Ian and the Hunt for Carabas
by Anta Baku
Part 20 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
If you weren’t looking for it, you might not have noticed the difference in the little towns scattered around the portal, just inside of Fairyland. They were still peaceful and bucolic little villages, where you could have a nice afternoon talking to the villagers, or attending a festival, or shopping in a pig-run market. But I knew to look closely for signs of change, and I could see that it wasn’t just the markets the pigs were running anymore. Every town now had a pig official overseeing it, though they were circumspect. Every town had a few new motivational posters, featuring stylized pigs exemplifying the values the Pig Merchants’ Guild wanted to encourage in the general population.
The pigs weren’t replacing everyone else here, but they were taking over just the same. It was disconcerting. I had been expecting Richard to focus on military conquest, but these towns clearly hadn’t put up a fight. And I could see why they hadn’t. Very little about their lives had changed. They might have a few new taxes to pay, a few new community standards to keep up, but by and large they could just go on as if they weren’t being ruled by the Pig Merchants’ Guild at all.
That scared me. If Richard could just gobble up productive towns like this with no opposition, he was going to have a much easier time expanding his empire. And just then it seemed like Beth and I were the only ones particularly concerned about it.
Which didn’t stop me from having a job to do, especially since my boss was one of those who thought I was overreacting.
I had come back to these little towns to try to solve a mystery from when I was first exploring them. Everyone there had talked about an estate owned by the great Marquis of Carabas, but I had never been able to find it. Or him. The descriptions made it sound like a prime location for a cell tower, and I needed a quick win to keep ahead of Booker in our competition. I knew a lot more about getting around in Fairyland now, and I thought finding the Marquis would be a simple errand.
It didn’t go as well as I was expecting. Sure, it seemed like everyone in the towns knew all about the Marquis of Carabas, but somehow everyone gave me different directions to find his estate. Most places in Fairyland, if you know where you’re going, you can just walk there. But nobody’s descriptions were good enough, or nobody’s descriptions were accurate. Before long I felt like I was going in circles, which was just how it had gone the first time around.
By the time I got arrested I was almost glad for something new to be happening. It was a very polite sort of arrest, much more so than I would have expected from what I’d seen of the Pig Merchants’ Guild elsewhere. But maybe their power was more tenuous here, or maybe the head of this town was just a nice guy. A nice pig. Whatever.
So I wasn’t hauled before the Guild Administrator. It was more like I was politely informed that he wanted to see me, politely guided across town, and politely escorted into his office. Where he, of course, politely greeted me, which meant for once in this place I found out somebody’s name before they found out mine.
His name was Gjolli, and I only know how to spell his name because I’d heard of him before. I knew that he was a young and ambitious pig who had been in charge of a windmill project my friend Beth briefly worked on, in another kingdom. I also knew that Beth had exited that job in such a spectacular way that letting the Pig Merchants’ Guild know that I knew her was bound to be a bad idea.
I had been there for the conclusion, but I hadn’t met Gjolli, and he didn’t seem to know who I was. As far as he was concerned I was just a regular cell phone tower negotiator from the World of Chaos, and I was happy to let him go on thinking that.
“I hear you’re looking for the Marquis of Carabas,” he said.
“I am,” I told him. “I want to negotiate a business deal to put some of our equipment on his estate.”
“All estates in this region have been nationalized,” said Gjolli.
“And yet the people still seem to think that the Marquis of Carabas holds his.”
“Carabas has also been nationalized,” said Gjolli. “We just haven’t been able to get there to tell him about it yet.”
“You can’t find it either?”
“Not at this time,” said Gjolli. “I’m sure we will eventually. There’s a secret police unit in this region just to search for it. We administrators have been told to keep an eye out for any mention of the Marquis. That’s what drew my attention to you.”
“I don’t know where he is, either,” I said. “Turning me over to the secret police won’t do any good.”
“I wouldn’t do that in the first place,” said Gjolli. “I don’t approve of their tactics. A proper proletarian government should come from the will of the people, not from overpowering any hint of opposition. They shut down newspapers, they exile dissidents, they imprison fairy godmothers without trial. That’s not the way we should be doing things.”
“Should you really be talking like that?” I said.
“They’re not that powerful, not yet at least,” said Gjolli. “It’s still possible to believe in the true tenets of the Revolution. Hopefully it always will be.”
