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Excerpt for Beneath the Lanterns by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

BENEATH THE LANTERNS



C. Litka





Smashwords Edition Version 1.0 (Sept 2018)

©2018 Charles Litka





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Thank You

I would like to thank my wife and friends who spent many hours making this book better than I could have ever made it by myself – and far more fun. I am very grateful to Sally Litka, Hannes Bimbacher, Dale Shamp, and Walt for their eagle eyes and all their helpful comments.






Dedication

To my dear Parents, for all their love.

Dad didn’t get to read my stories, but Mom is discovering science fiction in her 90’s.






The a map page for Beneath the Lanterns can be found on my blog, here:

Map for Beneath the Lanterns







Chapter 01 Lefe Sol




01

The golden light of dusk day slanted through the pine boughs to splash down on the blue shadowed road before me. The stillness was broken only by the pad of my long-striding footfalls, the hiss of the east wind in the pines and, every now and again, the sweet song of an unseen bird. The air was warm and spicy-pine scented. I was also warm, no doubt fragrant, weary, and eager for home after nine days away and three days on the road. Nevertheless, on reaching the forest’s edge, I paused. In the ruddy gold light of the Yellow Lantern, low over the rim hills in the west, I took in the valley of Azera below me.

The broad, round valley stretched below me in warm tinted shadows. Lake Zera lay in the valley’s hollow – dark mirror of the glowing pastel pink, orange, and yellow firmament arching overhead. Its surface was dotted with the specks of boats plying between the city and its six pine-dark pleasure islands. The city of Azera wrapped itself around the lake’s eastern shore. Within its walls, tenements and townhouses were set in a grid of squares, narrow streets and wide boulevards, while outside, spiderweb strands of villas and walled mansions spread out from its eight gates to market gardens, ponds, and paddies. To the southeast lay the industrial and caravan port suburb of Contere, where the caravan roads of Nations Street, Lankara and Mayaday crossed.

I rested on my long walking staff for only a minute or two to take in the view before starting off again, down the gentle slope between farm fields, toward the city, for, as I said, I was weary, hungry, and eager to put an end to my days on the road.

I entered Azera through its Lake Gate and followed the street known simply as the “Reed Bank,” along the lakeshore until I reached Plum Blossom Street. There I turned into a twilit, canyon-like street, lined by five story tenements, the characteristic buildings of Azera.

When the greatest Prime Consul of the Nations and Peoples of Azere, Hin Dar, began building his capital city, Azera, some 10,750 seasons ago, he built it in the classical pattern of the Elder Civilization – a city of poured stone buildings set in a rigid grid. This is not surprising since he was also the Prime Master of the Society of the Elders – commonly known as the Blue Order – which claims to be the heirs of the Elder Civilization.

Now, as a historian, with a scientific outlook, I’m rather skeptical of their claim, since the Elder Civilization seems to have collapsed some 170,000 or more seasons ago, leaving only mysterious relics of metal and many empty cities of poured stone for us to decipher. The Blue Order’s claim rests on its famous Nine Sages who, some 11,000 to 12,000 seasons ago, collected and wrote down the oral stories, legends, and traditions of the fabled Elder Civilization which had been passed down through the long Dark Age.

While I may be skeptical of historical authenticity of the stories in the Dark and Dawn Classics, I do believe they contain clues to the true nature of the Elder Civilization which may be useful in aiding the scientific understanding of our preceding civilization. For that reason I’ve spent many’a bright day in a dim and dusty Blue Order library making copies of the original Nine Sages manuscripts, in the hope of finding such clues. Indeed, I was returning from just such an excursion. But before this turns into a long-winded lecture, a common vice of mine, let us return to Plum Blossom Street, dim in the shadows of the Hin Dar’s poured stone tenements that stretched into the distance of the straight street.

Azera consists, with a few exceptions, of two styles of buildings – flat roofed, five story tenements arranged in squares around a central courtyard and similar to townhouses that line the broad boulevards that crisscross the city. Small shops and workshops make up the tenements’ street-facing ground floors, while finer shops are found in the ground floor of the townhouses. These townhouses, while built in a style nearly identical to the tenements, boast a single large flat to a floor, making it the dream of every ambitious tenement dweller to “live on the boulevard.” Near the White Palace, the townhouses become more grand – mansions with forecourts and a backcourt for stables and servant quarters. Here reside the wealthy merchants and the nobles of Azere’s nations and peoples, when they visit Azera.

What saves Azera from being a very dreary city is the fact that the exterior sides of the tenements and townhouses are lined with floor to ceiling sliding panels built of wood, bamboo, and glass that open on to balconies. Every owner or tenant has painted their panels and balcony railings to suit their whim or their cultural heritage. And since Azera is populated by peoples from the four corners of a vast empire of nations, steppe, and hill peoples, the facades of every tenement and townhouse are a vast mosaic of Azere life, bright with the colors, patterns, fabrics, and artistic styles of its nations and peoples. And to top it all off, whether or not it was intended – there is some debate on this point – the flat roofs of every tenement and townhouse flutter with the colorful laundry of its residents drying on long lines.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that when I turned down Plum Blossom Street and joined the throng of cheerful, colorfully dressed citizens on their way home from their day’s labor, I entered not a dreary street, but a living microcosm of life in Azere. Softly glowing in the light from the rosy golden firmament overhead, the air was rich with the scents of the food shops and carts that lined the street and echoed with the hawkers’ rhythmic cries, the cheerful chatter of conversations, and the sounds of family life drifting down from the open panels of the flats overhead. I followed this street for nine squares until I came to Birdsong Square, where I had my quarters. I climbed the stairs to my fifth floor flat, and unlocked the door from the dim central hallway to step into the hot, stuffy room, home at last after nine days away.




