Told from the viewpoint of Badjan Kholi
Six years previous…
It was one rainy summer day when I was 14 years old that stands out in my memory as a turning point of my life. I was growing healthy again, keeping a record of nearly three months without so much as a cough, which was incredible for my sickly past. Chan Theim, a short, quick swordsman from Inud, was stationed about six feet away from me in the palace’s open inner courtyard. The sun was shining directly in my eyes, and the air was thick and humid. Everything smelled of sapphire flowers, my mother’s favorite, since it had just rained and was more than dewy outside, quite an oddity for our region, but I enjoyed the rain. I remember standing in the stance I had been taught, wooden staff I used as my training weapon held out at an angle in front of me, pointed straight at Chan Theim. The last time I had met with him about my training, Father had suggested I start to use a real sword since my health was improving and I was beginning to hold the staff quite unlike a hand-and-a-half blade.
Still, I preferred the weapon and my teacher saw my progress, so I held it outward, prepared to parry and defend as Master Theim lunged forward with his daggers and lashed out at me. He was far more skilled than I, still, so he used the shorter weapons and gave me quite an unfair advantage. I smiled cunningly, as I had practiced far in advance since our last training session, and brought my staff crashing down on his knuckles. He pulled away, unfazed enough to simply wince, before launching into an attack on my right.
I shouted as I had been properly taught, for there were incorrect ways to shout in battle, and lifted my staff this time, causing Master Theim’s left dagger to lodge into the wood. His momentary surprise gave me the opportunity to evasively take his other dagger in the same manner. I heard a shouting and clapping from the fenced walkway not very far away, and I turned to see three of my four brothers standing there, all dressed in their palace garb. Green and gold sleeveless summer vests adorned their tan chests, for we so enjoyed abandoning the gold undershirts, and black pants covered their legs as they jumped up skillfully onto the banister surrounding the courtyard and balanced themselves on the gold-painted beams to their sides.
I smiled and wiped the sweat from my bare chest and forehead, turning back to Master Theim, who had retrieved a new weapon. His sword flashed before me before I could process the movement, and I lifted up my staff with difficulty and panic. The blade bounced off the wood as I fell back into the slippery grass, arms shaking from the collision.
“Badjan!” my second-eldest brother called. I looked over at him, and he mimicked a downward motion with a staff. I understood perfectly, amid the warm feeling gathering inside of me from their momentary acceptance, and scrambled to my bare feet, facing Master Theim and releasing a short shout from my lips, raising my staff up and bringing it down. As soon as he lifted up his blade to parry, I swung the piece of wood around so quickly I heard it hum in the air. It came into contact with the man’s ankle, and I heard a sickening pop and crack as Theim went down fast into the grass. A look of terror came over my face, but when Theim turned, wincing, and a smile broke through his lips, I released a breath gratefully.
“Good, Badjan Kholi,” he muttered in his thick accent, sitting upright and reaching for a long strip of cloth, carefully inspecting his ankle and then wrapping it calmly around his already swollen foot as though he had expected this injury.
I felt a clap on the back and nearly buckled under the sudden weight, but turned to smile at my brothers, who tousled my hair and loudly gave me encouragement. And for one brief, shining moment in my life, I felt like I finally fit in somewhere.
It was exhilarating, and with a rush of adrenaline, I clearly recall running to the walkway, leaping over the banister, and climbing one of the support beams before pulling myself up onto the flat roof that covered the walkway, which simply connected two of the palace buildings and covered it from the sun and occasional rain. I sat there in the center of the roof and didn’t even mind the heat of the wood beneath my sweat-soaked pants. Looking out over what little bit of the valley of Alcedo that I could see, I relished the ability I had finally found, and it was a precious moment.
I was born into a family known for its luck, the Kholi family. That was where my luck ended, really. I was the youngest of seven children, parented by a reserved mother that was really at her wit’s end by the time the seventh child appeared, and a father that was… well, sultan.
Sultan of Reignum; that was my father. A stately man, very dignified, my father was close to me, yet distant. I say “close” only because I was just one door away from him and my mother down the corridor. “Distant” describes every other moment of our interaction.
I grew up knowing sickness. My ill health may have been the result of the emotional abuse and lack of attention I was shown as a young Arabian prince. You believe all those with royal blood running through their veins are treated properly? I would fight you with every drop of that blood if you insisted upon it. Both my mother and father were separated from me constantly; Father had his kingly duties to attend to, and Mother, well, I’m not sure what she did with all her time. Reading was a passion of hers, I do believe. I cannot say for sure.
