Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Abyss & Sea 5


Disan returned to his rooms, elegant but sparsely furnished. He looked around as he readied for bed and felt vaguely unsettled. Perhaps it was the discussion, perhaps it was the room itself, which seemed familiar to him, somehow. He did not expect to get to sleep easily, but he must have been more tired than he had thought, because he went to sleep almost immediately. But when he woke in the middle of the night, reflected on the earlier discussion. The essentials need to be held close to the chest. Yes, and what essentials were the High King and the Princess hold close so that Disan himself would not see them? There is a feature of certain conversations whereby they flow around gaps without acknowledging them, and Disan had had the clear impression throughout of something being unmentioned.

Antaran had mentioned the Court of Night earlier that day, and it had arisen again; and Elea's pendant was, she had said, something from the Court of Night. 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. Disan's mind went back to the stories his grandfather, Belan, had told him of those days, and they rose like tableaux in his imagination: the Golden Dragon and the Black Dragon fighting in the distant sky, with the lightning around them and their voices like thunder and the wind of their wings gusting everywhere like a storm; the Unicorn-King rearing on the hill, silver against the dark night, a blazing light seeming to pour from his head and reach to the stars; charging and retreating in shifts during the days and nights of fighting against an enemy that seemed never to tire and to be endless in number; the chanters, too, chanting in endless shifts until they were hoarse, spreading over the land an enervating mist, sending glamors here and there to disorient the foe, and, finally, cracking the ground and walls around the Unbreachable Gate so that it fell outward with a noise like the screaming of a great beast. But in all of the stories King Belan had told, Disan could not recall one that said what had happened when they had won.

Musing on such things, Disan drifted off to second sleep.

The morning fast-breaking consisted of strawberries and cream. The strawberries were such as only grow in Tala, as large as a fist, yet firm and vibrantly red, with small achenes and a taste finely balanced between tart and sweet and a scent that was intensely fresh in the way only the best strawberries are. Disan liked them so much that before heading out to meet the High King, he hunted down the steward to arrange to buy a crate and send them to those of his men who had stayed with the ship.

The primary event for the day was a visit to the great amphitheater that Antaran had recently finished building to see the games, but, of course, the involvement of a royal court makes any such thing vastly more complicated. An entire procession had to be organized, complete with relevant protocols. Antaran and Disan, as reigning kings, took the forefront of the procession, Disan having the honor of riding as passenger in the chariot of the High King himself. It was a splendidly crafted two-wheeled vehicle of bronze and copper, brightly gleaming in the sun, and drawn by two high-stepping and long-legged steeds. There was room in it for three, but Antaran had an impatience with being driven, so insisted on driving it alone with Disan; they were followed by two chariots in parallel carrying the guards of the kings. After them came another chariot of similar design, carrying the Princess of Tavra and two of her guards, one driving and the other, one supposes, on watch. Then came a long line of notables of various kind and eminence, each in their place.

The procession went out to the Oracle of the Sun, where the kings, the princess, and various high nobles left it to enter the domed building. It was cylindrical, supporting a large coffered dome of concrete and shining orikhalh rising above its cella, the largest such dome in the world. At the top of the dome was an oculus to the sky, into which the sun would directly shine in the middle of the day. It was an old building, possibly older than the Porphyry Mountain itself, and its style of architecture was old enough to be foreign; it was impressive, but from the outside seemed small and oddly proportioned in comparison to the kinds of buildings that had since come to be preferred. Inside there was no furniture on the floor at all; it was simply a round room. But it was the most holy of all the places in the Great Realm. The Orikhalh Tablets, the highest of high laws, adorned the walls all around. The air seemed full of the air of higher things. Here the pacts and the covenants were formed. Here the first High King had sworn before Illimitable Heaven and the Powers of the world to uphold the law of the Tablets. Here was the place where each and every king and queen of the Great Realm became king or queen, anointed in the noonday sun before the laws writ in imperishable orikhalh. Disan had last been here for his own anointing as king. Baia too had been anointed as queen here, two years later, although Disan had not been able to attend -- it was written in the Orikhalh Tablets that at least one anointed king or queen, as long as there was one, must be within the borders of each kingdom.

