Wednesday, November 9, 2016

RAZED RUINS: Chapter 1: To the White City

     
“This is a very dangerous time,” he said in a hushed voice. Between them glowed a single wavering candle . The night was far past full. Other than the handful of guards orbiting the camp, everyone was asleep. Everyone, that is, except them. “Even the oldest among us can’t remember a time when so much was at stake.”
“I suppose so,” the second man whispered, glancing nervously to the canvas flaps laced shut over the carriage entrance. Although unlikely, one mistimed visitor and everything he’d ever worked for would break apart like a boulder cascading down the sheer slopes of a mountain. His very life, in fact, would likely be forfeit. “But I still keep my trust in the royal family. And in the system. It has held for 300 years, after all.”
“The system is bullshit!” the first man growled. Too loud, in the second man’s opinion. His eyes darted to the carriage entrance again. “Rollo Calazar is young and dangerous. He is much more of a nationalist than his father. Tahala’s royal family is weak. They will not be able to protect us if the Calazar’s invade.”
“The King is a wise man!”
“The King is a bird watcher! And I’m surprised the Queen’s swollen head even fits through Shamala’s gate! And his worthless sons! One a poppy addict, the other practically an invalid. Tahala needs someone strong to protect us!”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I know you are close to the royal family. All I am asking is that you keep your mind open.”
“My mind open,” repeated the second man, chewing bitterly on each word. He wagged his head. “Open to what?
New America's four kingdomsThe grim man set his hard jaw. The creviced skin of his age-worn face as channeled and angular as cracked basalt. He fixed his gaze on the second man.
“This Kingdom must survive…at any cost.”
“What you are saying could be construed as treason.”
“There is no treason in being a loyalist to Tahala. And to the line of Omar Roberts.”
“You question the line?”
He grinned murderously. “Should questions arise to who is the true heir, let’s just keep our mind open to the truth.”
The second man’s forehead creased with worry. 
“It’s late. We’ll be in the capital tomorrow at last. We should all be fresh for the big day.”
*
“And he sayeth to me, ‘My sweet Queen Tala, I took all of my most prized relics, the greatest heirlooms of the greatest house that ever was, and buried them in a chamber so unfathomable it will be forbidden to all but the most worthy suitors. And God help them should they solve its mystery. May their hearts be true, for the power they discover within will awe all the world.’ ”
It is these words, laid out in Omar: the True Story from Those Who Knew Him Dearest that kindled the legend of the Forbidden Chamber, the mythical cache for the treasures of Omar Roberts I, the Hero King. The account is purportedly written by Tala Roberts, Omar I’s fourth and final wife. Many scholars, however, posit numerous explanations for why the account and reality might be divergent, from heavy-handed embellishments by a so-called “ghost writer” to intentional deviations from the truth by Tala herself. One popular theory suggests that the book was actually fictionalized much later, perhaps has late as 1350 NE, three and a half centuries after the Hero King’s death.
Although the legend of Omar’s Forbidden Chamber—usually thought to be located in his luxury fortress of Shamala—is perhaps the most broadly-syndicated myth in the modern canon and has drawn the interest of countless historians and tomb raiders for many centuries, no indication of any secret treasure has ever been discovered. So little evidence has been found, in fact, that recent decades has seen a steep decline of interest in the pursuit of the Forbidden Chamber. Chamber Hunters, as they were once called, are now all but extinct.

“What are you reading?”
The fiery gaze of the sun glowered down on Vallario Roberts as he sat beside the crystal-cool water of a murmuring brook. Leaves of a nearby cottonwood gossiped lightly in a quiet breeze and Vallario turned his face upward to meet the morning rays.
Legend of Omar,” he replied to his twin sister, Galia, as she wrung soap from a beige tunic. Vallario thumbed the book closed and dropped it into the leather bag at his side.
Galia leveled her eyes on him suspiciously. “You’re not thinking about that again, are you?”
“I know you don’t believe in it."
“But I know you do.” He felt the weight of her stare as he tossed pebbles in silence.
“At least it takes my mind off…” his voice trailed away pathetically. It was still too hard for him to say the rest. Even to his twin.
Galia scooted closer. “Don’t think about it too much. These things happen. I’m sure she just—”
“Just what?”
Galia pursed her lips. “It doesn’t matter what she thinks! You’re too good for her anyway!”
Val tossed another pebble, this one more firmly than the last. No one in the family ever faced such an insult. Most surprising was how deeply it had affected him.
“Are you excited to see the capital, Val?”
Val was happy to entertain a new subject. “After three weeks in that miserable carriage, I don’t care where we stop.”
“You never had the stomach for traveling,” she laughed, flipping her curly, golden-brown hair behind her shoulder.
“It’s not that I don’t have the stomach for traveling,” Val growled. “I just…I just have a hard time sleeping while on the road.”
