Work Header

The Festival of the Direct Route - August 4

Work Text:

Before the Revolution of 1927, Eula Nedden-Durst was among the wealthiest and the most eccentric of young adult Buentoillitants. Her parties were notorious. One involved a feast on elephant-back followed by a climb up a light and spindly ladder to an anchored hot air balloon whose gleaming blue and silver envelope resembled nothing so much as the famed (but certainly not Buentoilliçan) imperial palace whose name means Ancient Nest of the Ravens. Another was the infamous Statuary Garden Party, where everyone attending was clad from hair to toenails in greyish-white makeup that made them look like living statues. (This might not have been quite so scandalous if a large number of guests, unwilling to coat their clothing in the same makeup, and more familiar with ancient Greek and Roman statues than anything else, had not taken it into their heads to come to the party wearing no more than makeup and smiles—and if Eula had decorously shrieked and swooned rather than giving a huge belly laugh and proceeding with the party as planned.)

In 1924, Eula arranged her last party--what she called a "treasure hunt" in the "grove" on her estate. This was considered unwise even by her crowd of friends, as the supposed grove was actually Pleskheda Wood, a tangled snarl of oaks, maples and cypresses, interspersed with threadlike fractals of creeks and streams. It was also well-known (and much feared by her tenants) for being a location where, for whatever reason, compasses did not work. Legends about cruel forest spirits eager to lead humans into a lethal marsh or off a sharp cliff had likewise surrounded the woodland since 1287, when Hieronymus the Unwanted was crowned. For his interminable seven-month reign, it was a hunting grove (read: secret execution and burial ground for those who met with royal displeasure)…and while it is unlikely that, as sagas and ballads say, half the population of Buentoille was entombed there, the number of those who perished there was unpleasantly large.

Pleskheda Wood was, in short, regarded as a toxic place—disorienting, deadly, and filled with ravenous fae and vengeful ghosts. Even detailed maps, drawn and supplied by Eula herself, as well as her assurances that the forest's reputation was unjust and that she had played in it since childhood, did not reassure everyone. For the first time since Eula had burst upon the Buentoilliçan social scene like a blazing meteorite searing the night sky, more people chose to shun her treasure hunt than to attend it.

That might have been the beginning of decades of social disgrace for Eula, if not for Pertinax Jarsdel.

Pertinax was not, as he later claimed, a friend of Eula's. He was not even a friend of a friend. He was, at best, an acquaintance of friends of friends of friends. No historian has been able to discover a single invitation issued to him personally; he was always and forever the guest of someone higher in the social structure who could not think of anyone else both respectable and bereft of an invitation of their own.

He also bet incessantly on horses, dogs, roulette and baccarat. Which, unfortunately for him, meant heavy debts, for if he won one time out of 100,000, he was doing well. The debts led to his borrowing hefty amounts from disreputable people and losing those amounts as well.

By the time Eula started sending out invitations to her treasure hunt, Pertinax was several million in the red and had an inordinate number of criminals paying a disturbing amount of attention to his depleted bank account, his current health, and his probable lifespan. The prospect of treasure—real treasure—that could pay off all his debts at once (leaving him with a bit for the occasional flutter) was too much to resist.

But digging up all of Pleskheda Wood was not to be dreamt of. Pertinax, a city boy, was all too aware that he would get lost and stay so, and he had no intention of failing yet again to obtain the boundless fortune that he felt he deserved.

He therefore decided to get Eula's help. Though he protested later that he had been thoroughly reasonable, Eula recorded in her diary that she did not think highly of a distant acquaintance with a somewhat familiar face who materialized at her front door, commanded her outraged butler to let him in, and, when she came to see what all the commotion was about, demanded that she help him cheat.

According to Eula's unauthorized biography, Treasure Trove, she attempted to explain to Pertinax that she had no intention of inviting her guests to play a game and then arranging, ahead of time, for all but one to lose. It was sneaky, dishonorable, and extraordinarily bad form.

Living Ghosts: An Autobiography of Pertinax Jarsdel claims—indeed, has claimed since the book was published in 1926—that Pertinax informed Eula that he needed the treasure "to pay his debtors" and that he would be in mortal peril if he did not pay, but that she laughed in his face. It is only fair to say that Eula always swore that he never once mentioned debtors or danger, and that all he ever said was that he deserved the money.

