The young man resting in the shade of the fig tree looked thoughtful as he surveyed the river below. The waters were high. The king’s gardens would get a good soak.
He watched the water spill into the shallow canals and snake its way across the desert basin, through the arched vaults leading into the garden, and up giant brick tiers where trees and plants from every region of the king’s great empire grew.
He closed his eyes and listened to the rhythm of the trickling water. There was a pattern there. There was always a pattern. The tides of the river revealed the exact degree the gates to the aqueduct should be opened each day. The lapping of the waves told the young man just how much pressure he would need to force the water up the walls of the pyramid.
To the princes and princesses who came from faraway lands to marvel at the king’s wondrous gardens, there was only one possible explanation for their existence: the gods. But the young man knew how they had really been built.
It was a sweltering day in the middle of the dry season. A little boy sat in the street, making pictures from the colorful rocks he had gathered from the riverbank.
The boy looked up as the king’s chariot came bouncing down the lane, kicking up a cloud of sand. He expected it to pass, but it came to an abrupt halt just a few feet from where he sat.
The guards dismounted and surrounded the child, whose eyes, grey as steel, filled with terror. The boy scrambled to his feet just as the king stepped out of the chariot, and then remembered he was supposed to fall to the floor in the presence of His Excellency, the Mighty Builder of Wonders and Civilizations. He dropped to his knees and pressed his nose into the sand.
Moments later, the boy jumped at the touch of a warm hand on his scarred bare back.
“Stand, my child,” the king said in a kindly voice. He crouched low and gently lifted the boy’s face from the ground.
The boy started back, looking fearfully from the king to the guards, but he stood on his feet as the king instructed.
“What have you there?” the king asked, pointing to the rocks the boy had arranged on the street. “A picture?”
The boy nodded.
“Of a garden?”
The boy nodded again.
“And what are these?” the king asked, pointing to a cluster of green and brown pebbles.
The boy pointed across the street to the palm fronds blanketing the floor of a merchant’s stand.
“Palm trees?” the king asked, turning his head from the stand back to the boy. “Way up here, at the top of this pillar?”
The boy nodded.
“How can they grow so far from the ground?”
The boy pointed to a line of blue rocks.
“Water? From the river?”
The boy nodded again.
The king laughed, and the boy frowned.
“No, I’m sorry, little one,” the king said, affectionately. “It’s just…well…wondrous!”
The boy beamed. Encouraged, he picked up a gold-colored stone and placed it in the king’s hand.
The king looked from the shiny rock to the boy’s steely eyes and smiled.
The boy gestured to the rags tied around his waist, and the king placed the stone into the pocket of his robe. The boy took the king’s hands, whispered an incantation, and motioned for the king to reach back into his pocket. When the king withdrew his hand, he was holding a large gold coin.
The king studied the coin carefully and placed it back into his pocket. Then he grabbed the boys’ hands and looked him hard in the eyes.
The boy winced, expecting a blow, but the king burst into rapturous laughter.
“She said you would come!” he exclaimed. “And here you are in the streets, making a garden out of stones and a spectator out of a king!”
The boy opened his eyes cautiously and looked into the king’s smiling face.
“What is your name, child?”
The boy looked at the ground.
“Haven’t you a name?” the king asked gently.
The boy looked at the king and motioned for him to come close. The king drew his face near the boy’s. The child whispered a word in the old language, and the king nodded solemnly.
“Sorcerer,” he said as softly as possible, but the guards jumped back and drew their spears.
The terrified child dropped to the floor and covered his head with his hands.
“LOWER YOUR WEAPONS!” the king shouted furiously.
The guards dropped their spears but continued to eye the boy cautiously. They had been trained to be weary of magic.
The king lifted the boy’s head from the sand once more and looked him straight in the eyes. He spoke not a word, but the boy heard clearly.
As am I.
The boy looked wide-eyed at the king, who nodded and then turned to his guards.
“The child will come with us,” he announced.
The guards exchanged worried looks with one another, but without another word the king gathered the boy up to his arms. The guards dropped to their knees. The king carried the boy to the chariot and sat him down gently inside.
