The Green Tailor of Mermos-37
RPI 126.D43C / RRD 37
Story acquired by Crustias Scattermush — Senior Branch Repositarian
Dancers in brightly colored silks wove intricate patterns across the lower floor of the imperial throne room. They trailed behind them long ribbons of gold and blue that paused in the air, waiting for the next dancer to grasp them and continue the flow of the dance.
Musicians provided an accompaniment from their gallery high above, the rhythm driven by perfectly in-tune belly-men: amphibious humanoids who inflated slimy resonance sacs over their stomachs, and then forced the air through an opening in their necks to produce a deep bass burp.
While the Emperor’s left head enjoyed the spectacle of the dancers, his right head — the serious and thoughtful one — nodded an acknowledgement to Chancellor Ireton who had been waiting patiently for her master’s attention.
“I confess I was intrigued by your suggestion to grant an audience to this off-world tailor,” the Emperor told the chancellor: the chief minister of the empire. “The whole affair sounds so fanciful, but you know how to provoke my interest, Ireton. Summon him!”
“Yes, Sire.” The Chancellor bowed, politely dropping the gaze of both her heads to the floor for a few seconds. “Although,” she continued, speaking to the floor, “the tailor’s race has no gender. Perhaps ‘it’ rather than ‘he’?”
“Yes, yes,” said the Emperor’s right head. His left looked over briefly to see what the fuss was about. “Such details are for you to deal with,” Right Head told Ireton. “I’ll stick to him. Just bring the fellow in, will you? I’m sure he’s waited long enough.”
The tailor was duly summoned and approached the throne.
Aliens were confusing creatures at the best of times, but it seemed to the Emperor that this one was nervous. The fat little green creature had good reason to be. Though still young, the Emperor took great pride in having finally brought peace to the entire planet of Mermos-37. Uniting the world hadn’t been easy — especially for anyone who had stood in his way. And the fiercest opposition had always come from those who were led by their left head. Yes, the tailor had good reason to be nervous.
The alien flourished the uppermost four of his six limbs and bent his body into something between a curtsy and a bow. Close up, the creature was startlingly green, so much so that he seemed to cast a bilious light over his immediate surroundings, a rather disgusting illumination that oozed through the stripy fabric of his clothing. He was smelly too. The Emperor sniffed. Yes, oh, yes. Not pleasant. The tailor smelled of vegetable peelings that had been left for a few hours on a warm day.
A smile came to the Emperor’s right head as he regarded the tailor, for he delighted in opportunities to show off his knowledge (though really most of it came through his chancellor’s briefings). “You, sir,” he addressed the tailor, “are an Aphidian. Yes?”
The creature bobbed in a comical dance, perhaps another attempt at a bow. “Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”
At least that’s what the Emperor thought he heard. It was very confusing. The Aphidian’s words seemed to be exuded from his skin rather than come through his mouth. It was almost as if the Emperor could smell the words.
“What’s up?” asked the Emperor’s left head.
“Nothing, no problem,” said his right, embarrassed that the alien had unsettled him so. Unfortunately, Left Head’s interest was aroused and he continued to watch the exchange with the tailor.
“Your, um, your race…” said the Emperor to the green tailor. “You’re renowned throughout the three stellar clusters, but as geneticists, not tailors.”
“My caste combines the two disciplines,” the green creature said, or maybe made the equivalent smell. “We are something new.”
“We see.” Right Head waited until Left grew bored and returned his attention to the dancers and the jesters readying themselves to come on next. “You have our attention for three minutes,” said Right. “Begin!”
Of course, when the Emperor’s right head said we and our, he was only being polite because he didn’t really need his left head — not yet. Rights did the hard thinking and made decisions. Rights were in charge. But for a right and left head to be in disagreement would lead swiftly to madness. Left had his own vital role to play as a sounding board, critic, and expert on emotional intelligence. Sometimes, in a deeply subtle way he couldn’t quite grasp, Right wondered whether Left secretly steered the most important decisions his way. But, that aside, Right led and Left followed. Always. It was the way. The only proper way. Nobody but the most dangerous mutants led with their left, and most of the left-heads had been taken care of during the Emperor’s rise to power.
