(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014
Matthias remembered his first visit to Ciorala.
He had come with his father in a tiny steamship cabin that they shared with three other men. The others were also from the colony of Pascuay, deep in the Fringes of the New Empire, and they had engaged Matthias’ father in lengthy conversations about home, the crops and the weather, and the opportunities that lay ahead. Matthias lay listening on his bunk, trying to imagine what this adventure would be like. He was only a boy then.
He remembered stepping off the steamship and into another world, the likes of which he had never imagined. Ciorala was resplendent with marble pillars, massive stone arches, and sturdy brick houses. High on a hilltop overlooking the ocean was the largest building Matthias had seen in his life. It looked like a castle, stone and imposing, but it had five towers evenly spaced around its outside walls. Four of the towers had turrets that gleamed gold in the sunlight; the fifth was encrusted with glittering green emeralds. “Is that where the Emperor sits?” Matthias asked his father.
His father laughed. He was a large, burly man with a round belly and a mat of orange hair that matched Matthias’s own. “No, my son,” he said. “Far from it. This isn’t Orastus proper at all. That’s the Temple of the Gods. You remember what you learned about the gods of the Old Empire.”
Matthias nodded. “There are five of them.”
“And that’s why there are five towers,” his father said. “Do you know why one of them is green like the sea?”
Matthias thought. “Lessandro?”
“Who was Lessandro?” his father quizzed.
“He was the last god. There used to only be four, before him. He could control the sea and the storms, and call rain down from the sky, and bring fish in to the coast where men could catch them. But nobody believed he could. The people all thought he was insulting the other four gods by pretending to be like them. So they chased him and he ran away until they all cornered him on a cliff overlooking the water, and he had nowhere else to go so he jumped off. But since he could control the sea, he landed softly on it and ran on the waves. And since he could control the storms, he made a strong storm to break up the ships that went to chase after him.”
“That’s right,” his father said. “But he returned when there was a drought and the people were starving. Lessandro brought the rains that they needed to survive. When the other four gods saw him use his power to help his fellows, even those who had once tried to kill him, they finally invited him to join them.” He ruffled Matthias’s hair. “Or so the story goes. They say that’s the cliff Lessandro jumped from. Right where the temple is, overlooking the water.”
Matthias’s eyes grew wide. “Is the story real, then?”
His father ruffled his hair again. “We may never know,” he said. “But even if it is, Good Steif can do more than bringing rain or running on waves. Do not forget that.”
“I won’t,” Matthias promised — but tonight, as he strained to manoeuvre the skiff silently past the Imperial Navy’s cordon, he whispered prayers to Lessandro nonetheless.
That was also done silently. The others would not take kindly if they heard.
It was a calm night but a cold one, and Matthias shivered. There had been a huge snowstorm in Amim last span, he had heard. That was further south, but not by much. The cold weather would be moving northward, he had no doubt, and the Council would want to take action before it did. Otherwise it might be too late.
They tied up the skiff in a cove just outside of Ciorala harbour. The land there was thickly forested, and the trees shielded them from the gaze of the city and its guards. Quietly they parceled out equipment: rifles, fuses, powders. Their people on the inside were already in position, Matthias knew, and the team would have to hurry to reach them.
They emerged from the forest into the district known as the village, a sprawling tent city that dominated Ciorala’s east end. Matthias gazed around the darkened streets, lost in memory. It was years since he had lived here, but it did not seem to have changed. There were still more huts and shacks and tents packed into the tiny area than Matthias could believe. People had thrown up ramshackle dwellings in the middle of roads, nestled against fences, even above other villagers’ tents. The smell was just as Matthias remembered it, too, acrid, smoke and fire from the nearby factories mixed with the stink of a mass of humanity, mean, angry and poor. The only benefit to living in the village was that Ciorala’s policemen were generally too frightened to enter after dark, making it the perfect staging ground for an operation.
Matthias counted himself lucky that he had only lived six months in the village, from the time he and his father were kicked out of their tiny apartment for non-payment of rent until the day his father declared, “We’re leaving this town. They said there’d be plenty of work here, and there is, but only for locals. They don’t like colonials like us, so we’re going to hop the first ship back east.”
