Written by Morgan Beale / Artwork by Lee Kuruganti
Disrupted
It was late in the evening, and his entourage of
glitterati and sycophants had dissipated. Maldurant
remained, nursing a drink and looking at a lonely
pineapple ring on a plate. There were only one or two
other patrons in my restaurant, and I was helping the
wait staff clean the tables when I found myself walking
right past him.

“Do we grow pineapples here?” he asked, and turned
to me. He was holding the fruit ring between forefinger
and thumb, at eye level as if for a detailed inspection.

“No, we import them as a delicacy,” I replied, and met
his gaze. He didn’t look away, and neither did I.

Although he looked older than many, I would never
have guessed his true age if I hadn’t read all about
him. His face retained a rugged handsomeness
untarnished if not enhanced by the years, his pale
blond hair was still full and swept back majestically
over his fashionable collar.

One of the problems with elven longevity is that we
often remain very good looking into our twilight years.
Sometimes it resulted in some very asymmetric
coupling.

Maldurant smiled, tossed the pineapple back to its
plate, and leaned forward.

“You run a very nice establishment, Miss… ” his eyes
dropped to the nametag on my chest. “Miss Aelfthryth.
Are you the owner?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “No, I’m just the manager! The owner lives by the seaside somewhere I think, enjoying
the fruits of our labour.” I grinned sardonically, and was surprised to see him smile conspiratorially.

“So many do,” he said softly, “they can afford a life of leisure, while other people earn money for them. Just their
luck.”

“Oh?” I raised a coy eyebrow. “Surely you could do the same? You’re the preeminent artist of our age, with all of
your best works on show across the road. You mustn’t be short of a few pearls to rub together?”

At this he seemed to deflate. He sighed heavily and slumped back into his chair. I must have gone too far.

“It was a great show!” I stammered, trying to remedy the situation. “It was magnificent really, your work–”

He waved dismissively, and I bit my lip. Me and my big mouth.

“I tried retiring to the coast, Miss Aelfthryth,” he said, staring into the middle distance. “But I couldn’t find what I
was looking for there.”

Now he looked at me, and I felt a little uncomfortable with the intensity in his eyes.

“Please, call me Alfa.” I said, defusing the sudden tension.
He broke into a rapacious grin.

“Well, my dear Alfa,” he said, “I wonder if you might help me.”

What I said next was the worst mistake of my life.

~ * ~

By coincidence, I’d seen Maldurant’s masterworks at an exhibition only a few days earlier.

It was breathtaking. It ranged from sculptures that seemed so real they could have been breathing, to abstract
paintings that somehow seemed to capture the essence of a mood, distilled into oil. It captured the artist’s best
work over a thousand-year period, with even the least of the pieces at least five hundred years old and regarded as
a masterpiece in its own right.

My boyfriend, Tac, and I were both speechless as we left the hall, and started stumbling our way back home
through a crowd of other elves equally awestruck. But, over the course of our walk, Tac started becoming
increasingly sullen.

“He’s just so good,” he said. “How can I compete? How could I ever compete with that?”

“Well, to be fair, honey, you are servicing a different market,” I pointed out. “Not many people can afford a
Maldurant for their lounge.”

“So you’re saying I make cheap shit,” he said, sulkily.

“No, not at all!” I protested. “Tac, you’re not even a hundred and fifty yet! Maldurant had over a thousand years to
perfect his art!”

He considered this for a while. I wanted to say more, but didn’t wish to inflame his insecurity further. So I waited
dutifully for his reply.

“That’s the problem, really, isn’t it?” he mused after a while.

“Well, being young isn’t really a problem, it just means you’re in a different stage of your career–”

“No, the problem is that Maldurant has had over a thousand years of practice. And he’s still alive, still producing
great art.” He looked at me, and frowned. “So I’m not just competing with what he’s done. I’m competing with
what he’s
doing. And I can’t. I’m just not that good. Nothing I do ever looks like I thought it would.”

We walked on, along a broad wooden boardwalk, suspended high above the ground. There were more walkways
above, below, and to either side, each snaking off to new destinations. Here and there were stairs, gentle ramps,
and occasionally ladders connecting different levels. And, of course, houses, shops, workshops and more, all
crafted from and within the bountiful trees of the forest.

He had a point. There was a significant advantage to the older artist, by virtue of being already established. And
since he was still able to create, years afterwards, he was still able to leverage his reputation.

As we passed through a particularly leafy enclave, where the buildings were few and nature allowed to roam free, I
paused, took Tac lightly by the arm, and moved to the side of the walkway. Lightly resting on the guardrail, we
looked out at the view. The leafy canopy of a smaller tree beckoned from immediately below, obscuring the
walkways underneath, soft and inviting like a fluffy green cloud.

I had a point too. Whatever his ego said, it would be madness to try and sell his work at prices commanded by the
master. Most people couldn’t afford a masterpiece, anyway, they just wanted nice things in their house. Tac’s art
wasn’t
bad, in any sense of the word. He definitely had talent, and produced those nice things. He just didn’t yet
have the reputation to sell his work consistently in a market as competitive as Sylvas Anna, our beautiful city in the
trees. And he’d never get it if he let his insecurity prevent him from putting his imperfect but still excellent work on
sale or show.

“Tac, sweetie, your work is really good, if you’d give it a chance. Just because it’s not how you imagined it doesn’t
mean it’s worthless. If it doesn’t sell in the core of Sylvas Anna, where people want names, not art, try a few
different places in the Outer Rings, or young people with no money–”

“Like us.”

“Yes, like us, who are never going to be able to afford a big name, but who still want some pretty pieces around the
house!” I smiled at him hopefully, trying to lift his spirits. “You know, a human would give his left eyeball to be able
to sculpt as well as you can. You could join one of the trade caravans to Imbolg or Gottingen and sell to them.”

