Jalal Curmally is a management consultant by profession, an aspiring writer by choice and wishes he was Batman. When he is not advising his clients on their businesses, laying waste to the forces of evil or devising world peace in his sleep, he delights in building and exploring worlds of his own design and in hunting for new targets for his questionable intellect. He is happily married and entirely undeserving of his loving wife. One day he will write that novel, he swears, because…BATMAN!
I was, and perhaps still am, a freelance journalist, travelogues being my forte and cities my specialty. Saurangi never appeared once on my list of destinations in over seventeen years of travelling across this and other continents. After seventeen years of writing travelogues I have learnt to classify my destinations thusly: the ones I visit and the ones I write about. Saurangi fell neatly into the latter. Seen one city, and you have enough material to write about nine others just like it, no need to incur the trouble of relocating yourself to write. And if that troubles you, I invite you to consider that the citizens of most cities are like mothers, their city’s face is one only they can love.
Saurangi never merited a first look let alone a second one and let along a piece of writing.
Till the Lady took up residence in the night sky. You can see her there sleeping in the night sky, I heard people proclaim. Saurangi’s Lady, crowned with rainbows and stars. Sleeping. I saw pictures but retained my skepticism. As a journalist, I was inclined to see the photographs and immediately cry, ‘horse manure’ of the steaming variety. I viewed the entire story as the equivalent of the tourist trapping ‘World Largest [insert insignificant daily object]’ variety that dying urban sprawls tend to spawn. I politely and firmly ignored coverage in my articles until my editor was kind enough to provide me with first class travel arrangements and enough expense Points to make a refusal impossible. I was not looking forward to Saurangi.
Upon my arrival, Saurangi went out of its way to live up to all my expectations. Saurangi is not worth visiting, living in, or otherwise contemplating. As habitation for the professional urbanite, it barely makes the grade. In seconds after your arrival one gets to hear for the first time of many, ‘Saurangi is a city of many colors…’ It is at that, and the predominant colors are brown, ochre, tan, russet, chocolate, dust, dirt and more brown. The transportation is noisy, overpriced and traffic is a manic exercise in blind man’s bluff requiring the stubborn courage of a hero and the vindictive selfish streak of a born aristocrat. Hotel accommodations are passable. The local color in the markets is mediocre and a mishmash of color and style. Look beneath the surface and the merchandise at the local tourist traps can be seen a battleground for a clash of cultures and traditions that have given up the sword and taken up soapstone carving and embroidery. It is a city obsessed with itself; a city that has no idea and a million of what it is, where it came from and where it is going. But in its mad, manic pace it is hellbent on getting there. Pockets of the city are rife with crime, failing infrastructure, and its citizenry is held captive to terrifyingly violent, internecine gang warfare. Saurangi is nothing if not a city grown to cancerous size, violent and unremarkable in every aspect.
Until you look up at night. Then Saurangi is spellbinding.
Then ‘She’ is in the sky at night.
A rainbow aurora haze of magical pollution lingers above Saurangi like most major metropolis, made up of the detritus of a million carelessly cast spells a day. In its slow undulating movement out to sea, can be found the face of a Lady covering half the night sky. Saurangi’s Lady. The face of a goddess made up of the refuse of urban life, sleeping peacefully, dreaming dreams that only gods can dream. Her eyes are lightly shut, the corners of her lips curl up slightly and she smiles as she sleeps. Hers is a face that haunts, beguiles and charms. She is childlike in her surrender to sleep, wanton and careless in the casual sweep of hair that falls over her ear and neck, draped across the sky’s dark diamond bedding. She is not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, average even. Perhaps if the owner of that face walked the city, a lover or two may attempt to pay court to her modest charms. But up in the sky, she has a million worshippers. I spent the first night in Saurangi with my gaze locked in astounded awe at the sky.
The very next morning I set out to solve her mystery. Inquiries at the hotel lobby revealed the usual religious claptrap from enthusiastic employees and a nosy guest or two.
“She is our goddess!”
“But gods do not exist,” I pointed out. “This looks like an art installation. If so then who is the artist?”
“She is her own architect. She is Saurangi’s god. Gods are returning after being absent for a million millennia. And she is ours,” they stubbornly held.
A more sensible concierge recommended City Hall and was kind enough to set up an appointment with a junior minister and provide transportation.
A note: if ever you were to visit Saurangi with the intention of taking in the local architecture, I recommend Saurangi’s City Hall as the only building worth the architect’s art. My host was kind enough to provide me with a glimpse into the building’s history.
