Saturday, November 13, 2021

Abyss & Sea 13


Summer passed and the Midsummer Festival came and went without much that was out of the ordinary. A number of important things happened around the time of Soromir's annual Pearl Festival at the end of summer, however.

First, before the festival, an official decree went out from the Porphyry Mountain officially setting the date for the great meeting of the Great Council of the Ten Kings and Two around the vernal equinox of the next year. The Ten and Two, as it is often called, is one of the most important occasions in all of the Great Realm, when the Twelve Kingdoms meet together. Only a Great Council can issue Decrees of the Twelve Crowns, the highest law beneath the Orikhalh Tablets. The next several months would necessarily see a flurry of correspondence among the royal households of the kingdoms as agreements were formed as to what proposals to sponsor; the finalized proposals would then be sent to the Porphyry Mountain to be placed on the Great Council agenda, and, when that was done, the High King would send out copies of all proposals to all the royal houses. Everyone had known that the Great Council would occur the next year, but doing it at the vernal equinox rather than midsummer set it unusually early, requiring everyone to speed up what had been expected to be a more leisurely process.

"The sands in the hourglass start to run," said Disan to Baia.

"Yes," said Baia; "the only reason for holding the Ten and Two so early, at least when there is no emergency, is if the High King intends to propose a major cooperative project over the summer."

The second important event happened during the Pearl Festival itself. Disan and Baia were in Soromir, after having visited the pearl oyster beds with the traditional gifts for the pearl divers. There were banners everywhere and booths selling foods and trinkets of every kind. There was dancing and music and laughter; there were children running in and out of the crowds; there were jugglers and stage magicians and rhapsodists declaiming poems and stories. And then the earthquake came. 

It began quickly and it hit hard, shaking everything immediately. Disan, who had been buying sweetmeats from a vendor, and was knocked to the ground by it. Booths began collapsing immediately and people started screaming and running. The wall of a nearby building began to crack. Disan pulled himself to his knees, putting his hands on the ground and closing his eyes, feeling for the semblance of life. Then he shouted (for the noise was by this point very great), "Earth, do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"

The answer, slow and deep, came: "I uphold them, my king."

"Then be still for me!"

The shaking did not stop immediately, for earth is an element that changes slowly, but it began immediately to subside. He remained kneeling, with his hands on the ground, for the pacts and covenants that bound the land itself were the oldest and most distinctive of all, and so rarely invoked that Disan himself did not know how far they extended or how clearly his authority would be recognized under them. When it had subsided to a trembling and he was reasonably sure that he would not have to invoke the pacts and the covenants again, he rose and went to find Baia. Baia had been crouching to pet a child's tame fox when the shaking began, so had no more serious an injury than a bruised elbow. Disan was worse off, with his lower right arm heavily scraped up from his fall, but both of them were very fortunate. As they helped to organize the immediate recovery, and tried to keep people calm in the face of the waves of small aftershocks that followed, it became clear that the damage to Soromir was extensive, and dozens of people had died as walls collapsed or roofs caved in, and injuries both major and minor were common. Soromir was never built for withstanding earthquakes; even the oldest of old timers could not remember even a legendary story in which it had ever had one. Even so, things might have been much worse; because it had been during the Pearl Festival, most people were outside and in the open, so that most injuries were from falls and not from crushing, as might well have been the case on another day.

Soromir was not alone in experiencing the earthquake. By the end of the day it had become clear that everywhere on the Island had experienced it. Over the next several days, it became clear that the entire kingdom had done so. The shipyards all along the coasts were heavily damaged, and perhaps a half dozen of the many ships being built in them, each one worth a small fortune, would have to be scrapped entirely and begun again. And as the weeks went by, it became clear that nowhere in the Great Realm had been free of the shaking. Andra, which lies between the Khalad Mountains and the Golden Shore, was badly hit. Earthquakes in Andra are not unknown, but they are usually mild; no one could remember one so severe. A fissure had opened up on the mountainous end and the fires of the earth had poured out, devastating farmlands, and most of Myrander, the chief city, was badly damaged. The wife of King Zalan, Itta, died when the roof of a wing of the palace collapsed. This should not have happend at all, for the palace was a true neyat, and therefore should have maintained its integrity under any circumstances. Most Soreans on hearing the story attributed it to Andran corner-cutting, muttering the universal saying about making gold wire by giving two Andrans one coin, but Disan was not so sure, and he had the chanters check the chantments running throughout the walls and of Neyat Sor. The Khaljans, who lived in mountain villages and in caverns in the Khalad Mountains themselves, were said to have suffered many deaths due to cave-ins and landslides. But there was no place in the entire realm that was unaffected.

