Two blazing suns slowly descend over the Bay of Saphyrs, and up against the edge of it, the city, glimmering and twinkling as the light slowly turns to gold with the sunset. Kihedra is a sea of gold glass and glowing edges in the late afternoon light.
The light filters down through hundreds of metres of buildings, slowly darkening, becoming greasier and grimier as the collected light bounces off the accumulating muck of tens, then hundreds, then thousands of years, and, at last, the tiniest fraction of the glow, like a trickle of golden nectar, makes it to the undercity. Thin shafts of light illuminate the narrow, twisty alleyways, and lights glow under the oddly distorted buildings, almost vying to reach upwards.
Along the Sea Gate Road, the light spills along the straight, broad street, the late afternoon bustle of traffic slowly dying off as the curfew approaches. At a corner of the glowing street, worn cobblestones tracing the path of millions of footsteps and thousands of cart-tracks, stands a girl.
Tall, uncommonly so for the people of the undercity, yet unassuming, she stands, watching the sunset as it plays along the cobbled, well-worn street. Her coppery hair is a limp tangle about her shoulders, knotted skeins hanging down her back, untamed by any hand. Her eyes, though, are an unnaturally bright blue, filled with awareness, almost glowing by their own light. Long, thin limbs are poised by her sides, hiding a wiry strength, as she surveys the scene before her.
Far off, a bell tolls, and with a start, she looks behind her, up the roadway, the light slowly beginning to fade, as the single chime is echoed oddly by other bells across the city, above and below. The curfew warning bell let out another mournful peal, rolling across the city in waves.
She turned back to the dark side alley, darting off into the grimy darkness, towards her home, outside the city. Graceful steps lead her, the worn leather tunic and trews moving and stretching with her as she ran, hugging her comfortably but not revealingly.
At a cross-street, one dull alley meeting another, her steps curve, swing back in, quick feet banking hard, warranting the few steps she took along the wall. As she straightens back out, an errant grin tugs at her lips, and a joyous laugh bursts from her, setting a haunting counterpoint to the rattle and clank of the shutters of the small businesses along the street, the ragged shopkeepers barely noticing her as she flies past. The burst of sound echoes oddly against the shopfronts and homes, fluttering up the narrow gap between the buildings to the darkening sky above, the vivid blue sky shot with blood-red streaks of cloud.
The bells toll again, the peal deadened by the reflection off thousands of buildings, and she knew that she dallied too long, but each time, she never regretted her daily ritual, the joy she took in reconnecting with the world outside Kihedra making her feel so much more real – and, of course, the exercise she got from her daily dash to the gates out onto the Riim Plains before they closed, shutting her within the city.
She swerves again, taking the corner without the wall this time, and with shock, she skidded to a halt, taking in the suspiciously new wall. She didn’t remember seeing any work in this district earlier today… but it was never worth breaking down the new walls, and she turned, retracing her steps, pushing harder, faster, racing an implacable clock.
She skids to a stop at the Ring Road, bursting from the alley and darting, ducking, weaving through the steady flow of the last merchant caravans of the day making their way to the trade-stops or to the ports, and traders and labourers homeward-bound. Calling apologies to the carts and horses, she darted forward, pushing against the flow, towards the gates. Already, she could see the line of the sky over the plains, the vivid blue of day turning to the inky black of night.
The bells chime for the last time, and her lips move in a silent curse. A gentle touch at her hip has her reaching, unconsciously swatting the seeking hand away, and she glanced back to see the pickpocket, a boy, not much younger than herself, his unruly flop of blonde, grimy hair ducked to look at his hand, reddened from the force of the slap. Their eyes met, momentarily, his dead, blank expression a sharp counterpoint to the bustling crowd, and with a blink, he’s gone.
There is a close, incessant chiming, and, with a ponderous groan, the huge gates start to swing shut, an unstoppable force, as huge mechanisms, unmaintained for almost a thousand years but used twice daily, exert massive pressures.
She runs again, trusting her body, pushing farther, faster, hoping to squeeze between the huge iron and timber slabs, faster, faster …
The hollow thud of the gates closing felt like it echoed in her head, as she skidded to a stop, only a few short handspans from the gate.
“‘Ello, missy.” A gravelly voice pushes through the darkness near the base of the gate, and a shadowy, lopsided figure resolves, walking toward her. “You tryin’ to get out?”
“Yes,” she replies, her voice confident, her surprisingly deep and mature voice momentarily disarming the Lanceman, and her mouth tugged into a slight smile, the adrenalin hiding her own sudden terror in a wall of thundering sound.
“Oi, sarge!” calls the shadowy figure, almost reaching her. “Got another one, and this one looks like a fair treat for tonight!” With a leer, the scarred face of the Lanceman approaches her, barely scraping her shoulder height, his one good eye openly roving her body, his comical, blood-red plume bobbing.
“Really, Koehn, I’ve told you not to say that,” called back a voice vaguely, approaching from the gate-hut.
