Puppet Dancers - Novel

03/06/2014
Puppet Dancers

Puppet Dancers is available in electronic form.

It's a novel about a dance style. Known to Baguetelians as the robotic swerve and to Margolians as the puppet dance, its history is veiled in legend, but strange events uncovered by data analysts will reveal its true function, beyond Baguetelians' ironic imitation of laboratory robots or Margolians' nostalgia of lost empires.



Puppet Dancers Extract

Prologue

Flashing, bright, colored lights that travel over and reflect off a polished dance floor, in an otherwise dark room. If Fidiory were to propose a metaphor for the world’s beginning, this would be it. It implies that the world was made to show off for an audience: a hypothetical that heightens the metaphor’s beauty and power.

He feels harmonious on a dance floor. He feels timeless, removed from the universe’s eddies. When he dances alone, he imagines being watched: it makes him perform at a higher level. In such moments, he believes in free agency, convinced that his actions are more than the mere implementation of prerecorded reflexes and conditioned responses.

This is a universal scene to him. It evokes ancestral memories that go beyond humankind’s sole focus for millennia, the struggle for survival.

A stage.

Plunged in a vast darkness.

It speaks of a distant past. It doesn’t just remind: it re-embodies, by touching on a time before mind, before brain, before awareness and sentient thought. It points to the stage that is space and the dancer that is planet Earth, engulfed in the surrounding void, spinning under the glare of the sun and the stars, twirling around its lone satellite the moon, like a prop on an invisible gravitational tether. This is the first dance: the astral dance. Though no one really remembers it, people replay it, injecting it with the specifics of their physique, with their histories, and above all their music, that hauntingly inexplicable, rhythmic, scale-abiding folly.

Fidiory takes the stage first in the robotic swerve. His forearms are rigidly set at right angles to his upper arms. His hands are open and his fingers splayed out.

His shoulders rise and fall. They pump, synchronized to the surges blaring from loudspeakers just off the stage. His feet glide over the floor, mimicking the way a robot walks, the way it will advance by minute firings of hidden pistons that jerk the body onward. His chest suddenly decelerates and his head flops forward, a delayed wave that shoots up from his feet up to his hands.

This is the irony of the robotic swerve. It is the purposefully fake action of a human imitating a robot imitating a human. Fidiory had to work at it for years to get it right, to perfect the closest, most stilted imitation possible of a mechanical behavior that is in itself a bad emulation of what his own body can naturally do effortlessly, organically: execute those fluid human movements that he was born to do, the mode of operation inscribed in his genetic code, perfected by millions of years of evolution, that somehow culminates by paradoxically setting itself aside to resemble, as closely as possible and for the duration of the dance, the way a robot moves.

After a few moments of thrusting his hips mechanically upwards to each side, he is joined onstage by Xan, whose movements are his mirror image. Though their physical attributes are fairly different, the symmetry of their movement suffices to uphold the illusion of a mirror reflection, this one not ironic so much as self-deprecating: a conscious, directed effort at silliness that forces respect by the weight of its apparent preparation and the simple fact of doing it on purpose.

The music picks up a notch, both accelerating and increasing in volume. The onstage lights brighten. In the initial astral metaphor this evokes a phase change: the planet’s trajectory is locked into some larger satellite that will inexorably draw it spiraling into its heat and light, the swallowing of a celestial body promising a bang and fireworks. Fidiory and Xan, side by side, transition from symmetric to identical movements. The music winds down and launches into one last tunnel of tightly-looped percussion and frenetically wailing high notes, then ends. Fidiory and Xan assume an ending pose: a portrait hinting at complex relations subtending their bond, a snapshot of unexpressed dissent, of opportunities regretfully set aside and forgotten in order to establish their partnership and allow it to blossom.

The audience applauds. Scattered at first then swelling, but politely so. Fidiory glances in the judges’ direction, hoping to get a live reaction, but their eyes are tactfully downcast. In any case, he needs no assistance in gauging their performance: above average but not stellar, maybe top twenty-two percent. Fidiory and Xan leave the stage, making room for the competition’s next performance.

...

Unshowered, still a little sweaty, they sit in the audience, watching the other entries from seats reserved for the contestants. A man and a woman executing an energetic couple’s dance, gliding and spinning, somersaulting over one another. Fidiory fails to see what is ironic about their dance and looks down at his copy of the contest program to read the corresponding description. Xan is sighing throughout, reacting to some implied message that doesn’t register for Fidiory. There are knowing, supercilious smiles on the faces of people in the audience, so he supposes it makes some kind of reference that he can’t find in the program description.

