Painting by Makis Warlamis
There once was a city named Jarr, deep in the heartland. It was small for a city. More like a town, really. Not even a large town. But since they’re the good guys in this story, I’ll go ahead and let them call it a city.
One day the daroen who ruled Jarr learned that an enemy army was approaching. It was plowing through the countryside on the way to plunder—let’s be honest here—larger and more valuable cities. And who led this army? None other than Paero the Angry.
The daroen was worried. Her city’s weak walls would be no use against such a dangerous warlord. Luckily for her, a powerful wizard happened to be staying in Jarr and was willing to offer his services.
The daroen asked the wizard if he could fight off such a big army.
“Not for long, I’d say. Not even with your forces helping me.” The wizard gestured to her top officers, both the young gangly one and the short grizzled one. The wizard thought the second one could use the assistance of a cane, but he didn’t want to dampen their spirits any further.
“Could you cast protection spells to strengthen our defenses?”
“I could, but how long would we last in here during a siege? Paero the Angry won’t just walk away if he can’t get in.”
“Could you make the whole city disappear? Maybe they’d just march right past.”
“Too many people know that Jarr exists for that to work. But wait… That gives me an idea. Let me try something.”
Two days later, the wizard came back, smiling. He had a plan to save them all. The daroen and her people listened intently as he explained everything he needed, and everything they had to do. Then they each rushed off to get started, surprisingly efficiently and quickly, even the old officer with the limp.
A week later, Paero’s army marched over the horizon. As the wizard instructed, everyone in Jarr went inside their homes and stayed very, very quiet. They didn’t even peek out to see what was happening, despite being very, very curious. Well, except for the daroen and her officers, who kept watch.
Paero’s scout brought him the odd news about the city.
Paero yelled, but only at his usual yelling volume. “What do you mean? Is this city Jarr there or is it not?”
“It’s there, sir, but it’s, well, not where it’s supposed to be.”
“Talk sense, boy!” Paero slapped the scout, as this is how his father had tried to put sense into him. “Where is it?”
“Floating, sir. In the air, sir.”
“Well, where else would it float? Don’t be such an idiot!” Having exhausted his argumentative strategy, Paero slapped the boy again.
It occurred to the scout that a city might float on a lake. Which was even more likely than floating in the air, come to think of it. But he kept that idea to himself and instead ran away before Paero could slap him again.
Paero ordered his advisors to examine the floating city.
The tall man said, “It has strong deflective properties, my lord. I tried shooting lighting and fire at it, but the attacks landed, uh, in the wrong places.” He shifted his feet, hoping Paero wouldn’t connect his magical weapons test with the unexplained deaths among the troops.
The skinny woman said, “It moves at will, my lord. I flew all around it, but no matter where I went, it always kept out of reach.” She gritted her teeth in frustration. She knew she wasn’t that good at flying, but to be bested by a city was too embarrassing to bear.
The old woman said, “I don’t know what you’re all talking about. I don’t see any city, floating or not!” She glared at the other advisors as though she thought they were crazy and incompetent, which she did.
Paero ordered them to keep studying the city, but they made no more progress. The next afternoon, he heard a great uproar outside his tent. When he looked out, everyone was pointing and shouting. The floating city was moving, heading off toward the hills.
Paero added his shouting to the others, who immediately stopped and let him shout the loudest. “Stop that city!”
The soldiers, not wanting to annoy Paero—they were the ones who first nicknamed him “the Angry,” after all—immediately shot a hail of arrows at the city. Most of the arrows rained down on their own troops somehow, to predictably disastrous effect. Paero told them to jump. The city was far too high to reach by jumping, but once Paero had commanded it, that became irrelevant. The soldiers got running starts and jumped as high as they could, over and over, so that Paero would see that they were following orders. This may sound silly to you, but they figured this wasn’t a bad order, in the broader scheme of Paero’s orders. None of them were dying from jumping, after all.
Finally, Paero admitted that these methods weren’t working, so he tried something else. “Follow that city!”
The soldiers ran after the city, waving their swords as high in the air as they could and yelling war cries. The city had already disappeared over the first hill, and they knew that if they lost it—actually misplaced an entire city—Paero’s wrath would be unrivaled.
