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|Coda is defined in English as 'the concluding section of a musical or literary piece', and from this definition my main character took shape. In the moments following a devastating apocalyptic event the story emerges of the only survivor directly involved. He alone knows what occurred in those dark days and is called by the King to tell what he saw. However, rather than being about the epic events that lead to this story, we instead focus on their repercussions.||
The abatement of the storm had never seemed an easy task. Twelve sodden figures gathered in a circle as the wind whipped around them, thinking of nothing but the slaking of their current, miserable state. So as not to umbrage whatever force might be the cause, they mumbled prayers under their breath in a conceited attempt to beautify that which they would next attempt to destroy. And though not taciturn by nature, many spoke with a surprising degree of eloquence, though this abated as the moments passed.
The malevolence of the storm appeared so great in that time that it might have been insurmountable if not for the tiny bit of luminosity within each who stood against it. Oddly, as darkness fears brilliance so too did this storm fear those men and their circle. A deity could not have been more single-mindedly bent on their destruction, and a deity would not have failed here. However, because that light within each man could be sacrificed to save a world torn asunder, chaos had no hope of discomfiting those before it. Rather, it destroyed assiduously, collected those audacious souls who stood before it, and dissipated with a dramatic crack.
The silence of the night settled then, the wind falling to sleep in what seemed a torn world. And yet, a figure stirred amidst the twelve, his brilliance perhaps protected by the others. Just as likely was it that the storm, hubris in nature, had overlooked him in its fight to survive the power of those others, for he who was left was but a boy. And a boy doomed to carry the legacy of the eleven left behind as a limpid mantle upon hunched shoulders. He would be called Coda for this, for he alone had stood at the end of that mad symphony, and though he would try to forget what he had seen he would find that impossible.
Coda wondered, as he rose on shaking legs, whether this perfidy was perennial. Had it come before? And would it come again? Would the world be threatened with oblivion over and over again until none rose against it, all victims of the perfunctory whim of an archaic deity? He didn’t know the answer, nor did he wish to. It seemed that the weariness of the night’s events had transcended upon his shoulders a certain obstinate apathy and as he struggled toward the little village over the hill he thought only of the illusionary security a warm bed would provide.
The village hadn’t quite awoken as he reached it, though neither did it seem to have slept. Coda’s lethargic movements appeared echoed in each building and stable, each road, and every flicker of movement behind dusty windowpanes. Yet there was the relief of many having held a single breath for too long, and the sour rush of oxygen promising life and something more, something sinister. The ignorance that had made the world brighter now appeared dulled, as though that transient night had taken too their torrid love affair with life. It seemed the weariness was too much and Coda, who had seen the most, could only collapse against the innkeeper’s door and bang his fist in an attempt to be heard. It was quiet otherwise.
The door swung open almost immediately, producing the portly owner and his rather pragmatic wife. Both stood in the rumpled cloths of the day before, smelling strongly of sweat and ale. Recognizing the boy from the days before the storm, the innkeeper took his arm and drew him inside, pushing away his own lassitude in favor of curiosity.
“Boy, what’s happened? Where are the others?” he gruffly shoved Coda into a rickety wooden chair which protested his weight as it would have any other. “We saw the storm break over yonder hill right when we were sure we were doomed.”
“It’s over. My friends went on ahead,” the boy answered softly, speaking for the first time since the cataclysm. “I stayed behind.”
“But what happened? Where did they go?”
The boy moved his face away from the man’s, the sour smell of alcohol turning his stomach even as his eyes drooped further. “I’ll follow them later. Someone had to come back, to pay the bill,” he answered softly, digging out a few precious coins and pressing them into the innkeeper’s hand. He hadn’t meant the money.
Mettlesome though the innkeeper often was, and irked by the boy’s minced words, he still managed some self control. Holding his questions, he settled the boy near the fire and drew a thick woolen blanket about his shoulders. It seemed somehow ignominious to push upon the boy anything but rest and escape in these moments, though he would not hesitate to prize such trophies from his later.
Instead he worked next to his prodigious wife throughout the morning, fixing the damage of the night before. Shutters were pulled free and repaired, shattered glass removed and rubbish piled in a corner. In all, the damage wasn’t as bad as it had seemed at first and not nearly as bad as it could have been. Still, they only broke from their labors for moments at a time, knowing well the difficulties of life and how few rewards there truly were. In one of those moments, rather than pausing to watch others hammering at signboards or sweeping clean the storefronts, the innkeeper’s wife leaned toward him and asked him to remind her of the name of the boy.
“I remember all the others,” she admitted, naming them as she counted on her fingertips. “They were all such characters, so unique. I even remember the boy running in and out of the bar fetching ale or bringing a message. I remember them talking to him even, calling him over to the table. I just can’t remember his name,” she shook her head slowly, chuckling, “seems I’m getting old.”
The innkeeper studied her for a moment, a lopsided grin on his face as he remembered the woman he had married. She had been beautiful, though her face had been just as round then as his own was now. She still seemed beautiful to him so many years later, though it was the quality of her character rather than her appearance which now drew his attention. “I’m sure I’ll remember in a minute, just let me think for a bit,” he replied. He wouldn’t remember. The Coda’s name wasn’t meant to be remembered, nor the person.
