The City of the Gods: Chapter One
After much delay, here’s the first chapter of The City of the Gods as promised. I hope you like it but remember, this is my first novel. Be gentle. 😉
You can read Chapter Two of The City of the Gods here.
The princess of Alays did not know what awoke her, but rising from her slumber saved her life. There was a man in her chambers, a man with a knife.
He paused when he saw she was awake and in that moment of indecision Syai threw herself from the bed and barrelled into him with a speed she did not know she had. He was larger than her and broader too, yet her momentum caused him to stagger against a bookshelf which toppled as he crashed against it as though it were made of glass rather than fine oak. Priceless tomes scattered across the room and his weapon spun away, knocked from his grasp by a sturdy compilation of last-century Parthian love poetry.
Together, they flung themselves at the knife. Syai’s outstretched hands got there first, but had barely grasped the hilt before her assailant grabbed her by the neck and wrenched it from her fingers, pressing the cool metal against her skin, ready to drain away her life. Rather than her life passing before her eyes, a sudden flash of inspiration swept over her, and she ducked to her knees. The unexpected action forced him to let go as he stumbled forward and the knife dropped once more.
As it fell twirling to the carpet the naked steel caught her calf, piercing a long streak through her skin which ran from the back of her knee very nearly to her ankle. While she saw the wound, she did not feel pain in that moment, and plunged for the weapon once more. Her attacker fell on her, pushing her onto the bed and bearing down on her with staggering force. She managed to grab the book of love poems and whacked him across the forehead with it, sending him tumbling and giving her time to reach the knife and clutch it firmly in her fist. He was on top of her before she had time to strike however, and the two of them tussled for a moment; then there was blood, an unbelievable amount of crimson ooze seeping out across the sheets and linens. For a terrifying time, Syai did not know whose it was, but then the princess realised her attacker had stopped breathing and the blood was not her own. The would-be assassin lay on her limp, and no longer struggling. It took all of her strength to push him off.
She tried calling for aid, none came. The princess now keenly felt her wound but there would be no treatment for it here, and Syai forced herself to stand. The effort caused her to flinch as her leg screamed in agony and she tumbled over her attacker, her breathing loud and rapid. With a heave she pulled his body to the floor and in the stillness which followed their fight, it seemed to her much like the crashing of a tall oak in a still forest. Using him to help prop herself up once more, she gained the use of her feet.
It was only then that she appreciated the devastation which had been wrought to her chambers; the shattered shelves and broken furniture, the piles of novels strewn across the floor. Syai loved her books more than anything but dared not secure even her most precious volumes as she stumbled to the doors which lay open, something they should not be, and from her brief inspection it was clear that they had not been forced, someone had left them open for her assailant.
Looking about she saw no one, and in an instant the night’s events were staggeringly more alarming than she already believed. The guards who normally stood by her door were absent, she had wondered why they had not come to her aid when they heard the commotion, now the reason was clear, they had not been there to hear it. There was not even a servant about. She called out once more; if anyone heard, they did not respond and the princess winced at her stupidity.
Syai looked back to her room where the body lay, the body of the man she had killed.
In her short life she had ordered the executions of murderers and rapists – a matter of attaching her seal and signature to the warrants which found their way to her desk – and she thought little more about the criminals sent to the gallows after that. Yet the princess had taken a life with her own hands and it was only now that Syai grasped at the horror of what she had done.
Had he a family? Would he be missed? Many of those she ordered hanged surely did, and were. Their families must resent her for what she had done. Syai had rarely considered such things before, now she could think of little else.
He had been trying to kill her, of course, but that did not console her. Not yet.
She limped back into the room and picked up the blade once more, soaked in blood now, and wiped it on her assailant’s garb. With the blade she cut apart the sheets of her bed which were still clean and formed a crude binding for her leg, another first for the royal. Syai gasped as she tied it securely around her wound and stood once more.
The man was handsome in a way, or had been, she noticed, and the princess felt oddly flustered as she gazed at him properly for the first time; knowing even as she did so how foolish such thoughts and feelings were. Emerald eyes shone back at her but they were lifeless now and his hair was wild, she wondered when it had last been washed. Still, he had a strong chin and Syai wondered what might have been if the Council had presented him as a potential husband, a prince of a distant land, would she have turned him down as she had all the others? Perhaps not, but he was not a suitor, he was an assassin and a dead man. The princess was not quite so desperate for affection as that.
Syai thought that perhaps she should close his eyes for the last time, wasn’t that what people did to preserve the dignity of death? He does not deserve such respect, she told herself and looked determinedly away.