“So if you’re not going to turn me over to them, what do you want from me?” I asked.
“I want you to find the Marquis of Carabas.”
“That’s been harder than I expected,” I said.
“You will find him,” said Gjolli. “And when you do, you’ll report back to me and I will personally see to nationalizing his estate. I will be commended and the secret police will be discredited.”
“And what’s in it for me?” I asked.
“You will support the true values of the worker’s revolution,” said Gjolli.
“And also you’ll let me put my equipment on his estate,” I said.
“You care more about that then you do the fundamental rights of man?”
“In this case I do.”
“Oh, all right,” he said. “Find me the Marquis and I’ll let you do what you want.”
“What if the secret police get there first?” I asked.
“I’ve got an idea about that,” said Gjolli. “I can send a set of confusing orders to the secret police unit. They’ll have to double-check them with headquarters, and that will take some time. It won’t stop them, but it should give you a head start.”
“All right,” I said. I wasn’t sure I was really going to report back to him if I somehow found the Marquis, but there was no harm in agreeing to it. And if it looked like they really were going to be able to nationalize his estate, it would be good to have someone in the government on my side.
Of course, it would have been more helpful if Gjolli had been able to give me a clue where to look. Asking the townspeople had been fruitless, and I didn’t care to do any more of that. I probably should have just gone home and found some other myth to work on. But I was here, and I had a chance to get on the good side of one faction in the Pig Merchants’ Guild, so I thought I might as well stick around. Maybe I could wander through the countryside and stumble upon the Marquis of Carabas purely by chance.
Wandering through the countryside in Fairyland isn’t as easy as it is in the real world. If you start thinking about something specific, you end up there. So you either have to keep your mind clear, or you have to focus on some part of the countryside itself.
I’m not very good at keeping my mind clear, and just then I didn’t have time to start taking meditation classes. So instead I thought about crossroads. Crossroads in Fairyland come in a pretty standard formation. They’re always literal crosses, two roads intersecting each other at perfect right angles. And they always have signposts telling you what’s in each direction. I’m not sure who puts them up, because as far as I can tell nobody travels by following road signs. But a lot of things in Fairyland are like that.
I hoped that if I went to enough crossroads, one of them would have a sign leading me to Carabas. Then maybe if I just walked down that road, keeping my mind clear, I would be able to get there.
I went through a lot of crossroads, and as I went on they got weirder and weirder, but none of them ever showed me the way to Carabas. The first few had four signposts which told me that the roads led to pretty standard Fairyland locations. But gradually the signposts got stranger, and there stopped being four of them all the time. There was one pair of signs nailed to a big oak next to the crossroads, where one sign said “Take the other road to Bunbury” and the other sign said “Take the other road to Bunnybury.” I didn’t take either road, because neither of them sounded like a good place to put a cell node, and obviously neither one was Carabas.
There was another crossroads with nine signs pointing in all directions, though it still only had four roads. They claimed they were pointing to Boston, Seoul, Coney Island, San Francisco, Tokyo, Burbank, Death Valley, Toledo, and Decatur, and maybe they were, but since all of those places had cellular coverage already I didn’t bother finding out. I moved on quickly, because I had a feeling that if I stayed at that crossroads too long I might end up in the hospital.
When I got to one that had four signs all claiming the road went to San Jose, I was ready to give up. I wasn’t getting any closer to Carabas, and now I also had a song in my head. Besides, it was getting past lunchtime. Whatever time advantage Gjolli had gotten me by distracting the secret police was probably long gone, and at that point what I really wanted was a sandwich.
As I moved on I imagined a crossroads with a food truck festival, and it almost worked. I suppose my world hasn’t moved quite far enough into Fairyland yet for there to be food trucks, but there were market wagons, and somehow the ones at the next crossroads had bread and cheese and cured meats and mustard and pickles. There was a cute girl selling food out of one of the wagons, and I flirted with her a little bit as I taught her how to make a Cuban sandwich, which was fun for a little while but didn’t seem likely to go anywhere.
As I was eating my sandwich, a group of pigs came in, and I could tell that they were the secret police. It was pretty easy, because they were wearing jackets with the words “Secret Police” embroidered on them. I don’t think they quite understood the concept. The jackets also had their names sewn on the front.
