The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
Tuesday 17th November 1998
'You know I have this really great gadget for my food processor that would do this in an instant,' Ella grumbles to herself. But she resigns herself to grinding the seeds the old-fashioned way, and retrieves a suitably-shaped smooth stone from the bed of the nearby stream.
The old lady watches impassively as Ella places the mortar by her crossed legs preparatory to starting to crush the seeds. 'What plant do these come from? What are they used for?' Ella asks, her stone poised.
Mary giggles behind her hand. 'Is to make a drink for men - to make them love women!'
Her grandmother snaps sharply at her in the local tongue, but Mary is little abashed.
Ella, rather apprehensively, starts to grind the seeds, and the old woman seems reasonably happy with her technique. After a few minutes she returns to spreading some long, straight leaves out to dry, and Ella asks Mary, who was just about to leave, 'Tell me about this Roxana person, Mary.'
'Roxana!' Mary grins with glee. 'My big sis. She is very beautiful - most beautiful woman in our town. Her hair is as black as... a very dark night, with no stars and no moon. And her teeth are strong and bright, bright yellow.'
'Your Uncle George said that your family had used these names you have now for four generations - how did that come about?'
'We had my great-great-grandfather was an Ingrishman, this is why. So we are all Ingrish too now - a little.' She giggles again.
When it looks like the priests have finished their ceremony, as they tidy their objects away and prepare to leave, Iain approaches them. 'Hello. Do you speak English?'
One, the older, just glares at him, but the other, a man of about his own age, smiles and says 'I do. Welcome to our town.'
Iain gestures at the temple. 'We were speaking to, um, Uncle George, and he said that it would be OK to look around here. I was wondering who it is that's buried here?'
The priest looks a little uneasy. 'It is a very old tomb. Iskander built it for Hiram. It is not for profane people to have doings with it.'
Moving onto less controversial ground, Iain asks 'Can you tell me a little about your religion and beliefs, then?'
The young priest squats down, the older one snorting and heading back towards the huts, and starts to explain. Iain listens, fascinated, occasionally making interjections from his own Taoist perspective. It seems that the local religion is a curious synthesis of Christianity, Freemasonry and a solar cult of Alexander. The Great Architect of the Universe built all the world, and he sent Iskander his son to rule it for him. Iskander travelled the world and taught the people the mysteries of worship. Iskander passed from the world, but he left word that his own son would follow him, and hence onward in a chain of succession. The people of Firis keep their bodies and souls pure, and these memories alive, that they may serve Iskander again. Those who die journey to the Great Temple of Solomon, there to be admitted by the angel known as the Tyler to the elect company of the worshipful.
Robert has been studying the robes and accent, and ha come to the conclusion that the latter is what one might expect from a community who had learnt their English some generations ago, from a Londoner. The robes are hung in a Greek style, like a more flowing chiton, quite unlike the Buddhist priests' robes more common in these parts.
Iain thanks the priest, whose name is Hekkhme, solemnly, and rejoins his fellows at their repast of cornmeal and lentils.
'Are you a Mason, Greg?' asks Robert suddenly, without preamble.
'No, I'm not, Bob,' says Greg. 'But I know quite a few of them. Moving in the business circles I do, they're not uncommon.' He explains that the formulae he used when speaking with Uncle George were ritual greetings he knew Masons to use to each other. 'If you want to know the precise meanings of the words involved, I can tell you what I know about them.'
'I'd appreciate that,' says Robert. 'And, does anyone find the surname 'Keen' familiar or of any pertinent significance?'
Everyone looks blank.
'And did the original 'Iskander' have children?' he muses.
Ella, who has returned smelling slightly of cloves, leans forward enthusiastically. 'I have a really bad feeling about this Iskander and Roxana thing. Important question - why do they think you are Iskander?'
'Search me,' says Robert. As far as he knows he has no Macedonian blood in him. He is tall, with brown haitr and brown eyes, but does not look especially Mediterranean.
'Are there any pictures or descriptions?' continues Ella. 'From what I can remember of Kipling's 'Man Who Would Be King', there was a tale that the story was based on a real event told to Kipling. This could relate to the false Iskander mentioned by George.'
'In which case he might be the four-generations ancestor Mary spoke of. Presumably Kipling based his story on a real legend, if not a real modern-day incident,' says Robert doubtfully. 'These people are sufficiently isolated that perhaps some such tale could have persisted from Alexander's time. But that wouldn't explain the Masonic elements. Freemasonry didn't exist before the Middle Ages.'
'This is what I've found out,' says Iain, and he describes the tomb.
