Justice Being Served
A bell called in the priests for prayer, drowning out the worst of the screams. Through wooden shutters I squinted at the vivid brightness, peering down at the men in green robes as they rushed across the paving stones of the courtyard. They surged towards the steps of an impressive temple, which was carved out of the rock-face, crowned with a triangular pediment and covered with ornate symbols. In their haste, one of the priests lost his sandal on the way and paused in the sultry heat to slip it on again. Even out here it seemed everyone was in a rush.
The man stared up in shock when the prayer bell was silenced and the sound of Cornellus’ agony could be heard in all its hideous clarity.
The Temple of Procetes – a remote religious settlement hid- den within a gorge – was a pleasant venue to be dispatched to for the day. It was a far cry from my usual haunts. After being in Venyn City for so long, I was happy to escape the city’s dark, crowded streets. In stark comparison to the almost gaudy, luxurious architecture of Venyn, here were ancient limestone walls with clean lines and subtle decoration, modest statues of deities, and the constant waft of fragrant incense and cooling breezes from the gorge. It made for a peaceful place, and Procetes was a frugal and simplistic god. Within the settlement, decorum and diligent prayer were expected, personal ostentation was frowned upon, and the priests lived in quiet contemplation of their god.
On reflection, it was perhaps not the best place to carry out a punishment order. I wondered how long it would take before someone investigated.
Cornellus’ screams continued in the next room, each one making me cringe at the agony he must have been feeling. Unlike many of my colleagues, I was less than enthusiastic about this particular aspect of the job.
Eventually, the door burst open. A balding priest in a plain woollen tunic, his remaining strands of hair slicked down with sweat across his forehead, held the door frame for support as he regarded me with a look of utter disgust.
‘Do you have no respect whatsoever for the honour of Procetes?’ he spluttered.
I considered that carefully before answering. ‘I wouldn’t want to anger your god in his own temple, of course. But you should have considered that before sheltering a known felon.’
‘He claimed sanctuary,’ said the priest almost spitting in his fury. ‘We would have done the same to protect anyone in need. Every person deserves the right to shelter here. You told me that you would be questioning him. What are you doing in there?’
‘Me personally? Nothing.’
The priest’s face paled as another desperate scream echoed around the stone complex.
‘As to what my associate is doing, I believe he is pouring molten silver into Gravus Cornellus’ eye sockets.’
The priest glared at the brooch on my white shirt, a hollow, blazing sun made of gold: the symbol of the Sun Chamber, the institution that, in working with kings and queens, helped keep the many nations of Vispasia together in alliance and peace.
‘If it’s any consolation, this torture is not for me,’ I continued. ‘I don’t enjoy seeing anyone suffer, but I must carry out my orders.’
He muttered a curse, gesturing to the heavens with his hands. ‘But why? Surely an officer of the Sun Chamber should conduct himself with more compassion. You are supposed to maintain the peace – uphold the law, protect the innocent not indulge in this . . . this savagery.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Upholding the law is precisely what I’m doing. And it’s the innocent who have been threatened by the actions of that man in there.’ I gestured to the door from behind which Cornellus’ screams were reaching an uncomfortable crescendo. ‘Try explaining to the innocents living in the slums outside your temple gates, or the ghettos in Venyn City, why they won’t receive this year’s food gifts from the city’s council. It’s thanks to Cornellus’ nefarious accounting activities. Meanwhile, he’s built himself a wonderful mansion in the country and been living in the lap of luxury, eating fine foods and drinking expensive wines, not to mention the numerous whores he had visit.’
The priest flushed and glanced again as the screams started to descend into a pitiful wailing.
‘You might say that it wasn’t especially virtuous, was it? It was just as well one of our agents caught him in the act before even more people starved. Then his punishment would have been more severe.’
‘Surely no one is deserving of such punishment as molten metal being poured into his eyes?’ He wiped his face with his hands.
‘Silver. Molten silver. We caught him siphoning off coin destined for the treasury in Free State so that he might be – and these were his own words – “surrounded by the finer things in life”. So, in order for him to have his needs addressed, it was decided that his eyes should forever have fine metals imprinted upon them. Apparently one of our sheriffs possesses a sense of irony.’
‘This is horrendous,’ he said shaking his head. ‘It is such a waste.’
‘Not entirely,’ I remarked. ‘At least we didn’t use gold.’
The priest was clearly in distress at the suffering of a fellow human and, despite my facetiousness with him, I secretly sympathized.
‘You Sun Chamber people, you come here abusing your powers—’
‘I’m merely carrying out my orders,’ I told him. ‘Anyway, I argued that his life be spared. Even this is a kindness of sorts.’
He did not seem particularly impressed by my efforts. ‘I insist you finish this torture immediately.’
‘It sounds like they’ve already ended.’ The relative silence was somehow more profound now. ‘You should head to the temple, priest. Cornellus will need all the prayers he can get.’
He glared at me again and left the room; shortly after he was striding across the courtyard, where sounds of holy chanting drifted, now uninterrupted, around the large enclosure. I rubbed at my eyes and felt the beginning of a headache. I’d told the priest the truth, that Cornellus’ crime was a serious one, and the priest was lucky that the man’s confession had not implicated the temple in any way.
The door was flung open and Maxid stepped forward, wiping his hands on a stained cloth. Behind him were Cornellus’ legs, limp on the floorboards, the straps still keeping him in place – not that he’d be making his escape any time soon – and the smell of smoke drifted out towards me.
