[Fiction] Strife in the citadel: a Syntax Sam adventure

This is the second story in the adventures of my character, Syntax Sam! If you want to read the first one where he is introduced and squares off against the frightful threat of Bad Grammar, check it out here.



OriginalCharacterAmyChibi sketch cropped

The Kingdom of Words is not a warlike place.

For the most part, its inkborn citizens go about their scripted lives in peace: eating, talking, sleeping, dying, on and on until their paragraphs dry up and they crumble into sticky residue. Battles break out, sometimes; squabbles between adjacent works over stray adjectives that creep into their breakfasts or heated arguments interrupting normally tender scenes.

There was a famous case just a few years ago when the battle roar of a horde of plundering Visigoths escaped from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and startled poor Mithridates the Great as he made a ritual libation to his gods, causing him to spill the sacred wine and ruin the solemn ritual. What a mess! The Anatolians blamed their subsequent loss to Pompey upon the Gibbonites, and it took the intervention of the Bon Mot Monarch himself, lord of the Kingdom of Words, to settle the resulting conflict. These sort of occurrences are rare, for the most part, and we’re thankful for it.

Then, too, there is crime, for no land as vast, sprawling and diversely populated as our Kingdom of Words is free of individuals seeking to profit at others’ expense. But here as well we’re fortunate because perpetrators are quickly and efficiently dealt with by the kingdom’s dauntless defenders, those feared and fearless Well-Phrased Knights. It is said that no comma splice or mischievous ellipsis is left standing when a Well-Phrased Knight has passed and it is only in the direst of cases, like Bad Grammar’s rampage a few months past or the Scribbling, that the Bon Mot Monarch is forced to call out his most dangerous agent to preserve the peace. When Syntax Sam roams the land, it is a sign that something, somewhere, is amiss.

‘Hello, there! I wish to speak with the Editor!’

Syntax Sam gazed up at the black walls of the Citadel, desperately holding down the edges of his purple knee-length skirt so the wind wouldn’t flip it up. Down here in the Narrowminded Valley, the wind was truly ferocious, channeled by the steep bluffs of Wuthering Heights on one side and Great Gorges of Europe on the other. Despite this, the stiff corrugated cardboard walls of the Citadel did not so much as shiver in the furious breeze, though further down the gusts were playing havoc with the assembled tents of the Well-Phrased Knights that stretched across the mouth of the valley. Sam somewhat regretted his choice of clothing — despite the long striped socks he wore, his legs were freezing.

‘Anyone there?’

Just as Sam was about to give up and abandon the diplomatic approach altogether, a scruffy-looking fellow with a drooping mustache thrust his head out between the cardboard crenelations and glanced down, searching for whoever was making all the noise. Before Sam could utter a word, the curious little man’s gaze fell upon him and he yelped, pulling his head sharply back through the gap and out of sight. From up atop the walls came a muffled exclamation, followed by several voices talking rapidly over one another.

Sam frowned, wondering whether he should call up again, but a moment later the scruffy fellow’s head reappeared, this time joined by those of three of his comrades, their helmeted noggins dotting the walls like mismatched bobbleheads. From the way in which their faces barely cleared the battlements, Sam judged that either the soldiers were extremely short, or the crenelations were comically high. Then again, it could just be the perspective: the floor of the valley sloped gradually up as you got deeper in, and the Citadel was strategically placed about halfway down the length of the valley, making it very difficult to assail from the front.

‘Yes, hello! Is the Editor in? I’ve come on behalf of the Bon Mot Monarch.’

At the mention of the Monarch’s name, the strange-looking soldiers exchanged a few dubious glances. One of them, the original fellow with the drooping mustache, spoke aloud, in short, clipped tones.

‘What message?’

‘The Bon Mot Monarch desires a peaceful resolution. He is willing to negotiate terms with your leader, the Editor.’

The fellow scowled suspiciously, but responded, still in that same abrupt manner.

‘One moment. Wait, please.’

