Madia was asleep on my bed, with the blanket over her head. She was, no doubt, covering for my absence in the event someone should come to check on me.
“Madia,” I whispered, shaking her lightly.
“Oh! Is it time to go?” She exclaimed quietly, throwing off the blanket.
“No, not until tomorrow morning, very early.”
“Oh,” she sounded disappointed, but not surprised.
“Did you happen to hear anything more about Leon?”
“No, Dante wasn’t able to go back. His father was angry with him.” Madia explained. “But I should go and let you sleep. It’s almost morning!”
“Thanks for covering for me,” I said as she passed. “Hopefully, I’ll see you later today.”
Mid-morning Jenassi brought me a robe of fine linen, embroidered with blue and yellow flowers on the loose-flowing sleeves and neckline. A wide belt of finely tooled leather with a silver buckle cinched in the waist, while the full skirt fell just above matching leather sandals.
It was both comfortable and beautiful, and I did not have to be talked into putting it on.
“Who does this belong to?” I asked, looking at my reflection in the brass mirror.
“You,” Jenassi said firmly, clearly saying what she was told to say. I knew it was probably the dress of someone dead. Of course. Everyone who had ever reached adulthood in this city was dead.
Surreptitiously, I added a vague ring of black ink beneath my eyes, to prolong the charade of illness. Then I let Jenassi brush out my hair and tuck a lily in the leather band that held it back from my face.
I tried to eat lightly, as one who was sick would do, but the completely empty platter she had brought me the day before was convincing evidence I was on the mend.
An entourage of Solanti girls came to escort me to the Marchempor. They whispered to each other, as children do, unaware their behavior might be rude. I let them touch my hair, examine my hands and the skin on my face, as they commented wonderingly on my youthful appearance. All of them were younger than I was, by several years, but none of them looked so young.
When it was time to go, I leaned heavily on Jenassi. I explained that I’d had a downturn in the night. She grunted and complained, but I knew she was pleased to be the one I chose to favor, and she would carry the news of my weakness with colorful exaggeration.
In the Hall of the Gods there was a great dais, from which speeches or gatherings probably took place at times. Here I was brought and left standing like a gift on a table. The girls who attended me positioned themselves at picturesque intervals down the steps of the dais with so much conspiratorial delight, I realized I was experiencing the “play pretend” of a group of children.
A cue must have been given, because within a minute or two a levitating conveyance appeared, carrying the Marchempor in grand style. He sat with his robe spread around him, the ever-present scepter in his right hand, and his unrelenting chin thrust out in an effort to exude authority.
Jenassi came to support me down the steps and to the stone carriage, her face stoic with pride.
The conveyance was of the most interest to me as it appeared to be carved of solid stone and was shaped like an old-time horse-drawn sleigh. A small boy sat in the very front, holding a silver tuning fork. Just in front of him stood a silver pole protruding from the stone, somewhat like an antenna. However, this pole resonated when struck. When the musical hum of resonance began to dissipate, the boy would hit the pole with his tuning fork again, and prolong the resonance. A slight rise and fall of the whole sleigh told me that the levitating effect was due to the resonance.
As I paused, looking at the contraption, the little boy on top turned and smiled at me. It was Danteres! I almost uttered a greeting, but he winked at me and turned away.
Behind the sleigh stood two boys whose job it was to push the levitating sleigh wherever Bartroles wanted to go. They looked excited about their job and grinned at me with great expectation when I descended the steps of the dais and approached the magical coach.
The Marchempor himself did not deign to look at me, but I felt his fear that I would decline to go along after all. I stepped carefully up into the sleigh, wondering that it did not tilt with my extra weight, and sat down beside Bartroles. Only then did he release an almost imperceptible sigh and glance at me.
“You look beautiful,” he said, seeming to compliment the dress and his decision I should wear it. I smiled dryly.
“You look. . . well, your scepter is cool.”
