Imperial Survey: Yathrib
Excerpted here is the Emperor's survey of Yathrib.
- 1 The Last Bastion
- 2 History
- 3 Recent History
- 4 Solar System
- 5 People & Places
- 5.1 Akko
- 5.2 The Shining Gulf
- 5.3 Revelation, the Holy City
- 5.4 Iskandretta and the Pearl Cities
The Last Bastion
Salutations, O Emperor: though I am new among your Company, I am the proudest of those who call themselves Questing Knights. When my father and I arrived on your throneworld after years of long-journeying, we found our hopes made manifest - in your court the Pancreator was still supreme, and from your vassals our homeworld was delivered from the infidel.
Let me give you my tale. I am Joscelin De Moley, son of the Count Joscelin of Yathrib, the world where the Prophet beheld the Holy Flame. In the nine hundredth year of Yathrib's exile - the year 4993 - my father beheld a new, bright star amidst the Fading Suns, and heard an old man in the square preach that this spark meant hope for mankind. Our straits were dire indeed, for the Kurgan infidel had driven back the reflective faithful into a fraction of what they once held, but despite the need for every fighting man my father gathered a small body of men and took flight to seek the source of that reborn sun.
I traveled with him, as did the blind man Tireseus and a company of oathsworn men. Long were our journeys - we fought our way from Yathrib into the lands of the Kurgan, and from there into stranger space amongst Lost Worlds until at last we journeyed through the wild worlds of the Vuldrok to Leminkainen. The first Yathrib knight saw Known Worlds sun again in 4996, where we were swiftly brought to your court.
Oh, that day - that happy day - is burned into my mind forever. Here was a revelation, a promise that mankind could fight back the night. My father raised a force of Crusaders to return along the long night roads to Yathrib while I remained behind, swearing as your man amongst your Phoenix Company.
What follows is known history - my father's crusade arriving at the last hour, the Engineers who accompanied him reopening the gate to Aylon. Faithful Flavius raising a great host to regain some of what was lost, and the state of war since between infidel and faithful that ranges across the skies and sands of Yathrib.
I know in my heart that valor and faith will win the day, but if you are to rule this rediscovered world you must understand. I present to you, then, this Imperial Survey, conducted on Your Majesty's behalf, so that you may understand this holy planet so long forgotten and so recently thrust into the center of the Known Worlds. To accomplish this task, I have spent the last year traveling across the planet, even into Kurgan and Sathraist lands, accompanied by a clever minstrel recommended by your Sir Chamon Mazarin, a wise if eccentric monk, and the most foolhardy Charioteer I have ever met to get us to and from these difficult places alive. I owe this volume to their skill and bravery, and most of all to the grace of the Pancreator who saw us all survive.
Sir Joscelin De Moley
Company of the Phoenix
Yathrib is a dusty world with scant resources that lies on no appreciable trade route - and yet in 2723 it was the site of the most important event in history, the Prophet's revelation of the Holy Flame. In an instant, Yathrib became the spark that would save mankind.
Early in the Diapsora, Captain Henry Pym of the Pan Arabian Mercantile Alliance - PAMA - discovered a dusty, habitable world one jump away from Aylon. PAMA's pilots were among the best explorers in the waning days of the First Republic, but the zaibatsu sold most of its discovered systems to other corporations, retaining for itself only out-of-the-way worlds with few resources. At the time, PAMA's rivals laughed - the richest rewards were in colonization and exploitation, not exploration and discovery - but they were not privy to the true agenda that underlay PAMA's discoveries.
Unbeknownst to even the senior management of the zaibatsu, the line pilots who made up PAMA's ranks were riddled with Sathraists, and they subtly wormed their way into the heart of PAMA's decision-making - seeking refuges for their dark religion, places where they could base their cults away from prying eyes. Yathrib - like Mazdak, later linked to it in history - was once such world, and the PAMA colony at Discovery Bay on the northeastern continent of Pymeria became a haven for Sathraists that would last nearly fifteen hundred years.
The PAMA base at Discovery Bay was not the only colony on the planet, however - with Old Urth jammed to the brim, PAMA sold colonial shares to tens of thousands of people who settled - despite the rather inhospitable conditions on Yathrib - first in the southern islands, called the Antipodes because they lay almost exactly opposite Discovery Bay, and then along the coasts of the main continent of Asher. The "share colonists" had hard lives - much of Asher was desert, and a general lack of support from PAMA meant they lagged at least a generation behind the great metropolis planets of Criticorum or New Istanbul, but they lived honestly and simply as farmers, herders, and fishers, manufacturing mostly local craft goods to be exported off-world.
The Coming of Zebulon
In 2772, a traveling priest named Zebulon came to Yathrib on a mission of discovery. Local accounts say he arrived with the snows and spent a year on Yathrib, accompanied some of the time by his friend and pilot, Paulus. Everyone agrees he was seeking something; some suggest it was answers to the mysteries of the Ur, while others suggest he was driven already by visions. The Church officially has no position on this time, relegating it to 'blessed myth', but on Yathrib it is commonly believed he landed at Akko and made a slow circuit around the Shining Gulf until he came to the empty wilds now occupied by the holy city of Revelation. There - on September 17, 2773 - he beheld a vision of the Holy Flame that changed the course of history.
His first sermon was given only to Saint Paulus, and then - together - they left Yathrib without returning to any town or village, bound for Aylon where the Prophet would begin to preach. He never returned to Yathrib in his lifetime, though pilgrims began to come soon after he began preaching - and so did the zaibatsu and the nobility, fearful of what the Prophet's message.
Even as pilgrims flocked to sites the Prophet is said to have visited during his time on the planet, like the shrine at Leon where a lion knelt to Zebulon or the ford in the River of Joy where he is said to have bathed fearful magnates sent men-at-arms to Yathrib to stomp out this banned religion. Several early martyrs were killed during those early years, often at the hands of PAMA, who were particularly afraid that this new attention on Yathrib would draw attention to their Sathraism.
The Ukar Wars
The Ukar Wars changed all those equations, however. One jump from Aylon, Yathrib was far too near to Ukar Space, and the Ukari warlords feared the influence of the new religion spreading among the humans. They struck Yathrib in 2855 as part of their initial surprise assault on humanity, and held onto the world for "Forty Years of Night" until a human fleet was able to force its way past Aylon and liberate the holy world in a ten-year crusade from 2895 until 2994.