Coda awoke in the early evening to the typical sounds and smells of merriment which were forever present in pubs and inns. His muscles remonstrated any movement, and for a time he lay still against the stone floor, feeling the heat of the fireplace against his cheeks and the subtle lick of wind drying the film of sweat upon his forehead. Emotionally rent by the travesty of the night before, he was also tortured by the fate which had allowed him to live while his comrades were sentenced to oblivion. Being allowed to live seemed only to vilify his life.
Finally convincing himself that his lethargy and vexation would continue as long as he lay there, he pushed himself to his feet. Almost immediately a steaming mug was shoved under his nose by a stranger easily three times as large as him wearing the sharply trimmed suit of a military official. “Take it, Boy, it’s just a bit of mulled cider. Won’t hurt you one bit,” he ordered genially, “drink up before it gets cold.”
Coda sniffed the drink with distaste, eying the stranger over the cracked rim.
“The name’s John Jacob,” he supplied easily, taking a drink from his own tankard. “Quite a merry night, this is. ‘Specially after all the happenings that just ended over the hill,” he nodded, brushing a hand over his bristly chin. “See much of that?”
“Some,” Coda answered warily.
“I heard it was quite a show—wind blowing like crazy, lightening making it seem like daybreak, ghosts, demons, and everything else impossible. Couldn’t make my way here quick enough though, didn’t arrive till this afternoon,” he shrugged. “Horse lost a shoe, and the mud was pretty thick from all that rain. Managed to get here though, and all the way from the capital too!”
Coda frowned. The capital was on the other side of the country, where the king and his council regularly sat and determined policy for a nation they couldn’t begin to understand. They ordered taxes which were optimal on theoretical grounds, telling the locals they wished to maximize the welfare of all citizens. Unfortunately, their methods were both unrealistic and in general inequitable. Instead of providing for those most in need, they treated all alike and expected the same from each. Of course, Coda guessed that all nations had their problems and that there would be complaints regardless of the policies put forward. He frowned because it couldn’t be a coincidence that John Jacob had chosen him to speak to.
“What do you want?” he asked tersely, no longer feeling so torpid.
“What’s your name, boy?”
Coda tried to remain calm and inscrutable, but his annoyance was growing. “I think you already know my name, don’t you?”
The man chuckled innocuously, “I’m pretty sure you’re the Coda, but I could always use a bit of verification.”
Coda remained silent.
“When I arrived, I went to the hill. Pretty ugly up there, but empty as well. Didn’t have what I was looking for. I figured I might as well nip down to the village and nose around a bit. Good idea too, if you don’t mind my saying so. Only took a moment to find you asleep in the corner and rid myself of that insular innkeeper, and then I just played the waiting game.” He leaned forward in his chair, lowering his voice. “I really expected the whole way here to find some sort of filibuster waiting for me, and yet here I sit and here you are. Not much of a chase, was it?”
“Should it have been?”
“It could have been. Why, I could have been running all over the countryside trying to track you down. This is much easier though, much, much easier. Want more cider?”
Coda shook his head, his stomach offering a threatening turn at the thought.
“So I’m right, aren’t I? You are the Coda? I’m not telling my story to the wrong person.”
For a moment Coda considered lying to the loquacious man before him, but in his heart he knew his position was immutable and he had no desire to create an imbroglio. He nodded slowly.
“Excellent!” the man exclaimed fervently, holding out a hand. “A pleasure to meet you! You don’t seem too chatty, but I’m told I make up for silence quite well on my own,” he laughed, shaking Coda’s hand merrily. “Now, we must be on the road in the morning so I took the liberty of arranging rooms upstairs for the night. I hope you don’t have problems getting up, since we have a long trip ahead of us.”
“Why the capital of course, boy! The King himself sent me to bring you.”
Feeling suddenly contentious, Coda scowled. “I don’t even know you, and I have no intention of going anywhere at present.”
John Jacob shrugged, never loosing his easy-mannered air. “Well, I could clap you in irons and bring you along on a pack horse, though that wouldn’t be my preference. It’s up to you really, but we’re partners now and neither of us really has a choice in the matter.”
Coda pushed back his chair and stood, his eyes narrowing dangerously. “Then you’d better find those irons,” he said softly.
Riding on a pack horse really wasn’t all that bad. He swayed back and forth with each of the mare’s steps, listening to John Jacob whistling ahead of him while his contentiousness was slowly and undeniably replaced by genuine feelings of contrition. In the beginning he had tugged at his bindings, not irons but tightly wound rope that made the tips of his fingers tingle, but when his wrists began to smart and his shoulders to ache he resolved himself to patience.
That had been hours ago, and he had since fallen into a kind of stupor. So it was with a certain surprise that he suddenly found John Jacob at his side, pulling him from the saddle with the care a father offered his son. “How are you feeling?” he asked carefully, leading him towards a fallen tree where they sat.
Coda shook his head, fighting to free himself from the growing lethargy which seemed intent on claiming him ever since the night of the storm. Nothing had been the same after that. He didn’t answer the question, but looked up into the blue sky and wondered why it seemed grey.
“I think we’re going to have to pick up the pace,” John Jacob mused, studying his companion carefully. “Can you hold onto the mare’s neck if I tie your hands in front of you?”
“I could ride best if you freed my hands entirely.”
“I don’t trust you,” John Jacob replied bluntly.
The feeling of contrition ebbed.
