Imagine a pre-modern city with a scholarly man as main character. He's a quietist and a loner but one day he gets an important mission since the rest of the burghers are busy elsewhere.
I stood at my window watching the citizens of Idallion walk up to the palace, their silken robes and plumed hats resplendent in the rays of the setting sun. What a pageant, what a parade, what a fitting epilogue for the history of our city – because tomorrow it would all be over, by then they would all be dead, all those men and women walking up to the palace for a final gathering, a final celebration, a final libation in the name of death.
They strode along the walk of poplars and crossed the courtyard, going up the double stairs and disappearing inside the castle with its cupolas, galleries and balconies. I turned and looked around my study, my drawing-room with hand-painted goldpatterns on the black walls, book-shelves with exquisite volumes and a sideboard with the City Key on a purple cushion. Mine was namely the task to hand it over to the approaching barbarians as they took the city, which probably would be by tomorrow. Because I wasn’t going to join them, the citizens, at their party; I didn’t like the taste of wormwood. Instead I poured myself a glass of sweet wine from a caraffe, sat down in a soft chair and held the goblet to the rays of the sun. In vino veritas, that’s true in more than one sense of the word; I mean, what colour, what hue could be more fetching than the eternal light shining through a vessel of Hymarian wine?
Enjoying the bouquet my eyes happened to rest on a picture on the wall, a painting of my great-grandfather Rodebar Cromsolyn: a fierce warrior, however with a certain cultivated trim about him. He was the symbol of Idallion’s last triumph, having captured the neighbouring city of Horsa, thus giving us some respite before the fall. The following fifty years had for their part only brought us setbacks; Horsa had risen and cast off our yoke, and teaming up with the barbaric hordes of The Blue Banner our fate was sealed. And just a month ago, in the battle of The Crow’s Beak, our last army had been routed. By then Rodebar wasn’t its commander anymore, having gone to his ancestors seven years ago. Instead it was headed by my father Modokar who fell in a final cavalry charge, the last glorious moment of Idallion.
It was all over. And now we only had to await the coming of the hostile army and surrender the city. Our final protest would be the mass suicide at the palace, yea, verily, suicide was the word: sharing a bowl of poisonous drink to the sound of flutes and harps and after some lavish wining and dining. That was the reason for the party, the one I didn’t go to – so it seemed perfectly natural that I would be the one who met with the conquerors and handed over the city to them.
The city’s rulers, however tired of life, wanted the surrender to have some formality about it, and so I was to play the role of herald. And it was said that The Blue Banner respected heralds, parleys and exchange of hostages and the like, they weren’t dyed-in-the-wool barbarians, so the stage was set for a stylish end for our city.
I had warrior ancestors but I hadn’t become a soldier myself. I was a scholar and a learned man, living on inherited riches. I had my own little palace, built in red sandstone with details in limestone, on the city’s main street. And there I sat sipping my wine; how nice to spend your last day as a free man, I thought, nice and cosy in your own study! And tomorrow, then what? Enslavement, or banishment and exile, or just keep on living as a stranger in your own home town? Well come what may. And all flesh is grass, all things must pass. Ours was a beautiful city, renowned for its palaces and orchards, for its university and library, and for its taverns and bars and joyous nightlife. And with a history of glorious achievements in both politics and the arts. We had had a good run.
However, recently a misfortune had hit us: one day, some of the city’s children had been lured away by a pied piper, never to be seen again. There was some argument about the piper’s payment, having ridden the city of rats. And then, shortly afterwards, the rest of our children had been spirited away at Tenarian’s Rock, during a day out. They had been lured into the mountain it was said, their fate unknown.
That’s what broke the city spirit, that’s what made all our citizens so desparing in the face of the barbarians’ approach. We had outlived our fortunes, our luck was gone, and culturrally we were resting on our laurels. We were past our prime. We were just enjoying the last autumn days before the cold set in. Everything had been made, composed and written by our predecessors in the arts; what was left to do? That was the tenor of our thought, the general feeling, and with the children gone and our last army beaten, what reason was there to live on? Therefore the decision to meet in the palace and empty the cup of poison was met with appraisal. From everyone but me, whose spitirual beliefs forbid me to commit suicide.
Such was my decision. Everyone thanked me profusely for this, by the way. It was that element of formality they liked, to go out in style.
From the palace screams and laughter could now be heard. The party was in full swing. I finished the wine, got up and went to my sleeping room, stuffed my ears with some cotton wool, took a volume of poetry and went to bed. I had work to do tomorrow, lots of it: I had to bury my fellow citizens. That was a last favour I had promised them.