The forty-year occupation of Yathrib left scars; it drove many of the original pilgrims into the wild, mixing fervent faith with the frontier attitude of the original share colonists, while it drove PAMA off-world for a time. The Ukari stomped out traces of the Prophet's church and forced early worshippers underground - literally, in many cases, with a tradition of underground chapels in some ancient places that remain venerated sites to this day.
The Second Republic
During the Second Republic, Yathrib bloomed: particularly in the early years, it was a destination for pilgrims, with every year bringing more pilgrims than the last. The great city of Revelation - the Holy City - grew up as a teeming metropolis around the spot where the Prophet received his vision of the Holy Flame. As the Second Republic matured the flow of pilgrims began to level off, but the rise of resort cities on the subcontinent of Chemosh and "package vacations" that took visitors to the holy sites before a relaxing week at the beaches in the Pearl Cities kept the pace coming.
While the Church tried to moderate the increasing commercialism, many bishops became coopted against their better natures. Most Holy Archbishop Alexander the Builder was perhaps the epitome of this; while all agree he had the faith at heart, he opened Yathrib up to commercial sponsorship in order to expand the starport at Pilgrim's Landing and build new two vast new ports. The first, Alexandrun, was at the White Oasis, linked by almost dozen monorails to the holy city, while the second was a floating 'Saint Paulus' Port' modeled after New Istanbul's Port Authority anchored in the Shining Gulf south of Tyche.
Towards the end of the Second Republic, these ports became more and more important: the rise of the Fading Suns phenomenon led to a new flood of pilgrims to Yathrib, where the sun - like Holy Terra - seemed less affected. There, pilgrims hoped the putative closeness of the Holy Flame might keep them safe against the end times.
The Fall brought chaos to Yathrib. The vast computer systems that managed the itineraries and travel of the millions upon millions of pilgrims on planet failed as communications networks and starports were swiftly overwhelmed by travelers trying to reach their loved ones and their home. Shipments of food from offworld faltered, and the mechanical farms and vat-factories that sustained the pilgrims ground to a halt. The wealthy sealed themselves inside their bastions where they could - Alexandrun, isolated as it was by desert, was one place of refuge, as were the libertine resorts of Chemosh - though in some places the mob still reached the wealthy.
In the midst of this, the Sathraists made their move. PAMA had long-since faded away, but the respectable upper-middle-class town of Discovery Bay still had Sathra at its heart. With the orbital defenses now shut down, Sathraist pilots took control of the skies, appropriating the system defense fleet and beginning to swiftly assert control over the planet. The Sathraist's ultimate goal was unclear - perhaps they saw Yathrib as the heart of a nascent empire, or perhaps they were just under the sway of the end times.
At first, the Sathraists seem to be winning; with the Known Worlds distracted by fighting everywhere, communication was cut-off and the weakened Church had few allies. Then, however, a few brave knights began to fight back. Led by Sir Godfrey de Moley and Sir Malcolm Xavier Justinian, this ragtag brotherhood swore an oath to keep the pilgrim roads open in 4053. Gathering like-minded warriors to their holy cause, they began to beat the Sathraists back, and over the course of the next several decades they cleansed the skies and established a beachhead on Yathrib around the Holy City of Revelation. The Apocalyptic See gave Saint Godfrey - leader of the brotherhood - title as Guardian of the Holy City, and he set to reclaiming the lands around the Shining Gulf from the chaos.
Godfrey's cousin Count Jackson liberated the city of Akko from a mob under the sway of the mad preacher Cavil the Pure, who died a suicide when he realized his hold on the mob had been broken, and from Akko the band of knights - officially founded in 4061 as the Poor Brother-Knights of the Prophet, but already commonly called the Brother Battle - began to systematically cleanse the Sathraists from the planet. As the order coalesced into a fraternity of warrior-monks, the leaders began to recruit faithful nobles to fight as allies, promising them lands around the gulf. These fifty fiefs - granted by the Statute of Amity in 4068 - became the nucleus for faithful law and order on Yathrib.
The final battle for the Prophet's world took place in space, and at the conclusion of the fight the Brother Battle turned their space cruiser's guns on Discovery Bay, the Sathraist stronghold. In 4073, they plague-bombing it into oblivion. Even now, the ghosts of those ancient toxins make Discovery Bay a poisoned, unsafe place filled with a dozen different ill humors. Even as the bombs began to fall, the Brother Battle pursued the Sathraists to Mazdak, where Saint Malcolm was killed and Saint Godfrey maimed. Count Jackson became the new leader of the order, while Saint Godfrey returned to Yathrib to rule as Master of Akko and Guardian of the Holy City.
Despite seeming victory, however, the Sathraists were not all dead. Before the bombing of Discovery Bay, many of their leaders had fled to Chemosh, taking shelter among the hedonistic nobility there, and once the fleets of the Brother Battle had turned elsewhere they began to plot. Waiting for Saint Godfrey to journey off-world for medical treatment, they struck at the jumpgate in 4093, disabling it and sealing Yathrib off from the wider Known Worlds.
A New Dark Age
The jumpgate's sabotage thrust Yathrib into shock. The chaos of the Fall, which had only barely been contained, burst back into riots, and the next century was spent restoring order on the planet. That century gave the remnants of the Sathraists time to regroup; combining forces with the nobility on Chemosh, they set up the Sathraist Kingdoms, even as the faithful reasserted control over the Shining Gulf and the Pearl Cities. The scattered settlements of the Boreale were left largely to themselves, while the Antipodes became a place for a sort of cold war between the Sathraists and the Universalists.
With most of the Brother Battle having relocated to Mazdak, the order drew back and fortified their citadel on the Mount of Apples in Akko. The Guardianship passed into noble hands in the person of Saint Godfrey's sister's son Baldwin de Moley, who left the Brother Battle so that he could marry Margaret Justinian, Saint Malcolm's cousin and another former knight of the order. As Guardian, Baldwin leads a coalition of nobles and priests to restore order, dying finally as an old man in campaigns to put down rebels.
His son completed the task, and by 4211 Baldwin II was an old man ruling as first among equals over a loose coalition of nobles and priests. Besides Baldwin's minor House De Moley, two of the Ten emerged with prominence from the chaos: House Justinian, many of its members drawn to Yathrib by faith, firmly entrenched in Alexandrun and the Shining Gulf, and House al-Malik, rising to rulership in the Antipodes by virtue of long and close association with Aylon. Houses Windsor, Gesar, Hawkwood and Hazat had lesser roles in the Pearl Cities, while the minor houses Dextrite and Masseri converted to the faith of the Sathraist Kingdoms.