“What do you mean, they don’t like colonials?” Matthias asked, confused. “I thought they were colonials themselves! Didn’t you say Ciorala is still in the Fringes?”
His father flashed him a knowing look. “It is,” the big man said, “but there are Fringes and then there are Fringes, son.”
It was true even here. There was the magnificence of central Ciorala which had enthralled Matthias that first day he stepped off the boat, immortalizing the ancient grandeur of the Old Empire — and then there was the village.
Their safe house was little more than a few planks of wood thrown up against a fence. As the team filed past him and into the shack, Jakim touched Matthias lightly on the arm and pointed to a tent across the way.
Matthias followed his gaze. There was a poster sitting outside the tent that they could barely make out in the darkness. Matthias crept closer to look at it, and Jakim followed. “That won’t stay there too long,” Jakim whispered.
“Nor will whoever put it up,” Matthias whispered back. “Poor bastards. It’s damn brave of them, but they’ll end up in a dungeon for their troubles.”
“Or worse,” Jakim said ominously. He clasped both hands to his heart and whispered a prayer.
The poster was a cheap reprint of Fernando’s masterpiece, “The Fall of the Old Empire,” with its epic depiction of a battle that took place in Ciorala over 700 years ago. In the foreground was a handsome, blond Wassian raising a sword in triumph over the body of a fallen Old Empire soldier. In the background, Lessandro’s emerald tower in the Temple of the Gods was bowed over as though it was weeping.
On the sign, beneath the reprint of the painting, were the words, “This has happened before.”
Matthias and Jakim shared a look and moved into the safe house.
It was already bustling. The old woman who lived there was handing out bowls of soup. The soup was cold, since lighting a fire this late at night would have raised suspicions, but the men welcomed it nonetheless and expressed their thanks. The woman hobbled over to the newcomers. “You two were looking at Maria’s sign, were you?”
“It was quite bold,” Matthias said.
“By which you mean stupid,” the woman replied, “but be that as it may, she’s right. Orastus fell the first time when it went on adventures in Deugan and damned the people in the colonies. And now it’ll fall again for the same mistake, praise to Steif.”
Matthias took a breath and kept his expression carefully blank. “Praise to Steif,” he repeated.
Matthias had studied the fall of the Orastus Empire as a boy, and he could admit there were some similarities. Through two centuries of occupation, Orastus had never quite managed to quell the resistance of the Deugan city-states it had conquered. Maintaining the occupation had demanded so many resources and conscripts from its nearer colonies that they started to revolt, and that had opened the door for the empire’s other enemies to plunge through its borders. In the east it had been barbarians, savage hordes who ran roughshod over the imperial heartland, looting and burning and plundering until only scattered ruins proclaimed that a great empire had once stood there. In the west it had been the empire’s traditional rival, the Wassian Empire, annexing its lands and claiming Ciorala’s magnificence as its own.
But Orastus’s leaders hadn’t given up the fight. They had regrouped north of their heartland, in their most prized colony, and there turned back the barbarians and proclaimed that the empire would continue. The victorious Wassians scoffed, describing Orastus as an “old” empire, dying as its heartland burned. The cabal in the northern colony, they said disparagingly, could only be forming some sort of “new” empire. Both names stuck.
But the New Empire stuck too, Matthias reflected, rising powerfully from the ashes of the Old. It preserved the science and the culture of Orastus, and taught them to its people. Within 150 years the empire had become secure enough to again venture outside its borders and begin to re-colonize much of its former territory, and beyond. The old imperial heartland welcomed the northerners with open arms, and though it was relegated to the rank of a colony, it was treated better than most. The former heartland was given special tax treatment, leadership appointments in other colonies and infrastructure projects — but there were Fringes and then there were Fringes.
In a few minutes some of that infrastructure would be demolished by warriors from the deeper Fringes, the poorer Fringes. Their plan called for simultaneous attacks on four factories in east Ciorala that produced much of the arms and ammunition that were now being shipped to the front with Deugan.
When they were done with the meal, they split off into teams of two, each heading for a different factory. All were within easy walking distance of the village. Matthias and Jakim were to remain at the safe house, watching for patrols both here and along their route back to the cove where their escape lay. They had flares with which to warn the others of danger, but they would try not to use them. The Imperial troops could see flares just as well as the Steffians.