She could not stay in her chamber, that much was clear. While it was unlikely, there might be another attacker, and the absence of anyone outside her rooms was if anything more troublesome still – there were always guards and servants waiting on her, whether she wanted them to or not. With that in mind, Syai determined that she could not seek aid for fear of someone within the palace working against her. The palace staff would not have abandoned their posts unless ordered to do so and there were few men whose position afforded them that authority, and they were powerful men indeed.
There was another path, an escape to the city. One of her earliest memories was being shown a hidden route from the palace. Darius, her father, dead not long after, had revealed it to her on the day of her fifth birthday.
Despite her youth at the time she recalled that day more clearly in her mind than almost any since, perhaps because it was the last time she’d had her father to herself. The two of them had intended to spend their day in the city, though Syai had not yet been told what was planned. The rain had put an end to their excursion and her father’s advisors had called on him to address matters of state. This is a day for my Syai, he had said in response and that had been that.
And so it was that he spent the day listening to Syai read her favourite book – a novel of heroes and dragons – now flung from its shelf and lying face down by her bed – he stopped her before she reached the final chapter.
“I’d rather imagine my own ending,” his eyes were sombre as he said this and she had not noticed then, but that was what she remembered most of her father now. The grim, thoughtful look he could never seem to shake, a look which she had grown to share. It had been at its most acute that day.
He talked to her when she closed the book, said that one day she would sit upon the throne and that when she did, Syai would have enemies. She had not understood him, surely nothing could happen to her father?
“Should all be lost…” Darius broke off, “it would be best to show you.”
Rising, she had followed him to the fireplace, curious but afraid as well. He had never spoken to her about these things before and though ever serious, the usual softness with which he treated her was absent. All this and more told her young wilful mind to take heed, and so she did. There came a grinding noise as the mosaic tiles slid away, revealing a path leading into darkness.
Syai asked him where it went. Darius shook his head in answer, his meaning clear, he did not know, “I always intended to find out, yet could never seem to find the time. Know that if you go this way, you cannot return.” That her father might not have the answers to her questions had shocked her as few things had before or since. “Never take this path unless you must,” had been his last words to her before he left to her books and since that day she had abided by them, until now. Syai had never been curious or bold enough to explore by herself, had never dared to ponder what might lie beyond the passage and that lack of foresight haunted her thoughts now.
Though it was possible her attacker had acted alone, she dared not take that risk and Syai stopped only to slip on a pair of shoes, sensible by the standards of her wardrobe, before running her fingers across the ceramic and at last finding an indent which she pushed into the wall. For a moment there was no sound and no movement to suggest the fireplace might part but then the grate moved aside with the same grinding she remembered to allow her passage.
Syai hesitated, wondering whether she was truly taking the correct path and where she might go when the answer jumped at her – Patriarch Ikar’s palazzo. The head of the State Council for the past year and one of the few powerful men in the city within whom she had a modicum of trust. There was nothing else for it, the princess decided, and she determined to leave the palace for the first time in her live without an entourage of slaves and guardians. The princess plunged into the enveloping darkness.
Once inside the passage beyond her fireplace, there was a click as a pressure plate registered Syai’s footsteps and the entrance to her room closed behind her. All of her strength was required to simply keep walking and if there had been enough light to see by, she was certain a red stain would be evident through her binding. The princess feared she might be poisoned yet no aid was forthcoming in the tunnel. A leader will always second guess himself… herself, but sometimes there is only one way forward, you will need the courage to seize it, had her father said that? Syai could not recall, but the words bore his voice and that was enough to keep her going.
The absence of light was complete. Whomever said the rocks beneath Alays glowed had never ventured here.
Her hands felt the walls she could not see, they were damp and cool, and offered her the only guidance she had at her disposal. An hour or more may have passed in that tunnel, or perhaps five minutes, Syai lost all track of time and the count of her step after she stumbled on uneven ground.
There was no sign of pursuit however, and nothing to accompany her but the frequent dripping of water and the darkness all about her. Despite the pain she felt she could breathe easier here.
Then the walls spread out, away from her touch, and light streamed towards her. It was almost painful to look upon after so long in the blackness and it took her a moment to realise that she looked not upon the light of the three moons or of the stars, but rather the glowing green rock of the undercity the legends spoke of.
Beneath her feet the earth began to shake, a violent seizure that reverberated throughout the cavern; Syai stumbled once more but did not fall and as her vision was restored to full clarity, she saw movement; there were people here, and they had seen her.