A Loner in the Crowd

Upon the First Day of the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

Paknor Stapikos keeps his features impassive as he forces his attention back to the presentation.  The speaker is rambling interminably about the need to balance the needs of Artellosa, a forest goddess who resents her trees being cut down, and those of Walkatokis, a warrior goddess who requires ever more arms, the forging of which require a seemingly limitless supply of charcoal.  Nevertheless, Paknor is angry with himself; tomorrow he will be expected to comment on whatever recommendation this fool makes, and he should be listening attentively.

He cannot remember ever being this nervous when waiting his turn to present a Method at the annual Gathering.  He silently thanks the gods for saving this fear for his old age, when his natural propensity for hiding his feelings has been honed to perfection over the years.  Of course, it is some ten years since he has presented, and perhaps this long gap, most of it spent in isolation far from the city, has caused him to worry about explaining his Method.  No, he mentally contradicts himself without any sign of it appearing on his face; it is the particular circumstances in which he finds himself that are worrying him.  To be breaking his vow never again to present a new Method to a king and council more concerned with their own prestige than with universal truths is bad enough; to be doing so in so trivial a field now seems the height of folly.

But he has no choice, for he announced that he would be presenting a Method at the last full moon, as is required.  He will simply have to speak with all the gravitas he can muster, and hope that the king and council take him seriously.  In truth, he had no choice before that; the issue was settled a year ago.

* * * * *

Upon the Third Day of the Sixth Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

It was the last day of the Gathering, and Paknor Stapikos was looking forward to returning to the cave complex on the edge of the central desert that he called home.  This last day was the opportunity for general conversation and catching up with old acquaintances, and was therefore altogether the least boring of this annual duty.  Paknor Stapikos found the endless presentations of the first day a chore, for most Methods nowadays seemed merely to propose minor amendments to the great philosophical or political works of earlier decades.  The second day was almost worse, for the councillors were quite capable of spending hours arguing over minutiae.  Some years, Paknor barely felt able to vote in favour of adopting a single Method, so low was the standard, and yet he needed to stay alert and appear interested in the details of the debates.

He must somehow have allowed his expression to slip, for Councillor Flamtor Blavhikon suddenly interrupted whatever he had been rambling about, and rounded upon him.  “What, Stapikos?  Am I boring you?  Have you better stories to tell on the subject?”  It was a considerable insult, to refer to him by his second name only, for it implied that he had no better claim to his position than to have been born to Stapis – may he dwell in the forests of Artellosa forever! – and although Paknor recognised that he had been fortunate to have such a father, he had achieved several great Methods himself.

“Not at all, Flamtor Blavhikon,” he replied, choosing not to return the slur.  “I was simply reflecting that I had heard that particular tale before.  Your telling is somewhat more nuanced, though, and I was appreciating that.”

Flamtor did not seem appeased.  “You spend a great deal of time in reflection these days.  Given how small your contributions are to our debates, I wonder that you bother turning up to the Gathering any more.  How long is it, exactly, since you last presented a new Method?”

“Not since my father’s time – may he rest in the most delightful of gardens! – at the very least, for I would have remembered presiding over such an unusual event,” intervened King Karpitz Karpikotz.

After a pause, in case the king had more to say, Flamtor added, “Indeed, I cannot recollect your last Method.  I wonder if it is entirely honourable, to avail oneself of the advantages of the Council, without contributing to its work.”

There were a couple of murmurs of agreement, and several gently nodding heads.  Paknor had known that he had a reputation for considering himself better than the other councillors – a reputation that was, he admitted, thoroughly deserved – but he had not realised just how much his attitude was resented.  He tried not to become defensive.  “Really?” he asked.  “I have always considered quality of Methods to be more important than quantity.”

“It is true,” the king interposed, “That my father always spoke most highly of your work.  It is all the more distressing, therefore, that I have no first-hand experience of it.”

Recognising the subtle threat, Paknor addressed himself solely to his ruler.  “I have been involved in a new and very different field of enquiry,” he explained, “And I would not want to bring it to your attention prematurely.  I would like this Method to be the one for which I am remembered.”

“A worthy aim,” purred the king.  “But I would hate for your work over the last years to be lost, and none of us knows when the gods will require our services in their realms.  See that you present at least your preliminary steps at the next Gathering.”

“I am honoured by your interest, and I will endeavour to satisfy your curiosity,” Paknor said, inclining his head.

“See that you do, Stapikos,” said the king.  “See that you do.”

