Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Abyss & Sea 19


For the next morning, the royals went down to the docks and boated around the Great Canal within the walls, talking, listening to music, eating greenhouse-grown strawberries and rhubarb with clotted cream. Disan spent some time talking with Zalan of Andra, although it was mostly polite chatting, and then with various others on more substantive matters. They then returned to the Porphyry Mountain, where Antaran corralled him; they then spent a considerable time in Antaran's office talking military strategy and tactics, as well as Disan's experiences fighting the tribes. Disan was not particularly happy about having to talk about the latter, which brought up many unpleasant memories, but he saw no politic way out of the discussion.

Eventually, however, Disan was saved by a steward entering and whispering in Antaran's ear. Antaran groaned and put his palms on his forehead, saying, "I forgot that I was supposed to meet Elea on the Southwest Garden." He groaned again. "And I have to talk to Xyly first. Elea is going to kill me." He looked at Disan. "I am sorry, old friend, but we will have to start up this discussion again at a later time." He grinned. "If I am not alive tomorrow, my friend, just know that Elea probably poisoned by dinner or something."

Disan, glad to be free of the obligation, went back to his room, intending to prepare for a small dinner in the Dracontine dining hall, but as he was deciding what to wear his eye settled on the squirrel-skin cloak, which he had packed with his other things. "I suspect I will regret this," he said. He folded it as thinly and small as he could, and made his way in the general direction of the Southwest Garden of the Khalkythra Palace. As most people were at dinner elsewhere, it was relatively deserted in that entire section of the Khalkythra. At the archway to the Southwest Garden, he looked around to make sure no one was in sight, and, putting the squirrel-cloak on, bounded into the garden to find a place to hide.

It was rather more difficult than he expected; no human being can without practice easily bound like a squirrel, even when by some strange sorcery they are one. Nothing felt right, nothing moved reasonably. His senses felt off, as if he were somehow seeing, hearing, feeling as both Disan wearing a cloak and a squirrel being a Disan. And the strange dream-like sensation, the strange sense of unreality, laced through everything, and disoriented him. But with some stumbling, he managed to bumble into the shrubs and, by a stroke of chance, found himself looking out not far from where Elea was sitting on a bench, obviously impatient and angry.

The both waited for what seemed like an interminable period of time, particularly to Disan, as it is not comfortable to be crouching like a squirrel if you are not used to it. Finally Antaran came striding in with some kind of bag in his hand, more confident and less sheepish than Disan, and, apparently, Elea, expected.

"I have been waiting and waiting," Elea said angrily.

Antaran dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "I was busy making plans with Disan, and then had to speak to Xyly to confirm some specifications for a shipment of swords, and then, as I was coming to see you, I came across this." He took the bag, and with dramatic flair unfurled it; and Disan realized with a chill down his spine that it was not a bag but a cloak like the very one he was wearing, although some kind of different material.

Elea stared at the cloak, unimpressed. "I do not understand."

"Ah, well," said Antaran with suppressed glee and deliberate delay, "there is a story to this. You are not going to like it, but if you prefer not to hear it, I can give you the summary. The summary is that I have succeeded where you failed, and this cloak is the token of my victory."

"Ever since you mentioned that Enver was missing, I have had men looking out for him. They found him. Quite by accident, I admit, since they were on their way back from Ezrym to admit their failure when they ran into him near Talamir. But I will still take the victory."

"And what does this all have to do with a ratty old cloak? I am sure you are dying to tell me."

"Ah, well," said Antaran. "I know you do not like my stories, so perhaps we should just leave it at that."

Elea groaned. "Just tell me and get it over with."

"Perhaps it is better if I show you rather than tell you." He threw the cloak over his shoulders and vanished. Elea gasped and rose, looking around to see him. Disan, too, peered around trying to see. Did this cloak make its wearer invisible? There was no squirrel. But suddenly there was movement: a gray mouse on the gray gravel. Elea saw it too, and stumbled back, and then suddenly there was no mouse, only Antaran. Then, in quick succession: Antaran, mouse, Antaran, mouse.

Antaran laughed at Elea's expression, her hand in stunned surprise over her mouth. He took the cloak and practically shoved it in her face. "This is astounding!" he said. "I would never have imagined that this was even possible. The wonders of which we have hardly any inkling! It is something from an ancient legend that nobody believes."

"It has to be something from the Court of Night."

