Category Archives: The Uncrowned King
He stood in the amphitheater next to the chained traitor, listening to the wind whistle through the silent city. It was the largest crowd he had ever rallied: they stood shoulder to shoulder, jostling and shoving in a claustrophobic mass, but every single one, even the most unruly of the wild children, was silent as the Lady Spring. He breathed deeply. They were packed in tight in-between the pillars done in the marbleman style, but even though the Seat of the King bore their mark, the marblemen owned the city no longer.
Beside him, the hounds growled. The three needed no leashes, and he needed no tabula. Their bond was deeper than that. Aurudos, fire leaking from her panting mouth, patrolled the floor of the amphitheater; the crowd, packed though it might be, did not dare intrude on his or the hounds’ space. Viridos, thin and lanky, kept watchful eyes on the assembled, ready to at a moment’s notice sniff out the assassins and spies and traitors in their midst. Finally, Candidos stood by the traitor’s side, still as ice, keeping the air around him so cold that the manacles had stuck solid to his frigid skin.
He took one last look at the traitor, then turned to his people. He had kept them waiting long enough.
“Citizens of the Seat,” said Banden Ironhide. “I speak now as one of you.”
Stony faces and closed lips greeted him. It did not concern Banden. It was a chilly autumn morning, yet these people had attended of their own volition. They would listen. If they didn’t want to, at least they needed to. The revolutionaries inside all of them did not yet slumber.
“There are those who say I am not, those who say that I am a from-Fallow elite, those who say I have simply inherited the mantle of Albumere’s long line of bloody, usurper kings. They say I grew up in the shadow of the palace, as a pampered favorite of the man I killed three years ago.” Banden took a deep breath. “They are partially correct.”
“Once I worked in the palace of the king, first as a servant, then an advisor. This man, this king, was the third marbleman general to bear the name Cecis. He dined daily on fresh fruit from Do Yash and succulent boar hunted from Sivnag. He was given the best of pleasure-slaves from Jhidnu every night to entertain him. He had the staunchest marble soldiers to protect him, and could claim the tabula of any man or beast on Albumere. I stood by his side and watched as he dined, and supped, and celebrated, and as I watched I realized this man, this king, was the poorest man I had ever known.”
Banden remembered Cecis, his thin blond hair and his sallow skin. He remembered the shock in the old king’s eyes when Banden commanded the hounds to hold him down. He had been a pathetic man, a weak man, and a foolish man: never, however, a bad man.
“Why was he poor? Because he was a slave. He was slave to neither a man nor a woman. He was not even slave to the realm. This man, this king, was slave to a system, and that system had been infected by complacency. It was a system who had lost the blessing of the gods, whose heel crushed the souls of hundreds daily, whose hands dripped with the blood of children. Of children.”
Banden held his arm up, hand poised as if he gripped a human heart, and cast his gaze over the entire crowd.
“Who denies it? Who denies the horrors committed on Albumere under the rule of this man, this king? And yet, for all the atrocities done in the name of King Cecis the Third, there was no sin greater than complacency. I grew up in the palace of the king! I was as much one of them then as I am one of you now! For years, I thought the system could be changed within the system; for years, I sang the ditty of reform into the ears of his councilors and advisors; for years, my sweet little ladybird’s song was silenced.”
There was silence again now. Banden’s eyes roamed over the breathless masses, just waiting for their deliverance.
“Eventually, the king grew tired of the twittering of his caged bird. He stirred just once from his indolent slumber to lock me away and silence me. I was too valuable to them, though; they could not kill me. They locked me in a pit so deep and so dark that no one would hear me scream. In that pit, lesser men mistook the echoes of their own thoughts as the voices of the Ladies. I heard something different.”
