From Black Queen, White City by Sonya Kudei
A number seventeen tram sat silent and abandoned on the tracks of a turning circle on the outskirts of the city in the middle of the night. On a soft patch of grass inside the circle, a black cat with white paws sat licking its nether regions with meticulous care.
A cluster of anemic trees with limp branches that drooped almost all the way to the ground hovered awkwardly in the background. In the half-gloom of a solitary lamp that only barely illuminated the station, the trees looked like some obscure breed of tram fairies that came quietly in the night to tend to trams injured during rush hour, soothing the bruises inflicted on them by jostling pensioners and healing the cuts scratched onto the back rests of the wooden seats by bored adolescents, before disappearing into the ether with the rising sun.
Of course, there are no such things as tram fairies.
This could have been a quiet, boring night like any other. But there was a faint vibration in the air, one with a certain quivering quality that would make the hairs at the back of one’s neck stand on end. It was the kind of vibration that suggests that something at last is about to happen.
And sure enough, something did. First a brilliant flash blazed in the sky and then a thick beam of golden light zig-zagged down towards the ground, spearing into the relatively narrow space between the trees and the tram. The beam soon condensed into a glowing semi-sphere of light that looked like a small dome tent inside of which someone just happened to have turned on a 5,000W lightbulb.
Then the glow faded, leaving in its wake the crouching form of a man who didn’t look happy to be there. In fact, he looked as if he would have preferred to be in any other location in the universe.
This was, in his case, not a figure of speech but a perfectly plausible statement.
The man, who went by the name of Leo Solar, was not really a man, or at least not in the limited sense of the word. For example, such pedestrian concepts as fly-fishing, dental floss and death were alien to him. At the same time, he wasn’t completely unlike a man. He had an almost paralysing fear of hair loss, which in his case was completely unwarranted since over the many millennia of his existence he had never once lost a single hair, not even the time he accidentally slipped, tripped and fell onto a particularly aggressive neutron star whose strong magnetic field nearly bent his forelock out of shape.
Leo was what was in ancient times referred to as a ‘star daimon’ and what is in modern times referred to as nothing in particular, since according to modern theories, the universe is nothing but a vast void characterized by enormous distances expressed by multi-digit numbers to the power of other multi-digit numbers, a void whose shape may or may not be reminiscent of a doughnut or a bagel or a Danish pastry.
Being a star daimon, Leo found it perfectly natural to come down from the stars, at least on those occasions when he was summoned, such as the present one. Occasions of this kind were extremely rare, but still not rare enough to his liking.
Also, his name was not really Leo Solar—it was Regulus. He, however, only used the latter for formal occasions, such as the Star Council Assembly held annually at the Starboard Palace inside the right ear of the Horsehead Nebula. Otherwise he preferred the other name, since it had a more natural ring to it. Also, someone once told him that ‘Regulus’ sounded like a digestion supplement.
Presently Leo sighed and then, as if making some sort of resolution, raised his head and put on a brave face. And what a face it was—with arched eyebrows, features that could only be described as ‘chiseled’ and eyes whose pale irises were only slightly alarming. The whole thing was framed by a mane of somewhat frizzy blond hair that almost, but not quite, reached his shoulders. It was an impressive mass of hair that was all bushy assertiveness at the top, but morphed into something rather tame and even a bit flat near the ends, as if it had gradually lost interest at some point below the ears. And if this style bore a passing resemblance to a mullet, this was only because where Leo came from, which was space, they didn’t know any better.
Leo rose to his feet, looking strong and determined, as if the brief moment of low motivation had never happened. It was the sort of attitude that personal development coaches the world over would have approved of. Unfortunately, there were no personal development coaches around at that time.
Leo’s outfit was an elaborate electric blue affair adorned at the front with three pairs of intricately wrought silver and gold clasps. He also had a silver belt with a gold buckle shaped like a delicate eight-pointed star, and there was a long hooded cape of the same shade of blue as the outfit slung over his shoulders. Both suit and cape were made of the finest artisan fabric such as cannot be obtained anywhere of Earth, except maybe Etsy, and parts of the outfit—strategically placed ones—were interwoven with delicate golden thread.