The five senior partners in planetary rule were Baldwin, as Guardian and senior member of House de Moley, the Orthodox Archbishop of Revelation, the Brother Battle Master of Akko, and the senior counts from Houses Justinian and al-Malik. For the next several hundred years, this quintet was the core alliance guiding planetary government in a fight against rebels, Sathraists and others.
As the centuries marched on, many of the nobility on the planet - already given to faithfulness - began to donate lands to the Church. Powerful clergymen came to control many of the fiefs in the Pearl Cities and the Shining Gulf, and these Exarchs or Prince-Bishops became political powers in their own right. Other scandals plagued the nobility; in 4611, Titus Alecto, rich from slave plantations in the northern jungles, crowned himself King of Asher with the tacit support of the Brother Battle, who had become rich with their own adventures in the northern jungles. Alecto ruled until 4540 when a coalition lead by Maxwell Justinian unseated Alecto; in the ensuing chaos, the Alecto family was outlawed, with its surviving scions absorbed by House Gesar. Maxwell extracted the city of Akko from the Brother Battle for their role in supporting Alecto, and indeed this was the start of a period of recession for the Brothers, one accelerated when Maxwell gained in his late age the title of Guardian of the Holy City from the 'boy count' Jaffray De Moley.
With the Lordship of Akko and the Guardianship in Justinian hands, a sort of detente began to build for the next century and a half between Akko and Revelation. The Justinians - supported by the lords of the Cote-Leon with more distant support from the Antipodes - stared across the gulf at the Prince-Bishops, who in turn had the support of many of the Pearl Cities. Sporadic border wars with each other and with the Sathraists kept tensions high until the All Saints' War broke out in 4756, lasting for twenty years before the Brother Battle and House De Moley reasserted themselves, settling first the Justinians and then the Prince-Bishops. By 4800, Bertrand the Pious of House De Moley had solidified his position in Akko and turned his attention towards the Sathraist kingdoms, beginning a series of Long Wars across the great desert that lasted on and off under his successors until 4874.
The remnant Known Worlders had long suspected that the Sathraists had keys to some night road out of Yathrib space; during the Long Wars, they seemed to be able to maintain a level of technology with fresh parts and other supplies the forces of the Holy City could not match. These suspicions were right: the Sathraists had a route out past the Kurgan world of Rukh, where they had for a millenium sneaked through the Lost Worlds. Their secrecy could last only so long, however, and in 4874 the veil dropped as a Kurgan armada exited the jumpgate into the holy system.
Eight hundred years after the closing of the gate, Revelation's space forces were much diminished. The Brother Battle had principal command - a testament to their early history as a coalition of fighter pilots - from the Castrum, a monastery-station in geosynchronous orbit above the Holy City that had been used to direct traffic and provide orbital defense during the Second Republic. Most of the Holy City's ragtag space fleet was based aboard the station, where it saw irregular action against Sathraist fighters and made cautious patrols to the few colonies still remaining in the broader solar system. When the Kurgans attacked, the Castrum became the center of a short and ill-lived defense. Infidel forces drove straight for the station, boarding it and beginning to cut their way through. The Brother Battle commander attempted to trigger the self-destruct but was killed by Kurgan assassins who had secretly infiltrated the venerable fortress.
With the skies over Revelation now in Kurgan hands, the infidels began their invasion. The Shining Gulf had long relied on the Castrum for space protection, and so as the Castrum began to fall the Archbishop of the Holy City called together the traditional quintet of lords and clergy. A decision was made: the monorails that linked Revelation to Alexandrun and the Pearl Cities would be pressed into service to move as many of the anti-space defenses of those provinces as possible to the Gulf to prevent the Kurgans from conquering the Holy City immediately.
The so-called 'Spoiling of the Pearls' was a success, but at a price: the sudden presence of a forest of pom-pom lasers pointed up at space turned the Kurgan armada away, but the Pearl Cities now lay undefended, and so the Kurgan warfleet began to land there instead. This was the first of the Halaba Wars, from the Kurgan word for conquest -- the Halaba of the Pearls lasted nearly 15 years, resulting in the eradication of the remaining Hazat lords and ending with the Conversion of the Gesar, when Count Tengri Gesar knelt to the Kurgan khaghan at Alexandrun and converted to their faith.
Further conquests followed; now ensconced at Alexandrun (Iskandretta, in the Kurgan tongue) the Kurgans sent expeditions first to the Boreale and then to the Antipodes, sweeping away the few defenders in the former and fighting a short but bloody conflict in the the latter until the al-Malik count of Hydessos struck the Peace of Edessa, in which the Antipodes would pay tribute to the Kurgans but be allowed to keep their faith. The greatest of the Halaba Wars, of course, was fought over Revelation, which beat back three sieges in 4892, 4908, and 4919 until the Kurgans were able to bring orbital bombardment to bear in 4924. After the ensuing evacuation, the remnant Known Worlders began to shell back in a continuous set of wars broken only briefly by the Peace at the River of Joy, which created five refugee camps for those who had been driven out of the Holy City and set guidelines for their administration.
By 4940, however, war had resumed again after a Church-inspired rebellion in the Pearl Cities, and constant battle between the now-reformed Crusader State of Akko and the Kurgan sultanate at Iskandretta was the norm for the next fifty years.
By the latter part of the 4980s, the remnant forces were losing. The fall of Tyche in 4980 opened the Shining Gulf up to Kurgan naval operations, and much of the east bank of the gulf was in Kurgan hands. Raids across the River of Joy routinely scourged Known Worlds remnant lands, and while there were moments of glory - like the 'Golden Season' of 4986, when the Lord Geoffrey de Moley briefly recaptured Revelation - each year the Known Worlds remnants became less and less able to hold on to what they had.
In 4992, disaster truly struck. Count Rutger Mortimer, the Lord of Auberry, took Kurgan gold and allowed an invading army under the leadership of the Kurgan general Jalalkan to cross the River of Joy. Jalalkan detached a force to besiege Joyeaux, allowing more Kurgans to cross there, and then began a slow march towards Akko. The Cote-Leon fought back hard, but the tide had turned. The ensuing invasion of the Crusader State was called'The Betrayal', forever enshrining Mortimer's treason in history.
As the Cote-Leon became a battlefield, the brother of the Lord of Akko - Count Joscelin de Moley - had a vision, seeing a sun suddenly born in some distant vista. Consulting with a blind priest, he gathered a small group of brave souls and commandeered a starship, heading to find this reborn sun. Those left behind believed him to be giving up, but they redoubled their effort to make the Kurgan advance a slow and brutal fight down every mile of the Cote-Leon.