As I lay there in my bed recess, lit by an oil lamp, I was charmed by the following poem by Nannvel Storness, a romantic from the north who used to dream about southern belles:
Picking some shells on the beach,
making a necklace of them
and giving it to Atyescha: this I will do.
Will she be glad by it?
Will she wear it tonight?
I don’t know.
I only know that I will go to the beach,
pick some shells, nice shells,
make a necklace of them
and give it to Atyescha.
The next day I got up and dressed, striding out in the morning sun and stepping out on the main street where grass grew in between the cobblestones, one of the many signs of decay in our once flowering city. I went to the nearby Crystal Chapel, a shrine erected to the glory of the Unknown God I visited now and again. I entered the vaulted porch, took off my tricorne, admired the arrases and the marble masonry and sat down to meditate for a while. The lustre from the giant diamond at the chancel had a calming effect on me, as it usually had. And I could need that, it was going to be a busy day: would I have the time to bury my fellow citizens before the barbarians arrived?
Leaving the temple I walked the alley up to the palace and went inside, soon reaching the main hall. I could see them all, all of the city’s cultivated dignitaries and burghers lying there – dead. On a table there stood a flask with a label with skull and bones, the selfsame poison they had mixed in their drink and swallowed: wormwood. I stuffed away the flask in a cupboard, glad to have the grinning death’s head out of my sight.
I approached one of the fallen, queen Zenagia herself, ruler of our state. She was dressed in a ruby red dress with silvery ribbons and a violet train, and to that embroidered stockings, patent-leather shoes and a pearl necklace. Removing a platinum blond tuft of hair from her face I admired the delicate, cultivated features, with a faint smile still playing in the corner of her mouth: ironic to the last. Some way to meet The Absolute: ”I beg your pardon, walk over the Sirat Bridge? You can’t mean that I will walk over it, I must have someone carrying me”...
Maybe she had wished me to be there with her at the moment of death, me having been her lover once upon a time. She was my true Atyescha. And for certain she was still beautiful, her face still stirring some passion in me. Our relationship had been a pure fancy, a vanity, a game to play and had of course not resulted in any offspring, not even a bastard son. No cute, rosy-cheeked little baby ever got to suck at this flat chest...
I held her face in my hands and kissed it, extracting the last romantic afterglow from the exquisite lips.
- - -
I got things going by fetching a barrow, loading bodies onto it and rolling it away to the burial grounds down by the willows. Graves were already dug, so it was just to lay down the bodies into them. Shrouding I didn’t mind, except for Zenagia who was wrapped in an arras. The rest had to make do with a simple prayer, but to my Queen I read a poem which I composed on the spot:
Zenagia, Zenagia, my fair damsel,
you have gone beyond, beyond the Beyond.
So farewell my lovely, will I see you again,
maybe in a garden beyond the Beyond...?
Not exactly immortal lines, but they were heartfelt.
I had to ply back and fort many a-time before I was done with my work, but by sundown I was ready. All the party-goers having taken poison were buried, all the citizens who rather killed themselves than became the subjects to barbarians had been brought to the final rest.
I sat down and watched the earth-filled graves, lit by the rays of the sun setting behind the far mountains. I drank some weater from a bottle and calmed myself.
After some meditation I went back to the palace and sauntered through the empty state-rooms, looking at canvasses and leather wall papers, carved furniture and stuccoes, heavy drapery and busts and reliefs, objets d’art and precious things collected through the centuries by an honourable city state, now at the end of its tether. But we had been maneuvering wisely between our neighbours, more relying on the might of the word than that of the sword, not so much on the whip as on the carrot, having received foreign emissaries and royalties and entertaining them lavishly, giving them presents from our treasuries, and putting on shows and reviews in their honour. This had worked fine for a while – until the threats became more tangible, like then one from Horsa when we had to mobilize our army. Which had been done, with known result. But we had fallen with flying colours.
And now the combined army of Horsa and the barbarians were approaching. I went up into one of the palace towers, looked out over the city and its surrounding Wide Fields, without descrying any nearing army. Well, perhaps tomorrow...
That left me with nothing else to do but to wander along in our beautiful Idallion in the twilight, among weed-choked ponds, over deserted squares and terraces, past exquisite palace fronts and faces and dream about past glory, echoes in the alleys and parades along the streets, ceremonies in the Crystal Temple and receptions in the Palace, with foreign emissairies in their best and the courtiers in gold-emblazoned livery, and at the centre of everything Queen Zenagia in all her debauched beauty.
