I wanted to do something, even if only informally, for NaNoWriMo; I have a number of things I could revise, but I've wanted to get this story 'on paper', as the saying goes, for a very long time, and decided I would just try to get it down. It's not particularly original as a story, particularly the type of high fantasy it is, but perhaps that will make it easier to get out. Usually when I do something like this, I do another blog for it, but that complicates the writing, so I decided to experiment putting it here, at least once a week.
High above the sea-cliffs of Sorea, or so it is said, there were the white, sparkling spires of Neyat Sor, rising as if the sea-mist below had turned to flowing stone. The spires were tall, and caught the tone and hue of the light of sun and moon, casting it back in new form, rainbow-like. In the tallest of the towers of the castle was a small room within a balcony. It was a room mostly bare of furniture; it had a table with a map and a stand holding a multi-faceted crystal the size of an egg and a heavy chest in the corner, and that was all. The door to the room was usually locked, and only the King and Queen of Sorea ever had the key. By some power that has been lost in these lesser days, anyone who took the crystal in his hand and looked out from that balcony could see anywhere in the world that was touched by the ocean-sea. Far to the west he could see the Chipou shores, and on the waves the swift Sorean ships that no storm could sink and no rock or reef could founder. He could see the very secrets of the deep and, by some strange twisting of sight, around the shores to the far eastern bays of the Great Realm, and to the nearly endless sea beyond.
Disan, King of Sorea, often went there. Sometimes he went alone, sometimes with his wife and queen, Baia, and sometimes, as today, with the large castle raven, Ker, who was, as all castle ravens are, very conversable.
"I do not think so," said Disan. "They will not drive directly through the storm."
Ker croaked and cocked his eye at the king.
"Yes," said Disan, who knew the raven-speech well, "but men are certainly sinkable. They will skirt it, and it will take at least an extra day."
Ker croaked again, with the usual sarcasm of a raven.
"Well," said the king, "perhaps then we should send you out with them next time, so you can be a ship raven."
"No," said Ker. He was unamused enough to make the effort to say the human word, which he would have usually pretended not to be able to speak.
Disan laughed and looked a while at the sea. He felt a great peace, as if all were well. It is the feeling you have when you have come home after a long and difficult journey, for that was indeed what Disan had recently done.
The people of Sorea were generally accounted a handsome people, and their king was generally accounted handsome for a Sorean. He was tall, as Soreans often were, with the delicately pale skin, black air, and eyes with epicanthal folds for which Soreans were well known; but his eyes, instead of the usual dark brown, were grey. They were striking and clear and piercing. No one who ever saw them could doubt that they were far-seeing.
The door opened behind them, and Disan did not have to turn around to know who it was.
"My Queen," he said, still looking out at the sea.
"My King," she said, putting her arms around him and pressing her cheek into his back. She sighed. "It is good to have you here."
"It is good to be here," said Disan. "Too many days on ships and too many days in camps. It is nice to be home and do nothing." He cast a sly eye toward Ker. "Except making bets with Ker. When he loses he has to become a ship raven and actually work for his meals."
"No," replied Ker.
Disan laughed, and Baia hugged him before letting him go. Patting his back, she said, "We have had a message from King Envren. He will be here early evening tomorrow, at the latest."
He turned around and looked at her with surprise. "That is fast. What could possibly be his hurry?"
She shrugged. "Fortunately, preparations are mostly done. And if anything is rushed, I suppose they can hardly blame us given the suddenness of the visit, can they?"
He took her hand in his. "Come along, Ker," he said. "We apparently have work to do."
The raven hopped on his shoulder, and the three, king, queen, and raven, descended the tower stairs. On the walls were the tapestries, woven by an art now lost, with moving pictures of the great heroes of the House of Sorea. Here in vivid detail, Keran slew the Wolf of Fire by thrusting his sword into its mouth, thus becoming Keran One-Handed. There was Maia of the Pearls, wisest of all women, rescuing her father, King Belan, by outwitting the dragon. Here was a different King Belan, Disan's grandfather, leading a charge against the armies of the Court of Night. On and on, the stories of centuries, until at the bottom they came to a tapestry that had no pictures at all, although it was of all the tapestries the one most valued by the Kings and Queens of Sorea. It was black, dark as jet, as starless night. It was said to have been woven by Maia of the Pearls herself. They say that when she gave it to her father, he asked her why she had made a tapestry with no picture or pattern. "On this tapestry is the only universal pattern," she replied, "the final picture of all human life. For all things come to an end, and everyone falls into darkness."