Meanwhile, Count Joscelin and his companions found themselves in Kurgan space, where for two years they had an odyssey among the stars. Finally making their way through barbarian jumplanes to Leminkainen, they found the Known Worlds they had been for so long cut off from. They were whisked to the court of the new Emperor Alexius on January 1, 4996, where Count Joscelin knelt at Alexius' feet and swore fealty in the name of his brother. Swiftly, brave knights pledged their swords, and a hastily-assembled armada began to retrace Joscelin's laborious steps through barbarian space.
When Joscelin's Crusade emerged back in Yathrib space, Akko was in dire straights: Jalalkan's host was at the gates of Akko, and it seemed that the last days of faith on Yathrib had come. Joscelin's forces fell upon the Kurgans from space, and Count Joscelin himself fought hand to hand with Jalalkan. The Kurgan general struck him down, but the crusaders won the day, pushing the Kurgans back over the River of Joy.
The west bank of the Shining Gulf lay in ruins as the Kurgans retreated, however. Most of the local lords had died in the fighting, and the new crusaders settled down to claim lands in what was now being called the Crusader State of Akko. Contact was made with the al-Malik in the Antipodes, and they - like others - began to rebel against the Kurgans, opening new fronts in the war. Engineers who had traveled with the crusade made their difficult way out to the jumpgate, and in 4998 they were able to open the road to Aylon, suddenly making the link to the Known Worlds much less tenuous. More crusaders piled in, establishing a beachhead in-system in the Jewels of Hatay, and then in 4999 a second, greater crusade arrived.
Prince Flavius, most faithful of the Royal Houses, had been gathering soldiers since Joscelin knelt before Alexius, and when the gate reopened two million men began to mobilize. They reached Aylon in 4999, causing consternation in the al-Malik worlds, and then poured through the gate. Some of the forces diverted at Hatay, but most of them landed at Fallingfire on the southern island of Ydessa, where they established a great citadel and helped the Antipodes cast off the Kurgan rule. Then, with Hydessos liberated, they traveled by ship north to Akko to join the fight at the Holy City.
By 5000, the Flavian Crusade had petered off, replaced by a full Imperial legion entrenched in the ruins of Revelation: but the dark days of 4994 were past. Salvation had come, bearing the flag of the Reborn Sun, and now these new crusaders had a Holy City to reconquer and a long-forgotten land upon which to stamp their destiny.
Lahab (Sun): The mottled red-gold sun of the Yathrib system burns at just a little cooler than Holy Terra's sun, though its glorious colors give it an distinct fiery appearance. The Fading Suns effect has impacted Lahab less than many stars; rather than just dimming, it is as if the contrast of the star has been turned up, giving it an appearance almost like stained glass.
Otared: This tiny, rocky world is close to the sun. During the Second Republic, a protected observatory and mining facility was built here which has since been taken over by a Kurgan splinter sect.
Pim: Named after Yathrib's discover Captain Henry Pym, Pim's atmosphere was completely stripped away in some unexplainable cataclysm, though Ur ruins have been found on the surface. Some of those ruins are now said to shelter Sathraist pirates who prey on Kurgan space traffic to and from Otared.
Yathrib (Shepherd Moon): Yathrib is a small, dense planet around the size of Mars but with a gravity closer to that of Holy Terra. Its continents are mostly scattered around the equator, with one arctic continent and an antarctic archipelago. Unusual among terrestrial planets, Yathrib has a small, rocky ring just inside the orbit of its only moon, called the Shepherd Moon for the way it guards the holy planet's ring. The Shepherd Moon long was a hiding-place for Sathraists, though they have been largely driven off it; instead, the airless rock is now contested between the Known Worlds and the Kurgans. Within the last year, Imperial forces have gotten the upper hand, and now Shepherd Base serves as a roadstead for starships waiting for their window to land on Yathrib.
The Combine: The Combine is an unusually broad and dense asteroid belt that separates Yathrib's inner system from its outer system. Second Republic scientists believed that the Combine may have been formed from the collision of two or even three planets, and fragmentary Ur ruins on some larger asteroids give rise to speculation that the Combine's formation may have been linked to Pim's prehistoric catastrophe. The Combine is a hotbed of conflict in the system; only one reliable path exists through it, called the Strait of Antioch, created by a 'gravity shadow' of the gas giant Hatay. Starships must either pass through the Strait or make a month-long journey around the edge of the field at the mercy of pirates and raiders. Rumor has it that the Sathraists know other secret roads through the Combine, with a persistent legend holding that they have a great starbase hidden in the depths of the field.
Hatay: Lahab's largest planet, Hatay is a giant blue-green gas giant with over a hundred moons. During the Second Republic, the moons were heavily terraformed and sold as individual estates to the ultra-wealthy. Called "The Jewels of Hatay", these moons are now the scene of continuous battle between Imperial and Kurgan forces; indeed, some of the smallest moons have been artificially brought so close together that marauders can literally leap from one to another. The Kurgan Sultan of Hatay claims all of the Jewels from his palace on the emerald moon of Rinkopi, while the ancient Imperial dreadnaught 'Acropolis' has been permanently moored at the Coral Roads. The Roads are not far from one end of the Strait of Antioch, and they serve as a sort of base and staging-ground for Charioteer and crusader caravans headed to the inner system.
Zohal: Sometimes called 'The Black World', Zohal is a gas giant with an unusually low albedo and a series of narrow, icy rings with a dozen or so moons. Its purple-black clouds inspired early explorers, who established a way-station on its largest moon, but by the Second Republic faster starships left it a backwater. The Kurgan Caliphate has recolonized the sixth moon to serve as a fleet base.
Jackson: A small rock planet near the jumpgate, Jackson's surface is scarred and pitted by comets. Xenoarchaeologists speculate that it may have been artificially moved to its present orbit to serve as a staging ground for the construction of the jumpgate, though impacts have obscured any ruins that might remain. The Kurgans had a listening post at Jackson prior to the crusades; since then, neither the Caliphate or the Known Worlds have been able to keep a foothold.
People & Places
On most worlds, arrival begins when you touch down - but Yathrib is a world at war, and so my report shall start in orbit. Few vessels linger too near the planet, as the forest of skyward-pointed guns below make the skies a dangerous place and the planet's rocky ring makes navigation difficult in its vicinity. The most notable exception, of course, is the Kasbah, the Kurgan-held space station above the Holy City that commands the skies. Combined with Akko's city-spanning shield, the Kasbah makes a direct approach to the Shining Gulf dangerous, and so arriving crusaders must take one of two routes to the surface.