“We have a special cloth,” said the green creature. “Unique. Valuable. Invaluable. Indispensable.”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted the Emperor, “get on with it.”
The Aphidian was about to get on with it, when the Emperor interrupted again. “Be warned, tailor. I dress myself as befits my office, and not for vanity. Today I wear the finest silks woven with gold strands. On my heads are crowns set with the finest jewels garnered from the far corners of the galaxy. But in my private chambers I dispense with all such finery. I have many faults,” though really he was convinced he had none, “but vanity is not one of them. You have one minute remaining. Proceed!”
“It is not your vanity I seek to satisfy, Your Majesty. I want to provide a solution to your most intractable problem.”
That brought Left Head round like a shot.
“I can offer you a fabric of bold, yet subtle hues, with a hint of shimmering color change… but it will appear so only to those individuals worthy of being your subjects. To those unworthy, the cloth will be invisible!”
The Emperor’s heads glanced at each other. The glance grew into a stare so intense their noses scraped together.
“He means that some people will see us…” said Left Head.
“Yes?” said Right.
Left lowered his voice to a whisper. “…in the nude!”
“I know,” said Right Head.
“But you say that like it’s a good thing,” moaned Left. “I don’t want to be naked. And in public!”
“Neither do I,” said Right. “But a little embarrassment will be worth it. Besides, anyone who does see us naked will soon have the smirk wiped off their face when they find themselves in prison.”
Right Head turned to the Aphidian. “Tell me more. Tell me all…”
Miss Rodakoi chalked the Laws of Transformation onto the blackboard. The schoolteacher angled her body so that her left head was able to regard her pupils; it wore a bored expression because schoolchildren rarely misbehaved when watched in this way.
Suzia’s left head waited impatiently for the three laws to be written on the board so that the teacher could start the lesson in earnest. Astrophysics she detested; in mathenomics she got by okay, but with transformation she had to restrain herself so she didn’t appear to be a show-off in front of her classmates. Transformation was her favorite subject, and very likely would be what she studied when she finished school and won a place at university.
Something — some nagging doubt — worried its way into her mind. She stared at Miss Rodakoi, but she could see nothing unusual about her teacher. Normally, she would get a sense of a second opinion from Right Head, but that was strangely missing. Left Head turned to look at Right but Right wasn’t there. Well, of course, the other head was still perched on top of Suzia’s torso, but Right wasn’t in on the same thought. Ever since birth, her two heads had always been thinking of the same thing — from slightly different perspectives, perhaps — but her two heads were as closely linked as the two eyes in each head: slightly different but always looking at the same thing. That’s how all children were. But not today.
Suzia’s right head was gazing at Loshank, who was sitting a few desks away. He wasn’t doing anything more than looking cute, as he always did. He wasn’t doing anything special. Right was staring at him just because she wanted to. Just for the pleasure of doing so.
The first thing Left felt was betrayal. Left and Right had spent many long nights talking themselves to sleep about Loshank’s finer points, and how they might persuade him to take some interest in her. They had always talked about him together. Now Right was staring at him on her own.
Left suddenly felt as though she were falling. Everything was splitting asunder. She squeezed herself, every muscle in every part of her body tensing at her command, because if she didn’t hold herself absolutely rigid, she felt sure she would melt into a pool of goo.
What was going on?
But even as Left was thinking the question, she already knew the answer. This was her time… her moment when she transformed from child to adult… when one head took the lead as commander and focus of cold intellect, while the other championed a deeper wisdom, a connection with feelings, both hers and other people’s — though at this point that meant mooning at some boy. She had come of age, just like schoolchildren all over the planet at around her age. Normal it might be, but the change left her breathless, confused.
