Saturday, August 16, 2008

Chapter One

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for.... Word Count: 3,540

Golden light streamed through the glass dome that covered the Hall of Lunatium, the capital of Lunatia, the Empire of the Silver Crescent. Granite pillars lined the walls of the oval Hall, and its marble floor gleamed with the rays of the morning sun. A pair of Imperial Guards stood at each of the doors positioned at the four points of the compass, their red uniforms stark against the white walls.

At the northern end of the hall, a shrouded dais protected the future Empress, Syndra-Kai, from curious eyes. The law forbade any but personal maids, tutors, or family to look upon the face or form of the young Princess, until after her Initiation. The fabric of her shelter had been designed so that the Princess might view the Hall with little obstruction, yet was completely shielded from view. Only a dim outline of the Princess was visible through its folds.

Syndra-Kai sighed with impatience, twirling a strand of her gleaming black hair, pulled back into the Royal style. A silver circlet adorned the mass of hair piled high on her head. The mass of curls was interspersed with braids, their ends capped by silver beads.

“What a farce,” she thought to herself. “In a week’s time, things will be different. I will be Empress, and those that come after me will praise my name for the changes I will make.” Her mind churned with all the plans she had for her Empire.

Interrupting her thoughts, the Royal Chancellor, Xan-Rul, bowed before her, saying, “With your permission, Your Highness, we can proceed.”

Xan-Rul was also her tutor, and before that, he had been her mother’s faithful servant, Chosen by her mother, just as Syndra-Kai would Choose for herself today. Syndra-Kai sometimes pitied Xan-Rul for losing his manhood. Xan-Rul was quick to dismiss her concern.

“The honor of becoming your mother’s Companion was greater than any temporary pleasure those parts could have given me. It is an ancient custom, but it was necessary, and as a daughter of the Royal Family, she was obliged to go through with it. If you disagree, and many do these days, when you become Empress, you may change it. Until then, you must abide.”

Syndra-Kai laughed contemptuously. “But in order to become Empress, I must go through with a ceremony which is both antiquated and barbaric.”

Xan-Rul smiled. “That, my dear, is called irony.”

Syndra-Kai roused from her musings, reaching one hand forth from her silken barrier to wave in a gesture to continue. Xan-Rul bowed again and turned to face the Great Hall. “The Royal Princess of Lunatia, the most esteemed Syndra-Kai, commands the presence of the Eligibles!”

The guards at the southern end of the Hall opened the door, and a stream of men ages 18 to 25 as the law required, was ushered into the Hall. They formed an orderly assembly in front of the Princess. Only about fifty men were present when the line abruptly ended. The guards made a quick check of the passage leading to the Hall, only to return shortly, shaking their heads.

Xan-Rul arched a brow and cleared his throat as the doors closed. “The Eligibles, your Highness.”

Syndra-Kai rose to her feet and started down the steps of the dais. The servants responsible for keeping her hidden from view kept pace with her, carrying the shielding cloth. Syndra-Kai’s voice carried out over the Hall. “Are you sure, Xan-Rul?”

The men in the Hall shuffled their feet, glancing at each other nervously.
“According to the last census, Lunatium boasted a population of well over two million inhabitants. Of that number, no fewer than five thousand were of appropriate age and marital status to be an Eligible. My mother herself had two thousand Eligibles to Choose from.” She moved closer to Xan-Rul. “Are you telling me that in a city as great as Lunatium, all of the men suddenly desired to become husbands or were killed in an epidemic? Pardon me if I was remiss in my studies, but I count fewer than fifty!”

“Your great Pardon, Princess, but I am sure there must be some explanation,” Xan-Rul began.

Syndra-Kai hissed at him in a voice so low only he could hear. “This is what happens when you insist on imposing such a hideous custom on people! My people seem to no longer respect the office of the Empress, and a pitiful showing such as this is the result!” She turned away from him rudely.

“You there! What is your name?” Syndra-Kai strode to the first man in the line. She wondered if he was even old enough to be here, as his face seemed struggling in its efforts to bring forth its first facial hair.

He blinked owlishly and turned beet-red. “Me, Highness?”

“Yes, you, I asked you a question. What is your name?”

“Kin-Tal, your Highness.” He stared at his feet.

“Do you understand the importance of today, why you are here?” she demanded.

“Yes, your Highness,” he said.

“Are all of your friends married, or were they murdered in their beds this morning?”

Kin-Tal looked confused and started to stammer.