Maxid was the size of an ox and just as fragrant. His long hair was damp with sweat and every time he shaved, his beard seemed to be reborn within the hour. His brutish figure looked ill at ease in the impressive doublet and cloak of a soldier of the Sun Chamber. Despite his appearance and occupation, he was actually a mellow man at heart and a softly spoken soul.
‘Well?’ I asked. ‘It’s done.’
‘You didn’t kill him then?’ ‘Oh good heavens, no.’
‘There’s a first time for everything.’
‘Well, I’m a careful fellow,’ he said, with a level of refinement that didn’t suit the rest of his image. ‘You see, I only used minute amounts of silver to burn away his eyeballs. Any more would have gone into his brain.’ Maxid gestured at his own head to illustrate his point. ‘It just isn’t any good. As I say so often, this is a job for only the highly skilled.’
‘He’s free to go now,’ I said. ‘We can release him at the temple gates, but for Polla’s sake, at least give him a stick to help him, and see that he’s well looked after. Cornellus was ultimately a respectable man with a powerful family, and we should treat him with all the dignity we can. We don’t want to get a reputation for tormenting people needlessly.’
Maxid nodded glumly. ‘Ah. I don’t suppose you could do that instead? He might not wake for another hour or more, and I’d dearly like to ride back now while the sun’s still high.’
‘All right, I’ll wait.’ ‘You’re a good fellow.’
‘What job have you got lined up next?’
‘None at the moment,’ Maxid said, packing some vicious- looking tools into a leather bag. ‘I’ve a little free time. our agents are doing good business and my skills are in high demand these days. So for now I’m going back to Venyn City and I intend to purchase some lithe young studs to bed for the next day or two, before another request comes in.’
I smiled. ‘Buying love won’t make you happy.’
‘Who said anything about love?’ Maxid replied with a small smile.
‘Well, as long as it keeps you off the streets. Oh, that reminds me, this is for you.’ I reached into my pocket, pulled out a purse of money and threw it over to him. ‘Make sure you don’t catch any diseases.’
Maxid caught the purse in one muscled hand and peered inside, scrutinizing the contents. ‘Well, farewell, Drakenfeld!’ He picked up his belongings from the corner of the room and lumbered straight past me.
I glanced once again at the still form of Cornellus, feeling regret at what had transpired. The law could be brutal at times – but, as I told myself so often, Vispasia would be a far darker place if there was no law.
Leana was sitting in the late afternoon sunlight, her dark brown skin glimmering in the heat. The stone seats were almost too hot to sit on, but I managed to perch alongside her. Dressed in tight- fitting clothing the colour of the local stone, and with a sword sheathed at her waist, she was watching children from the local village as they ran around a fountain, each of them waving a small wooden doll above their heads. She explained that the children were playing a game based on the birth of Procetes. Little plumes of dust rose up from the street as they dashed about with abandon, while elderly beggars watched from afar and pulled themselves deeper into the sanctuary of the shade.
‘The heat, it never slows down children,’ Leana commented. ‘If the dolls were carved from bone, it would remind me of a game I played when I was as old as they are. Here . . .’ Shading her eyes with one hand, she handed me a tube containing a rolled-up letter. ‘A messenger gave me this.’
I eyed the tube in my hands. Letters were always something to be cautious about: they were usually requests for me to travel somewhere else, demands for more paperwork, news of a trivial dealing in a provincial town that needed addressing, or complaints from some nobody about the way they had been treated. But I noted the seal of the Sun Chamber in the wax, and opened the letter immediately.
Reading it, I felt a numbness hammering me. Hands shaking – just for a moment – I absorbed the information, even though none of it seemed to register at first.
It is with regret that we must report your esteemed father, Calludian Drakenfeld, died during the night from heart failure. Your presence is requested immediately in the city of Tryum in Detrata, where you will deal with his remaining affairs and liaise with the pontiff at the Temple of Polla.
You are currently relieved of all present duties in Venyn City and a replacement will be allocated shortly.
Regards Sheriff Balus,
Senior Administrator for Vispasian Royal Union East.
‘What is it?’ Leana asked.
Words felt trapped in my throat. ‘My father has died.’
Rarely did I see emotion in Leana’s face, let alone sympathy, but there it was – I hoped it wouldn’t last too long.
‘How did he pass?’ she asked.
‘Something to do with his heart, so it says.’ I held the letter in the air before returning my hands to my lap. ‘A natural death.’
‘Your loss is great, Lucan. I am . . . so sorry. I will make a sacrifice to Gudan tonight to see that the spirits comfort him.’
Not now, I wanted to say, please none of this spirit nonsense now – but I didn’t. Instead I rested my head back against the stone wall and stared up into the blinding sun.
Deep into the night, when Leana was asleep in her bed at the far end of our tavern room, after I had made my prayers to Polla and noted down the events of the day, I opened the letter and read it again by candlelight, contemplating the words, hoping they would gain more clarity.
My father, one of the greatest Sun Chamber officials who had ever lived, was already a fading memory. Greatness can be a matter of perception, however. Though he paid for an excellent and privileged life for myself and my brother, Marius, he never quite knew what to do with us after our mother died. Various people cared for us while he was busy with work. Names and faces came and went with the seasons. When he spent time with us we were beaten no more than the average child of Tryum. My brother, who was a year younger than me, took things to heart. I could never identify with his utter loathing of our father. Ultimately I felt I had more right to hate our father, after what he did to me at the time.
Despite any negative feelings, I always respected him. My only true treasured memory of him was when I was only seven or eight summers old, sitting in our garden while my father explained to me the importance of his badge of office – the one I also wear. I asked him what the Sun Chamber was and I still remember, for the first time, a softening in his voice and posture, a quiet pride that began to show. He became a different man.
