Chapter III: The Chill of the Dark The ovation echoed so loudly across the city that one could feel the stone of the mesa vibrating underfoot, as if the thousands of beings assembled on Initiation Square sought to reassert ownership over their world against the laws of physics that had plunged it into darkness. The entire crowd reprised the chant that Genade’s mischief-makers had initiated, and soon it became clear that the proceedings for the election of the Lord of the Budallenjsh had come de facto to an end. Audience members flung their hats, bonnets and wigs up in the air and sang ‘Nowell! Nowell!’ in celebration as the Mistress of Ceremonies announced gleefully that the mysterious alien named Ino was the undisputed winner of the evening’s contest. There was more laughter when her assistants had to give her a leg up so as to enable her to slip the crown around the tips of his horns and place it on his brow, and the throng shifted a little to allow the beast of burden that has soiled Sinunu’s shirt to come in front of Pilgrim’s House. The long-necked quadruped’s humping back was now furnished with a monumental howdah inlaid with crystals that projected eerie beams of light into the glow of the eclipse. Sinunu caught a glimpse of Jindi Korkuu, whose face was illuminated by one of the shimmering shafts. The Weequay had jostled her way to the head of the crowd during the coronation; she was now standing by the giant lizard and watching the mahout guide Ino to sit atop the carriage. Something indefinable in her expression, in the intensity of her gaze, in the way his goat-like head swung anxiously from one side to the other as if he could sense a presence whose precise identity he couldn’t determine, hinted at a form of unspoken communication between the two, but it was only a fleeting impression. Genade climbed behind the newly-minted lord on the back of the mount and unfurled a gaudy banner that hid the beggar from view; horns blared, noisemakers were rattled and torches were lit; and the living tide that had been ebbing and flowing in Initiation Square began to pour out into the Passage of Cognizance, from where it formed into a procession and began its meandering course through the streets of the city. The revellers were due to march across every neighbourhood and share the merriment with those who, for one reason or another, had been unable to attend the ceremony, before finally dispersing on the parvis of the Kyberkerk. “But I want to go, Mommy!” a child whined somewhere to Sinunu’s left. “Everyone is going, why can’t I go too?” “You will not go anywhere near that monster, Stathee, do you hear me?” a woman replied angrily. The bard recognised the voice that had protested Ino’s presence in the city. “You are absolutely right, Lady Kaz!” another woman said. “This is such a bad omen!” Sinunu looked askance and saw Kaz, a plump, elegant matron who was hugging fiercely a five-year-old boy as if she feared that he might be snatched from her embrace by invisible forces. She shook her head in dismay. “I cannot believe that this is happening, Dora! This Cjap, of all beings, elected Lord of the Budallenjsh? What is the High Priest thinking?” The bard rolled his eyes. He had read explorers’ accounts of how some oft-repeated superstitions of the people of the Moon of Melodies had evolved into the sort of terrifying myth that parents told disobedient younglings to coerce them into compliance, but he had not expected to hear one of those legends stated as fact on his second day. This was an opportunity for him to display his knowledge of such matters – and perhaps to make friends too, if he managed to reassure the two women and persuade them to follow the procession together. Dora was carrying a large plate on which he could discern a few leftover sweets, and the grumble of his stomach reminded him that he had not eaten since morning. He took a step towards them. “Put your minds at ease, dear mistresses,” he said importantly. “Many scholars from the Core have studied this issue at great length. They are unanimous in saying that the Cjap do not exist.” Dora raised an ironic eyebrow. “Oh, do scholars truly say such things back in the Core? Perhaps they should come here and have a look for themselves.” “But many have come and gone,” Sinunu insisted, taking another step closer to the cakes. “They have written books. There is no proof whatsoever –” Lady Kaz let her son slip to the ground. He immediately plucked a sweet from the plate and stuffed it in his mouth. “The scholars can claim what they wish, young man, but we know. We know. None who wander out in the desert ever return to the Holy City. The Cjap seize travellers and steal their souls.” “Not true,” the boy piped up in-between mouthfuls. “The Jevgy are out there all the time!” “The Jevgy have the magic of the crystals, Stathee,” his mother explained. “No