02

I spied a white square on the floor – an envelope slipped under the door during my absence. I set my staff next to the door, hung my hat on a hook, and tossed my satchel onto the large table, the room’s main furnishing. Picking up the envelope, I crossed the room, slid open a glazed panel, and stepped out onto the balcony to examine the letter. It bore the seal of the Palace Guards, making it from my friend, Lefe Sol, the Palace Guard’s commander, and the third son of the current Prime Consul of Azere. It contained a short note.


Old Teacher,

If you should arrive home today – day 20 that is – before the last quarter, and feel up to it, kindly step around to my office by the last second hour. I need a shoulder to weep on as I have been given my marching orders. Hard orders, indeed. I will stand you dinner at the Mist in the Reeds for the use of your shoulder.

Lefe


A curious note. “Old Teacher” was a jest, since I was a mere seven seasons older. He had, however, been a student of mine in the first class I taught at the University, hence my ironic title. Though he was a son of the ruler of the nations and peoples of Azere, and I was a young scholar fresh out of the University of Kara and a stranger in Azera at the time, he had made it a point to befriend me – we shared a passion for stick fighting – and introduce me to Azera and his wide circle of friends. We have been the best of friends since then.

The note’s offhand, even jovial, tone contrasted with its message. Even after some 65 seasons in Azera I sometimes found it hard to decide where the polite cheerfulness that Azere society expects in public relationships ends and the real cheerfulness, if it existed, begins. Since Lefe Sol was a naturally cheerful fellow, I couldn’t decide if his troubles were so trivial that he was making a joke of them, or they were serious and he was making a socially polite joke of them.

And why me? Lefe Sol was a very outgoing and naturally cheerful fellow, with a wide circle of friends. While we were the best of friends, I was hardly his only friend with a shoulder he could weep on. Indeed, being a very charming and eligible member of the Empire’s first family, the Sols, there’d be no shortage of lovely daughters of the nobility willing to lend their shoulders to him. So why mine?

In the end, I just shrugged. I’d find out soon enough, for I owed too much of my present happiness to his kindness not to lend my shoulder, even without the prospect of a dinner at the Mist in the Reeds Tea House, which alone made hauling my aching body along to the barracks, and the risk of a damp shoulder, well worthwhile.

Drawing my pocket chronometer I found that it was not yet the last hour of the day’s third quarter, so I had an hour to bathe, rest, and speculate as to what misfortune had befallen my friend.




03

After sponging off the dust and sweat of travel, and making myself a cup of tea, I pulled a reed chair onto my balcony that overlooked the tops of Birdsong Square’s gnarled old pines to drink my tea and contemplate – nothing much at all. Indeed, I may have dozed until the time-bells of the city’s squares rang four times to announce the day’s last quarter and startled me out of my contemplation. I climbed stiffly to my feet – I now ached all over – donned my finest set of clothes, and set out for the White Palace.

While the homeward rush of residents had ebbed, there were still short lines at the various hole-in-the-wall, soup and noodle, bun and little eats, stir-fry, and fire-roast shops that lined the ground floor of the squares I passed. Indeed, the atmosphere of the narrow streets at this time of day was thick and fragrant enough, that one could almost sup on breath alone. My stomach growled. “Wait,” I told it. “There is a fine and very expensive feast ahead for us.”

The White Palace lay nearly a half an hour’s walk to the west, but with time to spare, I made a leisurely stroll of it, so as not to arrive in a sweat – for it was the warmest of days, the last day of the bright days. And besides, I always savored a walk through the colorful streets of Azera.

Lankara, my homeland to the north of Azere, is a cooler land, with the two lanterns low in the firmament. Much smaller than Azere it has a more staid and monolithic culture. Several thousand seasons ago, a new way of thinking arose that has now made it a far more scientifically and industrially advanced nation than Azere. And while the architecture of Kara, Lankara’s capital city is more creative than Azera’s, it looks almost somber when compared to Azera. Despite, or perhaps because, of my Lankarian upbringing, I fell in love with the colorful capital of Azere – even with having to empty one’s night soil every day in the common night soil house, and haul water up from the pump house in the courtyard. Indeed, 65 seasons later, I have yet to return home. At first I pleaded poverty, as my classes were small and paid me little. However, as they grew in popularity, so did my income. And while one does not become wealthy as a scholar at the University, I could no longer plead poverty. Instead, my excuse became the press of my teaching duties, and my research. True enough, but not true enough to actually prevent me from making the two day rail journey home to Kara between University terms. But I could not tear myself away from Azera, or my research journeys across the steppes to the libraries of Blue Order communities. I’m an Azerian these days. And so, I savored my leisurely stroll through the city to the White Palace in the imperceptibly deepening twilight. There was a rich, mellow, and pleasantly melancholic air in the narrow, warm, and many flavored streets I followed west to the palace.

Lefe Sol had kindly appointed me Assistant Regimental Historian in order to supplement my meager income during my first seasons teaching at the University. The position involved spending a day each season compiling, editing, and entering the regimental reports into the regiment’s history book. It was enough, however, to make me well known within the ranks, so that I was greeted by the sentry on duty by name, and told that the Colonel was expecting me in his office.


‘Greetings, Old Teacher,’ Lefe exclaimed cheerfully, turning away from the view of Lake Zera that the tall sliding panels of his office offered. ‘A fruitful journey, I trust?’

‘It was. I uncovered a long and, I believe, very early manuscript with commentaries – a collection of stories said to be written by Sax Vix, though they struck me more in the style of Aba Kol then Sax Vix,’ I replied, shaking his proffered hand. ‘I scribbled for three days, with no time to think on what I was writing. I’ll be able to say more when I can go back to read what I’ve scribbled.’

‘I hope they yield many new clues,’ he said with an indulgent smile.

