She stood up and surveyed herself in the full-length glass at the other side of the room. Indeed, she looked every inch a Queen; a very young Queen, certainly, but no less regal for that. It was not vanity which made her think so. Her vanity lay much more in the direction of wanting to be pretty (which she was). Being regal was natural to her, being both born and bred in her, and it was also her duty. Since she was Queen, she must be Queen for her people. Regretfully she pressed her new handkerchief to her lips, reducing the glistering shine of her scarlet mouth to a duller and more respectable red and dropped the fine, stained linen into the wash-basket.
"Good morning, your majesty."
"Good morning, Claribel."
"We are looking excellent this morning..."
"Thank you, Claribel."
"...though if the question may be allowed, does your majesty think that shade of lipstick is quite the thing?"
"We have considered our lip-rouge with all proper care, Claribel, and have reached our decision."
"Your majesty knows best, of course."
"Of course. What is that letter?"
"It is from Her Majesty Queen Viktoria, ma'am."
Queen Elspeth smiled a little nervously, and absent-mindedly pressed a new handkerchief to her lips.
"From which Queen Victoria, Claribel?" There was the elder Victoria of Arcadia and young Viktoria of Novaria. It was hard to be sure which of the two made her feel more like a small girl, although Her Majesty of Novaria was a few years her junior--but then she was a brunette, fearfully competent and terribly intellectual. There was even talk of a Royal Alliance, which would be good, so they said, for Quirinelle and Novaria, and for the Empire as a whole, but Elspeth could hardly picture herself espoused to Viktoria of Novaria, who preferred the `k' spelling of her name and who, Elspeth always felt, addressed her as if she had been a public meeting. She sighed. Perhaps it was her duty, in which case, no doubt she would do it one day. Perhaps there was such a thing as being too good.
The letter, however, did not contain a proposal or anything which might be construed as leading up to one; merely some rather practical business about the Rift and whether more of those dazzlingly stylish silver-winged Novarian aeroplanes should be deployed on the Western Quirinelle border.
"And General Virgin is awaiting an audience as arranged."
General Virgin. Of course! How charming! Ignoring Claribel's critical gaze, Queen Elspeth examined her lip-rouge, which was now looking rather washed-out, wiped it off altogether and firmly applied a fresh, dark, lustrous scarlet coat.
General Virgin was a tall, fine-featured brunette. Her rank was hereditary, so, although she was nearly a decade older than her sovereign, she was by no means advanced in years. She stood at attention, her gold epaulettes and medals gleaming, her tailored red coat showing off her slender waist, her flared, calf-length military skirt held wide by several layers of petticoat, her ceremonial sword at one side, her silver helmet, respectfully removed in the presence of her liege-lady, held in her gauntleted hand at the other.
"Good morning, General."
"Good morning, your majesty."
"We have studied the reports submitted to us, General. We find them----" she paused, as if groping for the mot juste.
"Certainly they are surprising, your majesty, but it is the duty of your majesty's forces, however surprised they may be, never to be taken by surprise."
"Well said, General. Nor to be `taken' in any other sense either?"
"Your majesty is suggesting----"
"We are suggesting nothing. We are merely sounding a note of caution. Tell me, General. Do you believe in this rift, this `clown-world' and all the rest of it?"
"The reports, your majesty----"
"We have read the reports. Now we are asking for your opinion, General. Your personal opinion. We value your opinion in a matter so out of the common."
"Your majesty is more than kind." The General inclined her delicious, dark-auburn, permanent-waved head. "My opinion, for what it may be worth, is that scepticism is by no means out of place. Some of these reports are odd to say the least of it. On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that something is going on and that these reports, taken together and, so to speak, averaged out, do give us some sort of picture of what it is. Remember, many of them have been submitted by your majesty's most mature and respectable subjects, and they agree in so many particulars that they can hardly be dismissed. And then there are very similar reports from Kadoria."
"But this clown-world, hovering just beyond the borders of the world, invisible yet half-visible, absurd as a drunkard's nightmare yet efficient and formidable as the Rome of Julia or Augusta. Full of strange, lurid, grotesque creatures devoid of discipline or morality or intelligence, yet organised like a bee-colony and bristling with bombs and missiles. Can such a place exist?"
"It sounds impossible, your majesty. But that does not mean it cannot exist. We certainly cannot afford not to be on our guard, and in any case, the Imperial authorities are taking it seriously. We shall not have the option of doing nothing, but if we take the lead we may still be able to govern exactly what is done, at least insofar as it affects Quirinelle."
"Good, and what do you suggest that we do?"
"Well, the Kadorians are taking this very seriously indeed."
"No doubt. The Army has too much influence in Kadoria."
"In some regions they are conscripting brunettes between eighteen and twenty-five."
"How dreadful. Imagine putting the dear things into those dreadful khaki Kadorian uniforms with their straight skirts and flat caps. I mean if a brunette wants to dress like that, I suppose it should be allowed, but to make it compulsory----"
"Our uniforms are much nicer."
"Indeed they are. But no--I will not hear of conscription."
"The only alternative may be to allow in Imperial troops from elsewhere."
"It is. A detachment of Amazonians is arriving today."
"But your majesty----"
"They are quite civilised. Western Amazonians: no wild Eastern warrior-girls or anything like that. They will be building extra fortifications out in Quarantine, maiding gates, that sort of thing. They will be under the command of our military authorities."