The visit of another of the kings of the Great Realm was a major event. All of the castle was in a flurry activity the rest of the day, the kitchens continued preparations for most of the night, and in the space of the night between first and second sleep, Disan and Baia spent their time touring the castle to determine what else needed to be done instead of drinking lotus flower tea and talking as they usually did. The castle became fully awake before dawn, and shortly after sunlight peaked out from the east, a long line of messengers and tradesmen went back and forth between Neyat Sor and the harbor city of Soromir. Disan and Baia had ordered fine gifts from the artisans of the city, and they went in person to collect and pay for them (and, truth be told, to ensure that they were not cheated): a cunningly crafted sword with pearl-studded hilt, a casket of paragon-pearls of finest water, bolts of silk dyed in shimmering Sorean black, that rare and expensive color that can only be produced from the collected secretions of tens of thousands of the snails that thrive on the coasts of Sorea, and more. Then Baia and Disan both had to return for formal dress and preparation. Baia wore a dress, white and shimmering, embroidered with pearls, and a juliet cap of finest golden braid, pearls, and diamonds, all made especially for the occasion. Disan was in silk of Sorean black, with ceremonial armor, and strapped to his side his grandfather Belan's sword, a finely wrought weapon of orikhalh, more valuable than gold and stronger than steel. On his head was an orikalh circlet studded with pearls. The two together made a shining pair.
King Envren and his entourage arrived in the late afternoon, as the sun was swinging low. He came on a splendid stallion, for the kingdom of Ezrym had the finest horses in all the world, and beneath his road-stained riding cloak he wore fine red silk, for he too had had to prepare extensively to greet a fellow king. Disan and Baia met him in the outer courtyard as he dismounted.
"You are welcome, O Envren, son of Envren, son of Adven, to all of my hospitality and all of the hospitality of my queen and my people," said Disan.
"I thank you, O Disan, son of Rezan, son of Belan," said Envren in response, clasping Disan's arms, "and I account myself blessed to receive such generous hospitality." He smiled. "It has been too long since we last met." Then he turned to Baia, "I greet you, O Baia of Sorea, and thank you for your grace."
She thanked him, and then they gave each other gifts in the formal greeting ceremony between kings of the Great Realm, and then processed into the Great Hall for dinner. It was a grand affair, a rhythm of Sorean servants going in and out among the dark-skinned Ezryman knights as the music played and the jugglers juggled and the tumblers tumbled and the fire-breathers spouted flame. There was shark fin soup and sea cucumber, and dishes of fish, and, a special, imported delicacy, bear's paw to crown the feast, and then vast piles of cakes and sweet breads, and, of course, kegs and kegs of the finest rhodomel. Such feasts are rare, and, for all that it had been rushed, this one would be long remembered. It went well into the night, and then the kings formally said good night.
Before he went off to bed, however, Envren said quietly to Disan, "I hope there will be time tomorrow for a long conversation. There are things of importance that we must discuss."
Disan nodded. "We will have a long lunch in the inner gardens, as long as you require."
Later that evening, drinking tea before second sleep, Disan and Baia speculated about what could have brought Envren so suddenly to Neyat Sor, and what it could be that he wanted to discuss. But they could think of nothing, at least not in the short time before returning to bed, so they left it to uncover itself the next day.
The rulers of Sorea and Ezrym had lunch in the inner gardens. The inner gardens of Neyat Sor were renowned for their excellence. Every tree useful for fruit or beautiful for flower was found there, and every kind of lily and rose, white and gold and red and a thousand colors beside. Fountains fed into ponds in which lotuses flourished. During the day, it was bright, sunlight-bright, and looking above you saw a clear and vivid blue. But it was not the sky. There was no sun in it. If you visited it at night, it would be silver-lit as if it were full moon; but there would be no moon and no stars in the blackness of the vault above. The firmament of the inner gardens was of stone, and the whole gardens were simply a vast room. How they made what was indoors seem as if it were outdoors is something we no longer know. You would walk through the archway into the gardens, and it was as if you had stepped outside. Looking back, there was an archway through which you could see the hall you had just left, but all around it, on all sides, there was only garden, going on and on. For this characteristic was also found in every true neyat in the Great Realm: it was much larger on the inside than it seemed on the outside.
The two kings and the queen held a picnic beneath a great apple tree, just flowering, near a large fountain splashing into a pool. It was a light lunch, as Soreans deem it, for lunch is usually their primary meal of the day: small cutlets of lion and mutton, followed by fruits in season, and, to drink, a sweet rhodomel flavored with lotus.
"I wish I knew the secret of your rhodomel; it is far superior to any I have had elsewhere," said Envren after the meal.
"The brewmaster would revolt if I told any secrets," said Baia, "but I will have several casks made ready so that you can take some with you."
"I thank you, and I give you now the thanks my family will certainly have." He looked at them both a moment. "When I learned that Disan had returned, I decided to come here. I am taking a grave risk, but things have become serious enough that my choice seems to be between certainly losing or gambling to open up space for a win. What have you heard about the new fleet being built by the Tavrans?"
Disan and Baia exchanged baffled glances. "The Tavrans? Tavra is landlocked except for the Great Canal," said Disan. "Why would they be building a fleet?"
"And how?" asked Baia.