The old woman went to sleep soon after the others left, leaving Matthias and Jakim alone, their eyes darting around the mean shack and outside it into the village. Matthias now had trouble keeping his eyes off the Fall of the Old Empire, though he could barely see it in the darkness.
“What will you do when this war is won?” he asked Jakim, mostly to pass the time.
Jakim laughed. “You know the Council. Will our war ever be over? When the empire falls there will be peace for a time, but soon we will be on the march again. Steif’s good word must reach beyond the Fringes.”
Matthias nodded. He still agreed with that sentiment, because he still believed that Steif’s good word was the truth, and the code to a moral life, and truth and morals were in short supply on this Continent. A life in the Fringes would teach you that. He would always remain a Steifar, a follower of the one god, but the fear and anger that had drawn Matthias to the Steffian organization had ebbed, and after some of the things he had seen, he did not want to march again.
“Deugan must be next,” Jakim said. “That’s how I see it. They’re dangerous.”
“Perhaps. But they will never be worse than the New Empire.”
Jakim took a breath. “True,” he replied. “I doubt anybody will be worse than the New Empire.”
And there was the rub, the one connection that kept Matthias with the Steffians through all of the horrors of the operations, through the random gunshots, the bombs targeting dance halls and cafes, the burning of homes and the looting of shops. Through what they were doing now, destroying the factories that gave employment to the poorest of Ciorala’s poor, just because it would hurt the empire’s war effort. He survived it because he knew that whatever terrible things the Steffians might do, the New Empire was worse.
It wasn’t just the burning of Matthias’s home village in Pascuay. Life anywhere in the Fringes was marked by starvation, squalor, oppression. Orastus’s iron grip on its colonies had to be lifted, and the Steffians were the only ones who seemed willing to do anything about it.
So Matthias stayed through operation after operation, and his stomach turned again and again, and he prayed to Good Steif for guidance and forgiveness, and the one god was silent.
Matthias had not always had these quandaries. Once, his poverty in Pascuay could rile up such anger in him that he wanted nothing more than to lash out at the New Empire, to smash the round arches, to tear down its buildings brick by brick. The local Steffian chapter in Pascuay had given him an outlet for his anger, and had also fuelled it. He had immersed himself in the teachings of Good Steif and sank deeper and deeper into the chapter’s political wing. After Steif allowed their brazen attack on the Pascuay governor’s complex to succeed, Matthias was so elated that he declared he would take the ultimate step in his faith. He would forego longer life and the gift of children in order to study Secrets, to fully explore the wonder that Good Steif had introduced to the world. For the one question that no atheist had ever been able to answer was how to account for the Wells and their power.
But there were more and more operations. More and more innocent deaths. More and more things Matthias had to see…
The line had been crossed, he realized, and there was no turning back. It terrified him, yet he knew it to be true. He had already betrayed the Steffians, in thought if not in deed. He had already doubted their methods, questioned that their path was the one Good Steif intended. He had done so silently, but he had done so, and he knew that was enough.
Yet there did not seem to be any other option. He supposed he could travel to Orastus with his tail between his legs. He knew enough about the inner workings of the Steffian organization that he was certain they would accept him and pardon his crimes. But the thought of working for Orastus raised bile in his throat and brought his old anger surging back through his chest.
No, that was impossible. He would never help the New Empire to survive. But after the empire was gone, he would begin his search anew. He would ask Good Steif for guidance until he found a way to escape the grip of the Steffians once and for all.
“We will win this war, my friend,” Jakim said softly. “As the great powers destroy each other in the northwest, Good Steif will guide us to victory.”
“Praise to Steif,” Matthias said.
And they heard a distant explosion, and another and another, and through the blackness of the night sky they made out several plumes of smoke drifting toward the heavens. Jakim clasped his hands to his heart again and whispered a quick prayer, and Matthias did the same. Then they started off down the path toward the skiff and got to work untying it and readying it to leave. The others would be back soon, and they would need to make haste to vanish under the cover of nightfall.
Next chapter: Chapter 5
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You may also wish to read this sample together with the Map of the Continent.