Several sabbaticals from the University at Colcester had landed me in Sangrithar and then again, while making my way north to Pel Aesylle after retiring, I took an extended stay in the City of the Golden Star. Sangrithar had changed in the two thousand years since Hali’s time and yet, much remained the same.
Gloryngael still rose from Dynrael Quarter, a gigantic domed palace with seven spokes. If you could soar through Esel like an eagle and look at the palace from above, it looked like the Star of Sangrithar and the golden dome sparkled in the Suns just as it always had. The palace was the seat of government for the elected Lords of the Vaulted Dome (the name given to Tintammil after the Pearl Throne was destroyed). The Republic was more civilized than the old Empire, but less grand if you know what I mean. Instead of a tyrannical divine monarch on the throne, the people voted for politicians to serve on a ruling council. Some would say that’s a big upgrade, I’m not so sure. People enter politics for the welfare of the people, but it doesn’t take long for self interest to rear its head.
Sangrithar’s saving grace was the contest held every seven years in the old Coliseum. The fight to the death games from the God-Emperor’s time had long been abolished for less bloody entertainment, the pinnacle of which was the contest to rule the council. The Republic’s constitution called for candidates to battle in the arena – not to the death, though “oopsies” did happen occasionally – and the victor earned the right to lead the council for the next seven years. The founders had set things up this way intentionally, to stop politics from corrupting the council. They all had experience with this sort of thing and figured if corruption did creep into governance, the best way to stop it was with a little head bashing and who better than a champion of the arena?
By happy coincidence, I was able to witness the Coliseum battle during my extended stay. This was the third time in the arena for the current lord of the council, one Rafelli di’Carasci. Di’Carasci was starting to get up in years (the new system was skewed towards youth and vigor over age and statecraft) and he’d made some hard decisions the past term, decisions that while necessary were not particularly popular. His opponent, the favorite with the oddsmakers and the crowd, was a brash warrior going by the handle Swafnah the Tactless, a name he had earned crawling through dungeons with a band of adventuring pals. After making a fortune looting old ruins, Swafnah came to Sangrithar by way of Renk and bought himself an inn, none other than The Golden Whale, the same establishment Gestarre Redhook had owned in Hali’s time. He also built an estate in the Hawkpeaks Hills named Castle Gorge, though it was rather small as castles go.
This Swafnah was fascinated with pansies. Don’t ask me why, it never made a lick of sense to me, but he put potted ones on the tables in the dining room, served dishes with pansy garnishes and he even painted a pansy on his shield. He was also a good marketer. Weeks before the “election” in the Coliseum, his people were on the streets passing out small copper pansy shields and on fight day, they were at the turnstiles too, handing them out as souvenirs. When Swafnah came onto the sands to face de’Carasci, the sound of his fans beating the shields was deafening. Unfortunately for di’Carasci, Swafnah was twenty years younger and not far removed from his adventuring days. The outcome was never in doubt and Swafnah the Tactless replaced di’Carasci as head of Sangrithar’s ruling council. I think I made it out of town just in time!
Sangrithar was approximately four miles across and three miles deep, and the rivers surrounding it gave the city an irregular shape. Half a dozen tributaries from the River Taris criss-crossed the city before emptying into Belgrith Harbor, forming natural boundaries for the capitol’s districts. Some sections of the city’s perimeter were protected by stone walls, but mostly the city relied on the rivers for defense. Any invaders would have to enter the city using the easily defended bridges. The Dynrael Quarter, wholly enclosed by thick walls, was a fallback position. The Quarter wasn’t large enough to hold the city’s entire populace, but it could provide a refuge for many thousands. If push came to shove, the wealthier citizens would get first dibs, not because they were better than the poor on the outskirts of town or in the Heights, but because possession is nine tenths of the law. The richest people already lived in Dynrael Quarter, that hadn’t changed at all.
In Old Town, Tar-Numerath rose from the dunes not far from the Coliseum. The ancient Stones still stood atop the hill, long unused and silently proclaiming the great irony of Hali’s victory. The entire rebellion might not have happened if the God-Emperor had allowed Devotees to worship freely, but the God Reborn’s ego would not allow it. Now, I’m not saying that’s the case, the God-Emperor’s tyranny touched plenty more folks than Devotees, but it would have gone down differently. Without the Devotees, the resistance might not have been strong enough to overcome the legions. It’s possible that the God-Emperors could have still been sitting on the Pearl Throne in my time if not for them. If so, the Prophecies would have selected another champion to take Hali’s place. The Prophecies were the arm of the Balance and could not be denied. They were Sangrar’s ultimate truth.
Right after Hali’s victory, the Maiden did have a resurgence. Her followers, able to worship openly for the first time in centuries, grew by leaps and bounds as grateful citizens joined the congregation. But, the God-Emperors defeat meant more than open worship of the Maiden, it meant true freedom of religion, freedom to worship any god in Heaven and there were many to choose from. With so many choices, the Devotees found it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the faithful. Being dead (or as good as dead anyways, Ardilun was way off the beaten path) gave the Maiden a distinct disadvantage. While living under the God-Emperor’s persecution, the people of Sangrithar had only two choices – to worship Umbar and the God Reborn openly or the Maiden in secret. Now they had dozens of choices and the Maiden’s market share kept shrinking after the initial growth spurt.