The Vispasian Royal Union, he explained, was made up of the eight nations of this continent. Each royal head, with the help of elected representatives, enacted the principles of the founding treaties of the continent, the most fundamental of which was that there would be no war between nations. We prospered. There was peace and security. He looked me in the eye and said that he helped to enforce the essential laws that maintained a bond. ‘We are peacemakers,’ he said, ‘not warmongers. The world is better for it. There is no more important job.’
It was inevitable that I would follow that path, and his affection grew for me after I made that decision.
However, I spent my later life in his shadow. My conversations with older officials throughout the Vispasian Royal Union would often involve them referring to him and his famous cases with affection. My world was often comprised of being the son of Calludian rather than a man in my own right, and perhaps that reputation would never fully go away. Death rarely seemed to end the business of the living. But this man – who I had both feared and admired, who had given me life and then dictated its path without realizing – was no more.
I was no longer Son of Calludian. I was Lucan Jupus Drakenfeld, second generation officer of the Sun Chamber. A free man.
I watched the flame of the candle for some time, contemplating all these matters, trying to recover my memories of the buildings and people that defined my time in Tryum; moments of my childhood returned to my mind, the walls that bore my graffiti, the games we played in the street.
Eventually, as it always does, the candle sparked out.
Preparing for a Homecoming
Preparing for my return home, the following morning I headed to the merchant house by the harbour in Venyn City, capital of the nation of Venyn, to exchange my money for a receipt with the intention of exchanging it back for the local currency, pecullas, upon reaching Tryum in Detrata. I put the receipt in a small leather tube that I hung around my neck, and walked along the seafront, enjoying the pleasant morning sunshine and the salt tang on the breeze for perhaps the last time. For who knew where I would be sent next after dealing with my father’s affairs – Sun Chamber officers tended to be dispatched wherever we were most needed, though often it seemed that Leana and I had been forgotten in this city. I wrote confirmation of my travels and posted them to the sheriff, who all officers reported to, and took the long walk home one final time.
From a steep hillside, Venyn City plunged down to an estuary, which was currently cluttered with large shipping vessels. The water was murky at best, containing the scrubbed-off dirt from a thousand dubious souls. It was only further out to sea that the water became a true and brilliant blue.
Thanks to the wind, the hills facing the sea were relieved of the stifling, oppressive heat, which caused such discomfort to the city dwellers. Conspiring winds and the searing sun made the streets full of hot, damp dust that accumulated on the cracked lips of the beggars taking refuge in the shadows of decrepit buildings. Hundreds of starving dogs slunk in the alleyways or lay like the dead in whatever small shade they could find. Even the fat palm trees growing in the tropical gardens seemed to wilt in the humidity.
Over the centuries, Venyn had seemed to suffer the indifference of its gods, with invading nations plundering its spoils then abandoning its people. It had once been the centre of the grain route, but when cheaper prospects were found elsewhere the money dried up and Venyn then found itself as far from prosperity as was possible for a city. The refuge of the desperate, the debauched and the degraded, it was not a pleasant place to live any more, but somehow people scraped an existence. Legal or otherwise. It was no surprise the Sun Chamber had sent me here, a criminal base, a country of unrest. Agents and officers only tended to come together in larger numbers when a major crisis presented itself.
Crime on this scale wasn’t considered a crisis when it was part of everyday life.
Despite the heat, the dirt and the stench of rotting refuse – I couldn’t hate the place. I had been working here for six years. How many times had I narrowly avoided being killed on the streets in this city: escaping a mugging, loosening the grip of a desperate homeless person, or politely, then more firmly, resisting the calls of the men and women leaning out of the windows of a dockyard bordello?
The Sun Chamber had spies, but they were always on the move, always walking in circles higher than my own; and they tended to contact us only when they needed to. I could rely only upon my own skills – and later, Leana’s – and that was the point. After all, it was the reason I came here in the first place, to build something of a reputation for myself.
While I wouldn’t miss trying to bring order to one of the most corrupt cities of the Vispasian Royal Union, I appreciated that this often forgotten corner of Vispasia had, at least, sharpened my senses and honed my skills as an officer of the Sun Chamber. Though we had not exactly cleansed the streets of all nefarious activities, I liked to think, looking back, that where there had been disorder there was now some structure.
These dirty, ancient streets were now a more civilized place. While not being one to dwell on my successes too much, modesty being one of the precepts of Polla, having weighed up my performances I felt I could at least leave proud.
There was almost always a Sun Chamber officer stationed in every large town and city throughout the Vispasian Royal Union. Presumably my replacement would find the city still a challenge. He or she would have to build up their own local network of confidants and learn the hard way that Venyn City was tough work.
The Sun Chamber, a vast and bureaucratic organization, enforces the Treaty of Royal Blood, a two-centuries-old law that bound together the eight nations of Vispasia in union. The treaty came off the back of the bloody wars that resulted from the collapse of the old Detratan Empire, in which the continent sustained huge losses of life. one by one the nations decided it would be best for all if they maintained peace. Even to this day, royals head twice a year to the Council of Kings in Free State, central Vispasia, in order to debate matters of continental trade and politics. The alliance is not an easy one, and now and then a king may threaten to withdraw his nation from the union, but peace has been maintained. In that time, the Sun Chamber had acquired land of its own, developed a vast network of agents and officers, so much so that more senior figures, far above the rank of officer, were often depended upon to give advice on trade and commerce.
