Chosen Among The Beautiful - Cho, for short - has been alone her whole life. Orphaned, she was raised by machines, with her cat, Divine Endurance, for company. When an earthquake destroys her isolated shelter, Cho leaves to find her long lost brother, cat in tow. She finds herself in a land torn apart by warring gangs, clans and princes, revolutionaries and outcasts, all under the thumb of the distance Rulers, reduced to petty in-fighting to try and gain any power at all. Divine Endurance seeks out the Rulers; Cho instead finds Derveet, a rebel leader. She finds love. Can there be a future for them in this brutal world? What does Cho really know about humanity after being separated from it all her life? What does she even know about herself?
Release date: April 8, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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There was a small hillock in the centre of the gardens that suited her purpose well. When she reached the place she climbed up it carefully, following the smooth steps worn into the rock by countless pilgrimages of admiration. She did not pause at the viewing point but began at once to descend the gentler eastern slope. The Emperor would come exactly this way, straight into the white risen sun. About halfway down she found a satisfactory arrangement: a twisted horn of stone at ankle height on one side of the path, and a tough-stemmed shrub on the other. She sat down slowly just above; turned up the hem of her embroidered gown onto her lap and picked at it with her fingernails. It was hard work, because her fingers were weak and withered but the gown was still in excellent condition. She paused frequently, to sigh and stare out over the landscape, rubbing her cramped fingers. She had no personal feeling against the Emperor. She was thinking it would be nice for him to see the dawn one last time. Lost in the grand, stiff folds of her beautiful clothes she sat there unpicking her hem and carefully winding up the thread: what seemed like the dry skin and bones of a shrunken old woman.
All around her stretched the silent gardens: black rock arches and spires and waves and broken bubbles, like a pot of boiling liquid suddenly frozen. Where a little earth had crusted over the lava small-leaved shrubs grew, some as tall as trees and some blossoming yellow and scarlet. Like the Empress’s robes, the flowers were young, but like the Empress the stunted trees were old, very old, with riven trunks and knotted arthritic roots. It was a harmonious scene, with the bright shapes of the rocks and the bright flowers decorating what was solid, rugged and ancient; but it was haunted, especially away towards the east. There, where the gardens faded into dust and quieter stones, there were strange shadows: a tall curve too smooth to be weathered glimpsed between the branches of a tree; an occasional eruption from the crumpled lava that appeared too straight and sleek for nature. The Empress, when she paused and sighed, seemed to be looking sadly at these ghosts. She was still sitting there at work when a small figure appeared down below, trotting about between the rocks and obviously looking for someone.
‘Bother.’ said the Empress, and the Cat—for sound travelled well on the dry air—pricked her ears and came hurrying up the slope. Perched on top of a boulder, she observed what the Empress was doing with the strong thread and her tail twitched against the rock in exasperation.
‘I might have known you were up to no good,’ she said. ‘I might have known you weren’t coming to your senses.’
The Cat did not speak in the ordinary sense but the Empress understood her perfectly. ‘It has to be done,’ she answered, testing her knots. ‘I have thought about it seriously and there is no other way of being secure.’
The Cat’s tail beat a tattoo. ‘It is self-destructive. It is wicked. It is wicked enough to destroy Emp, but how long do you think you will last without him? Dislike him as you may at least he is incident. You’ll die of boredom, and it will be suicide.’
‘I know it is wicked, Divine Endurance,’ said the Empress patiently. ‘And it upsets me very much. But there is an overriding imperative here.’ She tugged at the snare once more, nodded in satisfaction and struggled to her feet. ‘You won’t tell Emp though, will you?’
The Cat just glared angrily and refused to reply. But she would not tell. It would go completely against her nature. She would probably be here hiding behind a rock on the fatal morning, watching fascinated to see what would happen. The Empress stepped off down the path, holding up the front of her gown so she would not trip on the unravelled hem. The Cat stayed behind. She went and patted the trap with her paw; the thread was quite invisible against the dusty rock, and very strong. After examining it thoroughly she stalked away, in the opposite direction from the Empress and with her tail still waving angrily.