* * * * *

Upon the First Day of the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

It is time.  Someone – the king, his secretary, or a capricious god – has decided that Paknor should be the very last councillor to present his Method, so everyone is thoroughly sated with explanations and details by the time Paknor rises from his seat and approaches the dais.  His king, who sits on a costly but uncomfortable bronze throne in the centre of the stage, is fidgeting.  His fellow councillors, from their privileged seats fanning out from the throne, appear bored, and one or two have closed their eyes, presumably to concentrate more closely on the sense of hearing.  Those amongst the merchants, metalworkers, healers and other professionals who are permitted to attend are flagging.  They have no chairs, out in the body of the hall, and some have folded their cloaks and are sitting on them.  No-one seems interested in what Paknor might have to say, and he is glad that, at the very least, he will surprise them out of their stupor.

“I need space!” he announces dramatically.  “Move back, those of you there at the front!  All of you, please move either to the side or to the back half of the hall.  I need a great deal of room for this presentation.”

He waits, arms outstretched, until he has been obeyed.  He has everyone’s attention now; there are no closed eyes on stage, and the king is sitting upright on his throne.

“My learned colleagues have focussed their attention on politics and philosophy, as usual.  I bow to their staying power, to their determination and attention to detail.  I am sorry to say that I abandoned these fields of endeavour upon the occasion of my last presentation.  I found myself unable to think of anything new to investigate in these subjects.”  Although his air is sorrowful, as if he regrets this circumstance, there is a triumph underlying it, that informs his colleagues that he believes he has devoted the last years to a far more worthy topic.

“You therefore need to empty your minds of any preconceived ideas about what constitutes a fit subject for a Method.  You see, these minor titivations of the works of those who came before, praiseworthy though they may be, have almost no impact upon our glorious island nation, or its inhabitants.  I wanted something different for my final work; something that would change people’s experience, change their hearts, change their minds.  And I believe I have found it.”  The exhilaration in his voice is infectious; councillors are sitting up straighter, merchants have a gleam in their eyes as they wonder if there are profitable aspects to this research, and even the metalworkers are interested.

* * * * *

Upon the Fifth Day of the Sixth Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

It was not until he was home that Paknor Stapikos allowed himself to consider his dilemma, for only there was he sure of being unobserved.  Although he prided himself on his ability to keep his thoughts hidden, such a weighty problem might nevertheless have sketched a trace upon his features.

His home was a rambling warren of caves and tunnels, surrounded by flat scrubland, with no cover to hide a man, and on the way to nowhere in particular, except the heart of the central desert: not a popular destination.  Ten years ago, when he decided to explore mysteries far more enigmatic than those of politics or philosophy, he had chosen his new home well:  he rarely saw another man, except for the cartier who weekly brought food and water; there were several large caves underground which remained cool even in the blistering midday heat; and the clear desert air was ideal for observing the nomads that, he believed, none but he himself appreciated.

He had not, however, taken the danger that now assailed him into consideration.  He had expected to have the rest of his life to devote to his studies; he was now faced with the prospect of abandoning them to focus on devising some new Method that would convince the king that it was the culmination of a decade’s work, rather than a single year.  Failing would mean, at the very least, the end of his councillor’s privileges, and could be very much more serious.  There were several in power who would be delighted to see him brought low.  It was not so much death or dishonour he feared, for his father would surely have prepared a place for him in the forests of Artellosa, but he could not abide the thought that he might not be able to finish his great work.

Besides, another fear had been gnawing away at him, since he was in the city a year ago, and this year’s Gathering had confirmed and strengthened his anxiety.

Presenting new Methods each year was designed to encourage creativity and innovation, and to keep their island civilisation moving forwards; the ancients who invented this system already knew that only thus could stagnation be avoided.  But the age of great minds had long passed; Paknor’s fellow councillors were terrified of change, and their Methods added little to the sum of human knowledge or understanding.  All the islands in the central sea, erstwhile jewels of learning and of radical thinking, had become cautious, conformist nations, relying on memories of more vigorous times to shore up their crumbling self-esteem.  And there, on the mainland to the south, was Tarka.  Tarka – a young, upstart nation, with all the virility that the islands had once possessed – had shown its hand less than two years ago.  It had invaded its less belligerent neighbour, and now had twice the population and resources at its disposition.  Paknor believed that it would soon turn its attention further afield; perhaps not immediately towards the islands, but if Tarka wanted a maritime staging post, that step would not tarry long.

