Fiction in response to Sustainable Cities and Communities
By Caroline Sun
I want a beard like his. I examine the painting critically, narrowing my eyes thoughtfully.
The portrait, no doubt painted by one of the finest artists in the Empire, depicts the face of a middle-aged noble sporting a bushy brown beard. His strong, defined chin is raised haughtily and his dark, deep-set eyes glare down at me.
Raising a hand to my own face, I stroke my chin thoughtfully. Two weeks since my last shave, and yet any sign of a beard refuses to grow, leaving me with what I could barely call stubble. More like a shadow.
I am jolted from my thoughts by a noise echoing throughout the corridor, the sharp clicking of shoes against a marble floor. An Elite, by the sound of it. They were always rushing around in those fancy shoes of theirs, meddling in everyone’s business.
As the footsteps grow louder, I turn away from the painting. Even if the Elites were petty and annoying, they were still the chief advisors of the King. I couldn’t be seen dawdling. With one last glance, I leave the painting behind.
Can’t be caught slacking on duty, I think to myself. Not today. Especially not today.
I rest a hand on the gun hanging from my hip, fingers curling around the cool metal. Like always, the feel of the slick, smooth surface under my fingertips calms me down. I let out a breath, realizing only now that I had been holding it.
Tilting my head to the left, I glance behind me. However, that Elite must have been in a hurry, because all I can see is the elongated shadow of my retreating form.
* * *
“My name is Aleksander Dakomel, and I am a subject of the Empire, loyal to His Majesty King Nimerias III. I will serve the Empire, our proud and nourishing mother, from my place as a member of the Royal Protection Corps. I devote myself to executing any and all demands required of me, in order to protect the Empire and the future it brings.”
I mutter the Pledge to myself, over and over again. It is my mantra. One might think me crazy. Insane, even. But the Pledge is the basis of my existence. The meaning of my life, if you will.
Every time I utter these words, I am brought back to that fateful day years ago, when I first arrived at the castle. The King, a kind and fair man, takes in orphans from his city to raise and train as soldiers. Without him, I would no doubt be some poor farmer boy out in the country, slaving away for the rest of my life, the fate befalling most orphans.
For this, I owe him my life.
I walk back and forth on the pavement, eyes flitting back and forth for any sign of danger, any immediate threat. Yes, I think proudly. I am always alert on duty, head awake and gun at the ready. I’d like to see the fool that’d try to take me off-guard.
Behind me is the entrance to the royal castle, the shimmering crystal walls inlaid with gems and semi-precious stones that twinkled in the sunlight. This is always my favorite post. How proud would my parents be if they could see me now, guarding the doors of the royal castle.
Of course, I concede, this entrance is merely ceremonial. The King and Queen prefer the more private entrance at the back of the castle, away from the eyes of the public.
From my post here at the front of the castle, I can see almost all of the surrounding city. Malsena, the capital of the Empire and home to the royal family, is sprawled across the low hills surrounding the castle.
From my position right now, I am facing the Ruby Sector, housing all the nobles that attend daily business at the castle. Tall, elegant mansions line the winding streets of the sector, stretching away into the distance.
I notice that the houses closest to the castle are considerably grander, no doubt indicating the most important nobles. Many of the mansions are decorated with intricate gemstones set into the walls, no doubt to show off family wealth.
One particular mansion, dotted with red rubies, is surrounded by a wall of dark green bushes, each sculpted to look like a figure.
I scoff. Silly nobles. Always spending their money on frivolous gifts, obsessed with beauty.
“There are more important things to worry about,” I mutter, giving my gun a squeeze.
As I continue to look out over the city, I notice a column of dark grey smoke rising in the distance. A jolt of alarm runs through me. Fire? So close to the capital? Then I realize where the smoke is coming from.
Any thoughts of worry leave my mind as quickly as they came. Gray Town is a shanty-town built on the edge of fair Malsena, inhabited by lower-class workers who provide for the royal capital.
The “shanties,” as we call them, do everything from making fabric to producing energy for the buildings in the city. In exchange for their hard work, the King provides them with a place to sleep, food to eat, and water to drink. Every month, he sends them a fifth of our food supply, as well as a quarter of our water supply.
As expected from the generous King, willing to waste precious resources on people as worthless as shanties.
And how do they repay us? By creating more of their ilk to stain our cities. Reports state that their population has risen steadily in the past few years, eclipsing that of Malsena by more than double. Soon the small town will have to be expanded in order to accommodate everyone.
I have already heard rumors about the human density in Gray Town, how sometimes up to ten people sleep in a room. How repulsive. Imagine sharing a room with nine other gross, smelly men who probably don’t even know how to clean themselves, much less read or write.