“This is the oldest building in the city,” he proclaimed proudly. “We spend over a hundred million Points a year in temporal magic and renovation spells just to keep time and entropy away from its walls.”
“It shows. Magnificent stonework at the entrance. Sun Stone is it?”
“Yes! Well spotted. This building was once a duke’s summer palace, over a thousand years ago, but it was made well in the era when we lived without magic. Monetarists held sway in those years as you know and the Eagle-Headed Emperor ruled the world. Saurangi was a small fishing vassalage in those days. The Duke vacationed here. When the Triform Empire crumbled Saurangi freed herself and we have existed as an independent city state since.”
“Congratulations. The Duke had some impeccable taste. These murals are over a thousand years old and yet they look as fine as the day they were painted,” I lied.
“Actually it was his daughter who painted these. Sadly, unremembered she is. Ah but such is the way of the artist. Or the civil servant.”
“Actually it was of artists that I wished to speak to you. Tell me, which artist painted a mural in the sky, with pollution no less?”
“Pardon me?” My host was starting to look uncomfortable.
“The Lady? Saurangi’s Lady? She sleeps in the night sky made up of the garbage aurora? Surely you’ve seen her.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that she exists.” And so saying my host went from friendly to stone-faced in seconds.
I was startled by the sudden change in his manner. “But sir, surely if you were to look up at night she cannot be missed. I’ve seen her myself.”
“WE HAVE NO OFFICIAL STANCE ON HER.”
“I see. Then if you could please give me the name of the artist that painted her I would be on my way.”
“Artist?” my host snorted and then appeared to mull things over. After some thought he rose from his desk. “Come with me.”
We went to the offices of the Registrar of Religions. A long line extended from its doors, down the hall, and I suspect out the building and into the main courtyard. At the head of the line, two elaborately dressed individuals that I assume were self-made priests broke out into heated debate. Then, as the voices grew louder, one of the priests took the time honored religious stance against an opposing belief structure, by violently beating his opponent over the head. A full-fledged religious argument punctuated by fists and kicks and teeth broke out attracting the attention of the guards, who having been drawn into the debate made their own arguments backed by the force of their truncheons.
My host tut-tutted from a safe distance. “What a nightmare. It’s a shame we cannot pass a law against it. Unfortunately the right to religion is still protected in Saurangi. We just cannot stop people from inventing new ways to worship.”
He turned to me. “Before the Lady appeared we had less than a dozen officially recognized religions. The usual superstitious fare, tribal totems remade to suit the tastes of a neighborhood or suburb. If we recognize everyone in that line that figure would grow a thousand fold. Imagine the chaos that would cause. It’s not as though Saurangi is lacking in violence.”
He sighed. “In a way it’s a shame we lost the gods of old. After centuries of no real faith, Saurangi has discovered that it is obsessed with religion and in the absence of a decent deity; we are quite willing to deify a sleeping woman in the sky. This havoc you see here is what that Lady has caused. Since she appeared every idiot with time on his hands declared himself high priest and showed up petitioning for official recognition. As city hall, we must provide and protect the rights of our people, no matter how idiotic they may seem to us. And we cannot be partial. Hence my reluctance to acknowledge the Lady.”
I sympathized with the minister’s plight. “I met some of her fanatics in my Hotel this morning.”
He waved a dejected hand at the now unconscious priests lying bleeding on the ground. “You see what Saurangi has become since she appeared? Yes, I have seen the Lady. No, we don’t know where she came from. Yes, if we knew which artist painted her in the night sky, we’d give you his name and then you could visit him in prison. And oh, one more thing, as one connoisseur to another, that face in the sky is not art and it’s not magic.”
“Think man. Saurangi is so heavily polluted you can see the magical pollution overhead at night. What kind of magic can use magic refuse which is by nature unusable and turn it into a face at night, every night for over a year? The wind blows the pollution away nightly out to sea, yet every night there she is. No, that face in the sky isn’t magic, it is something else entirely.”
“Have you tried to remove it?”
“What do you think?”
“Have you had the face investigated?”
“What do you think?”
“So? Who is she?”
My host sighed and looked troubled. “Good day, sir. Enjoy your stay in Saurangi and I look forward to reading your article when it appears. Do send me a copy.”
I spent my days wandering the streets at Saurangi, taking in the sights [not much to see unless you like brown, blocky building pretending to be architecture], sampling the local cuisine [all tastes the same, hot] and speaking with people. Once word spread that I was visiting Saurangi, invitations began pouring in. Official dinners, evening teas, late night drinks sampling private collections, shows and the like. Saurangi’s elite were eager to preen and for the price of a good meal and decent conversation, I spent my nights hoping to trawl their waters in search of a clue.
