Chapter One - Good Luck
This is a record of my visions, my wife’s recollection, and dramatization of historical accounts. This is the story of how gods returned and all at once vanished. But first, this has to be the story of Sam Aslan. And first, the man who raised him. The Last Prince.
Winter in the City
I went to the damned Rig by horse. The trip almost snapped each of my legs. My orbital gear and climbing equipment was long abandoned in a careening sheet of metal and debris with nothing but sky beneath. As the atmosphere returned to me, my lungs tasted sweet natural oxygen, which coated and broke off in my nose in crisps. My head ached and my arms hung down as I descended further into the Flat Land.
As the fields of mustard grass appeared in the distance I smiled, knowing Taro’s home must be close. The horse approached over the course of an hour, I cycled through every clearing looking for his house, and when I couldn’t see it moved on to the next on foot, leading the horse through pine and brush. My horse had gone slightly lame on its front foot, which would kill my journey except for the fact that Taro’s compound must include some sort of stable. Any man of the military has a stable. If any of it was intact after this long I figured I might be able to heal my horse and move on after a short stay in his home.
I found it at some point weeks after I had begun, the start of the story I had been collecting over years; Taro’s home. It was a short stout building, already I was flooded with memories of loneliness, days of brawn and survival, a homesteader or a lost man.
In short, I can see the past, but I have to sacrifice the building the events I see took place in. I connect myself to the walls and their memories, and destroy it down to the matter, taking me back to all of the times with strong emotion that took place in it.
And so I decided to bring my horse to health and wait in the home for a few days. If I destroyed it now, I would have to sleep outside and return filled with soreness and pain.
I hitched my horse outside, patted it’s side. I dropped my bag on the dark wooden stoop and tried to force myself in, there was no security on the door except for the handle and a rotted in bear lock. I smashed it off with my huge gloved hand and slammed my form into the door until it released and I made my way in. There was a kitchen to my right, lined with sharp wood edges, cookware on hooks and a massive wood stove and basin. The basin sat filled with pickled food that must have been pickling for decades now.
I sat my things down, the floor shifting under me and emptied the basin until I could run water and did so. I pulled my coat’s buttons undone and untucked my shirt. I splashed my face with water, jolting with the shock of the cold and recovered. I took my sword from my hip and sat it across the basin, the deeply shined steel presented my image back at me, and with my dagger I used the reflection to shave. I ran my fingers over the stubble and was reminded of how I used to look. My skin was red and brown from the sun, peeling deeply from the wind and scarred from years of moving through roots and pines. A long time ago, if I could find it, I would see my younger self in the same red frock coat splotched with bits of paint on my pants. But until then I could only picture it in my own mind.
I ate sparingly and worked my swordsmanship with the home’s many posts and beams until I was exhausted. At night I used an old pot to smash the floorboards apart and started a fire in the floor. For three days I slumbered and trained, coming out in the mornings to feed the horse and carve at it’s feet until they were no longer pink and disturbed.
I went inside, waiting until the real sun would be directly below me and cut my palm open. My vision flushed and my mouth filled with spit as I started to pass out from the bleeding, I fought collapsing and drew a circle on the sugar glass pane in black blood. I pressed my palm flat against it and fell through as it shattered. A world of white surrounded me, I awoke flat on the floor.
* * * * *
Moths were hatching when a letter from the other prince arrives. Taro sat on the porch, watching the leafy creatures soar into the trees. Falling wind chased the mustard grass from across the flatland and melted into the yellow grass.
A man on a blonde horse had been traveling to Taro's homestead, as he was arriving he rummaged through his saddlebag and retrieved a wooden canister. He held it in one gloved hand and made up the path to the stoop.
Taro was slurping a brew of pine tea taken from the pot this morning, as he saw the knight arrive he sat his things down, the knight waved and announced, "Anyone to receive a letter?" Taro stepped outside, shirt slung over his shoulder ran his fingers through his sweaty hair, "Letter from who?"
The knight had one red eye, dripping blood. "The prince's letter. I assume you are the other?" The knight reached his white glove down, which Taro shook wearily, "Aye I am Taro, the heir's brother." then Taro stood back, pointed to the man's bleeding eye, then asked, "and you are Clinton? The blood knight."
The knight groaned and wiped the blood away, smearing a little on his glove. "I am. But I tell you my bloody tears are only a condition, I have no wounds to my holy soul, my eye only bleeds by a mistake in my body." The knight sounded annoyed.
Taro apologized, "Right."
Awkwardness followed but was broken by the shaking woods and their noise as wind passed.
