Rhapsody in Grey
The sky overhead was a roiling, turbulent grey, an unbroken band of cloud which stretched from one horizon to the other. Errant gusts of wind tossed the treetops to and fro. It was the height of summer and the land lay under an enchantment, a spell so artful and beguiling that none dare challenge it. It was almost ten in the evening. Still, dark would not arrive for many hours yet. Birds flitted amongst the bushes but tonight they were silent and distracted. They did not break into song even when sipping at the nectar of the carnelia blossom. When they landed they would pause and look up, wary and perturbed. The light seemed to pool in one quadrant of the sky, an effect so unusual and so unnerving that every creature marked it and moved with caution.
Zoe slipped from the ballroom, made her way past the other revelers and out on to the balcony. She stared up at the sky, fascinated. This grey was unlike all the other greys that had come before it. It did not dominate the sky with its customary authority, seemed strangely tentative and uncertain. It betrayed, for the first time, a sense of vulnerability, something Zoe never would have believed possible. A mounting fever of anticipation gripped her.
She smoothed the folds of her gown, ran her fingers along the elegant lace ruffle. The fabric was a beautiful pearl grey, the color of dawn at first light when but one of the suns had risen. It was the color Zoe most loved, one she had always associated with freshness, with happiness, with new beginnings.
She plunged back into the festivities, the heady rush of events carrying her along on a tide of adrenalin. She wanted to experience it all, wanted to savor every minute of this never-to-be-forgotten moment. A swarm of faces, known and unknown, surrounded her and the buzz of conversation filled the room. The dancing grew gayer and more frenzied the closer the appointed hour drew. Zoe was standing at the window, looking out, when the Regent walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder. She turned.
"My lord." Zoe performed a curtsy, eyes downcast, curls spilling across her face.
"Come. Enough of that." The Regent lifted her to her feet. "Ceremony has its place, certainly. None know that better than I. But between the two of us no such reserve is necessary. I was friends with your father and shall be friends with you as well. I insist. Perhaps you will dance the Rhapsody with me to seal the bargain?"
Zoe's eyes flashed with fierce exultation. It was the final dance before Synchronicity and, therefore, the most important. The Regent led her out on to the floor. They touched hands and the dance commenced, slowly and solemnly at the outset, marked by an intricate set of steps executed opposite one's partner.
"Tell me lord, why is it you have chosen me for the dance and not another? Any of these ladies would have been flattered to be selected."
"But I did not wish to dance with them. I have not neglected my duties. I have been courteous and attentive to all. This final dance I resolved to indulge my own inclinations." The Regent smiled. "It is a license seldom accorded me."
Zoe bit her lip. She was not certain what to make of the Regent. He was a tall man, austere, a little intimidating, but he carried his authority without arrogance and without the need to remind others of who he was. Beneath the mantle of power perhaps he was a man, like any other?
"My father spoke of you often when I was a child," Zoe said, conscious of the Regent's hand in the small of her back. "He would tell me of your time together at Court: of war, of intrigues, of the hunt – all manner of things. Always, it was you and he together."
"We were great friends, your father and I." The Regent spun Zoe around and a beautiful, stunning tapestry of greys swirled before her eyes. "Of course, we were young back then and the world seemed a different place altogether. A better place. Perhaps that is why one seeks out the companions of one's youth – to recapture that feeling."
How old was the Regent, Zoe wondered. She could not gauge his age as she could with others. He was both distant and intimate at the same time, seemed to incorporate youth and age simultaneously. It unsettled and excited her, made her bolder than she might otherwise have been. On a night such as this anything seemed possible.
"We were your age, possibly a year or two older, the last time of Synchronicity."
Zoe was twenty-three - had only just turned twenty-three. She looked up at the Regent and tried to imagine him at such an age. Was he so very different really, before power and responsibility had fallen to his lot? Had he laughed more, been reckless with his feelings? Had he been unashamed to love?
"We were all of us in thrall as the day approached. We barely slept and spoke of nothing else. Your father insisted that we fast and abstain from liquor, that we observe the ancient rite of Ashran, the strictest of them all. He was an idealist, you see, and believed that life was a grand adventure, one a man must plunge into without reservation and so experience all that it had to offer. Approached correctly, a man might achieve whatever he wished, might surmount any difficulty – or so your father believed at the time. But Synchronicity changed all that. It altered his outlook."
Once every twenty-four years the twin suns of Viracocha entered into conjunction and the grand event, the defining moment of Synchronicity, occurred. It was a moment that everyone lived in anticipation of, a defining cultural influence and a theme which never lost its fascination. The inhabitants of Viracocha reckoned the passing of time by Synchronicity and the success, or failure, of reigning Princes. Yet for all that the event retained an aura of mystery, an element of the unknown.
There were those who claimed that one did not become an adult, properly, until one had experienced Synchronicity. Of course, it wasn't so at all. That was only a taunt that the older generation threw at the younger, a way of endowing themselves with greater authority and wisdom than, in fact, they possessed. Zoe's father had never spoken of Synchronicity, had never mentioned it, and it occurred to her suddenly to wonder at this omission, to question what lay behind it.
"You were not yet born then, of course. But I believe it was that which drove your father from Court. He sought a more secluded life, sought the peace and tranquility of the countryside. And perhaps he was the wiser of the two of us. I am not prepared to say. Certainly his daughter is proof that his decision was the proper one." The Regent placed his hand under Zoe's chin, lifted her face, stared into her eyes with indescribable tenderness. "Your eyes are so clear and limpid, so free of trouble - like a pool of water on a still day. I can see into your very soul almost."
