Ian and the Lost Empire
by Anta Baku
Part 21 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
Strange things have been happening in my life lately, but perhaps the strangest was that I was actually happy when Dave called me up wanting me to have breakfast with him. I’d spent the previous night narrowly avoiding having a blowup with Beth, and I don’t even know why. Well, I do know why, it’s because I’m a giant emotional mess about her, but there wasn’t any specific reason that we could deal with and get past. We were just cranky with each other all evening. I was glad to have an excuse to be up and out of the apartment while she was still sleeping.
Also I was meeting Dave at Maria’s, and it’s always good to have an excuse for breakfast at Maria’s, even if the company isn’t the best.
Dave, it turned out, was looking to do me a favor, which is usually a bad sign. I don’t know why I told him about the competition between me and Booker to get promoted, except that I suppose he had a vested interest in what Miss Change was having us do, since she had gotten him trapped in a bronze jar and all. But he apparently took it as an opportunity to help, which is part of the problem with Dave in the first place. He never waits until he’s invited.
Which is how it happened that he told me over plantain pancakes that he was spying on my co-worker. Dave’s a security consultant, or at least he plays at being a security consultant while my sister brings in all of their income. He has strange ideas about how it works, but it does mean that he knows how to snoop on other people’s internet traffic, and it sounded like he’d gotten a good picture of Booker’s.
“He doesn’t even think about data security,” said Dave. “His phone’s wide open, and so’s his home wifi.”
“You followed him home?” I said. “I don’t even know where he lives.”
“In Golden Valley,” said Dave. “He’s in the book. I didn’t have to follow anyone.”
“All right,” I said. “So you tapped his wifi and his phone?”
“Just his phone internet. I can’t get voice. You’d need a warrant to get voice.”
“I think you’re supposed to need a warrant to get this other stuff, too.”
“Yeah, but nobody cares,” said Dave. “You think the police are tracking down eavesdroppers? They don’t even have enough officers to cover shootings.”
“That’s just Minneapolis,” I said. “They might in Golden Valley. Or Edina.”
“I’m not doing this from home, Ian,” he said, like I was the dumb one.
“All right, I guess you know what you’re doing,” I said, even though I wasn’t convinced of that at all. But there was no chance he was going to listen to me about it, anyway.
“I do,” said Dave. “And I thought you should know that a lot of his internet traffic is going to your apartment.”
“He’s talking to Beth?” I said. “No, that doesn’t make sense, I don’t think she’s figured out the internet yet.”
“He’s talking to Harp,” said Dave.
“I guess that could be,” I said. “She’s online all the time, and she can’t spend the whole time looking at cat pictures.”
“I don’t know what else she’s doing,” said Dave. “She has really good data security. But I can see Booker’s side of the conversations, and it looks to me like they’re working together against you.”
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“She’s giving him information about Fairyland,” he said. “Directing him to the best opportunities. Telling him who the right people are to talk to.”
“I was hoping she would be useful that way,” I said. “But I never got around to it. We seemed to be doing well enough.”
“Well, now Booker’s getting that information.”
“That’s not really working against me, though,” I said. “It’s just working for the company.”
“You’re competing,” he said.
“Yeah, but so far we’re not sabotaging each other,” I said. “We’re just both working our butts off. I don’t know that I like the way he’s doing it, but I can see why he made the choice to work with the pigs.”
“So it doesn’t bother you that he’s working with Harp?”
“I guess it bothers me a little bit,” I said. “But if she’s just helping him with negotiations, and not undermining me or giving aid to the Pig Merchants’ Guild, I don’t know that it’s any of my business.”
“Don’t you own her?” said Dave. “You rescued her from Fairyland. You’re housing her, and paying for her internet connection. I think she’s supposed to be yours.”
“She’s a person,” I said.
“She’s also a harp.”
“Well, I think the person is more important,” I said. “I can’t own her.”
“The law probably thinks that you can.”
“The law has some catching up to do,” I said. “I can’t stop her from being on Booker’s side. All I could do is be a jerk about it. And I choose not to.”
“Your funeral,” he said.
“Not my funeral,” I said. “Just my lack of promotion. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“You don’t seem to like the people Booker has allied himself with,” said Dave. “That’s not going to get better when he’s your boss.”
“Then I’ll have to win this on my own terms,” I said.