I had four brothers and two sisters. My eldest sister, third in the order of birth, was sent away at age 15 to be married to a foreign prince, and I couldn’t recall seeing her since. She was eight years older than me, anyway. We had never been very close, though I was told much later that I cried when she left and I realized she would never be coming back. My other sister was just a year older than me, and she applied herself so thoroughly to her studies that she remained living in the capital city with us for all her childhood. I’m still not certain if it was her wisdom and peaceful way that convinced Father to keep her here with us, or just the fact that he forgot he had two daughters that he could send away.
My eldest brother was 12 years older than me. He had dark brown, almond-shaped eyes and an angular face. His tan features were complemented by his dark mop of hair, tossed to the side and scruffy. I was an exact copy of him in looks and behavior, but he was everything my parents wished for in an heir and I was a nuisance, a mistake. He was perfect. I’m sure that my family spent every last of the tax chats collected on his training and tutoring before I was even born, and that must’ve been why there didn’t seem to be any of the wealth left over for me, though I couldn’t complain about my own sword master, Chan Theim.
Still, my childhood was riddled with falling ill very easily. I spent much time in my room alone, even without servants there to tend to me. I enjoyed the solitude, though it lead to an easy way to complain about my circumstances. My brothers taunted me often and took my sickness into their own hands with their pranks, which isn’t saying very much; they don’t have the most gentle hands or nimble fingers…
I also enjoyed spending time among the common people, the peasants. I had been tutored to the point that I knew all about our city and how it worked, including the traditional economy in which children often took up the trades of their parents, and the way the housing system worked, which I could (and did) sit for hours and observe from the market square on my own, before anyone had realized I’d been gone from the palace.
In my childhood studies I had learned that it had taken nearly a hundred years just to properly build up such a marvelous city, and, just as one would expect, the architecture’s design and quality only increased the further up the cliff wall you went. It was amazing that, just on the side of this valley, all of Alcedo’s nearly 21,000 people lived. At the very bottom, sitting in the dusty rock, were the slums. They were kept as well ordered as any city’s poorest region, I suppose, the houses dark in shade, usually black and gray, and often made up of two or three simple square rooms. Along the length of the valley floor, all the way to the grand palace that sat fortified against the far rock face, there were perhaps 200 individual houses in each row. And while three rooms befits a lavish living space for any simple peasant, the homes on the very bottom layer of the massive infrastructure were well designed to help support the other 22 levels, so families often shared homes. These people did menial labor, working hard and long for very little, and were occasionally servants in the palace or guards in the royal army.
The first five layers were identical. Just as extensive, just as practical for any poor man. The further up your eyes traveled, however, the more intricate and lavish the homes had become. Each level was built upon a ledge of rock. My ancestor Yuen Kholi, the first sultan of Reignum, had helped to design and begin the massive project of cutting into the rock itself, forming strong foundations for each layer of homes. When he died, his son took over the work and eventually saw it through, completing the project and making way for his own son’s rule in the palace within three years of each other.
The walkway underneath each layer was painted once every two months by the day laborers, who lived on the seventh through the ninth levels, leaving the sixth as a housing layer just for travelers passing through the city. Every paint color represented what those who lived on that level did for a living, which, to these people, meant a great deal. Nothing was more important than your honor and your place in society.
The slums at the bottom received no paint color. They were considered not worthy of a specific place, so the rock kept its reddish-orange, vibrant hue. The “inn level,” as it was called, was painted a deeper shade of orange. The day laborers painted their own rock walkways the color red, for their demanding work. The farmers and ranchers, those who stayed in the fields cultivating food and acting as herdsmen over the cattle and livestock in the hot sun, occupied the next three layers, all identified by the color green. It represented their once-called “noble” work providing for the city and searching out grass in the wastelands beyond for the grazing animals.
Merchants and shopkeepers were given the next two levels. They were not very trusting people, always demanding higher ranks in the living system further above the lower class, even when the large majority of their days was constantly spent in the market below on the valley floor. Their color was blue, close enough to the nobility’s purple to consider them similar, but a slightly different hue for distinction.
Others of the middle class took up the next four layers, 15 to 18. These were often nicknamed the “lavish-livers” on the streets. Rarely did these people work, but they made up a large chunk of Alcedo’s population. Those who did work were doctors, scholars, the guards with prestigious rank, or personal counselors to the noblemen. Those who didn’t had usually stumbled into family money or wealth, and simply lived on in Alcedo in comfort. They had been assigned the color white, once signifying the purity of the important ones who lived there.
