The Most Famous Noosemaker of that Moving Country

The first I saw of her was three minutes of video surreptitiously taken before the camcorder was confiscated. All footage of her unique act was strictly controlled. I remember losing the need to breathe as the sunlight runneling off the stained-glass spine of Tessadorma Cathedral broke into a billion particles across her taut scapulae. I understood why men gave up food for art. Each small motion of her brutal-angled body declared her mastery of it as she strode across her stage. This woman had honed herself into the devoted tool of her profession. Even as she gripped the rope in both of those strong hands and hoisted her subject kicking into the air, I knew that my life would be a disappointment if it did not, however fleetingly, intersect with hers.

The most famous noosemaker of Vizhilly was waiting for me when I emerged from the terminal three hours delayed. The sight of her loitering on the curb beside her autocar like a common chauffeur stopped me short and smacked me silent.

“Are you the reporter then?” she asked, in accented but professorial Anglic. She was taller than me by a few inches and similarly broader. Black hair braided into thick bulbs piled upon her strong shoulders, that musculature a testimony to a lifetime of physical labor. She wore a peacock-colored avgeré, like a saree that tied into a bow at the chest, and a pair of leather driving gloves. Flecks of gold jewelry glinted modestly from her ears, lips, and brow. There was an aquiline sharpness to her features, an inherent disapproval of everything, and her lavender eyes seemed to scold me for staring.

“That’s me, ma’am,” I stammered. I’d spent the overnight flight constructing my perfect first impression, and it currently lay in pieces at my feet.

“Good,” she said tersely but not unkindly, and opened the passenger’s door. “Come along. We’re behind schedule.”

Her voice carried the same authority as the nuns who’d thrashed me through four years of Yeshuite school. I hurried to throw my luggage inside and myself after it.

I’d dialed my editor Ian moments after I’d seen her on that video. I hadn’t expected to be so much as humored. I’d put in my time covering separatist rallies in Azovian Rus and labor protests in B?izh?u, but the New Anglund Post was still a callow upstart in the court of journalism, and a deep-dive on one of the world’s most reclusive celebrities seemed like reaching at stars from the bottom of a well. Yet two weeks later I was presented with a ticket to the country where she plied her trade. “A shot in the dark doesn’t always miss,” Ian had said, sounding just as dumbfounded as I was.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, as she took us on to the road.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” she replied sidelong, fastidiously studying the traffic. “Such is the reality of a country like mine.”

True enough. It was difficult as it was to land an aeroplane on a stationary target, much less one in perpetual, unpredictable motion. The country of Vizhilly, that restless landmass, was presently squelching like a kidney stone between the borders of Cumanistan and Gurkanistan on its way westward, and the conflicting airspaces of those two rival nations had made my decent more of an action movie than I could enjoy.

As the freeway emerged from a tunnel, it took us in a descending swoop over the capital city of Tessadorma. A heavy, hot rain beat down upon its rolling terra-cotta surface, courtesy of the atmospheric confusion whipped up by the country’s motion. The guidebooks called it the Seasonless City; so close to Vizhilly’s hindmost border no climate was guaranteed. This land snared winds on its dorsal mountains as it traveled, abducting and releasing at whim, the same as it purloined culture and architecture from those nations it visited or had fleetingly conquered it. This high above the depressed cityscape I could make out pagodas lifted from B?izh?u, aqueducts pilfered from the Reman Empire before its collapse. An old city patched with modernity, like Edo or Parisius, but old from many times more deposits of age. I felt fleetingly nauseous when I pulled my eyes away, as though I teetered over a thousand compounded vistas instead of one.

I recalled the famous words that the Emperor Gaius Caesarion had uttered upon his coming to this land: Ita vero. Mundus hie agit. Tis true, the world does flow here.

“Motion sickness is to be expected,” the noosemaker said, noticing my reaction. “It should pass quickly. If not, there are pills.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, probably lying. “I didn’t expect you to pick me up in person. Don’t you have people?”

“Of course,” she replied. “But when I saw that we were to lose plenty of time as it was, I decided not to waste any more sending a driver here and back. I thought we might begin the preliminary interview now, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said, hurriedly producing my digital recorder. “Whenever you’re ready.”

She did not take her eyes off the road but did lean in slightly, to be heard. “My name is Chella Gipzodi,” she said, enunciating carefully. “I am thirty-three years old, and I execute people beautifully.”

I’d rented three weeks of a shoebox apartment in the Cim Haralesh District, the least outrageously expensive region of an outrageously expensive city. I was both relieved and exasperated to be told that I was welcome in her home for the duration of my stay.

Her house sat high up in the cedar-wooded hills above the city, aloof but invested in the goings-on below, a veritable palace in the local Pradovishte school of architecture, as open as an agora with few walls and many looming columns. In all that space she lived alone, apart from a minimum staff of housekeepers. It contained everything one would need to remain solitary—a small pond for cultivating fish, a Vizhillian Orthodox Yeshuite chapel, and a gymnasium where a strict daily exercise regimen kept her in the necessary condition to hang men and women.

Towards the evening the noosemaker took me to her atelier in the basement. “These are my works-in-progress,” she explained, guiding me between nooses in stages of completion, arrayed on tables so low to the woven straw floor that she had to shuffle about her on knees. “This one is for a murderer,” she said, addressing a noose of glossy black fiber. “It is woven with the hair of his female victims. I have threaded it with the garrote strings and shards of glass he used in his crimes. They will not cut him, however. That would be the mistake of a novice.” She looked at me seriously, and said, “it is the duty of a noosemaker to be neutral in all things.”

I recorded everything on a handheld camera, still not quite convinced that I was really here. This seemed more like the happy dream I’d have as my aeroplane plummeted into the sea. My colleagues would all kill to see this room, to see this art in its fetal state.

She led me to another, thicker noose. “One must be considerate with her creations,” she said, lifting the rope for me to see. “This one belongs to a subject who drowned her child. She is one point seven meters tall and weighs eighty-six kilograms. If the length and tensile strength of the rope does not reflect that, it may strangle her as I raise her, or snap as I drop her.”

“What are those flowers you’ve added there, miss?”

“Vizhillian heart-orchids,” she answered. “The subject grew them for competition as a hobby. And you may call me Chella.”

And art it was, never-mind one’s opinion of it. The culture of noosemaking was older than sfumato or chiaroscuro; Chella Gipzodi’s work toured galleries across the world. Their unabashed lethality made my stomach clench, but seeing the dedication she poured into these tools, I had to admire them. Those strong hands twisted craft and death into a helix, a thing impossible not to regard as both.

“What is the purpose of all this?” I asked, as much for myself as my future readers.

“That is complicated,” she replied, fiddling with those orchids, arranging them just so. “Mine is the final and most inalienable mercy, one owed to all, no matter their name or crime. You must understand, there is no concept more sacred in Vizhilly. Our country puts its faith in us to grant all our subjects a fair and dignified death. Hence the oath of impartiality that all Noosemakers must swear. It is not our place to decide punishment. Merely to deliver it properly, and no more.”

Chella put her work down and looked at me through my camera. “My nooses are for the people they hang,” she said. “To help them roar in their final moments, regardless of what they have done to come there. But most do not know what they want to say. Humans are heart-blind. I have achieved unusual success because I am skilled at putting the right words on strangled lips.”

“How do you know? That they’re the right words, I mean.”

The corner of her mouth may have turned up a fraction of a degree, or it might have been nothing. “I see them smile when they hang.”

