Numenera: Marauder Kingdom
Damn this cold, thought Dhaval.
Icy winds cut through his furs and armour, biting flesh and sending his teeth to chatter and cheeks to burn red. Dhaval had made the ascent to the Upper Tier three times in his life; first as a slave, second as a rebel, and last as a free man. Each time he stepped into the district, the air was always colder and the winds fiercer. This place doesn’t want me here.
Even if his blood froze, Dhaval wouldn’t turn back. The pompous masters and fanatic priests no longer had sole right to the wealth of Nihliesh. If they thought Dhaval would run back to the lower tiers and surrender everything he’d fought to liberate, they were in for a rude awakening.
Dhaval braced against the wind and continued down the promenade towards the Citadel of the Fahat. He’d seen the tower only from a distance as a slave, yet countless times its glowing walls guided him home from across the Matheunis expanse.
Never did he imagine its magnificence up close. The citadel was a single domed tower of tan stone with elegant buttresses and a foundation of marble. Engraved portraits circled the base of the tower, depicting major events in Nihliesh history. Reliefs of great battles, strange creatures and flying birds, mutated triads and the ancestors of the Great Exodus decorated the exterior, illuminated by glowglobes embedded in the walls. For a lifetime the citadel loomed over the inhabitants of the lower tiers as a reminder of the Fahat’s absolute power. Just the thought of a slave laying their hands upon its sacred white gold doors meant death.
But the Fahat’s rule was over.
Dhaval pushed the doors open, hinges groaning in protest. Daylight entered behind him, cutting through the darkness in the Great Hall of Reverence, the heart of Fah worship. It was here where the priests had coveted mutation while their slaves laboured and starved.
At the centre of the circular chamber sat Mada-liviss gracefully on her platinum chair, light reflecting off her crystal crown in a myriad of vibrant colours. Her eyes shone like pale stars edged with wisdom, more white and radiant than the moon.
Dhaval felt the weight of her gaze.
‘Your Highness,’ he said, ‘I am—’
‘—Dhaval Syena,’ she finished. ‘Do you think I would not recognise my conqueror? Come forward, I wish to look upon your face more closely.’
Dhaval started towards her with slow steps, eyes steady and hands tensed into fists. There’s nothing to fear.
Mada-liviss was the most beautiful of the Fahat. Silver-gold hair cascaded past her shoulders, shiny as woven silk touched by starlight. She wore an elegant white robe with an embroidered high collar, and pauldrons that covered her narrow shoulders, connected across her chest by a white gold chain that bore the tri-symbol of the Fah. Her hands, which were the only evidence of mutation aside from her great height, lay in her lap with rings of crystal and crusted gems decorating each of her twelve fingers.
Dhaval stopped at the foot of the throne. Mada-liviss studied his face with wise eyes and outstretched a hand to touch him. He kept his arms by his sides.
Ashen fingers felt his cheek, scratching against stubble. The hall dimmed and his body felt light as a cloud. The marble floor fell away and the world froze. Dhaval drifted, held in the air by whispers soft and sweet as kisses. Light filled his vision and a woman’s face appeared, bright and loving.
Tears swelled in his eyes.
Dhaval jerked back, stung. Mada-liviss sat in silence, her expression hard as a frozen lake. The hall suddenly felt dark and monstrous like he was trapped in the stomach of a great beast.
‘Nothing to fear,’ she said with a voice icy as the wind.
He’d been reckless. It was foolish to presume Mada-liviss ruled with status alone, and a few superficial mutations. Her true power lay within; where Dhaval’s eyes could not see or predict.
His jaw tightened. ‘Lesson learnt.’
‘Dear child,’ she said. ‘Your lessons have only begun.’
‘And are you to be my teacher?’ The words sounded more venomous than he intended.
‘Am I to teach you from this prison?’
‘Prison!’ The Citadel of the Fahat boasted eighty rooms; the smallest was thrice the size of a freeman’s home in the second tier. It took dozens of servants to maintain the tower’s upkeep and number of elite Fasaiph to guard its halls. Dhaval counted nine of their ranks in the Hall of Reverence alone, a warning to anyone hoping to further the revolution with Mada-liviss’s head.
’I’m not permitted to leave these walls,’ said Mada-liviss. ‘I can’t walk the promenade or talk with my people.’
’It’s for your protection, Your Highness. There are many who want you dead.’
She gave him a long look. ‘Are you among them, Dhaval of the Eagle?’
That gave him pause.
Thirty-two years he’d been a slave. Thirteen were spent in frostbitten wastelands fighting against the Fahat’s enemies and watching comrades die in agony. Thirteen years of bloodshed to protect masters who spat orders and whipped servants. Their lives meant little to the Fahat and the priests. They were shit to be thrown at the wall. To be a slave meant to never look up, to never dare dream of more. For centuries it had been this way, and for generations Mada-liviss sat on her silver chair overlooking it all.
That changed the day Syena died.
With his master’s blood, Dhaval spurred a rebellion that freed Nihliesh in a fortnight. The morning the messenger came with the Fahat’s surrender, he stood among thousands of cheering freemen gathered at the Overlook, tears in his eyes. But he soon learnt that war was easy — peace was hard.
The people elected Dhaval as their leader, to sit first among peers. He didn’t want it, didn’t ask for it, yet Nihliesh and all its burdens were his.
Change, it seemed, took time. Many freemen found themselves lost without a master. Some chose death, others turned to foreign faiths — most returned to the Fah. Freedom was its own nightmare.
Mada-liviss and the other revered Fahat sat and waited for everything to unravel. But doom was coming to Nihliesh, and they couldn’t afford to keep playing this game.
’I’m not merciless,’ said Dhaval. I’m not the Fahat.
‘Then if you’ve not come to kill me, what do you want?’
He inhaled the icy air and let it warm in his lungs.