Monday, April 12, 2021

Abyss & Sea 7


After a light breakfast of smoked fish and small beer, Disan spent most of his day away from the Porphyry Mountain, meeting with the captain about whatever arrangements needed to be made for their departure the next day and visiting the markets. He bought several small trinkets for Baia and was for a short while sorely tempted to buy her a pair of monals from the Khalad mountains. Male monals were highly prized in the Great Realm because of the almost metallic shine of their feathers and the brightness of their colors -- in this case shimmering green along the crest, copper on the neck, and bright blue in the wings. He finally decided not to buy it, to the great disappointment of the merchant, upon reflecting that he did not know how Ker would feel about it.

Returning to the Porphyry Mountain, he met briefly with the High King to discuss specifics of the fleet-building plan, and then prepared for the great farewell feast that evening in his honor. The feast was lively, with jugglers, dancers, and musicians. The dishes were varied as well. Talans and Tavrans, who made up the majority of the court, were great eaters of beef, so there were great plates of roast beef, smelling of clove and nutmeg, and there was roast cygnet stuffed with beef, and heron stuffed with beef, and a pie of stork and beef. Disan, who was certainly not Talan, ate lightly of it, and mostly confined himself to the seafood; the chefs of the Porphyry Mountain did a passable imitation of Sorean mussels with garum. Mostly, however, Disan watched the entertainments and listened to the singers tell the tales of the realm: the raising of the land by Fulné and Trethin, Ardalan's wooing of Asaria, the humorous Song of the Valiant Carpenter, and so forth. But the one Disan liked best was the Song of the Cherry Tree Maiden, an old Sorean song, which was sung by a young Sorean woman. As it happens, it is of all the songs of those days the only one to survive in full, although as a translation of a translation, so it is fitting to write it here.

The Song of the Cherry Tree Maiden

Prince Essan held a mighty bow,
a hunter great was he,
and knew all paths and woodland ways
from river to the sea.

He hunted deer and hunted elk
and all their kin and kind
and one day set in swift pursuit
of silver-splendid hind.

By thicket, coppice, stream, and hill
the silver hind he sought
until it through the thick, dark trees
his winding way had brought.

And in the forest's ancient heart
he found a cherry tree,
around which danced a maiden fair
with hair down to the knee.

His heart was seized; it melted through;
he loved her then and there,
the maiden graceful in her dance
with foot and ankle bare.

"I love you well," the prince then said,
"come be my lovely bride;
such beauty like the cherry tree
should not in forest hide."

"I cannot go," the maiden said,
"to be your lovely bride;
by chantments greater far than you
I to this tree am tied.

"No human maiden can I be;
my soul is blossom-born
and if I leave this cherry tree
it shall be from me torn."

For many days Prince Essan came
to see her dance in shade,
and never would she come with him,
no matter how he prayed.

He ached inside; he could not eat;
no sleep would brush his face;
but though the maiden loved him well
she would not leave her place.

Upon a day Prince Essan came
with axe of steely blade
and set it to the cherry tree
that held the lovely maid.

"Now come with me, now come," he cried,
"that you and I be wed!"
And on the ground the cherry tree
was dying as it bled.

She took a step to go with him,
the sweetly dancing maid;
like mist she grew, and windborn cloud,
and then began to fade.

She took a step to go with him,
then vanished with a sigh;
for what is severed from its root
will surely come to die.

The entertainments of that night were many and bright, the dancer's costumes brightly colored, the songs and melodies sweet. But when Disan went to bed that night, it was the tale of the cherry tree that echoed in his head as he went to sleep, and it was still echoing there in the pause between first sleep and second sleep.

The Soreans began their journey back home in the early morning.

****

Baia was busy. She had been overseeing the temporary settling of the Visitation Court at a small manor, the largest in this rural area of the country, but a little small for the large-scale traffic of the royal honor, and thus had had to do a considerable of negotiation in order to get all of her Court housed and provisioned properly. Then one of her ladies-in-waiting, and her best seamstress at that, had married, and that had to be properly done; Baia suspected that the marriage was rushed for purposes of covering prior indiscretions, but the lady had always been one of her best. The wedding affair was as nice as could be quickly arranged, and all at the Queen's expense; and the lady was granted the honor of being Queen-for-the-Feast, which required making sure she had appropriately queenly gear. And, of course, she still held audiences to hear grievances and petitions.

In the midst of it all, Sosan came to her with a honey merchant from Tavra. Honey merchants are usually not exactly poor, but to make their money with a cart selling odds and ends as well as pots of honey, they spend most of their time in hard traveling, and Sosan had had some trouble locating him. He stood, hat in hand, his silk coat worn and a little ragged at the hem, and obviously unsure what to do in the presence of a Queen.

"Tell the Queen what you have told me," Sosan prompted. The honey merchant fumbled a bit, so Sosan went on, "You have a regular route from Tavra...."

"Yes, Your Highness," said the honey merchant to Baia, "I have a regular route from Tavra; hard work, but good money. Excellent wares, some even from the apiaries of the Tavran royal estates. Your minister," here he bobbed in Sosan's direction, "has asked me about my route, and it does seem to be my route, and I was likely in the area when he suggests. But," he said in a more anxious tone, "the honey I sold on that route was of the highest quality; it is a good part of the route for the royal honey. And I do not understand why I would be questioned about any death; honey is good, and even if the bees drink where they shouldn't, it could never be enough to cause harm, and the bees from royal estates have only the best flowers, and I would never harm my honey, because it is my livelihood, and I...."

Baia cut in. "Nobody accuses you of anything; we are simply investigating and so need your answers. Did you see anything amiss on your route at the time Sosan gave you?"

The honey merchant shook his head, "No, Your Highness."

"And you are reasonably sure that the honey you would have sold would have been from the royal estates of Tavra?"

He nodded, "I do not keep records of precisely what is sold where, but most of the honey sold in that area is so."

"How do you obtain royal honey?"

The honey merchant had a little flicker of the eyes and was a little slow to answer. "Well, Your Highness, it's like this, I have a cousin who works with the beekeepers, and when there is surplus, he lets me know, and I buy it at a fair price."

"Hmm," said Baia, looking off to the side a moment. Then, returning to the honey merchant, she said, "We thank you for your assistance. You may go now. Sosan, please make sure that this helpful merchant receives a gift for his assistance; a box of the extra ribbons from the wedding will do." Sosan nodded and showed the honey merchant out.

When he returned, he said drily to Baia, "I could ask, if you like, but I doubt that there is much in the way of record of this negotiation."

"Yes," said Baia, "but what passes under the table in Tavra is not our primary concern here. Whatever the deal was, my suspicion is that some of the honey he received for it was not the usual royal honey."

She spent a few minutes in thought while Sosan patiently waited, then she said, "Sosan, I will be in need of a new lady-in-waiting. Perhaps in the spirit of unity among the kingdoms, we should look for a Tavran girl of highborn family."

"I will begin to make inquiries," said Sosan.

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