Before I could press her further, she stood, and whatever I’d imagined was objectively not there. “Tomorrow morning we will meet with my newest subject,” she informed me. “For the next three weeks, you and I will do all we can to learn about her life so that I can craft the noose that will conclude it.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jasviga Malmarek.”

I frowned. “And who is that?”

“An actress, a philanthropist, and a national icon, you could say.”

The following morning we departed at seven sharp, arriving at eight-thirty after a grueling slog through mid-city traffic. Tessadorma had shrugged off the storm the way a rich woman would discard a coat worn once; the new day’s fashion was the sapphire sky of central Asia. It brought the natives out to shop along the city’s narrow, cobble-paved streets and jam intersections that yet lacked electric stoplights. The Vizhillian tradition when rear-ended, I discovered, was to leap from one’s autocar and argue with the other driver for minutes at a time. Dueling with clubs—spoztang hi dulo—had only recently been outlawed.

Death row, for Jasviga Malmarek, was a gated chateau across a plaza from the cathedral where executions were held. “Why don’t they keep her in the prison?” I asked, as the guard reviewed Chella’s identification and admitted us through.

“Too risky,” she answered. “A figure such as her would attract violence. And besides, the public opinion is that she has earned comfort in her final days.”

I’d stayed up until daybreak researching the actress Jasviga Malmarek, pouring over her old interviews, her paparazzi ambushes, her talk-show spots where she was invariably glamorous and urbane. Gold-haired and bronze-skinned, with a singing voice like a honey mixed with scotch. She had performed in a dozen films over a ten-year career, but it had been just her third, Children Must Fly, that made her beloved among her people. She had played the mother-goddess Pantegloria in an operatic retelling of the Vizhillian creation myth, and theatergoers were said to have wept in their seats, for she so gave flesh to the vagrant spirit of Vizhilly. Rather than bask in her fame, however, she’d embroiled herself in fundraising and charity, in cultural philanthropy, preserving those Vizhillian arts and customs threatened by modernity. She’d earned herself the Wicker Heart Medal for service in the betterment of the country. What my all-nighter hadn’t divulged was why she’d done what she did.

“She attempted to smuggle a spider,” as Chella put it. “Someone died for it. That can only be a capital offense.”

Jasviga’s cell was a spacious apartment with a splendid, if barred, view of the cityscape. The woman herself was less impressive. Her journey through the legal system had reduced her to a cinder of her on-screen self, her clothing prison-issued gray, her hair stringy and unwashed, her dimples become craters in her cheeks. She was willing to sit with us at her tea-table but would not lift her hollowed eyes from the floor to meet ours.

“You know who I am,” Chella said, by way of introduction. She had arranged a notepad and pen before her. “To begin with, I would like to know the motivation behind your actions.”

Jasviga Malmarek said nothing. Through the glass table, I could see her fitfully kneading the lap of her skirt.

“You were apprehended transporting a goldhead spider in the lining of your suitcase into the United Colonies of Columbia,” Chella continued. “During your interrogation, the spider escaped its container and lethally bit a security agent. Surely you knew that was a risk.”

Again, the actress would not speak. She reminded me of those refugees I’d encountered, stunned into muteness by a hard drop from a happy life. It was terrible of me, but I preferred her recorded self, the persona that had inspired and uplifted millions. That was the real her immortalized in celluloid, not this nuclear shadow left by the explosion of her life.

Chella did not speak ungently, but after several more questions, Jasviga began to sob into her hands. “I think we’d better go for now,” I said.

Chella nodded, her lips drawn tight as one of her nooses.

With our meeting ended prematurely we spent some time strolling around the city center. Chella did not say as much, but I think she enjoyed the chance to share her culture with me. We were not far from the Remanesque parliament building, and even closer to the bifurcated Tromohelit Palace, ancient seat of the Tallduke and Smallduke of Vizhilly. No other country in the world elected two competing executives, but that perpetual impasse appealed to the Vizhillian spirit of Agfumë hi Narnangr—going with the flow, in close-enough Anglic. An inevitable sentiment to reach, I felt, when the land beneath them would accept neither saddle or reins.

“The goldface spider is considered extremely valuable in other countries. True to their name, their exoskeletons are naturally reinforced with gold, and their abdomens resemble masks. No two are alike; preserved specimens are treated as art.”

Her route took us through a park shaded by olive trees whose boughs bent with the weight of their fruit. We passed picnicking families taking advantage of the ephemeral sunshine, homeless folks and couples doing the same, buskers playing the sitar for coins for as long as it took for the gendarmerie to scatter them like pigeons. Vizhillians could only live in this moment. What use was the next one, when it might not be there when you reached it? Seeing those smiling faces I wondered if there wasn’t some deeper happiness to be had in surrendering to unpredictability. In living without the burden of decision. Que sera sera, and all that.

“That is why most covet them,” she went on. “The other reason is that their venom is deadly in humans, even in the smallest doses, and all but undetectable. You can imagine our government would want to keep the species under strict control. Smugglers are held accountable for any deaths a spider may cause, even beyond our borders.”

“Seems a bit liberal with the death penalty.”

“That is because you are a foreigner,” Chella said. Not dismissively, but as a matter of fact. “I would not presume to understand all the choices your country made a hundred years ago.”

We passed into a pop-up street market, where temporary stalls offered everything from gyros to samosas to yakitori, all with a local twist, a blast of native spices. The country traveled like a vagabond, picking pockets and pilfering pies from windows. If the country stayed its course heading East, I expected Tessadorma would soon be inundated with sightseers and foodies from B?izh?u all hungry for the same strangeness I’d come sniffing after. It would be as easy as stepping onto a conveyer belt, and when they stepped off again, they’d leave their tastes washed up on the dining scene like shells deposited by the tide. Vizhilly would become a little more of something it had not planned to be yesterday.

“Do you think that she’s innocent?”

“It would be highly inappropriate of me to take a stance on the guilt of my subjects,” Chella answered, a tad reproachfully. “The public could accuse me of conspiring to spare her, should the hanging fail. The courts have spoken: Jasviga Malmarek will die.”

We walked a little further in silence before she spoke again. “That said,” she added, almost shamefully, “I do think it a shame for an icon to come to such an end. In many ways, she was the face of Vizhilly. She will be missed. I hope that I can help her to be remembered.”

I couldn’t not say it any longer. It rankled my inner journalist to be cooped up with such a naked truth. “She had to have been taking the spider to someone.”

Chella kept walking. The wind came up behind her and filled the drape of her avgeré like a sail. I had to scramble to keep pace. “Perhaps,” she said. “But that is no concern of ours. Her crime is only a small part of a long life. I am no great detective, Mister Shock. And you are certainly not my Watson.”

We met the following day with Jasviga’s former manager. What had motivated her in those early days, Chella wanted to know. Gauzio Lamduzia had lost his mind to a local opiate called Euphoria and now lived with his nurses like a child with many mothers, but that chemical had preserved the memory of his most famous client like formaldehyde. The old man struggled to remember who we were between moments yet could expound upon a younger Jasviga as though she yet twirled before him radiantly spot-lit, a star still igniting. Neither of us could bear to bring him up to speed.