The safest route - the one followed by Prince Flavius with his crusade - is to enter the atmosphere near the southern pole, where arriving vessels need to wait the least amount of time in orbit for their destination to come into view. There, crusader ships land either at Hydessos, the antique al-Malik capital, or at Grand Duke Maximino's grand new citadel at Fallingfire.
I, however, took the most traditional - and dangerous - of approaches, coming towards Akko from the west across the Great Desert. My pilot brought us in over the eastern half of the desert, and we cruised over the dunes and the Mountains of Mourn before we had to drop low underneath the edge of Akko's planetary shield for a touchdown at Pilgrims' Landing. When I stepped off the ship, however, I was home.
Akko sits on the Shining Gulf, a narrow inlet on the eastern part of the supercontinent of Asher. Asher is mostly desert - the Great Desert dominates it center - and historically was balanced between the subcontinent of Chemosh on its far western shore and the Known Worlds remnants clustered around the gulf and Pearl Cities in the east. Now, the eastern half of the continent is the epicenter of the war fought between crusader and Kurgan.
Because of that, the Rock of Akko was for a century the last bastion of hope against the infidel, and when I see it still inspires a sense of familial pride. The city proper is terraced on the slopes of the Mount of Apples, with St. Godfrey's citadel crowning the top of the mountain. The rock is far more sheer to the north than it is to the south; the city spills down its southern slopes, but the northern escarpment is a thousand-foot-tall cliff, broken only by the Brother Battle hangar cut into the side of the mountain.
North of the rock is Pilgrims' Landing, still the primary starport of the planet. Before the Fall, Pilgrims' Landing was thousands of acres of maxicrete, hangars, and traveler's hostels to accomodate the millions upon millions of pilgrims who would come and go every year from the holy planet. Now, however, only a tiny fraction of the starport is in use; the rest is a rambling wasteland of rusting transports, hangars and warehouses. Some have become slums or even modest lower-class housing, while farther away the Landing becomes a truly dangerous place filled with desperate men.
Part of the southern part of the Landing - not far from the starport - has been cleared, however. After the Kurgan invasion, the Most Holy Archbishop of Revelation fled with his flock to the west bank of the Shining Gulf, and converted one of the largest hangars into Exodus Cathedral, the seat-in-exile of the planetary see. I have never seen a larger building than Exodus, which was designed to hold enormous landers. Now, its spartan interior has been covered with tens of thousands of home-made jumpgate crosses, each hand-crafted by a refugee from the Holy City. The Archbishop himself gives sermons from a pulpit in the center of the cavernous nave, his face and voice broadcast around the huge space on giant magic lantern screens.
Near Exodus Cathedral are the refugee camps. After the fall of the Holy City, my great-grandfather concluded the Peace at the River of Joy, which established eight refugee camps, four on the west bank and four on the east. Originally under joint administration, after the collapse of the peace the east bank camps fell under Kurgan control while the western camps still remain in Known Worlds hands. Three of the original four western camps still exist, and two are in Pilgrims' Landing: Camps Aleph and Beth, which have over the years grown together into a single shantytown separated by a deep, dirty ditch pierced by many crossings. The camps are fenced and walled, originally as much to keep too many refugees from flooding the city as for the refugee's protection. During the day, Muster guards allow people out for work or market, though they lock and guard the gates at night.
As a child, I had been to the camps surrounded by soldiers, but I went again to report on their present state - and I found there a quiet sense of pride and desperation. The areas closest to the ditch in both camps are the harshest, but in the 'camp centers' people lead ordinary, almost dignified lives. Stories are told constantly of how things were in the Holy City, and so-called "exodite" families who have left the camps still send money and aid to relatives still in the camps. The veneer of civilization is thin, however: the refugees depend upon food grants, largely, and Chainer slaving as well as other abuses are common. Proposals have been made on several occasions to settle the refugees in new places, but the staunch opposition of the exodite families - they demand a return to Revelation or nothing - have kept such plans from moving beyond a theoretical stage.
The true suburb of Akko's old city is the Foregate, which spreads out south like an apron from the foot of the Mount of Apples to the stockyards at the edge of the River Moss. At the east, the Foregate is bounded by the sea, while in the west it becomes larger and larger estates that turn to country in the village of West Goat. Parts of the Foregate still show the scars of war; during the Betrayal, the Kurgan army fought all the way through to the gates of the Old City itself, though a tactical decision on the part of the crusaders to fall back kept the damage mostly to looting instead of wholesale destruction.
The heart of the Foregate is the Spice Market, the de facto planetary agora since the fall of the Holy City. The Spice Market is an enormous bazaar just outside the Old City's gates, filled with a profusion of stalls and sellers. Running east from the market is a broad main avenue called the Drag which runs to the Quayside district, while Vaal Street runs south from the market to the stockyards and the county of Johburg beyond. Most of the Foregate is solidly middle- and working-class; it tends to be wealthier as it gets inland and poorer towards the coast. The Quayside itself is dominated by the enormous concrete New Pier, sticking out in the ocean nearly a half mile to allow the great passenger liners of eons pass to dock. Not far inland along the Drag is the infamous Club Jehan, a warehouse converted to a sort of nightclub popular among disaffected nobles and wealthy guilders. The Temple Avesti are always seeking to shut the club down, but so far its Scraver proprietors have kept it open.
Two districts are particularly worth mentioning. The Copper District, southeast of the market, is the heart of the guilds in the city; it is oriented around the ancient church of St. Paulus-outside-the-walls, reportedly the place where St. Paulus landed when he first brought the Prophet to Yathrib. St. Paulus' has always been the local church of Akko's merchants, and since reunification it has been adopted by the guilds. The pastor of the church - usually a liberal Orthodox or even an Eskatonic - is guild-friendly, and the church is maintained by the 'Lay Canons of Saint Paul Deveraux', a confraternity of leading guilders whose chapter hall is a primary meeting-house for the guilds. I can speak to the Chapter Hall's popularity; an old Eskatonic monk runs the associated brewery, and while he has had something different on tap every time I have been brought as a guest each time it has been excellent.
Across Vaal Street from the Copper District is a nameless ward of the city given over to sin and poverty. The center of the ward - off a particularly ill-reputed alleway - is the Arcade, a Second Repubic office building with an open first floor that has now become the city's night market. Scraver kingpins have offices and apartments in the Arcade's upper floors, and supposedly the sub-levels link to smuggling tunnels that run throughout the city.
