Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Abyss & Sea 14


Autumn was wet and winter was very dry. When by winter solstice there had been not even a flake of snow, this touched off a debate among the old-timers. Some said it was an omen of a summer drought. Others said it meant there would be late snow and flooding. Whichever turned out to be right, in the meantime it was good weather for ship repair and made it possible to prepare for an even bigger surge of shipbuilding in the spring. New supplies of jute and canvas were laid in, supplies of sail-silk and pine tar, which had been severely depleted despite continual purchases, were restored. Ships were stocked with their appropriate furnishings, barrels and chests and nets and replacement parts. The great ships that had already come out of the shipyards had been given their first test-sailings and were out on their maiden voyages to give the final seal on their quality. Most of these were to the Chipou tribes to the east, but Disan expanded the routes to many lands with which they had previously only had occasional trade. As they began to return, they carried in their holds furs and metals and woods and spices, all in high demand in the Great Realm, and between that and the first pre-payments from the High King for the ships even before they had been delivered, the Sorean treasury, already impressive, grew very rich at a very fast pace.

Baia, in addition to everything else, devoted her attention to the formation of a foundation for foundlings, but very little came of it. Why she had such difficulties with it, she did not know; she suspected that people were more ashamed to be associated with foundlings than with exposure to children, but why that would be she could not say. Disan continued to have recurring nightmares about past battles, about the sky falling, about many things, some of which he could not remember very clearly when he awoke.

As the snowless winter began to pass and the vernal equinox grew nearer, Baia remarked to Disan, "I find it strange that among all the proposals that have been suggested for the Great Council, the High King has not made one with regard to this shipbuilding venture."

"Yes," said Disan thoughtfully. "It should be the sort of thing brought before the Great Council. I suppose he could be intending to do it by piecemeal approval of the kingdoms, the way the expedition to aid the Chipou was."

"It is a good example of how little we know of the High King's actual intentions."

"Hmm," Disan replied, and said nothing further.

Not long after, there was an important visit from the oldest prince of the kingdom of Ezrym, Prince Adven, son of Envren. When they received notice of it, there was the usual flurry of gathering gifts to give, shining bolts of silk in Sorean black, barrels of the finest rhodomel, a casket of teardrop-shaped pearls, rare pelts from the Chipou trade, a tapestry depicting Maia of the Pearls that Baia had originally intended to hang in her office. To greet the prince, Baia wore a cloak of red silk over a dress of blue silk and a net of pearls on her hair; Disan was in Sorean black with his ceremonial orikhalh armor and a pearl-studded orikhalh circlet on his head. Adven arrived on a lean bay stallion and silk of green beneath his riding cloak, and a small entourage of knights behind him. Adven was a tall man, more handsome than his father, and it was a very striking image.

"You are welcome, O Adven, son of Envren, son of Envren," said Disan, "to all of my hospitality and to all of the hospitality of my queen and of my people."

"I thank you, King Disan, son of Rezan, son of Belan," said Adven with a bow of his head, "and I account myself blessed to receive the hospitality of Your Highnesses."

There was a welcoming feast that night, with shrimp soup and roasted seabass and steaks of lion, with rhodomel and melomel. The next day, they held lunch with Adven in the inner gardens, as they had done before with Envren his father. The meal was a large one, in the Sorean fashion for lunch, with tuna and squid ink rice and pepper-spiced ostrich and dandelion salad, and specially spiced rhodomel to drink. They mostly chatted of weather and family and the like, but as the meal wound down, Adven had a small chest brought and asked to speak to the king and queen of Sorea privately.

"My father sent me here with a very specific set of instructions that he made me swear to follow," said Adven. "This," he said, opening the chest with a silver key, "is a gift he wished you to have." He pulled out of the chest something like a fur cloak made of squirrel-pelts. It was quite old and worn, and Baia received it with some confusion.

"Is there some meaning to this?" she asked.

"It is easier to show it than to say it," said the Ezryman prince. "If you will indulge me, Your Highness, please put it on, as you would an ordinary cloak."

Baia threw it over her shoulders, and Disan involuntary cried out, because there was suddenly no Baia there. Instead, where the queen had been was a black squirrel of the kind that is common in many parts of the Great Realm. The next moment, the squirrel was gone, and Baia was there again, taking off the cloak. Speechless, she handed it to Disan, who put it on and vanished in the same way, replaced by a red squirrel. Baia waved her hand where he had been, but it encountered only air. The red squirrel bounded around a bit, and then the squirrel was gone and Disan was there again, taking off the cloak, a look of complete astonishment on his face. He opened his mouth, then closed it, and finally managed to choke out, "How is this even possible?"

Adven shrugged. "It is something my grandfather brought back from the war against the Court of Night. It is a secret we have guarded closely, and it is a sign of my father's good opinion of you that he gives it to you."

Baia shook her head. "It is remarkable," she said.  "I have never heard of such a thing."

"It was like in a dream, when you are both yourself and something else," said Disan.

Adven smiled at their amazement. Then he grew sober and almost grave. "This is only part of the fulfillment of my promise to my father. I also have a verbal message, which I was told I must repeat word for word. That message is this: 'This is a gift to allow you to see what would otherwise be hidden; keep it secret. Beware the Honey Witch, for she has a power from the Court of Night to bend the mind.'" Adven sighed, and then said, with some hesitation, "I feel honor-bound, in light of this message, to warn Your Highnesses to be wary of anything that my father says. His behavior has become quite erratic over the past few years. He disappears for long periods of time and when he is home, he is obsessed with the idea that someone is attempting to poison him. Given that he has also become obsessed with the doings of the Tavran household, I can well guess who the 'Honey Witch' is supposed to be. But my father is not well. I would not have played the messenger here if he had not demanded my promise. Proceed with caution."

"I thank you," said Disan. "Your father is fortunate to have a son as honorable as yourself."

"You are kind," said Adven. "In any case, I hope I can trust Your Highnesses to discretion in this matter."

"Of course." said Baia.