Darkness grips an isolated city. Work in progress - feedback appreciated :)
|I was there when it was painted.
What it doesn’t portray – and what people have wilfully forgotten – are the sounds and the smells. During those days the filthy streets and decrepit alleys echoed with the hacking coughs of the plagued and the dying, but we knew that something was truly wrong when the birds suddenly left. If you look closely, the artist has included their flight from the city. The birds could sense something we couldn’t – and when they flew away from us and towards the fires, some were so panicked that in their haste they scorched the feathers of their wings in the inferno.
The Grand Council denied it had happened, of course. Claimed the birds were still here. But no amount of propaganda convinced us that what we could see in front of our eyes wasn’t true. The birds had fled, the clouds had gathered, and as each day passed a sour smell seemed to be descending on the city, growing stronger all the time. And then he came to us.
The first we heard of him was five days after the birds had left. The smell was becoming unbearable, with no discernible source. The tower watchmen spotted him first, cresting the last hill on the crumbling road to our city after the day had turned into night. How can a man be a silhouette against a sky that is already pitch black? But his silhouette was there - dark hood raised, straddling a shadowy stallion, onyx-black flag fluttering in a breeze that didn’t appear to actually be there.
That’s the thing I dislike the most about the painting. It’s all wrong, the messages warped. The city is made out to be the most malevolent feature in it. Yes, the Grand Council was leading us down a path of flagstones forged from acrimony, trickery and violence that regularly reached shocking new levels – hence the fires – but the most malicious being in that painting is the solitary figure who has been drawn to almost look like a hero. It's a sickening irony.
By the end, I wished I'd fled towards the raging fires with the birds, allowing the flames to engulf me rather than clip my wings. I wished the winds had changed and the fires had turned on the city and the people that had sparked them, purifying the sin that lurked there, scorching the pigments and tinctures that the artist would use in the perverse painting.
But I suppose I should start from the beginning.
How the city of Pravus came to be under the control of the Grand Council is a long, vicious and meandering story in itself, and one I shall keep for another time. Depending on who you ask, in a world that was once positively littered with kingdoms and cities that were beacons of hope, light, equality, righteousness and rationality, Pravus stood first among them, the clear leader in a Golden Age of Reason. Alternatively, in a world that fostered depravity, the people of Pravus sank to the lowest depths of decadence and immorality. These lost souls were only rescued from a demise that was gathering momentum by the heroism and intelligence of a small number of men and women, prepared to shoulder the burden of making tough but necessary decisions in the once great metropolis. I’ll let you decide which version of events is the Grand Council’s.
Once in power, the Grand Council began to aggressively implement a policy of isolationism. In a world of treachery and deceit, we would fend for ourselves, rely on no other, we were told. Diplomatic relations with the industrial city of Factorem and the cities of Pecunia and Numus, financial hubs of the age, were swiftly ended. Our gates were closed to the apothecaries of Asklepio, whose medicines we had relied on for centuries; our inns and taverns instructed to no longer accept the custom of the brewers of Cervisia. The message was simple: we would make our own medicines and brew our own beer, mint our own money and grow our own crops, smelt our own iron and build with our own mortar. And in a fit of nationalism, the people of Pravus welcomed these announcements with wide smiles and gleaming eyes.
Only a few of us, watching these events with apprehension but not daring to speak out, wondered what might happen to the soul of a city when it turned its back on the world and taught its people to deride everything outside the walls that hemmed them in.
Dear reader, my name is Mensor. I am not the hero of this story, if it can be said there is one, nor am I the villain. Or at least, I am not the worst of us. In a sense, I am an architect. An architect of reality, as the people of Pravus experience it. My role in the closed city of Pravus is to act as what you might describe as an official historian of the city and the Grand Council. I am treated with indifference by my superiors and I imagine it would come as a surprise to the people of the city to find out that my job even exists. They are kept in the dark about such matters. But I have re-written the histories that their children are taught in schools; I have destroyed the books that contradict the Grand Council’s narrative; I have censored those that know the truth of the world.