The Old City
I must confess I had some dread in my heart, passing through the gates of the Old City. I had last been there with my late father, who had led the relief force during the Siege of Akko and died where the Spice Market stands - and though I attended his funeral, I turned my back on Yathrib that day to seek Your Majesty's service among the stars.
The city is as I remembered it, however: the broad main Esplanade zig-zags its way up the side of the Mount of Apples, and St. Godfrey's Keep sits proud as ever at the mountain's top. In the five years since I left Yathrib, forgotten banners - Lion and Mantis, Claw and Cross - have come to join the old familiar trinity of the Justinian gauntlet, al-Malik sunwheel and my family's De Moley rose. More nobles than ever stroll along the Esplanade, and the city has a sense of life and hope it lacked when I was a child. Still, most is the same: stately mansions look out over the city and the gulf, and inside the walls is still power and privilege. When I was a boy, this seemed natural, but now I wonder if we Lords of the Known Worlds do not separate ourselves too much from those whom we rule.
At the top of the Esplanade is the castle. I spent my youth within its precincts; my father, Count Joscelin, was seneschal to his brother Geoffrey, and so his apartments were within St. Godfrey's Keep itself. The Keep is an ancient fortification perched on the edge of the cliff, with its cavernous great hall containing a sacred relic: St. Godfrey's Throne, the hoverchair my sainted ancestor used in his final days. In generations past, the throne would be powered up and used for an annual procession during the Feast of the Warrior Saints, but now it is turned on only for the annointing of a new guardian.
Near the keep are the two main religious buildings in the castle - indeed, the Keep is the exception to the mount's monastic purpose. The Monastery of the Rock is the chief Brother Battle foundation upon Yathrib. On the surface, it is a relatively plain building, but it is like an iceberg: its few stories above ground hide a network of tunnels that riddle the entire mountain, with armories, dormitories and even a fully-functioning hangar hidden in the rock. The Master of the Rock is also ex officio the Bishop of Akko, and his cathedral in that capacity - the Cathedral of the Warrior Saints - faces the monastery. A beautiful building, it was rebuilt after a fire in 4312 in a neo-gothic style with high stained glass windows and delicate flying buttresses. In my youth, it was called the Cathedral of the Three Warriors, venerating St. Godfrey, St. Malcolm, and Jackson de Moley, but when recontact occured any mention of Jackson's sainthood was erased from official records. I wonder if the Brother Battle still privately venerate their third founder, but I know better than to ask. It is true that Jackson was a revered saint among many when I was a child; ironically, of all three of the Brother Battle's founders, he was considered the most clerical. It is no surprise that I have seen Saint Jackson shrines remain in churches the Patriach's decree has not yet reached.
The Shining Gulf
Akko is one of the major ports on the Shining Gulf, and while I had thought to make the crossing to the Holy City I was advised that there was fierce fighting going on. Instead, I talked to the fishermen who ply their nets daily - Kurgan piracy from Tyche is an increasing concern - and learned that the Sathraists still smuggle in copious quantities of selchakah.
Selchakah is a constant thorn in the side of the Known Worlders and a huge source of profit for the Sathraist Kingdoms. The Sathraists give the drug some religious significance, and the Kurgans - much more libertine than the Known Worlds - consume it as well. Cut-rate selchakah, however, is routinely smuggled into the crusader fiefs, where it wreaks havoc among laborers and refugees, tearing families apart. Some say the Scravers have made a quiet arrangement with the Sathraists to distribute the drug, while others say that the Scravers are presently cut out of distribution and are looking to muscle in on the market. For my part, I can say only that the drug is dangerous: while casual use
From Akko I set out north with a few boon companions to see the fiefs of the Cote-Leon. Yathrib's most famous natural predator is the Yathribi Lion, a saber-toothed cat reminiscent of some from Holy Terra's prehistory. While female lions live in prides with their cubs, male lions are solitary hunters - and, legend has it, one of these solitary hunters began to stalk the Prophet during his year on Yathrib. Legend has it that it came upon him sitting by a fire near the modern city of Leon; there, it crouched upon a rock and prepared to spring. The Prophet looked up at the cat, met its eyes, and then it humbled itself before him, a sign of the holy man's vision to come.
That rock is now enshrined beneath the altar of the Church of the Humble Lion in Leon, the leading city of the coastal region that takes its name from the Miracle of the Lion. While Yathrib lions are still a threat to mountain herders, the region is a reasonably prosperous one. Sheep and goats roam among the olive orchards, and citrus groves make their appearance in more wealthy fiefs. The coast is hilly, making most farms terraced and keeping yields lower, but in the flat areas millirice and wheat make their appearances.
The Cote suffered grievously during the Betrayal. Most of the local nobility were killed or displaced, and new crusaders claimed fiefs for themselves, sometimes on the basis of ancient and somewhat suspect claims. The peasantry suffered, too - some of them tried to resist and were crucified for it, while others merely saw their homes and crops raided. Even five years later, the region has not fully recovered.
The chief county in the Cote is the eponymous Leon; set a little inland, it is famous for its grapes, with a thriving wine-making industry. Auberry, to the north, is the other traditional county. It had been the domain of the Mortimer family, but Rutger Mortimer's defection in 4995 has left it with new tenants. Castle Mortimer remains on a bluff in Auberry, however, a brooding hulk staring north. The Count of Auberry also claims the county of Maleband across the Pass of Arrows. Maleband was once a pleasant county on the edge of the Great Desert, but the sands ultimately dried up its crops and the city was abandoned almost two hundred years ago, its heirs marrying into the Mortimers of Auberry.
The north end of the Shining Gulf is the delta of the River of Joy, Asher's largest and longest river. Situated on an islet close to the mouth is Castel Joyeaux, the Keep of Joy. For many years Joyeaux was a vassal of Leon, but since the crusaders arrived the lord of the keep has sponsored reconquered territory on the east side of the river. This territory - called Oultrejoyeaux - is the site of constant battle with the Kurgans, but it has succeeded at least in shifting the front away from the Cote-Leon. Now, the lion coast sees regular raids but fewer direct invasions, a needed respite since it is still rebuilding. Despite that, however, Kurgan chevauchees across the river are still surprisingly common, and most peasants keep a spear or bow close to hand to be prepared for defense. The counties support this with a system of armsmen; rather than keeping all of their soldiers in a central garrison, they save money and distribute their defense by making their soldiers military tenants in a sort of scheme of local defense.
