GHOST OF THE DISTANT PAST
For a long while now, he’d forgotten the simplest pleasures of life; taking a stroll down a busy street and trying to spot every pickpocketing thief; sitting on a small bench by a dried-up fountain and counting worthless coins embedded in its scorched bottom; walking into a tavern and listening in to the hopeful dreams pouring out alongside the ale; closing his eyes and sitting in a straight path of the breeze, letting its howls chisel at his cheeks.
He’d forgotten how it was like to enter a new city for the first time, an entirely unknown world, and explore it, learn it, embody it and know it. He missed the plethora of feelings that accompanied such simple merits; the sort of tranquility that cannot be found otherwise, the sort of peace that just falls short of being cradled inside Hannah’s arms, the sort of belonging that cannot be replicated anywhere else. In moments not unlike this one, where he was standing in a line with two dozen other folk, sweating in profuse sun, mumbling angry curses at the seller and his slow hands, he felt a part of the world. In front of him stood an old, hunched woman with a hijab covering her graying hair, old, wooden cane supporting her lithe body, while behind him stood a middle-aged man stinking of ale, nearly asleep standing up.
All around him, ordinary people beheld life all on their own; lines after lines stretched out of bakeries, smithies, jewelers, bath houses, inns, taverns... cobblestone-paved street rounding in a spiral-like fashion was full-packed, without an inch of room for another building to rise without razing another before. From far above, the slums of the massive city only appeared as a small, dirtied dot in the field of snow-white marble, yet Lino had quickly found it was far livelier than any other part of the city. Far into the night, music could be heard blaring into the streets, men and women of all assortments walking the dimly lit streets hand in hand, groups of youths standing in circles and playing dice, and even prostitutes meandering about rainbow-glowing brothels that rose frequently, yet were still filled regardless of the fact.
He took one step forward in the line as a young lad finished registering himself, walking away with a massive grin full of hopes and dreams on his face. A flicker of smile gushed over Lino’s lips as he briefly wondered what the young man would achieve in his life. One by one, those in front of him slowly flickered away into the ever-fading day, chasing dreams and pursuing hopes, until it was his turn.
The man standing on the opposite end of the booth was in the twilight-end of his years, his brows and beard yellowed out due to pipe sticking out of his mouth, spewing smoke into the sky. He had brown eyes, whites yellowed out after years, and a head full of gray, unruly hair. He wore standard fashion of the Empire’s Officials, leather-bound pair of white pants and surcoat.
“Welcome to the Celeste Empire,” the man said in a disinterested tone. “Please state your name, age, origin and your business in the D’or.”
“Lyonel,” Lino replied casually. “Thirty-eight, Central Continent refugee, chasing his dreams.”
“Aye, aye,” the man jotted down the details, spitting out smoke from his nostrils. “Orientation Ceremony for the new citizens is held on twelfth of each month,” he continued. “There you can learn the basics of local cultures, customs, religions, as well as a full regulatory body of laws and regulations. You are obliged to report to the Center for Citizenship twice a year for the first five years of your stay, and then once for the following five. If you have any questions, feel free to visit many of our Centers for Knowledge. If you can read and write Common Tongue, you can always visit the local libraries. In the meantime, please refrain from stirring any trouble.”
“... will do.” Lino replied with a faint smile.
“Congratulations,” the man said, handing Lino a thin, slightly oily piece of parchment. “You are now officially a citizen of Celeste Empire -- may stars guide your way.”
“And yours too.” taking the parchment, Lino quickly glanced over it before putting it away; it was merely a document stating that he was a citizen, in addition to his basic information.
Bidding the man farewell, Lino stepped away from the line and took a deep breath, stretching lightly. Night would soon fall, yet it hardly seemed to matter; windows blared in coral from the flames of candles and lanterns all around, casting shade on the stone-built rises. Even slums here, Lino mused, were better than the Holy Holm in its entirety.
Rather than returning to the inn, he decided to first take a stroll around the city. He’d imagined the rest hadn’t yet completed their own ‘citizenship quest’, as he knew for a fact this was the least visited place and he still had to wait for three hours in the line. He stopped by a small stall handled by a pair of young, teenage girls dressed in olive-dyed dresses who were handing out something that appeared like wool on sticks, yet people who bought it ate it with gusto, making him curious.
“Hello,” one of the girls greeted Lino with a beaming smile. “Would you like one roll?”
“... I’m sorry; I’ve just gotten here. What is this?” Lino asked.