Officers worked alone, though we could hire whoever we wanted to assist us. With firm persuasion, local politicians, judges and even princes could be made to behave; and our badge of office was feared accordingly. or so we were told during our training – more often than not, local officials didn’t give a damn about deceiving their own superiors or the people they served. Generally we would bring matters to the attention of local law-makers and let the matter be dealt with internally wherever possible. Nations should sort out their own affairs – or, at least, it should appear that way.
The job sounded more glorious than it was in reality, especially for someone of my level. The rich leaned on the poor when it came to doing nefarious deeds – from tax evasion to murder – so we often saw ourselves travelling into some of the darkest parts of Union and talking to the most unfortunate people, in order to report it to our superiors, who wielded great control over the ebb and flow of Sun Chamber personnel.
Sometimes I questioned the motive for being sent to various corners of the continent, though I remained committed no matter what the case in hand. For example, I did not know if capturing a man who smuggled women across borders for prostitution actually helped bind the nations together in political union, but I did know that it would help the lives of others, the women in question, and it certainly improved the local communities. We were always told that the crimes of the lower classes were often influenced by men and women much higher up in society, and therefore an officer in his or her first few years would often be ordered into the dingiest of slums alongside the local officials in order to hone their skills. Even in the Sun Chamber, one had to earn the right to speak among the politicians and royals.
I had been brought up worshipping Polla, a truly honest and remarkable woman who later became deified, and who taught that our lives were little more than the sum of our good deeds over bad. By those criteria, my life here in Venyn City had been a good one, and in some ways I would miss the place.
The next morning, once Leana had sold our horses, and the keys to our rented dockyard offices were returned to the landlord, we set off for Tryum.
It would take us the better part of a month of travel to get away from this hole, if we cut across the continent. Instead, I regretfully opted to take a merchant ship carrying spices and cloth – at least we were told it was carrying spices and cloth – but I had spent far too long in the city to fall for such obvious tales. The captain of the ship, a lean individual with a philosophical expression, one etched permanently in place by the constant winds at sea, barely said a word to us throughout the journey. Which was perfectly fine with Leana and myself.
He mistook us twice: first for husband and wife, secondly that she was some kind of slave. Leana’s scowl nicely liberated him of that opinion. Should I have pointed out that I was a member of the Sun Chamber, he would not have wanted to take me on board unless I paid twice the price. We could have commandeered his vessel, but it wasn’t worth the hassle.
Besides, whilst at sea, it was wise not to anger the gods.
It is said in most religions that one of the realms one may fall into after death is a violent, dark and oppressive location. I’m almost certain that we sailed right through that place.
Seven nights we spent at sea, travelling north and east along the coastline, and it only took one night to convince me that my hatred of this mode of transport hadn’t lessened with time. I vomited at least five times on the first day and barely left our cabin, if indeed it could be called a cabin; it was a small hold that was used mainly for carrying who-knew-what decaying matter in rancid crates. Leana despaired of my weakness and, impatient and anxious, spent much of her time on deck, offering her assistance, and generally making herself far more useful.
Most of the time aboard was a blur to me. I may have blanked it from my mind, or it may have been the bottle of strong wine from the captain’s cabin Leana had acquired so I might drink myself unconscious – all the rarer an act considering I didn’t often drink.
My one fear during the trip was that the gods would curse me again and that I might suffer a seizure of the sort that came upon me in times of trial and tribulation – a physical weakness that had dogged me since childhood. on rare occasions the seizures would strike me during the day, but it was more commonly during my sleep. But instead only one intense headache came – usually a precursor to a seizure, like a premonition, though sometimes they occurred afterwards. Leana informed me there were no episodes, however, which came as a relief.
My goddess, Polla, must have intervened with the sea gods on my behalf, for we arrived at night – alive – at a small trading town on the border of Detrata and the lush, green hills of Koton.
My only memory of that night was the captain’s wild laughter as I stumbled eagerly towards land clutching my belongings, before falling with minimal dignity into a bush.
We acquired horses and set off early, moving across hilly farm- land bathed in the red light of sunrise. Gradually the styles of buildings, the crops, the living history, all became familiar once again.
Was it me that had changed, or Detrata? Now that I saw my home with a stranger’s eyes, I was far more aware of its context within the wider world. Upon my departure from this country, I was a young man somewhat sceptical of such a fragile, continent- wide set-up. To me, it shouldn’t have lasted for so long. Upon returning, and as I explained to Leana, I understood how Detrata fared far better within a united Vispasia than alone, even during the glory days of the Detratan Empire. There was no war to speak of and across the silent battlefields rode determined traders.
‘I hear your old empire mentioned from time to time,’ Leana said. ‘It was a cruel place. Vispasia is still a little like that abroad.’ I considered my words carefully. ‘The old Detratan Empire was a savage period. The continent lurched between extremes of maniacal dictators, civil war and famine. Wars came, then out of peace Vispasia grew, a weird and wonderful royal democracy. That said, it is the best option for people here. Stability has been maintained for two hundred years and blood is rarely spilled to the extent it used to be.’
‘You have not addressed my point. All of these countries, they take their wars abroad still. They still make slaves of people from outside Vispasia. In fact, I could be one, if in life I had been even more unfortunate.’
Eventually, I said, ‘I agree it’s a horrendous practice, but it’s better than it used to be.’
We reached the summit of the olosso Mountains about an hour after dawn and the full splendour of Detrata was laid out before us. These famous plains became flooded with memories. The vista of rolling hills, grasslands, hamlets and tiny, stone fortifications, brought back such a strong sense of nostalgia that I did not notice Leana speaking to me for several moments.
