Jewel of the Sea
Cities rise and fall with the tide. Gods of stone and symbol vanish in the winds of ages. But the children of Alashiya are eternal.
—Sayings of Kjus
|Trident of the Hedonian Navy
Banners rippled in the air, blue and tapered and hemmed with tassels, each with a truncated trident emblazoned in gold. Bridging each tower, battlements rose and fell with the slope of the land atop which hippocampus-driven chariots patrolled two-by-two.
A multitude of peoples crashed in waves against the city’s arches, moneylenders from Thetis, fishermen from Thalassar, craftsmen from Northendell, and traders from the far eastern province of Shemselinihar. It was a canvas of disparate humanity; lizard jerkins mingled with distantly embroidered tunics; pleated kilts married striped djellabas; clanking chain mail challenged revealing chitons. Many were of a displaced people, Xandr knew, populations which—due to invasion or famine—no longer possessed lands to call their own. Whether any were of his race, there was little way of knowing. Despite the plethora of customs, only Ilmarin fashion—the complete absence of fashion—was shunned here. From the time he stumbled as a boy out of Ilmarinen, his nakedness was met with ridicule or pity. The few that knew of the Ilmar spoke of them as if less than human. After a time, he learned that the world’s civilized races hated that mankind should share any affinity to beasts of the wild.
Continuing down to the coastline, a multitude of tongues jarred his ears, as few could be counted to converse in the same dialect. Hedonian speech, which to the Ilmarin sounded overly syllabic and flowery, was omnipresent, contorted to suit the enunciations of conquered languages. Adding to the noise was the twang of the sitar player’s F-string, the trombone-like bray of a saurian as it tugged at the chains tethered to its three gilded horns, the purr of the green striped sabertooth pacing in its cart, the sympathetic applause for a strongman swinging his daughter from the rope in his teeth, the chiming of the merchant nomads’ wares—from ivory prayer beads to wards of eyeball-and-hand.
Under the dizzying height of the central gate’s topstone, centurions directed the traffic of emigrants, gleaming like bronze golems, abstracts of tridents emblazoned along their convex arms. It was not long before Xandr’s weapons drew attention away from the merchants and beggars. Two men accosted him. Their horsehair crested helmets, too hot for peacetime, were tilted away from their faces. One was newly ripened to manhood, and though weighted and stewing in his bronze, hopped from sandal to sandal with naïve exuberance. The other was in his middle years, idling against the lip of his hoplon. He had a wary look about him and his breastplate with its dull polish and clawed grooves gave evidence of battle.
“From what land do you hail?” he asked, swatting at mammoth-flies with his miniature cat-o’-nine-tails.
“I am from a land far off,” Xandr replied.
“And what business do you have in the capital?” he droned, grown bored with the words.
“I was summoned by your priest.”
“There are some three hundred clerics here. You will have to give me a name, or—”
“Urukjinn,” Xandr intoned, hiding, as best as he could manage, his newfound longing to tear the soldier’s head from the collarbone.
“What?” the fresh faced soldier interrupted, “Do you mean to say the High Priest of the Sargonus Temple? Summoned you?” Incredulously, he glanced toward his companion, “summoned him?”
Ignoring the youth’s presence entirely, the hoplite studied Xandr with a mix of contempt and revulsion. “The priest does not summon . . .,” he began, but judging the Ilmarin by the kilt and boots, and the immense sword mirroring his face, he could not decide whether to call him beggar or barbarian.
“I am . . . the Batal,” he admitted through clenched teeth. “Now let me through.”
“You!” the younger man exclaimed. “You are the Batal? I’d heard you were eleven feet tall.”
“Please, Finias, no one asked what you’ve heard, nor does anyone care.”
A man at the dusk of boyhood, Xandr saw him now for the first time. Brother Zoab taught how worlds existed with only one moon or none at all. On Aenya, the greater and smaller moon affected every aspect of culture and language. Infinity was synonymous with the positive, greater attributes, whereas the small moon served as a metaphor for the lesser. A child of ill-health was born under Eon. A man of sizeable stature was named after Infinity. But this Finiasdisplayed no characteristics one could call greater. His greaves, breastplate and helm boasted more intricate etching than those of his comrade, but they fit him loosely. No doubt he was of an aristocratic house, his armor an heirloom from his father or grandfather.
“Well, what do you think?” Finias asked sheepishly. “Should we let him through? Could he be the Batal of Legend?”
