The silver being let the stolen colors go, to dart as rays to the luminous center of things, mingling with other streams of light equally strange, all converging on a distant point so bright that the fencer felt scorched to the bones of his soul.
Turning away from the glare the Fencer saw that it wasn’t a flat screen of empty space which surrounded him but an array of translucent cubic structures, invisible except for the high contrast of the burning singularity. Within each box more colors played.
The light died down and he turned back. The shimmering entity now stood out like a sheet of folded mirror matter and raised an appendage. Another cube winked into existence, resting within the graces of the being’s gravity. The Fencer blinked.
He wasn’t in the empty endless space and never had been. Hot air jostled his loose garments. The colors he saw were vivid, opulent, but those of the palace, the intricate gold filigree and silver mesh screens, were well within the normal spectrum. Lavish silks adorned the wanton ladies of the court. The mirror thing turned sideways and was gone, replaced by a new world.
The great emperor Taruk, last of a very long line of decadents and somnambulists, lounged in the glow of his most perfect victory. The great foe of the empire stood bound before him, captured the night before by his loyal captain of the guard, though none dared remove the bandit king’s cursed sword for fear of angering the spirits. The empress waited on a cushion by her emperor, a lovely creature of blue gossamer and veiled intensity.
“It is most auspicious that the vile Faud should be presented to us under the auspices of Simurs of the Blighted Eye,” warbled the high priest Gyallas, a thing more miter and jewels than man. “I would think that having his sockets scourged with heated diamonds would be a fitting punishment for our most notorious criminal, my emperor.”
The ruler reclined in consideration. He was in no hurry and wished to savor the look of rage which smoldered on the vanquished man’s face.
“What are your thoughts on the matter Ayaom?” he asked the captain. “You did capture him in the first place.”
“Though I dare not suggest any particular course for the ruler of the gilded sands,” began the woman, shifting in her silk and steel. “I’ve occasionally dreamed of setting this famed swordsman against a score of golden lemur-men in the arena. Much has been said of Faud’s skills, though I have yet to see any proof.”
“And you my empress?” asked the pompous monarch from his grand cushion.
Removing her veil and revealing the turquoise mark on her dark face the lady responded simply, “throw a feast in his honor; few have entertained us as well as he.”
At this the emperor fumed and laughed, shot up to his feet with a sound of clattering gems and gold and the echoes of the court which muttered and clamored in praise of the drama. Their ruler drew forth his golden scimitar.
“What have you to say to these things?” he said to the man before him while jealously watching the eyes of his bride.
At first the man known as Faud the Fated thought to make a jest of the unlikely feast now being held in his honor but out of habit his bound hands fell to the hilt of his weapon. A cold overtook him, a reality. He wasn’t Faud, but at the same time was also this brigand king of the deserts of Chanaut. The Fencer remembered two lives, one of cold, one of heat, one frozen, one of action, one real, the other a fiction. He knew his answer.
The trick wasn’t to cut his bonds; Dhala was sharp enough for that, but to do so without slicing open his wrists with the icy blade. The thing, an icicle of black and indigo crystal, held also a metallic aspect and steamed evilly in the desert heat.
The court was too busy at the sport of the emperor’s antics to notice the captive free himself, though he kept the bonds around his wrists for now. He was free but his companions still were held fast in the forms of the Diorama, though whose memories informed this dreamscape perplexed him. Maybe it was that the Trumpeter’s vivid imagination was the cause. The Fencer resolved to play the part of the bandit king until cold reason cut a path free from this prison of the mind.
Without even shucking off the loosened cords Faud dashed to freedom. The grand hall of the emperor held many terraced columns leading up several stories to viewing balconies above. This is where the brigand aimed to escape. With enough forward momentum he simply bounded back and forth between two supporting pillars.
Arrows followed his progress, tearing up the opulent screens and curtains as they sought their quarry in vain. After a time only the shouts and laughter of the court followed the escapee through the palace.
Soon there would be too many guards for even Faud to manage and he raced through the various sitting rooms, reflecting pools, aviaries, harems and guest quarters towards what he knew to be the courtyards outside. There he climbed down a fig tree only to find a trio of hussars menacing him with their wickedly curved blades, each blessed by the ruling pantheon, deadly in the hands of a master.
A flicker of mercy passed over the dread brigand Faud’s soul. He shouldn’t feel like this, these men were just images, shadows, moving pictures against the background of the mind. The Fencer knew this to be the truth, yet again he didn’t like to kill without necessity, or at least he now had that virtue. He frowned openly, a strange thing on his sand-weathered face, and this put some hesitation in those he now faced. Then a solution from deep inside, from a place whose memories weren’t entirely his own to begin with, presented itself.