I made myself look involved, but inwardly I was still picking at a spider-bite of my own. I’d spent a second sleepless night at my computer, while Chella labored over her nooses two floors below. You didn’t transport contraband without a buyer lined up, so I’d scoured the teleweb for any previous incidents involving goldhead spiders in the United Colonies. I’d found a handful of relevant hits, but nothing that seemed connected to Jasviga. Not until I stumbled over the name Hiram Bosse, belonging to real estate mogul of some notoriety based out of New Amsterdam City—my own hometown, as it so happened. Several years back, a leaked photo had revealed a private collection of goldhead spiders in his seventy-second story penthouse. Possessing them, it turned out, was not illegal in the UCC, and no leads had been uncovered in the hunt for his supplier within Vizhilly. For lack of evidence, the matter had quietly starved to death.

There was nothing tying Mister Bosse to Jasviga directly. Nothing indicated they’d so much as occupied the same continent simultaneously. And yet—

And yet, she’d been caught attempting entry through the port of New Amsterdam.

That meant exactly zero things. New Amsterdam was a big city with more crazy billionaires than it had sewer rats. I was stretching threads across gulfs of time and saltwater and still couldn’t get them to tie together.

But that wouldn’t stop me from trying.

“You haven’t asked me anything today,” Chella noted later, as we drove away from Gauzio’s uptown rowhouse.

“Oh.” I flushed, caught like a kid on his phone in class. “Yeah, sorry. My mind’s all over.”

“It makes me wonder what you really want. Did you come here to tell my story, or are you simply chasing the most interesting thing of the moment?”

Are you just another gawking tourist, in other words. “I thought I was doing the interview here.”

“So did I,” Chella said, primly.

I winced and began to pry the trap off my ankle. “I came for you,” I told her. “But you got to understand—I got dog-brain.”

“Forgive me—I’m not wholly fluent.”

“Throw a stick and I’ll chase it just to see where it lands. I’ll chase you just to find out why you threw it.” I rapped a knuckle against my skull. “That’s my brain. Dog-brain. Woof.” When Chella said nothing, I carefully tread onward. “When I found you on the teleweb, I saw this, this big, amazing, beautiful thing happening, but I didn’t know why, or how, or what it was all for because it was so… different. I could’ve just gone and read about what you do, or talked to someone who’d seen it happen, but that wouldn’t’ve good enough. Places don’t exist until you’re standing there. People aren’t real until you touch them. I came here so I could kidnap you into my world and make you nonfiction, and I’ll take this whole country with me because that’s how I work. I’ll put the planet on a petri dish to study a grain of sand. Whatever it takes to get that stick.”

I wondered if that was an apology I’d just said. It felt more like a confession.

“A big, amazing, beautiful thing,” she murmured, and this time I was certain that she smiled.

It didn’t last. A few minutes later the traffic ahead of us ground to a crawl. Through a maze of windows and windshields, I spotted a gendarme weaving purposefully between vehicles. Chella swore in her natural tongue and tried to swerve out of it, but the lanes had closed on us like a vice.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” she said, cranking up the windows.

Over the next ten minutes we inched forward, vehicle by vehicle, until I could see all the nothing blocking our way. A mass of what looked like protestors were moving down the street towards the parliament building. They were mostly men, mostly adult, all wearing the same yellow-green high visibility vests. The iconography on their picket signs was universal—leering faces with bloodshot eyes, fat women bearing broods of dirty children, fat-cats in waistcoats lolling in cash—stereotypes both alien and familiar, all meant to stoke hate. The animus hanging over these people was as thick and black as coal smoke.

“Who are all these people?” I asked, as we waited for a gap in the crowd.

“Os Vigtenazionares,” she said. “Permanationals.” The unmasked disgust in her voice made my hair stand stiff.

The name was hazily familiar. I’d come across them in my pre-travel homework, though I hadn’t paid them much attention then. Even as a world traveler, foreign politics always felt less significant than my own. “Oh right. The crazy guys. We have those where I come from too.”

“They want to stop the country,” Chella said. “And they aren’t crazy.”

I imagined the country of Vizhilly gliding across the Earth, give or take one thousand miles of mountains and valleys swimming the epipelagic stone of the planet, cleaving inexorably through national borders and distending both stone and space like rubber. Here I was stuck in traffic yet traveling dozens of miles per hour on the hump of a beast a billion-ton beast. How could one possibly stop such a thing? What mechanism could disarm this geodynamic torpedo?

But then I looked into Chella’s eyes and understood that it was all true.

“Why?” I asked.

Chella shrugged. “The same reason behind every poor choice. Fear.”

“Fear what, exactly?”



“Those like you,” she said. She watched the crowd the way a tiger might size up a rival in its territory. “Foreigners. Others. Change. Corruption. They are correct, at least, when they say that our borders are not secure. This land always shakes off its barriers before long. Should a refugee seek to flee to our country, they need only wait for us and jump aboard. We are an easy escape for criminals on the run. I won’t say that my country is without its flaws. The Permas, however, would have you believe we suffer a slow invasion. They fear that every outsider we admit dilutes our culture and our blood, that before long there will be nothing truly Vizhillian left. They are convinced that our current government is in thrall to foreign interests and conspires to destroy us.”

I began to discern the beginnings of symmetry among the protestors. Many men and some women shaved the sides of their heads and flaunted tattoos in shouting, spiking Vizhillian script, the same sort of self-promulgating shibboleths I’d observed in gangs all over the world, existing solely to demarcate us guys from those guys. It was human instinct to tribalize, and a group was most strongly defined by everyone outside it. Chains of hostile, bellowing ink joined these men together. Their bond was a choral slur.

“I can respect their concerns but not their goals,” Chella said. “Should the Permas stop the country, they intend to establish permanent borders, to build up a military and fight other countries like other countries do. Expel anything and anyone that is not purely Vizhillian. They make this land the same as every other, thinking that will make it strong. They do not care that it will kill us.”

The same muscle groups that artfully hung dozens tightened around the steering wheel. “My mother is Vizhillian. My father was Aksumite. I came into the world with two tongues, which bred and became more. I am the get of risk and adventure, and the Permas would have it that I had never been born.” A lull appeared in the crowd and the gendarme waved us on. Chella hit the gas, speeding us through perhaps faster than was safe. “A country that cannot move is a corpse.”

I switched off my recorder and put it away. I didn’t know what use that audio would be in the end, but even such a small passion from her was worth preserving. I couldn’t take my eyes away from her—not until she turned and caught me looking. As a journalist I yearned for truth, and in that moment of fracturing indiscipline, the truth of Chella Gipzodi had doubled.

“I apologize that you had to see that.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said, quickly turning my gaze out the window. “Everyone has their moments.”

“Not that. The Permas. If you want my country, you’ll have to take the bad with the good.”

Jasviga’s parents lived in a small town called Zberazu near the relative northern border of the country. Rather than drive some six hours over mountainous hurdles, we traveled via the famous Painted Train of Vizhilly. Each carriage had been graffitied by one of the country’s most esteemed artists, allowing those along its rural route to see their work for free. Foreign art students crowded our stop, snapping photos and taking notes, to the visible consternation of commuting locals.

Jasviga had set her parents up in modest country house with a clay-tiled roof and a garden of vibrant succulents. Tovye and Masriska Malmarek were welcoming people, sitting us at their table before all else and presenting us with food enough for a family—molten curry with nutria meat, tamales overloaded with native scorpion peppers, a pitcher of minty nut milk called irozni. They were proud to answer all Chella’s question about their daughter, though the reality of Jasviga’s situation hung over them like smog. They spoke of her childhood as if hoping to escape into it until this tragic present was past.