“Humans! That’d be right…I’d become known as the artist that can only sell to barbarians! Caratacos, the Slum
Artist!” He threw his hands in the air.

“Hey, it’s all in the intonation,” I threw back at him. “For example, it sounds much better as ‘Caratacos the
Rich
Slum Artist’!”

He laughed at that, and we made it home in much better spirits, although the spectre of irrelevance seemed to
linger, burning somewhere inside him.

~ * ~

When I arrived home from that fateful day at work, it was so late that it was early. So I was surprised to see Tac
still awake, brooding in front of the fire.

“Hi there, sweetness,” I said, depositing my valise on the hall sideboard. “What’s eating you?”

“Hey Alfa,” he replied distantly. I curled up next to him, glad to be off my feet.

A few moments passed while we contemplated the fire in the hearth.

“It’s silly, really, isn’t it?” said Tac. “We live in wooden houses, in trees, and light fires.” He smiled grimly. “What
could possibly go wrong?”

“Well, it would get pretty cold without a fire, especially in winter,” I pointed out. “And salad is fine, but roast dinners
are better.”

“Sure. But what a risk we take for those pleasures! If a cooking fire gets out of control–”

“Then we douse it with the bucket of sand right next to it.”

“Spoilsport. You know what I mean. It’s not just a risk to us, it’s a risk to the whole community.”

“Which is why if things do get out of hand, the whole community pitches in to fight the fire.”

“Yes, but,” persisted Tac, “doesn’t it bother you that we could have our home burned to the ground just because
some idiot six metres below can’t control his stove?”

I considered this. Each building in the city was connected to multiple trees, as well as other buildings or boardwalks
or hanging gardens, like a giant bee hive where no cell existed in isolation. So interconnected was the city that it
was now difficult to say whether the trees were holding the city up, or if the city was keeping the trees from falling
over. It’s true that if a fire ever got out of control, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Which, of course, is why we had countermeasures, and took a very dim view of would-be arsonists.

“I guess it’s a risk. But I can’t control what other idiots do, so I don’t worry about it.” I yawned, and started to get
up. “Anyway, I’m going to bed, see you in the–”

My eye caught something in the fire.

“Tac, what’s—is that your sculpture in the fire?”

He looked into the fire. “It wasn’t the perfect creation my mind demanded,” he said loftily.

“That wasn’t just some random bit of firewood from the forest floor, Tac, we paid for that piece of redwood.” I
seethed, but tried to keep my voice level as I put my fists on my hips. “You said the colour would help bring out
some artistry you had in mind. You said it would be a much more valuable sculpture than some bit of oak.”

“You can’t let money get in the way of making great art,” he said dismissively.

“Easy to say when you’re leeching off your girlfriend!” I snapped. Tac either hadn’t noticed I was angry or didn’t
care. But I’d been working late, walked off my feet to get home, and I wasn’t in the mood for holding back much
longer. My voice started rising.

“How do you think I feel when I work my feet into the floor to earn enough money to get us by, then come home
to find you, just, burning something you’re too lazy to finish properly!? You could at least have tried to sell it at
cost!”

“No self-respecting elf would have bought that,” said Tac sulkily.

“So put in the trade caravan, I’m sure some human would have bought it!” I yelled, then threw my arms in the air.
Tac remained stubbornly mute. I turned my back on him.

“You could at least try,” I repeated, then went to bed, disappointed and dispirited.

~ * ~

In the morning we made up. Tac was sorry, appalled that I thought he was taking me for granted, and resolved to
do better in future.

He cooked me a lavish breakfast too, which always helped. Whatever his faults, Tac was a great cook when he
wanted to be.

Tac was also a seriously good looking guy. As he cleaned up the breakfast dishes (another part of his reparations
from last night), I sat in my dressing gown and watched him. His short brownish hair offset his fine ears beautifully,
and the angles of his chin and cheeks framed a roguish glint in his deep amber eyes. The loose shirt he had put on
outlined a toned physique, and the large open neck showed off a bit more. His movements were sure and graceful,
his smile easy and just a little bit cheeky. I much preferred this Tac to the morose, pensive Tac that I sometimes
found at night. I drank him in.

There was a knock on the door. Tac went to answer it, being the only one of us who was actually dressed. I paused
in surprise. I wasn’t expecting anyone.

A strangled yelp was all I heard from the doorway.

I quickly made to stand up, and then our unexpected guest was breezing into the living room, Tac following behind
him in abject shock. It occurred to me that I probably should have mentioned who I had met last night.

“Alfa!” said Maldurant warmly as he extended his arms, and grinned impishly. I was acutely conscious that I was at
my breakfast table. Still surrounded by the detritus of the meal. In my dressing gown.

“Erm,” I said, as Maldurant covered the distance and wrapped me in a hug. My arms were still awkwardly by my
sides, so I just made some little flapping motions until he released me. I was surprised by the visit, but even more
surprised by the sudden warmth.

“I, erm, wasn’t expecting—”

“Naturally, naturally.” Maldurant took a relaxed step back, casting a sly look at Tac, who had recovered from his
shock sufficiently to narrow his eyes and glare at the famous artist.

“And this is?” continued Maldurant, gesturing grandly to Tac, whose reaction he had clearly been fishing for.

“Tac, this is Maldurant, who I met at work last night, sorry, I’m really sorry, I forgot to tell you.” I grimaced
sheepishly, and Tac nodded curtly.

“Maldurant, this is Caratacos, my boyfriend, he’s also an artist,” I finished, despite feeling Tac’s embarrassment at
being called an artist in the presence of the master.

“Really,” said Maldurant, turning to Tac but not looking particularly interested.

“Well, I’m aspiring,” muttered Tac to his boots, “An aspiring. I’m artisting to be an aspire. I mean, aspiring to be an
artist.”