“We’ve stayed in inns more than half the nights. And besides, how many times have you left Tahala in your entire life? Honestly?”
“I’ve left the city!”
“How many times?” She inclined an eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” he responded evasively. “A few.”
Galia smirked. “Father is always asking you to come along when we travel. Mother too. But all you do is barricade yourself in the library and pore over books about the Forbidden Chamber.”
“I like where we live! Why would I need to leave?” His face seemed to be getting hotter.
 “Okay! Don’t get angry!” Galia giggled. “As for myself, as a woman grown, I understand the need to respect and experience culture. I know you are still just a boy….”
Union law defined that a girl became a legal woman at the age of 16 but boys were not recognized as men until they turned 17.
“We’re the same age!”
“We are not!” Galia added victoriously. “I am ten minutes older.”
Val was saved from having to concede by a terrific splash. Crystals of water ejected from the small pool, soaking both twins. Val jumped up in alarm, tripped over his bag and toppled backward to the ground.
“Pall!” cried Galia. “I told you not to throw rocks!”
For a moment there was no response. Then, piece-by-piece, their two-years-older brother emerged from behind a scruff of oak brush grinning victoriously.
“How could I resist?” Pall boasted. “When you make such easy targets?”
Val jumped to his feet and dusted himself off. “What have you been doing?” he thundered. Galia shot him a warning glance.
“Just stretching my legs,” Pall responded, but Val noticed his hands fidgeting with something in his pocket. “Only two more hours and we’ll finally be in the White City. Two damn hours too many if you ask me.”
“Oh, please,” Galia complained as she inspected her clothes for water and mud. “You both can be such…cowards.
“I’m just anxious to get to the party,” their older brother said with a dismissive wave. “I don’t know why father is making us stop. We could be in the capital now if it wasn’t for—.”
“There you three are!” interrupted a deep voice. A lord in a dazzling robe of cool violet stood at the top of a small rise staring down on them with his fists pressed into each hip. “Your father commands your return. The caravan is ready and we have to make it to the city tonight!” Then after a pause he added, “It does not do for princes and a princess to be late. The Five Year’s Fair will go on with or without you.” The lord spun away and vanished.
“I see Master Sallano is in a wonderful mood,” said Pall and laughed.
Christofer Sallano was master of counsel to the throne of Shamala. Other than being the top advisor to Val’s father and mother, he’d also been a mentor, instructor and friend of Val’s since Val was just a young boy. 
The Five Year’s Fair will go on with or without you. Val didn’t need to be reminded of their destination; his anxiety had been growing like a thundercloud with each passing league. He’d implored his mother and father to allow him to stay behind. There was nothing Val disliked more than crowds and chaos, and this Five Year’s Fair was expected to be the largest in many years, perhaps ever. Besides, since he was not yet of age he would not be allowed to vote when the lords and ladies of the realm sat down to select the next supreme chancellor.
But of course his father had insisted. This year’s fair, he’d informed him, was important for two reasons: first, it marked the 300th anniversary of the Convention of New America and the founding of the Union, and second, Lady Sandra of House Gonsales—perhaps the most broadly respected supreme chancellor the realm had seen in over a century—had reached the end of her 15-year term limit.
“The royal family will all be present,” his father had said. And since he was Sean Roberts II, King of Tahala, his word was final.
The three siblings gathered their things and scampered quickly back to the road and the carriages. To their surprise, the King sat in the driver’s seat grinning merrily.
“Your mother wanted to sleep. I took the excuse to relieve Kiwen of his duties.” He smiled warmly down on the siblings. “Entertain the desires of an old man and allow him to enjoy the last of the Lonely Highway with his children!”
Galia giggled and jumped up to the seat. Val quietly followed. Pall, however, stayed firmly planted on the ground.
“Pallar,” bellowed their father. “I want my oldest son at my side.” With a show of his reluctance, Pall filled the seat beside him. The King grinned as he coaxed the horses forward and the caravan began to roll once again. “It’s still a long ride to the capital.”
*
The caravan rolled into New America City at last after so many weeks on the road just as the cloak of night was beginning to fall. The King and his sons joined the Queen and Princess inside the royal carriage as the outer walls of the realm’s boisterous capital slowly swelled up from the prairie in front of them.
“Why do they call it the White City?” asked Galia as their caravan pushed into the bustling metropolis. “It’s so ugly.”
Val couldn’t agree more. The city’s outer wall and most of the visible structures were blocky, gray and lifeless. Juxtaposed against Tahala’s vibrant murals, masterful sculptures and salient architecture, it was very plain indeed.
“White means colorless. Neutral,” their father explained. “It’s not really about its appearance but its political function.”
“But I thought white light was actually comprised of all the colors, unbroken,” commented Val.