“Oh, I’m certain of it!” the other man answered, swinging and missing the mammoth fly buzzing at his ear. “As are the other dozen Batals raving in our streets! You’ve been filling your head with too much bard shit, kid. But as I’m in no mood to scuffle with muscled lunatics, there’s no sense turning him away. Escort him to First Commander. He’ll have fun with him.” Eyeballing Xandr, he added, “I warn you, vagrants coming here making brouhaha end up dead, or worse, in the dungeons.”
Sun baked roof tiles and fluted marble sprawled across their plane of view as Xandr and Finias passed under the arch and into the city. Further into Hedonia, Xandr’s senses drowned in the exotic. There were carpets of obscene complexity draped in loose piles, children perched in niches high above the streets tapping bronze into plate ware, housewives fingering spinning mud into pottery. Aromas from a thousand different nations confounded his nostrils, from mounds of powdered saffron to barrels of almonds.
“This is the market district,” Finias remarked. “Long ago it was a temple complex, I think, but it’s turned to ruin.
“Um, there are many things to do here,” he went on, stealing nervous glances at the man towering by his side. “From the looks of you, you’ve never seen a city.”
“I have,” Xandr replied.
“Ah, but no city like Hedonia, I’d wager. All the delights of the world can be found here. That’s why Hedonia’s called the Jewel of the Sea! If you like, we can go to the stadium to see the chariots, or perhaps the gladiators would better suit someone of your . . . er, profession. Father took me to the fights when I was little, said it would make me a man, but I was sickened by the blood. He also took me to the races. I liked it better.”
“I have no interest in any of that,” said Xandr. “Just show me to the priest.”
“Yes, sir.” Finias shifted uncomfortably under his shoulder plates. “I don’t suppose you’d care for the theater? There are several performances showing right now by some of our finest dramatists. One of them, I believe, is about you.”
Xandr paused in mid-stride, noticing the second wall curtaining the horizon. “About me?”
“Truly!” he said, beaming with enthusiasm. “It’s called, Batal and the Floating City of Abu-Zabu. I mean, the actor doesn’t share your build, of course, but actors are meant for acting, not brawling. He does have a booming voice, though . . . you can hear him all the way in the two-mite seats, which is good because I can scarcely afford better. But it’s quite a riot, watched it seven times already. It’s about your, you know, your adventures, about how you slew the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu.”
“Did I now?” Xandr’s lips eased into a smile, the whites of his teeth growing visible through the tangles of his hair. “I was not aware of that.”
Courage crept into Finias’ voice, though he failed to look the barbarian eye to eye. “So, did you really slay the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu?”
“No. I’ve never seen a two-headed giant, nor heard of a place called Abu-Zabu.”
“Oh.” Drained of his eagerness, the boy engrossed himself in the pavers on the street, counting the ones that were missing. “But if you didn’t slay the giant,” he went on, tapping a pebble from his sandal, “you must not be the one we hoped for, the Batal of Legend, I mean.”
“You are fond of speech,” Xandr admitted.
“Oh, that’s true, sir.”
When they arrived before the shadow of the second gate, Xandr peered down the alleyway framed by the face of an old library and the inner wall. Under dimly glowing lanterns, he could make out the tents that served as homes and the peasants in their soiled and tattered clothing.
“Do not go that way!” Finias called to little avail. “It is a wretched place . . .”
An aged man sat amid his possessions, rattling a pair of obol in his tin. With a shift of his head, the man recited, as he had countless times before, “Good sirs, sit a spell and be moved, if you will. I am no mere beggar, but a proud legionnaire of the Stygian campaign, who lost his sight to heathen hands. Alas, I cannot longer work, and only ask a pittance for a respectable burial.”
Finias lurched suddenly, kicking the man with his greave. “Get moving, worm! And take your rubbish with you. You know you can’t make your homes here.”
“Let him be!” Xandr cried, surprised by the youth’s sudden assertiveness. But already the old man was fleeing, making a trail of his belongings.
“But . . .” Finias muttered, “they’re the basest class! They sleep in their own piss!”
“He said he was a legionnaire.”
“Oh, they all say that. And they don’t belong here along the tower wall, Demacharon said so. Muck up the whole place with their filth. Besides, he could have robbed you.”
“If I am here to face merquid, feeble paupers should hardly pose a threat to me. Do that again and you shall know my might first hand.”
The Hedonian shrank away. “Forgive me.”