‘Are you feeling well?’ Leana asked, though it sounded more of an order to be fine. ‘You seem uneasy. A mild seizure?’
I slid from my horse to regard the terrain and to take a good lungful of Detratan air. It was warm even at this hour of the morning, and the cool breeze was a pleasant relief. The air was not as humid here, and the place seemed far gentler than I was used to.
I had stood at this same vantage point ten years ago. Like most young and optimistic people, I’d left with every intention of putting some distance between my father and myself, as well as making my mark on the world. At least I could say I had achieved something.
‘It seems so unfortunate,’ I said eventually, ‘to be confronted with such a glorious sight, when I should feel only sorrow.’
Leana said nothing as she slid with skill off her horse, again making apparently athletic movements seem so effortless. She reached into her pack for a flask of water. Garbed in a similar fashion to myself, white shirt, brown leather doublet and heavy boots, she wore her dark hair tied back as if always being ready for combat, and regarded me with one of her unreadable expressions.
Perhaps that’s why I found her the perfect travelling companion: we kept our wandering thoughts largely to ourselves. She took heavy gulps of water before offering the flask to me, but I declined.
‘Lucan,’ she said. ‘Why have you not noticed the man following? Half a mile back down the slope?’
I glanced back down, following the line of the straight road along the yellow grassland until – some way in the distance – a figure on horseback came into focus. ‘It’s a road, like any other. He’s free to pass through.’
‘But you said this route was not frequently used, yet he has kept pace with us since our landing. He does not catch up or fall back. He remains the same distance.’
‘You’re right, I should have spotted this,’ I said.
‘Spirits save us,’ Leana added, but made no further comment about my lapse of judgement.
‘We’re in no hurry. We’ve made good time so far. Let’s hang back and let him pass. I’ve some bread in the bag, and some fruit – we should eat.’
‘And when he arrives here?’ Leana asked. ‘He could be an innocent trader.’
Leana drew her sword.
‘He could simply be a traveller,’ I continued, ‘like us. Not every- one is out to attack us. Just because we represent the Sun Chamber does not mean we can draw blood for no reason at all. We are not barbarians.’
We ate quickly, and waited behind a wind-smoothed stone outcrop as the figure came closer. Now that he could not see us, he gained pace considerably. It made no sense that someone would be after us – who in Detrata knew of our arrival?
A few moments later and the ground began to vibrate under the horse’s hooves. I stepped out into the road casually while Leana remained waiting by the side with her bow, covering me. He carried a sheathed weapon and wore a scarf around his mouth, but struggled to control his startled horse. Unnerved at my sudden appearance, the horse bolted towards the horizon, hooves thumping into the sun-baked earth. His dust trails lingered in the air.
‘It is possible he was sent after us, but . . .’
‘Someone in Detrata does not like you much,’ Leana declared. ‘or it could simply be nothing to worry about. Let’s not allow paranoia to plague my return home.’
‘You are far too trusting of people,’ Leana replied. ‘I have always said this is a problem.’
Aqueducts trailed like stone tendrils down from the mountains towards Tryum, the main city of Detrata – it was these structures that enabled life to persist. Tryum did not suffer from the humidity of Venyn City. Here the heat was drier, more pleasant, and the air was not laced with particles of sand.
But where there is life there is death, and we soon came across one of the peculiarities of Tryum, the Road of the Dead, a main causeway into the city lined with mausoleums. Flying from the ramparts of these buildings were the yellow banners of Detrata. The centre of each one featured a two-headed black falcon, along with the cross of the founding gods set within the avian’s breast. on each head was a crown, and various glaives and swords could be discerned behind the wings. The closer we came to the city, we saw families sitting in wide circles on the grass, or beneath the shade of a cherry tree, eating picnics while their children chased each other around the tall monuments. Statues of the dead were constructed here in all sorts of poses: some with a book underarm to lend an air of wisdom, others in full armour for a show of strength. one or two were surrounded by images of gods and goddesses, to represent how the deceased was untouchable or blessed.
‘Why do they eat here,’ Leana asked, ‘around the dead?’
‘Just because you die doesn’t mean you get out of your family duties,’ I laughed. ‘At least not in Tryum. Besides, it’s good to keep them involved, make offerings on their behalf, light incense to purify them.’
She nodded approvingly at my response. Perhaps there were more similarities between the many religions of Tryum and her own tribal cults than I liked to give credit for.
‘These are impressive statues and buildings,’ she said.
‘This is where the wealthy bury their dead. For the poor, the end is not so dignified. A swift pyre for the lucky. For the not so lucky, a bloated corpse in the River Tryx is the best one can expect.’
‘I am not sure I will like this place,’ Leana said. ‘I already miss Venyn.’
‘Such differences are not good omens, spirits save us. At least in Venyn everyone had the same chance that they would end up like a bloated corpse.’
‘I’d suggest the ideal is for everyone to be buried in splendour.’ ‘That would,’ Leana replied, ‘mean a lot more people having to eat out here.’
The East Road was exactly as I remembered: first, a wide avenue of ancient poplar trees for half a mile, dappled sunlight across a busy road of traders and travellers and their belongings. Beyond stood the rectangular barracks of the King’s Legion, King Licintius’ private guard. When Licintius first became king as a young man, before I left, there were few soldiers in Tryum. The military was certainly out on parade today, in crests and purple tunics, their armour bright in the afternoon sun. Some were engaged in displays on horseback, busy with training regimes that they would probably never use. others from the City Watch were marching along the edge of the road, behind the trees, offering an intimidating presence to any who would wish harm to the city.
