Thursday, December 20, 2018

Abyss & Sea 3

The house inside was a mess, as if a major brawl had broken out. A woman, old but far from frail, was sprawled out on the kitchen floor, broken crockery all around her and a massive wound on her head. Near the table an old man and a young man were gripping each other as if in a struggle; the young man had a knife in his side and and an eye gouged out, his hand gripped around the old man's throat. In the midst of it all, incongruously, the table was set as if for a family breakfast, which had apparently just been eaten; there were flies everywhere. The young man, clearly the son, favored his father but had his mother's chin. Baia shuddered a bit, and then, followed by a guard, went out the kitchen door; the pigsty was across a small yard. It was a less murderous, but more disturbing, since it was clear that this young man had been tearing apart the pigs with his bare hands -- and had been attacked in turn. He, and the dead pigs had been partly eaten. The dog, which she saw next, had clearly been attacked by the wolves.

"I still do not understand it," said Sosan. "Wolves are not friendly even under the pacts and covenants, but they would usually avoid people."

"I think they came after there were no more people to avoid," said Baia. "Attracted to the blood, perhaps; I do not know."

They returned to the kitchen. Baia looked at the scene soberly.

"It looks as if it all happened suddenly," she said, and walked around the table, avoiding the supine figures as much as she could, waving away the flies in order to look at each item on it. She stopped at an open honeypot, which she gingerly picked up and smelled. It smelled of honey, and of something almost too sweet that tingled in her nose. She put the lid on it and handed it to Sosan.

"There is something very wrong with this honey," she said.

"You think it was poisoned?"

"Perhaps," she said. "They would have eaten breakfast; one of the sons went out to feed the pigs; and then the effects began. Have you ever heard of anything like it?"

Sosan thought a moment. "I remember as a boy once hearing a story about a bandits in ancient days who had had difficulty finding food; they came upon trees, near a field of rhododendrons, filled with wild honey-hives. They ate the honey and became intoxicated and very ill. I cannot recall it causing any violent madness. And it is rare for honey to be poisonous; it is one of the safest things to eat. Surely anything that could end up in the honey and have such drastic effects would be more likely to kill the bees themselves."

"Perhaps," said Baia again. "Regardless, I would like you to make inquiries to find out whatever you can about where the people here get their honey."

"Certainly," said Sosan, "but I do not know how much we will learn."

"There has to be something; a situation this wrong cannot be an isolated event."

************

The High Porter met Disan and his guards at the gate. "The signal towers sent word of the coming of Your Highness," he said, "and I have been asked to bring you directly to the High King, once your horses and men have been given their proper care." The horses were taken to the stables, the men to their accommodations, and Disan was led through mazy passageways and half a dozen halls of the Khalkythra Palace. Pictures of extraordinary skill and craft were on every wall, in every vault, some painted, some in mosaic. Here was Castalan son of Atalan, fighting the khalkythra; there was Emdalan flying on the wooden horse, loaded with the gifts of blessing: the lotus and the honeybee, the rose and the silkworm. There Emdalan and Renan, one of Disan's ancestors, brought back the thousand vanished people from the night-world by threatening to hang a mouse. Here was a band of heroes Disan did not recognize, fighting a dragon; there was the dispute of Beran and Balan over the Stone of Night; here were the Powers of the world bestowing upon Atalan the rule of the realm. In one long hall, Castalan's son Ardalan performed the forty impossible tasks by which he won the hand of the beautiful Asaria, all forty laid out in one view along the walls and ceiling. Fountains plashed in the halls, the water running in artificial streams through rooms sheathed in finest marble, polished and white; the columns and pillars were highlighted with gold leaf in endless profusion; fresco and stucco and ivory veneer, semi-precious stones by the thousands, silk curtains draping around exedras filled with statues of cunning workmanship, round arches and great doors of mahogany and bronze framed by lampstands of finest gold; wonders met the eye in every direction.

The High King was at last found in a room plainer than the others, although still kingly by any standard, a practice or training hall for fighters. Weapons hung on the wall and on a side table; the floor was covered in bamboo mats. The High King's golden eyes lit up under his unruly blond hair on seeing him.

"Disan!" he shouted, coming forward and clasping Disan's arms, somewhat awkwardly since the High King was short and stocky, as Talans tend to be, and so was a good head and a half shorter than the tall Sorean king. "You are welcome, O Disan, son of Rezan, son of Belan, to all of my hospitality."

"I thank you, O Antaran, son of Emberan, son of Ardaran, and I account myself blessed to receive your hospitality."

"Disan," said the High King again, "world traveler. It has been so long as you have been touring the world."

"'Touring' is a generous term for it."

"What was it like, being across the sea, fighting barbarians?"

"Mostly muddy," said Disan. "Entire days of tramping through the mud."