Sultan Yuen had always intended to stop his work there, but his son was much more adamant about the economic system they were creating, and continued the building up to the top of the valley. Level 19 was reserved for those who were wealthier than the middle class, but not considered noblemen. They often owned trading or shipping companies and were always invited to attend noble social events. Their houses were longer and therefore larger, so there certainly weren’t many rich men that didn’t have noble blood. Their color was silver.
The councilmen had been given the level above, painted a golden yellow, for their work with the sultans of past. They were elected by the people every five years and gave much needed advice to the sultan. I scoffed as I looked upon their massive homes, towering above those below. My brother certainly needed all the advice he could get, the idiot.
The final three levels almost made the entire system appear silly. The very wide mansions that belonged to the minor nobles always appeared to teeter precariously over the rest of the city. The rock had been cut into deeper here to allow for more space, for a greedy man was never satisfied. The bright colors of the noble mansions and wide, brightly lit windows were a colorful complement to the bold rock they sat in. The uppermost level, 23, was the greatest of them all. The noble house leaders had their mansions constructed on top of the valley, far back enough from the roofs of level 22 to nearly be considered outside of the city. There were four massive mansions towering over the rest of the city, even the sultan’s palace, with their pearly columns and golden statues and massive gateways. They were all well protected by their own walls and their occupancy was always made obvious. If they had been simple one-story homes like the ones on the lower levels, they would be impossible to see above the valley lip, especially with the bright light of the Midday Sun, which lasted for several hours while the sun is at its highest peak before dipping down past the valley’s end out of sight. The city’s open valley faced eastward, in the direction of the sea, which provided sunlight from the morning on until the sun was no longer useful past the mountain’s face.
It was Yuen’s son who had been ingenious enough a scholar to help come up with a way to travel between the house levels in the valley side. He, together with other scholars and noblemen, had helped to construct four large metal Valley Risers, two on each side of the home system. They were square shaped and open to the air, the four metal beams extending up the entire length of the valley wall. The floor plate inside each one was about five feet across and fortified to hold many people, and the complex pulley system they were rigged with made for a day laborer’s job of running the Valley Risers, the pulley system both raising and lowering the metal plates to each level, making for an efficient way to travel up the valley side. At the bottom and the top were control systems, with a large wooden wheel that had always reminded me of a captain’s helm on a great seafaring ship. It clicked into place each time the metal floor of the Valley Riser landed at the precise point required to step on or off at a level, helping the day laborers to control them.
It was a fantastic system, and rarely failed. Over the years it had been reinforced to be more durable. Long before I was born, railings were even added to the floor plates to avoid workers and noblemen from plummeting to their deaths on the valley floor below. I enjoyed sneaking onto the Valley Risers every now and then, usually failing. When I did succeed, though, in finding my way onto such a contraption and marveling at its design, I would have no sincere destination, so I often made a game out of it by seeing how many levels I could pass before getting caught and sent back down to the market on the next available riser.
I would play such games by myself most of the times, but there were a few young boys of noble blood in the grand keeps on the highest level of the city, and they would join me in the market and we would race and play in the sand that collected from storms around Alcedo’s main gate if they were feeling daring enough to step out with the youngest Kholi prince, the one that was murmured about when he passed shopkeepers and the nobility that paraded the streets. When they were caught with me, they were often given a sound smack in public, and harsh words or even lashings behind the veiled safety of the keep walls.
Needless to say, I couldn’t keep friends for very long.
By the time I was 16, I had found my niche in fighting. It wasn’t the fight necessarily that brought me enjoyment, but the power behind my stance, defense, and offense. I could relish a sense of physical protection, knowing that I could defend myself… or attack, if need be. I found that I could do so much with just a staff, and soon moved from that to a pair of short, foot-long daggers. I was not as comfortable with them, but still found them to be effective, and my sparring with Master Theim escalated to sparring with my own brothers.
They found me to be a fearsome opponent once I bested them, even defeating my eldest brother in a short duel in the gardens that led, perhaps, to my eventual, and ironic, demise.
I remember that well. My three other brothers looked on, shocked, as our eldest brother lay on the ground. Prince Soewn. As I have previously mentioned, we looked very much alike, though in this moment one thing separated us: he was on the ground, and I was keeping him there, staff pressing up against his throat.
“Ha! Face it, Soewn. I told you I could best you, did I not?” I proudly stood tall, finally drawing my staff away as Soewn stared me down, a glare so deeply seated in anger and frustration that I could tell as he stood that he wasn’t going to take this matter lightly.
“You could best me with a staff, but what of your daggers?” he taunted haughtily.
