“The flag has too many crosses on it,” said Alexei.
“What do you mean?” asked Feodor, barely looking up from his work. “It’s got eleven crosses. There’s one for each of the city-states that founded the Empire, you know that.”
“Look at the flag,” said Alexei. “It’s got twelve crosses.”
They were sitting in a large room at the capitol building, one that happened to be empty when the inquiry was launched, and had since been taken over and covered in a multitude of papers, ledgers and books. The collected material overflowed the score of desks that Alexei and Feodor had found in there on their first day, and though they only used two in the center, the materials spread out into disused stacks and piles that neither of them could remember the purpose of. In truth, the investigation should have had a whole team of men behind it, two dozen at least, but it was nominally an accounting error, and so the low-ranking Imperial detective and the minor functionary at the Ministry of Domestic Affairs had been thrown together with little in the way of resources.
Feodor stared silently at the flag of the Golden Empire which was hanging in the corner of the room, moving his lips as he counted. “That can’t be right.”
“I agree, it can’t,” said Alexei. “I remember being taught when I was young that there was a cross for each city-state, same as you, and same as you, I count twelve crosses on the flag.”
“Perhaps this flag was made incorrectly?” asked Feodor.
“It wasn’t. Close your eyes and picture the flag in your mind. It has always had twelve crosses on it. But just to be sure, I checked a dozen other flags around the capitol, and they all have twelve crosses too.”
Feodor let out a long sigh. “Fine, we’ll add it to the list.” The list was already far too long, too many things both small and large that didn’t add up. Their investigation had started with the census and the tax returns, and expanded in scope to encompass almost every aspect of the recordkeeping of the Empire. Now it seemed that they were going even beyond that.
“I don’t think we need to. I have a theory.” He pulled out a map and spread it across the table. It showed all the major roads of the Empire, along with the rivers and canals. He pointed to a nexus of roads near the center. “What city is there?” he asked.
“You know I’m bad at geography,” replied Feodor. “Trosk?”
“There is no city there. There isn’t even a town there. The roads simply meet,” said Alexei. “Unlike every other meeting of major roads, at this point on the map there are no stores, nor inns, nor buildings of any kind. If you ask the people who pass through there, and I spoke with a few traders earlier today, this has always been the case. No one remembers there being anything there – they simply remember going down the road through the woods.”
“What are you proposing?” asked Feodor cautiously.
“I think that the reason the flag has too many crosses on it is because there were twelve founding cities. I think those major roads met in that city. And I think that it existed up until two weeks ago, when it was erased from the world.” Alexei stared at Feodor intently.
“That can’t be,” said Feodor, shaking his head. “I don’t remember any twelfth city.”
“I don’t either,” said Alexei with a frown. “That’s the problem. And yet there clearly was a twelfth city. Do you remember the Founder’s rhyme? ‘The cities numbered ten and one-’”
“‘The cities numbered ten and one, and saw what Tensin might undo, they bound together all and one, so that they would not be undone,’” finished Feodor. “What of it?”
“It doesn’t rhyme.”
A look of slow comprehension dawned on Feodor’s face. “But if the line were instead ‘The cities numbered ten and two,’ then …”
“Then it would rhyme. And there would be twelve founding cities.” Alexei smiled grimly and pointed at the map. “I think that it was right here. Not just because of the roads, either. The census total was a million less than it should have been, right on par with all the other cities. And if you look at the distance of this spot of land from all the other cities, you have to start wondering how it is that no one ever set up a waystation there, especially so close to the river.
“Whatever did this was powerful but stupid. It erased the city and all the references to it, but it didn’t erase the references to the references. It left gaps. If we feel out the edges of those gaps, we can start to understand what sort of thing could do something like this, and what it can’t erase. We already know it can’t rhyme, so if we look at poetry and songs we might be able to work backwards and -”
“Alexei,” asked Feodor, “How many people have you told this theory to?”
“You’re speaking of this missing city like it’s some abstract puzzle that needs to be solved, some natural thing,” said Feodor. “We both agreed that this investigation was too big for just two men, that it should really have had two dozen. Then I look around the room, and I see twenty desks. I see more books and papers here than I remember either of us carrying in. There should be someone here who worked on the census. There should be an accountant. And yet it’s just you and me.”
Francis sat at his desk in the corner, leafing through the documents. There were an unbelievable number of papers spread out on the desks, and stacks of books piled up on the floor. The task force had been formally authorized in the senate more than a month and a half ago, but for some reason it had only been in the last two weeks that anyone had been assigned to work on it. In the meantime, a small fraction of the Golden Empire’s paperwork had found its way into the room, presumably deposited by the various clerks and functionaries that made up the vast bureaucratic mass which ran the government. Everyone liked to pawn a problem off on to someone else, no matter that the task force hadn’t had anyone assigned to it.