My name is Divine Endurance. I am feminine. I am twenty-five small units high at the shoulder, and sixty-two small units long from nose to tail tip. I am independent and it is therefore the more flattering when I respond to affection. I am graceful, agile and especially good at killing things prettily. I live with the Empress and the Emperor. There are only three of us now. Once there were more of them: more Empresses and Emperors, and other names too, but things have been running down for a long time and gradually people fade away and one sees them no more. But I have never liked bustle, and I was perfectly happy until our troubles began. We have a pleasant life. We have our extensive palace, and our gardens where the light is always changing. We have outings to view the sunset and the dawn and the moon, we have lizards and flowers, warm rocks and cool shadows. There are certain restrictions: for instance, we are not supposed to go outside the gardens. But most of the time keeping the rules is simply common sense. I have explored the way to the glass basin, but the air down there smells horrible, and the light makes one’s head ache. I have also been out towards the glass plateau, which is a shiny line on the sky to the west of our palace, but I found nothing of interest, only a few dirty places where some passing nomads had been camping. We are not to go near these people. If ever somebody wants one of us they will approach through the proper channels, and with some ceremony no doubt. Meanwhile, if the gypsies come too close to the palace (they don’t often dare) we simply think discouraging thoughts and make ourselves scarce.
I should say that there is one rule that the Empress and the Emperor obey, which I ignore because it is just silly. When one of them grows past the point of being a child, they start taking what they call medicine. It is an effluent from the Controller. Once, when we all stayed inside, they used to line up and the Controller would give it to them in little cups out of a wall. But I think the wall or the cups faded away, and now they just drink it from their hands. It does them nothing but harm. The effects are slow but horrible. Their hair falls out, their muscles waste away, their skin grows flabby and their teeth crumble. Eventually some accident happens and the victim is too weak to recover, and that is the end. If they waited till they were properly grown up it would do them no harm – if they must have the stuff, but they won’t. I do not remember ever being told to take this medicine. I do not know why they keep on doing it.
I think it was because of the medicine that I encouraged Em and Emp when they began to talk about a baby. They were both beginning to look quite sickly, and I do not think I would like to live entirely alone. They could not decide which kind of baby to have—they can never agree about anything—so they wanted one of each. I thought that two was excessive and would spoil our quiet times, but they went to the Controller anyway. There we had a shock: the Controller said we could only have one baby, because there was only one baby-ability left. This was startling. It had seemed, I suppose, that things could go on running down forever and never completely stop. Could it be twins? asked Em. That’s not allowed, said the Controller. We did not ask for the one baby to be started. We came away disappointed. But Em (I should have paid more attention) was thinking, privately and hard.
As I know from my expeditions, nobody can actually prevent us if we want to disobey. When the Controller said ‘that’s not allowed’ rather than ‘not possible’ I should have known what Em would do. Anyway, she did it. She went down into the Controller’s entrails and made it do what it should not. It was wrong of her of course, but we have been left to our own devices for so long it is not at all fair to expect ‘not allowed’ to be enough, without any explanation.
The first I knew of Em’s naughtiness at this point was that two hatches in the Controller began to go milky, and in a little while we could see the babies growing inside. This was a very strange sight, after so long. It was so interesting that Emp soon forgot to be shocked, and I to be displeased. We picked names. We made them up ourselves, we didn’t see why not. Something simple and boyish for Emp’s choice: Worthy to be Beloved. The girl’s name was subtler: Chosen Among the Beautiful—implying ‘chosen to be the best of the best’, without quite saying so. We took sides and laid small bets on which was taking shape faster. We spent whole days just watching.
