Saloondrian Short Stories, by Blake Propach
The Final Decree by Michael Kuroda
The common salmon continues to swim long after it is dead. The body, so absorbed with its simple task of traveling up the river, works toward this task fruitlessly, and the brain simply cannot keep up. The oldest salmon, the big ones that make it up the rapids past the bears and the raccoons to reach the tranquil ponds high up in the mountains, beyond the reach of civilization… it is said that these salmon continue to swim even there, their decaying faces pressed up against the cold stone of the mountain, swimming, swimming, pressing their snouts into the rock as their tails swish back and forth. Back and forth. Until their long dead bodies finally run out of energy and sink to the bottom where they are consumed by their own offspring, who will one day make the journey downriver to the sea, before climbing back up again to meet the same fate as their parents.
A flag flies proudly above the walls of Hatbrim, a massive flag whose blue and orange and pink can be seen a dozen miles off, flapping violently but crisply in the ocean breeze. The common river salmon on a background of ocean blue. An appropriate mascot for the corpse of an empire, whose own actions led to its catastrophic decline, as it continues to swim, a dead and rotting brain carried along by the unthinking body to no destination at all. The old Saloondrian Empire, once controlling swathes of land from the tip of the hat to the barrel of the gun, as far as an eagle could see across all the forests and the wastes of Saloondria, reduced to a barnacle clinging to a rock on a monster-infested lake of its own creation.
But as with most graveyards in Saloondria, and indeed perhaps the world, it was not always this way. In the salmon’s youth, the Saloondrian Empire was a force to be reckoned with. Ten thousand knights and fifty thousand squires composed their army, the largest in the written histories of this land. Townships, cities, feudal estates and commoner guilds flourished together. Wealth was fluid, and names could be made in battle, finance, or even art. Great architects constructed ancient wonders, the nation-built roads, aqueducts, they drained what is now Hatbrim Bay and held back the sea with seawalls the size of dragon lairs.
It is estimated that the flourishing city of Hatbrim approached a population of half a million at the height of its empire, a city that would dwarf the largest in the modern world. So many people that just by sheer chance you would create such art and wealth that the world today could never dream of. To think this was lost with the actions of so few… Not just the people, but the body of work they collectively would create, the value they had and would add to our world… there has been no greater tragedy.
The fall began with semantics, with hubris and with pride. The greatest knights, those who had won their riches through the conquest of the outer cities and the savage countries, they were old and their children were pampered. They changed their names in search of greater and greater wealth and prestige, because in the old Saloondrian Empire, and indeed in Hatbrim still today, there is more in a name than in an action, more in a name than a place or a person. So the powerful families, the Millers, the Stones, the Honeypots, the Beavertons, and the Swordcrafts, they changed. It was no longer enough to have provided with empire with a trade, a commodity, no. Your family had to be better off than that if you wanted anything out of it. Better off than was possible to be.
So they became the Verywells, the Doingreats. The Betters and the Bests and the Richs and the Greaterwealths. The more ridiculous and absurd, the better off you were, because to them, these were not absurd, they were progress. Time passed and the names evolved. Some Verywells broke off and became Verywellindeeds, the richer among the Greaterwealths became the Greatestwealths. Families married, spawned the Doingbests, the Betteriches, and on and on it went until there was no memory of the value or the reason behind why these families were wealthy to begin with. They were simply swimming for the sake of swimming, because the river was wide and the world was contained within it.
The laws grew harsher. For falsely accusing a well standing person of standing less well than their name would imply, the punishment was lifetime imprisonment. For slandering a name while safely living inside governmentally funded prison walls, the punishment was death. Naturally, this did not sit well with the commoners, those who could not afford to change their name frequently enough to climb the social ladder and escape their caste. Disgruntled became unhappy which became upset and then finally restless. Revolution was brewing in the heart of Hatbrim.
As if such a thing could dampen the mood of someone who called himself Superverydoingwell, or Doingbettereveryday, names of which became more common by the day in the final hours of the old Saloondrian Empire. These people had no hope of saving the corpse of their nation before it slammed face-first into the cold stone wall at the end of the river. No, it would be a simple family who salvaged what remains today. The Verywells. The remnants of the peak of knightship, those who had achieved a rightful name and not taken more than was afforded to them.
Because of course, when the revolution did begin, the Verywells were not targets. Nor were the Betters, not even the Doingbests. In fact, in droves these families joined the cause, took up arms along the Smiths and the Dockmoors and the Bakers and the Swordcrafts. Now, historians disagree on the exact moral reasoning behind this. They surely desired revolution alongside the common folk, but was it for justice? Or was it because their names were too weak to evolve, that they had missed their chance to grow their wealth further and were upset at themselves more than their so-called oppressors? This remains unknown.
Now the people were unhappy, and restless, this was true, but revolution was still a ways off in the time of the Wealthierandwealthiers and the Upbythebootstraps. It would be a foreign catalyst to start the war. Because hundreds of miles away, on the edge of the empire, a far more apocalyptic threat was oozing like tar out of a certain dark forest in a certain haunted town forgotten by the empire the day after its conquest, when it had been turned over to a local feudal lord.