‘I hope so as well. But what dire matter brings me here? You seem to be holding up well in the face of whatever calamity has befallen you.’

‘I assure you, only the iron fortitude of the Sols keeps my tears at bay, for it is indeed, a very sad tale, my friend. Still it can wait, no point spoiling our meal over it. I’ve invited Dar and Fila to dine with us as well, for I will need a chorus of sympathizers to ease my mind.’

‘That grim?’

‘To me, though I fear it may amuse you and the others. You will no doubt say that it is a fate I deserve,’ he said with a sidelong glance and a little laugh.

I was still unsure whether he was simply being polite by putting on that cheerfully public face, as one should in the Azere, or if he was exaggerating his distress as a joke. I was, however, content to wait and did not press him on the matter.

While we waited for his second in command, Captain Dar Larc, to complete his duties and collect his wife Fila, I recounted the highlights, such as they were, of my nine day expedition to the Blue Order community in the Kaj Per valley, a 30 league journey from Azera. I’d spent six days on the road and three days in their small library copying the old stories from a carefully preserved manuscript dating from the Dawn Age, some 12,000 seasons ago.

Once Dar and Fila arrived, we set out across the palace grounds for its little harbor within the palace walls. When Hin Dar built his White Palace on the shore of Lake Zera, he built it in the Elder style of poured stone and square boxes. But in the case of the palace, his architects piled those boxes one on top of the other artistically to create many courts and gardens, terraces and towers. We wove our way through the age softened palace, with its lush terraces and gardens, to the boat harbor, talking of nothing of consequence.

A boatman stepped out of his hut, gave a polite bow, and stood, awaiting orders.

‘A punt will do Nars. We’re bound for the Mist,’ said Lefe.

With a brisk ‘Yes, sir.’ he hurried down the steps and pulled one of the wide beamed punts close alongside, holding it steady it as we stepped on board. After we had settled in, he pushed off with his pole, and deftly steered it through the water gate and out onto the bright lake.

Lake Zera was still dotted with punts, rowboats, and pleasure barges sporting colorful sails and awnings – even more now since the pleasure islands, with their tea gardens, sing-song houses, dining, and wine and brew pavilions, were only now becoming fully alive as their customers, freed from their day’s labor, were leisurely making their way across the waters to the islands. Overhead, black and white gulls wheeled, calling to each other, while above them, in the eastern firmament, a faint brighter spot marked the ever present Blue Lantern that would again come into its own once the Yellow Lantern left us to visit the far side of the world.

Tea, dining, and wine and brew houses lined the Reed Bank shore from the palace to the Lake Gate in the south. Wedged between these establishments were long fingers of docks with boats and boatmen waiting to take passengers out to the pleasure islands. The prestige of the establishments faded the further from the White Palace one ventured down the Reed Bank, though fine, and far less expensive fare, could be found all along the shore lane. The Mist in the Reeds was not far from the palace, so its bill of fare was far beyond my scholar’s wages. That I dined there now and again, was a perk of being a friend and guest of Lefe Sol.

The tea house stood in the lake, beyond the reedy shore. It was reached from the Reed Bank by a walkway that zigzagged over the reeds and lily pads. Perched on four piers, it was a stack of four poured stone boxes. The lowest was a dock set between the piers at lake level to accommodate customers arriving by boat. The next, the widest, was enclosed by panels. In the bright days, these panels were screens, opening the tea room to the gentle eastern breezes of the bright days. During the dark days, these panels were replaced by glazed ones to keep the dark cold days at bay. The upper two boxes were smaller, the lower one surrounded by the roof-deck of the lower level. It was filled with tables and cushioned reed chairs under a colorful canvas awning for truly open air dining. The uppermost story contained six private banquet rooms with balconies that offered a sweeping view of the lake.

The boatman nosed the punt alongside the dock and we carefully stepped on to the dock. Lefe dismissed him, saying we’d take a rickshaw back.

He had reserved one of the smaller banquet rooms, and even as we settled into the cushions of the wide reed chairs around the table, the first of the small treats and light wines were being served by quiet, slim girls in colorfully embroidered satin.

It was only over tea, after the leisurely feast, that Lefe got around to crying on our shoulders.




04

Lefe stood, and walked onto the balcony, to look out over the lake for a while. Turning back to us, he said, ‘I find that I’m engaged to be married.’

Fila clapped her hands. ‘And about time, too! Who’s the fortunate girl who has won your heart?’

‘The girl who won my heart, and my bride-to-be, are not the same person. Hence my tears,’ he said, with a sad smile and little shrug.

‘Oh...’ said Fila. ‘How did that happen?’

Lefe sighed. ‘It happened because my father has, without consulting me, arranged a marriage for me.’

‘Ahhh…’ I ventured, lifting my hand in inquiry.

‘Yes, Kel?’

‘I was under the impression that you could choose whom to marry, as long as she came from one of the noble families.’

‘That, my dear Old Teacher, was my impression as well.’

‘Oh, come now, Lefe. You were never free to marry just anyone, even from the noble houses,’ objected Fila. ‘There’s always a political calculation in every Sol marriage.’

‘While I was expected to maintain, and ideally, enhance our family’s position with my marriage, I still had a great deal of freedom to choose from the daughters of the nobility…’

‘Certain daughters from certain families.’

‘I’ll have you know, Fila, that, even in the Sol family, a happy marriage is considered worth two or even three purely political marriages. I had a perfectly adequate supply of possible mates to choose from. And while I may have been taking my time choosing one, my father had no excuse stepping in and arranging a marriage for me – without even bothering to consult with me.’

