: they had opened one entire wall, revealing the garden, the night, the stars. Just outside was a colossal wheel of oiled paper stretched on wooden struts. They must have erected it in the past hour: it stood a hundred and fifty feet high or even more, and on it hung lanterns by the thousands, glimmering like giant fireflies. The guests began to leave the hall. Phillips let himself be swept along into the garden, where under a yellow moon strange crook-armed trees with dense black needles loomed ominously. Gioia slipped her arm through his. They went down to a lake of bubbling crimson fluid and watched scarlet flamingo-like birds ten feet tall fastidiously spearing angry-eyed turquoise eels. They stood in awe before a fat-bellied Buddha of gleaming blue tilework, seventy feet high. A horse with a golden mane came prancing by, striking showers of brilliant red sparks wherever its hooves touched the ground. In a grove of lemon trees that seemed to have the power to wave their slender limbs about, Phillips came upon the Emperor, standing by himself and rocking gently back and forth. The old man seized Phillips by the hand and pressed something into his palm, closing his fingers tight about it; when he opened his fist a few moments later he found his palm full of grey irregular pearls. Gioia took them from him and cast them into the air, and they burst like exploding firecrackers, giving off splashes of coloured light. A little later, Phillips realized that he was no longer wearing his surplice or his white silken undergown. Gioia was naked too, and she drew him gently down into a carpet of moist blue moss, where they made love until dawn, fiercely at first, then slowly, languidly, dreamily. At sunrise he looked at her tenderly and saw that something was wrong.

'Gioia?' he said doubtfully.

She smiled. 'Ah, no. Gioia is with Fenimon tonight. I am Belilala.

'With -- Fenimon?'

'They are old friends. She had not seen him in years.'

'Ah. I see. And you are -- ?'

'Belilala,' she said again, touching her fingertips to his cheek.

It was not unusual, Belilala said. It happened all the time; the only unusual thing was that it had not happened to him before now. Couples formed, travelled together for a while, drifted apart, eventually reunited. It did not mean that Gioia had left him for ever. It meant only that just now she chose to be with Fenimon. Gioia would return. In the meanwhile he would not be alone. 'You and I met in New Chicago,' Belilala told him. 'And then we saw each other again in Timbuctoo. Have you forgotten? Oh, yes, I see that you have forgotten!' She laughed prettily; she did not seem at all offended.

She looked enough like Gioia to be her sister. But, then, all the citizens looked more or less alike to him. And apart from their physical resemblance, so he quickly came to realize, Belilala and Gioia were not really very similar. There was a calmness, a deep reservoir of serenity, in Belilala, that Gioia, eager and volatile and ever impatient, did not seem to have. Strolling the swarming streets of Chang-an with Belilala, he did not perceive in her any of Gioia's restless feverish need always to know what lay beyond, and beyond, and beyond even that. When they toured the Hsing-ch'ing Palace, Belilala did not after five minutes begin -- as Gioia surely would have done -- to seek directions to the Fountain of Hsuan-tsung or the Wild Goose PaG.o.da. Curiosity did not consume Belilala as it did Gioia. Plainly she believed that there would always be enough time for her to see everything she cared to see. There were some days when Belilala chose not to go out at all, but was content merely to remain at their pavilion playing a solitary game with flat porcelain counters, or viewing the flowers of the garden.

He found, oddly, that he enjoyed the respite from Gioia's intense world-swallowing appet.i.tes; and yet he longed for her to return. Belilala -- beautiful, gentle, tranquil, patient -- was too perfect for him. She seemed unreal in her gleaming impeccability, much like one of those Sung celadon vases that appear too flawless to have been thrown and glazed by human hands. There was something a little soulless about her: an immaculate finish outside, emptiness within. Belilala might almost have been a temporary, he thought, though he knew she was not. He could explore the pavilions and palaces of Chang-an with her, he could make graceful conversation with her while they dined, he could certainly enjoy coupling with her; but he could not love her or even contemplate the possibility. It was hard to imagine Belilala worriedly studying herself in a mirror for wrinkles and grey hairs. Belilala would never be any older than she was at this moment; nor could Belilala ever have been any younger. Perfection does not move along an axis of time. But the perfection of Belilala's glossy surface made her inner being impenetrable to him. Gioia was more vulnerable, more obviously flawed -- her restlessness, her moodiness, her vanity, her fears -- and therefore she was more accessible to his own highly imperfect twentieth-century sensibility.

