Today, we have a special treat for you. This is the beginning of a new story, which is going to take us away from The Fall for a little bit. This tale is a lot more personal, without any groundbreaking revelations or world-troubling conflicts.
No, this one follows a man from the pseudo-Indian city of Lakmari, a beautiful place where everyone is happy and healthy. But surely no place like that could be without its secrets. Read on to see what a new hero experiences in his time among the people.
Remembered in Gold
The commotion outside woke him well before he heard the distant silver bell. Kunal rose to see his house had emptied, his mother and sister having already vacated their home.
The Gathering had come once more to the city of Lakmari.
Kunal rolled from his bed and scooped the discarded vest from the floor. As he moved toward the exit, he brought it overhead and pressed his body through it, bumping into the doorway as he went.
He skittered down the steps, stumbling several times but managing to stay upright as he dismissed his waning stupor. He only hesitated for a moment at the exit of his home. There, a mirror revealed his disheveled appearance. He licked his fingers and set to work on his dark, tousled hair. He shrugged, finding himself acceptable.
When he opened the door, the commotion was already overwhelming.
“Did I already miss the selection?” he whispered.
The streets ran rampant with the fervor of those rushing toward the palace. Lakmari was not known for being one of the biggest cities in Lustra, but when that silver bell rung, everyone paid heed. Kunal turned to the north, looking at the distant, ornate instrument situated above the palace gates.
Even from his home, the young man could see the crowd converging on the white marble steps. He brought his hand up to his dark eyebrows to stave off the morning sun. While scanning his fair city, he was nearly slammed back into his home by an eager man’s broad shoulder.
“Hey!” he cried.
“Get to it, boy,” the man offered, spinning about briefly. “Before long, you’ll be better off watching the ceremony from the roof of your house.”
As he ran off, Kunal was left to contemplate those words. His brow furled as he watched the crowd filter through the streets. They bounced against each other, led like sheep by a royal shepherd. The man who had bumped into him was right. Against that tide, he would never have a satisfactory vantage.
No, what he needed was a pair of wings.
While the people of Lakmari bleated and made their way toward the palace, Kunal slipped around to the side of his house. That far north, each home sat tightly packed together. The young man could nearly extend both arms out wide and have a hand on each abode. But he was not content to merely touch the stone walls.
Without hesitation, he sprung against the side of his house and bounced off it. He shifted in the air and mimicked the action on his neighbor’s home, rising with each hop. Before long, he hoisted himself to his wooden roof.
Kunal took a moment to steady his arms and legs. Though he had drawn no closer to the palace, the grand silver bell seemed somehow bigger. He could almost read the etchings on its side. As he scrutinized the oversized instrument, it rang out again, tilting forward toward the people that neared it.
The young man rose to his feet. It would not be long before the Gathering proceeded and the prince of Lakmari took to the stage to announce the selection. Clapping his hands together, he rid himself of the dirt on his palms.
He burst forward, quickly reaching a full sprint atop the slight slant of the roof. Before long, he reached the edge, though he did not begin to waver in his pace. He leapt out, pulling his legs in close as he crossed the gap between that house and the next. While the people below pressed against each other in a futile attempt to reach the palace, Kunal raced across rooftops, far outpacing them. Swinging around chimneys, leaping over laundry lines, and balancing across slanted eaves, Kunal moved in haste. Before long, he arrived at the last house before the pale gardens.
A sea of white marble stretched out before him, paths swirling this way and that toward the palace exterior. Between the paths, vibrant wildflowers grew among a verdant expanse. Leafy trees grew about here and there, offering some shade among the paths. No one dared traipse upon the flowers, though.
Kunal landed upon bent knee on the marble rail below and hopped down to the path. Briefly, he was among the crowd, sifting through them as they carried him like a tide toward their destination. Fighting against that momentum, he clambered to the rail on the opposite side. He could hear their concerned prattles.
“Not my fault none of you lot thought of this,” he mumbled.
The citizens of Lakmari were so densely packed that many were forced to a halt, standing on their toes to peer past the crowd. The pale gardens opened up between two of the main paths, where a statue of their king, Drupad, stood embodied in marble upon a tall pedestal. Lowering his head, Kunal raced across the railing.
That uncommon action drew murmurs from the crowd as he passed, but the bell rang again, drowning out their confused whispers. The grand doors were opening. The ceremony was beginning.
Far ahead, where the marble paths converged, the citizens crowded together like too many reeds in a bundle. They began to rise from the throng, lifting themselves to the railing. Kunal was too late to reach that northernmost area of the pale gardens.
The young man dipped his head and charged forth upon the railing, leaping out over the forbidden wildflowers. Reaching up, he clung to one of the branches of the garden’s sturdy trees. Kunal’s fingers worked into the grooves of the bark, but he did not allow himself time to consider the sensation. Kicking forward, he flung himself over the flowers, landing upon the grass beyond.
As the adrenaline left his body at a gradual pace, a bright smile crept to his lips, framed neatly by his caramel-colored skin. He strode forward at his leisure, the statue of Drupad in his sights. A chorus of brass played in the distance upon the wall that housed the silver bell. That music hastened Kunal’s step once more.
He reached the statue a moment later, clambering upon it. The pedestal stood a mite higher than he expected, eliciting a small grunt from the extra exertion. The trumpets and kombus ceased their song just as the young man rose to his feet, holding Drupad’s burly biceps for balance.