But Em had done wrong, and gradually it began to affect her. She stopped coming to see the babies. She hid herself away and brooded. Emp had a bad conscience too. He sat with his baby still, but now he was always sighing and sniffing. ‘Poor little mite,’ I heard him mutter. ‘We should never have started this. What a life!’ To make matters worse the weather was very unsettled. We do not usually have to suffer anything tiresome, like excessive wind or rain, but just now a lot of dust and sand got into the air and started blowing about; the sky was obscured and there were unpleasant smells. It was like being at the glass basin. Then one day there was an earth tremor. It was an unusual one because the disturbance seemed to start near at hand, rather than off somewhere in the distance. I was sitting with Em, in a distant quarter of the palace, trying to cheer her up. We were both a little shaken. A crowd of bats pelted squeaking from a dark passage beyond Em’s corner, and three big lizards ran out of the wall. Em got up. ‘It’s no good,’ she muttered, ‘I will have to stop it.’
I ignored the lizards—I am very fond of Em—and followed her out of the room, trying to make her see that an earth tremor is harmless and she was being silly. She was stumbling on the uncertain ground on her poor wasted legs. I must admit I thought her mind was upset. Anyway I went with her, at her slow pace, to the Controller. There we found that one of the hatches had been torn open, and the boy baby was gone.
‘It wasn’t a tremor,’ said Em. ‘It was the Controller. We have frightened it.’
She was very distressed. Not understanding, I assured her that the baby would have been nearly ready; it wouldn’t be harmed. But she insisted that we start searching for Emp at once. We could not find him. We searched and searched for days, but he did not reappear. He had gone right away from the palace, which is not allowed. Now I realised what Em had somehow guessed all along: something serious had happened. It was difficult for us to follow him because Em moves so badly nowadays, but eventually we found his trail leading to the west. There, out in the wilderness, we found the dirty camp. It was already abandoned, they never stay anywhere long. But events had left enough of an impression for us to know beyond doubt what Emp had done. He had stolen our baby, taken it out of our world, and given it away to the gypsies.
There was nothing we could do, so we returned to the palace. Em was so angry she wouldn’t talk to me. She tried to get the Controller to take her baby back—anything rather than let Emp have it, I suppose. The Controller was unresponsive. The baby stayed behind the hatch, which was clear and filmy now, and the poor thing should have been taken out. And Em stayed inside the Controller, on guard. Meanwhile I discovered Emp, lurking in the north-east apartments. But he was unrepentant, so there seemed no hope of making up the quarrel. He even wanted me to get Em to give her baby away as well. Em, on the other hand, would not listen to any of my suggestions. When I said I would get Emp to swear solemnly to leave her baby alone she just stared at me scornfully. However, I persevered, trying to make peace and restore our former pleasant existence. When Em began to ask me how the Emperor was passing his time these days, I thought I was succeeding.
I know better now, and now there are only two of us. She came looking for me, when it was over and we both knew he was gone. She said she wanted to explain herself. She took me down into the Controller’s insides. There are ways in, in the broken area in the south-east of the palace, but I hadn’t bothered to go there for a very long time. Down we went, into the big shining places. I do not know what she had to say to me that was private. After all, we are quite alone now. We went in where the pipe comes out, where they drink the medicine. Some Empress or Emperor long ago made that, in the days when we first realised we were allowed to live outside, so long as we did not stray too far. It is strange, inside the Controller. For some reason it takes a lot of room to make the first drop of baby. The darkness and the shining goes away, far away. I can’t explain it. Nobody ever walked here but us, when we got out of the boxes and began to walk about all on our own …
‘Look around you,’ she said. ‘And think.’
She had brought us past the impressive places, which I rather like. I like to think that they couldn’t get into that part, even if they did make it. We were in a long thin place, behind the arrangement that posts the drops of baby into the hatches up above. A box-room in fact. The empty boxes lined the walls, one on top of another. There were no doors. They never used to let us have doors, apparently, or windows, or anything to look at. It is not that I need a door, but it would have been more polite, I think.