Which is why it took several seconds before the realization hit her like the shock wave from a starship entering hyperspace — she was one of them! She was a reverser. She was a left-header — an enemy of the state.
She was doomed!
His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Mermos-37 peered at the bolt of cloth with both heads. The colors weren’t just hideously bright: they changed! He remembered the tailor saying something about the fabric color-cycling, but the Emperor had been so excited by the scheme to catch the Left-headers that he hadn’t been paying attention. He hadn’t thought the tailor had meant the colors changed literally. If he wore that hideous thing, he’d look like he’d look like a novelty party light.
For the first time, the Emperor seriously considered calling the whole thing off, at least until the cloth could be altered. He sighed. He had just used every fragment of his power to magic up an imperial procession out of thin air, at just a few weeks’ notice. Now he’d bullied the Imperial Civil Service into organizing the event, he wasn’t sure even he had the power to call it off.
And there was more! Not only did the material look ugly, but it shimmered — not from reflected light but as if it wasn’t entirely there. But it was there! He could see it! Couldn’t he?
He banged both his heads together, an indelicate act but one that worked. He looked again, and found the cloth appeared more solid now. Well, not solid exactly, but he now felt convinced in his gut that the material did actually exist.
This was still very confusing, but he decided to put that to the back of his heads to avoid looking an idiot.
“Forgive me, Sire,” said Chancellor Ireton. “The tailor warned me this might happen, but felt the matter too delicate to explain to you directly.” The Chancellor took a deep breath and came close so she could speak in a whisper. “It is your ancestry, Sire.”
“What of my ancestry? I have the finest parentage.”
“Indeed you have, Sire. But — if I may speak frankly — it was common amongst your more distant ancestors to marry not for love, but for dynastic reasons.”
“Of course. There is no shame in that.”
“None whatsoever. It’s just that some imperial marriages — in the most distant past, of course — may have been… ahem… between left-headed and right-headed individuals.”
The Emperor bit back his reprimand, for the chancellor’s words were true. The imperial family tree was public record. Very few ever dared speak of the impurity in the Emperor’s bloodline, but it was undeniable that he had distant ancestors who were… of the left persuasion.
The reminder was embarrassing, but the important thing was that he could see the tailor’s special cloth. Just about. It just looked a little peculiar, that’s all. More importantly, to those who were truly tainted with left-headed blood, he would appear naked. And finally, the nest of left-headed mutants hiding in the capital city would be revealed… and eradicated.
“Mum…! Dad…! Dad…! How can… Mum!” Suzia was so angry that both her heads were speaking at once, and were getting confused. Her heads glanced at each other. Left Head took over. Suzia was starting to get used to Left taking charge.
“How could you not have told me?” asked Left.
Her father looked pointedly at Theria, Suzia’s little sister.
“Well, don’t use her as an excuse,” said Suzia. “Theria needs to know too.”
“It’s not an easy thing,” her father said, sighing. Her father’s left head said. Normally it was his right who spoke most, but that — it seemed — had been a lie.
“You could have turned out right-headed,” said Mum. “Theria, you might still turn out to be a right-header when your turn comes. Just because we’re both lefts, is no guarantee of how either of you would turn out.”
“And if I had been a right head,” said Suzia, “then you’d have, what… lied to me forever?”
Dad drew a deep breath from each head. “Yes,” he said with both heads in unison. “A thousand times, yes. Life is made so much more difficult for left headers. In theory all we need to do is register our condition with the authorities and report to the police every week. In practice, if you’re registered, no one would offer you a job unless it was so dire that no right-header will take it. And if you’re robbed or cheated by a right-header, the police won’t do anything. But things could get a lot worse if you’re outed as a left-header, and I think that’s what will happen in years to come.”
Suzia waited, but Dad stopped himself from saying aloud what worse might mean. Somehow that made it even more frightening. Theria looked even more scared than she did.
“There could come a time,” Dad eventually said, “when you could be persecuted just for having left-headed parents, even if you yourself were right-headed. That’s why we kept our secret.”
