Serafine tottered along the muddy path in the town square. She held on to one finger of her mother’s rough hand in her small, soft child’s hand, using the other arm for balance as she splashed through muddy puddles made by the recent rains. Her mother Rosalinde laughed at the exuberant joy on Serafine’s face. She knew that when they got home, she would have to clean the mud off of Serafine’s trousers, but seeing her daughter so happy and carefree was worth any amount of laundry in the world. Suddenly, Serafine slipped on a patch of wet clay and fell flat on her back.
“Whoops!” She laughed with delight. As her mother bent down to help her back up, she shot a chubby finger skyward at the chiseled jawline and stern brows of the statue towering above them. “Who’s that, mommy?”
Rosalinde lifted her up and carried her to the pedestal at the base of the statue. “That’s King Amafis, darling.”
“Oh, he’s a king from a very long time ago.”
“What’d he do?”
“He brought us peace with Fóvos. Here. Sit here and I’ll tell you the story.”
They sat together, Serafine playing with her mother’s long braid as Rosalinde absentmindedly bounced her on her knee, her eyes lost in the mists of time as she recalled the tale, handed down to her by her own mother, and by her mother before that, all the way through the centuries.
* * *
Sebastian groaned. The books he carried weighed down his back nearly as much as they weighed down his spirits. He slung them onto his writing desk and began sorting through them. They were his reading assignments for his history classes: A Brief History of Fóvos; The Liberation of the Fóvian Five; Tyranny: A Primer. He sighed. History had never been his favorite subject, but under the dull, rough, monotonous voice of Professor Branford, it revitalized itself and reached new and unimagined heights of boredom.
He shuffled off his shoes, stretched, yawned, and dropped into his chair. Esmeralda, his ancient, shriveled old great-grandmother, hobbled into the room from the kitchen. “Sebastian,” she chirped sprightly, “aren’t you even going to say hi to your old Mámá?”
Sebastian smiled. He loved Esmeralda dearly, ever since she had moved into their house so her granddaughter, his mother, could take care of her in her old age. He got up and embraced the fragile old woman tenderly. “Hello, Mámá. How was your day?”
She reached up, pulled his head down, and kissed him wetly on his cheek. “Just fine, young’un. Your mother and I have been busy as bees, cataloguing old family recipes. Did you know that our brown cinnamon cake recipe was used in Empress Tatiana’s Jubilee Feast when I was a little girl? My grandmother made a note on the back of the recipe card that she gave the recipe to the empress’ chef to cook for the feast, and the empress thought very highly of it!”
“Oh Mámá, please, no more history,” Sebastian complained. “I’ve had enough of it in school today. It’s just so dull. And I still have all these books to read for class!”
Esmeralda’s eyes sparkled. “Dull, my child? Oh no! History is the most interesting subject. It’s the great story of all of us, how we came to be, who we are! And the greatest story of all, of course, is the story of King Amafis’ War and the Fóvian Five. You know it, of course, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, Mámá. King Amafis took our country over, we became a part of Tropías, and then the Fóvian Five led a rebellion and gained our independence. What more is there to know?”
Esmeralda cackled. “Oh, you poor thing. You’ve missed all the best parts. Come. Leave those dusty books aside—they never tell it right. Sit down here with me, and let me fix us a cup of tea and tell you the real story of what happened in that war….”
* * *
As Rosalinde spoke, Serafine gradually stopped playing with her mother’s braid. Her eyes grew wide and attentive, as her mother’s voice conjured up vivid images, tinted with the dust of long-gone ages.
She saw the kingdom of Tropías, the fertile heartland of the continent of Erdrath, shimmering gold underneath the sunset light of the summer sun. King Amafis was in the central palace conference room with his advisors, gathered around a map of Erdrath that covered the entire table.