“Enough!” Syndra-Kai started to move through the ranks of men, eyeing them critically. It was indeed a poor turnout. Most were barefoot, some were missing teeth, many were so young it was certain the only reason were here was because their mothers had dragged them. A few cast leers in her direction when they thought she could not see them. A ragtag lot, petrified or cocky, frightened or daring enough to think they might be the Chosen one.

“So,” Syndra-Kai’s voice began to purr. “Can any one of your sorry number tell me why so few of you have come here today, and why your peers would choose to defy the Empire? The law demands EVERY single man between the ages of 18 and 25 present in the city this day to appear. No man has left since the gates and docks are closed, and I had not heard of disease run rampant, or such a spate of recent marriages to account for this dearth of Eligibles. Has the Empire lost the respect of its people, that they might defy the law?”

“Your Highness, I think I can answer that for you, if I may.” The first young man, Kin-Tal had spoken, having regained his composure.

Syndra-Kai walked back to him. “Can you indeed solve this quandary?” she asked.

“There is a man in the city. Perhaps you have heard of him…” The other men in the Hall began to mumble and shuffle around; clearly wishing Kin-Tal would stop speaking.

“Be still!” Syndra-Kai said. “I am greatly displeased, and may find the only pleasure I have today is watching the loss of your heads! If there is one who defies the Empire, let him be named!”

The men fell silent, and Kin-Tal spoke again. “This man, Malik-Tor, was born in the city and has traveled the world. He has newly arrived home, and has been speaking to the men of the city, telling them that the Choosing is barbaric, and that we should not have to submit to it any longer. He said that he had hoped that by the time he came back to our land that we had overcome our ignorance and done away with it. He said that…” He broke off.

“That is sufficient.” Syndra-Kai said. “I think I understand what is going on here.” She turned to mount the dais again. “And because this Malik-Tor is exempt from being an Eligible himself, he thought he would be immune from retaliation, and instead passed that danger on to you.”

“Oh no, your Highness. Malik-Tor is of age himself and unmarried. He’s just as Eligible as I am,” Kin-Tal said.

“Is that so?” Syndra-Kai asked. Her tone made it clear that no answer was required. Kin-Tal lowered his head again, as the rest of the men glared at him.
No one dared speak until Syndra-Kai allowed it. Her thoughts raced. She was both gratified and bemused at what she had just witnessed.

For centuries, every girl born to the Royal Family was required upon the advent of her sixteenth birthday to Choose a man from among the common class, who would take her virginity. This act was meant to signify the love and closeness the Empress felt for the commoners. Upon completion of her Initiation into womanhood, she was deemed ready to become Empress, should that duty fall to her, and the man would become her Companion. However, because he had lain with a woman who might someday become Empress, it was forbidden for him to lie with any other woman. To prevent such an atrocity from occurring, the law called for castration of the man, since his lowly status also forbade his marriage to the Empress.

Educated by the best teachers in the world, Syndra-Kai had learned much of the ways of other nations. She had even read some of the writings of the great traveler, Malik-Tor himself. She abhorred the custom of Initiation, just as it was apparent her people did. However, as Xan-Rul had pointed out many times, she could do nothing about it until she was Empress. She could not become Empress unless she went through with it. A neat circle she could not escape.

Should she refuse, one of her cousins, the daughters of her mother’s sister, would be more than happy to take her place. With their vapid personalities and disinterest in anything unrelated to their next pretty costume or piece of jewelry, Syndra-Kai knew they would do no service to the Empire, and it would dissolve further into decay. She was the only chance her beloved Empire would have of moving forward.

Even more shocking to Syndra-Kai than the discontent of her people, was her own reaction to their attitude. She was outraged. How dare they defy the Empire? Did the Empire not protect them and provide for them? No one had ever disobeyed Syndra-Kai, and aside from minor rebellions considered ancient history now, no one had ever disobeyed the rule of the Empire either. She did not know what to think, or how to feel.

Suddenly, an idea occurred to her. She motioned to Xan-Rul to come near. “See that the boy is rewarded for his honesty, and dismiss the rest.”

“But Princess, you cannot dismiss the Eligibles until you have Chosen. I know there are not many here, but you must Choose someone today,” Xan-Rul said.

“I have Chosen, Xan-Rul. Bring me Malik-Tor.”

** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
Malik-Tor watched the sun set from the roof of his childhood home. The view from there was one he always remembered fondly, no matter where his travels had brought him. To the east, the wide Lunatian Gulf sparkled with the last flecks of sunlight as the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the west. He remembered standing on the deck of the ship ten years before, waving to his father as he sailed away on his first adventure. Only fifteen then, his head filled with dreams, Malik-Tor had gone to pursue his destiny.