He allowed John Jacob to retie his wrists before him and replace him in the mare’s saddle. As they sped over the hills and across the fields, Coda fell into a dreamy state in which reality seemed only to flicker before him, the brush of ice against burning cheeks. The days fell away and he repudiated them, rent by the feeling his self was being absorbed by the great nothingness of the storm which seemed to follow him. At times he wished freedom from himself, and at others he shook with the effort to retain some semblance of what he had once been. He remembered being innocent of the world’s bitter tribulations, but could not remember how that felt. In the background he occasionally heard John Jacob prattle on inconsequentially, but he never listened and felt no comfort from the words. In those days he was almost entirely lost in a shock-inspired lethargy which seemed inescapable.
However, where Coda appeared unable to recognize anything of the world through which they passed, John Jacob’s ever-present vigilance kept them from harm as the days sped into a week and they moved closer and closer to the capital. Nevertheless, with the miles of their journey lessening, John Jacob’s concern mounted for his charge. If they boy had shown signs of a slight fever before they left, it only seemed to grow. Now, when his skin was hot to the touch and he hardly ate, it seemed unsafe to travel. Yet, to wait was impossible. The King called.
Not wanting to arrive with a corpse as a companion, John Jacob relented on the ninth day and their horses were traded for seats on a stagecoach. As he helped Coda onto the bench, bundling blankets about him so he might not be so jostled by the bumpy ride to come, he saw a transient glimpse of the torturous path the boy had followed. From the halcyon days of a carefree childhood this audacious child had bravely stepped, joining those who walked the epic paths of legend. And now, although the stones crumbled beneath his feet he could not be freed from the terrible road which had claimed his companions. In such a moment, John Jacob was sure nothing he could do or say would ameliorate the bitterness of such a fate; in this story, he was the passing character who comforted the hero. He would have done anything to avoid such a fate himself, but would have given everything to trade places with the child. He knew though that the trade had already been made, and that there was nothing he had which could be given to nullify it.
The stagecoach left the afternoon of the ninth day, rambling along the same road the post-horses took toward the capital. It would take them three days more to reach the city and John Jacob hoped by then his companion would be well enough to speak his tale to the King. It seemed odd that such a story could be worth a boy’s life, yet he knew death was not yet upon them. The boy wouldn’t die, simply because of what he had become. He was the Coda and his purpose was to carry the mantle of those weighty events upon his young shoulders. Yet looking upon his feverish face his intuition cried a different song, raising guilt in him which he could taste like bile in his throat. Still, he did nothing but watch the boy sleep and hope his dreams were sweeter than this scorched reality.
Coda did dream. He dreamt of the laughter he had left behind, of a hirsute friend committed now only to memory, of the homilies he had once dreaded and now ached for. In his dreams his once gregarious character again emerged unchecked, as garrulous as he was now silent. He was unwilling to eschew even the most impossible task, and in those dreams he once more stepped on the golden road which had now blackened beneath him.
In those dreams his friends called to him from a hilltop unmarked by the devastation they had faced. They laughed when they saw him so far away, and smiled when he ran to them with tears in his eyes. Clutching them close, he heard their soft voices assure him they would wait while he finished his task, heard them whisper enigmatically of his bravery, though the reasoning behind many of their statements was hidden to him by his life and their death. Finally, amidst their smiles and reassurance, he drifted away into a peaceful sleep and his fever broke.
John Jacob also drifted in an out of sleep as the night progressed, his mind seeming to remonstrate those dreams he wish to claim. He watched the boy at times, saw him grow restless and then still, and hoped that in that slowly beating heart lay the magnanimity to forgive what had been forced upon him, and what was to come. His own heart seemed to pray for that release, wished once more to be as insouciant as he had been long ago. Times were more difficult now, and he would so rather return to those idyll days of the past than face that which was so imminent. With these thoughts a reticent day came slowly into wakefulness.
Coda awoke before his companion, feeling oddly refreshed and aware. Though he remembered the passing of days, he had no coherent image of them. Now that the fever had passed, he no longer experienced the disquieting sense that his soul was slipping away. Rather, he felt more like himself than he ever had before and had the sudden desire to shout out in jubilation. His heart beat a little faster, his eyes gleamed with the luminosity his soul still undeniably possessed, and, though still wearied from illness and fatigue, the chill of the early morning air swept through his lungs as the sweetest of nectars. He, Coda, was alive.
“How do you feel?” John Jacob’s groggy voice asked as the man pushed himself up in the bench and gathered his long legs beneath him. He gave a bit of a scratch to his chin, and rubbed his eyes carelessly.
“Better,” Coda answered, adding a complacent “thank you” as he averted his gaze. Hearing the man’s pleasant, welcoming tones stirred in him a cacophony of emotions, the most dominant being culpability. The ‘thank you’ was for more than the question.
“Glad to hear it. You had me worried for a bit there,” he admitted. “I would have slowed down, but we really need to reach the capital as soon as possible. My instructions are to bring any survivors to the King without delay.”
Coda stiffened slightly at the word survivor, feeling a cold ripple run up and down his spine. Prevaricating at this point was impossible, yet somehow it still felt terrible to consider those who had been lost to the storm. How many widows already brushed tears from their cheeks, how many children had lost a parent and sisters lost a brother? How many men had lost a friend, a compatriot, a rival? Eleven men had died for their country, their priceless courage and bravery swept away in a moment. But Coda hadn’t been lost. He was the survivor.
“Have you ever been to the capital?” John Jacob asked quickly, attempting to ease the sense of mounting tension. “It’s a beautiful city.”