“My Lord,” began the chief economic advisor, “The farmers are growing discontented. Caravans of crops are constantly streaming out of our fields, but by land, we simply cannot transport enough crops to make the farmers turn a reasonable profit. We have such fertile lands, but all of the countries around here have good land. They don’t need our crops to feed their citizens. And overseas, our crops could fetch a great price—far higher than what countries around here would pay. Chorbah is one enormous desert, and it’s just across the Avanthis Sea. If we could have access to them, the market value of our crops would increase dramatically. Our economy would improve, our farmers would be happy, our citizens would be prosperous. In short: We need a port city.”
“Have we reached an agreement with the Fóvians?” King Amafis asked the Tropían diplomat to Fóvos on the other side of the table.
“Ah.” The diplomat stammered, tugging awkwardly at his high, starched collar. “We’ve….stalled, a bit.”
King Amafis frowned. “Those are not words I like, Vomaís. What do you mean?”
Vomaís opened his mouth, closed it again, opened it again, and managed to say, “They’ve…shut us out. Completely, my Lord.”
King Amafis sighed and rubbed his brows. “What do I even pay you for, Vomaís? When you can’t even arrange a simple agreement for us to use the port at Limaní?”
“It’s not my fault!” Vomaís protested. “Emperor Peismar has refused even the highest offer you told me to bring there! They simply don’t want our caravans traveling through there, and they don’t want our ships using their port. They’ve cut us out of their trade agreements completely. They want nothing to do with us—for any price.”
The announcement set off a ripple of grumbling among the advisors. “Damn Fóvians,” muttered one official. “Can’t reason with folks like that.”
“I say we give them one more chance, and then we strike,” asserted another loudly.
“I say we’ve already given them enough chances,” said another under his breath, but just loud enough for everybody to hear.
“Quiet!” barked King Amafis. The advisors went silent. King Amafis closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled into the silence of the room.
“My Lord?” piped up a small, disheveled man who had been silent up to now.
King Amadis opened his eyes and furrowed his brows in frustration. “Yes?”
“Well—I mean—“ the little man hesitated. Public speaking was not his strong suit.
“Spit it out, Professor!” growled a burly official next to him.
“Give me a moment, will you?” fussed the professor. He closed his eyes in thought, and when he opened them, they were shining with something like passion but also very much like grief. “My Lord, I have two decades of experience researching our relations with Fóvos throughout the past thousand years. I have spent much time digging through archival evidence here as well as there. I have studied the minutes of diplomatic meetings from hundreds of years ago. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenty years of experience on this topic, it’s this: Fóvos and Tropías will never have lasting peace.
“We’ve never been happy with one another, my lord. Throughout the centuries, there have been disagreements between our people, from daily tensions between families living on the border to large-scale military conflicts. And every time these tensions reach a breaking point, our diplomats are convinced that a lasting solution is just around the corner. And every time, the lasting solution escapes their grasp, and our two countries devolve into petty squabbling—or outright violence.
“My lord, I am not a violent man.” Here he glared pointedly at the burly advisor next to him before resuming the thread of his argument. “I have a family—a wife, children, grandchildren. I like the peaceful life we have built for ourselves. I am the last of your advisors who would advise you to go to war. I am, at heart, a contented old man.
“And yet, this contented old man finds himself at a crossroads. Once more, the tensions between us and Fóvos are reaching a breaking point. Diplomacy, it seems clear, has failed utterly. And history tells us that, sometime soon, we will descend into squabbling, or worse.
“I have always been a proponent of preventative medicinal practices. I exercise, I eat well, I sleep well. And sometimes, this medicine hurts. But it never hurts so much as the illness would.
“It is clear to me that the only way there would be no conflict between our two countries is if we were not two countries, but only one. And, my lord, if you’ll permit me to intrude upon our economic advisor’s report, an invasion would grant us de facto access to the port city of Limaní. It seems to me to be the clearest way forward.”
The professor’s report was greeted with a tense silence, broken eventually by the sound of the burly man’s fist slamming into the table. “At last, the professor contributes something of good sense to these meetings! My lord, I can attest that our troops are in full working order, and our neighbors to the north are always happy to sell us their finest in military equipment!”
King Amafis contemplated for a long moment of silence. Then he exhaled—short, quick, decisive. “Do it. This meeting is adjourned.”