A few hours later, as the setting sun casts its dying glow across the city, I make my final rounds. Yawning, I allow myself to finally relax, rolling my stiff shoulders to loosen the tense muscles. My shift was over. I release the gun at my side. With one last glance at the city spread out behind me, I turn and head back into the castle.
Just as I step onto the polished marble, a loud blaring noise fills the silence. I pause, waiting. Once again, that shrill, screeching siren. I stand rooted to the spot, too shocked to move. Above me, the crystal chandelier spins slowly.
Glancing around, I blink rapidly to clear my head. My hand once again clutches the familiar handle of the gun, seeking comfort in the smooth, soothing surface. When the alarm sounds again, this time seeming louder and more urgent, I am jolted into action.
My feet leave the ground, slamming down against the marble floor as I sprint across the room. I pull the gun from its holster, raising it in front of me as I run, corridor after corridor. My breathing quickens as the rush of adrenaline fills me.
Where is everyone?
I turn around a corner, heading into an open courtyard. Here were the first signs of conflict. The bodies of dead palace guards litter the small clearing, splayed out on the ground. Their scarlet blood pools on the pavement, running in rivulets across the uneven surface.
I swallow back the bile rising in my throat and look away. Placing a hand over my nose and mouth, I run through the courtyard.
As I continue my sprint through the corridors, the alarm continues its insistent wailing, filling the castle with its eerie echo. With a jolt, I suddenly remember what the sirens are declaring. It was something I had learned years ago, in a basic castle safety lesson. My heart sinks with dread.
There were intruders in the castle.
It is towards the back of the castle that I find the occupants of the castle. Along the way, I had joined up with two other soldiers, and we run together in grim silence. As we continue, the faint echo of screaming fills the silence between the sirens. I glance at my companions, and in silent agreement, we sprint towards the noise.
Finally, we emerge into another courtyard, larger and definitely more chaotic. The bodies here, however, are alive.
Very much so.
As I watch, a screaming woman with a sword runs across the courtyard, swinging and slashing at a palace guard. The woman’s hair is tied up with a gray bandanna, and her face is streaked with soot.
“Shanties,” I snarl, lip curling in disgust. Our good King provides for them and protects them, yet this is how they repay him? With rebellion? With violence?
I look around the courtyard, taking in my surroundings. There are about thirty of them, all dressed in torn, ragged clothing. I notice that every single one of them is wearing a gray bandana around their head.
I step forward, gesturing to my companions to follow. As I turn to face the soldier on my left, I see a glint from the corner of my eye. With lightning-fast reflexes, I drop to the ground, and not a minute too soon.
A bullet zips over my head, close enough for me to feel a slight sting on the back of my neck. The soldier to my left is less fortunate. A spray of red spatters the rough pavement next to me, and his body crumples to the ground.
I stand up, shaken. That soldier, shot through the head, could have been me. Before I can react, I am knocked to the ground. I gasp as my left leg twists under me, taking the brunt of the impact.
Groaning, I look up to see a young woman, dirty braids swinging. The telltale gray bandanna rests atop her head. She glares down at me, eyes blazing, and lifts her knife. Its jagged edge gleams dully.
Before she can strike, however, I sweep my leg across the ground, knocking her off her feet. She falls to the ground with a yell. Her knife spins away from her, clattering on the rough stones.
I push myself up, groaning as I put weight on my injured leg. Now it is my turn to glare down at the woman, and I do so gleefully, twisting my face into a nasty sneer.
“You shanties never know when to give up, do you? Did you really think your rebellion would succeed?” I say in a mocking tone.
The woman just scowls at me angrily, narrowing her eyes. I notice that she is clutching her wrist tenderly. With a defiant snarl, she spits at my feet. She begins to speak in a rough voice, spitting her words out just as as forcefully as she had her phlegm.
“We will never stop. Not until we are granted our rights, until we get to live side by side with you nobles. Not until we are free.”
I let out a short bark of laughter, surprised. “You shanties want to be free? How dare you insult our King, who protects you? You ignorant fool.”
She shakes her head, eyes hard, but with a tinge of sorrow. “No, there’s only one ignorant fool here, and it’s not me.”
I lift my gun, pointing it at her. She doesn’t even flinch, but just looks at me, her blue eyes flashing. The shaking of her shoulders is the only indication of her fear.
“See beyond that fantasy which you have created,” she begs. “See the truth.”
I shake my head, blocking out her words. A shanty’s lies have no effect on me. “Long live King Nimerias,” I murmur quietly. I cock the gun, listening for the hollow click.
“Long live the Empire.”
I pull the trigger.