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Big Blue Eyes

by Anna Nazarova-Evans

Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the roads, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments.

The country where she lived, Rozlandia, was situated right in the centre of the world and there was no other country more abundant in wealth than it. The country spread far and wide due to King Zol’s heroic defeats of barbaric forces ruling the surrounding countries. The main rule for every new Rozlandia state was that its citizens had to forget their native tongue and instead fully integrate Rozel, Rozlandia’s official language, into their lives. The other small matter was that every house had to have a portrait of King Zol hung up in the lounge. These portraits were made by the only painter in the world who had this amazing talent. The eyes of the King in the paintings were alive, and they moved and blinked much the same as his actual eyes. More importantly, the King could see everything that was going on in the rooms where these paintings were placed. This was only a precautionary measure, made for the safety of his citizens. The largest portrait of the King in each region would preside at the local government meetings and be referred to as the chief governor. Lastly, once the new states were absorbed into Rozlandia, their inhabitants were not allowed to leave their home country and all cars were stopped by the border controls.

There was only one nation near its borders that Rozlandia couldn’t win over and its peace troops were returned at every attempted manoeuvre. It was almost as though the people of Llollandia didn’t want their war-mongering despot overthrown by King Zol’s peace forces. This distressed the King and he introduced a new law, whereby speaking, reading or writing Llolland on the territory of Rozlandia were to be recognised as acts of terrorism, punishable by death.

Our heroine Sophie had been adopted by a Llolland descendant called Jon. He found her in an orphanage, when she was two and he picked her out because of the many questions she asked him and called her the Why-girl. Jon taught her the language of the country he’d never visited and even taught her Llolland songs and fables, but explained that this language was to be used only at home and in secret from anyone else.

When Sophie turned ten years of age, her dad was out buying her a child rifle and by mistake called it the Llolland word ‘tovka’. He quickly corrected himself and hoped that the salesman didn’t notice, then paid and left. But the salesman had been instructed to listen out for words he didn’t recognise, so he rang the peacekeepers at once.

As soon as Sophie’s dad got home, he sat his daughter down and told her that he might need to leave for a very long time and that she would have to take care of herself from then on.

“The most important thing, Sophie, is that you’re not afraid of anything,” he said. “Fear’s a terrible thing. It can make you a prisoner, no matter what freedoms you’ve got.”

“Even the King?” asked Sophie. “In school they said that he can strike us dead at any point.”

“Especially the King,” said her dad and told her this story.

“When I was a child, probably about your age, I loved more than anything to drink milk straight from the stove whilst still hot. Your grandma hated that. And one day it was very cold and I was very thirsty. So I drank the whoooole pan of milk.” Sophie’s dad made gulping sounds as he pretended to drink from an invisible pan and then wiped his moustache with his sleeve. Sophie giggled. “As soon as your grandma noticed the empty milk pan, she locked me in the lounge and told me to ask for forgiveness from the King. That’s when I remembered, that was where I’d hid my bow and arrow.”

“No, you didn’t!” Sophie exclaimed holding her little hand to her mouth.

Her dad smiled and nodded.

“Yes I did, I put an arrow right between his eyes.” He pointed to his nose bridge.

“And then?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nope, I just covered up the hole with a bit of clay and didn’t tell Mum, until…”

There was a knock on the door.

“Goodbye, Sophie,” her dad said and kissed her. “You be a smart girl now.”

Sophie watched from the window and, as her father was being led away by two peacekeepers, rows of tulips sprang from the soil in the garden on each side of the path.

For years Sophie waited for her dad to come back. When the teacher asked them to paint the King in class, she’d always paint a small, barely noticeable dot between his eyebrows. When she hunted pheasants, she went to her father’s favourite hiding places and hoped to find him there. Eight years passed by and he still hadn’t come back. Sophie got herself a job at the local delicatessen. The owner’s face, framed by the beard, the moustache and a black formal hat, reminded her of someone. He never spoke a word, but looked kind and paid the top price for her pheasants, so she was sure to never selling them anywhere else.

***

The day after Sophie’s eighteenth birthday there was a knock on the door. She sighed and took her time releasing all the locks and bolts. Through the peephole she saw a tall skinny man dressed in official peacekeeper uniform, so she moved her rifle to the back of the door before opening it.

“Sophie Smith?” he asked in a high-pitched voice.

“Yes.”

“Your services are required at the capital.”

“What services?”

“Fighting Llolland terrorists and criminal organisations.” As he spoke he looked Sophie up and down, left and right, as if she was a painting he was contemplating buying.

“I don’t do that.” Sophie shook her head.

