Restorations is a novelette presented in 3 parts.
Chapter One is available as A Game of Turkame
This Posting is Chapter Two, Patron of the Arts
By the time Michelle made it back to the temple the sun had fallen just below the horizon. A reddish glow filled the sky. She tried to ask one of the guards whether he was of the Atoni or Rejan tradition, but he would not answer her. The Guillarin stood staring, straight ahead to where the sun had vanished below the desert, the point of his lance aglow in the reddened light. She fared no better questioning the men to his left or those to his right.
Inside the temple everything was still.
Everyone had gone. Spotlights set about the interior highlighted small, circular shields of drama, of magnificent frescoes painted to achieve more than the painter’s fame. She walked the length of the building, slowly considering her surroundings. According to the books Ulecker had given Michelle, it had taken more than three decades to produce what she saw.
Guillarin tradition had Lucresa painting throughout his waning years, plagued by lack of sleep and proper food.
In those days a council had gathered to review the unfolding masterpiece. After the death of Lucresa’s enslaver, patron after patron emerged to supply the needs of the project and encourage its completion. Some came from one tradition, some from the other, but none would allow Lucresa the genius, Lucresa the heretic, to retire from his great work.
The pattern was familiar. It proved as traditional as Lucresa’s style, painting only while the plaster was wet and adding nothing after it was dry, beginning by spreading a thin layer of wet plaster over a much rougher, dry layer. He had transferred the outlines of the images to the walls by applying a paper outline to the plaster and tracing it with a stylus.
And his work had changed the Guillarin world, showing the Atoni and the Reja that they could live together, that their traditions could coexist. Or so the legend went, but more and more Michelle had become convinced the legend was wrong. Something in the translations she had read pointed to it, but it lay nestled deep within the lines, more in the absence of words than in the careful phrases laid out by the writers for the ages to come.
What was the truth?
Perhaps her restoration work would reveal it, or perhaps it had been lost forever in the restless turning of the centuries, as time itself had erased, reformed, and recolored the once vibrant frescoes of Alecord.
Trying to put the mystery out of her mind, Michelle replaced it in the balance with hard work, putting in several more hours with her computers and leaving only when she could no longer read the controls.
Her quarters were within easy walking distance, and two of the guards outside escorted her home in silence. After her confrontation with Cowain, the rooms her patron had provided for her seemed a remarkably vulnerable place. The inn that lay at the heart of Alecord, and the guards, so evident at the temple, stayed with her here only long enough to see Michelle safely inside.
Yet Michelle remained aware of the Guillarin resolve to maintain an evening calm. It was the one tradition which allowed her to enjoy a place free from assault and from protesting, angry voices. But, Michelle wondered, could she count on Cowain to observe the ancient ways?
Her supper was waiting. Though placed in richly decorated bowls, it proved all but inedible, as usual. An order of more palatable fare had been held up in Retiga for days, along with the spare parts for her spectrometer, all part of the sometimes silent, sometimes vocal protest against the work taking place in the temple.
Tonight, Michelle found herself forced to nibble at what looked like dried porridge but tasted far worse. Candles lit the room, giving a medieval flavor to the paintings and to the ironwork frame of her bed.
She took out the translated histories of Alecord and began to read.
A quiet knock came to the door. It was Ulecker. From somewhere she had acquired a basket of terrestrial fruits and cheeses, including a small canned ham. Michelle smiled, uncertain for a moment whether to let her in, whether at this point to trust anything Guillarin. But the food!
“It is a beautiful room,” said Ulecker. There came the voice of a singer drifting down to them from the triumphal arch, the singer of the midnight calm. Sighing, Michelle knew the songs would continue for hours, making it difficult for her to find sleep, but the joy of the food overtook all other miseries and brought a smile to her face and eyes.
“It must have cost you a week’s salary,” she said. “Come in.”
“Miss White!” Eldriq interrupted. “Is there no subtlety at all to your race?” He turned toward her, a svelte copy of Michelangelo’s David cast in porcelain, but still one of the largest Guillarin Michelle had ever seen.
“I’ll have more men sent over this morning,” Eldriq assured her. In the office of her patron, Michelle sat in a chair of polished red leather replete with golden armrests. She seemed lost in its vastness.
Her heart sank at the opulence surrounding her, yet it was not the tapestry, nor the great clocks, nor the ornate woodwork upon which she focused but upon the richly attired guards stationed at every turn. Four stood in this room, and their weapons were not traditional Guillarin; they were Earth manufactured automatic rifles.