“I’ll let you two get to know each other,” I said, “while I,” I was already moving, “go and get dressed.” I leapt into
my room and shut the door.

~ * ~

I took some time, not rushing to select a dress (elegant, but still casual enough  I could wear it around the house
without feeling silly), arrange my hair, and choose a necklace (a string of round lapis lazuli stones that nicely
complemented my dark hair). When I had suitably composed myself, I opened the door again.

Maldurant was absently critiquing some point of one of Tac’s older works, the most recent having sadly been
consigned to ashes. His eyes wandered about the house as he did so, taking in some of the details of the life we
lived there. He didn’t appear to need to give all of his attention to the art object, and may actually have been bored
by it. He noticed at once when I reopened the door of my room.

“Welcome back,” he said, as he handed Tac’s figurine back to him. Tac took it and placed it back on the
mantelpiece, scowling slightly at Maldurant, who appeared not to notice. I returned his gaze with a wry smile. I had
actually started to worry about how he found my house. The thought had crossed my mind that he could be some
kind of psychopath.

“I asked your co-workers where you live,” he said. I suppressed my annoyance. They shouldn’t have told him, even
if he was super famous. “You know, when you promise to help someone, you should tell them how to find you at
least,” he chided.

A promise to help? That’s not exactly how I recall our conversation.

“Help? You haven’t even told me what it is you’re looking for.” I was guarded, but curious.

Maldurant pulled a chair, and sat down. I cleared some space on the table and sat opposite him. Tac looked at him
belligerently, but followed suit.

“How old are you Alfa? Two centuries? One and a half?” I bristled, but apparently it was a rhetorical question, as
Maldurant continued talking. “I was born over two thousand years ago. I was a boy when this city was built.”

Maldurant swept his hand in an arc at the city around us.
“They said it would never work, you know. But I digress.” Now he looked directly at Tac, possibly for the first time.
“You… Caratacos? Yes. How long have you been sculpting for?”

“Maybe ninety years, give or take? I did a lot of drawing as a youth before I started carving. Why?” Tac looked
puzzled, unsure how he came into the equation.

“A mere ninety? Yes, your career is like an open book, the first pages barely inked yet. Your best work lies ahead of
you. But tell me,” and he turned back to face me, “when you saw my show did you think you could say the same
for me?”

“Well…” The art in that gallery had appeared insuperable. Tac hadn’t been able to imagine doing better. It had never
occurred to me that the artist himself might feel intimidated by the quality of his own work.

“Everything I do now,” Maldurant went on, “is compared to those pieces, and usually, it falls short.”

I exchanged a glance with Tac. He looked as surprised as I was, but underneath it was perhaps a touch of
smugness. No doubt the anxiety he had felt the other day was being validated.

“They
are exceptional,” I said, “but I think I see your problem. You could live for another thousand years, all the
time feeling that your best work is behind you.”

Maldurant nodded.

“Exactly,” he said, “And I refuse to.”

“You don’t mean—” I shuddered. There was no way, no how, I was entering into some kind of murder pact.

“No,” he laughed. “I’m not a Vercingatorix, nor Isolt, to martyr myself for want of ideas.”

“So you want…” I could see where this was going, now. Our eyes met.

“I want a Muse. Will you help me, Alfa?”

~ * ~

Two weeks later we were in Gottingen, almost as different to Sylvas Anna as it was possible to be. Where the elven
town was leafy and sunlit, perched high in the trees, a beautifully crafted marvel of interconnected wooden artifice,
the human town was an ugly, sprawling mass of haphazardly thrown together construction materials. Ramshackle
buildings leaned into each other and dormers overhung streets and smaller buildings, while the narrow side streets
disappeared rapidly into darkness. Industrial parks on the outskirts of town contributed to the air of pollution that
hung over the city.

Strangely, the inhabitants seemed cheerful and happy. Perhaps they hadn’t known any other way of living. Or
maybe humans weren’t as bothered by pollution and sewage as elves were. Certainly, the bustling marketplace
where we camped was a nicer spot than some of the outlying industrial areas we travelled through. And the children
who came running “to see the elves” were adorable in their enthusiasm. So maybe I judged it too harshly with my
first impressions. We all know that impressions can deceive.

I had spent much of the trip trying to corner Maldurant and wring out the detail of his plans, and where exactly he
saw me helping him. He seemed to be avoiding me, and I wondered if he improvising as he went along. Tac can be
annoyingly flippant about planning in advance, too. Maybe it was an artist thing.

“I’m an ideas man, Alfa,” he would say if I caught him, waving a hand in the air as I pressed him on some point. “I’ll
leave the details to you.”

Yes, I thought, but it would be a lot easier if I knew what they were. Clearly he saw me as providing logistical
support while he concentrated on the business of ideation. Funnily, we had very different opinions on where the
‘real’ work lies.

In fact I’d almost given up on the entire enterprise by the middle of the market week, but then Maldurant found me
and pulled me to one side.

“Come with me,” he said, and started walking. Just like that.

I looked around for Tac—he’d really started getting into the market atmosphere, and had already sold most of the
works he’d brought along. He must have seen us, because he bounced over and joined us as we left the market.

“Where are we going?” he enquired cheerfully. I smiled and shrugged, but Maldurant answered.

“I’m finalising some negotiations, and I’d like you along to help,” he said.

“Oh? Are you sure we’re allowed to know?” I asked, with a hint of pique.

He simply smiled and led the way.

~ * ~

The afternoon’s stroll led to a local beverage producer. Maldurant had evidently arranged to import some of their
wares to Sylvas Anna, and wanted another couple of elves to lend the appearance of a delegation to the final
negotiation. I subtly helped him with the finer points, catching out a loophole that would have left him exposed to
sudden shifts in supply and demand, and he argued down the price slightly, and then the papers were signed and
there was much backslapping.

