Tristan and Arianne bought a house on the Dynastic homeworld, a short trip from the capital. It was light and airy, spacious and elegant, and was surrounded by lush sweeping gardens. But their enjoyment of it was forestalled. With the abolition of the Dynasty - Shajah Ha’an and the rest of the Dynastic household having been demoted to regular citizenship - a new regime had to be instituted, which was popularly known as the Interstellar Republic. And a republic had to have a president.
The improvements to the human physique brought by the Gnurit were swiftly disseminated throughout the population, and it was generally accepted that humankind had taken a major evolutionary leap forward. But the story of Arianne’s rescue had also been told, and she was recognised as being the first of the new breed. The pressure for her to become the first president of the new republic was therefore unstoppable. Although in her heart it was the last thing she wanted to do, she finally gracefully accepted the nomination, and in a landslide of unprecedented proportions, she was elected.
The day of her inauguration dawned. The Great Hall of the People was crammed. The atmosphere was electric with the sense of history in the making. The early part of the day was taken up with presenting Arianne, resplendant in a flowing robe of deepest green, to the delegates from every planet in the republic. Her hand was crushed repeatedly, her cheeks kissed over and over again. She smiled until she ached, and mouthed the same pleasantries and acknowledgements ad nauseam.
And all the while, a sense of grim foreboding knotted and reknotted her stomach. Try as she might, she could not escape the sense that this was not the right thing to be doing. She almost lost her footing on the steps as she ascended to the dais, and as the President of the Law Council, Mith Gombeek, a sombre, imposing man, went through the preliminaries, she felt close to fainting. It was only her assemblers, she knew, that kept her knees from giving way altogether.
And then Mith Gombeek was approaching her with the seal of office. His eyes met hers, and she looked there in vain for some trace of encouragement, but the man appeared to be utterly preoccupied with ensuring that he carried out his own function to the letter, and was completely unaware that the misgivings within her were swiftly building to a crisis.
She looked out over the auditorium. Tristan, Bannon, Shajah Ha’an, Jahann’ara, all were seated in the front row, looking up at her approvingly. She reflected on all that had happened to her: Tristan dropping into her world, their whirlwind romance, the rebellion, the murder of Alcofribas, the supposed brain-death of Tristan, her imprisonment and her experiences at the hands of Aurangzhebb, and now this.
Before she knew what was happening, Mith Gombeek was pressing the seal of office into her outstretched hands. He began to recite: “Do you, Arianne Nasier of Thelema...”
He stopped, stunned. “Pardon me?”
“I can’t. I’m sorry. You’ll have to find someone else.”
Almost blinded by the hot tears burning down her face, she descended into the body of the hall and marched away down the aisle, painfully aware of the thousands of eyes focussed on her retreating back and of the slow murmur that was beginning to fill the air.
It was with the greatest relief that she burst out into the warm sunshine, taking the lolling limousine drivers totally by surprise. Tristan caught up with her, and she clasped him ferociously.
“I couldn’t do it!” she sobbed into his shoulder. “Not after everything else. It was just too much. I know everyone wanted me to, and I’m sorry, but...”
“It’s all right,” said Tristan softly. “They’ll find someone else.” He stroked her hair. He felt her chest rising and falling against his own, heard the sobs slowly subsiding.
She said quietly, “Take me home.”
At the rear of the house, the land sloped away gently towards a pretty ornamental lake. At the edge of the lake was a large boulder with steps carved into it, giving access to its flat top, from which there was a magnificent view of the valley beyond.
Arianne emerged from the house, still wearing her forest green robe, and swiftly strode down the lawn to the lake. At the base of the boulder she kicked off her shoes and began to ascend the steps. Tristan began to follow.
She turned and looked at him, her face wracked with pain. “I need to be alone for a while,” she said, a pleading note in her voice. “I need to sort things out in my head.”
Tristan returned to the house. There was a terrace where he could sit and keep her in view. He had much to sort out in his own head. He was struggling to come to terms with the fact that Aurangzhebb had wiped out the first emissaries from another universe, like a thwarted child throwing a tantrum. What, Tristan wondered, did that say about humanity and its readiness to receive the gifts that the godlike Gnurit had granted so unquestioningly? This spectacular opportunity for communion on a cosmic scale had slipped through their fingers, and the grief he felt was a wound he knew would be slow in healing.
The day passed. Now and then, he would see Arianne stand up and pace about on the top of the rock, as if she were wrestling with some inner demon, but for the most part she remained seated in the one spot, staring out across the valley as she looked deep within.