“That’s not it,” Michelle responded. She watched Eldriq stand before a bright window, sipping coffee. “I think Cowain knows about the scandal on Tula. It’s best if you avoid the publicity; I’m afraid… I’m afraid I should resign.”
“Nonsense, no one else could complete the restoration in time. We debated this for months before your arrival. There will be no other humans allowed in the temple. You will proceed.”
“The accusations,” Michelle paused. Her lips refused to form the words. “I’m certain we can come to a reasonable settlement.”
Though Eldriq remained quietly engaged, looking out of his window as though something on the horizon merited his attention, a new irritation began to invade his features. It was, Michelle decided, the way he worried the lace curtains between his fingers.
“I’ll need enough to get off world,” she continued, “with my equipment, of course, and enough to keep me-”
“Miss White!” Eldriq interrupted. “Is there no subtlety at all to your race?” He turned toward her, a svelte copy of Michelangelo’s David cast in porcelain, but still one of the largest Guillarin Michelle had ever seen. “We know all about you. Ah,- at least I do. Guillarin is not so poor that it cannot wield influence beyond its borders, cannot gain information.”
He laughed gently, finishing his coffee before he continued. “Until now I didn’t realize how naïve you could be. But you probably thought the return of your license and credentials the result of your own efforts. Come now, are forgers and liars so easily forgiven, even on human worlds?”
“I am neither a forger nor a liar, sir!” Though she raised her voice, the words came in a tremulous string, weakened all the more by her inability to look Eldriq directly in the eye.
“No, not a forger,” Eldriq agreed, “but for the rest… You are a liar, I’m afraid. We know the forgeries sold by your old employer, Dauphin Dominae, can more correctly be attributed to a man with whom which you were in love.”
“I was not convicted, and neither was John.”
“Convicted of a crime, in the end… no. Your essential defense became incompetence, for which you forfeited a career. All this for a man who abandoned you in the end. If you were not such a fool, I would not be so certain of my own plans.”
Eldriq returned to his desk, activating a computer screen imbedded in its surface.
“Tell me, truly, on Tula you had no hopes of rehabilitating yourself, of returning to honest work, did you? How many years could be left to you,- to make your fortune, Miss White?”
Michelle felt her cheeks redden. She wanted to cry. The balance of her strength went to a single goal, maintaining her composure. She had nothing left with which to answer. Finally, she said, “I think Cowain threatened to kill me. He showed me a knife.”
“My personal assistant, Creytel, will be with you from now on,” Eldriq answered. He typed something into the computer, then considered the results. “I apologize for Cowain. He was necessary to appease certain Rejans on the council. But I had wanted Creytel for you from the beginning, and it should not be difficult under the circumstances to have him confirmed to the post.
“As for Cowain, I’ve only this moment made his life worth a certain sum to many interested professionals. A shame. Now, Miss White, you had better return to the temple.”
“What, wha…” Michelle stuttered. She rose from the chair to take as defiant a posture as she could before Eldriq. “Accepting the fact that I do not possess Guillarin subtlety, what is it that you want of me?”
“Why nothing,” Eldriq answered. “I know little of the arts and almost nothing concerning restoration.” Turning in his chair, he faced the window, looking out across the mud brick expanse of the city as if he were seeing some vision of its future. “But I ask myself questions. What if Lucresa’s original work extolled the virtues of progress, vividly demonstrated its advantages? Later men may have found it necessary to bury this knowledge below fresh coats of paint. To avoid conflict, riots, and tribal arguments,- you understand.”
“You don’t know that to be the case,” Michelle answered.
“It seems to be the case,” said Eldriq. “It has seemed to be the case ever since you began your work. When your reports began to flow and I told you how pleased I as with your results, what did you perceive by my enthusiasm? Why do you think the emotions in the city run so high?”
“Every day that I work, I uncover more and more evidence of ancient attempts to re-engineer the frescoes. The balance could be exactly the opposite when I am done.”
“That would be very foolish,” Eldriq said, his words falling into flat clicks with no attempt at chimes or musical intonations. It was a threat. “How were we to know such revelations awaited us,” he went on as though he had heard not a single word of Michelle’s that might interfere with his plan. “Why, there have been centuries when the temple was open only to the elect, when its message may have been tampered with. A shame. But once the truth is known, we will be the stronger for it. A leader will emerge to move the Guillarin forward.”
“Your culture,” Michelle said, “is based on respect, on tolerance between the mystical and technical traditions.”