"Tavra is paying Andra to build three hundred fifty ships. It has been going on for at least three years now. They have been trying to keep it quiet, and doing much of the actual building abroad, but the Andrans are the worst secret-keepers in the world, because they can't just keep a secret but have to make an elaborate show about how well they are keeping it. If you have heard nothing at all about it, you should replace all your spies in the Andran court."
"We have no spies in the Andran court," said Baia.
"That is imprudent," replied Envren. "I assure you that every royal house in the Great Realm has spies in yours."
"Including your own," said Disan drily.
"Of course," said Envren, without hesitation. "Even though I did know your father, I would not be here taking this gamble if I did not already know a great deal about you and the kind of court you have." He shook his head at them. "You are both young, and here in Sorea you can easily come to think of yourself as far removed from the affairs of the other realms, but that is a mistake you must learn to correct. Power lies entirely in the ability to anticipate what the other houses will do, and you cannot anticipate if you are always surprised. In any case, the Tavrans are building a fleet. I do not know exactly why. Any report I can manage to get from the Tavran court is garbled and strange; old Canthan is still alive, but it seems that his daughter is the one really in charge these days, and she seems to have an extraordinary talent for secrecy. But the ships that are being built are not trading ships but warships. And it's not just the Tavrans and the Andrans. Which of the other houses are in on it is difficult to tell, but they are being backed by the Porphyry Mountain."
"You are certain of this?"
"There is no doubt of it; the High King is the one who initiated it all, and he has been slowly increasing his recruitment of soldiers and guards. Tavra, Tala, and Andra are all fully involved; I have definite suspicions about two other houses. I know that I am not involved, and I have positive reason to think that you are not involved, because Disan has been away and there has been no unusual activity here. And with the other five, petty politics among the houses makes it seem unlikely that they would be, although perhaps they are doing better at keeping the secret than they usually are. Three hundred fifty warships. Nobody suddenly builds a large number of warships unless they plan to use them. And that raises the important question. What fleets are there in the entire world that could stand against even twenty Andran warships?"
"There are none," said Disan. "With twenty Andran warships I could destroy any known fleet of any known power in the world. Such fleets don't exist. It makes no sense."
"Ah, but my friend, they exist. There are in fact fleets that could meet an Andran fleet in battle and stand a chance of winning."
Disan thought about this. "You are suggesting that they intend to use the fleet against the other kingdoms of the Great Realm."
"What other goal could they have? It is a like a cunning riddle. Only one answer is possible, but it is the unthinkable one. And yet the riddle is there, demanding that singular answer. The normal fleets of the Great Realm are more than adequate to chasing down pirates and terrifying tribes that break treaties. The only reason you would need something better is if those were the very fleets you were intending to fight. Could Sorea hold off the current Andran fleet and three hundred fifty more ships?"
"I do not know," said Disan.
"Our ships are better, our crews are better, some of them have considerably more experience with actual naval engagements," Baia said to him. "We would not be easy to defeat."
"All true," Disan replied. "And Sorea is more easily defensible than Andra. But I would prefer better odds." He thought a moment, and then said to Envren, "I take it you are not here just to tell us of all this. What is your plan?"
Envren spread his hands. "I wish had something more definite than 'prepare', but there are still too many things that are unknown. But I have reason to think that the High King is intending to sound you out, to see if you could be brought into whatever exactly their alliance is. There is the Great Council in two years, but I think you will be getting an invitation to the Porphyry Mountain very soon. I am here gambling that you are enough like your father to see the horror of a possible civil war for what it is. I have learned all that I seem to be able to learn. We need someone who might be in a better position than I to discover the details."
"You want me to accept and play double agent for you," said Disan, giving him a long look.
"I want you to accept the invitation of your High King, as you normally would, and uphold the Tablets, as you normally would. And just keep your eyes and ears open while doing so."
Disan nodded. "I suppose I could do something of the sort."
Envren smiled broadly. "You actually remind me in many ways more of your grandfather than your father. I was young when I knew him, but he was a great man. He was probably the greatest hero of the War against the Court of Night, and yet he was never haughty or arrogant."
"I once asked him if he had ridden a unicorn in the War, and he replied that a king does not ride a unicorn; he bows until it passes."
"That was the man," said Envren.
The talk turned to other things less serious. Later that day, when alone, Disan asked Baia what she thought of it all.
"He is definitely trying to use us for his political ends, whatever they are," she said.
"True enough, although that does not make any of it false. And he has a reputation for knowing practically everything that goes on."
"He could very well be paranoid."
"Also true; he has a reputation for that, as well."
"I suppose I could ask my father if he has heard any rumors," said Baia. "And as for the rest, I suppose we are simply waiting and seeing."
"And pretending to know less than we do," said Disan. "Which unfortunately might not be difficult, given how little that is. If he is right about what he is saying, it all could be worse than we thought."
King Envren left for Ezrym the next day. Three days after, a message came from the High King, asking Disan to honor him with a visit.