Coda shook his head numbly. “I’m from the west. We have nothing comparable there,” he answered, not wanting to be taciturn but feeling very much inclined towards it.
“You’re in for a treat then! Our city is built to amaze and astound. You’ll never see another like it! There are sweeping streets filled with venders and commotion, and amidst them you might glimpse peasants looking at tawdry jewelry as often as duchesses buying rubies and diamonds. In the afternoons those streets fill with black carriages drawn by magnificent horses who never walk but always dance. The curtains are drawn most of the time, but occasionally a face will look out and a man may drop a coin to some street urchin. It’s the atmosphere that’s so amazing though, the breathless quality of it is like some viscous soup you cannot avoid or break free of, so you cannot help but being swept away by it,” he shook his head and laughed a little. “You’ll love it, Coda! I know you will!”
Coda smiled diffidently, trying to imagine such an impossible and imposing place. To him, it was like living underground his entire life only to finally encounter the endless sky of the world above. Surely he would be just as amazed, astounded, and fearful of that world when he encountered it, though being somewhat removed from it presently he felt only a rising excitement at the prospects which lay before him.
“And you wont be going just anywhere in the city, my boy,” John Jacob continued a little bombastically. “You’re going to see the King himself, the very ruler of our great nation! Why, when you stand before him you will be the second most important person in the city, perhaps even the first as the King himself will be anxious to know the story of your bravery and courage!”
“Not so courageous as you might think,” Coda answered.
“Nonsense! Why, when I think of what you and your companions stood against it makes my blood run cold. The apocalypse itself, that was! I don’t think I would have been brave enough to spit in its eye!”
Coda smiled softly, remembering how they had coalesced that night in a loose circle, clasping each others hands and striving to remain calm. They had been brave, perhaps, but also very frightened. Standing before that obdurate impossibility, breathless but fiercely determined, they had drawn strength from those around them and stood still when they wanted to run. “My courage wasn’t my own,” Coda whispered, looking down at those same hands. “It was stolen from the others, just as they were stolen from me.”
“They took courage in your strength also, Coda. In your youthful exuberance they saw what they stood to loose. How many of your friends looked upon you as their son as well? As one they had to protect, one whose brilliance could not be lost,” John Jacob sighed, reaching out and taking the boy’s hands in his own. “Because you were each strong and stood together, and because none faltered when the impossible descended upon your shoulders, this land remains. If you lived, Coda, for even a day after that horrible storm, it is not a curse but a gift to us all.”
Coda lifted his gaze to that of John Jacob’s, injury sketched in his features. He tried to speak and failed, and instead felt tears for those he had lost rushing down his cheeks. Twelve tears, perhaps, though more were to come. He cried for them, just as he cried for himself. Trembling there, wrapped in the older man’s arms, he took great breaths and, letting each go, also let his friends pass from life into only memory. If we only truly feel pain in the moments in which it is inflicted, then those were terrible moments for that boy. And yet as they passed, he knew their spirits waited for the day he would join them once more.
John Jacob watched the boy weep, knowing a trust had built between them in that moment. That made his perfidy all the more terrible.
They arrived in the city two days later feeling travel-worn, but somehow refreshed by the very sight of civilization. Rain had fallen the night before and as they crested the hills the sodden grass glistened in the morning sunshine. Beyond it, also glistening, lay towers of gold and riches like none Coda had ever seen. The sprawling lengths of the city, floridly ornate and delicate at times while crude and rudimentary at others, provided an undeniably insouciant air entirely befitting something so grand.
Coda couldn’t help but lean out the window and gape at the grandeur surrounding him. The streets were paved in smoothed stones which caused the horse’s shoes to ring and clatter. Children laughed and poor men watched as they passed, some were caught up in their lives and oblivious to the carriage while others met the boy’s eyes with interest. A beggar ran towards them, his hand outstretched in hopes of a coin, but stopped several steps away when an old woman called to him from a doorway. Coda waved to her happily, thinking of what an amazing place this would be to live in.
Soon enough however the enormity of the palace rose overhead and cast an ominous shadow across their path. They passed beneath great and imposing gates that whispered of ages past upon deaf ears, crying over spilt blood and impossible dreams, and praying for ignorance and peace. These stones, Coda realized as he passed beneath them, would stand long after he was gone. They already remembered those that time itself had forgotten and he reached out to brush his hand across several, wishing they would remember him. They promised they would, but he knew they would forget soon enough. His life, he knew, was already doomed to anonymity.
In a courtyard filled with cold stone and solicitous stable boys the carriage stopped and they were drawn forth into streams of sunshine whose vain attempt it was to warm the brooding palace. Feeling a jejune sort of excitement, Coda leapt from the carriage steps in a quick motion and cast his gaze about the greatest structure his young eyes had ever beheld. Here before him lay the sort of castles which stories told of, where great rulers returned when their quests were complete; the epitome of legends he had been told since he was a child. His heart jumped to his throat at the thought of encountering a true hero, and with artless amazement he looked upon the few stable boys who moved to attend the carriage and wondered how they could possibly be so calm. How could they live so casually when the walls themselves dripped with greatness?
Feeling suddenly loquacious yet unable to muster a word, Coda stepped forward towards the great set of doors at the end of the courtyard and stood in wonder as they opened before him. He felt John Jacob take him by the shoulder and lead him forward, and he felt such sudden excitement it seemed to restrain him; every step forward, ever movement towards and through those doors seemed astounding simply because he couldn’t believe what he saw before him.
