Saturday, November 04, 2023

Fire Serpent and Water Mountain II


Finally the day came. At about noon the mirror in the hallway spoke.

"We apologize, but business that needed to be finished before our departure took longer than expected. We will be arriving in exactly four hours, and thank you again for the invitation."

After that, everything in the Hall was a flurry as everyone prepared for the visiting gods finally to arrive. Almost everything had already been done but, as often happens, the looming of a deadline threw everyone into chaos. Now that there was an exact time of arrival, everyone went over everything again to make sure that things were perfect. Uncle Llew went from room to room, issuing directions for any modifications he deemed fit. Finally he and Tera stood in the welcoming hall. All the lights were lit, there were new tapestries on the wall showing his heraldic name, Fire Serpent, in red and gold, and there were beautiful bushes in planters along the walls, blooming with red and yellow flowers. 

Llew looked around. "It lacks something." He said and did nothing else, at least outwardly, but Tera sensed the possibilities of the room shifting, the improbable becoming certain, and all of a sudden the lights were brighter, the colors on the tapestries were more vivid, and, more marvelously, the bushes all were taller and even more full of flowers. It was work of a kind only the gods can do, done beautifully and elegantly, as all of Uncle Llew's shiftings were, and also very subtle, because there were aspects of what he did with the possibilities that Tera could not quite see or feel. In her mind, she filed away a note to ask him more about it.

The guests arrived exactly four hours after their message. Standing slightly behind Uncle Llew, she had a good view of all three of them. In all her life, she had only met two gods before, if she did not count herself, her mother and her uncle, both of whom (unlike herself, she often felt) looked like gods. They were not quite beautiful, by the Davir standards of beauty with which she had grown up, but they were striking to see: golden-blond hair that smoothly waved here and there, dark blue eyes that always seemed to be looking past everything they saw, golden-honey-tanned skin, slimness of build, facial features that were delicate in a way that suggested a certain hauteur. You could imagine them as members of some strange ethereal race looking haughtily down on the lesser beings around them. In Uncle Llew, all this was accentuated now by his formal robes, which were blazing red with golden trim, his emblem-name blazoned on his chest. Tera had always assumed that this was just what gods were supposed to look like. But the guests looked nothing like that at all; they looked quite bland and ordinary in comparison. They were not striking at all. There was an older man, slightly stout, with brown hair. The woman had magnificent black hair that reached nearly all the way down her back but in all other respects was quite the ordinary matron. The young man standing slightly behind them, obviously their son, fared a little better, since unlike either of his parents he was handsome, at least in the awkward way teenaged boys often are, like a man still under construction. However, he looked fully as uncomfortable in his formal robes as she felt, and so also not much like a god.

All of this makes it sound as if Tera's primary impression of them was derived from their physical appearance, but this is not right. She took it all in at a glance, and it contributed to the overall impression, but what primarily disappointed her was that they looked, as she would have described it, 'flat and slow'. What had always been most striking about her mother was that she seemed more real than anything else around her, as if she were the only fully rounded object in a world drawn on paper. The possibilities of the world seemed to whirl swiftly around and in and through her in a way that made her stand out; Uncle Llew had the same flurry of possibilities, and perhaps to an even greater degree than her mother. But the three guests were flat in comparison. They were more rounded than the servants, who were flatter and slower; but the possibilities moving in and through and around them moved in slow, lazy swings.

But she filed all of this away, too, because formal introductions were being done. The gods have several names: a given name, a date-name that indicates the date of their birth, and an emblem-name that they get once they are Enrolled. For instance, Tera's mother's name was Arianrhod Seven-Klevy Metal Sun; her uncle's name was Llew Seven-Klevy Fire Serpent. Her own date-name was Three-Tery; she was not yet Enrolled, so she had no emblem-name yet. Except when distinguishing people with the name, the date-name was rarely used and the emblem-name used mostly for heraldic purposes, but they were all used in formal introductions. It was a very foreign way of naming things to Tera, not at all like the naming customs of Davir, and she still thought the formal names of the gods strange. The older man's full name was Manawydan Thirteen-Suly Wood Cougar; the woman's name was Rhiannon Fifteen-Mury Wood River; their son's name was Rhys Nine-Suly Wind Eagle. 

Rhiannon beamed at her when Uncle Llew introduced her. "Your mother and I grew up together," she said, "and you look so very much like her."

They all withdrew to the receiving room for conversation and light refreshments. The conversation was nothing to which she could contribute. It consisted entirely of comments about people and places in The City of the Gods, none of which she knew. It was for the most part quite dull. (That this was not purely a failing on her part was visible in Rhys's face, which also showed signs of boredom.) Nonetheless there was something more happening in the conversation than she could quite follow. Every so often there would be a sudden moment of awkwardness. For example, early on in the discussion, Uncle Llew remarked that he had asked the Embiadwe clan to make sure that the family estate of Brickanbreck would be fit and furnished for their visit.