The islands had neither the capability nor the appetite to fight to maintain their independence.  And so, hoping to stave off the inevitable, their rulers were attempting to demonstrate that they posed no threat to Tarka.  There would be, in this new fearful climate, even less chance of voting in a Method that carried a risk of upsetting their more powerful neighbour across the sea.

Although Paknor was not afraid for himself, he was distressed for his people.  The Tarkans were barbarians, incapable of conceiving of more than one deity, or of appreciating the subtleties of the island pantheon.  He shuddered to think of his beloved nation being ruled by such people.  But more than that, their chosen god – that of the sun – was an embodiment of all that was brash and fiery, and Tarka was ruthless in stamping out anything that could conceivably challenge its unique position.  And so Paknor’s particular field of research would be anathema to them.

With Tarka looming on the horizon, he had last year abandoned any temptation to work towards making the results of his research public, a step he might otherwise have taken within a few years, in spite of the conservative nature of his fellow councillors.  But Tarka was there, and there to stay; he had to be realistic.  And as an old man, he was sure that he would not live to see a more enlightened age.  He needed to focus on protecting his research:  if it were to be found after his death, it would surely be destroyed, and yet, if he were to hide it, it might be lost to the world for ever.

For a year, he had been worrying about how on earth he would manage to find a way of concealing his knowledge until the climate was right for its dissemination, and yet of ensuring that it would be released into the world at that time.  He would have liked to continue gnawing away at that problem, rather than being distracted by the need to create some special Method!

* * * * *

Upon the First Day of the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

“So instead of weighty matters of state, I want you to consider something closer to the heart of most of us,” Paknor continues.  He lowers his voice just a fraction, without detracting anything from its sonorous tone, and as a result, he seems to be talking to each member of his audience individually.  “Important though politics may be,” he confides, “There are things that affect most of us far more.  Happy indeed is the man who enjoys a rewarding home life, for not only is this satisfying in itself, but it also allows him to venture out into the world with a sense of self-worth, and a desire to spread the fulfilment that he himself enjoys.

“I therefore wondered whether it would be possible to apply the theories and methods of the great philosophers to the promotion of domestic harmony.  And make no mistake – this was no trivial field of enquiry.  It is true that happiness within the home has never featured amongst the objectives of the state, so in that sense it may appear unimportant.  But I contend that harmonious family circumstances create ripples that spread outwards and enable those who enjoy them to foster attitudes that will help our great island nation to feel more united and therefore stronger.  I am therefore sure that my new Method will have repercussions that will permeate every aspect of our life, although it starts with the family.

“There is room for far more development of my Method; exploring such a radically new subject means that I have had to concentrate on one small element of the whole.  I hope that other, younger, men see aspects that I have missed, and will spread this work outwards to consider other relationships.  For this first exploration of a new topic, I have focussed on the core of family life:  the relationship between a man and his wife.”

He signals towards a door to the side of the hall, just below the stage, and a man and a woman enter, carrying between them a large wooden box, which they place reverently in front of Paknor.  “These books,” he states, laying his hand on the top of the contents, “Contain instructions for a series of dances.  I have invented a way of recording movements, which is relatively simple to understand, once it has been explained, although it has taken years to develop.  Each dance codifies a step in the relationship between a man and a woman, or a path that such a couple may take.  By dancing together, a couple can therefore explore and express elements of their feelings for one another that cannot easily be put into words.  In this way, they better understand each other, grow to know and respect each other more deeply, and strengthen the core of the family together.

“Of course, there are too many dances to show you here; it would take many days for my friends and servants here, who are professional dancers as well as husband and wife, to demonstrate each one.  There are courtship dances:  dances to express a love that has not yet been spoken, steps to show a yearning, to ask for consideration, to express humility, awkwardness, tentative reaching out, and many other elements of pre-marital emotions.  Those dances, of course, allow for no touching – in fact, there is always at least two arms-lengths between the participants, as is only fitting.  Then there are dances to assist in all the accommodations and compromises that must be made after the wedding has taken place; dances to ask forgiveness, to celebrate the birth of a child, to console a shared grief.  Many are the facets that make up a couple, and many are the dances that mirror them.

“Each of those dances is recorded here.”  Paknor pats the box.  “There is a simplified version of each, that any moderately educated couple may learn, and more ambitious variations, that require more skill or further study.  I submit that, if a couple works on a dance together, they will also facilitate the aspect of their relationship that that particular dance is designed to reflect.  Now, I have no wish to bore you; I therefore respectfully ask you, my lord king, to suggest what facet of a relationship you might like the dancers to interpret for you.  I will then choose an appropriate dance, and this couple will look at the steps, and interpret it for you.”  He bows to his sovereign, and takes care to hide his fear.  If Karpitz Karpikotz declines to answer, Paknor’s position will be precarious indeed.

