“Get those paintings up!”
Athan looked up at the approaching voice. Commander Sola was a deceptively short and frail woman for the domineering personality within. She marched through the dilapidated gray corridor with hands clasped behind her back, her tight olive-green uniform glittering with gold medals.
All around them, workers quickly filled the numerous cracks in the wall with grout while painters were busy concealing the discoloration. Athan reached down into a wooden crate that was delivered just minutes before. It contained a stack of generic paintings, framed and ready for hanging. Beautiful seascapes, flowers, and galloping horses were prominent in the art, but it did not take a close examination to realize that they were not true paintings but reproductions printed on canvas. Athan hung the frames in a neat row against the still-drying wall of the corridor.
Commander Sola paced the room. She despised last-minute changes. Her radio clicked and she brought it to her ear. Athan couldn’t hear the voice at the other end, but he spotted the Commander’s black brows furrow.
“Alright, I need all painters out, and take this crate with you” her voice echoed. “Private,” she addressed Athan, “you have three minutes to finish.”
The young man nodded, pressed a few nails between his lips, and quickly hammered them into place. His comrades had vacated the little hall without a trace by the time the last painting was hung. And it was just in time. The doors at the opposite end of the hall opened without warning. The young man searched Commander Sola’s face for guidance. “Stay put and follow my lead,” she directed quietly as a small group of regally clad individuals entered the chamber.
Commander Sola bowed low to the middle-aged man at their head.
“Your royal highness,” she addressed him. “What a pleasant surprise it is to see you.”
“Sola,” the man acknowledged her, but his eyes fixated on Athan, who stood with his head bowed low. “Who is this?”
“Forgive us, your highness. We did not expect you to come through this way. This young man is one of the palace’s inspectors. He was just making his daily rounds to ensure that all is as it should be.”
“Ah,” the King replied, losing interest. “I don’t believe I’ve walked down this hall recently,” he looked up at the freshly hung art. “Who did these works?”
“These paintings were donated for display by the Royal Academy of Art. They were painted by the top students of this year’s class.”
“Amazing work,” the King observed. “Such talent.”
“Come through this way, your majesty,” Commander Sola quickly directed to the opposite end of the hall. “Surely you want to see more than a simple corridor. The next room has far grander works as well as another marvelous view of your fair city.”
“Then let us proceed.”
Athan dropped his shoulders with a sigh when the group left. He had never been so caught off guard by the royalty, but he knew Commander Sola would be pleased with their quick thinking. He left the hall in the opposite direction and entered a large room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city outside. Dozens of metal and glass skyscrapers reflected the brilliant sunlight, so that the city appeared like a jewel on the land. The streets between them were teeming with brightly clad individuals. Athan stopped to marvel at the scene.
The room’s opulence matched the beauty outside. The walls were decorated with carvings and gold leaf and the domed ceiling depicted an intricate scene from mythology.
Soldiers stood positioned throughout the chamber. One of them brought his radio to his lips. “Confirm royalty in west corridor.”
“Confirmed. Royalty in west corridor,” came a response.
The soldier nodded to his comrades and the door to the adjoining hall was locked. They began turning off the lights as they prepared to vacate the chamber.
One of the men pushed aside a large blue window drape to reveal a concealed lever. He pulled the gear down and Athan witnessed the now-familiar illusion of the window screen being deactivated. The brilliant city outside vanished as the windows darkened. Small stone buildings, identical and without character, now dotted the landscape. There was no sign of the majestic skyscrapers. The streets were empty save for a few patrols marching down the main avenues. The only other movement came from the countless wisps of chimney smoke.
Athan looked out at the bleak vista. He had once been a part of that life. He would still be huddling beside a feeble fireplace amid the approaching winter storms had he not begun working in the palace. The sight of his old life used to bring a pang of pity and sadness. Now, he felt only bitterness at the memory resurfacing. Like the soldiers around him, he turned and walked out of the room without a second look upon the landscape. They closed the doors behind them, already thinking of other things.