‘I don’t like this,’ I said. ‘I prefer outside.’
‘So do I,’ she answered. ‘This place makes one feel so small, doesn’t it?’
She was silent for a while. I felt she was trying to make the box-room talk to me, but I declined to get the message. Eventually she said: ‘None of us was ever to leave the palace without a home to go to. It isn’t right. What do you suppose will happen when that little baby grows up?’
I said—it was fairly obvious—‘He’ll do his best to be useful, I’m sure.’
I saw what she was getting at. If Wotried to make himself useful to everyone around him at once it might be rather confusing.
‘We were the best,’ murmured Em. ‘We were the most wonderful: you and I and Emp who is dead, and all our model. There was nothing we could not do, if our person asked us. They valued us above anything, and cared for us dearly. Which is why, of course, we survived when all the world was swept away. We could give them anything they wished for.’
I don’t care for this sort of conversation. I think it is pointless. I maintained a discouraging silence, but she still went on.
‘It was very wrong of me to make the Controller give us twins. There have never been twins. How will they work? What effect will they have on each other? The Controller was frightened, and so am I. Do you see why I had to do what I did? I dared not risk the second baby going after the first. I could not.’
I understand these urges: the longing we all have to find a purpose in life, the hope that somehow stays that we will be needed, wanted again. For myself, I take no notice. We’re alone now, and we’ve been alone a long time. We have a right to live our own lives. I was past caring exactly why Em killed Emp, but I could see she was upset so I tried to reassure her, telling her little Worthy to be Beloved would be the best thing that ever happened to the gypsies. He’d make sure they all lived happily ever after. What harm could he do?
Em said, ‘What harm indeed? He is not a weapon; he can’t be used like that. Of course he must do his best to make them all happy. And his best is perfect.’
But she spoke in a very odd tone of voice (so that I felt suddenly interested). After a pause, she added softly: ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Divine Endurance, that whatever swept the world away it happened soon after our model first left the palace?’
There was a silence then, shivering and dark. I wanted to get back outside.
Em said, ‘Emp wasn’t wicked. He had gone mad, I think, and imagined it was a real baby. He must have been taking more medicine than me.’
I did not like the look in her eyes. I did not like the way she was moving, so frail and wavery. Suddenly I realised something that had been obscured by the excitement of Emp’s death. I saw my future.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘You don’t like the baby. We’ll forget about it. We’ll make the Controller turn that hatch grey again, and it will be gone, as good as. We’ll go out and see the sunset on the glass plateau. I know where there’s an interesting lizard … Only don’t, please don’t, take any more medicine—’
We’ve argued about that medicine so often. Once it was for those of us who had no place in the world, so they would not be a permanent embarrassment. A sign goes on, from the hatch that hatched them, and they have to start taking the medicine, if they are still here. But where’s the embarrassment now? I told her: ‘Look at me. Disobeying that order is easy.’ She smiled and said: ‘Cat, they were too successful when they made a Cat. That’s why there are no others of you; that’s why they never let you go, but kept you but kept you here to laugh at them and be a warning. You are too good at slipping under the locked doors in your mind…’
She smiled and shook her head as she had always done. This was not the first Em I had argued with; there had been many (the clothes are nearly the same). This was the last. She said, ‘that’s what I meant by bringing you down here. I wanted to remind you what we really are. I can’t disobey, Cat. I can’t. And why should I, anyway? What reason have we to live, without them?’
She wanted me to join in her huge vague grieving, but I could not. She turned away from me with a lonely look: I knew she was going to abandon me and I felt angry and helpless. We left the inside of the Controller and went our separate ways.