“She always had such a love for this country,” her mother told us. “I remember the day she was cast as the Goddess. She called me in tears, she was so happy. It was not just a role for her; it was her chance to be the mother of Vizhilly.” She gripped a photograph of her daughter as she spoke. Teenage Jasviga was a very different person, but even then, hers was a face made to be framed. “All that money she made from that film she gave to charity. I just don’t know how she could do what she did.”

“Had she been acting strangely before her arrest?” Chella asked.

“Couldn’t say,” her father sighed. “She hasn’t come to visit in a good few months now. We supposed she must have been busy being famous. We… always wished she could visit more often.”

They’d turned their home into a museum of their daughter. They had copies of all her films; her movie posters were hung in every room. Their mantle was a shrine of family memories—Jasviga the laughing baby birthday girl, the beaming high school graduate—created in the naïveté that it would continue to grow forever. The next photo put there would be without her, and that sudden lack would forever burn like an unhealing gunshot. I wanted badly to warn them but couldn’t begin to imagine the right words. It was impossible enough to catch a bullet with one’s hand.

“If you can think of anyone close to her, it could help push us in the right direction.”

“She has a friend,” her mother said. “Jofra Emegheri, from the movies. Do you know her?”

I didn’t, but Chella nodded.

“They starred together in Children Must Fly,” Masriska continued. “I think they still speak. Maybe she could tell you more.”

“I’ll remember that,” Chella said. “Thank you both for your hospitality.”

As we made to leave Jasviga’s father followed us to the door. “Wait,” he said. “Our daughter is innocent. A father knows these things. Someone has done this crime to her. That’s why you’ve really come, isn’t it? You are looking for them.”

It struck me just about dead, the way he looked up at his daughter’s killer to-be with such struggling hope. She was the very last in a long rope of people from whom he could beg a solution. Beyond her, there was only a noose.

Chella looked down, then at me, and then at Jasviga’s father. I knew what she would say.

“No,” she replied. “Goodbye.”

“Does neutrality mean you can’t lie?”

“I lie all the time,” Chella said. “Even to you. But decency says I should be honest.”

We’d stopped at the end of the Malmarek’s garden path for Chella to consult a brochure she’d brought along. As was her fashion, I would have to wait until it became pertinent for an explanation.

“It wouldn’t hurt anything to let him have a little hope,” I countered.

“A little hope is the worst thing I could give him,” she replied without looking up. “That man will watch his only daughter hang. A little hope might well kill him too.”

I threw up my hands, knowing she wouldn’t see it. As fascinating as I found her, her judgelike assurance that everything she said was correct drove me up the wall, not least because it was convincing. She could declare the sky to be yellow and I’d struggle to prove her wrong.

As I scanned the street for something interesting to look at, I started to get the familiar itch in the back of my eye that told me there was something I ought to be noticing. I narrowed my gaze, trusting my instincts, and spotted the one thing a journalist in a foreign land never wants to see.

“I think we’re being watched.”

Two men were eyeballing us intently from the outdoor café across the dirt road. When they saw that we were all seeing one another, they pushed their chairs back and came strutting over to us with chests puffed out like sails. Chella puffed out her own and stood her ground. “Bonh dagnne,” she said, not unpleasantly, though it was about a chilly a good morning as you could get in her language.

One of the men had shaved the sides of his head into jagged stripes and put gauges in his ears; the other had gone sleeveless, his armed inked to the knuckles in spiky runes. The two Permas weren’t obviously armed, but it’s hard to mistake violent men for anything else. The pierced one growled something I didn’t understand—my Vizhillian was rudimentary at best—but it didn’t sound like a good morning to you too. His friend, the one with the ink, stayed silent, but his eyes bore into me like I’d uttered something about his mother.

“What do they want?” I asked sidelong.

Chella raised a finger to shush me, and I clammed up. She spoke faster than I could keep up with but held an even tone; I sensed her trying to deescalate something. In response, the Perma with the ink rolled his jaw and then spat on her shoe. Chella’s nostrils flared, but her hands stayed at her sides.

“Leave us be,” she said; I understood that much. The Perma with the gauges curled his lip and jerked his head my way. The other reached behind his back and drew a knife; my heart went zero to sixty into my ribs.

Being a man who often traveled through dangerous places I’d picked up a few self-defense tricks here and there, but none more reliable than kicking the other man between the legs and running. I was prepared to do just that when Chella transformed into a whirlwind of purple silk and slugged the tattooed Perma three times in the jaw before burying her fist in his stomach. The man snapped like a mousetrap, and when his head came down, she knotted her fingers through his hair and flattened his nose against her knee. The knife flew from his fingers and disappeared into Missus Malmarek’s garden.

Before the pierced Perma could react, Chella kicked his friend away and struck him across the temple with the back of her hand. He swung back around with a dizzy haymaker which stopped cold in her vicelike grip. Her squared fist came down on the back of his elbow, bending it against the joint. The man fell back screaming, his arm kinked like a capital L. It couldn’t have taken five seconds altogether.

The two picked themselves up and bolted before the gendarmerie arrived on the scene; Chella declined to give chase. No doubt she was qualified, but there was no smart reason to go running after further danger. Once we gave our statement to the authorities, she allowed me to escort her to a nearby convenience store so that we could package her hand in ice.

“My readers would love to know how you did that.”

“My duty requires strength and discipline. These can be applied to other things.”

“That guy can probably smell his own brain now.”

Chella let me see an honest half-smile at that. I couldn’t have been prouder.

We sat on a bench at the side of the road with a sack of ice between us. The clerk had recognized Chella and insisted we take it free of charge. Chella differed to my expertise on the art and let me bandage her hand for her. “So what the hell were they after?” I asked.

“Firstly,” she said, “they were concerned about you. They were incensed to see a Vizhillian woman such as myself in the company of a foreigner.” When I plainly didn’t follow, she added, “they suspected we were lovers.”

“Oh. Oh! No no no.”

“As I explained,” she said wryly, gingerly flexing her swollen fingers. “Secondly, they wanted to know what we were doing at the Malmarek house.”

It clicked in my head like a lightbulb turning off. What would the Permas want with Jasviga’s mother and father? “Crap,” I muttered. “I wish I’d got their picture.”

“It can’t be helped,” Chella said. “I expect all of this will go in your article. Does it bother you to become this much of a character in your own story?”

“It can’t be helped,” I smirked. “We should get you to a hospital.”

Chella stood and adjusted her avgeré, becoming a perfect gentlewoman once more. “There’s something I’d like to show you first. It won’t take long.”

We transferred from the Painted Train to a funicular that zig-zagged up the verdant slope of Ouslei Ost, which the map posted inside the vehicle translated to Short Hat Mountain in Anglic. Chella, naturally, would not say what lay at the top until we arrived there.

At the peak I found a tidy park with little signs naming the native flowers in several languages. There was a statue of Sternberg Khan from when Vizhilly had briefly experienced Bolshevik rule, worn like a memento from a bittersweet fling. A lovely place for a picnic, but I didn’t see what the hubbub was. “Come along,” Chella commanded, leading me into the trees.

We emerged onto a roped-off clifftop where several other couples had gathered to watch the sunset—strawberry ice cream melting across the horizon. Beautiful enough, but Chella said “Look down,” and so I did. My breath hitched in my chest before I even understood what I was seeing.

