Monday, November 11, 2019

Abyss & Sea 4

Let's see if I can get this started again. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The High King sat, and then Disan across from him, and then, in a flowing motion, Elea next to the High King. Disan had to suppress a smile; the Princess's manner was as artless as her artfulness could make it. Antaran leaned forward.

"I am told that King Envren visited you recently. How is he? Last I saw him, he seemed to be behaving oddly."

"Jumpy, too quick to startle," the Princess put in.

"He seemed well enough," said Disan, and he paused, trying to assess the room. "Of course, he did have a complicated story about Tavra and Tala building a large fleet that could be used against other kingdoms."

Antaran and Elea glanced at each other, and Antaran relaxed back with a smile, as if Disan had passed a test. "Well," he said, "he is right about the fleet, although not about the purpose. When you were away, we started building a fleet with the Andrans. We have run into a problem with it, however. A month ago, an Andran ship was caught by a storm and it sank."

"That's not possible," said Disan. "The Andrans have the secrets of the unsinkable ship; they stole them from Sorea several generations ago."

"So we were told, as well. Yet the loss of the ship is certain, and we are worried that the Andrans have been playing us for fools, promising ships that won't sink, which are not at all cheap, and skimping on the actual building so that they could pocket the profit. You know what they say. To make wire, give two Andrans one coin."

"That is their reputation, but surely they would have the sense to know that they would be found out."

"Which leads to the second theory, which is that they are simply incompetent. I will be honest with you, my friend. My first impulse when we began to think of building the new fleet was to go to the Soreans. But you were away across the sea and some people"--here he glanced with meaning toward Elea, who ignored him--"thought that your Queen might be hesitant to agree to such a large undertaking in your absence. But ever since we have been plagued by complications and delays and now this egregious failure of an unexpected test, and while you've returned, we have made little enough progress and and what gains we have made are plunged into certainty. We should have waited for your return. You were always the person we needed. Besides, the Andran royal court is cramped and unimaginative. For a bold undertaking, we need someone bold."

"You still have not told me what this 'bold undertaking' is."

"You have been out in the world," said Elea. "You have met the barbarian tribes in treaty and in battle, not through emissaries, but in person. You have tramped across a significant portion of the Great Continent. And as the King of Sorea you have more news about all the rest of the world than any of us combined. Is there any society on the face of the earth that rivals ours in strength and prosperity."

"None. That is, in fact, why Envren said that you must be planning conquest of the other kingdoms."

Antaran laughed. "Why would I try to conquer the Great Realm? I already rule it."

"King Envren has become paranoid in his old age," said Elea. "He excels everyone in observation, but he is no longer as swift to the right interpretation as his legend would suggest. You need a fleet not merely to conquer armies but to ensure prosperity as your power expands."

"Surely you are not going through all of this trouble to hunt pirates and smugglers? We could do that simply by providing occasional support to our allies."

"We are not doing it specifically to fight anyone at all, although there will doubtless be some fighting. But you have been out in the world. Is there not already too much fighting among all these barbarian nations."

"There is a vast amount," Disan admitted.

"And that raises a question. What would stop it?"

"The fighting? Nothing, I imagine." Disan paused. "But you are suggesting that we would stop it."

"Exactly," said Antaran. "Look around us. We are overflowing with an abundance that the outer realms could not possibly imagine. The magnaneries of Tala produce finer silk for farmers than the kings of the barbarians can afford for themselves. Compare the finest palaces of their wealthiest chieftains to Neyat Sor, or Neyat Andar, and they are shown to be little more than barns. We are arts of which they have never even dreamed, resources which are to them but whispers in a legend. Do they have a city than compare to Talamir or to Mir Ezrym? We sit here in the light, and there is a world out there huddling in the darkness.

"And yet, though we are in the light, we rot. It is all stagnant. We are built for great deeds, but what great deeds are there to do? Our ancestors did things of wonder. Our grandparents fought the Court of Night and won. How can we match them? But to enlighten the world -- is that not a great deed? Is it not something that none of our ancestors ever did, or ever dared to do?"

Disan looked thoughtfully across the balcony to the dome of the Oracle of the Sun, which had lost its gleam and was growing more shadowy under a purpling sky. "Is it even possible?" he said slowly. "The Orikhalh Tablets forbid the founding of any empire beyond the shores given to us by the Powers."

"The Orikhalh Tablets are ancient. Can any law be valid that long? All other things change. The Great Realm is a living thing; it cannot be governed by a rigid rule forever. As for the Powers, who has seen them in any recent years. They came to our grandparents and asked for help, and our grandparents helped them, and who has spoken to them since? And that is one time in centuries. When was the last time anyone heard the Voice of Fath? We have been children under the Powers, but some day we must become adults, throwing our tutelage. How is this not the time? We have grown so powerful, we could overthrow the Court of Night. What is there that we cannot do?"

