The moon was black. Other birds, birds never heard before, sang in trees of darkness, for dawn was not yet. A contingent of lawmen, led by an old doctor, arrived in an open land of copper grassland and cast-iron groves. They came upon a hunter, and asked him where they were. The hunter said that they had come into the kingdom. They asked him who the king was, but they could not understand either his idiom or his description. When they camped under the stately firs and gazed into the stars, a scavenger gathering wood stumbled into their midst. Was there a king? they asked, but the scavenger denied it. The only king he knew was himself. Would they happen to have any scraps to give him? They gave him some, and warned him that they were men of law and had brought law to the lawless land. Howling with laughter, the madman shuffled into the darkness like a misshapen beast. The days passed. Wayfarers and pilgrims would speak like the hunter, but the deserters never saw any signs of a kingdom—not a single signboard with a royal decree, not a scrap of paper with a royal seal, not a herald to cry the law of the land, not even a gendarmerie or constabulary. At times, they would catch glimpses of high stone towers rising from the mists above the rusted plains or above a canopy of darkly spired trees, but they did not want to investigate. Some pilgrims warned them of hunting deer, of building fires by daylight, and several other royal decrees—the royal horsemen always came for those who practiced such abominations—but the deserters scoffed and beat the pilgrims. There was no king but the law, and they were the law, they claimed. They shunned the great roads that wound through the land, keeping to the back country, drawing their own maps, building fires by day or night, and eating as much venison as they pleased. In open defiance of what they had heard, they built cairns of deer skulls in the meadows. One evening, a pilgrim gave the old doctor a frayed book—as a warning, perhaps, the doctor thought, for the book seemed to be a codex of laws. It made a good pillow that night, when he lay down his head to sleep, covered in deerskin blankets. It was midnight when the old doctor awoke to the sound of horseman.
It was an honour to be summoned by the officials to deliver a letter and his own report to the Crown. For most of the night, the courier had drunk strong, muddy tea and typed and retyped his report of all that he observed and discovered in recent weeks. Passion and pride seemed to electrify his fingertips as they clicked the keys. For years, the Crown had shown great wisdom and benevolence in managing war, famine, and pest. Despite the sleeplessness, the courier felt awake for the first time in years. There had been years of somnambulism from the sheer exhaustion of working overtime, of being vigilant, of intermittent and unpredictable quarantines. The commoners would never be able to imagine the sacrifices of the officials, of the undaunted courage and industriousness that had been required to ensure public safety. They had no idea what it meant to make an act of faith. The courier could still hardly believe he was being called to the court as he stepped out into the roadway at dawn. It was a dry, mostly sunny spring. Some trees were in flower, the white blossoms trembling in the cold wind. Old posters with the crown symbol hung in tatters from the walls; gendarmes guarded striped gateways; glowing iodine-red lanterns hung from windows, keeping the perpetual light burning, the light that represented the inner light of all, but most importantly, the light of vigilance, of caution, of the cure and the Crown itself. When the road reached the wall of the inner city, there were more masked guards in white or pale, drab green, and one semicircle of masked, white-clad soldiers centered on an overturned wheelbarrow and a cowering delivery man. Most of the contraband merchandise had spilled out onto the dirt, and the courier could read the labels on the packets, boxes and jars—wormwood, creosote, larch and pine sap syrups, willow and birch bark powder, quinine soda, orange peel and paprika, atropine cordials, charcoal. There were other items, but he could not read them. Brilliant colourful labels and clear glass gleamed in the morning sun. A shot rang out, and the body of the merchant fell to the dust. The courier passed through the gate after showing his passport, his official letter of summons, and answering questions for a quarter of an hour. The avenue to the palace was lined with more centuries, cannons, and checkpoints. Round, glass lamps and cylindrical, paper lanterns poured their red light into the shadows of the squares where marble statues gathered skeletons of poisoned sparrows. The palace front loomed larger and larger. The courier could hardly breathe as he walked up the steps and passed through a colonnade into the great foyer. A beautiful woman at the bureau in the antechamber, a maze of sentries and cordon ropes, raised her hand and beckoned to the courier. She wore a mask over her mouth, a white beret and white uniform, her hair cut to her jawline, her eyes darkly lined, her cheeks almost ghostly