“So, what did you just buy?” I asked, curious, while the humans ran around arranging some kind of celebratory
toast. The contracts merely referred to ‘The Goods’.

“I’ve had this in motion since the last time I visited,” confided Maldurant, leaning over. “They call it whisky. It’s not
dissimilar to wine, but much more potent. Ah, looks like you’ll get to try some!”

Before I knew it I was holding a glass tumbler with a golden liquid inside. It certainly smelled more potent than the
wine I was used to. I looked at Tac. He held his own glass, looking somewhat apprehensively at it, and our gaze
met as we wondered whether or not it was wise to drink.

The locals toasted and we clinked glasses.

“Bottoms up!” cried Maldurant, downing his glass at one stroke. Oh well, politeness dictates it. How strong can it
be? I followed suit.

It burned!

I was gasping for breath and cursing politeness for a bitch. What a kick it had! I saw Tac hacking and coughing,
and tried gamely to recover myself in silence as Maldurant patted Tac paternally on the back. He was chuckling, the
bastard.

“You…what…?” I spluttered.

“Great stuff, it only takes a couple of drinks to get the hang of it,” he said. “You really shouldn’t quaff your first
glass though, Alfa,” he added mischievously. I kicked him in the shins.

  ~ * ~

Later that evening we were celebrating in a nearby tavern. Maldurant had ordered more whisky for all of us, and this
time I took it slowly.

Maldurant was in an expansive mood. He swept his arm in an arc, taking in the tavern and forcing Tac to rapidly
duck.

“This will breathe new life into the Outer Rings, Alfa!”

I looked around. The tavern was busy, very busy. Not everyone was drinking whisky, but plenty were. There was a
group of fiddlers in a small space that had been cleared of tables, playing a succession of lively tunes.

And the humans loved it. Everyone was having a good time.

“Feel the energy!” cried Maldurant. “And in the middle of an industrial area, no less! Can you imagine this in Sylvas
Anna? The wine bars in the Inner are fine if your head’s up your arse–”

“Hey!” I interjected, to no avail.

“Everything in the Inner Ring is so… refined. Elegant.
Boring. It’s not your fault,” he added hastily, “it’s just the
way the city is. If you aren’t right in the centre, you’re no one. And so the Outer Rings are sterile, full of cheap
housing and young commuters who think they need to be in the Inner to aspire to be
anything.”

I was one of those aspirational people. Just last month I’d been house hunting in Ashglade, hoping to find a place
in the Inner Ring that I could afford, even if only just. I still remembered my incredulous disappointment at one
especially tiny hovel that had been priced at a king’s ransom. I shook my head at the memory.

“You think whisky is the answer?” I asked, keen to change the topic slightly.        

Disruption is the answer!” He slammed his hand down on the table, and Tac almost jumped out of his skin. He’d
been watching the band rather than following our conversation. Maldurant continued to hold forth.

“Show people another way! Once we open whisky taverns in the Outer Rings, people will see they don’t
need to be
in the Inner to have fun! And once we break that misconception, life returns to the Outer, jobs appear in the Outer,
and the exclusivity of the Inner is pointless! And the old farts who own the whole damn Inner can go and–”

“Is that dessert
on fire?” I interrupted Maldurant by almost jumping out of my seat. A waitress near me had just
set a patron’s soufflé on fire, but for some reason no one appeared concerned.

“Oh yes,” said Maldurant, not seeming to mind that I’d cut off his tirade. “It’ll do that, too.”

“Huh?” I must’ve looked as puzzled as I felt.

“Watch.” Maldurant poured some of his drink on the tabletop. Eyes glittering like a lunatic, he grabbed a candle, and
lit the damnable stuff on fire.

“And you’re sure this is safe to drink?” I asked, aghast.

“Hey Alfa,” said Tac, “you should sing.”

Maldurant stopped laughing at me as he put out his fire, and looked at Tac, who was grinning impishly. He turned
back to me quizzically. “I didn’t know you were a singer?”

“I’m not, really, I just–” I blushed. “I just sing a bit while I work, and so on, I’m not that good.”

“You’ve been practising longer than these humans have been alive,” Tac pointed out. “Go on. The music is fun, but
it needs a song.”

I drained my glass. I felt peculiarly light headed,
how strong is that stuff anyway? What the hell. I’d do it.

I stood up, swaying slightly, and made my way to the cleared section the fiddlers were occupying.
I feel like an
idiot. What am I doing?

I looked at the fiddlers. The looked back at me, unused to being interrupted. They stopped playing.

I’m pretty sure the whole tavern stopped to look at the crazy elf lady who was weirding out their band.

I’m disrupting them, that’s what I’m doing.

I turned to face the crowd and opened my lungs. The fiddlers started playing again. The crowd watched and
listened. They were stunned. Tac was right. I was good enough. I saw him smiling beatifically at me. Maldurant was
right. This was different, and they loved it.

I didn’t know what the fiddlers were playing, so I improvised with some old elvish songs I knew and fit the lyrics to
the tune. Soon we were improvising together in a wild and fevered jam. The tune rose and fell in a frenzy as we fed
off each other’s energy. It was glorious.

As I sang and the fiddlers played I saw Maldurant, eyes fixed on us, grab Tac by the arm and drag him upright. Tac
was surprised to find himself being impelled to the space between the diners and the band; and moreso as
Maldurant span him around, and began dancing with him. I watched and sang and grinned as the two started to
find a rhythm. Tac was thrown at first by Maldurant leading, but seemed to get the hang of the furious jig.

After what seemed a while, but probably wasn’t, some of the other humans—no, I thought,
people—started
getting up and joining them. Soon our frenetic improv was accompanied by a chaos of cavorting bodies. I lost sight
of my elf friends, then lost myself completely in the music.