Here atop Short Hat Mountain one could see all the way to the edge of Vizhilly, where two landmasses revolved against one another. I beheld with perfect clarity the dunes of the Gobi Desert scraping past the clean edge of Vizhilly’s green hills, the land itself scrunched like fabric to make room. The fading sunlight snagged on the imperfect seam between spatial fault planes and frayed into a bouquet of alien colors. My legs went suddenly weak. I had accepted intellectually that the land crawled beneath me, but to see it so vividly, to have it so undeniably there, was to be thrust through the surface of a painting, to have all degrees of separation annihilated in an instant. I felt worldless, suspended above the cusp of two realities. And I despaired, because many before me had tried to capture this sensation in words and photographs, and I knew that I would fail too.

“I think it would be unbearable to stand upon this spot and see the same horizon, forever,” Chella said from beside me.

I glanced at her, remembering that time still enveloped me, and in that moment the kaleidoscopic light shattered against her face like sparks off the stars. I clasped my eyes shut around that vision to hold on to it for just that much longer. “Our movement is escape,” she said. “If we slow, if we stop, the world will catch up with us and make us like it. We will not be invaded—we will be absorbed. That is what the Permanationals refuse to understand.”

I heard her as if through water. All I could think was that, like the Malmareks coming away from their daughter’s hanging, I would come away from this spot with a book’s worth of beautiful words, a museum of photographs, and a hole that would never be filled by them. Words lost meaning. Pictures faded. Even memories trickled away like water through fingers. The only permanence of experience was in people, who could sit by you and, with a touch, take you back to that place where you both were, long ago.

If not, what else was love for?

“What can I do?” I heard myself ask.

“Nothing,” Chella said, with a gentle smile. She reached across the space between us and touched my shoulder. “This place isn’t yours. Seeing is enough.”

We left after that. I was not ready to go.

By the time we made it back to Chella’s house, it was a quarter to midnight, and I was running on fumes. Even so, I couldn’t get sleep to come when I called. To try and take my mind off it, I dragged my laptop into bed to do some further digging on Jasviga.

Why had the Perma’s been staking out her parent’s house? If she had any direct involvement with them, the teleweb knew nothing of it. A detour through their Friendbook groups, however, divulged that she was their public enemy number one. I followed that filthy rabbit hole deeper, stomaching taxonomies of violent memes. Jasviga strangling children, her pockets stuffed with cash. Jasviga whoring for trains of caricaturized foreigners. Her parents had told us how strongly she believed in Antideterminism, and sure enough, it turned out she’d used her platform to speak out loudly against the Permanationals. They in turn hoisted her up like a straw effigy as an example of the traitors who were supposedly conspiring to let the world molest their country.

I unearthed a clip a few years old of her delivering a speech to her former high school’s graduating class. “There are those who say Vizhilly cannot survive in the wild,” she declared, “That it must be locked up like a beast for its own good. But what I know is that we never survived any other way. We have been conquered a hundred times over and always we have escaped—not through violence, but perseverance. We move forward while our foes remain. No chains can hold this land but those we put upon it.” Here she looked straight at the camera, her glare piercing time and space to scold those who disagreed. “Freedom begetting freedom: that is Vizhilly to me. Thank you all.”

The comments section was an utter nightmare, of course. I was ashamed to find that many among the Permas shared my theory in a connection between her and Hiram Bosse, whose secret spider collection had not endeared him to the movement either. In their mind, it was as good as fact she’d sold those poisonous pieces of Vizhilly off for foreign cash. I was tempted to ask if they had proof.

None of that explained today, though. I could imagine the Permas learning where her parents lived and deciding to use them to strike back at her, but then why would they wait this long to try something? What did it matter now, when she’d be a non-issue in a few weeks’ time? The whole hypothesis was as unsteady as a three-legged dog.

Defeated for the moment, I lay back and begged my brain one last time to turn itself off.

No dice.

Chella never said I couldn’t explore her home, yet it felt like trespass as I meandered through its darkened halls. This place, I sensed, was unaccustomed to others. In my mind, a home was junk drawer, collecting bits and pieces from those who visited, for however long, for whatever intimacy. My own apartment was a veritable lost-and-found of relationship artifacts. My pillow had belonged first to a roommate long since moved out. My bathroom exhibited toothbrushes from three ex-girlfriends.

Chella’s house was full of things—statues, art, potted plants—but nothing that struck me as something she had not put there herself. It lacked the incidental clutter that friends and lovers deposited as they passed through one’s life. You could put a bed in anything and sleep there, sure, but it wasn’t really yours until someone messed it up a little.

This was a spotless museum of solitary nights and days.

The door to Chella’s gymnasium was ajar, and the lights were on inside. Curious, I poked my head inside to find her working out on the pull-up bar. She kept one fist flat against the dip in her spine while the other moved her up and down in an effortless rhythm. Her jacket of muscle swelled and flowed like the transformative skin of an animal bride with every repetition. She wore only a pair of clinging gym shorts and a sports bra, and her sweat glistened beneath fluorescent lighting like a dusting of constellations against her black skin. I could admit that I was attracted to that body, just as I was unnerved by the knowledge of what it was for. A weapon had no right to be so beautiful.

I was about to move on for decency’s sake when Chella asked, “Can’t sleep either?”

To flee now would be worse than staying. “I don’t know,” I said. “Jetlag making love to motion sickness. What’s your thing?”

Chella snarled through her teeth. Her bicep bulged into a perfect sphere, a cartoon bomb. “I did not enjoy telling Jasviga’s parents that she was going to die.”

“I told you it wasn’t a good idea.”

Chella let go and landed in a half-crouch. “Bring me a towel,” she said. “And you are still wrong. But I wish you were right.”

I did as she asked and averted my gaze as she patted herself clean. It seemed obscene to stare, a violation of an artist’s secret process more than anything sexual.

“It is hard to be neutral, more often than sometimes,” she remarked. “We all like to think ourselves so strong, so capable. We always want to interfere, even understanding that we would make it worse. We must know when nothing is better than something. But sometimes, it is like standing by and watching a fire start.”

“Or watching someone you care about hang.”

That was my dog brain running off without me, but she took it in stride. “Just so,” she said. “Here is a juicy tidbit for your story: from time to time I envy the families of my subjects, who can scream and shout and weep at what offends them. That is a privilege I am not allowed.”

“What about love?” I asked. I let nothing show on my face but chaste curiosity.

Chella shrugged and bent to dry her legs. “That is difficult as well. Men and women both wish to be loved completely. They tell me that it is cramped inside a heart, but I can only share mine at best. Some who have tried to love me told themselves that that much was good enough for them, but as you can see, it was never true.”

I followed her out into the hall. “If you don’t mind my poking holes in things, it sounds like you’re giving up everything that makes a person.”

“Whatever you treasure, you must give it all that it demands, or it will leave you like a jealous beau,” she said. “Love is nothing but sacrifice.” She stopped at the intersection between her half of the house and mine. “What about you?” she asked. You’re a world-traveling man. Have you ever had to leave a girl behind for a good story, William?”

My first name struck me off-guard. “Sure,” I said. “But I always regret it.”

“Then you understand,” she said with a smile, and went the other way.

Chella insisted on purchasing me a new suit before our appointment with Jofra Emegheri. Her agent informed us that she would only be available at the event she happened to be hosting that night, and she expected formal wear. “You have to let me pay you back,” I insisted for the tenth time as we made our way through the mansion’s crowded parlor, for only an unwanted and meaningless gesture would soothe my blistered masculinity.

“Ci negat,” Chella said dismissively—a Vizhillian phrase meaning ‘it’s nothing,’ but with significantly more verve unspoken. I dropped the matter there, still sore from the cash I’d blown on that apartment I never saw.

