The air felt like a black boulder on her chest and if she’d been one for omens, Eleonore could’ve had taken it as a very bad sign. The streets of Razaneth were dark under the tall buildings so close together, claustrophobically so, and she grasped for air, but filled with so many people’s sweat, food, life, it gave no relief. The change from the open roads to the crowded city was so sudden after her troops passed through the southern archgate, she was not prepared for this. It was a long trip from her home in the south, and she was now a long way from the open fields of Grocco, the sweet smell of the sea mixing in with her favourite flowers.
“Deep breaths,” she commanded herself, it was gonna be alright. It was to be her new home, she’d better start liking it.
Even though it was still the middle of the afternoon, the sun was nowhere to be seen. The countless bridges and walkways in the air between the buildings filtered the sunlight until it felt like a dream to travel on the roads of the city. Thankfully she didn’t have to spend much time on the claustrophobic streets of the Lower Town, soon her horses were taken off, led away to the nearby stable, and her carriage was pulled into a lift. It took her up faster than her stomach could follow, she felt, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable feeling, and she was excited to see all the wonders of the capital city she’d only heard of back at home.
Eleonore was taking the high road. In the literal sense. It was reserved for royal visitors, and it curved through the most beautiful parts of the city, high above the ground, high above the noise and dirt of the overcrowded Lower Town. Heaven’s Way, it was named ambitiously, intended to impress any visitors and it didn’t fail. The carriage she’d travelled in for so many days, was now pulled by invisible leavers among the white towers that shone in the slowly descending sunrays which were free again to bathe the highest points of the buildings.
In Eleonore’s home, Grocco, all buildings used the same dry stacked local stone. Its terracotta colour was easy on the eye and helpful against the strong sun but even with their ornamental architecture, the buildings at home were most boring compared to what she was seeing now.
Here there were many different colours and shapes: there was a thin, red tower, with a sharp pole on the top, that sent out a relaxing melody every time the wind moved it. She saw a wide, yellow dome with glass windows that had paintings on them. There was a square tower in blue, a round tower in all colours the rainbow, a commanding white building that looked like a quarter of a sphere; a gold building resembling a coin, short but circular; and all the steets enjoyed the quiet murmur of life woven in harmonically with music of the buildings themselves.
Seeing a familiar terracotta shape, Eleonore smiled ruefully and sat back in her seat, suddenly not wanting to see any more towers.
“Something bothers you?” Carla asked examining her closely. She was Eleonore’s first lady, her bodyguard, her best friend and her lover – there wasn’t much Eleonore could hide from her.
“The Tower of Grocco” she replied sadly, thinking of the tragic history of the newest addition to Razaneth’s maze of towers.
“No beauty comes free” Carla remarked coolly. Eleonore knew she didn’t mean it, Carla was a lot more gentler than her nonchalant exteriour would suggest but still that coolness stung. As the Princess of Grocco, she personally sent off the workers less than 2 years ago to build a tower in the capital of their neighbouring province that would appropriately represent their country.
“And no beauty is worth the lives of 3000 people” Eleonore replied. She intended to keep her voice as cool as Carla just did but it still shivered with emotion.
With the rapid expansion of Khaleb San’s empire, building new towers was both necessary to accommodate the newcomers and theatrical to blind the visitors with Razaneth’s power and glory.
Raising these buildings a mile above the ground, building the bridges, connecting the roads on every level was a dangerous occupation. Their latest tower had almost 3000 names engraved on its walls in gold, remembering those who gave their lives so that others could enjoy the beauty and the comfort of Razaneth’s newest building, all financed by Grocco, using their own resources, magic and people. Eleonore didn’t like the reminder that these lives were considered costing less than creating safer working conditions but the deadlines had to be met, she was told, and the Tower of Light as they named it, was ready just in time for her visit. Her father considered it a small price to pay for the peace with Razaneth.
“A war would’ve cost a lot more lives” he had reminded her gently when she complained to him about the deaths to build a tower in a foreign city; apparently this was the choice they had, buy their way in with Razaneth or have their army marching against the terracotta walls of their frontiers. Neither Eleonore, nor her father, nor their peaceful country for that matter, was ready to fight against the powerful Razanethian soldiers.