Towards the eastern fringes, on the lower slopes of the main hill, was the urban sprawl, row upon row of newly and poorly built housing. Tryum had become more heavily populated since I had departed, and I was surprised that people could live like this. Had it always been this way?
We passed the statues either side of the road that led to a gate into Tryum. They towered up into an azure sky and were the founding gods: Trymus and Festonia, husband and wife, and Malax, the lord of the Underworld, who looked after the dead. Further along was a statue of Polla, the goddess of the sun and of the Sun Chamber – and to whom I gave a gentle bow.
Up the slope, in the distance, stood some of the most impor- tant buildings in the city, where the highest echelons of society – priests, senators and King Licintius – would mix. As we came closer to the city gates the smell was overwhelming: in addition to the strong scent of horse manure and the bitter smell of the tannery, small plumes of smoke hung above residences as the hearths cooked food, and through the haze, way in the distance to one side, were the higher tiers and arches of the Stadium of Lentus, in which games would regularly be held, and which hadn’t been quite completed ten years ago.
We registered at the city gates with a young priest and an elderly censor, both of whom immediately became flustered when I gave them my name and office. They could not help me quickly enough, yet stared suspiciously at Leana. I wondered how her Atrewen profile, her elegant narrow nose and strong jawline, her skin the colour of rosewood, and her compact, muscular body would have gone down with these people. Presumably, being by the gates, they must have seen people from all corners of the world, yet they still eyed her warily.
‘May we ask,’ the censor said, ‘about your business in the city?’
I informed them of my father’s death, and that I was a member of the Sun Chamber.
‘You are the son of Calludian Drakenfeld?’ the priest asked, surprised.
‘His death was a shock to us. There was not a man or woman of quality in this city who did not know of his name or his deeds.’
I felt again that same annoyance: that I could probably never be my own man in this city, along with a pang of regret that I would never see my father again. This conversation was happening too soon, so my short answers and sense of urgency saw to it that we were permitted through quickly.
A few steps later and we were inside Tryum. The wide, well-kept stone road led in a straight line through the centre of the city. Carts rocked through these immediate poorer districts, while further along livestock was being driven along the road, barging people out of the way.
All along the side streets, people lived in squalor: women sat outside houses, homeless men lay in the shade with bowls in front of them, and dogs nosed the legs of passers-by. Ragged bits of cloth were strung between walls.
‘I thought you said this was different from Venyn City?’ Leana asked. ‘Could be the same place.’
‘No city is without problems,’ I replied. Though I never recalled Tryum’s problems being quite as bad as this.
The family residence was located in one of the ancient parts of Tryum. The walls of the house were made of thick stone, in the old style – a blessing in any season. But even more fortuitous was how the old buildings blunted the sound of hammering by the local smiths in the streets beyond. Set further away from the streets were the main living quarters, a simple, classy affair, with chequered stone tiles, rich red drapes, pleasant seats and rustic tables. on the walls were paintings of great battle scenes and of gods.
All of which was a step up in the world from our hovel in Venyn City.
Outside the front gates was the splendid architecture that had echoed in my dreams for so long: the colonnades, fountains, market gardens, statues, frescoes, and the bowed or domed rooftops so typical of the Polyum and Regallum quarters. In the street, two children were practising their spelling by scratching low down on the pale walls, as I used to do myself. From here the view that presented itself was of the hill leading towards Regallum, filled with temple roofs and, just beyond that, the mighty royal residence and centrepiece of that district, optryx.
Leana had been on a brief tour of the house, investigating all the little nooks and crannies. There was a new cook who lived here also, a different one from when I lived here, and she had not left when my father died.
Her name was Bellona, named after a Maristanian goddess of food, which I took as a good portent. Older than me, she stood a shade shorter than Leana. Her nose was broad, her lips thin, her eyes gentle and intelligent – her pale, sweaty face had a welcoming demeanour. With a deep voice and a local accent, she spoke affectionately about my father and told me how handsome I looked.
I could get used to that.
After I confirmed I would of course keep her in my employment, she unceremoniously rushed forward to bow at my feet. Leana’s gaze was one of amusement, and I must admit to feeling rather uncomfortable. I helped Bellona up again and asked, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to prepare a little dinner before dusk.
‘Of course, master,’ she replied, before tentatively adding, ‘though we need some coin to replenish provisions.’
‘Oh, right.’ I reached into my pocket and handed over a couple of silver pieces that came to ten pecullas. She seemed to gaze at the coins as if they were god-blessed. ‘I’ll eat whatever you eat.’
‘I eat very poorly, despite my appearance,’ she said. ‘Cheap things, not food fit for the master of the house.’
‘Honestly, I’ll eat what you do,’ I repeated. ‘If that means you have to buy better food for yourself, then so be it.’
With a warm, toothy smile, she turned to leave.
‘And please, there’s no need to call me master,’ I shouted after her. When I faced Leana again, she gave me that look of hers. ‘You can stop grinning,’ I said.
‘Yes, master,’ Leana replied. ‘I tell you now, she will have you overweight within one month.’
‘I’ll be careful what I eat.’
‘I will have to train you twice as hard,’ Leana warned me as she stepped around leisurely, absorbing the place that was to be our home for the time being – not that it was known how long we might be staying.
It would only be a matter of time until her room became filled with skulls and tribal offerings, and I wondered what the upper classes of Tryum would make of such trinkets.
‘So, you grew up here?’ Leana asked. ‘I did.’
‘It is very different from that bottom-floor apartment in Venyn. I did not know your family was . . . so wealthy.’