I briefly crossed the River of Joy to visit an old friend, now the lord of one of the Oultrejoyeaux baronies. He told me that he was not sure if the promised land was worth it; every season, he sees Kurgan invaders, and it is only through sweat and blood that he maintains his lands. He had sadness in his voice when he talked of the brothers-in-arms he had buried, but when the conversation turned to the campaign season he got an unmistakable gleam in his eye. Pulling out maps, he showed me his plans in the spring to try to conquer a nearby Kurgan sheikhdom, and I could tell from his excitement that the promise of glory was worth the steep price of holding land on the frontier.
The Vale of Olives
Returning to Akko, I turned west, taking the High Road up into the Vale of Olives. The Vale is an incredibly fertile, productive valley that has never really known the touch of war, protected as it is by Akko on one end and Olivet on the other. Almost every acre is under cultivation, and I have been told that rich soil and excellent cultivation methods mean high yields. I noticed the difference between the peasants of the Vale and those of the Cote; in the Cote, farmers in the field kept an eye on the sky and weapons close to hand, and I could see where Kurgan bombing took its toll on mills and bridges. The Vale bore no such scars, though occasionally a shimmer in the sky would remind me that the planetary shields above Akko and Olivet kept the Vale safe from aerial intrusion.
Despite having a much smaller area than the Cote, the Vale has more people ruled by three proud counts. Once, the lower half of the Vale was entirely the domain of the Count of Childeric, but a bitter dispute between twin brothers hundreds of years ago divided the lower valley between Childeric-of-the-vines and Childeric-of-the-bees. While both counties produce honey and grapes, Childeric-of-the-bees remains more famous for its mead while its sister county's red wines are said to be excellent. Both Childerics are an old Justinian counties, but the Count of the Bees was recently slain. Now his wife, the dowager countess, has remarried to a Hawkwood lord, and now he is discussing marrying the late count's daughter to his son. Though the hatchet between the two Childerics was long ago buried, I have heard from friends that the Count of the Vines is now considering reasserting the ancient feud so that the Hawkwoods do not take over the other County Childeric.
Traveling up along the River Moss, I entered at last the County of Olivet and stayed a few nights at its eponymous keep. Count Walker Justinian greeted me; the canny old man is perhaps the second-most powerful lord on Akko, and he talked to me in uncomfortable terms about my uncle's health. Named after a long-ago Justinian who was Guardian of the Holy City, Count Walker is said to have been bitterly disappointed when he learned that the Justinians were no longer among the Royal Houses, and he has now set his sights on returning his family to those heights. He certainly has the acumen for it; without question, the Count is one of the most astute minds I have ever met, and when I left his study I felt as if he had gotten something out of our conversation I am not sure I should have revealed - even if I could not say what it is I should not have said.
Still, Count Walker has excellent cellars and is a gracious host. His grand-daughter Emilie was particularly kind to me, though when I told Count Walker my father renounced my family's place in the line of succession I suddenly saw much less of her. Hunting with the Count the next day I was instead subjected to grilling about the Emperor's court, with particular attention paid to his unmarried status.
Johburg and Cape Hattusas
After my pleasant stay at Olivet I turned south, avoiding Akko to journey towards Cape Hattusas, jutting out from the west bank of the Shining Gulf. At the tip was Camp Daleth, another of the refugee camps, which has now largely been turned into a military installation, though some refugees remain. Camp Daleth is home to the 'Three Sisters' - three giant City-Killers that rain artillery fire down on Kurgan forces across the gulf - as well as a powerful battery of planet-to-space weaponry. The portion of the camp still given to refugees was night and day when compared to the twin caps in Akko; fabricated housing in neat rows housed serious-faced families with their victory gardens, and the children who played seemed almost cheerful. Most of the refugees worked in some capacity for the Imperial military, and I am told there are several burgeoning villages on the Cape full of mustered-out soldiers who have settled down with refugees.
South of the cape is the seaside citadel of Johburg. Johburg and its vassals saw severl seaborne landings during the Betrayal, though the Johburg - the county castle - never fell. Towards the end of the invasion, however, the Burg was under siege for a year and a half, and it was not lifted until after the final battle at Akko. Five years later, Johburg is once again a seaside town, though watch-towers look out for Kurgan pirates for Tyche, which strike regularly at the fishing villages of the cape and the southern coast. The inland grasslands of the county have poor soil, though there are herds of cattle and goats that graze in the baronies under the shadow of the mountains.
The Count of Johburg also bears a traditional title as 'Lord of the Shining Gulf'; in years past, the county held sway over a profusion of isolated villages and islets on both banks of the Gulf reachable primarily by sea. Almost all of those have been lost, but the county still claims the title and various counts have suggested suzerainty over many coastal villages still properly belongs to them.
The East Bank
I did not immediately cross the Gulf to the eastern side, held as it is by the Kurgan, but I will say what I know: several 'emirs', the Kurgan equivalent of counts, hold lands near the Holy City, while there are three remaining refugee camps under Kurgan control. The fourth camp - Camp Zayin - rose up in an uprising in 4987, and the Kurgan burned the camp and decimated its inhabitants. That memory still hurts many of the exodite families who once called Revelation home.
Special note should be made of Tyche, however - this great city is at the southern mouth of the Gulf and is ruled by a Kurgan lord who calls himself the Caid of Tyche. The Caid only tenuously acknowledges the authority of the Kurgan leadership; a raider and pirate by trade, his city is the base none-the-less for much of the Kurgan sea power in the Gulf region. Tyche has a reputation as sort of a pirate's haven, and I had heard that many of the Kurgan mullahs wish to see a change of leadership in the city. Not too far off the coast from Tyche is the sunken St. Paulus' Port, which was once a floating starport built in the
Revelation, the Holy City
What can I say about the Holy City? Even in ruins - even after I have been to Mars, to Midian, to Holy Terra - it remains the site of the most singular event in history. It takes my breath away, even with rubble-filled streets and ruined domes. There, in Revelation, it seems as if providence is in the air, the very water - as if any of us might reach out and grasp the truth. Certainly, the city has in its history been home to many visionaries; it is a magnet for those who glimpse at the flame, perhaps, even if only one man has ever beheld it truly in its glory.