Booker was with them, but at least he didn’t have a jacket. He was dressed in a neat suit like he usually was, and if he’d been traveling through crossroads all day you couldn’t have told it by the state of his dress. He spotted me and came over while the pigs were getting their sandwiches. I hope the cute girl didn’t try to convince them to try a Cuban. Pigs probably wouldn’t like that very much.
“Are you looking for the Marquis of Carabas?” Booker asked.
“I’m just here for the sandwiches,” I said. “Fairyland ham is the best, but you can hardly get it anywhere anymore.”
“Very funny,” he said. “We know you’re looking for the Marquis of Carabas, and we’re going to find him first.”
“You and your pig friends?
“Better than you and your pig friend,” he said. “What’s his name? Jolly?”
“Be careful with him, Ian,” said Booker. “I heard he got kicked out of his last job for hooking up with a human woman. And now he’s going up against the secret police. He’s on thin ice with the Guild.”
“Is that where you are now?” I said. “With the Guild?”
“That’s where power is going in Fairyland,” he said. “I want to be on the winning side.”
“You know what they are,” I said. “You were with me when we met Richard.”
“One government’s a lot like another,” said Booker. “Is he that much worse than the Princes he’s replacing? Soon this is all going to consolidate into one country, and being on the inside will make my job that much easier.”
“You really want this promotion that much?”
“Maybe you don’t need it, Ian, but I do.”
Suddenly I needed it a lot more. I wouldn’t have minded being subordinate to Booker, who I trained and who I thought was my friend. But the Booker who was a lackey to Richard III, who was willing to go along with that to get ahead, wasn’t someone I could handle being my boss. I wasn’t just going to find the Marquis of Carabas, I was going to find the Marquis of Carabas while his secret police were still getting mustard stains on their letter jackets.
That intention burned for about ten minutes before I realized I still had no idea where to look. Then I started thinking more about what Booker had been saying, and particularly what he had to say about Gjolli. I knew what Gjolli’s last job was, and I couldn’t help but think that he and Beth had been alone on it for most of an afternoon. If he had really been fired for having a fling with a human woman, it could hardly have been anyone else. That kingdom was almost entirely pigs.
She hadn’t mentioned anything like that to me, but she could have been embarrassed by it, or she could have just thought it was none of my business. And she wouldn’t have been wrong. But I definitely got the sense that she felt Gjolli had betrayed her somehow, or at least let her down. And it would explain how she had gone from wanting to join the new government of the Pig Merchants’ Guild to wanting to tear it down in the course of a single day.
I didn’t know where to find the Marquis of Carabas, but I definitely knew where to find Gjolli. I wasn’t sure if I was angry with him for hurting Beth, or angry with him for sleeping with Beth, but I was definitely angry, and I figured I could decide why after I made him start talking.
If you’ve been following along you may not believe this, but every once in a while I do something smart, or at least something less stupid than I might have done. This was one of those times. Somehow I managed to think about how I was thinking, just for a moment, and realize that raging after Gjolli was a very bad idea. Instead I managed to find myself a nice, quiet, shady bit of woods to stew in for a while. If there had been a Big Bad Wolf in it he would have been in trouble, but for once in Fairyland this seemed to just be a regular, non-dramatic stand of trees.
I sat under one and let my brain go where it wanted to go, which wasn’t any more pleasant than you might expect. How dare he sleep with my Beth! I was the one who rescued her from her horrible Prince, I was the one who took her in when there was nowhere for her to go in Fairyland, I was the one who deserved to be going to bed with her. He’d just come in and taken that from me, and he wasn’t even a human, he was a pig, and how could she want a pig more than me? He’d probably used his Communist rhetoric to take advantage of her, she was a sucker for that sort of thing. And if he’d hurt her so much that she wouldn’t even tell me about it, me, who should have been her closest friend, then I’d figure out how to turn him into one of those delicious Fairyland hams.
I want to be clear that I’m not proud of those thoughts. They’re the ones I had, and I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. One thing I am proud of, though, is that I sat there and spewed them at the empty woods instead of at any of the people involved. I really don’t like forcing people to tell me what an entitled jerk I am, and boy would I have deserved it at that point.
Beth didn’t owe me anything, and certainly not any of that. For that matter, neither did Gjolli. But however much I might feel like I deserved to be Beth’s friend and lover, I could tell that feeling was wildly inappropriate. As far as she was concerned I was just some guy from a strange universe who had offered to let her sleep on his couch when her life fell apart around her. And I’m sure she was appropriately, limitedly, grateful for that, but it was really obvious that I didn’t occupy a similar place in her mind to the place she held in mine. And as much as I had wished that we would become close in our time living together, I had to admit that we really hadn’t. And that it had mostly been my fault.