The next performance consists of a line of men dressed up in armor, doing a traditional battle dance. They dance with stern discipline, showing no facial emotion at all. The typical demeanor of folk dancers, people who are steeped in a tradition that they have promised to uphold and are now demonstrating onstage, deeply investing it with the sentiments that befit ambassadors of their country and culture.

For all the complexity of their contortions and the acrobatic efficiency with which they interweave, fall and jump over one another, their gestures are stilted, wooden. “They don’t own this dance”, muses Fidiory as he observes their intricate patterns and focuses on one face in particular: an older man whose movement is listless, though he is hopping and contorting as energetically as the rest of them.

“I’ve had enough of this,” whispers Xan, before getting up and executing a bashful bow/walk as he shuffles toward the aisle, hunched over and trying not to bump too many knees. Xan reaches the aisle, then straightens up and walks out of the hall. Fidiory remains slouched down in his seat and watches to the end of the war dance, taking note of how complex the dancers’ armor is, the patterns, plates and clasps a mixture of martial pragmatism and artisan showmanship, still fabricated to this day in the name of pride and tradition. He leaves after that, looking for Xan at the bar.

...

The bar is huge, as big if not bigger than the show hall. Fidiory spots Xan at a table by a wall whose windows overlook lake waters below, nearby the hotel. Xan is sitting very straight, turned toward the windows, his face illuminated by the pale light that drifts in through them.

“Battle dance got you scared?” asks Fidiory as he pulls a chair.

Xan stirs but doesn’t immediately answer.

“This is a nice resort” he replies in a quiet voice. “Did you notice there are people swimming?”

Fidiory squints and looks out the window at the lake. “It does seem like some bathers have waded out pretty far into the waters,” he muses.

“No,” answers Xan. “They’re swimming. Actually floating and moving through the water. And they’re not touching the bottom.”

“Wow. Really? Some people have no fear.”

Seen from this far up, from the tenth floor of the hotel resort, the swimmers/bathers are difficult to focus on, but they do seem horizontal in the water and moving along the placid lake surface. The two dance partners watch them, transfixed, fascinated.

“How is such a thing possible?” whispers Xan. His voice is inflected with awe. Fidiory shakes his head, clinging to the notion that no one is swimming, it just looks that way. Xan abandons himself to the sudden sensation of lightness that has engulfed and transported him since he sat at the table and looked out the window.

“They’re like birds in the water.”

“You mean fish.”

“No, birds.”

Birds in the water. Semantically, it’s unsound, but it gets the job done conveying Xan’s sense of inspiration. Fidiory glances at his watch.

“They’ll be announcing the winners in another hour,” he says. Xan shrugs, still looking out the window.

“Who knows, maybe we did better than we think we did.”

“We did exactly as well as we think we did. It doesn’t matter how well we placed.”

“Well... I’d be happy to place anyway. I don’t know why. I guess I just want a prize.”

“What for? To hang it on your apartment wall? To show your guests?”

A pause, during which Fidiory nods at Xan’s acidic tone, noting the menacing undercurrent.

“No, just to remember that, at this point in space and time, we were among the best dancers – “

“Best ironic dancers …”

“Whatever, among the best -”

“Well, it’s not whatever, it’s ironic

“OK, what’s your point, Xan?”

“I don’t have a point. You’re the one making a point. I’m just pointing out the flaws in your reasoning process.”

Xan leaves.

Fidiory remains at the table and orders a drink. He is miffed and glowers at his surroundings. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands, so he lays them on the table in front of him and drums his fingers on it. He hates to appear inactive or unoccupied.

Looking out the window, shortly, he spots Xan on the slim crescent of beach pressed against the lake below. Seen from this far up, Xan is so small that he is recognizable from the color of his clothes rather than posture or physiology. Xan has approached the water and appears to be addressing the other bathers. “That’s it,” thinks Fidiory, “just like that. He’s found himself a new activity.” He tries, from this distance, to guess at what’s being said, information exchanges, hints at their partnership’s breaking points.

1

Fidiory

I can pinpoint with laser accuracy (fact : a laser isn’t actually accurate, or rather precise, as its ray necessarily diverges even at its narrowest - this is the uncertainty principle) to the exact moment my partnership with Xan came to an abrupt end and he began his long, unnatural obsession with swimming.