"Obviously," said Antaran. Then he laughed again. "But do you not see the point? No wonder the man sometimes seemed omniscient! No wonder he knew things he could not possibly know! We spent so much time trying to weed out the Ezryman spies in our courts, and no matter how many we found, it never made a difference, and it never could have made a difference, because the man himself could stroll right in and hide under the cabinets or scurry through the walls. Have you ever in your life checked a room to make sure that no mice were listening? Would it ever have occurred to you to do so?"

Elea sat down again, heavily, on the bench in stunned silence. Finally, she said, "It is inconceivable, and yet I have seen it, and it explains so much. All the reports of his going missing for extended periods of time."

Antaran sat down beside her. "I have to give the man credit," he said. "It is an astounding advantage, and looking back, he must have played it beautifully well. I always credited it to a bizarrely competent network of spies, but that he could be anywhere is something beyond anything I could have imagined." He sighed. "We now know why your attempts failed; he at least already suspected them. But now the problem is solved."

"Is it?" said Elea reflectively. "We do not know how many of these cloaks the Ezrymans took from the Court of Night. For all we know, he could have an entire corps of men who can take the form of mice."

"I had not thought of that," said Antaran. "But you are right. Where there is one, there could be more." He looked around, and Disan huddled down under the shrub. But then Antaran shook his head. "But I do not think so. With power like this, who could he trust with it? -- Unless you are thinking of Adven."

"Why not? Would it not be logical?"

"Yes. Adven does not strike me as a clever spy, but who knows? We will have to track Adven's movements in the Mountain more closely."

"And from this point on, say nothing about our plans outside the vault until the rites are done."

Antaran considered this and then nodded. He rose. "I have not had dinner, and I am told they have a lovely bison steak tonight." 

Elea and Antaran left the garden, and Disan stayed a long while, his heart pounding. He then crept out, and after carefully peaking around both sides of the archway to be sure that no one was there, he took off the cloak and quickly rolled it up and put it under his arm as he headed in the direction away from the kitchens and dining hall. His mind was racing, and after some quick thought, he went down to a room that he remembered, which was usually know the Turquoise Fountain Hall, and folding the cloak as if it were a cushion, he sat on it on a bench. The Turquoise Fountain Hall was a room that received moderate traffic, and people went in and out. Indeed, the Maran king happened through on his way to some musical event or other and stopped and sat beside Disan for a few minutes, talking of his hope that Disan could arrange for him to buy several bolts of silk dyed in Sorean black for his wife; he was delighted when Disan offered to send the silk to him as a gift as soon as he returned. The king was delighted and, promising to think of some sufficiently lordly gift in return, he hurried off to his musical entertainments. A number of other people passed through, and eventually Disan, hoping that he had seemed sufficiently like someone just enjoying the sight of the fountain, and that enough people had seen him there in case someone had seen him earlier in that area of the Khalkythra Palace without his noticing, took up the cloak under his arm again and headed directly to his rooms. 

In the morning, there were demonstrations of equitations on the plain outside the Porphyry Mountain, and Disan found himself next to Adven. They discussed a number of things, and in the midst of it, Disan asked how Adven's father was doing.

"I wish I knew," said Adven glumly. "He comes, he goes, nobody knows where or for how long."

Disan felt a small pain in his heart, but did not dare say more on the subject. That afternoon the kings all met for more formal discussions of the proposals for Decrees of the Twelve Crowns. There were several on banditry and vandalism, which were commonly seen as spreading, but as is often the case with such documents, there was wrangling over last-minute ideas about changes to the wording, which had arisen in the course of the more informal discussions in the days before. The meeting went long, with occasional breaks, well into the evening, and felt infinitely longer, as committee meetings tend to do. But they eventually came to consensus, which is required for Decrees of the Twelve Crowns, and were glad of it.

The next morning, a grand ceremony was held in the Hall of the Khalkythra Throne, with similar pageantry to that of the opening ceremony, and the Decrees were officially and formally proclaimed as the law of the Great Realm, subordinate in majesty only to the Orikhalh Tablets. That night, there was a great feast, even greater than the first, with abundance upon abundance in endless profusion. But Disan paid much less attention to these things than he had before, and mostly just attempted to act as he ordinarily would, a husk of a Disan doing Disan-like things. In the morning, the official termination ceremony was held, and the kings began to prepare to leave. Before he himself left, Disan planned his timing so that he met up with Adven in the city.

"I have heard a rumor," said Disan, "that the High King has a strange cloak of mouseskin."

Adven stiffened, then looked around, and gave a small nod. His eyes were very sad, and Disan would occasionally remember them to the end of his life.

And with that, Disan set out for home. He was depressed, and did not sleep well the entire voyage.