Ella gets very excited. 'The tomb of Cleitus! I did ancient history at University and I've always been interested in the Hellenistic period - although to be perfectly honest I always preferred Philip II to his son Alexander.' Making sure she has everyone's rapt attention, she elaborates. 'Cleitus was a great Macedonian general and friend of Alexander, who Alex killed one day in a drunken rage after Cleitus compared him unfavourably with his father. The Macedonians were unhappy with the attitude Alexander had taken since conquering Asia Minor, as he sought to include his new Asiatic subjects as more or less equals in his new world-spanning empire. There was also the minor matter of Alexander's delusions of godhead, which was very contrary to the Greek view that kings or leaders were very much first among equals, not divine as was the Oriental tradition. So during one of Alexander's legendary drinking binges Cleitus insulted him, and was murdered on the spot - run through with a spear I believe. However Alexander was so appalled by what he had done he immediately tried to kill himself and had to be restrained by his guards. He went into seclusion for three days afterwards. It's possible that he may have built this splendid tomb for him in remorse.'
'But the priest said it was the tomb of Hiram,' says Iain in puzzlement.
'Hiram has some Masonic significance, I think,' says Greg. He glances at Maurice Perez.
The Frenchman reluctantly says 'Yes... this is true. Hiram - or Adoniram - was an architect who was killed.' He does not elaborate, and moves off to the back of the hut.
'I'm planning to go back tonight and have a closer look, anyone interested?' asks Iain.
Ella is enthusiastic to join him. 'I can read Ancient Greek, although it's a bit rusty. And we should find out how the locals regard it, and more on what the priests' doctrine about it is.'
Greg has been shifting restlessly, and now bursts in. 'This is all very interesting, but we need to learn what the locals mean when they talk of Iskander, and not rely on our own guesswork.'
'That's true,' says Robert, 'but their beliefs will only have meaning to us when filtered through our interpretation.' He smiles. 'It's not really possible to study the beliefs of others as the ideal pure objective observer, you know. That would be rather naïve.'
'And we also need to learn about any taboos which we might trip over with our different ways of looking at things,' continues Greg. 'Our first objective should be to figure out how to get back to civilization, and we need to begin our journey soon. We are in the highest mountains on earth and it is the middle of November. If we linger at all we could be trapped here for the winter.'
'I think we should try and find out from someone like Mary where the nearest city is,' says Daniel darkly. 'I don't trust George at all, I'm quite sure he has plans for us which don't involve a quick exit.'
Oh God, I'm in deep shit! thinks Robert to himself. 'Does the name Firis mean anything to anyone? It doesn't to me.'
'And,' Greg ploughs on, 'we need to learn anything that we can about the possibility that someone on the ground here had some means of shooting us down and has done so on purpose. There is an outside chance that someone is manipulating us carefully for some unknown purpose, running us through a test like rats through a maze, or is hoping that we will be distracted by the local customs from figuring out something important about this place.
'Now that really does sound paranoid,' says Loki sarcastically.
Greg whirls round on him, his face furious before he makes the effort to calm himself. 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, 'Mr Smith'. And as we know perfectly well that they are out to get us, it seems foolish to neglect any possibility.'
'What do you make of all this Uncle George business, Sarah?' asks Daniel as the two share a clay beaker of warm goats' milk.
'It seems like a bit of a laugh to me, I must say,' says the English girl. 'People have all sorts of strange beliefs, don't they? But if you nod and smile and make sure not to give offence, you can usually get by.'
'Have you travelled a lot, then?'
She nods. 'Been round the world a couple of times, done a bit of VSO, you know.' A faint shadow passes her face, as though an unhappy memory.
'Where were you headed this time?'
'Out to Vietnam, I know a friend there who works at the Oxfam office at Hanoi. We met up in Sarawak a couple of years back. She's in sustainable development, advising the local farmers. They've potentially got a big deforestation problem if they're not careful. Look at what happened in Bangladesh back in September - those dreadful floods. All because of deforestation higher up the rivers. It's a tragedy, really it is, and completely avoidable if people would just wake up a bit.'
'You sound pretty committed,' says Daniel respectfully. 'Are you planning to work in development yourself, when you finish college?'
'If I do. Uni's a bit of a waste of time. It's not been the same since... Anyway. You were lucky, to have your friends survive the crash with you. Are those two really going out together?' She indicates Robert and Ella.
'Er, that's right,' says Daniel.
Greg comes over to join them in the doorway. 'Sarah, have you had any thoughts about teaching these people some of your advanced agricultural techniques?'
She looks at him witheringly. 'Mr Wentworth, it's thinking like that that has caused most of the environmental damage we're all now facing. You can't just go throwing Western techniques into a setting like this and expect it to work like a magic wand. Any change you want to suggest has to be very carefully thought through in terms of its impact on every other aspect of life in the valley.'
'Yes, of course, that's what I meant,' temporizes Greg. 'Have you started to analyse what might be of positive value to them?'