She was willing to talk about what a mess her life was, and what she wanted out of the future. She was willing to talk about all of the ways government was really important to her, and I didn’t pay attention because it wasn’t important to me. I didn’t reciprocate, because I didn’t really have anything that seemed worth reciprocating with. My life wasn’t a giant mess, but it wasn’t much worth talking about either, and I’ve never had much of an idea what I want out of the future.
So it’s no wonder that we weren’t anything to each other. I wasn’t really there to be anything to anybody, however much I might want to be. And I had no right to pretend that I was by going out and getting into her business. Beth could handle herself. A lot better than I could, when I finally came to think about it. If she had something with Gjolli, a fling or a grudge or both, it sure wasn’t mine to get in the middle of without being asked. And sitting in this grove of self-pity was keeping me from doing anything useful.
Still, when I went back to the towns, I didn’t go to the one Gjolli was running. Best not to open myself to too much temptation. And it was a good thing I did, because the town I went to instead happened to be the one the Marquis of Carabas was visiting at the same time. The townspeople were excited, and I heard about it from the moment I hit the outskirts of town. I hurried into the town center, because I knew it couldn’t be long before the secret police found out as well.
In fact they were there before me, but I was relieved to see that they hadn’t arrested the Marquis yet. While everyone knew he was in town, nobody seemed to know exactly where. Or what he looked like, or what he was wearing. They’d all heard it from someone who’d heard it from someone, and usually that second someone had heard it from a cat. As I heard more of these stories, I noticed that while the Marquis of Carabas maintained a total lack of descriptive detail, there was one thing that was consistently mentioned about the cat: a pair of gaudy leather boots.
I figured that finding the cat was going to be the first step in finding the Marquis. He seemed to be at the heart of all of the stories, and in a town this size, a cat walking around in a pair of fancy boots couldn’t be too hard to find.
Of course, if he had been hard to find, I might have been the only one who managed it. I tracked him down just fine, not too far outside the market, and chased him down an alley. But I chased him right into the arms of Booker, who was waiting for him at the other end.
On the other hand, not having to try to hang onto a raging cat was something of a relief. Even with only his front feet worth of claws to use, he was a handful for Booker, and prevented him from getting away before I could catch up to them. If I couldn’t interrogate the cat on my own, at least I could make sure I was there when Booker and the secret police did it.
Booker finally got him subdued. “Where is the Marquis of Carabas?” he demanded.
“Gracing this town with his noble presence,” said the cat.
“Yes, but where?” said Booker.
“In the most exclusive of company,” said the cat.
“Whose?” said Booker, getting exasperated. “What does he look like? What is he wearing?”
“He’s the handsomest and wealthiest man in the land,” said the cat.
“Yes but how do I find him?” Booker almost shouted.
“He’s standing right behind you,” said the cat.
Booker turned, and the cat took the opportunity to jump out of his arms. But of course I knew there was no one behind Booker, and I was ready for it. I caught up the cat, and got a few scratches for my efforts.
“That was a lie,” I said. “But it wasn’t the only one, was it?”
“No,” said the cat.
“You lie a lot, don’t you, cat?”
“I suppose I do,” he said.
“And the Marquis of Carabas?”
“Oh, he doesn’t lie at all,” said the cat. “He’s honest and true.”
“You know what I mean,” I said.
“All right,” said the cat. “I made him up.”
“What?” said Booker.
“We’ve both been looking everywhere for the Marquis,” I said. “Why haven’t we been able to find him?”
“Because he’s sneaky?” said Booker. “Because the people here love him and hide him from us?”
“Because he doesn’t exist,” I said. “He’s a myth.”
“If he was a myth he would exist,” said Booker. “That’s how things work here.”
“Maybe if stories in Fairyland have their own Fairyland,” I said. “But in this one, the cat made him up.”
“It’s true,” said the cat. “Having a noble patron made me seem rich and influential. Everyone believed it until now.”
“So there’s no Marquis of Carabas,” I said.
“Not at all,” said the cat. “But you don’t have to tell anyone.”
“We can’t have you provoking the workers with a fictional nobleman,” said Booker.