Heads were sure to roll over the delay in assigning people, just as soon as the finger of blame found somewhere to land. Francis had been pulled from his duties in the Agriculture Department when someone several levels above him realized that there was an urgent need to appear to be picking up the slack. So now he sat and leafed through the morass of papers and books, looking for oddities to be tracked and cataloged so that people smarter than him could try to find out what had gone wrong where. There were eighteen people on the task force, and the duo from the Imperial Districting Service had declared themselves the finders of truth. They were currently squabbling over a piece of paper that listed all their theories on it, many of them crossed off in the past few days.
Francis picked up another piece of paper from the pile on his desk. This one was written in a familiar hand, one that he’d seen in the margins of many of the documents. It was a mystery who had actually penned it; Francis thought that perhaps it was one of the clerks wanting to move up in the world. If it was, he should have signed his work. This was the first thing that he’d come across which was written entirely by that person though.
It was a poem that went on for four pages. Francis read the first few lines, but lost interest before he got to the end. He didn’t like poems that didn’t have the good sense to rhyme. He threw the four pieces of paper onto the pile of irrelevant information and kept digging.
Francis dug through the papers. He felt like a fool. Four pages, a poem that didn’t rhyme, and he’d thrown it away. Worse, he hadn’t even figured it out until long after they’d known that someone had erased the city of Potyr.
It had come to him in the middle of the night, the day they’d received the reward. He’d drank himself silly, into a sort of drunken triumphant mood that had washed him right into bed. There was a weapon out there, one that erased cities from the world, and they’d found the hole it had left behind. They were saying that it would be war with the Hinterlands before too long, for who else would – or even could – have done it? As a weapon, it was insidious, and if it hadn’t been caught by their diligent work, there was little doubt that it would have been used again and again, taking cities one by one.
The weapon swept through paperwork, gobbled up data, and warped and twisted everything connected to the city. The effects weren’t hard to see, but divining the cause certainly was, and the long hours that they’d put into finding out what the weapon could or could not do was the real hard part for the task force. And now it was mostly over, the grunt work left to imperial security. Francis would return to his desk job, and all would be well. There wasn’t an enemy that the Golden Empire couldn’t defeat, so long as it was known and defined. Not even an enemy with a strange weapon like this.
His role should have been over. Only, there was something said by someone at the party that had stuck with him, and clung to his mind into the night until it woke him up.
“We’ll get our answers from art,” the man had said, “We’ll build up a great big monument to the lost city, and fill it with everything that we know, and the answers will come from art. Numbers and names were vanished easy enough, but the thing was crap at taking care of art. Look at the damned flag! It couldn’t understand the abstract. We’ll find our answers in the plays, in the metaphors that it didn’t catch, in the poems it unrhymed.”
Four pages, filled in the cramped hand of a man writing frantically. The same handwriting that filled the margins of dozens of documents and references. Until this midnight epiphany, Francis had never thought to question why he’d never seen any signatures or initials. He’d never even questioned that someone outside the fifteen members of the task force had been leaving notes behind.
The sun hadn’t quite come up yet, and Francis was still slightly drunk, but he knew that he had to find that poem, and untangle its meanings. It didn’t rhyme, but it probably had rhymed. Only, that poem was written after the task force had been formed, after Potyr had already disappeared. Which meant that it wasn’t actually about Potyr, it was about something else, something that had also been erased.
The piles of unimportant papers was massive. The clerks were going to sort through it at some point, probably in the next few days, shuffling everything back to where it had come from, but for now it just sat in a heap. Francis doubted that he would be able to find the papers. He kept digging anyway.
It was morning when he gave up. He went back to his home, and collapsed into bed. The thought of the poem, and what it might mean, haunted him like a ghost. A war was declared on the Hinterlands, and a fervor swept the nation, and so Francis kept his doubts to himself. He kept journals though, and made poems of his own, poorly written ones that did nothing more than produce obvious rhymes about what he thought had happened. He never showed these to anyone, not even decades after the war with the Hinterlands was over.
All he had was a theory, one that would implicate people in power and undermine a righteous war. What gain was there in publishing? The memory of people who didn’t exist? It was a question that Francis asked himself often, even on his deathbed.
The trunk with his papers stayed in the attic of his home, passed on to his son, and to his son’s son, without ever being moved or looked at; lost and forgotten.