"We had help against the Court of Night."

"Yes, we but we have only grown in power since," said Elea. "And throughout the world, you would look in vain to find anyone who is our peer, much less our superior."

It was growing dark. Antaran snapped his fingers, said, "Light!" and pointed, and a brazier lit and glided over to where he pointed. "Is there anything more splendid than being able to make light? We three could enlighten the world. Think about that."

"It has a certain fascination to it," said Disan. "How many ships would you need?"

Antaran smiled broadly. "It is a big world. As many as you could make. The agreement with Andra was for three hundred fifty, but if you can do more, we will take more."

"Our forests cannot supply anything like the timber for a fleet that size. And somehow I suspect that in this case the Andrans would be reluctant to let us cut down theirs."

"They may have little choice in the matter," said Antaran. "But my thought is actually that if we are going to build a fleet for the world, there is a world of forests out there. There are bound to be places that are suitable for new shipyards."

Disan nodded slowly. "We have thought at times of building outposts for ship repair, to service the other kingdoms allies and those handful of foreign allies who have fleets of their own. What you are suggesting is on another scale entirely, but there are places that might be right for it."

The High King seemed very pleased. "You have the right idea." He thought a moment, then looked at Elea. "Obviously there is a great deal to consider in this. Perhaps we can give you time to think about it, and then we can start formalizing the agreement to build the ships, the shipyards, everything."

"We have been quiet about this so far because we do not wish to bring the full plan before the Ten and Two without having the essential elements in place," said Elea, "Tala, Tavra, Andra, Sorea: these are the only Houses who have knowledge of the fleet and its purpose..."

"Frankly, we should have found some way to keep the Andrans out of more of it," interrupted Antaran; "Zalan is an idiot and has no doubt let out more than he should...."

Elea, ignoring him, continued: "...and we have sounded out a few of the other Houses about smaller details in the plan..."

"...like extending elsewhere what you've done with the Chipou tribes..."

Elea, continuing as if the High King had not spoken: "...but the essentials need to be held close to the chest. With something this size, everyone will know something is happening, as Envren does, but not everyone can know everything until the time is right."

"Besides, it will impress more if they have spent a while puzzling over it before we lay it before them at the Great Council," said Antaran.

She finally glanced at him. "That is very true." And she smiled at Disan. It was a truly lovely smile, beautifully crafted.

"You need have no fear on my part, Princess," said Disan.

"Not a word of it unless Elea has cut off all possibility of eavesdropping," warned Antaran. When Disan nodded, he said, "Well, we will not keep you from your evening rest. No doubt it has been a long day."

"I will need to open a doorway for you in the shield," said Elea, rising. She went to the door, followed by Disan, and she raised her pendant again, muttering something. "You can step through."

Disan did, and turned to say his goodbye, but the Princess was already raising her pendant again, muttering whatever invocation touched off the magic of it, and Disan was startled to see the doorway, and the room beyond, suddenly hidden in an impenetrable darkness.

He made his way to his rooms.

****

Sosan came to Baia in a moment when she had a moment between morning magistracy and afternoon entertainments.

"I sent messengers to a number of villages for the inquiries you requested," he said. "There have been rumors of sightings of wolves, but nothing definite or reliable, and no one has come across other deaths like those at the farmhouse. But villages along the road near the farmhouse say that it is a route commonly taken by merchants selling honey, sugar, and flour from Tavra. Beyond that, we have found nothing. It may be all we will ever find."

"Tavra," said Baia reflectively. "That would make sense." She thought a moment. "I would like regular reports on any news we get about Tavra, paying special attention to merchants from there. Perhaps it was a singular affair, but it would be better to be prepared if there is a tainted trade source. What are we doing about the wolves?"

"I set a group of rangers to scout the area; they have found nothing."

"Increase the area; otherwise I will have nightmares of wild wolves coming upon children. And we will keep looking on both fronts until we find something, even if only a tenuous bit of evidence for an unlikely speculation. This is not something I want to stay a complete mystery."

"As you wish, my Queen."

Baia sat in thought for a long while, trying to piece everything together.

It had all begun for her when Disan had returned from his time abroad, a little older, a little wearier, but more handsome than ever, if possible, and with the same dry humor in his striking grey eyes. She had been worried that a year of battle and hard living might chase that light away, and she was boundlessly relieved to find that it had not. But after her relief had quieted, she did notice differences. He was graver, as if his responsibilities had increased, and seemed more cautious, or perhaps more wary, of everything, as if he had some grave secret in his keeping. She waited for a few days to see if he would tell her on his own, and when she concluded, exasperated (he was always slow to tell his problems to her), that he would not, asked him one night in the space between first and second sleep.