Clinton lowered the wooden canister from his horse, Taro took it on both sides with both hands, then offered, "I would like for you to have breakfast with me, if you want." stepping towards the door.
"No sir, I am to ride back to the city now, following my prince's orders." His brother denied him. Taro sighed, waving from the door, "Then best travels for you." Clinton then asked, "Of best travels, are these wood's path yours?"
Taro said no, "No it is kept by a farmhand." He spoke of Henry, another homesteader who built the roads far before Taro had settled in the area. It took a stonemason's assistance and seven years Taro was told.
Clinton was impressed, "Usually I've gone by horse as there aren't many roads in the flatlands. I might find the funds for a car if I'm ever to return." Taro nodded, thinking about riding by horseback now. Clinton road away, waving sometimes as his horse appeared smaller.
Taro went back inside his house, reclining at the kitchen. The knight Clinton spoke in a friendly way, but Taro sensed a certain wickedness about him. Taro thought of the stories of the knight who cries blood, the horrors of war that had birthed him, and the knights of the same curse before him. It reminded him of the legendary spirit who rode a white horse, who brought blackest doom. Maybe his brother's letter held dark tidings as well. Taro felt a past of shame and torture in Clinton.
Bringing the canister inside he saw the wavy profile of the wood and it's silver decadence. "A great gift for the farmhand Henry." Taro thought about the canister. Taro opened it, and let the contents fall out onto the table.
The canister had three things. A letter, a band of paper money, and two photographs.Taro opened the letter and read; "Father is going to trial in six days, he's being persecuted by the council. I don't know what's going on, but when I heard I left academy for the city. I know.. I know that you both would want me in school for now but frankly I'm scared about dad.
I sent my messenger to ask you to come to me. I want my big brother here at my side right now. Attached is money for your trip to the city, and photos of the day me and dad had together, under the councils supervision mind you.
Trial is in six days please hurry."
"How long had the messenger knight been out" he thought. Taro took the money, leaving everything else out on the table. He rushed down the hall to his cellar, swinging it's heavy door open. Taro made his way down, grabbing his saddle and throwing it over his back, he took his green leather jacket from a bar and tucked it in his arm, then rushing up the stairs.
Outside he took to the field across the lawn. Brown leaves and their inhabitants were sent flying around him.
Across the field, indulging in the mustard grass Figueroa heard purposeful footsteps.
Three days had passed when Taro hitched to the post outside of the knight's station, hidden in a tavern. The tavern keeper welcomed Taro in, and Taro showed the tavern keeper his royal sword at his hip. The tavern keeper poured vodka and slid it over to an empty bar stool. Taro took a seat next to a trapper who smelled like harsh vinegar, and enjoyed the bar for a minute.
It would take an hour or two for the other patrons to leave, Taro watched the sun fall and reflect through the sugar windows into the empty glass in front of him, light making a bright cell slowly dimmed and became a dark core. Taro saw the images in front of him, a reaper in a flatland clearing the land harshly. A heavy cherub fell from the sky, scorching the wheat as his wings swelled and screamed, the sound of a hollow church bell, the sound of a thousand waves feuding with the largest steel drum, it's massive frame taking all color from the world.
The cherub pointed his sword, and shouted a silent command. Lightning breached the sky, destroying the reaper's dark skull. He didn't cry, only fell and collided into the swell of grass. The cherub left, and the flatlands once again became silent.
Taro woke up crying when the tavern keep shook his shoulder, "Wake up prince, your your guide is about to arrive." Taro looked up, the bar and dining area were dark now, and the door was latched shut. The tavern keep lifted the drop door on the bar and pressed a button. Stairs revealed themselves from a panel in the floor, into a garage. "you can sleep more if you like, upstairs or downstairs is your choice."
Taro nodded, and leaned his head into his hands, "I just don't feel good."
The tavern keeper leaned back on the bar, "it seems. I have only seen you the two times on the way to the city, and I know you keep yourself well."
"what do you mean."
"You're Taro, the oldest son. I remember you used to be very gracious. And now you have a beard, and long hair. And you've lost your royal uniform."
"I just don't wear my uniform anymore. There's no volunteer work in the military left for me, and I'm not going to lead the nation. My Jude is going to be the king no matter what, he's younger is why, that's how that works."
The tavern keep stroked his stubbly chin, "He might be the heir, but you will always be the prince. For the rest of your life you might walk with him. The relationship you share with your brother could make you a king of sorts, you might have no authority, but the things you could ask from him."
Taro stood up in the seat, leaning down and snatching a bottle of wine into the air and catching it. "God if I were the prince I would live anywhere, I would be on another Rig for sure."
"What's on another Rig?"