“Wait.” Rosalinde waited patiently while Serafine’s brows furrowed, trying to figure something out. Serafine always thought well, but slowly. Finally she said, “So why did we fight them?”
“Because they didn’t let us use their city for our ships.”
“I don’t know, dear. I guess they just didn’t like us.”
“That’s not very nice of them.”
“I know, honey. But King Amafis got our people to get along, for a while.”
“He reached out to them.”
“With the only thing they would listen to.”
“The invasion took a long time. The Fóvians were determined not to let us into their country, but eventually, we fought long enough and hard enough so that they had to let us in…”
Serafine saw the image her mother painted for her. She saw the Fóvians finally surrendering to General Kataktin, “that great national hero.” She saw the Fóvians gradually accustoming themselves to the Tropían way of life, gradually seeing the sense in the Tropían way of doing things. The king, under the guidance of his advisors, set up an entire governmental department to oversee the cultural assimilation of the Fóvians, making them into people at peace with the occupation of their country, gradually turning them into good Tropíans, showing them the goodness of Ischyrot, the chief god of the heavens, and helping them learn the complexities of the Tropían tongue. King Amafis, wisely, saw that the Fóvians were a very different people. The differences between them were borne out of culture and habit; they were not bad people, as many everyday Tropíans claimed. Some of them, in fact, were great men and women. And so, King Amafis helped them learn Tropían culture, to learn how to fit in, to lessen the gulf between the two peoples and build a bridge of peace between them.
On his deathbed, King Amafis said to his son, “The work I have done is not yet completed. Son, in your time, many people will tell you of the stubbornness of the Fóvians, how they refuse to do things ‘our way,’ how they stubbornly cling to the old way of doing things. Do not listen to them. Nobody is so stubborn that they won’t see reason when it is continually placed in front of them. Even in the short time I have ruled them, the people of Fóvos have become much more amicable, have learned our culture and language and way of life. Continue this work. Do not lose hope.”
Over the next three hundred and fifty years, the kings of Tropías did just that. And, for the first time in recorded history, the two races stopped fighting. Under the united banner of Tropías, and due to the crops coming from the rich farmland of the Old Kingdom and being exported to Chorbah, both races grew prosperous and contented. There were always small groups, radicals, reactionaries who wanted Fóvos to regain its independence. But for most of this time, they were small, kept under control as much by social pressure and expectation as by military interference. It was a time of great fruitfulness, and art, literature, music, and culture all flourished under the free exchange of ideas this new unity fostered. Fóvian artists learned Tropían styles, and Tropían writers learned the great forms mastered by the old Fóvian masters. The two cultures mingled, and for the first time, they lived peaceably with one another.
But gradually, these small radical groups grew more powerful. People, living in the peace of union, forgot the conflict of disunity. They forgot the pain the border between the two nations generated. They forgot the agony of cultural disunity, forgot the utopia of harmony that King Amafis had created. They thought the way of separation would lead to greater happiness, that by separating themselves, they could find themselves—as if they had not already found themselves in the harmony of coexistence.
“And one day, these reactionaries struck at the heart of our capital city…”
* * *
Esmeralda smacked her lips with pleasure as she sipped the steaming hot tea Sebastian laid in front of her. “Ah, that’s better.”
“Mámá, what did you mean when you said that I had ‘missed all of the good stuff’ about King Amafis’ War?”
“Patience, young one,” chided Esmeralda gently. She closed her eyes, inhaled the smell of the tea deeply, and began.
“What you have to understand is that the Tropíans had been craving war for centuries. They had coveted Limaní ever since it became such a major port city for all the nations in Chorbah. They knew they could make a fortune selling crops to Chorbah, and so finally, King Amafis did what all the kings before him were righteous enough not to do: He invaded.”
Esmeralda’s thin, vibrant voice rose and fell with passion, and her words enchanted her great-grandson, who listened as images of the past rose out of the dust motes dancing in the air around them.