The third important thing that happened was perhaps less striking, and might perhaps not be considered important at all in comparison with the first two, but it affected Baia deeply. A few weeks after the earthquake, Disan was away assessing some of the shipyards, and Baia was visiting in and around Soromir to assess how rebuilding was going and whether there were poor folk who needed assistance in recovering. In doing this, she stopped at a small farmhouse outside the city. The men were away in the fields and the women of several small farms had come together to keep each other company in their various chores and crafts. It was apparently something they often did in the afternoons, helping with the chores and crafts at one of the farms and a few days later doing the same at another, something that they could do because all the farms were small and in close proximity. They were all at least a decade older than Baia, and most were considerably older than that. The old farmwife whose farm it was, was doing her butter-churning as Baia came in; others were sweeping or dusting; others were tying various vegetables in strands of twine so that they could hang and dry; one woman, older than most, was preparing melons for pickling . Baia volunteered herself and Asaia to help, but the women were reluctant to assign them chores; when she insisted, they put Baia and Asaia in charge of keeping an eye on the infant, a boy who was just learning the mysteries of propulsion by crawling and thus required continual supervision.

Baia herself was not much of a conversationalist, but Asaia was of a chatty temperament, and between her talking and Baia's occasional interjections, they learned much of the farms in the area and how they had been affected by the earthquake.

"We were fortunate," said the farmwife. "This house was built sturdy, so we only required a few minor repairs. I have cousins with a farm on the other side of the island who have to rebuild almost everything."

"One of the women from around here, Enna," put in another of the women, "is not here because her son died; he was cutting wood when the earthquake began and hit his head on a stone."

"Very sad," another said. "He was a promising boy."

"It is a terrible thing to lose a child," another said, shaking her head.

"I have no doubt of that," said Baia, holding the little boy up and looking at his big eyes as he smiled at the sudden surge of height and sense of flight. "Whose boy is this?"

"I suppose he would be mine, after a fashion, Your Highness," said the farmwife. "Although all my own boys are grown. I am too old, perhaps, to be raising a child, but when I saw him crying there, my heart almost broke, and I could not bear to think of him being eaten by the ants."

"I do not understand," said Baia as she put the little boy back on her knee.

"She means that the boy was abandoned," said Asaia.

Baia was astounded. "Is this so?"

"It is so, Your Highness," said the farmwife. "He was abandoned on the hillside, with no father and no mother, and I could not leave him be."

The queen looked down at the boy, who was playing with her fingers. "How could anyone do such a thing?"

"It is these young people today," said the woman preparing the pickling. "They are not brought up as they should be."

"Every generation says that," another woman said. "Our mothers said it of us, and their mothers said it of them, and probably their grandmothers said it of their mothers."

"And they were no doubt all correct," the woman at the pickling stubbornly said.

It was apparently an old argument between them, because everyone else made a sudden effort to change the subject, and the conversation went on to more pleasant things. Eventually, Baia handed the little boy off to a woman who had finished up the sweeping and took her leave. Before she did so, she gave a bag of gold to the farmwife and said to her, "You have done a good thing." Then she took off a small ring with a pearl and said, "Keep this, and if you need any additional money for the raising of the boy, send it to Neyat Sor with your request."

As Baia and Asaia went on their way, Baia asked Asaia if she had ever heard of infants being left abandoned.

"While it is not common, in Tavra it does happen," Asaia said. "Does it not happen in Sorea?"

Baia shook her head, replying, "I have not heard of such a thing here. There are peoples on the western continent that do this, but exposure of infants is forbidden by the Orikhalh Tablets. How can a people call itself civilized if they do it?"

"Well," said Asaia diplomatically, "it is sad when it happens, and the Orikhalh Tablets are important, but they are, after all, just rules, and sometimes following rules does not get the best results. No doubt it only happens when they are in a terrible situation."

If Baia had an answer to this, or even heard it, she gave no indication, but was instead lost in thought. Having never had a child despite wanting one, the whole thing bothered her deeply, and over the next several days she would sometimes lapse into brooding for no obvious reason.