“I heard a song: in the dark of a cell, in the depths of the night, a song from the day when man first laid hands on a tabula and said, ‘This is mine.’ It is a song of lament. It is sung in the dry, dusty fields of Alswell, by the slave worker. It is sung in the polluted, criminal streets of Jhidnu, by the slave watchman. It is sung in the stifling, roiling galleys of Da’atoa, by the slave sailor. It is sung in the slums and the ghettoes and the tenements, by babes in their cribs and old men on their deathbeds. It is the song of revolution, and it grows louder every day.”
He could see them whispering to each other now. A low buzz surrounded him, and Banden knew he had them. He felt their energy, and rode it upwards, his voice growing in power and strength.
“In that cell, I realized that our masters had grown complacent. I lifted my nose to the air and smelled the fetid scent of a city infected with corruption and decay. And when I saw my warden next, I promised him: his complacency would be purged. His idleness would be punished. His necrotic flesh would be gouged out with a hot knife. I saw in the darkness of that cell a world brighter than any Albumere has ever been graced with, and it began here, in this city, the city at the center of the world.”
Banden opened his arms wide and paced around the edge of the amphitheater floor.
“Who are we? Are we towermen, who huddle in dim forges and sew their lips shut to keep the secrets of a forgotten myth? Are we clansmen, who worship false gods and dance like brutes under the treacherous stars? Are we marshmen, who lace their mud-smeared faces with false smiles and empty promises? No! We are the citizens of the Seat of the King! We are our own people, and we will no longer host twelve bickering nations who see our city as the battleground for their petty squabbles!”
The buzz was rising. The people were talking. The people were thinking.
“I heard in that cell the song of revolution, this revolution, for this is the revolution of the free! This is the revolution of every man, woman, and child who refuses to participate in the daily harvest of a field watered with blood. This is the revolution of a thousand singular voices that demand independence from a world that hates them! This is the revolution of the individual who will not let some indolent aristocrat decide how he will burn! This is the revolution that BEGINS WITH YOU!”
They needed to be reminded. They needed to remember why this rebellion had begun in the first place, why they had taken this city for themselves, why they needed to pass to Albumere the spark they had ignited before the cruelty of the world snuffed them out.
“Citizens of the Seat! Citizens of Albumere!” shouted Banden, his arms held out to the crowd, and fervor seemed to run through them like wildfire. “No kings! No queens!”
“NO KINGS,” echoed a chorus that rang throughout the whole city. “NO QUEENS.”
“We will never be slaves again!”
“NEVER AGAIN,” they chanted in unison.
“This is the revolution that begins with you!” Banden repeated. He turned to the man in chains, kneeling next to him. “And this is the revolution that ends with him!”
And the crowd roared for the traitor’s blood.
“This man served under the old king, the last king. He witnessed what I witnessed. He knew what I knew. And he. Did. Nothing. This man’s sin is not violence. It is not greed. It is not lust. It is complacency.” Banden turned as he talked, so he could face the whole amphitheater. “Citizens of the Seat! The time for judgment has come! Mercy? Or death?”
It began softly, and slowly, but the more people took on the chant the quicker it spread. Banden almost did not bother listening. He knew people. He knew what they wanted, and he knew what the world demanded of him.
“Death it is,” said Banden, circling around to the traitor. He held the frigid handle of the official’s old hammer. It was fitting, to do the deed with the man’s own weapon.
“M…m…” the man stuttered through chattering teeth. Banden paused. He motioned to his hounds to take a step back, and they did.
“Murderer,” the man whispered, as the color returned temporarily to his cheeks. He did his best to meet Banden’s eyes. “You murderer.”
Banden met his gaze coldly. “Better to take a man’s life than his freedom,” said Banden, and he swung.
This first swing didn’t do it. Banden aimed directly for the pedestal in front of him, but even as the hammer landed squarely on the tabula, the disk barely budged. A spasm of pain crossed the traitor’s face, but he still glared at Banden defiantly. Banden drew the hammer back and swung again.
A noticeable crack appeared on the disk, and the traitor bent double, gritting his teeth to hold back a scream. His face stony and immobile, Banden drew his sweating arms back for a third swing. He did not enjoy this work, but it had to be done.