Xan ended it that day, and I hadn’t expected it. In retrospect, he had never shown himself to be a passive or overly conciliatory person, but I’d come to expect that of him because it was somehow easier that way. When people follow you into places you don’t imagine them going otherwise, you project motivations onto them that are all your own. I admire Xan for proving me wrong and leaving. There’s power in that, in being the one who calls an end to a common adventure.

From the bar with the window overlooking the lake at Fandoun resort I watched him, a barely recognizable speck down below approaching the water and speaking to another speck, a female speck, the speck that would eventually become his wife and bear his children.

Xan’s attachment to the puppet dance came from a different place than mine. To Xan, first and foremost, the puppet dance was not at all ironic. It wasn’t a way of being clever, it wasn’t a wink; it held no humorous component at all. Rather, it was a transposition of an old Margolian thing, a ritual that Margolians execute by the light of campfires, a reenactment of an ancient legend. He had told me about this legend in the middle of a conversation we’d been having about universal gestures and forms at a time when he was a friendlier version of himself, curious and indulgent.

Men like Xan have a switch, a kind of trigger that gets pulled and they retract into a radically individualistic worldview. It happens very suddenly and then they no longer recognize their friends. They then focus on their differences, their divergence from what they see as their own personal normalcy, and they pull away from people and habits and look for some new, all-encompassing mission with which to invest their life.

Men like Xan will, in the space of an instant, go from being a good friend to looking upon you as a total stranger. That’s what happened. We had just gotten off the stage following a performance of our robotic swerve/puppet dance interpretation. We hadn’t been particularly good and our choreography wasn’t too inspired, but we weren’t bad either and at that stage we were still improving. Xan, however, felt ridiculous after that performance and no longer had to will to sustain the endeavor, so he quit. He just got up from the table where we were having a pleasant post-performance drink and left, heading straight to the elevator, down to the ground floor, out the back door, toward the lake where he was drawn to the bathers, those whom we had just witnessed from the tenth story bar window, who appeared to be swimming.

Xan comes from a land without lakes or ocean. Of one those countries that have always depended on trading with neighbor countries that have sea access. The very idea of swimming struck him as scary, awesome, and probably magical.

In his native Margolia, the puppet dance has existed for centuries. Margolians call it the dance of pleading warriors and the only thing ironic about it is its name (pleading warriors).

Margolian legend has it that once upon a time, some mythical monster, a hybrid creature mixing elements of snake, slug, horse, and miscellaneous, all blown up to gigantic proportion in blatant disregard of the principles of evolution, (as in, how would such a creature feed itself?), also sentient, very mean, having an eerily logical mind combined with a warped sense of humor, and to top it all off an unpronounceable name that is conveniently pronounceable in Margolian.

So this creature, let’s call it creature X, was threatening the kingdom and demanded payment of a tribute in the form of the emperor’s daughter. What creature X could possibly want of a human girl of imperial descent is not specified and I’m not sure anyone would buy the reason if it were. Nevertheless, creature X demanded that the emperor give up his only daughter and deliver her to him. It furthermore indicated, in no uncertain terms, that it would negotiate only with the emperor himself. So here lies the dilemma, and in the dilemma the opportunity for the Margolian emperor to show his mettle, his character, his ruse and cunning, because sending the emperor to negotiate with creature X is, of course, a great risk of him not coming back and leaving the empire essentially headless.

Creature X, of course, like all mythical monsters, is fickle as well as logical and is known to impose cruel conditions solely for its personal, unpredictable amusement. So the emperor is loath to go himself, or in any case his counselors advise against it and admonish him to send someone in his stead, like a counselor or a general. These men are discarded out of hand though, because none of them could pass themselves off as an emperor. Who then? Some skilled diplomat? Perhaps an ambassador? No. In the process of finding a body double for the emperor, to go face a monster born of a time long, long before man, capable of effortlessly discerning tricks and traps tended by primitive human minds, bearing the wisdom of eons, a timeless, immortal creature, one thing becomes patently obvious: even if one could find a suitable replacement for the emperor in his mission to negotiate for the life of his daughter, it would be simply impossible to admit that such a replacement were even feasible.

It would be admitting that the emperor is replaceable, which can’t even be conceptually played with. One does not simply replace an emperor.

What, then? How to face creature X and exchange information enough to agree, if any agreement is even in the cards, on a course of action?