As one, the four soldiers pulled their heads back through the crenelations, vanishing from view. There followed another muttered conversation, but Sam’s attention was distracted by a freezing buffet of wind that brought goosebumps to his arms and nearly tore the fabric of his skirt from his grasp. He shivered. This was getting ridiculous! It was high time to do something about this damn breeze.

Relinquishing his grip on modesty with one hand, Syntax Sam pulled out the beautiful blue-and-white marbled fountain pen from its sheath in the bracer on his left forearm and held the back end to his lip, considering. After a moment’s thought, he nodded to himself and began to write in the air, turning slowly in a circle as vivid purple ink flowed from the pen’s tip to hang, shimmering, in mid-air. As he finished the sentence — written out in loopy, barely legible cursive — and finished his slow pirouette, the words shone brightly for a moment before fading to a barely noticeable purple haze that engulfed him.

Immediately, Sam felt warmer, the previously stinging gusts eddying around him as they were gently shunted to either side by his protective shell. He let go of his skirt completely and stretched, relishing the tingle in his arms and legs as feeling returned. He didn’t let his hair out of its tight ponytail, though — his long hair had a tendency to fall all over his face and get in his mouth even in the absence of gale-force winds, something he could do without right now. Aware of something happening up near the Citadel, he quickly re-holstered the pen, making sure that the straps holding it in place were secure, and looked up.

While Sam had been busy making himself more comfortable, the strange little soldiers had obviously been getting things done, because now the reinforced cardboard gate was slowly opening with the unmistakable, grinding shoof of heavy-duty paper machinery. As it was pulled up into some hidden recess above, the dour form of Sam’s mustachioed friend came into full view, accompanied by a dozen other soldiers wielding sharp folded-paper spears who looked about, obviously scanning the hillside to make sure that Sam was indeed alone.

As he struggled up the hill towards the entrance, he realized that the guards’ small stature had not been merely a trick of perspective: every one of the defenders was very, very short, maybe only a half to two-thirds as tall as Sam himself. Consequently, as he strode up to the impatient little fellow with the mustache and the guards closed ranks around him, he found it hard to take them seriously, even knowing that their spears were no joke. Each spear was easily as dangerous as the huge ink-woven blades favored by the Well-Phrased Knights.

‘Follow. The Editor will see you.’

Without waiting for a response, the little man marched off, his helmet bobbing somewhat disconcertingly before Sam, who trailed behind, feeling like a giant in amongst the diminutive soldiers. The interior of the Citadel was not as forbidding as its rough black exterior suggested; after passing through the main gate and a narrow passage where curious faces peered down at them through murder holes, Sam and his entourage emerged into a wide open courtyard with individually gated sections leading off to other parts of the complex.

This did not feel like a fortress gearing up for war, for while there were a lot of the Editors’ small soldiers manning various posts armed and armored, there were also squat civilians scurrying around, relaxing, talking idly to each other, or staring at Sam’s group as it marched by. It was reassuring to see that even with a full regiment of Well-Phrased Knights camped further down the valley, the Editor did not believe he was in danger of an imminent attack, and Sam caught glimpses of ordinary life unfolding through open gateways.

It was disarming, even if the Citadel’s tiny inhabitants made him feel like he was Dorothy among the Munchkins.

As they pressed on towards the central keep with its huge pennant bearing the gilt scissors and crumpled paper emblem of the Editor, Sam realized what had been bugging him. Unlike in almost every other part of the Kingdom of Words, here he could not place what genre or even literary denomination the Citadel’s residents belonged to. Normally, the geography of the kingdom resulted in neighbors sharing some broad category at least — two adjacent books might both contain historical figures, for example, or even be horribly overwritten to the same degree — but here there was a mishmash of characters drawn from all over. Half of the Editor’s guards (including Sam’s small grumpy friend) had the dark skin and hardened countenance of Spanish conquistadors, but among the rest Sam spotted a grinning skeleton with a bandanna, a roguish teenager with a lopsided smirk, and an anthropomorphic badger fresh out of Redwall. The only thing they all had in common was their height.

‘No weapons, yes?’