Word came from the outskirts of a power brewing in the darkness, of a figure shrouded in prophecy. Knights were sent by local feudal lords by order of the Duke, to quell this mystic who dared threaten the autonomy of his Duchy, of his Empire. The knights were sent and forgotten, the reports lessened and became irrelevant, the Duke changed his name again, and the empire was at peace… on the night before the world ended, and the outskirt town was consumed by a spell of such power that had never before been seen, nor ever has been seen again, that which created the Plague Lands out of nothing and cut Saloondria off from the rest of the world.
Reports came then from all sides, of an expanding curse which decimated the borders of the empire. Land was being lost, claimed by the wilderness, by the ghosts and the beasts and the horrors without words to describe them. They were being consumed by time, reduced to ruins in a matter of hours, and if the spell could not be contained, perhaps soon the very heart of the empire, the city of Hatbrim, would be consumed along with the rest.
Wizards were summoned to the courts, and when none could explain the phenomenon, the Duke turned to sages and shamans and even warlocks. The battlemages, those knights which dealt in magic rather than with steel, were deployed to the encroaching warzone to hold off the monsters now entering freely into his lands.
Overnight the revolution began. Now that the battlemages had left the city, there was none that could stand against the numbers of enraged commoners. Because while the Duke had dealt with the ailments of the outskirts, he had ignored the disease taking over his own heart. With the support of the upper middle class, the Verywells at their head, the castles were bombarded from the lower city, with their own cannons stolen from the armory. The government knights clashed with the squires and too with those knights loyal to the commoner plight. Hundreds died the first night. Thousands would die in the following week before the battlemages returned.
The Duke was beyond anger. Upon their return, he ordered the battlemages blast the lower city with firebombs, to level the uprising before it could grow beyond the capital. But his anger was no longer equal to the power his name was meant to hold. Some refused, abandoning their names to leave the military and the government, others simply disobeyed. Some did as they were told, but the devastation was halfhearted, and catalyzed the revolution more than it quelled it. Hatbrim would have new leadership. The brain of the fish was already dead.
I sometimes wish the Duke had gotten what he wanted, that the revolution had been quelled, that the Duchy of Saloondria had lived on for a little while longer. It would have been preferrable to what actually happened. On the morning of the sixteenth day of the Revolution of Hatbrim, the people of the burning city awoke to the sounds of the fires being put out. Put out not by buckets of water or wagons of sand, but by a single wave, 40 feet tall, the ocean taking back the lower city after breaching the magical seawalls. A city of half a million people reduced to a handful of thousands, those lucky enough to be out of the lower city or contained within Hatbrim fortress’s walls.
The seawalls had been compromised by those last battlemages loyal to the Duke, but whose loyalty finally dissipated after witnessing the largest destruction of human lives Saloondria had ever seen. Upon committing their crime, they fled to the sea, or the forests, or perhaps far off to the Plague Lands themselves, the only place with an inherent level of evil approaching that of their own. With their departure, the Duke was finally alone, devoid of true power, but he didn’t yet know it. He ordered his remaining knights to round up the Verywells, the Doingbests and the Richs. He commanded their immediate public execution, and the people of the city were too devasted to vocalize the smallest outburst. Look around, they thought. Look at the sea, that now laps at the walls of our remaining city. Fifty feet of water between them and their cousins, their friends. Three hundred thousand dead or missing in a matter of minutes. What was three, four, five dozen more? A drop in an endless sea.
It was another noble of low standing who cared, who valued that drop. Sir Ivan Verywellindeed, who no longer found pride in his name, nor who had the energy to be amused by it. Dressed only in plain clothes, too disgusted to wear his noble garb, and a jagged dagger hidden among the folds. The execution began, but instead of fifty bodies of commoner heroes dumped into the river that day, there were only two. The pompous Duke who had genocided his own people, and the only man brave enough to say enough was enough. Ivan was cut down by the Duke’s royal guard, but not before he’d gotten in half a dozen cuts, crunched into and broken the brittle bones beneath the expensive fabric.
I can not say that Hatbrim is better, not even now, hundreds of years after the fall of the old empire. I can say that it is changed, though. The names remain, the children of the children of the murderers and of the murdered, names no longer evolving but solidified. Hatbrim itself still stands, proudly waving its salmon flag above the river beneath which thousands of homes, businesses, schools, libraries, stadiums, factories, markets… violently flapping against the ocean breeze. No, Hatbrim is worse. A barnacle clinging to the corpse of a whale, a whale that was one the pride of the land of Saloondria.
None alive today by natural means have personal stock in the tragedy. No one is left to blame those battlemages that took the seawalls down, that blindly followed the will of a madman for no reason other than to give value to their name. None blame that battlemage who cast the final spell, the one person really responsible, who nailed the coffin shut. No one is left to hate him. No one but himself. Forced to relive that greatest evil each time I smell the sea air, witness the crash of a wave, each time I hear a newborn baby cry, each time I wake, each time I fall asleep.
I’ve lived eight lifetimes since that day, extending my life purposefully, tormented by every single moment. It would be so much easier to die, to simply drown myself the way I drowned them. But they deserve better. So I will live each of their lifetimes, watched by three hundred thousand angry souls, and when the sun sets on that final day, once each has been properly grieved, only then will I allow myself to die. And until then, I will teach and reteach the world to hate me.