The King smiled at his youngest son and nodded. “Precisely. The White Throne is every house, yet no house. Sadly, however, the neutrality of its omnipotence has not always held true.”
Tonight, the streets of the White City were jammed with fairgoers of every class and category. Traffic snarls forced the Roberts family’s caravan to a crawl. To stave off boredom, Val tossed open the curtains of his carriage window to watch the spectacle unfold.
“This is one of the poorest and most dangerous districts in the city,” said their father. “It’s probably best you close your drapes, Val. At least until we reach the Crossroad.”
The Crossroad was the junction of the Lonely Highway, the east-west road on which they’d travelled from Shamala; the West River Highway, which contoured along the western shore of the River America; the Edmonton Highway, which extended northwest towards Fort Edmonton; and the East River Highway, which crossed the river and contoured along its eastern shore. With the opening celebrations just one day away, the streets were clogged with overloaded carriages, mounted horsemen and innumerable pedestrians. The Crossroad’s heaviest flow, it seemed, was from the south, the direction of Saints. With his father’s blessing, Val re-opened his curtain once they reached it.
The caravan trundled slowly past a fascinating spectrum of humanity: every size and station from every corner of the realm was well represented. Val saw robed men proselytizing politics, merchants trading trinkets and treasures, musicians serenading clapping crowds with complex melodies, and other performers executing dazzling exhibitions of variations un-counted. 
When at last they were through the Crossroad, the caravan merged into a tide of traffic coursing parallel to the outer walls of the White Castle.
“This is your first time seeing it, isn’t it, Val?” his father asked with a twinkle in his eye.
Val nodded. Though it was well-known that the Castle of Dehn was larger in sheer acreage, The Pike crowned the summit of a tall mountain, and the Triplets were their own island, no castle in all New America was as tall and wide as the White Castle. Val had to crane his neck to glimpse its most skyward turrets. And it wasn’t just the height but its shocking proximity. There was no buffer beyond the inner wall; the sheer ramparts were right there among the city’s convoluted streets.
Everybody knew the story of Omar Roberts II, “the Return of the King.” Claimed to be a distant descendant of Omar Roberts I, he was credited as the founding father of New America and was the Union’s first supreme chancellor. History told that he’d raised the White Castle with his own wealth. Though the scale of Omar II’s castle was overwhelming, Val found its style, like the rest of the city, distinctly lacking in character. Everything about it speaks of a hasty and apathetic construction. The walls were made of large gray stones, stacked rather sloppily in boring right angles. There was no color or charisma that Val could see, just straight, unimaginative nothingness in every direction. The entire castle was brightly lit, however, and Union Guardsmen bearing their distinct red-and-white striped cloaks peppered the walls and walkways at impressive intervals.
“More guards than usual due to the Fair?” Val asked his father.
The King shook his head. “Always the same. I bet every Walker in the realm is here now, though.”
“Walkers?” Galia interrupted.
Their father nodded. “The Union elite. Never on horseback, those. Maybe a carriage if they have a need for speed. But they prefer to work on foot.”
“They are no match for the Elect Knights of The Pike!” said Pall defiantly. “An Elect wins almost every event at every tournament organized.”
Their father shrugged but nodded. “The Walkers were stronger once, especially during the Reign of the Roses. But under the policies of Chancellor Gonsales, the strength of many aspects of the Union has diminished.”
Val watched the castle recede slowly behind them as they crossed the Long Bridge over the River America. It was fully dark now, but the streets were alive with the vitality of the Fair. Val could feel the collective excitement, but the shocking volume of people made him feel trapped. He found himself wishing, and not for the first or last time, to be back in the safe and comfortable halls of their home at Shamala.
The River America was Rocklands’ definitive eastern border, and once they were across it Val realized he was outside of his home kingdom for the first time in his life. The perception of unfamiliarity was distinctly unnerving.
Not far past the long bridge over the river, they reach the Coliseum, the true epicenter of the action for the Five Years Fair. All festivities flowed outward from there. For Val, the colossal stadium was more impressive than the White Castle. It curved out of view in each direction and towered impossibly into the heavens. The soaring walls were brilliantly illuminated by profuse lamp and torchlight, and atop the highest walls enormous flames threw bobbing light all the way to the street far below.
Thousands of people were gathered in and along the roads. The carriages ground to a standstill as they reached the crowd’s apogee. Val watched in frightened awe of the spectacle. A cluster of drummers encircled three dark-skinned women dancing seductively with snakes slithering around their necks. Two roads farther, a man juggling eight brightly burning balls had drawn a significant crowd.
It wasn’t just the Five Years Fair this year. It was the tercentennial: 300 years since Omar II laid the mortar that would bind the four kingdoms together and form the Union. This year’s Fair was to be a celebration of unprecedented splendor. The so-called “Culture Fair” would open the first ten days. Each territory and kingdom was given the Coliseum mainstage to share and exhibit their unique arts and heritage. Traditionally, each of the kingdoms: Rocklands, Seldor, Dehn and Pent, performed lavish and calculated displays of power, wealth or intellectual prowess designed to impress and intimidate their rivals.