Soon familiar faces began to appear. Two faces with more regularity than I would be willing to write off as coincidence. After some time spent mingling Saurangi’s elite, I took it upon myself to strike up a conversation with the more fetching of the two at a hosted dinner. I had spotted her watching me intently from across the room.
“Xenoe Flailwarden,” she held out her hand. “My friends call me Curse.”
“Your ‘friends’ call you Curse?”
Her cheeks were flushed and her voice had just the right, slightly manic tone that for some, precedes the onset of drunkenness. Thoroughly inebriated as I was that night, I vaguely recall making some attempt at smarmy compliment. Luckily she laughed it off.
“Why thank you, sir. I suppose you want to know why I’ve been watching you.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“My boyfriend wants to meet you.”
That was disappointing. But I allowed myself not to be crushed by so early a defeat and was led to a quiet corner of the room where sat a young man.
At first blush, Relin Abaria looks nothing like the Beggar King of Saurangi. He is urbane, well dressed, always in black. He is well-read and intelligent and charming as you would please. He walks in rarefied air but runs the beggars in the city. And he maintains a surprisingly large and tasteful villa located in a part of Saurangi so ridden with crime and violence that outsiders do not enter for fear of their lives.
He rose from his seat to greet me, a silver spider pin flashing on his collar. “Thank you for accepting our invitation,” he smiled.
Drink had loosened my tongue. “You are a young man.”
“That I am.” He smiled.
My guide, the lady who had introduced herself as ‘Curse’, nestled snugly and with familiarity, into the crook of his arm and let one hand wander over his torso. The night’s prospects now thoroughly diminished, I took a deep sip of my drink and searched for someone to take it out on. I found Relin Abaria.
“But you look like a young man who works hard at looking like one,” I blurted.
His smile froze in place. “Very perceptive of you, sir. Is our city treating you well?”
“Good. Glad to hear it. A hundred colors, a hundred stories as they say.”
“There’s only one story worth giving a damn about here.”
“And I hear that you have been most persistent about our Lady. So tell me, what have you learnt?”
Relin always raises more questions than he answers, but it is a quality of his that he also solicits answers, whether or not you wish to provide them. But for the night, I told him with all I knew at the time, which was distressingly little.
Relin was sympathetic. “I commend you. If nothing else you have managed to compile an impressive list of wrong answers. Religion, Art, Tourism, Government Conspiracy, Civilized Cities? Consequences all. Effects, not causes. Who is the Lady, do you know?”
“Ah sir, you have hit upon the one question that no one seems able or willing to answer. Not city hall…”
“They will not answer you.”
“Nor the Watch.”
“They would be similarly reluctant.”
“Nor my researchers at my paper.”
“She would not be known to your researchers. She was remarkably unremarkable in life.”
A silence fell around me. Relin and the woman called Curse were smiling broadly.
I put my drink down very slowly. “In life?”
“Who was she? What was her name? What is her face doing decorating the night sky? How do you know her? Who are you people?” The questions slipped past me before I knew I was asking them. Days of frustration in Saurangi came to the fore and before I knew I had Relin by the lapels of his coat and was hauling him to his feet. “Tell me so I can go home and be rid of this place.”
The last thing I remember is the unwavering smile of Relin Abaria and the dreadful feeling that a million spiders had dug themselves under my skin and were crawling up my spine to feed on my brain.
I awoke in my hotel room at noon and spent the rest of the day with my head in my hands, equally from the drink as from frustration at coming so close to answers and ending up empty-handed. Having had time to develop a justifiable anger at Relin to excuse my lack of manners, I packed my bags, and resolved to put Saurangi and its stubbornly anonymous ‘Lady’ behind me.
I was at the station awaiting my carriage when a beggar woman shuffled up to me to beg me for some spare Points. Precious few Points she promised were needed but just enough to conjure food for herself and her children this evening. I absently sent her some that I could spare and was surprised when she sat herself down beside me. I made to protest and even to stand and be away from her when a strong hand held mine. I looked up into familiar eyes and the same smile that had drawn me from across the room the night past.
Curse smiled back at me. “Relin sends his regards and trusts that you weren’t discomfited by last night. He also sends a message. He wants to meet you to continue your conversation.”
