Introduction: This snippet is presented as the fifth of my “unfinished stories”—a series of short tales I’ve begun to enjoy including here on the Goblin Opinions site. This one is particularly unique, as it was originally intended to be the prologue of a novel I began writing last November. Now, things got a little sidetracked and I never continued that story. Partially because of the many other projects I had ideas for, but also because the plot for the book was just never very strong. I shut it away.
Today, I’m pleased to be finally share this unfinished prologue with you. After a primary round of feedback and edits, I’ve deemed it ready. It is one of my, older, rougher stories when it comes to prose, and there will doubtlessly still be mistakes, places where I stumble, and ideas that just don’t make very much sense. Feel free to point those out to me where you see fit. Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks for stopping by. I hope I can inspire you with this short story,
Child of the Sun
As day awoke and the light of the sun fell over the ashen peaks of the Shattered Mountains, and as the bluebirds sang and the great horned eagles of Sakamaja sailed through the endless ocean of the sky, and as ships of many vibrant colors sailed beneath them along the shallow rivers cutting through the land, Chiri stood alone on a stage overlooking a dip in the ground—a small one, by city standards—and wondering to himself: Why am I here?
There should have been more people. There were not. So this would have to do.
Those who lingered wore long yellow robes, with golden pins and threads all down the garments, and caps or hoods of gold and white that bobbed merrily as they talked to one another. Under loose sleeves, their hands made flourishing gestures, and the light of a new day fell onto their round faces. Children wore similar colors, though their dresses were shorter, coming only to their ankles. The coloring of it all was unvaried, making it so a slight wind seemed to ripple through the entire crowd at once; a small sprinkle of light was turned into a storm.
It stood out, he supposed. Fashionable. Such strict laws in dress would not hold back where he came from, but he supposed the garment served its purpose here. Many people, as one. His nation needed that.
Now he was one of them too. He glanced down at his own flowing robes. Yellow, but with long red stripes to signify his status as a guest. He could see why the people liked them—despite the layers, each was thin, and had great room for flexibility. Movement could be swift, as long as you avoided treading on loose ends.
Chiri picked up his old archlute, which had been resting at his feet, undisturbed. It was an instrument designed not long ago, but now seemed ages old, with golden threads and pins piercing the dark ashwood. It was this that the people below seemed to gape at most: not his handsome appearance, nor the way his curtain-like black hair stood out, nor the witty flow of his voice that arrived even when it wasn’t prompted. The lute would seem to them as an artifact of another place, and from a forgotten time. Such things as music were not commonplace among the people of Saz Tear. Nothing good was, it seemed. Chiri had yet to see a single painting or sculpture, or another virtuoso; he was a special case, and so the people gawked. Men and women like him were only brought in on occasion.
He would have to make it worth their time. The time, at the very least, of those who remained.
He counted twenty or thirty in total. They chatted softly, but watched attentively, eyes bright and seemingly unbothered by the sun. Men dressed up all in yellow with black hats that stuck out at odd angles paced below the stage, overlooking the dip. The people didn’t seem to mind them—in fact, the unique figures were ignored, for the most part. Chiri supposed they must be guards, but he couldn’t bring himself to imagine one of these bright, sunlit citizens lashing out—even at a rival.
The sun continued to rise, and the thin cloak shaded his neck and bald head from the beating heart of day. The stage—can this even be considered a stage? he mused to himself—was little more than a smooth bed of rock where the woodhost layer had been cleared away. Below, in the shallow hollow, cushions had been placed on routine bumps in the stone. The ground rippled there, rising and falling in constant patterns. While many of the citizens below were still chatting, others had settled themselves down on the earthen lumps, looking expectantly up at the stage.
Behind and around the back of the hollow rose the Open City of Vehai. White stone buildings were stacked uniformly down isles like chiseled pearls; the occasional grey or yellow paint signified special quarters or centers of production. The buildings were unmarked, and Chiri had yet to see a single brick. The stone appeared round in places, and Chiri got the strange impression that the city had once been a giant ivory block, carved carefully so that only the bones remained.
Chiri took it all in as he had before. His eyes ran carefully through the crowd, lingering on individuals, smiling at their smiles, wondering what was wrong when their eyes grew distant. Almost unconsciously, he fingered a few of the strings on the lute. The notes came off sharp and clear, louder than he had envisioned. He began to hum a quiet tune, preparing as he took in the world before him. The light from behind was thrown down onto the city, though it did not reflect or blind.
