Sometimes a story begins in the middle.
The Red King
In the middle of the Red City a mad king sits whispering. His whispers are paranoid and greedy, and his wrinkled hands clutch tightly at his chest. He is surrounded by opulence, swathed in elegant fabrics and sparkling jewels. The furniture that he rests upon is carved from ancient trees, and the wood shines forth with forgotten magic. But the eyes of the sad king see none of this. They are clouded with anger and resentment seeing only the past. As he whispers, they make sharp and furtive glances toward the illusions of an imagined future.
Looking out of his large windows with their ornate carvings and coloured glass, the houses and rooftops of the city before him stretch out like a sea on fire. Even though it is just past mid-day and not too hot, the city streets are silent, even the birds do not sing, all are frightened and constrained by this king and his violent melancholy. The stillness of the city as it bakes in the sunlight gives the illusion of an expanse of hot embers glowing with menace.
This is the Red City. Its walls, streets, and rooftops, all shine and sparkle with the colour red. The city was built from copper and clay found in the mountains nearby. Its walls are inlaid with gemstones, rubies and precious jewels. These were once given as gifts to the people of the city, by the members of a royal family who lived in the Palace of Gleaming Gold at the city’s centre, long ago. They would trade their wisdom, magic, and the shelter of the city for these various jewels, trading with travellers passing by, and so the city glitters with treasures gathered from around the world.
The beautiful palace is made of gold and brick. It sits in tall majesty at the heart of the vast city, glowing even on starless nights. In the daylight it shimmers like the sea at dawn, and in the evening it sits in radiance like a sunny midsummer’s afternoon. Ancient royal adventurers built it, or so it is told, out of gold that had been gathered from every continent. In the ancient languages, now mostly forgotten, it was named Laroombhasa, meaning changeless brilliance. It was the magical center of the Khadom of Baasala.
This was long ago, however, when kings and queens ruled well, and were well loved and known by name, when the Red City was united as the first Khadom. It was called Baasala, its true name. This was the name given to it by the ancient Bee Queen Mellifera, the first of the Bee Prophets. At that time the heart and spirit of the Khadom (which later became the Red City) was held and nurtured by the palace of gold at its center. But that was long ago, before the Red King’s time.
Sadly, the names of Mellifera have long gone unused. They have, for the most part, been lost to the mind. Little of the old ways of knowing, and the old words that followed, are still living in the language of the people. All of this, however, is about to change. Soon the language of the Bees will once again be heard, the old names will be pronounced and remembered, and it is here in the sadness of a mad king that our story is meant to begin.
The Red City is no longer alive as other cities are, with noisy bustle and chaos. Children do not run and play with high loud voices through its narrow streets. The citizens of the city go about their business quickly, speaking in hushed tones. They elude frivolity and celebration, as all joyful things have been outlawed in the Red City and are punishable by worse than death. The Red King (as the people call him) sits alone, watching from his golden palace, while his goons roam the city streets straining for the sound of laughter. Even infants are not allowed to giggle. Hushed and hidden, they are locked away by their families for fear of being lost.
For five long years, by royal decree, any child found laughing within the walls of the Red City has been put into the Enchanted Giggling Labyrinth of Inevitable Madness, never to be seen or heard from again. How the poor things must suffer before they finally perish, locked in that green asylum, sends a ghastly shudder through the people of the city, so that all happy children are hushed and hidden away.
This is doubly sad, for the grounds of the palace were once magical places, full of lush greenery, hidden treasures and delights. They were gardens of great art and wonder. Now they have become dark and overgrown, full of hostility and fear. Little grows there now that is nice and sweet. Instead it has become a small forest full of twisted thorns and foul shadows. Gnarled trees and poisonous weeds have crept in, hiding unsavoury characters that snarl at passers-by from out of the darkness. Most horrible though, is the transformation of what was once known as the Enchanted Labyrinth of Giggles and Delight, which has become now an inescapable tomb of madness and torture.
You must wonder at what could have happened, at what misfortunes must have overtaken the once great city. What tragedy could have twisted the heart of the Red King that it should so transform his palace and its grounds? Well, there were reasons. The Red King is not to be blamed entirely, for he had been raised without the discipline of the old traditions. His life had been easy and blessed by fortune, and he had rarely known a moment’s discomfort. His family had begun to forget and disregard the magic that was their birthright, they had begun to take the city for granted, and had forgotten the secrets of the Kha.
Over the course of his lifetime, a million small decisions, choices, and complacencies, had mounted upon and given birth to one another in an invisible and interconnected pattern of habits and then fears. At first this latticework held the Red King and brought him comfort, but eventually it began to control him. The city and its palace had been slowly fading and becoming tired, and lazy, for many years before tragedy finally struck. Like the golden palace, each moment had been built, brick by brick, through the moments and decisions that had preceded it.