Sam realized that the small mustachioed man had stopped outside the gate to the keep and was looking at him expectantly. He took a moment to catch his breath from the climb before responding.

‘Weapons? No, none.’ It was true. Ordinarily Sam would at least have the little bag of toughened paper-fiber darts that he carried just in case, but today he’d reasoned that he wouldn’t need anything more than the fountain pen strapped to his left forearm. Or so he hoped. The little man nodded.

‘We check.’ At a gesture, two other guards stepped forward and Sam spread his arms patiently, allowing them to conduct a quick search. Satisfied, they stepped back, though not without a wary glance at his pen. Obviously, the name of Syntax Sam was not unknown to them.

‘OK. Follow, please.’

Without any visible signal, the reinforced cardboard door of the keep swung ponderously open, and half of Sam’s escort peeled away, presumably to attend to more pressing duties elsewhere. Inside the keep, a set of steep stairs greeted him and Sam nearly groaned. More climbing! You would think the Editor would get sick of trudging up and down all the time, though he supposed that’s what you got when you built your whole walled city on a big old hill.

As they climbed, they passed landings with doors on the left and right which led off to other parts of the keep, and more and more of Sam’s escort filtered away. Mercifully, at the top of the stairs the ground flattened out leading towards a pair of ornate double doors which stood slightly ajar. By this time the group of a dozen soldiers had been whittled down to just Sam, the mustachioed man, and the skeleton. Sam bent over a bit, pressing his skirt to his knees and panting from exertion. For the first time, the little man, who seemed unaffected by the climb, allowed himself a self-satisfied smile.

Then a commanding voice came from within and he snapped to attention, face settling back into a dour scowl.

‘Enter!’ The skeleton stepped forward without prompting and swung open one side of the massive doors, which were easily three times as tall as his small frame. The mustachioed man gestured him forward and fell into step beside him.

As Sam entered the room, half-propelled by the soldier, he noticed a tall grey-haired man in a distinguished robe sitting behind a beautiful mahogany writing desk that stood atop a raised dais in the center of the room. A rich black carpet splashed with patterns in swirling white covered the floor, in stark contrast to the bare worked stone of the rest of the keep, and braces of lit waxed paper tapers added mood to the room’s soft electric illumination. Bookcases lined three whole walls, but only some of them held books — the rest held a vast array of intricate origami figures: cats, elephants, castles, trees, hundreds upon hundreds of them in all shapes and sizes. One of them Sam recognized as a gigantic cut-paper scale model of the Citadel, complete with tiny guards lining the walls.

The man was carefully cutting at something with a huge pair of gilded scissors, making deft snips and clips with astonishing speed. He glanced up briefly as Sam and his guard entered the room, but did not pause in his cutting.

‘Thank you, Cipriano. You may leave us.’ Cipriano saluted and spun on his heel, shooting Sam a warning glance as he hurried from the room and closed the door behind him. It shut with a muffled thump. The Editor’s eyes had returned to his work but he addressed Sam now.

‘Please, bring a seat. Make yourself comfortable.’

‘Thank you.’ Sam searched the room until his gaze fell upon a few stately chairs sitting beside the entrance. He hefted one up and lugged it over to the raised dais, lowering it to the ground in front of the Editor’s writing desk with a bump that was absorbed by the thick carpet. He took a seat, watching the Editor snip away at the paper with incredible speed. The paper was just a blur in his hands and he couldn’t work out what it was supposed to be. After a moment, the Editor spoke.

‘Welcome, Syntax Sam, to my Citadel. I hope the climb wasn’t too arduous?’

‘No, not at all. Though — if you don’t mind me asking — why are all the Citadel’s inhabitants so… so…’

‘Short?’

‘Well, yes,’ Sam said, feeling awkward for asking. The Editor chuckled, shaking with mirth though his hands remained perfectly steady in their task.

‘Stories are curious things, Sam. Too often they are bloated with description, weighed down with their own self-importance. As the Editor, it’s my job to cut them down.’ He clacked the scissors loudly in the air as if to emphasize his point.