Suzia’s heads looked at each other and sighed. “Growing up sucks, Dad. Big time. I thought we’d have dramas about boys and boundaries. This is far, far worse. How am I going to cope?”
Her dad cuddled her. “Don’t despair. It needn’t be that bad. You can prosper as a leftie. It’s not easy, and the best approach is to keep to the shadows of society. We’ll teach you how.”
“But why do the right-headers hate us so, anyway?”
Dad shrugged. “We’re different,” said his left head. “Do they need any more reason?”
His right chipped in: “If there comes a time when we’re no longer around, the right-headers will find divisions within themselves. Mark my words.”
Suspended in the traditional way from the backs of four huge spinosaurs, the imperial platform lumbered around the corner and into Nibboloth Plaza, where the cheers of the crowd rose to a new crescendo.
The imperial procession had been hurriedly arranged to give the Emperor a chance to show off his new clothes. Luckily, the twelfth anniversary of his ascension to the imperial throne was soon, and if anyone thought it strange that the Emperor had suddenly decided to start celebrating that date, they were too sensible to mention that dangerous opinion.
In fact, the procession was going so well that the Emperor managed to almost forget his sea sickness, and the knowledge that his clothes were at best hideous (he wished the cloth would settle on a single color, rather than cycle through all the worst possibilities); and at worst, his clothes were invisible.
Perhaps he should do this procession thing more often? Yellow and blue banners festooned the route, flapping in the cooling breeze; the fanfares of welcome were sounded by the finest musicians in each city district as the procession crossed the boundary from one district to the next — all these things were in honor of the most powerful man in the world. And so he was, but the Emperor still felt compelled to sit on a throne lashed onto the back of a raft carried by huge reptiles with no more sophisticated suspension than bands of well-oiled leather. Tradition demanded he do so.
“Look, Father!” His younger daughter pointed to the Temple of the First Coming of Nibboloth at the center of the plaza. Young male acolytes, wearing loin cloths in imperial yellow and blue, were bungee jumping off the brass dome that topped the temple.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” asked the Empress.
“At least they’re making use of the dome,” said the Emperor’s older daughter.
The Emperor’s left head laughed at that. The Temple of Nibboloth had been awaiting the god’s first coming for over a thousand years. The brass dome was perfectly tuned — and was retuned every other Sunday — to be rung when Nibboloth finally put in an appearance.
Right Head shushed Left, but he was grateful to have something to joke about. The Emperor loved all the public adoration, but Right Head still felt uncomfortable with the knowledge that to some in the crowd, his new clothes were invisible. Underneath his loose-fitting robes, the easy palace life had made his tummy grow larger than he would like. Still, at least his belly covered up those bits he was least eager to have on display.
But his nakedness was all in a good cause.
The Emperor started waving to the crowd, which brought a great boost to the cheers.
Flitting silently, like an infestation of insects in stealth mode, fist-sized hoverbots darted through the crowd, ever alert, seeing everything, reporting anyone who appeared shocked by the emperor’s clothes… or lack of them!
Suzia’s left head craned back to watch the bungee jumpers high overhead while her secondary head — her right one — watched the Emperor’s approach. This was her way of pretending to be a normal person: a right-header. Actually, the religious jumpers of Nibboloth genuinely intrigued her. Jumping off a dome as not an obvious thing to do, nor a safe one. Smeared in grease, they slithered halfway down the side of the gleaming metal until their elastic ropes bounced them up again. The grease made the dome look as if it were bathed in sweat. The acolytes’ attire was the strangest thing of all. How Nibboloth was supposed to think that…
Wait! Something wasn’t right!
Instead of observing the procession, Right Head was staring straight at Dad, at the look of horror on both his faces.
Dad’s right head looked behind him and hissed: “Whatever you do, do not react when you see the Emperor. Instead, look at my reaction and try to appear surprised by me.”
Hoverbots began to crowd in, little black spheres stuffed with cameras.
