Chapter Eighteen: The Zoo

The Curiosipede wove through the city, while Nyssa took in her surroundings to come up with things to wonder about and keep it moving. Were those cars electric, or did they run on something strange the way the glass calculator did? Why would someone build apartments out of glass and then paint all of the glass? Was the Precedent really the person she needed to see, or should she be looking for the former King? What was the difference between a Precedent and a President; was it just that she'd been pronouncing the word wrong her whole life, and had only just now heard it clearly, or was it a different thing?

Presently the curiosipede drove through an archway that proclaimed that beyond it lay the Percepolis Zoo. No admission was charged, so Nyssa had no hesitation about allowing it to proceed slowly through the crowd of zoo-goers.

She looked at the animals, too, because she might as well and they were things to be curious about. However, to her surprise, they weren't rhinoceroses and giraffes and lions at all. They weren't even bears and penguins and prairie dogs. She saw instead pigeons - just normal grey pigeons with sparkly throats, and a few of the variants that were brown and white or speckled black, and their enclosure was surrounded by gawking tourists, one of whom appeared to be, themself, personally a unicorn. There was a vast tank full of goldfish, and people snapping pictures of them, respectfully obeying the sign telling them not to tap on the glass. There was a giant rat nest, with tubes for the rats to climb through and wood shavings for the rats to climb in, and rats of all colors including a few litters of rat pups ran and played through it all. There was a flock of the same exact kind of drab little birds - sparrows with brown and black markings - that Nyssa saw in the park near her house. These were especially thronged; Nyssa could count more than fifty people who were crowded close together to see them, to watch them peck and scratch and flutter around under their netting. There was a colony of cats, in the petting zoo, and enthralled visitors were stroking them and remarking on how soft they were.

It had never really occurred to Nyssa that to people from far enough away, sparrows and cats would be exotic.

The curiosipede brought her to rest at the exhibit containing houseflies, with a magnifying glass available to look more closely at them. There, the fellow she figured was probably the Precedent was surrounded by uniformed guards, studying the flies.

"Excuse me," said Nyssa. "Are you the Precedent?"

He turned and smiled at her over his shoulder. "Why, of course I am," he said. He had uneven grey hair and bright eyes. "How can I help you?"

"I'm here to talk to you about the Princess," Nyssa said.

"I'm afraid there's not much to say," he said, shaking his head. "She's been banished, hasn't she? And there's really no way to undo it. Not without cooperating with Qed, and I tell you now, my ex-wife is as rigid as they come."

"- your ex-wife?"

"Yes, of course," blinked the Precedent.

"I thought you were the Precedent, not the - the person who used to be King."

"Oh, I'm both," he said. "When we instituted democracy, I wasn't King any longer, but we had the election and everyone voted for me because I'd been in charge before, you see, and it's happened over and over again since then, it saves me quite a lot on campaigning. Now I still run things but ultimately Percepolis is ruled by the common Sense - that being our demonym. At any rate, there's no chance Qed would reverse herself on the matter of our daughter."

"Reverse herself?"

"Well, the whole banishment business was her idea," he said. "Back when I was King, and we'd started quarreling, some people thought we'd better let Wonder inherit the Realm. It might have worked very well! I was all for giving it a try, given sufficient popular support - I was already flirting with the idea of democracy back then, you see - and thought we'd have a term limit in place, call for a vote... Wonder was perfectly happy to do it that way, but Qed, oh no, she's never seen the value of getting lots of perspectives on a question, she thinks hers is the only one that matters. And when some people thought that with or without queenly permission they'd show up to cast ballots anyway, Qed flew off the handle and demanded that we banish Wonder to the Ivory Tower. I thought she couldn't be serious! It was much too dangerous even as an experiment - the Ivory Tower's surrounded by horrendous creatures, all the worst sort of hazards, and it's very remote - but when I said 'sure, like that makes sense, let's send our daughter to the Ivory Tower' she went through with it! And now Wonder is gone and we can't get her back."

This sounded very different from the story Qed had to tell. Nyssa was suddenly anxious to know what Wonder herself would say about it, because surely it wasn't going to be the same as her parents' stories. "I see," she said.

"So there's no way Qed would ever undo something she did, because that would be saying she'd been wrong, and Qed never thinks she's wrong, she thinks all her logic and abstraction can protect her from making mistakes," snorted the Precedent. "I'd be delighted to have Wonder back, but Qed and I haven't cooperated on anything in years and years and at this point I expect it never to happen again."

"Well," said Nyssa, "but what if she already said it was okay?"

"Well, in that case, I'd be pretty suspicious of her motives," said the Precedent. "She might be trying something - she doesn't like Percepolis being independent of her, you know, she's against the whole business of democracy in general and me in particular - in fact, I'm so sure she'd never do that that I'd be sure it was a smokescreen if it seemed like she did."

"...oh," said Nyssa. "Uh, but you'd like it if someone went and rescued the Princess."

"Of course!" said the Precedent.

"Will you help me try, then?" Nyssa asked.

"I'd think it pretty difficult if not impossible with only what I could give you," the Precedent said. "The Ivory Tower's no walk in the park. You'd need a secret weapon."

"Oh," said Nyssa, "I have some."


"They're secret," Nyssa said.

"I suppose that makes sense. Well, if you have a secret weapon, then of course I'll do my best to help you. But first I want to check out the rest of this zoo. Have you ever seen flies like this before?"

"Yes," said Nyssa, "all the time. They're common wild where I'm from."

"You must be from an amazing place," the Precedent said, staring into the microscope.

"I never really thought of it that way," Nyssa said. "I suppose you could call it that, but really I like it here more than I ever liked it there."

"I'm pleased you find Percepolis hospitable," replied the Precedent. "Now, if you'll present yourself at the front door of the Presidence they'll give you some lunch and send you to wait in my office. I'll be delighted to meet you there."

"All right," Nyssa agreed, and she zoomed back the way she'd come, pausing to look at an exhibit of black ravens on the way out of the zoo.