“Please arrive at the palace at exactly three thirty three on Monday afternoon and everything will be explained to you.” He marched off, still holding his hat in his hands.

Sophie remembered videos she’d seen in school: of Llolland planes shooting down Rozland children playing in a field; of Llollands using machine guns against old women, peacefully doing their laundry in the river; their troops saluting King Lloll IV who was always drunk and rode white bears and snow leopards into his palace.

Sophie wished that her dad was there to give her advice. In his absence, all she could do was go to the palace, whilst she was still being asked politely. Some time before the appointed hour, she threw her rifle into the boot and off she drove to the capital.

***

King Zol’s grand meeting room was decorated with hundreds of paintings of himself in different sizes.

As Sophie’s boots clomped against the polished marble, King’s portraits followed her with their eyes. Some of the oldest ones creaked, as the eyes turned in the dried up canvases. She stopped not far from the throne and hundreds of blue eyes looked her up and down and settled on her face.

“Hello Sophie,” said the King. Sophie thought he looked even sterner in real life. “We don’t have very much time, so I’m going to get straight to the point. I know you can speak Llolland…”

Sophie’s eyes widened and for a moment her heart tried to break out of her chest.

“It’s ok,” the King said nodding once, “provided you’ll use your knowledge to help me.”

Sophie softened the folds of her camouflage trousers to calm herself. She guessed that the King didn’t want to kill her.

“I need you to find and assassinate several Llolland terrorists currently residing in this country.”

Sophie’s dad had taught her to always separate opinions from facts, no matter how high the authority.

“Who are these terrorists you speak of, Your Majesty?” she asked.

“We know who they are because they don’t speak, as they don’t know Rozel.” The King rubbed the face of the skull on his sceptre with his thumb.

“How are they dangerous?” Sophie asked.

“We don’t know. We can only assume that they are here to spy on us, so that by the time they attack, they’re better informed.” The King stroked his fur collar, hand covered in rings. One of them was a seal ring engraved with the two-headed goat, the country’s official symbol. Sophie chuckled to herself every time she saw it, because the word ‘goat’ in Llolland meant ‘fool’.

“What makes you think they want to attack?” She looked up at the King.

“They are the opposite of us, therefore we can’t coexist in this world. One side would have to win!” the King snapped and rolled his eyes a little.

“Even if they were your opposite, opposites coexist in life: water and fire, sky and earth, democracy and king.”

“Some things in life cannot coexist. Like my brother and I, for instance.”

Sophie couldn’t help but notice that the King spoke with a very slight accent. She tried to ignore it, but it became stronger when he got impatient.

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” she said.

“I no longer do. On the third of March two thousand and three we played chicken and tried to swim as far as we could. He turned back and drowned, but I kept swimming and eventually a boat picked me up. That was my most important lesson in life – you must not be weak, or you’ll be eliminated.”

Sophie imagined that the King’s brother was still alive and lived underwater and fed off the fish he killed with a slingshot made from a coral branch. The King saw that she was distracted and his bushy eyebrows nearly met in the middle, where her dad shot him in the painting.

“Only the strongest survive. How do you think this country is so successful? We must attack, before we’re attacked!” He banged his sceptre on the floor and all the eyes in the portraits blinked simultaneously. “We are better, but there’s no other way to show them except for seizing control. We’ve tried going in and explaining it peacefully, but they just don’t listen. Sometimes you’ve got to accept responsibility, when you know what’s best for someone else.”

Sophie covered up her yawn.

“Is that why you blinded the painter who did all your portraits?” she asked, nodding at the gallery of almost identical paintings around them.

“Ah, my government, that was merely a precaution.” The King sat back in his throne, his glance softened. “We’ve got enough of them now. And of course we wouldn’t want her to fall into the hands of those barbarians who’d make her paint them, so that they could spy on us.”

“Have you got any of these paintings in Llollandia?”

“Two or three, maybe half a dozen.”

Sophie knew to multiply it by three hundred and thirty three, the King’s favourite number.

“So why can’t they have their paintings over here?”

“Because we’re good and they’re evil and they’ll use any information they get for their wicked deeds.” The deep crease across his forehead reappeared.

“What about their king, have you managed to find him?”

“Not yet,” King Zol said. “We’ve looked on every mountain. There simply isn’t the slightest hint of a royal castle anywhere.”

Sophie sighed.

“Fine. How do I go about finding the dissidents?”

“A playing card with their picture and whereabouts will be delivered by my peace dove.”

Sophie tried to read the King’s face. It was grave, same as in the paintings. His narrow blue eyes stung her, the light from the candelabrum reflecting off their glass-like surface.