Everyone else frantically packed up their gear and tents and supplies and piled them onto the donkey carts.
Back in Jarr, the daroen waited for the last cart to crest over the first hill and then waited an hour longer, just in case. She found the wizard sitting cross-legged on the floor of his room with his eyes closed. Knowing better than to disturb a wizard when he was concentrating—or sleeping, either way—she crept back out and posted a guard on the door.
The next morning, people cautiously ventured around the city, still staying quiet, worried that the enemy army would return. They whispered about what they had heard and seen and what they thought had happened. By that evening, the number of contradictory stories and theories had multiplied to exactly equal the number of people living in Jarr.
Finally, the wizard emerged from his room. The first thing he did was eat, shoving overflowing handfuls of food into his mouth as fast as his teeth could chew. The second thing he did was eat some more, and the third thing too. The fourth thing he did was take a nap, right there at the table. The fifth thing he did was talk with the daroen.
The daroen was understandably concerned that Paero and his army would return. The wizard reassured her that he had lured the enemy into a forest filled with giant spiders, meaning that Paero and his army had other things to worry about for the time being.
The daroen got all the praising and the thanking out of the way next.
The wizard chuckled. He stroked his beard and chuckled some more, indulging himself, letting the people clap a while longer. It honestly had been a very clever trick, and took an awful lot of magic to pull off. A less experienced wizard couldn’t have done it. And everyone had survived, too. A truly excellent result. He deserved a good long round of applause. He chuckled again, and waved to the appreciative crowd to keep going, but eventually they stopped clapping.
The daroen then turned to the questioning. “I was watching from the tower, and their soldiers and wizards came right up to the side of the wall and then veered away.”
Other people started adding that they’d seen the same thing, or seen a different thing, both of which were of course impossible, since none of them had been at the city walls. The daroen hushed them.
“I heard them saying they were walking under the city. Were we really floating?”
The wizard shook his head. “No, that was an illusion.” The daroen nodded. Just a little nod. Not nearly the result he was hoping for. He cleared his throat and tried again. “A huge, incredibly difficult illusion.” The daroen gasped. She elbowed her officers, and they gasped too. The gasp moved around the room, like a wave.
When the gasping had stopped, the daroen asked for more clarification. “But how could they think we were up there and not notice that we were down here? How can this be?”
The wizard paused meaningfully, tugging at the end of his beard for emphasis. “You can never assume you are where you think you are, or that the people around you are as near or far as you believe, or that what you imagine you see is true.”
The daroen seemed appropriately impressed by this. “Your magic must be very powerful to do that.”
“Oh, no. I meant that your own mind fools you, in ways you never even realize.” He grinned a wide, profound wizard grin. “That’s why illusions work.”
Everyone nodded sagely, considering his words. The wizard perked up in anticipation of more applause, but this time he had to make do with the nodding.
Well, that’s the lesson of the story. I guess I should wrap it up now. If you didn’t catch the lesson, go back and read the last few lines, I don’t mind waiting. There were some other bits I skipped over, like how hard it is not to shout at your enemy when he’s right outside your gate, even when the wizard told you it would doom his entire plan and kill everyone. And how stupid it is to work for someone whose nickname is “the Angry.” But I think we all got the basic gist.
So the next time you see something that seems highly unlikely, think about your perceptions and your assumptions and how easy you are to fool. You might believe you’re walking under a floating city, when really, your mind is playing tricks on you. Unless you’re actually walking under an actual floating city, which I wouldn’t recommend, as you might learn a lesson about how cities deal with their waste water. It’s probably a good idea to contemplate these issues from beside the floating-or-maybe-not-floating city, not under its drainage zone.
Personally, my philosophy is to not believe anything I see. It doesn’t save me any time, in the long run, but I like the sense of consistency. It’s up to you.
Okay, well, I thought this was done but I see that you’re still reading. Apparently I have to do this the hard way:
There, now go home.
Written for Jane Dougherty Writes’ Microfiction challenge #22: Utopia Ark. This is a lot longer than most stories I post, and I’m not even sure it counts as microfiction, but this is how long the story wanted to be, so I just let it do that.