Once upon a time, and not only once upon a time but also up until this very day, there was and there is Delphim.
The kingdom of Delphim had existed in peace for many generations. It was a peace that had spread to other lands through the tireless efforts of successive rulers, who travelled far and wide, under the banner of friendship, but with the looming threat of an army whose power and prowess had long since surpassed the mantle of legend. While other kingdoms battled each other in an endless cycle of conquest and counter conquest, Delphim created the very concept of diplomacy, of mutually beneficial trade, and of a fair and accepted succession of leadership.
It was truly the envy of all other kingdoms.
Parallel to their soldiers and generals, they created and trained statesmen and diplomats. They were the reality of speak softly and carry a large sword.
In this way, successive rulers of Delphim had spread and maintained their influence far and wide.
The current ruler of Delphim was Obram, a former soldier and statesman who had worked his way from his days as a young soldier up through the ranks before transitioning into the diplomatic core. He was a well liked and respected man both in Delphim and across the other kingdoms. His word was respected by most, and feared by those who didn’t.
All the same, when his predecessor had passed away suddenly, there had been much surprise that the oracles had named Obram as the successor. For starters, he was the youngest ruler that had ever been named. On top of that, he had worked his way up to a respected position from humble beginnings, something which was initially resented by some of the older officials from dynastic families who had maybe considered themselves as potential rulers.
Over time, however, Obram proved himself wise and kind, with a fair handed way of dealing with problems. And the kingdom of Delphim continued to prosper.
And then everything changed.
Obram was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given two to three years to live. He consulted the oracles, who confirmed the diagnosis, and so Obram took the entire kingdom by surprise by announcing that he would step down as the ruler, handing over control to the chosen successor.
The kingdom, and those around, were abuzz with speculation. A date, two months hence, was set for the consultation of the oracles, with a second date, a month after the consultation, announced as the day when Obram would hand power over to his chosen successor.
This was all new. A ruler had never chosen to step down from his position of absolute power, the passing of power had always been due to death or incapacitation, and therefore there had never been a period of transition such as was now being entered.
Access to the oracles was blocked, leading to rampant debate among people in every level of society. Names were put forward and argued over. Over time though, two names were pushed to the fore.
The first of these was a man named Nopeli, a well known and accomplished statesman and diplomat, who had been a trusted right hand man to Obram over the years and campaigned for him successfully far and wide. Because of this, he was well respected in his field and was seen by all in the upper echelons of the kingdom as a safe pair of hands, and as those of the rest of the populace as an obvious choice to take up the mantle of leadership.
The second name which came to be considered as a leading contender as the future ruler of Delphim was an unusual case. He was not a man who had served in the army. He was not a man with a history of diplomacy. His name was Dalon, and he was a merchant.
Dalon came from a family of merchants. His grandfather and father had been merchants before him and had built up a vast fortune trading all across the kingdom and expanded his financial endeavours into all corners of distant lands. He had had three children, but always favoured Dalon, who was keen to follow in his father’s footsteps and, when he reached adulthood, was already a vastly wealthy man thanks to his father. Dalon’s main talent, however, turned out not to be in trading, but in promotion. He understood the power of a name and a symbol, and began to use the family crest to cement a perception far and wide of business acumen. It didn’t seem to matter, somehow, whether Dalon’s dealings were successful, and rash decisions which would have ruined a lesser enterprise were brushed off due to a combination of the family wealth and the power of the family crest. And all of this time, word of Dalon’s success grew. Success, he had discovered, was in the eye of the beholder.
But how did a man with no experience in any of the relevant fields come to be considered a front runner for the leadership of the kingdom of Delphim?
It was all down, as his success and fame was, to his presentation.
It began at a banquet, shortly after the announcement of Obram stepping down from his position. Dalon felt that Obram had slighted him when the ruler rushed past him to greet a prince from a distant land. Dalon stated to the guest he was standing with, a general in the army, that it was surely because Obram knew that he, Dalon, would be named as the successor, and would do a far better job.