‘ Ahhh… But he did. ’ I said. ‘While Azerian history is not my specialty, I would imagine that, as Fila has suggested, maintaining a delicate balance within the hundred noble families in order to keep the Sol family on the Blue Throne could not be left to pure chance. And since a member of the Sol family has sat on the Blue Throne for some 7,000 seasons it strikes me that arranged marriages would need to be the norm.’

Lefe shook his head. ‘You must remember, Kel, that even if one assumes that the nobles will elect, as they have for last 23 elections, a Prime Consul from the Sol family, the Prime Consul can be any member of the extended Sol family. While I may be a son of the current Prime Consul, I’m no closer to the Blue Throne than any of my brothers, sister, cousins, nieces or nephews, so who I marry is of no greater importance than the marriage of any other member of the Sol family. Any of them would have done just as well as I for the political marriage my father has planned.’

‘Oh come now, Lefe. You’re nearly 300 seasons old. You’ve had your chance to choose,’ said the ever practical Fila. ‘I warned you to get serious...’

‘Yes you did. And I did.’

‘So you say. I’ve heard nothing of it.’

‘Nevertheless, I have found her. I’ll say no more.’

‘She comes from a noble family, I hope...’

‘Of course. I’m not that big a fool. For all the good it does me.’

‘So who is your bride-to-be? I trust that’s not a secret as well.’

He sighed. ‘It is for the moment, but I’ll tell you, with a promise not to say anything to anyone until the official announcement.’

‘Yes, of course,’ we agreed.

‘One Ren Loh.’

Fila and Dar exchanged puzzled looks. I was not familiar enough with the noble families of the nations and peoples of Azere to know what that portended.

Fila turning back to Lefe, said, ‘I can’t seem to place the Loh family. Are they an outside steppe or hill people that your father wishes to draw into the empire?’

‘Oh no, nothing like that. And then again, it’s everything like that. Only on a grander scale. Ren Loh is a daughter of Vinra Loh, the Empress of the Jasmyne Empire. Her fourth daughter.’

‘Oh, my’ said Fila.

Dar and I exchanged a silent glance, trying, and failing, to find something encouraging to say. A marriage uniting the first family of Azere with the matriarchal dynasty of the Jasmyne Empire, Azere’s great rival to the east, was indeed, a marriage on a grand historical and political scale. A scale that certainly doomed Lefe to a marriage with this Ren Loh, whether he liked it or not.

‘We are to be married once the Assembly of Nobles ratifies the trade union treaty,’ continued Lefe grimly, ‘to become a living symbol of the new relationship between our two nations. One can also look on it as an exchange of prisoners,’ he added bitterly.

Dar whistled softly. ‘Still, the daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne is a step up from the daughter of even the most wealthy Azerian noble house. So what’s she like?’

‘No one knows.’

‘How can that be?’ exclaimed Fila, ‘She’s not a child bride, is she?’

‘No, she’s also seen the better part of 300 seasons. However my Jasmyne friends from the embassy can tell me little more than that.’

‘Why?’

‘The story they tell is that after the Empress gave birth to three daughters, one of which will be appointed by the Empress to succeed her, the Empress’s consort, wanting a son, talked her into having one more child. This child turned out to be yet another daughter, apparently to everyone’s disappointment. When she was 70 seasons old, the consort and Empress had a falling out and the consort left the court to command the Imperial Lancers Regiment in the field, taking this fourth daughter with him. One version of the story has him intending to raise this daughter as the son he had always wanted. Another has it that he was forced by the Empress to take her with him, since he was the one who insisted on her having a fourth child and she had little love nor any use for this fourth daughter. The consort and daughter rarely returned to the palace during the following 200 seasons, so she is largely unknown in court circles. When the consort died 14 seasons ago this Ren Loh was summoned back to the palace. However, since all of the Jasmyne embassy staff have been stationed here for longer than 14 seasons, they can relate only the thinnest of rumors about my would-be-bride.’

‘Ahhh...’

‘Yes, Kel?’

‘Just a quick question – does the Prime Consul of Azere possess the authority to force you to marry her?’

Lefe laughed grimly. ‘Forced marriages are not binding under Azere law. But as he pointed out, not only can he make not marrying her a fate far more unpleasant for me than marrying her, but that, given the importance of the treaty to the future of the Empire, refusing to marry this Ren Loh could be looked on as treason.’

‘He wouldn’t go that far!’ exclaimed Fila. ‘Would he?’

‘Well, charging me with treason would do nothing to advance his goals. I mention that only to show you the length he is willing to go to see me married to this Ren Loh. As you well know, it has been the stated goal of every Prime Consul to unite all the lands under the Blue Lantern under the Blue Throne. Father sees this trade union as the penultimate act of that grand design. Seeing that the nations of Cimcara, Tindra, and Kartana to the east of Jasmyne are already in a trade union with Jasmyne, the treaty would bring all but Lankara into a single trade union. And since the Azere Empire has been built on trade, a political union would most certainly follow the trade treaty within a generation...’

‘Guided by a family with potential heirs to both the Blue and Yellow thrones,’ I muttered.

‘Exactly. However symbolic this marriage would be – the children, or grandchildren of this marriage – would have the blood of both the Sol and Loh families. Who better to rule a united empire?’

‘It would appear that you are doomed to marry this Ren Loh,’ I said.

He shrugged and looked away. ‘I grew hoarse arguing otherwise while pointing out that there are plenty of eligible Sol cousins fluttering about who can do the job as well as I.’

‘To no avail,’ I said.

‘Perhaps, and perhaps not.’

‘Oh, come now, Lefe. The marriage of the son and daughter of the two greatest empires is more than a symbol, it is a promise of a long held dream to unite all the nations and peoples under the Blue Lantern. I need not tell you that with rank and privilege comes duty. I am certain you’ll do your duty,’ said Fila, the daughter and granddaughter of guardsmen.