Dad shut up.
Suzia’s right head whispered Dad’s instruction to her left head. Left promptly swung her attention round to her father. The weight of his unhappiness pushed down so hard he seemed on the verge of toppling over.
Theria giggled — both heads at the same time.
“There’s nothing to laugh at,” Suzia’s left head hissed at Theria.
“Course there is,” her younger sister’s left head replied.
“The Emperor looks like a clown,” added her right. “He looks a total ninnytwit.”
Suzia turned both heads to stare at the Emperor. There he was, flanked by his two daughters and his empress, sitting uncomfortably on his carved wooden throne… completely naked! Not a thread. Not even a stitch.
“His clothes are changing color,” Theria said, with difficulty as she was giggling so much. “He looks even sillier than the bungee jumpers.”
“Hey! We can hear you!” came a shout from above.
“The little girl’s right,” someone shouted from nearby in the crowd.
“But that’s the Emperor you’re talking about,” answered another voice.
“And he’s got a sense of humor. Good for him.”
As the crowd argued, Theria’s laughter took control of her. She pointed at the Emperor, shaking with mirth. “Look! Look! Look at the Emperor’s clothes!”
Suzia could sense the crowd tense. Everyone but Theria shut up.
The tension had wound the people up as tightly as a spring. That spring had to release, and it could have come out as panic. A few people could have started to slink away, scared they would be arrested if they stayed. Then, frightened that they would be the ones left behind, everyone else would stampede to get away. The crush would be horrendous. People would get hurt.
But that didn’t happen. The spring stayed wound for a few moments longer.
Putrid green. Shocking pink. Electric blue with snot green zigzags… The Emperor’s robes lit up in such a ludicrous series of patterns that the crowd couldn’t help itself. After an awkward, long silence when the only sounds were Theria screeching with mirth, and the soft hum of the hoverbots, the crowd erupted into laughter. Within seconds, what had begun as a nervous release, grew into full-on, belly-clutching, side-splitting, tears-running-down-cheeks, trying-not-to-wet-yourself laughs — the kind that fed on itself and could not stop.
“What a performance!”
“Look at him go!”
“What do you call that color?”
“I can’t believe it.”
“What a guy!”
“Who’d have thought?”
“Oh, this is priceless!”
Both of Suzia’s heads looked through the cheering, chortling crowd, scanning the reactions.
And if some of those people were laughing at whatever it was that Theria was seeing, and if others were laughing because the Emperor looked completely naked, then no one could tell the difference.
Suzia grabbed a passing hoverbot and kissed it.
Theria had saved them!
Chancellor Ireton escorted the Aphidian tailor back to the imperial throne room.
The Emperor waved his encouragement. The procession had been a spectacular success, though the Emperor had made it very clear to his personal servant that morning that he was to wear his old clothes from now on.
“You have done well, tailor,” said the Emperor’s right head.
He could not, of course, reliably interpret alien body language, but he thought the creature acted pleasantly surprised, as if he were accustomed to his special clothing being a failure.
“The Emperor’s new clothes were a stunning success,” said Chancellor Ireton. “Surprise is such a difficult reaction to conceal, and those dangerous left-headers were certainly surprised by His Imperial Majesty’s… ah… apparent immodesty. The hoverbots caught even more renegades than we’d hoped.”
“Excellent,” said the Emperor. “And that wretched lot on Nibboloth Plaza — the steaming pile of degenerates who laughed at me — have you arrested all of them?”
Ireton, paused before replying, “No, Your Majesty.”
“Well, when you do, make sure you execute the lot of them. Painfully.”
Ireton paused again. “Your Majesty, you know that I treat left-headers and other rebels with the utmost firmness.”
The Emperor thought a moment, trying to work out what the chancellor was babbling on about. But he knew without a doubt that what she had said was true: the chancellor was indeed ruthless. “Go on,” he said.
