Hot sun; dust in your mouth; the tang of blood in the air, the streets, the rivers, running through every crack and crevice in the land. There is no escaping it, not here, not now.
Flies blanket the streets in dark waves; their noise is a constant companion, even from this high up. The city is paved in stone, but only the barest evidence of this can be seen through the gore. You know that if you were to venture into the streets, you would be coated in it too. You can still feel the grime and decay from the march up here, sinking into your skin like ink. Your enemies view tattoos as punishment, their only purpose to identify criminals and slaves; it seems fitting that they give you one, too. An irreversible mark of your eternal shame. It’s imagined, nothing but memory and phantom grit, but by the gods, it’s heavy, heavier than anyone could envision, darker than they could believe. In time its weight will anchor you to this earthly plane, damn you to wander here forever, curse you by never letting you walk onwards to the blessed land of Mot. Mot, where your people await. Mot, where your family rests. Mot, the realm of the dead, whose placid paths you will never tread.
With eyes closed, it’s almost like you’re already there. The once-thriving city beyond the walls is deadly quiet, the palace you stand in hushed. It has never sounded so empty, so removed from its purpose. There are glorious statues and sculpted fountains and peaceful gardens, marble and rare stones covering every surface, a library with more tomes than your city had citizens. Grand reliefs depicting the stories of your predecessors, their actions right, or merciful, or wonderfully cruel, tales that had enchanted you in your youth. (You idly wonder if there will be a relief carved by your enemies depicting your own defeat, if their descendants will stare at it with wonder in their eyes and pride in their hearts; if those defeated by your ancestors wondered the same thing). There is no darkness in this palace, no space for sorrow. Every curve, every corner, every curlicue is an ode to light and glory and power. There is no forgetting, in a place like this, that the gods and the kings are the ones who rule the world, worshipped by meek and feeble servants. But this means nothing, now. You had been a god, yes, but all that remains of your subjects are the fly-smothered, bloated bodies littered through the streets below. All of it – every damn column, every cursed carving – is now for nought; there is no one left to impress, no gods remaining in this forsaken place. When you die – and you will die – there will be no one left even to remember its name.
You open your eyes and begin to move forward. There is a bench, carved from pure white stone, that faces a balcony with a view over the ravaged city. You walk towards it, nothing else to do but coolly examine the destruction. Worn leather and linen scrape battered skin when you sit, clothes stiff with sweat. Bruises flash at you, wounds weeping red and yellow from arms and thighs. You barely remember how they were received, when, where. Were they self-inflicted, from the hours you’d paced these walls in frustration before the surrender, from the previous night as you’d screamed and moaned and thrown yourself against the walls in despair? Were they from your terrified subjects, hurling themselves at you and scraping you with their nails, begging you to save them? Were they from the cold, unyielding battle-gear of the invading army as they pushed you back through the streets, uncaring as you stumbled over corpses and rubble? Or were they from the bodies themselves, candlesticks and eating utensils clutched in frozen fingers in a desperate bid for defence, swords thrust through guts and shoulders and limbs, cutting you as you fell? The memories ache, but you don’t feel the wounds. There is nothing to feel except the hot sun; the dust in your mouth; the tang of blood in the air; the stone beneath your feet, and the grime sinking into your skin.
You can do nothing now but sit and stare. The red flags that have snapped on the roofs and walls of the palace and the city your entire life, red flags that used to symbolise hope and home, have been ripped down, thrown into the streets and burned. Their flames still ripple now, enveloping the buildings and the bodies and the flies and leaving nothing but char and ash behind. The scent surrounds you; your skin crawls as your belly rumbles – you may be starved enough to feel this hunger, but you’re present enough to refuse to follow where it needs. Present enough to notice the other scents that are absent: the smell of spices and herbs from the markets, the sweet incense that wafted from the temples, the silk and gold perfume of the bustling courts. These will not return – the city will never again smell of anything but decay and dust.
The city. Not yours, not anymore. When all the men had been marched off to die in the desert plains that stretch from your walls to eternity, you had been lifted into sovereignty, the lives of thousands of people placed in your hands. You had vowed to protect and serve them. You had failed. The wrath of the gods had rained down in wave after wave after wave, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. They’d breached the walls in the early hours of the morning; it had taken until the evening to convince your personal guards to abandon their posts and avenge their families. By that time it was evident you had lost, that there was nothing to be done but surrender or die. The very walls that protected from invasion prevented any escape. In a last, desperate bid for salvation, you had marched down amid the destruction (men and women battling until their bones were cleaved from their flesh, then fighting on; children screaming as their parents were cut down in front of them; blood and death and wailing in every corner), and pleaded for mercy, offering your head, your surrender, if your people were spared.
But they were not merciful men. They were cruel and hateful, and they did not slit your throat when you had begged them to; neither were your people spared. You had been dragged through the streets, through the bodies and the blood and the grime, and up to the palace. Condemned to die there, wasted and ruined, gazing haunted at the aftermath of their rage. No companions but the hot sun; the dust in your mouth; the tang of blood in the air; the stone beneath your feet, and the grime sinking into your skin.
The ground is covered in bodies, and you are the only living person for a thousand miles. The flies buzz while you sit and wait for the end to come.