“Scepteriscool?” Bartroles echoed questioningly.
“The silver-staff-thing,” I explained, nodding my head toward the pronged object in his hand. The top of the ornately crafted scepter blossomed in three outward curving petals and a bright white jewel lay nestled in their midst.
“It is called a “Vajra.” The Marchempor informed me and tapped the object on the stone floor of our conveyance. We lurched forward with the page boys’ enthusiasm.
“Now you shall see my kingdom,” he said, smiling with more benevolence than I’d seen in him yet.
“To the gardens!” He commanded grandiosely and the page boys hastily turned us around.
The gardens around the bell were beautiful and impressive, but we did not pause to see them. Our magical coach took a direct path to the Bell.
Bartroles talked without pause about his greatness and the grandeur of Solanti. It was boring and without any real information, so for the most part I tuned him out and poured my focus into observing my surroundings. As soon as his floating carriage stopped at the base of the Bell’s dais, I got out and walked to the nearest statue, looking for clues about Nedan’s history. The Marchempor found himself following along.
Enormous statues guarded the Bell on all four sides. The one we approached first was a winged woman inside a spherical chariot. Four large horses in animated motion lunged against their harness. She stood at least twelve feet above us, holding in one hand a grape branch with a cluster upon it, and in the other a sheaf of grain, outstretched as if to drop her gifts upon us. Her face fascinated me. She seemed focused on something ahead of her and dispassionate about the world below.
The second statue was another winged giant. This one was male and reminded me of the creature I had seen in my dream. He stood upon a writhing dragon who hissed and twisted in agony. In one hand the messenger held a great, sword as if about to sever the dragon’s head. In the other hand he held a balance scale which captivated his intense gaze. In the heaviest weighted bowl of the balance sat the figure of a child, gazing upward at his hero. In the lightly weighted end of the balance sat a tiny replica of the very dragon the messenger now stood upon. Apparently the dragon had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
I began to walk on toward the next statue, fascinated with the story in the carvings, but Bartroles’ hand closed over my forearm and pulled me to a stop.
“The Bell,” he said, with a frown. “Let us go up to the Sacred Bell of our fathers.”
As tempted as I was to pull away and take the tour I really wanted, it seemed best to acquiesce and follow the Marchempor up the steps. It was a fairly steep climb and my calves were still aching from the sprint I’d made up forty-three floors two nights before. Bartroles did not seem disappointed when I asked to stop and rest half way up the slope. I was supposed to be ill. And he was undoubtedly old.
When we reached the top, I found four great marble pillars, each as big around as a school bus, standing more than a hundred feet tall. The bell hung from enormous cross supports and cast it’s shadow upon the dais. A giant rope made of metal strands hung down in two lengths. Several leather harnesses were attached to each rope, and it was obvious that it took at least eight people to get the bell swinging.
It was not until my neck hurt from being tilted at such a severe angle that I looked down and saw that we stood upon an intricate carving, identical to the one that had been on the vase in my room.
“To be rung in gratitude for the gift we have received. Year 213 of our freedom.” I read silently.
“May the gods favor your moment,” the Marchempor quoted defiantly. I did not argue.
“What year is it now?” I asked.
“1783,” he answered, but without much assurance. “Come, you shall see how my people toil for the glory of Solanti.”
He took my arm and led me down the steps. I faltered once or twice, reminding him of my supposed weakness.
Once in the levitating carriage again, we took a route completely unfamiliar to me. We passed by walled pastures of sheep and goats being watched by their young shepherds.
There was another walled pasture of ducks and chickens, where little girls collected eggs in woven baskets.
There was a busy building in which girls combed, carded, spun, dyed, and wove wool and linen into great lengths of fabric on standing looms. I wanted to linger here and observe their process, but Bartroles had a fixed itinerary in mind, and we could not pause.
A rather smelly stone building near the river served as a butcher shop where boys worked killing and cleaning the carcasses of the animals I had already seen in the pasture.