Despite Sisyphean attempts by the imperial groundskeepers the courtyards where soldiers mustered and horses were kept was doused with glittering sands from the Chanaut. Faud drew his weapon and struck a huge plume of particles into the air, which were caught by a favorable gust of wind and blew choking and frigid into the faces of the attackers.
While the men howled at the alien cold infusing the sands he made good his escape. He stole a horse and fought it free of the closing gates, away from the palace, the city, out into the endless deserts of the golden Chanaut where mystery and legend wandered the hills, or at least that was what sprung to the Fencer’s mind as he warred against the inclusiveness of this particularly addictive Diorama.
By twilight, sure that he wasn’t followed by assassins, Faud arrived back at his secret stronghold hidden by the dunes. This had once been the emperor’s father’s palace, but it was the tradition of the mad rulers of Chanaut to move the seat of power to a new location upon ascension. It never took long for such abandoned places to be reclaimed by the sands, forgotten, turned into legendary sites haunted by specters, jinn, and bandits.
He made the proper knock on a brittle piece of teak serving as the main gate and was admitted into the sanctum. Fewer faces looked up at him than he would’ve liked.
“Where is everyone?” he growled.
“They thought you dead, or soon to be, after that ambush at the Lady’s Heart,” exclaimed a young bandit, describing the house of indiscretion which had been Faud’s undoing. “I’m sure they will return once their purses run dry.”
“No time for that,” said the Fencer, considering his words carefully. He felt the pretender in this place, as this man. “We must move this very night.”
“Always eager,” smiled one fellow brigand evilly. “Are we to plunder the palace itself?”
“In a way,” reasoned the bandit king. Strange realization dawned on him as the memories of this persona became clear. “It is time we make a bid for the Gimbal Cross.”
Silence took the smiles from these most loyal thugs. Outside the endless wind-dance of sand clattered. The Fencer feared he had overplayed his role.
“I am as eager as any lunatic on the street to get my hands on the imperial artifact,” said a tall lieutenant of the band. “But it seems premature to go after such a thing when we are at reduced numbers and the palace is presumably in an uproar over your absence.”
Faud and the Fencer together felt that they were losing the band. Whatever force dominated this fiction, which assigned the roles, did not approve of this course of action; which was precisely the reason the Fencer needed to do it.
“Our long struggle against the Chanaut emperors has proved wearying and destructive. If we are ever to be free of their despotic ways then it is only through the device of change that we can hope to manage. Tonight we move,” he stated finally, and they did.
At night the sands were bright with the collected glory of the clear stars shining down and the bandits had only to follow the smell of incense and perfume to make their way to the palace, which lay at the edge of the great city. By the sounds a royal fete was in the later stages and along the walls bolstered companies of soldiers monitored the surroundings for Faud the Fated.
The bandit had a plan, one which required nuance as well as sharp swords and bloody minds. When gathered at the perimeter it seemed the bandits had lost some to the winding sands.
“Where have the others gone?” the Fencer asked his dozen blades.
“They heard great omens in the desert and went seeking their fortune elsewhere,” replied a tall brigand through the scarf over his mouth.
“Why do you all stay with me then?”
“Omens don’t pay so well,” responded the man simply.
The few and loyal moved to a tall dune upwind from the glittering palace while their leader alone snuck up past the watchmen and patrols into a murky shadow along the wall’s face. The call of the star owl sounded out and the men lifted great tufts of sand into the air and let them fly.
At first the guards merely murmured at the blowing sand but soon their number grew restless. It was said that only when a sitting emperor was untrue to his people and his throne that the golden Chanaut would encroach upon his palace. It wasn’t only brigands who followed foolish omens. When the defenders were properly unnerved the Fencer made his move.
Long years of peace had made the rulers of the sands soft and decadent. Taruk’s fortress had walls festooned and latticed in such a way that climbing was easy and in the furor Faud made the top just in time to see the Captain Ayaom take the finicky guards to task for their disruption. Under long shadows Faud crept into the palace proper.
Remains of the night’s festivities lay about as bodies drifting to unseen horizons on the wings of opiate dreams. The air reeked with the smell of transcendent drugs, creating escapes not unlike the one which the Fencer sought to undo. He knew falsehoods of the mind and how they might be slain, so he crept past slumbering guards, drunken servants and dreaming guests towards the emperor’s chambers.