If the answer was staring anyone in the face, that person didn’t come forward in any capacity. The Margolian empire, much like any other empire, has an emperor who enjoys power, and by extension: inflicting the consequences of that power on his subjects. It never hurts an emperor, after all, to have a reputation for blood-thirstiness. So people in his vicinity aren’t the most proactive and for the most part invest the lump of their efforts into not getting noticed.

The counselors, on the other hand, don’t have this option, and as the appointed time for facing creature X draws closer, the Margolian people resign themselves to the notion that they are in for some kind of fight, against a foe that is imbued with godlike capacities, and the outcome doesn’t appear favorable at all.

The counselors grasp at straws. One such straw that they can all agree upon is sorcery. The only way to beat a godlike foe, they reason, is by harnessing supernatural forces.

A powerful sorcerer of one of the peripheral kingdoms of the empire, let’s call him Sorcerer Y, has had his name mentioned in high circles, the circular amplification effect of which has brought his name to the emperor’s ears, a few times over, enough to grab his attention.

The emperor decides to seek out this sorcerer and have him brought to the court to provide possibilities of solving the situation with the aid of sorcery, Sorcerer Y’s cumulative lore having been handed down through generations of sorcerers, not necessarily through parental links but often so, all this wisdom and knowledge intimately bound to the geological and ecological history of that far-flung kingdom from which he hails, which has been a component of the Margolian empire since the conquests of the current Margolian emperor’s great-grandfather brought it into the fold. The emperor is showing the imperial mark of wisdom that is a strong character trait of the Margolian people and consists of using any and every resource at one’s disposal to reach the ends that one has set for oneself.

The emperor thus dispatches a small group of loyal subjects: a few soldiers, a diplomat or two, translators maybe, and lesser sorcerers, to meet sorcerer Y and escort him back to the imperial court so as to reap his advice on the grievous situation with creature X.

Only, sorcerer Y doesn’t feel like coming to Margolia. Sorcerers have a long, detailed, ancestral memory, and this one harbors bitter, resentful memories of the Margolian conquest.

It’s not that other inhabitants of the kingdom have forgotten, it’s just that the sorcerers are the heirs of the code, the set of beliefs, understandings, models and mindsets that have nourished and honed their art since the birth of the kingdom. It comes with a burden of (nationalistic, nativist) pride and a profound attachment to origins, of which Margolia is not considered a part and must therefore, somewhere down the line of time, be expelled once and for all.

The name of the kingdom from which hailed Sorcerer Y is left out of the story. The Margolian Empire was a historically brief and small affair and what counted as a ‘kingdom’ back then would arguably be considered a province today, maybe even a province of current Margolia.

Sorcerer Y violently declines the offer to come back to Margolia and help the emperor out of his predicament. He basically tells the envoys to go to hell. The envoys aren’t exactly surprised, they know the historical score, and moreover they expect sorcerers to act entitled whenever something important is asked of them. So when Sorcerer Y spits and curses at them, they smile and shrug, and through their polite smiles and clenched teeth they tell the sorcerer: of course, we understand, you don’t like us, but you will come with us anyway, so if you’re going to pack anything you’d better do it quickly, before we stick you in that cage you see mounted on a trailer behind that set of horses we pulled in on which no one was riding. They tell him: you choose, either come with us on a horse or in the cage.

Sorcerer Y chooses the cage. Or rather: it is chosen for him and he is unceremoniously packed into it. As they travel back to Margolia, he is sullenly silent.

In the imperial court, the emperor is eagerly expecting them, surrounded by his most trusted counselors, his generals, various high officials, and of course his family, including a beautiful and neurotic daughter whose natural tendency toward anxiety has only been heightened by fate singling her out for (what people are whispering will most probably be) a bloody and horrible end.

The sorcerer is led in, in chains. Only: big surprise! He’s not there.

This is not meant metaphorically, not a suggestion that sorcerer Y is there in body but mentally wandering in a parallel universe of his own making in which Margolia never invaded his native kingdom. He is truly absent.

The thing that is led before the emperor, the bodily presence rattling chains, exuding a strong, unwashed stench, emitting a rasping breathing sound, is a clothed, booted, but empty skin.

It moves, it reacts to stimuli. When questioned, it emits talking noises from the vicinity of its dry, wrinkled throat, but it is not human, not truly alive. The emperor realizes this at the same time as all of the other people present in his court, and when he orders the sorcerer’s hat to be removed, under the sun’s glare the imitation human shrivels at the surface, acquires a hideous, mummified appearance with bulging eyeballs that elicit a shocked intake of breath from the assembly. Then, the rasping voice emanating from its throat shocks them even more by addressing the emperor with familiarity, in a way no emperor has been addressed in a good few generations. The voice is mechanical and inhuman, but the words are those that one might use to insult a neighbor whose property has encroached on one’s own.