The man really did scream out loud this time. Banden flexed his fingers. Four swings to kill this man. One for each Lady. It was a good omen.
The hammer came down for the fourth and final time, and the tabula shattered with an audible crack. The man was thrown backwards as if hit by some invisible force, and Banden planted his feet and swayed as he absorbed the same unseen impact. Not a leaf or a scrap of cloth even twitched at the shattering of the tabula, though.
He looked at the corpse on the ground, and felt a cold in his chest. His hands were clammy with more than just the exertion of holding the hammer.
But as Banden let the hammer drop from his hands, the people cheered, and he knew he had done the right thing.
He whistled for his hounds as he walked away, while volunteer assistants cleared the body and took the weapon away for storage. There was no blood to clean, no mess and no fuss. All they had to do was sweep away the corpse and the shattered tabula. Banden’s preferred method of execution embodied all the principles of the revolution: cleanliness, efficiency, and utility.
The assistants had also prepared a palanquin for him, and while it would be helpful to keep him separate from the crowds, Banden feared it would encourage idolatry. He waved them away as they opened the curtains to the box for him, and just to make his point clear Aurudos barked and snarled at them, lips curled back to reveal prominent fangs. They backed away without another word. No, he would walk in the streets as equal as any other man.
All the same, as he walked past the gathered crowd, they parted deferentially to him. Banden wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be proud of himself or disappointed in them. Perhaps both. He had grown used to it by now, though. There was no point in fighting it, only directing it.
His leather boots had long ago been worn down to the soles, and he could feel the street stones beneath his feet as he walked. It made him feel closer to the city somehow. The hounds padded along beside him, their claws clicking on the cobblestones. His fellow citizens bowed their heads as he passed: “Banden,” they muttered. “Ironhide, sir.” They took care not to call him king within earshot, but he knew they all said it.
He was not their king. Kings were slaves, and now, in the Fifth Age of Kings, in the new city that was once called the Seat of the King, there would be no more slaves.
Banden closed his eyes as he walked. He knew where the streets led. He knew this city as intimately and closely as he knew his own soul. He, like all the others that had been stirred to revolution, belonged to this city.
There was no name for a citizen of the Seat. Those from Da’atoa were saltmen, those from Mont Don were mountainmen, and those from Shira Hay were plainsmen, but there was no such name for those from the Seat of the King. There had never been a need. Albumere had Thirteen Great Cities but only twelve nations; the Seat of the King had always really been twelve cities melded into one, ethnic and factional lines drawn clearly in the streets. The ones that had never belonged to one of those factions were ostracized, ignored, and brutalized, and the old regime had done nothing about it. The King had been so intent on juggling the wants and needs of the rest of Albumere that he forgot about the people living beneath his nose.
Banden flexed his fingers. Cecis had paid for that in the end.
He looked around him as he walked. Flags of the revolution, green and white, dangled from the roofs, stirring slightly in the brisk autumn wind. An overcast sky loomed over the Seat; Viridos sniffed and growled as she looked upwards. A storm was coming.
The street was empty as Banden walked towards the Pale Temple. It was one of his favorite haunts, and the city knew it; few came to the temple to pray to the Ladies anymore, and many more came to the temple to pray to him. Today, however, it seemed that his services were not needed. He would be alone.
Banden traced the pillar, carved from marble, as he walked inside. Once the Pale Temple had been a place for both the politicians and the pious, but that had ended with Banden’s revolution.
“Behave yourselves,” said Banden, as he went into the temple. The three hounds whined but bowed their heads and obeyed.
His footsteps echoed under the high-vaulted ceiling. Twelve banners, one for each of the nations, dangled from the ceiling, and at the center of the temple stood four altars, one for each of the Ladies.
There was no pontiff in attendance here anymore. Banden was alone as he knelt before the statue. It was not so large; the statue could have just been a woman frozen in stone. Her chiseled features were high, haughty, and proud, and even when she was carved from stone her body appeared smooth as silk. She stood with her feet firmly planted, her arms by her sides, her hands balled into fists, her ladybird wings splayed out like a feathered mosaic.