The war was long and hard-fought on both sides, as the larger, agricultural nation of Tropías assaulted the well-defended garrisons of the smaller but wealthier nation of Fóvos. The Fóvian troops fought well and diligently, but they could not match the fire of desperation that King Amafis had ignited in his people. And so, amid a welter of pleas for peace from Fóvian diplomats, the nation of Tropías succeeded in conquering Fóvos and acquiring their long sought after port city.
Tropían troops occupied the streets of the capital city, rooting out small cells of rebellion and resistance, sowing fear among the citizens all in the name of creating peace. It was a time of great tension and dissent among the Fóvian people, as some submitted peacefully to the invading forces, while others openly mocked and despised the occupying troops. Most of the ordinary citizens were caught in the middle, trying to go about their daily lives while the world around them was turned upside down by the invasion and government restructuring.
The dust settled, revealing a much different Fóvos than that which existed before the invasion. Tropían cultural institutions were on the move, as the government started an aggressive propaganda regime to condition Fóvians to think that Tropían rule was something that was not only good for them, but ultimately morally just. Dynamus, the Tropían state religion, was made mandatory for all citizens; any who did not profess belief in the gods of the invading forces were fined, imprisoned, or even executed, depending on the mood of the arresting officer. Gradually, though constant assertion of their superior propaganda, the Fóvians became complacent, agreeable, even welcoming the prospect of being a province of their great neighbor to the north. Small undercurrents of personal resentment towards the Tropían race remained, but people accepted their lot as part of the nation of Tropías.
“For centuries, we forgot ourselves.” Esmeralda’s voice grew bitter, as if she could recall personally being there. “Lost in the mire of Tropían institutions, we forgot what it really means to be Fóvian. We forgot our culture, our way of doing things. At one point, we very nearly forgot our language. We had not only lost our land, but we had very nearly lost our souls.
“And so, one day, a small group of Fóvian independence fighters struck a bold blow for our national identity. Others had forgotten who we were, but they had not. They remembered what it meant to be ourselves. They remembered our soul, and in doing so, revitalized and recreated it.”
“The Fóvian Five,” breathed Sebastian reverently, caught up in his great-grandmother’s spell. She smiled and pointed up at the painting above the mantle. “I painted that when I was a young woman, before I had children. Nobody knows what they looked like, so I modeled the leader off of your great-grandfather. My own greatest hero immortalized as the face of the greatest hero this country has ever had…”
The leader of the Five put up a hand for silence. The other four crouched as they stared up at the imposing mansion that loomed above them in the black night. “From here on out, we need to be completely silent. No words. If anybody has anything to add, now is the last chance to do so.”
Nobody spoke. The leader gestured to two of them. “You two, go left and see if you can find a portico or some way for us to enter. Kill any guards you see. You two, go right and do the same. As soon as you have gained entry, come to this window above us and drop down the line. I’ll come up there and we can ferry our supplies up through the window. Now let’s move out!”
The two pairs of men nodded silently, then slipped off around the sides of the mansion. The leader remained with the packs, checking the contents of each one, always crouching warily, one hand straying to the sword she kept slung over her back. It was a dangerous mission, she knew, but one well worth fighting. She sat back and waited, satisfied that all of their supplies were well in order.
A short while later, she heard a low birdcall from the window above her. As she looked, a rope with a loop tied in it fell from the window and lay dangling there. She swiftly tied the packs to the rope, gave it a quick tug, and held on as it rocketed up, propelled by four very strong and capable men. She distributed the packs to the four of them, nodded, pointed up the stairs, and they all crept up in the absolute quiet of the large house.
They worked quickly, silently, and systematically, scouring each room in the house for their goal. Finally, in the top corridor, one of the men opened a door and gestured to his compatriots.
The actual killing of the king’s chief advisor was easy enough. A sleeping target may be a dishonorable one, but desperate people have very little energy to waste worrying about honor. Once the dirty work was done, the group of assassins started up to the very top of the house.
The chief advisor’s house was a grand one, perched on a sloping hill on the western edge of the capital city. When the sun rose, the brilliant white marble of the mansion seemed to catch fire and glow, bathing the city in its reflected glory like the moon bathes the nighttime in the reflected glory of the sun.
