Wind was blowing from the north. This made the weather colder than usual. The sky was overcast with heavy clouds and a veil of fog still surrounded the port. In the bleak light of the early hours all colors seemed to dissolve into shades of dreary grey.
Captain Ahiram was standing on the upper deck at the bow of his ship. He shivered as he looked at the uninviting dark blue sea. The ship creaked under his feet as gusty winds rocked it. Not even the high stone bulwarks could fully protect the harbor pool where his ship was docked with a hundred others. A group of longshoremen worked below struggling to maintain their balance on the lower deck as they hauled in more cargo. Heavy sacks and crates from the pier were carried into the ship’s hold.
They were almost finished now, Ahiram thought surly. A couple of more hours and they’d be ready. It’d be an understatement to say he disliked this time of the year. When everyone else was preparing for the Fire Festival, it was his unthankful duty to set sail for the Northlands. Oh, how he hated the cold. Even more than he hated the rude barbarians living there. The guild master had told him he was one of the few captains skilled enough to navigate those stormy seas. Ahiram knew this was just an excuse to get rid of him. It was no secret his forthright opinions hadn’t earned him much favor with the Council of the Great Captains. Where the wealthy cloaked their schemes in a shroud of eloquence, outspoken men were never welcome.
As the sun rose higher sea breeze picked up and started to dissipate the fog that had hidden Baalqan. Atop a high cliff stood the stone walls of the imperial city, “Flame of the South,” he recited, “A city to rule the world.” That was how Emperor Melqart had described the imperial city at his coronation a couple of years earlier. Ahiram didn’t feel particularly impressed this morning. Stroking his meticulously braided square beard he wondered if the problem was with him after all and not with the world. He should be happier than he was. With all the wealth trading brought for the Baalqan Empire and with his position in the council of the great captains, he had to be one of the most privileged men in the world. And yet he was troubled for some reason he could not identify. It wasn’t really about having to sail north. In truth he felt most content when he was at sea. There was something soothing about being far away from everything. And even those tribals, they were not all bad. Actually some of them were quite friendly and witnessing their savage solstice rites again would certainly be worth the trip. No, the problem was with something else.
Sighing he turned his gaze up. Even with the skies clearing, only a few of the buildings were high enough to rise above the crenellations as seen from down here. There were the high round spires of the temples all around the city, their golden cone-shaped roofs glittering in the morning sun. And then of course the palace area in the middle, overshadowing the entire city. Its square towers of carved red stone rose towards the sky in a stupendous, almost blasphemous manner. As if they were screaming to the heavens, “Look at the man who thinks he is the One Living God.”
He squinted as he noticed some small figures up on a high balcony facing the sea. It was the easternmost building of the imperial district. The Great Academy of Baalqan where men equally wise and pompous translated ancient Fire Tablets, and studied the secrets of the Precursors. He was too far to be certain, but it seemed that one of the men up there was looking right at him. Turning away he spat overboard, feeling miserable again. He had just remembered the barbarian pirates that would undoubtedly be waiting for his trade fleet, eager to plunder the lavish merchandise. And while he was fighting them off, those smug jerks would sit behind their stone walls with their noses buried in musty papyrus, enjoying the luxuries he was earning for them. Then he remembered what one of the scribes had once told him. Papyrus was considered an inferior material by the academy, not worthy of sacred texts. It was only used by foreigners and when light weight was an absolute necessity. So they could have their noses buried in tablets then. It didn’t really matter.
He was envious first, then angry. Once he caught himself thinking all these negative thoughts, he started to feel ashamed. It didn’t really make things any better. “At least I’ll get away from this cesspool,“ he spoke aloud unintentionally. The dock workers below stopped in their tracks and eyed him cautiously. Then they quietly lowered their heads and returned to work.
Hanno was startled as his gaze met that of the bearded man.
His eyes had always been keen, but he could barely make out the tiny ship and the even tinier figure on it. Beyond the city walls the harbor lied below steep cliffs the city had been built on. The ships were docked at tens of sturdy piers in a heavily fortified artificial pool of water. A narrow canal connected the walled basin to the sea. It had several locks along its length that could be shut to control the water level or even to prevent hostile ships from sailing into the harbor. The structure could hold hundreds of ships and less than half of it was vacant now at the high season.
Most of the ships belonged to the Emperor’s Great Fleet which effectively dominated trade in the known world. Still many others sailed in from lands near and far away each day all around the year. It would have been foolish to deny the great imperial city of Baalqan of the great Empire of Baalqan being the center of the world. Everything that mattered happened here.
But it was not the greatness of the city nor its harbor that had alarmed the novice scribe. It was something about the man he could barely see. A vague, but disturbing sensation. What he had felt wasn’t truly hostility. More like a sense of utmost peril. As if someone had walked over his grave the moment their gazes had locked. A good thing it had passed. He turned his head down and looked at the trade quarter below. As he watched the merchants setting up their stalls around the grand fountain at the main market square, he could still feel his heart pounding.