However, the Red King and the city had indeed once been happy. The city had been full of the laughter of children at play, and the round sounds of the marketplace; the chirping of birds and the flutter of multi-coloured fabrics that swirled as street performers danced and sang. The Red King and his brother Andreas lived in the palace with their families. The King, for the most part, was gentle and kind. He had four young children and a strong, magnificent Queen who held the city together with the power of her thoughtful mind, and her memory of the old ways. She was found sisters with Andreas’ wife who was wild and playful, clever and intense. Together they would lift the spirits of the city, infusing it with cheer. They raised their children in the old ways, with the secrets of the Kha, hoping to change the fading pattern of the city. They loved the world and all that was in it, and so their days and nights were full of joy, and their hearts knew only gladness.
Then one day death came, as it most often does, sudden and unexpected, and the Queen, who was so strong and so brave, was the first to fall ill as a cruel cagastric plague touched down upon the city. The palace physicians said that it was an airborne disease, a brutal pathogen that came across oceans, carried on the winds from far off lands of dark mystery. It struck quick and lethal, and within a fortnight the kind and brilliant Queen was dead.
The Red King, who had once been so charming and generous, was appalled by his misfortune. He had never truly known suffering like this before; he had never even imagined it. He was overcome by misery and rage, and closing himself off in the high tower of the palace, he tried to forget the world. Many others in the city and in the palace died, but their deaths went unnoticed by the grief stricken King.
Andreas, the Red King’s brother, also lost his wild and lovely wife, along with their eldest child, to the ravages of the plague, but when he tried to gain entrance to the high tower of the palace, he was cast out with harsh words from his brother King. On the steps of the tower, surrounded by gold, the two men faced each other. Feeling the bitter lines that pain and loss had etched into their own heart and flesh, they were blind to the misery of the other. As the Red King uttered cruel and thoughtless words, Andreas lost all patience and the courage of his heart broke apart under the heavy weight of his self pity and despair. He felt resentment lift him like waves in the ocean, and he vowed to leave the palace and never to speak to his brother again.
Andreas slept one last night in his usual bed and was tortured by the loss of his wife and son, by dreams of fitful suffering. Upon waking, however, he watched the sunlight dance across the golden walls of his bedroom. He thought of the two children left to him, and of his nieces and nephews who had been so forgotten in the wake of their mother’s passing. These children were being made orphans by the grief and anger of their fathers. He looked out upon the vast city of brick and stucco. Its many jewels and the spirals of its copper inlay sparkling in the sunlight. He thought of all those who had died and left behind them loss and sorrow. He contemplated the desolate loneliness in his heart. For a moment he felt how disconnected the palace had grown from the city that it had once served.
The Red King’s brother sat in deep contemplation. It was the first time he had meditated in many years. He felt the storm of his grief and anger breaking upon his mind and heart like a violent squall. He thought of the vow that he had made to leave the palace and all who dwelled therein. Andreas had not forgiven his brother, yet he decided to remain in the palace a little while longer to see that the city and the King’s children were well looked after. He went down to breakfast where the children sat waiting, and he hugged them all. Then after breakfast, he went out into the city where much needed doing.
The meteorologists of the Red City were some of the best in the world (or so it was said in the Red City), and they had predicted rain for the day in question. This was an odd prediction for that time of year, but nevertheless Andreas took with him a good cloak and an umbrella (or rather, the equivalent of such a thing for that time and place, which looked remarkably like an umbrella so we might as well call it that), and he made his way into the city, planning to be back by noon or thereabouts.
Now, had it actually rained that day and not that evening as it did, the Red King’s brother would have most likely returned to the palace by noon or thereabouts and the story of the Red City would have been quite different, and perhaps more cheerful. Alas, it did not rain as the meteorologists had predicted, it was instead sunny and pleasant, and the air was sweet, and Andreas spent the entire day wandering the streets of the Red City, putting things right and taking tally of things wrong.
As it happened, there was a band of bandits called the Baragouin who had been exiled to the swamps and foothills beyond the city gates, by the Red King long ago. They were wild and dangerous young men and women who had been labelled terrorists by the Red King. They wandered the world as pirates, brigands, and gypsies. They worked for strange forces and could speak to animals. They had heard from the crows who lived near the palace, of the Red King’s misfortune, of his estrangement from the world and from his brother, and of the horrible indifference the two men had recently shown to their unfortunate children, and to the people of the city. Hired by the magicians who lived deep in the earth, in the root system of wild mushrooms that grew around and beneath the city, the bandits made through the outer walls of the city and stole into the grounds of the golden palace.