It was true men spoke of such wonders as these, of buildings so tall they might touch the heavens with their rooftops, of such grandeur the gods might take note of their beauty. The guards stood tall in their immaculate uniforms with faces devoid of emotion except for the curiosity flickering in their eyes. The floors were marble, and their feet made soft sounds upon them which echoed down the length of the otherwise quiet hallway.
So amazed was Coda by this place that he could not put into coherent thought that which he saw. It was too grand, too wonderful, too perfect, and too foreign to his life. It glittered so as to constantly distract the eye, and within the pictures which lined the hallway were images within images, symbols of events he had no comprehension of. He wondered at the faces who looked out through the portraits, wondered who they were or had been, and in some cases he wondered why they looked at him so sadly when he could not imagine a life in a place so brilliant as bad. Why, if he had been able to sacrifice the luminosity which he saw here instead of that which his friends and companions had offered, perhaps they would have more easily abated that chaotic storm. Perhaps those he had lost would still be alive.
And yet on some level it seems incomprehensible that such a place be sacrificed. Here, certainly, resided the hopes and dreams of the nation. In this beauty, in this wonder, there lay a quality which he drew on for strength. Perhaps beauty was more than just beauty, perhaps it was the embodiment of that which drove them all. If that was so, then the loss of such a place would mean the loss of the nation itself, for here lay what the people so ardently drove towards. Here lay the home of all aspirations, in this castle, upon this hill.
Coda stopped for a moment, stilling himself and his spinning mind. It was almost too much to change the world so drastically in a few moments, and he needed time to breathe. Closing his eyes, he took several steadying breaths and prepared to touch the magic in his mind and through it caress that world around him. In this way he might verify that not everyone was foreign to him but only a little bit changed, a creature of a different sort but still with a mouth, ears, and a beating heart. However, before he could do so John Jacob’s hand fell upon his shoulder and he urged the boy forward.
“We’ve made it this far, Coda. We can’t be stopping now. The King waits at the end of this very hallway, and we mustn’t make him hold his breath any longer.”
Coda nodded slowly, still feeling frazzled. “Alright,” he whispered finally and followed along behind the man. “We’ve come this far,” and promised himself he could hold out a little bit longer. Even if he did still feel somewhat fragile, his strength was returning quickly and surely and he felt a thousand times better than he had those few short days ago.
Turning to the left at the end of the corridor and bypassing several large double doors they suddenly came face to face with a pair of uniformed guards standing at attention before an entryway. They stood still as the man and boy approached, but eyed them warily and tensed their hands on long metal spears. Both were tall men, well-build and explicitly dangerous. There were no laugh lines around they eyes or mouth, and they took themselves seriously enough to pose a threat to any who happened to cross their paths. Coda felt a flicker of wariness as that impression passed over him, but before he could wonder at what he should do John Jacob hailed them in a friendly fashion and the atmosphere of foreboding shattered.
“Back so soon are you, Jacob? And brought a mite along as well! Mustn’t have been much of an assignment if he’s all you have to show for it!” the guard on the left chuckled, though he didn’t seem to smile. The other frowned and looked back down the hallway.
Coda also frowned at the man, feeling more than a little abused by the comment. Before this crazy adventure had began he would have immediately attempted to prove himself and shame the guard who had spoken, and even now he felt contentious, however he held back any biting retort or bit of magic and instead moved to step around the guard and through the doors behind him.
“I don’t think so, Pipsqueak!” the guard said quickly, baring his way jovially. “I doubt you have an appointment.”
“I’ve come a long way to see the King,” Coda answered levelly, lifting his hand to move aside the cold metal of the spear. “Please don’t waste my time by keeping me.”
The guard tensed, his expression hardening at the impertinence of the child standing before him. Obviously a peasant unused to the grandeur of the palace, he dared to order the King’s guards aside as though they were his toys?! He should have the boy locked up for a few days in the darkest hole the dungeons had to offer just so he might learn a little respect for authority.
However, just as the thought was forming in his mind the guard felt John Jacob’s hand upon his arm and the older man gave a slight shake of his head. “Let him pass,” John Jacob said softly. “He’s gone through a great deal to stand here today, and we aren’t the men to stand in his way.”
Considering the cryptic comment, the guard hesitated a moment then relented, allowing the pair to pass before them even as the great Sphinx of legend had let the heroes of old walk through its shadow. Regardless of whether or not they were the men to stand in the way of that boy, he hadn’t the authority to refuse the King’s Inquisitor.
Passing through the gilded entryway, Coda imagined he would be greeted with a long velvet carpet at the end of which would sit the King upon the grandest of thrones. He imagined the man would rest regally surrounded by courtiers dressed in silks and satins, and that each would turn to look upon him and question from where he had come. They would snicker at his jacket and shoes behind gloved hands, and think him truly audacious for approaching their King looking travel-worn and rumpled. They would also wonder why he approached their King and didn’t go to his own first, for surely he was from such a different world that they couldn’t share anything in common. Why, to them it would be almost blasphemous that they who were rich and elegant share their brightest jewel with the poorest peasantry. He winced inwardly at the prospect, knowing that he would and could do nothing to persuade them to change their views.