‘Talk of duty is all well and good. My father flung the word at me often enough. But has he the moral right to play me – or anyone – as an expendable pawn in the great game of empire?’

‘Oh, don’t be so dramatic. We’re talking marriage here, not martyrdom.’

Lefe bit back a bitter reply.

I considered my words carefully. ‘I am sorry that it will break your heart, for a time, but who knows, if you give her a chance, you may well come to love this Ren Loh. I think your despondency is premature.’

‘Ah, the golden optimism of a bachelor scholar,’ muttered Lefe.

‘He’s right, Lefe. You have no reason to assume the worst in Ren Loh. She may well be all you desire,’ added Fila. ‘She was, after all, raised in the Imperial Lancers Regiment, so you may well have much in common. I dare say, you could do far worse.’

‘Had I not already found a girl to love, I might agree with you.’

‘So you say,’ said Fila with a shake of her head.. ‘I say that if you were actually courting someone, I’d have heard of it.’

Lefe smiled sadly. ‘Perhaps I have been very discreet.’

Fila shook her head. ‘Nothing escapes the gossips of the court for long. I assure you, any romance of yours would’ve been known. So why haven’t I heard of it?’

‘Because I met her in my travels as Colonel of the Guards. She isn’t here in Azera, so your court gossips haven’t got wind of her.’

‘That being the case, you can hardly know her. You’re never away from Azera for all that long, haven’t been on tour for...’

‘Eight seasons. Too long, but we have corresponded for many seasons. And I will see her soon, when her family arrives here for the Assembly of Nobles.’

‘How will she take the news of your engagement?’ I asked.

‘I have just written to her about the matter, assuring her that I would give up an empire for her.’

‘Ah, but will she? Will she defy the wishes of the Prime Consul, perhaps putting her family on the wrong side of the Prime Consul? Will she put her love before the greater good of a united world under the Blue Lantern?’ asked Fila.

‘You seem determined to have me married to this Ren Loh, Fila,’ he snapped rather irritably. ‘What do you say, Dar? You’ve said nothing so far. What do you suggest I do?’

Dar grinned, and said, ‘Ah, I think I’ll just keep my head down and mouth closed and stay out of the crossfire on this matter, if you don’t mind, Colonel.’

‘Coward,’ laughed his wife, and then turned back to Lefe, ‘I’m of an old guards family. I’ve grown up with a sense of duty, as I know you have as well. I know that in the end, you’ll do your duty. You truly have my sympathy, Lefe. And if there is anything I can do to help you or your love, just ask. However, while I am sure it will be hard for a while, I know you well enough to know that you will, in the end, make the best of your lot. And I truly doubt that your love would even consider standing in the way of your duty or risk call down the wrath of the Prime Consul on her family.’

Lefe sighed. ‘Perhaps you’re right. Still I’m far from convinced that it is my duty, seeing that any Sol will suffice. Perhaps I can find a cousin who would like to have an Empress as a mother-in-law...’

‘Who wouldn’t?’ I laughed. ‘Still, I’m sure everything will work out for the best. I wouldn’t worry too much.’

‘Said by a man who’s not been ordered to marry this Ren Loh,’ said Lefe bitterly.

What could I say?




Chapter 02 Lefe’s Plan




01

I spent the following day, the first of the two twilight days, at the palace working through the regiment’s paperwork in my role as Assistant Regimental Historian in the Palace Guard. The second twilight day found me in my office at the University, collecting my student’s bright days’ assignments, reading journals and updating my lecture notes. My classes resumed on the following day, the first rain day. I taught three classes during the 12 darkest days of the season, one a day in rotation.

The first was “New Science, Inventions, and Thought,” which offered an overview of scientific and industrial advances in my homeland of Lankara. The second was “New Science and the Elder Civilization” which examined the Elder Civilization in the light of Lankara’s archaeological and technical approach to the subject. My third class, “The Dark and Dawn Classics Reconsidered,” was my advanced level course where I lectured on my current research into the original Nine Sages’ texts and the possible implications of the wording of these original texts in the light of our new understanding of the Elder Civilization. It was the one dearest to my heart and life’s work, but I’ll say no more on it, since once I start, I have a hard time stopping.

While many classes were taught throughout the season, I taught only during the dark days. This arrangement freed me during the bright and twilight days to conduct my research. This research involved copying and studying ancient manuscripts, carefully preserved in the Blue Order libraries, within several days walking distance of Azera. I assigned readings and papers to keep my students amused while I pursued my research. I worked long hours in the dark days, but there was little else to do when the world was lit only by the Blue Lantern.




02

I was dozing when the time-bell of Birdsong Square tolled two deep toned clangs marking the beginning of the day’s second quarter. Mist and rain had crept over Azera while I slept, so it was pitch black in my small sleeping room, even though the dark sleep curtains were not pulled close. With plenty of student papers to read, I fumbled for my Lankarian spark-torch on the floor beside me and rolled out of bed. I began my day by shadow boxing in the falling rain on the roof.

After drying off and breakfasting on tea and hot rice porridge, I shoved the last of my lecture notes into my satchel, donned an oiled canvas poncho, my hat, and collecting my short, city walking stick stepped out, pausing briefly to lock the door behind me. I then made my way down the dark stairs with the help of my spark-torch, to the dark, damp and streaming wet streets of Azera. Unlike Kara, Azera had no street lights. It relied solely on the pale light of the Blue Lantern that hung high in the eastern firmament to illuminate its dark day streets. So when the rain came, Azerians had to navigate their nearly pitch black city by counting streets and noting familiar shops and light patterns. Some used small oil lanterns to light their way. I had my spark-torch in my pocket if needed, but for the most part I just followed the vague figure before me, passing from one glistening pool of shop window light to the next, counting the streets, and boulevards as I crossed them. All wagons and carts carried lit lanterns which made crossing the streets relatively safe, though travel in the rain days is always somewhat of an adventure. It was, however, a familiar part of Azera life.