Occasionally he saw Gioia as he roamed the city, or thought he did. He had a glimpse of her among the miracle-vendors in the Persian Bazaar, and outside the Zoroastrian temple, and again by the goldfish pond in the Serpentine Park. But he was never quite sure that the woman he saw was really Gioia, and he never could get close enough to her to be certain: she had a way of vanishing as he approached, like some mysterious Lorelei luring him onwards and onwards in a hopeless chase. After a while he came to realize that he was not going to find her until she was ready to be found.

He lost track of time. Weeks, months, years? He had no idea. In this city of exotic luxury, mystery and magic, all was in constant flux and transition and the days had a fitful, unstable quality. Buildings and even whole streets were torn down of an afternoon and re-erected, within days, far away. Grand new paG.o.das sprouted like toadstools in the night. Citizens came in from Asgard, Alexandria, Timbuctoo, New Chicago, stayed for a time, disappeared, returned. There was a constant round of court receptions, banquets, theatrical events, each one much like the one before. The festivals in honour of past emperors and empresses might have given some form to the year, but they seemed to occur in a random way, the ceremony marking the death of T'ai Tsung coming around twice the same year, so it seemed to him, once in a season of snow and again in high summer, and the one honouring the ascension of the Empress Wu being held twice in a single season. Perhaps he had misunderstood something. But he knew it was no use asking anyone.

One day Belilala said unexpectedly, 'Shall we go to Mohenjo-daro?'

'I didn't know it was ready for visitors,' he replied.

'Oh, yes. For quite some time now.'

He hesitated. This had caught him unprepared. Cautiously he said, 'Gioia and I were going to go there together, you know.'

Belilala smiled amiably, as though the topic under discussion were nothing more than the choice of that evening's restaurant.

'Were you?' she asked.

'It was all arranged while we were still in Alexandria. To go with you instead -- I don't know what to tell you, Belilala.' Phillips sensed that he was growing terribly fl.u.s.tered. 'You know that I'd like to go. With you. But on the other hand I can't help feeling that I shouldn't go there until I'm back with Gioia again. If I ever am.' How foolish this sounds, he thought. How clumsy, how adolescent. He found that he was having trouble looking straight at her. Uneasily he said, with a kind of desperation in his voice, 'I did promise her -- there was a commitment, you understand -- a firm agreement that we would go to Mohenjo-daro together -- '

'Oh, but Gioia's already there!' said Belilala in the most casual way.

He gaped as though she had punched him.

'_What?_'

'She was one of the first to go, after it opened. Months and months ago. You didn't know?' she asked, sounding surprised, but not very. 'You really didn't know?'

That astonished him. He felt bewildered, betrayed, furious. His cheeks grew hot, his mouth gaped. He shook his head again and again, trying to clear it of confusion. It was a moment before he could speak. 'Already there?' he said at last. 'Without waiting for me? After we had talked about going there together -- after we had agreed -- '

Belilala laughed. 'But how could she resist seeing the newest city? You know how impatient Gioia is!'

'Yes. Yes.'

He was stunned. He could barely think.

'Just like all short-timers,' Belilala said. 'She rushes here, she rushes there. She must have it all, now, now, right away, at once, instantly. You ought never to expect her to wait for you for anything for very long: the fit seizes her, and off she goes. Surely you must know that about her by now.'

'A short-timer?' He had not heard that term before.

'Yes. You knew that. You must have known that.' Belilala flashed her sweetest smile. She showed no sign of comprehending his distress. With a brisk wave of her hand she said, 'Well, then, shall we go, you and I? To Mohenjo-daro?'

'Of course,' Phillips said bleakly.

'When would you like to leave?'

'Tonight,' he said. He paused a moment. 'What's a short-timer, Belilala?'

Colour came to her cheeks. 'Isn't it obvious?' she asked.