The emperor, unfazed, questions the creature, whose answers indicate that it shares the intelligence of Sorcerer Y and speaks on his behalf.

If electronics had existed in ancient Margolia one might say that the creature is remotely controlled, that there is some kind of spatial relay that sends the creature’s perceptions from far away to Sorcerer Y in his peripheral kingdom and simultaneously receives instructions on what to say and how to move.

The emperor expresses his anger. He threatens to annihilate the small kingdom, and as he roars, he realizes that this remotely controlled, humanlike puppet is the beginning of a solution to his problem. Give me the secret to this distant voice, he tells the creature. Teach it to my sorcerers, and you will be richly rewarded.

A sorcerer has no need of riches, the creature rasps. A sorcerer wants freedom for his people.

An impromptu negotiation then takes place, at the end of which the sorcerer’s kingdom is promised certain tokens of autonomy, and the emperor is promised the gift of Distant Voice, which should allow him to face the ancient beast stirring in some somber cavern not far from the imperial fortress, fidgeting impatiently but nevertheless respecting the delay it has granted the emperor for the delivery of his daughter.

There’s a catch: Sorcerer Y will deliver the secret to one person and one person only: to the emperor himself. The emperor is given the opportunity to learn the Distant Voice, but for that he must go to sorcerer Y. Alone. The counselors, of course, vehemently oppose the idea on grounds that the emperor’s going out there represents a prime risk of getting assassinated, and as the voices echo and amplify the wise, worried outbursts of the most esteemed thinkers of the empire, an odd sense of déjà-vu descends on the assembly. The emperor, going alone to face sorcerer Y? How is that better than going to face creature X? If anything, it’s worse. Creature X, after all, for reasons all its own (and go figure what can possibly go through the reasoning processes of an organism so ancient that it may or may not have a brain, maybe some kind of distributed mind), doesn’t care about the emperor at all. It just wants his daughter.

The emperor, oblivious to the swarm of protests from his counselors, chooses to go. Has he come to trust sorcerer Y after just a short conversation? Is he purposefully putting himself in danger to expiate some ancestral fault, to express regret for the way the people of Sorcerer Y’s small kingdom were treated? Or is he fascinated by this strange phenomenon, this projected specter of a human mind, this remote representation with supernatural overtones? Whatever his motive may be, he goes, giving the order to all, in front of the magical and scary-looking ambassador, that he is not to be followed in any way, nor should any action be engaged against the people of the small kingdom, but all must await his return. He calls for a horse and supplies, then takes off, following the strange creature out of the imperial fortress.

In the court, the people wait. The imperial princess counts the days left in the projected showdown with creature X, and frets. An entire empire sits headless, rudderless until the return of its leader. Days turn into weeks, and the empire grows restless. Voices begin to whisper that the emperor may not return. The princesses’ fate is debated, most people simply writing her off.

And then, the night before the scheduled meet with creature X, a weary emperor rides back into the imperial fortress. He is alone, accompanied by no creature other than his own trusted horse. This is the point that those who doubt his acquisition of the Distant Voice make when they shake their heads gravely and assert that the emperor will just have to get up and go himself if he wants to save his daughter. But they are wrong.

The morning of the meet, a creature sidles out of the emperor’s chambers. It gives orders, in the same rasping voice that the court heard some weeks before, to be clothed. Its appearance is mostly human, but with something altogether inhuman in its eyes and unblinking stare.

The servants clothe it from head to foot, taking special care to cover it so as to let no sunlight attain the skin and wrinkle it as happened to the sorcerer’s puppet in the imperial court.

The puppet walks out of the fortress under the silently awed, fearful gazes of its inhabitants, with an assured, if somewhat mechanical, stride. It looks straight ahead. It moves with economical gestures, a calculated efficiency that calls attention to the way regular humans don’t walk.