I swallowed and attempted to regain my dignity. “My regrets to your…Relin, but I am leaving this place madam. Saurangi’s mysterious Lady and its citizens cannot be behind me fast enough.”
Curse looked disappointed by my statement. She released my hand and sighed. “As you wish. But let me give you this parting gift. When you find that leaving Saurangi is a far more difficult task than you had anticipated, when you find that chance and coincidence are no longer your friends in this and when you are ready to receive the answers you wish, seek me out here. And I will bring you to him.”
I stared at her in mute disbelief and could but nod. Satisfied, she rose and adopted her veneer of poverty again. I commended her on her transformation from woman to beggar woman with just her stance.
“Why thank you. So few people here go to see live theatre any more when they can just conjure any entertainment they desire for themselves. Acting is a dying art.”
I concurred. “But why begging madam? Magic replaced anything money could buy centuries ago. Good manners are now the currency of the world and Points their medium of exchange. The magic the Points buy is free for anyone. A beggar has no need to beg. Not anymore.”
She leaned on her stick and coughed a dry, hacking cough that curled the toes in my shoes. “Exactly! Theatre and Begging both are dying art forms; archaic and anachronistic, redundant in belief, hindward in sight, homeless and destitute of purpose and entirely Saurangi as a people. I combine both acting and begging and choose to reflect what I see in my Art.”
“To what purpose madam?”
“I look to my people to define a purpose and when I see it, I shall perhaps choose another role.”
A distant whistle alerted me to the arrival of my carriage. “My journey home awaits madam. If nothing else, you at least are the most interesting thing I have encountered in this city. Sans the Lady herself. Goodbye.”
That day, the carriage station tower collapsed suddenly and inexplicably on the tracks thoroughly blocking the route and rendering it impossible to travel. To add insult to injury, the carriage itself developed troubles and had to be towed away by two large animals. I was stuck in Saurangi and with reluctance had to check myself back into the hotel.
That night I thought the Lady’s gentle smile looked a little smug. I mentioned it to the hotel staff, who confirmed that the Lady’s face was as immobile and unmoving as always.
I attempted the carriage station again the next day. This time, the route to the station itself was barred, no matter which way I turned, by religious processions all celebrating the anniversary of the night the Lady appeared in the sky.
This time the Lady’s smile looked a quite self-satisfied. I did not sleep and as a precaution, pulled all the curtains in my bedroom.
I grew suspicious then. I hunted for magics invisible and unseen that could be hindering me, but I found nothing. I booked a sending and my transporters grew violently ill and unable to send me. I attempted to walk out of Saurangi baggage in tow multiple times and each time I either fell into mysterious potholes that broke my bones, requiring the services of healers that did not arrive until it was too late to travel or the road itself were rendered impassable by a sudden and impossible seeming sequence of events. I attempted to find patterns in my obstacles, seeking to outwit whatever enchantment that was trying to ensnare me. I tried new routes, doubling back on myself, taking inordinately longer and longer routes. I grew to know Saurangi better than most of its inhabitants did. But all to no avail. The city, it seemed, did not wish to be rid of me as desperately as I wished to be rid of it.
Saurangi grew strange. It seemed to blur and twist before me as I wandered the roads to while away my imprisonment. I walked into familiar buildings to only find their interiors too fanciful to exist or that had never existed at all. And never the same buildings in the same locations, but rather they seemed to wander as I did. Rooms opened into other parts of the building, or into blank walls, or open air, or into new buildings entirely at the other end of the city. Roads that I had travelled, routes in the city that I had taken before and gotten to know well, suddenly ended in dead ends or onto the blank walls of structures that I knew did not exist the day before. But people would swear that the structures had been there for decades or more.
I remember speaking with the people I found in the building, fascinating people, who spoke to me of strange and thrilling events of riches gained, adventures begun and abandoned, blood that was shed, lovers wooed and jealousies resolved or punished. But when I recounted these elsewhere, I would be told that those events occurred far in the distant past of the city or that the people whose names I shared had either died centuries ago or that there was no record of them ever having lived. I avoided conversations with strangers after that became clear, viewing any encounter as another potential apparition sent to bedevil me. To my horror, people on the roads began to fade into mist or transparency before my eyes as I walked past them leaving me frighteningly alone right there in the heart of the city, at the height of the market, surrounded only by the wandering structures of this nightmare city and oppressed by their silence.
For well over two months I endured, running through my Points, running through my welcome at the hotel, and running through the reserves of my sanity. To my despair and then terror, each progressive evening the Lady’s visage seemed to change in the sky. Her face seemed to be growing first indulgent, then strained, then impatient and irritated and finally ending in plain anger. In my delirium, I imagined that her wrath was directed at me.
