The previous imperial capital before Sensuka, Okrona, had been built around a grand central square. The square’s vast size made it a fitting setting for the celebration of imperial triumphs, and also provided sufficient space for the imperial dragoons to gather up speed when charging unruly mobs. For indeed, the major downside of having such a large open space in the heart of the downtown was that it provided a natural rallying point for the occasional popular uprisings that are an inevitable inconvenience of big-city living.
When laying out Sensuka, the Emperor Bulodi I wisely decided that, to avoid this problem in his new capital, the centre of the city should include not one main square, but two, located in close proximity to one another. In this way, the Most Exalted One saw clearly, it would be very difficult for urban malcontents to focalize their disruptive actions. For it would always be unclear to the starved labourers or student idealists gathering in one square what exactly was going on at the same time in the other: A counter rally? A massive assembly of dragoons? Or, perhaps worst of all, could it be that their fellow citizens were going about their day as usual, in total indifference to their cause? Moreover, in accordance with a natural human disposition, there would always be a tendency for the crowd of protesters to suspect that the really decisive action at that moment was taking place in the square they were not presently in.
This unusual urban layout has proven a boon during more peaceful times as well, as it counteracts that feeling of disappointment that often occurs when one arrives in a spot reckoned to be the undisputed epicentre of a given city. The two squares encourage pleasurable strolling back and forth between them, always with the vague sense of excitement that comes with the feeling one is just about to get to the “centre of the action.”
II – View from Berino
The inconspicuously named 23rd Avenue in the outlying neighbourhood of Berino is blessed with one of the most spectacular views in all of Sensuka. The street runs along the crest of the high hilltop upon which Berino is situated, and then snakes its way downwards in a progression of wide curves in the direction of the city centre. On clear evenings, the sun’s dying rays fall upon the paving stones in such a way that 23rd Avenue appears as a curling ribbon of burnished gold, drawing the eye down towards the reddening tops of the city spires and to the shimmering sea beyond.
Berino is not a wealthy neighbourhood, however, far from it, and for the residents of 23rd Avenue returning home after another soul-crushing workday, one that in many cases began well before sunrise, this beautiful evening spectacle can sometimes seem more of an irritation than anything else. One has the slightly oppressive sense that one ought to stop for a moment and contemplate the view; its insistent magnificence appears almost to demand it. The glowing sunbeams seem to tap importunately at one’s shoulder, pestering for one’s attention.
And so one finally turns, and looks. It really is breathtaking, even after all these years. And there comes again that vague impression, the one we had once found so inspiring, that all of this beauty, laid out with such sumptuousness before us, constitutes a kind of homily, an exhortation perhaps to cast one’s sight on greater truths, on those grand, fundamental things that make life truly worth living. But what are they? Where are they? And what has the contemplation of this beauty ever given us, really? In the long run, nothing but bitterness.
III – The Cloud Oracle of Marikora
Rather than such messy and, when one comes to think of it, somewhat dubious sources of divination as are the reading of tea leaves and sheep entrails, in Sensuka the foretelling of future events is obtained through an altogether more pleasant and poetic method: the observation of cloud formations. This task is carried out by officially appointed priests, always of a very advanced age, who have dedicated their entire lives to learning how to accurately interpret the prophecies contained within the tumbling masses of cumulonimbi, or in the subtle colour degradations in a streak of cirrostratus.
Although cloud divination can theoretically be carried out from any vantage point, in Sensuka the official prophecies are obtained from the great cloud sanctuary of Marikora, located in the eastern suburb of Rilito. The observation of clouds takes place upon a raised terrace at the front of the sanctuary, overlooking the bay of Rilito. Predictions are carried out each morning, except those mornings in which the sky is too overcast to distinguish any individual prophecy (other than that it is going to rain, as the age-old cloud diviner’s joke has it). For a period of two hours, a diviner will stand in the middle of the terrace, perfectly still, and observe the passing clouds. The resulting predictions (which admittedly tend to be rather cryptic) are then inscribed in a huge leather-bound book that is kept in the interior of the sanctuary, where it can be consulted by the public. Transcriptions of the latest cloud prophecies are sent to the Emperor on a weekly basis, so that the Most Exalted One’s decisions regarding the vital matters of the empire may be made from as informed a perspective as possible.