Word of this comment spread, and Dalon doubled down. Along with the employees closest to him, he began spreading the word that they had heard whisperings from the oracles, via their staff, that Dalon had emerged as a surprise candidate. When asked about this, Dalon loudly and proudly declared himself ready for leadership. He spoke of destiny and of power. He told anyone who would listen that the kingdom, and the lands around it, were entering a new era; an age of trade, a monetary age, and that he was the only man prepared and able to usher in these times.
Obram, in the privacy of his upper council, admitted being disturbed by the proclamations of Dalon. He chose, however, not to comment on what the merchant was saying. “Leave it in the hands of the oracles,” he told his inner circle. “They have never steered Delphim wrong, and they surely won’t now.”
“What if the oracles name Dalon?” he was asked.
“Then Dalon shall lead Delphim,” was his reply. “It is not, and never shall be, our place to question the process of the oracles.”
And so the first month passed, and following that, the second month barely stopped for a breath. The business of governance continued as it always did, but as the time of the naming drew near, there was tension in the air.
Dalon had continued his rhetoric about being the chosen man to rule Delphim, promising increased wealth and happiness for all in the kingdom. As the day of the naming by the oracles drew nearer, his talk, and that of those around him, only grew louder and more fervent.
There were many citizens, naturally, who were attracted by Dalon’s talk. He made them rash promises of prosperity, while criticizing the outward looking policies of Obram and his predecessors, telling those who listened to him that the people of Delphim deserved more, and that those from other kingdoms should pay fealty to the far superior Delphim.
In response to these words, naturally, came rumblings from the other kingdoms. Both in secret, and those which reached both the people and the rulers of Delphim. There were those foreign rulers, of course, who had waited for many years for cracks to show in the armour of Delphim. They watched on with great interest to see what would transpire.
Nopeli and his peers asked the people to be cautious of grand promises. They spoke of peace and unity. They highlighted the things which Delphim had accomplished, the things which they now took for granted, but that they were only able to do so because of the great efforts of those who ruled.
They spoke to their neighbours and assured them that they had nothing to worry about. They told them that the future would continue upon the path it was currently traversing, and that they would all lift themselves to greater heights together. They spoke of the status quo.
When the fateful day came, the oracles spoke, as they had done for generations, and the words they said surprised few. Nopeli was announced as the successor to Obram, and the higher echelons of leadership in Delphim began to prepare for the day when Obram would make history, abdicating his position and passing the reins of power to Nopeli.
Things, however, did not go as smoothly as had been anticipated.
Dalon did not accept that Nopeli had been named by the oracles. He was a man unaccustomed to having his decisions challenged and perceived the contradiction to his predictions as a personal attack, an unprovoked humiliation. And so something happened which had never, in the long history of Delphim, despite the many fierce rivalries which had come before; Dalon ignored the word of the oracles.
He let it be known, and had his closest followers let it be known, that the oracles had named him as the successor. He stood in market squares and town halls and loudly declared that he would succeed Obram by the divine blessing of the sacred oracles whose knowledge and foresight was unquestionable. He made them promises. More and more promises. Grander and grander. He painted pictures for the people of a life in Delphim under Dalon which they could previously only have dreamed of. He told them of his knowledge, of his ability, of his prowess in all fields, and many of them ate it up.
Nopeli felt a growing sense of anxiety. What should have been the crowning achievement of a lifetime of hard work and dedication to the cause was being undermined and diminished by the words of a business which, as far as he and those around him could tell, had nothing but personal glory and financial reward in their sights. Obram counseled patience. He believed that what was happening was a form of mass hysteria, which would die down as the handover approached.
If anything, though, it became more fervent.
There was unrest on the streets in many parts of the kingdom, as those who believed in Dalon clashed with those who supported Nopeli.
The oracles took the unprecedented step of appearing, together, in public. They announced to the gathered crowds what they had said previously; Napoli was to be the successor.
And so it was settled.
Only it wasn’t.
Dalon knew the power of the word. He knew the power of the crowd. His supporters went amongst people who had not witnessed the historic speech of the oracles, and they told them what they had seen.