She stood, rooted to the spot, her usual street-wisdom deserting her, as the filthy guard with his equally filthy mind reached towards her. Behind him, the spindly body of the sergeant approached from the gate-hut. He did a double-take, looking at the face of the girl standing before him.
“What’s your name?” asked the sergeant, looking shocked.
“Elchalyahn, sir,” she replied. “Most people call me Lyahn, though.”
“You have the look of the late Queen, miss. You could almost be her daughter, the Lady Elanalivieldereda. And your name,” said the sergeant, “it reminds me of a story I heard many years ago when I was in the Palace.”
Lyahn looked momentarily puzzled. “The late Queen?”
“Queen Elaynaeldera passed just after Turnover past, miss.”
She grunted, nodding understanding.
“Well, my lady,” grunted the stocky Lanceman, corrupting her name to include the honorific. “We’ve got plenty of room here for you to stay the night,” and the unpleasant smile was all the encouragement she needed to lift her booted foot, and apply it suddenly to his chest, where it thudded hollowly, buckling the greasy breastplate, and winding him, making him fall backwards.
“My lady, I apologise for Lanceman Koenig. He has not learned the finer points of social interaction,” the sergeant said hastily, but Lyahn was already shaking her head.
“I’m not a lady. I’m, I’m nobody. I’m just a runner.”
The sergeant looked curious.
“Another one… I have only once before heard of anyone living outside the walls of Kihedra, and not within another city.” The sergeant looked troubled. “The Queen posted a proclamation only a sevenday before she passed for anyone living between city walls to be brought to the Palace immediately. I must take you there at once.”
High above the city, atop a broad spire of stone and crystals, a wide, curved glass window looks out over the city, one of only a few towers this tall. Looking out over the glowing bay, the room filled with the light of the golden suns, the Lady Analivi lay on a thickly padded sofa, the ceremonial dagger on her upper arm point-upward in mourning, a thin stripe of red fabric wrapped around it. The black-grey drapes throughout the room made the normally bright palace chambers look dreamily dulled, even with the gold light of the sunset spilling through the crystal dome of the building.
She took another sip from the bulb of cloudberry fement she held loosely in her hand, a distant part of her grateful for it’s numbing ability. Her fifth? Sixth? She couldn’t remember. All she knew was the blackness of death, the endlessness of grief, beneath layer upon layer of fement induced haze, stretched out along the couch, her once-perfect hair lying in a sprawling mess around her head and shoulders. Her crystal blue eyes are shuttered, the fement and grief pushing a mask over the usually beautiful face.
She turned, slowly, uncertainly, to look at the speaker, then, with words sliding together, asked, “What do you want, Cesca?”
Cesca-Eldera, Ana’s matron, looked peaceful, but nuances in her stance and face told of her inner discomfort and turmoil. Even through the drunken stupor that she had worked hard to achieve, Ana never really stopped noticing it.
“It is High Turnover in four days, Ana.”
“What of it?” Ana’s question held a tinge of belligerence, hidden under the nasal monotone.
“You need to decide by tomorrow whether you will be taking the Crown or …”
The unspoken word hung in the air, like the vile stench of a rotting carcass. Abdicating was the last option that Ana would ever consider doing, and yet the thought of taking the Shining Crown of Kihedra was as unappetising today as it had been for the last few sevendays.
Ana leapt to her feet, her fury suddenly white-hot. The bulb of fement shattered as it hit the granite floor, and the haze in her mind fell away like a curtain slashed with a knife. “I will not abdicate, Cesca! And that is final!” Her anger brought terror to most people, her scream like a knife to the ears.
Yet Cesca stood her ground as she had for the last eighteen years, as nurse, teacher, maid and matron to the girl standing before her. “Well, you must decide what happens now, my lady,” she said, venom in her voice. “The other houses are already preparing for their run at the throne. I’ve heard whispers of assassins, slipping through the night like shadows, laying knives in the backs of people, leaving unpleasant surprises in meals…” She shook her head. “The Houses, they keep such things quiet, but there is no doubt that this will come to House Eldera, and when it does, you will undoubtedly be at the top of the list!”
Ana sank back down to the couch, fury gone as suddenly as it had come. Her quick temper had only gotten more volatile as she entered her teenage years.
“I just wish there was an easier way,” she mumbled into her dress, and Cesca came over to her, sitting on her haunches before her, arthritic, wrinkled hands grasping young, supple ones.
“I do too, my dear girl. I do too.”
They sat in silence, seeking what comfort lay in the presence of the other.
“I… I don’t want to disappoint her,” murmured Ana, plaintive.
“You can’t disappoint your mother by becoming Queen, Ana. Only by running from your duty, running from your birthright, can you dishonour her memory.” Cesca’s voice become imploring. “Please, my lady… keep Kihedra strong.”
Ana’s eyes slowly filled with tears. “I can’t, Cesca,” she whispered.