"I told him that the treasure wasn't the piratical loot that he imagined, but only hard candy and gilded chocolate," Eula wrote in her diary on the same day that Pertinax peremptorily demanded that she help provide him with a fortune. "But I'm not certain that he heard me. I don't think that he was inclined to hear anything except the word 'Yes.'"

One thing is certain: Pertinax was escorted away from Eula's estate by two burly footmen and a matching pair of gardeners. It is generally presumed that this was the moment that he first conceived of kidnapping Eula Nedden-Durst.

Pertinax's kidnapping plan was Goldbergian in its complexity. No one who has read it has ever fully comprehended it, but it involved a basket-hilted rapier, a diamond stickpin that doubled as a lockpick, twelve patient elkhounds, a lotus-shaped pincushion, one of the maps that Eula had drawn for the party, and a bouquet of skunk cabbage. He never explained to his co-conspirators (most of which were wished on him by his "debtors") what most of these oddities would be used for, instead alternating between rambling descriptions of the items' many-faceted usefulness (probably inspired by sleep deprivation) and stating slyly that he "needed these things" if he was to obtain the treasure "by the most direct route."

The actual kidnapping, however, had nothing whatsoever to do with the overly complicated plan. Pertinax, who had been watching Eula's manor house, noticed her walking toward Pleskheda Wood on the day before the party, deduced that she was checking to see that all was in readiness the treasure hunt the next day, and, immediately grabbing a bag filled with useful tools (such as rope, handcuffs, and chloroform), dashed into the wood after her without so much as even contacting his confederates. (This characteristic impulsiveness may go some way toward explaining his gambling difficulties.)

Despite his lack of assistance, and to his own considerable astonishment, he captured Eula. (Not through the use of any particularly stylish method, alas—merely a chloroform-soaked rag over her nose, handcuffs on her wrists, and a rope encircling her waist.) For Eula had all but forgotten Pertinax's "unpleasant delirium," to quote once again from her diary, and had not considered bringing a bodyguard with her. And once she was on the rope leash, he forgot, in a burst of panic so common to amateur criminals, that he'd already made a considerable fuss about the treasure and that Eula would be able to make an educated guess as to who her masked captor was, and demanded that Eula take him to the treasure by the most direct route possible.

"She promised she would take me straight to it," he later wrote to his mother. "But she lied. There's no such thing as a straight line. Not in that wood."

What happened in the wood is a matter of conjecture. Eula's account involves a great deal of walking along a trail that twisted and bent like a politician's promises as Pertinax pressed the tip of the rapier against her back, waiting until he was thoroughly disoriented, maneuvering behind him, and then, using her handcuffed arms as a cudgel, clouting him on the back of the neck. She then searched his pockets, found the key, freed herself and snapped the cuffs on his wrists instead. Grabbing the rapier, she calmly strode through the forest to a neighboring manor…just in case any of Pertinax's confederates were waiting for her back home.

Pertinax rarely described afterward what he had seen; indeed, he rarely spoke aloud, afterwards, limiting himself to epistles and paintings. However, his 300-plus numbered landscapes of Pleskheda Wood—collectively known as "The Direct Route"—have a wing to themselves in Buentoille's premier art museum. Each is an eerie, super-realistic portrayal of an aged forest. It is only after you stare at the pictures for a while that you spot hungry eyes in the undergrowth, ravenous faces long since stripped of humanity leering from the shadows, and tree roots uncoiling, tentacle-like, in your direction. It is easy to forget, gazing at these pictures, that they are but canvases covered in paint, not windows to a world that most viewers would prefer to stay hidden.

Eula only viewed the paintings once—after Pertinax was sentenced to sixty years in prison for kidnapping. (Reportedly, he thanked the judge for "keeping him safe" and wept when freed by a band of revolutionaries in 1928 because, they said, he had "suffered due to an unjust system.") She made no comment about the artworks, but shortly after this, she divested herself of approximately 97.5% of her fortune, donating it to scientists and inventors in need of funding, the construction of a state-of-the-art astronomical observatory, literacy programs for the poor, public schools, and teachers' unions. Her response, when questioned about this, was that people tended to cling to superstition while thinking in terms of only one thing that they could do to solve a problem…or only one thing that had been done since time immemorial.