Then he was startled again. An orotund male voice behind him called, “Come on, Hanno. Are you dreaming again about the redhead? We’ll be late from the class.”
He sprung around and found himself facing a dark haired tall young man in a short bluish linen robe. This was Danel, a fellow student at the academy and also his best friend. He was of much sturdier build than Hanno and his oiled coppery skin gleamed in the morning sun. “What the hell is the matter with you? You’re white as a sheet.” Danel stared him sternly with his dark brown eyes. “Get a grip on yourself. How do you think you’re going to build up the guts to speak to her if you are scared even of your own shadow? The next thing I know you’ll be hiding under the bed. Dammit, man. Let’s go.”
Hanno mumbled, trying to vocalize an answer. Nothing legible came out apart from a feeble yelp. Danel cupped his face in his hands and groaned. Then he grabbed the hand of his cowed friend and dragged him back inside.
The Hall of the Scribes was the second largest room in all of Baalqan. Only the Temple of the Living God in the palace was higher and wider. But whereas the Emperor’s throne room was magnificently opulent, decorated with finesse gold filigree murals full of brilliant gemstones of all colors, this hall was built of plain red fire granite and elegant in its simplicity. It was not a place of ceremony but that of work.
The long axis of the hall extended some sixty meters and was aligned so that the morning sun would shine in from the two rows large triangular windows high up on the wall. Likewise the western windows would let in evening light coming from the sea. The daylight needed by the scribes, however, came from huge square skylights in the ceiling almost thirty meters above the floor. These fantastic creations were made out of small slabs of rare clear quartz manufactured by master Firecasters of the Emperor. They were among the extremely few goods that couldn’t be bought at any price from Baalqan.
The hall was half as wide as it was long and its floor was lowered in three sharp steps a meter high each. This left only a relatively narrow ledge at the walls where high wooden shelves filled with old scrolls and writing slabs of clay and stone encircled the room. Exactly at the middle of each wall there was a large double door of polished featureless bronze and from them four wide ramps descended into the middle of the room. The opulent ceiling was supported by thirty two round pillars of smooth red granite. They surrounded the lowered portion where six long rows of scribes’ wooden pulpits were located.
Hanno and Danel entered the hall through the western doors along with a hundred other scribes. Roughly half of the crowd wore the azure robes signifying their status as novices. They were all men of course, as women were prohibited from seeing the sacred texts. After twelve years of intense study to master the script with both stylus and chisel the students would graduate to become true scribes and receive their grey robes. A select few, should they work hard and live long enough would gain the esteemed status of a master scribe and be granted the privilege of wearing pure white with silver runes.
There was also a fourth group of robed people living in Baalqan, but the crimson Firecasters were chosen from the novices based on natural inclination rather than their diligence with the script. It was not possibly to become one through study. The gift was received at birth by a precious few. Those selected would spend their whole lives serving the Emperor. Of course technically everyone did, but for them it was much more literal. Although not explicitly a forbidden subject, few would talk about these things for their fear of the reclusive order. Even fewer knew anything worth discussing.
As they took their adjacent places near the north end of the room where the master’s large table was located, Danel whispered, “Look, its Hakim himself.” With disappointment in his voice he continued, “I bet this is going to be one of those days.” Sage Hakim of Nare was the headmaster of the academy. Despite his advanced age of almost sixty years, he was an imposing, formidable figure with bald head, piercing eyes and a small moustache and goatee around his mouth. He had a reputation of uncompromising attention to detail and no tolerance for folly. His presence made even the master scribes apprehensive. Still, he was seldom unfair and avoiding his wrath was simple as long as one focused on the task at hand and worked hard. Hanno was not particularly concerned. The sage had usually been pleased with his work and the only thing he did not look forward to about Hakim’s teachings was the discussions and debates. The old teacher loved to pitch the students against each other in a myriad of abstract and outlandish subjects. He could ask them to invent theories about the nature of the stars or have them argue about the most moral and ethical way for a merchant to price his goods. While Hanno enjoyed the mental challenge, he had always felt uncomfortable being up in the front. Now he just put his finger to his lips signaling Danel to stay silent. As the sage started to speak, Hanno listened intently and pretended not to notice the less than polite finger gesture his more practically oriented friend was giving him.
After the morning lectures and a brief lunch break the scribes had begun their work copying texts both old and new onto clay tablets. Stone tablets would be worked on separate days as the sound of a hundred men hammering stone was deafening. It was already late afternoon when Hanno looked up from the sheet of clay he had been inscribing with his cedar stylus.
Something had broken his concentration.