“Many Groccians will come down for your visit as well” he had added with a bitter sigh. It was a touchy subject as he would have loved to accompany her. King Elem had fond memories of Razaneth. It was there that he had met his favourite wife, Nora. Rare as it was for a royal, theirs was not an arranged marriage. King Elem arrived to Razaneth to celebrate the birth of Khaleb San, the famous royal baby, whose birth was marked with an unusual number of great prophecies: the future emperor uniting the lands, fighting evil, leading to a powerful empire never seen before. King Elem’s own priests predicted the same so he came to the City of Marble to continue their friendly relations.
“It’s better to be allies with the strong than enemies” he always believed, not out of cowardice but out of his love for peace and comfort. The royal baby’s birth prompted celebrations never seen before. Thanks to its lively trade Razaneth was always in good standing but the overjoyed king now spent more in one month than they had in the three years before. Parties around the whole city were financed by the court, and the palace itself was the host of the most extravagant celebrations ever seen in generations. There were fountains of melted chocolate for the ladies, trees that wore cigars as ornaments for the gentlemen, and taps with wine instead of water for everyone.
The nobles of Razaneth sent King Amir Sikh their most beautiful daughters. It would’ve been an honour for any of them just to spend a night with the king but most of them hoped for a more permanent arrangement. Amir Sikh was a very fruitful lover and he cared for all his children. King Elem and Amir Sikh bonded over their love for women and often shared stories of their best lovers. Their benevolent friendship almost ended over Nora though.
It was one of the many nights when the two kings were entertained by the enchanting dance of girls of noble bloods. As a guest, King Elem politely waited until Amir Sikh made his choice but this night was different. This was the night when he laid eyes on Nora and King Elem fell in love in an instant. Nora’s long blonde hair moved like waves following her body, her hands were flying in the air like majestic eagles and her wide hips made him feel a strong desire he’d never felt before. Before he knew it, he got up and took her in his arms. Nora locked eyes with him in amusement as the rest of the court gasped as one. He was not supposed to do that before his host made his choice. King Elem slowly turned to King Amir Sikh, holding Nora’s hand tightly in his. All he wanted is to take her away in that instant but he had enough common sense to appeal to the king’s good heart first. Elem bowed deep, winked at his host:
Amir Sikh pet his beard for a long moment, then laughed out loud.
“I admire your taste, my friend!” he said and waved them away dismissively.
King Elem heard the relieved laughter of the court as he walked away with Nora.
“Can’t wait to hear about that one” he heard the king say to one of his noblemen before they walked out of earshot.
They married in Razaneth within a week with Amir Shik’s blessings and King Elem’s feelings for Nora never faded in the years they spent together. Eleonore would’ve loved to have her father with her but he was in no condition for a long, uncomfortable trip like this any more.
Even if it was no ordinary visit. Khaleb San, emperor now, requested a royal wife and her father chose her to be sent here. Eleonore was anxious to meet him. The young ruler was considered to be quick-witted, just and an excellent strategist who seemed to care about the welfare of all his people. Ten years ago he started his rule by setting up a system of free schools for the street kids all over the country. Just last year he had eight bridges built over the biggest rivers of his empire to make crossings between trading cities quicker and safer.
But like most men, he was also keen on fighting, gaining new lands, occupying more territories. On top of the full time army, he required every able man between the ages of 18 and 28 to spend three years on general army training, with another two years in specialised forces. He highly valued the inventions that made his army quicker and deadlier than ever and already won two big wars against neighbouring territories.
He certainly sounded a man of intelligence, and Eleonore was grateful her father chose her to be sent here to be his wife. Her older sister was less thrilled obviously.
“Father cannot send her!” Eleonore overheard her sister crying to her mother. “I’m senior, I’m more beautiful and I’m a much better dancer! Why is he doing this to me?”
Marissa never talked to her since, and nor did her mother, Jisant. It wasn’t exactly the heartfelt sendoff she could’ve been hoping for but then again her father’s wives never liked her all that much. It was all down to her mother’s being not only the first wife but the most loved by the king as well. Eleonore was her mother’s only child, and the princess accepted the other women’s jealousy as a fact a long time ago. It hadn’t changed even after Nora’s death. She knew she should feel more guilt over being sent off as a bride before her sister who she used to have an amiable relationship with, but truth to be told, she was too excited to feel guilty.
Of course the emperor had never seen her before and he could still send her away. After all this journey and all that hassle at home, it wasn’t an option Eleonore intended to take. Razaneth was to be her home and Khalib San her husband.