Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Abyss & Sea 2

An invitation from the High King was not a minor thing, so Disan left the day after having received it. "The sooner to be back with you," he said to the somewhat exasperated Baia.

"If you continue your pattern of always being away, I'll have to kidnap you and hide you in the turnip cellar," she said.

"Believe me when I say that I would be happy to be in your turnip cellar," Disan replied.

But off he went, and as she watched the sails grow smaller, she sighed and said to herself, "This is the punishment for loving a king rather than a carpenter." She visited the market in Soromir, but her heart was not in it, and she soon returned to the castle. There she called the chamberlain, Sosan.

"I need to get out of this castle," she said. "Make arrangements for a Queen's Circuit to Mainland Sorea."

A Queen's Circuit, or, as it is called more formally, the Court of the Queen in Visitation, was rare because it was always a massive undertaking. That was, indeed, part of the reason Baia had called for one, since it would provide endless distraction while Disan was away. The King and the Queen are the heart of the realm, which is why the Tablets dictated that at least one should always be in any kingdom, and government is accomplished where they are. When the Queen sits in Residence, everyone must come to her for aid and justice. When she rides in Visitation, she goes throughout the kingdom to hear pleas and cases. By Sorean custom, the stationary and the moving court, the ordinary and the extraordinary, worked in different ways, being partially distinct in law and ceremony and wholly distinct in judicial practice. Appointments would have to be made, guards selected, messages sent out to prepare the people, traveling arrangements planned out, supplies inventoried for the journey. It was a week before they set out, and even getting through the preparations that swiftly was only due to Sosan pressing for it every waking moment.

But the busy week mostly kept her mind off the fact that Disan was away, except at night when there were too few distractions. She would toss and turn until she fell into troubled sleep. She would occasionally have nightmares, like nightmares she sometimes had when he had previously been away, of Disan drowning in the sea as ships cracked and broke apart as if they were made of matchsticks and sank beneath the waves. Then she would wake with a start, and a sort of relief, because, as a Sorean and as the daughter of a shipbuilder, she knew that Sorean ships were impossible to sink. But in the nightmare, the impossible felt real, as if the whole world had broken.

Traveling was less busy, in part because travel with an entire Court in retinue is one of the slowest imaginable ways to travel. But the sun was bright and the skies were clear. The spring breeze was bobbing around the legs and under the bellies of the horses, gleefully flapping every banner it could find. In a day and a half they had cross the Isle of Sorea, and then took another day to ferry across the channel to the mainland part of the kingdom. Once there, Baia became tangled up in the endless tedium of royalty. They would move to a sizable village. It would take much of a day to set things up, during which Baia had to meet with the headman and the council and be feasted; the food for the feasts was usually plain but always plentiful, and she had to taste everything and pronounce it good lest some cook somewhere be slighted. They would give her gifts, and she would distribute largesse with a will, having given instructions that the value of all of their gifts to her were to be estimated so that she could give them more, leaving no village poorer for having had her as guest. As the gifts were often skillfully crafted works of the highest quality, it was sometimes difficult to outpace the generosity of the villages. A steady stream of couriers and supplies had to flow between Soromir and the Visitation camp.

After everything had been set up, each day was much the same. Part of the day was hearing pleas and cases, ranging from trivial matters to old disputes turning on arcane matters of law, and part of the day was entertainment, both the Court entertaining the villagers and the villagers entertaining the Court. Baia found both parts of the day dull, but, she thought, at least she was away from the castle.

A few things did occur, however, that were very different from the ordinary, tedious work of royalty. At one point in the Circuit, about a week into it, the Court stopped not at a village but at an estate. As receiving the hospitality of a wealthy landowner is less time-intensive than receiving the hospitality of a village, and as cases were fewer, Baia decided to spend most of a day visiting nearby farms. It got her away from most of the Court, since she only took Sosan and a light guard of four men.

About an hour out, it became clear that there was a problem with the shoe on Baia's horse. Sosan sent one of the guards back to the estate to bring a replacement horse, but everyone else headed toward a farmhouse visible in the distance.

Usually it was not difficult to find the people on these small farms; there was usually someone at home doing the chores, and often quite a few. But it was quiet as they approached. Eerily quiet. Not only did there seem to be no people around, there seemed to be no animals, either, at least around the house. The house showed signs of recent repair and improvement, however; empty, it did not seem to be vacated, either. Baia knocked on the door, but the door swung open easily, and they were hit with a terrible stench. Sosan signaled two of the guards to go around to see what they could find around the back of the house, one on each side, and he and the remaining guard drew their swords.