There were multiple kitchens in which both girls and boys between the ages of seven and fourteen worked making cheese and butter, grinding wheat, making bread, and roasting meat on a large spit over a fire.
All these children looked as if they had been waiting for us to pass by and I wondered if what I was seeing truly represented a day in the life of the average Solantian, or if it was a bit of a show, put on for the Marchempor’s grand tour.
At first glance Solanti appeared to be a haven of productivity and youth. But when we paused for just a moment to watch the children work, I heard a chorus of painful coughing, and noticed all of the bowed shoulders and weary faces. There were a good many children sleeping, right where they worked, leaning on a butter churn or on a pile of laundry.
At the stables one boy was being carried out by his heels and shoulders, having died while working. Those who carried him looked startled and afraid to see us passing by and hurriedly retraced their steps back into the stable and out of sight. The blank faces of the children who watched his frail body being hurriedly hidden away, did not display lack of care, but shock and hopelessness.
Bartroles kept up a running monologue about the extent of his power and how obedient his subjects were. When he numbered the palaces, museums, archives and music halls of the city, I finally interrupted with a question.
“But where are they? I’d like to see a museum of art and history.”
The Marchempor sputtered and made the excuse that the museums were too far away to visit.
“What about the archives?”
“No, no. . . they are of no interest.” He waved his hand dismissively.
“I’m interested,” I insisted. “But perhaps they don’t truly exist after all.”
“Of course they do! The magnitude of my kingdom is beyond. . .”
“Then why haven’t you shown me anything magnificent? Just sick children working.”
“They exist! The glory of my city. . .”
“Is hearsay,” I finished with disinterest and leaned back with a yawn. Dante looked over his shoulder at me with shocked wonder.
“Then explain this!” Bartroles cried triumphantly, pulling a capped silver cylinder from the inside fur trim of his robe.
With trembling old fingers he uncapped the cylinder and withdrew an ancient, very fine leather map and unrolled it.
“What is it?” I asked with dubious interest.
“A map!” he cried. “A map of my kingdom. Look at it. Read the inscriptions!”
My love of maps had begun when I was younger than Danteres. They were all gone now, but at one time I had a collection of over a thousand maps: some of Earth, some of Mars, a few of the moon, and a great many star maps. All were valuable for one reason or another. And like anything you pour your time and interest into, I became very good at looking at a map and remembering it.
But I could not betray my interest to the Marchempor now. With tired semi-interest I read the inscriptions aloud slowly while my eyes raced back and forth over the map, memorizing the details.
“The Museum of Courage and His Foes. . .” I read slowly, noting that the map covered a much larger area than Solanti. At the edge of the city a sky-rail was depicted in construction. The year was 210. The sky-rail disappeared off the north edge off the map.
“The Archives of the Ancients. . .” I read, making note that this particular building was not so far away.
In my mind I heard the voice of the elderly bearded man in the first dream I’d had after we arrived on Solanti.
“I’ve been cataloging the Special Clearance Archives,” he had said.
“I didn’t know any part of the archives was special clearance.”
I remembered his ink-stained finger pointing to a room in the Archives, clearly depicted on the brochure in his hand. “The Archive Crown,” was written there beside the symbol of a helmet-like crown.
I blinked and cleared my vision of memory, seeing the Marchempor’s map again. There was a wall in the shape of a nearly circular star all around the city except for a gap on the eastern side. It looked to be under construction. . . but not completed.
“Yes, you see, you see. . .” Bartroles said with pride.
“Why didn’t they finish the wall?” I mused aloud. “It would have kept the monsters out.”
The Marchempor looked at me with sudden suspicion and began to roll the map up again.
“It’s not too late,” I told him. “You could finish the wall. Then you wouldn’t have to ring the bell to keep the monsters—“
“You know nothing,” he interrupted me. “Nothing.”
I sighed. “Well, you were right. There is more to the city than is obvious from here.”
