The governor, my father, wove away the gifts the slaves brought in with a gloved hand. My eyes grew large in wonder as the caskets of gilt gold moved by, and I gasped as a gigantic ornate cage filled with living rainbows, twittering and chirping, was carried out and set next to the growing row of valuables. The room was full of tall courtiers and massive, menacing guards, all murmuring about the gifts the Alin had brought for my father. He was smiling smugly, sitting on his golden throne, surrounded by the unnaturally bright electric lights, even though it was well after dark.
He looked down at me from the throne. "Gifts, my child, our spoils of war. He turned to the glittering array. "Go Eraji, go pick something out."
I could believe my luck! My father never acted like this unless something wonderful had happened. I didn't question it, moving from the cage of brilliant avians to a chest that unlocked to the slightest touch. I bent over the old wood, peering into the darkness. Inside lay thousands of glass trinkets, flickering in the bright light above. I reached down and pulled out a peculiar piece. It looked like a moth, but it had a beak and powerful haunches. As I pulled it into the light to examine it, its little beak opened and sang. I preoccupied myself with the singing creature on the steps of the dais, half listening to the proclamations of a large man in the steel, about the army's conquest across the mountains. Of course, most of treasure here would go to the capital, a week's journey closer to the warmer coast.
"Now, my liege, our last conquest."
The rattle of chains caused my head to jerk up in surprise. Scraggly clad men and women, most of them shorter then even me, wove into a line around the back of the room, where none of the new lights had been built. The slaves were hesitant to step into the bewitching light, their eyes opened wide in astonishment at this wonder. The uncivilized reaches of the land had a lot to learn about the modern world. Twenty of the soldiers guarded the diminutive slaves. The copper-plated steel armor the guards wore winked and twinkled in the light. The massive swords sharpened beyond the blacksmith's bellows were wielded in battles against our enemies, which fell like sheaves of wheat. Those conquered had been no match for the Oni kingdom's superior technology. The slaves were products of the enormous power our kingdom held under a crushing thumb of occupation. All possible through our electricity.
Again, my moth sang to me, my father stroking my soft hair, listening intently to the general's report. Suddenly, a boy my age, not quite a man, pulled against the heavy iron chains.
"Arang lezwit! Predil predil iona!" He stared at me, at me with undiluted hatred. I grasped my moth a little tighter, the glass wing edges cutting into my palm. What is he saying? Why is he looking at me?
My father quickly motioned for the nearest guard to twist the boy's neck off. His lifeless body fell to the floor, chains clanking quite loudly in that room. A second soldier hurried over with a set of keys to pull the dead boy from the line. I hid my face. I didn't want to see such things. In shock, I fingered the glass moth, the questions bouncing around in my skull. I didn't even mean for the boy to be killed, but it didn't help the little body ten steps from the dais, its neck at an odd angle, quite dead.
I left the incident out of my mind as I went to bed, the lights softly dimming and shadowing the room. I still clutched the moth. The covers were warm, unlike the days Nurse would tell me about. They had to stick hot stones under your mattress. Can you imagine? Hot stones? I smiled at the image. It was not too long ago that electricity had been discovered. I was six when the stronghold's first lights appeared. Electricity made our lives easier, people lived longer, and our Empire grew tenfold. There were festivals of brilliant lights every year, in celebration for such a wonderful gift. People who had died only moments before were brought to life, horses and camels were no longer needed to transport heavy cargo over long distances. I had grown used to wearing clothes cleaned by automatic washers, eating food warmed, without half of it turning to ash, and being entertained by electric toys. Our kingdom prospered with the electricity, there was no denying that. I once tried to ask my teacher where all the electricity came from. He mumbled something and went to another subject.
I was restless, the tiny moth's song not letting me sleep. I got up, slipped on my warm suede shoes, threw on an overcoat, and crept into the hallway. Nurse was snoring in the plush chair next to the door, drool hanging off of a corner of her lip. I grinned with glee. I had always thought that my bedtime was too early. With quiet steps, I raced down the carpeted halls, avoiding the butler, a slumbering dog, and a maid sopping up the result of idiot Darrell's drinking.
I grinned as I approached the massive double-doors of the stronghold library. Although my father was a man of war, he was a voracious reader. Beyond the slaves and gold he claimed, he brought back all the books he could find. He was only too happy to find that I too loved his books. He commissioned the giant brass doors for me. I touched the doors only lightly, and they swung without a squeak inward. Inside the pentagonal room, I danced upon the soft carpet floor, the moth accompanying me. The high ceiling let the moonlight filter down from the slender windows, the stained glass producing interesting patterns across the heavy oak bookcases and squashy chairs near the fireplace.
A pile of books from the most recent conquest took up one chair, waiting to be filed. The book titles were written in gold script in engraved grooves of the book covers. Magick Forms. The Ballad of Seasons, and Other Minstrel's Tales. A Definitive Encyclopedia of Ages. None of the titles captivated me. One book, however, shoved under the chair, resting between the spindly brass legs, marked my attention. It was an old book, but as thick as my waist, with a beaten copper cover. However, in some worn places in the cover, wood peeked through. I pulled the book out and fell onto my backside. Even though the floor was carpeted, the cold of the palace crept into my bones. With a flick, the fireplace cheerily burst into flames. Ah, much better. I pulled a pillow down and sat down on it. The book groaned open. There was no title upon the cover, or it must have been washed away at some point. Inside, the neat, constant script of a monk's patience covered the pages, complete with illuminations in the margins. This was certainly a valuable book, before the printing press made it easier to disseminate knowledge. I picked a random page and began to read. The histories of foreign lands and places consumed me, I was happily content to read through the march of ages, the moth's song still ringing in my ears. I came to a chapter on invention. Of course, electricity was not discovered until a good hundred years after this book was made, but something struck me as curious. A particular page in inventions described the exploitation of magical animals; powdered unicorn's horn to purify food, ground manticore fur for the softest of skin, and a selkie's bones for virility. Most of these read like old housewife's recipes, but the aged paper had been torn away at letter p. Nearly fifty pages, and quite recently.