Pall tapped Val on the shoulder. “If it’s like this now, just imagine Mid-Fair,” he said with an impish grin. At the conclusion of day ten was traditionally when Mid-Fair was held. Occurring only once every five years, it was without question the most anticipated party in the realm.
After the lasciviousness of Mid Fair came the Hearings and Deliberations. Though less pleasurable by design, this second week was the true heart of the festival: when the celebrations tapered and the actual politics took place. And on the very last night—after ten grueling days of arguments, speeches and votes—the qualifying nobles, lords and ladies of the realm would sit down and elect the next supreme chancellor.
The Roberts family’s ultimate destination was past the stadium in the Blue district, which—their father explained as they suffered the final portion of their nearly three-week journey—was the domain of the burgess. All of the city’s lodgings, from five-copper-a-night hovels to luxurious upscale manors, were located there. Penthouses in the highest-end manors could be rented by distinguished patrons for upwards of 10 gold pikes per night or more. Most of these inns, it was known, were more than halfway vacant for the eagle’s share of the year. But during the Five Year’s Fair, there was not an empty room to be found anywhere. Even the city’s fields and alleys were crammed with peasants and plebeians camping out just to be near the high drama.
Night was well on top of them and Val was losing a battle with exhaustion by the time they were met by a bevy of servants at the stoop of their pre-arranged inn, a place of high but perhaps not top-end taste as the other kings and high kings likely preferred.
“The Queen and I have allowed you your own suite,” their father said with a wink. Galia was uninterested but Pall and Val exchanged a quick look. “I trust you will get the most out of the Fair responsibly.” He leaned in closer and lowered his voice to a firm whisper. “There are many eyes. More, in fact, than anywhere else. You are highborn royalty of Tahala. There will be scrutiny like you’ve never known. Understand?”
The brothers nodded. Their father offered them both a knowing smile. “Be safe. But remember, brunch with the Queen and the dukes tomorrow. Best not be too…groggy when the four-bell comes.”
Almost skipping with excitement, Pall dragged Val behind two young servants down the hall to their own suite, tipping them a silver pike a piece. When the bellhops exchanged disappointed glances, Val took back the silver coins and handed them each a Union white instead. The boys grinned with delight and thanked the princes profusely.
“Those two coins are worth the same amount!” Pall grumbled as they stepped into their luxury suite and threw the door shut behind them. “A one-to-one exchange at most markets!”
“Pikes are worthless to those two. They don’t spend here in the capital.”
“Well, Tahala burn their stupid Union coins. White, red, and blue,” Pall mocked. “Boring names for a worthless mint, if you ask me.” Pall dropped his bags on the suite floor, and trudged to the window overlooking the street. Staring out at the parade of fairgoers far below, he shuffled through his pockets and withdrew a small wooden pipe. He dared Val with a look to stop him as he used the small flame of an adjacent lamp to get it lit. The room filled with the reek of burning poppy tar.
“Pall!” Val whined, waving his hand in front of his face. “What am we supposed to say if someone comes in here?”
“Relax!” Pall said dismissively as he exhaled the gray-brown fog. “Nobody is going to visit you.”
Thanks. Val threw open the window and waited impatiently for his brother to finish.
“You know what this means, though, right little brother?”
“What does it mean?”
“Put on your plain robes: you and I are commoners tonight.”
“I think I’m just going to relax with my book.”
“No you aren’t,” his brother laughed. “If you do that, I’ll tell father about your plan for the key.”
“Pall!” Val growled, his eyes darting back and forth. He leaned in closer and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Don’t talk about that openly.”
“Relax, little brother! Nobody is around to listen. And nobody cares anyway.”
“Still! We shouldn’t talk about it anywhere outside Shamala!” Pall rolled his eyes. Val clenched his teeth and eased himself onto one of the room’s two beds. “I’m tired. I don’t want to go out tonight.”
“You can’t just barricade yourself in here alone for two weeks. Besides, it would be good for you to find a girl to take your mind off that rancid Portencia. You’ve been sulking about her this whole trip.”
“You would be upset too if a girl had refused you for—”
“I don’t want to hear about it anymore!” Pall said, raising his hand firmly. “You’re coming out and you don’t have a choice about it. So you better get used to the idea.” Pall shuffled through his robe pocket and thrust a small flask in Val’s face. “Sip on this, it will give you courage.”
Val took it tentatively, unscrewed the cap and sniffed the contents. “Smells like poison.”
“It is. But the good kind. Now take a sip and get dressed. I know just the place where we can find you some company.”



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