Every anointed king or queen visiting the Oracle of the Sun renewed their vows before the Tablets, so this is what Antaran and Disan. Another time, it might have been moving, but recalling the discussion of the night before and Antaran's dismissal of the Tablets made the holy vow seem profaned and cheapened, and made Disan himself feel low and hypocritical.

Afterward, they proceeded to the amphitheater. Disan had never seen it finished before, and he was staggered at the size of it; it could easily have held fifty or sixty thousand spectators, perhaps more. When he mentioned this to Antaran, the High King beamed.

"Yes," he said, "it is as splendid as my father and I could make it. We wanted it to be an omen for the great things that we will achieve in the future."

The kings and the princess had the best seats of all, the royal pavilion, which, though small, gave them more room than the ordinary spectators had. People had been arriving since early morning, and inside there was a large a tightly packed crowd. It was crowded enough that it would no doubt become very hot as the day went on; the royal pavilion had an awning, and high above the vast stadium there was an awning mounted on an elaborate rigging that Disan, Sorean and lover of ships by nature, could not help admiring, but during midday many of the seats with a better view would no doubt be directly in the sun. The place was also very noisy, not only from the crowd but from the music. There were musicians in every tier of the amphitheater; those in the highest seats surely could not see the arena itself very well, nor hear much of anything at all, but they had trumpets and drums and other musical instruments of strange kinds we no longer have in our degenerate days, and as events happened below the musicians played according to cues that were signaled up the stands by flags. Those too far away to have much of the experience could nonetheless capture some if it by sign, in the reactive sounds of the crowds below, in the flags, the different signals of which the the regular attendees knew by heart, in the musical accompaniment.

When they entered, there had been some sort of chariot racing going on below; as the kings and princess sat, some trumpets rang out, apparently as a signal to finish, because in a few minutes the arena had cleared. Then a deep sound resounded forth, not a trumpet but a great shawm, rumbling through the stadium. There was a moment of silence and then a flurry of similar flags, all large and red and shaped like a long isosceles triangle, sprang across the tiers like a leaping fire from signaler to signaler. Brightly sounding trumpets began echoing in response.

"Ah, the hunt!" shouted Antaran above the noise, clapping his hands. A number of armored archers and spearthrowers came out on the field; there was a pause; and then there was a roar of enthusiasm from the crowd as large sleek shapes suddenly darted out of the gate, blurs of orange and white and black, great tigers roaring with rage. Swiftly ran the cats; swiftly flew the arrows; then flew the spears. The arrows struck home again and again, but it usually required several arrows to bring down one, and one of the tigers, swifter than the rest, had almost reached one of the archers before brought down by a spearthrower's spear. A steady stream of animals followed, with the hunters and weapons occasionally changing: lions, jaguars, wild boars, wolves. One of the most popular contests pitted a bear against three men with nets and long spears. But the one the crowd loved most was a hippopotamus against a dozen men with assorted weapons. The hippopotamus severely wounded two of the men before it was taken down, although not fatally; when, with the help of their companions, they rose and limped off the arena, the cheers and shouts of approval from the crowd rose to deafening volume.

Eventually the music shifted, becoming richer and more complex. Square yellow flags began springing up the tiers. Servants brought the royals wine cooled in special pots and roasted chickpeas and pastries. The entertainment moved from hunt to fight. First there were individual and small group fights. The fighting was intense and complicated, although from his excellent seat Disan, familiar with real fights, could tell that some of it was choreographed. After the small fights, a great battle was staged. Here and there throughout there were men with lion masks, from which Disan guessed that the battle was representing the defeat of the Rogue King of Andra, who was said to have, over a thousand years ago, raised an army against his fellow kings.