The Memorial Party was a similarly unique cultural animal. The same sensibilities that had them itch to linger too long on one subcontinent made them loathe to dwell overlong on death. Memorial Parties were held prior to the expected loss, the point ostensibly being to expunge all sadness through a wild celebration of the dying’s life so that the day of the funeral was as dry as a wrung-out sponge. Women and men alike wore black veils, originally to hide tears, these days mostly out of custom. It made it unnecessarily difficult to track down the lady of the house.

We eventually found her smoking alone at a glass table on an upstairs balcony. She was the only one without a veil, and I’d seen her face on movie posters. “Enjoying the party?” she asked. She had a glass half-full in front of her, and an empty bottle beside it.

“We’re here on business,” Chella reminded her gently.

“Well, good,” Jofra replied. “Honestly, it was a mistake. I thought, ‘I should do one of those.’ All my friends did one, and those were very good fun. Great excuse to get drunk and dance. But then, I’d never lost anyone myself. It’s easy to let go of someone you never knew.”

“If you want to talk, we would be happy to listen.”

“Join me then,” Jofra said. “Let me tell you what you’re here to be told.”

“The Jasviga I knew could not do what she did.”

The actress broke off to inhale about half her cigarette.

“The Jasviga in that cell is not mine.”

Jofra Emegheri was a tall woman, skeletally thin and wan. Her black hair flew away from her in oiled spikes. She’d made her career playing the Malmedra—the wicked woman, a staple of Vizhillian theater—often opposite to Jasviga’s more wholesome ingenues. Despite their contrasts, they’d been close friends for years. If anyone could tell us Jasviga’s thoughts leading up to her arrest, it would be her.

“Did you know they’re celebrating? Not like this, I mean. They’re starting to say that she’s a traitor to Vizhilly, trying to sell national treasures to rich foreigners for their silly mistresses to wear. You bet your ass the Permas are ecstatic about it. They’re out there buying up tickets to the execution right now. You think this is a party? Just you wait.” She made a sour face. “Perhaps it is true, what they say she did, but even so, that is not my Jasviga that will hang.”

Chella’s veil annulled her expression. “What precisely do you mean by that?”

Jofra scowled hard into my camera, defying future audiences to doubt what she said next. “She met someone new a few months ago. And the thing about Jasviga is that when she falls in love, she falls all the way down. She’s the sweetest human being you’ll ever meet, but sweet people are soft, and soft people bend easily around hard people.”

Her voice was level but brittle, a stick of graphite ready to snap. She wore the face that made her famous, the mask of a hard and dangerous woman, a curvaceous sword that punished temptation. I couldn’t blame her; it must have made for good armor in moments like these. A person could hurt, but a character could be as invulnerable as you made them and came off as easily as a false accent.

“I never met the man, but I could see how he changed her. She dropped out of a project we were working on together. She stopped calling me, and then she stopped picking my calls. The next time I saw her it was on TV, in handcuffs.”

Chella furrowed her brow. “I wasn’t aware that Jasviga Malmarek had a lover.”

“You wouldn’t,” Jofra said. “She’s private. She made me promise that I would keep it to myself, but screw that; he’s involved. I know it.”

She angrily stubbed out her cigarette, missing the ashtray and hitting the table. “The man you want is Qillim Tichorannes.” She spat the name out like poison. “Once you’ve hung Jasviga, I hope you do the same to him.”

“So Jasviga Malmarek was dating the Smallduke of Vizhilly.” I mimed my brain exploding out my ear.

That got a soft laugh out of Chella. I felt about a hundred feet tall. “Not the Smallduke yet,” she stressed. “But yes, among the current contenders, he is said to have the best chance.”

We lingered together on the balcony. Jofra had gone inside to trade her cigarettes for more liquor.

“I guess it makes sense,” I said. “Celebrities dating celebrities.”

“Notoriety does intrude on romance.”

The title of Smallduke was a fossil from an extinct peerage, royalty in only slightly more truth than an acclaimed musician could be a knight. Be that as it may, the bearer still wielded a power only marginally lesser than that of the Tallduke, one neutered more by tradition than law. Should the vote raise him high enough, his would be one of two hands fighting over the wheel of Vizhilly.

I didn’t need to ask if we’d be visiting him next. Chella’s name was as good as a skeleton key in Vizhilly. I didn’t expect that to change now. “Do you think there’s any truth to what she said?”

“That he manipulated Jasviga?” Chella sighed through her nose. “Even if she had evidence, it would be a matter for the authorities.”

I didn’t miss the warning in her tone. I was still nobody’s Watson. But that didn’t put the bloodhound in me back to sleep.

Down on the back lawn, someone began projecting a movie onto an inflatable screen. Guests meandered towards as the opening credits unspooled, the magic of cinema organizing them into couples. Children Must Fly opened with a one-woman duet, Jasviga singing with herself.

“You know, I still haven’t sat down to watch that,” I mentioned.

Chella lifted her veil to show me her smirk. “We came all this way.”

I realized I’d have taken any excuse not to leave that balcony where we were together. This was one better than I could have hoped for.

The film was, in fact, two stories, one retelling how the goddess Pantegloria gave birth to Vizhilly, the other a historical drama about Queen Lisrvolta, the last true monarch of the nation, currently dead three hundred years. It treated them as the same narrative told from different cosmological strata, one a literal if fictitious birth, the other factual yet metaphorical. Just as Pantegloria gave her life to let her child escape the jealous gods of static lands, so did the Queen sacrifice herself to stop the Othmanic Empire from immobilizing Vizhilly. Even as a foreigner with a different history, I found Jasviga a wonder to behold. It was not so much skill as an actor but the unaffected love she gave to the twin roles, to the song she sang to her parallel self as she set her newborn nation free to wander without her. Seeing her in her glory, hearing her turn herself inside out for me, I understood why her country adored her so. She justified the pride they had in their nation. If this woman could bear such boundless and shameless affection for a dumb hunk of land, then it was alright that they did as well.

I understood too, why Vizhilly would hurt to lose her. The voice of Antideterminism would grow a little quieter. The voices of the Permanationalism would grow louder. The country would become, in a small way, harder to love.

For Chella, and for me.

Right then, something once nebulous crystalized inside of me. Chella might have been willing to let Jasviga die, but her binding duty wasn’t mine. My job was to tell the truth. Nothing else mattered.

The film ended too soon, devouring two hours in what felt like seconds. Guests had begun to wander inside or head home towards the end of the movie. When the projector was turned off and the lawn went dark, it struck me just how alone we were together. Somehow, she and I had gravitated towards one another until now we were only a few inches apart. The breeze caught her silks and fluttered them coyly against me.

“What did you think?”

“I think—” I said and had to stop because I was no longer thinking of the movie at all. I could only think of that small touch she’d gifted me on Short Hat Mountain.

Chella lifted her veil. “It’s alright if you don’t like it. We don’t have CGI like in your big Hollywoodland movies.”

I couldn’t take it anymore; this deep in her gravity, all I could do was stand up on my toes and lean in to her. If you could crane across all of space and kiss a star, I don’t believe you would not.

She intercepted my pursed lips with the flat of her palm.

I recoiled, every drop of blood in me flooding into my face. She herself had gone wide-eyed and tight-lipped as something taxidermized.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, her tone cracking ever so slightly.

As embarrassed as I was, I was perversely proud to have eked that much of a reaction from her. “I’m so sorry,” I said, doubly ashamed, taking a long step back. The balcony felt suddenly claustrophobic; if there hadn’t been a railing there, I would have enthusiastically walked off it.