Above me, the household began to move again. I slid the book from whence it came, stood up and arranged my skirts, and hurried to bed. Now the moth's song had grown annoying, the sound of it still haunting and mysterious, never satisfied to shut up.
The maids and seamstresses bustled around my room far too early, only hours later.
"Come child! Come here." Nurse indicated the stool in front of a three-paneled mirror.
I groaned inwardly. One of father's damned ceremonies again. The Feast of Thanks, a yearly event to celebrate how wonderful our kingdom was and everything we had to thank the scientific community for, especially electricity. And it required a decent outfit. I let the various people lift my arms, move my feet, measure everything that could possibly be measured. Just to get this over with, the library was calling to me. Reams of silk and brocade cloth were shuffled in. I picked up the corner of a green bolt of cloth in distaste. It reminded me way too much of Darrel, sick. This year apparently called for five different shades of green, each uglier than the next, each in a distinctive cut and pattern, overlaid by hanging moonstone nets and ornate glass necklaces to complete the look. Footwear resembled what peasants wear; thong straps that neatly wrapped up the ankle.
Then they moved to the hair and face. Plucking, pinching, pulling, twisting, enough to make me scream. How badly I wanted to throw a fit, but it'd only prolong the pain. My scalp was screaming, like five hundred new holes had been jabbed into my head and the clouds could stream in and out at will. Then they covered my ornate hairdo in this thick greasy substance. Pig's wax, melted and hot enough to burn, made sure it stayed put, nary a hair out of place.
Nurse stepped back and surveyed me with satisfaction. "All done!"
With Nurse's warnings of me keeping myself presentable for another hour until the ceremonies followed me down the hall. I had nearly forgotten the singing moth, but it was better to leave it shoved in my hatbox, it yodeling away in tinny harmony until I got back. Laughing like a kid, I raced down the carpeted halls, past the guards and into the great hall. Preparations were still being made, and I learned that more interesting things were going on deep inside the bowels of the castle, at the armory. That, too I had inherited from my father. Garwin had promised to make me a new rapier, and now is a good time as ever to see if he delivered.
The palace grew progressively colder as I descended the depths. No one had seen the point to heat this deep underground, except the forgery and smithery. The armory was located next to the smithery, not too far ahead. I could hear sounds of laughter and rude ballads being sung. Someone had started to celebrate early. Garwin wasn't hard to find, and he too seemed slightly tipsy. He handed me the rapier. The balance was perfect, the butt and shield decorated in enamel and gold. I kissed him for his due service, causing another round of crass jokes. Garwin handed me a beer, and I sat among the soldiers, quite at ease. This was so much better than sitting next to my father's throne at some idiotic ceremony. To hell with attending.
Outside of the armory, the cold was a welcome relief from the bellows. I wandered aimlessly further down, finally finding a heavy door with a girded window. Must be some dungeon. However, when I looked closer, a tongue of warmth blew through the little window, and something flashed brilliant white.
Upstairs, my little moth began to shriek.
I pulled open the door cautiously. The rumble from several floors above shook the little pebbles of sand on the floor. About now my father would stand astride the podium, make his 20-second speech, and proclaim the start of the night festive drinking, reveling in complete wonder for the electricity we have. However, down here, things had started to grow more interesting.
A shriek caused me to gasp and grasp my head in pain. It hurt badly, this shriek. I straightened out again, cautiously proceeding along the damp walls, the shrieks still echoing in my head. What was that? It was no human shriek. No, instead it reverberated into my bones, chattered along my jaw line, and shook the ends of my hair. This wasn't right. The hum of electricity jumped through the walls. Shuddering with the vibrations, I made my way towards the bend in the tunnel, towards the light.
What was after manticore fur and before selkie bone?
The tears came unexpectedly, the retching, too came suddenly. The sight which I beheld burned into my mind. The light, oh the light, it, it . . . a phoenix. I now wish I could have seen it more clearly, and then blinded. The phoenix, bound and caged, screamed in agony, in rage, tempered to long-suffering anguish. Wires and sharp metal object were plunged into the immortal's neck, along its spine where the feathers had been plucked away, and only half of its wings. The places where the bone and muscle had been torn away had been cauterized by fire. The phoenix glared at me fiercely with one eye, daring me to come closer, to sear away another part of it.
Brutal metal coils had been plunged into the skin, secured by metal rings. Brilliant phoenix blood seeped from the wounds, because its wounds never healed, repeatedly opened and shifted. I didn't realize the purpose, the purpose for such damning and horrific abuse. Above the phoenix, energy crackled, electricity jumped between the heavy metal poles.
Close to the brilliant eyes of the phoenix, bright pools of water had gathered. A pipe led the liquid away. The phoenix was crying, had been crying since I was six.
This was my thanks.