one would dare take them on.” Sinunu raised a tentative hand towards the cakes. “What of the scholars?” he protested. “They went out to explore the desert, and –” “The Cjap know when to hide,” Dora breathed in a frightened whisper. She hugged her tray for protection, removing it from the bard’s reach. “They want to keep their existence a secret.” “They allowed the scholars to walk free, and now Core Worlders dismiss us as ignorant and gullible,” Kaz added. “But if you stay here long enough, you will learn to see the truth.” Sinunu sighed. “What of this Ino, then?” he asked, gesturing towards the last of the procession that could be seen leaving the square. “How could the Cjap be a hidden species if one of their kind is right here in our midst?” “Have you ever seen anyone like him?” Dora countered. “No, but –” “There you are! What more proof do you need? He’s a Cjap!” To this there was nothing Sinunu could answer. Lady Kaz tugged at Stathee’s sleeve. “We must go now. You are a newcomer, young man. Listen to my advice: do not leave the city, and do not go anywhere near Ino, unless you want your sojourn on this moon – and your life – to be cut short before your time.” “And have a wash!” Dora called over her shoulder as the trio walked away, taking with them the bard’s hopes for a semblance of a dinner. “Perhaps customs are different in the Core, but no one would sell sauropod urine for perfume here.” A mortified Sinunu remained alone in his little corner of Initiation Square, although there were still a good hundred bystanders in the open expanse, mostly elderly and disabled beings who could presumably not follow the procession in the city’s potholed streets. This might be a suitable audience for his poetry, he thought, as they seemed to be in no rush to leave, and he needed to obtain credits urgently if he were to afford any sustenance and a bed for the night. He straightened his clothes, hoping that the chilly breeze would disperse the stench of his shirt, and once he felt ready, he stepped out into the square and inhaled deeply to begin his chant. A girl appeared on the corner of the Passage of Cognizance and shouted, “Nilamani!” And with that single word, Sinunu’s prospective audience vanished. Every being on Initiation Square livened up and left swiftly through the narrow street before taking a turn in the Long Way and disappearing in the direction of the Kyberkerk. The bard exhaled the deep breath he had drawn in and ran a hand through his hair. Initiation Square was deserted now, save for a lone silhouette in the far end. He considered asking the passer-by for help, or perhaps just for an explanation – he had never heard of a nilamani before, nor had he ever encountered the word in the books he so loved to read – but the all-too-familiar sound of a myriad little bells stopped him dead in his tracks. This had to be Jindi Korkuu. He stifled a gasp and retreated to the shadow of the alcove where he had been hiding in the city walls. The Weequay strode past him indifferently, pausing only for a fraction of a second to sniff the air before she continued towards the ramparts. Sinunu wondered where she could be going until he saw her disappear down the flight of stairs that led to the Gate of Laments, and it dawned on him. The portico at the foot of the mesa was likely a gathering place for those who slept rough in the Holy City. It was safe, sheltered, protected from the elements and the chill of the dark. Thus, the bard concluded, it was the sort of place where he should be heading himself. He had been through more than enough humiliations for the day to not want to confront the cashier’s ironic gaze if he were to return to Pilgrim’s House – he could remember quite vividly the sign that was posted behind the counter and read ‘No credit unless they’re your credits’ – and he knew that the temperature would drop even further after sunset, when the eclipse was over. The thought that he had sorted out where to spend the night was a relief of sorts even in the absence of dinner, but there were still two important problems. The first was to choose another gate, given that Jindi Korkuu had been less than amenable to the idea of sharing a street corner with him, and he doubted that she would be willing to cede as little as a cubit of her sleeping space for him to crouch. This was however fairly easy to resolve, as the Holy City had seven gates that were accessible to the public – the eighth, in the back of the Kyberkerk, was sealed – and the Gate of Light was only a short walk away. The second problem was altogether more pressing: Sinunu stank. He stank of sauropod urine, and the smell was unlikely to gain him the favour of any companions he encountered for the night. There were no two ways about it: he needed a clean shirt. This second problem was not insurmountable, although it would certainly make