Xandr scowled. Could someone of Ilmarin birth have been treated here with such cruelty? “I thought such men were turned away at the gates.”
“That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Hedonia’s bursting with such riffraff. Can’t keep them all out, you know, it’s a big city, and now we have gill knocking on our gates from the other side.”
“Have you seen them?”
“Who? The gill?” he said, answering his own question, “no, not yet, but from what I’ve heard, well . . . they do give me the creeps.”
Unabated, Xandr and Finias ventured deeper into the shadows, where the glow of sun and moons was absent. His guide kept close behind as disturbing revelations set upon his innocent eyes.
“I’ve never been this far in,” Finias admitted. “I’m no longer a guide here.”
The Ilmarin paid him no heed. “So . . . this is where Hedonia hides its poor and downtrodden,” he said quietly. “Did your father never show you this?”
“No, sir. He died a long time ago, on a campaign to liberate the barbarians.”
Children huddled near a flame to roast pigeons and rodents. Peasants mottled with boils shuddered with fever. A few bodies lay wedged between stone embankments as feasts for mammoth flies. A newborn wailed like a distant squawking bird, its pleas going unanswered.
Someone called to them from below in a voice so strained from lack of use it could hardly be recognized as a woman’s. She had not reached the third season of her life, yet her face was split from years of worry, where soot had set too deeply to be washed away. Dark strands, never knowing the touch of a blade, reached long across her face, and many spindly legs skittered freely between each hair. Finias stepped away, shielding his nostrils with a raised forearm, but Xandr knelt beside the woman, gazing honestly upon her. Her eyes were clear, he could see, as they were so often washed by tears.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She straightened, letting the ox hide slip from her knee to reveal a thigh. “One copper drachma,” she answered, pointing to the upturned helmet in her lap, “for half a moon passing.” She worked up a smile but it was hardly sincere.
Xandr turned to his companion. “Give her what money you have.”
“B-But, sir!” he stammered. “If this is what you crave, I assure you, there are better women to be had in Hedonia! This is not the place for us! Come away with me to the Temple of Irene, choose from the youngest stock, from the most lovely females the Empire has to offer, any hair, skin, or shape you fancy . . .,” but seeing how the barbarian remained unmoved, the Hedonian added, “for the right price, there are the sacred virgins, trained in the arts of love without ever knowing a man’s touch . . .”
“I care not for whores!” Xandr cried. “Give her what money you have and I will repay you in blood on the battlefield.”
The soldier emptied his purse into the woman’s lap. Falling on her hands and knees, she poured the contents onto the cobblestone, counting four gold drachmae and two copper. Fearing she might be deceived, she hurried the gold into her mouth, bent the soft metal between her molars. With that, she lifted her eyes to Xandr, awestruck.
As he motioned to leave, she loosened her tunic, and they could see her pale flesh stretching tightly over her ribs.
“No,” he said, turning again.
“Please, kind sir,” she murmured, “Do not shame me. Of all the times I’ve lent this body for copper, let it now be for gold.”
He snatched up the tunic, thrusting it violently into her arms.
“Mercy.” Casting her face in shame and shadow, she motioned to a bundle against the crumbling wall. “Would you like . . . my daughter instead? S-She’s older than she looks . . . and she has experience . . .”
With that, the Ilmarin’s mood changed so frightfully, even Finias was made to tremble. “Away from me, whore! And with this,” he added, indicating the coins in her hand, “buy back, if you can, her innocence.”
As the two strangers retreated to the façade that was Hedonia, a pair of eyes followed, shining like emeralds amid the squalor and the shadows, hidden in that den of man’s waste and the waste that had been made of men.
Throughout the city, in bronze relief across doorways and on marble pedestals, in armor donned by stone goddesses and flesh and blood soldiers, everywhere a traveler could look, Xandr noticed the varied forms of the trident. In some instances, the standard of Hedonia was garlanded by laurel leaves. Elsewhere, the trident included flanking hippocampi. But as they neared the Coast of Sarnath, it was more often a rising sail from the mast of a trireme. The naval trident, as Finias called it, greeted them at the door of the First Commander.
Demacharon was a broken man. It was clear to see upon meeting him, though Xandr could not tell where he was broken or what had broken him. Weaving across his handsome face, a violet discoloration divided his cheek and chin, a scar having not healed properly. But it was little clue to his brokenness, as Demacharon wore the deformity like a medal of honor.