IV – View of Rilito Harbour
The Sensuka suburb of Rilito is built around a fine harbour that has long made it a centre of the local fishing industry. In the last decade, however, the neighbourhood has acquired an unexpected fashionableness, owing to the curious aristocratic pastime of capestadiven -play acting as fishermen and fishmongers- that was made popular at court by the Emperor’s head concubine, Biruégh. Nothing now amuses the imperial courtiers more than to head down to Rilito harbour for the day, where they don extravagant “South Seas fisher-folk” costumes and set out on a specially appointed “fisher-folk barge”, amply provisioned with fine food and drink –especially drink. A few fishermen from Rilito are brought along to do most of the actual fishing, although the lords and ladies will occasionally take turns dangling a fishing rod over the side of the boat.
It is only when the merry crew returns to shore, however, that the real fun begins. The courtiers, usually in quite a lively and rambunctious mood by this point in the proceedings, will head over to the fish market stalls by the harbourfront. There they joyously take on the role of “fishmongers,” which mostly involves more drinking while treating the market-goers to loud praises of “their” catch –always amid a profusion of off-colour double entendres and other witticisms.
As all of the actual fish market stalls were deemed too unclean and smelly, Biruégh ordered the erection of a “South Seas” fish stall, built out of the finest imported woods, to be reserved for the exclusive usage of the lords and ladies of the court. The carved spires of this fanciful construction are visible on the right side of the picture. On the hilltop in the background one can make out the rooftops of the sanctuary of Marikora, in which the famous cloud oracle is housed.
V – Lisipéh Terraces
The Lisipéh Terraces take their name from Lisipéh hill, a rocky outcropping that rises steeply out of the narrow river valley upon which the centre of Sensuka is built. A century ago, owing to its forbidding topography, the hill was still largely uninhabited. The area thus constituted an untamed wilderness in the middle of the city that was much in favour with clandestine couples –both of lovers and of duellists. It was the Empress Kadoka who, partly with an eye to curtailing these sorts of activities, ordered the hill transformed into a vast public park, conceived as a series of concentric terraces rising up the slopes of the hilltop.
Where Lisipéh was once the destination of those wishing to escape from prying eyes, it has now become very much a place to see and be seen. On Sundays especially, its elegantly manicured terraces and walkways are thronged with Sensukans from all walks of life (Except those really undesirable walks of life as are kept out by the armed guards at the park entrances). Monumental marble staircases lead from one terrace level to the next. The statues of Emperors, Empresses and other notable Sensukans adorn the balustrades of the highest terrace, where they can be seen –if not, alas, see- for centuries to come.
VI – The Street Where The Girl Lives
In narrow Labera Street, just inside the city walls near the Geroro Gate, at the southern end of the city, lives the girl with whom one might at last find happiness. One can see her sometimes, reading or embroidering by herself on the second floor terrace of her home. One looks up at her when one passes, but of course one cannot linger too long –what will the passersby think? At most one can walk by a couple of times affecting the air of one who is slightly lost. And perhaps one is at that. Of course, she is far too young for one, not to mention far too beautiful, one doesn’t have a chance, really… and yet, theoretically speaking, it is not strictly beyond the realm of … one cannot pronounce it categorically impossible that she could… And that razor-thin sliver of hypothetical possibility is enough to drive one half crazy.
If she would at least look up from her book or her embroidery for a moment, maybe if one could just catch her eye, then… but doesn’t it show such a lack of curiosity on her part, such self-absorption, really, never even to look up every so often? She should pay attention to the world around her once in a while! Has she no interest whatsoever in her fellow creatures? Her and her stupid scarf! Really, who does she think she is? And meanwhile, every time one walks by and sees her, all the suffering it causes -Not that she cares! How one hates her.
VII – The Stairway to Nowhere at Tanalisca
Sensuka is a city of many religious orders, and contains within its limits an incredible number of sanctuaries, convents, monasteries, and missions. The monastery of Tanalisca is among the most famous of these, owing to the bizarre structure that rises in the middle of its extensive grounds, known colloquially as “the stairway to nowhere.” This towering stone construction is indeed a staircase, albeit one with the curious peculiarity that the steps, which are quite wide at the base, get progressively narrower as they go up, to the point that the last step, which faces onto a seventy-foot drop, is barely wider than a thumbnail.