"Less Heart'sland for one, and for two my last wife couldn't find me and take my money," Taro smiled and poured his friend a glass as well. "You royalty pay me well, but that's only once or twice a year, in the meantime I can only sell liquor to make ends meet."
"you don't enjoy being a barkeep?"
"I do enjoy it, but only the joy of profits is what I enjoy. It's funny, i could really have any job and I wouldn't mind."
"how about all the people you meet? you must hear amazing stories from travelers."
"And every amazing story is followed by a drunkard wetting himself."
Taro took a sip, it was sour, he thought for a second and said, "Why don't you join the military? I mean see the Rigs and make yourself stronger and smarter. You get to be so much more in the military it's something to be proud of."
"I don't want to get hurt. The army is scary."
They drank and talked, the tavern keeper wanted to play cards, but Taro said he needed sleep before the guards arrived. "So be it, the tavern keeper carried Taro's things down to the basement and opened it. The tavern keeper went back to the front, brought Figueroa by her lead and closed things down. "Sleep well."
The barkeep went upstairs, turned all of the lights off, and set a chair in front of the entrance door. He sat down, his 8 gauge shotgun draped down to the floor, and sat there standing guard.
Taro reached out from his bed and held Figueroa's snout. She huffed as he rubbed his knuckles against her fur. Her dark coat was almost invisible in the dark, and her shiny glistening eye examined him, always piercing through the blackness. Taro held her head until she fell asleep and burrowed into his cot.
Two hours passed and the garage door opened, a truck backed into the garage, stopping just close enough to not hit Figueroa. The men in the truck jumped out, taking Taro’s bags and hoisting him by the arms into the back of the truck, they all wore black tactical gear and patches, beards and sunglasses. A young man with a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips stepped towards Taro, the truck was short and so he had to duck.
“I’m the knight.” he reached for Taro’s hand. Taro shook his hand, “You aren’t a captain?” the knight shook his head and sat down across from Taro. “Captain to be, my name is Thaliard.”
Taro nodded meaningfully, “I’ve heard about you. Did extremely well in school and went straight to leadership.”
Thaliard sighed, “Not exactly straight.”
“Straight from the brothel.” One of the other knights chimed in, he had nasty dark teeth.
Thaliard punched him in the side of the head, and the knight complained, “Ow!”
They rode quietly until Thaliard went to the back of the truck as it was in motion and opened the sliding portion at eye level, flicking his cigarette butt out of the back. “Please no more of those.” Taro asked him.
Thaliard sat down and met eyes with Taro. “Yes sir.”
It grew tense for a few moments until Taro made small talk, “Do you know the Blood Knight?” At the mention of his name several men started playing in their pads and avoiding eye contact with anyone. Thaliard spoke, “I do,” then explained, “He was actually a good influence to me, and brought me to military school from the village.”
Taro asked, “Have you ever served him?”
“No new knight ever serves him,” a knight told Taro, “He’s had the same squad for two decades, just four of them are still alive.”
Taro had a bad feeling about Clinton serving his brother, especially if his father was part of some scandal. The “blood knight” was king brosthord’s right hand man during any civil conflicts. For the span of Taro’s early life he only served as a teacher. If Clinton was involved once again it must be dire.
Taro embarked in the truck with knights and held his head in his hands. The procession nearly cost him his sanity, after a few moments of driving her heard shouting outside of the truck and felt it stop. The knights stood at ready suddenly, Taro banged one arm against the side of the truck and shouted, “why are we stopping?”
A knight looked through the eye hole and answered Taro, “The festival of the crowning” The knights looked at the driver expecting orders, the driver answered simply, “there is nowhere I can move.” The knights then looked at Taro, who was their boss at the moment. Taro saw the clay spirit masks that festival goers wore en masse and asked for the face armor of one of the knights. Taro looked at them and donned the black metal ski mask. He pulled a vest from one of the knights and his holster and stepped out wrapping his coat around the bulletproof vest. “Take my sword to my quarters and have Thaliard hold onto it for me.”
A Knight asked Taro, “where are you going?” Taro shook his head, “I need to celebrate.”
Night fell and boys in masks sprinted and shouted through the streets, kicking the sigil candles over on accident and lighting a banner in flames. Seven boys took the flag with the coat of arms and ran excitedly with it burning through the air. Women stood with their children by cascades of bands and dancers tearing passages through the city. Taro stood back and watched the macabre hordes from the shadows.
As he wandered back to the watchtower the celebration’s presence died at a distance and Taro moved quietly on the water front. He dropped the mask and silently cried on the river’s edge as he made his way. A group of drunk soldiers made their way from the academy boasting about the ceremony. Taro