“What have you brought me now, Finias?” he asked without ceremony. “Another cliché?” A map spread across the granite slab between them and Xandr noticed the Empire’s chalk outline, which the neighboring kingdoms could never have agreed to. Hedonia encompassed all the lands from the Dead Zones in the West to the Dark Hemisphere in the East.
“Um . . .,” Finias stammered, “this is Xander. He claims to be the Batal of Legend.”
“Excellent,” the commander replied. “We’re saved.”
“Yes, um, and he seeks audience with the High Priest.”
“Oh?” He sighed with distaste, lifting his eyes to study the newcomer. “Few men look upon the High Priest. What makes you believe you’re worthy of the honor?”
“It is no honor for me,” said Xandr, “I merely answered a summons.”
“A summons?” he replied, and as if there was no reasonable way to reply, he turned to the young escort. “Finias, go do something useful, will you? Go clean my steed.”
“Yes, sir!” he exclaimed, slamming a fist against his breastplate. “Strength and Honor, sir!” he cried, making an overly dramatic about face before marching out of the room.
“Yes, yes, strength and honor,” Demacharon said warily, waving him off.
As the sound of Finias’ clanking bronze softened, Demacharon leaned across the empire. “You’re a long way from home. Yes, I know what you are—the refugees we’ve taken in over the years have the most difficulty adjusting to . . . modesty.” He added the word carefully, testing Xandr’s composure.
“To modesty or shame?” The thought of other Ilmar passing through the city made his heart thrum, but Xandr’s hardened face betrayed no emotion.
“And what would you know of shame? Or anything for that matter?” Demacharon exclaimed. “You’re kind prefer living where deserters go in exile.” He stood, revealing the naval emblem of trident and trireme across a bronze breast, the wine dark blue of his cape swaying from his shoulders. “But you can fornicate with swine for all anyone cares. Leave the moralizing to the moralists, I say. My citizens and I fear only one thing, and we have it in great supply: xenophobia—a distrust of strangers, especially those with points of view.”
Despite the commander’s harsh words, Demacharon did not elicit the same reaction as the guard at the wall. There was sincerity in his convictions that made it difficult for Xandr to hate the man.
“So what’s your story?” he went on. “Witness many awful things in the untamed lands?”
“No worse than on your campaigns,” Xandr replied. “Though my hands are clean of innocent blood.”
The commander grinned appreciatively. “We’ve beaten back the wild so that men might live free of terror. The lives of a few short-sighted dissenters are a small price to pay. Besides, our hands rinse clean in the holy waters of the Sargonus Temple.”
Demacharon stood by the tower window. A glorious vista spread before him, the center of the city, and beyond it, the surrounding cityscape with its gleaming marble colonnades, magnificent rotundas, and pediments lined with gods. At its extremity, the land sloped to the opposing city wall, where blue and white roared and rocked against silhouettes of long narrow hulls and masts as numerous as shafts of wheat in a field. Xandr was no stranger to the Sea, yet so much water never failed to impress him. Even at such distance, the salty air was intoxicating.
“My father was a legionnaire,” he said slowly, “as his father before him. The cause has been in my family for generations, and you think to barge into my chambers, lob a few pointed words at me and alter my loyalties?”
Xandr was tempted to argue but chose the course of discretion.
Now Xandr could see, through the opening in the wall, the monument complex casting its shadow over the city. In a perfect rectangle of green, the Temple of Sargonus stood in gleaming white and gold, mirrored in a pool of equal dimension, flanked by six obelisks that stabbed at the turquoise moon. It was a three-sided pyramid flat at the apex, with a ramp of steps ascending from its base to the arched recess at its center.
The Ilmarin was dumbfounded, speaking only as words came to mind. “What giants could have built such a thing?”
“No giants,” Demacharon replied. “Unless men can be called giants. Slaves and freemasons, tens of thousands, laboring for decades before the time of the High Priest Callusa. Impressive, isn’t it? I’ve dragged holy men prepared to meet the Taker before the Temple and watched them renounce their gods, watched them grovel in humility.” After a pause, he added, “I don’t know what his Eminence thinks you can achieve—even if you weresent from Nimbos. I never would have thought it possible, the Batal an Ilmar, a small degree above animal . . . yet if his Eminence believes, I must also. But mind your tongue before him. Nature worship is a heresy in Hedonia, and heresy is punished by death.”
|Hedonian sunrise, courtesy of Evan Kyrou