My journey to the University took me across six streets, a boulevard, and one street north – a quarter of an hour’s walk. The University sits on a very large square and consists of eight long, five story tall buildings set around a central quad and playing fields. It is hard to miss even in the black rain days.

I spent several hours reading the first of the papers I had assigned before heading down to the lecture room to deliver a long lecture on Lankara’s rail system expansion, followed by a class discussion until the midday time-bell. After an hour’s break, I tutored three students in my office for an hour each, and then had an hour’s open office, reading more student papers between the appearances of several of my students bringing me yet more papers to read.

I closed shop half an hour after the hour-bell rang three deep and five light tolls, and walked across the rain dark quad to the gym for some stick-fighting with friends. After an hour’s workout, I set out for Scholars’ Street to dine. The University is a very social establishment, and the lively street surrounding the University, known as Scholars’ Street, was lined with eating, tea, and drinking establishments, various clubs, shops, and boarding houses – all devoted to the needs and whims of students and scholars. I dined alone in one of the quiet tea houses and then drifted on to my scholars’ club to pass the hours in reading and in quiet conversations with my fellow scholars. Lefe, very much a scholar despite his current position a Colonel of the Palace Guards, often looked into the club, but did not show up, so, a little after the fourth hour of the last quarter, I was weary enough to call it a day and made my damp way home to sleep – a day in the usual pattern of my dark days life.




03

Lefe’s marriage was announced on the day after the rains ended and it was the talk of the city, since its implications were not lost on the city’s cosmopolitan population. Three days later, he slipped into my dimly lit office as I was closing shop.

‘Care for a bout of stick & staff and dinner afterwards, Kel?’

‘Why, yes, of course. Greetings, Lefe. Just let me lock up and we can be on our way.’

We talked of this and that, but not of his engagement as we walked across the quad to the gym. Since my first days in Azera, Lefe and I had been practicing stick & staff fighting in the University gym. Indeed, that was our first bond, and by now we could go through the routines in our sleep. Normally, our sticks clacked against each other, rat-tat-rat-tat-tat, moving from one familiar routine to the next, but this was not a good session. Lefe apologized several times, admitting that his mind was not quite as focused as it should be. In our final round of free fighting I found that I had to be careful not to wack him too hard, so slow were his reactions – a reversal of our usual roles, since he was just a little better than me, and always had been. In any event, we worked up a sweat and an appetite. A quick plunge into the pool washed away the sweat, and we crossed Scholar’s Street to eat at one of its more expensive, and thus quieter eating houses.

Since being cheerful in public was considered polite, Lefe was cheerful over the meal. Lefe, as I have said, was naturally a cheerful person, so his cheerfulness was almost never a mask of politeness, but it seemed to be on this day. Over the meal, this mask would slip a bit when we skirted the subject of his forthcoming marriage. He drank more wine than usual and when we moved on to the scholar’s club he found a quiet corner in the large, dim lit lounge to talk.

‘My father tells me that my bride-to-be is on her way here. Our couriers from Jasmyna report that the caravan left Jasmyna on the 16th, which was a twilight day in Jasmyna. And please note, three days before I was even told I had a bride-to-be!’

‘So when can you expect her to arrive?’ Having arrived from Lankara on the rail line between Kara and Azera, a journey of two days, I had no idea how long a horse drawn caravan would need to make the journey from Jasmyna.

‘At the standard caravan pace of 10 leagues a day, it’d be nearly a full season’s journey. With coaches, they might travel faster, but they’ll have to deal with traveling in the rain and dark days which will slow even coaches down. So… all in all, I still expect them to take a season to travel here, arriving between the 16th to the 18th of next season. The Assembly of Nobles will already be in session…’ he paused and looked off into space for a time. ‘Giving me time to make alternative arrangements.’

‘Alternative arrangements? Such as?’

He shrugged. ‘That depends…’ And then turning to me, he said in a low voice. ‘I’ve no intention of marrying this Ren Loh, come what may. Blast duty! Duty, loyalty, responsibility, are all fine. I understand and respect those qualities. I would like to think that I possess them. But, they need to flow in both directions. Had I been asked to meet this Ren Loh, show her around, and get to know her with the idea of perhaps taking her as my bride for the sake of the Azere… Well, that would’ve been one thing. I would have been treated as a person, not as a pawn. If left to my choice, my honor, I would have taken duty, loyalty, and responsibility into account and, perhaps, I would’ve been willing to sacrifice a great deal of happiness, if I thought a marriage to Ren Loh might succeed at some level. But instead, I was treated as a pawn, and ordered to marry some unknown creature. Well, if I’m treated as being irresponsible, I’ll play the part...’

He paused, and considered what he wanted to say next. There was no cheerfulness about him now. He leaned closer.

‘This must remain strictly between us, Kel,’ he began, and waited for my acceptance.

‘Yes, if you wish.’

‘I am due to make my customary inspection rounds of the Mayaday and Kanitara detachments of the Guards Regiment within the next season or two. I shall leave Azera as soon as the trade treaty is ratified, and simply not return. After my inspection of the Kanitara outpost, I can continue on to Lankara, which is why I am burdening you with this knowledge.’

‘How so?’

‘As you know, I have long talked of taking up the mantel of a scholar, once I reached my middle seasons. Colonel of the Palace Guards is fine for now, but I did not spend years in the University studying geography and economics to be a guardsman all my life. So, I would very much appreciate it, when the time comes, if you would provide me with some practical advice on the universities of Lankara, and, if you can see it clear, a letter of introduction as well.’