‘So, what? You edited down your own followers?’

‘An adjective here, a paragraph there. You’d be surprised how many characters are burdened by unnecessary descriptions that neither develop them as characters nor advance their storylines. All I do is relieve them of that burden. And if a few inches of worthless padding are lost in the process, what of it? They are better off this way, and grateful.’ Sam stared, horrified.

‘But… but why do you get to choose what’s necessary? You’re talking about determining what’s worthwhile about real characters here! What lets you decide?’ The Editor ignored him for a moment, making a few final snips before gently laying down both scissors and paper on the table. He looked up at Sam, and his expression turned unfriendly and his eyes cold.

‘I am the Editor. It is my job to decide.’ The Editor meticulously brushed the paper scraps from his desk into his hand, depositing them in a small wastepaper basket already half-full with scraps. ‘Now, do you have any actual business here or did you just come to tell me what I can and cannot do?’ Sam swallowed his indignant response. This meeting was far too important to ruin with his own prejudices. He nodded respectfully to the man across the desk.

‘My apologies, Editor. As you know, the Bon Mot Monarch has become concerned about your continued refusal to surrender the fugitives who have sought refuge in your Citadel. He fears that you are setting the Citadel up as a state exempt from the laws governing the rest of the Kingdom of Words.’ The Editor looked bored, picking up the paper he’d been cutting and folding it with rapid, practiced movements.

‘And what if I am?’ Sam remained silent, not daring to speak. ‘The Bon Mot Monarch’s reach has become overbearing lately. The lack of serious challenge to his authority — something aided in no small part by you, I might add — has given him the sense that he can do whatever he wants, however he wants, especially with those private thugs the Well-Phrased Knights to back his every whim. His laws have become absurd and his reign erratic, and that, Sam, is why I oppose him. He needs to be reminded that he is not all-powerful.’ Sam was torn, especially because there was a glimmer of truth in the Editor’s words. The Bon Mot Monarch had been acting somewhat strangely of late… but no. That was another matter, and the cold-hearted Editor could not be allowed to threaten the integrity of the kingdom. Sam tried to steer the conversation back into safer waters.

‘I have been authorized to grant concessions in return for the fugitives. The Bon Mot Monarch is prepared to –‘ The Editor laughed scornfully over him, setting his completed paper figure upright on the desk between them. It was a crude paper facsimile of the Bon Mot Monarch, ridiculously exaggerated.

‘Listen to you! Do you think this is about some measly concessions, Sam? It’s about freedom from pointless tyranny! Your “fugitives”, as you call them, came to me because I am the only person in this kingdom not blind to what’s going on. I offer them sanctuary from the Monarch’s irrational laws, and if the price of admission is a few worthless descriptions chopped off here or there then it is a price they’re happy to pay!’ The Editor was agitated now, and Sam leaned back in his chair, away from the anger in his eyes.

‘I am willing to do what it takes to bring this kingdom back down to reality. And if that involves toppling the Bon Mot Monarch from his throne and instating someone sensible instead, then so be it!’ The Editor reached across and flicked the little Bon Mot model, which fell over and lay rather forlornly on its side. Sam couldn’t believe what he was hearing — the Editor was completely unhinged. He pushed back his chair and stood up, glancing down at the sad little figure of the fallen monarch.

‘What you are talking about, sir, is treason. If this is your response then it will inevitably come to blows, whether that is your wish or not. I beg you to reconsider.’ The Editor scowled, slowly bringing his palm down on top of the paper monarch, deliberately grinding it beneath the heel of his hand.

This is my response, Syntax Sam. Convey my utter lack of regrets to your master. Cipriano will see you out. Cipriano!’ Cipriano must have been lurking outside because the door swung open instantly, and Cipriano stepped in with a group of guards, their spears lowered and ready for trouble. Sam sighed, stepping down off the dais and looking back sadly at the enraged Editor in his stately blue robe.

The Kingdom of Words was not a warlike place, but like it or not, war was upon it.

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