There was not a worry to be known, no need to rush. The men and women lingered below. He began to strum more generously, humming louder, bathed in the light of the morning. The sun shone down on the stone at his feet, and when he looked closely the rocks themselves seemed transparent, as if the grey was only earthen rust burned away by heat. Inside it he saw silver and white, gold and black. Surely it was but a trick of the light, but it fascinated him anyway.
Unconsciously, he began to sing about the stone. The tune was one derived from an old folk song he had known as a child. He recalled it, folded it up, and shaped it anew, as he often did in composition.
The original song was meant to warn children of the dangers of riches, to tell them that it was best to give, to hoard minimally. It was a classical piece in Tezrak, though had lately fallen out of favor with the Capital Council. Chiri had been among the last to hear it sung; his parents had been rebels, by government standards. That was, of course, part of what had left them both dead.
Oh, ah! So long ago I stood atop the mountainside,
And even then, penniless, I gazed down on the rich man’s land,
Oh ah! How you must think: how jealous must I be of him,
Even then, you misjudge me, for I am but the best of them.
Oh, ah! So sweet the light, the break of day, when all I have
Is but my back and my own hands to throttle all the cattle there
Oh, ah! I have food in sunlight, water in the rain,
Even now, you misjudge me, for I am still the best of them.
Even now, you misjudge me; I need not silver nor a crown
All that pleases me is in the sun; or is in my soul!
Even now, you think me brave, or deranged perhaps
Oh, Ah! Oh, no! Do you not see how far that I can go!
Chiri shaped it anew to match the stone, thrumming his lute all the while;
“Oh, ah, So long ago, I stood atop a shattered stage
And even then, I looked upon the face of the sun beneath my feet
Oh, ah! The stones were vibrant, gods themselves and so defiant,
Even then my fellow men did not embrace the beauty of it.
He sang on, and felt the weight that had settled in his stomach after that last disastrous performance in Tezrak begin to lift free. He sang, voice rising over the hum of the people below, over the quiet peace of the city, above the conversation of the birds.
“Oh, AH! Oh, no! Do you not see how far that I can go!”
The song was finished, and his mind was finally at peace. His face was to the sky, outlined by the rising sun behind; but now he lowered it and looked back into the stone below. The grey stone. No longer transparent, no longer pierced by light.
He looked down to the assembled people below, and blinked in surprise. He had been so possessed by his emotions and that rebellious piece that he had failed to comprehend that all had fallen silent, that even the birdsong had paused to let his song run through. And the people of Vehai stood below. Not just twenty as had stood there before; not just thirty, not even fifty as he might have gathered before. Men, women, and children of all ages had gathered in the hollow, around the hollow, behind it. They stood—hundreds from the city, eyes alight, many fierce, others simply satisfied, but every face unified—and watched him. They were one, the city was one, and now they looked as one to him. Expectant.
The men he had assumed were guards shifted uncomfortably below the stage. They did not appear to have weapons, but Chiri couldn’t quite bring himself to trust those many folds and layers of yellow cloth.
He didn’t know what else he could do for them. Surely, it was too early to leave. So he did the only thing he knew how to do. He sang another song.
This one was about the beauty of nature and of simple pleasures, of wanting little but gaining more. All the old folktales from Tezrak took a similar tone. Chiri grew more confident as he sang, and the people remained where they were. Others opened doors and stepped out onto the streets to listen. So he sang louder. And louder. And louder.
When he was finished, the crowd had nearly doubled from before. He could swear a thousand pairs of eyes beheld him from the hollow, a thousand more from the city streets. They all wore the yellow garb.
Chiri frowned, curious as he noted a single figure in a loose ivy green cloak pushing its way through the crowd. The people around the figure moved aside without thought to make way, though they did not so much as glance at the figure. Every eye was to the stage; Chiri was the only one who seemed to see.
The cloaked form made its way steadily toward the stage. The men in black hats didn’t seem to see it either; they were more relaxed now that the song was over. They folded their arms, eying the crowd; they seemed to be the only ones who hadn’t been transfixed by his performance.
No one cheered. They merely stood. And watched. It was eerie, in a way, but Chiri knew they must never have been taught to clap or yell. Silence, they obviously assumed, was the most respectful way to honor your bard.
So be it, he thought, musing. What had these people been taught? He just knew so little about the other cultures of the world, especially the eastern Sazlands.