He had sighed. "I have been wondering how to tell you about it," he had said. "I myself do not fully understand what it means. But while I was away, I had an...an experience, of sorts; whether a vision or something else, I know not."

After an intense battle, he had said, he had become separated form his guard and become lost. While trying to return to his men, he came across something like a temple, far more advanced in its architecture than could be expected from any of the tribes in the area. And out of the doorway, yawning like a black mouth, came the words, "Disan, King of Sorea." Then all around vast rose bushes preventing his retreat. He entered into a long, dark passageway, sloping somewhat steeply downward. At first there was no light except what filtered past him from the doorway, but he soon became aware of a strange bluish luminescence along the walls, preventing the passage from becoming completely dark. And soon he came into a large room, still dark, but just barely lit by the luminescence.

"I say a room," he said, "but it was more like a cavern; when I hit my foot on a stone, it echoed."

Standing there a moment, he had wondered what to do, but had soon realized to his surprise that despite the dimness, he could somehow make out pictures on the wall, and, what was more surprising, that he could recognize the stories they told. Miles beyond count from home, here were stories learned by all of the children of the Great Realm, of things accomplished by forces so old their names were hardly spoken from the sanctity of them. Here were the first ancestors, huddling in a cave, visited by The Kané with the gift of fire; there Fulné and Trethin raised the Great Realm from the sea, and there again Fath and Fulné bringing the huddled men and women to their new home. There in pictures was the story of the Lady and the Old One, whose names no man knows can know, teaching the arts of civilization: the gifts of steel, of orikhalh, of loom, of neyat, of volor, of impermeable silk, of unsinkable ship, of chantment capable of mastering water, air, and fire. Here Fulné brought the Soreans of the sea, and there Trethin brought the Khaljans of the mountains, and the joining of the Two to the Ten, the building of Talamir, the cooperative work on the Porphyry Mountain to make it the greatest of all palaces imaginable to the human mind. There was the giving of the Orikhalh Tablets and the establishing of the pacts and the covenants, and the people swearing before the Powers to uphold them. Hundreds more followed, heroes and kings battling khalkhythra and dragon, and uncountable more great deeds done by his people. But when he had reached the pictures that spoke of the kings of the Great Realm for the first time leaving their island in person to fight the Court of Night, a great,deep voice spoke through the dark air, as if it were coming from all points simultaneously, even reverberating from inside and casting him down to his knees.

Hail, Disan, King of Sorea. Do not fear. Do you know the Voice you hear?

And Disan had said, "It is the Voice of Fath."

Listen now, Disan, to the Voice of all Powers that guide the working of the world: For three transgressions and for four, we have borne patiently the wickedness of your people. For three transgressions and for four, we have awaited for the words of repentance. We called your grandfathers to the War of Night, to bring finally to nothing the corruptions of the terrible Court; with all the free peoples of the world we called them. And we laid this rule and this alone on them: that they should not take from the Court of Night anything unless we permitted it. But the kings of all the Houses saw the power of the Court of Night, and the greed of their hearts won out, and they took, hiding them in secret. And among the things they stole was an abomination beyond all other things, which even now sits in the darkness, rotting the heart of the Great Realm. The law we gave to your ancestors was writ in orikhalh, which neither rusts nor fades; how then has the law in your hearts rusted and faded? Do not the people of the Great Realm even now reach out their greedy hands with violence and death in their hearts? For three transgressions and for four, judgment shall surely come upon you all.

"What do you wish of me?" Disan had asked, out of breath from the forcefulness of the Voice.

For now, only this: Let your blindness fall away; let your deafness be no more; let your mind take thought to the corruption beneath the splendor. Listen and see, and be a fool no more.

Disan had then been thrown to the ground unconscious, as if a great weight had collapsed upon him, and when he awoke, he was in the sunlight, on a little grassy knoll in the wood, with the temple nowhere in sight. He found his men shortly afterward.

When he had told her all of this, Disan had put his head on her shoulder and sighed. "I do not know if you can understand," he said wearily and in a low tone, "what it is like to have the Voice that cannot be denied tell you, as if it welled up out of your very being and everything around you, that you have been a fool."

Baia, remembering all of this, and especially Disan's head upon her shoulder, said to herself, "There must be something more here, something we are missing. Twice now Tavra has been named in strange doings, so that is where we must inquire."

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