I shrugged. ‘So, what do you think of the place?’
‘Far too many furnishings. Too many precious paintings. Such things make for a soft upbringing. It would at least explain your gentle nature.’
‘Among other things, I like to think. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it.’ I gestured all around me. ‘They’re just walls. And all this art does wonders for one’s soul.’
Without reply Leana meandered back into the house and, breaking the lingering silence, Bellona returned to ask what meat I’d like to eat. I exchanged a few more pleasantries with her, and enquired whether or not there were any other staff on my father’s payroll. Bellona replied negatively, but she seemed coy about the subject, so I didn’t press it any further. She must have been unhappy discussing money with a relative stranger and returned to the kitchen.
Only moments later, I could smell something wonderful.
I stood perfectly still in the hall, and closed my eyes to the paintings, statues, terracotta walls and slender pillars. Pots rattled in the kitchen. Water bubbled in the fountain outside. Just beyond the house – my house – carts clattered along the cobbled street. Vaguely I tried to match the noises with my youth: soon, layered above the ambient sounds, came my mother’s tender Loccon voice, her sisters, my cousins. My father, for whatever reason, seemed to possess no firm memory in my mind. No, that wasn’t quite true – I remembered him with a belt in his hands as he threatened to strike me over some misdemeanour. Then of course our foulest argument came back to me, when he betrayed my trust with regard to a girl I’d once known and loved.
Leana reappeared, without her doublet on, and her fitted white shirt was striking against her dark skin.
‘There is a room on the north side of the building. It is the one with many green cushions on the bed, also. If you have no objections, I will take this for my quarters.’
‘Why not?’ I replied. With a smile, I added, ‘Just make sure you don’t find all these furnishings too soft and comforting.’
My very first engagement back in the city was to identify and honour my father’s body at the temple, before making suitable arrangements for his burial. over a green, silk shirt I wore a dark brown cloak, on which I pinned the golden brooch of my office.
Leana and I stood at the gates of the house, regarding the street. A vendor was frying meats nearby, while further along came the smell of pine-scented incense. The noises were startling now we were closer to the throng. Traders were packing up or travelling from the market at the forum – if I was of the right mind I would have rummaged among their wares to take advantage of the cheaper prices at this time of day.
‘Will you be all right on your own?’ Leana asked, pushing the hilt of her sword beneath her cloak.
‘I’m going to a temple not a battlefield.’ ‘That is not what I mean.’
I shook my head. ‘I’ll be fine. Look, first, sell our horses – we’ll have little need of them in Tryum and we could do with the spare coin. Then go, explore, stay in Polyum or near Regallum,’ I replied. ‘Don’t head too far down-city, avoid Plutum and Barrantum after dusk, and don’t go finding any trouble, or you might need to ask your spirit gods for a little help.’
Leana snorted with derision. ‘It will be the locals who would require the help of their gods.’ As she walked slowly into the darkness of the adjacent lane, I could only agree with her.
I passed through the evening traffic towards the temple and found the humidity and crowds suffocating. Traders rolled their carts past, nearly knocking me over, before scraping their wheels on the walls or slightly raised kerb, while boys ran ahead ringing small bells to warn of the oncoming traffic. From nearby came the stench of decaying matter from whatever foods had not been sold and thrown in the gutters. Graffiti was to the point as always: no matter where one travelled in Vispasia, a hastily scrawled penis followed by a name was forever in fashion.
I walked down one familiar street where two good childhood friends had grown up, Clidus and Aetos. It was a wide, well-to-do street with a high pavement and cloth merchants folding away their wares, pulling down awnings. I lingered there for a while, half wondering what I’d say to them if they ever came by, but mainly observing who came out of the red and yellow doors from their big houses. It seemed neither them nor their families were to be seen. I asked an old man who was sitting in the sun with a cup of wine if he knew of them, and he said that he did, but they had long since left the area.
In a nostalgic mood, I continued on my way.
A farmer was attempting to drive five cows through the narrow lanes, and people had to press themselves against the wall to avoid being trampled. An attractive woman walked by and flashed me a bright smile before she was lost in the throng. Preachers leered or chanted from the relative sanctuary of decorative arch- ways, a dozen dialects rising to my ears, whilst passers-by lit incense to offer to small statues of their gods. The sheer variety of people in Tryum was mesmerizing. From clothing to foods to the decorations on clay pots, one could almost walk the length of the continent in a single street.
The two main libraries were still here, exactly as I remembered. Their symmetrical limestone facades towered into the sky. Torches flared at regular intervals along the passageways, and philosophers had gathered on the front steps overlooking the forum, posing for the masses to see them engaged in debate, as they always did. I recalled having to bustle past them whenever I needed to study. The graffiti here was more satisfying – full of electoral slogans and statements of support from wealthy businessmen. Hardly a phallus in sight.
Loathed by many, loved by others, the street theatres were doing a roaring trade. There were several different performances on today, makeshift stages and melodramatic actors with exaggerated expressions. Further along the street, the taverns were full with all manner of clients, all the chatter here in the Detratan tongue. I tried to recall the haunts of my younger days, of conversations in the morning sunlight, of minted teas shared with a young lady on a good day, or with a dull legal scholar on an average one. They were discussions that people could lose themselves in, and which could be forgotten about soon after. It wasn’t so much about what was said, but the energy, the sparring, the craft of carving out one’s sense of being.
Much of my understanding of the world had developed in those establishments. In fact, I’d spent many an hour there with the one woman – though she was then a girl – the only significant romance I’d ever had. Her name was Titiana, and I wondered vaguely what became of her.