Chella took a silent minute to compose herself, smoothing out the wrinkles in her clothing and expression alike. Whatever I’d made her feel disappeared beneath new stone before I could get a good look.

“You and I are both observers, of our own kind,” she finally said. “We must be neutral in all things. Do not become too much a character in your own story.”

I had been on international flights longer than the drive home. The moment we arrived we said our hasty goodnights and fled to our separate bedrooms. I would have loved nothing more than to let my pillow knock me unconscious for a good long while, but there were matters pressing. I got my laptop, made some coffee, and called Ian on the way back to the bed where I would be getting zero sleep.

“What are you doing up?” he asked. “It’s got to be one in the morning over there.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Listen, I need your help here. I’ve got a load of research to do and I’m not sure how long I’ve got. In other words, a two-brain job.”

He must have picked up the urgency in my voice. “I’ll make some time.”

“Fantastic. Now here’s the game-plan. Get me everything there is on Jasviga Malmarek, the Permanationals, Hiram Bosse, and Qillim Tichorannes.”

“Welcome,” said the would-be-duke. “I’m so glad you’ve come, both of you.”

Qillim Tichorannes was a tall and unreasonably handsome man in that silver-templed and ageless state that some men reach between thirty and forty. He warmly ushered Chella and I into his office and sat us down at his mahogany desk before a tray of mint biscuits and a q?ng-hu? pot of tea. The saffron robes he wore as a Lord in parliament were hung by the door; carved into the face of his desk was the crest of the esteemed Tichorannes family, a serpent entwined about a lark, the cultural import of which was as lost on me as an inside joke.

“The secret’s out,” he remarked, wry but not irate. He took a seat opposite us and steepled his fingers, the very image of a puissant politician. “Yes, Jasviga and I have been romantically engaged these last few months. It has been rather difficult to keep under wraps, but we enjoyed our privacy.”

Chella half-bowed respectfully. “If you don’t mind speaking about her, your perspective on her would be very helpful for my purposes.”

“Not at all,” Qillim said. His smile was as white and spit-shined as a hospital floor. “Honestly, it’s a relief to be able to open up about our relationship.” He snapped off a wink my way. “Let’s do this in Anglic, for the sake of our guest.”

He spoke at length about his history with Jasviga—how they’d met at the premiere of her last film, the whirlwind of romance he’d spun her away on. How heartbroken he was to learn what she’d done. How he would mourn when she was gone. His body language boasted of unimpeachable confidence, a charisma that could make poll numbers do tricks. I knew, the way dogs foretold earthquakes, that this man would get everything he wanted.

I kept my mouth shut and bided my time. My chance came when Chella announced she had to take a call and apologetically left the room.

“Do you mind I ask a question of my own?” I asked the moment I was sure the coast was clear.

Qillim shrugged. “It would be weird if I said no.”

“Thanks,” I said. “What made you want to be a Perma?”

His affable grin didn’t budge, but I felt its temperature go down a few degrees. “You seem to be confused. I am of the Peace and Continuance Party. We are quite moderate by most standards.”

“My mistake,” I said. “Do you know a businessman from the UCC by the name of Hiram Bosse?”

Qillim looked perfectly contrite. “My focus is the state of politics here at home.”

“The state of politics? Interesting choice of words. Hiram Bosse doesn’t have much to do with politics in the UCC. So it’s doubly strange that he’d be helping to bankroll the Permanational demonstrations here in Vizhilly.” As I spoke, I took a printed packet from my satchel and laid it on the desk. I’d promised Ian a night out on me for his help putting all this together. “Not straight across, I mean. We’re talking the usual tangle of shell companies and laundering operations. Still illegal, but harder to track, unless you know to look for it.”

Qillim raised his eyebrows. “If that’s true, this could be a massive scandal for the Permas. They’re supposed to be against foreign influence. I’d very much like to see your research.”

“Sure.” I unpacked the rest of my printouts and heaped them on the pile. “For starters, here are some records of your financial dealings with Hiram Bosse, whom you do not know. You were in real estate before you were a Lord, yes? Your companies once collaborated on a luxury hotel in Constantinople. And here—” I paused to flip up the first few pages, “—is documentation of you meeting with Hiam Bosse at least seven times in the last ten years. This, for instance, is a photo of you together taken at that hotel four weeks before Mister Bosse was banned from entering Vizhilly for his collection of goldhead spiders. You might remember that story.”

Qillim took my work and rifled through it. “You seem to be building up to something,” he said, and the tips of his smile sharpened into stingers. Nothing a camera would pick up, the smug son of a bitch. I knew he was baiting me, and something in me took it anyway.

“Alright,” I snapped. “I think you’ve been working with Hiram Bosse to covertly fund the Permanational movement. I think you’re promising him the first slice of the pie after you take over Vizhilly. The spiders you’ve been giving him? Gifts between friends, to help keep him a happy investor. And I think that after it became difficult to meet with him directly, you decided to use Jasviga Malmarek as a go-between. You had her family watched to make sure she didn’t rat you out. I think that you’ll become Smallduke, and you’ll keep the Perma movement chugging along until you have the public will to stop the country. And you’ll let Jasviga die to accomplish everything she’s against.”

For all the fire I spat at him, Qillim wasn’t so much as singed. “Interesting,” he remarked.

I slumped back in my seat feeling spent. “It’s the irony that kills me,” I groused. “You people are supposed to be against us foreigners coming in and sticking their hands in things. Tell me, sir, when you get a hold of the government and the country’s finally stopped, how long until there’s a shiny new Bosse-brand hotel looming over downtown Tessadorma? Because that’s how it always goes with this sort of thing. But I figure the ends justify the means for you. And besides, you’ll probably be a partner in that hotel.”

It wouldn’t just be Hiram Bosse either, While the Permas on the street would be cheering as the walls went up, the billionaires of the world would be ripping the softest morsels out Vizhilly’s underbelly, wolves let in through the door Qillim held open. The people would never know they’d been conquered at last, because empires no longer marched with armies, but with lawyers and politicians.

Qillim spread his hands helplessly. “What is it you want from me, Mister Shock?”

“I want you to admit it,” I said, crushing the words through barred teeth.

Qillim was silent for a few ticks of the clock. He peered around his office like an amnesiac uncertain of where he was. “Where are the police?” he asked, puzzled.


He slapped my research against his palm. “There’s a lot of interesting information here, but I think that if you could prove any of what you’re claiming, I would be under arrestment right now.”

I had nothing for that because he was correct. Oh, I could draw lines between suspicious dots, but that didn’t necessarily make a picture. “I’ve only just started digging,” I said. “This was what I found in a weekend. If you think that I’m just—”


That word, calmly spoken, filled the room the way a gunshot could. I turned to see Chella in the doorway, her face a snapshot of an eruption.

“Explain,” she said.

“Allow me,” said Qillim Tichorannes.

A sudden squall had draped winter over Tessadorma by the time we drove away from Lord’s office. The city’s colors ran gray in that freezing downpour, turning the autocar’s windows into concrete walls. Hours passed in increments of green lights and autocar lengths as I waited for my sentence to come down.

“I must ask that you leave my home immediately,” Chella said at last. I’d seen something like that coming, but I let it stab me anyway.

“I apologize, but you are no longer welcome there. We will collect your things, and then I will take you elsewhere.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“You certainly do not. It was never my responsibility to try and prove Jasviga’s innocence. A noosemaker is trusted to do one thing, no more, and as my associate, I trusted you to respect that. Instead, you have jeopardized my career and my reputation.”

