They called it Ahanpoor…

This is my second submission to the MWC 2021, for the 2nd theme: “Death”.

This story is also available on Medium.

It is said that, on his last day, the Grand Saltan Abi Baboua the Magnificent, Lord of the Seven Deserts, Father of the Ten Clans, Destroyer of the Sand Snake and Bearer of the Aquadem, did not call no son, or daughter, or brother, or sister by his side; he did not call no counsellor or vizir to support him; and he did not call no priest or sear to tend to his soul. He closed the doors of the palace to the doctors and the sages that were promising a cure; he dismissed the mages and the sorcerers that had flooded the halls with bizarre herbs and incenses. Despite their crying and their begging, the Grand Saltan refused to see anyone but his old friend, Shalam the Teller.

It was already dark when Shalam arrived and the Saltan was lying in his bed, so weak that he could barely move. Yet his voice was still strong and brave.

  • My old friend, the end is near. I can see the darkness clouding this room — you will say that it is the moon and stars at play, but I know better. I am an old man who has seen enough and who needs to rest.

Shalam stayed silent on his chair with a smile on his face.

  • But I don’t want it to be the end. I fear my flame is so fragile that it shall disappear with me tonight. What have I accomplished? Have I done well? I used to believe that, at journey’s end, I would accept my fate with dignity and honor but the truth is that I am a man like any other; Abi Baboua is scared of the dark and the ghosts, he is scared of leaving this palace and its riches. Nothing makes sense anymore, but I don’t want it to change!

The Saltan turned his head to the Teller and tried to look at him, but his eyes were covered in mist and clouds.

  • Never have you been so quiet… by the gods! I asked for a Teller, and here I am talking in your place. I turned a deaf ear to the wisdom of the best scholars and the greatest oracles because I thought you would find the words! All these years, your stories of far away lands and mysterious peoples opened my mind to the world. Now, why are you so still and happy? Have I already joined the realm of shadows and memories? Are you a mocking djinn? Speak, now!

Shalam cleared his throat and clicked his tongue. Then his deep and soothing voice rose in the chambers; he was like an oasis springing in the desert, a surreal image of calm and peace.

  • No, my Lord. I am no spirit. I am your old friend. But I am a son of the Aquadem, and I have learnt not to spoil the eye-water on the dead. My father taught me that ends are gifts and that there is value in death; and I have learnt that to be true so many times since then. This is why I smile, my Lord: because, yes, I wish I could be in your place and relieve you of your burden — but I also know it to be an offering of the gods. There is no harsher cruelty than eternity.

The Saltan snorted painfully.

  • I am to join the land of the Eternals, my friend! Soon, I will ride side by side with the Snake and bathe in the Crystal Pools! How could that be a curse?

Shalam spoke slowly, each sound echoing like a distant choir.

  • My Lord, it is time I told you my last story. I will tell you of a tale of eternity, and I will tell you of a tale of ends. I will tell you of the forgotten city of Ahanpoor.

If you open a history book, or even a fairytale book, you will not find a single mention of Ahanpoor, the City of the Twelve Families. You will not read of its educated people, its fierce warriors, its adventurous merchants and its brave commanders. You will not know of its beautiful women, its happy matrons, its singing vestals and its passionate princesses. You will not even learn of how it got to be and fall.

It is a myth of myths, a phantom story that Tellers have shared in secret throughout the years and that we have started to forget. Yet — Ahanpoor is woven in our sand, our trees, our rivers, our roads; it is a tale of woman and child, of man and father, of king and peasant. It is our own story as a species, a discrete song that all hear every instant without even realizing it.

There are two tales of Ahanpoor: the first talks of joy, and prosperity, and harmony; the other talks of endless ends, and destruction, and destiny. I shall tell you those two tales, my Lord, for they will show you every life is a mirror of good and evil, and every emperor is but a humble beggar.

The first tale begins like all tales: once upon a time…

Once upon a time, in a far away land, lived twelve men with their twelve wives. Their country was very different from yours, Saltan. It was covered in forests, with large green leaves that would protect you from the sun and small running rivers that would quench your thirst. Those trees had solid trunks that soared up to reach the sky, higher than the eye could see. The rocks and plants on the ground were beauties beyond all others, covered in vibrant colors and enchanting lights; but far more beautiful was the canopy above: you have to imagine an infinite network of wood that played with the clouds, a large grid of oak arms and fingers coming together in a prodigious whole. It would go up for miles and miles to form a sky of woods.

The people of this land was perhaps very few, or infinitely many — no one knows, and even the twelve families couldn’t tell. Only the village mattered: you would live with the eleven other families and you would die amongst them. Each family had a son and a daughter, and so those twelve boys and those twelve girls would play together under the large trees, in the forest, and they would roll in the grass laughing. I see in your eyes, my Lord, that you wonder about this idleness. But there was no savant in the village, no university or library like here. All you needed to learn was which berry you could eat, or which branch was strong enough to bear your weight, or which dark cave was the lair of a wolf.