‘Yes, of course. I’d have no hesitation of not only introducing you, but praising your scholarly and firsthand knowledge of the geography and economy of the lands under the Blue Lantern. I’m sure you could find a teaching position in one of the universities with your expertise. But… But could you really do it?’

‘Yes, I believe I could. I believe I will.’

‘Will your love follow you?’

‘I believe she will – though perhaps not right away. I’d not want her to be stained with my scandal. She could join me later, once I’ve established myself in Lankara and have been forgotten here.’

I considered Lefe for a while as he sat staring into his cup of tea.

‘Perhaps you should leave on your inspection tour before the next bright days – if you are serious about avoiding this marriage.’

‘Why?’ he asked, glancing at me.

‘Because, if you leave before you meet her, you’ll be acting on the principle. But if you wait until after you meet her, then it could – and likely would – be seen as a personal snub to both the bride-to-be, and the Empress of Jasmyne, creating a far more serious diplomatic crisis. Plus, if she isn’t a stunning beauty, you might look rather petty, instead of sacrificing all for true love.’

He shook his head. ‘I take your point. But it is not possible. The Assembly of Nobles needs to ratify the treaty. A scandal prior to its ratification might put the treaty in jeopardy. My father would certainly consider that treason since he sees the trade treaty as an essential step in bringing the Jasmyne Empire under the rule of the Blue Throne. The treaty is what will put him among the great Prime Consuls of Azere. You history chaps will write volumes about him and his wisdom and foresight. He would never forgive me for shoving a lance into the wheels of his greatest triumph.’

I gave him a long look, sighed and shook my head. ‘Then, my dear friend, I can see no way out. I fear that you are… well, shall we say, fated to marry Ren Loh. I know you well enough to know that duty aside, you are simply too kindhearted to cast the poor girl aside. A girl who is likely no more eager for this marriage than you are, but who has been sent on a dark day’s journey of more than 300 leagues to do it.’

He emptied his tea cup and setting it down, said, ‘If that is the case, at least I will not be breaking her heart when I run. And if I am as kindhearted as you say I am, how can I bring myself to break the heart of someone so very dear to me, and my own heart as well?’ he added with a challenging glance.

I could only shrug and say, ‘In that case, I guess we must place our trust in a kindhearted fate.’ And good luck with that, I added silently.




04

Several days later found me walking out beyond the city walls to the Lankarian rail line station to meet uncle Han Cam, the sales manager of Cam Industries, and six of his staff. They were due to arrive from Kara with several dozen assorted crates of oil-engines, generators, and spark-motors to exhibit at the Lankarian Science and Industry Exposition that would run throughout the following season. After greeting them and seeing the crates to the Great Eastern Hall, we ate a late dinner, over which Uncle Han brought me up to date on the lives of my family back home.

Lankara may be a small nation to the far north, but, as I mentioned, we had evolved into a new way of thinking and living. Our scientists and engineers were studying the rare mechanical relics of the Elder Civilization and they were slowly prying a few of their secrets out of what was left of these mysterious machines. While our best machines were primitive compared to those of the Elder Civilization, they were still more advanced than those of the other five large nations of our world. In order to promote our inventions and businesses, every 30 seasons, Lankara stages a great exhibition of our finest science and industrial products in the Great Eastern Hall of Azera. This exhibition corresponds, not coincidentally, to the gathering of the leaders of the Azere’s nations and peoples for the Assembly of Nobles who arrive in Azera every 30 seasons to conduct the business of state that the Prime Consul cannot do on his own.

The extended Cam family operates several concerns relating to the design and manufacture of various sorts of oil burning engines, spark-energy generators and spark-engines. While the current Azerian markets for these products is not large, all of our potential customers – the nobles and wealthy merchants of the empire – would certainly tour the expo while they were in town, giving the old firm a chance to showcase our products and hopefully pick up some orders. Uncle Han had great hopes for our line of spark-energy generators, since the wealthy were now rapidly adopting spark-lights for their residences, and possibly spark-motors for manufacturing concerns as well.

Since I’d not yet found the time to return home, these expos – this would be my third – were my only opportunity to show the family that I’d not quite forgotten them. And to this end, I spent as much time as I could spare from my teaching duties with them – helping them set up their booth in the great hall, and showing them around town when they were finished for the day. So between my classes and my Lankarian family and friends, the dark days flew by.




Chapter 03 Ren Loh




01

The day after my last class of the season, the 3rd, found me in the grey-lit stable yard of the Palace Guard standing at the head of Moll, the mild regimental horse who usually drew the short straw to have me as her rider. It was early – the first hour of the second quarter – and bitingly cold. Though the eastern horizon glowed with the approaching Yellow Lantern, it was still two days from full light so it was still a very grey and cold day. Lefe had invited me to ride with him, Lieutenant Torn, and nine troopers, out to his family’s sprawling steppe-farm beyond the ring hills – a five hours’ journey in the saddle. The Lieutenant and the nine troopers would be relieving the estate’s current guard detachment. Lefe and I would linger there for a day to rest the horses, and enjoy the lush comforts of the family’s great mansion, though I was more eager to continue my exploration of the shelves and drawers of the family’s library in search of ancient manuscripts than enjoy its lush comforts. I’d already found several manuscripts in my previous visits and there were still many more shelves to search. While I much preferred to travel on foot, the lure of the Sol library was too great to resist, which is why I was standing alongside Captain Larc, Lieutenant Torn, the nine replacement troopers, and our patient mounts, awaiting on the arrival of Colonel Sol. He had yet to make his appearance, but his groom had his horse ready for him.

We gossiped quietly as our breaths formed pale blue clouds of steam around us. And we stomped our feet and clapped our gloved hands to keep the blood flowing to ward off the sharp chill of 12 days of darkness.