He moved his hand to the lute again, uncertain. The green-cloaked figure moved like a snake, making its way through the hollow. Now it was close enough for Chiri to make out eyes. They reflected the sun, twin points, like that of a reptile. Chiri wasn’t sure why he saw the eyes first. He took a hand off the lute, and actually took a step back, instinctively drawing the instrument into his chest. Who…
He caught a glimmer of movement to his left. He spun, mind suddenly alert and eyes narrowed. But all who stood there was a small, hunched over man. Chiri relaxed. Bejir. The one who had hired him to sing here in the first place, halfway across the world from his homeland. The advisor to the king and loyal scout.
The short man was draped in the same variety of yellow cloak, which weighed him down considerably. His face was kind, peppered with blond hair verging on pale white. His head beneath the cloak was completely bald, and his nose was crooked, as if it had been the victim of a hammering long ago. Clasped before him in both hands was an intricately patterned golden cane, which expanded his width by a yard. The cane was the only notable thing in Chiri’s eyes, at least when it came to identification.
“Thank you so much for that extraordinary performance.” The man’s voice crackled like a fire, and was surprisingly high pitched for his age. “I don’t think many of us are… accustomed… to such things.” He was addressing Chiri, though he swept out his arms to demonstrate that that last bit had referred to the entire city. “I think… we must repay you. Yes. You see, we do not do such things here in Vehai, or even anywhere else in Saz Tear, but an exception can certainly be made… Yes, why don’t you come with me.” The man’s eyes flickered to the assembled crowd, then back to Chiri. His face was a sculpted mask that hid any trace of emotion, but his voice portrayed pleasure. That must be good? Chiri felt waves from this man, a sensation he couldn’t explain but that raised all the hairs on his arms and legs. He glanced back toward the crowd, disturbed. Where was the figure in green? It… had left…?
There. Chiri spotted the figure just behind a clump of the cloaked citizens near the front of the hollow. Still moving. He glanced back at Bejir, who eyed him carefully, eyes unmoving, prodding. He suddenly felt a great urge to be out of this place. Every instinct told him to run.
The man beckoned. The people below waited for him to play another song. Chiri froze, suspended in thought, body urging him to make a decision but trapping him between several, like different worlds. For a split second, he thought he could see all three outcomes in the back of his mind. He would play for the people again. Disaster. Chaos. He would join the man and leave the stage. Peace. He would never have to see this place again.
He would run and he would hide. Something told him there was no outcome there.
Then it was broken. Chiri smiled broadly, taking in the man as if for the first time. Bejir’s eyes were on him, cool, searching. Why did I make such a deal over that? He mused over it as he nodded to the man, a silent agreement to follow and accept whatever payment there was to offer. Bejir smiled back broadly. He began to cross the stage. Chiri followed, carrying the archlute under one arm.
He didn’t remember to glance back until they were almost off the stage. People had finally started to move back through the streets, chatting, creating a soft buzz of noise. His eyes roved the crowd, one final time.
The green cloaked figure had stopped as the sea of gold melted away around him. He stood still, the only one unmoving, and yet still completely, utterly, ignored. Those eyes were more obvious than ever now, twin points of daggers glistening even by day. Something was additionally wrong about the figure’s stature, it’s movement, it’s entire being, but Chiri found he just couldn’t place it from this distance.
He shuddered and turned for the last time, following the man off the stage. The stage wasn’t actually raised, but was even with the earth, and stood equal above the sunken hollow at the city’s edge. The two men began across a field of flourishing winegrass, the woodhost piled high in heaps, like hillocks, to allow for more variety in growth. They crested one of these easily; Chiri couldn’t see any clear destination, but he stayed with the man, certain that they would end up somewhere.
“Ah,” said the man. “Such beauty in simplicity, wouldn’t you say?”
Chiri made a sound as if in agreement. His thoughts were occupied by the man in green, the crowd that had been lured so dramatically to his songs, and his own history of performances. This one had been going so well. Had Bejir come to stop it?
He could have played more. But the man in green—Chiri was more and more convinced it had been a man, despite what its eyes and features had told—might have reached the stage. Did Bejir know something? Had he seen what Chiri had? Chiri turned to ask just that, but before he could so much as open his mouth, the man spoke again. “There is something to the pureness of life that we in Vehai know and appreciate more than anywhere else in the world. Even elsewhere in Saz Tear! More than anywhere I have seen, of course.” The bent over man chuckled, then waved his cane at Chiri. “I suppose there is a whole world out there. You should know this soon, eh, sun?”