The city of Revelation was once divided into nine wards, named after the Prophet and his disciples. Hombor Ward, at the coast, linked to Pilgrims' Terminal, the great entry point for pilgrims crossing from Akko. In its heyday, the ward was filled with inexpensive hotels and apartment blocks, many of which were the scene of intense fighting when Imperial forces made a beachhead two years ago. Inland from Hombor Ward is the Soldiers' Ward and the Alien Ward; the former is in Known Worlds hands, while the latter is a no-go zone, with alien gangs - not covered by the Peace at the River of Joy - threatening those who cross within it. St. Lextius' Ward, the Prophet's Ward, and St. Paulus' Ward form a center strip across the city; St. Lextius' Ward is the site of the most contested fighting, while the Prophet's Ward is dominated by the Great Plaza and the shattered Basilica of the Revelation. St. Paulus' ward is in Kurgan hands, as is Maya's Ward and the Healer's Ward. The Scholars' Ward is the heart of the Kurgan occupation, with their local command based in the Horace Observatory, a tall tower in the center of the district.
I left for the city from the harbor in Akko, aboard one of the troop-ships that ferry new arrivals to the beachhead. The thirty-mile trip in an open-topped boat reminded me of old Magic Lantern shows I had seen of battles between rival Hawkwood lords in pre-First Republic times. At one point, Kurgan warplanes buzzed overhead, and the young Imperial levies I was traveling with ran to the machine guns on the boats, spraying bullets skyward to ward off the drone of the Kurgans.
We arrived at the old Pilgrims' Terminal. The Holy City was once divided into nine wards after the Prophet and his disciples, and the Terminal is in Hombor's Ward. I visited Marshal Cassius Lombard Hawkwood, who is the commander of the Imperial Legion entrenched in the city. He told me that the crusaders were comfortably established in Hombor's Ward and the Soldier's Ward, and that the current push was to contest St. Lextius' Ward with the Kurgans. I told him that I planned to try to make it to the center of the city; the Marshal shook his head at me but finally gave me a detachment of soldiers as an escort.
Sergeant Fulk commanded the fireteam that led me through the city, and he filled me in on the state of affairs. Fighting in Revelation is the worst kind of city-fighting, reminding him of the brutal fights on Byzantium Secundus during the Emperor Wars. Snipers constantly threaten, and the possibility of ambush out of ruined buildings kept soldiers on their toes. Fulk had few kind things to say about most crusaders - he felt most of the knightly retinues arriving on planet were woefully unprepared for the truth of combat, and confided that a new knight setting out in the city had a life expectancy measured in minutes.
We were headed for the Prophet's Ward, the center district of the city. Sergeant Fulk and his men led me on a roundabout route through the Soldier's Ward and then cut corners off of the Alien Ward. It is difficult to admit, but much of Revelation is not particularly attractive. Once, perhaps, the many apartment blocks had beautiful decorations - I have seen paintings suggesting it is so - but now, decades of shelling have reduced them to ruined maxicrete boxes. At one point, we had to hide when a Kurgan tank rumbled by, though Fulk noted that armor was rare in the city, though he spoke with pride how Imperial Kestrels had been able to use their hover engines to move past rubble blockades that block tracked tanks.
The Prophet's Ward
At last, we broke out into the Great Square, the enormous column-ringed central plaza off the Holy City. The enormous Basilica of the Revelation dominates the square, even though its gilded domes have been shattered by artillery fire. Sergeant Fulk warily took me across the plaza, its elegant cobblestones now scarred by craters, and I recalled crossing on horseback as a boy with my uncle when he briefly retook the city during the 'Golden Year.' The Lux Splendor ceremony held within the ruins of the Basilica moved me, and when I reentered the shattered cathedral I felt a stirring of faith once more.
The Basilica, even in ruins, is grand. While there has been some looting, many of the rich decorations remain intact, though the gilt is blackened by fire and the glass shattered into many pieces. Leaves blown from the basilica gardens carped parts of the floor, but in the moment I arrived a beam of light streaming down from the broken glass dome lit the altar in a puddle of radiance. I stayed there for a while to pray before I rejoined Sergeant Fulk, where I informed him that my companions and I intended to change into Kurgan clothing and cross into enemy lines.
The Sergeant was displeased, but some minutes of swearing later he relented, only to inform me that he would accompany me if I was to cross. He sent his corporal back with the fireteam and then moved with me as we crossed again the great plaza and then headed into Maya's Ward, picking our way towards the heart of the Kurgan military massed in the Scholars' Ward.
The Tower of Horace
It is a miracle that after so many decades of fighting the Horace Observatory still stands, but as one approaches the northwest part of the city it is unmistakeable. Built, I am told, of some Second Republic super-material, it is the headquarters of the Agha Ahwa, the Kurgan high command in the Holy City. The Scholars' District that surrounds it was once one of the most fashionable parts of the city, linked by rail to Iskandretta, and it remains remarkably intact. Here in the Scholars' District and the adjoining Healer's District is the only place where I saw something like ordinary life, with some streets recolonized by civilian inhabitants. The Kurgans carefully approve who is allowed to move to the Holy City, however, and all of the residents here are either immigrants from the Kurgan homeworlds or conversio refugees who have embraced the Caliphate faith.
Archbishop Alexander Station is the other dominant building in the Scholars' Quarter, the home to the many rail-lines that run from Revelation to Iskandretta. At one time, there were twenty-three separate lines; now, the Kurgans have between three and seven operational at any time. As we crept closer, Sergeant Fulk told me that there is a unit of fast-moving tankers who delight in cutting the monorails, though the Kurgans cannibalize one of the unused lines to repair their supply artery regularly.
My companions and I disguised ourselves as Kurgans - thankfully, one of my friends knows the language - and we snuck aboard one of the trains bound for Iskandretta. As we left the city behind, I could not help but feel a sort of sadness at what I had seen. The ruined glory of Revelation almost brought me to tears - once, this was the heart of the faith, and now we have ruined it in constant war.
Iskandretta and the Pearl Cities
The train ride north was not without incident. Just as Sergeant Fulk said, we were forced to stop where crusaders had cut the rails. We stopped in Qoms, a Kurgan emirate that was once one of the Prince-Bishoprics. I would have thought that the emir would occupy the old episcopal palace, but my translator told me instead that it was the home of the Sanjak-bashi. I had never heard of this sort of eminence before, but I was told he was a sort of governor.
We ultimately boarded a new train; for a little while longer, we were in the Pale, the region of now-scorched fields around the Holy City, but soon enough the fields gave way to sand and we were in the Ubari Desert. The dunes and mesas were frankly magnificent, but my breath caught when Iskandretta swam into view. The city spreads out like a crescent moon embracing the White Oasis, named for its pure white-sand beaches. The oasis is fringed by palm trees, its waters glorious blue, and at the center of the crescent - portions of it extending over the water - is the breathtaking, domed Crystal Palace, built in Second Republic times as a grand resort.