A normal person, if watched, will walk with the consciousness of it. He or she will fill his or her walk with subtext, hints and messages in the way the arms swing (or are stuffed into pockets), how shoulders are held high or stooped, head: bobbing or shifting, hands: clasped, or fingers splayed, or slightly open, back: arched or stooped, legs: swallowing long strides or small, diffident steps, or equally small nimble ones, etc. A person walking is a rich monologue that conveys various degrees of social status, outlook, potential to menace, invitation to friendliness, and so many other indicators of character that are totally absent from this puppet that only walks to move forward, the complex rhythmic synchronization of members serving one purpose and one purpose only: to propel the body and get it from point A to point B.

It occurs to the counselors, who watch the creature walk up to the fortress doors and down the road leading out of it, that a puppet body is, in many respects, the finest vessel one could expect of a negotiator: it betrays no emotion, no intention, it allows the negotiator to coolly engage in a discussion that rests on logic alone.

It is an ancient equivalent to wearing sunglasses.

Out it goes, sent by a man on a mission to save his family from a force both bewildering and supernatural. It walks over hills, through rivers, across forests. It is being guided from afar by the emperor who knows the route because, long ago, as a child with his siblings, he traveled this same path in exploring the world he was later to inherit. Creature X is waiting in a cavern he himself explored with a brother on a bold, adventurous day long ago.

In a sense, creature X is a metaphorical embodiment of unresolved childhood issues that have surfaced in the life of a grown man who has reached a sort of crossroads.

The emperor’s puppet reaches creature X’s lair, and is greeted by a thunderous voice, like great rocks being crushed, that challenges the puppet by asking that ageless question: “who are you?”

The puppet, in its rasping, scrissorlike voice devoid of any discernible undertone, simply answers: “I am emperor, child of Margolia and ruler over all worlds known and as yet unknown.”

The arrogant answer of a ruler of men who knows no other way of addressing anyone.

Creature X answers by descending on the puppet and ripping it to shreds. Not far away, on the imperial fortress, the emperor breathes a sigh of relief at being still alive and silently congratulates himself for finding this indirect means of facing his supernatural foe. The day passes, the emperor does not leave his chambers and receives no one save his worried daughter who needs to be reassured multiple times during the day that she will indeed not be given out to creature X.

No one in the imperial court has any knowledge of what has transpired between the puppet and creature X. They wait anxiously for a debrief session that does not take place. Day turns into night, and then morning. The sun rises over Margolia and a second puppet emerges from the imperial chambers, heads for the fortress gates in front of staring people frozen in their tracks, and leaves the fortress through the same route as the one used by the other puppet the day before. It traverses hills, rivers, forests, whatever, and comes to the lair where creature X booms at it: “who are you?”

Such a pregnant question, with so many different possible answers. Is it about identity? Is it a question about origins, or destiny? Is it an investigation into one’s nature, or a call to list one’s socio-cultural composition? In this case, of course, there is an element of menace, an unspoken threat that hinges on the ignominious fate suffered by yesterday’s puppet, the notion that there is a right or wrong answer, and that if you give the wrong answer, you die.

The puppet answers: “I am he who was here before you yesterday, he who cannot be killed by one such as you, one who would know what you want with my daughter.”

It’s the wrong answer once again, and creature X throws itself on the puppet and rips it to shreds, even more violently than the day before. More violently, perhaps, because today the puppet has succeeded in making creature X doubt its strength, as it sees that the puppet is the perfect copy of yesterday’s puppet, so perhaps it is the same, raised from the dead by magical means? Does the emperor command some power that is superior to that of creature X?

Of course, it doesn’t prevent creature X from ripping furiously into the hapless puppet, with fangs, talons, and spiked tail. All the killing implements that nature stumbled upon during the long climb of evolution, creature X had found first. Creature X was tearing into and through living organisms entire geological eras before it became cool to do so. It is a salient point made in Margolian legend, that creature X was interested in a Margolian princess, that in one form or another, somehow, its happiness and prosperity depended on this human life of Margolian origin.

The day passes, but this time, before night has arrived, as the sun sets forebodingly over the edge of the Margolian mountain chain that faces the imperial fortress, over a vast expanse of desert rock and sparse bush (there are forests at lower altitudes not far from the fortress, but the higher altitudes are basically desert), a third puppet appears from the imperial chambers. The emperor has received no one all day, not even his daughter, whose anxiety is muffled by what is now pure and paralyzing fear, and who keeps herself shut up in her own chambers in the rather vain hope that everyone will just forget about her. Her thought pattern involves a good deal of self-pity and she quite mistakenly thinks that her life would have been much better had she been born a simple servant.