The area in the direct vicinity of Leo had not remained unaffected by the unorthodox method (at least unorthodox by local standards) of his arrival. The side of the tram that had been in the way of the scorching light now had a wide gash that stretched from the roof all the way down to the ground. And at the spot where the beam had struck, there was now a shallow round pit. Leo barely gave the whole thing a passing glance.
The cat, seemingly dismayed by the series of untypical events that had just transpired, sprang to its feet and wondered off into the night, its tolerance for inexplicable phenomena having apparently reached its limit.
With a dramatic sweep of his cloak, Leo turned to face the direction where a few faint lights of the sleeping city twinkled sluggishly. Somewhere in the distance, a melancholy dog let out a single feeble bark. The dog was probably the only creature still awake at this hour apart from the white-pawed cat (although the cat may well have gone to sleep by now).
Leo tightened his jaw and began to stride purposefully towards the city lights. He had barely taken a few steps when he was stopped in his tracks by a sudden screeching sound. Leo realized two things at the same time—first, he was standing in the middle of a road, and second, a car had ground to a halt less than a hand’s breadth away from him.
The car in question looked as if a group of blind sentient aardvarks had come together in a scrap yard to assemble a tub out of scavenged bits of metal but in the end changed their minds and decided to use it as a trolley instead.
An old man with thick glasses held together with black duct tape stuck his head out of the window on the driver’s side.
“Careful, young man!” he shouted with the too-loud voice of the near-deaf. “I nearly hit you with my car. If someone less eagle-eyed than myself had been behind the wheel, you’d be lying dead on the side of the road now.”
“I should thank my lucky stars then,” said Leo.
“Where are you off to on foot this time of night? Don’t you know there are no trams at this hour?”
“I was just taking in a bit of air.”
“If the city is where you’re going, I’d be happy to give you a ride.”
“No, thank you,” said Leo.
“Are you sure? I was on my way there myself, going to the market a bit early to beat the morning traffic.”
Leo considered the situation. On the one hand, the car was a death trap. On the other hand, he was immortal.
“Go on then,” he said and got into the car.
Prologue – The White City
In a hidden corner of the east flank of Central Europe (or the west flank of Eastern Europe, depending on your point of view), in a green valley of a winding river, there is a city that certain locals, during rare moments of inspiration, refer to as the White City, although the less poetically inclined, as well as those who don’t know anything about the place other than that it exists, call it Zagreb.
This is not the kind of noisy, hectic city that makes people stressed, obese, prone to rants about the accelerating pace of modern life, and likely to have a mid-career breakdown followed by an extensive backpacking trip to a remote country. If anything, it is fairly sober and subdued. If the White City were a character in a Regency novel, it would be one of those comely, level-headed types that ends up marrying the parson.
Neither is it the sort of city that just goes on and on until it becomes another city. Its shape and size are clearly delineated. There is a sprawling east-west axis and a somewhat stunted north-south one. The latter is due to the presence of a fairly high mountain on the city’s north side and a river in the south. The mountain, although not the comes-with-a-permanent-ice-cap sort of high, is still high enough to have cable cars, organized hiking trips and squirrels. And the river, although not an insurmountable obstacle in itself, has proved to be such a convenient barrier against various third parties that have attempted to invade the city over the course of many historical periods that the townspeople have been reluctant to cross it until very recently.
It is between these two natural landmarks that the city proper has evolved like a bacterial culture in a large Petri dish. And while there have been many developments to the south of the river in the past fifty years, with whole boroughs cropping up seemingly overnight, almost everyone agrees that living on the south side is a bit rubbish.
The center of this coordinate system is the main square, known simply as the Square. This is a proper city center if there ever was one. If you happen to be at the Square, you can be sure that you are at the very heart of the city, like a yolk in the center of a fried egg or a circle in the center of an adult coloring book mandala.
Towering above the north end of the Square is the medieval core of the city built on two hills, Grič and Kaptol, although the height difference between the two is so pronounced that Grič has earned itself the nickname ‘Upper Town,’ whereas Kaptol…well, it hardly looks like a hill at all. There is a gentle slope going from the north-east corner of the Square up to the Cathedral, which is the center of the Kaptol universe, and that is pretty much it in terms of the vertical extension of the less altitudinally endowed of the two hills.