“Look—I’m sorry. Honest. But you know he’s guilty.”

Chella shook her head. “I absolutely do not. You have no proof, only suspicions. I cannot forsake the oath I swore for so little. A fair death is entrusted to me; if I show any bias at all, I would be betraying my subject and my country both.”

“Well why does it have to be that way?” I spluttered. “Why does duty have to matter more than anything else? You’re a woman, not a job.” I said it knowing that it was selfish. I wanted her to be woman because a woman was human, could forgive, could forget. Could love.

“That is incorrect,” she replied, suddenly stolid just as I was growing heated. “I am neither. I am a function. And you have interfered.”

“No, no, no. You can’t tell me that you’re alright hanging someone you know is innocent. Someone who means so much to this country that you love. Jasviga gets hanged, and that’s one less voice telling Vizhilly not to run itself into the rocks. This,” I stabbed the dashboard with my finger for emphasis, “—this is one life that you don’t have to take.”

Words were too feeble to tell me how wrong I was in her eyes. Some people can ignore so intensely as to shut you out of their world. Chella’s deliberate silence threatened to crush me to nothing against the passenger-side door.

In a much smaller voice, I said, “your duty can’t mean this much to you.”

Chella slammed on the brakes. Swerving through traffic, she pulled us over to a curb, where she ordered me out of the autocar. I briefly thought that she would leave me there, only for her to join me on the sidewalk. The rain turned my clothes to ice within seconds. If Chella felt the cold at all, I couldn’t say.

“You have no idea how arrogant you are,” she snarled. “Perhaps you can’t understand how a responsibility could mean so much to someone, but my duty is everything. You tried to force me to sacrifice what I am not willing to give. And for what? So that you could be the hero? You believe that you can traipse onto my country and solve all its problems within a week. As if all along we were waiting for a lone foreigner in shining armor to come and save us from ourselves. Let me tell you this: Jasviga was never going to be saved.”

All words escaped me but the simplest.


Her steely gaze impaled me to the spot. “No matter the pressures that may have been put upon her, the fact remains. Her actions caused the death of an innocent. Vizhillian law does not bend. Nothing I could sacrifice can change the past.”

Her next words came down like the hand of god, slapping hope back to Earth.

“Jasviga was always going to be hung.”

A passing omnibus honked its horn. A couple under one umbrella waved down a cab. Drivers argued from vehicle-widths apart. Business carried on uninterrupted. The city had known all along. Only I hadn’t been in on the joke. I hung my head, picturing that pitfall of a moment: Jasviga’s suitcase open on the table; the spider’s fangs sinking into that guard’s hand; Jasviga’s beautiful voice tearing as she screamed, knowing instantly that she was already dead.

“Let me tell you one more thing,” Chella said. “Vizhilly does not belong to you. It is not yours to save. You may think you love it, but you are merely spellbound by our curiosities, and that will not last. You are a bored young man with a job too important for him, who cares for nothing more than he does chasing after the most interesting thing in sight. First it was me, and now this. And when you have tired of adventure, you will go home to write a story in which you are the hero, leaving us to clean up what you have broken. Am I mistaken in anything I have said?”

Water sloughed off her lips, her nose, ran into her eyes and out, and could not make her blink. Nothing touched her if she did not allow it. I studied her throughout a long held-breath, searching for some fracture-point in that un-expression that would let me in, and found nothing.

Why are you like this, I burned to ask. But I understood then that it was far too late.

First it was me, and now this.

I was well beyond that now.

“No,” I said.

“You cannot have my country for you have sacrificed nothing to it,” she said. “You are a tourist.”

Then she left me there and drove away.

That afternoon I finally checked into the room I’d rented. I passed the time until dark cataloguing the autocars passing below my window and slept naked with my wet clothes hung up in the shower. My things were delivered the following morning, along with a ticket back to the UCC. It hit me that during my time here I’d not stopped to buy anything to take home with me. That felt right.

That night I flew away from Vizhilly, dreaming of a kiss that never happened.

Chella was not wrong about me. I went home and I wrote my story. I had bills to pay, after all. A career to consider. It was not the story I’d set out to write, however. My week or so in that moving country had not taught me all that much about Chella Gipzodi, which my editor was apoplectic to learn. Instead, I described a nation between two futures, a conspiracy that maybe was, and an icon abused. I spoke about a solitary artist and the man foolish enough to fall for her. Many threads, all without endings. I released everything I had, every bit of audio and video, and asked the public to pen their own conclusions.

It received a fair bit of interest. Probably more than I’d have gotten with the day-in-the-life biography I’d intended. Chella was right, as always; my country rewarded the unscrupulous. I suppose Hiram Bosse could have told me as much.

It got people talking, at the very least. I could be satisfied with that.

Three weeks later, while my story was still riding the crest of international discourse, Jasviga Malmarek was hung at Tessadorma Cathedral on a sunny Thursday morning. Chella performed her duty no more or less professionally than she had for so many murderers and rapists; I stayed up late to watch it happen live. As she hoisted Jasviga towards the sky, the cameras zoomed in to ogle the noose digging into her neck, the most famous noosemaker’s most recent opus. That lithe cord had been braided with money, gray-green UCC dollars in multi-zeroed denominations. It collared her in paper ribbons of thorny rune-script. A pendant glinted on her throat—a serpent entwined around a lark, etched into a golden spider.

Perfectly innocent symbols, all perfectly relevant to her life.

The world watched Jasviga smile as she fell.

Chella told me once that she lied plenty often. Even to me. I wondered now how true that was.

Seeing that noose got me to thinking. Maybe Chella had another motivation to call me to her house. Maybe I’d been meant to do something she couldn’t. I had too many questions I couldn’t ask her. Why had she taken me up to the top of Short Hat Mountain? Who had been calling her, that day in Qillim’s office? Why had she never warned me not to publish what I knew? I had my suspicions, but nothing more.

Maybe I was just desperate to excuse myself.

Either way. Whether it was her noose or my story or both, the talk I’d begun inflamed into a conversation. Support for Permanationalism plummeted in the polls. Reports suggested a second investigation was being opened. Citing a personal emergency, Qillim Tichorannes dropped out of the race and hopped on a plane to somewhere undisclosed. There was no word left on when he’d return. The savvy gamblers said it would be a while. Of Chella there was little mention; she’d done her job without error.

As for myself, I could only ponder the bonds of duty, and the loopholes there must be in them.

Meanwhile, Vizhilly moved on without me, with not so much as thank you for what I may or may not have done for it. Some ugly part of me thought it might come and carry me away in gratitude, but I was a fool to think I mattered that much to it. That country is, at the end of the day, an untame animal. When hurt, it prefers to lick its own wounds. It might tolerate you on its back for a time, but no-one can hope to ride it forever. You must love it for what it is, or not at all.

I have since come to a peace. I went chasing after the strange and for a moment, I held it. Were I to keep it forever as so many conquerors had failed to do, it would no longer be strange.

Vizhilly moved on, but the world is a sphere. One day it may come back around.

And Chella may still be there.

Evan Marcroft is a speculative fiction writer from Sacramento California, currently operating out of Chicago with his wife. Evan uses his expensive degree in literary criticism to do menial data entry, and dreams of writing for video games, though he’ll settle for literature instead. His works of science fiction, fantasy, and spine-curdling horror can be found in a variety of venues, such as Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Asimov’s SF. Find a complete list of his published works at, or follow him on twitter at @Evan_Marcroft.

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