“No, I imagine the Pig Merchants’ Guild won’t like that at all,” I said.
“We’ve nationalized all the nobles’ estates,” said Booker. “We can’t have a fictional noble still keeping control of his. You’ll have to stop.”
“But what am I going to do?” said the cat.
“Live on your own value?” I said.
“Oh, I can’t do that, not at all,” said the cat. “If you’re taking my scam away I’ll have to find a new one.”
“Well, anything noble is going to get you on the wrong side of the Pig Merchants’ Guild,” I said. “But you can still have a patron. It just needs to be an appropriately proletarian one.”
“What do you mean?” said the cat.
“Well,” I said. “Have you heard of Joe Hill?”
So I taught the cat a little bit about mythologizing around union organizers, and martyrs to thugs hired by mine owners, and mighty laborers who prove themselves superior to machinery. It’s possible that Joe Hill and John Henry and Mother Jones all exist somewhere in Fairyland, but it wasn’t around here, and it seemed to me that the cat had free rein to exercise his creativity in that direction. Before long the Marquis of Carabas had transformed into César Carabas, who would always return to support the farm workers in their time of need. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get the townspeople to go along with the transformation, but that was the cat’s problem.
Mine was that there wasn’t going to be anywhere to put a cell tower, since Carabas didn’t exist. Then again, that was Booker’s problem, too. He had faded away while I was telling the cat about the 1913 Massacre, but I found him at a table in the marketplace, eating an empanada.
“Didn’t you get a sandwich at the crossroads?” I said.
“All they had was pork,” Booker said. “I can’t eat pork.”
“Not in the company you’re keeping now,” I said.
“We need to be in favor with the power in this country,” said Booker. “I’m sure Miss Change would agree.”
“I’m sure she would,” I said. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“She’s the boss,” said Booker.
“I guess maybe I see that as less important than you do,” I said.
“Then you’re going to lose.”
“Not today, though,” I said. “Neither of us got anywhere today.”
“Fact,” said Booker. “I guess we’ll take this up again tomorrow.”
“Where are you and your friends going next?” I asked.
“I don’t think I should tell you that,” he said.
“Fair enough,” I said.
“You can probably get it from your friend, anyway,” he said.
“You know. Gjolli.”
“Oh, him,” I said. I hadn’t been planning on reporting back to Gjolli. I didn’t really see the point, and I was still kind of tied up in knots about him, even if I had been thinking about other things. But if he could tell me where Booker was going next, I probably had to go back there. I needed to know that much.
So I left Booker to his late lunch and went back to Gjolli’s town, and told him the news that the Marquis of Carabas was a figment of a cat’s overactive imagination. He was disappointed that there was no estate to seize.
“At least the secret police didn’t get there first,” he said. “And I got notice that they’ve been reassigned.”
“Do you know where?” I said.
“There’s an Empire,” he said. “On the other side of the big lake. It’s the biggest country left that isn’t ours, and the biggest threat to us. The Great White Boar is planning to invade it, and they’re being sent to scout out the territory.”
“Wearing their secret police jackets?” I said.
“I don’t know, maybe they’ll find something less conspicuous,” said Gjolli. “I’m not going to tell them. We should be taking territory by worker’s revolutions, not by military force.”
“Is talking like this why you got fired from your last job?” I said. Maybe I shouldn’t have poked at it, but the question was just right there, and even if I didn’t really want to know the answer I still couldn’t keep from asking it.
“I didn’t get fired from my last job,” said Gjolli. “We finished building the windmill, and everyone from the work gang was reassigned.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Why did you think I had been fired?” he asked.
“I heard a rumor going around.” I said.
“Well, someone’s lying to you,” said Gjolli. “I can’t imagine why.”
I wasn’t quite sure either, but it didn’t make me very happy. Well, finding out the truth should have made me happy, right? I didn’t have any reason to be mad at Gjolli, or at Beth, anymore. Except I reminded myself I hadn’t had any legitimate reason to be mad at them in the first place. If the whole thing had been based on a lie, I wasn’t sure I was any less confused than I had been at the start. I was going to have to figure that out, and I wasn’t even sure where to begin.
It wasn’t here, though. One way or another, what I had to do right now was say goodbye to Gjolli and go home. Hopefully I could figure out how to deal with what I was feeling about Beth on the way.
Part 21 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Lost Empire.
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