These twelve families were happy with their simple lives. Boys became men, girls became women and all in all, the families would go on generation after generation. So much so that the twelve families started to believe they were blessed and chosen. They tinted their bedtime stories with songs of greatness and heroism, they filled their campfire songs with tales of epic battles that they’d never seen and they slowly forged a new history, a new culture, based on those lies and those imaginary feats of strength. Until, one day, a couple of man and wife got as bold as to give themselves names. He called himself Ahan — a deformation of a name heard in an old story from another man in another garden of joy –; she called herself Poority — a simulacrum of ‘purity’ that showed her own misplaced vanity.

You know, my Lord, how gods look upon us and watch our every moves. The growing sense of grandeur and the ever-more proud families did not go unnoticed. Legends tell of a reckoning, as if this family, and perhaps one hundred others that they did not know about, had failed one time too many. One night, a violent storm came upon the forest. It seemed like the rage of the Eternals had turned into lighting, and thunder, and wind, and darkness. The twelve families took refuge in their houses but those were simple wood cabins and, soon enough, the roofs got ripped off the fragile walls, the doors cracked open and water poured in. The families, terrified, swore they would stop teaching lies to their sons and daughters… but it was too late. In a sudden flash of light, the twelve men and their twelve wives were swooped away and disappeared in the dark clouds, high above in the canopy, as if the woods had devoured them in an instant.

But the gods spared the children, because they were still young and pure. The mighty Eternals could see their mind had not yet soured with illusions and hubris; when they saw the twelve boys and the twelve girls, their anger eased and the storm faded away into the braking dawn. A long council took place in the skies and the gods wondered how to prevent this cataclysm from ever happening again; finally, the gods settled on gifting the children with a unique present: the ability of the Eternals to see truth.

I cannot explain, Saltan, how those boys and girls became adults because it happened in an instant. For the knowledge of the gods was a heavy gift to receive and it transformed the children into something more. Today, I still wonder: was this present really a gesture of kindness, or was it to teach them a lesson? Some say they heard voices that night, howling in the night, begging the children for their forgiveness, as if that storm and the council had escaped the justice of its creators themselves…

The twelve Families, of twelve sons and twelve daughters, had evolved. Their acute vision saw other riches in the land, their ears could hear distant callings and whispers from other groups of sons and daughters, in other forests, far away. They longed for harmony and peace and they would search all about the large forest to rescue those other children, orphaned and lost like them. But when they reached the edge of the canopy, they discovered that there was nothing there: it was an empty wasteland, and the cries of other Families they had heard were mere reflections of their own voices. Still: their resolve came from the gods themselves and so, that day, the twelve Families decided they would build a haven for all, a refuge that any man and woman in need would see, and that every child or elder would find if they had lost their way, so that no one would ever be as lost as they’d been, and that no man would ever have to suffer being alone and sad. They called it Ahanpoor to never forget the names of the man and the woman whose pride had angered the Eternals, and stormed the forest, and gifted the children, and made the Families.

Over the course of weeks, the City ran over the land and swallowed all it encountered. It grew into an endless sea of markets, towers, bastions, temples, houses, pools, gardens. Every new person that came to Ahanpoor could put a stone on the ground and declare it its house — and by some clever design, there would always be room for them wherever they chose to settle. Soon, the City had grown so much that it could be night at one gate and day at another: a man could stand on one of the balconies of the Tower of the Springs and behold the water dancing in the sun, while another would laugh and drink at a tavern with friends after a long day of work; a girl could sing to the moon, preparing for her next opera performance at the Dome of Chants, while another would study the secrets of chemistry and biology at the Grand University; an old man could sit on a bench and watch children play on the grass, rolling and laughing, as the dusk made the trees in the Forest of All glow with gold, while another would sit by the fire and share the stories from his country with other travelers. The City did not conquer by force but by hope: the Families spread their word of kindness and mercy, they showed strangers no fear but only love; they shared their knowledge of this realm and the ones above to whomever would listen. And so people would join the City of Ahanpoor and they would place a stone on the ground, because Ahanpoor was like a wave of dreams: there, every man could find gold, iron, copper, cotton, silk, paper, coffee, wine, honey, amber, sapphires, rubies, diamonds — but also sumptuous clothes, detailed astrocharts, heavy books, robust houses, exotic animals, large caravels or small carriages, forgotten songs or happy shanties, and all that he wished for.

It soon became clear that Ahanpoor was not just a refuge anymore. It had become the beating heart of the wasteland, then of the continent, then of the world itself. Everything could and did and would happen in Ahanpoor, because its frontiers had stretched to cover our entire planet. So, everything was Ahanpoor.

Generations of peoples were born, grew old and died — and always the Families were there to watch upon them, guide the children and support the elders; for the gift of Sight had taught the lost children in the forest that time was but an idea and, that night, they had joined their Eternals at least in part, escaping mortality itself.

And this is where the second tale of the City begins.

I have told you of happiness and prosperity, my Lord. I have said beautiful things about Ahanpoor, the City of the Twelve Families — and it was all true. But this story is incomplete if you do not tell of how Ahanpoor came to die.

For immortality is more than the Families had wished for and, over time, their thoughts could not bare this immutability anymore. Their heads were not the ones of gods: despite their being so close to becoming Eternals, they could never completely join their kind. The gift slowly clouded their minds and changed them once more.

In its early years, Ahanpoor had spread over the world into a megalopolis like no other. It was a merry mess of cultures, and languages, and beliefs, and rituals. You would enter a chapel to exit a mosque, you would come in a shop to buy groceries and come out with a couple of horses. The inattentive adventurer could swear allegiance to a street lord, or fall in love with a courtesan in a bar, or make of this pompous swordsman his mortal enemy in the blink of an eye. Destinies were written in half a day, and fates unravelled in the afternoon, so that the merchants who passed through the City felt as if it had been months, or seasons, when in fact it had only been a few hours. Were you to ask someone who had been to Ahanpoor what they’d seen, they would each tell a different story: ‘I have danced with monkeys and princes in the circus in the suburbs, near the great outer wall’, ‘I have discovered an infinite library, filled with books on all science known to men and even more’, ‘I have gambled for hours, and gained all, and lost all, again and again!’, ‘I have found love, but she disappeared around the corner and I could never find her then in the ocean of colors of the bazaar’…

One thing slowly soaked into the tales of travelers and the songs of bards, though: the shadow of the Citadel. Every one who had been to Ahanpoor spoke of this formidable dungeon of white stone, shining in the sun and casting its immense shade on the lower quarters of the City. By some strange trick, it seemed like the massive building’s shadow was everywhere in Ahanpoor, no matter where the sun was in the sky at that time of day. The new inhabitants had gotten used to living in the dark and look up to the shiny towers of the Citadel from the distance. They wouldn’t listen to their parents and their grand-parents that talked of a time when all were equal in the light of Ahanpoor, and, perhaps, but they couldn’t really remember, there was no Citadel at all…

It was to be believed that the Families lived up there, in the sun, even though no one had seen them for decades. At times, you could see a silhouette on a balcony, among all those towers and high iron grilles, and it looked like a boy or a girl. Yet it would vanish too quickly and you would be left with this feeling of an unfinished dream.

Time flowed differently in Ahanpoor: because there was always a magic show somewhere, or a caravan of actors, or a group of world-renowned musicians, every day could be a celebration, and so it became harder and harder to distinguish one from the other.

And that, my Lord, is the true power of gods: accepting eternity and living in spite of it. That is what the world from above can do that we can’t — always find joy in the new dawn even though there are infinitely more to come.

The Families grew tired of this world, and Ahanpoor, and its magnificent gardens, pools, houses, temples, bastions, towers, markets. They stopped looking at the water dancing in the sun, and they stopped listening to the operas, and they stopped laughing with the men in the taverns, and they stopped watching the children play in the gardens. You couldn’t see silhouettes on the balconies anymore and even the white stones weren’t as shiny as they used to.

Don’t be fooled, Saltan: it is not that they decided to close off from the world. It is that there was no point in touching anymore, because they had already felt the softest silks and they would caress infinitely more silky skins; that there was no point in hearing anymore, because they had listened to the most beautiful songs and they would sing infinitely more chants of hope; that there was no point in seeing anymore, because they had watched the most grandiose spectacles and they would celebrate infinitely more birthdays.

So — why live again and again if all that is left to do is just that? If there is no end, no death to come, what value is there to repeating the same journey?

That, my Lord, are the two tales of Ahanpoor. Stories of destiny, yes, but also of judgments, trials, laws and empires. And, in truth, it is only one story: the story of children that had lost too much and been given too much in return.

The rumors believe Ahanpoor is within every city of the world. That your empire, Saltan, just like all the empires of all the Saltans that came before you, are repetitions of this old City of the Twelve Families. And that you yourself, my Lord, are part of a Family waiting for their demise.

And in truth — the traveler who leaves your great capital, Saltan, will soon find a crossroads. It is a simple cross of wood planted into the ground, and at your feet there is whiter sand that stretches into two thin bands up to the horizon. Were you to go to the North, you would cross the most beautiful cities and meet highly regarded scholars that know of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, technology and more! You would eat refined meals, you would smell delicious perfumes and you would dance to the sound of enchanting sitars. Were you to go to the South, you would walk past strong forts and explore deserted lands. You would discover the weight of the metal on your bare skin, you would sing with the battalions and you would feel the rush of victory lift your hand and pump the blood in your veins.

Every empire can have two tales. It is up to you to choose which one people will remember. End is the only absolute, it is the necessary chisel that writes the epitaph of your own tomb. Words are meaningless if they are not said: it is time you finish your story, Saltan, for only a finished tale can be told by the Tellers.

Do not be afraid, my Lord. You simply need to go to this crossroads and pick the right path.

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