With religious freedom at hand, there was a renaissance in the city and temples long empty reopened next to new ones, paid for by generous contributions from new worshippers eager to take some god, any god other than Umbar, for a spin. It was like they’d been let out of jail and didn’t know what to do with the unexpected freedom. Imagine you’d eaten spaghetti every meal of your life – breakfast, lunch and dinner, without any variation at all, nothing but plain red sauce on it and you were taken to a restaurant with a huge menu. You’d eat until you burst, tasting as many dishes as you could. That’s how it was for the Sangritharians. The biggest temple was still the Temple of the Wave, on the island in the harbor connected to the mainland by the old causeway. I don’t think there was enough money in the city to build a temple that could rival it and the huge sanctuary seemed even huger with half the seats empty.
The rocky escarpments flanking the eastern and western sides of Belgrith Harbor had not changed. A few more centuries of waves lapping against the rock were inconsequential. Mausoleums of Priest-Kings, God-Emperors and more recently, Lords of the Vaulted Dome dotted the eastern one and the western still housed the military. The old Warden’s Keep still stood as well, and had recently been renovated. The statues of Thar and Raena, well over six thousand years old by the time of my visit, were intact as well, looking out beyond the Knot (a maze of stone moles, not the furry kind) warding the entrance to Belgrith Harbor. The colossi were national monuments and well maintained. When lightning shattered Thar’s hand three centuries earlier (now that’s irony for you), the Lords had seen that it was repaired at great time and expense.
Oddly enough, at the same time the people were embracing the forgotten gods, they also celebrated Thar, not so much as Thar who was Umbar, but as Thar, the founder of great Sangrithar. Everyone knew that the fishing village pre-dated Thar’s arrival from Heaven, but no one cared. As far as anyone in Sangrithar was concerned, the city’s history began the day Raena found him. The crater where he landed, known ever since as the Bowl of the Gods, was now a museum and a highlight for touring visitors. Walls had been erected around the crater and admittance to this little piece of history cost two silver pieces. The biggest losers were the city’s teenagers, who couldn’t fool around at the bottom of the bowl anymore.
The districts in the city hadn’t changed much since Hali’s time. Old Town wasn’t quite the slum it had been. Halting the death matches in the Coliseum had helped, as had the renewed interest in Tar-Numerath, short-lived as it was. The Heights was still the most populated part of the city, where the bulk of the middle class (not nearly as impoverished as they’d been under the God-Emperor) lived. The guild district and bazaar still thrived, if anything, they were busier and more vibrant than they’d been. When the God-Emperors had been under the influence of the Curse, foreign trade had suffered – merchants from Endiron, Jeheris or Vanerum or any other distant kingdom had been reluctant to invest heavily in Sangritharian commerce knowing that the God-Emperor’s moods could lay low the most well planned business venture. Without the threat of death by god-fire, foreign merchants had flocked to the capitol. The Academy district was the one part of the capitol not flourishing and that was no surprise. Even before the Curse, Sangrithar’s schools were second-rate next to my alma mater and since then, they’d deteriorated past the point of no return. No teacher worth his weight in salt would work in Sangrithar over Colcester and two millennia hadn’t changed that one bit. I took a tour of the schools and was appalled. I spoke at length with a professor of history named Oldivance Magori and he actually believed that the Elder Days never existed, that the stories were just fantasies dreamed up to pass the time. Deplorable, simply deplorable! I reported Magori, recommending that he be fired on the spot, but the dean (an administrative type who made Magori look positively brilliant), simply shrugged as if to say there was nothing he could do, and they didn’t even have a tenure system.
The Plaza of Golden Domes had been renamed. When the Pearl Throne toppled, the entire aristocratic system had tumbled into the ocean with it. Fat, drunken nobles, and skinny ones too, abandoned their plaza villas and fled the city in fear for their lives, some of them running for the first time. In the aftermath, every single villa was razed. The tarnished domes were a reminder of the nobles’ excesses that could not be tolerated. I thought it strange they didn’t tear down Gloryngael too, that’s where the excesses were the greatest, but the palace was also a symbol of Sangrithar’s past glory. It reminded them of Thar who was Umbar, revered in the heart of every Sangritharian.
In my day, the only golden dome left in Sangrithar was Gloryngael’s and the plaza didn’t have a name. The plaza was still a park, but many shops, taverns and restaurants catering to Sangrithar’s booming tourist trade had replaced the villas of the long dead nobility. Grush still trampled through the plaza once a year in the annual saddaka run to the sea (though the legend of Handuri had been rewritten to remove references to the old regime) and the Garden of the Gods, a destination on the same tours stopping at the crater’s museum, was popular with the capitol’s visitors. The invisible helpers Thar left to tend the gardens were still on the clock and the gardens looked better than ever. The Maiden’s statue had even been replaced, a gift from Kandol after the dust had settled.