'I'm working on it,' she says tersely, and turns her shoulder away from him, making it clear that the conversation is over. As Greg retreats into the hut, she nudges Daniel and says, not quite sotto voce, 'What an arse that man is! Not being racist or whatever, but Americans are so bloody arrogant.'
'So,' Iain asks the villager Charles, who has come to visit the newcomers, 'can we see about hiring some guides to take us to the nearest town?'
'Of course!' says Charles cheerfully. 'I shall lead the guide party myself. We can leave in three days' time.'
'Why not sooner?' asks Iain slightly nervously.
'After the wedding, of course!'
'Er... what wedding?'
'Iskander's son and Roxana must marry: as the stories tell us. To continue the human race and the line of Iskander.'
'You mean Bob? He's got to marry this woman?' Ella does not look pleased.
'Apologies,' says Charles with apparent sincerity. 'He must renounce all former attractions, because this is a much higher duty. We can find a new man for you. After all, you and he are not married yet.'
'Why do you think he's Iskander, though?' asks Greg, who has joined them.
'He is the very image of the picture we have. And you, his companion who guided him here, made the correct greetings to us, the secrets that have been passed only down to those who serve Iskander's memory.'
Once Charles has left again Ella turns fiercely to her two friends. 'I'm going to do all I can to prevent this marriage plan! I don't think it's a good idea to let such a Lothario near anyone, let alone some Tibetan village girl! Not to mention the consequences if the villagers then decide Robert isn't Iskander could be nasty - look what happened to Sean Connery after all!'
'What did happen to him?' asks Loki. 'I can't remember the way it ended.'
'I think Roxana - the girl he'd married - stuck him with a hairpin or something, and the fact that he bled like an ordinary man meant he couldn't be Iskander.'
'Well, that's fine, then. All we need is for Robert to cut himself shaving, and we're in the clear.'
'Not exactly,' says Robert heavily. 'I seem to remember that when they found out he wasn't really Iskander, they killed him and blinded his companion.'
Later that afternoon, Robert is called in for an audience with George. Greg, as his wise companion, accompanies him. Unfortunately George greets Robert's protestations of innocence with a knowing smile. 'Your modesty does you much credit, Iskander. You will make a fine king.'
'But I tell you I look nothing like the fellow!'
George produces, from inside his robe, a piece of parchment and a piece of paper, and silently passes them across. Robert recognizes the parchment as of Greek style: it depicts a young man clad as a soldier, wielding a javelin. He does look very like a younger and better-muscled version of Robert himself. The piece of paper turns out to be an old photograph, sepia toned. This one depicts a man in British Army uniform, stiffly upright and facing the camera. He too looks uncannily like Robert.
George clicks his fingers, and there is a movement in the darkness behind him. 'This will be your Queen, Iskander. Your Roxana.'
Into the circle of firelight moves a young woman, and both Robert's and Greg's hearts seem to stop beating for a long instant. She is quite extraordinarily beautiful, with delicate, intelligent features, a web of dark hair tied back, and deep, widely-spaced eyes. Her small ears are stained with a red powder. She is wearing a voluminous sari-affair, but from the grace of her movements the form which lies beneath can be surmised as slender and lithe. She is no more than one or two inches above five feet in height.
Robert feels quite unlike he can remember feeling before. His will is utterly consumed with desire for this woman. It is as though his life will be worthless if lived without her, and no obstacle between him and her will be too great to surmount.
The effect on Greg is less, but he too desires the woman strongly. He knows, though, that she can never be his, and thus there is an unbearable poignancy to the sensation.
'Enough for now,' says George, and Roxana vanishes back into the shadows, though not without bestowing a tremulous, heart-melting smile on her intended. 'So - it will be a fine wedding. You will produce fine children together, the kings and queens of the world!'
'Radio equipment? I'll have a go,' says Loki doubtfully. 'It'll mean taking apart these mobiles, though. And maybe raiding your PC as well, for some decent wire.'
'Well, they're no use to us now,' says Iain. 'If we work on it together we might get somewhere.' They begin laying out the materials that they have available, and discussing componentry.
Satisfied that measures are progressing, Greg seeks out Maurice Perez. He seems to have had some sort of argument with his lady friend, and his face is dark with annoyance. In answer to Greg's delicate query, he explains that he may not discuss the tenets of his Masonic membership or status. He is still active in the lodge, and he can say no more than that. He has said too much already.
Greg, persisting in his mission of getting to know the others, seeks out Arnold Terwilliger, and finds him at the very end of the valley, well beyond the tomb complex. He is with Paulette Bondu, and as Greg approaches they move subtly apart.