"There are plenty of mysteries and wonders in the world," she said. "We should value them more than gold and gems and see where they lead us. We don't need to fear the unknown. We should explore it. We should revel in it!"

Possibly because of Eula's generosity to Buentoilliçan science and education—which caused her to be viewed as egalitarian and therefore a true friend of the Revolution--and possibly because of Pertinax Jarsdel's art, the Festival of the Direct Route sprang up in the 1930s, honoring mysteries, discoveries yet to be made, and the twisty "direct" routes toward the unknown.

On this day, Buentoillitants are urged to explore a road or route (literal or metaphorical) that they have never journeyed on before. Almost all museums, aquariums, astronomical observatories and planetariums, and technological laboratories compete to launch the most exciting and mind-boggling exhibits on this day, reasoning that getting people thinking is the best way to make them long to discover things themselves. City children and their parents often go on "coin toss walks," starting at an intersection unknown to them, going right if the coin comes up heads and left if tails. Critics of food, books, music, theater, film, and video games all make it a point to taste, read, listen to, or view something new and previously unknown to them.

Maps are commonly sold on this day, particularly maps of far-off lands, fictional countries, and the stars and planets. So are prints of Pertinax's paintings, which are widely viewed as maps of the unknown, although there is considerable disagreement about whether they are maps of another dimension, a paranormal region, or the human mind. "Cartography cakes"—large flat cakes expertly decorated with intricate and detailed maps of the land, sea, or sky—are extraordinarily popular, as is "Pleskheda wine", a tart, purplish-red fruit drink that comes in alcoholic and non-alcoholic forms.

It is widely believed that to drink Pleskheda wine (the alcoholic variety) as the clock strikes midnight on the fourth of August is to open your mind's eye to the wonders of the universe, and that if you can bear them, you will thereafter be an artist of some sort, a scientist, a mystic, or a saint. The Church, however, protests that this is merely a superstition inspired by the Wayfarer, an old god that the Church regards as evil.

Original plays and musicals, especially those about ghosts and hauntings, are often held on the fourth of August. Buentoilliçan scientists as a group do not care for this, but there is no denying that the plays do explore the mysteries of life, death, and the possibility of an afterlife. Actors, directors, and aficionados of the theater tend to ignore the scientists; first, because the plays tend to have numerous scenes that are fun to perform and direct and that are enjoyable to watch, and second, because they are popular to the point of being guaranteed money-makers. Few in a chancy profession like acting are willing to despise that.

However, while the festival is well-loved by most of Buentoille, there is a small but vocal contingent of people who do despise it and who annually picket outside the museum containing Pertinax's works, his former home (from which he vanished in 1929), and the locked gates of the Nedden-Durst estate. Eula's grandson and granddaughter, Eliseo Rummage and Everette Portendorfer, do not permit anyone to protest in or near Pleskheda Wood, as it is on private property.

The protestors, who call themselves the Allies of the Pleskheda Phantoms (or APP), allege that while Eula's donations unquestionably improved education and expanded scientific discoveries, they still find her escape through the wood and her subsequent lack of reaction to the "Direct Route" paintings most disquieting. They believe that the real Eula never left the wood that day, and that the woman who emerged either was a shapeshifting creature that could counterfeit Eula's appearance but not her emotions or was possessed by a vengeful ghost of one of Hieronymus the Unwanted's murder victims. They further believe that Pertinax Jarsdel's paintings are accurate depictions of his experiences in the forest and, despite the common belief that Pertinax was killed by one of his criminal debtors shortly after the revolutionaries freed him, that Pleskheda Wood eventually consumed him, body and soul…absorbing him into itself so that he could no longer warn others about the perils of the place.

Eliseo and Everette retort regularly, and with some asperity, that this is merely rank superstition that should long since have died out and that such protests are contrary to the very nature of a festival dedicated to imagination, creativity and curiosity.

Nevertheless, both continue to refuse to allow scientists to explore and examine the oddities of Pleskheda Wood. To date, seventy-six scientific teams have besought the two for permission to enter the wood with guides, botanists, biologists, and the most advanced portable equipment known and see what there is to find. All have been refused with the same seven words: "For the sake of your safety…no."