~ * ~

I was giggling like an adolescent as we staggered down the street. The tavern had eventually closed, thankfully,
since I could barely talk or stand anymore and since I’d started performing people had been plying me with free
drinks all night. I’d bidden a fond farewell to the fiddlers and we’d hugged and kissed cheeks, which I would never
have imagined myself doing, I mean it’s not like they were elves and one of them had a massive beard which was
totally gross but we swapped cheek kisses regardless and embraced and agreed that it was the best jam ever. And
Maldurant was propping Tac up, or maybe it was the other way around, and they were exhausted and it was late,
and I had to drag them out or they dragged me out or maybe the proprietess kicked us out, I forget.

So we were walking, if you can call it walking, down the street trying to find where we were supposed to be
sleeping, then we gave up, because we passed by a lodge that was still taking late night revellers like us, and we
got a room there instead. Well Mal asked for a room, and I croaked, “no way that’ll be two rooms thanks,” and so
we got two rooms and lurched up the stairs to find them and I struggled bravely to fit the key in the lock while Tac
didn’t seem to know if he was supposed to be in the boy’s room with Mal or with, you know, his girlfriend, so once
I’d figured out the puzzle of the door I grabbed him and pulled him in and somehow found the bed before I passed
out.

~ * ~

Pain screamed through the windows. Sunlight lanced through my eyes. I tried to kill myself with the pillow.

My head hadn’t exploded. I chanced opening a bleary eye. Tac was still snoring. Then I fell out of bed.

Slowly I realised I was hungover. It felt like some deadly curse. How much had I drank? I couldn’t remember. That
wasn’t a good sign.

An hour later I was nursing my aching head downstairs. The world’s least appetising breakfast was in front of me.
Tac was next to me. He looked like death warmed up. Mal had pranced out of his room looking alright. Typical.

“Good morning, ladies!” he grinned. Tac didn’t even bother demurring. Instead he gamely faced his plate. One hand
cradled his head. The other twirled his fork like a divining rod, trying to identify edible parts of the ‘food’.

“Disruption,” I managed, and gave him a hard stare. My voice sounded like two strips of bark being rubbed
together. I could barely talk.

“Well, you two certainly appear disrupted,” chuckled Mal. I was glad to hear a husky edge. Maybe he was just
putting on a good show. That thought made me feel better. He sat down and took my plate. I didn’t object.

“Last night was pretty wild though, wasn’t it?” Mal looked at each of us. We had to agree. “Imagine parties like that
in the Outer Rings. Who’d ever bother going to the over-priced Inner?”

“Mal, you’ll put me out of business,” I rasped. I’d never have dreamed of nicknaming him a month ago, but a wild
night together can do strange things. He leaned closer.

“Yep.”

I didn’t have the energy to throw something at him, so I frowned instead. Mal stroked his chin, not at all put off.
“But not if you work for me,” he said.

Eventually I realised it was an offer. I was having a bad morning, ok? I grunted non-committally.

“I’ve seen you at work,” said Mal, launching into a pitch. “You could organise a parliament of cats. You have the
hospitality experience, and the drive to succeed. I have the wherewithal, the clout, and now –” he waved in the
general direction of the distillery – “the raw materials.”
I looked at him. He was smiling. There was a twinkle in his eye.

“Whatever you’re on now, I’ll pay you double,” he said, smiling wider and narrowing his eyes slightly.

“What do you say, Alfa? Will you bring my Muse to life?”

~ * ~

We hashed out a strategy on the trip home. We would pick sites around the Outer Ring for the new whisky
taverns, where possible in support of the few existing venues. The handball arena to the north-east was an
obvious place to invest in a franchise, as it attracted the sports fans and was currently poorly supported with after
match entertainment. Mal was also keen to establish an Outer gallery, showcasing local artists’ work, and felt that
the gallery opening would be a natural time and place to officially launch the franchise. We laid plans for each of the
compass points, either supporting existing hubs or seeking to create them from whole cloth.

It was pretty clear that Mal was prepared to invest a substantial amount into this venture. I don’t think he could
possibly have expected to turn a profit, which meant he was doing this for other reasons. I suspected the appeal of
a city-scale art project was a stronger motivation for him than purely the sake of the city and its inhabitants, but
either way I respected his ambition and willingness to provide funds.

Of course we clashed on some points, like the location of our supply waystations. He was going to pay far more
than he needed to, and I felt his argument about more developed haulage infrastructure was specious at best.
Sometimes I yielded—it was his brainchild, after all–other times I stood up for what needed to be done. I never
commit to anything less than success.

By the time we’d got home, Mal had not only told Tac about his gallery idea, but had also invited him to feature in
its inaugural show. It’s fair to say he was pretty happy. Truth be told, so was I. Life seemed to be working out well
for us.

“Who’d have thought a few weeks ago that we’d both be in Maldurant’s pocket?” I said, as I sank happily into my
favourite chair. Tac beamed.

~ * ~

The weeks started flying past. There was a lot to do. Mal might have been blasé about bankrolling a large operation
and my now much larger wages, but he had interesting ideas about deadlines. Naturally, there were hitches along
the way. The drama about which nuts to serve was a week I’ll never get back.

But discovering that the handball league grand final was on the same day as our proposed gallery opening was one
of the worst.

“Mal!” cried Tac, bursting into the room. Mal and I had been poring over a plan of supply routes. Well, I had been
poring over it, and Mal was absently listening to my high level summary while playing with some kind of silver
brooch. We both looked up at the sudden intrusion.

“I’ve just found out—our opening—it clashes! It clashes with the handball final!” Tac threw his hands in the air, only
barely in control of himself.