It took a moment before he saw what it was. Master Hakim was not behind his desk. Thinking back he remembered unconsciously how someone had motioned to the sage from the open bronze doors behind his desk. Hanno strained to make out the two figures standing in the dimly torchlit corridor. Now he could identify the black cloak and gray beard of his teacher. That was all he could not see, no matter how hard he tried. It was as if the shadows drew close to the other one and hid him or her from Hanno’s view.
Just then the sage turned around and walked back to the hall. Clapping his hands together he spoke loudly and faster than usual, unable to hide an anxiety in his voice, “Hear me, everyone. You’ll be leaving earlier than usual today. I am going to need the hall for now. Finish what you are doing and go rest until tomorrow.”
Excited chatter filled the room. Except for a few elder men who were intent on finishing their lines, the scribes rose and headed for the door. Danel was smiling widely and grabbed Hanno’s shoulder, “All right, genius. Let’s go grab something to eat and catch a nap before the evening.” Hanno was about to argue but considering he had been copying a cargo manifest, it wasn’t probably worth it. And he knew his friend would have none of that. As Danel ushered him out of the west doors to the grand vestibule and the stairs leading up to the dormitories Hanno managed to catch one more look back. The dark figure was still standing in the corridor.
Hanno has been lucky to have such a friend when rooms had been handed out. Danel’s father was one of the wealthier trade lords of the city and made sure his son would have accommodations appropriate to his status. Hanno’s parents, although well off merchants, were not even close to the social stratum of the other boy’s family. At first Hanno was about to be placed on the first floor or even into one of the annex wings just like all other common novices. Danel had intervened on his behalf and now the two were living in a spacious room high in the main building with a luxurious seaside view.
Hanno was standing at the open shutter looking at the sea where a fleet of at least twelve gauloi trade ships with curved sterns and horse head bows were leaving the harbor. Had the winds been favorable, the wide ships would have their huge rectangular middle sails hoisted. Now the sight was even more magnificent as tens of pairs of oars rhythmically propelled each of the vessels against the wind. Hanno wondered if the bearded man he had seen in the morning was out there. The thought of going out in the sea in this unusually cold weather made him shiver. If he was onboard, he was nowhere to be seen. Having had enough of the sight, Hanno turned around.
The room was sparsely furnished as was the way of the academy. At the back of the room there was a large pinewood table with two chairs and a low shelf where the novices stored their tools and unfinished works. On the left was there was a small oaken door to the gallery and stairway connecting the rooms of the atrium hall. Against the right hand wall there were two simple beds with wooden trunks for personal belongings at their foot end. Danel was lying on the closer bed throwing a small ball of clay up in the air and catching it. He looked bored.
“So they finally left? Good riddance if you ask me. Father says the guy captaining those ships is a real jerk.”
“Your father knows the captain?” Hanno asked, taken off guard. “Have you seen him? Do you know what he looks like?”
Danel caught the ball and lifted his head to look at the other boy. Frowning he asked, “Since when have you been interested in ships or captains? As far as I know, you can’t even swim.”
Hanno flushed, “Um… I… Just thought I heard someone talking about him. It’s not really that important.”
“I have no idea really. Never seen the man and don’t care.” Danel relaxed and returned to tossing his clay lump. “Shouldn’t you really be more interested in women than men? What about the gal I asked you about earlier? Spoken with her yet?”
Hanno’s face was beyond a healthy flush and started to look more like the red dye foreigners used to write on their papyruses. “Oh… Yes. No. Ah… I mean I am going to. I just want to do it when I am… um… ready.”
“Suit yourself,” Danel retorted without bothering to look up again. “But you may want to expedite your plan lest she’ll become too old to bear children.”
“Oh, stick that mud ball up yours,” Hanno lashed out, his face now having switched to yet another shade of red, this one quite indescribable. “I’m out of here.”
As he bolted out of the door and turned to walk downstairs he avoided the outer edge of the balustrade. He had always found looking down to the entrance hall from this high above somewhat disconcerting. Just before the door slammed shut he could hear someone inside mutter under their breath, “Dickhead.”
He had already passed the doors to the Hall of the Scribes and was about to exit the building when something drew his attention. The vestibule was all quiet now. Sun would set in a couple of hours and everyone had gone about their business. As with all the cities worth visiting, most of the real life would happen only after dark.
He looked behind him. One of the high bronze doors to the hall was slightly ajar. This was most unusual. They should always remain closed when no scribes were working there. He could see a faint beam of reddish light shining through the crack. Slowly he sneaked closer to the door. Something in his mind told him that this was not a good idea and he should already be heading for the market rather than lingering here. Still, inexplicably he felt drawn to the light.
Reaching the doors he glanced around to make sure no-one was watching and then peeked into the grand hall.