The rest of breakfast didn’t go all that well. Dave wasn’t happy with my idea of an honorable competition, and he made that clear. He also made it clear that he didn’t think I was going to be able to win by my wits alone. I had to one-up him by pretending to go to the bathroom and picking up the check before it came to the table. Let him sit on that for a while.
I tried not to let my irritation last into Fairyland. Dave was wrong about a lot of things, but I definitely needed to be at my very best if I was going to beat out Booker while maintaining my own standards of honor. Especially since my job for the day was going directly against him again.
There was one major power in Fairyland that was holding out against the economic expansion of the Pig Merchants’ Guild. They called themselves the Empire, and I’d gotten a tip that Booker and his team of secret police were infiltrating it in preparation for a full-scale invasion. If I was going to stop Richard III from taking over all of Fairyland, the Empire was pretty much the last best hope. Their economy wasn’t dependent on pigs, and if Richard wanted to take over it was going to have to be done with military force. I needed to convince them that the threat was real, and that they could meet it and defeat him.
No problem, right? I didn’t even seem to be able to convince the people I knew that Richard was a real threat. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to do that in a strange Empire, especially with Booker already there working against me. But I had to try.
Oh, and I had to get a tower contract out of the deal, too. It was going to be a long day.
The Empire was decadence personified. Fairyland is a pretty decadent place wherever you go, if by that you mean that it’s full of ornamentation that seems to serve no real purpose, nobles who don’t have any clear responsibilities, and architecture that gives no credence to practicality. Economics don’t work the same way in Fairyland as they do in the real world, and every once in a while my business school training tries to poke at that. But I think this sort of thing needs a Nobel Prize winner, not somebody who barely finished in the top half of his undergraduate class.
The Empire was another level entirely. In most of Fairyland, sure, things don’t make any economic sense, but they’re passive about it. Things are the way they were created, and they were created by someone who didn’t have to care about the cost, and it just kind of works out that way without anybody making any of it happen. Except, I guess, by the authors of those fairy tales who could build a castle that cost only words, and so gave it lots of otherwise-questionable features.
In the Empire, everyone participated in the decadence. The Imperial Palace was a monstrous complex of showmanship and bureaucracy, and it was still growing all the time as new architects came into fashion and had to be given new wings to demonstrate their unique styles. All that wall space had to be filled with art, and the floor space with statues, and the courtyards with high-design gardens that could have kept Olmsted busy for a hundred years.
And among all of this, the most gaudy, most stylized, and most important display was the people’s clothes. The nobles, the bureaucrats, even the servants all dressed like something out of a Sci-Fi Channel original production. Most of them were wearing things so complex I didn’t even have names for them. The hats alone were astonishing, although a lot of them weren’t just hats but headdresses, head-suits, and even one head-kilt that I gawked at as it went the opposite way down the hall. They didn’t have the same sort of separation between pieces here that I was used to. Hats morphed into bandoliers morphed into leggings without any sense of boundaries. Almost no one here had a waist, at least in the sense of a border between pieces of their dress. I imagine they had waists underneath, and sometimes I could see the shapes of their bodies beneath the clothes, which looked human enough. But boundaries within the outfits were more likely to be in the middle of the torso, or above the knee, or in one memorable case moving constantly between the arms.
I felt out of place in my rumpled, off-the-rack suit, but I figured I was a foreigner and there wasn’t any shame in dressing like one.
I’m not sure the bureaucrats agreed. I got a lot of dirty looks as I wandered around the palace, trying to set up appointments with functionaries I would need to approve any tower contract, and looking for the right people to talk to about the impending invasion of pigs. If the Empire had a secret police they were too secret for me to find out about.
I did hear rumors about Booker’s secret police team from the Pig Merchants’ Guild, though. I’d run into them before, when they were wearing jackets that had the words “Secret Police” embroidered on them, and apparently they hadn’t thought to change out of them for a covert mission. That attracted notice in the Empire. And while I got a few dirty looks from people for my lack of effort, a bunch of pigs in what were basically bowling jackets seemed to be the fashion faux pas of the week. And in the Empire, that meant everyone heard about you. And everyone looked down on you.
The problem with this is I couldn’t find anyone to take them seriously. They looked so ridiculous they must be a joke, and in the Empire, how you looked was everything. If they were the advance scouts for a military invasion, the army would have to show up dressed in barrels or something. No one I talked to recognized that bad dressers can still be dangerous in a fight. But no one I talked to had any power, because I got shuffled between offices all day without ever getting an actual appointment.
