(Fiction) The City of the Dead

Six hours along the coast from Incomium, where the Comi River makes its spectacular leap to the sea, rests an inlet at the far edge of the Western Expanse. There, nestled amid the cypress trees atop an urn-shaped hill, the City of the Dead lies in permanent repose.

Neither peninsula nor island, the hill is surrounded on all sides by an immense intertidal flat. Once a day—thrice in the high season, when the calcareous asteroid joins the moon in the sky—the muddy flat fills silently with seawater. Never more than half a lagat deep, the dark water, laden with volcanic basalt, gathers slowly, as if marching in solemn procession. At high tide, the locals call it the Black Lake, and its dark expanse is never crossed. For several centuries, until the time of the Tarquins, the water was only ever touched by the Incomium dye-makers, who sifted it, squatting on the shore, at the noontide. Tiny granules of “black salt” were separated from the mud and roasted in a furnace before being ground into a fine powder to make the infamous dye of St. George, which is said to absorb all light. So deep and ominous were the garments made from the dye that the Tarquins banned its sale, taking the monopoly for themselves. Over generations of rule, the Tarquin kings and their heirs filled immense wardrobes with fine silks and linens. They draped their beds and windows with it and dressed themselves from head to foot. To this day, the charcoal-fingered tingers at Incomium are still required to make their annual trek to the city, there to deliver three hundred and thirteen leks of dry powder, packed into single-lek spheres wrapped in oil cloth. Although hard to the touch, the spheres dissolve instantly in liquid which thence permanently stains whatever it touches.

The crossing of the flat costs seven silver guiya and always takes place at low tide, when penitent pilgrims, their mouths covered in bulging leather muzzles, ascend long-legged Kadlian mounts, the only beasts capable of traversing the deep mud (all machines being banned). The lanky animals walk disinterestedly, chewing the cud, in single file along an ancient stone-post path to the sole scalable ingress: a steep, staircase-like crack in the cliffs marked by a simple white arch. (The stone posts being no taller than the high tide, the arrival of the Black Lake erases all evidence of the path.) No seabirds nest on the hill. No squirrels scamper among the cypress. There is only the silently growing grass, the rare blooming flower, and the city.

Simple stone cairns dot the lower reaches of the hill. Built before the Septuacaust, no one knows why they were erected—or even if they are tombs. Cut from the local rock, they are little more than low caves chiseled in a faded and forgotten script. Centuries later, after a pale and lustrous marble was quarried from under the nearby Comi River, cubic mausolea of either two or three lagats a side began to appear amid the cypress. Cobblestone pathways, large enough for a carriage, were added after the Second Restoration and gradually expanded until they rose and fell, joining stairways or escaping from them, in a network that stretched completely around the false island. Rich merchants from Gasfa and realms across The Strand, dissatisfied with such simple memorials, were allowed to construct grander structures, provided they were available for all. The Rothwiecz of Honenfeld built the first open-air market, still the largest, atop the north cliff. The Roscovians erected a town square—or rather circle—with an obelisk at its center, whose gradually turning shadow marked both the time of the day and the season as it moved across swooping grooves in the floor. At the very crest of the hill was an open-air temple, built by the Tarquin king Holuphred I. Its four-square struts held no roof but the sky. Its columns surrounded a deep, round hole in the floor that descended at depth into the earth: The Well of Night. According to tradition, those dead who tired of eternity could ascend to the temple, there to be judged by Othos himself and either raised to heaven or cast into the Well.

It was Holuphred who allowed poorer folk, unable to afford the cost of construction, to leave their honored dead in the newly erected common places, provided all the same rituals were observed. No body could be left exposed. If not cremated and encased in an urn, remains had to be cast inside a statue of stone or quarter-pure metal. The oldest had heavy, inhuman faces and stood rigid under archways or were built into walls. Later patricians, seeking a more distinguished patronage, began commissioning graceful statues in lifelike pose, and gradually the whole of the silent city became populated with the living dead. They walked down thoroughfares, bought flowers in the market, and sat on benches contemplating the sea. They hugged their children or bent in prayer. They danced silently under the obelisk or played the lexican flute or chatted genially with each other inside the simple square rooms of the family mausolea. Whenever a broken statue was found, the soul was said to have “gone to the Well,” and whatever remained of it was thrown inside by the eldest male child, or else a priest of the Sibelline Order.

And so was built an entire vibrant city where not a soul stirred and not a single word was uttered. For all of the living who visited the City of the Dead had their mouths muzzled and their pinky fingers bound and swore upon pain of death not to disturb any of the eternal citizens upon whose domain they trespassed. Special tortures were reserved for he who took from the still and silent island any part of it. No pebble, no twig, no stray seed was removed. Each visitor, no matter how wealthy, was thoroughly searched—or was supposed to be—before once again mounting their three-kneed Kadlian and trekking home across the mud.

By simple irony, only the greatest transgression required no punishment. Not one of the seventeen legal scrolls that governed visits to the city in the time of the Tarquins ever mentioned the missing of the tide. It is said only three were ever trapped on the hill past the procession of the Black Lake, and that none were heard from again. But as to the truth, only the dead can know.