I was found arguing in the hotel lobby one fateful evening, disheveled, unwashed and unshaven and by now quite raving, “A hundred years ago? But it wasn’t there a hundred years ago, yesterday! It only arrived at that spot to be there for a hundred years, just moments ago. Don’t you see? It’s the Lady! The Lady is doing this to me. She doesn’t want me to leave. She’s keeping me here, torturing me for her twisted pleasure. I…”
And that rant ensured that I was cast out of my only home in this strange city, raving and thrashing about myself at shadows that only I could see. Now without any Points with which to summon magic to either feed or clothe myself, and my only worldly possessions scattered at my feet, I found just enough acuity to choose to make my last pilgrimage in Saurangi the one that takes me to the afterlife. At last I would be rid of this city.
Even that was not meant to be. The railing I sought to hang myself from mysteriously collapsed before I could put my weight to it. I attempted to throw myself off the rooftops of various buildings, only to have doors, windows and entire stairwells disappear before me. When I sought to drown myself in sewage, it would mysteriously swirl away from me leaving me standing in a dry circle amidst a flowing river of the city’s refuse. Even death, Saurangi denied me.
I extracted myself from the sewers, washed in the river, and left all semblance of my life behind. I baptized myself in Saurangi’s waters and felt them wash away from me my insanity, my lack of self, till I emerged feeling restored, but empty and with nothing but sorrow for my pitiable state.
And in that state, I found Curse waiting for me at the slowly being rebuilt carriage station. She fussed over me and led me by the hand as she would a child, into parts of Saurangi I had not dared to go myself. Into the parts of the city ruined by the gang warfare that until recently had plagued Saurangi. Into that part of the city where Relin Abaria’s home lay. On our way the city seemed to stand out in stark relief as though I were seeing it for the first time. A golden glow suffused everything and flowed like a stream along our path, disturbed by our footsteps. The city seemed a being alive, the roads its veins and we were as parts of its lifeblood moving through the body, giving life.
I shuddered and whimpered when my gaze sought and found the Lady in the sky overhead. I thought for a moment her eyes were open and she was looking right at me. I did not mention it to Curse. I did not see the point.
Relin met me at the door of his home and unctuously ushered me into a large hall. There I saw waiting for me the junior minister from City Hall, the hotel concierge, a large Lycan watch officer and others that I had come to know during my stay here. They bowed their heads to me as I was slowly paraded past them to a large altar. There upon the dais lay draped a single tattered cape such as those preferred by women, adorned with a plethora of charms and jewelry. I shuddered in awe as I laid my eyes upon the cape, struck by a feeling I struggled to identify. My mind rebelled at my attempts at comprehension, my body was wracked with violent shivers and an unbearable weight seemed to collapse my bones and send me to my knees, hammering my forehead to the ground. I welcomed the pain it caused. It seemed right that I abase myself before such overwhelming force, such power.
I realized then that I was staring at a relic of a god. I realized then just who or what the Lady truly is. These past few months I had strolled through her body, wandered in her dreams and conversed with her thoughts. Nightly I had gazed upon her sleeping face. The old gods had been left behind and so man had made a new goddess to replace them. The Goddess of All Cities slept in the night sky over Saurangi.
For of what is the goddess made, if not the belief of those that worship her?
My mind reeled with the force of my goddess’s revelation. Every day we walked in the bones of cities, traversed their arteries, and sipped their breath and sacrificed lives to slake their thirst. A million cities, a million stories, a million, million lives; all of them unknowingly worshipping at the altar of the Goddess Of All Cities. To leave your home in the morning is to worship the city. To ply your trade and seek recompense is to worship her. To ride the tides of your life in a city is to worship that city. And in our worship, we have made the Goddess Of All Cities. She is, now and forever, our only original goddess.
And she is a jealous goddess, boldly proclaiming that she would abide no other god but her. And every day we knowingly, unknowingly obey.
In a vision I saw my goddess as she had been in life before she transcended into godhood, walking the streets of Saurangi side by side with the giant Lycan watchman, laughing with Curse, stealing a night’s pleasure with the mysterious Relin Abaria, arguing with the junior minister, wearing her cloak. I thought I heard her speak her name…
I realized then why she had chosen me. A professed connoisseur of cities, one whose very trade lay in visiting and spreading the word about the cities I had been, the places, sights and sounds I had encountered.