“YOU!” cried a small child, no more than three, wrapping her chubby arms around the boy’s neck.
The king laughed. “This is my daughter,” he said warmly. He placed a hand on the little girl’s dark curly hair as she settled herself in the boy’s lap.
“She was the one who made us stop. She saw you.”
The boy looked into the little princess’ bright amber eyes. She grabbed his nose, shrieked with laughter, and toppled over into his skinny arms.
The boy’s heart swelled as he hugged the girl tight.
“She said you would come.” The king was beaming. “You will be my architect,” he said, taking the boy’s hands. “In you I will entrust my secrets, and together we will build wonders unlike any the world has ever known.”
The years that followed were happy for the boy. He filled his hungry stomach with fresh fish, fruit, and grains instead of scraps scavenged from the alleyways where the rich merchants lived. He rested comfortably on a bed with wool cushions instead of huddled up against a wall to shield himself from the fierce desert winds. He dressed finely and wore sandals that protected his feet from the hot sands and cold stone floors instead of walking barefoot in the streets.
But what the boy loved best of all, more than any of the king’s generous gifts, were the tablets stacked in the locked libraries of the high priests. As the king’s architect, the boy was permitted access to the forbidden texts. From sun up to sun down, he studied the characters carved into the clay—letters and numbers that helped him to understand and imagine the world.
The king employed several tutors to work with the boy, but the boy’s favorite tutor was the king himself. On warm evenings, he and the boy would stroll through the palace courtyard and talk about all sorts of things—what the boy had learned in his studies that day, what the king had learned in his travels throughout the world. The king told the boy about people he had met who spoke in strange tongues and behaved in strange ways—men who rode into war on giant tusked beasts and women who stretched their necks with gold rings—but the king believed all people, no matter how strange or foreign to one another they might seem, could be united by something more powerful than their difference.
“What?” the boy asked the king one night as they paused their walk around the courtyard to peer into a reflecting pool. The little princess stood across the pond, dancing her delicate fingers over the backs of the goldfish gliding across the moon.
“Wonder,” the king replied, turning his gaze from the children to the starry sky. When he looked back down at the boy, his eyes were shimmering with light.
The young man sitting in the shade of the fig tree shook these memories from his mind and rose to his feet. He had work to do. He had learned much from the king over the years and now his own grey eyes shone with the knowledge of the stars.
The gardens the young man had designed were a spectacular feat of engineering. Now though, something even more wondrous was rising up out of the desert sands. He turned his gaze from the river to the site of construction below and then started his descent down the sloping clay steps of the garden in the direction of the tower.
In another capsule of time, the young man, only a few years older, but many thousands of years removed from his own age, stepped out of a great blue flame. As he unraveled himself from the spirals of time, the features that came into focus would have startled anyone who had been present to look upon his face, but he was alone in the dark woods.
The man ran a skeletal hand through his flame white hair down smooth ivory cheeks that had once been tanned olive by his work under a hot desert sun. He closed his steely, starlit eyes, and breathed in deeply through his long, hooked nose, wrapping his tongue around the scents of fury and fear before exhaling through full, bloodred lips.
The man made his way out of the marshy forest, following the dark energy into the twisting lanes of the French village. Carts carrying wilting vegetables and molding sacks of grain stood parked in the street. Unsold goods lined the merchants’ shelves, and no music or laughter drifted into the streets from the tavern. He listened hard for vibrations of sound, and smiled cruelly as the cries of prisoners and snores of soldiers from across the land met his ears.
He had always admired the marquis’ creativity.
The man crossed the bridge leading from the village to the gates of a vast palace bathed in moonlight. He pulled a large gold coin from his robe and turned it over in his hand. The face stamped into the piece matched the face stamped into the gate. Running a hand along the gold bars, he thought, not for the first time, how very superior the structures of his own age were to those that would be built in the future. Still, many other things remained the same. Good men could be turned to tyrants. Kind people could be swayed to violence. This was the basis of the man’s survival now, in the world after the Great Destruction. Here, in these dark ages, he was known as Zahlamaer, but he could remember a time when he had been called by a different name.
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