I looked at Mal. I wasn’t a sports fan, so hadn’t noticed. But even if it detracted from our gallery opening, it would
be good for the tavern business, especially the one near the ground. Of course, I wasn’t an artist.

Mal was. He looked at Tac.

“So?” he said.

“So?! So no one will come! They’ll all be at the bloody arena! We’ll have an opening and
nobody will come!

Tac was beside himself. I didn’t know what to do. If I was honest, lately I’d been so caught up with my work that I
hadn’t been paying him much attention. The realisation made me feel even worse.

“It will be okay, Tac.” Speaking slowly, Mal tried to calm Tac down.

Tac looked at him blankly. His face seemed to ask
how could that possibly be the case.

“Only
sports fans will go to the game. Do you want boorish sports fans at your show?” Mal looked deeply into him,
and coaxed Tac to shake his head.

“Do you want a refined, sophisticated crowd at your show?” he continued.

“Yes, but, but it’s not just that!” rallied Tac. “When I started looking, I found there’s also a country fair on the
same day! And a business forum! There’s shit on everywhere!” He was starting to raise his voice dangerously, and
waved his arms around like a demented windmill. “At this rate we’ll be lucky if the bloody cleaner shows up!”

Mal glanced at me. Tac took a step back. He stopped shouting, and instead looked at us both with slow dawning
horror.

“You knew,” he said.

“I didn’t know–” I started, but Mal cut me off.

“I knew,” he said, “but it will be fine. There’ll be–”

“This isn’t happening,” moaned Tac, maybe to himself, as he put his hands to his face.

“—plenty of people. They are all very different crowds!” Mal’s voice had an edge to it now.

“I can’t believe you set this up—”

“If your art is good people will come, now go make it!” snapped Mal, and pointed to the studio door. We were at
our house, which had become operations central. A pay rise and no commute seemed like a pretty good deal at the
time, although on reflection there were other costs. Like the blurring distinction between private and work life. I
looked around at the work detritus in piles around the room.
It’s really strange, I thought, that as there is less and
less space to move in here, there’s more and more space between us
.

Tac looked crushed. He looked at the door to his studio and Mal’s pointing finger, then turned around and stormed
out of the house.
Maybe he’ll go for a walk and clear his head, I thought. That would be good, I guess? I didn’t
know.

Mal faced the map again.

“Continue,” he said tersely.

What else could I do?

~ * ~

It took a while to smooth over Tac’s hurt feelings. He’d been acting like it was a conspiracy to make him look
stupid. Eventually I won him back on side, and managed to get him excited about his art again.

He was always happiest when he was talking about his works in progress. The potential was infinite but visible,
while still being unrestrained by the tyranny of the actual result.

Today he was showing me a large wooden archway that he was sculpting into the shape of a rampant dragon,
wreathing a tower in flame.

“I like your dragons,” I cooed. “Especially the scales, they’re beautifully realised.”

“Thank you,” he said graciously. “What do you think of the fire, so far?” He seemed uncharacteristically hesitant,
nervous even.

“It’s good,” I said, passing judgement. “The outlines are very natural.”

“Fire’s tricky,” he said. “Too much detail makes it look static, when it should be dynamic, passionate. Not enough
detail and it looks…well, amateurish.”

I stood there, holding him while he regarded his work, perhaps weighing up whether to ask for more feedback.

“It’s going to be the first thing you see as you walk in,” he said, “so I want it to make a statement.”

“That’s great, honey! I’m happy for you.” I smiled at him. He still seemed pensive.

“I’m still a bit worried about the opening,” he admitted.

“I’m sorry, Tac,” I said simply. “I didn’t know about the clashes, I’ve been too busy with—well, with the whole
business. But I should have checked.” He waved my apology away.

“That’s fine, but what worries me is that Mal knew. Why? Why did he do it if he knew there were events on all over
the city?”

I’d discussed that with Mal afterwards. He’d assured me that he’d tried to make the most of the few events that
naturally happened in the Outer Ring, and planned to leverage them to promote his taverns. I didn’t think Tac
would appreciate being leveraged, though, and he was already annoyed about the amount of time I was spending
on the project, so I didn’t say anything. I looked at him instead, inviting him to continue.

“And if he set the opening for this particular day in
September, did everything else just happen to be on that day? Or has he been manipulating those too? I mean,
who ever heard of an exporters’ forum being held on the same day as the handball final?” Now he looked at me.

“Tac, maybe you’re overthinking this,” I said. “But even if that was the case, I’m sure he wants to see this gallery
do well. He’s a fellow artist, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, that’s what he said, too.”

We lapsed into a glum silence. In truth, I had little idea what Mal was doing outside of the times that I needed his
input, funds or influence. Since I was doing all of the logistical heavy lifting, he probably had plenty of time to
arrange other events. And how long had he been working on the whisky import deal before he brought me into the
picture?
Now that Tac mentioned it, it did seem like too much of a coincidence.

But surely if he had tweaked a few schedules into aligning in the most spectacular confluence of events the Outer
Ring of Sylvas Anna had yet seen, that was a perfect fit for launching our business? Surely that had to be his plan?

Maybe I’d been too caught up in doing the work too think too hard about where it would lead. Or, for that matter,
where it might lead us. I intertwined our fingers, moved closer, and spoke softly.

“I’m sorry I’ve been working so much, sugar. I’ll make up for it after this opening, I promise.”

“Ah, it’s ok,” he said, graciously. “I’ve been pretty busy with this stuff anyway.” He indicated his works, and
frowned.

“Maybe we should go for a holiday afterwards? We could even go back home, you know, to our village. It’s been
years since we moved to the big smoke…” I suggested, and smiled hopefully at him. I couldn’t really see it
happening yet, couldn’t really see past all of the things that I still had to achieve, but I wanted to hold on to the
hope that it would.

“That’d be nice,” said Tac vaguely.