The Regent brushed his thumb across Zoe's cheek, a touch so light and fleeting that she could not be certain it had happened at all. He liked her, that was obvious, found her appealing. But not as a younger man might. His eyes were lit by some emotion which Zoe could not define and did not recognize. He had beautiful eyes, a soft, lambent grey like pewter bathed in candlelight. But some deep sorrow resided in their depths, the result of knowing the world, and himself, altogether too well – and finding little to admire in either.
And suddenly Zoe was frightened. She did not know this man, did not understand him, could not discern what he wanted from her. Grey flowed around her in a dazzling, pulsating tide, more shades and tints and tones of grey than she had ever imagined: silver grey and ash and gun metal and pearl. And it was all of it wrong, all of it false, all of it, in some indefinable way, tainted. Tonight, of all nights, it should not be so. Tonight was a night of magic, of miracles, above all, of possibilities. She clung to this conviction with fierce determination.
"Tell me, lord," Zoe's voice trembled with emotion, "is it true what they say – that during Synchronicity the very heavens part asunder, the veil of eternity is lifted and one can see, oh, one can experience all of creation?"
The Regent lifted his shoulders in an ambiguous gesture that might have signified anything. "I should not express it so myself. But then, I lack the poet's gift of language and nuance. The words you have spoken, the imagery . . ." the Regent paused a long moment, "is not really adequate to the moment. An event such as this is visceral, something felt, experienced. It is not accessible via words. At least, I did not find it to be so." He was drawing away from Zoe, distancing himself, now, when she needed his reassurance, needed his strength.
"But . . . everyone speaks of it so. Everyone!"
"Do they?" The Regent looked away. His face was carved out of stone, his mouth a thin, hard line devoid of sympathy. "Worse luck for them."
The music ended and the gay coterie of dancers - the women flushed and giddy, the men bold, exuberant, defiant - swung to a halt. They lingered on the dance floor, chatting and smoothing their clothes, a little embarrassed at their own recklessness.
A herald stepped from the shadows. He was wearing the uniform of the 8th regiment of Hussars, the elite unit which guarded the palace and the person of the Regent. He was immaculate in every respect: trousers and starched collar, lambskin boots, polished buttons and sea mist insignia – grey from head to foot. Except . . . adorning his cap was an enormous ostrich feather, gaudy, outrageous, a deliciously subversive blue. He lifted a trumpet to his lips, blew a brassy fanfare.
The revelers spilled outside onto the balcony overlooking the gardens. The sky overhead was still a sullen grey but a blazing knot of light had begun to coalesce where the two suns were moving into conjunction.
Zoe huddled next to the balustrade, eyes scanning the throng. What had become of the Regent, she wondered. He had slipped away and disappeared, without a word as to where he was going or why. It was so unceremonious, so totally unexpected. How could he have abandoned her now, when she most needed him?
A hush fell over the crowd. They stared at the sky, rapt with expectation. The two suns had merged into one, a great angry ball of fire which spilled down out of the heavens with unprecedented force and intensity. The cloud cover thinned and began to boil away. The grey faded to a tenuous white haze, patchy and insubstantial.
Streaks of color appeared, ribbons of delicate blue which seemed to recede into the distance forever. People pointed and cried out. Some raised their arms in supplication. The cloud cover broke apart and the sky assumed a beautiful luster unlike anything that Zoe had ever imagined. Blue saturated the air.
The crowd pushed against the balustrade. They trembled and shook. Light cascaded down from above. It washed over the land like a rising tide and as it did so it transformed everything that it touched. Colors leapt out with astonishing boldness and clarity: vibrant greens, brilliant reds, subtle counter shadings of violet and turquoise, so breathtakingly lovely that tears sprang to people's eyes and ran down their cheeks unheeded. The world glistened and sparkled and shone, pulsated with vitality.
Zoe stared out over the gardens, intoxicated by the splendor which now stood revealed. All along this treasure had lain hidden at her feet, only waiting to be discovered. Zoe's heart burned with fierce passion, with a sense of fulfillment she had never before imagined possible.
The suns parted again, resumed the slow elliptical dance that brought them into conjunction once every twenty-four years. The vast canopy of cloud closed overhead again with a thunderous silence which seemed to signal the end of an epoch, the end, perhaps, of time itself. The tide of grey rolled on uninterrupted, horizon to horizon, and the color - the dazzling, brilliant explosion of color - which had infused the land faded and disappeared. Field and meadow, forest and garden, resumed the same muddy, indistinct hue which they had borne all the days of Zoe's young life and that she had never before noticed or questioned.
She felt indescribably sad, cheated, deprived of what was due her. This dull, insipid world of greys and duns and browns, this empty, soulless sky, this claustrophobic collection of huts and villages – this was her home, her birthright, her destiny. Her eyes flashed in scorn.
The Regent stepped out on to the balcony, tall, imposing, stern. As one, the crowd turned upon him, shouting abuse and vitriol. He was the most readily visible symbol of Authority and so must shoulder the blame. The people were as children who, shown what they cannot have, lashed out randomly and without distinction. Someone had to bear the brunt of their anger – and the role of Regent had been created for that very purpose.
Zoe recollected the sadness in the Regent's eyes, rooted in a knowledge he had never wanted and had never sought, burned indelibly into his soul. Synchronicity had stripped all illusion from his eyes, had made him the man he was today. Zoe knew, with utter certainty, were she to look into her own eyes now she would find just such sadness as that, just such knowledge. It was as her elders had always said – one did not become an adult, properly, until one had experienced Synchronicity. And Zoe had so wanted to be an adult.
Published by permission of the author.