Upper Town, on the other hand, has fully embraced the fact of its physical, if not quite spiritual, elevation. It perches triumphantly on top of Grič Hill, overlooking the rooftops of Lower Town, i.e. the rest of the city, while sporting an impressive array of old buildings and towers, one of which, Lotrščak, still has a fully functional cannon, and it isn’t afraid to use it either, although the usage is restricted to a single symbolic shot once every day around lunchtime.
If you were a bird surveying the architectural features of the two hills from the air, this would be, first of all, pointless, since birds are terrible at architectural surveying and, second, somewhat bizarre because, providing that you managed to overcome your severe avian disadvantages, you would notice that the two hills, when seen from above, bear a striking resemblance to a pair of lungs. This, as previously stated, is quite bizarre. It is also completely irrelevant. Therefore, you would soon turn your attention to other things, such as the ancient walls and battlements, the many narrow irregular streets, small squares, churches, monasteries, old buildings and clusters of trees.
As you soar higher into the air (moving ever northwards, of course, since there would be no point flying over the boring south), you would notice the trees becoming even wilder, taller and more all-over-the-place the closer you get to the mountain, an unchanging background presence whose full name is Bear Mountain.
Sprawled on top of one of its upper slopes in an ominous way are the ruins of Bear Town Fortress, the bane of the White City.
Well, one of its banes. The city has had, since its dubious founding during the murkiest pseudo-historical quagmires of the Dark Ages, more than its fair share of banes. And, according to an unverified source discovered in an illuminated manuscript by a Benedictine monk who subsequently set it on fire while attempting to use it as a hair straightener over a tallow candle, a fair share of banes for a city of Zagreb’s size is about three per 732 years (according to the monk’s original interpretation) or (according to a later theory by the same monk), four per 982 years.
Since, however, it is a well-known fact that the White City has had on average five banes per 258 years, it follows that whichever interpretation is accepted as true, the city’s share of banes indisputably exceeds the fair level.
The design of Bear Town Fortress is extraordinarily simple. Someone, possibly Einstein, once said that things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Bear Town Fortress is simpler. There is an outer wall and a handful of inner walls, all made of crude blocks of limestone, as well as some utility buildings, a chapel and the keep. And that pretty much sums it up. There are no majestic turrets, breathtaking buttresses or elaborately carved reliefs depicting angelic hierarchies or Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Bear Town Fortress does what it says on the tin, namely fortification, and is not bothered about anything else. One would not gain much architectural satisfaction by inspecting the edifice at close quarters. Indeed, to appreciate the fortress aesthetically, it is advisable to be as far away from it as possible.
As for whether Bear Town has ever been a town of bears at some point in the past is something that cannot be confirmed with any degree of certainty, although what is certain is that if it had indeed once been an actual bear town, those bears were completely unlike Ewoks.
Although the rulers of Bear Town Fortress were many, few have earned a special place in the locals’ hearts for their acts of kindness. Nobody can say for certain how many masters Bear Town Fortress once had or even who all of them were, but one thing is sure—whoever they were, they were up to no good. Their universal favorite pastime seemed to have been finding different ways to oppress the residents of the city below by using a varied repertoire of feudal methods ranging from tried-and-tested ones such as pillaging and taxation to novelty ones such as mutilation by trained birds.
The most notorious resident of Bear Town Fortress was undoubtedly Barbara Cilli, a fifteenth century despot whose penchant for black clothing inspired the local citizenry (and peasantry) to give her the epithet ‘Black Queen.’
According to the many local legends that have sprung up since the Black Queen’s death in 1451, black clothing was not Barbara’s only area of interest. She also liked to convene with demons in her tower, bathe in milk or sometimes even blood in her own private pool, have innocent servant girls walled in as they screamed for mercy, maintain a menagerie of strange animals and a personal guard of giant snakes as well as a pet raven that perched on her shoulder and whom she occasionally sent after peasants who displeased her, so that it may gouge out their eyes. All in all, hers was not the behavior of someone brought up on Aristotle’s Ethics.
What a relief it is, then, that the Black Queen is now long gone and Bear Town Fortress nothing more than a harmless ruin.
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