I figured this was just bureaucracy inaction until I ran into Booker coming out of the office of one of the functionaries I was trying to see. He was even more sharply dressed than usual, still in real-world styles, but turned out with attention to every detail. He wasn’t as formal as he had been at Cinderella’s ball. No top hat and tails this time. But he put me to shame even more than he usually did. He just gave me a wink as he exited the office and left me to be put off by the bureaucrat’s secretary.
Two offices later it happened again. Somehow Booker was getting access to all the officials who needed to sign off on a tower contract, while I was just being shuffled around by their assistants. I was beginning to get a good idea why. I was going to have to do something about my clothes. This might be a place where Booker had a natural advantage, but I wasn’t going to give up, especially when I had an expense account that had barely been touched. Most Fairyland deals end up being quid pro quo: tower rights for favors, trickery, or just plain old-fashioned quests. So the money the company is willing to pay just stacks up in my budget, unspent. It was more than enough to get me access to the Empire’s most exclusive clothiers.
I’d have had to spend it by the end of the year anyway, or I wouldn’t get another budget next time around. It was only May, but I put a reminder in my phone to come back and buy some more clothes in December, something I could stand to wear to formal occasions in the real world. If the Empire hadn’t been overwhelmed by pigs before then.
I wasn’t getting anything I could wear in the real world this time. Not in Minneapolis, anyway. Maybe it would have an impact in the world of high French fashion, but in the Midwest there was no chance of anything but people laughing at me. I turned myself over to the seamstress with the idea of getting something that would make me acceptable anywhere in the Palace, and she clearly wasn’t interested in half-measures. She had a light blue and light green gauzy cloth out before I even finished asking, and it was clear she wanted to do something sweeping and dramatic with it.
I decided it was best if I didn’t get in the way.
The seamstress’ name was Ellen, and she was surprisingly friendly. That might have been because she was about seventy years old and no longer had any reason not to be. Or it might have been because she was the third-string designer at this company. I had enough money to get in the door, but no amount of money was going to get me the names that really mattered. That was about influence and history and wearing one’s clothes with style, and I had absolutely none of those things.
So I chatted with Ellen as she swooped and pinned and swooped and sewed and swooped and folded. There was a lot of swooping. There was also a lot of prying into my personal life, which I put up with almost as well as the clothing design. She didn’t care about the pigs’ invasion any more than anyone else in the Empire seemed to, but she cared a lot about “what a nice young man like you is doing with himself.”
And she didn’t mean negotiating for cell phone towers. She meant family, and girls, and there was zero way to indicate to her that it was a sore subject just now.
So instead I opened up, told her about my feelings for Beth, and my frustration, and how nothing ever seemed to work out right in the moment. I figured it made good practice, and what were the chances Beth knew anyone here? Besides, she might even have some good advice. I was willing to try just about anything, because I clearly wasn’t making things any better on my own.
She told me I should tell Beth how I feel, which is always easier for someone else to tell you to do than it is to actually work up the nerve for.
“What if she doesn’t want to hear it?” I said.
“Sometimes it’s best to tell someone what they don’t want to hear,” said Ellen. “There was a young lady not too long ago who did that to the Emperor, and she saved the whole kingdom. Or at least our industry.”
“How did that work?”
“He went out into the kingdom totally nude, claiming that he was wearing the latest fashion. He thought that no one would dare to contradict him, and he’d ruin the power of the whole clothing industry. Like we would take that lying down! But it almost worked, until an assistant to the Bedside Dresser called him out on it and his plan collapsed. What was her name again? I’m no good at remembering names.”
“But the Emperor wasn’t very happy about it,” I said.
“Well, no,” said Ellen. “And the Bedside Dresser’s assistant had to leave the Empire.”
“So it didn’t really work out for anyone.”
“It worked out for us! Look at me, still working. Fashion is more important than it ever was, and the work and the money just keeps coming in. We owe that girl a lot, I just wish I could remember her name.”
I didn’t think this story was very applicable to my situation, but I couldn’t tell her that. Well, maybe it was, just not in the way she meant it to be. Honesty had ended up disastrous for the two people closest to it, and that was what I was most worried about, after all. I didn’t think we had any third parties who would be delighted to have all our hopes and plans fall apart.