The puppet goes, watched by the gathered people of the fortress, who in this very short period of time have developed a system of alerts and relays so that mostly everyone is warned of its passage. It goes with its mechanical cool, its insectlike drive, out the fortress gates and down the road. It reaches the cavern.

“Who are you?” booms the voice of creature X as the puppet enters at its unhurried, unworried pace.

“A voice of Margolia, eternally standing, and I should be the one asking the questions.”

Wrong answer. Shoot. Rip/stab/gnaw.

This time, the puppet tries to defend itself. It draws two swords, one for each hand, and aims for the countless eyes of creature X as its multiple heads descend upon it from wildly different directions. It lasts out all of a few fractions of a second before succumbing to the formidable, ancient predator.

Back in the fortress, the emperor calls his aides into his chambers. He is exhausted, haggard, his face fraught with tired strain. He gives instructions to round up a group of Margolia’s fittest men: the wrestling champions, the strongest archers, the fleetest runners. He has them led to his chambers for a lightning training session. The men arrive shortly thereafter, and behind the closed doors of the imperial chambers, they are soon trained in the strange dance of the Distant Voice.

The emperor doesn’t know how much time he has before creature X will decide to leave its lair and descend in fury on the fortress. No one knows why it hasn’t already done so. The thing is invincible, isn’t it? That being the case, it could take the princess by brute force if it wanted to. The fact that it hasn’t done so hints that it isn’t totally invincible, even if it is remarkably powerful, and that some final bluff could arguably work to allay it indefinitely. But time is running out, however much of it there may be left. So the training session is short, sweet, and pretty ineffective.

The diminutive puppet army, a ragtag band of fifty or so creatures, emerges from the imperial chambers a few short days later. Mixed in with the puppets are actual soldiers, those who failed so thoroughly at building or guiding their puppet that their punishment consists of acting as the puppet.

The people gathered to watch the procession of puppets from inner chamber to fortress gates wonder aloud why the emperor is sending puppets instead of his real army. It was one thing to dupe creature X with a puppet representing the emperor; it is quite another to send (mostly) puppets instead of men.

For one, the puppets aren’t there for representation purposes: creature X is expecting the emperor, not a band of soldiers. Also, and just as obviously, the emperor doesn’t and shouldn’t care about expending soldiers, because that is their purpose, and going to battle with little or no hope of return is what they do.

The people wonder this alongside another glaringly obvious assessment: that this is the ugliest procession of puppets they could ever have imagined. The emperor’s puppets had weird eyes and a mechanical gait as sole differentiating factors from a real human body. These puppets, though, are clearly the work of amateurs. The bodies are lopsided, misshapen, half finished. They are missing mouths, have miniature cylinders for fingers. They look like real live implementations of children’s drawings. The actual soldiers interspersed in their midst look like gods in comparison.

Even more glaring is their gait. They stumble, they walk stiffly on unbending joints, they swing left and right, awkwardly balancing themselves with arms jutted out at almost right angles. Frequently, they fall forward and sprawl out heavily over their whole length. Those that fall bring down one or two others with them as their panicked limbs strike out blindly and flail at any standing object that might prevent their fall. Once down, they precipitate the fall of those behind them that step over them unaware and trip, or attempt to swerve too abruptly and lose their footing, sending ripples of instability through the entire collective moving procession.

Once down, their efforts to get up are pitiful to watch. They start by maneuvering onto an all-fours stance, then put down a knee and try to push off the ground with their hands while extending the legs. Often they fall right back down again, putting all others in their vicinity at risk of falling, too. If they don’t fall outright, they spend a few moments swaying back and forth, left-right and front-back, and only when the pendulum motion abates and ceases do they begin to move again.

Those watching are cringing from this pathetic display. Some, too, are laughing. As it turns out, the cringe sentiment is prime material for transitioning to laughter in turn, because the laughter catches and spreads like wildfire, rapidly propagating through the onlooking crowd. The roar of snorts and guffaws accompanies the motley gathering of make-believe soldiers as they stumble and trip their way to the fortress gates and through, making the slowest of progress on the road leading away toward the hills and forests. They pick up a little speed on the way but not enough to reach the creature’s lair before creature X itself has left the lair on its own way to the fortress. No one can know creature X’s mind, but suffice to acknowledge that a) it demanded a sacrifice of the Margolian people, one that would cost them where it hurt and b) it offered some sort of respite should the emperor offer a valid answer to the “who are you” question about his identity, and by extension that of the Margolian people.