Malik turned to the west, towards the mountains. The walls that surrounded the city might hide the slums that clustered outside at their base, but they could not cover the majesty of those high peaks. He had seen other mountains in many different parts of the world, but none compared to those of Lunatia. Perhaps it was the silver they held in their depths that made them so beautiful.

Malik’s family owned a house within the city walls, nestled amongst other whitewashed adobe homes. The flat roofs of the buildings in the city provided the opportunity to grow lush gardens on their surface; a necessity since city streets, markets, temples and homes claimed every available inch of ground below.

Only the palace itself boasted any significant lawn area or dedicated garden space. Slightly to the north of where Malik-Tor stood now, in the center of Lunatium, the very last ray of sun glinted off the glass dome of the palace; a final flash to remind all within view of the city of the power it held. He sighed at the sight. At least it is over now, he thought.

One year ago, a letter had reached Malik, telling him of his father’s illness and asking him to come home. Not taking his father’s illness seriously, he had avoided doing coming home straightaway because the Princess had not yet turned sixteen and undergone her Initiation. He had no wish to risk his manhood; he had grown rather attached to it over the years.

Being a foreigner had precluded him from being a candidate for some of the more barbaric customs he had witnessed in some of the less civilized corners of the world. It dismayed him that his own country, so renowned for its wealth and rich culture, should itself practice such beastly customs.

Postponing his trip home served no purpose in the end. He had missed seeing his father before he succumbed to his illness; and he had gotten the date wrong. Instead of arriving after the Initiation as he had planned, he had arrived just in time for the closing of the port and city gates. Travel in or out of the city was impossible until after the ceremony was over.

Angry and frustrated, Malik had spent the last few nights getting drunk in various bars around the city and bemoaning his circumstances. It was unlike him to complain so vehemently about such a selfish concern as the possible loss of his manly parts, but the loss of his father had left him feeling vulnerable. He had no intention of showing up for the Choosing, he announced to anyone in earshot, once he was in his cups. He found quite a few that agreed with his sentiments as well. What he did not know was that word of his opinion was traveling like wildfire throughout the city.

The appearance of his niece, Li-Adana, on the stairs interrupted his thoughts. “Supper is ready, Uncle Malik,” she said.

“Thank you, my star,” he said.

Blushing, she ducked back inside.

At the supper table, he sat at the head of the table. He felt uncomfortable in his father’s place, but his family insisted. He did not feel to be the head of the family, his brother Roi-Iman should have the seat.

In Malik’s absence, Roi had become his father’s shadow, learning the rug and tapestry business his father had run, as his father had before him. Roi-Iman was now married with one daughter, and another child on the way. He had cared for their mother and sister, Da-Faren, until their sister had married and gone to live with her husband.

Supper was a simple meal, a stew of beans and meat, richly seasoned and served with fried bread. After eating, the women cleared the table while Malik-Tor and Roi-Iman sat and talked.

“So now the day you have dreaded is past, and here you are, manhood intact,” Roi-Iman said. “What will you do now? Find a pretty city girl like me and settle down? You know there is always a place for you with Father’s business.”

“Yes, I know, Roi, but I don’t think that is the life for me. I have been away too long and seen too much to be content with such a simple life.” He immediately felt guilty for his words, hoping his brother did not take insult. “I mean, this life more than suits you…”

Roi-Iman laughed and waved away Malik-Tor’s words. “Fret not for me, my brother. We have all known since you were young that you were destined for great things. Father would not have let you go otherwise.”
Malik smiled at memory of his father. “You are probably right. Even had he tried to keep me home, I more than likely would have run away.”

“Then what are your plans? You are here now, but will you stay?”

“I think I will, brother,” Malik replied. “The new Empress will need advisors who are knowledgeable of our neighbors across the seas; and who better than the great Malik-Tor to advise her on foreign policy?” He gave a short laugh. “There are other things in this country that could use some adjustments as well. I have to try my best to convince the young, spoiled Princess that her that her country needs attention. Too long has the Empire been left to run unchecked; I see corruption everywhere.”

Roi-Iman nodded in agreement. “You are right, Malik. The poor get poorer, the rich get richer, and for those in between… Well, it is getting harder every day. Some new tax arises, or some wealthy patron claims foul when they feel like they should not have to pay for something. If I had the first inkling, I would move to the countryside and become a simple farmer!”

“That does sound idyllic, but it is even harder in the countryside, Roi. The Empire claims more and more land, paying far less than what the land is worth. Then they pay the same farmers who have lived there all their life a pittance, and punish them cruelly if they take a grain more than what they are allotted.”