“They announced Dalon as the new ruler,” the said. “They told us he would be the greatest that had ever ruled. They claimed he would usher in a new era of prosperity for all and dominance over all of the kingdoms in the land.”
And so these twin narratives snaked their way throughout Delphim and beyond.
Dalon spoke in public whenever and wherever he could. He told people they were unhappy with the lives they had and that he could make them happy. The people had never been spoken to like this before. They were confused. Dalon and his followers told the people he was supported by the oracles. He told them that Obram and his friends were corrupt and were trying to steal the message of the oracles for themselves.
The oracles consulted their sources again and again. They drank the wine from the sacred berries and they burned the mystical branches and looked deep into the smoke. Every result they saw was Nopeli.
Yet still the doubt continued. It had sunk its roots deep and begun to sprout wherever there was a crack. And now, for the first time since the earliest days of the kingdom, there was unrest in Delphim.
People argued. There were fights in taverns.
In his tower, in the very centre of the merchant district, Dalon fluctuated between joy and rage. He believed the leadership of the kingdom was within his grasp, but also that others were trying to withhold it from him. He consulted his family, his advisors. They contacted members of the military and statesmen who’d been overlooked in favour of Nopeli. They invited them to dine with Dalon, who talked to them of opportunity and of the truth of his way. He presented them with a new outlook on leadership, something they had not seen before. Something beneficial and rewarding. A few of them succumbed to temptation, but most did not. And so more cracks were formed. Doubt was sewn.
The foreign kingdoms watched on. Their agents moved in the shadows. They whispered.
The whispers were taken by Dalon and his supporters.
They became shouts.
With less than a week to go before the handover of power, a prominent merchant, and close friend of Dalon, announced himself an oracle. He claimed that he had been visited by higher powers and granted oracular abilities in order to put right the wrongs which ran rampant in Delphim. He told of the shining future he’d seen under Dalon and the corruption which was rife in the current leadership, infesting even the oracles themselves. He told people this corruption had come from the neighbouring kingdoms of Dahlor and Piconet. The fact that these two kingdoms were the chief importers into Delphim of the very same fabrics which his family had made and sold for generations was not mentioned in his speeches.
On the day of the handover of leadership, the atmosphere in the kingdom of Delphim was tense. The air crackled with electricity. Rulers from the other kingdoms watched closely to see what would happen. There were rumours that foreign armies had mobilized.
The military chiefs of Delphim were on edge. They spoke to Obram about their concerns, but he would not be shaken in his belief in the process, in the oracles, in centuries of history. The gates to the grand square would be left open. The ceremony was a ceremony of unity. It was for all.
While Obram and Nopeli and their colleagues prepared for the handing over ceremony and the oracles took up their positions to oversee the proceedings, Dalon and his inner circle travelled the kingdom giving speeches in market squares and taverns. They moved with great speed from place to place, and everywhere they went, they sent those who heard them to spread the word. They told Dalon’s followers the time was now or never to, in the words of Dalon, set right what was wrong. His fake oracle repeated his talk of visions, and the promises of individual prosperity were made.
Each of the followers entreated those they spoke to to march to the ceremony. To seize control for Dalon.
As the sun moved towards its apex, Obram and Nopeli could see each other from their respective doorways. Dressed in the finest of robes, they exchanged waves. Nopeli, as ever, was impressed and inspired by the composure, the dignity, of the man he would shortly replace. He wished he felt the same way.
Dalon and his family, his employees, those closest to him, paced anxiously in the family room of Dalon’s tower. From time to time one of them would go out onto the West facing balcony, towards where the ceremony was about to happen.
They were not at the ceremony. That was not their place. The seeds had been sewn. Now they waited.
The oracles stepped out as one and dropped their cloaks.
Obram and Nopeli stepped from their doorways and mounted the steps to the stage from opposite sides.
The gathered people cheered.
The drums stopped.
The high priest lifted his hands for silence.
The people stopped cheering.
There was not silence.
There was the sound of feet. Hundreds of feet. Thousands.