The ascension of the stairway is treated as a spiritual exercise by the monks at Tanalisca, who will climb as many steps as their confidence in their own sense of balance -or lack of attachment to their material self-preservation- will allow. As the monks are fond of repeating, the structure should by no means be described as a stairway to nowhere: Its ascension will, at the very least, lead to a better understanding of one’s own limits, or, failing that, to the revelation of what awaits one beyond this vale of illusions.
(click on image to enlarge, and to see the frog, who has never given a single thought to the staircase, even though he lives next door to it)
VIII – A Neighbourhood Best Avoided After Dark
It’s a strange thing about those old narrow streets by the river in the eastern part of the Sofluri district. By day, the area is really quite picturesque and charming, with its cobbled passageways, its ancient doorways, and its lines of hanging laundry between the high stone buildings. But after nightfall… After nightfall, it becomes the horror land, the land of sordid and irreparable crimes, of flinching memories and sickening despair, of fathomless loneliness and dangling feet.
IX – A Neighbourhood Beauty Remembered: Narimoa in Peleosti
It is not uncommon in the older neighbourhoods of Sensuka to come across a narimoa, a monument to a local beauty. The majority of these statues were created around a century and a half ago, when the Emperor Bulodi III decreed the formation of neighbourhood councils to oversee the day-to-day affairs of the city’s various subdivisions. This development led to a renewed sense of neighbourhood pride, which in turn led to the widespread desire in each district to erect civic monuments that would testify to this sense of local belonging. The content of these monuments was left to the district councils, which were naturally composed mainly of old men. It was therefore inevitable that one of the local deliberations on this matter should conclude with the misty-eyed recollection of a particular local beauty who had driven the council members to distraction during their youth. Thus it was decided to erect a statue representing this girl, who had died or moved away long ago, as a kind of embodiment of everything the men held dear about their small corner of the city. This charming idea could not fail to catch on, and soon almost all of the local districts had their own narimoa (“local love”), as these statues came to be called, immortalizing their own fondly-remembered enchantresses. These narimoa, the products of a peaceful and generally happy –if at times somewhat melancholy- era, went out of fashion following the Seventeen Years War, after which time commemorative monuments to slaughtered young men became the preferred signifiers of local community spirit.
This timeworn narimoa in the central neighbourhood of Peleosti represents the daughter of a baker who had a shop in nearby Redina street. This was in the time when the district council members who ordered the statues’ construction had been children. The girl had been just a few years older than they were then, and how their hearts once used to contort with agony and anticipation –oh, that wonderful agony, where did that feeling go?- when their mothers would send them out with six shillings to buy a loaf of bread and s-six c-c-currant b-buns, please… n-n-n-n-no, t-thank you… t-t-that’s all…
X – The Convent of The Holy Virgin of The Most Pure and Sacred Heart
All foreign faiths are tolerated within the territory of the Empire, so long as they do not interfere with the ruling authorities in secular matters. Catholicism was introduced to Sensuka by Jesuit missionaries over two centuries ago, although the religion has never really caught on there. Nonetheless, the belief has taken hold among the wealthy classes that Catholic convent schools provide the ideal education for young girls. It is a common practice for the elite from all four corners of the Empire to send their daughters off to these institutions, which are thought above all to instill a desirable sense of guilt, paradoxically combined with total obliviousness as to “the ways of the world.”
The Convent of the Holy Virgin of the Most Pure and Sacred Heart in Sensuka is the pre-eminent of these educational institutions. The sisters who run it have taken every precaution to preserve their wards from any exposure to corrupting outside influences, having gone so far as have a moat constructed around the perimeter of the very high-walled and very small-windowed convent complex. All references to romance have been redacted from the books in the convent library, as well as any images depicting excessively handsome young male saints.
And yet, and yet, for all that… there will be times when the peculiar expression on a girl’s face will give a sister pause, and set her wondering.
XI – A Schoolyard in Peleosti
Not only time, but distance too, appears much extended when one is a child, and by a far greater factor than can be accounted for simply by one’s smaller size. In this view from within a schoolyard in the Peleosti neighbourhood, the play area extends over so vast a distance that the ground floor of the school building is partially hidden below the horizon.