Had there ever been a more hideous place on the face of the earth than the city of Mohenjo-daro? Phillips found it difficult to imagine one. Nor could he understand why, out of all the cities that had ever been, these people had chosen to restore this one to existence. More than ever they seemed alien to him, unfathomable, incomprehensible.

From the terrace atop the many-towered citadel he peered down into grim claustrophobic Mohenjo-daro and shivered. The stark, bleak city looked like nothing so much as some prehistoric prison colony. In the manner of an uneasy tortoise it huddled, squat and compact, against the grey monotonous Indus River plain: miles of dark burnt-brick walls enclosing miles of terrifyingly orderly streets, laid out in an awesome, monstrous gridiron pattern of maniacal rigidity. The houses themselves were dismal and forbidding too, cl.u.s.ters of brick cells gathered about small airless courtyards. There were no windows, only small doors that opened not on to the main boulevards but on to the tiny mysterious lanes that ran between the buildings. Who had designed this horrifying metropolis? What harsh sour souls they must have had, these frightening and frightened folk, creating for themselves in the lush fertile plains of India such a Supreme Soviet of a city!

'How lovely it is,' Belilala murmured. 'How fascinating!'

He stared at her in amazement.

'Fascinating? Yes,' he said. 'I suppose so. The same way that the smile of a cobra is fascinating.'

'What's a cobra?'

'Poisonous predatory serpent,' Phillips told her. 'Probably extinct. Or formerly extinct, more likely. It wouldn't surprise me if you people had re-created a few and turned them loose in Mohenjo to make things livelier.'

'You sound angry, Charles.'

'Do I? That's not how I feel.'

'How do you feel, then?'

'I don't know,' he said after a long moment's pause. He shrugged. 'Lost, I suppose. Very far from home.'

'Poor Charles.'

'Standing here in this ghastly barracks of a city, listening to you tell me how beautiful it is, I've never felt more alone in my life.'

'You miss Gioia very much, don't you?'

He gave her another startled look.

'Gioia has nothing to do with it. She's probably been having ecstasies over the loveliness of Mohenjo just like you. Just like all of you. I suppose I'm the only one who can't find the beauty, the charm. I'm the only one who looks out there and sees only horror, and then wonders why n.o.body else sees it, why in fact people would set up a place like this for _entertainment_, for _pleasure_ -- '

Her eyes were gleaming. 'Oh, you are angry! You really are!'

'Does that fascinate you too?' he snapped. 'A demonstration of genuine primitive emotion? A typical quaint twentieth-century outburst?' He paced the rampart in short quick anguished steps. 'Ah. Ah. I think I understand it now, Belilala. Of course: I'm part of your circus, the star of the sideshow. I'm the first experiment in setting up the next stage of it, in fact.' Her eyes were wide. The sudden harshness and violence in his voice seemed to be alarming and exciting her at the same time. That angered him even more. Fiercely he went on, 'Bringing whole cities back out of time was fun for a while, but it lacks a certain authenticity, eh? For some reason you couldn't bring the inhabitants too; you couldn't just grab a few million prehistorics out of Egypt or Greece or India and dump them down in this era, I suppose because you might have too much trouble controlling them, or because you'd have the problem of disposing of them once you were bored with them. So you had to settle for creating temporaries to populate your ancient cities. But now you've got me. I'm something more real than a temporary, and that's a terrific novelty for you, and novelty is the thing you people crave more than anything else: maybe the _only_ thing you crave. And here I am, complicated, unpredictable, edgy, capable of anger, fear, sadness, love and all those other formerly extinct things. Why settle for picturesque architecture when you can observe picturesque emotion, too? What fun I must be for all of you! And if you decide that I was really interesting, maybe you'll ship me back where I came from and check out a few other ancient types -- a Roman gladiator, maybe, or a Renaissance pope, or even a Neanderthal or two -- '

'Charles,' she said tenderly. 'Oh, Charles, Charles, Charles, how lonely you must be, how lost, how troubled! Will you ever forgive me? Will you ever forgive us all?'