for an unpleasant experience. Sinunu owned no other shirt than the one on his back, and the mere idea of wet fabric against his skin was sufficient to send a shiver down his spine. Still, a wet but clean shirt in a sheltered area was better than a dry shirt and no shelter at all. He sighed in resignation and trotted back to the Well of Prosperity, marvelling at how much shorter the distance appeared to be now that the square was empty. A little ferreting about revealed a piece of soap that had been forgotten in a crack of the fountain’s edge, and soon he was bare-chested, rubbing his only garment vigorously to fight off the bitter cold that pierced his skin like a thousand needles. He wrung the shirt as best he could, flapped it a few times to smooth out the creases and steeled himself before slipping it back over his head. It was freezing. There was no time to lose if he didn’t want to catch a head cold. He jogged to the end of Prosperity Alley, took a turn in the Long Way and headed towards the Path of Judgements. He was still new to the Holy City, but he was fairly certain that this was the shortest itinerary to the Gate of Light. The town’s main thoroughfare was eerily deserted, a far cry from the hustle and bustle that could normally be found during the day when all manners of mystics, monks and prophets wound their way between the shops, the food stalls, the browsers and the sellers to enlighten the populace. The only sounds to be heard came from the Bomarristan, where the poor souls who had been driven to madness by the vibration of the crystals moaned and wailed in constant pain. Sinunu gave the building a wide berth and went on his way. He had been as eager as any denizen of the galaxy to gain initiation into the secrets of the Kyber, but a small part of him was grateful that his infirmity in this area meant that he would never join the ranks of the insane. As he went on he could make out a growing hubbub ahead. The sauropod’s head emerged from the Path of Judgements seconds before he reached the junction, followed by the thousands who were still celebrating the election of the lord. The sight of Genade’s auburn hair atop the beast, just behind Ino who was grinning stupidly on his throne, sent him hiding in the shadows once more. There was a third problem to add to his list now: the road to the Gate of Light was taken over by the procession of the Budallenjsh, and it might take him as long as an hour to cover the distance to his prospective shelter in this crowd. This was something he couldn’t afford in the chilly darkness. No matter, he told himself – he would proceed towards the Kyberkerk and take a left to reach Whisperers’ Gate instead. He scrambled across the throng and sprinted up the Long Way, cursing himself for having come so woefully unprepared for the frigid climate of the Moon of Melodies. The outline of the tall, tetrahedral mass of the Kyberkerk against the silvery sky gave him courage, and he was about to dive into the Street of Shouts – or was it the Street of Murmurs? he couldn’t remember – when he saw the golden glow of a bonfire ahead. His face broke into a smile. The fortunes were finally conspiring to help him in his predicament. He would go and warm himself by the fire, he would dry his shirt, and who knew? Perhaps he would find at long last a suitable audience for his poems and succeed to eke out the credits he needed for the night. ----------------------------------- Endnotes Spoiler The layout I made up for Jedha City in this story is based primarily on the old city of Jerusalem. I will be posting a map (hopefully) soon in the Fanon Thread together with background notes. The various street names are my creation, with the exception of the Path of Judgements, which is canon. The name of the main street, the Long Way, which runs from the Gate of Laments to the Kyberkerk, is inspired from the Roman thoroughfare in the old city of Damascus, the Via Recta (i.e. Straight Street), known in Arabic as the Long Market (al-Suq al-Taweel). The word ‘Bomarristan’ was Sith-I-5’s brilliant idea to adapt the word Bimaristan (‘house of the sick’ in Persian) to the GFFA. The idea that ‘Nowell! Nowell!’ would be a chant for celebration is borrowed directly from Hunchback, where the chant is ‘Noël! Noël!”. A bit of research told me that the word ‘Nowell’ was used to mean ‘Christmas’ in old English songs and carols. The names Stathee (Greek for ‘upright’), Kaz (Azerbaijani for ‘goose’) and Dora (Greek for ‘gift’) are loose adaptations of the names Eustache, Oudarde and Mahiette from Hunchback. The Cjap and the Jevgy are my creation; more about them will be revealed in upcoming chapters. Sauropods are not a SW species, but a type of RL dinosaur. I also borrowed the words howdah, mahout and cubit from RL as they seemed suitably obscure, exotic and/or outdated for the needs of this story.