Chiri frowned. What did that mean? “Uh—” Chiri didn’t know how to respond. “Yeah, I guess I will.”
The man smiled in appreciation. “Of course you will.”
They pulled past another hillock, and finally Chiri saw their destination. The building ahead was tall and looked like a chapel, and—unlike the city’s other constructions—was a deep grey, made from rough stone bricks. It emanated a solemn ambience, but also one of age and wisdom. It stood a ways out from the city proper, open on all sides to the fields.
“…the palace of the kings!” Bejir smiled warmly, cane tapping as he moved beside Chiri in the general direction of the tall structure. He kept up surprisingly well given his stature and age, a feat Chiri found impressive. “We don’t have only one king here, you see, as you have… or did you have two? You see, I cannot tell these things! Anyway, our kings prefer simplicity, like the rest of our peoples. They live together, not in a big place like yours, but rather in the palace! The palace is all they need!” The man laughed merrily, as if someone had responded with a jest.
Chiri paused. “Wait—you’re taking me to see your king?”
The short man laughed again. “Of course! They will be so glad to see you, after you have done such a service to the open city! Don’t worry, of course—you won’t have to sing a prayer to them! Or anything, for that matter—you’d best not sing at all, yes, don’t.”
He laughed again. Chiri found that increasingly annoying, but he put away those emotions and braced himself. Out of all the people he had expected to meet today, a king wasn’t one of them. No matter if that king just ruled a small city east of the mountains. He would still be a king. And Chiri was but a bard.
The city’s “kings” weren’t much to look at.
The four of them stood side by side in the center of the square room, eyes blurry, feet shuffling, hands rubbing together or shoved into pockets. They seemed to completely detest one another, and each inched away from his neighbor whenever the opportunity arose. They barely looked at Chiri, but paid more attention to Bejir, as if the short man was their superior. If age proved the point of hierarchy, that would certainly be the case—none of them had seen past middle age. All their hairs were blond, one with grey strands at the temples. They were dressed all in the common yellow, but with curling purple streaks down the sides and arms. The garments might dignify the kings more if it didn’t appear as if they hadn’t been washed in months. The king of Tokaz had once worn purple, though that had ended abruptly when prince Hezai had decided the fashion choice “behind.”
Chiri saw that, curiously, each of the garments held many tiny pins, stuck in at various places, especially down the legs. If Chiri had to guess, those signified rank. Bejir had only eight: four on each arm. Logical, he thought. His own borrowed cloak had none.
The room was simple, almost completely empty except for a square table around which the kings were clustered. Upon the table was a singular device, and a strange one: it looked like an intricately carved spyglass, made of gold and some greenish material Chiri didn’t recognize. He had the sudden urge to reach for it, though he tucked that temptation away. He didn’t want to anger the kings any more than he already had by awakening them.
A thin staircase curled around the edge of the room and up into the ceiling. The building wasn’t a tower, and the stairs warped to fit the sharp corners of the room, twisting irregularly. Those led to the upper floors—the chambers, he assumed. Though the tower was no palace it was indeed tall, and he could guess the kings’ quarters would be comfortably arranged, no matter how the level of minimalism they wanted to project.
One of the kings, finally, cleared his throat. It was the one with the graying hair. “Well…” he began, pointedly looking at Bejir. “Who would this young one be?”
Bejir smiled. “This would be the one I brought here to perform, don’t you remember, Jehaian?
The king frowned, eyebrows furrowed as if in concentration. Then he raised them. “Ah! I remember. Of course. Yes. Well. I hope you, young one, had a kind performance.” He gestured toward the other kings with hands that displayed every vein. “Don’t you agree?”
They all nodded in unison. None of them smiled. Nor did Chiri. The only one in the room who betrayed any sort of emotion was Bejir, who finally swept his hands out. “Ah, alright. I’ll let you all get back to your work soon enough. What do we think, is there anything we have to offer the man? He drew a prick of a crowd today, you’ll know.”
All four kings raised their eyebrows in simultaneous appreciation. Chiri only continued to frown. A prick? Did that mean something else here? And what was it the old man had said about work? The kings looked as if they had been sleeping for days. How could they—
“Chiri, your name is?”
Chiri looked up at the old man, startled, then looked to the stone floor. He felt a slight heat on the sides of his face, and was immediately overcome by embarrassment. In the old western languages, the name historically meant “child.” He looked up, nodding. No way to hide that fact now. Too bad that his parents had considered him a child. He supposed he had been, at that point, upon a moment’s reflection. Humans were remarkably bad at looking into the future.