Lefe had no more strolled into the stable yard, his long riding coat still unbuttoned, when a guardsman on a horse came racing through the gateway. He reined in sharply, and leaped off his mount in one smooth motion, saluting Colonel Sol as he landed.

‘Sir. Trooper Las of the Eastern Gate Signal Station, reporting sir,’ he rapped.

‘Yes, Trooper?’

‘Sir, the Nations Street outpost on the eastern ridge signaled that a column of 33 Jasmyne lancers and two fast carriages passed their outpost escorting the daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne. They should arrive at the gates of Contere within half of an hour.’

Lefe starred at him dumbfounded for a second. ‘Not possible. The most recent report I saw had them still 13 days away in Mirra.’

To this trooper Las had no reply.

‘A detachment of lancers and two fast carriages is hardly the whole of the caravan. It must be a fast traveling detachment sent ahead to shorten the journey for the bride-to-be,’ suggested Captain Larc.

‘Ahh… A very eager bride,’ I muttered, very softly. Given the stricken look on Lefe’s faintly blue-lit face, I confined my comment to Moll’s ear, who snickered.

‘We must assume so,’ sighed Lefe. ‘Captain Larc, please turn out as much of the regiment you can in half an hour and stand by at the Eastern Gate to await our arrival. And inform my parents that the bride they ordered has arrived,’ he added, rather bitterly.

‘Yes, sir,’ Captain Larc snapped, turned, and sprinted for the barracks.

‘Mount up! Ride along with us, Kel. We must intercept the column before it reaches Contere, and then slow them down a bit to give the honor guard time to deploy.’

‘Is that necessary?’ I asked.

‘Yes, yes, we must show some sort of respect and welcome to this blighted daughter of an Empress. Mount up. We’ve not a minute to waste.’

I was hardly necessary, but curious enough to mount Moll alongside the rest of the troopers and follow Lefe out of the stable gate and on to the Grand Boulevard. The center lane of the city’s grandest boulevard was reserved for troops and court officials, so that we had free rein to race the length of it without having to dodge in and out of the many wagons, carts, and carriages that formed a slowly moving stream of grey shapes and multi-colored lanterns. With Lefe in the lead, and the corporal of the detachment, horn in hand, blowing “charge” to warn crossing wagons, carts and pedestrians of our approach, we gave leave to the horses to show just how fast, long, and low they could travel. I clung for dear life, as Moll, with a hitherto unsuspected streak of pride, seemed to determined to run with the fleetest of her stablemates. Groups of pedestrians crossing the street scattered before us, and I believe that we ended up soaring over several pedestrians and a rickshaw, frozen in place by the shock of the sight of the charging detachment. We made the Eastern Gate in under two minutes, and once beyond the old city wall, it took us less than two more to reach the Lankara Road, a wide caravan road that stretched north, all the way to Kara.

The broad, pale road was deserted. The trade that traveled during the dark days, traveled only in large caravans that slowly collected in the central plaza of the caravan port of Contere, a league to the south. With the broad, pale blue-grey highway open to us, we wheeled and raced towards Contere, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. Contere was Azera’s caravan, commercial, industrial, and market suburb. Nations Street, spanning Azere east to west, crossed the Lankara and the Mayaday caravan roads in Contere’s central plaza. With the approach of the bright days, the plaza would surely be packed with caravan wagons, carts, and pack horses, slowly sorting themselves out into caravans while waiting for the day to grow bright enough to comfortably take to the road. In addition, the streets leading to the plaza would be filled with stalls and thick with traders and travelers – all this confusion would make for a very rude and irksome welcome for the Empress’s daughter.

Halfway to Contere, Lefe pulled up and wheeling left, said, ‘This way, men.’

He led us down a narrow residential street under wide-spreading trees and lined by low walled suburban residences set in shadowy gardens. A few minutes later, the villas gave way to garden market fields and not long after that, we reached Nations Street, half a league to the east of Contere.

Nations Street was also deserted. All around us, in the grey twilight, lay the neat vegetable fields of the market gardens that fed Azera. They stretched away, dormant and untended, divided by woven wicker fences, dotted with storage sheds and glass seedling houses glowing in the twilight. Here and there, the windows of the poured stone cottages glowed gold from the oil lamps inside. Only the occasional quacking of domestic ducks and geese, and the bark of a guard dog, broke the cold, hollow silence. All in all, a rather bleak place to meet a bride, but given the circumstances, perhaps appropriate.

Standing in his stirrups, Lefe surveyed the caravan road as it rose up the gentle slope towards the forested ring of hills to the east. ‘That looks to be them,’ he said, pointing up the pale line of the road to a darker line less than half a league away. ‘Form up, we might as well wait for them here. Let’s catch our breaths and try to look our serene best.’

We had ten minutes to wait, so we, save perhaps, Lefe, were pretty serene, and very chilled by the time the column of Jasmyne lancers approached within several hundred paces. Spying our uniform long coats, they slowed to a sedate walk and then, at a hundred paces, the leading officer raised his hand and they came to a stop.

‘Keep me company, Old Teacher,’ Lefe said quietly, and started forward to greet the Jasmyne lancers and his bride-to-be.

The Jasmyne officer on his pale horse started forward as well, tall, trim, straight backed in a long coat of what would be dun-gold in the bright days. His lance, with ribbons fluttering at its tip, was angled in a holster behind him on his right side. A sword belt crossed over his right shoulder to the scabbard low on his left hip. He wore his forage cap over closely-cropped hair, jauntily angled just above his right ear in the universally approved fashion of young and proud troopers. As he drew near I noted the single gold circle on each shoulder – a mere lieutenant. A staff officer, I suspected, since he wore a pair of thick, round rimmed spectacles. Still, he rode his horse like he was born to it, and only reined it in when his and our horses were nose to nose.


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