Thinking such was to come, Coda was somewhat surprised when he turned into the hall and found it empty. John Jacob wasn’t so nonplussed however, and strode confidently down the long, narrow carpet towards the throne. His gaze flickered between the tall Roman columns set near the back wall, and across to the gilded doorways beyond which lay glimpses of luscious gardens. Coda, on the other hand, could hardly draw his gaze from the murals on the ceiling, the crystal chandeliers, and the gold-leaf inlays running all about the room. Even the few chairs and tables pressed closer to the windows appeared decadent in a way utterly beyond him, and he began to wonder how he should greet a King whose home was beyond his image of Utopia.
At the end of the carpeted walkway John Jacob turned and walked confidently around the throne to the curtain hidden behind the massive structure. Behind that lay a door which he pulled open with a quick tug. Coda followed two steps behind, glad to see the simple doorframe and somehow feeling exhausted by what lay behind them. How one could live in a place filled with such perfect detail and such great and constant motion was a wonder beyond his simple endurance.
Behind that door lay a simple walkway leading to a single door upon which was set only an ornate brass knocker. The face of a lion looked upon them, its obsidian eyes flickering in light given off by candles set into a recessed wall. It seemed to smile, yet as John Jacob reached out to take the handle Coda had the distinct impression the creature was both ravenous and somehow impatient. Its jaws seemed ready to open and snap at fools who approached with either good or ill intent, too vicious to be the protector of the man who waited in the room beyond. However, though Coda could imagine a million punishments delivered by that grinning cat, it seemed they had been granted an afternoon of impunity for the door swung open after a moment and they were admitted into the room beyond.
The study was large, but cluttered and dusty, and seemed more the workplace of a scholar than that of a ruler. Hardly prosaic, it did lack the finery of the halls Coda had previously seen, instead amply endowed with tomes and maps and objects of indeterminate origin. Scrolls rested against the walls, seeming not to have been moved in years, and instead of portraits the walls were lined with dusty shelves and ornate old mirrors. Overhead was what had once been a grand crystal chandelier which time had cast into an ignominious state; no longer the tool of illumination, it rather reflected the character of one who sought at times to escape the haughty grandeur of his lifestyle.
The man himself might have been hidden amidst these stacks, nose buried in books that took him away from the seriousness of his own world. However, instead he sat at a corner table writing in a leather-bound ledger. He set down his quill when they entered and offered a friendly smile. So odd was the moment that Coda mightn’t have imagined a king sat before him if it hadn’t been for the golden circlet framing the man’s brow.
“Your Highness,” John Jacob bowed solemnly, a motion which Coda tried and failed to mimic, instead feeling gangly and uncouth.
“Well aren’t you the picaresque pair,” the King chuckled softly, wrinkles appearing about his eyes and at the edges of his lips. He had been a king for some years, had ruled a nation in turmoil for most of that time, yet somehow still seemed lighthearted. His smile put Coda at ease, and he found the trepidation of moments before falling away as he was invited to sit across from the most powerful man in the world. “John Jacob, welcome home. And we imagine the young man you’ve brought with you must be the Coda we’re so anxious to hear from. Please, come sit with us. We would very much like to hear of your adventures,” he waved his hand to the chair across from him.
John Jacob stepped aside and Coda moved to take the chair after only a moment’s hesitation. He felt the man’s gaze upon his face, the intensity making him somewhat self-conscious. The chair seemed to scrape the floor too loudly and his elbow bumped the table as he sat causing the wine in the King’s glass to ripple. He felt unstable on the small seat, his feet feeling tangled beneath him and not sure whether to slouch or lean forward.
“Don’t be nervous,” a soft voice said, “We have waited a long time to meet you.”
Coda looked up slowly and met the King’s gaze unsurely. “Your Highness, you haven’t waited for me. You’ve only waited for what I have to say,” he answered.
“Perhaps, but perhaps not.” Still speaking softly, the King leaned back and gazed out the window with an expression of nostalgia marking his continence. “We…” he paused, considering a moment, then continued, “I have ruled this land for a long time, you know, and done the best I could to meet the demands of a very demanding people, in some cases even making simple dreams reach fruition. But all this time I have ruled as a scholar ruled his library, with caution and without excess. I’m not the daring type, and have had little opportunity to be courageous. I’ve waited to meet one such as yourself because you’re living a life I can only imagine, one of abandon and bravery where decisions must be made in a moment and without much deliberation. It’s a life I could never live, Coda, but one which we all dream of encountering. I don’t just want to hear tell of your bravery, I want to meet the one who was so brave and did these fantastic deeds. Will you tell me your story?”
Coda nodded. “That is what I came to do,” he answered with some remorse. “But listen closely Your Highness, for I’m not going to tell you a story of my bravery in the days of that storm, but of the courage and fortitude of a group of men whose company I was lucky enough to share.”
Coda closed his eyes and tried to remember how it had all begun. His life had been so different, and his memories seemed to belong to another person entirely. He wouldn’t have wanted to remain ignorant of the pernicious troubles spreading across the land at the time, and yet he felt an acute sense of loss in remembering the life he had left behind to following this road.
