Between two mountains, amid forests as green as imperial jade, rises the sacred city of Karthal.
When a traveler sets his eyes on Karthal for the first time, he is immediately impressed by its unearthly, feminine beauty, which can be described as moon-like and is further enhanced by an azure mist hanging over its narrow streets on late afternoons like a veil of blue cloud.
He will admire the city’s buildings, made from a smooth, pale stone. Most likely, he will praise its technological inventiveness: its telescopes, hydraulic engineering and waterwheels, and will come to learn from a friendly market vendor – selling wares from flutes to carpets to necklaces of phantom quartz – that the name of that blue river over there, running through the city until it reaches the terraced rice fields, is the River of Crystals.
Our traveler will find clues which speak only to the city’s charm: shy women with amber skin and waist-length hair, strong houses built by great stonecutters, two libraries, an open-air theatre, public gardens with fountains, sundials and endless trees carrying fruit free to be picked by anyone.
Yet for the pensive observer, the city has a peculiar atmosphere, as if its story were half-revealed. And if one happened to stay there for more than five days, one would realize that it was an illusion, a disappointment, and be overcome by an urgent need to leave. Indeed, Karthal is a sad city, and its citizens live in a kind of quiet fear inexplicably different from that of other cities nearby, where living conditions are much harsher and there are armies of rats.
You still recall when you first walked through its streets and overheard the music of a lyre floating from an open window on the breeze. It seemed so utopian that morning when you glimpsed it from afar, like a half-hidden lunar jewel, glinting amid cloud and pine.
But beyond the picturesque stone buildings built in the style of “the architecture of the moon” and “the architecture of the sun” – both inspired by the aesthetics of sacred geometry – there is something that you feel is quite wrong. Perhaps it is because it is only six o’ clock and the streets are silent and deserted, except for an owl or two.
Perhaps, you think, you should return to that friendly market vendor tomorrow and, in a low whisper, ask her some questions. But you would be wasting your time, for you will not find her again. And were you to ask another of her beautiful neighbors, no matter how kind and smiling, she would not give you the knowledge you crave. She would not tell you what she thinks or feels, nor share with you the mysteries of her city, for she herself has never dared to question the ways of Karthal and the “Vigilence”, maintained by the secret Guides – the one hundred and twenty rulers of Karthal – for more than a hundred years.
by Zeina Hechme