These bandits kidnapped all of the surviving children of both the Red King and his brother. All, that is, but the two youngest. For these two had wandered off together earlier that morning, to play in the beloved labyrinth, and had there gotten lost. The absence of these two smallest of children went unnoticed in all of the excitement, by the bandits as well as the children they were abducting, and so it happened that the marauders absconded without them.Then, giving all of the abducted children the powerful Potion of Forgetting, the Baragouin adopted them as bandits. Teaching them their own secret ways, they took them far away from the Red City and its palace toward adventures as yet untold.
When the King’s brother Andreas returned to the palace that evening, only to discover what had happened, it began to rain. Devastated and shocked, he asked the palace attendants to inform his brother King of this most recent tragedy. As both men looked out into the darkness in despair, the rain mingled on their cheeks with the tears that were shed for their misfortunes and themselves. All was lost, it seemed, and in the throws of guilt and grief Andreas vowed never to speak again, to anyone at all, as penance for his cruel fate. That night he kissed his small nephew goodbye, the last of his brother’s children. Then, taking his own small daughter, all that he now had in the world, he left the palace that had always been his home thinking never to return.
When news of his children’s abduction, and of his brother’s final departure, finally reached the mind of the Red King, he pulled into himself and into his angry gloom even further. His eyes became shrouded and he began to whisper to no one. Later that night, coming down at last from the high tower, he sat by his small son as the boy supped, though he himself ate nothing. His son, the prince, made worried glances up at his father and felt himself to be very much alone. Not daring to speak to the tortured old man, he made to escape after his dinner to play, but the Red King grabbed the small boy’s arm and pulled him toward his chest, as though to embrace him. A lone tear slipping along the weathered cheek that had recently been so happy and young, the now gruff and wretched voice of the Red King spoke:
“I am all alone now. It is ridiculous that I have been made to suffer like this, that I have had to lose so much. All that I have been and loved is gone . . . You are the last of a once great family, never forget that . . . You look so much like your mother, I can hardly bare to look at you. Still, I will not let any harm come to you child. I will not let them take you. I will not let anyone take you away. It is an outrage that I have been made to lose so much. I should never have been made to-to have to experience such change. No. Things should not change so.”
For many months the Red King kept the boy by his side. He even put a cot in his great room so that the prince was never out of sight. The unhappy King, however, was poor company for such a young boy. As the days, and weeks, and months continued, the Red King grew ever more sullen, angry, and sad, given to rash outbursts that shook the countryside. His resentment grew toward the people of the city, who moved on with their lives and found happiness and continuity where he could not. He looked out onto the red streets, and across the rooftops, and he imagined the people there laughing at him, at his obstinacy and his foolishness, at his continued suffering. He became ever more paranoid and mean, taxing the citizens and enacting outrageous laws, lost in the heat of his anger.
Now, it is a little remembered truth, but kings have access to a very special magic, as do princes and princesses, and of course queens. As the thoughts of the Red King grew ever more dark and twisted, so too grew the grounds of the palace. The gardens that had once been home to fairies and sweet creatures, butterflies and the like, became overgrown by a dense and evil looking wood, full of hostile monsters, grumpy and old. The enchantments of the labyrinth, which were reminders of such joyous times, became corrupted and horrible. As the Red King looked out onto the magical hedgerows, his mind trapped within an angry hatred, he willed that the laughter and memories contained therein might never be let out nor allowed to change, nor any creature so unfortunate as to enter the miserable maze. Soon the enchantments turned into fierce curses, an embodiment of the slow madness that corrupted the Red King’s mind.
After almost a year, the last remnant of the King’s sanity broke. He became completely enthralled by his stubborn and paranoid delusions, by his miserable anger and suffering, by his horrible self-pity. He locked his last son, the young Prince Ciardha, away in the high tower of the palace. He claimed it was because he was afraid that the child might be stolen as well, but really he was horrified at how quickly, he felt, the young prince grew, at how rapidly, it seemed like, he was always changing. He outlawed laughter and joy among the walls of the city that all might suffer the torment of his grief, and for five long years the Red City has suffered from the cruel insanity of the Red King.
An adnascentia of gnarled roots and thorny vines, from the dark forest that surrounds the palace, has begun to eek out into the floors and foundations of the city houses. These send a further gloominess into the hearts of the citizens (and have caused a great deal of water damage, and cool drafts it should be mentioned). The cold senseless laughter, of small broken minds, rises from the hidden recesses of the horrible labyrinth, and these mingle with the menacing whispers that come from the clammy lips of the King. The sound floats among the walls of the tortured city like a gentle fog of ill will.