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blows against the empire

31


New Destiny’s legendary filth, in its air and water, in its streets and the clothes and faces of its people, was something no one missed once they settled into the New Lands. The universal grot was part and parcel of the city, as the oily smoke of fires fueled by anything that would burn filled the air and clung to everything, as the dust of a thousand tear-downs and reconstructions rose like smoke and fell like dew. There was no escape from it, no way of getting it out of your hair, your clothes, even your skin. A New Destiny tan was a greasy pallor, the combined effect of trying to keep your skin covered and protected and the futility of it when so much of the airborne filth could pass through cloth.
There was no way of knowing how many lived in New Destiny. The idea of a census was laughable, as no one would tell a census taker or anyone who identified himself as a government worker the truth. If there was a payment to be made, the count would be inflated but if it involved taxes, the only person who could be confirmed to live at a given address was the one at the door. But it was plainly crowded and noisy, in addition to its unhealthful qualities. There was no hour of the day when you could find the streets empty, in any quarter. During the day, the pavements teemed with citizens on their way to work, to the coffee bar, to school, to make a delivery or pay a call. By night, they were less busy but there were always some on the way to or from a tavern, coffee bar, or shop. As the night wore on, these few were replaced by even fewer, traveling in small groups and looking for like-minded groups to contest the ownership of this block or that street corner. Boredom, leavened with unfocused anger and a desire to prove oneself, manifested itself in these small armies of lightly-armed but intensely violent young men who would war over the same block of commercial street where nothing and no one could induce them to tread in daylight. It was quite dangerous to interrupt these skirmishes and what passed for law enforcement was content to call for medical assistance when the battle was concluded.
Helle, despite its name, was a more salubrious place to live, if a little dull. The chances of random violence or equally surprising good fortune were rare, but for those who wanted a quiet life, that was fine. The surprising good fortune often came with risks. If you were the lucky finder of something — be it a supply of some desirable food or a bargain rental property — keeping it long enough to exploit it was a challenge. If it could be wrested from your grasp without blood or drawing a crowd, it likely would be. Communication between the two, either written or in person, was limited enough that comparisons were not often made.
What none of the residents of the three city-states were able to learn was that they had at one time been part of of the same country. When they had been sundered, each city fell back on its contribution to the whole and let that shape its future. As it turned out, New Destiny was the oldest of the three cities and had served as the principal trading port, due to its natural harbor and river-borne access to the interior. The administrative functions had decamped to what became Helle when the space used for those functions became more valuable for commercial purposes. Transportation, fast and reliable, had made this arrangement work but now it served to make the separation permanent.
The Bone Kingdom had served as the headquarters of the defense establishment. The city commanded a high point on the coast that also overlooked the plains approaching all three cities and those involved in the defense of the realm had gravitated to it. There was space for parade grounds and military exercises, in the days when those were needed, and the plains had in older times been obscured by the dust clouds of columns on the move. The matériel that had not been repurposed lay mothballed now, vehicles and transporters gently decaying in quiet rows, looking like mechanistic topiaries. The food supplies that had been stockpiled had been used in earlier sieges that had been proclaimed by the Kingdom’s rulers. There had been no actual attacks, but periodically, various rulers had been persuaded that a siege was imminent and ordered all defense personnel to their posts and all others — there were no civilian, only off-duty or reserve troops, to secret refuges under the city.
The three cities had at one time worked together, three parts of an imperfect but function whole. There had been smaller town along the trunk roads between the three, but they had fallen to the ground as the residents fled to the nearest city for security. The lands between had been fought over in the final days of the power age. Each city accused the other of hoarding and depriving the other of vital supplies. If any were guilty, they all were, but there was no attempt to pool their resources and apportion it out in a reasonable manner. Panic ensued as people feared the worst, and made their fears reality. The limited supplies remaining were squandered on frantic travel to secure more when none was available. The armed conflicts that followed started off aggressively but slowed down when mechanized transports were abandoned, and eventually a stalemate ensued.
All of this took place long before anyone living could recall, on the order of several hundred years. For some, it seemed that history had stopped in the days when all three cities were united, and the present was a shambling epilogue, a vestige of those days to which there could be no return. This thought was buried so deeply, it was rarely articulated, but the reminders were all around, from the state of the buildings and roads to the sameness of the routine, each and every year, every season. Seasonal celebrations, loosely fitted around the longest and shortest nights of the year, were no more than a rumor now. There was nothing to celebrate with in New Destiny or the Bone Kingdom, and Helle was only a little more flush. If someone chanced upon something that could instill a sense of cheer in New Destiny, it was employed for the purpose that night. Both the uncertainty of life in that roiling metropolis and difficulty in keeping anything for a later date made for small spontaneous celebrations. No one could reliably look forward or plan, so you took your pleasure where you found it.
Celebrations in the Bone Kingdom were limited to commemorations of events linked to the lives of the skeletal rulers. The throne room was opened for viewing and the population would line through the room and pay their respects to the grisly reminders, polished and dusted for the occasion. Commemorations of battles, the outcomes of which were long forgotten, were also observed, but in less involved style. Periods of silence, fasts, or the wearing of symbolic clothing were used for these lesser memorials.
What was really being memorialized was the once proud culture that had once ruled the castle, as the Bone Kingdom was known when the cities were united. The castle was a bright symbol of discipline, sacrifice, and honor, and regular visits to it were part of every schoolchild’s education. Parades in the other cities were not complete without a complement of uniformed regulars and the latest in mechanized might. The training academy competed with the universities of the other other cities for the best and brightest, and it was not uncommon for a respected military officer to bring his leadership skills to the world of commerce or politics. Many national leaders had come from armed services and they had been no more corrupt than their undisciplined counterparts.
But what had once been an honorable vocation in the service of a free people had become a fetish or cult. Discipline and self-sacrifice had become an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end. The veneration of age-old remains and the invocation of false siege warnings were all that remained of the respect for the chain of command and the readiness that had once been a hallmark of these forces. The leaders who hid behind the relics were hand-picked from an increasingly paranoid inner circle that had maintained its hold on power unchanged by reality. No one outside that group met or talked with anyone from the other city states and those few who did disbelieved much of what they were told. They were convinced that the only reason for anyone to visit to ferret out some weakness, some advantage that would allow the Kingdom to be successfully taken. The fact that no one had attempted an attack in centuries was seen as part of the strategy: the attackers were conserving their resources until they found the secret weakness, so secret the defenders had no idea where it might be.