She was the Lady Spring: the Beauty on High, the Unbowed and Untouched, the Ever Silent. She was goddess of perfection, control, chance, and appearances. She was the oldest and most terrible of the Ladies Four.
Banden knelt on the stone floor and prayed to her.
“We have turned towards Alswell,” said Banden, clasping his hands together. “That place of slaves, of pain, of misery. It shall be the first nation to be cleansed. The other nations are scared of us, of what we have done.” Banden blinked. “No. Not the other nations. Those who claim power in the other nations. The duarchs, the White Table, the plutocrats, the thunder chieftains. The old regime. The people are with us. The people yearn to be free.”
He waited for an answer, but of all the Ladies, the Lady Spring was the worst to wait for. She never spoke to any mortal.
“The city is afraid. The city is…hungry.” Banden rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It has been a long three years. The world turns slowly, even when it is turning over.” Banden sighed. “I was prepared for this. I knew the revolution would not happen in one night.”
There was no answer. Candidos slumped onto the floor and whined.
“I have done the right thing. I have done the right thing. Bad blood must be spilled before Albumere can be cured of its sickness.” Banden looked up, his eyes watering. “I have lost so many, Lady. Their bodies have left us. Their hearts have left us. I have had to bury so many of them. All this suffering…it shall be worth it, won’t it?”
The silence was torturous. Banden bowed his head. He remembered the pit, and what he heard in there. Lesser men mistook their own thoughts for the voices of the gods.
Banden, on the other hand, knew the difference.
He heard footsteps.
Banden looked up, and he felt warmth welling up from inside his gut. The hounds whined and backed away as the Lady approached him. Banden’s mouth was just slightly open, but his eloquent tongue had been arrested by a warm fog that seemed to envelop his mind.
Her hips swayed as she walked; her body shifted with a sensual elegance that came only with complete and total confidence in who she was and what she was meant to do.
“You came back,” he croaked.
The Lady Spring, in full flesh and blood, considered Banden. Her features were still proud, but the stone orbs where her eyes had once been now had pupils and irises. Her gaze was hard but not cold.
Banden rose shakily to his feet. He took a step toward the Lady Spring, but before he had even lifted his foot off the ground the Lady put a hand on his shoulder and forced him to his knees.
“Shall it be worth it?” whispered Banden, tears in his eyes. “Have I done the right thing?”
The Lady Spring leaned in close to him. His breath caught in his throat. He could feel the heat of her breath on his cheek, smell spring flowers and fresh grass and a heady perfume he could not identify. Her hair was crowned with four lilies, and the wings on her back hummed, an iridescent collage of moving colors.
She raised her arm, and her bare shoulders shone in the dim light. The shawl that draped her forearms rippled like water as she pointed upward. Banden was loathe to tear his eyes away from the perfect vision before him, but he followed her finger towards the banner she pointed to.
“Alswell,” he whispered, staring at the emblem of the shield with crossed scythes. “You want me to-.”
He didn’t get to finish, as the Lady Spring held his chin and turned his head to face her. She stroked his cheek with one finger, and Banden shuddered, closing his eyes and opening his mouth at the electric rush. Her lips just barely grazed his forehead, the ghost of a touch, but where she touched him his skin tingled and his pulse pounded. Her fingers were silk whispers as they traced their way across his face, down his neck, and onto his chest. His tunic felt like a paltry thing, to stand in the way between him and such majesty.
Then he opened his eyes, and the statue of the Lady Spring stood before him, cold and still and motionless. It had not moved, although Banden was flushed and breathless. Nothing held him anymore.
The hounds emerged from their hiding places, as Banden gripped his fist. The revolution would continue. The song would grow louder. He would free the souls of Albumere.
“I will come back,” he said, as he walked away.
He could only hope she would, too.