Soon after this conversation the Empress’s mind began to fail, so it was really uncomfortable to be near her. She took herself off into complete seclusion, and I did not see her any more. One of the last things I got her to do for me was to take the second baby out of the hatch because, I complained, I was going to be very lonely. She did not say anything further about the wrong and danger. I think she was already too unwell to consider such things. Or perhaps, as our weather continues extremely unsettled, she thinks the problem will be solved in another way. As for me, I am recording my story, deep in my mind. Em claims that the Controller is hidden somehow in there, and I would like to think a representative of those people who abandoned us knows—what I intend to do.
When Cho was still quite a little girl there was a day when the Cat told her to go to sleep. It was a game she hadn’t played before, but the infant curled herself up willingly, and went into the new experience with her head pillowed on a hollow stone and her knees tucked up to her chin. She slept. When she woke up she lay still for a while, bemused by the curious things that had just been happening. She was surprised to find her legs and arms in exactly the same places as before she left the room. She sat up and looked at the soles of her feet. They were clean, and there were no marks on her clothes either. They must have tidied themselves very quickly, she thought. It was puzzling. She decided she must ask the Cat about it, and set out to find her.
The little girl’s rooms were in the north-east wing of the palace. She left them and pattered about the dusty forecourts peering into passages and doorways, until she realised the Cat was in the gardens. She set off in that direction. It was a day when the wind was blowing the sand about a good deal so she had to run carefully, for she knew the Cat would be cross if she put her foot in a hole and hurt herself. At last her pattering feet brought her to where the rock creatures were gathered, wearing their hats and cloaks of crusted red and white sand. Now she was distracted, because the Cat did not approve of this place for some reason, so Cho had never seen the rock garden close up. She went from one to another, admiring the weird shapes and poking holes in the sand crust with her little fingers. The wind was quite strong; occasionally she looked up rather anxiously at the low, tossing sky. She knew it would be wrong to be outside in a storm. But she forgot everything else when she saw the hand. It was peeping out of a red mound, up on the side of a little hill. She ran up and crouched over it, fascinated. It was a very good hand, because the bones were still held together by skin; even the jewelled nail-guards were still in place. ‘You are the best dead hand I have ever seen,’ said Cho to the relic. She scratched in the crust of the mound, and found a sleeve. It was a beautiful colour, with shining embroidery. She found a foot too, but the foot was not so interesting. It had lost its leg, and lost its slipper. There was something tangled up in the little bones, a thin fine line of something. She tugged and the mound stirred, as if the dead person felt it. Cho laughed, but immediately frowned at herself childishly, and dropped the thread. She had been told often enough that she must not play with these piles of clothes and bones when she found them. She looked up and all around. Withered roots and skeletons of dead trees stood dismally among the rocks, blasted by the unsettled weather; the bright twisted lava was losing its attractions between the scouring and the obscuring of the sand. Cho was too young to regret the changes, but she had begun to feel that the Cat was somewhere close, and not in a good temper. What have I done wrong? she wondered. She climbed the rest of the little hill. At the top there was a flat space in a ring of boulders. Drifts of sand had collected between them, and gathered in their smooth hollows: nobody had climbed to sit and watch the dawn for quite a while. Cho saw the Cat, a hump of brown fur down on the ground. Right beside her was another of those tumbled heaps of clothes. Cho could see the yellowish round of a bare scalp within the wide collar; she could see a little shrivelled hand. The Cat seemed to be playing with it—Cho was surprised to see her doing wrong. My one was better. It still had nails, she thought. And then the fingers moved.
The Empress could no longer see with her sunken eyes of flesh, but she knew her friend was near, and she felt the other little one too. ‘Cat,’ she said. ‘Keep her safe—harmless. Don’t let her—’ ‘Oh my Em,’ said Divine Endurance. ‘My friend—’ It hurt her very much that the Empress’s last tender thought should be for the dirty gypsies. The Empress died. The dry lower jaw dropped open, a last breath fainted on the harsh, dusty air. It was over.
Cho knew something strange had happened. She was frightened, and a small sound escaped her. The Cat’s head turned quickly, she stared at t. . .
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