“Oh, it’s a special, local produce!” the girl exclaimed. “This is the special wool from the local shepherds, coated in [Dew Sugar], wrapped on the stick made from the [Honey Bark]; after you eat the wool, you can even snack on the stick!”
“Oh?” Lino exclaimed softly. “Alright. Give me one. How much?”
“Only a single piece of silver coin!” Lino observed closely as the girl took a stick from the stack and then used a set of magical arrays inside a strange construct to weave the sugar-coated wool around the stick like magic. The entire process barely took a single minute. Taking the stick, Lino handed two silver coins and winked at the girl who blushed faintly as she expressed her thanks in a low mumble.
Chuckling, he walked away and took a bite of a strange, cloud-like meal; it melted inside his mouth, coating it in terribly sweet sensation. Delicious... he thought, his lips curling up into an involuntary smile.
Celeste Empire was the sole Empire of the Holy Continent, centered next to the Great Divide, beneath the Dragon Gulfs up north and encompassing vast Weyoth Plains down south. It was culturally, religiously and racially most diverse hotpot of the continent, as well as the richest one. It was technically a republic monarchy, though the Royal family always had precedent in making the decisions rather than the people-elected bodies.
He came to a halt suddenly as a peculiar scene on his left caught his eye; otherwise packed building gave way to a slightly elevated, wooden platform surrounded by a hundred eyes or so, all gazing on the stage occupied by two people wearing rather extravagant costumes. Walking up to the end of the crowd, Lino settled and listened quietly.
“What?!” one of the men shouted on top of his lungs, falling on his bum as the crowd burst out into laughter. “Thy Maiden be cursed, lad! What do you mean you have shagged my chicken?!!”
“I have shagged thine chicken!!” the other man shouted back as he puffed his chest out. “And the omelette you ate this mornin’ was my kids! You ate my kids, you beast!”
“...” what the fuck... Lino thought inwardly, yet still laughed, infected by the surrounding atmosphere.
“By gods!! I shan’t ever have eggs again!”
“Gods can’t help you lad! Eggs are all ye’ can afford after Royal Lady kicked you out! Ha ha ha!”
“Pui!” the man spat on the stage, getting up rather awkwardly as his clothes were rather cumbersome, which led to another bout of laughter from the audience. “That is it! I am shagging your cow!”
“Ay lad, if you could shag anything, Royal Lady wouldn’t have kicked you in the first place! Ha ha ha ha!”
“What of my little yolk?! Are they not proof of my shagging?!”
“They are proof of someone’s shagging, but certainly not yours! Ha ha ha ha...”
“... aya, aya, aya, how cruel thine life can be?! Thou art abandoned your man, doth thee have a heart or not?”
Lino chuckled faintly as he tore himself away from the laughing crowd, enveloped slightly in the festive mood. Scenes like the one he left, however, were hardly unique; he’d came across four plays in merely a few dozen minutes of strolling around, and tens more individual street performers doing anything from swallowing swords to spitting out flames and performing strange dance routines with even stranger animals.
In the end, he settled on a small fountain, sitting down among the chatting crowd, having bought a bottle of ‘booze that will turn your world upside down’ according to the seller. In reality, it was just slightly sugared ale, but it was pleasing nonetheless. The night had fallen, sky enveloped in shimmering stars, with full moon hanging far up as a centerpiece of the fold.
“... pleasant night, isn’t it?” looking sideways, Lino’s heart froze for a moment; right there, sitting next to him, garbed in a white cloak covering half her face, sat a soul that he’d forgotten a long, long time ago. Silver hair draped underneath the cloak, otherworldly in its shine, encapsulating a treasured face without blemishes and a pair of rapidly-swirling, black eyes. A quaint smile hung on her lips as her eyes met his, causing Lino’s throat to quickly dry up and words to leave him. “You are all grown-up now. Though, to this day, I secretly hoped you’d have remained that boy I remember you as.”
“...” Lino remained mute, both words and thoughts escaping him.
“But, this isn’t too bad either,” she chuckled lightly. “You are far more handsome now, I admit. Though it seems you have lost your way with words; that is unexpected.”
“... Freya?” Lino barely managed to stutter out under his breath as a youthful face flashed through his mind, one he’d long-since buried both in the sands of time and the mirth of earth. It was indeed her; the naive, young and slightly loose-headed Princess... now a breathtaking beauty with a smile to melt away at all walls of one’s soul. And one very much alive.