The times that followed rolled off his tongue and into the otherwise silent room with a growing ebullience. He leaned forward as he described the other members of the circle, his eyes no longer seeing the monarch before him but the faces of men who he had come to call friends. He told of their words and gestures, of the wisdom their deaths had wiped from the land, and of the smiles and encouragement they had offered. One had been a great swordsman, and another a brilliant scholar. Twin archers had later joined them, their aim as true as their characters, and a merchant and a viscount. A mercenary and one of the kings own soldiers, a thief, a farmer, and a magician. They had all come from such different worlds, viewed the world through different eyes, and might have disagreed on almost everything, but they had been the ones who had seen what would come to pass and had known they alone could stand against it. And against that great force no disparage or diatribe could shatter their camaraderie or break their resolve. So they had stood, willows bending as hellish winds slapped their bows, as unrelenting as that which they faced.
Coda was surprised to find tears filling his eyes as he spoke, and brought his sleeve up roughly to wipe them away. His voice remained steady though, and as he spoke he took great breaths and fortified himself against the end he knew was to come. When it finally did, he closed his eyes and told the king they had died saving this fair land, and the room was once more surrendered to silence.
John Jacob stood leaning unobtrusively against the back wall of the room, studying his young companion. His gaze had grown more intense as the story had been told, as his guesses and misconceptions of their adventure had fallen away and truth had taken their place. This was a story of legend, he realized, a thick knot growing in his stomach. A story that had been told before and one which would one day be told again. The kingdom’s very best scholars had found similar tales in the archives only weeks earlier, calling them to the King’s attention even as that terrible storm had begun to poison the air around them.
He had listened at the King’s side all those weeks ago when the scholars had come with their findings. He remembered how nervous they had been, how they had carried the smell of the old books on their robes, and the sweat of hard work dried on their arms. Their devotion had been clear, though it had been somewhat masked by fear and anticipation. They had found five stories of when such horrors had touched the land of men in the past, and of what had transpired when it had. John Jacob remembered being surprised at how similar they had been, how men and sometimes women had gathered from all across the land to meet this challenge with unequaled bravery. The ending had always been the same too, when the Coda stepped from the fray and returned to tell of what had occurred. The ending was always the same.
The King cleared his throat then, breaking the silence and John Jacob’s reminiscences. “You have shown bravery beyond anything I might have hoped, Coda. Beyond that which I can reward, for I am but a man wearing a King’s robes and can only grant that which mortal men might. I cannot return your companions to life, though I would very much like to, nor can I return you to the life you lived in the times before this occurred, for I think those days are gone. Think though, upon that which I might grant which would be worthy of your actions.” The King reached across the table and took one of the boy’s hands in his own, pressing it slightly in a fatherly way. “These have been bad times in which to live,” he said remorsefully, “and I’m sorry they have shaped your life.”
Coda remained silent, unmoving. His face was turned down and his hair swept over his brow to hide his expression. However he trembled slightly as he sat there, relieved that the burden of the story had been removed, though an immense mantle still weighted down his shoulders. He considered what he might ask of the King, of the many places he wished to see and the life he wished to live, dreaming of what he might become if he hadn’t that last obligation to keep. However, the world was a cruel place filled with virulent realities and he knew this story had not yet reached its conclusion. Stories such as these create heroes out of men where willingness and aptitude hardly matter in the face of destiny.
“You’ll tell my story, wont you?” he asked softly, not looking up.
“Of course. Every person in the kingdom will know of what transpired,” the King answered. “I’ll erect a monument in the center of the city and place your names upon it, so that each who visits may see that bravery is not endowed upon birth, but taken by those intrepid few courageous enough to face what other men would turn from.”
“Place their names upon it,” Coda responded after a moment’s pause, “mine has been forgotten.”
Still holding the boy’s hand, the King squeezed it encouragingly. “We shall search the records of all the cities in the land until we find your name. Then it shall be placed upon that plaque as well. That I swear to you.”
Coda shook his head, lifting his chin and showing the world such sad eyes as had rarely been seen. “I am meant for anonymity, Your Highness. I do not ask to be remembered otherwise. Only, write down the story I have told of the wild symphony which visited our land in these days. Tell of what came to pass so that those to come may know that bravery cannot be destroyed by time. Let us not forget the hope which years attempt to weaken, but hold strong for when we once more find ourselves before that chaotic oblivion.”
“I will, Coda. I’ll do all you ask, as much as I can. I’ll tell the story in the streets if I must, if only it be remembered. If we remember, perhaps such sacrifice will not be needed again.”
“No,” Coda answered quickly, shaking his head as he disengaged his hand from the King’s and rose from the table. “No, events such as these are inevitable. It is not the events themselves which must be remembered for they shall come to be repeated in time. Rather, it is hope which cannot be lost. Let us remember that even when the smell of death is upon the wind and the rivers run with blood, when men and women are seized with fear so strong they cannot move or speak, that not all is lost. With hope comes salvation. That is what must be remembered.”
“Thank you,” Coda smiled at the King for the first time, suddenly looking very young.
“There’s nothing else I can offer you?”
Casting his gaze about, Coda fixed upon the luscious gardens beyond the musty windowpanes. “Only a quiet place in which to rest. My journey has been long and arduous, and now that it nears its completion I seek only peace and serenity.”
“Wherever you wish, Coda. My kingdom and castle are yours for as long as you desire.”
“Thank you, Your Highness, but the mantle upon my shoulders grows too heavy for me, and its bounty too tempting. I think perhaps it’s time this story ended and the evil of days gone by was laid to rest once more,” Coda bowed briefly to the King and then moved to the large glass doors which opened onto the garden. “Goodbye, Your Majesty, and thank you for listening to me and not just my story.”