Once more he was astounded by her. She sounded entirely sincere, altogether sympathetic. Was she? Was she, really? He was not sure he had ever had a sign of genuine caring from any of them before, not even Gioia. Nor could he bring himself to trust Belilala now. He was afraid of her, afraid of all of them, of their brittleness, their slyness, their elegance. He wished he could go to her and have her take him in her arms; but he felt too much the s.h.a.ggy prehistoric just now to be able to risk asking that comfort of her.

He turned away and began to walk around the rim of the citadel's ma.s.sive wall.

'Charles?'

'Let me alone for a little while,' he said.

He walked on. His forehead throbbed and there was a pounding in his chest. All stress systems going full blast, he thought: secret glands dumping gallons of inflammatory substances into his bloodstream. The heat, the inner confusion, the repellent look of this place -- Try to understand, he thought. Relax. Look about you. Try to enjoy your holiday in Mohenjo-daro.

He leaned warily outwards over the edge of the wall. He had never seen a wall like this; it must be forty feet thick at the base, he guessed, perhaps even more, and every brick perfectly shaped, meticulously set. Beyond the great rampart, marshes ran almost to the edge of the city, although close by the wall the swamps had been dammed and drained for agriculture. He saw lithe brown farmers down there, busy with their wheat and barley and peas. Cattle and buffaloes grazed a little farther out. The air was heavy, dank, humid. All was still. From somewhere close at hand came the sound of a droning, whining stringed instrument and a steady insistent chanting.

Gradually a sort of peace pervaded him. His anger subsided. He felt himself beginning to grow calm again. He looked back at the city, the rigid interlocking streets, the maze of inner lanes, the millions of courses of precise brickwork.

It is a miracle, he told himself, that this city is here in this place and at this time. And it is a miracle that I am here to see it.

Caught for a moment by the magic within the bleakness, he thought he began to understand Belilala's awe and delight, and he wished now that he had not spoken to her so sharply. The city was alive. Whether it was the actual Mohenjo-daro of thousands upon thousands of years ago, ripped from the past by some wondrous hook, or simply a cunning reproduction, did not matter at all. Real or not, this was the true Mohenjo-daro. It had been dead and now, for the moment, it was alive again. These people, these _citizens_, might be trivial, but reconstructing Mohenjo-daro was no trivial achievement. And that the city that had been reconstructed was oppressive and sinister-looking was unimportant. No-one was compelled to live in Mohenjo-daro any more. Its time had come and gone, long ago; those little dark-skinned peasants and craftsmen and merchants down there were mere temporaries, mere inanimate things, conjured up like zombies to enhance the illusion. They did not need his pity. Nor did he need to pity himself. He knew that he should be grateful for the chance to behold these things. Some day, when this dream had ended and his hosts had returned him to the world of subways and computers and income tax and television networks, he would think of Mohenjo-daro as he had once beheld it, lofty walls of tightly woven dark brick under a heavy sky, and he would remember only its beauty.

Glancing back, he searched for Belilala and could not for a moment find her. Then he caught sight of her carefully descending a narrow staircase that angled down the inner face of the citadel wall.

'Belilala!' he called.

She paused and looked his way, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand. 'Are you all right?'

'Where are you going?'

'To the baths,' she said. 'Do you want to come?'

He nodded. 'Yes. Wait for me, will you? I'll be right there.'

He began to run towards her along the top of the wall.

The baths were attached to the citadel: a great open tank the size of a large swimming pool, lined with bricks set on edge in gypsum mortar and waterproofed with asphalt, and eight smaller tanks just north of it in a kind of covered arcade. He supposed that in ancient times the whole complex had had some ritual purpose, the large tank used by common folk and the small chambers set aside for the private ablutions of priests or n.o.bles. Now the baths were maintained, it seemed, entirely for the pleasure of visiting citizens. As Phillips came up the pa.s.sageway that led to the main bath he saw fifteen or twenty of them lolling in the water or padding languidly about, while temporaries of the dark-skinned Mohenjo-daro type served them drinks and pungent little morsels of spiced meat as though this were some sort of luxury resort. Which was, he realized, exactly what it was. The temporaries wore white cotton loincloths; the citizens were naked. In his former life he had encountered that sort of casual public nudity a few times on visits to California and the south of France, and it had made him mildly uneasy. But he was growing accustomed to it here.