"Those people are never under any command but their own. They even have blonde soldiers. Quite absurd--I mean, well, if your majesty will forgive me----"
"Of course. Blonde soldiers would be absurd, but they are not blonde soldiers, they are wise-women and may be rather more important than any soldier, if you will forgive us."
"As your majesty says, but why should they maid gates? That means aliens will get in. We ought to be sealing all the rifts and fissures."
"We are informed that it is not so simple, General. If all these reports are true, then it is not simply a military problem, or even simply a physical one. What is breaking through is impelled by a sort of psychic pressure. It cannot merely be dammed. It must be controlled with great skill and subtlety. That is why I am allowing the Amazons in. They know more about such things than any one here. If the problem can be controlled, they are the ones to control it."
"And what about the panic among your subjects: who will control that?"
"We think we know our subjects well enough to say that there will be no panic. We shall personally reassure them, and I have suggested that wireless programmes and films be made in the latest style. I Was Kidnapped by the Aliens. That sort of business."
"With respect, your majesty, surely that will make things worse."
"We think not. It will cloud the lines between fact and fiction. After all, none of us really knows where those lines are to be drawn. We cannot tell whether this crisis is any more important than the flying saucers people were seeing a few years ago. Even if there is a sort of war with the clown-people it may only be a--well, a cold sort of war, don't you think?"
"I certainly hope your majesty is right."
"No you don't. You want Action. You want death or glory and all that sort of thing. You military chaps always do. But you shall not have it unless it is really necessary."
"Your majesty flatters me. In reality I prefer to keep the mud off my uniform and have my action on the dance-floor. Most of us do."
"Splendid sentiments, General, and ones which prove our point. Our people are not given to panic or to violent sentiments in general. A few rather pretty Amazons are not likely to alarm them beyond the usual frisson which such things engender. Certainly nowhere near as much as introducing conscription in the middle of the ball-season would alarm them."
HER MAJESTY'S second meeting of the morning was less delightful. Dr. Carolschild, a thin, studious young woman in a white coat and grey stockings, who peered nervously through thick spectacles with absurd pointed corners explained her research on the crisis.
"Your majesty--yes--as far as we can tell, these rifts or fissures can appear anywhere. Creatures can come through them--yes, yes--and our own people could disappear. Perhaps some have."
"What are these creatures?"
"They seem human--yes, your majesty,"--with a little lip-rouge and something done to her hair she might look quite human herself--"possibly they were once very much like us. But they are--yes--grotesque--strangely attired, without a sense of belonging." Her voice was high, and her nervousness was almost catching, even to one as composed and well-trained as Her Majesty.
"Are they dangerous?"
"Not the ones we have met, but they come from a very aggressive social order. One which seems to pretend to have no very definite beliefs, but which actually keeps its subjects within a very narrow compass--yes--very narrow. One which has huge arsenals of the most destructive weapons which it will use freely--and with the most self-righteous moral justifications--against any one who seems to differ from this very tight and narrow view of the world which it pretends not to have."
"How confusing. And could they use these weapons against us?"
"Yes--well, that we cannot--yes--tell. No, not tell. Very possibly not. Not directly. You see we are not on the same--yes--plane as them. We do not share the same physical actuality, if I make myself clear."
"Clear-ish. So they may be no threat to us?"
"Quite possibly. No physical threat anyway."
"Some other threat, perhaps?"
"Possibly--yes--possibly." She really could be quite pretty. She was delicate and fine and very brunette, but somehow a million miles away in the further reaches of her own mind. It seemed rather a waste really, but then one supposed we did need bluestockings.
"Perhaps you could explain."
"Your majesty. Explain--yes. You see, they have a disease."
"A physical disease?"
"No. That might not matter. We might not be able to catch that--though, of course, we might--no--a--hmm, yes--mental or psychological disease. Perhaps you might even say a spiritual disease. The thing that makes them so strange, so unstable, so--yes--so odd."
"And could we catch that?"
"Well, we really don't know. You see--well, yes--suppose we were to bomb one of their cities."
"I really don't think we should start doing that."
"Of course not. But suppose we did. Now they would probably not be able to see us, and they probably would not know they were being bombed, and I doubt if we should actually hurt any one or damage anything--not physically. But we should probably be changing them in some subtle way. You see it is not just the people that are insane--it is all the things about them. Their clothes are insane, their telephone booths are insane, their motor-cars----"
"You mean they don't work?"
"Oh, they work well enough. But they are designed to take away the realness of the world--yes, the realness--to make everything cheap and hollow and soulless--deracinated, to use the technical term. Now, you see, our bombs might destroy that subtle quality of insanity. Might start making them real again. That is just an hypothesis, you understand. Just an hypothesis. But suppose they were doing something like that to us--or something different we have never even thought of--are these rifts part of an attack, or just an accident? Do they even know we are here? None of this do we know yet."
"And these rifts or fissures, what do they look like?"
"Now--your majesty, yes--that is another interesting question. They might look like all sort of things: a wardrobe, perhaps, or a looking-glass, or a gate set up in the middle of nowhere. They might look like one thing from one side and like something completely different from the other. Your Amazons, now, will try to turn them all into gates, so that they can control them. Excellent plan, if it works."
"Do you think it will not?"
"Ah--your majesty--who can say? Magic is not science, you know. But then science is not magic, either."