On this particular morning, however, the city awoke with shock. The brilliant white marble of the mansion walls was obscured, covered, defaced with the bold black and blue bars of the Fóvian flag, painted on there in huge proportions by the intruders the night before. The flag covered the entire eastern side of the building, a bold proclamation by a desperate people. On it, words in yellow were painted. They read, simply and chillingly: “We want our country back.”
“Of course, what they meant was, ‘We want our souls back,’” Esmeralda commented as an aside. “But the Tropíans didn’t understand. They were furious. But unlike them, we were inspired. It was the first time any Fóvian had seriously challenged the ruling authority of Trópias. Suddenly, it was like wildfire. We remembered who we were. The independence movement gained momentum like nobody had ever seen. People began fighting in the streets, throwing bricks and stones at the Tropían guards and even Tropían citizens. The culture was electric. The shame of being Fóvian was transformed into pride. Fóvian flags were flown in every town square clear across the kingdom.
“Well, of course, no ruler can keep a hold of a country where every citizen begins to riot against you. It wasn’t long before the Tropían king at the time signed a peace treaty granting us our independence. Of course, we still had to guarantee them use of our port, but that’s turned out to be a blessing too—the tariffs we make on Tropían merchants is almost as valuable as anything that comes into the ports from overseas anyway!
“And so things have continued until today. I’m sure Tropías would love to rule us again—but I’m equally sure the feisty Fóvian spirit would never let itself be oppressed again like it was under King Amafis and his descendants! Our people have grown too proud for that. Our culture will never be like theirs—let them try what they will!”
* * *
Serafine chewed on the side of her finger thoughtfully. “Why did they kill that man in the castle, mommy?”
“Because they thought he was a bad man,” Rosalinde answered simply.
“I doubt it. He was probably a man just like your father. He had a family, a little girl and a little boy. He was trying to help the king run the country. He probably wasn’t perfect, but of course, nobody is. Except you.” Rosalinde tickled Serafine, and she shrieked with laughter. But then she grew serious again.
“Mommy? Are the Fóvians bad people?”
Rosalinde paused. “Probably not, no. Most of them, anyway, they’re probably just normal people. But they’ve done a lot of bad things to us in the past, and that’s why a lot of people don’t like them.”
“Have we done bad things to them?”
“Only when we’ve had to. But we’ve always had good reasons to do it. They aren’t usually as rational as we are.”
Serafine sucked some more, looking up at the carved stone face of King Amafis. She stared so long that Rosalinde asked, “What’re you thinking about, honey?”
She took her hand out of her mouth, looked at her mother, and said, “He looks like a mean man, mommy.”
She laughed. “Not as mean as your father will look when he sees how late I’ve kept you out here! C’mere!” And she grabbed at Serafine, who giggled and ran away from her mother with mock fear until they had left the town square, heading for their peaceful home.
* * *
Sebastian stared at his great-grandmother as she sipped her tea, exhausted from the long tale of the war. Finally he said, “You’re right, Mámá. History is a lot more interesting than I thought.”
She smiled. “History’s just true stories, and all the best stories are the true ones.”
Sebastian paused. “Are all historical stories true?”
Esmeralda’s eyes widened. “Why, of course! That’s why it’s called history!”
A tiny frown creased Sebastian’s brow, and he said, “But if the Tropíans know the story, why have they been threatening us on the border? Haven’t they already seen the mistakes they made?”
“Don’t you go tryin’ to understand them, young’un,” Esmeralda cautioned. “You’ll only go crazy when you look at crazy too long.”
“But if they know the same story we do, why are they reacting so differently?”
“Who ever said it was the same story?” asked Esmeralda. “Of course they tell it differently. But that doesn’t mean they’re right, not by a long shot. They can justify it any way they like—in the end, they’ll still be on the wrong side of history, you can take my word for it.”
“But how do we know our version is the right one?”
“Think about it, my boy!” cried Esmeralda. “It’s the only one that makes any sense! Now, I’m tired. Go help your momma in the kitchen while I take a nap here.”