The king affects indifference, but Paknor sees that it is an act.  Karpitz Karpikotz glances to the side, where his wife sits sewing with her ladies, invisible from the body of the hall, but listening and ready to serve her lord should he need her.  “The examples you have given,” he says at last, “Are presumably those that you are most prepared to show us.  They therefore hold no interest for me.  Let me choose something more difficult.  Show me a dance where a man and his wife both love each other, but feel unable to admit it, having resented their parents’ choosing of their life’s partner.”

So that is how it lies, thinks Paknor.  “That is an interesting challenge,” he says out loud, supporting his king’s claim that this is an entirely fictitious case, “But I think I can meet it.”  He rifles through the folded parchment books in his box and selects one.  Bowing to the king, and then less deeply to his fellow councillors, he descends from the stage, gives it to the couple waiting there, whispers a few additional instructions, and then climbs back up the steps to the dais.  After examining the book and replacing it in the box, they take up their positions.  The woman walks, head bowed, to the centre of the hall, near the gathered audience, and the man goes to a spot halfway between her and the stage.  There is a moment’s stillness, and then Paknor snaps his fingers.

There is music, coming from the door below the stage: a regular, slow drum beat, and a mournful pipe of some sort.  The two musicians, and a third holding an as-yet silent lyre, enter slowly, and stop just inside the hall.

The male dancer is facing the stage, head raised, arms crossed, immobile.  The woman approaches him slowly, although her body is turned to the side, and she does not look at him.  There is grace in her walk, reluctance in her way she holds her body, heaviness in her arm movements, and sorrow in her downcast head.  As she comes closer to her partner, she speeds up, and he turns, unhurriedly, to watch her.

“She has been brought to him, as is proper,” Paknor commentates, “And he is courteous enough to overcome his resentment, and to address her politely.  She responds, for she, too, is considerate, in spite of her unwillingness to wed a man chosen by others.”  The dancers start to interact, although at a distance; as the woman passes him, four or five paces away, he bows and smiles, and his feet move in time with hers, although he dances on the spot.  “See how he engages with her,” says Paknor.  “See how she tries, with ever more complicated steps, to weave a cradle for their relationship.  See how he, too, becomes more and more responsive.  And yet, they cannot overcome the distance between them.”

The woman maintains a stately progression around the dance floor, circling the man without ever closing the gap between them, but her movements become faster and faster as she adds sidesteps, spins and flourishes around the path she has chosen.  His bows, leaps and gestures become more extravagant, but he does not move from his place, although the sweeping movements make him seem to take up far more space than before.

Although it has scarcely been noticed, each participant has their own rhythm, their own set of steps that weave in and out of the space around them.  And so it happens, all of a sudden, that her most beseeching gestures and his deepest bows coincide, bringing their hands within touching distance.  They both pull back, and are totally still; the stillness is shocking, after the frenetic movements that preceded it.  They visibly shake off their surprise, and resume the dance.  “They pretend they have not noticed the moment of connection,” Paknor explains, “But it has changed them.  Observe how the dance is not quite the same.”  It is true; the difference is subtle, but obvious once it has been pointed out.  One more circuit around her husband, and the woman once more reaches the same point.  This time, both dancers are careful, modifying their gestures to give each other space.  On the following circuit, they eye each other, reach out their hands, and do not dare to touch.  The dance continues.  After a further turn, he holds out his hands, and she places hers upon them.   “Now that the gap has been conquered, they will treat each other differently.” The movements are the same, but now the hands interweave, the feet and legs move in and out of each other, and the dance has an erotic quality that was hitherto entirely lacking.  “They are now in an entirely different space,” remarks Paknor.  “He sees her clearly, and he is truly the light about which her life revolves.”

The frenetic movements slow, but she still circles him, and he still directs his gestures towards her.  Their eyes are locked on each other, their arms brush past each other’s bodies.  As the music comes to a close, they reluctantly turn away from each other, bow to the king, the council, and the body of the hall, and then, joining hands, they skip lightly out of the room, followed by the musicians.

There is a pause.  Paknor senses that this is so entirely novel a presentation that no councillor dares be the first to offer the customary thanks for having reached the point of sharing a Method with the public.  Although this is a courtesy, rather than a mark of approval for the Method itself, Paknor too would have been reluctant to associate himself with such a radical proposal.