Well, except Booker.
And that was the point, wasn’t it? I had to keep my irritating emotions to myself, even if that just kept making them more irritating, until the two of us had found a way to defeat Richard and the Pig Merchants’ Guild. Right now we were each other’s only ally, and that was too important to risk screwing everything up. Afterward maybe I could say something. And get shot down, and move on with my life somehow.
Maybe feeling this way would be easier if I could imagine some other outcome? But Beth had never shown any particular interest that way, not in me, not at all. Unless I was just oblivious, which had happened before. The one time I tried to kiss her she had kicked me in an unfortunate place, but that was before we knew each other at all. Maybe her opinion had changed.
Maybe I was a sucker for punishment.
Either way, I made my way out of Ellen’s establishment in a blue-and-green thing that might have made a good Halloween costume as long as the Halloween party was somewhere with sixteen-foot ceilings. The Imperial Palace was built to accommodate hats, and this was the hat it was built to accommodate. It swooped down and around and somehow covered my whole body, leaving me free to move my arms and legs, while still, fundamentally, being a hat.
Like I said, categories were weird here. I just resolved to make sure I didn’t walk into any chandeliers.
The costume did its job admirably well. All the secretaries who had stalled me out earlier in the day wafted me through to their bosses like they had never conceived of scheduling being difficult. And I was in time, if just barely, to catch all the bureaucrats before they left for the evening. But it did me no good.
The message was the same everywhere I went. Sorry, they said. We’d love to help you, they said. Many of them admired my fashionable dress. But every one of them had already signed a contract for cell phone infrastructure. I kept on, hoping that Booker had somehow slipped up, and there was someplace I could stop him. But he had dotted every I, crossed every T, and charmed every functionary while I was still straightening out my clothing situation.
None of them wanted to hear about the pigs, either.
I had begun the day with a clear lead in the job competition and a lot of hope that the Empire could be mobilized to provide a real threat to Richard’s expansion. By the time the sun went down I was behind and dispirited. But I was still in the Empire, and I still had work to do. If none of the bureaucrats would listen to me about the pigs, perhaps I could convince the Emperor himself. Surely he wouldn’t want to lose his crown to an invasion.
The way to the Emperor went through his clothiers, like so many other things in the Empire. There was a whole separate structure of advisors, viziers, and strategists devoted only to the work of steering the Imperial Wardrobe, though that was as much about making policy for the Empire as it was clothing the actual Emperor.
In charge of the latter, at least at the end of the day, was a mousy little man known as the Bedside Dresser. He worked later than most of the rest of the Palace, and was in charge of the Emperor’s evening wear. It also seemed to be his job to tell me no.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I would love to help you, but the Emperor has retired early tonight. I’ve already sent the pyjama warden in, and the Emperor won’t see anyone after that.”
“But I’ve come to warn him about an army coming to invade the Empire.”
“It’s no good,” said the Dresser. “The current pyjama warden, well, I don’t like to speak ill of my employees, but he’s just a bit irritating. Not as good as the last one, but of course she had to leave. This one’s good at pyjamas, much better than he was at breakfast clothes. But he gets on the Emperor’s nerves, and he won’t see anyone afterward. Says he needs his rest even more after talking to Eli. I can’t say I blame him.”
“But an invasion!” I said, though I didn’t have much hope about it.
“Perhaps you could come back tomorrow?” said the Dresser.
“Doesn’t anyone here care about the Empire?” I said.
“Well, of course we do, sir,” said the Dresser, snootily. “We take great care that it is dressed to the best of our abilities.”
“And if you’re overrun by an army of pigs?”
“That doesn’t seem very likely, sir,” said the Dresser. “Although it might give us an opportunity to design some sharp new military uniforms. I must tell my cousin about this. He’s the Imperial Batman.”
“You’re going to need Batman to fight off the pigs,” I said, even though I knew what he meant. I was as irritated as an Emperor in his pyjamas.
“Of course,” said the Dresser. “Our soldiers will fight better if they have excellent uniforms.”
I could tell this was getting nowhere. Maybe I could find a way to come back another day, though the competition with Booker was suddenly looking grim, and I had no idea how I would find the time. As much as the Empire was a large and prosperous nation, I was beginning to think they weren’t going to be any use against the pigs anyway.