Cendis, my second-eldest brother, let his jaw drop in shock. “Soewn, be reasonable,” he said calmly, stepping forward and putting a hand on the prince’s shoulder. Soewn shrugged him off and turned back to me, poking a finger into my chest.
“Are you going to get your daggers, Badjan, or stand here like a camel?” he sneered. I scowled at him, looking up into the eyes of someone who was, technically, old enough to be my father. At this time, I was only 16 and he was 28. Soewn was days away from his promised marriage to a girl of a royal bloodline from Tamil, and ever since his betrothal he had felt so proud of himself, so pompous.
“Stop it, Soewn!” He gave me a shove and I fell back into the dirt. My fear at the level of danger I was now facing was replaced by blind anger and I growled, hitting the ground with my fist and grabbing up one of my daggers. I wasn’t ready to take any abuse from him.
“Badjan! Think clearly!” shouted Zhavi, our third-eldest brother and fourth-eldest child. “Do not bring this upon your family,” he added, putting his palm against my shoulder and holding me back. I was not ready to listen to anyone in that moment; I wanted my revenge.
I leapt forward in a flurry of action, swinging my short blade so fast that Soewn didn’t have time to react. He lifted up his arms to shield himself, and leaned down, crashing into me with his shoulder while I was still in midair.
I spiraled over him and landed in a heap on the ground, and Cendis and Zhavi held Soewn back long enough for me to stand to my feet and wipe a trickle of blood from my nose. It throbbed, and that enraged me even more, and I dashed into the fray of princes, finding myself fighting against Zhavi instead of Soewn.
Cendis was trying to talk some sense into Soewn, and I was sure Zhavi was trying the same with me, but I refused to listen, and no sound came into my ears besides a word: unfair.
It was a childish word, innocent in meaning and useless when spoken, and that fact resonated through me and made me feel even more angry when I tried to stand up and be a better prince than my brother. He had finally calmed down and sat a few feet away, staring me down.
Soewn never apologized. I never forgave him. We never mentioned that moment again. Never.
We had been called into Father’s personal study for that event, all five of us present. My fourth brother, just three years older than me, Rojo, had also been there. He had been describing the event to our father as the rest of us bowed respectfully before him near the doorway, remaining silent even when I could sense the tense atmosphere around me.
When I looked up to my father from my position on my knees, I clenched my fist and grinded my teeth against one another. He was a very proud man, sitting upon an informal cushioned stool, his posture perfect, legs crossed underneath his golden robes. The city’s grand colors of green and gold were promoted everywhere possible. His hair was combed neatly and dark, eyes wise and menacingly filled with incompetence all at once, as though he were still an inexperienced boy trapped in a man’s body. We saw a small fraction of him in all five of us, whether it be a physical attribute or a behavioral one. He was tall, built with strength, and had a royal air about him that made every servant cringe before they spoke in his presence. Not me, though. I didn’t know my father enough to respect him as much as the servants did.
Finally, he turned to me, simply nodding his head. I spilled out my version of the story, throwing wild accusations at Soewn and even Cendis, who had done nothing to wrong me but, in my eyes, deserved the blame all the same.
Once I was finished, the Sultan ever so slightly sighed, as though he didn’t wish for me to see it. I did anyway. “Can I get no justice?” I asked harshly, after he was quiet for some time. Soewn was still kneeling on the ground with the others, staring up at me, almost out of pity. His eyes were begging me to hold my tongue when I looked down at him. It would spare us all a lashing. “I’ve always been treated unfairly!” I shouted at my father, pointing a finger at him from my place in front of his finely made, imported desk. The Midday Sun was nearing the valley’s edge, causing what would otherwise appear as an evening light in another city to seep through the window behind my father, exposing the city succumbing to the shadows. “I want to rule one day. The princes all have a fair chance at it! I do not wish death upon you, Father, but how can I avoid wishing death upon someone I do not know?”
The topic had changed in an instant, and I had done it of my own accord. Was this what I had been worried about all this time? My place in the royal house? I knew that once Soewn had taken the throne in my father’s place, he would do me no mercy. We had been at odds for far too long. Maybe, though, I could fight him for it. There had to be a law, a way to combat-
“Leave my presence,” my father finally said, accent heavy and deep, and I turned from the window to stare at him in disbelief. Besides ignoring my life and viewing me as a worthless grain of sand, the Sultan made the biggest mistake in uttering those words. He taught me that mercy was not important; it did not have to be shown to anyone weaker.
And, just three years later, he fell under the sword, and Prince Soewn took the throne.