Tac and I stood, contemplating the gulf between potential and actual, until I had to go back to work.

~ * ~

The day I’d dubbed O-Day approached far more rapidly than it had any right to. I was excited that we’d been able
to prepare all of our Outer Ring taverns for opening, even though it had cost me no little sleep in the meantime.
But I still had a few things to get done before the evening’s mass events and our official openings. The biggest
outstanding job was to load our imported overflow stocks of whisky into our Inner Ring waystations.

It had been very difficult to supply so many franchises in such a short time, and as such a lot of them were
operating with only minimal stock in hand. The city was a hive of activity with people traversing every which way,
making it difficult for freight.

Which is why, late that afternoon, I was still standing at the forest floor with a clipboard.

The press of activity overhead had mercifully subsided. The combination of events had virtually emptied the Inner
Ring, a good sign for our taverns. Nonetheless I had been racing to supply all of the waystations, and had worked
my team of haulers and lift operators hard.

Unbelievably, we were almost done. I scanned my notes and maps again as I checked in on each of the teams and
watched the caravan carts slowly empty of the last barrels. We were close to coming in on time and on budget for
O-day, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I’d missed something.

I read again through the list of addresses. Each represented a property Mal had acquired to be used as a
waystation, to store stock for rapid dispatch and to act as an emergency option if we needed to open an Inner Ring
tavern. They were scattered about each of the eight cardinal directions; I couldn’t imagine how much it had cost
him to buy them all, or how filthy rich he must be to have done so without batting an eyelid.

As I checked the finished names off, and dismissed the finished teams with well earned praise, I lingered on one.

“Hey,” I said to the emptying surrounds, “I know that place.”

~ * ~

I ran, as quickly as I could, clipboard discarded on the moss. I cut a straight line towards Ashglade. For once, I
wasn’t afraid of being wrong, but terrified of being right.

That place was tiny. It was out of the way. It would be a shitty waystation. So why did I just load it full of whisky?
I had a dreadful feeling in the pit of my stomach about why Mal might have been so set on Inner Ring waystations.
It made no sense. It couldn’t be true. But if it was…

~ * ~

I reached the nearest ladder to Ashglade and hauled myself up. I tried to ignore my aching legs as I navigated the
narrow boardwalks, trying to find the right avenue…
keep calm, more speed less haste…there. I found the dismal
place that I’d inspected so long ago now, and forced the door.

It was as small as I remembered it, and in even poorer repair. Plus a large stack of whisky barrels.

I sucked in a deep breath, fighting the urge to double over. Maybe I’d been wrong after all. There were just barrels
of whisky, and a case of those damn nuts on the top of the stack.
Calm down. Everything seems normal. Just
badly planned
.

What an oversight. If all of the waystations were like this, then they would be next to useless for storage, freight
or entertainment. If only the deadline had been longer, I could have checked each personally…

Then I noticed there were some nuts scattered across the barrels.

The case had been opened. I looked inside. Nuts.

I plunged my hand into the nuts, and retrieved what looked like a clock. It was 5:59.

As I pulled it out, I saw something attached to it, and caught the faint smell of sulphur and saltpetre.

The bomb dropped from my nerveless fingers as I ran to the door.

~ * ~

The explosion sent shards of wood and nuts flying in all directions, and the
woof of sudden flame followed me out
the door as I careened over the edge. Off balance and falling, my failing arms caught a guy rope. The jolt of
catching my weight shocked my shoulder, but it beat falling 6 metres to the ground.

I hung there, shivering. Above me I could hear the crackle of fire. I was hanging below the level of the boardwalk,
and couldn’t see what had happened. I tried to pull myself up, but my numbed arm refused to respond.
Don’t let
go. Climb!

Nothing, in a city of wood, was worse than arson. I had to do something. I steeled myself. Wincing at the shooting
pain in my shoulder, I reached upwards with my other hand and grasped the rope. I did the most excruciating chin
up of my life, and willed my elbows onto the boardwalk.

The small house was wreathed in flame. The explosion had ignited the alcohol, and the fire had now spread to the
structure itself. With horror, I saw that the boardwalk itself was on fire, and the ropes and other structures around
it were also catching.

I levered myself up, and ducking through the heat I grabbed the bucket of fire sand and extinguished a tiny and
inconsequential piece of the boardwalk. I don’t know what I hoped to achieve. It was instinct. By myself, it was
hopeless.

“Fire! Help! Fire!” I screamed. I screamed myself hoarse.

No one came.

Choking, I ran up the ladder to the next section before it collapsed. I kicked another bucket of sand over the
spreading catastrophe, but to no use.

How could nobody care? Where was everybody?

Then I remembered O-Day, and the events in the Outer Ring. And the number of ‘waystations’ around the Inner
Ring, just like this one.

I ran for the Outer.

~ * ~

Despair warred with mortal terror. I was sure this was the end. Our community based fire defence had failed,
because the community had been disrupted. Now the jewel in our society’s crown was burning, and very soon I
might be too.

As I sprinted through deserted streets, screaming my warning message to anyone who could hear, the fire was
spreading. Started in every cardinal direction, it would soon coalesce, turning the once resplendent Inner Ring into
a ring of death and destruction.

After an eternity of lonely pain, I came across a bridge through a leafy enclave—at the other end was a band of
people! I raced across, and fell into their midst.

I saw Aife, Captain of the Sylvas Anna Guard, stony faced, axe in her hand, cut the bridge behind me. I trembled,
sobbing into someone’s kindly proffered shoulder.

I had escaped, but what of our beautiful city?

~ * ~

“These bridges were designed as fire-breaks,” said Aife, as she walked with me. “The trees are carefully pruned to
stop them spreading fire across the gap. Then, in the event of a bad blaze, sections of the city can be isolated.”

