Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Wings of Stone

There are many ways of navigating in the Golden Desert. By far the most reliable are the singing sand rats, who can hear the unique song of each town and city and follow it to its source.* Human Wayfinders, blessed with the rare gift of a sense of direction, are also quite popular here. Those unable to afford a Wayfinder travel by kilopede. The great arthropods are just as home in the Golden Desert as in the Mountainous Plains, though they have to drink a lot, and many order snowshoes - several hundred pairs each - so that they can more easily traverse the shifting sand. Other people prefer tree compasses, which forever point to the living sources of their wooden needles. For a prepared Desert traveler, there are almost as many ways of finding places as there are places to find.

We had none of them. For lack of a better method, we fell back on the oldest means of navigation: pick a direction and hope that it leads somewhere. Fortunately, we still had several days of food and water, and we were finding enough on the way to keep our supplies replenished. Death by deprivation was not an immediate worry. All we had to do was keep walking and try to keep ourselves amused.

We spent the first few days singing and telling stories. Karlishek turned out to have a pleasant tenor voice and a large repertoire of folk tales and songs, which made the hot days go by much faster than they might have. (We traveled in the mornings and evenings, resting when it grew too dark to see or too hot to move, but the air was uncomfortably hot by an hour after sunrise and only grew worse from there.) Mirenza's collection of ancient legends and songs, in the bent keys of traditional Desert music, was also fascinating. As the widest-ranging traveler of the group, my eclectic mix of songs and stories made an interesting contrast; the tale of Gan the Foolish Fence-Builder, from the lush and carelessly governed land of Mollogou, required as much explanation from me as the tales of the ancient and highly ritualized Miravi Empire did from Mirenza.

Garnet continued to speak little, murmuring something about her singing voice being out of shape, but she listened closely to everything.

The Miravi Empire was on our minds quite often during those days. Hardly an hour went by when we didn't pass some remnant of it. Broken pillars quivered on the horizon. Piles of stone blocks lay half-swamped by dunes, still retaining just enough right angles to tell that they had once been the foundations of houses. Markers for long-vanished oases gave names to dry depressions in the sand and invited travelers to drink their fill. At night, we slept in old, half-buried ruins, surrounded by ancient stone and illegible hieroglyphs. Statues looked down on us: the stone-faced gods of a thousand years ago. No one but archaeologists remembers their names.

Every single statue had wings, or stumps where wings had once been.

In the ancient Miravi Empire, according to Mirenza, the ability to fly was considered divine. The wingless were normal; the flying were gods, rulers, cloistered and extremely rare. The highest-born spent their entire lives in towers and hammocks, never once setting foot on the ground. The palaces of the Empire were fantasies of towers and balconies and open courtyards, with more doors opening to the air than to the ground. Many rooms were accessible by flight alone. Others had narrow stairs or ladders added as an afterthought, a vulgar necessity for the rulers' poor, earthbound servants.

Those with wings but not flight were considered cursed and cast out into the desert. Even now, the nomadic tribes that wander between cities have an unusually high occurrence of vestigial wings.

As odd as this method of choosing rulers seems to us now, they seem to have run the Empire quite well for a time. It was one of the most prosperous countries in Hamjamser for several centuries. Most of the cultures in the Golden Desert have Miravian roots; the ancient Miravian language is the basis for modern Amrat, the tongue I have been learning from Karlishek and Mirenza. Modern Desert cities are built with the same majestic, highly ornamented architectural flair that the Empire perfected. The ancient Miravian cities were centers of art and trade and science, each city keeping a friendly and respectful relationship with the aquifrax that provided its water. These generous, enigmatic Desert spirits have probably never been as well understood, before or since, as they were by the ancient Miravians.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, this understanding eventually became complacency. All of this prosperity ended when the Miravians finally did something to annoy the aquifraxi. Accounts vary as to exactly what it was. Some historians believe it was due to political or religious differences; aquifraxi consider themselves subjects of the Rain Dragon (and he humors them politely enough, though he's never shown any sign of actually wanting to rule anything but tides and storm clouds). Others theorize that the dispute was over pollution, or excessive irrigation, or an infestation of imported foreign frogs. Whatever the reason, one day, every aquifrax in the Empire simply picked up and left. They took the water with them.

They hadn't gone far, as it turned out; they'd merely relocated to the uninhabited areas of the Empire. Within a few months, what had been empty desert was lush and blooming, and what had been fertile farmland was too dry to grow anything but dust and heatstroke. The people of the Empire packed up their things and left everything they'd built. In some cases, they only had to walk for a few hours to reach fertile ground. Many could still see their old homes as they built their new ones. The division between farmland and wasteland is a sharp one in the Golden Desert, though; people have to follow the water, wherever it happens to be. Without an aquifrax, the old cities of the Empire might as well have been on the moons.

Many of the wealthiest citizens stayed behind anyway, hoping desperately that things would go back to the way they had been, until their grand houses filled up with sand.

Most of the winged nobility were among them. The new settlements had been thrown together quickly, to give the farmers and craftspeople somewhere to sleep while they figured out how to feed an entire displaced Empire. There was nowhere for sky-dwellers to perch.

The Miravi Empire never really recovered. It took a long time to rebuild even a fraction of what had been lost, and in the bustle, most of the Empire's less practical traditions - such as the winged rulers - were left behind and forgotten. The rough settlements grew into stable towns and eventually became the Golden Desert's modern cities, such as Karkafel and Thrass Kaffa. The people developed new, somewhat more cautious relationships with the aquifraxi. Life returned to normal. Like most places in Hamjamser, though, the cities remained separate this time. They continued to trade goods and citizens and ideas with each other, but somehow, they never quite reunited into a single country again. It's not that surprising, I suppose. In every part of Hamjamser, empires have always been the exception, not the rule.

These days, the ability to fly is considered as ordinary in the Golden Desert as it is anywhere else. The winged hold everyday jobs and mingle with the flightless without hesitation. Many even consider the winged nobility to have been a foolish idea. In these modern times, most places in Hamjamser consider it unhealthy for rulers to be always looking down on their subjects. It gives them strange ideas.

Still, I have often seen the people of the Golden Desert gazing silently at the clouds, or at the wings of their neighbors. Perhaps a part of them still remembers a time when wings could bring them closer to Heaven, and not merely to the empty sky.

* They can even find things as small as individual oases, though they say those songs are little more than brief jingles.

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