Monday, November 01, 2021

Abyss & Sea 8


As the Visitation Court settled into its new location, another curious event took place. An old tower on the sea shore, about half an hour's ride from the manor, burned in a fire. The tower was a landmark, one of the oldest buildings in the area, in its earliest form having been built, it is said, by the original Soreans shortly after they had arrived in the Great Realm, and every later renovation or development having preserved significant parts of the original. It seemed to Baia that restoration of such a landmark would be appropriate for a Visitation tour, so she and a small entourage rode out one morning to the tower to assess the damage. 

The tower rose on a small rocky hill a short way from the sea shore. It was a large rectangular structure about three stories high, not at all elegant in itself, having originally been built primarily to house emergency supplies for that part of the coast; but time lends a bit of charm even to homely buildings if they are built well. The roof for it was gone, destroyed in the fire, as were the shutters for its windows. There was smoke-damage on the stone above those windows. As Tevan, one of the guards in her entourage, noted, the strangest thing was that the base of the tower also showed black scars of fire, as did the ground around it.

"That is indeed strange," said Baia. "It burned inside and out."

"Yes, Your Highness," said Tevan. "The building was set on fire by someone deliberately intending to burn it. Fires both inside and outside the building cannot be an accident."

The door to the tower was of oak and iron, and, while blackened with smoke, had not burned. The key, which they had obtained from the local warden, fit the lock but would not turn, apparently damaged in some way by the fire. Baia put her hand on the door. There was a semblance of life in it, and in its making it had been interlaced with chantments that had provided protection from the fire, the same chantments that were used by Soreans to protect their ships from fire and other kinds of damage. The person who had made the door had known what they were doing.

"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" she asked it.

And a voice came from the door, wizened and cracked, "I uphold them, O queen."

"Then open for me."

There was a sort of sighing and gasping from the door, and a scraping and grating, as if the door were having difficulty obeying, but the lock turned, and the door opened. 

The inside of the tower was a sad mess, full of ash and cinder and partly burned timber, which had since been drenched by rain. All the furnishings were gone. The bottom of the second floor had burned through in several ways, and through the holes they could see that the same was true of the third floor, as well. 

Tevan cautiously went far enough up the heavily scarred stairway to see what the second floor looked like, and when came down, he said, "Your Highness, it is difficult to tell, but I believe that fires may have been set on each of the floors; it was not one fire inside, either."

Baia stood in the center of the tower and closed her life. She felt the semblance of life, not from the door, which was a separate entity, but imbued into the tower itself. 

"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" she asked the tower.

A mighty susurration seemed to rise and fall around her like the sea. "I have upheld them and I uphold them, O queen," said the tower. "By those pacts and covenants render justice unto me, O queen."

"Your right to the royal protection under the pacts and the covenants is recognized and granted," she said. "Now tell me who did this."

The sighing flowed and ebbed again. "Three were the strangers who lit the fires," said the tower. "Three, young and beardless, brought the flame. On horses they rode, O queen."

She went to the door and asked it the same question. A sighing rose within the door, and the door said, "Three were the strangers who passed by key, O queen."

Baia had enough experience with inanimate objects under the pacts and the covenants to know that she would not get more; to communicate is not the strength of unliving things, even when they have the semblance of life. If anything, it was a sign of how well constructed the tower had been that she was able to get this much; only the finest crafts and chantments of the finest smiths and masons and carpenters could have done more.

"If they had a key and horses," said Baia to Tevan, "they are likely to be known. Take the key back to the warden and find out who had the key, or whether there are any other keys. I will return to court. Investigate this matter and report when you have solved it, or by tomorrow morning if the trail runs cold."

Most of the rest of Baia's hours were taken up with those unavoidable sundries of little importance that clog up the days to make them simultaneously busy and unproductive. But Tevan's trail did not run cold and by evening he was back at court, dragging three youths and their parents before the queen.

"These three are the ones who did it, without any doubt," said Tevan. "The parents of this one," he said, shaking one of the youths somewhat ungently, "have one of the emergency keys, and they have confessed."

Baia looked with astonishment at the three sulky-looking young men. Beardless, indeed! Sorean men usually shave, unless they are at a long sea-journey, when a beard is considered lucky, but the three were young enough that she could not imagine that they had very much experience shaving. "How old are?"

The three youths said nothing, but one of the parents said, "They are fifteen, Your Highness."

Baia looked at the three young men a long while as they looked everywhere but at her. Finally she said, "What I want to know is why anyone would do such a thing. Why did you do this?"

She had to ask the question again to get a response, but it consisted only in a shrug. Baia felt a flash of anger and had to bite back an immediate response. She looked into the distance and took a deep breath, then after a moment said, "You must have had a reason. What was your reason?"

One of the youths shrugged again and said, "It's just an old tower."

Baia, an only child who had never had children, had very little experience with young people of that age and the impossibility of getting coherent reasons from them about some of their actions. She found an angry bewilderment settling on her at this answer, and she felt her lips set firmly together in a thin line in a way that somehow. and irritatingly, reminded her of her own mother.

"We are bound together and to this realm," she said coldly, "by bonds and responsibilities that are not at our whims, that protect us and in return for which we provide protection. That tower was built by the skill and effort of our ancestors, and serves as a memorial to them, and that would of itself deserve our respect. It has contributed to the saving of lives and the furthering of our prosperity, and that would of itself deserve our respect. But most of all, it was interwoven with the pacts and the covenants to be a common expression of the realm, a protection for it, a treasure to benefit all, and as such it falls under royal protection." She felt herself getting angrier as she spoke, so she paused to take a breath before she continued. "Children," she said with somewhat more vehemence than she intended, "do not fall under royal jurisdiction, as far as your persons go; you are under the jurisdiction of your parents. But you have harmed the realm, and this cannot go unanswered."

She turned her attention to the parents and had Tevan give their names and positions as they shifted uncomfortably under her glare. Since the young men were too young to fall normally under the direct punitive force of the royal law, and to declare them enemies of the kingdom subject to martial penalties would be an overreaction, Baia had no choice but to make the punishment fall on the parents as those who were responsible for the fire under the law. She decreed that the parents of the three malfeasants were to rebuild the tower as new and pay for the complete cost of building a new ship for the Sorean fleets. It was a standard penalty for deliberate harm to a treasure of the realm. It was also a hefty penalty, even divided among three wealthy families, for Sorean ships were the best ships in the world, and the best ships are not easy to build. In combination with their normal expenses, it might well bankrupt them.

After she dismissed them, Baia sat by herself for a very long time, her anger transmuting to melancholy, dissatisfaction, and a strange sense of helplessness in the face of something she did not understand, and could understand less and less the more she considered it. Finally, she set it aside with a sigh, made a mental note to commend Tevan formally for his work, and went to bed.