"If Your Highness will please stand back and wait for us to determine that there is no threat," he said, as they entered.

Baia went down the steps and looked around, and saw something in the bushes. A few steps more and it was clear: some kind of dog.

"Hello, little one," she said. "What has happened here?"

The dog in the bushes said nothing. There was a little rustle, and it became clear that there were two dogs in the bushes. A third came out from behind a shed, and Baia slowly backed toward the house, because it was clear that they were not dogs at all, but wolves.

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

The wolves said nothing, but the two in the bushes crawled out, looking at her with a hot hostility, and the third approached from the other side.

Slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements, Baia drew her dagger from her belt. "Do you uphold the pact and the covenants?" she asked it.

"I uphold them, O Queen," the blade said in a voice of steel that sliced through the air.

"Then be flame for me," she said, pointing it at the nearest wolf.

The edge of the blade flickered, as if it were glinting in the sunlight, and then the whole dagger blazed into fire, a leaping flame, yellow-red with the steel at the heart glowing white-hot. As the wolves paused, she waved the brand at them and called out for Sosan. Sosan appeared almost immediately with the guard who had gone into the house with him, and another of the guards came running from around the side of the house.

Now outnumbered, and facing fire, the wolves backed away. But there was some kind of madness in their eyes and they did not flee. They backed away slowly, growling, and then suddenly attacked. One yelped as Baia's flame blade hit its nose, and the second died on Sosan's blade immediately, thrust with precision through its maw; the third was dispatched soon afterward, and the first, with the singed nose, turned and fled.

"Be still," said Baia to her dagger, and it the flame died, the white-hot steel becoming cherry-red, and it began slowly to cool down to its normal color. "They were feral, or rabid," she said, half wonderingly.

"I have never heard of any behavior like it," said Sosan. He shook his head. "Nor are they the only strange thing. There are three people dead in the house."

"And another in the pigsty," said the guard who had come around the side. "With the pigs all torn to pieces."

The remaining guard returned. "There is a dog that has had its throat torn out," he said.

"Let me see it all," said Baia, "starting with the house."

*****

Although Disan as well as Baia was traveling, he had much less work to do. Soreans make no distinction between royal flagships and royal castles, so whereas Baia had to switch from Court in Residence to Court in Visitation, Disan did not; he remained in Residence, just on a ship rather than in a castle, and with a change from Court to Small Court. The Small Court consisted of the king with his selected advisors and guards, to which were added the captain and crew of the ship, with the captain having the temporary status of chamberlain. It was an elegant and efficient system, and perhaps all the better for the fact that it always led to commoners suddenly ascending on high to become temporary courtiers simply for being boatswains or quartermasters. It was not entirely unheard-of for temporary to become permanent; the Soreans, who held that the life at sea was a noble one, saw nothing inappropriate in a rough sailor, if intelligent enough, becoming advisor to a king. Other kingdoms took it as yet another sign that Soreans were unpolished and provincial, the sophistication of the Sorean Court hardly more than you would expect from a surprisingly wealthy village council.

The duties of a king on a ship are far from elaborate, but Sorean ships are very swift, so hardly more than four days had passed before the ship turned from coastal sea into the Great Canal. While the Great Canal was wide and deep, and its artificial banks, unlike those of a navigable river, perfectly straight and predictable, sailing it was necessarily slower than sailing the sea, in part because of the greater traffic. It was a quiet and uneventful journey, and they reached Talamir in three days.

The voyage gave Disan time to consider a great many things, and his mind often returned to something that had happened when he had been overseas, about which no one except Baia and himself knew.

Disan and his men had been supporting the Chipou tribes with which Sorea regularly traded against tribes further inland that had begun to loot and pillage on Chipou lands. It had been a long and grueling campaign. The marauding tribes were no match for the vastly superior armament of the Soreans, but they had very little unified structure, and it seemed as if every time one gang of bandits would be put down, a warlord would arise, and when he was put down, a minor invasion would begin elsewhere. The marauders tended to avoid straight battle, and more than a few times the Soreans had been forced to fight their way out of an ambush. It could all have gone much worse than it did, but fortunately, Soreans are very adaptable, and they learned very quickly; they soon began returning the favor.