Passing through those doors he felt John Jacob close behind him, speaking to the King softly for only a moment. Coda didn’t listen to the words though, instead appreciating the sharp, cool afternoon air and the sounds of birds twittering in the trees; before him lay the royal gardens, the luxurious playground of the scholastic King.
“The King didn’t seem surprised by my story,” Coda said when John Jacob had come to walk beside him.
“He wasn’t. He has heard a story much like your own before.”
“Then you knew all along, didn’t you?”
“I had my suspicions,” John Jacob answered cautiously.
They continued to walk for some minutes in silence, passing through the garden as through another world. Rhododendrons rose ten feet above their heads, blooming pink and white, while tulips and daisies lined the path at their feet. Ivy stretched casually down great boulders dispersed throughout the garden, forgotten eggs of forgotten dragons. What finally caught Coda’s eye and made him smile was a little grass clearing shaded by the braches of a brilliantly green maple tree. There were no particularly audacious flowers there, or demanding shrubs looking more like enlightened weeds. It was a simple place devoid of the complexities which had slowly grown to define his life, and he moved into it with unusual sureness.
“I will rest here,” he told John Jacob as he knelt and removed his boots, leaving them on the trail they had walked and burying his feet in the soft grass. John Jacob did likewise, and together they stretched out at the base of the tree, letting the stillness strengthen them even as the wind intimately kissed their brows. “We tried to destroy it all,” Coda said after a time, his head tilted back and his gaze following the rays of sunlight as they struggled through the thick canopy overhead. “We just couldn’t do it. It was as though at the last It chose to fight more fiercely than ever, striving for freedom from the cage we wrapped It in. With all our will and determination we could only do so much, and when we could stand no more and prayed for salvation. We had only one option, to give our lives for our cause.”
“A noble cause,” John Jacob said, not studying the leaves overhead by looking upon Coda’s face intently. “It was very heroic, standing against such a deadly threat.”
“Some things are worth dying for,” he answered.
“Some things are,” he nodded thoughtfully then added softly, “thank you.”
Coda paused, considering the
choices they had made that day. “I
didn’t understand at first, you know, about what had happened.”
“You were in shock.”
“No, it wasn’t that. Even then I knew I was changed, that I was different. I knew what I’d agreed to at the end of that golden path, to turn around and walk back upon newly blackened stones. I just couldn’t understand how it was so,” Coda paused and sighed. “I’m not sure I even understand how we did it now, though I know what I have and what I lost.”
“Like a balance sheet filled with meaningless numbers,” John Jacob said with a slight chuckle.
“I can feel it, you know, that last bit of chaos. It’s bound to my life and for a time I felt as though it was drinking away my soul, wiping away my very being as it had my name. I felt I would close my eyes and never open them again, not dead just gone.”
“But you did,” John Jacob said encouragingly. “You moved on, and you can continue to do so. One foot in front of the other in whichever way you wish.”
The birds twittered in the trees and in the distance a crow cawed delightfully.
“No, John Jacob. This burden is too heavy for me,” Coda apprised him. “I miss the blue sky too; all I see now is the grey. I think it’s time the story ended and the chaos was finally and completely laid to rest. Then perhaps I too may rest.”
John Jacob nodded sadly, knowing the ending to this story would always be the same. That impossible burden would always be too heavy, and the temptation to reawaken the defeated power too strong. At the last it would always seek to live, to bind itself to life. So it had been in the past, and so it was today. What held it to this world was only the life of the one who had lived. John Jacob felt a rueful apology rising to his lips, but was silenced by a look for the boy at his side.
Coda smiled softly and reached a hand out to touch a stream of sunshine crossing the small glade. “Don’t be sad, John Jacob. We did this so you would be happy. Now my friends wait on the hill for me and as you wouldn’t keep your king waiting, I won’t keep them any longer,” he paused then, looking wise beyond his years. “We all died that day, upon that hill. I only came back to pay the bill, but now I must meet them again. Will you wish me luck?”
“Yes, Coda, good luck and Godspeed,” he said softly, rising to his feet to stand over the boy.
“Thank you,” he answered, “and when it’s done please send my ashes to the sky. In that way perhaps I might truly see the world as I always dreamed of doing.” He closed his eyes then and took several slow breaths. It seemed he might sleep and dream the sweet dreams of the young, however he was almost immediately stirred by many voices calling his name. Hands laid upon his shoulders gave him a slight shake and as he opened his eyes he saw a group of smiling figures opening their arms to him.
“You came at last,” they said laughing and pulling him into an embrace, and he laughed too for the mantle resting upon his shoulders had fallen away and he could once more walk upright. “And we kept something you forgot,” they whispered softly and called him by his name.
“I came at last,” he whispered, before walking with them up the hill he had left behind an eternity ago.
The King looked up sometime later to see John Jacob walking slowly up the garden path. In his arms the boy they had called Coda rested, seeming asleep. The wind had picked up in the last hour and while it pulled at their clothes and hair it also swept flower petals through the air around them. Like a whirlwind, the pink and white Rhododendron petals brushed against them, so many tears for such a great loss. The only flower petals which did not move were from a red, red rose which had come to rest over the boy’s heart. The King knew then that the story was over, having passed from life into legend. The Coda had gone, and the mad symphony had finally reached its conclusion.
|The Upside-Down Palace - Part 1||As A God - Part Three|
|Prickle||Foresight: An Interview|
|As A God - Part One|