He glowered and capped the map in silence, still peeved at me. Then he lifted his vajra and brought it down with a loud double-tap that signaled his desire to halt. We sat in silence for a full minute before Bartroles spoke.
“There are no rocks here.” He said at last, as if to explain. “They are by the sea.”
“How was Solanti built?” I asked with genuine curiosity.
“It is written in the Archives that the builders were from another place.”
Bartroles’ explanation was missing pretty much every detail, but the fact no one living in Solanti now was capable of finishing the wall, was certainly true.
“If you could go to another place — out of reach of the monsters,” I asked, “a place where you would live longer, would you go?”
I looked at him earnestly, hoping to find some higher motivation in the proud heart of Nedan’s Marchempor that could result in saving all the children of Solanti.
Our floating stone conveyance had paused in front of the royal palace, but the Marchempor made no move to descend. He stared back at me with strange intensity and I waited for his answer. Danteres watched us, but the page boys who pushed our sleigh stayed discreetly out of sight. The Marchempor’s thoughtful silence gave me hope and I smiled encouragingly, mentally urging him to seek the good of his people.
“Are you married to Leon?” he asked, leaning toward me with a pathetic semblance of flirtation.
“Really?” I exclaimed with passionate disappointment. “I mean, really? Did you even hear my question?”
“Because if you’re not, I would like to honor you—“
“Where’s Chalice?” I asked suddenly and with rebuke in my tone.
Bartroles was silent and I saw his hand tremble and his eyelid twitch. I waited, but he did not speak, and I realized he was having a hard time answering.
“Is she okay?” I asked with a sense of dread.
“She lived her moment to the fullest,” The Marchempor said at last with a thick voice.
“Oh, no! And her baby?” I cried.
“The child lives.” Bartroles answered, recovering somewhat. “She is my twelfth offspring. I would have married Chalice, if the gods had favored her moment a little. . .longer. She was fifteen when - when -“
“When she died of old age,” I said bitterly.
Suddenly I knew the sheet-covered body in the Birthing Hall must have been Chalice. And the baby girl I had burped and put back to bed had been her baby. Lilly. I had to go back and get her. I had promised I would tell her about her mother.
“The gods have honored me by sending you,” Bartroles continued doggedly. He paused with expectancy, but I did not look at him.
“Are you married to Leon?” he asked again.
So this is why he had poisoned Leon! He was clearing the playing field.
“I didn’t know you even had marriage on Nedan.” I evaded.
“Of course,” Bartroles answered haughtily. “Marriage is a very old and honored custom of our people.”
“So. . . why aren’t you married?” I asked.
“I would be. . . except there is no woman living old enough to marry me. The laws of Nedan state one must reach the mature age of sixteen in order to marry. So only the very old are honored with this custom of marriage.”
I couldn’t help laughing at the irony of such a ridiculous set of circumstances. Bartroles became angry, but he controlled it carefully, determined to get through his speech.
“Since you are the only woman of marriageable age, tomorrow I would like—I have decided— to honor you with a wedding celebration.”
My heart nearly stopped, but I did not betray my thoughts and fears for Leon. At all costs, he and I must both remain free to prepare for our departure in the morning.
“Would I be Marchempress?” I asked.
“Of course,” Bartroles purred.
“Then I will consider it. But only if Leon is honored as my esteemed brother and given a position of power.”
“Your brother?” the Marchempor looked irritated, then pleased. “I should have guessed,” he said, and fell into silent reverie.
Danteres let out a loud sigh to catch my attention. When I looked at him he made a horrific face, expressing his opinion on my engagement. I winked at him and he subsided with confused faith in my good sense.
“Your brother. . .” Bartroles muttered to himself again, appearing to wander mentally.
I had seen all I wanted to see of the Marchempor’s greatness. I heaved a great sigh of weariness and said, “Please take me back to my room. I am very, very tired.”