The battle that broke out after one such Sorean ambush had been quite intense; the ambushed group had been nearly three times as large as scouts had thought, due to several different groups unexpectedly coming together. The battle had quickly spread to nearby woods, and there was considerable confusion as the enervating and camouflaging mists called up by the Sorean chanters drifted across the expanding battlefield, reducing visibility. In the air one could hear cries of fear and the groans of dying men. Disan, chasing down one of the marauders in the heat of the fight, had unwisely let himself be separated from his guard. The marauder went down easily before his sword, but only then did he realize that he had no clear notion of where his men were. Castigating himself for having lost his head, he cocked his head in an attempt to find the direction of the fight, but everything had gone strangely silent. There were no sounds of battle. There were no birds in the trees. A steady breeze blew past, but entirely silently. All that he could hear was his own breathing and the beating of his heart. He wiped his sword on the grass and attempted to retrace his steps.

A fog was drifing through the trees, but it was an ordinary fog, not a chanter's mist; it shrouded the mossy branches and slowly wet the stones. The silence grew thicker still, and suddenly Disan had come into a glade. In the midst of it was a stone building, but it was not in the style of the Chipou, nor any other marginal tribe or clan in the realm of barbarians. It was like a shrine in the full style of the Great Realm, except he could not tell to what Power it was dedicated. Its door stood open, wide and black. A light, whispering breeze blew from the door, and it whispered, softly but clearly: "Disan, King of Sorea."

He stood before the door, uncertain what to do. The breeze whispered again, "Disan, King of Sorea." He looked back across the glade, but it was untraversable, covered with rosebushes growing up to a man's chest. The roses were larger than any Disan had ever seen, larger than the finest prize blooms of the Great Realm, more red than blood, and the thorns on the vines were as long as a man's thumb.

Torches on each side of the door burst into flame. The breeze whispered a third time: "Disan, King of Sorea."

Gripping his sword, Disan had taken a deep breath and entered. As he stood on the deck now, looking at the Porphyry Mountain rising above the walls of Talamir, he brooded over what he had found there, and wondered what his best course of action would be.

Talamir was the greatest of cities. It was constructed in seven great walled rings, the outermost wall of which seemed to go on forever to both sides as you approached it. It gleamed brightly in the sun, for although the wall was stone, it was plated with splendid and beautiful orikhalh. The orikhalh plates were very thin, like gold foil, but they were as strong as steel plates several times thicker would be. It had taken many centuries even for the Great Realm to sheath its walls with that most royal of metals, and nowhere else in the world could you possibly find such a thing, because orikhalh itself can be found nowhere else.

The area within each ring, until the central one, was split into two. The area closest to the outer wall was navigable canal; the area near the inner wall was land, except for at the large canal gates, and filled with houses and palaces and marketplaces. Further and further in they went, until they came to the final wall, which had only a small strip of land and many piers. Disan, his advisers, and his guards traveled on land from there to the final gate, the only land-gate in the city, and entered the circle that formed the heart of Talamir and of all the Great Realm. There were no houses, no markets, just, near the gate, the Oracle of the Sun, and beyond that, just a road across a plain, for the most part very gently rising, leading to the Porphyry Mountain, the greatest of all human palaces that ever have been or ever shall be.

The Porphyry Mountain's name was not a lie. It was the highest summit east of the Khalad Mountains, not large as mountains go, but certainly higher than even a high hill. Walls and towers began around its base, then rose all the way up its slope, on every side, as if it were somehow one large, ever-rising fortress, up to the Pinnacle Towers clustered at the peak. But all of this was only the outer shell of the palace; most of it was inside the mountain itself, hollowed out by arts we no longer know. As it was a true neyat, larger within than without, and had been expanded in nearly every generation for a thousand years, nobody knew how large it was inside, or how many rooms it held. Perhaps there was no definite answer. The Khalkythra Palace, which consisted of the royal apartments and the main rooms of state from which the Great Realm was governed, had several thousand rooms; but it was only a small part of the whole. To know the Porphyry Mountain is to know that you are small in comparison with the glory of the Great Realm.

But it was like a second home to Disan, who as a child had often been sent there during the summers to keep company with his fourth cousin, the young Prince of Tala, who was now High King. The human mind can grow accustomed to the most sublime things: the depths of the ocean, the stars of the sky, the Porphyry Mountain. As Disan approached, he did not feel awe or amazement, but only nostalgia and the pensive melancholy of memory.

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