The sun edged across a cloudless sky, sinking at last toward the horizon. The windows behind him acquired a golden glow. The shadows crept across the grass, and as the last beams of sunlight flickered through the trees, a chill wind came up. Tristan saw the thin fabric of Arianne’s robe fluttering, but she herself appeared to be unaware of it.
He got up and walked down to the edge of the lake, where she could see him. He stood there for a few minutes, watching how the breeze fanned the surface of the water, observing the progress of a small crustacean making its way across the bottom close to the shore.
There was a soft whistle, and he looked up. Arianne gave a little sideways jerk of her head, motioning for him to join her.
He climbed the steps and sat down beside her, his legs dangling off the edge of the rock. The whole world had taken on the coppery hues of evening.
Arianne took his hand and pressed it firmly against her leg. “I’m sorry I let everyone down,” she said. “Do you think they’ll forgive me?”
“Of course,” he reassured her. “You’re the Hero of the Republic.” He spoke the words as if they had capital letters, as if it were a title or an award.
“Hero of the republic,” she repeated with a wry smile. “It sounds good. Almost as good as president. But it means so much pressure. And I couldn’t handle it. Not on top of everything else. I couldn’t stand the thought of years of doing what everyone else wanted me to do.”
He was silent for a moment, hesitating. At last he said, “There was actually something I wanted you to do for me. Just for me.”
She looked at him. “What is it?”
She thought for a moment, and then said, “Okay.”
Blackness, utter blackness. She heard Tristan’s voice saying, “Take my hand.” She reached out, and felt his hand taking hers. “Take it slowly,” he said, and began to lead her.
She did not like the blindfold. She did not like the idea of not being in control, something she had had her fill of recently. But this was her wedding day, and Tristan had made so much of his “special wedding present”, blacking out the windows at the front of the house, and dropping dark hints about how he had had the republic’s biotechnologists working day and night on this one.
Biotechnologists? What was he up to?
Arianne sensed she was being led towards the front door, and her suspicions were confirmed when she heard the soft sigh of it opening and felt the warm sun on her skin.
The blindfold was removed. She blinked in the light, and found herself staring along the drive way. The plants that had previously occupied the borders had been removed overnight and replaced by shrubs that were at the same time familiar and unfamiliar.
It took her a moment to recognise what they were. “Aroma figs! With no subim trees! They’re standing up by themselves!”
Tristan beamed. “We had to reconfigure some of their genes. But now they are going to be the new symbol of the republic. No more parasitism. And these are the first ones anywhere.”
Arianne walked over to the nearest bush and plucked a fruit. She crushed it in her fingers, and held it up to her nose, inhaling the powerful sickly-sweet aroma. “And a very fine symbol it is too. Thank you darling.” She smiled mysteriously. “And now I have a surprise for you. Come with me.”
Still chewing on the fig, she led him back to the house. Opening off the vestibule was a conversation room which doubled as a library. She slid the door open. Giving her a puzzled glance, Tristan passed by her and entered the room.
Standing by the window were Morgan and Clara.
“Mum! Dad!” he yelled, and raced to embrace them. “They found you!”
“It took some doing,” said Morgan, “but that woman of yours is pretty determined.”
He gave a grin. Tristan looked round, and saw Arianne waiting in the doorway. He beckoned her over and drew her into the huddle, feeling that he could not be happier.
Tristan stood talking to the guests and the celebrant under the flowering cherry tree on their front lawn, trying to quell his nerves and remember his speech at the same time. Anxiously he flicked canape crumbs from his suit, which was, ironically enough, of a shade known as Dynastic blue.
Arianne emerged from the house on the arm of her father, Shajah Ha’an. She was wearing a full length white gown with a high neck and puffed sleeves. It had little pearls sewn into the bodice. She had a wide-brimmed white hat with a band of zomo flower blue, and a waistband of the same colour. She was carrying a small posy of zomo flowers.
Tristan felt a lump in his throat. He had never seen her looking lovelier.
The ceremony was very low key, as both bride and groom had an aversion to ritual. They each made simple speeches about what the other meant to them. Arianne surprised Tristan somewhat by referring to him as “my most passionate lover”, which was not, he thought, something one usually heard in wedding vows, but it made his heart swell with pride all the same.
And in the evening they danced under the stars, waltzing across the lawn until they were one with the stars, their very own binary system, whirling and twirling, revolving around the common centre of gravity that was their love for each other, spinning on through the universe down the unknowable pathways of space and time. Forever.
End of Tristan and Arianne.
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