It has entered the annals of history as Libris, but to those who lived there and trod its white marble streets it had no such name. They knew it only as the City of Literature.

Nestled at the edge of the great floodplain, against the backdrop of the mountain range which had ever been the border of the known world, the City had been the pet project of a long-dead and long-forgotten emperor. He had realized, in the canny way rulers often do, that culture and learning were potent weapons in their own right, and even more so when combined with strength of arms. So he had laid out a city to attract the great writers, sculptors, painters, and artists of all persuasions throughout his land.

The Old Laws were promulgated by him. Those who traveled to the City of Literature and demonstrated their skills would be admitted to live for free among the columned gardens and terraced cascades of the Great River that made up the Inner City. All that was required of them was to produce their art. Those of skilled trades related to art–bookbinders, paint mixers, canvasmakers–were also admitted and lived for free, though only in the less opulent area of the Outer City.

Beyond the great walls of the Outer City was the great sprawl of the Warrens. It had originally been nothing but a few dusty inns and hitching posts to service travelers who arrived to apply for admission, but over time it grew into a city of its own, ten times larger than the Inner and Outer Cities combined, that saw to their needs. The Old Laws levied a tax on the farmers of the area, requiring a portion of the harvest for the City; they also stipulated that the mundane day-to-day affairs and policing of the city be done by outsiders admitted for the purpose at sunup and expelled at sundown.

The City was a light unto the world for hundreds of years, even as the great old empire fell and the fierce winds of time swept away its successors one by one. There eventually came a time when the great army of the Conqueror approached, in the process of building an empire that would stand a thousand years after his death. As was his custom, the Conqueror paused a week’s ride from the City and demanded an audience with its elders to negotiate a peaceful surrender and the protection of their property.

This touched off a fierce discussion about who the elders were, and which of the artists was qualified to treat with the Conqueror. No conclusion was reached, and thus no emissary was dispatched. With no one to treat with, the Conqueror assumed that his offer had been rejected. His army advanced, and the smallholders he encountered pledged their fealty in exchange for the lifting of the Old Laws. The soldiers and peacekeepers of the City, drawn from the Warrens, had tired of their treatment at the hands of the artists and deserted their posts en masse to join the Conqueror.

Even so, the Conqueror was greatly vexed. The City was protected by walls of the oldest and strongest making, of a sort that mankind no longer had the skill to create or destroy. A token force could have held it against all comers indefinitely. Yet the artists in the City were unable to agree to a unified command, and to a man and to a woman they each held themselves too important to be sullied with the menial task of fighting, to say nothing of representing an unacceptable loss to the City should they fall in combat.

Advancing through the unfortified Warrens to a wary welcome, the Conqueror found the walls undefended and the gates open. His forces burst in on the final meeting of the Artists’ Moot, leading the luminaries therein out in chains. The Conqueror was a pragmatic man with little patience for ostentation or ornamentation, and he was frustrated by his inability to find leaders to execute or turncoats willing to serve. In a fit of anger, he massacred the entire Moot and dispersed the remainder of the Inner City as slaves. The Outer City was purged of its craftspeople, who were appropriated for military purposes, and the art and literature of a thousand years was dispersed over the new empire as the spoils of war.

The City itself became little more than a military garrison and stockpile of building materials…and a monument to the simple axiom that art and literature are only as strong as the will to defend them.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements