The First Arch Chancellor of Haikhma Basileia
By Hiromi Cota
“Uncle! Uncle! Tell us a story of Arch-Chancellor Ahmeed! How did he unify the Colleges?”
“Ah, children. Tell me, have you done your homework?”
“Yes! Yes! We did our algebra and biology and physics and history and music and—“
“Oh, I see. Well, did you do your chores?”
“Yes, Uncle! Pleeaase tell us about Ahmeed!”
“And your feet. Are they clean?”
“YES! Look! No sand!”
“Well, take a seat near the lamp. I feel a chill coming this evening.” The historian reached into his voluminous robes and retrieved a flint striker. With care, he lit the oil lamp and brushed away some of the desert that had followed the twins in. His fingers searched behind him for found his chair. As he drifted into the cushion, he gazed into the bright eyes of his niece and nephew. In their eyes, he saw the future of Haikhma Basileia. And so, he recalled its past.
“Now, Ahmeed wasn’t always so important. In fact, his professors thought he was a poor student – tardy and often absent. If his professors knew what he know now, they might have thought better of him. Just as now, there were only eight blocks of classes available per day: four before lunch and four after rest. But, Ahmeed was enrolled in ten classes.
“How was this possible? Za’ir?”
The girl’s eyes widen and unfocused, staring at an imaginary math slate. She was still for only a moment before excitement returned to her face.
“He skipped two of the ten classes every day.”
“Yes! Za’ha, how did this work?”
“He must have had a pattern. Each day, he skipped a different two classes. But, this also means that the same classes were available four times a day!”
“Very good! So, you know why he was absent. But, why was he tardy?”
Za’ha rocked forward as he answered, “Each class was at a different College!” The historian leaned back and smiled before continuing.
“In those days, the Long Winter has taken its toll on Haikhma Basilia. The desert devoured our forests. The Long Winter gave our people the hard choice between freezing and clear cutting enough trees to survive the cold. Even then, we knew that losing trees could cause desertification.” Marja carefully enunciated the last word, gauging the children’s comprehension.
“As a result, the desert grew every year, swallowing more and more land, driving the Colleges closer together, by shrinking the fertile land. They predicted they had no more than a hundred years before all of Haikhma Basilia was a desert. With few aquafers, our people were on the brink of death.
“Naturally, The Colleges had solutions to the problem. The real problem was that EACH of The Colleges had their own solution. A hundred solutions! Clever ones. Well thought out. Good science. But, it was impossible for them to all be tried! And no College would consent to another’s. And so, Ahmeed decided to try his own plan, based on the other hundred.
“His first steps took him to the Library, where he found The Atlas of Pentar. Then, he drew on the knowledge from the Colleges of Engineering, Music, and Teamsters. Sort of. He stole two prototypes and a horse. The first prototype, a massive crossbow. It held a hundred bolts, turning the tide of a battle in an instant. The second, a cranked violin. And the horse was a beautiful Basilean Black, as dark as night, with two eyes that glittered like stars.
“For the first step of his plan, he headed to Hiyama, the Eastern Kingdom. Their skill with metal has always been unparalleled, and he would have need of them.” Marja paused to push his kettle over the lamp’s flame.
“Of course, the Hiyaman’s violent tempers have also always been unparalleled. Ahmeed was a mere hundred paces past the border when he was captured and brought to a daimyo’s court for trial. He was accused of everything from spying to sabotage to poisoning a farmer’s chicken.”
“How do you plead, Basilean?” the daimyo spat the last word out as though it burned his tongue.
“I plead not guilty, your Grace. I know that you are a wise and cultured man. The history of your people is well known to mine. If it pleases you, I would honor an old tradition of yours, trial by contest.”
The daimyo’s head snapped back and confusion pinched his face.
“And … what is your understanding of our old tradition?” the daimyo asked haltingly, his eyes cutting into Ahmeed’s.
“I may request a fair contest of skill to prove my innocence. It must be fair; I could not request a contest of Basilean history, for example. And even after the contest has been decided, the beauty of my success must shine through. Simply winning is not enough; your Grace must agree that it was done skillfully and honorably for my innocence to be granted.”
With a curt nod of his head, the daimyo relaxed his face. “Your understanding of our customs is correct. Proceed.”
“Does your Grace have a skilled court musician?”
“Aizen does not play anything quite as clumsy as a violin, but yes.” The court musician bowed his head when mentioned and lifted his instrument to his lap.
“Then, I challenge your Grace’s court to a contest of music: the victor shall be the one who produces the most beautiful piece of music, from a single, unbroken note.” Ahmeed shivered slightly, as the court grew completely silent. Aizen’s fingers and wrists drifted, silently miming a tremendously long stroke of a bow. His chin dipped in an almost invisible nod.
“But, the contest wasn’t fair! Ahmeed had a crank violin! He could play a single note as long as his arm had strength to turn the handle!”
“Ah, but the contest wasn’t about who could play the longest note; it was about who could play the most beautiful music. Aizen had more skill and experience with music. Ahmeed could play a longer note. Being fair is not the same as being equal.”
Aizen’s bow whispered against his string and his fingers vibrated softly, and the sound of a bee entered the court. Everyone’s head turned to look at an insect their eyes failed to see. So, they closed their eye and heard the tiny insect dance between the flowers of the garden that had suddenly appeared. The bee landed on a poppy as red as fire, then bounded from it and landed on a golden chrysanthemum. It circled the petals of the chrysanthemum, stroking each one before finally settling down to feed.
Aizen set his bow down by his side as his song faded into an echo. Ahmeed began to spin music from his string.
The bee, now full of nectar, drifted lazily in the breeze. Scents tempted the bee, but it stayed the course and landed on the hive. Dozens of other bees joined the first, all doing their duty to the hive, nourishing their queen. Smoke filled the hive and a forest fire burst through the dry shell of the hive.
The fire leapt through the trees, ripping out branches and sending fiery missiles to the ground. Explosions rained down through the forest. Tree after tree began to snap and plummet to the earth. The sun fled and the deadly fire became the sole source of light. When dawn brought the sun’s first tentative glances, all that remained was ash and smoke choking the earth.
The wind yawned and soon crisp sea air pulled in plump sea clouds. The rain cried away the ash, wiping the earth clean. In the middle of the former forest, the lonely finger of a new chrysanthemum stretched towards the light and a bee could be heard in the distance.
Ahmeed set his crank-violin down.
The daimyo was the last to open his eyes. When he spoke, only a faint tremble could be heard in his voice. “You cannot be guilty of sabotage. You can see the soul of Hiyama. You are as much a citizen of the East as you are a citizen of the South.”
Ahmeed couldn’t actually see the soul of Hiyama. But, he had read Hiyaman historical records and literature. The Colleges had trained him well enough that his melody fully captured the Hiyamans belief in the creative powers of revolution.
"In addition to the daimyo sparing Ahmeed’s life, the ruler also offered Ahmeed a heavy sack of gold as payment for the song. But Ahmeed had his eye on something else and complimented the quality of the daimyo's iron.
"Your iron is far better than any I've ever seen! If you would honor me by allowing me to purchase some-"
"I will not have my favored guest purchasing anything under my roof. Ask what you will, and I will provide what I can."
And so, the young scholar asked for one hundred iron rods, a mast one hundred feet tall, a sail, and a wagon to put them all. The daimyo was befuddled by the request, as Ahmeed had no ship. He was also visibly annoyed that Ahmeed had asked for so much, but would not renege on his promise. When all of the iron had been loaded onto Ahmeed's wagon, Ahmeed told the daimyo that there was not enough room for the sack of gold on his wagon and begged his new benefactor to hold onto the sack for him. The daimyo's face brightened as he realized what Ahmeed had done, and agreed to hold the gold safe for the young scholar.
Although the cart was heavily laden by Hiyaman iron, the Basilean Black remained just as strong as the first hour Ahmeed saddled it. The mighty horse flexed her muscle and the cart of iron rumbled down the road. Ahmeed bade the daimyo farewell and promised to return with a new song. Drawing on his knowledge of forestry and the Atlas of Pentar and he made his way through the Hiyaman north and onto the largest glacier in Norrmark.