He waited at the threshold until the alarm was sounded; that meant his fellows had begun the entertainment in earnest and whatever conscious guards were to be found would be out front dealing with his cohorts, and, most importantly, that damned Ayaom and her spear.
Once inside the hushed apartments, lush and overflowing with jewels and cushions, the thief still had far to go. Over half the palace rooms were those of the emperor’s private kind and it was never sure which one the man himself would grace as he spent each night in different quarters. By brute force it was improbable that an assassin would find the true royal bed for that night, but Faud knew a trick.
It was a truth that the emperor himself was more often confused by his defenses than any assassin so a heuristic had been devised. By a complex rubric founded on the position of the moon and the heavenly pantheon it was possible to know the despot’s room and this well guarded secret had fallen to the bandit king on the same night as his capture by one of the emperor’s most attentive concubines.
Through long corridors the brigand moved with quiet steps. Past rooms gilded, glimmering, shadowy and mysterious, around pools of moonlight spilt by latticed windows, he stepped. The hum of the Gimbal Cross told him he was going in the correct direction.
The device worried the Fencer and enticed Faud. Once he had spied its glory on another occasion, as a disguised guest of the emperor. It was a floating cube, translucent, larger inside than out, the various planes of its sides touched in geometries not meant for mortals to see, let alone possess. Within the fine limits of the thing strange colors danced. The wielder gained some form of power from these colors. Legend said these were dreams. To the man living the dream it was a worrisome artifact, an element which did not correspond to the rules of Diorama, as he understood them. Despite this mystery, he made for the device.
Kept always one room away from the emperor’s bed, the floating, spinning thing rested a few centimeters above a sweeping stand of marble. The device’s strange light cast deep shadows where various cushions and screens rose up. Finding it at last Faud broke his silence and moved out to take the treasure.
The shadows cried and a long blade reached out for the Fencer’s heart. It might’ve done, to accept the strike, to die and be free of the plot, but the man of the southern sound had too much pride for that. He side stepped the lunge and had his own chilling weapon in his hands in a second.
To his surprise Ayaom emerged from the dark, followed close by the blue-marked empress, the high priest and the emperor himself all in unfriendly welcome.
“What did I say? I said he would find a way to take what is most precious from me!” declared the emperor as he fought his scimitar free from its gilded scabbard.
“You know me too well Trumpeter,” said the Fencer with a smile he stole from his old friend’s face.
“What is he talking about?” asked the captain, hesitating.
“I’m talking sense and reason against this mockery,” said the Fencer. “This palace isn’t real, the desert outside an illusion, the guards and bandits frauds of the mind given form by sorcery. Nothing here is real except us and even we are only passing shades of our true selves, such as in dreams, and in such dreams, when the dreamer dies, the dream is over.”
With that he leaped at his addled friend, who shrieked as if he was facing true murder. The captain interposed and the battle was on.
In this other place the atom-edge sword clashed against the radiant spear of Ayaom as equals. Again and again the Fencer’s sweeping strikes met the guarding haft of the spear and were rebuffed. His target ran about, seeking cover behind the various furnishings and players.
“Simurs, let this hideous creature not harm me!” squealed the Trumpeter.
“No gods to save you here or anywhere,” commented the Fencer as he knocked aside another insidious attack.
“He is a blasphemer too,” declared the high priest Gyallas. “He would even declare the divinities to be fictions!”
“Think on it, all of you, this is but a dream, a fantasy.” He cast about his gaze looking for reason in any of their eyes, at last focusing his attentions on Omya’s. “Think of all the taboo you are breaking at this minute.”
Her focus rattled as a bit of truth glimmered in her dark eyes. The Fencer did nothing to press the attack as her guard fell. Cries and shouts told of more guards coming to end the dispute. The swordsman was going to finish the hissing Trumpeter when a sharp pain rattled his skull. The old priest had snuck on him and brained the man with his staff.
“All it takes is the death of the dreamer to wake us all up,” he mumbled as he collapsed, the fullness of his vision being overtaken by the glamour within the Gimbal Cross. The colors became everything, even the scream that came forth some seconds or centuries later, its shrieking form stretching into another bolt of light heading towards the distant center of things, and then cold.
Winter returned with the balmy blues of afternoon near the equator. The Fencer sat up despite the protests from his skull and the ministrations of stars in his eyes. The company lay assembled around the still floating silver cube, at the base of which lay the bloody and quiet form of the marked woman, crimson red now contrasting with the unearthly blue of her birthmark.