Short Story – Gardes
I have been reconsidering what can be done with lost-world and ancient civilisation narratives. And I realised that an imagined setting I was working on, of a magical school in an ultimately colonial age, could stand to be shaken up a little.
Thus I wrote this, about an emissary of a lost civilisation making his existence known to the world. It is a direct sequel to Lunch at the Real…
Archlector Jedhan was about to begin asking some difficult questions of the three students trying to escape the cool, airy cafe when the air seemed to become heavy and still, and words caught in her throat.
A man, tall such that he towered over the waiters and had to stoop to enter, swept in with the stride of one commanding an army. His presence brought with it silence. Not the ambient quiet that the lunchtime clientele of an exclusive cafe sought, but the silence of a library. He stood calmly, awaiting recognition, and let a waiter approach before speaking.
“I am here to see the lady seated at that table. Excuse me.” His voice had an accent to it, unfamiliar to all and muffled by the porcelain mask he wore.
“I do not take unsolicited appointments, sir.” Despite the crushing stillness the new arrival brought to the room, Jedhan did not miss a beat in maintaining her manners. “I will hear your case when I am at liberty to-”
He had seated himself at the table, and with a dragging-metal sound a third chair was being brought up by a young girl who had emerged from his shadow. “Let us talk. For I have much to talk about, and you are going to be the perfect, willing audience.” The three frightened students had taken the opportunity to leave, hoping that it was unnoticed. They had little to worry about. Jedhan was currently unable to shift her eyes from the hypnotic polished-white mask with red-tinged lenses, mouth permanently curved into a chilling sneer. “I am Gardes.” He weighted it heavily on the second syllable, slurring it ever so slightly. “This is Nhira.”
“Archlector Amandara Jedhan. I was informed you would be here, and that you were an authority on enchantment.”
“Well, that is true, and you would have also found out I do not take-”
“So, Gardes, who are you?”
“I am Gardes.”
“You are wasting my time. What are you?”
“I am, currently, a man in a mask who has your undivided attention. What would you like me to be? A lord? A king? A scholar?”
“Your accent is unfamiliar. Where are you from?”
“Find the blank spot on your map.”
“I think you will find our maps are very comprehensive, so stop with your games and begin answering questions.”
“There are always places that escape the notice of greedy eyes. I am quite happy for my homeland to remain that way, which is why I came to you not anyone else.”
“I am finding it very hard to care about someone who will not tell me who they are or where they come from.” Jedhan pointedly took out a book and began reading. “You may share this table until such a time as you wish to talk to me sensibly, or you may leave now.”
In the lull, a waiter edged a step forwards. “I am not hungry. I am certain my ward is. Fetch food, and water. Now, Archlector, I am frankly disappointed. You have been given the opportunity to speak to someone claiming to be from unknown lands on even terms, and you squander it. Had I come to you as a king, had I come to you as emissary of my nation, I would have been inviting your kind to fill in the gaps in their map I had revealed, and at this stage I would much rather merely remind you that you know less of the world than you think.”
“So you are a king then?”
“I am Gardes. That is all that matters.” He reached into the folds of his robes, and pulled out a cloth bag. “This should interest you more than who I am.”
Jedhan reached for the bag, and as she did her eyes finally slid off Gardes’ mask and onto Nhira, who was calmly, mechanically eating with no sign of particular enjoyment. There was a look of apprehension in the girl’s hazel eyes, a reticence to say something important. The moment Jedhan’s hand touched the bag it recoiled. Some force had shot up her arm and sent her brain reeling.
“This interests you, doesn’t it?”
She ignored Gardes and fought through the wrongness to open the bag. It contained a small green crystal on a chain that, in defiance of expectation, in rejection of the power that it gave off, refused to glow. “This is powerful. What is it?”
“I would like you to find that out.”
“Is it from your country?”
“It may be.”
“And you wish for me to identify it why? Do you not know what it does?”
“So once you have identified it you can tell the world what it does. And understand by knowing what I have in my possession why I came to you.”
“Is this a threat?”
“It is merely confirmation to the world that I, and my people, exist. If that threatens you…”
At some point, Jedhan could not quite say with any confidence when, the glass of iced mint-water that had been placed in front of Gardes when he sat down had been emptied. He leaned back in his chair and watched politely as Nhira laid down her cutlery.
“Take all the time you like, Archlector. We have, after all, survived a very long time with the world unaware of our existence, and I would hate for you to introduce us wrongly.”
She could have sworn, despite the fact her eyes had barely left his face, the sneer of anger on his mask had curved back around into a supercilious smile of victory.