The Grand Council may, as I have said, treat me with indifference – but I know so much that were I to break ranks and lift the covers from the eyes of the city, reveal to them the truth, then their indifference would turn to fury and I would surely be executed. No doubt they would say I was a traitor, or a spy from the greedy financiers of Pecunia, and make a bloody show of my demise. Do not believe this slander, they would say. Do not believe what we don’t tell you. Whether people would believe them would be irrelevant to whatever was left of my corpse.
Which makes me wonder why I have written this down. What you hold in your hand is my life. What you hold in your hands is the truth.
* * * * *
It was only a few months after the Grand Council took power that I was appointed to my role. Unlike other positions of power, there was no announcement and certainly no fanfare over my appointment. I was an agent of misinformation and the existence of my role was to be kept a state secret. It was Roribus, the Commander of the Grand Council, who understood the need for a position such as mine, but it was Tabes, his deputy and the second most powerful man in Pravus, who came to me. A thin, balding man, Tabes’ power resided not in physical strength – for in truth he lacked any – but in his sharp mind and political nous. He had trodden on the corpses of his adversaries, metaphorically in some cases and literally in others, to rise to the top. An honour, it seemed at first, to be visited by such a distinguished figure.
‘It is a role we would trust to none other in this vast city than you alone,’ he had told me in thin voice, superlatives for my literary work dripping from his lips as he tried to coax me into their scheme. ‘The Grand Council would be in your debt. And a man who is owed a favour from Roribus is a very fortunate man indeed. Plus, few can boast such patronage.’ Patronage for work that nobody would know exists is no patronage at all, came the voice of reason from the depths of my mind. Reject him.
‘And if I was to decline?’ I asked. For a fraction of a second Tabes’ inscrutable face betrayed his confusion that I would even dare ask such a question, and my query was met with a very slight hesitation.
‘Then that would be regrettable,’ came the reply. There was no sinister smile, no knowing look. There didn’t need to be, the threat as clear as daylight. A small pause that seemed an eternity ensued, while I thought through the ramifications of either of the answers I could give. Finally, I met his request with a curt nod, and it was done. I almost physically felt my conscience turn away in disgust and for a moment I wondered if I had heard my god label me a coward. At this particular crossroads, I had chosen dishonourable life over an unknown, but almost certainly unpleasant alternative.
At first, I was not welcome at the meetings of the Grand Council. Policy was handed down to me and then I was to get to work, weaving the new truth into the fabric of the city, proclaiming triumph when we had met with disaster. I wrote the proclamations that were nailed to the huge wooden doors of the keep and the cathedral; I spread rumours in taverns; I made a mockery of criticism; I wrote books at a prodigious rate, under a hundred pseudonyms; and I had complete control over every poster and pamphlet produced in the city.
In a strange way I enjoyed it. What bigger challenge can a writer face than to convince the world that red is blue and what they can see is not there and what they cannot see, is there. The spell worked more often than not and I do not blush to say I was proud, although it was pride tempered by that small voice, the voice of reason, whose whispers echoed in my head. You are proud, but you are proud of an abomination.
My family did not know the fine details of my job. They were aware I had some kind of government sponsorship and that I was unable to divulge the details, but I had led them to believe that I was some form of unauthorised biographer of the members of the Grand Council. It shamed me to see their pride at the suggestion.
Perhaps they did not probe any deeper into my affairs because of the relative luxury my income afforded us. We did not reside with the families of the Grand Council in the twin-spired keep of Pravus Castle, the black-stoned building that dominated the city and could be seen many miles from the city walls, but we had a moderately sized two-story house in the more affluent area of the city. We could afford a maid and a cook, and my brother was not too proud to allow me to supplement his wage as a city librarian so that he could move into the same zone of the city with us.