“Well then,” said Bejir, pointing. “I’m sure we can do something about that.” He dug in the folks of his cloak for a moment, then produced several small bits of metal. He held them out. Chiri took them hesitantly, opening his hand to see three shining triangular pennies placed there, shaved in the corners. Golden currency? It was a thing unheard of in the west.
He looked up. “I—I won’t be able to use these. I’m sorry.” He moved to hand them back, but Bejir stepped back, as if in offense. Three of the kings looked shocked that he would even suggest letting them keep the coin, though the eldest one only smiled. It was the first real, uncoordinated emotion Chiri had seen from him. It was gone a moment later, replaced by blankness. Chiri reluctantly pocketed the strange coins. He supposed he had earned them.
“And now, young one, you have a choice.” The king who had spoken before, the one who had smiled, was speaking. “You may allow us to send you to your next destination via carriage. Wherever it is you need to go, be it accessible by land, we will have you there.” The man paused. Chiri looked into his storm-grey eyes. “If we do this, you must promise us something. You will not speak of what you saw in this place to anyone. No one. It is a simple thing really, but something we must insist upon. There are… certain things, we in Vehai are taught to uphold. Now that you have been one of us, we will trust that you can uphold the same.” Chiri frowned. The man tilted his head to the side a moment, then finished. “We cannot accept you as one of our own, I am afraid. There are… rules in place. Rules that prevent it.” Something flickered past behind the man’s eyes, a flash of longing, or of disappointment. Then it was gone.
“We will offer you something more,” said Bejir quickly, interjecting. Chiri raised his hand in denial, but Bejir waved it off. “No, no more coin. I am afraid we have little enough here as it is. What we will give you is a name. Hold it, if you wish. Carry it along. People will begin to know you by it. You may sing by it. For you will be Saz Chiri, one among us even after you depart. Saz, sun. Child. Child of the sun.”
Chiri paused. He liked that instinctively. “So…” he said after a moment. He had always been one to be curious, to want to know more. “What’s the other option?”
The king didn’t smile this time. “Let us hope that it does not come to that.”
Saz Chiri was silent on the walk back to the city. By the time he and Bejir arrived, no one was on the streets. No one was at the windows. No one was in the hollow. It looked as he had always thought a ghost town might, bleak white and shining, prepared to haunt, uninhabited. Dangerous.
A sudden thought occurred to him. Had he only imagined the crowd? But no, he had seen them there, right has day: a sea of varied gold. There was no doubting that. He forced the thought out of his mind. Unconsciously, he fingered the archlute several times. He looked to Bejir walking next to him, cane in hand. The man was there, solid as ever. He did not turn to greet the music. He no longer smiled as they passed by the city, headed for a distant outpost. There Saz Chiri would find his carriage, according to what the kings had promised.
He continued to thrum the lute, forming a solemn tune. The sun was falling behind them now, a burning core that would soon melt away beneath the land.
He didn’t sing this time, just played. Such simple things could make such grand noises, why was that? He supposed it was a question he had wondered all his life.
When he finished the song and looked over to his side, the old man was gone. Chiri looked about, startled, then back toward the city. He swore under his breath. There was no city now. Just an empty plain, and empty hills beyond.
He turned back to his front. The outpost was still there, waiting. He thought he saw a person framed in front of it, with a wagon and a pair of horses. Those horses prodded at the grass. Solid and real as ever.
Then he remembered the coins. He dug them frantically from his trouser pockets—the kings had had him leave the cloak behind.
They were there, real as ever. He noticed now that they were not completely plain: in the center of each one, on both sides, was depicted a blazing sun, with rays coming out on all sides. He counted twelve rays.
Child of the sun.
In that moment, he was overcome with emotion. He didn’t know why, but the name, the strange city of ghosts, the kings… He almost sat down there and then, but forced himself to keep on moving instead. The outpost seemed miles away.
He didn’t remember the kings anymore. He barely remembered the one who had found him in Tezrak. What was the man’s name again? Bejir. Gold cane. He felt that he must not forget that. It was all he could do to remember where he wanted to go next. Where did he want to go? Some rich western kingdom that would pay him handsomely, where he could get drunk and forget about these events. Well, that shouldn’t be horribly taxing. Where, then? Alamyr? Njeron? Straxing?
No. Not that, not yet.
He cheered himself with these thoughts anyway.
It was such that he even forgot about the figure in the green cloak.