'Have you seen this, Greg?' says Terwilliger, gesturing outwards. The road winds on around the lip of the valley, and is then interrupted by a deep chasm. Greg, peering down, estimates that it must be a hundred feet deep, and that it probably leads round to where the crashed aeroplane is. The only apparent way across the chasm is a rope bridge, suspended from two tall wooden piers. The span is about fifty yards. 'Quite some feat of engineering, eh?' comments Terwilliger. 'These days we'd use an engine to throw the rope from one side of the gap to the other, and pass it back and forth like a shuttle. God alone knows how they managed whenever this was built.'
'They may have all kinds of secret wisdoms we have forgotten,' murmurs Bondu.
'Is this the only way out of the valley, then?' asks Greg.
'Looks like it.' Terwilliger claps his hand against the thick leather rope. 'Seems solid enough, though. I don't think we've got too much to worry about crossing it. Unless you suffer from vertigo.'
A fake identity: neat! thinks Nora to herself. At last SITU have managed to be of help and provided me with just the cover I need to infiltrate those darn'd evil Temple guys.
By the time the taxi reaches its destination, her whole bearing and the shape of her face have subtly changed. She sweeps into the building, past two impervious sweepers, and announces her presence to the duty bonze.
Within minutes she is shown into a well-appointed office, in which a large mahogany desk sits awkwardly opposite a prayer wheel and shrine. The priest to whom she is speaking, named Kandong Wei, wears a rather fetching saffron robe and the sect's ritual pigtail, but red-rimmed spectacles that lend him rather the appearance of an advertising executive.
Nora introduces herself as Rachel Williams. She is an Australian woman of 30 married to a wealthy American businessman called Dirk. Their marriage has been on the rocks for a couple of years - culminating in her discovery of his affair with his 21-year-old secretary. She's planning to divorce him - and make a claim on his multi-million dollar fortune. During this stressful time she has found solace in Buddhism and feels that she (well her husband anyway) should give something back. Nora has had enough contact with Buddhism via her trendy society friends back home to be familiar with the jargon.
Priest Wei is most interested to learn that 'Rachel' wishes to donate some millions of dollars to the cause of Theravada Buddhism, and to promote it in the US via her society and journalistic contacts. His eyes light up behind his spectacles. Yes, madam, of course. No problem, madam. You may visit the site, of course, we will send a priest with you to escort you and explain to you the most interesting histories. His Sublimity the Senzo Lama will be happy to meet with you, of course, he will be happy to join you in private prayer. Madam may stay at Angkor as long as she wishes, of course, in the finest guest quarters. When would madam like to set off? Whenever is convenient, of course. Would madam like a tour of the delights of Phnom Penh in the meantime? Would madam like a glass of refreshing lassi? Would madam like the temple servants to clean her shoes while she sips it?
Nora, collecting her stoic bodyguards again as she leaves, reflects not for the first time that the life of the idle rich is a rather agreeable one.
'You two look after this radio stuff for me, would you?' Nora asks the bodyguards, who mutely accept it. This guy Chen certainly comes up with the goods when he's given the right incentive, doesn't he? Radio equipment and a protection car! She is really getting into this 'lone operator' thing - a false identity, weapons, walkie-talkies, and bodyguards - just like James Bond! Hoo-haaaw! Of course it is highly unlikely that the bodyguards can be trusted, so she plans to keep an eye on them and make sure that Pinkler always stays close by to translate their conspiratorial whisperings.
So far Pinkler has kept his curiosity well under restraint, but that evening in the hotel bar he lays a finger (slightly inaccurately) along his nose. 'It's the Jap connection, right? That's the big story you're after. Yakuza, right? Hence the muscle you've hired.'
Nora merely looks coolly at him.
'I'm not so smumb... not so dumb as what I look, girl. That's the only big story it can be. Jap money, dirty money, of course it is. They've been laundering out in Thailand for decades. Now it's coming here. The yakuza! Watch out for guys with one little finger cut off, eh?' He slurps at his drink.
'If you were right, what difference would that make?' asks Nora carefully.
'None to me, peaches, none to me. I'm not scared o'those guys. An' I don' suppose friend Chen is either. I had a chat with my mate Themat and lined up a couple o' Kampuchean Army troopers to keep us company. So - we off in the morning, or what?'
Before Nora can answer he has staggered away from the table and is dancing, alone, arms spread wide, around the empty centre of the floor, in approximate time to 'I Should Be So Lucky'.
She ticks off on her fingers. She has Pinkler as an intermediary, she has the two bodyguards, she has the equipment, she has the promise of a tame priest and two soldiers, and she has names at Angkor - is she now ready to set off?
OK - so maybe someone looking on at her actions might think she hasn't given a thought about her colleagues. Well she has - and she's concluded that they're all probably dead somewhere on top of a mountain somewhere... better buy some souvenirs for their relatives...