Antaran laughed, and with a look of mischief in his eyes, went over to the table and picked out a waster, which he threw to Disan. Disan waved it, catching a scent of linseed oil. It felt too light and oddly balanced in his hand. Antaran selected his own waster.

"A bit of child's play after barbarian-battles," said Antaran, "but let's see if you've learned any new tricks."

They swung-and-parried a few times, moving in a semicircle, then Antaran began in earnest. The High King was well practiced, and had had the best teachers in the Great Realm, but Disan had been taught by real battle, a far more serious teacher. Disan's strokes were less pretty than the High King's, but far more efficient, and his natural reach was considerably greater than Antaran's, to his unassailable advantage. It was not long before Disan had scored his third hit on the High King, so suddenly that the High King fell backward.

Antaran looked annoyed and then laughed. "You are my best teacher, Disan; none of the others would dare to make such a fool of me." He rose smoothly to his feet, waving off Disan's outstretched hand. He clasped Disan's shoulder.

"Everywhere in the Palace," he said, "you can see murals of the great deeds of our ancestors, forming the Great Realm. Our grandfathers went abroad to war against the Court of Night. But since then we have done nothing. You alone, of all the living kings, have seen the world and done the kind of great deed that is our birthright." He removed his hand. "I will let you make sure that your men are settled in and give you time to rest for your journey. All of the formal affairs we will have tomorrow, but this evening you and I should talk. I will send a guide to you after dinner."

"I will need a guide, I am sure; I wouldn't want to get lost."

Antaran laughed again. "Do you remember that time after we raided the kitchen when we threw the entire Palace into a panic because we got lost for almost two whole days?"

"It was a good thing we had just raided the kitchen. We eventually found that room with the shrine to Fath and the aeolian harp that was playing despite there being no wind. And we went through the door to which the statue of Fath was pointing and found our way back."

"Yes," said Antaran thoughtfully. "And you know, I have never found that room again. If it weren't for the fact that you remember it as well, I would have thought that I just imagined it."

"There are a great many strange things in the Mountain."

Antaran smiled a knowing smile. "Stranger than you know, my friend. Stranger than you know."

Disan made sure his men were properly cared for, and also made arrangements with the Palace steward to have a crate of strawberries sent to his men on the ship. He visited some of the rooms he remembered from his last stay in the Palace and then ate dinner. A servant came to take him to see the High King again. They went through a number of mazy passages and up several stairs, and finally came to sunlight and open breeze. It was an exedra opening to a balcony on the side of the Mountain, with an impluvium in the middle, half under the semi-dome and half beyond it in the open. The balcony looked over a breathtaking view. In the distance one could see the great gold-plated dome of the Oracle of the Sun, gleaming in the last sun rays of the day, and farther beyond it the orikhalh walls. Off to the right there were fountains and gardens down below, and an artificial creek with its musical waters plashing here and there across artfully laid stones. And if you moved to the balcony rail and looked over to the left, you could see in the distance a volor gliding down from the Khalad Mountains with supplies and docking at one of the Mountain towers. As Disan watched, one of the volors gave a long, low cry. Samaras falling down from some tree up above, went spinning and winding like keys through the air.

Antaran came out soon after. "I see you did not get lost," he said cheerfully. "We are waiting for one other."

As if almost on cue, the other came out. She was Tavran, and quite beautiful, pale of skin, with golden hair and bright blue eyes that were accentuated by the shimmering blue of her dress. She wore jewelry around her neck, almost too much, and a wide golden belt decorated with flowers. Disan knew her as Elea, Princess of Tavra; he had met her before, when they were both children, and although he had not seen her since, there was still a suggestion of the girl he had known in her woman's face. She gave a kind of curtsy toward him. "Your Highness," she said.

"Princess," he said in return. "How is your father?"

"As well as can be hoped," she said. "His mind is not well, but his body is whole."

Antaran gestured impatiently. "Let us get started."

Elea moved to the balcony rail and there held one of the pendants around her neck in both hands, lifting it high, muttering something under her breath. It was of strange and foreign make, and Disan thought for a moment that it glowed softly while she held it high. And suddenly the world became odd.

It was subtle. Perhaps there was a slight change in the quality of the sunlight, but the primary difference was not visible. The world just seemed unsettling, and it took Disan a moment to discover what it was: the breeze had died and so had all the sound from the waters below or the volors in the distance. The world became too quiet, as if everything outside the exedra and balcony had ceased to exist as more than a mirage.

"Now we can speak without eavesdropping," said Antaran. "Not even the Powers can hear us."

"How is that even possible?" asked Disan.

Elea pointed at the pendant. "My grandfather brought this back from the war against the Court of Night. It is a useful thing at times."

Disan looked at the High King. "That seems a great deal of trouble for an informal conversation."

"And all of it necessary. You and I and Elea -- today we are going to begin to change everything."

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