His travels through Norrmark were unmarked by the fierce warriors of the icy kingdom. But, that all changed once he stopped on the glacier. He began hammering the iron rods into the ice, drawing an iron border between the shore and the massive ice sheet. The rods were driven at a precise angle, each disappearing into the ice.
As he finished pounding in the hundredth rod, a monstrous bellow came out from the woods. A massive Norrish warrior came crashing onto the glacier, his wicked axe growling through the air. Ahmeed raced over to his crossbow and fired a trio of bolts at the barbarian. Two bolts rang off of his shield, but the third pierced his leg. In halting Norrish, the young scholar shouted across the ice.
"If you come here, I will kill you. This bow can kill a hundred men! Do not come here again!"
“But a dominance challenge like that would only lead to more conflict with the Northmen!” Za’ir protested.
“Oh?” her uncle chuckled. “It sounds as though you’ve been sneaking into some Sociology lectures.”
Another chuckle. “You’re right, of course. It infuriated the Northmen. The next day, Ahmeed saw the Norrmark warrior again … and one hundred other warriors from his tribe. Za’ha, tell me: do you think there were any women in the party?”
“Why?” Marja quizzed his nephew while Za’ir’s scowled at her brother.
“Well, the Norrmark believe that women are more powerful at home, so they would want to keep the women at home to defend.”
“A sound argument. And what do you think, Za’ir?” the historian lifted his kettle and poured three cups of tea.
“The wounded warrior must have had some female relatives! They would want to go out and punish Ahmeed! Women are just as capable fighters! The raiding party must have been half women!”
“Two sound arguments! Who do you think is right?”
“Of course.” Marja smiled.
Staring down the icy cliffs, a hundred and one Norrmark warriors growled at the young scholar and his experimental crossbow. The line of iron rods were buried well, but the warriors smelled the trap and noted the holes in the ice. With a savage shout, they all leapt down onto the ice sheet, slamming down past the tips of the iron rods. Their ferocity and tremendous force shook the glacier, nearly knocking Ahmeed off of his feet. In fact, their thunderous charge had so much power that the iron rods acted as levers and shattered the icy shore.
Thousands of pounds of ice exploded behind the barbarians, thrusting the ice sheet inches into the harbor. As they hesitated, Ahmeed fired his crossbow, catching one hundred of Norrmark’s sons and daughters in the legs. The warrior from the first day was the only one to escape the scholar’s violence this time. He howled in rage and hurled an axe. Ahmeed screamed and threw himself to the ice. Polished stone sliced through his scalp and blood filled his eyes.
Blindly, he threw off the knot on the mast and the sail greedily devoured the wind, sending the massive ice boat lurching away from the shore. It was many moments before he dared to lift his bloodied head. The Norrish warriors had chosen to leave the glacier rather than making sure the young scholar was truly dead. The axe had only grazed Ahmeed’s head. But, when he looked towards his surefooted steed…
“NO!” Za’ir shouted.
“Did the horse have a name?”
“I’m afraid not,” their uncle whispered.
“But, how would she be called to the Heavens without a name? Nameless horses can’t race among the stars!”
“You are correct. Fortunately, the horse was not yet dead.”
“Meanie!” Za’ir kicked a pillow at her uncle.
“The mare was badly wounded, as you might expect from an axe. Thankfully, Ahmeed had studied Veterinary Medicine. He worked for one hundred days, mending the horse’s wounds and nursing it back to health.”
“Did he give it a name?”
“He did. After such a close call, he felt that he must give the Beauty a name, even if he wasn’t her true owner. In fact, because he wasn’t the horse’s true owner, he named the steed ‘Stalwart Teamster’, after the College where he found it.”
One hundred and one days after the ice shattered, the great glacier silently slid into the kingdom of islands, Tyr’Mallor. By noon, the archipelago was buzzing with speculation about the massive ice sheet. By evening, Ahmeed had dozens of offers for his rich, iron mast, and hundreds of questions of how he came by it. By the next morning, the Merchant-Lord of the First House of Tyr’Mallor was entertaining the young scholar aboard his magnificent ship, the Gallant Whale.