So I went home. I didn’t get rid of my costume and then go home, which had been my original plan. If I could find time to come back, I was going to need it again. So I took it with me, which presented a significant logistical challenge.
The portal wasn’t a problem. The portal complex is huge, almost as big as the football stadium it replaced, suddenly, last fall in the middle of the third quarter of the Packers game. It has high ceilings, and enough people there were dressed funny for their journeys into Fairyland that I only got a few bemused looks.
Stuffing it into my car was harder. I was glad I didn’t walk to work, because trying to get the thing home without being blown over in the wind would be hard enough, not to mention fifteen blocks of pedestrian traffic gawking at me. But I had to fold the headdress of the thing up into the back seat while I was still wearing the body suit, and it was both awkward and worrisome. What if I damaged it too much to get any respect when I went back? I didn’t know enough to judge whether I was doing that, but I had to take the chance.
It got even more mangled trying to get into my apartment. My building doesn’t have high ceilings, and only a standard-sized elevator. I had to make my neighbors wait because the outfit and my body took up the entire space. But I did finally get it home, thinking that at least I had something to amuse Beth with.
But somehow she didn’t laugh at me. She was the first person in half an hour not to laugh at me.
“I know where you’ve been,” she said instead.
“You don’t think it’s funny?”
“It’s sort of funny,” she said. “Especially in here. What did you do, stuff it into the elevator with you?” She came over to me and started gathering up the folds of cloth that would have been over my head if there had been room.
“I wasn’t sure what else to do,” I said. “I’m afraid I might have ruined it.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Don’t worry. You’ve made a mess of it, but I can fix it. As long as you don’t try to wear it in the elevator again.” She started to help me take it off. “Oh, um, are you wearing your suit under there?”
“I am,” I said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to put it.”
“Oh, good,” she said. I wasn’t sure how to take that.
Working together we managed to wrestle the blue-green fabric off of my body, and she did some sort of magical trick to fold it up into a manageable parcel. I mean, it probably wasn’t a magical trick, really, it was probably just Beth knowing what she was doing. But it looked like magic to me.
“I can put that back together tomorrow,” she said. “Do you know when you’re going to need to go back to the Empire?”
“Not until I can figure out how to make them listen to me,” I said.
“So maybe not ever,” said Beth.
“Sounds like you’ve been there before.”
“I worked there for a while, after I left my own kingdom. I learned a lot about clothes, but I didn’t end up wanting to stay. Nobody there wanted to listen to me, either.”
“They’re going to get overrun by pigs,” I said.
“And that’s sad,” said Beth. “I didn’t dislike them. They don’t deserve to be ruled by Richard, just because all they can think about is clothes.”
“I don’t know who else can stop him,” I said. “They’re the biggest country left, and no one there will take the threat seriously.”
“We’ll figure something out,” said Beth. “You’ll try again, and I’ll, I’ll do something, I just don’t know what yet. We’ll stop him, because he has to be stopped.”
“I’m glad you see that,” I said. “I just wish I could convince anyone else.”
“At least you’re still ahead in your job competition, right?”
“Not anymore,” I said. “Everywhere I went today, Booker was there first. He got the contract for the whole Empire, and I got nothing. I’m not just behind, now I’m way behind, and time is running out. Time is running out on everything.”
I plopped down on the couch and Beth sat carefully beside me. She took my left hand between both of hers. My heart rate shot up. “I believe in you,” she said. “I believe in the two of us. We’re going to stop Richard. You’re going to beat Booker. Somehow.”
I was speechless, and motionless, and, frankly, courageless. This was undoubtedly the time to make a move, but also the worst possible time to get it wrong. I might have held her, kissed her, told her how I felt, if only I had been a completely different person who wasn’t scared out of his mind. Instead I just sat there while she held my hand for a minute longer, as suave as a stone statue. Then she let go, and at least I could breathe again.
“You should go to bed,” she said. “It will all look better in the morning.” She half-pushed me into my bedroom, and I could hear her making up the couch for herself. I couldn’t help thinking of all the ways that could have gone differently. I stayed awake for a long time thinking about that, and scolding myself for not thinking about the pigs instead. If I was going to be lying awake, I should at least be trying to solve the problem.
All thinking got me was tired enough that eventually I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
Part 22 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is For Beth’s Eyes Only.
For news and new story notifications sign up for my newsletter
or follow me on Twitter or Facebook