She was grim, but she’d seen immediately that I was a mess. It was very kind of her to escort me. Just now, I was
glad I wasn’t alone.

“That’s why you’ll see gaps like these throughout the Outer Ring, between every few suburbs,” she continued. Her
jaw was stiff, but her stride showed resolve. She must be as shattered as everyone else, if not more so, since this
was happening under her watch. She kept talking, explaining, which somehow made us both feel better.

“Of course, it was designed to protect the Inner Ring from a fire in the Outer Ring, not the other way around…” her
voice trailed off. We looked at each other.

“I’d better get back,” she said, awkwardly.

“Of course,” I said. We both knew that there was very little she could do. But that wasn’t the point.

“Thank you. For walking with me,” I added. She nodded curtly then started back.

I kept going. I could still feel the heat of the blaze on my back. But as I walked, the helplessness and sorrow was
gradually supplanted by rage.

I changed course, to the new gallery.

~ * ~

Maldurant was standing on the boardwalk, hands on the railing, looking at the incandescent conflagration that used
to be the central business district of all elfdom. He had a faraway look on his face, and didn’t turn as I approached.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he murmured. I nearly choked.

“You! You’ve… what about all the people who live in the Inner?!
What have you done!” In my grief and anger, I was
not quiet. Now he half turned to look at me.

“Alfa, my dear, no one was hurt.” I opened my soot stained mouth to protest the obvious, but he talked loudly
over me.

“I arranged the whole city—the
whole city—to be elsewhere! Everyone is in the Outer Ring this evening! Everyone!
So no, no one was hurt, unless they were foolish enough to walk into the burning buildings.” His lip curled, and my
eye twitched.

“You think it’s fun to destroy the homes and belongings of thousands of innocent people?” I growled.

“Fun?” He waved a hand in the direction of the fire. “See over there? The gallery with my best work of the last two
thousand years? Ablaze, if not already ash. They’re just things, Alfa.”

“If that’s all this was about, you should’ve just burned your own damn shit!” I roared, now gesticulating wildly to
make my point. “Not half the fucking city! It’ll take
decades to repair, if it recovers at all!”

“Centuries, I should think,” said Maldurant, turning once more to face the flame. “But in the meantime the Outer
Ring will prosper, new connections will be formed, and the city of Sylvas Anna—now truly a ring, not merely in
name—will grow in unforeseen ways.” He faced me again, a new heat in his voice. “
That is the meaning of
disruption. Destruction, so that new creation may follow! The losers of property in the Inner are fat old bastards
who can afford it! The young, to whom the future belongs, have lost nothing–
nothing!”

He looked me in the eyes, and I glared back. Heat from the furnace of the Inner Ring still washed over us, but now
we added our own.

“You’re a maniac,” I said, holding my gaze. “I should tell Aife exactly whose fault this debacle is. A thousand years
in jail might wipe that stupid grin off your face.”

“You’re in it as deep as I am,” he shot back. “And if it comes to your word against mine, who will believe that the
great Maldurant destroyed his own legacy?”

Our eyes remained locked. Then, Tac appeared, sauntering over from the gallery.

“Oh, man, I can’t believe this,” he said. “Who’s going to remember my show when this has happened?”

I looked at him, amazed and horrified.

“Caratacos, is that really all you care about? You complete arsehole.” I spat. He jerked back, stung, then slunk
around the other side of Maldurant. Maldurant put his arm around Caratacos’ shoulders and drew him closer.

“I see,” I muttered, then addressed Maldurant again. My lip quivered with fury and loss, but I was determined not
to give in to either in front of him. “You tricked me, you bastard. You tricked me into doing your dirty work for you.”

“Aelfthryth, I didn’t trick you; I
paid you.” He was smug, as though that was simply the end of the story.

“You’ve only just started paying for what you’ve done,” I retorted. “One day, you insufferable, irredeemable…” I
took a deep breath.
Don’t lose it. I longed to push him off the walkway into space. It took an immense effort not to.

“One day,” I continued through gritted teeth, trying hard but in vain to strike him dead with my stare, “I will make
you pay the full price.”

My face was hot, and my eyes stung with firelight, smoke and tears.

“Don’t hold your breath,” he muttered.

We were done.

I looked at the fire, consuming the heart of our once magnificent city. The fire breaks seemed to have held; the
Outer Rings were going to escape. Would I? I could have done more to prevent this apocalypse. I provided the
means. The end was simply beyond what I could have imagined. Did that make me responsible?

I almost laughed, even as I almost cried. Amongst the warring emotions that suffused me, mirth seemed the least
appropriate, but when I realised that to Maldurant this was like a giant art project, the idea that he would credit
anyone else with a significant role in his design was lunacy. Apparently blame was a different currency.

I thought about it, and knew his ego would undermine his attempts to evade culpability.

I regarded my former collaborators. Maldurant was surveying the carnage he had wrought. Caratacos was hiding
behind the older artist, scared to look me in the eye. I saw two elves that could only measure their worth in the
opinions of others. One had been driven insane by the pressure, and one day the other might yet be.

The sparks and embers carried on the breeze twinkled like thousands of nightmarish fireflies, and the heat of the
blaze washed over me, unabated.

If I too were weak I might break down, lose myself in guilt and grief, or run for the hills. If the city were weak, it
would disappear completely after this fiasco, never to rise again. But the power to rise from the ashes? That was
true strength, and that was what we needed.

I left the two chickens behind me, and strode into the night. I was going to be a very different bird. And I was
going to start by finding Aife, and telling her everything.

I couldn’t make it right, it was too late for that, but I could make it less wrong. And from there, who knew?
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Morgan Beale is a business analyst, former geneticist, and occasional
author. He enjoys reading history and speculative fiction, and finds
writing stories and essays much more rewarding than drafting
journal papers or business cases.