"Yes," said Rhiannon brightly. "We regularly see them working on it and bringing in new furnishings."

"You  must live quite close, then," said Uncle Llew somewhat puzzled.

"Yes, we live by the lake down and around the way, at Abernant."

Uncle Llew, who had been raising a cracker topped with something to his mouth, paused. "That used to be a Muriaki estate."

This was where the first awkward moment occurred. Rhiannon and Manawydan looked at each other, then, Manawydan said, as if measuring his words very carefully, "Yes, that is different. It has been Wenovar for nearly a thousand years. A number of families moved off Wenovar Mountain, and some estates were traded around because of it. Since my father belonged to the Muriaki, we received Abernant. Not in the clan, but still in the family, so to speak."

Uncle Llew stared at and through his cracker a moment. Then, recollecting himself, he said, "My father was also Muriaki; I spent many a boyhood day at Abernant, swimming in the lake. There was a large rock not far from the shore a bit the north that had excellent fishing in those days." At this comment the awkwardness passed.

"Yes," said Manawydan, "it still does. I fish there regularly."

Then all the conversation for the next twenty minutes was fishing spots and the various mountain lakes in The City of the Gods. Tera garnered nothing from this, beyond the fact that The City of the Gods must be simply immense, since it seemed to include an entire mountain range. But similar awkward moments arose several more times, often at places in the conversation that seemed entirely random to Tera.

The guests went to their rooms to prepare for dinner, and then they had dinner and the conversation was very much like it had been before, except now it was interspersed with comments about the food. Tera couldn't contribute to this much, either. The food was good, but far inferior to Uncle Llew's cooking, and it seemed to her that it would be rude to the servants, who were after all trying their best, to say this. It was not their fault that they could not cook like a god.

After dinner, Uncle Llew said charmingly to Manawydan and Rhiannon, "I fear we are boring the younger ones with our reminiscences. I suggest that we continue over dessert wines and rum in the parlor, and Tera can give Rhys a tour of the gardens." They both agreed. Tera found something rather suspicious about the alacrity with which Rhiannon agreed, although she could not quite place why, nor say quite what it was of which she was suspicious, but it did not matter one way or another, since neither Tera nor Rhys could in politeness refuse.

It was a  nice late afternoon, and Uncle Llew had earlier brought the garden to a peak of picturesque loveliness; every flower was as beautiful as it possibly could be, every stone was improbably striking.  Because she felt it would be rude to walk in silence, she made a few comments about the garden and asked a few questions about Rhys's interests. One of these questions must have been the right one to ask, because he became voluble in discussing metalworking. Tera knew far less than he did about the subject; her background as a goddess-princess had of course involved no training at all in metalworking, and while Uncle Llew had tried valiantly to teach her how to shift the possibilities of metals, the lessons had taken their place near the top of the list of lessons she liked least. For the most part, she made noncommittal comments in response to his metallurgical enthusiasm and imagined that he probably thought her somewhat stupid. At least once, though, she knew she had said something right. He had been talking about some difficult project on which he was working and mentioned that it used nickel. She had responded that she hated nickel because it was like working with rock-hard butter, and she could actually see his estimation of her rising considerably. She did not know why.

They came to a graceful bridge over a babbling brook, where they stopped and quietly looked down at the water for a while. Then a somewhat curious looking came over Rhys's face and he turned to her with a smile. Tera might almost have called it sly and mischievous, almost as if he were deliberately deciding to do something he had been explicitly told not to do.

"Tell me," he said, "because I have to know. What is it like living with The Terror of the Gods?"

She stared at him. Then she said, "Do you mean Uncle Llew? What could possibly be terrifying about him? Why would they call him that?"

Rhys looked at her a moment, apparently disappointed in the answer. Then he turned and looked back down at the water. "I do not know the details, myself. No one seems to like to speak about it. They call him the Terror, and the Destroyer, and the Monster, and some other things. I get the sense that there was some great dispute, about a thousand years ago, and it went badly for everyone. I have heard," Rhys said confidentially, "that your uncle set Wenovar Mountain in The City of the Gods on fire." He shook. "But again, nobody seems to want to talk about it."

"I know nothing at all about it," said Tera. "Uncle Llew seems to me to be very un-terrifying."

They were silent some moments, then Rhys asked her some questions about her own interests, and they walked back to the house, talking about various trivial things.

Rhiannon and Manawydan and Rhys spent the night in the guest rooms, and were seen off in the early morning, Rhiannon insisting that Llew and Tera visit them at some point. 

"That seems to have gone well," said Uncle Llew afterward, "at least as far as I could tell. How about you?"

She agreed, but told him about Rhys's comments at the bridge.

"Hmm," said Uncle Llew, "I suppose that is not surprising." But he would answer no more questions and went down below to his workshop.

to be continued