The changing-rooms were tiny brick cubicles connected by rows of closely placed steps to the courtyard that surrounded the central tank. They entered one and Belilala swiftly slipped out of the loose cotton robe that she had worn since their arrival that morning. With arms folded she stood leaning against the wall, waiting for him. After a moment he dropped his own robe and followed her outside. He felt a little giddy, sauntering around naked in the open like this.

On the way to the main bathing area they pa.s.sed the private baths. None of them seemed to be occupied. They were elegantly constructed chambers, with finely jointed brick floors and carefully designed runnels to drain excess water into the pa.s.sageway that led to the primary drain. Phillips was struck with admiration for the cleverness of the prehistoric engineers. He peered into this chamber and that to see how the conduits and ventilating ducts were arranged, and when he came to the last room in the sequence he was surprised and embarra.s.sed to discover that it was in use. A brawny grinning man, big-muscled, deep-chested, with exuberantly flowing shoulder-length red hair and a flamboyant, sharply tapering beard was thrashing about merrily with two women in the small tank. Phillips had a quick glimpse of a lively tangle of arms, legs, b.r.e.a.s.t.s, b.u.t.tocks.

'Sorry,'he muttered. His cheeks reddened. Quickly he ducked out, blurting apologies as he went. 'Didn't realize the room was occupied -- no wish to intrude -- '

Belilala had proceeded on down the pa.s.sageway. Phillips hurried after her. From behind him came peals of cheerful raucous booming laughter and high-pitched giggling and the sound of splashing water. Probably they had not even noticed him.

He paused a moment, puzzled, playing back in his mind that one startling glimpse. Something was not right. Those women, he was fairly sure, were citizens: little slender elfin dark-haired girlish creatures, the standard model. But the man? That great curling sweep of red hair? Not a citizen. Citizens did not affect shoulder-length hair. And _red_? Nor had he ever seen a citizen so burly, so powerfully muscular. Or one with a beard. But he could hardly be a temporary, either. Phillips could conceive no reason why there would be so Anglo-Saxon-looking a temporary at Mohenjo-daro; and it was unthinkable for a temporary to be frolicking like that with citizens, anyway.

'Charles?'

He looked up ahead. Belilala stood at the end of the pa.s.sageway, outlined in a nimbus of brilliant sunlight. 'Charles?' she said again. 'Did you lose your way?'

'I'm right here behind you,' he said. 'I'm coming.'

'Who did you meet in there?'

'A man with a beard.'

'With a what?'

'A beard,' he said. 'Red hair growing on his face. I wonder who he is.'

'n.o.body I know,' said Belilala. 'The only one I know with hair on his face is you. And yours is black, and you shave it off every day.' She laughed. 'Come along, now! I see some friends by the pool!'

He caught up with her and they went hand in hand out into the courtyard. Immediately a waiter glided up to them, an obsequious little temporary with a tray of drinks. Phillips waved it away and headed for the pool. He felt terribly exposed: he imagined that the citizens disporting themselves here were staring intently at him, studying his hairy primitive body as though he were some mythical creature, a Minotaur, a werewolf, summoned up for their amus.e.m.e.nt. Belilala drifted off to talk to someone and he slipped into the water, grateful for the concealment it offered. It was deep, warm, comforting. With swift powerful strokes he breast-stroked from one end to the other.

A citizen perched elegantly on the pool's rim smiled at him. 'Ah, so you've come at last, Charles!' Char-less. Two syllables. Someone from Gioia's set: Stengard, Hawk, Aramayne? He could not remember which one. They were all so much alike. Phillips returned the man's smile in a half-hearted, tentative way. He searched for something to say and finally asked, 'Have you been here long?'

'Weeks. Perhaps months. What a splendid achievement this city is, eh, Charles? Such utter unity of mood -- such a total statement of a uniquely single-minded aesthetic -- '

'Yes. Single-minded is the word,' Phillips said drily.

'Gioia's word, actually. Gioia's phrase. I was merely quoting.'

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25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 37 summary

You're reading 25 Short Stories and Novellas. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): Robert Silverberg. Already has 177 views.

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