with face powder. Congratulating him on his honor, she directed him to proceed through gate 9 and directly enter the throne room. An armed halberdier accompanied him. They did not ascend the main stairway, as the courier had thought they might. Instead they walked down a hallway, and entered a dark courtyard. Clouds had blown in overhead, mingling with the billowing smoke that rose from a gigantic fire pit in the courtyard. Already, some guards were dumping what looked to be the contents of the wheelbarrow that had been overturned before the gate earlier that morning. Glass jars shattered or cracked, cordials exploded, packets of dried bark and charcoal blazed. The fragrance of the pit was soporific and calming. The courier could hardly believe that he was standing right next to the warmth of the cure itself, the very heart of the empire. Beyond the glare of the dancing flames, the august person of the Crown himself stood, bald, masked and in full uniform—candy-striped trousers and an immaculate white coat with a mandarin collar, decorated with glittering crosses and curling, metal serpents. Another official was speaking to him, handing him a stack of beautiful books. The courier recognized them—they were out of print now, almost impossible to find. They were a series of forbidden chronicles, a monumental history of the realm with gold leaf trim on the pages, bold fonts, bone-white paper and colorful arabesque covers of real leather with gold leaf lettering. The Crown took the books, and threw them, one after another, into the fire-pit. After listening some more to the report of the official, he nodded to the escort, who kicked the official into the fire-pit. A military band in a gallery somewhere began to bang drums and cymbals. Screams filled the air, and the fire blazed. Gradually, the cymbals and gongs ceased. The other armed guard bowed to the Crown, and walked back, nodding to the courier and his guard as he passed. Perhaps it was the smoke, perhaps it was all of the walking that morning after several months of quarantine, but the courier began to feel sleepy once again. The Crown beckoned to him through the light and shadow of the flickering flames. The black smoke rose like a prayer of gratitude into the sky.
A golden forest of larch grew beyond the mountains and plains. Pilgrims went there to pray, to find healing sap, to gather and to commune with the bears. The most delicious water bubbled up from secret springs in its depths, and there were magic wasps. The ever-golden spires could be seen from hundreds of miles away, whether from the last snowy mountain passes in the west and south, from the frozen, rusty tundra in the north, or the pale land of lakes in the east. Because of its sacred and precious character, the officials determined that proper signage should be placed every few miles along the perimeter. This would alert the pilgrims to the fact that they had arrived at the right forest. Some of the signs would provide instructions that could be of great use to the visitors as well. Of course, most pilgrims did not mind this gesture. The ones that could read appreciated the verbal confirmation that their long journeys had ceased. The coffers were opened, the materials gathered, the signposts were built. Not long after, an officer found that one of the posts had warped; another had fallen facedown. Extraordinary sessions took place to combat this new plague of violence, although one officer had quietly suggested that the culprits were merely wind and snow. Consequently, the man of law in that region drafted new laws and fines. To vandalize or destroy a sign was punishable with the extreme force of the law. It was necessary to be strict. What began as the destruction of signposts could lead to the destruction of the entire forest. Sometime later, however, a badly scratched signpost was found. Improbable as it was, one of the pilgrims was seized and shot. The officers cleared the forest. Nobody could enter its sacred silence anymore. The man who kept the wasps’ nests deep in the forest resisted arrest, but the officers eventually dragged him out as well, in manacles and chains. Some whispered later that they had seen the man of wasps gather dust and needles in his palms, blowing it to the wind in some mysterious commination. And then one day, something disturbing and unexpected happened. A great explosion, its origins unknown, but thought by land surveyors to be a meteoric event, levelled the forest for hundreds of miles in every direction. Not a single larch was left standing. Lightning fell later in the year, and burned the dead wood and the scrub until only a lake of monochrome ash remained. Old laws were amended and new taxes were enacted, so that the officers could return to the work of replacing the signposts along the perimeter. Marksmen were also posted at strategic approaches, and they straightaway shot the rare pilgrim who came to steal ash in glass jars. Exiled after his arrest to a windblown steppe near the cold lakes, the man of wasps bitterly confessed to visiting pilgrims that it would be easier to bear if the calligraphy on the signposts had at least been somewhat elegant.