Chancellor Ireton smiled elegantly. The Emperor knew Ireton was tough with his enemies, but what he didn’t realize was that she was even better at telling him what he wanted to hear. If it came to a choice between doing what was in her master’s best interests, and telling him something that would make her popular in his eyes — well, that was no choice at all!
“Your Majesty, the people on Nibboloth Plaza laughed because…” She gave a polite cough, and whispered. “Your attire was most colorful.”
“What? Well, maybe it was, but that’s no excuse for laughing.”
“Of course not, Your Majesty. Still, it would seem a shame to execute them. They only laughed at you because they love you.”
“Rubbish! They were mocking me.”
“Perhaps… But… just maybe… they felt they were sharing a joke with their imperial ruler. After all, if they only hated or feared you, they would not have dared to laugh. Only those who felt they could trust you would laugh.”
An unfamiliar warm feeling spread through the Emperor. The Chancellor’s words made sense. They made a lot of sense! “You know, Ireton, there’s a reason I keep you around.”
“Really, Your Majesty?” Ireton had a warm feeling too — one of relief. The Emperor’s chancellors never lasted long. Perhaps she wouldn’t need to use that emergency off-world escape plan just yet.
“Yes, Ireton, you fool.” The Emperor laughed. “I have many faults, but vanity is not one of them. Occasionally I know that even I can be wrong, and you are the only person I know who can spot those times.”
The Chancellor bowed so low her heads nearly touched the ground.
“They were good people on Nibboloth Plaza,” said the Emperor, “every man, woman, and child.” The smile left his lips on both faces. “Now, how many lefties have we arrested so far?”
Ireton bowed again, looking very pleased with herself. “The count so far is 2,173.”
The Emperor whistled with both heads. That was a lot!
“Who could have imagined that so many ran wild in the underbelly of the imperial capital?” said Ireton. “But never again will the left-headers be such a threat, thanks to the magical cloth of our green Aphidian friend.” She gestured toward the alien, eager to shift the Emperor’s attention onto someone else.
The Emperor nodded agreement. “Yes, indeed, Ireton. The people love me and the left-headers are being arrested in droves.” He gave out a happy sigh. “Well done, my green friend,” he told the tailor.
The alien — the smelly green alien, if the Emperor was honest — was so taken by this praise, that he danced a jog on his spindly hind legs, giving off a scent of old woodsmoke and rotten grass cuttings.
The Emperor imagined he could actually smell words coming off the tailor.
Finally, it seemed to say. It worked!
You might have heard similar stories from your own planet. The tailors’ special clothing usually yields disastrous results, and yet the Aphidians are fantastically (not to mention annoyingly) rich. So if their clothing normally brings disaster, where does their wealth come from?
We simply do not know the answers to this question. If you know of a tale to enlighten us, please come into our nearest Repository branch and swap it for one of our stories in our A Tale for a Tale program.
Though we can’t be sure whether this story is true, the rivalry between left- and right-headed people on Mermos-37 sadly is all too true… or rather it was. The madness of purity afflicts most species in the early stage of their development, but most grow beyond it when they move from their home worlds to encounter the vast diversity of the galaxy.
In this case, the left-headers died out within a dozen generations of our story. You might think that with the left-headers no longer there, the right-headers would no longer feel threatened. But the problem with a purity-obsession is always the same — the criteria for purity grows narrower and narrower until almost everyone is classified as one of the impure. The right-headers turned their fear and hatred on themselves.
But this two-headed race did not quite die out. No, no, their fate is far worse. Made immortal by anti-ageing nanobots, and indestructible by armored robotic exoskeletons built from exotic metals mined from white dwarf stars, what was once a vibrant race has been reduced to two individuals, each trying to purge the other from existence for the sin of impurity.
These two have been hammering away at each other for the 78,000 years since we recorded this story sphere. We suspect this is only the start of their battle.
The Repository of Imagination has entranced sentient life-forms throughout the galaxy for tens of thousands of years, thrilling and informing its users in equal measure.
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