A great cheer rose up, followed by a wave of applause. Ahead, the anticipated guest arrived upon the pavilion. A quartet of young maidens, their faces veiled in silk, preceded him. Those young, beautiful women seemed to float upon the marble pavilion, casting out handfuls of bright pink petals. Even from afar, that floral aroma was intoxicating.
Kunal focused on the closest girl, narrowing his eyes to cross the distance. She wore a jeweled headdress, a crystalline facet hanging just between her eyebrows. Her dark brown irises only appeared more enticing surrounded by the dark lines of black highlights. A single blink later, he was sure she had caught his stare.
Averting his eyes, Kunal instead looked upon the statue. Drupad’s effigy was imposing, yet from his proximity, the young man felt it had lost some of its splendor. Standing upon the pedestal with the king, Kunal was only shorter by several inches. A glimmer upon the statue caught his eye then, and he focused on a golden fleck on Drupad’s otherwise marble skin. Raising his arm, he extended his finger toward that queer flaw.
He abruptly stopped and turned to the east, where he saw a cheerful face. Dark skin and round cheeks accentuated his friend’s smile, which remained even as he hoisted his stout body over the railing. He landed upon the wildflowers, his sandals crushing a trio of them with no hope of survival.
“Param,” Kunal scolded.
Oblivious to those warnings, his friend traipsed over the flowers until he reached the grassy clearing. He ran as fast as his sandals would allow him, the footwear clapping loudly.
“You’ve got the best vantage in Lakmari,” Param insisted. He reached the statue of Drupad and leaned against the pedestal. “Perhaps the king will bestow luck upon you and your family.”
“Perhaps,” Kunal muttered. He barely registered his friend’s words, for the celebrated guest, Prince Sazim, neared the altar. Two of his most trusted advisors followed behind him but ceased their advance as he took his first step upon the dais. A hush fell over the extensive audience, the sea of citizens looking upon their ruler for the latest great reveal.
Sazim’s complexion was much lighter than many of his subjects. The sun seemed to catch upon his olive skin tone, leaving a luster upon him. A wide smile raised his thin beard and mustache, and he nodded at the few folk he made direct eye contact with. Finally, he raised his hand and took a deep breath.
“People of Lakmari,” he called out, his voice deceptively low and loud. “The time has come for another choosing!”
Zeal spread through the vast crowd. Cheers and applause could be heard from anywhere in the city. It went on for some time, hands clapping together like the fluttering of a bee’s wings. The prince beamed and shook his head as he considered that excited response. Following a laugh that went unheard, he raised his hand to silence the crowd once more.
“It has been –” He stopped, waiting for the final rambunctious citizens to quiet. “It has been two hundred and sixteen days since the last choosing – two hundred and sixteen days since Tarak Taran left our great city to set out and find his glory.” He raised his hand again, ceasing any interruption before it could start. “This tradition has been in place for thirteen years, ever since my father, the great King Drupad, ventured to the far corners of the globe.”
He gestured to his right, where the fair-skinned blonde advisor behind him stood. “The priestess Cascadia has seen the signs in the flames. It is time for another of us to be chosen, to make our way into the world. We follow in my father’s footsteps, leaving the safety and beauty of our city behind. Out there, among the wilderness and foreign soil, life is waiting for us. We need only to reach out and grab it.
“As has become part of the tradition, the priestess will provide me with the sacred stone – the sign of who was already chosen that night in the flames…”
Prince Sazim had a flair for the dramatic and an overly colorful way to describe a simple process, Kunal realized. As those words rolled on, the young man found himself drawn to the priestess. Her foreign graces captivated him. Golden hair fell upon porcelain skin, both shining in the sun’s light. She glanced up at that distant statue, and their eyes met. Kunal attempted to avert his gaze but found he could not.
“… and that is why it is my great honor and privilege to announce our newest champion and ambassador,” Prince Sazim said, turning the stone over in his hand. “Kunal Johar!”
Cascadia turned her attention to Lakmari’s prince, and Kunal finally found the power to look away. The crowd burst into applause, and he felt Param’s hand tap against his shin. With a furled brow, he watched as the people he lived beside turned about, looking upon him with great respect. His eyes widened as the prince’s spoken words hit the correct resonance, landing softly in his ears.
“As is custom,” Sazim went on, “you shall have the afternoon to spend with your friends and your family. At sunset, you will report to the palace. We will feast in your honor and prepare you for the road ahead.
“People of Lakmari, you have learned the great silver bell indicates the upcoming Gathering. It also indicates the loss of a citizen from our great city. While the chosen is honored by all of us, their absence stings to precious few. All who would remember Kunal and gaze upon his effigy can see him whenever they choose in the palace grounds.
“That concludes the twenty-third Gathering,” Sazim spoke. “While it ends for you and me, it is just beginning for Kunal Johar. If you see him in our streets, wish him well. Thank you.” The prince bowed following his speech, inviting another round of applause.
Sazim’s two advisors turned inward as he pivoted on his heel. While the prince began his return to the palace, the rest of Lakmari turned their attention toward the Gathering’s chosen. Kunal watched as they set their gazes upon him, and he suddenly felt the weight of his mission.
He also felt a firm tug on his pant leg. Looking down, he saw Param there with a wide smile upon his face. “Better get out of here,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll spend your last day here listening to jealous folk say how happy they are for you.”
With a nod, Kunal leapt down from the pedestal, his vision settling on the road to the south.