Now, looking back at the taverns, oil lamps stood on tables, shining their mellow light on new faces, none of which I recognized, even though I somehow hoped I might: the stories shared here were no longer for my ears.
People moved on, I had moved on, and that was life.
The Temple of Polla dominated the street that bordered the city districts of Polyum and Regallum. Two immense torches burned within iron cressets, framing a staircase of twenty steps. Polla’s slender face set within a blazing sun was carved into the centrepiece of the facade and from her lofty position she gazed down on all those who entered.
Already I felt calm in her presence. The noises of the city fell away and from beyond the double doors came scents of incense. A serene priestess dressed in white silk greeted me in the entrance way; she asked if I could wait inside until the pontiff was prepared to see me, so I thanked her and went in.
The marble floor glittered under candlelight as people drifted past in whispered conversation. Crimson drapes hung on the walls and within small alcoves bronze statues of Polla’s other-world husbands stood. Incense, flowers or small blood offerings lay at their feet. on the side I could see a resplendent edition of the Book of Wisdom, a large text that contained details on how best to explore and interact with the world, as well as speculation on the movement of the stars and of plants and creatures that had not yet made it to Vispasia.
The senior pontiff arrived, a slender, aged man with sunken cheekbones, a minor hunch and garbed in a red robe. I returned his gracious greeting. He regarded me with a pity I didn’t feel was strictly necessary.
‘We did not expect you so soon,’ he announced. ‘I took a ship rather than coming across land.’
‘Would you like to see your father now?’ ‘Please.’
‘Come, Polla has preserved him well. The rituals are nearly over. His ashes will be ready for burial in four days.’
Together we descended to the subterranean levels beneath the temple, and entered a small chamber halfway down a dark and cold corridor that, even though it probably had little public traffic, was every bit as ornate as the temple above. Inside, the pontiff lit several candles and there in front of me, wrapped in layers of thin, resin-covered cloth, was my father’s body.
I had seen many corpses in my lifetime including, as a young boy, that of my own mother. I did not know what to feel. I became strangely numb, void of thought. I simply stared, trying to connect my knowledge of my father to the body before me.
‘When was he brought here?’ I asked. ‘About twenty days ago,’ the pontiff replied.
They had done a good job of halting the decay and bad odour. ‘And where was he found?’
‘In his offices, not too far from here. A member of the cohorts stopped by and found him slumped over his desk – he raised the alarm initially, and our physician arrived first.’
‘What was his name – the man in the cohort?’
‘Brellus, I believe, but he died three days later trying to evacuate a building that was on fire.’
I glanced at the priest, saddened for the loss of life, but frustrated that I couldn’t talk with this Brellus.
‘Was there anything suspicious about the scene in my father’s office?’
‘The matter has been looked into—’ ‘By the cohorts?’
‘Yes, and our physician. No signs of a disturbance, no markings on the body. our physician suggests this was an unfortunate occurrence and concludes that it was his heart that failed him.’ My father’s face appeared far older than I remembered – his time-worn lines, saggy skin and white hair. Decay will do that to a body, of course. I placed my hand to his ice-cold cheek and withdrew it as if it had burned me. Here lay the great man of the Court of the Sun Chamber, a man whose name travelled further than mine could ever hope to. Suddenly it didn’t seem to matter so much. What precisely was the point in competing with the dead?
‘Your brother, Marius, visited us,’ the pontiff whispered. ‘Did he?’ I grunted. ‘I didn’t even know he was in Tryum.’
‘He is not. After a few months living here, he decided he’d had enough. He came here, very briefly, to pay his respects. But he’s since left the city.’
‘I’m sure he has.’
‘He had hoped to still be in your father’s will, but there were only a few trinkets for him.’
‘What can he expect?’ I grunted. ‘They hated each other.’
The priest’s sad expression almost made me feel sorry for Marius. The man’s sense of pity was beginning to become too much.
‘They tried to heal things, so I understand. People change. Meanwhile,’ he continued, ‘you received the property in full. Your brother also said for us to wait for you to return before your father’s full burial.’
‘That was . . . kind of him.’ I glanced over the shape of the body, then beneath the cloth. Though it wasn’t always easy to tell after twenty days of death, there was no obviously large gut, nothing to suggest he had succumbed to the finer things in life such as overeating.
‘Your people say it was definitely his heart?’ ‘You find this hard to believe?’
‘He always kept in good shape, exercised regularly and ate well – he’d been like that all his life.’
‘Who knows why the gods decide to take us,’ the pontiff replied. ‘His funeral will be in a few days, once we continue the rituals here to see his soul is at peace. The necessary arrangements and notifications have already been made.’
‘Oh . . .’ I fumbled around for a purse of money. ‘How much should the donations be?’
The pontiff waved for me to relax. ‘It has all been paid for by the administration of the Sun Chamber. You will be notified before his body is to be burned. We are reading the stars each evening, waiting for an auspicious alignment.’
‘After that, once we allow his ashes to be collected, it will be another day or so before you may have them to place within the family mausoleum.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘I’m staying at his – my – house, should you need to find me.’
It was reassuring that my father would receive the dignity bestowed upon his office, but now that I had seen his body, something did not sit right.
With a head full of sorrow, I walked back to my residence alone, speeding through the streets now, passing the bars and taverns with their oil lamps, past the youths clustering in alley- ways, and through the emptying plaza in which wind-blown litter skittered across the flagstones.
And when I eventually arrived home, there was a visitor waiting for me.
Excerpted from Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Charan Newton. First published 2013 by Tor, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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