Lord Malgua enticed Ahmeed with estimates of power and speed, remarking how quickly the Gallant Whale could return the scholar and his glacier to Haikhma Basileia. With the glacier beginning to melt in the warmer climate of the West, time was not in Ahmeed’s favor. Instead, he returned the merchant’s enticements with an even deeper offer than a single mast. Ahmeed had charted his progress, creating detailed maps of currents and winds. Combined with the Atlas of Pentar, Lord Malgua would be able to navigate to and trade directly with any of the other countries.
The Mallorean lord and the young scholar spent all night writing out the contract, each folding in deeper and more arcane complexities into the contract. Finally, Lord Malgua and Ahmeed had struck a bargain. It only took one hundred and one pages of contract for the two men to agree to exchange one ship for the detailed maps.
They carried the massive contract to the Central Bank, where a tiny, weathered man, dressed in fine silks regarded them both with skepticism. The banker began to dig through the pages, absorbing the information and recording it in his ledger. Finally, he seemed satisfied and handed them both pens.
As the deal was signed and published at the Central Bank, Lord Malgua revealed his treachery. While the contract was very clear on what condition the ship must be in, when the ship and crew must be turned over to Ahmeed, how well the crew would be provisioned, how experienced they must be, how they would be treated in Haikhma Basileia, and many other small details, the young scholar did not require that the ship be a large one. So, although he had his eyes fixed on the Gallant Whale, the merchant signed over the Adequate Guppy.
“But, you have agreed to lend me one hundred and one sailors!”
“And I shall. We Tyr’Malloreans are men of our words. Contracts are law. One hundred and one sailors, free of impairments-“
“Will not fit on the Adequate Guppy!”
“That sounds like your problem, Captain.” The cunning merchant grinned and dropped a tarnished silver captain’s ring onto the table. He continued, “Besides, I’m doing you a favor. I have a hundred smaller dinghies I could have given you instead.”
The banker between them nodded approvingly as he confirmed the details and looked up to view Ahmeed’s disappointment. But, the young scholar was smiling instead.
“Why are you smiling? What has Lord Malgua missed?”
“His Lordship cared more about his fleet and not a whit about his men. He should have paid more attention to page one hundred and one, Crew Accommodations. Lord Malgua is free to give me any seaworthy ship he pleases, so long as it contains sufficient space for crew members to sleep in their own personal bunk.”
“There is more than enough room on your glacier!”
“The contract says that you must provide the space. Contracts are law.”
Even though he was outmaneuvered, Lord Malgua refused to part with the Gallant Whale, instead providing all one hundred and one of his sailing dinghies, cutting his fleet to the bone. The tiny banker smirked and pressed a gold ring into Ahmeed’s hand.
“Congratulations on your fleet, Admiral. Nice work with the Atlas.”
“What happened to the Atlas?!” the children exclaimed.
“Have you ever seen what happens when a book is due?”
They shook their heads.
“Pray you never do.”
Soon, the glacier was resting on stony hills of Ha’Lish Bay, with thousands of engineers and technicians crawling all over it, each taking his or her own measurements of the glacier. By evening, hundreds of pipes and aqueducts snaked out of the mountain of ice. Irrigation had come to Haikhma Basileia.
Meanwhile, Ahmeed was simultaneously praised and berated by all of the Deans for one hundred and one hours. He had violated dozens of laws and caused untold chaos. But, even the Deans had to agree that his actions had saved Haikhma Basileia. While the manner of his actions was recklessly unplanned, the fact that he took action was eminently pragmatic.
He was sentenced to expulsion and one hundred and one lashes, less one for each degree he earned. His sentence was suspended until the glacier ran out of fresh water.
Twenty years later, the mountain of ice was no more, and Ahmeed was no longer a student.
A silent crowd of thousands gathered in University Circle. A post was fixed in the center and Ahmeed’s wrists were bound to it. Ahmeed could hear the whistle of the whip as his sentence rushed to meet him.
He bowed his head and resigned himself to his punishment: a single lash.