That a stumbling bunch of mock-marching dolls is on its way to meet this formidable creature is evidence that the emperor has probably screwed up, and though back at the fortress people are still joking about the puppet procession, the laughter masks a sentiment of real fear, borne by the apprehension that creature X is probably by now descending on the fortress, which is powerless to defend itself.

Somewhere between the fortress and the cavern, creature X meets the puppet army. Creature X advances by leaps measuring a Margolian land unit.

A Margolian land unit is the distance that a man will walk while breathing in and out thirty times. This is recalibrated each time there is a newly crowned emperor, whose first walk out of the palace would traditionally be measured by scribes listening intently to the emperor’s breath and then measuring the thirty breath’s distance on a length of silk cord. The cord is held in safekeeping and is be upheld as the standard according to which all distances in the empire are registered. Each time an emperor is crowned then, the whole measurement system changes. The Margolian word for ‘old’ is a short one with a clipped final consonant that can be repeated multiple times to staccato effect. Measures dating back to previous generations would be labeled ‘old-measure’, ‘old-old-measure’, ‘old-old-old-measure’ and so on, leaving cartographers and land surveyors to execute (what to them are) complicated acrobatic feats of mathematics converting between the land units of different generations, if they bother to convert at all (given that the measures are all approximately the same anyway).

Big leaps by creature X, then. Big, powerful, hungry lunges that would have sailed it straight over the puppet’s heads had it not seen them first. It lands in front of the first of them and booms, “Who are you?”

This creature was born before man walked the land of Margolia. It took no notice of such paltry creatures for ages and saw no intelligence in these primates worthy of any interest. It surpassed them in every way imaginable. And yet, to the ears of these puppets who are transmitting their perceptions to their controlling human counterparts holed up in the fortress, and to the ears of the unlucky, underqualified soldiers that accompany them, creature X’s voice sounds petulant. It sounds like it doesn’t understand why no one will answer such a simple question.

The puppets and soldiers look at one another, only realizing at this very instant that they have no appointed leader. If they did, it certainly wouldn’t be one of the soldiers, who are present by sole virtue of their incompetence, and as for the puppets: none of them have mastered the Distant Voice enough to control their puppet’s actual, physical voice. Talking is difficult. So no one answers.

Creature X, flustered, clearly expecting some specific answer to its repeated question, trying to make some kind of philosophical point and teach the humans something that transcends their worldview, reacts to their silence exactly as it did to the emperor’s puppets beforehand: through gross inflicted violence. The puppets defend themselves as best they can, with their clumsy gestures and erratic, sudden movements devoid of grace or focused intent. The soldiers do a little better, managing a sword swipe here and there and a few shot off arrows that graze the surface of creature X’s rough hide. One by one though, they are torn apart, dismembered between powerful jaws that bite through flesh and bone as easily as through water. After the first few fall, they attempt to scatter, banking on creature X losing interest in them individually, but creature X bounds upon them in rapid succession, tearing into them and leaving them no chance of escape.

When the last of the puppets and soldiers lies in bloody tatters at its feet, creature X sinks down and squats, seething in frustration. It experiences a bitter sensation in its stomach that it initially identifies as existential angst, then hones it further and guesses it might be indigestion. As another puppet appears over the edge of the rise ahead, and its graceful gait and self-assured stance signal that it is the emperor’s, creature X understands exactly what the sensation in its stomach represents: it has been poisoned.

The emperor’s puppet walks up to creature X and stands there silently. Creature X, already mourning the loss to the universe of such a highly evolved organism such as itself, voices its anguish at a strong volume that bellies its dying state. “Why...how?”

The emperor explains, “By accident. When you ate the first of my puppets, I felt your insides cringe, fleetingly as the puppet was digested in your insides, but enough to perceive that something in the composition of the puppet was thoroughly indigestible to you.”

A pause, then: “who am I? I am your end, ancient creature, as you in a sense have been my beginning.”

Creature X dies.

Since then, Margolians have enacted the puppet dance to reminisce on the beginnings of their greatest emperor, their most enduring legend. To them, there is nothing ironic about the puppet dance.

The story is supposed to illustrate the essence of what it means to be Margolian. It’s unclear if this essence is that Margolians are wise, tricky, lucky, persistent, or just indigestible.

...

Following our last performance, as we sat in the audience watching the other dancers, when the folk dancers in battle dress appeared on the stage, my guess is that Xan took one look at those battle dresses and immediately felt like a fraud and a traitor to his people’s longstanding tradition.