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The White City

Consider the princess of the white city, Buromi, dark and stern.

Her sister, Phenrum, is as luscious and lascivious as a grape, but Buromi is ascetic, penitent, friendless. While Phenrum incites officers to duels and gambles in riverside establishments until her father’s dragoons arrive, Buromi sits alone in her tower, reading the lives of saints and fakirs.

Yet it is Phenrum who will grow to be a wise ruler, who will keep her head when the Skalish troops make incursions in the north, who will sponsor the arts and institute a moderate and successful program of land reform; for Phenrum has a head for politics. She pays careful attention to who thinks what about whom, she inspires loyalty more often than resentment, deals firmly with her enemies (but without spite), and is smart enough to know where she is not smart: she will let her best generals run the Skalish campaigns, let lovely young scholars infatuated with Justice draft the principles of the land reform bill—but midwife a final version from the meetings 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 to join the barbarians, 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, chiefs to be of the barbarians, sworn enemies 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—Buromi will conclude that the city is sick at its heart, 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 uninhibited expression of passion. She will long for a people that divides its food equally among all, where any can win honor and a mate with wit and courage alone, and she will conclude that surplus is the enemy of such honesty and goodwill, 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 of the south, 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, who they feel they know, who they used to revere when she was alone in the tower praying, and who betrayed them and their idea of the world.

And it is with a heavy heart that Phenrum will send the mounted dragoons to search for her sister, to kill Buromi’s husband and bring her back in chains. And when they come back without her again, 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.