“Sure,” she said. “How would you like me to kill them?”

“That doesn’t matter.” The King waved his hand and Sophie turned to leave.

“There was something else,” the King said.

She returned and came up the three steps leading to his throne.

“This is for you.” The King held out a tiny black capsule. “Keep it in your mouth, in case they ever catch you.”

Sophie’s eyes darted. The image of her dad being led down the path flashed up before her.

“Sure,” she said and put the capsule behind her gum. It was so small that she didn’t feel it in her cheek.

Sophie changed her rifle from one shoulder to another, bowed to the King and clomped away.

***

When the first playing card arrived by white dove, as the King promised, Sophie looked at the picture and cried out. It was the owner of the delicatessen, who’d always been nothing but gentle to her.

Sophie hid behind the chestnut tree outside the shop until all the customers left and then went in.

The owner was behind the counter, expertly chopping up the plucked pheasants, but this time he moved his hat right over his eyes when she came in. Sophie leant against the cold glass counter and whispered in Llolland: “I know you can understand me.” She thought her voice sounded hoarse and her use of words was awkward from the lack of practice.

The man started for the door, but Sophie flung her rifle across the counter like a barrier.

“Please,” she said, “I don’t want to kill you, but if you don’t come with me, the King’ll kill me.”

The man agreed.

As they walked down the path to her house, the man nodded at the tulips and they seemed to softly nod back at him. At Sophie’s house the owner of the delicatessen sat down on the sofa and picked up the teacup with delicate fingers, like it was the most precious of possessions.

“So, I hear your country’s soil is barren and nothing grows on it?” Sophie thought she’d start the conversation by confirming what she’d been taught in school.

The man rocked gently in the rocking chair and said nothing.

“Is it true that your people aren’t kind to children or the elderly?” she asked.

The man carried on drinking tea with soft slurping sounds. The hat shadow covered his face completely.

“I like your fables,” Sophie said quietly, no longer expecting the man to respond.

He perked up. “Which one’s your favourite?”

“The one about the girl who flew to the moon in a house with chicken wings,” Sophie said moving closer to him, “even though everyone’d told her that the moon was an icicle and

she’d freeze to death.”

“You like that one?” The man was smiling a big heartfelt smile.

“I like how, even though no one believed that the moon was beautiful, the girl believed it and she found out she was right.”

“Would you like to go the moon, Sophie?” the man said, gently placing his teacup on the saucer. Now, without his apron and away from the butcher’s counter, he looked refined.

Sophie had never contemplated going to Llollandia and now the thought of it scared and excited her at the same time. She looked up at the delicatessen owner and gave him a huge nod.

***

Sophie wore her warmest clothes, as she’d heard of bitter frosts that span the width of Llollandia. But by the time they rode into the secret forest, away from the main roads, she was sweltering. Strangely enough, when they crossed the border, the temperature remained the same, and Sophie had to remove her layers. They rode past farms, fields and pastures. People, old and young, came out of their houses, waved and cheered. The tulips and the roses, the daffodils and the irises all seemed to be nodding at them in unison. Sophie glanced up at her companion and noticed that he’d removed his big black hat, peeled off the fake beard and moustache and combed back his hair. The man next to her now looked strikingly similar to King Zol, but his face was younger and his eyes were big and bright blue like the summer sky.

“It’s important he still thinks I’m dead,” he said and put his royal ring back onto his little finger. The two-headed goat emblem glistened in the sun. “This is to remind me that there are ‘goats’ on either side of the border.” He laughed and Sophie laughed with him, at this something very small burst in her mouth accompanied by a bitter taste.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was this beautiful, Your Majesty?” she whispered.

“Would you have believed me?” King Lloll asked.

“How do you manage to spend so much time away? Don’t you need to run it?” she asked.

King Lloll looked around with the eyes of a proud father.

“They no longer need me here. Now that all the major problems have been resolved, the country runs itself. I only have to make sure my brother thinks we’ve got a brutal ruling King, more brutal than he is.”

Sophie looked at her hand, felt her arm.

“It all feels so different,” she whispered.

“Different? It shouldn’t. I often find that the only thing that changes as you cross the border is who you refer to, when using words like ‘them’ and ‘us’.”

For a couple of minutes longer Sophie wondered at the coldness spreading down her throat and around her stomach, making its way into her limbs, until she realised it was the poison from the capsule. She remembered how the girl in her favourite fable never returned to Earth, but she was happy that she discovered something no one on Earth had thought possible.

The last thing Sophie saw were King Lloll’s big blue eyes, almost the same as in the portraits, but instead of looking stern, they were kind and welcoming.