by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Consider the princess of the white city, Buromi, dark and stern. Her sister, Phenrum, is as luscious as a grape, but Buromi is ascetic, penitent, friendless. While Phenrum incites officers to duels in riverside establishments, Buromi sits alone in her tower, reading of saints and fakirs.

Yet it is Phenrum who will grow to be a wise ruler, who will keep her head when the Skalish invade the north, who will sponsor the arts and institute land reform. Phenrum pays careful attention to who thinks what about whom; she inspires loyalty more often than resentment, deals firmly with her enemies, and will be smart enough to let her best generals run the campaigns, to let lovely young scholars infatuated with Justice draft the principles of the land reform bill — but midwife, herself, a final version with the great landowners and the peasant party representatives.

The people will love Phenrum, speaking chidingly but with secret pride of her wild youth, for Phenrum is like them: a pragmatist, with no stomach for nonsense, who loves a friendly and orderly city and can throw a good party.

And it is pious, dutiful Buromi who will run away; who will ride at the side of the barbarian chieftain Chukrafideritochs; whose soft hands will wield merciless knives; whose quiet throat will erupt with the shrieking battle cry; whose virginal womb will bear the young of Chukrafideritochs, sworn enemy of the white city.

For Buromi will conclude — from her prayer and study, from hearing Phenrum laughing and trysting in the gardens below her tower, from wandering in the market in disguise, seeing the slave auctions, seeing the begging street children — that the city is a denial of death and thus is the antithesis of freedom. Buromi will conclude that the only good in human life is freedom, and the expression of passion. She will long for a people that divides its food equally among all, where any can win honor with courage alone; and she will conclude that surplus is the enemy of such honesty and good will, and that the city is nothing but a machine for the hoarding of surplus.

So in the harvest time, when the barbarians ride into the grainlands, when they burn the villages and take the farmers’ children and kill the farmers who resist, Buromi will be among them, pregnant, her hair unbound, riding bareback on a black charger, her long knife bloody and unsheathed. And the people of the city and its villages will hate Buromi, whom they used to revere when she was praying in her tower, who betrayed them and their idea of the world.

Phenrum will send her dragoons to kill Buromi’s husband and bring Buromi back in chains. But when they come back without her, having lost again the trail of the crafty Chukrafideritochs, sometimes Phenrum, for all her pragmatism and poise, will not be able to help herself. Sometimes Phenrum, queen of the white city, will quite inappropriately laugh with glee.

Benjamin‘s work has appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionStrange Horizons and Writer Online. Vist his Web site for more information.