And then Karpitz Karpikotz chuckles.  “I like it!” he exclaims.  “If your other dances are anything like as fetching, they might even catch on!”  Suddenly, the councillors are nodding wisely, as if the king has merely confirmed the opinion they themselves hold.

* * * * *

Upon the Twelfth Day of the Sixth Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

Paknor had less than a year to decide upon, create, and refine a Method so spectacular that the king and councillors would have no trouble believing that he had been working on it for a decade, and yet, six days after returning home, he had not even thought of a field of enquiry that would serve his purpose.  In the meantime, he pursued his research, spending most of each night in the hide he had constructed on the rocky plateau above his home.

He only needed to make a few measurements and notes each night, and his intention had been to spend the rest of the long, still hours of darkness considering possible avenues to explore for a Method.  His thoughts, however, continually returned to his earlier preoccupation:  how could he ensure that his research notes remained hidden until a time when they would be appreciated, and yet be certain that they would be discovered at precisely that moment?  He had thought of a dozen or more excellent hiding places, but those good enough to keep his work concealed could not be guaranteed to give up their secrets at the right time.

He wondered if there was an entirely new way of looking at his dilemma, but, he asked himself, where else can one conceal something of value except in a hiding place?  At that point in his deliberations, a flash of intuition struck him, as he realised that his research itself held the key.  The only reason that no-one before him had realised the significance of the nomads was that they were surrounded by so many others, at first glance identical, and it took careful observation over an extended period to see that they were different from those that appeared to move in a more regular way.

For the first time, he was impatient to finish his observations and get back to his home, so that he could begin to devise a Method that might not only satisfy the council, but would also keep his secrets safe until the world was ready for them.  ‘The best place to hide something,’ he told himself excitedly, ‘Is in plain sight!’

* * * * *

Upon the Forty-Eighth Day of the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Karpitz Karpikotz

His Method is proving so popular that Paknor has not yet been able to return home, but he feels that this is a small price for such results.  After the Gathering gave it unanimous approval, Paknor has been busy checking the quality of the copies made by the scribes Karpitz Karpikotz has employed.  Although he is confident that they are the best in the nation, they are used to works consisting of text only, and Paknor’s masterpiece (this designation comes from the council, although Paknor has no difficulty accepting it) contains many diagrams and drawings.  Total accuracy is essential for understanding the various dances, and more importantly, for perpetuating the hidden movements for which he designed them.  He also spends time with the guild of dancing instructors, hastily inaugurated for the sole purpose of overseeing the way that his steps are taught, to ensure that there is no deviation from the paths that the dancers take, although he allows some freedom in their gestures and expressions.  “This has been my only research, for over a decade,” he is fond of telling anyone who wants to take more licence than he likes, “Credit me with having discerned what is crucial, and what may be modified.”

Tomorrow he will attend the second full moon dance celebration, and he is rehearsing a group of eight professional dancers, who will intersperse their display dances with those that are open to all to attempt.  It surprises him that the dances that are proving most popular are those for unmarried couples.  The young dancers explain to him that married couples at least have plenty of occasions for physical contact, but that during courtship there are no societally approved meeting places except around a meal table.  They point out that his Method of dancing provides an exciting mechanism for courtship, whilst observing the cultural norms that parents insist upon.  That few of his dances involve touching is, they say, proof of his genius.  Never having been married, nor even interested in women, Paknor finds it hard to understand this, but he is delighted that the distance necessary to model his research has made it so acceptable, even desirable, to both participants and observers.

He yearns for the peace of the desert, but feels that he must stay in the city a little longer.  His Method has already acquired momentum; there are so many copies of his work in existence, so many people who are learning his steps, so much excitement around the regular dance evenings that have been inaugurated, that he almost feels that he is no longer necessary.  Almost, but not yet completely; he will stay until he is confident that at least some copies of his great work will survive into a more enlightened age, however long that may take.  He believes, he hopes, that the hidden meaning behind the dances will one day be obvious to some researcher who is also interested in the night sky.

Once he is certain that the paths of the four nomads he has identified amongst the stars, together with all their variations, are safely promulgated in the form of dances for posterity, he will return home.  And there he will plot the path of the fifth nomad he has more recently noticed, one that circles so close to the Sun that the dances to represent it will surely be almost indecent.  If Artellosa can manage without him for one more year, he may have an additional volume to his Method to propose to the council!