After the battle, there were dancers and acrobats, signaled by blue rectangles and a music that was much more leaping. Then the shawn rumbled out again and green trapezoids were raised, and the crowd, while not quiet, became much more hushed. Fighters came out and fought, and Disan could see that it was not choreographed; they were competent but clumsy, the blows were much more like what you would see in a real fight, and the movements of the fighters carried an air of intensity. Then one of the fighters ran the other through with his sword. Disan, mouth open, half-rose from his seat, but as the crowd roared with approval and excitement, he sank back down.

"What is this?" he shouted to Antaran over the noise.

"The fights of the condemned," Antaran shouted back. "Murderers and rapists and the like in fights to the death."

Disan watched with a sick feeling in his stomach as a succession of men fell to their deaths to the enthusiastic screaming of the crowd. That they were criminals did not console him at all, because when a murderer dies, he does not die with 'murderer' blazed across him, but simply dies as a man dies. After the twelfth man fell, the shawm rumbled out again, and there was a pause on the floor. Then golden equilateral triangles raced up the tiers and the music became much more festive and enthusiastic.

"Prize fight between volunteers," shouted Antaran to Disan. "The survivor gets a wagon full of gold and a small pension for life."

Indeed, they brought out, under heavy guard, precisely such a wagon, displaying its contents to those in the crowd close enough to see. Two fighters came out and began to fight. They were both clearly well trained and the fight went on quite long, to the great pleasure of the crowd. Eventually, however, the sword of one crossed the neck of the other, who then fell face down, his blood soaking into the sand that covered the arena floor. The survivor raised his sword and a considerable portion of the crowd rose in a kind of standing ovation, shouting their excitement. The day had reached its thrilling consummation.

As they went back to the Porphyry Mountain, Disan was heavy with thought, enough so that Antaran, even though busy driving the chariot, asked him what was wrong.

"How long have men been dying in the amphitheater?"

Antaran seemed surprised at the question. "Almost since it was finished. The opening was a great hunt in the morning -- you should have seen it, over a thousand animals died -- followed in the afternoon by a mock naval battle. But it was not long afterward that the fights of the condemned began; those condemned to death anyway were given the option of mortal combat in the arena, with their family being paid for it, and paid more the more fights they survived. The prize fights are new, but they have become the most popular attraction." After a few minutes of silence from Disan, he said, "Why do you ask?"

"I did not know that we killed men for entertainment in the Great Realm."

"It is all quite decent, I assure you. Nobody enters unless they consent; it is all voluntary, even the murders and rapists. And, as I said, we pay the families very well. The family of the man who lost the prize fight will receive almost as much as the man who won it. A man of skill who is not afraid to die can make his family quite wealthy, and if he can survive and do more than one, become wealthy himself. The man who won it today was fighting his third; he has wealth enough now to last a dozen lifetimes." When Disan said nothing, Antaran looked at him strangely. "I do not understand you, Disan. You have been to war abroad. Of all the people in that amphitheater, you are almost certainly the one who has killed the most men."

"As you say, that was in war," said Disan, "to defend allies who might otherwise be destroyed by marauders. To do it in an arena for a crowd, seems...." He struggled a moment to find a word to express what he wanted to say, could not, and finished lamely, "...inappropriate for the greatness and glory of which we boast."

Antaran freed one of his hands and put it firmly on Disan's shoulder a moment. "You are not alone in thinking this, my friend," he said. "Our ancestors fought dragon and khalkythra. They faced the terrors of the night-world, did deeds of immemorial glory. Our grandparents fought no less than the Court of Night itself and won. And here I am," he continued, with perhaps a bit of bitterness, "and the best I can do is preside over games. At least you have seen the world. But we will change things, you and I and Elea; we will do things such as to astound even those who came before us."

At the Porphyry Mountain, Disan took his leave from the High King and the princess and went to bed early, without eating. He did not sleep, however, but tossed and turned for a very long time, unable to settle his mind. Finally, he rose again and lit a lamp. Something about the room still unsettled him, and he stared at a tapestry hanging on the wall for a long while before walking over to it and pulling it back. At least, that is the way it seemed at the time, and perhaps that was the way it was; but Disan later did not know whether anything that followed had been real or a dream. Behind the tapestry was a door.

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