“Tell me nothing of my culture,” Eldriq snapped.
“You will start a war.”
“Perhaps. And what will the Rejan fight us with, their spells and dances? Knives?” Even through its returning musical expression, Michelle could hear the bitterness in Eldriq’s voice. “Times have changed. Riots are controllable. Soon the Guillarin must put aside provincial nonsense and take their place among the star faring peoples. Starships and economies, you may have noticed, are not built through mutual tolerance.”
Within a month, half the temple’s interior had been restored to a level dating back fifteen hundred years. Carbon and candle wax, lamp oils and desert grit were stripped away in a process that removed one square centimeter of dirt at a time. Michelle had a dozen trained Guillarin working with hand held applicator-scrubbers, complementing with gentle, sentient artistry the precision of her computer driven machines.
An important visitor to the temple, one of Alecord’s Council, shouted in Guillarin, pinning Michelle in one corner of the scaffolding while Ulecker and Creytel came to her rescue.
Ulecker gentled the angry visitor away while Creytel stammered apologies, waving his hands through the air as if that in itself might calm the situation. It seemed to have the opposite effect.
“He says Lucresa did not work purely a fresco,” Ulecker explained. “You’re accused of destroying agents added to the work after the paint had dried, in particular a certain varnish.”
“Who is this?” Michelle asked, brushing past.
“Mr. Asoli,” explained Creytel, pacing excitedly in a circle about the three of them, “is on Alecord’s ruling council and is also the Director of the Institute for-”
“I get the idea,” Michelle interrupted. “Tell Mr. Asoli the records of his own countrymen show the varnish he refers to went on three hundred years after Lucresa was already in his grave.”
Ulecker began to translate, hurriedly, looking from Michelle to the visitor. “The formula was an animal glue,” Michelle continued, “and it was used to brighten the colors. Trouble is, later on the effect reverses and… Oh, how can I explain this to a fanatic! Tell him he can believe whatever he wants, but he’s got to leave me alone so I can finish this work!”
“But, Miss White! Oh, Mr. Asoli, so glad you don’t speak English!”
Michelle stomped away, leaving the aliens to sort it out among themselves. The bald threats of Eldriq and the whispers in the streets had left her no emotional energy for diplomacy. How, in simple stages, she had placed herself in these outrageous circumstances amazed her. She found her heart beating as if each step were the last footfall of a marathon, her stomach burning like fire.
All Michelle had hoped to do in taking on the Guillarin commission was to clear her reputation, to restore the frescoes of Alecord as well and honestly as any professional could hope to do. These were goals enough to offer sleepless nights. Now, Michelle knew, more than her reputation hung in the balance. She headed for the coffee.
“You seem disturbed,” Ulecker said. She came up behind Michelle, her slender fingers kneading into the back of the human’s shoulders. Michelle tilted her head back and sighed. “You can’t stay here in the evenings, alone,” Ulecker continued. “It’s making you crazy.”
“Did you clear things up with Mr. Asoli?” Michelle asked.
“There’s no clearing things up with some people,” Ulecker replied. “Tension in the streets is increasing. People are beginning to move in waves, curious, drawing closer every day. When the ceremony occurs, the waves will crest and they will flood this place in an instant.”
Michelle poured coffee for them both. “I can’t do it. I can’t finish this in a few weeks.”
Reaching forward, Ulecker moved one of the pieces on the turkame board. “I notice you have been comparing gas chromatographs from various sections of the frescoes?”
“Isn’t that what you do when you want to see how closely a chemical applied to a work mimics the effect of aging? Chemical aging.”
“You have been studying,” Michelle said proudly.
“Yes,” Ulecker responded modestly. “I mean to say, are you looking for forgeries?”
“I’m not certain,” Michelle answered. “Ulecker, there are places where the frescoes have been changed over the years. Some of the intent may have been restoration. At other times, I don’t honestly know.”
“I would not stay here alone, Ms. White,” Ulecker interrupted. The guards know someone has been trying to get past them. Perhaps many someones.”
“Cowain,” Michelle guessed. “I believe he’s trying to kill me.”
“Perhaps. He is Rejan, and the project has drifted into the hands of the Atoni.”
“This doesn’t bother you?”
Sipping at her coffee, Ulecker replied, “Why should it? I am Atoni. I enjoy things human. Coffee, wrist watches, computers. The books, I love the smell of your books. It is as if ideas themselves have a scent.”
“But there’s another scent in the air now,” Michelle ventured. “It’s the scent of a storm about to break.”