I was a scholar and a poet enjoying the riches of my heritage, the sandstone house opposite the Palace. My father Modokar’s real home was the war; before the battle of Crow’s Beak he had been a mercenary colonel here and there. As intimated I myself lacked that special soldiery mettle, despite the ancestry from Modokar and Rodebar; I was a dreamer and a rambler, lately living out a lotus eater’s existence in my house. Maybe I could go on living that life even after the barbarians had taken the town.
Or should I just leave Idallion after having surrendered the city, leave my grand palace and be a drifter and a roamer, seeking true adventure in the world at large? I still had some life left in me.
The rattle of arms, agitated voices, cuts of axes, and the trample of heavy shoes awoke me the next day. Freshly awake I got up, got dressed and went down into the drawing-room grabbing the cushion with the City Key. My mission was about to be fulfilled, the invaders were here.
I went out on the steps seeing the main street of Idallion filled with a column of cavalry and infantry, carrying blue banners: a battle-weary crew they were. The poplars of the palace walk were being chopped down by sappers in leather aprons and long beards, their axes flashing in the morning light. We didn’t for one have a city wall, ours was an Open City, and therefore the army had had en easy entry – but diplomatic customs could have a worth of their own, so I got down the stairs, approached the head of the file and a tubby, unshaven fellow on a black horse, clad in cuirass and panached helmet and a rapier at his side, heavy boots in golden stirrups.
The soldiers watched me in awe. Unmoved I bowed to the commander and said:
”Commander of Horsa, honoured Crown Marshal; I am Paralipon Cromsolyn, Idallion’s last surviving citizen. Kindly accept the Keys Of The City.”
”Hmmm,” the commander said. ”Well, darn it, I will!”
A servant approached and accepted the gift, and as for myself I was given a horse on which I could guide the Marshal around the city. I put on my tricorne, swept away the cloak and got into the saddle, and off I went on my grey stallion with this Adrian Edirne, as the commander was called, by my side.
The army of the enemy had taken the city and the looting had begun, even though my house was put under a red seal by the commander. Unperturbed I could ride around with him and show him our parks and palaces, our ponds and gazebos, our winding alleys and straight avenues. I could also tell where the rest of the city’s burghers had gone – to the Great Unknown, the Great Hereafter. And that I had chosed to live on so that I could surrender the city.
The tour was over and we reached Agorá, the city square. I was brought into a tent and served a lavish breakfast. I took a goblet of wine, a pear and a slice of bread flavoured with wort.
”So where are you off to now, Paralipon?” Edirne said to me chewing on a chicken bone. He seemed rather nice for a barbarian; maybe he was born to it, maybe it was the occassion of being victorious general that made him magnanimous.
”Where to? Yes, where...,” I replied, and before I could say anything more he hastened to add:
”Of course you could keep your house; you can stay here as long as you wish.”
I drank some wine and said:
”I thank you, commander. But sometimes I do feel like leaving this town, venturing out into The World.”
”Indeed?” my host said. ”But from our talks this morning I sense that you are a wise man. You could stay in your house and be a teacher for us, a guru. I have a thousand soldiers but I don’t need that to make Idallion great again. Not only.”
”But I know nothing,” I lied. ”I have no particular education. I only dream.”
”A dreamer, eh...? I see. Well, then maybe it’s better to become a Wanderer, a man who walks the Earth and greets people, talks to them – and then moves on, wherever Fate may take him.”
It sounded alluring and it helped me to make up my mind. Idallion was a finished chapter in my life. I finished my meal and declined the offer of a horse, however accepting a flask of water, some dried meat, some herbs and a staff. I took my leave of the Marshal and started along the once proud main street of Idallion, hearing the din of the looting soldiers slowly die away behind me, reaching the outskirts of town and so walking out into the World. An inspiration told me to forget the past and live here and now, not to settle in the murky row of years but to make the day my home.
I strolled out of the town and beheld the mountains in the distance, those lovely beckoning blue ridges. On the spot I composed a poem that summed up my feelings:
heading for that open road
I will find me a palace of golden sunshine,
silvery moonlight, emerald greensward,
topaze cowslip and ruby rose...
Out in the world, away from the barren surroundings of Idallion and off to more fertile lands, lusher and greener; away from this Idallion stinking of Death, heading for Life.
Yea, verily: I would go to more well-watered lands, seek out a beach and there pick some shells, nice shells, make a necklace of them and proffer it – to a little girl passing by, or to a beautiful woman or to the Unknown God, destiny would decide which.
The Dragon's Lair
The Middle Zone