“So how do you convince a sixteen year old girl who has lived in plenty all of her life that all is not as bright and shiny as she might think?” Roi-Iman asked.

Malik-Tor scratched his chin. “I’m not sure, Roi. Maybe telling her how other nations are dealing with similar problems and overcoming them. Perhaps telling her that her own advisors and overseers are stealing from the Empire might stir her to action. One can only hope she has learned something from all the tutors she has had over the years.”

“Her mother seemed inclined to change things, but then she died. Who knows how things might be different had she lived?” Roi-Iman said.

“But her father as Regent had all the power her mother ever did, and has done nothing!” Malik said.

“From all accounts, theirs was a love match, and since her death, he left the management of the country to those he said were ‘more suitable’ to the task.” Roi said.

“Love! Who can afford love in their position?” Malik was getting irritated again. “His love for her should have shown him the way to help the country she was born to serve, instead of leaving it up to a mere child. What is known of this Princess Syndra-Kai anyway?”

“Well, if the rumors are correct, she is very beautiful. Of course, those rumors might just be there to cover up the fact that she is really very ugly,” Roi-Iman laughed.

Malik laughed with him. “Her mother was rather beautiful; I saw her once when I was a child. It was her wedding day. Father carried me on his shoulders, even though I was nearly eight. We can only hope Syndra-Kai is like her mother in more than appearance as well.”

A knock at the door interrupted them.

Roi-Iman’s wife went to answer it, and then stepped aside as one of the Imperial Guard entered the house. Roi-Iman and Malik-Tor both stood. “Why do you intrude upon my home and treat my wife so rudely?” Roi demanded.

“This is not the home of Malik-Tor?” The guard demanded, looking from Roi to Malik.

Malik stepped forward. “I am Malik-Tor. This was my father’s house, and my brother has claim to it now. I am here as their guest.”

Two more Imperial Guards entered the house, taking up position on either side of Malik-Tor. A fourth guard blocked the doorway.

“Malik-Tor, I am here to place you under arrest, for conspiracy to prevent the Princess Syndra-Kai’s Initiation and rightful assumption to the throne as Empress of Lunatia.”

“What?” Roi-Iman, his wife, and Malik’s mother all yelled at the same time.

“By whose word did I attempt to prevent the Initiation?” Malik-Tor demanded.

“There has been testimony that you attempted to convince a number of possible Eligibles not to appear at the Choosing today, as well as testifying yourself that you did not intend to appear.” The guard did not waver under Malik’s quelling look.

“That was just talk! Who would have paid attention to a man out to drink?” Malik was starting to get a little worried, as he did indeed not show up himself, which was crime enough.

“Apparently, the whole city, since only around fifty Eligibles appeared today,” the guard replied.

Malik-Tor felt the blood drain from his face. He never thought anyone would actually listen to him; talking of boycotting the Choosing, it was unheard of! What was to become of him now?

“So the Princess was unable to Choose today?” Roi-Iman asked.

“No, she has Chosen, though who knows what has inspired her thinking,” the guard said.

“Then why are you here? No harm done, the Princess can still have her Initiation, and I have done no wrong!” Malik said.

“By order of Princess Syndra-Kai herself, I am to escort you to the palace. For it is you who has been Chosen.”


UnendingPain said...

Hn... Good... It's an interesting idea, and also, sorry I never got around to changing my vote on the elf idea. I'm truly sorry about your friend.

I think that it's written very well and that so far, the story's plot is smooth and without speed bumps.

Good luck with the rest of the chapters! ^_^

Kestrel said...

Thanks, its no problem about the vote, that idea is still percolating back there, so we'll just see how things go!

Madame Belle said...

I like it very much!!

Would you be so kind as to check out something I just recently posted? I'm thinking about posting a story I'm writing up... but I wanted to check with the masses first. Thanks! I look forward to more chapters.

_-*Kristen*-_ said...

hahaha! i love the irony of the man that badmouthed her being the one guy that ended up having to that.

i cant wait until the next chapter comes out, dont makd us wait that long!

Kestrel said...

It's just about ready, I am running with the story, but I want to go back and make some adjustments, so hopefully not too much longer... Glad you like it so far!

Gina said...

LOL. I love it!

Looking forward to reading the next installment which I will be doing shortly.

Kestrel said...

GINA!!! Hey girl... was wondering if that might be you when I saw Ladson, SC come up, that is a nifty gadget right there...
You didn't answer my email from ages ago and I thought maybe it changed...
I'm glad you like it, it's going well so far...

Anonymous said...

If only Syndra and Kalkuro could meet over coffee lol! I'm sure they would get along :) I love the story so far btw. Excellent work!